Um... These new chapters will be churned out on an irregular basis, it seems. At least this time around, the updates will be more consistent than when I tended to this story before the hiatus.

Anyway, this is one of the longest chapters I've written, and so far it's the longest in this story. It took me a while to work out a few kinks, some of which may still be here. At any rate, I'm happy with the result.

Enjoy!


"It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell."

Buddha

My eyelids part open and find that I am no longer within the plains of reality. There appears to be a surface to walk on, as I am able to get on my feet. But the rest of my surroundings is indiscernible. Darkness is abundant in this place. So much so that it's the only thing that my eyes can catch.

When I regain the ability to think, the first thing that springs to mind is Makai. This is his doing. There's no mistaking it. Phoenix Wing materializes in my grasp in a burst of light, and parts of my body go rigid as a reflex. An instinct. I calm myself somewhat, my heartbeat slowing down, so that any reactions I'm coerced into are fluid. That, and I have to discipline my existence into avoiding his bait. I have to refrain from falling for his charade.

"Look who's finally awake."

The voice startles me into spinning a one-eighty. There goes whatever calmness I've exercised.

Yin, Dad and Lupin are here with me, having recovered before I have. Dad's taken the lead in looking for a way out, while the other two stand idly by. How they can remain so calm, in the midst of this pitch black atmosphere, is beyond me.

A blanket of flame cloaks my blade. I maintain the blaze in case of an ambush.

"Where are we?" I ask.

"Can't say," says Lupin. "Wherever this place is, though, one thing's for sure. It's not part of the real world."

I redirect the question to my sister by averting my eyes to her. Her silence and the shrug of her one shoulder tell me that she doesn't know either. My question remains unanswered, but I ignore it and wander around on my own.

I don't know what to be mad about. The fact that none of us has a clue as to our whereabouts, or that they are not fazed at the slightest. They must be so accustomed to the darkness that being so abundantly surrounded by it is not a problem to them.

Or maybe it's because of their deviance from the path of good. I consider this possibility further, its likelihood. At one point or another, we've all gone wayward. Dad with his ingesting of the Night Master's essence, Yin with her corruption as a result of Coop's influence, and me and Lupin with our unhinged desires. My desire to be stronger, and his to spread word of Woo Foo, to glorify its name. Evil resides in us, be it in dormancy or blatancy. It can manifest whichever form it pleases.

But why? Why am I so unnerved by the dark? There must be more to it than just this.

Another potential factor reaches my mind. This one takes longer to decipher. I go all the way back to when Yin and I were six years old. The whole town was fast asleep, and we were on our way to retiring as well. It was raining. Lightning struck at varying volumes, at disjointed intervals. The normal pitter-patter was replaced with torrential crashes along my window. I had mistaken the situation for a car wash.

That night was also the first time the two of us tried to sleep without a light on. Yin had it easier than me, sleeping soundly, blissfully. For me, it was hard. The pouring rain and the hammering thunder did nothing to ease things. That one night was noteworthy because it defined my disdain for the dark. Because it was the first time I ever knew fear.

After a loud crash of lightning, the loudest on that night, I screamed and sought shelter within my blanket. The downpour was neverending, as were the thunder and lightning. Fear struck me then, hard. Deep.

Beneath my blanket, I sensed my sister's touch rolling along my back. There was only the two of us in the room, so it had to be her. I unveiled my head and saw her there, smiling at me, rubbing my back. The fright I had felt was quelled.

To this day, I have despised the dark. The comfort that Yin would find in it is a comfort that I would find foreign. It's why I hate being here, where everything is obstructed. Where up and down are confused for the other, where reason is exchanged for madness and time stands still. And it must also be why the Crystal of Darkness has been working against me as of recent.

Disgustedly, I grab the object out of my pocket. The sooner I part with this, the better. I walk to where my sister is and tap on her shoulder.

"Take it," I say in the bluntest fashion I can manage. In her eyes, it's arrogance. In mine, it's a mechanism to conceal my detestation for the darkness.

"What?"

She accepts the crystal apprehensively. I note its blackened glow, the harmonious chime it sounds. It's taking my departure from it well.

"I don't need it anymore. That thing is dead weight to me."

"What am I supposed to do with it?"

"You're the genius. You can figure it out on your own."

"And what does that leave you with?"

I raise Phoenix Wing up high, its body glimmering even with this lack of light.

"I've got this now. If you ask me, it's a fair trade."

Flames rise around my blade. This source of light is empowering, encouraging. My faith grows a hundred fold when I look into this fire. Something about it draws me. It speaks of my strength, my ambition. Who I am and who I am not.

I brandish the weapon to get into form. To prepare myself for when we have to fight. I chuckle.

"Show-off," says Yin with a smirk. "Alright, you've had your fun. Now turn it off. It's too bright." Her voice is demanding. It wouldn't be my sister if it were otherwise, but there's a distinction to her tone now that sets it apart from her previous bouts of temperament.

The flame minimizes into an ember, enough to serve as a guide for us. Lupin and Dad head back to us with nothing to report, leaving us with one option, which is to wait and see what happens next. I sit on the ground, combating my anxiety, gripping my sword so firmly the tension hurts my palm; I'm not looking forward to another untimely departure with a weapon I have grown attached to.

I can't quite say how many seconds have elapsed, but something finally unfolds. Makai's voice spreads throughout this realm, ensuring that every form of life that dwells in it can hear him. As soon as his voice registers, the temperature takes a nosedive. It's not because I'm afraid, since I can see the others feeling the cold too, rubbing their arms to preserve warmth.

For a while, I think that I'm back in my dreams, because I am staring right into a pair of glowing green eyes, the same ones that I saw in my sleep. But no, this is real. I'm sure.

"Glad to see you're all rested up. Splendid. You're going to need it." The eyes narrow. A chuckle rings.

I assume that he means we're in for a fight. If this is anything like my dream, then it's most likely true. The moment we've prepared for is upon us. Now is the time for me to cast aside my doubts. My apprehension. My lack of faith.

Our weapons drawn, the four of us take our positions. It's now or never.

"Where are you?" shouts Yin, draped in a veil of ice.

"Right where I can see you," Makai answers. He laughs again. "Oh, don't get the wrong idea, you guys. You won't be taking me on. No, no, no, we'll be saving that up for later. Best for last and all that. You'll be fighting someone else. Someone more...familiar."

Someone familiar? The phrase has me puzzled. If we won't be fighting him, then what danger will we encounter?

The answer emerges before our eyes. Four presences appear from the nothingness, in succession. The first being that greets us is crouched on one knee and has its backed turned at us. It rises and faces us slowly, drawing a gasp out of our mouths. Every aspect of it is recognizable. Its bleach white fur, the pair of long ears laced by a black ribbon, the dark face paint and the gothic clothing. The sight undoes us, but mostly my sister, whose stunned stare is stapled without a way to remove it.

