Chapter 12:

Join Me in the Rabbit Hole, pt. 2

Izumi blinked, swayed, and fell on her face. Her head throbbed, and she wasn't sure if it was the blinding light, the sensations of magic, or the pulsing anger. All she had asked for was one last, normal day before diving into this magic business, and now this. She crawled to a sitting position, letting her aura spark to life like an azure flame. "Alright, who went and got in my—What…the…heck?"

She looked out at the alien world around her, and felt her jaw go slack. It looked just like the square in Shirosaki Town, down to the misspelled sign on the bookstore across the street. There were no signs of life. No cars, no trash on the ground, no distant honking of horns or chattering voices. It was as if someone had built a replica of her hometown and then abandoned it. The sky was blank, with neither sun nor moon, but everything was tainted by a sick yellow light that seemed to come from everywhere at once.

"You alright?"

Izumi jumped away from the hand on her shoulder. She almost laughed when she saw Hiroto standing there. "Don't scare me like that," she said, then regretted it. Her voice floated away as a ghostly echo. Sound itself seemed like a foreign concept here.

She shivered. "What is this place?"

"Looks like we got caught in a fold," Hiroto said without looking at her, scanning the yellow world as he dug a long black coat out of his bag. He didn't seem to notice her blank look.

"Okay," she said. "That's cool. And a fold is…?"

"It's a fold in the Veil, a wrinkle in the barrier between the physical world and the spirit realm," he said. "They let us straddle both the physical world and the spirit world without being completely in either. The Magister's Society uses them sometimes when we deal with monsters that try to come through the Veil. Whatever happens here doesn't affect either world. Or can be detected by another mage," he added. "A nice, private prison.

"On the bright side," he said, "Only mages can go into folds, so Takahashi and the others are safe outside." He chuckled. "They're probably going nuts wondering where we disappeared to."

"Yeah," Akira said, "about that..."

Izumi jumped a meter off the ground, and whirled around to glare at the silver haired girl. Then Akira's words sank in, and the blood drained from her face. "You're not…?" Akira answered with a jerk of her thumb over her shoulder. Kiko, Yukari and even Ushio were sprawled along the pavement. She heard Hiroto curse as she ran to them, panicked fear swelling in her breast as she realized they were hardly breathing. But before she could even put a hand to them, Yukari began to cough like a drowned swimmer brought to life.

"Why…why…why did we…why did the sun come fall outta the sky?" Yukari said. Her voice came out as a smokey rasp and her eyes rattled about in her head. Izumi let out a sigh and helped Akira pull the girl to her feet. "Momma, is that you? Why did the sky fall onna-my head?"

"Just a bit of cross-planar shock," Akira said. Izumi blinked. "Don't worry, she'll be fine."

Yukari put out her arms and started making airplane noises.

"Are you sure?" Izumi said.

"It'll wear off in a minute. I've had some…experience with it."

"Like all the time?" Hiroto said. He grinned over his shoulder as he pulled Ushio to a sitting position and propped him against the wall. "Remember that time you thought you were a cat? You got on all fours and started meowing, and…"

"Shut up!"

Kiko groaned and shifted against Izumi's shoulder. "You guys are so noisy," she said. "I was trying to take a nap."

"Are you okay?" Izumi asked.

"If by okay you mean 'Do I feel like I was dropped off Tokyo Tower onto my head?' then yes." Kiko said. "Oh gawd, what happened? I remember Senpuu flipping out about that coin and then…oh gawd! What happened to the sky?"

"I'm still trying to figure that out myself," Izumi said. "Some kind of magic sent us to another dimension, or something weird like that."

"Magic? What are you talking about?"

"Well you see…" Izumi's voice trailed off as she saw Hiroto and Akira's negatory gestures. She stuck her tongue out and almost carried on, but Kiko's quizzical expression killed the word. "What I meant to say was…was that it's CGI…"

"Bwhahaha! There's no need to lie, Girly. Your friends are already as deep in it as you are." Izumi turned about and found a man across the street perched on a parking meter like an oversized pigeon. He was a sallow, pale man, late twenties and dressed in a suit at least fifteen years out of style, and chomping on a cigarette. "And really, CGI? That's a terrible cover story.

