Chapter 44 - Death by Hubris

The magical diagram finally glowed with radiance as Atsuko stepped inside. With her raised silver gauntlet, the woman opened her hand and grabbed on to Cheng's face. The orange haired girl struggled against the ironclad grip to no avail. Gradually, she lost the strength to struggle, her energy sapping away. Was this punishment for her previous actions? Perhaps so. She failed to help Fang when she wanted to run from the ugly truths of her hometown. She got her close friend, Mitzi, killed after snuffing out the life of Edgardo. Her slayer comrades were close to death as well, all thanks to her lust for vengeance. If her death meant sparing the others more pain…

Atsuko smirked wickedly from ear to ear. It was working! This was it! She would at last achieve her goal. After collecting more energy from other unsuspecting prey, and bending it to her will, she was would rule over Big Fork City, rescue Sulfur and resume their quest to burn down the old ways.

Suddenly, something unexpected happened, which halted the energy draining process.

A spattering of muffled machinegun fire broke her concentration. Subdued shouts and commotion led her away from the tied-up fox girl to the doors leading out to the rest of the warehouse.

"What the hell's happening out there?"

Lucy and Erin exchanged looks before one of them decided to go out there. However, one of their lackeys bolted inside, shutting the down behind them in a panic.

"D-d-d-d-d-d-"

"Spit it out, already, dammit!" Atsuko ordered.

"Demons! D-d-dozens of d-d-demons! H-h-heading this way!"

"Say what?"

"Well, that doesn't sound good," Lucy commented, nonchalantly. "We won't have lot of men for back up if those things are there."

"Oh, please," Atsuko shrugged. "They have tons of those machine suits to fight them. They'll manage."

"Let me at least check in on them, Atsuko," Lucy suggested. "Helping them couldn't hurt."

Atsuko nodded and sent her away, returning to Cheng. As the long-haired woman departed from the warehouse, her magenta eyes bore witness to the damage that their minion was talking about. Several demons were making mincemeat out of the Triad, clawing and biting their way to the warehouse. However, she produced some flash bombs and tossed them aside to disorient the fiends before ordering the men to shoot them down full force. With an amused smile, she returned her gaze to the warehouse.

"As I thought. It can attract demons after all. This should be interesting..."

Meanwhile, back in the factory, Atsuko continued her work. she grabbed on to Cheng's face once more, resuming the slow drain of energy. Just then, as the mute Erin watched with boredom, her ears picked up the sound of footsteps. Curious and suspicious, Erin left to investigate. The factory was a vast area, so, the intruder could be anywhere.

She reloaded the magazine in her gun-guitar and cautiously tip toed about. Who on earth was it? They must have trained excellently to have snuck in without being noticed.

However, her search was abruptly over when a playing card flew by their face, narrowly grazing their cheek. She retaliated with a few warning shots, glaring at the dark corner. The shapeshifter didn't count on who was behind them though, as they felt a swift, sharp kick in the back of their head.

Erin stumbled on the floor before turning their gun-guitar towards the attacker. Without hesitation, the mute criminal emptied a full magazine. However, the shots only served to pepper the walls and leave Erin susceptible to another attack, this time to her flank. More shots rang out, but the skilled fighter managed to block it, using her weapon as a shield. Growing frustrated, they opened their hand, summoning a ball of fire from their fingertips. Erin hurled it like a football and finally, the shadow attacking her revealed itself.

An older woman with crimson hair and turquoise colored eyes leaped back, dodging the fireball with ease. This gave Erin the perfect chance to charge after the mage and swing her guitar forward. But Akeelah was much faster than that. She completely side stepped and grabbed Erin by her black curls. The Triad member's feet flailed in the air as she struggled to find solid footing.

"Nice try, but your little schemes are over."

With a small dagger, the mage pierced it into Erin's stomach, killing her effortlessly. However, as soon as the knife set in, the body turned into glass and shattered. Akeelah recoiled in surprise, blinking once. Then twice. She was tricked.

"Well...that was different," Akeelah thought aloud, somewhat sheepishly.

"Shapeshifter," Alexandra explained, appearing from out of the shadows of the factory. "She might still be alive somewhere else. Be on your guard."

"Of course. Where are the kids?"

"On their way to Atsuko."

"Good. We just need to keep this one distracted then."

