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Part 23 – Explosive Endeavors

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Moonlight billowed in through a huge skylight in the very middle of the room, highlighting what might have been an observatory or a dance floor. Right now it revealed pile upon pile of furniture, clothing, cutlery, carpets, boxes, and all sorts of different things. Some piles were tall enough to barely scrape free of the ceiling. A kingdom of stuff.

"It looks like a storage room…" Kazari glanced around warily.

Ruiko's eyes lit up. "A treasure room!"

"Wh-What?"

"There might be something valuable in here!" Ruiko pulled Kazari along by her wrist.

"S-Saten-san!"

"Nuh-uh! It's Ruiko, silly! Come on, let's get rich!"

"T-This is no time for that! We need to get out of here!"

"There's no reason we can't do both!"

While they made their way through the labyrinth of piles, Ruiko's eyes scanned each one for anything resembling a valuable item. A glint. A twinkle. Jewelry? Gold coins? For all she knew everything in these piles was worth tons, and her fingers itched to grab it all. If only she had the mokeskin bag!

They reached the other end of the room and by then Ruiko had picked up two golden necklaces and a set of diamond rings from a box she'd found haphazardly thrown about. But there was no door to be found. They followed the wall as good as they could with all the treasure strewn about, but there was nothing.

"I guess there's nothing to it." Ruiko gripped her bat again, jewelry dangling around her neck. "I'll smash us a way through!"

"Just be careful, we don't know what's on the other side…"

"You got it, Kaz! Boom—"

"—shackle undead."

A great shock tore through Ruiko's body, locking every muscle in stasis. Her jaw muscles vibrated, but not a sound came out; she was stuck with her gripping the bat, ready to deliver a strike that'd never happen.

"S-Saten-san!?" Kazari squeaked beside her.

A pile of rubble blasted apart diagonally behind them. Kazari pulled back with a squeal, gripping her doll as if it were a real baby.

"Man, humans these days have a lot more guts than they used to." Over the remaining pile of rubble came the hooded girl from before, kicking aside an expensive vase. Her hands were stuffed in the pockets of her hoodie. She looked like she was just taking a leisurely stroll. "I mean, I've never seen so many intestines blow out of a body."

Ruiko filled with adrenaline and rage, but she couldn't fight the invisible chains locking her joints down. Instead she screamed as loud as she could in her mind. WHAT DID YOU DO TO THEEEEM?

"Iiiiih!?" Kazari slapped a hand to her ear as if to cancel out the noise.

The hooded vamp stopped on top of the pile and picked her ear with a finger. "Alright. Who should I smash first? I'll let you choose. Some people say it's super best to be first, but I don't know."

Kazari was breathing erratically. "You-you're ITEM! Meltdowner's artisans! Ohmygod I can't believe I'm meeting you in real life ohmygod am I dreaming—"

"Hm?" The vamp curiously cocked her head.

"You're famous!" Kazari's eyes lit up. "Frenda, Trap Rogue! Takitsubo, Shadow Stalker! And Saiai, Offense Armor! You're in every story ever told about the downfall of Feldspar's monarchy, and it's amazing!"

The vamp slowly grinned. "Huuh. You're right. Lucky for you, I super believe in pleasing the fans. I'll give you the backstage pass and take you out first."

"Oh no, please don't kill us! We don't even taste good, I promise, so please just let us go! I promise we'll leave right away, we'll even leave the jewelry behind, I'm so sorry about Saten-san err I mean Ruiko, I mean!" She was blushing now.

"Takitsubo."

A new toe-curling whisper washed over them from nowhere and everywhere all at once.

"Shadow word: Pain."

"Kyaaaaah!?" Kazari's cry of pain tore through the room, and reverberated through Ruiko's body. A wall of pain struck her, as real as if someone'd dipped her in boiling water. But the spell had not been aimed at Ruiko. Kazari's agony must be ten times worse.

"L-Leaaaaaave her alooooooone!" Her jaw moved. Then her arm, yanking forward an inch. Then her leg tore loose, and the chains holding her down finally shattered in a flicker of light. Ruiko spared no time leaping at Saiai, swinging her bat and shouting her enchants. The vampire just stood there, and the bat connected with her skin like a stick against a mountain. There was a crushing noise as the entire bat bent into a new shape around a giant dent.

Oh shit.

"Th-that won't work, Ruiko!" Kazari shouted through her gasps of pain. Tears gushed down her cheeks. "Offense armor makes her immune to all physical attacks!"

