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Chapter Fourteen: Defensive Trout


There was silent panic among them, hearts beating wildly and breaths unsteady like a bunch of broken metronomes. The sun suddenly hid behind some feathery clouds, like it knew something was about to happen, that they were all in danger. Almost immediately, everything around them seemed that much more menacing. Every rustle in the bush was an assassin, every bird flying overhead was a spying vessel.

Ayaka assumed she had it the worst, particularly because she wasn't used to being dropped into an arena of anything-goes-as-long-as-death-is-involved. At least the Celestial Tower had some rules that most people pledged to follow. But for the two boys, it was probably just another day.

"Let's think about this for a second," Ryuu chimed, glancing at Bryce for the briefest moment. "There were footsteps that led from Aya to us. From the boat to the hunting grounds. None of us could feel him." Bryce shrugged. "Or her." Ryuu nodded. "Or her." Another pause before Ryuu continued, his voice dampening to a barely audible whisper. "We can assume that one, whoever it is, he isn't after Aya. Otherwise, he would've taken action at the docks. And two, he probably knows about the cave, so we can't go back there."

Ryuu fished out three scrunchies from his shirt pocket and gathered his banana-yellow hair in a loose ponytail. He handed the second to Aya and then the third to Bryce, who seemed to understand what the plan was immediately. She hadn't realised that they all had similarly lengthy hair. "Why are we pony-tailing ourselves?" she asked, struggling with her sticky dirty blonde hair, combing out the stubborn knots with her dirty fingers. Oh, how she wanted a shower right then. "We're going swimming." Ryuu promptly hunched down in a runner's stance, and Bryce followed suit. "We'll go slowly, but try to keep up, Aya. And stay behind me. Bryce will watch your back."

Without any further instructions, Ryuu pushed down against his foot and took off like a silent bullet, leaving a small cloud of dust where he had once stood. He disappeared from sight almost immediately. Was she seriously expected to keep up with that? She was gawking at her options until Bryce tapped her lightly in the shoulder and pointed towards the trail that the giant man left behind. "Just go. The fresher the tracks, the better coverage I can provide for all of us."

Ayaka wanted to ask exactly how he covered their tracks. Did he use palm leaves to sweep the prints away? Did he run different directions to mislead the pursuer? Bryce shoved her harder this time. "Go now."

Embarrassed, she bolted as fast as she could, bare feet chasing after her brother's larger prints. She needed three steps for every single one of Ryuu's, but she was running surprisingly well. The physical stress from Bryce's assault initially boggled her brain for a few minutes as it competed for more oxygen, but if her shoddy training made her even the least bit better at anything, it was running, and she had gotten pretty good at it. It was like being in the Arena again. Up the stairs from the lobby to Floor 251, the type of running that only came easy after the human body broke down once, twice, too many times to count. Her legs burned as the muddy earth of the terrain slackened her pace. Her heart was beating against her sternum like a caged beast, but five minutes went by, then ten, then thirty, and her body felt at ease despite the abusive wind that came with her clocking speed.

She ran past the dense shrubbery and greenwood of the forest, past the random puddles that were occasionally deeper than they appeared, past the monuments of the nine Redrum champions of the last decade, until finally she saw Ryuu nestled cautiously in a vast clearing surrounding a lake. The place was bright and beautiful. The water was a clear cyan and the sunlight gleamed on the surface to create tiny sparkling stars, revealing the freshwater fish that swam just a few feet beneath the surface. She could probably make that for lunch if they were there long enough.

"You made good time." Ryuu seemed almost impressed. "Bryce should be here soon. Get in the water." He grabbed her hand, small but calloused now, and pulled her in with him. It felt really good. She hadn't really felt this nice in a long time. The cool water soothed the burning ache in her muscles and appeased the throbbing pain in her head. The dampened bandages unwound from her flaky scalp, but the damage had almost healed up. Bryce was already there.

Without a moment's hesitation, he dove headfirst into the water and torpedoed towards the lake's floor. He seemed at home here despite being blind. In fact, he seemed to be even better here than on land.


