(A/N: See profile page for A/Ns)
For Want of Sanity, Pt. 4
"Oh, look! Look at that one! I kinda wish I had rich black stripes like that."
"That's great, Kahlua."
"Ah, the water is crystal clear…Ooh, I wonder if we'll see any Umibozu! Hey, c'mere. Help me look for shadowy, bald figures. We're not fishermen, but you never know."
"That's great, Kahlua."
Kahlua's mirth seemed etched in her face, and her shoulders slumped only a fraction at her sister's obvious indifference to her attempts to engage her. Moka remained seated at the nearby desk in one of the cozier mess areas, ruffling through the pages of one of the many books she had available to her when she was not in her cell—a circumstance of increasing frequency as of late, ever since the cursed chains that bound her and drained her power began to have a noticeable lasting effect. Nothing permanent, she had been told, but for the foreseeable future, even unfettered she would be in this weakened state, more inconvenience than threat to her captors or the ship in general. Thus, her greater freedom of movement on board. She did not, then, feel in the mood to shift her attention towards the open panels and gaze out the large rectangular windows at the passing sea creatures with her sister. Her face was in the pages, her left hand fiddling around with what seemed to be her latest project to try to pass the time: a cluster of small sea-shells, collected on the shores of their various landings, from the sands and shallows; mingled with these, a clump of leafy detritus, dry and fragrant. The cover of the book, the title Crafts of the Sea spread across the top, indicated the assortment's purpose, which she was absently arranging into different patterns.
"Suit yourself," Kahlua said chipperly, noticing the work and trying to recall the last time she had engaged in a hobby. Indeed, the last time she had had any. "I, for one, think it's exciting. Even after having served on board here for all this time, the sights and sounds of the ocean never get boring for me. Look at us, journeying down twenty-thousand leagues under the sea, like those people in that book!"
"…Kahlua, you know that title doesn't mean twenty-thousand leagues deep, right?" replied Moka, who couldn't help but sigh at her sister's enthusiasm.
"Kahlua, the earth isn't twenty-thousand leagues across. It's a reference to the distance they traveled. Horizontal, not vertical. If you tried to go twenty-thousand leagues deep, you'd end up drilling through the planet and shooting into space."
The blonde seemed quite stumped by this revelation. Moka could only shake her head; to be honest, what she really wanted now was some solitude, and her sister's bubbling chatter was robbing her of that option.
"You don't say," Kahlua went on. "Well, whatever it means, it's not something people have the privilege of seeing every day. Especially our kind." Here she paused, quiet and reflective, jumping slightly at the thump of a stray fish knocking against the glass. "I mean, it's kind of absurd, when you think about it: vampires, who won't even sail on the ocean's surface…And here we are, utterly submerged in its depths, our lethal element completely surrounding us on every side. Who else among us could ever boast of that experience?"
"Probably none, and for good reason," Moka replied, glancing up at that. "Don't think I'm yet entirely at ease here—not just because of the prisoner thing, either—I hope there's no cause for concern?"
"Oh, heavens no! You have absolutely nothing to fear there. We've never sprung a single leak."
Well, Moka supposed that was a relief, at least. Her reading disrupted, she now cast her gaze along the edges of the room. Though they were upholstered, she knew that on the outside, the welded steel plates of multiple hulls shielded them from the sea collapsing down around them. It was good to know that they were of sufficient sturdiness to perform this task without problem.
And, she had to admit…Kahlua had a point. Water, naturally, had never held much interest for her beyond how to avoid it. Never would she have imagined she would be present in such a location, a vampire stuck in an underwater shell, the crushing depths swirling around her, dark, blue, kept at bay by something as simple as a hull and simultaneously allowing her a view of the marvels of the deep…Not that she had spent much time looking, however. It was an ironic position for her, and, if not for the despicable situation, she might have felt a richer enjoyment from the exploration.
"What's that you're reading?"
Kahlua's voice broke through her musings. She stuttered a hasty "Ah, nothing," closed the book, slid it aside, and rose with a shaky groan.
At that same moment, the door to the saloon slid open, and in walked Reilly, Miyabi's dark and broad compatriot. He glanced about at the two young women, looking solemn; although that was little altered from his usual countenance.
"Ladies. Hope I'm not disturbing anything," he said calmly.
"Not at all. We were just chatting, taking in the sights….Is something the matter?" asked Kahlua respectfully.
His expression was indecipherable, and he said merely: "You'd better come with me. You're wanted up on the conn. Both of you. Don't ask me why."
Now this was a surprise. "What, me?" Moka repeated. "What does Miyabi want with me?"
"C'mon, now. What did I just say?"
No further reply was forthcoming; merely a beckoning gesture towards the sisters, who left the room and followed him, confused and grumpy, respectively.
Moka's irritation at being interrupted was only compounded at the prospect of a meeting with that man. During her captivity thus far, she hadn't exactly encountered him regularly – only a few times on board the vessel, as well as their excursions on to land which were, to her displeasure, never anywhere close to a civilized population where she could attempt escape. And so, to be summoned by him now, when they were nowhere near even the surface, implied it was a matter of some significance, which added to her unease.
Oh, well. Maybe I'll get a chance to punch him in the brain.
This agreeable, highly anticipated imagining, however, could not provide much succor for her increasingly bristling nerves, as they made their way through the central corridor, passing the main entry hatch. Had their surroundings only been otherwise, less blue and wet, Moka lamented, how she might entertain certain notions of regaining her freedom! Ah, but then, even surrounded by more hospitable terrain, whether land or subterranean caverns or even sky—anything but this—such escape would be impossible. No, she was not strong enough for that, not with the accumulated drain on her power. She would be overpowered, and, worse still, it would require humiliatingly little effort on the part of her jailors.
Voices drew near as they approached the control room, muffled drones behind the closed door. Two, she heard. One clearly Miyabi's, the other…?
The door was opened, and she and Kahlua were ushered in, passing through the navigation room that served as antechamber to their destination. There, Miyabi stood in the center, alone. Well, that wasn't entirely true; there were no other crew members at the moment, but on the nearby screen on the console upon which the man's eager gaze was directly fixed, loomed a vaguely, distantly familiar smooth, gracefully featured visage.
"Ah!" Moka gave a start.
