Outlaw Star Fan Fiction ❯ Outlaw Star; The Ryunoken Sword(revised, rededited, and better than ever) ❯ Strength ( Chapter 21 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

CHAPTER 21:

Strength

(Official disclaimer: This work is entirely a fan fic. I do not own the rights to Gene, Melfina, or any of the themes, concepts, alien races, planets, starships, or other characters that appear in the Outlaw Star, anime or manga. So Bandai, Sunrise, or whoever owns the rights to Outlaw Star, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, DON'T SUE ME!! I'm only doing this to honor your work and to show my respect and appreciation for what has become my favorite anime.)

(Author's note: To all my readers, I've found another good OLS fic at fanfiction.net. The title is Prince Charming by Himiko-Sama. Check it out and see for yourself.)

Suspended by the restraints around his neck and wrists, Anton Maksiim hung his head so that he wouldn't see his daughter's body as it was carted away to be disposed of. They had forced him to watch as they tortured her, forced him to listen to her screams until at last her six-year old body gave in and suffered cardiac arrest. He had tried to break free, but his restraints had been fitted with stun padding, allowing his captors to shock him every time he attempted to reach her. It was his fault his daughter died. He had been too weak to stop them, too weak to protect her. And now, she was dead, murdered by the men he trusted and served without question his entire life. Anton didn't care what they planned to do to him now. In his heart, he was already dead.

"It is regrettable that we must end our relationship in this fashion. Especially after I had such high hopes for you." Summoning what little strength he had left, Anton looked up and saw his superior the Minister of the Interior standing before him. In an instant, Anton's sorrow transformed into rage and he lunged for the Minister, only to be shocked again by his restraints. As he slumped to his knees, the Minister casually strolled towards him and backhanded him, the ring on his finger cutting Anton's cheek open.

"That is enough. If you wish to blame someone for your daughter's death then blame yourself. You of all people should be aware of the penalty for betraying the Republic. I gave you your orders and you disobeyed them. Now suffer the consequences for your insubordination." Moving aside, the Minister beckoned for the torturers to continue their work. With a pair of tongs, one of them reached into a furnace and pulled out an iron mask, its metal surface glowing red from the furnace's heat. "I suggest you bear your punishment silently," the Minister suggested. "You didn't live with honor but you can at least die with it." As the Minister turned to leave, one torturer grabbed Anton's head and pulled it up as the other moved towards him to place the glowing hot mask on his face…

…With a heaving gasp, Karg jerked himself up, his hand rising towards his mask to touch it. Its surface was cool, but he could still feel the searing pain from when it was first put on him, the day when his superiors had betrayed him and took that which he valued most, the same day he replaced his name with that of the legendary executioner. "I lived without honor but they didn't," Karg laughed aloud. "And I used to think honor was determined by actions instead of power."

As Karg began to regain his senses, he also remembered what happened before he lost consciousness. He was about to knock out the android girl so that he could take her to Lord Shidowkun when something struck him in the back. The last thing he recalled before passing out was the pain of electricity crackling over his body, meaning that someone had attacked him with a stun weapon. It must have been Ron MacDougal, Karg decided. It would be just like that mercenary to attack someone from behind like a coward. Of course, Karg realized that he had no one to blame but himself. How could he have allowed himself to show weakness like that? The moment of compassion he had felt for the android girl had lowered his guard enough for MacDougal to steal her away. Why did he even bother to feel it? Even if the android was the same as Sienna, it didn't change the fact that she had to die so that Karg could finally obtain his goals. I can't let her escape, Karg thought as he rose to his feet. Not after I've come so far and am finally so close. Rushing out the door of the android's cell, Karg veered to the left and ran down to the hall's end where a samurai armor stood mounted against the wall. Reaching into the mouth of the mask, Karg pressed the hidden switch and triggered the door to the emergency stairway. Since knowledge of the passage was a guarded secret that only a few denizens of Shidowkun's fortress knew of; MacDougal had to be taking the android girl down one of the other stairways. By taking the secret passage, Karg would head them off before they got too far away and recapture her.

With Harry's arm pinning her across the throat and his other pinning her wrist behind her back, Melfina lacked any sort of leverage to break free or even the ability to call for help. Unable to look away from the cold expression in Harry's eyes, Melfina watched as he leaned towards her and began to caress her face with the tip of his nose.

"You know Melfina," he told her. "You've really made me angry. I loved you. I died for you. And how did you repay me? By running off with Gene Starwind. All things considered, anything I'd do to you would be perfectly justified wouldn't it?" Melfina didn't answer. She didn't dare risk antagonizing Harry into carrying out his threat. Suddenly, she felt Harry release her wrist as his hand began to caress her cheek. "But for some strange reason I still love you. You're just confused. That's all. Gene's got you brainwashed so he can have you all to himself. It's just like I told you. Nothing good can ever come from staying with real people. But we're exactly the same. We belong together Melfina. Don't you realize that? And if you come with me, I promise to forgive everything you've done." As Harry removed his arm from her throat, Melfina shivered as she felt his finger trace a path from the base of her throat down her sternum and towards her navel. "But you have to promise to do everything that I tell you to or else," he threatened. "Understand?" As Melfina restrained the urge to whimper in fear, an idea occurred to her. It wasn't one she particularly relished, but it might be her only chance.

"All right," she answered. "I'll go with you." Harry's eyes widened in surprise before his face grew a look of pure ecstasy. Melfina knew that she wasn't good at lying, but it looked as though Harry was too far in his own world to notice.

"You will?" Taking a deep breath for courage, Melfina wrapped her arms around Harry's neck and pulled him closer to her.

"Yes," she told him, feeling nauseous at what she was about to do. "And if you want then I'll prove myself to you right now." Harry's face twisted even further in glee before he pushed Melfina against the wall and kissed her. Melfina closed her eyes and cringed from the cold and possessive feel of Harry's lips as he practically rammed his tongue into her mouth. As Harry broke away and began to lick her throat, Melfina looked down just in time to see him push his leg between hers and pry them apart. It was now or never. Shifting her weight to one leg, Melfina snapped her other forward as hard as she could and planted her knee straight into Harry's crotch. She felt Harry's body tense as a gurgling whine came out from his throat and he slowly leaned off of her. With her chance open, Melfina grabbed his hand and pulled, using her hip as a lever to flip Harry headfirst into the wall, just like Keibara had taught her. As Harry lay on the ground clutching his head and crotch, Melfina backed against the wall where she wiped her mouth in revulsion. Gene please forgive me, she thought. I had no choice. As Melfina calmed down, she chided herself for thinking like that. Of course Gene would understand. He'd know that she only allowed Harry to kiss her so that she could escape. Remembering that Gene was somewhere in the levels beneath her, Melfina turned to run as something snagged her ankle and tripped her to the ground. Before she could get back up, Harry grabbed her by the throat and straddled her hips, pinning her beneath him.

"You damn dirty bitch!" he wheezed. Harry's grip on her throat tightened as he brought up his fist to punch her. But before he could, someone grabbed Harry's wrist and yanked him off of her. As Melfina gagged to get air back into her lungs, she looked up and saw Ron MacDougal gripping Harry in a body hold, the wound in his stomach dripping blood onto the floor.

"There's a stairway down to the next floor at the end of the left hallway," he told her. "It's between two dragon tapestries. You'll find one like that on each level." Turning around, Ron began to drag his struggling brother down the way he had come with her. "Get out of here," he called over his shoulder. "And when you see Gene, tell him I've paid him back for his Dad." As Melfina watched Ron disappear down the hall with Harry, she wanted to call out for him to come with her so they could both escape. But something told her that Ron would never leave his brother behind, even if Harry had shot him. Scrambling to her feet, Melfina checked the intersection to make sure the coast was clear. When she didn't see any guards, Melfina rushed down the left hallway until she found the doorway between the two tapestries. As she hurried down the stairs to the next level, Melfina knew she had to get to Gene immediately. Shidowkun had used her as bait to trap him. She had to warn him and the others before it was too late.

Oblivious to the chaos that was raging throughout his fortress, Shidowkun continued the preparations for when his Destroyer body would be released. If he was to be successful, than the flow of energy in the throne room would have to be smooth and unobstructed. He could not afford any mistakes at this point. Reaching out with his power, he lifted the stone sarcophagus lying next to the support pillars and floated it out towards the center, positioning it so that it lay directly underneath the apex of the pyramidal shaped room. Shidowkun then reached out again to open four triangular windows set beneath the apex before he closed the window behind his throne. Finally, the Toku Emperor raised his hands and elevated several paper screen panels to rise between the support pillars. Adorned with Taoist encantations, the screens formed a maze around the throne room's perimeter; blocking and redirecting the energy flow according to Shidowkun's needs. Satisfied with the alterations, Shidowkun returned to his throne where he sat down and began to check the locations of Gene Starwind and his friends. It appears as though they have split up, he thought. I can feel him and that boy on level 26, the Assassin and the Ctarl are on 20, and that other android has just arrived at floor 18. He could also sense the presence of the Dragon Clan. They had gotten past the first division of the Akuma and were slowly ascending each level of the fortress. They're attempting to distract attention away from Gene Starwind, Shidowkun realized. I'll let the Akuma deal with them. And it would seem that Aeslea is still tracking Naga. Searching deeper, he attempted to locate Naga himself, but found no trace of him.

Suddenly, Shidowkun sensed something that was enough to make him bolt straight out of his chair. The android girl…she's escaped. Shidowkun had anticipated that Ron MacDougal would attempt to betray him. That was why he had sent Macdougal's brother to ensure that he didn't escape with her. Apparently my control over Harry MacDougal wasn't as strong as I had hoped, Shidowkun thought. The MacDougal brothers have outlived their usefulness. I'd better send some of my children to take care of them. Searching for Karg, the Emperor found him quickly descending the fortress towards what seemed to be a collision course with the other android. For a brief moment, Shidowkun began to consider going after Melfina himself, but then realized that this could be beneficial to his plan. I'll have to slow Gene Starwind down first, he decided. And I think I know just who would be best suited to do that. It is indeed fortunate that they weren't connected to the system like the Oni were. Meanwhile I'll send my children to deal with his friends. Placing the tip of his right pointer and middle fingers against his forehead; Shidowkun extended his senses to contact his servants. You'll be having guests soon, he informed them. I trust that you'll ensure that they're comfortable.

Making their way through the fortress level by level, the Dragon Clan made quick advantage of their agility while fighting against the fortress guard. They made no effort to hide themselves. The more attention they drew; the less resistance Gene Starwind and his friends would have.

After clearing out the guards on the second level, the Dragon Clan located a stairwell that climbed all the way to the fourth floor. Upon their ascent, the Clan fighters found themselves entering into a narrow hallway as over a dozen guards came charging towards them from the other end.

"Inayah, Mateen!" Keibara yelled. "Clear the way!" Leaping ahead of the others, two Ctarl-Ctarls pulled their darts from their belt pouches as they rushed into the attacking enemy wave. Jumping from wall to wall, Inayah threw her darts into the mob of guards, the projectiles sparking as they hit their targets. Meanwhile, her mate Mateen ran up and across the ceiling, his own darts raining down on any that Inayah missed. In less then five seconds, the onslaught of fortress guards lay dead and harmless, allowing the Dragon Clan to make their way down the hall and into a four way intersection.

"So Master Jubei," Keibara asked, "which way do we go now?" Straitening his staff, the Wiseman reached out with his senses, using his magic to decipher the twists and turns of the fortress as the chimes on his staff began to clang together.

"There are no more guards on this level," Jubei told his followers. "But I detect several two floors above heading for our position. I can sense Shidowkun has not moved from the top of the fortress and…"suddenly, Master Jubei went quiet as the staff's chimes became still.

"Master Jubei?" Keibara asked. Peering under the Wiseman's hat, Keibara was shocked to see Master Jubei's jaw clenched in anger.

"The guards are heading for two stairways set at the ends of these two halls," Jubei told them as he gestured to the two passageways perpendicular to them. "Split up and intercept them at the openings to each one." With his orders given, Master Jubei began to proceed to the passageway across from the one they had all just exited.

