Disclaimer: I do not own Negima or any of its vibrant characters...

Fang Vice Addiction: "By Your Enrapture"

Chapter Fourteen: Onset of Twilight

By Traingham

(A.N: I told you I'd update this year!)


The crisp snap that sent Negi Springfield into a cold sweat was, to his slowly escalating desperation, not his spine finally giving in under the surprising weight of the lovely gynoid sitting cross legged on his back as he pumped off push ups in steady succession, but rather an auditory reminder to him that his master, Evangeline McDowell, was going to make his morning miserable if he didn't meet her expectations in his daily warm ups. Of course, had he been a lesser being, his master's idea of warm up exercises would have been classified as an act of suicide in the book of the mundane; a slow and painful suicide that would open one's eyes to the finer points that life had to offer. Luckily for him that was not the case so it was just shy of torture.

"You're kidding me." The chibi-vampire said disapprovingly after swallowing the portion of sweet meat that she bit off from the shiny red apple in her left hand. Most of the red fruit was intact for now to the young magi's relief, however, momentary that condition would remain. "If you aren't done with all five hundred of those push ups before I'm done with my snack, it's your ass." And, oh, how she never ran out of creative ways to have her disciple cower at the utterance of such dreadful words. What she did in her methods of disciplining him for his incompetence could only be described as nothing short of art in the world of sadomasochism.

"Roughly ninety-three more to go, Negi-kun." Chachamaru told him in an attempt to rally him on, finding her current situation not all unpleasant; not unpleasant at all. In fact this entire scenario, her sitting on top of Negi as he brought her in an up and down motion repeatedly, with such vigor–Her current mind set was caught in pure bliss. Evangeline's watchful eye was perhaps the only thing keeping the gynoid from caressing herself from the tingles of ecstasy that were teasing her artificial synapses. "I have faith that you will pull through."

At this point in the exercise Negi wasn't quite capable of voicing his gratitude in her kind words, but his kindly toned grunt of near exhaustion seemed to get his feelings across to his lovely passenger.

"Nothing can keep master Negi down!" This confident claim came from said master's familiar, Chachazero who came within his line of view whenever he lowered himself toward the ground for another push up. The green haired puppet continued in her elaborate blade dance as she added, "Not even Maru's fat butt!" That jab earned her a chill stare from her younger sister that was all too reminiscent of a popular 80s science fiction film, but it did nothing to faze her. In fact, nothing about the fact that Chachamaru was casually using her beloved master Negi as a chair did anything to annoy her. Nope. Nein. Nuh uh.

Evangeline looked to her disciple coolly, bringing her apple to her lips for another bite and chewing slowly. When her jaw stopped moving with a swallow her eyes studied Negi carefully, probing his mental waves for something that she was sure would eventually rear its ugly head. "You brought this upon yourself, boya, so try putting on a brave face for me." She said, drawing the eyes of both Chachas. "I won't have you dropping out in the middle of this when you begged me to push you this hard."

"Gah ..." With a final rise of his body the young magister flopped down onto his stomach, eliciting a soft gasp from the disappointed Chachamaru. Her reaction was akin to that of a little girl that had just been reminded that the ride had a limit. Unfortunately for her a quarter wasn't going to get the young man to take her for another round...unless, of course, Evangeline ordered it, which, with the way her left brow lifted slightly as if unimpressed with the sight of her floored disciple, she may have been coming close to having him do another set of push ups. Chachamaru tried to feel shame in herself for the welling excitement at the the possibility of her doing so.

"Lighten off of him, Chachamaru." Evangeline saved her the trouble, directing her off the recuperating young man with a toss of her chin. The green haired maid nodded, masking her reluctance to relieve herself of her seat. "Get up, boya. You've barely worked a proper sweat." She smirked, an expression so sinister on her lovely face that the apple in her hand almost seemed to shrivel in response. "Lets have you do a few laps around the resort to stimulate your glands."

Negi, to his credit, pushed himself off the ground and did a respectable job of jolting himself up to his feet. "Lets do it then." He declared, hands on his hips to catch his breath for the next grueling activity.

His master couldn't help but crack a smile at his upbeat reply, eerie as it was on her lips given the circumstance. "I'm loving your attitude, boya. Keep this up and you might just convince me that you like it when I'm rough."

A sarcastic quip of "When aren't you?" came from Chachazero's general direction, but the chibi-vampire made no outward note of the puppet's usual insolence.

"Its always a pleasure to train with you, Eva-chan." Negi informed her with a sincere smile in spite of his familiar's general impression of it, one that fell a bit when he reached back to massage his neck. "...Well, not the workout itself, but being with you is." He looked unsure of himself, regarding her timidly. "You know what I mean?"

"Buttering me up won't do you any favors." The platinum vamp spoke low in what could have possibly been discontent. Negi wasn't quite sure why she would have taken his words the wrong way, but...

I bet you use that same line on your shrine maiden as well, don't you? Evangeline didn't want her jealousy to show through whenever she thought about how Mana Tatsumiya was stealing away Negi Springfield's attention from her. The days of when she alone was at the center of his world as his master and idol (questionable) were a thing of the past. No longer did her adorable underling cling to her at every given opportunity to bask within the aura of her undeniable awesomeness. Now he was setting aside time for women other than herself, and not just Setsuna or Ku Fei; she hadn't mind his fascination with those two before and it didn't bother her now, but Mana Tatsumiya was a different breed of woman that wasn't very unlike the people she used to associate herself with.

Evangeline didn't care for reminders of those days no matter how many fond memories she had of them, and just the idea of Negi being under the sort of influence that Mana could impress on him bothered her for some reason. Perhaps she was thinking too hard about it. Even now she had to admit that she was beginning to worry too much over the kid's development as an individual more than a dark mage these days. True, her influence alone was probably unhealthy enough for such a naive boy, and one day when she was free from Mahora she would undoubtedly introduce him further into her world, but those would be steps that she could direct him toward herself. Having him go on to have those experiences without her–the mere idea of him traversing the path that all vampires eventually walked without her around to supervise it was a thing of nightmares.

"Maybe he really is making me soft." Evangeline wondered, one arm crossed over her chest while she held her apple in the other hand. She must have lapsed in her thoughts because Negi called her attention cautiously as though speaking to a slumbering giant.

"Um, Eva-chan." He addressed her in a small voice, waving a hand in front of her face just from the right distance so she wouldn't snap at him and sink her teeth into it. She had done so before one time over tea and biscuits when he was trying to get her attention. Did a good job of ruining the mood that time. "Should I start my laps?"

The vampiress blinked away her daze and regarded him as though she had just awoken from a midday nap. "Er, what is it?" Her eyes focused and she stared at him hard. "Hey, don't get comfortable." She pointed to where the waves caressed the sand. "Get started on your laps, boya!"

He jumped at the order and trotted off to where she directed, "Right away!" His master's eyes remained on him until he got down on his stretches at which point she looked away and took another bite of her apple.

"Mistress." As long as they'd been together Evangeline had long anticipated that Chachamaru would have noticed that she was concerned about something so she responded to her maid's call naturally, turning her head halfway to regard the loyal gynoid from the side.

"Yeah?" She queried, keeping her body language in check.

Chachamaru's pokerface belied the concern she felt for her mistress's ill mood. "It isn't like you to lapse so deeply during Negi-kun's morning visits. Does something trouble you, mistress?"

No point in being mysterious about it. The vampiress thought, rolling her eyes at how she must have looked stewing over her thoughts. "Negi's sudden enthusiasm bothers me." She explained to Chachamaru, gesturing to her disciple who was just wrapping up on his stretches. "The crow voiced her concern to me about how he's been slowly dedicating more of his time outside of teaching to his training. Apparently he's also been less sociable these days according to the old man's granddaughter."

Had Chachamaru been a more expressive woman she might have appeared touched by her mistress's concern. "You worry that he may be distancing himself?"

Evangeline's immediate response was to snort. "That's not what I'm going for here." She said with a shake of her head. "A month ago the boya could barely mask his dread at our late night Friday sessions, yet now he's begging me to extend our sessions and push him even harder than before. I'm sure you understand what's bothering me."

"His sudden turn about disturbs you." Chachamaru deduced, getting a nod from Evangeline. "Do you suspect something malevolent may be influencing this shift?"

Evangeline didn't respond immediately after being asked that question. She bowed her head, pausing to regard her half eaten apple with a strange sigh. "I have my suspicions, Chachamaru. I do."

The tone of her mistress's voice did little to put her at ease. "How...bad is it?"

"I could be wrong." Evangeline began, raising her head to regard her maid with a wry grin. "Maybe Negi has his own personal reasons for pushing himself so hard. We could probably call it off as nothing more than the boy childishly attempting to expedite his growth as a man through more rigorous training." Her tone was hopeful in those last words as she shrugged, "But calling it off like that would be irresponsible of me as a master, especially when I know it could be something else."

Chachamaru waited for Negi to jog off a fair distance before inquiring. "Something dangerous?"

"His 'Dark Ego'." Evangeline answered the gynoid, ending her sentence with another crunch of her apple. "That's what the darklings call it these days." She said with a roll of her eyes after swallowing. "Back when it was far more potent among the earlier generations we took to calling it "The Beast". A psychologist might liken it to the ID, and the devoutly religious would compare it to demonic possession which wouldn't be very far off given its origins. It feeds on the host's fears, desires, and their pride." She smiled mysteriously when she said pride. "The Wolves got in right when they called it "The Taint". It takes all the good and twists it until its barely recognizable to the host. In time the person tainted by the beast becomes a being of complete destruction, a thing worthy of the namesake."

"And you believe that Negi-kun has this thing inside of him?" The chibi-vampire vampire detected disgust in the gynoid's voice and it made the smile on her face broaden. "But how could it have gotten a hold of him in all of his time in Mahora? Do you think it was the work of mistress Summers?"

When Evangeline turned to face Chachamaru the gynoid had to step back. The vampire had such a terrible look on her face that it gave her pause. "He inherited it from me." Evangeline said bitterly, her voice cracking as her eyes glazed with the tell tale sign of tears forming, but they never came.

"...Mistress?" Chachamaru wasn't sure what else to say with what she was witnessing. The only time she had ever seen Evangeline brought so close to tears was during the Thousand Master's final moments at the Mahora Budokai.

"Negi is a true successor of my bloodline, the one and only person that I've ever truly passed on my vampiric essence to. I didn't realize that until his episode during our match at the tournament." Evangeline crushed what was left of her apple into mush. The thick juices seeped through her fingers, dripping into the sand to be absorbed. "I witnessed the rise of Negi's dark ego personally when I pushed him past his limits. It wasn't for very long, but for a moment the boya had reached deep within himself and taken hold of the darkness so he could conjure the twilight arts."

"Is there no way for you to free him from it?"

"No." She answered the steadily fretting gynoid. "It isn't a sickness that can be cured, and it doesn't have a physical form that I can put down with my own hands..." Evangeline let out a chuckle. "At least not until it takes his body for itself, but I have faith in Negi. What's carried him through up to this point hasn't been his body, but his will. That's the stuff that legends are born from–a will." The vampiress held her soaked hand away and set it alight with a fire charm, extinguishing it with a clench of her fist before reaching down to undo the summer shawl wrapped around her waist.

