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· Chapter I · Sleep Now ·

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On some nights, he laughed louder than on others.

Rokuna had always been one for girly, cozy things. Her pink room, her photo albums, her obsession with fairies, the time she spent on becoming a good artist and her household skills were testament of someone who was the perfect example of the Yamato Nadeshiko (despite some vague claims she was too dominant for that). She had her fairytale prince, love bubbles and all, and they went on adventures and he'd protect her and ...

A sphere of holy light surrounding Mondo, then his pained screams. The red mask over it.

... things hadn't gone like the fairytales she loved so much. The prince on the white horse who came to rescue the princess from the dragon and took her home to marry her and to have a happy ending together...

Walls of flesh, goo that she floated in, a womb without exit. The red mask over it.

Nowhere did the fairytale say the prince would lose the white horse and become a catatonic wreck and nowhere did the fairytale say the princess would have to possess the dragon to keep it from killing the prince. To bend that creature against it's masters command, it made her more like the witch.

She frowned at herself and sat up in bed, this wasn't helping her sleep. The dark of night was all around, comfortable and safe. It had never frightened her and it still didn't. Reda had not taken this much of her feeling of safety, but he never fully wanted to leave her mind. It was as if he was living in the corners of her soul, snickering madly as he realized he wouldn't die just because she remembered him and still bore the scars. Rokuna tried to ban him from her mind so eagerly, but at the same time, another side of her warned her against it. Was it wrong to forget?

The image of a burning grave appeared in her mind. The red mask was over that, too, but it's crack showed clearer. She lingered here. Those weren't the fondest memories, but at least about him she no longer had nightmares.

Seechee sighed in her sleep as Rokuna tucked her in a bit better, then she turned over and closed her eyes again.

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The only sunlight that ever reached the barren land of Kharon came through a hole in the sky above the ruins of Reda's castle. There the sky had once been red and black, but now that its lord was gone, the clouds were gray as they were elsewhere in this sub-dimensional bubble. The thorny bushes had started to bloom from the light and water that came through the holes, but they were bleeding flowers.

A lone range of mountains formed a circle around the ruins, beyond those was a vast white horizon that couldn't possibly fit under the earth without it collapsing. The Forest Angel had explained once that Kharon wasn't really located under the earths at all, Reda had severed it from the demon realm to avoid interference from other the tribal hierarchy. There were plans to reattach Kharon to the overall Makai, however, somehow Kharon did not cooperate.

It turned out Reda had done some extensive adjustments to the dimensional structure of the miniature realm, and one such included several massive labyrinths that served as prisons holds and laboratories for his experiments. Today they were here to clean up one such newly discovered facility.

Mondo landed the plane close to where a small group had gathered. Most of these helpers were part of the group that had linked to the Saint Star Dragon, their closest allies.

The Knights were first greeted there by the Songstress, or rather, Saki as they presently called her. Even though nowadays she was involved with a certain Daisuke, Mondo couldn't keep himself from wooing her. However, Rokuna didn't need to do much about it anymore. Saki now had her own firm, if gentler way to deal with it. Giant roots have many different applications.

"I'm sorry Mondo, can't let you go sparkly on me anymore." she said with an apologetic smile as she called some roots to hold him away.

"Do remember to untie him later, please." said Ichirobei, before noticing someone was damaging the paint job of the plane and hurrying off, always managed to steer clear of drama.

Rokuna glared at Mondo for a moment, who suddenly felt rather happy he was protected by Saki's vines. Several of the bystanders managed a chuckle, but overall the atmosphere was pretty grim. The work they were about to engage in didn't leave much room for anything other than that, really. Most watched the sky, waiting for some other latecomers.

They didn't have to wait long.

At that moment, the sky changed color and the clouds came into motion around the distant hole. From this area near the mountains it was barely visible, but now the formerly dim light shone fiercely and seemed to descend.

The way the colors of the world reacted to Rainbow Spinner's presence was as ever a sight to behold, one that Rokuna never would have enough of. The now blue and aquamarine colored clouds moved along as well, in accordance to a shadow that followed her closely. The colors spread till above their location and there the light gradually merged with the clouds till they were a dusty glow. In a spiral it descended into the crack in the earth, illuminating the way they would soon take. Angel's dust, driven by the wind command of a demon.

Their first task completed, the two guardian angels broke from the magical pillar and approached the group.

Mondo, finally diverted from Saki, wrestled free from the vines. He signaled Pegasus and turned to Rokuna.

"Rokuna-chan, let's go greet them" he said cheerfully. When Rokuna declined his face saddened a bit, but he had his smile back soon enough and hopped on Pegasus alone. Mondo always, always managed a genuinely optimistic face and Rokuna couldn't help feeling her spirit lifted a bit. Just a bit.

"Yo, Zaha, Shiru-san, Ruth!" Mondo shouted energetically as Pegasus circled them. Shiru answered the greeting, Zaha said nothing but smiled and raised his hand with a short motion as acknowledgment.

