10,203 A.A.-Summer Solstice
The spirit jerks awake from the doze she had fallen in. Kirikou comes running up to her from the forest he and the nature spirits dwell in. She stands, easily reading the look on his face. "They're on the move, aren't they?" She gets to her feet as Kirikou comes to a halt in front of her. "Medusa and Arachne."
He nods, panting. "Asura is with them." He straightens, gloves clinking from where they hang around his waist. "Mifune spotted them first. It looks like they're marching to the plains by Hai-Riyo Peak."
"You sent the twins to alert the others?" she asks.
"They're going to stay with Mabaa's clan when they're done," he says, nodding again. "They're too young to be fighting."
"I agree. We'll wait for the spirits to gather here." Azusa straightens her glasses, setting her eyes on the distant mountain peak shrouded in fog. "Then we march."
The soft whisper of the river flowing downstream settles soothingly in Kid's ears and lulls him into a calm he hasn't felt for weeks. He sits cross-legged and breathes in and out, falling deeper into that sense of peace that comes over him when he meditates.
It scatters when Liz grabs his arm and forces him down.
He splutters as he tastes dirt, attempting to lift his head only for Liz to force him back down. Twisting his head so he can breathe, he spits out, "What is the meaning of this?"
"I'm sorry but they're doing it again," she yells as a wave of heat comes over Kid, the sizzle of fire right above them. "And with the newbie this time."
From a distance, Patti calls out, "Sorry, guys!"
Liz releases her grip on Kid's neck and he sits up to find Soul standing in front of them, breathing heavily. "Sorry," he says into between shallow breaths. "I wanted to try the move Kim was doing earlier and I think I overshot it."
"Think?" Black Star says as he and Tsubaki join them. He claps Soul on the shoulder and laughs. "If it wasn't for Liz, you would have blown him off the earth."
Tsubaki smacks his arm lightly. "Don't exaggerate."
"That's exactly what the blowtorch is supposed to do," Kim says, sauntering up with Jackie and Maka. "With the help of a airbender, a firebender can hit any target, no matter how far away." A wicked amusement lights her smile as she surveys Kid on the ground. "Haven't I always told you to be on your guard?"
"Hey Soul!" Black Star grabs the firebender by the arm, prompting an indignant screech from where Oni perches on his shoulder. "How about this time you set a rock on fire and we see how far me and Patti can launch it?"
"If you could do it that when our lives aren't in danger and away from anything flammable, that'd be great," Maka comments as she sweeps a wave of water from the river, putting out the small fires that had broken out around them.
"Well, what else are we going to do cooped up here?"
The conversation springing up around him becomes a dull buzz in Kid's ears. He detaches from the group and paces along the riverbank, his eyes trailing up to the sky again, where the sun is slowly climbing higher and higher to its zenith. His heart hammers, any remaining calm dissolving.
Patti plunks down beside him. "You're thinking too much."
"It's hard not to," he murmurs. "It's all I can do, in this situation." He pauses. "In every situation."
"That's a lie, you've done plenty." She tugs on the sleeve of his shirt. "Come on, come join us." she offers, pointing to where the others had gone. "It's almost lunch time."
He forces a smile. "Thanks, Patti, but until this is over, I don't think I'm good company for anyone right now."
Patti studies him with an inscrutable look on her face, looking very unlike her open and cheerful self. Then, she shrugs. "Good enough for me." She points to a cloud overhead. "Doesn't that one look like a giraffe?"
"What's a giraffe?"
"You've never heard of them before?" Patti exclaims. "Liz and I saw them in a zoo once. Here I'll draw one for you." She grabs a stick and begins to etch in the soft dirt of the riverbank, rapidly explaining as she draws.
Kid watches her as she furrows her brow in heavy concentration, intent on her creation.
"After all of this is over, we should go to the zoo together." Patti lets the stick fall to the side and points to the long-necked creature she drew, tilting her head thoughtfully. "I don't think it'll get better than this." She looks to Kid. "We'll see them together one day, okay?"
He smiles, feeling something ease in his chest. "Sounds like a plan."
A messenger calls them back to where they're stationed just inside the forest just before the sun reaches its peak. They come back to the camp to find it disassembled, Marie and Stein standing at the head of a group of soldiers. In his hands, Stein holds his trademark weapon, a black scythe that according to him was supposedly crafted when the earth first came into being; the twenty or so soldiers with him look nervous, scared even.
Kid notices the masked strain on his face. "What happened?"
"Nothing," Stein replies, glasses flashing in the harsh sunlight. He tightens his grip on the scythe. "At least nothing we can say, for sure."
"What can you say for sure?" Black Star demands.
"Some of the scouting groups that went out haven't come back yet," Marie answers. The way she adjusts her eye patch with twitching fingers betrays the false calm in her voice. "Which isn't necessarily bad news but staying any longer in this area might not be wise."
With that, they head deeper into the forest, chains grouped in the middle. While Stein moves to the front of the group. Marie stays with them. She gives them what Kid assumes is a reassuring smile. "How are you holding up?"
"Marvelously," Soul answers. He yelps when Maka gives him a swift chop on the head.
"I know this is something none of you asked to be part of but all of you are doing extremely well." Her smile fades. "Trust me when I say that we're doing everything to make sure we get through today in one piece."
