Chapter 31

Kurumu Kurono

Though he could not realize it, when Tsukune began to wake up that morning, drifting haltingly towards consciousness, he was not alone.

The shade of the snow maiden stood at the foot of his bed, as she had for hours. She had long ago given up trying to wake him herself; he could not hear her, nor could she touch him, her hand passing without resistance through his still form. She had to warn him, to let him know what had happened to her, but could think of no way to reach him. Her success had been equally limited with her other friends, and she was beginning to fear that the coming of daylight would offer no further solutions. Surely, though, when they noticed she was missing, they would come looking for her. They would find something, they would defeat that hulking shadow that had done this to her, they would all be fine. Surely.

That pale confidence was beginning to lose its luster, however, as the snow maiden noticed how strange she was beginning to feel. Not physically; she had no such sensation whatsoever, no body to respond to the world outside herself. No, it was her emotions that were worrying. As the hours had passed, she had noticed a creeping numbness beginning to encroach on her mind: her fervent concern for her friends, and for herself, had begun to wane. Her fears, her hope, her determination; all of it had slowly begun to dim, leaving her hollowed. This realization sparked a new wave of panic in her, and she clutched to that feeling, bending over the bed and shouting at the boy who slept there.

Hope blossomed in her heart as he opened his eyes, and Tsukune Aono looked up towards her.

Tsukune stared up towards the ceiling of his room, trying to free himself from sleep's clinging haze. For a moment, his mind was entirely empty, but soon enough memories of the past few days flooded into his mind. Opportunities for introspection had been rare recently, especially considering Ageha's recent visit, so he took the time to consider all that had been happening. Now, the second 'phase' that Kurumu had proposed had ended, and thus far she had not yet revealed a third, which meant they might think that he would try once more to make his final decision.

There was no way he could choose between those girls. After all, he loved them both.

His smile carrying an ironic edge, Tsukune sat up in his bed, shaking his head. For a moment, he paused, staring out into space. Wait, that wasn't right. He loved all three of them... all three… three… Of course he did. No matter how much Inner Moka claimed that he would have to choose between her and her outer self, that choice was equally impossible. Including her in the consideration of choosing only made the matter all the worse, he thought with a bitter chuckle, so perhaps he would be better off just leaving it at two for now.

Tsukune started to pull the blankets from his legs, but paused as a violent shiver passed through his body. He felt cold beyond any other time he could remember, even when he was… was… just so very cold. He tugged the blankets tighter around him for a moment, waiting for the feeling to pass. When he got up, he swore, he was going to adjust the air conditioning.

Finally the shivering ended, and he climbed to his feet, stretching for a long moment before beginning to get dressed. His eyes fell on the tome the Headmaster had sent him, and he couldn't help but feel relieved that he was done with that assignment; he much preferred the usual subjects to studying magic, especially magic he had never before encountered. Still, despite this, he wondered if he should pick the book back up and go back over the chapter he had finished the previous night. Something from it had resonated with him, and he hadn't found a satisfactory answer to that nagging feeling that he was missing something in it. He shrugged, thinking of the two girls that were probably waiting for him to get out of bed. Such things could wait, he decided; he would have all the time he needed to return to the Headmaster's tome later.

And with that decided, Tsukune walked to the door and opened it, stepping out into the hallway. As the door closed behind him, the shade of the snow girl watched him go with growing despair, sinking to her knees as she began to fully realize the futility of her efforts. She could only hope now that, when they noticed she was missing, they would go looking for her, perhaps contact someone back at the academy that could help save her and protect them. She could only hope they would do it soon, because even her earlier panic and hope had faded, leaving a calm nothingness in their place.

She could only hope in vain.

"Ah, sir?"

The Headmaster of Yokai Academy blinked as he heard the soft voice calling for him from nearby, and he turned to face Ruby Toujo with a carefully-composed smile. "Ah, Ruby, you've brought the day's paperwork. Good work," he offered smoothly, nodding a slight salute to the witch that served as his assistant. He turned his eyes down to the papers she was offering him, carefully refusing to allow his distraction to show further.

