"Good morning, Charlie, Gus," Marie Mjölnir greeted the teens as they entered her office. Franken Stein spun his chair around to face them, nodding deeply but not speaking.
"Good morning," Charlene Chapel answered happily. Mjölnir could not help but smile a little broader, pleased with the change in attitude and demeanor in the girl in the six weeks since her near death experience.
The teen martial artist was sporting a new cyan gi, the old one had become a little too short, and had gained two large holes that could not be easily or cleanly repaired. But most people had not noticed, her new uniform was the same cut and color, and like it predecessor, she had torn off the right sleeve. Stein immediately saw that the surviving three hems were not ragged, nor did the left forearm bear the carefully tended scars of multiple blocked cuts. And Marie recognized that said sleeve no longer had an additional layer of padding underneath.
"Hello, Ms. Mjölnir, Professor Stein," Aegis Smithson offered as well. The blonde woman gestured for them to sit. Both teens complied.
"Death is busy, so we will be briefing you instead," Mjölnir explained apologetically, "Which works out better, because we will be going with you."
"You will?" the younger pair said in unison, sounding excited and confused.
"We have detected a series of spikes of madness," the stitched doctor answered indirectly, "They are inconsistent, but the values are around three hundred thirteen."
"You think its another Kishin Larva," Gus said thoughtfully. As part of their debriefing after the first incident, Death had told them about the unusual readings that prompted him to send Gus and Charlie with Maka and Soul in the first place.
"That is correct," Marie told him, "And Death wants us to get a look at it. He wanted to send one of the two teams that fought the first Larva to back us up..."
"And Maka and Soul weren't available," Charlie interjected with only a hint of bitterness.
"That's not wrong," Stein agreed, turning the screw in his head, "But you two handled those last two D-Ranks with ease, so Death wants to see if you are back up to where you were before your injury. And both Marie and Soul Evans are Death Scythes, so the Larva's soul won't do as much for them."
"Where are we going?" Gus asked.
"New York," Marie answered.
"City?" the younger partners said in unison.
"No," the female teacher shook her head, and both teens looked disappointed, "Watertown. It's in the northern part of the state, a few miles east of Lake Ontario."
"You two have eighty-seven minutes to get ready and meet us at the bus station," Stein informed them.
The teens stared at their teachers incredulously, as the quartet exited the taxi in front of the Watertown public library.
"This is the lair of the Kishin Larva?" Gus asked, studying the modest building in confusion.
"The biggest readings are centered here," Marie confirmed.
"And we have a suspect," Stein added, "Someone who works here, and whose residence is within the next largest cluster of corruption spikes."
The stitched Meister started forward without any further warning, pushing the door open as if he were storming a criminal hideout, instead of entering a public building full of civilians. His three comrades jumped to keep up, Gus struggling due to the difference in their strides. Stein walked purposefully towards the main desk, ignoring the looks he received from the patrons, and subtly stepping around anyone in his way. He reached his destination, and leaned over the counter, glaring intently at the elderly woman who had been sorting books. Marie tensed, and prepared to jump ahead of her partner or reign him in.
"Good morning," Franken said, smooth and polite as possible. His face relaxed and he smiled kindly, and were it not for his self-modifications, he would have seemed entirely normal.
"Is Angie Monroe here?" he continued in a slightly upbeat tone. Knowing his normal demeanor, Charlie and Gus found the facade disconcerting. But if the septuagenarian librarian noticed, she gave no indication.
"She's reading to the preschool in children's literature," she answered, and then returned to her task. Stein spun on his heels, scanning the interior of the building for the indicated section. He brushed past a slightly built young woman with short lavender hair and cool amber eyes, wearing a blue skirt and white blouse. Finding the more open and brightly lit area, he stomped off. But before he passed the last of the large shelves separating the kid's area from the rest of the library, Mjölnir grabbed his arm and pulled him back with all her might.
"Franken, we can't. Not if there are children," she insisted in a firm whisper.
"I know," he said, sounding slightly perturbed, "I just want to get a look at her to confirm."
The two adults glanced carefully around the bookshelf, but Gus took advantage of his height and youthful appearance and kept going. He found the shelf of advanced reader books, and casually pulled out The Last Olympian. As he flipped slowly through the pages, his eyes and soul stealthily examined the woman reading to a group of children between three and seven years of age.
She was pretty, with deep, gentle blue eyes, pleasantly rounded lips, and straight, narrow nose. She appeared to be in her late twenties, but her longish, jet-black hair was highlighted by a streak of pure white over each of her temples. She wore a cream colored sweater that hid her physique, but implied toned muscles in her arms and an above average sized bust. She had a blanket draped across her legs, and only after he noticed the strange bulges on either side of her seat did Smithson recognize the handles attached to the backrest.
He replaced the book, and almost skipped back to his teachers and partner.
"Well done," Stein complimented him earnestly, derailing the younger man's train of thought.