On Kid's left, Tsubaki says, "Speaking of which, this wouldn't be a good place to be in if we had to fight."
"We're not looking for a fight today." Marie pushes back her hair. "The Order significantly outpowers us, if not in numbers then certainly in technology. Staying in this forest would force them to spread out so it's our best defense."
Kid speaks up. "And the soldiers that have gone missing?"
Ducking under a tree branch, Marie says, "We don't know if they've met with trouble or if they got lost." She gives a small laugh. "If I was with them, the latter would probably be the case. But Joe is leading them so it's probably nothing to be worried about."
"And when should we start to worry?" Maka asks.
"Now." Giriko's voice comes from one of the trees the chains are passing under as several small bombs go off.
Chaos ensues as people run to escape the smothering blanket of smoke the bombs let off. Kid attempts to flick the smoke away with wind but it's to no avail as more and more bombs are detonated by escaping members of the group. The subsequent shockwaves caused by the bombs cause him to backtrack, eyes stinging as he runs. Shielding his face with his hands, he feels a soft thump as he runs headfirst into someone, nearly falling backwards.
Marie steadies him, grime all over her face. "Are you hurt?" she yells over the uproar.
He shakes his head. "I'm fine."
"Good!" She pushes him away from the sounds of the fighting. "I've already sent Soul and Maka back to the river and I'm on my way to find Black Star. You go there too, find somewhere to hole up and stay safe."
"No, I want to help!" he shouts, fighting to be heard over the din. "You need every bender you can get."
"This is helping," Marie yells back. "It's too dangerous to be here, you could get caught too easily." She shoves him forward. "There's no more time for arguments, go now!"
An arm grab him from either side. "We've got him," Liz yells. Her clothes are singed as are Patti's and there is a nasty bruise forming on her cheek. "We'll keep him safe."
Marie looks from her to Patti on Kid's other side and nods. "Keep yourselves safe too," she calls as she turns back, hitching up her sleeves. A spark of white-blue lightning dances between her hands as her figure is rapidly swallowed up by the smoke.
Patti and Liz move Kid at an unforgiving pace. He doesn't protest but Liz reads his mood. "There was nothing else that you could do."
He stares down at the ground. "I have heard that too many times."
"Don't be-" She grips his arm suddenly. "Do you hear that?"
The sound of the bombs exploding has left Kid's ears ringing but even he can make out what has Liz suddenly on edge. The ravaged spirits' screams from when the three first met Black Star and Tsubaki mixed in with a group of golems' plodding footsteps grow in volume, echoing through the forest.
"Not these damn things again." Black Star appears out of nowhere, Tsubaki at his side. He looks at the three. "Where's everyone else?"
"Marie sent them this way," Kid answers. "By the river, most likely."
Patti tugs on Kid. "Let's keep moving." The five adjust their path according to the sounds of the spirits and golems, winding a different path when they get too close for comfort.
Strangely as they retreat, Kid gets a nagging feeling that they're being watched but no matter where he looks, he can see nothing out of place. Maka's voice greets them when they make it out of the forest. "Over here!"
She and Soul stand by a formation of four large boulders grouped at the edge of the river, which curves as it angles to the ocean. Both of them are covered in dust from the debris and have a few scrapes and bruises but look no worse than the rest of them.
Kid's sense of uneasiness increases in intensity as they join the pair, eating away at him. He glances around himself as the rest of the group swap stories-there is something off about the space around them. "Did you two see anything unusual on your way here?" he asks, interrupting Black Star.
Maka shakes her head while Soul replies, "Nothing we can see." He looks at Oni, who hasn't stopped hissing in the time that Kid and the others joined them. "He's been on edge, though."
Kid follows the dragon's gaze, which is rooted on a point above their heads. Nothing seems amiss but then he catches something catching the light. He frowns. "Do you see that?" The others look up as a red flare lights up far away, above the forest.
A feeling of being dunked in icy water envelopes Kid as luminescent green walls with bizarre symbols etched upon them spring up and seal around the group. Both Black Star and Maka cry out at the same moment and he joins them as the air clears. "Beelzebub!" He rushes to where the stirring air bison lays on the ground, scanning him for wounds. Other than looking extremely dazed, he seems fine, giving Kid a lick.
"I do believe this is where we part ways." Mosquito's voice sounds far off as he stands on top of the box they're trapped in, the sun above him reaching its peak. "Goodbye."
The symbols on the cube glow white and a strange sensation comes over Kid, as if he is being forced through a space much too small for him. His breath is squeezed from his lungs, a blinding light encompassing him until it invades every fiber of his being. When he thinks he can't possibly endure anymore, the light extinguishes itself.
The first thing he notices, hunched into the ground, is the smell. The air is different than the sea breeze on Ember Island; it's like the earth after a heavy rainfall, underscored by the heady scent of wild flora. He raises his head and forces his eyes open-he and the others are no longer by the river but somewhere else entirely. The grasses of the plain stretching out in front of him sway in time with a breeze, a mountain rising high into the sky in the distance.
Kid has never been here before but an ancient part of him recognizes the spirit world.
He feels someone brush his hand. "Look." Patti is on her feet, pointing.
