"Isn't Romania lovely this time of year?"
"Knock it off, pops! This is serious! You said yourself there's no room for mistakes, so no loitering!"
"Come now, dear," Soleiyu grinned, "can't I at least enjoy the scenery? It's been ages since I've last set foot on this land. You know, I was actually the one who escorted Miss Eaglestone here, and the lovely anonymous benefactor, who even I have never met, took care of the rest. I wonder how that girl is doing."
"Is this all he ever thinks about?" Corona wondered as she settled in next to her comrade. The other woman, a hale girl in her mid-twenties bearing dark hair with yellowy streaks, crossed her arms in a huff.
"Yeah, believe it or not. My father the pervert… Of course, that is one of the things we have in common, or HAD, should I say. I swear, pops, did ya have to make a pass at Corona too? I did go to school with her!"
"Sorry," he muttered with a wave. "I see a gorgeous lady in scrubs and my brain surrenders to more…carnal ideas. But enough of that—I have some work to do. You're right, we needn't waste another moment. Doctor, I brought you along since I knew I'd need your services. Several of the faculty in Zion should be arriving later as my backup crew, so we'll have them with us. Darling?" He smiled warmly at his daughter; she just snorted.
"I brought you along because your mother insisted I take care of you. It's quite a dangerous venture, but you've got your papa's blood in your veins; you should do fine. Here, just in case things get nasty." He tossed her a bokken, which she was quite proficient in using.
"Thanks. What about you?"
"Oh, don't you worry about me!" he assured her warmly. "Your father is much tougher than he looks, my love. Just stay by Corona's side, like you did in the old days."
"We never were really close, sir," admitted the doctor. "But all the same, I'll take care of her."
"That's good to hear. All right ladies, let's move out! Oh, and Ivory?"
His daughter paused.
"Yeah, papa?" Soleiyu Tran winked playfully.
"You behave yourself, now!"
The remaining faculty and students had finally caught up, and were preparing to stop the operation—but they couldn't do anything. The Daughters of Virtue were in the mix as well, but they were powerless as well. Golgotha had surrounded the place, and in their mix was the legendary Masters of Death, beings that were made of seemingly unlimited power. But they were all helpless before her—Romia Hathoway was mightier than all of them, for who could fight somebody that took the spirit of fighting away? She laughed at the very idea, and with Katarina at her right and Ira and River at her left, she continued wandering through the halls of the compound, searching for the key that would open the door to the world's throne.
"It's so peaceful and quiet," she whispered. "There's a poem I've just thought of that's fitting for this moment. Would you all like to hear it?"
"Certainly," Katarina entreated her. "We cannot achieve this power without some grandeur. Reveal your thoughts."
"The year's at the spring, and day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven, the hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing, the snail's on the thorn;
God's in his Heaven, All's right with the world"
"Unknown enemy has entered the base! Unknown enem—"
Static cut off the rest of the transmission. Ruxandra swore grimly.
"Golgotha! They're awfully persistent! We may have to do a lot of fighting before we run into that Headmaster of ours!"
"What's Golgotha?" Nitro wondered. One of the tallest of the freelancers helped escort everyone to safety and covered them with smoke bombs; she had to struggle in order to squeeze herself in the tiny opening.
"Gol-what? Oh. Well, I dunno if now's a good time for a theology lesson or not…"
"They're just enemies," Elena explained, which was good enough for everyone there. "It's a group of people devoted to wiping out people like us."
"Whaddya mean, 'people like us'?" asked the muscular giantess.
"We're special," Raye blurted. Of all the places to have that conversation! Gunfire was already crowding the hallway; they decided to crawl even further, not knowing whether they were headed for safety or not. The tall girl seemed to stutter; she was right behind Akeelah, and the young woman's skirt fluttered as she inched along in the procession.
"Special?" she croaked. "How so?"
"You might get the opportunity to find out." The slim passageway led the girls into a very small bathroom. Roxie was the first one out; she scurried to the door and peeked out to see if anybody was waiting for them outside. There were about six or seven black-clad people standing around, weapons ready and nerves impatient.
"Raye!" she hissed, "Over here. Distraction!"
"It's not the same without Heidi," she grumbled. The tall girl finally emerged from the passageway, taking a huge breath as she shook herself. If her girlfriend saw her like this, no doubt the slimmer woman would make fun of her lover's bulk. After recovering from the tight squeeze, she sidled over to the door and prepared to run out firing, but Raye stopped her. "If you wanted to see why we're so special, now's the chance. Everyone, be ready to make a break for it."
"You can do it, girl!" Akeelah cheered. Miss Morgana waved her hand, and the light fractured enough to create the image of a bear, huge and imposing. The guards panicked for a brief moment as the tall girl, fittingly dubbed Catblast, burst out of the bathroom and opened fire. The bear's image faded quickly, to her relief.
"I see what you meant. Let's keep going, okay? Stick close to me."
"Got it." Because of her size, she was able to cover great distance in a short time, and soon they lost somebody. Akeelah hadn't meant to be left behind, but running in that damned skirt of hers was no fun. She berated herself for getting lost—if anything, she should've been at the head of the pack—and picked up the pace in hopes of finding a familiar face. Sprinting away from malevolent spirits gave her an inexhaustible well of energy; she must've run a mile around that base searching for her friends. When at last her lungs gave out and her legs started to ache, she found a small cranny to hide in and gasped for her life.
An icy cold sensation overcame her as she stood there panting. A normal girl would welcome the refreshing feeling, but Akeelah knew what it really portended. A disembodied spirit was wandering around, and it was nearby, almost close enough to reach out and touch. Akeelah's fear of ghosts had lessened a little thanks to the love and patience of her friends, but she was alone now, completely defenseless against this phantasm. A bleary shadow emerged from the wall and approached her; she prepared to make a run for it, and woe to those in her path! Yet before she could even turn, a sense of warmth and calm replaced the dread, and she settled down long enough to focus.
The ghost didn't look to be dangerous or aggressive, and even made peaceful signs. If Akeelah squinted hard enough, she could even spot a tender smile. It motioned for her to follow it, and since she didn't feel any dread, she obeyed. The specter walked at a quick pace, probably in a hurry to deliver her somewhere; Akeelah felt her second wind coming as she jogged behind the spirit. As they turned a corner and distanced themselves from the sound of gunfire and struggle, Akeelah discovered a woman's body lying on the ground. She gasped and ran over to check her—thank goodness she was still alive!
"Hey, can you hear me? Are you okay?"
"Yeah," wheezed the woman. She was bleeding quite badly; several bullets were lodged in her body. "Call medic. Arisaka or Caduceus."
"But I can't leave you!" She whirled around to see if the ghost was still there, but the shadow was gone, her task presumably finished. Instead, Akeelah noticed a group of women scurrying around in the far distance, and called out to them. They hurried over as quickly as they could—all of them allies, to her relief—and one of them knelt down and began her administrations.
"You're getting rusty, Sergeant," said she, smirking. The injured woman glared bitterly.
"Cut the crap, Arisaka. Any other day and I'd send you to Hell's Furnace for that."
"You may as well put Reflex in there and make it a date."
"Just focus!" Akeelah stepped back slowly, knowing she was getting in the way.
"Hey, so, are you gonna be okay?"
"The Sarge is tougher than she looks!" declared another one of the girls—she had scars all over her body. "It's a good thing you found her though, kid. I dunno if she'd be able to make it with those wounds. How'd you find her, anyway?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Akeelah tittered. When she went into detail, a curtain of silence suffocated everyone there. Even Arisaka paused.
"Alonza," whispered the injured Sergeant, adding a frail chuckle. "My guardian angel. Scar, make sure this young woman finds her friends. The rest of you show our enemies to the door. I'll be in the infirmary if ya got any problems."
"Yes ma'am!" Akeelah nearly had her arm ripped off as Scar dragged her away. She wondered if there was a connection between the ghost and the woman she helped save. Well, first things first: they still had a mess to clean.
Soleiyu didn't stay in the custody of the guards for very long. His official business there was to back everyone up and help flush Golgotha away; he was also Dr. Blair-Marcos's escort. He was able to charm himself out of trouble the rest of the way, though his daughter didn't approve of his rampant flirtations.
"It's all part of the game, dear," he assured her. "You know I'm not really interested in those girls, though I do find women in the military quite attractive."
"Yeah, yeah, but don't ya smear it on a little too thick?"
"You were once like that yourself, am I right?"
"Yeah, back when I was in high school! Things are different now!"