"Thanks," Gus blushed slightly at the acknowledgment from the normally critical teacher. Then he shook his head to drive out the distraction, and protested, "But wait, she's in a wheelchair."
"So?" Stein countered, unconcerned, "You think just because she is a paraplegic, she can't be a killer? That because she can't use her legs, she is innately some kind of saint?"
Gus paused in consideration, and realizing he did not have a proverbial leg to stand on, did not answer.
"She was injured in Iraq five years ago, and lost the use of her legs," Mjölnir provided, "We suspect she might have tried to become a Kishin to regenerate her damaged spine."
"What is the status of her soul?" Charlie asked her partner anxiously, "Is she still human?"
Gus considered that, and then indicated 'no' with his chin.
"She covers to well, but the taint is there," he answered, "She's definitely a Kishin Egg or Larva."
"We'll confront her the next time she leaves," Stein decided, drawing nods from the others.
"Angela Monroe?" Marie's gentle voice called out to the woman after she exited the library. Their suspect wheeled her chair around to face them, squinting slightly in the noon-day sun.
"That's right," their suspect said carefully, sliding her hands under the blanket that still covered her lap and legs, "Is there something I can do for you?"
"You can assume your Kishin form, so I can observe the transformation," Stein answered in happy anticipation. Angela looked surprised, but none of the DWMA agents missed the surge of madness in her soul. Any doubts they had of Gus's assessment were banished.
"I'm not sure what you are talking about," she protested in apparent fear, "but if you don't leave, I'll call the police."
As she answered, the quilt over her thighs bulged slightly, as if she were flexing her fingers.
"Gus," Charlie called for her partner, stepping in front for their teachers and positioning the shield between them and bullets that tore through the fabric.
Instead of letting the shots ricochet and potentially hit the people inside the library, Charlie triggered Gus's newest technique. Instead of simply protecting her, or reflecting an attack at a slightly altered angle and increased power, Smithson was learning to completely remove the momentum of blows to his surface. The bullets flattened on the shield, and then slid gently off. And despite her quick action and trust in her partner, Chapel could not help but flinch.
Unaware of the lack of damage from the attack, a panicked dim arose from the staff and patrons of the library at the sound of gunfire. The braver or more morbid citizens moved to the windows to look, while the rest began to flood towards the building's other exits.
Angela put her hands on the armrests and pushed her self up out of the wheelchair. As the smoldering blanket fell away, her revealed arms were no longer flesh. Instead, they resembled an artist's rendition of human arms built out of M-16 parts, complete with barrels for each of her eight fingers, and a trigger for each thumb. Her legs were similarly transformed, but instead of guns her lower limbs looked like segmented, vertical tank treads.
The Kishin Larva pointed her right hand at them, and jerked her thumb. A three round burst erupted out of each longer digit, at the same time as Mjölnir shifted into her hammer/tonfa hybrid form. Charlie stopped the bullets again; she wanted to send them back at their enemy but was acutely aware of the people watching behind the fragile glass.
Stein darted around Charlie, and swung the bludgeon at Monroe's head. The monster blocked with left arm, and while her metal limb and enhanced strength were able to stop the Death Scythe, the electric charge caused her limb and shoulder to jerk wildly. Stein tried to exploit the opening, but Angela twisted away and her tracks rolled back, pulling her out of the hammer's range. Chapel circled around behind Angela. The young woman did not want to leave her teachers unguarded, but she expected they could protect themselves now that they could see the Larva's weapons. And the martial artist did not want to give their opponent a chance to take hostages.
As she moved into position, one of the watcher's caught Charlie's eye; a woman with long, sandy hair, a white blouse, and a brown coat watched with manic interest instead of the blend of curiosity and fear that the other observers showed. Before the Meister could react, Angela opened fire again.
Stein dove to the side to avoid the bullets, but Charlie just interposed Gus and edged closer. Once her mentor was out of the way, the student changed from neutralizing the lead rounds to bouncing them back at the monster. They did nothing to Monroe's arms, but one tore off a few strands of her hair, and another opened a small gash on her cheek. The Larva closed her limbs around her chest for a moment, protecting her core.
"Her madness is related to her injury," Stein mused, "She considers her limbs unreliable, and has 'replaced' them. But for now her torso and head are still Human."
He suspected that would change if she was allowed to consume any more Human souls, but did not intend to give her that chance. Even if it might prove informative.
Charlie hopped the rest of the way forward, but instead of punching, she reached out and grabbed the Larva's left wrist. Chapel fell more deeply into her resonance with Smithson, and poured her Soul Frost into Monroe. Ice began to crystallize across the metal, and Angela shuddered. The monster pointed her other barrels at the teen, and after the younger woman interposed her shield, she kicked at Charlie's side, her treads spinning rapidly. Knowing getting hit by that would take her out of the fight, at least, Charlie released Angela's arm and skipped backwards.