Chachamaru received it from her mistress, folding it over her arm. "Going into the water, mistress?" She asked, watching the blonde walk over toward the tide.

"No." Evangeline stopped where Negi had been stretching earlier, standing rooted there with her arms crossed facing the direction that Negi would eventually come jogging from. It didn't take long for the lovely maid to understand what her mistress was intending to do. "A boy can't hope to grow into a man without the proper discipline." Her expression fell neutral as Negi's jogging form came approaching around the bend in the distance. "–Because the undisciplined become monsters." She closed her eyes. "No sense, no passion, no feeling."

"Disgusting."

Evangeline McDowell walked down the quiet streets of Grigostia, doing her best not to draw attention to herself from the few lurkers standing about at corners and the front of closed shops. She should have been at the inn where the rest of her sisterhood was currently stationed for the duration of the evening, but she wasn't at ease this night. She had another one of her episodes, and this time she hadn't even been on the battlegrounds when it happened. The way of it was too unusual for her to remain calm.

"Am I losing my wits?" Evangeline questioned herself, raising a hand to the side of her head to massage her temple. It did little to alleviate the pounding, but it did more than anything else at the moment and she needed comfort if she wanted to think this through rationally. "When has it ever reached out for me? Why in my sleep?"

By it she was referring to the thing deep within her that had been a long time companion since the early days of her turning. It had only ever spoken to her whenever she made contact with it by her choice, and she only did that whenever she was amidst blood shed or committing the act herself, but the line was crossed this evening in many ways. This time it had contacted her of its own volition, exhibiting a higher level of sentience that it never hinted at before and for the first time since she made a pact with the mysterious presence Evangeline had found its company very unwelcome in the grand scheme of her own devising. It was interfering with her life now.

"Seraphina will be after me, no doubt." The blonde Knight grumbled, glancing over her shoulder to check if she hadn't already attracted any tails on her way from the inn. As many alleys as she had passed it wouldn't have been a stretch of the imagination to believe someone had been lurking in one of them, watching from the shadows.

The high officers had a curfew going and she was breaking it by being out at this hour. If one of the officers from another company happened to catch her they would undoubtedly use the opportunity to demean Camilla's position as a commander of her own unit out of spite alone. The 'Crimson Fox', as folk were taking to dubbing her these days, was attracting a lot of mixed interest with all the talk of her skirmishes during the last major conflict in the Vetis Canyon.

Apparently even the Wolves were beginning to pass around stories about her at their own camps to further demonize her position as a threat. It wouldn't be long before her company of knights became a personal target for the opposition, overlooking the possibility that it hadn't already gone that far. They had been run into corners and surrounded by the enemy so many instances during their last outing on the war grounds that it would have been difficult to call it off as just ill fortune on their part. Whatever the case, Camilla had lead them through it safely and the other commanders weren't joining in on the praise she was receiving for her commendable feats. The damned dhampir. What she ever did to gain the favor of Mistress Beatrix, no one would ever know.

Evangeline walked past a dimly lit tavern and stopped herself five paces away from it. It was the only place open for blocks to come and she felt that putting any more of a distance between herself and the inn would serve to inconvenience her, and possibly Camilla for that matter. The blonde couldn't help the small smile that crept across her lips. So this is what it means to actually give a rats ass about someone else, huh? She shrugged her shoulders and turned around to enter her selection of refuge. Her nerve wilted somewhat when she found the place mostly empty save the bartender, a young undine who regarded her with mild interest upon seeing her enter.

"Has anyone else come here recently?" Evangeline asked the lovely bartender in a quiet voice as she approached the bar.

Polishing off a wine glass, the cerulean skinned woman turned to place it on the shelf behind her completing a row of identical glasses. "You're my first visitor in a good while. Not many in the mood for spirits this evening, I'm afraid."

"Good." Evangeline took a seat on the stool at the left corner of the bar counter. "A pint, if you would?"

"Well enough." The undine reached back and slipped a mug off the shelf, kneeling down to serve her a beer from one of the barrels beneath the counter. She set the slightly frothing mug down on the smooth, glossy finish and passed it down to be received in Evangeline's open hand. "Not expecting company, lady knight?"

Wiping foam from her upper lip, Evangeline answered smoothly, "A party of one." Her eyebrow went up in suspicion. "Why?"

The tavern door opened a moment after Evangeline answered the bartender and the knight felt her own heart stop for a beat, knuckles going milky white as her hand clenched around the handle of her beer mug in stark panic. She sunk low in her stool, letting her chin rest on the counter while she fought back the sensation of illness that began to build in the pit of her stomach and the undine glanced at her suspiciously before returning her attention to the new visitor.

The woman walked slow and purposefully with her heavy buckled boots, the thick black cloak around her shoulders clapping heavily with each step like the wings of a large bat. The coat of armor that hung on her body was equally dark, with no gleam or polish as though it supped greedily of the light that touched upon its dull surface, and her gauntlets were sharp and lethal, perfect for piercing and gouging should she feel the need to utilize them in such a way.

Her hair was dark, long and unruly, falling over her shoulders, down her back, and over the right side of her face in thick curls, but Evangeline could see the bandages covering the right eye that her hair obscured. The eye that was exposed for the world to see was like a bewitching emerald, solid and intense like everything else about her. She was a gorgeous woman without a doubt, elegant and imposing in the manner that she carried herself, however, her expression, neutral and unforgiving, did nothing to compliment that. One could spot the same look on a stalking wolf, both calculating and unfeeling.

There was no suspense in discovering the identity of this titan because Evangeline McDowell already knew her well enough from an advised distance. Camilla often met with this woman, and occasionally spoke of her when one inquired about her life before leading the company, but one needn't the pleasure of being acquainted with the 'Crimson Fox' to know of this particular woman by extension for she had been recognized all around the world by her own merit long before Camilla ever entered the military; hailed by those who fought alongside her and hated by those who obsessed over glory enough to turn their blade against her, but respected by all who would hold a sword without prejudice. She was General Beatrix Alexander, a Dark Mistress of the highest order, and a woman with names given to her by the tongues of nearly every language, from the mouths of all vampiric clans to the lips of the demons below and perhaps of those winged ones that were said to rule the realm beyond ascension.

What the wolves dubbed her in their own language roughly translated to 'Dead Future', or 'The Fall'. The generation that was around to see and hear about her in her younger days referred to her now as the 'Pride Harvester' for having stolen away so many sons and daughters from their grieving families. Even her own people had names for her that would give the impression that there were none in the underworld that didn't harbor fear for her very existence, but Camilla simply called her mother; not to her face, but even then she was one of a handful that could address the general familiarly without being considered foolish for doing so.

"At ease, girl." Beatrix seated herself two stools away from Evangeline without sparing her a glance. "I don't walk into taverns to deal with insubordination." She raised one finger to the bartender and the undine prepared her a pint. When the beer was passed over to her she brought a talon like finger to the rim of the mug and traced a half circle before letting her hand rest on the counter gently. "Though if you had been so concerned about the consequences of violating the curfew you wouldn't be at a tavern at this hour." She turned her head halfway to regard Evangeline with her uncovered eye. "You're more concerned about how you being caught might affect Camilla's credibility, however, if you'd been thinking clearly at the time you opened your window to sneak out you would have remained in your room."

Sensing that her pause meant that she was awaiting some sort of response, Evangeline opted for one. "You know me." She didn't question it because it was clear already by the way Beatrix tied her to Camilla that she knew a fair deal.

"There are few who haven't heard about you by now." Beatrix told her, turning on the stool to cross a leg as she faced her. "McDowell the 'Golem Slayer' is the name going around at present; surely nothing more than a place holder for grander titles to come. Camilla always had an uncanny knack for attracting extraordinary individuals."

Evangeline glanced at the general's beer, at this point appearing to her more as a stage prop than a beverage given how it was so far being ignored in favor of conversation. Beatrix didn't come here for a drink. She was here to see her, but what interest did a woman of her position and power have with the likes of a common knight?

Beatrix went on as Evangeline studied her in silence, her anxieties beginning to rise in the face of such a dilemma. "The Elman girl has followed her since they were children, and the young Tepes heir fights beside her to see how long she can hold on to her resolve to fight for a people that aren't her own. McVicar–" A twitch came to Evangeline's brow at the mention of that one, "–just appears to be along for the sake of experience, and the young Slade fights because she has grown attached to her sisters in arms and has nothing else more worthwhile to pull her away." The general's eye, up to this point in the conversation a window that bared nothing for Evangeline to see, had something flicker through it for a moment. It made the knight uncomfortable to detect an emotion in this woman because it meant that this talk really had something personal at stake. "No one is selfless, McDowell, and you in particular do not seem the sort to do anything without something to gain in return. You are also not enlisted and can only be seen as a wandering mercenary for all purposes, but you do not follow the trend of one. You do not ask for payment like any sellsword would, and it was you who sought out Camilla, fighting through the war grounds to find her which could only mean that you had been observing her movements from a distance up to that moment. It was not a chance encounter."

Evangeline felt herself begin to sweat under the gaining momentum of her words.

"She also turned you away the first time you offered your services, but you refused to leave her." Beatrix took a moment of silence to study the expression of the girl sitting across from her before asking the question she had been leading up toward, "What is it that you expect to gain from Camilla? She has no wealth, power, or influence over anything. I doubt she can grant you anything at all beyond her companionship."

"I want nothing more than that." Evangeline answered in a low voice, and to her credit it managed to take Beatrix aback, as momentary it was.

"I can only say that your answer makes your case even more difficult to believe." Beatrix said after recovering from the shock. "And it does not paint the picture of sanity for one when they claim to walk the valley of the dead in search of one's hand in friendship. Meeting her on the street would have sufficed."

"I want to find a place in the world to call my own and I know that she can grant me that." Evangeline retorted. "I'd known that since the first time I laid eyes on her, and I had her promise me that much when I did. Knowing that I could finally show her that I was deserving of that pushed me on to come after her in that valley of death." The knight brought her mug to her lips for a swig before clapping it down on the counter with more force than she intended. "So far she has shown herself to be a woman of her word. I'm grateful for that."

Beatrix nodded a few times to herself at the young girl's response, bringing a finger to her own lips for a moment before slowly pointing it toward Evangeline, eyes narrowing imperceptibly as something truly frightening left her mouth, "And you are willing to take her life for that desire to be fulfilled."

Evangeline froze, a part of her wondering if she heard that correctly. "...What?"

"You realize that when it begins to talk to you it never intends to fall silent again." The reaction was immediate. Evangeline's back straightened out as though an electric current ran through her, and she stood forward to reach out for the general, but the other woman's hand shot out and gripped her wrist firmly. Beatrix rose from her own seat to the growing panic of the undine bartender, standing a good two heads taller than Evangeline, and threw the blonde knight's arm to the side before using the same hand that gripped her wrist to grab her by the neck in a motion too quick to defend against. Beatrix lifted her from the ground slowly, staring her in the eye the entire time.

