[FFML] [Fanfic][Anime][X-over]Darkness Chronicles: Book I: Part I: Chapter VI

Craig fanfic at magister.net.au
Fri Feb 27 17:52:48 PST 2009


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"Oh God! Oh God; please! Not yet! Just a little longer! Just a little 
more!"

With a low, agonised gasp, he forced his cracked and bleeding hands 
beneath him, and began to push himself upright yet again. It seemed to 
take an eternity, while pain racked his ruined body, and the world spun 
giddily around him. But at last he rocked backwards, and surged to his 
feet with a convulsive effort. For a moment he teetered, gasping 
desperately for air, his heart labouring wildly in his chest while the 
relentless pounding beat in savage counterpoint behind his starting, 
bloodshot eyes. He had long passed the limits of his endurance, but he 
would not die; not yet.

Knowing it was too soon, but desperate to keep moving, he took another 
faltering step forwards, and almost collapsed once more as another dry, 
hacking spasm seized him. For a moment he doubled over, blood splashing on 
his parched lips as he hacked and gasped, his face set and grim against 
the tearing agony of the hunger and thirst beyond all the torments he 
could once have imagined he could endure. Yet at last the fit passed, and 
he raised his head once more to the ruinous, shattered world that 
surrounded him.

Just a little further, his thought murmured to him through the anguish and 
the pain. Just a little more, and you can rest at last; rest with them.

Gritting his teeth, fighting back the nausea, he set his will, and began 
to move once more, while overhead the bloated, ghastly thing that had once 
been the sun, climbed huge and horrible in the east, wreathed in a blazing 
aurora of fire, rising like some lurid vampire of death, feasted and 
satiated upon the very life-blood of the Earth, surging and waning as with 
some inner mockery of breath and heartbeat, as it laboured, raging and 
hell-red into the eastern sky, bringing yet another dreadful dawn to the 
ruinous wreck of the world; the last dying star in a dead reality.

For a moment despite himself, he halted once more, transfixed as though in 
horrid fascination, staring aghast and helpless as the livid, putrid 
hell-light began to cast the ruinous land about him into stark blacks and 
blood-reds, the shadows surging, then fleeing swiftly before it as though 
the very night itself turned in loathing for this mocking travesty of day 
and the promise it could no longer bring, while the lurid, ghastly face 
leered down in twisted, hideous delight upon the wreck and ruin it had 
wrought.

Shuddering, forcing back the clawing, panic-terror at the memory of that 
last dreadful night, he turned from the terrible visage of the ruined sun, 
and began to move once more, keeping his smarting eyes fixed upon the 
ground before him, lest they fail at last before he reached his last home, 
and the ending of his journey.

The dreadful day grew swiftly, and the geiger counter began to hiss as the 
ambient radiation sawed in minutes to a hundred, then a thousand times 
that considered death for man or woman as the huge hell-sun beat down 
mercilessly through the last remnants of the failing atmosphere, the scent 
of ozone and burning growing heavy about him as the air hissed and 
writhed, while ion trails blazed in the wake of the death-dealing light of 
the dying star.

Grimacing with a savage sardonic smile, he reached for the now useless 
device, and pulling it from his pocket, he crushed it in his fist, and 
dashed it with a sudden momentary fury to the ground. It no longer 
mattered. There was no longer any need for him to hide out the day in what 
little shelter he could find; he was almost at his goal.

Stumbling on, he passed the ruins of some long-burned rubble that might 
once have been the steel and concrete of the mall he and his family used 
to frequent. He could not be certain; the city had been scattered and 
shattered to its foundations in the final cataclysm.

Again, his mind turned back to that final terrible night a mere ten days 
before, when they had watched in stark, unimaginable terror as the 
nothingness had eaten up the stars with impossible swiftness, and the very 
fabric of reality had faltered, and crashed in ruinous fall. It had rolled 
towards them in the dead of night, its passage marked by the impossible 
flashes and flares followed by blackness that had marked the swift death 
of all before it. Then it had reached them, swallowing the outer planets 
in a flicker, devouring Mars, and lunging hungrily for the moon. It had 
flared a brilliant, livid red before exploding in a titanic flash of 
reality gone insane. Then it was upon them, and all had been cataclysmic 
ruin, fire, and blazing, searing pain; and when he had awakened, he had 
found that he was alone, the last living thing on a burned and shattered 
Earth, a desert world of ashes and of death.

Not far now. Through the haze of growing pain, he could see the ruins of 
his home, the place marked still by the huge cairn of rubble he had built 
upon that first day, when such things were still within his power: a 
monument to all that he had loved, before he had left in search of 
survivors so that he might return when he could, when he had still thought 
that there might yet be hope. Now he was coming home to rest, and to

die.

With a final effort, he crawled and clambered his way to the lip of the 
crater he had made. Then he was rolling and tumbling to its bottom, and a 
moment later he was lurching in a last, stumbling run, staggering and 
reeling with his last strength to halt at last by the huge flat stone upon 
which he had carved words that could still be seen, despite the savage 
cruelty of the sun, and the snarling winds of the broken world.

"Diana and Eiko," It read simply. "My life; my happiness. Rest gently 
here; and wait for me."

For one last time he stood in reverence, gazing down upon the grave of his 
wife and his only child, while his shattered body shook with silent 
weeping, for no tears could come to his burning eyes. Then at last Kent 
Magami, once the mighty man of steel, laid himself down upon the tombstone 
of his family, and the gentle darkness reached to claim him at last, and 
take from him his suffering and his pain.

 				     ** ** **

Darkness Chronicles
An anime-Manga Cross-over

 				     ** ** **

Book I:
Part I: The Gathering
Chapter VI:

 				     ** ** **

Tap, tap, tap!

Eiko started, her head turning this way and that as she tried in vain to 
pin-point the sudden sharp sound through the wind and driving, relentless 
snow, while beside her, Shiko shivered and huddled closer to her in the 
near blackness of middle-night.

"I'm cold," she complained yet again. "Eiko, when can we get inside, and 
out of this snow?"

"As soon as I find Biko's head, Shiko; I told you," Answered Eiko 
irritably. "Damn her! She was sure she dropped it here somewhere. Why 
can't she be more careful with her things; what's the matter with her?"

With that, she plunged her hands into the snow once more, feeling around 
in the darkness in growing frustration for her rival's carelessness, until 
suddenly her questing hands found something cold and hard.

"Of course!" she cried in sudden triumph. "It was frozen; that's why I 
couldn't find it.

"Biko?" she inquired as she lifted the head free. "Are you alright?"

But the mouth only opened and closed silently, whilst from it the 
chattering `tap, tap, tap' came in endless repetitive rhythm, and Shiko's 
giggles at her side became more and more wild, until at last they had 
melted into a shrieking, endless scream.

With a stifled shriek, Eiko jerked awake, staring wildly into the darkness 
for a moment as the wind whipped rain against her window, until at last 
her hammering heart slowed, and she let out a gasping breath, settling 
back once more.

"Oh God!" she groaned. "Remind me never *ever* to eat anything Shiko 
makes, ever again!" She shook her head.

