DO NOTE that this story IS NOT endorsed by the original holders of the intellectual rights or copyrights mentioned at the end of this chapter. This is a work of fanfiction based on the original work and its associated franchise, with the intent to amuse and distract its readers. There is absolute no intent to make money or otherwise deny the original copyright holders their given due. Should the original holders of the copyright be offended by my use of their rightful property, I will gladly take it down in accordance with the Terms of Service of this website. Please support the official release(s) mentioned below.

...

Good day or good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the eighth chapter of The Oncoming Storm!

Now, you probably wonder, why did I spend so much time specifically not updating my various stories? Well, I have a few very good reasons. In descending order of importance: I had upcoming university exams for which I really needed to study; I had to write those blasted university exams; I started looking for a job; and after just not writing for over two months, I was in a bit of a creative blank space until I got the hang of things again.

Still, I read all of your comments, reviews, and messages, and every time I got that little email alert telling me that another one of you had decided to follow one of my stories and/or declare it to be one of your favourites, I felt all warm and fuzzy inside.

So I say thank you very, very much for all your kind understanding and support. You certainly are a lot of fun to write for.

Now, about the reader reaction to the last chapter: I am honestly very much surprised at the venom that was unleashed at our unlucky quartet of schoolgirls. I definitely wanted to make them appear as being foolhardy and not thinking entirely straight (being dumb, insensitive teenagers, essentially – goodness knows that I wasn't an angel at their age), but I seem to have hit a nerve with people. I was both surprised and pleased, actually – that sort of emotional reaction is the sort of thing I write for.

Still, our four unlucky students won't get their memories erased – but they certainly won't escape unscathed. For the details on that, read on.

And for all those of you who guessed that the mystery girl at the end of last chapter was Rin Tohsaka from Fate/Stay Night, let me applaud you. You hit the nail right on the head, ladies and gentlemen. I spent a lot of time wondering whether you were all far too clever for me to fool, or whether my skills at foreshadowing and vague flashbacking sequences were worse than I thought. Knowing my luck, it's probably a combination of the two.

Rin's fate is important to explain how Negi Springfield became the young man he is today. But I shan't reveal all of it! Yet, at least. I still need something interesting to tempt you back to this story, after all. But there are some crumbs scattered here and there in this chapter as to what happened in the past. Let's see if you can figure out some clues of the puzzle…

Oh, and we are now meeting a few old friends. And then we're getting to the violence, the blood, the politics... Goodness, this is going to be fun.

I think the future tone of the story should be very obvious from this chapter on. As the crossover elements should be. If you like it, please keep reading! I'll try my very best to keep you entertained.

I hope you had as much fun reading this story as I had writing it. Whether you liked or disliked it, liked some parts, loathed others, or if you have any other suggestions, please drop me a line, or two, or more in a review. I will certainly be reading your comments with great interest.

The Oncoming Storm

Chapter VIII – Things That Go Bump in the Night

They sat in silence in the chairs arrayed before Negi's desk, not daring to utter a single word. Nodoka's hands lay in her lap, her hands forcibly clamped together so that they would stop shaking, and she refused to look up.

She didn't need to do look up, however, to know that Haruna, Yue, and Asuna were in the same boat. Negi-sensei's reaction to their little plan had seen to that.

The doujin artist had laughed at first, sheepishly scratching her neck as their teacher marched into his workroom as he surveyed their handiwork. "Ahahaha… Hi there, Negi-sensei. Uh, we can explain this—"

Negi-sensei had silenced her with the most furious glare the young librarian had ever seen on anyone, and from the ways his fingers were clenching and unclenching around his staff, it was obvious that he was restraining himself from violence by a hair's breadth. The three students stepped back, alarmed, and for the first time in the years they had known each other, Nodoka saw something akin to terror on the usually unflappable Yue's face.

"Not one word out of you," he had snarled through gritted teeth, his anger palpable in the air and his eyes boiling with fury. "Not. One. Word. I don't want to hear any of your excuses. You will go downstairs, you will sit down, and I will deal with you after I've cleaned up this mess you've created. Go. GO!"

The last word had been roared at the top of his lungs when they had refused to move, but after that, they ran past him as fast as they could, not daring to look him in the eye or turn around. The door slammed shut behind them. Nodoka wanted to keep running away, all the way until that furious young man that Negi-sensei had turned into had disappeared and been replaced with the kind teacher she knew, but she knew that it was impossible.

Deep down, some primal instinct told her that running away wouldn't stop Negi Springfield from finding her.

They had been sitting there for what could have only been a few minutes, but to Nodoka, they felt far longer. Not one word was spoken, Negi's words still ringing in their ears. They took care even not too breathe too loudly. The only sounds in the room were the rain pattering against the windowpanes, the regular ticking of the old clock on the windowsill, and the wind howling outside.

After what felt like hours, the upstairs door to the lab was opened with a loud slam, and they glanced up to see Negi-sensei march down the stairs and over to his desk. He sat down, his expression unnaturally cold. They quickly returned to studying the hands in their laps, not daring to look him in the eye. Even Asuna was cowed. For a few moments, he said nothing, presumably studying them.

"Well?!" he barked out, making them flinch. "What have you got to say for yourselves?"

Asuna – brave, foolish Asuna – spoke up first. "Negi, this is—"

"No," he interrupted her harshly, his voice full of quiet fury. "Negi-sensei. You will call me Negi-sensei, Kagurazaka-san. I deserve that much respect, at least, even if the four of you have chosen to hold me in contempt in every other way possible."

"That's not true!" Nodoka burst out, looking up to stare pleadingly at Negi. His eyes were as hard as flint as they met hers, and she shuddered. "We were just… trying to… We didn't want to hurt you!"

"Is that so? How amusing. Let me rephrase my question, then," Negi said coolly, linking his hands as he leant back in his seat and studied the four of them with a sarcastic smirk. "Why, exactly, did you decide to break into my workroom, riffle through my belongings, and then go through my most private of possessions? Is there a good reason for that? I would love to hear it."

The mocking sarcasm dripping from his voice was unlike anything they had ever heard before. Negi-sensei had always been polite, charming, and his admonishments had always been limited to gentle jibes and mock despair at their antics.

Now, his voice was full of angry bitterness, and Nodoka felt more and more horrible with every second that passed.

"No, you know what, ladies?" Negi continued. "I don't need to hear your excuses. I really don't." He opened a drawer in his desk, taking out a block of paper and a pen. "If you don't mind, I will now write the Headmaster to demand the immediate expulsion of the four of you from Mahora Academy."

"WHAT!?" Yue, Haruna and Asuna shouted in unison, the redhead even leaping to her feet. Nodoka's head snapped up, staring at Negi in mute horror.

"Honestly, there's nothing much else left to do," Negi muttered, and they watched the pen dance across the page quickly and efficiently as it formed the dreaded words. "I've caught you in flagrante delicto, even though I trusted you not to do something outrageous such as breaking into my workroom, and now you refuse to even tell me why you did it! What else am I meant to do, really? Wail like a child, beat my fists, and cry until you oblige me?" He snorted, setting his elegant signature under the paper. He forcefully capped his pen, glaring at them. "Yes, that hasn't happened in quite a while. Years, in fact. And as far as I'm concerned, it never will again."