"GWUH!" Evangeline cried out when Beatrix walked her to the wall and held her against it with no visible effort on her part. "Hnk–uhk..." She reached up with both hands to grip the general's wrist in a vain attempt to pry the hand free from her neck. "...Y...You know..." She groaned out when it finally became apparent that struggling would do her no good. Her vision was beginning to swim with dots. "You know!" She snarled as best she could.

"I know the smell of that darkness." Beatrix began, never loosening her grip as she went on, "And you reek of it, girl. It is unfortunate that such a thing was passed on to you. You will suffer for it, have no illusions that it will pass from you quietly."

"Passed on?" Evangeline's legs stopped kicking.

"I was present when the darkness was given form." Beatrix lifted her higher against the wall. "I saw it when it possessed my lord and comrades, and I see now that it can be passed on to others. You are proof of that, girl, and it has confirmed something that I have been mulling over for many years. I do not like my answer." She dropped Evangeline to the ground and the released girl sank against the wall until she could only stare up at her in a daze. "You think it is something that you posses, that it is your tool to use. You embrace this power because it puts you above others and gives you peace of mind in a world of uncertainty in such times of war, but know this–it is not yours for it has no master. It pledges no loyalty."

Evangeline brought a hand up to her own neck to massage it, not offering a word of reply as she continued to stare up with half-lidded eyes.

Beatrix crouched down, her cloak falling around her like thick black tendrils curling along the floor. "It extends its hand out not in friendship, but as bait to pull you in, and should you continue to consort with this darkness you will put other lives at stake."

"C-Camilla?" Evangeline rasped out.

"I will let you in on a secret." Beatrix leaned in, devouring the knight in her shadow. "I know what it is you feel for Camilla. I have loved that foolish girl for longer than I myself have realized, and I regret that the opportunity to show that to her has slipped through my fingers. I will carry that regret until I meet my end...if I am lucky it will be by the end of her blade."

"You are her mother?" A vicious heat began to simmer in Evangeline's chest.

"I am not." The general answered. "I was given the chance to be that once and I squandered the years in detachment for fear of accepting it. I raised the girl not as a woman, but as a soldier and I will never hear her call me 'mother' because of that."

"...I see."

"And that is why I intend to protect her while I still can." Beatrix's face came even closer as her voice lowered to a haunting whisper. "I have no right to speak, but I am a selfish woman at heart, a hypocrite, and will undoubtedly become something far worse in time. If you value Camilla more than this place you seek in the world, then you will leave her side for her sake."

"Why?" Evangeline cried sharply, unwilling to accept such advice.

"Because she is the sort of girl that will see the good in a monster." Beatrix answered her, pointing a finger to her one final time. "Even if it turns on her when it counts most." She stood up and turned away from Evangeline, her cloak flapping loudly with the motion. "And tragedy always does strike when it counts most, McDowell." She began to walk away, still talking as she got farther toward the door of the tavern. "I should pity you, girl. We appear to walk the same path after all." She placed her hand on the tavern door and stopped, looking over her shoulder. "You needn't worry about those who were following you. After seeing me walk out they will have wisely decided against their schemes, so have a beer on me while you ponder my words. Farewell, McDowell." She took her leave.

Evangeline made no visible effort to move from her place hunched against the wall. She kept her eyes to the floor, her head bowed in a way that made it appear as if she was sleeping. "What right?" She asked no one. I'm here because I refused to be put down. "To call me a monster." I've earned my place with Camilla. "No fault of mine." I wasn't given a choice to become this. "My decision." I won't allow anymore choices to be made for me. "That bitch." You lost your chance, old woman.

"Ungh." Evangeline placed her weight against the wall and slid up against it to get back to her feet.

"I suppose that beer is yours now." The undine told her, pointing to the untouched mug that Beatrix left behind. Despite being present for what just happened a moment ago she appeared quite unaffected.

Evangeline shook her head and righted herself before walking to the door. "Forget about it." She pushed the door open to walk out and stopped in front of the tavern as the door swung closed behind her. A cold mist expelled from her mouth with one long exhale and the fresh scent of wet soil filled her nostrils as drops of rain fell to the earth in a steadily building succession. "Far too appropriate." She muttered to herself disgustedly, turning to her right to head back on her way toward the inn, but her legs stopped just as she placed a foot in front of her to begin the trek back to the inn.

"The fates offer no reprieve for me this night, it would seem." She muttered darkly, eyes fixed on the approaching form of her seemingly unshakable meddler. Why this woman refused to leave her be, Evangeline had given up on making sense of it in fear of driving herself mad to tears. She had nothing to give, nor was she willing to give anything to her, and she made that clear to her on many occasions, yet still this woman reached out to her always with that mysterious smile that vexed her so.

"Are you daft, girl?" Evangeline began, fixing a mask of indifference on her face to veil her tumultuous state of mind. "I have my own immunity provided to cover my ass, but you're certainly in no position to be walking the streets at this hour."

Lucinda McVicar grinned in response, waving her concerns aside with a few flicks of her hand as was her way when Seraphina Elman 'nagged' at her. "I've already taken care of that, Eva. No need to fret for me."

"Hmph." Evangeline proceeded forward, brushing past her fellow knight rudely to go on ahead of her. "It's not you that I'm concerned about, McVicar."

Lucinda laughed softly. "I know." She turned around to follow Evangeline back. "However, you did manage to worry me, you naughty girl. Leaving in the middle of the night, and through the window of your room." The sultry knight went on dramatically with a flourish of her hands as she came up beside Evangeline. "If you were that bored in your room you could have called me in to entertain you."

Evangeline glared at her, put off by how casual she went about it all. "I don't see why you followed after me." She hissed, eyes narrowing agitatedly. Can't you see that I'm in no mood for your usual games, you harlot? "You're only making things worse by doing so."

"I can take care of myself." Lucinda assured her nonchalantly.

For some reason that response was all it took to crack the mask she had been maintaining up to that point, screaming, "And you believe me incapable of doing the same?!" She stopped walking, turning to Lucinda with a violent throw down of her left hand.

Lucinda didn't respond with aversion as Evangeline hoped she would. "That isn't it at all." She told her smoothly, reaching out to gently hold Evangeline's left hand as it trembled at her side. "It's just what friends do. We try to look after each other no matter the risk."

Evangeline slipped her left hand out of Lucinda's grasp with a tug. "That is where you keep getting it wrong, Lucinda." She pointed a finger at her with a scowl. "We are not friends. I do not want to be your friend. You are an annoyance!" She pushed out the hand she pointed to her with and shoved her back, advancing on her to shove her again and again as she continued vehemently, "You bother me! I am never at peace when you're around!"

"Evangeline–" Lucinda tried to get another word in only to be shoved back again, almost slipping to the ground from the force behind it.

"But you keep at it! You keep at my heels like some keening mutt!" She made one final shove and Lucinda's back slammed against a wall behind her. "What will it take for you to understand that I do not like you?! What will it take for you to get it through your thick skull that–" Evangeline wanted to scream at her more, but her throat finally tightened up to the point of strangling any further attempts of venting her anger and frustration. Instead she made a fist and punched the wall beside Lucinda's head, teeth bared and shoulders shivering as the light drizzle finally picked up coming down on the both of them fiercely.

Both of them stared back into each others eyes in a profound silence, their hair drenched and slick against their faces. Lucinda could see Evangeline coming close to the point of hyperventilating, but her sharp breaths were dead to her ears in the deluge, wild yet peaceful.

Lucinda held up a hand to the side of Evangeline's face, tucking a few strands hanging wet in front of her face behind her ear before resting it on her cheek. Evangeline's eyes closed slowly from the surprisingly warm touch and she shrunk back ever so slightly, the wrinkles of tension in her nose, chin and brow giving away to relax. "The rain won't hide you from me, Evangeline." Lucinda kept the other woman from turning her head away when she said that. "Your tears weigh heavier than any of those falling from the heavens."

Evangeline fell against her bowing her face into her shoulder, and Lucinda held her, back still pressed against the wall from being leaned against.

"I don't want to leave." Evangeline wrapped her arms around Lucinda and gripped her as though she would be sucked away into the abyss had she loosened her hold in the slightest. "I'm tired of it, you know? I'm tried of traveling alone."

"Oh, Eva, you're not alone." Lucinda massaged her fingers into her hair. "I keep telling you that."

"You only say that because you're ignorant of it."

"Of what?"

"Of my real nature." Evangeline told her gravely. "The monster that I am."

"No." Lucinda attempted to soothe her by stroking her head. "You don't realize what you're saying."

Evangeline tried to pull away, but Lucinda held her securely, never letting her go. "I know what it is I am! I think I've been aware of it for a while now!" She bowed her head again. "I've just been ignoring it out of greed." She breathed in long and slow, exhaling with another drawn out shiver. "I've hidden it away so I could blend in and partake of undeserving pleasures; things not meant for me."

"You don't know what nonsense you're babbling on about, Eva." Lucinda spoke to her comfortingly, her lips to the blonde's ear. "Monsters don't have what you do. They don't have the strong feelings that you express, the tears that you shed in your plea for a family. They lack the sense of self you possess, your desire for acceptance in a world even as it tumbles down around us. They know nothing of the passion you exude, burning brilliantly like a fighting flame in the creeping darkness." She hugged her tightly. "What do they know of hopes, Eva; of dreams or ambitions? I could not love a monster as I love you, Evangeline McDowell, because they lack all of the things that make you so beautiful. Don't cheapen yourself, girl. You do the same to all of those that keep you in their hearts."

She hated Lucinda's knack for the right words. "You say such ridiculous things."

"To keep denying is ridiculous." Lucinda retorted. "I do not hold you now out of false feelings. To accuse me of such trickery is insulting enough."

"Ahhh." Evangeline lifted her head, her mood somewhat improved by her war sister's words. "But I should tell you that if your hands fall any further you will be in need of some comforting, Lucinda."

"Granted that you're the one providing it, I don't much care for the consequences, Evangeline." Lucinda smiled.

Evangeline found it within herself to smile back, genuine and true without pretense. "Don't count on it, friend."


[F] {V} [A]


Five days he'd been with her as her captive, observing her, admiring her for the brilliant, conniving woman she was and appreciating the beauty she unashamedly possessed, but only now at this very moment as Chao Xue extended her hand out to him to help him off the ground, did he really see her for who she truly was in the grand scheme. Only now as she donned the combat suit that was in all ways too similar to the one that Chao Lingshen had been outfitted with on the zeppelin did Negi Springfield understand that this person was the amazing individual that would one day bring his beloved, former student into the world as her newborn daughter. It once again affirmed something that had long ago entered his mind since the moment he had first met her in the restaurant; this woman was important to him, possibly even precious to him as a valued friend if Lingshen's claim of his relationship with her was indeed true.