Suddenly, a blade lunged downward, and Alexandra blocked it with her lance casting sparks on the floor. The figure jumped backward and sauntered out of the shadows of the factory. The shapeshifter no longer took the appearance of a young woman with drill pigtails. Instead, it bore its true appearance. It was an androgynous figure who wore armor over a pink jumpsuit, cyan overalls, and indigo boots. The black drill curls were gone, replaced with aquamarine and magenta colored hair, woven into an asymmetrical bob cut style. One cheek bore a star tattoo while the other had a convincing teardrop.

With one hand, it raised its guitar towards the two experienced slayers, with an unamused scowl. A smirk graced Akeelah's lips, excited to see where this fight would take them.

"So, that's your true form. This is definitely different, and I like it~"

Without wasting time, the silent shapeshifter dashed towards Alex and Akeelah at a blinding speed. It raised their weapon and swung it towards the headmistress, who blocked it thanks to her lance. In retaliation, she punched the enemy square in the face, forcing it to stumble for a second before trying again to attack. Akeelah tossed several cards its way, the foe side stepped to avoid their sharp edges.

The mage pulled out another card from her pocket, blowing on it gently. The card transformed into a long blade, much to the shapeshifter's surprise.

The crimson haired mage thrust the blade at her opponent, who backflipped out the way before it could hit them. They ran up the way and stood on top of a crane, taunting the two slayers.

Alexandra rolled her eyes and hurled her lance forward. Before it could hit the shapeshifter, the purple haired woman teleported to the lance. She delivered a double kick towards the enemy's gut, forcing them to fall off the crane machine. Akeelah opened both hands and summoned a gust of wind to help her ally land on the floor better. Their enemy used the guitar to break its fall before unloading gunfire on the slayer pair, who dodged rolling out of the way.

The shapeshifter charged ahead and became a blur of afterimages as it fought the two adult women, who cleanly dodged gun shots and lunges elegantly, as if entangled in a dance. Eventually, Alex's boot kicked the enemy away and twirled her before tossing it towards them.

The shapeshifter unleashed a barrier to stop the lance in mid-air. But that soon revealed to be a mistake, for Akeelah swopped in from behind struck the enemy in the back, electric sparks erupting through the multicolored haired fighter's body. Alexandra pierced her lance in the foe's gut and the body turned to glass again and shattered.

"Really? Again?" Alexandra complained, slightly miffed. Akeelah shrugged causally.

"I guess shapeshifters don't fare so well, fighting professional slayers like us."

Alexandra scanned her gunmetal eyes around the warehouse. She didn't hear any retreating footsteps either. It was safe to say that their opponent fled the scene.

"Well, at least we stalled for the kids to rescue their friend. We should help them out now."

»»»»»

Cheng continued to struggle against Atsuko's gauntlet, but resistance proved more and more difficult. She felt like no different than a raisin. Much to her surprise, her suffering came to an end with another interruption. A large battle axe swung Atsuko's way and she quickly leaped away, barely missing its sharp blade.

"Now what?!"

"Step away from our friend if you know what's good for you," Klavdia demanded.

"You and what army?!"

"This army," Klavdia said with a confident smile. On cue, Kazuto and Sol swung their weapons in the air and downward. Atsuko blocked them both and shoved them to the side.

Klavdia broke Cheng's chains with her bare hands, while the boys contend with the pink haired foe.

"Can't you brats just fuck off?!" Atsuko spat angrily.

Sol kicked her mouth shut and punched her in the gut.

"You made the mistake of attacking our dorm," Sol glared sharply at the heaving woman. "This is what evil people like you deserve!"

As he was about to swing his lance down Atsuko's neck, she flashed her gauntlet and a huge shockwave sent Kazuto and Sol flying back towards a pile of boxes.

"Holy shit..." Kazuto coughed.

"Heh, didn't see that coming, did you?" Atsuko boated. "Now, let's try this again."

Kazuto stood up and reclaimed his sword before grabbing Sol's arm and pulling him back on his feet.

"We might be out of our league here. We should devise some sort of strategy—"

Sol ignored his older friend and dashed forward. Kazuto reached his hand too late to stop golden-haired boy jumped forward and lunged his spear downward. Atsuko raised her gauntlet in the air and another shockwave sent the teenager flying back into a wall. He

"Be careful, kid!" Kazuto tempered. "As long as she has that glove thing, we're outmatched!"

