Outlaw Star Fan Fiction ❯ Outlaw Star; The Ryunoken Sword(revised, rededited, and better than ever) ❯ The Reason ( Chapter 14 )

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

CHAPTER 14:

The Reason

(Official disclaimer: This work is entirely a fan fic. I do not own the rights to Gene, Melfina, or any of the themes, concepts, planets, alien races, or any of the 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.)

THE TIME: THE NEXT MORNING

THE PLACE: THE PLANET OF MINOS

As the drop shuttle lifted off, Ron McDougal looked out the viewport as the surface of Minos vanished from view. After he and Harry had failed to take Melfina from Gene Starwind, Shidowkun had sentenced them both to this miserable little mud ball. Like most of the frontier worlds, Minos was sparsely settled with a population that nearly matched one of the larger cities in the inner sectors. It was also far away from the main space force patrol lanes and far too poor to afford a private security force. As a result, it was the perfect planet for the Toku to use as a manufacturing base for its paramilitary forces. Here, the Toku reigned unchallenged. Nothing on the planet happened without their consent.

"We're finally going to do it Ron. We're finally going to show them what happens when you mess with the McDougal Brothers aren't we?" Ron looked over to Harry and smiled slightly. He didn't believe in excessive amounts of emotion, it just wasn't professional in his line of work. Still, he inwardly admitted that he was just as excited as Harry. Thanks to that bastard Gene Starwind, the name of the McDougal Brothers had gone from one of fear and respect to a joke that drunks laughed about in bars. The fact that two of the greatest mercenaries in the known galaxy had been repeatedly bested by some kid who hadn't even been in space a full year yet was maddening to Ron. Unlike him and Harry or even Hilda, Gene Starwind didn't earn anything that he had gotten. It had all been handed to him by pure dumb luck.

"Yeah we are," Ron replied. "We're gonna take back our reputation, our pride, and everything else that he stole from us."

"And then we're going to hand that bitch over to Shidowkun right?" Harry asked as his eyes began to flame up. "Do you think he'll let me watch when he kills her?"

"I wouldn't ask for that Harry. Once we hand Melfina over to the Toku, then we pay off our debt. Besides, knowing Shidowkun he'll probably demand something else and then we'll be right back where we started."

"Maybe you're right Ron. Still, it would be worth it to watch her die like the backstabbing little whore that she is." Ron stared at Harry for a while after that. He knew that Harry had a right to hate Melfina. She was as responsible for their current situation as Gene was. When Harry first became obsessed with her, Ron had tolerated it with sufficient humor. After all, as long as she could deliver the Galactic Leyline into their hands like she was originally created to do, Harry could do whatever he wanted with her. If he really wanted to pretend that the android was a real girlfriend; that was just fine with Ron. But Melfina just couldn't accept the fact that her only value was of a living doll. At least with Harry, she would have been well taken care off. She just had to pretend that she was human and had a choice in her life. And because of her refusal to leave Gene, Harry had died a pointless death for someone who couldn't even appreciate it. Still, it sometimes seemed to Ron that Harry was taking his grudge a little too personally. Scores had to be settled, but it you took them too far you ended up paying for it in the end. After all, it wasn't like they were talking about an actual human, just an android. A very advanced one, but an android nonetheless. It was then that a thought occurred to Ron.

"Hey Harry?" he asked. "You ever wonder just why Shidowkun has it in for Melfina?"

"Not in the least," Harry replied.

"Well I do," Ron said. "Just think about it for a minute Harry. When the Toku took over Kei space, they must have uncovered something about her, like how she was created. If they did than whatever they need Melfina for; they could have easily created another."

"Yeah so what's your point Ron?" Harry asked.

"Why her? If she really is no longer the Maiden of the Leyline like Shidowkun's men told us, than what do they want with her? After what she and Gene did to us, we have a reason for wanting to kill her. But what could the Toku possibly have to gain? I'm telling you Harry, something about this stinks." With a sigh of frustration, Harry turned to look at him.

"Does it really matter? They want to kill her and Gene and we want to kill her and Gene. As long as we get what we want than it doesn't matter what the Toku want with her does it?" When Ron didn't answer, Harry smirked triumphantly and looked away. Shaking his head, Ron looked out the observation window and exhaled loudly. Around the drop shuttle, several cargo haulers carried the weapons that had been ordered for the assault against Gene Starwind. Although to Ron, it seemed like overkill. The Toku weapons factories had produced enough weapons for an assault on a Federal Space Forces base.

"Hey," he heard Harry ask the pilot. "Just where is this ship that's supposed to pick us up anyway?"

"You'll see it soon enough," the pilot answered. Turning away from the widow, Ron pushed the doubts he had out of his mind. He and Harry had to capture the android at any cost. It was the only way that they'd ever be free of the Toku. And if Gene Starwind got in their way again, it would be the last time. "There it is now," the pilot suddenly told them. Looking ahead, Ron and Harry watched as a looming shadow appeared from behind the moon of Minos. As they neared, the shadow exited from behind the mood and revealed itself to be an enormous, T-shaped space cruiser surrounded by an escort of eight grappler ships.

"Wow," Harry said in awe. "Now that's what I call a ship." Ron however, didn't share Harry's sense of admiration. His heart skipped a beat as he felt the blood drain from his face.

"Hey what the hell's going on here!" he yelled at the pilot. "You never said anything about this!"

"Consider it a surprise!" the pilot replied as he charted a course for the massive cruiser.

"Hey Ron what's going on?" Harry asked.

"That's no ordinary ship Harry," Ron answered. "That's the Damocles Sword. It's Shidowkun's personal cruiser."

"No kidding?" Harry asked. "All right. Finally we get to meet the big boss himself."

"This is no joke Harry!" Ron said. "Shidowkun is no one to be taken lightly. Between the Toku's influence and his own personal strength, he's quite possibly the most powerful man in the entire galaxy."

"Yeah I know," Harry replied. "And we get to work for him." Leaning back in his chair, Ron grimaced in dismay. It was going to be hard enough to try and take the android as it was. He didn't need the Toku Emperor breathing down the back of his neck while he did it. Continuing on their way, the drop shuttle and the surrounding cargo haulers made their way towards the massive cruiser. As they approached the starboard wing, the drop shuttle followed the guide beacon into the bay. The cruisers on the other hand, were far too large to land inside the ship. They instead made their way to the dorsal and ventral sides of each wing where they docked with the Damocles Sword.

As soon as they had landed inside, the hatch opened and Harry and Ron exited into the bay. All around them, crewmembers worked quickly to load up the armaments that they had come to pick up. Looking around, Ron took inventory of the toys that Shidowkun had ordered. The most recognizable were the Oni. The mute assassin drones seemed to be a necessity on any Toku raid. Along with the Oni stood a group of similar creatures, but were hunched over. They also had a pair of large metallic wings growing out of their backs and clawed, vulture like feet. These had to be the Tengu, a variation of Oni that were capable of flight. Hearing a marching sound, Ron looked over and saw what looked like humans in sleek full metal space suits being led out of the dock to their storage compartments. Cybers, Ron observed. Mass-produced robotic foot soldiers, the mechanical men carried external power generators on their backs that supplied power to their internal workings as well as the heavy blaster rifles they carried. Behind the company of Cybers, a hover cart carried four Mongol class armor suits. Similar to the one that Harry had piloted at the ruins they had once followed Gene Starwind to, the Mongols were covered in heavy armor plating with a reinforced cockpit and a set of back mounted boosters for short-range jumps. Their arms were massive and were equipped with interchangeable weapon locks for custom missions. For this particular job, the ones that Shidowkun had ordered had been equipped with heavy gattling guns and static saws.

"You are McDougal are you not?" a voice asked. Ron and Harry turned around and saw a small man wearing a red cape around his short frame. Underneath, he wore the black and red trimmed armor that symbolized a high rank in the Toku guild.

"Yeah so what?" Harry snapped.

"I am Xanax," the little man answered. "I'm the captain of this vessel. Lord Shidowkun has ordered that you be escorted directly to his quarters the moment that you arrived." Shit, Ron thought. Shidowkun was intimidating enough on a viewscreen. Ron really didn't want to meet him personally. Still, he knew that it couldn't be avoided. Taking a deep breath, he puffed out his chest and steeled himself.

"Fine then," he said. "Take us to him." Signaling one of the crewmembers over, Xanax instructed him to take the McDougal Brothers straight to Shidowkun. The crewman led them down a corridor to the aft section of the Damocles Sword where they took an elevator up to the top deck. Getting out, they found themselves at the beginning of another shorter corridor. At the end was a double door framed on both sides by two men dressed in black and red trimmed armor and armed with what looked like some kind of electronic halberds. Ron quickly recognized the two men as members of the Akuma, Shidowkun's personal guard. As they approached, the guards lowered their weapons to block their passage.

"State your business," one of them barked.

"These are the McDougal Brothers," the crewman said. "Lord Shidowkun has summoned them." The guard to the left nodded and he and his associate returned their halberds to their original position.

"You may enter now," the crewman said as he turned around and left. As he and Harry prepared himself to enter Shidowkun's quarters, Ron suddenly leaned over to go over some last minute strategy.

"Remember Harry," he whispered to his brother. "Shidowkun is not a person that you'd want to get on the bad side of. When we go in there, let me do the talking all right?"

"Yeah fine," Harry groaned. "I get the point Ron." Straightening himself up, Ron led the way as the doors pushed open by themselves. Entering into Shidokun's quarters, Ron took immediate stock of his surroundings. Rich in finery, the walls of Shidowkun's quarters were ordained with silk tapestries, gold figurines, and a collection of exotic weapons. To their left was a bed on which lay a woman with chin length black and white streaked hair. Mostly naked, the woman's only covering was a silk sash that was wrapped over her voluptuous curves. Judging by the mixed look of hunger and satisfaction on her face, it was obvious that Ron and Harry had just missed something by a fraction of a second.

"You finally made it," a resonating voice said. Slowly turning around, Ron and Harry saw a powerful and imposing figure standing in front of a series of observation windows that looked out over the top of the Damocles Sword. The figure turned to face them, the backlight from the windows making his face all but impossible to see save for the blazing red eyes. Nudging Harry to do the same, Ron bowed in respect.

"Lord Shidowkun," Ron said. "I thank you for giving me and my brother a second chance to…"

"I've already told you not to waste empty flattery on me Ron McDougal," Shidowkun interrupted. "It only lowers the standing of lowly scum like you and your brother."

