Disclaimer: I own the dark lords and mistresses, and the lore behind their world. Ken Akamatsu, on the other hand, owns the Negima-verse and all of its wonderful personalities. Guess who's making money on that?

Fang Vice Addiction: "By Your Enrpature"

Chapter Fifteen: True Grit

By Traingham

Mana Tatsumiya was familiar with Evangeline McDowell's cottage; familiar in the sort of way that only a hired mercenary like herself could be. She knew all the possible exits, Evangeline's favorite window to stare out from, the perfect angle to position her rifle from if she wanted to get a bullet into the vampire's forehead while she slept, the room in the cottage that Negi Springfield boarded in during the Mahora Festival and the usual time he turned the lights out, including which side of his body he favored when he couldn't find comfort in his dreams, or the hours of the night that Evangeline would crack his door open and stare, Chachamaru's favorite bush to tend to in the backyard when the gynoid was in a particularly nurturing mood, and so on and so forth. To actually be sitting inside the cottage, specifically the living room, offered the lovely marksman an entirely new looking glass, in a manner of speaking. Sitting on one of the couches situated at the center of the living room (Two couches facing each other, separated by a coffee table in between) without a handgun resting on her lap and a finger waiting on the trigger somehow made the whole experience even fresher than she had anticipated when she decided to make the visit.

One of the world's most feared soldiers of fortune didn't just meet with "The Dark Evangel" and not have plans to take the handsome bounty on her head, but then again, the purpose of this visit was not in the interest of making money, and anyone who was of the opinion that that was a lie could go get jumped on.

"Might I offer you some tea, Tatsumiya-san?" Chachamaru offered the tanned skin beauty in the practiced fashion that only a professional could when they intended for the offered individual to understand that they were not particularly welcome in the residence, though it would have been an arguable assumption to believe that Mana was not already aware of that. One did not think to be liked enough by Evangeline McDowell as to be welcomed into her home when they were responsible for constantly stealing away one of the few people in the world she actually harbored any genuine affection for. Ahem...correction; one did not think to be liked by Evangeline McDowell at all. Scratch that; one did not think to be welcomed into her home, ever. The only people Evangeline enjoyed the company of were those she preyed on for dinner, and at times even Negi Springfield was not safe from those base desires, but back to that tea, huh?

"I'm not a tea person." Mana turned down the polite offer.

"Shame." The response came not from the lovely gynoid, but from the top of the staircase where the mistress of the cottage leaned at the banister with an amused stare. Having turned into quite the recluse since the young magister left the campus Evangeline barely had a reason to reach into her diverse collection of gothic lolita apparel anymore, so she greeted the captain in her high cut, lace pajamas instead of going through the trouble of changing. "I'm not a coffee person myself, so you'll have to settle for tea if you're thirsty."

Mana raised her attention to the platinum vamp as she made her slow descent from the second floor with the prideful swagger of one that could have commanded the world if that was her desire. Having possessed knowledge of at least a handful of the old stories of Dark Evangel that were passed down through the generations, the little vampire likely had that very opportunity held in her hands at one point or another. "Evangeline McDowell. I suppose those old rumors about Negi being your only motivation for coming to class had some truth to them after all. You've returned to being quite the recluse since he left, haven't you?"

Evangeline took her seat across from Mana, taking a similar crossed legged posture that raised her shorts even higher against her creamy thighs. "So what? Did Takamichi finally become so desperate that he shelled out some dough for you to come over and persuade me to return?"

Mana shook her head. "No." Even that would have been absurd. "I have my own private reasons for coming by. I'm off the clock."

"Then you have some balls coming out here, shrine maiden." Evangeline cackled, looking less amused than her response might have let on. "I've never cared for you very much. I can't say that my opinion of you has managed to improve as of recently, what with you sticking your nose into my own personal affairs."

The shrine maiden shrugged off the unwelcome mood the mistress of the house was purposely creating. "I wouldn't be the best in my line of work if I cared for anyone's personal opinions of me, McDowell. I also happen to know that in your current state it wouldn't be any trouble for me to subdue you if your personal feelings got in the way of this visit." She turned a chin to Chachamaru. "Her? Maybe, but she isn't anything on the scale that I haven't dealt with before."

Faced with such arrogance Evangeline felt her teeth clench so tightly that a chipped tooth almost seemed imminent, however, she closed her eyes and dialed her temper back until it cooled away. It hurt her pride to admit as much, but Mana was a genuinely dangerous individual and in her current state the captain could very well overmatch her if it came down to an actual fight. She needed to play it smart–play the game properly as she always did. No full moon meant that talk was her optimal course of action, personal feelings be damned.

"Well enough, girl." The little vampire hid her frustration behind a cool mask of casual indifference. "What personal business could you possibly want to discuss with me? What's changed between us in the past year that now makes a face to face conversation with me relevant to your interests?"

"Negi Springfield." Mana answered her, owning the name on her tongue perhaps a little too well. The way her disciple's name just rolled off so naturally gave Evangeline the impression that the captain often said that name to herself in private, or that her traitorous disciple had made it a casual habit of being in her company. Now even she would have to admit that these feelings of jealousy were trivial, but this was really gnawing at her ability to maintain a less than personal attitude about this face to face.

Evangeline twisted her elbow into the arm rest of the couch, the left corner of her lips briefly twitching downward. Chachamaru looked aside to the window as though she had just witnessed something she should not have been around to see. "I had a feeling you'd say that."

"Then I suppose it's safe to assume that he's spoken about me to you?" The lovely marksman inquired, her head tilting to the side just slightly. There was nothing quite off handed about the way she did it either; Mana deliberately wanted to see how far she could stress the personal nature of her relationship with the young magister before the almighty Dark Evangel's mask of indifference would crack. It was hard to tell whether she did this out of some natural inclination due to the tricks of her trade, or just out of some pure, deeply repressed malign need to distress the one person Negi Springfield held in equal if not higher regard than his father. Yes, very difficult to place that one.

"He's mentioned you on occasion." And by 'occasion' she meant every other visit to her cottage. For all of his good upbringing and supposed above the average intelligence, the young magister could have done well with being educated in one of the proper etiquettes of carrying on conversations with women; that is, never bring up the subject of other women, and if you absolutely must mention them don't allow the subject to linger on them. "He's mentioned enough about you for me to know that you two have made a habit of being in the company of one another."

Perhaps that was a smirk. Evangeline couldn't be sure if her mind caused it to appear on Mana's face.

"I see." Mana nodded, considering her next words with as little consideration as possible given the tone. "Just how well informed are you about the two of us?" Chachamaru might have almost dropped the tray she had been holding in both hands on to Mana's head. Either that or the gynoid had just caught herself from acting on a violent impulse. It was a loaded question, perhaps meant to disquiet Evangeline, and the vampire's reaction was immediate.

"The two of us, you say." Evangeline's eyes bore into Mana with a stare that should have reduced her to a pillar of salt. Real world physics was weird like that. "This is so very curious." The nails of the hand resting upon the couch arm bit into the leather, likely to puncture the material with less restraint. "I'm dying to know what that's about."

"He's been a reliable partner to me." Mana explained, her demeanor cool and unflinching. Even the eyes of a world proclaimed undying demon of the night couldn't shake her nerves. "I haven't entrusted my back to anyone in a very long time, but Negi-sensei has been very good to me in that respect. It's been my pleasure working with him, and I'm definitely looking forward to collaborating again."

"So that would be the reason for those long leaves he would occasionally take from the campus." Evangeline deduced in a quiet voice. It most certainly did not help the boy's case that he had been very hush hush to her about why he went off on those trips. Clearly he wasn't above committing infidelity–not that she ever considered her relationship with him a binding, romantic one, mind you. "How did you manage to involve him into that sort of business? I always imagined your line of work to be the unpleasant sort."

Murder for personal gain was one thing. Murder on a contract was just reprehensible.

