Author's note: Yeah, I know. I'm late. Between writers block, work, Canada Day celebrations, recovery from same, and my neighbor's insistance on partying loudly at all hours of the goddam day and night I had just a bit of trouble getting this finished. But it's done now, and posted. So yay. Anyway, presented for your hopeful enjoyment is Chapter 20 of Grand Tour. As usual I don't own any of these 'verses and I'm too poor to be worth suing.
At least I got it up the day of, rather than leaving this plot on that last cliffhanger for another week.
She didn't recognize them specifically, but the five figures in the near distance had the definite feel of Mazoku. With the amount of power she felt from around them, they were almost certainly Mazoku Lords of some sort, too. Lina Inverse swallowed hard to clear a lump in her throat. This was going to be... interesting.
Below, the black-armored warrior began to charge towards one of the Mazoku, screaming a name. As he moved, they cast something, and the area was enveloped in dark energy. A chill ran through her as the skies seemed to turn to a wave of skulls.
Nanoha's practiced eye recognized what the strange mages were casting as some kind of barrier, fell and terrible, and quickly descended. "Lina! Let's get groundside and I'll bust this open." The redheaded mage followed after a moment, expression guarded. Trying not to think to hard about what she was standing on, she landed, sent a mental command to Raising Heart. The Intelligent Device began burning through its clip of cartridges, funneling power into her attack as she concentrated on a point in the bloodred sky above.
As she powered up her spell, she probed the barrier. As she'd first suspected, it seemed to push everything within it slightly out of phase with normal reality. Similar in theory to those she dealt with most of the time, though none of the usual barriers were quite so... macabre. "Divine.... BUSTER!" she shouted, casting the spell as it reached a full charge. The iridescent purple beam lanced skyward, pierced the vile sky. After a moment, it seemed to split, bloodred skulls giving way to pale blue sky. Sundered, the barrier collapsed and retreated back onto itself, restoring sky and landscape to normal.
She turned her attention to the five dark casters. Time to deal with them.
There'd been no hesitation on Ranma and Ryoga's part. When Guts started to charge, they followed. The blonde swordsman, Gourry, was barely a step behind them, golden sword at the ready. There was something... wrong about those monsters. They'd take the bastards down, and they'd definitely back a comrade in arms. When demons started popping up in job-lots it broke up their charge a bit, but they kept going as best they could. Ranma and Ryoga lost ground to the two swordsmen, fists and ki-blasts proving less adept at dealing with demons than swords, but they kept at it gamely.
"I wish I had my umbrella!" Ryoga shouted as he body-flipped one of the demons into another.
"It's back on the ship," said Ranma.
"What?" Ryoga's tone was incredulous.
"I saw it – Moko Takabisha – in a pawn shop a couple planets ago. Couldn't find the rest of your stuff, though."
"Dammit Ranma, why not?" He hammered another demon. "And why didn't you bring my umbrella?"
"Didn't have much time to look, man." Ranma paused a moment to pound on an interfering demon – they had an irritating habit of not staying down. "An' I kinda forgot about the umbrella. We were in a hurry when we came down here."
"Dammit Ranma! You got me into this mess, and you couldn't even find my damned stuff?"
Ranma blinked, then yelped as he barely dodged the next demon's assault, having allowed himself to become distracted. "I got you into this? How is your family curse my fault?"
Ryoga grumbled something incoherently as he delivered a jaw-shattering kick to one of the encroaching monsters.
"Didn't catch that, P-chan."
"I heard a rumor about a scroll detailing a secret technique. I was looking for it when I wound up in space."
"How is that my fault?"
"It-" He paused a moment. "So it maybe isn't, but you still shoulda brought my stuff!"
Ranma blasted another demon. "I'll remember next time I try and save your sorry butt."
Gourry was managing to keep up as he and the black haired swordsman – Ryoga's friend called him Guts - were tearing through the mazoku horde that was pouring onto the battlefield through a handful of what looked like gateways. He rather hoped the mages would get to work dealing with those; he had his hands full working over the beasties within swords' reach.