Save for the scarves no longer wrapped around his neck, the figure standing across the field looks the same as he did in mural at the Fire temple. Two spirits are at their side, rows of large and grotesque snakes and spiders behind them.
Asura grins. "Welcome."
Free lets his arms drop to his waist. He nearly glances down at Mosquito before remembering his recent transformation. "That will only last until the end of midday," he warns.
Mosquito is unruffled. "It will be enough."
"Good." Free wrings his hands nervously and speaks before he could lose his nerve. "So does that mean I'm done now?"
"Yes, yes." Mosquito waves his hand, turning away. "You can tell Eruka she's done too. Of course, know you may be called back once Asura returns."
"Understood," Free says as he jumps off the box and running into the forest. He has no plans to answer that call ever.
He finds Eruka in the spot they agreed to meet. She lets out a loud ribbit when she sees him. "Well?"
"We're out of here," he calls. "Where do you want to go?"
She grins. "Anywhere but here."
Stein demolishes the screeching spirit in front of him with an almost lazy swing of his scythe. Beside him, Marie uses her lightning to shoot the spirits with frightening precision, halting them long enough for Stein to take care of them. "They keep on multiplying," she huffs. Sweat runs down the sides of her face. "They're going to outnumber us eventually."
He scans the area behind him and whistles once and is immediately answered back by his soldiers with whistles of their own. He glances to Marie. "Stay close, I'm cutting us a path out of here." He rounds up the soldiers one by one, guiding them out of the forest via the path of least resistance. A blinding beam of light flares into the sky as they finally exit the forest.
Murmurs of wonder and panic burst from the soldiers; Sid comes up next to Stein, dread in his voice. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Yes," he says. He wipes the blade of his scythe clean and looks to what remains of his soldiers. "We need to get over there now." Despite looking on the verge of collapse, they rapidly set themselves in formation and follow Stein as they head in the direction of the light, taking care to skirt the forest.
They are just over the halfway mark when a tree groans and comes crashing down in front of them. "Sorry," Giriko says, emerging from the forest. At least fifteen full-sized golems follow him out; they tower nearly as tall as the trees. "I meant to kill you."
"We can take care of him," Marie says, Kim and Jackie stepping forward. She gestures to Stein and the rest. "You go ahead."
"I'm afraid that won't be able to happen." Mosquito steps from the forest as well and joins Giriko. "We've worked too hard to fail now." His eyes glow red and his face begins bubble, nose elongating.
Marie sinks into position. "Go now," she says sharply.
Instead, Stein takes his place beside her. He readies his scythe. "I wouldn't be able to help over there anyways."
Marie sighs but doesn't protest, the tips of fingers crackling as she summons up lightning. "You stubborn fool."
As the ability to feel more than the burning light the portal blazed into her skin returns to her, Maka becomes aware of Soul's arm wrapped tight around her, holding her up. "You okay?" he asks.
"Yeah." She takes slow and deep breaths as the light fades from her eyes and dares to open them. An iron gray peak looms in front of her, the sky beyond it varying hues of blue and purple. The plains they stand in are covered with golden-orange grasses that reach her knees. She relaxes her grasp on Blair, who growls with her fangs bared. "What is it?"
Soul nudges her shoulder. "Ahead of you."
Her mouth runs dry as she takes in the army of monsters standing in front of them. "That's-"
"Asura," Black Star says from behind them.
She gazes intently at the former Avatar before looking at two spirits standing next to him. From what she read in the Northern Water Tribe's library, she identifies them as Medusa and Arachne Gorgon, well-known spirits of chaos.
"There is no need to be alarmed." Arachne speaks. The elegant black dress she wears billows around her, resembling a spider web. "Neither Medusa or I will attack if you hand over the Avatar now." She gestures to the portal behind their army, a glowing sphere of light. "And you will be free to go."
The group closes ranks in response.
"Arachne, ever the lady in these situations," Medusa says sweetly. She stands in contrast with her sister, all sharp angles, shrewd eyes and a smile that stretches too widely. "However, sometimes things can't be handled with words alone." She snaps her fingers and a bellow like thunder rings out from the mountain.
A dragon spirit sweeps down from the peak, nothing more than a blur. The ground trembles as it touches down with an ear-splitting roar. Maka gapes at the dragon's size, at least forty feet long. Its tail are studded with deadly spikes and whips back and forth, pitch black scales shining dully in the light.
But what terrifies her is the frenzied look in the dragon's face, eyes pulsating from a vivid pink to black and back again.
"Crona here has just decided to take up a proper dragon's diet," Medusa says. "And they are very hungry."
"Quite the flair for theatrics," an unfamiliar voice comments. Both groups' attention shift to the eastern side of the plains where a large group of spirits stands at the edge, a spirit with glasses leading them.
"Azusa, I was wondering when you would show up." Medusa smiles, exchanging a look with Arachne. "You really shouldn't have." The tattoos on her body ripple like the snakes behind her. She thrusts her hands outward and the arrows fly like bolts of lightning.
Azusa steps to the side, neatly dodging the arrow Medusa hurls at her. She produces two blades that pulsate with a strange light. "Is that truly the best you can do?"
The spirit smirks. "Oh, I can do much better than that."
Crona's growl pulls Maka's attention from the burgeoning fight. Both the spiders and snakes surge forth in a wave and Crona flies up into the sky, circling the plains. "They're coming!"