Mondo noticed the absence of the imp quick enough. "Yaaaaikes!"

A sharp poke in his back made him turn, only to see the snickering imp disappear. "Oh yeah, so mature." Mondo muttered.

The imp reappeared aside of Zaha, who couldn't help but smirk at Mondo's expression, but then his face grew solemn again.

"How it going with the angels?" Mondo asked, spying something was amiss.

Shiru sadly answered :"There are a few that came to help, but we couldn't rouse many of them. Lady Sophiel did promise she'd gather other help next time."

"They're just scared." Zaha said with an unreadable tone. Mondo couldn't guess whether he was angry at them or angry at himself, or angry at all.

The heavenly realm was 'severed' from the Rokumon World just as much as the demon realm, if for other reasons. Only now did some gradually come forward to help the demons, ... little by little proving Reda wrong. Sure enough, as he turned several other dots broke through the clouds, spreading their wings wide in this alien sky. But their number was small.

"I'm sure they'll turn around eventually." Mondo said optimistically. But there was no assured answer to his proclamation, not even from Pegasus.

The little group and their larger tail gathered around the Forest Angel, who had knelt down at a cavity in the ground. The Mon Colle Knights briefly introduced themselves to the new-coming angels, an overly formal but thankfully quick ceremony.

The angel dust meanwhile streamed into the hole from high above, pressing out a sickly scent. The crack seemed like a normal cave leading to an underground area, but in reality it wasn't. Just a few meters wide, it was the air hole of the large labyrinth that the Red Death Angel and his associates had used for experiments. Most of them he had lost interest in as he had started to focus on breaching the Time Realm, but his staff had continued. Some had fled after Reda's defeat, some still ran their places hoping to stay hidden. You could usually tell by the smell.

The true entrance was a magical gateway that had to be activated with a spell, teleporting the entrants to the center of the facility. This gateway would kill any prisoner who was teleported away without a code incited, and this code seemed gone along with Reda. Since they had no time to hack his elaborate magic spells, they did things the old-fashioned way : they would dig out the labyrinth.

The Forest Angel called Saki to stand at her side. It was time.

"Everyone, back off now!" the Earth Dragon buldered. As everyone complied, Saki folded her hands, drawing together the energy of her magic. Invisible, unsensable to all but her, she called forth the Green Wind, the most raw lifeforce of the Rokumon World. Likewise, the Forest Angel evoked the earth that was hers.

Their hymn started gently and with a sad tone. Around the pillar of angel dust, a slight green hue became visible for only a moment, then the ground startled to tremble and roots of all sizes broke it. This was only the tip of the iceberg, many more roots dug deeper and deeper into the desert, loosening the ground : earth and life combining their force. Soon, the giants and the dragon could begin clearing away the rock.

Soon, but not soon enough for the impatient Knights, a spiraling tunnel was made to the area downstairs. They would continue to carefully widen it if larger creatures would have to be brought up, for now, the immediate risk of collapse was over.

"Rokuna-chan, you sure you're gonna be okay?" He always asked this before they entered. She could feel his concern, he had noticed things were different, different ever since the Dread Dragon. Mondo was not one to pressure her into talking however and that she was grateful for.

"Mon-chan, I've done this plenty of times. If we go down there, we'd have to be more worried about you."

He managed a nervous chuckle. "That's true."

"I'll be fine, Mon-chan. Really. You make sure all goes well up here, then you're helping me down there too."

Mondo had a phobia for ghouls and undead things, like Rokuna with toads. Having him get a panic attack in the middle of such a dangerous place wasn't very convenient. They could they merge with a monster like this, as they had done during the first labyrinth mission. Mondo had been given a freak-out by a pack of zombies and impaired the Forest Angel with whom they had merged at the time, rendering her immobile. Help had been around, but if it hadn't been ...

Since then Mondo stayed up with Pegasus, overseeing the make-shift camp and jumping in whenever something broke loose or needed to be subdued. This way, he could steer clear of the things that spooked him, plus Rokuna's sixth sense worked better when not merged anyway.

"See you soon, Mon-chan." With that, she leaped down the cave, landing on a ridge and then deeper into the earth till the angel dust was the only thing that shone on her. Mondo watched after her, then he took to the sky with Pegasus.

Remnants of the hall where the air vent started were still visible between the rubble and roots. Followed the primary flow of angel dust, Rokuna went ahead to the control chamber.

Like Reda's castle had been, the prison was meticulously clean and devoid of any furniture, but the walls were ornate and almost swirly in design. Elegant lines were carved in the white rock, most plant-like, some vaguely skeletal, a mockery of the atrocities that had occurred here.

The air became thicker she went and the humid stench intensified, it signified the presence of many living creatures who had long lacked proper care. It made her quicken her pace.

