This author does not profess any ownership over any of the characters or series written about in this story, those stories being Claymore and Ranma One-Half.
Hello everyone, both established members of my audience and people that would just as likely sell my kidneys for a taxi ride, I welcome you all. I feel obligated to give warning here, as this isn't just a crossover fanfic, but is taken all the way to the extreme of the dreaded Fusion story. I take no responsibility for this story, as it is entirely the fault of two people. The first being KrimzonRayne, who, unwittingly challenged me to write this story . . . though not in so many words. In fact, it was more like this many words.
KrimzonRayne posted: Lathis: Eat some banana. And maybe try writing a one-shot involving a semi-lemony/crack-fic kinda thing.
Obviously this was meant as a joke, but who's the joke on now? WHO I ASK! Of course, I guess I did a crappy job, since I haven't had any banana's in months and there's hardly even a lemon scent on this fic . . . and I suppose by most people's opinions it would hardly be called short either, but meh, it's here now.
The second person is my good buddy, Himitsu Hunter, who got me hooked on Claymore in the first place. And I checked, it's the first Ranma/Claymore story I could find, so there's a tiny nugget of history for ya too. Anyway, for anyone that's actually read Claymore (I'm looking at you HH) please enjoy. For everyone else, hopefully it's accessibly written enough so lacking any knowledge of Claymore shouldn't be a problem.
P.S. any delays in my normal fics should be blamed solely on those two individuals
As always, Enjoy if you will, Tolerate if you won't.
The sprawling woodland, for all its beauty and serenity, was also an irritant and an impediment. Absently pushing an errant branch out of his path as he continued in the search for his ward. It was a common annoyance of his job, always wandering through the middle of nowhere, following always on the heels of the organization's warriors. Of course, he'd had a long time to get used to it, so even the nebulous thought that he'd had on the subject felt like wasted effort.
But why did Number Thirty-Three always make it so difficult to track her down?
Wait – there she was, off in the distance.
A few short minutes of walking brought him to the edge of the clearing the young looking woman occupied. He lapsed for a moment, sneering at the shock of red hair that topped the female's head; the hair faded quickly down its length, the pigtail that she habitually wore it in was as white as snow, but even that was a vivid reminder of her weakness.
He quickly covered his sneer with a friendly smile as he entered the clearing.
In every other respect, Number Thirty-Three looked the part of one of the organization's warriors, what the commoners liked to call 'Claymores'. She wore the uniform and armor of a Claymore: the pale gray and tightly fitted shirt and pants. Sparse armor offered some protection, silvery, metallic sabatons covered her feet and rose up to her knees. Vambraces of the same material wrapped around her wrists and a massive pair of spaulders crowned her shoulders. The only other piece of armor the woman wore was a fauld, which hugged her hips tightly.
The final piece of evidence that marked her as one of their warriors was the massive claymore for which the commoners named them. At the moment, the bulky sword was driven deeply into the earth and Number Thirty-Three was sitting on the ground before it, leaning back onto the flat of the wide blade. He would have assumed she was asleep, but she'd proven him wrong on every single occasion which he'd done so.
"Did you collect the money?"
And there it was, without even raising her head, her voice rang out clearly. He wondered if she actually took some kind of strange pride in being able to feign sleep so well . . .
"Of course I did, Ranko. Your work was acceptable, as always . . ."
Casually, he strolled around the clearing until he was before her. He then found a comfortable looking rock and had a seat himself. He quickly smoothed out his ebony suit, readjusted his ebony hat and pushed his ebony tinted spectacles back up his nose. Finally, the darkly clad man took a moment to study his ward.
"Hmm, seems you managed to get yourself injured again, though," he stated just as casually.
The three centimeter hole punched through the left side of her gray shirt testified to that, though only pale, flawless skin was revealed by the tear.
Finally, Number Thirty Three looked up at him, her pale silver eyes flat with boredom. She then shrugged, unconcerned. The Claymore gently patted a lacquered gourd tied to her waist.
"The bastard aimed at my father's gourd," she replied, as if that explained everything.
He just shook his head.
"You should really consider getting rid of that antique. From the way you talk, you'd never get injured if it weren't for that thing," he told her, a tinge of amusement in his voice.
Again, she just shrugged away his concern. Then she caught his eyes again, a serious expression filling them.
"Enough chit-chat, Rubel, do you have good news, or bad news?"
Hmm, pushy, this one was. Ah, well, it hardly mattered. He gingerly pushed his hat back a few degrees, before letting out a long sigh.
"Unfortunately, it would seem that I have good news . . . though only you would consider it that.
At hearing his words, a wide grin bloomed on the warrior's pale lips. For the first time that night, indeed, probably for the first time since the last time he had such news for her, a look of excitement barely contained filled her silvery eyes.
"Then you found one?" Yes, the excited tone in her voice was impossible to miss.
Again, chuckling quietly to himself, he shook his head in resignation.
"Yes, we've received a request to hunt an Awakened Being." He readjusted his spectacles for effect, before fixing her with a stare. "I'd reiterate the fact that you're not strong enough to join in a hunt for such a dangerous enemy, but, then, you've never listened to me before," he chided her.
Giddy laughter, like the tinkling of bells filled the clearing. "You'd think the fact that I'm still alive and talking to you would be enough proof that I can handle it," she replied teasingly.
Raising his hands before him to signal his surrender, he capitulated in his usual, amused tone, "I've learned not to argue with you, Ranko. Just so you know, the job is in a village roughly four days south west of here. The rest of the team should be assembling even as we speak."
Ranko's only reply was to nod her head . . .
Trieste ran as quickly as her legs would carry her. In a flash of color, she burst out of the forest and barreled towards the village in the distance. Evan as the scenery tore past her with unnatural speed, a single thought rang through her mind-
'I am so late!'
It was to be her first time ever hunting a Voracious Eater, and yet she'd managed to find the one washout in the whole territory that was impassible even for a Claymore! It had cost her half a day backtracking to find a new route. No doubt the rest of the team was already assembled . . .
Absently, she wondered who else would be on the team. She'd heard that there were usually four warriors assigned to such dangerous missions, with at least one Single Digit to lead them. She was excited to meet an actual Single Digit warrior in person; she had never really met any other warriors, asides from the ones that graduated with her in her class.
A leap took her over the low, four foot wall that marked the boundary of the village. She could already see the courtyard where everyone was likely gathering.
Frankly, she'd been surprised when her handler had given her this assignment. In all honesty, she was still relatively new to the Organization, also, she wasn't exactly a high number, by any stretch of the imagination . . .
She ran past a peculiar tavern sign, which depicted a gray donkey. The name painted above the jolly looking barnyard animal read 'The Braying Ass' . . .
A second later, she ran back; just to get a better look. Surely they hadn't . . . No, no, they definitely had.
Giggling to herself now, she finished the rest of her frantic journey at a more sedate pace. No need to look too unprofessional in front of her soon to be partners, after all. A minute later, she entered the center of the small village. The town was fairly unremarkable, looking much like any of the other dozen villages she'd been to in recent memory. Solid wood construction, functional stone foundations, and, of course, barred doors and windows shuttered tightly.
Trieste could see her companions now. Hmm, only two had arrived so far. Both women wore the same uniform and armor as she did, though with a few minute variations here and there to differentiate them. Also like her, they both wore their massive claymores strapped to their backs, only partially concealed by the short capes they all wore.
The taller of the two noticed her immediately and a pleasant smile formed on the woman's face. Trieste smiled back happily, noting that the taller woman's white hair, even paler than her own blondish hair, was pulled back and tied into a tight, long braid which ran down her back. Oddly, the woman's ears were pointed . . .
The other woman was much shorter, even shorter than Trieste, and –
Trieste did a double take as she looked at the shorter woman again.
Red hair! If it weren't for the fact that the woman was wearing a Warrior's armor and sword, Trieste would have believed she was a common person. Hmm, now that she looked closer, the smaller woman's hair, which was tied back into a much shorter and tighter pigtail letting her heavy bangs fall forward, faded completely to white at about half of its length.
Still . . . it was very strange. All Warriors had white hair, no matter what color it may have been before the . . . process. Seeing someone with so much of their original hair color left, well, Trieste didn't know what to think . . . So, she didn't. Instead, she quickly bowed and prepared to introduce herself-
"So, you've finally arrived," stated the taller woman in a pleased tone.
The redhead just nodded absently in their direction from her position of leaning against a nearby building. Trieste nodded quickly in reply, not sure what else to say.
The warrior that had just addressed her pushed off the wall she had been leaning against and moved forward, she almost looked like she was inspecting Trieste. After a moment, the pointy eared woman spun and clapped her hands happily.
"Alright then, now that we're all here, we can finally begin!"
Huh? Wait a moment.
"Huh? Wait a moment." Hmm, seemed her inner monologue was running a little loud. She shrank back a bit as the red head and the pointy eared ladies turned questioning gazes her way. Well, she was already in it now, might as well move forward. Proud of her decision, Trieste expanded on her query.
"But, I thought that there were always four warriors assigned to these hunts?"
For the first time, the short redhead joined the conversation. First she shrugged, before explaining, "Meh, that's just more of a guideline, really. Depending on how powerful the members are, four warriors could be complete overkill."
Pointy Ear nodded knowingly, before smiling widely once more. "Speaking of that. Now that we're all here, both of you can tell me your names and ranks. I'm the Organization's Number Four, Ophelia!"
Trieste nearly gasped aloud! Number Four! She knew there would be a single digit warrior on the hunt, but she never dreamed she'd meet someone so highly ranked. No wonder there were only three of them on this mission, with the Number Four warrior of the organization here.
Oddly, the redhead didn't look at all impressed by the statement. Instead, the strangely young looking woman just nodded, moving forward to join them. "I'm Ranko, number thirty-three."
"And I'm Trieste, I'm number forty-five," she stated a moment later.
It seemed that she had said something wrong, though, because as soon as she stated her rank, the pleasant smile dropped from Ophelia's face like a lead ingot. The look of total and complete disdain that replaced it actually sent a shiver of uncontrollable terror down Trieste's spine, though she couldn't understand why.
Suddenly Ophelia spun around, raising her hands into the air. "Oh Lord, what rocks did they dig under to find the two of you? What could I possibly have done to be saddled with a pair such as you? A failure and the third lowest ranked warrior in the entire organization? It has to be some kind of joke . . ."
Just as quickly as she spun away from them, the irate warrior spun back to face them, the pleasant smile back in full bloom. Except now, the pleasant smile was even more terrifying than her look of disdain . . . Trieste took a step back before she even realized what she was doing.
"I know!" Ophelia began, apparently believing her idea to be quite the epiphany, "Maybe I should just kill you both right now and save you the trouble of getting killed by our target?"
Before Trieste even registered what was happening, the world turned into a blur of motion. A fraction of a second later, a flash of sparks brought the dizzying swirls of sound and color to an abrupt stop . . .
A rather large lump formed in her throat at what she saw.
Not an inch from her face, a pair of crossed swords hung in the air. The blade closest to her, horizontal to the ground, was trembling violently as it held the second blade at bay. The other blade, its razor edge almost seeming to yearn for her flesh, was as still as death itself. It was as if the first blade wasn't even there, wasn't struggling vainly to hold it back.
Trieste was so shocked that she could do nothing as the two warriors before her stared each other down. Ranko's face was a study of intense concentration and she could see several beads of sweat gently roll down the side of her face.
Ophelia just continued smiling, not straining even in the slightest.
"My, my, aren't you the fast little failure?"
Without warning, the psychotic Claymore swung her sword to the side. The sudden movement effortlessly sent the red headed warrior sliding back over six feet. Cobblestones went skittering madly across the road as Ranko's heels cut twin gouges into the gravel before she finally came to a stumbling stop.
"It's too bad that you're so ridiculously weak," Ophelia added, smiling spitefully.
Ranko recovered quickly from the maneuver, re-sheathing her sword behind her back. The so-named failure then did something just as unexpected as the attack itself.
Somehow, it was a smile that Trieste would have never imagined being on the redhead's face, but now that it rested on her pale lips, it looked so natural that Trieste couldn't imagine it not being there. It was easily the most arrogant, self-assured smile that the Number Forty-Five warrior of the Organization had ever seen. And Ranko quickly followed it with a cocky shrug, to boot.
"Heh, some of us prefer to get by on skill, rather than ridiculous amounts of power, Ophelia."
And just like that, Ophelia's murderous grin faded away, melting back into the pleasant smile she had first worn.
"Heh . . . heh, heh, ha, Ha! Ah, you are marvelous, Ranko the Failure. It would almost be a shame to kill you," the pointy-eared psychopath stated with glee. The disturbing fact that Ophelia had yet to lower her sword seemed to indicate that it would be a sacrifice that she would be more that willing to make, though . . .
Ranko seemed to consider her opponent's words for a moment, tapping a dainty finger against her cheek. A moment passed, when her eyes widened and a smile which could only be described as 'sly' wormed its way onto her face.
"Hmm, but what fun would that be? Such a high ranking warrior just slaughtering two such weak people. Why . . . why don't we make a game of it?" she asked rather leadingly.
Ophelia perked right up, clapping her hands together excitedly. It was, Trieste decided, one of the more disturbing sights she would likely ever see.
"Ohh! I love games! What did you have in mind?" The anticipation in the Single Digit's voice was palpable.
"Well," Ranko drawled, "You're pretty confident that the Awakened Being will kill us anyway. So why don't we make it a challenge?"
Suddenly, the redhead gestured her way, suddenly bringing Trieste back into notice; a fact for which she was not overly grateful.
"How 'bout this? For each strike either of us actually manages to land on the awakened being, you have to spare one of our lives. That means that between the two of us, we have to actually survive long enough against the beast to land two blows and we have to do it before you kill the thing."
What? That was insane!
"What? That's insane! I never agreed to that!"
Hmm, Trieste's inner monologue was still running a little loud. Unfortunately, her outburst brought the attention of both senior warriors down on her. Ranko shot her a withering glare, which stated very clearly: For the love of God, shut the hell up you stupid twit!
Ophelia's look was a much more mundane 'I could always kill you now.'
"Eh, heh, on second thought . . . that actually sounds like a fun game, heh, heh . . . heh." Sadly, her voice actually sounded more confident than she felt.
At that, the braid wearing Claymore beamed an excited smile for all the world to see.
"I agree, that sounds like a splendid game. Let's head out right away to find the Awakened Being, I just can't wait!"
Wait a moment . . . Ophelia's last comment caused Trieste to pause for a moment. Something odd was going on. Now that she thought about it, and now that she wasn't almost ready to pee herself, she'd realized that both of her comrades had used that term several times over the conversation.
Despite the fact that it felt like she was about to do something incredibly stupid, her curiosity forced her to ask the question literally dangling from the tip of her tongue. Even as the two warriors turned away and began to make their way out of the village, Trieste timidly raised a hand before her.
"Um . . . excuse me . . ."
Both women slowly turned to face her, disparate expressions of disdain and annoyance on their features.
"Um, I thought we were here to hunt a Voracious Eater . . . what's this 'Awakened Being' that you two keep talking about?"