"Not unless we attack head-on!" Sol persisted.

With an earnest shout, the reckless lad charged again, his roommate followed behind him with a knowing groan. Meanwhile, Klavdia tended to Cheng, who was starting to recover from being drained.

"Are you alright? Can you stand?"

"Yes, I think so..."

Cheng weakly stood up with Klavdia's help. She tried to walk but could only limp forward a few feet before careening forward. Thankfully, Klavdia was quick to catch her.

"You should rest for a while. Leave this to us."

"No, I need to stop Atsuko, somehow."

"Like what?" Klavdia questioned.

"Maybe ...I can reason with her."

The younger teen's purple eyes widened into the size of saucers. Was this really the same roommate that she befriended long ago? Cheng used to be prideful and short tempered when she participated in the Slayer exams. Now, she seemed a different person. More considered, more settled, and more measured. Even so, Klavdia was convinced that their foe was even worth saving, considering she attacked their dorm.

"...Cheng, you put her leader in jail. You're going to be fighting an uphill battle."

"That doesn't mean we shouldn't try! And besides..."

Cheng's green eyes glanced at the pink-haired woman in her kimono dress, going toe-to-toe with the teenage boys. With every swing of her fist, Atsuko's pain blasted them. For a fleeting moment, Cheng could see herself in Atsuko's place.

"I understand where she's coming from."

The redhead glanced back at Klavdia, who let out a small, relenting sigh.

"Alright, but, don't let this newfound conscience of yours be the death of you."

"I won't, friend," Cheng assured her. "Count on it."

This would not be an easy fight. Even if she could break through to Atsuko, it would not be before she made short work of her two other friends. She had to find the right words to break through to her. And even then, it would not be a guarantee.

After kicking Kazuto's gut, Atsuko deflected Sol's spear and grabbed him by his shirt. She raised her sword upwards, aiming for the boy's heart.

"This is what you get for calling me evil!"

Suddenly, both of Klavdia's boots slammed into the woman's face, forcing her to fly into a pile of cardboard boxes. The teenage girl raced to their comrade's side.

"Atsuko, enough!" Cheng entreated. "Just turn yourself in, quietly."

"When hell freezes over!"

With a shout of frustration, Atsuko got up from the pile and thrust the sword forward, coming straight for Cheng's gut. Klavdia parried her portable sword with her battle axe.

"Not on my watch!"

The petite girl's foot delivered a harsh kick to the adult's shin and she fell onto her side. The more damage Atsuko took, the more incensed she became.

"We don't want to hurt you," Kazuto ordered. "Just surrender already. You've lost!"

"No…I won't…!"

Ever the stubborn one, she lifted herself from the ground again and clashed swords with the farm boy. Sol and Klavdia raised their weapons and held them against Atsuko's, making her to kneel from the efforts of holding all three of them back.

"Just listen to us!" Cheng reasoned. "You don't have to do this! Is this what Edgardo would want you to do!?"

"SHUT UP! YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT ME!"

Atsuko parried her three opponents and slammed the silver gauntlet to the floor, creating an even bigger shockwave than before. Everyone was sent flying in all different directions in the warehouse. Cheng slammed against a metal box and collapsed on the ground. Once she was down, Atsuko delivered one sharp kick after another to her abdomen, cursing her in a hate-filled rage all the while.

"You think you know what it's like to be abandoned?! To have no purpose?! No family? Don't make me laugh! You've done nothing but destroy everything I've known and loved. You and your fucking slayer friends! You ruined our plans for the future, bitch!"

She ground one heel into her stomach before pointing the blade at her throat.

"Now, I'm going to finish what Mom started!"

Luckily, before Cheng's life could be snuffed out, Kazuto charged like a raging bull and stabbed at the woman's shoulder. Blood streamed from her wound and caked the farm boy's blade as the adult woman screeched in pain.

"Over my dead body!" shouted the determined farm boy.

As Kazuto stood in front of his girlfriend, Sol and Klavdia gathered their bearings, staring Atsuko down, the battle now at a standstill.

The woman growled with fury. She would not lose here. Not when there was still so much to do on Sulfur's behalf. Not when she vowed to carry out the mission of revolution. She glared at the teenage slayers cursing under her breath.

"If only I had more power. Then, I would…!"