Ahead, Guts was stalled by a particularly massive mazoku – it was taking a lot more killing than the others. A heavy swing – even now he was too damned fast with that sword – chopped off a clawed hand. As the mazoku reared back, Gourry darted in, Sword of Light stabbing into the creature's hip and tearing out its belly. Gourry was a bit surprised at how much gore the blade was generating – vastly more than normal. He put it down as yet another way in which this world just sucked.
Gourry brought the Sword of Light back to a guard position. The mazoku were giving him some room now. He took a moment to catalog his wounds; a few nicks and scratches so far, nothing that would slow him down. Glancing at the black swordsman, he saw that Guts had picked up a few incidental wounds too, and a cut of some sort on the back of his neck that was bleeding freely. That could be a problem, though given how freakishly strong the guy was, he'd probably last long enough.
As magical blasts – finally – began to fall among the serried ranks of mazoku, Gourry and Guts stood side by side, exchanged nods, and charged together towards the red-armored Mazoku Lord Guts had been charging for. Black blade and golden carved a bloody path through malformed flesh.
Fate dropped another Thunder Rage into the demonic ranks, thinning the herd around Ranma and Ryoga. The five spellcasters on their side were all hovering fairly close together, hammering away at the foe as they tried to figure out their next move, dodging acid spit, thrown spikes, and energy blasts. Nanoha sent a mighty blast at one of the boss demons, and the squidlike creature seemed to be laughing as it caught the blast on a shield. If Nanoha's blasts couldn't crack that shield, her own certainly wouldn't. She'd have to get close.
"Bardiche: Zanber form."
"Yes Sir." Her Intelligent Device shifted form in her hands, and she felt a familiar thrum of power as it obeyed her mental command to start powering up.
She gripped the weapon in both hands, streaked towards the "Sonic move."
The world slowed around her as she streaked towards the monster, ready to deliver a mighty blow of her golden blade. In the time-skewed view the spell generated, she saw several flying demons turning towards her with what looked like comic slowness – she knew that without her own speed spell they would seem far faster, but as it stood-
And then, perhaps fifteen meters short of her target, she slammed hard into a barrier spell. It was pulsing outward, shoving her back. Reacting quickly, she brought her blade to bear; but it's golden edge simply skipped off the oily-looking barrier.
She fell back, glaring at the cheerily grinning monster for a moment before turning her attention to its minions, who had caught up. The fierce aerial duel was brief, punctuated by a volley of blasts from her fellow mages, sweeping the sky clear for a moment.
But more monsters came, their masters protected from the mage's wrath by their potent barriers. Another Divine Buster flashed and failed against the barrier protecting the tentacled demon. They needed a plan. While this barrier was no more powerful than the one they'd used to try and shunt the battlefield out of sync with reality, it was entirely specialized for defense.
Gut's world was nothing but himself, Griffith, and the hundred-odd yards of ground between them. The demons between the two were barely noticed, nothing beyond things to strike down with the Dragon Slayer. He could feel the blood pumping from his neck, flowing under his armor and soaking into his tunic. He could feel half a dozen cuts and scrapes from other demons, but they didn't matter. The feeling of his eye being gouged out; the sound of Caska's cries; filled his mind. Vengeance would be his.
He put his armored shoulder down as he reached the oily skein that formed between them, slammed into it, bounced. Growling, he tried again to push his way into it and failed. For a few moments he tried to slash at it with his sword, but the mighty blade slid off it without cutting. He broke off from his fruitless assaults as the encroaching demons caught up with him. He laid into them, venting his fury at being denied his strike at Griffith.
Gore flew from the Dragon Slayer as he cleaved through demon flesh, a mindless shout of anger escaping his lips. At the back of his neck, blood pulsed from the Brand of Sacrifice with every beat of his heart. He felt its heat increase; Griffith was walking closer. Glancing behind him, he could see the demon that had once been his friend, the face, though half-hidden behind a steel mask, clearly that of the same man. A faintly mocking grin turned his lips upwards as he closed in, knowing well what his close approach was doing to Guts.
