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Chapter Nine

      Snow crunches underfoot, making silence difficult, but she had to keep moving. Her enemy is out there... somewhere... hunting her down as if she were an elusive deer. Rahne knows she can't elude him forever, but the knowledge that her armor belongs in the cold stirs the faintest breath of hope within her.
      The terrain takes on a treacherous slope to it, and the snow gives way to ice as hard a cement. Dark, pointed rocks sticking out of its shining, pristine surface like the rotting teeth of some gigantic demon. Rahne plunges her sword into the ice and hauls herself up the last remaining meter or so of the incline. As she sheathes her short sword in its scabbard on her back, the few remaining links of chain bump her wrist. It was a subtle yet obvious clue that her weapon had once been more impressive than a simple short sword.
      Rahne starts to run, trying to put more distance between herself and her enemy. He was gaining on her, she just knew somehow, as if the armor was warning her of his presence.
      Still unsure and untrusting of her armor, Rahne knows she could make a potentially fatal mistake in this little game. This had been going on for hours, and fatigue had long since set in, bringing with it stupid and avoidable errors...
      She slips, her chin striking the rock-hard ice at her feet; her helmet clattering to the ground in front of her. She gasps as her face becomes awash in pain, blood flowing from her lips and nose and dripping down the front of her armor.
      "No!" Rahne breathes, rolling over. She grabs up a handful of snow and presses it to her bloody mouth. Even the slightest trace of blood on the snow would prove to be an even better ally to her enemy, as it would provide a better clue of her flight.
      She looks behind her into the cold forest, drawing her datchi from it's sheath hanging from her belt. The cold metal whispers softly as it slides out of the sheath, it's crystalline blade shimmering in the light. Rahne licks her lips to restore moisture to them, tasting the bitter, copper of her own blood. He was back there... somewhere...
      Silver flashes across her vision, slicing into her long overcoat of her armor and sinks into the armor itself, the metallic claws coming dangerously close to the skin.
      Rahne rolls out of the way, snatching her helmet as she dashes past.
      A juggernaut clothed in mostly brown and black crashes into her. She blocks each thrust and jab as best she can with her sword. He grins, and makes each pounding strike harder than the last.
      She whips her blade up, trying to get past his guard. He doesn't permit that, letting loose a volley of furious pounding strikes.
      Blizzard launches herself backwards, putting all her strength into the jump. She had to put some distance between herself and him. She wasn't strong enough!!
      The broadsword bites into the ice where she had been, snow flying up in large clumps. Her attacker lets loose a feral snarl and lunges at her once more. Rahne blocks, but his momentum knocks her off her feet.
      She rolls on her elbows and knees, using the speed to bring herself back to her feet. With a savage grin, he lashes out, whipping his sword against her own with enough force that Rahne's sword arm goes numb.
      She leaps free, transferring her blade to her left hand in mid-leap. Her cuts her off, driving her back to earth. Rahne kicks his shoulder as hard as she can, trying to disarm him. The demon-like samurai only snarls and shoots his fist out towards her face. She dodges, but her shoulder explodes in pain as the punch finds her shoulder. She cries out in pain, blocking his next volley of pounding strikes with her blade.
      Rahne tries to leap away, to put some distance between herself and him, but he cuts her off, backhanding her.
      Her armor protects her as she bashes into a rock with numbing force. The other's blade comes to rest at the base of her throat in the "kill" position.
      Rahne shuts her eyes, tears of defeat streaming down her face. Even when the blade leaves her throat she doesn't move. Her sword is laying much too far away for her to even hope to retrieve in this position.
      "Hmph." Cale grunts, stalking off a ways to lean against a tree. He watches the sobbing girl for a while, annoyed at the weakness. "Sage, I thought you said she was one of the best! That wasn't even a contest!"
      From his vantage point high in a tree, Sage lowers his head with a sigh. He had given his word not to interfere, and he was hating himself for making that pledge.
      "She is. Under normal circumstances," he calls as he jumps down. The leap is over in a split second and it merely feels as if he'd only jumped down a couple feet and not almost fifty feet.
      "'Normal'..." Cale repeats with a gruff and cruel-sounding half-chuckle. "What's normal about having mystical armor? What's normal about the enemies she'll face soon?"
      Sage shakes his head, refusing to answer. Halo crouches by Rahne, his face concerned. She had been training hard the past few days, and that was worrying him. This whole damned exercise had been her idea, not Cale's. Sage frowned. When Ryo found out, he would be less than happy. Then again, Sage wasn't all that happy with the situation either. How much more could she take from the Warlord?!
      ~ I'm sorry! I'msorryI'msosorry!! ~ Rahne signs to him, her voice breaking and fluctuating wildly as she tries to speak.
      "Shhhhhhhhh," Sage whispers, hugging her tight while patting her back in an effort to comfort her. Rahne wraps her arms around him, sobbing into his shoulder.
      "Must be that time of month," Cale mutters in disgust, stalking back into the forest.
      "Oh shut up," Sage growls, lifting Rahne to her feet. "You okay, Rahney?"
      "I'll survive." She sniffles and dabs at the blood still running from her lips and nose. Then she shakes herself and dashes the tears from her eyes with the back of one armored hand. "God, look at me, falling apart... I must be turning into a girl or something..."
      Sage grins and punches her shoulder playfully, "Must be."
      They follow Cale back through the forest in a companionable silence. Snow falls from the branches of the trees as more falls on top. Grayish light from the overcast sky high above filters through the trees, making everything look drab.
      Sage rests the blade of his no-datchi on his shoulder, deep in thought. Rahne doesn't trust her armor yet. But can I blame her? It took me over a year to trust my own and she's only had hers a few months. He ducks to avoid a low branch from a pine tree, snow falling down his armor as it slips from the branch. Her shield hurts her because she doesn't trust it... she has to trust in that thing... but what if the shield is like my healing ability? The burns may be like the exhaustion and headache I get after I use it. Damn, I don't know. I wish I could help you, Rahne, but I think you're on your own on this one.
      "How can I improve?" Rahne asks him suddenly, as if sensing his mood.
      Sage chewed his lip thoughtfully, contemplating the question. "Just fight like you normally do. Stay moving. Make your attacks quick and then get the hell out of there."
      Rahne nods. "But what if they attack like Cale did? Out of the blue like that?"
      "You'll have us to back you up there." He pauses to leap up a small cliff, Rahne following him up. "Plus that, you'll be able to sense evil nearby. That'll help."
      Rahne nods and looks around then back down the cliff. Cale had vanished, which she knew better than to be amazed at, but still was even after all this time. "How does he do that? Vanish like that?"
      Sage chuckles. "Who? Cale? He was a ninja when he was a mortal. So don't even try to see where he is. Try to sense him, it's easier."