"Master Jubei wait!" Keibara called out. "What's going on, where are you going?"

"I have detected something," Jubei told her. "Or should I say someone that I have business with. This is a fight that I intend to face alone. I'll rejoin you and the others later. But for now, proceed with our mission."

"But wait…"

"Keibara!" Jubei roared. "You have your orders now follow them." Too stunned by her leader's outburst to say anything, Keibara watched as Master Jubei headed down the corridor and disappeared from sight.

"You heard what he said," she told the others. "Let's move on." As the Clan fighters separated into each , Keibara found herself reflecting on Master Jubei's expression. Ever since she had met him, Master Jubei had been one of the most tranquil and composed individuals she had ever met. Just what did he sense that could possibly make him so angry?

After what seemed like an endless climb up the stairs, Gene and Jim finally arrived at the 26th floor. If Melfina was still in her cell then they were the closest to finding her.

"Okay Jim," Gene said as he took position outside the stairway, "which way now?" As Gene pointed his gun down both ends of the hallway, Jim took out his P.A. and opened the blueprints file for Shidowkun's fortress.

"According to this the closest stairway's in the next hall over but it only goes up three floors."

"Better than nothing," Gene replied. "Let's go." As Gene led the way down to the hall's entrances, Jim scanned the corridors with his P.A. for guards, traps, or any other trouble that might come their way. Reaching an intersection, they crossed over into the next corridor and were about to enter the stairway when the shadows of two guards appeared in a passageway in front of them. "I got 'em," Gene announced as he pointed his gun.

"Hold it!" Jim interrupted as he grabbed Gene's arms.

"Jim what are you doing?"

"Get in here!" Jim urged as he pulled Gene into the room across from the stairway. Shutting the door behind them, Jim stood at the door and listened as the sentries passed them by.

"You mind telling me what the hell that was all about!" Gene demanded.

"Look Gene," Jim told him. "Did it ever occur to you that we might not want to attract attention to us when we're this close to Mel? If they heard us coming they might move her and then we'll have to find her all over again." As Gene realized that Jim was right; his expression changed from angry, to realization, and finally to frustration.

"Yeah I guess you're right," he said. "Now how about we get moving before they actually do?"

"Oh but you can't leave. You just arrived." Turning around, Gene and Jim saw that the room they were in looked like it had been ripped straight out of Tenrei. The center of the room was dominated by a large heated pool surrounded by half a dozen women wearing tight and revealing outfits of various colors. Four of the women came towards them while the other two reclined at the pool's edge.

"Um," Gene said as two of the women came up to him and began leaning against him, "so who are you?"

"We are your servants," one said as she wrapped her arms around his neck. The other moved around to Gene's back and bound her arms around his waist. "We shall fulfill all of your desires and pleasures. Lord Shidowkun has ordered us to ensure your comfort as his guest."

"Really," Gene grinned, "well that sounds nice but…"

"Gene what are you doing!" Jim yelled. "We don't have time for this!" Suddenly, Jim realized that two of the other women were kneeling next to him. They wrapped their arms around his neck and Jim gulped as he found himself staring into their cleavage.

"Master you're so tense," they whispered. "Please allow us to soothe you any way that we can."

"Okay that's enough," Gene said as he saw how the women were coming on to his young partner. Grapping their wrists, Gene began to gently pry them off of him. "Look, I don't know what kind of game you're playing but I've already got a girlfriend and I hate to keep her waiting. So if you'll excuse us…"

"Master no," the girls pleaded. "Stay with us, don't leave us alone." What is with these girls? Jim thought. Summoning all of his will-power, Jim forced himself to look away from the chests of the girls surrounding him and into their eyes. And when he saw how cold and empty their eyes were, he realized just how much trouble he and Gene were in.

"Gene watch out!" he yelled. "These girls are all an…"but before he could finish, the girl behind him kneed his back, stunning Jim long enough for the other to grab his throat and lift him off his feet.

"Jim!" Gene yelled as he saw his partner being attacked. "Let him go you crazy bitch!" Attempting to break free of the two clinging to him, Gene felt their grip tighten to bone cracking levels before they kicked him in his calves. Gene dropped his gun and fell to his knees as the two girls prepared to elbow him in his back before Gene backed out of the way and punched them both. "Jim hold on!" he yelled. Running towards his partner, Gene was intercepted by another girl who began punching at him with blinding speed. "Look you!" Gene warned as he dodged and blocked the girl's attack. "I don't want to hurt you so just take it easy!" But the girl ignored Gene as she thrust kicked him in the stomach and knocked him back. As Gene fell to the ground, the girl somersaulted towards him and was about to deposit her knee in Gene's stomach when he rolled out of the way and brought up his leg, planting his foot straight in to the girl's face.

As he struggled in the grip of the girl who was throttling him, Jim watched Gene defend himself and realized that he wasn't fighting as hard as he usually did. Didn't Gene realize that these girls were androids? If not then he must have thought that Shidowkun was controlling them and didn't want to hurt them. "Gene," Jim gurgled. "They're not…"but the android strangling him interrupted him again by throwing Jim towards the pool. Landing on a platform that wrapped around the water's back and side, Jim looked up to see Gene leap to his feet as two other androids cartwheeled into his path. Twirling like ballerinas, they distracted Gene enough for the one he had just knocked down to push him towards her two comrades, allowing them to spin kick Gene to the ground. Before Gene could get back up, two androids grabbed his arms while another grabbed his legs and a fourth wrapped her legs around his throat.

"All right you let him go," Jim yelled as he reached for the gun inside his jacket. But no sooner had he drawn it then one of the androids reclining on the pool's edge rolled towards him and kicked the gun out of his hand. In the same motion, she twisted her body and swatted Jim toward the pool. Catching himself at the pool's edge so that he wouldn't fall in, Jim was in the midst of pushing himself up when he felt both the androids grab his head and dunk his face into the water. Struggling to break free, all Jim succeeded was in making the androids increase their hold on him as he felt his lungs begin to burn.

"Hey Suzu!" Aisha asked as they made their way through the 22nd level. "Doesn't it seem as though this is a little too easy?"

"Not really?" Suzuka answered as she peered down a corridor. "Most of the fortress's defenses were tied into the Toku's system. Now that it's been shutdown, all they have left are those guards. And with Jubei and the Clan fighters keeping them busy, there's nothing to get in our way." When no danger seemed to present itself, Suzuka gestured for Aisha to follow her. When the two of them had finally reached the 20th level after splitting up with Gene and the others, Suzuka had decided that instead of wasting time by running around blindly, she and Aisha should explore the fortress's design so they could understand the key to navigating the maze of hallways on each floor. It was after their third run around that Suzuka finally began to understand its secret. Each floor was like a spider's web with several major corridors running out from a central hub which later split out into multiple directions. The trick to finding one's way around was to be observant of one's surroundings. Analyzing the markings on the ceramic wall panels indicated which way one was going while decorations such as tapestries and statues indicated which door led to what; such as a stairway that went up two floors set across from a lion statue. Once they realized this, navigating the maze was remarkable easy.

"Yeah but I wish we could have some fun while we're searching for Mel," Aisha said just before an energy bolt flew past her ear. Taking cover behind two pillars, Suzuka and Aisha peered out and saw six of the fortress guards firing at them with their blaster spears.

"Is this more to your liking?" Suzuka asked as the energy blasts screamed past them.

"Only six," Aisha smirked. "I was hoping for a challenge!" As Suzuka brought up her bokuto, Aisha reached behind her and grabbed onto the head of dragon statue behind her. With a roar, Aisha tore the hunk of stone free and lobbed it towards the guards, cracking one straight on the head. As the guards fell back from the unexpected assault, Suzuka stepped out and swung her bokuto, sending a Thunderous Shockwave to blast them off their feet. With the guards stunned, Aisha leapt over Suzuka's head and landed in the middle of them. Three of them scrambled to her feet and surrounded her before one of them stabbed with his spear. Dodging out of the way, Aisha grabbed the shaft just below the head and pulled, tossing the guard into the wall as she spun and slashed the throat of the second with her claws before planting a rib cracking heel kick into the sternum of the fourth. The remaining two guards, seeing their comrades slaughtered, rose to their feet and charged towards Aisha when Suzuka intercepted them. Flashing her bokuto against their spears, Suzuka's speed rendered their spears useless before she slashed them across their chests. "Well it wasn't much," Aisha said as she flexed her shoulder muscles. "But I guess it'll do for now."

"In that case let's go," Suzuka said. "We can't afford to waste anymore time here." Returning her attention to the direction they were previously headed, Suzuka felt Aisha suddenly grab her hand.

"Wait a minute Suzu," The Ctarl told her. "Something's not right."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm not sure but I think I heard something," Aisha explained as her ears began to twitch. "There it goes again." Raising her bokuto, Suzuka began to scan her surroundings. Aisha's hearing was far greater than a human's. And if Suzuka had learned anything during the past year traveling with Gene and the others; it was to never to doubt Aisha if she heard something.

"Is it Oni?" she asked. "Could Shidowkun have some drones that weren't connected to the Toku's system?"

"I don't think so," Aisha said. "I can hear snarling. Whatever this thing is I don't think it's too friendly."

"Can you tell where it's coming from?" Suzuka asked as she placed her back to the wall.

"Yeah it sounds like it's coming from…MOVE!" Leaping towards her, Aisha shoved Suzuka out of the way and grabbed a clawed hand that reached out of the shadows towards Suzuka's neck. Before the hand could retract, Aisha yanked the rest of it from wherever it was hiding and threw it before grabbing her bloody forearm. In the instant she grabbed it, the creature had grabbed her as well, its talons slicing through her tough Ctarl skin like paper.

"Aisha!" Suzuka yelled as she rushed to her friend's side.

"It's nothing," Aisha assured her. "Now what the hell is that supposed to be?" Looking away from Aisha's wound; Suzuka began to study the thing that attacked them. At first it looked like another Oni drone, but was twisted and deformed. It had taloned feet like the winged Tengu drones and several metal knobs running down its hunched back. Its arms were long and muscular and tipped with oversized hands armed with long shining talons. And instead of green, its eyes shone red while its cavernous mouth drooled black saliva between needle sharp metal fangs. As Suzuka brought up her bokuto, the creature began to hiss as it tensed its legs for another attack.

"Uh-uh Suzu," Aisha said. "This one's mine." Suddenly the creature leapt towards them, shrieking in rage as it bared its claws. But as fast as the creature was, Aisha was faster. Darting to the ground, Aisha picked up one of the guards' spears just in time to catch the creature on the spearhead. Impaling the spearhead all the way from sternum to spine, Aisha heaved and launched both the spear and its catch into the wall where they stuck firm. "Serves you right for sneak attacking a Ctarl," Aisha bragged, just as the creature grasped the spearhead and began to pull itself towards the other end of the shaft. "Um Suzu shouldn't that thing be dead by now?"

"If it was an Oni then yes," Suzuka answered. "But this is something else. We'd better warn the others in case there are any more." As if on cue, three more of the new 'Super-Oni' suddenly materialized in the hallway. But instead of deactivating their invisibility screens, these new creatures flowed out of the shadows as if they were a part of them.

"Yeah well so what if they know a few new tricks," Aisha bragged as she began to swell her muscles. "They're still a bunch of mindless drones."

"Just be careful Aisha," Suzuka warned. "Underestimating your opponent is the perfect plan for defeat."

"Unless you're fighting a Ctarl Ctarl," Aisha replied as the Super-Oni charged into them. Two of them attacked Aisha while the third launched itself towards Suzuka. The creature stabbed at her with its talons, but Suzuka blocked in time as she danced back, attempting to put enough space between them to allow for a battle plan. On her end, Aisha punched and kicked at her own enemies as they leapt around her. When one overstepped a slash with its claws, Aisha spun and roundhouse kicked him to the floor as its comrade stabbed at her stomach. Aisha twisted out of the way, but still received three shallow cuts across her torso. Grasping at the creature's arm, Aisha was about to rip the limb out the socket when she roared in pain. While dodging the attack of the second, the first Super-Oni had leapt onto her back and sank its teeth into her left shoulder.