"Of course," Ron said. "I apologize." Narrowing his fiery gaze, Shidowkun turned back to the view of his ship.

"I do not usually give second chanced to those who fail me Ron McDougal," Shidokun informed him. "However, certain events have occurred that have required me to take matters into my own hands."

"May one inquire as to what?" Ron asked.

"That is none of your concern," the Toku Emperor replied. "All you need to know is this. Gene Starwind has found new allies. If we are to take the bio-android girl Melfina, then we must now strike with a full attack force. I have acquired sufficient weapons for this attack, as well as assembling my most powerful fighters. However, I cannot deny the fact that you and your brother's experience would be most helpful in this battle. Therefore, here is my decision. If we succeed in taking the android, whether or not it was because of you, than I will absolve all debts that you owe to me."

"My lord you are most generous," Ron said.

"We're really going to do it Ron," Harry whispered. "We're finally going to kill Gene Starwind."

"No!" Shidowkun suddenly snapped. "The situation has changed. Gene Starwind has now become necessary to our plans. The others are none of our concern, but no matter the cost, Gene Starwind must not be killed."

"What!" Harry yelled. "You've got to be kidding us! You really expect us to just give up a chance to take that bastard out?"

"Harry no!" Ron yelled, but he was too late. Shidowkun spun around, his eyes burning like an inferno. The cape he wore over his body parted and am armored hand shot out. The arm of the Toku Emperor extended to an unnatural length and clasped around Harry's throat. Shidowkun retracted his arm and yanked Harry towards him where he held him over his head like a rag doll.

"Harry!" Ron yelled. He dashed for Harry, his hand reaching for his Caster. Even if Shidowkun was known as the God of Death, Ron wasn't about to let his brother die a second time. But before he could act, something wrapped around his hand and pulled him back. Ron crashed back first into the bed where the woman who had lain silent up to now pulled his arm around his neck and wrapped her arm around his other. She then jammed her knee into his spine as she playfully nipped at his earlobe.

"Poor little Harry McDougal," she whispered. "It's not very wise to speak against Lord Shidowkun. It's a lesson that he'll have to learn the hard way." Ron struggled to get out of her grasp, but the woman held him firm.

"Now you listen to me you sniveling little worm," Shidowkun growled to Harry. "As long as you and your brother are my vassals, my word is your law. And if you ever question my orders again, it will be your last." As he spoke, Shidowkun used one of his techniques to send dark lightning into Harry's body, causing him to shriek in pain. "One more thing. My generosity has two sides to it. If we fail to capture Melfina or if Gene Starwind dies in any way, I will take back all of the gifts that I have bestowed upon you and your brother. Even if you two had nothing to do with it. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" Shidowkun then increased the strength of his attack, encasing Harry's entire body in dark lighting.

"All right, all right!" Harry shrieked through the pain. "You win I get the point." With a heave of his arm, Shidowkun tossed Harry to the floor in front of Ron. Shidowkun's whore let Ron go and he ran to his brother's side.

"Harry!" Ron yelled as he shook his brother's shoulder. With a groan, Harry looked up to him and smiled weakly.

"Hey Ron," he joked. "I wonder if this is how it felt when I got killed by Hazonko at the Leyline." Looking up to Shidowkun, Ron did his best to hide his contempt and hatred for the man who held them both enslaved.

"You have your orders," Shidowkun growled as he turned away. "We will arrive at our destination in less than one day. Now get out of my sight until then."

"Yes Lord," Ron said. Helping Harry to his feet, Ron helped him walk out of Shidowkun's quarters and into the hall outside. "Hey you?" he asked the guards. "Where's the sickbay."

"Deck 8, section F," the one to his left answered.

"Thanks," he replied. "Come on Harry. Let's get you fixed up. You're going to need to be at your best when we take on Starwind."

"Yeah sure Ron," Harry said with a slumped head. As they walked toward the elevator, one of the guards called out to Ron.

"Hey you!" Ron turned around as one of the guards tossed him a data disk. "The pilot of the black ship that attacked you at Blue Heaven has hooked up with Gene Starwind and his friends. This contains all the data that we uncovered on him. I suggest that you look it over."

"Sure why not," Ron said as he pocketed the disk. Helping Harry into the Elevator, Ron knew what Shidowkun had meant by taking back his gifts, how his scientists had healed Ron's body and made a new one for Harry. There's more riding on this job than I even want to think about, Ron thought. If that damn android gets away, it's all over. But even though he knew that Melfina's life in exchange for his and Harry's was a pretty good deal, Ron still would have liked to know why. I take back what I said before, he thought as he and Harry rode down to deck 8. This job doesn't just stink; it reeks like a dead fish.

After a light breakfast, Gene left the temple with Tyr and Jubei for another day of training. As he was in a hurry to gain further mastery of the Ryunoken Sword, he hadn't spent much time with the others. Luckily, they all had plans as well. Jim was busy with that ether-wave radio transmitter that he had plundered from Yama's ship yesterday, Aisha had gone off to study with some fighting master named Ortho, Suzuka had gone to get a new bokuto that had been promised to her by Korde, and Mazren still hadn't returned from yesterday. The only one who didn't seem to have made any plans was Melfina. But when Gene had talked to her, Melfina said that she was going to find Keibara. Apparently, the two of them had become fast friends. Gene was relieved to know that Melfina was doing all right. With Keibara taking care of her, Gene could now concentrate all of his energies on his training. "So what's on the schedule today?" he asked Tyr and Jubei as they made their way through the jungle.

"The same as yesterday," Jubei answered. "First, we will review what we have already covered, followed by a brief warm up with Tyr. Than, I will teach you some new ways to use the Sword's power."

"After that," Tyr added, "You and I will work again on your combat skills." Over his shoulder, Tyr looked at Gene. "Have you thought any on what we told you yesterday?"

"You mean about using my feelings to generate the power? Yeah I have. And I think I've got it down to where I can summon the power whenever I need it."

"Good," Tyr replied as he shifted his attention back to the pathway. "In that case I'll be expecting an improvement in your performance today."

"Well I'll try not to disappoint you," Gene replied. Gene knew that the Sword's power came out whenever his emotions took over. Therefore, he would have to concentrate all of his feelings towards a specific point. And when he imagined Melfina being hurt again, or his father being killed by the Toku; that's exactly what they did. Closing his eyes, Gene concentrated on those images and felt the power rise and swell alongside his anger. I'm gonna do it, he vowed. I'm gonna master the Sword no matter what it takes. And when I do, I'm going to make both the Toku and the McDougal Brothers pay for everything that they've done to Melfina and me.

Standing in one of the many dojos of the Clan's fortress, Keibara practiced on her katas. Like the others, the one she was in was equipped with multiple training weapons and equipment as well as a mirror that stretched the full length and height of the wall it was mounted on. Assuming a firm stance, she drew the sai daggers from her belt and brought them up in front of her. The sai were Keibara's favorite weapon. They prongs' blunt sides and sharpened points made them perfect for both taking an opponent alive or for killing him outright. Starting with some basic stabbing thrusts, Keibara then added in some upward and downward strokes. Spinning on the balls of her feet, she unleashed a high spinning heel at an imaginary opponent before finishing him off with a spinning hook kick. Reversing her hold on the sai so the hilt pointed outwards, she repeatedly drove the pommels into another before spinning and slashing the points across his chest. For the coup de grace, Keibara connected her two sai together at their pommels and twirled them in her hand, using the motion to deflect a hail of imaginary projectiles and knocking back her attackers. With the exercise completed, Keibara separated the sai and reset them back in her belt. Sensing someone behind her, Keibara turned around and saw Melfina standing in the doorway. As usual, her brother's wolf Slag was standing beside her.

"Pretty good huh?" she asked.

"Yes it was," Melfina said as she and Slag walked into the dojo. "Are those supposed to connect like that?"

"Not really," Keibara said as she pulled them out so Melfina could get a better look. "My dad taught me that move. He could hold them together pretty good by himself, but my hands are a lot smaller than his, so Korde made these especially for me."

"Oh I see," Melfina said. Keibara grinned in pleasure as she put her sai back in her place. She liked hanging around with Mel. Keibara wasn't the only female in the Dragon Clan, but she was the only girl her age. It was nice to hang out with someone that she could easily relate to. It was then that Keibara had an idea.

"Hey Mel?" she asked. "You wanna learn some self-defense?" Melfina looked to her in surprise.

"You mean like how to fight?" she asked.

"Not exactly," Keibara told her. "What I meant is would you like to learn how to handle yourself if you ever got attacked?"

"Well," Melfina said. "I'm really not that strong. Besides, I'm usually with Gene or one of the others so it's never been much of an issue with me."

"You don't have to be strong to know how to take care of yourself," Keibara explained. "Besides, there may come a time when you're on your own and you won't have anyone to help you. It never hurts to be prepared you know." Melfina went quiet as she furrowed her brow in thought. To Keibara, it seemed as though Melfina was remembering something like what she had just described.

"I guess you could be right Keibara."

"All right then," Keibara said. "First things first, take off your heels. It'll be easier that way." Melfina did as she was told while Keibara walked over to a training dummy that lay over in the corner. Slag meanwhile, walked over to the far wall where he laid down to watch. Picking up the training dummy, Keibara carried it over and set it up in front of Melfina. "Now then, here's your first lesson. If your attacker is a guy, then there's one place that you can hit him where it'll always hurt. No matter how big he is or what race his belongs to."

"Where's that?" Melfina asked.

"Right here," Keibara answered. As she spoke, she braced her hands on the dummy's shoulders, pulled back her leg, and then drove her knee straight into the dummy's groin. "You try."

"Um, okay." Keibara stood aside as Melfina took her place in front of the dummy. She placed her hands on the dummy's shoulders and pulled back her leg like Keibara did. But when she kneed the dummy, she did it with what seemed like a great deal of reluctance.

"Not bad," Keibara said. "But it lacked a certain…oomph."

"I'm sorry," Melfina said. "But I just don't like the idea of hurting anyone."

"I didn't say that you had to like it," Keibara told her. "You just have to know what to do should the situation ever occur. After he's down, then you can either knock him unconscious with a blow to the head, or run for help."

"All right I think I understand now," Melfina replied.

"Good," Keibara said. "I think you've got the basic idea. Are you ready for your next lesson?"