"All right you two, settle down," Corona interrupted. "If the enemy hears you shouting, they'll intercept us. It was the silliest thing in the world for the three of us to come here anyway, but now that we've arrived, we may as well be useful. Mr. Tran, do you th—"
"Please, Corona, call me Saint." He grinned, she snorted.
"Mr. Tran, please find the Headmaster and do whatever you can to stop her. Ivory, do me a favor and stay out of these fights."
"Say what? You know I can take care of myself, Corona! I helped Stanton win the title in kendo my last year, remember?"
"This is a waste of time," she mumbled in aggravation. "Look, just come with me, all right? You could at least distract everyone. Mr. Tran, are you…" But the wily old flirt was already running off, giving the ladies his best regards.
"You two be good now! Don't do anything I wouldn't!"
"You be careful too, papa!" Ivory smiled at her former classmate, suggested they leave, and ran off before Corona had the chance to catch up.
Soleiyu Tran was actually a distant friend of the Daughters, and as such, he had a basic idea of where he was going. Keeping loose contact with them (or specifically, their computer experts), he had quietly fanned flames and stomped out fires from a distance, but this was the first time he got directly involved with anything. Because he officially worked for Zion and Professor Jun, he did indeed have a special power that made him unique, and although it wasn't as outstanding as that of the others, it could very well have proven to be the ace in the hole for this mad pursuit.
Golgotha noticed him and opened fire; their aim was indiscriminate. Instead of returning fire, he threw a little smoke bomb he kept concealed, and ran through their ranks while they were wheezing and groping around in the fog. Suddenly they began firing on him as his back was turned, but a mysterious someone swept in to save him. He felt the arousing sensation of a woman's arms around his chest, and giggled perversely as the lady dragged him to safety.
"Are you injured?"
"That was quite a maneuver."
"He looks to be one of Jun's men."
"Unless he too is an interloper."
"Well hello, ladies," he sang, peering into the identical faces of Sonja and Erish Vhirmin. "Ooh, Siamese twins. You don't see that very often. I don't know which is lovelier."
"Surely you jest!" Sonja giggled.
"He's a sly one," Erish chuckled. Soleiyu hopped to his feet and bowed, kissing their hands one after another.
"My day just got a whole lot brighter. Tell me, girls, are either one of you single?"
"He wastes no time either."
"Such a shameless flirt!"
"I only look at the best," he whispered seductively. It was hard not to resist his charms—the Tran people had a very attractive appeal. "Say girls," he added smoothly, "now that I have your attention, could you do me an eentsy-weentsy favor? Do you know where I might find Miss Hathoway? I've been dating her, see, but now that I look at you, I know I just have to break up with her!"
"He's awful!" they laughed—but it was too late to resist. They told him everything he wanted to know and even agreed to come along with him, swooning all the way.
Sorry, Ivory, but as long as I have this talent of mine, I'll use it for a good purpose. I hope you can forgive your old man.
Gwen had been shot in the abdomen when Sakuya found her, but the wound wasn't serious. There was sweat drenching down her face, though, and she shivered uncontrollably. The one who had fired on her was dead, thanks to an attractive blonde with a Norwegian accent. She was treating Gwen when Sakuya arrived, and gave the older woman a surprised expression before backing away.
"Sorry," she murmured with a blush. "I've never seen a bald woman before."
"It's just something I decided to do one day," Hitoshi replied, rubbing her naked scalp as she cradled her lover. "How is she?"
"Pretty tough, and slippery as well. That guy emptied two clips before he hit her. She must have the reflexes of a cat."
"Not quite. Is she conscious?"
"Yeah, but I told her to save her strength. Mind if I ask you something?" Sakuya kissed Gwen quietly, and was relieved to see the other woman smiling.
"No, go right ahead."
"What the hell is going on here?" A smile crept upon her mouth.
"I'll try telling you the short version. A good friend of mine has gone temporarily crazy and is trying to take over the world. She wants control of these satellites so she can send her genetic code across the world. If that happens, everyone worldwide will lose the will to fight. That way she can rule the world while barely lifting a finger." The blonde took a step back in astonishment.
"White Horseman of the Apocalypse…"
"You could call it that. We're here to slap some sense into her. But there are some others involved in this as well, people who will go to any lengths in order to kill people like Gwen and I. Ever heard of Golgotha?" She shook her head.
"Just the place in the Bible where it's said Christ was executed."
"Some people pick the strangest names for their groups. At least you guys nailed it: the Daughters of Virtue, right?"
"Y-yeah," she whispered, smiling softly. The ground began to vibrate suddenly, and sounds of battle drew nearer. A shadow emerged from the distance and closed in on the trio; none of them had the time to stand and fight.
"To the next life with you!" A salvo of throwing-stars whizzed through the air; the Norwegian blonde and Sakuya panicked. Suddenly, the stars mysteriously vanished, then reappeared in the air, right above the intruder's head. He didn't have a chance; Sakuya and the blonde grimaced and looked away. Gwen sighed with relief.
"That's all I have in me," she whispered frailly. "I'm glad I was…able to save you." Hitoshi smiled lovingly and swept her lover's hair away.
"How are you feeling?" Gwen smiled and coughed quietly.
"It hurts like hell. But I'll live."
"Good. The others are going after Romia. Are you going to try and stop us?" Sakuya feared the girl's response, but she had to know. Gwen was as absolute about all this as Castillo; she would literally give her life for Romia's dreams. The woman removed her glasses and wiped the sweat from her face…or maybe it was her tears; it was hard to tell.
Sakuya solemnly kissed her forehead. "Get some rest."
The report was unsettling by the time Hebe, Kory, and Naolin found their way to the Daughters' base. Naolin stepped forth and successfully negotiated a way inside, but was disheartened by the news. Kory swore viciously and thrust her fist against the wall—she was regretting her actions more and more. Golgotha was swarming in and Hathoway's people were using the distraction to further approach their ultimate goal. The only good news in all this was that one of the so-called Masters of Death had been killed, his body torn apart by his own weapons.
"We need to stay out here and keep any more intruders from coming in," the security forces told them. "We've also received word that assistance from Zion Academy is coming, so we'll need to be here for them. You go on ahead and help your friends."
"Aren't you worried about what we might see in there? We're not military personnel and we're not your friends either."
"But you're not enemies, either. Our goals are the same, so why should we keep you held up? Besides, we hear your school took one of our own in."
"I hope she doesn't end up being a liability," Kory muttered as they sprinted inside. "If she sees the Headmaster and starts getting soft, things could get ugly."
"Regardless, we'd better hurry," Hebe suggested. They agreed and split up; Fuery didn't like to be alone, but she had given her word of honor to her friends. She trusted them with her life; they wouldn't fail her. Hebe strolled through the corridors of the large base slowly, keeping watch for friends and enemies. She had no intention of fighting; she was just there to make sure nobody got hurt. She was careless, though, and was captured by the enemy as she turned a dark corner. A man grabbed her and held a claw to her throat.
"Don't struggle. I could kill you if I chose. I'll let you survive if you stay quiet."
"Then let me go," she whispered. The curved blade tickled sharply.
"No, I'd rather not. You're going to be my hostage. It's the smart way to fight."
"You sick scum." Hebe wondered, perhaps with futility, if she could possibly call up a small orb of fire to use against him. It would have to be precise and important enough for him to let her go without ripping her throat wide open. As her panic increased and he shuffled off with her as his shield, her hope began to shrink. She hated her powers, didn't she? They were awful! That loathsome father of hers forced her to have them! But why? Why did he give her this unnatural ability? Why did he rape her? Why did he pour out all his frustrations on her?
What does it matter? Whether good or evil, what's done is done! I may as well see what this path of mine has to offer!
A large column of flame shot out and leaped onto Claw's cloak. He wriggled viciously, trying to fan away the flames while keeping Hebe in his arms. For one short moment, he loosened his grip, so she begged the flames to intensify so she could escape. One little slip and she was away! But now she had Claw to deal with, and the flames, and…
"Enough hesitation," she stated boldly. "I'm in control now." The fire obeyed her implicitly: it jumped onto his straw hat and circled around his feet, but never did it scorch his skin. She didn't want to hurt him, she just wanted to distract him while she made her escape. He'd be too busy putting out the fire to notice her! Gradually she inched away, one step at a time, making sure her conflagration stayed hot. Just a few more steps and…
Before she knew it, Claw stopped waving around, paralyzed by an unknown force. No, wait—someone had thrown a knife into his chest! He gurgled quietly and dropped to the floor, where the fire eventually weakened. A beautiful woman came running up with an extinguisher and finished the job, then yanked the knife out and looked at Hebe.