Suzuka heard Aisha scream, but her own enemy was requiring her full attention. In addition to their savagery, the Super-Oni also had blindingly fast speed. And in the close confines of the corridor, they had the advantage. Sensing herself being cornered against the wall, Suzuka yielded to the Super-Oni and threw him off balance. Seeing her opportunity, Suzuka slashed at the creature in an attempt to cut off its head, a certifiable killing technique no matter what the opponent. The wooden blade was less then an inch from making contact when the Super-Oni vanished back into the shadows. Realizing that an attack could come from any angle, Suzuka whipped her bokuto above her head, using the Rising Wind Kata to generate a tornado around her that knocked the creature out of the shadows running across the ceiling. With her enemy stunned, Suzuka retreated to Aisha's side just as the Ctarl pulled off the creature biting into her shoulder and threw it into its comrade. Clutching her bleeding shoulder, Aisha stumbled to the floor and Suzuka helped her up.

"Are you all right?" Suzuka asked.

"Yeah I'm fine," Aisha told her. "It's nowhere near as bad as it looks." Aisha removed her hand and Suzuka as relieved to see that the creature's fangs had only punctured her skin. Meanwhile, the creatures were already starting to climb to their feet while the one Aisha had impaled on the wall finally pulled itself free. This isn't good, Suzuka thought. These new Oni are in a separate class than what we've become used to. Plus, with Aisha's wounds and me just starting to catch my breath from fighting only one of them, there's no time to find their weakness.

"Aisha," Suzuka said. "We can't win like this. We need to retreat for now."

"Are you kidding?" Aisha yelled. "A Ctarl Ctarl never runs from an enemy." Just then, three more of the creatures materialized among their group, increasing their force from four to seven. "However we will commit a strategic withdrawal when necessary."

"Glad to hear it," Suzuka said as she snapped her bokuto, blasting the Super-Oni back with another Shockwave. Turning around, she and Aisha ran down the hall as the creatures gave chase along the walls and ceiling, their hissing shrieks getting louder as they closed in.

"Now what?" Aisha yelled.

"We need to find a red lion statue," Suzuka explained. "They'll be a stairway placed…"

"Hey there it is!" Aisha interrupted as she ran ahead. Coming up ahead on the right was a red lion statue beside a set of sliding twin doors.

"Aisha no that's…"

"Yeah I know but don't worry I'll get it open." Grabbing one side, Aisha forced the sliding doors open before grabbing Suzuka and throwing her inside. Jumping in after her, Aisha forced the door closed just before the Super-Oni reached them. "See," Aisha said as she turned to Suzuka. "I told you we'd…" and Aisha stopped as she saw that she and a rather irritated Suzuka were inside a small square room instead of a stairway to the next level. "Uh, what's going on?"

"The door you opened led to an elevator," Suzuka said. "The stairway I mentioned is always placed across from the lion statue, never beside it."

"Well why didn't you try and warn me?" Aisha yelled as the Super-Oni began to claw their way through the door.

Following after Slag as they raced through the corridors of floor 21, Mazren occasionally turned around to ensure no one would attack them from behind. Thanks to Slag's sense of smell, they were able to find their way through each level by following the scent of the guards. I wonder where the others are, Mazren thought. Maybe I should contact them and see how they're holding up. No, I can't worry about that now. Have to focus on getting to the 35th floor. Besides, Gene's the closes to finding Melfina anyway. Thinking that, Mazren smiled slightly. It still felt a little odd to be on a first name basis with Starwind after antagonizing him for so long. But if he was going to live with Gene and the others, Mazren realized he'd have to adapt.

Looking ahead, Mazren saw the hallway end in a set of double doors before splitting off to the right. Mazren expected Slag to take the turn, but instead the wolf stopped and began pawing at the doors. "Through here?" he asked. Slag whined and Mazren slung his shotgun across his back. "If you say so." Pulling the doors open, Mazren and Slag entered into a large octagonal shaped room with numerous martial art weapons adorning the walls. In addition to the one they came in, there were two other sliding doors set into a triangle formation. Looks like some kind of reception hall, Mazren thought. "So which way now?" he asked as the door across from them opened and half a dozen guards spilled through. That answers that, he thought as the guards pointed their blaster spears towards him and Slag. Splitting up, Mazren and Slag ran to opposite sides of the room as Mazren pulled and fired his shotgun, drawing the guards' attention away from Slag. Shooting two in the chest, Mazren leapt and rolled past their fire as Slag bowled into them, his teeth sinking into the throat of one and crushing his windpipe. Before the last three could regain their footing, Mazren pumped his legs and ran across the side of the wall before leaping off and soaring above them. Something flashed in the air and the guards fell to the floor with one of Mazren's throwing knives sticking out of each of their foreheads.

"You okay Slag?" Mazren asked as the wolf released his victim and licked off the blood dripping from his jaws. "Then let's get..." but before Mazren could finish, the third door flew open and another guard burst into the main hall. Mazren turned to fire and had just taken aim when his shotgun was knocked out of his hand. Looking over his shoulder, he watched as the spear that impaled his gun carried it though the air and stuck it onto a wall. Back stepping away, Mazren reached for his pistols as he analyzed his new enemy. The guard was as big as Shidowkun and wore an iron mask that covered his face. But what really set him apart was that he wasn't carrying a single weapon. The spear he had used was ripped off the wall and hurled using only his own strength. "You know," Mazren said, "you just broke one of my favorite guns. It was a Jackson Lee custom special."

"Guns are for the weak," the guard replied. "A true fighter only needs his own strength." Stepping out of the doorway, Mazren and the guard circled each other, never breaking eye contact. "I don't have time to waste fighting someone like you. My master is awaiting my return so that he can finally fulfill his objectives. I will not fail him; not when we're both finally ready to achieve fruition."

"Yeah well I've got objectives of my own," Mazren said. "And I'm not about to fail either so bring it on."

"As you wish," the guard said as he reached behind and pulled an Iron Cudgel off the wall. "But don't expect me to show you any mercy."

"That's just the way I like it." From behind him, Mazren heard the sound of Slag padding up to his side. "Slag you go on ahead, this won't take long." Mazren heard Slag growl, as if he knew something Mazren didn't and wasn't about to leave him alone. "Slag don't argue with me! Go find the others and guide them to Melfina!" Slag's growl became a whine and Mazren looked over his shoulder. "Damn it will you just do as I say!" Slag's ears flattened, but he didn't argue any further. Turning around, the wolf ran out the door the six guards had previously come from in search of the way up to the next floor. I'm counting on you Slag, Mazren said as he turned back to his enemy.

"I am Karg," the guard said. "I am captain of the Akuma, the elite honor guard of the Toku Emperor."

"And I am Mazren the Wolf. As I said before, I have my own objectives so I'm going to make this quick." Pulling his guns, Mazren fired and emptied both clips towards Karg as the masked guard lifted his cudgel and twirled it in his hands, deflecting each bullet Mazren shot at him. "What the hell?"

"I told you," Karg reminded him. "A true fighter only needs his own strength." That cudgel has to weigh at least twenty or thirty pounds, Mazren thought as he holstered his guns. But he wields it as thought it didn't weigh even one.

"Okay fine," Mazren said as he reached for his sword. "If you're pulling out all the stops then so will I." Pulling the blade free, Mazren began accelerating the flow of his ki through his sword until the blade flamed with electric fire. Unleashing a kai yell, Mazren flashed his sword through the air and sent a wave of lightning energy racing towards Karg. But instead of dodging, Karg calmly stood his ground before pulling back his cudgel and slamming the Lightning Blade Flash in its center, the force of his blow reflecting the attack back to Mazren. Not believing what he had seen, Mazren cut his sword down the middle of the attack and dispersed most of it around him. Still, the strain of cutting through the Lightning Blade Flash had left him unable to block two of the lightning bolts from striking him across his right shoulder and left flank.

"Secret techniques are nothing more than parlor tricks designed to dazzle an opponent while compensating for one's own weakness," Karg lectured as Mazren kneeled to the floor in pain. "I have no need for such displays. Now if you'll excuse me…"

"Hold it," Mazren said as he struggled back to his feet. "This fight is just getting started." Behind his mask, Mazren saw Karg's eyes narrow as he assessed him.

"Don't say I never gave you a chance to escape." Twirling his cudgel in front of his chest, Karg launched himself towards Mazren, swingin his weapon from below. Mazren lowered his sword to block, but Karg twisted the cudgel around Mazren's blade and thrust toward his face. Mazren bent out of the way but Karg reversed his direction and swung towards him. Mazren raised up his sword to block and the impact sent him flying back six feet. Mazren scarcely had time to regain his balence when Karg flew against him, his cudgel swinging through the air as he hammered against Mazren's katana. Mazren felt the impact from each blow travel down his blade and into his wrist as he focused all his strength on merely holding on to his sword. With his defense down, Mazren was caught off guard when Karg ducked and sweep kicked him off his feet. Falling to the floor, Mazren looked up and saw Karg's club coming down onto his head. Mazren rolled out of the way and barely avoided the cudgel as it cracked open the tile flooring. Not one to give up his advantage, Karg continued to chase after Mazren, his club creating sunken pits in the floor until he cornered Mazren against the wall. With no room to roll away, Mazren instead rolled towards Karg, placing himself inside his enemy's defense range before hand springing into the air and planting both feet into Karg's chin. As Karg fell to the floor, Mazren retreated to the far side of the room so that he could refocus his energies. This guy is really going all out, he thought. But after swinging that club around he's got to be tired out by now. But instead, Karg balanced on his shoulders and sprung back to his feet, not showing any sign of being even remotely exhausted.

"You're strong for someone as young as you are," Karg admitted. "But strength is useless without the proper discipline and experience."

"Then how about I try for speed instead?" Pulling his sword's scabbard from his back, Mazren sheathed his sword and held it down by his side, grasping the scabbard in one hand and the hilt in another. An Iaijitsu stance? Karg thought. He must think that after swinging this cudgel around that I must be tiring out. I suppose that I'll have to prove him wrong. "Well what are you waiting for?" Mazren asked. "Come on I haven't got all day."

"As you wish." Grasping his cudgel in both hands, Karg raised it up on his left and charged. He was less than six feet from contact when Mazren drew his sword and slashed at Karg's throat. Swinging his club, Karg met Mazren's strike head on and knocked the katana from Mazren's hands. But before he could reverse his weapon's momentum for a second strike, Mazren spun from the impact and cracked his sword's scabbard over Karg's head, sending him flying across the room and knocking off his mask.

"You shouldn't charge blindly against an opponent," Mazren lectured. "You'll never know what sort of trap he might have planned." Expecting Karg to lie still, Mazren could hardly believe his eyes when Karg began to stand up. That hit should have split his head wide open, Mazren thought. How the hell can he still be moving?

"And you shouldn't gloat until after the fight is over," Karg said as he rose to his feet, clutching the gash on his forehead. Karg removed his hand, and Mazren cringed at what lay underneath. Karg's face was a stretch of burned and featureless leathery flesh. His nose had been crushed into his face and his lips were little more than flaps of skin partly fused onto his gums.

"Shit," Mazren said. "Now I know why you wear that thing." Reaching to the floor, Karg retrieved his mask and reattached the strap which Mazren had broken off.

"I don't wear this mask to hide my scars," Karg told him as he slid it back over his face. "I wear it because it's my true face, a reminder to never forget what I'm fighting for."

"What was that?" Mazren asked. "Alright, I don't know why you're so loyal to a piece of scum like Shidowkun, but don't you dare try to act like you have honor; not after what you and your boss have done to my sister. People like you are nothing but spineless lackeys who don't even know what honor means." Karg's eyes narrowed in anger as he pulled back his arm and snapped his palm forward; creating a shockwave that blasted Mazren off his feet and sent him flying towards into a wall, his scabbard dropping from his hand.

"You have no idea of who I am."

Sliding both of her sashes through the door jam, Aeslea pulled and forced the doors open before exiting onto the seventh level. When she had arrived at Naga's quarters and found him absent, Aeslea knew she had to catch up to him before he had a chance to escape. Most likely, he planned on using the emergency stairway to elude detection as he made his way towards the hangers in the fortress's sublevels. But even with her greater speed, Aeslea realized that Naga had too much of a head start for her to follow that way. So instead she chose the expressway down-by repelling straight down an elevator shaft.