He took a sip

A trickle

A drop

And he was reborn

A child of the ocean


The water was no longer water. There was no other way she could describe it.

"I'm floating." She kicked off from the bottom of the lake and floated slowly upwards like a balloon reaching for the skies, like there was very little gravity holding her down. "And I am talking. Underwater. Except this isn't water. This is like… what is it?"

Bryce wasn't responding. He had been sitting on the bottom of the lake for a while now, his hands by his belly button, his thumb and four fingers connecting with each other by their tips forming a sphere. Eyes closed. Lips closed. All senses closed.

"Bryce is special," Ryuu began, poking a large fish that seemed to swim by his face in slow-mo. "With the way he fights, you'd think he was an enhancer. I think only Hisoka knew what he was really capable of back then. A specialist. Tokushitsukei.I was his best… only friend… but he kept it from me too."

Ayaka watched the marine wildlife continue around her as though nothing was amiss. She was moving around like she was in water, floating and sinking as though she was in water, but she could hear, breathe, and see as though it wasn't water. It was like swimming in lukewarm nen. It didn't feel very stable, but she felt safe.

"I've never met a Toku type before," she whispered in awe. "So this is what it's like… to be special." She definitely felt even smaller now. If Hisoka was this kid's master, how powerful did that make Hisoka himself?

"We're safe here for the meantime," Ryuu said, looking up at the surface cautiously. "We're in a water prism that should protect us from whatever's beyond the surface. From what I know, the barrier is semi-permeable only to natural gases and extremely small particles."

Ayaka bit her lip as she imagined Hisoka jumping into the lake but landing painfully on solid ground instead. It was funny but if nothing as large as a human could get in… "This means we can't leave either…right?" She almost murmured to herself.

Ryuu looked at her, and the way he did made her suddenly feel unsafe. Just because they were on good terms now didn't mean she completely trusted either of them. Her brother was still very much a loose cannon and Bryce had already attacked her once. She should have been more careful from the start, but it was never too late to take some precautions. Ryuu sensed the accidental spike in her Ten and stepped away to respect her guard.

"You can leave the prism," he assured her. "But make sure that once you decide to leave, you fully commit to it. Get your full body out or else this might happen." He grabbed a fat trout from behind one of the bottom rocks and stuck half of its body, tail up, outside the surface of the water, with the rest of its body swimming freely in the prism. It flapped violently as it sensed the air, but as soon as Ryuu let it go, it was stuck in the prism's ceiling like it was dangling from a fishing line. A few seconds later, the prism zapped and cut it clean where its scaly body met the surface. It sank to the bottom of the lake, leaving blood and random fish guts floating by the prism's upper wall like Helium balloons against a ceiling. Its meaty tail rested above the surface of the water like a boat stuck in a glacier.

Ayaka gulped.

"I don't know much about it," Ryuu shrugged. "Something about water cohesion blah-blah and the air drying up the water so it breaks the water chains and water wants desperately to be with other water particles. I don't get it. Bryce was always the smarter one."

She didn't need to understand the science behind it. Between the two of them they had a serious lack of basic education, but survival didn't need a degree. If she had to leave the prism, she couldn't be swimming on the surface trying to reach the bank. She needed to jump out and within a few seconds be completely dry or completely away from the surface.

She gulped. How many victims fell under this trick? Dying underwater without drowning.


Hisoka sported a deep pout. His prey had all of a sudden disappeared! This contender was extremely talented at hiding his presence so there was very little to go on to begin with, but in the past few hours, just about every single trace of him, be it his aura or smell, just vanished like a magic trick. Oh, but it made him excited, too. Extremely. This guy, whoever he was, had Tokushitsukei abilities. Like Kuroro! "My, my…" His mouth watered at the thought and the hairs at the back of his neck stood to tiny pointy prickles that tickled him everywhere. "I want to kill him so bad. I'm so hungry I could just about eat myself!"

He giggled at his own little joke. Oh, but he couldn't eat himself just yet because someone was waiting for him. Yes, she was definitely still there at that silly little tower doing silly little jobs for silly little people. After he was done here, he'd go back for her and finish her in one bite.


