Yes, Donny does talk like a caveman. Fang doesn't talk like a stereotypical Chinese person, but he does have an accent.
The connecting chapter is only about twenty pages long, so that should be out soon enough too, and then we'll be on to book 7. Enjoy.
Cloudy to Rainy
Color Pages and Prologues
Bloody to Fair
Color Pages and Connecting Chapter
Epilogues & Remnants
Millionaire Row, located close to Grand Central Terminal, was a place solely for New York's most affluent families, the richest of the rich, and among the great mansions situated on the Row was one belonging to the Genoards.
It was not ornately decorated, but that simplicity only accentuated the building's stately design.
Its vast gardens could almost make a visitor forget, for a moment, that they were in the center of Manhattan.
So magnificent was the Genoard Mansion that it seemed to have sprung straight from the silver screen, an impossible symbol of success and wealth, and so many of the people passing by glanced at it with envious eyes, certain that the people living in it had won at the game of life.
But in reality, the current master of the house was crouching in a hallway, bawling his eyes out. An actor in a tragedy couldn't have mustered a more sorrowful expression.
The winner of life cried like a chastised child, a copious stream of tears flowing steadily down his face.
"Aah... I ju, I ju, I just thought... I thought it'd be guh-good to clean up a li, a little, but, I-I didn't know things would turn out like this!"
"It's okay, I'm telling you. You can stop crying now. Sheesh, it's just a stupid vase. What are you, a baby?"
There, inside the great mansion, was a young man sobbing pitifully, huddled in what looked to be the reception hall. Several men stood in a loose circle around him.
"B-b-b-but think of how much that vase cost..."
"Jacuzzi, are you telling us that you wouldn't be crying if it was cheap?"
"I'm sorry... I didn't mean t-to put it that way..."
"It's okay already. Just give it a rest."
The man who the others called Jacuzzi looked around fearfully at his companions.
He was quite young, almost young enough to be called a boy, and the most noticeable thing about him was the sword-shaped tattoo gracing the left side of his face. But despite the fearsome brand, the young man's bearing was so timid that it was almost contagious, inducing a sense of shyness in the beholder.
His friends had been trying to stop his crying for some time with a combination of reasoning and stern lecturing, but it looked like they would be at it for a while yet.
"Se, see, John? I-I'm not cut out for this... If I k-k-keep living in a place like this for much longer, I'm gonna have a heart attack."
"What's this about a heart attack now? D'you have any idea how much trouble Fang and I went through to get this place for you? You don't know how good you have it, living in a fancy place like this after getting chased out of Chicago."
"B-but you're living here too," Jacuzzi pointed out, still sniffling, but John was anything but understanding.
"Don't you go complaining on me now, boyo. You should be thanking Miss Eve for letting you live here in exchange for keeping the place tidy. If it were me in charge here I wouldn't think twice before turning out a rowdy bunch of hooligans like you."
John drew himself up for a lengthy sermon, but the onlookers around him put a stop to it before it could properly begin.
"I think that is enough, John. We only got a job here too thanks to Head Chef, you know."
"Wow, John. You made Jacuzzi cry. Again. Bad John. Poor Jacuzzi."
Next to John were an Asian man and a giant with golden-brown skin. There were others in the mansion too, of wildly varying nationalities and races, making it difficult to guess the common thread that had brought them together. The only thing that was certain was that their business probably had little to do with the right side of the law.
More people trickled in from various parts of the mansion, as though attracted by the sound of Jacuzzi's sobs.
John, sensing that things might get a tad out of hand, sighed and shook his head sorrowfully, patting Jacuzzi on the shoulder.
"Fine, I won't get angry at you anymore. I'll try and break the news about the vase to Miss Eve for you, so you just clean up this mess."
"Th-thanks, John, but I'll apologize to Miss Eve myself."
"You silly nit. You're honestly thinking about going to see her with that great fearsome tattoo on your face?"
Jacuzzi shut up and began to pick up the ceramic shards from the carpet.
"What, it's already over?"
"And here I was hoping for some fun."
The people who'd gathered voiced their disappointment and scattered back into the corridors of the house.
John watched them leave and shook his head.
"They're too rowdy. Jacuzzi, keep them in control, would you?"
"You're our leader, aren't you?"
Jacuzzi Splot was, in fact, the leader of a rather amateurish gang.
What had originally just been a loose group of wandering boys and girls in Chicago had, through his natural talent and effort, become an organization capable of taking on a small mafia head on.
He wasn't especially charismatic, but he had a strange way of gathering people about him--or, to be more specific, it was like they gravitated to him. His appeal didn't spring from any sort of trustiness, but instead from the feeling that if left to his own devices he'd probably end up walking off a cliff somehow--he evoked a strange sort of protective instinct in people. He was Jacuzzi Splot, the only gang leader in America who spent more time crying than scheming.
His gang, which had no official name, had run into some trouble with the mafia of Chicago in the winter of two years ago, and had been forced to make a break for it all the way to Manhattan, where they finally settled down again.
They were practically kids, but there were still a lot of them, and so the most pressing matter at hand had been to find a proper home for them to stay. A truly fortuitous stroke of luck had landed them the most unexpected lodging place imaginable.
Their companions, John and Fang, had somehow managed to land a job at the Genoard Mansion--the house they were in at that very moment--using their credentials as a bartender and cook.
Later, the heiress, Eve Genoard, had left the Millionaire Row mansion in their hands as she prepared to go back to the main Genoard manor in New Jersey, asking them to take care of it while she was gone.
They'd secured Eve's trust thanks to a curious series of events that had taken place just before she left, and so John had taken the chance that presented itself and asked her if they could call in some friends who just happened to need a place to stay in exchange for helping manage the mansion, which he argued was far too vast for just two men to keep clean.
Eve had given her assent without suspecting any foul play, and to be completely honest, John hadn't been lying. He'd just neglected to mention that "some" meant "a few dozen."
Not even the Genoard mansion could house all of them, so only about twenty were currently staying at the mansion to help the caretaking. The gang was also doing a little illegal brewing on the side, but they took care to do it in Little Italy, so that no fallout would reach Eve should they get caught.
Normally they would have had to obtain permission from the mafia who controlled that territory, but they'd lost some friends to the mobs of Chicago, and were wary of coming into contact with the mafia again. It seemed that two small organizations, called the Martillo Family and the Gandor Family, had split the area that Jacuzzi's gang worked on, and Jacuzzi had taken care to research them well beforehand.
It seemed they weren't the bad sort--considering they were mobsters, of course--but Jacuzzi did his best to keep his gang from meeting them nonetheless. He knew that it was risky business but he kept going, trying to fool himself into believing that things might turn out okay even if there was trouble, since both the Martillos and the Gandors were quite small, as criminal organizations went.
"Th-things will turn out okay, right? I mean, It's been two years and they haven't made their move yet..."
Jacuzzi spent his days worrying ceaselessly over whether this would be the fateful day that the mafia sent a hail of bullets his way, or some faceless assassin showed up on his doorstep.
Every time the doorbell rang, an icy shiver ran up his spine, and even the slightest unexpected noise from outside made him shriek girlishly with fear.
Today was no exception. The doorbell chimed, and Jacuzzi froze in place like a frightened deer.
It was a raucous sound.
The intrusive noise, its flat and uncompromising blare sounding almost rude when heard in those stately halls, echoed so fearsomely through the mansion that it was a moment before Jacuzzi's gang realized it was actually the sound of the bell.
Nevertheless, Jacuzzi's reaction was like lightning.
...A loud doorbell is scary, scary like something dangerous, dangerous like the Mafia, which means the Mafia have come to kill us, I know it, I have to hide!
"What're you doing hiding there?" John asked curiously, as Jacuzzi trembled in his impromptu hideout underneath the table.
"Sssh! Y-y-you guys have to get away too! Hide! Hurry!"
Jacuzzi did his best to adroitly guide his companions to safety, but his concerns were ignored in favor of the woman's voice coming from the other side of the hall.
"Jacuzzi! Jacuzzi! Some old friends decided to visit!"
It was a young woman wearing glasses, one eye covered by an eyepatch, her body covered with scars. Jacuzzi's girlfriend, Nice. They were living together, which would probably have sounded quite suggestive if it weren't for the fact that they were also living with about twenty other people.
"Huh? N-ni-nice, what's that about old friends?"
Jacuzzi peeked out from under the table, and his questions were soon answered by shouts coming from the entrance.
"Greetings, Jacuzzi! It's been so long, hasn't it!"
"It's been ages and ages!"
He cautiously crawled out and looked toward the end of the hallway, where he caught sight of the friends who he met on the streets from time to time.
His fears banished in an instant, he jumped up on his feet and dashed over to greet them.
"What's the occasion? You should have told us you were coming in advance, we would've prepared something for you to eat at least!"
"Hahahah, don't worry your head about that! We've already had lunch, you see!"
"But Isaac, didn't we skip lunch to set up more dominoes?"
It was like Miria's words had been a sort of trigger, for Isaac's hunger suddenly made itself known with a vengeance.
"...There's a saying in Japan that a samurai will pick his teeth contentedly even if he's full!"
"Wow, Isaac! You're a samurai! You're going to slit your belly!"
"That's right, Miria dear! A samurai never eats because it's no use. It'll all come tumbling out of that slit stomach anyway! So a samurai has to endure that hunger. That's the samurai way!"
Set at ease by their ludicrous conversation, Jacuzzi soon found himself chuckling.
"Weren't you a gunman, Isaac?" he asked rhetorically as he led them to the reception hall, fond memories of their first meeting in his mind.
"Amazing! This place must be bigger than Alveare!"
The couple openly showed their admiration at the sight of the grand reception hall.
They gazed this way and that, entranced with the vastness of the room, looking wide-eyed at the angels painted on the ceiling. The ceiling had been colored with pastels, which lent it a sense of warmth, blending perfectly with the painting of the angels in its corners and giving the hall a feeling of gentle calm.
The paintings and reliefs hanging from the walls, too, had been specifically chosen to convey a sense of harmony that blended in with the rest of the room. The place was obviously not the work of some tasteless middle class man who had merely happened to strike it rich.
It was a room of subtle balance, its deep grace and beauty serving first to impress the viewer, and then gradually soothe them.
"Astounding, Jacuzzi! I'd heard that you lived in a mansion, but I never dreamed that it would be this incredible!"
"You really hit the jackpot!"
"Haha, no, well..."
Jacuzzi had neither built the mansion, nor had he bought it, but nevertheless he smiled bashfully as though it was his own home being so lavishly complemented.
"It looked pretty much like my house from the outside, so I had no idea it'd be this great inside!"
"Ah... You're right! It did look just like home!"
"Come again? W-what kind of houses did you live in...?" Jacuzzi asked, knocked off balance by their unexpected declaration, but whether they hadn't heard him, or they had but had decided not to answer, the couple ignored him and walked into the center of the reception hall.
Jacuzzi decided not to pursue the issue and dashed into the kitchen, intent on preparing some tea for his friends.
They'd first met late in 1931. They'd been on the transcontinental train from Chicago to New York when they all got involved in the great train robbery perpetrated by multiple groups (granted, Jacuzzi had been technically been involved right from the beginning, seeing as how he was the leader of one of the aforementioned groups) and through that coincidental meeting had grown to become fast friends.