"But—"

"You can go now," Negi said, waving them off and reaching for another stack of paperwork. "I've found that I can no longer enjoy your company. Your parents will receive their letters once Dean Konoemon has confirmed the measure, so that should be… about a week, tops? Enjoy the last of your time at Mahora, I say."

He glanced up after a moment to see them still standing there, shell-shocked. He frowned. "I thought I told you to leave."

"We know you're a mage!" Haruna suddenly shouted out. Nodoka's head snapped to her friend, her hands jumping to her mouth to stifle her squeak of shock. She saw Yue palm her face and groan, Asuna emphatically shaking her head, and Haruna with an expression of ecstatic triumph on her face.

Negi's eyes focused on the doujin artist with sudden intensity, carefully putting down his pen. "What," he asked slowly, "did you just call me?"

"A mage, a mage!" Haruna repeated excitedly, hands on hips and grinning widely at her teacher. Now that she had something to use against him, it seemed she had lost whatever fear of him she had. "You can do magic, right?"

Negi scoffed, though it looked forced and unnatural. "What a ridiculous idea. Spent a bit too much time reading your comic books, haven't you?"

"Ooh, denial!" Haruna crowed, still grinning. "But it's no use, Negi-sensei, you know! We saw the pictures and videos on your computer! The talking animal, the floating airship, that weird gun and sword, the things about the Empire and Union and other stuff… Hey, we know it all!"

Negi's eyes narrowed nearly imperceptibly, but Nodoka caught it anyways. "…Is that so?"

"Yeah, that's how it is!" Haruna said cheerfully, missing Negi's slight shift in posture. "So, if there's a secret society of mages, there are going to be rules about not telling the secret to normal people like us, right?"

"So what if there were?"

"Well, that would mean you're in trouble!" Haruna singsonged loudly, still grinning.

Negi raised an eyebrow. "And?"

"Well…" Haruna drawled, secure in her victory. "If you promise not to tell the Dean about this, then I won't tell Asakura about any of this. I'm sure she'd love to splash this all over the city's newspapers. It might even hit the evening news on TV! Who knows?"

"Paru," Yue hissed, her expression tight with panic. "Shut up right now!"

"And if I refuse to cooperate?" Negi asked, his posture relaxed and his tone calm. His eyes, however, were cold.

"Then we tell Asakura, or one of Tokyo's big newspapers, or a TV station… The possibilities are endless! But if you just tear up that little letter there," Haruna said, crossing her arms and nudging her chin at Negi's missive, grinning, "then we won't tell anyone!"

Negi blinked once. "Promise?"

Haruna nodded once, her grin growing wider. "Promise!"

"I see." Negi nodded once, slowly, before smiling sardonically. "I refuse."

Haruna's expression slackened. "What."

"Honestly," Negi muttered. He raised his hand, waving it idly and speaking a harsh word in a tongue none of them knew. The door to the office, still wide open from Negi's haste in confronting the intruders, slammed shut as if forced by an invisible hand, the lock clicking locked on its own. "I truly thought the four of you would be cleverer than this."

Haruna tried to leap away, but Negi held up a hand. The air itself pushed against her in a rush of wind, forcing the artist firmly back into her seat. She stared at him, eyes widening in terror.

"A bit of advice," Negi continued, smiling pleasantly. "If you do decide to blackmail someone who you suspect has strange arcane powers that you know nothing about, don't tell him that to his face. Just pretend that nothing happened and make your leave." He laughed quietly to himself. "Of course, the point is moot with you lot, considering that I doubt you'll ever even think of doing it again. Especially after I've explained to you the trouble you're in."

"What do you mean?" Yue asked, panic rising in her voice. "Are you going to hurt us?"

"If I had wanted to hurt or kill you, Akase-san, I would have done it the moment I stepped through that door. I would have simply electrocuted you all and deconstructed your remains to their base particles, disposing of them later. No witnesses, no bodies, no problem. For me, in any case."

Negi folded his hands on his desk, considering the teenagers before him calmly as they broke out into a cold sweat. He looked entirely unperturbed by the prospect of killing four people, something that made Nodoka's hands turn clammy.

He rolled his eyes. "You're lucky that I am the kind of mage that looks upon the murder of mundanes as something to be avoided instead of indulged in. And I'm the exception to the rule."

"W-what do you mean?" Haruna asked, shivering.

Negi sighed, standing up and turning around to look at the window. "If you had successfully broken into the workshop of any wizard, magus, or other powerful practitioner of thaumaturgy, you would have been killed on the spot. That is, of course, if you weren't captured and violently tortured for information first. You see, entering another mage's workshop is usually tantamount to a declaration of war, considering you're basically snooping around to learn your enemy's skills and weaknesses, looking for a way to kill him or her."

Nodoka shuddered, realizing how very close the four of them had been from death. If Negi-sensei hadn't known them to be his students…

"And even if you had managed to get away with the knowledge of magic, you wouldn't be able to just publicize the secret. You would need proof." Negi turned around, hands clasped behind his back. "Apart from the testimony of four impressionable youths, you have absolutely none, Saotome-san. You could have gone to any publicist, journalist, or newspaper editor, and they would have laughed you out of your office before you finished telling your tale."

His face darkened, grimacing as if he had smelled something vile. "Be glad you didn't have any proof, Saotome-san. Otherwise, the Mage's Association wouldn't have waited very long to hunt you down."

"Mage's Association?" Asuna asked faintly. "There's an entire group of you?"

"Of course there is," Negi said, snorting contemptuously. "And there's not only just one group of mages. There is the Clock Tower of London, the Sea of Estray in the Northern Atlantic, Atlas Academy of the Middle East… But these are only the three biggest branches of the Mage's Association. There are literally dozens of smaller ones spread out all over the world, with thousands of members. And that count excludes all those practitioners of magic without enough talent to be accepted as one. All the branches answer to a governing body of our elders. We generally call it the White Council.

"You were right, Saotome-san," Negi continued, red-brown eyes boring into theirs, his expression grim. "There are rules about revealing the secrets of the existence of thaumaturgy. And they are enforced very harshly."

"And how are they enforced?" Haruna asked defiantly.

"If you are merely an innocent witnessing an act of thaumaturgy…" Negi idly waved two fingers in a figure of eight. The pen lifted from his desk and floated freely in the air, turning lazily. Something twisted in Nodoka's gut at the unnatural sight, and she felt something eerie crawl over her skin like an insect.

"Well, then there is no punishment. At first. We simply erase that person's memory of the event in question. If you know of our secrets and deliberately try to expose the existence of thaumaturgy to the world, however…"

Negi closed his fist. The metal fountain pen crumbled like a sheet of paper, splattering ink across the desk. The girls flinched.

"Then everyone involved is killed on the spot."

"…You're serious," Haruna whispered, her face pale as she looked at him. "You're actually serious about all of this. All this stuff about magical groups, and us getting killed if we tell anyone…"

Negi gave her a ghost of a smile. "Deadly serious, I assure you." He glanced at the letter on his desk, now splotched with ink and unreadable. "I liked that pen."

"Why are you telling us this?!" Asuna demanded loudly, fear and anger warring in her eyes. "Why don't you kill us like you said you would!?"