"I don't allow him to accompany me to the more unsavory assignments, obviously. I'd rather maintain his impression of me in a mostly positive light." Mana replied matter of factly. "But it's been at his insistence that I've allowed him to accompany me in the past, to clear any misconceptions you might hold on that count. I suppose it's just in his nature to fret over his student's wellbeing regardless of who they may be, and with the training he's been receiving I'm sure he feels that he has an obligation to exercise his strength for us whenever the opportunity presents itself."

"And you're all too happy to get him involved, why?" Evangeline shot at her, irritated not with her casual manner of responding, but at the fact that imagining Negi letting loose his vampiric powers at Mana's side was seriously making her jealous. How dare he play it so reservedly with his own master when he was hitting it hard with another woman–dear me, that didn't come out properly. "Is just anyone a suitable soldier of fortune nowadays?"

"Well now, McDowell," She had managed to, or at least played at maintaining her professional mask up until now. For the first time since entering the parlor Mana's expression indicated at her being something akin to human, a smirk working its way across her lovely face to openly mock Evangeline. "You've ever been the worrier. Of all people, you should have more faith in your own disciple. I'd wager he may even succeed the title of your legacy someday." And on that note she was quite genuinely confident.

"I'd say that you sound awfully hopeful that it'll come to pass." Evangeline called out the caramel skinned mercenary, a pensive look on her face. "You planning on sticking around long enough to see that become a reality?"

Because that would be an awful lot of quality time.

"I plan to be." Mana replied with the outmost sincerity, either unaware of the implications of Evangeline's statement or making her own implications to challenge it. It was the sort of reply that implied a white glove to the side of the face. "Still, there's only so much room for Negi-sensei to grow confined on this campus. He needs someone to offer him the keys to the world, don't you think?"

Particularly someone not bound to a school campus.

"And you think that you're going to be the one to give them to him." Evangeline finished the statement that was sure to follow. Subtlety was wearing its welcome now, or what was left of it anyway. "Well, as you can see, that ship already sailed. He's out there in the world now, without you or me."

"He'll need a partner." Mana retorted. "I'm not doubting his capabilities, but being out in the world on his own isn't something he's accustomed to. Sakurazaki and Kagurazaka were here on the campus to watch his back, as well as Kaede and the chairman. He doesn't know the cruelty of a world that preys on those that travel alone."

"...He's doing just fine." Evangeline responded tersely. "Who's being faithless now?"

"Oh," The lovely mercenary looked aside as if confirming an old suspicion. "So you two have been keeping contact after all." She returned her intense gaze toward Evangeline, eyes probing, calculating. "He's informed you of that woman that has been maintaining pursuit of him, I'm sure."

Evangeline's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How could you possibly know about that?"

Mana held up one hand to halt her before she could start firing off accusations. "No, I haven't been listening in on your conversations. I do, however, have access to an intelligence network that I've been utilizing to keep tabs on Negi's progress–a favor repaid to me by a professional associate. Anyway, he supposedly vanished for a whole night through unexplained means before just reappearing again with no logical explanation, which means some high end magic was involved in his disappearance–only once he did return someone was closely following him, and judging by the patterns of his movement after his reappearance he was very likely aware of his pursuer and making an effort to shake them off."

"Lucinda..." The diminutive vampire hissed the name of her old nemesis before raising her voice to reply to Mana's hanging statement, "I already know about that. What else is new?"

Taking note of the name that slipped out of Evangeline's mouth and filing it away for later, Mana replied, "He crossed paths with a band of vampire hunters affiliated with the Holy Order."

"...Of all the rotten luck." The blonde snorted. "Last thing he needs are humans chasing after him on top of vampires. He's suffering identity issues as it is."

"None of them figured it out." Mana assured her. "I spoke to them myself just to confirm whether they were aware of his true nature, but as far as their leader was concerned she thought he was nothing more than an unfortunate kid–one that saved them from an 'ungodly powerful' female vampire that personally tore through their truck to capture him."

"Saved them from Lucinda?" Evangeline could only respond with skepticism. The chances of her Negi successfully warding Lucinda off were one to a million unless the sly mistress intended for it to go that way, and even then she spoke with him on the phone not so long ago and he'd been absolutely fine (Not to mention he made no attempt to recollect such events to her) so the information didn't add up at all...unless a third party managed to force Lucinda's hand and she had no other choice but to let him go free to pull out of a delicate situation.

What made that hunch disconcerting for Evangeline was the knowledge that not just anyone could force Lucinda to back off if she wholeheartedly pursued someone, especially considering that she knew Evangeline personally welcomed him into the clan, and anything that intimately tied to herself was like gold to Lucinda. Negi's savior either had to be someone incredibly formidable, or someone familiar enough with Lucinda to divert her attention away from Negi long enough for him to make an escape. Either case didn't sit well with Evangeline; the less people in that league that knew about Negi the better, and this news did not bode well.

"Lucinda, was it? You've said that name twice." Mana pointed out, uncrossing her legs to lean forward on her seat. "You know who this pursuer is. With no substantial intel available on her from the network I can only assume that she's one of your very old associates."

"She is." Admitting to that left a tinge of bitterness on the little vampire's tongue. She hadn't confirmed that much out loud in a very long time, and she could almost imagine the smile that would have crept across Lucinda's face if she'd be around to hear the grudging tone in her voice when she did.

Sensing that she finally found the foothold she had been looking for Mana pressed for some information. "Why would she be after Negi?"

"In all likelihood she wants to lure me out to her using him as bait. We share a lot of personal history, so it probably wasn't very hard for her to catch my scent on him." Evangeline answered, sounding less than enthused at the thought of meeting her old nemesis face to face. "Although even if she did get her hands on him I doubt she would do anything to harm him."

Not maliciously, anyway. She thought to herself in passing. That bitch always was a little too friendly though. Whether she hurts him or not, the idea of her keeping Negi captive longer than a night doesn't guarantee she won't lay hands on him inappropriately. And that image was not helping Evangeline's self control.

"And what would motivate her to do that? You've been sealed here for so long–"

"That is none of your business." Evangeline snapped quickly, rising slightly in her seat when she did. "If you're after information about my old enemies you won't get any from me."

"Better that you tell me at least that much instead of waiting for the worst to befall Negi to act." Mana retorted just as quickly. "Bound to the campus you're no good to him unless you provide me the information I need."

"Oh? So that you'll be the one to protect him in my place? Believe me, the people you want to know about are way out of your league, captain." Evangeline shot her down, addressing her by title with no respect to accompany it. "Besides, going off making personal enemies just isn't your style, girl."

"I'll do what's necessary to look out for my own." The mercenary countered, a storm brewing in her piercing eyes. Despite her cool disposition it would have seemed that her patience was finally being tested. "Why not do the same instead of clinging to your pride, Dark Evangel?"

"It isn't a matter of pride, Tatsumiya." Evangeline retorted in kind to Mana's addressing of her old title. "Any business involving my enemies are mine alone for a damn good reason, and if I must I'll have it so that the old man writes me pardons all day until his arm rots off so that I can settle those matters myself if it comes down to that." She sat back in her seat. "So now that you have your answers take your leave."

Mana stared wordlessly upon receiving her answer, one hand balled into a tight fist underneath her chin while the other gripped at her knee. After a long stare down Evangeline opened her mouth to speak again, but she beat her to the punch. "That's regrettable." She stood up. "I've only been able to keep away from him this long by keeping track of him through the network. It's all I have to keep me at ease, but now this mysterious woman shows up and it's taking everything in me not to interfere."

"You and half of the campus." Evangeline quipped.

"No..." Mana smiled to herself and Evangeline quirked a brow at the mysterious curl. "I'd like to believe that what I feel at this moment is much more meaningful than a simple fondness."

Hearing from her own disciple that he was getting friendly with Mana made Evangeline a little jealous. Mana telling her that she saw a valuable partner in the young magister annoyed the diminutive vampire, but just hearing what she said now brought on an entirely different reaction, Evangeline felt a nauseating tug at her heart, it was as if the captain had deliberately reached into her chest and pinched a nerve to see her squirm.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Evangeline couldn't summon up any malice. She felt stillness within take hold of all her emotions. "Why tell me this?"