While it may have been true that this same person did at one point threaten him with torture and went as far as to take him as an unwilling captive, promising him a decidedly unpleasant end had he attempted some manner of escape before she was done using him as her personal guinea pig, he knew she couldn't have been such a bad person. He'd seen her for the person she truly was, how she was a mother to the girls that worked for her, the playful and charming person she could be when she dropped her guard at such times as the night before when they cooked together as equals and perhaps as two friends. (Assuming that even that wasn't an act on her part to ensure that he would not leave the restaurant before her tests were finished. Admittedly, Negi still found her to be a little untrustworthy in the department of character.) Not only that, but she had returned for him in his time of need. That had to count for something, didn't it? (Though, as Chachazero had put it time and again, she was Lingshen's mother. No disrespect to his former student, but...ah...)

"That look." Negi's expression betrayed him. The words out of Xue's mouth as she helped him to his feet were proof of how naked his emotions must have been to her sharp eyes. "You've known me not longer than a week and already you're looking at me so tenderly." The left corner of her mouth curled upward, lips parting to reveal a grin. "Oh, how you fascinate me, Negi. I receive more stimulation from you in days than I get in months."

Flustered by her teasing, Negi ran a hand down his face to forcibly wipe the look from it before clearing his throat. As much as he hated to admit to it he was relieved that Xue intervened when she did. That Sheik Muhammad fellow was without a doubt a character above the usual grade that he was used to dealing with on ocassion, perhaps even up there with the likes of Evangeline McDowell and her old associate Lucinda McVicar. Any confirmation of that being true was something Negi wasn't too eager to find out first hand, though given the circumstances of his current predicament he wasn't going to get out of this one unless he drove to man away by force. Confirmation was coming whether he wanted it or not.

Putting that aside for the moment–"What was that?" Negi's expression betrayed his feelings yet again. Xue's amusement at his incredulous tone was visible just as well. She was the sort that took pride in her own ability to elicit such reactions after all. "You just sent him flying over the lawn and across the street!" Could it have been some kind of martial arts technique he'd never been educated about? He couldn't help what came out of his mouth next. "You're just a regular woman!"

It might have just been his imagination, but Xue's smile appeared to twist horribly for an instant after she received that careless remark, taking the features of what resembled a demonic Noh mask. Just his imagination, of course.

Xue took a fistful of his white shirt into her left gauntlet, pulling him face to face with her. "What is that supposed to mean, Mage?" She hissed at him through a grin all but friendly. "Making light of me because I'm human?"

Negi raised both hands with a shake of his head, "That's not what I meant! I mean, I'm human-" Not entirely true he realized at that moment. "Well, er, what I mean to say is..."

"Yes?" Xue asked, deadpan expression gracing her lovely features.

"That man isn't going to fall easily." Negi explained, his voice transitioning seamlessly from flustered to serious all too quickly for the scientist to believe she was carrying on an exchange with the same person. "I don't know how you managed what you did, but if we're going to get out of this..."

"We're?" Xue's tone was curious. "You mean you're going to stay around?"

Negi flinched at the absurdity of her daring to even question his decision. How could it even be a valid thought process? There was no way he was going to leave her to combat this man on her own. "Xue, you're not doing this alone."

"This really isn't any of your business, you know." The scientist grumbled, averting her eyes from his. "I've already dealt with this sort of folk, long before you ever dropped by."

"I believe you made it my business when you took me captive." He retorted. "Sorry to make this personal, but as long as you're in danger I won't stand by or turn my back. You're my responsibility."

She met his eyes again. "What makes me your responsibility?"

"We're friends, aren't we?" Negi grinned at her, reflecting on the irony of such words. From the way his grin was returned it appeared that Xue was in on the joke too.

"Negi, something tells me that the restaurant is going to feel lonely when you leave us." Her words were genuinely heartfelt, a rarity indeed. "Makes me regret removing that collar from your neck."

"It could have done just fine without the inclusion of that final part." Negi sighed at her lack of consideration for wordplay. Their moment was short lived, not that the young magister expected it to last very long, as Xue's attention was drawn away from him to the inquisitor Sheik Muhammad standing across the street from the restaurant beside the bent light pole that had originally been standing upright before the lovely scientist sent him on an unscheduled rendezvous with it. By the look on his face he'd been hit with something thought provoking, perhaps in the literal sense in this case.

"No disrespect to you, but I'll have to sympathize with the young man there." Sheik began, bringing a hand to the side of his head to scratch at it, head slightly tilted. "I think that kick you'd given me might very well bruise." He rubbed his left side to emphasize his words. "I didn't come prepared for bruises."

"Nice to see that your humor is intact, inquisitor." Xue responded with a decidedly luke warm tone. "I'll be sure to break that in time along with your body."

Sheik pressed a hand to his back, using his other hand to wag a finger at Xue with a an all too sincere expression. "I don't doubt it, Xue. You do seem capable, but..." He righted himself, cracking his back in place. "Don't expect me to take a beating without getting one in return."

"I'm a big girl..." Xue bared her teeth with a malicious grin. "And I know the rules." The Chinese scientist placed her hands on her hips as she walked down the side of the lawn toward the sidewalk of the street so that she stood across from her adversary. Sheik reached up to loosen the tie around his neck and undo a few buttons as he sized her up with a mild stare. "Still, before I am a woman I am a scientist, and in the face of danger I cannot help but revel in the risks that are stacked against me by waging my life against yours, inquisitor. What you see before you is a prototype that is still in the experimental stage!" Xue waved her hands over her own curves, supple and made all the more apparent by the skintight battle suit that hugged her body like a glove. "Even now it is capable of bending the laws of time and space. Where you're from I suppose that is a form of sorcery."

Sheik almost scoffed, but he did a job well done of restraining himself. "You'll excuse me for the skepticism. Sorcery is a lost art even to the greatest masters of the magical disciplines; the only beings capable of wielding such might transcend the plane of human existence and fall further into the world of myth by todays standards."

Xue clasped her hands together jovially with a laugh. "Demons and gods?"

"So they are called."

"Then, good sir–" What happened as she replied was nothing short of unbelievable because teleportation was by no means an incredible feat. It was an art favored by many practitioneers of the magical arts and so Sheik was very familiar with most if not all variations of teleportation and dimensional bending. He'd tested his might against beings that dwelled in the darkest reaches of the underworld and of those that stood at the loftiest spires of the kingdoms of ascension and yet with all of his experience with such awesome existences he wasn't prepared for what Xue had just done. "–what can I be but a demon?"

"Ah." The inquisitor responded heedlessly, realizing at that moment that she had always been behind him somehow even when she had been standing before him. Whatever it was, this power that she brought into the mundane world with her brilliance, it granted her the power to reign over time wherever it was present. "That is unreal."

"Master Negi," Chachazero called to her master from the top of his head, whose body went still as a rock at what he had just witnessed. "This might be our cue to run in and start the fight." She tapped him hard on the forehead to reel him back into the present state of affairs, managing a blink out of him. "Whaddya think?"

"A false start might work against us in this situation." Negi retorted in a whisper, eyes trained on Sheik and Xue while they had their verbal spar. "We still don't know what he's capable of. Shouldn't we draw him out first to get a better handle of what we're up against?"

"And that little tussle in the restaurant counted for what?" The puppet quipped. "Foreplay?"

"He wasn't trying to kill me that time." The young magister shot back. "Now that Xue has been drawn out into the fight I'm sure that is going to change." He narrowed one eye slightly. "Then there's that weird occurrence that took place a little earlier. Did you notice it?"

"You mean how his spell got neutralized before he could blow us sky high?" Chachazero humored her master, resting her chin in one hand while she held out the other. "Yep. Couldn't let that one slip by me."

Negi nodded. "So I didn't imagine that after all." He did a neck roll and worked out a kink in his upper back. "I'm willing to bet that was Xue's doing."

"Best bet, although it'd be nice to know how the hell she pulled that off."

"I'm more worried about whether its affected me as well." Negi said, observing closely as Xue reappeared in her original place across the street from a bemused Sheik. "Close quarters combat with that man isn't exactly the battle plan I had in mind. If Xue's found some way to neutralize our ability to cast spells there won't be any other choice left to me though." His eyes narrowed. "The evening won't come rolling in quietly."

"How about we ask her about it?" His faithful partner proposed sensibly enough. "Fair enough?"

Negi jogged up next to Xue and the first thing he heard upon reaching her was, "We'll crush him together then."

Negi's mind could only draw a complete blank in response. True, that technically was the plan, though he wondered if they would be able to go so far as to 'crush' Sheik Muhammad as Xue so confidently put. Then again she had just gotten behind her own assailant and back without the man realizing a thing. Even now the inquisitor had an expression on his face that held the middle ground between wonder and disbelief. In short he was still trying to process what had just happened.

Still– "Xue, I still need to know one thing."

The lovely scientist almost sighed out, but she turned her head to regard him. "And what is that?" She seemed awfully impatient to charge in and fight. He figured her for the tactician more than the warrior; must have figured wrong.

"Did you raise an anti-magic field?" The young magister inquired, having a guess at what it might have been called. Anti-magic field? Anti-magic barrier? The former just sounded better in his opinion.

"You caught that, hmm?" Her expression flashed a smirk of pride, perhaps to the fact that her lab assistant caught on to her scheme. "Not a field, Negi. I'd explain in more detail, but there's no time. All you need to know is that my suit draws out its power based on the mana content in the area. Every time you or the inquisitor draw raw mana to cast a spell you refine it into pure destructive power that my suit quickly identifies before absorbing it and..." Xue held her left gauntlet up to eye level and a circular lense opened at the back of her hand revealing a watch-like mechanism built within. "Providing power to my Cassiopeia. Still in the experimental phase at the moment." She tacked on the last part in a hurried mumble, sounding embarrassed when she did.

"So my own magic is useless to me." Negi responded flatly. No really, why not? I didn't expect it to be easy, so why be angry? Why? Why? Why–

"Master." Chachazero kindly roused him out of his developing madness mantra. Negi's brow twitched.

"Your magic isn't useless to me." Xue informed him. "I'll be relying on you to keep my suit powered."

"So you want me to cast spells at random?" That'll exhaust me.

"I'll cue you in when I need a recharge. If I'm lucky the inquisitor won't have caught on yet."

Negi couldn't resist it. "You seem awfully dependent on luck, Xue. Next you'll be telling me about your superstitions." He deadpanned, delighting Chachazero with his rare display of open sarcasm.

A vein nearly bulged on Xue's forehead. "Still in the experimental–ah, whatever! I'm...trusting you." Judging by the way she said it it must have been hard for her to squeeze out such a humble line. "I feel like I can trust you."

Negi did a good job of masking the weight that those simple words dropped on his shoulders. The last time he heard such words they came out of Chisame Hasegawa's mouth and the turn out of that night was simply shameful; a blackspot that would remain in his heart forever like a cancerous growth. Something tells me that you don't impart those words on just anybody, Xue.

He hesitated, staring into her eyes–"You can trust me." The words came out, but his stomach twisted all the same. He turned away from Xue to direct his attention toward the enemy. His expression became apologetic. "Sorry for the hold up."

Sheik was caught off guard by the genuine apology, crossing his arms with a shake of his head. "Don't sweat it." He casually waved off with one hand. "The longer I stay away from my employer the better." He looked aside with a grumble. "Believe me."

"Round two, then?" Negi asked, getting a good natured laugh out of the man.

