Chapter 3: Awakening

Time: 11:19 PM

Location: Tokyo, Japan

Date: February 24th, 0001 I.E.

Mato carefully sipped from the water bottle, making sure to take only a few mouthfuls. When she was done, she passed it to Hiro, who began to greedily drink from it. She stopped him almost immediately, telling him that they had to conserve their water. He looked like he wanted to argue, but acquiesced, slipping the bottle into their bag after capping it.

Slinging the camping bag over her shoulder, the black haired girl took her brother's hand and resumed their trek through the city. It was a bit dangerous, especially since a few of the BMEs were still rummaging through the city, looking for survivors. But she had deemed staying put, where their scent would collect and permeate the air, posed a greater danger. If one of the things found them while they were in a closed space like that, they were as good as dead. She was again thankful for all of those fantasy and adventure novels she had read, the advice she'd drawn from them was invaluable right now.

"Ne, Onee-chan?" said Hiro, looking at her as they walked. Since this morning, he had become more in tune with his surroundings. He was still sad and depressed (and it showed) but at least wasn't mindlessly following her around anymore. "Why are we heading north again?"

Mato didn't answer right away, lifting herself onto a large block of cement and pulling her brother up after her. In all honesty, she wasn't that sure herself. She had just chosen north on a whim, but when she thought about it, it felt like she wanted to go in that direction. It was as if something was…pulling her that way. Well, not pulling exactly, more like it was the only direction she could walk without focusing on walking. After thinking it over for a few minutes, she shrugged, giving her brother a fake smile. "The monsters go south, we go north," she said simply.

They continued to travel in silence, interrupted solely by the crunch of ruble under their feet. At one point they heard the sound of gunfire in the far distance, accompanied by faint shouts and snarls. They had hurried on as fast as they could, making as little noise as possible. The sun had already set, yet they kept marching, hoping that they found somewhere to rest soon.

Finally, Mato deemed they had made enough progress for today, and so she began looking for a place they could hide.

She froze when a hissing snarl came from behind them, her blood turning to ice.

Mato swallowed nervously, cautiously glancing over her shoulder as she did. Standing behind them was one of the smaller monsters. She couldn't remember what it was called exactly, a sprig or something, but she didn't really care. All that mattered was that the little raptor like creature was staring at them with its large, golden orbs. It's lips were spotted with a muddy brown substance, and the girl knew that it was dried blood. A thin tongue snuck out from between those lips, licking along the surface of its jaw, flecks of the blood crumbling to the ground as it did. She felt Hiro grip at her sweatshirt in fear, too scared to move a single muscle.

For the next few moments, silence reigned, the only noise being that of the wind echoing mournfully through empty streets. Both predator and prey knew not to act rashly, or the outcome could be unfavorable to them. The monster's tail twitched, and Mato was off like a bullet.

Hiro was clutched to her chest in an iron grip, the boy's legs instinctively wrapping about her waist as he fisted her sweatshirt. The monster let out a furious warble, and took off after them, its claws digging furrows within the still intact pavement. Similar cries echoed from either side of the street, and in mere moments, more of the things had appeared from various alleyways and buildings, until five of them were chasing after the Kuroi siblings.

Everything was a blur for Mato, the broken buildings seeming to meld into a solid, shapeless mass in the night, and the bright path of the milky way was becoming a uniform silver. Her mind was occupied by only one thought, flight. She wanted to get as far away from those things as possible.

As the terrified girl ran, her black basketball shoes began to spark when they impacted the ground, bright blue embers shooting out from them every time they slammed into the pavement. Soon, the shoes caught fire, and ice blue flames began to consume them. But they did not harm the wearer, despite the fact that the flames had crept up to just bellow her knees, and nor did she notice them. The monsters saw this, but did not care, for their prey was gaining speed, and they would not let their meal escape them.