The spirits from Azusa's group rush to meet the approaching creatures. Black Star is the first of their group to join them, running into the fight with a battle cry. Tsubaki follows him, unleashing her chain scythes while Shadow burrows underground and Beelzebub hovers above the ground. Kid, however, hurtles not to the hordes of snakes and spiders but to Asura. Liz and Patti start to follow him but he throws up a hand to wave them off. "No, this is my fight!"
"A little help over here would be nice," Tsubaki calls, swinging her scythes as four snakes attack her.
Patti looks at her sister, hesitating; Liz takes a deep breath before hopping onto Beelzebub, grabbing his reins. "Come on, sis."
Beside Maka, Soul takes Oni from his perch on his shoulder and puts him on Blair. "Take care of him, okay?"
Blair looks at Maka anxiously, who nods. "Go on. Be careful." The polar lion hesitates for a moment before bounding away. She watches them go before moving toward the fray.
"Wait." Soul touches her arm. He starts to speak but then stops, pulling back his hand. "We watch each other's back, okay?"
"Of course," she replies, surprised. "How else would it be?"
They stay close as they move forward; Maka lifts her hands up in a pulling motion, the grasses underneath her dying as the water in them floats in the air. She re-shapes the water into her scythe, its cold dulled by her gloves.
The battlefield ahead of them is obscured by a peculiar vapor the snakes let off-it refuses to dissipate even with Liz, Patti and Beelzebub blasting waves of air at it in unison. Unlike her sister, Arachne stays out of the battle, watching from the sidelines with a pleased smile on her face.
Maka loses sight of them as she and Soul enter the vapor. It makes her eyes water as she watches on the right, swiping at anything that moves in the grasses, while Soul lashes out on the left with small whips of fire. Her eyes widen as a snake takes her by surprise, lunging at her with an angry hiss. The blade of her scythe embeds itself in its open mouth, its arrow-shaped tongue inches from her face before it goes limp. She pulls her scythe free with a grunt. "These things are creepy."
"And gross," Soul says as he sets fire to a spider, the bodies of the beasts scattered on the ground. "There's guts everywhere."
"That's the least of your problems," a spirit wearing boxing gloves calls out, sending several spiders flying with rays of lightning. "Watch out for the spiderwebs, they're acidic!"
"Perfect." Soul sends a fireball at a few spiderwebs that come flying their way.
"Keep focused," Maka says through gritted teeth as she disposes of two more snakes, her scythe whipping back and forth. She has to be careful now that they're in the thick of the battle, just as likely to hit one of the snakes or spiders as she is to hit one of their spirit allies.
Soul rubs his arms after they work their way through a huge knot of snakes and spiders. "If these snakes were poisonous, I'd be dead already." They're peppered with puncture wounds. "How are you holding up?"
"Still alive," she replies. Maka inhales deeply, scythe resting at her side. Sweat drips down her back and face; her arms and neck burn from where stray webs struck her and she can feel blood sliding down her arm where a snake got a hold of her. The only good news is that vapor seems to finally be clearing up as more of the snakes are killed. S
She looks around, finally able to get a good look of how everyone else is faring. She's relieved to see the number of spiders and snakes dwindling. On the far side of the battleground fights the spirits, Black Star, Tsubaki and Shadow against the surviving creatures; Patti and Liz fight from the air on Beelzebub, coming to the aid of struggling spirits while Azusa and Medusa are still locked in their fight.
Neither Asura and Kid are nowhere to be seen.
"Is that it?" Black Star yells as he kills the last spider in his area with a column of earth, sounding almost crestfallen. "I was expecting better."
"What have you done?" Arachne's voice is barely a whisper but it carries across to Maka and the others. Her hands dangle at her sides as she surveys the trodden bodies of the spiders before her. "What have you done to my children?" Her dress undulates and the tendrils of it elongate to look like spider legs and she turns. "You will die for this."
Black webs shoot out from them, catching a few unlucky spirits. The web wrap around Maka's ankles before she can move. She cuts at them but the blade of her scythe sticks to the web, yanking it out of her grip. She lets out a yelp as she trips forward, Soul's hand steadying her before she falls.
"Here!" Red-orange fire glows blue as it melts away the webs. Together they retreat from the encroaching webs, Soul keeping them at bay with a fire whip.
"Hold on!" To their left, Black Star carves the patch of ground he and a few others are standing on, pulling his arms up to yank the earth into the air. "The only one dying here today is you," he hollers, propelling the ground forward; the earth shoots at a dangerous speed to Arachne but the spirit blocks with a giant web, forcing Black Star and the others to jump off at the last second.
At Medusa's voice, Maka's eyes snaps to the sky. She watches in horror as the dragon climbs higher in the sky and turns around, pausing mid-air. "Out of the way," she says as Crona launches their body at the ground. She grabs Soul's hand. "Move!"
The dragons slams into the earth with a resounding boom. Maka lets out a cry as the resulting shockwave sends her flying, feeling Soul's hand get ripped from hers as she sails through the air.
She lands hard on the ground face down, stars exploding in her vision; darkness threatens to pull her into unconsciousness but she balls her hands into fists, sucking in a breath and rolling over on her back before she can think about it. Tears prick at her eyes as she forces them open.