"Are you all right? He didn't harm you, did he?" Hebe was still too catatonic to answer, so the woman put her weapon away and approached her gently. "It's all right, you don't have to say anything. I just want to know if you're okay or not." The numbness faded slowly; the fires returned to Hebe's soul. She had embraced herself and found the discovery to be satisfactory. Now was not the time to be meek.
"I'm all right," she smiled. "I just didn't like using my powers. Usually it never goes this well."
"Your powers? You mean you're one of the…"
"Yep. What's your name?"
"Just Tier," she said as they shook hands. She shook her head, very impressed. "My word…so you can really create fire?"
"Yeah. Nothing to brag about." Tier smiled brightly and even chuckled.
"You're really something. I used to be scared to death of fire. I had someone very precious lift me up from the phobia. What about you? Anybody special in your life?" Hebe really had to think about this one. Isadora? Naolin? Kory? Everything seemed so gray nowadays. This was far from the future she had planned out…but maybe that was for the best.
"I really don't know," she replied gaily. Tier laid a hand of comfort on her shoulder.
"Give it time. A girl as nice as you will find someone for sure. Say…I've got to get this rear of mine in gear, but would you like to come along? I have a feeling you and I were destined to meet."
"Perhaps we were. Oh, by the way, I'm Hebe Fuery!" Tier grinned, but not in a bad way.
"Cool! Sounds like the name of a goddess."
Penelope Davis and Katrina Phoenix had accidentally been separated from their group, but they figured they would be okay for a few seconds. Golgotha had completely invaded the compound and was fanning their forces out, but from what the two women had seen in earlier encounters, their freelancer allies were quite capable of handling the superior numbers. They all fought like marines, or special operation forces; Golgotha's superior numbers didn't stand a chance. The mercenaries had no reservations about killing either, which made the students' job a little easier. Nobody wanted to be responsible for the death of anybody else, even if they were an enemy.
But back to the pursuit. The last fight they were in had caused a large commotion, and it forced Penny and Katrina to split apart from their group. As a cover, Phoenix threw on the floodlights and blinded her foes while Penny sang a piercing ballad. Parts of the ceiling caved in and formed a crude barrier—now if only they could find someone in this mess! They always seemed to be on the run, though, and every step distanced them from the fighting. Soon they reached an area that was completely silent.
"This place gives me the willies," Penny whispered. It was dark and lonely and quiet, the perfect place for an ambush…or a slaughter. Holding Katrina's hand helped a little.
"Well, at least we're safe for the time being. Let's continue. I'm going to douse some more of the lights."
"You know we won't be able to see anything."
"Yes, but neither will we be seen." Penny didn't like this idea, but she went along with it. Katrina had one hand against the wall and the other entwined with Penny's fingers; they crept along cautiously, pricking their ears to the slightest sound. About two minutes of grueling darkness passed before they heard a faint shuffle, like the sound of clothes flapping. They stopped and waited. A low voice called out to them.
"No point in going any further. You already know I'm here. Turn the lights back on."
"If you insist. I'd prefer to see my enemy anyway." Katrina's powers were similar to Raye's, except she could use the light as a weapon while Raye preferred visual deception. When the lights came back on and the figure was revealed, Katrina and Penny winced in the brightness. There before them was a tall man, wrapped in a brown cloak, a straw hat on his head and a scarf over most of his face. He lowered it, smiling grimly, and drew a thin double-edged sword.
"I am called Sword," he identified. "I am one of the Masters of Death. Do you have any final words before I end your life?"
"Yeah," Penny drawled. She took a huge breath, and Katrina plugged her ears.
And I…will always love you…!
The music seemed to tremble the entire earth, and Sword screamed in pain as the raucous noise threatened to explode his inner ear. Quickly, Katrina and Penny rushed past him, knowing they had no chance in a fight. Katrina covered their escape by firing beams of light, but Sword was swift, and even deflected a few of the bolts. One of them hit Penny on the heel of her foot, causing her to trip. Sword was upon them before either girl could even scream.
"Hey, monkey! Turn around and face me, you prick!" Sword didn't like to be interrupted, so he whirled around to glare at the one who foolishly challenged him.
"What? Another?" Katrina suddenly lifted Penny up and made a run for it. Sword didn't seem too bothered; he just snorted and focused on the other person. "You seem a lot more interesting, so I'll release them for now. What kind of fool are you?"
"No kind, of course." The challenger emerged, revealing herself as a thin, pale, tomboyish blonde, one of her arms hanging uselessly by her side and the other carrying a short thrusting sword. "I'm just your executioner, Kory Tensho!" Sword just chuckled.
"I've never seen such a weak would-be killer."
"What was that?"
"All right," he growled, "I accept your challenge. You've resigned yourself to a fast death, Miss Kory. So long."
"I'm too cool to be killed," she retorted. "Besides—"
"No! Get out of here! I'll handle this!" Another girl emerged from behind, whipping out a much larger blade. Her stance invoked the samurai of yore, and even her face, young though it was, resembled a warrior's. "Miss, just leave. I can't have civilians fighting. They're on our property and they are our problem."
"What? No way, kid! You should get out of here! Let me handle him—you'd just mess it up!"
"Just who are you calling a kid?" snapped the girl. "I just turned eighteen a few months ago! You're the only kid here!"
"I can't believe we're the same age," Kory groaned.
"I can't believe you girls are arguing at a time like this," Sword sighed. "Very well, I'll just kill you both. It's been fun."
"Oh no you don't!" Kory rushed in to face him, but both Sword and the other girl knew she was doomed. He chuckled and took a swing, but instead of fighting back or getting hacked in two, Kory put everything she had into swerving out of the way. She hastily whirled around, and with the momentum of both bodies on her side, shoved Sword with all her might.
"Kid!" she screamed. The other girl snapped into action and sliced with blinding speed, etching a thin mark against Sword's jugular vein. He stumbled against the wall, groaned, and fell to the floor as a fountain of red sprayed from his fatal wound.
"Your…technique…is…magnificent," he whispered. "I've always wanted…to cut someone like this… How ironic that I was…the one who got cut…instead." Sword gurgled out his last breath and laid still; Kory cheered merrily and went over to congratulate her rival.
"Hey, great moves! We make a pretty good team!"
"You…but…no, I…we're not…I mean…just who the hell do you think you are?"
"A friend," she smirked. "And you, kid?" The girl took a weary breath and sheathed her sword.
"Just call me Snow, friend."
As if they didn't have enough to worry about from those annoying Daughters of Virtue, Golgotha and even the Masters of Death were now in on this! It really disgusted Hera to be in the middle of this three-way battle, but she hadn't gone this far in life without seeing Romia's dream come true. She decided to stay behind and distract everyone with a spectacular performance: the men would be dazzled by her eerie beauty and the women would all grovel on the floor as she frightened them into submission. She didn't care about the other faculty anymore, not even Castillo; everything now depended on Hathoway. Several members of Golgotha met her as she wandered around looking for victims, and suffice to say, they soon wished they hadn't.
She ignored her screaming sufferers and glided elsewhere, her long black dress rippling with every step. Why were there so many girls around? Canaan school for girls, the Daughters of Virtue, and now members of Golgotha…it made her sick! She longed for the thrilling embrace of a man, preferably a powerful one, somebody that would make her heart dance and her lungs burn. What fun was a woman, anyway? Men actually fought over her and went out of their way for her. Girls would never do that.
"You love getting on my nerves, don't you?" She chuckled and quietly turned around, spotting one of those damned females in her way. She was alone, but she looked tough, and might've passed for a guy were it not for her…well, impressive assets.
"I dunno what you're talking about," the girl mumbled. "All I know is that you don't belong here. Now beat it or I'll beat you!"
"What a boring introduction," Hera sighed. "Does your generation have no imagination at all? Can't you at least point a gun at me to make things more fun?"
"If you insist." The weapon was out, and she seemed to know how to use it. This was no bleeding heart or egotistical tomboy—this woman was a killer born and bred, blood mixed with steel. Hera smiled wickedly and put her hands up.
"I swear, kids these days are so foolish. Aren't you going to frisk me for weapons?"
"Nah. Old bags like you aren't skilled enough to fight."
"Old bags?" Suddenly the full force of Hera's fury squashed down on this woman—she clutched her head and screamed in mortal agony. "Yes, that's right! Even a tough little girl like you has something to be afraid of! It's always the tough girls who have the most fear, I say! Well? Are you suffering a lot? Believe me, miss…whatever your name is—"
"Bloodysteel, bitch!" A slicing wave of power hit the woman again, and an inhuman groan emerged from her lips, borne of untold dark horrors.
