Cloudy to Rainy
Color Pages and Prologues
Bloody to Fair
Color Pages and Connecting Chapter
Epilogues & Remnants
You had a pet mouse.
You poured your heart into that mouse and created inside of it a world that belonged only to you.
Hah. I told you that I researched your background. I know everything there is to know about you.
But then destruction--no, death--came and claimed your world, so swift and sudden you never saw it coming.
The mouse was far too weak a container to hold your world.
But do not lament over its passing. What's done is done. Have you thought about turning this into an opportunity to truly create your world anew?
Reform this world into the one you want.
If you but help me, then yes. I will hold your world, as the mouse could not.
Tell me. Tell me of the world you wish for. Tell me all the grievances you hold against the world as it is.
You might say that the world you want is locked inside me.
And indeed, I come from that world myself...
Nebula Corporation New York
The Mist Wall
The walls of the Mist Wall rose up through the rain, hazily visible through the veritable wall of water that fell from the heavens.
Staring up at the white fortress, Tim remembered two worlds.
One was the mouse he'd kept as a child.
The other was the man to whom he had currently pledged his all.
Both had held inside themselves the world he wanted. The man, Huey, still did.
When he was a boy, all he could do was longingly observe the world he'd created in another. But now, things were different. Now, he had power. He had the strength to bring out the world he'd created inside Huey Laforet, to make it reality.
But that strength was not enough to completely transform the world in which he lived.
I'll change the world that couldn't accept me. I'll change it with my own hands.
And to do that, he needed the power that belonged to Nebula.
Tim clenched one fist in quiet resolve as he thought about his mission.
Beside him, the other Larvae members scoped out the Mist Wall one last time,
"...Where's Christopher's group?"
"No idea, boss."
"Dammit, Adelle... Bah. Whatever. I left them out of my plan exactly because I thought something like this might happen. We're still going in on schedule," Tim said, glancing at the entrance to the great skyscraper.
Perhaps it was the early time of day, or perhaps it was the pouring rain, but either way there was hardly anyone entering or exiting the huge building.
"Just as planned. We'll be in and out before there're too many people around."
Tim allowed himself to relax slightly as he continued his silent vigil.
But perhaps he relaxed too soon, for barely ten minutes had passed before something caught his notice.
One of the cars turned in from the road and decelerated, coming to a slow stop in front of the Mist Wall.
By itself it would barely have been worth noticing, but the sleek black car's looks screamed "expensive" and "elite," setting itself apart from the rest of New York's rabble even at a glance.
"...A Nebula exceutive?" Tim murmured to himself, his interest slightly piqued by the high class car. Someone got out of the passenger side, and Tim gasped as he caught sight of the man, his body tensing unconsciously.
"Something wrong, boss?" one of his underlings asked, noticing his superior's surprise.
"No... No, it's nothing. Thought I saw something."
Tim took a deep breath, calming himself.
What the hell. What brought him here?
He looked again at the man as he stepped inside the Mist Wall, almost hoping that he'd made a mistake. He followed the retreating silhouette until it disappeared completely behind the opaque glass doors, and quietly said to himself, "That was... Senator Manfred Beriam..."
The Same Time
There was a large and homely suite that wouldn't have looked too out of place in a two star hotel, and from that room strode a man, his voice ringing through the apartment as he thanked the owner profusely.
"I don't know what to say, friend! To think you'd even give us a place to spend the night! I hereby upgrade your title from just friend to good friend! Just imagine how envious everyone will be!" Christopher cried, laughing jovially as he walked out and into the hall.
"Thanks. I'll pay this debt back one day."
"Umm... Thank... err... Thank you for the accommodation..."
Chi and Adelle followed him out, both extending their own thanks.
The mater of the house, one Firo Prochainezo, hastily grabbed a hat and jacket as he made his way out after them, determined not to be left behind.
After a long talk the night before, Christopher had finally convinced Firo to come with them to the Mist Wall. Then, making a show of noticing that it was nighttime, he'd casually mentioned that he and his companions had no place to sleep.
Firo couldn't afford to lose his only lead, but neither could he risk introducing these unknowns to the Martillo Family. He'd had no choice but to offer his own flat for them to spend the night, an offer that Christopher had graciously accepted.
He'd just pulled his hat down to hide his eyes and reached for his umbrella when a young voice stopped him in his tracks.
It was Czeslaw Meyer, the boy who shared the flat with Firo and Ennis.
"Oh, hey, Czes. Sorry about the ruckus last night. If you're worried about Ennis, don't be. Everything'll be alright."
"No, I know Ennis'll be fine. What worries me is... Them."
Czes hesitated, glancing at the guys in question to make sure that they weren't listening, then whispered to Firo, "...I think you should watch yourself around those guys."
"Yeah, you don't need to tell me twice. I already noticed they haven't told me a thing about themselves."
"No, that's not it. It's... uhh... How should I put it?"
Czes paused, pondering how to express his hunch, while Firo waited patiently for the boy to finish.
"They... they feel alot like..."
Firo paused, unsure of how to really take that, but soon his expression of surprise changed to a smile and he ruffled Czes's hair good-naturedly.
"Hahaha, c'mon, Czes. How's Ennis anything like those weirdoes?"
"...Yeah, you're right. Sorry."
"It's nothing. Hey, tell ya what. When I bring Ennis home tonight let's go out for dinner. My treat."
Firo gave his young charge a quick grin and then hurried out, following Christopher.
Left alone, Czes watched him go and turned the matter over in his head again, gathering his thoughts.
"...If I'm right... Then the only person who could possibly have done it now that Szilard is dead would be..."
He remembered an old, old acquaintance and said his name aloud, shivering at the sudden chill that ran down his spine as it passed his lips.
"Huey... Huey Laforet..."
The tiny paved clearing, so small that it almost seemed sandwiched in between buildings, seemed far too narrow to be a proper parking lot. Nevertheless it served its purpose well enough, and the members of Jacuzzi's gang weaved their way carefully around the expensive cars packed into the lot as they gathered in front of the Mist Wall.
All of them save Nice, Donny, and Jacuzzi himself wore white work clothes in lieu of their normal attire. A small army of janitors carrying umbrellas looked toward their leader expectantly.
"I just hope we'll be alright..." Jacuzzi whispered, thinking back to his talk with Tim.
"Just to make it clear again, we're drawing the line at murder." Jacuzzi had said, sounding quite firm for once as he stared Tim down.
"I know, I know. All we need you to do is disguise your friends as janitors, spread out to predetermined spots in the building, and then let loose with this gas when we give you the signal."
"It's... it's not poison, is it?"
"Want me to take a whiff right now to show you it's not?"
Jacuzzi didn't reply, warily eyeing the strange spheres Tim held. At length, though, he sighed and took them.
"What... what are these? You can really put people to sleep with these things?"
"They're gas grenades, a little like those smoke bombs your friend with the eyepatch uses. Our boss makes it a hobby of sorts to tinker with weird things like this."
"Huh... Okay, I guess."
"Anyway. According to the blueprints we've got, there're three laboratories in the building. The stuff we're looking for is in one of them. We'll take care of that. All you and your friends need to do is gas the building and distract security."
Tim patted Jacuzzi on the shoulder, giving him a smile that revealed nothing of what he was actually thinking.
"I'm depending on you to do this right, Splot."
"I don't like folks who take people hostage as blackmail, so..." Jacuzzi started, his voice heavy with resolution. His friends, however, didn't seem to be taking the situation quite as seriously.
"Yeah, yeah, Jacuzzi. We get ya. We're gonna stab them in the back, right?" one of them said, buffing his nails on his janitor's outfit. Only Jacuzzi and Nice weren't wearing work clothes--Tim had deemed them too immediately recognizable to fit in with the rest of the janitorial crew, and had instead told them to sit tight and wait in the restaurant at the very top of the Mist Wall.
"You're talking like this's something we don't do all the time."
"I don't really get what's going on, but I think what you're trying to say is that we're gonna make it outta this a lot richer, an' everyone else's gonna be a lot poorer. Right?"
His gang gave him the same response as ever. Ignorant they might seem, but the brash words bolstered Jacuzzi's confidence more than any carefully planned speech.
"Yeah... Yeah, that's right." The crybaby gave his friends a confident nod, his back straightening with resolve. "We're going to help them steal this elixir of immortality. And then, we're going to steal it from them."
In a perfect world Jacuzzi wouldn't have had to work with the Larvae at all, but he needed a bargaining chip to use with the Martillos and Gandors, and perhaps this Grand Panacea could prove to be just what he and his friends needed.
The redheaded assassin who had nominally joined their group would be the one to actually pull off the stealing, but still, nobody among them found the idea of robbing from robbers intimidating in the slightest.
"We... we pulled off that train heist on the Flying Pussyfoot just fine, didn't we? Th-this'll be a piece of cake!"
The cheers echoed through the rain, the voices raised in confidence so absolute it almost drowned out the sound of the falling rain itself.
They cheered, unaware of what lay waiting for them in the depths of the misty monolith...
"Oh, hey, Ennis."
Ennis stepped into the familiar restaurant, the greetings of her friends reaching her ears. She was just finishing replying to each one of them individually when Maiza walked up and hailed her as well.
"Hello, Ennis. How were Isaac and Miria?"
"Ah, Mr. Maiza. Well, actually..."
"Which answer do you want, Ennis?"
She'd be lying if she said that Ronnie's words last night had left her unaffected.
With no small effort she'd managed to push them aside in favor of putting Firo's worries to rest, leaving for the Alveare as soon as she woke up after a night spent in the office with Ronnie, Isaac, and Miria.
He might be mad at Isaac and Miria, but he did mess up their dominoes, so I'll ask him to call it even. He'll probably be mad at me as well... And for that, I'll just have to apologize.
For his part, Ronnie had left to have a "talk" with Jacuzzi Splot, and Isaac and Miria had promptly invited themselves along with him, announcing to all and sundry that they, too, would quite enjoy talking to Jacuzzi again.
"I didn't think that he'd actually let them go along..." Ennis finished, heaving a sigh of relief internally at the news that nothing serious had happened while she was gone. Maiza gave it a moment of thought and then did his best to explain.
"Ah, he probably decided that the negotiation would go easier if he brought along people who know Mr. Splot. And besides, he finds those two quite endearing, you know."
"Oh, yes. I don't know why, but he does."
Ennis gave Maiza a relieved smile and then glanced around the restaurant, searching for the person she wanted to talk to most.
"Umm... Excuse me, but do you know where I can find Firo?"
"He's probably still out there somewhere looking for you. He took a day off to do it, if I remember right."
A surge of newfound guilt had just begun to rise in Ennis' heart when the phone burst into her thoughts with a shrill ring. Sena picked up the phone and put it to her ear, exchanged a few words with whoever was on the other end, then turned to Ennis and held the receiver out to her.
"Here, Ennis. It's for you."
It might be Firo.
I'll have to say I'm sorry for all the trouble I've caused.
She hastily raised the receiver, an apology already on her lips, when-
"Hello, darling," said the voice of a stranger. It belonged to a woman, but that was all Ennis could tell; she'd never heard it before.
"...Ah, umm... Excuse me, but..."
"Ennis, was it? I'm so very disappointed in you, dear. We waited for you all night but you didn't come home."
Home to Ennis meant the apartment she shared with Firo and Czes. What had this woman been doing there? The words shook Ennis far more than she'd expected.
"Hello? Who are you? And what do you want with me...?"
"Oh, look at me. I completely forgot to introduce myself. I'm Liza. It's so nice to finally talk to you."
A languid giggle reached Ennis' ears, and she shivered despite herself.
Liza continued aggressively, as though jeering at her for keeping her silence.
"I'll cut to the chase. We've got Firo Prochainezo."
Shock rolled over Ennis as the words registered, her grip on the receiver tightening dangerously.
"Well, got is such a strong term, wouldn't you say? We don't really have any business with him... yet. But one of our friends is simply dying to meet you and have a little talk, so... Would you be a dear and come to the place I'm about to tell you? Alone."
She couldn't think of anything to say.
"Is something wrong, Ennis?" Maiza asked quietly from beside her, having noticed the abrupt change in her demeanor. But Ennis couldn't reply. She could only wait, an unwilling but captive audience to the voice on the other end.
Maybe there's been a misunderstanding? Maybe Firo's still mad about Isaac and Miria and he's trying to prank me?
Desperately she searched for an innocuous reason to explain the situation she found herself in, no matter how preposterous it might sound, but Liza's next words shattered those hopes to pieces.
"Mmm... What do you say to the restaurant on the top floor of the Mist Wall? It's got such a nice view, being on the skydeck and all. We'll see you there."
The Mist Wall...
Ennis remembered all too well what the name meant to her. It was the place Ronnie had mentioned, the place where the mysterious woman with the spear waited, guarding the truth.
"Oh, and please don't think of bringing any of your friends along with you. This is an invitation to you and you alone. It doesn't extend, for example, to the handsome fellow wearing glasses who's sitting right next to you..."
Ennis gasped, a bolt of cold lightning running down her spine.
"Weren't you wondering how I knew to call the moment you walked in the door, darling?"
She glanced surreptitiously left and right, though she knew she'd see nothing out of the ordinary. The voice on the other end giggled merrily, as though she was watching Ennis' every move.
"Keep this in mind: the Twins are always watching you. We'll be waiting..."
"Wait.. Wait! Who are you?!"
Liza fell silent for a moment, considering Ennis' last desperate question, then replied in a taunting tone.
"I'm Liza. But my friends..."
The words froze Ennis' heart, leaving her gasping for breath.
"My friends are the successors of Szilard Quates' will."
"...Hold on, you're sure Dallas is in here?"
Firo tilted his umbrella and craned his neck back to take in the top of the white building, heedless of the rain falling on his face. He rubbed the droplets out of his eyes and turned to look at his three companions, waiting for an answer.
"Sure? Me? I'm not sure at all. I only told you what Adelle told me. Right, Chi?"
"Why are you asking me? Tell him, Adelle."
"Eep. Umm. Yes? One of our coworkers is, umm, watching him. So he'll be inside... probably..."
Firo frowned at Adelle's hesitant reply and turned to look doubtfully at the Mist Wall again.
The skyscraper was dwarfed by the nearby Empire State building, but even then, standing before it, it was more than tall enough to be intimidating.
"So where exactly-"
"But you know, Firo," Christopher interrupted smoothly, his air of serene calm a marked contrast to Firo's own obvious anxiety, "I must admit I'm a bit surprised. I didn't expect you to walk around with people like us in public without batting an eyelash."
Firo paused, his eagerness curbed for the moment, and regarded his three erstwhile companions once more.
The slender girl with a strange pole strapped to her back was the most normal of the lot.
Then there was the lean, whiplike man, both of his arms wrapped tight with bandages, standing shielded from the rain by a bright red Oriental umbrella.
And last, but certainly not least, there was a man with red eyes and sharp teeth, dressed in an old fashioned suit with a high ruffled collar.
Christopher was right; no normal person would have wanted to be seen walking around with such a motley crew.
Then why didn't I think anything about it?
Perhaps it was because he was so preoccupied with worry for Ennis that he simply hadn't thought to pay attention, but Firo had another theory.
He'd spent three years as friends with a couple who routinely paraded through the streets of New York dressed as, among other things, Native Americans, clowns, and even Japanese samurai.
So I got used to people dressing up like weirdos? Really?
He shook his head fiercely in denial, as though acknowledging the fact would also be accepting that he himself had somehow become one of them.
Dammit... Hey, come to think of it, I wonder what Isaac and Miria are doing now.
He was nearly at his wit's end, but perhaps if he had those two at his side he might feel a little better. Still, it was just wishful thinking; the pair of robbers remained conspicuously absent.
Ah, dammit. I shouldn't've argued with 'em over something so dumb.
He smirked bitterly at his own foolishness and closed his umbrella, walking into the Mist Wall.
"What the... Have they really been walking around in public like that?" Tim wondered aloud, massaging his temples as though to stave off the headache that threatened to overtake him. "They" referred to Christopher and his crew, who had just strolled into the Mist Wall's great reception hall.
The wide entrance resembled a hotel lobby more than anything, the walls lined with over a dozen elevators that doubtlessly led to the many businesses of the Nebula Corporation. In the center of the hall stood an information center, just like what one might see at a large shopping center. Two friendly-looking women sat behind the counter there, directing plastic smiles to the people who walked in.
Next to the information center was a small open lobby, with several tables set up so visitors would have a place to sit while they waited on appointments. Tim sat at one of those tables and pretended to read a newspaper, glancing over the top and surveying the situation. He breathed a silent sigh of relief as Adelle split from the rest of the group and walked toward him.
If it were Christopher or Chi, I'd have to pretend that they were strangers, those damn fools. What the hell were they thinking, coming in dressed like that?
"You're late. Everyone else was already in position and waiting ages ago. We're starting right away."
For once, Adelle ignored Tim's brusque manner and pursued her own train of thought.
"Umm, Tim? Can you tell me where.... where Mr. Genoard is right now...?"
"Huh? What do you want with him? I told him to keep an eye on Splot and his friends at the restaurant on the top floor. There's still the chance they might turn on us." He paused for a moment. "Actually, there's the chance that he's working with them too, but at least we've got some leverage on him thanks to our hostage."
"I see... The restaurant on the top floor..." Adelle murmured to herself, as though verbally reaffirming what she'd heard, and then abruptly turned and walked toward Christopher.
Tim paused. He wanted to stop her and ask her what she was up to, but he couldn't afford to make a scene. He turned his gaze again toward Christopher's gang, waiting to see how the situation would unfold. Adelle made her way over to Christopher, Chi, and...
"...Wait, who the hell is that?"
"Umm... I found out where he is, Mr. Prochainezo. He's in the restaurant on the top floor."
