Yay for a chapter that actually has a proper plot beginning in it! I feel like I've been writing prologues up to now.
Chapter 3 – Ampersand
The faint hum of a spinning blade could be heard ringing through the whole workshop. It had been like this for a number of days now, with only short pauses for meals and longer for rest, and the occasional change in the pitch of the hum as the blade being examined was switched for another as the blader became weary.
At the moment, it was Kyouya's green bey that was spinning in the now-battered practice dish. Gingka was sitting next to Madoka, passing her various parts from her tool-box as required, and Tsubasa was asleep on the sofa. He had been the most recent tester for the slowly-developing echolocator, or the "how-to-see-something-we-can't-see-thing" (as Kenta had dubbed it) and had only just exchanged places with Kyouya after a number of hours. As for Kenta, he had decided to head home to get some food and sleep in a proper bed before coming back to take over from Kyouya in a few hours' time.
The echolocator was slowly taking form, and was now at the stage where occasional, fleeting glimpses of a hulking shape could be seen on the screen. Madoka reckoned that another day or so would fix it, if she could just find the right frequency of sound to give them enough detail.
In the meantime, all five of them were waiting for Madoka's – well, Julian's, technically – contact to show. According to Madoka, he was meant to arrive some time in the next two days, when transport could be arranged from China where he had been staying (or it might have been Russia; the phone reception hadn't been great).
"Kyouya, can you tell me what Thunder is doing?" Madoka pushed her glasses back to the top of her head and rubbed at her eyes tiredly. "I've got a vague shape, but I'm not sure if it's Thunder or the sofa."
Kyouya glanced up at his tiger and grinned. "He's sitting on his haunches, but he's got his head tilted to his left. I think he's watching the reflection from Tsubasa's hair-clip on the wall."
Madoka tightened one of the tiny screws in the circuit-board she had in her hand and squinted at the readout on her computer screen. "Ugh. It was the sofa. Oh – wait, I had him!"
Immediately, Kyouya and Gingka were at her shoulders, eager to see if their experiment was finally working. "Yeah, there he is!" Kyouya exclaimed. "Right th- oh. He's gone."
"You did it, Madoka!" Gingka was grinning. "Hey, Tsubasa! Wake up – Madoka's done it!"
"Huh?" Tsubasa sat up, blinking the sleep from his eyes. "What's that? You've fixed it?"
Madoka shook her head. "I think we've got the frequency, but it disappeared real fast. We'll need to do loads more tests if we want to get it perfect. But it might be ready by tonight if I can just get all these parts welded together properly, you following me?"
"Good work, Madoka," Tsubasa said warmly. "I don't know what we'd do without you."
Just then, the computer bleeped with an incoming video-call from America. "Yo, Madoka!" Masamune grinned as she answered.
"How're you guys doing?" Toby asked, pushing Masamune away from taking up the whole of the screen. "Is that thing you were making to see the creatures ready yet, Madoka?"
"Nearly," Madoka began, but Zeo interrupted.
"We've got trouble," he said, eyes dark. "You remember those Starbreaker guys? Damian and Jack?"
Gingka shuddered. "How could we forget?" It had only been a little over a month since they had last come into conflict on board the floating city.
Zeo rubbed at his head. "Well, we ran across them not half an hour ago, and something weird is going on. We think that they might have these extra beasts too."
"What?" Tsubasa stood up and came over. "How do you know? Can you see them?"
"No," Zeo sighed. "But Masamune said that his new unicorn..."
"He's called Striker the Second!" Masamune interrupted. Zeo ignored him.
"Masamune said that his unicorn was charging at empty patches of air, and seemed to be hitting something. They were much stronger as well – even all three of us together couldn't do anything to Jack, let alone Damian, and Byxis was definitely being hit by something invisible – something massive. We had to run, and even then we only just about got away with our blades intact."
"So as soon as you work out that echolocation stuff, we could do with it," Toby got to the point much faster than either of his friends. "If we can't see what we're fighting, we don't have a hope."
Madoka had gone very pale. "So it wasn't just our friends who got them," she murmured. "If the other side has them as well, we need to get a move on."
"Oh, and something else," Masamune added. "You know that Jack's blade was sort of pinky-red last time? It's gone black. It looks really weird, and he doesn't look any better. I think that losing the Arrangement system might have scrambled his brains even more than they were in his battle against you, Tsubasa."