The control chamber was at the center of the labyrinth, as usual, and hence not hard to find. The subterranean leader of the mission had already arrived and had called forth an elaborate magical map, quite akin to a hologram.

"How far from the first usable hall are we?" Rokuna asked once she entered this chamber.

The Black Tango Cat gracefully turned, her blue eyes focusing on the human girl. "I'd say about seven hundred meters. We'll need some more diggers down here though."

"I'll pass the message." Rokuna offered, though she knew it would not be necessary.

"Already done." said Giselle as she twirled a small crystal ball on her claws.

"Oh, alright. And you've sent someone to the nearest cell blocks too, then?

The cat nodded. "Some of my own people. The residents of the block are fairly weak wind Elementals. Nothing my kin can't handle."

The Black Tango Cat, Giselle, had the rare gift of being able to sense alignments and magical clusters. Along with her intelligence and power, it made her an excellent choice to lead the subterranean mission. Off course, it looked ... awkward, to say the least, to have bulky monsters taking orders from a tiny anthropomorphic cat clad in a tutu. It usually took her about one little 'dance' to prove herself, though.

Right now, Giselle was working on working her way into the magical system that controlled the area, in order to ease opening the doors and seals. The Forest Angel and Saki far above were already breaking away at the root magic of the labyrinth, this allowed her to directly address the problem with seals, though the physical earth itself always remained an obstacle.

At that moment, a flock of dwarfs cluttered through the door and collectively fell down accompanied by a buzz of complaints. Quite uncommon for the practical dwarves, and the reason why followed right after. Zaha appeared in the doorway and waded through them.

"Why did you go in here alone?" he demanded. When Giselle startled a little, he noticed himself and continued in a softer tone.

"The plan's that nobody walks around unguarded, and it's my job-"

"It's not like we're helpless." said Rokuna, feeling a bit offended. "And you're late."

"We had to give some instructions to the angels we brought along. Some of them wanted to start with an exorcism circle." came a gentler voice.

Shiru appeared into the door, finding a group of dwarfs only just scrambling onto their feet. Some of them muttered about 'that dark angel' having no self control and not being suitable for the delicate art of underground labor. They had a point actually, but Zaha just happened to the smallest heavy-combat-capable person available who could fit through the passageways.

"Where do we go?" the lead dwarf asked Giselle.

"A moment of patience please. I shall give you a map soon." Giselle half-danced her way across many magical lines that made up said map, information in an unknown language appeared. It didn't take her long.

"Ready to unseal the doors now." she said. With a quick twirl, she handed out miniature crystal balls, each containing a map.

"Here it goes again." Rokuna muttered as she closed her fist around her sphere, ready for her duty as a Mon Colle Knight.

This second stage was the heaviest work. It involved emptying the cells and getting everyone to the surface.

No matter how often they did this, the first cells they opened were always a shock. Those that still lived were starving and ill and those that had died caused the horrid stench. Jackals, goblins, lamias, werewolves, it didn't matter. All sorts of creatures of all alignments were trapped here. The purposes of the experiments were not something anyone liked thinking about, but they often could be guessed from the conditions of the prisoners.

A make-shift first aid hall served to tend to the most life-threatened prisoners. Kikimora used her broom to disinfect everyone, one by one and very carefully not to harm a creature by accident. The angels could apply some basic healing, while the physically stronger theriomorphers and Valkyrie flocked out to deal with larger prisoners. The wild ones weren't brought to the first aid hall if they needed immediate care but to an ante-chamber, where they could be held down to receive healing.

Gradually, the cave leading down became wide and circular, with a spiral path leading upstairs. Green roots supported the structure and a remnant of the dust pillar was still in it's midst, enough to show the clear path. The first true light many saw in ages, this uneven dirt road the manifestation of lost hope.

The work passed in a solemn atmosphere. Sometimes the halls echoed with the screams of a released prisoner who had gone mad, but most victims lacked the strength to make much noise. The hushed whispers in the first aid hall were barely significant, ultimately leaving Saki's song the most steadfast echo.

Rokuna hopped back and forth all over the place, keeping her sixth sense as low as possible to avoid being swarmed by the sea of thoughts and emotions, but alert enough to notice danger. She divided her purpose over escorting prisoners, figuring out some troublesome seals and keeping a check on the roots of Saki. Whenever something threatened to go wrong, she quickly sent a telepathic message to her and the Forest Angel.

Often she would link to Mondo in the sky and he'd always return her greeting as encouragingly as he could, showing her images of what went on up stairs, well, the better side of it anyway. He and Pegasus were quite busy regulating the handling of some the wilder monsters or simpler things like carrying up someone who couldn't walk well. He didn't show her when something nearly ate him or when he had landed in a really embarrassing way. She in turn didn't show him her screw-ups, nor did she let him know she knew what he hid.

Mondo managed and so Rokuna had promised herself again and again she would as well.

