She was trapped, not in an enclosed space, but an infinite void. A deep, endless darkness engulfed her, pulling her entire being into the cold embrace of emptiness. And for a moment, she had almost let herself be swallowed by the nothingness to become one with it and vanish, giving up on her own existence, when a single shred of thought for a certain Torch would appear briefly in the depths of her heart and check her descent into the void.
And then, raging flames consumed her. They were raw and unrelenting, and hot as they seemed. They also gave her energy to keep living, yet at the same time, it meant nothing, and she continued to spiral in an empty space filled with the novas of eternity.
It was not the first time it had happened. Since connecting—nay, becoming the Fountain of Existence, she had suffered through the sudden bursts of Power of Existence that had gathered up in her until she released them involuntarily, at the same time letting the same energy flow endlessly through her being.
She screamed and cried for help in agony and fear in the moments when she would be brought back from the void, but there could be none to help her, and it would not be long before she was drawn in again, deeper into the endless void each time. And each time she was drawn into the spiral of emptiness, she began to fade more and more, and the succeeding explosions of fire became more violent. But one thought kept her going, whether she was conscious of it or not, it was the one thing she clung to.
It was not the Snake of the Festival. He was not here, she could not hear him. She continued to, as she always had, recall her memories with Yuji Sakai.
Race through the Palace of Stars
The former Mystes looked ahead as Margery continued to ascend. In the distance, he could make out bright sparks from on the walls, and familiar white ribbons and balls of energy in the air.
"Looks like they've already started fighting," Margery noted.
"Yeah," Yuji responded. "Just drop me off as close as you can."
"Child's play," Margery said with an excited grin.
"Oh, and Margery-san, thanks," Yuji said, and he was genuinely grateful for the one Flame Haze on his side, despite her once being the most enthusiastic about killing Denizens.
"Yeah, yeah kid, I owe you anyway," the Chanter of Elegies said, continuing their upward climb.
Flaming blade clashed on flaming blade as a huge manticore wielded his halberd against a pair of deadly swordswomen. One of them, the Chinese lady with long black hair, expertly evaded the tremendous blade of the Shintetsu Nyoi, directing it away from her ever so slightly with a well-timed parry, while in stark contrast, the one with flaming hair and blazing eyes lunged at the beast at every opportunity, and whether she was defending or attacking, her blade struck with the brute strength to match her towering opponent.
The two flanked the Thousand Changes on the wall, and he was forced to attack and defend in quick succession as he whirled around with agility surprising for his size. He would block a forceful and straightforward strike from the Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter with the center of his polearm and stepping back before swinging at the enemy behind him. Soon realizing his disadvantage, the General leapt to the top of one of the Palace's structures so that he could face the two at once as they followed him.
"This is the new Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter?" Sydonay scoffed. "I'll admit she's strong as she is skilled, but I still find you are lacking!" He noted that her sword was only lined with the crimson flame as much as her hair was. In spite of whom she was contracted to. "Why would you choose a little girl to do your bidding, Flame of Heaven?"
Alastor replied. "She has far more potential than you believe, Thousand Changes."
The manticore smirked. "She just has untapped strength then? That can be a problem in the future," he said as he brandished the Shintetsu Nyoi.
The Chinese Flame Haze responded in hind with the vessel of her contractor. "Don't you think you should focus on the problem you have right now, Thousand Changes?"
"Heh, indeed, now that the Palace's traps and defenses have been disabled, and we're surrounded with all this raw Power of Existence," Sydonay said just as another building behind his silhouette erupted into a shower of bright fire, "then perhaps I should start worrying a little, Bladed Flower Slaughterer Yu Xuan."
Another explosion of energy let out a thundering boom, scattering more energy into the vicinity. That was the signal for the battle to resume, and the three combatants lunged forward with blade in hand.
Meanwhile, in the air above the Palace, the Judge of Paradoxes Bel Peol weaved a net from the limitless length of Tartaros around herself, anchored to nothing but her manipulative will. In the nick of time, the metal web caught an intense barrage of pink energy balls that exploded with a force rivaling Hecate's Aster. Even the projectiles that did not hit the chains themselves were not allowed to pass through, as a barrier in the form of a spell denied anything to slip through the gaps. Nonetheless, the salvo continued to fall upon the Judge of Paradoxes unmercifully for a good fifteen seconds from every angle, leaving a great could of smoke in its wake.