Meanwhile, in the Netherworld...

      "We have to crush their army...!!"
      "Then we'll be no better than Talpa!!"
      A fist slams on the intricately carved table in front of him. "Oh... so they are permitted to slaughter our people!?"
      From behind Kayura steps up a woman cloaked in soft robes colored indigo, her soft voice yet powerful enough to be heard anywhere in the chamber. "We do not even know where they are. Perhaps patience will serve us best for now."
      "Thank you, Ayame." Kayura smiles, grateful for at least one supporter; even if only her handmaiden. Most of her newly-founded council believed they should hunt down the late emperor's forces and annihilate them. She turns to the former Dark Warlords in attendance. "Gentlemen, any suggestions?"
      "I'm not sure, Kayura. If we proceed too swiftly, we may do more damage than what we wish," Dais speaks, leveling his sightless gaze at the others. He had become one of the more respected generals in this new government, though he was now more of an invalid than a fighter. He coughs, the sound harsh and rasping, then continues. "And these forces WANT a battle. If it appears we have become more despotic than Talpa, we may loose the support of the people."
      Sekhmet crosses his arms over his chest. Dais may not admit it verbally, but many knew the Lord of Illusions was dying. His skin had taken on deathly pale color, while his body was looking more and more fragile, and he walked only when he absolutely had to were among the signs.
      "Sekhmet?" Kayura asks, wishing his opinion.
      "I am no longer a member of this panel, remember? Or perhaps I'm still playing the fool." The Lord of Venom opens his heavy lidded eyes just a fraction wider to catch Kayura's reaction.
      To her credit, Kayura doesn't even flinch or outwardly acknowledge his words. She just smoothly goes on with the next portion of the talks.