You won't escape from me Naga, Aeslea promised. Lord Shidowkun ordered me to bring you to him and I won't allow myself to fail him. It was Aeslea's sole purpose in life to ensure her master's pleasure in any way she could. He was the only one worthy of her servitude, unlike the owners she had been bounced around from since she was thirteen, when the Ban Pirates slaughtered her parents and sold her into slavery. Aeslea never forgot the pain and shame from the violations her owners had all imposed on her, and neither did she forget how Shidowkun had freed her. When she was sixteen, her owner had incurred the wrath of The Toku Emperor and he had offered her as a peace offering. Shidowkun accepted, but slaughtered him anyway. Aeslea had expected Shidowkun to use her for his pleasure, but instead he took her under his care and trained her, taught her to be strong and merciless towards her enemies. And in the end, she came to Shidowkun's bed of her own free will. It was because of him that Aeslea had escaped a life of weakling tortured and abused by those stronger than her. Now, she was the one who tortured and abused. It was a pleasure that was surpassed only by when her master ravaged her. And once Shidowkun obtained the Sword, the universe and everyone in it would be little more than playthings for the amusement of Aeslea and her master.

At the end of the hall, Aeslea found herself at a nexus of eight other corridors. One of them led to another elevator shaft that would take her straight to the sub-levels. Aeslea was attempting to remember which way to go when a movement inside the hall to her left caught her attention.

"Who's there?" she demanded. "Show yourself."

"Small world isn't it?" I recognize that voice, Aeslea thought. Aeslea readied the sash on her left arm as the ninja girl she had met on the Sword's planet stepped into the nexus followed by a group of Dragon Clan fighters. "I was hoping we'd see each other again."

"Oh it's you," Aeslea sighed. "Come for more humiliation I see."

"Not this time," the girl said as she called over her shoulder to her fighters. "You guys go and meet the others. I'll catch up later." From behind the girl, the Clan fighters moved around her and Aeslea before vanishing down another passageway.

"Tell me your name little girl," Aeslea asked. "I forgot to ask it at our first meeting." Pulling her sais, the ninja girl pointed them towards Aeslea as she assumed an Okinawa stance.

"It's Keibara."

"Well listen to me Keibara," Aeslea warned, "the only reason why I allowed your little friends to leave unharmed was because The Emperor sent me on a mission. So be a good little girl and stand aside. I don't have time to play with you at the moment."

"I don't think so," the ninja girl answered. "You and I have unfinished business and we're going to settle it now."

"As you wish." With a flick of her wrist, Aeslea cracked her sash and unleashed the rose petals inside its folds, covering Keibara in a blanket of crimson blossoms. With her enemy blinded, Aeslea flung her other sash forward and struck at where Keibara's heart would be. "Such a shame. You were rough and common, but you were pretty enough." But as the cloud of blossoms began to settle, Aeslea was shocked to see that not only was Keibara unharmed, she had intercepted her sash and wrapped it around one of her sais.

"You shouldn't use the same trick twice against an enemy," Keibara told her. Feeling her ire beginning to rise, Aeslea pulled back on her sash and Keibara released it, knocking Aeslea off balance. Aeslea stumbled back and almost failed to block Keibara as she dashed towards her and began stabbing at Aeslea with her sais. With no room to attack, Aeslea backed away and retreated down one of the hallways with Keibara in close pursuit. In these narrow quarters, Aeslea's fighting style was more a liability than an asset. She'd have to lure the ninja girl to where SHE would have the advantage.

With his magic to guide him, Jubei eventually found the entrance to the hidden staircase. A sloping, winding passage that climbed inside the exterior walls of the fortress, the secret route was the route through which he sensed the familiar presence approaching. Jubei had climbed the steps until he had reached level 15, when the presence became less then three floors away. Around the bend, he finally saw the shadow of a hunched figure approaching, but Jubei decided to wait until he came within eyesight to make his presence known.

There he was. As Jubei expected, he was hunched over and his crimson robes seemed to only weigh down the emaciated body that wore them, the price for studying of Tao sorcery.

"So you choose to betray and abandon your allies again," Jubei called out. "All this time and you still haven't changed one bit have you?" The figure stopped and looked down towards Jubei, his emaciated face in disbelief that a stranger would dare speak to him in such a fashion.

"Who are you?" he demanded. "Show your face." Jubei lifted the brim of his had, and the emaciated man's face paled in shock.

"It's been a long time Naga," Jubei said. "A hundred years since you betrayed our order to the Tim'Pa Empire. I would have figured that you'd be dead by now."

"The wonders of Tao alchemy are unrivaled," Naga said as he pointed his staff towards Jubei. "Thanks to the longevity serum, I've had a great number of years to perfect my magic. And what have you been doing this entire time? Still contemplating the souls of rocks while talking with crickets like an idiot?"

"Without an understanding of nature you can never understand yourself," Jubei replied. "And without harmony with nature you will never possess your own harmony. But you could never understand such a simple concept could you Naga? So you betrayed our master and brothers to the Empire and devoted your life to controlling the ki lines by force. And now look at you. All that power; and you're little more than a walking corpse."

"Enough!" Naga hissed as he reached into his cloak. "Our master was an idealistic fool and so are you if you still embrace his idiotic philosophy. If you won't get out of my way, then I shall teach you just how stupid you really are." Retracting his cloak, Naga pulled out three crystal balls and threw them to the ground. The balls shattered, and tendrils of blue smoke rose into the air as Naga began to chant, shaping the smoke into three cobra creatures as big as Anacondas and with clawed humanoid hands. "Kill him!" Naga ordered. The smoke creatures flew through the air towards Jubei as the Wiseman reached into his robes and pulled out three scroll charms. The creatures were less then three feet from him when Jubei flicked his wrist and threw the charms onto their foreheads, the papers bursting into flame before spreading and consuming the creatures' smoky bodies.

"A man who never fights his own battles will never know true victory," Jubei lectured.

"Well said," Naga agreed. "Then how about this?" Flexing his wrist, Naga dropped three small seeds from his sleeve into his hand. Throwing them at Jubei's feet, Naga began to chant and the seeds sprouted into thick thorn covered vines that rose and wrapped around Jubei like a cocoon. "Ironic isn't it," Naga laughed. "You love nature so much and now you die from it. Suddenly, a red light began to shine from within the cocoon before the vines exploded in flame and burned away, freeing Jubei from his imprisonment unharmed.

"Even the hardest rock shall yield to the roots of wood," he said. "But the sturdiest of trees will always fall before fire. You would know this Naga if you harmonized with nature instead of controlling it." Feeling his irritation change into fury, Naga decided that it was time to show this annoying pest the true depths of his power.

"This bores me," Naga hissed as he dropped his staff. "What say you that we decide this matter with the Dragon's Trial?"

"Like we did in the old days?" Jubei asked as he lowered his staff as well. "I suppose that I can agree to that." Clasping their hands in front of themselves, both Jubei and Naga performed the ritual prayer positions needed to cast the Dragon's Trial as they filled the passageway with their respective chants.

"Pagama sampa, pagama sampa, pagama sampa…"

"Huoy guoy guoy, huoy guoy guoy huoy guoy guoy…"

Around them, their bodies flamed with mystic energy before springing to life and taking the form of a dragon. Jubei made the first move, his golden dragon wrapping around Naga's red dragon and attempting to push it to the ground. For several minutes, the two dragons wrestled and coiled around each other as Naga and Jubei gradually increased the strength of their spells. Suddenly, Naga performed an extra hand gesture and his staff levitated into the air. From its headpiece, a beam of red light shot out and into Naga's dragon, increasing its size and allowing it to swallow Jubei's dragon like a cobra eating a rat snake.

"And now you die!" Naga yelled. With the power from both his staff and Jubei's consumed dragon, Naga's dragon reared up and crashed straight down on Jubei, enveloping the Wiseman in its jaws.

"You can't hold on forever Ron!" Harry growled. "Sooner or later you're going to pass out and then you're dead!"

"Whatever," Ron replied. Actually, he already knew that it was going to be sooner. He could feel his heart beginning to slow as his vision blurred. The body armor underneath his burgundy coat had absorbed most of the impact, but the bullet had lodged itself in his stomach muscles. He had lost too much blood, as the trail he had left from where he had pulled Harry off the android and dragged him back to the android's cell seemed to prove. To make it worse, the act of holding on Harry seemed to move the bullet in even deeper. But Ron wouldn't let go, not before he had a chance to give some kind of payback against the Toku, something that would cause a little chaos and throw a monkey wrench into their plans. Karg had already left, and knowing Shidowkun, he already knew that the android had escaped and had sent someone to deal with him and Harry. Never thought it would end like this, Ron thought. I always expected to go out in a blaze of glory like Hilda. Something people would talk about for years to come. Ron expected to feel depressed, but instead he felt strangely calm, even a little relieved. After all, soon he'd see his REAL brother again.

"Ron look out," Harry warned. Ron looked up and through the blur made out three distorted humanoid creatures as they rose out of the shadows and skulked towards them. "Ron let me go. Those things are gonna kill us both unless you do." Ron didn't answer. "Ron come on!" Harry pleaded. "I didn't mean to shoot you! Shidowkun forced me too! You'd know I'd never do something like that intentionally!" But Ron still didn't answer. "Okay I'm sorry!" Harry admitted. "I swear I'll never do it again! Now come on let me go!" Looking away from the creatures that were now just inches from them, Ron glanced at his brother and gave him a triumphant grin. "RON YOU CAN'T DO THIS TO ME!" Harry shrieked. "I'M YOUR BROTHER!"

"My brother is dead," Ron finally replied. "Let's go join him." Clenching his jaws, Ron cracked the grenade embedded in his back tooth and a ball of fire exploded out of the cell's door.

The halls of Shidowkun's fortress were a maze of twists, turns and dead ends. But thanks to her bio-android brain, Melfina was a natural born navigator. Even if she found herself at a dead end, Melfina was able to intuitively find her way back to where she had made her wrong turn and try again. It wasn't an easy trip. Many times she would see Akuma guards coming down the same hall she was. Melfina would hide herself behind a column, a statue, or even down another corridor and wait for them to pass. Luckily, the guards seemed preoccupied with whatever was happening in the lower levels and never even noticed her.

It was after she had descended four levels from where she had parted with the MacDougal brothers that Melfina heard the muffled boom. What was that? she wondered. She didn't smell any smoke or feel any heat near her. In fact it almost sounded like it came from above her. When she realized this, Melfina felt a sudden sting in her heart as she realized who must have caused the explosion. Ron, I'm so sorry, Melfina thought as a single tear fell from her eye. He and Harry had been caught up Shidowkun's trap and had suffered needlessly. But as sad as Melfina felt, she realized that there was no time for tears now. Ron had saved her from Harry and allowed her to escape. She would grieve for him later but for now, she had to find her way to Gene.

Suddenly, the sound of voices from a corridor on her left signaled the approach of another group of Akuma. Ducking behind a nearby column, Melfina held her breath and hoped that the guards didn't hear her racing heartbeat. Not even bothering to look, Melfina shrank into her hiding place as deep as she could as three Akuma guards rushed past without even seeing the girl hiding less then a foot away from them. Only after she watched them vanish down another hall did Melfina give herself permission to relax. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Melfina waited for her pulse to slow before continuing on her way. Finding Gene was no longer just for herself, but for Ron as well. She wouldn't allow his sacrifice to be in vain.