"Just a dream," she sighed softly as she pulled the covers tighter around 
her. "Just a stupid dream."

She sighed again and shifted, snuggling down under the blankets as the 
storm continued unabated, and she prepared to go back to sleep.

Then abruptly the sense of something amiss penetrated, and suddenly she 
realised that she could still hear the urgent, insistent tapping at her 
window.

With a start, Eiko flung the covers back, and sat up, reaching for the 
bed-side lamp, just as a flash lit the night, and thunder cracked savagely 
almost overhead. Startled, Eiko missed the lamp, and tumbled headlong to 
the floor, uttering a few choice words under her breath as she pulled 
herself to her feet, and moved swiftly to the window.

"Alright, whoever you are!" she growled furiously. "You're really gunna 
get it for that!"

With a savage jerk she wrenched back the curtains, and stared in amazed 
disbelief. Ine clung desperately to the sill with one hand, held from 
falling it seemed only by what looked like a small flight-pack settled 
high on her back. She was shivering violently, drenched from head to foot, 
one hand half raised as though to tap again. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and 
her face was tight with pain.

"Thank Kami-sama!" she gasped. "I've been trying to wake you for ages! I 
heard you could sleep through anything, but..."

She was trying to be quiet but her voice shrilled, and Eiko shhed her 
urgently.

"Ine!" she cried, now alarmed as well as angry, and trying to keep her own 
voice as quiet as she could. "What on Earth are you doing out in this! And 
what do you think you're doing here in the middle of the night! Kami-sama; 
have you any idea what time it is!"

At the other girl's blank look, she glared at her in growing fury.

"It's nearly one in the morning, for Kami's sake!" she hissed, her eyes 
flashing. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Biko and Shiko!" Ine gasped, not seeming to have heard the question. 
"They're gone!"

It was the wrong thing to say. Eiko's eyes blazed with sudden fury, and 
Ine shrank back, certain for one terrifying moment that the girl would 
send her hurtling to the ground.

"No-no-no!" she shrilled, abandoning any pretence at decorum as Eiko's 
eyes burned and her face turned the colour of her hair. 
"It's-not-what-you-think! 
Yes-Biko-did-try-to-take-Shiko-to-the-mansion-but...Oh-Kami-something-happened! 
Oh-please! 
Something-came-and-they-just-disappeared-and-we've-been-looking-everywhere! 
Oh-please-you've-got-to-help-us!"

Abruptly, and to Eiko's stupefaction, Ine's composure cracked completely, 
and she began to cry, great racking sobs that shook her from head to foot 
while she shivered desperately with cold. "I've been trying to wake you 
for ten minutes" she choked out at last. "and the pack's nearly dead, and 
I can't hold on much longer, and I'm so cold, and it hurts!"

For a moment, caught between amazement and towering rage, Eiko could only 
stare stupidly. Then the last part of Ine's statement penetrated, and she 
reached out, catching the girl easily, and pulling her none too gently 
over the sill, and into the room.

With a gasp, Ine collapsed limply in her arms, shaking like a leaf as she 
fought desperately for control.

"Didn't have time to find something warm!" she gasped faintly as Eiko 
closed the window, and carried her to a chair.

She was still furious, but it was obvious that Ine was in no fit state to 
answer any of the innumerable questions she was tempted to scream at her.

Quickly Eiko slipped the harness from her, and dumping the pack, she 
settled her in the chair, turning to wrench the blankets from her bed, and 
drop them around Ine's wildly trembling form.

"Thanks," The other girl gasped, hugging them fiercely to her and trying 
desperately to rub some feeling back into her frozen fingers, while an 
unfamiliar gratitude fought with her natural caution and growing alarm.

Eiko would *not* be pleased when she heard the full tale; still, there was 
no point in delaying the inevitable, and she needed any help she could 
get.

Fighting her shivering, Ine began: "Biko only told us tonight. She'd 
decided to bring Shiko to the mansion for a few days to...to keep her away 
from you, I suppose." She faltered as Eiko's face darkened still more. But 
Eiko said nothing, and after a moment she continued. "Asa and I were to 
keep watch. She had called Shiko to her window, and had just come out with 
her, when..." Ine broke off, staring helplessly at her clenched hands as 
she clutched the blankets.

"When?" Eiko demanded, her expression more fiery by the second.

"Something...something *appeared*!" Ine said helplessly. "I can't describe 
it any other way.

"It was one of the most horrible things I've ever seen! One moment Biko 
was hovering while she tucked the blanket she'd brought tighter around 
Shiko; in the next a black hole seemed to open almost beside them, and 
she...I think it was a she...came out. We couldn't see much, but it looked 
like the head of a woman, although the body was..." she shook her head 
once more.

"The thing screamed (I've never heard a scream like that, and I hope I 
never do again), and seemed to burst into flame. Then she was clutching 
for Biko's throat, although I don't really think she knew what she was 
doing, and pulling them both to the ground, even as she burned brighter 
and brighter.

"Biko was fighting, and screaming for us to shoot the thing, and then the 
creature exploded, and Biko just...disappeared. We thought for a moment 
that she might have teleported, but she wouldn't have left Shiko.

"Shiko fell, and Asa and I tried to reach her, but we were too far away. 
Then, Eiko, I swear Shiko just fell right through the ground as though it 
wasn't there. I know you won't believe me, but I tell you that's what 
happened.

"Eiko...Eiko, We've searched everywhere! But the Akagiyama sub-system 
isn't signalling, and we can't find any trace of either of them; and... Oh 
God" she cried suddenly. "I think Biko might be dead! And Shiko..." she 
turned suddenly pleading eyes to Eiko, trying unsuccessfully to dash away 
the tears. "We didn't know where else to go," she continued desperately at 
last. "The Leptonians were out of the question; That captain of their's is 
drunk more often than not, and God knows the mess they'd make of a search. 
And there's no one else."I'm sorry," she choked helplessly; "I'm so sorry! 
but Eiko, you've got to help us!"

For several seconds, Eiko stared at her in numb disbelief, her face 
alternating between rage and panic. Rage won at last, and she whirled on 
Ine, gripping her savagely by the shoulders while she began to shake her 
furiously back and forth in time to her words.

"When will you ever learn to leave us alone?" she snarled, glaring 
balefully into the girl's suddenly terrified face, while her grip grew 
tighter, and the shaking still more savage. "I warned Biko again and 
again; I knew something like this would happen if she didn't forget her 
stupid feud with me, and just grow up. But no; as usual, she couldn't see 
passed getting her own damn way, and trying to get back at me for her own 
baka reasons! Well this time she's gone too far! If anything's happened to 
Shiko because of her stupid quest for revenge...!"

Abruptly she seemed to realise what she had been doing, and released her 
hold.

Dazed, Ine slumped limply in the chair, the room spinning wildly as she 
stared up at her through starting terrified eyes. She had never seen Eiko 
more angry, and never wanted to again.

For several seconds, Eiko remained frozen, her eyes seeming to flash fire 
in the light of the lamp as she glared at her in silence. Then abruptly 
she whirled away, and stood, staring out into the storm. The thunder had 
abated somewhat, but the hammering downpour had grown still more in 
ferocity, and it was obvious that they could achieve nothing without help.