After a few minutes of frantic running, ducking between alleyways, and skidding around corners, Mato reached cut into her latest shortcut, only to find that it was a dead end. A building flanked them on either side, while a tank lay on its side across the exit, having been knocked over in yesterday's chaos. She turned to flee, but saw that the monsters - sprites, she remembered, that's what they were called - had already blocked off the entrance. The flames surrounding her feet, still unnoticed by her or her brother, sputtered and died, leaving behind a pair of knee-high boots. The heels were an icy blue, as cold and lonely as the moon, while the boots themselves were the darkest of blacks, as if they themselves were the infinite void of space.

The black haired girl backed into the alley, stopping only when her back came into contact with the tank. The sprites crept toward them slowly, low, warbling hisses emanating from their throats, eyes gleaming with an unearthly hunger. Mato set Hiro down on the ground and pushed him behind her in what she knew was a vain attempt at protecting him. Her eyes darted from side to side, frantically searching for some way out.

There was none, she realized. They were trapped, unable to climb over the tank behind them, and most certainly unable to force their way through the monsters in front of them. The only hope they had was for a quick death, but by the animal gleam in the sprites' eyes, she knew they preferred live meals.

The lead sprite stepped forward, and the eldest Kuroi took a step back, her foot clattering against something as she did. She glanced down, her eyes - cold with the fear of death - coming to rest upon a broken piece of concrete, roughly twice the size of her fist, for a brief second before flicking back up towards the monsters. She bent down slowly, blindly groping for it. Maybe if she smashed in one of their skulls with a well aimed throw, the sprites would descend upon their fallen brother. But she knew that they wouldn't, why go for the thin, stringy, unmoving body when they had two much meatier and still living meals in front of them? But she was going to try, and with some luck she might be able to save Hiro, somehow.

Her hand grasped the rough concrete and she stood. She pulled her arm back, muscles coiling as she prepared to throw, the object seeming to warm in her hands as she did. She began to deliver the stone, her gaze flickering to her hand as she did. What she saw startled her, to the point where she stumbled, and the stone flew through the air in a lazy arc, leaving a icy trail of blue flames in its wake.

Mato felt some unknown instinct take over her, even as she watched the flaming rock sail through the air. She spun on her heel, placing her back to the alley as she wrapped her arms around Hiro, pulling him close to her body, and shielding him from what she did not know.

She heard the sprites his in triumph, seeing this as their chance to strike. Claws scrapped against the ground as the first of the things launched itself into the air, wails of victory tearing themselves from their masters' throats like frightened animals, echoing and reverberating off the walls. Amidst all of that noise, the sound of the concrete piece making contact with the ground was all but lost.

…and the world exploded in a brilliant flash of blue fire.

Time: 6:58 AM

Location: Saitama, Japan.

Date: February 25th, 0001 I.E.

"Wake up!" came a distant voice, wafting through the fog of unconsciousness. Nuguu rolled over in response to the voice, curling up in reaction to the slight chill she felt. The blanket must have fallen off during the night. She blindly reached for it, trying to return warmth to her limbs. "Five more minutes…" she muttered.

"You've been sleeping long enough already, so wake up!" came the voice again, clearer this time.

Oh great, Nuguu thought to herself, still searching for the blanket I'm waking up, I don't want to go to sch-. Her thoughts stopped dead when her hand came into contact with glass…That wasn't right, why would a glass surface be placed at bed level next to her, and parallel to the ground at that?

"Oh for the love of the Mines, WAKE UP!" came the voice again, smashing through the fog of sleep with the force of an earthquake. For a second, the girl wondered if there really was one going on, she was being shaken hard enough for that to be plausible. Maroon eyes flew open, only to be confronted with bright orange ones.

"Hi there!" said the voice, whose source was the five foot tall girl standing in front of the blond. Said blond stared in open amazement at the one who had just woken up, even as memories of the past few days came back to her.