The world, however, stays dark. Panic springs in Maka's chest before she spies two eyes, vivid pink, staring at her. She freezes as she tries to sit up, Crona regarding her with curiosity. They are looking not quite at her but at something just beside her head, the wild look in their eyes dimming. Slowly, she feels beside her, coming up with nothing but her ponytail.
She licks her lips. "You like my hair?"
Crona flinches when she talks, almost as if they is afraid of her.
Maka sits up, speaking soothingly. "You're not bad, are you?" she says, gaze sliding to the scars on their forelimbs. "You're not bad at all." She pushes herself to her feet, rising in starts and stops.
The dragon lets out a low whimper.
"That's right," she says, easing forward. "You're just scared, aren't you?" She places a hand on one of Crona's claws. They draw back instantly, roaring as if she had burned them.
She backpedals as fast as she can; when the dragon looks at her again, their eyes are black.
"Maka!" Soul diverts the jetstream of dark fire Crona exhales. He grunts in pain when one of the flames grazes his hands but doesn't pull away. "Go!"
She does run but only to find grasses that weren't burned by Crona, bending out the water to make another scythe. She sprints back to see Soul bending a blast of fire at Crona, succeeding in halting the dragon's firebreath. He sprints away and veers to her when he spots her. "I told you to run!"
"And we promised to look out for each other," she yells back, hearing Crona's footsteps crashing behind them as the dragon comes after them. She feels a stitch prick in her side as they run-they're nearly at the edge of the plains, far enough that none of the other fighting reaches them.
They turn back at the same time, Soul spraying fire at Crona while she hurls ice shards at Crona's neck. Both do nothing to stop Crona, instead making the dragon even more enraged. As they open their mouth to breathe fire again, an idea comes to her. "What are you doing?" Soul cries out as Maka makes a sharp turnabout, dodging Crona's flames.
"If I could get enough ice down Crona's throat, it should be enough to put out their internal flame," she calls, flinging out her arms and reaching as far she could with her bending. Water flies to her and encompasses her body. She pauses outside of the range of Crona's flame, waiting for the dragon to stop rampaging.
Soul plants himself in front of her. "You can't," he says firmly, "You'll get burned to a crisp."
"It's not like we have any other options." Maka doesn't back away, pushing her face close to his. "Are you with me or not?"
He matches her glare with narrowed eyes before he relents. "Why do you ask?" he sighs. "You know I am."
"Good," she says as Crona's flame begins to taper off. Maka waves her scythe at the dragon. "Over here!" Crona spots her instantly, making a beeline for the two. As they open their mouth wide, Maka throws one arm forward, water solidifying into ice as it reaches the dragon's mouth. Crona lets out a scream of pain as they swallow the ice, tail thrashing back and forth.
"Cover me!" Maka dashes to the other side of them while Soul shoots spurts of flame at Crona's eyes, distracting them as she repositions herself. "Now!" she calls.
Letting the fire die, Soul sprints to Maka as Crona shakes their head vigorously. They catch sight of Maka again, bellowing loudly. However, instead of breathing fire, the dragon swings their tail at her, razor sharp spikes whistling through the air. She blocks with a water shield just in time, deflecting the brunt of the blow and slamming her scythe in the ground to propel herself away from Crona. "Soul?" she yells.
"Here!" His voice comes from somewhere on the other side of Crona. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she shouts. Maka looks into Crona's furious eyes. "For now."
The dragon continues to attack with their tail, clearly having learned better from Maka's previous attack. Her arms shake as she parries blow after blow with her shield. She can hear Soul trying to lure Crona away from her but the dragon refuses to be distracted. She lands on her feet after dodging a particularly close encounter with the spikes, pausing for breath just a second too long. Crona's tail shatters not only her shield but her scythe as well, the pieces evaporating into the air.
Maka staggers back in a daze. No water at hand and head ringing, all she can do is watch as Crona's tail swings toward her.
Something crashes into her with the force of a mountain, knocking her out of the way.
She doesn't make any attempt to get up from where she lands on the ground, unwilling for Crona's eyes to be the last thing she sees as they finish her off. But as the moments tick by and Maka still hasn't died, she raises her head. The dragon is only feet away from her but they ignore her, whining mournfully and pawing at their tail, which is shiny with something slick and red.
She looks down at herself, breaths turning rapid and shallow as she finds no blood on herself. "Soul," she calls, pushing herself to her feet. She stumbles as she spins around. A prone figure lies on the ground. Her heart leaps into her throat. "Soul!"
It feels like it takes an eternity for Maka to reach him. She falls to her knees and rolls him over, a tiny moan escaping from her when she sees the cut slicing open his chest. Where she finds the water from, she doesn't know but what she does know is that despite her healing, despite the wound sealing up, Soul doesn't move. She keeps working, paying no mind to his lifeless eyes, and doesn't stop even when she runs out of water, pressing her hands against his chest as if she can force him back to life.
"Why?" She runs her bloodstained gloves through her hair, tears streaming down her face as she pulls him close to her. "Why?" She is uncaring as she feels a shadow looming over and she waits for Crona's tail to descend upon her.
The shadow speaks. "Maka."
