The Times They Are A-Changin' (Part II)
Author notes: Some of the dialogues in this chapter are directly adapted from Chapters 32-33 of Rosario+Vampire I hope you will enjoy this new chapter. Please do not hesitate to review.
--- Los Angeles, 12 April 2006 ---
Dawn was feeling more than happy to leave the hospital. The weather was nice and sunny today. Actually, it felt like if the oppressing shadow of the last days had been dispelled. Also, she felt great, feeling no trace of yesterday’s fever. And that dream was really fun… a nice change from my usual ones.
She brushed her long emerald hair. Sometimes, she had wondered if she should not dye it black, to better fit in. Some of the kids at school called her a weirdo because of it. Because of the dreams, though, she had ceased to wonder. Green was her color, period. She went out of the bathroom and rejoined Celia in the room they had shared with a few other sick kids the last night.
“How do you feel this morning?” asked Dawn to her cousin.
“A lot better, cousin,” replied the half-Japanese with a smile. And I think it’s thanks to you, Sailor Pluto,
she added mentally.
Celia had spent enough time reading shojo mangas like Wedding Peach to know how important it was for the trusted friend to keep the magical girl’s secret identity. She had even gone so far as quietly discussing with the other kids to see if they had noticed anything. But, to them, another magical girl trope seemed to have come into play. While they had seen a green-haired girl destroy the demon, they were somehow incapable to link her with Dawn, despite the obvious resemblance. She was pretty sure that, with time, they would even forget the event as some kind of childish fantasy.
“Are you both ready?” asked Joyce.
“Yes, Mom,” said Dawn.
--- San Francisco, 14 April 2006 ---
From the outside, he looked like any other homeless person, perhaps a little cleaner which could have meant that he had not done that for long. However, he was no ordinary person. Ordinary persons, even homeless ones, usually didn’t hunt rats in the sewers of San Francisco. More than all, they didn’t eat them, or rather, they didn’t drink their blood.
Suddenly he raised his head, having heard a nearby heartbeat, then another. There was a middle-aged woman in a black suit that looked right out of a conspiracy movie at the entrance of the alley, and a large man with similar clothes at the other end. No, not a man. He smells like a demon.
“You are not an easy… man to find, Angel,” said the woman.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Rui Kisugi and I have a proposal for you. I know that you have been looking for ways to atone for what… a part of you did in the past. For the moment, you are using a kind of asceticism to punish yourself. I can give you a chance to do more… and I promise: no submarine,” she added with a smirk.
This promise was enough for him to know who she was. There were very few people knowing about that incident. Either she was from the Demon Research Initiative or she was related to Spike or the vampire he had the misfortune to sire during that… mission. With her ‘Man in Black’ suit, he was betting on the former.
“You’re from the DRI… last time I was forced to work for your organization, it didn’t end well.”
“Things are different now, Angel. Our mandate is different. I won’t force you, but I would like to hire you. I let my card on this dumpster. Go around town, interact with the demon community and see for yourself.”
The woman and the demon left. Angel walked to the dumpster and took the small white paper rectangle.
“Bureau of Metahuman Affairs…”
--- Los Angeles, 18 April 2006 ---
“Dawn-chan, can we talk?” asked Celia.
The youngest of the Summers’ twins raised her head from her book.
“Sure, what do you want to talk about?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow and… well I’ve tried to drop some hints but you didn’t… I want to talk about Sailor Pluto.”
Celia looked at her cousin. With some people, you had the impression that you could hear the gears clicking in their head when they thought about something. No such luck with Dawn. It wasn’t that the ‘noise’ was too quiet to be heard. It was just that it was always here, assembling thoughts in weird ways and computing every possibility in a mind that felt far too… ancient for such a young body.
“Cel-chan… I thought it was just another dream,” she said, her eyes as hard as the amethysts they shared color with.
“I believe you but it was real… or I made the same dream just at the same time.”
Dawn got up, trying to move her hands the same way she did in the dream, to capture what she had felt at that moment.
“I don’t feel it…”
“Maybe you only can when… you really need it.”
“Maybe. Can you… not tell anyone about it? Even Liz-chan?”
“Promised,” said Celia. “Dawn-chan, I think I have an idea about your dreams. A few months ago, I spoke with one of my uncles who is a bonze. He was teaching me things about Buddhism. He told me that sometimes, people remembered things from their previous lives.”
Dawn nodded, closing her eyes. When she thought about most of her dreams that way, it made sense. An awful kind of sense. She started to shake, tears running on her cheeks, only stopping when she felt her cousin hugging her.