Later, in Yokohama...

      Rowen yawned and leaned back in a worn, but wonderfully comfortable La-Z-Boy recliner in the Rei Faun basement, Rahne curled up on his lap. Kento's parents had invited them all over for a nice weekend at their house.
      On the other side of the basement, Sage and Ryo were playing a game of pool, the sound of the billiard balls clicking together as each tried to put them in the pockets.
      Saen and his new friend, Theorn, were upstairs, "helping" Kento's mom clean the restaurant. Enough childish giggles were making it down the basement stairs that Rowen sincerely doubted the two five year olds were working. White Blaze is upstairs with them, watching them... though it was probably more like playing with them.
      Cye and Kento were into another roughhousing... err "sparring" match in the middle of a absolutely hideous blue shag rug. Rowen grins and shakes his head. Sparring usually turned into roughhousing within a few minutes with those two.
      He looks back down at his book. It was actually some professor's doctoral thesis explaining interesting stuff like gravitational lensing and red shift.
      On his lap, Rahne sighs and snuggles closer to him in her sleep. Rowen's grin broadens into a huge smile, feeling like the luckiest man alive at that moment.
      >SNAP CLICK FLASH!<
      Rowen pries his eyes away from his girlfriend and book long enough to give the culprit a scalding look. "Alex, quit with the pictures already!"
      "Sorry! Kento's parents want pictures!" Alex whines, snapping a few more off. "And they're making me finish up this roll!"
      Rowen rolls his eyes, and buries his nose back in his book.
      Alex turns and snaps off one of Kento and Cye. As was normal now, Chintzie is draped over the red head's shoulder like a furry little barnacle.
      Kento, who in the midst of planning an improvised "pile driver," smiles evilly and gets down from off the arm of the sofa. "C'mere, Ogre..."
      Alex blanches and lowers the camera. He knows what's coming. Kento had taken to drawing him into Cye's and his "sparring" matches ever since he'd fully recovered from his injuries. "Umm, that's okay, Kento. I think I better get back to watching my little brother..."
      Kento grins wolfishly and shakes his head. "Oh no... stay a while..." With those words, Kento begins to walk purposely towards Alex.
      Alex makes a little squeaking noise and takes off at a run for the stairs, the kitten leaping free of his shoulder.

Meanwhile, someplace else...

       Sharra Roarke runs through what looks like a tower someplace. Before her, she can hear the voices of something... dark. She sees a door in the distance and runs to it. Crouching behind it, she listens as best she can.
      "It's time."
      "But will the brat be ready?"
      "Of course! She's more than a match for the girl!"
      "Be certain of that! I want no failure this time! Either she defeats the girl and claims Blizzard, or she is finished!"
      "Master, I can kill Sanada! She'll be no trouble!"
      "What about her twin? He won't let her out of his sight were we to attack!"
      "Then separate and kill the Ronin! But leave Anubis's brat for me!"
      Sharra gasps, and back away. Alex! They were going to kill Alex and the others. Sharra doesn't know how she knows they're talking about her boyfriend and his friends, but all she knows is that she has to warn them!
      "Someone's here!!"
      "How?!"
      The young American screams and runs as a being of fire walks through the door, followed by a being seemingly made of darkness.