Suddenly, the red gem began to glow brightly. It oozed out a dark purple gel that infected Atsuko's gauntlet arm. The woman glanced at her arm and her eyes widened with surprise.

"The hell…?!"

The ooze made its way into the rest of Atsuko's body, causing her to panic. She tried to shake off the gel but to no avail.

"N-n-no," Atsuko stammered in fright. "No, s-s-stop…dammit, stop…!"

Then the gel turned into fire, engulfing the kimono dress clad criminal, much to everyone's shock and horror. She writhed on the floor, struggling to put out the flames before they consumed her entirely.

"AAAHHHHH!"

A pained scream turned into a roar in the smoke and suddenly the slayers were stared at by a colossal creature of death and smoke. Two dark eyes stared at the kids with a wicked fury, and another growl surged from its jagged mouth, accompanied a most putrid smell of its breath. Two thick horns adorned its gnarled head, which itself is almost bark-like.

The sound of a roaring fire escapes the creature's sinuous nostrils set within a stumpy nose. Its gnarled head sits atop a thick, inflated body. Atsuko's gorgeous short hemmed kimono dress remained, albeit reduced to rags, exposing Atsuko's undergarments. The creature moved forward slowly; its two legs gracelessly carry its glowing body with a terrifying energy.

Two gigantic wings extended themselves fully. Jagged bones, and shadowy tendrils stretched upward before gently lowering again.

"Holy shit!" Kazuto exclaimed in astonishment.

"What in the world is that…?!" Cheng managed.

"Whatever it is, it ain't friendly!"

Alexandra and Akeelah had finally made it to the scene, mirroring the same reactions as their pupils.

"As I thought," Akeelah deduced, fearful. "It corrupted her into a demon."

"So, it was a false artifact after all?" Alexandra muttered. "Damn. We're too late."

She turned to the younger slayers and advised,

"Everyone! Steel yourselves. This is going to be a tough battle!"

"Yeah, no shit!" Kazuto quipped.

The demonic Atsuko twitched its various body parts. It evoked a shockwave roar that caused all four teenagers to flinch. Alexandra ordered everyone to leave the warehouse. Based on the size of the creature alone, fighting in a small warehouse would be a dilemma.

Demon Atsuko burst through the entrance of the warehouse. The Triad lackeys and Lucy were taken aback by their comrade's new form and scrambled to retreat. The demon opened its mouth and a dark ball of energy spewed out dropped like a bomb on the construction site, killing dozens of people in its wake.

"Soga, stay back and protect Cheng," Akeelah instructed. "Sol, Klavdia, with us."

"Understood!"

As Cheng and Kazuto retreated to a somewhat safer area, their comrades fought the beast. Klavdia produced her shotgun, unloading a clip. The enemy flew and used its claws to grab at the white-haired girl. Akeelah summoned a large ball of ice to stop the fiend in its tracks. It struggled against the icy prison as Alexandra jumped up and stabbed it in the stomach. Before Sol could use his spear to slice its head off, the demon roared again, its scream piercing everyone's ears and shattering the ice.

Dozens of harpies rained down from the sky, attracted by the demon's call. Thinking quickly, Alexandra used the tip of her lance to make a magic circle in the dirt. She planted her weapon downwards and the circle glowed brightly. A large, luminescent suit of armor rose up like the dead as it unsheathed its sword. With an opened palm, it hurled a ball of light at the murder of harpies heading their way to the construction site.

The large demonic beast swopped in the air again and lunged at Alexandra's knight. But the knight proved to be nimbler as it dodged a claw attack and thrust his sword into the demon's chest, earning a shriek of pain. It recoiled in the air and spewed out another ball of dark matter from its mouth, aiming straight at the head of Slayer Union.

Akeelah used a full deck of cards to shield her superior with a barrier, strong enough to deflect the energy ball towards the sky, hitting and killing more demon harpies. Sol hurled his spear like a football, hoping to land a hit somewhere. But the demon noticed it a mile away and swatted it away like a fly, landing right below Sol's yellow sneakers. Utilizing her bat-like wings, Klavdia lunged her axe forward, cleanly slicing off one of the fiend's claws. Directing its attention to the former princess, demon Atsuko tried taking a bite off the girl's head. The girl blocked the sharp teeth with her axe and forced the foe away. Swiftly, she kicked it down, only to be grabbed by the leg and be tossed back to the dirt. Alexandra's summon caught her before she hit the ground.