Tsubasa nodded, face grim. "Thank you for the information," he said. "We'll finish the system as quickly as we can and send you any software Madoka comes up with."
"Thanks." Toby seemed to breath a sigh of relief. "If guys like Damian and Jack have new, stronger blades with these invisible beasts, we could be in for trouble."
"We'll do everything possible," Madoka promised. "Just keep an eye out and don't do anything stupid. There should be someone arriving in the next couple of days who should be able to help explain just what is going on, and we'll call you as soon as we know anything else."
"Stay safe," Tsubasa added. Toby gave him a thumbs-up and ended the call before the Spiral Core static could break the line.
The room was silent for a long minute. Finally, Kyouya called Leone back to his hand and stomped off towards the stairs.
"Where're you going, Kyouya?" Gingka called after him.
"You saw Thunder. Now see if you can see the other three on the same frequency or whether we need different ones for each beast. We need to get a move on, so I'm going to find Kenta." And with that, Kyouya was gone.
Tsubasa smiled. "He does like to pretend that he doesn't care, doesn't he?" he commented to nobody in particular. Madoka rolled her eyes and turned back to the software package open on her screen, typing a few more numbers in.
"Gingka, could you launch for me? I'll try out this frequency with Dragon just to see if I can get a proper lock on him..."
"Aaaaand – got him!" Madoka's victorious cry was echoed by a cheer from Gingka. Several hours had passed since the call from Team Dungeon and the three in the basement workshop had been working hard ever since. Gingka was slightly concerned that neither Kyouya nor Kenta had reappeared, but he'd known both of them to get distracted for hours by a battle or two, so he wasn't too worried.
"Seriously?" Tsubasa asked, leaving Eagle spinning calmly in the middle of the floor and coming around to take a look at the computer screen. "Wow. That's really him. You see what I mean about those claws now, Gingka?"
Gingka leaned in to take a closer look at the picture and shivered. "He must've done some serious damage to your walls with those," he commented. Each of the talons were nearly two feet long.
Madoka smiled and stretched. "So we've got a sort-of picture of them," she said. "Now all I have to do is get the kinks out of the software and get this lot into a manageable order and we'll be able to use it properly." She indicated the tangle of wires, circuit-boards and pieces of metal that lay scattered across the whole of her workbench. Tsubasa winced.
"Will Zeo and the others have the equipment to make one of these?" he asked. Madoka shook her head.
"No, but I've had an idea, if you're following me. Once I've made one of these, I can easily make a couple more – I just need someone to take one over to America so that we can get a good look at what's happening with Starbreaker. That way, we'll have someone who knows how to use it over there, and it'll just make things quicker. I get the feeling that this should be cleared up as soon as possible."
Tsubasa nodded. "I don't mind going. Team Dungeon are nice guys, and I can report in to the Director at the same time. I'll sort out transport as soon as you think it'll be ready."
"Maybe... another two days? Just to get the kinks out?"
Another nod. "I'll ask Hikaru to book the flight."
The sound of the bell ringing in the upstairs shop at that moment distracted them all, and there was a rush for the stairs. Tsubasa got there first, thanks to his longer legs, and he bounded up the steps like some kind of antelope before skidding to a halt at the top, nearly blocking the view of Gingka and Madoka behind him, who leaned around his shoulders to see the person who had entered.
In fact, it wasn't one person. It was two.
The one in front was tall, with pale, silvery-grey hair that fell in soft peaks around his face, giving him a sophisticated look that matched his smart, black suit. Fierce purple eyes snapped away from the display of blades inside the glass cabinets to meet the astonished gazes of Tsubasa and the others. The second one, who had hung back to examine some of the launchers on show along the walls, had dark, blueish-black hair and eyes of a similar colour, and was dressed only slightly less formally. He, however, was smiling broadly as he spotted the incoming bladers.
They were young men, possibly in their mid-twenties, and both of them looked like they meant business. The first one stepped towards Tsubasa, hand outstretched as the silver-haired blader scrambled up the last few steps. "Gingka Hagane?"
Shocked into silence, Tsubasa could only shake his head mutely and gesture to Gingka, who dodged around his taller companion and gripped the hand of the man. "Hi! I'm Gingka. You must be the people from the... the..." Memory failing him, he turned to Madoka.
"Bladebreakers," she supplied, stepping forwards. "I'm Madoka, the one who contacted you? Thank you so much for coming, it's been getting more and more terrifying not knowing what we're up against, and stuff keeps happening that we just can't explain on our own."