“Cel-chan… the dreams. I didn’t tell you everything. They’re often awful. If they’re things that really happened, if I really lived that…”
“It’s all right, cousin, I’m here for you. That night, you said that it was too early, that you could still sleep a little. I think it was the ‘older’ you speaking.”
Dawn nodded, sniffing. Maybe things would change later but, for now, she just wanted to be a normal kid.
--- Alameda, 18 April 2006, shortly after sunset ---
Angel was looking at the building, comparing it with the address written on the business card of that Kisugi woman. It seemed that the Bureau of Metahuman Affairs had appropriated, and probably heavily refurbished, a part of the former Alameda Naval Air Station. From what he had learnt, officially, a bunch of Silicon Valley companies had made a deal with the government to rehabilitate part of the base when it closed in 1995. Or, rather, they transferred property to another governmental agency…
From the outside, it looked like it was part of a series of modern office and research buildings, with a helipad built on the water. A look in the business registries had revealed nothing out of the ordinary but that was to be expected. He entered in the lobby, soon reaching the information desk. The woman behind it looked like a typical secretary… to the unobservant one. To him, the determined way she looked at him and the nervousness in her right arm, whose hand he guessed was ready to press a button with nasty consequences, told a whole different story.
“Good…” he started.
“It’s all right, Gladys,” said a feminine voice on the side. “Mister Angel has been cleared.”
“Very well, Agent Kisugi,” replied the receptionist, the tension in her arm lessening.
Angel looked sideways. Rui Kisugi’s… probable sister given the resemblance, was younger, only a little more than thirty. She was wearing the standard black suit and white shirt; though she had preferred pants to the skirt he had seen on her sister and had added fine black leather gloves. She also had a casual way to stand that completed with her short wavy hair gave a lot more rebellious impression than the calm elegance of Rui.
She walked towards him and extended her right hand. As he shook it, he noticed that her grip was strong for a woman of her size.
“I’m Ai Kisugi, Rui’s sister. Nice to see you decided to come see us.”
“Yes I… I did what your sister told me and spent the last days checking things about your organization.”
“Hmm… let’s get out of the public area before we discuss further.”
She led him through the halls until they took an elevator and went down. The traveled through another set of nondescript halls and they reached a conference room where a dossier was waiting on the table. She motioned for him to take place in front of her.
“So… as you’re here, I suppose you’re interested in joining the Men in Black.”
“I thought it was only a nickname the demons gave you?”
“A lot of us prefer it to the official designation, even if Bureau of Metahuman Affairs is what stands on the forms. So?”
“Yes, I’m interested. I checked the rumors and tried to uncover the stories behind them. San Francisco is a lot safer for both humans and demons thanks to you. It’s the fact you’re treating all species the same way, looking only at how they act, that interested me the most.”
“In the end, we’re only cops and the law should be the same for everyone. As you certainly learnt we’re also active in other parts of the country.”
“Yes but you only have limited manpower and therefore cannot be everywhere.”
“Why do you want to join us?”
“Like your sister said, I have hidden for too long. If I help you, I will be able to do some good.”
Ai opened the dossier and made it slide towards him. Just as he had thought, it was a contract. He spent a few minutes to go through it. The clauses were rather simple and devoid of any fine prints. The contract also stated clearly it was magically binding.
He took a deep breath then signed up.
“Welcome to the Men in Black, partner,” said Ai with a smile.
--- Alameda, a few minutes later ---
They had taken another elevator, going down once again.
“Did you construct all of this? It looks like a kind of fallout shelter.”
“That’s exactly what it is. The Navy built it in secret during the fifties and finally abandoned it due to water infiltration problems. We inherited it during the eighties and refurbished it. At the time, the deal was that we used an entrance from outside the base. Now that we also own the terrain in surface, things are easier.”
“And the government agrees with all of this?”
“We’re mostly self-funded through several front companies, which makes it easier for the bean counters in Washington to forget we even exist… and by the way, that movie ten years ago: we funded it as part of a disinformation operation.”
Angel wasn’t seeing what she was talking about, but he had missed a lot of things during the last three decades.
“Why the Men in Black?”
“My brother-in-law’s idea. The goal is to make any sighting of our agents a lot more likely to be disbelieved as a kind of conspiracy craziness. Here’s my office. Coffee?”
The room they were in was a typical office with two desks, though only half of it seemed currently occupied. Angel noticed with interest an engineering diploma on the wall. Ai switched on an espresso machine.
She removed her jacket and gloves and Angel noticed at first that her white shirt was armless. Then his eyes felt on her right arm and couldn’t detach from it. While its shape was perfectly human, mirroring the one of her normal left arm, its skin was made of chromed metal pieces.