"Kinda surprised, though," the man said and hopped onto the ground. "More people here than the little ojou-sama said there would. Oh well, it's not like I don't mind babysitting for a little while. I like kids. So long as they behave."

Akira laughed. "Oh, is that what you want us to do? Sit tight and wait for your Moon Guard friends to come and take Izumi off to who knows where? And I suppose you'll just let us all go if we don't give you any trouble."

"Hey, you're pretty sharp, aren't you, little guy?" the man said, lighting up like his kid had come home with a perfect test. "Just out of primary school, and already picking schemes apart like a pro."

"I'm a sixteen year old girl!"

"Oh, my bad. Mahousen Hitomi Izumi," he said, offering a slight bow. "My name is Shirahata Kenichi. And as your friend guessed, I'll be the one keeping an eye on you from here on out. Or at least, I'm one of them. The guy they had me working with doesn't seem to have shown up yet. Must have gotten lost; he didn't sound so bright over the phone"

Izumi didn't think he seemed all that smart himself, but bit her tongue. There wasn't any reason to provoke the magic-powered terrorist until they had to. It would be better to keep him distracted for now, until they found a way to get Kiko and Yukari safe. Her stomach turned over with guilt for having gotten them involved. "Hey, Kiko-chan, I…"

"Just a sec," Kiko said, cutting Izumi off as she helped Hiroto lower Yukari against the wall beside Ushio. And then began to smack her across the face. "Hey, Yukari. Get ahold of yourself. Stuff is happening. Come on."

Yukari came alive with a tiny scream. "Wha-! Oh, Kiko-chan, I'm sorry, did I fall asleep? I had such an odd dream. I thought I was an airplane. And why is the sky yellow?"

"Magic, apparently," Kiko said as she yanked Yukari up.

"Huh? Izumi-chan, what is this weirdo talking about?"

"Now's not really the time," Hiroto said, shoving Izumi behind him before she could say anything. She gave him her nastiest scowl, but he ignored her. "Just stay out of the way, and we'll give you all the explanation you want."

"Hey, Senpuu," Kiko said and laughed. "What's with the trenchcoat? Is this some kind of cosplay show, or you expecting rain?"

Akira giggled. "I keep telling you those uniforms are silly."

"Will you two shut up?" he said.

"What about me?" Izumi said. "I won't be just a battery this time."

"You barely have any training," Hiroto said. "You'd just- I mean, let me and Akira take care of it."

"What was that?" Izumi said, "'You'd just get in the way?' Is that what you were about to say, Hiroto-kun?"

"Could you two cool it down for now?" Akira said.

"Hey," said the kidnapper. "Kids?"

"Seriously," Kiko droned, "What's going on? Who is that guy?"

"Kiko-chan," said Yukari, "Hanino-sempai hasn't woken up yet. I'm beginning to get a little worried."

"Oy, Izumi-chan. Can we do this after we've gotten out of here? Hiroto does have a point?"

"Are you on his side now, Akira-chan? You think I should stay in the background and wait to be rescued again?"

"N-no, that's not it at a-all. I just want you to be safe."

"Hey! Quit ignoring me!"

"Now you look here. I am sick to death of all these assassins and…"

A black mass flashed past Izumi and stuck in the wall of the fake ice cream shop. She gawked at the missile as it quavered centimeters from her nose, a noise like a stalling issue slipping from her throat. She could not decide if it looked like a hand from an old fashioned clock or some kind of garish knife, but it was twice as tall as she was and had punched through the concrete like an eggshell. The slow realization that that had nearly been her head left a trail of sweat down her face.

"Sorry for startling you," said the assassin Shirahata. His right arm was raised, the sleeves torn away to reveal the markings on his skin. "Really, I mean it when I say I'm not here to hurt you. I do have permission to get rough if you don't behave, but I'd much rather we play nice here in this little reality bubble and wait till my employers get here to explain things." There was a pleading note in his voice now. "We'll even let your friends go, honest. All we want, Izumi-san, is for you to help us make the world right."

"Like hell you are," Izumi spat out. Her response was automatic, but she was surprised by how earnest he sounded. He certainly wasn't like those European assassins from before. But if the Moon Guard were the good guys Shirahata-san seemed to think, why didn't they use one of these barriers before, instead of causing all that destruction so close to her school? Why not approach her directly, instead of trying to kill Hiroto first?