Despite his efforts, Ruby had noticed his absent-mindedness. It was very much unlike the school's master to be caught off guard, yet she had entered his office and walked to his desk without managing to pull him from whatever deep thoughts had trapped him. For a second, she considered asking him if he was feeling alright, but quickly changed her mind; even if he wasn't, he wasn't one to admit to any such weakness. Instead, she motioned to the folder located amidst the stack, hoping that, if she convinced him to continue talking, she would eventually be given a hint as to what was distracting him. "I've already collected the homework assignments for Tsukune and the others. The teachers are getting concerned, however, about how long they've been absent. Ms. Nekonome in particular is beginning to ask every time when they'll be returning… is there anything I can tell her that-"

"I will speak to her," the Headmaster responded coolly, pulling out the folder and flipping through the sheaths of paper it contained. It seemed Ms. Ririko in particular was striving to make up for their absences with extra work, and- The Headmaster blinked at the papers before looking up at Ruby with a slightly-disapproving frown. "You didn't get enough copies, Ms. Toujo," he scolded, holding the folder back towards her.

"What?" she asked, shocked, grabbing the folder and flipping through the papers. "Here's Tsukune's, and Moka's… and Kurumu's. No, I got all three copies, just like I have been. Are… are you alright?" she inquired hesitantly, answering his wide-eyed stare with a concerned expression.

"All three? What about Mizore's?" he demanded, cold certainty trickling into his gut.


Silence fell upon the two for a long moment. Finally, the lord of the academy nodded slowly and leaned back into his chair, suddenly allowing his weariness to show. "Very well. It seems I was mistaken; you have done well. I need to turn my attention to other matters now, so if you please…"

"Of course." Ruby offered him a terse bow before turning and walking to the door. She glanced back towards him one final time as she stepped into the hallway, not surprised to see him still sitting rigidly in place, his eyes lost in the distance. Unable to decipher his strange behavior, she allowed the closing door to seal him from her vision, though she resolved to speak with Yukari and Kokoa about what had happened. She would even see if they were familiar with the name he had mentioned… if she could only remember it…

Inside the office, the Headmaster of Yokai Academy winced as he wondered, and not for the first time, if recalling Michael and Gabriel had been the right decision. While he knew that they would not be able to destroy the wraith, they could have possibly restrained him for a short while. However, he knew that if the wraith had defeated either of them, the energy he would have drawn from their essences would have increased his power considerably. No, it was better this way; his original plan had been right. Still… he glanced at the folder and sighed. He could only hope that they would solve the mystery in time. Three days, if Mori Retsu had been telling the truth… if.

The Hell-King stood from his desk, walking over to a bookshelf cloaked in the room's ever-present shadows. He had offered Tsukune a wealth of information on the true nature and powers of Thanatos, but he felt that he needed to do something more; another hint that could tip the scales in their favor. His cursory search, however, turned up nothing of use; the subject was not one that was often covered. But maybe…

He returned to his desk, unlocking and opening one of its many drawers, and rifled through the papers there until he located the small book in their midst. He pulled it free, flipping through the pages; it was a collection of poems, which a more careful inspection would prove to be quite poorly written. As far as he knew, this might be the only surviving example of that text, though that would hardly increase its value save to the most eccentric of collectors. For him, however, it had served as a reminder: a memento of an unfinished conflict.

Nodding to himself, he slipped the book into the folder, and hastily penned a note to Tsukune instructing him to read the sole poem that would be relevant to his situation. It would hardly provide the boy with anything of use, even beyond its cryptic references, but at this point the Headmaster was willing to try anything that might increase their odds. And, anyways, he reassured himself, it might also help them if the traitorous guardian's plans progressed beyond this point. If they survived Thanatos, anyways.

The note completed and inserted into the folder, the Hell-King stood and carried the bundle away from his desk. Tonight, when Tsukune returned to the Hellmaw to send the trio's completed homework to the school, he would find their next assignments waiting for them. That deviation from the normal pattern wouldn't likely alarm Tsukune that much, but perhaps he would be slightly more on edge, more aware of unusual changes in his situation.

At this point, anything would help.

"Good morning, Tsukune!" Moka beamed at him as he stepped into the common room, scooting over on the couch in order to offer him a space beside her. He happily accepted it, grinning as Moka slid back towards him, while Kurumu sat across from him, distracted by the television remote she held.

"There's nothing on," Kurumu grumbled, lowering the remote and scowling at the television. She turned towards Tsukune, offering him the remote in the hopes he would have better luck, and he took it from her, beginning his own search.