"Well then," Hera snarled, "believe me when I say that I haven't even started with you, Miss Bloodysteel. I'm going to enjoy ripping your mind apart, piece by cowardly piece." She cackled demonically and even gave Bloodysteel a few kicks for good measure; the young woman was almost at her breaking point. Physical beings she could fight without any problems, but an attack on her mind, on the other hand, was impossible to overcome. Every dark horror she could imagine seemed real; every terrible dream became reality. She even saw her own grisly death, and even…
Even her death.
"Mom?" she whispered, tears overflowing. Nobody—nobody hurt the ones she loved. An explosive fury like none other took over her body, and a surge of throbbing energy, ten times stronger than an adrenaline rush, blasted its way through the dark fog and rocketed her over to her enemy, who gave a single shriek of surprise before she was engulfed in the young woman's wrath.
"I'LL KILL YOU!"
The entire earth froze as Bloodysteel squeezed Hera's throat. The woman's eyes bugged out in shock, her hands twitched, and her mouth hung open, gagging quietly. A sickening crunch was heard, then a nasty pop, and finally, a nauseating death rattle, signifying the end of a horror. Bloodysteel suddenly let go, breathing fiercely as she sunk to the floor; the body fell into a disheveled pile and never moved again.
"Damn," she whispered, still haunted by what she had seen. "I could really use a drink right now."
The fighting had intensified dramatically by the time Hathoway, Castillo, and their dwindling loyalists made it through the outermost perimeters. This command center of the Daughters was imposing and labyrinthine, and it would probably take more than a length of twine to get to the center, where the Minotaur brooded. Heroes back then went into these dangers without much hindrance, but for them, there must've been at least a dozen enemies on their tails. Sif, Judy, Eda, and Amiya volunteered to stay behind and hold off the enemy while the others continued their hunt. It was a noble action that would not be forgotten once history changed in their favor.
Further exploration proved frustrating. Two of Golgotha's agents awaited them further on down, and while there was no chance they'd be able to penetrate through Romia's barrier, Katarina didn't want them in her way. She asked for her lover to stick around and "observe my supreme devotion", and withdrew a long jagged knife as she approached the two poor souls.
"Wait!" said Lefty as he realized he couldn't fight back. "You don't understand, we were just following orders! Our master promised us a beautiful reward when we accepted this task!"
"Are you saying I'm not beautiful?" She sliced quickly, opening up his belly. The second one squealed and stumbled away, but Katarina caught him quickly and glared him right in the eye.
"This is outrageous! Our master told us that we would be left in peace once this was over!"
"You misinterpreted his meaning," she growled as she jammed the blade into his chest. "He meant that you would be left in pieces." Disgusted and yet satisfied at the same time, Castillo cleaned her weapon and skipped along to follow her lover. Nobody could tell if Hathoway approved or disapproved of this barbaric action; her face was utterly blank, perhaps serene in a sense. They prepared to set out again, but were stopped as they heard somebody approaching them. None of them could believe it—it was Jane Doe of all people!
"Jane!" Hathoway whispered in shock. "What are you…"
"I've come here to take revenge!" she roared. The young woman had no weapon, but her ability to drain away people's memories was more threatening, and if provoked properly, it could even affect Romia herself.
"Revenge? I don't understand."
"You kept me locked up in your cabin like I was an animal!" she roared, half-crazed from the fury. "You isolated me from humankind! You even went so far as to use me as a tool in your plan! Doesn't that make you the least bit remorseful?"
"Of course it does!" she wailed. "Jane, you know that I did what I had to in order for everyone to be safe. You couldn't go outdoors because your powers would be a threat to everyone."
"Don't feed me that garbage! If I was such a threat, why did you use me as a tool? You didn't trust me to be out on my own. You wanted to keep me locked up. You'd only take me out when it served your purpose! You make me sick!"
"My name is Sophie!" she screamed, ready to blast the entire area with her amnesia. She didn't even care if it hit friend or foe; she would not discriminate. Everyone would lose their past and have the chance to start over again; it was the best thing to do. Before she could affect anyone, however, Jane Doe's head was blown wide open by a stray shot. She was paralyzed for a single frigid moment, a bloody hole yawning in the center of her forehead, then she collapsed and crashed on the floor, silenced forever. Romia screeched in horror and sorrow and rage and shock; Castillo and the other students were petrified.
Shivering under the weight of so many powerful emotions, Romia Hathoway slowly approached the killer. She looked into the woman's eyes without a shred of pity, reached down, and strangled her to death. As the woman perished in her grasp, Romia inhaled the stench of death and shuddered in grotesque rapture, a jackal's grin spread across her glowing face. She didn't say a word until she rejoined the others.
"Let's go. We have a long way yet to travel."
(the shadowy image of the author appears behind a curtain, then erupts suddenly, shrinking to chibi form)
Me: WELCOME TO THE PROMISED LAND! I hope you enjoy this special interlude. I made it just for you!
(scene shifts to my little apartment)
Hello, I'm the author. Some of you may also know me as Al Kristopher, Mr. Toasty, or just Adam. For what seems like several years now, you've been reading all of my stories, and I'm sad to say that yes, this is the very final one (I think). I'm going on to do other things, but don't worry! As long as there are lesbians in the world, I shall write shoujo-ai stories!
But enough about my stories. By now you're probably wondering what the real Mr. Toasty is like, how he got into writing, and where he got that funny name of his. My real name is Adam Kristopher L (I can't reveal everything!); I was born on December 30, 1981, thus making me a Capricorn. I've only had one girlfriend in my entire life, during my junior year in high school, and that lasted a whopping fifty days! I used to go to church, but after being thoroughly disillusioned and disgusted with the whole deal, I decided to quit and haven't regretted a moment since. I'm now a proud post-modernist deist! Yippee!
I'm quite an open-minded fellow, though, as some of my more "interesting" stories can attest. I live in Lexington, Kentucky, and enjoy watching anime, playing RPGs, reading, writing, and having new experiences. My favorite song is Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", my favorite color is silver, and my favorite number is eleven! My parents have been divorced since I was about five, and I lived with my mother and sister until I was about 23, when I moved into my current residence. Later, my mother moved to Florida. I've never been kissed, I've never had sex, and I've never smoked or taken illegal drugs, though I have drunk wine. I've only been in the hospital two after I was born: once for a finger operation (long story) and twice for a kidney stone diagnosis. I'm employed in a dead-end job and not taking any classes, though I want to.
I really began writing in my freshman year of high school, but didn't start fanfiction until my first year of college, way back in 2001. I started with "Ich bin eine goddess", a Final Fantasy 6 piece, and went on from there. I've more or less retired from fan-fiction to concentrate on original stories, which has been much more rewarding in my opinion.
Finally, you're probably wondering about my user name. Well, it's no big secret: I was inspired by the bath-maker of Genso Suikoden 2 (an RPG). His passion was making toasty baths, and anyone that used them would be—yup, you guessed it—all toasty. My very brief obsession with this strange aspect of the game led to the very username I have used ever since signing on. Weird, huh? Oh, Al Kristopher comes from the initials of my first and last name, and my entire middle name.
Well, I hope that answered your questions. Sorry for dragging on, but I assumed that someone out there was actually curious. I'll know better in the future: you all came for the stories, not for me. Let's get back to them now, shall we?
Oh, right, my line. (Ahem!)
Me: And now, back to the main story! Have fun stormin' the castle!
Communication was hard to maintain in that chaos, but the Daughters and the students and faculty of Canaan and Zion were somehow able to share information. Three of the Masters of Death had been killed so far, and now the backup from Zion had arrived in force. Golgotha's numbers had been reduced by half, but the remainder was causing plenty of mayhem; even the Daughters were having problems. Both Hera Miles and Jane Doe were discovered dead, one strangled and the other shot, while Gwen and a woman codenamed Sergeant were significantly wounded. Most of the people that had been on Hathoway's side had switched teams, except for a small cluster of faithful idealists, and another doctor was in the fray, mending the wounded as a hotheaded young woman protected her.
"I've seen that girl before," stated Nines, one of the Daughters, as everyone gathered for a meeting. "I think a few of us met her back on another mission. How odd that she's trying to help us yet again."
"You have many connections to thank for that," Alohi replied. "Several of the instructors told me that there have been people working for one organization or another for quite some time, and a few have dipped their hands into several."
"Are you suggesting they've been anticipating something like this?" Bella wondered.
"Well, Hathoway has been planning this for eight years now. The scope is amazing."