Izumi clenched her teeth. Her mana welled up inside her, a hot wave far beyond the meager trickle she had practiced with, promising power and vengeance. She let her mind brush against it, and at once began to drown. Her breath came in sharp, painful gasps as she felt the power rage through her form, burning her from within. The more she grasped at it the hotter it burned. The air swirled about her, gliding across her skin like jagged glass.

Shirahata retreated a step and raised his hand. An oily shadow slid about it like an amorphous mitten.

"Don't do it, kid," he said, a line of restrained anxiety on his face.

Izumi tried to speak, but the words shattered into a gasp as her chest clenched in pain. The heat expanded. The wind sliced quicker. Her breath was ragged. What was she going to do? How could she control this? She tried to remember the breathing exercises Hiroto had taught her, but all she could think of was a pair of cold blue eyes staring through a wall of crystal.

And then her breath came easy again shattering the vision. The wind was gone, leaving not a single mark on her skin. An unnatural heat still flowed through her body, but it was a gentle, soothing energy flowing into her. She turned to find Hiroto standing behind her. His face was strained, but he gave her arm a reassuring squeeze and the flow of calm increased. Behind him, Kiko and Yukari's stared, their expressions a varying mix of awe and worry. Izumi's cheeks burned with shame and turned away from them. Once again, she had ruined everything.

"Don't get so excited, old man," Akira said, swaggering into the street while tossing a wink back at Izumi. She drew a scarred bokken from the case on her back, and selected two ikupasuy from the pocket of her hoodie. "Izumi-chan's just getting bored of listening to all your crappy Moon Guard propaganda. I'll bet she just wanted to see if you would wet yourself if you were reminded who you're trapped in here with."

Shirahata's mouth pulled into a thin line. "Why are kids so vulgar these days? Especially the young boys," he said.

Izumi bit her lip to stop from laughing as Akira turned livid. Kiko and Hiroto didn't hold back.

"As a matter of fact," Akira said, as her brow continued to twitch, "There's no need to worry about having to fight her at all. A puppet like you, you're not even worth our Hime-chan's notice."

Izumi groaned and put a hand to her face, her cheeks burning. She desperately hoped that nickname would not catch on.

"Is that right?" Shirahata said. He bore a mournful expression as he clenched his fist. The black blade unraveled into a hundred fluid ribbons and resumed its shape in his hand. "So, you plan to fight me?"

"Actually," Akira said. She glanced back at Izumi with an easy-going wink. "I'd call it more of a workout."

The assassin sighed in resignation. "If that's what you want. Don't say I didn't warn you." And without even a grunt, he hurled the blade.

The projectile spun end over end, emitting an eerie whistle that had not been there before. Closer and closer it came, but Akira did not turn around. Izumi tried to shout a warning. A mighty crack cut her off, and the blade stopped. Caught on a pillar of concrete. Akira gave a shout and struck the projectile with a two handed cut. It broke in half, then turned to black vapor and disappeared.

"The name's Koizumi Akira," she said. "Freelance bodyguard. Ready to play?"

The ringing of the telephone was like a drill to Mai's head. She had been awake for some time already, but now she had lost her last excuse to stay in bed and was all the grouchier for it. She let her arm snake across the sheets and kept her head buried in the pillow, hoping to stave off the inevitable assault of sunlight on her bloodshot eyes.

She plopped the phone on her ear. "Hello?"

"Good afternoon, Wakahisa-sempai!" the other line sang in high pitched soprano.

Mai groaned. "What's with this 'Good afternoon,' Suzuki-san? It's…," she tilted her head to read her dresser clock. The red glow of fourteen hundred stared in accusation at her, and she cursed.

"Oh, no. You're still in bed?" said her colleague, Suzuki Akane, so perky that Mai just wanted to plop her down a wormhole somewhere. "You shouldn't stay up so late. It's bad for your health. Need to set a good example for the students even in our private lives, you know?"

"I thought it would be alright to visit with Taro for a while, seeing as the school is shut down and my sister is in surgery." She managed to sound stern, right until she slurred "surgery."

"Oh. Forgive me Sempai, I almost forgot." Mai managed a gratified smile as the girl's voice dropped an octave. It didn't last. "But that's still no excuse to go wild with the drinking."