"Sure." Taking the arms of the training dummy, Keibara wrapped them around her neck to make it look like she was being grabbed from behind.

"Okay then. Now, if your attacked like this. Than you can stun him with an elbow jab, and then flip him like so." As she spoke, Keibara jabbed the dummy in the stomach with her elbow, grabbed its wrist and yanked with a circular motion, using her hip for leverage to flip the dummy onto its back. "Did see what I did?" Melfina nodded.

"It seems simple enough," she replied.

"In that case," Keibara said, "let's try it." Moving to behind Melfina, Keibara wrapped her arms tightly across Melfina's neck as if she were attacking her. "Are you ready?"

"I guess so," Melfina replied. "But do I really have to elbow you in the stomach Keibara?"

"Well," Keibara said as she loosened her grip. "If you really don't like the thought of hitting someone, than don't worry about it until you absolutely have to."

"That's a relief," Melfina said.

"Well," Keibara said, "whenever you're ready." Keibara started to prep herself, but found that her and Melfina's timing weren't on the same level. She found herself lurched forward and sent crashing headfirst into the wall.

"Oh no Keibara!" Melfina cried out as she rushed to her side. "I'm so sorry. Are you all right?" As Keibara shifted to a sitting position, she looked at Melfina in amazement before cracking a smile.

"You know Melfina," she laughed. "Whoever told you that you're not very strong was a real idiot." Reaching up to her head, Keibara rubbed the throbbing impact. When she retracted her hand, she saw that there was a small bloodstain on her finger.

"You're hurt," Melfina said.

"It's nothing," Keibara said as she stood up. "Trust me, I've gotten a hell of a lot worse than that from training with my dad."

"Maybe I can help," Melfina said. Pulling on Keibara's arm, Melfina guided her to a nearby crate and sat her down. "Is there a first aid kit in here?'

"It's right over there," Keibara said as she pointed to a storage cabinet set up against the wall to her left. Melfina walked over and got it out. "But Mel it's nothing serious. It's just a little gash. It's not the sort of thing that requires an operation."

"But it might become infected." Setting up the kit on the floor, Melfina reached in and pulled out some antiseptic fluid and a cotton swab. Dipping the swab in the antiseptic, Melfina gently applied it to the cut above and to the left of Keibara's left eyebrow, being careful not to let any drip into Keibara's eyes. After putting the fluid away and throwing away the swab, Melfina pulled out a can of spray bandage and coated the tiny wound with a thin coat of temporary skin. "There, all better." Standing up, Keibara inspected her newly dressed battle wound in the mirror.

"Not bad," she said.

"I've had a lot of practice," Melfina said as she closed the first aid kit. "Because I don't go into battle as much as Gene and the others, I'm usually the only one who isn't injured. As a result, I'm the one who has to put them all back together." So you're a medic in addition to a cook huh? Keibara thought. As she watched Melfina replace the first aid kit, Keibara smiled slightly. "Is something wrong Keibara?" Melfina asked as she turned around and saw the grin.

"I was just wondering," Keibara said. "Melfina, has anyone ever told you that you'd make a good mother?"

"A…a mother?"

"Yeah a mother. I mean, you're a good cook, a decent medic, and you're really nice and kind hearted too. I don't think that you'd let your kids run wild, but they probably wouldn't anyway because I think that they'd realize how that would hurt you." As she spoke, Keibara noticed that Melfina's face suddenly grew a sad look. "Is something wrong Mel?"

"I know that you mean it as a compliment, but please don't say that Keibara." It was now Keibara's turn to be confused.

"Why not?"

"I really wouldn't make a good mother," Melfina told her.

"You don't like kids?"

"Oh no, it's not that. I like them a lot. But…"And Melfina paused as she gathered her thoughts, " you see it's kind of complicated." Keibara could sense that she had accidentally made Melfina uncomfortable.

"Hey don't worry about it," she told her. "If you're uncomfortable with discussing it, than you don't have to." Melfina looked up and smiled sadly.

"Thank you Keibara." It was then that Keibara had another idea.

"You know I think that we've had enough training for today," she said. "How about we go some place fun?" Melfina noticeably perked up at that.

"Sure," she beamed

"I'll clean up here," Keibara said as she began gathering up the equipment. "You and Slag go pack a picnic lunch and meet me in front of the stairs for Master Jubei's tower."

"Okay," Melfina said. "Would it be all right if I brought something along?"

"Sure." As Keibara continued to put away the equipment, Melfina patted her hip and signaled for Slag to come. They left for the fortress larder and Keibara left shortly after.

The training started off as planned. After reaching the quarry, Tyr and Jubei had Gene review what they had covered yesterday. Tyr studied Gene as he used his knife to generate his ki blade; and fired ki blasts of varying strength from his pistol, shotgun, and Caster. As Tyr observed him, he admitted that Gene had made an impressive amount of progress. However, he also saw something that concerned him greatly. But he just couldn't put his finger on it.

After the basic review was done, Gene was ready to spar with Tyr, who had already replaced his tri-claw with his bionic hand. But rather than use the quarry, Tyr instead led them to a clearing past some trees on the other side of the pit. In this clearing, multiple ten-foot wooden poles had been set straight up in the ground. On both sides of the field of posts was a ladder that led up to a platform equal with the top of the posts. On the ground around the posts was a thick carpet of straw to provide for soft landings.

"So what are we doing here?" Gene asked.

"This is where we will spar," Tyr answered. "The quarry is no longer a suitable training ground. This will allow for a much more challenging workout." As he spoke, Tyr turned around to Gene and raised his eyebrow in question. "Are you up to it lad?"

"Are you?" Gene asked back. Walking up to one of the ladders, he climbed up to the platform and waited for Tyr to join him. Tyr smiled inwardly as he made his way to the other ladder. Climbing up to the platform, Tyr stepped out and walked the pole tops with ease. But when Gene stepped out, he swayed and rocked as she struggled to maintain his balance.

"Don't think about the height," Tyr lectured. "Just use the power to maintain your balance."

"And just how am I supposed to do that?" Gene asked.

"Let your feelings tell your ki what you need it to do," Jubei called out from below. "Keep your objective clear and your emotions focused. The power will take care of the rest."

"If you say so," Gene called back. Looking at Gene, Tyr used his ki sensitivity to observe Gene's ki. Immediately, he was surprised by the intensity of it. To him, Gene's ki appeared as a burning blue aura that surrounded his body. It was obvious that even without the Sword, Gene Starwind had depths of strength that he had yet to even tap into. And as Gene called upon the Sword, the light of his ki increased even further. His mind is set clearly on this fight, Tyr observed. He's presently looking me over to try and find a weakness that he could exploit. However, I've already found one on him. Just then, Tyr noticed something strange. Around Gene's body, a rim of red light had formed. Gene's aura held it at bay, but it still struggled to spread out even further.

"Well, I'm ready," Gene said as he found his balance.

"Then let's begin," Tyr said as he gestured with his hand. Gene didn't waste any time as he charged straight for Tyr, running along the post tops as though he was on a city street. Tyr pointed his hands and lashed out with a series of spear hand thrusts. Gene ducked and dodged each one, punching for each thrust from Tyr, who found that he had to actively block against Gene's attack. Gene then kicked at Tyr's knee, attempting to knock him from his stance. But Tyr moved his leg out of the way onto another post. They moved in a circle, Gene's punches and kicks moving both smoothly and quickly. As they spared, Tyr kept observing Gene's ki. The more they fought, the more intently the red rim seemed to glow. Tyr found this to be greatly concerning. It was as if something was rising up in Gene, threatening to take him over. But he had no time to ponder it now. Gene was now in the midst of lashing out with a blindingly fast roundhouse kick aimed straight for Tyr's ribs. But rather than duck, Tyr instead jumped and flipped over Gene, driving his hand straight down on to the crown of Gene's skull. But Gene crossed his arms and blocked, causing Tyr to rebound and land on two posts behind Gene. He turned to face Gene just as Gene lunged for him. Tyr caught Gene's hands and the two grappled against each other on top of the poles.

"Well?" Gene asked as he matched Tyr in power.

"I'm impressed lad," Tyr answered. "You've gained even more mastery of the Sword's power. However…" Tyr then lashed out with a roundhouse knee straight into Gene's left side. Gene's breath was driven out of him in a loud puff and his concentration faltered. Tyr took advantage of the situation to throw Gene up and over his head. Gene flew through the air and landed on the straw at the base of the poles. "You still leave your guard open on your left side though."

"Lucky shot!" Gene wheezed as he got up. "That's all it was." Over by the edge of the clearing, Tyr saw Master Jubei shake his head in a mixture of amusement and frustration.

"You still have a lot to learn Gene Starwind," Jubei sighed. After Tyr came down from on top of the poles, he, Gene Starwind and Master Jubei continued on their way to where Gene would have his next lesson. As he walked, Tyr kept looking at Gene's ki aura. The red light was gone for the time being, but Tyr had a feeling that he would see it again. Tyr decided that he should keep a close eye on Gene Starwind's ki from that moment on. If that red light succeeded in completely taking him over, there was no telling what might happen.

Walking down the same corridor she did yesterday, Suzuka entered the fortress armory and found Korde waiting for her. In his hands, the scarred saurian held a long wooden box. Walking up to him, Suzuka held out the bokuto that he had lent to her.

"I've come for the bokuto that I was promised," she told him.

"And here it," Korde replied as he opened the box. Looking inside, Suzuka's eye's widened considerably at the contents. Korde had done more that just give her a bokuto, he had personally made one for her himself. Done over in a red brown finish, the blade had been engraved with gold lined carvings of Japanese characters. The handle had been custom carved in the shape of a dragon with the bokuto's blade growing out of its mouth. "Try it out," he said with a smile. "See how it feels." Setting the loaner against the side of the wall, Suzuka took her new bokuto and lifted it out of the box. Raising it in front of her, Suzuka examined the blade and turned it around in her slender hands. The wooden blade felt amazingly light in her grip, but when she swung it, it felt as though all of her weight was being put behind the blade. Yet, only a minimal effort was needed to stop it. "How do you like it?"

"It's a very good sword," Suzuka said. "But you didn't have to go to such trouble Korde."

"Nonsense," Korde replied. "You are a great warrior Suzuka. And a great warrior deserves a great blade to serve her. And that is just what the bokuto in your hands is. It has been empowered by techniques taught to me by Master Jubei himself."

"What sort of techniques?"

