- (545.86KB, 1050x1350, Ink-bled Nightmare.png)
The girl’s eyes widen in shock and horror, and her mouth opens and closes as though she were choking on her own breath. But then she shakes her head and steels herself, and her lips close into a pale, thin line. “Shanghai, Hourai,” she spits out, ”kill her!”
There is a flash of bright light, and it nearly blinds you, and you only just manage to jump away as you sense something approach you.
The girl is gone, hidden from sight, and two new presences have made themselves manifest.
Two looming shadows, then a rustle of cloth, black and red, pale skin and long blonde hair the same shade as yours and the girl’s.
“You’re not human.”
They do not answer, but draw their own blades, shining rapiers like your own. And in the glittering, emotionless beauty of their eyes, amber and blue, you don’t see even a spark of a soul.
You glare at them, green eyes narrowing dangerously.
“I see… so you’re her real creations. Something far beyond the beasts in the forest. But then… if you’re tainted with the same malice, why is it that behind the veil of hate I see…”
You leap forward just as they do, and your blades clash, charged with enough magic to tear through a mountain.
“…something of perfection?”
You disengage, striking under the black-clad one’s guard, but she blocks, and the crimson one lunges at your neck. Her blade meets empty air – you twist around, dodge the attack, and retaliate with a flurry of blows that would destroy any lesser enemy in an instant. And yet the girls block each strike with unfathomable precision, and their swords flash like lances of light when they smash against your own.
You step back. They’ve taken the advantage. Shanghai, an unforgiving gale, slashes at your legs, your chest, your throat, you block and Hourai stabs at every inch of flesh you expose, one good thrust and it will be over!
You tumble to the ground, avoid a strike from Shanghai that would have ripped through your jugular. Ignoring the pain of the impact, you strike out with a leg, and the magically reinforced white boot slams into Hourai, and she stumbles. You stand, ready to finish it, your rapier a silver flash in the gloom.
Shanghai blocks, saving her sister. The ring of your blade against hers is almost musical.
Where is the girl!? You cast out with your eyes even as you lash out with your blade again and again, unable to stop on pain of death. You slip, a thrust from Hourai narrowly misses anything of importance but the tip of her blade still digs into the soft flesh of your left thigh.
A scream of pain and rage escapes your throat as you leap back, a flash of violet magic bursting from your right hand into a crackling explosion, a desperate attempt to keep them away. It works; Hourai pauses and Shanghai jumps back… a second later and they would have been scrap meat.
And you’re bleeding, you’re bleeding, and your pure white dress is stained red once more. The girl. You have to find the girl. Your enemy is indefatigable; your enemy is beyond human.
Shanghai and Hourai strike in unison. You twist away from the blows, the magic powering your legs faster than even the cruel edge of their blades. And then, as you regain your footing for a new strike, you see her.
The girl, standing regally on the roof of the house, the moon shining above her like a silver halo, the bright, metallic threads going from her armored gloves to the two glittering knights who will kill you for daring to exist.
Your enemy is still mortal at its core.
Shanghai and Hourai charge at you, a flash of silver on one side, a spark of death on the other.
You meet them head on. The answer flashes before your eyes.
You remember Patchouli, when you first met her, the sweet smell of her hair and her purple eyes that looked like they could read your mind. What did she do, back then? It’s happened after that, too…
Identify the target. All the better if it’s in your sight.
Conceptualize the motion. Enter the gap, run the distance, and then…
There is a large crack of displaced air, and a lurching feeling in your stomach. You ignore it, find your footing, and strike.
The girl stifles a gasp and dodges to the side. The blade misses her neck but the edge slashes her upper arm, and blood stains her cloak.
“I should have expected something like that,” she mumbles, gathering her balance and facing you. Her green eyes are as cold as yours. “I wonder, did I… did Remilia’s wizard teach you it?”
“In a way,” you grin defiantly.
“Hm.” The girl snaps her fingers, and Shanghai and Hourai, who followed you, leap up and reach the rooftop in a single bound, right behind you! You sense it, lash out with your free hand, you know this, it’s the same principle by which the girl conjures her shield! Visualize, gather the energy, and force the world to accept the exchange!
A clap of thunder, a flash of death, and Shanghai and Hourai are driven back by a dozen stakes of crystallized energy, tall as them, which slam into the rooftop and encircle them, forming a makeshift prison.
Your hand pointing at her creations, you keep your eyes on the girl, expecting her to order her dolls to find a way around the obstacle.
