Stiffer than he had ever been, Ragna awoke with a groan. His body felt like lead and a pounding headache threatened to knock him right back out. Still, he fought to sit up and blink at his surroundings. Goddammit, he was at the stupid rabbit's mansion. Of course, there were far worse places for him to be, but…
Shaking his head, he rose to dead legs and forced himself forward. "Hey… anybody here…?"
"Ragna~!" Something rushed over him and pinned his arms to his side as it slammed him back onto the bed. Tufts of white hair clouded his vision as Nu snuggled against him. "Yay, you're awake! Nu was so worried…"
"Gah…" Well, he was awake now, although the unexpected glomp did his aching body no favors. Ragna had no energy to shove her off and instead opted for asking her, "What the hell happened…?"
"Huh? Oh, um…" Nu broke her hug and stepped back away from him. "...Nu beat that meanie and got Ragna out of that place, and then, like, some huge explosions happened! Um, not where we were, though. So Rachel took everyone here. And...um..."
"How long have I been out?"
"Like... five days? Nu was scared Ragna wasn't gonna live; Ragna's grimoire wasn't working..."
With a sigh, Nu looked down. "Nu doesn't know why. Rachel thinks it happened when you transferred my soul or some junk..."
"Right. And I didn't get another chance to use it..." Ragna scowled down at his right arm and focused. Tongues of shadow licked from it. "Well, working now. Good."
"Yep! It started working again after, like, a day."
"...Guess transferring your soul overloaded it or something."
"Probably. Oh!" Nu perked up and grinned at him. "Where's Tsubaki? Nu wants to meet her!"
At once, all of Ragna's pain grew stronger, his grogginess cut away. "No one told you?"
"Told me what?" Nu cocked her head, grin fading. "...Ragna, you don't look so good..."
"...She's gone. Dunno where she is. Might not even..." Ragna trailed off and shook his head. No, he couldn't say that. He would not admit that she might be dead. Not until he had no other choice. "...Please don't talk about her."
"Ragna..." Nu's single eye stared at him, wide. She moved in and hugged him. "...Nu's sorry."
"It's fine. I'll be fine." Ragna returned the hug with a single arm. "So... I guess the stupid rabbit wants to see me?"
"Hm?" After a moment, Azrael chuckled as he observed the beastkin clad in an Intelligence uniform. His red eyes blazed with feral glee and his fingers clenched around the paper in his hand. "I missed one of you?"
"U-um..." Makoto backed away before putting on a toothy grin. "Oh, this! I'm not with the Library anymore. Just thought it would be the best way to infiltrate this place! Eh-heh..."
"Heh. To infiltrate this place..." After pocketing the papers, Azrael cracked his knuckle as he bobbed on his heel. "Confident... probably strong."
"Eh?" Noel backed up a step, hands going for Bolverk. She had no idea who this man was, but her confidence melted away at the sight of him. "N-not really..."
Makoto's grin faded entirely and she cast off her black overcoat. From what she knew about him, there was no way he would let them go now. "You wanna find out?"
Azrael grinned and swept forward, a sudden charge punctuated with a lightning fast punch at Makoto's midsection. The beastkin snarled at the sudden lunge, catching it on a tonfa, but before she could strike back, his fist dug into the ground. A slab of concrete rose up to strike her on the chin and lift her into the air. With a shout of panic, Noel darted in for a swing of Bolverk. And without warning, Azrael was simply gone, the thin barrel slicing nothing but air. Azrael's mammoth hands grabbed her from behind around the waist and swung her around to bludgeon Makoto as she landed. The beastkin just managed to dodge and growled as Azrael hurled Noel away.
With a cackle, Azrael lunged with a dropkick at her ankles to down her. An axe kick followed, only stopped by a blast from Bolverk exploding around him. Makoto spun at him and took out his legs with her tail. She followed with a rising uppercut. "Gotcha! Corona Upper!"
