Bullet huffed as she pulled herself back up to her feet. This wasn't possible. She couldn't be losing, not here. Although her balance was tremulous at best, she managed to crouch back into her stance, arms ready to grapple with Makoto. "I'm… not done yet."

With a sigh, Makoto shook her head and lifted her hands back into a boxing posture. "Seriously? Come on, you can barely move. Why don't we just stop this already? It's pointless."

"Pointless?" Snarling, Bullet took a ginger step forward. She didn't see how she could last much longer, especially with her opponent still so spry. But she couldn't give up now. "After what you people did—!"

"Yeah, uh, about that whole 'Sector Seven killed everyone' thing." Makoto cocked her head. "Who told you that? And especially, that I'm somehow someone to blame for that? Because I've been with them for maybe three months, and really just as cover to do my own thing."

"A captain from Intelligence."


"Who cares what his name was?" With a growl, Bullet lowered herself, ready to launch at Makoto. "If he's from Intelligence—"

"And named Hazama, then he's about the last person you should listen to. Oh, and and and…" Makoto offered her a smirk. "You ever heard of the name 'Relius Clover'?"

Bullet's eyes narrowed. "Of course. Sector Seven operative during the Ikaruga Civil War, and one of their top scientists. And his command is what led to the elimination of my group. What does he have to do with anything?"

"Oh, not much. He's just working with Captain Hazama of Intelligence, who probably directed you my way because I've been a pain in his ass, and is probably here in Ishana right now." Makoto winked at her. "So, why don't you go after him instead, hm?"

"Clover? Here?!" Bullet staggered back under the news. "You're sure he'd be here?"

"Oh, yeah. He's currently a Colonel in Engineering for the NOL, and highly involved in what Hazama's doing. He's gotta be around here somewhere."

For a few moments, Bullet kept up her glare, grinding her teeth. Then, after coming to a difficult decision, she turned around. "If you're wrong, you're dead." Threat delivered, she limped away. Time to find Clover, and take her long-sought revenge.

"…Whew. Never thought she'd actually listen." Makoto straightened up and stretched. "Okay, find Cauldron time. Better get going."

"Oblige his request? Don't make me laugh." Nonetheless, Azrael laughed anyways, a guffaw that echoed through the hallways. "It's been so long since last time, you must've become so old, no matter what color you've dyed your hair! Why should I take you seriously?"

"I assure you, the passage of time has not dulled my claws or fangs in the least." As though to prove his point, Valkenhayn's fingernails extended and pointed as grey-black hair sprouted around his hand. "I would comment about time's lack of effect upon you… but I suppose that I should not find it surprising an inhuman monstrosity such as yourself should be unaffected."

"Well. If you say so…" Azrael grinned and lunged forward with punch that could split rock. "Why don't you prove it?"

"Gladly." A leg lanced forward, topped by a wolf-like claw, and struck Azrael straight in the face before his blow could land. Valkenhayn spun with the momentum of his kick and delivered a leg sweep that took Azrael off his feet. A final charging shoulder ram sent Azrael skidding away, and Valkenhayn's body shifted.

By the time Azrael pulled himself back up, a wolf charged him down through the air. With a single bark of a laugh, Azrael delivered an upward blow with both arms and sent Valkenhayn skyward. Faster than a man his size had any right to be, he leapt after the stunned canine and sent him back to the ground with a heavy punch from above. After Valkenhayn splatted against the ground, he reverted to his human form and rolled back onto his knees. His foot lashed before Azrael could reach him again, tearing a gash unto his bare chest with its clawed toes. Azrael grunted, but lunged in for a heavy straight kick. The blow missed as Valkenhayn ducked under it, and slid a foot out to trip Azrael.

As his foe stumbled, Valkenhayn followed with a quick shoulder ram, forceful enough to blow Azrael back. Man twisted into wolf again, and he bore down on Azrael with a ferocious growl. With a smirk, Azrael enlarged the phantasmal red billowing around him, a scald that stopped Valkenhayn's charge dead. Before the wolfman could hope to recover, Azrael delivered a sharp punch, a rising knee and finally crimson-clouded haymaker with enough force to blast Valkenhayn back into a distant wall. "Disappointing. Is that all one of the Six Heroes has? You'd better not bore me here, Hellsing!"

Valkenhayn rose to his feet and dusted off his charred clothing. Brown fur poked out of his face as it protruded and changed shape. Muscular, hunched over and covered in fur, Valkenhayn stepped forward and howled, fingers tensing in anticipation. And took a charging punch to the snout for his efforts.

Up in an instant, Valkenhayn roared and launched at Azrael, darting through the air and spinning like a drill. The revolving claws ripped into Azrael's bare handed guard, grinding him back several feet. Valkenhayn spun on a foot and drove a clawed foot at Azrael's head. The blow came up against Azrael's forearm block, but Valkenhayn twisted back the other way and stepped in to drive a claw hand into Azrael's gut. The brute grunted and doubled over, but grinned as he reciprocated the blow with enough force to send Valkenhayn stumbling back.

