Taokaka fell forward onto her face, moaning. No food. No one to play with. And good guy had assured her that no, she was not allowed to sleep during this whole thing. What was a poor Kaka to do? "Nya… what was Tao supposed to be doing again?"

"Tao?" A soft voice made Tao's ears perk up. Litchi came around the corner. "Is that you? What are you doing here?"

"Boobie lady! Oh, it's been so long!" With a manic grin, Taokaka bounded forward toward Litchi, paws stretched for her chest. However, before she could grab her, Litchi stepped out of the way. Taokaka landed on her stomach and slid several feet. "…Mew? Why won't boobie lady let Tao play with her boobies?"

Emotionless, Litchi pointed the end of her staff down at Taokaka. "I asked you a question. What are you doing here?"

"Nya? What's with that attitude, boobie lady? Tao is…" As Taokaka turned around, she paused a moment at the crimson hue of Litchi's eyes. "…Boobie lady looks scary right now…"

"Answer me, Tao."

"Meow! You're not boobie lady!" Taokaka hopped to all fours, ready to pounce. Her claws extended into the floor. "How dare you trick Tao with those luscious, tantating—"

"Please don't finish that sentence."

"See! See! Boobie lady would never say anything like that! You're not the real boobie lady, meow!"

"Tao. It's me. I assure you." Despite the soft words, however, Litchi's tone retained its blade, and she did not release the threat her staff held. "I have been assigned to guard this place. Won't you please leave?"

"Mew? Gourd this place? What do gourds have to—"

"Guard, not gourd. Protect." Litchi sighed. "You really haven't changed at all."

"Nyope! Tao is still Taokaka, mew!" Taokaka sat down and rested her chin on a paw to think. "Well… I suppose Tao can answer your question. Tao is looking for the magic city Ishanya, where we will savage food from all corners of the city! Oh, and something about destroying something too. A cordon or a pauldron or… mew, Tao forgets."

"…The Cauldron?"

"Yes! Thank you, boobie lady! Tao's supposed to destroy it!" Taokaka beamed up at her. "Boobie lady, help Tao find the legendary food! …And the Cauldron, meow."

"I'm sorry, Tao. I can't help you there." Litchi stepped forward. "I am tasked with protecting the Cauldron; it is something I worked on for the last few weeks. If you want to destroy it…"

"Mew? Boobie lady made the Cowdrone? Okay! Tao won't eat it!" Cocking her head, Taokaka frowned. "But… cat person said you were trying to help someone, meow. And why are your eyes red, boobie lady?"

"Indirectly, this is to help someone, yes." Litchi lifted her staff, keeping it trained on Taokaka's head. "Please leave, Tao. I don't want to see you get hurt. If Captain Hazama finds you here, I don't know if I could protect you."

"Captain… Hazanya? Mew… why does that sound familiar?" Taokaka thought to herself a moment. She thought of food, of bosoms, of curling up and taking a nap right there, and finally focused on the name. "…Wait, does boobie lady mean green guy?"

"Green guy? I suppose you could call him that. He's my supervisor here. Please, Tao, don't get—"

A hiss cut off Litchi. "Meow! Tao remembers now! Why is boobie lady working with green guy? He's evil, meow!"

"Hazama is not evil. He is working for the betterment of society; he and Doctor Clover are truly admirable men." Litchi's eyes narrowed. "This is your last warning, Tao. Leave now, or I'll be forced to remove you myself."

"Boobie lady… No! You're really not boobie lady! Creepy guy is controlling you, isn't he? Then Tao will free you, meow!" Taokaka pounced straight at Litchi, but the staff shot out and caught Taokaka straight in the gut. "Oof! Nyo fair, boobie lady! Tao can't play with you if you're using that staff."

"I'll do whatever is necessary to protect the Cauldron." As her staff planted itself on the ground, Litchi dashed forward and swept low for a kick. Her target rolled away, but at a mental prompt, the staff spun forward to tag Taokaka. She recalled it to her hands and jabbed it at Taokaka. "Please, Tao. Don't make me do this."

"Then don't listen to creepy guy, boobie lady!" Taokaka maneuvered around the staff and pounced forward, cutting through the air in a line toward Litchi. However, once more, she found her attack intercepted by the staff. Matenbou launched skyward, caught her on the chin, and then came back down to pin her on the back against the ground. She gave a loud screech of pain and batted the staff off of her with a paw.

"You can't defeat me, Tao. This is your last warning." Litchi extended a hand, and Matenbou returned to her grasp. "Leave now."

"Nyever. Boobie lady was always there for Tao; what kind of Kaka would Tao be if she wasn't there for boobie lady?" Taokaka wavered as she rose, but sprang forth once again. However, instead of trying in vain to catch Litchi again, she zipped past Litchi, evading the defensive strike of the staff. As soon as she landed, Taokaka whipped around and grabbed Litchi around the chest from behind. "Here we go! Super Tao Pilldriver Turbo Plus R!"

Litchi struggled as Taokaka leapt skyward, and in short order broke the grip and fell to the floor. As soon as Litchi landed, she crouched down, palm extended low and forward. "All Green!"

A burst of flame erupted from the ground and seared the airborne Kaka. Taokaka screamed and hissed before coming down. Mewling to herself, she pulled herself back up, although she wobbled as she stood. "…Ow. Tao hurts, boobie lady."

"Four Winds."

Without regard for Taokaka's state, Litchi sent her staff forward again, this time spinning rapidly. Taokaka hissed and back-flipped away from the attack. "Tao will be back, mark my words! Tao won't leave you like this, boobie lady! Just… Tao can't do it by herself, meow."

"I don't need help, Tao. If you want to retreat, very well; I don't want to hurt you anymore." Litchi returned Matenbou to herself. "But I'm doing this all of my own accord. Nothing you do can help, because there is nothing that needs to be helped."