Mai rolled her eyes and regretted it as another stab of pain went through her brain. Yes, she'd had a little sake, but her brother-in-law had a tendency to yammer about proper security measures for Izumi and she had needed a little something to help stay awake. Then he had insinuated that she had been negligent with his daughter, and that was the source of their current crises. So she had gotten angry, and there went another bottle. Of course, she would never tell Suzuki any of this, even if the girl wasn't a mundane. It just wasn't any of her damn business.

"What do you want, Suzuki-san?" she said.

"Just checking up on my sempai," Suzuki said. "You've seemed stressed lately, and after what happened I thought…"

Mai rolled over in her bed and began to count the rotations of her ceiling fan. It would be a while before the girl got to the point. She flexed her left arm and rolled her shoulder about, trying to work out the stiffness that had been building up lately. She'd probably have to see someone about that later, especially if she was going to go back on regular patrol. That was something she could do without. Resting the chattering phone between her shoulder and her ear, she grabbed her electronic planner off the nightstand and began to go over her schedule for the day. Most of it was shot to hell already, but it was still important to work out a training regimen for Izumi.

It had been careless of her not to have done this before. She had always known the seals would wear off. And now they had, and there were at least two Moon Guard agents running around in her jurisdiction. So much had slipped by her at once, all of it stupid and preventable. Of course, it had been even more stupid of Nozomi indulge Izumi with another month of innocence with the increasing spiritual activity in the area. Not that Mai had exactly rushed Izumi home after King Balthazaar had shown up at the school. She breathed a sigh, craving a cigarette. Had she really become so complacent, thinking she could protect the girl all by herself?

Surely not so much that both the Lord of the Flesh Riddled Plains and two wanted traitors had broken in on her watch. With a miniature spacial drill and accompanied by a dozen Veil breaks all over Shirosaki. Something wasn't adding up.

"Sempai? Sempai!"

Mai started. "I'm sorry, I was grading some papers. What did you say?"

The frustration in Suzuki's breath carried through the phone, though her cheeriness was undimmed. "Always working. I said that I'm trying to put a party together with some of the other teachers in our department. Tonight at that new Italian place on the plaza. What do you say? I bet it would help you get your mind off of things."

"No, thank you," Mai said, not even pretending to consider it. "I already have plans."

"That's what you always say," the girl whined. "What is it this time?"

"I'm going to visit my niece, then go with her to visit Nozomi," she said, all of which was true.

"I see," Suzuki said, her voice deflating yet again. Mai almost felt sorry for her. Suzuki-san meant well, but she wasn't the most receptive of other people's feelings. Such as that some people don't care to socialize. "I guess I should have realized that. You're all going through such a hard time. Still, it's good that you're adjusting so well to things. I know I wouldn't let my brother's kids out on the streets right after a terrorist attack. Now if only you were that relaxed about everything else you'd be able to find yourself a husband."

Mai hurled the phone into the receiver and went back to her scheduling, muttering to herself about busybodies and dewy eyed newlyweds. Nearly a minute passed before her retching brain realized what had been said. I know I wouldn't let my brother's kids… She all but threw herself onto the phone and stabbed out Suzuki's number.


"What did you mean? Are you saying you've seen Izumi today?"

"Sempai? Er, yes," Suzuki said, sounding flustered. "Or at least, I'm sure I did. I thought I saw Izumi-chan with that Senpuu boy a few minutes ago at the plaza. I'm sure Suzumiya-san and Takahashi-san from my class were with them. And some other boy, I think. Anyway, I spotted them out of the corner of my eye and went over to talk to them about the festival preparations when I bumped into another of my students. But when I looked back up they were gone. It was so strange, I was sure I'd seen them."

Mai cursed. She had told them to notify her if they left the house. "When was this?"

She could hear the girl recoil from the urgency of her voice. "I don't know. Ten minutes ago, I think. Seeing Izumi-chan is what reminded me to call you and…hello? Hello?"

Mai left the phone on the ground. She was already out the door.

Izumi swallowed, trying not to laugh at Akira-chan's challenge. It was so corny, like something out of one of Hiroto's manga. Freelance bodyguard? So tacky. She needed a more dynamic title. Hiroto sniggered.

"What's so funny?" Izumi said.

"You were just thinking about how Akira needs better lines," he said. She ground an elbow into his ribs.