"I only felt it fair to admit to it." Mana answered. "Now you'll know to take me more seriously." The captain offered her nothing else, walking around the couch past Chachamaru to let herself out. Evangeline and Chachamaru only stared at one another, a heavy air settling in the captain's wake.

[F] {V} [A]

...Consume those that have taken from you...

What good will consuming their blood do me? I already have Xue's blood running through me and that is all I need to lay these bastards down. There was such power coursing through every fiber of his being, expanding outward from within to make everything that was incomplete whole. His uncertainty was washed away; his one objective was clear to him: vengeance.

"Let's feast on their guts, master Negi!" Chachazero goaded her possessed master in an enthusiastic voice free from all restraint of bloodlust that she may have ever been exercising beforehand. With the taint of Negi's dark ego running through her via the magical link she shared with him all she could do was give in to her base desires; that being, at this moment, watching her master eviscerate Sheik and Widow in the most horrific manner possible so that they could both bathe in their blood. "This'll be your graduation ceremony breakfast!"

Sheik could feel a stifling air coming down on him like the expelling breath of a grand beast. It had been that way since Negi Springfield transformed himself into the beast incarnate that was standing before him and his heroic servant Widow, exhaling hot wisps of black and red smoke from between the razor sharp teeth that lined his partly opened mouth like the passage to Hell itself dwelled within his body. Xue's young chef had skin dark as a coat of charcoal ash, adorned from head to toe in blood red occult symbols and markings that appeared to crawl through his skin in a continuous circuit. Every muscle visible to their eyes was chiseled to such perfect definition that his very flesh appeared to have hardened itself into plates of organic armor. His crimson, flaming hair had come alive as a billowing mane of black fire, and his once brown eyes had hollowed away into bottomless pits of ink blackness that reflected no light. For any other person acquainted with Negi Springfield it would have been impossible to connect the dots between the pleasant magister and this beast of long forgotten origins.

...Take from them what they have stolen from you...

Xue, these people will not walk away from here unpunished. They'll suffer for what they've done to youfor what they've stolen away from you. You were a good woman, and you could have been a good friend. Damn them for taking that away from me!

Coming to this quiet town Sheik had believed Chao Xue to be the greatest threat to carrying out negotiations for Astameer, but to think that he would encounter not only a son of the Thousand Master, but a vessel for something so steeped in the darkest stories of the underworld that the very mention of it would call out the dark lords and mistresses from their inactivity just to put it down–the inquisitor wasn't sure whether to be thankful to be around to see it in person, or to curse that serpent of a woman for putting him through more hell than she was frankly worth. His lovely servant Widow was far more grounded in her feelings for the situation than he was. She wanted it dead before it could show them personally why it was considered the stuff of nightmares for beings thought to be demi-gods.

"We've stayed our hands too long, Sheik." Widow spoke to her master so that she could express the anxiety she felt in the vampire's presence, tightening her grip around her lance with impatience. "And I fear that the longer we hold our judgment the greater risk we place ourselves in. Perhaps he was a mere boy before, but at this moment what stands there isn't to be trifled with, and I sincerely doubt a stern talking to will solve the issue."

"His intentions are noble, and we're to blame for pushing him this far." Shiek argued. "To simply kill him would be–"

...Their suffering will be your vengeance...

And in the end will I take joy in it? Has this bloodlust always been a part of me? Maybe in the end I'm really as Master Eva and Mana say. I'm far more capable of violence than I want to believe.

Negi Springfield, or what was left of him, finally got bored with putting himself on display for Sheik and Widow, it would have seemed. Exhibiting far more aggression than he had earlier in their first bout, the black beast of a vampire came dashing right for Sheik with such unreal agility that his every movement trailed behind him like a residual clip show. He was just so very fast, and incredibly so. What alerted the two of his act more than anything else was Chachazero's giddy cackling all throughout his dash, unsettling as it was. Widow thought to move in between the beast and her master to skewer it on the end of her spear and put an end to things swiftly, however, even now she appeared to underestimate what she was dealing with.

"Step right up!" Chachazero cackled maniacally, pointing to Widow.

Taking Widow's interference into account before she could even act on it, Negi vanished for a fleeting moment as he came into jabbing distance of her spear, and flashed back into existence right beside her, smashing an elbow into her midsection. Winded by the blow Widow could only choke out a curse on his everlasting soul as the tainted magister turned his fury upon Sheik, sprouting lethally sharp talons from the ends of his fingers with which to slash at the inquisitor. The lack of technique in the beast's attempts to carve into Sheik gave him the windows of opportunity to evade, but every savage swipe gradually came closer to tearing into his face as though the beast's body was instinctively correcting for every error made, pushing the muscles harder to answer every evaded slash. Sheik knew he wouldn't be able to keep evading for much longer.

The black beast swung at Sheik and the inquisitor answered with a swing of his own.

FWAM! Their fists connected like two war hammers slamming into one another at mach speeds.

The vampire pulled his arm back and twisted his body around with a kick, prompting Sheik to do the same.

FWACK! Their legs clashed together with a thunderclap, blowing their hair back with the obscene force of the impact.

Negi jumped back from the kick and took a step toward Sheik as he threw his upper body back with a swing of his head to pitch forward. Sheik saw regret approaching, but answered the challenge.

PAWK! Both warrior's foreheads collided into one another with a head butt. There were no rewards for manliness; Sheik understood that well the moment that sharp pain shot across his cranium from taking the hit. The tainted vampire, however, recovered far too quickly for the inquisitor's liking, letting loose with a salvo of punches.

"Ungh!" Sheik raised a forearm to finally interrupt Negi's barrage of attacks and the contact made between their arms was solid enough that the inquisitor felt the impact ripple throughout the entire left side of his upper body. Staying on the defensive suddenly didn't seem like a very feasible choice of action anymore. "Damn it. Where does this obscene strength come from? Was he holding back on me earlier?!"

"Duck!" Widow cried out and Sheik wordlessly reacted, breaking away from Negi to duck as his servant jabbed the end of her lance toward the back of the unsuspecting vampire's head, with the full intent to kill after having to suffer the humiliation of his attack earlier in front of her master. Her surprise attack was not met with satisfactory results as Negi titled his head to the side at just the perfect moment to allow the pointed blade of the lance to jab past his ear. He grasped the blade with his right hand and jabbed his left elbow up against the shaft of the lance to crack it in two.

Widow's eyes went wide.

In short order the edge of her spear was shoved through her stomach without compunction, and Negi delivered the decisive blow, then whipping about with a kick that struck true to the side of Widow's head. It was a display of such brutality that Sheik didn't want to believe his eyes when his beautiful servant's face smacked the pavement of the street with a sickening crunch. She lied there unmoving, spear still protruding from her back.

Seeing the dignified lancer lay there before his eyes made Sheik's blood run hot and for a moment he could feel all sense of restraint beginning to snap like a tightly wound rope. He bared his teeth to suppress the angry roar that threatened to come bursting forth from his chest, opting instead to hold his right hand out to grasp at something invisible. His fingers moved against unseen folds in the seams of time and space and when he finally touched upon what he was looking for he tore at the very world itself to open a circular distortion holding what appeared to be a raging hurricane at the other end. Plunging the length of his forearm deep into the distortion he pulled back to retrieve a long, elegant katana of length possibly equal to his height. Even Negi, in a moment of clarity from the dark influence of the curse within him, took a step back as if to acknowledge what enormous power Sheik commanded with the blade in his hand.

"I can assure you," Sheik swiped the blade called Celestial Fury through the air, holding it in a reverse grip so that the long blade pointed to the sky at his back. "You won't be breaking this sword with those dirty hands of yours. Come forth and be cut down, beast."

