Shades of Gray

"Demon Gun Claire Whelan, step forward."

"… seen this level of devastation since the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. From what we can see from outside the quarantine zone few buildings are still standing- the whole city looks like a scrap yard from out here."

"Two-Star Demon Gun Meister Cristóbal Moreno Delgado, step forward."

"… said the damage to the harbor is, quote, 'reminiscent of a tactical nuclear strike'. The thermal forces at work here were so great that the waterfront has been reduced to a plain of glass, a phenomenon commonly observed in desert nuclear tests. In districts close to the water massive fires sparked by the ambient heat of the original attack rage unchecked as most of the state's firefighters have been committed to containing blazes left in the wake of the monster's final beam attack which, in addition to razing more than a hundred miles of pine forest and several private residences far outside of the city limits, knocked a hole in the Cascade mountain range."

"On behalf of myself, Shibusen, and the DWMA faculty, I'd like to thank you both for your courage in the face of danger, your commitment to your friends and fellow students, and the personal sacrifices you've made to defend others. Know that what you have accomplished here matters, and that the world is a better place for what you've done."

"… an utter disaster. If it wasn't for the intervention of an as of yet unidentified third party, there's no telling just how catastrophic the damage could've been. And that's really saying something when you consider how bleak things are looking here at ground zero."

"Today we commemorate your momentous achievement, celebrate your valor, and challenge your peers to strive for the same honor."

"… still sweeping the ruins for any remaining monsters and have placed the entire city under quarantine until the military sounds the all clear. The Pentagon has yet to release an official statement regarding what will be done with the remains of the large golem and the creature, but considering their size it could take several months just to relocate the bodies."

"Chris, for the collection of ninety nine sanctioned souls and one witch soul, I'm proud to promote you to: Two-Star Death Scythe Meister."

"… undoubtedly a severe gaff on the part of Shibusen. Billions of dollars in property damage, hundreds of thousands forced to flee from their homes…"

"Claire, for the collection of ninety nine sanctioned souls and one witch soul, I'm proud to promote you to: Death Scythe."

There was a spattering of applause from the small crowd gathered around Death's mirror. The triumphant Weapon/Meister pair stood before the towering deity, Chris's expression neutral, Claire beaming and giving her Meister a playful punch. Death gave both paternal pats on the head, eyes smiling.

"Good job you two."

"… through all the statistics, all these pictures of the aftermath, one question is on the tip of everybody's tongue: Who's to blame?"

The onlookers crowded around the new Death Scythe and her Meister, offering high fives and handshakes, hugs and fist bumps. Claire basked in the attention with glee- Chris accepted his congratulations with a little more humility. There were a handful of teachers, Marie, Nygus, and Sid, who walked with a slight limp. There was the ever rueful Jackson, bobbing his head and flashing a silly grin, and a stiff but unusually warm Isabelle. Maka was having an animated conversation with Chris, no doubt giddy to have a fellow student Death Scythe Meister, even if she was still one soul away from the title herself. Claire was making it difficult for Soul to forget that she'd saved him and his Meister during the fight with Lila. He was handling her obnoxiousness amiably despite himself, and Maka mouthed a 'thank you' that he waved off. Black*Star and Kilik bumped shoulders with Isabelle, bickering over who had killed the most monsters over the course of the battle, Tsubaki trying and failing to hush her partner. Sonya and Kyla were nowhere to be seen.

Alexa stood aloof, her hands buried in the pockets of her bell bottoms. Everyone was smiling, laughing, clapping each other on the shoulder for a job well done. Her friends, her teachers were all around her and having a good time. And it took so much just to meet every gaze that wandered her way with a smile.

"… over a hundred National Guardsmen and Army Reservists were killed during the battle on shore. Military higher ups assert that if it hadn't been for the retreat order given before the creature made landfall there would've been many more casualties. But the greatest loss of life was suffered by the Navy. The aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and its three escorts were sunk with all hands lost; the single greatest tragedy in the history of the United States Navy. In less than a second, that monster killed almost three times as many Americans as the Japanese Imperial Navy did during Pearl Harbor."

The Demon Sword cringed when she inadvertently met Claire's eyes from across the room. Her older sister only had to hold the contact for a moment before Alexa had the unnerving feeling that she'd seen right through her. The redhead's heart sank as Claire cut through the crowd like a blade, stomping over to her little sister. She stopped within arm's reach and Alexa closed her eyes and forced a smile.

"Hey-" The taller blonde clamped her hands over Alexa's shoulders, silencing her with an uncharacteristically serious, sympathetic look.

But Alexa understood the unspoken dialogue in only the way a sister could. It struck straight to the ache in her chest, the tightness in her throat, the heaviness of her eyelids. She knew, no matter how Alexa tried to hide it, Claire knew. Alexa almost wanted to laugh at how serious her sister's eyes suddenly were. It was funny, in a broken sort of way. He wouldn't want everyone getting worked up over this. He was doing what was right. That'd be enough for him. She wanted to laugh at herself. How the fuck should I know? It made her want to cry. It killed her.

So she smiled, leaned forward, and gave her older sister a light hug. "Grats sis."

"… twice as many as the September Eleventh attack on the World Trade Center…"

After a few more minutes of idle chatter she excused herself. The Death Room's double doors closed behind her with an unobtrusive click, and Alexa let out a long sigh. I've got to be strong for them. She knew that she should be happy for her sister, and she was. But right now she just wanted to be alone.

Empty, sympathetic hallways wrapped her in their embrace as she walked. Eyes downcast, hands in pockets, numb, watching her black tennis shoes pass in and out of the frame of her vision.

There hadn't even been a body to bury. The military were still picking through the rubble, thinking that it might've been thrown some distance by Marcus's last attack, but a cynical part of her was doubtful there was a body to find. Marcus just… She shook her head, pushing the thought away. For now, there was no body. The funeral had been poorly attended anyway, just her, Sonya, Isabelle and Jackson, Sid and Nygus, and some other adult Meister who'd apparently fought at Hedgeton. Alexa didn't recognize her.

The thing that disturbed her most was that she'd endured the whole ordeal dry eyed. Even Isabelle had had damp cheeks. Jackson suffered the angry, sniffling tears of a teenage boy ashamed of his own sorrow. Sonya had no such inhibitions and sobbed piteously into a handkerchief. She'd looked pretty in her black dress, all disheveled and tear stained. But Alexa had stood aside with the adults, stony faced and silent. She felt stupid, uncomfortable, out of place among her grieving friends when she couldn't even bring herself to cry.

"… memorial services for the dead on the National Mall and in several state capitals…"

"Alexa?" Sonya's voice stopped the Demon Sword in her tracks. She silently cursed her wandering feet; they'd led her right to the Dispensary. Sonya was sitting on a chair beside the door, eyes still puffy from crying.

"Hey Sonya." She answered dumbly, fumbling for words as silence filled the hall. After a moment she nodded at the door. "How is she?"

She cringed as Sonya sniffled, afraid she was going to cry again, but the Demon Hoop swiped a hand across her nose and answered. "Stein is still working on her."

Even now, Alexa was jealous of her. Sure, her Meister was in critical condition, but at least she still had one! She got to spend more time with Roland than I did. That bitter thought had been smoldering at the back of her throat ever since the funeral, like she wanted to spit it at Sonya's feet out of sheer spite. It almost matched the ache of his absence. Almost. Her chest swelled with a deep breath.