The trickle of blood flowing from the Brand of Sacrifice became a stream, then a torrent as Griffith stood perhaps fifteen feet away, still smiling faintly, as Gut's vision began to gray out. He sank to his knees, the only sound he could hear the thunder of his pulse as demonic claws closed in.
The Sword of Light swung in a high arc, decapitating the mazoku who was reaching for the fallen swordsman. Gourry planted a heavy kick to the monster's flank, directing its collapse away from Guts, struck down another mazoku that was trying to close on them. A space thus cleared, he grabbed the larger man's unarmored arm and pulled him up, half carrying, half dragging him away from the shield and the red-armored Mazoku Lord standing nearby. He shot the monster a glare, was rewarded a mocking salute.
Ryoga and Ranma, plowing as hard as they could through the enemy horde, reached his side. Ranma paled a moment when he saw the torrent of blood flowing from the swordsman's neck. "Kamis... we need to get him out of here!"
"I know," shouted Gourry, "Cover us!"
With the two martial artists hammering away at them, the mazoku were unable to fully close with Gourry and Guts. The black-armored swordsman was still alive, breath ragged but still coming, one hand still gripping the hilt of his massive sword. The flow of blood from his neck was slowing; Gourry wasn't sure if that was a good sign, given how much of it had been coming before.
He was damnably heavy. After getting him not much more than a hundred-fifty yards away from the Mazoku Lord, Gourry had to put him down. The mazoku were growing bolder, pressing closer, and he needed sword in hand. Over the fighting, he bellowed for Amelia.
The white-clad princess wasn't far. Amelia had seen the four ground-bound fighters working their way back from the shield, the scary evil man being carried. He was clearly injured, and he'd been helping them... She didn't like him at all, but to bring these Mazoku to Justice was going to take everything they had. Besides, as her Zelgadiss showed, appearances could be deceiving. She stopped sniping at mazoku and streaked down to where they dragged the larger man.
The sheer amount of blood closed her throat for a moment as she landed. She forced herself to swallow her gorge, laid a hand on the still-bleeding wound, and closed her eyes, calling up the most powerful healing spell in her repertoire. Healing energy flowed into Guts for a long moment, then a wave of dark power struck her through the spell, throwing her back.
That was no normal wound- there was some kind of curse laid upon it as well. Hand throbbing in pain, she looked at her handiwork. The wound was not fully healed, but it had closed, scar tissue marking what had been red and raw. The big man took a deep breath and started to stand. "Thanks, little girl."
She put a hand on his shoulder. "Don't! You need to save your strength!"
The one-eyed man's savage grin all but terrified her. "Save your worries for them, girl. I have strength enough."
Lina glanced around. This was getting ridiculous, even by her standards. More Mazoku were pouring onto the battlefield, and they'd yet to close with any of the generals – every time they tried, a bunch of the bigger minion demons piled up in front of them, with blasts flying around. Flagrant use of her magic was keeping the demons from massing too heavily near them, especially with Nanoha, Fate, and Zelgadiss helping, but there were just too many of them.
But the boss mazoku, or whatever they were, were staying out of easy reach behind that damnable shield. And in this damnable place, she couldn't draw upon Shabranigdu for a Dragon Slave, which severely curtailed her offensive firepower. "We need a plan 'B,'" she shouted to be heard over the fighting.
Nanoha shouted back, "Agreed. Fate and I have tried to call our ship, but these things are blocking magical communications."
Zelgadiss threw a Mega Brand that blasted a decent chunk out of the enemy ranks. "They don't care about losses in their minions – we need to close with them somehow, or cut off their flow of re-enforcements."
"I'm open to suggestions," said Nanoha. She drifted closer to the others as she cast a volley of spells. The more Lina saw of that staff, the more she wanted one. Still.
"Zel- that portal," Lina gestured to the nearest of the portals from which Mazoku poured. "If you can get to it, can you collapse it?"
"Probably. Do you have a plan?"
Lina thought for a long moment. They weren't going to be getting re-enforcements of their own anytime soon. Even if Nanoha could contact some kind of ship, they were too far from any body of water for cannon fire to be able to support them. She'd never be able to close enough to use the Ragna Blade, not after seeing how easily they'd blocked Fate, who was far faster.