But she does not move. In spite of the danger and of the blood that stains her left arm, she remains a statuesque vision of beauty under the moonlight, her green eyes never leaving your own.
The cold breeze of the night blows between the two of you, buffeting the ends of your white dress and her long blue cloak.
“Very well, then,” says she, extending her right arm. You ready your blade for the wires; they never come.
There is a crack of magic, and her metal gauntlets disappear from her small, pale hands. Then, a shimmering of the air, something taking form, being summoned…
A golden hilt, a blade that under the moon looks like liquid silver, and a rapier just like your own and the dolls’, glittering in her hand.
“I supposed it has to be like this, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” you answer, brandishing your own blade.
“Who are you,” mutters the girl, “where do you come from? I know, but those answers are impossible.”
“My name is Alice,” you say, utterly calm. “If I don’t know where I come from, I blame you for that in its entirety. All the evidence points to you; you even reek of the magic in the beasts of the forest. Right now, tonight, I can tell it’s different, lighter and more sweet. But,” you glare, eyes narrowing, “the underlying nature is the same.”
“Is it… Alice?” she asks, and a flash of sadness momentarily crosses her expression, “or are you letting your own hate blind you? Or am I the one who’s fooling herself?”
“Deny it, then.”
“Deny it,” you repeat, “deny that you’re a monster. Show me that I’m wrong.”
“How strange,” the girl raises a sharp eyebrow. “You’ve not wanted to give me the chance before.”
“You tried to kill me with as much hate as I had. But, in asking me what you have,” you retort, “haven’t you recognized that I’m not some figment of your imagination?”
“So deny the rest, then.”
“You aren’t as bloodthirsty as you try to look, are you?” she asks. “But I can’t deny it. I can’t say what you want me to say.”
“So you’re admitting your guilt?” you denounce through clenched teeth. “Shattering my memories? The beasts in the forest? Is that what you’re saying… Alice Margatroid?”
“No,” says Alice. “It’s not. Rather… I can deny it. I can tell you what you want to hear, and speak every word as truth, and show you that I am not a villain, that I did not murder a girl by shattering her memories and leaving her to die in the snow. But I won’t, Alice.”
She takes a deep breath. “I want to… I want to tell you. A part of me wants to see your soft lips part in horror and your blade fall from your hands as everything you think you know is challenged. But I won’t. You’re too beautiful… I won’t. I can’t muster that kind of cruelty; I’m not a monster like that vampire you serve. I won’t tell you, but you won’t listen any other way… I can’t.”
There is a pause as her words sink in. Then you speak.
“Then I’ll bleed the secret out of you.”
Her smile is small and sad. “I won’t let you. But go on, try. Seeing you fight is really…”
“…a thing of beauty!”
Her blade smashes against your own, and she is close, so close you can almost feel her breath, and her beauty tonight is such a sharp contrast to the mind-numbing pain you felt when you first met her that you have to hold back a shocked gasp. Still, you don’t lose your ground, but push her back, and with a grunt of effort shove magic past your hand and into your glittering blade, the radiant violet energy sure enough to plow through any defense as you thrust the sword at her chest! But this girl, Alice, has just as much power as you, and her green eyes just as much fire left in them, and with her own blade she smashes yours aside, and the opposing magics explode with a crack of thunder.
Leaping back on reinforced legs, you regain your bearings and attack, once, twice, thrice, she blocks each strike, her style just as perfect as your own, and a pulse of magic from her hand repels you as she lashes out at your legs. On sheer instinct you raise a thin barrier just in time to catch your balance and block another strike, this time aimed at your chest. You won’t lose! With a scream you strike back, a flurry of magically enhanced blows slicing through the air with trails of crackling energy. She blocks, but retreats a step with each massive blow! Twirling your blade in the air, you press the advantage and sneak past her guard, and the tip of your blade almost touches her stomach, only to miss - she twists around to avoid the strike, agile as a cat, and lashes out with a leg, her kick augmented with magic as her black boot slams against your injured thigh.
You shriek, tears welling up in your eyes at the pain, and though your leg is strengthened by so much magical energy it does not break, you stumble and fall, rolling away from her but not quickly enough! As you stand, the tip of her blade digs into your left calf, throwing you off balance. An opening is created, for Alice as you stumble, for you as she recovers from dealing the blow. Each of you takes it, and your swords crash against each other again as the two strikes meet.