Negi sighed. "If you had actually listened to what I was saying, Kagurazaka-san, then you would have heard that I specifically did not want to kill you."

"And why not?" Yue piped up carefully. "If you have to follow the rules like everyone else—"

"I am not a monster," Negi interrupted her, his voice suddenly angry, silencing her. "I'm a human being, Akase-san. I can't stand seeing people pointlessly killed. Look at you!" He pointed at them, eyes blazing. "You're children, for God's sake! Stupid children, perhaps, but you still have your entire life ahead of you! Do you honestly think that I want all of you to die!?"

His shoulders slumped, and he sighed, falling back into his seat like a corpse with his eyes closed. "…And you're my students," he added quietly. "I'm a teacher now. I'm supposed to help you become adults, to help you grow into the wonderful persons you are going to be one day. How could I possibly kill you?"

They remained silent, unsure of what to do or say.

Negi pulled himself together, straightening his back and taking a deep breath. "Right," he said, his eyes snapping open. "I would offer to erase your memories of this conversation, but I'm afraid that's impossible."

"And why is that?" Haruna asked cautiously.

"Three reasons," Negi answered crisply. "One, Kagurazaka-san seems somehow immune to the effects of my memory modification spell. Either I wipe all of your memories, or none at all. It's a security risk. She might trigger your memories by pure accident. Two, it's difficult to dislodge a memory that is already heavily ingrained. The more time it spends taking root in a person's mind without any other explanation to cover for it, the more difficult it is to erase or modify it. And three," and here he gave them a rather sheepish grin, "…Well, mind magic isn't exactly my forte, I'm afraid."

"And what does that mean?" Asuna asked rebelliously. "You tried to wipe mine, remember?"

"It means that if I were to try to erase this conversation from your memories now, then I might accidentally destroy your minds and leave you as gibbering vegetables. An outcome we all want to avoid, I'm sure."

Nodoka gathered up what little courage she could reach through her fear. "N-Negi-sensei," she began quietly, not really trusting her words. "What is your specialty, exactly?"

He gave her a faint, regretful smile. "Battlefield magic."

She shuddered, looking away.

"Now," Negi continued sternly as they digested the implications of his words, "we need to make sure that you understand what happens now. You are not allowed to tell anyone about what you saw or heard today. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Negi-sensei, I think we get it," Yue muttered sarcastically. "You were rather insistent about that, considering all the death threats you made."

A little smile ghosted across their teacher's face. "All for the sake of impressing the seriousness of the situation on you, I assure you. Now, if anyone talks to you about magic or something similar, just deny what you know and saw and tell me as soon as you can. If you can't reach me, go find Takamichi or Dean Konoemon."

"Takahata-sensei is a mage?!" Asuna asked incredulously. Nodoka thought she even looked a little hurt.

"No, not exactly," Negi said evasively. "They'll both know what to do, though. Don't tell anyone except them."

"We get it already," Haruna muttered, rubbing the bridge of her nose in a harried manner. "No talking, or we might just get killed."

"Not just you," Negi said sharply, recapturing their attention. "If they suspect you've spread the secret of thaumaturgy to anyone else, the Association will simply track down anyone you know and either wipe their memories of your existence, or simply kill them."

Haruna blinked, adjusting her glasses. "You're kidding, sensei, right?"

He snorted, darkly amused. "I wish. Pets, family, colleagues, classmates… They're thorough that way."

"Right," Yue said, throwing a significant look at Haruna. "No telling anyone at all, Paru, understand?"

"I think she got it after the first death threat aimed at everyone in our class," Asuna muttered, the redhead shooting a glare at Negi, who just shrugged helplessly.

"…Okay, is there anything else we should know?" Asuna asked flippantly. "Anything else your people are going to take away from us if we tell anyone about this?"

"I don't think you quite understand the seriousness of your situation, Kagurazaka-san," Negi said reproachfully, peering at them sternly through his pince-nez.

"Gee, you think?!"

"Do you think this is a game, Kagurazaka-san?" Negi said sharply, leaning forward, his eyes intense. "Magic is not a fairy tale. It is a quantifiable reality that can be manipulated by anyone who has the skills and talent to do so. Magic is not just a harmless flight of fancy. It is quite possibly the fundamental basis of reality as we know it. Or rather, as I know it." He looked each of them in the eye, his gaze deadly serious. "There are as many ways to use magic as there are people in the world. It can be used to heal people and help them, but it can as easily be used for violence, torture, and murder. Trust me, I know.

"And there are… other dangers. Beasts that lurk in the darkness, hunting for weak-minded and feeble prey." His eyes landed on Nodoka. "You've read many books about nature, right, Miyazaki-san?"

Thrown by the sudden question, the librarian nodded. "Y-yes, Negi-sensei."

"Well, in the wild, humanity no longer has a true, persistent predator. We outsmarted them, outran them, fashioned tools and banded together to eradicate them, to protect ourselves. In the darkness, when the sun grows dark and the borders of the world begin to thin?" Negi shuddered, his eyes growing distant. "There are animals and beasts far, far worse than anything you possibly can imagine. Predators that are cleverer, smarter, and more powerful than any of us could ever be."

Asuna scoffed. "And we're supposed to believe this?"

Negi barked out a humourless laugh. "Have you ever heard of demons, Kagurazaka-san? Oh, they exist, and they're not exactly the friendliest of neighbours to us humans. Carrying off children, murdering lonely wanderers that infringe on their territory by accident, shapeshifters tricking humans into committing horrible crimes against their fellow men, twisting their mind beyond recognition…

"And they're not the only mystery left hidden in this world. You don't want to meet the Faeries, or any of the Phantasmal Beasts that still roam the hidden alcoves of this planet. And then there are the ghosts of haunted men and women that plague the living, driving them to insanity or death; or the Outsiders that stalk humans for their entire lives, drinking in their prey's fear, relishing in it before slowly murdering them…"

He finally choked, growing silent. The others stared at him, bewildered. Negi looked genuinely terrified, his face ashen and his eyes looking past them at something they couldn't see. He shook himself, his eyes focussing on them again.

"…To them, we're nothing more than a particularly intelligent ape. Dangerous, perhaps," and here he gave them a mirthless grin, "but to them, that only makes the hunt more enjoyable."

"…So what should we do if we meet any of those?" Yue asked quietly.

He shrugged helplessly. "When in doubt, run and find me as fast as you can. If you're lucky, I'll be able to protect you. If you're unlucky, well…" His voice drifted off, and he shot them an apologetic look. "I'm afraid that there's nothing I can do."

A moment of leaden silence followed, broken only by the pattering of the rain and the sound of the wind rushing outside.

"…Negi-sensei, c-could we please go now?" Nodoka asked timidly.

He sighed. "Yes, you can go now," he said quietly, waving them off. He glanced at the clock on the windowsill. "It's long past curfew, in any case."

"Thank you," Nodoka said quietly as they all rose and turned to leave.

"One last thing, if you please."

They turned to look over their shoulders, and Negi stood up from behind his desk, bracing himself on it. He looked tired, but his eyes were bright and piercing.