"No way," says Yin, her hand over her mouth. She's exchanging a look with her evil self, and it robs her of the will to act. "H-how is this happening?" But the spitting image of her stays idle, smirking. A sheen flashes in her bared teeth, craving for blood.

After the Evil Yin's appearance, another shadow emerges. It faces us. I repress a gasp as his gaze falls into mine. This is my shadow, my other self. Dressed in a violet hooded jacket, concealing a gi. On his arm, the Grimoire, fizzing with tiny jolts. Creases rise on his nose as he scowls with killing intent. He draws his weapon – the Governor's sword – and twirls it in his hand before driving its tip to the ground.

I lift Phoenix Wing in a stance, unsteadily holding my ground. "You are not me." Not anymore. My disavowal only amuses him, evident by his casually lifting and resting of his sword on his back and the smirk he flashes.

Makai reveals the next former self. It's Dad's, but his former self is not what I had in mind. It's him, except less rotund and much younger. The Master Yo that Makai has conjured up has his hands clasped together in nervousness, never separating. His head wanders here and there in fright. And his whimpering is the most pathetic sound I've ever heard. In fact, 'pathetic' summarizes him to a tee.

Dad braces himself, only to ease up once he sees the pitifulness of his old 'him'. The 'him' that was conquered by his fears, by the despair of losing his beloved.

The final former self is Lupin's, and it throws us for a loop. The Lupin we see is a child, a pup; I'd wager that he's just around my age, or maybe younger, wearing a white gi with a black belt and fingerless gloves. His ears go erect, registering the four of us standing, stationary. His smile is the widest of them all, stretching from one ear to the other. Fangs shimmering, he hunches forward, awaiting the signal to initiate a fight.

A point of interest about this image that distinguishes it from the other three is the ball and chain collared around his ankle. It serves a purpose, or else it wouldn't be there, but I have no clue as to what that purpose may be. My guess is that it's to exemplify what sort of fighter Lupin was back then. And that there was no restraint to him.

Our Lupin and this one have their sights set on each other. Our past selves have us respectively in their crosshairs. I note the black mist that circulates around them, the workings of the Infernal Beast.

"You," says Lupin, wasting little time and unsheathing his sword. "I'll take my time and enjoy wiping you from the face of existence." His voice is cold.

When I last saw Lupin like this, it was while his body was under Makai's ownership. He must be penitent for what he's done, but I didn't think it would be to a point where he would despise himself this much for what he did.

Our feet shuffle into position, and our past selves follow suit. Their wickedness, face to face with our righteousness.

"You fool yourselves into believing that your so-called 'purity' safeguards you from evil. I beg to differ. Every creature to ever live and breathe is predisposed to sin. No matter how pure you are, how faultless you like to trick yourselves into thinking you are, there is always that impulse for transgression in you. You hold an inclination towards sin from the very beginning. It's in your nature to sin. There's no escaping this fact."

The four visages advance after Makai's dissertation. I gaze into the other Yang's eyes, my eyes, and the mistakes I've made flash at me all at once. From the past to the present.

"All that it took was a trigger: your emotions. I simply pulled that trigger and BAM! Hook, line and sinker. If there was ever anyone to blame, it's you. You are ruled by your feelings, the very things that make you that little bit more wicked, and you only have yourselves to blame for that."

Our past selves rush towards us, and we deflect them. We all spread out, focusing on our respective shadows. Our respective inner demons.

It's been said that you are your own worst enemy. The actions you have ever committed, the words you have ever said, the thoughts that have ever sprouted in your mind, will mound and mound, and in due time, they will undo you. The statement holds true. My shadow's technique is similar to mine: aggressive. The force it applies in its attacks is immense, often excessive. When they hit their mark, I feel the power behind them in full. I feel the anger that spurs them on. The anger I've exhibited out of frustration towards being compared to my sister so many times. A frustration towards the accusations from my friends and family, dictating that I would never amount to anything. My hits land on him, and his land on mine. With each blow I endure, I hear that rage beckoning me into surrendering. I press on, fighting with everything I have without succumbing to the charade.

As our battles run their course, Makai's words continue to pour out into this dimension.

"But you know what? I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. Prove me wrong. Let me see if you are above everything I've described. Let's see if you can win this. Just don't die on me. It's always more entertaining when you're alive."

That's the last I hear of him, his departure indicated by his laughter.

Our blades meet. We're pushing against the steel, struggling to overpower the other. His snarl fades in exchange for a smile, and we break our swords free. Crackles surround the glove around his hand, and his mist magnifies. In answer, I set Phoenix Wing on fire after five revs of the hilt. We collide again, but his strength surpasses mine. He gains the upper hand and gashes my arm. I press against my wound, but in doing so leave myself open. He knocks me down with his rendition of the Woo Foo Aura, hitting me repeatedly until I'm covered in bruises. Throughout the barrage, my hold on my arm remains firm.

His Aura fades. "Any last words?" says the other Yang with a sneer, placing his foot on my throat to stop the circulation, to prevent any response. With the Governor's blade in hand, he preps me up for the kill, his eyes widening as the weapon is lifted into the air. "No? Then time to die."

I snatch Phoenix Wing from the ground just in time and guard myself from his fatal thrust before it connects. I repel him from my body and stand up, nearly losing my balance. Many parts of me are sore. The metallic taste of my own blood tickles my tongue as it seeps through the inflicted cuts along my face. My arm is battered enough that just holding up my sword is difficult. But I can still fight.

My own Grimoire starts flowing with Fog. I cast a glance at it. It crackles. Maybe it's trying to say something.

"You know you want to. It's the only way you're getting out of here alive, so you might as well just turn it on," my shadow taunts.

My eyes are on the glove, black and almost blending with the darkness, and then to my sword, bright, warm and inviting. The power that is on a loan and the power that is truly mine. Back and forth, my gaze shuffles. The temptation of using this borrowed power is strong. It deals every possible card, constructs every possible excuse to goad me into triggering the Grimoire, falling victim to myself in the process.

Phoenix Wing's blaze changes from a yellow tinge to a red one. The comfort I derive from the fire is stronger, as is the fire itself. My muscles are still sore, but the pain has mellowed out and lifting my sword is easy again.

This is a fight I must win on my own. Through my strength alone and no one else's.

"How about you shut up and go back to where you came from?" I shout and sprint at him to return the favor. Repaying his onslaught a hundred fold through slash after slash after slash.