"Good, you're here," Miyabi said, his attention caught. Then, gesturing to the screen and the room's other occupant: "There's been a development. We wanted you to hear it for yourself."
Stepping forward past the confused Moka, Kahlua walked dutifully over to Miyabi and made a light bow towards the screen. "Hello, mother."
It had been some time since Moka had last seen Gyokuro Shuzen. Years, perhaps…And yet, even that was not a long enough gap. She was under no illusions about the woman's opinion of her. From the earliest time she could still recall, she had known her 'step-mother' despised her, perhaps more than anything else in the world. Why, she had never known. Something to do with her mother? Such had seemed to hint itself from time to time, as her father became more and more reclusive, and she would catch a muttered drip of disdain under the woman's breath after being viciously berated and scorned for some perceived mortal sin; but without memory of Akasha save her name (and perhaps a blurry, dream-conjured image), and obviously with no desire to demand explanation, the mystery remained just that.
She suspected, indeed, that Gyokuro held little of what could be called true love for any of Issa's daughters, especially those who came not from her own womb. Akuha, Gyokuro at least tolerated for her skill and usefulness as a willing warrior. And Moka also knew that Akuha held no great affection for her superior, either, but a rather cool and detached cordiality that could occasionally be shaken by frustration.
But, herself? Much as she loathed to admit it, Gyokuro inspired in her an unpleasant sensation to which she was not accustomed. Fear. Memories of childhood days, perhaps, left their residual stamp upon her soul, impressed there by years of frightful encounters and desperate avoidance. She had been young, then, a child who, courageous as she was, could only falter in the face of the woman's terrible wrath; and though time had passed and seen her blossom into the flower of her pride and strength, the rancid stain remained.
It was festering even now, for Gyokuro and Miyabi looked quite pleased with something, to go by their bright smiles and eyes that nearly danced with mirthful lights. Whatever it was, their satisfaction could not bode well, and cold, heavy stones began to plop and sink in Moka's stomach one by one.
"Hello, dear," Gyokuro was saying now to her daughter. "You look well. You seem to have adapted quite nicely to undersea life. I certainly don't envy you," she chuckled. "And you"—this, she barked to Moka—"It's been a while since I last saw that face. Why don't you step closer, let me have a look at you, hm?"
Moka remained rooted to her spot, however, clenching her fists, forcing herself to make eye contact with the screen. At last, though, she took slow steps forward, coming up just next to her sister.
"My, my, haven't we grown beautiful?" Gyokuro hummed, sounding to Moka as insincere as any 'compliment' she had ever thrown her way. "A touch withered, perhaps, excessively pale and gaunt, as to be expected with the synchronization process…but it matters little. Small wonder everyone seems to chase you around the world like a modern day Helen."
"Is there a point to all this?" Moka choked out, finding her voice. "Don't think I've eagerly been marking the days off the calendar till we'd meet again."
"Ma'am," Miyabi interjected respectfully, "I think we can all agree on Moka's looks, but, the matter at hand…?"
At the reminder, Gyokuro folded her hands in her lap. Once more the ominous smile crept back upon her features. "Of course, enough with the trivialities. As Miyabi said, we have some news to report, and, as it concerns the both of you, I thought it best you learn it now."
A pause, and then, when no one spoke, she continued.
"Earlier this morning, Akuha Shuzen and her crew, among which was the human prisoner Tsukune Aono, took the SSO1 and fled from the Floating Gardens. This, despite the fact that I had the previous night stripped Akuha of all rank and exiled her from Fairy Tale, as punishment for insubordination and an attempt on my life. In my leniency, I had prepared a small craft to remove her from the island, but she brazenly hijacked her former ship. Fortunately, I had the vessel tracked, and a contingent of my own was deployed in pursuit. Later, we came upon the ship, and engaged it in the skies above the Adriatic. We sustained heavy losses of our own, but in the end, they were shot down, and vanished into the sea. Akuha was no doubt killed the instant they hit the water, and we can only presume the others met the same fate. No survivors were seen escaping the plummeting wreckage, save a lone figure we could not identify which was ejected some time before the ship went down."
On she went, but Moka barely heard the rest. Only faintly, as one in close proximity to an explosive shockwave feels and hears the world whirring dizzyingly about her prone figure.
The responses flowed in rapidly. Incredulity first, a wrestling with comprehension as the woman's words didn't quite pierce and sink into her mind. But they quickly forced their way in, their meaning a wedge that drove deeper and deeper until her soul was all at once rent in two. The dizzying sensation accompanied this, and she suddenly had the distinct impression of falling without falling, and her ears rang and the sounds bludgeoned her.
It couldn't be true…None of it was true! Gyokuro was lying. Gyokuro always lied to her! She was the one who had told her when she was little that when she hit puberty she would have to avoid sunlight or melt to a pile of goopy flesh and bones. She was the one who told her a demon would consume her and drag her to the pits of hell if she was caught outside the manor at night. She was the one who tried to tell her that her sisters didn't really love her. She was the one—!
An impatient, demanding tone interrupted her spinning reality.
"Moka. Moka!" Gyokuro was calling her. "Are you paying attention? The human Tsukune Aono is dead. Gone. As is everything he hoped to achieve and so be the death of us all. He was a charming young man, to be sure. I could see what inspired the devotion in one of such…malleable sentiment, as you. But that is all over. He is gone. So no more of the childish comportment you've displayed. No more trying to oppose Fairy Tale's operations, and if you were entertaining any thoughts of active sabotage, resistance, or escape, quench them. They have no kindling now to keep them burning. I expect your compliance in upcoming events." Here, she sighed in exasperation. "My goodness, girl, you are a vampire! Show some pride in that! Humans are not your concern, your family and your kind are. Start acting like it—like a responsible young lady—and maybe prove something of your worth, to us and to yourself."
For her part, Moka was half expecting to collapse at any second; her vision still swayed, and her stomach and throat felt sick. She barely saw Kahlua standing beside her, and could not make out her reaction to the news. She heard only most of what Gyokuro said, and that amount was enough.
"I think you broke her," she heard Miyabi say drily. "Too early to break the news, perhaps?"
"No doubt she would have discovered the truth eventually. Best she find out now, while she's under your control, don't you think?"
