Chapter 2

“Find Your Resolve!”

This is nice.

Ran was feeling very strange. She was in that state of half dreaming, when one is not sure whether to wake up or stay in limbo. She could vaguely hear a hummed tune, one she knew well from her childhood.

That’s the song mom always sang to me. I feel so good. It’s warm…

She lazily half-opened her eyes, and in waking up she suddenly remembered the battle with the strange monsters, and the cat, and everything else. She snapped her eyes open and gasped.

“Oh my, you’re awake.”

That voice. She turned and saw her mother sitting next to her. Her bed. It was her room.

“Mom?”

She was smiling.

The most beautiful smile in the world.

“Good morning sleepy head,” Miya said.

“I… uh, how did I…”

“Your teacher brought you home, don’t you remember?”

Ran shook her head.

“She’s such a nice lady. She said you fainted when that thing crashed down on your school. I’m so glad you were not injured.”

“Oh,” Ran looked down at her hands, which were resting on her lap, “the school.”

“Nobody was injured, luckily, so don’t worry.”

“Uh… Mom?”

“Yes?”

Miya had patted her head and was about to leave, but turned towards her daughter, still smiling.

“Did… Did my teacher say anything else?”

“She told us about those things that attacked the school, and that they were stopped, but nothing else. Why?”

“No, nothing… Just wondering.”

“Don’t worry today, okay? I’ll bring you some tea, you just relax.”

“Today? How long have I been out?”

“Oh just since yesterday evening. I’ll be right back!”

Ran fell back on her bed with a sigh. What a strange day she had had. She tried to put her thoughts together on the previous day. First Kokawa-sensei had wanted to talk with her, and then the attack… Who was that beautiful woman? She was amazing, and so powerful! She probably had similar powers to what she had used. Oh yeah, she had gotten powers. And there was that…. that…

“Oh good, you’re awake.”

Ran turned towards the voice and saw the black cat sitting on the windowsill. He was holding a branch with his teeth, and it looked comically large compared to him.

“Kitteh-sama!”

“Hmph, using a bit of power is enough to make you pass out like that,” he talked with a mouthful as he jumped down, and then dropped the branch on the floor, “you still have a long way to go.”

“I… I was starting to think it was all just a dream. Really now,” she sighed, “oh, is that the branch…”

“Yes, that is your branch. Keep it with you at all times!”

“Ayah!”

He’s angry!

“This branch is now the medium for channelling your powers, you can’t afford to be careless and lose it again, I won’t be around forever to pick it up for you.”

“I… I don’t understand.”

Kitteh sighed.

“You have been chosen by Gaia to be her champion, and obviously you have accepted her power.”

“Gaia? You mean… Well, isn’t that the Earth in the old Roman mythology? Or was it Greek?”

Kitteh nodded.

“In a sense. Humans have always sensed the power of the planet that nurtures them, in one way or another. However, this power has now taken form, and that form is you!”

“Awaaah! But… But… What did I do?”

“The power called for someone to accept it, and you did just that.”

“But I thought it had been you who gave me this power!”

“Me? Oh dear no, I am just a cat =^_^=”

“But…”

“Enough buts!”

But… You haven’t explained anything! Really now…

Ran sighed.

“Now, the important thing is, a terrible power has besieged humans for far too long. This power is not unlike that which you now wield, and it is only you who can put a stop to it. You have seen it, guns and weapons were unable to stop those two things, yet you did just fine.”

Ran nodded wordlessly, but her eyes reflected the confusion and fear she felt.

“Don’t look so afraid, there will be others who will help you, you only have to find them.”

“Really now… And how will I do that?”

Kitteh smiled.

“We’ll see!” He said, and then looked distracted as he listened, “seems like you have a visitor. I’ll make myself scarce, so keep this branch with you!”

Kitteh swatted the branch with his paw, sending it flying towards Ran, and then jumped out of the window. The door opened, and Miya walked in carrying a cup of tea.

“Here you are Ran. Oh dear, what’s that?”

“Ah, it’s only a branch. I think I picked it up at school, I didn’t realize I had carried it with me.”

“Oh my, how curious. Is that from the vine on the dome?”

“Maybe,” Ran said, shrugging.

She had a lot to think about, and not much energy to spend anyway, she was dreadfully tired. She spent the whole day holed up in her room, until she got some visitors in the late afternoon.

“Ran-chan,” Miya called from outside her door, “your friends have come to say hi.”

“Ara?”

The door to the room opened, and she showed Sugi and Nagataka in.

“Eep!”

Ran suddenly felt her cheeks heating up, and hid most of her face under the blanket.