"Freelance bodyguard?" Shirahata said with a good natured laugh. "Aren't you kind of young for that line of work?"

"Are you going to fight or talk?" Akira said.

"So rude" Shirahata said, grumbling as he tossed his jacket and dress shirt to the ground. He was covered in tattoos. Dozens of stylized animals, monsters and weapons competed for every centimeters of skin on his chest and arms, and all the same, glossy black as that sword-thing. He produced a pair of long needles from his pocket and wiped them on his slacks, leaving hairline streaks of red.

"If it's just a workout, then let's start with two," he said, and stabbed himself, each point going into one of the snakes coiled around his forearm. Yukari's squeak at the sight of blood rose into a shriek as the tattooed snakes wriggled off the assassin's arm and hovered above his shoulder. Shirahata waved a hand and the snakes lunged through the air, coils twisting in opposite directions. Akira fell to her knees and traced a circle on the ground with an ikupasuy. Another pillar leapt out from the circle as the first snake bared its fangs for her left flank. The ink creature plowed into the rock with a splat. She batted the second one away, and sprung onto the first pillar. The snakes reformed and leapt after her.

"Let's go, Reramaru," Akira said, grasping her bokken as though pulling a real sword from its scabbard. A tail of wind spun about her arm like a dusty comet. A length of steel flashed out of the wood, and the street shook with a sonic boom.

A crescent shaped something exploded from the tip of Akira's blade, but a cloud of grit blinded Izumi before she could get a good look. Her eyes opened to find a new tattoo monster hovering before Shirahata like a shield. It looked like a Gothic artist's vision of a tortoise, huge and angular with wings instead of front legs. A smoldering cut ran diagonally across its skull patterned shell. Where the tortoise shape had been on his chest there was only bare skin and a dot of blood.

Akira laughed. "That was a neat trick, old man," she said. "I thought I had you, but then you pull out that high speed summoning on me. That's pretty bad ass."

Shirahata just shrugged. "Not really. Bladed wind's kind of a kid's trick."

Akira balked and nearly fell off her column. "Oh yeah? Well what was that big talk about 'starting off,' with two summons? I don't see your snakes anymore."

The assassin answered with a strained little smile. "Kurmaraja is a bit of a problem child," he said, stroking the tortoise's head. "Banishing one weak familiar to summon a stronger one is hardly indicative of a lack of skill." The shadowy turtle flickered and returned to its place on his chest. Shirahata grinned, only one of his arms had a snake on it. Izumi tried to shout a warning just as the tattoo creature leapt out of a drain.

Akira swung her scabbard into the creature's mouth. Its glistening fangs sank into the wood. The snake thrashed about, nearly wrenching the scabbard from away before she wrapped a cyclone around her sword and hacked it apart. She rounded on Shirahata, but a fish tailed trident flew from his arm and caught her between the tines, pinning her to the ground. The assassin pricked his back and a shadowy giant in full samurai armor rose mountain-like above him.

Izumi stepped out onto the street. This was too much. She didn't care if her powers were half wild, she wasn't going to let someone she knew get killed in front of her. Carefully, she let her aura build up around her.

"Not yet," Hiroto said, catching her shoulder. She opened her mouth to speak, but an awful scraping noise brought her attention back to Akira as she jabbed a prayer stick into the ground. Another pillar leapt up into the second gap and hurled the trident into the air. The giant lunged and caught it in the air, but Akira was already on her feet and running down the street.

The giant grasped the trident with both hands and swung it like a club. The sidewalk exploded, showering them in chunks of gravel. A thick, oozy liquid gushed out of the broken waterline, which hung twisted in the air like some vanquished subterranean beast. Izumi and the other girls recoiled from the sludge, while Hiroto just flipped up his and flashed a grin.

"Gotcha now, bastard," Akira said with an evil sounding laugh, hanging from one of the trident's tines by her legs. She had tossed her scabbard aside and was now carrying two ikupasuy in her left hand. One had the character tsuchi scratched at the tip, and mizu on the other. Globules of sludge gathered along the edge of her blade, encasing it in a wavy blob several meters long. She gave a savage shout, and slashed the giant across the chest.

The blob popped like a bubble and left the giant drenched, but did little else. Akira stared. The creature shook as if in laughter, then casually flung her off its weapon.