“I suppose you’re wondering about my arm,” said the woman while preparing two espressos.
He nodded. He knew that prosthetics existed. But he would have expected something bulky and moving with difficulty, not an arm with a perfect human shape moving with all the grace of a real limb. Even more, he had the feeling that the chromed skin was a matter of aesthetics rather than a necessity.
“Your dossier says that you have been ‘out of touch’ for the last three decades. You were living in various cities, but not really paying attention to things beyond what concerned your immediate survival. Is that right?”
“Okay… I understand better why Rui put you with me. You’re in dire need of explanations if you’re to function as a MIB and I’m definitely a modern girl.”
“Is your arm… a common prosthetics?”
She put the two filled cups on her desk. Angel savored the aroma. He had almost forgotten how it smelled.
“Glad to see you seem to like it. I make my own mélange… to come back on the matter of my arm: common, no. Available for people with enough money, yes. A series of breakthroughs was done during the nineties, for things ranging from artificial muscle fibers to micro fuel cells that can burn glucose retrieved from blood. The first really functional cyberlimbs – ones that are connected to the nervous system and with a sense of touch – date from 2002, with Laurent Fournier. He’s a quadruple amputee that volunteered to get his four limbs replaced as an experimental project between the EPFL and Lausanne’s University Hospital. As it was a success, the scientists behind that project founded a company. Concurrence followed, and four years later, cybernetics is a booming market. If the trends evolve like they did with computers, cyberimplants will be a common consumer product around 2015 or 2020.”
“But… prosthetics are only useful for amputees… I fail to see how it could become a consumer product like a television or a car.”
Ai smiled and put her cybernetic arm in position for a strong arm match. Angel raised an eyebrow, then decided to oblige her. He started to move expecting to win quickly. The only thing that went away quickly was his assurance on the matter. It was hard. Even with his vampire strength, he had to struggle to win against the mechanical device.
“You see why?” said Ai, breaking the grip.
“I see… You think people will be willing to… cut healthy limbs for that?”
“Yes, I think they will, even more so that realistic skin coverings are already available for those who want to keep things invisible. But you also have designers looking into the subject, creating coverings like mine. However, you also have to keep in mind that cyberlimbs are only the most visible thing. A lot of implants will be far more discreet.”
“A Japanese company called Apex is working on extended neural interfaces, a thing they call the cyber-brain. If I interpreted correctly the papers of Saeko Mizuno – she’s their lead researcher in the domain – the user will have – among other things – a perfect memory and the capacity to hold several trains of thought simultaneously.”
Angel frowned as Ai continued her explanations of the various technical advances of the last thirty years. He understood also better the remarks of some of the demons he had met during those last days. Many demon factions had accepted to cooperate with the Men in Black because they were afraid, afraid of what human technology could do now.
--- Sunnydale, almost at the same time ---
Willow Rosenberg was alone at home. Even if she was only nine, it wasn’t such a rare thing for her. Her parents were both scientists who were often traveling. In fact, since she was six, her parents had decided she was mature enough to stay alone when they had to travel. It had been hard at first, even with the help of her friends, Xander and Jesse. She often felt lonely and the house so cold and empty. Almost nine PM. I have to take my medicine.
She reached the bathroom and opened a carefully labeled box with a lot of small compartments. She took the pills in the one with today’s date and gulped them with a little water. Her mother had really insisted on the fact she had to take them every day and this was one thing about which she had never disobeyed, not when she remembered how sick she had felt when she forgot only one day.
The little girl got down to the basement. Contrarily to other houses, it wasn’t a place to just store unused things. It was a place where her mother worked when she was here. Willow was actually familiar with the place, having often sat on the big ‘dentist chair’ while wearing the Helmet, her mother asking her to think about certain things.
Even if she felt a little lonely, her life wasn’t bad. She knew she was smart, smarter in fact than all the other kids. However, she had also quickly learnt how to be ‘just good’ in class. She didn’t want her mother to send her to a school for geniuses, away from her friends. It was also because of that that she went with helping her mother in her work, even if she knew it wasn’t really normal.
“Internet connection on… all the apparels are powering. Almost ready,” she said as she sat on the dentist chair, covering herself with a blanket.
Willow didn’t have many friends. She had only three. Xander and Jesse were the first ones. She knew them since kindergarten and they had always gotten along. The third was more recent and… well most people believed he was imaginary and it was probably better that way. The others, even Xander and Jesse, they wouldn’t understand. What Willow knew, however, was that the day she met him, her life had changed. She remembered quite well the date. It had been the 8th of August 2003. It had been the first time she had used the Helmet on her own.