"Don't think that I've forgiven you for invading my privacy," he said, and even though his voice was weary, they could all hear the reproach in it clearly. Nodoka winced guiltily, looking away, and Asuna, Yue, and Haruna looked equally uncomfortable.

"You did something far worse than just break into your teacher's office, you know," Negi continued as he ran a hand through his messy red hair, his tone weary. "You betrayed my trust. You uncovered my secrets; secrets that I wanted to keep hidden because they reminded me of events that are best left to the past, where they cannot hurt anyone. Least of all innocent, helpless people like you."

"We're sorry, Negi-sensei," Nodoka whispered, hoping that his words would stop cutting her to the core. "We didn't want to hurt you."

"But you managed to do it anyway," Negi said, a ghost of a smile dancing across his face. It looked bitter. "I think you understand that simply saying 'sorry' doesn't suffice, right?"

They all unenthusiastically muttered agreement. He laughed quietly.

"I won't have you expelled," he said, smiling weakly at them. "I'm not cruel, and I still need to keep an eye on you, no? Suspension for ten days sounds like enough punishment, I think. Go see the Dean tomorrow; he'll take care of the details.

"…I'm disappointed in you, you know," he added after a moment. "Especially you, Miyazaki-san. I thought you would have more respect for other people's privacy."

Nodoka nodded, knowing that even though he no longer seemed angry, it was quite clear that they were no longer welcome to visit Negi's study for extra English lessons, or to discuss the merits of English and Japanese poetry with him. He looked cold and wary now, all the pleasant light in his eyes gone. It twisted her stomach, knowing that it was all her fault.

"Go on, hop to it," he said, sitting back down with a sigh. "I still have papers to mark, and you have to rehearse your excuses for your parents when they hear from the Dean that you were suspended from school. Get some sleep, you'll need it. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Negi-sensei." "Night, sensei." "See ya, Negi."

The others quickly disappeared, but Nodoka hesitated at the doorway. Negi looked up to see her still stand there, nervously wringing her hands.

"What is it, Miyazaki-san?" he asked neutrally, peering over his pince-nez at her.

"Sensei, that woman you were dancing with, the one in your diary…"

His face went carefully blank. "What about her?"

Nodoka summoned all the courage she had left, looking him in the eye and facing him dead on. "Who was she to you?"

Something fell away from his mask, and it was only now that Nodoka noticed how very tired and haggard he looked. It made him appear ten years older than he was.

"Someone I cared for very much," he answered quietly, his eyes growing distant. "She was my greatest success and my greatest failure." He laughed once, bitterly. "Strange, really. Life has some funny ways of tripping up those fools too arrogant to think ahead. Or the ones too preoccupied to see what was right under their nose the entire time."

His left hand reached for the golden ring on his right index finger, twisting it around the digit. He looked lost and haggard, his head bowed and his expression twisted in melancholy.

"…Sensei?"

His eyes sharpened again, focusing on her as he was woken from his reverie, before returning to the stack of paperwork before him. He let go of the ring around his finger. "Leave me, Miyazaki-san. Please."

Nodoka heard the plea in his last word, and nodded. "Goodnight, sensei."

She moved to close the door, but the rustle of paper stopped her. "…Miyazaki-san."

Nodoka cautiously peered through the gap of the door. Negi sat at his desk, the dim and lonely light of his desk lamp the only thing illuminating him against the darkness of the stormy night outside. He didn't look up, his eyes already skimming over paper after paper.

"If you see anyone wearing a grey cloak, don't wait for him to talk to you. Find me immediately, alright? It's important."

"Sensei?"

Negi looked up, his eyes piercing and earnest. "If he's already drawn his sword, run as fast as you can. Don't stop for anything. Find me immediately." He looked back down, returning to his work. "Do that, and you might just live. If not…"

She waited for him to say more, but he remained silent, absorbed in his work. She nodded before moving to close the door behind her. "Goodnight, sensei."

"A good night's sleep, don't I wish…" she heard him mutter, and then she moved down the corridor to find her own room.

It would be a while before any of them would fall asleep tonight.

He ran. He ran as he fast as he could, his breath coming out in panicked gasps and his feet splashing loudly as they crossed growing puddles of rainwater. For a moment, he thought he might have finally lost his pursuer, but then the streetlamp ahead of him flickered and died, plunging the sidewalk in darkness.

He stopped dead in his tracks when a figure stepped out of the dark shadows. A mouth was bared in a wide grin, sharp white fangs gleaming in the darkness.

"You really wanna make this difficult for me, buddy?" the figure spoke. Its voice was a low, feral growl that was definitely not normal. In fact, it sounded too deep to be entirely human.

He merely whimpered, turning around and taking off as fast in the other direction as he could.

The figure sighed, cracking its neck twice. "Guess not," he muttered, and then he grinned again. "Well, it's more fun running down prey, if ya ask me."

And then he leapt after him, the shadows curling around him like a withering mass of serpents.

The 'prey' in question ran as fast as his stubby legs could possibly carry him, his mind reeling as he tried to figure out how that thing had managed to track him down. They had been warned that something strange was going on in Kyoto lately, damn it, so why hadn't he been more careful!? Why hadn't he listened to what the Elders of the Association had been sayi—

A streetlight a few dozens of metres down the street suddenly spluttered, bathing the street in light and darkness. He blinked once, and suddenly the thing was there, casually leaning against the post of the streetlight. It waved at him, grinning maniacally.

Then the light died like all the others, plunging the entire street into darkness.

He did the first thing he thought of to save his skin, diving into the small side alley stuck between the two buildings next to him and running for his life. He passed trashcans and kicked them over in a blind panic to gain just a little bit more time, turning corners as fast as he could to confuse whatever the hell it was that was following him, fingering the paper talisman hung around his neck, his mind reeling off prayers begging anyone for help—

There was a stairway with a metal door in the back of the ugly concrete building, an old lamp flickering above it. Hope blossomed in his chest. He would be safe if he could just pass the house's threshold. He practically flew up the stairs, his hand slamming down on the door's metal handle.

It didn't budge. He rattled at it in panic, but it remained frozen.

A dead end. It was a dead end.

"Oi, oi," the thing's voice called out behind him, sounding bored. "Aren't you kinda out of breath, old man? You've seen better days, that's for sure."

The portly man whirled around, his back flattened against the cold metal door and his face pale with terror. The thing approached at a leisurely walk, hands in its pockets and an annoyed expression on its face. It looked like nothing more than a lanky, male human youth, its dark hair reaching out in spikes, a style common to many delinquents that hung around the shopping districts of the city.

When the corner of the youth's lip lifted in a snarl, however, revealing a large fang, it became clear that whatever this thing was, it wasn't human.

"Honestly," the thing growled, running a hand through its spiky hair and shooting the man before it an aggravated look. "Did you really think you could run away? You?! Damn, you look as if you haven't left your house in about twenty years, man. A little cardio would be great for your blood pressure."