Meanwhile, Sol looked at the beast, wondering what to do next. There had to have been a way to finish it off for good. If they kept this up, the demon's roars would summon more of its ilk their way. Suddenly, out of the corner of his brown eye, the boy noticed a thunder cloud coming their way. He ran up a hill of rubble and held his weapon high. After a few suspenseful moments, a bolt of thunder hit Sol's spear. The current of electricity powering it up. The golden-haired boy glared at the beast, determined.

Klavdia swung her battle axe against the monster's limbs, severing them both. Likewise, Alexandra's knight propelled Akeelah in the air, who sliced at the wings with her sword of cards. Just as Atsuko was tumbling down into the dirt, the islander's spear glowed a yellow radiance.

"Time is now!" Sol shouted, calling out his attack. "Lighting pierce assault!"

He jumped up from the pile of rubble and shot through the air like a missile. The weapon went through demon Atsuko's chest, creating a large hole in its wake. It yelled out one final cry before finally landing on the ground, hard. Black blood spilled onto the floor, creating a pool around the carcass.

The monstrous form slowly melted away to reveal the now human Atsuko, half naked, battered, and dead. The silver gauntlet turned to ash and rust, the red gem fell from the socket and shattered, dark smoke departing into the ether.

"Where could they have found a fake artifact like that?" Alexandra asked her colleague, who shrugged in response.

"Perhaps they crafted it themselves, which would be quite impressive of itself. Perhaps we will never know, with the other two accomplices fleeing the scene during the chaos."

"Well, their sub leader is gone now, so, I'm sure they won't be pulling any late-night attacks like that again. Such a mess."

Carefully and gently, Akeelah confiscated the silver gauntlet from Atsuko.

"This looks like good research material, though. I'll be keeping the glove, Alex."

"Good idea. In this way, we might have some clues on where it came from and who created it."

The purple haired slayer turned to the youngsters with a small smile.

"Good work tonight, everyone. It was a tough battle, but you didn't waver. Your training is starting to pay off." The girl nodded in gratitude.

"Thank you. And we wouldn't have done it without Sol's quick thinking either…"

Klavdia turned her head from side to side, looking for her best friend.

"Sol? Where did he go?"

From a distance, she seen a body on the ground, electricity sparkling. As she ran towards the figure, the white-haired girl gasped in surprise. A frazzled, dizzy Sol was laying on the dirt, his golden hair wild and spiky like a hedgehog. He was giggling as if he heard a funny joke.

"Goodness, a-are you alright?" Klavdia asked, kneeling over the boy in concern.

"Wow, look at all the colors in the sky…"

Alexandra was right. It was a tough battle for everyone involved. But they were able to claim victory and pushed through with everything they had. Kazuto let out a breath of relief, thankful that the ordeal was over. Cheng, on the other hand, could only lower her head in sadness. Atsuko didn't end her tale in a blaze of glory, but like a rabid animal in need for execution. If only the redhead could've helped her another way. Had she not have broken down her walls for Kazuto and the others, would Cheng have ended up like that? Would her thirst for revenge bring her down the same dark path as Atsuko's? She shuddered at the thought.

Meanwhile, far away from the construction site, Lucy stood on the roof of an old warehouse, having just witnessed the harrowing battle. Her eyes were wide as tea plates.

"Atsuko…"

Her agape, dangling mouth slowly turned into a dark and malicious smirk.

"What a fool."

Suddenly, someone else joined the black-haired woman on the roof. The shapeshifter in the pink jumpsuit.

"Ah, there you are, Loki. Sorry to leave you behind like that."

Lucy's ally, Loki, crossed their arms and glared with a pout.

"I know, I know," Lucy chuckled lightly. "But I needed to observe the experiment after all. And I'm glad I didn't miss anything. Lord Isaac will be pleased of the results."

The magenta and aquamarine haired figure pointed towards the slayer group and closed his fist.

"No, not yet," Lucy protested. "They've had a long night as is, with that woman spiraling out of control. We'll let them rest, for now."

Loki frowned slightly but nodded in understanding. Suddenly the woman's cellphone vibrated in her pants pocket. She picked it up and answered the call.

"Hello, Sif. How did it go?"