“Are you okay dear?” Miya asked, and then put her forehead on Ran’s; after a few seconds she pulled back, “you feel a bit warm, I think you have a fever.”

“No no no no, it’s okay mom, really.”

“Here, Ran-chan!” Sugi called, and showed Ran a basket of fruit.

“Araaa, that’s so nice, thanks Sugi-chan!”

“Tee hee, you have to thank Nagataka-kun too, he’s the one who managed to get it.”

“Ah, thank you Kokawa-kun.”

“It’s okay. But call me Nagataka please,” he sighed.

“Eeeh?” Ran felt the heat coming back to her cheeks, as she suddenly remembered what her hyperactive imagination had concocted the last time.

“It’s just that everyone’s been on my case with the new teacher, Kokawa this, Kokawa that, it’s getting on my nerves.”

“O-okay… Nagataka-kun.”

Yes!

“Well, I’ll leave you kids alone,” Miya said, “call me if you need something Ran.”

“Thank you mom.”

The door closed and they were left in silence. Sugi quickly started to ask questions about the attack and what had happened at the school, and Ran tried to answer as best she could without giving too much away.

“What’s wrong, Nagataka-kun?” Sugi asked.

“Eh? No, nothing.”

“You look very serious today… Are you sure?”

“Yes, it’s fine. It’s just… My father has gone with the Defence Forces somewhere, and I haven’t heard from him yet.”

“Oh my! I’m… I’m sure he’s fine,” Sugi replied, trying to cheer him up.

“Yes, I suppose so. It’s silly, I know he can’t contact us when he’s on a mission. But… Well, after yesterday’s attack, I don’t know, I suppose I’m worried.”

“It can’t be helped, he’s your dad! Just wait and see, he’ll be back in no time.”

“Yeah…”

Ran was listening to the conversation without saying anything, just looking at the branch she was holding in her hands. She was thinking of the battle, and of Nagataka’s father, and hearing his voice like that she couldn’t help but feel something stirring deep inside her.

I don’t want to hear Nagataka-kun like that. I don’t want to see him sad. Never. Never!

The branch started glowing, which startled her tremendously. She let go of it with a small cry, which quickly gained the attention of her friends.

“What’s wrong Ran-chan?” Sugi asked, eyeing her friend with some curiosity.

“Ah, nothing! Sorry, hehehe, I was just… Eh… Hehehehe…”

“What’s that?” She interrupted, looking at the branch with wide open eyes, “it’s pretty!”

Really now, I’m such a klutz…

“It’s something I picked up yesterday at school, it’s just a…”

“That’s a branch of Mistikos Vine,” Nagataka said.

“Eh?” Ran asked.

“The plant that covers the dome.”

“I see!” Sugi said, while Ran examined it more closely.

“It’s called like that because it hides us from the aliens.”

Nagataka suddenly went very quiet again. Ran and Sugi looked at each other, and Sugi tried to cheer him up once more.

“It’s okay Nagataka-kun, everyone is safe now.”

“No… Well,” Nagataka was hesitating, but finally got the courage to speak again, “the thing is… For what I have heard from my dad, very few cities have survived an attack by the aliens after being discovered. The ones that did had a very powerful military to depend on. If… If the aliens have found us… Well, I don’t know.”

Sugi was looking very scared after hearing what Nagataka had to say. Ran grasped the branch even more firmly before speaking.

“But it’s okay, the two monsters yesterday were destroyed, right? Aren’t we safe?”

“I suppose… Well, I don’t know. I hope so,” Nagataka said as he looked up, “as long as the hole is repaired quickly I suppose. Maybe that’s what my dad is doing.”

When night fell, Ran was still thinking about Nagataka. She tossed and turned, but failed to fall asleep, every time she closed her eyes she would imagine the giant hole in the dome, and horrible things would start pouring from it.

Really, I can’t take this anymore!

She got dressed and, after poking her head out of the window, climbed out through it, branch in hand. The fire exit stairs were right there, so she had easy access to the roof that way. It was all very quiet, and very dark; it always was.

I don’t think I’ve been out this late, like, ever.

“What are you doing?”

“Kyaaa-hmph!”

She put a hand to her mouth to stop herself from shouting in surprise. When she turned around, she saw it was Kitteh who had talked.

“Really now! Don’t do that, you startled me!”

Kitteh gave her a bored look, but didn’t speak for a few seconds, prompting her to continue.

“I couldn’t sleep, I kept thinking about Nagataka-kun and the hole in the dome.”

“What? You’re not making any sense.”

“No,” she sighed, “I suppose I’m not.”

Ran was looking up to the sky. In the darkness, the dome could barely be made out, but the hole could, thanks to the stars that twinkled behind it.

“Aaaah, stars. They’re so pretty.”