"God, please don't do this—"

"Shut it. I don't want to hear your yammering. Always the same, really; the song and dance gets boring after a while..." The thing considered him for a moment, and then shrugged. "Well, considering your blood is gonna get painted all over the walls soon, it doesn't really matter, I guess…"

"Oh, spirits above and below," he begged, his fingers clasping on the talisman around his neck. "Don't do this; please don't do this—"

"Sorry, pal," the thing said, stepping closer. At the edge of the darkness, tendrils of shadow licked at the flickering gloom cast by the old bulb. "Business is business, you know, and I gotta earn my daily rice like everyone else around here. You make talismans for the tourists, I kill folks. Takes many different sorts to make a world. Easy-peasy, circle of life, don't you think?"

"Please," he pleaded again, trying to edge away. "I got a wife and kids—"

"Sucks for them, really," the thing interrupted, sounding unconcerned. "Should'a thought of keeping your fat nose outta other people's business before that, pal. Bye, now. See you around." It grinned, lifting a hand. "Or not."

The thing pointed idly at the cowering man, snapping its fingers once.

And then the shadows leapt at him like a living wave, snuffing out the light and engulfing the man in darkness. The old talisman seller screamed, a piteous howl that echoed around the confined space of the alley and beyond. Snapping, tearing, and ripping sounds followed, and soon the screams ended.

When the light flickered on again, blood was dripping down the stairs.

The cheerful summer weather outside – a beautifully shining sun, a gorgeous blue sky, and little clouds – belied the grim mood that could be found inside the Dean's office at Mahora Academy.

"Another murder?" Negi asked incredulously. "Please tell me you're joking."

Dean Konoemon looked grim. "Unfortunately, it's no joke." He opened a folder, turning it around on his desk so that it faced Negi and Seruhiko. "These are pictures from yesterday's crime scene."

The headmaster's assistant grew dangerously pale when he saw them. "I think I'm going to be sick," he muttered, breathing deeply and looking away.

"If you have to vomit, please do it somewhere else," Negi said absentmindedly, spreading out the pictures on the desk before him. He frowned. "…Well. I never thought the human body had that much blood in it."

Konoemon raised an intrigued eyebrow. "I thought that someone in… your line of business would have experience with this sort of thing."

"True," Negi acknowledged, not looking up from his serious consideration of the bloody mess before him. "But you'll have to remember that most of my… earlier work was either at very long range, so I saw very little of the damage I caused, or that it was mostly against enemies that…" He hesitated for a moment. "Well, they weren't exactly what you would call human, in the strictest sense."

"Ah, yes," the headmaster said, nodding gravely. "The conflict was very much delineated along racial lines, if I recall."

"Understatement of the century," Negi muttered as he skimmed over the folder's content, glancing up at the headmaster. "How did you come by this? There's detailed photographs, the police report about the incident, local news clippings… This all seems rather detailed, considering you told me that it's dangerous for any of your mages to enter Kyoto right now. This only happened last night, no?"

"We have a high-placed informant in the Kansai Magic Association," Konoemon said, folding his hands before him.

"Ah," Negi said, nodding once. "I understand. His or her identity is need-to-know, I assume?"

"Correct." The old man's mouth quirked in a smile, and one of his eyes opened to shrewdly consider the young man before him. "You've done this sort of thing before, haven't you?"

Negi shrugged. "I've had enough opportunities in the five years before joining the faculty here." He leaned back into his seat. "What I don't understand is the reason why I'm here, to be honest. It's not as if I am a member of your association."

Konoemon gave him a rather rueful smile. "I'm still rather peeved that you rejected my offer right out of hand, you know."

Negi scratched his neck, looking sheepish. "It's nothing to do with you, sir," he said awkwardly. "I just dislike being dragged into arguments that have nothing to do with me. Especially the magical kind. Things tend to explode."

"Didn't you swear that you would protect, guide and help the innocent and helpless?" Konoemon asked. "Those are your duties as a magister magus, after all."

"And the way I interpret my oath is my business and mine alone," Negi retorted evenly, his eyes calm. "Don't try to guilt me into joining your merry band of men, sir. It's neither honourable nor honest."

"True enough, I'll admit," the Dean agreed, smiling. "I apologize for that. I just hoped that you had changed your mind."

Negi smiled back. "I would have been surprised if you had given up after just one attempt, sir."

Seruhiko coughed into his fist. "Gentlemen, if we could please return to the matter at hand…"

Negi reached out with a scarred hand, tapping one of the photos on the desk with a thin smile. "If you're looking for his hand, it's over there. Bit too disconnected from the torso to be entirely healthy, if you ask me—"

Seruhiko clenched his eyes shut, grimacing. "Negi-sensei, please don't say things like that."

"I guess levity really isn't appropriate in this situation," Negi mused aloud. "Especially when a crime scene looks more like a slaughterhouse."

Seruhiko clamped a hand over his mouth, heaving. Negi didn't bat an eye as he re-examined the pictures of the crime scene.

"I can understand why Seruhiko-sensei is here," he finally said. "He's your man examining the news and rumours coming out of the Kansai region, after all."

"And the news is uniformly grim for us," Dean Konoemon said thoughtfully, twirling his goatee around his index finger. "Last night's victim was identified by the police as a vendor of homemade talismans at the Kamo Shrine and the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. He was also a highly respected member of the Kansai Branch Association's Council of Elders."

"I understand that his death is a terrible loss for the Kansai Branch," Negi threw in. "But how does it concern us?"

The old dean sighed. "This is the fifth murder of a mage in the Kyoto region in the last two weeks. All of the victims were influential and respected members of the Kansai Branch, and all of them had been involved in disputes with our branch of the Association in one way or another." He shrugged helplessly. "Most of them were opposed to our group, advocating for the Kansai Branch cutting all ties with the Kanto Branch. Mostly unresolved tension over past grievances and mutual mistrust."

Negi frowned. "So their murders would benefit your group by eliminating those opposed to dealing with you. In theory."

"Exactly," the dean confirmed leadenly. "As if we ever would resort to such underhanded tactics."

Negi scoffed, but held his tongue.

"Sir, it honestly doesn't matter whether we would or not," Seruhiko cut in, his face having regained some measure of colour. His eyes avoided the pictures on the desktop, however, focussing sharply on his employer. "The fact of the matter is that we are getting blamed for these murders. The anti-Kanto faction's clout in Kyoto has grown exponentially, and it's only getting worse every day. There's been talk of reprisals, though their Elders have tried to cool tempers."

"Unsuccessfully, it seems," Negi commented with a sigh. "Superb. What do I have to do with this, though? I'm just a schoolteacher."

Seruhiko threw him a disbelieving look. "Is this another one of your tasteless jokes?"

Negi's brow furrowed. "I beg your pardon?"

"No offense to you, Negi-sensei," Seruhiko muttered, looking away from his sharp eyes, "but you're hardly 'just' any schoolteacher. Your employment at Mahora Academy was talked about for weeks in the Kansai Branch after your arrival, you know."

"And what is that supposed to mean?" Negi challenged his colleague, sitting up straight and gripping the sides of his chair fiercely.

"What it means, Negi-sensei," the Dean intervened with a conciliatory tone of voice and a smile, "is that for quite a while, the Kansai Branch was quite afraid of the prospect of having you as their enemy. Words like 'power imbalance' and 'threat display' were bandied about, I think."

"Wonderful," Negi said with heartfelt disgust, slumping in his chair. "Honestly, I wish that people would stop treating me as a walking weapon of mass destruction. It's not as if I have proven to be a particularly reliable one."