With each swing deflected, another takes its place. I ensure that every bit of my offense counts. Properly angled and aimed for the most important spots. First, I disarm him by smashing the hilt of my sword against his wrist, forcing his hand open and his weapon out of his hold. After that, I take advantage of the openings I see. My weaknesses are his. The areas where I am most vulnerable, he is vulnerable there too. But I doubt he's aware of this. The one thing Makai did not replicate when he created this carbon copy of me is my insight. This is my key to victory. My shadow's predictability, his unchanging style, should be the deciding factor.

And it would appear so, as he goes down after a straight palm to the stomach. He tilts his head up, caked with blood gushing from his nose and a cut along the bottom of his right eye. The Governor's blade is too far out of his reach. Defeat is the remaining option.

Shutting my eyes to focus, I twirl in place, hands outstretched. The sword in my hand leaves a streak of red that is as hot as its source. When a circle is complete, I stop and bring my sword to my chest, aligning my face with the avian pattern. The jeweled eye lights up.

This is the 'me' that I used to be, and which I no longer wish to be. A slave to himself. "Get the hell out of my face," I spit as my sights fall on my downed former self. Swinging Phoenix Wing in a large arc, I fling the burning circle, guiding it to my adversary's position. It erupts into a pillar of fire, and I am speechless as to how I can describe this wonder. The wonder of what I can do through my own strength. Mine alone.

The pillar subsides. Nothing is left in its wake. No remnant of my old self to note. Crouching down to one knee, I breathe several breaths to recover from the battle, allowing the muscles in my frame to rest. Letting the joints and tendons mend by themselves, without any aid from magic; I have neither the care nor the energy to cast a healing spell right now.

In my respite, I contemplate on what has just passed. Would everyone be proud of me at last? Did they manage to catch the spectacle that was my mastery of the Woo Foo art? They must. It would be hard to miss.

Looking over my shoulder, I jump to my feet, a sudden feeling of refreshment washing over me. I run to where the others are. To their separate battles to lend them help. But I am impeded. An unseeable wall bars me from them.


Her blast of magic grazes the tip of my ear. It causes a small cut along that part. A precursor of what she has in store. She advances, attacking me over and over with her conjured sword of energy. I block her every move, but I'm barely keeping up with her pace. She's relentless, her insatiable thirst for battle flashing in her eye.

I find an opening and leap out of harm's way to regroup. Chortling, she folds her arms as a taunt. She raises her head in arrogance.

"Getting sleepy, little girl?" asks the other Yin. Makai has many aspects of me spot on. I am sassy, smug and irritating, and he has copied it precisely. Seeing this image of me behave like this is embarrassing, and it leaves me ashamed.

I can't satisfy her by showing signs of pain, so I force out a smile amidst my labored breathing. At first it is just a pretense, but when I laugh, it becomes more genuine. "A little bit."

"What?" the dark Yin asks, her anger building. The tables are turning.

Using Snow Flower as a cane, I expel the last of my heavy breaths. An ounce of strength returns. If she is a perfect reimagining of my past self, if this is my evil self recreated in full, then she shares my flaws. Amused by this knowledge, I chortle back at her.

"Yeah. You're starting to bore me. I can barely stay awake," I say, positioning myself. Her fists start to shake. Being called dull, boring and likewise is a big turn-off for me, and it's a turn off for her too. "Geez, for a 'Woo Foo Knight', you kinda suck. You're sorta boring, too."

Woo Foo energy rises around her hands. Scowling, she flings a storm of orbs at me, and thanks to her tested temper, none of them hit me.

"Is that boring? Is that boring?" she yells, levitating. Her eyes shimmer with magic; I've really made her mad now. Her wrath calls forth her Aura, in her likeness – my likeness – except it's of a blacker coloration. "How about now‼"

Snow Flower slips out of its sheath, a blanket of moisture escaping in its wake. I make the first move, but the black Aura catches me by my blade. The other Yin flings me to the opposite side, but I shift the momentum and somersault into a graceful landing. The smirk my mouth flashes brings her to her boiling point, and she approaches me quickly, her eyes wide and burning. A haymaker crashes down and would have flattened me had I not avoided it.

It's her raw strength against my swordplay and my affinity over ice. Her battle plan consists of nothing but punches and kicks with the occasional Foo orb or incinerating ray. No doubt caused by her frustration, which builds as her attacks miss. Her focus may be thrown off, but she's still dangerous. More dangerous, in fact, now that she's enraged, as one successful hit on me means lights out. Not only that, but she brushes off my spells with ease. Icing her to the ground is pointless, my glacial spikes are but pebbles against her impervious matter, and the decreased temperature seems to affect me more than it does her.

We are equally matched, me and my old self. The sheer force of her Aura is intimidating, but the lack of precision means she won't lay a finger on me at all, whereas I am more calculated, more elaborate when I fight, but until now, there is no sign of wear or tear on her. The Night Master energy she is imbued with grants her greater stamina than normal, so I'll be worn out soon and she'll finish me off.

Brushing off the tension, I grab the Crystal of Light from my pocket. Now would be a good time to use it.

"There's only one thing I can do to get rid of you," I declare, holding the crystal out for her to see. She does not flinch at the sight of it. That's about to change. Bringing the crystal close to my chest, I concentrate. "Come on, do your thing."

I hear a chime. It plays in a loop and comes from my hands. From the crystal held inside them. The radiance slips past the gaps between my fingers in slender but potent rays. I raise it over my head to allow it to work its miracle. The light is warm. It is tender. Welcoming. Overriding the traces of darkness in its vicinity. A power built on compassion. Kindness. Love. Devotion. This is the power that will trump evil.

Evil Yin is unfazed. She rests the side of her head on her fist. The dull expression on her face is given some life when she grins, chuckling once. I don't understand. She is born of darkness. The epitome of the darkness in me. She should loathe the light that shines in the palms of my hands. But she doesn't.

Raising an eyebrow out of curiosit – or perhaps fear – I ask her, "What's with you? Why aren't you scared?"

Inspecting her fingernails, she passes that look again. That look of boredom. Condescension. "Me? Scared? If there's anyone who should be scared, it's you, honey. Have a look-see." She points a finger at my clasped hands.

I tilt my head up to look at them. When I do, the warmth disappears. Taking its place, a searing pain. A burning that I can't classify as any known kind of burn. This is not due to friction. It's not due to prolonged exposure to the sun. Not caused by a fever, either. I can't describe what this is. There are no symptoms except for my inability to separate my hands; they're glued together, still with the crystal within.

No, those aren't the only signs. My fur is turning an absolute white, as is the skin underneath. Wherever the plainness disseminates, so does the erosion.