Ruiko gritted her teeth and retreated backwards. Still clutching her bat, even though it now looked more like a candy cane. "How the heck am I supposed to fight her, then?"

But Kazari cried out again, reduced to a wailing bundle on the floor as pain continued tearing through her. Ruiko's fury grew even wilder. "Let her go!"

Saiai cocked her head to the other side. "You guys have a soul link?"

Ruiko charged in again, roaring and swinging her bat. It hit Saiai's shoulder. Her waist. Her head, even. Each strike was as useless as the last. She only got even more dents in her weapon.

"The pain she felt got through to you, and the shackles broke as a result. That's super-interesting." Suddenly, Saiai's boot connected with her midriff and sent Ruiko wildly spinning into the wall. It cracked beneath her and knocked the air from her lungs. Her bat clattered to the floor nearby. Kazari was no longer screaming, but lay heaving for air on the floor, pale and trembling like a leaf.

"I'm getting bored now." Saiai pulled a hand out of her pocket. In it, she was holding a round object. It was no bigger than a tennis ball, but the top and the bottom seemed to be separate parts. The top was slowly turning clockwise. "I figured I'd dispose of this, but now I'm super curious how it'll work on an undead. It's ticking, so I suppose if I shove it down your throat, it'll eventually explode on its own. The challenge would be to make sure I can witness that when it happens."

Ruiko's insides grew thorns. "You… what did you… what did you do to them? Riza, Xochitl… Yomikawa-sensei…" She forced her feet to hold her weight as she stood once more.

"What, the maids?"

"ANSWER ME! YOU GOT THAT BOMB FROM THEM, DIDN'T YOU!?" She stepped forward with enough force to crack the floor, and Saiai moved at the same time. The vampire closed the distance between them in an instant and her fist shot out. Ruiko dodged on reflex and the punch graced her side before connecting with the wall behind her. The bricks shattered and the wall crumbled to pieces, leaving a hole the size of a doorway. Smoke bellowed in through the hole.

"I don't know much about your friends," Saiai said. "Skillout confiscated this thing from the supplies they were trying to smuggle in. Their clearance turned out to be fake, so we locked them up until investigations could complete."

She tossed the bomb up and down in her hand. Ruiko held her stinging side. What am I going to do?

"Ah. I almost forgot." As if dismissing her entirely, Saiai turned away from her and sauntered over to Kazari. "I did promise you to go first."

"I'm not letting you hurt heeeeer!" The floor cracked behind Ruiko as she shot forward. She swung her fist with a warcry, but it smashed uselessly against Saiai's rock hard shoulder. The jolt travelled up through her arm and sent her reeling backwards. Saiai plucked Kazari up by her neck and held her in the air, while turning around to look at Ruiko with a puzzled face.

"Don't be super hasty. You're next."

No! No no no no! There was no time to think or plan ahead. Ruiko grabbed her bat again, battered and smashed, and let loose a barrage of attacks against the vamp. She was like a fly in the face of the artisan. The vampire just swatted her hits away with her arm, while holding an increasingly struggling Uiharu in the other. Ruiko grew more and more furious, to the brink of seeing red, her strikes less and less coordinated until she was just smacking wildly with all her might. She felt like a rubber band stretching thinner and thinner, until it'd snap.

Then there was a click.

"Oh." Saiai looked surprised. "There was a button."

Ruiko realized she was still holding the bomb in the hand she was using to deflect Ruiko's blows. The ticking had just sped up to an insane level and the top was spinning around even faster, like a counting clock.

"It's going to blow!" Ruiko pulled back. "Throw it away!"

"You deal with it." Saiai tossed the bomb towards her.

And Ruiko struck with her bat. It was probably instinct, at least there was no tactical planning behind the strike. Basically, her first thought was OH HELL NO and then her bat was an inch away from the bomb and something weird happened.

Aero hand!

A blast of air burst out from the point of impact, throwing Ruiko backwards. The explosion of wind had enough force to knock piles of treasure aside. The bomb itself shot through the skylight in the middle of the room with a resounding roar of wind and shattering glass. It vanished into the moonlit night. For a second they all stared after it, and then there was a flash in the sky above the sea.

All the stars vanished. The reason was simple; the sky was too bright to see them.