"Well, we'll just see about that, meow!" Taokaka bounded away in a flash, but collapsed to her stomach in short order. "…Oww. What happened to you, boobie lady? Tao doesn't know, but Tao will nyever give up until you're you again."

Whimpering, Taokaka pulled herself up enough to crawl forward. She needed to find someone. Fast.

"Ungh…" Carl awoke amidst cold, yet kind arms. He stirred, curling up against the metallic bosom of his carrier, his hallowed protector. As his eyes fluttered open to view her blank face, he wore a light smile. "Ada… we're safe, right?"

"Yeah, you're good, shorty. Luna dragged you away from that bastard."

The sharp voice cut Carl's peaceful grogginess like the keenest of knives. He sat up in Nirvana's arms and turned to Platinum. "Miss Luna! I'm so glad you're safe. Thank you very much for your help."

As Nirvana set Carl down onto his feet, Platinum gave him an offhanded nod. She wore a grimace, gripping her side. "Yeah, yeah, not a problem. Just catch me the next time some dick decides to throw me at you, alright?"

"S-sorry. It was just instinct." Rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment, Carl went over and knelt before her. "May I ask what happened to my father?"

"Iunno." Platinum shrugged. "That creepy stalker pedo asshole came to bail us out by fighting him, so Luna took you and bolted."

"U-uh…" Carl inched back from her, eyebrows quirked. "Who… exactly…?"

"Oh, right, you didn't see him. Pansy with purple hair that looks like a chick but Luna is pretty sure is a guy. Probably. He's really freaky and sounds like—"

"Ohh, hi there! I've found you again, Carl~."

"Yeah, like that." A moment later, Platinum blanched and looked past Carl to Amane waving at the two of them from the end of the hall. "Gah! Shit, he's here! Come on, shorty, let's make a run for it!"

"Uhh…" Carl shook his head to clear his building confusion and stood up, facing Amane. The fact that the man skipped towards them rather unnerved Carl, but he had to express his gratitude, no matter how strange Amane struck him. Carl clutched his hat to his chest and bowed his head. "Thank you very much, mister. You said you were looking for me?"

"Oh, yes, for some time now, my dear." Amane swept into a deeper, more ornate bow. "I am Amane Nishiki, a traveling dancer and the leader of my troupe. And I simply must have someone of your exceptional talent in our ranks, Mr. Clover. You will be mine."

"Okay. You're effing creepy." Platinum darted forward and pulled Carl back by the wrist with a glare, while the latter tried to figure out how he was supposed to respond to Amane. "Anyways. Did you at least manage to kick that bastard's ass?"

"Nope. Sorry. Bit off more than I could chew, so I ran."

"You useless pervert!"

Laughing, Amane straightened up. "Well, glad you two are… alrightish. We should be going, my dears. Don't you two have something you should be doing, hm?"

"Huh? Why, yes." Carl nodded, although he took another step back from Amane. "We're… supposed to be looking for the Cauldron here."

"Okies! Follow me!" Amane waved them over as he pranced away. "I know where it is~."

Carl and Platinum exchanged looks and, perhaps against their better collective judgment, came to the mutual decision to follow the creepy dancer.

Bang scowled as he drove a burning punch through the crimson cloud of microscopic insects and buried it deep into their oozy host. Arakune recoiled, but his insects lingered, swarming around Bang. Despite the cough the bugs induced as he breathed in, Bang pressed forward with a sharp, low kick. With a howl, Arakune vanished into the ground. Bang snarled, lowering into his stance once more. "You dare run, after you corrupted the fair Miss Litchi? Stand and fight, you fiend! I will end your corruption in the name of justice!"

"L tchi… wh t is th s li i?" Arakune dropped down from the ceiling, jabbing needles from his body. The attack missed as Bang flipped back, but Arakune pressed forward upon touching ground with a lunge low to the floor. He breathed a cloud of crimson mist at Bang and cackled. "Dr n! Ins ts, fea t! Kihihihi!"

"Be gone, you filth! Super Critical—"

Before the punch could come out, a lavender insect of some sort dove upon Bang and staggered him. Cackles sounded as Arakune's body turned entirely invisible. A swarm of insects descended upon Bang, horns and claws set to maul the shinobi. With a deep growl, Bang braced himself, following the subtle bending of light that marked Arakune's path. The bugs gorged at him, but he vanished in a puff of smoke and came down a moment later with an overhead punch from above Arakune. Light ceased to bend around the blob as he crashed to the floor with a howl, rendered visible again. As Bang landed, he dug a low kick into Arakune's side. Arakune scuttled away and seeped into the ground, and Bang drew out a paper umbrella strapped to his back. "You won't escape me!"

He tossed the umbrella in the direction Arakune had fled, and it hovered along as though suspended by winds. As Arakune popped back out of the ground, a hail of nails beset him and drew out wretched screams. A few insects wobbled toward Bang, but fell short, their host's agony preventing him from directing them. Bang charged forward, drove an elbow into Arakune and carried him into the far wall. "To rid the world of such a monster, I will become the hammer of justice! Daifunka!"

Bang unloaded a heavy punch, a roundhouse and a high kick before slamming Arakune into the wall again. As Arakune struggled to find his bearings, Bang leapt back and scrounged a moment for his throwing nails. His fingers only met the fabric of his outfit. He had no time to ponder his folly before Arakune pounced, boney arms jabbing out to grab Bang by the wrists and pin him down to the ground, mask inches from his face. "Kihihihi! Die, d, ie, fil y u ch n! Does your st ch b lie our ta te?"

A line opened up in Arakune, running from just below his mask towards his end until its length matched Bang's height. A spear of bone ripped the line open, revealing Arakune's cavernous insides and stabbed Bang in his steel-hard gut. Insects lined in red viscera poured out onto Bang as the bone spike stabbed again. "C nsume, co ume, ns me! Dev r this n ing o we ay s k th A u e!"