Love is a dish best served cold.


From what Ryuu explained and from what Ayaka could understand, Bryce could read the water. It was an odd thing to say, but that's how it was. He could tell who had been in it, who had died in it, who had drank from it. Based on the sheer number of visitors per day, there was a good chance that the lake was the only viable water source in the entire island. Hisoka and the other stranger were bound to come here at least once today.

Sensing everything took some time, and time was expensive these days. There was a small probability that the stranger had followed them to the lake, and like any nen fortress, this prism wasn't perfectly immune to everything. She wasn't good at this stuff, calculating risks and exploiting weaknesses. As far as she was concerned, they were pretty safe, unless, maybe…

Her thoughts were cut short when Bryce opened his olive green eyes and stared blankly ahead. Now, she didn't know him for very long, but there was something about his face that seemed almost like concealed alarm, and this frightened her.

"Hey, Ayaka," Ryuu smiled when he felt the change in her demeanour. "Remember what happened to the fish I showed you?"

Why would he ask that? Of course she remembered. It happened like two minutes ago. "What about it?"

"You better be careful too," he continued. "Accidents happen when you least expect it."

He was trying to tell her something.


Hisoka was pretty thirsty. Not for anything else but for water this time. He would've drank from the lake as usual, but there was something bothering him as he stood on one of the large tree branches overlooking the clearing. Someone familiar had been here very recently. Very, very recently. But he was nowhere in sight! It was odd. Yes, it was very odd because there were absolutely no traces of him ever leaving.


Ayaka decided that whatever Ryuu was trying to tell her didn't matter because the fact that he couldn't say it outright only meant one thing.

He's in the water too.

Bryce certainly knew where he was hiding, but telling his companions would tell the intruder that they knew he was there. And whoever it was, well, seemed to be waiting for them to make a move. Three against one seemed a bit ambitious, but they didn't exactly know who or what they were up against. After all, he was fast enough to follow them and slip into the water undetected. Ayaka casually looked around for a weapon. Nothing but mossy stones and trout. And sand. Lots and lots of sand. She was going to be useless in battle if all she could do was make broken weapons. She barely survived the short-lived rendezvous with Bryce, how else could she go against someone of this caliber? The two kids would end up just protecting her flimsy ass, and she didn't want that.

She blamed Wing for a second. He had told her that there was one more piece missing in her puzzle of nen, but he wouldn't tell her what it was or what she could do to find it. What kind of teacher left you hanging like that? She had had enough. She grabbed two large trouts and crushed their heads with a rock. "Sorry for the violence," she muttered. Dark red blood immediately diffused into the water surrounding her, a cloud of rusty iron perfume.

"What are you doing?" Bryce asked blankly, to which Ayaka shrugged. "Literally a bloodbath, I guess."

The blind man furrowed his brows in confusion. He could not see her face, but he could read her confident expression clearly. "Why?"

She smiled and activated her palms with nen, "I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm completely useless in a fight, but I can help by staying out of your way." In a heartbeat, the trouts' blood formed little ruby-like spheres that remained suspended around her limbs and torso, forming clean lines that followed the outline of her figure. "And because I am extremely bad at offense, I've gotten good at defense." She stomped her heel against the sandy floor, awakening a pollution of dust that slowly engulfed her whole body. Ryuu tensed when she disappeared within the cloud, but after another flash of her nen, a powerful vacuum from the centre of her torso seemed to suck in every particle of dust and every bead of blood. A firework of red sand burst around her, forming a matrix of beautiful crimson glass that layered itself on her skin.

She looked like a knight in shining red armor.

"Go do your thing," she said as she crouched down with her arms in front of her, a defensive stance. "I can protect myself."

Ryuu and Byrce were hesitant, but they knew that she was right. They wouldn't be able to fight effectively while watching out for her at the same time. The banana-blonde man looked at his oldest friend and gave him a wide grin. "Let's make it interesting, Bryce."

"I'm listening."

"Whoever deals the fatal blow to that guy over there gets to kill Hisoka."


End!

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