Her guest, who was also the one that had shaken her awake, had tanned skin that looked grey in the pre-dawn light. She wore a black, sleeveless hoodie, and a black muffler with a white flame design. On her right breast, stichedf into the fabric with white string instead of just pasted on, was a square, four fingered fist. She had black stockings that ended in thick, one inch ringlets around her ankles, and…poles for feet. But that wasn't the creepiest part, not nearly. Behind the girl swung a narrow, vertebrae like tail, and where her elbows should have been were two gigantic metal fists.

"'Bout time you woke up," said the girl, seemingly oblivious to her…oddities. "But I gotta say, I was surprised to find another Vanguard out here, I thought I was the only one assigned to this area, but hey, any help with keeping the animals in line is fine by me, what's your name?" and it all came out in one breath.

To say that Nuguu was caught flat footed was an understatement to say the least, and so the only response she could muster was a faint "…um…"

"Oh right, where are my manners," said the girl, a slightly embarrassed smile on her face, yet she continued without missing a beat, "I'm Strength, a Captain of Metal, now you."

"Uh…" Nuguu stuttered, "Sh-Shiroi…Nuguu…"

"And? Rank and type?" asked Strength almost immediately after Nuguu had finished. When no answer was forth coming, due to the blond girl's obvious nervousness, the metal limbed girl sighed, "Oh, come on! I've given you mine, its protocol to follow up with yours."

"…It is?" asked the blond, still unsure of what the hell was going on.

"Oh I get it!" said Strength, slamming her right fist into her open palm as realization dawned, "You must be an Acid, which explains you lack of weapons and why you don't trust me, don't know why you guys are so suspicious, I mean you can feel that my flame is an Existence's, but I'll prove it anyway." She placed her right thumb and middle finger (she only had three besides the thumb) together, and snapped them, the fleshy sound, which did not match their source at all, reverberating through the silence.

…And in her open palm appeared a ball of black, metallic fire. It looked like a wrought iron sculpture of fire, yet it was moving. Not like how toy robots move, with static and linear movements, but like how actual fire moved, twisting in quick and elaborate patterns. But instead of hissing and snapping like normal fire, it was screeching and clanging.

"Well? That proof enough?" asked Strength, a smug smile on her face. Nuguu could only stare blankly at the flame, watching as iron sparks separated and floated to the floor, or building side if you're a stickler for being precise, before they vanished. The silence stretched on for a full minute, until Strength closed her fist in anger and extinguished the flame. "What is it with you?" She all but shouted, a cross look entering her face, "I've proven that I'm an Existence, I've even gone so far as to show you my flame, and there is no way in hell I'm gonna show you my hearth, seriously!" She sighed in exasperation, placing a giant metal hand to her forehead, "I mean it's not like I forgot to…" She trailed off, blinking owlishly, before a goofy smile crossed her face, small chuckles escaping her.

"Sorry 'bout that," apologized the self proclaimed 'Existence' as she smacked her own forehead, "I forgot how much a stickler you Acids are for protocol, so anyway, here's my codeword,"

That caught the girl's attention, "eh?"

But Strength kept right on going, not noticing the other blonde's confusion, "She shapes the metal to her will, forging it in the forgotten places of the Paleworld, and her tribute was the machine to cross the Border, now you!" she finished, a friendly, close-eyed smile on her face.

Nuguu was left on unsteady ground. She knew that a) this girl was unnatural in some way (the flames and metal limbs were a dead give away), b) was probably connected to the BMEs, c) had mistaken her for one of her kind for whatever reason, and d) this person was about to realize that they had made a mistake, and would probably react violently when they did. The pressure was getting to her, and so she began to nervously wring her gloved hands.

Wait a minute, gloved?