"We can have time to be impressed later," said Dagger, another Daughter. "Our first priority is sweeping out the enemy. From what you all have told us, though, I'm under the impression that this Headmaster of yours is even more dangerous."
"Is it really true that people lose the ability to fight whenever they're around her?"
"Yeah," Bella answered. "Something like that would be crucial for an operation like this."
"We could've used a power like that for the Daughters," murmured one from their group, a sensible redhead with a clear look in her eyes. "You say you want to stop her, not kill her, right? They both sound impossible. This woman's ideals would prevent you from achieving any diplomatic solutions, and her powers prevent assassination. She's literally unstoppable."
"Not quite," said Shannon, who had been thinking long and hard about this for awhile. Everyone turned to heed her suggestion. "By herself, the Headmaster can achieve very little. She still requires us to carry out her plans. Let me pose a question: who among us is still on her side?" They counted Ira, Sif, Judy, Eda, Amiya, and River as the only ones left, along with Katarina Castillo. "Most of those people are expendable to Miss Hathoway's plan. They're mere pawns in the game. But two of them are absolutely critical, and without them, she may as well be powerless."
"Who are you talking about?" asked Maya. The clairvoyant blonde gave Miss Ellison a rather haunting expression.
"One of them is your girl, River. She can completely control any electronic device, and this includes computers. If Hathoway's plan involves hacking into a computer, who else is more qualified?"
"And the other?" Nicole wondered. The haunting expression did not fade.
"Your friend, Ira Matthews. She can amplify other people's powers. If she's around Miss Hathoway and River, you can bet the results will be disastrous. Therefore, no matter what we do, we have to capture those two first. They're the cornerstones to her plan." She gazed sternly at the crowd, especially those closest to the two she mentioned. They had to realize that they could not let their emotions get in the way. So much depended on the success of this operation…
"I'll go talk to River," Maya volunteered suddenly, "and Eda too, if I have to. I may be able to change their minds. If worse comes to worse…I'll force them out."
"It'll be tough," Cathy promised her. "Are you sure you can handle it?" She nodded her head firmly.
"I have to."
"What about Ira? Sif and Judy are pretty chummy with her. If you're going to face her, Nicole, you've got some serious obstacles ahead of you."
"No worries," she grinned. "I have faith."
"You shouldn't go alone," said Kali, of all people. "I'll come with you. I'll debilitate them if I have to."
"Now that's what I call tough love!" Winty exclaimed. "What about the rest of us?"
"Split up," Nines sighed. "We need help everywhere. Stop the enemies, secure the base, help the wounded, all that fun stuff. Daughters, each of us should pick about three or four of the students and separate into different areas. Those that are assigned to stop that woman and her companions ought to move out immediately."
"We're on our way!" There was no time for tearful goodbyes or desperate oaths; every second from here on out was precious.
Daria Irwin had been absent from the "meeting", and as such, she was all alone as she wandered through the endless corridors. Isolation didn't bother her so much; it was the possibility of finding something in the solitude that scared her. Every door seemed to offer the same possibilities, so she opened one at random and slipped inside, hoping for the best. A terror above all other terrors awaited her—she had stumbled across the large indoor pool the Daughters used as exercise and recreation. The mere sight of all that water struck Daria numb, and she whimpered feebly.
"One of them went this way! Don't let them get away!" Evil voices echoed through the halls and enveloped her shivering body with further dread. Daria's feet were like putty, her legs wrapped in iron, her waist stiff and unresponsive. She put everything she had into turning around, choosing to face her enemies rather than her deepest dread. She could already spot five black-clad soldiers coming her way, bearing weapons and cruel expressions, and one among them seemed to be the living personification of death itself.
Daria had once heard that every single person has special moments in their lives that they can use to prove their character. As she stood there trembling between the proverbial rock and hard place, she knew that this was her moment. She would finally have to acknowledge her fears and discard them; no longer could she stay childish. At first she allowed rage and terror to consume her, as she usually did, but then another path was opened to her—a beautiful, patient, strong sense of power, far greater than anything she had used before.
I believe in you, Emelia. You're the coolest ever! You mean you're in love with ME? Emelia…I'll love you no matter what. Let's stay together. Jeez, you're even wilder than I am! Ooh, sexy! You're my light, darling, and my anchor in the storm. You can do it, Daria. Look, see? I'm wearing a dress! Burn it into your mind, baby, cuz' it ain't happening again! I want to help you, lover. I'm there for you. I love you.
"There she is! Kill her!" Daria stood perfectly still, her heart clear and her face fixed in peaceful ecstasy, as the pool's water surged out and smashed against her foes, washing them all away. The force of the water was so powerful that it dashed Staff, one of the Masters of Death, straight against the wall, shattering every bone in his body. Daria took a quiet breath when it was all over. Not a single drop had touched her body.
"Well," she whispered, "won't Heidi be pleased?"
Kali Evans ran into Sif Saki first, and luckily for her, the younger girl was too weary to put up a fight. Just to be safe, she tackled her and pressed her bare hands against her face, asking for forgiveness. Sif managed to throw her off, but the damage was done—she'd be under the weather in no time at all.
"Damn, why'd you do that? You're usually not this crazy."
"Sorry, but I had to stop you. Where's Ira?"
"Why do you want to know? Ugh, did you have to splatter your greasy hands all over me? I feel like I'm going to puke up last week's supper."
"I wasn't sure if you'd go along quietly. Look, we need to stop this."
"We? From what I know, you're not the type to join in on social activities. Why the sudden interest?" Kali snorted and crossed her arms. This was such a waste of time…
"Look, believe it or not, I really don't like using my powers. It gets me on this vicious cycle and there's no stopping it. I want to turn my life around—I want to start using my powers for good, if that's even possible." Despite her fragile state, Sif laughed out loud.
"You're joking, right? Use your powers for good?"
"Why not? I've seen the light. I've been given something terrible, and since I can't reverse it, I may as well try and do something worthwhile. Listen Sif, I don't know you at all. I don't know why you're going along with this or why you think this is such a good idea. All I know is that you have a gift, and it's a hell of a lot better than mine, and…I think you should put it to better use. Do you honestly think everything will be all right if Hathoway's plans are put into motion?"
Sif Saki ruffled her hair, coughed for a spell, and sat down, groaning. "I'm too tired to put up a fight. Anyway, if Hathoway does make everything nice and happy all over, there'll be no such thing as conflict, right? I'll die if that happens. I thrive on its challenge. Can't say I'd like to take part in this anymore. I just figured…it'd be better than doing nothing. Damn, but you're annoying."
"Yeah, I know. Listen, thanks for changing your mind."
"Oh, no problem," she grunted, coughing aggressively. "After all…it's only through a window of pain that we see the truth. Hey!" she shouted as loud as possible. "Is there a doctor in the house?"
"One of the mercenaries we've teamed up with could easily fix you up. Actually, to tell you the truth, I've wanted to be a doctor myself."
"Oh. Really." Sif smiled darkly as she staggered past Kali; Evans could only hope she'd make it back safely. She didn't care about her own life—she'd devote her entire self to this single deed! Maybe then she could atone…
Turn a corner in an unknown secret base and you're bound to run into anybody.
Kali slammed against the ground as Club, a Master of Death, smashed his trademark weapon against her shoulder.
"This time I won't miss," he hissed as he raised the weapon again. Kali couldn't move, not even to save her life or fight back. She sighed and accepted her demise with quiet dignity—it was about time her miserable existence ended. Yet it was not to be, for her guardian angel intercepted, reaching out a hand of mercy to stop the blow.
"Shame on you!" cried Millicent, jamming Club with her finger. "What's the idea, picking on this woman? Can't you behave like a gentleman?"
"Shut up!" He dashed his weapon against her face, then smashed her several times once she was down. Club was relentless; the studded weapon crashed again and again and again against Millicent's body, until it was saturated with blood and slivers of flesh. Club took a heaving breath and kicked the older woman for good measure, then turned around to finish his deed.
"Your turn," he growled. Kali jumped in surprise, but not because of the threat looming over her. Millicent literally rose from her own destruction, climbing up deliberately like a Queen of Zombies, and plunged her hand right through Club's body, impaling it with her vampirish claw.
"You shouldn't have done that," she snarled in his ear. Darkness and doom beyond mortal comprehension overwhelmed Club, and he was permitted a final chilling scream as Aynesworth literally ripped him in half. She crouched down and, to Kali's terrified shock, began lapping up the gallons of blood gushing out of his body. When she had her fill, she rose up again, her face painted with black crimson, her eyes shivering with ferocious glee, her fangs bared and glistening in the light.
Then she took a breath and, ever the lady, wiped herself clean.