"I'm sorry, Sylphiel," she whispered. Then, louder - "Yes, I have a plan. Can you guys keep them off me for about a minute?"
"Of course," said Fate. Nanoha nodded agreement.
"I'll need some kind of magic booster- my own booster won't work that well here."
Fate tossed her a small, circular device with six brass casings sticking out of it. Each brass held a chunk of what appeared to be magic in crystallized form. This would work wonderfully. "Thanks!"
Zelgadiss, who knew her better, narrowed his eyes. "What are you thinking, Lina?" At her lack of response, he continued. "You know what would happen if that goes wrong! Have you gone mad?"
"Do you have a better idea? Just keep the bad guys off me. Nothing short of this has worked."
Zel sighed, took up a guard position. This was not going to end well, but at this point there really was no way that it could end well. He took comfort in the fact that the last time Lina tried this they survived.
Lina dropped from the sky, settling on a rocky outcrop on the battlefield. She took a deep breath, calming her thoughts and preparing.
First, she needed power. "Lords of Darkness of the Four Worlds," she began,
"I call upon you, grant me all the power that you possess!" The Demon's Blood talismans at her waist, throat, and wrists glowed with a faint inner fire. They had almost nothing to draw on here, but she pressed the cartridges against one of the gems, and they discharged into the talismans. She held the power a moment and surveyed the field for a target. Two of the mazoku lords were standing fairly near each other at the edge of the pain. That would be as good a target as any.
She took a deep breath and began to cast.
Darkness beyond blackest pitch, deeper than the deepest night!
King of Darkness, shining like gold upon the Sea of Chaos, I call upon thee!
I swear myself to thee!
Let the fools who stand before me be destroyed... by the power you and I possess!
A wave of black energy shot through with jagged bolts of white blasted forth from Lina's cupped hands. It crashed down onto the mazoku hordes like the wrath of a dark god and rolled onwards, devouring the monsters it touched and growing in depth and breadth as it tore through them. The two Mazoku Lords in its path pushed more power into their barrier. The wave of darkness crested above them and crashed down with tsunami force, cracking the barrier like an egg and washing outwards, ravening through the assembled throngs of mazoku before finally dissipating.
As the smoke cleared, Nanoha's eyes widened in disbelief. She'd been worried at the general feel of the last big spell Lina had thrown, but it had nothing on the raw, nigh-elemental evil of the spell she'd just cast. In its wake, the ground had been scoured clear down to the bedrock in a massive swathe, clean of demons, corpses, and life. Of the two demon lords there was no sign, and her Wide Area Search couldn't see evidence of a teleport. That had been an incredible spell – over a third of the demonic horde had been wiped out in a single stroke, throwing the rest into disarray – but it was terrifying. Even Hayate would be hard pressed to match that display.
She looked to Lina, saw the young sorceress collapse. Lina was unnaturally pale, skin and hair bleached white from the strain of the spell. She raced to the younger woman's side. "Are you okay?"
Lina pushed herself upright. "I'll be fine. That spell takes a lot out of me. There's your opening; use it before they recover." Already scattered spikes and bolts of energy were starting to fly towards them again from the horde before them.
"We will." She gripped Raising Heart tightly, felt its power surge in response to her thoughts. "Don't worry." Ranma.
The martial artist's response was delayed a moment. Kinda busy, here. What's up?
Lina's down. Can you get here? She blasted a demon that was getting too curious about the exhausted mage.
Gimmie a second...
From a fair distance within the demon horde, she saw Ranma leap skyward, his friend Ryoga not far behind. In a display of agility and speed she wouldn't have thought possible for someone without magical enhancement, the two bounded from head to head in the confused throng, finally coming to rest near Lina and Nanoha.
"We're here," said Ryoga.
"Stomp those big guys," said Ranma.
"You're in good hands," Nanoha said to Lina before taking to the sky again. The skeletal demon lord, and its insectoid companion, were no more. Three to go.