"Damn you!" she said feelingly, her voice tightly controlled as she turned 
at last to face Ine once more.

"All right" she continued after another moment; "how much power is left in 
that thing?" She gestured towards the pack.

"Not enough to be of any use," Ine answered, her shivering at last 
beginning to subside. "It's experimental, and Biko hasn't--"

"All right; never mind about that," Eiko interrupted impatiently. "Have 
you any other way of getting back to Shiko's? We'll have to start from 
there."

She wanted desperately to get the girl out of the house, and as soon as 
possible, so that she could talk to her parents. Whatever had happened, 
she did not like the sound of Ine's tale; she did not like the sound of it 
at all.

Ine made as though to answer, but at that moment Eiko's keen hearing 
caught the faint sounds of stirring from her parents' room, sounds lost to 
the other girl beneath the furious hammering of the rain.

With sudden urgency, Eiko lunged, clamping her hand tightly over Ine's 
mouth as she gestured furiously at her to be quiet while she listened.

 				     * * *

As always, the memories were fragmented, almost all save the stark, 
mind-numbing horror, vanishing even as he started wildly from the 
nightmare to the quiet warmth of his wife's closeness, and the gentle 
pressure of her arms tight around him.

"The same?" she said softly, dark hair framing her anxious face in the 
soft light of the lamp.

"A week," he sighed, drawing her closer with a sudden intensely protective 
gesture against the terror that was still more real to him than the warm 
familiarity of the room and the quiet stillness. "Every night for a week, 
and still I can't remember! Absurd! For me of all people to suffer a 
sudden attack of bad dreams!"

He sighed again, his own hold tightening gently, his heart having already 
resumed its slow, barely perceptible rhythm.

"I could try again," she murmured gently, slender fingers moving to knead 
steel-tight neck-muscles with a strength far beyond human, but which could 
make very little impression on them for some moments.

For several seconds he remained tense and unmoving. Then with another sigh 
he relaxed, the tension seeping from him as he let her fingers do their 
work.

"What would be the point?" he answered, his tone gentle to take the sting 
from the failure he knew she felt. "If the lasso couldn't help--"

"It was intended to seek out the truth against the will of an adversary, 
not to draw out hidden memories," she reminded him gently. "I think we 
were mistaken to try it. If I could--"

"No," his tone was still gentle, but with a sudden finality that silenced 
her, and stilled her fingers for a moment. "I won't have you in danger 
should something go wrong, and I react to you trying to probe my mind for 
something so trivial as a nightmare."

"Do you really trust yourself so little after all this time?" she said 
softly, her eyes warm and intense in the lamp-light as her fingers stilled 
once more, her mind reaching to touch lightly at his own, the gentle, 
tingling warmth easing the last of the tension from him as he tightened 
his hold a little, and closed his eyes.

"I'm sorry, Diana," he said gently. "I know it's absurd after so long; but 
it's frustrating, not to mention unsettling. I don't forget, not like 
that."

"Shh," she murmured, her own eyes closing as sleep crept to claim her in 
the gentle darkness. "We'll try in the morning. Zeus knows we'll have 
enough time before Eiko's awake."

She laughed softly, a sound echoed by his own low chuckle at their 
daughter's seeming inability to stir in the morning. "The Gods alone know 
where she gets it from," she continued almost in a whisper as the world 
around her began to fade into the gentle quiet of sleep.

He made as though to answer, but at that moment a sudden urgent pinging 
brought both of them awake in an instant.

Sighing in resignation, he stirred as though to reach for the watch-like 
bracelet communicator on the table by the lamp, only to smile as his 
wife's left its place without her needing to touch it, and dropped to her 
reaching hand.

"Show-off," he chided her with a smile.

"If that's that Daitokuji brat trying to tap the alliance net again, I'll 
certainly show off," she growled, easing quickly into a sitting position, 
and deactivating the communicator's tiny camera before accepting the call.

"Hal!"

Her face lost its thunderous look the instant his own appeared.

He looked unusually harried, and she glanced quickly to her husband in 
time to see him twist upright and catch up his own communicator in a blur 
of motion.

"Hmm, did I call at an inopportune time?" hal inquired tactfully, his 
expression a little chagrined as Kent activated his own communicator, and 
Diana touched the tiny stud that gave Hal a visual of her suddenly 
attentive face.

"No-no," she said with a smile. "I thought it might have been that 
Daitokuji girl trying to tap the net again."

Hal grimaced, nodding quickly before his expression tightened still more 
as he fixed anxious eyes on the two Magamis. "We've got a problem," he 
said simply. "About thirty-five minutes ago, approximately twenty to one 
your time, the Alliance GDSS detected some kind of dimensional ripple 
centred in Graviton; to be exact, almost on the Kotobuki doorstep. Just 
what's going on, I don't know. We can't detect any further anomalies, but 
the readings were like nothing we've ever seen. I've dumped the data to 
the Cave in case they don't see it, but I doubt they're going to come up 
with anything the Alliance AI has missed."

"Another attempt to retrieve Shiko?" Diana suggested. "Some independent 
faction outside Hipolipolita's influence? It's not the first time they've 
tried."

"It's possible, but unlikely, given their official status and the overt 
nature of their activities here," he answered. "Certainly there's been no 
covert communication with any of Hipolipolita's crew, so far as we can 
ascertain. If it is a Lepton faction, then they're being surprisingly 
cautious, given their past record. And in any case, why the subterfuge? 
After all, they have a perfect right to their future queen, and I doubt 
the palace council would consider the Daitokuji corporation or her wanting 
to stay here as a serious impediment should they become determined."

"Mm," Kent agreed. "Still, why take chances if they can manage a retrieval 
without Biko's possible interference, or Eiko's, come to that?

"It's academic in any case at the moment; we can't speculate without more 
information. Can you--"

"Coming over," hal interrupted.

Quickly, Diana slipped to the floor, moving to retrieve the modified 
note-book, and settle it on her lap, even as Kent slid to join her on the 
edge of the bed. It's larger screen soon showed a graphic of the ripple, 
together with a tabulated representation of the information the GDSS had 
gathered.

"You're right; it's like nothing I've ever seen," Kent agreed after a 
moment. "A portal or gate of some kind, but... Did anything enter, or exit 
for that matter?"

"It's impossible to say," hal answered. "The final burst whited everything 
out for a few seconds; we've no visual at all for that period, and we've 
no base for a reference."

"So it's up to us to take a look," Kent sighed. "I think you're right 
though; I doubt Lepton has anything to do with this. All right, we'll 
gather what we can, and call as soon as we've anything to report. Check 
the Daitokuji intranet for possible covert activity; we can't afford to 
take chances with them. Have you contacted any of the others?"

"Not yet," said Hal, his fingers already at work on the keyboard before 
him. "I thought it best to be cautious. Do you want me to come over?"

For a moment Kent hesitated. Then at a quick glance from Diana, he nodded.

"It might be best," he said. "You're probably best equipped to track any 
incursion, or to close the rift should it prove necessary. How long?"

"Give me ten minutes," he answered. "I'll transfer the watch, and be there 
as soon as I can. Where?"