Hiroto made as if to catch her. Then Ushio stepped in front of him and caught the wailing Ainu. The impact knocked the huge boy off balance and sent them both crashing down on top of Hiroto.

"When did you get up, Ushio-senpai?" Izumi asked, perhaps a tad too pleased as she helped Akira up.

"Since the fight began," said Ushio. He let the other girls pull him to his feet as he stared at the giant in open admiration. "What a battle," he whispered. "I never thought grandma's stories about the yokai were true. This is incredible."

"Yeah, incredible," Hiroto answered, still spread flat on the ground. "What the hell was that, Akira? You're not going to get anywhere throwing water balloons at it."

"This gunk is water?" Kiko said, disgusted.

"Shut up," Akira snapped. "What else would you use on a construct made of animated ink? Dammit, I should have been able to rub at least part of it out with Reramaru. It's not like it's an actual spirit or anything." Her voice trailed off, her face pale as she smacked a hand against it. "Unless they are. Gawd, I'm so stupid." Hiroto smirked, but she dug her heel into his forehead. "Oh, like you figured it out either! Izumi-chan,what's its aura like?"

Izumi let her eyes go out of focus, and braced herself for the oncoming headache. Colors flashed in a midnight colored haze as the auras flared up around their opponents.

"Shirahata-san has this sort of wiggly, purple one," she said. "But…ugh. But there are all of these other auras crawling around on him like bugs, and none of them are like his at all. Even that giant and its weapon have different ones." She fought off the urge to be sick and closed the auras off from her sight. Still, she felt ridiculous for shutting them out so soon. Here she was upset about not being able to contribute, but Akira-chan had gotten hurt using the wrong strategy because she didn't like using her aura sight.

Akira brightened at the news. "Great. Then that means he isn't a sorcerer using tattoo magic," she said, thrusting her sword at Shirahata. "You're a shaman like I am. A shadow user. I bet these are all the shades of monsters you've beaten, and you've sealed a portal to each of them in your skin so we'd think it was a different kind of magic. Pretty sneaky, old guy."

Shirahata beamed. "Well done, kid, you figured it out. Though you are still just a kid, taking so long to figure that out. I gave you at least two major hints."

Akira ignored him as she took out another prayer stick and tossed aside her ragged sweater aside, letting a sky blue haori tumble down to her knees. She wore a sarashi underneath, her stomach muscled and lined with scars. She discarded two of the prayer sticks and adopted a two handed fighting stance. Her knees coiled like a spring. And then she sprang, a sky colored blur streaking through the giant's knees.

The creature hefted a leg to stomp her, but its target made no move to alter her course. An armored foot the size of a car door fell like a guillotine. Akira raised her sword over her head, and a scarlet tongue leapt from her blade. She twisted her wrists in a circle, sheering through the giant's foot and foreleg like a soft stump of wax. The creature windmilled about for an instant and crashed into the road.

Swearing hard, Shirahata left a trail of punctures down his ribs and along the legs of an ugly crab faced spider on his belly. The new creature jumped out legs first like some twisted pregnancy. Izumi heard Yukari gagging beside her, but she could only stare, transfixed as each appendage came in from every direction. But Akira danced between them, leaping a hair's breadth ahead of each attack. Her flaming sword cleaved through the spider-crab's head before it could fully emerge, banishing its form in a blizzard of onyx colored dust.

Another snake leapt from his arm, arching over the sword for Akira's neck. She swept her sword in an arch and decapitated it, then swung at Shirahata. Her sword rang off as his tortoise monster rematerialized, its shell restored from the wind blade. She aimed for his midriff, but the floating tortoise zipped back into her path. Its umber scales seemed to warp under the fiery glare, but the shell did not yield. Akira gave a shout and hammered at the shadow creature. Sparks trailed like a streamer with each fruitless stroke. Each blow sent up a shockwave of wind, the breeze causing the square spiral fringe of her coat to undulate like ocean waves in a hurricane.

"It's over," Hiroto said. Izumi shot him a scolding look, but her chastisements froze in her throat as a sudden tremor ran down her spine. The wind was changing, blowing first this way, then that way. Then everyway at once.

