Chapter 45

“The Empty Vessel”

Etsuko stood her ground, looking at the white haired girl, but unable to decide what to do. After only a short pause, her opponent resumed her attack. She charged forward, and as soon as Etsuko dodged, she made a counter swipe, barely missing but kicking dust and pieces of rock all around, nearly blinding Etsuko. She then was forced to duck under the metallic mace that was swung from behind her, but tried a wide sweep with her clawed right hand as she did.

The attack was easily dodged by the mohawked alien, and she was once again forced to pull back when the nanigata was brought down at the spot where she had been standing. Etsuko was so pressed that her counters were coming too unfocused to be of any effect. The white haired girl blocked Etsuko’s attack attack with the back end of the weapon’s shaft, spinning it to make the Nereida lose her balance. She immediately brought it around to attack with the blade. Etsuko was leaning forward in a bad position, and without even thinking of what she was doing, she brought up her leg to block the blade with the sole of her foot.

The impact didn’t hurt. For a moment it looked as if a disk of energy had appeared right at the point where the nanigata was about to hit her foot, like an extension of the red paint on the bottom of her foot.

Etsuko was more surprised than the girl; she reacted as if having one’s blade blocked by a bare foot was an everyday happening, and used the weapon’s inertia to spin it again in a renewed attack. It hit Etsuko on the cheek and sending her rolling back. She managed to regain her footing and jump back to a wide ledge before falling to a rolling death down the cliff.

She rubbed her cheek absently as she looked at her opponents. The girl was calm and appeared ready to continue, and the mohawked alien looked like he was enjoying the combat too. Behind them Tikaae was looking at her with an amused grin, but seemed to have no intention of joining up.

Wait, I’m missing one!

The sound of the gun let her know exactly where the fourth one was. It wasn’t an explosion, it sounded more like a zap and a pop, and Etsuko turned to see a shot going straight at her. Even with the hyper-awareness she was capable of, it was coming devilishly fast, and she could do nothing to avoid it. All she could think of was to punch it out of the air.

She didn’t even second-guess herself. She aimed for the glowing blue bullet and started to move to punch it.

Faster. Faster. Faster!

The resistance against her arm kept increasing, and she pushed with all her might, until it felt like something had broke, and the resistance disappeared. Her left hand Bagh Nakh hit the bullet and a trail of white air exploded into a sonic boom as her punch broke the speed of sound. The resulting blast blew the bullet away from her in a large and very noisy explosion that nearly knocked her off the cliffside again.

“Crap!” she shouted, blindingly straggling back and trying to regain her footing.

Even in her daze, she saw the nanigata coming for her with barely enough time to react. She dove to the side, just close enough that the weapon nicked her shoulder, and punched up to get the blade stuck between the short blades of her right hand’s claws. As soon as she did, she pushed forward, with her claws grinding along the shaft of the polearm and aiming for the hands holding the weapon. The girl let go of one hand and used Etsuko’s own push as leverage to spin it with the other hand at the very end of the shaft. Etsuko thus passed harmlessly into the way of Tikaae’s own attack. The Livuan had rushed forward a step behind the human girl, and attacked as soon as he was in range. Etsuko ducked, and as she spun, she saw Tikaae’s attack cut the girl’s back.

Blood splattered out of the wound. In her hyper-awareness, she saw Tikaae’s blade moving slowly in the air, the tip of it red with blood.

Etsuko was more shocked than Tikaae himself. He ignored it and turned to try for a second time, but Etsuko was already on her feet and prepared. She blocked the blade with her left hand’s claws, punched it up and out of the way with the right’s, and as she did she went forward and hit Tikaae on the side with her left hand. The punch was powerful enough to knock him out of his feet, and to her satisfaction she felt her claws plunge into his flesh through the cracks between two of the plates of her armor.

Her joy was as short lived. An instant after her successful hit, she felt a hit square on the ribs, coming from the left side. She saw the the mohawked alien swing away as she was sent flying several meters back.

After a painful crash on the rocky wall, she couldn’t tell where up or down were, or what had happened exactly. A moment later, she couldn’t tell how long, she heard the telltale sound of a zap and a pop, and her eye caught a glimpse of a shot being fired at her.