To be precise, they'd got the fast friends part down before the train robbery began, and then split up once the action started, each influencing the outcome of events in their own way.
They'd gone their separate ways after the train arrived at its destination, but a chance meeting in the streets of New York had brought them back together again. It wasn't like they really had any trouble noticing each other. After all, Isaac and Miria were pretty much impossible to miss, and the tattoo that covered half of Jacuzzi's face had a certain way of standing out in a crowd.
Still, it was the first time that they'd taken it upon themselves to visit Jacuzzi's current hideout...
"Anyway, we have to make that dastardly Firo say uncle!"
"It's our top priority!"
Personally, Jacuzzi was more interested in asking them a few things about the events on the train, but the couple seemed completely absorbed in disparaging a young man named Firo.
"This Firo person sounds like a really bad guy. Did he really get mad at you after knocking those dominoes down?"
Jacuzzi was a nice guy, and even as he nodded and agreed with them, he didn't seem to realize that the man they were talking about was a capo of the Martillo Family. Granted, it was doubtful whether Isaac and Miria remembered that fact themselves.
"What is it, Isaac?"
Isaac slapped his knee and bolted to his feet, and Miria gazed up at him expectantly.
"I just remembered that we're robbers! Isn't that right, Miria?"
"We're serial robbers, Isaac!"
Jacuzzi could only smile blankly as the couple continued the conversation on a completely different tangent, once again plunging into a world of their own.
"So we've decided to steal something important from Firo!"
"Hold on a second, Miria. It's a terrible thing to steal things because of personal motivation, as I'm sure you already know. Absolutely horrible! So here's what we'll do! First we'll steal from Firo and then we'll write a ransom letter! Then we'll give his treasure back to him!"
"We're going to stage everything!"
Jacuzzi cocked his head to one side, sensing that this particular train of thought was beginning to barrel irrevocably off the rails. Isaac and Miria, however, didn't seem to notice or even particularly care, their eyes shining as they came to their conclusion.
"Then Firo will be glad, won't he? Making up will be no problem!"
"What a criminal mastermind!"
"Huh? Didn't you say that you were going to make him say uncle or something?" Jacuzzi blurted, realizing that things had ended up completely awry.
Isaac and Miria stared open-mouthed at Jacuzzi for a moment, realizing the holes in their master plan highlighted by his impartial opinion... then turned to look at each other with dramatic gasps.
"I can't believe we missed taking care of such a basic issue."
"Mmm... No, wait, perhaps...? That's right, Miria! Uncle must be a cry of victory! Yes, I think that'll work quite nicely, don't you?"
"...It looks like the two of you really like Firo," Jacuzzi said, laughing. Isaac and Miria raised their voices proudly instead of attempting any denials.
"Firo might be our enemy now, but we like him a lot!"
"You just can't hate him, no matter how much you try!"
They smiled brightly, and the tattooed boy was just about to laugh along with them when...
Ding dong, ding dong.
The Genoard mansion's doorbell rang for the second time that day.
The moment they set foot in Millionaire Row, Maria once again asked the question she'd been asking over and over the whole way there.
"Tick, can I slash them?"
"Nope," Tick said, his tone still like that of a child as he refused Maria's pleas. "We're only going to talk today."
"I'm telling you, there's no way things'll turn out okay, amigo! It's going to end up in a fight anyway, so why don't you let me cut down maybe three or so of them before they can do anything? They'll calm right down, I promise!"
"Nooope. You do anything that violent!" Tick said, a little strictly this time. Maria pouted and looked up at the sky.
The heavens were grey, utterly devoid of any blue at all, but Maria kept her eyes fixed on them as she complained in a small voice to the young man beside her.
"Hmph... I thought you of all people would understand, Tick..."
"You cut people all day every day with those scissors of yours, don't you? Snick-snack! You really enjoy it, I can tell! So I thought you'd understand me when I said I wanted to slash some people."
Tick seemed taken aback a little, but he opened his mouth nonetheless.
"...I don't cut people willy nilly, you know."
Maria kept her face turned toward the sky, but she glanced out of the corner of her eye at Tick, who seemed a bit from normal.
"Mmm... Why do you want to cut people, Maria?"
Surprisingly, Tick was the first to ask, but Maria replied without hesitation.
"Because it's fun, amigo! I don't just like slashing people. It doesn't even matter to me whether what I cut is an animal or a plant or whether it's even alive! I'll cut steel if it's there. It's just so so so much fun!"
The smile reappeared on her face and she looked at Tick without the slightest hint of guilt.
"I feel stronger every time I slash something, whenever I cut someone down! The stronger the person, the sturdier the thing I cut, the happier I get, amigo! It makes me so glad to know that me and Murasamia are cutting something that nobody's ever cut before! That's why I just can't stop! So... can I please slash them?"
She tried to return the conversation to its beginning and gazed expectantly at Tick, but sighed in disappointment as he kept his silence.
This time, she decided it was her turn to ask something of her unreadable partner.
"What, are you different, amigo? Don't you enjoy it too? Aren't you doing what you do because you like hurting people, because you like seeing other people's blood?"
"...Yeah. It's fun," Tick said with a wan smile, giving the reply that Maria had half expected.
"But it's really sad, too."
"What do you mean?"
"Hey, Maria. Do you believe in things like... like the bonds of family, or the ties between people, or loyalty, or compassion? Do you believe in links that are so strong that they can't be broken no matter how much you hurt, no matter how much pain you're in?"
He answered the question with a question, and Maria had to think things over a little before replying.
"I don't know, and I never really gave it any thought, to be honest. But... if you believe they exist, then maybe they do? I think that kind of thing is different for everyone, amigo."
It wasn't a proper answer, but neither was it avoiding the question. Tick took a pair of scissors from their place at his side and looked at his own reflection in the well-polished blades as he spoke.
"What's fun for me isn't cutting people, it's the instant when I can feel those formless somethings."
"You see... I can't believe in anything but things that have a shape," Tick said flatly. His voice itself was the same as always. But nevertheless Maria couldn't shake the notion that a different soul was now in control of the young man.
"I can only believe in things that break. If they can break, that means that they exist, see? That's why I torture people, so that I can feel the moment when their bonds break. That's why I hurt them so much."
Maria kept her silence, listening to what Tick had to say.
They'd had many conversations in the year and a half since she'd entered the Family, and she'd come to see him as a fast friend, one who was perhaps a little childish but still entirely likable.
But now, she came to a realization. It dawned on her that she knew absolutely nothing about the young man in front of her. All she saw of him was the exterior; his true self was hidden deep inside.
This hadn't really been a special occasion.
She had only asked him--asked him thoughtlessly, lightly. And still Tick had told her his thoughts.
Maria didn't know whether that meant he trusted her that much, or if he would have given the same reply to anybody.
So Maria only listened, unsure of how to react to Tick's unexpected soliloquy. She merely stood by and quietly took in his words.
"...But I want to believe."
Tick's voice changed just the slightest bit as he tilted his gaze upward.
"I want to believe that there're things out there that won't break, no matter how much you hurt them, no matter how much you damage the body they're in."
"I want to know whether the things I felt for Father and my brother when Father abandoned me were the sort of things that can break because of pain... Maybe that's all I really want to know, in the end. That why I take all sorts of people and..."
The metallic noise signaled the end of Tick's speech.
He only smiled innocently, his narrowed eyes betraying no negative emotion, as always.
Maria thought it over a little and then gave her reply. Her expression, too, was the same as ever.
"Mmm... Well, don't you think they must exist since you believe in them, amigo? Those things that don't break! Think about it... You can't prove that something that doesn't exist, doesn't exist! Then all you can really do is believe, amigo!" she said, telling him her thoughts in lieu of any consolation or commiseration. Tick looked a bit surprised for an instant, but his features soon settled into his usual placid smile.
"Right... I see, now... You're strong, Maria."
"Belief is important, amigo! I heard from my grandfather when I was just a girl that you can cut anything in this whole wide world as long as you believe!"
"Then doesn't that mean that there's nothing in this world that you can't break...?"
"We can have a contest! We'll see whose belief is stronger!" Maria said with a bright smile.
Tick nodded enthusiastically, and added something onto the end of his thoughts.
"You're right... I do believe in them. That's why I've hurt so many people until now... And some day, I'm going to be hurt and break too. I'm okay with that. I might get beaten to death by the people we're going to meet today, but... I can't help but feel that my bonds to you or the Gandors might break before I do, just like they did for all the people I've hurt so fa-"
Tick stopped, suddenly aware of a thin, cold line along his neck.
He looked back and saw the edge of Maria's blade resting on the back of his neck. She'd drawn it without a sound.
"What're you doing, Maria?" he asked, and there was almost no fear in his voice. Maria stopped walking as well, and likewise, he could detect no animosity from her.
"You shouldn't think like that."
Tick looked away from that fearless gaze, ashamed. He seemed completely unaware of the dire threat to his life resting against his neck.
"I'm your bodyguard. I'll never lose to anyone, amigo! Well, there was that one time with Vino, but... I won't lose again! Not to the people we're going to see, and not to Vino! So not a hair on your head's going to get hurt. Let's believe that, okay? This is something we can believe in together, so there's nothing to get confused about, amigo!"
All that Maria believed in was her own power.
That was why she wanted Tick, her charge, to believe in it as well.
Believe in her power, that she was stronger than anyone else...
Perhaps sensing her thoughts, perhaps not, Tick chuckled quietly.
"I believe you. You won't lose to anyone, Maria."
He smiled, seemingly more for himself than for her, and nodded once more.
The two continued on, chatting animatedly with one another... completely unaware that they had passed the house by.
Completely unaware of just what sort of people were currently visiting their intended destination...
The Genoard Manor
"'Scuse me... There a Mr. Jacuzzi Splot here?" the bespectacled, bandanna'd man asked rudely the moment he entered the lobby.
"Err, uhh, tha-that's... me..."
Jacuzzi hesitantly identified himself and looked at his second set of visitors.
There were about ten of them. Together with Isaac and Miria and Jacuzzi's gang, they would have filled any normal house to bursting, but there was still more than enough space in the Genoard manor's spacious hall to house them comfortably. Jacuzzi had feared that this time they were mafia assassins for certain upon clapping eyes on the man in the black bandanna, but he relaxed just slightly as he caught sight of the timid looking girl behind him.
The rest of them were also dressed haphazardly, as though they all came from different walks of life, and Jacuzzi decided that they must be similar in nature to his own band.
"Uhh... umm... if you don't mind, could you, err, tell us why you're here...?" Jacuzzi asked haltingly, still unable to completely lower his guard.
Isaac and Miria were still absorbed in a debate as to just what Firo might hold dearest in the reception hall, which left only Jacuzzi, Nice, and a few of their companions who'd wandered in on a whim in the lobby.
"Oh, right, look at my manners. I'm Tim. The rest of these guys are sort of my friends. You don't need to worry about them."
Tim gave them the bare minimum of information and then revealed his objective.
"I'll cut to the chase. How would you guys like to become immortal?"
While Jacuzzi cocked his head to one side, wondering what sort of new religion the man was advertising, a woman staying in one of the rooms deep in the mansion was opened eyes.
The doorbell ringing twice had probably been what had awoken her. She slowly rose, shaking off the sleep that still clung lightly to her.
She'd been planning on just taking a short breather, but apparently she'd nodded off.