"It's all my fault."

Alexa blinked, taken aback by her interruption. "What?"

Sonya was trembling, balling her skirt up in her fists. "I should've trained harder. If I had then maybe our Resonance wouldn't have taken so much out of her, if I had just taken more of the burden, she would've been fast enough to dodge. But I couldn't do anything!" Alexa saw a few tears fall from her chin. "I've never felt so helpless."

The Demon Sword deflated. "I'm sorry Sonya." She remembered that same feeling, only being able to watch while someone you cared about got torn up. It made her want to scream. She wondered if Sonya felt the same way. Here, standing across the warmly lit hall, there wasn't as much separating them as she had originally thought.

"What for?" Sonya asked, releasing her crumpled skirt in favor of twining her fingers together, trying to distract herself.

"For Kyla and…" Alexa's hand tightened around the precious object in her pocket. "For Roland."

There was a moment of silence before Alexa sighed and continued.

"It's stupid, but I was so afraid that I'd lose him to you. As a friend, Meister, whatever. I treated you like trash when I was supposed to be your team mate. I was… selfish." She gave a single, broken laugh. "And now I've lost him for both of us."

"Alexa…" Sonya began, but the Demon Sword interrupted her.

"I wanted to thank you, too. You really made him happy Sonya."

The corners of the Demon Hoop's mouth tugged upwards into a small smile as fresh tears blazed wet trails down her cheeks, dripping from her chin onto the clasped hands in her voice was a whisper. "I miss him."

"… responsible for the attack disappeared without a trace. Her three lieutenants, two of which were rogue Meisters, were killed by Shibusen operatives."

Alexa stood in the shade of the school's front arches, hands in her pockets. Death City sprawled before her, baking under the boisterous sun, shimmering in the heat. She sniffled and scowled spitefully at the orange sphere.

Stupid sun.

She wished it would rain. She wanted dark clouds and gale force winds; she wanted a storm. She needed some noise, some violence to distract her from the ache tugging at her insides. People were just going about their business like nothing happened! The world kept turning when she wanted, needed it to wait up so she could… think.

But thinking wouldn't help. The more she thought about it the more pointless the whole thing seemed which pissed her off because that meant Roland had died for nothing which reminded her that Roland had-

She punched the wall as hard as she could, biting her lip, blinking back tears. The coppery taste of blood played across her tongue. Her face contorted in desperation and anger; she punched the wall again. Had they really even won? The whole point had been to stop Raena from completing DEADE, and they'd failed. They'd barely been able to hold the city against her monsters and lieutenants, forced to flee like ants before the completed construct. Alexa had never been so scared.

She punched the wall again, once for her cowardice, once for her weakness. The skin over her knuckles had torn under their punishment and left a red smear against the white stone of the arch, one of the teeth of the Shinigami mask that stretched over the entrance to the school.

The spikes rising from the mask's eye and nose holes were like proud crimson lances, daring the world's demons and witches to threaten its people and suffer the wrath of the Death God's servants. But now it seemed like such a hollow gesture; they'd failed. In the face of grave danger Shibusen had faltered. Their task force, composed of some of the best Weapon/Meister pairs the academy had to offer, had served as little more than charismatic linemen. A speed bump. They had not beaten DEADE, in the end the military had managed to do so themselves. Mostly. Alexa still had no idea where that golem came from. When all was said and done it seemed like Shibusen really had no reason to have been there at all.

This led her, once again, to the sour conclusion that Roland had died for nothing. A strangled scream escaped her lips as she punched the wall a final time. Her shoulders heaved with gasping breaths, a few tears spilled onto her cheeks. She should've seen this coming. They had both agreed to this lifestyle, to putting themselves in harm's way. It was bound to happen to one of them eventually. She shouldn't have gotten attached. But that was the cruel irony of their creed: if they wanted to survive they had to connect, pulling desperately closer to draw on the power of their souls combined, leaning against one another for strength. That bond was the mechanism for Soul Resonance, the engine that let children challenge devils and sorcerers alike. Their great weakness; few could stand alone. Alexa pressed her forehead against the cool stone.

"… growing public outrage over the disparity in casualties…"

Maybe they were supposed to be soldiers. However, for every life they'd taken, they were just children. And it hurt. Something had been torn from her and left a gnawing absence in its wake. But what right did she have to waste time on tears? She was a soldier wasn't she? Less than that perhaps, a Weapon. And she'd had her vengeance. Hollow as it was. She'd thrown up after she realized what she'd done to Marcus, it made her feel dirty. Worse still she wasn't sure she really regretted cooking him from the inside out.

What was she supposed to do now that she was alone? She wanted to break something. . Dead. She squeezed her eyes shut and hiccupped. "…fuck!"

Someone sighed. Alexa turned, realizing too late that she looked very much the mess she'd been trying to convince people she wasn't. Luckily it was no one she knew. Alexa gave the intruder a withering look. "What are you looking at?" She snapped.

Sandy brown hair tumbled down around her shoulders, framing a lean face with a generous spattering of freckles across her soft nose and beneath two gentle hazel eyes. A white tank-top clung to her slim torso, tan khaki's accented her long legs which ended in nondescript brown suede shoes. A maul with a head of purple crystal hung from a sling on her back. The olive green scarf wound around her neck trailed a few feet behind her as it fluttered in the wind. Upon closer inspection she recognized her from Roland's funeral. Who was she again?

The woman wore a sympathetic smile. "You must be Alexa."

"So what if I am?" The Demon Sword snarled, tiring of strangers' sympathy. It would only rub salt into the wounds. She was determined to drive this woman away with the most abrasive attitude she could muster. "And who are you supposed to be?"

"Roland's mother."

"You're…" Alexa's eyes went wide. Her hair and eyes were lighter, but there was a certain familiarity to her features. "I… I'm…" She stuttered. Ashamed and unable to hold the elder Meister's gaze any longer her face fell. Her hand sought the comfort of the artifact in her pocket. Tears trickled freely as she withdrew her hand and offered a closed fist. Her fingers uncurled to reveal Roland's cracked glasses. "… sorry."

Madeline accepted them gingerly. Alexa fell to her knees and buried her face in her hands. "I'm so sorry!"

Roland's mother smiled sadly at her son's bereaved Weapon. They'd all lost something, Madeline especially. Victor and Roland, a dear friend and a son… yes, she understood the Demon Sword's pain well. Their injured hearts screamed out for recompense, but it was too late for that. The battle had left only one loose end. She stooped and wrapped the trembling blade in her arms, drawing her close, smoothing her short red hair with a tender hand. "It's all right. Let it out." She cooed. "We're gonna be all right."

Now was the time for healing.

Jackson had thought long and hard, pondering the sugar glazed doughnut held loosely between his fingers. Open on the table before him was a pink cardboard box, and inside it just one short of a dozen identical doughnuts were arranged in two neat rows. At the other end of the table Isabelle was folding laundry. The quaint domesticity of the scene confounded him. Hadn't they just been fighting for their lives? He could've sworn people had died too, he'd seen it. How could he forget? The fighting in the streets had been grueling. And then someone told him what the lights on the water were.

The doughnut twitched, and he took a bite to still the trembling of his hand.

How did the saying go? One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. He contemplated the pastry, a ring of sugar glazed dough now broken. Who said that? Stalin? Another bite. Roland might've known.