The black vampire's answer to the issued challenge came in a disquieting, guttural growl that rumbled deep–too deep to be classified as human. He lunged forth to attack Sheik and the inquisitor responded in kind, whipping his body about to bite his blade through the vampire's exposed right trapezius muscle. The stroke came across far too quickly for any untrained eye to follow, and the blade met its intended mark like a flash of silver lightning, however, instead of running through meat and bone the edge of the katana was held back, repelled by a thick, red aura blazing from the assaulted area not unlike a defense field. Sheik felt the blade of the katana vibrate violently against the barrier, fighting to penetrate and continue its steady course across flesh and bone, and had it gone on for much longer it just might have. Negi for his part didn't appear to be conscious of the phenomenon his body was employing to his benefit, ignoring the blade held steady against him and slamming a bone shattering uppercut against the inquisitor's exposed abdominal area with his right fist that threw the lean man off his ground, following with an uppercut from his left that lifted the older mage's feet off the ground, and coming forward against him with a shoulder smash that knocked Sheik back on his heels–any harder and Sheik might have fallen flat on his back.

Those successive strikes rattled the inquisitor's muscles and bones in a way that almost felt nostalgic. Sheik could not remember the last time he felt an ache in his body so strong that he actually considered the possibility of broken bones or ruptured organs. It was–dare he even think it–thrilling. The longer this fight carried on the more difficult it was going to be for him to maintain this noble effort to bring Negi Springfield back to his senses. Perhaps Widow was right after all; maybe the only way to resolve this was with a death match, and as humbling as it was to admit to it it wasn't just her words that supported that hunch. Sheik felt dread in the presence of this beast, a dread that made his grip around the hilt of his blade tighten that much more. There would be no peace while this curse had a physical body with which to claim its place on this plane of existence.

"Dammit, kid." Sheik ignored the voice in the back of his mind telling him to just let go. He went back on the offensive, slashing at the vampire with strokes of silver lightning. His precision was such that a bird could have been flying about in all directions in front of him and the edge of his blade could have easily followed, but Negi's movements were absolutely mystifying–the blade would not touch him. The vampire leaned away and moved aside from each stroke of the sword, seeing the blades path with frightening foresight, but Sheik was not discouraged by this in the least. That Negi dodged meant that he feared the blade, and that meant there had to be some way around that red aura that stopped his sword earlier.

Sheik opted to stop pressing his attack and jumped back to put a distance. Negi, perhaps mistaking the action for a retreat switched to the offensive this time coming after the inquisitor, and that's exactly what Sheik had been anticipating. Holding Celestial Fury in a reverse grip Sheik slashed upward toward the advancing vampire and for a brief instance the length of the blade appeared to grow five times its length the instant he did, taking on the properties of a booming thunderbolt that smashed into Negi with a force capable of disorienting the–up till now–implacable beast, and as the black vampire struggled to reign in full control of its motor functions that's when Sheik took full advantage of the opportunity presented before him sending two successive bolts from his katana to strike the stunned vampire in a blinding explosion. One bolt alone would have been enough to bring a seasoned magister to their knees; two to bring down a golem or a werebeast; three would have been more than enough to disable the wings of a fully grown dragon, however, when the storm cloud of energy dissipated around Negi Springfield the vampire remained standing like a stubborn old tree, if only for a moment. He fell to one knee, cradling Chachazero protectively in one arm like a precious bundle.

"Son of Nagi, right?" Sheik approached the stunned beast, katana held at the ready. "What stories you must have to tell for you to have been burdened with this detestable curse. How did a young warrior like yourself escape my notice for so long?" He stood at sword length from Negi, close enough so that his blade could reach his neck. "But this is regrettable. After all, it's my fault that you were even brought so far as to let this monster consume you. If there's still anything left of that young man then speak now or I will end you right now."

Monster? A single thought picked at the young magister's dangling consciousness. Negi Springfield could still identify with his own sense of self, but it was so muddled amidst this dark storm raging about in his soul. It was like squinting through a violent dust cloud toward a figure on the other side of a valley and vainly demanding a name. Even still, that one word bothered him. Monster. I've become a monster? No, that can't be true.

...You choose NOW to question what you are even as you take on this form...

There was that voice in his head again. It had come and gone before, but now it spoke to him again with the power of authority. The voice spoke not as a visitor anymore, but as a resident–as if it intended to lay claim to something of his.

Wait. What are you? Negi felt as if he'd just acknowledged something very wrong within a quaint painting. There it was staring him in the face all this time and only now did he make it out for the oddity that it was.

...I am the avenging spirit within you. I am the angry cry for balance in this monopolized world, an earnest roar from deep within you that wants the blood of those that would take from you for the sake of self gain... The voice spoke confidently, but the more he listened to it the more it began to take the shape of something other than himself. To believe that this voice had always been a silent companion to him until now would have been utter madness. There was no sense in it.

Stop speaking riddles. This power, has it always been inside of me? How does any of this make sense?!

...This power has always been yours. You have always been willfully weak, even now so, because you still cling to the false belief that you are still an existence less than the wrathful god that you are. You possess a wellspring of power awaiting within you, and it remains all but tapped into for the sake of some foolish pretense that you desperately want to be true...

I know what I am! I know who I am!

...You do not. You look at yourself now and question the reflection that stares back at youand why? This man places deceptive words against you and you think for even a moment to stay your hand when the blood of your friend stains his hands? Where did words prove effective against him then when he had her life taken...

That's true. He took Xue away without mercy.

...You have power within youpower that it yours to wield, and you neglect it because you fear what you can become by embracing it. You fear it because you fear what you will discover about yourself. That fear will fail your fallen comrade. It will fail you...

"Surely you must have something to say." Sheik brought back his blade hand, eyes to the young man's neck. "Don't you at least want to question the circumstances that have brought us here to do battle against one another? Don't you want to demand who was responsible for Chao Xue's torment?" He asked of Negi, hoping to provoke something of an emotional response out of him–something to prove that the young man was still present beneath the beast, but none of his questions received anything more than a snarl. All Sheik could see in the black vampire's eyes was hatred beyond anything humanely possible. Where was the sadness or frustration in failing Chao Xue–the survivor's guilt of not receiving the fatal blow that was meant for him because of her selfless intervention? There had to be something more occupying his mind other than vengeance and Sheik needed to draw that out if he wanted an excuse to withdraw his sword arm otherwise he would just be fooling himself.

"What a preachy assassin you are, sir." Chachazero quipped in Negi's place. "You're a sight!"

"So be it." Vampire or not, a headless one wouldn't persist in a fight, and Shiek's sword arm flew with a deadly purpose to fulfill that universal understanding. That path of the blade was interrupted mid stroke–Negi's hand shot up to catch Celestial Fury just as it came within an inch of beheading him, and when the vampire's fingers closed around the sword a metamorphosis took place. It began materializing from the tips of his claws–black metal liquid quickly encircled his fingertips like threads weaving into one another, wrapping around his hands and working its way up his arms straight away. Once both arms were completely awash in the black metal, plates began to take form from the metallic liquid, taking shape and hardening into armored gauntlets with claw tips.

...It will fail HER...

"NO!" Was the only coherent word roared by Negi, coming to life with a sliver of humanity. A black light exploded from the hand enclosed around Sheik's katana expelling an otherworldly heat so indescribably intense that the length of the blade blackened until it became white hot and went aflame with black fire. Negi in kind became wreathed in the furious black flames that made him seem to grow in stature, appearing even more imposing and demon like than ever before. The flame enchantment generated such heat from his body that the concrete around his feet began to melt and bubble, and the properties of the flames extended to Chahcazero's physical form as well, endowing her with the appearance of a flaming imp perched atop the demon's head. Sights like the one Sheik beheld now were what spawned tales of heroism at the hall of legions meant to inspire the meek and cowardly to rise up against the nightmarish abominations that sought to bring the world to ruin. He resolved not tell Ender about this encounter.

"Where is he getting these abilities from?" It was like Negi was only calling upon these powers when they suited his needs, like using the muscles in his body only out of natural necessity. What other powers had the young man yet to unveil? How far could he take himself before he exceeded the expectations of reality and simply began to make up abilities? "How could it be possible for such an undisciplined body to contain so much destructive power? It should be tearing him from the inside out!"