"Oh, last night's package from the Headmaster contained a short letter from Yukari. They must have slipped it into my assignments by mistake," Moka commented, leaning slightly against Tsukune as he scanned through the channels. Kurumu glanced over at her, curious.

"What'd she say?" Kurumu asked.

"Well, she said that everything was going well at school. They're missing us, though I doubt Kokoa said it quite like that. She said that Gin was getting desperate for us to come back, since he's actually having to work on the paper himself now," Moka chuckled at this, and Kurumu offered her own laughter to the mix. Tsukune, still staring at the television, restrained the urge to claim that it served Gin right; he had just remembered what had happened the last time he had seen Gin. 'Knocked up,' indeed. However, that line of thought careened too close to dangerous notions, and a livid blush spread across his cheeks, one he was very grateful that the two girls didn't notice.

"Anything else?"

"Well, she said that there was some trouble brewing… something about rival student organizations. What was it…" Moka glanced skyward, searching her memory for the titles, before surrendering and digging in one of her pockets, pulling out the letter in question. "Let's see… ah, here it is. 'The Society of Monsters Assembled for the Study of Humanity' and 'Monsters United for the Negation of Cohabitation with Humanity.'" She blinked, scanning over the letters. "S.M.A.S.H. and M.U.N.C.H.?"

Beside her, Tsukune groaned. "It figures."

"Yukari says that there's been some trouble on school grounds because of it. Even some of the teachers have gotten involved. From the sounds of it, it's a fight over whether or not monsters should study human culture, but it goes even deeper than that." Her concern apparent, Moka glanced over to Tsukune. "It's probably a good thing that you're here instead of there, Tsukune." From the chair across the room, Kurumu nodded her own assent.

"Don't worry, hardly anyone knows that I'm human, and those that do wouldn't betray me to anyone like that," Tsukune reassured them with a calm smile. "Anyways, with you two beside me, and with this," he held up his right wrist, the Holy Lock that kept his ghoul-form sealed dangling from it, "I doubt I would have much trouble out of most of the students at our school. Any more than usual, anyways." Those last words were tainted with a deep exasperation.

"Look at it this way, Tsukune," Kurumu chimed in, light dancing in her violet eyes. "Now we know a way to boost my power, so I'll definitely be able to keep you safe!"

"Yeah, you can power up, by sucking it out of him!" Moka protested, her arm slipping around Tsukune's and pulling him closer possessively. "That would just make it easier for them to hurt him!"

"Hey, at least he won't have to risk the seal that way, right?" Kurumu pointed out, motioning towards the Holy Lock. Tsukune followed the motion, glanced down at the chain: several of the links on it were cracked. Even though he had gradually learned to control his monstrous powers, sufficient stress could still damage the seal, drawing him closer to that day that his ghoulish nature could consume him utterly.

"Well, yeah, but…"

"Don't worry. I'll figure out a way to restrain myself, so I don't drain Tsukune as much as last time," Kurumu promised. Moka scowled at her, certain that something lurked behind the succubus' words, but Kurumu responded with an innocent smile, which failed to calm the vampire's growing suspicion.

"I can't find anything either," Tsukune noted, uncomfortable with the path the conversation was taking and eager to turn it to less dangerous topics. "What'd you say we fix something to eat and then start on our homework? We'll have the evening, then, if we want to do anything else."

"Sounds good to me," Moka concurred, letting her attention fall away from Kurumu, who also nodded. Together, the three teens walked into the kitchen, chatting now about school and the things they missed there, including their other friends. With the argument past, Tsukune allowed himself to relax, enjoying the time he was getting alone with Kurumu and Moka.

Despite the conflicts, despite the danger he felt that he was causing himself, Tsukune couldn't help but count his blessings. While he knew it might not last, for now he had the affection of two beautiful, wonderful girls, friends closer than any he had ever had. His own feelings for them were growing out of control, and he hoped that the same might be true for them, even though he knew it would mean trouble eventually. It was a recipe for disaster, a good thing that would probably explode in all their faces someday.

But for now, nothing could come between them.

"Right this way, my dear." Mr. Takano swept his arm down the hall, motioning towards the door at its end. He smiled down at the woman clutching his arm, her head resting cozily against his shoulder. It was hard for him to restrain his nervous chuckle, though in truth he managed it better this time than he had during their date; he was hardly used to the attention of such a fetching lady. No, even the financial stockpile that funded this high-rise apartment had recently done little to overcome what many of his potential paramours/benefactors considered to be irredeemable personality flaws, such as his ironclad determination to remain faithful to his long-deceased wife.