I have to go back to the garden and finish pruning the trees, she thought, and remembered the dream she'd been having.
It had been a dream that more or less reenacted a scene she'd actually experienced about two years ago.
She'd been in the midst of a crowd.
The news hadn't revealed much, save that the man being escorted by the police was a terrorist who'd plotted grand acts of terror against the government. The curious people spilled out onto the streets, fighting each other to catch a glimpse.
Out of all the people present, she alone had a different objective entirely in being there, under the watchful eyes of the police.
She was there to rescue the terrorist--her father.
The original plan had been to hijack a train and use the passengers as hostages to demand her father's freedom, but some complications had arisen and that operation had died a quiet death. She'd lost all her allies as well. No, she knew now that they'd never been her allies at all.
But she'd never been all that enthusiastic about that plan anyway, and so she did not despair at its failure.
That did not, of course, mean that she had given up on her father.
She'd come alone to this place, fully intent on taking out all of the guards standing in between her and her father.
The moment she saw her father being led to the armored car that would take him away her hand flashed down to the knife at her hip, her body tensing as she prepared to dash forward and cut down the men in her way...
She saw her father's lips move.
His face betrayed no emotion save calm confidence as he mouthed the words silently, as though he knew that she was there.
Just two words, that was all...
She was no expert at reading lips, so she had no way of knowing whether those were the exact words.
But what she did know was that her father was not concerned about his own safety in the slightest.
That instant of hesitation cost her her chance to strike, and she could only watch as her last chance passed her by.
Then she'd awoken, her last memory of looking down at her own hesitant self.
I wonder why I dreamed of that after all this time.
Now that she thought about it, she was wearing the same black dress that she'd been wearing on the train back then. She'd just put it on because it had no sleeves, making it easier for her to move about, but perhaps it had influenced her dream just now.
She still couldn't say for certain whether her choice then had been the right one.
All she could do for the moment was believe in the smile her father had shown her and wait. Such thoughts occupied her days.
The new friends she'd met in New York had shown her all kinds of different views on life, ones that she'd never had the chance to experience before. Jacuzzi the crybaby, Nice the bomb lover, Donny the strongman, Nick and Jack the knife wielders, Fang the cook, John the bartender, and... The Rail Tracer... And so many others, people from all walks of life, of the sort she'd never met before.
People who had no suspicion in their hearts, who trusted each other to a fault.
They had welcomed her warmly, heedless of her confusion. Chane was a little glad. She was a bit surprised at feeling such emotion in herself, but it wasn't a bad feeling by any means.
She loved her father. She would do anything to keep him safe.
And she loved her current companions just as much.
Was there anything she could do for them? Such thoughts occupied her days.
She stayed with Jacuzzi's gang, feeling that for the first time ever, she'd finally discovered why life was worth living.
She'd resolved never to regret the present days she'd chosen.
Today, she'd again been on her way to the gardens to help them...
...When she was struck by a strong feeling of wrongness as she looked down through the windows at the outer gardens.
There were two people at the back door of the manor.
One was a man; the other a woman.
She'd never seen them before, but there was something she could readily identify even from far away.
The man held sharp pairs of scissors in his hands. The woman had two swords sheathed at her side.
A sharp light entered her eyes. She slipped noiselessly from the room.
As though by magic, a knife appeared in each of her hands.
The woman, Chane Laforet, hooked the door closed with the crook of her hand, simple thoughts running through her mind.
She would remove the people who threatened her way of life and the lives of her friends. Even if it cost her her life.
She began stalking through the manor's halls without a sound, her resolve held steadfast in her heart.
"Immortal? What're you-"
"Aah, ah. I know, I know. I know exactly what you're about to say, so don't bother."
The man who'd introduced himself as Tim raised one hand to stave off Jacuzzi's questions and adjusted his glasses with the other.
"Of course you'd think we're bonkers. I would too, if someone came up to me and just popped that sort of question. But you see, the tricky thing about this is that even if I chose a more roundabout way of saying it, you'd still think I was crazy, and it might even end up with you guys trusting us less than if I'd gone this way."
"Well, y-you're right, but I d-don't think you should have explained that..."
"But anyway, about what we're after... Hey, Adelle. Take it from here."
Tim ignored Jacuzzi completely and snapped his fingers, giving the signal to the woman waiting behind him. She had vacant eyes, and her general air was slightly sleepy and very shy. She gave a start when Tim called her, stepped forward uncertainly, and nodded once to Jacuzzi.
Jacuzzi caught a glimpse of something like a long rod strapped to her back, but he didn't give it much thought as he nodded cautiously back.
"Ah, ah, umm. Well, umm, I'll try my best to explain, so, uhh, umm, hello..."
Tim chuckled once, the sound obviously meant to get her back on track, and from behind him a young man in a suit glared daggers at the both of them.
Who are these people, anyway? It doesn't look like they really get along, and I don't get what they meant by that immortal stuff...
Suddenly, Jacuzzi remembered that he'd once heard something about immortals from the information brokers in the neighborhood.
It had been about the boy he'd met on the Flying Pussyfoot, Czeslaw Meyer. Apparently he'd been an ancient alchemist with an immortal body.
He hadn't really believed it when he'd heard it, and he hadn't told his friends about it either.
In fact, he'd completely forgotten about it until just a moment ago... But now the memory rose back to the forefront of Jacuzzi's mind, making it hard for him to dismiss what Tim had told him out of hand.
Apparently unaware of his inner turmoil, Adelle began to speak.
"Umm... You ran here from Chicago because the Russo Family was after you, right? Umm. I mean, if I'm wrong, then I'm sorry..."
How does she know?
Nobody but his own gang should have known that. Even if one of them had happened to mention it in some speakeasy somewhere, how had this woman heard of it?
Even Nice and John, who up till then had been watching the events unfold with an air of bemused good humor, suddenly tensed upon hearing the name "Russo."
If Tim's group was related to the Russo Family somehow, they represented a direct threat to Jacuzzi's gang.
Adelle whimpered as she felt the temperature in the room plummet below zero, forcing herself to keep talking in a faint voice.
"Uhh, please, don't... I don't mean for there to be a misunderstanding... We aren't related to the Russo Family at all..."
Jacuzzi's gang didn't let down their guard. Perhaps sensing the tense atmosphere, more of the group began to filter in, one or two at a time, from the various rooms of the mansion.
"What's wrong, Jacuzzi?"
"Who're these people?"
"Enemies? Are they enemies?"
"Should we get rid of 'em?"
The latecomers gossiped idly among themselves, unaware of what exactly was going on, but Jacuzzi paid them no heed and instead observed the movements of Tim's group.
Adelle's face paled as more and more people entered the room; if she had a tail she would have tucked it between her legs. But even then, she didn't stop talking.
"Eek... Err, well, so... We, we were looking for people like you..."
Tim took up where she'd left off with a smirk.
"We were looking for a group of people in New York who weren't affiliated with any mafia, but at the same time had a good number of people and decent leadership too," Tim said, his rough frankness a marked contrast to Adelle. He'd probably ordered Adelle to start the explanation exactly to call attention to this difference in demeanors, making his words more memorable.
"Long story short, we want you to join us. The pay'll be immortality. I think that's enough, don't you?"
They were back to square one. The "join us" bit was new, but as long as the part about immortals was there, there was no way Jacuzzi's gang could really take them seriously.
"But what do you mean by immortality?"
Tim turned in place, looking around at Jacuzzi and his companions before he answered.
"Oh, looks like we have enough spectators for our little magic show... Adelle!"
"Ah, right!" Adelle said, reaching for the long rod on her back. She bowed sheepishly to Dallas.
"Umm, this is probably going to hurt a lot so I'm going to apologize in advance! I'm really really sorry about this!"
Dallas opened his mouth to ask the crazy girl what the hell she was talking about, when a very familiar pair of voices reached his ears.
"Hey! Did someone just say something about a magic show? Well come on then, where is it?"
"Where're the white doves and rabbits?"
A couple dressed in formal wear poked their heads out of the doorway leading to the reception hall.
Dallas froze as he clapped eyes on their faces, memories flaring to life inside his brain.
It was the couple wearing strange outfits.
More accurately... it was the couple wearing strange outfits who had run him over with a car on the day the Gandors threw him into the Hudson.
The knowledge burned in him like a fire, the reality of the situation staring him in the face.
"You bastards! You were therrk."
His hateful shout cut off with a strangled gurgle.
For the rod in Adelle's hands had suddenly seemed to grow a wicked set of blades...
...And then plunged mercilessly into the soft skin below Dallas' chin.
"Wha...?" Jacuzzi said dumbly, unable to process the gruesome sight for a moment.
A spurt of blood colored the tattoo on his face, and as though that had been some sort of signal, Jacuzzi let out a scream that could have been either a girly shriek or a strangled sob, and fainted dead away.
"Hey, you sure this guy's the boss around here?" Tim asked, looking bemusedly down at the unconscious boy. He heaved a heavy sigh.
"You fainting is gonna throw a wrench into our plans."
A little while earlier, outside the Genoard manor...
"I'm sorry, I think we went a street too far."
"You should pay more attention to where we're going, amigo."
Tick and Maria had walked quite far before they finally realized that they were going in the wrong direction, and then took a wrong turn somewhere, leaving them closer to the mansion's back door than the front.
"It'll be a bit of a walk, but maybe we should go around to the front."
"No, it's fine! Let's charge right through the back!"
"No charging, please..."
Heedless of Tick's attempts at reining her in, Maria stepped confidently through the small gateway leading to the back porch.
"It's okay! We're here to scare them, aren't we? Then we have to show them we have the upper hand! I always ambush people when I'm on a job. You get them unaware, take out the small fry first and then have yourself an honorable one on one duel with the honcho! You have no idea how good that kind of thing feels, amigo!"
Tick reached out to grab her, then realized he was still holding his scissors and lowered his hand.
Maria was still striding toward the mansion. The gardens were mostly situated to the sides of the house and not in front and behind, so it wasn't a long walk to the back door.
She walked straight up to the door, which she had to admit looked a tad run down when considering the grandeur of the rest of the house, and raised her hand to knock...
Soundlessly, she withdrew a couple of steps from the door, her fingers resting feather-light on the grip of her sword.
The door creaked ponderously as it slowly swung outward, just as Maria began to draw her blade.
On the other side, there was a woman with sharp eyes, wearing a black dress.
She was beautiful, looking to be about the same age as Maria. Appearances aside, though, there was a frightfully keen light in her eyes, so sharp that a person of timid disposition would probably have been rooted to the spot had they fallen under that gaze.
"...Hello, amigo," Maria said quietly, nodding once to the unknown woman.
Her previous flippant attitude was nowhere to be seen; it was obvious at a glance that she was warily assessing the woman.
It wasn't just the look in the woman's eyes that made Maria so careful. There were also the things she held in both hands to consider.
They were large hunting knives, their blades easily over eight inches in length, that would have looked more at home in the wilderness than in a house in New York City. They looked slightly unwieldy for a woman to use, but nevertheless the woman in the black dress held them comfortably in her hands.
Chane kept her senses on edge, staring at the Mexican woman before her.
...No, I've never seen her before.
A peaceful conclusion would have been ideal, of course, but she'd heard something about "ambushing" and "getting them unaware" from the other side just before she opened the door. If they were here to attack the residents of the mansion, she couldn't let them pass.
