Chapter one

The dogs are still alive?" Tao asked. Chogan pulled a cigarette from his mouth, flicking a bit of hot ember off the end into the cig tray. I pulled my chair in closer, sipped a gulp of my beer, and leaned in to catch their conversation.

"Tao, m' boy, there ain't not'in more obvious than th' fact that them doggies don't even have a durn scratch on 'em." Bud said in his husky voice, taking his cigar out of his mouth and rubbing the butt on the table. He blew a ring of grayish smoke out of his mouth. Stroking his straggly beard thoughtfully and sighed. Closing his eyes, he muttered, "Oh, heav'nly lord 'bove us, save us from this ter'ble war." With a start, Chogan turned to me with eyes wide.

"God, Tec, why'r ya not talkin'?" All eyes turned to humble ol' me, as if looking for insight, and I, defending myself, said roughly, "Well I think the dr'gon m'ght as well be searchin' a coal mine, 'cause we ain't gonna let it kill our dogs." The other men thought about it, then raised their huge porcelain beer mugs in a toast.

"I propose a toast," Bud began in a gruff yet cheery voice. "To Tec, for givin' us th' hope we m'ght well need ta' save our dogs!" The other guys all raised their glasses, bellowing and cheering. With a small smile I looked down at the teak wooden table, then my gaze scanned the pub for anyplace else I could go – and found it. The bathroom. Stupid but a good enough excuse overall.

"I gotta go to th' lil' boy's room." I smiled jokingly, and the others laughed. Maka spoke up, grinning broadly and punchin' Tao in the arm. Mezzos laughed, too, almost as if he was one of us. But as I looked at him I knew that his young, confident face wouldn't look pretty after the next battle. He was just a kid, ya know, and I couldn't help but think that he might not even keep that pretty face of his after the battle. And if he got lucky he might even get away with a mere lost arm and wounds all over. And I couldn't bear to let the poor chap get killed. I had stored in the back of my mind the fact that I would never allow him to actually battle with us for far too long. It couldn't wait much more time. I'd have to tell everyone tonight, when they were in a good mood. And I'd tell Mez himself later. Midnight maybe. Or earlier. Or, under pressed circumstances, after.

"Hey, Choga, whaddya think he means? Think he's gonna go potty?" Maka asked. Everyone chuckled. Choga replied, "Well, Mak, that all dep'nds – does he ev'n use th' toidy?" Now that everybody was snickering and chortling, I took the moment to slip away. Running towards the restrooms, I pushed open the door to the men's room, made sure it was empty, and kicked off my shoes. I pulled out my leather boots and slipped my feet into them. The soft faux fur was a relief from the cool, slick tile flooring of the bathroom. I ripped off my black t-shirt and jeans, took off my bandana and replaced it with a strip of blood-red fabric which held up my hair. I slipped into my warrior's robes and tied them shut. I opened the bag I had lying next to me and took out my dagger and sword. I strapped them onto my belt-tie and ripped the fake skin off my cheek, revealing the black mark in the shape of a flame on my skin.

"Death is waitin' for me," I breathed. "And I wouldn't want to miss its challenge." With a surge of power rushing through my body, I leaped up, raised a foot and kicked the window out with the sole of my foot. There was no shatter of glass – for the window had not broken. The entire pane had fallen out! Snapping forward, leaning out on my heels, I caught the windowpane on the tip of my sword before it could land with a thump on the grass or even fall to the floor and splinter into a thousand or so pieces. It wobbled there on the tip of my blade before sliding back into my waiting, open hand. I sighed and slid through the hole in the wall, but grabbed a pistol hanging in a glass case off the wall. I despised pistols. Swords were far more interesting and picked a stronger and fairer fight. I fit the glass square back into the hole, and opened my mouth. I breathed out, and a hot flame appeared in the back of my throat. It ran forward and melted to adjoin the window and its space I in the wall. I gently pried open the glass case and took out the shotgun. With an enraged hiss I blew smoke over the bullet compartment. It melted into a hard rock-like form. I knew it would never open again. I raised it over my head and fired three shots at a cloud. At the fourth shot's turn I heard a click. All out of ammo. I clenched the fist holding the gun, hearing a delightful cracking sound, and crushed the weapon into smithereens. With a snort of disgust I tossed the splinters of metal into the grass. Spitting on the remains, I strode off toward the horizon.

"Mezzos?" I inquired, shocked and confused. He nodded solemnly and bowed before me. I was puzzled, for I was not a hulking figure, and there was no way a boy this brave and loyal would surrender! Plus, the young warrior could never figure out that it was me. I looked completely different, and had a whole dissimilar personality, and yet he acted as though he knew. Raising his head but staying planted firmly on his knees, he whispered, "Tecan," With a gasp, I felt my heart beat twice as fast. Alarmed, I ripped out a whistle carved from bird's bone and blew it. The shrill noise split the early evening's silence like a knife through soft flesh. My vision desperately searched the land, passing over the gently sinking sun. I bent, grasped Mezzos's chin and jerked it upwards. The pain in his eyes filled me and I nearly let go, but I knew I could not give in. With anger bestowed in my voice, I questioned him, "What did you just call me?" I pushed aside the question the rest of myself yearned to ask of him, 'How did you know?' and let it once more lurk in the dusty crawlspace in the back of my mind.

"I said, 'WHAT DID YOU JUST CALL ME?'!" I exclaimed, getting a little jumpy. He gulped and took a deep breath, trying his best to stay calm and sturdy-minded. I understood the hardship. If I were in his place I would be trying not to flinch and praying that if I did I wouldn't cry out when he began to slit my throat as a warning.