She couldn’t move. In a fraction of a second a dozen things went through her head, but the most important, and the clearest, of those thoughts was that feeling that she was about to die; and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.

The shot exploded in mid air as a bolt of lightning hit it. The flash of light and the blast of the mid-air energy clash were blindingly bright. She had no idea what had happened at all, until a moment later she saw a woman land in front of her. She had long blonde hair kept in a braid along her back, was wearing a short white dress with a pair of long strapped winged sandals, a roman styled belt with leather straps, and wielding an ornate spear almost as long as she was tall.

She’s beautiful… She looks familiar… Ugh, I can’t think.

“Are you okay?” Nereida Aegea asked, giving Etsuko a quick glance over her shoulder.

“I’m- ugh, I’m fine,” she replied, struggling to her feet and shaking her head. She put her right hand over her ribs and felt it as she breathed. It hurt like hell, and she was feeling quite queasy too.

“I told you not to chase after them.” She looked around at her opposition, until her gaze became fixed on Tikaae.

“When?”

“When you started running, of course. Really now, you didn’t hear me?”

“Aaaah, I was too busy!” Etsuko said, and winced as she raised her voice. “Ugh.”

“Be careful now, we’re outnumbered,” Hoshiko said, and Etsuko nodded at her.

“Well, well, how lucky. A new challenger has arrived!” the mohawked alien said, smirking widely and gaining Hoshiko’s attention. “And you are?”

“Nereida Aegea,” Hoshiko said, spinning the spear around her wrist once to grab it firmly with both hands. “And who may you be?”

“Name’s Mikeaa,” he said, “not that it will matter, after you’re dead.”

“You’re surprisingly direct for a Livuan,” Hoshiko said. “Too much human contact perhaps?”

Mikeaa seemed rather surprised at the comment, but it was followed by a hearty laugh somewhere nearby. Hoshiko turned to see the short alien woman having a rather merry time with the exchange.

“We are not the only ones who have become too familiar with the enemy, it would seem.” She laughed again, and nodded at Hoshiko. “Daal the Great! That is me, Nereida Aegea.”

“And I take that’s your boss over there,” Hoshiko said, pointing at Tikaae with her spear, “Tikaae, was it?”

“Indeed,” Daal replied, nodding. “And as for that one, pay no heed, she has no name.”

Hoshiko had to turn and block an attack while Daal was still talking, parrying the blade of the nanigata with the head of her own spear. When her eyes met those of the girl in the jumpsuit, her face turned into a mix of surprise and understanding. They both whirled their weapons around and clashed with the back of their respective polearm shafts, and pushed each other back.

“Bacca,” Hoshiko said, speaking softly, in an almost confidential tone.

“I do not use that name anymore,” the girl replied with her usual calm.

“Wait, what?” Etsuko interrupted, “you know her?”

“No, I know of her; or rather, of the ones like her,” Hoshiko replied, not taking her eyes from the girl. “You don’t use that name anymore?”

“I was discarded as unsuitable,” she said, and without any more explanation resumed her attack.

Hoshiko deflected the nanigata with her left bracer as she stepped aside, and made a thrusting attack with her own spear. Bacca jumped over the attack and over Hoshiko, landing behind her, and when the Nereida was about to turn, a blade landed on the head of her spear, preventing her weapon from pivoting around her wrist. With a wicked grin, Tikaae attacked with his other blade, while Bacca spun in place to bring her nanigata around at Hoshiko.

There was a flash, and Tikaae’s blade hit the round golden shield of concentric wave patters Hoshiko had created from her bracer. She clutched the bottom end of her spear with her hand and pushed down with all her might, using the edge of the shield as a pivot for a lever move that blew Tikaae’s guard open, and with the spinning movement she placed the spear along her back to block the nanigata while she bashed Tikaae straight on with her shield.

It had happened so fast Etsuko could barely believe her eyes, and the surprise almost cost her dear when she missed Mikeaa coming for her again. She lashed out with her right claw as fast as she could and, together with her fast backwards movement, the sonic boom deflected the attack and nearly tore the mace off her opponent’s hands. She continued retreating as several shots followed her movements, always hitting disturbingly close to her no matter how fast she moved.