"Whoa, really! The top floor, huh... Thanks," Firo said hastily, the last tossed hastily over his shoulder as he made a beeline toward an elevator that had just opened. Christopher did not deign to stop him, instead waving farewell to his friend with a gentle smile on his face.
He stretched, cracking his neck back and forth, the very air around him seeming to shiver and change.
Chi and Adelle, in turn, noticed the change in Christopher's demeanor... and they narrowed their eyes with glee, the corners of their lips curving upward in cruel smiles.
The man with the crimson eyes strode quickly and quietly over to Tim and stood there, staring down at the Larvae's leader.
For his part, Tim kept his eyes fixed on his newspaper, pretending not to have noticed.
"Hello, Tim. I've heard from a very reliable source that your plan for tonight involves yet another bloodless operation."
"You're always like that. You gather your tools from the area around the job and make them do what you want, and then you sit back in some safe little hidey hole and watch things unfold like a chessmaster. The name of larvae suits you. You're a monster who latches onto people and controls them."
"...Shut up," Tim muttered, just loud enough to be audible, though to anyone outside of earshot it would have looked like he was still just reading his newspaper.
Christopher's shoulders shook with mirth and he shook his head, like a man who just couldn't get enough of the situation.
"You never really produce smashing successes, but on the other hand you almost never fail, either. You're so meticulous that you seem more like a someone who's just very smart, rather than a genius. Wait, isn't that the same thing? Hah. Never mind. Don't worry, now that we're here, we'll turn your brilliance into true genius."
Tim finally turned to look at Christopher, taking in his wide smile for the first time.
"...I don't know what Huey told you, but you're not needed in this operation any more," Tim said coldly, cutting Christopher short with one clipped sentence. But Christopher only shook his head once again, the picture of gleeful resignation.
"Of course, Tim. Of course. You don't need to know what Master Huey really wants."
"What." It wasn't a question. "Tell me what that means."
Christopher did not deign to reply, instead spreading his arms wide as he turned around.
"Now then! Welcome to the land of dreams! But I'm so sorry, we're all out of those. Would you like a nightmare instead? Don't give up, Tim! I trust in you to act responsibly as our leader... After all, we sure as hell aren't going to be held responsible for the things we're about to do."
Tim hastily got to his feet, one hand outstretched to stop Christopher, but it was already too late. The tall man had already reached the help desk.
The two women sitting at the information desk could do nothing but gape at the strangely dressed man as he strode up and greeted them, their professional manners temporarily forgotten in the face of his totally unexpected salutations.
"Err... Umm... Hello, sir...?"
"Merry Christmas?" Christopher repeated, this time phrasing it as a question. The two wondered if perhaps there was some sort of special event taking place over on Broadway.
Still, they had their jobs to do, and they fixed business smiles on their faces again and said, "I'm sorry, sir. Christmas is still two months awa-"
"Sorry, my mistake. It's actually Halloween."
To be honest, it didn't actually make much of a noise at all in the wide entrance hallway.
But those who saw what happened surely felt it in their hearts, though the sound died far short of their ears.
It was the sound of a blade sinking into flesh.
To be accurate, the flesh of her neck.
Christopher's bladed gun appeared in his hand as though by magic, and with one swift flash of motion, the barrel buried itself in her throat.
The bladed barrel sank effortlessly into her skin. The wound was obviously fatal.
The woman's mouth opened and closed silently, her lips forming shapes as though she was trying to say something, but instead of a voice only the low gurgling sound of blood bubbling filled the air.
Her companion sitting beside her instantly realized what had happened and opened her mouth to scream...
But before she could do more than take a startled breath, a shaft of bladed metal filled her mouth.
The gun in his left hand was lodged in the left receptionist's throat, while the gun in his right had found its home in the mouth of the right.
Christopher paused for a second, both arms extended. Only then did the corners of his lips begin to rise in a cruel smile.
The woman on the right, still hanging onto consciousness by a thread, beheld that fanged grin and finally began to faint, her mind overwhelmed by terror and pain. But in the instance before she blacked out for good, her sense of sight caught the motion of Christopher's right trigger finger, and her sense of hearing detected the sound of the hammer striking home and the bang of exploding gunpowder. Before her sense of touch could deliver her any pain, everything went mercifully black.
Christopher's guns were silenced, and to people outside the building the gunshots must have sounded like nothing more than faraway fireworks being set off.
But those in the lobby, watching the massacre begin in horror-stricken silence, could make no such mistake.
Bright red blood dripped slowly off the barrels of Christopher's guns as he removed them from the grisly wounds they'd caused, and the women collapsed immediately like puppets with their strings cut, vanishing behind the help center desk with twin dull thuds.
There were hardly any civilians on the premises, but every single Nebula employee and security guard in the lobby had seen what had happened. In but an instant, the dead silence was transformed into a cacophony of shouts and screams.
"What... what the.."
Tim could only blink rapidly, his mind struggling and failing to make sense of what had just happened.
And as though to laugh in the face of his confusion, Christopher threw back his head and burst into an impromptu childish song.
"Trick or treat, trick or treat! Give me something good to eat! If you don't, I don't care, I'll just kill all of you! Well, actually, never mind the treats. I think I'll kill you all anyway!"
The security personnel reached hastily for their guns, but Christopher moved faster than them all, and the only dry barks of gunfire in the lobby came from his weapons.
"Look at all the red flowers blooming! Flowers and treats, all for me! All for me!"
Each sharp crack came right after the other, a deadly tune that struck fatal notes in each guard before they could fire.
"What the hell are you doing?" Tim whispered. He'd meant for it to come out as a shout, but the clenching of his throat made it nearly impossible for him to speak.
Sweat soaked his clothes, and only the chill running down his back anchored him to reality in the face of the fantastic scene unfolding before his eyes.
The unarmed employees began a mad dash toward the exit.
But sometime between the beginning of Christopher's killing spree and now, the great glass doors had been closed, the entrance barred and boarded with large planks. Nobody seemed to be trying to get in, which meant that some sort of fake notice had probably been posted outside, telling people not to enter.
Still, planks or no planks, if a few people ran full tilt into them, the doors would have been unable to resist.
A lean shadow flitted across the entrance, passing lightly around and beside the people trying to escape.
A moment later, their throats opened wide in splashes of blood, and their knees buckled bonelessly beneath them. Those who fell did not rise again, and stains of bright red spread beneath them, hiding the shiny white marble from view like puddles of murky rain.
A few who had escaped the shadow's wrath saw what had happened and made a break for the doors on the other side...
But they, too, only managed a few steps before shining rings of silver came flying from nowhere and buried themselves in their heads.
Tim knew that the weapons could only belong to one person and clenched his fists in anger, but otherwise kept his silence and continued to look around, determined to take in the entirety of the situation around him.
At first glance it seemed as though everyone in the lobby had been killed, but a select few, seemingly by chance, had succeeded in reaching the exits and burst through, disappearing into the rain.
Tim's keen eyes spotted the similarities in those few lucky survivors and he frowned, the first pieces of the puzzle coming together in his head.
Wait... The only ones who got out weren't Nebula employees...
A quick glance around confirmed his theory. All of those who'd been slain wore name badges with the Nebula logo on them.
Tim, realizing he'd regained his calm, sucked in a sharp breath and sought to bring the situation back under his control.
"What... What the fuck are you people doing?!"
Christopher and his companions stopped where they were, their bloody hands stayed for just an instant by Tim's desperate shout.
"What are we doing?" Christopher said a moment later, the same gentle smile as always gracing his features. "What does it look like we're doing? We're following the plan. Completing the mission. Working under orders. What orders, you ask? Well, one was the one you gave us, to help you complete your mission easier. The other... well, that one was given to us by Master Huey himself."
Adelle broke her silence and continued in Christopher's stead, her voice simultaneously soothing and hesitant as though sensing Tim's confusion.
"Umm, Tim, well. We were contacted directly by Master Huey through th-the Twins. It was an order for the Lamia, not the Larvae... And, umm, what he said was to... to kill everyone working at the New York branch of Nebula..."
"What the hell?!"
What the hell are they talking about?!
Tim knew that Huey Laforet refused to kill innocent bystanders in his experiments. That was why he would never condone wholesale acts of terrorism, like those committed by the Lemures. Why would he suddenly decide-
A thought occurred to him, simple and terrible.
Christopher's band hadn't killed a single person who didn't work for Nebula.
Tim hastily constructed a hypothesis, feeling the bile rise in his throat at the very thought of it.
"It... it can't be..."
"Yes, yes it can be, boss!" Christopher cried, as though he'd read Tim's mind.
"What an honor it must be! This building--no, anything and everything related to Nebula-- has been designated as one of Huey Laforet's specimens!"
Huey would never harm even a hair on the heads of those he thought of as innocents... But to those he saw as specimens, he would not hesitate to perform terrible acts that would turn the strongest of stomachs.
Tim knew that well, of course, but this was the first time he'd ever seen an experiment carried out on such a grand scale.
"Didn't I tell you just a minute ago? You don't need to know what he's thinking. And, of course, we don't need to know either. I suppose that's why he didn't tell us a thing about the reason we're doing this."
Christopher waited a second for Tim's reply. Receiving nothing, he launched into an explanation of what he planned to do.
"Now, then. Adelle and I will be heading up to kill the chef and the waiters and such in the top floor restaurant. Chi, I want you to work from the bottom up, and Liza, will you be a dear and stay here to mop up anyone who tries to make it out?"
Chi and Adelle nodded wordlessly and moved to follow his request. Adelle joined Christopher inside the elevator heading up, while Chi stepped toward one of the emergency stairwells.
Tim stood silently, watching the murderers go... and then crumpled the newspaper in his hand violently, throwing it to the ground.
"So that's how it's going to be, is it," Tim said quietly to himself, smiling suddenly.
He trembled with shock and fear at the enormity of what he'd gotten himself into, but still, for now, he smiled.
"So this is a cursed path. The path I chose for myself. But I already knew that. Didn't I?"
It was not a forced smile, but one that signified his renewed resolve toward the path he'd chosen.
"...Fine. I already threw everything away eight years ago."
The minute hand on Tim's wristwatch ticked to twelve; the hour hand to eleven.
A fine smoke, almost like fog, blossomed and billowed through the offices on each floor. It faded soon enough into the air, but that didn't mean its effects had faded as well--those who took even the slightest breath of the smoke found themselves falling, one by one, into a deep and dark sleep.
Unaware of the bloodbath on the first floor, Jacuzzi and his gang--and also the members of the Larvae--took the first step toward their ultimate goal.
And so, the Mist Wall descended into silent chaos.
The Restaurant on the Top Floor
Moving back a little in time, the scene shifted to the restaurant known as Babel, the crowning jewel of Nebula's Mist Wall.
The walls of the restaurant were made almost entirely of glass, making one feel as though they were hanging in the air, suspended in the sky. Though not quite as high up as the Empire State Building, the transparent walls of the top floor still offered a breathtaking view of the Manhattan cityscape.
Despite its fancy appearance, the Babel menu boasted a wide variety of choices, from affordable to luxurious, explicitly opening its doors to customers from various walks of life.
"Hmmm... So this is all run by Nebula, huh. Is there anything they don't have a hand in?" Nice mused around a mouthful of sandwich. She adjusted her glasses so that the right lens aligned properly with her eyepatch and continued her appreciation of the view outside.
"L-l-let's just switch seats to s-somewhere farther from the window, okay? Please?" Jacuzzi, on the other hand, trembled like a frightened puppy, steadfastly refusing to look anywhere near the glass walls.
"Better than standing on the roof of a speeding train, if you ask me."
"I, I was desperate then! I had no choice..."
"Oh, c'mon, Jacuzzi. Calm down and have a bite to eat, okay?"
"It's good, Jacuzzi. You have some too."
"W-we can't just sit here eating while the others might be in danger..." Jacuzzi murmured quietly, glancing toward the windows and then quickly away.
Jacuzzi and Nice sat at a large table for six together with Donny, the Mexican giant taking up two chairs all by himself. Dallas had chosen a seat a little ways away from them, frowning and glaring at the menu.
"Don't worry, I'm sure everything'll turn out all right."
"Ri, right... Yeah..." Jacuzzi nodded, then looked out the window by accident again and yelped, turning his chair away from the glass with a whimper.
They'd been like that for a while, exchanging meaningless small talk, when a waiter approached their table with a decidedly apologetic look on his face. Jacuzzi's gang definitely had a different air about them from the rest of the restaurant's patrons, but the waiter paid it no heed, bowing slightly to them just as he might to an important politician or celebrity.
"Sirs, madam. I'm terribly sorry, but the restaurant is full, and one of the guests waiting is... very insistent on being seated. May I ask you to share the table with him?"
"Ah... Ah, yes, that's fine."
"Really?" Nice whispered.
"We'll look suspicious if we say no," Jacuzzi hissed back.
He turned with a hopeful smile on his face to greet the new guest.
"Mm. Excuse me."
Ronnie Schiatto took his seat across from Jacuzzi, and the smile froze on Jacuzzi's face, his eyes nearly rolling back into his head as he threatened to lose consciousness completely. He just barely managed to hang on to his wits, a sob entering his voice as he slumped in his seat.
"Why... Why? Here?! How!"
Jacuzzi wanted to say it aloud, but the pair of familiar faces who popped out from behind Ronnie gave him pause for thought.
"Hi, Jacuzzi! Isn't Ronnie an incredible magician?"
"He didn't even need an abracadabra or a hocus pocus to find you!"
"Isaac! Miria!" Jacuzzi's eyes widened again, though these two uninvited guests were far more welcome. "What're you two doing here?"
Ronnie smirked, seeming to enjoy their surprise.
"Now, then. Let's finish our conversation, shall we? Without any smoke bombs this time."
There was, however, one member of Jacuzzi's party who wasn't so glad to see Isaac and Miria. In fact, he had clenched his fists tightly, shaking with anger.
What... What are those fuckers doing here?!
The couple who'd had the nerve to run him over were sitting just two seats away from him, happily gabbling away with his tools. They looked like they hadn't a care in the world, like they knew nothing about the agony the world had to offer.
Stay calm, Dallas... It's not time yet. You don't have the time to waste killing them.
His face twisted with rage, but he managed to keep a hold on it somehow. At least, he kept a hold on it until someone else came up to the table, his mere presence enough to make Dallas see red.
"Ronnie! And Isaac, and Miria! What're you all doing here?"
The voice was all too familiar, an infuriating whine that made him look up instinctively.
His gaze came to rest on the man who'd made him angrier than anyone else ever had, angry enough to commit murder with a smile on his face. To Dallas, the man was the root of all evil. He was Firo Prochainezo.
Dallas was shouting before he even consciously realized what he was doing, his voice so raw with hatred it was as though he was wringing out his very soul. All activity stopped in the restaurant as everyone, customer and staff alike, turned to look at Dallas.
"Dallas!" Firo cried in response, his own eyes lighting up with dismayed recognition.
Dallas slowly got up from his chair and stalked over to his hated nemesis.
"Lemme just say... thank you, asshole... I didn't expect you to save me the trouble and come find me so I didn't have to go find you to kill you..."
"Mr. Ge-Genoard?!" Jacuzzi cried, taken aback at the sudden outburst. He half-rose to stop Dallas, but the naked animosity that had suddenly revealed itself on Dallas' face stopped him in his tracks.
Firo, on the other hand, met that animosity head-on, matching it glare for glare.
"Dallas... Tell me what you've done with Ennis!" Firo demanded, his voice filled with hard resolve. But instead of the derision he expected, Dallas actually paused for a moment.
A single moment of silence passed between them.
A pin could have dropped and been heard as everyone in the restaurant held their breath, waiting to see what would happen. The only one who dared to move in that frozen moment of time was Isaac, who stared thoughtfully into space and then suddenly snapped his fingers, his face lighting up as he remembered what had happened the day before.
His exclamation almost seemed to echo in the air, holding everyone present captive as they turned their heads to stare at Isaac instead.
"Hahaha! Don't worry, Firo! Miria and I saved your precious Ennis!"
"We were so dashing!"
Firo relaxed, all the fire draining from his body as the words sunk in.
"Re, really?! You're not kidding me?!"
Dallas was left completely forgotten as Firo dashed over to Isaac and Miria, looking to Ronnie for confirmation.
Ronnie only glanced askance at him and muttered, "I suppose."
"You're... you're really not kidding me, are you. Ennis is really safe?" Firo asked, slumping visibly with relief.
But before anyone could reply, Dallas finally snapped out of the stunned surprise that had gripped him since Firo had turned away. The knowledge that he'd been completely ignored, brushed away like nothing more than a nuisance, filled him with even greater rage. Murder filled his eyes as he dashed at his archenemy.
"Don't you fuckin' ignore-"
Firo's shoe casually slammed into Dallas' knee.
Firo's hand snaked out and took hold of Dallas' arm as he stumbled.
Then Dallas' body did a full flip in midair, tumbling ass over teakettle to land flat on his back on the floor.
A light smattering of applause and even a few scattered cheers came from the onlookers. They didn't quite know what had happened, but clearly good had triumphed.
Firo squatted on his haunches next to Dallas, still keeping his grip on his arm. He looked down at Dallas curiously, effortlessly holding the struggling man in place.
"Man, you're still weak as ever, ain'tcha."
Dallas' eyes widened impossibly; he looked even angrier than before, if such a thing was possible. But held in place as he was, it was all he could do to glare daggers at Firo's shoes.
"Now then. I sure hope you didn't think you could kidnap Ennis and get off so easily, pal."
It looked as though things were wrapping up quite neatly. But then Ronnie, who had been watching events unfold with a rather amused smile, suddenly frowned.
"What's wrong, Ronnie?" Isaac asked.
"Are you sick?"
"Aha! I know. You're angry because Firo only cared about Ennis, aren't you?"
"You're jealous, aren't you!"
Ronnie ignored Isaac and Miria, his head tilted to listen to a voice that only he could hear. He raised a finger and tapped his temple once.