Sheik tore the blade free from the vampire's hand in a streak of sparks that trailed behind the tip of the katana like the tail of a comet and whipped the flaming sword over his head in a swift arc to bring it down upon Negi's forehead. The black beast crossed both arms over his head to deflect the strike in a shower of black sparks, knocking the blade aside to thrust a hand forth toward the inquisitor that fired off an explosive ball of flame that should have, by all means, reduced the upper half of Sheik's body a molten mess of human flesh had he not rolled away from the trajectory of the shot. Negi followed through with the attack quickly before Sheik could stand upright, slamming a flaming fist down into the concrete to let out a red hot explosion where the inquisitor had rolled over to. It almost appeared as though the man had been consumed by the explosion, but a figure came bursting through the curtain of flames not a moment later swinging its blade at Negi like a knight born from the hellish fire.

A bolt of lightning shot from Celestial Fury in the same way it did before to subdue the vampire, however, this time Negi did not falter in the least once he was struck by the powerful bolt, and when Sheik sent a second bolt to cripple him it smashed against Negi's flaming body so ineffectually that the inquisitor didn't want to believe it. The third bolt sent to bring the tainted vampire down was physically swatted from existence by a flaming gauntlet as if to drive the point home to Sheik that the same tactics would not work twice. The vampire howled into the air, arms held at his sides in a 'w' with his fist trembling in pent up might. The flames coming off his body exploded like a miniature supernova, blinding the inquisitor with its heat until it calmed again.

Negi was challenging him, and Sheik's fighting spirit didn't intend to take it quietly. He threw himself into close combat with the demon.

...We are the unstoppable force driving down to crush our enemies. Break this man and take from him so that he understands our pain. Make him suffer so that he understands his wrong doing...

"Far be it from me to tell a man how to carry out his own act of vengeance," Sheik slashed at Negi and the vampire raised a forearm to deflect the strike with an explosive impact that blew both warrior's hair back. The vampire shoved the blade aside to answer the attack with a flaming jab to the face. "Still, tasking a monster to handle the deed for you can't be considered proper!" Sheik leaned away from the riposte and whipped around with another slash that forced the vampire away to keep his head. Negi's movements had become somewhat indecisive after that last remark and it didn't get past Sheik unnoticed.

...He dubs us 'monster' because he does not understand the extent of our power...

"I take it you don't like that word." Sheik needled the vampire. "Monster." Repeating that word sent the possessed vampire into a blood frenzy. Negi's movements reverted back to the savage form he had been attacking with when he first took on his dark transformation, forgoing the martial arts and rushing forward to attack Sheik with abandon, however, with his gauntlets the loss of form actually made it more difficult for Sheik to defend properly.

Shinkt! Shinkt! Shinkt!

Armored talons flashed like lightning across the inquisitor's line of view in a flurry as he deflected every slash with his own blade with a continuous flash of red sparks, but every deflection came just a little later than intended. The elegance of his sword dance was slowly being overcome by the pure savage swings of the vampire's rock solid arms, and unlike Sheik, Negi didn't seem to be running on blood and sweat. The force of his strikes weren't getting softer with fatigue.

He's getting faster!

"Shi–" A splatter of blood struck streaked over the left side of the vampire's face and Sheik's eye darted to the talons on Negi's gauntlets to see droplets of red coming off the ends in rivulets. It took a moment for him to realize that his own blood had been drawn. His body had become so numb from the exertion that it was a wonder to even himself that his fingers still gripped the sword in his hand. "Got me."

"SHEIK." Spurred on by the sight of his adversary's blood, Negi shot forward like a black bullet with another slash getting off a thin scratch against the inquisitor's cheek.

Sheik felt the sting on his face and cursed. "He's gaining momentum!" He braced himself for it. Negi was coming for him, and at that very instance as the vampire lunged for him with eyes filled with such bottomless hatred, the black inferno from his body spreading out in the shape of two hellish wings and a tail, Sheik felt a shudder in his heart.

"This is painful to watch." A new voice cut in.

Shiek's eyes narrowed at the familiarity. "Strike?" Still in the process of jumping away from Negi, he glanced at the floor and caught a magic circle materializing at their feet. The encircled area erupted into a pillar of fire that came between Negi and Sheik, shooting to the sky and parting the clouds, and when the fire dissipated a statuesque, muscular woman with a wild red mane that fell to her shapely buttocks stood between Sheik and Negi adorned in a crimson chain mail bikini that showed off her curvaceous form. Her skin was a tanned caramel adorned all over in tattooed sigils that appeared to be enchanted. There was a trend going on here, and even Negi seemed to show annoyance at the insistent appearances these ladies were making throughout the course of the battle.

"I honestly didn't think you'd grace us with your loveliness, Strike–after, well, you know..." Sheik told the woman, seemingly put further on edge by her appearance as opposed to being relieved to get some breathing space from his vicious adversary. After sending her away in the middle of their love making, thanks to that damned Astameer's terrible sense of timing, he assumed the amazonian beauty would have been too incensed with him to even consider lending him a hand. Not that it was particularly welcome at the moment–restraint wasn't one of her strong suits in combat, or just about anything else, really.

Strike turned a sharp glare upon the inquisitor, brandishing her silver mace threateningly. "I'm still considering which one of you to hit first, Sheik. Don't make it easier for me." She let the spiked ball at the end of the pole hit the street. The mace crushed the concrete beneath its massive weight so easily that it may as well have been porcelain.

"Trust me, fiery girl. I have this under control." Sheik insisted, alternating stares between her lovely face and Negi's body language. The vampire appeared to be assessing the situation before deciding on his next move. Strike's presence was not something to take lightly, especially wielding such a large weapon. "Nice of you to drop by, but I fear that you're only going to make things...messier than they need to be."

Strike placed her free hand on her hips and cocked it to the side. "This entire end of the town resembles a wyverns grounds," She quirked a brow mockingly. "And I'll make a mess of things?" She turned to regard Negi and scowled at the sight of him. "Are you a demon?"

"Possessed by one." Sheik informed her. "Though I think the power it holds over him is dependent on his own will. It didn't manifest until after his murderous intent became clear, and that only happened when Chao Xue was struck down."

"A true beast of vengeance, then." Strike spoke with a hint of sympathy. "A pitiable existence. One that will be laid to rest soon enough. Of that I will make certain of myself."

"Stay your hand, Strike." Sheik stopped her before she could make to attack, holding up a hand. "I told you that I can handle it."

"You can't, Sheik." She said simply.

The inquisitor's legs were anchored still by her response, hand still held to her, yet lacking the power of authority it had possessed before those words stabbed into his chest. "You don't know that–you don't!" The coolness in Sheik's demeanor peeled away instantly. "And if you just kill him–"

"The matter will be settled and that will be the end of it." The lady in crimson cut him off. "You're not here to be a friend to anyone, especially not to someone you've personally wronged. We both know that isn't how it works in your profession; the path you've chosen. That is the sort of thinking that kills men like you, and I'll beat you to death myself if that is how you want to meet the end of your life, master. I won't have you die a fool."

The sound of shambling against the chopped and cracked concrete of the town street alerted Sheik and Strike so they shot their attention to Negi, but the dark vampire was unmoving. The quibble charm in the area should have been keeping mundanes away from the battle site so it could only be three other people, but Passion lost her corporeal form after being knocked out by Negi, and Widow did so as well shortly after being dealt the same fate. That left the one individual that no one had been paying any mind the entire time...

"Why not?" Another voice interjected, drawing the eyes of Sheik, Strike, and even Negi to a woman that should not have been anything but dead. The flames that covered the vampire quickly died down to a docile flicker from its prior raging inferno. The vampire let out a low and ponderous noise. "I make no promises, but a fool's death may make him a wiser man when he wakes again to the world of the living." By all means, Chao Xue should have been dead, but she walked before them spitting in the face of death with every unspeakable step. "I'm going to assume that is how this works." The scientist placed a hand at her waist where the berserker's grand daiklave nearly drove her in two. The meat and bone had mended eliminating all traces of a grievous wound ever existing. "After all, I've suffered the lesson myself."

...This is unexpected...

How is this even real? Her blood was all over the streetshe stopped moving in my arms! Is this just exhaustion, or am I just so desperate for this to be true that I'm imagining it?