There hadn't been even close to a million deaths but Jackson was still struggling to wrap his head around just how many people DEADE had killed in, literally, the blink of an eye. In the scramble to get out of the city before the titans met downtown it hadn't occurred to him that the light show in the bay would translate to so many deaths.

He'd seen the numbers on the news; the media was having an absolute fit. It was a completely unprecedented disaster. But Jackson found himself woefully unmoved the navy's losses. The savaged bodies of national guardsmen still dominated the dark behind his eyelids, gunfire and screams still rebounded off the inside of his skull. The deaths he'd seen, those he'd tried to stop and those he'd wrought, those were the ones that frayed his nerves and weighed heavy on his conscious. Barely more than a hundred soldiers had been killed in the fighting on the mainland and of those Jackson had only witnessed a handful. Each had been its own grotesque, heart wrenching tragedy. Arms torn from their sockets, faces caved in, chests crushed, gibbering weekend warriors cradling their own bloody guts in their hands as men and machines and monsters fell to pieces around them. A lucky few were killed instantly, for they dealt each other cruel half-deaths that left the not quite slain to suffer their own eternities of agony before they could be counted among the dead. Knowing that he had meted out similar fates was Jackson's greatest shame.

But the monsters didn't count did they? Faceless, inhuman, feral flesh tearers, they could not suffer as a human could. They simply lacked that depth of feeling. The soldier was not a murderer; he was an exterminator putting down dangerous fauna and performing necessary maintenance of the food chain. Does it help, he wondered, when they tell themselves that? Jackson could not enjoy that luxury; he was already too familiar with the truth of the matter. The monsters knew fear, pain, sorrow, and the burden of their own twisted existences. He heard it in their mouthless keening every time the defenders cut down one of their brood. They had brains, spines, hearts. Souls. Jackson knew because these were the very things he'd taken from them.

The fact that his only marketable skill was inflicting pain on others had never really sat well with him. Sometimes he envied those inanimate objects that the rest of the world used as weapons. Beyond the walls of Death City a sword couldn't feel shame, a spear wouldn't wallow in apathy, and a gun never wrestled with a guilty conscious. Here in the shadow of the DWMA weapon was spelled with a capital W, and axes had to figure out for themselves whether they were tools or human beings.

Jackson saw Isabelle pick up and fold a pair of his boxers, feeling his cheeks darken. The realization that he'd just blushed at something as innocuous as her handling his laundry only made his face burn that much more, this time in embarrassment.

If she was struggling with the same disheartening confusion it didn't show. If anything, the battle had served to dull her constant edge of severity. Not happy outright… no, definitely not. Jackson would only go as far as to say she was cautiously optimistic. This, to an outside observer, probably wouldn't make any sense. One teammate killed, another fighting for her life in an operating room, seven thousand dead, a city in ruins, and their mission failed, what was there to be even cautiously optimistic about?

Isabelle folded a final pair of jeans and placed them atop the stack of clean clothes. Bracing her hands against the table she leaned forward slightly, examining her handiwork with an air of quiet satisfaction. She was in her "casual" attire, bare foot with one of her white dress shirts tucked into the waist of a pair of black slacks. Jackson watched her and wondered what she thought of the bloodbath, of the aftermath. Did she laugh or cry at the paradox of their involvement, responsible for an outcome they could have done nothing to prevent? No matter which way Jackson looked at it, there really wasn't anything they could've done to stop Raena from completing DEADE. It hadn't mattered that they'd killed her minions and stolen the Magic Tools from the grasp of her lieutenants; Raena had simply bypassed them and gotten her way in the end.

The Demon Axe Meister kept her thoughts on the matter to herself. Besides, they had a small personal victory of their own to distract themselves with.

She noticed him looking so Jackson quickly dropped his eyes and took a bite of his doughnut. Of course doing so only proved that he had been caught staring, but extended contact with those amber and ivory spheres had a tendency to muddle his thinking to the point where making up an excuse would've been impossible. He would have to tell her frankly that he'd been thinking about her, studying her face as much for signs of anxiety as for his own enjoyment. He'd seen her cleave inhuman enemies in half like loafs of stale bread, he'd seen her kill Arachnophobia foot soldiers with her bare hands, but perhaps the fact that she could paralyze him with her stare was more a testament to his weakness than to her strength. Either way, it sent shivers down his spine.

Mercifully, she did not pursue the issue. Without so much as a word she piled the folded laundry into a blue plastic basket, turned, and left a flustered Jackson to his doughnuts. He felt positively idiotic, sitting at their kitchen table eating pastries and stealing glances at his Meister while she did laundry. What else could he do? They'd been given another mandatory break from missions because, as Lord Death had said in kinder words, their squad was useless with only one intact Weapon/Meister pair. But Jackson had a feeling that Isabelle wouldn't let them sit on their hands for long. Their future, unlike Sonya and Kyla's or poor Meisterless Alexa's, was far from uncertain. Somehow the carnage and tragedy of Hedgeton had left the blonde and her axe with an unexpected reason for optimism. In the streets of that shattered metropolis Isabelle had, for the first time in Jackson's memory, mastered her anger.

Then again, mastered was a bit of an overstatement. There had been too many close calls for that, too many glancing blows, too many gruesome scenes that almost sent her over the edge. But she had held her ground. And so it was their first major battle that she remembered in its entirety. Any time afterwards that hadn't been spent in contemplative, mournful silence she'd use to make bemused observations about how Black*Star and Kilik belonged in their own Shonen, or to marvel at Kim's epic defense of Ox when the bespectacled lancer was knocked out during the fighting. Working together with the other students, sharing banter and shedding blood with friends, Jackson could say she'd nearly enjoyed herself. Of course the news of Roland's death and Kyla's condition had put a quick stop to that reverie. However, Jackson could still see triumph smoldering in her eye sockets. And so, he supposed, he could be happy. If only for her.

Jackson was reaching for a second doughnut when Isabelle's voice rang out through the house. "Jackson?" The Demon Axe stopped, attentive, hand suspended a few inches from the box of pastries.


"I need a hand."

He was out of his seat with a huff, taking a moment to crack his back. Then it was out of the kitchen, down the hall, to the stairs where he paused with a hand on the rail. "Where are you?"

"My room."

The Axe thumped gracelessly up to the house's second story. Isabelle's door was cracked open, and Jackson stepped in to find her unbuttoning her shirt. She greeted him with the faintest nod of acknowledgement. "The first aid kit is on my dresser."

Isabelle's room was dominated by whites and warm, powdery blues. There were no knickknacks on display, no frivolous decorations, nor was the decor indicative of any of the usual excesses of great wealth. Her chambers had a professional air, as if Jackson had stepped not into her bedroom but her office. There was nothing of the merciless, battlefield berserk here. Focused, functional, peaceful, this was a shrine to the Isabelle that Isabelle wanted to be. As if by sleeping in this room that belonged not to her as she was she might assume the identity of the woman she wanted to become. And Jackson was both a means to that end and an obstacle. An anchor that kept her earthbound or the medium of her muzzled inner violence. Either way, a tool.

But now things were going to get better, they were figuring it out, with his help she could control herself. So Jackson grabbed the first aid kit from the dresser while Isabelle folded her shirt and set it aside. She sat on the edge of the bed and unhooked her bra, holding the loose white undergarment flush to her chest with crossed arms while Jackson skimmed the contents of the kit to make sure he had what he needed. Satisfied, he took his place cross-legged on the bed behind her and set about his work.