She delivered a straight punch to his face to send him down to the ground. He grunted as he landed and turned to Noel just as she jumped at him, bursts of explosions sparking from Bolverk's barrels. An aura blazed into existence around him and he felt no pain as the barrel burned into his bare flesh. With a bark of a laugh, he grabbed her again and this time slammed her to the ground. Makoto, in the midst of a charge, jumped at the last moment to avoid being struck by her friend. Azrael followed her and caught her by the heel. Upon landing, he tossed her into the air and leapt after. A punch to her gut lowered her; he planted his foot on her chest as they landed, cratering the floor. Noel, stunned for a moment by his barbarity, was too slow to react as he just simply appeared before her. Three strong punches followed before he lunged for a dashing strike. The final punch carried her to the wall... which shattered on impact, and the force launched her into the next wall, cracking it.
As Noel whimpered and dropped to her knees, Makoto rose to hers, wide eyed. "What... what are you...?"
Azrael's eyes lit up with manic glee, his demonic grin splashed across his face as he laughed. "This is nothing! Entertain me more; my fangs are not satisfied!"
In the blink of an eye, he appeared halfway across the room. With a gasp, Makoto raised her tonfas to block the inevitable. Not a moment too soon, either; as soon as she did so, he crashed a fist into her defenses. A headbutt followed, something she did not expect and thus had no defense for. As she reeled back, he lunged forward with a knee to the gut with enough force to lift her into the air. Rather than allow her to fly into the wall, he again vanished and appeared right beside her. His hand shot out, caught her by the ankle, and wheeled her the other way through the air to crush her against the ground. Mad with laughter, he took advantage of her stunned state and punched the floor, cracking it. He dug his hand beneath it and he hurled the chunk of cement, Makoto and all, up against the ceiling.
As Makoto dropped to the ground amidst rubble, the ceiling leaking grit down on her, Azrael warped forward again. Wincing, pained, out of breath, Noel stumbled toward him, guns raised to block his attack. Instead of taking another flash step toward her, however, Azrael lunged low with a kick. She managed to block it, but only barely. As he brought his fist around, she stepped back and fired at his feet to stun him. A chain of strikes from the revolvers followed, ending with a fiery blast from both barrels that sent him skidding along the ground.
Snickering, Azrael rose to his feet; footsteps behind him made him turn just as Makoto drew a fist back. With a war cry, she loosed the straight punch at his face. Azrael countered with his own haymaker and their fists collided. The energy from Makoto's strength Ars exploded into harmless shockwaves and she backed up, wincing and cradling her wrist. A kick sent her away.
"Fenrir!" Noel turned her guns into a single minigun and unleashes a flurry of bullets at Azrael. With a pair of deep laughs, he summoned forth his red and black aura again. The bullets dissolved into the mist and when the barrage ended, he hurled a bolt of dark energy back at her. It carried her back through the hole in the wall; this time, the far wall shattered from impact as well, the sounds of it breaking drowned out by his guffaws. As a final measure, he lifted a nearby desk and hurled it after her. The makeshift weapon sailed over her head, too much force put into the throw.
"You..." Makoto struggled up to her feet, arms up to defend. "You're enjoying this. Why are you doing this?"
"Because the battlefield is the greatest feeding ground!" Azrael flash-stepped forward and delivered blow after blocked blow. "The fight is what I live for, the feeling of blood on my bruised fists! Win or lose, live or die, it doesn't matter; this is the greatest entertainment there is!"
"...You're absolutely insane." Terror painted Makoto's tone as she matched his punches with hers, keen senses and intuition allowing her to keep up. However, the flurry drove her back and each punch drew her closer to her wrists giving out. Finally, she missed one blow to the chest and stumbled back, the force of it far greater than it should have been. Her eyes widened as he drew both fists back for a rising blow to the chin...
"Makoto!" Noel's cry startled Azrael and he turned to try to grab her. He didn't expect her to flip at him and catch his neck in a thighlock. Noel flipped around again and slammed him face first into the ground. Certain Azrael would be stunned for a moment, she turned back to Makoto. "Stay back; I'll handle-"
"Noel, look out!"