"Shenanigans." Sheik spoke the word without thinking and if he had not caught himself he likely would have said again because it bore repeating. "There's no magic in the world that could have brought you back from death. Even if you do possess a sorcery, I saw you bleed out just like any other person would. You died in that young man's arms...unless..." He glanced at Negi and there the wheels began to turn behind the inquisitor's eyes, like all of the indistinguishable shapes in an oil painting were making themselves known to him after tireless inspection. He turned back to regard Xue, uttering one word. "...Vampire."

He'd never actually witnessed the process of vampirism. Somehow he expected it to be more of a dramatic transformation, but Chao Xue hardly appeared any different from before. There was something subtly different about the vibe he got from her though–the subtle air of one that teetered the line between humanity and something more. One would get the same feeling from a serial killer, really.

Xue touched at her neck where the scar from Negi's feeding was still very much visible. "Yeah. Imagine that." She looked to Negi, meeting the eyes of the black beast as its shoulders rose and fell with every harsh breath that evoked the ancient power that violently spasmed within. Gradually every breath became stifled as if Negi was consciously holding back the power, trying to squash it before it could flare into something horrible again. "You were still making a fool of me, Negi, even after I thought I had you all figured out. Not just a mage, but a vampire too. What an outrageous guy you've turned out to be, and you even had the audacity to pull me into your curse without asking my permission. I don't know whether to be furious with you, or absolutely charmed."

Strike wasn't affected by Xue's revival as the other two were. For her it was only that the mission simply was not finished, and that could have easily been corrected with a swing of her mace. "This is a problem, isn't it?" She asked of her master.

Sheik could not have thought of it any differently. "Not a problem at all." The inquisitor told her, directing a look at Negi who immediately stepped closer to Xue when Strike made that question. "We eliminated Xue just as was ordered, and that's as far as our business with her goes. If she was brought back from death that is not my problem."

The silver mace vanished from Strike's grip, allowing her to cross her arms beneath her chest. "You're the boss."

The inquisitor muttered with an edge of sarcasm. "Good to know someone thinks so." He did away with his blade. "What say you, Negi?" There's was still the matter of what the young magister still felt about all of this. The vampire still assumed the form of a beast, and even with Xue's apparent revival Sheik was not so foolish as to believe that all was water beneath the bridge, simply as that. They had been ready to kill one another but a moment ago after all, and violent tension like that didn't just melt away. "Do you still see any reason to fight?"

...This is a farce. It must be...

Negi's face twitched at that oddly placed suspicion. You can't be serious. She's standing there alive and well. What farce?

...Strike her down and you shall see. This is a deception staged by that man to coerce you into dropping your guard. See? One look at her and you are so eager to end the fight...

No! What kind of insanity it that?

...He has made other women appear before to do his bidding. How is her appearance any different? This one could be a shapeshifter or an illusionist. Strike her down...

Something was wrong–Xue could see it in the way Negi's brows began to scrunch up as if a sudden strain was placed against him, and soon after his body crumpled beneath it. The black beast let out a strangled groan and fell to his knees, planting both hands into the street with his claws drawing hard lines into the concrete.

"Negi!" The scientist drew near to offer some kind of support–at the moment she didn't know what she could do to help at all, but the flames licking at the magister's body became agitated with her attempts, lashing out at her as if the flames were trying to express the distress that the young man could not communicate with words. "Negi? What's wrong."

"...Dammit." Negi groaned out. The flames grew even more ferocious in response to his weary demands. "Stop this..."

Strike her down. The voice was no longer suggesting the course of action. Xue's presence was deeply disturbing it, and it was going to far as to exert its influence on him. He could feel his will bending with its every demand.

"Xue..." Negi looked up at her almost pleadingly. His eyes having been reduced to black voids, that he could express such a pitiable emotion was a feat in itself. "Run!"

Sheik stepped forward cautiously. "This doesn't look good. You may want to do as he says." He suggested to the scientist, but–

"You can shut the hell up." Xue told him, pointing a finger to him. "You and I aren't friends."

Strike her down NOW. The voice was coming off as desperate now.

"Oh...is that your game?" Negi's lips cracked into a frighteningly toothy grin that was just ghastly given his unnatural form. It set off an air of aggression that made Xue take a step away to consider just how dangerous her friend might have become in his emotional turmoil. "I won't play by your rules." And what the vampire did next went in line with what everyone was expecting–that was to say they hadn't been expecting it at all.

Xue almost allowed a shriek to escape when he acted. "Negi!" She jumped back. "What the fuck?!"

He reeled back until his listless eyes beheld the sky and then proceeded to slam his face into the dented pavement repeatedly with the last remaining bits of his escaping free will, over and over again until the self inflicting act was physically beyond his means of continuing. His bloody face disfigured and his arms wobbling like rubber stilts, Negi spared one last look to Sheik as if to tell him the deed was completed before allowing himself to collapse face first into a puddle of his own blood.

Strike squinted at the fallen vampire, her willing suspension of belief tested. Looking back at her master she asked, "Did he just..." The question died on her tongue. The rise of inner resistance from a possessed host was common. Some chose to impale themselves on their own sword with their last shred of self control(or whatever other sharp object happened to be within close proximity)–it was quick and elegant, others begged for sweet release to be granted to them from a loved one, which more often than not failed because the loved one had not combat experience to carry out the execution; the majority usually couldn't put up enough resistance to hold on to their identity and simply ceased to be. Never before had she seen a person actually hold on long enough, or possess the determination to commit to such an act of absolute madness and succeed.

It was almost beautiful.

Sheik bobbed his head considerately, perhaps well aware of what message was passed on to him by the young magister in his final moments . "Yeah..." And he appeared ever so humbled. "That's effective too."

[B] {Y} [E]

Evangeline had told him so.

"I never had a doubt that you would be a formidable user of the dark arts." His master told him in what he initially mistook for a rare moment of praise, however, her expression held no pride as a master would for a promising disciple. When he looked at her face it was as if staring at a stone bust; she was guarding her emotions from him. "Figure you know why, Negi?"

Two hundred and forty-seven laps around the resort could sap the effort and willingness to ponder such things. Admittedly Negi only pretended to think her question over before he answered her with a subdued, "Because of my father?" All questions and assumptions regarding his natural talents usually lead back to the 'Thousand Master' in some way or another–it was the natural law. Everyone believed so, and the idea had been shoved into his face so many times by old friends and acquaintances of the man that even he began believing it without question; it just became his go to answer for all things related to the subject.

"Although it's obvious how little thought power was squeezed into that answer, I'm inclined to say that you're on the right track." She told him, spreading out her toes as the wave rushed up against the beach shore they were sitting side by side on. "To be the son of the Thousand Master–well– a child burdened with that guy for a father is bound to have their quirks. In your case you had no choice but to become abnormal; that was your coping mechanism."

The young man shrugged. "Growing up in that town...I had to be the one to break expectations. I had to be the one to go above and beyond. I couldn't let Nekane take the abuse and harassment from the other residents in the town just because she was related to me, the son of the man that brought disaster to everyone's peaceful lives."

"So you studied hard and trained hard. You did everything you could to make your life worthy of the lives that were lost when the demons laid siege to your town. You told yourself that you had to become stronger than your father someday so that you could do the things that he couldn't."

"So I wouldn't let everyone down." Negi said with a reluctant nod. "That's what I told myself."

"That's what I'm talking about." Evangeline stopped him. "While your self tasked duty to safeguard everyone's lives may be selfless and noble now, you originally had self serving motives in mind. That desire to become stronger than your father was the only thing that kept you going, back then when you were the unwanted child, and it still drives you now. That is your obsession, and a fixation that powerful is what ties a mage to the dark arts."

Negi felt that Evangeline had opened an old wound, an ugly scar that he had been taking great care up until now to keep concealed from prying eyes. "I don't think I ever saw myself as the hero, if that's the eventual course of this conversation."

Evangeline shook her head, sighing. "No, that's not it at all. What I want you to understand is that you're more attuned to the darkness than you realize. Stan understood that more than anyone, and he did everything he could to veer you away from the dark arts. He had you study the light arts, had you attune yourself to elements like the wind that required you to free yourself of emotions most associated with the dark arts like anger. He had to do anything to separate you from that resentful little boy that hated the town."