Such thoughts had been quickly dismissed when he had met this particular lady. He offered her a grin that would better suit a schoolboy with a crush, marveling at her once again. She was obviously not of Japanese descent, though it was hard for him to pin down exactly where she had come from; southern Europe, most definitely, but it was hard to narrow it down further. Her hair was black and hung straight down past her shoulders, concealing the skin bared by her dress as it cascaded down to the middle of her back. The front of her dress, a shimmering black that had struck him as almost oily at first, was given no such concealment, and thus he was forced to tear his eyes away from the tempting valley that lured his gaze. Instead, he tried to focus on her dark eyes or the line of her high cheekbones, but she glanced away coquettishly, smiling with a shyness that had been completely absent from their interactions thus far. That was especially reinforced when he considered the fact that she was entering his apartment alone with him, a fact that thrilled him at the same time that it reminded him that he was completely in over his head. He had not expected this when he had asked her out to dinner, though now he could hardly decipher what had compelled him to do so. All he knew is that he felt hungry for her presence, for whatever she would offer him.

Though, why was it that he couldn't remember her name?

They entered the apartment, passing through the antechamber as he nodded greetings to the two guards posted there. Both men, loyal protectors that had served him for years, raised their eyebrows at the sight of his guest, but neither could force themselves to commit the indiscretion of asking. Instead, they stood rigidly as the businessman and the lady on his arm passed and entered into the private rooms, offering him a simple "Mr. Takano," in greeting. Their eyes did all the conversing that their lips were forbidden as their employer moved deeper into the apartment.

"Oooh," the woman breathed as they entered the living room, her eyes alight as she scanned over the lavish accoutrements of his private sanctum. While he rarely had guests over to his home, the man knew well the importance of appearances, and so had invested strategically in the furnishings of the initial chambers of his apartment, as well as the guest chambers that had gone entirely unused. His own room was comparatively spartan, though both elements of the home shared one specific decoration: large portraits of his deceased beloved, their frequency and prominence rarely failing to unsettle his visitors, though he was hardly aware of that fact.

As his eyes fell upon one such portrait, he hesitated, standing rigidly as his better sense returned to him. What was he doing? He had no right to betray his oaths to his wife, especially not with a woman less than half his age that he didn't know! He couldn't understand why he had been so captivated by this lady, held spellbound by her eyes and her full-lipped smile. No, Takano resolved himself, he had to end this before it went further.

His guest hardly noticed his inner conflict. Instead, she was moving from spot to spot in the room, gushing over the most elaborate of his furnishings with all the glee of a child in a toy store. She spent several moments gazing hungrily out of the wide windows along one wall, staring down at the night-darkened cityscape beyond. The man was too far away to hear her chuckle, as well as the whisper she let slip: "I'll take it."

"Listen," the businessman started, his voice cracking slightly, "I'm afraid I've made something of a mistake. I fear I might have misled you, Ms., ah…" His stammering choked, and he glanced away, uncertain how to continue. As he did, his eyes fell upon something that momentarily stole his attention: when had the shoulder of his jacket gotten so frayed? Why, it was practically threadbare, and a quick glance to the side proved that the other side was not so afflicted. Only the side where the lady had just been resting her head-

"Well, yes, you are making a mistake," the lady admitted, shrugging delicately as she turned to face him. "Fortunately, that is fine with me. I really didn't want things to go much further anyways." She walked towards him, her nose wrinkling as she said the latter. He stared at her in confusion, and she smiled at his dumbfounded expression.

"Listen, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave," he rallied, his face setting in the stern mask that his business partners had come to expect as his default expression.

"Leave? But why?" The lady glanced around the room, her smile widening. "This is my new house."

"Yours? What do-" His voice was cut off as the woman's hand lifted and extended towards him, and a moment later Takano dropped to the floor, his hands still reaching futilely towards his throat.

"Sir!" Hearing the shout and the noise of his body hitting the floor, the two guards barged into the room, already reaching for the holsters they wore at their sides. Their gaze fell first on the woman, who still stood near the window, before racing over to their employer's still form. Their eyes widened as they stared at him, shocked by his condition: his form was desiccated, the skin on his face stretched tight in his final soundless scream. Figuring out what had happened to Mr. Takano could wait, they both knew, especially when the culprit still stood before them. With that in mind, they both drew their pistols and leveled them upon her, deciding to choose caution over diplomacy. They answered her dark smile by pulling the triggers, freeing four bullets to travel across the room towards the lady in the black dress.