"You're welcome," the second young man grinned, coming over. "It's always fun to come and help out new people. I'm Tyson – you spoke to me on the phone - and this guy here is Kai. He's not big on the whole talking thing, but he's probably the most knowledgeable person in the entire BBA if you want to talk about bit-beasts and the like."
"Well, I'm Madoka, this is Gingka and this is Tsubasa. There are a few more people around who want to talk to you, but they had to go off for a bit – they'll be back soon."
The one called Tyson nodded. "That's fine. We're here for as long as you need us."
"So what exactly happened?" his companion Kai asked, and both Tsubasa and Gingka launched into an explanation at exactly the same time. After a few seconds of chaos, Kai held up a single finger, quieting both the bladers almost instantly. "You – Tsubasa? Talk."
Tsubasa began again, starting with the strange lights in the sky and finishing with the news of Starbreaker's newest developments. "It's strange. Each of us individually can see the extra creatures in our blades, but no-one else can see them. Madoka's trying to work something out, but it's taking a while and it's not quite finished yet."
"It's nearly done," Madoka protested. "I've just got to weld it together and double-test it and then I'll be done."
Kai and Tyson exchanged glances. "I'm not so sure now," Tyson murmured. "I assumed – like Madoka and Julian, obviously – that they were our bit-beasts, but why are they only visible to one person?"
"Maybe the connection to the blade means that they can see everything in their own blade-space, but they don't have the ability to truly see bit-beasts, the same way that Hilary did a while ago?" Kai frowned. "There's only one way to find out. Who has these beasts?"
Gingka and Tsubasa raised their hands. "I've got a big blue dragon," Gingka said, and Tyson nodded. "I call him Dragon, because there's nothing else I can, really."
"And I've got a massive red bird," Tsubasa added. "I've called him Gale for now."
Kai nodded slowly. "It certainly sounds like Dragoon and Dranzer. Launch for us and call them out and we'll be able to tell."
"Let's go downstairs, then," Madoka suggested. "The dish is down there – oh! Can I offer either of you something to eat or drink?"
Kai shook his head, but Tyson grinned. "Thanks!"
"Madoka's cake is really good," Gingka told him as they made their way down the stairs. "You should try it. She says the secret ingredient is salt!"
"I've heard Hilary say that," Tyson agreed. "It's weird, isn't it?"
Gingka was already warming to this dark-haired young man with the brilliant smile. "Who's Hilary? You've mentioned her before."
"Friend of mine. She joined our team just after our first World Championship and she couldn't see bit-beasts then. But after a couple of weeks, she must've just got used to it or something, because now she can see them just fine. That might be what's happened here – though why you'd have our bit-beasts I have no idea."
"What's a bit-beast?"
Tyson blinked. "Um... it's the spirit that powers your bey. It's normally an animal of some sort, though I do know of one with a human form. They can use the elements to attack their opponent."
"Oh!" Gingka understood suddenly. "We call them constellations. They come from the stars. Mine's called Pegasus."
Tyson shook his head. "No, bit-beasts are found in nature, not the sky. Hmm. Hey, Kai, d'ya think they might be totally different things?"
"We'll see," was all his taciturn companion said, just as Madoka jumped down the steps, balancing a tray with a stack of plates and a big cake in the middle of it.
"Let me get all my stuff set up," she said, placing the tray on the crowded workbench and quickly connecting the echolocator up to to screen. "Gingka, you go first."
Gingka led the two newcomers over to the small practice dish set up on the floor of the shop and launched Pegasus into the middle. "I don't know if I can call out Dragon for certain," he began, but inside his head the blue dragon was already stirring, coiling and uncoiling along his whole snake-like body as he prepared for battle. Almost as soon as he finished a circuit of the dish to warm up, Dragon punched out of the centre of the bey that he had made his home, curling into the air in a writhing mass of blue neck and body and tail. From the soft gasp that Tyson gave, it was clear that he could see Dragon, and if the expression on his face meant anything, he recognised the beast.
"Dragoon," Tyson whispered.
"Tsubasa, you launch as well," Kai ordered, and Tsubasa obeyed almost without thinking. Kai had that sort of voice. A moment later, the older man nodded. "Yes. That's him alright. You can stop the blades now."
"Well, we can confirm that those are definitely our bit-beasts," Tyson sighed as Gingka and Tsubasa recalled their blades. "I just wish Dragoon would tell me what's going on."