"Grk…" Bang hissed in a breath as the worms buried their teeth into his flesh. He fought against the skeletal arms binding his wrists to the ground, lifting them inch by inch but not fast enough to secure his survival. "I am… the flame of justice. I will not be defeated by a creature such as you!"

With all of his strength, Bang swiped his right arm inward. The swift motion snapped the thin wrist of Arakune, and Bang formed a seal with his hand, two fingers and his thumb pointed at his chin. "Ashura!"

A flare of fire surged up from Bang's body. The blaze reduced the deluge of bugs to cinders and made Arakune recoil with a mortified screech. Bang rose to his knees, hand over his leech-bitten gut. Across the chamber from him, Arakune squirmed. A high howl of rage rose from him like a siren, incoherent. The back of Arakune's body twisted into a yellow-white bulb of bone, spindly legs like those of a spider protruding at uneven intervals. He lowered himself so the open tip of the bulb aimed straight at Bang. With another inhuman scream of broken rage, Arakune fired off a sharp burst, a bolt of purple insects.

Before the shot even came, Bang took off, running to the side to dodge. Arakune tracked his sprint, firing off burst after burst as though he wielded a machine gun. The stone floor ground down and sprayed dust from the velocity of the insect blasts. Snarling, Bang made a beeline straight at the wall, only inches ahead of the bursts. He reached back, unstrapped the giant nail on his back, and dashed several feet up the wall. Before his momentum could drop him back to the floor—and to his inevitable death—he sprang straight at Arakune, gauntlets aglow. "The time has come, foul creature!"

A blast of purple insect fire struck him square in the chest, but he vanished on contact. He reappeared directly above Arakune, Rettenjou hefted back and ready to slam down. "This is your end!"

The giant nail came down, drilling down through the hole in the bulb and piercing all the way through Arakune to the floor. An earsplitting scream resounded, leaving Bang's ears ringing. Howling in agony, Arakune writhed on the ground, random protrusions and bones jutting out of his body beyond all control. The howls took shape into words, repeated like a mantra until they became recognizable through sheer repetition. "What am I? WHAT AM I?"

Body still coiled around Rettenjou, Arakune skittered along the ground, aimless and mindless. Bang lunged forward, reaching for his nail. "Stop right there!"

With one last cry, Arakune slipped through the cracks of the ground, leaving behind both Rettenjou and his mask. From below, his howls echoed, a banshee's song that faded into Ishana's depths.

Bang lowered himself to a knee to reclaim his nail, far more gingerly than normal in light of his insect-inflicted words. After strapping Rettenjou across his back once more, he eyed Arakune's mask with a frown. After brief contemplation, he picked it up and pocketed it. "Miss Litchi… what is this being? How could it hold such sway over one as pure as you? I swear, I will save you, here and now."

Tager loomed over Voivod's frame, gauntlets sparking. With a grunt and a cough, Voivod managed to turn to look up at Tager. "…What are you waiting for? Finish me, you great lug. Avenge your bitch of a mistress. Too late to do anything about the nukings, so this is all you can do, right?"

"…No. There is one thing." Tager reached down, placing a palm on the small of his back. "I can apprehend you, and force you to reveal your crimes to the world. It will never undo the damage you dealt, but at the least Sector Seven will be cleared of undo blame for the nuclear attacks. Was that not the heart of your plan? To see Sector Seven dissolved?"

"If you think I'm going to reveal what I did to the world, you're crazy." Voivod closed his eyes. "If you don't kill me, I'll just bite my tongue off and do it that way. Wait, do I still have one of those after what Koko did to me? …Yeah, okay, I do. Better to do that than be Koko's prisoner."

"Is it really? You said yourself that you had been tricked by Captain Hazama. If you wish to undermine him…"

"…I still did it, you know. Doing things under orders doesn't exactly excuse me for blowing up two cities. And anyways, even if I did that, I'll still be a pariah, known as the bastard that killed an entire city of kiddies. Don't have much of a future at all."

"Unless you try to fix what you can, no, you don't. And once you've accomplished that…"

"Yeah, right back to being screwed." Still, Voivod pondered. "…Hm. Well, then. If by 'fix what I can', you mean 'blow a hole through Hazama's head', then I think I can take being alive a bit longer. If Koko's up for fixing me, of course."

"…If you intend to harm Kokonoe…"

"Meh. I think I fucked her up enough already. I'd be more worried that she'd, like, place a nuke in my arm to keep me listening to her. Or outright kill me when I'm sedated."

"Yes, those are distinct possibilities with her."

"Heh. Sure is interestin' to see what my daughter's subordinates think o' her." Soft as a feather, Jubei crept to Tager's side. "Unfortunately, we got a problem. Ya know about Take-Mikazuchi, right?"

"Sir Jubei." Tager turned and nodded to Jubei. "Yes, I do. What about it?"

Voivod cocked his head. "Death laser satellite Nox Nyctores, right? That Kokonoe probably tried to replicate with my rail gun?"

"The same. The thing's comin' down to Ishana right now."

Tager blinked. "…I see. I assume you're here to ask us to fend it off?"

"'Fraid so. Only one person could be controllin' the thing, n' that's the Imperator. Can't mean nothin' good for the thing to be headin' our way."

"The Imperator?" Voivod rose to his knees; metallic whining sounded with every move. "…I need to see what's going on. No way I believe that the Imperator's planning on using the thing."

Tager nodded. "I will come, too."

"Right then. I reckon we ought'a mosey on up…" Jubei trailed off at the sound of hasty footsteps, and turned around to see a familiar face racing his way. "Well, howdy, Ragna. Perfect timin'."

"Perfect timing? The hell are you talking about?" Ragna came to a stop, focusing, but not on Jubei or anyone else present. "Something happening?"

"Take-Mikazuchi is on its way." Tager clutched his shoulder once more. "Obviously, we intend to stop it."