One bullet grazed past her and through the window, and she glanced irritably back towards it, her good humor departing. A quick examination of her attire similarly soured her mood, and she scowled furiously at the two bodyguards. "Do you know how much this cost?" she demanded, otherwise unfazed by their barrage. "I'll be taking that out of your pay."

Panicked, the two tried again, their pistols releasing their payloads in quick succession. Their target was less satisfied in remaining still this time, however, and she reached out towards the leftmost guard. Her arm stretched, covering the distance between them in an instant. As it did so, it swelled, becoming an amorphous green mass that swallowed the bodyguard's torso and head, pulling him from the ground. His partner watched, staring through the semi-transparent ooze, as the guard died, his face tightening as the life was drained out of him. "M-Monster!" the remaining bodyguard wailed, turning to flee, his pistol falling uselessly to the ground. He made it to the door before the other hand caught him, pulling him away from his succor, and a moment later his corpse also fell to the floor.

In the silence that followed, the woman shook her head in disappointment as she looked at her now-disheveled abode, wondering how much it would cost to have it all cleaned and repaired. Still, it was miles above her most recent dwelling, she was forced to admit. She glanced at the bodies with an uncharitable grin. "I feel better, at least," she consoled them, enjoying the surge of life energy they had donated to her.

She padded over to the couch and plopped down upon it, wiggling to test its general comfiness as she kicked off the heels she had chosen for the night's successful hunt. Satisfied, she stretched out upon it, resolving to examine the rest of the apartment in a moment. For now, however, she could-

The ringing from her purse interrupted her thoughts, and she scowled at the expensive bag for its indiscretion. The cell phone inside had been acquired by means similar to the apartment, so it was all but impossible that the call would actually be for her; she had mostly claimed the device to relieve her envy towards those who had them. In a fit of pique, she decided to answer the annoying chime, and reached into the purse to snatch up the phone. Flipping it open, she held to it one ear and answered with a bright, "Hello?" She smiled as if the person on the other end could see her, and cut them off quickly with "I'm sorry, you must have the wrong- excuse me?" Her smile vanishing, she glared into space as she listened to the voice on the other end. "My 'old boss,' you say? Hah, sorry, but-" If her expression before had been suspicious, her reaction to the next words was ice-cold fury. "Don't call me by that name. Whoever you are." With that warning offered, she contented herself with listening for a moment more before nodding. "Fine, whatever. If that happens, I'll be ready for him. But don't call me again." She snapped the phone shut before the other person could reply, scowling petulantly towards the night sky.

It wasn't fair. And after all the effort she had put into this, she was going to have to leave and try to track down… well, whoever this 'Sam' was. She knew that he was lying; there was no way that Death would be resurrected. After all, hadn't she seen to that personally? Still, if Thanatos was around, that would be enough for her to stay on the move, just in case. She glanced around the apartment one more time, pouting, before climbing to her feet and reclaiming her discarded shoes.

A moment later, the door to the apartment closed once more. It would be the next day before the bodies were discovered by the maid, and the police would arrive soon after. They would find no trace of the murderer, however, no matter how hard they searched. She was gone into the night, searching for her next victim.

"It looks like we'll need to go shopping soon."

Tsukune glanced up from his reading as Moka walked back into the common room, placing his finger on the line he was pausing on. The vampire walked around the table to claim the seat on his far side, leaving the chair empty; with Kurumu at his other side, the arguments had been fewer in number, and they had managed to make record time through their homework, Moka helping him and he helping Kurumu in turn. Now they were all but finished, and Moka, who had been the first to complete her work, had gone to check on their supplies for dinner.

"We can go tomorrow, or at least two of us can. We'll have to take a cab, since we can't rely on the Coopers," Tsukune commented. They had received a call from Roy Cooper the previous day, the caretaker informing them that he and his wife would be staying in an apartment nearby for the next few days, a vacation suggested by the Headmaster's guardians. Tsukune knew that he was at least partially responsible for that, considering what had happened when he and… when Mrs. Cooper had confronted him about his relationship with Moka and Kurumu. He had assured Mr. Cooper that they would be alright, especially since they had already taken a cab to town once when they had visited the karaoke club, but even as they had said their farewells it was obvious that Mr. Cooper was concerned for him. Tsukune didn't know why; what was the worst that could happen to them at the Resting Place? It was certainly safer than Yokai Academy.