"Using a series of purification rituals," Korde explained, "I have empowered that bokuto with great strength. It will never break, splinter, or rot. And I have also given it a very useful power. By focusing your senses on the center of an opponent's power, you can use this bokuto to target and destroy it."

"Most impressive," she said. Suzuka decided that she should accept Korde's gift. After all the work that he had put in to it, it would be insulting of her to refuse. She placed it by her side and bowed in respect. "I thank you for your gift Korde. I promise that I will use this bokuto honorably."

"I wouldn't have made it for you if you wouldn't." Turning away to put the bokuto's box on a nearby shelf, Suzuka saw one of the fans installed into the wall of the armory.

"May I ask you something Korde?"

"Of course," he replied as Suzuka pointed at the rows of fans set into the far wall.

"Although the Dragon Clan lives a simplistic lifestyle," she said, "I've seen several conveniences used in your fortress such as electric lights and these fans. Tell me, how are they powered?" Korde hummed and then gestured for her to follow. He led Suzuka out of the armory and down to the bottom level of the fortress and then down a staircase into the basement. Opening a door, Suzuka peered inside and saw a spacious and empty room with a floor that was open to the earth. From floor to ceiling, several large stone columns were set up. The columns gave out a strange bluish light that seemed to move from the ground into the ceiling.

"The beings who built this structure possessed very advanced technology," Korde explained. "Somehow, they found a way to convert the ki of earth into electrical power. The power is stored in this temple and can be accessed by connecting to this symbol here." Looking to where he gestured, Suzuka saw a triangular hieroglyph carved into the wall. "And this is not the only symbol that can be used. I've identified several different symbols that serve as input and export jacks for information, while others serve to store data."

"So then the entire fortress serves as one massive computer," Suzuka theorized. And if the Grave of the Dragon was the same way, it could explain as to how the Kei pirates created Melfina, Mazren, and the Outlaw Star.

"Correct," Korde said. "By using these symbols, we've been able to incorporate some limited technology into the fortress. Enough to make life bearable, but not enough to make us soft. Things like water purification and air circulation."

"I see," Suzuka nodded. As Korde closed the door to the fortress power room, he led her back to the stairway.

"I hope you understand if I don't give you the complete tour," Korde said. "But as both the weapons master and fortress steward, I have several duties to attend to."

"That's perfectly understandable," Suzuka replied. As they both went their separate ways, Suzuka gazed down to her bokuto. With this new weapon, she would now stand strong against whatever the Toku threw at her.

After the review and the warm up with Tyr, Gene was ready for the next stage in Jubei's training. The first thing Jubei did was teach him how to generate a ki barrier. By channeling his ki through his open palms, Gene found that he could spread a protective shield in front of him that was stronger than any lightshield he could buy off the black market.

"This just keeps getting better and better," Gene said.

"Would you care to test it?" Tyr asked as he began to build up the ki in his hand.

"Why not," Gene grinned. "Give it your best shot." Tyr did and fired a ki blast from his palm. The blast struck the shield and dissipated harmlessly against it. "Ha!" Gene bragged. "Is that the best that you can do?" In response, Gene was met by a series of rapid-fire blasts from the side. Unprepared for the surprise attack, Gene found himself unable to adapt the shield and was knocked flat on his rear after the last blast broke through his defenses. Looking up, Gene looked up and saw Jubei slowly lowering his hand.

"Hey what the hell was that for?" he yelled as he jumped back to his feet.

"A reminder Gene Starwind," the Wiseman replied. "Though you may have great power, never lower your defenses or get arrogant. You just might give you enemies the one chance they need to defeat you." Gene started to say something, but he quickly realized that Jubei was right. Come on Gene, he scolded himself. Get it together would you. The next lesson Jubei gave was on something called ki sensitivity.

"Ki sensitivity," Jubei lectured, "is a person's ability to sense the flow of the ki lines around him. It can also be used to enhance one's own ability to find an opponent in less than preferable conditions."

"So then how do I use it?" Gene asked. Jubei reached into a bag that had been set down by his side and pulled out some kind of helmet.

"Put this on," the Wiseman instructed. Gene did, and immediately wished that he hadn't. The helmet covered his entire head with metal plates over his eyes, ears, and nose, leaving him completely cut off from the world. What the hell is this? he thought. I can't see, hear, or smell a damn thing.

That's sort of the point, another voice in his head replied.

"What the hell!" he shouted.

I'm speaking to you through telepathic communication, Jubei replied. Don't worry, I won't try to violate your mind like Mako did to Melfina. I'm only concentrating on sending you my thoughts.

"Right," Gene said. "So you mind telling me as just what I'm supposed to be doing."

That helmet is a special device of my own creation, Jubei explained. I use it to help my students hone their ki sensitivity. With your primary sensory organs rendered useless, you are now completely dependant on your ki sensitivity.

"So do I just keep on doing what I've been doing all along?" Gene asked. "Just let my feelings tell the power what I need it to do?"

Exactly, Jubei replied, so Gene did. He concentrated his thoughts on the Toku, the people who had taken his father from him and were now trying to pull the same crap with Mel. Gene grabbed on to the anger, and he instinctively channeled the power to where he needed it. All of a sudden, two glowing lights appeared in the darkness.

"Hey I'm seeing something," Gene called out.

What you see is the ki aura that is generated by the soul of myself and Tyr, Jubei explained. Describe it to us.

"Well," Gene said. "Your ki moves like a bunch of steam and it's glowing brightly. Tyr's is glowing brightly too, but it has a more solid feel to it, like it's made out of stone or something."

Good, Jubei said as Tyr's ki moved closer to him. By using ki sensitivity, not only will you be able to find your enemy in unfavorable conditions, but you will also be able to analyze their strengths as well as their power. Extending a pair of glowing extensions that Gene guessed were Tyr's arms, Tyr removed the helmet, causing Gene to squint from the massive increase in brightness.

"Now that you've done it this once," the bearded warrior told him. "You can do it again when you need it. You can also use it to enhance your normal senses."

"But for the meantime," Jubei said. "Let's continue on with your next lesson. It's time you worked on learning to better control your ki."

"Before we do though," Gene said, "I need to ask you something about this power."

"And that is?" Tyr asked

"I know that you said that my abilities are limited only by my imagination, but what about my reserves. I mean, am I ever going to run out of juice in a fight?"

"If you were a normal warrior than yes," Jubei answered. "However, you aren't just drawing on your own ki, but that of the entire universe. As long as you keep your mind focused and in balance, than you needn't worry about it."

"Something else though," Gene said. "Sometimes when I channel the power, I feel kind of stiff, as if I've overdone it at the gym."

"That's only natural," Tyr assured Gene. "Your body is not quite used yet to drawing on the power of ki. The stiffness is the stress the power puts on it. But it's nothing you need to worry about. The more you use your ki, the more your body gets used to it and the more power you can summon."

"One last thing," Gene said. "Hypothetically speaking, what would happen if I drew on more power than my body could handle?" Tyr and Jubei looked to each other with raised eyebrows. After a few seconds, it was Jubei who spoke up.

"If that should happen," the Wiseman told him, "than the power would overcome you and burn your body to ash."

"Right," Gene said. "Well then, what's the next lesson?"

Standing in the jungle with Master Ortho, Aisha readied herself. She and Ortho had been sparing since after breakfast. And each time they did, Aisha could feel herself get a little better at what Master Ortho had taught her. "Are you ready?" he asked as he assumed a stance.

"You bet I am," Aisha said as she did the same.

"Than begin," the Silgrian Master told her. Aisha took a deep breath and calmed her emotions. It was Ortho that made the first move. Grouping his fingers together to resemble a three clawed hand, he pointed his middle and pointer fingers and attempted to drive them into Aisha's shoulder joints. But Aisha blocked and deflected each attempt. When Ortho Switched to swiping motions with the heel of his palms, Aisha retaliated the same way. All the while, Aisha allowed Ortho to use up his energy while she waited for an opportunity to strike out. And when she tricked Ortho to overreach on an attack, she saw her chance, she grabbed his arm and pulled in the same direction he moved, combining her strength with his momentum. But Ortho flipped, rolled with her force, and landed on his feet. Turning to face her, he launched out his arm and attempted to grab her throat. But Aisha countered with a swinging palm to knock Ortho's arm away before slamming her other one into his chest. Ortho was knocked back and sent rolling head over heels before a tree stopped his motion. Aisha leaped at him before he could get back up, and drove her pointer and middle fingers straight down on his chest, stopping just before they made contact.

"Well?" Aisha asked. Ortho looked up to her and smiled.

"Very well I concede," he said. Aisha helped him to his feet and Ortho dusted himself off.

"So how was that?" Aisha asked.

"Very nicely done," Ortho replied. "I think you've got the basic idea down."

"Really?"

"Of course. With your strength and these techniques I've taught you, I don't think that you need to worry about being beaten by these enemies of yours anymore." Aisha smiled and bowed, knowing that if she did beat the Toku, it would be because of what Ortho had taught her.

"I thank you for everything that you've done for me," Aisha told him.

"You're quite welcome. Now go protect your friends." Aisha nodded and ran off to the edge of the clearing where they had spent the whole morning training, turning around briefly to wave goodbye to Ortho. Running through the forest, Aisha felt a renewed sense of strength and confidence surge through her. Jumping at a tree that reared up in front of her, Aisha quickly scaled up the trunk to a branch. She jumped from that one to a higher one until she eventually reached the top of the canopy level. Looking out over the jungle that spread around her, Aisha took a deep breath and swelled her chest in pride.

"Watch out Toku!" she yelled as she thrust her fist to the sky. "'Cause Aisha's back and she's ready to kick some ass!"

"Well I'm ready," Gene called out. Jubei nodded and drove his staff into the ground, then raised his hands and grabbed at invisible threads in the air. Aligning his mind and soul with the ki lines around him, Jubei let them flow through himself. By doing so, he was able to obtain a level of control and awareness that even the greatest of Tao Masters could not achieve. As soon as he felt the power flowing through him, he used it to grab a hold of Gene and spread his arms out, holding him in place.

"Now try and free your self," he instructed. Using his ki sensitivity, Jubei watched Gene's ki; enhanced by the Sword, flow into his arms as he attempted to free his arms with brute force.

"You'll never free yourself that way," Tyr lectured. "Master Jubei is using his ki to hold you still. You've got to use your own ki to break free."

"What the hell do you think that I'm doing?" Gene snapped.

