Chapter IV: Inversion Impulse

When Shiki awoke next, dawn hadn't even come near to breaking. No, it wasn't at all that his body was ready to wake up, but rather that something had awakened him. Considering that waking him before he was ready to get up was no small feat, his sleep-addled mind rather wondered what had managed it. The answer, however, was unfortunately apparent.

That was to say, Akiha was tossing in his arms, her slender body obviously in the grip of some ill-phantasm or nightmare. He could feel that her grip on his body had become almost painfully tight, and it was likely the feeling of her nails--which felt sharper than a human’s should be--digging into his back which had awakened him. But beyond that, he could feel the mass of her vermilion hair that laid across them both almost writhing; in places, it had curled around his body almost of its own volition.

Drawing in a deep breath as he took all of this in, with the dead of night around them, Shiki fought not to panic. Something deep in his psyche was responding to this, and it perhaps frightened him more that the sensation he felt wasn’t fear.... Thankfully--though he wasn’t really thankful, given the cause--something shook him out of that though.

It might’ve felt a little like her body was trying to attack him, but if so, that illusion was dispelled as she cried out softy in her sleep, her form shuddering and her voice weak and frightened. “, please... Don’t leave,” she pleaded, sounding so broken that just the sound of it felt as though it would cause his heart to shatter as his throat constricted....

But, that feeling was enough to shake him from the grip of that initial panic, and his arms moved as much as they could with the surprisingly firm hold that her hair seemed to have on them, to draw her head down against his chest. One hand managed to reach her hair itself and gently stroke against it, while the other remained around her waist. “I’m here, Akiha... I won’t leave you...”

It was hard to tell, after several moments of whispering such reassurances into her ear, if she really understood the words or it was just the soothing general effect which had worked, but her struggles eased slowly, and he felt the pressure on his back slack, then vanish as her fingers relaxed as well. It was very much a relief to feel her sleeping serenely again.... But even so, it took the better part of an hour for the general feeling of unease that he’d been left with to pass, and when he slept again, it was unusually fitful and interwoven with a number of dreams that he could not remember except for the fact that they were... disturbing.

Still, by the time morning truly did come around, the fact that they had gone to sleep so early meant that, when he heard his sister’s voice, he woke up surprisingly easily. Though, as he blinked back the sleep from his eyes and made out the concerned face above him, he had to consider that perhaps it had been something in her tone rather than just her presence that had caused him to stir so quickly. That pretty face was covered in a concerned frown. “Nii-san? Morning...” she said, seeing his eyes open. Looking at her face, something seemed terribly wrong....

Then, he realized what it was and closed his eyes tightly, groping with one arm--there was no trace of the restrictive way her hair had wrapped around him in the night, making him wonder if it was just a dream--on the beside stand for his glasses. Putting them on, he allowed his eyes to open again to an even more concerned Akiha. “...Nii-san?”

“Ah... Good morning, Akiha,” he said, as nonchalant as he could and offering her a smile.

“...geez, you really like those glasses, don’t you? I didn’t think you were nearsighted, Nii-san,” she murmured quietly, frowning still. “Are you alright, though? I found blood on the bed--did... I hurt you last night?”

“...huh? Blood?” So it hadn’t been a dream after all, the burning pain of her fingers digging into his back... “No, of course not. I probably just opened a scab or something,” Shiki lied, unable to tell her she had after her fear the night before. “And... I’m not really nearsighted, but... there’s a reason I need the glasses. Like you said, our... family isn’t exactly normal, right?”

The lie felt entirely justified by the way her face eased when he told it, but then that tension was replaced with confusion as she blinked down at him. “Ah... I guess you’re right. I did say that, Nii-san.” But it seemed like she really hadn’t expected him to say something like that, which made the boy blink in slight confusion.

But, after that the two of them got up and dressed, meeting back in the sitting room for the fine breakfast that Kohaku had prepared. Hisui was absent, likely still packing, and as they ate, the siblings discussed the trip’s itinerary.

“You’re sure that traveling by carriage is safe, Akiha? I always heard that airships were the best for this kind of thing,” Shiki commented, tilting his head at her.