"How about Tsukune and I go? I'll help you with dinner in return," Kurumu offered Moka.

The vampire considered this, tapping her chin. "And I get a half hour alone with him."

"Fifteen minutes," Kurumu countered. "We'll be in a crowded shop, so that's a fair trade."

Both girls glanced to Tsukune, asking his opinion. He shrugged indifferently, and with that the two leaned back to stare into each others' eyes behind his back for a moment before nodding. Tsukune chuckled weakly, noting that he was getting used to being a bargaining chip; it was far better than the girls bickering, certainly. And, either way, it wasn't a bad deal for him.

"Oh, but one thing," Moka spoke suddenly, glancing over at Kurumu disapprovingly. "We don't need as many sweets this time. I can understand the cookies, but the lollipops you bought last time are still in the freezer… and why did you put them there, anyways?"

"I didn't buy anything like that," Kurumu commented, distracted by the remaining homework in front of her.

"What? But, then, who… ugh…"

"Moka, are you alright?" Tsukune asked, concerned. Moka was clutching at her head, her expression pained.

"I'm fine… just a headache, that's all." Despite her words, still she winced, not relinquishing her grip on her temples. Now even Kurumu was staring at her anxiously, and her feeble efforts at smiling for her friends failed to comfort them. "I'll be fine, I…" She winced again, letting the sentence die.

"Maybe you should lie down. I think we have some headache medication; I'll take you to your room and get it for you." Moka responded to Tsukune's offer with a tight nod, allowing him to pull her to her feet and support her as she walked towards the stairs. Kurumu offered her own wishes for Moka's health as they passed, eyeing with vampire with open concern until they passed out of sight.

A few minutes later, Tsukune returned to the common room, nodding to Kurumu as he sat down beside her. "She's doing better. By the time I brought her the medicine and a drink, she was already looking better. I got her a washcloth and soaked it in some of her herb-water, and told her to put it on her forehead; maybe that will help." He shrugged, still obviously worried. "I think she fell asleep as I was leaving, so maybe that will take care of whatever it was that was bothering her."

"I hope so," Kurumu responded, her relief genuine. She tried to focus her attention back on her assignments, but she fidgeted, alternating between looking up at the ceiling that would be below Moka's room and shooting guilty glances toward Tsukune's face. Finally she quashed her uneasiness, turning towards the boy beside her. "Tsukune…"

"What is it?" he asked, glancing up from the tome in his lap. His eyes lingered for just a moment on the phrase he had been reading: 'a student of this school can, with enough practice, call forth buried memories, or even erase them altogether.' Looking over at Kurumu, he was surprised by the hesitant look he saw in her eyes.

"I know this probably isn't the best time for this, but I wouldn't mind the distraction, and it is kinda fulfilling something I said to Moka…"

"What is it?" Tsukune asked, confused.

"Well…" Kurumu muttered, unable to directly approach the subject. "I told Moka I would find a way to restrain my powers, but I can't do that without practice…"

"Oh!" Tsukune blinked as he realized what she was implying. "I don't know…"

"You said she was feeling better, and anyways, she'll get time alone with you tomorrow!" Kurumu insisted, though it was obvious that she hadn't dispelled all of her own guilt over the matter. "Plus, it'll only be for just a moment…"

Tsukune looked down at her, reading the questions in her eyes, before nodding slowly. "Just a minute or two, then." He smiled at Kurumu, reaching out to hug her closer to him. "And more, after Moka's turn tomorrow," he promised.

Relieved and not able to hide her growing hunger for his attention, Kurumu drew closer to him, pressing against his chest as her lips sought his. Tsukune returned the kiss whole-heartedly, the embrace lacking the desperate passion of their last time together, a slow, determined exploration in its stead. Kurumu moaned slightly into his lips, her arms wrapping around his neck, and he held her tighter in response.

Now that he knew what to expect, he could feel his energy being drawn from him, but it wasn't an entirely unpleasant experience. If he had to compare it to something, it would be like waking up in the winter and slipping free of the blankets; the growing chill made him want to seek succor in the warmth of her lips all the more, and so he allowed himself to press slightly harder against her lips, feeling her respond in kind.