Slan twitched her wings and smiled as one of the outsiders charged at her. She'd come at Femto's behest not to secure the lost Sacrifice for his sake, but because this mortal, with his incredible ability to withstand pain, fascinated her. Seeing that he'd somehow managed to gather powerful companions was impressive – so seldom did mortals manage anything like that.
Seeing one of those companions so powerful that she had killed Void and Conrad with a single stroke brought Slan to an emotion she had thought long purged from her soul: fear. The chaos energy of the spell – something no mortal should have been able to wield in such amount – had disrupted the weave here. She could not simply slip away, much as she wanted to. Still, she'd seen no sign that any of the others could use such chaos magics, and thus she could survive the destruction of this body in spirit form. It would not be an experience that would be conventionally pleasant, but her tastes in pleasure were far from conventional.
With a blur of inhuman speed, her claws reached for the belly of the blonde-haired warrior-mage that had charged her. Those claws – which should have disemboweled the female human – scraped against the armored material that composed her outfit. She had just enough time to process this before the golden spellblade the female wielded came slicing down, removing her arm and most of one wing. A shriek of pleasure slipped out as she stumbled backwards. The flat of the golden blade struck her flank, sending her airborne for a moment.
Her lost wing not yet regenerated, Slan struggled to right herself as she fell, managing through inhuman grace to get her feet under her before striking the ground. She opened her mouth to yell something mocking at the mage when true, crippling pain struck her. She shrieked in pain so pure even she could not perceive it as pleasure as blue flame consumed her, body and soul.
As the pain receded, she turned towards the source of the attack, saw two of the outsiders, clad in white. One of them was human, small, female, and black-haired, the other had the feel of one of their Apostles. She tried to mentally reach for that one, tried to turn its will to her own. The blue-skinned male sneered at her, and sent another volley of blue flame after the last. The ravening fire was re-enforced by the female in white, and when it faded, no sign of Slan could be seen.
Ranma and Ryoga fought side by side, hammering away at the encroaching beasts. They'd started to get organized again, and were trying hard to get to Lina, probably to get her before she could repeat that last massive spell. They really didn't need to bother, she looked halfway unconscious right now. But she was in danger, so the two martial artists would protect her while she recovered her strength. Even though they'd both rather be helping Guts and Gourry.
This was starting to get a little ridiculous. These demons were tough, and could absorb most of what Ranma was throwing around. Ryoga was doing a bit better, accomplishing with raw strength what Ranma's speed was struggling with, but even he was being slowly pushed back. These things didn't feel pain, didn't have pressure points. It was a pure brute-force-and-profanity fight, and Ranma was running low on both. Using the Amaguriken to plant hundreds of punches a second into one spot worked but far too many of these demons had skin so hard it was like punching steel; he'd nearly broken his hand on the last one he'd tried that on. His Moko Takabisha was working decently, but overusing it was draining – he chalked that up yet another thing to work on if he survived this.
He mentally ran through his list of secret, sealed, and forbidden techniques for something to try. The vacuum blades his father had created for the Yama Sen Ken would be damnably useful right now, but he'd been too busy avoiding them to study the technique while fighting Kumon and he'd not pressured the damned panda to teach him the trick. The Hiryū Shōten Ha would work wonders, but there wasn't enough hot ki floating around to make it work.
Hot ki. Wait one kamis-damned second...
Ranma mentally ran through his fight with Lee and the conversations with Lee and Mushi that followed. He had adapted some of the components of their style to his own use, but not the full technique itself. Generating fire aboard a spaceship had seemed a poor idea to him. He'd not really experimented with it much since, either.
Well, it wasn't like he had anything to lose right now.
Dancing back from the monstrosity he currently fought, he took a deep breath and started channeling his ki the way Lee had. For insurance, he slipped into a Shaolin Kung Fu stance, and attacked.
A grapefruit-sized ball of fire flew from his hands and impacted the monster's chest.
Cackling with maniac glee, Ranma launched into an assault, sending blast after blast into his foes, most punctuated with a fist's blow for added emphasis. Quick experimentation showed more ways of generating flame, virtually all of them extremely ki-efficient, as he'd noticed observing Lee. The demons he fought didn't much like flame, either, and they started to give him some more room.