"I'd like to think that person is gone." Negi told her. "I haven't had any reason to feel that way about anyone for a long time."

"No, he still exists there within you." She leaned over and poked him in the chest, pressing her finger deep until the nail bit into his skin. "He's the reason you're able to wield the dark arts so well, and he's also the reason why that voice in the back of your head speaks to you. You see, Negi, that's a fact you're going to have to accept if you want any chance against your dark ego."

"You mean that person that showed up during the Mahora Budokai?" The young magister inquired, thinking back to that person he became after meeting with Dorothy Summers before his debut match with Takamichi. "I haven't come across any trouble with it since."

"You haven't been pushed into it, that's why. The dark ego works on the host's darkest emotions; it picks at ideas and desires that the host is most susceptible to and uses it to get its way. In your case that would be the desire for power and the fear of letting other people down, those deeply ingrained motivations that have always been a part of your character." Evangeline's eyes narrowed as they bore into him. "It's a horrible existence, Negi. It feeds you what you want and in return it takes little bits of you and keeps taking until you're an empty vessel to be taken control of. Usually by the time a person afflicted by the taint realizes that its claws have sunken in deep it's too late by then, but that's because denial is its greatest ally."

"Denial of what?"

"Denial of the self." She answered him. "Denial that, yes, while your intentions to help others are noble at the very moment as it offers you the tools you need to fulfill those intentions, you have your own selfish reasons for pursuing it. You need to acknowledge that there is darkness in your heart that is always present–darkness that can be twisted for malicious purposes."

"Because that darkness is natural, is what you're saying." Negi finished for her.

"That's right." Evangeline rolled over on top to straddle him planting her hands at the sides of his head. "That darkness can only be used for evil if you allow it to be, and denying that it was ever there to begin with is the first step to letting that possibility become a reality."

"Eva..." Such intimate contact with her always made him feel slightly uncomfortable. It made him feel vulnerable to be cornered by her like this.

"It is temptation, and like all forms of temptation it will take hold of you before you're able to summon the strength to fight it. You are responsible for killing that temptation before it drives you to hurt the people closest to you." There was anger in her voice as she asked, "Do you understand me? That is your duty as one who is not a monster!"

He nodded, his pulse quickening under her fierce gaze. "I...I understand."

"For your own sake you'd best hope so." And as Evangeline delivered those last words to him they came as a parting because a black tide pushed over the beach shore, swallowing the both of them and possibly the entirety of the resort itself. Negi was tossed about here an there in the violent pull of the current, spinning about weightlessly without any sign of ever stopping until finally he was able to right himself into a stable, upright (or so he believed) position. Evangeline and the resort had both somehow vanished in the tidal wave. The black waves had pulled him so far out into the void of the stretching ocean that he couldn't see anything but darkness stretching out around him for miles–or perhaps it was that all had never existed at all to begin with and this nothingness was the true form of the world that surrounded him.

"Evangeline!" He cried out into the surrounding abyss, and his words were swallowed without even an echo to confirm that he ever said them. There was a ravenous quality to the darkness. It made Negi feel as if it wanted to consume everything he could give before it would feast on him in the very end. "Was it just a dream?" He groped at the darkness. He shut his eyes tight and opened them again to see if that would make the darkness vanish. "Am I having a nightmare right now?"

A violent chill crept up Negi's back; there was movement in the void with an unmistakable throb of vitality. He wasn't alone drifting in the darkness and whatever it was residing there was aware that he was in here with it. He could sense it swirling about in the black expanse like an enormous serpent. It was coming to meet him personally.

It then occurred to him that he was acquainted with this creature.

"You're 'it', aren't you?" The young magister felt the likening sensation of water rushing against his body, pushing him back with the arrival of the shrouded being. "You're the voice inside my head."

"Yes. The voice. I've been called that once before." The being replied, though it did not, ironically, communicate through a voice when it talked back. The words came to Negi as though they were scrawled directly into his mind. "Though I possess grander namesolder namesnames that have inspired horror in greater people than yourself, Negi Springfield."

"What are you, really? You claimed to be a part of me before, but now you're addressing me as a person separate from you."

"I am a curse brought down upon the vampiric race by an ancient queen." The shrouded being answered him. "I exist only to steal away hope. I feed on heroism, I sup on tender emotions until they run dry, I take control through bitterness and hatred, and I thrive on envy. I have fulfilled this purpose for many lifetimes without respite, spurring incandescent flames to burn at their brightest and spurring them still so that they quickly fade and I may find the next brilliant existence to extinguish. I am the void that consumes the soul."

"And that's what you intend to do to me? Snuff me out?"

"You are a vessel with which I shall claim a greater existence. Nothing more."

Negi couldn't shake the feeling that he was being backhanded. "Are you saying I'm not worth consuming?"

"I dwell in you, boy. I know you better than you know yourself. I am ever so aware of your hidden desiresyour darkest ambitions, and the bitterness that you hold in your heart. You protect those close to you so that you may prove yourself a better man than your father. All the power you struggle to obtain is for this purpose and nothing more. Who is it that you love? Who is it that you devote yourself to? No one."

"I do love others."

"The children under your tutelage perhaps? You do not harbor any genuine affection for them. You use them to boost your own morale, for what is the worth of a man if he cannot be loved by others? Your father was adored by many. That adoration for him still persists and encroaches upon your every achievement stealing away the value of your efforts. You must build a greater name for yourself so that you can finally emerge from his shadow with your individuality intact."

Negi felt a snap. "My father doesn't dictate my life!"

"You delude yourself, boy." Finally there came a voice, and Negi felt himself become very still. The shrouded being revealed itself to him, emerging from the void covered in the inky blackness as if pulling itself out of a body of black water. When it stood upright and the blackness had completely dripped from its body Negi felt a bout of nausea assault his senses. "What a pitiable existence you lead, Negi Springfield. You know not what you are, or what you wish to become. You only know that you must become something greater than your father, and that is your binding shackle from achieving true brilliance."

"That face..." Negi felt repulsion. He wanted it to go away. "What kind of monster..."

"I am only a reflection of the self!" The beast pounced on Negi knocking him down flat on his back and straddling him as Evangeline did–looking down at him as she did–doing it all while wearing her skin as if it robbed her of it and wore it to antagonize him. "You pretend, boy! You pretend to be the knight in shining armor, the counselor, the friend, but all you really want to be is more than HIM. You would do anything if it made you MORE than HIM. What dreams do you possess? Where is your passionyour ambition?! They come second to your obsession."

"I have goals!" Negi screamed back, eyes wilder than a beast. "I have dreams!"

"Then tell me! What are they, boy?! Tell me so that I may feed on them! The offerings that you have within you are paltry!"

"I...I..." The young magister felt breathless. "What's the point of telling you?!"

The beast smiled. "You will be easy prey for me. I've taken much from your master, Negi Springfield. I have taken my fill of her despair and it remains in my memory as the most decadent feast I have had the great fortune of partaking in. She escaped me, but only because she burned brightly enough to hold me away before I could take it all from her. You lack the richness and depth she possessed." The beast leaned in close and pressed its tongue to his left cheek, drawing the cold, slimy muscle up to the side of his eye. "Your treasury is lacking for the most part, but I can see a dim light tucked away deep in your vault, and do not fool yourself into believing that it will remain so. You've already given me passage into your heart once, and you were lucky to drive me out with such an uncouth method. So. Very. Lucky. It will not happen again, and when you do stumble and fall a second timeand you willI will be there to catch you between my teeth."

Negi awoke in a familiar room, though familiar only in the sense that he was acquainted with the layout of the furniture. There were no fond memories made here; it didn't possess the defining quality of warmth that the dorm room he shared with Asuna and Konoka had, and that sobering knowledge left the young magister feeling numb inside. There was no comfort to be offered to him here, and the knowledge that something so evil was eating at him from the inside out in more than just the metaphorical sense really did not need to be accompanied by his own emerging loneliness. He needed a smile, a laugh–something to take his mind off of it.