You pull back, standing on your bad leg in spite of the growing pain, so bad it makes you whimper. Clenching your teeth, you take a deep breath and stare the girl down. Alice’s chest rises and falls as she pants heavily, and the gash on her left shoulder is clearly uncomfortable. Still, she stands proud, facing you with determination.
Suddenly, the two of you realize that this will be the last assault.
You nod in understanding, ready yourself, then pour magic into your legs! With a yell that is half anger and half anguish, you cross the distance between you in a flash, and your blade lashes out just as Alice charges forward and attacks herself, the two glittering rapiers deflect each other, then meet again, again, again! You push onward, there has to be an opening, there, she lifts her arm just enough to see it, a hole in her guard; you shove her left arm away with your free hand, strike-
-and choke as a reinforced fist slams into your stomach with enough strength to break a boulder. You fall to your knees, the air driven out of your lungs. The pain is terrible, bad enough to make you want to cry out, but as your breath returns your screams are cut short by a hacking, uncontrollable cough full of blood.
“Damn it,” you choke out with a low moan. “Damn it…”
“You fell for that feint,” deadpans Alice, her rapier pointing at your throat. “You wouldn’t have, but your emotions got the best of you, and you didn’t think. That’s why you must never lose control of yourself.”
You look up, glaring at her.
In response, she withdraws her blade.
“What?” you rasp out, astonished.
“Go,” says she. “I’ve won this fight… but I won’t kill you.” Her expression softens, and she sighs. “Even when beaten you’re still so- I couldn’t kill you, Alice. I don’t think I could ever bring myself to kill you. Just go. Perhaps, some other time, we can talk…”
Your gaze runs over her, her exquisite features, her sad and sincere expression, her beautiful green eyes…
…and the rapier foolishly withdrawn too far away.
“You complete idiot!”
She reacts, but nothing could be quicker than you now! The burst of magic in your legs pushes past the pain, the injury, anything else, and your rapier is a white lance in the dark as it strikes, and finds flesh.
Alice screams; what a fool she was not to have seen this coming! Your blade slams into her shoulder, plowing through the muscle and coming out the other end a fresh crimson. But you don’t stop, you can’t stop. You fill your body with magical energy and bodily tackle her, your right fist slamming into her just as hard as she hit you, and the momentum throws the both of you forward, off the rooftop, into the air!
She slams into the ground, you on top of her. As she’s dazed from the blow, she can’t react when you pull yourself off her, ripping your rapier from her shoulder as you slam a kick into her prone form. She flies through the air and crashes into a tree with a shriek; you stumble back, gasping at your own pain.
“Honestly… honestly…” you giggle between pants, “I was… worried… back there. No idea how I’d get an opening in that position… but then… then you…”
You can’t help it. You really can’t help it. All the pent up anger and pain and utter fear burst out, and you let out one long and deeply satisfying cackle, crying as you do. “Did you… did you really… heheh, did you really think I was just going to give up, just like that?” You laugh again, a demented smile tugging at your lips. “Really? Really? Are you stupid, or something?” You gasp at that last sentence, the pain in your stomach unbearable. “It hurts,” you moan, “it hurts so much…” You clench your teeth, your gloved hand, stained with dirt, wipes away the tears running down your face. “Is it that bad? Is it that bad that I want to know? Damn it… why can’t anyone just… damn it!”
You bring your blade down, fully intent on ending the fight right there.
Alice, on her knees, meets your eyes, and then snaps her fingers with a sad smile.
You’re too slow.
A crack of displaced air, a rustle of colored cloth! You try to twist around, but your strength has left you, and your guard is open as Shanghai, teleported from nowhere, slams her knee straight into your groin.
You gasp, your vision blurring from the pain, and Hourai steps forward, slicing you across the stomach and kicking you away as you bleed.
You fall to the ground, moaning. You can barely see; everything hurts.
“No,” you sob, trying to push yourself up. You fail, and drop painfully onto the ground again. The barrier… how did they… when she knocked you down, perhaps? The wound in your stomach won’t stop bleeding. “No…”
“I’m sorry,” mutters Alice. She stands, but her back leans heavily against the tree she crashed into, and her left hand presses against the large wound on her right shoulder. Tears are running down her cheeks. “That was… quite cowardly of me, using them when you thought we were fighting a duel. But… I can’t die here, you understand me? I can’t ever let you kill me… I still have things to do…”
You try to say something; your breath fails you.
“…but then… so do you, no? So even if you hate me,” she clenches her teeth to ignore the pain, “I won’t… I won’t let you die, either.”