A gradual warmth started to hover around the healing hall and the route up. Months, years and even decades of torment were not easily erased, but for those who had lived in despair for that long, each glimpse of kindness meant the world. And that, their saviors had plenty to give.

She moved to pick up the hedgehog, but the frightened critter scurried away into a nearby passage.

Rokuna followed it, at first happy when she didn't find any suffering here. But then she reached the end of the passage, where a long-winded, round corner was. A special seal was in the curve, behind it a locked door. Someone was behind that door.

Rokuna's heart sank. That someone had been there very long, but at the start, she hadn't been alone. Now she was.

Quickly, Rokuna forced her thoughts back to order and looked around. The little hedgehog had hidden in a half-collapsed corner, under one of the roots. With some coaxing, she finally got the animal to come to her. Carefully she picked it up and carried it off. Today she'd have to ask for company again.

She found Shiru tending for a banshee in the healing hall. When the angel saw Rokuna, she waved her over. Rokuna didn't hesitate and held out the hedgehog once she had approached.

"Anything you can do for this little one?"

Shiru reached out to take hold of the animal. Her hands were rough now from the hard work, nevertheless she was perfectly gentle as she caressed the little animal. While not completely, her light could ease some of pain.

"Will you hold onto this one?" she said, turning to the banshee she was knelt down before. A mumbled answer came, along with brown rippled hands.

"Thank you. Someone will soon come and bring you up, your sister is already on her way." She briefly rested her hand on the banshee's shoulder, reassuring her.

"Hey, Shiru-san, could you come with me?" Rokuna then asked. "I found a prisoner that I think I will need some help with."

"Off course." said Shiru.

She led the angel to where she had found the cell. As they went, Rokuna looked up at the angel's face, ever strong and ever repressing her own stress. She'd taken so much responsibility and whenever Rokuna was on the verge of talking to her, this held her back : not wanting to give her even more worry. After all, it wasn't something Shiru could actually help with.

Shiru as a rule did not talk about her personal bothers. The smile she put on her face for others was genuine, but still a sort of mask. Rokuna found that they both needed their masks, as long as they didn't make them too thick.

Not that her silence was perfect. It had not escaped the angel that she was being sought out in certain cases, and she'd once asked what was the matter.

"You have a point when you choose not to worry them now, but that doesn't mean you have to keep entirely silent over it, whatever it is."

Yet Rokuna's silence over the matter also worried Shiru. She couldn't blame her, it would not be the first time someone close to the Spinner would snap and go on a rampage.

"I'll talk about it once Kharon is at peace." Rokuna had promised. "It's nothing that can't wait till then, really."

Well, not really. Shiru seemed content with her answer, but it didn't stop her from keeping it in the back of her mind, along with the multitude of other things she wanted to care for.

"Here it is." Rokuna pointed at the door they meant to open and mentally tried to shut it.

Shiru raised a hand and gathered some of the angel dust, then charged it forward. The spell that kept the hall locked quickly vanished.

"I'll handle the door, stand back." Rokuna said.

While she couldn't quickly unlock the door, she had little trouble with the hinges. Just a few well calculated kicks charged with earth magic was all she needed. Yay for sitting through two hours of dwarfs lecturing about the art of handling dirt.

With a loud bang the metal door fell, then slid down a stairs.

They found circular room without bars or any visible sort of restraint, but Rokuna could sense a spell. As the angel dust floated, in a hunched shape became visible in the center. Bast-like skin, a vague semblance of arms. The creature was in hibernation, no wonder Rokuna hadn't immediately sensed her in the sea of emotions.

Once, this had been a dryad.

Yet in response to the dust and Saki's now audible song, the dryad stirred to life. Simultaneously a purple rokumon glowed up all around, the seal that imprisoned the fay. A hollowed face appeared from wavy green hair, revealing deep yet empty eyes.

Rokuna stretched forth her hands, one above the other, gathering magic under her fingertips. She then hit down into the air and the rokumon shimmered, but did not dissolve yet.. Shiru came to stand aside of her and helped, the second time was successful.

The moment she was free, the dryad swept forward, engulfing an unprepared Rokuna. The girl panicked for a second, but quickly noticed no harm came to her. Quite the contrary, a sense of safety emanated from the creature. The form of the dryad differed between hard as a tree and soft as leafs, the only sound being a rustle as she closed her arms around Rokuna.

"It's alright." Rokuna wasn't quite certain whether she spoke to Shiru or to the dryad.

"Don't worry." Almost as if on instinct herself she raised her arms around the dryad's back, feeling strangely comforted despite the sadness that the being carried. Why was she so happy?

"Daughter ... my child is back ... "

She saw memories and feelings of long ago, a green haired child, ... back in innocent days, the face no longer clear but undeniably there. The dryad had looked more humanoid back then too, but now the lack of light and life had broken her.

Rokuna could not get it over her heart to tell the dryad she wasn't her daughter.