Dean Konoemon coughed into his sleeve. "Well, about the reason for your presence here—"

"If you are asking me to fight at your side against the Kansai Branch, sir, the answer is no," Negi said immediately. "I've had my fill of war. It's not an experience I particularly want to relive."

"I would never ask something like that of you, Negi Springfield," the Dean said sharply, his eye snapping open and staring severely at the youth before him. "Do you honestly think me some sort of warmonger? That I enjoy seeing the suffering and death of my friends, comrades, and countless innocent people? Really?!"

An awkward silence fell over the room. Negi looked away from the Dean's stern gaze, bowing at the waist. "Forgive me, sir. I didn't think about my words."

The old man's eye softened at Negi's obvious chagrin. "Apology accepted, young man." He chuckled. "Just remember that you're not the only one to have lived through a war."

A corner of Negi's mouth quirked up in a rueful smirk. "I'll try to remind Chamo to mock me for my hormonal attitude, sir. He thinks it great fun, and it keeps me humble." He shifted to full alertness in his chair, folding his hands on top of his knees. "Now, how can I help you resolve this mess?"

The Dean let out a laugh, his earrings tingling as he shook his head with mirth. "Getting straight to the point, aren't you? Good." He drummed his fingers on his oaken desktop, humming thoughtfully to himself. "…I want to send you as my emissary to the Kansai Branch."

Negi blinked. "Er, what? Didn't you just say that they consider me a walking disaster just waiting to happen?"

"Yes and no," Seruhiko offered quickly. "They know you have power, Negi-sensei. Your reputation from the war is well-known, even in the Old World. However, they'll consider you a neutral party."

"But why?" Negi gave the two older men a puzzled frown. "I picked my loyalties when I became a peacekeeper five years ago, didn't I?"

The Dean nodded. "You picked your loyalties in Mundus Magicus, certainly." His face fell slightly, growing more sombre and losing its mischievous air. He aged ten years on the spot. "On this side of the gate, loyalties are… more difficult to discern. And decidedly more fluid, unfortunately."

"Politics," Negi muttered, grimacing at no-one in particular. "Can't stand it, can't live without it."

Seruhiko smiled sheepishly. "In any case, the fact that you haven't joined the Kantou Branch is well-known in Kyoto, and your dislike of London's Clock Tower and the White Council in general is no secret to those who have heard of your… previous clashes with authority."

"You mean the time I told the entire High Command of the Megalomesembrian Union to bugger off?" Negi asked drily. "They never quite forgave me for that, even if they didn't punish me for it."

"In any case," Dean Konoemon continued, a wry grin wrinkling his cheeks, "you are the closest thing to a neutral party we have in the country right now that is both respected and has enough power to back up their authority."

"What about the Church?" Negi asked absentmindedly. "They usually have no stake in the affairs of mages, do they?"

Seruhiko's smile vanished, and he looked uncomfortable. "Well, there is very little chance of any member of the Association trusting the Church as an institution in this day and age, to be honest."

"Really? Why?"

"Didn't you hear? Ever since the Second Fuyuki Incident a few years ago, relations between the Church and the White Council have been rather frosty. Apparently, they trusted the local priest in Fuyuki to work as a mediator in a dispute between different mages. It turned out the priest had tried to hijack the argument for his own benefit, or something along those lines." Seruhiko frowned. "The Association and the White Council have been surprisingly tight-lipped about what happened, though. It's a mystery."

Negi glanced away, saying nothing.

"…So although it may look as if the Church has no interest in our internal disputes, we can't trust them not to front their own agenda in secret," Negi surmised after a brief silence.

The Dean nodded. "Exactly. The Kansai Branch would never accept their interference."

Negi's expression turned sour. "Politics," he repeated. "Takamichi can't do it either, can he? He has as much respect and power as I do, probably more."

Seruhiko shook his head. "He's in Africa, unfortunately. Events in Libya have apparently overtaken him."

"Fighting the good fight, as always, I suppose," Negi sighed. He looked from the Dean to his older colleague, his expression resigned. "So it falls to me to make sure that this whole mess doesn't explode into a civil war, doesn't it?"

"For what it's worth, Negi-sensei," the Dean said quietly, "I am truly sorry that I have to ask you to do this."

"Oh, spare me. I would have helped anyway. So, I'll have to find a good pretext to go to Kyoto," Negi said quietly to himself as he rose from his chair. "I'll need to ask Chamo if he has any contacts in the region, prepare my equipment, get supplies… Hell, this is probably going to turn bloody no matter how hard we try to avoid conflict."

The Dean frowned deeply. "Why would you say that, Negi-sensei?"

A mirthless smile flashed across the young teacher's face. He tapped one of the pictures. "Have you seen the state of that body, sir? The victim has been literally torn limb from limb. His eyes have been torn out, his flesh shredded to ribbons, and his entrails ripped out. No human being has the sort of strength to tear apart a human body without a lever, and very few have the propensity for such wanton brutality. But that's not what worries me."

Negi reached out to another picture, and the Dean leaned closer to peer at the high-definition picture of the victim's throat, the flesh of the trachea and larynx hanging off in bloody tatters and exposing the man's bone-white spine below ripped veins and arteries.

"Those are teeth marks, sir," Negi said quietly. "The only way this amount of damage could have been dealt is if something had literally torn out the victim's throat. But the maw necessary to do that is too big for any wild or domesticated dog you could find in Japan."

"Demons," Seruhiko breathed, his face pale again.

"Demons," Negi agreed. He snapped the folder shut and tucked it under his arm. "Or it might be a vengeful spirit, a bloodthirsty youkai, a demented faerie, or something equally unpleasant. In any case, something is going around killing all these people, and whoever – or whatever – is controlling this beast is trying to instigate a civil war between us mages in Japan. To what end?" He shrugged, looking grim. "I have no idea, but it cannot possibly be good."

"So what can we do?" the Dean asked, rising from his seat as Negi made his way towards the door.

Negi stopped with his hand on the doorknob, shrugging once. "We track down the real killer and offer his head on a silver plate to the Kansai Branch. What else can we do, really?"

"And you can do that?"

Negi looked up, and his smile was terrifying. "Oh, not all monsters have horns, claws, and fangs, you know. Some of them look quite human."

And with that last comment, he walked out of Dean Konoemon's office, silently closing the door behind him. The man himself sat down at his desk again, looking weary.

"…Sir, was that wise, sending him?" Seruhiko asked worriedly. "Negi Springfield's reputation from the war isn't entirely wholesome, you know!"

"I'm well aware, Seruhiko-sensei. But do we really have a choice in the matter, my friend?" The Dean opened one eye, peering at his assistant with a grim look. "I cannot leave the Academy for very long, and no other member of the Kanto Branch can match him in power. The fools in Kyoto will have no choice but to take him seriously."

"Sir, this is the Oncoming Storm we're talking about!" Seruhiko protested in a hissed whisper. "A man who singlehandedly destroyed battleships, who flattened entire armies during the war! And don't forget whose son he is, either! For all we know, he might just set off the powder keg we're all sitting on!"