Growling in ferity, Valkenhayn stepped back a few paces. Even in his current state, fighting Azrael head-on was proving quite difficult. With a low chuckle, Azrael shook his head. "What are you waiting for? Entertain me! I'll devour your flesh."

He stomped the ground, cracking it and loosening the stairwell's fastenings to the wall, and scooped up the nearest largest chunk of stone to hurl at his opponent. Valkenhayn bolted skyward, before spinning down at Azrael from above at equal velocity. Left with no time to block, Azrael flash stepped back and retaliated with a charging punch and a roar. Valkenhayn caught the strike in a palm, burying his knife-like claws into Azrael's fist, and used his foe's momentum to draw him in and deliver an impossibly fast kick to his chin. The blow lifted Azrael off his feet, but Valkenhayn's grip anchored him from flying too far. With a roar, he spun and slammed Azrael to the ground.

As Azrael bounced away, Valkenhayn wasted no time following up his attack. He drilled through the air once more, slashing into Azrael and then turning upward to take him higher. Finally, Valkenhayn spun in an overhead kick, sending Azrael to crack the floor below. For good measure, the werewolf came down in a stomp on Azrael's chest. His claws flashed toward Azrael's neck.

But despite the crushing set of blows, Azrael's attack came first. A pair of fingers struck Valkenhayn straight in the gut, and Azrael's aura lanced through his body and out his back. As Valkenhayn stumbled back from the sucker punch, Azrael rolled up to his knees and followed with a second finger jab to blow Valkenhayn away. And then broke into deep laughter. "Yes! Give me more of that!"

Hunched over on all fours, Valkenhayn snarled. His body felt cracked and ripe for being shattered with the next blow. He knew the Terror, Azrael's way of weakening an opponent so that his attacks would do the impossible and hit even harder, all too well. And his time in this form, brief though it had been thus far, was drawing to an end. He started forward on all fours, but came to a stop after only a few steps, a feint.

And one that worked. With a laugh, Azrael jumped forward and delivered a spinning kick from above. However, Valkenhayn launched backwards through the air and came back with a brutal double kick before Azrael could recover from his whiff. With his opponent dropped to his knees from the bone-shattering force, Valkenhayn charged forward, caught him on the waist with an arm, and flew all the way to the far wall. Azrael roared as he was crushed against it, and then again as Valkenhayn dealt a spinning kick, slicing open his chest. He fell forward onto his knees, snarling as he stared up at the werewolf. Yes, he had wanted a challenge, but this? This was impossible… at this level of Dragunov, at least. But first, he had to find some breathing room.

Which Valkenhayn seemed intent on not giving him. He launched forward and lashed out with an overhead kick. Just before it could land—and possibly finish Azrael off—his enemy vanished and appeared several feet behind him. And then took several more teleports back, just to give him space away from Valkenhayn. "You are a… adequate meal. Enchant Dragunov level 3, release!"

His aura exploded into neon red before settling into a shape, a red shadow of Azrael that followed in his steps. He smirked as Valkenhayn tore after him once more. Before the claws could rip into him again, he swung with a lazy backhand. The swift flap of his arm struck Valkenhayn dead in the face and sent him arcing back, far further than should come from such an attack. And Azrael followed after, sliding on a planted foot while he delivered kick after kick, buffered by his held jacket, until Valkenhayn met the wall.

With a roar of laughter, Azrael dropped to his knees and delivered a two-handed uppercut to send Valkenhayn back into the air and followed after him. In an absolute violation of gravity, Azrael flew straight up, delivering even more kicks to his already battered opponent. At the apex of his rise, he sent Valkenhayn back to the earth with an elbow to the gut. He drew his fist back as he descended, his nebula of red light gathered about it in a thick, palpable haze. "Black Hawk Stinger!"

Like a meteor, he descended, summoning forth the fiery fury of his strongest attack and chiseling through stone with naught but a fist. Dragunov's malevolent glare swamped the chamber as it exploded outward from the punch. When the room cleared, Azrael, crouching in a crater more than five feet deep, grunted in surprise. Valkenhayn did not lay defeated below him. He glared up at the edge of the crater and snarled. Valkenhayn kneeled over at its edge, having somehow dodged the attack, but clearly at the end of his line. And no longer in his werewolf form. As he rose, Azrael chuckled. "Good fight, old man. But it's over. You're finished."

"Do you truly believe…" Valkenhayn doubled over to cough. One arm hung limp, dislocated, and breathing for him was like sucking in fire due to his broken ribs. Still, for Rachel's honor, for Ragna's sake, he could not just give in. Not until he could move no longer. "That I shall just roll over and die? I am not finished with you, you monster."