"Whoo yeah! I've never had the chance to cut loose like this before! It feels so… intense," said the Flame Haze who was NOT the Manipulator of Objects.
"As expected of you, Bomber," Bel Peol said as the smoke cleared. The chain wall held up, and the Strategist remained unscathed. "Although I'll have to say I'm a little disappointed in her lack of a challenge, Widened Eye of Pulverization."
"It's Rebecca Reed you three-eyed whore!" the wild-haired girl yelled as she pointed rudely at her opponent. "Or at the very least call me the Scatterer of Sparkling Light like all the boring people do! Seriously, why does everyone call me by those kinds of nicknames?"
"Perhaps it's because of our tendency to solve every situation by simply blowing it up?" said her contractor, the aforementioned Widened Eye of Pulverization, calm yet slightly amused.
The Scatterer of Sparkling Light pondered the thought for a moment, and shrugged with a smirk. "It's how we always did things, Balar."
Flanking their enemy and using the smoke to her advantage, the Manipulator of Objects made her move. Since the beginning of the battle, she had turned her headband into a pink war mask that flowed with innumerable ribbons of indefinite length at the back
She sent out a multitude of ribbons to match the incredibly long chain. The ribbons quickly coiled around a point in the web and went taut as Wilhelmina let her ribbons pull apart the chains to make an opening.
"You are outnumbered ~de arimasu," Wilhelmina told the Judge of Paradoxes, who despite her peril was abnormally calm.
"Take the shot," Tiamat urged Rebecca in her robotic monotone.
"This is gonna hurt bitch!" Rebecca smiled with glee as she summoned a ridiculous number of energy orbs around herself before chucking them all at the Judge of Paradoxes at once.
Just before the missiles could bypass the Strategist's defense through the opening, a majority of the links of Tartaros glowed, and from them emerged an entire army of Rinne of varying shape and size, and all augmented by the raining Power of Existence.
Most of the Rinne piled up in front of each other over the opening made by Wilhelmina. The maid-like Flame Haze attempted to haul away some of the blockers, but whenever she did so, the gaps would be filled by more of the Rinne.
The Rinne took the brunt of Rebecca's vicious volley, vanishing one after another as each took one to three balls of pink light directly. When it was all over, there was yet another cloud of smoke, and the Manipulator of Objects withdrew her many extra extremities, which had been singed near the ends due to the multiple nearby blasts.
Yet again, the Judge of Paradoxes came out unscathed. She had relinquished her barrier now, and Tartaros was returned to its normal length. All around her, she was surrounded by her remaining minions, at least half of their original number, and they were still taking in the energy filling the air. The lips of the strategist Strategist curled to a smile as she eyed her opponents cooly.
The Chanter of Elegies and her passenger approached the Palace from a different angle, towards a spot where the flames were the least violent.
"This is as close as I can take you," Margery told Yuji. "Any deeper in and the other Flame Hazes will probably notice and stop us. I'll try to hold them off and keep 'em away from you"
"Alright," Yuji responded. "Just leave the rest to me, Margery-san."
As the Flame Haze flew over the first wall and swooped in, the former Mystes hopped off, tumbling as he landed and ending up sprawled all over the floor. Needless to say, the action was more painful than he thought it would have been.
But the pain of a failed landing would be nowhere near what Hecate must have been feeling in the epicenter of the rampant inferno exploding from the entire palace. Mustering his strength and courage to push on until the end, he took a deep breath and got up to his feet.
There was an archway before him, followed by a doorway leading into a large building. He had no idea what would be in store for him, but he knew the way. For now, he had somehow lost the ability to sense anyone's presence, although it would do no one good in such chaotic conditions anyway. He knew the feeling of his own Treasure, however, and so he knew the way. He took off running, aware that in normal conditions he would tire quickly, but with all the energy to draw from around him, he could keep going.
Above, Margery Daw smiled as she watched the young Mystes head into the Palace.
"The fate of the balance in the hands of a teenage Torch trying to save a neurotic Denizen," she said aloud.
"Right in the middle of a battle between some of the most powerful people on the planet, who could probably annihilate nations if they wanted to," Marchosias added.