"There's no need to pickup that attitude Gene Starwind," Jubei told him. "Tyr is just trying to help you. If you don't want his aid, than at least remember to be civil."

"All right I'm sorry," Gene said. "Look, just what am I supposed to be doing here."

"I'm using my magic to hold you in place," Jubei explained. "No matter how hard you try to increase your strength, you'll never be able to break free that way. Therefore, you must use your ki to do it. Relax your body, and then push the ki out from your arms. Then try and attack the bonds I've placed on you with it."

"All right I'll give it a try," Gene said. Jubei watched as Gene channeled his ki out from his arm, pushed it against the bonds that Jubei had placed on them, and then shattered them.

"Very good," Jubei praised. "Shall we try it again?"

"Sure why not?" Over the next hour, Jubei continued to place bonds around and on Gene Starwind's body. He locked Gene's feet in place, pulled back his legs, and when Gene began to get more advanced, even around his throat. And each time, Gene, used his ki to break free of them.

"I think you've got the basic idea," Jubei told him as they finished. "With the knowledge you have just gained, you will be able to use your ki in new ways in battle. Now then, let's break for lunch." After lunch, the trio spread out among the clearing for an hour's rest. Gene sat under the shade of a large tree while Jubei and Tyr went behind another to talk.

"Did you see it Master Jubei?" Tyr asked.

"The aura of red ki? Yes I did."

"I'm not sure what to make of it," Tyr told the Wiseman. "And to be honest, I'm worried. It feels dark, as if he's slowly being consumed by some kind of internal evil."

"And furthermore," Jubei added, "the more he trains, the stronger it grows." The two stopped for a second to look over at Gene as he lay resting. "For the time being, let's continue according to the agenda. When he trains with you, I'll watch him and hopefully we'll be able to determine the cause."

"So where is this place anyway?" Melfina asked Keibara.

"Just a little further ahead," Keibara answered as she cleared away some vines that blocked their way with her sai. "You're going to love this place Mel. It's sort of a secret get away of mine." The two girls had left the fortress a little while ago. They both carried backpacks laden with the food that Melfina had packed and a few other things. By their side trotted Slag, stopping every once in a while to sniff at a tree or a bush. As they walked, they came across a tall wall of rock that was covered with creeping vines. Walking along the side, Keibara parted some of the vines and revealed a tunnel in the rock. Stepping through, she led Melfina and Slag down the narrow passageway and out the other side. "Well here we are," Keibara said as they exited the passage. Stopping in her tracks, Melfina's eyes widened in awe at the sight before her. Closed in on all four sides by walls of rock was a secluded sanctuary of the jungle. On the walls of rock grew vines bearing blossoms of all shades of violet, blue, yellow and red. The sanctuary was filled with shade trees and bushes, but the growth was a little less dense than the main jungle. In the tree branches were several tree monkeys and brightly plumed birds that had come seeking shelter from predators. And in the center of the sanctuary was a pool of water that was fed from an underground spring.

"Keibara it's absolutely beautiful."

"Yeah," the ninja girl agreed. "And best of all, no one knows about it but me. It's sort of my secret spot whenever I need some privacy."

"But if its secrecy is so important, than why bring me here?" Melfina asked. Keibara turned and looked at her as if Melfina had gone crazy.

"Well why not? I mean, we're friends aren't we?" Melfina was caught off guard by Keibara's question, but her surprise quickly faded and she smiled slightly.

"Yeah I guess we are." Walking to the shade, Keibara set up the blanket she had brought up while Melfina pulled out the food that she had packed, handing a large chunk of meat to Slag. As she and Keibara sat and ate, Melfina looked around at the sanctuary, watching the animals that lived there scurry around on their business. Over by the bushes, Melfina watched as a butterfly with four silver wings fluttered from flower to flower. For a second, Melfina remembered the image of the maiden that had appeared to her after she and the others escaped the Leyline. She was a lot like the fluttering butterfly. For just as it had been reborn from its chrysalis; she had been reborn when the Leyline granted her wish to be with Gene by removing the part of her that was the Maiden. It was then that Melfina began to think about Gene. She had seen so little of him over the last two days. Although she knew that what he was doing was important, she missed him nonetheless.

After both Melfina and Keibara finished eating, Keibara stretched out her athletic frame and lied down on the blanket while Slag padded down to the pool for a brief swim. Melfina meanwhile, reached into the backpack she had brought and pulled out a binder and some pencils. Keibara saw what she was doing and turned her head to her.

"What's that Mel?"

"It's my sketchbook," Melfina answered. "A little while ago I took up drawing as a hobby."

"Drawing huh?" Keibara asked as she sat up and extended her hand. "Can I have a look?"

"Sure," Melfina replied as she handed her the sketchbook. Opening it up, Keibara quickly flipped through the leaflets that Melfina had drawn on so far: Jim working at his computer, Suzuka sipping tea, Aisha eating, Gene taking a nap on the couch.

"Wow, I'm really impressed Mel," Keibara said as she finished and gave the sketchbook back. "But I don't see any of your brother. How come?"

"Well to be honest, I didn't know that I had a brother until our problems with the Toku started. You see we were separated when we were both very young." That wasn't the total truth, but it was close enough. Melfina always had to be careful about what she told other people about herself. She never knew how they would react if they knew that she was a bio-android.

"Did your parents divorce or something?"

"Actually," Melfina told her, "Mazren and I don't have any parents."

"Orphans huh? I can relate."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I never knew my parents either," Keibara explained. "They died when I was very young. I spent most of my childhood on the streets, starving and struggling to survive."

"But I don't understand," Melfina said. "You call Tyr your father don't you?"

"Well," Keibara said as she looked skyward, "one day I stole some fruit from the wrong vendor. He caught me and began to beat the living hell out of me. But then, someone told him to let me go. When the vendor didn't, the guy sent him flying into one of his fruit displays. I passed out from the pain, so the guy picked me up and took me back to his ship. When he learned that I was a street kid, he offered to let me go with him back to his home. I figured that it couldn't be any worse than the streets so I did." As she spoke, Keibara smiled slightly at the memory. "Tyr isn't my real dad, but he's close enough. He gave me a home and taught me how to fight. And as soon as I finish my training, I'm going to go out there."

"You mean out to space?"

"Yeah. This planet is pretty nice, but I'd really like to see the galaxy for myself. Kind of like what you and your friends do." Melfina nodded. She enjoyed traveling with Gene and the others. The outlaw lifestyle could be hard sometimes, like when they were out of money. But being able to see and go to infinite worlds and adventures made it all worthwhile. Looking over to the pool, she watched as Slag climbed out and shook himself off before lying down to sun himself in the grass. Watching her brother's wolf Melfina began to wonder what Mazren was doing. She had seen so few of the others recently, but she hadn't seen anything of her brother since he left to go train in the jungle.

"Um, Keibara?"

"Yeah Mel?"

"Are you in love with my brother?" Keibara bolted straight up at her question.

"Why do you ask?"

"Well, you asked me yesterday if he had a girlfriend. And when I told you that Suzuka might be in live with him, you dropped the subject." Keibara laughed nervously as she ran a finger through her black ponytail.

"I wouldn't say that I'm in love with him," she answered. "I'm attracted to him, but I won't be devastated if he isn't to me. Besides, if your friend Suzuka has a thing for him, than I'll step aside. But she'd better act soon before I run out of patience."

"Why's that?" Melfina asked.

"Because I won't let him go to waste." It was then that Keibara began to blush and giggle like a giddy teenager. "I mean, that face, that scar, and all those muscles. He's just oozing with manliness." Melfina looked at Keibara in curiosity. Although she was mostly human, there were still so many things about human behavior that she still didn't quite understand.

"So you're only attracted to him because he's muscular?"

"Well love is nine-tenths physical attraction you know," Keibara replied. "What do you look for in a man?"

"Well," Mel said, "good looks are nice, but I don't think that I could fall in love with someone just by how they look."

"Then what?" Melfina was quiet for a second as she gathered her thoughts.

"I guess that I'd like someone who's nice and who can make me laugh when I'm sad. I'd also like someone who can make me feel good about myself just by how he talks to me." As she talked, the image of Gene began to form in her mind, making her voice softer. Without knowing it, she reached up to the pendant that Gene gave to her when they were dating. "Someone who I can trust to always be there for me whenever I need him. Who can make me feel safe, as if as long as he's with me than nothing would try to hurt me." As she looked off into space, Keibara leaned towards her.

"So Mel, is skinny a good kisser?"

"What?" Melfina asked back before she realized what Keibara meant. "Oh! You mean…no, I mean…well…"Melfina did her best to make her flush go away, even though she was having no success at all.

"Ha, I knew it," Keibara teased. "You're hopelessly in love with him aren't you? It's written all over you face." Melfina started to deny it again, but she realized that it would be hopeless. She turned away, doing her best to hold back her tears.

"Mel?" Keibar asked. "What's wrong?"

"Gene and I can't be anything but friends," Melfina told her. "No matter how much I want to be more than that, I can't."

"Why not?" Melfina looked back to Keibara. She didn't know what would happen after she spoke next, but she couldn't lie to Keibara any longer, not after she had been so nice to her.

"Because I'm not human."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I'm a bio-android Keibara," Melfina confessed. Closing her eyes, Melfina waited for a horrified reaction. But when there was none, she opened her eyes and saw Keibara looking at her with a raised eyebrow.

"A bio-android?" Keibara asked. "You mean like an artificial person."

"Something like that," Melfina answered. "I'm sorry Keibara. I didn't mean to lie to you, but I just didn't know how to tell you." Keibara didn't say anything at first. She instead scooted closer to Melfina and studied her face as if she some oddity in a museum.

"But you look human," Keibara said. "You obviously have feelings. And I can feel ki being generated from you, so that means that you have a soul. So what's the difference?"

"There are differences," Melfina sadly replied.

"So is that the problem?"

"No, but it's the cause of some." Keibara placed her hand on Melfina's shoulder, and Melfina looked up to see Keibara smiling at her.

"Hey, if it's something that you don't like to talk about than don't. But I have to admit, it does explain some things."

"Like what?"

"Why you're so nice," Keibara answered. "I've met a lot of 'real' people Mel, but a good deal of them aren't anywhere near as good a person as you. And for what it's worth it doesn't matter to me. I still say that you're one of the best friends I've ever had." Melfina looked at Keibara for a second longer before a small smile spread across her face.