The warning came too late; Azrael's hand shot out like a snake for her ankle. She shrieked as he rose, holding her upside down. He turned and tossed her, but she managed to come down on her feet, Bolverk ready. With a low chuckle, he ripped a chunk out of the ground and hurled it her way. She dodged, but shrieked as he flash-stepped right in front of her. The heavy axe kick crashed down against her weapons and staggered her. With her opponent on one foot, she managed to push him away from her. She slid forward with a kick followed by a blast from Bolverk. However, a swift downward punch coated in the dark aura downed her.
More laughter rumbling from him, Azrael grabbed her stunned form, spun once for momentum and hurled her skyward. She broke through the ceiling as he jumped after her. Wincing, Noel shifted Bolverk into a rocket launcher and took aim. Azrael's feral grin twisted into surprise just before he received a missile to the face. He fell like a meteor to the ground, but rose to his knees in an instant.
"Hey, you! Find the real me, why don'cha?" Makoto's catcall made Azrael turn around. Two Makotos sprang at him while a third dashed along the ground. Snarling, he launched a lunging punch at the ground-bound one. It flickered out of existence and the real Makoto delivered a heavy punch straight to his head. He dropped to the ground and rolled off to the side as Noel landed. And promptly collapsed to her knees with a whimper. As she landed, knees wobbly, Makoto turned a sharp glare toward her friend. "Hey, Noel, get up! Let's finish this guy!"
"Right!" Noel sprang up from her knees, guns in hand and hoping she had enough strength to finish this fight.
To their surprise, Azrael broke into laughter as he stood up again. "Yes! This is what I've been looking for. Now, come; my fists will devour you!"
With a lunatic grin, Azrael sprinted at them, forgoing his flash-step. His leg lashed out, but Makoto stalled him by clashing her tonfas together and creating an energy orb. She drilled a fist into the sphere and launched both it and Azrael into the wall. As he slid down from it, Noel swept low to down him with a blast of Bolverk. She sprang to her feet and fired several blasts at his downed form before shifting her weapons into a shotgun. The blast pinned Azrael against the wall, and a heavy follow-up punch from a dashing Makoto kept him there, nearly making the wall shatter.
Azrael dropped to his knees and summoned his aura yet again; however, Noel flipped into the air and struck as it faded with sparks from Bolverk. She delivered a flipping kick to grind him into the wall, cracking it further. A moment later, an Ars-powered uppercut from Makoto sent him into the sky while Noel turned her weapons back into a minigun. A volley of machine gun fire kept the battle maniac airborne. Just as he started falling, Makoto swiveled around so that she and Noel stood back to back for their finishing attack.
"Big Bang Smash!"
The gun launched a missile; Makoto punched straight up and summoned a giant turquoise fist to propel the weapon even faster. Azrael crashed through the ceiling just as the rocket exploded, finishing off the wall as well. Despite the rain of debris that ensued, Makoto and Noel stood still as Azrael dropped to the ground, defeated. The battered, near-broken girls did not move for several long minutes, their panting the only sounds.
Finally, Noel collapsed to her knees and whimpered. Bruises and cuts marred her skin. "We...we won? How did we win?"
"By kicking his ass." The simple statement was punctuated by Makoto dropping flat onto her belly. "Geez... I'm not gonna be moving much anytime soon..."
"Yeah.. .oww..." Noel surveyed the ruins of the Intelligence office. "...I... don't think we're going to find much here..."
"No... we will..." Makoto turned a sharp glance at Noel. "Noellie! Search his pants! He found something!"
"EH?!" Noel flushed a bright red. "You want me... to... no! That's lewd!"
"...I meant his pockets, silly."
"Oh. Um, alright." Noel crawled over to the fallen man and, after taking a moment to gather her wits, reached a slender hand into his pocket. The crisp feeling of paper greeted her and she pulled the files out. "Um... alright, here."
"Awesome. Thanks, Noel." Makoto rolled onto her back before sitting up to read them. "Hmm... Ishana? Interesting..."
"Huh?" Noel sat beside her. "What's Ishana?"
"Island in the Atlantic. Dunno much about it, but..." Makoto frowned, something clicking. "...I kept some of the old files; I'm gonna want to check something out..."