In an eerie moment of synchronization, the two women that had just been seconds away from killing each other a minute earlier, turned to face each other, matching expressions of incredulity on their faces. A second later, Ranko slapped a hand to her face and let out a long groan.
Ophelia grabbed her sword-
"Oh, that's it! She dies now!"
A strangled 'eep' escaped Trieste's throat as the redhead vainly struggled to hold back her much more powerful companion long enough to calm her down for a second. Letting out another weary groan, Ranko turned to look at Trieste, then back to the murderously glaring Ophelia.
"'Sigh', just let it go, Ophelia . . . I'll explain it to the twit on the way . . ."
Oh, now that was just mean!
Trieste glanced at her surroundings, an anxious feeling creeping up her spine. Said anxious feeling was due in part to the darkened forest they were currently traveling through. The sun had set almost an hour ago and even now the darkness and the shadow were beginning to play tricks on her already frazzled nerves. The knowledge that they were hunting down a powerful and dangerous Yoma in the middle of the night didn't help either.
Of course, all of that was as nothing compared the cold, hard fact that their Leader was planning to butcher them, even if they survived, all because of her companion's insane suggestion! Trieste's eyes glided up the trail to where Ophelia was fearlessly leading them down the twisting deer path.
Hmph, what did Ophelia have to fear? She was likely the greatest monster in these woods.
"So, tell me what you know about Yoma."
The simple, if somewhat condescending question brought Trieste's attention back to the crimson haired woman that walked abreast of her. She tried to glare, but in the face of her companion's intense stare, her resolve crumbled to dust in an instant.
So, instead she let out an explosive sigh, and went on to reply in a most put-upon tone.
"A yoma is a demonic monster that feeds on the guts of humans. Their strength and speed are far beyond human limits and they also have the powers to change their form and to regenerate anything but the most fatal of wounds."
Slowly, Ranko nodded in agreement.
"A little dry, but it's good to know you actually attended some of your classes at least."
Hey! Before she had the chance to make her indignation known, Ranko pushed on.
"Now, tell me what you know about us, about Claymores."
"What?" she asked in annoyance. "This is the most basic knowledge there is, what does it have to-"
A sudden glare cut her off mid-sentence.
"Just answer the question."
"Um, heh . . . uh, well, you know just as well as I. We, the warriors of the Organization are women that have had the flesh of Yoma implanted into our bodies. This gives us the strength and power necessary to fight the Yoma on an even footing."
Ranko's cocky smirk reappeared, grating on Trieste's last nerve.
"Congratulations! You actually know as much as any common person walking the street." Again, the redhead pressed on before she could say anything biting, "Now, tell me what you know about Voracious Eaters."
Well . . . at least that seemed pertinent. She tapped her chin for a moment, recalling everything that she had heard about the beasts.
"Well, I've never encountered one before, but I've heard a bit about them. A Voracious Eater is a Yoma that has grown so old that it-"
Trieste literally leapt back a foot at the unexpected outburst. To make matters even more embarrassing, Ophelia started giggling madly in amusement ahead of them. Glaring angrily now, Trieste quickly spun on Ranko to give her a piece of her mind-
"Shut up and listen, Number Forty-Five, because this is the most important thing you will ever learn."
The ice in the fiery redhead's voice was a summer's breeze in comparison to the glacial hardness contained in her silver eyes. And, indeed, she did shut up!
"Voracious Eater is just a term to explain things away to the populace at large . . . because, if they knew the actual truth of what a Voracious Eater was, no one, anywhere, would ever feel safe again . . ."
"Wh – wha . . .?"
"Just as you said, a Claymore is a woman infused with the flesh of a Yoma. You know the benefits we receive and I'm sure you know the dangers we inherit as well."
Trieste swallowed around the lump in her throat. For some reason, she didn't like where this conversation was going at all. "Y-yes, if we use too much of our Yoki, too much of the demon's power . . . if we pass our limit . . . then we'll change into Yoma ourselves."
It was the secret terror that lived in the heart of each and every warrior. Spending your entire life hunting and killing these beasts that feasted upon human entrails . . . only to transform into one yourself. Could there be a fate more cruel than that: to become the very thing which you hated, and worse yet, to fall to the swords of your own comrades? If there was, she surely didn't know it.
Except, Ranko was shaking her head from side to side, a sad expression etched upon her features.
"That is all true, and the reason that we carry the Black Cards in our hilts . . . however, it is only half of the whole truth." Ranko stared intently into her silver eyes. "When a Claymore passes the limit of their power, the point of no return, this is what we call 'awakening'. You see, when one of us Awakens, we do become a monster . . . but we become monsters like nothing this world has ever seen! What you call a Voracious Eater, is just the lay term for an Awakened Being, and even the weakest Awakened being is more powerful than a dozen Yoma!"
"What? You – you couldn't possibly mean . . ."
Ranko simply nodded. "That's right. In their desperate race to defeat the Yoma that preyed upon humanity, the Organization ended up creating something a hundred times deadlier than the monsters they hunted. It is the Organization's greatest shame, and something that can never be learned by the people we protect, lest they lose what few shreds of trust they have left for us."
"So, then that means that . . ."
"That's right. The Yoma we're hunting used to be one of us, one of our comrades, and is-"
Trieste looked to Ranko, who looked back to Trieste; the both of them looking equally confused. It took them both a moment to realize that it hadn't been either of them demanding silence. Quickly, the two warriors looked ahead to where Ophelia was glaring back at them.
Trieste was about to ask what was going on, when the pointy eared warrior tilted her head to the side, gesturing subtly to the left with her eyes. A moment later, even as the Number Forty-Five warrior realized what was happening, a very familiar scent tickled her nose. By instinct, the three of them closed ranks and formed a loose circle with their backs. None of them reached for their swords . . . yet.
Their guests didn't leave them waiting long. In less then a minute, the unmistakable sound of boot-clad feet crushing through the underbrush heralded the new group's arrival. There were five of them, though she'd already discerned that before they had even set foot on the deer path; two behind them and three ahead.
The five men were dressed in uniformly drab clothing, a blasé assortment of grays and browns that all blended together in the near darkness. Judging by the assortment of swords and daggers that were strapped to their sides, they were supposed to be brigands, or bandits of some sort. Playing his part well, the apparent ringleader took a step forward, pointing a chipped and rusting blade in their direction.
"What have we here? Three such lovely ladies, wandering through the woods unescorted? Why, I nev-"
The man's speech ended rather abruptly. For a moment, his eyes rolled around queerly, as if even the bandit himself wasn't sure why he had stopped speaking.
The reason was revealed soon enough, though, when, with disturbing slowness, the top half of the man's skull began to slide off in a cascade of purple ichor and grey matter. A full second later, the brigand's body realized that it, too, was dead and quickly followed its head's example.
Trieste was just as stunned as the remaining bandits! She hadn't seen anyone move! Wait . . . Her silver eyes picked up a subtle trace of movement. Her gaze was quickly drawn down to Ophelia's sword . . . No, it must have been a trick of the darkness, it couldn't have been . . . but she could have sworn the lengthy claymore's blade had been . . . rippling?
"If the rest of you Yoma tell me where your master is, I might just be inclined to make your deaths as quick as his was."
Ophelia's demand was delivered with a truly frightening, yet decidedly cheerful smile. The Yoma, disguised in human form, shared a quick, nervous glance amongst themselves. It didn't last long, though.
With primal howls of anger, the four remaining 'bandits' exploded from their skins. Their bodies expanded and twisted before the Claymore's very eyes. Joints twisted, clothing was shredded and the unmistakable stench of the inhuman beasts intensified to almost unbearable levels.
In a matter of seconds a quartet of fully transformed Yoma stood before them, the ragged remains of their trousers the only remnants of their disguises. Now the misshapen monstrosities loomed over them, all fangs and claws and glowing golden eyes.
Oddly, it was Ranko that made the first move. With a dismissively calm demeanor, the redheaded warrior cocked out a hip to rest her fist on, before smirking arrogantly.
"Please tell me that you guys are finally ready to fight now."
And indeed they were. Either enraged at their comrade's death, or afraid of what their master would do to them if they betrayed her, the four Yoma roared in challenge before surging forward, talons leading the way.
With all the speed she could muster, Trieste unsheathed her massive sword and spun to face one of the Yoma that charged from behind. And just in time as well. She had just enough time to brace the cumbersome blade diagonally before her torso before the beast's claws reached her.
In a shower of sparks, she parried the fearsome attack. Yet the force of the wild strike still possessed the power to send her skidding back a half a dozen feet, engulfing her in the darkened woods completely. With only a minor effort, Trieste quickly unleashed roughly ten percent of her Yoki. Immediately the world flared to life her around her and she could actually feel her own eyes shift to the same luminescent gold color as the beast's that had just tried to disembowel her.
Again, her action came just in time. Five narrow tendrils, remarkably similar in diameter to four fingers and a thumb flew through the foliage in her direction. Each of the tendrils were tipped with a razor sharp claw and the elongated digits sought her out unerringly. She had just enough time to dive nimbly to the side, allowing the killing appendages to fly past her. Trieste then swung her sword down in a massive slash, severing all of them.
She didn't have a chance to celebrate her minor victory as her fledgling sensitivity to Yoki alerted her to something else coming her way. Instinct achieved what training couldn't and she planted her sword into the ground before her, holding it in front of her like a shield. A second later, another batch of elongating fingers tore through the branches and leaves of the forest.
With five metallic clangs, the talons slammed into her blade and were deflected off in five separate directions. Showers of sparks followed each finger as they grated roughly against the surface of the blade even as they continued to stretch. Trieste nearly lost an eye as one of the errantly flying claws whipped wildly at her face, only a lucky tilt of her head saved her.
Another flash of insight struck her, even as she did her best to avoid getting impaled, and Trieste quickly fell backwards into a roll. Even as she did that, she pulled the tip of her claymore from the earth and aimed it directly forward.
An instant later, she let out a wheezing gasp as the air verily exploded from her lungs! Her guess had been right and she now had a furiously writhing Yoma impaled on the end of her sword. Unfortunately, it had burst out of the foliage with enough force to not only skewer itself nearly three feet onto the blade; it also slammed the hilt of her own sword into her solar plexus!
Gasping for air, she desperately unleashed more of her Yoki; she had no idea how much. As the power saturated her entire body, her breathing eased and she could feel her muscles surge with inhuman strength.
With a guttural roar of her own, she used all her newfound strength to lift her sword straight up and over her head.
The result was not . . . exactly what she had expected.
Rather than tossing the Yoma up and over her head, she was instead treated to a glorious shower of purple ichor as the two halves of the vile beast collapsed to the ground. Several long seconds passed before she could finally find the ability to move again. It hadn't been her first kill, at the least it had been her fourth or fifth, but she'd never drawn so deeply on her Yoki before . . .
It felt good . . .
Trieste shook the insane notion from her head quickly. Her education on precisely where that path led to was now quite thorough.
The young warrior took a moment to wipe some of the blood from her face before finally levering herself to her feet with her sword. A few short steps returned her to the deer path and to her companions. Still breathing a little hard, she smiled widely at her comrades . . . at least until she finally took in the scene before her.
The smile dropped from her face like a stone.
Standing exactly where they had been when she'd lost sight of them, Ophelia and Ranko were idly chatting back and forth. Around them lay the severed corpses of the three remaining Yoma; it was blatantly obvious they had each been killed by a single stroke. And even worse, neither woman had even a single spot of blood on them!
Both warriors finally turned to regard her as she slowly walked up the path to join them. As soon as they took in her condition, the two Claymores had two very distinct reactions: Ranko slapped a hand to her face and let out a groan of disgust; Ophelia just began to laugh uproariously. The taller warrior then turned to the redheaded female.
"Ha! You, you at least have half a chance, Failure. But her-"
Ophelia pointed a deceptively graceful finger in Trieste's direction.
"She's just screwed!"
Trieste let out a huff as the pointy-eared psychopath's laughter doubled. Angrily, she grabbed the hem of her blood splattered fauld.
"Hey! None of it's mine-"
The pebble skittered madly across the stone ground before zipping over the precipice of the cliff. The clacking sound it made as it bounced down the sheer side of the mountain sounded a dozen times louder than it had any right to, to her ears.
Trieste cursed quietly; she then shrugged helplessly as her two companions spun around to shoot deadly glares her way.
"Sorry . . . It's not like I meant to kick it . . ."
Ophelia and Ranko maintained their glares for a worryingly long moment, before sharing a mutual sigh of disgust and resuming their trek up the narrow mountain path. The forty-fifth ranked warrior let out a weary sigh of her own before following their lead.
It wasn't like she was tired, though they had been walking all through the night. Their sojourn had led them out of the forest, the trees giving way completely to barren stone. Ophelia had claimed to have caught the Vora – the Awakened Being's scent, and had started leading them up the mountain without hesitation.
So, there they were: an impassible wall of stone to their left, a hundred foot drop to their right, and only a scant four feet between the two. It was not exactly what Trieste would call a strategically sound situation to be in. She counted herself lucky that she didn't suffer from vertigo, at the very least.
Whether or not this 'supposed scent' actually existed, or if Ophelia was just leading them somewhere more secluded before killing them, Trieste had no idea. Certainly she knew the scent that a normal Yoma possessed, but considering she was still covered with the innards of the one she'd killed earlier that night, her sense of smell had pretty much gone numb.
So, they continued walking . . . and walking.
Just at the point where the scenery was beginning to blur together from the tedium, something finally changed. Thankfully, the pathway widened considerably before them, forming a spacious plateau on the mountainside. The plateau was barren, excepting some errant rocks and what appeared to be a long disused fire pit set up by long departed travelers.
Trieste eyed one of the stones longingly. Oh, how she wanted to rest her weary legs.
"We'll rest here."
Huh? Trieste looked over at Ophelia, not quite believing it had been the braid wearing warrior that had spoken the words. The monster herself actually wanted to rest? Well, far be it from her to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Almost giddy with glee, Trieste pranced over to the nearest good sized rock and sat down. She then proceeded to let out the kind of sigh you usually had to pay good money to hear at the sheer relief of being off her feet. Only one thing would make her respite better. That thought in mind, she unsheathed her unfeasibly heavy sword, her aching shoulders crying in joy as she did so, and lazily tossed it to the ground at her side-
.Except . . . the sound it made when it landed didn't sound at all like metal hitting rock; rather, it was the familiar sound of metal striking metal. A little confused, Trieste looked to the ground at her side.
Huh, again. Though she had been certain that she'd sat by herself, far from the insulting and disgusted glances of her so-called comrades, somehow, Ranko was now standing right beside her. Trieste's claymore was balanced delicately on the tip of the woman's steel boot and the woman herself wore a, unsurprisingly, annoyed look.
With a tiny flick of her ankle, Ranko launched her sword back up where Trieste caught it. The blonde warrior offered the redhead a curious gaze and received a slow shake of Ranko's head in response.
"It will happen here, don't let your guard down."