"As well as you'd expect. Your craftsmanship doesn't cease to amaze me, Bartholomew."

"Glad to hear. I'm looking forward to hear all about it once you've returned."

"Understood."

The long-haired woman, Sif, ended the call and put aside her phone. Donning on a dark cloak with a pointed hood, Sif gestured to her comrade to follow her. There was no use in standing around forever.

"Let's be on our way, Loki. Our work here is done."

With a nod, the pair disappeared into the night, leaving no trace behind as they teleported out of view.

»»»»»

The next morning, in Lily Turnip Hospital

A pair dark green eyes slowly opened, adjusting to the bright lights in the room. They stared at the white celling and the fan was motionless. The orbs drifted towards the walls, then the bed, then the covers, and then...upwards.

What he seen was a young woman his age, with long, flowing orange hair that was tied in a ponytail. She wore a red tunic and black leggings with golden accents. Her green eyes were wide as dinner plates, staring right back at him.

"Cheng...is that...you?" the lad asked, groggily.

The girl, Cheng reached out to his shoulder. There was no mistaking it. After almost two weeks, her brother had finally broke free of his coma.

"Fang? Are you alright? How do you feel?" She asked gently.

The young man, Fang, rose up from his bed, wincing slightly. He looked around, uneasy of his new surroundings. This was a different area, he could tell. He wasn't in his hometown, but somewhere else.

"I'm confused. Sis...where am I? What happened?"

Cheng blinked and tilted her head, confused.

"You don't remember?"

Fang turned his half-burnt face to his younger twin. He shook his head, disappointed.

"No, I don't. Last thing I knew, Xin Wu was in the middle of a horrible disaster. The rest is a huge blur. What happened out there?"

There was a long silence, as everything set in.

Cheng bit her bottom lip, hesitant to tell him the entire story. Evidently, the effects of the blast had concussed him enough to make him lose his memories. All that had happened since that day, joining the Nightshade Triad, the years spent in the criminal underworld, the final battle between him, her sister and the Slayers, were wiped away.

Now the girl was faced with a choice. Either tell him everything, or let those painful memories fade away.

Would she rather have Fang be stuck in a bubble of blissful ignorance or have him open his eyes to the horrors of their once ideal childhood?

With a gentle smile and warm touch, Cheng lifted Fang's hand.

"It's alright, Fang. Don't worry about a thing. Just take it one day at a time. Xin Wu may be gone, but you're still here. And I'll help you get back on your feet, however I can."

"So, where are we, then?" Cheng shook her head, her voice cracking slightly.

"That doesn't matter right now. I'll tell you when you're back on your feet again."

"Sis..."

Fang turned over onto one side, facing his sibling.

"…are things gonna be better now?" Cheng nodded with confidence.

"They will be. I promise."

As her older twin processed the words, his furrowed brows melted, and he sighed softly. He was probably still tired.

"Alright. I trust you, Cheng."

"You better," she boasted with a chuckle, despite hiding her tears. "I'm the only twin you got."

Suddenly, the doctor politely let himself in to check in on Fang. Cheng seen it as her cue to leave, for now.

"I'll pay you a visit later tonight, okay?"

The tired brother nodded as he sat up from his bed, his eyes stayed on Cheng until she closed the door behind her.

At the Big Fork City Park, Kazuto sat at a bench next to the water fountain, going against Sol in a game of cards. He glanced down at his hands which held a set of five cards. His hand was not the best, but it was all he had. With a confident façade, Kazuto laid down his cards on the table and revealed his hand:

"Diamond pair." Sol chuckled, a smug glint in his brown eyes as he proudly declared,

"Star ace straight!" His roommate only groaned in annoyance.

"Haha, the islander boy strikes again!" Sol laughed in triumph, crossing his arms. "Had enough, Kaz?"

"Damn brat!" Kazuto exclaimed in frustration. "You've won 10 times already! These cards are replicated, admit it! It's the only explanation!"

"Of course, they aren't," Sol snickered. "It's not like we're playing for money or anything. That'd be stupid. You wanted the challenge, after all, so own up to it. Spill the beans. Though, I gotta warn you, it has to be something interesting."

"Why did I agree to these stakes? If this losing streak keeps up, you'll know an awful lot about me, kid."