"D-Dragoon?" Gingka asked, stumbling slightly on the odd pronunciation. "Is that his name?"
"Yes. You have my Dragoon, and Tsubasa has Kai's phoenix, Dranzer. They're two of the beasts that we call the Four Sacred Spirits, and from what you've said, your other two friends probably have my friends' beasts – Draciel, the turtle and Driger, the tiger."
"They all begin with D-R," Madoka commented as she saved the information from the echolocator to her computer. "Was that deliberate?"
Tyson laughed. "I don't know. Kai?"
"Those are the names they've had as long as they've lived, which is about as long as the Earth itself has existed," Kai explained. "They are the Four Sacred Spirits, the strongest four of the bit-beasts, each representing an element, a season and a compass mark. Working together, they are almost impossible to beat, though some very rare beasts have been able to challenge them."
Madoka's shoulders relaxed for the first time since the whole mess had begun, now that she knew what she was dealing with. "What about the others? And how did they get here, anyway?"
"I wish I knew," Tyson sighed. "Neither of them are speaking to us."
"What do you mean, others?" Kai asked, expression shrewd.
"We're not the only ones with these – these bit-beasts," Tsubasa said. "Masamune, one of our friends who's in America at the moment, has one, and Team Excalibur definitely have one as well."
Tyson and Kai exchanged a look. "Which ones?" Kai asked sharply.
"Um... Masamune had a unicorn," Gingka began.
"Easy," Tyson interrupted. "There's only one unicorn bit-beast. He's called Unicolyon, and he belongs to one of the members of the European champions, The Majestics."
"Did you say Team Excalibur?" Kai said suddenly. "Led by Julian Konzern?"
Madoka nodded eagerly. "Yes, that's them! Do you know them?"
"Only Julian, personally – remember, he put you in contact with us. The others I have heard of. I already know about their beasts, but at least they knew that they were bit-beasts right from the start."
This piece of information heralded a scowl from Tsubasa. "And he didn't think to tell us that he knew what they were? I knew there was a reason I didn't like him."
But Madoka had picked up something else that Kai had said. "Wait... you said their beasts?"
Now it was Kai's turn to look puzzled, at least as much as he could. "Of course. Julian is the current guardian of the greatest beast in all of Europe, Griffolyon, and he informed me that his tag team are currently in possession of the oldest of all the known bit-beasts, Seaborg."
"Two for one beast?" Tyson asked. Apparently this was news to him as well. "Well, I guess Seaborg is pretty strong. Maybe two is better than one." He looked around. "So how many beasts do we know are... er... not with their original owners?"
Madoka started counting them off on her fingers. "There's Gingka, Tsubasa, Kenta, Kyouya, Julian, Sophie and Wales, Masamune... and apparently Jack and Damian from Starbreaker too."
"I haven't heard of the last two," Kai mused. "Do you have any..."
But at that exact moment, there was a loud bang from upstairs and a shout of "Gingka! Madoka! Tsubasa!" as someone raced into the shop, panic in his voice.
"Kenta!" Tsubasa barked, and leapt for the stairs, getting there before anyone else had even thought of moving. He almost collided with the green-haired boy who was trying to scramble down the stairs, and had to grab the bannister to prevent a tumble. "Kenta, are you alright? What's wrong?"
Kenta was very pale, trembling from head to foot as he looked down into the workshop. "Gi-Gingka," he stammered. "I-I... I just..."
"It's okay," Tsubasa said, putting a hand on his shoulder and leading him down to the bottom of the steps. "You're fine here. Just calm down and tell us what happened."
Kenta looked up into Tsubasa's calm, golden gaze and took a deep breath. "I was just coming over here through the park when... when that horrible Reiji guy just turned up and attacked me," he said, forcing the tremor out of his voice with difficulty. "Madoka, I think he's got one of the invisible beasts as well – something was hitting Sagittario that I couldn't see, and I thought he was going to destroy my blade again and... and who are you guys?" He had just noticed the newcomers.
Gingka took it on himself to introduce them. "Kenta, meet Tyson and Kai. Tyson, Kai, this is Kenta. He's the one with the tortoise – I mean, turtle... um, what was his name again?"
"Draciel," Tyson said immediately. "He's a true master of defence."