With the teen pair on the retreat for the moment, the Larva pointed both of her arms at Stein and Mjölnir. She splayed her fingers wide, so he would not be able to dodge all eight streams of bullets. As her thumbs jerked down, the stitched Meister threw himself to his right. For a moment she thought she had him, until the shells hit the ice sealing her left fingers. Her ring finger backfired fully, destroying the digit, while the cold metal on her pinky and middle fingers cracked from the blocked force. She cried out in pain, but still wheeled back quickly as Stein charged in, swinging his partner at her neck.
Her unthinking dodge put the Kishin Larva back in Charlie's range. Keeping Gus up and ready, Chapel drove her fist into Angela's ribcage, over her heart.
"Soul Frost," the Meister announced to help focus their shared energy. The arctic soul energy spread more quickly through their target's core than it had in her arms. After only a few of her slowed heartbeats, Angela Monroe's torso and head were frozen solid. Her intact arm jerked wildly, spraying bullets at random, but Stein darted in, and used Marie to direct the monster's random attack towards the snow covered lawn, minimizing the chance of a deflected round hitting someone. As the Soul Frost began to spread into the Larva's altered limbs, Charlie broke the connection. She lifted her leg up, and brought her heel down on Angela's shoulder. The former Human's body shattered, and as her metallic limbs fell, they rusted into oblivion. Only her soul remained, and Charlie quickly snagged it in her bag, presenting it to Stein.
"Nicely done," the stitched teacher noted, as the two Weapons resumed their natural forms, "It looks like I don't need to worry about you two resonating anymore. But you hesitated for a moment, when you were cutting off her path to the library. What happened?"
"Nothing," Charlie glanced back at the windows, but did not see the woman who had distracted her, "Probably just a little PTSD..."
Stein glared at her dubiously, while Mjölnir and Smithson looked at her in concern.
"I thought I saw that Weasel witch, watching us from the library, okay?" she admitted uncomfortably, "But it was probably just someone who looked a little like her, and with between the fight and the bullets, my brain was playing tricks on me. After all, there's no way she was here, right?"
"It's not impossible," he answered, turning the screw in his head again, "It's been forty-four days since your last encounter, more than enough time for her to get almost anywhere in the world. But it is extremely unlikely that she fled here."
Charlie tensed and then relaxed during his dissertation.
"We should head back," Marie changed the subject, "After all, the sooner we can start examining this Kishin Larva Soul, the sooner we can give it to Gus."
"… and the transformative powers of the Kishin Larva are far greater than those of a Kishin Egg," Stein reported to Death, Spirit, and Mjölnir, "though still not on par with a true Kishin. In addition, their powers are more internalized than a true Kishin."
"And the soul?" Death squeaked, "Have you been able to determine why it became this instead of becoming a full Kishin?"
"I'm not one hundred percent certain," the scientist qualified, manually tightening his brain, "But based on something Charlene Chapel said, I did a deeper probing. And there is a magical residue in the soul. I considered taking the first Larva soul back from Aegis Smithson for a comparison, but given how weak the traces are on this Larva soul, I doubt there would be anything to find."
"What did Charlie say to make you check for spells?" Spirit asked thoughtfully.
"She thought she saw Tabitha Weasel inside the library, watching the fight," Marie answered.
"She dismissed it as a traumatic hallucination," Franken added, "And at the time I agreed that it was more likely she was seeing things than that that particular witch was there..."
"And now?" Death prompted.
"Do you remember the notes we recovered from Tabitha's lab? She was altering Soul Protect to better focus and stabilize certain elements of the soul wavelength."
"You and Diana both agreed that she was trying to strengthen the spell against our new countermeasures," Death recalled, starting to catch on.
"And I still am not ruling that out completely. But what if she found another way to use Soul Protect, to both augment Kishin Eggs and prevent them from becoming full Kishin."
All four of them considered that silently for the moment.
"We should send the sketches to the Minneapolis PD and see if Tabitha has ever been spotted around there," Spirit suggested.
"I think we need to find out why she is doing this," Mjölnir mused, "and if she is working alone."
Charlene Chapel felt a tingling in her spine. She was being watched. The teen shifted the two green cloth bags she was carrying, so she could more quickly drop them or throw them. Though tempted to turn and look, she did not. She did increase her pace and try to find a place with more people. But fate did not help her, and the late evening crowds thinned.
She was getting closer to the dorm, and silently cursed the distance to the warehouse store. She considered breaking into a run as the last of the civilians drifted into their destinations.
She felt rather than heard or saw the attack. She spun to the left and swung the bag in that hand upwards. The milk jug exploded, spraying her slightly. Then canned vegetables behind it were also smashed, but they had hardness and mass to shatter the clay rodent.
Charlie released her surviving grocery bag, and dropped into a fighting stance, her left hand drifting to the pocket that held her cellular. At the same time her attacker jumped off the roof, her jacket and hat flapping as she drifted down to the street, her next spell already half-formed.
"You," Charlie growled the word at Tabitha Weasel like an insult.