A second sun had exploded forth. For just an instant, they could all stare in awe at the incredible power that small ticking object held. Then they saw nothing. Light engulfed the room and swept away all shadows. Ruiko's vision grew completely white. She only felt when the shockwave hit. A pressure pushed on her ears, blocking all other sound. She thought she felt something pop in there. Her clothes fluttered and tugged in the winds that rushed past like blades. Stuff from the piles in the room struck her body as it was flung to the walls. She tried to crawl away and felt the floor give.

Sliding downwards, blinded and deafened, Ruiko shielded her face with her arms, praying to any gods willing to listen.

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Why won't it happen?

Kuroko could not see even a meter in front of her thanks to all the smoke, but she needed to get some distance between herself and the artisan. Covering her mouth with her hand was probably useless, but she still did, just because it felt better breathing like that.

Why won't my body transform? She was out of breath, her head was spinning. Teleporting was no longer an option. She tried to recall how she had transformed into a wolf in the past, but it had only happened involuntary. She had already tried biting herself again, sinking her teeth into her arm, but it had no effect whatsoever. There must be some kind of trick!

She burst through a door, the third one now. Each one revealed a new room, but the smoke from the first grenade and every new grenade Frenda used had already slipped in through the cracks. At least the poisonous gas did not spread as quickly, and she allowed herself a new breath, coughing violently. It was like trying to escape a growing black hole. Who knows how much she'd already inhaled.

Just how big is this place?

Wherever Mikoto was, it was not in here. There may still be a door somewhere leading deeper into the castle, but Kuroko had not found it. I need to keep looking! There's no other choice! She looked around for clues. This room looked like a living room, complete with a couch, grey in the smoke. A row of curtains hung along one wall, perhaps covering windows.

If I can shatter a few windows, then the smoke—!

"Surprise!" Suddenly, Frenda's heels connected with her head. Kuroko was knocked to the ground and Frenda pinned her down, pressing a knife to her throat. The blade had already nicked her several times, but the vampire above her did not seem to go crazy at the sight of her black blood. She didn't seem all that interested in drinking her blood at all, in fact.

Frenda grinned below the brim of Kuroko's hat. The one she'd gotten from Kiyama. The one Mikoto had been wearing that night when Mugino hurt her with her Meltdowner.

Kuroko grabbed onto the arm pinning her down, but there was no fighting the vamp's physical power.

"In the end, you made things far worse for yourself when you bit me! Now I have to heal, so instead of killing you nice and quick, I'm going to do it my way. Lucky you!" She leaned down, pressing Kuroko against the floor so she couldn't reach Frenda with her teeth. "Blood taste best the very instant a life ends, you know. That last desperate attempt at staying alive… it's simply delicious~"

Kuroko glared back, struggling to breathe. Her sharp teeth were completely useless. Sure, they cancelled any quickhealing, but Kuroko was not under the illusion that she had the upper hand. She had simply gotten lucky a few times and hadn't managed to deliver a fatal blow. Neither had she managed to transform into a wolf. The one time I could actually use it! It must be Will's humor. Kuroko had only hated her curse until this very moment, and that's when it failed her.

Frenda twirled the knife between her fingers. "I know, I know! I'll start with your eyes. Stab, pluck, and drink from the sockets!"

Kuroko struggled beneath her, though it was futile. Her body throbbed with terror. It was as if her skin would tear from the overflowing fear.

Frenda raised the knife.

Then dawn came, so many hours too early. And everything was blown away. The curtains snapped off their hangers and vanished out of the shattering windows together with all of the smoke. Everything in the room was sent flying, including the two of them. They crashed into the wall under the windows. The ceiling shattered and fell in big chunks around them, and white light flooded in. One piece of rock smashed against Kuroko's leg. She couldn't hear her own scream.

As quickly as it came, the tornado of devastating force ended. As the silence resumed, moonlight flooded the torn up room. An odd throb resounded throughout Kuroko's body as she heaved for air under the piece of rubble.

"What the hell was that?" Frenda's voice was weak and coarse.

Kuroko gulped down air with increasing difficulty. Black blood ran down her face and smeared her clothes. She could not see out of her right eye. The ceiling was gone. Cold night air rushed in. She couldn't think clearly. The rubble shifted above her and her shirt tore.

A bloodcurling roar filled the silent night.

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A heavy block of stone tumbled over and toppled from the edge, plunging into the sea below. Where there had once been a wall, there was now a free fall straight into the dark waters. Mikoto had the great opportunity to watch while the stone fell silently to its doom.

She felt nauseous.

