Chapter 23

“A New Beginning”

Hoshiko reacted more from well-trained instinct than conscious thought. She rushed towards Nagataka, and conjuring her golden shield, placed herself in front of the soldier that had kicked him down barely in time to prevent the spear coming down from slicing him in half. There was a large bang and a flash of light as Ran’s power clashed with Hoshiko’s, knocking the soldier off his feet while everyone else dove for cover.

“Move! I’ll kill him!” Ran shouted, pressing forward and forcing Hoshiko to take a step back.

“Nostrum! Calm down, it’s over!”

“MOVE!!”

Ran made a sudden spin with her spear, hitting the shield on the side with its back and following with a thrust, only to have it blocked again, this time by Hoshiko’s own spear. The contact was electric, making sparks fly between the two weapons as their powers surged against each other. Hoshiko pushed the spear heads down until they crashed on the ground and, taking advantage of the leverage, spun over it to get closer to Ran and smack her with the back of her shield.

The girl reeled after the hit, but recovered quickly, jumping back and landing next to Nagataka. Her enraged expression sent a chill up Hoshiko’s spine.

She’s losing it.

“You… You. Will. Pay!” She shouted, raising her spear and stabbing at the ground in front of her.

“Oh no, no, no NO!” Hoshiko shouted, rushing forward towards Ran.

The girl’s spear was glowing so bright it was impossible to look directly at it, and after a few moments started to morph into something else. The glow receded enough to make out a large jar, about a head shorter than Ran herself. Sparks zapped randomly from the edge of the sealing cover, and as she reached to open it, Hoshiko stabbed down at the lid with her own spear.

Unlike their previous exchange, this clash was almost explosive. The enormous power trying to break free was being held back by all the willpower Hoshiko could muster, and even as she pushed forward, her hair and her clothes where whipping back as if she was standing in front of a gale.

“Nostrum, stop this!” Hoshiko pleaded. “Don’t do it!”

“I’ll-”

Ran was about to shout back when she suddenly froze in place.

“S-stop it… please…”

The young Nereida looked down towards the origin of that voice. Nagataka was on his knees, holding onto her skirt with a trembling hand. From close by, Hoshiko could see he was bruised and battered, and probably was having a hard time just sitting on his knees like that.

“Don’t… fight… N-Nos…” Nagataka struggled to say.

In a snap, Ran’s frozen enraged expression melted away into a very different one, a mixture of worry and happiness. The giant jar disappeared immediately after Ran let go of it, morphing into the vine branch and falling to the ground, and she knelt down to embrace Nagataka.

Hoshiko sighed in relief even as her legs wobbled under her, making her use her spear to keep her footing.

That was… way too close.

When she looked at Ran holding Nagataka in her arms, she could hold back a smile, even as her eyes moistened up.

Worth it. Worth everything.

“What the…”

Hoshiko turned sharply, and this gesture quickly silenced the man; it was the soldier who had brought Nagataka out and then kicked him. Hoshiko straightened up and walked towards him.

“That was completely unnecessary,” said she, speaking slow and methodically with a cold calmness that send a chill running up his spine, “I suggest you refrain from treating prisoners in such a rough manner in the future.”

“Y-Yes ma’am!” He said, saluting and disappearing back inside the building.

A few minutes later he came out, escorting Torao in a much friendlier manner. The former prisoner was rubbing his wrists after being freed of restraints and, tacking a quick look around him, he looked at Hoshiko, with a smirk on his face.

“Impressive,” he said tersely, summing up a whole conversation in just one word.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Hoshiko remarked, placing her spear over her shoulder.

Me?” Torao asked ironically, “not at all, no.”

“I see. In that case,” Hoshiko said, looking around at the expectant faces and stopping on Ayame and Isamu, “may I suggest we call it a day for now?” She turned to Torao, “we can talk again tomorrow, your son could use some rest.”

“Sounds good to me,” he replied.

“Will you be okay?” Hoshiko asked more casually as she helped the exhausted Ran up, while Torao helped his son.

“Yes, it won’t be a problem now.”

“Good. Are you okay Nostrum?” She asked, taking Ran in her arms. The girl mumbled something and put her arms around Hoshiko’s neck, prompting a worried frown from Hoshiko. She turned to the other two Nereidas. “Pacifica…”

“Yes! Of course!” Ayame replied enthusiastically, when she caught the look Hoshiko had given Isamu. “We’ll see you later! Come on Caribea-san, let’s go home! I’m hungry!”

Isamu put an arm over Ayame’s shoulders and they walked away much slower than Hoshiko, who had disappeared at incredible speed, carrying Ran in her arms. When they were out of the base and walking the dark streets of the city, Isamu spoke again.

“Are you okay?”

“Eh? Me?” Ayame replied, surprised. “Of course! I’m fine! This is nothing! I can-”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Eh?”

“I meant with Ran…” Isamu said softly.

Ayame didn’t reply for a few seconds, until she finally shook her head and smiled.

“I’m fine!” Ayame said, pumping a fist in the air, “I’m not giving up!”

Isamu looked at the energetic girl for a few moments and turned away, gazing towards the dome.

“I see,” she said, addressing no one in particular.

“What about you Caribea-san? I mean, you and Nagat-”

“I’m fine, obviously,” Isamu interrupted.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, until Ayame tried for a second time.

“You know, Fujihara-sama, we could help each other. I… Well, if you and Nagataka-san… I mean…”

She was interrupted when Isamu let go of her and gave her a somewhat gentle smack on the back of her head. “Don’t say things like that.”

“Awu! But all is fair in-”

“That’s enough,” Isamu snapped, and nearly lost her footing as everything went spinning around her.

Ayame prevented her from falling to the ground, and held her firmly until she recovered her balance.

“Can we just go home?” Said Isamu in a tired voice.

They did just that, walking in silence through the dark back streets of Dome City.

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