She lifts her head. A wizened spirit stands in front of her, Crona nowhere to be seen. All of its features are swallowed up by the black robe and cloak it wears, held together by silver pins. It adjusts the white pointed hat on its head. She hunches over Soul protectively, glaring at the spirit. "How do you know who I am?"
The spirit doesn't answer, instead saying, "Push and...pull. Life and death..." The spirit talks in a gravelly voice as if speaking physically drained them. "Neither can exist...without the other...understand?"
Maka blinks, breath catching in her throat. Then she nods slowly.
The spirit raises its hands and they begin to glow. "Do you know what you have to give up to save a life?"
Maka looks to Soul and then at her hands. "Yes."
"Are you willing to do that?"
She pulls off Soul's gloves and drops them on his hands, the only thing she can offer him. Maka looks at his face one last time.
"Did I get her?" Black Star asks as he wipes of the last of the webs from his eyes. The burns on his face sting badly but he can still see, having shut his eyes just before the spider silk had hit him in the face.
"Yes," Tsubaki replies as the boulder Arachne was buried under begins to disintegrate. "But I don't think that matters."
"Geez, how many lives does she have?" Liz complains from where she and Patti bend on Beelzebub's back. "She's a spider spirit, not a cat."
A roar from the dragon interrupts what Black Star was about to answer.
"That doesn't sound good," Patti says worriedly. Liz reaches for Beelzebub's reins. "We're going to check what's going on."
She and Patti fly off as the rest of the boulder crumbles. Amazingly, not a hair is out of place as Arachne emerges, only breathing slightly heavier than before. A web from her dress pushes her away from the blast. "I must say," she comments, having regained her composure. "I expected better from you." She addresses Tsubaki. "Especially you. Your brother had such a splendidly depraved soul." She smiles. "Such a lovely scent of madness around him. I would have thought you would have taken after him." Her mouth opens in the daintiest of yawns. "But you're boring."
Tsubaki stops Black Star. Her grip on her scythes are loose but she doesn't move away as more webs creep in her direction. "I can handle this." Her voice is steely and holds no room for argument.
Black Star heeds her words, falling back.
However, when the webs reach her boots and she still hasn't moved, he gets nervous and begins to move forward. A swords pops in front of him. "Hold back, kid."
He looks up angrily but he stops when he recognizes the long-haired spirit. "I know you!"
"Mifune, warrior spirit," the spirit introduces himself. "You were the first human to visit my shrine in a long time." He gestures around himself. "Other than this, our sparring match was the best fighting practice I had in ages."
He smirks before realizing it's become too quiet. He glances about himself. Medusa has vanished and Azusa is doubled over, supported up by a spirit. Asura nor Kid are visible on the plains. "Where did everyone go?"
"Crona left once they saw Mabaa and Medusa followed," the spirit answers. "This battle is coming to an end."
He is sidetracked by Tsubaki's cry as one of Arachne's webs catches her in the chest and she lands hard on the ground, unmoving. "Tsubaki!" He lurches forward only to be stopped by Mifune again.
He glares at Mifune, ready to attack him with one of his swords. "Then when?"
"I." Tsubaki's voice is weak but steady. She gets to her feet, facing down Arachne. Her eyes burn indigo. "I am not my brother."
Her scythes become a blur in her hands as she charges at Arachne. She doesn't attempt to dodge Arachne's webs, not even cringing in pain as her skin erupts in blisters. She thrusts one of her blades forward and it sinks into Arachne's chest. "I am Tsubaki," she says, ripping the scythe out.
Arachne doesn't fall or waver. She merely looks at the hole in her chest and coughs, blood bubbling from her lips. "Well played," she whispers. She lifts her head, eyes gleaming. "But not good enough." Her dress envelopes her and her body divides into hundreds of tiny spiders; they retreat into the grasses of the plains.
"No." Tsubaki's shoulders sag, scythes slipping from her fingers. "I thought I killed her."
"You did better than I could have." Black Star moves toward her, arms outstretched. "You're a true warrior." Her eyes well up and she embraces him.
"Er, is that your friend?" Mifune asks.
Both Black Star and Tsubaki crane their head at the same time, watching as Beelzebub touches down in front of them. One of the spirits, Kirikou, carries from the air bison's back an unconscious Soul on his back, Liz and Patti trailing behind him. Soul's clothes are covered in blood. His shirt has a large gash but there is no wound on his chest, only his chain markings and an almost imperceptible scar that runs from his shoulder to his hip.
"What happened?" Black Star exclaims, rushing to help Kirikou.
Liz shakes her head. "Later."
Tsubaki peers around the four. "Where's Maka?"
"Later," Patti repeats.
Together, he and Kirikou sets down Soul gently. "He's unconscious but his heartbeat is strong."
Black Star speaks to the sisters. "I want to know what happened now."
Soul wakes up to the sound of someone calling his name. His eyes flicker open just enough for him to spy blonde hair. "Maka?"
"No," the voice replies. "Liz."
He frowns. "Where is she?"
A new voice, Patti, chimes in. "What do you remember?"
Other faces come into focus as Soul's thoughts move sluggishly. He sees Black Star and Tsubaki; it might be his mind playing tricks but he can swear he sees tears on their face. "The dragon. It was gonna hit Maka." His hands curl. "Is she okay?"
"And then?" Liz says.