His frown deepened and he lowered his voice so only those sitting at the table could hear.
"This is bad. I didn't expect them to go this far."
"What's wrong, Ronnie?"
"I-is something the matter?"
Ronnie closed his eyes as Firo and Jacuzzi looked at him, worried.
"...I heard gunshots on the first floor."
"Wha... Ronnie, we're on the top floor. You couldn't have heard anything from all the way down there," Firo pointed out. Ronnie hadn't even said he'd heard the noises "from" the first floor--he'd said "on," as though he'd been there, and of course that was impossible. But Ronnie was rock-solid in his conviction.
"It's not quite a battlefield down there. Not yet. But one thing's for certain. This building has become a killing field."
He sounded dead serious, but inside, Ronnie Schiatto was enjoying the situation.
Just a few more actors, and the entire cast will be gathered on this stage...
"What do you think, Maria?"
"Hmm... Feels dangerous for some reason, amigo. There's tons of people lying around in there!" Maria reported, peeking in through the closed glass doors.
Behind her stood not only Tick, but also Vino, Chane, Fang, and Eve.
"Well, they did talk about sleeping gas, so they're probably all asleep."
"I didn't think they would be so bold... This is more dangerous than I thought. Eve, I think it is better for us to be waiting outside."
"But..." Eve looked pensively back and forth from Fang to the Mist Wall.
Her brother Dallas was inside.
Her brother, the one she'd been searching for for so long, was inside the building, and something strange was going on in there. It would be unfair of her to wait outside, safe and sheltered, when her brother might be in danger.
"Just wait outside, will you? If you really do go inside then the chef'll probably follow you in. Wouldn't wanna put him in danger too, right?"
Eve nodded. She was still worried, but Vino's words made sense.
"Alright. Just... Please. Save Dallas..."
"Well, I'll get him out alive if nothing else. No, wait, he's immortal, ain't he. Nothing to worry about," Vino said flippantly over his shoulder as he walked toward the Mist Wall's great double doors.
Eve and Fang turned to wait from the safety of the building across the street, taking shelter under their umbrellas, but Eve stopped as Maria called her from behind.
"Sorry about yesterday," the assassin said, smiling.
Eve fidgeted, only then remembering that just a day before the woman she now saw almost as a friend had held live steel to her neck. She didn't quite know what to say.
"I noticed you didn't cry at all last night. You'll grow up to be a strong and beautiful lady, amigo!"
"N-no, I... I just believed that..." Eve blushed, unused to such naked praise.
"I believed that any friend of Mr. Gandor's would have a good reason to do what you did," Eve said, and gave Maria a smile of her own. Maria could only stare at her, almost aghast.
"You're too trusting, amigo. You're going to end up burned one day."
Maria had meant the words to sting, but Eve took them at face value.
"I think so too, but... it doesn't matter to me. I've accepted that."
"...Yeah, you'll grow up strong, amigo," Maria said at length, a little envious of the unfaltering resolve in the girl's eyes.
Was I like that too, when I was a girl?
What would the Maria of the past say to her, seeing her future self still so worried and unsure?
Maria smirked deprecatingly at herself and promised herself once more that she'd get back what made her herself.
Even if that means I go out with the spearwoman...?
"Umm... You can do it!" Eve blurted, perhaps sensing the sudden heavy air that had fallen on the assassin. She didn't quite know what "it" might entail, to be honest, but it had just come from her mouth without any conscious thought. She'd eavesdropped enough on Tick and Maria the night before to know that something serious was about to happen. She blushed in chagrin and said, "I-I'm sorry, but you looked so grim... I had to say something."
Such encouragement might have angered some, but Maria simply took it for what it was and smiled brightly, waving to Eve.
She's right. A draw is no different from losing.
Maria had wavered for a moment, torn between the urge to survive and the resolution to put her life on the line. But Eve's innocent words of support had made her certain. She had to make it back alive, no matter what it took.
I need to make amends with this girl for taking her hostage.
Now that she'd decided she would live, her smile was sunny and cheerful, just as it had been a few days ago.
Though Eve had no way of knowing that that smile had almost been lost forever, the sight of it felt to her like a sudden ray of warm sunshine in the midst of the pouring rain, and she smiled back.
Upon closer inspection, there was a sign hanging from the doors that read "INSPECTION OF EMERGENCY EQUIPMENT IN PROGRESS. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY." All the doors were locked.
"Should we break in, amigo?" Maria asked, one hand going to her swords, but Vino only stared at her in mock exasperation.
"Geez, you wanna bring the cops running? You're not very good at the whole silent part of the silent killer shtick, are you?"
"...Then what do you want to do?" Maria shot back in a huff. In lieu of an answer, Vino simply reached for her head and deftly plucked out one of the hairpins holding her thick tresses in place.
"Ack! Hey, what do you think you're doing, amigo?!"
Still ignoring her, Vino knelt and fit the pin into the keyhole of one of the doors, twisting it slightly as it went in.
"Wow, Mr. Claire. I didn't know you could do that."
"It's Felix. And I picked it up a while ago," Vino said, jiggling the pin just a little, feeling the lock on the verge of clicking...
And then he saw someone approaching in the glass of the doors.
It wasn't the image of someone coming from inside the building, but the reflection of someone coming from behind. Vino sensed that something was amiss and slowly turned around.
The person who greeted his eyes was a woman wearing a black business suit, soaked to the bone with no umbrella to shield her from the rain. Vino had never seen her before, but the rest of the people with him instantly recognized her. She was the woman who'd been together with the Martillo Family's secretary at the Genoard manor.
The woman stared straight ahead, seeming not to notice them at all as she ran straight toward the doors. She grasped the handle and shook once, realized they were locked, and took a sweeping step back, her body twisting in a half circle as though executing a dance step.
Then the twist turned into a full spin, her leg lashing out as she jumped. All the speed and force from that jump was translated into power as her foot impacted squarely against the doors.
A dull thud shook the air, so low and powerful that one could have been forgiven for thinking that the entire building had trembled. A sharp crack followed it as the door she'd kicked broke completely off its hinges, falling inward in a twisted mess of metal and glass.
The woman stepped inside immediately and stopped for a moment, looking pensively about at the people who lay scattered about the lobby. It seemed that whatever she was searching for, however, wasn't there, as she soon shook her head and called one of the elevators, disappearing behind the metal doors.
Just as the elevator doors closed, the door Vino had been working on clicked, the small sound of the latch coming undone greeting their ears.
"Man, talk about a waste of effort," Vino said, smiling sheepishly as he got to his feet. Placing a hand flat on the door, he began to apply pressure, seemingly unaware of the fact that it had been made to swing outward.
The tortured shriek of warping metal filled the air as the door slowly began to crumple inward, completely ignoring the intent of its design.
"That's a little better. But I'm still a little pissed at that girl. Who does she think she is, stealing my thunder? When I find her I'm gonna give her a piece of my mind!"
"Calm down! You're acting like a kid, amigo!"
"What're you talking about? Adult, kid, it's all the same to me. So when you're saying I'm acting like a kid, I'm just acting like myself," Vino replied, somehow managing to look angry and amused at the same time. Before he could go any further, though, Chane stepped in front of him and looked up at him, her golden eyes meeting squarely with his own.
A moment passed, and then Vino chuckled self-consciously. "Well, I mean, if you insist, Chane."
"But she didn't say anything."
"Hahaha, Chane, you can't just go saying that kinda thing in front of other people!"
"...Us other people're already thinking you're a huge idiot right now, amigo," Maria said, staring strangely at Vino. She looked to Chane, but the other woman looked down to avoid her gaze, seemingly embarrassed.
"You really love her, don't you, Mr. Claire?"
"Aww, stop it, Tick! And I told you, it's Felix."
Maria could only stare nonplussed at Vino as he playfully punched Tick on the shoulder, obviously chagrined. At length she just shook her head and muttered to herself, "...And I lost to this guy, didn't I..."
The Restaurant on the Top Floor
"Tell me, everyone. Do you love nature?" the man said as he stepped off the elevator.
"My, I do so love skydecks like this. Look around you, what do you see? Nothing? Exactly! There's absolutely nothing around you as far as you can see, all three hundred and sixty degrees of your vision chock full of nat- Hold on a second, that's the Empire State Building, isn't it? This is false advertising. I demand a refund. Give me back my nature. Don't you agree?"
A slender woman with a peculiar looking stick strapped to her back followed the red-eyed man off the elevator, standing wordlessly at his side as he gestured and spoke.
The restaurant patrons seemed to think that he was simply part of some performance being held at the restaurant, and though they gave him their attention they didn't seem overly concerned with his strange appearance.
"What the hell is he doing here..."
Firo glared at Christopher as he held Dallas effortlessly in place, though he seemed more annoyed than truly angry.
...I'll just pretend I don't know him.
But as luck--or perhaps misfortune--would have it, Christopher just happened to look directly at Firo.
"Greetings again, Firo! Have you found the Dallas you were looking for?" Christopher called cheerily, waving to his friend. The eyes of the captive audience once more focused on Firo Prochainezo.
Firo blushed like a tomato, suddenly intensely aware of the attention he was getting. Behind him, Isaac and Miria whispered furiously to one another, pointing at the new arrivals.
"Look, Miria! That girl who just came out of the elevator! It's the magician from yesterday!"
"You're right, Isaac! Incredible! I bet the show's already started!"
"And that man who came with her! He looks like a wizard if I ever saw one! He must be her venerable magic master!"
"He's so impressive!"
Jacuzzi and his gang, on the other hand, only looked uneasily back and forth from Christopher to Adelle and then back again, while Dallas glared at Adelle with an animosity that surpassed even the hatred he'd directed toward Firo.
Ronnie alone seemed utterly unfazed, his expression making it clear that to him, everything was merely business as usual.
An uncomfortable silence ensued, and Firo finally sighed, slapped a palm over his face, and said, "What the hell are you guys even doing here?"
Christopher didn't deign to reply, instead quietly turning to look toward the open kitchen.
"Excuse me. May I speak to the manager of this fine establishment?"
The staff looked uncertainly at each other, unsure of what to say. At length, an old man who had been talking with the chefs raised his hand.
"That would be me..."
Christopher peered at him, making sure that the old man was indeed wearing a Nebula badge...
...And promptly drew his gun, aiming and firing before anyone could even react to his actions.
The bullet struck true right between his eyes, and the manager collapsed onto the kitchen floor like a sack of potatoes.
And finally, screams of confusion and terror broke out in Babel.
"Christ! The hell d'you think you're you doing, asshole?!" Firo shouted, unable to believe the sight unfolding before his eyes.
But even his startled voice was lost before it reached Christopher's ears, blending into the many voices raised in panic and fear.
One man kept his head amidst the chaos, reacting to the emergency before anyone else.
The giant Mexican began to move the instant Jacuzzi's voice reached his ears, hefting the table held in his hand with one hand as though it was made of cardboard, and not wood and metal. He reared back and threw it straight at Christopher, the makeshift missile hurtling through the air at fatal speeds.
Christopher dodged the table without even stepping back, his upper body bending back until it was almost parallel to the floor. The deadly mass sailed past him, just barely missing the tip of his nose.
"Almost, friend. Better luck next ti- Oh. Oh dear."
Donny was already standing before him by the time he'd straightened up. The giant's massive fist closed around his right arm.
"Donny! Bring him down!"
Donny followed his leader's orders, pressing down with the entirety of his weight onto Christopher.
"You're a strong fellow, aren't you. It's enough to make me the chills."
Contrary to what he was saying, Christopher easily held off Donny's free hand with his own and braced himself, slowly pushing upward against Donny as the Mexican pressed down.
"Ugh... Jacuzzi... He... He's strong..."
"He's trying to take Donny on head to head?! He's insane!" Nice shouted, aghast.
Christopher heard her and smirked, suddenly shifting his weight.
"Me? Take on a behemoth like this head on? You must be joking."
He gave his right arm a vigorous shake, breaking free of Donny's grasp, and slipped between the giant's legs like water.
"Goodbye, Gulliver," he said, still smiling, as he aimed at the back of Donny's head.
Then something black flashed before his eyes. It was a flashbang, one of Nice's specialties.
It exploded, blinding light stabbing directly into Christopher's eyes.
A silhouette darted through the sudden flash, heading straight toward Christopher. Jacuzzi dashed at the Lamia with no regard for his own safety, his hand outstretched to snatch away Christopher's gun.
He stopped suddenly short, his charge arrested a hairsbreadth away from his goal.
The shining point of a spear had appeared at his threat, tickling the thin skin as he breathed. Adelle stood facing him, her spear fully assembled and held ready.
"Umm... I'm sorry, Mr. Splot... He's... well, he's on our side..." Adelle murmured, looking quite ashamed but not budging an inch.
Jacuzzi glared at her, filled with uncharacteristic fury. "You promised you wouldn't kill anyone!"
Adelle looked down guiltily.
"I'm sorry... But... umm..."
"But I wasn't the one who made that promise..."
A spike of pure ice ran down Jacuzzi's spine.
She's so much scarier than Tim...
His thoughts stopped there, cut abruptly short.
Something cold and pointed had come to rest lightly against his temple.
"Jacuzzi!" Nice shrieked, her voice filled with fear and anger.
Hardly daring to breathe, he glanced sideways and say a strange blade, affixed to the end of a gun.
"Not bad, not bad at all. You really deserved better than being Tim's tools. I mean it," said Christopher, smiling as his finger tightened on the trigger.
Even the screaming patrons fell silent, freezing where they stood as Christopher's finger inched the trigger closer and closer to the fatal point. Some of them looked away, and some of them found themselves unable to do so.
"Stop it," Firo said, still kneeling and holding Dallas in place. "I don't know what the hell you're thinking, but stop it."
"I told you what I was thinking, didn't I? All part of the job, friend."
"...The hell kinda job has you doing shit like this, you dumbass?!"
Christopher smiled awkwardly, as though he hadn't really been expecting the anger directed at him.
"Err, well, to be quite honest I wasn't planning on killing our tattooed friend here at all. I just need to get you all calmed down to make my job a little easier, and to do that I need a hostage. You understand, don't you? Is that alright with you?"
Christopher sounded quite calm, a stark contrast to Firo as he slowly got to his feet, anxiety coloring the young camorrista's features.
"Guh." Dallas gasped as Firo rose, going limp and losing consciousness as Firo deliberately pressed down on his neck with his knee.
"Then I'll be your hostage, if that's what you want. Let him go already, will ya?"
Christopher fell silent for a moment, considering Firo's proposal. It was a short moment, however, because he threw back his head and broke into laughter.
"Hahahahahahahaha! No, no, no no no no no, no. No. I'm sorry, Firo, but no."
"Oh, come now. We've slept under the same roof, haven't we? Broken bread together? How could I possibly hold such a close friend hostage?"
"...I'm gonna beat the shit outta you if you don't tell me."
Christopher relented, telling Firo the real reason.
"But Firo... How can I hold you hostage when I can't kill you?"
Hell rose from below.
Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. Bloodbloodbloodbloodbloodblood.
The halls were awash with a hell the color of blood.
Hell came for the damned before they could even draw breath to scream, opening bright red mouths in their necks as they drew their last breaths.
Hell came even to those who saw it coming, slitting their throats before they even realized their friends had fallen.
Hell came, brought by a harbinger of unbelievable speed and sharpness and cruelty.
"They said there were around a thousand and two hundred employees here. I'll probably have to take out around five hundred myself. Troublesome," Chi grumbled as he exited the office. "It'd be quicker to just collapse the entire building, but... Hmph. I suppose that would make too many innocent casualties."
The walls behind him were no longer mist white, but instead deep dark crimson.
Not thirty seconds had passed since Chi had entered the office, but that short time had been more than long enough for him to slit the throats of dozens of Nebula employees.
"...It's harder to pause and tell them apart before I kill them than it is to actually kill them. I almost wish we could be like the Lemures and just go wild... hmm?"
Chi stopped, catching sight of two squirming silhouettes at the end of the hall.
Two men, dressed as janitors, were slowly advancing toward him on their bellies like soldiers in a firefight.
"...Hey, Nick, look. There's someone walking toward us up there."
"Huh? Wait, does that mean the gas ain't reached this place yet? I guess that means we can get up..."
Upon hearing their words, Chi realized who they were.
So this is the bait that Adelle mentioned.
Chi narrowed his eyes and Nick and Jack got to their feet, the two members of Jacuzzi's gang casually dusting off their pants as they rose.
"Phew, I know they told us to just keep our heads low, but it ain't easy crawling around like caterpillars, eh?"
"Hold on a sec, you don't look like someone who works here. You one of those reinforcements that Tim fella mentioned?"
Pitiful creatures. They don't even know that they're fated to drink the incomplete elixir of life and spend the rest of their lives as glorified guinea pigs.
Perhaps it would be more merciful to them just to kill them on the spot. Chi absently licked the blade of one of his claws, thinking dark thoughts.
The next instant he froze as something caught his attention.
"Something wrong, pal?"
"D'ya think he even speaks English?"
Chi ignored the two buffoons and spun in place, hoping against hope that he was wrong.
Chi left them to their fates and ran back the way he'd come.
If I'm right, then...!
A few minutes later, a door leading to the emergency stairwell burst open, Chi sprinting headlong through it and up toward the topmost floor.
"How could I make such a mistake... I was too lost in the joy of killing!" Chi snarled to himself, speeding up the stairs at a speed that defied common sense.
"Did he know? Did Master Huey know about this?!"
Chi had deliberately chosen the stairs instead of taking the elevator, yet such was his speed that the elevator would have been hard pressed to follow.
He was halfway up to Babel when he made a misstep, his momentum slamming him hard to the floor in a mess of tangled limbs. He ignored the pain, shouting with all his might toward the floors above even as he got back to his feet.
"Run... Run away, Christopher!"
Tim walked through the research facilities located near the top floors.