It was whispered so quietly, that Trieste had to strain to hear the words from two feet away. And before she even had the chance to ask what she was talking about, the Number Thirty-Three warrior turned and found another rock to sit down on.
She glared at the redhead's back for a moment before letting out a low moan of mingled annoyance and relief. So, her esteemed superiors actually thought the Awakened Being would attack them in broad daylight and in such an open area? If this beast was half as clever as they supposed, then Trieste highly doubted it would do anything so obvious-
"Oh, poo! Why did you have to go and tell her I was here? I could have had some fun with that one."
That . . . that had not been Ophelia's voice, though it shared a certain terrifying, condescending tone that had given her pause for a moment. With glacial slowness, Trieste turned her head to bring her gaze on the new speaker. Somehow, this speaker had gotten within a dozen yards of them and Trieste hadn't smelt, heard or sensed anything until she had heard the words spoken.
The woman that was now standing serenely in the center of the barren plateau smiled at them. She had long, raven hair pulled up into a ponytail, which hung from the side of her scalp. Her eyes were cold and hard and an aristocratic sneer pulled up cruelly at the corner of her lips, yet, she possessed an unearthly beauty that almost made her look of royalty. This beauty was at great odds with the outfit that the woman wore, or the remnants of the outfit, at any rate. Ragged black strips of cloth, which may very well have been an elegant outfit several decades ago, hung limply from her graceful shoulders.
Without missing a beat, the raven-haired woman turned to regard Ophelia, still smirking haughtily.
"So, you must be the Single Digit leading this little troop of fools, considering the debased company which you keep. Really, a twit and a failure? Whatever must you have done to be so burdened with such useless peons?"
Trieste bristled at the dismissive remarks, though they did ring strangely familiar. She turned to see if Ranko was similarly offended . . . Except the redhead wasn't. Ranko didn't even look like the conversation before them was even registering. Instead, a look of disappointment so powerful that it affected Trieste almost physically was etched upon her face. She then saw the pale warrior's lips move as she whispered something to herself.
But what on earth could she have meant by: "It's not him again, damnit"?
She didn't have time to decipher her companion's cryptic musings. Before them, Ophelia slowly rose to her feet, stretching lethargically as she did.
"It's so amusing that you should say that. I asked myself that self same question when we first met. But don't' worry, after I kill you, I'll get to have the fun of killing them myself."
Well, that was a reminder she could have done without.
"Oh ho ho ho!" The raven haired beauty covered her mouth with the back of her hand in a very ladylike manner as she laughed. Then her laughter cut off abruptly and the strange lady nearly impaled all three of them with an imperious glare.
"You actually have the audacity to believe you can slay one of such puissance as myself, Kodachi of the Black Rose? Oh ho ho! What fools you mortals be!"
"Kodachi, you say?"
The question drew everyone's attention to the redhead whom had asked it. It seemed almost a nonsequiter to the witless repartee that was going on between Kodachi and Ophelia and left them all a bit confused.
Getting over said confusion quickly, Kodachi turned to regard the curious warrior.
"Why yes, that is what I said, peon."
Ranko nodded to herself, obviously lost in thought for a moment. Then, without warning, the redhead looked up and snapped her fingers, a look of recognition in her silver eyes.
"Then that would make you Kodachi of the Kunou family. The former Number Seventeen of the Organization's Fifty-Fourth class. And, if memory serves, you were historically significant as the warrior who awakened more rapidly than anyone in the entire history of the Organization. Heh, you didn't even make it a week past the assignment of your rank."
For just a moment, Kodachi's face . . . shifted. Her eyes became molten gold and the skin around the edges of her face darkened nearly to black. Most disturbingly, though, the flesh at the corners of the demon's dainty lips split open, widening her mouth into a hideous smile which revealed endless rows of serrated teeth.
And then it was gone, as if the monstrous visage had never been. Only flawless skin stretched across Kodachi's skull one more. Again, the debutante raised a hand before her mouth as she laughed.
"Yes, well, why waste time wallowing in the mud with pathetic creatures the likes of you? As soon as I learned the truth, I wanted – needed the power for myself. And I've never regretted my decision, there is nothing so exquisite as the taste of steaming human entrails, my dear." Kodachi licked her lips longingly at the gruesome thought.
Ranko finally unsheathed her sword, matching Kodachi's haughty sneer with an arrogant smirk. "Is that what you told your brother? He was your first victim, wasn't he?"
Rather than get upset as before, rather the maddening laughter rang out again. "Oh, his guts were the most delicious I've ever tasted. My only regret on that score was that I ate them so quickly. Why, I-"
"Okay, really, this has gone on long enough."
It appeared that Ophelia had finally reached her limit for inane conversation. The pointy-eared warrior drew her sword as well and stalked forward several confident steps. Then, she stopped abruptly and swung her sword until the tip was pointing directly between Trieste and Ranko.
"I'd quit talking and start swinging, because you only have thirty seconds before I join in."
Oh crap! Thirty seconds to actually land a hit on the over bred bitch, and without getting herself killed at the same time? She quickly turned to the side to ask Ranko what they should do-
"Ranko! What shou-"
Ranko was gone!
"Shut the hell up and move!"
Oh, there she was. The fiery redhead had already traversed half the distance to their enemy in the time it had taken Trieste to turn her head. The warrior's sword tore a furrow into the stone and left a wake of wildly burning sparks as it trailed behind her. How on earth did she move so fast?
It took Trieste a half a second to realize what was going on before she followed Ranko's brazen example and charged. She only made it three steps when Kodachi burst into motion . . .
Although, perhaps simply 'burst' would be a more apt description. The ragged outfit of the self named Black Rose exploded into the air as the Awakened Being's body radically transformed before their very eyes. Within seconds, the true nature of the beast was revealed.
It began quickly as her skin turned black as onyx, taking on a metallic sheen just slightly too reminiscent of steel to be a good sign. Then, all at once, everything split, shifted and reformed itself in a mind numbing display. Kodachi's joints split open and extended, revealing glistening sinew between the armored plates that now covered her. The limbs themselves lengthened and narrowed, reducing her hands and feet to little more than stylized razor spikes. The blades which were now her feet dug deeply into the hard stone of the mountain, but had no effect on the monster's balance. Her torso constricted in upon itself, somehow maintaining her feminine curves even as her skin split into interlocking onyx plates. The Black Rose's hair burst free from the meager band that restrained it and nearly a dozen long, wavering strips of darkness extended out of the mass. They looked like nothing more than simple strips of dyed cloth, or ribbon, yet the way they danced and swayed of their own volition quickly dissolved that idea.
Only Kodachi's face remained unchanged, though it shared the same ebony color as the rest of her body as well. It seemed odd, such a lovely face mounted on such a sleek instrument of death and destruction. And then Kodachi smiled, and Trieste's stomach nearly emptied itself on the spot. This time, it was not just a disturbingly wide smile, now the whole of the woman's face split nearly in two and her jaw lengthened downward, making room for even more needle like fangs.
Almost fittingly, the expression that had made Kodachi look inhuman before now seemed to be the most natural expression that Trieste could imagine seeing on an entrail devouring monster.
The whistle of Ranko's claymore tearing through the air snapped Trieste out of her shocked paralysis. The gleaming blade was aimed to take the Black Rose's head off at the neck-
Only it hit nothing, in fact, the redhead was blown back bodily as the ground beneath Kodachi literally exploded! In a blur of iridescent black, the fully transformed Awakened Being was suddenly flying along the ground, tearing the earth to shreds in her wake. The vaguely humanoid missile swung around the entire perimeter of the plateau faster than Trieste could even turn her head to foll-
"I think I'll devour you first, little one."
The words were whispered directly into Trieste's ear and she nearly screamed aloud. With speed borne of desperation, she spun and swung her blade with every ounce of power she could muster . . .
Only to find there was nothing behind her . . .
Without even thinking, she spun again, this time catching a flash of onyx out of the corner of her eye. Dammit! This thing was toying with her! It could have killed her several times over already. Succumbing to a unique mix of abject terror and frustrated fury, Trieste unleashed over half of her Yoki in a single burst. The ground cracked beneath her feet and she could feel her body twisting under her skin as it was forced to accommodate the sudden surge of power. Her muscles expanded, veins bulged out obscenely along her arms, legs and up the sides of her face. Finally, the skin at the edges of her lips cracked and teared, widening her own mouth into a gruesome, toothy grin.
The leather wrapping the hilt of her sword creaked loudly as she tightened her grip on the weapon. Nearly swooning from the indescribable sensation caused by utilizing so much power, the hilt of her weapon felt like the only think still anchoring her to the world around her.
There was the monstrous bitch! This time her eyes were able to see the blur of black for what it truly was, the twisted form of the madly sprinting Black Rose. Trieste chuckled to herself, so she could see the Awakened Beings movements now, could she? Perhaps this Kodachi wasn't as fast as she thought!
It only took a fraction of a second to track down the demon's unbelievable movements. As soon as she did, she lashed out with a massive diagonal slash of her claymore; she'd take the bitch's head off at the damn shoul-
Hmm . . . Something wasn't quite right . . . For the life of her, though, she couldn't figure out what it was. She had been certain that she'd had the monster dead to rights, but . . . then she'd just . . . missed something. She just couldn't explain it. Even though she'd watched every millimeter of the path her sword cut through the air, never even blinked, suddenly, everything had just vanished for a moment in a flash of black.
Trieste could only stand, staring off into nothing. The last thing she remembered was her sword sliding through the air, its razor's edge floating serenely towards the vulnerable neck of the Black Rose. It had just started to pass through Kodachi's hair, when . . .
Hmm, now that she thought about it, where was her sword? Still feeling slightly disconnected from reality, she lifted her hands up in front of her to see where her sword had gone . . .
Hmm, where had her hands gone? Some tricky scoundrel had gone and replaced her favorite appendages with twin fountains of crimson. What an odd thing to do . . . that. Still, they were oddly beautifully, even waning and surging in unison to an intimately familiar rhythm.
"Heheheh . . ." A weak giggle escaped her lips.
What a silly girl she was. Her sword was right there! Jutting out of her chest! What an unusual place for her sword to be, sticking out of her own chest like that. Her giggle grew louder as she gazed on the odd spectacle. On the bright side, the entire length of the blade was now the same, stunning shade of crimson as her new wrist . . . fountains . . .
Sudden and stark understanding suddenly dropped on her like a collapsing castle. A fraction of a second later, she felt her legs began to buckle under her own weight. Oddly, even as her vision began to fade to black, two very short words rolled off the tip of her tongue.
". . . Oh my . . ."
Ophelia groaned in disgust as she watched the idiot collapse to the ground after staring at her own severed wrists like . . . well, like an idiot. She had really been expecting this to be more entertaining, but it hadn't even been ten seconds and little miss 'Number Forty-Five' had managed to get her hands torn off and then impaled with her own sword.
Well, at least the failure promised to put on a better show. Ophelia really wanted to kill at least one of her comrades.
Just as she thought it, the Awakened Being tore off in the redhead's direction. Hmm, must have gotten bored of watching her first victim writhe around in an ever spreading pool of blood.
The raven haired monster and the red headed weakling met in a flash of sparks.
Ophelia actually raised an eyebrow as she watched the exchange. The Black Rose was a whirlwind of blades, attacking with her arms, legs, even her hair. However, if the beast was a whirlwind, then Ranko was a livid tornado of steel. With speed that was just on the borderline of being impressive, the redhead used her single, oversized claymore to parry, block and deflect each and every one of the ridiculous number of serrated appendages that Kodachi swung her way.
Even more impressive, the failed Warrior had unleashed, at most, a mere ten percent of her Yoki; just enough to change her eyes to gold.
Wait, where had she been again? Oh, right: twenty-seven.
The ring of steel on steel (or whatever it was) sounded like music to her ears, a maddeningly discordant, yet eerily beautiful tune.
With gleeful anticipation, she tightened her grip on her claymore.
The light began to dance madly in her eyes as the blade of her sword began to undulate along its entire length like an angry serpent.
Without even shouting a warning, Ophelia launched herself towards the two dancing opponents. She noted, with great satisfaction, that both warriors turned to regard her in wide-eyed shock. She smiled back wickedly as she lashed out. The air howled in agony as she slashed recklessly forward, not really caring who she hit.
Impressively, both Ranko and Kodachi managed to dodge nimbly out of the path of her strike. The redhead leapt back into a handstand before flipping back to her feet nearly a dozen yards away. The Black Rose simply leapt straight up, easily clearing thirty feet.
Kodachi's murderous cry filled the entire plateau with its piercing shrill. Soon after, gravity rediscovered the ebony creature, and the Black Rose brought all of her razor edged limbs to bear for her descent. It looked as if the Awakened Being was planning to splatter her like and insect when she landed.
Ophelia just smirked, feeling her sword rippling powerfully in her right hand.
She turned to Ranko, still so far away, "It looks like you lose, Number Thirty-Three. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted."
Ranko's eyes widened at her words, as the redhead discerned exactly what she intended to do. Although it was utterly impossible, the failed warrior began to run forward, sword trailing a brilliant tail of sparks in her wake. The futile gesture just made Ophelia smile wider. There was no way that her 'comrade' would ever be able to clear the distance in time, not when all Ophelia had to do was leap straight up.
Even as the sleek form of the Black Rose continued to succumb to the inexorable pull of gravity, howling like the monster she was ever inch of the way; Ophelia knelt down and tensed her legs for the leap. Then, in an explosion of power, she launched herself skyward with all of her strength. The igneous ground she had been standing on buckled, then shattered to dust from the force.
She placed her left hand on the hilt of her sword as she rose, twisting the massive blade all the way behind her back to maximize the power of her attack. She would finish this in one, single slas-
Her concentration was shattered completely, when, literally out of nowhere, a red and silver blur flew right past her face!
"Chestnuts Roasting Over An Open Fire Fist!"
What the hell? The blur resolved itself into the annoying form of Ranko, floating weightless in the air, her sword pulled back for a straight thrust to the monster's heart. The Fourth ranked Warrior of the Organization swung desperately, trying to land the killing blow before the redhead could strike-
Too late . . .
Before she, or even the Black Rose could react, Ranko stabbed forward, plunging the tip of her blade directly into Kodachi's chest a single time. The next instant, the redhead kicked off of one of the beast's legs and sent herself flying back to the ground. For some reason, the meager attack and kick off staggered the Awakened Being much more than Ophelia would have imagined, leaving the beast wide open for her attack.
In a futile gesture, Kodachi crossed her arms before her face, only a second before Ophelia's blade slashed right into it. She had to admit that the look of shock on the demon's face was priceless . . .
At least until it was split in twain.
After all, no weapon could block her Rippling Sword!
In the end, it was a glorious descent back to the earth; she reveled as she fell through the air with the rain of purple ichor that sprayed everywhere as the Awakened Being was rent completely asunder by her blade. She landed lightly, only to be followed by the wet thud of Kodachi's lifeless corpse splattering to the ground in a gory pile. She licked her lips, enjoying the exquisite taste of the blood which covered them.