The Flame Haze smirked. "I like those odds."
"Well, at this point nothing really surprises me anymore," said the Claws and Fangs of Violation.
At the same time as Yuji's infiltration, the two-on-one duel on the walls raged on. As metal continued to strike metal, a burst of fire came up from the platform they stood on, splitting it asunder.
The Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter jumped back and braced herself with the edge of her black cape held forward as a shield. She found herself separated from her enemy and ally alike as the pillar of flame shot up before dispersing into a shower of burning hail.
As she danced gracefully away from Shintetsu Nyoi's most recent swing, Yu Xuan took notice of her partner's position, and decided to turn it into an opportunity.
A plum-colored mist seeped out of the Bladed Flower Slaughter as her own body began to fade, leaving behind only the vessel of her contractor, the straight sword, wielded by no visible hands. The blade swung at the air, and arced backwards, and continued to go round and round until it was spinning so fast that it appeared to be more like a levitating disc. And the faster the blade spun, the thicker and more spread out the mist became.
The saw-like object suddenly lunged at the Thousand Changes, who guarded it with his own weapon. As the deflected blade retreated and came in for another attack like a boomerang before being blocked again, the plum-colored mist that followed it shrouded the Thousand Changes.
The true threat was not the blade, and the General knew it. It was actually the mist that it emitted. It burned him all over, from fur and scale to skin, and it lingered as long as the mist swirled around him. It was not the first time that the Thousand Changes had encountered this tactic, but today was different. The scorching mist was far more potent than usual, and the flying saw-blade was faster and struck more strongly.
No other form he could change into quickly enough could escape the mist completely. He could not act against the mist with another power of his own either, not while he was too preoccupied with warding off more grievous damage from the flying blade. As the searing pain became more and more unbearable, and his guard began to fall, he realized his only real escape was up, but that would mean leaving the way into Palace itself unbarred.
The flying sword came at him once more, this time swooping low, towards the wall he stood on. From the bottom-up, it shredded right through the stone, headed right for the Crimson Lord's underside.
"Damn," he spat before leaping straight up and spreading his large, bat-like wings, flying high into the air. The spinning disc-blade followed after him with its lethal shroud.
"Now is our chance," Alastor told the Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter, who watched as the two flew out of her range. "If any of us reach the core of the Fountain, we can cut off its supply."
The Flame Haze nodded in agreement and compliance. "Wilhelmina and the others can handle themselves," she said as she ran along the wall and into the Palace. On the way, she glanced up at the plum colored mist facing off against the great flying beast.
"Thank you for the chance, Pennant of Dedication Di Hong, and Bladed Flower Slaughterer Yu Xuan," the girl's contractor said respectfully.
Margery raised a hand to her cheek. It was nowhere near red or swollen, but she still felt the hand that touched it, a hand that had, until that moment, never dared to lay even a finger on her.
"That kid sure has balls. It's the first time a guy's ever put me in my place ever since I contracted myself with you."
"Hohoh? Could my maiden of madness actually be thinking of settling down in a place like this with a boy like that?" Marchosias teased. "The boy's sure done me proud!"
The Chanter of Elegies immediately went red and stamped her heeled shoe on top of his covers repeatedly. "I knew that was your doing! And don't get the wrong idea, stupid Marco! He's still just a kid!" She sighed lightly. "Besides, that'll never work out anyway, considering a lot of things. But it would be nice to have a place to come back to."
Throughout their bickering, it was not hard for them to miss the nearby battles. The Chanter of Elegies looked up to several strands of familiar white lines sweep over the air like a cloud.
"Hey, isn't that the Manipulator of Objects we fought to a draw last time?" Marchosias observed.
"Using the loosest possible definition of 'we' and 'draw'?" Margery responded, referring to her temporary alliance with the Supreme Throne at the time. "You're right Marco. How about we settle it with her once and for all?"
Leaving a trail of purple flame behind her, the Flame Haze charged headlong towards her selected opponent. On the way, her form took the guise of a large purple werewolf. With her hulking form, she took all three combatants by surprise as she brushed off several pink energy balls she had accidentally intercepted them, broke through barriers in-between the chain web of Tartaros, and tore through a thicket of ribbons to latch tightly onto the Manipulator of Objects. Continuing her momentum, she kept going, angling down into a dive bomb before piledriving Wilhelmina Carmel headfirst into a building, collapsing it on impact.