On Isabelle's back were two heavy bandages, trophies of gauze and surgical tape, starting side by side at her right shoulder and stopping just short of her spine. Jackson gingerly peeled them off to reveal the jagged, pink parallel slashes that they hid. Parting gifts from one of Raena's lupine monsters. A frown tugged his lips downward when he saw that the wounds were bleeding lightly.

"How did you reopen them?" She gave a small shrug and remained silent. Her Axe tsked and retrieved fresh rolls of tape and gauze from the first aid kit. "You need to be more careful."

Normally DWMA students had their wounds, both those acquired in the city and on missions, treated either on campus or at whatever facilities were available abroad. But in the event that advanced medical personnel were unavailable, all Weapons and Meisters took Red Cross first aid courses as part of their mandatory school curriculum. All in all the DWMA was one of the best places in Death City to get hurt, bar perhaps one of the three hospitals, as the entire student body had basic medical training. Even the faculty, Death Scythes to janitors, had to be EMT certified.

So it was with practiced hands that Jackson went about reapplying his Meister's dressings. There was a deep satisfaction in the act of mending, coaxing torn flesh back together with little more than gentle pressure and sterile cloth. It reeked of a sort of intimacy Jackson was coming to crave. His thoughts drifted then, as they often did those days, to the Battle for BREW. To their kiss in the snow. He blushed unnoticed as Isabelle stared patiently at the wall in front of her, waiting for him to finish. His eyes settled on the crook of her neck and Jackson suddenly found himself with the strangest urge to lean forward and smell her. Immediately his common sense was screaming alarums, warning him that such a strange gesture would earn him swift and bloody punishment. She might not even notice, he reasoned, pondering the contours of her naked back. He could always assert that he was getting even for her unexpected kiss on Lost Island. Even if he did, there was a good chance it wouldn't stop her from ripping him two or three new ones anyway just for being weird.

It was the stark white of her new bandages the pulled his gaze from dangerous territory, a harsh reminder of reality. She could've died. His heart dropped into his stomach as he contemplated the possibilities. Any deeper and those claws might've punctured a lung, or any further left and they could've clipped her spine, anywhere else on her body and they might've inflicted even graver injuries because despite his protests she never wore body armor of any kind, and no matter what she thought dressing like a successful lawyer to emphasize her agency didn't make her invincible so why couldn't she just be more careful? In a moment of silent terror he realized that any wrong move would've left him like Alexa; Meisterless, orphaned.

Jackson laid a hand over her wound, feeling her heat through the dressings, the skin of his palm, an expression of pleading helplessness twisting his face into a pitiful sort of grimace that suggested indigestion.

"I don't want to lose you."

Amber eyes misty, Isabelle's lips curled upwards in a small, sad smile.

The festivities were over and the Death Room was quiet. Spirit slouched against the side of Death's mirror, hands in his pockets, contemplating the simulated desert horizon that was his master's wallpaper of choice. Shinigami-sama himself was rooted in the center of his platform, his tall and jagged form like a sliver of the void itself. He was waiting, masked face turned to his mirror, silent utterly.

They shared many moments like this, Spirit reflected. Waiting for the next disaster, the next briefing, the next battle, and the next faculty meeting. He had never imagined that becoming Death's personal Weapon would entail such a change of pace. Back when he first started it didn't seem like Death did much of anything at all except put up and tear down bureaucratic red tape. But now he knew better; Death played a game of strategy and intrigue with the darker tendencies of human nature itself. Shackled as he was, in truth his reach was unhindered. He and Shibusen were one; he was the brain, this school was the heart, and the students and staff were his hands, scouring chaos from its den in his stead.

It was a dangerous game; Death wasn't the only god who walked the Earth. But now it was a man who'd upset the balance. Even with Victor's improvised deity silenced, the consequences of his insurrection were already proving far reaching. His defeat had been far more destabilizing than Death could have anticipated. Was this part of your plan too, Victor? Death glowered at his own reflection in the mirror. How deep does this go? How much did you really know? He hated uncertainty. So he was relieved when Nygus appeared in the mirror, hoping she would provide some of the illumination he desperately needed.

"Hello hello Nygus!" He chirped. "How goes your investigation?"

"It's hard to tell from the outside, but Madeline was right." The Demon Knife in question sighed. She wore a blue surgical gown and gloves with a generous, almost artful spattering of blood across the sleeves, scalpel still held poised in her right hand. With tired eyes she addressed the mirror an assistant had prepared for her. "These monsters are halfwarg."

Death's voice didn't waver, but held a certain undercurrent of intensity that chilled those within earshot. "You're sure?"


"I thought the Brood cut ties with the witches just after the Second War with the Forest. And that was what, seven hundred years ago? What was Raena doing with an army of them?" Spirit asked. "Could it be that they've reestablished their alliance?"

"No. They are too proud, not to mention too few, to commit any of their kin to be cannon fodder for a witch's scheme." Death shook his head. "What do you think Nygus?"

"There weren't any signs of arcane interference in the brain tissue, but these deformities suggest that they were being coerced. After all, their mouths were grafted shut, and every halfwarg we encountered showed signs of severe inanition." Nygus laid her scalpel aside and crossed her arms. "If I had to take a guess, I'd say Raena was starving them into obedience. The fused fingers were probably to keep them from making or using any tools."

Shinigami-sama made a pensive grunt. Raena must've enslaved an entire village. That a witch could've found one of the Brood's hidden enclaves wasn't too farfetched, but too have brought nearly three hundred under her influence with only another witch and Victor? Then again, strange things had a way of happening around that man.

A door creaked open and shut, footsteps echoed throughout the Death Room, and Azusa and Sid emerged from the tunnel of guillotines. They approached the Shinigami's platform and greeted the cloaked deity, Azusa with a curt nod and Sid with a grunt. Lord Death bobbed his head in acknowledgment.

"And how are my two favorite negotiators doing today?" He asked, suddenly jarringly jovial. Spirit clutched his head and groaned in frustration. All these mood swings were going to give him whip lash. Azusa exhaled through her nose, shifting her weight ever so slightly, a tiny motion that hinted at the stresses the frigid Death Scythe was dealing with.

"If I may be frank, Lord Death, I've had better days." She was a master of understatement.

"Keep your chin up Azusa! It'll keep you from flipping over forwards if you're skydiving." The Death God chimed, eyes smiling. Spirit groaned again as his master continued. "How did your chitchat with the Pentagon go?"

"Well, excuse the expression but…" Sid scratched his head sheepishly. "They kinda got us by the balls boss."


Azusa nodded gravely. "I'm afraid we've had to make concessions."

Spirit shot his Meister a sideways glance as the cloaked deity huffed and asked, "What's the damage?"

"The United States military has taken custody of the remains of both DEADE and the golem Prometheus. They intend to have them transported to a top secret facility for storage and, I suspect, study. Shibusen has been denied access to them indefinitely."

The Shinigami's expression darkened. A gaggle of military scientists locked in a warehouse with DEADE's corpse was an ominous image indeed. Who knew what dangerous knowledge they could wrestle from its husk? He could care less about the golem. Even if they had an expert there to examine it, he was sure even a Master Enchanter like Prometheus's maker couldn't explain how a three hundred foot tall statue made of solid, not to mention enchanted sandstone could fight, much less move, without any mechanical aid. He actually felt sorry for whoever was charged with the impossible task of figuring out how the golem worked. "What about the Enchanter, Abraham?"