"Heh. Enchant Dragunov, lock to level 1." As Azrael's red cloud receded, he rose to his feet, grinning. And sagged a bit; Valkenhayn's blows were damn powerful, it seemed. "Then don't disappoint me! Sentinel!"

He took a mammoth leap at Valkenhayn and cleared the rim with ease. With a snarl, Valkenhayn rolled away, but the shock of the impact so close prevented him from trying to clamber back to his feet. Still, he managed to roll away as Azrael tried to boot him off the ground. His body shifted into a wolf and he lunged back from Azrael, but within seconds, his body forcibly reverted to normal. He snarled; even restored to near youth, his body couldn't handle the rigors of his transformation for that long. And, with his injuries, he had no way of matching Azrael's power any more.

Before Valkenhayn could hope to think of a plan, Azrael appeared before him and delivered a heavy punch to the face that sent him reeling back against the stairwell's railing. The rusty frame creaked and bent from the impact. Valkenhayn eyed it once, and an idea came to mind. He turned to glare at Azrael. "You wish to end me? Then so be it. Let's see if you are capable of catching me!"

"Tch. Running? Don't even bother. See you in hell, old man!" As Azrael flash-stepped forward and lunged with a heavy punch, Valkenhayn forced himself to turn into his canine form once more and darted forward a few feet. He stopped and transformed back just behind the endpoint of Azrael's teleport, leaving Azrael to strike nothing but air and unbalance himself. "What?"

"Your end." And before Azrael could find his balance again, Valkenhayn charged with a swift shoulder ram and followed with a heavy double kick. The impact launched Azrael into the railing, which gave way and sent him toppling twenty feet down to the second tier of the stairwell.

With a grunt, Azrael picked himself amidst metallic screeches all around him and grinned. "Ha! That was supposed to finish me? Have you gone… mad…?"

And with one final creak, the age-worn stairways below him broke, dropping him into the abyss below. Valkenhayn watched him fall until he was out of sight before collapsing. Unfortunately, it would seem that his role here in Ishana had already come to an end. However… "Milady... I have avenged your embarrassment at the hands of that brute. Please… forgive me. I won't be able to aid this battle further…"

"You think you've won, Hellsing? Come on down, it's real nice!" A cannon-like boom echoed after Azrael's voice, and a fissure raced up the side of the side of the hole that the stairwell once dwelt in. Before Valkenhayn could even comprehend what was happening, the crack reached him and exploded in a burst of orange light beneath his feet. The entire rock face crumbled, dropping Valkenhayn into the abyss after Azrael.

The sound of gravel scraping beneath a shoe drew a squeak from Noel, and she ducked back behind the corner she had come from. Bolverk materialized in her hands as the pace of her breaths increased. She figured she had been lucky to not to get involved with any fights so far, although she had certainly heard a couple already. But finding the Cauldron was critical, and thus she had chosen not to partake…

The footsteps drew closer. Noel closed her eyes and steeled herself, preparing for the worst. Any second now… A figure stepped around the corner, and she leveled her gun, ready to induce its space-rending magic.

Jin just stared at her before giving her a teasing smirk. "Is this how you greet me now, Noel? Whatever have I done to deserve that?"

"E-eh?!" Noel stumbled back, bright red and guns falling from her hand to clatter on the floor. "S-sorry, Jin, I-I didn't know it was you, I d-didn't mean—"

With a chuckle, Jin placed a hand on her shoulder. "Relax, Noel. There's no problem." Smile fading, he glanced around briefly. "Have you encountered anyone hostile?"

"Ah… um…" As Noel bent down to pick up her guns, she shook her head, cheeks still scorched over. "Not… really. I-I mean, I did run into… um, what his name? Mutsuki?"

"Belioz Mutsuki? Hm." Jin crossed his arms and scowled. "That man is up to something; there's no doubt in my mind. I assume he didn't harm you?"

"No, he didn't. But…" Noel sighed. "…He was here for Tsubaki. I… I told him she was probably…"


With a whimper, Noel nodded, tears budding.

"Very well." Jin's scowl lifted a bit as he looked down at Noel. Best not to stay on that subject. "I know the orders were to split up. However…" He extended a hand toward her. "Would you like to stay by my side for this, Noel?"

"Ah!" Noel looked up, contemplating the hand before her. Her green eyes lit with determination as she nodded and slipped her hand into his. "Yes. I would, Jin."

"Ah… Ame-No-Uzume? Pardon me, my dear, but I have no clue what you're talking about." Amane took a spinning step toward Relius, lashing out with his cloth. "But sure, I'll dance. I suppose. You had better be able to keep up with my tempo, however."

"Oh, I assure you…" Relius smirked as Ignis slashed through the silk and advanced on the dancer. "Ignis and I will prove more than worthy of a dance god's time."