The golden-haired boy shuffled the deck and readied to deal a new hand as his friend leaned back in the bench, thinking. "Let's see…okay I got one! A few years back, I went toe-to-toe with a mad boar that was disturbing my village."

"This again?" Sol asked, yawning a little. "You used a blanket to blind the boar. And your father killed it by bashing it over the head with a log. I've heard this several times before."

"A good story is worth repeating you know!" Kazuto insisted. "Wooden logs can be deadly, too. It depends on how you use them."

"If you're fresh out of stories," Sol posed as he dealt the cards, "then I have a question about your village. Has it always been…um…?"

"Poor? Nah, not at first. Ever since I was born, Nishizawa lived near a noble family. And the villagers had to work hard to earn their keep and provide for themselves. In fact, had it not been for my old man, who became a slayer, we would've moved elsewhere. His profession earned him enough money to sustain the village and his home." Sorting together his cards, he sighed. "Then, he got sick and died, and then terrible storms started comin' and goin'. And the next thing you know, it's square one all over again. That's why I became a slayer, after all."

The blue-haired boy smiled knowingly as he found a new card to improve his chances. Slowly he picked a new card to trade for an old one. He removed his protective hand from his cards and revealed them with a smile.

"Jewel blitz."

After 10 losing streaks, Kazuto had done the impossible. He had won. Sol nearly fell out of the bench at the sudden turnaround, astonished.

"Whoa…didn't see that coming!"

"Serves you right!" Kazuto boasted. "Now, let me hear your deepest fears and secrets, pal."

Sol lowered his eyes as thought of what to say. It wasn't a tall tale or an embarrassing secret. Instead, it was a more personal ordeal.

"Well…Melika wrote to me yesterday. Thing is, I don't know what to say. A part of me doesn't want to reply."

"Because of what your dad told you? About Soleil?"

"Yeah, her. For the longest time, I truly believed Melika and Lani to be my mother and sister. But…they're not. My father ran away from Soleil and took me with him. She probably didn't know I was gone. Why would he do that?"

"Perhaps your dad thought he was protecting you," Kazuto reasoned.

"That's the same thing he said and look how that turned out. I can't look at my family the same way after a bombshell like that! It's like half of my life was just a big fat lie! Damn that old man of mine…!"

The younger teen sighed deeply, as he pinched the bridge of his nose. The farmer stared at Sol with a sympathetic frown. He leaned in slightly on the bench, patting his friend on the shoulder.

"I can see how a truth like that can be heartbreaking. Cheng was shaken when she found out about Sulfur and her home, too. But, Sol, Melika has done so much for you, hasn't she? Even though ya'll ain't blood related, she still loved you all the same. That's somethin' worth cherishin' at least."

Sol nodded slowly, trying to register his friend's words. Kazuto wasn't wrong, of course. Still, he wasn't truly ready to touch base with Melika again. Once he figured out Soliel's whereabouts and obtained some closure, then maybe he can accept her again.

Just then, a feminine voice brought the boys' attention.

"Hey there," Cheng greeted. "Destroying each other in another card game, I see."

"Yup!" Sol boasted. "And kicking your boyfriend's butt, too."

"Ah, shut it," Kazuto grumbled. "I got my first win at least!"

However, the game didn't matter as Sol's cellphone began to ring loudly. He pulled it out of his pocket and seen Klavdia's text message.

"Well, I'll catch you guys later. Duty calls."

The 16-year-old collected the cards and left the bench, waving goodbye to his older comrades.

"How was today's visit, darlin'?" Kazuto asked the redhead.

The farmer scooted slightly to allow Cheng to sit with him. She let out a breath of relief and winked at her partner.

"Fang's regained consciousness."

Kazuto's small black orbs enlarged at the news. "For real?!"

She nodded, smiling lightly. Kazuto beamed at the news. At least there was one part of this nasty ordeal that ended well.

"That's great! So, he'll be let out soon?"

"I won't know until my next visit there."

She wiped away a growing tear in her eye.

"It was only for a little while until the doctor showed up to examine him, but he regained his senses. He recognized me as his sister."

"Well, hopefully things'll be better now for him. He's got a hell of a long road ahead 'a him, 'specially 'cause of...well y'know." Cheng's smile quickly faded, and she looked towards the fountain.

"About that...he doesn't remember anything."

The park bench turned silent at the revelation.