"Jim no!" Gene yelled as the grip of the four girls who pinning him to the floor tightened even further. Over the shapely legs of the one who had his neck trapped in a leg lock, Gene could see his partner thrashing as one the other two girls held his head underwater, Jim's struggles beginning to gradually slow. Faced with the imminent death of his partner, whatever reluctance Gene had about hurting the girls vanished as the Dragon crest on his hand began to shine and he felt the power flow out and latch onto a nearby potted plant. Gene tugged, and the plant flew off its mount and cracked open the head of the girl holding his right arm. With one limb free, Gene hooked his elbow around the neck of the girl grabbing his other arm and with a burst of energy, flipped her over and off him as he twisted himself free of the other two. Rolling to his knees, Gene called out for his gun and felt it fly from wherever he had dropped it into his hand. Feeling the sword's power guiding him, Gene fired two ki bullets and shot both the girls drowning Jim. As his partner's head snapped out of the water and gasped for air, the remaining three girls surrounding Gene rose back to their feet and attacked. One attacked head on and Gene shot her between the eyes as the final two attacked from the sides. Gene dodged and spun out of the way of the girls' strikes before swinging his heel around and planting it in the back of one. As the girl fell to the ground, her comrade grabbed a nearby towel and attempted to wrap it around Gene's throat. Grabbing the towel, Gene pulled and the girl fell right into the sights of his pistol. He had just shot her when he heard the final girl get up and charge him from the read. With no time to turn around, Gene's free hand drew his Casterblade and stabbed behind him, allowing the girl to impale herself on his blade. Shoving her off of him, Gene felt his mind come back as he dropped his weapons and hurried over to where Jim lay heaving on his back, his blonde hair a soggy dripping mess.

"You okay?" Gene asked as he braced his partner's back.

"I'll let you know after I get all the water out of my lungs," Jim gagged. Giving his partner a moment to rest, Gene looked around at the six girls he had killed in less then a minute. Even if he had done it to save Jim, just the thought that he had killed six women was enough to make Gene feel like crap. "Gene?" Jim asked.

"I know they attacked us," Gene said. "But I didn't want to hurt them. It wasn't their fault Jim. Shidowkun was controlling them. But I had no choice. They were killing you." Leaving his partner's side, Gene leaned over one of the girls he had shot and closed her eyes. "I'm sorry."

"Um Gene," Jim said. "You shot that girl so shouldn't there be a lot of blood on the floor."

"Huh?" Gene looked back to Jim, then back to the girl and saw that Jim was right. He had shot her in the lung, but there wasn't a single drop of blood anywhere. "What the hell?"

"When those other two were clinging to me," Jim explained, "I noticed there was something wrong with their eyes. These girls are all androids Gene. Shidowkun had programmed them to attack us. Does that make you feel any better?"

"I guess," Gene answered. "But not much, I mean Mel's an…"

"Yeah I know," Jim interrupted. "But she and Mazren are a lot more advanced than these. These androids aren't much more than tools without any sense of free will or feelings. So don't worry about it okay Gene."

"Yeah I guess you're right," Gene said as he and Jim stood up. Raising his hands, Gene reached out with the power and called his gun and Casterblade back to his hand. "It's a good thing I did all that practice with the sword's power on the way here though. Now let's get out of here before something else happens."

"Yeah sure," Jim said as he followed after Gene. "I just hope the others are having an easier time than we are."

With a final heave of their claws, two of the Super-Oni slashed their way through the door and spilled into the elevator. Hissing with rage, they prepared to rip their prey to bloody pieces when they suddenly realized that they were the only ones in the elevator. Surveying every inch of their confines, the first two were joined by their comrades as they searched for any trace of the two women they had chased into the elevator. It was only after the seventh and final creature had entered the elevator that they peered towards the elevator's top and saw movement through the open ceiling panel.

"Suzu now!" Aisha yelled. On the opposite side of the shaft, Suzu held onto her maintenance ladder with one hand as she slashed the brakes holding the elevator in its guidance tracks, sending the car with the Super-Oni inside plummeting downward. "How do you like that?" Aisha yelled as the flicker of orange flame signaled that the elevator and its occupants had finally hit rock bottom

"They may be stronger than the usual Oni," Suzuka said. "But luckily they're still just as stupid."

"See," Aisha beamed as she and Suzu began to climb up the shaft to the next floor. "Running in there turned out to be a good idea after all."

"But only because it was an elevator," Suzuka reminded her. "If that had been a storage facility or a utilities room we'd be trapped with no way out. From now on Aisha no more leaping before you look."

"Oh what are you complaining about? It all worked out in the end didn't it? Now then, just wait there and I'll get these doors open." But before Aisha could even reach out to them, the elevator doors for the next level opened by themselves; leaving Aisha and Suzu staring down the business end of another blaster spear.

"Well look what I found," the Akuma guard boasted. "Looks like I've got myself a bit of a rat problem."

"Who are you calling a rat?" Aisha demanded. Before the guard could answer, something ran up to behind him and knocked him forward, sending him screaming down the elevator shaft to join the Super-Oni at the bottom. In the guard's place, Aisha and Suzu heard a growling bark as Slag appeared in the doorway. "Hey Maz!" Aisha yelled. "Glad to see you made it! Give us a hand out of here would you?" Slag whined as if something was wrong and Aisha suddenly became worried. "Maz what are you doing? Get off you ass and help us!" But as soon as Aisha pulled herself into view, she saw that Slag was alone and Maz was nowhere to be seen. Leaping off the ladder and out of the shaft, Aisha kneeled down so that she was eye-to-eye with the wolf. "Slag what happened? Is Maz in trouble?" Slag whined again and Aisha knew she was right. "Then come on, show us where he is and…"

"Aisha no," Suzu said as she leapt out of the shaft to join them. "We can't afford to backtrack. We need to keep going forward no matter what."

"Suzu are you crazy!" Aisha yelled. "Maz could be in deep trouble right now. How the hell can you just abandon your own boyfriend? I didn't think even…"

"And what would Mazren want us to do?" Aisha stopped yelling as the thought suddenly struck her.

"Um," Aisha said, unable to put into words the conflicting emotions inside her. She didn't want to abandon one of her friends if she could help them, but she also knew that Maz would want them to keep going so they could find Melfina.

"Mazren knew the dangers and risks involved in rescuing Melfina and accepted them. We all did." Despite the icy calm in Suzu's voice, Aisha could have sworn she could see a lingering trace of both fear and sadness in the assassin's eyes. "Whatever he's facing, all we can do is hope that he's strong enough get through it on his own.

Mazren stumbled back from Karg's assault and felt his back slam into the wall just before Karg ran forward and bounced off the wall, swinging his leg and kicking Mazren in the side. The blow sent Mazren flying across the floor of the hall before grabbing onto the floor to stop himself. Leaping to his feet, Mazren looked up in time to see Karg coming straight towards him. Shaping his hands into spear-fists, Karg jabbed relentlessly as Mazren weaved out of the way until an opening presented itself. Ducking underneath the larger man's reach, Mazren palm struck Karg's chin, giving Mazren enough time and space to charge his Thunder Fist Storm. Seeing the technique Mazren was about to use, Karg crossed his arms over his chest and blocked the booming impacts before Mazren slammed him with a super charged Thunder Fist, the impact sending Karg skidding backwards as Mazren leapt into the air and thrust his heel towards Karg's face. But Karg recovered in time and caught Mazren's foot and twisted, sending his opponent spinning through the air before Mazren raised his other leg and spin kicking Karg in the head, both fighters falling to the floor where they lay gasping in exhaustion.

"I don't get you," Mazren said. "You haven't picked up another weapon since you knocked my sword out of my hand, but you still insist on fighting for someone like Shidowkun. Don't you think your definition of honor is a little hypocritical?"

"Enough!" Karg yelled as he began to pick himself off the floor. "Someone like you would never understand how I feel so why should I even bother explaining myself?" Rising to his knees, Karg punched and Mazren rolled out of the way as Karg's fist exploded the floor where his head had just been.

"Then let me explain something," Mazren told him. "If you keep helping Shidowkun, then he's going to betray you. He doesn't care about loyalties or honor, only for his own ambitions. And if he wins, then he's going to cast the entire universe all the way down into the tenth level of hell."

"And your point being?" Karg asked as they both climbed to their feet.

"Point?" Mazren asked. "Didn't you hear anything I just said?" And then, Mazren finally understood. "You know don't you? You know what Shidowkun's planning to do?"

"Exactly," Karg replied. "The entire universe may be destroyed but it's a price I'm willing to pay if it means the destruction of the Piotr Republic." His curiosity piqued, Mazren lowered his guard.

"So what did the Piotr Republic ever do to you?"

"And why should I tell you?"

"This is a fight to the death isn't it?" Mazren said as he began to circle around Karg. "Let's just say that it's my final request." Karg's gaze narrowed behind his mask before he dropped his guard as well.

"My birth name was Anton Maksiim, and I was an agent in the Department of the Interior. My mission was too seek out those who threatened the stability of the Republic from the inside and eliminate them. I was one of the Department's best agents and I loved my work. I believed that it was my duty to destroy those who betrayed the Republic so that those who were loyal like myself would have a chance for a peaceful future. The only thing that surpassed my devotion to the Republic was to my daughter Sienna." Reaching into his belt, Karg pulled out a locket and opened it. Inside was a picture of him and his daughter celebrating her sixth birthday, less then a month from when it occurred. "My wife died shortly after she was born and she became my only family. But as she grew up, I began to fear that my missions were taking me from her. So I approached my superiors for a safer position within the department, one that would allow me to be there for my daughter whenever she needed me. They agreed, but I had one last mission to fulfill before I could receive it."

"So what happened?" Mazren asked.

"My assignment was to execute a gang of rebels who were attempting to discredit a high ranking Senator named Sergei Rasputa. But after I tracked them down, I learned that the rebels were the true patriots and that it was Senator Rasputa who was corrupt. He had accepted bribes from various heads of business within the Republic as well as from the Ban pirate guild. With this new information, I returned and spoke directly to the Minister of the Interior, hoping that the mistake in our intelligence would be corrected and the true traitor would be brought to justice."

"But he wasn't was he?" Returning the locket to his belt, Karg's fist balled itself into a shaking knot.

"Senator Rasputa held great influence within the Republic. He had ties to the Chancellor, half the Senate, even the Minister of the Interior. For fear that he would either expose their secrets or deny them favors, my report was destroyed and they came for me and my daughter in the middle of the night." Grasping his mask, Karg ran his head over its surface as if making sure it was still there. "My own superiors were the ones who made me wear this Iron Mask. My face was burned away but I managed to escape during the process. My daughter wasn't so lucky." Raising his guard, Karg felt his energy begin to burn with the hatred inside him. "I learned an important lesson that day. Right and wrong, honor and justice; they're nothing more than empty words. All that really matters is strength. And once Lord Shidowkun obtains the power of the Sword, he will possess enough strength to make the entire Piotr Republic suffer as I have."

"And those who had nothing to do with your daughter's death?" Mazren asked. "Like Melfina?"

"She and anyone else will be considered nothing more than a casualty of war." Seeing Mazren's defense still down, Karg switched to offensive and dashed towards him. "Now die!" he yelled. But while he was talking, Karg had failed to see that Mazren had deliberately moved himself over to where Karg had dropped his Iron Cudgel. With a flick of his leg, Mazren kicked the metal club into the air and straight into Karg's face. Knocking the weapon aside, Karg left himself open and Mazren darted forward to grab his wrists and shove Karg backwards, pinning his back against the wall.

"And what about your daughter?" Mazren asked, the Thunder Fist Wolf Fang paralyzing Karg's arms with the energy Mazren injected into his opponent's nerves. "How do you think she'd feel if she saw you like this? Do you think she'd be happy that her father was going to kill billons of innocent people simply to vindicate her death? Do you think that she'd be proud of what you've become?"

"SHUT UP!" Karg screamed. Slamming his knee into Mazren's stomach, Karg broke Mazren's concentration enough for him to break free, his fists a blur as they pounded across Mazren's head and body. "Don't you dare try to judge me! Not until you know what it's like to see the one person you care for the most in the entire world ripped from your arms while you're powerless to stop it!" Seizing Mazren by the throat, Karg him over his head as his grip tightened around Mazren's windpipe. "Do you know what happened to my daughter after they murdered her? Her body was cremated and her ashes thrown out in the garbage while every record of her life; her birth certificate, her medical records, her citizenship number; was completely erased as if she never existed in the first place. They didn't just take my daughter's life, THEY TOOK HER MEMORY!" With a heave of his arm, Karg threw Mazren clear across the room where he bounced off a wall and slumped to the floor. "My daughter was beautiful, gentle, and innocent; and she suffered and died because her father tried to stand up for what he felt was right! As long as you live you will never understand the sorrow that I feel. So don't even try to tell me that I have no right to seek revenge. If our roles were reversed, you would be doing the exact same thing." Tired of wasting time when he could be tracking the android girl, Karg turned to leave when he heard Mazren call out to him.