Oh, today was a good day! And it was about to get even better. She turned to regard Ranko, as the redhead was carefully pulling the sword from the idiot, Number Forty-Five's torso. Feh, what a useless gesture.
"Well, looks like the main course is done. Now it's time for the dessert."
Hmm, rather than looking terrified, Ranko just returned her threatening glare with a droll stare.
"Please don't use food metaphors like that; it makes it sound like you're hittin' on me."
"What?" She certainly hadn't been expecting that! "You'd think you'd take your own imminent demise more seriously. Not that I mind; you are very entertaining."
The redhead finished pulling the blade from Trieste's back then tossed it off to the side. After she seemed satisfied that the maimed weakling was still breathing, Ranko looked back her way and shrugged.
"Meh, I won your game. I hit the psycho, so I'm safe."
Ophelia laughed aloud at that.
"Ha! I didn't say you got to choose who was spared. You only hit her once, so I only have to spare one of you. I just happen to choose the loser bleeding on the ground, since she'll just die in a few hours anyway without your help."
Again, amazingly, Ranko shrugged, showing absolutely no fear. The Warrior then nodded in the direction of the corpse.
"Ya might wanna recount there, genius. You must just be surprised."
Now what on earth was the failure going on about? More curious than bloodthirsty, for the moment, Ophelia wandered over to the blood drenched remains of the Awakened Being. Hmm, now where had Ranko attacked again? Ah, yes, in . . . the . . . torso . . .
There was a puncture wound in the chest, no doubt caused by the redheads thrust, except there was another one, and another one, and another . . . it took her half a minute to count all of the wounds caused by Ranko's sword; there were easily three dozen such holes! How was that possible? She had only seen the other Warrior strike once! She had seen other lightning fast sword techniques before, heck, her own Rippling Sword fell into the category, but this was something else completely.
Granted, each of the punctures looked no more than an inch deep. It was obvious that the redhead lacked the strength to truly punch through the Black Rose's armor; in fact all of the strikes combined wouldn't have been enough to actually kill the Awakened Being, however . . . if she had had more than a single second to sustain such an attack . . .
She turned back slowly, looking at the failed warrior in a new light. She was almost tempted to go pull on the girl's hair, just to see if it was just dyed red. "Tell me, why are you still ranked thirty-third? True, you lack the strength to be truly formidable, but with your speed, you could easily rise into the twenties, if not the teens."
"Meh, I got more important things to do then worry about a stupid number. I mean, it's not like we get paid or anything. As long as they let me go on these hunts, that's all that matters to me."
Hmm, against her will, Ophelia felt her opinion of the young woman rise. Perhaps, for the first time, she felt an inkling of respect for someone that wasn't obviously more powerful than herself. And anyone that shared her hatred of Awakened Beings, as Ranko obviously did, was all right in her book.
"You know . . . Ranko, I don't think that I will kill you, after all."
Ranko chuckled to herself in amusement.
"Well, at least not for the next thirty seven times we meet, anyway."
". . . at was the name of that move again?"
Blackness surrounded her, engulfing her completely in a world of darkness. The only thing that even reminded her that she did actually exist, was the incomprehensible stream of words filtering into her subconscious. The words meant nothing to her, but the voice was somewhat familiar. Unfortunately, the familiar nature of the voice did nothing to comfort her formless existence.
"The 'Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire Fist'? Just a technique I picked up a ways back."
Another voice filled the boundless space that was her universe. These words made even less sense than the last ones, but this voice didn't fill her consciousness with the same cold fear as the first voice had. She struggled to find the source of the two voices, if only so she could escape from the first, but how did you move in a world where nothing existed?
"It's fast, maybe even faster than Flora's 'Windcutter', where did you learn it?"
She recoiled from the voice, not even sure why. She had no idea what was going on, but for some reason she felt that, even though she was terrified of the voice, that it wasn't a threat to her at the moment.
"Heh, actually, it's even faster than Ilena's 'Quick Sword' . . . not that she's around anymore to dispute the fact . . ."
What was going on? What were these two voices talking about . . . and why was her chest so sore? . . . Wait a second? She had a chest?
Well, what do you know? She did have a chest, of course, now that she knew she had a chest, she instantly regretted it as lances of pain began to shoot through her blasted torso. Stupid body, why have one if it felt like this?
"Ha! Now you're just being boastful! I never had the chance to meet the former number two, but the 'Quick Sword' was legendary."
She tried to force her mind away from the agony that burned at the core of her being, pushed her mind outward . . . Hey, nice, she had legs too! And arms, and a head, even her cute button nose was still attached! Maybe having a body wasn't so bad after all; it sure beat floating around in the nothing all day long.
"Nah, not really, it's just simple physics. Both those techniques rely on swingin' your sword back and forth like a crazy person, my technique focuses all of my speed into short, rapid thrusts, like punching a needle through cloth. Since my attacks cover a much shorter distance than theirs, it's easy to attack so quickly."
Hmm, the words were starting to unjumble in her mind now, though she still had no idea what they were talking about. Slowly, other things began to make themselves known to her as well. She could feel air filling her lungs, only to be expelled again as it was used up. She could feel the hard ground beneath her, and what felt like a rather solid rock propping her head up off the ground. Most annoyingly, was the painful pins and needles sensation running all up and down her fingers . . .
"Hey, that actually makes sense, of course, that also means that it's much less powerful then either of those techniques, since it lacks the force of a full swing."
"True enough, that is the real drawback of the technique . . . but, then again, it wasn't created with using a sword in mind."
Wait a second . . . Fingers? Things were still a little fuzzy in the darkness, but something at the back of her mind insisted that fingers were an incongruity for some reason.
"Unhh . . ."
'Unhh'? Who said that? It was a new voice, vaguely famili- Oh, she giggled in her own head, that was her voice. It seemed that, aches and pains aside, that everything was working again. Satisfied with her little traipse into the world of the metaphysical, she slowly began to force her eyes open.
"Joy," stated a rather droll voice, "she's still alive . . ."
"Oh, hush. You get so moody when you don't get to kill people."
"Heh heh, well, I did get to kill Kodachi, so that's something at least."
Kodachi? That was the name of the Awakened Being, wasn't it? That must mean that they had won . . . and more importantly, that Ophelia wasn't planning on murdering them! Hmm, maybe things were starting to look up for her. Then her eyelid finally cracked open, and her world was plunged into blinding whiteness. She struggled vainly against the burning intensity of the light, until she felt something suddenly press down on her shoulders, ceasing her movement immediately.
"Whoa, hold on there, Forty-Five. Try not to move around, or your hands'll fall off again."
Huh? A seeming eternity later, the blinding white dulled back down to a more manageable level, and her eyes were able to discern what exactly was going on around her. She blinked a few more times, just to dash the sleepiness from her eyes, then took in the scene as best she could. She was, indeed, lying on the ground, her head propped up on a large rock. Standing in the distance, pouting slightly for some reason, was Ophelia.
Sitting right above her, hands pressed down on Trieste's shoulders, was Ranko. There were a hundred questions that she wanted to ask, but her curiosity burned to know one thing first and foremost. Slowly, she looked down, to her hands . . .
Yes, indeed, she did have hands, though a pair of livid red lines circled each of her wrists . . . right where they had been severed . . .
A light pressure on her shoulder brought her attention back to the redhead hovering over her. Ranko stared down at her, smiling lopsidedly in an amused, yet satisfied manner, still squeezing her shoulder.
"Heh, a little banged up here and there, but nothing a few days of rest won't heal. Congratulations, Forty-Five, you just survived your very first Awakened Being hunt."
Trieste considered this for a long moment, observing both of her comrades-in-arms as she did. She wanted to say something profound, or to yell bloody murder at Ophelia for torturing them so, or even to just simply thank Ranko for helping her out . . . but all that came to mind was-
She was quite sure that her boredom had somehow actually managed to reach the absolute maximum possible before it started killing you. They had been waiting for a full day longer than anticipated for the last member of their squad to arrive, and the tedium was fraying her very last nerve raw.
Absently, she ran her fingers through her long, luxurious blonde hair. It was with some wistfulness that she tried to visualize it as the dark chestnut color it had once been, a lifetime ago. It was ironic really, as a child she had always wished to have golden hair . . . However, now that she had the most beautiful blonde hair she could imagine, all she found herself longing for was the hair of her childhood.
How she hated looking exactly like everyone else. The same hair, the same eyes, the same clothing; it ate away at her in those dark, solitary nights in the wild . . .
With a sigh, she let her hand flop to the desk she sat at, her hair tumbling down like a golden waterfall.
God, she hated her hair.
She forced herself to sit up again, if only to look serious on the off chance that the straggler might eventually show up. The rest of her team, seated on various chairs and benches in the small hovel they had commandeered, all looked to be handling the boredom differently. It was odd, seeing such disparate expressions of excitement, anger and terror on the faces of three women that looked like dolls from a matching set.
Blonde hair, platinum blonde, pure white . . . was that the extent of their individuality? What was a difference of shade in the face of similarities large enough to choke on?
Oh well! Nothing to do about it, she supposed. She'd end up killing herself if she dwelt on such meaningless things for too long.
Hmm, she didn't know any of the other Warriors present. Asides from the terrified girl, who had blathered constantly for the first hour or so, they had mutually agreed to save the introductions for when everyone had arrived. After all, no one liked to repeat themselves needlessly, and it wasn't like she actually had anything to discuss with her comrades anyway.
Without any warning or fanfare, the old wooden door of the hovel creaked open, allowing the light of the morning sun to fill the room. A moment later, yet another piece of the matching set entered the room . . .
Wait! This doll was topped with a crop of breathtaking, red hair, pulled back into a tight pigtail. She was immediately consumed with envy as she stared at the crimson locks. Certainly, they faded to white at half the length, leaving the entire pigtail a stark white, and certainly she was aware what it meant when a warrior's hair retained any of its original color, but – but she was different – unique.
"Oh, what the hell is this crap? We're going after an Awakened Being and the Organization sends us a bloody failed warrior?"
Unsurprisingly, it was the angry warrior that had spoken first. That warrior, wearing her platinum blonde hair short and slightly spiked up, leapt up from her seat and stalked over to glare at the newest arrival.
Not that she could blame the irate warrior. What the hell was the organization thinking? A fighter that weak could actually be worse than nothing. Still, as the ranking Warrior present, it was her duty to make sure that the mission came first. She prepared to interrupt the angry tirade, when,
"Hey! You can't talk to Ranko like that!" Very surprisingly, it was the young woman that had been cowering at the very idea of the hunt moments ago. Where had she gotten the courage to stand up to such a domineering woman? "She's stronger than someone like you; she even saved my life!"
Hmm, an interesting statement. A failed warrior saving a full fledged Claymore? The failure in question didn't even look fazed by the discussion in the slightest, in fact, she would say that the redhead looked rather bored by the whole exchange. Still, this pointless bickering wasn't accomplishing anything.
"Okay, that's enough."
As soon as she said the words, everyone immediately turned their attention her way, as was her due.
"Whether we like it or not, we're all here now, so let's just introduce ourselves and get this mission over with. I want each of you to tell me your name, rank and what type of warrior you are. I'll go first. I'm Eva, the Number Seven and I'm an offensive type warrior."
Spiky-head crossed her arms over her rather impressive chest and let out a disgruntled huff before following suit.
"I'm Number Nineteen, Selene, and I'm an offensive type warrior."
Next, the warrior with the excited expression stood from her chair and beamed a beatific smile to everyone in the room. This woman had long, stark white hair, but had wrapped it up into a large bun at the back of her neck for some reason. Really, it looked ridiculous, like some giant white mushroom growing from the back of her head.
"I'm the Twenty-Sixth ranked Warrior, Lucile, and I'm a defensive type," Lucile explained in an annoyingly upbeat tone.
The redhead nodded next, stepping past Selene as if the woman didn't exist. "I'm the Organization's Number Thirty-Three, Ranko, and I'm offensive."
"Heh, in more ways than one," scoffed Nineteen.
Eva harshly shushed the rude warrior. Hmm, a failure, yet ranked thirty-third? How was that possible? When a warrior retained some of their original hair color, it was a sure sign that their infusion of Yoma flesh had not taken completely. That in turn meant that such warriors lacked much of the strength and power of a normal Claymore, and yet, this failed warrior was ranked as highly as she was? This might be interesting yet . . . And why did the name Ranko ring so familiar to her?
"Um, my name is Trieste and I'm Number Forty-Five . . . but I'm not exactly sure what you're talking about with this offensive, defensive stuff . . ."
Groans of disgust filled the room, likely for a multitude of reasons. Even Eva herself felt like burying her face in her hands.
"What a Neophyte . . .," was offered up by Lucile.
Selene had since gone red in the face. Likely the only thing keeping the fuming warrior from chiming in was the imminent threat that she would start foaming at the mouth if she opened it.
Ranko, who apparently didn't think as fondly of Trieste as Trieste did her, slapped a hand to her forehead.
"Jeez, woman, are you sure that you're even one of us?"
The shade of red that bloomed on the novice Warrior's cheeks was absolutely adorable. Still, what on earth was such a low ranked warrior doing on a mission like this? Was the Organization trying to expand their base of warriors experienced in battling Awakened Beings . . . or had this Trieste proven to be just a little more trouble than she was worth?
It was a disturbing question and prompted her to take pity on the shamed woman.
"It's simple enough, Trieste. There are two types of warriors in the Organization: offensive and defensive, obviously. It's not something you choose, it's just a result of your personality and how you develop after you've undergone the process which makes you what you are."
Trieste nodded in wonder, understanding beginning to dawn on her face.
"So, how do I know which I am?"
"Well, offensive types, such as myself, are much stronger on the attack, and many of us are even able to create special techniques suited to our powers that let us inflict unbelievable damage to our enemies . . ."
Suddenly, Lucile cut in, smiling as sweetly as could be. "And defensive type warriors, like myself, are much better at absorbing and regenerating damage. For example, you know that if a Claymore loses an arm, they can reattach it with some effort, right?"
Trieste nodded fiercely in response, a haunted look on her face.
"Well, a defensive warrior has even more powerful regenerative powers than that. Say if you lost your arm, but were unable to reattach it for some reason. While both types of warriors would eventually re-grow the limb, the offensive warrior's arm would only have the strength of a normal, human arm, while the defensive warrior could re-grow a fully empowered arm. You can likely see how this makes us much less vulnerable to critical wounds."
The neophyte's eyes widened and her mouth became a small 'o'. Eva was about to resume the explanation, when Ranko groaned loudly.
"Okay, okay, for the love of God, we get it. Trust me, the kid is a defensive type. One of us wouldn't have survived the skewering she got herself the last time we met."
Again, Forty-Five's face burned with embarrassment, but really, no one cared. At least Eva knew what everyone was geared towards in a fight, so now she could make more educated strategies that incorporated this information.
"Alright, now that that's all out of the way, I just want to know one more thing. Have any of you ever hunted an Awakened Being before?"
Selene and Lucile both nodded straight away.
"I've been on three, myself," stated the former.
"Only one, but I'm looking forward to doubling that," chimed in the latter.