And, of course, hiccupped a bit. "Excuse me," she whispered. Kali was stunned, quivering from head to toe, and couldn't muster up the courage to speak until Millicent knelt down, touched her face, and smiled sweetly. "Sorry you had to see that. I become very agitated when I see somebody treat my loved ones so cruelly. I hope I didn't scar you too much, dear."
"M-miss Aynesworth?" Kali whispered. The sound of her frightened voice broke Millicent's heart.
"…That was SO COOL!"
Maya didn't know if she could bring herself to forcibly change River's mind. She realized how important her task was, but her emotions were turning into her worst enemy. She just wanted to hold that dear woman, to kiss her and caress her, to laugh and play and dance with her—Maya wanted to live with River, and controlling her mind was not something she wanted to add. She respected River's right to free will, and everyone else's…but she also knew there were times when that will simply had to be bent! The choice was excruciating, and Maya hoped she'd never have to make it. She didn't even want to entertain the possibility.
Good fortune was on her side. She discovered Eda and Amiya lying on the floor together, desperately clutching onto each other as they rested from a recent battle. There were no Golgotha soldiers around—the girls had combined their powers to frighten them all away—it was just the two of them, too feeble to resist. Maya's heart went out to them and she raced over to help.
"Dr. Blair-Marcos, I found them! They look pretty bad!"
"Oh, hey," Eda mumbled as she noticed them. "Did you all come to finish us off?"
"Of course not! We just want everyone safe and sound back home. We want to forget about all this nonsense. Where's River?"
"I honestly wish I knew," Eda grumbled, sounding horribly dejected. "And as for coming back, I'm all for it. I'm sick of all this anyway. Fighting is not in my blood. I just want to create. I want to be with River and Amiya. Please forgive us for what we've done."
"There's nothing to forgive," Maya assured them. She even smiled at Amiya, and stroked her hair lovingly. Eldrid coughed in pleasure.
"You're…so kind, even to someone like me."
"Well, I do understand what it's like to be shunned, and I've done far more monstrous things. I tend to believe that a sinner can forgive other sinners the best."
"Sounds like something I'd know about," Corona said with a smirk. She concluded her diagnosis happily: "They're in good shape, just worn-out. When you two can stand again, someone will escort you out." Eda was already struggling to her feet, and refused any help or rebuke.
"I'll…be heading out now. If you're looking for River, then let me follow you. I…know her better than anyone. I can reach her."
"Thank you." Maya hugged her warmly; Sylvestre gave Amiya a parting kiss before shuffling away. That left just three more in their way…
Well, better make it two. Judy's heart was moved by Sif's sincerity, and besides, she just couldn't bring herself to fight against Nicole or Katrina, no matter how much she claimed to hate them.
The Daughters fought against Professor Jun several times, winning and losing a few battles here and there, as several in their number hadn't yet accepted the truth about themselves. The final battle resulted in his apparent death—Delilah Eaglestone out of all people was the one to deliver the killing blow—but Jun emerged from destruction to frown upon the mercenaries once again.
"I cannot die," he boomed. "I am the living truth, neither good nor evil, and I will exist until time itself no longer has a meaning. I will take on other identities, but I shall always be myself. However, it seems I am no longer capable of staying here. The stage is set in such a way that even I cannot foresee the outcome. Victory or defeat will be determined by a thin margin. Whom amongst your group shall bear witness to the final moments?"
His sudden disappearance frightened a lot of the Daughters, but they didn't let that distract them from their duty. Golgotha had been almost completely eradicated by that point, and except for a few stubborn pockets and the final Master of Death, their base was secure once more. The final battle was beginning, and they all wanted to be there to determine the outcome; nothing would get in their way. Delilah was the only one in the group that had reservations—after all, she had attended Canaan Academy before being recruited by the Daughters of Virtue, and she knew many of the instructors on a personal level. She had admired and even loved Romia Hathoway, and had at first been in favor of her ideals. Now, though, she wasn't so certain.
"Stay sharp, girl!" Reflex growled at her, flashing a grin. "Just keep your eyes open to the big picture! I know it hurts, so clench your teeth and be firm!"
"Odd to have thee encouraging me," she noted.
"Ha! You kiddin'? You are by far the weirdest woman I've ever met. If anyone needs encouraging, it's you!"
"Thy concern uplifts me," she muttered sarcastically. Reflex laughed and picked up the pace; Eagle didn't dare lag behind.
There was very little hope of finding the vagrant students and faculty. Eda, Amiya, and Judy had no idea where they had ran off to, and even the base's residents didn't know where the desired Operating System was. Yolanda Kinoi was forced to disclose that information; she would have to exercise perfect trust in everybody. Because this was no longer their fight, the Daughters volunteered to stay behind and clean up the mess Golgotha had made, while the students and faculty plunged forth into the unknown.
They felt lucky to have run into Romia and the others before their plan was carried out. Hathoway's powers prevented anybody from attacking her, but there's always more than one way around these sorts of things. Penny called out to them and trembled the ground; Maya and Eda raced towards River, unwilling to let anything stop them. Katarina quickly engaged them and even fought them, going so far as to punch the headstrong women. She stated that she would do anything to have her lover's dream realized, even lay down her own life.
"Goodness," called a man's voice, "is it necessary to be so violent? Romia, Kitty-cat, let's discuss this like adults!" The man shoved through the crowd of girls and smiled gaily at the women, but they lurched back in surprise and disgust.
"It's you. What are you doing here, Soleiyu?"
"Just keeping an eye on my daughter," he answered innocently. "I also figured I could ask some of the women in the area out on a date. Who'd've figured I'd run into you beauties?" Castillo stepped forth to challenge him, but Romia held her back.
"No, don't approach him. He doesn't look like it, but that man is very dangerous to our plan. Do me a favor and keep him occupied. I'll set everything up."
"Are you sure?" Romia nodded firmly.
"He has a power that defeats my own. I can't be caught by him."
"I understand. You'll not see him again." Romia sprinted away while Katarina, River, and Ira stayed behind. Soleiyu smiled warmly, raised his hands in surrender, and approached the women.
"Kitten, look at me. You wouldn't harm this face, would you?"
She slapped him.
"That wasn't nice," he pouted. Suddenly, several of the girls jumped her and held her down. She tried using her powers of charismatic persuasion, but found herself lacking for an unknown reason. As she glared out from the tangled net of arms and legs, Soleiyu grinned childishly at her and waved.
"Like I said…"
"Your words sting me not, fair lass!" he proclaimed theatrically. The man shoved his hands in his pockets and signaled to the students. "All right, your friends are right over there. I'll go after Goldilocks myself. Be sure nobody else follows me—not guard nor Daughter nor enemy, not even your closest friend. I want to face Miss Hathoway alone." He walked away whistling; Ira and River couldn't stop him. A blanket of darkness seemed to cloud their abilities as he slipped between them, and was lifted once he was gone. What was that all about?
"Whatever," Ira sighed. "We won't stick around here long. I don't know about anybody else, but I've come too far to back down now."
"What about you, River?" Eda asked, looking deep into the soul of her closest and dearest friend. "Why did you come along with the Headmaster? Why did you agree to this fighting? What purpose do you think this will serve?"
"I don't have to answer you," she snorted, crossing her arms. Eda walked over and easily untangled her limbs; she then caressed River's cheeks and rubbed their noses together.
"(You did this for me,)" she whispered, "(didn't you?)"
"(Huh? N-no, Eda, I…)"
"You don't have to say it. Look, Riv, I've done some thinking. I only joined because I heard you and Amiya would be here and I didn't want to feel left out. But that's hardly a reason. The truth is, I really just wanted to be with the people I care about. It doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing, I'd like to be there. None of this configures with the life I've wanted. You and Amiya both have healed me a little. Just stop, please, before you get hurt."
River sighed in defeat. This girl knew her way too intimately.
"Maya," she said, "do you have anything to add?"
"Nope," she answered pertly. "Eda said it all. What about you, Ira?" Miss Matthews just chuckled, and held up her middle finger proudly.
"Hey, screw all you girls. This is my chance to be a part of something bigger, and I'm not about to give it up just because I'm outnumbered. I'm as passionate as Hathoway and Castillo are."
"But you have to stop," Maya stated, turning her powers on full force. "Ira, stop what you're doing and come over to our side. We're not mad at you, we just want you to be safe."
"Screw you," she whispered, as her legs wobbled towards the group. "Screw you all! I…why are you doing this? Don't you want to live in a world where people no longer hate us? Don't you want to live in a society that has forgotten how to fight, or hate, or even sin? We'd be in Heaven! Why are you all dragging everybody into Hell?"