"Why…" croaked Moka, "Why should I believe a word of this? What game are you playing, Gyokuro?"
"Hm, you need proof? Very well. There. Take a look."
The screen had changed from Gyokuro's face to a different display; before Moka's eyes was an airship, broken and billowing fire and smoke, jagged rends visible in several spots on the hull; silently plunging down, down, ever downward, becoming as a small dot, a tiny flicker of flame, before meeting the water's surface miles below and utterly vanishing.
"We swept the area clean," she said, her face again visible. "But none escaped that sunken metallic carcass."
Moka was still gaping at the screen as if Gyokuro was not there, her face haunted. "D…Deception…That's all this is. Some game you've concocted. Kahlua! What the hell are you guys scheming?!"
But turning to her sister revealed only eyes wide with fright and shock and already expelling their liquid contents, her hand clamped shut over her mouth.
She…she didn't know.
At the thought, Moka's desperation soared. Casting about for an anchor point in the tossing storm, she shouted: "I'll sense Tsukune, then! He's alive!" And reaching deep inside herself, trying to find some semblance of focusing calm, she searched for that connection. It had been a while since she had used it, but she would never forget how.
Still as a headstone she tried to stand, but shook, eyes clenched shut. The others watched with mixed expressions, ranging from boredom to shared horror.
Try as she might, however, Moka could not sense that spark, that assuring flicker of warm life deep in her soul. Nothing but black emptiness. Her mind screamed Tsukune's name, trying to reach him across the void, and as she failed again and again, she realized her cheeks were soaking wet, and any sound she could make stuck in her throat, choking her. A single "No" was all that could tear free.
Of the brief events that followed, she would thereafter only remember little. Looking up, she fixed Gyokuro in her blurry gaze. Her breathing was quick, emotions festering and swirling within, and she rose awkwardly. Her palms felt moist and hot, and she was murmuring, barely coherent.
A pipe snapped loudly beside her, and as the sharp wave of sound pierced her ear and flooded her brain, so did she.
Lunging forward, she struck at the screen, splintering Gyokuro's cold, digital image. With a cry, she battered away at the console with her fists, striking at every knob and switch in sight.
It was a short lived wrath, however. Before the flame could swell to an inferno, a heavy blow against the back of her head left her unaware of subsequent proceedings.
It was as coming from a vivid dream, one which, having fully seized the dreamer, violently ensnaring her consciousness and transporting her to a grotesque verisimilitude of waking wherein the turbid air seeped lead-like into all her limbs and weighed them down, forcing her to observe all the horrors this mock reality could conjure with barely an infant's mobility, finally leaves her to shred through the veil over mind and eyes in waking—from just such a dream did Moka now find herself clawing forth.
Those selfsame limbs, the poisonous substance evaporating into nothingness, gave an involuntary shudder. She groaned, and as she emerged from the bog she found once more the company of her sister on a large armchair by her bedside. More familiarity was shortly felt upon her wrists and ankles, alerting her to her resumed restraining. Her battery, this so, was empty.
And yet, groggy and dazed as she was, one thing had not escaped her for a second, all through the volatile time of unconsciousness until even this moment. The memory of what she had learned before collapsing—did she collapse, or…?—still devoured her mind, ground her soul into dust like a sharpened hand stone. As a result of this unbroken recollection, she was not blindsided all over again by shock, but had passed already into a crushed and depleted state.
She certainly had no interest, even the strength, to call out to the sleeping Kahlua. Blame seemed irrelevant for the moment. Darkened patches of dampness stained the woman's cheeks, an offering to their fallen sister. A likewise tribute to Tsukune, meanwhile, was imminent from the blood-colored springs set amid her wintry face.
How long she spent in this state, she was not aware. The sounds, however, quiet as she thought she was, must have disturbed Kahlua's rest, for she now rustled and stirred and unfolded her arms as she blinked back to life.
Her eyes fell quickly upon Moka, but no words were exchanged for several minutes. The customary smile her face would hold upon seeing her sister broke through only weakly, like motes of sunlight through cracks in a shuttered window. At last, however, she did break the silence.
"How's your head?"
At first confused by the question and about to inquire What about her head, a sudden dull throb around the back of her skull rendered that question obsolete.
"Miyabi went a little overboard subduing you," Kahlua continued. "He didn't want you going on a rampage and risking any damage…Even though I don't think your strength is capable of that right now."
No response from Moka. Kahlua did not know what to say. What she could say. "Um…There is to be a memorial, Mother says. For Akuha. She said that despite recent events, she was still family, and would receive the honors befitting a member of the Shuzen clan. That will come in a week's time, just about."
Still no response. She folded her arms and sat back in her chair, voice catching as she spoke.
"Also…I'm sorry about Tsukune. I've never given his kind much thought, but he was….Well, I never imagined I'd meet a human like him. Hardly the cruel creature you hear about in stories. He almost could have been one of us. And he made you happy, most of all. In a way that I hadn't seen in you since we were small. I was grateful for that."
Still so unreal. It didn't even seem possible. A world without Tsukune. Despair halted its somber march before the sheer, cloud-piercing mountains of disbelief.
"….In the meantime, we've been given permission to delay for a week, so you might grieve and recover sufficient strength. We'll be at the next site eventually, but I want you to rest some more before arriving. Your job is almost complete, you just need to endure a little more, okay?"
"…Whatever you say."
This curt answer caught her off guard. "Moka?"
"I said, whatever." And she meant it. For the first time, she realized, she did not feel a single flicker of care regarding her upcoming session. No fear, no indignation, no anticipatory weariness. Nothing at all. Total emptiness. Even the physical sensation of Kahlua leaning forward and clasping her hand barely registered.
"Hey. I'm here for you. Don't forget that. If there's anything I can do—"
"I really don't think there is," Moka cut in tonelessly. Her expression was blank, still shorn of rage, grief, not even looking at Kahlua as she spoke. She knew it was selfish. She knew that Akuha was Kahlua's sister too, and that she was probably feeling that loss even more keenly than herself. But, at best, that merely tempered any ill feelings towards Kahlua that Moka might have. She could not be blamed for this; she'd had no active role in what had transpired, and she, too, was suffering for it. She spoke no more then, but lay there silent and grave; Kahlua was shortly called away, and left her there by herself.