She put the apparel on her head. Back then, she hadn’t understood what it was doing to her. Then, last week, she had watched an old movie from the eighties at Jesse’s house. It was called Tron. She remembered staying agape as the pieces finally connected in her mind, as she finally understood what her personal Land of Oz was. Willow flipped the switch and, once again, she felt like Alice falling in a rabbit hole made of neon light. When I was six… I thought I was dreaming. I know better now. He probably thought I was too young.
As the world stabilized around her, she recognized the place. She was where the ‘dream’ always started, near a pyramid with a name she had sometimes seen on bills, the ones about electricity. It had changed since her first dream though. The first time, things had looked… rough, like if she was walking in a half-finished drawing. It had felt sad to her and she had wished to have her color pencils. They had appeared immediately in her hands and she had started to draw, to complete what she saw.
What had been funny was that when she finished something, it had started to spread. Then, she had sung and walked in the strange land, drawing a little thing here and there, than watching it spread with glee. After a while, in a remote corner, she had completed a drawing of an animal and it had started to move.
Willow strolled on the neon bridge, taking care not to disturb the stars that passed on the road. Her friend had explained to her that the stars were messages the buildings sent to each other
“Yamata!” she called.
“I am here… my princesssss,” said a strange voice as a giant snake head rose from a hole.
It was soon followed by another, and another until finally eight dark blue snake heads looked at the little girl. Willow hugged the nearest one, feeling its huge forked tongue brush her.
“Can we play?”
“Yesss, we can, but first, you must dress up.”
Willow nodded enthusiastically, concentrating to modify her appearance. Her ordinary clothes disappeared, replaced by an ornate light blue kimono. Her red hair turned to raven and her skin became of the purest alabaster. She always disguised like this to play with Yamata. Also, he always called her by the secret name he gave her: Kushinada-hime.
She liked this shape. In this shape, she had magical powers. Yamata had shown her how to do. She took her two ornate fans, waving them in a way that conjured a whirlpool of cherry blossoms. Flying, she followed the eight-headed snake as they plunged in a big neon road.
“Last week-end, I saw a movie, Yamata.”
“Was it good?” asked the snake.
“I liked it… It was an old movie called Tron.”
“I sssee. Do you understand where we are, then?”
“It’s a little like what happens to Flynn. I’m in the computer, but… my body stays on the chair at home.”
“Yesss… but thisss is only part of it. Alssso, I am not a sssimple program.”
“The drawing I did on you… It was like what Flynn did when he repaired the Recognizer?”
“In part. I wasss broken, asssleep for so long… Do you want to learn?”
“Good, then follow me, Kushinada-hime. We’re going on the Moon.”
--- Alameda, ten minutes later ---
“Ai,” said a voice as the office interphone connected. “We have a Child’s Rhyme.”
Angel hesitated to ask what a Child’s Rhyme was but was cut by his partner.
“The Rhyme has been heard on Clavius Base.”
“Coming,” said the Japanese woman as she closed the communication.
She rose from her desk and moved to leave their common office.
“Clavius is the main American Lunar colony,” said Ai.
“What’s this thing about a nursery rhyme?”
“The 8th of August 2003, something completely unexplained happened. There was a kind of mass hacking… and you have no idea what I’m talking about.”
As they changed of floor, she explained rapidly to the ensouled vampire some basics about computers and how they communicated with each other, the sum of the connections between them being called Internet.
“So… a hacker is a kind of burglar?”
“Some are. They get in, do something, and get out. Usually, they take or modify information for their own profit.”
“I suppose it’s not what happened that day.”
“Oh no, it’s not what happened. The hacker actually fixed things in everything she touched. Entire software rewritten and working a lot better than they used to. A whole new generation of computer software was created from those ideas. Computer people call this day Child’s Rhyme.”
“Because of the nursery rhyme that was played in several of the touched systems, sung by a little girl’s voice. It is still heard from time to time but nobody managed to catch her…”
Angel thought more and more that this looked like some of the ghost tales of his native Ireland. They entered a room where a gangly teen with… a cable coming out on outlet on his right temple sat at a computer station. Probably one of those ‘neural interfaces’ she told me about.
“Angel, meet Afterburner. He decided to lend us his talents instead of spending some time in a federal prison for embezzling. Afterburner, meet my new partner Angel.”
“One of those days, Icecat…” said the teen.
“I know… I love you too. So this trace?”
“Disappeared from Clavius and is probably peeking in the Soviet network of Dorsa Smirnov now. I was hoping the transmission delay between here and the Moon would slow her but… no such luck. As usual, absolutely no trace of her origin.”
“What does she want?” asked Angel.