      Sharra wakes up with a gasp and leaps out of bed. She was staying over at Danie's house with her, since Danie's parents were out of the country for the week.
      "I have to warn them!!" she cries out, running for the telephone.
      Danie wanders out of the living room and into Sharra's way accidentally. The blonde shoves the larger girl out of the way and makes a grab for the phone.
      "OH MY GOD!!" Danie screams suddenly, staring back into the living room and out the window.
      Sharra spins and looks.
      The fire being from her dream was crouched by the electric pole right beside the Shadding house. With a bellow that carried through the closed windows of the Shadding house, he leaps at the pole with a large weapon made of fire. The pole explodes into burning slivers while the transformer explodes with the bluish light of electricity in the murky twilight.
      "Hello bitches, now you die!!" comes a sultry feminine voice behind them.
      Sharra gives a little shriek, while Danie snags a fire extinguisher from someplace Sharra didn't catch. Behind them is a woman clothed in revealing black, her long dark hair streaming down her back, a long handled scythe in her hands. She raises it, looking pleased wit herself for ending this bit of resistance.
      Danie shoves Sharra to the floor, screaming obscenities. She meets the downswing of the scythe with the fire extinguisher. The blade cuts through the neck of it, and Danie lets go. The released pressure of fluids from inside the extinguisher sends the metal canister into the woman's stomach. It punches through with a sickening crunch.
      "You... BITCH!" the woman gasps, somehow still alive. Not a single drop of blood flows from the gaping wound. Impossibly the hole made by the improvised projectile begins to close...
      Danie doesn't waste time, but yanks Sharra to her feet. Together they run out of the house.
      Sharra realizes that the woman had meant to kill them and then their friends, and feels an insulted fury rising up within her like a tsunami.
      "A 'bitch'?! That thing hurts my friends and so help me...!!" Sharra snarls, yanking her arm free from Danie's grasp.
      Danie shrugs and casts a glance back at her house. "DOWN!!"
      The two young women dive behind a large, ornamental rock just in time before the house explodes in a massive fireball.
      "MY HOUSE!!" Danie screams punching the stone, tears of anger and loss flowing down her cheeks. Everything her family had worked for... gone.
      Sharra, though admittedly not a huggy person, turns and embraces the larger girl. "Danie, we have to warn them!"
      "Aye," Danie whispers raggedly, drying her eyes with the back of one hand.

Back at the Rei Faun house...

      Alex yelps as Kento tackles him, but squirms until he's free. On the sidelines, Saen and Theorn, both sitting on White Blaze, giggle and cheer.
      "C'mon Kento, I don't wanna mess around anymore!" Alex protests, dodging Kento's latest salvo with a damp towel he'd grabbed off from one of the tables.
      Kento grins and lunges for him, but stops as he notices the little boys have gone over by the door. Suddenly Alex's foot meets with his ribs, sending him to the ground.
      Basically unfazed, Kento gets to his feet and bellows to the children. "Boys, get away from the door! I don't want you leaving without one of ..."
      "Kento... they don't belong here..." Saen interrupts, backing up a little. He whimpers, "Kento... they're the bad ones..."
      Kento's eyebrows knit together as he wanders over to the two children. Outside, a small group of teens - maybe about six of them - are standing together.
      Theorn looks at his friend and then back outside. Then he begins to cry. "I wanna go home!! They're -"
      Hardrock senses Alex behind him. "That's strange... those are our school's uniforms..." the redhead mutters. Kento frowns and reaches out with his armors sense, he leans against the door frame, trying to look casual.
      "Kento... those boys... they're the ones who beat me up!" Alex gasps, snatching the two little boys up and beginning to run away as one of  the teens turn and look right at Kento and the restaurant.
      White Blaze leaps to his feet and roars. Kento curses and runs, tackling Alex and the children; shielding them with his own body.
      An instant later, the whole world goes straight to hell.

End Chapter Nine