"Don't have much of choice, I'd say." The inquisitor shrugged.

"Couldn't have said it better!" The magister left Xue's side in a flash, kicking up grass and dirt in his charge toward the inquisitor and the entire time he was closing the distance between him and the imposing man all Negi could think of was how this entire situation resembled the idea of an impending train all in reverse. That was to say he was coming after the train like a suicidal martyr.

I don't see any openings! Negi clenched his teeth, studying the man's body language for something to exploit, but Sheik remained as still as could be, returning the stare with a calm air about him. He was far more ready than Negi would ever be. Not a comforting sign, but– "She's trusting me!" The young magister stopped short in front of the inquisitor with a straight jab to the center of the body.

His fist was caught by Sheik's open hand, held firmly to keep him from pulling back. "You're a little older than Ender from the looks of it."

"Hugh!" Negi whipped his hips and landed a kick to the inquisitor's side to break free. Seeing the man stumble to the side from the sudden blow instilled confidence in the young vampire. I can do this.

Jumping in the air Negi whipped around with a spin kick to Sheik's face, missing the first kick when the agent dodged backwards and regretting it when his other leg was caught firmly with both hands. He was caught like a struggling fish dangling from a hook.

"You're obviously trained!" Sheik grunted before slamming Negi to the ground with enough force to cave the concrete in. The impact momentarily dazed the vampire getting a cry from his familiar to return to his senses. "But–" He shifted his grip on the young man's leg in preparation to break it. His hold was released not a moment later when there was a sudden crack; Xue's boot met the man's face with the roll of thunder and Sheik, for once, looked as though he had been dealt a sound blow, reaching up with one hand to hold his face as his legs fought to return to him.

"Hey, watch the goods on him!" Xue took on a stance to charge the recovering Mage, a stance that was all too familiar to Negi. This was getting awfully nostalgic. "I'm beginning to grow fond of him!" Her movements defied everything that should have been conventionally allowed by mundane standards. She invaded Sheik's personal space before he could take any defensive maneuvers to combat her sudden onslaught of blows.

Her fists pounded his ribs, slipping past any movements he could make to parry. He tried to rely on his leg work to get some breathing space, but she kept on advancing inward keeping on the pressure. She danced with him, their legs crossing, clashing, stepping in and around one another. Their hands grasped at each other; straight jabs, feints, and parries.

"This–ungh!" Sheik swayed to the left, wincing when Xue's knee met his left side to keep him in a direct line with her punches. He grinned at her in spite of his bizarre predicament. The stories were true after all. "Is unreal–guh!" He was almost taken off the ground by an uppercut to his abdomen.

Xue bared her teeth with a wild smile looking for all the world like a bloodthirsty predator. "It's called science!" She stepped in, turning her hips with an elbow jab to his chin. Sheik's head was thrown back by the blow. "Your magic falls before its might!" She whipped around with a roundhouse knocking the inquisitor's body to the side with ferocious kick. "Just as you will fall before me–huh?" Her triumphant boasting stopped short when she found that her foot was gripped in Sheik's right hand. He caught it out of reflex and by the expression on his face he wasn't sure how he managed it himself.

The Mage rose a brow, using his free hand to rub his jaw. "Ran out of gas, dear?"

What happened?! Xue quickly raised the back of her left gauntlet to eye level to check the status of her Cassiopeia. The energy readings were in the critical zone. Looks like I got too carried away with her! She turned her head and cried out, "Negi!"

At Xue's call Sheik's instincts told him to direct his attention upward and was rewarded for it. Negi came sailing downward upon his head with a kick that should have split his head perfectly down the middle if given the opening to connect with the intended target. Releasing Xue's foot the inquisitor crossed both arms over his head to block the axe kick giving the scientist the opportunity she needed to retreat.

Sheik pulled back his arms after foiling the young magister's dynamic entry and made to punish him for it as he still hung in the air from the deflected blow. "Spirit of the devouring flame, cleanse my foes!" A crack of fire sparked Shiek's open palm as he direct it at Negi and the oxygen in the space surrounding the vampire was alight within seconds of the incantation.

"Master!" Chachazero could already taste the imminent danger they were in. "He casted a spell!"

Magic?! But how?! Negi reacted just as the flames converged to envelop him in its unforgiving fury. "A bulwark of the blessed light! Shield me!" An orb of unseen magical properties wrapped around him, valiantly fighting against the flames to protect its young master, but the engorging inferno proved to be quite intense. Cracks began to form all around the surface of the light barrier.

"A dark magister calling upon the spirits of light?" Sheik taunted Negi as the light barrier began to crumple inward against the pushing flames. "Methinks you're pretending to be something you're not."

Negi pulled back one arm as if preparing to throw a spear at the inquisitor, one leg raised while his other foot pointed down as if to aim for the target. "I'll take it into consideration!" Completing the wordless incantation within his mind, a lance of darkness materialized in Negi's hand piercing the barrier on both sides with its length. Curses engraved in an old forgotten language marked every inch of the lance burning red hot with the eternal hatred of vengeful spirits.

Pierced by the cursed lance, Negi's barrier shattered and the inferno moved in to swallow him–"Hyaaah!"–The young man's arm was faster. He sent the lance screaming downward into the inquisitor's face and the flames were extinguished by the presence of a newly erected barrier.

"That's more like it!" Sheik commended Negi, pride ringing true in his voice like a pleased instructor. "Don't fear the darkness, Springfield!" His hair danced with the force of the two powers clashing against one another. His barrier held still against the ever screaming lance until something odd took place.

"Hm?" Sheik rose a brow as he seemed ever prone to do when something noteworthy took place within his sights. Negi's lance, as if finally acknowledging the barrier as an impenetrable foe, switched gears abruptly. Instead of outright trying to run itself through the barrier as had proved useless up till now it began to spin, drilling through the barrier as a result with astounding efficiency. "I didn't think you were capable." The inquisitor spoke calmly as the drilling lance literally began to melt a hole in his defenses. His expression reflected his demeanor until Negi threw a hand back and summoned four more lances exactly like it over his head.

"And I appreciate that." Negi threw his hand down in Sheik's general direction and the lances shot down at his command.

The inquisitor's seemingly impenetrable barrier shattered inward under the strike of all five projectiles–"Oh."–and completely obliterated the ground where he stood in a great explosion of smoke and debris just as he came to realize the gravity of the situation.

Negi landed in front of the great cloud of dust, shoulders rising and falling quickly as he caught his breath. "That did it?"

Gripping his hair uncertainly, Chachazero found that she couldn't provide him with a definite answer. "Keep on your guard!"

"That was splendid, Negi!" Xue cried out to him from the distance. Negi chanced a look at her, smiling in response when–"Watch out!" The lovely scientist's face contorted with panic.

Giving into instinct alone Negi leaned back as he turned to face the dust cloud again. Shiek's hand missed Negi's neck by the edge of his fingernails, closing savagely around thin air just before the rest of him emerged from the cloud still covered in a shroud of smoke.

"Ah!" Negi kicked back a second time when the smoke dissipated to reveal a shirtless Sheik coming at him fast, his upper body revealed to be a mass of lean sculpted muscle and battle scars that the clothes so deceptively kept hidden from sight. The man was more of a warrior than the young magister initially believed him to be.

"The Thousand Master should be proud!" Sheik cried out in exaltation, slamming a fist into the street. The concrete superheated until a river of fire gushed forth in a straight beeline for Negi. The young magister's hair was thrown back by the intense heat wave, eyes squinting for a way of escape.

"Monster." Xue could think of no other word of description, biting her lip as she watched Negi throw himself out of the way of the molten river just barely. She looked at her left gauntlet, sweat forming at her forehead more from the rising anxiety than the intense heat. "How much longer, dammit?!" Two minutes till it cooled down, exactly.

"Oh, Eva!" Negi cried out, holding five dark arrows in reserve with a wordless incantation. "If you could see me now!" He waited for Sheik to advance on him again before letting them loose one by one in steady succession.

Shiek's movements were quick and precise. One roundhouse to kick one arrow back in Negi's direction.

Negi ran forward to meet the inquisitors charge, smacking the returned arrow aside without so much as an afterthought as he pumped his legs.

Sheik followed his roundhouse with a jump in the air, twisting his hips as he did to preform a spin kick that returned two more dark arrows to their caster.

Negi weaved right and left in between both of them, continuing his charge with a determined glare that belied his youth. The entire time his mouth moved wordlessly.

Seeing Negi closing in to meet him Sheik increased the pace of his charge, swatting aside the fourth dark arrow. He held his hand out to go so far as to catch the fifth and final arrow, but just as it came within his reach it swerved out of the way at the last moment and shot upward, exploding and expanding into a portal angled at Sheik's back.

"Another trick?!" Sheik cried out in amusement, readying his fist to pound his coming adversary.

Bringing both hands together to form a rat seal (Taking a page from Kaede's teachings), Negi scowled finding it hard to share in the amusement. "Give it time!" He screamed humorlessly. Whipping out his right hand to unveil three shadow kunai tucked between his fingers he dodged Sheik's left hook by rolling underneath the force of the vicious swing and spun around just as Sheik whipped around to face him to throw the knives crafted from dark magic at the inquisitors shadow. It took a moment for the older mage to realize what he had just done.

"Ninjutsu?" Sheik questioned incredulously.

Negi finally smirked. "I had a good teacher." He performed a shundo to put as much distance as possible between him and Sheik so he could perform the next phase of his trap. "Many good teachers!" It was at that point that the inquisitor's attention was returned to the portal that was opened earlier as Negi finished his silent incantation out loud. "Seven hundred and seventy seven spirits of darkness! Come and strike mine enemy!" The portal seemed to let out a horrible roar in response to its master's invocation.

"I really like you, kid." Was the last words out of Sheik Muhammad's mouth before all seven hundred and seventy seven arrows came screeching out of the portal in a salvo, raining destruction upon his immobilized form like a swarm of angry crows. The chain of explosions should have, by all means, caused a violent stir from the residents of the town, but as it had become apparent to Negi after attacking with his cursed lance, Sheik must have placed a charm around the area surrounding the restaurant to ward off the attention of would be mundane witnesses. Not that it would do much to cover the expenses of all the damages when everything was said and done.

"Incoming!" Chachazero's alert saved Negi from a dark arrow to the face as it came shooting toward him from the dust cloud that enveloped the inquisitor. It was followed by another and another until they were coming back at Negi in a barrage.

"This guy doesn't give up!" Negi growled, readying himself to return the barrage of arrows screaming toward him, but-

"Don't let those go to waste!" Xue stepped in front of him causing an immediate panic in the young vampire.

"Xue! Get out of the way!" Negi gripped her shoulder to get her behind him, wincing when she pinched his hand to get it off.

"Hey." She smiled at him over her shoulder, holding out her left hand to the fast approaching arrows still in the process of being returned. "Stop trying to be so cool. This is my chance to shine!"

"Give it a moment." Chachazero quipped from the top of Negi's head. "You'll be giving off quite a glow in just a few seconds."

"I keep forgetting that you can talk." Xue responded flatly to the mean spirited comment. "So unscientific."