With that thought firmly in her mind, she'd pushed the door open, her knives grasped firmly in both hands. Just as she'd expected, the Mexican girl was already drawing her blade, and once she clapped eyes on Chane, it was obvious that she was getting ready to kill.
"What's wrong? Say something, amigo! Oh, let me introduce myself first. I'm Maria. I'm an assassin!"
Maria revealed her own name first, as a sort of taunt, but Chane did not reply.
To be perfectly accurate, Chane could not reply. Her body no longer had the means to do so.
But even if she had been able to speak, she would not have chosen to do so.
"Hmph, it's no fun if you don't say anything," Maria said, grinning, and sheathed her blade.
A metallic ching reached Chane's ears...
And Maria had already burst forward, going straight for Chane's feet. She swung Murasamia straight from its scabbard in a flat arc that would take it cleanly through Chane's ankles.
The point traced a keen arc, almost skimming over the walls as it passed through where Chane had been standing in an instant.
But Chane was no longer there. She'd taken to the air before Maria had even finished drawing her sword, landing lightly on the doorknob and kicking smoothly off of it, spinning as she passed over Maria's head.
She landed right behind Maria, leaving them almost back to back, one knife already thrust back in a vicious stab.
There was a sharp clang.
Maria had blocked the knife with her second sword. Chane hadn't seen her draw it, but the long blade poked out over Maria's shoulder, protecting her back.
Maria spun in place, Murasamia whipping through the air only to be blocked by Chane's other knife.
Sparks flew from the point of impact, and both women leaped backward as though repelled by some magnetic force.
That same force seemed to draw them together once more as they dashed forward, mirror images of each other as they raised their weapons to strike.
The shriek of metal impacting metal.
Again and again, they fell back and rushed back together, their similarly aggressive close quarters fighting styles forcing them together for brief, heated exchanges of frenzied attacks.
Again. Again and again, a symphony of clangs and clashes.
It was like seeing a pair of comets orbiting one another, furiously crashing together and then coming apart again.
The lone spectator gave a cry of surprise as he sat back and watched, but his innocent smile soon frayed at the edges as he remembered something.
Tick sagged, his arms drooping lifelessly to his sides as he let out a small sound of distress, heedless of the staccato beat of metal around him.
"Oh no... This isn't how it's supposed to go..." he murmured, but from the sound of his voice and the look on his face, he wasn't overly worried. There was nothing he could realistically do to stop the two fighters, and even if he were to shout, only Maria would pause to look at him, leaving her open to attack from the woman in the black dress.
That meant that the only thing he could do was silently keep watching them.
It was hard to tell whether all those thoughts actually ran through his head, but either way he kept his calm, observing their duel.
But a sudden scream drowned out even the metronomic beat of shrieking metal.
Chane jumped away from Maria and stopped the instant the cry came from the opposite side of the house, near the front door, her whole body tensed and still on guard.
...That scream just now...
An image came to the forefront of her mind, of the tattooed young man who had welcomed her unconditionally into the fold.
Certain that the owner of that voice was Jacuzzi, Chane ignored Maria completely and dashed off into the house.
Maria's eyes widened as she watched the woman in the dress suddenly turn her back on the fight.
"Ah! Don't run away, amigo!" Maria shouted, but seemed unfazed when her unrealistic expectations were not met, instead following hot on the woman's heels.
Left alone, Tick let out a relieved breath and began walking through the gardens that flanked the manor.
"I don't really know what's going on," he said to himself, strolling leisurely along in a way that made it clear he'd given up on getting the situation under control, "but I really think it'd be good manners for visitors to come through the front door."
"Wha... what in the world are you people doing?!" Nice cried in the unconscious Jacuzzi's stead, shock and bewilderment coloring her voice in equal parts.
A senseless murder had just taken in place in front of her and her friends.
The strange rod on Adelle's back had actually been a spear, folded into three equal lengths. No, not just a spear--once it was fully extended, a pair of wicked tines split outward from the blade at the end, locking into place at ninety degree angles from the center point.
And from the end of that spear hung the limp body of the rough-looking young man who had come with Tim's group.
The spear's keen point had passed straight through his spine, poking out the back of his neck.
The impaled man twitched spasmodically for a few moments before going still, his entire body going limp like a puppet with its strings cut.
"What the hell, is that for real?"
"What's going on?"
None of Jacuzzi's companions seemed able to completely understand the situation; they milled about uneasily instead of screaming like their leader.
Isaac and Miria didn't say a word, their eyes round. Tim grinned snidely, and Adelle merely stood where she was, her expression blank as she held her spear firmly in place.
"I think that's about enough, Adelle. You can take it out now."
Only on Tim's command did Adelle finally draw her spear from Dallas' throat, kicking his bloody body away.
"Now everyone pay attention," Tim said, spreading his arms out grandly to his stunned crowd.
"The best part's yet to come."
He gave a theatric bow, gesturing to Dallas' corpse with his right hand.
"I told you I'd put on a magic show for you, didn't I?"
Everyone in the lobby save the unconscious Jacuzzi moved their gazes to the ragged corpse...
...And witnessed a miracle take place.
Nice's left eye took in a sight that went completely against everything she'd ever experienced, everything she'd been taught.
She knew that blood could not ignore the call of gravity, nor could a soul come back to a dead body.
She felt those two truths, hitherto unquestioned in her view of the world, on the verge of shattering.
She stared at the dead ruffian's body.
The blood flowing steadily from the wound in his throat had stopped.
No, it hasn't stopped... It's...?
Nice's gaze fell on the blood staining the carpet.
That was when she saw it. She saw it.
She saw the puddle of blood begin to shrink.
She saw that the blood that had splashed on Jacuzzi's face had disappeared while she wasn't looking.
She saw that crimson liquid was squirming at the fallen man's neck like a swarm of red slugs.
Nice and her companions were held in thrall by the nightmarish sight.
Nobody could move. No, nobody could even think of moving.
It was resurrection.
No, it could hardly be seen as something so holy.
Each droplet of blood writhed like a live thing, merging with each other and evolving into a single mass. Each mass then came together with another, combining and growing... Until finally, like a beast returning to its den, it crawled back into the gash in the man's neck.
The last drop of blood returned to its place in the man's body... and as though to signal the end of that red march, the wound closed up on itself.
Only clear, unbroken skin could be seen where there had once been a gaping slash; there was no trace on the man's body that he had ever been touched.
The blood and grease had disappeared from Adelle's spear, leaving the finely sharpened silver blade glinting softly in the light.
Tim saw that the entire lobby had been blanketed in silence and grinned widely.
"You see now?"
The crooked smirk still fixed on his face, Tim turned and kicked the man hard in the stomach.
He was still unconscious, but he still coughed and hacked from the pain.
The man had been dead, beyond any doubt... but now he was breathing again.
Tim looked down at him, making sure that the man was alive, and quietly spoke.
"You see, immortals really do exist..."
Chane saw it happen as she entered the hall and gasped.
...That was... just like Father...
She'd gotten there just as the wound in the man's neck closed, but even that brief glimpse had let her put everything together in an instant.
She knew that the man lying there was a being exactly like her father.
Actually, Dallas was an incomplete immortal, but Chane, who had no knowledge of Szilard Quates and his incomplete elixir, mistakenly believed that Dallas was the same sort of person as her father, Huey Laforet.
Her mind was awhirl with thought.
What was that group in the lobby after?
Why was Jacuzzi unconscious? Who had attacked him?
And... just what could she do against an immortal?
Tim saw the woman who'd appeared in the hallway and inwardly flinched.
Huh? Those eyes... I swear I've seen them somewhere before...
He sifted through his memories but found himself unable to place precisely where and when he'd seen her. He shrugged it off as a moment of confusion and attempted to continue his speech.
"So what I'm trying to say is-"
But then a sudden round of applause cut him off.
The strange couple standing at the entrance of the reception hall had begun to clap furiously the moment he opened his mouth.
"Incredible! I've never seen anything like it! You were just like Howard Thurston!"
"You sawed him in half and put him back together! It's Harry Houdini! It's Horace Goldin!"
Isaac and Miria rattled off a list of all the famous magicians they knew, and only then did Jacuzzi's gang begin to chat amongst themselves as well.
"Wait, it was just a magic trick?"
"That bald guy said it was, didn't he?"
"Huh, you're right! An' here I was thinkin' he was some kinda vampire or something! Scared the shit outta me!"
"Hmph, so it was just a trick, huh."
One by one, they broke into relieved smiles. Luckily, hardly any of them had had the opportunity to see an actual magic show before, so the unlikely excuse was enough to bring an end to their unease.
Nice and John glanced at each other, unconvinced, but the others were already gossiping away, their shock quickly forgotten.
"What the hell. These people must all be retarded or something..."
More than anyone, Tim was left open-mouthed at the unexpected turn of events. He hadn't expected them to take his grandstanding seriously.
He scratched his temple idly with one finger, unsure of what to do, then set eyes on Nice and turned to her.
"What I was saying is, how'd you like to join us and all become immortals like that guy over there? All you'd have to do is help us a little in stealing some liquor that's hidden away somewhere... Well, maybe we could discuss things in detail once your boss wakes up. What do you say?"
"...Our objective is making as many immortals as we can, you see."
Chane had no trouble hearing what the bald man had said to Nice.
In that instant, Chane's body specified the man, Tim, as an enemy.
He was out to make more immortals.
In other words, he was out to make more beings who could kill her father, Huey.
She didn't know who these people were, or why exactly they wanted to make more immortals.
But one thing was clear. These people were planning to recruit Jacuzzi's gang, her companions, in order to increases the ranks of her father's enemies.
Silently she dashed across the floor, weaving in and out between her friends as she made a beeline toward Tim.
She wouldn't kill an unaware enemy in cold blood. If she killed him, she wouldn't be able to find out what he was after.
She'd intended to drive the hilt of her knife into the man's solar plexus, but a keen bolt of light flashed in between them just before she reached him.
Chane sensed danger and bent her body back, bringing her knives up in the space where her head had been.
The next instant there came a ringing clang and the point of a spear passed by her cheek.
She'd blocked the two side-blades with her knives, bringing the weapon to a stop right before one of those tines gouged into her face.
But it looked like the center blade had nicked her; a thin line of red appeared on her cheek, followed a heartbeat later by a single drop of blood that slid down like a crimson tear down her face.
"Umm... I'm sorry, you just came and attacked so suddenly that I... just..."
If Chane hadn't avoided the thrust, the spear would have taken her right between the eyes. Still, she showed no sign of fear, instead glaring at the enemy before her.
The enemy wielded a spear that was easily taller than Chane herself. The enemy looked timid, but she'd shown no hesitation and no effort in wielding her weapon to try and kill Chane.
Chane quietly observed her unnatural opponent.
Her head was filled only with thoughts of how she would have to move in order to efficiently destroy her enemy.
At the same time, Adelle stared at the enemy who had appeared before her.
She'd thought for certain that she'd killed her opponent, but from the way her attack had been blocked with almost no damage done, apparently she was more skilled than she'd expected.
She made her assessment in an instant and drew back her spear, putting some space between herself and the unknown assailant.
"Hey, Adelle. Don't kill her if you can help it," Tim said from behind her.
Adelle sounded much like she had just before, though she kept her eyes on her enemy as she spoke.
"Ah, right... But... I think she's really strong. I don't know whether I'll be able to go easy on her..."