Kitteh suddenly turned in surprise, and Ran, noticing this, turned and saw he was following something with his head. She then saw a shadow jumping from rooftop to rooftop.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know,” Kitteh replied, “let’s go.”

Ran stood up, then noticed Kitteh was looking at her, and finally realized what he had meant.

Oh right.

She raised the branch high above her head.

“Determination!”

The branch shone brightly, and the light expanded to cover her clothes, until they exploded in a million bright spots. They swirled around her in a vortex, morphing and expanding until she looked as if she was in the midst of a swirling mass of bright flower petals. She raised her hands, and the petals started covering her, from her arms down to her toes, and when they exploded in a shower of sparks for a second time, they left behind the contour of her bracers, her tiara and faceplate, and her toga dress. They materialized slowly as the light disappeared in the swirling patters of the bracers and the wavy patterns of the hems of the toga, securing themselves in place afterwards. The three parts of her silver and golden faceplate followed the contour of her face and the bridge of her nose to the minutest detail, with the two-tone silver and gold colours reflecting the millions of lights that surrounded her like a diamond of a thousand facets. Her hair was, too, covered in petals of light, and they pulled the strands one by one in perfectly orderly fashion at a speed too fast for any human eye to see, assembling the braid that would reach down to her waist once more. With a flash, its colour turned into the golden blonde of her alter ego. Like a hurricane, the sparks of light ran around her at great speed from her neck down, first assembling each individual silver plate piece on her chest, then the double-buckled belt with leather straps. The petals fell down, creating a red skirt that reached down to her knee, and finally morphing at the hem into a white lace that run all the way around it. Each of the belt straps was covered in a cascade of sparks, leaving the rows of silver studs in their wake in perfect regularity, and finally converging to create each of the gems at the end of the straps. The remaining floating petals converged around her knees, merging together in a thin cover of liquid light, melting down her legs as they uncovered two bracers on her knees, and attached to them the long interweaved straps of her roman styled sandals. As the straps appeared, some of the light became a shield on her shins and, as the glow dimmed away, revealed a pair of golden greaves with swirling patterns to match those of her bracers. When the sandals finally appeared on her feet, the last burst of light gave birth to a pair of small wings on each of her feet. She lowered her arms, and as she did a soft shoulder mantle of red, rich velvet with white fur hem settled down on her shoulders. From the fur hem two ribbons slid down her arms, and made a bow on her wrists over the bracers.

“Nereida Nostrum!”

She noticed Kitteh looking at her just as he had done when she started to transform. Like no time had passed at all.

“Good, you’re ready.”

Kitteh jumped across the rooftops with exceptional power and agility and, to her surprise, Ran managed to follow him without difficulty. She had to stop being surprised at that, after the first fight she had had it was obvious she could do a lot more as Nereida Nostrum than she could as Shimizu Ran.

“I think we lost it,” Kitteh said.

Ran had stopped next to Kitteh on one of the rooftops, and he was trying to find that elusive moving shadow. The city was extremely dark, with barely any artificial lights, and any bright spot was jealously confined to doorways and closed windows, misers hoarding up what little light could be found.

She was surprised speechless when suddenly something set on her shoulder, and she saw a blade right next to her eye.

“What are you doing, little girl?”

That voice!

The weight on her shoulder disappeared, and Ran jumped forward and turned as fast as she could to look at her assailant. Tall, beautiful, she had golden hair held in a braid as long as the one Ran herself had, clasped at the end with an ornate golden bracer. A pure white silken dress wrapped around her in a zig-zag, with a golden threaded ornamental pattern along the hem, and held around her waist with a wide golden and leather belt, with straps covered in jewels and silver studs hanging from it. She didn’t need to continue down to her feet and the roman styled sandals she was wearing to know who she was, although her eyes lingered for many seconds in the amazing red jewel clasped on her chest holding the dress together. She seemed to have a very faint afterglow that let Ran see her even in such a dark night.

Beautiful…

The woman pointed at her with the spear she was holding in her right hand.

“Wait! I was chasing… Was it you? There was something…”

Ran spoke quickly and confusedly, worried about the way the woman was looking at her. Her eyes were blue, and extremely penetrating. Ran felt naked in front of her.

“What do you think you’re doing?” She asked again, in a cold voice, “playing funny games?”

Ran tried to speak twice, but only got as far as opening her mouth twice.

“I… I… Eeeeek!”

The woman had suddenly charged at her. Ran covered her face with her left arm, but the attack landed next to her without causing any harm. When she finally removed her arm and looked, she saw some sort of giant bug next to her, pierced completely by the spear. It twitched a few times and then became immobile. A greenish liquid was oozing down from the wound along the shaft of the spear.