"I keep forgetting that you can walk." The sadistic puppet shot back. "I can fix that though."

"The arrows!" Negi brought both ladies back to the urgent matter of their approaching doom.

"As I said!" The Cassiopeia Zero activated once more and Xue's left gauntlet began to whir. "Under control!" And just as she claimed, the arrows no longer posed a considerable threat to them. Breaking down into raw mana before their very eyes, all of the energy swirled into Xue's hand as if drawn toward a drain combining together to give form to an orb of pure energy that sat within her palm like a burning ember.

"Brilliant, aren't I?" She closed her hand around the orb and it was absorbed directly into the suit through her gauntlet. "This should keep me going again for a good while."

"That's unnatural on so many levels." Negi grumbled, unsure what to make of the fact that all of his conjured arrows were just stolen away so effortlessly.

"Only because its innovative." Xue retorted with a wag of her finger. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Mage to grind into dust." She vanished like a mirage and the next thing Negi heard was grunts of pain from the dust cloud that had yet to dissipate from Sheik's position.

"She's a wicked one isn't she?" Chachazero remarked. "Lingshen's father must have been one tough son of a bitch to handle a snake like her."

"You know, I get the impression that you just don't like her." Negi said, proceeding over to the cloud.

"And I get the impression that you're turning into a walking example of Stockholm Syndrome."

"Will you ever forgive her?"

"Never."

"Enough of this!" Negi and Chachazero halted their conversation when an unfamiliar voice cried out from within the dust cloud. It was undoubtedly feminine, but Negi was certain that it didn't come from Xue.

"Xue!" Negi threw all caution to the wind and ran in only to be thrown back when a body collided into him without warning. Skidding across the street from the force of the impact Negi looked down to see that he was indeed holding Xue in his arms. "Xue?!"

"Huuk!" The lovely scientist gasped for air, holding her stomach. "She appeared from thin air." She choked out. "A woman holding a slab of metal."

"From thin air?" Negi questioned, a feeling of dread settling in the pit of his stomach. "Could it be another Mage?"

A strong gust of wind erupted from within the dust cloud clearing it away. When it was gone Negi saw Sheik standing beside a slightly tanned buxom woman dressed in an armored two piece bikini that did little to conceal the immodesty of her generous bosom, for lack of a more appropriate word, (If not for all the muscle on her body Negi would have figured her incapable of standing upright) or her lovely buttocks. Her silver, gem encrusted bracers or greaves did nothing to help with the imagination of all who layed eyes upon her tantalizing physique. Other noteworthy features were her dark pink mane of hair dancing proudly in the wind and her long, pointed ears.

"An elf?" Negi thought he'd seen everything. "An actual elf?"

"We're officially tangling with the big leagues now." Chachazero said a little too pleasantly. "Oh master, you make a girl proud!"

"And the Dark Mistresses aren't the big leagues?" Negi quipped, remaining surprisingly cool in the face of a new challenger.

"Weeeeell..." Chachazero had to think on that one. "They're in a league of their own." A beat. "Oh, by the way, master."

"Yes?"

"Making your debut fight in a chef uniform–classy." She snarked. "A shame you lost the hat back there though."

"I doubt anyone is more concerned about that than you."

"Maybe you should take off your shirt then?" Chachazero suggested. "We might attract more hits that way."

And Negi was lost. "Hits?"

Ignoring the banter between the young man and his familiar the elf turned to Sheik with a frown. "Why are you drawing out this fight, master?" She asked impatiently, leaning against her grand daiklave. "Let's just kill them. I wanna go home already."

"We only came to kill one person." Sheik told his servant. "Now if it were only that easy..." He rubbed his smarting jaw. "Astameer wasn't exaggerating about this woman after all. She really has opened a vein into sorcery and she wields it like a simple tool; like a weapon she has mastered all along."

"She doesn't look like anything special." The elf snorted before setting her sights on Negi. "The boy on the other hand." A grin crept across her lips. "I'll be damned."

"You see it too?" Sheik chuckled. "He claims to be the son of the Thousand Master, and he doesn't use the title as a crutch, that much I can tell you."

"Still, to give you so much trouble..." She trailed off. "Mind explaining that?"

"The kid is clever, a perfect match for Chao Xue. Her sorcery isn't inexhaustible by any means, but the boy buys her the time she needs to supply it with the energy it requires to function." Sheik explained, glancing at Xue. The scientist was still silently observing from afar with Negi. "I'm not sure what the source is, but when she gets it she becomes a force to reckon with. We can't take her lightly."

"So if we get rid of the kid she's good as dead." The elf deduced. "Easy enough."

"Easy for you you mean." Sheik scoffed. "You don't have to put up with the beating she dishes out. Anyway, keep the kid occupied. Do not kill him, Lucia."

"I'll try not to." The so named Lucia replied nonchalantly. "Babysitting isn't my thing, after all." She got off her sword and gripped the hilt with one hand before pointing to Negi with the other. "You get any of that, kid?!"

"What?" Negi yelled back, not having expected to be singled out so suddenly.

Lucia, or as she was officially known by all who recognized the sight of her grand daiklave, 'Fury', licked her lips. "You're my prey!"

"As for you, Xue." Sheik called out the Chinese scientist getting a scowl from her. "If your hatred for the council is so potent show me the extent of it with your power."

Xue didn't like how the situation was shaping up. "They're trying to separate us." She told Negi. "He must know about the limitations of the Cassiopeia."

"Then we'll take them on at the same time." Negi suggested.

"That won't work." Xue shook her head. "It was fine when it was just Muhammad, but now that there's two..."

"So you just want to fall into their design? Knowing its a trap won't improve our chances if we simply go along!" Negi argued, failing to see how that would help anything.

"Do you have a better idea?" Xue shot back. "If we fight them together we're in no better a position. I can take down Sheik alone."

"But last time–"

"Last time I got ahead myself." Xue cut him off before he could present a solid argument. "Like I said, this is the first time I've taken her out for intensive use. I wasn't sure how much she could take before, but now I have a better understanding of her limits."

"Xue..." Negi tried not to avert his eyes from hers when he continued, "Have you ever considered just...running away?"

Xue's expression was dumbfounded in response. "Running away?" She couldn't say it any louder than a whisper. "From this?" Her voice gradually rose. "From anyone?" Her brows knit with anger. "What are you, a coward?"

"It's not about cowardice." He tried to explain to her in spite of her souring mood. "It's about living another day. You said it yourself, the Cassiopeia is still just a prototype–its still unpredictable! If you're just going to rush in there to prove a point of superiority then-"

"You don't get it, Springfield." Xue hissed at him, her previous on warmth him gone in an instant. She was treating him no different from the first day they met. "This is all I've ever done my entire life. You're not born into this family with a clean slate, understand? You inherit everything that is left behind by your ancestors. Their life's work, their friends, their enemies, their reputation–its all passed down to you and you have no choice but to grin and bear with it! How can I run when they'll just continue to chase me? How can I just vanish when the world expects the next Chao to do better than their parents and their grandparents and those that came before them? I was born branded a criminal by the council and I had no choice but to become one because of it."

Negi tried to form a counter argument, but there was just a little too much in that diatribe that hit close to home.

"You're the same, aren't you?" Xue demanded a response. "Negi Springfield, son of the Thousand Master, Nagi Springfield. The world expects you to live up to his reputation. Eyes are constantly following you in motion, waiting, anticipating."

Hearing her say that, Negi could only stare at her as though he was seeing an entirely different person. "You know my father's name." His statement, as there was no need to question it now, was delivered in a tone of one who had been deceived.

Xue smiled wryly. "Of course I know. I've dealt with mages all my life. I obviously had to educate myself on the related subject matter so I could come to understand them! Then there was the fact that my mother knew your father." She admitted bitterly. "They were old acquaintances, maybe even friends, not that I ever worked up the nerve to investigate further to confirm. There's pictures of him in her album, entries in her old journals about him. If I didn't know any better I'd say that she had harbored something of a crush on him before she met my father."

"But how long were you aware that I was his son?"

"After I took you captive I couldn't shake off the nagging suspicion that you looked so oddly familiar when I first saw you. I just happened to flip through my mother's photo album later that afternoon to get my thoughts into perspective. I don't keep any of my own pictures so I knew the clues had to be in there somewhere, and that's when I made the connection. You resembled him so much that it felt like some cruel joke."

The young magister couldn't help against the building sense of anger that took hold of him. "So that's the reason you started being nice to me, because of my father?"

Xue didn't answer him immediately providing more of a response than she had intended to give. "Partly the reason." She spoke after a long pause. "To be honest I wanted you to give me a reason to hate you. I figured that if I showed you kindness and you spat it back in my face I would have a legitimate case for hating mages instead of just grouping you all together as my sworn enemies simply because the council took it upon themselves to label my family as criminals. I thought it would provide me with a better incentive to hate you all if a Mage that didn't know who I was hated me for the sole fact that I was a mundane." For a moment Xue let down her mask of cold, clinical confidence and revealed her darkest regrets. "Maybe then I could justify all of the hatred I directed at my mother for holding a Mage with such high regard deep within her heart." Her smile lost some of its pretension. "In the end it turns out that I'm just a bitch full of regrets. I don't have the courage to face them with honesty in my heart."

"I can help you, Xue." Negi spoke adamantly, but she was beyond caring about what he could do for her.

"You can't just meet a person and have them decide for you that the world is different from what you imagined. Where is the logic in that?" The cynicism returned at full force. "How is it fair to live on a set of values all your life and just have someone walk over and explain how flawed you truly are? I just can't..." Xue looked away, her eyes showing the tell tale signs of tears about to form, but never shedding a single one. "I've decided that I can't turn back, Negi." She looked to him again with a frightening resolve in her eyes now. "If I kill Sheik today than I can go on believing that these past twenty two years haven't been wasted on a lie."

"But if you die..."

"If I die..." Xue's smile got more eerie the longer it remained plastered on her lips. "...I'll be free from this excuse of an existence. Now," She turned her back on him, "I have a Mage to kill." And she walked toward her destiny without looking back.

"You can't be this weak, Xue!" Negi cried out after her as she got farther away. "What was the restaurant for then?! How do you explain any of that?"

Xue continued walking, getting closer to Sheik and his servant.

"You were looking for another way! You can't tell me that you weren't! You can't just lie to yourself and claim that it was nothing more than a fabrication!" Negi's temper was nearing its peak. "It hurts, I know it does! To be told that everything you strive for isn't fulfilling or meaningful, but that's why we need the courage to face those truths, and if we can't face them alone we can accept help from friends to stand on our feet."

She readied herself to attack Sheik.

"Dammit!" Negi's legs were already taking him to Xue's side before he paid any thought to his own actions, but Lucia barred his path before he could get any closer, her giant blade stabbed into the ground in front of her as if to serve as a line he was forbidden to pass lest he was brave enough to face the consequences. "Don't force me to fight you! I can't waste any time on–" The tip of her grand daiklave was directed at his face before he could finish.