The members of his Larvae had cut the phone lines as soon as he gave the signal to begin, completely cutting off the Mist Wall from the outside world. Assuming that Jacuzzi's gang had done their job and sprayed the gas he'd given them through the building, it was a sure bet that the Mist Wall was currently almost totally paralyzed.
No, not almost. If Christopher and his lot are still going like they were when they left, then this building's fate is already sealed.
Tim gave the matter no more thought.
It didn't matter what Huey was thinking. All he had to do was follow orders. He kept his mission firmly in mind as he kept up a brisk walk, striding boldly through the nearly deserted corridors.
"It wasn't in either of the two labs we searched, so that just leaves this place..."
But when he arrived at the door to the final laboratory, he only saw two of his underlings hunched around the door. It seemed like they were struggling with the lock.
"Ah, boss. Sorry, this's taking us longer than we expected. The locks on this one're a lot more complicated than the others were."
"I see. This must be the place."
All the information he'd received from the organization's spies, the Twins, indicated that this lab was probably the one they were looking for. Apparently the place was almost completely deserted during the daytime, the lights only coming on in the dead of night. In other words, the place worked on a totally different schedule from the rest of the building.
But in that case, I'd expect tighter security here. I know the whole building's in a state of emergency, but they still should've left at least one or two guards stationed here...
The door finally opened, cutting off Tim's thoughts. His two underlings carefully snuck in ahead of him, and Tim followed, secure in the knowledge that he'd be able to sift through the bounty of research undisturbed.
"It's not here? What the hell?"
The only things to be seen inside the final lab were various machines. Nothing that might have gone into them or come out of them was to be found at all.
"Did they move it somewhere? Damn it, come to think of it, the Twins' last report was three days ago. If they moved it since then... Did they know we were coming?"
Half a dozen possibilities ran through his head in as many seconds, but regardless the reality facing him did not change. The thing he was looking for wasn't there.
"I guess I'll have to ask one of the researchers here... Bah. I didn't want to show my face to anyone... But then again, I supposed Christopher will take care of any witnesses."
"Don't waste your time," a voice said from behind him. Tim and his cronies immediately ducked behind nearby desks, turning around to face the unknown threat.
"The thing you're searching for isn't here," the voice continued. "Every single scrap of information you gathered was nothing but bait planted for Huey Laforet."
The owner of the voice revealed himself, walking forward into the light. It was a middle-aged man, someone who Tim recognized. Not that Tim knew him personally, but he certainly knew of him. Behind the man stood two men in black clothes who looked to be bodyguards.
"Senator Beriam? How... What the hell are you doing here?"
"I have enjoyed close relations with the upper echelons of Nebula for quite some time, and you could say I've been funding their research here. Oh, and I can't deny I wanted a closer look at one of Huey Laforet's most prized pupils. I invited the head of the branch to join us here tonight, but he's quite shy. I hear he's been on vacation since yesterday."
"Thanks for taking the time to come and see me, then. This's a stroke of luck for the both of us, since you've got something I need too. Care to tell me where I can find the incomplete elixir? You said you've been funding this project, so I'm guessing you should at least know where it is."
Senator Manfred Beriam was a powerful man, and the way he carried himself made it clear that he knew it. He stared at Tim, his sharp eyes seeming to see straight through him, but Tim met his gaze unflinchingly, for all that it was a bluff.
All I can do is bluff him right now. Dammit, if only Adelle were here...
Tim had no combat training and neither did his two underlings; all that he could rely on was the pistol hidden in his vest pocket. Somehow, he doubted that it would do him much good against the burly men flanking Beriam on both sides.
"I already told you. The elixir isn't here."
"You expect me to believe that?"
"You've come to the wrong place."
Tim glanced carefully around and then back at Beriam, caught off guard by the sudden twist.
"Do you think this tiny room could serve my purposes? Do you think that something as grand and terrible as immortality itself could be contained in such small confines?"
"...What the hell are you talking about?"
A rare, vicious smile crossed Beriam's normally expressionless face.
"This building, the entirety of the Mist Wall, is my laboratory."
"So you knew?"
"About me. You knew right from the beginning, and you had the nerve to..."
Christopher sighed and shook his head, as though disappointed by Firo's heated glare.
"No, no, no. It was pure coincidence in the beginning, really! When I first met you in the rain I had absolutely no idea that you were actually a... well, you know. I don't think I should let the cat out of the bag with so many witnesses, right? Don't worry. My lips are sealed. I wouldn't even dream of doing such a thing to the first friend I ever made in New York."
"Not in the mood for joking around, Christopher."
None of the people around them were listening to the Lamia's jesting. Perhaps a few of the most level-headed ones could make out what he was saying, but even they had no idea what, exactly, he was talking about.
Dammit, I didn't think he'd know I'm immortal...
Firo opened his mouth to try and ask another question that might shed some light on the identity of his mysterious "friend," but the beginning of his query was smothered by the sound of a high chime.
The bell on one of the elevators rang, letting everyone know that it had arrived.
"Oh? I wonder who that could be."
The entirety of the top floor was taken up by the restaurant, so it didn't actually have an entrance per se. The area in front of the register led directly to three elevators that ran straight up from the first floor.
Christopher strode up to the elevator and waited for the doors to open, his eyes sparkling with delighted curiosity.
But when they did open, there was nobody there.
"Hmm? Maybe one of Tim's boys pressed the wrong button?"
He stepped closer, looking to peek inside, but a foot suddenly flashed forward from above and kicked him squarely in the face.
"Gack," Christopher announced, his feet leaving the floor as he flew backwards.
Adelle, caught off guard by the sudden attack, drew her spear away from Jacuzzi and dashed over to her fallen companion.
The restaurant patrons, on the other hand, saw that the murderous madman was temporarily incapacitated and made a mad dash for the emergency exits, shoving each other out of the way in their hurry.
And finally, the owner of the mysterious foot exited the elevator. Ennis looked anxiously about as she brushed past the panicking civilians, her gaze flicking rapidly left and right as though she were searching for someone or something.
The someone in question reacted the moment he, in turn, clapped eyes on her.
Ennis whipped around at the sound of Firo's voice, dashing over in an instant to stand close to the man who was technically part of herself.
"I-I'm so glad... I was so worried, Firo!"
Most of the patrons ignored the touching reunion in favor of funneling into the emergency exits, disappearing one by one down the stairs. Suddenly depopulated, the restaurant looked strangely lonely. Only a few people--Jacuzzi, Firo, Christopher, and their respective companions--remained.
"Ow ow ow ow..."
A singularly unconcerned cry of pain filled the sudden silence.
"Ohh, that hurts. Ohh, my aching jaw. Ohh, the pain. Why, not even my own parents ever laid a hand on my face, let alone a foot..."
Christopher got to his feet, looking quite unhurt and in not very much pain at all as he grinned at Ennis.
"Not that we ever had parents, you know."
He brushed the dust off his clothes and tipped Ennis a friendly wink, as though he'd known her all his life.
"I suppose you'd know something about that too, right?"
Ennis froze, her distress so obvious that Firo couldn't help but notice. His jaw grew rigid as he turned once more to Christopher.
"Who are you? Give me a serious answer or I'll make you regret it."
"I regret nothing, for I am always serious. Mm. Well, I suppose I can tell you the truth. Think of it as my little gift to commemorate this momentous occasion. It's not every day that I get to meet my long lost little sister."
Christopher smiled, seeming to enjoy Firo's confusion as he began to lay out the truth Ennis had so wanted.
"We were created based on Szilard Quates' research. We're incomplete homunculi."
Firo and Ennis kept their silence, waiting for him to continue. Jacuzzi and his friends, clearly bewildered, could only look back and forth at them. Ronnie, who had kept his seat during all the commotion, showed no visible reaction, and Isaac and Miria had disappeared from sight while nobody was looking.
"Of course, Ennis here is a far cry from a perfect being that knows everything as well, but at least she's immortal, right? We, on the other hand, were created based on notes that were stolen before that final discovery was made, so all we got was the non-aging part of the package. If you want to look on the bright side, I suppose we don't need someone else to sustain us like you do, Ennis. That's a plus, right?"
Firo frowned, quickly running over the knowledge that he'd been given. "...Stolen? Does that mean Szilard wasn't your father?"
"What was that? Father? To think that some day, someone would refer to us artificial creatures as though we were actual people... Ah, it brings a tear to my eye. You are a true friend, Firo."
"I thought I told you to be serious."
"Oh, come now. You have Szilard's memories, don't you? Nothing rings a bell?"
Firo hesitated, cautiously sifting through the memories in his head that had once belonged to Szilard Quates. If it were up to him, he'd have locked those memories up and thrown away the key, but Christopher's words had sparked his curiosity. A long moment passed, and finally one name floated to the forefront of his mind.
"Huey... Huey Laforet..."
As though to accent the terrorist's name, the elevator bell rang once again.
"And we were just starting to get to the good parts, too. Who could that be?"
Christopher frowned, clearly put out, and reached for a handful of unused steak knives from a nearby table.
"Not that it really matters."
"Hold on... Hey...!"
Firo took a step forward, alarmed, but it was already too late. In one quick, fluid motion, Christopher reared back and threw the knives with all his might at the elevator doors.
Three knives disappeared into the crack between the doors as they slid open.
There was no clang of metal hitting the walls, no clatter as the knives hit the floor.
Firo realized just what that meant, and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead.
But when the elevator doors fully opened, the sight that greeted him on the other side was far beyond anything he'd imagined.
"Close, but not quite," the man said as he casually strode out of the elevator, masterfully juggling the three knives Christopher had thrown. Following him were a woman in a black dress, a Mexican girl with two Japanese swords hanging at her side, and a man whose eyes were perpetually narrowed in a smile, multiple pairs of scissors hanging from his belt.
"Was there a dartboard on the door or something? In that case, give my regards to the fella who designed it. Certainly adds a thrill to the end of the ride."
The man seemed completely unconcerned as to who had actually thrown the knives, tossing them up and snatching them out of the air one last time.
Firo rubbed his eyes, hardly believing what he saw.
"Claire... What the hell! Claire, it is you!"
"Oh, hey, Firo. Still a babyface, ain'tcha."
"Hahaha! Gimme a break, man. It's been years and that's the first thing you say to me?"
Ennis couldn't help but feel a bit surprised as she watched Firo exchange playful banter with the redheaded man.
She'd seen Firo break a man's fingers for taunting him about his youthful looks, but seeing him now, laughing it off without a second thought, that memory seemed almost hard to believe.
"Ah, that's right. Sorry to break the news to you like this, Firo, but Claire Stanfield died in a tragic accident. Hi, I'm Felix Walken, nice to meet you."
"I heard about the Felix thing from Luck but I didn't think he was serious. You're a weirdo, you know that?" Firo said, smiling. All the stress that had been in him just a moment before seemed to drain away without a trace as he chatted with his childhood friend.
Christopher frowned for the first time, put out at having his thunder stolen so suddenly. He pointed at the redheaded intruder with one of his guns and said, "Hold on, now. Who are you? What're you doing he-"
"Hahaha, okay. I get it. Shut up already."
Caught completely flat footed at the abrasive and totally uncompromising tone of command, Christopher could do nothing but obey.
Vino flashed Firo a quick smile and then looked to Jacuzzi, who had been watching events unfold with his mouth hanging slightly open.
"Hmm... Lemme guess. Something went wrong."
Jacuzzi snapped back to reality once Vino spoke to him and shook his head, mumbling, "Uhh... To be honest, Mr. Felix, I-I don't really get what's going on anymore..."
"Well, from the way everyone down on the first floor was taking a nap, I can tell the sleeping gas trick worked just fine."
Adelle and Christopher started and looked at each other, realizing something was very, very wrong.
At length Christopher swaggered forward, a jagged smile creasing his face. "Haha. A nap, you say? You're quite a funny guy. I've never heard anyone refer to a bloodbath like that as-"
Whatever Christopher might have said next was drowned out by a mighty cheer, two voices raised in unison completely erasing his own.
"Amazing! Incredible! Look at this, Miria!"
"Magic is a wonderful thing!"
Isaac and Miria had apparently been snooping around in the kitchen, and had just then chosen to reveal themselves, raucous applause accompanying the sound of their voices.
"What're you two doing?" Firo asked, frowning. The two burglars were crouching around the body of the restaurant manager, the one Christopher had shot in the head.
Then he saw it.
It wasn't just Firo. Everyone still present froze as they witnessed a miracle take place.
"Ugh... What... what happened...?"
They saw a dead man speaking.
Except he wasn't so dead anymore. The manager clambered quickly to his feet, not a single drop of blood staining his face. The hole that Christopher had left in his forehead, too, had vanished without a trace.
Firo and Jacuzzi gasped aloud, while Christopher and Adelle froze, their thoughts immediately jumping to the same dreadful conclusion. The ones who had just arrived looked around quizzically, not understanding what all the fuss was about.
"It can't be..." Christopher whispered, and looked to his weapon.
His gun had a blade on the end, and he'd used it not ten minutes ago to stab a woman in the neck. He'd shaken it off, of course, but no amount of motion could possibly have thrown off every speck of blood. Yet the blade gleamed bright silver in the lamplight.
Understanding dawned on him, and at the same time he heard a familiar voice from the emergency stairwell.
Chi should still have been dozens of floors below, killing dozens of people, but the blades of his gauntlets, too, shone silver.
"Christopher! This building is dangerous! We need to get out of here!" Chi shouted, beyond the point of caring whether anyone overheard. "Every single Nebula employee in this building...
"...is an immortal!"
"It can't be.."
Tim felt bile at the back of his throat and swallowed hard.
"Oh, but it can. I opposed the idea, of course, but there was a scientist from the main branch who insisted on it. She's quite insane, I'm sure."
"It doesn't matter who insisted on it, dammit... This is madness." Tim's mind reeled from the implications, nearly unable to process the reality of the situation. "How far are you crazy bastards willing to go?"
He desperately wanted to dismiss everything as a lie, but Beriam had no reason to deceive him about something of this magnitude. Everything from the tone of the senator's voice to the unwavering calm in his eyes told Tim that it was the truth.
"You turned every single employee working here, all one thousand and two hundred of them... into incomplete immortals?!"
"I believe that was what I implied, yes. They were told it was a company-funded vaccination, but in reality it was the incomplete elixir of immortality, stolen from Szilard Quates' organization."
Tim shot Beriam a disgusted glare. Behind him, his two underlings had gone white with fear, quailing before Beriam like mice before a snake.
"You turned over a thousand people into monsters just to further your research?"
"Technically, they can die of old age, so in my mind they still remain just on the cusp of humanity. And were you not planning to do the same thing for your master, albeit on a smaller scale?" Beriam replied. Tim found himself at a loss for words.
"If I were a betting man, however, I would bet money that Laforet already knew about this. That was why he turned his traveling freak show loose... though, from the looks of it, it appears he kept you in the dark."
The look of amusement in Beriam's eyes melted away, replaced by something that could have been pity.
"Did you think it was merely coincidence?"
"Did you think that I just happened to come here today, of all days?"
Beriam looked away from Tim, his eyes growing unfocused. "Behind every coincidence, every stroke of luck, and every miracle, there is inevitably a cold and calculating mind. I am not speaking merely of today. Plans were made and carried out during the Szilard Quates incident, and also during that of the Flying Pussyfoot..."
Tim, like his subordinates, could only wait for Beriam to continue.
"You are like a butterfly. A pitiful creature, caught up in the webs that Nebula and Laforet have woven in an attempt to ensnare the other. They do not even see you as prey, and so you must wait for death to take you, bound hand and foot.... Mm. I think the time has come for me to leave. I have an afternoon meeting I can't afford to miss."
And without a backward glance, Beriam left the room, his two bodyguards sweeping out behind him. He paused in the doorway, however, and said without looking behind him, "I loathe immortals, incomplete and complete. But you are simply a man, one who fears death and the loss of his world. We stand on opposing sides... but nonetheless, I will pray for your success."
Tim stood in silence for a moment after the senator left. A few minutes passed, and then he looked up.
"Regroup with the others and get the hell out of this building. Consider the SoHo hideout compromised. Wait for me at Point C in New Jersey."
"...Roger that, boss."
"I... I'll go to the top floor and talk with Genoard and Splot before making my way out alone," Tim said, more to himself than to his cronies. His brow furrowed with concern. "Though, I can't even begin to imagine what's going on up there..."
The knowledge that every person working at the Mist Wall was immortal sent a chill down Firo and Ennis' spines. Even Ronnie, who had been watching everything happen so far without even batting an eyelash, sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth.
Reality took a sudden turn into the land of fantasy, and everyone in the room reacted differently.
Vino seemed totally unconcerned, dismissing the revelation with a shrug and a muttered, "Huh."
Isaac Dian and Miria Harvent looked to one another, confused...
"Say, Miria. What's an immortal?
"People who aren't mortal... So, maybe people who aren't dead?"
"Aha, I understand now. People who're alive, then. That means nobody in this building is dead!"
...but still the same as ever.
Jacuzzi Splot sniffled, tears welling up in his eyes as the sudden twist of events threatened to overwhelm him.
Tick Jefferson and Maria Barcelito seemed largely unfazed, instead glancing cautiously at Adelle as they'd been doing since they'd arrived.
And Christopher Shouldered...
Christopher Shouldered blinked slowly and nodded. "...Really, now. Tell me again why we have to run, though?"
"I knew you were a fool, but this is madness! Think of what will happen once the security guards realize they're immortal and mob us! How do you think we can possibly follow Master Huey's orders and massacre everyone if they're all immortal?!"
The name "Huey" made Chane's eyes widen briefly, though she otherwise showed no reaction.
Christopher smiled, completely unaware of the roiling emotions in Chane's heart.
"How? Well, that's simple." He looked to Firo and Ennis. "Look over there. We have not one, but two people here who can kill immortals."
"What the hell...!"