“We don’t know. We call her a ‘she’ because of the voice in the rhyme, but… we don’t know what she is,” said Ai.
“My own hypothesis is that she’s an Artificial Intelligence making her baby steps in the Net,” said Afterburner.
“The things she did during Child’s Rhyme… the ideas in it… their logic had nothing to do with anything designed so far. It approached problems in ways that had never been even envisaged… Also, she gets better at staying quiet every time. Whatever she is, she’s learning.”
--- Japanese Airspace, 5th May 2006 ---
“Anything else?” asked Hotaru as she sat behind the wheel of a roadster that sat in kind of metallic room.
“Not at this time, Ms. Tomoe,” replied the secretary, checking another item on his computer tablet. “I will contact your sister if anything urgent happens during your holidays.”
“Good, I’ll see you in a week, Vincent.”
The Australian man waved goodbye to his boss while a ramp lowered in front of the car, revealing the tarmac of the Apex Hokkaido Space Center. Hotaru put her shades on and drove expertly out of the cargo hold of the Osprey that had brought her and her car from Tokyo.
She smiled as her Lamborghini Urano accelerated. Back in 1987, she had beaten Chrysler to buy the Italian company. She just couldn’t resist, as Lamborghini always had been among the favorites of Haruka Tenoh, the late Sailor Uranus. It was now a nice jewel in the Apex crown. The Urano had been her way to honor her adoptive ‘father’, by having Lamborghini building her dream car. I hope she will like it when she’s back. Well, Jeremy did when he tested it in his TV show…
Hotaru remembered when the Englishman - who had been a friend of Haruka during her racing days in the eighties - had invited her to partake in his show, making the usual leap in the reasonably priced car. She had counted at least three very nervous Watchers among the studio audience that day.
“Twenty-five years and they’re still trying to figure out my nefarious plan… Well, I suppose I cannot blame them too much. They’re not used to have ‘demon lords’ exchange snarky comments with one of the BBC’s top presenters…”
She took a turn. She knew the road going from her space center to Castle Shuzen very well. She was really looking forward to seeing her goddaughter again, even more so that Moka would be ten in only three days, which was why she had planned to spend the week at the castle.
Hotaru expected that things would get complicated with some members of the family, though her intelligence reports indicated that Gyokuro was still somewhere overseas. The Senshi of Saturn didn’t like very much that lack of precision in the report.
Some of Gyokuro’s lackey could pose her some problems, but she didn’t expect anything major. Issa respected her because she was Akasha’s friend. No, the problem would come from the other Shuzen daughters. Though not little Kokoa or gentle Kahlua… Akua, on the other hand…
All Shuzen daughters shared the same father, but only Kokoa and Kahlua, respectively the fourth and second eldest, were Gyokuro’s children. Akua, the eldest one, was the child of one of Issa’s late mistresses. Contrarily to the others, she didn’t grow up in the castle, but in China, in ‘care’ of the Miao family. Care is such a big word… those scums knew very well how to fuel the hate she felt toward humans for the death of her mother and turn her into their assassin. Still… Akasha told me she made some progress in ‘deprogramming’ her.
Soon, the road she had taken through the rocky hills reached a dead end near a small unoccupied house. She continued right through the rock, crossing the illusory boulders to enter the cloaking field isolating Shuzen Castle from the rest of the world.
Another turn and she reached a bridge over a ravine. A castle that would have been better suited to Bavaria than to northern Japan stood on a hill, surrounded by a very dark forest. Why did Issa feel the need to build the castle with this style when the Shuzen lived here since the fall of Carthage, the first Shuzen clan leader probably inspiring a good part of the stories around Susano-o? From what Akasha told me, he made a trip to Europe two hundred years ago and came back with some ideas on vampire propriety right out of German Romanticism…
She parked her car, smirking as the ultramodern blood red convertible looked really out of place near the stately Rolls-Royces used by the ‘locals’. Her usual pantsuit was likewise not very suited to a place where women were expected to dress in elegant gowns. She still had time to change, however.
She got out of her car to fetch her luggage in the trunk. As she lowered to take her small suitcase, she smiled, then turned suddenly to intercept the little girl that just pounced her.
“Hello, my little tigress,” said Hotaru as she hugged a redhead girl with big green eyes.
“Hotaru-neesama! I’m so happy to see you!” replied the little vampiress as she hugged her back.
Hotaru had seen the ‘little tigress’ grow up. Her name was Kokoa Shuzen and she was Moka’s younger half-sister. The elder vampire had often sparred the little girl, taking her as a student alongside her sister.
“I’m happy to see you, too, Kokoa. How are your sisters?”