"Heh..." The sudden laugh echoed and sent chills down their spines. They turned as one to meet Azrael's gaze as he lay on the floor. Despite the bruises that covered his body and a hideous black eye, he chuckled and stood up. His red eyes glinted as he stumbled their way. "...Good fight!"
Though both were absolutely petrified by fear, Makoto found her wits first. "...What."
"I missed this feeling; you two are tough!" Azrael placed his hands on his hips and burst out with laughter. "A lot better than the officers here!"
Finally, Noel's fear broke. She screamed and scuttled back. "H-hey! Get away! We don't want to fight anymore! Don't kill us!"
"Tch. You two won; I'll let you go for now." Azrael crouched in front of Makoto and surveyed the papers in her hand. "You came for that?"
Bone white, Makoto couldn't even nod. "Y-yes?"
With a chuckle, Azrael stood up and walked away. "Well then. Keep it. Find out who destroyed Sector Seven for me. I'm gonna destroy them in kind."
And with that, Azrael was gone. After several moments of silence, Noel tapped Makoto on the shoulder. "Um, Makoto, shouldn't we..."
"Don't talk, I'm about to die of fright."
"On it. Switching to battle mode." Tager stepped forward at Kokonoe's command, electricity sparking through him. "This is my last warning, Hakumen. Stand down."
"Hmph. And allow this devil to continue to threaten mankind with her science? Summer's Ad-"
"Sledge..." As Hakumen went to bring his sword down and cut both adversaries in half, Tager slashed with both arms in a lunge and buckled Hakumen. He raised his arms, fists balled. "Hammer!"
"Watch your guard, Devil." To Tager's shock, Hakumen caught the overhead smash on a blue shield of energy projected from the Susano'o Unit and stunned him. A dashing cut of Ookami followed and Tager collapsed to his knees. "You remain loyal to the grimalkin, knowing what she has done? Then I will render judgment upon you as well!"
A pair of spinning kicks followed, first sweeping low, then rising with a direct shot at his chest. Tager managed to avoid the sweep and caught the thrust kick on his metal gauntlets. As soon as the attack ended, Tager bounded into the air, expecting Hakumen to try and approach from above. As predicted, the white warrior flew at him, only to be nabbed in midair. Tager twisted around and body-slammed Hakumen into the ground. Magnetic energy sparked from his finger to pull Hakumen back to his feet, where he immediately dealt an aerial spin kick to knock Tager back.
Hakumen hopped forward and delivered a swift spinning strike from midair that caught Tager in mid-recovery from the kick. He hacked from overhead before swiping at Tager's feet, both blows striking true. And finally, as the mechanical man crumpled over, Hakumen's clawed fingers pierced rust-red flesh to grab him around the neck. "It's over, Red Devil."
Hakumen spun around to deliver another kick, but froze up before his foot could come around. Behind him, Kokonoe snarled, her magic holding him in place. "You really are an idiot, you know that? Tager, stand down."
"You are far more foolish than I, grimalkin." Hakumen snarled as Tager stumbled away. "How much more must happen before you accept the error of your ways?"
"Never happening." With a flick of her wrist, Kokonoe strengthened her binding spell. "I'm gonna do what I need to destroy Terumi, and some holier-than-thou dumbass with a justice fetish isn't gonna stop me."
"So, you insist on threatening the world with your existence." With a loud cry, Hakumen released built-up energy from within the Susano'o Unit. The mystic shackles shattered and he pointed his sword at Kokonoe. "You have the potential to do great good with your magic, yet you insist on using the most destructive forces at your disposal while eschewing your natural abilities. Innocent lives have now paid the price for your tenacity, grimalkin."
"You realize my mother died because of her magic, right?" Though she snarled, the escape stunned Kokonoe. For him to have pulled that, the Susano'o Unit had to be at 70% functionality, if not more. "As you should know damn well, Mr. Hero."
"To place blame on Nine's magic and refuse to use it for that reason is idiocy. Her abilities were not to blame for her pass-"
A low rumble came from Hakumen, almost a laugh. "And when faced with the truth of your ways, you simply run away in your façade of contempt. I will never trust the world to one such as you."