She looked down at her hands to find that yes, she was wearing a pair of white leather gloves, a black five-pointed star stamped on the back of the right one. From underneath the gloves stretched grey, skin tight sleeves, which stopped just before her elbows, seeming to merge with her tanned skin. She distinctly remembered not wearing leather gloves when she lost consciousness, and that she had been wearing a red tank top, there was no reason for the sleeves to be there. She glanced down, just to make sure, and found to her relief that she was still wearing the same ripped shirt and the same torn white pants with red stripes, but gasped when she saw her feet. Instead of her tattered sneakers, she had on a pair of white, one inch heeled boots, that stopped at mid thigh, and the beginnings of what could be stockings rose from their tops, merging into her skin just bellow the knee. She wasn't quite sure why the semi-wardrobe change unnerved her so much, it just did, and the clothes melting into her skin didn't help at all.

"Hey," Strength said, snapping the blond out of her trance. She had an upset frown on her face, and she was glaring at Nuguu, her arms crossed in front of her non-existent bust, "Come on already, give me yours," she grated out, her anger almost palpable. Actually, the blond was pretty sure she wasn't imagining the iron flames dancing around the outline of the girl, so her anger was palpable.

"Um, well…you see," she said trying in vain to get herself out of the situation she was in. She stopped when the Existence slammed her right hand into the surface of the building, cement and glass cracking under the force, "Quit fucking around!" she yelled. Scared by the robotic girl's rage, Nuguu tried to back up, but almost fell off of the building. "I know you're an Existence!" Strength continued, "Your flame just started dancing around your right eye for crying out loud! The only way you could have an Existence's flame and not be one yourself is if you…were a…" she trailed off, a stunned and somewhat awestruck look on her face.

A few tense moments passed between them, filled with nothing but dead silence.

…And then Strength began laugh. She threw her head back and laughed to the heavens like a madwoman. She laughed and laughed until she had doubled over herself, strangled gasps of air coming in-between her crazed giggles. Nuguu was eyeing her with fear, and she slowly skirted down the length of the floor, trying to put as much distance between her and the insane person as possible.

Finally, after what felt like forever, but was probably only a few minutes, Strength straightened, and looked at Nuguu with a smile that was both friendly and predatory, the tear stains on her face only added to the crazed look.

"Oh I've most certainly hit the jackpot here," she said, her tongue snaking out to unconsciously wet her lips, as if the target of her attention was her a gourmet banquet. "Heck, when I turn you in, I might get promoted to Marshal, or maybe even Honor Guard, now that would be something, Strength of the Honor Guard, has a nice ring to it." As she spoke, she slowly approached Nuguu, who by this time had backed herself into a piece of still standing wall.

"I do ask that you don't resist," Strength continued, " If you do, I can't promise that I won't kill you, and believe me, neither of us want that happening, although you may prefer it if you knew what's coming." she raised her right hand, her fingers balled into a fist.

As it came down, Nuguu threw herself to her right, animalistic fear giving her new speed. The fist cracked down on the spot she had been seconds before, glass and cement crumbling behind the force. But the other hand whipped through the air, curling around Nuguu's leg in a tight, almost bone shattering grip. Strength allowed her arm's rotational momentum to swing them around, pivoting on her heal as she did, and spinning like an Olympic hammer thrower. She let go after only three rotations, allowing the human to sail through the air out over the street.

Nuguu saw the ground rushing to meet her, and threw her arms over her face even as she closed her eyes, her palms facing outwards. She saw a brief flash of red, visible even though her lids were closed, and felt her hands impact the ground. Reacting with instincts she hadn't even known she possessed, she shifted the weight on her arms so that she vaulted herself through the air, landing on both feet and her right hand as she skidded across the pavement, facing the direction she had come from.

She didn't noticed it with her eyes closed, but her legs had been, briefly, covered in red flames, and that when the flames had faded, she had undergone another wardrobe change. She was now wearing a pair of white thigh-high stalkings and white short shorts. Their black sipper was all the way down, because the shorts were a size to small, revealing a scandalous amount of skin. But she did notice that she had come out of the skid with only a few scratches, when the force behind the throw should have been enough to shatter every bone in her legs, and probably her hips as well. Heck, the fact that she had turned a probable imitation of a skipping stone into a simple skid was amazing in and of itself, let alone surviving it.