"WHAT. THE. HEEEEELL!?"

Mugino's roar exploded behind her. Something yanked at the chains binding her hands, and suddenly her entire body was swung out to dangle above the same doom the stone had just met.

Mugino held the chains in her hand, not even flinching as they burned against her skin. Maybe she'd grown numb from them, just like Mikoto had. Above Mugino, the ceiling had been torn away, and moonlight bathed the enraged matriarch in a blue glow. Her skin looked blistered and burned, but it was already healing.

"This is your doing! You brat! How the fuck did you pull that off? What did you do?"

Mugino rattled the chains, as if falling to her death amongst the rocks far below was somehow scarier than staying here with Mugino. Mikoto glanced down, watching the waves crash against the cliffside. Actually, if she smashed against the cliffs first there might be a chance she'd survive…

Her lack of answer seemed to enrage the matriarch even more. Mugino swung her arm and flung Mikoto into the room once more. She smashed into rubble and debris, and Mugino immediately jumped after her, crashing down onto her. Giant claws brandished on her hands.

"I smell rats. Your rats. Coming for their precious bastard, are they? Do they even know what it is they follow? Hah!" She grabbed Mikoto by the hair and pulled her up. "I'm going to melt half your face—" She stopped abruptly. A roar rumbled through the night air, followed by a shrill scream. Then silence.

Mugino's eyes grew wide. "Frenda?"

Silence.

Then Mugino roared in rage and slammed Mikoto into the floor, crushing stone and rubble as if Mikoto's head was a sledge. Again and again, she slammed her down, until Mikoto saw nothing but stars and a splitting headache spread down her spine. Then Mugino pulled her up and spat in her face while eerie green horns grew from her forehead, burning Mikoto's fringe. Mugino leaned even closer, until their lips were just inches apart.

"You'll pay twice the price for this, pawn!"

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Ruiko's head snapped up. The storm had ended and she was somehow still alive. Well… yeah. Everything was a mess around her. The ceiling was gone, as was most of the floor. Her shirt had snagged on a protruding metal rod from the broken floor. That was mostly why she hadn't simply fallen off the edge and down to the floor below. From where she hung, she looked right down at a stone throne. The room below was in full chaos. Vampires were running and screaming at each other, some were fighting each other. Most seemed keen on getting the hell out of there.

There was also a lot of treasure down there, strewn about like a collapsed jewelry store. Falling down seemed like a bad idea though. Sluggishly, she turned her attention upwards. Where's Kazari? She-she's close by, gotta find her…

Sore fingers gripped onto the ledge, trembling arms pulling her weight up. She nearly slipped twice before she got her knees above the edge, and then her shirt tore off when she tried to release it from the metal rod where it had snagged. A large gash remained at the side once she freed herself, but clothes hardly mattered right now.

Right in front of her, a girl lay covered by debris, skin hissing red and full of painful-looking blisters and gashes that looked like the result of a nasty roast. The black hair gave off a burnt smell and still sizzled at the tips. She was not Kazari. Not Saiai either. The shadow stalker? Her spells had been devastating, but luckily she was trapped and knocked out. Her face actually looked like it could use some of Kazari's healing cream, some of those burns looked like they went all the way through to the bone.

Someone whimpered nearby. Kazari! With an urgent rush, Ruiko staggered to her feet and swayed her way to the pile of rubble that had trapped the shadow stalker beneath it. As soon as she reached it, a harsh throb ran through her head.

"Uuuuuh…" Sluggishly, she forced her arms and legs to move. Over the debris; on the other side, near the wall, sat Kazari. She still clutched her doll, as well as her arm, tears running down her cheeks. Ruiko grew cold when she saw the blood running down her temple.

"Kazari!" She slid down the debris, teetered on the edge and then made her way across the torn and cracked remains of the floor until she could grab Kazari's shoulders gingerly, looking her over for more scrapes. Miraculously, the one on her head seemed to be the most serious one. Ruiko's head throbbed again as she looked at the wound. The pain she felt was like a ghostly feeling.

"Can you heal it?" she asked Kazari.

"I-I can't really… think straight," Kazari sniffed and gingerly held her arm closer to her body. Ruiko couldn't see any injuries, maybe it was broken. Kazari looked up at Ruiko and then hiccupped. "Ru-Ruiko! Your arm!"

"Huh?" Ruiko looked down and grew instantly nauseous. Her right arm was ripped open at the wrist, and her hand dangled weirdly. "Uuuuuuuh?"