"We should bring her closer to Saki." Shiru suggested. "She'll probably get better once she comes into touch with the Green Wind."

Rokuna nodded and tried to pull away, but the dryad desperately clung to her. Shiru gently loosened the creatures' arms, and Rokuna took one of her hands.

"We're going to a brighter place now, okay?" she said, leading the creature out of the cell.

The dryad held on tightly to her hand, floated all around her, constantly whispered "my child, you're back" in her own language. They reached the hall after a walk that seemed ages. Shiru stepped ahead and cleared an area close to the wall and then was called to heal someone. Rokuna brought the dryad there and tried to get her to sit down. But the creature was too taken by joy to even consider moving an inch away from her 'daughter'.

Rokuna always fought all the feelings of the creatures she freed and her own as well, but here and now she could no longer keep her tears in. Some of these feelings were not hers, but another part was.

Mother?

Again Rokuna raised her arms around the dryad, this time hugging back for real. Just for a moment it didn't harm to play along, right?

"Rokuna? Everything alright?" Giselle asked as she came by, giving her a confused look.

Rokuna felt like waking up from a distant dream into a dreary morning. She wiped away some involuntary tears.

"Dont't worry." She had said that too many times over the past months, it sounded phony.

"Well, could you help me with that guy over there?" Giselle pointed towards a troll a few meters away, who had his arms around his legs and was slightly swinging back and forth with the empty look on his face so many carried here.

"He just came in and gets scared when we come close, but those wounds really need to get clean."

"Okay." Rokuna softly pushed the dryad away from her, but at that moment the dryad started to see danger. This danger had no solid form, it only existed in her 'daughter' about to go away.

The dryad expanded into a huge, treelike form, defending her 'child' against the 'attackers', hissing in an undefined direction. Giselle took a defensive stance, but Rokuna raise her arms in a halt motion.

"I'll handle this." she whispered. She then strengthened her psychic link to the dryad.

" - Please let me go, I'm not ... I'm Rokuna, a human. I'm not your daughter. - "

As she repeated that, the dryad began to understand. Slowly she unwrapped her withered arms, shrinking to her knees and growing even smaller than she'd been before. The bag sized bundle that remained shook quietly, sobbing but unable to cry out.

"But I can find her." Rokuna heard herself say. "Please, focus your mind and show me clearly how she looks." She knelt down before the dryad. Deep green eyes met hollow marine eyes. Slowly the memories from moments ago returned, Rokuna tried to get the vague images of the daughter to match.

"I'm going to look for her now." she promised.

She turned to Giselle.

"I'm going out. If anyone asks where I am, I'm exploring the supposed empty areas." she announced.

"Rokuna, don't get carried away. There are no other beings down there." said the Giselle. "I would have noticed. Wouldn't you?"

"Well, we can never know whether there's a seal that represses your sense. It happened before, right?"

"But you were still able to find that one. Do you sense anyone now that we did not find?"

The cat was obnoxiously calm and reasonable. Rokuna would've listened if she'd been in a better mood, but this was something that had to be done. She couldn't bear going up there and forgetting this.

"A dryad is a forest elemental, maybe I'm mistaking her daughter for one of the plants of Kharon. That could happen if she's in sleep mode."

The black cat frowned. "You didn't mistake the mother for a plant either."

At that moment, Shiru came by again.

"I'll bring her up now." said the angel. She reached out and carefully guided the dryad along. As she did, she nodded almost invisibly to Ruth, who instantly disappeared.

Rokuna helped the dryad along to the door, and then turned to where she wanted to search first.

Giselle swept her tail about.

"There's nothing out there." She leaped up and landed between Rokuna and the passage she was headed towards.

"We can never be certain." Rokuna rebuked.

"I can't let you do that when I know you're only endangering yourself. I already informed Saki and the Forest Angel the outer areas were emptied, they're no longer working to keep them intact!"

Rokuna narrowed her eyes. "Then inform them again that those halls need to stay intact till I'm back. Or I will."

"No, the area is already too unstable and you can't open an escape rokumon in this labyrinth!"

"I'll just have to be quick then."

"Why are you being so unreasonable today? You can't-" The black cat was broken off mid-sentence by a threatening low voice.

"Nobody is being left behind."

Giselle startled again. Behind her stood Zaha, coldly looking down at the cat for a moment. Then he addressed Rokuna with a simple :"What way do we go?"

Silently thanking Zaha, she walked past Zaha.

"This way."

Rokuna had no idea where to go at all. She opened her map, there was a food storage in the west. Actually she'd already been there and hadn't noticed anything alive, but hey, maybe she had missed a dormant dryad? It was a good place to start.

It wasn't until a little later that it sank in that she now was isolated with who was easily the most obscured and emotionally chaotic soul she knew.

Sometimes Zaha would scrape his fingers across the walls, tearing loose fragments of the ornaments. Seeing many others who had their lives ruined by the same person that had ruined his didn't help him much in letting go of his rage. He had personally killed Reda, but to him it didn't feel like sufficient retribution.