Nuguu didn't have that much time to ponder it though, for when she opened her eyes, it was to see Strength leaping off of the collapsed building, heading straight for the white clad girl, a maniacal grin on her face. The girl stood, finding herself a bit wobbly on her feet, and turned, running as fast as she could, which was pretty damn fast, she found. She had passed two intersections in only twenty seconds, and the road was filled with gravel, pieces of torn up road and chunks of buildings. But she still distinctly heard the crashes behind her that signified that Strength wasn't far behind, and she suspected that the sounds were a bit delayed due to how fast she was running.

A compelling urge to leap to the right came to her, and it was so sudden that she followed it without hesitation. As she did, she saw a black ball of fire streak past her, inches away from the side of her face, and she swore she smelled burning hair. She reached out with her right arm as the ground came to meet her, and used it to lightly propel her away from the ground even as she passed over the spot, redirecting some of her momentum while not injuring herself. This resulted in her performing a mid-air summersault for a few rotations, before her feet extended from the protective ball and contacted the ground, she took a few stumbling steps before she was off again, sprinting through the streets at an inhuman speed.

Things continued like this for some time, how much she didn't know. Nuguu running and dodging whenever she felt the urge warning her about incoming projectiles, Strength chasing after her while throwing fireballs and pieces of ruble twice her size. Eventually they reached the southern area of the city, where the buildings were smaller and many were houses. The human girl felt the urge again, and this time she vaulted herself over part of a shingled roof. The ball of fire impacted with the structure and exploded, sending debris everywhere, and a particularly big support beam was heading straight for her. She couldn't dodge it, and in all honesty she didn't believe that she would survive it, and so she instinctively closed her eyes as braced herself for the pain.

It collided with a monstrous force, sending her flying through the air and skidding along the ground, and there was another bright flare of red. Nuguu lay on the ground, clutching her stomach in pain as she coughed up magenta splatters of blood. Through the pain, she could feel alien thoughts running through her mind, thoughts such as possible routes of escape, possible ways to hide. But mostly the thoughts were on ways to murder Strength. She could eviscerate the girl with her own tail, ripped from her body and used like a whip. Or she could cut off the arms, and then just pin the girl to the ground, before subjugating her to a deliciously long and painful torture session.

She dismissed those thoughts instantly, even though she found them so attractive, and decided to focus on escaping. Within seconds she had over a dozen possible routs of escape planned, and decided to go with the one that had the highest ratio of success probability to fallback scenarios. She forced herself to her feet, the pain she had been suffering minimal and non lethal, and began sprinting across the street, kicking up pieces of asphalt as she did. As soon as she reached the opposite building she began to scale it, moving up whole levels with just a pull of her arms.

She felt another twinge and pushed off of her most recent handhold with both hands, allowing her to shoot ten feet into the air and onto the roof of the building. Strength's fist crashed through where she had been seconds before, sending mortar and cement flying. But Nuguu didn't care, she had already seen Arakawa River and was making her way towards it at a furious pace, hopping the gaps between buildings like they were hopscotch squares. When she reached the road separating her block from the next, she turned right and ran down its length before crossing the divide, she continued to do this, moving in a zigzag like pattern, dodging fireballs all along the way. Her chosen path would slow her down, allowing Strength to catch up, but it was better this way.

It was obvious that the Existence relied heavily on her arms for travel, they were simply to big for easy running. So instead she would move around like a gorilla or a person on crutches, using her legs as mere resting points before throwing her arms forward to pull her along. As a result, she would build up a lot of linear momentum, and turning became a daunting proposition at such speeds. But Nuguu, with her light and nimble form, had no such limits.

She reached the last line of houses just before the river, and made another sharp right, leaping the street to a knew block. As she did this, she felt a light wind blow by her, signifying that Strength had been unable to make the turn. The following splash confirmed this.

A small, mischievous smile crossed her lips. This whole thing was so much fun.