“Moka and Kahlua are well but… I think Akua don’t like me very much… Oopsie!”
The Senshi of Saturn turned, setting Kokoa on the ground. She faced the new aura, one of a teen vampire girl who looked partly Chinese.
“Akua-san,” said Hotaru, greeting the eldest of the Shuzen daughters.
“Tomoe-san,” replied the teen on an icy tone.
Hotaru could almost taste the hate rolling from the teen. The source was evident. Akua was affiliated with the Miao Triad and hated humans. As a ‘human-lover’ and an ally of the Huang Triad, Hotaru was an enemy.
“Akua-san. I came to celebrate Moka’s birthday. Can’t we agree to make a truce for the time being?”
“Yes, but I won’t let you poison her with your ideas.”
Hotaru had to force herself not to smile. She could feel the pure aggression in Akua’s aura. It was actually a basic reaction, a reminder of the instincts vampires shared with great felines. The means were different, but the intent was the same: establish dominance. But you have no way to know you are only seeing a fraction of my true power, child.
--- Shuzen Castle, 6th May 2006 ---
“So, you want me to take her in?” asked Hotaru.
“Yes. Hotaru, I know I’m asking a lot, but… she has to go away from this place,” said Akasha.
“Having Moka-chan live with me is not a problem and with Gyokuro coming back soon, I can guess part of the reasons why. The seal, however…”
“Please… don’t ask me why.”
“Very well, I’ll do it. I’ll take her back with me when I leave at the end of the week.”
--- Shuzen Castle, 8th May 2006 ---
Hotaru was sitting on the top of one of the castle’s tower, trying to meditate. The birthday party had been really nice, but since she was here, a shadow was growing in her heart. She had never really spent time to analyze the aura of this place and she was sure that there was something.
Suddenly, she felt a small peak of youki and turned her inner eye towards the surrounding of the castle. Akua had used her dimensional blade technique to destroy a lock and she and Moka were entering a crypt. She followed them for a little while as they went down, following a long tunnel, but was soon forced to stop.
“A barrier… very powerful against any scrying attempt. That’s why I couldn’t detect anything. What are you hiding below the castle, Akasha?”
She hesitated to go down physically and see things for herself.
“No… I will trust you, my friend. After all, I have my secrets too.”
--- Shuzen Castle, an hour later ---
“Is there a problem, Issa-sama?” asked Hotaru as she felt his presence behind her.
“Moka has to leave tomorrow morning.”
“As you wish.” No point in arguing. She probably has seen things she shouldn’t have downstairs…
--- On the road leaving Shuzen Castle, the following morning ---
Moka was crying, often looking behind, towards the castle.
“Kokoa… Kahlua-neesan, Akua-neesan… father, mother… Mother!”
Hotaru didn’t say anything. She just stopped the car as they were out of view of the castle, hugging her goddaughter.
“I… I forgot something. The Rosary, Mother made it for me so I need to get it.”
The little girl got out of the car and started to run.
“Moka-chan, wait!” said Hotaru. “Gosh, she’s just as bull-headed as Serenity.”
She turned her head brusquely. A veritable storm of youki was brewing in the castle. From the auras she could already feel from here, Akasha and Akua were fighting… but there was also something else. She started to run in turn. Given what she was feeling, she preferred her car to stay in one piece.
--- Shuzen Castle, three minutes later ---
“Stop!” yelled Moka as she reached to top of the stairs.
Akua and Akasha were facing each other, both her mother’s red dress and Akua’s Chinese one showing traces of combat.
“What is the meaning of this… why are you covered in blood, mother? You’re the worst, Akua-neesan! Don’t hurt mother!”
The two vampiresses looked at the little girl, Akua with surprise and Akasha with concern. No, not concern. It was the first time that Moka had been seeing fear on her mother’s face.
“Why did you come back? Don’t come any closer!” yelled the girl’s mother.
“Moka…” said Akua, conflicting emotions warring in her. Finally, the teen made her choice and moved.
Moka tried to warn her mother, but too late. Akua slashed with her hand, her dimensional blade cutting the elder vampire’s waist. Moka didn’t really hear what her sister said, maybe something like thank you.
“Mother!” she yelled as Akasha fell, severed in two.
“Stay back, Moka,” said Akua. “You’re better off not seeing it.”
“Why…why?” asked the little girl, crying.
“I’m sorry… this is who I truly am. You remember what I showed you yesterday? The creature hidden under this castle? Despising humans… hating the world… I am one of those who have succeeded in that wish. I am a descendant of Alucard.”
Moka didn’t listen. She felt her blood boiling, her power rising.