"Here, directly into the study. We'll be waiting."

"Right," he nodded, and with that the two tiny screens went dark.

"What do you think?" Kent continued as his wife studied the note-book 
intently.

"I don't know what to think," she answered uneasily. "But I agree; it 
would pay to be careful. Hal was right; these readings don't make sense, 
and that in itself is unsettling. There was definitely a tear of some 
kind, yet the GDSS shows no build-up consistent with a quantum jump, in 
fact no energy signature at all until *after* the ripple ceased to exist."

"Which seems to indicate either a passive jump into our universe, powered 
entirely from its origin, which is of course impossible, or--"

"Or we're seeing an effect rather than the cause, interpreted by our 
systems as a jump because we've no other point of reference," she ended. 
"In either case we should exercise extreme care."

With that, she set the note-book aside, and rising, she moved quickly to 
dress, while Kent remained for almost a minute, staring intently at the 
data as though he might penetrate its mystery by sheer will alone, before 
he moved at last to follow her example.

"What will we need do you think?" Diana inquired as she moved passed him 
to the door.

"Just..." he began. Then abruptly he broke off, turning to lay a hand 
suddenly on her arm, even as she was moving from the room.

"We're not alone," he said softly, hushing her before she could speak, and 
moving quickly into the passage ahead of her. "Eiko has company."

 				     * * *

"What's going on!" Ine's voice was tight as she stood, the blankets still 
clutched fiercely to her as she watched Eiko uneasily from her place 
almost by the window.

"shh; shut up!" Eiko hissed urgently. "I'm trying to listen."

For a moment she was silent, then with a sudden gasp she sprang from her 
position by the door.

"Chikusho!" Was all she could manage before the door was pushed swiftly 
but smoothly aside, to reveal her father's deceptively unassuming profile. 
"Oh Kami-sama!" she ended in a murmur.

"Well," he commented mildly as he stepped into the room, taking in the 
situation at a glance. "not exactly the company I'd have expected. Perhaps 
Eiko you'd care to explain just why Konoe-san is wrapped in your blankets, 
and why there are several pools of water on carpet I obviously made a 
grave mistake in replacing less than two months ago?"

His tone was stern, but a smile played almost mischievously at the corners 
of his mouth, and Eiko thought she caught a faint, suppressed chuckle from 
her mother who had appeared almost at his shoulder.

"It's not what you think!" she began automatically, then seemed to realise 
what she was saying, and choked off, turning an interesting shade of 
scarlet. "No! I didn't mean that! I mean, we were... That is, she was 
just... I mean I..."

Eiko broke off, her face flaming and her eyes flashing furiously as she 
turned to glare balefully at Ine.

"This is all you're fault!" she flared dangerously. "Why can't you be like 
anyone else, and use the door?"

Abruptly she realised just how ridiculous that sounded given the fact that 
it was the middle of the night, and fell silent, staring stupidly at the 
floor as she turned to face her parents' expected rebuke at the state of 
her room, and her foolishness in not calling them immediately.

Astoundingly, it was Ine herself who came to her rescue.

"It wasn't her fault Magami-san," she said, wondering why she felt no joy 
at Eiko's discomfort, and further why she was defending her. "Shiko's gone 
missing, and I thought..."

Abruptly she too fell silent, realising that she could not possibly tell 
Eiko's parents just what had happened.

Eiko opened her mouth as though to say something more, then she caught the 
quick meaning glances both her parents had shot in her direction, and 
stopped short, realising suddenly that they knew far more about this than 
it appeared.

"Well, first thing's first," said Diana, taking quick command of the 
situation, and moving quickly into the room. "Konoe-san, you can't stay in 
those wet things. Plainly, you're still frozen, and it's still pouring 
with rain. Why don't you take a hot bath while I set them to wash and dry; 
it shouldn't take long."

Suddenly uncertain and self-conscious, Ine mumbled her thanks, her own 
face scarlet as Diana steered her quickly from the room, and hurried her 
towards the bathroom.

"Tousan?" Eiko inquired as soon as they were alone.

Kent sighed, and moved quickly to close the door, turning to play his eyes 
back and forth for a moment across the puddles, steam beginning to rise 
before he gave up on the pooling water, and turned again to Eiko.

"Hal signalled less than five minutes ago," he said simply. "The GDSS 
detected a rift of some kind, centred more or less on the Kotobuki home. 
Whatever it was, the readings were like nothing we've ever seen."

"Then..." Eiko paled, taking an involuntary step towards him as panic at 
last rose above the mingled anger and confusion that had thus-far held it 
at bay.

"Eiko?"

Her father's voice broke through her growing terror, and a moment later he 
had laid a reassuring arm gently about her shoulders, drawing her close as 
she began to tremble.

"Ine woke me," her voice sounded numb and flat to her own ears. "She told 
me that both Biko and Shiko are missing."

And while her father listened, Eiko related all that the other girl had 
told her.

"Do you...do you think..." she broke off, huddling unconsciously closer to 
him.

"There's no reason to think any harm has come to them," he answered 
gently. "I know it's small comfort Eiko, but if nothing else, Biko will 
see that Shiko comes to no harm if she can. I think all we can do now is 
begin our search at the scene, and see what we can find."

"And I can't come, can I."

It was a statement rather than a question.

She expected a gentle refusal, but to her astonishment her father smiled.

"It would look rather more suspicious were you to remain behind, don't you 
think?" He said, catching her suddenly to him, and hugging her with a 
ferocity that would have crushed a human skeleton, but only made Eiko 
wince and return the gesture.

It was something special between them, something she could share with no 
one but her parents, who were far more than human.

"I'm sorry about the mess," she said softly, when at last they stepped 
apart and she moved to tidy the bed as best she could, before hurrying to 
fetch some clothes. "I couldn't...I mean..."

A gentle hand on her arm silenced her.

"I don't think Hal will mind cleaning up a little water," he said, 
returning her quick smile as she turned, before releasing her, and 
stepping swiftly to the door.

"Try not to be long. Remember, you'll have to leave with Ine ahead of us."

His daughter laughed, a warm full laugh to match her sudden almost 
overwhelming sense of relief. With her parents' and uncle Hal's help, and 
that of the rest of the Alliance if it became necessary, she knew that she 
would have all the help she could wish.

"All right; and thanks, *really*," she said quickly, flashing him a last 
intense smile, before the door closed, and she moved swiftly to dress.

It was going to be a long and busy night.

 				     * * *

"Damn it Mari; keep still! What's the matter with you?"

Asa shifted uncomfortably in the concealing shrubbery, turning to glare 
angrily at the much taller girl at her side, before resuming her watch on 
the Kotobuki home.

Why Ine had insisted on calling the other girl, Asa could not begin to 
guess. She was one of a kind in a fight or a sticky situation, but stealth 
was not exactly her strong suit, and unless Eiko decided to take them all 
apart... At that thought Asa shivered. Perhaps it was not such a bad idea 
after all.

"They're on their way."

At the hissed words, Asa nearly shrieked.

"Don't do that!" she flared, turning to glare at Ume as the other girl 
dropped down beside her. "How do you know?"

"What do you think this is! An ornament?"