"Flattered, really." Amane grunted as Ignis's claws tore through his defensive veil of ribbons and raked his shoulder. Okay, so maybe fighting this guy was actually a terrible idea. Oh well, too late now. As Ignis drew back for another swipe, he leapt over her and extended a lavender thread. Its end produced a blunt mace as it struck Relius in the face. The scientist stumbled back, and Amane crouched down where he landed. A tendril of ribbon snaked over to Relius and spun itself into a drill. As he spun away from it, Ignis lashed out at Amane once more. "I don't know if I'd really call myself a god, however."

Amane leapt over Ignis's slash and sent a noose of ribbon down at Relius. The fabric struck the scientist in the face, and dragged him towards Amane upon being pulled. Amane descended with a drill of ribbon spinning before him and drove it into Relius's gut. However, Amane had no time to continue his attack, as Ignis spun at him. Her hands extended into blades and forced Amane to dance away from it. Relius rose back to his feet and dusted himself off. "Hm. Quite impressive, Nishiki. You are truly a fascinating subject."

"I may not be a god, but I'm certainly not a 'subject' either, thank you very much." Amane lashed out with another ribbon, this time trying to drop a drill on Relius from above. He scowled as Relius simply took a nonchalant step to the side. "And you're pretty dodgy for someone so old, my dear."

"Oh, I assure you, you are but a test subject in my mind. And perhaps…" Relius smirked as Ignis came after Amane once more. "Your agelessness will prove key to my main experiment."

"Main experiment, huh? Doesn't exactly sound like something I want to involve myself with." Rather than jump away from Ignis's claw, Amane spun to the side and lunged. Cloth spun up into rapid drill, which bore into the automaton. Hissing smoke, Ignis recoiled and collapsed. "Well now. Let's see how you do without your little doll, hm?"

"Very well." Relius jumped toward Amane, a metal blade in his palm whirring. And without warning, a hand made of the same cut as Amane's kimono rose up from the ground and snatched Relius, before slamming him to the earth. Dazed for the moment, he just managed to roll away as a drill sprouted below him. "Truly a remarkable creature." He pressed his hands to the ground, and a metal blade jutted out from beneath Amane's feet and slashed his leg.

"Creature? I think I'm a bit above that. Certainly more human than you." Amane winced as he sent a tendril of ribbon to wrap the gash in his leg. "And I really can't have you marring my legs. That would be such a tragedy."

"How unfortunate for you, then." Relius sent another grounded blade to strike at Amane, who this time at least had the sense to jump. "I will do whatever is necessary to acquire such a magnificent sample."

"…What a sad world, when I have to dance for someone like you." With a sigh, Amane landed and sent another cloth noose at Relius. The scientist stepped away from it before dashing Amane's way. The ribbons around Amane spun into a drill and he prepared to meet Relius's charge. "Well, sad to say, but you're not much without your doll."

"Is that so?" Relius drew from somewhere within his cape a thick metal blade and cut straight through the drill. Before Amane could recover, a massive green fist from the same place dealt an uppercut to his chin. "I believe your analysis to be faulty, Nishiki."

"Ugh. Owie." Amane pulled himself up from his back and shook his head. Before him, Ignis jolted back into action. Well then. Time to bolt. "Sorry, but I'm not about to let you capture me here."

With that, he leapt back up to the window he had first come through. Ignis came after him, but a mace-tipped ribbon kept her at bay. Still, Amane's eyes hardened. "Your plan is folly, and she will not leave her cave for one such as you."

"…Hm?" Relius recalled Ignis, realizing the impossibility of capturing Amane at that juncture. "Whatever do you mean?"

"I know what you're planning, Clover. Amaterasu will never fall into your clutches." Without any further word, Amane slipped outside into the cool rain.

Relius frowned as he watched Amane escape. He stood still for several minutes, pondering. "…Uzume. Even if today is not the day, you will find yourself in my hands."

"Guh…" Tager rose up to his feet and readjusted his glasses. "I see. No matter; I'm not letting you walk away from here, Voivod."

"Always the obstinate fool. Did Kokopuffs convert you from a donkey? Nah, too intelligent for that. Oh well. If you're going to—"

Tager interrupted Voivod with a charging tackle. As Voivod recoiled, Tager reached out and grabbed the diminutive man in his giant mitt. "Do you ever stop talking?"

And with that, Tager launched skyward, Voivod hefted overhead. The leap smashed Voivod into the ceiling, and as Tager came down, he stretched Voivod's body over his shoulders in a backbreaker. Upon landing, he tossed Voivod down before him and moved to stomp a heavy foot down on his head. Snarling, Voivod whipped around and slashed with a trio of claws extending from his wrist, green lightning dancing between the blades. Tager stumbled back, and Voivod sneered as he rose. "Right, right. Shutting the hell up now. Got it."

He darted forward through the air, shoulder cannon opening again to fire off a single vivid beam, and he dived upon Tager after it with a slash of his blades. The claws gashed Tager's arms, but it was nothing he couldn't shrug off. Voivod retreated backwards, hoping to pepper Tager with plasma again. However, Tager jumped after him and caught him. Once more, he launched upward and came down with Voivod in a backbreaker.