"You're right."

"What was that?" Karg asked over his shoulder.

"You have every right to hate them for what they did. And you deserve revenge for your pain. And if I had gone through what you have, I probably would do the exact same thing as you. On the other hand, if our roles really were reversed, you'd be doing the exact same thing as me." Rising to his feet, Mazren stared at Karg with eyes like a wild animal. "But you know what? None of that matters because you're standing between me and my sister and that makes you my enemy. So if you don't get out of my way right now I'm going to kill you." Karg stared at Mazren and for the first time since his daughter died, he felt a sense of doubt in what he was doing. He has the same eyes I once had, Karg thought. He doesn't care about the universe, only about saving his sister. And he's willing to die to do it. He's everything I used to be. No, I can't afford to think this way. Assuming an attack stance, Karg began to focus his ki as he returned Mazren's steely gaze.

"Then I suppose we have no choice but to let our strengths determine which of us is right."

"Fine with me." Slamming his fists together in front of him, Mazren raised his ki as his energy crackled like lighting across him; the air around him swirling like a tornado. Crossing his arms in front of him, Karg generated a flaming red aura around his body as the air around him rippled with his excess power. Beneath them both, the floor cracked and shattered as their respective powers met and clashed against each other.

"Ready!" Karg yelled as they pulled their fists back.

"Go!" Mazren yelled. The hallway filled with dual sonic booms as Karg and Mazren charged towards each other and slammed their fists into each other's chest, the backlash from their impact creating a shockwave that shook the entire level and seared the walls with their power. As the dust fell from cracks in the ceiling, Mazren groaned as a line of blood drooled from his lip. Behind his mask, Karg looked down at the younger man and smiled.

"I'm glad I had a chance to fight with someone like you," he said as his mask began to crack. Then, with a shudder that shook his whole body, Karg coughed up blood and his mask shattered. Falling forward, Karg was caught by Mazren who slowly dragged both of them to a nearby wall and lowered them down to the floor.

"You didn't use your full strength," Mazren said as he braced Karg's back. "You held back." Karg looked up to Mazren and a smile formed on his burned face.

"My heart just wasn't into it," he wheezed. "I'm sorry. Fighting with you helped me realize that what I planned to do to your sister was no different than what the Republic did to my daughter. Forgive me." Karg coughed and another mouthful of blood fell onto his breastplate.

"Melfina," Mazren asked, "how do I get to where they're holding her?"

"She isn't there anymore," Karg explained. "I went to retrieve her and Ron MacDougal attacked me from behind. He learned how Shidowkun was using him and decided to escape with her."

"They could be anywhere then," Mazren said. "For all I know she could have passed us while we were fighting."

"Doubtful," Karg assured him. "The layout for each floor is different each with its own set of corridors and byways. There's no way she could have gotten this far by now. But there is a way to explore the remaining floors quickly." Raising his finger, Karg pointed down the hallway he had entered through. "Down there you'll find a samurai armor set against the wall. Inside the mouth of the mask is a button that triggers the door to a secret passage that leads all the way to Shidowkun's throne room at the fortress's top. Explore each floor carefully and you'll find her eventually."

"What about Melfina?" Mazren asked. "Is she all right?"

"You needn't worry. I ensured her safety while she was here…made sure she was fed so that she wouldn't suffer anymore than she had to." Leaning back, Karg felt something fall from his eye but didn't look to see if it was a tear or blood. "She reminded me so much of my own daughter. When I talked to her…I almost forgot that she wasn't. But there's more that you need to know."

"Hey don't talk," Mazren said. "You've done enough." But Karg grabbed Mazren's arm and held on with more strength than one who was mortally wounded should have.

"No, listen to me! If Shidowkun knows that you and your friends are here then he'll have released the yokai. They're a mutated version of Oni, infused with the Emperor's own energy. They have no weakspot. They can only be killed if their body is completely destroyed."

"I think I might have something for that," Mazren said. "What else?" Reaching to his belt, Karg unhooked a piece of his armor and pressed his thumb across the top before sliding it open.

"Drink this," he ordered. Mazren took the flask from Karg and sniffed the contents before taking a quick sip of the liquid inside. Suddenly, Mazren felt every muscle in his body tighten and contract as he gripped his stomach, his insides feeling like he had just poured acid down his throat. Poison, Mazren's mind screamed just before the pain vanished. As it did, Mazren felt whatever fatigue and wounds he suffered from fighting Karg vanish as well. "It's a product of Naga's Tao alchemy," Karg explained. "It grants complete regeneration of the body and ki, even if one is near death."

"Than you'd better drink some as well," Mazren said. But Karg pushed the flask away and shook his head.

"No. You must save it for your friends. If worse comes to worse and you have to fight Shidowkun, you'll need every advantage you can get. Don't waste any of the serum on me." With a second bloody cough, Karg pushed at Mazren's shoulder. "Now go. Don't worry about me. You must go find your sister. Shidowkun must be kept from achieving his terrible goals no matter what." Mazren looked at Karg for a second before he finally stood up.

"Thank you for taking care of my sister," Mazren said. "I'll come back for you after I find her so just stay alive until then." Turning away, Mazren ran to retrieve his sword and scabbard before disappearing down the passage Karg had indicated. Alone in the wrecked reception hall; Karg pulled the locket from his belt and stared at the picture of Sienna.

"I wanted to give honor to your death," he thought aloud. "I wanted to show that your life had more value than the fate you were given. But all I did was create even more pain and suffering." Karg shifted his position and felt searing pain spread throughout his whole body. "No," he said as he wiped the blood from his mouth. "I can't die yet. Not while there's still so much I need to do."

"That's right!" Naga laughed. "Eat his body and burn his soul to ash!" As his dragon's coils wrapped around its head, Naga could imagine the agony that Jubei was experiencing. The Dragon's Trial was a sacred duel of the Celestial Dragons where the participants could only use their own power. Outside aide or enhancement tools where strictly forbidden. But Naga had no intention of losing to a deluded fool like Jubei. So before the match had even begun, Naga had slipped an enchantment onto his staff, allowing it to give its energy to Naga's dragon. That feeble minded idiot Jubei had anticipated a fair fight and now he was little more than a bloody stain on the stairs. Bowing his head, Naga performed a mock act of prayer. "Rest in peace old friend. Now you can join our feeble minded teacher and all those who pollute their power with useless philosophy."

Suddenly, something began to happen to Naga's dragon. Its body began to morph and diffuse as its light changed from red to gold.

"NO!" Naga screamed. "This can't be happening! It's impossible!" As Naga watched, the dragon's shape melted into a typhoon of blazing gold fire that rose to the ceiling, the shadowy image of a man in its center.

"Naga!" the voice of Jubei roared. "Without understanding, one can never know the true depths of their potential. And without harmony, one can never master their potential. No matter how strong your Tao sorcery may become, without a strong mind and spirit it will never be anything more than simple brute force; a shallow power that is only skin deep." His mind numb with shock, Naga's bony knuckles clenched his staff as he stared into the heart of the flaming cyclone.

"You think that I'm afraid of you?" Naga yelled. "You're nothing but a babbling moron! A weak-minded simpleton who only knows how to talk! Now die and damn your spirit straight to hell!" Raising his staff over head, the air around the headpiece shimmered with energy before Naga snapped it forward, firing a pulsing energy wave towards Jubei. But the rapidly spinning energy around Jubei caught and absorbed the attack into itself, increasing its power even further.

"Naga, you are defeated." Raising his hands, Jubei spread them out and the blazing cyclone stretched and morphed into a phoenix of pure energy as Jubei thrust his hands and guiding the phoenix to fly straight towards Naga. The red robed Tao master attempted to shield himself with a barrier, but the phoenix slammed over him like a tsunami, breaking the barrier and incinerating Naga's body as it broke through the fortress walls and soared into the sky.

Calling his staff back to his hand, Jubei cleared the smoke with a single wave and carefully strolled to where Naga's body lay like a burnt cinder. By his side, the blackened headpiece of Naga's rod began to shine as Jubei approached and the Wiseman shattered it with a single strike from his staff. "Pathetic weak excuse for a man," he sighed before scattering a handful of ashed salt to calm whatever energies still remained. "Perhaps in your next life you will learn the error of your ways."

Chasing after Aeslea, Keibara made sure never to giver her opponent the room she needed to fight back. Slashing and stabbing with her sais, Keibara pressed her assault with a single-minded ferocity. After everything Aeslea had done Keibara wasn't going to let her escape this time. Running along the side of a wall, Keibara spun like a top, her sais slashing their points at Aeslea like fangs. Aeslea stretched her sash and blocked Keibara's strikes, but left her right side open. Keibara was quick to capitalize and spin-kicked Aeslea across the hallway and into the opposite wall.

"Got ya!" Keibara yelled as she charged with her sais pointing towards Aeslea's heart. But just before striking, Aeslea tapped the base of the wall with her heel and an entire section fell back, allowing Aeslea to slide out of the way. Keibara sailed through the hidden doorway and found herself flying through mid-air. Flipping herself over, Keibara kicked the air with her legs and reversed her momentum landing safely on a platform mounted between the walls. Looking for wherever Aeslea was hiding, Keibara examined her surroundings and saw that she was in a vertical room at least five floors high. The room was cylindrical in shape and had numerous wooden platforms like the one she had landed on stretching between its perimeters.

"Do you like my playground little girl?" Aeslea's voice asked. "This is where I was trained by the Emperor himself." Where's that voice coming from? Keibara thought. The walls bounced and echoed Aelea's voice all throughout the training room, making it impossible for Keibara to locate her. "Usually, I like to play with my prey first. But since I have more important matters I'm afraid that I'll just have to kill you."

"Yeah right," Keibara said. "If you're so tough why don't you come out here and prove it." From the top of the room, Aeslea caught a slight movement and leapt to another platform as a crimson sash darted down and shattered the spot where she was standing.

"There you are!" Keibara yelled as she began leaping from platform to platform. Jumping above the platform where Aeslea was standing, Keibara threw her sais but missed as Aeslea leapt off and hooked her sash around a nearby platform, swinging underneath and over as she and Keibara both landed at the same time. Aeslea extended her sash towards Keibara's jugular, but Keibara yanked the wires attached to her sais pommels and retracted them in time to block. Spinning and cracking her sash like a whip, Aeslea began to drive Keibara back, distracting her long enough for Aeslea to wrap her second sash around Keibara's leg and tripping her. Keibara fell off and landed with a thud on a platform ten feet below as Aeslea's sash stabbed towards her. Rolling off the platform, Keibara barely avoided being sliced open as the sash cut through the platform's hardwood like rotting cheesecloth. From above Keibara, Aeslea hung from her legs as she lowered herself from a sash wrapped around her right ankle. Twisting her body, Aeslea unwrapped both her arm sashes and twirled the fabric until it wrapped around Keibara's body, binding her like a fly in a spider's web and loosening her sais from Keibara's grip.

"Suffer," Aeslea whispered as she snapped her sashes back to her, their edges cutting all over Keibara's body. Keibara screamed in pain and fell to her knees, her body paralyzed by the searing agony as Aeslea let go and dropped down before Keibara. "Don't worry little girl," Aeslea whispered as she kneeled towards Keibara, her hands cupping the younger woman's head. "I only cut where it hurts, not where it bleeds. And I made sure not to harm your pretty little face or breasts." Removing her hands from Keibara's face, Aeslea instead began to caress Keibara's flanks and slowly moved down towards her hips. "Now you wait here and save your energy for when I return. Then, you can scream and bleed as much as you like." Suddenly, Keibara screamed with rage as she wildly punched at Aeslea's face, but with her mind clouded by both anger and pain, Keibara was unable to land a hit. Aeslea ducked back and easily weaved out of the way of Keibara's frenzied assault before bringing her palms together and slamming them into Keibara's chest. Keibara flew back and crashed into the wall as Aeslea cracked her sash and broke off four foot-long strips that wrapped around Keibara's wrists and ankles, pinning her hand and foot. "Such rude behavior," Aeslea gloated as she approached the frantically struggling Keibara, running her hands up Keibara's arms as her face came within centimeters of her captive's. "I won little girl. And the loser always belongs to the victorious. Didn't anyone ever teach you that?" Keibara's response was to spit into Aeslea's eye in defiance.