Ume waved the phone at her as though she were demonstrating a 
much-laboured point to a very small child, before tucking it away and 
settling back to wait.

Asa did not see the point in starting another argument; there had been 
enough of those already in the past half-hour. They were all on edge, and 
she did not really blame the other girl for her ill-temper, given the 
circumstances.

"How long?"

The usually taciturn Mari's question brought her out of her own momentary 
introspection to glance quickly at Ume in her own inquiry.

"I'm not sure; a few minutes," she answered. "Apparently Eiko's parents 
heard them talking, and of course they wanted to know what on Earth one of 
us was doing there, and at that time of night. They were insisting on 
calling the police, but Eiko convinced them to wait."

"Probably so that she'd have time to see how many pieces she could turn us 
into before they got in her way," Asa muttered.

Mari glared, half rising to her feet.

"Forget it," Asa warned her, laying a hand on her arm, and trying to pull 
her back down. "We're not going to get into a fight with her if we can 
help it."

The other girl settled back sullenly, and a gloomy silence settled over 
the trio as they waited, while beyond their limited shelter the rain at 
last began to abate as the sky began to clear.

"At least we're not going to get soaked again by the look of it," Ume 
muttered, glancing up at the dissipating clouds as the last of the rain 
vanished, and stars began to appear once more. "Where are they!"

"There...oh Kami! I don't believe it!"

At Asa's sudden almost giggled exclamation, the others turned in time to 
see a red blur resolve itself into a racing Eiko, a terrified Ine pulled 
helplessly behind her in the same position Shiko usually occupied. Even as 
they stared, Eiko made a final bound, and pulled to a halt, Ine slumping 
panting and gasping against her.

"You are certifiably crazy!" They heard her gasp as she staggered 
drunkenly, held from falling only by Eiko's suddenly supporting hand. "Oh 
Kami! I think I'm gunna be sick!"

"Stop complaining! I got you here, didn't I?" Eiko's tone was short, yet 
with just a hint of underlying mirth utterly unexpected by the other 
three.

For a moment they hesitated, then at Ine's glance in their direction they 
moved from concealment, and hurried to join them.

"You don't wanna travel like that; believe me you don't!" she groaned in 
greeting, still swaying on her feet as Ume took Eiko's place in supporting 
her for a few moments, until the giddiness passed, and she stood on her 
own.

Eiko's expression had tightened upon seeing the others, and watching her, 
Ine felt a sudden unreasoning sense of loss, a fleeting wish that the 
momentary warmth and camaraderie she had felt for the other girl could 
have been something less transient. Then the other three were looking at 
her, and she sighed, knowing already that with Biko missing, it was up to 
her to take charge of the situation, at least so far as they were 
concerned.

"All right, let's start at the place at which what remained of the...thing 
hit the ground," she said. "Ume did you get everything?"

"Collected everything as soon as you called," she answered, drawing a 
small slim case from the pack she carried, and handing it to Ine before 
beginning to pass out torches from the same pack.

"What is it?" Eiko demanded, glancing at the thing Ine held as the others 
switched on the torches, keeping the beams as low as they could.

"Bio-scanner," Ine answered, gesturing to the torch still unlit in Eiko's 
hand. "Hopefully it'll give us some information on the thing that attacked 
Biko.

"Come on. And try to be quiet and keep the beams away from the windows. 
The last thing we want to do is have Shiko's foster-parents out here."

"They're going to know, soon enough," Eiko pointed out as she too switched 
on her torch.

"Better we tell them after we've gathered what data we can," Ine 
countered. "They'd only get in the way."

Unhappy but resigned, Eiko nodded, and moved to walk at the other girl's 
side, the others following close behind.

To Eiko's surprise, they seemed quite adept at keeping silent; even Mari 
made little sound as she moved from shadow to shadow as a rear-guard. 
Watching as Ine halted and activated the small device, Eiko felt the 
surreal nature of the situation take possession of her with unnerving 
intensity.

"Anything?"

Ume's low question almost made her jump.

"Give me a moment!" Ine hissed softly in answer.

For what seemed an eternity as they waited the scanner was silent as she 
swept it back and forth. Then suddenly a faint but insistent pinging 
pealed from the device, and Ine lifted it, touching a series of tiny keys 
until at last the little screen filled with text and symbols.

"Kami-sama!"

At her exclamation, four sets of anxious eyes fixed intently on her face. 
Of all of them, only she knew how to interpret the data.

"What!"

Eiko's voice was tight and fierce in the sudden silence.

"Whatever this thing was, it wasn't completely human," Ine said softly. 
"Damn it; keep the light steady! What DNA was left is already beginning to 
break down, which shouldn't happen; certainly nowhere near as quickly. But 
the scanner was able to get enough information to show the percentage of 
conformity, and there's too much error, probably enough to consider it a 
different species, although originally human, or very close. This thing 
was either some kind of mutant, or--"

"Or from a dimension other than our own, the most likely possibility given 
the circumstances."

At the sudden strange voice, all five whipped about, lights playing 
frantically for a moment before they settled on the intruder. A moment 
later the four of Biko's group stared in stunned stupefaction, Eiko just 
managing in time to suppress her relieved cry of "Uncle Hal!" and follow 
their example to keep up appearances.

"Kuso!" Was all Ine could think to gasp.

Casting a mildly disapproving look in her direction, Green Lantern stepped 
fully into the light cast by their torches, and gestured at the scanner 
Ine held limply before her. "May I?"

Numbly, she handed it to him, watching as he manifested a cable and 
connector which soon had the device linked to the little palm-top he 
carried.

"I assume this is sending continually to the Daitokuji mansion?" he 
inquired, his tone still mild.

"How..." Ine began, then sighed. "It sends directly to Biko's own system," 
she answered. "After the fiasco with Marguerita, she doesn't trust her 
father with any information she's gathering. Her link into the Daitokuji 
intranet is very tightly firewalled."

"Mm; very wise," he murmured, his attention now fixed on the palm-top's 
small screen. "That man is dangerously ambitious; something that will 
bring him to harm one of these days."

Then for many seconds he was silent, pausing in his analysis only to hand 
the scanner absently back to Ume at Ine's gesture before returning to the 
small machine.

It was some time before he at last tucked it away, and turned once more to 
the others.

"I assume none of you have encountered something like this before?" he 
inquired.

"No," Ine responded as the others shook their heads.

"Nor we," he told them. "Still, let's see at least whether there's a 
residual reading from the jump. There should be something obvious enough 
to track after so short a time."

"Just what we were about to do," said Ine, pride stealing into her voice 
as she gestured to Ume who had been staring at the cloaked figure with 
hearts in her eyes.

Recovering, Ume passed another device to her, while Green Lantern began 
his own scans.

"Impossible!"

His quiet exclamation brought their attention to him once more. "There's 
always an after-ripple left by a quantum jump," he continued quietly in 
explanation. "It's something that, so far as we know, can't be concealed. 
Yet there's no indication that a jump took place. You're absolutely 
certain this is *exactly* where it happened?"

"Right here," Asa assured him.

"Hmm; all right, can you go over events precisely as they occurred? 
Perhaps we've missed something, although I can't imagine what."