"Tch. Like a give a shit who you 'trust the world' to." Kokonoe's arm lifted up until two fingers pointed Hakumen's way. "You really want to find out how strong my god damn magic is, you idiot?"
Neither of the two moved for several long seconds. Finally, Hakumen lowered his weapon. "So you only choose to wield your magic when left with no other recourse? Tell me, grimalkin; does the world mean anything to you? Or will you burn it down to exact revenge?"
"Only if I have no other choice left."
"Your actions suggest otherwise… Sin Architect. You have done this world far more harm than good; I will pass judgment on you."
"…Okay, you know what?" Kokonoe crossed her arms. "Piss off. Seriously. Just what the hell are you doing right now that's so admirable? Bitching about how me and Ragna do things?"
"I am the blade of evil's bane, passing judgment on those who threaten-"
"No, you are a crusty old fart swinging a stick around and calling it justice!"
"…Do not trivialize my fight, grimalkin."
"Tch. Some fight. Killing anybody that so much as breathes the wrong way on you isn't justice, you dumbshit." Kokonoe forced a bitter laugh and ignored Tager's look of warning. "That's what you do, right?"
"I judge and slay those who-"
"What do you think Voivod just did?" Kokonoe asked, voice raw. "Where do you think that kind of justification leads, Hakumen?"
Hakumen stopped. Not even the mimicry of breath stirred his armor for a moment.
"I—yes. There are people that need to get killed." Kokonoe met Hakumen's eyeless stare. "But no one is looking for the right people, and all the wrong ones have suffered. I've got to do something to change that. And you should too. Instead of attacking people who are working their asses off to do what they can for this world you're so god damn worried about."
"You refer to Ragna."
"And myself, you dolt."
"You two pose serious threats; I cannot allow you to-"
"Ragna might become the Black Beast. I might do something that screws something up. As it stands though, are you really so god damn arrogant that you think you can kill Terumi without their aid?"
"…Do not doubt my strength, grimalkin."
"Oh, I don't. You're breaking out of my magic easily, there's no way in hell you're not strong." A bolt sparked from Kokonoe's fingers and lanced past Hakumen's head. "It's your brains I doubt. Or whatever passes for that for you now. Oh, and your sanity. You say not to doubt your strength, but you're doing exactly that with Terumi."
Hakumen just stood still, refusing to acknowledge her words for fear she might be right. With a huff, Kokonoe turned away. "And no answer, huh? Well, whatever. Come on, Tager. We got shit to do."
"Roger." Body ravaged by his short battle with Hakumen, Tager trudged after the scientist. He glanced at the warrior as he passed. "Hakumen. Consider what Kokonoe said."
As expected, he received no answer. Kokonoe shook her head. "Well, whatever. Listen, Haku. I'm gonna repair Tager a bit and then head to Orient Town. You wanna do something constructive, meet us there, alright?"
With that, Kokonoe and Tager left, but it was a long time before Hakumen moved. "…I will not stray from this path."
What the hell had happened? The orders received: infiltrate Kokonoe's laboratory, input coordinates for Akitsu and Wadatsumi, launch nukes, destroy neo-Ikarugan resistance. The result: Torifune obliterated in Akitsu's stead. It made no sense, so now it was time to talk to the man who gave him those orders. Voivod snarled as he knocked on the door to the Intelligence captain's office. Before waiting for an answer, he entered. "Captain Hazama. A word."
"Ah, Captain Mannock. Do come in." Hazama gave him a lazy wave as he lounged in a chair. "What can I do for you?"
"First, don't call me that. James Albrecht Mannock died in Wadatsumi in a Shebalve crash. I am Voivod, the creation of a madwoman." Voivod betrayed none of the anger that burned within him; emotion in military matters was unacceptable. "I am here because I believe you provided me with incorrect information. Hardly befitting of an Intelligence officer of your caliber."
"Hm? What do you mean?" Hazama pulled out a file and glanced it over. "According to this mission report, you accomplished your mission just fine! And apologies for the name gaffe, Captain."
Voivod scowled at him. "What do you mean?"