"I guess not." Wiping the wad of saliva off her face, Aeslea's eyes flamed in anger before slapping Keibara hard enough to make the girl's lip bleed.

"Listen well little girl," Aeslea hissed. "The weak are the playthings of the strong. I learned that when I was younger then you and now I am going to teach you just how true that concept is. But first, I have more urgent business to attend to." As Aeslea turned and began to walk away, something about what she said reminded Keibara of what her Dad once taught her…

"Keibara, emotions can be either an asset or a liability. If not properly utilized, they cloud the mind and waste valuable energy. When facing an opponent, pay attention to their eyes, to their body language, and to how they fight. This will give you an insight into their soul that shall grant you the ability to turn their own emotions against them."

"So how do I keep them from doing that to me? You and Master Jubei say I can't suppress my emotions and neither can I let them run wild. So what do I do?"

"Just let them go."

"I don't think I understand."

"Constantly suppressing one's emotions or allowing them to run rampant are both acts that a true fighter must avoid. When the mind and heart is a blank slate, the soul comes forth to fill them, and the fighter obtains Zen. But because people are different, not everyone can reach Zen the same way. This is the principle behind Master Jubei's Five Element technique. Master Jubei said that your element was wood correct? Then Keibara, be like a leaf floating on the wind. Keep your soul light and boundless, and let your undisrupted feelings guide your actions…

…I've been so stupid, Keibara realized. I've been letting her get me all riled up when it's really not worth it. And it's made me forget everything I've learned. Dad, I'm sorry. Keibara remembered the good times she had with her Dad; training, camping in the jungle; and all the anger and hurt that had been building up inside her since his death was released as a cool wave began to flow through her. Around her wrists and ankles, Keibara felt the restraints loosen and she slipped free.

"One moment," she called out. Aeslea turned around and her eyes widened in shock that Keibara had slipped out of her binding technique.

"You're beginning to be quite a nuisance little girl," Aeslea said as she began to loosen her sash.

"Just answer me one question," Keibara said. "What taught you that the strong are the rulers of the weak?"

"If you must know," Aeslea sighed. "My parents were weaklings who were too pathetic to keep themselves from being slaughtered by a gang of pirates. But I'm glad they died because it gave me the chance to become who I am." Keibara looked carefully and saw a slight tension appear in Aeslea's shoulders and arms.

"So after they died you were left alone and helpless," Keibara theorized. The tension increased slightly, meaning she was right. "And you were victimized by everyone you came across afterwards right? But you don't blame the pirates and you don't really blame your parents. You blame yourself. So now, you try and make everyone around you suffer in order to relieve your own pain when all you really need to do is let it go."

"That's enough!" Aeslea shouted. Charging forward, Aeslea coiled her sash into a spiral and attempted to spear Keibara through her sternum. Swinging her arm upward, Keibara knocked the weapon aside before thrust kicking Aeslea in the stomach, dropped to the ground and sweep kicked her off her feet, and finally back flipped and knocked Aeslea on her back with the Rising Sun kick.

"I hated you," Keibara said. "You attacked my home, slaughtered my friends, toyed with me, and kept me from helping my Dad in time." Keibara looked down at Aeslea who lay stunned and helpless on the ground in front of her and shook her head. "But now I'm not even afraid of you anymore. I just feel sorry for you. You're nothing but a sad lonely child throwing a temper tantrum." Aeslea's eyes flamed and she rose to her feet, her hands twisted into claws.

"You worthless little slut!" she screamed. "You think that I'm going to let someone like you talk like that to me?" Unbinding her sashes, Aeslea twirled and spun them around her body, surrounding herself in a sphere of whirling cloth. "I'M GOING TO RIP YOU TO PIECES AND THROW YOU TO THE RATS!" From the sphere's surface, five different strips of cloth launched themselves Keibara.

"Not in this life," Keibara said as she extended her arms and spun, using her Dad's Rising Cyclone Fist to knock Aeslea's attack back towards her. The deflected cloth strips slammed into Aeslea and knocked her off her balance and off the platform. One of the sashes wrapped around her throat and caught on the platform's edge before becoming taught and snapping Aeslea's neck. As Aeslea's body went numb, the last thing she saw before her vision went black wasn't her beloved master, but her parents.

Looking over the edge at Aeslea's limp body, Keibara could have sworn she saw a tear fall from the assassin's eye. She and I were a lot more alike then I cared to admit, Keibara thought. Would I have become like her if my dad hadn't taken me in? Clasping her hands in front of her, Keibara said a quick prayer Master Jubei had taught her so that Aeslea could finally have peace before picking up her sais. It was time to rejoin the others.

It had been awhile since she had seen any of the Akuma guards, meaning they all must have gone ahead to the floors beneath her. Still Melfina didn't feel like taking any chances. She crept silently down the hallways, always taking notice of her surroundings to make sure that she didn't accidentally stumble into the path of a guard or even worse. She was now seven floors down from where she was imprisoned and realized that by now Karg had to have awakened from Ron MacDougal's sneak attack. That meant that either he was looking for her herself or had gone to report to Shidowkun that she had escaped and was making her way towards Gene. It's a good thing these passageways are so jumbled, Melfina thought. With the power off it's almost impossible to find my way around. That must be why Shidowkun hasn't found me yet.

It was then Melfina realized something. If the ones who lived in the fortress couldn't find her, how was she going to find Gene? He didn't know that she had escaped and she had no idea where he or the others were. The floors for each level was so complex, they might have already passed each other without even knowing it. What am I going do now? Melfina thought. If I keep running around I'll never find him. But if I stop moving then I'm sure to be found. Melfina leaned against the wall to think and shivered; half from fear and half from cold; as she crossed her arms over her chest and felt something above her left breast. The transmitter Mazren gave me, Melfina realized. I'd forgotten all about it. Pulling it out from her bodice, Melfina pressed the transmitter button before continuing on her way. Now, even if she had already passed them, Gene and the others would be able to find her.

After three detours and two wrong turns later, Mazren finally found the samurai armor that Karg had told him about. Here goes nothing, he thought as he reached into the mouth of the facemask. Feeling around, Mazren found a small switch and pressed it, triggering a doorway next to the armor to open. "Yes!" Mazren yelled as he leapt into the hall. Taking stock of his surroundings, Mazren saw the number for floor 21 on the other side of the door. "It looks as though this thing spirals all the way around to the top of the fortress, he thought. So why does it smell like burning meat in here? Well never mind that. Time to call the others. As he began to climb the stairway, Mazren activated the earring communicator that Jim had loaned him. "Gene, Suzuka, can anyone hear me?"

"Hey Mazren," Gene answered. "Jim and I read you. What's…"

"Maz is that you!" Aisha interrupted. "What happened are you okay?"

"Yeah I'm fine," Mazren said. "I ran into some trouble but I took care of it."

"That's a relief. You should have seen Suzu's face when we found Slag running around without you. She almost broke into a crying fit she was so scared."

"No I wasn't," Suzuka remarked. "Mazren, I'm glad to hear that you're safe. And don't worry about Slag, he's okay too."

"Aww isn't that cute," Aisha teased. "Suzu's so relieved she's about to cry."

"Aisha will you stop that!"

"Excuse me," Jim said. "But can we get back on track here. Mazren, what's going on?"

"We've got a problem," Mazren explained. "First of all where are you guys."

"Well Jim and I got a little sidetracked," Gene explained. "But we lucked out and found a stairwell that took us all the way up to the 32nd floor."

"We ran into some trouble as well," Suzuka commented. "As a result we've only gotten to the 24th."

"Well then hold position," Mazren instructed. "Ron MacDougal busted Melfina out of her cell. She's no longer on the 35th floor."

"What!" Gene yelled. "How do you know that?"

"Someone told me."

"And you believed them?"

"Look Gene," Mazren answered, "if I explained it to you'd understand. But for right now, I'm gonna need you to just trust me on this."

"So then where is they now?" Jim asked.

"I don't know and that brings me to the next item on the table," Mazren continued. "There's a secret passageway that runs all the way to the top of the fortress. There's a door to it on every level set by a samurai statue. The switch that opens it is in the mouth."

"Anything else?" Gene asked.

"Yeah, Shidowkun's unleashed some kind of creatures called yokai."

"And let me guess," Suzuka said. "They look like mutated Oni but are five times stronger."

"Yeah, how did you…"

"Suzu and I ran into some," Aisha explained. "But we dropped them down an elevator shaft and that took care of them."

"Yeah well if you run into anymore of them than you need to completely destroy their bodies. That's the only thing that can kill them."

"But what about Mel?" Jim repeated. "She could be anywhere and we don't have anyway to locate her. MacDougal might have already taken her past us."

"I know I know," Mazren replied. "But by my estimates they couldn't have gotten past floor twenty yet so we'll just have to search every floor between there and…"suddenly Mazren felt a sudden pulse inside his temple.

"Maz what's wrong!" Aisha yelled "What's happening?"

"It's Melfina," Mazren told them. "She still has the transmitter. And it feels like she's just wandering around. She must have escaped from MacDougal and gotten lost."

"Can you tell where she is?" Gene asked. Mazren closed his eyes and tried to zero in on the feeling.

"She's somewhere between you and the others! But I can't get an exact location."

"What!" Gene yelled. "Can't you do any better?"

"Hey it's not like I've downloaded a map of this place into my head!" Mazren yelled back. "My brain isn't all machine you know!"

"Damn it! Come on Jim move it!"

"Gene stop wait a minute," Mazren yelled. "Shit! Aisha, Suzuka, you two take Slag and try to catch up with Gene. I'll find you by the tracer in Slag's collar." As Mazren rushed up the stairway, he wondered just what else could go wrong today.

Checking on the progress of Aeslea, Shidowkun was surprised to find that her energy had completely vanished. It would seem that Aeslea has failed me, he realized. Shidowkun was disappointed but was not upset. He had sensed the energies coming from the 15th level and knew that Naga had most likely met his end at the hands of the Dragon Clan's patriarch. Besides, he was becoming bored with Aeslea anyway. Checking the progress of the others, Shidowkun felt the android man quickly ascending through the various levels, meaning that Karg had revealed the secret stairway to him. Shidowkun briefly considered going to personally punish Karg for his betrayal, but realized that he would lose his advantage if he did. And Karg's energy felt so weak he'd be dead soon anyway. The android girl is moving around on level 28, while Gene Starwind and the boy are moving towards her from above and the assassin and the Ctarl from below. Could she have found some way to contact them? Shidowkun realized the mistake he had made in not having her person inspected more thoroughly. For now though, he would send six of his remaining children to intercept the assassin and Ctarl while the rest would herd Gene Starwind and the android girl together. And after that, Shidowkun would finally be able to make his move.

Looking behind her, Melfina suddenly felt as though she was being watched. It wasn't Shidowkun, she knew that much. Whenever she sensed Shidowkun, Melfina had felt a cold chill run from her heart through her entire body. What she felt now was a little more intangible, a tickle across the back of her neck. But no matter how hard she looked, Melfina didn't see anything.

Could it be the Oni,she wondered. This is how I usually felt when they were about to attack. But then again if it was then they would've attacked by now. Continuing on her way, Melfina kept telling herself that the stress of her situation was playing tricks on her mind. But her self-consolation did little to quell the feeling of imminent dread inside her. Now, it was more than just a feeling. She feel something chasing after her and could almost hear a faint hissing. Melfina felt her step become faster as whatever she felt came closer. She began to run and her pursuers increased their chase. In an effort to escape, Melfina turned down an upcoming hallway and found herself at a dead end as the feeling of being followed began to fade. Retracing her steps, Melfina looked both ways down the hallway she had just run down, and took a deep breath to relax. I guess it was just nerves, she told herself. I need to calm down. I won't be able to help myself unless I remain calm.