Eva chuckled to herself, charming yet cocky. Alright, so the group had some actual experience as well, she could work with those two at any rate-
Brazen outburst out of the way, Trieste draped a companionable arm across a very non-plussed Ranko's shoulders.
"The two of us just got our first one a month ago. That's right, the two of us have been up against an Awakened Being and survived."
Well, now that was unexpected. But all it did was reinforce the idea that the Organization was sending the young Warrior to her doom. After all, two hunts in such a short time was rare even for highly ranked Warriors. Eva turned to Ranko, still a little skeptical.
"Is that true?"
Before Forty-Five could protest the lack of faith, Ranko deliberately pinched the woman's wrist and undraped it from across her shoulders.
"Please don't group me in with a weakling like her-"
"It's true that we were on a hunt a month ago, however, that is far from the full extent of my experience. I have participated in thirty-seven of these hunts."
Eva could only stare at the redhead with wide eyes. Thirty-seven? That was four times more than she had gone on, and she was a single digit . . .
Wait! Now she recalled where she knew the name 'Ranko' from.
"Ah, I apologize. I had never heard that you were a failed Warrior, Ranko the Librarian."
The aforementioned woman rolled her eyes in annoyance at the title, while everyone else shrugged their shoulders in ignorance. Lucile politely raised a hand before speaking.
"Librarian? Why would they give anyone such a silly name?"
The redhead groaned loudly, likely in agreement.
"Because," Eva began, "It is said that of all of the Claymores, that Ranko possesses the greatest knowledge of Awakened Beings, as well as the history of the Organization itself."
Selene let out a sarcastic hoot, "Wow, a history buff, truly our victory is assured, feh . . ."
For some reason, Ranko actually nodded, "I agree completely, it ain't an inspiring name at all, and to be honest, the thirty seven hunts isn't as impressive as it sounds either. The only reason I've been on so many hunts was to act in an observational role. I've never actually had the power to kill an Awakened Being with this sword of mine."
Trieste 'ahh'd' in understanding.
"So that's why you knew so much about Kodachi's history, right?"
The redhead nodded smartly.
"Yup, she was pretty minor, but still historically significant in her own way."
"Well, this is all simply fascinating, but can we please get this hunt over with?" Selene butted in, "It's only been fifteen minutes and I already can't stand either of you."
Eva let out a weary sigh. As interesting as it would be to pick Ranko's brain about all the foes she had faced, Selene was right. Maybe afterwards . . . Hmm, she still couldn't believe she hadn't heard that the Librarian was a failure . . .
"Yes, Selene is right, let's head out while we've still got the light."
Trieste grumbled to herself softly. She couldn't believe how rude and pushy Selene was. Lucile wasn't too much better, once they had gotten underway, though she hid it carefully behind soft words and pretty smiles. Their commander didn't seem to care one way or the other, just leading them on endlessly through the barren landscape.
At least she had one familiar face to fall back on . . . Not that Ranko seemed terribly impressed with her either, but at least the knowledgeable warrior tolerated her. Speaking of which, she turned to regard the redheaded Warrior that walked beside her . . . Had Ranko always been so short? It seemed to clash with the huge presence and willpower that she projected. The tiny Warrior was by far the smallest woman present, now that she finally thought about it.
"So, you must really hate Awakened Beings. I mean, what with you wanting to watch so many of them get killed . . ."
Man! Why had she said that? This wasn't the time for small talk, let alone that. Now Ranko would probably feel obligated to recall whatever painful or traumatic experience that had caused her hatred for Awakened Beings to burn so fiercely.
Just as she feared, Ranko spun to glare at her, fire in her normally icy, silver eyes. For a moment, Trieste pictured an angry slap coming her way, if not a sword . . . but, then Ranko's angry glare melted away into a melancholy expression.
"Dummy, that's not it at all. I don't hate 'em at all, in fact, it really pisses me off that so many of us do hate them."
"What?" She certainly hadn't been expecting that.
"Think about it, each and every Awakened Being used to be one of us! Our comrades, our sisters, our friends . . ."
"But-but they're monsters, just like Kodachi."
Damnit, why was she arguing? She was a twit. The fire burned back to life in Ranko's eyes, threatening to sear Trieste's orbs from her skull.
"And that's their fault? None of us asked for this. The Organization," The redhead sneered the word with vile contempt, "stole all of us, stuck the flesh of some damned monster into us, then told us to go be freakin' heroes. They never gave us a choice, just violated us, then sent us out into the world with some vague warning to that if we ever slip and fall, bad things'll happen. They never told us the tightrope we'd be forced to walk for the rest of our lives was no thicker than a razor's edge!"
By this time, the redhead was gesticulating furiously. The three women ahead of them had actually stopped and turned back to watch the proceedings.
"No, those jackasses just throw a sword in our hands and expect us to do as we're told. They don't give a damn about any of us. We're just tools to them, we hunt the monsters, they collect the money, then when we turn into monsters they hunt us, it's no different to them!"
Everyone simply stared at the lived redhead as her chest heaved from the exertion of her rant. Almost imperceptibly, in the back, Eva nodded sadly in agreement.
It was so much to take in . . . Was the Organization really like that? Wasn't their goal to protect humanity from the Yoma? But how could the do that if they'd already sacrificed all of their own humanity?
"Then why do you do it? Why go on so many hunts?" This question was asked by Lucile, a very troubled expression on her face. Obviously the question she had just asked was the last thing on her mind, but the likely the only thing she could bare to think on at the moment.
Ranko stared silently as Lucile for a moment. "I just want to make sure that all of our comrades are remembered. They were more than just monsters to be slaughtered."
She felt a tear forming at the corner of her eye, so she dashed it quickly. So noble! How she wished she could be as amazing as Ranko, failure or not. Suddenly, a thought struck Trieste.
"What about the Yoma? Should we still be killing them as well?"
After all, maybe it wasn't the Yoma's fault any more than the Awa-
Ranko's incredulous gaze cut her short, joined by the incredulous looks of her remaining comrades.
"Damn right! We need to kill the hell outta every last one of those bastards!"
. . . Oh . . . never mind.
"This looks like a good place to camp for the night!"
Selene's shout drew Trieste's attention off to the north. They had managed to find themselves lodged firmly in the rocky foothills of the nearby mountain, so there was hardly even good standing room, let alone a good place to stab your sword into the ground for a rest. On the bright side, Eva wasn't nearly the slave driver that Ophelia had been.
Not threatening to kill them was another point in Eva's favor.
It only took her a minute to pick her way across the debris cluttered ground to join the rest of the gathering Warriors. Eva was already surveying the small clearing Selene had scouted out. It seemed like a good spot; even though the sun had set some time ago the wide-open space gave them a good view of their surroundings. Even the most crafty and clever of Awakened Beings would have a hard time trying to sneak up on their position-
Ranko's head snapped up suddenly, her eyes nearly bulging from their sockets. The redhead then looked straight up, her jaw dropping open in abject disbelief.
Before Trieste even had the time to react, Ranko blurred towards her and wrapped an arm around her waist. A fraction of a second later, she nearly felt her neck snap as Ranko launched them away from their makeshift campsite. Behind her, she saw Eva, Selene and Lucile all beat a hasty retreat as well, leaping nimbly away. And just in time!
She heard it a second before she saw anything: the strange, high pitched whistling sound of something large and heavy careening through the air, then-
Trieste was blown from her feet as something crashed to the earth with all the force of a meteor! All she managed to see before she was flung ass over teakettle, was a flash of silver reflected in the dim moonlight. Everything after that was a mad jumble of black, brown, and the white of her own cloak wrapping around her face.
Even as she desperately tried to tear the sturdy material away from her face, an unearthly howl reverberated through her bones, rattling her ribcage and attacking her eardrums with savage fury. It was as if whatever the beast was, it was crying a challenge to the heavens themselves, a cry filled with all of the rage and hatred and sorrow that this small, hateful world had to offer.
With trembling hands, Trieste finally pulled her cape behind her back; with her panic subdued by numbing fear, it was an embarrassingly easy thing to do. As soon as the white cloth dropped away, she wished dearly that she had the option of simply pulling it back and forgetting everything that she now saw.
It stood at the center of the five of them, looming, hunched over, in the hollow of the massive crater which had not existed but seconds earlier. The creature towered above all of them, easily standing eight feet tall, likely ten, were it not so hunched, but it wasn't the size of the beast that so mesmerized her.
Every inch of the Awakened Being, for, what else could it be, was covered in gleaming silver, eerily identical in sheen to their own polished armor. However, to compare it to the only other such monster she had faced, Kodachi The Black Rose, would be like comparing a shining Knight to a lowly beggar. Kodachi's armored skin had been light, sparse, all designed for freedom of movement.
The Being before them was like nothing she had ever seen before. Massive, interlocking plates of polished silver covered every last inch of its enormous body. No joint was exposed, no weak spot was revealed, and yet, the hefty slabs of molten silver slid as smooth as silk at even its slightest movements, creating a scintillating spray of light as its chest heaved from its roar of outrage just moments ago.
The creature itself was, for the most part humanoid, though its arms were as large around as her waist, and its legs bent backwards oddly, like those of a bird, or lizard. A heavy tail jutted out from its back, swaying back and forth lazily, and balancing the Awakened Being perfectly. Even the silver scales of the tail slid together with perfect precision as the limb swayed, giving the impression of an impenetrable defense.
If the beast's armor bespoke invincibility, the long, jagged claws that tipped the fingers of its disturbingly large hands nearly screamed out for blood. Twin rows of smooth, narrow spines, like master crafted swords, ran up the monster's back, ending at the base of the neck. Finally, it was what sat upon that neck that truly struck fear into her heart.
Kodachi, though somewhat altered by her transformation, retained most of her human appearance, and her (admittedly twisted) humanity. There had been intelligence (however cruel) in her eyes. This monster was just that: A monster! The Awakened Being's head retained not a trace of its human origins, rather, all she could think of when she gazed upon it, were the ancient legends of ages gone past, of dragons and demons unlike any that existed in world today.
But its eyes were the most changed of all. There was not a shred of humanity left in those burning orbs of gold. No understanding, no glimmer of intelligence, these were the eyes of a true beast. As she stared into those eyes, all she could see was rage, endless, eternal rage . . . and grief?
Eva and the other standing Warriors circled the creature warily, their massive swords suddenly looking woefully inadequate. The silver monstrosity then lowered itself until it was resting on all fours and began to sniff the air around it. Everyone shifted nervously as it continued its strange behavior.
For some reason, this Awakened Being wasn't acting like Kodachi, or for that matter, any Yoma she had seen. Judging by her companions' confused glances, they were likely thinking they same thing . . .
Except Ranko . . .
For some unfathomable reason, the redhead was looking . . . hopeful? Then, with eyes still glued on the Awakened Being, Ranko lowered her free hand, ever so slowly, to the lacquered gourd that hung from her waist . . . What on earth was she doing? What was going on here?
Her thoughts were cast into disarray, when the Beast unexpectedly reared up and howled all of its fury . . . right into Eva's face! The single digit's hair blew back as if in a gale and Trieste could actually see the skin of their leader's hands redden from the unbelievable heat as she held them up to protect her face.
Then, Eva made the mistake of turning her head to the side-
The creature surged forward the second she did, flowing with a speed beyond even the unmatched velocity of Kodachi. In the mere blink of the eye, the beast closed the distance and laid into the completely flat-footed Warrior with a colossal backhand. The blow landed with a horrifying force unlike anything that Trieste had ever seen; the sound of shattering bone was heard as Eva was launched into the air.
Trieste watched, transfixed, as the Number Seven ranked Warrior flew through the night's sky, trailing pieces of ruined armor like a silver tailed comet. The arc of her flight carried her for at least fifty yards, where their leader careened into the ground, digging a short furrow before bouncing and ragdolling for another dozen feet.
Everyone could only stare in horror at the inhuman display . . .
Everyone except Ranko . . .
It wasn't just hope that graced the redhead's features as she gazed at the macabre spectacle. Now elation filled the young woman's eyes.
"It's gotta be him . . ." Ranko whispered the words to herself, as if she were the only one on the mountain. But what on earth did she mean?
Again, the creature dropped down onto its knuckles and began to sniff the air uncertainly. After several moments, it seemed to zero back in on the distant for of Eva, then began to casually wander in her direction. It was as if it didn't even acknowledge the rest of their existences, or just didn't consider them a threat.
As one, Selene and Lucile charged the monster's exposed back, gleaming swords leading the way. Lucile leapt high, swinging her blade in a tremendous overhead chop to the beast's back; Selene raced in low, slashing savagely at its relatively narrow ankle-
Twin rings of steel on steel resounded as a shower of sparks exploded out from both attacks. Trieste could actually see the swords vibrating painfully in the hands of both warriors as they stood, mesmerized by the smooth perfection of the scales that rested beneath their blades.
Not even a scratch!
Their combined efforts did have one effect, though, as the Awakened Being lumbered to a gradual stop. With lethargic grace, it turned back to regard the two experienced Warriors. It seemed to gaze at them for an eternity, she could almost sense its primitive mind trying to process the information it was receiving.
With another bone-rattling roar, it apparently reached an epiphany. It lashed out savagely, then, slashing at the land bound Selene with tearing claws. The Nineteenth ranked Warrior just managed to leap out of range, landing well back from the beast's attack. A moment later, Lucile landed beside her, looking most dismayed as the beast finished turning to face them. A guttural growl rumbled in the creature's throat, prompting Lucile to cross her sword before herself, even as Selene hefted hers for the attack.
Nineteen and Twenty-Six both steeled themselves for the coming stampede, when-
A piercing whistle split the air.
Everyone, except the beast, whipped their heads in the direction of the whistler. Trieste stared with wide eyes at the manically smiling Ranko; for some reason, the redhead held that lacquered gourd in her left hand, even as she waved madly at the Awakened Being, obviously trying to draw its attention.
The silver beast ignored the display completely, focusing all of its barely contained hatred on the two Warriors that had dared to attack it. With a dull thud, it took a single step forward-
"Oi! Raging Boar, over here!"
That did it! The Awakened Being's head snapped to the side so quickly that Trieste was amazed it didn't snap its own neck. Suddenly, impossibly, all of the hate, the pain, the rage that had been in its gaze mere moments ago was like nothing compared to the glower it leveled at the redheaded Warrior. Its hateful gaze was filled with such blazing fury that Trieste could almost feel her own skin begin to peel, just from the proximity.
Without warning, the beast reared up to its full height and howled its hatred at the moon above them. Trieste nearly doubled over, then, as she suddenly felt sick to her stomach. Her Yoki sense, as weak as it was, suddenly flared to life, wracking her entire body with indescribable agony. Without even consulting her brain, her body responded to the overwhelming stimuli and leapt back, just before-
The Awakened Being's Yoki surged so violently that it literally exploded outwards from its body. The aura of pure demonic energy overflowed from the beast in waves and burned like a blacksmith's forge. The wall of Yoki slammed into her, swatting her from the air like a gnat.