"You... did tell me not to call you Mannock, correct?"
It took all of Voivod's patience to not shout; he did not have time for this. "I meant about the mission."
"Oh. Why are you so concerned about it? Nukes went off just fine. And we've already got the relief corps working, while Sector Seven's just retreated to their hidey-holes. I'd say that's a success."
Voivod stopped trying to conceal his scowl. "Yes. It's all wonderful and good that Wadatsumi's gone—and good riddance to the science monkeys as well. But Torifune is, last I checked, not in Ikaruga. So why the hell did I blow it up?"
"Ah. Well." No getting around it. So time to screw with him as much as possible. "Not my fault you didn't make sure the coordinates were right."
"Well, you kinda were the one who gave them to me. Fuck-up seems to be on you here."
"Oh, no. Trust me, I didn't screw anything up." Hazama smirked, a crescent of yellow cracking open his eyes. "This is exactly what was supposed to happen. I mean, really. Yeah, okay, so some people would be pissed about Sector Seven nuking two cities in Ikaruga, but once news broke about the cute little ninjas trying to rebel... well, shit. Sector Seven might've gotten some support for that. But you kill all the pwecious wittle schoolkids..."
"You bastard!" Voivod extended his claws, pointed straight at Hazama's throat. And a moment later, found a knife against his neck. Still, he didn't back down. "This is not what I agreed to!"
"Meh. I knew you wouldn't agree to it, so... why tell the full truth?" Hazama shrugged, hiding his smirk. "We got all we needed from it, didn't we? Sector Seven's as good as gone, the entire country of Ikaruga's gonna be killed off by the fallout, we got a few million souls to work with... and a couple thousand more once the relief corps get killed by radiation... and who cares where they come from? They're all the same in the end."
Those words struck Voivod like a bolt. "What...what are you planning...?"
"Ah, might as well tell you. I mean I hate lying, and..." Hazama shrugged with a snicker. "Who's gonna believe you anyways? The Library's played its role now, so who needs the next generation of soldiers? Once all this shit is said and done... well, you'll see. World's gonna be totally different, Captain. So just sit back and enjoy the show, okay?"
"So, in other words..." Voivod snarled as green bolts trickled along his claws. "Quelling this rebellion was just an excuse to... harvest souls? Not for the security of the people?"
"Rebellion?" Hazama scoffed as he threw on a jacket. "There never was a rebellion. Ikaruga was about as docile as a mouse. But hey, they sure made for easy scapegoats, right? Well, I've gotta run."
With that, Hazama swept out of the room. Face pale, limbs trembling, Voivod lowered his arm. What the hell had he done?
"My, the abode of a Duodecim head... truly magnificent!" The scowl that adorned Bang's face offset his words. He sniffed with disdain at the flowers along the pathway, the monolith rising up in the middle of Naobi. "How Miss Tsubaki came out as noble and kind as she has, surrounded by the evils of the Librarium and spoiled by its luxuries, is beyond me."
"Um... you know, I'm not exactly fond of the Library myself, but..." As he followed along behind Bang, Carl glanced back at Nirvana. "I agree, sis. Simply being with the Library-"
"Is grounds for an asskicking." Platinum gripped her staff as she walked side by side with Carl. "If he doesn't tell us where Tsubaki is, Luna's gonna tear him to pieces."
"I don't think that would be-"
"Besides, didn't he basically tell you to piss off? Luna's gotta do something about that."
"He was just protecting Miss Tsubaki, I think..."
"Perhaps you are correct, Master Carl." Bang came to a stop before the front door, hands on his hips, and turned to face his pupils. "However! I will never trust one who upholds this sham of society, built upon those trodden upon for generations! I can give the benefit of doubt to the lowly soldiers who slave for the Library, but a Duodecim head? Bah! They are the source of the corruption, those who crush innocents beneath their feet! I will lead negotiations with this... man. And then, once his true heart is revealed, I, Bang Shishigami, will-"
The door opened and a pair of bloodshot eyes glared at the source of the racket. Gesshoku snarled, hand on his lance. "Is there a reason for this noise?"