Such course did much of the time take, in the following days. Moka barely left the room, or even had the desire to be loosed from her bonds for an extended period of time. She did not care. Even the food Kahlua brought her seemed of little value. She ate it; or, it might be more accurate to say, she consumed it, digested it, engaging her body's physical mechanics. But she did not taste, did not enjoy or savor, food or anything.
The few brief times she was unchained, by Kahlua or some one of Miyabi's goons of varying sympathy, she would merely wander aimlessly, drifting about the halls, through the familiar mess hall, glancing with no particular concern at the now seemingly cramped and claustrophobic surroundings. Lights appeared dimmer than usual. Embedded in the walls above monitors and tables with their baubles the windows beckoned her with mute stares. Just one kick. That was all it would take. One foot through the glass, one fist to bring this whole damn place down to utter ruin, a lifeless husk in the dark depths.
Why shouldn't she do it? What was left to her in this world that would now propel her forward? Keep her moving? Her entire being now felt the full ruin of her spirit, the eradication of all hope and will. Why not stop Fairy Tale dead in their tracks, put an end to their plots and kill two birds with one shattered glass? If nothing else, she could get one last small satisfaction at the thought of Gyokuro and Miyabi's stupid faces once the lynchpin for their new world was removed in one fell stroke.
More than once this idea occurred to her, yet each time, her will failed, and she could not bring herself to follow through—although day by day this well-masoned bulwark was steadily chipped away and eroded. The best thing about this idea, she came to realize, was how suddenly it could be executed, thus avoiding any confrontations with Miyabi or Kahlua, which in her present state would surely foil her attempts.
As for when she did see Kahlua, which she did more than any of the other officers—indeed, she couldn't have encountered Miyabi more than once, and the other two captains she saw not at all that week—when she did see her, little was said. Hide it as well she could beneath a cool veneer, Kahlua was a wreck. At times Moka would observe this fact in fleeting glimpses, despair peeking through a crack here and there. But still she said nothing of it. What could she? She was in no position to offer a shoulder to cry on, and at this point hardly felt the need for one herself. Kahlua, meanwhile, had not let Akuha's death interfere with her normal tasks. She was too well groomed to allow that, Moka thought ruefully. Too mindful of duty. No longer, either, did she try to engage Moka as often as before, nor as enthusiastically
In fact, a series of dull, hollow metallic clinks and clanks in the guts of the sub brought them their first conversation in days lasting longer than a few seconds.
"There's nothing to worry about," Kahlua preempted, noticing Moka's head roving around at the noise like a wolf who hears the approaching hunter.
"Who said I was worried?"
"You heard the sound, right?" She rapped a knuckle against a wall. "It's no big deal. Fairy Tale submarines generally have a thirty year lifespan; this one was commissioned in the '80s, so its time is short. That's why it's prone to creaking like an old galleon. I didn't want you to think it was engine trouble or anything."
"Oh, if only!" Moka scoffed with a bark. "There I was getting my hopes up."
"Your…hopes?" This buoyed Kahlua's brow aloft, beneath which peered quizzical eyes. "You wanted the engine to fail?"
"Engine failure. Hull breach. Sharks bursting through the window. I'm not picky. As long as this damn scrap of metal was sunk or torn to bits."
"But…You'd be in here, too."
"You can't mean that you don't care if you die?" Again, no word. "Oh, Moka, please don't say such a terrible thing!
"If only to spite your plans, would I be glad for it." Her voice steadily rose as she echoed her past reflections. "What? Tell me, what else do I have left, if not the power to stop Fairy Tale in its tracks? You've drained any other I used to have. Took my freedom, my choice, and forget about privacy! So what is there for me, hm? No mother, betrayed by my own family, one member of which is now dead, by the way—used as a tool for your own purposes, and now, you people have robbed me of Tsukune!"
Kahlua was completely sympathetic, and guilt wracked her heart. Everything Moka had hoped for, in futures near and far, in the blink of an eye, gone. Erased from existence. Atonement Kahlua expected to evade her, but never in a million years would she want to be unyoked from such responsibility if Moka's life was the token.
"And…what of your other friends? Having also lost Tsukune, as you have, would you now deprive them of yourself, as well?"
At the first mention, Moka stopped cold, but quickly recovered and shook her head in disbelief. "As if you haven't killed them by now, too. I hate to say it's been a while since I gave them much thought, but I've been forced to have other preoccupations….Even before you imprisoned me, I hadn't received word of them since Akuha-neesan stole us away."
But Kahlua was equally quick to vehemently protest. "You're wrong, they're alive! Mother told me a little while ago. The snow girl, the succubus, the witch, and the Wong boy: they were all brought to the Floating Gardens as prisoners, and last I heard were still secure in the dungeons sprawling beneath the fortress."
It was difficult to gauge Moka's reaction to this news. What was clear, however, was that it was not the bright, effusive burst of relief that Kahlua had half anticipated. She seemed rather…not troubled, but hesitant. Red eyes cast downward as she halted in her pacing. "I see," she said simply. "That is…good to hear." Her hand found its way to her head, the heel of her palm digging into her brow, as if pushing out the exhalation that followed.
"They're going to hear about Tsukune eventually, if they haven't already," Kahlua continued. "I know from experience how close you all are. You were all willing to put your lives on the line to help one of your own, even if you were fools for attempting such a desperate mission. Do you really want to throw that all away?"
Moka said nothing, merely regarding her sister with that indecipherable expression. After a few moments, she drifted over to the adjacent table, spotting suddenly her pile of shells and greens. She hadn't touched them this past week, and it appeared neither had anyone else; once the news broke, her little time-sink crafts project had been forgotten. But now…How could she have lost sight? Indolently sliding into the attending chair, she once more disturbed the collection, rummaging and picking up and examining and returning in a half-attentive way to its resumed progress.
Yet, Kahlua was not past her pressing concerns. "Moka?"
"I heard you," came the calm reply. "Maybe you're right. Sorry, I'm not gonna do myself any harm. I was just venting. I won't mention it again."