"Thank you Keibara. So are you." Keibara smiled back and lay down on the blanket.

"So does that mean that your brother is a bio-android too?" Keibara asked.

"Yes that's right," Melfina answered

"Does your friend Suzuka know?"

"Yes she does."

"And she doesn't have a problem with it?"

"I don't think so."

"I see," Keibara sighed. "Well, so much for that."

Standing in the middle of a bamboo grove, Mazren stopped for a second to catch his breath and to allow his aching and stiff body a moment to heal. He had done nothing but train non-stop ever since the day before, and the strain was finally catching up to him. He hadn't even gone back to the Dragon Clan's fortress. He just caught himself some dinner of his own and spent the night out in the jungle.

"Come on Mazren," he said aloud. "You've got to pull this off so cut the slacking and get back to work." Ignoring the thousand of painful needles that seemed to stab him all over, Mazren raised his katana, focused his gaze straight ahead, and angled his razor-sharp blade across his body. Summoning his ki and channeling it into his sword, he used the Lightning Blade-his favorite sword technique-to sheath itself in crackling lightning. Mazren then accelerated the flow of ki through his sword and energized the Lightning Blade into its charged form Sky-Reaving Lightning Blade, an attack that could extend a lash of pure electrical energy from his blade. This one technique was Mazren's most powerful sword technique, but he had to go further. He further accelerated the flow of ki, causing the katana to shake and his arms to burn with pain. I've got to do this, he thought. Melfina is counting on me to protect her. I can't afford to fail. I WILL NOT THE TOKU HURT HER!

As his will and drive reached their peak, Mazren felt the wall that blocked him crumble, and then fall. In his hands, the glow that encased his katanta brightened and exploded into electric fire. The air swirled around him and the earth beneath him cracked and rose. I've done it, he realized. Raising his sword, Mazren swung it downward and unleashed a wave of lighting energy flew that ripped through the bamboo grove, slicing to ribbons anything in its path. When the chaos settled, Mazren saw that his new attack had torn straight through the jungle cutting trees, underbrush, even rocks were unable to resist the attack.

"I did it," he said. With success finally obtained, Mazren dropped his katana and collapsed to the ground. "I did it," he laughed. His arms were sore, his strength was drained, but he felt good. He had pushed himself to the next level and was now more powerful than ever. And he never would have been able to do it without Melfina. His desire to protect his sister was what enabled him to pull it all off.

As he sat back up, he wondered about how she was doing. He had been gone for only two days, but it seemed like much longer for him. He missed not only her, but the others as well. Aisha and Jim weren't bad guys to hang out with, and it was pretty lonely without Slag. And of course, he certainly would have liked to seen Suzuka. Strange, he thought. I've only known these people about a week and I'm starting to think of them like a family or something. However, there was the matter of Starwind. Mazren didn't like the thought of leaving his sister alone with the guy, not after he had learned of Starwind's past regarding woman. He didn't know what it was that Melfina saw in the guy, but Mazren knew that as her older brother, he was obligated to protect her. Not just from the Toku, but from guys who would try to take advantage of her naiveté. As he stood back up, Mazren decided that it was time that he and his sister had a serious talk about it. It's too boring around here. I think that it's time to go back. He then wrinkled his nose as a rather noticeable scent made its presence known. Before that though, I need to find a stream or a pool or something, because damn am I ripe. Gathering up his gear, Mazren left the bamboo grove, turning around to look proudly at the damage he had done with what would be only the first of a series of new tricks. That's one hell of a technique. I think that I'll call it Lightning Blade Flash.

"Are you ready?" Tyr asked.

"As always," Gene answered. Lifting his knife, Gene summoned the power and formed his ki blade. Across from him, Tyr raised up the katana that he had brought and pointed it at Gene. It was time for the afternoon training. Jubei had informed him that Tyr was going to help him learn to use the ki sword. Over by the clearing's edge, the Wiseman sat and observed, ready to offer any medical help should things get out of hand.

"Than begin," Tyr ordered. Gene raised his ki blade and charged, attacking Tyr head on. He swung the glowing blade, but Tyr avoided each slash. And when Gene overestimated himself on one attack, Tyr spun and slung his own blade underhand, knocking Gene's ki sword out of his grasp. As soon as it landed on the ground, the blade of light disappeared and changed back into Gene's knife.

"Wanna go for round two?" Gene asked as he picked back up his knife.

"Before we do though," Tyr answered, "I'd like to give you some advice."

' "Go ahead," Gene replied.

' "Have you forgotten everything that Master Jubei and I have taught you?"

"What do you mean by that?" Gene asked. "I'm using my feelings to make the ki blade."

"You're using the power to create a weapon, but you aren't putting your heart fully into this fight," Tyr explained. "You're swinging your sword as if it were a mere club with no sense of finesse or control."

"Well I've got to be honest with you Tyr," Gene replied. "I'm not really used to using a sword. I prefer my guns."

"That's because you're so in tune with them that they feel as if they're a part of you," Tyr told him, "an extension of your own self. The ki blade however, truly is an extension of your self. Therefore, think of it not as a mere tool, but as a part of you. Channel your emotions and power into the blade and let it guide you."

"All right if you say so," Gene shrugged. Raising his power, he reformed his ki blade and closed his eyes. The ki blade is a part of me, he told himself. It's an extension of my own will. Gene heard heavy footsteps charge toward him, and flashed his ki blade in time to deflect Tyr's sword.

"Like that?" he asked.

"Exactly," Tyr replied as he re-attacked. Gene stood his ground and met Tyr's assault head on. Their blades clashed together with the ferocity of a thunderstorm, their powers equally matched, the sounds of their battle echoing through the jungle. Gene spun, stabbed, slashed, and countered for each of Tyr's attacks, his body moving like a dancing flame. The power surged through his body, moving it in tune with his desires. And if even the slightest trace of exhaustion rose in his mind, Gene intensified his anger and continued. As he did, the image of Tyr began to distort and blur, shifting into that of Hazonko. You tried to take Melfina from me, he growled in his mind. And you told her she was nothing but a puppet. His anger grew and he pressed his attack even further. "Lad you're losing control," Hazonko lectured. "Try and keep a cool head." But Gene paid him no heed. The image shifted again and formed into a smaller, older man; Gwen Khan. You shut Melfina down like she was a damn appliance, Gene cursed. He increased the intensity of his attacks and locked his blade with Khan's. "Listen to me Lad," Khan pleaded. "Something is wrong with you. You're got to stop and try to calm down." But just then, the image shifted once more into that of Harry McDougal, and the last of Gene's control vanished in an explosion of pure hate. You tried to take her from me as well. AND… YOU… HURT… HER!

Screaming in rage, Gene felt the power take on a life of its own and surge into the blade. The power knocked Harry back and into a tree behind him. Jumping back a few feet, Gene raised his sword and snapped it down, sending a wave of energy traveling though the ground straight toward Harry. The energy surge slammed into the tree and carved a deep gash into the jungle, but Harry jumped out of the way at the last minute. As Harry tried to push himself back up, Gene leapt into the air and dived straight for him. "Lad no!" Harry begged. But Gene wouldn't show Harry any mercy, not after what he had done. He was just inches from contact when something struck him in mid flight, sending Gene flying into a nearby tree. He crashed to the ground where he saw Jubei call back his staff before running over to Tyr.

"Tyr, are you all right?" The bearded warrior picked himself up and rubbed his shoulder.

"I caught the edge of his last attack, but I think I'll live," Tyr answered. "But it's a good thing that he still leaves his guard open on his left." Over by the edge of the clearing, Gene felt the anger slowly subside as he came back to reality.

"Ugh, what the hell happened?" he asked as Tyr and Jubei came over to him.

"You almost killed Tyr," Jubei answered. "That's what."

"What?" As he got back to his feet, Gene looked around and saw the damage he had done to the jungle. "Sorry about that. I guess I just got a little carried away for a second."

"You did more than just get carried away lad," Tyr commented. "You outright lost control."

"Look I said that I was sorry," Gene said. "What more do you guys want?"

"An explanation would be appropriate," Jubei answered. "Tell me, what was it that you felt just now?" Gene sighed in frustration. He wasn't much for bearing his soul, but he needed to master the Sword's power and the more he stalled than the longer it would take.

"I felt angry."

"Why?" Tyr asked.

"You told me that my emotions generate the power right?" Gene asked. "Well, whenever I get really angry, the power just seems to soar."

"I see," Jubei said with a nod. "But what is the source of this anger." Gene looked to the ground as he sorted out his thoughts.

"Them," he answered.

"You mean the Toku?" Tyr asked. Gene's hands balled into fists as his body began to shake in anger.

"A long time ago," he said, "those bastards killed my father right in front of me. Now they're trying to take Melfina from me. And one of the guys who works for them he…he hurt her once! But I won't let it happen. I'm not going to let them take her, and I'm going to make them all pay for everything they've done." Jubei hummed in thought as he nodded his head.

"I see," the Wiseman said. "This is very dangerous."

"What do you mean?" Gene asked as he looked up.

"Remember what I told you about the essence of fire?" Jubei reminded Gene. "If not properly controlled, it destroys everything around it. And that is exactly what almost happened here today. Unless you learn to control your anger, than you're an even bigger threat than your enemies."

"What are you saying?" Gene asked. "Are you suggesting that I shouldn't hate the Toku? That I should just forgive and forget after all that they've done?"

"Of course not," Tyr answered. "If these people have done what you claim they've done to you and your friend, then they deserve your hatred, and your wrath. If you are a true warrior, than it is your duty and responsibility to avenge crimes of this nature."

"Everyone carries darkness in their heart in one form or another," Jubei continued. "This rage that you feel is yours. It does no good to try and suppress it. That only makes it even stronger and eventually all the more difficult to control. However, you can't just surrender yourself to it completely either. Otherwise you risk becoming the very thing that you hate. In order to use the Sword's power to your maximum ability, than you must be able to harness your anger properly so that it doesn't consume and destroy you." Gene felt his head spin as tried his best to make sense of what Jubei had said.

"So how just how the hell am I supposed to do that?" Gene asked. From under his hat, Jubei stared long and hard at Gene.

"Tell me Gene Starwind, why did you agree to become the Swordwielder?" Gene thought that Jubei already knew why, but he decided that he should humor him.