"Don't speak, son of Nagi." Lucia told him, an amused lift at the left corner of her mouth. Try as he might Negi couldn't stop his eyes from stealing glances at her finer features regardless of how angry he was. "If you must save the girl then do it as a man, understand?" Her right ear twitched as if to beckon him to her.

Story of my life. Negi skipped the openings and summoned Setsuna's gifted nodachi into his right hand, shifting the grip to accommodate both hands and assuming a stance with the long reaching blade (Almost surpassing five feet in length. Setsuna's guidance and his vampiric strength allowed him to wield the blade with ease.) before sending a telepathic line to his familiar. What have you got, Zero-chan? Unless she's been hiding until now I don't think she's capable of long distance teleportation. That and... He caught himself lingering on her capacious breasts again and did his best to ignore the rush of blood to his face. I don't think anyone in their right mind would walk around dressed like that in this weather.

Ever hear of contracted spirits? The green haired puppet inquired, getting a curious rise of the brow from Negi.

You mean like summoned elementals and demons? Are they in anyway similar? He tried not to let himself get baited into combat with the way Xue had already began fighting Sheik no matter how restless it made him feel.

This woman is a heroic spirit. Chachazero clarified for him. From the looks of that giant sword she has with her I'd say she's a berserker. Mister inquisitor doesn't seem to have opted for the mad enhancement though so she's not at her full potential.

Mad enhancement? Frankly the term came off as a bit more than ominous.

A class specialty for Berserkers. It allows them to fight at maximum capacity at all times in exchange for their sanity, but there's no way to go back once you've activated it. 'Busty Blade' here can put together coherent sentences without hurting herself so I'm going to assume she hasn't had her limiter released.

Well, she's a spirit so–

Negi turned the blade in his hands and made a lunge toward the elven berserker, slashing in a diagonal arc with a fierce cry of, "Shinmei-ryu style, Stone Cleaving Sword!"

"Heh!" Lucia's grin split terribly wide, appearing feral when she saw the sword coming down on her. It happened quicker than Negi had ever expected; she grasped the handle of her grand daiklave, tearing it away from the ground and swung it around with the twist of her hips and muscular legs in a full rotation, knocking Negi's blade back and off his feet in the process.

"What the hell?!" Negi barely landed back on his feet properly when they touched the ground again. He did a quick inspection of his sword and tried not to let her see his relief. That was fast! A cold sweat began to come over him at the display of her strength. And the way she hits with that sword. A regular person would have had their arms torn right off!

"Calling out your attacks, huh?" The berserker teased, standing her sword in the ground once again and leaning against it with a cock of her hips. "That's pretty old school, kid." Her grin relaxed a bit, her bloodlust kept in check again. "And what a large blade. What's the story behind that?"

You're one to talk. Negi thought with a clench of his teeth. "You never know when you'll run into a giant." He managed a grin worthy enough to compare to Lucia's.

Chachazero felt herself flutter.

The heroic spirit's appreciation for his response was clear with the purr in her chest. "We're gonna get along just fine!" She pulled her blade free again and lunged swinging her monstrous blade one handed in a downward arc over her head. Negi dodged out of the way letting it smash into the spot his was standing. The street split in half for a good yard underneath the impact before water began gushing out from the long crack.

An irritated twitch came to Sheik's right brow.

Following the attack that almost tore the young vampire in two Lucia gripped the handle with both hands from a crouched stance and whipped around, swinging her sword upward at an angle that should have lopped the young man's neck off.

"Lucia!" Sheik roared before receiving a punch to the face from Xue. He parried the following blow aside, leaning back quickly from a swift roundhouse that the scientist delivered right afterward. "I told you!"

"Yeah, yeah!" The berserker yelled back shooting a nasty look at Negi as though it was his fault. "I want a back rub when we get back!"

"Fine!" The inquisitor shouted back.

"With lotion!" Lucia tacked on, pulling back her sword to look over her shoulder at her fighting master. "And scented candles!"

"Zanmaken ni no tachi!" Not wasting an opportunity, Negi swung his sword in a wide arc.

"Huh?" Lucia returned her attention to him when she heard him cry out. She stared with mild interest when nothing happened. "What the hell was that supposed to mean?"

Negi remained silent, holding his stance like an immovable statue. That's when she heard the unmistakable sound of groaning metal.

"Oh." She turned around to see a light pole already halfway down to crushing her. She reacted admirably, swinging her sword upward in the blink of an eye, however, the distraction was all Negi needed to carry out his true intended strike, jumping in the air.

"Shinmei-ryu style!" He began his downward descent toward the berserker. "Raimeiken!" The nodachi came alive with a crack of divine thunder and Negi slammed it down on Lucia. They were both consumed in a blinding ball of light when the blade connected and there was an explosion, sending out a shockwave that traveled far past the radius.

When the light was gone Negi found himself held in the air with his nodachi still fighting to slice through Lucia's grand daiklave. "Not good." He grunted, keeping his blade steady as it vibrated violently against the berserker's far larger sword, sparks sizzling from the friction in an intense stand off.

The two halves of the falling light pole crashed to the ground scattering a powerful breeze from the force of the impact.

Lucia licked her lips. "You're gonna break a lot of girls hearts when you get older!" She knocked him off with a swing of her sword.

Negi landed gracefully, readying his blade for the incoming strikes. "If they're as rough as you are I'd be more worried about them breaking me!"

"Aren't you the flirt!" She ran forward bringing her sword down on him again.

"Fast!" Negi dodged to the side again.

She ripped her sword from the ground and swung at his neck.

Negi ducked underneath the swing and went in for the slash only to realize that she hadn't pulled back her sword yet.

"Yaah!" She cried out, pulling her blade back with a jerk and tearing into his shoulder with a short spurt of blood to accompany the harsh wound, but Negi surprised her when he merely grit his teeth against the pain in response as opposed to panicking as she had expected him to. "I like that!" She used the force of the pull back to bring her sword into a twirl with one hand and double handed again to slash at the injured magister.

Narrowly avoiding the strike Negi could swear that she was getting faster. Or am I just getting slower?!

Master! Chachazero called his attention urgently. She's a berserker, remember?

Lucia dragged her blade on the ground as she charged Negi leaving a streak of sparks behind her while she gained speed.

Meaning?! Negi lifted his blade to defend when she swung her sword overhead again, stopping it with an ear deafening clash. The ground beneath him sank a few inches upon impact.

A special trait of the berserker class is that they gradually grow stronger the longer they do battle with an opponent!

Negi's eyes widened at that startling information. That's insane! She's monstrous enough as it is! Forcing her off of him he got around her as her sword hit the ground and made to strike at her open back, but–CLANKTzzzTShe stepped a half turn and struck his blade right out of his hands with a quick swing. The nodachi went swishing through the air behind Negi's back, plunging into the restaurant lawn a fair distance.

"Tough luck, kid!" Lucia laughed.

Negi let out a growl, thoroughly annoyed now. "LET ME THROUGH, DAMMIT!" He charged with abandon.

"Suicidal?" She swung her sword at him coming close to cleaving him in half, but

"OUT OF–" Negi jumped, landing on her blade and running the length of it to meet her with a rising kick. "–MY WAY!" His heel slammed into her jaw from below, throwing her head back and causing her to stumble off balance. Negi used her face as a stepping stool with his other foot, kicked off her forehead for good measure and landed behind her before continuing his mad charge for Xu and Sheik.

"Son of a bitch!" Lucia covered her nose, glaring at Negi's running back over her shoulder. "Make a fool of me!"

"Xue!" The woman in question heard her name but she ignored the call, keeping the pressure on Sheik with a string of punches and kicks. "Xue!" She heard it again, gritting her teeth at Negi's persistence. She blocked his voice out of her mind, delivering a solid punch to the inquisitor's gut. The man stopped moving when her fist buried itself even deeper into his stomach as if she intended to punch a hole through his back–but then he spoke.

"He cares a great deal for you doesn't he?" The inquisitor questioned in a conversational tone even as blood dripped from the opened cuts on his face.

Xue pulled her fist from his gut and dropped both hands on his shoulders to deliver a knee to his face that knocked him back at few steps, but the man merely stood straight afterward and wiped his mouth of blood. If she was the unstoppable force then this man surely was the immovable object. "What does it matter to an assassin?" She asked, her emotions buried beneath her fists, not her words.

Sheik shrugged his shoulders. "He thinks a great deal more about your future than you do."

"Coming from someone who intends to steal even that from me"

"Xue!" It was too close for her to ignore anymore.

"Negi, would you" Xue's blood ran cold when she turned to face her approaching friend. "Negi!"

Lucia was right on top of him with her sword at the ready to slice him asunder and the berserker didn't appear to even be conscious of the look on her master's face when he realized what she was about to do.

It ended fairly quickly.

"HYAAAH!" Lucia swung her grand daiklave at Negi's midsection but her target was switched at the very last moment. Xue appeared beside Negi wrapping her arms around him and turning her back to take the blow for herself. The blade bit into the scientist's midsection, tearing into her suit with surprising ease, however, it stopped short before it could severe her in two.

Xue, to her credit, only looked to check if Negi was alright before collapsing to the ground with him still clutched to her chest. Her blood coated them both before Negi finally realized what she had done.

"Xue!" Negi worked his arms out of her hold carefully, reaching up to cup her face with both hands while she still laid motionless on top of him. "Xue, answer me!"

One eye opened. "...What?" She asked.

"Is it bad?" He couldn't think of anything else to say.

"Hurts like a bitch." Xue told him with a little smile. "But, um..." She paused to search for the words she wanted to say, but she was steadily losing blood. Her mind was drifting away quickly and she could feel her eyes beginning to roll back. "...I'm glad you're alright."

"No, no, no." Negi shushed her, working his arms around her as he tried to sit up and find a position most comfortable for her to lay in. "You're going to be fine too." He supported her back with one arm. "Xue."

She stared at him, but she didn't respond.

"Xue?" Negi's voice began to crack. "Don't go."

She blinked. "You'll come for me again?" A tear rolled down her cheek.

He swallowed back the tears that threatened to come forth at that sight of her own. "You know I will." He laughed, stroking her hair so gently he could have been touching the frailest glass. She answered his laugh with a weak chuckle, blood squeezing out of her throat when she did.

"...Course I do." And her eye closed.

Negi stared blankly without another word, unmoving, unblinking. He was afraid to take another breath without her, afraid to let go of her, afraid to turn away in fear that she wouldn't look the same when he turned back to face her, but he knew that this moment couldn't last an eternity. She had left him and time would not turn back for him to make things right again. "Had I only met you sooner..."

"We're done here." Sheik announced in a quiet voice, more to himself than his servant who said not a word in return. The heroic spirit allowed her blade to dissolve into the wind and stood there beside her master. "Let's go home, Lucia."

"No." Sheik and Lucia exchanged a glance before looking to the person that spoke.

Negi bared his fangs and sunk them into Xue's neck drinking deeply of her life essence before pulling back, blood dripping from his mouth in thick crimson threads. "You don't get to walk away from this, inquisitor."

He searched deep within himself; called to the desire for power that always lurked the darkest corners of his soul. He needed it now, the power to avenge his friend.