Sid and Spirit exchanged a puzzled look before the zombie answered with a question of his own. "You knew the guy who built that golem?"

"You seriously think someone could build a golem that big without me knowing about it? And yes, we were familiar with each other." He waved a blocky white hand in a dismissive gesture. "But do we know what happened to him after Prometheus fell?"

"They didn't say a word about it." Sid shrugged. "Which means he's either dead and they haven't found him, or that he's alive and they've got him locked up somewhere for questioning."

"Or that he's alive and he got out of Hedgeton." Spirit added. Azusa shook her head.

"The army has the entire city cordoned off. Escape, even for a single man, is unlikely." She adjusted her glasses. "It's far more likely that they found his body and thought he was a civilian who disobeyed the evacuation order and got killed in the crossfire."

"That could very well be the case." Death cupped his chin in his hand. "What about the Eye of Vengeance and the Omni-Resonator? Were they successfully recovered from DEADE's corpse?"

"Both Magic Tools were found. However, the military was unwilling to return them to us."

"What! Why?" Death cried, his first outburst since the debacle had begun. Azusa chose her words carefully.

"They feel we may not have the facilities to properly store the Tools, considering that Victor singlehandedly stole them from the vault."

"Azusa, you know we can't let those Magic Tools fall into hands that would abuse their power. I realize that the government has good intentions, but no army can be trusted with that kind of destructive potential!"

The Demon Bowgun raised a hand to placate the anxious deity. "That is precisely the reason that the Tools are on their way to the IISS."

"The International Institute of Soul Studies?" Death's surprised blink was hidden by his mask, but its eyes smiled just the same. "Very good! The IISS is about as close to neutral ground as we could hope for!" He turned to Spirit with a tone of mock conspiracy. "And we have a very reliable contact in the Institute, don't we Spirit?" His Weapon grew pale, eliciting a hearty chuckle from the Shinigami. "Very good indeed!"

"I had a feeling you'd be satisfied with that compromise." Azusa allowed herself a smirk at Spirit's expense. But any comedy the flustered Death Scythe provided ended in abrupt silence when Stein entered.

Doctor Franken Stein was exhausted. There were bags under his eyes, his clothes and hair were disheveled, and he was even paler than normal. Stubble darkened the shape of his jaw, a bent cigarette hung unlit from his lips. With shoulders stooped and hands buried in the pockets of his lab coat he neared Death, heavy footsteps resounding in the open space. When he reached the foot of the platform next to Sid and Azusa he closed his eyes, let out a long sigh, and was silent.

"Uh… Stein?" Sid bent forward a little to get a look at him. The silence stretched on. "Is he asleep?"

"How unprofessional." Azusa muttered.

"Cut him some slack. He's been awake for what, three days?" The zombie Knife Meister reasoned. "Maybe we should just-"


There was a blur of stitched lab coat and a sharp thwack. The color drained from Spirit's face when he looked down to find a scalpel quivering in the floor just next to his big toe.

"Seventy three hours, twenty four minutes and fourteen seconds, to answer your question Sid. I'll have you know that I was having a very pleasant dream that didn't involve cutting open little girls, or the absurdly monotonous task of clobbering hordes of nearly identical enslaved halfwarg to death." Stein murmured halfway coherently.

Nygus started within the mirror. "How'd you already know they were halfwarg?"

"Because I spent a day doing nothing but spreading mass death by head trauma among their ranks, to be completely frank with you." He sighed, rolling his shoulders and cracking his neck. "They have very distinct cranial geography."

"Jesus Stein, could you be more careful with these friggin scalpels? You almost took my toe off!"

Stein cracked an eye open, brow furrowed in confusion. "I missed?"

Death coughed loudly into his hand. The professor gave Spirit a lazy once over before closing his eyes and pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose.

"Despite having received grievous abdominal injuries, Demon Hoop Meister Kyla Tseung will live." There was an exhale of relief from his audience. "Whether or not she will fight another day remains uncertain."

Sid's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You didn't just turn her into a zombie did you? Because I doubt she could've survived being disemboweled."

"You're skepticism is warranted, but you underestimate Kyla's reflexes. Even if she couldn't completely avoid the attack in her weakened state it meant the difference between a voided abdominal cavity and an opened one." Stein's glasses gleamed eerily. "Of course, that didn't stop her from bleeding half to death by the time the army medics found her. You have them, and the four pints of blood they pumped into her, to thank for her life. All I did was put her back together."

"Humble as always professor." Azusa noted coolly.

He closed his eyes again, fingering the lighter in his pocket while addressing Death. "What happened to the Magic Tools?"

"Well, the military wouldn't let us have them back after we lost them so easily to Victor." The Shinigami crossed his arms and shook his head. "But there was no way we could allow any nation to possess them, so both have been sent to the IISS for study."

"A risky compromise… putting the potential for such discovery in their hands..." Stein's expression darkened. "What if they learn the Tools' secrets? If they discover the true functionality of the soul, can we trust them to use that knowledge for good?"

"Of all people Stein, I never expected such naivety from you." All present were hardened warriors, keepers of secrets, veterans of the Star Clan purge; they'd had more than their fair share of near death experiences. But when Death laughed, eyes smiling, it sent chills up their spines. The masked god turned away from them, clasping his hands behind his back and contemplating the Death Room's horizon.

"I think that once, long ago, there was good and evil. Completely separate, pure and undiluted. Like black and white. But when good and evil met each became muddled, their integrity could not exist outside of a vacuum. And no matter how much each hated the other, despite the vicious fury of undying opposites, they mingled. The line blurred, and soon enough the battle ground of good and evil lost all distinction and became a maelstrom of innumerable contradicting convictions. There were only an unfortunate, perceptive few who noticed the change."

"A place where good and evil ceased to exist…" Azusa murmured pensively. Stein cocked an eyebrow at her.

Shinigami-sama made a noise of sad amusement. "Those who knew, friend and foe alike, did everything in their power restore the old order."

"What did they do?" Spirit asked, leaning forward with genuine interest. "What happened next?"

"No matter how much black or white they added back into the mix all they got were shades of gray."

Sonya was asleep when Kyla finally opened her eyes. With chair pulled close she leaned onto the bed, head buried in crossed arms and hair fanning out against the dull blue of the sheets. Even in her first groggy moments of consciousness Kyla's mind was brimming with questions, first among them how she'd survived Lila's coup de grace, but the rhythm of Sonya's breathing hinted at a peaceful sleep. So her questions could wait. For now she would try to enjoy the change of scenery.

The Dispensary was unfamiliar territory. Other than the mandatory biyearly physicals the Hoop Meister had little reason to set foot in the infamous wing of wounded warriors. Sid's briefing before Alexa's kidnapping in Egypt was the only time she'd been here in recent memory. This was the first occasion where she'd been wounded grievously enough to warrant an extended stay. No, she thought with a note of pride, this was the first time in her career as a Meister that she'd been injured at all. With this in mind it only made sense that this injury should be so severe; it had to make up for all the battles she'd survived unscathed.