The race began.
A Flame Haze known only by the name of her sword or her title as the Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter sprinted towards the source of the Fountain of Existence, dodging and weaving past random eruptions of fire and crashing debris.
At the same time, a Torch with no title but carried the name Yuji Sakai continued to run as fast as his legs could carry him. He had no need to worry about the flames in his path, for his Anti-Flame Ring protected him from it, and he was lucky enough to not encounter as much hazards as the Flame Haze did. He felt himself get tired rather quickly, however, as he expected, and he drew in the energy around him as he had planned, augmenting his body with it, recalling all of Hecate's lessons to him regarding the manipulation of Power of Existence.
"Professor, we have intruders in the Palace!" Domino alerted his creator as he looked through a monitor. "They're headed towards the heart chamber!"
The robotic Rinne attempted to trigger several traps and defenses, but none responded, for indeed, the tremendous feedback from the Fountain of Existence had also destroyed everything else they had prepared. The console before Domino exploded, knocking the robot on its back from where it could not get up by itself.
"Can'tyouseeI'mbusyjustkeepingthePalaceint heair?!" The Seeking Researcher Dantalion replied frantically. "Sendoutyourbretherentodealwi ththemeddlers, DOOOOMINOOOOO!"
It was not long before the Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter encountered the first set of enemies barring her way: a number of round, robotic Rinne very similar to the Seeking Researcher's lab assistant, with the only difference between them were that they each wore the number 27½ on their torsos, they had different color palettes, and that their arms were replaced with various medieval weapons
"Rinne," the Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter said as she readied the Nietono no Shana, letting a wisp of crimson fire coil around its blade.
"There are too many of them to simply avoid," Alastor observed. "Cut a path through them and try to outrun the stragglers."
The Flame Haze nodded, and she swung her blade at the air, sending a large fireball to incinerate the first few foes. At the same time, she let out a loud battle cry. "HAAAAAH!"
She herself dashed after her missile of flame, destroying several more Rinne in a flurry of lethal slashes that split everything from end to end. There was little need to block or parry, as she could easily and efficiently dodge their attacks, and she usually struck down her foes before they even had the chance to use their weapons against her.
She slashed high, she cut low, whirling around she split her enemies from head to toe; she reversed her grip to stab a robotic head coming from behind and drew the blade again from its face to decapitate another robot. In just the first ten seconds, fifteen had fallen, cleanly sliced through. And although there were more to come as reinforcements came one after another to bar her way, she continued to hack and slash through every single obstacle with burning ferocity.
Yuji continued to run towards the place where he felt the Reiji Maigo. Unlike the Flame Haze, who was much quicker than him, he knew the way to it despite it also being his first time inside the Palace. It also helped that the path he took was more straightforward, whereas the route of the Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter zigzagged from corner to corner and floor to floor.
Inevitably, as he passed through another doorway and through a long hallway with tall pillars on either side, one of the robotic Rinne cut him off, and nearly literally so. It had a sword for its hand, and it just barely missed the Torch by a hair's breadth, mostly thanks of a lack of skill on the Rinne's part.
Nonetheless, the shocked Torch jumped back and stared at the Rinne. "Are you with Bal Masque?" he asked it.
The robot only responded with three words—which was also one at the same time: "Die! Die! Die!"
"Waaah!" Yuji screamed as he leapt out of the way of a couple of slashes before materializing Blutsauger in his hand. "Wait! I'm on your side!"
He barely managed to block another strike with his massive broadsword, although it obscured most of his vision with the way he held it. He backpedalled and took an improvised stance with his sword pointed forward, then noticed that he and the robot were not alone. The Torch gulped as he counted the small number of robots surrounding him.
"Attaaaaaack!" The Rinne he had encountered first yelled, and rushed… right through Blutsauger's tip. The former Mystes didn't even need to move, at least until the others did.
He quickly yanked his weapon out of his self-defeated foe and swung at the closest enemy, effectively chopping in half. If the rest were as skilled as the first one, then the only real advantage the Dominoes had were their numbers. But even then, Yuji had an advantage of his own: Blutsauger was not only huge and heavy, it had tremendous reach.