"The hell…?" Voivod rolled away from Tager, motions wobbly after incurring such damage. "Since when could you…? Oh hell."

Tager took a single step his way, and Voivod flew back again on instinct. Tager's hand shot up and caught Voivod in an iron grip. With a roar, Tager turned around and slammed Voivod to the floor, cracking it. In mid-slam, he felt something kick start within him. "Atomic Collider!"

Now wobbling as though drunk, Voivod managed to retreat from Tager and drop to his knees. "Okay… okay… not going anywhere near you anytime soon again, because that freaking hurts, you bastard. Kaleidos."

Both of his shoulder mounted cannons opened and unleashed a volley of shots. Tager raised his arms before him to block, grunting as the plasma burned him. But he could wait this out easily; and once he did, he had this battle won. The attack soon ended, and Tager straightened up. "Spark Bolt!"

A massive ball of magnetic energy launched from his chest, but Voivod smirked and dodged to the side. "So maybe I lied about not knowing how long Missing Sequences put your magnets down for. Now, better finish you before you can shoot another one of those blasted things. Let's go."

He charged forward, elbow extended. A spike elongated from his elbow, ending in a sharp barb. Tager tried to jump to the side to avoid it—that harpoon made it too dangerous to even attempt to grab Voivod—but it caught his side and administered a vicious shock, stunning him. Green electricity surrounded Voivod as he cut into Tager with his claws with a quartet of slashes, before zooming under Tager's legs and launching straight up for a rising slash. At the apex of the rise, he spun around like a pinwheel, claws extending from his feet as well to slice Tager deeper. As Tager started to turn around, arm raised in defense, Voivod fired another beam of light straight into Tager's face and darted back to the opposite end of the room. "And speed still does you in. Yay. Long as I keep you from touching me, you can't do a thing to me. …Well, that should be obvious, but…"

"You really never do stop talking, do you?" Tager scowled, his internal systems focusing on building up enough energy for another projectile.

"Well, you're not exactly a threat right now…"

"Is that so? Spark Bolt!" The necessary energy attained, Tager unleashed another blast of pure magnetism. This one caught Voivod off guard entirely and struck true, bouncing him off the wall and to a stop closer to Tager than was sane.

Voivod rolled back and snarled. "No helping it then. Only thing that I ever can win a fight with, it seems, but… Le Pont Noir."

Voivod's legs clasped together as jumped and aimed them in Tager's direction. Tager frowned. "That won't work on me again! Magna Tech Wheel!"

Electricity burned the air around Tager as he spun forward with a double lariat. A moment after the spin began, Voivod's attack fired. The energy released by the rail gun met Tager's magnetism and diffused; only a fraction of the blast pierced through to strike Tager's left shoulder. Tager brought a fist down on Voivod from above, and bounced him off the ground. Seeking to finish the battle, Tager reared his arm back for another punch. "Terra Break!"

On the other side of Ishana, Ragna trudged down the corridors, trying to reach the bottom of the magic city. Without warning, the ground beneath his feet shook, knocking him off-balance. "The hell was that? This place get earthquakes or something?"

Tager stared at the hole in the wall his attack had left, Voivod lying motionless on the opposite side. He grunted and clasped his left shoulder; even when diffused by his magnetism, that damned rail gun still packed a punch. He trudged forward, kicking through the lower remains of the wall to get to Voivod. "It's time to finish you."

Freedom. Freedom to hunt and consume the Azure. To consume the Tormentors. The masked man and the phantasm of the Beast's taint. They are not the Azure; they defile the Azure; they are meaningless and of no consideration and must be consumed for their defilement. Then the Azure…

Stench. What is this stench? Why does it cloud the Azure's taint from me? It matters not, for it is not the Azure, nor the Tormentors. It is unimportant, irrelevant, unfit to be eaten, unfit for my insects. I will ignore. I must find them. I will find them. I must I will I must I kihihihihi!

A voice. It drowns my laughter, raucous, loud, aggravating, carrying the same stench. The stench of Ikaruga? How do I know this? Why do I know something not of the Azure and thus not of importance? No matter. Not that. Not him. I must hunt. I must feed. I must obtain the Azure, the—

Pain rains upon me, tiny blades that burrow like worms, and my howl echoes. I turn, I perceive. The source of stench. The source of cacophony. A man in green. Ikaruga. He shouts something, but it's unimportant. One as unkempt, distasteful, filthy as him is not worth consideration. I sink below the earth as fire sprouts from his hand, a brilliant corona. The flare scorches the ground I swim, but not me. Should I devour him for his impudence? Yes… Consume… Consume! Kihihihihihi!

I swim the air, and my insects thirst. Devour! Consume! Reduce the defiler to bone! Crimson cloud ensnares him, even as he leaps through it. I rip, I split through his rising form, and my insects fall. Minions, feast!