They weren't the only ones to notice his blasts. "When the hell did you learn to throw fire, Ranma?" Ryoga's shout was incredulous and jealous.
"Couple planets back, same place I found your umbrella."
"Dammit Ranma! I suffer though all this mess and don't find a single technique that I can use, and you managed to learn how to throw fire? It's just... so unfair!"
Knowing what was coming, Ranma lept away from the usual blast radius, grabbed the still-not-quite-upright Lina, and yanked her behind a rocky outcropping for cover.
Surrounded by a surging tide of demons, Ryoga screamed at the sky. "Shi Shi Hokodan!"
Zelgadiss landed next to one of the portals, threw an Elmekia Lance through it to discourage anything from coming through for a moment, and concentrated. He wasn't a specialist in portals, but he knew more general magical lore than any other member of their little group, a consequence of his seemingly endless quest to cure his condition. He found the portion of the spell that kept the portal anchored. There were probably better ways to neutralize it, but that would do. With a percision born of years of experience with both magic and sword, he stabbed his blade into the portal's mouth, sent a bolt of power along it. It severed the tendril of energy that bound the portal, and the portal collapsed in on itself with a popping noise.
Zelgadiss smiled as he took to the skies and raced for the next one. He loved it when a plan came together.
Guts felt invigorated. He was utterly surrounded, blade swinging like a metronome, cutting through demon after demon. And though he could feel the pulse of his heartbeat in the Brand of Sacrifice, he wasn't bleeding. They'd lost their little trick to keep him away from Griffith. The oily wall that had stopped him before was gone. It was payback time.
To his left fought Gourry, his golden blade cutting through demon flesh with greater ease than Guts' own. Side by side they advanced through the enemy ranks, leaving job lots of gore in their wakes. The God Hand was growing increasingly desperate as it threw demon after demon at the two swordsmen. Guts' blood sang as he pushed through the demonic ranks. This utterly unexpected second chance at striking down his hated enemy was a mighty gift, one he intended to use to its utmost here and now. He had his second wind, and a mighty explosion in the middle distance threw the desperate horde into even greater disarray.
Bellowing the name of his hated foe, Guts charged through the confusion, straight for the red-armored monster that was once his friend. Two hapless demons without the good sense to get out of the berserker's way were cut down, then he had a clear run across fifty yards of open ground.
Griffith gestured. Instinctively, Guts dodged to the right, barely avoiding a blast of black energy that tore a swathe through the demons behind him. He continued to charge, sword coming around from behind him to deliver a blow that would tear Griffith in half.
It never landed. The Dragon Slayer slammed into some kind of shield. It felt like he'd swung the blade into a boulder, the impact ringing up his arms. Undaunted, Guts swung again and again, each blow being stopped by the shield, but each blow getting closer to the armored form. Suddenly, Griffith's mocking smile vanished, his eyes focusing. On the lack of arterial spray from the back of Guts' neck.
The single moment of panicked realization was all Guts needed. Griffith's concentration momentarily broken, he was unable to keep his personal shield going. The Dragon Slayer broke through it and slammed into his side. Griffith was lifted from the ground by the strike, crashing down. Awkwardly, he rolled aside, barely avoiding a descending blow of Guts' sword. He drew his own blade and sought to parry his next strike.
He blocked it directly, not a parry or redirect, but a straight block of the attack. It was Guts' turn to be surprised. He fell back, parried an attack of Griffith's, shocked at the strength in the blow. He had become vastly stronger since their last duel. He fell back before a series of strikes, trying to find an opening. Something, anything he could use. He'd come too close to fail now.
Then the demon who was once his friend snaked its blade inside his guard, delivering a cut to his still-flesh arm, then slamming against the blade, twisting it out of his grip and flipping it in the air. Guts watched in a moment of helplessness as his blade spun through the air, embedding itself in the ground fifty feet away.
Between him and his sword was the demon that had once been his friend.
Nanoha chased down the stunted, tentacled demon that had been her first target. Having observed its compatriots in desperate straits, rather than try and help them, it was trying to run. It hadn't made it far enough to escape her wrath. She did not look kindly upon those who attacked her and her friends.