"…The goddamn laser satellite? The hell's going on?" Ragna snarled, although he still seemed distracted. "Oh, the hell with it. You guys deal with that thing, I gotta get going."

"Hold yer horses, kid." Before Ragna could run off, Jubei grabbed him by the sleeve. "Where do ya think yer goin'?"

"I can… I dunno, kinda feel Nu. Like, her Grimoire, really; when you've got something like that inside you for so long, you kinda get used to the thing, you know? She's not far away, but I've been focusing on it and she hasn't moved in a while. So I'm gonna go find her. And, uh…" Ragna turned to Jubei finally. "There's something else there. Probably the Cauldron."

"The Cauldron?" Jubei sighed and closed his eyes. "…Right. We're supposed to be takin' out the Kushinada Lynchpin. N' if it ain't forged yet… I'd better go with ya, Ragna. You two, head to the pinnacle. Best chance you'll get at Take-Mikazuchi. Come on, kid, let's go."

As Jubei and Ragna took off, Tager looked down at Voivod. "Can you walk?"

"Kinda sorta." Voivod clambered to his feet, wincing with every motion. "…So, uh, do I want to know what the Grim Reaper meant by someone being inside him?"

"Noel. Stay behind me."

The demand came with no warning, and Noel came to a stop, cocking her head but at the same time, summoning Bolverk. "Jin? What is it?"

"Someone is nearby." So said the prickling of his neck, the goose bumps on his arms, the drive to strike down whoever lay in wait for him. Jin raised Yukianesa and gripped its hilt as he crept forward, scanning for whatever the threat was. Ragna or Hazama; it had to be one of them. He grinned, just holding in a laugh. At last, he would slay one of the two. The temperature around him lowered several degrees, drawing a shiver from Noel.

With a whimper, Noel came to a stop. "J-Jin? Is everything alright…?"

"Sorry, Noel. I need you to stay back. It might be Hazama."

"Hazama…?" Rather than obey Jin's request, Noel shook her head and jogged up to his side. "No, I'm not staying back. Not anymore. I'm fighting with you, Jin."

Jin turned and cocked an eyebrow. "Are you su—"

"Yes. I'm tired of doing nothing."

After a few moments of staring her determined look down, Jin turned around and continued his pace. "If you insist, I won't stop you. Just be careful."

"All… alright." Noel fell into step beside him, Bolverk materializing in her hands. "You said he's near?"

"Yes. So be on your guard." Jin stepped into a larger chamber, cold eyes scanning every corner. "Looks like he's not here…"

"Surprise!" A gleeful voice cried out before someone dropped to the ground behind Jin and Noel, and rushed forward. A trio of slashes cut Jin's back, the third tripping him onto his face, and Terumi grinned down. "Miss me? Of course you did. Orochi Burensen!"

Terumi cackled as he brought his foot down on the back of Jin's head like a jackhammer, stomping several times before kicking him away. Still laughing, he turned his leer to Noel. "Oh, you're here, too? Great! Why don't we begin the slaughter, then?"

"Optic Barrel!" Noel aimed a pistol straight at Terumi, and fired off a concentrated blast around him. Assuming he would be stunned, she scrambled forward. Bolverk sparked at its ends as she jabbed them his way. A blade of some dark energy cut straight through her attack and sapped her strength. A kick caught her in the gut, and Terumi cackled as he slashed her a half dozen times with more blades of green darkness before kicking her away.

"Hyahaha! Pathetic! You're both too weak to stand before me!" Terumi grinned ear to ear, his yellow eyes wide with manic glee. He dashed forward after Noel, faster than he had any right to be. When he was only a couple steps away from her, Noel stepped back and fired a pistol at the ground. A flare rose from the ground, but Terumi charged straight through it and grabbed her by the throat in a swathe of green energy. He slammed her to the ground and laughed. "It's over, you goddamn runt! Maybe this will make you less useless. Probably not. Oh well."

"Get the hell away from her!" A blade of ice dug into Terumi's back, and Jin ran as fast he could to catch him. He drew Yukianesa in heavy upward slash at Terumi's chest. "You're the only one dying here, you bastard."

"Ha! What's this? Jin Kisaragi, actually giving a shit about someone?" Snickering, Terumi caught the katana on his knives and kicked Jin in the shin. "Especially something as useful as that festering garbage out our feet. You realize you absolutely loathed Noel Vermillion before I ate your memories, right? Are you broken or something? Power of Order should be driving you to kill her. Same with Rags and yours truly. Ah well."

"Shut up. It's pointless to tell me such things." Jin spun through his slash, and brought Yukianesa around for a powerful strike to drive Terumi back a couple steps so Noel could get up safely. As he sheathed his katana, he took a step forward and delivered a kick at Terumi's chest. A whirl of knives sliced his leg, and he hopped back, wincing. "Gah! You asshole…"

"Jin!" Noel arced through the air over him from behind, guns blazing. The sparking barrels of Bolverk burned into Terumi before he could get his knives up to block it. She pressed with flare straight to his face, before sweeping low to trip him onto his back. "I'm not useless! And I'm not gonna let you hurt people anymore!"

Her trigger finger pulled repeatedly, pummeling Terumi with a barrage of blasts. The final shot bounced him into the air, and Noel's weapons melded together into a larger gun. "Nemesis Stabilizer!"

"Nope." Before the missile could fire, Terumi lunged through the air down at Noel, a massive, serpentine blade of green malevolence slashing her into the air. As she fell, Terumi bolted forward and grabbed her by the neck, hand glowing green. Before him, Jin snarled and limped forward, an icy chill billowing. Terumi smirked back at him. "Oh? You want your little fucktoy? Here!"

With a harsh laugh, Terumi hurled Noel forward and bowled Jin over. He rubbed his chin at them, as though appraising them. "…Eh. Would be cute if Noel had more than a washboard for tits."

"Y-you…" Gasping for air, Noel clambered off of Jin and rose up to her knees. "…Why can't I hold my own against you anymore…?"