With a slight limp and a hand on her aching head, Tsubaki trudged down the corridors of Ishana. Even though she had won—somehow—against Hazama, the battle had more than taken its toll, in particular the life-draining field Hazama projected. And the feeling of sadistic glee she had felt when she had him down… She shook her head. Now was not the time to focus on that. She had something to take care of, after all.

So lost in her own thoughts was Tsubaki that she failed to hear the sound of approaching footsteps. A voice called to her, drawing forth a snarl. "Ah, if it isn't the princess of the Yayoi family. It is so… wonderful to see you alive and well, after hearing the rumors of your demise. Won't your father be so happy?"

"Belioz Mutsuki, I presume?" Tsubaki turned to greet Belioz with a glare. However, she had to hold in a gasp as a second man came around the corner. "Lord Tenshin? Why are you with this… esteemed noble? I thought you said you would be fighting the Library."

"And believe me, Lady Yayoi; I have no allegiance to the Librarium. Rather, I am working with Lord Mutsuki; as I am aiding his plans, so he is aiding mine." Tenshin bowed his head low towards Tsubaki. "Again, I thank you for your actions in Yabiko. We shall be on our way now."

"Ah, no, I think not." Belioz stepped forward and, to Tenshin's shock, drew out his bone-white baton. "It is my duty to purge Ishana of the NOL's adversaries, is it not? Yes, I believe those were our orders from the colonel. I will not let such an opportunity slip by me."

"What…? Lord Mutsuki!" Tenshin glanced between Belioz and Tsubaki in utter confusion. "You interrupted my battle with Kisaragi, claiming that—"

"Bah! Kisaragi was a different matter altogether. His continued presence is a boon for my ambitions, and you may deal with him as you see fit once his role has been played. Miss Yayoi, on the other hand…" Belioz chuckled, raising the baton as Tsubaki drew her sword. "Of what use is a pampered little princess from a pathetically weak family to either of us? She does not possess the strength needed to slay any above me, and is thus little more than a political obstacle for me."

After waving Tenshin to the side, although doing nothing for the ninja's bewilderment, Belioz cracked a grin. "You have no idea how long I've waited for the day I would have reason to be rid of you. Your family is an utter disgrace to the Duodecim; you, little more than pond scum, even before eloping with the Grim Reaper. I shall enjoy this very much. Scherzo!"

"Tch. So you've entangled Lord Tenshin in your web as well, Belioz?" Tsubaki leapt to the side as a wave of clear, pointed crystals speared toward her. As she came back up, her book-shield launched a slow-moving ball of light Belioz's way. "Normally, I wouldn't bother to waste time on lowlife like you, but given your previous transgressions, and your ill intentions, I suppose I will pass judgment on you today. However, you're not worth the full strength of the Izayoi."

"Such arrogance." Chunks of basalt followed the tip of Belioz's baton as he lashed it forward, the stones extending like a whip to dispel the light. "Lord Tenshin, I suggest you step aside. If she's your friend, I would prefer you not see her fate. Trio." With a flick of his wrist, Belioz summoned three rocks to rise from the ground and arc toward Tsubaki. "And I'm fairly certain this treason of yours should be enough to remove your pathetic family from the Duodecim."

"Aequum!" Tsubaki darted forward, shield extended before her. The shield bash caught the lowest arcing of the rocks and bounced it straight back at Belioz, who took it straight in the gut. A half-second later, Tsubaki crashed into him. "For your transgressions against my family, die."

As her blade came around at his neck, however, a chain wrapped her wrist from behind and tugged back. A moment later, Tenshin dropped down from thin air between the two of them. "Enough. I won't have this."

Tsubaki glared Tenshin's way. If he was planning on getting in her way… "My apologies, Lord Tenshin, but this man is too great a threat to my family for me to allow him to walk free. I will judge him here. Stand in my way, and I will not hesitate to remove you as well. Please stand down."

"Hmph. I thank you, Lord Tenshin. But, sickening though it may be, I must agree with the Yayoi worm. Don't interfere." Belioz placed a palm on the floor. The ground roiled back, and dragged Tsubaki with it. Smirking at her surprised shriek, Belioz pointed at the ground beneath her feet with his baton. "Rondo!"

Tsubaki jumped to the side, avoiding a geyser of shattered rocks from right below where she had just been standing. Rather than advance, she crouched down and focused, drawing in light.

With a sigh, Tenshin stepped away. "…Very well. I see there is no stopping either of you."

"A wise decision, Lord Tenshin. Scherzo!" After Belioz sent another wave of clear crystals Tsubaki's way, he ran behind it, observing her movements for a counterattack. Tsubaki jumped to the left to dodge the wave, and Belioz lashed with his stone whip, wearing an evil smirk. The rocks smashed into Tsubaki's side with enough force to leave bruises beneath her uniform. With an upward flick of the baton, he sent another trio of rocks Tsubaki's way, arcing from above. "And you dare to dishonor the Wings of Justice by wearing their uniform? Disgraceful. There are worms that can't descend as low as you have."