My knees give in. I fall down, kneeling and then lying. The other Yin watches my suffering, laughing. I've never felt this way. So unable, so scared. So desperate. Something was killing me, and I can't comprehend anything about my undoing. How it's happening, where it's happening, why. I wish someone were here. Not just to ease the pain, but to explain it to me. Someone. Anyone. Dad. Mom. Lupin. Yang…

My vision is hazed the further time moves. The erosion has spread from my hands to my arms. It has passed the top portion of my body. Next to fail is my hearing; Evil Yin sounds less like she's laughing now and more like she's gargling. Though my sight is dwindling, it seems my ability to cry has not.

There's someone. In the distance. A blurry figure beating its limbs against something. Whatever it is, I can't see it. And it's not because of my deadening senses. It ceases its pounding and forms a triangle with those limbs; they're arms. It must be cupping its hands to make itself louder.

"Yin…"

The name is repeated several more times until I make out the distant figure. My brother, pounding his hands against an invisible wall that bars me from him. I can't crawl to him. The burning has taken hold of most of my body, hindering me. My senses improve slightly, and everything around me is clear.

What good will it be though? I'm just about finished. Why delay the inevitable? Sorry, everyone. Both my eyes close gently. Tranquilly, unlike my miserable-looking outer self.

"Stay with me, sis! Just hang in there a little longer!" shouts my brother. That part of me acknowledges the statement and, like the good sister I am, heed it, even with how drained I am.

What do I do? I utter in my head. The question does not leave my mouth, as any control I have on it has left.

Yang leans on the wall, banging his head to dig out the solution to my predicament. He slumps to his knees, as if defeated. If he's given up, then I probably should too.

"Say goodbye," says Evil Yin, standing over my body.

"Yin!" says Yang. He hasn't given up yet. Much like the Yang I know. "You can fight this."

Miraculously, I regain control of my mouth. "How?" My voice is loud, articulate. I am annoyed, unconvinced, by his advice.

"It must be the Crystal. It's not meant for you. I can't really explain why, but I'm sure of it. Try letting go of it."

Again, my hands refuse to budge. It's not that they're glued together. The Crystal of Light must be doing this. Ever since acquiring it, I've felt this burning. It's only now come to a head, and it's destroying me inside. I don't understand. Why would it deny me as its user?

"Well, what do I do?" I ask, my voice pounding with annoyance.

"Think back, sis. Remember that night when we slept without a light for the first time? It was raining. Pouring buckets. I was scared, but you weren't, and you calmed me down when I cried." Yang pauses there, and I see him wince in shame at his admittance towards crying.

What does any of this have to do with my disintegration? I'm still puzzled, perhaps more than ever. "You're losing me here, dude," I shout, and the effort required is beginning to bog me down.

This is all I have, so I go along with it. I remember what he's talking about. The night where we had to sleep without any light whatsoever turned on. The downpour that night could be best described as unfortunate timing. We were encouraged by our caretakers to 'grow up' and get used to sleeping this way. But neither of us foresaw the weather.

At first I was intimidated by the notion of having no source of light in our room, but I came to get accustomed to it. Enjoy it even. Whereas Yang did not. My acquaintance with the dark has been part of me ever since. Wherever we did any venturing into some poorly-lit space, I would take the lead. On the contrary, I always took longer to adjust to anything that was bright, while Yang loved it. When we'd wake up and the rays of the sun kissed our faces, I'd greet them with a flinch. He wouldn't. He'd bask in it, his source of energy. Life.

My intimacy with the dark, his with the light. I can't wrap my finger as to why he loves the light, but I know how I feel about the dark. No one sees the dark beyond face value. To many, it equates to suffering, pain, misery and death. But I'm not among them. The dark is my abode. There's more to it than that. My shelter from the blight of the world. It protects me, and if it can protect me, it can do the same to others.

With this epiphany, the erosion is undone. I part my hands and toss the Crystal away. My fur regains its color, the feeling returning in my body wherever the reversal takes effect. The cause of it comes from my pocket. A dark glow with a purple-ish hue, emanating from the Crystal of Darkness. I pull it out, and the restoration is complete. This is the power I was meant to use from the beginning.

Acknowledging my true self, I take position. Evil Yin is astonished, retreating out of fear. Her shock says it all. The darkness does not snare me as she had hoped. Instead of it controlling me, I control it, accepting it for what it is. What it really is.

A grin rising on my face, I ball my hands into fists, the Crystal clamped in my right hand. "Looks like you don't know the darkness as well as I do," I say, commencing my attack. She summons her Aura as a reflex, but I cut through it like butter.

The Crystal bestows to me its wonder, which manifests into different weapons. Swords, gloves, shields and a lance, which I throw at the other Yin. It hits her in the chest, putting her out of commission and out of existence.

I descend to the ground, the Crystal slumbering until I beckon it once again. Breaths exit my mouth in succession; using such a tremendous force has left me exhausted. Maybe it's a first time thing. The more I use it, the more I will grow accustomed.

It was liberating, to cut loose like that. Now I see the sensation that my brother derives when he uses them.

Partially recovered, I huff out one last time and find that the wall has crumbled. At least I think it is, because I see Yang making his way towards me, the Crystal of Light in his hand. It doesn't undo him like it tried to do to me. He plays with it by tossing it in the air and catching it, finally putting it away when he's close.

"Pretty impressive," says Yang, smiling. "I told you you'd figure it out." He pats me on the head before rubbing me, ruffling my ears. 'Pretty impressive'?

"I didn't know I had it in me," I say, still winded. It wasn't without help that I could do what I just did. That leaves one thing… How did he know about the erosion? How did he know the solution? Yang rubs his chin, appearing puzzled, so it's pointless to broach any of this now.

Sounds of metal banging break us from our pondering. Yang and I hurry over to where Dad and Lupin are. The questions will have to wait.


After one more spell courtesy of Earth Hand misses, I am fed up. This younger me cannot, will not, be coerced into fighting. I can't hit him because he's quicker than I am, what with his more slender build and abundance of energy. Energy which will become a waste if he won't channel it into fighting back. He may be unarmed, but his youth is as much an asset to him as my Talisman are to me.

Infuriated, I stop in my tracks and speak to him.

"Pathetic," I utter bitterly, enraged by my cowardice. By this panda I used to be. A caricature of my being so afraid. "Is that all you're good at? Running away? Come on. Raise your fists and fight me!" The last phrase is said with a shout.

This only causes him to quiver more than he already has. To say his timidity is making me mad is being too kind. It aggravates my repulsion. My self-hate. Even with all this in mind, I still have only myself to blame.

"But I don't want to," says the younger me, cowering into a ball. "What if something happens to me? What if I get a concussion or a cut? What if I get crippled for life? I can't risk any of that." He buries his head into his knees.

Part of me encourages that I be more understanding for the young me, my teenage me. But I know better. This is Makai's mirage, and if I show him the slightest bit of leniency, he'll have me where he wants me. Being as truthful, as sincere, as blunt and as harsh as I can is the ideal approach. If I want to goad him into battle, I'll have to start the battle myself.