"Oh," said Kahlua, feeling a touch of guilt. "I didn't mean you shouldn't talk to me about it. By all means, vent. Let me be the target. I can take it. I'm a big girl," placing her hand on Moka's shoulder. Then, noticing her new activity, and the ingredients thereof, questioned: "Hm? What's that you got there? Oh, you're back to your hobby." It had only been with absent mind that Kahlua had previously glimpsed Moka absorbed in this task. Staring, however, brought a new sensation, a nascent mild strangeness in recognition, but she couldn't place it. "Those leaves look familiar, don't they? Have I seen them before?"
"Probably," returned Moka quickly. "These, I think"—pointing to a few—"I got at Kyushu...Then, here is a bunch from near Shantou. You must recognize them from the boring hikes to the synchronization places. Anyway, it's just a little thing I was doing. Nothing special." She motioned to the book that remained at hand, whose title Kahlua recited aloud to herself. "I'd picked up so many trinkets from all the coasts, I just thought of making a few necklaces or bracelets or something," Moka explained. "I guess I stopped after…well, what happened."
Kahlua nodded, grateful for Moka to return to an old routine of normalcy, that gratitude quenching all other thoughts. "Well, it sounds fun," she said, smiling, "If you have any left over, I'd love if you could make one for me, too."
Miyabi's voice over the intercom abruptly called Kahlua away a short time later, leaving her sister alone just as she had finished one of her charms, slipping the wreath of green over her wrist; rotating her arm around, admiring her work, to be joined in the following days by other such baubles of blossoms and crowns of threaded conches. On her flesh these remained thenceforth, adornments even in chained sleep, some obscured beneath sleeves—not that Kahlua or any of the other grunts who 'tucked her in' would waste breath over something so trivial.
The blaring of his alarm clock woke him: the worst kind of persistent, unassailable alarm, in that it was the rude alerting of his own brain, set as he had it for a consistent 4:30 A.M. rising. This made hitting the snooze fairly difficult, if not impossible (or painful for trying).
Nevertheless, if his own internal clock was saying it was time to get up, then it was time to get up. Miyabi rose, quicker than most to shake off the dregs of sleep, and swung his legs over the bed in his late superior's quarters. At last, today was the end of this business. The beginning of the end, more rightly said. "All ashore today," he murmured to himself, fumbling around for his undershirt. "This is the last one. Akashiya will do the ritual, the eggs will be primed, and then…And then….It's a good thing Akuha is out of the picture," he laughed. "The fun would be over right then and there, if she was running this op. Better this way, to keep things interesting a while longer. Well, Kahlua won't be any trouble, at least. It might be cruel, but it can't be helped. Although it certainly won't score me any points for spouse of the year."
He patted his head again, as the sound of the alarm returned. "Yeesh, I'm up, I'm up!" he said, "What're you still bothering me for?"
Regardless, it would not quiet, the infernal klaxon now blaring with enhanced ominous severity and more warning than before.
Wait, this wasn't a din of his own mind, he soon realized—a realization that brought him straight to his feet. The ship's alarm had been triggered, and was roaring with a ferocity that would have all hands as alert as he now stood. Through the cacophony, nothing else did he hear; indeed, had to smother his hand over his ear to temper the biting noise.
Rushing out into the corridor, he saw through the pulsing red glares a pair of seamen running towards his room. One of them was shouting something, but he could only dimly hear his subordinate until he stood right beside him—a proximity which simultaneously afforded Miyabi a clear glimpse at a gruesomely bloodied lip worn by the silent one.
"What's happened?" he demanded instantly.
"Sir! It's…Akashiya!" the man wheezed and gasped. "She's gone—Tearing—Everyone—Tried to stop—"
Miyabi had to interrupt his panicked ranting, laying a firm hand on his shoulder. "Easy, easy! Stop, take a breath. Not easy to do in this racket, but try, ok? Good. Now, again, what are you trying to say? So I can follow, this time." Eyeing askance the wounded man, he further asked: "What happened to our friend here?"
Collected, but still with heightened anxiety and brisk, breathless pace, the man made another attempt.
"Captain, the girl, Moka Akashiya. She's gone berserk! She's smashing her way through the ship!"
"What are you talking about? Akashiya is incapacitated in her cell every night."
"I can't explain how she got out. I just know that we tried to stop her, and she's ripping through us like wallpaper! She's got fury in her eyes, sir, and bloody murder in each blow as if Death trailed at her back like a loyal hound. Me and Didier here confronted her by her room; she gashed his mouth wide open like you see, and would've taken my arm off if I hadn't grabbed Didier and whisked us clean out of there. Came to find you immediately. Others stand before her, but they'll only stall her so long! Those who've managed to land a successful blow, she…she…" He trembled, cowed by the vivid memory which danced behind his eyes a horrible spectre, "S-she sinks her fangs right in their necks!"
"Where's Kahlua?" came the swift inquiry.
"Sir, I-I don't know. I didn't see her anywhere near the fray, not even when I took a look back as we fled. But, she can't have been there, right? Otherwise we would've stood more than a fair chance!"
Now, for the first time in quite a while, Miyabi felt a spark of genuine worry. "This doesn't make any sense," he growled, his mind racing. "Those chains drain her power every second they shackle her, and have done so this entire month. Breaking free should be impossible for any vampire. And even if she somehow did get loose, or was let loose, by this point she should be in such a debilitated state that she could barely take on a human, let alone a bunch of ayashi marines!"
"We should go, captain. She's heading in this direction."
The alarm still necessitating their shouting to be audible, Miyabi paused, frown lines drawing upon his face, and said, in a dampened tone that was nevertheless perfectly clear in its coldness: "Go? Why would I flee? You think I fear a moody teenager, especially one who has been weakened for a month?"
"Sir, she's not—!"
"Ah, yes, you do fear her. And you fled in a time of crisis, leaving your comrades to suffer in your place. A shame. You would've done well to brace your courage, even if meant dying in the line of duty."
Thus speaking, without another word, his arm lashed out, seizing hold of the man's neck, and broke it with a quick motion. The soldier collapsed in silent judgment. "I appreciate the warning, but we can't have cowards aboard this vessel when it counts the most." Then, turning to his terror-stricken companion, whose broken lip now trembled and shook forth its contents, commanded: "Find Kahlua. Reilly and Lagunov, too. If they do not yet know the current situation, you update them. Even if your mouth falls off. And tell them I will be on the conn. Is that clear?"
A profuse nod from the man, and he dashed to carry out his orders, afflicted with fear on both fronts.