But something else was going through her head.
...She has black hair and golden eyes... Just like Master Huey... she thought, drawing back her spear...
And then, from the same hallway that her current opponent had run in from, there came a vibrant, enthusiastic voice.
"Ahahahaha! Looks like things are really getting fun now, amigo!"
Both Jacuzzi's gang and Tim's Larvae stared, nonplussed, at the Mexican girl who'd suddenly appeared in their midst.
"Donny, do you know her?" someone asked the brown giant, looking to the only other Mexican in the room, but he only gave it a moment of thought before shaking his head.
Maria paid the uncertain atmosphere in the room no heed, raising both of her katana high and striding lightly down the hall.
"This place is huge! I got a little lost on the way here, amigo!" she said, and though her words stayed measured if a little exuberant, her footsteps fell faster and faster.
Adelle quietly took stock of the situation, while Chane glared vehemently at both Maria and the Larvae.
Just as Maria tensed to leap right between Adelle and Chane...
The doorbell rang...
...For the third time that day in the Genoard manor.
The sound was somehow relaxed, in stark contrast to Isaac and Miria's frantic ringing earlier in the afternoon.
"Who could it be now..." Nice muttered, her features rigid with nervous anticipation as she wondered what dire threat could be behind the door this time. Her hand crept toward her waist, her fingers closing around one of the spheres hanging from her belt.
Tim, Adelle, Chane, Maria, Isaac, Miria, Jacuzzi's gang, and even the Larvae who hadn't said a thing since they entered, all fixed their gazes on the door and awaited the newcomer with suddenly dry mouths.
"Uhh... Hello, everyone."
The man who walked in as the door slowly swung open had a voice that was as gentle as a lamb, and a face to match.
The young man discretely glanced around, caught sight of Maria standing frozen with her swords still in her hands, and grimaced.
"Maria, I told you we didn't come here to fight... What if Mr. Keith gets angry with us?"
He spoke like a child, but the moment the name Keith passed his lips Maria shuddered unconsciously. She thought it over a moment and said, "Okay, Tick. I don't want him to get mad at me."
She heaved a sigh that spoke of great patience and personal sacrifice, and shoved both her swords back into their scabbards.
Tim stared at Tick for a moment, then gave a jerk of his head that signaled a retreat to his companions.
"Looks like we're out of luck today. Tell Mr. Splot we wish him well when he wakes up. We'll try and come back tomo-"
"Ah, wait, wait," Tick said suddenly, stopping Tim in his tracks before he could leave.
"Hey, actually, if you have business with Mr. Splot here, we'll wait for you to finish. It'd be better if you went first."
Tim and his Larvae stared coldly at him, waiting for him to explain his incomprehensible words.
Tick paid the frigid glares no heed, his smile staying fixed on his face as he continued.
"Because... Depending on how these people reply to our negotiations today, they might end up disappearing from these streets."
"What?" Nice asked dumbly.
The rest of the gang looked uncertainly at each other and then at Tick, staring at him as though he was some sort of fascinating new life form.
And just as Nice prepared to interrogate her mysterious guest...
...The doorbell rang for the fourth time since Isaac and Miria had arrived at the front door.
"...What is with today?" Nice asked aloud, weary resignation and fear both present in her voice.
Chane tensed, intending to use the sound of the bell as an opportunity, but Adelle snapped into a flawless defensive stance, keeping them locked in a strained stalemate.
On the other hand, there were certain people who seemed to have no idea what the word "tension" meant.
"Wow, Isaac! We've got so many guests coming in today!"
"They must all be here to see the magic show! Or maybe they're all part of a traveling circus troupe!"
Isaac and Miria seemed to think that everything that had taken place so far was part of some grand play, taking both Chane and Maria as performance artists.
Actually, they had been on the same train as Chane during their great train robbery... but they had only caught a fleeting glimpse of her before they boarded the train, somehow managing to avoid running into her until the train arrived at the station in New York.
The bell stopped ringing, whoever was on the other side staying quiet as though waiting for an answer.
Of course, this was actually the polite thing to do, while Isaac and Miria with their frantic ringing, and Tick with his uninvited entrance had been the strange ones.
But no matter how much the visitor waited, the inhabitants of the manor did not respond.
The doorbell rang again, as though the visitor had grown impatient.
Still, nobody moved, and from the other side came the soft voice of a woman saying, "Maybe they're not home..."
Tired of the tense standoff, Tim gestured with a nod, signaling to one of the Larvae.
The young man who'd received his gaze nodded and wordlessly walked to the door, pulling it open.
And there, on the other side, stood a lovely young woman wearing a black business suit.
The visitor trailed off halfway through her sentence and fell silent as she took in the sight in the lobby.
Almost thirty people were gathered in the lavishly decorated room, but most of them looked like street rats and hoodlums, quite out of place in the expensive surroundings. What was more, there were even two women standing quite noticeably in the center of the room holding a spear and a pair of knives--any normal person would have had reason to be surprised.
...She's a normal person.
Most of them made that snap decision on seeing her reaction. True, it was rare to see a woman wearing a business suit, but outside of that she seemed entirely ordinary.
The woman in the suit looked around, taking in the strange group gathered in the manor... and then realized that among them were some quite familiar faces, waving frantically to her.
"Hey! Ennis! Over here! Heey!"
"Wow, Ennis! Are you here to see the magic show too?"
"Isaac! Miria! Wait... A magic show?"
A smile settled upon Ennis' features as she caught sight of Isaac and Miria, and, perhaps still not quite understanding what was going on, she turned expectantly to the open door as though asking for help.
As she did... The elegantly crafted door swung open wider, revealing a man wearing a trench coat.
And time stopped.
The atmosphere had plummeted several times in the ten odd minutes since everything had begun, but this time, it was on an entirely different level.
The air didn't grow cold...
It just stopped.
The man who stepped into the manor then seemed to deny the very passage of time, seeming to take away not the air in their lungs but their very time itself.
Even though he hadn't actually done anything except appear.
He was a man with sharp eyes, and everything about him--his expression, his movements, the measure of his steps--gave off a mysterious sense of awe while simultaneously declaring to all and sundry that his line of work had little to do with the right side of the law.
Outwardly, he appeared no different from any other human being.
Still... The air froze solid the moment he appeared.
Even Jacuzzi's gang, who had been sniggering, ignorant of the situation, seemed to feel something that triggered their instincts, for their eyes grew serious and they tensed in anticipation of action.
Adelle, Chane, and Maria, too, stared wide-eyed at the sudden intruder.
For an instant, Adelle's attention shifted completely away from Chane, but Chane, too, found herself unable to move, mesmerized by the man in the trench coat.
As for Maria... Her fingers rested lightly on her sword, her body coiled and ready to draw in an instant if she needed to.
...He's dangerous! Really dangerous! This guy spells trouble, amigo!
The Larvae, too, found their flow of time stolen by the man who had walked in without warning.
...Who the hell is this guy?
He's just standing there. That's all, so why does he feel so...
Even Tim, who up till then had kept an expression of smug composure fixed on his face, clenched his jaw hard, bewildered.
His expression making it clear that, rather than finding such a response satisfying, he simply accepted it as nothing less than his due...
The chiamatore, Ronnie Schiatto, took a measured step into the mansion.
In a word, he was an existence.
An existence that had been born from the dark, breathed it, and lived in it.
To put the feeling into words, it was as though the man was something else, something that looked like a human being but was actually an embodiment of everything evoked by the word "mafia"--no, by the words "organized crime."
He was not a punk like Jacuzzi's gang, not an unknown factor like Tim or Adelle, and not trash like Dallas--he was an entirely different, singular existence.
If he had just been a simple mafioso, those gathered there would not have felt such an alien sense of awe. The aura rolling off of him was that of innumerable things mixed chaotically together... of something that was not human.
But even in the cessation of time brought about by this being's power, there were still those who had the privilege of moving about freely.
Mr. Ronnie's quite... intimidating, when he's on the job.
Gone was the affable man who'd walked into Alveare holding a bag of pepper shakers, and yet his demeanor was also completely different from the seriousness he would show when teaching Firo how to wield a knife.
Ennis quailed under her first encounter with his force of personality, only just keeping her composure because she had known him from before.
Naturally, Isaac and Miria merely laughed gleefully as they caught sight of Ronnie.
"Oh hey, Ronnie's here too. Wait, you didn't bring Firo along, did you?"
"These people are amazing magicians! You should stay and watch them too, Ronnie!"
"You know him?!" Nice blurted in surprise, but Isaac and Miria seemed not to notice her shock, instead waving innocently at Ronnie.
Besides the two unconscious men sprawled on the floor, there was only one other who kept his calm.
Tick had been standing just inside the doorway, looking quite lost, but when he saw Ronnie's face, he slowly opened his mouth to speak.
"Wow, I didn't know that you'd come personally, Mr. Ronnie."
Tick's greeting felt silly in the tense atmosphere, but Ronnie answered calmly, the awe he inspired not lessening in the least.
"It's my job to take care of this kind of thing, no matter how trifling. I certainly didn't expect to see you here. The Gandors must have gotten impatient, to send their infamous torture specialist."
Jacuzzi's friends focused on one noun from the conversation, and their expressions turned suddenly serious.
"Hey, did that guy just say Gandor?"
"An' somethin' about torture too..."
"Wait, that guy? Torture? He looks like he wouldn't hurt a fly."
To Jacuzzi and his gang, the Gandors were simply the mafia that controlled the territory that they worked on. They hadn't had any direct contact with the Gandor Family yet, but it was safe to say that they probably weren't on the Gandors' good side.
The agitated mutters grew louder, and Nice finally realized just who they were facing--at least, who Tick and Ronnie represented--and rushed over to Jacuzzi's side, crouching next to him. She began to shake him desperately, trying to get him to wake up.
"This is serious," John murmured from her side--he, too, had realized just how bad things had become. He grabbed Jacuzzi around the waist, trying to get him to sit up.
The hoodlums looked over to Tick and Ronnie, while Tim's Larvae moved to the sides of the doorway and took stock of the situation. Isaac and Miria waited with bated breath for the next magic trick, and the three armed women stayed where they were, eying their respective enemies with tense expressions.
Nearly thirty people stood in the room, each of them caught up by waves of suspense. Ronnie alone walked unflinching through those currents, speaking as though he owned the place.
"It seems that there's a complicated situation unfolding here... Well, no matter."
He came to a stop a few feet away from Jacuzzi and Nice and addressed all those assembled from his place in the center of the lobby.
"I have come to this place as the Martillo Family's messenger, as their negotiator, as their judge, as their executor, and... also, I have come here to bear witness to everything that will occur here from this point on," he said gravely, his voice ringing in the souls of those listening.
"I believe we all know why the Gandors and the Martillos have seen fit to send people here. Our business is built on trust. When we hold out our hands, we trust in our partners' strength and diligence. When we raise our fists, we trust in our enemies' weakness and error. Everything is but a succession of such matters."
He spoke grandly, almost as though he were an actor on stage, but the power in his voice came together with the atmosphere emanating from him to dominate Jacuzzi's gang completely.
"Which side will you choose? Which card will you deal to me? Amity, or animosity. Depending on your answer, I will judge your past, deciding your present and the future that lies ahead of you."
A blanket of silence fell over the room as he finished... only to be broken as Jacuzzi moaned, waking up from his impromptu nap.