The young Yo's reply to my demand results in a palm in my face. An elbow across my face would be an act of mercy in comparison to this.

Calming myself, I exercise a bit of patience.

"There's a risk to be had in being a warrior. You of all people should know that. You have faced many trials and conquered them. You have been battered, bruised and broken time and again. You are one of the Woo Foo Pioneers, for crying out loud. Don't you ever give me that stupid, STUPID excuse. Do you hear me?"

Again I leap at him, both fists punching him endlessly. He sways out of their way before they connect, still insistent on avoiding conflict. Avoiding to do what's necessary. One missed roundhouse kick, and he rolls out of harm's way.

He wraps his arms around him protectively, despite still being unscathed. I pause once more and Earth Hand vibrates in preparation for a spell.

"It's not an excuse," says the other Yo, crouching down, clutching his head with both hands. Muffled sobs pour from his clenched teeth. "I'm just…scared. I'm scared not just for me, but for everyone around me. What if someone else gets hurt because of what I do? I can't have that happen again."

Again… As in this mirror of me is right after Maria's death. Only I was much older when it happened. Watching him dwell on this is unsettling. Point by point, the Beast has copied my utter defeat. The unbearable sadness I felt from having my love slip out of my fingertips. His only oversight in this recreation is my age. Other than that, it is spot on.

I suppress a groan, but it fails. I hurl my next spell, an array of pointed pebbles that have formed from thin air, poised to pierce him at my command. Another perfect dodge. Several more times I repeat the spell.

"Listen to me," I tell him, raising my voice past the crashing sounds. "I understand that you're afraid. It's natural. Fear is a natural emotion. We've all been afraid once in our life. But there's more to life than being afraid." Short on breath, I almost fall to my knees from having used my Woo Foo so much. After the respite, I beckon another set of rocks and shoot them. "Bravery is not the absence of fear. It's knowing that there are more important things in the world than fear. It's casting your fear aside so that you can do what you want to do, what you have to do."

The words seem to reach him, since I can see signs of him steeling his nerves. It's at the small cost of one of my stones scratching his arm. He clutches the cut and looks at the stain of blood in his hand. Although he and I are technically one and the same, I cannot decipher his every move. I can't determine if that wide-eyed expression is his fears stubbornly taking hold or him truly overcoming himself. Being enlightened by my advice.

Cautiously I near him. His eyes stay glued to his palm, presumably in consideration of what I had just said.

"So what are you going to do?" I ask, bringing up my fist and readying a punch. No answer. "Will you wallow in your fear? Will you stay a prisoner to your despair? Or are you going to stand? Are you going to fight?" His body is a statue. It doesn't budge. "Make up your mind. If you don't make a stand, what will become of Miriam? What will become of Selene? Who will fight for them? Will you lose them, too?"

Mentioning Miriam and Selene breaks him out of his trance, and he guards himself from my incoming fist, catching it with his own hands. Heavy breaths flow from his mouth, like he has awaken from a nightmare. Straining, he lifts himself back on his feet.

I push back, relenting a little to test if his will is hardened. Tilting his head up, he locks eyes with me, and I behold at his expression with a grin.

"No," the other Yo hisses. "Miriam. Selene…" Seething, he scowls at me, baring his teeth as a means of intimidation.

The smile on my face widens. "That's the spirit." Exerting his might, he pushes me far, his force accentuated by a gust. He demonstrates a few of his moves before entering his stance, and I am driven. Out of excitement, the most I've felt in so long, I too take position. "Now…show me what you've got."

My teenage self and I trade blow after blow. There's no holding back between either of us. All that it took was to engrave that possibility into his mind. Had I known this, I would have done it sooner. But it doesn't matter now. His strength and mine are equal. We know our Woo Foo, inside and out. The difference between us becomes clearer as the fight wears on, when I break into a sweat quicker than he does. I can only brush off the fatigue for so long. And it catches to me, as he gets in more and more successful hits.

He sweep kicks me, opening me for a follow-up hit. Fortunately, my senses have yet to fail, and I catch his foot and retaliate with a sweep of my own. I take advantage of the opening, but he teleports away, and we are back to square one. Aglow with energy, he unleashes a barrage of orbs, hoping that one of them will catch me in my tired state. I punch the ground to lift up a boulder to act as a shield, and we advance for each other. The shots keep racing at me, and my barrier crumbles the more hits it takes. When we are at an arm's length apart, the boulder is crushed and he and I throw our fists out. Mine is aimed for his face, while his, infused with a concentrated globe of energy, is aimed for my stomach.

At close proximity, I am without a breath. The young Yo's fist lodges into its target, coaxing my eyes to go wider than they can normally go. Similarly, one of my gauntlets meets directly with his left cheek, resulting in the other side bulging with air and perhaps a tooth or two smacked out of their gums.

I am flat on my back after taking the punch. I lift my head to see him also downed from being hit in the face with the metal of my gauntlet. Beaten and breathless, my body does not heed the commands I issue it. Some internal organ in me must be ruptured from that last hit. Possibly an intestine, I'm not sure.

Disoriented, I stop myself from trying to rise and just lay on the ground to catch my breath. I contemplate on where I am now and what I once was. Maybe if I had understood what bravery really meant sooner, maybe if I had stopped blaming myself for Maria's death, none of this would have happened. How would things have turned out if that were the case? Everything would have been better. I guess…

Or not. Not really. Banging their hands against some sort of wall, Yin and Yang call out my name, encouraging me to stand up. They hack away at the barricade with their swords, but it proves useless. It doesn't stop them. Only when they wear themselves out and fall forward against the wall do they stop.

This much I can say about all of this. My greatest loss has brought me a new joy. Something equal or greater in value for me to cherish. Something I can be proud of.

The pain subsides, and I pick myself back up, my feet still unsteady. The other me stands as well, also feeling the brunt of his beating. He gently touches the spot where my fist landed, wincing when his fingers touch a cut that traces along his left eye. My stomach is still heavy, and I touch it to ease the hurting, wondering if anything inside has been severely damaged.

He and I lock eyes once again, and my delight in his rekindled flame is expressed with a smirk. Whatever kind of trial Makai had intended this to be, I am certain I have cleared it. No one knows me better than me.

My gauntlets click and clatter when I curl my fingers. I dust off any specks of dirt that linger in my fur and approach my young self to put an end to this ordeal.

"You make a good me," I say, looking down on him as he stays on one knee. He looks at me deeply, ambiguity written in his eyes. How he takes my compliment, I can't say. "But I'm putting an end to this now."

Squinting at him, I position my fist and send it towards him in a straight line. The move is swift, and there is no scream. His whole being fades in a cluster of glitters before he can get a word out. I breathe in and out, hardening my nerves. Accepting that the past is in the past, and that I have triumphed over it.