"Hah! Indeed there is!" Bang swiveled around to point a finger at the shorter man. "I, Bang Shishigami, have come to meet with the Yayoi family head. I assume that is you?"
"...Yes. I am Gesshoku, head of the Yayoi family." With a sniffle, Gesshoku drew the back of his hand across his eyes and stood up straight. "What is it you...?"
He trailed off as he spotted Carl, making the boy shrink back. "...You again. What business do you have here?"
"Um..." Carl stepped forward and swept into a bow, removing his hat as he did so. "I apologize for the intrusion, but we heard about what happened to your daughter, Mister Yayoi. We're very worried about Tsubaki and were just wondering if there was any chance you knew where she was."
Gesshoku went still as a statue, eyes dimming. After a few seconds, Platinum rolled her eyes. "Hey, old man! Are you listening?"
"...Tsubaki is here." With a sigh, Gesshoku's entire body slumped and he looked down. "However, you cannot see her."
"I see." Bang lowered his hand, but scowled. "I assume she is well, then?"
"For the time being, yes."
"For the time being?" Bang's eyes flashed and his hand dropped into a pocket. "How heartless! What dastardly deeds do you have in store for your own daughter?"
"...She is set to be executed within the hour." Gesshoku turned away from the stunned group. "I have no say in the matter."
"But..." Fire restored, Bang snarled and started after the man. He stalled him with a hand on the shoulder. "How can you be so cruel? You'd give up your own daughter for..."
The look in Gesshoku's eyes froze him. A dead look of sorrow and despair, leaving Bang to wonder how this man had not shattered entirely. Gesshoku pulled himself away from Bang's grip. "Please leave me be."
The door shut and a stunned silence followed. It was Platinum who finally broke it. "Why the hell are we just standing around? We gotta do something about this!"
A moment later, Sena's voice answered. "Um, weren't you just saying an hour ago that Miss Tsubaki is a-"
"Kiss my ass, Sena."
"That's... kind of impossible..."
"Enough!" Bang crossed his arms and closed his eyes. "Miss Luna is correct; we must save Miss Tsubaki from such a terrible fate!"
Carl nodded, face drawn in resolution. "This happened because of me. I won't let anything else happen to her."
"Then it is agreed!" Bang grinned, a blazing smile to ignite the courage within his pupils. "I doubt her father will help us, loyal to the cursed Library as he is. Let us search for her ourselves!"
"Alright." Ragna, followed closely by Nu, entered the meeting room with, barren with the exception of an oval table surrounded by six chairs. At the far end stood Rachel, Valkenhayn at her side stooped in a light bow. Off to the right, Taokaka sat in a chair, swiveled around the wrong way so that her chin rested on its back. "The hell do you want, rabbit?"
"Good guy! Flappy-flap!' Taokaka perked up upon their arrival and waved, cutting off whatever retort Rachel had in mind. "Tell evil bunny lady to give Tao food, meow! If Tao has to be awake, then Tao demands reco... recomp... recorpse?"
"I do believe the word you're looking for is 'recompense', you dull creature." With a sigh, Rachel sat down. "And this meeting is far more important than your eternal hunger. I sometimes wonder if you are but a burden in the overall scheme, but I suppose even one such as you may have some use, difficult to fathom though it may be."
Nu sniffed, eye narrowed. "That wasn't very nice."
"Nor was it intended to be. My apologies, but..." With a sigh, Rachel silenced herself to the surprise of those familiar with her. "But please. Do have a seat."
"...Okay. As long as you're not gonna be mean to Tao." Nu did as bade and then pulled Ragna into the seat next to her, eliciting a squawk. "Alright! What's the plan, evil bunny lady?"
"...Please do not take after that creature's mannerisms. It is headache enough to deal with one who refers to me as such."
"Goddamn, you're pissy today." Ragna leered and slumped back in his chair. "What, did Valk get fleas in your tea?"
'Miffed' did not do Valkenhayn's expression justice. "I assure you, boy, that at no point have I allowed fleas within this mansion."
"You shed in it, then?"