Rokuna appreciated that he went along to protect her, but in all honesty, it made it more difficult for her. Zaha's mind was a far cry from cheerful, she had a hard time blocking the rather depressive feelings he carried.

This dark angel had been the first thing that had truly frightened her in the world of six gates and she hadn't even seen him at that point, the aura that he carried alone had been enough. Now he was one of their closest nakama. So, she tried to act natural whenever she was around him, especially now.

Zaha noticed anyway that she was uneasy in his presence, but misinterpreted it as fear. He always kept a fair distance from her as not to scare her and didn't say much.

Saki's hopeful song still found its way deep into the halls, but the farther they went the weaker the echo became. They went beyond the cells, searching in vain. Sometimes Rokuna would stop and fold her hands to focus, similar to Saki but for an entirely different purpose.

Nothing, and nothing once more.

"Hey ... Zaha?"

"Yeah?"

"We're past the food deposits now."

"Oh ... there really is nothing here then?"

It was fairly dark here as the angel dust hadn't come this far much. It was also much colder and Rokuna shivered slightly. However, they were farther away from the painful center, and she didn't like what she was about to say :

"Let's go back now."

Zaha looked up at the ceiling for a moment and muttered : "We better do that."

As he turned, he noticed she was cold. He hesitated for a moment, then reached for his sword.

"Don't get scared."

Rokuna glared. "Oh come on, as if."

He unsheeted the sword and almost immediately the blade was covered with a black flame. The heat waved in all directions.

"You could have said before that you were cold."

Rokuna didn't make any move to start walking back and just looked at the black fire. The only light coming from it were the red edges that sometimes appeared. Wouldn't it be useful if you could just block out light by replacing it with something like that? To obscure an aura and all it's information and ...

"Rokuna?"

"Eh?" She broke from her musings.

"Is something wrong?"

Something ... wrong.

She noticed it way too late.

It had no thinking, organized mind, so no premeditation. Creatures that had only been waiting to die before jerked into action as they sensed the presence of demonic fire and the memories this brought forth.

They'd been maybe hundreds of meters away, but quickly made their way into their direction, somehow.

"Zaha, watch out!"

The wall right aside the dark angel started to bubble and melt, tendrils emerged from it and tried to grab him. On reflex he dodged, leaping forward and pulling Rokuna along. He halted at the corner and they looked back.

Rokuna momentarily froze as memories of the Dread Dragon and Oroboros resurfaced, the boiling gray skin and the tentacles from it. However, the form that followed these tendrils looked little like the dragon. Whispering and wailing faces, many limbs extruding from in between them, this was a different sort of nightmare.

"What the heck is that?"

Not good. If Zaha after half a century in the demon realm didn't know what it was, how would they know how to fight it or what to expect?

The creatures formed a blob-like form together, working in unison against their perceived enemy. Currently, this was Zaha. Rokuna they weren't interested in, as she lacked the Curse affinity.

"Zaha, they target demons. We can't let them get to the main halls!"

"Got it."

A muddy gap remained in the wall where the creatures had come from, acid had dissolved the stone.

Undying beings, probably Elementals. Lest subjected to perfect annihilation, they endlessly regenerated. No mercy of death for them; they had been here for too long. Decades, a century maybe.. Rokuna's telepathic call did nothing on their wrath. They were poison while they were never meant to be.

The blob rooted itself a short distance above the ground, then it attacked.

But, not in the directing where they expected it to come from. It came from behind, shooting up from the ground and into the walls. They barely heard the swish behind them before the ceilling came down. Zaha picked up Rokuna and charged forward, jumping across the creatures with one foot planted into them to set off. They half-crash-landed, but quickly scrambled to their feet and made it out of the way.

"We need more space." Zaha said.

"There was a hall nearby, let's got there!"

Behind them, the creatures sank into the ground, leaving another gap.

The nearby hall was opened by a few large doors, stairs leading down. It was large enough to give them a chance to fight back, but not large enough for Zaha to fully unleash his black fire, lest he wanted to burn Rokuna along.

"Zaha, I'm going to contact the others. Cover me, please."

She folded her hands and tried to concentrate on sending a warning to someone, anyone. But their attacker would not permit her concentration. Just barely did she manage to jump away as the very ground between her feet started to melt. The sharp, acidic scent from earlier rose from all around them, the creatures were manifesting from the floor now.

Her superhuman agility allowed her to jump up in time, onto a sort of crane close to the walls. Zaha spread his massive wings and took to the air.

"Why didn't you sense those things?" he irritably said.

"Great time for questions! This place is cluttered with negative energy and they were sleeping!" She jumped out of the way of a stray tendril onto another crane.

Below them, the many connected creatures emerged all across the floor, their arms clamping onto everything. Like drowning faces in a bog, their heads were disoriented at first and seemingly gasping for air. But then they collectively focused on the demon above them, sixty or so eyes glaring up.