"Dad? You alright?"

I turn to where the voice is. Yin and Yang are right in front of me, which means the wall has faded. The question only registers now. My answer is delayed.

"Yeah. Yeah, I think so."

Just as I tell them this, my stomach starts to sting. It's minor, but I want them to know that I'm fine.

"That Makai. Just when you thought he wouldn't take it too far."

Their faces are articulated by hardened scowls. Their trials must have had some profound impact on them as mine had on me. Phoenix Wing in Yang's possession and the Crystal of Darkness in Yin's attest to this. Each one of us has faced that other side of us. Our demons. Those manifestations we never thought we'd encounter, never wished to encounter. I too have something to gain, but it isn't in my hands for them to see.

"He's cunning, I'll give him that," I remark. "Who is he kidding? He doesn't know us as well as he thinks."

"So…" starts Yang, his voice trailing off before he puts it back on course. "You used to be that scared?"

Instead of answering, I lower my head, exhaling loudly. My silence registers as a yes, and their faces become somber.

"I'm not proud of it. But I'm not ashamed, either," I say, like I'm presenting a scar to them. It's a facet of me that I hate, but I won't hide.

A mark of valor is for one to show his or her wounds irrespective of the burden tied with them, not the wounds themselves. Hiding these remnants is as bad as refusing to confront one's demons. Clenching my right hand into a fist, I swear to myself to bare these scars for as long as I live.

Snapping out of my pondering, I hear loud voices from afar. We're missing one person.

"We better get going," says Yin.

Without further prompting, we hurry to the direction of the commotion.


My feet skid to a halt as I avoid an incoming spherical blast of Woo Foo. The blanket of dust clears out, revealing a ghost from days gone by. A mirror of me, eleven years old. The age when I became a Grandmaster. Reminding myself of the title leaves a bitter aftertaste. What used to be the highest distinction in Woo Foo has become a bane. A trigger. I'm starting to hate it. I'm starting to hate being called by that title.

"I'm not even trying," says my copy, taunting me.

I shuffle my eyes to the ball and chain around his foot. This is supposed to be only a fraction of his capabilities. What I put an ounce of effort into, he does it with only half. Perhaps less than that. There's no telling what will happen if he takes that thing off. When it does come to that, the tide will tilt to his favor. And any semblance of chance I may have of winning will disappear. I need to dispose of him soon.

He bares his claws, whose tips are unseeable, and his fangs, one of which sheens to ingrain their sharpness into my consciousness. I brandish my sword in response, fortifying my body. This may only be an illusion, a phantasm, but his touch on me is as real as if it were from an actual person.

I lift Soul Saver and deflect the swipe of his claws. He stares me down and pushes against me, preserving his grin. But I swat him off and retaliate, switching between might and magic to suit the circumstances.

This ghost of me is back when I was in my prime, so touching him alone is going to be difficult. We are both in tune with our Woo Foo, but that is where the similarities end. I am much older than him, reserved and collected, whereas he is utterly unhinged. A deranged beast, through and through. Combined with his youth, and he is a bonafide threat. More than a worthwhile adversary.

My mirror is not tired in the slightest. He's fast on his feet, and he does not hesitate. I cannot keep up. Everything I do to him does not even leave a scratch. I have become my own worst enemy.

Our differences prove to be the decider, as he parries my projectiles and darts in front of me – a miscalculation on my part. He waits until I flinch, and foolishly I give him that pleasure. I feel a rise in temperature on my left shoulder, which coerces my eyes to go wide. His fangs have sunken into my flesh and wrench out swiftly. Bite marks trail across my shoulder area.

My shadow somersaults away from me and I press against the marks and cringe, the blood staining my fur. I fall on both knees and breathe rapidly to prevent my vision from failing, ignoring my weapon falling off my hand.

"Tasty," remarks my child self, his unfading smirk accenting his mocking tone. "I wonder how good the rest of you is." What is Makai thinking? Is he really so sadistic that he has hardwired cannibalism into the young me's brain?

Come on, move, my mind issues towards my feet. The command is ignored, and I stay in this prone position. The pain in my shoulder area intensifies, and I find myself breathing harder than normal. Half of that part is coated in crimson. As is my hand, which has been stained from the prolonged pressure.

The words I utter breach the confines of my mind and slide off my tongue. "Move! Move, damn you!" Anger rises in me, but it is not a remedy to my paralysis.

Films of sweat continue to emerge as I command my body to operate. Parts of me start to still, and I recognize the futility of my efforts when the stasis stretches to my legs. Frozen, I brace myself for the hurt that the child version of me is going to inflict.

This doppelganger would not be complete if he does not exhibit any smart aleck tendencies. It isn't the case, since he gets a few sentences in when he is at arm's length.

"Aww, you look a little pale. What's wrong, little puppy? Feeling under the weather?"

I put up a scowl as my sole act of perseverance.

"No, wait. Wait. That's my little secret. Or should I say our little secret? Concentrated Woo Foo energy. Sink a fist, foot, tooth, what have you into your victim, and administer that flow of energy, and he becomes immobile from the overdose. And you can't do jack about it."

A technique that I have founded at this very age. His age. Among the many other skills I would create. When word of it spread amongst the lesser Woo Foo devotees, there was much commotion abound. Ultimately, it joined the ranks of the art's taboos. Reasoning behind this skill being bandied as forbidden was that it interfered with the laws of nature. Unwritten laws. To this day, I have yet to unravel them. What I believed and still do now is that the other known techniques are no different, and that these 'laws' are no more than guidelines.

For my own invention to be used against me, it's insulting. My impending death, if it were to happen, has been made more disgraceful because of this. He has augmented my desire to kill him, if the chance that I can free myself from my inactivity ever comes to pass.

My child self grabs me by the chin, squeezing my cheeks, his claws grinding into my skin. The tone in his voice shifts. "But that's not the least of your worries."

At his remark, I feel the brunt of numerous fists and feet hitting me at every direction. One hit. Two, three, four… Nineteen… Thirty. One of them causes me a shiner. Just what I needed: another reminder of who I used to be. Who I no longer want to be. He elbows me one time, and it cuts where my left eyebrow is. Three marks. Three reminders.

One final roundhouse kick, and I am flat on my face, on the blackened surface. I am pathetic. A pathetic sight. The condition I'm in now, stunned, beaten up and down, I'm like a lamb brought up for sacrifice. Except there is no purpose for me to be slaughtered. Just to further a sociopathic monster's ultimate goal.

My head lies next to my young self's feet, tilted up to meet eyes with him. Having endured a lot, I still muster the will to flash a fanged scowl at him.