The Forty-Fifth ranked Warrior scrambled quickly to her feet; amazingly she could already feel the minor bruises heal as her body instinctually began to release her own Yoki just to withstand the onslaught. Beyond the Yoki enshrouded beast, she could see Nineteen and Twenty-Six were similarly regaining their footing. Only Ranko retained her equilibrium, smiling wildly and arms held out wide at her sides. And still that damned gourd in her hand.
And then the enraged creature charged. Stone was pulverized by its clawed feet, then blown to dust by its Yoki as it barreled down on the redheaded warrior. So fast was its movement, that even Ranko herself was caught off guard by the Awakened Being's speed. In a flash, her look of joy transformed into an expression of raw panic, and she desperately threw herself to the side. A fraction of a second later, the rampaging beast tore through the space she had filled, leaving nothing but a smoldering ditch of rubble in its wake . . .
And it just kept going!
The stampeding Awakened Being just kept on running past the redhead, at least until it ran headfirst into an outcropping of boulders . . . No, wait, through an outcropping of boulders, then another, then another in its heedless charge. In a matter of moments, the mammoth beast was becoming a glimmering speck disappearing into the forest below . . .
Suddenly, Ranko was at her side, waving and yelling at the top of her lungs.
"You idiot! I'm back here! Where the hell are yo – oof!"
The, apparently insane, redhead's call was cut off abruptly, which was quite natural, considering she had just been tackled to the ground by Selene. The short haired Claymore's face was almost as red as Ranko's hair as she hollered at the collapsed Warrior.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Lances of fire shot up her side as she felt another of her ribs pop back into place. She winced, but tried to hide it as best she could. Three down and four to go, after all. She was hoping to save her big outburst for when her leg reset itself. Until that happened, though, she returned to glaring at the redheaded warrior that sat at the center of the four of them.
"So, just what the hell was all of that about?"
Ranko just shrugged, staring moodily at her steel wrapped toes.
Selene swiped an arm through the air before her angrily and took a threatening step forward.
"Cut the crap. Why the hell were you acting like you knew that Awakened Being?"
The spiky haired Warrior took another step forward, and looked ready to take another until Lucile reached over to hold her back.
The redhead finally looked up, staring at Number Nineteen, completely unimpressed. She held the standing warrior's gaze for a long moment, before finally letting out a long sigh.
"It's because I do know who he is."
Eva gasped in disbelief, "Are you in league with that monster?"
It didn't make sense, though. From what Trieste told her, it was more like Ranko was trying to draw its attention to herself, rather than to betray the rest of them . . .
Ranko scoffed loudly. "How the heck could I be in league with a berserker like that? No, it's just like I said. I know who he is, or, at least who he was."
"Ahh, yes, how foolish of us," tittered Lucile, sounding quite relieved, "Your historical knowledge of Awakened Beings is second to none. It only makes sense that you would know who he was. Can you tell us what you know? Maybe it will help."
The redhead seemed to consider this for a moment, before slowly shaking her head from side to side. "I know enough to know that you should all leave while you still have the chance. Even all together, we're no match for him."
Eva had a few questions of her own, however, Trieste, who looked like she had just sat on an anthill with the way she was fidgeting, suddenly shot her hand up into the air. Eva wearily massaged her temples before turning to regard the girl.
"It's not a classroom, Trieste, you don't have to raise your hand out here."
Looking slightly abashed, the novice warrior nodded.
"Um, well, I was just wondering. You all keep saying he . . . but I thought only Claymores could become Awakened Beings, so how is it possible for this Awakened Being to be male?"
Everyone just stared at the ignorant Warrior. Did she not know anything? Another round of disgusted groans made its way around the camp.
"I swear I'll stab her . . ." Ranko mumbled quietly to herself.
Eva pinched the bridge of her nose and counted slowly to five before continuing. Had there been a special class for Claymores which she hadn't heard about?
"Trieste," she began slowly, struggling to maintain an even tone, "When the Organization first formed, almost all of its warriors were men. However, it was discovered that for men, using their Yoki was extremely pleasurable, which led to them Awakening extremely quickly. To try to combat that problem, the Organization began to use exclusively females, since we are less prone to lose control of ourselves when using our Yoki."
Trieste 'ahhed' in understanding.
"Are we done with school time now?" Selene interrupted her explanation impatiently, "I, for one, would like to know just what the heck our suspiciously acting failure knows about this Awakened Being."
The mushroom-headed warrior nodded in agreement. "Anything that could tell us how to combat this beast would be useful."
A tense silence hung over the group for several long seconds, before Ranko finally shattered it.
"Fine, but you ain't gonna like what I got to say . . . I'm almost certain that the Awakened Being that we fought was known as Ryouga . . . or, should I say, Ryouga the Roaring Lion, former Number Two of Class Six, and quite likely the most powerful defensive warrior that the Organization has ever produced."
Eva's gasp was mirrored by the three other warriors.
A former Number Two! Ranko wasn't lying when she said they were overmatched. Even though Eva herself was a single digit, everyone knew that the gulf between the top five warriors and all of the remaining Claymores was on the order of magnitudes. And she had never heard of a defensive warrior reaching the Second Rank. The top two spots have, to her knowledge, always been held by offensive warriors; even Galatea, a truly gifted defensive type, was only ranked third.
"A former Number Two?" Lucile's voice quivered with anxiety. Being ranked Twenty-Sixth, she likely had never thought to be sent against such a powerful opponent. "Even worse, male warriors were generally stronger than female warriors. What could we possibly hope to accomplish by continuing this hunt?"
"Feh, so the thing is tough. It's also completely mindless. If we come at it with a solid strategy, it shouldn't be too difficult to outsmart. Besides, defensive types are too concerned with saving their own necks to be really dangerous," scoffed Selene, nonchalantly ignoring the black look that Lucile was shooting at her back.
It was Ranko's turn to scoff, as she joined Lucile in glaring daggers. "Idiot. Being a defensive warrior isn't about being a coward, it's about having the will to survive. Ryouga always hated the fact that he was a defensive type. Even though he was one of the most aggressive fighters in his class, his will to survive and to protect his friends was too powerful to overcome. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that the current Number One of that generation was so amazing, he likely could have been the only defensive Number One ever . . . Heh, a few people even thought he was good enough to be Number One regardless . . . though, admittedly, Ryouga was the most vocal advocate of that rumor . . ."
There was an oddly wistful tone in Ranko's voice by the time she reached the end of her explanation, like she'd forgotten that she had been reprimanding the spiky haired warrior.
"Wow," gasped an impressed Trieste, "You're so knowledgeable about him. Did you actually know him?"
Eva joined everyone in deluging the minor warrior with flat glares. She decided to field this one herself. "Don't be foolish, Forty-Five. There haven't been any male warriors for centuries."
That did raise some interesting questions, though.
"She does have a point, though. You do seem to be unusually knowledgeable about a person that awakened almost a thousand years ago. I don't know what kind of records the Organization keeps, but I know they've never been made available to me."
Ranko looked back at her for a moment, stubborn lines beginning to crease her normally flawless skin . . . but just as quickly, they melted away and the redhead seemed almost to deflate.
"It's because, through all of the hunts I've been on, all the territories I've traveled through, Ryouga has always been the one Awakened Being that I've actually been searching for . . ."
Another surprised gasp from Trieste drew their attention. "So that's why you kept making those comments about 'him'."
For a brief flash, almost too quickly for Eva to be sure it even happened, Ranko shot a glare at Trieste that promised death . . . but just as quickly, the look was gone and Thirty-Three was nodding amiably.
"That's right. You see, the reason that I became so interested in the history of the organization, was because my distant, distant ancestor was actually one of the first female Claymores. She was known as Akane the-"
"Ha!" Ranko's admission was cut off abruptly by Selene's bark of laughter. "You expect us to believe that? If this Akane was a one of us, then how could she possibly be your ancestor?"
Lucile was the first to respond, pinching the bridge of her nose even as she sighed in disgust, "She had siblings, obviously. Honestly, do you use that brain of yours at all, outside of swinging your sword?"
Selene spun on the defensive warrior, growling like a rabid dog.
"What did you say?"
Enough was enough, and she finally intervened in the argument. Eva hated to raise her voice, especially with a torso full of broken ribs, but the last thing they needed now was a split in the group . . . another split anyway. Eva then turned back to the redhead.
"Well, Ranko, if this Awakened Being is as powerful as you say, then why are you hunting it so doggedly?"
The redhead brought her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them before she resumed looking at her toes. Suddenly, in that moment, the Thirty-Third ranked warrior looked very small indeed.
"Like I was sayin: Akane was one of the first female Claymores, which meant she was in a mixed class . . . Class Six to be specific-"
Eva let out a low whistle, then instantly regretted it as her ribs grated together painfully. Class six, eh? So they finally had a connection.
"Unlike most of us, Akane was actually proud of being a Warrior; in fact, she kept a journal that would eventually cover her entire career . . . which is how I know so much about Ryouga. You see, in her journal, she mentions a small group of warriors at great length. These warriors were her closest companions and battled at her side many times over the years, however, she considered Ryouga to be her best friend."
Lucile nodded, "So, when you discovered that her best friend was still existing as an Awakened Being, even after all this time, you wanted to fulfill the duty that likely would have fallen to Akane, and finally grant him peace."
The redhead just hugged her knees tighter. "For the friendship that he showed Akane, I'll finally end his misery . . ."
Quite a noble sentiment, really, though a touch much for Eva's taste.
"That's all well and good, but not really what I meant."
Everyone turned her way, looking a touch confused. She simply shrugged in response.
"I meant, what could you hope to do against such a beast by yourself? As a former Number Two, he likely could have killed us all together before he Awakened. Now that he is Awakened, his power is beyond comprehension."
Suddenly, Trieste slammed a fist into her palm, obviously having an epiphany. "I know! It has something to do with that gourd, right? When you were trying to get his attention, you were holding it like you were gonna splash him with it!"
Again, death filled Ranko's eyes for just a fraction of a second. This time, Eva was sure she saw it, though, as it was even more intense this time. Before anything could come of it, one way or another, Selene butted in again.
"Sheesh, you really are an idiot, Forty-Five. What the hell is she gonna do with a little water? Hope the damn thing rusts?"
Burning red cheeks betrayed Trieste's embarrassment as Selene ridiculed the obvious ridiculousness of her statement. Even Eva herself found it hard to believe the girl would make such a ludicrous assump-
"Heh," Ranko chuckled wearily. The redhead then levered herself up from the ground and into a standing position, "Actually, she's absolutely right. The kid might not be bright, but she's plenty observant."
With that, Ranko, very carefully, untied the gourd from her belt and held it up for them to see. And it was just that, a dark brown gourd, dried thoroughly and covered with a shining layer of lacquer.
"'Course, it ain't the gourd that's special, it's the water inside. Now, I know this is gonna sound crazy, but this is magical water."
Well, yes, that did sound insane. She was about to comment on the insanity herself, but, true to form, Selene looked ready to beat her to the punch, literally bursting with some kind of caustic remark- When Ranko's hand shot out.
"Wait! Listen to what I gotta say first. I found it in a distant place called Jusenkyo. Of course, when I got there, the place was a frozen wasteland, but I couldn't ignore the legends that I had followed so far to get there. It took me months to dig out and purify even enough to fill this gourd, but I knew it was quite possibly the only thing that would accomplish what I needed. Long story short, though, is that If I splash this on that monster, it will render him completely defenceless instantly."
Skeptical gazes abounded, even from Eva herself. Even for someone that hunted demons almost daily, magical water was a bit far fetched. Hmm, maybe Ranko had been trailing this Awakened Being a decade or two too long? They said that obsession could do odd things to the mind . . .
"If that was actually true, which is highly dubious," Lucile began, tapping a long finger against her chin, "Then why didn't you use it on the Awakened Being as soon as we encountered it?"
"Well, I was gonna, but he was a heck of a lot bigger and faster then I was expecting. I don't have much water, so I need to make sure that I hit him good. To do that, I'm gonna have to catch him off guard. Which is all the more reason that all you guys need to leave here as soon as you can."
"Hmph," scoffed Selene, "Sounds pretty weak to me. I say if you're not making it all up, that you're just bleeding nuts!"
The redhead scowlded darkly, but Eva cut in. "Look, magic water or not, it doesn't change anything." She turned to face Ranko.
"None of us are leaving until this mission is complete. Selene is right, this beast is much less intelligent then any Awakened Being I've ever encountered before. I believe that we can outmaneuver it."
She then turned to Selene.
"However, Ranko has no reason to lie about this. I think, at the very least, that she believes what she says is true. And if all she needs is an opening, then it shouldn't be too difficult for us to distract it for her. If the water works, then great, if not, we move on and continue with whatever plan we come up with."
An ecstatic Trieste nodded happily, "Sounds good to me! I think we need a miracle against that thing."
The spiky haired warrior crossed her arms and looked away petulantly, while Ranko simply shrugged and nodded agreeably.
"If you guys can keep him still long enough for me to splash him, then the fight'll be as good as over. So when do we head out?" The redhead added, sounding like she was ready to go right then.
Eva leaned forward slightly, but then immediately fell back against her rocky support as her entire torso felt like it was spontaneously combusting. It was times like this that she wished she was a defensive warrior; it took her hours to recover from injuries like these.
"We'll head out at dawn-"
Another rib popped itself into place, sending her entire world into a swirling cloud of magical colors and agony.
"Umm, make that noon . . ."
Trieste let out a low whistle as she surveyed the path of destruction their quarry had left the night before. And to think she had been worried when the others had sent her ahead to scout for its trail. She'd seen siege engines that left less destruction in their wake.
She tried to strain her Yoki sense out to locate the beast, but her head still felt like it was wrapped in cloth from the pill their leader had given her. Apparently it was suppressing her Yoki, and it certainly felt like it was doing the job.
At first, she'd been concerned at the order to take the pill, but then Ranko had assured her that the Awakened Being's ability to detect Yoki was more sensitive than Trieste's by orders of magnitude. With the redhead driving home the point that if Trieste could sense Ryouga's Yoki, it would only be because she was already in his stomach, she quickly agreed that visual confirmation would be more than sufficient. So, all she had to do was find the thing and report back so that Eva could plan accordingly.
. . . It wasn't like she would actually be able to contribute anything to the battle itself. She knew that if Nineteen couldn't cut the thing with a normal slash, then she wouldn't be able to hurt it even if she leapt down from the moon itself.
A weary sigh escaped her lips as she continued her cautious trek. Honestly, she wasn't sure if she should be despairing at her uselessness, or celebrating the fact that she wasn't expected to enter the fight at all.
She quietly walked around another shattered boulder before leaping over a toppled tree. Just how long had this thing run before it realized it had lost its prey? Hmm, come to think of it, it didn't seem to have great eyesight, did it? The way it kept sniffing at the air, even when it was standing right in the center of all of them. It also seemed likely that it relied a lot on its Yoki sense as well, the way it kept going after Eva, the most powerful of them . . .