He swung again, and another robot was smashed while another was knocked over on its back, helpless as an overturned turtle. Another Rinne attempted to catch him from the rear, but had its head crushed by the blade when Yuji raised it high over his head to take out another enemy that had been charging him from the front. Although curious and surprised about the lucky counter, the Torch continued with his action and cleaved the robot before him in two.
Only one was left, but it was standing several feet away, and in place of an arm it bore a crossbow aimed right at the former Mystes. Yuji quickly reacted by shielding himself with Blutsauger's flat held over the majority of his body, and the crossbow bolt bounced off the heavy weapon harmlessly.
The robot reloaded its weapon with a speed only possible with a machine. Yuji, thinking quickly, raised his sword and channeled his Power of Existence through his arm. Then, he took aim and hurled the mighty broadsword right into the Rinne, and it sank through it from end to end like a knife through bread.
Panting, Yuji walked over to the fallen crossbow Domino and his sword, ignoring the useless robot that was still stuck on its back. The helpless bot flailed in vain, and made an odd sound. "Awawawawawawa!"
When he was just a few feet away from the sword, a crossbow bolt struck the ground between them. From the corner of his eye, he saw more Rinne approach from the direction he needed to go. They were at least three times the number he had fought, with a majority of them being ranged attackers. The former Mystes wisely retreated behind a pillar before any competent marksmanship could take him down.
Peering around his cover, he thought about how to deal with the current situation. Blutsauger still lay embedded in the robotic corpse, although even if he did have it with him, there was no way he would be able to take on so many Rinne. As much as Hecate taught him how to channel his power, he still lacked the skill to wield the weapon properly.
Then he remembered that all around him there was an endless, flowing, albeit unstable, Fountain of Existence. Opening his hand, he drew the raging flames around him to his palm, condensing it in a little ball of bright azure fire, not unlike the way that Lamies had been collecting the flames of Torches.
Closing his eyes to focus, he began to feel something in the flames he absorbed. The flames felt cold and empty, as if they were lamenting a purpose in vain. At first, he didn't understand why, but he soon realized what no one else had, in spite of them drawing power from the same source.
"These are… Hecate's feelings," he muttered as he tightened his fist around the orb and absorbed it into his hand, making it glow blue.
The flames felt hollow, worthless, powerless, and meaningless but that was just what they felt like to the one who released them, and to the one who felt her. In reality, the flame was power unrefined, power to bring desires to creation, power to protect, power to exist. The one named Yuji Sakai decided to put that power to use.
After another volley of bolts was loosed, hitting no mark, the former Mystes emerged from cover. He opened the hand outlined in bright blue in the direction of his attackers and released all of the power he had collected at once in a single burst. A thundering pulse of azure flame swept everything before him, blasting the Rinne away and breaking them apart with sheer explosive force.
As the shards of metal collapsed, Yuji stared at the aftermath, at the piles of scrap metal littering throughout the hallway before him. In a single moment, he had gone farther with his ability than he had ever done so before. He could do this. He believed he can now. He could save Hecate!
Taking up his sword, gripping it firmly in one hand, he continued to advance.
In the meantime, on the surface of the Palace, a Flame Haze shoved the last stone out of her way as she crawled out of a heap of rubble. She had short magenta-like hair and was dressed like a maid.
"Truly, I hope that was not whom I thought it was ~de arimasu," she said.
"Further complications," said Tiamat.
As she dusted herself, a large purple werewolf burst out of the mass of debris, roaring loudly.
"Jolly wolly oxenfree,
Come here my pretty,
You're invited to my party!"
A number of large, spiraling fireballs of purple fire spewed from the mouth of the Chanter of Elegies. They homed in on the other Flame Haze, who dodged each of them at the last second before throwing dozens of ribbons at her opponent.
Margery Daw swung her arms and deftly caught the blade-like ribbons in her paw and began to recite another verse.
"Hissy-hissy pants in the green forest,
Slithering, slithering snake comes a' creepin'"
From her paws, a trail of purple fire travelled down the ribbons towards the Manipulator of Objects. Before they could reach her, Wilhelmina detached her extended extremities. The released ribbons all glowed shortly before blowing up in the hands of the Chanter of Elegies. Knowing full well the circumstances of the battle, the maid-like Flame Haze prepared to finish off her foe as she spun a drill of ribbons around her forearm.