Zaha managed to ward off their first attack by cutting down the tendrils that shot up, but they simply grew tougher ones. His sword still was afire, he had to be careful however not to set the entire place alight. As the floor became a swampy mess, the walls crumbled and the ceiling only was kept up by what little roots of Saki remained there. The air was getting thicker and humid, almost unbreathable.

Rokuna then noticed the oval form. Amist the heads something was growing, a vaguely yellowish form for as far as the dim light allowed her to see. As the lonely daughter of a mad scientist, Rokuna had spent a fair deal of her life reading books way beyond her age, many of such being biology books and there were a few things that could be. Most didn't fit the scenario and it definitely was for attack, she felt.

"Oh no." she whispered.

"Zaha, it's gonna spit something." She raised her hands above her head, preparing a spell.

The oval sack starting swelling more and more. A new poisonous stench rose up, then thousands of venomous drops fanned in all directions.

Zaha managed to place a wing in front of Rokuna and used his sword to burn a fair deal of the drops in midair, what little got through was caught by his feathers. At that moment, Rokuna hit down her hands in the air before her and then spread her arms, creating a protective shield that blocked the rest of the attack.

"Stay close." she told Zaha.

The acid spray hit the walls around them and started to affect the stone even farther while the creatures were already refilling the sack for another attack.

"Can't you use this shield to block my fire?"

"Your fire and the collapsing earth above me? I don't think so." she said with a noticeable despair in her voice.

"You're going to have to try. I'll keep the fire low."

Neither of them had to say it. This wasn't the first time the group found themselves in a situation where they had had to kill something, a being so insane it couldn't be saved. But time didn't make it easier.

"Alright. I'll weaken the shield for a second so that you can pass through."

In the dim light, her eyes fell on Zaha's leg, with which he had stood on the creatures as he jumped over them when he couldn't fly. The armor had melted away partially, the muck reaching his skin. As a biomechanic being, Zaha could handle more than the simple stone walls, but still ...

"I've done this sort of stuff plenty of times before." he said with a hint of arrogance in his voice, perfectly confident of his ability.

He was always there protecting her and Mondo and everyone else, even in face of Reda. And what could she do?

With a roar Zaha plunged down into the whirl of tendrils, ignoring the acid.

She could link to monsters without a rokumon.

What if she did it to secure their life? Zaha was defending himself, herself and those they might encounter if these monsters got out. How many would get injured or die then? It wasn't really a bad thing if she did this now to avoid further pain, right? There had to be a purpose for the Saint Star's gift, right? She didn't want those creatures to die either. They were victims of Reda, they didn't deserve to die for that. They only attacked because they thought they were being threatened.

Rokuna dismissed calling for help, they wouldn't be here in time. She reached for her ribbon, quickly wrapped it around the crane and herself so she wouldn't fall off in an unexpected shake, then folded her hands once more to concentrate. Linking to many creatures at once was not easy, but she'd done it before within the Saint Star Dragon. She could, had to will it.

Zaha didn't notice immediately the attacks weakened, assumed it was because the monsters finally became affected by his fire. But as tendrils started to spasm and pull away, he backed off and his typical smirk appeared. Now, he only needed to ward off a few and he flew up again to be at Rokuna's height.

"You got through to them." he said, the closest he'd get to giving a compliment. Behind him a soft light shone, the energy Rokuna gathered to support her link reacted with the protection shield. Her form itself was shadowy however, reflecting back no light.

"Not quite." she whispered.

When she opened her eyes, they were red with energy.

"I had to take it a step further."

He said nothing. Rokuna couldn't see his expression clearly and being linked to the many monsters simultaneously blocked out a clear perception of the outside world. Or rather, she couldn't afford such a link right now. This burden was straining on more tha one level, for she had to hurt the monsters to keep them in check.

"Ruth." she then heard.

The imp immediately appeared and when he saw the monsters below and the not to excellent state in which his best friend was, he had a panic attack.

"What happened, what is this?" Then he noticed Rokuna and uncharacteristic red eyes. "And what the heck is she doing?"

"Ruth, calm down, go warn the others. We need some sleeping spells here right now, before she runs out of power." he said urgently.

"Gotcha, but you better explain once I get back." The imp teleported away again.

Zaha descended and sat down at the stairs before the door, trying to think up a way to stop the wound he'd suffered from bleeding before the other arrived and would start to dote over him. He still kept a weary eye on the cracking ceilling and the bulk of creatures before him.

"What are they?" he muttered to himself.

"They are her daughter." came a whisper from Rokuna.

"What?"

"They used the dryad to breed them and used the limbs of the children as a food resource for the prisoners. I can tell now, couldn't before could they're not ... not quite like alive like normal creatures."