It was really her own fault. Lux Hasta was a difficult technique even when you discounted the fact that it was mechanically impossible. Kyla figured it only worked because, somehow, the Weapon and Meister bent the laws of physics through combined force of will. Perhaps that was a cop out, but it helped explain the nasty side effects. A wide variety of post-Soul Resonance reactions had been documented, everything from paranoia to exhaustion, but all she knew for sure was that the body payed for giving thermodynamics the bird. Their teachers weren't much help. Every time a student did something that should've been downright impossible the professors shrugged their shoulders and attributed it to a powerful wavelength. Whatever that meant. It would be a dark day, she reckoned, when someone figured out the science behind all this quantum dickery she called school.

But knowing that they made life and death decisions based on abilities they didn't really understand hadn't really bothered her until now. Because now there was a numb spot, a sensationless plain that stretched from her hips to the bottom of her ribcage. Her lip curled into a half snarl of repulsion at the thought that she had been too slow. Thanks to some earlier lapse of discipline she'd been unfit for battle, she'd made herself a liability for the others. Who knows what could've happened while she was unconscious? Who knew what had happened? Her eyes flitted to Sonya's sleeping form. She needed answers, she so hated being uninformed. Had there been any casualties? How badly damaged was Hedgeton? Did they have to fight the Knight again? Rafael, Raena? Was Lila dead? What about DEADE? Who'd won? What happened to the Magic Tools?

Was that a scar on her tongue?

She stuck a finger between her lips, seeking the ridge of raised flesh she'd just felt against the roof of her mouth. Almost imperceptible but, sure enough, it was there. With the tip of her index finger she traced its length, following its curved path across the top of her tongue. A frown creased her brow when she found an identical mark underneath it. Sonya awoke in the middle of her Meister's oral exploration, blinking sleepily at the strange scene. Their eyes met and she bolted upright with a shout of surprise and joy.

"You're awake!"

Kyla withdrew her finger from her mouth and gave the slick appendage a dull look. "What happened to my tongue?"

"Your tongue?" Sonya's face clouded in confusion before understanding struck her. "Oh, that. You nearly bit it off when Lila hit you. If it wasn't for Kim you probably would've lost it."

"And why was Kim involved with my tongue?" The Hoop Meister asked with a quirked eyebrow. Sonya shrugged.

"Apparently she's a witch with healing magic."

That snotty pinkette had her hand in my mouth? Touching my tongue? Kyla pondered this for a moment. Not bad. "Well, that's new."

The Weapon hummed agreement, and they were quiet for a time while Kyla ordered her thoughts. For the first time since she woke up she examined Sonya's face. The taller girl's eyes were red, from a lack of sleep perhaps? If Sonya had been awake the entire time Kyla slept it wouldn't have surprised the bedridden Meister in the least. Sonya had always been prone to hand wringing, Kyla figured it was a side effect of her compassionate disposition. Roland, the bespectacled swordsman, was lucky to have her. That she was here and not at some other bedside probably meant he was intact. The Spartoi were likely no more worse for wear, they were the most skilled Weapon/Meister teams in the student body after all. It was Isabelle that worried her. In such a chaotic battlefield, who knew what trouble her recklessness had gotten her into? But Sonya was awake now. Kyla would get her answers.

"Sonya..." The Demon Hoop perked up at the sound of her name. "Did we win?"

Her heart sank as Sonya's eyes fell. She clasped her hands in her lap, and uttered a quiet and sincere "I'm not sure."

Not sure? Victory could not be a matter of degrees, they had a mission. They either accomplished it or they didn't. There couldn't be an in between. "Was DEADE destroyed?"


Kyla turned her gaze to the ceiling with an air of finality. "Then we succeeded."

"It's not that simple!" Sonya blurted, distraught. "Do you know how many people it killed? The navy's strike force was completely destroyed! There wasn't a single survivor! Raena's monsters killed more than a hundred people, Hedgeton is in ruins!" She gasped for air, a few tears escaping down her cheeks when she tried to blink them away. "Kyla... Roland's dead."

A blink of surprise. What? The Demon Hoop Meister's jaw tightened as the enormity of their losses began to take shape. How many people served on an aircraft carrier? Hundreds, thousands? What about it's escorts? With Hedgeton in ruins how many more had lost their homes and livelihoods? It was obvious now that they'd been fools to take Death up on his offer to let them accompany the Spartoi. They were only one star Meisters after all. That one of their teammates had been killed highlighted just how out of their depth they had been, that it was Roland only added insult to injury. Poor Sonya. "Damn." She breathed. It really wasn't their fault. They had been tasked with retrieving the Magic Tools, and they had succeeded. It was Death and his higher ups who had failed to protect them from being retaken. As soon as the situation was out of their hands, Kyla thought bitterly, it spiraled out of control. Now Roland and who knew how many other people were dead. She felt now more than ever that they were on their own, that they could only rely on themselves because the people who were supposed to guide them on this dangerous path kept too many secrets and expected them to fight and win half blind. It was too much to ask of children. It was too much to ask of anyone. But they had to ask someone didn't they?

Yes, someone had to bear this burden. Someone had to fight and bleed for the crippled Death God or else the quiet lives they all secretly pined for would be swallowed up by the aimless ruin of witches and nascent Kishin. Roland and the others had been painful but not unacceptable losses. Painful, but not in vain. DEADE had been destroyed and Raena's plans halted. In the end that's what mattered. No matter what you faced with oblivion at your back you went forward, on bloody hands and knees if that's what it took. You triumphed no matter the cost because failure was simply not an option. Lord Death understood that, Kyla knew, because it was the only way of rationalizing any of this sacrifice that made it all right. Kyla suspected that Isabelle knew it too, deep down in that violent part of herself that she was ashamed of. Perhaps Roland had been thinking similar thoughts when he'd met his end.

Her hand twitched as she fought the reflex to feel out the stitches that held her sundered abdomen shut.

It was up to them if they wanted to win and survive. Because as far as Shibusen was concerned survival had to be secondary to victory. Seeing the angst just one death had inflicted on her team, watching Sonya's soul tremble with grief, it struck a chord in the Demon Hoop Meister. She'd have to become stronger, she'd have to be their guide. With discipline of wrought iron she would make the choices that had to be made, the ones they shied from, the ones that blurred the lines they clung to. They would win, they would survive, they would hate her for it and she would embrace it. She would eat their sins. Sonya's spirit wept and it terrified her. They were on their own, caught between forces beyond their control and comprehension. So she would play the game and dirty her hands on their behalf. She would protect them whether they liked it or not. Because no one else would.

Bedridden as she was, Kyla couldn't put off this great effort a moment longer. Sonya seemed confused when her Meister provided her with a long list of reading material she would require to keep occupied during her long recovery, but consented to the errand and left Kyla to her machinations. The Demon Hoop shut the door to the Dispensary behind her with a puzzled look and a sniffle before setting out for the library.

The stubborn rays of a setting sun filtered in through the blinds drawn over the kitchen window, giving an impression of nostalgic warmth to the living room Alexa and Roland had once shared. His books still sat shelved against the wall, their leather spines projecting a quiet aura of subtle sophistication, the words hidden between their covers both commanding in the weight of their art and deferential in their silence. They had been familiar with each other, the swordsman and his books. His palms had grown fond of the texture of their bindings; he'd reveled in the silky feel of inked pages against his fingertips, invisible fingerprints winding across every vicarious introspection and adventure like tracks in fresh snow. Each had an impression of him as much they had left their marks on the malleable mettle of his adolescent psyche. They were heavy with his feeling. Or so they were to Alexa, who eyed them with a potent cocktail of sadness and jealousy. She longed to reach out and touch them, to feel those sacred objects, to know these things and through them know him because she feared she didn't. They'd only lived and worked together for a bare three months, a denomination of time that seemed even shorter in hindsight. It had been a blur of breathless frustration and violence punctuated by a split second of happiness, warm lights and a handful of ukulele strings.