"For Melfina," he truthfully answered. "I wanted to become so strong, so powerful, that no one would even think about trying to harm her. I also want to make the Toku pay for what they've done to her.And the Sword is the key to doing it."

"Why?" Tyr asked.

"What do you mean why?" Gene asked back.

"Why are you so determined to protect that girl?" Tyr asked.

"Well," Gene said, "I have to."

"You don't have to do anything," Jubei commented. "After all, it's not like she's paying you for your protection."

"Yeah well," Gene said, "maybe I want to protect her."

"But why though?" Tyr asked again. Gene found that he was without a descent answer so he said the first thing that came into his head.

"She saved my life once."

"So you're only protecting her because you feel that you're obligated?" Tyr asked. It was then that Gene began to run out of patience.

"Hey are we going to play twenty questions or are we going to get on with the training?" he asked.

"Unfortunately no," Jubei replied. Gesturing to Tyr, the two of them began to leave.

"Hey wait a minute!" Gene called out. "Where are you going?"

"We can't teach you anymore Gene Starwind," Jubei called back. "If you can't keep control of your anger, than you're a danger to yourself and everything around you; especially with the power of the Sword at your beck and call."

"Well you're the Wiseman!" Gene yelled. "Teach me how!"

"This is a problem only you can solve lad," Tyr told him. "Find your reason and use it to counter your rage. Once you do that, then we will continue with your training." Without another word, Jubei and Tyr exited the clearing and vanished into the jungle.

Alone, Gene looked down at his hand and studied the dragon crest that had appeared when he first grasped the sword. Find my reason huh? he thought. I want to protect Melfina because…but something blocked his train of thought from going any further, almost as if he were afraid of the answer. With a frustrated groan, Gene walked over to where he had laid his coat and put it back on. Maybe a walk would help him clear his head. He'd need to if he ever hoped to continue with his training.

Jim felt like he wanted to scream. He and Gillium had been working on the ether-wave radio transmitter ever since last night. After taking it apart and examining each component, they had failed to find anything wrong but it still wouldn't work. They then scanned the synthetic dragonite to see if it had decayed beyond the point of powering the transmitter, but the tests came back negative.

"Damn it I give up!" Jim yelled. "We've been working on this piece of crap for hours on end and we still haven't figured out what's wrong with it."

"Maybe you should take a break Jim," Gillium's pink robot suggested. "I can continue to work on this device. After all, you are only human and humans need rest." Jim sighed as he pushed himself up from the desk.

"Yeah I guess that you're right." Jim had to admit that he was getting hungry. He checked his watch and saw that Melfina should be helping make the Dragon clan's dinner by now. He could really use some of her cooking to help fuel his engine. He turned to the door and was about to walk out when he overhead Gillium muttering something.

"It is very strange. A device with such a simple design should be easy to understand."

"What do you mean?" Jim asked, curious to what Gillium meant.

"Well," Gillium explained. "Although the individual components are much more advanced, the entire mechanism is very similar in design to a crystal wave radio." Hearing that, the gears in Jim's head began to turn before it all fell together.

"That's it," he said as he ran back to the desk. "That's it!"

"What's it Jim?" But Jim didn't bother to answer as he frantically began to pull out some wires he had placed on the floor by the desk.

"This ether-wave transmitter is nothing more than a supped up crystal wave radio. Don't you get it Gillium? The synthetic dragonite isn't the power source, it's the antennae."

"I do believe that you could be right Jim," Gillium said as Jim used the wires to connect the transmitter to the personal generator he had brought from the Outlaw Star.

"Well," he told Gillium, "here goes nothing. Keep your fingers crossed." Taking a deep breath, Jim flicked the transmitter's power switch and the mechanism immediately lit up. "Yes!" He exclaimed. "All right Gillium, let's go check out the Toku's computer system." Connecting his computer to the transmitter, Jim accessed the Toku's network and began to scan for any useful information.

"This is amazing," Gillium said. "The data here is so dense that I can only process a fraction of it all."

"Yeah no kidding," Jim agreed. "There's data here on the Toku's criminal activities, their base locations, even their financial assets. Hmmm. I wonder what this one here is." Clicking on a link, Jim found himself looking at the image of a menacing black tower. Tall and faintly coned shaped, several smaller structures grew out and were arranged flush to the main structure. Around the base was a small spaceport while four black spires set perpendicular to each other framed the tower's peak.

"This must be their central base," Jim observed.

"Most likely," Gillium commented. "But what about that structure on top? I can find no information as to what purpose it serves."

"It's probably just a decoration used for intimidation purposes," Jim guessed as he shut down his computer. "Well it doesn't really matter at the moment anyway. We've cracked the code, so I think that deserves a break."

"Very good than Jim," Gillium replied as Jim left. "I'll see you after dinner than." As Jim walked out the door and to the main hall of the fortress, only two things occupied his mind; the satisfaction that he'd now be able to stick it to the Toku, and the thought of Melfina's cooking.

Later that night, in his quarters atop the tower, Jubei sat in front of his row of bonsai trees. Grasping a pair of pruning shears in one hand, the Wiseman moved to each one of the miniature trees in turn. These were special bonsai trees, bred by Jubei himself. They grew at a much faster rate than usual, and therefore required daily pruning. Tending to his bonsai was Jubei's favored way to relax. It calmed his mind and aided him in his meditations. As he clipped an errant branch off of one, a knock sounded at the door.

"Come in," he called out. The door opened and Tyr entered into the quarters.

"Forgive me for disturbing you Master Jubei," the bearded warrior said. "But I was wondering if you had seen Gene Starwind around. I didn't see him at dinner tonight."

"He was out wandering in the jungle," Jubei told his second. "You needn't worry about his safety. He returned shortly after dinner was over. Last I saw, he was going back to his quarters."

"Has he found his reason?" Setting down the pruning shears, Jubei gave out a tired sigh.

"I honestly have no idea if he has or not. But let's hope that he does."

"What would happen if he doesn't?" Rising to his feet, Jubei gestured for his staff and the gilded rod levitated to his hand.

"I'm afraid that I don't have an answer," he honestly replied. "After we returned to the fortress, I meditated for several hours on the future, consulting the ki lines, comparing various scenarios, but all I received were shadows, fragments of images, but not enough for a complete picture. At this point, there's no telling what might happen from this point on. Only that Gene Starwind and the decisions that he makes will be the key factor."

"I see," Tyr nodded. Turning around, he was about to leave when Jubei called out to him again.

"There's still time Tyr," Jubei said. "I won't force you to stay if you don't want to. You can still change your mind." Tyr stopped and turned back to Jubei, a small smile on his face.

"Master Jubei," he said. "I am not afraid to face whatever fate sends my way. I've lived a good life and have no regrets. No matter what the future may bring, I shall face it as a true warrior should. Standing strong and with my blade ready."

"Of course," Jubei said. "But Tyr, just in case I don't get another chance, I wish to say that you've been a very good friend. And you needn't worry about Keibara. If the worst does happen, I will continue her training in your place." Tyr nodded and left. Sitting back down, Jubei picked the pruning shears back up. As he continued tending to his bonsai, he looked towards the ceiling of his quarters and sighed. But Gene Starwind had better hurry before it's too late, he thought.

Lying on the bed in his quarters, Gene stared out the window. Ever since Jubei and Tyr had told him to find his reason for wanting to protect Melfina, he had racked his brain frantically searching for an answer to give them. But every time that he was about to grasp it, something pushed it away. I could just make something up, he guessed. But they'd probably see right through it.

Looking to his watch, Gene saw that it was this planet's equivalent to 11 p.m. With a groan, he pushed himself up from the bed. Putting on his boots and coat, he walked out the door and down the hall toward the exit. Exiting the building where his quarters were, Gene walked down a short stairway, down a passageway, and through one of the smaller gardens, ending up at the same spot where he had escaped to the night he awakened the Sword. As he looked out over the view of the river behind the fortress, Gene realized that he wasn't alone.

"You can come out now," he called out. From a passageway off to his left, Keibara appeared and stood beside him.

"Hey skinny?" the ninja girl asked. "You got a minute? We need to talk."

"Will you stop calling me that!" Gene snapped. "And I really don't feel like company right about now."

"Yeah?" Keibara asked. "Is that why you've been ignoring Mel all this time."

"I beg your pardon?" Gene asked as he turned to face her.

"Ever since that whole Mako thing," Keibara told him, "you've been avoiding her like the plague or something. I mean, you weren't here at dinner, and Mel was worried sick about you. Did you ever get the feeling that maybe she might want to see you?"

"I've been busy," Gene replied.

"I can understand that," Keibara said. "But don't you think you owe it to her to let her know that you're all right? Especially with the way that she feels about you."

"What do you mean, 'the way she feels about me?'" Keibara looked at him in a mixture of disbelief and contempt.

"You really can't see it can you? All right then, I'll spell it out for you. She's in love with you." Gene's eyes widened and his heart skipped a beat. Did he hear her right?

"What?"

"That's right. She's in love with you. But when I asked her about it, she almost burst into tears, saying that she couldn't be anything but a friend to you, no matter how much she wants to be anything more." Gene couldn't believe what he was hearing. There was no way that Keibara could be serious.

"Come on now," he told her as he looked away. "You must have misunderstood what she said. Melfina and I are just friends

and nothing more." But his answer didn't satisfy Keibara who moved to behind him.

"Just what the hell is your problem skinny?" she angrily asked him. "I know about twelve guys in the Dragon Clan who would kill to be able to call a girl like Melfina their own. Do you have some kind of hang up about her being a bio-android or something?"

"How the hell…"

"She told me," Keibara replied. "And from what I heard, it sounded like that's what it was." Gene kept his back to her as he grit his teeth in anger.

"Look," he told her. "Don't get involved in things that don't concern you. Melfina and I dated for a little while, but it's over. Besides, she was the one who broke it off. Or did she forget to mention that?" Keibara was silent for a long time before she began to walk away.

"You know what?" she called over her shoulder. "From talking with Mel, I got the idea that she thinks that she doesn't deserve you? And I agree."

"What was that?" Gene asked as he craned his neck around to face her.

"Yeah that's right," Keibara continued. "She deserves someone who's not too much of a coward to admit how he really

feels." Gene was about to say something else, but Keibara disappeared down another passageway before he could. With a growl of frustration, Gene dropped and lay down on the ground. As he stared up at the sea of stars above him, Gene kept telling himself that Keibara was wrong. Melfina couldn't possibly still be in love with him. But still, what if it was true? With a sigh, Gene wondered why he just couldn't get Melfina out of his head. Their relationship was over, so why couldn't Gene just move on with his life? What was it about her that made him think this way?