She popped off a few quick Divine Shooter volleys, keeping him honest and preventing the monster from running flat out. It worked. The monster had power, but little courage. And, without the aid of his compatriots, not much in the way of mystic defenses. A bind spell caught the fleeing creature cold.
Binds were not, in general, all that hard to get out of, when one expected them or was familiar with them. The demon Nanoha snared was neither. He struggled, crying out. Nanoha slowly drifted around ahead of him, fixing the monster with a look that stopped his cries and wails. "You should not have attacked my friends."
As Nanoha's mental commands caused a runic circle to form beneath her feet, the demon, looking at the expression on her face, took on an aspect of raw terror. As Nanoha began to cast another spell, it renewed its struggles and began to babble, promising power, riches, glory, anything, if only she would not destroy it. In the face of the white-clad magess preparing to to deliver destruction to it, it saw a cold rage that would not have been out of place on another of its kind.
Nanoha, face expressionless, began casting her spell. It was a spell of her own concoction, adapting the Divine Buster spell that Raising Heart had taught her when she had gained enough power to be able to use it, all those years ago. It took that already-potent spell and added to it, gathering up any and all residual energy from other spells cast in a wide radius around the casting point and using them to empower the beam. The main battlefield was within that radius. An amount of raw power was gathering for her spell that greatly impressed Nanoha – she hadn't worked with this many powerful mages at once in a while – and while she was slightly unnerved at the feel of some of the energy coming from Lina's big spell, she was greatly happy that she was going to be on the giving end of this blast, rather than the receiving end.
Power gathered, she mentally disengaged the safeties of the spell – the half-line cantrip that prevented it from outright killing the target – and took aim at the demon, now sagging against its bonds and weeping openly. "Starlight Breaker!"
A brilliant purple beam, its core too bright to look at directly, shot through with streaks of black chaos energy, lanced towards the ensnared demon lord. When the flash and flare cleared, not even ash remained.
Ranma gave the dust a moment to settle, then peered over the top of the boulder he'd used for cover. His eyes widened in surprise. Ryoga had outdone himself; he was standing at the center of a crater almost a hundred feet wide, and twenty deep, surrounded by pulped demons. That would certainly help with matters. He glanced down at Lina, who was using the boulder to help herself upright. "You gonna be okay here for a minute? Can't let Ryoga have all the fun."
The sorceress nodded. "Go for it. I should be able to get airborne if I have to."
"Gotcha." Ranma sprung over the boulder, picked a nearby demon, and started blasting. Once he got the ki flowing, the fire blasts were very efficient, and were producing plenty of hot ki. The fact that they were doing at least some damage to the demons was pure gravy as far as Ranma was concerned, he just wanted to set himself up.
"Ranma, you are teaching me that trick even if I have to beat it out of you." Ryoga shouted to be heard over the battle as he body-flipped a large demon into one of its compatriots, a vaguely porcine thing with far, far too many spikes sticking out of it. Both went down in a heap.
"We'll see what happens, P-chan. I could be convinced to show you how it works."
"I'll figure something out. I always do. You might want to stop putting out hot ki, by the way."
Ranma blinked, looked at his friend. Ryoga was walking in a circle in a stride that was deceptively calm and even, despite the fact that he was punching, kicking, and throwing more than a few demons out of his way. He was still following a course that Ranma recognized, though he'd never seen Ryoga walk it before, and come to think of it, for being in the middle of a fight his tone was totally level and his ki looked neutral, almost cold- OH SHI-
Ryoga gathered his feet under himself and launched into an uppercut. "Hiryū Shōten Ha!"
As the whirlwind spun into existence – scooping up Ranma, who had still been firebending when Ryoga started it – it started ambling aimlessly through the throng of demons, scooping them up in ones and twos. It didn't hold all of them, simply flinging some unfortunates into the distance or their groundbound compatriots. What little organization the horde had managed to gather began to crumble, and the mass of the demonic horde broke and fled.