"Ugh... Uhh...? Wait, what happened..."
"Oh, you're up, Jacuzzi."
"That's good... Well, no, actually, it's not."
Jacuzzi tried to get up, then saw the sweat trickling down Nice's face and took a moment to look around.
"Huh... Were there always this many people here? And... Wait, where'd all the blood go?! What happened to that guy just now?!"
He looked to his girlfriend beseechingly, looking for an explanation for what had happened just before he fainted, but Nice could only tell the truth she'd seen, though it was clear she couldn't quite believe it herself.
"The man who got stabbed came back to life without a scratch. And... Chane started fighting with that woman holding the spear, and then that strange girl with the swords appeared, and... Listen up, Jacuzzi. This is the most important part."
She took a deep breath, and laid out the cold truth.
"The Gandors and the Martillos say they have something to say to us."
Jacuzzi took another look at the people in the lobby.
He discovered Ronnie, giving off an obviously shady air, and felt his consciousness slipping away from him again.
...No, no! I have to get a hold of myself!
Jacuzzi kept himself from fainting through a massive display of effort and quietly summarized things in his head.
The first thing he had to do was make sure his friends were safe. He turned slowly to Ronnie, satisfied with his conclusion.
C'mon, think. Think. How can I get us all out of this situation?
"Say, Miria dear. Why do you think Ronnie's suddenly talking so fancy?"
"Maybe he's angry?"
In stark contrast to Jacuzzi, who was preparing to put his life on the line, Isaac and Miria were absorbed in a conversation that paid no attention whatsoever to the goings on in the lobby.
"Ah, actually. While we're on the topic of Ronnie."
"What is it?"
"We said we were going to steal something precious to Firo, right?"
"Right," Miria said, lowering her voice to a conspiratory whisper, matching Isaac's hushed tones as she leaned in close to her partner.
"Ronnie is Firo's boss and also the one who taught him how to fight with a knife, right?"
"He's Firo's wise old master!"
Isaac gave the matter a moment of thought and then spoke musingly, as though confirming something he already knew.
"What is it?"
"Wouldn't Ronnie and Ennis... both be..."
Miria caught on to what he was saying and grinned brightly.
...I want to slash them all.
All around her were strong people. People who looked like they would be hard to cut down.
There was the knife wielder from before, and a woman holding a spear, who looked to be the one who'd wounded the knife user.
And there was also the man from the Martillo Family who'd made his appearance last of all, the one who called himself Ronnie.
This is great. There're so many people here worth slashing.
Maria felt something hot bubbling up inside her as she basked in the strained atmosphere.
She didn't want to find out whether she was the strongest person in the room.
She already believed. She knew that she was the without a doubt the most powerful being among these people.
Maria just wanted to prove it.
She wanted to prove her skill, and the strength hidden in her blade.
To put it a little more simply... She wanted to slash them.
Her mind emptied out, everything collapsing into that one sentence.
That was how she'd always been. When someone hired her to kill a strong assassin or mafioso, she would laugh happily and draw her swords and cleave her target's flesh and bone and life in twain.
She wanted to cut things, so she did. That was all the reason she needed. That was all she needed to survive.
The fact that it was her job was merely an afterthought to her. Her work as an assassin was only a means to an end, a way to sate her daily appetite. It was truly the best job she could have asked for, one that provided both fun and profit.
She had only failed once. Just once, when she'd been contracted to kill Vino.
Vino had annihilated her completely, while she had been unable to wound him at all.
But if we had a rematch right now, I'd win.
It was a baseless belief, but she still held it close to her heart, and looked forward to the day when someone would approach her with a contract for Vino's head.
Perhaps today, she'd be able to stretch her wings for once, after a long period of rest. She might be able to slash people. She could show off her power, Murasamia's power. She could believe in her own strength.
Now she had an opponent against whom she could show off her mettle. No, she had many of them!
She bottled up the tension threatening to overflow inside her and quietly observed the breathing of the people before her.
She was looking for a chance. A chance to cut them down.
She had to be faster than anyone, stronger than anyone.
Sharper than anyone.
The woman who had devoted her entire life to the sword--no, to the act of cutting--once again reaffirmed her resolve and narrowed her eyes.
Her heart shone like the keen edge of her blade.
Chane counted her enemies.
From the reaction of Jacuzzi and his gang, the latecomers were certainly unwelcome guests.
The spear wielder and her companions were most probably enemies of her father.
Which side would she have to fight?
But... It wasn't yet decided for certain that these people were her foes at all.
She couldn't get a handle on how the mafia would react, nor the katana wielding woman.
Everything would become clear once they began to move.
That moment of motion would decide her own actions as well.
She couldn't afford to miss that instant. She had to take the fastest, most efficient route to achieve her objectives...
And so her eyes narrowed to slits as she observed the atmosphere.
Tim, Adelle, and the rest of the Larvae found themselves unable to move as well.
They were probably the closest thing to outsiders in the current situation. There was that dumb couple who seemed to think the whole thing was a magic show, too, but even they looked to be more familiar with the situation than the Larvae.
Then why had the knife woman attacked them?
They had no idea what was going on inside her head, and both Tim and Adelle couldn't shake off the feeling that they'd seen her somewhere before.
They didn't know whether that feeling had something to do with why she was hostile to them. If they could just figure out who she was, perhaps they'd know the answer, but the tense lobby was neither the time nor the place for an impromptu brainstorming session.
Either way, it would probably be best for them to sit tight and wait for someone to make the first move.
Their decision made, they too quietly waited for the situation to unfold.
"Huh? Why did everyone stop moving all of a sudden?" Tick said slowly, having missed the rapid exchange of silent glances, but even then nobody made a move.
Isaac and Miria were whispering busily to each other, while Ronnie had fallen silent, waiting for Jacuzzi's reply. Everyone else was clearly on edge, their eyes ceaselessly darting about.
Time had stopped.
Ronnie's appearance had dropped the temperature of the room to absolute zero.
Just when it seemed that they would be stuck in this staring contest forever...
The one factor who had the power to make things start again slowly got to his feet.
"Ugh... You... you motherfuckers... I'll, I'll kill you all... goddammit..."
The man who'd been lying limply next to Tim raised his head, malice dark in his voice.
"It was faint, but I still heard... it all, you bastard... This is why you wanted me to come with you, huh? Is that... really all?" he gasped, his recent death and resurrection having left him still short of breath.
"Kind of, but not entirely."
Dallas reached for Tim's neck, but suddenly realized that the mood had changed since he'd died and stopped.
"...What's going on?"
Almost everyone in the room still held themselves like tightly coiled springs, ignoring the revived Dallas completely as though he was beneath their consideration entirely.
He looked around in an attempt to get a handle on the situation, and in doing so discovered that there was one person in the room who was staring back at him. It was the slender girl wearing a business suit, Ennis.
She cocked her head to one side as she stared at him, as though trying to remember something... and Dallas, too, gazed blankly at her face, overcome by the feeling that he knew her somewhere.
An instant of silence passed... Only an instant, because then Ennis remembered.
Her hesitation became conviction as the name passed her lips.
I remember him. It was three years ago when...!
He'd been one of the thugs who she'd taken down and brought in back when she'd still served Szilard Quates. He'd been the leader of those punks, and in the end he'd betrayed her, judiciously ventilating both her and Firo with machine guns.
She didn't know what had become of him after that... But she knew for certain that it was him standing before her now.
The moment she said his name... Dallas, too, recalled who she was.
And then... time began to move once more, rushing onwards.
It advanced like a roaring avalanche, as though it had been pent up and gathering force, and the floodgates had just now opened.
Dallas looked about wildly once he recognized her completely, and suddenly made a beeline straight for Tick.
Dallas reached for the silver scissors hanging at Tick's side--the closest weapon within easy reach.
Like a ravenous wild dog, he snatched the scissors from Tick's belt the moment he was within reach.
Tick fell over, letting out a soft cry.
Dallas paid him no heed and whipped around, intent on charging toward Ennis.
Just as he took his first step forward, someone took hold of his hand, almost making him lose his balance.
He glared murderously over his shoulder and saw Tick, still sprawled on the floor, his hand grasping Dallas' wrist.
"You can't," Tick said placidly, his eyes sad as he looked up at Dallas. "Give me back my scissors."
"Shut up an' lemme go!"
Dallas shook his arm violently, but Tick's grip proved to be surprisingly strong.
"Don't use those scissors for hatred or revenge!" Tick shouted in an uncharacteristic show of forceful defiance, having read Dallas' intentions.
"Why you little..."
Dallas raised his stolen scissors high, fully intent on bringing them down into the back of Tick's hand to make him let go...
But his right hand went flying toward the wall.
Dallas' right hand hit the wall behind Tick with a wet splat. The wrist and body that should have been attached to it, however, were nowhere to be seen--only the hand itself lay in a bloody puddle, the scissors still held loosely in its limp fingers.
"Huh...?" Dallas said dumbly, staring at the fountain of blood spurting from where his right hand had been.
Just as he realized what exactly had happened to his hand, fierce agony overtook his mind.
The person who'd cut off his wrist seemed quite happy with her work, grinning widely as she watched Dallas make noises like a strangled goose.
"It's not my fault, amigo!" Maria said, tipping Tick a sly wink as she patted her shoulder with the back of her sword. "I told you I'd keep you safe, didn't I?"
She chuckled and turned her gaze to Dallas, expecting to see a rapidly widening pool of blood... and froze.
The blood had begun to flow backward over the floor, toward Dallas' wrist.
The hand that had been lying near the wall had somehow rolled over to its owner's feet. It writhed as though the blood inside it was controlling it, the scissors it held falling to the floor as it spasmed. Viscous red liquid flew upward as though attracted to the wound by magnetism... and finally, the severed hand rose into the air as well.
The next moment, hand and wrist collided with a wet slap and the wound sealed up completely, leaving not a single scratch, much less any evidence that the hand had ever been severed.
The healing seemed to have gotten rid of his pain as well, for Dallas' ragged breathing steadied soon enough, leaving him aware enough of his surroundings to shoot a murderous glare at Maria.
"Gah... That hurt, you bitch...!"
His body had healed completely.
Maria hadn't been around to see the "magic show" earlier, and she stared at Dallas with wide eyes...
...and laughed brightly, like a child who'd been given a new toy.
"Not bad! You're just like my boss, amigo!"
Quite a few of the people in the room exhibited visible reactions to Maria's thoughtless words.
The members of Larvae had not seemed all that concerned at all about a man getting his hand sliced clean off, but just those few words from Maria were enough to make them all look at her, their brows furrowed and their eyes wide with concern.
"...What did you say just now?" Tim muttered, but Maria didn't hear him, instead lifting her katana happily in the air and waving it about.
Judging from her words and actions so far, it was a safe bet to say that the swordswoman was affiliated with the Gandor Family.
They'd managed to piece together the information they'd gleaned, first from the information brokers and then from Dallas, arriving at the conclusion that the three Gandor brothers were probably immortal. The lack of rumors on the street had led them to believe that the Gandors' immortality was a closely kept secret.
"Wait... so it wasn't a secret? What the hell."
They didn't know exactly who had become immortal in the events of three years ago. They knew that Firo Prochainezo had killed Szilard Quates, which meant he had to be an immortal, and that the three Gandors had come back to life after being shot by Dallas, which made them immortals as well. The information brokers had hinted at other immortals as well, but the fee that Tim paid hadn't been enough to justify revealing that much information.