What good is all the training that I do if it doesn't grant me the power to protect others? A stone dropped into the deepest cavern of the soul, untouched by light, untouched by hope.

If I have the power to defeat my enemies inside of me all along then shouldn't I put it to use? The stone dropped down the darkest maw, bouncing off the jagged walls and rolling down the narrowest crevices to fall into even deeper and darker depths.

'If this power should allow me to vanquish those that would do harm to me and those I love then isn't it my duty to embrace it?' The stone fell farther into the pit of blackness until finally it crashed through the blackest pond into the darkest reaches of the soul–And the beast smiled.

~...It is heavy, this burden that has fallen to you...~

~...To avenge a fallen comrade, tis the burden carried by all men and women that honor combat...~

~...Is it power you seek...~

It is mine? Negi questioned the voice that rose from the depths of his despair.

~...As I said before, I have always been here...~

~...Dost thou desire the power...~

Negi laid Xue down on the ground gently and rose to his feet, taking three steps toward the inquisitor and his familiar. I desire nothing else at the moment.

~...Then it is yours...~

"Master..." Lucia's entire body went tense. "That boy, there's something not right about him."

Sheik nodded grimly. "You may want to ready your sword, sweetheart. That kid is carrying something ancient and vile inside of him, something that the mistresses and lords of the moon kissed realm have feared since it was born into the world."

"The taint?" Lucia asked, summoning her great daiklave to her right hand. "The beast?"

"All one and the same I suppose." The inquisitor concurred. "I've never seen it with my own eyes. Regardless, it appears that Negi Springfield shares blood ties with a very powerful individual. Either that or someone really despises his guts. I don't see how else he could have been passed something so dangerous."

A guttural sound escaped Negi Springfield's throat, silencing Sheik and Lucia. It gradually got louder until the young man threw his head back and let out a wail that sounded all but human. His hair, as if resonating with the horrible noise, became disheveled and his eyes took on a crimson burn.

"Master..." Chachazero spoke, her voice strained and filled with pain. "...This...This..." The puppet's pain gradually transformed into an insidious pleasure that invaded her sensibilities. Her master's thoughts and emotions were being tainted and she couldn't hold it back from invading her any longer. In time her eyes burned crimson just as well and a wicked cackle escaped her. "This feels...awesome! I can't get enough of it!"

"SHEIK!" The shackles released, Negi ran forward, no longer running like as a man, but a beast of the foulest darkness. The distance between them was closed quite quickly and when Lucia stepped in to shield her master with her sword it didn't go quite as she planned it.

"Know your place, kid!" She swung the blade down on him only for it to stop shy of its target. "Eh?" She looked closely to find that Negi's hand had stopped it short. The possessed vampire didn't show any visible struggle from the insane maneuver, nor did he appear bothered by the blood that seeped from the cut in his palm. He only stared deep into her eyes and it pissed her off. "You bra–"

CRACK!

Negi jumped into the air and kicked her grand blade with such force that it broke in half.

Needless to say, the berserker was shocked to see her blade in ruins so easily. "Wha–" A hand reached out and gripped her face before she could react, pulling back with her body following the motion like a rag doll, and throwing her through the brick wall of a nearby shop.

"Lucia!" Sheik stared to where she disappeared expecting her to come out, but there was no movement. "Damn you!" He rushed Negi, slamming a right hook into the vampire's face that sent him stumbling to the side. "Wake up, kid!"

"RAAGH!" Negi countered with a roundhouse that sent the inquisitor spinning from the strike. The vampire rushed in to finish him while the man was stunned, but something else intervened.

"Fool." A new warrior stood in his way, appearing from a rift that separated the possessed magister from Sheik; A woman of white porcelain skin and a voluptuous form that was mostly covered by her great mane of ebony hair. Silver belts and chains covered her body, covering her full breasts and acting as a makeshift bikini where her wine colored robes, as scandalous as they were, refused to maintain her modesty; slender, dipping back, wholesome backside and long, statuesque legs. Her beautiful face held no illusion of motion in spite of the harshness of her voice, but her red eyes, dark and vengeful as the ones that Negi possessed now, spoke of a sateless hatred and intent to kill. "Do you hold such an illusion of power?"

With lance in hand the woman dipped down into a crouching stance before lunging forward with a stab that would have pierced Negi's side had he not been so quick to turn his body to allow it to jab by. She pulled back her lance, thrusting it with another directed stab and the vampire twisted out of the way again, turning, sidestepping and ducking back the flurry of stabs that followed.

"Brute." The woman switched her grip on her lance and whipped it underhand to deliver a rising slash that rose up between Negi's legs, nearly slicing him in two from below. His body dispersed into a flock of bats before her lance could tear into his flesh, all flying together in tandem as if sharing one mind. The black mass of flapping wings separated into two separated flocks, twisting back in a loop before returning to home in on the lance wielding femme fatale. They twisted around each other, creating a drill that shot directly toward her chest.

"Clever beast!" She assumed a stance with her lance, summoning up dark energies all around her body that took the form of Baskerville hounds, growling and barking like demons of the underworld. "Take this!" She kicked forward, rushing the black drill head on and slicing right through it with her enchanted lance. The bats scattered from the attack and flew upward to regroup into one flock again, flying in an arc that made a nosedive for her.

"HAH!" She anticipated the riposte, sending her hound familiars to shoot up and meet the plunging mass of bats. Both dark forces collided, waging their might unto one another until the hounds let out a horrible howl that scattered the flock of bats again.

...More power...

~...You wish to plunge even deeper...~

Yes!

~...Then you shall receive...~

Sheik ran up beside the woman that stopped his assailant from reaching him in his moment of vulnerability. "Widow! Why are you here?!"

"To prevent a sentimental fool from succumbing to a beast." The dark woman replied with no lack of venom. "Drop your guard and this creature may just succeed in stealing your final breath."

"He's not himself!" Sheik argued. "I can't let him be like this!"

"Your life is not your own anymore, Master of Legions, and that thing is not your responsibility." She snarled at him. "Think about that next time you try to reason with a monster." She pointed a hand to the flock of bats that touched down to the street, forming a human figure. "Look, it comes again."

Reassuming human form, Negi gripped his tattered chef jacket with both hand and tore it in two, discarding the two ends to the ground, then without preamble he held both hands out and focused his energies. Light gathered in his right hand and concentrated darkness in his left.

Sheik narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "What does he intend to do with–"

Negi slammed both hands together and something else was brought into existence. A maelstrom of chaotic energies came off from the focal point where the dark magisters hands met and–

The inquisitor couldn't believe what he was seeing. "Twilight arts?"

Widow humphed at the sight of the unstable energies that radiated from Negi. "That fool dabbles in arts best left buried."

"Stagnet." Negi began chanting out loud, taking the chaotic energies into one violently trembling hand. "Complexio!" He cried out, crushing it into his hand with an explosion of might that billowed Sheik and Widow, forcing them to stand their ground against the surge. "Supplementum pro!" He took the hand that was clenched around the bursting twilight energies and smashed it into his chest. "Armationem...Vires o volatilis rex rgis!"

Negi's entire body became dyed in black energies that bonded with his flesh having him resemble a demon as his muscles bulged with new definition. White markings appeared all over his chest in elaborate patterns, twisting from his midsection to his upper torso, spreading over his shoulders and wrapping around his arms. His hair spontaneously grew in length, taking on the properties of conflagrant black flames, and his eyes, crimson before, had gone ink black at the irises and intense white at the pupils.

The beast had revealed itself to the inquisitor and his new partner in all of its unrivaled glory.

...And a faint heartbeat called out to it from the retreating tendrils of death...


To Be Continued...


Happy holidays to you all! This is Traingham, reporting to you all from the end of the world with a new installment of the Fang Vice Addiction series that was thought to be long dead. (A two year hiatus. Heh, heh.)

W-Wait! Don't kill me!

So it finally happened. A new installment, and hopefully one that will usher in more chapters. Believe me, I want to do this. I pretty much placed everything else on hold for the rest of the year so I could get this chapter out, (I hope to get on to updating "Fate/ Alternate Routes" and a few of my other long neglected series by Janurary) so look forward to it. I am.

Anyway...this chapter. Yeah, this chapter. I'll just get it out of the way right now while I still have your attention; I haaaaate writing long action scenes. The way I see it, most fights should be over in four paragraphs tops. It's cool to see the hero keep rising back up after taking a beating, or to see the villain exhibit his or her awesome powers, presenting a daunting task for the hero, but sometimes I just feel like saying "Kill em' already". Crack their neck, tear out their spine, gouge their eyes, just end it! Sitting through forty episodes of Dragonball Z as a kid just to see Goku end the fight with a well timed Kamehameha really scarred me for life.

"Is that the spirt bomb?" I cry as a kid, staring at the screen in horror. "You mean five more episodes of this shit?!"

Yeah, but it does a world of good for building tension, doesn't it? I intended to get more content into this chapter, but the fight pushed it on longer than I expected. To fill it in with the rest that I had planned would have likely pushed it far past the 30k word mark, and most readers begin to lose focus by the 15k word mark if the PMs I receive speak for anyone. I'll try to wrap things up in the next chapter and FINALLY move on to the Alice Dalziel Arc, which I'm pretty darn excited to write.

So much fun to be had! For you! For me! Whooooo! (My sanity? When?)

Little Tidbits to add:

1) As I mentioned in the story Negi accepted training not only from Evangeline and Ku-Fei, but also Setsuna and Kaede.

2) The rat seal (taken directly from Naruto, not that I know much about the show) is used to invoke shadow ninjutsu.

3) The common blade used by practitioners of the Shinmei-ryu style kenjutsu is the nodachi.

4) "Dost Thou Desire the Power?" - Paying some homage to my favorite RPG villain Grahf (Xenogears)

5) Magia Erebia comes directly from Negi's dark ego. Those who pay attention to the little details will understand why.

6) Mistress Beatrix, villain of the 'Dark Evangel' era finally makes her appearance!

Also, check back in the next week or so. I plan to post an OMAKE just beneath this author message. (The conversation that Evangeline McDowell and Mana Tatsumiya had in the last chapter. It ties in with Chao Xue's life altering decision, to throw away her chance at killing Sheik to save Negi's life. Turns out she wouldn't have taken it back for the world.) EDIT (JAN/19/2013): So I was in the middle of writing "Full Moon Shuffle" when it occurred to me that I was supposed to have submitted an OMAKE a while back. I apologize for that.

Take care,

Traingham...

P.S: Some of the events of Fang Vice Addiction will directly affect Full Moon Shuffle. Why you ask? Full Moon Shuffle is an AU of FVA. Basically its the universe where Mana Tatsumiya gets to Negi Springfield before Evangeline gets to him herself. Sure doesn't stop 'Dark Evangel' from trying to fix it though.

What else is different about Full Moon Shuffle? Nodoka fan-service, that's what. (To show that I love Nodoka just as much as the other girls of Negima.)

Yeah, I'm talking to you Negi x Nodoka shippers. A templars bunch, the lot of you.

Hmm...I can't seem to shake the feeling that I forgot to post something else.

Eh, whatever.