Terumi shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe you should try sucking less?" With a cackle, he grinned at her. "Okay, okay, fine. You know all of those times I fought you and your friends these last couple months? Guess what? I was just fucking around with you guys! And hey, I still kicked all of your asses, which makes every last one of you look utterly pathetic. But I figured that hey, you know, I might want to consider not doing that. So here I am, kicking the living shit out of you idiots. Fun, eh?"

"You… were just…" Noel shook her and rose to her feet, while Jin stood up as well, sagging slightly. "So who did you finally lose to, hm?"

Terumi's grin remained, but his eyes lost the spark of glee in favor of callous hatred. "Wouldn't you like to know, you bitch? Well? You guys gonna try again? Like I said, I'm not fucking around anymore, so if you want to just stand back and let me do whatever…"

"Do you ever shut up?" Jin formed a board of ice beneath his feet and rocketed forward. The sled crashed into a crouching block from Terumi, but Jin jumped back for a spinning slash down at him. "Be gone, you—"

"Ouroboros!" A snake-headed chain shot up to pierce Jin's gut, cutting off his attack, and a second followed to bite down on his shoulder. Cackling like a maniac, Terumi spun around and hurled Jin high into the air, blood trickling to the ground from his wounds. Terumi launched after Jin before Noel could stop him, green and black rising with him to strike Jin. In midair, Terumi turned and rushed Jin again, before launching up above him. Laughter rang out as he descended in one final surge of the dark miasma, and crushed Jin to the floor. Terumi sprang up and ground a foot against Jin's head, to no reaction. He threw his head back in laughter. "Hahaha! I am so goddamn strong now! A little spineless worm like you couldn't possibly stand against me!"

"J-Jin!" Noel's eyes widened as she stared at his crumpled form, tears forming. "No… you…"

"Oh, don't worry, I haven't killed him. Yet." Terumi emphasized the last word with a stomp to Jin's head. "I mean, where's the fun in just killing him outright like that? I'd much rather show him your death and then finish the job. Much more entertaining. …Okay, so maybe I'm not quite done playing around. But it's not like any of you stand a chance against me."

As Terumi laughed again, Noel gritted her teeth. She would not run. She would face this monster head on. And she would come out alive, maybe even victorious. Something inside her burned, a power born of her willpower, her anger, and she rose to her feet. "We'll see about that!"

Her guns shifted together again, forming a mini-gun. With a cry, Noel fired a constant stream of bullets. However, something else fired, a brilliant blue light that coated the shots. Terumi grunted as he leapt to the side, snarling as the shots burned into the far wall. "The hell's this? You still have some of Kusanagi's power? Well, then."

He rolled back the other way as Noel turned the stream toward him, dodging under the machinegun fire. "This might be interesting after all."

"I… still have…?" Noel shook her head and ended the salvo. No, this was not the time to think about what she was, or how she was doing anything. She had to win this fight, or none of that would matter. "Type Two!"

She arced through the air again, pressing down the triggers of Bolverk. However, unlike previous times, the pistols' flare burned a light blue. She paid no mind, only focusing on delivering a stream of attacks against Terumi's guard, hoping to break through it. The blasts from her guns extended further than normal and burned past Terumi's knives into his snarling face, but he gave no ground. "Assault Through!"

Noel jetted past Terumi, intending to strike with a shoulder charge from behind. However, Terumi flicked a knife out and raked her side, stalling her. With a laugh, he summoned Ouroboros again, bringing it to coil around her and lift her body into the air. "Too bad you don't know shit about using Kusanagi's power! Hm?" Terumi peered closer as Noel cracked a teal eye open while struggling in the cage. Green light blossomed amidst the serpentine coils. "Well, now. That's interesting. You really reverting back to Kusanagi. Too bad you're about to die."

The green light exploded; it launched Noel upward and flooded Terumi's body. With a grin, he watched her descent. "Soutenjin!"

He flipped up into a kick, swathed in green mists, and booted her straight up. A second flip launched her higher still with a scream, and finally he flipped the other way for a bicycle kick to the gut. The blow sent Noel down to the ground, cracking the floor with the impact, and Terumi landed a moment later with a wide grin. He lifted a hand, and the knife in it enlarged into a long, curved blade. "It's over. Say goodbye, you worthless piece of shit!"

Before he could bring the blade down to slice Noel, however, something wrapped around his wrist. He snarled and glanced up; pink ribbon? What was going…? Whatever was on the other end of the ribbon gave a yank and pulled him back. With a yelp, he turned, intent on slicing whoever had dared interrupt him. "And just what do you—?"

"Sorry, but could you be quiet while I'm teaching?" Amane lunged with a drill of cloth, whirring at incredible speeds. The drill plunged into Terumi's gut as Amane released his wrist, and the rotary force sent Terumi spinning though the air into the far wall. Amane straightened up and smirked. "Thanks. I really appreciate you not talking."

Makoto crept among the twisted remains of the fallen stairwell. Just what had happened here? No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than she stumbled upon two figures. A middle-aged man, wearing a tattered tuxedo and hair tied back into a long auburn ponytail with streaks of grey marring it, lay flat on his stomach, unconscious. And right beside him, a figure Makoto had hoped to never meet again. Azrael grinned as she approached. "Heh. The beastkin from Oogetsu, right? Surprised to see you here."

"…Azrael." Makoto came to a dead stop, fighting impulse to turn and run on the spot. "Could say the same to you. No need to guess what happened here, though. Who's… waitwaitwait, is that Valkenhayn?"


Makoto gawked at Azrael and took an unconscious step back. Just how stupidly powerful was this man? Still, she couldn't leave Valkenhayn with him. "R-right… uh, can I just…?"

Makoto trailed off as Valkenhayn stirred. With a cough, he turned onto his back and sat up. Before Valkenhayn could say anything, though, Azrael cuffed him on the back with a laugh. "Hey, you're awake, old man. Good fight."