"You're badly damaged." Kazari sounded nervous, staring at her face. "Didn't you notice!?"

"I, I guess not. A-Anyway, we need to move! Can you walk?"

"I-I think so…" Kazari got to her feet with Ruiko's help. What now though? Ruiko was entirely disoriented. She had no idea where they were, or where to go. She just walked along, away from the collapsed floor. There was a hole in the wall nearby, she vaguely remembered dodging the punch that'd created it. On the other side, expensive-looking furniture had been thrown about by the bomb's explosion, some torn apart at the seams. That explosion… it wouldn't have killed just vamps. Ruiko dimly thought she ought to report this to Yomikawa-sensei. In case they tried to make another bomb. If that thing had blown up inside the castle, they'd all be dead and deader.

She was half tempted to sit Kazari down in one of these couches and rest up, but they still had to get out. Instead, she hoisted Kazari closer and pushed on through a doorway where the door was no longer attached. That took them to a hallway, and not far down the hall was a set of double doors, heavy enough to still be on their hinges. Ruiko noticed movement and turned her head, just to see a familiar person stagger across the remains of a wall.

"Sh-Shirai-san!" Kazari breathed in relief.

"Oi! Shirai-san!"

Ruiko waved eagerly at the paladin girl, her arm flapping like rubber as the broken bone failed to keep it stable. Shirai-san stopped briefly, eyes widening, and then staggered forward with greater urgency.

"S-Saten-san! Uiharu! Have you seen Mikoto!?"

"Hey, you're covered in blood! What happened?"

Shirai-san stopped, and blinked, as if just now realizing. Her clothes were in tatters, and beneath them, her skin was littered with black veins that looked about ready to burst. They all stared at her for a moment.

"I… I don't know what happened."

"…."

"….but I got my hat back?"

"You lost it? Man, what did you guys do while I was gone? No, wait! We gotta share these stories over a Campari, not in this sorry state. Don't say anything!" Ruiko put her hand out in a stop-signal, and it flopped upside-down.

"Shirai-san…" Kazari spoke weakly. "Where is Misaka-san?"

Shirai-san's face paled even more till it looked like she'd keel over any second. "Mikoto… she was gone when I came back…"

"Betcha she came here to kick some ass. And this here looks like the boss lair!" Ruiko turned towards the heavy doors at the end of the corridor, just as they began glowing. "….eh?"

"Get down!"

They stumbled away just in time. A green blast burst through the doors and proceeded to melt what remained of the wall on the opposite end of the corridor. It continued down at least four more walls before Ruiko gave up trying to comprehend it.

Someone stepped out of the ruined doorway. The woman – or monster, more like it – looked downright insane with her wide grin and glowing eyes.

"It's showtime!" Her grin leered to the figure behind her, and Ruiko's eyes widened upon seeing Misaka-san's beaten form. Her hands were chained and Crazy-Bitch was holding the other end, like Misaka-san was some kind of leashed dog. Misaka-san's bare upper body was riddled with fresh wounds and scars that glowed faintly in the dark.

Just looking at the work of the unfamiliar matriarch was enough to make the hairs on Ruiko's skin stand on end. The woman's skin was red and blistered, but despite that she was exuding so much power through her sickly green aura and the horns crackling on top of her head. There was no way they could fight something like that!

But the crazy-looking matriarch didn't attack. Instead, the impossibly powerful vampire yanked on the chain she was holding, and Misaka-san stumbled forward.

"Brat, this is your chance to make things up to me! Show me just how much you wish to please your matriarch and I'll consider keeping you alive for a while longer! Maybe I'll even let you join my ITEM one day!"

"M-Misaka-san?" Ruiko's voice was only a whisper.

"No…" Shirai-san sounded pained where she leaned on the wall with one hand for support. "This is not happening…"

"Shirai-san!" Kazari squealed as Misaka-san slowly stepped forward, chains rattling. Blue sparks danced off her fringe.

"That should be impossible…" the paladin choked on her own words. "Mikoto's already a matriarch, there's no way… no way Meltdowner could have bonded her!"


A/N: I'm not dead! And neither is this story! Life is busy, but thanks to you guys reminding me that this exists and is still wanted, I've made it my goal to at least finish posting Volume 2 - it's all there, it just needs editing. That means more chapters are on the way, so... let's have some more fun with this weird thing that I love more than I can explain why XD