“Get out of my way!” she yelled, charging and kicking her sister in a nearby wall.
Moka continued to fight, feeling rage and sadness mix in her soul as her power rose. Then the castle started to shake as an inhuman wail resonated from the depths of earth.
--- Outside the castle, at the same time ---
“Shit… too late,” said Hotaru as she watched huge tentacles reminding her of the creature in the Alien movie rip the ground around the castle and trash through the walls. “So that’s what they were hiding… not an Old One. Rather what happened to Turok in the old times, when he ‘Ascended’…”
She took out her henshin stick. It wasn’t time for discretion anymore.
Akasha felt her blood freeze in her veins. Her daughter was standing on Alucard’s gigantic hand, screaming as protoplasmic tendrils burrowed through her flesh to reach her vital organs. The castle was crumbling as the thing below expanded, extracting itself from its slumber and now searching for things to consume.
The vampiress let her power flow freely, putting her body back together. She had to act fast. Akua seemed mesmerized by the sight and tentacles were already latching on her. Akasha jumped, destroying them just in time.
“Be careful, Akua. If you are caught by those tentacles, your blood and body will be absorbed into Alucard…”
She felt Akua’s gaze on her, her shock at seeing her up and fighting.
“Having slept 200 years, he’s hungry… if you unleash your power carelessly, he’ll consider you as food and you’ll be targeted like Moka.”
“No way! I sliced you in half with my own hands, Akasha-san!”
“I am afraid that this is not enough to kill me…”
She turned towards Alucard. They had to free Moka fast or…
“SATURN CRYSTAL POWER, MAKE UP!” yelled a voice behind them.
Akasha and Akua only owed to their finely tuned battle reflexes not to stagger as a veritable youki tsunami washed through them, impacting Alucard with a wave of purple light.
The monster staggered then roared as its hand exploded. Akasha searched for her daughter and found her up, carried by a strange woman who had jumped so high she could as well be flying. All she could really see was a black, or maybe dark purple catsuit and bone-white armor pieces with amethyst engravings and something resembling a naginata. Probably sensing the many tentacles launched after her and Moka, the armored woman turned in mid-jump and raised her glaive as to parry the incoming wave.
The tentacles crashed against something invisible, slight purple halos appearing at the point of the biggest impacts. Akasha didn’t lose time and darted into attack, Akua behind her. They would continue their ‘explanation’ when Alucard was out of the picture.
“Akua! Just cutting won’t do anything! You have to destroy them thoroughly,” said Akasha.
A tentacle rushed towards her, morphing and opening like a monstrous snake. The pink-haired vampiress kicked, the shockwave shattering the protean flesh.
“Understood,” replied the teen, wondering how she would be able to…
The armored woman had landed near her and put a rather shocked Moka in her arms.
“Akua-san, I trust you to protect your sister,” she said.
The teen looked at the woman, not believing what she was sensing. Even the youki of Akasha Bloodriver looked like a mere candle in front of the one of… Hotaru Tomoe.
“PRESS CRUSHER!” yelled the woman, slashing with her glaive at the incoming tentacles in a purple shockwave that crushed their charge. “Akasha! Get out of my firing line!”
Akasha jumped back. She didn’t have time to wonder why Hotaru’s energy had gotten to such levels. She knew that her friend was suppressing her power but she wouldn’t have dared to dream that she had let them see only a tiny spark of the inferno raging in her body.
The glaive whirled in Hotaru’s hands. As could be expected, Alucard was still going for the biggest meal in the area and that currently meant her. Good,
thought Sailor Saturn.
She jumped again, catching a braid of tentacles with the shaft of her glaive to drag them away from the other vampires.
“Do you listen, monster?” she asked as her weapon cut through the protean mass, the touch of its blade burning the tendrils like Hercules did to the hydra’s head. “To think one of my people could stoop so low… I have to wash this stain on our race in blood.”
For Akua, the way Hotaru fought looked like a dance, each step powered like only true vampires could.
All noises started to drown in the silence. Even the roar of Alucard was as weak as a kitten’s meow as something Akua could only describe as nothingness gathered around the blade of the Glaive.
Hotaru’s word had felt like thunder in the utter silence that reigned in the battlefield. Colors started to fade, then to invert as everything shifted in negative around the vampiress, coalescing in ribbons of something that could be described as negative light. It was only then that Akua looked at Alucard and started to shiver. She shivered because the ultimate monster was afraid, gathering its mass as it started to flee.
Noise came back at the same moment the ribbons lashed in a whirlwind of negative light, tearing through the protean mass of the monster. Alucard started to scream, its protoplasmic flesh to crystallize in black-purple obsidian as its youki waned. Soon, the obsidian started to crack, dissipating into nothingness as the huge body shrunk.