Guts lept backward, powerful legs barely keeping him out of the arc of Griffith's sword swing. He darted back, trying and failing to stay out of the demon's reach. He dodged another, almost lazy, slice, then planted boot to red-armored chest, pushing Griffith – stronger perhaps, but he still massed less than Guts – off balance. The black swordsman wasted no time, artificial hand flipping back, cannon firing barely six inches from Griffith's torso.
The cast iron cannonball slammed into the red armor with a loud bong audible over the echoes of the blast. As the powder-smoke cleared, Guts broke into a run, eye fixed on his sword.
He didn't make it. A leathery wingtip clipped his leg, spilling him to the ground. He rolled into a crouch and looked up. Griffith smiled down to him, chest and stomach streaked with powder and ash but unharmed. There was an oblong smear of clean armor below his collarbone and just left of center where the cannon ball had hit.
"Still only human," he said in that damnably melodic voice. "I am so much more. More than you could imagine, more than you could even hope to comprehend." The point of Griffith's sword raised, pointed straight at his chest.
Guts refused to give into despair. "Caska chose me, not you, monster. You can't be all that 'superior.'"
Anger flashed in Griffith's eyes, tugged at his cheek. "You will regret that, Guts." The sword-arm tensed, preparing to strike.
A golden flash; Griffith staggered to one side, one wing half-parted. With an expression of surprise he turned towards Gourry, barely managed to parry the blonde swordsman's next strike. "Not today, Mazoku."
Gourry and Griffith exchanged blows for a moment, the demon so surprised at this intervention that he fell back before the attack for a few steps before recovering and putting the blonde on the defensive. But before he could press his advantage over the smaller man, Guts returned to the fight, Dragon Slayer in hand.
Against either one of them, Griffith would surely have prevailed. In life, he had been one of the, if not the, best swordsmen in the world. His ascension had only increased his speed, strength, and skill. But the gap between his skills and Guts' were small, and Gourry was every bit Guts' equal, wielding a sword made by artisans far more skilled than any this world could boast.
Against them both, he fell back, step after inexorable step. A shriek of utter pain filled the air, marking the death of one of the other God Hand. Griffith redoubled his efforts, but the attempt gained him little; he was on the defensive again when winds began to whip and tear at earth and horde. The Dragon Slayer battered at his armor, even where it could not penetrate impacting with enough force to shatter bones in any mortal opponent. The Sword of Light gouged at the demonic steel, weakening the armor and carving at his body's energy with each cut.
Backlit by a nova of purple light, Griffith finally stumbled. The Sword of Light stabbed past his defenses, penetrating his breastplate and cutting him to the bone. Gourry twisted the blade as he pulled it out, and the breastplate cracked. He managed one more parry before Guts delivered a devastating overhand blow, opening his body from shoulder to crotch, damaged armor shattering before it.
Utter disbelief filled him as he hit the ground. The demon Femto, once the man Griffith, had no breath to speak but mouthed a silent 'how?' to an uncaring sky as the Dragon Slayer descended once more, severing head from body. The demonic form crumbled as the energies animating it escaped, fading like dust upon the wind.
On a nearby hill, overlooking the battleground, an enigmatic figure known only as the Skull Knight watched the God Hand fall and knew hope for the first time in decades.
Long had he accepted that his struggle to overthrow the God Hand was a hopeless one. Their power was greater than his, greater than that of all who sought to stand against them. He continued to struggle, for he had more power than the smallfolk who were so utterly defenseless against the ravaging whims of this world's demonic overlords. He refused to succumb to despair, driving against them and disrupting their aims whenever he could. He had known, somehow, that saving the humans Caska and Guts from their clutches would disrupt their plans. He had no idea how much. He could not have imagined how much.
He dared not hope that their evil was forever vanquished, for he knew that they were a symptom of the corruption of this world, not its cause. But with them so weakened, their plans so assuredly in disarray, perhaps it would be possible to counter them fully, to set this world on a path that would not fuel creatures such as they.
The Skull Knight removed his helm, feeling the sun's light against his scarred head for the first time in longer than he cared to remember, and cried tears of hope, offering a wordless prayer of thanks to whatever gods might be listening, for this chance.