Suddenly, Melfina heard a low hissing behind her as every hair on her body pricked up at once. Peering over her shoulder, Melfina barely jumped out of the way in time as a huge clawed hand reached out of the shadows to grab her. Backing away, Melfina watched as an oni-like creature with a knobbed back, huge clawed hands, and a mouth full of drooling fangs climbed out of the shadows and slowly began to stalk towards her. Melfina was about to run when she saw the transmitter on the floor beside her. If she lost it, then Gene would never be able to find her. Melfina reached out to grab it, but before she could another creature dropped from the ceiling to join its comrade and Melfina barely avoided being snatched by its claws. Realizing that she had to escape before she was recaptured, Melfina left the transmitter and ran, the creatures screeching as they chased after her. Ahead of her, Melfina could see two dragon tapestries mounted on a wall. If she could reach it then she could lose the creatures in the next level. She was less than three feet away when a third creature leapt out of the shadows to block her way. Skidding to a stop, Melfina turned right down another hallway as the creatures' hissing screeches became gradually louder.

"Help me," she gasped as she felt her legs begin to tire. "Somebody please help me!"

"Mel!" Gene called out. "Mel where are you!" After hearing from Mazren that Mel was somewhere beneath them, Jim and Gene had backtracked and began a frantic search of the lower levels. They were now on level 30 and still they hadn't been able to find her. Though he tried to stay calm for Gene's sake, Jim felt as though he was going to panic himself. He couldn't shake the feeling that if they didn't find Mel soon, something bad was going to happen.

"Give it up Gene she's not here."

"Then let's go!" Gene urged as he ran back to the stairway with Jim behind him. "Move it Jim! We got to find her and quick!" Coming out on the 29th level, Jim pulled his P.A. and scanned for any life forms.

"Anything?" Gene asked.

"Nothing so far," Jim answered. "The metal in these halls are really screwing with my sensors. Maybe I can try somewhere else and get a better reading." Pocketing his P.A, Jim headed down the corridor when he realized that Gene wasn't following him. "Gene what are you doing?"

"Mel," Gene said. "She's right below us. She's in trouble."

"What? Gene how can you…"

"I just know okay!" Gene yelled. Closing his eyes, Gene reached into his pocket and pulled out Melfina's pendant. "This way!" Gene said as he ran to the other end of the hall.

"Gene wait there's a stairway right here!" But Gene had already turned around a corner and vanished from sight. Damn it Gene can't you just once think things through instead of rushing in half cocked. Turning back, Jim rushed down the stairs; vowing that if Gene was wrong then Jim was going to kill him.

Melfina's heart felt like it was going to burst out of her chest. But she knew that if she stopped running then the creatures would catch her. And she didn't want to think about what they would to do her if they did. Looking over her shoulder, she watched as they scampered across the floor and walls towards her when she heard something screech in front of her. Melfina turned towards the sound just in time to see a fourth creature leap towards her from the ceiling. Melfina ducked just inches from impact but lost her balance and slipped. Falling to the floor, all Melfina desperately scooted backwards as the creatures began to close in on her.

"No!" she yelled. "Stay away from me!"

Gene didn't know how, but somehow he just knew that Melfina was on the next floor down and in serious trouble. Maybe the Sword sensed it too and was guiding him to her. In fact, Gene was so intent on finding Mel that it was only until after he had turned the last corner that he realized Jim had taken the stairway. But something told Gene that going that way wouldn't get him to Melfina in time. Following whatever it was that guided him; Gene turned left down another corridor and suddenly felt as though he was right on top of Mel; and whatever was threatening her felt just as close.

"Stop it!" he yelled as he raised his fist, the Dragon mark on his hand shining. "Don't you dare touch her!"

The creatures were less then three feet away from her when Melfina suddenly thought she heard Gene's voice call out to her. On instinct, Melfina rolled away and covered her head as an entire section of the stone and metal ceiling suddenly exploded and caved in, crushing her attackers underneath its mass. Coughing from the dust cloud that filled the corridor, Melfina saw a figure jump from the hole in the ceiling onto the rubble pile.

"Who's there?" she called out. The figure came towards her and Melfina made out through the dust a slim frame wearing a red trench coat with matching hair and a scarred cheek.

"Wow!" Gene said as he looked her up and down. "I like the new look!" At first not sure if it was real, Melfina's eyes blurred as she felt her legs pick her up and carry her towards Gene before throwing herself into his arms. Gene caught her and crushed her against him as Melfina laughed and cried onto his shoulder, the emotions she had held inside for the last three days pouring out of her like a flood.

"You came," she wept. "I knew you'd come. I just knew it"

"Of course I came," Gene whispered as he stroked her hair. "Don't you remember? No matter what I'll always come for you." From a corridor behind her, Melfina heard the footsteps of someone racing towards them. She and Gene looked towards the intersection just as Jim ran into the hallway and saw them.

"Mel!" Jim cried as he ran towards them. Melfina and Gene released each other and Melfina kneeled down as Jim rushed into her, his arms wrapping around her neck. "I was so scared," Jim sniffed. "I thought that I was never going to see you again." Melfina smiled as she stroked Jim up and down his back to comfort him.

"I'm so sorry Jim," Melfina told him. "I didn't mean to make you worry. But I'm okay now that you and Gene are here. So don't cry okay." Jim pulled his face from her shoulder and forced a smile through his tears.

"Sure," he said. Mel gently wiped his tears away with her hand before looking back up to Gene.

"Gene, we have to get out of here. Shidowkun planned all of this to…"

"Yeah I know," Gene interrupted. "He did all this to lead me into a trap. But don't worry. We've got everything taken care of." Reaching down, Gene helped Melfina back to her feet. "Come on. We're getting out of here." Suddenly, Melfina felt an icy chill stab into her heart. She shouted a warning, but was too late. From out of the shadows; something exploded out of the dark to grab her, Gene, and Jim; pulling them into its shadowy grip. Melfina shouted Gene's name and reached for his hand, but the darkness pulled them apart as the icy void overwhelmed her senses.

After finding the entrance to the secret passage; Suzuka, Aisha, and Slag began a quick level by level search of the floors between them and Gene. They had just arrived at level 26 when four of the yokai crawled out of the shadows to block their path.

"So what now?" Aisha asked. Down between her and Suzuka, Slag ruffled his fur and snarled at the creatures poised to attack them.

"Mazren said that we have to completely destroy their bodies to kill them," Suzuka said. "Leave this to me." As the yokai leapt towards them, Suzuka flashed her bokuto and used Cyclone Void Sword to send a raging tornado towards them that sucked the creatures into its vortex where its howling winds tore them to pieces. "So much for that. Aisha, can you hear if Mel or Gene is on this level with us." Aisha's ears picked up and twitched as she searched for any sound out of the ordinary.

"Nope, just a bunch of…LOOK OUT!" Jumping towards Suzuka, Aisha pushed them and Slag out of the way as two more yokai dropped from the ceiling. Before they had a chance to get back up, the Yokai leapt towards them and the sound of a gunshot ripped through the halls. Knocked away by the bullets' impact, the Yokai fell to the ground and were about to stand when their bodies exploded. Looking towards the corridor's other end, Suzuka and Aisha saw Mazren with his still smoking gun pointing towards them.

"Bullets with magnesium filled shells," he explained. "I brought them in case we had to deal with Shidowkun. But I figured what the hell." Holstering his gun, Mazren rushed towards them as Slag ran up and wrapped himself around Mazren's hips. "Good job boy. You found them."

"Hey Maz!" Aisha said as she ran over and gave him a congratulatory punch on the arm. "You made it. Good to see I haven't lost my sparring buddy."

"Yeah me too," Mazren said as he rubbed his arm and noticed the bloodstains around Aisha's shoulder and stomach. "What the hell happened to you?"

"Ah we just had a little run in with the Yokai down below," Aisha said. "Don't worry it's just a flesh wound."

"Yeah well still maybe you'd better drink some of this," Mazren said as he pulled a metal flask from inside his jacket. "It'll fix you up, but I gotta warn you it doesn't taste good." Taking the flask from Mazren, Aisha looked at the object and shrugged before tossing her head back and taking a big gulp of the liquid.

"Mmmm," Aisha hummed as she wiped her mouth. "I don't know what you're talking about. This stuff is great. Wait I'm starting to feel weird."

"That means it's working," Mazren explained as he took the flask back. "Just take five and let the stuff do its work." Leaving Aisha to heal her wounds, Mazren stepped over to Suzuka. "What about you?" he asked as he grasped her shoulders. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Suzuka assured him. "But it looks like you've had a rough time of your own." Mazren frowned slightly.

"In more ways than one. And once we get Melfina there's someone else we need to pick up. Let's just say I owe it to him."

"Is he the one who did this to you? The same one who told you about Melfina and the yokai."

"Yeah that's right." Suzuka smiled as she reached up and wiped away the remaining blood staining her lover's brow.

"I understand."

"Excuse me," Aisha said. "But if you two lovebirds are done I've healed up so can we get back to work?"

"Yes of course," Suzuka said as she and Mazren pulled apart, her face glowing like a virgin schoolgirl. "Mazren, have you any idea where Melfina is now?"

"She's close. I'd say two floors above us."

"We'll need to head back to the secret passageway then," Suzuka decided. "Mazren, you and Slag guide the way. Aisha, you call Gene and Jim and tell them we know where Melfina is." Leading the way back to the secret stairway, Suzuka allowed Mazren and Slag to pass before her as they ascended up the passageway to the 28th floor.

"Hey Suzu," Aisha called out. "Something's wrong. I can't reach either Jim or Gene."

"They're probably too busy to answer." But something told Suzuka that it was something else. "Mazren, after we find Melfina, you and Slag take her and go pick up your friend while we'll try to find Gene and Jim."

"No problem," Mazren said as they finally reached the 28th floor. Stepping out of the passage, the first thing Suzuka noticed was how eerily quiet it was.

"Mel!" Aisha called out. "Mel don't be scared it's just us." But no one answered.

"I don't like this," Mazren said. "Everyone split up. Let's see what we can find." Going their separate ways, Suzuka raced down one corridor while Aisha, Mazren and Slag went down two others. Two turns later, Suzuka discovered a corridor that looked like its ceiling had caved in. Climbing over the debris, Suzuka found on the other side what looked like three footprints in the dust covering the floor. One looked big enough to be Gene's, another was small enough to be Jim's, and a third that looked to be somewhere between them. At the other end of the hallway, Aisha and Mazren appeared with Slag following behind.

"Suzu!" Aisha yelled. "I've looked all over and I can't find any trace of Mel."

"I did," Mazren added. "But it's not the kind of thing I wanted to." Opening his hand, Mazren showed to Suzuka and Aisha the transmitter he had given to Melfina. "Slag found it lying on the floor back there."

"I'm afraid that I've gotten even more bad news," Suzuka said as she pointed to the footprints at her feet. "Notice anything about these?"

"So Gene and Jim found Mel," Aisha said. "But why haven't they called us?"

"Because they can't," Mazren answered. "There are tracks leading into the dust, but none leading out, almost as if something came along and grabbed them."

"And I'm afraid that there's only one place that they can be now," Suzuka theorized. She, Mazren, Aisha looked above them and back to each other. The glances they exchanged speaking volumes about what was to come.

"You'd better take some of this too," Mazren told Suzuka as he reached into his jacket and handed her the flask. "Something tells me you're gonna need it."

(Gene and Jim have found Melfina, only to have all three of them fall into Shidowkun's hands. Will Gene be able to stop Shidowkun once and for all before he loses not only Melfina, but his soul as well? Suzuka, Aisha, and Mazren and Slag race to help but can they arrive in time? Or is the Destroyer about to be re-released upon the universe. Be here next time for both halves of the exciting two-part conclusion. Same Outlaw-Time. Same Outlaw-Website. Don't forget to review.)

Chapter 20
Chapter 22

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