The purple werewolf lunged from the midst of the smoking blasts, its hide more solid than steel as the Flame Haze put all of her gathered energy into augmenting her defense for that one moment. Wilhelmina wasted no time in sending her drill towards Margery, who raised both paws high and brought them down like a hammer on top of its tip. The ribbons went limp on impact, and the Chanter of Elegies grabbed a hold of them while tugging at them forcefully at the same time.
Wilhelmina did not have the chance to detach herself from the ribbons again, or resist the brute strength of the purple beast. Her momentum was already sending her straight towards her enemy, and she decided to put that fact to use.
She came at the Chanter of Elegies with both legs forward in an attempt to hit her with a drop kick. But Margery had seen it coming since the last time they had fought. The werewolf jumped up as Wilhelmina's feet were about to connect, and made a kick of her own.
Wilhelmina quickly shaped a shield of ribbons to bear the brunt of the attack, but it was still strong enough to send her crashing right into the floor. The Chanter of Elegies immediately followed after her, ripping apart the layer of bands with her huge claws. Although the Manipulator of Objects lay exposed, she instantly responded with an attack: a thrust with a spear quickly fashioned from her ribbons.
The weapon would have struck the Chanter of Elegies critically, had she retained her hulking bestial form. However, at the moment that the pointed shaft went forward, the wolf dissipated into purple embers, and the woman hidden beneath the furry shell was revealed. Margery skillfully dodged the spear by a hair's breadth and brought her heeled foot down hard on Wilhelmina's gut.
"I'm not gonna fall for any of your tricks a second time!" Margery said as she hopped off her opponent, then jumped back again as Wilhelmina attempted to sweep her off her feet with the same weapon while getting back to her own feet.
Knowing full well that her opponent had the advantage of casting speed while she herself was not in her animalistic form, Margery rushed at her opponent abruptly. Wilhelmina, startled by an attack she did not expect her opponent to use, blocked a punch with her hand before proceeding to counterattack.
The destructive battle may have devolved into a fistfight for a brief moment, but the blows of each combatant was enough to shatter brick walls, as they strengthened themselves with the perpetually burning energy around them. Their fists were a blur as they boxed with all the skill they had accumulated throughout their centuries of existence.
The Chanter of Elegies quickly followed up an uppercut with a knee sent through the poufy skirt and right between the thighs of her opponent, causing the Manipulator of Objects to make a face she never had before.
"Foul play," Tiamat protested while retaining her usual monotone.
To seal the deal, the blonde spun around to send a spinning back kick into her opponent, sending her flying into a crumbling tower.
"Rules don't exist in a real fight, remember?" Marchosias guffawed triumphantly. "Give 'em a good one, my furious berserker, Margery Daw!"
The Chanter of Elegies grinned as the Manipulator of Objects winced in pain and gasped.
"Billy Willy climbed a hill,
Then tumbling down he fell!"
During her recital of the spell, the woman clad herself in the shell of her werewolf. Between her paws and from her maw she unleashed a large rolling fireball that slammed right into the other woman. The ball of flame burst violently as it hit, and the structure imploded over the Manipulator of Objects.
The former Mystes deflected three bolts by using Blutsauger's flat as a shield once more. He rushed towards a large door at the end of a long hallway, and before it was another group of Domino Rinne, all ready to meet him.
An overeager Rinne rushed at the oncoming invader, only to have its head bashed in by the huge sword as the Torch brought it down with a single hand. His other hand glowed blue, having absorbed another condensed amount of Power of Existence. As he continued to run straight forward, he threw his hand forwards, unleashing the pent-up energy. The explosive pulse blew away everything in his path, not just the Rinne, but including the huge metal doors. They came off their hinges and flew for a few meters before crashing into the floor.
At the same time that Yuji emerged from the structure out into a sort of courtyard, a certain Flame Haze raced parallel to his path atop a long, low wall. They noticed each other's presence from the corner of their eye.
"It's the Torch?!" the Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter gasped with astonished wide eyes as she continued sprinting.
"We don't have time to deal with it right now," Alastor reminded her. "Focus on reaching the core before it. Like the Rinne, you should fight it only if it stands in our way."