"Then we can only pray that young Negi Springfield has learned the value of restraint, unlike his father," the Dean muttered, looking very old and tired. "Because there's not much else we can do."

The dark-haired youth kicked open the door, walking into the cheap apartment with his hands in his pockets. "Anyone home?" he called out cheekily.

"You," an annoyed woman's voice answered from the living room, "are late."

The youth ignored her as he walked into the kitchen, humming a tune under his breath as he grabbed a beer can from the fridge. He sauntered into the dingy living room, vaulting over the ledge of a sofa. The worn leather groaned under his weight, and he grinned at his glaring employer as he made himself comfortable.

"That really couldn't be helped," he said as he popped the tab on his beer, swallowing the cheap brew greedily. "Cops were swarming all over the district. I had to lay low so they wouldn't ask uncomfortable questions."

The man sitting on the other end of the couch scoffed, breaking out into his Cockney brogue. "Please don't tell me that a bunch of mortals could have done you in, laddie. I already have little respect for you as it is."

The youth turned his head towards the man, baring teeth. He was of medium height, but heavily built with muscle in his broad form, with a few too many beers lounging around his belt. He wore a cheap brown suit, and his face was that of water-worn stone – blunt and rounded – with small, hard grey-green eyes inlaid in them.

Right now, he was mockingly smiling at the youth, and he didn't like it.

"Watch your words, gaijin," the youth spoke contemptuously. "I have no trouble killing police. It just would have been too much hassle to get free afterwards. The cops don't like someone killing their own. They always get into a hissy fit about it, and by the time it's over, there are dozens of corpses scattered all over the place. Don't make me add you to the list."

"Ooh, am I supposed to be scared?" the man asked, grinning nastily. "By you? Honestly, if you're terrified by a few puny little mortals with guns, I have no idea how you plan on pulling your weight with my illustrious company around."

"That's cool, man, really," the youth retorted, rolling his eyes as he took another gulp. "If all I was able to do was summon beasts from the spirit world and cower behind them like a damned coward, I'd probably grow as fat and lazy as you. Thanks, but no thanks."

"Shut up, the both of you!" A vein started to throb by the young woman's temple, and she rammed her glasses back up her nose, glaring at the two of them. "Men. Do you always have to compare size?"

"If you want to find out who's bigger, you're always welcome for a free ride," the youth quipped.

She scowled. "Funny. I like my dates human, thank you very much."

"Hey, I am human!" the youth protested. He thought about it for a moment. "Well, half," he conceded with a gulp of his beer. "I don't think it'd be fun, being all that clumsy and squishy." He glanced at the summoner next to him and grinned. "Or fat."

"Say that again to my face, youkai," the man said amiably, though his eyes were cold. "See where it gets you."

"Sure, Buddha. I'll remember that."

The foreigner snarled, his fist snapping towards the youth's face at about the same time one of the youth's hands came up to block the strike, his fingers growing into long claws aiming to tear the summoner's face off.

Both blows were intercepted before they could land, delicate hands encasing their wrists in a rocklike grip. The grey-haired teenager that had stood at their employer's shoulder only a moment ago looked down at them as they struggled with him, his face showing complete disinterest.

"…Are you two quite done?" he asked, his voice a flat monotone. It was absolutely dull and lifeless, and it was impossible to tell his heritage from his accent alone. His grey eyes went from one to the other with supreme indifference, his thin, slender built belying the sheer strength at his disposal.

The dark-haired half-demon snarled at him, only to yelp as his wrist was squeezed with the tightness of a vice. From the way the summoner's face paled, the same pressure was applied to him.

"Are you two quite done?" the grey-haired teenager repeated once more.

"I'm done, damn it!" the summoner swore, and he stumbled up as the grey-haired youth released his wrist, letting out a litany of foul English curses.

"Alright, you dumb bastard, I give up!" the hanyou snapped out. His hand was released immediately, and he rubbed his wrist, glaring at the youth standing over him. The teenager just looked at him blankly for a moment before walking around the sofa to join his employer's side once more.

She just sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "Honestly, from the way you lot argue, you'd think I was managing a kindergarten, not a bunch of hired mercenaries," she groused.

"Hey, if I'd had my way, you wouldn't need anyone else but me," the hanyou muttered, stretching his legs out on the coffee table. "I work alone. Teamwork ain't exactly my biggest strength, you know."

"And I've never needed allies before," the summoner declared, his eye twitching. "Once I've summoned my friends from the other side, it doesn't matter how many enemies I'm up against."

"Binder, shut your trap!" the young woman screeched. "And Inugami, you do the same! Look, if we want this plan to be successful, then we need to work together, alright?! Every single one of us doing their own thing at random is just going to end up in chaos!"

Koutarou Inugami just shrugged, though he looked annoyed at her shrill tone. "You're the boss lady. As long as I get paid, I'll do as I'm told."

Binder shot the half-demon an annoyed look, then nodded. "For once, I agree with the hellspawn."

Koutarou flipped him the bird. "I'm not a Christian demon, numbnuts. Get your mythology right."

"We're going to have to change the plan," Amagasaki Chigusa announced before another argument could break out. She scowled, adjusting her large spectacles. "Unfortunately, a few… complicating variables have turned up."

"Complicating variables?" Binder repeated with a sarcastic drawl. "How cute. Is this another one of these minor details you get your undies in a twist about, love?"

Chigusa snorted, slapping a plastic folder onto the coffee table. Pictures of a redheaded young man spilled out of it. "If you call having the Oncoming Storm crash our little gathering a 'minor detail', then I'd call you an idiot for not having a sense of scale."

Kotarou slowly took his feet off the table, studying the pictures with sudden intensity. "I've heard about this guy…"

"As you should have, even if you only pretended to be any good at this job," Chigusa said icily. "Negi Springfield, one of the youngest Magister Magi in history at fifteen years old. Used to fight on the side of the Union during the Second Great Magical War in Mundus Magicus. Now, apparently, lives the simple life of a sixteen year-old English teacher at Mahora Academy. He is the Kanto Branch's emissary to Kyoto."

"…Bollocks," Binder swore succinctly, scowling. "A boy with that level of power… How will this change our plans, then?"

"The basic plan remains the same," Chigusa snapped, crossing her arms under her chest and scowling. "We whip up chaos until the two branches of the Association fight each other—"

"—And then nab the bloody princess, fair enough," Binder interrupted, harrumphing in annoyance. "But this was before one of the most powerful wizards on the White Council decided to poke his nose into our operation. How do you plan on stopping him from reducing us all to bloody smears on the wall, pray?"

A nasty smirk spread across Chigusa's lips. "He's a teacher, remember? And guess what – he'll be visiting Kyoto with his students. A field trip, apparently."

Binder's eyes lit up, and a gleeful grin spread across his face. "Oho. Are you implying what I think you're implying?"

"This better not be about taking hostages," Koutarou complained. "I hate babysitting. Bunch'a noisy brats. Always crying and wailing and calling for their mamas."

"What, you have any better ideas? You think you can take the Oncoming Storm head on?" Binder challenged him.