Miyabi, leaving the body on the floor, paced off in the opposite direction, to go where he now intended. Unfortunately, they had not accounted for this turn of events. There was no protocol in place to deal with a frenzied Moka—one who had apparently succumbed to a vampire's bloodlust—because it had never been anticipated that she would break free of her bonds; or, breaking free, that she would have the brute strength to threaten to sink the entire ship; or, that strength being maintained, that it was something Kahlua, who was now mysteriously absent, would not be able to handle, either alone or reinforced.
In consequence, Miyabi was left with no choice but to devise a countermeasure on the spot; and, until Kahlua was located, only one option presented itself in the limited time he was allowed.
Their current position, submerged just off the coast near the final site, was fortunate for the rest of his crew. Had they been far out at sea, the potential staving of the craft would have doomed the majority of them, if not Miyabi himself and several other aquatically adaptable creatures. Here, however, it would only take a minute or so to surface. She would have to be held off long enough for an evacuation, but once the interior was clear, he would lure Moka outside, and take to the open water, using his advantage to douse her into submission. Even if the craft got scuttled, retrieving her took priority.
He swore, running a hand through newly slicked hair. If worst came to worst, he would overdo it, and the vampire's naturally opposing element would not merely leave a few painful burns, but thoroughly disintegrate her. Considering Moka's strength, the likelihood of this risk being fulfilled was enough to cause worry. Too much restraint, and Miyabi would be the one at the bottom of the sea; too little, and Fairy Tale might lose the most crucial cog in its gears. Gyokuro would not be pleased with that, he thought with a grimace.
They had by this point, theoretically, synchronized and prepared enough of the eggs—all but one cluster—to mount their invasion. And yet, without Moka….Though not entirely without purpose, this entire enterprise would not yield the real fruit that Gyokuro sought, that which select few knew of, Miyabi numbering among such company.
Akashiya's safety, he thus knew, was tantamount to that of his crew.
The engines roaring out their haste, the ballasts emptying their liquid burden, and the vessel soon burst forth from the waves like a logging whale, daylight flooding in across the conn through the small port bow windows.
That otherwise welcome brilliance, however, only proved in this case a harbinger for the encroaching darkness: encroaching, and now looming starkly in the entryway.
Miyabi turned, and could not hide the brief flitter of pale horror at the sight.
For there, still as the eye of the storm, was the vampire. All radiance seemed suddenly blotted, smothered by the shadow of her wrath, cloaking her in obscurity. In place of the hobbled wight they had created stood a terrible demon, as if straight from Hell's deepest cauldron. Her eyes, hidden behind the death-pallid curtain of her bangs, almost seemed to blaze forth their infernal fires, as if threatening to scorch the very tips of quenching silver to ash; and her mouth made his stomach churn, for dripping from her lips and coating her gnashing, bared teeth, was the blood of his men, her crimson retribution.
Neither moved, or indeed spoke, until Miyabi, swallowing his apprehension, tried to whistle casually. "Scaaaary," he chimed. Then, more seriously: "I can't say this is my preferred way to be woken up, Miss Akashiya. I don't suppose you'll tell me how you managed all this?"
When she replied, her voice was biting steel, cold and sharp, yet somehow, almost indifferent, a jarring contrast to her external burning lividness.
"It's funny, the games your mind can play with you. How it can blind you, make you forget everything else, even the important stuff…If not for Kahlua, I…."
At this, Miyabi's brow was disturbed. "Where is she?" he asked.
"Does it matter? You won't be seeing her again."
"You little brat," Miyabi chuckled nervously. "Obviously, we should have been more thorough in our attempts to secure you. I don't know what weakness you found to exploit, but—"
Here he paused, as Moka slowly lifted her arm until her tightly coiled fist was held out before her. It took him a second, but suddenly he glimpsed something there, on her wrist. A band of some kind. A bracelet? Wrapped around her flesh, a ring of threaded leaves. He stared, puzzled. "Is that supposed to mean something?"
"It's my thanks, for your poorly guarded stores of purification herbs. It was a little project I'd originally planned, when I thought of how I was able to bathe down here. Finding them was the easy part—threading them like this was another story. I never did like arts and crafts classes. I guess I should also thank Kahlua for reminding me that…Well, never mind. Maybe leaving her alive repays that debt."
While she was talking, Miyabi flicked the occasional look askance to see how close they were to shore. Closer, closer, almost there…He just had to stall her long enough. "Leaving her alive? That implies you'd have the strength to kill her," he observed. "Even in your clearly…robust condition, I doubt that's something you could achieve." He paused, thinking. "Unless…you've incapacitated her somehow. Left her defenseless."
"The element of surprise was all I needed. Let's see how she likes those chains, now. Someone can go and untie her later, I guess. Someone otherthan you."
"Oh? You intend to leave survivors, do you?"
"Someone other than you."
Moka suddenly took a step forward. Just a single step, and that was enough to make the black, fluttering cloud of Miyabi's fear come billowing back.
"All I want," she was saying, her voice shaking like the earliest tremors of an earthquake, "are those responsible. You, and the other two captains. Among all those left on this boat, you three are the only ones…."
And then, she looked up, eyes meeting his with a hateful blast—
"—Who need to die!"
Moka exploded into action, leaping forward with outstretched hand, fingers spread and hooked like claws, seeking Miyabi's head to dash it against the wall.
A timely dodge, so close he felt the rush of furious air burst by, narrowly separated him from the afterlife. The lowered scope just behind him was not so lucky, as Moka ripped that metal stalactite clear off its support. Then, spinning with the handle in her grip, she targeted Miyabi and hurled it at him with a violent shout.
"You took me away from my friends! Used my sister to do it!"
Another dodge! The ruined scope crashed beside him into the radar console, both exploding now in a violent spray and shower of sparks.
"Imprisoned, weakened me! Used me as a weapon against the human world…!"