"You call that Heaven?" said Judy, gesturing violently. "What a load. You've been fed nothing but garbage. I wonder if you're too far gone to save."
"I don't want anybody saving me!" Ira wailed as she was thrust into the arms of her companions. They bound her legs and hands, but kept her mouth free; she had the right to an opinion, after all. "Let me go, damn it! My heart's set on this! How dare you take away my right to a decision!"
"But isn't Romia Hathoway doing the same thing?" asked Sharon. Ira froze as she realized the older woman spoke the truth. This plan would rob everyone of the most basic human privilege. Nobody had the right to do that!
"I hate this," she groaned, submitting at last. A sigh of relief passed over the crowd.
"I guess it's over," said Bella. "We just need to grab the Headmaster and get ourselves back home. Easier said than done, right?"
"Don't worry about that!" They all turned around to face this new voice, and were surprised to discover a girl none of them could identify. She had a wild yet sweet face, blazing eyes of two different colors, and jet-black hair with yellow streaks in it. In one hand was a wooden sword; the other was clenched in determination. "Hiya, Ivory Tran at your service! My old man went ahead, didn't he?"
"You're Soleiyu's daughter?" Teal gawked. Ivory nodded.
"Ahuh! If my papa has went on ahead, you can bet he's already cornered that Hathoway bitch. He's got mad skills that will even kick her ass, so stop worrying!"
"We don't want her dead," Sakuya corrected her, "she just needs to be stopped."
"Don't worry," Teal assured her, "Soleiyu Tran would never harm a woman, at least not physically. Still, I have a funny feeling that he may need our help. Call it women's intuition."
Even though she was facing the final stages of her plan all by herself, Romia Hathoway was confident she could accomplish her goals. She had anticipated betrayals and second thoughts, and even fights between the two sides. The only person she genuinely trusted was Katarina Castillo; everyone else was just a pawn, a stepping-stone, a face in the crowd, somebody to use and discard as she pleased. That wasn't to say she regarded everyone with cruelty—quite the contrary! She loved them all dearly, but she never let her emotions get in the way once she dedicated herself to the task.
She had counted on being stopped, even while she was this near to the finish line. The very last of the Masters of Death, the man called Fist, posed as her last obstacle as he tightened his gauntlets. But even an army of assassins couldn't stop her—one time they had even tried! This man was no different, and she strode proudly past him, while he did nothing but open his mouth and tremble. The Operating System was the next room away; she shivered with delight.
A terrible rumble of thunder jerked her back to see who would dare fire upon her. The bullet hadn't struck her, of course, but Fist instead, right through the chest. He groped at the air with his studded gauntlets for a few pathetic moments, then fell down, perished. There was an attractive Japanese woman kneeling down in classic sniper formation, and she held the weapon that ended Fist's life. Hathoway beamed with joy and approached her.
"Thank you!" she gushed. "If you hadn't come, I'm sure he would've proved to be a terrible nuisance. What's your name?" The girl stuttered for a few frightening seconds. She had lived her entire life as a killer, and concluding lives was part of her daily repertoire. She shouldn't have had any trouble removing this gentle blonde from the mortal world, yet…she hesitated, unable to deal the final blow. Why?
"Arisaka," she blurted. "And who the hell are you?"
"Me?" Her face beamed with motherly love as she curled her fingers around Arisaka's chin and, gradually, wrapped them around her neck. "I am the apex of humanity. Were you sent to kill me?"
"Yes," whispered the young woman. She shuddered as she felt cool palms clasp her throat.
"So kill me," Romia whispered, sweet as a dove's song. "Kill me now, Arisaka. End my life. Walk the path of blood. What's the matter?" she exclaimed, her laughter shrill. "I'm right in front of you! I'm defenseless. Here, look, I'll help—look!" She pressed the barrel of Arisaka's sniper rifle against her chest, nestling it directly over her heart. "All it takes is a little twitch of your finger. What's wrong? Aren't you able?" Arisaka wanted to, she really did, but something—a barrier, an alarm, a sensation too powerful to conquer—something was stopping her.
"I…can't!" she hissed in terror. "I can't…"
"Of course you can't," Romia intoned, enveloping Arisaka's throat again. "Nobody can." She grinned warmly, and slowly began to squeeze…
A second gunshot went off, grazing her ear as strands of golden hair were severed.
Arisaka fell to the floor, coughing and rubbing her neck.
"I know you're bisexual, Romia," came a strong man's voice, "but isn't she a little too young for you? Why not try for an older person—like me?"
Hathoway snarled like a cornered wolf. It was that man again!
"Soleiyu, why are you interfering? A dog like you should've been kept in a stronger kennel."
"Ah, but even the old Professor couldn't control me," he sang. Romia inched away from him as he approached Arisaka and checked her. She was healthy, just a little jilted, and kept wondering how she could've failed so miserably. "Oh, it's not your fault, fair dame," he told her. "That goddess over there has the ability to take away a person's fighting spirit! I, of course, have a vaguely similar power, so I'd like to confront her. Do be a dear and run off: I'd like to have a heart-to-heart."
"Be good, now!" he exclaimed, grinning warmly. Even Arisaka's stony heart was touched by his genuine smile, so she backed down and made herself scarce. Soleiyu finally got what he wanted—a private audience with Canaan's Headmaster. "Well, this was a fun trip, but now I must ask you to please stop. It's not that I hate the idea of being your servant—I've actually dreamed about it several times—I just can't stand seeing my daughter mope around. Conflict is what makes life interesting, my dear Miss Hathoway, and if you robbed that away from the world, you'd be sending it into its grave."
"Then it shall die happily," she smiled. Soleiyu Tran suddenly ran up and punched her right in the cheek, then grabbed her by the collar and stared straight into her eyes.
"That was just a reminder, Romia!" he said rather firmly. "You know I don't like to hurt women, but you needed to know what I was capable of. Have you forgotten that I have the ability to take people's special powers away?"
"It seems I have," she replied vaguely. "But you've forgotten something as well."
"And what might that be?"
"You used to have a gun." Soleiyu cringed as the bullet chewed into his arm, and was thrown back from the impact. Romia fired several more times—warning shots aimed to send him scurrying—and grinned maliciously as the gun's ammunition went dry. She tossed it away, turned around, and kept right on walking.
"Even you can't stop me this time. I have every means necessary to complete my task."
"You won't get far without your students," he grunted. Romia wheeled around and, with a scary gleam in her eyes, produced a CD from her coat pocket.
"As long as I have this, I won't need them. You honestly didn't think I'd come all this way without a backup plan, did you?"
"Thank our friend Eckert," Romia purred as she turned her back on him. "He never went anywhere without backups either. Too bad he lost his memory. I guess somebody had to claim his resources. Well, so long, Saint. When you see me again, I will be a goddess."
She opened the door to Heaven. Omnipotence was calling for her.
"Wait! There's one more thing you forgot!" His arm seared with unusually strong pain as he forced himself to reach into his jacket for his very last resort, his ace in the hole.
"What's that?" He smiled tightly and pulled out a canister containing sneezing powder.
"I have a backup too." He threw it with all his might and struck true; the glass broke directly underneath Romia's feet. She stumbled as the sneezing overpowered her, and while she was distracted, Soleiyu climbed to his feet and started to crawl towards her.
Something odd happened while all this was going on. Up until then, none of the security personnel had been able to follow Mr. Tran because Romia's power was keeping them away. With their will to fight lost, they didn't see the point of going after them—but now, on occasion, it felt like that power was muffled or severely weakened, sometimes even stopping completely. It came to them in waves, like a fickle breeze or sunshine on a clouded day, and they felt their strength returning. They decided to storm in, orders or not, and leveled their weapons as the greatest wave of freedom hit them.
As long as Romia's heart was beating, her powers would continue to spread.
If, however, her heart stopped…like a heart will during a sneeze…
Soleiyu's screaming couldn't stop the gunfire. Romia Hathoway was perforated in seconds.
"Oh god!" Moaning with remorse, he ran over to cradle her bloody body. He was the only one who heard her final words.
He wept bitterly as the flower wilted. His rage was justified.
"You fools! I told you not to follow me! This is why you…" He couldn't bring himself to talk; he just wailed and buried his face in her ruptured chest. The noises were now drawing a crowd, and the students and faculty and Daughters crowded around to witness this depressing event. Katarina Castillo's cry of anguish rose up above everything else, and she tore through the crowds and shoved Soleiyu aside as she screamed over her lover's body.
"I…but…" The guards were stupefied; they didn't know what to do. Yolanda Kinoi laid a hand of comfort on their shoulders.