“Eww, what’s that?!”

“This,” the woman said, pulling her spear back, “is a spybug. They gather information and bring it back to the aliens, unless we kill them all. They tend not to like it when one of their kind is killed.”

Ran suddenly started remembering Nagataka’s words.

If we are found…

She grasped her branch tightly, but her train of thought was interrupted by the woman.

“Go home little girl, and stop playing like this.”

“Really! I…”

The woman moved suddenly out of the way, and Ran saw out of the corner of her eye something moving to her left. Another bug, which met a swift death by spearing. Two more appeared, and again they were killed before Ran could move a muscle. The woman’s movements were hypnotic; there was an air of power about them, but they were elegant, measured, there was no wasted effort in them. Fluid and accurate, each thrust of the spear found its target.

Another bug appeared right above Ran’s head. She concentrated and her branch started glowing, but the bug met its demise to a well placed spear thrust even before she could swing her arm.

The woman looked around herself and, apparently satisfied, turned to Ran again.

“Why are you still here?”

“I… Really, why are you so angry at…”

Angry at me? That… Sensei? No. Wait…

“That is indeed a good question,” another voice intruded.

“Kitteh-sama!”

“I’m rather curious myself,” the cat continued, “who are you?”

“You mean… You don’t know? I thought these powers were your…”

“Don’t be silly, girl,” the woman said dismissively, “it’s just a cat.”

The woman suddenly swung her spear back in a wide arc, making Ran jump back out of the way. Ran was very shocked, and didn’t realize the lazy attack was only half-hearted.

“W-what are you doing?”

“What do you think you can do girl?” The woman asked, resting the end of the spear on the ground, “you have no idea what’s out there. You don’t even know how to fight. And what reason could have for it? A cat? A game?”

“I…”

“Are you going to put your life on the line for something like that? You can’t walk on a battlefield unprepared, girl. You don’t have the spirit, you don’t have the heart to fight for something. You are too young to really believe in anything.”

“I…”

“Go home.”

“R… Really… I…”

A sudden buzzing sound caught everyone by surprise, as half a dozen giant insects suddenly jumped on to the rooftop and launched themselves towards the woman.

Drat! I was careless!

She turned as fast as she could, but it was too slow. She knew it was too slow, everything was happening in slow motion, but she could never stop all of them on time. She stabbed the nearest one, and with a circular motion hit another two with both ends of her spear. A fourth one crashed on the shaft, but the last two were going to get her, one from each side.

This is going to hurt…

Suddenly, both insects were pierced by what appeared to be shots of light, almost in perfect unison. The shots went through carapace and soft body like they weren’t even there, and lost themselves in the distance. She smashed the bug stuck on the shaft of her spear, and looked behind her.

Ran was breathing heavily and holding a bow with her right hand, it appeared to be of simple wood and had a few leaves of Mistikos Vine growing on it. Her left was held at shoulder height, open after releasing the arrows and trembling noticeably.

“I… I’m afraid.”

The woman appeared strangely surprised at her words.

“I’m terribly afraid. I can’t stop thinking about these monsters. These… Aliens.”

Another bug appeared and jumped high towards Ran, but it was killed in an instant by another arrow.

“But… I’ll fight. Even if I’m afraid, I’ll fight. No matter what. Sugi-chan. Mom. Dad. Nag…”

Her voice faltered. A few tears were making their way down her cheeks, but she clenched her teeth and continued.

“Nagataka-kun. Even if I’m afraid. Even if I don’t know what’s ahead…”

She looked up abruptly, sending some of her tears flying with the sharp head movement. Her eyes met, and Ran’s resolve made the woman take a step back.

“I will fight for them! Because I love them!”

Ran whirled around and readied her bow, aiming at a bug that had taken flight towards the sky while she was speaking. Before she could release the arrow, a bolt of lightning cracked from behind her and fried the bug to a crisp.

She turned to see the woman smiling. She wasn’t looking at Ran, her eyes appeared lost in the distance, far beyond the battle that had just ended, or even the dome that protected them.

After a few seconds, she closed her eyes and took a deep, trembling breath.

“So that’s your resolve.”

She had spoken so softly, Ran had barely managed to hear her. And when she opened her eyes again, Ran noticed they were moist.

They walked towards each other until they were but at arm’s length. Ran was smiling openly, while the woman’s smile was somewhat melancholic.

“I’m Nereida Nostrum,” Ran said, and then added timidly, “sensei?”

“Yes,” Hoshiko smiled openly now, “it figures you’d recognize me. But call me Nereida Aegea”

Ran offered her hand and, after the initial surprise, Hoshiko shook it.

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