Tim stared strangely at Maria, who was laughing as she brought her sword down.
"Ahahaha! This is fun! You come right back to normal no matter how many times I slash you!"
Dallas charged at Maria with murder in his eyes, only to be stopped dead in his tracks by a flash of silver.
Rather, he fell forward, suddenly bereft of a foot to support his weight on.
But the missing foot quickly found its way back to its owner, the blood and muscle visible in the open wound squirming as though in harmony with his screams.
"Wha-wha-wha-what's wrong with him?! What is that?!" Jacuzzi shrieked. The rest of his gang didn't seem quite as disturbed, having seen it happen twice already, but they still looked uneasily away from the stomach-turning sight.
Maria gave the fully healed Dallas a sunny smile, her voice making it clear she was having the time of her life as she gave him a dire declaration.
"Ahahahaha! It's no use, no use at all, amigo! As long as you keep healing, I'll keep slashing. Over and over, and over and over. Every time you stand up again I'll cut and cut and cut and cut and cut until..."
The sword sliced through the air, lopping off Dallas' left hand.
"...you'll wish you could die, amigo!"
"Shit," Tim spat, watching the pitiful scene unfold.
He'd prepared the incentive of immortality to get these people to work for him, but the sight of Dallas being slaughtered over and over, dying and coming back to life again in a terrible cycle that almost made death seem preferable, might actually have the opposite effect. He had to prevent that at all costs.
He sidled up to Adelle and spoke in a low voice, taking care not to distract her in her standoff with Chane.
"Adelle... Stop the samurai girl."
She was moving before she'd even finished talking.
The point of her spear traced a huge circle in the air, arcing toward Maria's shoulder.
But Maria saw it coming in the nick of time, drawing her other sword to block the strike.
She managed to get her blade in position, but the spear had gathered speed as it arced through the air, and it crashed into Maria's sword--and, by extension, her entire body--with terrible force.
Maria acted without conscious thought, putting her weight on her heels and rolling backward.
Her slender form tumbled over and over, but she came up lightly on her feet and immediately darted straight toward Adelle.
Her body practically skimmed the floor as she went, her blade shooting out like a bullet, but Adelle had already read her movements.
She brought the spear blade around, pulling it back toward her, then thrust it forward at Maria. The simply decorated point tore through the air like a bolt of lightning, homing in on Maria's face.
The Mexican girl brought up her sword to parry, but even as she did so Adelle threw herself backward.
Maria's eyes widened with surprise.
The murderous intent she'd felt from Adelle had been the real thing. The blonde woman's thrust had been aimed right between her eyes.
But the instant she moved to block it... her opponent immediately gave up on the attack and withdrew outside the range of Maria's parry and counter.
She'd changed her tactics on the fly in response to Maria's movements. The lightning response told Maria in no uncertain terms that the woman she was facing was highly skilled.
Maria drew back, putting herself out of the spear's range, and took another look at her enemy.
They had similar builds. Maria wielded two swords, while the other woman had a single spear. Maria would guess that they were about the same weight as well, which would mean that both of them were using weapons that would normally be considered too heavy for them to use properly.
Adelle still looked as uncertain and hesitant as ever, but none of that was apparent in the way she handled her spear.
"...I've never fought anyone using a spear before! My heart's pounding, amigo!"
Maria adjusted her grip on her swords and laughed tauntingly.
But Adelle didn't rise to the bait and spoke, her expression still as apologetic as ever.
"That's... a lie, isn't it."
The humor vanished from Maria's face.
"What're you talking about, amigo?"
"You're only pretending... to enjoy this," Adelle said calmly, her eyes like those of a frightened puppy.
"Maybe you were really excited until a few moments ago... But the moment you crossed blades with me, you started to doubt, didn't you? You thought to yourself that just maybe, I might be stronger than you are."
"...What're you talking about? There's no-"
Maria snorted and tried to deny it, but Adelle ignored her and kept on talking.
"You're trying to convince yourself by putting up a brave front, aren't you? You tell yourself that you're stronger than anyone, that your sword can cut anything..."
Maria kept her silence, glaring daggers at Adelle.
"Umm, there's nothing to worry about, really. You're probably at least twice as skilled as I am..."
It seemed like an attempt at comforting her, but Adelle's expression stayed the same as she continued.
"But... did you know that to defeat a spear with a sword..."
A shining blade appeared in front of Maria's eyes, as though by magic.
"...I think they say you have to be at least three times as skilled as your opponent... Yes, that was it."
It had been a straight stab from far away. That was all Adelle had done.
But that simple act stressed Maria out more than she'd thought possible.
Despite herself, she'd been distracted by Adelle's words.
Unlike Maria, who had a habit of synchronizing her speech and mood with the rhythm of her body, Adelle was the sort of person who could act in a way that completely belied her emotional state.
Her hesitation and shyness were no act, but her actions possessed an alacrity that wasn't reflected in her words at all.
The thrust, so precise and cold it practically made the air crackle, sent the silver blade rocketing toward Maria once again.
Maria gasped and brought both her swords back in an attempt to catch the triple pronged point in between her blades.
But Adelle's eyes flashed as she saw Maria move, as though she'd been waiting for just that to happen.
With a flick of her wrist, the triple bladed spearhead, which had been advancing on Maria with its blades lying flat, suddenly twirled as Adelle spun the haft. In the blink of an eye the points were set on top of one another.
Maria gasped, but by then it was too late. Swirling like the blades of a windmill, the spearhead slipped through Maria's defenses...
And a spurt of blood stained the lobby's floor.
But unlike before, the dark red splashes stayed where they had landed and did not return to their owner, no matter how much time passed.
"Hey, what the hell's going on?!"
"Who are those people?!"
"Do something, Jacuzzi!"
The entire lobby had become a scene of chaotic bedlam, Dallas' foolhardy move acting as a sort of trigger that set off a volatile chain reaction.
The young ruffians gave wide berth to the woman as they suddenly clashed, forming a large circle around them and moving away frantically. Still, none of them actually turned tail and ran, instead turning their gazes, one by one, to their leader.
For his part, Jacuzzi looked utterly lost, merely sobbing and whispering to himself, "C-can't you please go and do this somewhere else?"
Chane had taken just a few short steps away from where Adelle and Maria were duking it out, choosing a position that would let her easily protect Jacuzzi and Nice if she had to.
"Ah, Cha, Chane... You're bleeding! Are you okay?"
Chane gave Jacuzzi a silent nod, setting his worries to rest. The young man heaved a sigh of relief, but perhaps too soon, for the next moment a low voice came from behind him.
"It looks like things are getting complicated..."
Jacuzzi looked back, feeling a sudden chill run down his back, and saw the man from the Martillo Family standing right behind him with his eyes dangerously narrowed.
"When did you...?!"
Ronnie ignored the surprised reactions from around him and focused only on his objective.
"But no matter. I'll repeat this for you, since you weren't awake to hear it... You know why I'm here, don't you?"
Jacuzzi just stared up at Ronnie, his eyes wide.
"We can discuss the details later; for now, I only need a simple answer to a simple question... Will you become our enemy, or will you serve us?"
Jacuzzi's face crumpled as though he would cry in the face of Ronnie's oppressive manner, but then he shook his head hard, getting a hold of himself, and gathered his courage to look the monstrously threatening man in the eyes.
"...We aren't going to be your enemies."
Ronnie looked at Jacuzzi expectantly, and the younger man quietly continued.
"But... That doesn't mean we're planning on joining you, either."
Giving the tattooed young man a subtle smile, Ronnie waited for Jacuzzi to explain.
"We... We've lost good friends to mafia in the past... so as long as we stay together as one group, we'll never become part of a mafia organization."
The quiver had vanished from Jacuzzi's voice.
Nice and John, and the other members of Jacuzzi's gang who'd been within earshot nodded in support of his resolve.
"Indeed," Ronnie said, smiling as though he'd seen something amusing. He glanced around, and his next words were quite bizarre.
"You looked like you would burst into tears just moments before, but now you have the face of a warrior. And your friends, each so different and so obstinate, now acting as a single organism. Hmph... It's because of people like you that I find mankind so amusing... Well, no matter."
Ronnie spoke as though he wasn't part of mankind himself.
"I have heard your answer. But you know as well as I do that it's quite the bold thing to say."
Jacuzzi had said he didn't want to be enemies, but at the same time that he wouldn't kneel to the Martillos, either. In other words, he wanted things to continue as they had, with everyone minding their own business.
But if that had been an option, then neither Ronnie nor Tick would have had cause to pay their visits in the first place.
Ronnie set his lips in a hard line again, the amusement disappearing from his face as he looked around.
The two women were still fighting, the sound of their clashing blades still filling the great lobby.
"No matter... I suppose I should get rid of the distractions before we begin negotiating in earnest."
"What...?" Jacuzzi said, but Ronnie ignored him, turning and heading toward the ferocious battle in the middle of the room.
He took measured steps toward that storm of blood and blades, as calmly as though he was crossing the street.
And... time came to a stop once again.
"So... Where did Ronnie go?" the young capo asked his superior.
Firo had long since emptied his cup of coffee. The other outlaws in the restaurant, too, were enjoying their afternoon free time in their own various ways.
Maiza finished adding sugar to his third cup of coffee and calmly replied to Firo's question.
"There're some people who're doing business on our turf, you see."
"...Aha, those weird kids with Chicago accents who showed up around last year."
"Right. We've been content to ignore them, but the Prohibition is ending soon and we needed to tidy things up in preparation of our new business prospects anyway, so Ronnie went to have a talk with the rookies."
"Alone?" Firo looked slightly surprised. "You know, I only found this out three years ago when I became a capo, but it turns out that Ronnie always goes to take care of things that look like they might turn out to be trouble. And he does it alone."
"Yes, that is the way things go most of the time."
"Isn't that dangerous? I mean, sure, Ronnie's awesome with a knife, and he got turned into an immortal like me and the rest of the Family during that party, but..."
"Haha... You've got one thing wrong there, Firo."
Maiza laughed, his mirth softening his already gentle face.
"What is it?"
"I thought Szilard's memories would have clued you in... But perhaps he had no use for remembering people's faces. No, maybe he thought remembering it unnecessary because he isn't a person at all."
"What're you talking about? C'mon, stop laughing at me and let me in on the secret, will you?"
Firo frowned and pressed for answers, feeling left out, but Maiza glossed over the matter with a light chuckle.
"I suppose he'll tell you himself when he thinks the time is right. And remember. Whatever else he may be, Ronnie is Ronnie."
"Yeah, try to be a little more mysterious, why don'cha. Hmph."
Firo stretched and looked out the window at the sky outside. The clouds were thickening ominously, and Firo muttered hollowly to himself as he watched them darken.
"...A storm's coming."
No way this is happening.
I can't believe it. I won't believe it.
I can slash her. I can do it.
My sword, my Murasamia can cut this woman.
If only I could reach her, if the edge even nicked her skin...
But it can't.
My blade can't reach her.
No, it's okay.
I can reach her.
Of course I can.
What I can reach, I can slash. I can beat this woman.
I believe it. I can do it.
I can take my blade to this woman.
I can avoid the point of her spear and charge in, past her defenses.
I believe that my arms will reach her...