Maybe she should mention that when she got back? . . . No, Eva was so smart, she would have figured out something so obvious without any help from the likes of her-
The sound of a great mass of wood cracking and snapping sounded like a thunderclap, scaring her nearly half to death. The startled Warrior spun around three times before she calmed down enough to realize the sound had come from at least a few hundred yards away.
"To hell with this . . ." she muttered to herself.
She wasn't getting any closer to this thing than she had to, pill or no damn pill. With the merest effort, she launched herself skyward. She landed halfway up one of the larger trees then kicked off, aiming even higher. In a matter of moments, she was perched precariously at the tip of one of the tallest pines.
The view that her perch afforded her was quite breathtaking. A magnificent mountain range behind her, sprawling forest before her, and not even a mile in the distance, a shining lake rolled off as far as the eye could see. The only thing marring the pristine landscape was the long, jagged scar that had been carved out the night before. Oddly, the path zigged and zagged wildly, but that was neither here nor there. As high as she was, she could easily see the cause of both the path, and the sound that had just startled her so.
Probably a little over half of the distance between herself and the lake was a clearing. The clearing hardly looked natural, though that was the least of her clues as to the beast's whereabouts. For, wandering aimlessly around the clearing, was the familiar, and blinding, form of the very Awakened Being that she was searching for.
The bright, noonday sun shone down on the beast's silvery hide relentlessly. It glittered madly over every inch of the beast, like a thousand tiny mirrors decided to take a stroll. Even from the distance, a few stray beams of reflected light stung her eyes.
Boy, she sure hoped a few clouds came out before they attacked, or that could be a major distraction.
Oh well, she had done her part; she'd spotted the thing. Even better, it didn't look like it was going anywhere, anytime soon. That would hopefully give them time to surround it.
A quick drop landed her safely on the forest floor and she started on her way back to their camp. This trip went much more quickly, considering that this time she was going away from the incredibly dangerous killing machine, as opposed to towards it. It only took her about twenty minutes to get back to the others.
By the time she arrived, Eva was on her feet, stretching out tentatively as the others awaited her return. Their leader looked to be in much better shape then the night before. Even the bruises which had been visible through the Single Digit's torn uniform were faded almost completely to nothing. Of course, Number Seven didn't look to be fully recovered yet, though the fact that the only pieces of armor they were able to salvage for her were her sabatons and one of her vambraces might have contributed to that perception.
Really, they wore little enough armor as it was. To see Eva in such a state just before a major battle . . . didn't exactly instill her with confidence.
"I spotted the Awakened Being. He's just kind of wandering around a small clearing a few miles east of here," she explained quickly.
Eva, Selene, Lucile and Ranko all nodded, tense looks on all of their faces. Their leader then unsheathed her sword and held it up before her, initiating the formal salute of the Claymores.
"One way, or the other, this battle ends today."
Reverently, Lucile raised her sword and crossed it with Eva's.
"Regardless, it was an honor to serve with you all."
Selene's sword swung up recklessly, clanging loudly against theirs as she crossed swords.
"Heh, let's just kick this abomination's ass and get out of here. I don't plan on dying amongst such pessimistic company."
Ranko shook her head in amusement even as she crossed her sword with theirs.
"I won't fail, not while Akane is still counting on me."
Trieste smiled at the sentiment, even as she wracked her brain for something profound or cool to say. She crossed her sword with everyone else's, completing the circle of Warriors and stared at her companions seriously. . . Unfortunately, nothing came to mind, so-
"Um, hope we don't die?"
Her companions all shared a quick glance, then, in eerie synchronization, shrugged their shoulders in unison.
"Works for me."
"Sheesh . . ."
As one, the five of them sheathed their swords. Immediately after, Eva dropped to a knee before them and started to carve lines into the earth.
"Alright, Trieste, fill me in on what I need to know as I go, now, as I see it . . ."
"This is the plan."
The rhythmic rising and lowering of the shimmering silver surface was almost mesmerizing. So smooth was the movement of the armor plates, that it was as if the creature was formed from molten, flowing silver, rather that whatever rigid, impenetrable substance it actually was.
Trieste couldn't believe their luck. By the time they had hashed out the plan and made their way down to the clearing, the Awakened Being had actually fallen asleep! It lay, curled up like a massive cat, right in the center of the clearing. Though it was impossible to call such a monster cute, she had to admit that, as it slept, it didn't look nearly as terrifying as before.
Currently, she was perched in a tree about a dozen yards outside the clearing and, though she couldn't see them, she knew that her companions were moving into similar positions on all sides of the clearing.
The plan was simple enough. Eva had chosen the furthest position, so she would be the last Warrior ready. When she was, their leader would initiate the attack. They would then commence a hit and run tactic, each warrior attacking and retreating back into the woods as the next warrior attacked and drew the beast's attention. It would minimize their contact with the beast and hopefully keep if far enough off balance to keep it from mounting a solid counter attack.
If all went well, they'd have the monster running around in circles in minutes, ripe for Ranko's surprise attack. If that didn't work, they'd just continue rotating warriors until they either wore it down, or someone struck a lucky blow. Really, what else could they do? And, finally, if things went totally to hell (a distinct possibility) they would retreat and come back with a more powerful force.
And in the center of it all, the beast continued its peaceful slumber, completely unaware of the danger that was closing in on all sides. It was somewhat odd, that a creature so filled with rage and fury would sleep so . . . soundly. She would have expected its dreams to be the same endless stream of nightmares that plagued her own sleep; nights spent thrashing and screaming and sweating as her subconscious battled unspeakable horrors half remembered-half imagined . . .
But there it was, as peaceful as a kitten, as untroubled as a babe.
Wait . . . there was movement on the far end of the clearing. It was Eva, moving in as stealthfully as inhumanly possible. Their leader's sword was already drawn, held steadily at her side and she had even removed her steel boots.
One achingly slow step after another, the Single Digit closed in on their quarry, lethal intent flowing from her every movement. Trieste felt her chest start to burn as she'd forgotten to keep breathing as she watched the nerve-wracking progress. It was easily the most insane thing she had ever seen, and as painful to watch as seeing a small child sneaking up on a sleeping bear.
Another minute crawled by, moving so slowly that she was starting to believe that time was in league with the Awakened Being. She supposed, logically speaking, it made sense, though that didn't help in the least. Of all of them, Eva was the most powerful, if she was able to get close enough, she had the best chance of ending the battle before it could even begin.
Still, the suspense was absolutely killing her.
Another step, then another. Trieste watched as the Number Seven warrior carefully measured each step, methodically scanned for anything that would cause even the slightest noise and avoided it. She was only a scant ten feet away from the creature's cruelly formed head. With silent grace, Eva's sword rose upwards to the heavens-
A branch snapped!
To Trieste's straining ears, the innocent snap sounded like a crack of thunder! She had no idea where it came from, likely some thrice damned animal that didn't even comprehend that it had doomed them all, but it was a thousand years too late to do anything about it now.
The Awakened Being's eyes snapped open with a metallic ring that echoed across the clearing. With wicked certainty, they rolled instantly to gaze upon its would-be executioner, locking onto her with hateful intensity. Eva could only stare back, seemingly paralyzed.
The tableau held for longer then Trieste could have imagined, or else that treacherous entity, Time, was deceiving her once more. Eva stood a mere three yards away from the beast, her sword raised above her head, prepared to strike the Awakened Being down with all of her might. The Awakened Being lay unmoving on the ground, staring up at her with those twin portals of hellfire that were its eyes. The only movement that reminded the Forty-Fifth ranked warrior that this was not some mad fool's painting, was the slow movement of the pairs' chests as they continued to breathe.
Then everything went to hell . . .
The entire clearing seemed to explode into motion as both combatant's Yoki flared to life; the combined aura's of the two began to tear away at the earth, sending rocks, stumps and debris flying madly in all directions.
Unable to do anything else, Eva lunged forward, bringing her flashing claymore screaming down on the beast's head with every ounce of power she could muster. Trieste watched in amazement as their leader's face twisted and sharpened into a monstrous visage as her body was reworked by her own incredible power. At the same time, howling for blood, the Awakened Being surged forward, actually charging directly into the attack!
The two met in an explosion of force so powerful it nearly sent Trieste flying from her deciduous perch. Steel met Silver as Eva's sword collided perfectly between Ryouga's eyes. Trieste stared, wide eyed, even as she struggled to hold onto the tree beside her. For a moment, no, for the merest fragment of time imaginable, the sword battled against the gleaming armor that shielded the beast's cranium, it struggled for all it was worth, seeking for all the world, just to pierce that damnable shell . . .
But it was not to be . . .
The claymore which had killed hundred of Yoma. The claymore which had slashed through the armor of nearly a dozen Awakened Beings like it was the air itself . . . the claymore which had never failed its master . . . shattered. Glittering shards of blade, like twinkling stars, scattered across the clearing, tinkling playfully as they bounced against each other or over the hide of the monster.
The next instant saw the Awakened Being bull right on through the attack. Its clawed legs dug deep into the soil as monstrous muscles burned to life, launching the beast forward. Great furrows were torn into the earth and the branch beneath her trembled at its passage. The Awakened Being's head slammed right into Eva's chest, blasting her from the ground and carrying her along, a veritable fly on the horse as it continued its mad charge.
Then, the berserk creature arched its back; violently launching Eva's broken body straight up. Their leader's body flailed wildly as it ascended into the sky, a painful analogy to a discarded doll forming in Trieste's mind as she watched.
Trieste cursed loudly as she watched Selene and Lucile burst into the clearing, swords trailing dangerously in their wake. What the hell were they doing? Eva had been taken out in a second, what could they possibly hope to accomplish?
She couldn't believe just how quickly the plan had gone to hell.
She leapt down herself and charged the dozen yards to the edge of the clearing. When she passed the final trees blocking her view a second later, she saw a much changed scene.
Eva's body was no longer floating skyward, but was now plummeting back to the earth. In the blink of the eye that Trieste had missed, Selene had gone from charging the beast, to circling it rapidly, sparks flying as she slashed wildly at its legs. Lucile was crouched down now, the muscles in her legs bulging painfully as she prepared to leap over the monster to catch their plunging comrade.
"What the hell are you doing?" she yelled desperately.
The two warriors ignored her completely.
Had they forgotten the plan? She began to run further into the clearing, just in case they hadn't heard her. This was the part of the plan where they fled to seek more powerful help. No disrespect to their leader, but after a hit like that, Eva was probably already dead.
She made it about a half a step before it was already too late. As one, Lucile and Selene made their moves. Lucile leapt up, soaring through the air, an arrow searching unerringly for its mark. Selene, obviously hoping to draw its attention, swerved in behind it and brought her sword down on the beast's tail in a massive overhead chop.
The blow rang with the thunderous purity of a church bell, resounding for miles around, but failing utterly in so much as scratching a scale. Even worse, the beast's attention didn't waver even an inch from the airborne Claymores. Rather, it just lashed out with a backwards kick, catching Selene in the shoulder with enough force to send her skidding painfully to the edge of the clearing.
Then, with speed and coordination beyond Trieste's ability, the beast lashed out above itself, casually knocking Lucile back to the ground, even as it snatched Eva from the air with its free hand; all of this while its leg was still extended from forcefully ejecting Selene from the battle.
Lucile bounced harshly when she hit the ground, losing her sword and right spaulder as she rebounded from the hard packed soil. She then rolled a good dozen feet before grinding to a stop. Thankfully, Trieste could hear the Warrior groaning, and almost immediately, Lucile started pushing herself to her feet.
The sound of snapping bone drew Trieste's attention back to the Awakened Being, and to her horror, the gruesome sound was followed by a piercing, agonized scream. She could only stare in morbid fascination as the creature held Eva in a single hand before it, sniffing her tentatively. Apparently the bones she had heard breaking had been Eva's ribs again, as well as her left arm that was captured in its grasp; it obviously had no concerns over controlling its monstrous strength.
Damnit! Their leader was still alive, but she had no idea how to keep it that way. Selene and Lucile together had failed, so what hope could she possibly possess?
And where the hell was Ranko?
Lucile and Selene were both back on their feet now, looking a little worse for wear. However, both looked ready to rejoin the fight in an instant . . . The only question was, what should she do?
The Awakened Being continued to ignore the pair of Warriors, focusing the whole of its attention on the woman in its grasp. Eva had stopped screaming; now staring defiantly into its fiery golden eyes. Without warning, it suddenly pulled her in closer, breathing in deeply; it seemed very interested in her scent for some reason.
"Do your worst, demon . . ." croaked their helpless leader.
Lucile limped forward and scooped up her sword as Selene began to stagger weakly back into the fray.
If the beast had any idea what Eva had said, or at the approach of the two warriors, it gave no sign. Instead, it opened its mouth, a hot blast of air sending Eva's golden locks flailing. Then . . . then rather than bite her in half, as Trieste half imagined it would . . . it licked Eva's face, leaving a wide trail of seared skin as a testament.
It struck Trieste as odd, its tongue looked . . . normal, like a cat's tongue. Nothing like the distorted nightmare appendage that had flashed through her imagination . . .
Eva's legs began kicking weakly as she tried to ward off this new and extremely unwanted form of attention.
As soon as it finished its ministration, leaving Eva looking like she had been in the sun for several days too long, it then held her back out at arms length. Their leader, now confused by its strange actions, stopped her weak struggling, as did Lucile and Selene slow their own approaches.
The beast just stared at Eva, slowly running its tongue over its razor teeth.
W-what was it doing?
A second stretched into two, then five . . . everyone slowly began to relax their guards, trying to figure out what was going on . . .
When suddenly the monster began to growl, a deep, guttural sound that reverberated menacingly, its silver plated lips peeling back in obvious distaste at . . . something.
The second its disposition changed, Selene and Lucile resumed their charges. However, just as when Trieste had tried to make her own intervention, it was already far too late.
The Awakened Being bellowed furiously in Eva's face, bathing her further in saliva and heat stroke. However, it had no interest in eating their leader, instead, it reared back its massive bulk . . . and hurled her out of the clearing!
Trieste could only watch in absolute awe as Eva's screaming form vanished over the tree line, soaring more freely than any bird. What a throw! She wouldn't be surprised if the woman splashed down in the lake from a throw like that . . . not that it would make any difference . . .
But why the hell hadn't it just killed her, or eaten her guts or something?
Unfortunately, Trieste wouldn't get an answer any time soon. Enraged at their leader's more than apparent demise, Lucile and Selene surged forward, injuries forgotten in the face of raw fury and unadulterated grief.
Trieste wanted to help them, wanted to lay the beast low . . . but she just couldn't bring herself to move. She screamed at her legs move, begged her arm to lift her sword, but her body refused her orders. Fear had rooted her to the spot more tightly then any tree; she just gave thanks for small miracles that her bladder hadn't betrayed her.
Selene's warcry rang out, boiling over with rage and hatred. The Nineteenth ranked Warrior launched herself high into the air, clenching her sword before her, the tip of her blade aimed unerringly at the base of the creature's skull. It was obvious that she was going to ram her entire weight down on to that single point.
I-it might just work! With the inertia of her run, the force of her leap and with gravity pulling her down, the Offensive warrior might just ha-
The sword-like spines that ran up the beast's back extended . . .