Lunging again, leaping, lifting her leg high in the air, and dropping it down with meteoric force, aiming for Miyabi's skull, but again foiled, and instead demolishing the ship's control panel. New alarms blared. Miyabi swore under his panting breath. If they didn't reach that pier in time, Moka was going to completely immobilize the ship, if not outright destroy it, leaving them dead in the water. He had to subdue her. Now, before it was too late. And yet—
He shouted in surprise as the girl abruptly caught hold of his sleeve as he attempted to rush her, foolishly in hindsight, and, roaring, in one motion lifted him off his feet and pitched him like a ball into a window. The pressurized glass cracked from the supernatural force of the collision, and Miyabi crumpled to the floor, coughing up blood so that his mouth began to resemble the vampire's.
"It's because of you people that Omote disappeared," she snarled and spat through rage-fueled breaths. "And it's because of you that Tsukune and my sister are dead!"
This, her most explosive bellow yet, shook the dazed man back to himself, and as his attacker made for the killing blow, his hand shot out and he yelled: "Wait! Wait a minute!"
Moka did pause, though Miyabi knew he had only bought himself a second. "You're gonna tear the place down," he wheezed. "You said you wouldn't let Kahlua die, but if we go down, she'll be toast. As will you! What, is that it? Let me guess, with Tsukune gone, you don't even care what happens to you anymore. Do I have it right?"
"If…If you had asked me that yesterday," Moka said, her voice cooling and her body seeming to show a slight tempering of the cyclone in her soul, by her sinking shoulders and spreading palms, "you might have been right. This week, with everything that happened, it's true, I was in a bad place. Still not entirely out of it, either. But Kahlua did me a huge favor, reminding me that my friends are still alive."
"Friends, which frien—Oh, you mean your little cub scout gang? Yeah, they are, but how did you—Right, Kahlua," he hissed through his teeth in frustration. "But what does it matter? If she told you that, then surely she also mentioned where they're being kept, and will be kept until Gyokuro chooses otherwise, if she even remembers their presence. You've clearly gone, well, completely batshit, but you can't be that crazy as to…No, you couldn't!"
"It would have been selfish not to give a care for my own safety while they still needed my help," she continued raving, barely paying attention to Miyabi's retort. "I will go to the Floating Gardens. I will break into the dungeon, tear it down stone by stone. I will find them. That is my vow. And anyone who tries to prevent this, will bleed. Starting with you."
"I don't suppose mercy is on the table?" Miyabi asked weakly, dizzy from the blood loss. Yet the words were hardly out of his mouth than Moka had hoisted him to his feet by the collar and thrust him back against the window. Jumping into a sharp spin, she swept her leg around and cracked her foot against his head. With a low grunt Miyabi flew back, twisting and crashing through the glass and dropping dully into the calm sea with a soft plop.
"Know," Moka growled through heavy breaths, "your fucking place!"
Alone now in the room, she was left to recover herself, tempering her passion in the midst of cool, salty breeze that gently wafted through the broken glass. Having eschewed the water her entire life, the sensation was still almost entirely brand new to her. The scent. The caress. It filled her, despite herself, body and mind, and calmed her a small degree, as surely as a loving whisper, until, though still anxious and almost trembling from her nerves, especially at the prospect of her imminent flight, she could think as clearly as she could see.
There was no time to waste. Fortunately for her, Miyabi's intention of making haste for land had been fulfilled, bringing the submarine within an easy leap's distance of a long, deserted pier that ran to shore, to a small quay and beach just as vacant. Even better, she thought. No one to bother her escape.
She rushed back into the corridor, past the bodies she had left on the floor, feeling suddenly sick at the sight, and frantically scrubbed at the blood around her mouth with the back of her hand. She hadn't killed them, in her wrath, and for that she was now grateful. Still…she had consumed blood, and not a minute morsel from a willing donor, like with Tsukune. Disgust, and its first cousin, shame clutched her heart over her actions. How could she have allowed it to happen? She hadn't meant to, she was just…so hungry…her blood, her spirit had cried for replenishment, and after the first sudden bite, all resistance and control had wilted.
But urgency now quickly muted any lingering revulsion, and on she ran, putting it from her mind. Fleeing to the exit. Scrambling up the ladder. Throwing open the hatch. Bursting into the outer air and the clear blue above and below. Standing for a moment, suddenly captivated, entranced and for the moment soothed to the soul. But for the lush wash of the waves, and faint hint of a humid breeze, pure silence. All around. Freedom.
Shaking her head lest she be possessed by this reverie, she looked to shore. Beyond the beach directly ahead lay an endless green before her eyes, a forest taking up her horizon, encompassing the entire shore for who knew how far round, and rising to a cluster of proudly arching wooded hills not a mile away. To her right, the beach seemed to stretch for miles, and she could barely make out the point where the sand gave way a bend in the trees, like a cupping hand at the end of an arm. A little ways west, where the beach stopped on this side, an estuary slithered through the sand to the sea, joining just ahead a river, sparkling with an inviting jade shimmer from the leaves reflected in its depths, and whose winding course quickly disappeared among the evergreens, while seeming to head right for that range of elevated ground.
Between the warm weather, bright air, and look of the canopies, they must have surfaced somewhere tropical. Pure wilderness, it appeared to her. It would be a wonder if anyone ever came to that pier.
She cast a glance at where Miyabi had fallen. Nothing, not a ripple showed. Well, one out of three wasn't bad, she supposed. The other two captains she had failed to locate on board, but she could not delay to search. It was now or never.
Tapping her feet atop the metal hull, as if testing the long resting muscles, she braced herself, then broke into a run. She did not have far to go, and in a few seconds had locked onto the pier and launched herself high in the air, to cross the gap of thirty feet or so of open water.
Sticking the dismount, she was home free, and had taken her first steps towards dry land when a gurgling, inhuman wail suddenly stabbed through the calm. A thunderous crash followed, and Moka spun around to see the waves between her and the sub churning and frothing like an isolated maelstrom, rocking the stalled ship back out to sea.
From beneath the spray and the white foam, it emerged, a serpentine monster arching its slender, sickly green form. Scales glistening with a strange black oil, mingling into a ruddy sludge as tides of crimson spewed from its crown, choking the surrounding waves. Its maw gaped horrifically wide, and rows of knife-like teeth rattled under the force of another furious shriek.
Moka had unconsciously begun backing away as the beast revealed itself. "That's your true form, is it?" she asked, trying to sound brave, mostly for herself. "Guess I should've kicked harder, huh?"