Zaha didn't need light to see her crying up there. He tried to think up something to say, but this wasn't like before. With Mondo, he had known exactly what to say to get the kid to stand up again after the will to live had left him. But this wasn't so simple. So he just asked whatever came to mind.

"Can they be healed?"

Rokuna didn't reply to that. With a half-choked voice, she instead said : "Did the Forest Giant and the Wyvern and the Salamander feel like this too when you possessed them, Zaha?"

He took a short breath, then clenched his teeth. Unwelcome memories announced themselves.

"I don't know what you and those things feel right now, but-"

"Never mind."

The ceiling cracked again, several large piece came falling down. The creatures stirred, but before anything else could be done, fire shot into the room from the doorway, sweeping away the debris to the walls.

Whirling down came Giselle, strings of flame around her. For a moment it looked like she intended to burn the malformed tree, but then she noticed Rokuna was still linked to the creatures. She settled for a sleep spell instead.

"I believe we are ready to go up now?" she said softly.

"What about that thing?" asked Ruth, as he shifted into view beside Zaha.

The cat narrowed her eyes. "I've brought help with me, he should be here soon to carry it along. Now, Zaha, I know you detest lying, but do us all a favor. Tell that dryad her child is not down here, if she were to approach you. It's better that way."

Zaha swatted aside another piece of falling rubble.

"You knew?"

"I know this is not the child she looks for. These monsters are not sapient, barely sentient. It's a mutant plant and it would have been best to release it from its suffering."

Zaha was torn between a rising wave of anger and being pulled down by the idea of facing the mother and telling her he almost killed her 'child', cause that'd be what she would hear.

"Zaha, the only reason I am not asking you for a mercy kill on these creatures is that Rokuna is linked to them and the experience of a death is something best kept from her and anyone. Please, go ahead now and have your wounded tended for and not a word about the nature of these creatures."

· · · · · · ·

Mondo was at loss. Rokuna sat on a boulder, legs crossed, hands in her lap, practically unresponsive. When Zaha landed nearby, he practically ran over to demand what had happened.

"She possessed them." Zaha said dead simple.

Mondo's eyes grew wide. "What, like ... how?"

"I have no idea how!" the demon snapped.

Mondo remained unaffected by the outburst and softly said : "Can I at least know what happened?"

"We were looking for the daughter of some dryad and found her...them, something. She had a lot of daughters and they were raving mad. Rokuna had to stop them."

"No ... " Mondo had learned enough by now to understand the difference between a regular psychic link between summoner and monster and downright possession. There was no clear separation, but the two forms did exist.

"She didn't need to use a gate for it. I don't understand it either, so ask her instead."

Mondo looked over at the motionless figure a distance away. "She just wanted to save them right?"

"Yeah."

"And you too."

"I was doing fine, they were-"

"Look, I heard Rokuna say that a lot of times now and it obviously isn't true, I can see that. I can also see you're in pretty lousy shape." Mondo objected.

"I've survived far worse." He didn't add those were usually occasions where he could use his full fire power without fear of burning anyone accidentally. Acid usually wasn't included either.

"I still think you should get healing." said Mondo, while he failed at looking commanding.

"Later, once Shiru or the Forest Angel have a hand free. I'm in no mood for those angels now." He made a dismissive motion with his hand.

Mondo followed his gaze, in the distance the angels emerged from the cavity, right behind the last freed prisoners.

"I don't understand why they still won't trust you?"

"Not just me, everyone that is aligned to the Curse element." Zaha smiled bitterly. "And it will stay like that for a long time."

Mondo's optimism finally kicked into gear. "But at least you know we trust you."

"Hm, I'm not so sure." he muttered.

Mondo looked confused. "What? Why would you say that?"

"Something she said down there..."

Mondo frowned. "Don't think like that, Zaha. I can't even count how often you've covered our lives in battle since then. No way she'd still hold that against you! I dunno what she said, but Rokuna's probably just tired right now. Don't feel bad about."

Zaha didn't reply and straightened up, he had spotted something.

"Mondo, how well can you twist around the truth without lying?"

"I dunno, never tried."

"Well try now." he said as he made a quick gesture to the east. A few make-shift rubble walls away the whirling dryad appeared, having escaped her sickbed and looking for answers.

"Just tell her we didn't find anything that looked like her child."

· · · · · · ·

Her arms were around him, Mondo could feel her breathing against his neck despite the wind. It was almost as if she'd fallen asleep right then and there, as Pegasus and his two passengers left Kharon.

One by one, many small and large gates closed till the sky of Kharon was only gray again and the area that had been littered with freed prisoners was empty now. The Forest Angel brought everyone to security, for the final part of the mission : finding destinations for the prisoners.

All that remained was one single dark angel, raising his sword high and gathering a tornado of black fire around him. It rained down destruction all around him, deep into the labyrinth. The ground burned under his unrestrained power and another white hell broke to ashes.

Eternally damned, never to be rebuilt.

· · · · · · ·