He tries to remember. "I pushed her out of the way." His head throbs and he can feel himself losing consciousness again; he cranes his head to the right and left, struggling against the darkness pulling him away. "Where is she?"
"Rest," Tsubaki says. "We're going home."
Soul's protest dies on his lips as the darkness settles back over his eyes.
The firebombs the golems are equipped with are a new feature, a fascinating one in any other circumstance. But it's not one Stein is pleased to have lobbed at him every five seconds. Nor is the fact that the golems throw them without care in the middle of the forest, setting fire to it in at least three different places. He squints through the smoke, mildly irritated by the cracks in the lenses of his glasses.
It splits the wailing spirit rushing at him in half but he dispatches of it easily, always having been more reliant on his hearing than his sight. He scours his area of the forest before he relaxes his hold on his scythe, satisfied that he hears no more spirits. He glances at the golem rampaging not too far from him-against them, he's only a little less than useless, lightning being the only thing that can overpower their circuitry. However, this golem's behavior is strange-it's uprooting trees for some reason.
A flash of pink hair catches Stein's eyes. He spots Kim and Jackie standing in trees across from each other. They mirror each other, one arm extended out with their first two fingers pointing at the other. He watches how the air between the two crackles with pent-up energy, sparks flying. At some unspoken signal, they point at the golem and release the lightning in a blazing flash of light.
The skull the golem has for a face can't move but as it falls to the ground with a crash, it almost looks surprised.
Kim and Jackie drop down from the trees. "Right on the money," Kim crows.
Stein coughs. "Well done."
The girls jump, Jackie spotting him first. "Commander Stein, I didn't know you were fighting over here."
"I'd prefer if you called me doctor, actually," he says.
Jackie blinks. "I didn't know you were a doctor."
"Not that kind," he replies. "Usually."
"Stein!" Marie appears in front of them, sporting a large gash on her collarbone. "They've left."
"Who?" Stein asks, pulling her closer to examine her cut.
"Everyone, the spirits, the golems and Mosquito," she says. She protests when he puts down his scythe and pulls out the needle and thread he always keeps on hand. "It's not that serious."
"It will be if it gets infected," Stein says. He holds out the needle to Jackie. "Sterilize this."
Marie winces as Stein stitches her up but goes on with her report. "And apparently, the golems can handle water because they just started rolling into the river."
"And Giriko?" He pulls out a pair of scissors and snips the thread as he finishes.
"Promised he wasn't done and vanished." She shrugs. "I think we've won on our end here." She frowns worriedly. "But I'm worried about the chains."
"Please let it be over," Joe says as he and a few other soldiers come out from behind a stand of trees, looking even more disheveled and beat up than Marie. "I am tired of this spiritforsaken forest."
"Joe!" Marie stands up to embrace him. "Where have you been?"
"And what have you been up to?" Stein asks. "It's been nearly an hour now."
Joe glowers at him in mock irritation. "You make it sound like we went for a walk," he says. "That Mosquito spirit surprised us, split us up, left and then came back looking like a nose with a ball for a body." He clenches his hands. "It used its nose to suck out the blood of most of my scouts."
"Sounds gruesome," Stein says. "How did you get away?"
"We didn't, he left on his own."
"When?" Stein asks, suddenly gazing up at the sky. The sun is just past its peak and the light coming from the portal is no longer visible.
"About fifteen minutes ago," answers Joe. "Why?"
"Because we've just won or lost," Stein says. "Come on."
Kid should have known something was wrong the moment he stood face to face with Asura alone for the first time. There was something unsettling about him, as if he was only being held together by his scarves.
Asura had tilted his head to one side and had said, "So you're the one in the way?"
"You cannot cross back to our world," he had said firmly. "I won't let you."
"Those are big words for a defective Avatar," Asura had replied, raising his hands challengingly. "Whatever the others say about me, there was no questioning I was worthy of an Avatar's power."
Kid had dived into the fight without another word.
But it was wrong.
He fights to catch his breath. Asura doesn't fight like he expects. In fact, he hasn't fought at all. Every move Kid had hurled Asura's way, he had dodged or re-directed. All around them, the other chains and the spirits were fighting tooth and nail but Asura had hardly lifted a finger. He points at him, anger bubbling up in his voice. "Why aren't you fighting harder?"
"I was waiting until you were finished playing around." Asura smirks. "But if you're asking for a fight..." He moves faster than he would have thought possible, hand wrapped around his throat in seconds. "Isn't it obvious?" His fingers tighten around Kid's throat. "For all the power you have, you're too afraid to use it. It's pathetic."
He tosses Kid away to the ground. "You're too broken to even harness it."
Kid pushes himself up and hurtles a fire punch at him. "You're wrong!"
Asura laughs. "No, you're the one who's wrong." He shoves his face at Kid's, his fingers wrapping around Kid's forearm. "You're the one who shouldn't have even existed in the first place, have you ever thought about that?" He pushes him away.
Kid stumbles back, just barely keeping his balance. "No."
"Yes," he says, stalking forward and sending Kid flying with a kick to his chest. "You've always known," he says as he lands on his back and gasps for breath. "But you thought you could deny it."
Kid pushes his hands upward, water from the grasses turning into daggers of ice.