Etsuko continued to rush backwards and away from Daal, Until found a good spot to change directions. She planted her feet firmly on a large rock behind her, and launched herself forward at the top of her speed. Mikeaa managed to avoid most of her Bagh Nakh’s attack as the blades ground against his armor, but the blast of the sonic boom caught him in the middle of his chest and sent him tumbling backwards.

He was not Etsuko’s true target. She only passed by and rushed at Daal, running low and closing in so fast she couldn’t lower the muzzle fast enough and properly aim at her at the same time. In desperation, she brought the gun directly down and shot right under his feet as Etsuko was about to attack. The impact created a massive blast that sent her flying back and stopped Etsuko on her tracks as the blast of rock, gravel, and energy smashed on her face and chest, and sent her flying back as well. She nearly blacked out under the sudden change of direction as her momentum was completely turned around, and landed awkwardly on her back.

In the meantime, Hoshiko had managed to get out of the pincer attack by ducking under Bacca’s Nanigata after bashing Tikaae away from herself. Once again she used leverage to deflect it before ducking under, and made a powerful sweep with her legs as Bacca stumbled forward. The white-haired girl was forced jump forward, and landed in a quick roll and back on her feet with impressive agility. She was very fast, and slipped away from range before Hoshiko could make a return attack with her spear.

Hoshiko let the shield disappear and grabbed the spear firmly with both hands, crouching with her left leg forward and pointing at Tikaae.

That wound on her back, Etsuko must have caught her before.

“What in the name of…” Tikaae grunted, looking at Hoshiko with a clinical eye. “You’ve been trained good, who the hell are you?”

“Who the hell? I didn’t think Livuans believed in Hell or Heaven.”

“But you humans do,” he hissed, passing the palm of his hand over his nose to wipe the dripping blood away. “Who are you?”

“I told you, Nereida Aegea,” Hoshiko replied, not losing sight of Bacca. She was standing at the ready, but appeared to be waiting for Tikaae to finish talking.

“And that’s saying nothing.” He pointed towards the clashing of the others with his right wristblade, and Hoshiko refused to look away even as several bangs and zaps betrayed the fierceness of the combat. “You are not like that female; she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she moves by instinct. Nothing like you.”

“I’ll take it as a compliment,” Hoshiko replied, and she narrowed her gaze as she looked at him. “And you strike me as too skilled, and too tainted, to be doing grunt work like this.”

“Tainted?” He asked, surprised.

“Of human, of course,” Hoshiko replied.

“How do you…” he started to ask, but never finished the question how do you know we call this being tainted with human. He instead opted for insisting on the previous one. “Who are you?”

“I told you,” she smirked, and her spear started glowing blue. “I’m Nereida Aegea!”

The lightning bolt caught Tikaae so completely by surprise that he only managed to put his arms over his face by instinct, as the thunderous attack struck him in the chest and sent him crashing a few meters back. Bacca didn’t even blink, she pulled back as soon as she felt Hoshiko’s power increasing, and rushed forward to attack without sparing Tikaae a second glance.

Hoshiko blocked her horizontal slash with the shaft of her spear, and they pressed their polearms together until Hoshiko decided to counter, changing the leverage of her spear to send her opponent’s weapon past her and turning it to hit Bacca on the stomach with the bottom end of the ornate shaft.

Even as she hit Bacca, the white-haired girl didn’t even flinch. And when she pressed her attack again on the side Tikaae had wounded on his failed opening attack, Hoshiko saw the girl’s footing waver as she lost strength; but her face never changed.

“Bacca,” Hoshiko called her, even as their crossed blades crashed on the ground as they pressed their attacks against each other.

“I do not use that name an-” she started to respond, but Hoshiko interrupted her.

“Come with us Bacca, yo don’t belong with them.”

“You are the enemy,” she replied simply, and switched focus mid-phrase to hit Hoshiko on the mouth with the bottom end of her nanigata.

“No!” Hoshiko retorted, making a wide defensive slash and jumping back. “You’re not one of them, you’re a human like us! It’s your chance to escape them, I’ll help you!”

“I do not understand what you mean by escape,” Bacca replied, taking a cautious step towards Hoshiko, and forcing the latter to take a step back as well.

“Are they threatening your family? Do you know what being human is? Have you never wondered?” Hoshiko asked, getting flustered as memories bubbled up and interrupted her train of thought; blood dripped slowly out of her split lip, which she didn’t even notice.