"T-tecan, sir." He answered. I admired his bravery, but could not show it. Spitting on the ground beside him, I glared down at him. "Well," I started, "If you wish to keep your dignity you 'oughta get up." I commented sourly, trying to conceal my worry. Unfortunately, he listened. Getting up, he put in a sharp remark that would have lost his life to most others; it was these exact words, "Well then I suppose we should fight for our own sakes and our own dignity." He retorted simply. I was petrified. Horrified enough that he might know who I was left me aghast and in a sense, frightened; but this was huge! If he didn't know who I was, or, simply put that aside, it was presenting me with the hard fact – that he might do this in front of any enemy. He would be killed! I swallowed slowly and leaned back on my heel, chewing my lip and pondering.

"What is it?" He smirked. "Afraid to fight?" This enraged me far more than it should have. I ought to have realized that an insult was coming. It was merely to keep the boy's hopes up and try to assure him he would win. I did the same as a young warrior, but never went this far. Blustered by this sudden brave move and infuriated by his own senseless impulsive actions, yet nevertheless ceaseless valor, I pursed my lips and blew a puff of smoke into the cool night. With rising fire within me I was more dangerous than a murderous tiger on a killing strike when I was about to blow my top. This was one of those ill-fated moments. I leapt forward, unable to control myself, flames leaping from my mouth and letting my fearsome grip unleash uncontrollable power of my blade. Screeching like a banshee, I allowed the terrifying beast within me roam free and attack at its will. I doubted it would spare anyone, human, demon, or beast. The inferno erupted about me, igniting my body and clothing. As I flew through the air, about to strike, the flame carved into my cheek lit up, turning a violent red. I let it surge on my skin, enjoying the viscous, searing pain that the mark brought to fill my soul. I was Kimoko Katsu, the noble victory. I swung by blade, let the power spring from my firey, hellish soul to the grip of my hands on the sword, to the blade itself –

And it fell heavily in my limp hands. The blade split the earth an inch from Mezzos himself. But the boy knew it was not a simple miss. He took an uneasy step forward and swung his weapon with power and strength I did not know he even possessed. But with a swift heave of my mace I blocked it. The hard steel of his blade scratched the hard surface of my dragon-tooth killer. I saw the beads of sweat forming on his face, his teeth clenched and a groan emanating from his throat; he squinted and I saw the throbbing pain of his efforts on his face. I watched the boy struggle, putting all of his might into trying to defeat me.

I let myself soften, and he nearly cut himself as he was holding the blade itself with one hand and the handle with the other when I collapsed beneath him. I forced smog up my throat and formed sweat for him to see, I pretended to struggle, clenching my muscles up tight as though I was really fighting back. I put a pained expression on my face and let the lad force me to the ground where I lay acting as if I were fighting his blows. He raised his sword and rested it on my sword hand; I had no choice (if I were to keep this up) but to let it go. Dropping the sword with a clatter, I waited. And then something came at me I never would have expected – he raised his blade and struck! With a rush of panic I felt his blade strike me once, twice, and again. The pain was unbearable. My eyes stayed open but my sight went black. All I knew was that he kept raising his blade, then bringing it down with great might into my flesh. I felt the blood flow all over me, a sweltering pain growing, and terror spreading through my body. The shock of his attack was over now – but the suffering was horribly real. I listened to the smack of his blade across my skin, and then my own warm blood pouring out from the wound. I tried to get up but he kept assailing me, leaping atop me and slashing my flesh till the wounds felt so raw and bloody I was sure he had cut down to the bone. I let the tears spill out from my open but darkened eyes and knew that blood spilled from my mouth as I whispered hoarsely, "Please, don't do this. Stop…" and then drifted off into my own blood-filled thoughts. Mezzos took no heed, digging his harsh steel killing machine into my bloody hide. With a sob of pain and betrayed sorrow, I said, much louder, "Mezzos, stop!" With a jolt I realized that he was considering this. I tried to get up, blindly searching for him. But I felt the blood-stained cold touch of his sword against my throat. With a gasp for air I fell back, and the blade followed.

"Give me one reason I shall not kill you." Mezzos replied harshly, but I detected tears in his voice. I gulped air and responded, "Because I am Tecan Amani, and I wish for you to drop your blade." And then I felt cold.

Chapter two

I woke up, my eyes painfully refocusing on the landscape around me. It would be a beautiful morning if there were not a massive pool of blood surrounding me. Heaving a heavy sigh I realized that Mezzos had cut down to my bone in my chest. With a grunt of pain and relief I realized how lucky I was that he had not damaged my lungs or, far worse, my heart. He may be a gentle child normally but I grasped the fact that if I had not given in and let him overpower me I would not be wounded but he might be dead. My outburst would have been lengthy if he fought back well enough but deadly to a beginner such as himself. I gave him credit for nearly killing me but he could not do it on another warrior like me. Because, of course, another combatant would never give in. It was to be a huge massacre and major amounts of blood would be shed if battalions met with killers like us. I was not a violent one, overall, but could take down many and could give massive strikes against enemies if I wanted to do so. But fortunately I was far more peaceful than most.

With a moan I pushed myself up, trying not to flinch. It just came naturally, even when alone, to act tough at even the most painful and bloodiest of wounds. I picked up my sword, visibly untouched since last night. I ran my finger over it. Not a scratch, not a stain of blood or gore. I heaved a sigh and remembered the pained, crazed look of murder and contempt in Mezzos's eyes. And I remembered him shouting, "Why won't he ever accept me? Why not? Make him!" I realized with a jolt that he meant me. He wanted me, as a normal combat specialist, to teach him, accept him, help him. He never did fully comprehend how much I adored him. There was no hope now, not with these wounds, to go back as myself for at least a week. With a single tear merely of sorrow and rejection dripping from my eye, I stood up and stumbled across the hills, letting the warmth