"Oh, no need to get to get that tail of yours in a knot," says the child me, who then crouches, rubbing my head, sneering. His mockery worsens the aching and bleeding. "Once I'm through with you, that stiff body of yours won't be a problem anymore. Now hold still. I'll make this as painless as I can."

Not hesitating for a second, he removes the ball and chain latched on to him. Damn. This isn't good. His sneer widens until it becomes a smile. Protruding from the back of his mouth, a pair of fangs. The nails on his paws lengthen, completing the very portrait of madness. An epitome of irrationality, caused by the removal of his Regulator. Unrestrained.

Bringing his arms across his chest, he hunches forward, eyes alit. A flame-like outline rises and encases him – his aura at its purest. It appears that he's in pain, with his stifled groaning, clenched teeth and tightening grip on his chest, but it belies the strength that swells by the minute. Every last strand of fur stands erect, blown that way by the wind that howls from the power that mounts in his body. For someone of such small stature, it's amazing that he does not collapse. Amazing and terrifying. A side of me that has never occurred to me. I was warned by Yo when I was young not to elevate myself to this level of being, but I didn't once think of the consequences. Is this the reason why? Is this why he became so fiercely protective of me?

My child self throws his body back into an arch. His arms are outstretched and his mouth agape to grant passage to a scream that is best described as monstrous.

"Woo Foo Aura!"

The Aura shines brightly, a translucent, shimmering appearance that sends illumination across the realm. Floating in the middle of it is the young me with folded arms, standing sideways and grinning. I recognize that grin because I used to wear it. One word comes to mind when I look at it: pride. Pride that swells so much that it suppresses everything else.

Reaching a claw out, the Aura lifts me by the tail with minimal effort. My body stays frozen. Fighting this stasis is as futile as it was, but I disregard it and struggle anyway. This untapped side of me has me half-enlightened and half-weary. It may still be within me, albeit subdued. But it may just be as formidable, it may just awaken if I can give it the right motivation. If I can unlock this beastly side, then I can fight back. I may even win.

"All that potential, wasted. It's too bad you could never fulfill it. So much for being the Grandmaster, huh? Oh well," remarks the child Lupin, stroking his chin while he lets his Aura do the work. "Who knows? You still could've reached this. But it's too little too late."

Most of me may not be operational, but my mind is not. Be careful what you wish for.

Lowering my head and closing my eyes, I utter everything I need to say quietly, internally. I remind myself of what I am. A wolf. An animal by nature. There is more to me than what I already know. More to me than anyone can ever know. That undiscovered part that thrives on strength. On intimidation. On perseverance. I am strong. I am powerful. I am to be feared, if I so will it. Let all my enemies behold me and quake before me.

Something glows within me, enshrouding all that I see in light. Before I know it, I am bathed in this light, dwelling in its warmth, its purity. I can move my hands and feet again. My fangs protrude far, almost touching the lips that they are opposite of. The nails on my paws also lengthen, and the glow morphs from cleansing to burning, almost abrasive. Initially it is rough and takes a while to adapt to.

When the light that cloaks me mildens, I see myself on all fours, breathing sharply and snarling. There are creases on my snout, much like other wolves. A carnivorous instinct pervades my body. Strings lace around me as I become one with this new, feral side. The very side that the young Lupin has delved into upon releasing himself from the ball and chain. I feel alive. I am free. Free as the wind.

"Well, look at you. Took you long enough to get that leash off," says the young Lupin, amused.

I pay his humor no mind. My heart races as I revel in my newfound, unbridled self, repeating the Aura-summoning process step by step, just as he had done. The Aura is more defined, with small strands standing up here and there, the eyes beady like a bird's. Electricity crackles all over me, attesting the existence of the power swelling inside.

Not only have my senses heightened and my attributes expanded, but the urge to do away with the past have been stimulated. Bordering on murderous. There's no use in questioning this sudden development let alone resisting it, so I sprint at my other, Soul Saver and Soul Liberator clamped in my mouth.

I leap into the air and bring my blade out, and a larger imitation of it made out of pure energy materializes, falling into my Aura's grasp. My motions are mimicked. Each step of a foot, each slash of the sword. I don't let up, and it coaxes the child me into action. Monster against monster. As the saying goes: 'if I can't beat them, join them'. And joining them is my ticket out of here. We mirror toothy expressions to the other. Expressions of hatred, contempt, excitement and amusement. The unadulterated strength is at the expense of my coordination. Our coordination. As the fight wears on, there is less thought channeled to our strikes. They consist of clawing, biting, ramming, tail-wagging and pouncing. We are simply behaving in accordance to what we are.

Calling out to me is a voice. My own voice. That of the other me. The me prior to my transformation. It asks me to revert back to it. Slowly but surely the voice gets softer. Ten more seconds in – a minute or two or three into our conflict – and it is non-existent. Whether it is a good thing or not, I am too consumed to decided. Whether it is for the better or for the worse, I will deduce once this is over. If I can make it that far.

The odds are evened up, and neither of us appear to be likely victors. Young Lupin and I are inches apart as we catch our breath. The voice returns. Only it is from a different entity. Not from my rational self.

You're too evenly matched. You need to figure something out. Come on, you may be a beast, but beasts have brains, too. Use yours.

The utterance is insolent. I guess that's what I get for my numerous bouts of being such a smartass.

Another glow. Now it's from an outside source. From my necklace. Another voice, a reprise. I recognize it as the female sound I have been hearing as of late.

So here you are. How does it feel to cut loose like you did? I want to say it's amazing, but I am indecisive, especially after the other voice's reminder that I've only evened the playing field. Liberating, I know. Scary, too, since this is your first time. But guess what? You're better off now than if you'd found out long ago. You have now what you might not have gotten as a child. The best of both worlds. You may be an animal, but you're more than that. There is bravery, compassion, dedication and loyalty in you. Bring that side and your savage side together, and nothing will dare to oppose you. Everything she has said thus far has been with much certainty. Now is no exception. I don't know who she is, what she is, but she has earned my complete trust.

She departs. My rational self takes her place, his calling louder now. The moment I accept him, I stand upright and take my sword into my hands. The savage features stay. Fangs still bared, claws still outstretched and tendrils of fur still erect. I am more in control of the surges of power. They are at my beck and call.

Young Lupin is at a loss for words. The sneer on his mouth dissolves. His eyes are agog with disbelief, and his feet shuffle back. Stiffening his nerves, he barely contains his shock.

"How did you do that?"

I spread my arms wide to indicate my newly-achieved state of resonance. Resonance between my savage and refined selves. "You mean this?" I know what he's referring to. "That's my little secret."

He's afraid. Very afraid. Trembling where he stands, he stills himself. But I can already smell his fear. One meager inch forward, and he reacts. For each slow step I take, he retreats faster than I move. I lunge at him, and he does not get a chance to escape.