“How touching,” a third voice rings out.
What color remains in Alice’s face drains out from it, leaving her pallid. She gasps. “Kazami!? But… how…”
You turn your head to look.
She could not possibly be here. There is no way. She drips with the magic pounding through the girl’s veins, the same one that causes you revulsion because you know, somehow, that it is also your own. You could not have possibly missed her approach. And yet she stands before you, and Alice, that girl who shares your name, shakes with barely contained fear and hatred.
The pale woman’s grin is dark and predatory, and her almond-shaped eyes are cold, and black as coals.
“It’s been a long time, Margatroid.” With a soft giggle, she snaps her fingers, and the forest seems to shake with the sound of lumbering footsteps. Then, they appear behind her, dozens of the skeletal beasts you fought before, dripping black tar from head to toe.
You groan, and a sharp pain in your chest that has nothing to do with your other injuries begins to grow. Alice, too, brings a hand to her breast, grimacing. It’s the same sickening presence you felt that night, pushing against you, threatening to envelop you.
“All those faeries…” she mutters with a sad scowl. But then she composes herself, casting away her heartsick disgust in favor of cold indifference. “How did you get here?” she asks. “And why…”
“You did not notice my coming because I can reach anywhere into this territory using magic you don’t have the power to stop,” the woman cuts in, her voice soft and calm, “and the reason we meet again is because we never really parted from each other. You know these answers already. Are you really that much of a coward that you need me to validate your own weakness~?”
All the color drains from Alice’s face, and she answers nothing, merely clenching her left hand into a tight fist even as her right grips the handle of her blade with crushing strength. Like you, she still bleeds, and the warm red liquid seeps down her arms and drips down her fingers and onto her dress and boots. The woman takes notice of this, and slowly runs her tongue over her lips as though imagining the taste.
And you… you do not understand. Their words make no sense to you, but you know that somehow they concern you. And how could they not? If this girl, Alice, is tainted with the black magic you found in that clearing two weeks ago, then the woman is a vortex of it, dark power oozing from her every pore. But then… who is she?
You groan, scrunching up your face in an attempt to keep your vision from blurring into dark unconsciousness. The pain is too much; you can barely think.
“I’d been looking forward to you rejoining my little game, Alice,” says the woman with a sincere grin, “I thought it was clear enough that you’d spiked my interest again. And look, we have another participant, just as beautiful as you~.”
She turns to look at you, devouring you with her stare. You look away. You can’t meet those eyes. Not now.
“And shall I declare myself lucky?” she asks Alice, “It looks like you two have already tired yourselves out. There won’t be any need to convince you~. Or…”
She looks you over, again. “It seems too easy, though, finding you here, little one. Is Remilia plotting something, I wonder?” She gazes around, as though expecting the vampire to come out of the forest. After a second, she shrugs. “Oh, well. At any rate, if you two please…”
Alice sneers at the woman. Behind her, Shanghai and Hourai raise their blades. “I won’t go without a fight, Kazami. I’d sooner kill myself.”
When Alice utters those words of defiance you think you see the woman’s features twist into a mask of hideous rage… or was it just a shadow? It’s gone in less than a blink, and only her faint grin remains, undisturbed.
“Well, then~.” Spreading her arms grandiosely, the woman walks forward, and a dark, hateful magic begins to crackle around her right hand.
In the distance, you hear the sound of breaking glass.
The woman only just steps back as lance of sheer blue light cuts in front of her, slamming into the ground and dissipating. It leaves a shimmering trail, as though the air itself had been destroyed in its wake.
“Not one step forward, Yuuka Kazami. Not a one, do you understand me?”
A tinkling sound envelops the area, like a dozen crystal bells ringing against each other, and the air ripples like water in a pond. She appears, first a transparent outline, then solid, unshakeable reality, a tall blonde woman in a silken violet gown, standing between the two of you and the dark-eyed woman.
“Yukari,” mutters the woman. Her tone is even, but the raw hatred behind it cuts even through the haze of your pain to make you shudder. “Yukari. I should have expected you. How silly of me.”
“Alice,” says Yukari, her voice soft and reassuring even though she does not lift her gaze away from her opponent, “I’m going to get you two out of here. I hope you did not think I’d forget my promise…”
She turns sideways, one hand slinging out a blast of blue magic to keep the other woman at bay, the other pointing in your direction as she casts some unknown spell.
For a second, you meet her eyes.