"…You cur." Valkenhayn snarled, fur growing on his fingers and claws elongating. "I swear on my mistress's honor, I shall see you slain."

"Wanna go again? I mean, you don't look like you've recovered, but…"

"Wait, hold on a minute, you two. We got a problem." Makoto crept over to Valkenhayn, a wary eye on Azrael. "So, uh, something called Take-Mikazuchi is kinda coming down right now, and Rachel says we need to deal with it. So, uh… yeah. Both of you, come with me."

"Take-Mikazuchi?" Valkenhayn whipped around to her. "What is this madness you speak? How can that fell weapon pose a threat? It requires four years' worth of seithr to fire, and it fired mere months ago. This cannot be."

"Iunno. Just doing what Rachel told me to do."

"…Very well, then. I shall accompany you." Valkenhayn rose to his knees, trembling. A moment later, he collapsed again. "…Forgive me. It seems I am in somewhat poor condition. I shall be along to help as soon as I can, however; you have my word."

"Uh, alrighty. Just head to the top of Ishana when you can." Makoto, after a moment of hesitation, beckoned to Azrael. "Well, uh, come on, Azzy. Let's get going."

"Hm?" Azrael cocked an eyebrow. "And why should I follow you?"

"You crave the thirst of difficult battles, do you not?" Valkenhayn turned to him, spitting each word with loathing venom. "I assure you, Take-Mikazuchi will prove entertaining for you. It is a Nox Nyctores, and the most fell weapon created during the Dark War. It is fully sentient and capable of wiping out a city in a heartbeat. I believe this is something right up your alley, you damned monster."

"…Heh. Heh heh!" And with that, Azrael threw his head back in a deep cackle. He hopped to his feet, grinning. "Well, if you put it that way, why not? This thing had better be as you say, old man."

"R-right…" Makoto sighed, cursing herself for even thinking about bringing someone as utterly insane as Azrael along. But if it was needed to destroy whatever this Take-Mikazuchi was… Well, then. Let's go. Catch up when you can, Valk."

"…ight? Nu! Wake up!"

The desperate voice pierced through Nu's grogginess, and she stirred with a pained moan. She flipped herself onto her back, slowly coming to. A face framed by white hair stared down at her, although her vision swam too much to make out who spoke to her. Her visor blinked its red light up at whoever it was. "Scanning… scanning…"

"It's me, Nu. Ragna." A hand clenched her shoulder, and Ragna dragged her into an embrace. "You alright? The hell happened here?"

"Scanning memory banks…" With a groan, Nu disengaged her visor and shook her head. "…The Imperator was here. Nu… Nu couldn't…"

"Saya was here?" Ragna scowled. "Shit. Come on, let's get you outta here. Damn miracle we found this place."

Nu blinked up at him. "…We?"

"Jubei's here, too. Looking around the room." Ragna scooped Nu up in his arms and rose, looking across the room at his feline companion. "Hey Jubei, I'm taking her out now."

"Gotcha." Jubei didn't glance back; he just crouched in the center of the turquoise runes, a light snarl in his muzzle. "Take care now, ya hear? I'll wrap up here n' catch ya in a bit, if that's fine by you. I reckon the Lynchpin's in here somewhere."

"The Lynchpin, huh? You sure you don't need me to help with it?"

"Heh. Try havin' some faith in yer master, would ya?"

"Pardon my interruption, but I'm afraid I cannot allow you to interfere, Jubei."

A new voice, controlled and smug, sounded from somewhere, and Ragna reached back for Blood-Scythe, leaving Nu to hang limp in one arm. "Clover, right? Get your ass out here so I can kick it."

From wherever he observed the chamber, Relius chuckled. "Indeed, it is I. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to waste on a failure such as you. The smelting process will now begin. Ancient Gate of Ishana, open! Release your fetters, so the world may drown!"

The very center of the room cracked open, a hellish red corona outshining the light blue of the room. Jubei scrambled away to the very edge of the room as something large rose up through the widening crack. A white, metallic cocoon of sorts, gold-plated spikes jutting out in every direction, came to a stop in the center of the room, bathed in hellish crimson. Thick black mists orbited it, coalescing into serpentine forms. Relius chuckled, low and menacing. "I shall allow this facsimile of the Beast to be your end. Farewell."

Ragna staggered back at what the jet masses of seithr formed. Multitudinous snake-like beings protruded from where they latched onto the Cauldron, feeding off of the seithr it generated. Red lights cracked their maws and marked their eyes. The hydra reared all of heads back and loosed an ear-splitting roar.

Jubei growled as he drew both of his weapons. "Heh. Ain't seen somethin' like you in some time now. But yer nothin' compared to the real Black Beast."

Rachel scowled as the ivory coffin came to a hovering halt, overlooking the wide, flat pinnacle of Ishana. So that was Take-Mikazuchi, soon to be ready to rain its death upon the world. She doubted, quite heavily, that she would be able to destroy it on her own. However, the more damage she could do before it awakened in full, the better. With an incantation under her breath, she summoned electricity to build up overhead. Now was the time to unleash her full might, regardless of repercussions.

Soft puttering sounded from behind, and Rachel turned back. A tiny, silver aircraft, conic in shape, landed on the pinnacle of Ishana, and its canopy flipped open. Kokonoe stuck her head out of her personal craft and popped the sucker from her mouth. "Hey, Rachel! What the hell's that thing?"

"I believe it to be Gigant: Take-Mikazuchi." As Rachel turned back to the monolith before her, she closed her eyes. "My apologies for any interference my electricity may have caused your ship's systems."

"Shit, seriously?" Kokonoe hopped out of the vessel and darted forward. She snarled as she approached the coffin. God damn, she could feel the thing's power just from standing near it. "Well. Good thing I brought some awesome stuff. Black hole type stuff. Why don't we take this son of a bitch out, then?"