"I'm lacking, huh?" Negi held out his arm to inspect it. His skin tone was back to its normal complexion–seemed human enough. He figured that after becoming...whatever he became when he surrendered himself to the beast lurking inside of him he gave up the last vestiges of humanity he had left. "The best comfort right now would be realizing that this is all just a nightmare." He felt a weight against his stomach and propped himself up on his elbows to investigate the cause.

"Do you feel sick?" Chachazero asked in a groggy voice, half lidded at the eyes. She clutched at the sheets like a weary mountain climber. "I feel sick."

Negi let out a short laugh before replying, "I feel disgusting." He laid a hand upon his familiar's head with gratitude in his heart. At least he still had her to keep him in high spirits. He stroked at her head a while, smiling to himself at the way Chachazero leaned into his hand like a kitten, though the upturn at the corner of his lips fell as a thought entered his mind. "...Wait."

He was in Xue's home right now.

"What am I doing?" Negi scooped Chachazero up into one arm, threw the covers off and kicked his feet over the side of the bed to stand up. A particular detail caught his attention when he did; he was wearing pajama pants he did not recall ever wearing before. Also– "I smell like soap..."

Did someone give him a bath?

His memory of the events that took place between Xue dying in his arms and waking up a moment ago floated around his mind in wispy fragments. Perhaps it had much to do with how impressionable the encounter with the black beast in his mind was–recollections of anything else in that space of time were limited to little more than images of Sheik and his partners staring him down, and a terribly palpable anger. Yes, if anything truly remained in his mind from his encounter with the inquisitor it was that painfully hot emotion that clung to him even now. He had reached cathartic points of anger before in his young life, but what lingered behind as he tried to piece the fragments of his memories together was like coming to a page in his journal that described a particularly unpleasant experience and reading on as the handwriting quickly went from tidily penned and spaced words to a rapid degradation of scrawled words until it was all but an incomprehensible, angry jumble of indistinguishable letters.

"But this means something." Negi nodded to himself with that simple deduction like an avid researcher that had just come across something truly insightful. He opened the door to the room and the delicious aroma of home cooked food rushed into his nostrils with the following inhale of air. "Xue." His feet had already been leading him to the staircase when he said her name. He descended the stairs, jumping the last six steps and scurried over to the kitchen passageway, part of the way on his hands and knees, clutching at the doorframe as it came in reach to swing himself in, and when he saw her casually preparing food at the stove with a pleased grin on her face he came quite close to breaking into a strangled sob.

"Xue..." He couldn't quite say it loud enough to be audible. The relief he felt at seeing her was so emotionally draining that his vocal chords failed him, and yet Xue turned at the waist to stare at him just after it left his mouth like he had just cried out her name. He didn't have time to question what that was about.

Her reaction was immediate.

"Negi!" Her eyes lit up at the sight of him like he was the sun in her sky. Somehow she quickly turned that bright expression into the sort of face that made grown men pause at the door when their wife glared at them from across the hall. "AAAAGH!" She then proceeded to turn herself into a human projectile with him as the designated target, springing forward with both hands outstretched. She collided against him surprisingly hard, knocking the young vampire flat on his butt while maintaining a vice grip around his chest. Caught in between both bodies Chachazero could only grumble something unintelligible. "I got tired of waiting for you to wake up, dammit! Forty seven hours, twenty-two minutes of waiting to be frank, you ass!"

Now that was just cliché. "What?"

"You smashed your head into the street until the frontal plate of your skull caved in!" She scowled furiously, screaming into his face. "What the hell were you thinking?! If it hadn't been for the fact that your forehead just..." The scientist paused before she said the next word in the sentence as if uttering it caused her physical pain. "...magically...popped back into place about a minute after you pulled that act of insanity I would have..." Her eyelids narrowed until they were trembling slits showing defeat. She had not displayed this level of emotion since she confessed her raw feelings to him before running off to face Sheik on her own. "...Well, that's really just it. I don't know what the hell I would've done if you had just died. Since my mother passed on her deathbed I just haven't been so emotionally invested in someone else's state of health..."

Seeing the repressed anger and frustration behind those glazed eyes, Negi moved a hand to her back and stroked gently. He was uncertain about it, but he couldn't think of anything else that might have been appropriate for the situation. "...I probably should have told you about the vampire thing."

"No, Negi Springfield." Xue shook her head. "You weren't obligated to tell me anything that you were uncomfortable with sharing. I'm the one that strung you along into this mess, and you had every right to walk away from it before it could do you any harm, but you didn't." The idea made her angry. "Like some hero you just stuck it out. Even after I died you kept on fighting to honor me."

"Turn my back?" The idea simply didn't seem feasible for him. "That sounds cruel."

Xue smiled despite herself. "Hard to believe that idiots like you actually exist outside of children's books. Someone needs to preserve you somewhere for the study of future generations. It would do humanity a great service." She dropped her face into his chest muffling her next words, hopeful as they were. "Give me time. I could always find a way to clone you..."

"I don't think the world needs more than one of me."

"Maybe not, but it would be convenient for me." She lifted her head, a faint tinge to her cheeks. "You're leaving us, aren't you? I mean, not that it was ever your plan to stick around as long as you already have. If it weren't for me keeping you captive you would have left long before this mess ever happened."

"You can stop that now." Negi told her, managing a smile. "I don't regret anything about my time here with you, Xue. Our nights together talking in your kitchen, and even those long days in the lab gave me the opportunity to better understand you and I couldn't be more grateful or that. Losing you really hurt."

Xue hiccuped, looking absolutely adorable to him in that moment. "You don't really mean that..." She sniffed and looked to the side doubtfully. "Who the hell actually likes me? I'm a bitch."

Negi had a knack for replying to rhetorical questions without giving it much consideration. What would leave his mouth next would carry on that unfortunate knack, and possibly doom him to a future of further romantic entanglements that would ensure more discomfort in his life. "I like you, Xue, and if someone else ever tried to hurt you again I would fight for you."

Xue's lovely face lost all traces of ever understanding. Her brilliant eyes lost all evidence of her awesome intelligence. For a second singular moment amongst the many strokes of brilliance, and great achievements in her life the great heir to the Chao legacy was reduced to one unworthy of carrying on the name; she allowed her heart take precedence over her mind. A great taboo as one committed to a life of science.

After what seemed like an eternity she spoke again, her tone one of wonderment. "Ah, mother, for me to have been so young and foolish..."

It occurred to Negi that her words weren't meant for him, and when tears began to form in her eyes again he felt a foreboding in his heart. "Xue?" Did he perhaps break her?

"What a sin." Human contact was supposed to be significant; it was supposed to be thought of as progress in the march of man's evolution, the advancement of technological wonders, the rise and expansion of civilization, and the physical and mental development of a maturing human being. In light of that Xue had been a loner all her life, despite surrounding herself with the young women that worked under her at the restaurant she felt no genuine need to bond with them emotionally or physically.

She was well aware of the rumors whispered amongst her patrons–the gossip of her questionable sexuality; of the suspicions related to her female only workforce. They believed her to favor the company of other women over the opposite sex, and hearing that made her curious enough to test the theory, but it never quite clicked. The concept of sexual attraction didn't escape her–far from it. She understood it well, but it never quite made sense to her because the need was never present in her. She valued her own solitude. It freed her from the resulting complications of forming and maintaining relationships. She could do without emotional attachments and social obligations distracting her from focusing own her own development as an individual, and all of the extra time to herself allowed her to make strides in her projects.

So why did Negi Springfield make so much sense? Why did pressing herself against him to share in the warmth of his flesh comfort her so? Holding him close and becoming one existence was so inviting, and so unlike her usual reasoning and yet there was such lust driving her to make it all possible. She wanted him, agonizingly so. He was the answer that had been eluding her for so long and to let him leave when she had him here in her clutches would have been unforgivable.

"Xue..." He was groaning now beneath her. His blood was trickling from her lips as she continued to feed off his exquisite essence. Two days she had been watching over him, waiting for him to come to her and say those wonderful words so she could revel in this very moment, and now nothing would stop her from drowning in this ecstasy.

With this Xue finally knew happiness.

To Be Continued...