Asura bats them away. "You thought if you worked hard enough, proved yourself, that you change the world. But you can't." He places a foot on him. "Do you want to how I know?"
"Because I can read you." He bends down and taps his temple. "As soon as you came here, I felt our connection." He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "You know what else I saw?"
He places a finger on Kid's head, eyes glowing red. "You are an out of order Avatar. And now I will reclaim my place."
Kid is paralyzed, a feeling far worse than when he crossed over attempting to swallow him whole. His hands grasp uselessly in the air. Instead of feeling his soul ripped from his body, it feels like he is being erased bit by bit.
Asura's voice whispers in his mind. Why are you fighting the truth?
"It's not true," he wheezes.
It is. You're an aberration.
"No," he insists, gasping. "I'm the Avatar."
You were never meant to be.
He can feel himself losing control, a new being taking over his body. "That doesn't matter."
Then do it. Fight me off.
Kid tries. He flails and kicks but as Asura gains control of his body, his limbs stop moving.
It's his own voice talking to Kid now. He feels like an invader in his own body. "But trying isn't good enough."
Something snaps. It was true. Kid gazes up above him as his world begins to fade to black. The clouds were a jumble of messy shapes. No matter what he did, he was never good enough. There was something hideously out of sync in him.
Distantly, he thinks looks up at the pristine sky, clouds rolling forth to stain the azure blue grey and black. It's marred now, like the stripes in his hair. Out of order, he thinks as he feels the last of his strength crumbles. Everything was out of order.
His eyes, almost shut, flick open.
His fingers twitch. Everything was out of order. Just like him.
He stares up at Asura. Hadn't he seen it in his journey here? In every place, every living thing he'd met? The entire world was out of order. And against all odds, it existed. Just like him.
Asura laughs, pushing back against Kid's resurging resistance. "You're fighting a losing battle."
"Of course," Kid says slowly. "Things are always going to be out of order."
"They never have been in order in the first place." He lifts his hand, the arrow on his arm glowing white. "But that doesn't mean I can't bring them into balance." He presses his hand to Asura's forehead.
Asura's eyes glow with a different light, Kid's light. "Balance doesn't create order," he continues, feeling the power and knowledge of the past Avatars sweep through him. Of Asura.
His other arm strikes the ground and a pillar erupts from the earth. Asura flies backward but immediately gets to his feet.
Kid flicks his wrists. Jets of water come up from the grasses and attach themselves to Asura, rooting him in place. "Balance keeps the right amount of order and disorder in the world."
He moves quickly, embedding earth around Asura's hands and feet. Kid swings his arms in circles and gusts of wind gather up Asura. He pushes the wind carrying Asura to the portal. "You are too much disorder."
Kid tips him into the portal.
It glows red as Asura screams. His body peels away in the light of the portal, turning into dust.
Kid rubs his head tiredly as the portal disappears in front of him and the glow of his arm tattoos fades, just seconds after their group crosses back to Earth. He leans on Beelzebub. After he defeated Asura, the Avatar state had taken over; he still wasn't sure if what he had done during it had been a wise idea but he couldn't take it back now.
His hold on Beelzebub tightens. All he longs for now is to sleep.
He fights his exhaustion, however, picking up on the miserable mood among the others. They're huddled around Soul, who sits on the ground. He looks dazed, holding Oni in his arms while Blair lies at his feet with her face buried in her paws. Kid speaks to Black Star. "What happened?"
He doesn't answer, shaking his head and wiping angrily at his eyes.
"Where's Maka?" Soul asks. His words are slightly slurred. "Why are you all looking at me? What's going on?"
Liz kneels, speaking softly. "When you guarded for Maka," she begins gently. Her shoulders shake. "What you remember as fainting was you dying. Crona killed you."
"No," he says with a humorless laugh. "That's impossible. How could I be here then?"
"Look at your chest," Liz snaps. "I saw it happen. There was no way you could have survived a wound like that."
Soul blinks, tracing the scar. "I don't understand."
Liz's voice trembles and she tries to place a hand on Soul's shoulder that he promptly shrugs off. "I got attacked when Patti and I were running to you so I don't what Maka did-"
"But she traded her life for yours. There was not-"
"No!" Soul's breath comes out in a roar of flame. He lurches to his feet. "Then where is her body?"
"Someone took her." Liz raises her hands helplessly. "They did something to us so we couldn't move."
Soul's entire body is shaking. "I saw her, when we were leaving. I saw her."
"You were unconscious."
Soul opens his mouth but then he looks down at Oni. He shuts it, legs shaking. "I won't believe it till I see her."
Liz looks at Kid. "Can we go back?"
Kid's mind spins. "The solstice is over. Even if it wasn't, we don't have enough chains to make a portal."
"Somehow else then," Soul demands.
"No." Kid shakes his head. "I can't."
"Of course you can," Soul says, voice rising. "You're saying you won't."
"No, I can't." Kid sucks in a breath. "When I was in the Avatar state, I sealed every portal on the spirit world's side before we came back, to keep out Medusa and Arachne. I don't know how I can reverse it. Or if I can."
A horrified silence descends upon the group.
"What's going on here?" Stein's voice comes from behind him. His soldiers stand behind him, looking like they've battled through an inferno.
Kid nor anyone else can answer him.