Nodding, her own readings also negative, Ine passed the second scanner 
back to Ume, and while the others watched, she and Asa did their best to 
re-enact what had taken place earlier that night, Ine also keeping an 
increasingly uneasy eye on Eiko's ever tighter expression.

"You know," said the red-haired girl softly when at last she had fallen 
silent, "I'm going to take Biko apart piece by piece when I find her. You 
understand that, don't you?"

It was the unusually mild, almost conversational way in which she said it 
that sent a sudden deadly shiver rippling down Ine's spine as she and Asa 
moved once more to the others.

"So what do we do?" Eiko continued, her tone a good deal less mild as she 
turned to regard the cloaked form who stood, arms folded as though deep in 
thought.

For a long moment he made no answer. Then at last he sighed.

"To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure," he said. "After detecting the 
rift, I was picked to make the initial assessment, whoever was needed to 
follow at my signal; but..."

he broke off, shifting uneasily, and glancing about him as though for 
inspiration.

"There's no residue; no reading: nothing by which we can even begin to 
guess at what might have happened," he ended quietly as though to himself, 
a sudden helpless note in his tone that unnerved Eiko far more than his 
tension of a moment before. "Our only leads are the genetic samples 
Konoe-san gathered, and our own readings during the event.

"I could perhaps return to the moment of the attack, but it would be an 
extremely dangerous thing to do, without knowing more concerning the 
nature of the event itself. I'll only try that as a last resort.

"For the moment, we can only wait to see whether the Alliance AI can find 
something we've missed, and whether we can find a match in our database to 
the DNA of the enemy, although I think that hope at least is very 
unlikely; if there's no match by now, I doubt an additional search will 
find anything.

"In the meantime, you should try to get what rest you can. I'll keep you 
all informed as to any developments, and--"

"No." Ine's tone was quiet and final. "We're not going to be shunted 
conveniently out of the way, while some gaijin organisation waits for more 
to happen, and tells us only what they want us to hear."

"Ine!" Ume gasped.

"Shut up!" she flared. "If you want to sit back and do nothing, that's up 
to you. But I'm damned if I'm going to abandon Biko and Shiko, just like 
that."

To her astonishment, Eiko nodded in agreement, casting a quick, apologetic 
look in her adopted uncle's direction, missed by the others, but carrying 
a steel-willed determination that reminded him just whose daughter she 
was.

Returning her glance for a moment, he turned once more to Ine.

"I'm sorry," he said simply. "Believe me, I had no intension of suggesting 
you're incapable of helping us, or investigating on your own. But you 
can't do anything more tonight."

"We can keep watch on the house in case something else appears," she said 
simply. "Obviously, you didn't get much from the Alliance GDSS; oh yes, we 
know about that," she said at the startled jerk of his head. "I bet the 
initial flare overloaded the detectors; probably you got no visual of the 
appearance at all."

"Touche," he acknowledged good-naturedly enough. "But my point still 
stands. There's no point in you exhausting yourselves here for nothing."

"I'll keep watch with her."

The words startled Eiko, the more so when she realised it was her own 
voice that had spoken them. "I'm not going to get back to sleep now in any 
case, so I might as well be here as at home."

For a moment Ine seemed too thunderstruck to do anything but stare 
stupidly at Eiko with her mouth gaping comically wide, while Asa, Ume and 
Mari turned blank uncomprehending looks on one another, as though certain 
they would wake up at any moment.

"Um...I...I..." Ine made several more attempts to force something 
intelligible from her mouth, before Green Lantern flashed her a quick, 
mild look, and turned to Eiko.

"I believe she's trying to say she'd be glad of the company," he said, a 
touch of mirth in his tone. "Do you want me to tell your parents you'll be 
staying here? I imagine they'll be worried."

Eiko nodded quickly. "I'm surprised they haven't come after me," she 
continued, taking the opportunity to try to find out why they had not 
followed as they said they would.

"I told them to wait," he said simply. "After all, there was nothing they 
could have done."

Eiko nodded again. They would be keeping covert watch nearby, she 
realised, ready to intervene should something happen that required their 
help.

Ine seemed to have recovered, and was giving instructions to the others. 
They would stay together at the mansion, and keep watch in turns, ready to 
scramble at a moments notice.

"I'll call immediately we've any more information," Green Lantern assured 
them as they prepared to depart. "I imagine Biko has a direct line by 
which I can contact you, rather than through the main line to the mansion? 
Her father will need to be told, but I would suggest we delay that for as 
long as we can."

The four girls of Biko's group nodded emphatically.

Quickly, Ume noted down a number, passing the slip of paper to him with a 
smile and a blush, before turning away and mumbling a good-night to him, 
then with somewhat more trepidation, to Eiko. It was obvious that she and 
the others were not entirely happy with leaving Ine alone and undefended 
with her, but since Ine herself seemed not to be overly concerned, there 
was little they could do.

"Remember; make sure one of you is on watch at all times," Ine reminded 
them as Ume slung the pack, and turned to lead the others towards the 
street and the sleek machine they had left there. "And don't forget to 
call every thirty minutes."

"We'll remember," Asa assured her. "Be careful; all right?"

"I'll be fine," Ine assured her with a grin. "'Night."

"'Night," They chorused. And a moment later, they had vanished into the 
darkness.

"I'd best be on my way too," said Green Lantern quietly. "I need to go 
over the data, not to mention prepare a briefing for the others. You girls 
be careful. And whatever you do, *don't* tangle with anything without 
backup. Here."

With that, he passed a small rectangular device, linked to a length of 
slender chain, to each of them in turn. "You can't talk to us with these," 
he explained, "but they will send an all-emergency call that will have any 
one of us in the vicinity here as soon as possible. At the least, I will 
come. Don't hesitate to use them if things even so much as *look* like 
getting out of hand. Clear?"

"Hai, Sensei," said Ine with more than a touch of mocking in her brisk 
tone, snapping a salute and giving the cloaked figure an unfriendly glare 
for a moment. Then abruptly her expression softened, and she nodded. "I'm 
sorry," she continued quietly. "But we're not children, Green Lantern-san. 
We're perfectly aware of the danger, and I certainly won't be foolish 
enough to let my pride get in the way should we need your help."

He nodded, reaching suddenly to lay a gentle hand on her arm.

"We're not your rivals in this, Konoe-san," he said gently. "I'm not 
trying to dictate to you; I just want to be certain I've done all I can to 
see that you come to no harm."

"I know; I'm sorry," she said again. "Just remember that we're neither 
naive nor stupid, right?"

"Right," he agreed, squeezing her arm lightly before turning to Eiko.

For a moment their eyes met in the near-darkness, a pleading intensity in 
his own that made her shiver with sudden unreasoning unease.

Please be careful, his look said more clearly than any words. Kent and 
Diana would never forgive me, and I'd never forgive myself if something 
were to happen to you.

Almost imperceptibly, Eiko nodded and smiled in return.

"We'll be fine," she said with a lightness of which she was suddenly 
unsure. "Now you'd better get going before my parents decide to come 
looking for me."