Ignoring Firo's outburst, Christopher calmly laid out his preposterous plan.
"We can get Firo here to cooperate with us and devour all one thousand and two hundred people here."
Technically, he was right. Both Firo and Ennis had the power to devour incomplete immortals. Actually, Ronnie, Isaac, and Miria could as well, but Christopher had no way of knowing that.
The act of devouring another immortal, though, wasn't as simple as it seemed. It involved absorbing the other person's memories, thoughts, emotions... everything that made them themselves. Firo had had more than enough of that with one experience, back when he'd devoured Szilard Quates. Ennis, too, had vowed never to devour another person again.
Christopher's callous suggestion was the last straw.
"I've had enough of this... Let's go, Ennis."
To tell the truth, Ennis wanted to talk a little more with Christopher and his companions, intrigued by just how similar they were to her.
But I feel like if I start talking to them, I'll never escape their clutches...
The dangerous air she felt radiating from Christopher was enough to convince her that today, at least, her questions could wait.
"Hahahaha, come now, Firo. Surely you wouldn't ignore an earnest request from a friend? And Ennis, are you sure you don't want to learn a little more?"
"I understand who you are now. But I no longer have any connection with Mast... with Szilard Quates."
"Ah, but you did once, didn't you? And our boss is interested in your past," Christopher said, chuckling as he shook his head. He saw that Ennis had paused mid-step and grinned, satisfied.
"I'd wager you have the knowledge, don't you? And if you don't, Firo surely does, since he has that old man kicking around inside him. What knowledge, you ask? Why, the secret to making a near-complete homunculus, of course."
"Szilard kept that secret very close to what passed for his heart, you see. We never did manage to get our hands on it."
Ennis felt her palms go cold and clammy, the question about her origins shaking her to the core.
"Don't listen to him, Ennis!" Firo shouted, able to sense her distress without even turning around.
"Firo, please shut up for a while, will you. Adelle."
The spearwoman nodded, immediately springing into action. Soundlessly she approached Firo as he strode unaware toward the elevator, lifting her spear and stabbing it at the back of his head in one fluid motion.
The cruel point came to a stop just before it reached its target.
Vino had stepped in between them and grabbed the tip of the spear between his fingers. Adelle had struck with intent to kill, and yet that fatal blow had been stopped by the strength of Vino's index finger and thumb alone.
In a way, it shocked her even more than Ronnie's impossible feat had the day before.
"Hey, what do you think you were trying to do to my friend?" Vino asked, his voice suddenly cold.
"Thanks, Claire. I owe you one." Firo sounded grateful but not surprised, as though such near misses happened all the time.
"It's Felix." Vino, for his part, sounded almost bored.
"Try not to make him angry," Firo called to Christopher. "As far as I know, he's the strongest human being on the planet."
"Strongest human being on the planet? Yeesh, you're embarrassing me," Vino said, laughing. But the monstrous strength of his fingers didn't lessen in the slightest. Adelle gave a hard tug to free her weapon but it didn't budge. It felt like the spear was caught in a mechanical vise.
Vino stared thoughtfully at Adelle and muttered, "Hold on, a woman with a spear... Hey, it's you, isn't it? You're the one who gave Chane that cut on her cheek..."
Christopher decided enough was enough and leveled his gun at Vino, his smile looking distinctly strained.
"I think it's time you left."
He fired three shots, but the dry cracks were immediately swallowed by three sharp clangs that echoed in the air.
Vino had swiveled instantly, bringing the slender blade of Adelle's spear up and using it as a shield to deflect the bullets. The slightest mistake in calculating the path of any of the three bullets would have cost him his life, but Vino hadn't even broken a sweat. In fact, he seemed more concerned with Adelle, staring critically at her face.
"...Hmm. I guess that makes us even."
Suddenly, Adelle felt something trickle down her cheek.
One of Christopher's deflected bullets had grazed her cheek, leaving a thin cut running down her face. It looked exactly like the one that she herself had given to Chane.
"You did that on purpose, didn't you?" Christopher asked, his smile growing even wider as he realized just what Vino was capable of. Vino frowned, trying to understand what that smile meant, but a new voice broke into his thoughts.
"What the hell..."
Tim had run up the stairs from the research centers as fast as he could, but now he stood frozen in the doorway, blinking rapidly as he tried to get a handle on the situation.
"...Chi. Fill me in. What happened here?"
"What do you think?" Chi said tersely. "Christopher happened."
Tim heard the strained note in his voice and realized that Chi had figured out the secret as well.
"Shit... Christopher! We're out of here! I'm calling the operation off!"
Christopher replied without looking back, keeping his gaze and his gun squarely directed at Vino. "I don't think so, Tim. We're working on different orders, you know."
"This is an order, Christopher! I'm telling you as the leader of the Larvae to get the hell out of here! I'll take responsibility for the fallout, so move it!"
Perhaps he detected the desperate note in Tim's voice, for he slowly lowered his gun and said, "Alright... If you insist, I'll give up on our mission. It's not as though we could even stand a chance at completing it without the cooperation of a true immortal, anyway."
"So, now that we're off the job, I can do what I want in my spare time, right?"
But Christopher was already moving. Forgoing the advantage in range his gun gave him, he dashed forward suddenly, closing in on Vino in an instant.
Vino was caught off guard but not exactly surprised, and he lashed out with a lethal kick that would have sent Christopher flying away had it connected.
"God might love you..."
Christopher leaped, clearing Vino's leg and actually kicking off of his outstretched thigh for speed as he brought his knee up to strike Vino's undefended chin.
There was a sharp crack that sounded like wood snapping, and Vino's upper body reeled back.
"...but I don't, human."
Someone actually landed a clean hit on Claire?
Firo almost rubbed his eyes in disbelief, for it was the first time in his life he'd ever seen it happen.
Vino's lightning speed was for once absent as he rocked back on his heels. Not one to miss such an opportunity, Christopher kept up the attack. His guns appeared in his hands as though by magic, the blades on the ends glinting cruelly as he raised them high. For an instant he looked like some kind of terrible human mantis, his claws rising and then falling in a strike that would bury each blade deep into the sides of Vino's neck.
But even that small window of time was enough for the hitman to recover, and his hands shot up to grab Christopher's arms by the wrists.
"...You surprised me for a bit there."
"You dare to hurt Adelle, human? You dare to harm one of us?"
Christopher should have sounded angry, considering what he was saying. But instead of a snarl, his sharp teeth were bared in a gentle smile.
"Well, y'know. I probably would've let bygones be bygones if she'd apologized, but I just kinda got caught up in the moment."
"Hahaha, you're a funny man. It was a stupid answer, but funny."
Vino had stopped the blades from reaching his neck, but they were still pointing at him. Which meant that the barrels of the guns they were attached to were also facing the same direction.
"Goodbye," Christopher said, and pulled both triggers.
But neither bullet reached its mark.
Vino had leaped straight up the moment Christopher's fingers tightened on the triggers, using his wrists as an axis to avoid the shots as he vaulted up and over Christopher's head, landing behind him.
Claire spun as soon as his feet touched the floor, one elbow lashing out behind him, but Christopher saw it coming and ducked, letting the assassin's arm whizzing harmlessly above his head as he stabbed at Vino's exposed side.
Vino, in turn, had seen that coming well in advance. He skipped backward, twisting so that the keen point missed him by a hair.
"Wow, you're incredible, you know that? I really mean it. I'd say you're the third strongest person I've ever met. I'm first, of course."
"Then who's second?" Firo blurted, unable to contain his curiosity.
"The old Felix."
"Who the hell is that?"
Vino ignored his friend and cracked his neck to both sides, looking curiously at Christopher.
"So what'll it be? You wanna keep going?"
"Didn't I tell you I was going to kill you?"
"Because the rain is falling too hard," Christopher said, then paused, looking slightly more serious than normal. "That was a lie. The real reason is because you're strong."
"Whoa, what are you, a wandering martial artist or something?"
"You see, I want to challenge God. Would you believe me if I said I wanted to do that by destroying you, a man obviously gifted by Him, and in doing so overcome a massive inferiority complex left inside me by the fact of my artificial creation?"
"Huh. Well, at least you're honest. Can't say I like the reveal, though," Vino said, chuckling as he walked toward one of the windows.
"Firo and Chane're good enough that they wouldn't get clipped by stray bullets," he began, tapping the glass pane with his knuckles, "but the kids'd probably get hurt if we fought here, so what do you say we take it outside?"
"...I say we'd both be bored to tears by the time the elevator reached the ground floor."
"True, but that's not what I meant..."
A high tinkle split the air, followed by a roaring whoosh of air as Vino gave the window one sharp chop with the flat of his hand, the glass spilling outward to leave a hole easily big enough to walk through. Vino smiled, his hair whipping about in the fierce wind.
"I said... outside."
And as he said it, he took a step outward, into the rain. The upper part of the Mist Wall was made in the shape of a pyramid, with the skydeck restaurant being situated just above the base of that pyramid. Someone could probably walk around on it, but one misplaced step would send that someone plummeting down a sheer manmade cliff. The fierce rain and wind certainly didn't make things any safer.
"I see that God didn't see fit to give you brains to go along with that brawn," Christopher murmured, shaking his head in disbelief. It didn't stop him from stepping out of the hole as well.
"Hey... Hey, wait! Christopher! Stop!" Tim cried. He'd been standing there dumbfounded, unable to quite follow the speed with which events were unfolding, but with a start he snapped back to reality and shouted to try and stop his wayward underling.
"It's no use."
Chi, who had worked together with Christopher for many years, simply shook his head.
"...I'll watch over him."
And with that, Chi, too, dashed forward and out into the rain.
Tim reached out in a desperate attempt to stop him, but his fingers closed only on air. He could only follow Chi with his eyes as the homunculus disappeared behind a curtain of falling water.
Then someone else, someone he didn't immediately recognize, approached the shattered portal as well.
"Huh? Wait... that's the girl who attacked me back at the Millionaire Row..."
"Ack! Chane! No, don't go!"
But like Chi, Chane also ignored her companion's desperate cries and disappeared through the window.
Left in the restaurant were Jacuzzi and his two friends, Firo and Ennis, and Isaac and Miria--who for some reason were still in the kitchen applauding the manager.
A short distance away from them stood Tim, still gazing numbly at the broken window. Beside him, Adelle seemed lost in a world of her own, staring blankly at her spear.
There was the man who seemed to see everything, still sitting motionless at his table.
Tick only looked cautiously around, and Maria...
Maria found herself unable to move at all, her heart holding her captive.
Why couldn't I move?
When she tried to stab that guy with the green hat, why wasn't I the one to stop her?
Why couldn't I stand against her and tell her to face me?
Was it because he was a stranger, and I didn't want to stick out my neck for him? No, that's not it. That's not it at all.
Am I afraid...? Me...?
Why did I feel so relieved when Vino moved first so I didn't have to?!
The roar of wind and rain from the shattered window filled the restaurant with a cacophonous din, but. Maria heard none of it. Her hands clenched tightly into fists, her nails almost drawing blood.
She'd thought that Tick's words had gotten her over her fears.
She'd planned on challenging the spearwoman the moment she saw her again, demanding a rematch right then and there.
But that moment had come and gone, and she hadn't moved at all.
She was afraid.
Fear gripped her--fear of the woman who had defeated her so absolutely once before.
Can I beat her? Can I, really?
She asked herself the same question over and over.
Even now... can I believe in Murasamia?
Like Maria, Adelle had also been standing motionless up until then, but she suddenly looked up.
She looked almost lost somehow, and when she spoke she sounded far away, as though she was merely voicing her thoughts aloud.
"I... I was afraid."
"O-of what?" Unaware of the turmoil inside Adelle, Jacuzzi replied as though she'd been talking to him.
She turned to face him, her normally timid features oddly expressionless.
"When... when he was holding my spear and I couldn't move... I was terrified. I... I'd... Nobody had ever done that to me before, especially not barehanded. I never even imagined that someone could beat me without a weapon."
"A-are you alright?"
"I envy them, so much... Christopher and Chi-Mei and Liza... They get to kill so many people, but I... I..."
Light seeped back into her blank, crumbling eyes, and she suddenly gave Jacuzzi a smile.
"Ah, umm. Right," Jacuzzi said, giving her a cautious smile of his own despite himself.
Adelle turned to face Tim.
"Ah, you snapped out of it. Sorry to ask this of you, but could you go outside and get Christopher and Chi to-"
"It's okay, right?"
Tim felt a chill run down his spine at the sight of Adelle's shaky smile.
That chill became a premonition, which in turn became reality as Adelle opened her mouth and said, "The mission is already a failure, so... So we don't need the bait any longer, right?"
"I-I can't stop shivering. I know I'll feel better if I can just kill someone. If I just kill someone and someone else and another and another... I'll be just fine. So... may I...?"
"Wh-what?!" Jacuzzi shrieked as he putting two and two together, but it was already too late. Adelle spun like a bolt of lightning, her spear sweeping around and splitting the air, rocketing toward the tattoo on his face.
Eve looked up worriedly at the Mist Wall, silently wishing with all her heart for the safety of not just her brother, but also that of the strange people who had escorted her to the skyscraper.
"They said he'd be at the very top floor..."
She gazed at the white walls stretching up to the sky, her mind awhirl with a mix of worry and eager anticipation.
Suddenly, she realized that something was off.
The Mist Wall was famous for its immaculate, unblemished walls, shining white even on the cloudiest, rainiest days.
But to her, it seemed as though those walls had just been stained red.
She looked closer and gasped as she realized what it was.
The walls themselves were as clean and white as ever...
But the rain flowing down the side of the building was a bright shade of scarlet.
More water fell from the heavens and washed away the patch of crimson soon enough, but the sight remained burned into the girl's eyes.
A rain of blood, slashing through the white mist...
The Mist Wall
"With all this rain soaking my clothes, wouldn't you agree that I'm finally coexisting with nature?"
"Nah. You're actually keeping the rain from falling to the ground like it should. How unnatural is that?"
"...Ah, I like that. An unconventional point of view, but I like it. I must hand it to you."
Two men stood in the roaring downpour, casually conversing like old friends.
Fierce wind whipped around them. Any normal person would have had trouble simply keeping their footing.
"You're bleeding quite a lot," Christopher commented.
Vino's shoulder was damp not with water, but dark red-black blood.
"Don't push yourself. If you admit defeat, we can be friends. Bygones will be bygones. And then I'll kill you, of course."
Christopher grinned, his expression full of compassion and sympathy as he advanced his preposterous proposal.
"Eh. It's a handicap to spice things up a bit. Don't let it bother you. Well, no, actually, if you did let it bother you that'd probably make things easier on me. I've got to say, though, I'm not really having any fun."
Vino's breathing was even and unhurried, and he sounded so calm that one could almost believe that he had taken the hit on purpose. The pain should have been significant, but he seemed to brush it off as little more than a mosquito bite.
"Let me tell you why. The biggest reason is because there's nothing in it for me if I win."
"Oh, but there is. You can brag to the Lamia that you beat me."
"Huh, really. So you're the strongest one out of these Lamia people?"
"Hard to say. We've never fought seriously amongst ourselves."
The smile slowly faded from Vino's features.
"That's technically an answer, but I feel like you're just playing around with me."
"Oh, the feeling is quite mutual, I assure you. But I find it's not entirely unwelcome."
The highest parts of the Mist Wall had small stairs leading upwards around the edges, and one could take these stairs to scale the slanted.
Christopher and Vino had taken these stairs up until they stood about halfway up the white pyramid and then promptly resumed their fight, blades and bullets and fists and feet flying.
One of Christopher's stray shots had glanced off at an odd angle from a metal support and by pure chance happened to strike Vino from behind, leaving a sizable wound.
The blood from that wound had spurted outward in a high arc, becoming a bloody rain that fell toward the earth.
The bullet had not lost much of its speed before striking Vino in the shoulder, and the mental trauma alone from such an injury should have had him panting for breath. But the hitman seemed to have dismissed the blood seeping from his shoulder as something beneath his consideration, the flow of blood becoming as natural to him as the rhythm of his breathing.
Vino seemed confident and at ease, but so did Christopher.
"You can't beat me, you know," Christopher said.
"What?! Really?! Dammit, you should've told me that before we started fighting! Man, I'm in trouble now!"
Vino's taunting had little effect on Christopher, however, and the Lamia continued to speak in the voice of inevitability.
"There's simply too great a difference in our experience. I've been doing this ever since I was created, nearly five decades ago. I didn't ask questions, I didn't wonder why. I just killed, and killed, and killed and killed and killed killed killed... Well. You get the idea."
Slowly he began to walk forward, his grip on his guns tightening.
"Even when I slept, I dreamed of killing people. Actually, I couldn't fall asleep unless I did! I killed over five hundred people in real life and then went on to kill ten times, twenty times, a hundred times more in my head... I don't even remember what was reality and what was a dream anymore. What do you think of that?'
Christopher came to a stop in front of Vino.
Vino gave it a moment of thought and said, frankly, "I know it's a bit late to mention this, but... Man, you have the weirdest eyes and teeth."
"That's technically an answer, but I feel like you're just playing around with me!"
"Maybe. Anyway, have you thought up a way to get around having run out of bullets while you were stalling for time?"
Claire had seen right through his bid for time, but if anything Christopher's grin grew even wider.
"Sorry, but I've got nothing!"
The Skydeck Restaurant
Adelle's spear closed in on its target.
Just before the fine point pierced the skin of Jacuzzi's face, however, twin flashes of silver crossed in between them, saving Jacuzzi's life.
A tortured screech split the air, and a shower of white sparks dusted the carpet like snow.
"Please... get out of the way."
"No can do, amigo! We have a fight to finish, remember?"
I did it. I really did it.
Maria regretted what she'd done almost as soon as the words left her mouth, terrified that Adelle would see the bluff for what it was.
But I can't turn back. Not now. Not anymore.