Tsubaki grunted as she dropped to her knees, and blocked the descending rocks. A strong lash from the whip followed, and she shuffled to the side to dodge it. However, on its way back, the rocky chain caught her in the back of the head and knocked her flat on her face. She snarled as she rose up on her hands; she had to get out of this range, as it was clear this was where Belioz held advantage.

"And so you have been shown your place. Then allow me to conduct your final symphony. Alla Tedesca!" After a few flicks of the baton, the ground in front of Belioz opened up. A massive column of stone rolled out of the abyss and sped toward Tsubaki.

"Benedictus!" Tsubaki launched skyward with a slash, clearing the stone with ease. However, as she landed several feet closer to her foe than before, Belioz flicked the baton straight at her. A spike of rock jabbed forward, and she just managed to catch it on her shield. The force of the attack drove her back several inches, right back into the range she had been trying to avoid. A harsh lash at her knees staggered her, but she refused to fall.

"It's all futile, Yayoi. For over forty years, I have perfected this symphony. I have complete control over my Ars Magus, and this battle. You simply cannot compare against experience." Belioz lashed again, and this time wrapped her sword wrist with the chain. "Get over here."

With an almighty tug, the whip pulled Tsubaki closer. The rocks vanished, and Belioz jabbed the baton straight at her throat. Tsubaki raised her book-shield before her, again catching Belioz's attack. Her eyes widened with shock as the tip of the wand pierced through the book entirely. The point rested just in her skin, but not deep enough to pierce her throat. Tsubaki delivered a heavy kick at his gut, and drove it with all the strength she had.

Belioz pulled back, and his baton came free of the shield. He lashed forward, and the rocks returned to act as a whip. Two more strikes followed while he stepped back. Though they were weak and easily blocked by the shield, they served their purpose in letting him set the distance again. "Hmm. I didn't expect a moldy old book to resist this blade so well. I shall account for that, and make sure my next strike is true. Trio."

Tsubaki snarled as she blocked the raining stones, hoping that her shield could stand up to such abuse. This man made it impossible to advance or retreat to a more comfortable range. So she figured she might as well match his reach. "Then I won't let you get another shot." She extended a hand and dispelled all of her gathered light as a blue ball. It raced forward, burning into Belioz as he tried to strike it down with his whip.

"Such a weak attack. You believe that will…?" Baton reared back for another lash, Belioz balked as Tsubaki's sword elongated and split, forming a whip-sword to counter his rocky chain. "Hm. Interesting. It will do you no good, however. What is a novice before a virtuoso, after all?"

He struck with the whip, a blow straight at her face. Tsubaki dropped to a knee and, rather than block it on her shield, reached up to catch the head rock with her free hand. The whip vanished entirely, and Tsubaki found herself free to strike back. Her crimson chain of blades lunged for Belioz's waist. It wrapped his baton arm against his side and cut deep, drawing a cry of pain from him. With a solid tug, Tsubaki yanked Belioz closer. Belioz, however, smirked. "You believe you have me at your mercy? Zircon Sonata!"

A diamond-shaped crystal of some clear mineral formed around him. As he barreled into Tsubaki's last-second block, he drove her back several feet. However, the crystal shattered, and Tsubaki was unharmed. She snarled at him, extending a hand. "Sanctus Aerolata!"

Her book-shield opened beneath Belioz, and several bladed chains akin to her sword's current form lashed out, catching Belioz in their gashing grasp. As Belioz screamed in agony and fear, Tsubaki lashed at him several times with the whip sword, gashing him deep.

The book released Belioz and returned to its owner's arm, but before he could even hit the ground, Tsubaki summoned a ball of light from it. As the light burned into him, Tsubaki launched forward, coated in light. As the shield bash met the sphere, the light from both attacks merged and amplified. The light seared Belioz and launched him into the far wall. As Belioz collapsed onto his face, Tsubaki strode toward him, sword ready to deliver his death sentence. "In a word, yes. I do believe I have you at my mercy. Be gone from this world, you bastard!"

"Nn… curse you…" Belioz laid his palm on the ground, and the stone moved away from that point. In a matter of moments, a hole opened up, leading to the floor below. Without bothering to look at what lay below, Belioz dragged himself through; it was better to die from a fall than to allow such disgraceful scum to finish him. Above him, the ground closed back up as he passed out.

Snarling, Tsubaki stared down at her feet as she stood only a couple yards from where Belioz had made his escape. No helping it, then. With a sour shake of her head, Tsubaki turned to Tenshin, who sat cross-legged against a wall. "May I ask what you saw in that man?"