For another moment he hesitated. Then with a final intense look and a nod, 
he turned swiftly, and slid away, vanishing quickly into the icy darkness.

For some time after he had gone, Eiko and Ine stood unmoving, each wrapped 
in her own thoughts, while the last of the clouds vanished and the stars 
shone out, cold and white in the frigid blackness of the moonless night, 
until at last Ine stirred.

"It's freezing!" she said softly, as much to break the increasingly 
uncomfortable silence as for any other reason. "Let's get under at least 
some kind of shelter."

She turned to Eiko, seeming suddenly to be searching for the fleeting 
warmth she had seen in the taller girl's eyes in those few short minutes 
between the time she had returned from bathing, and their joining the 
others. But Eiko's face was the same closed, cold mask it had been since 
she had first caught sight of the others, and Ine felt again the sudden 
unreasoning loss tighten her throat with sudden emotion, and she could not 
understand why. Why should she care what Eiko thought? And yet as she 
watched her in the darkness, the old pain of loneliness and rejection 
writhed and waxed until her eyes stung, and she had to turn quickly away.

"You could have brought something warmer," Eiko's tone sounded harsh and 
cold to her in the sudden icy stillness. "You've already been soaked and 
half frozen once tonight. Why didn't you get one of the others to bring 
something; what's the matter with you?"

"Your mother offered to lend me something," Ine half-mumbled. "but..."

She broke off, the pain a sudden roar, cloying thing that bit off anything 
she might have been about to say.

"It wouldn't have killed you to accept her hospitality," said Eiko 
shortly. "Just because Biko's a vindictive bitch--"

The pain flared then, pain and hurt, and so many memories of so many cruel 
words from those who would not try to understand.

"She isn't..." Ine began angrily, but again she faltered.

She just did not want to start an argument about Biko in the middle of the 
night. And in any case, what was the point? The two rivals would not agree 
that it was raining unless they both got wet, and even then each would 
probably try to blame the other for the water.

Miserably, she glared at the ground before her feet.

"It wasn't that," she mumbled at last, turning towards Eiko as though with 
some last hope of understanding. "I just didn't think you'd 
want-me-to-borrow-anything-of-yours."

By the end of the sentence her voice had faltered to silence.

"What?" Eiko snapped in growing irritation, not catching the murmured 
words, or the sudden almost pleading look Ine cast towards her.

Ine fought the all-too-ready anger and pain for a moment. But it was 
simply too much, and not worth the effort.

"I said I just didn't think you'd want me to borrow anything of yours. 
Satisfied?" she flared in answer.

For several seconds, Eiko remained stock-still, several warring emotions 
playing suddenly across her face while Ine continued to stare into the 
blackness, the occasional quick jerk of her head the only indication as to 
her sudden savage tension.

"Damn it; This is a waste of time!"

The sudden low, savage snarl would have gone unheard by anyone without 
Eiko's gifts.

"What?" Eiko said again, her own quick temper flaring as her head came up, 
eyes flashing angrily. "Then why the Kami did you volunteer to stay here?"

With a sudden blur of motion, Ine whirled to face her, eyes blazing 
suddenly with rage and pain, and all that she could not say, her lips 
pulled back as she glared malevolently at the taller girl.

"Because I thought that we might actually be able to get along for two 
f***ing seconds, that's why!" she hissed. "Because I'm sick of all this, 
and thought I might actually be able to do something about it! It's a 
joke, Eiko; a sick, twisted f***ing joke! All this Kami-damned sh*t and 
fighting over Shiko, because my best friend's a vindictive, selfish bitch 
who can't help the way she is, and because you can't go for two f***ing 
seconds without getting into a fight with her!"

somehow she was screaming and crying, and tears were pouring from her 
eyes, and no matter what she tried she just could not seem to stop.

"Because like you, I knew something like this was going to happen, and 
wanted to stop it so many times I've lost count, but didn't because I knew 
how much it meant to her, and because no one had ever given a f***ing damn 
about me before Biko, and I didn't want to lose her; all right?"

she had to stop, a part of her kept screaming, and screaming at her. She 
was making so much noise, and people would hear; and the others... But the 
words just kept coming, and there was nothing she could do.

"You've never given a f***ing damn about how hurt she's been, have you! Do 
you know she cries herself to sleep almost every night, because she wants 
out of all this, but can't, because she has her pride, and won't back 
down! Do you know she takes so many f***ing amphetamines sometimes that 
I'm so scared she's going to go crazy, just to try to come up with 
something that will put an end to all this, that I just stay with her, and 
don't sleep, and never leave her because I'm afraid that if I do I'll come 
back, and find that something's happened, and she's f***ing killed 
herself! Do you think those f***ing mecha you seem to like smashing every 
day build themselves?

"Even now, you don't give a damn about anything but finding Shiko, do you? 
You'd leave Biko to rot before doing one f***ing thing to help her! Oh 
yeah, it's all her f***ing fault that this happened, isn't it?

"Well you know something? I've got f***ing news for you! It's as much your 
fault as hers, and I hope you f***ing remember it. If you'd actually 
turned your back on one f***ing fight for once, and just said you weren't 
going to play any more... But no; you just couldn't resist, could you? You 
just couldn't resist the chance to play her little games!

"And now my best friend's probably dead, and it's your f***ing fault! Do 
you hear me? It's your f***ing fault, Eiko, and I hope you have to live 
with that for the rest of your life, you heartless, cold-blooded bitch!"

And with that she lashed out, catching the stunned Eiko with a vicious 
crack to the cheek that would have had stars exploding in the vision of 
any ordinary girl, but that did not so much as shift Eiko's head. In the 
next moment she was gone, racing wildly into the darkness while Eiko stood 
aghast, too numb to do anything for several seconds, other than to stare 
stupidly at the place in which she had been standing only moments before.

"Oh Kami!" she whispered softly at last, wondering vaguely why her vision 
seemed to be blurring, until she felt a wetness on her cheek, and raised a 
hand as though in a trance towards the place Ine had struck.

For a moment she thought stupidly that perhaps the girl had somehow 
managed to draw blood. The slap seemed to have hurt so much more than it 
should have, given that it was only Ine who had hit her. Then she felt the 
stinging in her eyes, and she realised dazedly that she was crying, and 
she could not comprehend when she had begun, or why she did not seem able 
to stop.

Moving as though in a dream, Eiko tried unsuccessfully to dash away the 
tears, turning slowly this way and that, barely aware of the night around 
her until at last she calmed a little, and stood still once more, 
straining into the darkness as she tried to catch some sight or sound of 
the other girl. For several moments more she remained unmoving. Then at 
last she started forwards, switching off her torch as she moved into the 
light of the street in the direction Ine had taken.

 				     * * *

She did not know how long she ran; it did not seem to matter.

Again and again, Ine cursed herself for her foolishness. How had she let 
herself lose control like that? And why on Earth had she believed that it 
could possibly do any good to reveal so much to her best friend's nemesis?

Even as she asked herself again and again, the answer was plain. Because 
Eiko had been a friend, if only for a few short minutes, and in some 
deep-seated, indefinable way, Ine had trusted her, if only for that little 
time: had felt suddenly so sure that she could make her understand: that 
in some small way, she could make a difference. And probably all along, 
Eiko had been laughing at her, like everyone always had before Biko, and 
like all the others she had not given a damn. And it hurt.