In truth, however, her bold words only masked her fear, a fear beyond the initial shock of Miyabi's transformation that even now oozed his blood from the wounds she had inflicted. Whatever sort of sea monster, sea dragon he was, the key word for her was sea. She was now staring down an aquatic ayashi, one she would have to fight surrounded by her fatal element. One splash would be all it took.
And so, she ran. Sped away from the serpent fast as she could, though she hadn't taken five steps before Miyabi lunged after her through the murky cloud of blood and oil. She looked back but once, at the sound of something being smashed as if to pieces, only to see the creature breaking through the pier in its chase, its long body flailing this way and that, enflamed with agony and rage alike. The wooden planks splintered and shattered beneath the monster's weight, and a few rogue drops splashed against Moka's shoe and sock—one even striking her calf, which chilled her heart and burned her leg until she was sprinting through the pain.
Almost there…Almost there! She leaped headlong for the sand, practically feeling the brush of Miyabi's razor-lined jaw snapping shut just short of her outstretched foot, the fangs clamping together like an animal trap.
She landed and tumbled on the beach like a tossed seashell; looking up, she saw through blurry, sandy vision the dragon, there in the water, halted by land and no longer pursuing her. More than that, as her sight cleared she realized the damage was taking its toll. The bubbling foam all around the beast was that same dark blend of blood and ink, both liquids seeping from beneath the scales into the ooze.
At last, it was too much, and with one last piercing cry, the dragon collapsed into its own filth, sinking beneath the waves, obscured by the murk.
Moka found she could do nothing for the moment save breathe heavily and dart her eyes every which way to try to locate her foe. She was still on red alert; for all she knew, Miyabi had merely burrowed into the ground and would soon burst from the sands below and swallow her whole.
All her senses strained, casting a wide net of attention all around her.
Moments passed, and she waited, tense and ready to break away again. But no further catastrophe came. The scene robed itself again in the picturesque silence it had worn when she had first entered the sunlight.
Sand remained in her hair, her mouth, and even her clothes had been infested. She shook her head, silver whipping all about her sight, spit out what grains there were beneath her tongue and in her teeth, and checked her ankle and leg. Fortunately, her sock was more water resistant than any vampire, but on her leg an ugly welt had formed; it could have been much worse, she knew, had the droplets been larger. She rose shakily nonetheless, sweeping her hands down along her blouse until she was satisfied she could move without too much irritation. She looked out. No sign of Miyabi still, and the sub had already begun to drift out to where she could no longer leap to it even if she wanted to.
Where they had landed, where she was going, where she could even find shelter or a place to contact her friends and allies—none of this she knew. Still, it was a start.
"Finally," she muttered to herself, and, putting the scene to her rudder, moved up the beach, fumbling through the dunes, and trudged towards the river's mouth.
"Hayate. Hayate! How many?"
Hearing his captain's call, Hayate finished up his work there, sitting up next to the body laying prone on the surf-beaten rock, and brushed the man's eyelids closed. "All told, twenty-seven dead," he called back. "Including Alston."
Akuha approached him—not too close, but well out of the water's range. "Well, at least they'll have no reason to come looking for us now. He's the one, is he?" she asked, motioning towards the corpse.
"Yeah. Forget looking for us. Without him, none of us would still be breathing."
They stood in silence for a moment over the faerie, the only sounds the call of the gulls wheeling above and the rough crash of the foamy crests along the craggy stone shore of whatever place their emergency rafts had floated them to.
Hayate whistled. "All that power, and he pulled it off. Impressive."
"Seems so. As long as he showed them exactly what was planned, they would've seen the ship and everyone in it go down to the depths in a giant fucking heap."
"It was more than his body could take, unfortunately. An illusion on that scale, of that magnitude."
"He knew that going in. He made the necessary sacrifice, Hayate."
"I know." He looked up and squinted, still not adjusted to the dazzling light bouncing off the ripples all around. Still, you know it's possible Fairy Tale will send scouts to sweep over the area soon, just to make sure. I'd say you managed to anger Gyokuro enough to merit that certainty, wouldn't you?"
"And that's why we need to move quickly. No time for burials—not that we could. I haven't seen even a speck of soil."
It was true. Approaching, they had been afforded a full profile of this tiny island. The steep, fractured stone girdle of the shore had made mooring hazardous, but the raft had been sinking, and they had had no time to search for a more accessible point. Beyond the rocks, the land rose to several small peaks almost equally barren save for some sparse shrubs and grasses.
"Yes, ma'am. But…move? Where to? The only other landmass we've yet spotted is that next island off to the northwest. And that's got to be a few miles away. It would be tough for me to try carrying just you alone over. Impossible for all the crew, I'm afraid."
His concerns resonated palpably with her own, as she was extremely acute to their current location. More than any other ayashi there her nerves were alight—a rare instance, but then, she had never found herself on a desolate island in the middle of the ocean. Not even during her training days. There had been rougher scrapes, yes, but few, and marginally. She didn't admit this to Hayate, but even could he make the crossing with her in tow, she wasn't so sure she could handle an extended length of being held suspended over the water.
Still, even ignoring his idea, her situation otherwise was hardly less precarious. Short of miraculously finding a new method of transport or communication on the other side of this miniscule wave-bound outpost, she could not at first thought conceive of any escape plan.
Excuses, however, were scarcely affordable. "Let's go up to the summit there, at least," she said. "We can get a better view around from on high."
"As you wish," her attendant replied, rising off his knee with a groan. He looked around again. There was Lanfen by the water's edge, helping a few other crewmen unload what little of their supplies they had salvaged from the airship. His heart had been relieved upon first confirmation of her safety. And yet, he could not deny the concurrent pangs of loss that echoed deeply. After a pause, he said slowly: "Listen, Akuha, I'm sorry about Tsukune. If only I had been there when the blast hit, I would have—"
"Not now," she said abruptly, a pause between the two words. Already she had turned from him to prepare for the climb. "I don't want to think about that right now, nor can I afford to," came more softly, so that Hayate almost didn't catch it. "We look to be in a hell of a predicament, and that requires my full attention."
After another moment's hesitation she turned back and motioned to him, her expression blank and pale with barely the embers of a withered fire in her eyes.
"Come on. Up we go. Yes, I know you can fly around just as easily, but it's fine. The sooner I get away from this damn acid, the better."