The first thing that came to mind was that she intrigued him, a bio-android so human that he couldn't tell she was one even by touching her cheek. But that was only part of it. Gene had never met anyone like Melfina, so warm and innocent, but with a heart that could be so easily bruised, something he had learned personally. That illusion of Melfina that Mako created, Gene thought. She said that I only tried to help her so that I could screw her. Was she right?

Gene thought on that for a few seconds before he found his answer. True, he had hoped that by helping Melfina find her past she would want to sleep with him. He would have been crazy not to. Melfina wasn't the statuesque, busty, supermodel type that Gene was usually attracted to, but she was no shrinking violet either. Melfina's beauty was a subtle, innocent type that she didn't even know that she had. She was definitely the kind of girl you'd want to brag about the next morning. Still, a possible sexual conquest wasn't the main reason why he had offered to help her. He had genuinely wanted to. After Hilda died, Melfina seemed so lost, alone, and scared, just like Gene was after his father was killed. Gene had to fend for himself after that, he didn't want Melfina to go through the same hell as he did. But no matter how honest or good his intentions were; Gene couldn't ignore the fact that he did try to take advantage of her innocence on more than one occasion.

It wasn't because I didn't care about her feelings, Gene thought. Melfinajust couldn't be anything else. Gene was an outlaw, and could therefore be nothing but a loner without anything to hold him down or back. It wasn't just better that way; it was safer as well. Don't let people get to close and it hurts less when you lose them. It was a lesson he had learned at a young age. Still, even the most lone of wolves needs company sometimes. Every one-night stand or call girl was just that, a temporary escape from the loneliness, a need for the feel of a warm body that told Gene that he was still alive. But somewhere along the line, Melfina became more than that. He didn't just need to feel her warmth; he wanted to feel it. Not just of her body, but of her heart as well.

Thinking that, Gene wondered what it was that made him want to change and two specific incidents popped into his mind. The first was when she saved his life after that Kei pirate poisoned him. He was ready to just cash in his chips and die. After all, it wasn't like his life had any importance or mattered to anyone. But then, Melfina took him inside her chamber to heal him. She appeared before him and told him that he wasn't alone. And when she offered her hand and he accepted, the pain from the poisoning was gone. And in its place was a warm glow and the warm feel of Melfina's gentle arms around his waist as she told him that everything was going to be all right. He then allowed the defenses he had built around his heart to fall and forget about the pain that he had carried for so long as he and Melfina floated in that private universe. Melfina did more than just heal my body that day, Gene thought. For a brief second, she was able to heal my soul as well. But though Gene would always be grateful to her for what she did, he didn't attach any special meaning to it at the time. He was well aware that Mel needed him to protect her from the Kei and help find her past.

The second time was when Leilong challenged him to a duel. Even after the cruel way he had treated her the night before, Melfina had followed after him the next day. She told Leilong that Gene was important to her and that Leilong was going to have to kill her before he did him. She didn't say that she needed my help, Gene thought. She said that I was important to her. For him, that one moment was a wakeup call. Even though his life didn't matter to him, it did to Mel. For the first time in a good long while, someone cared about him. Someone actually believed in him and gave a damn whether or not he lived or died. After that, he no longer tried to take advantage of her. And he also knew that no matter what, he had to fulfill his promise to her. But sometimes, he wondered how she could believe in him so completely. Why did she stay with him when there had to be someone out there who could help her in ways that he couldn't? Why did he even care if she did or not? And then at the Leyline, during the fight with Hazonko, it finally dawned on him. Melfina stayed with him because she loved him. And when he realized this, Gene knew why he wanted her to stay with him-because he loved her as well.

Gene closed his eyes and smiled slightly as he remembered the days after the Leyline. Although he and Mel both wanted to be with each other, Gene knew that it was going to take some work. Gene had never been in a real relationship before, and Mel-now that she was no longer the Maiden of the Leyline-had to start over from scratch. But still, Gene was willing to do whatever it took to prove that he deserved to be with her. He cut back on his drinking, made time to spend with Mel so she wouldn't feel neglected, but at the same time being careful not to smother her so that Mefina could have room to grow into the person she wanted to become. He also stayed away from the red light districts in whatever cities they set up shop, just to make sure he didn't fall into temptation. Of course, sometimes he would flirt with other girls when Melfina wasn't around, but he was always careful not to take it too far when he did. It wasn't because Melfina wasn't enough for me, he thought. Old habits are just hard to break. But after a short while, Melfina became the only girl that he could see. He enjoyed spending time with her. Even after everything that had happened to her, Melfina looked at the universe with a sense of innocence and wonder. Just being around her was refreshing for Gene, as if he was looking at things in a way that he had forgotten how. Just like at that carnival, he thought. Shortly after arriving at a planet called Auriga; a carnival had come to the city where they had set up shop. And even though he knew that he would catch holy hell from Jim, Gene had snuck Melfina out and taken her to it. Gene remembered how her eyes lit up at just the sight of all the rides and games that were there. They would have the whole day just to themselves and Melfina loved every minute of it. Some of the rides they went on scared her, but she left each one laughing and wanting to do more. They ate exotic foods from the concession stands and Gene won her a stuffed Teddy Bear at a shooting gallery. But the thing that Melfina seemed to love best was the petting zoo. Gene wasn't very big on animals, so he stayed outside while Mel went in. He watched her as she went to each pen and how each animal, including one ornery goat that tried to take a bite out of everyone's clothes, came up to be petted by her. In one section of the petting zoo, a farmer had put some eggs on display that were about to hatch. The farmer gave one to Melfina to hold, and the egg suddenly hatched in her hand. As she looked at the little yellow ball of damp fuzz that had been born in her hands, Mel's eyes teared up and she nuzzled the chick against her cheek. Watching her, Gene eventually decided to go in and join her. And when he did, that damn goat bit off a huge piece of his new coat. Gene was ready to kill that mangy fleabag, but when he heard Melfina laughing, he couldn't help but laugh himself.

But the best part for me was the Ferris wheel, he remembered. It was the last thing they went on before they went home that night. Near the end of the ride, the Ferris wheel stopped while they were still on it, leaving them at its top. Melfina had been afraid at first, but her fear changed to awe when the explosions of color went off above their heads. Gene had slipped the operator a few extra wong so they could have the best seat for the fireworks. As they watched the fireworks shower color upon them, Melfina snuggled closer to him, thanked him for the wonderful day, and then told him that she loved him. I wanted so much to tell her I loved her too, Gene thought. But when he tried, it was as if his voice wouldn't work. So he did the only thing he could do. His arm snaked around her slim waist and held her as tight as he could.

So why? he asked himself. When she suggested that we go back to being just friends, why did I give in so easily? The answer came quicker than he would have liked. Because Keibara was right, I'm nothing but a damn coward. He had given up because he was afraid of losing her. For even though Mel's faith in him was enough to make him want to change the way he was, to be the kind of guy that she deserved, Gene often wondered just how long he could keep the act up. Sooner or later, Gene knew that he would mess up and let her down. And then, Melfina would see him for what Gene knew was his real self, a drunken womanizer who'd sleep with anything in a dress. When Melfina began to act so distant that last month they were dating, Gene began to feel that had to be it. But the fear of losing her trust in him wasn't the only reason. When his father had been killed, Gene was devastated. His father was his only family. He knew that he wasn't he only kid who had lost his family, but not many of them could say that their fathers had been murdered in front of them while they were forced to watch, powerless to do anything to stop it. The pain of that one incident kept him planet side on Sentinel III for almost seven years. When he was with Melfina, the pain seemed less, but there was also sometimes a fear that would keep Gene awake all night. What if someone tried to take her from him like they did with his father? Would he be able to protect her, or would he fail her?

When Melfina ended their relationship, Gene had decided that it was for the best. After all, he was an outlaw by nature, even before he went back into space. And whoever heard of an outlaw settling down? But when he tried to go back to the dating scene, he found that he was subconsciously comparing every girl he met to Mel, and none of them measured up. Some weren't as kind, or as beautiful, and sometimes it was because of the way their hair smelled. Melfina's hair smelled like fresh strawberries from that shampoo that she used. After a while, he decided to give up on meeting women in bars for a while and concentrate on the brothels until he got back to his old self. With the call girls, it was just simple sex and nothing more. It was a brute honesty that Gene respected. So a few weeks after he broke up with Mel, he found himself back on Sentinel III. After a late night of working on the Outlaw Star, Gene decided he'd treat himself to a little company. Luckily, Carol, his favorite girl at the Club Temptation, was working that night. They went up to her room and screwed, but something was wrong. As good as Carol was, Gene's heart just wasn't as into it as it used to be. And after they were done, Gene realized what it was. Although Carol had often told him that he was her favorite customer, she was only there because he had paid her. Melfina, if Gene would just give her space and time, would have wanted to go to bed with him. The entire act was shallow and meaningless. So, he gave Carol a few extra for her time, left, and never went back. There was just no point to it.

I thought that as long as she stayed with me than it would be enough, he thought. I even figured that it would be better for the both of us. But that was just it, it wasn't. Gene didn't want Melfina to just be his friend. Just like he couldn't stand the thought of her being with anyone else. Just like he would kill anyone who tried to hurt her in any way, shape, or form. And as he looked up at the night sky, Gene finally found his reason. I love her. No matter how hard I try to force it out of my head, I can't. But does she love me? Do I even still have a chance with Melfina? Just then, the sound of something carried to his ear on the wind. Gene cocked his ear and listened. The sound was soft and sad, but also familiar:

I don't know, what words I can say,

The wind has a way, to talk to me.

Melfina, Gene realized. She was somewhere close by, singing her song, the same one Harry had told him about at the Leyline. Rising to his feet, Gene began to follow the song to its source.

There were things he had to know, and something very important to get off of his chest.

(Gene has finally come to terms with his feelings for Melfina. But will he have the courage to tell her? Will Mazren overreach his role as the protective big brother and stand between them? Why didn't Melfina tell Gene about the incident with Harry? And all the while, Shidowkun and his army of darkness are moving even closer. What's going to happen now? Your guess is as good as the Ronin's. Hey I'm just making this up as I go along. But anyway, be here next time. Don't forget to review.)

Chapter 13
Chapter 15

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