Metal crashed on metal in the Genoard manor, producing a ringing metallic shriek.
Maria and Adelle had already been fighting for many minutes. At first glance it seemed like a mighty clash between evenly matched masters, but a closer look would reveal that one side clearly had the upper hand.
"That's enough, don't you think? This is just... a waste of time."
Adelle's voice stayed calm, though she was attacking ferociously. Despite the fact she'd been fighting for quite some time wielding a heavy spear, she wasn't even breathing hard.
"Shut up... Shut up, amigo! No way I'll lose to someone like you! No way! Never!"
Maria, on the other hand, was gasping for breath, her clothes stained crimson with blood.
They'd come together in titanic clashes several times, but each time only Maria came away wounded. Every one of her attacks was deftly stymied by the long spear; if she tried to make a sudden, unorthodox assault, Adelle saw it coming and immediately leaped away, far more than was necessary, effectively bringing the fight back to square one.
She'd done everything she could, but despite her best efforts Maria just couldn't bridge the gap between the reach of the spear and the reach of her arms.
Still, her skills were amazing, and every time Adelle had thrust with intent to kill, she'd managed to avoid each attack by a hair.
Nevertheless she looked terrible; the wounds covering her body made it look as though she'd run through a hailstorm of razors.
It was clear who was going to win. But the fire burning in Maria's eyes refused to go out.
It wavered, though--the last fitful spurt of a flame before it winked out entirely.
Adelle spoke coldly, as though to extinguish even that last flickering flame.
"You're trying to deny the fear you feel with belief."
"But belief is just, umm... something that you cling to in order to console yourself."
"No!" Maria screamed, crouching low and bringing her sword around in a slash that was twice as fast as normal.
But even this last desperate strike failed to reach its target. The haft of the spear struck her body just before her blade reached Adelle's body, and Adelle simultaneously stepped to the side, out of range of Maria's attack.
If only her enemy hadn't been using a spear. No, if only that spear had been just a tiny bit shorter.
But she was using a spear.
"And as proof of that... You're beginning to doubt, aren't you?"
Finally, she smiled.
"In some small part of your mind, you're already starting to falter. You can't believe anymore."
It was the smile of a victor.
"No... Haven't you found yourself believing something else?"
It was the triumphant smile of someone watching a defeated opponent fall.
"You believe that you can't defeat me... No, since you're more skilled than I am, maybe it'd be better to say..."
Adelle pulled her spear close, delivering the final blow with words.
"...You believe that a sword... can't defeat a spear."
Maria attacked wildly, as though trying to disprove Adelle's words.
Her swords became flashes of silver, faster and more powerful than anything she'd unleashed before.
But her ferocious offense naturally led to more openings in her defense, and Adelle's eyes flashed once more--she was not one to miss such chances.
The spearhead flew forward, in a straight line toward Maria's heart. The fatal attack drew near.
And... time came to a stop.
Wait, don't kill her.
They couldn't afford to have this getting out of hand and drawing unwanted attention. Tim took a step forward to stop Adelle, but by then she'd already committed fully to her final, terrible thrust.
But the spear did not pierce Maria's heart.
Adelle gasped as the weight of her weapon suddenly vanished from her arms.
Tim, Adelle herself, and even the other Larvae, who up till then had been watching the battle unfold with a detached air of disinterest, now stared aghast at what had just happened.
If Dallas' resurrection had been a miracle of restoration, then what happened to Adelle could only be called a miracle of disappearance.
The instant her spear touched Maria, it vanished, evaporating from her hands like smoke.
Adelle wasn't the only one shocked. Maria, too, looked down at her body, as though unable to believe what she'd just seen.
The spear heading for her heart had dematerialized... and moments later, the two swords in her hands had disappeared as well.
The feeling of her swords faded from her palms, her hands closing into fists on nothing.
She fell to her knees, unable to make sense of what had just happened.
Their shock spread through the people in the mansion like a contagion.
What had just happened? The ones with the most complete view of events were none other than Jacuzzi and his gang.
"Wha, what just... What was that?"
But even they, who had seen everything unfold, could only manage stammering questions.
What they had seen was quite simple, and at the same time entirely unbelievable.
The man who called himself Ronnie had stepped into the path of both attacks without hesitation... and then, the next moment, he was holding in his right hand a spear, and in his left hand a pair of katana.
Had he perhaps taken them with a lightning fast display of some strange technique?
All three weapons had clearly been far out of his reach in the instant before they appeared in his hands.
But the next moment, there they were, in his grasp. It was impossible no matter how one looked at it.
Ronnie put the weapons down on the floor, shook his head slowly, and said, "Be quiet, won't you."
His message delivered, he turned away from Maria and Adelle, both of whom looked utterly lost, and walked back to Jacuzzi's group.
"Nice..." Jacuzzi whispered to his girlfriend as he stared at the approaching man, his voice low enough that only she could hear, "what is he?"
He realized something was wrong.
He realized that there was an unfamiliar sort of dread rising up inside him as he stared at the man who had just ignored the laws of physics.
Tim and his Larvae were not exempt from the general air of surprise in the mansion--even those members who had watched events unfold with nary a raised eyebrow were now showing clear signs of unease.
"...Hey, Adelle. What... what the hell just happened?"
"Umm... Err, that... that's what I want to know, as well..."
They could only stare at each other warily as the situation took a sudden turn into the unknown. But none of them were able to provide an answer or explanation for what Ronnie had just done, and an uncomfortable silence fell over them.
Just as a chilling, heavy air of fear filled the lobby...
The raucous sound of sudden applause rang in the mansion, chasing away the oppressive aura that had threatened to permeate the air.
"Wow! Amazing! Simply amazing! I didn't know you were a magician too, Ronnie!"
"Was there a magic contest scheduled here today?"
"The dance those lovely young ladies showed us just now was astounding, too. We must have picked just the right time to come."
"This is our lucky day!"
It seemed that Isaac and Miria thought everything that had just happened was part of some grand performance being held in the mansion. Any normal person would surely have had something to say about such a bizarre "show," but thankfully, the two were just a little bit removed from what any sane person would call normal.
Still as delightful as ever.
Ronnie hid his smile so nobody could see it.
Isaac and Miria advanced toward Adelle as she picked up her spear, still clapping. They'd only just seen her less than an hour ago, but they talked to her as if they were old friends.
"That magic you showed us was incredible!"
"It's the amazing human healing act!"
Their eyes were filled with respect and adoration, as though they had met a famous movie star.
But Adelle ignored them, adjusted her grip on her spear several times...
...And gave it a powerful thrust, just to the side of Isaac's head.
One of the bladed prongs on the side of the spear nicked Isaac's ear as it passed, marring it with a small wound.
Miria rushed to his side, concern clear on her face, but Adelle still paid them no heed, instead staring strangely at her weapon.
"There's... there's nothing wrong with it... right...?"
Tim stepped in and raised his voice in an attempt to cover for Adelle's strange actions.
"Understand, pal? That was no magic sho..."
His bluster trailed off as Isaac removed his hand from his ear, looking perplexed.
"Huh? It doesn't hurt."
"Wow, Isaac! The cut's disappeared entirely!"
Tim and his Larvae were unable to hide their surprise.
There should have been a wound on Isaac's ear, but as his hand fell away they could see it was completely untouched, and there wasn't a drop of blood on his hand, either.
"Something's wrong..." Adelle murmured, looking as though she couldn't believe her eyes, and once again adjusted her grip. This time, she aimed directly at Isaac...
But someone grabbed the haft from behind.
She turned around, a quizzical look on her features, and saw the woman in the black business suit staring coldly back.
"Apologize to Isaac," Ennis said, her eyes like chips of ice. Adelle looked away, flustered, and tried to shake free of her.
"I'm sorry, but, umm, this isn't the time for apologies..."
Adelle jerked the spear back, but Ennis kicked smoothly off the ground, somersaulting over Adelle and landing behind her.
Adelle drew back slightly, surprise entering her eyes as she registered that her opponent knew how to fight. Cautiously, she drew her spear up in preparation to fight.
A tense silence fell over them.
Said tense silence was promptly shattered by Isaac and Miria's loud voices.
"Hold on, Ennis! Wait just a second! This fine young lady here was just showing us a magic trick!"
"It's just hocus pocus!"
Ennis searched for the right thing to say to the comical couple, but Adelle spoke first, her brow furrowing in concentration.
"Ennis... Wait, someone from the Martillo Family and... Ennis? Umm, excuse me, are you Szilard Quates'...?"
The unexpected name brought back terrible memories that had been buried deep in the past.
How did the woman know of Szilard? Ennis stared at Adelle, opening her mouth to pursue the issue, but a man's gasp from behind her threw a wrench into any conversation.
Behind them, Dallas had finally come to his senses again, and he slowly forced himself to his feet as they watched.
"You... you bitches..."
Just when it seemed that this new ember of conflict would burst into an uncontrollable inferno...
"Excuse me!" Jacuzzi cried, his voice rising above the general chatter. "E-excuse me! This house doesn't actually belong to us! We're only borrowing it... So we're really going to get in big trouble if you keep fighting!"
He should've said that sooner.
Tim laughed at the absurdity of it all... But then his grin froze on his features.
The woman standing next to Jacuzzi, the one wearing glasses over an eyepatch, was holding something in her hand.
It was a sphere of some sort, copper in color, and there was a black string that looked like the wick of a candle sticking out of one end... And on the end of that string was a flame that emitted fierce crackles and bright sparks, hungrily eating away at what Tim now realized was a fuse.
Tim tried to order his companions to run, but it was already too late.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ronnie! Things are a bit scary here so I'll listen to what you have to say next time!" Jacuzzi shouted over his shoulder as he turned to run, and as he did so Nice tossed the sphere in her hand high into the air.
The flame disappeared into the sphere.
There was a deep, muffled bang... and white smoke filled the lobby.
"It was a smoke bomb?!" Tim shouted, as he scrambled to his feet.
A wall of white obscured everything, and as it spread, the flow of time once again began to flow vigorously forward.
Jacuzzi's gang scattered madly into the depths of the mansion like rabbits running from a hunter, making their way out and into the streets of Millionaire Row.
Chane hesitated, the matter of the Larvae still bothering her, but Jacuzzi shouted "Help the others!" to her, and she left too, throwing a last reluctant glance over her shoulder as she went.
"Don't panic! Scale the fence and get out! Try not to get any smoke in your lungs!" Tim ordered and promptly put his words into action, ducking low as he made his way out of the mansion.
Tick moved just before the smoke cloud hit, reaching toward Maria with one hand, scooping up her swords with the other, and making a dash for the door. The swordswoman looked utterly lost, and she followed Tick without complaint as he practically dragged her along.
The white smoke darkened to dirty grey, flowing out of the door and forming a striking harmony with the overcast sky.
It was as though the whole house was shrouded in a thundercloud.
Like a rabbit warren that had been smoked out, the once crowded mansion emptied out in seconds.
As though by magic...
Ronnie walked through the blinding smoke, unperturbed by the fact that his entire field of vision was filled with white.
He felt that Jacuzzi had already left and smirked.
"Impulsive, isn't he. No matter. I'll come again tomo..."
Suddenly, someone grabbed his right wrist in a viselike grip.
Ronnie frowned just the tiniest bit and looked through the choking veil of smoke to see...
Chapter 2 End