"...But you'll just die. Umm... I mean, if you're alright with that... are you? May I kill you...?" Adelle asked, still sounding as hesitant as ever. Maria paused, unsure of what to say in answer.
She made a show of looking around, trying to hide her emotions.
"Hey! Get away already! You'll get hurt, amigo!"
"Huh? O-oh! Right! Sorry!"
Maria leaped back herself, putting some space between herself and Adelle.
Not a moment too soon. She blinked and a thin line of silver passed just shy of her eyes.
Adelle had taken hold of the extreme end of her spear with one hand and spun in a circle, sweeping the weapon sideways like a scythe.
Maria had thought herself safe, but even the great distance she'd put between herself and her adversary had barely been enough. A drop of sweat trickled down her temple as she realized anew just how vast the spear's range was.
But that's not how you normally use a spear.
As though to support Maria's thoughts, Firo frowned from off to the side and muttered, "You're using it like a kid, dammit..."
The spear was a weapon meant primarily for stabbing, but Adelle tended to use it in a variety of different ways, incorporating sweeping strikes and whirls into her style. She'd probably never learned how to use it under a proper teacher, and instead relied solely on her instincts to guide her.
That was why even a relatively simple swipe, which must have been as natural as breathing to her, seemed simply wrong to those who beheld it.
But if you put it that way, I never formally learned how to use my swords either!
The only thing that remained to be seen was whose style would prevail.
Maria knew all too well that her opponent wasn't one who could be defeated simply through determination and willpower--yesterday's crushing defeat had taught her that much. But simple tricks probably wouldn't have much effect, either.
I can't lose to her. I have to believe in my sword, in Murasamia...!
From the sidelines Firo leaned discretely over the Ennis and whispered, "I'll step in if it looks like the girl with the swords can't take it."
"...Dammit, how come none of your brothers and sisters're like you at all? I swear all of 'em are crazy..."
Ennis gasped, Firo's words leading her to remember an important fact.
"One of them is missing..."
There was one other, the one who called me at the Alveare. She said her name was Liza...
Where is she?
Christopher stood a few steps away from Vino, his bladed guns--little more than oddly shaped knives now that they were empty--still held loosely in his hands.
"Funny guns you've got there. Modifications on Apache revolvers, I'm guessing? I know it's bad form to criticize a fellow hitman's weapons, but... you know those aren't that great, right? I mean, it's hard to shoot with them 'cause they're knives, and on the other hand it's hard to stab with them 'cause they're guns."
If anything, Christopher seemed to find Vino's analysis heartening.
"That's why I like them."
"They're just right for me, since I myself am caught halfway between being natural and artificial."
"You're pretty hard on yourself, you know that? You don't have many friends, do you."
Christopher accepted this, too, with a smile.
His strange eyes gleamed dully through the pouring rain, his jagged smile like a slash running through his face. His unsettling features came together with his otherwise formal appearance to make him look quite like a vampire of legend.
"It's good to have friends."
"Can't deny that."
"They can even lend a helping hand from behind in a no-holds-barred fight to the death. Speaking of which..."
And just as he said it, a small silver disc came flying through the air.
It wasn't a UFO. A close look would reveal that it was a ring made of gleaming metal, probably steel. Even closer scrutiny would allow the sharp observer to see that the ring had sharpened edges that glittered cruelly despite the thick cover of clouds.
They would be able to tell that it was a weapon, known in the east as the chakram.
Nobody could tell from where it came, but one thing was for certain: the bladed hoop was flying unerringly toward the back of Vino's head.
Vino smiled and spoke. With every word the deadly ring sped closer to his spine.
"Yup, you're right."
A high clang split the air...
"And a fiancée's even better. She'll watch your back when you need it most."
Chane stood behind him, soaked to the bone, a shining steel ring still spinning lazily around her knife from where she'd hooked it out of the air.
"Excuse me, sir. Could you make her stop? I'd be much obliged."
Tim jumped, his heart nearly skipping a beat. He'd been watching Adelle and Maria face off, completely unaware that Tick was approaching from the side.
Not in his wildest dreams had he imagined that "Excuse me, sir" would be the first words his brother said to him in over a decade.
"Stop... Stop her?"
Excuse me? Be much obliged? Don't talk to me like that, goddammit! I'm your little brother!
"Mhmm. I think you'd be able to make her stop, sir..."
"Not happening. She's beyond my power now. This is all because of that bastard. Claire, or Felix, or whatever the hell his name is."
Stop calling me sir. I'm your brother, not your master. Dammit, Tick, this is why people always called you dumb.
Tim began to sweat, feeling the silence stretch between them.
Why won't you notice? Are you really that stupid, Tick?! You're staring right at me and you can't recognize me?!
"...Are you that worried for that Mexican girl?"
"Hmm? Oh, no, not at all, actually. I know Maria can't lose."
Like hell you do. Have you already forgotten what happened yesterday?
"...Then why do you want me to stop them?"
"Because... Both of them are just trying to get back what they've lost. The fight itself is actually meaningless."
You were always like that, brother. You could always see into people's hearts somehow.
Hmph. Get back what they've lost? A far cry from me, then. You know why I'm here, Tick? I'm here to get rid of my past, and that past includes you.
"But... If you're not going to stop them, then I hope you'll forgive me if I root for Maria. I'm sorry," Tick said, and leisurely shuffled back to where he'd been standing before.
Tim stared at his back, struggling with the sudden crazy urge to call him and tell him who he really was. It was only with the utmost effort that he managed to rein it in.
Calm down, you're supposed to be the smart one here! What good could possibly come from revealing that now?
Tim shook his head hard, Beriam's words suddenly coming back to him.
"You are like a butterfly."
"They do not even see you as prey, and so you must wait for death to take you."
No. I won't end up like that. Maybe right now I'm caught, but one day I'll tear the web apart and devour the spiders that trapped me.
And to do that, he couldn't afford to look to the past anymore.
The position he was in right now was one that would have proven far too painful for the boy he'd once been, the boy who'd still dreamed of opening his heart to others...
"So in the end, I suppose you could say that our personalities were formed as a direct result of Huey's tests," Christopher said, stabbing at Vino with one of his guns.
"They must've been some pretty messed up tests, then. Let me guess, you were like the monkey who steals bananas from the storage closet after the scientists've left for the night."
"Sorry, no. If it were me, I'd forgo the bananas altogether and attack the scientists. Not that I could possibly do that to Master Huey, but you get my drift."
"Didn't your Master Huey ever teach you not to waste your breath mentioning choices you wouldn't take?" Vino commented, twisting to avoid the blade.
"Perhaps. Speaking of teaching, though. Poor Adelle. She never got to learn anything. There's nothing inside her at all. Huey decided she was a failure early on and used her for all of his experiments. Eventually she started working with me, and now I'm afraid the poor thing thinks she'll be acknowledged if only she kills enough people."
While Vino faced off against Christopher, Chane watched his back, on her guard against any more chakram that might come flying their way. They came at irregular intervals, each one unerringly aimed at either her or Vino.
She assumed that the enemy must be someone who would keep to the shadows and avoid revealing themselves at all costs, but as she deflected the tenth bladed ring, she heard a voice begin to speak.
She raised her head, looking blankly into the rain as she tried to place the source of the voice, but no matter how hard she tried she couldn't tell.
"So you're Chane. The Twins have told me all about you," it said. It sounded like an older woman, husky and seductive, but Chane gave it no regard.
There was always the chance, after all, that the voice was merely talking to try and distract her before it struck.
"You look like you have something good going on with red-headed Mr. Handsome over there. But you do know that we're working on Master Huey's behalf, right?"
Chane hesitated, then quietly nodded. It was forbidden for her to lie when it came to matters regarding her father.
"So tell me. Humor me for a moment. Say that Master Huey ordered you to kill him... Who would you chose? Him, or your father?"
Outwardly, Chane seemed as glacially calm as ever. Inside, though, her emotions were like a roiling, stormy sea. The dilemma posed by the disembodied voice was one that had haunted her for quite some time, and truth be told it was the thing she feared most in the world.
The question shook her to the core, and perhaps because of that she forgot--for just an instant, but she definitely forgot--that she was in the middle of a fight. And as though to capitalize on her mistake, four rings cut through the air at once.
Chane came to with a start, raising her knives and deftly blocking all four... but she failed to notice the fifth ring that came at her a moment later, cunningly timed to strike just as she cautiously lowered her own weapons.
The spinning chakram came within a hairsbreadth of tearing out Chane's throat, but Vino's hand nipped in neatly from behind just before it made contact and plucked it straight out of the air as though it was little more than an oddly shaped frisbee.
His fingers clamped down on the flat surface, stopping the deadly spin cold. Vino turned, completely ignoring Christopher for a moment as he replied to the strange voice--no, to Chane.
"You can follow your orders and still pick me."
"...What in the world are you talking about?" Liza asked, clearly angered, but Vino ignored her.
"If your father orders you to kill me, then you don't even need to think twice about it. Try as hard as you can. I'll just avoid everything, and we can just keep on loving each other. Ahhh, this must be what they call true love."
Chane stared up at him as though he'd grown a second head... and then smiled, the curl of her lips so subtle that only her fiancé could see.
Energized by his beloved's smile, Vino raised his voice in a jovial shout.
"Right! And the source of that mysterious voice must be... you!"
He spun and hurled the chakram in his hand at Christopher with all his might.
Christopher jerked his body to the side and frowned as the missile whizzed harmlessly by, saying, "...What was that supposed to be about?"
"...Err. Haha. I thought you might've been a ventriloquist. Or, since you talked about experiments and all, maybe you had a second face in your stomach or something..."
"And the chakram?"
"I dunno. Flew in from somewhere by chance?"
Vino took another step up the stairs they'd been fighting on and realized that there were no more to scale. He'd reached the top of the building. Somewhere between flurries of violent fighting and lulls of meaningless banter, they'd conquered the Mist Wall.
Not, of course, that that actually meant anything at all.
She'd lost count of how many times they'd clashed.
White sparks illuminated Maria's face as she sprang away, desperate for space.
Unlike the narrow hall she'd fought in before, the wide open restaurant gave her plenty of room to maneuver.
Unfortunately, that also meant Adelle also had plenty of room to swing her spear about as she pleased.
"Things'll just end up like they did yesterday if you keep this up, amigo," Maria muttered to herself.
Perhaps if she went in prepared to go down with Adelle, she could land a decisive strike.
But that would be a draw with both parties dead, not a victory for her. She'd promised Eve that she'd come back alive.
"I need to beat her and stay alive..."
Come to think of it... How did I lose my swords yesterday, anyway?
She'd completely forgotten, the memory lost in the face of the shock that had enveloped her the day before, but now she remembered that the fight had had a completely abnormal outcome.
And she also remembered the man who'd been responsible for it all, and realized that he was sitting not ten feet away...
Before she could act on her newly remembered knowledge, the elevator chimed once again, the doors opening and discharging a flood of security guards. All of them had Nebula name badges pinned to their breasts, but it was hard to tell whether they'd come in response to the commotion or if the guards on the first floor had finally come back to life.
Catching sight of Adelle swinging a bladed weapon immediately upon exiting the elevator, the guards reached for the guns holstered at their sides, advancing slowly toward her.
"Please... don't butt in."
Adelle moved before any of them could react, her spear coming up and around to stab one of them in the heart. He slumped immediately and fell to the floor, sliding off the blade. The rest froze with fear, unable to react as Adelle stepped forward, intent on making short work of them as well.
But that meant that Maria finally had a moment to think.
She inhaled and exhaled slowly, bringing her breathing back under control, and looked to Ronnie.
The Martillo Family's chiamatore had exuded a stifling aura of awe the day before, but now Maria could feel nothing strange about him at all. The only thing that was out of the ordinary about him was the fact that he seemed utterly calm despite the chaos taking place around him. It was as though he was absolutely certain that no matter what came to happen, he would walk away completely unscathed.
"...Yes?" Ronnie asked, gazing neutrally back at Maria.
"If you're curious about what happened yesterday, I think that now might not be the best time to discuss it. Though, if you want to borrow my power, I would be more than happy to oblige..." Ronnie began, replying casually to the question in her heart as though he'd read her mind. He paused.
"But would you be able to keep hold of your swords, if you had to rely on my help to defeat her?"
Maria flinched, the question striking her like a physical blow.
What... what was I thinking?
She hadn't been planning on actually asking for his help. She'd just wondered if perhaps she could get some sort of hint from hearing him explain what had happened back at the Genoard manor.
Did I? Did I, really? Or was I hoping, deep inside, that he'd help me out because it looked like Tick knew him?
If that's true, then... then I don't deserve to hold Murasamia anymore...
Someone approached the two of them, breaking into her thoughts.
"Hey, Mr. Ronnie."
Tick Jefferson gave Ronnie an innocent smile in greeting. It was neither the time nor the place for such cheeriness, but the corners of Tick's eyes were always crinkled in levity. Even as Maria trembled, on the verge of being consumed once more by doubt, he smiled as though he had not a worry in the world.
"Maria won't throw away her swords."
"Really. Care to explain why?" Ronnie asked, honestly curious.
"Because she's not going to ask for your help, Mr. Ronnie. And even if she did, she wouldn't feel bad because of it. Maria's strong, you see!"
"Really... I see. My apologies for making you doubt yourself," Ronnie said, looking down, and fell silent.
But on the other hand, each and every word that Tick spoke battered at Maria's psyche, making her feel more and more inferior.
She couldn't even believe in herself.
Ah, that's right.
That's why I moved to save that tattooed boy. Because Tick was watching me.
He hadn't been looking at her beseechingly. In fact, he hadn't looked like he expected anything from her at all. All that had happened was that their eyes had met, by chance, for just an instant.
But that moment had been more than enough to shame her.
He had told her that he believed she would prevail, smiling innocently at her.
His gaze had spurred her into action, her body moving on its own in a desperate effort to run from the shame that burned her heart.
She'd run away from that smile, choosing instead to fight.
I need something more.
I need just one more thing to help support me. I know it's wrong to depend on these crutches. But I don't have a choice. I need someone to tell me that they believe I can win.
Before she knew it, Maria was holding Murasamia out to Tick.
"Tick... I'll do it. This time, for sure, I'll beat her. I'll win."
"Wow, that's great."
"So... Tick... Can you just tell me that you believe in Murasamia for me?"
Maria actually reeled, caught completely off guard by the unexpected reply.
"B-but Tick! You..."
A desperate, almost pleading note entered her voice, but Tick shook his head and continued before she could beg.
"I believe in you, Maria. Not that sword..."
Maria's eyes widened in shock.
"I've told you before that I can only believe in what I can see. So I can't believe in the bond you have with your swords, or your determination, or what you believe in. But I want to believe that you'll win, so I decided I'd just believe in you, yourself."
He was telling the honest truth. Every word that passed his lips was something that he truly thought, simply converted to sound and passed on to Maria.
"I saw you practicing all the time with my own eyes. You trained every chance you got, whenever you weren't on a job. You trained really really hard, harder than anyone else I know. That's why I believe you'll win, Maria."
"How about we do this? You know that sword much better than I do, right? So you can believe in the sword, and I can believe in you. That way, nobody will be lonely," Tick said.
Maria stilled, lost in thought. She stared at the swords in her hands.
How well do I really know this sword?
How well do I know my own strength?
Wasn't I fighting to get the answers to those questions?
Maria tightened her grip on her swords, searching inside herself.
"I'd lost sight of Murasamia... All I was thinking of was myself..."
"Hmm?" Tick said, curiously.
She was still staring at her blades when the weepy voice of a man simultaneously shouting and crying his eyes out interrupted her thoughts.
"W-w-what're you people doing?! Tho-those people're dying over there and you're just standing there chatting?!"
Jacuzzi's wailing dragged Maria back to reality, and she looked toward Adelle to see that she'd already dispatched all of the guards. In fact, it looked like she'd finished some time ago; already the blood she'd spilled was beginning to squirm, flowing across the floor back to its source.
Adelle had her hands full fighting Ennis and Firo. Ennis had intervened to try and stop her massacre, and Firo had joined shortly after, but neither of them seemed to have much experience against a spear wielder. Even outnumbered two to one, Adelle was easily standing her ground.
Finally able to observe from afar, Maria marveled despite herself at the way Adelle's self-taught style flawlessly protected her from harm.
A chill ran down her spine, but the crippling fear from just a moment ago had vanished.
"But I'll just have to be stronger."
Silently she gripped her swords, their points facing the floor as she faced Adelle. She looked almost like a gunslinger from the wild west, except that she held in her hands blades instead of guns.
"...I'm sorry, Murasamia. I've been making you work alone all this time. I just depended on you for everything, all my victories and all my defeats..." she murmured, pressing her lips lightly to the flat of her blade.
"Murasamia, you aren't a tool to me. You're my compañero!"
She nodded once to Tick and then raised her head, clearing her throat.
"Hold on, amigo!" she called to Firo and Ennis. "She's mine!"
The two of them paused, surprised by her sudden declaration, and even Adelle turned to look at her, vague astonishment written on her features.
"Ah... I didn't think you'd still be here," she said, subtly insulting Maria. She took a step back from Firo and Ennis, focusing entirely on the Mexican swordswoman once more.
"Don't you understand yet? I told you, didn't I? You'd have to be... at least three times stronger than I am, just to stand a chance at defeating my spear..."
"Of course I heard, amigo. I'd wager I'm about twice as skilled as you are, easy."
"...Right. That may be true, but-"
Maria grinned like a child.
"See! That means I win!"
"...Excuse me?" Adelle said, utterly baffled.
The rest of her impromptu audience also frowned, waiting for her to explain.
Her grin grew mischievous.
"Because I've got two swords, and two times two equals four, amigo!"
Awkward silence blanketed the restaurant, the only sound the howling of the wind and rain from outside.