Rachel nodded, concentrating almost exclusively on building up a strike strong enough to damage Take-Mikazuchi through its shell. "That is, in fact, my plan."

The buzz of electricity was all the warning Rachel received before a blade of lightning lanced down from the sky at her. Before it could strike, she grabbed hold of Gii, floating a precariously short distance from her, and chucked him straight overhead to take the bolt in her stead. Her eyes opened, although her scowl did not change. "You bereave me once more, Imperator? Unfortunately, I do not have time to entertain you. Kokonoe, please see to it the Imperator Librarius does not interfere with my sorcery."

As she drew out a remote from her lab coat, Kokonoe nodded with a scowl. "Yeah, you got it. She shows her face, I'll kick her ass."

"Such impudence. You shall not interfere with my world of death." The purple-haired girl stepped out from behind the coffin, wearing an uncharacteristic smirk. "Alas, it would be undue for my machinations to be brought to ruin at this point. I shall eliminate you both by my own hand."

"Yeah, no. Not on my watch." Kokonoe pressed a button on the remote. Across an ocean from them, something whirred to life in a temporary lab. A white circle enveloped a small, cylindrical pole with a bright red button atop it, and it vanished, reappearing hundreds of miles away in front of Kokonoe. She slammed the button with a fist and grinned. "Prepare yourself for my greatest creation yet: Golden Tager X!"

Another white circle, this one a good twenty feet in diameter, descended before Rachel and materialized a massive, mechanical construct that shimmered with its gold plating. Rachel took in the monolithic facsimile of the Red Devil's upper torso for a moment before burying her face in her palm. "Whatever is your obsession with that crude beast?"

Wrapped around Rachel's shoulders, Nago purred in agreement. "You have such poor taste, Kokonoe."

Rather than comment on the robotic golem, Saya simply raised a hand and fired off a bolt of lightning from it. The bolt splashed off its armor, and she frowned. "Crude though your creation may be, it seems to be adequate protection. I suppose I must soil my hands with your blood first."

"Ha! Just try it!" Grinning and barely holding in further cackles, Kokonoe drew out a funnel-barreled pistol and pointed it skyward. When she pulled the trigger, a large ball of fire launched into the air and arced down at a feather's pace. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, prepare for a demonstration of the power of science! Click!"

She pressed another button on the remote, and a round device with a blue core sprang into existence behind Saya. The graviton dragged the fireball towards it at a quick pace; its pull on Saya was less, but still apparent. Widened eyes were Saya's only show of surprise, but she met the fireball with a series of blasts from her hands, arcing down toward Kokonoe. However, the scientist just smirked and pressed another button. She vanished in another ivory circle, and reappeared by the graviton. Before Saya could react, Kokonoe drew another gun from somewhere and pulled the trigger. A blast of icy wind struck Saya and froze her solid.

With maniac cackling, Kokonoe summoned a pair of machineguns from her lab, strapped to her arms, and let loose a salvo. As the final bullets peppered the Imperator, Kokonoe pressed another button. The machine guns vanished, and a large missile rose from below Saya and carried her skyward before exploding. With an expression of absolute madness, Kokonoe watched Saya plummet to the ground with an audible thump. "Ha! How about that, you bitch? Oh, and I haven't even shown you all of my toys! You got any idea how freaking broken science is now? Ars Magus is shit compared to it!"

"Insolence…" Saya pulled herself back up and, as though unfazed by Kokonoe's barrage of attacks, simply extended a hand. "Caelum Deflagratio."

"Yeah, no." As Saya summoned a massive flare of hellfire to scorch the air, a rift in space formed in between Kokonoe and Saya. The black hole sucked in the entirety of the flames before swallowing Saya as well. Several seconds later, the Imperator fell from the sky and splatted onto her stomach. Kokonoe just smirked and stuck a lollipop back in her mouth. "Sorry. Your magic is just shit compared to what I can do."

With a light grunt, Saya rose. "Such… impudence. You dare mock a goddess? I assure you, these transgressions shall not go unpunished."

"The goddess of what, sucking? That how you got your position from Terumi, oh great Imperator?" Snickering, Kokonoe cast an eye at the giant Tager mech that protected Rachel. "Hey, Rachel. You about ready to play this thing to hell?"

Rachel nodded, raising a hand toward the heavens. "Indeed. Please stand away from Take-Mikazuchi's coffin, unless you wish to be caught in the bolt as well."

"Alright then. Let's do this." Kokonoe vanished into a white circle again, and when she emerged several feet away from the casket, the red button from before came with her. "Super Dreadnought of Annihilation, Golden Tager X Version 1.0… fire!"

Rachel shook her head. "You have no naming sense whatsoever. Azazel Lily."

The giant automaton lifted its arms, its chest plates sliding to the side to reveal a massive laser cannon embedded in its midsection, while thunderclouds built up in rapid fashion overhead. The lightning bolt that crashed into Take-Mikazuchi's cocoon blinded all for the moment with its brilliant blue flash. As the earth-shaking attack ended, the Golden Tager unleashed its own fury, a long, continuous beam that eroded away the shell around Take-Mikazuchi. As the sound of the laser faded, and the Golden Tager vanished to whatever depths Kokonoe had summoned it from, Kokonoe dared a glance at the results. Clean cracks ran through the coffin, but Saya had managed to avoid the laser by hovering into the air. "Well, shit. You up for one more…"

An unearthly roar cut Kokonoe off as the coffin shattered. An amorphous blob of concentrated seithr dropped to Ishana's top and took form. An enormous head peered down at Rachel and Kokonoe with its piercing red eyes as its body elongated and took up almost the entire top of Ishana. Twin hands gripped its perch, claws digging through the stone as though it bore no more resistance than Styrofoam. Fully awakened, Take-Mikazuchi reared back and bellowed out a harrowing roar.