With my young self in my reach, I do not relent. I hit him with all that I have. Biting him, clawing him, punching him, kicking him, slashing him, scathing him with magic. He fights back, but I anticipate his next move before he can even do it. The conflict ends with his Aura faded and mine still standing proudly, lifting his unconscious body up with his fangs.

Blood flows out of his body in copious quantities and finds its way into my aura and to my person, staining me more than usual. Repulsed, I dismiss my Aura, the child Lupin falling lifelessly. My claws and fangs retract, and my fur is no longer disheveled. The currents of electricity have subsided, and my thoughts are my own once more.

The deed is not yet done.

Picking my sword from the ground, I stand atop my child self, draw my weapon and prepare to deal the final blow. The sword descends. It plunges into him. Splish splash, the flesh and blood go. The body flashes in a pure white and disintegrates into glitters, which fade into thin air.

I crouch down, lean towards the hilt of my sword and remember to breathe. This is a victory I'm supposed to celebrate, but I am not in a festive mood. The animalistic me that emerged during the battle is fresh in my mind. It is all that is there. All that I dwell on.

Frightening. No, that's not the word I'm looking for. Amazing. That isn't it, either. Strange. Neither is that. None of them are right, because it's each of these words put together that summarizes this. An elevated state that is unlike when I was possessed by Makai. This is more than when I became his pawn. Attaining this new state has opened a new door. One that will lead me to an entirely new place. A place I have not yet ventured, one that is littered with answers to questions that have never arisen in my head.

Before the desire to know carries me away, I catch myself. I realize that this is exactly why I fell so far, remembering what it has lead to. Not everything can be handed to me all at once, on a silver platter. This is one of those things that I should know at a gradual pace. I would do well to keep that in mind.

Three voices call my name. I look over to my right to find Yin, Yang and Yo making their way towards me. A crack in the darkened realm begins to show and parts, revealing another wave of light that engulfs us four.

I shut my eyes and open them to the wasteland where we were before being transported. Yang ignores this and attends to me, taking my hand into his.

"You could use a bath," quips my former student. Crimson spots part from me to him, and I notice the blood all over me. Like the canine I am, I shake in place to rid myself of the blood, ensuring that I am a fair distance away from them before doing so.

"And voila," I say, shrugging. Just like that, most of the blood has washed off. "Not a problem." Yin, Yang and Yo share a laugh and I partake in it seconds after, grateful for them lightening the mood. We remember why we're here, so we cut our merriment short and wander our heads to find anything of interest.

Bodies, left and right, strewn everywhere in this lonely place. Unconscious, not dead. Their chests heave and their mouths expand and contract as confirmation. Within their ranks are Eradicus's subordinates – Rubber Chucky, Indestructi-Bob and Ella-Mental.

Standing amidst them is the other fraction of our party. Their chests also heave, the air entering and exiting their mouths. A battle of their own has taken place on the surface, and they've held their own.

First to notice us is Weiss, who waves her hand at us. She has endured her share of wounds, some minor, some major. But her spirit shows no damage.

"Guys! Over here!"

The rest join, calling out to us over one another. To their left are the Night Master and Eradicus, who are groping their persons out of pain, stepping back to regroup.

We proceed to our crew and check on how we are. Besides the physical pains, we are all in one piece.

"Thank God you're alright," says Kitsune, taking an arm of mine and embracing it.

"How about you?" I ask, neverminding the redundancy of it. She nods and says nothing, forcing out a smile. I tell no one of my discovery. Again, this is not the time for that.

A portal of black rips through space, and Makai steps out, folding his arms and looking displeased. He does not make eye contact and just stands there, irritated. I don't know the last time I've seen him angry. Truly angry, not just hiding behind his typical façade. More creases surface on his face, on top of the already visible ones.

Ending our chatter, we face the three of them. I focus specifically on Makai. The other two are of no concern to me, but I still regard the threat they pose together as a unit. We hold on to our weapons but do not take them out yet.

Makai moves forward, the portal sealing behind him. Eyes closed shut, he stops between the Night Master and Eradicus. He lifts a hand as a signal, and my hands tighten around my sword.

"Take five, boys."

At the command, the two move back one step. Seeing that it wasn't an order to commence and attack, I relax my grip and stand upright.

"I didn't expect that at all," says Makai, holding his anger back. It shows plainly in the way it speaks, and it gives his words truth. Surprising, given the guile he has exhibited in the past. "Guess I underestimated you."

Yang advances one step, not taking any chances with the demon. I bar him with my arm, his heart thumping against the palm of my hand.

Makai scoffs, peeking with one eye. He opens it, some of his deceit returning.

"Did you guys have fun playing with yourselves?"

He shines his grin in hopes that we interpret the question…differently. Not in the mood for his humor, I rub out the implications from my head.

"That's not funny," says Yin sternly, taking her turn to step forth. This time it's Yo who stops her, and there is no amusement in him either. Her words affect Makai, as he loses the grin and puts the frown back on.

Makai himself is aware that whatever he intended for us has failed. It's a blow to his pride, him taking a dose of his own medicine. It furthers my suspicion that there is a way to abolish him from this world for good. That may still be far from our comprehension, but for now I'm satisfied with this epiphany.

"Well, I never," says Makai, offended. Once again, he is genuinely hurt. Enraged. Shaking his head twice, he forces a grin to save face. It is more secure. "I mean…my, how you've all grown. I'm happy for all of you for having come such a long way."

"Damn straight, you twisted jackass," says Noah, animating his words by pointing one of his wings at him.

"There's more to us than you think," says Yuck, conjuring a pair of hands, clenching one of them into a fist.

"We're not who we used to be, Makai," adds Yang, his face brimming with willpower. "And you'd do well to remember that."

"We're stronger than we were before," I include. "And you will never bend anyone's will ever again."

Looking disinterested, Makai rolls his eyes. He approaches, circling us, sizing us up. His gaze finds me, stays there and then shifts to the others.

"I see. Stronger, huh?" asks Makai, piqued. "Yes, I've noticed that. And I guess you're right. You are stronger. Smarter. Wiser." He warps back to his initial spot. "Especially you, Lupin. I mean, Mister Grandmaster." He warps again, appearing in front of me. He caresses my magatama necklace, which emits its glow and wards him off. Flinching, he recoils and grins again. "Well you know what they say: 'like mother, like son'."

I don't know how, but those four words ice me to the ground.


As an aside, I'm quite saddened by the recent loss of Robin Williams, a man who has brought laughter across the globe. I hope that he can serve as an example for us. Never take life for granted, as it is too short to simply toss away.

Currently in the process of finding an artist I can commission to draw cover art for my stories.

EDIT: September 2, 2014 - minor fixes/replacements. Thank you, Daedalus370, for pointing them out.