A fierce grin split the hanyou's face. "'S a matter of fact, I think I do." He raised his hands in a placating manner when all eyes in the room landed on him. "Look, this guy is a Western mage, isn't he? And he's fought in a big war up in the mage's world, yadda yadda yadda, boohoo, I'm horribly scared. Thing is, he probably fights like a Western mage on a battlefield – all long-distance attacks, lots of juice going into them, flattening the entire countryside, the whole shebang. You know, flying artillery."

"You still haven't gotten to the part where you come out of this alive," Chigusa said crisply.

"Well, he won't be able to fight like that here, in the Old World," Koutarou said, putting down his can of beer. He grinned nastily. "He can't. The mortals will start poking around if an entire district of Kyoto is glassed. He can't risk exposing our world."

"Get to the point, damn it," Binder swore, frowning at him.

"If his combat style is based on long-range attacks, then all I have to do is get up close and personal. Bang, job done." Claws jumped out of his fingers, spearing through the metal can like paper. Koutarou lifted his hand, licking the beer running down his arm and grinning. The expression was a feral snarl, showing fangs. "I like fighting up close and personal."

"…Nevertheless, you'll watch the hostages," Chigusa decided after a moment.

"Oh, come on!" Koutarou said, hurling the slashed beer can against the wall and scowling. "Why do I miss out on all the fun stuff!?"

"Because you think more with your balls than your brain," the woman snapped, her eyes flashing angrily. "Fate can keep a cool head around him, and Binder knows better than to get too close to the action." She shot the British mercenary an annoyed glance. "I hope."

"I want to enjoy my pay check at the end of the day, love," the rogue mage retorted acidly. "You don't have to worry about me screwing up."

"And yet you don't have any trouble letting that Tsukoyomi psycho fight," Kouratou grumbled. "How does that work, please?"

"Tsukuyomi may be insane, but she knows her limits. It'd be just like you to just walk up to someone out of your weight class and start a fight without thinking about it."

"Hell, that's what makes it fun. The bigger they are—"

"Oh, spare me your claptrap." Binder rolled his eyes and marched around the sofa and over to the apartment's door. He paused, turning around with a hard look in his eyes. "When does the job start?"

"Two weeks," Chigusa answered slowly. "Two weeks until that brat's class trip is scheduled."

"Do you have an itinerary for his class, then?"

"Rough sketches, nothing concrete yet."

"When you have something better, ring me up. I'll do a little scouting, find possible ambush locations. Kidnapping may not exactly be my forte, but I know enough to get by." He reached for the coat hanger, plucking off a cheap brown bowler hat. "Evening, ladies and gents. Don't get yourselves killed while I'm gone. I still need to get paid, don't I?"

The door slammed shut. Chigusa's eyes narrowed at her subordinate's exit, then turned to face Koutarou with a scowl. "You better keep up that killing spree of yours," she said icily. "The more deaths, the more spooked the idiots in the Kansai Branch will be."

"What's the point of killing all these mage folks?" Koutarou snapped, his eyes flashing with annoyance. "They're your people, for spirits' sake! Don't you have anything better for me to do?"

"Stupid dog," she said contemptuously. "Do your job, get paid, and don't ask questions when you're too foolish to understand the answers."

A low growl escaped from the half-demon's mouth, his eyes turning into sharp, golden slits. It was nothing more than a low rumble from the back of his throat, and yet it evoked the primal image of large claws, matted fur, and razor-sharp teeth that humans had nearly forgotten to fear since the days of the wild.

The key word being 'nearly'.

Chigusa took a step back, going bone white as Kotarou slowly got to his feet, uncoiling with the eerie grace of a predator.

"Watch it, bitch," the hanyou said quietly, his hands flexing like an animals's, his lips drawn back in a vicious snarl. "I'm not some little backwater dog you can kick around and expect to beg for scraps a moment later, understand? If you didn't pay me as well as you did, the Kyoto Police Department would be fishing another corpse out of the pond at the Golden Pavilion." He bared his teeth, grinning viciously. "And believe me, this one would be looking far less pretty than the others. Shame, really."

"Shut up," Chigusa snapped, her voice wavering.

"What did you say?" Kotarou said quietly, stepping forward. The light bulb flickered and died, and the shadows in the room rippled around him. Chigusa shrieked and fell backwards.

"That's enough," the grey-haired teenager spoke evenly, his expression never changing. "Leave, Inugami."

Kotarou looked at him in disgust, his head askance. "How did someone like you come to work for such a sorry excuse of a human being?"

"She had something I wanted, and I had something she needed. We made a deal." He looked him dead in the eye, unafraid. But that wasn't the right word, really – uncaring, ambivalent, unconcerned; those fit him far better. "Leave, Inugami."

Kotarou spat out on the floor. "I'll keep to your plan," he said quietly, glaring at a quivering Chigusa with golden eyes that shone brightly in the darkness. "I'll keep killing those poor bastards for you. Once this thing is over, though, I suggest you watch your back at night. There might be something watching you."

And with that he turned on his heel and left, the shadows of the room enveloping him. A moment later, he was gone like nightly fog clearing in the morning. The light flickered back on, returning some semblance of warmth to the dingy apartment.

Chigusa sat up, taking a deep breath to calm herself. She adjusted her glasses slightly, her fingers shaking. That had been unexpected. And very dangerous. It seemed she had underestimated the Hellhound of Kyoto's feral nature. Foolish of her, really. It wouldn't happen again.

"…Are you alright?"

"Fine," she snapped at her only true ally, sighing a moment later. "I'm fine." She paused, thinking frantically about how to manoeuvre herself out of this new problem. "…Do you mind adding another target to your list, Fate?"

The slender teenager looked down at her with blank grey eyes. "No. However, I suggest you remember the terms of our bargain, Chigusa Amagasaki. Woe to those that break their freely given word."

"Yes," she said, nodding and licking dry lips as she looked away from those terrifying eyes. "I understand, Fate Averruncus. You'll get Negi Springfield, as promised."

The original manga of Mahou Sensei Negima! (Magical Teacher Negima!) was written and drawn by Ken Akamatsu and originally published by Kodansha in February 2003. It ended syndication in March 2012 after 38 published volumes. An animation series titled Negima! Magister Negi Magi was released by studio Xebec in January 2005 and ended its run after one season in June 2005. A series of original video animations (OVAs) have also been released. An alternate retelling of the series in form of an anime series titled Negima?! was released by studio Shaft, its run beginning in October 2006 and ending after one season in March 2007. Various tie-in manga of the various anime adaptations have also been published.

The Dresden Files is a series of urban fantasy novels written by US author Jim Butcher, the first book (titled Storm Front) being published in 2000. At the time of writing (February 2013), fourteen novels, a collection of short stories, a pen-and-paper RPG, several graphic novels, and numerous short stories have been published. The Dresden Files was adapted as a television series on the Sci Fi Channel in 2007, being canceled after one season.

Kinoko Nasu (born the 28th of September 1973) is a Japanese author. He is best known for being the author of the visual novels Fate/Stay Night (published in 2004), Tsukihime (Lunar Princess; published in 2000), and the Kara no Kyōkai (The Garden of Sinners, or The Boundary of Emptiness) series of novels (published from 1998 to 1999). Numerous spin-offs such as animated adaptations of his works and various tie-in novels, manga, and video games have been published. His collective creative work is referred to by fans as the Nasuverse.

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