Shirahata's scream rang above the squall as dozens of bright red lines were cut across his skin and briefly cloaked him in pink mist. Akira leapt clear as the assassin exploded into a sea of black. Hideous faces and jagged limbs churned in the morass of shadow creatures, at first like a wall of boiling ink. The wind intensified, and the liquid thinned into a mist and vanished into the sky. The air grew still. Shirahata collapsed, his skin bare of anything but a hundred furious cuts.

"Incredible," Ushio said again. All Izumi could do was give a feeble little nod as she watched Akira retrieve her sheath. The Ainu mage sheathed her sword with deliberate slowness, her face a wall of samurai stoicism. But when the blade clicked into place, her face split into the cockiest grin Izumi had ever seen and flashed a V for victory.

"Ya saw that, Izumi-chan? Pretty awesome, huh?" she said before rounding on her opponent. "What was that, old guy? About wind blades being kids' stuff?"

"What just happened?" Yukari said weakly, propped against Kiko's shoulder. She was paper white, and her glasses swung from one ear.

"She used his blood to release his seals." Izumi gave a start, surprised to realize that she was the one who had spoken. She flushed as she found the others were watching her. It had seemed like the right thing to say, like announcing that her shirt was orange. An obvious statement, and anyone could see it. But how had she seen it? She found her friends still looking at her, looking almost expectant, and felt compelled to finish her explanation.

"Shirahata-san had sealed those shadow things in his skin. His own blood was the trigger that let him summon them, but he could only control a handful at a time. So Akira-chan cut him up so that they were all summoned at once and he lost control of them." Izumi looked around, feeling rather awkward, but Akira gave her an admiring grin.

"Exactly," she said, "I'm impressed you figured that out so fast. Of course, I should expect nothing less from a mahousen."

"I agree. She is quite insightful for a child. " Izumi turned, her eyes widening in terror as Shirahata staggered to his feet, rising like a zombie and covered in fresh blood. At a second glance, Izumi realized that his wounds weren't severe, and most of them had already stopped bleeding. The tightness of her shoulders abated a little, and she was surprised to realize that she was relieved the assassin had survived.

"Are you getting back up?" Akira said, sounding bored. Izumi did not miss the clenching of the Ainu mage's jaw, or her minute swallow. Shirahata seemed not to have missed it either, as his face split into an exhilarant grin.

"I have to," he said, his voice trembling. "A contract's a contract, you know." For a moment, Izumi thought he was in pain. Her breathe caught, and her skin prickled as she felt as though she had plunged into ice water. A lustrous blackness more substantial than aura but as fluid as mist rose up from the ground and wrapped him in its tendrils.

Hiroto ignited his glove and went to Akira's side. He said something about finding shelter with the others, but Izumi was too mesmerized by the weaving of the shadows. They seemed to be multiplying now, and a sound like a distant flock of crows resounded in her mind. Something terrible was about to happen.

"Yeah, doubling up's a good idea, kids," Shirahata said. His voice grew more unsteady as the shadows rose out of his body like steam escaping a kettle. "My shadow likes to play rough, and it's been so long since I used him that I'm not so good about keeping him under control. I really didn't have to go this far, but you didn't leave me a lot of choice. Sorry."

The shadow coils tightened around his body. Then there came a sound like snapping twigs and the black mist dissolved. Shirahata gave a strangled cry, blood dribbling down his mouth as he stared at the spikes jutting from his stomach. Izumi bit back a cry as a tall figure in old fashioned robes thrust him into the ground, bearing the assassin down on a viciously curved two pronged staff. The creature resembled a man but for the black feathered wings stretching out from its back. A bearded mask of scarlet porcelain hid its face, a long beak-like nose stretched for many centimeters, shiny, merciless black eyes glaring out from beneath it. Sweat poured down Izumi's back as two more stepped out from the behind it.

"Kids," Shirahata said. "Run." Then he fell still.

Author's Note- Sorry for the extra-long wait. So now you all get an extra-long chapter. It was kind of a challenge trying to keep things balanced between Izumi's reflections and the fight, and the middle still feels a little messy for it, and perhaps not everything was as clear as it could have been. What do you guys think? What about Shirahata? I was hoping he would come off as amicable instead of some evil-for-the-lulz mook. Special thanks go to Rabukurafuto for suggesting the name for Akira's sword, Reramaru (レラ丸), the Wind Spirit.

Next time: Tengu and trolls!