At length Adelle shook her head, looking irritated, and Maria raised her swords as well, but before they could begin a great shout of surprise came from the direction of the kitchen.
"She's absolutely right, Miria! Two times two is greater than three!"
"That means that the girl with the swords is going to win, right, Isaac?"
Tick, too, looked up from counting his fingers and exclaimed, "Wow! You're right, Maria!"
The rest of the onlookers, possessing a little more common sense, looked as though they wanted to object, but the sheer conviction in Maria's voice simply left them speechless.
As for Ronnie, he seemed to find the situation immensely amusing. His shoulders shook with soundless laughter.
"...I see what they said about fool's courage was right," Adelle said coldly. From the tone of her voice it was apparent she thought she was being mocked, and both surprise and anger were clear on her features as she hefted her spear and took a step forward.
It was a single step, one taken thoughtlessly because she underestimated her opponent.
But Maria didn't miss that instant.
She dashed forward just before Adelle's foot made contact with the floor...
...and threw her beloved Murasamia up into the air.
Shocked not only by Maria's sudden advance but also, more importantly, by the sudden transformation of sword into missile, Adelle floundered, utterly confused.
The sword rose and fell in a lazy arc, the blade level with the ground, the point directly facing Adelle.
She threw it at me? No, there's no way it can reach me when she threw it like that!
Her eyes flicked to Maria and she saw that the Mexican assassin had grasped her other sword with both hands, holding it level to the ground at about neck height, right around her left shoulder. It was a stance that would never be taught by any master of the sword, one that would never be found in any swordsmanship manual.
She threw away one of her swords so she could move faster? Does that mean the thing she just said about two times two was a bluff?
Adelle made a snap decision and revised her assessment of Maria to account for the loss of one weapon.
But the next moment, Maria stabbed forward with Kochite, the point making contact with the bottom of Murasamia's hilt. She continued the thrust, the swords connected like a pair of batteries, and now Murasamia headed the charge toward Adelle.
With her two swords linked end to end, Maria's reach far surpassed that of a spear, if only for one moment.
Your tricks won't work on me!
Adelle swept up her spear from above, bashing away Murasamia with the shaft before it could pierce her throat.
And that sealed her fate.
The trick had, in fact, worked on her the moment Maria had tossed her sword.
Normally, Maria's swords stood no chance against the spear, and if Adelle had waited and let her come then Maria would have been doomed.
But surprised by the thrown sword, Adelle had panicked and let her instincts take over on seeing Maria's sudden reach advantage. Her brain automatically calculated the weight of Maria's two swords as one long weapon, and she brought up her spear to block accordingly.
Murasamia went flying up toward the ceiling.
But Kochite continued toward Adelle, its course unchanged. Driven by the strength of both of Maria's arms, the keen blade advanced unerringly toward Adelle's chest.
All of Maria's strength and heart came together in the slender edge, moving with single-minded purpose to cut her enemy.
By the time Adelle realized her mistake...
...She was already staring down the length of the sword.
It was already too late to do anything. Left overextended by her needlessly forceful parry, Adelle could to nothing but watch as the sword sped toward her.
She's too fa...aaaaah!
Maria's blade came like a bolt of lightning, moving at a speed that defied Adelle's comprehension. Kochite buried itself deep into the flesh of her shoulder. Silver sunk into soft pink flesh, so different in shade from Maria's own dusky beige.
The sword came up and forward in a blinding thrust, splitting Adelle's skin.
Skin and muscle split apart, a space that should not have been there being torn into her body. A deep sense of loss and pain enveloped her and seized hold of her brain in the space of a single breath, leaving her unable to even scream.
The wound was in her shoulder, but electricity ran down her body and through the nerves of her knees, driving the strength from her legs.
For an instant, a flash of white could even be seen in the dark red gash in Adelle's right shoulder. She reeled from the shock, her heart beat once...
...And blood burst from her shoulder in a crimson fountain, as though the liquid was a living thing that sought to escape her body.
But still, Adelle did not scream.
She slumped, slamming the butt of her spear to the floor and leaning heavily on it as though to support her consciousness as well as her body. Her legs had betrayed her.
She sank to her knees and tried to catch her breath, but even that proved impossible for her, her breathing coming in short hitching gasps. Any attempt to slow down and exhale properly simply failed. Her breath caught in her throat. It felt like her lungs were in spasm, the wound in her shoulder spilling more blood with each roiling quiver.
Then a long, slender silver blade came from behind and stopped lightly against the skin of her unharmed left shoulder, making her flinch in fear of another attack.
"...Is this the first time anyone ever cut you?" Maria asked, more curious than anything now that her victory had been assured. Adelle did not reply.
Perhaps she wasn't willing to give Maria the satisfaction, or perhaps she was simply unable to think long enough to form the words.
Her wounded right arm hung limply, and she didn't even look toward Maria, instead directing her gaze to the floor.
"...Whoa, it really must've been your first time, amigo."
Over the course of her job Maria had met killed countless people, and naturally, some of them had refused to go quietly into the night. There had been a man who kept coming even after both his arms had been severed, his teeth gnashing madly as though to tear out her throat. Another had continued to move long after a stab had skewered his heart, fighting past his last breath.
Those experiences kept her from relaxing completely even after landing the decisive blow, but the sorry state Adelle was in convinced her that at least she could lower her guard.
Maria took a deep breath and turned to Tim, sheathing her swords.
"...You know, if you stop the bleeding right now she'll probably make it, amigo."
Tim started as though coming to from a deep trance and darted to Adelle's side, calling her name. He grabbed a nearby tablecloth and ripped off a piece to serve as a makeshift bandage.
"...I thought you'd kill her," he said frankly.
"I would have if this was a contract. But it's not, and she had me dead to rights yesterday, so I figure we're even now."
She walked over to Tick and the tension finally drained from her body, her face lighting up with a radiant smile.
"I won, Tick!"
Tick welcomed her with a smile that was the same as ever. "You know, Maria, you look like you feel-"
"I don't need to hear it, amigo! All you need to do is just laugh together with me!"
The expression wreathing her face was not a childlike grin like usual, but a warm, somehow gentle smile.
Then it vanished, replaced by her usual mischievousness, and she puffed out her chest proudly.
"Thanks, Tick. I'm so happy right now, and it's all thanks to you! I feel like I could cut God right now! I could slash through steel, and wind, and even these annoying rain clouds!"
She strutted over to the broken window and fell to one knee. In one smooth, swift motion, she drew her sword.
The blade slid from its sheath with a sound like a bell...
And a miracle happened outside the window.
The clouds parted exactly as Maria drew her sword, a blinding curtain of sunlight spilling forth from behind them.
Maria seemed to accept the miracle as nothing less than her due and stood up proudly, the sun's warm light wreathing her like a halo.
Even as the people left in the restaurant broke into excited clamor at the impossible miracle, Ronnie remained seated alone, a smile playing about his lips.
"Of course it wasn't coincidence. A miracle? Preposterous."
He tapped his temple with his forefinger, satisfied at a trick well executed.
"Think of it as congratulations."
While the rest of the people in the restaurant were occupied with the sight outside, Tim finally succeeded in staunching the flow of blood from Adelle's shoulder.
"Are you alright?"
Adelle looked up at him, finally gathering her wits enough to speak.
"I don't have any painkillers on me, but I'll get you to a doctor as soon as I can. Just bear with it till then, okay?"
"Am... am I a failure?"
The pain must have been excruciating, but she kept talking regardless, her voice quaking with fear.
"I... I've never been cut... before... This is the first t-time I, I ever... ever... The blood... his fingers are so strong... I can't move my spear..."
The shock had affected her badly. It seemed like her memories of Claire and Maria had been jumbled together.
"It's alright now. That doesn't matter any more. Just calm down."
"I said, calm down!"
Tim managed to get Adelle up and on her feet, one arm looped around her to keep her from falling.
Adelle tried her best to stand on her own, holding her spear as an impromptu staff with her good hand.
"Dammit, we'll just have to leave Christopher and Chi behind and let them join up with us later." Tim cursed under his breath and turned to leave the restaurant.
He found the way blocked, however, by a familiar face.
"Genoard! Where the hell have you been?! No, never mind. Here, help me get Adelle..."
Tim trailed off, swallowing hard.
He saw the naked malice in Dallas' baleful glare.
"I didn't think I'd get my chance so soon. I was gonna try and use those punks to get to you... but I don't need 'em anymore. Looks like this is my lucky day."
Dallas slowly advanced on them, drawing his favorite knife out from inside his jacket.
He'd had it on him when he'd taken his trip to the bottom of the Hudson, and so the entire blade was red with rust, but that just meant that any wound caused by the jagged blade would be sure to hurt even more than normal.
"I gotta say, I never thought you'd just fuck yourselves up and make it easier for me to... Huh?"
Dallas suddenly felt something cold pierce his chest as he raised his knife to strike, and looked down to see two silver-white prongs lying flat against his shirt.
The point was nowhere to be seen, already buried deep in his flesh.
He finally made the realization that Adelle had stabbed him with the spear in her left hand, and as the knowledge washed over him he coughed up a massive gout of blood.
"One... one hand is more than enough for someone like you, Mr. Genoard..."
"Looks like I underestimated you... Go to sleep for a while, will you?"
Tim took out his pistol and raised it to shoot Dallas in the head, but paused, suddenly unnerved.
Dallas was smiling, his teeth stained red with blood.
"But y'know what's luckiest of all for me?!"
Those who'd been staring out the windows looked back to see what the shouting was about.
"Yesterday, I met that crazy bitch with the bomb fetish!"
And as Dallas finished, Tim distinctly heard a strange noise. It sounded almost like some sort of... hissing?
What the hell is that sound?
"What?" Nice blurted as she looked toward Dallas. She hadn't the faintest idea of what Dallas meant when he said that he was lucky to have met her.
But then she caught sight of something sputtering fitfully underneath Dallas' jacket, a light that seemed somehow familiar. It was unmistakable--white and yellow and red sparks all together, bringing to mind a firecracker...
The blood drained from her face as she realized just what she was looking at.
"Hit the floor!"
Those're the high-yield explosives we stole from the train...!
"A blood rain? No way. I no see anything."
"But I was certain I saw it, Fang..."
Eve and Fang were still waiting under the arch of a nearby building, looking up at the top floors of the Mist Wall.
"And even if something bad happen inside, why would blood go over outside?"
"You're right, but..."
Eve trailed off, looking troubled, and Fang made an effort to cheer her up, inserting false levity into his voice.
"It's okay! Vino and Chane are up there. As long as building stays standing, no need to worry!"
Fang smiled reassuringly, and as though to prove him wrong a gigantic cloud of scarlet fire billowed outward from the Mist Wall's top floor.
A second later the dull sound of the explosion reached their ears, followed shortly by an immense shower of glass that lasted for several seconds, peppering the ground in front of them.
The fragments sparkled in the light of the newly revealed sun, shining innocently as the two stared at them aghast.
And some of those fragments were stained with tones of scarlet...
What was even more shocking was that some of that red liquid climbed back up the walls, ascending with incredible speed back to its source, but unfortunately nobody was around to see it.
"I thought lamia were supposed to be vampires. Shouldn't you be turning to ash already?"
"You've been watching too many movies."
"Well, technically even a human would turn into ash if you chucked them into the sun. Wait, no, they'd evaporate, wouldn't they?"
Vino and Christopher continued their small talk as they fought for their lives, though neither looked fatigued in the least.
Both were soaked to the bone, but almost none of the liquid clinging to their clothes and skin was sweat.
The clouds had split for some reason, and though the rain still fell, now they were bathed in sunlight as well as water.
"Don't you love how capricious nature is?"
Christopher paused and threw both arms wide, grinning under the rainy, sunny sky.
"What, you're trying attune yourself to nature by loving it, to try and make up for the fact that you're not natural at all?"
Christopher scratched his head, his smile turning distinctly sheepish.
Just then, the windows beneath them suddenly burst outwards, followed by a billowing cloud of orange-red flame.
A moment later, the boom reached their ears and the metal they stood on shuddered.
"What was that...?"
Christopher looked down at the still expanding fireball curiously, but Vino seemed to find it more familiar than surprising.
That's the stuff that was being smuggled on the Flying Pussyfoot...
The two of them quietly watched the explosion dissipate, their fight temporarily forgotten. Chane, too, paused to look down for a moment, but the chakram that came spinning at her a second later told her in no uncertain terms that it wasn't the time for sightseeing.
Vino stared thoughtfully downward, and at length muttered, "Chane, sorry about this, but could you go down and make sure everyone's alright down there?"
Chane nodded and ran so quickly down the pyramid it almost looked like she was falling, deftly deflecting chakram as she went.
"Oh? Are you that confident in your skills? You think you can face both me and Liza alone?"
Christopher shook his head in mock despair at his opponent's foolishness, but Vino paid it no mind, stretching lightly before standing straight. The look in his eyes seemed a little different from what it had been a moment before.
"All right, then. Since the sun's shining and everything... I guess it's time to get serious."
"Ahahahaha! How droll! I applaud your wit, sir," Christopher said, watching several chakram close in on Vino's back.
It seemed Liza had given up on Chane and had instead decided to devote her energies entirely into helping Christopher.
"Okay," Claire said, "here I come!"
And the next instant, six silver rings should have buried themselves deep into Vino's body.
But instead, Christopher beheld something that he could hardly believe.
"Heh. These're pretty nice."
One moment, Vino's hands had been empty. The next, they held six chakram.
They had come from different angles, all completely outside his field of vision, and Vino hadn't even turned around.
"What just happ-"
Vino hefted the bladed rings and sent them all spinning toward Christopher before he could finish.
Each chakram drew a beautiful arc through the air, coming together toward where Christopher currently stood.
By the time conscious thought reached Christopher's mind his body was already leaping away, and he looked back to see six rings bury themselves in the ground just behind where he'd been standing.
He straightened, taking just an instant to get his footing, but it was long enough. He looked up to see Vino already there in front of him.
Vino grinned, his right hand closing around Christopher's throat.
"I was going easy on you 'cause I wanted to fight together with Chane for as long as I could, but it looks like things're getting messy down there."
"Wha..." Christopher gasped, utterly defeated before he could resist or even surrender. Vino's strength had caught him completely off guard.
"Impossible... How did you catch Liza's chakram...?"
Another ring came spinning through the rain, flashing in the sunlight as it sped toward the back of Vino's head.
But the hitman merely reached back with one arm, not even bothering to break eye contact with Christopher, and plucked the chakram clean out of the air.
"You... you didn't even look..."
"I did, actually. Oh, don't worry. I don't have eyes in the back of my head or anything. I'm still human, y'know."
"Then what the hell did you see?!" Christopher gasped. "There isn't even anything that you could have used as a mirro..."
He trailed off as Vino raised two fingers and poked Christopher lightly just below the eyes.
It can't be.
"You just thought, 'it can't be', right?"
Christopher couldn't reply.
"Didn't think I'd see them coming reflected in your eyes, did you?"
That's impossible... what kind of eyesight would it take to do something like that?
Is he... Is he really human?
Christopher realized that he was sweating heavily.
"Truly... the strongest human on the planet..."
"Aww, you're embarrassing me."
Christopher fell silent for a moment, then smirked. It looked like he was laughing at himself.
"You truly are blessed by God."
"God doesn't exist in this world. He's only in my head. To you, he's in yours. You get what I mean?" Vino said quietly, and something that looked to Christopher like anger began to seep into his eyes.
"You know what really pisses me off? It's when people think that my power is some sorta miracle, or a gift from God. D'you really think that I just sat there and had this strength handed to me on a silver platter?"
His grip tightened, slowly blocking off Christopher's airway.
"I call up the God in my mind and make him do what I say. That's what's called effort. I do that every day, every week, every month, every year. That's all. So. You admit defeat, right?"
The sudden question came completely out of left field, and in reply Christopher only smiled and grabbed one of his guns, swinging the blade on the end toward the side of Vino's head.
Vino lifted Christopher off the floor and swung his entire body around in a half-circle through the air, bringing him down headfirst onto the white cement that made up the pyramid of the Mist Wall.
Just before he lost consciousness, Christopher was able to make out Vino speaking to him in a low voice.
"Don't worry. Compared to me, you're about as close to natural as it gets."
Christopher tried to reply, but if he said anything at all, it was so quiet that not even Vino could hear it.
"Ugh... Are you alright, Ennis?"
"...Yes, I'm fine."
Those left in the restaurant picked themselves up one by one from where they'd been flung by the explosion, calling to each other to make sure they were unharmed.
"Nice, Jacuzzi, you okay?"
Jacuzzi and Nice had made it through unharmed thanks to Donny, who had shielded them with his broad back, but the force of the explosion had knocked him over and onto them. Needless to say, they were still a little out of it.
Maria had swung Murasamia sideways in a keen arc to slice through the firestorm, and had indeed succeeded in diverting some of the onrushing torrent of air. But then the shockwave had, of course, knocked her off her feet, and she lay flat on her back in a corner along with Isaac and Miria.
"The hell was Dallas thinking...?"
Firo looked around as he got to his feet and saw that the tables had all been blown away by the force of the expanding fireball. Some of the tablecloths were still burning fitfully.
He thought that the explosion would have almost completely vaporized Dallas, but perhaps something about the way the explosive had been made had left the man sprawled next to one of the elevators, his body nearly intact. Emphasis on nearly; it looked like he would still be out of it for some time as stray pieces of him came back together.
Next to the windows on the far side of the restaurant, Firo could see two people slumped on the ground.
It looked like they were Tim and Adelle, but before Firo could approach to make sure, Tim slowly sat up of his own accord, propping himself up gingerly on his elbows.
"Dammit... Genoard, you bastard..."
His entire body throbbed painfully in time to his heartbeat, making it hard to even breathe.
He was sure he'd taken the blast full on, but despite the pain he could see no burns on his body.
Did I just get lucky?