Shuddering with mournful sound Alexa pulled her knees to her chest, curled into a piteous ball at the end of the couch. Three crumpled cans of cheap beer lay scattered on the carpet and a fourth stood open on the coffee table. The Demon Sword's cheeks were flushed from the alcohol, her eyes bleary and bloodshot, head swimming in her reminisces.

Since Death City was a sovereign entity exempt from the laws of the nation that surrounded it the citizens enjoyed a legal drinking age of just sixteen, no doubt as some consolation for the underage fighters who studied at the academy. When Madeline and Alexa had left each other to their mourning purchasing a six pack at the nearby convenience store had been an easy errand. It had been a heat of moment decision; she thought that drowning one's sorrows in booze had a certain rebellious, romantic ring to it. Either way guzzling three cans in quick succession had done nothing to relieve her anxieties and had instead left the Demon Sword with a headache that pounded spitefully at the space just behind her eye sockets.

What would Roland say if he could see her like this? Would he chastise her? What could he scold he for, mourning his death? Being reckless with alcohol? Who was he to call her reckless, childish, to criticize the sloppiness of her sadness when it was his fault in the first place! He died, he'd left her alone again! She snarled and, so infuriating was this thought, suddenly lashed out with her foot and swept the beer can from the table. It collided against the bookcase with a hollow metallic bump before dropping to the floor, a brown stain spreading into the carpet when it settled on its side. Alexa cursed, having forgotten the can was still half full, and lurched forward to set it right side up before the spill could grow. The coffee table didn't register as an obstacle in her inebriated state. Her shin caught the edge and a drunken attempt to avoid falling into the glass table top sent her tumbling into the bookcase, the tall shelves shuddering for a moment before a book slipped from its resting place and fell cover first into the expanding beer puddle.

Alexa groaned, clutching at her head where it'd hit the bookcase, vision swimming. The point of impact was already starting to swell under her fingers and there was a bruise on her leg where she'd hit the edge of the table. She spat a colorful string of curses. After everything that'd happened in the past months she'd forgotten that you could hurt yourself just by being clumsy in your own home. It seemed so trivial, something to be taken for granted. But she'd forgotten. She had lost touch with the simple reality of how people and places worked in everyday life because life for a time had been a fevered dream, a nightmare where everything around her moved just a little too fast, just out of reach, mocking the illusion of control and normalcy she craved. Like a castaway adrift on a turbulent sea she could only watch the fiery spectacle unfold. A spark burgeoning upward, nebulous, unfurling like the wings of a terrible bird. Like the petals of a flower.

The sight of the fallen book spurred the dazed sword back into action. It was time to clean up the mess she'd made. She picked up the scattered cans and the book, dropping the former in the trash and the latter on the counter, before finding a towel and sponge to wrestle the beer from the carpet's fibers. After a couple minutes of scrubbing Alexa relented; the brown stain would remain for the foreseeable future. The motions of half-hearted house cleaning led her back to the counter where Roland's tome waited.

"My Inventions…" Alexa muttered, running her fingers over the beer-slick cover. "The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla." Its outward appearance was not especially unique. An awkward blotch stretched across much of the front cover, discoloring the leather slightly, but beyond that the damage seemed minimal. Still, the Demon Sword felt a feeling of curious nostalgia wash over her as she tested its weight in her hands. He had read this book. He'd held it, much as she did now, poured over its pages and savored its insights. Might she? Alexa lifted a hand to her cheek and realized she was crying.

She knew this book in the same way she knew him. Its cover was familiar, but the print on its face only gave hints to the content that continued to elude her. What did it amount to, knowing a book by its cover? Maybe, no, certainly their relationship had been a sham from the start. They'd hardly had chemistry as Weapon and Meister, hoping for anything beyond that was folly. She tried, hadn't she forgiven him after all? He'd crossed a desert for her sake! She'd forgiven him.

Perhaps it had been some latent clairvoyant ability, some subconscious intuition that their time would be short, that drove her to abandon their quarrel so eagerly. Who was she kidding, she'd threatened him! They had traded blows, what sword turned itself against the hand that wielded it? But he'd come for her. Knowing that he would do such a thing for her had filled her head with fanciful notions. In the end it seemed Alexa had wanted to forgive him and that her rescue had just provided an excuse to do so. God forbid she should just be forthright with him, that they should've communicated like adults instead of pouting like children. How different it might've been. Why had she been angry with him again?

For a time lost in her reflections, the Demon Sword found herself standing on the threshold of Roland's room. She swayed for a moment and leaned against the doorframe. The spot invoked the painful memories of Roland's soulscape and their fight. My Inventions hung dutifully from her hand, offering what comfort it could as she stepped forward to breathe in the space where Roland had slept. It was as subdued and neat as she remembered. When she summoned the courage to climb atop his bed and sit, book cradled in her lap, an overwhelming sense of loneliness settled on her shoulders. That was the root of it all, her confusion and her frustration. All she'd wanted was to get to know him, to enjoy his company and to form a bond that she might reflect on and smile. But distance had found its way between them, first with Sonya and now… this. In the final moments of the fight with Rafael and Marcus he'd let her go. Left her behind and rushed to meet his destiny, just like her sister had two years ago when she learned that she was a Demon Gun. By the time she'd caught up Claire had already become a Death Scythe and was again on her way to bigger and better things while Alexa languished a few steps behind. No matter how she ran to keep pace the people she wanted to hold onto most just kept slipping out from between her fingers. She missed them, for she had lost each in their own way.

A couple of tears fell from her face to leave dark splotches on the book in her lap. It occurred to her that now she too had left her mark, had similar intimate contact with this sacred object of his. And not just this! The feathers in the velvet lined box tucked away in her own room, a gift from him, a gift from his father, she had partaken in their feeling, immersed herself in that unknowable part of him that hid behind the print on the cover. With a barest flick of her wrist a slightly yellowed page came into view.

One: My Early Life

Her pulse quickened. Yes, he had treaded here. His eyes had surveyed these very same words. Their paths intersected and in their meeting gave definition to both, for though his had ended hers still stretched into the unknown. With countless tracks sharing only a final destination losing sight of the other runners was inevitable. It wasn't a problem of keeping up or getting ahead, this was no race after all. She couldn't let running after someone else give meaning to the marathon. All that mattered was that she ran. The prospect was at once intriguing and frightening. Liberating.

The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention…

She would never forgive him for leaving her like this. But Alexa would take Roland's final words to heart and run a solitary path to a destination of her design. For now she would mourn, but soon she would cloister his words within herself and move would be proud, she would hold her head high among storm clouds and bend lightning over her knee. She would leave a scorch mark all her own on the face of the earth.