A moment later, they broke the embrace. Tsukune smiled down at her, feeling the tiredness creep upon him slowly this time, instead of the rush that had made him collapse outside her room on the previous occasion. In response, Kurumu beamed up at him, a healthy glow in her cheeks. He chuckled, restraining the urge to return to kissing her; it was more difficult than he had expected, even with the aftereffects. "I think you're getting better at that," he complimented her, leaving his words intentionally ambiguous.

"I still need a lot of practice," she replied, her voice becoming surprisingly sultry. His cheeks reddening, Tsukune forced himself to look away, lest he give into the renewed temptation.

"I'll, ah, look forward to that," Tsukune commented, still blushing.

Contented, Kurumu turned towards her homework, but her head rest against his shoulder in the process. Tsukune, however, made no such effort to return to his reading, still analyzing the gradual effects of Kurumu's powers. It was definitely more subtle this time, but his analogy had proven considerably apt: he felt a sudden chill, as if she had taken some of his body's warmth in with her kiss. It was like the last time he had kissed… "Ugh…"

"Are you alright, Tsukune?" Kurumu asked, openly afraid for him. First Moka, and now Tsukune; he was clutching his head just as the vampire had, his pain written across his face. Unlike Moka, however, he quickly recovering, giving her a calming smile.

"I'm fine. It was just a sudden pain. Maybe I've got whatever's bothering Moka. If so, it's not as bad of a case." He pushed himself up from the couch, standing shakily but soon regaining his balance. "I think I'll go lay down, just in case."

"Do you want me to-"

"Don't worry, I'm fine to walk to my room," Tsukune reassured her. "And it wasn't anything you did, so don't think that. I probably have been reading this too much," he suggested, motioning towards the Fundamental Varieties of Magic. He nodded to her once more before walking towards the staircase, her eyes on him the whole way.

Only once she had heard the faint sound of the door to his room closing did Kurumu allow herself to relax. She wondered once more what it was that was afflicting her friends, and swore to check on both of them once she had given them both enough time to fall completely asleep. It was odd that they would both have such fierce headaches so close to each other, but she could think of no satisfactory explanation

For a second, her eyes fell on the Fundamental Varieties of Magic beside her, but she restrained herself. She remember all too well what had happened the last time she had touched a book the Headmaster had meant for Tsukune, and she could do her friends little good if she was in a charred, twitching heap. No, she would nurse them back to health as best she could, whatever the problem was.

With that decided, Kurumu resolved to finish the last meager remaining scraps of her homework, so that she could focus her efforts on her friends. They were all that was really important, now.

"I can see why Tsukune hates going to get the homework," Kurumu grumbled to herself as she stepped back into the Resting Place, closing the door firmly behind her and locking it. It hadn't helped that she had waited until after dark to fetch the next day's work, making her step from the night-cloaked yard into the shed, and then into the oven that was the transportation device's chamber. She had jumped at every waving shadow as she had made her way back into the house, and now was sufficiently unnerved.

Still, she couldn't ask Tsukune to get the papers; both he and Moka had spent the better part of the day in their rooms with their headaches, coming down only to eat the dinner she had prepared for them before returning to their beds. Their headaches had become tolerable, they had assured her, but seemed to flare up every now and then. Truth be told, at times Kurumu had felt one coming on herself, but had managed to stave off anything as serious as that which had afflicted Moka and Tsukune.

The fact that her friends were most likely already asleep did little to relieve the inexplicable trepidation Kurumu felt as she turned off the lights in the kitchen, and moved to do the same in the common room. She had nothing to be afraid of. After all, she was a succubus; it would take a mighty powerful spook to take her down. Especially, she noted with a warm surge of confidence, when she felt as powerful as she did right now. Tsukune's energy still coursed through her, a warmth that denied the chill outside, and the cold inside the Resting Place itself. She blinked at that; hadn't she adjusted the thermostat earlier?

With the final lights downstairs deadened, Kurumu turned to make her way upstairs. Something drew her attention to the side, however, before she could head towards the light at the head of the stairs: the front door had been left unlocked. Kurumu blinked at that, uncertain when any of them had gone through that door last. Shrugging, she reached out and turned the bolt, resolving to ask-

"Kurumu Kurono."