"It's too late now. Don't worry about it." One by one, they all bared their heads and covered their hearts, some kneeling and others holding onto loved ones. The mission to prevent this catastrophe had succeeded, but…
"It's over," Katarina whispered, her words drenched in sorrow. "All of it. Everything is over. My darling, I…I am so sorry. Please forgive me for being such a failure. Please forgive me, please."
And, in the presence of everyone there, Castillo kissed Romia's bloody lips and recited a poem that broke every heart there.
The things I felt when you were near to me,
The joy, the flame that leapt within my heart,
These things I hid, I said they could not be,
The sparks of love within me could not start.
For with these flames I feared there would come pain,
Rejection, if you did not love me too.
Then all my love for you would be in vain
And all that I had dreamed for me and you.
That's why I took a chance and let you know
And hoped that you would answer with your love.
You did! I never dreamed it could be so,
And now there's nothing I can't rise above
My very spirit reaches for the sky
And love for you I know will never die.
Because of the enormous uproar the events in question caused, organizations across the world agreed to permanently shut down Canaan and Zion Academies. The actions and intents of the schools had been kept very secret until recently; Romia and Jun were counting on being exposed as they put their final plan into motion, and with its failure, the academies were revealed for what they were. People all across the globe feared what these institutions would do if they were given the chance to prosper, so naturally, that potential threat was severed. The students arrived on campus only to hear this grim news from its new occupants.
Suddenly, the final pillar of security they had relied upon had been stolen out from beneath them, leaving them to crumble. To add insult to this fatal injury, the students were all instructed to pack up their things, conclude their business, and leave the island as quickly as possible. This dizzying turn of events didn't bode well with anybody, and much protest was made, though it was all in vain. Nobody could stop this machine now that it had been set into motion, and so they were forced to abandon their home, just a few months shy of graduation.
A brooding sense of déjà vu stabbed Hebe Fuery as she hovered over her two cases of luggage. How had she managed to stuff her entire life into these unassuming bags, anyway? Did she feel that a third case would only encumber her, or was there so very little to her existence? It probably didn't matter; she was ready to leave, but not willing to go, not by a long shot. She'd need a week to wrap everything up.
She planned on saying goodbye to everyone at the port, but she had to see Kory and Naolin personally before all that. The two of them were planning to live together and attend a public school for the duration of their high school years, then the road became uncertain and adventurous. She revealed her love for them and left the dorm feeling cleansed, but the trip to the port was frightening. How had everything transformed so quickly? It was disastrous—that was the only way to describe it. Just disastrous…
Neither Shannon nor Lee acknowledged the outside world as they embraced each other, perhaps for the last time ever. It just wasn't fair—why did they have to live so far apart? They both thought that their love could overcome everything, but now the grim face of Distance loomed over them. Lee lived in China, Shannon in America—how could they keep the fire going when they were so far apart? They both posed a slew of suggestions, but in the end, they just wept, fearing that this was the end.
Felicity was actually looking forward to her future. After all, she was going to quit her drifter's life and would settle in with the Marquis family, along with her treasured Jeannette. Heidi and Daria also seemed unaffected by the change; they could adapt easily since they kept in touch in the outside world. Nicole was running around hugging all the unlikely friends she had made: Sif, Katrina, Judy, Isadora, Hebe, Ira… Alohi… She stayed in Argus's arms the longest, and swore to keep in touch with her. Their parting gesture was a deep kiss of love, one meant to draw them together again, someday…
Minh and Winty also seemed impervious to the whims of fate; their future was pretty much set in stone. Everyone wished them luck, and hoped that they would each have a long and happy life together. River's prospects seemed very uncertain, because her heart was still divided, and although Maya had shown her an attractive new side to her personality, she still yearned for Eda. To be honest, Eda wasn't as clueless as she pretended, and she wondered what would happen if River ever really came clean. She loved her best friend as well, but was it the bittersweet feeling of romance, or sheer sisterly adoration, as she had kept for her whole life? She couldn't say. Amiya, who was still at her side, clutched her hand quietly, averting her visions.
Speaking of people who wanted to come clean, Isadora felt she needed to confess something to her girlfriend. It had been fun, she began, but it was time to be realistic—a long-distance relationship wouldn't work out, and she wanted to amicably break up. Hebe understood and let Isadora go without a fight; she knew where the girl's heart was leading her anyway. They embraced each other and kissed one last time, positive that they would meet again. Hebe was ready to say farewell to another friend, but a voice rose up from the crowd to divert her attention.
"Hebe, wait!" It was difficult to figure out who was calling for her in that large crowd, so she peered over the sea of heads to see who it was. She noticed Kory stumbling towards her, burrowing through the crowd like a mole, a small sack in her hand.
"Hey Kory, what's up? You and I already said our farewells back in my dorm."
"Yeah, about that!" she panted. A playfully cruel smile curled on her lips as her eyes glinted mischievously. "It seems you forgot something."
"Oh? What was it?" The blonde reached into the sack she had and plucked out a large brassiere, dangling it for everyone to see.
"Your 'special underwear'." Hebe's face flashed in shock as she groaned and smacked herself.
Change does not come easy for some, while others embrace it, smiling gaily at the unknown horizon. Teal and Sharon were going to start a family; Gwen and Sakuya had a lifetime ahead of them. Millicent would be taking Kali under her wing; Sif would develop herself in the company of Judy Roldes, a truly challenging individual. Cathy was looking at a life where she would be freed of demons, just so long as a certain someone stood by her side; Belinda Richards shared the exact same sentiment, and held onto her lover's hand as they waited for the final ferry to arrive.
Penny joked about how they were all like Tolkien's Ring-bearers, and they were heading into the west for their eternal rewards. After talking with Isadora in their dorm (and subsequently, Margaret over the phone), a sketchy arrangement was made. Margaret decided to forgive her ex-girlfriend, and gave her the gift of freedom, but only on the condition that she use it wisely. Penny would join Katrina when they arrived, and together they would live independently, whatever circumstance brought to them. Isadora felt pretty good about the arrangement, since she was attaining her heart's desire.
Ira Matthews was despondent, however. Being the very last to abandon Hathoway's dream (and even then her choice had been reluctant), she felt the most hollow, the most unworthy, the most abandoned. Embracing her friends seemed meaningless, returning to her boyfriend seemed pointless, even life itself seemed like one giant waste of time to her. She had honestly wanted Hathoway's dream to come true, and even though her mind had changed, she regretted her actions. She was going to make a difference! Ah, but now, she was just another face in the crowd.
She didn't expect Heidi Moore to come out and say how much she'd be missed. She really felt it was a blessing to spend her very last year at Canaan with Ira. Ira was really a wonderful girl, and Heidi was sad to see her go. Maybe they'd run into each other, or schedule a meeting, or their paths would cross again and they would talk about the old days. Ira was really special; she was a good sensible person in a big crazy world, and Heidi loved her dearly. Well, if that didn't lift her spirits…
And what the heck, she decided, before planting a big wet one on the girl's lips. It wouldn't kill her or make her gay, and Heidi was pretty cool. That look she gave Ira was totally worth it.
Raye felt a little heartbroken when she heard the news: Katarina Castillo had secretly snuck off the ferry as it carried everyone back to Canaan, and nobody had seen or heard from her since. She guessed the woman was just grieving, and would need time to pick up the pieces of her life. The Vhirmin sisters were gone as well, presumably to begin a new life somewhere, where their physical and mental differences would never be questioned or judged. It was too bad; she was one of the few that liked them, and she had wanted to say farewell. But at least she got to see everyone else.
She was generally happy with her future; Akeelah would integrate her into the family, and once she graduated from high school, they would move in together and be lovers for life. Ruxandra was a different story, however. She refused Akeelah's invitation to move in, declaring that she needed to go on a quest to find her real family. Elena was going with her, so they wouldn't be alone, but Akeelah was still sad to see her go—and Raye had to admit, she was as well. Roxie had been such a good friend to her…to them all!
So it was no wonder Akeelah and Roxie told each other about their love, and hugged one another tightly, and even shared a long sweet kiss together. Raye couldn't possibly be jealous of that; Roxie was dear to her as well. She took the younger girl into her arms and even dared to peck her own lips, just to be funny and sweet. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, sorrowful partings echoing sweetly across the campus. The ship came into view before long, and a chorus of farewells and expressions of love rose up as the students of Canaan left so many friends and memories behind.
Yet no matter where their paths took them or what destiny had in store, one single question would haunt these girls for the rest of their lives:
Did they really do the right thing?