“I don’t understand you,” Bacca concluded, and once again prepared an attack.

Etsuko hadn’t had time to see what was happening with Hoshiko, because she had her hands full as it was. Mikeaa turned out to be much more resilient than she had anticipated, and unlike Tikaae, she had not managed to hurt him directly with her weapons. The sonic booms were obviously having an effect, but it was very exerting for her, and she felt that her arms wouldn’t be able to take that strain for much longer.

Worst of all, she was getting close to her fatigue limit. She knew her body better than anyone, she had trained and honed it for years, running on the track and exercising with unshakeable determination. Her newfound powers and abilities weren’t anything she was familiar with, but the feeling of her body exerting itself was.

She was not going to be able to keep that up for long. She even knew how much more she’d be able to take. Five sprints. On the sixth, her legs were going to give. They would have already given in if they were dependant only on physical ability. She knew she was running past her limit on mental fortitude alone.

Whatever happened, her fifth sprint would have to be enough to take at least one of them down. She didn’t want to think about what would happen to her afterwards.

Rather, she didn’t have to, she knew it perfectly well.

She jumped to a side to dodge a shot from Daal, and sprinted forward towards Mikeaa. She was too fast for the Livuan to counter, and she knew it. He was nowhere near as fast as Tikaae, who was barely half a step behind her in speed.

Fat lot of good the speed’s done to me.

Etsuko turned her hands to face out with her palms as she punched him on the stomach with both fists, and followed with a strong push to rip his armor open. That move had worked wonders when facing Tikaae, but this time it barely tore some scraps out of the armor. She jumped back when Mikeaa tried to counter, and when she was about to land, she found herself blasted to the air by a shot from Daal narrowly missing her and landing under her feet.

She crashed painfully on the ground, but quickly moved out of the way. The blast itself was the only thing that really hurt her, for some reason the bits of rock, which should be as bad as shrapnel, didn’t quite manage to hurt her much. As long as she managed to dodge the direct hits, she wouldn’t be in too deep trouble.

But she was running out of energy to dodge. And now her legs were refusing to stand her up.

Dammit…

“You’re mine!”

She heard Mikeaa shouting triumphantly, and she pushed herself up with all the energy she could muster without even looking in which direction she was dodging. There was bright flash that nearly blinded her, very much like the one that had saved her when Nereida Aegea had arrived, and a deep, loud rumbling followed.

A moment later the word started to tumble around her, and she lost all sense of direction, until Hoshiko grabbed her as she fell with the crumbling side of the cliff, and carried her to safety with a mighty leap.

Etsuko didn’t know how long it had been, but when she opened her eyes, all she could see was Nereida Aegea looking down at her.

“Can you hear me, Nereida Bengalia?” she said. Her voice sounded very worried.

“Ugh, someone make the world stop spinning… Why does it always go spinning on me?” Etsuko replied.

Hoshiko sighed and smiled at Etsuko, and her face filled with the infinite relief she felt.

“You had me worried there for a second,” she said.

“What happened?” Etsuko said. She sat up slow and painfully, helped by Hoshiko.

“The cliffside collapsed, which isn’t that surprising really. We all ran in different directions during the landslide, and I just barely managed to carry you. I was very worried that you were hurt.”

“I’m fi- Ugh!” Etsuko grunted in pain, putting a hand to her ribs.

“Yeah, take it easy, I think you have a couple of broken ribs. At least.”

“I think I’m going to puke.”

“Lay down Etsuko-chan,” Hoshiko ordered, gently helping her lay on her back. “Just rest and get your breath back, we’re out of danger.”

“Etsu… Aaah, I cant think now, who are you Aegea?”

“Hehe,” Hoshiko giggled softly, “you really can’t figure it out?”

“Please, I feel like shit, don’t make fun of me…”

“No, I’d never do that. I’m Kokawa Hoshiko,” Hoshiko said, and smiled widely at Etsuko. “Just don’t tell anyone, okay?”

“Sensei… Should’ve figured,” Etsuko replied, closing her eyes and grunting in pain after a sigh.

“Probably,” Hoshiko whispered as she caressed the girl’s hair. “You did great today, Etsuko-chan.”

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