"Nothing...at all...?" Kazuto managed. "You mean...the attack, the secrets, all those years working for Sulfur…?"

"Wiped clean," Cheng confirmed once more. "He's a blank slate now."

Kazuto sank into his seat, visibly taken aback by such news. He fully expected there to be some form of after effect from the explosion blast, but this was supposed to be a worst-case scenario. In fact, it was a scenario both of them discussed but neither had anticipated that it would actually come to fruition.

"Gods...if that's the case, reality's gonna hit 'im like a bomb."

"Or maybe...he'll get a chance to have a new life in the city."

The taller farm boy whipped his head around and his jaw dropped.

"You don't mean...? Y'ain't serious, are ya?"

"I am. It's better this way."

"Cheng, Fang's gonna have to learn one way or 'nother." She shook her head.

"That will only bring him more harm than good. Besides, I'd rather he has a fresh start than have to pick up the pieces left behind by…our mother."

"And what if he does his own research?" Kazuto challenged, his voice firm. "what if something triggers his memory?"

Cheng opened her mouth and realized there was nothing she could say to counter that. Her beau anticipated this.

"Like I said before," he added. "People can't stay in a bubble forever. You know that."

"True, but I believe some memories are better off buried."

Cheng touched Kazuto's shoulder, entreating him to try and understand.

"Kazu, when I was at my lowest point, when all I was thinking about was running away from my past, you sought me out. You stopped me from boarding that ship and convinced me to start over from where I left off 5 years ago."

"I know," Kazuto admitted. "Honestly, I was pretty damn desperate back then. I cared about you too much to let you just leave."

"Precisely. You didn't give up on me, so I won't give up on Fang. For now, let's focus on helping him get back on his feet. We'll figure the rest out when we get there."

As concerned and weary as Kazuto was with all of this, the girl's pleading eyes melted his heart. He stifled a moan at the near smoldering, alluring gaze. Perhaps it was a grey area on her part, but if she was willing to make that decision…

"Damn it, why you got to use those gorgeous eyes on me? Alright, I get it. I'll support your choice, for better or worse."

Cheng smiled and clung to his arm, in gratitude. She nestled her head against his arm and gently said,

"I love you, Kaz…"

Suddenly the blue haired lad sat up, staring at the girl with enlarged eyes.

"Whoa!"

"A-are you okay?"

"You finally said it!" Kazuto explained, grinning from ear to ear.

"Said what?" Cheng's eyes darted around.

"That you loved me! Say it again."

The girl recoiled from the boy and looked away, a small blush gracing her face.

"A-as if!"

"C'mon," Kazuto teased, leaning closer while cupping the back of his ear. "You know you wanna."

"Ugh, you know what?" Cheng grumbled, standing up from the bench. "This is stupid. I'm leaving."

The stubborn redhead walked away, with her boyfriend clumsily following her.

"C'mon, say it again!"

"Not in a million years," Cheng rebuked.

"Pretty please?"

"No!"

"Pretty please with sugar on top?"

"Don't make me throw you into the fountain, Kazuto Soga! 'Cause I'll do it!"

Fang's recovery was going to be a long way to go, just like Kazuto said. But with the right, positive influences and company, he'll be able to renew his path in life. The repercussions were imminent but far from a concern. For now, Cheng was going to savor these moments of victory while it lasted. It was about time she finally enjoyed a good ending.


Author notes: Hello, everyone! It's been a long while since I've wrote these again. Things have been very rough on my end. Just suffered another big loss in my family last year's Halloween and it had really put me in a deep slump. So, naturally, I had to put most of my writing on hold to process the emotions I was going through. Not only that, we have this pandemic that's changed everything in the worst way.

There was a time when I felt very scared, worried, and depressed because the future seemed uncertain. However, as time passes, and with the help, support, and love of my family and friends, I've come to appreciate life more. I've learned to manage my time better and try new things. And most importantly, I've learned to take things one day at a time and be grateful. I'm glad to still be writing stories and still be alive today. I'm also glad to still have readers around who enjoy my work. Thanks for sticking around! It means a lot to me.

Anyways, the next story arc is still in progress. I have a couple more chapters to finish, so please remain patient. It will also be lighter and humorous too. An online friend and I both agreed that a more lighthearted arc is in order considering the dark, grittiness that was the Nightshade Triad story. Be on a lookout for it!