The Flame Haze dashed forward, quickly gaining the lead over the Torch. Ahead of both of them was a high wall. The Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter kicked at the platform beneath her and hopped to the top of a nearby tower before jumping right over the wall, slicing three waiting Domino archers in a single movement as she passed them.
In the meantime, Yuji halted and watched as the Flame Haze went out of sight.
"No! I can't let her hurt Hecate," he said.
He looked up at the wall, studying it. It was too high to climb, let alone jump over, and was likely several feet deep. It was also made of hard stone that probably would not break as easily, even with all of the exploding flames around him.
But he had to get past it. There was no question about whether he should, it was his only choice. His friends were relying on him, not just Yoshida, not just Satou and Tanaka, but even a Flame Haze who had once been his enemy, knew only he could get through. And on top of that, the city, and even the balance of the whole world rested in the outcome of this race.
Putting away Blutsauger, he closed his eyes, drawing in all of the Power of Existence around him. The trails of fire that flowed into his hand came not just from his immediate vicinity like the previous times, but from half of the fire raging throughout the entire exterior of the Palace. Normally, such a gluttonous amount taken in one moment would overload and destroy a Torch or even a Denizen, like food bloating a human to death, but it did not for the Torch who put all his focus, his concentration, into compressing the energy as a bright ball of azure flame.
Rebecca Reed tossed a bright pink orb of light that separated into a number of smaller projectiles, taking out a number of airborne Rinne clustered together. A second later, Bel Peol threw the weighted end of Tartaros at her opponent, who raised her wrist while grinning as she cast her Unrestricted Method.
The bracelet on her hand opened, revealing a large eye: the eye of Balar, the Widened Eye of Pulverization. A large spell insignia appeared before her, and the solid metal of the chain was repulsed by a powerful blast that came from the Flame Haze's spell.
It didn't take too long for Rebecca to decimate most of Bel Peol's minion army, but the Strategist herself proved too difficult a target. The Judge of Paradoxes would often weave her way around a barrage of pink light, defend with Tartaros, or on occasion, her Rinne would deliberately take the shots intended for her.
Many of the Rinne had attempted to close in on the Scatterer of Sparkling Light, to no success, as they collided with spell insignias hidden in the air which upon the slightest touch. These spell insignias littered the sky in three dimensions around Rebecca as she continued to lay them down to intercept attacks and trap her opponent, all the while she was shooting at her.
Meanwhile, not too far away, Sydonay clapped his wings together to propel himself backwards and away from Yu Xuan's deadly mist, while at the same time blowing it away. But the rapidly spinning blade continued to come at him. The big manticore swung the Shintetsu Nyoi to deflect it before flapping his wings again to keep the plum-colored mist out of reach.
The two Flame Hazes and the two Crimson Lords fighting in the air above the Palace did not miss the flames covering the Palace streaming, neither did they ignore the growing power and increasing presence. There was also the fact that it was close to the keep of the Palace.
"Hecate!" Sydonay roared in panic. He dove towards the anomaly and was restrained in mid-air by a long chain that wrapped around him, just as a saw-like blade cut right in front of his path, followed by plum-colored mist. The General roared angrily as he glanced back towards Bel Peol, who held the other end of his bindings.
"Thousand Changes, that's not the Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter, or any Flame Haze these people have brought," Bel Peol told him. "It's a different presence, one I haven't felt before."
Or maybe it was always there and I just didn't notice because it was so small then. Could it really be?
The two Crimson Lords were not the only puzzled ones. The two Flame Hazes also allowed themselves a pause for a brief respite, as well as to figure out just what or who this anomaly was. Yu Xuan even reverted to her human form as she studied both it and her enemies.
"Sydonay, if you really care about Hecate, then we can't let these Flame Hazes past us," Bel Peol told the Thousand Changes.
"But my Hecate needs me!" Sydonay growled.
"Think, Thousand Changes," Bel Peol replied calmly yet firmly. "If you leave these two powerful Flame Hazes to me, even for a little while, while so much Power of Existence is flowing, I'll eventually be overwhelmed, and then both you and Hecate will be in real danger. And besides, you've already failed to reach her." She smiled. "I believe our problem just might solve itself." She loosened the chain.
The Thousand Changes pulled himself free. "Are you gambling on her life?" Sydonay said, and the Strategist shook her head.