"That is quite enough. I do applaud your attempts at proving your ignorance in regards to my butler, however." With a sigh, Rachel shook her head. "Now that greetings have been dispensed, let us begin the meeting."
Nu nodded, hair flying from her enthusiasm. "Yay! Nu can't wait to do something!"
Valkenhayn sighed and shook his head. "My apologies, miss, but I doubt you'll find this assignment particularly interesting."
"Okie-dokie! Nu's up for anything!"
Despite herself, Rachel giggled. "Oh my. Such exuberance is quite the pleasant departure from the stray dog at your side."
Ragna raised a choice digit Rachel's way. "Get on with it already, goddammit."
If Rachel was annoyed with Ragna, she did not show it. "Very well. As Valkenhayn said, this assignment is quite simple. I shall send you three and Valkenhayn to the 16th Hierarchical City of Oogetsu. There, you shall track down Miss Vermillion and Miss Nanaya; I placed them in charge of information gathering, but I feel our time is running short. Upon finding them, Valkenhayn will bring you all back here. Is that understood?"
With a yawn, Ragna forced a stretch of his arms. "Yep. Like you said, probably boring. Unless Terumi shows up."
Nu again showed her enthusiasm with several rapid nods. "Like, Nu's on it and stuff!"
Taokaka rubbed her belly and curled up in the chair. "Nyeh, sounds boring. Tao would rather take a nap..."
Rolling her eyes, Rachel sighed. "Valkenhayn shall prepare a feast upon completion of this assignment if you aid Ragna and Nu."
"Mew? Well, now you're talking Tao's language! Count me in, meow!"
Biting down a retort that they'd never speak the same language, Rachel created a portal at her side. "Very well then. Please enter. And do make haste."
Tsubaki stood dead still, forehead rested against her window as tears rolled down her cheeks. On the bed beside her lay a book, a retelling of the Six Heroes' final battle against the Black Beast, now pockmarked with teardrops. Her fingers clenched tight around a slip of paper, crumpled from the pressure. This was the end; there was nothing to be done. A dozen more soldiers had entered the manor after her failure to escape. And her father... after all he had done for her, all the sacrifices he had made... had given her up to the Library's judgment. All hope within her had evaporated.
A knock on the door sounded, but she didn't move. "...Come in."
Gesshoku trudged up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "...Dinner's ready. Your mother prepared your favorite..."
"I'm not hungry." Tsubaki turned around, revealing her tear-streaked face. "Father..."
Warm arms came around to embrace her and Gesshoku drew his daughter in tight, choking out sobs. "I'm so sorry, Tsubaki..."
As she fought back what she was sure would be a full breakdown, she nodded. "It's... it's okay. If this is how it ends, so be it. I will walk to my execution with my head high, with pride knowing that I made the right decision despite how it will end. And..."
She pulled back enough to look Gesshoku in the eyes. "Ragna is going to win. I know it. There is not a thing in this world that will break him. Whatever happens to me, I have solace in that fact. Father, I would like you to give him this if you see him again."
Tsubaki forced the paper into his hands and Gesshoku nodded. He kept it folded on itself; the contents of the letter were none of his business. "I will do so. Tsubaki..."
To his surprise, Tsubaki smiled even as tears continued to fall. "Please don't cry, father. I... if you don't mind, I'd like to take a few minutes by myself to collect my thoughts."
"Of course." Gesshoku wiped his eyes again and gave her one last squeezing hug. "I love you, Tsubaki. For as long as I'm living..."
"I love you too, father." After returning the hug, Tsubaki pulled away and smiled again, a facade of bravery. "I... suppose I will see you, then..."
All Gesshoku could do was nod as he backed his way to the door. Once through, he hung his head, heart heavy. The walk down to the kitchen was little more than a miserable trudge as grief ate away at his gut. However, upon reaching the kitchen, he froze.
A ghastly figure, witch-like in purple robes and without a face, greeted him with silence. Gesshoku grunted as something intangible drilled its way into his skull, twisting his thoughts from grief to... nothing. When he opened his eyes, they blazed a deep crimson. As he stood still, awaiting orders, a single sentence echoed in his mind.
Your loyalty shall never waver again.