They stretched out furiously, just like the fingers of the Yoma that she had fought over a month ago . . . It was the most basic attack used by Yoma, one that every Claymore knew to avoid . . . and yet, each and every one of them had forgotten, or believed this monster too stupid to do it . . .
Tears began to roll down Trieste's cheeks as she took in the terrified expression that formed on Selene's face just a fraction of a second before the blades tore into her flesh. Three of the gleaming silver swords impaled her torso, another plunged straight through her right calf. Another severed her left arm completely, the dismembered limb seeming to float away.
The last blade impaled Number Nineteen perfectly through her forehead, piercing the Claymore's brain and killing her instantly.
A sob burst from her throat as she watched her companion's eyes fade to a vacant, glassy stare, all of the fire and challenge that had filled them vanishing forever.
Lucile's voice was tore painfully as she cried out desperately for her comrade. Trieste wanted to yell out as well, but her throat wouldn't respond, wouldn't even let her call out to Lucile as the anguish blinded Warrior started her own foolhardy charge. She – she couldn't bear to watch.
With the very last ounce of will that she possessed, Trieste forced her eyes to close, the last thing she saw being the tearstained Number Twenty-Six charging headlong towards the blood soaked form of the Awakened Being . . .
The sound which she heard next, the sound that would haunt her for the rest of her life, the sound which sounded the end of the battle . . . was beyond her ability to describe. She didn't even dare to imagine what must have happened beyond her eyelids to create such a horrific sound, all that she knew was that Lucile had likely died nearly instantly.
There hadn't even been a strangled scream . . . thankfully. She didn't know how much more her mind could take before it simply shattered into a million pieces . . . She almost wished it would, if only to spare her from what was certain to come next.
All too soon, a dull thud impacted the soil somewhere before her, causing the ground beneath her feet to tremble ominously. Another followed it, this one feeling even closer; slow, methodical footsteps coming right towards her. All she could do was turn her head to the side and clench her eyes as tightly as possible. At her sides, the muscles in her arms felt like they would snap from how fiercely she was digging her nails into her palms.
"p-please . . . just go away . . ," she whimpered as faintly as a summer's breeze.
Then the stepping stopped . . .
Unfortunately, she didn't even have the chance to hope, before an explosive snort of scalding wind was blasted into her face. She could nearly sense the beast's snout hovering just inches from her face; could feel the fetid head of its breath washing over her every time it exhaled. Again, the beast seemed to be studying her, just as it had Eva . . .
Well, if this was to be the end, she could at least go out with a shred of dignity. It took more effort then she imagined possible, but she managed to open her eyes just a crack and turn to face the Awakened Being-
Her eyes shot open quite easily and she desperately stifled a scream as she realized just how close the monster's face actually was to her own. It's small, golden eyes bored into her own, staring right into her soul. It was almost hypnotizing; true, they were the eyes of a murderous monster, but those burning orbs had a bottomless depth to them. She could get lost in the swirling whirlpool of anger and despair that filled them.
Gradually, she felt her body relax, now that she had absolutely no intention of moving at all . . .
With lumbering ease, the Awakened Being rose to its full height, bathing her in shadow as it towered over her. She had a pretty good idea what came next, could already see its lips curling back in revulsion. Then, just as expected, the furious monster howled in rage and lunged forward, teeth and talons leading the way. She just stared straight ahead, determined to face her fate-
Out of nowhere, a blur of silver and red flew over her head, slamming directly into the lunging beast's chest!
"Not so fast, Lost Boy!"
Amazingly, the kick plowed into the monster's chest with enough force to actually stagger the towering behemoth back two full steps. The blur then resolved itself into the familiar form of Ranko, crouching tightly on the Awakened Being's chest. The redhead wore a wild smile on her face and held that gourd in her hand.
Trieste wanted to cheer, to cry out, to shout at the top of her lungs, but her throat simply failed her.
Ranko kicked off the beast's chest, actually staggering it back another step, then pitched the gourd right into its face with all of her strength. Even as the gourd slammed into the creature's face, smashing to splinters and dousing it in a spray of water, Ranko was launched out of sight somewhere behind her. What happened next, though, blasted any stray thoughts of the redhead from her mind completely . . .
As if it had been doused with acid, the Awakened Being staggered back wildly, howling in agony and clawing madly at its own face and chest. The piercing squeal of metal on metal nearly drove Trieste to her knees. The creature's bellows only increased, and it was driven to its knees.
Damn . . . it was magical water!
Who the hell would have guessed?
The sharp report of metal fracturing caused her to wince. Impossibly, right before her eyes, the Awakened Being began to collapse in on itself. Judging by the monster's shrieks, it was an even more agonizing process then it looked.
Its armored hide wasn't able to keep pace with the rapid rate at which the creature's body contracted, buckling, cracking and snapping apart in a maelstrom of shattering scales and whizzing shards of steel. In mere moments, the beast collapsed completely to the ground, nothing more then a small mountain of crumpled, useless armor.
She found herself paralyzed again, befuddlement holding her in place just as firmly as terror had. What had just happened? Had Ranko's water destroyed the Awakened Being completely?
The pile shifted, shocking her from her frozen state. Regaining control of her arm, she finally had the presence of mind to unsheathe her claymore, unsure of what was to come.
Another silver scale fell away, then another; it looked as if something was – was pushing its way out of the pile. After several moments of this, the final plate of armor toppled to the ground, revealing a . . . revealing a . . .
A little black piglet?
Trieste could only stare down at the small mammal, utterly perplexed. Even worse, the piglet stared right back at her, a look of confusion filling its unnaturally expressive eyes that dwarfed her own. I-it was just so small and defenseless, and those eyes . . .
Not having a clue what else to do . . . Trieste slowly raised her sword above her head.
The piglet seemed to understand what that meant. Instantly, its eyes widened to tiny saucers and its entire being trembled with fear as it avidly watched the path her blade cut through the air. How large she must appear to such a tiny animal . . . Still, harmless or not, she had to end it, if only for the memory of her fallen comrades.
With great effort, Trieste steeled her heart for what she had to do-
The dull thud of something soft hitting the ground caught her attention. Oddly, it was followed immediately by the metallic clang of something long and heavy hitting the ground as well.
A sickeningly familiar sensation began to flow through her body as she reluctantly looked down to her side to investigate the originator of the disturbing noise . . .
For some reason, there was an arm lying on the ground beside her. Not just an arm, either, the entire shoulder was still attached, as well as a frightfully large slab of torso. She watched in fascination as the ruined organs protruding from the chest region ceased their functions. The quarter of the left lung slowly deflated before her eyes, just as the half heart beat its last, futile beat.
Nat far from the hand lay a sword. The symbol etched into the blade, a stylized cross, was as familiar to her as the back of her hand . . . a comparison that was all to convenient to make, considering the proximity of the sword to said hand lying on the ground.
Numbly, likely already deep in shock, she looked down at her own shoulder . . .
Yes . . . yes, just as she expected, a vast crimson expanse stared back at her, her own personal abyss. It looked like her half of the broken heart was still struggling, though she honestly why it was bothering. In her half delusional state, she could only think one thing . . .
She looked back down at the tiny, cute black piglet; it still stared back at her with wide shimmering eyes.
"Wow . . . I didn't even see you move, little guy . . ."
"That's because he didn't, genius."
For just a moment, everything slammed back to crystal clarity. Trieste spun in shock at the sound of the voice. She nearly collapsed, completely unbalanced now, but managed to maintain her feet long enough to turn around.
After having her arm sliced clean off, it was quite difficult for her to be shocked by anything at that point, but she tried her best regardless.
Ranko was standing behind her, smiling as innocently as a child. In the redhead's left hand was her blood soaked sword, in her right was . . . a water skin?
"W-why . . .?" she asked. Her voice was only half its usual strength . . . for some reason.
In response, the redhead rammed her sword into the ground and playfully reached behind her back. The Organization's Thirty-Third ranked Warrior then proceeded to pull something out from behind said back . . .
It was a branch . . . cleanly snapped in half . . .
"Heh, after spending so many damn years just lookin' for that guy, you didn't think I'd just let ya kill him off, did ya?"
Ranko then shrugged in amusement and tossed the broken twig to the ground. She then turned her attention to the water skin in her other hand.
"W . . . wha . . ."
The word came out weakly, more blood than sound filling her throat now. Ranko looked up at her futile attempt, though, this time a small trace of remorse showing on her face.
"I warned you. I told you all to leave while you had the chance . . . it's your own fault for being so stubborn, ya know?"
Trieste tried, with all of her remaining will, to draw in enough air to beg for an answer, but without anything to pump her blood, her remaining lung was almost as useless as the destroyed one. The edges of her vision were already fading to black, heralding the sweet oblivion that awaited her. But she had to know why!
The question must have burned in her eyes, though, for Ranko let out a long, weary sigh and replied once more.
"Dammit, why can't you die already? Fine, if you have to know, let me enlighten you. You see, there was one more legend surrounding Ryouga, one more historically significant fact that strikes right to the very heart of the Organization. Incidentally, it was also the thing which put the final nail in the coffin of the Organization's use of male Warriors. It was so catastrophic, that it was struck from the annals of history . . . but I remember.
"You see, when Ryouga awakened, it was the first and only time in the history of the Organization . . . that both the Number One and Number Two ranked Warriors Awakened at the same time."
Ranko then lifted the waterskin above her own head. For some reason, small wisps of steam rose from the neck of the container. Trieste giggled to herself weakly as she finally realized; Ranko had actually been using her Yoki to heat the water. It was an incredible feat, but its importance was lost amidst all of the more pressing matters occurring . . . like her imminent death.
Without a word, the redhead poured the skin of hot water over her own head . . .
After watching the transformation of Beast to piglet, it was almost like nothing at all. At first, the water seemed to do nothing more than rinse the red from Ranko's hair, revealing a full head of pale silver locks. The change in height and shape barely even registered at this point.
The young man looked up, catching her fading gaze with his cold, silver eyes. Suddenly, all of the remorse and hesitation that had been on her face moments ago were gone, washed away from his features like so much grime. A smile of vile wickedness was all that remained.
"I'm the former Number One, Ranma the Prideful Tiger . . . Sorry 'bout this . . ."
"But I really want to eat your guts."
Ranma wiped his sleeve across his mouth, attempting to clean off some of the blood, but only succeeding in smearing it across his face. He reveled in the taste of the girl's guts. Even though they were the guts of a Claymore, it had been over thirty years since he'd let himself eat anyone's entrails . . .
Not since he'd been to Jusenkyo . . .
It felt so good to be back in his true body, not that weak pathetic shell he'd been hiding in. Speaking of weak and pathetic shells, he turned back to face the small black piglet. The tiny morsel looked back at him, a myriad of emotions screaming through those huge, piggy eyes.
Without further ado, Ranma tossed the rest of the steaming water over the tiny mammal.
This transformation was blissfully quick; the naked form of a painfully familiar young man was kneeling before him before the water even splashed to the ground. Ranma absorbed every detail of his oldest companion, comparing everything he saw to the memory he had created after all these centuries.
The long, shaggy hair; the dark gray of iron. The burning silver eyes, the pronounced fangs . . . only one thing was missing.
Even as he moved to rectify that, Ryouga's eyes finally refocused on him. The warrior's lips began to move, struggling vainly to forge a coherent sound. Ranma found himself beginning to worry. There was hardly any comprehension or recognition in those eyes. Had he taken to long in finding a cure for his friend? Was Ryouga's mind already long since destroyed?
"Come on, Ryouga. I know you're in there somewhere."
His words seemed to have no effect. Ryouga's gaze began to wander, glazing over slightly as he took in the grim scene that surrounded them.
Hell no! He'd spent far too long searching for his friend; he wouldn't lose him now! Growing desperate, Ranma slapped Ryouga across the face.
"Snap out of it, Ryouga! Dammit, wouldn't it be just like you to lose your mind?"
That had an effect. Ryouga's eyes ceased their aimless wandering and came into sharp focus. The defensive warrior's eyes then swiveled in his direction, recognition beginning to form.
". . . r . . . ra . . ."
Ranma nodded, smiling widely, "Come on, buddy, you can do it."
"ran . . . Ranma? . . ." Ryouga sounded out the name tentatively, sounding unsure of the sounds he was stringing together and their meaning . . . for about a second-
"Ranmaaaa! What the hell did you say to me?" With surprising strength, the Lost Boy launched himself up and twisted his fists into Ranma's lapels.
Before his friend could continued his tirade, the pigtailed warrior let out an explosive laugh of relief. He then wrapped the suddenly confused young man in a tight embrace, heedless of the blood that now covered them both.
"Lord, Ryouga. You have no idea how good it is to hear your voice again," he exclaimed joyously.
Apparently the Fanged warrior hadn't been expecting such a warm reception and pushed back out of the hug, looking at Ranma strangely. Ranma took advantage of the confused silence to wipe off his hand and pull out the object he had been carrying for longer than he could remember –
A long, silver bandanna, checkered with white squares. He held the thin strip of cloth reverently for a moment before finally handing it over to its rightful owner. Still staring at him in incomprehension, Ryouga actually took the bandanna and tied it in place by instinct alone, Ranma doubted the guy even noticed the bandanna he had been offered.
It was obvious that Ryouga was far too busy surveying the grizzly scene once more, though this time with true comprehension of what he was seeing. Horror was slowly filtering past his companion's shock, and the fanged warrior turned to stare at him uncertainly.
"R-ranma?" The lost boy's gaze locked on to the twitching form of the young woman that lay behind Ranma, "What the hell did you do, Ranma? You just ate that girl's guts!"
Ranma waved off his friend's concerns.
"Jeez, don't worry, Pig Boy, I saved you some."
Ryouga just stared at him, looked at him as if he'd lost his mind.
"Have you lost your mind? Why the hell would I want to eat someone's g-"
The bandanna clad boy's irate declaration cut off suddenly as he looked again at the exposed entrails. Ranma smirked as he watched his friend unconsciously lick his lips. Ryouga tried again, sounding a little less sure of himself this time.
"Why the hell would I want to eat someone's g-u-u-"
Ranma managed to hold in his laughter as his friend nearly choked on that last word. The fanged warrior then spun back on him, pointing an accusing finger.
"Dammit, Ranma! Why the hell do I want to eat someone's guts?"
This time, the pigtailed warrior did laugh, laugh like he hadn't laughed since before he had Awakened . . . likely even long before that. Wiping an errant tear from his eye, he patted his oldest and closest friend on the shoulder. He figured he only had a minute before the guy realized he was naked and freaked out, so he'd better get down to business.
"It's been a long time, buddy, a long time. A helluva lot has happened since you Awakened, and I'll fill ya in on all that junk later."
Ryouga recoiled visibly at Ranma's brutally frank statement.
Ranma ignored the young man's shell shocked question and bulled through to the only thing that had ever mattered.
"Shut up for now, Ryouga. There's only one thing you need to know. Now that you're yourself again and we're finally together after all of this time . . ."
"We can finally avenge Akane . . ."