High above, Izanami lifted her hand. "By the name of Hades: Izanami, I beckon my sword. Return to my side so that you may help usher in the end."

With a shudder, Hakumen rested himself against a wall. All that kept him in existence was his own willpower demanding that he retain a physical form. He couldn't fade away now, not with so much at stake. Not when he hadn't atoned for his past failures. One last time, he would take up the sword of justice. One last time, he would purge the wickedness of this world in the hell of his wrath.

…Someone approached. He couldn't see them, but he could hear the faint footsteps. He pulled himself off of the wall and readied Ookami. In a short time, Tsubaki hobbled around the corner, and Hakumen lowered his blade. "Tsubaki. Are you well?"

"Sir Hakumen." Tsubaki straightened up and nodded. "Yes, I am, thank you. You seem to be well, too."

"…It is not the case, but it is no matter. Come. We will discover the Cauldron and destroy it." Hakumen beckoned her to his side and started out of the chamber. "Who inflicted such injuries upon you?"

"Oh! They're nothing; please don't worry about me." Although she did as he bade, she couldn't help but cast a worried look on him. His armor was unscathed, his sword pristine as ever. Her scrutiny turned up nothing off about her long-time hero. "Sir Hakumen? May I ask what you meant by you not being well?"

"My time in this world is near an end. But now is not the time to discuss such things. Before I leave this world, I will see the Cauldron destroyed." Hakumen turned his blank mask her way. "Do not worry, Tsubaki. I have the strength for this… what?"

A magenta saw blade cut through the ground at him, and he shredded it with Ookami, destroying it and leaving behind a sphere of antimatter. A purple-clad figure in a mask approached, smirking. With a snap of his fingers, Relius summoned Ignis's battered frame to his side. "And that is precisely why I cannot allow you to go any further, Hero. Your companion is of little threat, however."

"Is that so? Sealed Weapon Izayoi, release!" Tsubaki lifted her sword before her, shield hovering beside it. The pages of the book unfurled and wrapped her, and in a flash of light, her ivory robes were replaced by a white and purple bodysuit. The crimson blade in her hand reduced itself to a golden hilt, and a green edge of light extended from it. She opened her orange eyes and glared at Relius. "Terumi shared your assessment of me. It didn't end well for him."

"Is that so? You have mastered the prototype Murakumo? Fascinating." Relius rubbed his chin with an evil smile. "Unfortunately, both of you are rather worthless as subjects. I am afraid you both have come to your ends here. Ignis. Deal with Hakumen."

Hakumen growled, Ookami drawn back. "You will not harm her, Clover."

"And you believe you could stop me? How droll." Relius snapped his fingers again, and Ignis spun toward Hakumen in whirl of claws. No sooner had Ignis attacked than Tsubaki flew forward at Relius, cutting through the air and bringing her sword around. The hot blade bit into a mechanical arm raised to ward off the attack, but was unable to sever it. With a grunt, two more robotic arms extended from Relius's cape to force her to back off. "Such foolishness. You two are more likely to destroy yourselves from your own power than harm me."

Growling, Hakumen delivered an upward slice at Ignis, and drove her back. He shot forward with an uppercut that was caught on her claws. "Tsubaki. You would use the Izayoi's full strength in such a way? You risk calamity to yourself. I cannot—"

"I will do whatever is necessary…" Tsubaki sent forward a green blade to fly at Relius. At struck his guard and burst into several smaller knives to stab at him. "…To purge evil such as Clover from this world. Slaver Trans-Am!"

Bits from her side armor hovered to head height as she darted in again. The bits struck at Relius, demanding his defense while she thrust her sword at his gut. The blade pierced through, and he heaved a gasp. Snarling, Tsubaki kicked him off of Izayoi and glared down at his fallen form. "Like so."

"Hmph. So be it." Hakumen blocked as Ignis unleashed a flurry of claw swipes at him, ending with a massive swing of both arms. Before the attack could come around, he lifted an arm before him and summoned a large red dome of light. The shield caught Ignis's final attack and stunned her while Hakumen drew back Ookami. "Yukikaze!"

He swept forward with a massive hack, blowing Ignis all the way back to the wall, where she lay motionless. With a hmph, Hakumen slid Ookami back into its sheathe. "Is that all, Clover? For all your bluster, you prove no threat. Are you alright, Tsubaki?"

"Yes, I am." Tsubaki lowered her blade, but did not look away from Relius. "I refuse to believe it was this easy, however. Someone of Relius's infamy—"

"Tsubaki, look out!"

Tsubaki whipped around as Ignis bolted forward at her, too fast for Hakumen to stop. A trio of wide slashes failed to pierce her defense as both pieces of Izayoi's hip armor rose up to protect her. She stepped back and heard a rustle behind her. As she turned, Relius rose to his knees and slashed a long bar with a spinning blade at her. She brought a metal plate around to block it, but proved too slow. The blade raked deep into her side, and her fore defense faltered long enough for Ignis to slash her front with a claw. A heavy punch followed, entwining her in a globe. Hakumen's slash caught Ignis a moment later, but too late. The ball exploded, launching Tsubaki into the wall, stunned with an expanding pool of blood dribbling out of her wound.

Relius rose to his feet and brushed off his shoulder. "Unfortunately for you, I am not so easily killed. Your defeat was inevitable, either by my hand… or when Take-Mikazuchi destroys Ishana. Ignis, finish Yayoi." By her master's command, Ignis started toward Tsubaki.

Hakumen stared at Tsubaki's bleeding, motionless form, a nightmare of a memory coming to him. Another Tsubaki in another timeline, bleeding out from the swords pierced through her body, with him helpless to save her.

No. Not again. He would not allow this to transpire once more. Hakumen lifted his sword once more, a white glow coating it. This would be suicide, even if he were still anchored by Rachel's Observation. But Tsubaki was someone he had to go this far to save, to make up for his failure. He raised the sword over his head as Relius stared in terror. "Time Render."