Hedgeton still smoldered from DEADE's passing. Acrid smoke hung low over the shattered skyline, shrouding the twisted cityscape. Occasionally a cold wind would roll in from the Pacific and upset the gaseous screen, revealing scenes of hazmat clad figures clambering through rubble strewn streets to the ocean birds overhead. Seagulls drawn by the scent of carrion mirrored the orbits of the unmanned aircraft whose electronic eyes swept the ruins in spectrums invisible to human eyes. The eddying smoke and heat left a surreal, lucid imprint on the thermal imagers, but all but a few of their operators were too engrossed in their duties to appreciate the morbid beauty of the scene. They were watching for trouble, casting a blanket of security over the body counters as they went about their own bloody work. The air was spattered with circling slivers of white, guardian angels touching wingtips with corpse eaters. But the Pacific stretched out to the west, the mountains and forests faded into the east, the sky swallowed the land and sea both, and Hedgeton seemed little more than a smoky smudge lost against an infinite of blue and green. This charred patch of ground was little more than a fistful of pixels when viewed from high orbit.

But a city did not burn without assaulting all of the senses. The taste of soot on your tongue, a layer of sweat and ash pressing against your skin, heartbeat thundering in your ears as sirens wailed their battle cries at the flames. And the smell! DEADE's remains were yet to be relocated so the immense viscera had been left to bake in the sun ever since Prometheus had ripped the arcane titan open during their final clash. Gusts from the sea cast the stench inland, making residents downwind anxious as the scent of distant rot encroached on their homes. The fence erected around the ruined city was for repelling frenzied scavengers as much as it was for keeping out nosy reporters who snapped pictures from beyond the cordon.

At the crest of a hill to the west, slumped against a tall evergreen, was Raena. Her voluminous and bloodstained robe was splayed about her, her beaked hat pulled down over her eyes. To a passerby she might've seemed asleep. Or dead. But she wasn't dead, not yet. Her chest rose and fell imperceptibly; the tear in her diaphragm made breathing almost unbearable. The only reason she could breathe at all was because the pressure differential between her chest and abdominal cavities had plugged the hole with some of her lacerated organs. A painful temporary fix. Victor had all but bisected her, so death by blood loss was inevitable anyway. She'd lost feeling in her extremities some time ago, many minutes perhaps; her perception of time had been warped once she'd gone into shock. Well, that wasn't quite true. Everything below her waist had been devoid of sensation since she'd reassembled herself from her scattered raven avatars. Ideally she would've found a suitable body to possess but the military had been thorough when they'd evacuated the city. The only people left were the soldiers, and it would be too difficult to take any of them without rousing suspicion. All she could do was find a secluded spot to regroup and consider her remaining options.

She didn't have the means to mend her wounds. She couldn't call for help. She couldn't even move. Here, slumped underneath a tree on a hill overlooking Hedgeton's scorched ruins, assaulted by the stench of her failure, she would die.

It burned her to think that she had come so close. Even contaminated with Medusa's Black Blood and handicapped with an incomplete bond to the Eye of Vengeance DEADE had displayed such power! Under the unyielding boot of inescapable death it had struggled, almost human in its drive to exist against all odds. This place, this travesty of concrete, this mass of humanity, had become a monument to DEADE's genesis. A thousand years from now this place would live on in whispers. Because a god had been born here, in this great scar. Here it had breathed its first and last.

If only Victor hadn't betrayed them, DEADE would've been perfect. Unstained by fear, guided by mechanical precision, an engine unrivaled by any man or machine that had come before it. The Black Blood had undone them, blunted the construct's logic with fear. Why didn't it just vaporize the golem as soon as it recognized the threat? She knew it could've, she'd seen it wipe four war ships off the face of the Pacific without a moment's hesitation. It could glass miles of waterfront at the slightest provocation. But as soon as it met an enemy its own size the strategy of crushing retaliation was forgotten. A machine undone by the simple irrationality of fear, it should've been impossible. All it had taken was a syringe of liquid Madness, an application of pressure in just the right place, to doom DEADE to failure.

For what? To thwart her plan and preserve Shibusen? To turn DEADE down the path of a Kishin? To what end had Victor betrayed her? With the construct already on the verge of godhood, why did it need any more power? The Knight's words echoed within the confines of her skull.

It will become more than a god. Nothing will be able to stand against it, not Death, not Asura. Not even the Trinity.

With darkness creeping at the edges of her vision the dying witch let out a troubled murmur. Had Victor been on Death's side all along, did he intend to use the construct as some sort of Shibusen super-weapon for killing deities? She had to admit that DEADE would've been ideal for combatting the Kishin Asura, even the combined might of the Trinity might falter before the Doom Engine. But Death and his eight warlords had destroyed the Trinity during the Second War with the Forest. Could it be that Victor sought to instigate a Third War with the Forest before the Trinity could recover from their reincarnation?

No matter which way she looked at it, no matter how mysterious Victor's motives remained, DEADE's failure was a dark omen. With Arachne dead and her organization shattered, Medusa rogue and trying to create a Kishin out of her abominable child, her people were more vulnerable than ever, and her own unsuccessful effort to destroy Shibusen would only draw unwanted attention to their endangered and scorned race. Her sisters would brand her a traitor and heretic like the two elder Gorgon sisters.

At least this way, she reasoned, her soul wouldn't be used to create a Death Scythe. But it was a shameful, meaningless end. She had nothing to show for this slow gruesome death, this failure. Even the blasted ruins of Hedgeton would be rebuilt. DEADE's remains would persevere for some time, sequestered in some nameless vault, hidden. Raena's bid to save her people would be little more than another tragic footnote in a nation's history. In the end all that sacrifice had been for nothing. No matter how infuriating it was, no matter how her soul rattled the cage her body had become; she couldn't give meaning to the carnage. It burned her. She was dying.

Two figures loomed over her, casting shadows on the broken frame of the Raven Witch. In her half-conscious musings she hadn't noticed their approach. Raena glared up at the pair, filling her gaze with empty threats, trying to drive them off with a look. She wanted to enjoy some solitude before death took her.

The first stood tall, far too tall to be a man, draped in course, filth caked cloths that hid their features from view. With it came the stench of a dozen pestilent things, at this distance overpowering even the smell of DEADE's distant viscera. But it was what accompanied the creature that raised hairs on the back of her neck in apprehension. A child with a shock of stark white hair, a boy no older than ten, clutched at the robes of his tall guardian. He examined her with curious silver eyes, the likes of which Raena had never before seen. Those chromatic orbs seemed to pierce her very breast with their intensity, as if he examined not her broken exterior but her spirit, her soul, the very content of her character. It was unnerving. As Raena bled and darkness swallowed her the tall one spoke, words raspy, rattling like the wind through dry branches.

"Is this the end?"

A/N: I feel kind of silly posting this after so long, considering at the end of the last chapter I specifically said it wasn't gonna take four or five months to write this one, and it sort of ended up taking that long anyway. I don't really have much excuse, other then college starting and this chapter being the longest I've written by far. Hopefully I still have some readers left . Any way, this is the last chapter of Shades of Gray, and I'd really like to know what you guys thought not only of this chapter, but of the story as a whole. And please, don't hold back any constructive criticism you may have. I'm really gonna appreciate any feedback you folks have for me, cause it's just gonna help make the next arc that much better.

A thousand humble thanks to everyone whose reviewed since the last update, especially Aldous Dragon, whose critiques have already proved helpful. Now, I might post a stinger in a week or two, but don't expect the second arc to be up for some time. This is mainly because this time around I'm gonna actually write several of the chapters before I start releasing them so I can have a more consistent release schedule, as opposed to writing one and releasing it and then starting on writing the next one (an amateur mistake on my part. I gun doofed).

Thanks again to all my readers!