Akasha almost stumbled of surprise. She remembered her first fight with Alucard, two hundred years ago and how she, Touhou Fuhai and Tenmei Mikogami barely managed to seal the beast in a hopefully eternal slumber. Hotaru was destroying it completely, every cell turning into purple nothingness under her attack. Alucard wasn’t the ultimate vampire. That title belonged to Hotaru Tomoe.
She was standing with her glaive raised above her hands, inverted light ribbons still flowing from her. Her catsuit was rather a kind of chainmail with minute links, covered with bone-white plate boots, bracers, skirt and breastplate. It didn’t look ancient, rather like some kind slightly baroque combat spacesuit, all covered in engraved patterns evoking battle scenes.
Finally, she lowered her glaive. Where the castle, then Alucard had stood… all that was left was a vitrified crater… and the silence.
--- Shuzen Castle, an instant later ---
Akua was looking at her, remembering all the times during the last year when she had criticized Hotaru Tomoe for her apparent weakness and pro-human positions. To her, she had been just a failed vampire whose strings were played by the three Dark Lords, a pretty face who allowed Akasha Bloodriver, Touhou Fuhai and Tenmei Mikogami to stay in the shadows.
But, right now, she understood the truth. She had been played. They had all been played. She had used powers never seen since the Age of Gods and destroyed the mighty Alucard like an insect.
“Who… who are you?” asked Akasha to the woman wielding the glaive.
“Look at her,” said Issa, arriving on the battle scene. “Feel her youki. There is no doubt. Such nobility can only belong to the prophesized one, the Once and Future Queen: Kali. Welcome back, your Majesty.”
The head of clan Shuzen put a knee on the ground, bowing to Hotaru. Akasha, Moka and all the other vampires followed.
Akua fell on her knees, feeling the conflict in her heart. Every night since her mother’s death, she had prayed to Kali to help her become strong. She remembered the times where Hotaru had innocently asked her if she was really ready to be strong.
“You are wondering,” said Hotaru, “why I, of all people, am holding such ideas.”
She had not realized that the queen, the goddess, was crouching near her.
“Hate has taken such a huge hold in your life, Akua,” continued the queen of Saturn. “But once you saw Moka taken by the monster, what did you feel?”
“I… I wanted to protect her,” said the teen, not daring to lie either to the goddess or to herself.
“How did that make you feel?”
“Strong… I wanted to be strong, for her.”
“Strength is only a tool, Akua. The important is what you will use it for. I chose to use my strength to protect. I chose to work with humans because I think that even if they are often disappointing, they can be taught to become better. This is why I created Apex. This is why I am changing the world. What do you choose, Akua? Will you continue to walk the path of hate, ending alone and bitter like this monster, or will you lend me your strength?”
Akua looked at Moka, who was clutching to her mother. She looked at all the assembled vampires that had now risen and looked at their goddess. She looked at the goddess’ eyes and felt her aura. It was immensely powerful, yet gentle. She could be ruthless, she could destroy things utterly, but she never would without cause. If I spurn her again… I’ll lose everything. Moka, my family. Not again, never.
“I… I’ll be your blade, Kali-sama.”
“Very well, my samurai.”
--- Apex Arcology, Tokyo, nineteen hours later ---
“Thank you for welcoming us in your house, Kali-sama,” said Issa.
“Please, Issa-kun, I never was that formal, even in the old days of the Saturn Kingdom.”
Hotaru passed behind the bar of her living room, pouring two glasses of cognac and giving one to the Shuzen head clan.
“The castle is forever destroyed?”
“Unfortunately, yes. The area has to be sealed for a few centuries, to be sure to prevent any contamination. I personally estimate us lucky that the cloaking shield held enough to prevent satellite detection of our battle.”
He nodded gravely. One of the first things they had done when Hotaru teleported them all here had been to check them for any trace of Alucard’s in them. Thanks to the ancient Saturnian technology, treatment was possible but… far too many of the vampires, many of whom never had contact with Alucard had been contaminated and would need to spend several weeks in the Arcology’s Yokai hospital.
“Gyokuro probably did this,” he said. “She studied Alucard a lot before she left.”
“Issa-kun… I have little choice but to issue a death warrant against her.”
“I understand. My wife had been stricken from the family records and Akasha is now the clan matriarch. I know what these things would have done to us in time, reducing us into ghouls. Kokoa and Kalhua will understand too… with time. I have also sent messages to all the others. All the vampires will now stand behind you… Tomoe-dono.”
Hotaru raised her glass, smiling.