"He sought justice for my homeland." Tenshin's flint eyes shot open and he regarded Tsubaki, stoic as ever but pale. "Why do you loathe him so? He is a man of the people—"

"That is a lie on his part. He seeks nothing but his own power, through the sway of the people. He only exists to elevate his political power, and to this end he has sought to ostracize my family from the Duodecim. Do not trust him should you meet him again, Lord Tenshin. You are no doubt a pawn in his game, a proxy for the people of Ikaruga to suit his agenda." Tsubaki turned away. "My apologies, but I must go. You may seek out Belioz if you wish. However, I believe it would be more prudent to seek out a fellow Ikarugan. Bang is here as well."

Tenshin blinked and watched as Tsubaki departed. "…Shishigami's here?"

With a vicious shake of her head, Nu stepped back. "No. Nu won't join you. And Nu is not your sword."

"Oh, but you are." Saya's hand remained outstretched. "Your autonomy is falsehood. You were created to serve as my sword, to reap the living according to my design. Soon, the final gate shall open, and with it, death shall descend."

"…Then Nu's gonna stop you. Loading termination protocol." Nu extended her own hand, and a spray of swords materialized. The weapons lanced at Saya, who simply floated between them. "Analyzing for effective stratagem…"

"None you shall find. You are but a copy of me, a weapon forged with my face, a sword to be wielded at my command. Cinerus Sacrum." Along an invisible line traced a series of blasts that looped straight at Nu. "Worry not; you shall be spared. You and the Reaper are needed."

"Nn!" Nu scrambled to the side, dodging the explosions while she flung more blades at Saya. She came to a stop and held out her hands. Directly below Saya, the ground glowed and a powerful gravity well extended skyward, dragging down the floating Imperator. As Nu sent forth another salvo of swords, she scowled. "Nu's not losing to you. Meanie."

"Infernum Principatus." At Saya's command, a blaze raced along the ground at Nu, dissolving her swords and scorching her. "Styx Pedica."

As Nu struggled to return to her feet, vines emerged from the floor and ensnared her feet. She squeaked, but simply summoned a single blade to cut them in one stroke. She turned around in time to spot and dodge another line of explosions. Before Saya could continue her assault, Nu formed a massive wormhole in space before her. "Terminating."

A legion of small blades stormed forth at Saya. However, they all shattered against an invisible barrier around her, leaving Nu to simply gape. Saya's eyes narrowed at the Murakumo Unit. "Cease this."

At the command, Nu's entire body froze up, numb and unresponsive. She tried to force herself to lift an arm and fire off another blade, ineffective though it had proven against Saya's shield. When that failed, she tried hovering away, possibly out of the chamber entirely. Nothing. "Wh-what…? What did you do to Nu?"

"You are but a shadow of my host, an extension of me. As you have full cognizance over your limbs, so have I over you." Saya dropped to the ground and advanced on the paralyzed Murakumo Unit. "Do you not see the truth? You are no more than my weapon, a blade to reap the souls I need. It is all you will ever be."

"System scan… inconclusive. Motor functions: locked." Tears burned Nu's eye behind its visor. "Let… let Nu go! Nu doesn't know what you did, but…"

"I can control you at a whim, and to a greater degree than I currently am." And to prove her point, Saya extended her hand again. To Nu's horror, her own hand mirrored Saya's action. A pair of blades speared the air, despite no such command coming from Nu. She gasped as a horrific realization fell upon her. Saya lowered her hand and resumed her advance. "This is the truth. You are merely a sword in my hand. Destruction and death is your purpose, nothing more, at the whim of I, Hades: Izanami."


"Allow this to be your lesson." Saya reached the frozen girl, and grabbed her by the collar. "Adflictatio Aeternus."

A brilliant light exploded from her palm, enveloping Nu and forcing an agonized scream out of her. As the glow faded, Saya dropped Nu to the ground in a writhing, sobbing mess. "Face me, my sword."

Nu felt her body, unbidden, rise to its knees and do as Saya commanded. Tears ran down her face as she fought against these unwanted actions to no avail. "Wh-what…? What do you want with Nu…?"

"Know that I could seize your mind, as well as your body, if I so chose. And know your role, Sword of Izanami." Saya extended her hand once more. "I shall return for you. Cinerus Sacrum."

A series of explosions laced forward and blasted Nu against the wall, leaving her crumpled and unconscious.

At the very pinnacle of Ishana, Makoto shivered as a cold wind blew. But it was neither the breeze, nor the frigid evening temperature, that drew such a reaction. High above, a satellite of sorts descended toward Ishana, barely visible in fading twilight. She stared up at it; all she knew was that she did not want it to arrive. "…What is that…?"

"Gigant: Take-Mikazuchi." The calm voice drew a squeak and a jump from the beastkin, and Rachel came to a stop beside her. "It would seem the Imperator wishes for destruction. We cannot allow this. Sir Jubei. Miss Nanaya."

Rachel turned to them both, eyes narrow and fiery. "It would seem we have a new objective on this desolate rock. Seek out aid; we cannot face such a beast on our own. But do be swift."