Cold beyond what she had been feeling lanced into her stomach as she turned, staring in sudden terror at the shadow that had interposed itself between her and the stairs. The massive form loomed over her, and she stared up into the black holes in the skull-mask that covered the thing's face. She knew that she had already been attacked, but there was no time for that; if she let it, whatever this thing would go after her friends after she was finished. She willed her nails to extend, called the shadows to reach out for the hulking shape. She would not allow it to harm her friends-

The folder dropped to the floor before the door, and Thanatos was alone in the foyer. He glanced up towards the top of the stairs, considering the notion of advancing his plan faster than intended. No, he decided, best to stick with the current rate of progress. He knew that he would be reunited with his soul once the other two were consumed, but every time he used his powers to erase one of them, it greatly weakened him. Only once they were completely devoured would he have the power necessary to enforce his claim upon the artifact Fairy Tale held, and only by delaying his efforts could he ensure enough strength to fend off any attacks the organization might make upon him before his task could be completed.

With that decided, he watched the shade make her way up the stairs that she had failed to reach in life, making her way to those who no longer knew her. Already, Thanatos could feel her energy flooding into him, along with the stream from the previous girl. Soon, they would both be devoured. Soon, he would be whole once more.

The door opened, allowing Thanatos out into the night, and it closed and locked behind him, leaving no sign that he had ever been there.

Author's Note: First off, please allow me to apologize for the lateness of this installment. I have been reassured by some that a couple days delay is not worth sweating (words I deeply appreciate), but I… well, I'm my own worst critic, as they say. Perhaps it's pompous, but I view this writing as training for the day that I might one day take up the pen professionally (I am allowed my grand ambitions, overly-lofty though they might be, am I not?) As such, I try to be my own editor, complete with daily scolding for breaking deadlines. And so, two days late is grounds for sweating indeed, since my driving force has quite the sharp tongue. I will note, however, that if I am to be late, I strive to include a note in the last posted chapter letting you all know; if you wonder why you've not seen the next installment, that would be the place to check.

But, my reasons/excuses: it has been a rough few days. I have been recovering from an ear infection, complete with prescribed steroids that were far too unkind to me, and just as I rally from that, a whole night open for my literary pursuits… I end up going with my wife to the emergency room. She's fine; it was a pinched nerve, or so we were told, but I've been a little distracted keeping an eye on her nevertheless (To m'lady, should you read this: remember to take your Motrin, eh?). Beyond that, a visit from company and an emergency collaborative section for Project Toren have left me unable to focus on the task at hand till tonight.

It also didn't help that this chapter was a tad harder for me to compose than expected; to be honest, I had seen this and the following two 'dark' chapters as a means to an end, rather than giving them the full attention they deserve. Thus, I was forced to compose additional content for this chapter, which I hope managed to salvage my earlier miscalculations… please feel free to tell me if you agree or not.

On the subject of chapters, next installment: Well, I'm not giving anything away, but I will offer one, ah, warning, I suppose. I do not intend to include a lemon in this particular tale, but the next chapter will feature the closest thing I will have, most likely. Just letting that be known. Oh, and should I prove capable, intentionally bad poetry. Unlike normal bad poetry, which is the other kind I am capable of.

To return to something I have mentioned occasionally. I have alluded to Project Toren from time to time, and have put a link to it up on my profile, but I feel that I should elaborate further (shameless self-promotion paragraph; for those utterly uninterested, feel free to skip to the next). Project Toren is an experiment concocted by my wife and a mutual friend, and eventually they drew me into it as one of the concept-designers/staff writers. It is a combination webcomic/webnovel; we refer to it by the word webnovic, which we made up. As a general description, it's a sci-fi action-adventure tale; I fear any further elaboration would become overly wordy. So, for those of you brave enough and with the time to waste, I suggest checking it out. If you do, and like it (or don't, I suppose), feel free to contact me via FFN's messaging system (preferably not via reviews for this story), or utilize Project Toren's pristine forums… we don't advertise, save for efforts such as this one. My thanks, either way.

Aanyways, I fear I have rambled far too long for a single author's note, even considering that I decided not to include one last time, for reasons that were no doubt apparent. Thus, I shall see to the final checks over this section, and then to posting…

And what was the other? Oh, yes, Nyquil! And sleep.

~Wynn Pendragon

P.S.: As of 12:45P.M., the next chapter is still not ready to be posted. I've really just now hit my writing groove, so it'll be later today, if exhaustion doesn't kick in. Wish me luck!