Fighting back the tears, Ine lurched to a halt, swaying helplessly for a 
moment before sinking slowly to the ground.

"Damn you!" she sobbed savagely, her breath coming in ragged gasps. "Damn 
you to hell, Eiko! And damn me for being baka enough to think you'd care!"

Dashing the tears furiously away, she fought for several seconds 
unsuccessfully for composure, while the icy, bone-numbing chill of the 
still night set her to shivering violently once more, until at last a 
little calmer, Ine moved again to stand.

"Kami-sama it's cold!" she gasped as the sudden deathly chill seemed to 
settle palpably about her, while around her the stars suddenly paled and 
died, as though a fog were rolling in over the city.

Even as Ine stood suddenly stock-still, the last of the light vanished, 
and utter blackness closed around her.

"What!" she gasped softly, suddenly afraid. "What's going on?"

"I reasoned," Purred a low female voice suddenly out of the pitch 
blackness, "that this would be easier, were we to remain...let us 
say...undisturbed."

At the sudden words, Ine whirled wildly in the direction of the sound, her 
fingers working frantically as she adjusted the torch, holding the 
suddenly almost dazzling light before her as she strained abruptly-wide, 
starting eyes into the darkness. But the light died hopelessly in the 
sudden cloying blackness, and even as she strained to see, a sudden dread 
fear such as she had never imagined she could know, closed like a 
smothering cocoon about her, numbing thought and reason: a primal, 
paralysing horror that froze her, helpless and utterly unable to move, 
even as she tried in vain to draw breath to scream.

"So little time." The voice was now close and soft, with a terrible, 
hypnotic edge to the purring tone. And reeling, Ine felt the horror wax 
and surge as the thing of damnation moved at last to stand beside her. 
"But it will be enough. Little Shiko's was not an easy world to find. 
She's so pathetically happy and content, and her complement's barely a 
whisper. But there was just enough; and now..."

Then the laughter came, a low, nightmare purr that shivered her very soul, 
and drove her helpless and quaking to her knees.

"When you scream: when Eiko comes to find you, then I'll catch her 
unprepared. And then I'll have an anchor here, and this pretty little 
reality will be mine! Mine for the rest of time! Mine until the uttermost 
end of damnation."

And she laughed again, and Ine screamed within her suddenly-frozen mind: a 
silent, primal scream as her soul writhed upon the knife-edge of madness; 
blind and gibbering, her hands clawing as they strained uselessly to rise 
and tear away her ears, that she might never again hear such a sound.

"Such exquisite terror," Purred the hell-thing hungrily at last, her tone 
a gentle nightmare perversion beyond the horror of the blackest fiend of 
deepest hell, that set Ine's body to quivering while her mind writhed and 
reeled from her senses in primal revulsion. "and so far from immune. Oh my 
precious; if I had time to play for just a little while... But there'll be 
time and to spare later, and I have for ever.

"Tonight you play emissary for me: a message to her, enough to hint at the 
truth, before she comes again to my domain, and I take what is mine."

Quickly, the hell-thing flowed to settle herself beside her, leaning 
close, while Ine teetered upon the edge of splintering oblivion. Yet she 
could not flee the terror into madness; in some primal way, she understood 
that this was part of its purpose: that the horror was an absolute beyond 
even the comforting oblivion of infinite, everlasting insanity: that she 
could never escape, save should the thing beside her will that it be so.

"Yes," her tormenter purred softly, her voice almost a whisper as she 
stirred in the blackness. "Now you begin to understand. Turn; look at me. 
I'll let you see: a glimpse, just for a moment, so you'll remember, and 
never sleep again."

And as though unable to resist, Ine turned her head; and damnation came to 
claim her.

"Have you ever wondered" her mistress murmured, slender arms reaching for 
her, even as a last, splintered remnant of her will screamed and screamed 
in primal negation and silent, helpless denial, "for just how long a human 
body can burn, and for just how long that burning human body can scream?"

And with that, even as Ine made to surrender herself, and the seductive 
touch of horror beyond madness closed about her, she was released again: 
free for one last instant to understand the absolute of the ruin that had 
come to claim her soul, before the lips touched her cheek in the merest 
quiver, and she burst instantly into flame.

As though from some far off place, Ine heard her own agonised screams, 
watching in a kind of numb fascination as her body burned with an 
impossible, savage voracity. Then the thing of damnation moved from her, 
and suddenly she was plunging down, down into the absolute heart of the 
terror and the pain.

 				     * * *

Kent was circling high, his attention entirely on his daughter, when the 
brilliant flare leapt skywards. Then Ine's first agonised screams reached 
him, and he turned, staring in stupid, incomprehensible shock at the 
blazing figure of the girl.

"Good *God*!" The words were torn from him, even as he turned, shooting 
like a missile towards her as his right hand flashed to the bracelet on 
his left, touching the tiny stud that would signal the others.

Then, even as he approached, he saw it, a blackness that even his eyes 
could not penetrate: a writhing, incomprehensible something that reached 
out, lifting the blazing form for an instant before it turned, hurling her 
away, her form splintering to ash and smoke, even as he came hurtling from 
above. Then for one moment the blackness was torn asunder, and the eyes of 
the man of steel pierced the veils; and he screamed.

Writhing, caught in a moment in a horror ruinous beyond all he could 
comprehend, Kent Magami reeled, tumbling drunkenly through the sky, dimly 
aware of Diana's sudden panicked call as the bond between them sent, but 
for a moment and dimly to her, what he had endured. As though from some 
great distance, he thought he heard his own voice cry in answer. Then 
abruptly another sound came: a wild, primal scream of such sudden rage and 
hate as no creature: man or woman, or the cruellest fiend of hell should 
ever know; and in its midst another sound, the faint, agonised cry of his 
daughter.

"Eiko!"

Then the ground was leaping to meet him with incomprehensible speed, and 
in the next instant, pain such as he had seldom known exploded around him, 
and the world dissolved, vanishing swiftly to tiny pin-points of light, 
before even they were gone, and utter blackness closed about him.

 				   ** ** **

Notes:

 				   ** ** **

This one was always a little different.  The Project: A-ko universe 
envisioned here is in a sense a DC Commics world as it would have been, 
had it been created entirely in Japan.  But although the principle heroes 
(and perhaps the various villains) exist, the similarity to a canonical 
DC-Comics world ends there.  The emphasis is entirely different, probably 
most of the major American-centric stories never took place, and if they 
did, they don't matter.  Certainly the various DC-comics cataclysms have 
never happened, and most likely the various alternative universes don't 
exist.

There was never a Justice League (the Alliance takes its place), if there 
is a Legion of Doom, it would be known by another name more suited to 
Japanese Manga or Anime, and although perhaps appearing here and there as 
important characters in their own world, no DC-comics staple will be 
central to the story, nor play any role beyond the A-koverse.

That said, the chapter still needed revision, although probably it's one 
of the closest to the original, having been written originally somewhat 
later, and with more care.  I think it's worked.

 				   ** ** **


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