Kenta nodded. "He was protecting Sagittario from the worst of it, so I think he could see the other beast, but I couldn't. That's the only reason I got away with Sagittario in one piece." He held out his blade on a still-trembling hand, and they could all see the deep scratches on it. Madoka winced.
"So that makes another," Kai muttered. "That's ten in all."
Tyson was shaking his head. "It's too many, Kai. We should call in the others, and inform Mr Dickenson too. If Dragoon's leaving me, and Dranzer's leaving you, then there's something massive going on here and I don't like it one bit."
Madoka ran five fingers through her hair. "So you've no idea what it was that attacked you, Kenta?"
The green-haired boy shook his head. "None at all. Couldn't see it."
"If you'd filmed it, maybe we could have made it out," Tyson pointed out, and Madoka's expression suddenly lit up.
"Oh! Team Dungeon!"
Gingka blinked. "What about them?"
She turned to him, infectious excitement in her eyes. "I told them to film any battles they had – what if they've got footage of that battle with Starbreaker? Then we could work out which ones they have too!"
Gingka's grin widened with every word she said. "Excellent! We should call them straight away!"
Tsubasa was way ahead of him, already over by the computer and clicking through to connect the group in Japan to Team Dungeon in America. "Masamune? You there?"
"Heya, guys!" Masamune appeared on their screen almost instantly. "That was fast! You're finished already?"
"Nearly," Madoka told him. "We need your help. Remember I told you to video every battle you had to see if we could pick up something on the scanners later? Do you have a video of the battle you had with Starbreaker?"
Masamune frowned. "Um... I think that's on Zeo's camera," he said. "He's just gone out to get lunch and I'm not sure how to use it."
"I can!" Toby piped up from just off-screen. From the sound of it, he was on the opposite side of the table that Masamune was sitting at.
"That's brilliant," Madoka sighed in relief. "Can you send it to us somehow? I've got the contacts from Julian here, Tyson and Kai-" here she pointed them out "-and they can see all of these bit-beasts, which is what they're called, apparently."
"Oh, I've heard of them," said Toby's voice, still off-screen. "They're from the first generation of blading – they're really cool and really powerful! Is that what Masamune's got in his blade?"
"Yes," Kai interrupted. "We need to see which ones have... transferred to new guardians."
"I'll have a go," Masamune promised, and disappeared from the screen. They could still hear him talking with Toby from just out of shot, apparently trying to work out how to get the video off of the camera and onto the computer in a workable format. After a few minutes, his black-and-white head popped back into frame. "There!" he declared proudly. "Should be arriving any second."
At exactly that second, Madoka's email pinged. "Wow!" Tyson laughed. "When I'm talking to Mr Dickenson and he emails me it always takes about an hour or so to arrive!"
Madoka ignored him and opened the email, bringing up the video and running it through the echolocation program just to check that she couldn't pick up anything that way. Gingka, Kenta and Tsubasa leaned in closer, trying to see if there was anything out of the ordinary that was clearly visible.
In terms of giant mythical beasts, they were sadly disappointed. The echolocator couldn't work on a video, as it wasn't picking up clear enough signals. However, it was more than evident that Jack and Damian were both considerably stronger than they had been when Gingka and his friends had last met them. Their blades tore into those of Team Dungeon with hardly any effort, causing horrendous damage with every strike.
Tsubasa heard a low, guttural snarl from behind him and turned to see an absolutely furious Kai. "I can see them," the young man growled. "Both of them. We've got more of a problem than we thought. You see them, right, Tyson?"
The blue-haired man nodded. "That's Burning Cerberus there on the left. I never thought he would be one to change sides."
"He's not so much of a problem," Kai muttered. "It's the one on the right I'm worried about."
Tyson gave him a look of absolute shock. "You're worried? Kai, you're never worried, what's wrong?"
"The one on the right, Tyson. Look at it. You've seen it before, just once." Kai's eyes were dark and full of memories.
Tyson squinted at the screen. Suddenly horror flooded his expression and he swore loudly. "Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no... anything but that."
Kai nodded grimly. "You've got it, Tyson." He turned to the puzzled bladers around him. "The beast that the guy with the green coat is wielding is the most dangerous bit-beast in the world. It has never been truly defeated in battle, and the one time it was defeated it took all of the Four Sacred Spirits working as one to beat it."
"Wh-what is it?" Madoka asked.
"It's very similar to the beast inside Tsubasa's blade," Kai said softly. "Its name is Black Dranzer."