Tim placed his palms flat on the floor, trying to stand up, but his legs refused to listen. It seemed he'd have to remain sitting for a while longer.
Most of the fire from the explosion had been blown out the windows, and though Tim could see parts of the carpet and some scattered tablecloths burning, it seemed like there was no real worry of a real fire breaking out.
"Adelle... Adelle, are you alright?!"
Tim sucked in a pensive breath as he looked to the slender woman lying next to him. Parts of her clothing had flaked away into black ash, and he could see what looked like severe burns on her back and arms.
"Shit... And she's already hurt bad, dammit..."
He paused, wondering him why Adelle had burns when he himself didn't.
Wait... Did she take the brunt of the blast for me?
His question was answered as he leaned in closer and heard her talking quietly to herself.
"Am I... am I not a failure, anymore? Did... I... help..."
Though officially under Larvae jurisdiction, the Lamia more often than not operated independently of Tim's group, and the only one among them who could really be said to be working under him was Adelle. This naturally meant that they'd worked together for quite some time, but that didn't mean that she had any reason to have shielded him with her own body.
She'd probably gone through some kind of traumatic experience during her time with the Lamia that had compelled her to protect him.
At least, that was what Tim thought, but to be honest that wasn't really important to him at all at the moment.
He had to get to Adelle and then get them both out of the building. He began to make his way over to her, crawling arm over arm, his legs still aching and unresponsive.
Then someone stepped hard on his wrist.
Tim looked up and locked eyes with Dallas, registering the burning animosity in the man's expression.
The front of Dallas' upper body was nearly bare, his clothes blown away by the explosion, and even his pants were blackened and burnt in places.
"You know what, Tim? This immortality thing really comes in handy sometimes. See? I'm already up and on my feet, and you're still crawling around on the floor like a fucking worm."
"I take it you didn't appreciate how we treated you?"
"I don't give a flying fuck about what you did to me. But I told you that if you laid a hand on Eve--you even thought of laying a goddamn hand on her--I'd make you regret it. That's all there is to it."
"...Then why in the world did you even come back here? I realize this may be hard for you to comprehend, but you could have just taken your sister and run away," Tim commented, uncowed. Dallas grimaced and looked away.
"...This is the only way I know to keep her safe."
"Genoard, your depravity continues to astound me in new and interesting ways."
"Shut up," Dallas spat, and kicked Tim hard in the stomach
Grabbing hold of Tim and Adelle by their arms, Dallas turned and began walking toward one of the shattered windows, dragging them along the floor.
The window had been a single pane of glass, and now that it was gone there was nothing separating the inside of the restaurant from the open air. Dallas plodded forward, step by step, dragging the both of them slowly but steadily toward the sheer drop.
"Christopher!" Chi cried, sprinting over to his unconscious partner.
His expression grew cold as he faced off against Vino, unperturbed by the strange mix of rain and sunlight that fell about them.
"You didn't join the fight, did you? I kinda thought you'd attack along with those rings or something."
"...If this were part of the mission, I would have. And I will attack, if you're intent on finishing Christopher off."
Chi showed no fear despite the fact that he was clearly outclassed, his voice cold and his gaze sharp as he stared Vino down.
Vino, for his part, was wholly unconcerned by Chi's murderous glare, and merely chuckled.
"Calm down, man. Trust me, if this was a job, I'd have finished it, but, well... You guys work for Chane's father, right? Don't think he'd appreciate his future son-in-law going around killing his employees."
"What...?" For once, Chi looked surprised.
Chane walked up the slanted walls and back to Vino while Chi hesitated, running over Vino's words again in his head.
"Hey, Chane. How were things going down there?"
Chane, of course, kept her silence, merely tilting her head once.
"Huh, really? So Firo and the kids are fine? Alright, that's good."
Satisfied with the knowledge that his friends were safe, Vino stooped and hefted Christopher's unconscious body, tossing him easily over to Chi.
Chi caught the limp body with practiced ease and heaved him over his shoulder.
"...Who the hell are you people?" he muttered under his breath, staring absently into Chane's eyes.
Suddenly, he remembered where he'd seen eyes like that before, gold and deep and clear.
"I see, now... I knew I'd heard the name 'Chane' somewhere before."
Then assuming the information from the Twins was accurate, that must be Vino.
The mystery of Christopher's defeat was solved. Chi turned his back on the most dangerous man in North America and walked away.
Whirling in his head were thoughts of how to kill him should they meet again.
Vino watched Chi leave for a while and then turned to Chane, grinning.
"That weird voice is gone, and I don't see any rings flying at us either, so I guess it's over."
He glanced over his shoulder to make sure Chi was gone and said, "Y'know, I made an important realization today, Chane. I thought I'd seen everything the world had to offer, but I was wrong. There's still a ton of stuff out there I don't know about."
Chane looked up at her fiancé.
"If that guy just now had actually used a proper weapon..."
Claire Stanfield looked thoughtfully back to where Chi had taken Christopher, and bestowed upon his fallen adversary the greatest praise he could offer.
"...I might've even felt threatened for a second there."
"C'mon, Isaac. Get up already."
"Are you alright, Miria?"
Firo and Ennis knelt and lightly slapped the robber couple's cheeks, bringing them back to consciousness.
"Hmm? Huh? What was that? Did someone pull off an explosive disappearing act?"
Miria coughed. "It must've been the greatest explosion on Earth..."
Having made sure that the two were fine, Firo looked around and gasped, shocked by what he saw.
Dallas should've still been out of it, but not only had he already finished regenerating, he was awake and on his feet, dragging Tim and Adelle toward one of the windows. It was clear he intended to throw the both of them out to their deaths.
Firo didn't know Tim at all, and Adelle only barely, but he couldn't just stand by and watch while Dallas murdered them.
He tensed his body, getting ready to run over and stop him, but before he could properly begin to run he saw someone else walk up behind Dallas.
"Huh? Wait, that's the guy with the scissors who's just been watching all this time. Didn't Claire know him?"
And then, as Firo watched, the man raised a large pair of wickedly sharp scissors high in the air, and drove them slowly but surely into the unprotected skin of Dallas Genoard's back.
Hell of a way to go.
Tim had mostly resigned himself to his fate, and perhaps that was why it took him a moment to realize that the hand grasping his arm had loosened, letting it fall back to his chest.
"Gurgh... Ah... Guh..."
"...I'm sorry. So you're Dallas Genoard. Hello," Tick said. The normal levity in his voice was gone, replaced instead with sudden gravity.
He held a pair of scissors in his right hand, keeping them firmly embedded directly in Dallas' spine.
"Thi-this doesn'tevenhave a-anything to, to do with you you bastard..." Dallas managed to say, his voice ragged and stifled with pain. He could barely form the words properly.
Tick just smiled, seeming somehow sad.
"...I'm sorry. I understand how you feel. I know that you love your little sister so much that you could never forgive anyone who tried to hurt her, that even the thought of it makes you so angry you can't even think straight."
"Then... then why..."
"That's why I can't forgive you. How could I stand by and watch you murder my little brother?"
Tim--no, Tack Jefferson--gasped audibly, his eyes snapping wide open.
"Tick... How?! You knew?! Since when?!"
"Since yesterday," Tick said calmly. "I recognized you the moment I saw your face at the Genoard manor."
"Then... Then why?!"
"Do-don't ignore me, you fucks..."
Dallas slowly raised his right hand, grasping at the scissors stuck in his back.
Tick deftly grabbed another pair of scissors from his belt and stabbed them into Dallas' right shoulder.
"Ah... ah... a-ah..."
He twisted, once.
Dallas' arm went limp, hanging uselessly at his side.
"I'm sorry. Hate me, if you have to."
Tick took one step forward, toward the window, and Dallas had no choice but to do so as well.
"When I saw you, Tack, I wanted to say hello. But you said you were someone named Tim, and when I saw the way you were dressed, I thought to myself, 'Ah, I think he wants to throw away his past'. I didn't want to hold you back. I was going to pretend I didn't know until you left, but..."
"...You're just interfering with my life again. All I wanted to do was get away from you all."
Tick smiled sadly.
"That's the opposite of how I am. I tried so hard to learn about the things that bind people together, about the thing they call family... But the only things I could find..."
Tick left the scissors stuck in Dallas' right shoulder and took out yet another pair, ramming them into Dallas' left side.
Dallas' lungs were shutting down; his breath came in short pants, and strange, strangled noises escaped his throat.
"The only thing I learned were things like, 'If I cut here, then this part stops moving'."
Tick took yet another step closer to the edge and moved to stand next to Dallas. With one hand he reached out and turned Dallas' head so they were facing each other.
"Please look at my face," Tick said, slowly and deliberately. Sunlight filtered down from the clouds, illuminating his face. His features, tinged with both sadness and happiness, were unforgettable.
"I'm the one who's putting you in so much pain right now, and I'm the one who's going to push you out this window. Tack... Tim has nothing to do with it. My name is Tick. Tick Jefferson. I want you to direct all your hatred at me."
He fell silent for a moment, then continued.
"If you're still determined to go after Tim, just remember one thing. I know what your sister looks like, and I know where she lives."
Dallas' expression transformed in an instant.
In the span of a heartbeat the anger drained from his features, replaced by pure black murder.
Tick nodded, satisfied.
"I'm sorry. Thank you for understanding," he said, then paused. "Oh, that's right. I think there's someone waiting for you down there."
Tick removed the scissors from Dallas' back and gave him a slight nudge forward.
"When I look at you, it feels like I can understand what the bonds of family mean. But I'm going to have to use them against you...
"I'm going to go up there!"
"Wait wait wait! You can't go! Too dangerous!"
Fang tried desperately to deter Eve from going up and investigating the sudden explosion.
"Don't worry! Your brother is fine! He can't die, remember?"
"But... But still..."
Fang glanced up at the Mist Wall again. It seemed like the explosion hadn't caused a fire; he couldn't see any smoke coming from the shattered windows.
"See, look. Everything is okay now. And police are not coming either. Calm down, please."
Eve bit her lip in dismay but seemed to accept Fang's words, following his gaze to stare pensively up at the building.
Perhaps thirty seconds passed in silence.
Then something detached itself from the building's silhouette.
Whatever it was, it was falling fast, rapidly growing larger as it plummeted toward the ground.
Fang stared hard at the dot and suddenly drew a startled breath. The falling object had arms and legs.
"Oh no... No, Miss Eve! Don't look!" he cried, and drew her close, stepping in front of her as though to shield her from the sight with his body.
A few seconds later, a wet, dull boom filled the air, followed shortly by piercing screams of fear from nearby pedestrians.
Eve trembled, unsure of what had just happened, and slowly eased herself out from Fang's embrace.
What she saw was...
Just as Tick pushed Dallas out the window, Chi came in through another, still carrying Christopher over his shoulder.
Christopher sported no obvious wounds, but he was still unconscious, and it looked like it would be some time before he was moving around on his own. Chi gave the room a cursory glance as he entered and then stopped, his eyes widening as he took in Tim and Adelle's sorry states.
"What happened to you two?!"
"Never mind me. Take care of Adelle."
Chi stared pensively at them for a moment, as though making a decision in his head, then yelled, "Sham! Hilton! I don't care which of you answers! Is either of the Twins here?!"
Someone answered Chi's desperate call. Nobody was sure where he'd been hiding, but a man came out from the kitchen and walked over to Chi.
"Huh? Wait, didn't that guy run away earlier?" Jacuzzi asked as he caught sight of the man. It was the waiter who'd asked him if he'd mind sharing a table.
"Ah... Sham, huh. Sorry about this. Help me with Adelle."
The waiter nodded wordlessly and hoisted Adelle up on his shoulder, taking the elevator down to the ground floor with Chi.
Vino and Chane came down from above as though to replace them, their arrival more or less signaling the end of the situation. Vino looked around absently and said, "Hmm? What happened to Dallas?"
"He had to go," Tick said.
Those who had seen what had happened shivered at the dark meaning hidden in those words. They thought that maybe there was something more sinister lurking inside Tick Jefferson. What made it all the more chilling was the fact that Tick was technically telling the truth.
But Tick had already returned to what passed for normal with him, the grave air from before nowhere to be seen.
With nobody left to formally wrap things up, the people left in the restaurant slowly went their own ways. Everyone who might be accosted by security had already left, and so those left behind were more or less free to leave at their leisure.
That didn't mean, of course, that everyone was happy with how things had turned out.
"...Ennis. Do you think what they said back then was true?"
"What who said, Firo?"
"You know. The thing about everyone working here being..."
"...There's nothing that we can really do about it even if it is..."
Firo and Ennis shared an awkward conversation as they took an elevator down.
"And those Lamia guys. We were lucky that Claire was around to chase 'em off, but... D'you think they'll come again?"
"Hey, don't let what they said get to you."
Ennis smiled reassuringly.
"I won't. I already have two fine brothers, Firo. You and Czes are all the siblings I could ever ask for."
Firo fell silent and bowed his head, suddenly unable to reply.
Brother, huh... So that's what Ennis thinks of me... dammit...
"You're not hurt, are you, Chane?" Vino asked as the elevator doors closed.
Chane nodded, and a short silence fell over them as they descended.
They were about halfway down the building when Vino opened his mouth, looking oddly thoughtful.
"...Huey Laforet and Nebula..."
Chane looked to her fiancé. It looked like she was asking him a question.
"Huh? Oh, it's nothing. Just... Well, I was thinking that there's so much about this I don't know. Like who that vampire and his friends were. It makes me mad, this feeling that I'm stuck outside the world as it moves without me," Vino murmured, looking quite put out as he held a conversation with nobody.
"I think it's about time I made my way back into the world."
Realizing just what those words meant, Chane's eyes widened slightly.
"...If something strange happens again, I'm gonna go have a talk with your father," Vino said, as though Huey Laforet lived next door instead of inside the bowels of the most impenetrable prison on Earth. But Chane seemed to take it in stride, and merely nodded.
"...Wait a second. It feels like I'm forgetting something..." Vino muttered, a rare look of confusion crossing his face, but Chane could offer no answer and just shook her head, equally unsure.
"Whew... It feels like I just woke up from a nightmare."
"Tell me about it. I'm so tired right now... I just hope everyone got out of the building alright."
Jacuzzi, Nice, and Donny boarded one of the elevators, the tension finally draining from their bodies. Soon, they would make their way out of the building and to the rendezvous point they'd agreed on in advance with the rest of the gang.
"Feels like we're forgetting something..."
"That's right, what happened to Fang?"
"...You lot are even more carefree than Tick, in a way. Well, no matter. Let's get down to business."
They froze, the blood turning to ice in their veins as the voice spoke from behind them. Such was their surprise that they didn't realize they could still make a run for it until it was too late.
The elevator doors slid smoothly shut, and they slowly turned around to face the man who had not been there when they'd gotten on.
And so began the long, long trip down to the first floor.
Tim kept his silence, supported on both sides by Tick and Maria.
Even the normally brash Maria seemed to sense the charged air, cautiously keeping her mouth shut, but unfortunately Tick possessed no such instincts.
"So what're you going to do now, Mr. Tim?"
"You can call me Tack, you know. I'm your brother, for God's sake."
"What?! You two amigos are related?!"
Tick filled Maria in on what had happened while she was out and once again asked, "So what're you going to do now, Tack?"
"I'm... I'm just going to keep on going like before, working under Huey. I might be just a puppet dancing on his strings, but... But someday, I'll defy my fate."
"You can't do that, Tack," Tick said, still smiling. "Nobody's fated to spend their lives being used by someone else. How would you defy something that doesn't exist?"
Tack stared silently at his brother, almost led to believe that the man next to him was an entirely different person from the one who had pushed Dallas Genoard out a window.
He remembered something, though, that drove him to speak.
"Why did you kill Jimmy?" Tim asked, determined to finally lay that mystery to rest.
But the answer he got was one he'd never have imagined.
"Oh, Jimmy? I didn't kill him."
"...What? Wait. Hold on. If you didn't kill him then why the hell didn't you tell me?"
"I'd just look more suspicious if I said I didn't do it, right?"
Tim mulled over the answer for a moment. "Then why didn't you say anything when I screamed at you to give him back?"
"Oh... I was just thinking how good it would be if I could grant your request."
Tim felt his head beginning to ache, but even then his sharp mind was awhirl with thoughts.
"Then... It really wasn't you?"
"Mhmm. I came home that day and saw the scissors already stuck in his back."
"I don't get what's going on, amigo. Who's Jimmy?"
Tim blocked out Maria and Tick as they began to talk, crazy theories and conjecture blazing through his head.
The elevator reached the first floor before he could come to a definite conclusion. The three of them stepped carefully out into the lobby and found a bizarrely normal world before them.
The two women at the information desk smiled their plastic smiles, and the security guards lounged about, gazing absently at the posters on the walls with expressions that declared to all and sundry that they were bored out of their minds. The employees gossiped idly about what they'd had for lunch as they walked to and fro.
It was as though the events of that morning had never happened.
There was a police car parked near the entrance, but from what Tim overheard as he passed carefully past them, it seemed like they were only there to investigate the explosion on the top floor. He didn't hear a thing about a Chinese man with bladed gauntlets, or a lunatic with red eyes and razor teeth.
Quite a few civilians must have escaped, both from the first floor lobby and the top floor restaurant, but there was no sign of them, either. Tim wondered just what sort of pressure must have been exerted on the police and the people to make them shut up like this, then he remembered what Senator Beriam had said to him and shivered.
Every Nebula employee in the lobby was an immortal.
Tim could detect no visible difference, but that just made the knowledge all the more chilling.
Huey had wished to have many incomplete immortals as well--could Nebula possibly have created their immortals for the same purpose as his master?
No matter how many times Tim thought it over, he could reach no clear answer. The only thing he gained was an increasing sense of unease.
It felt as though a thick fog had fallen, smothering and hiding all the abnormal things that had happened that day from sight...
Final Chapter End
Epilogue & Remnants