"I'm counting on a miracle," she said as she retracted Tartaros. "Until yesterday, I hardly believed in them. But now that I've seen my "little sister", maybe things will be different, and all we have to do right now is prevent outside forces from interfering."
Sydonay grunted. "Hmph, fine, I'll go with it for now, but if I feel her get any closer to destruction, I'm going in no matter what," he said.
"Fair enough," Bel Peol said as she glanced at the two Flame Hazes before summoning a Treasure that looked not unlike an Olympic torch in her other hand.
A second wave of Rinne materialized from the links of Tartaros. Moving to her side, Sydonay transformed into a gargantuan beast unlike any other, a beast that seemed to be the fusion of dragon, man and metal. Simultaneously, Yu Xuanfaded away as her sword started spinning horizontally, shrouded in mist, and Rebecca Reed broke Balar's chain, letting her contractor float beside her with its eye wide open and balls of light orbiting around her.
"Heh, that's it kid, keep going," Margery muttered, sensing the flow of power where she sensed the Torch and the crimson-haired Flame Haze.
In the meantime, she had been ferociously pounding her opponent with claws and spells one after another, thrashing Wilhelmina around relentlessly.
The Manipulator of Objects deflected a rain of purple fire swords by covering herself with a dome of ribbons. She staggered as she crafted a long lance of the same material.
"Indeed, you have gone rogue for such an extended period of time that you have forgotten your true duty," Wilhelmina said. "If the balance of the world topples, everything will become meaningless, even your personal vendetta ~de arimasu."
The Chanter of Elegies smirked. "No, I haven't forgotten. I won't let this city fall under this disaster," she said, remembering what Keisaku had told her to her face so boldly. "Besides, all my stuff is here, as well as my little roommate."
Her form glowed brightly as she absorbed more Power of Existence, ready to be used in the battle. "I just plan on doing things my way," she declared. "And my way is letting that Torch—no, that boy do what only he can do. So now way in hell am I letting you past me!"
With a roar, she lunged at the Manipulator of Objects, resuming the battle between them.
As the Power of Existence in his hand swelled, Yuji remembered something Hecate had told him about it during one of their training sessions.
"Power of Existence can be shaped into what you desire it to be. Sometimes, that desire may be a tool to achieve other desires. It can take the form of a simple ball of flame," Hecate explained as she held out her palm with a small ball of aqua-blue flame hovering over it, "to powers far beyond any mortal's imagination, in order to achieve that which you wish for, so long as you can fully understand and envision that form."
That's right, this is the true form of Power of Existence, at least to a Denizen: it was the power to fulfill desires, the strength to grant wishes, the energy to keep living. These concepts were what Tiriel, Friagne, and even Lamies believed in.
In the hand of the Torch, the ball of azure light retained its shape and expanded slowly until it reached the size of his own head, because that was the form he wanted it to be.
"Besides what you need for your mission, is there anything you ever wanted for yourself, Hecate?" Yuji had asked her once, in another of their many training sessions.
"I desire what I desire," Hecate answered solemnly, and yet, for a moment, she looked at him, his face and not his chest, sadly.
He still did not fully understand what Hecate truly wished for, but he knew one thing: she had always protected him, and he came to rely on her. But now, it was time for him to return the favor and protect her.
"Hecate, I made a promise to you once," Yuji muttered, "that I would not leave you alone ever again."
He opened his eyes as he hurled the azure orb straight into the wall before him. It hit its mark, and there was a tremendous bang. A tremendous explosion blew apart the barrier before him, pulverizing it into rubble. On top of that, the blast leveled a few nearby structures and sent debris flying. Yuji also found himself flung back until he hit the remains of a broken wall.
The former Mystes, although aching, struggled to get up quickly. He felt as if all his bones were broken, had he truly had them, but the flames around him, destructive as they were, were also flames of healing, and he was soon eased enough to pick himself up.
He looked ahead. A huge chunk of the wall had been toppled by his own power. He gaped at it in surprise, even though it was what he had intended, and more.
Then he remembered Hecate, and the Flaming-Haired Blazing-Eyed Hunter headed there to slay her as she was being consumed in the terrible machinations around her.
"I still don't know how I'll do it, but I have to keep going. I may be only a Torch, but right now she needs me. I can't stop here, not yet."
The Torch pushed on.