“Airships? You really need to stop with all these commoner opinions, Nii-san. Airships are for the masses--and besides, who could feel safe in something like that? Just one feral attack and you’re done for up in the sky like that. And of course we’ll have some guards along--it would be improper for nobles to travel alone, Nii-san. So of course we’ll be safe.” Akiha smirked slightly, obviously enjoying his surprise.

“...guards? Ah... I hadn’t thought about that,” he admitted, looking down to his food and trying to ignore his sister’s amusement.

“Geez, Nii-san, you really do think like a commoner,” she said, not letting it go as she shook her head. “You really need to think about these things--you wouldn’t want your cute little sister to get hurt because you forgot to bring guards along, would you?”

“ feelings aside, Akiha, isn't it a bit much to be calling yourself cute?” Shiki asked, with mild disbelief.

“Oh? Are you saying I'm not cute, Nii-san?” A brow lifted questioningly, and he found that the smirk upon her face was as frightening as ever.

“Of course not! But you're not supposed to say it yourself, geez...” he shook his head as she laughed and tossed her head proudly.

“I told you, Nii-san, you need to learn to keep your opinions to yourself, so you have no grounds to say that to me on,” she responded, grinning, before allowing a little seriousness to return. “You've got everything packed, right?”

“Yeah, I did it all yesterday.”

Kohaku poked her head into the room at this and shook her head, “Shiki-san doesn't have much stuff. I was getting everything brought down, and I thought for sure I'd missed a suitcase or two.”

“Well, I guess that's true.... I don't really need many material things,” he replied with a shrug, to Akiha's lifted brow.

“You should pack things you don't care about then,” Akiha said, with seriousness, “So people don't think you're some kind of miser. That would be a bothersome image to have, Nii-san.”

“Ah... You really do think about what other people think of us a lot, don't you, Akiha?” He sounded both affectionate and a little... bemused.

“Of course. It's the duty of the head of the Tohno house, Nii-san. You'll have to do so as well, when you take my place.”

“I guess I can try.... Somehow, I don't think I'll ever be as good at it as you are.” It was hard to tell, even for he who had said it, if that was a compliment or an insult.

“Then you're lucky you'll have me by your side, huh?” Akiha smirked slightly as her brother shook his head, and then the two set about finishing their breakfast together, with brief interludes from Kohaku. Toward the end, Hisui appeared as well; despite Shiki's suggestion, she had been unwilling to change from her maid's uniform, though at least she had brought some normal clothing along, she admitted.




After a day's traveling, Shiki had to admit that it wasn't as bad as he had initially feared. The roads were in fairly good condition for the most part, and the carriage was enclosed, almost something of a stagecoach in styling. Kohaku had apparently arranged for a team of eight Rapitaurs that would switch out in teams of four at a time to pull it, which would easily provide good speed and endurance. By estimate, the trip to the sea would take three days--really, it wasn't as distant as it seemed at times.

Perhaps the most surprising part, though, had been the two tamers that they had hired as guards. Knowing the wandering journeymen by reputation, Shiki had expected to feel standoffish at best toward them, given his current overwhelmingly protective feelings toward Akiha, if not openly hostile. Besides, on the whole he felt himself rather incompatible with people who took it upon themselves to live lives like that--they tended to be disrespectful, arrogant, cocky, and generally unpleasant, in his limited experience.

Given that, the two young men--or really, boys, for they seemed barely a year or two older than he himself was--very much defied expectation. One of them was very obviously a native Japanese tamer, with earthy brown hair and a strong physique that indicated he was a rather experienced traveler. He was very much polite and serious, to the point that Shiki had to imagine he had some sort of minor nobility in his background. His eyes were verdant, but on the whole he seemed to favor white.

On the whole, the other was closer to what Shiki's image of a tamer was, yet at the same time, he was entirely not that. He had an easy confidence and a definite disinterested arrogance, but not of the boastful sort that a stereotypical tamer might've. No, it was a quiet, refined sort of arrogance that reminded him very much of Akiha's own attitude. The boy's black hair, though worn short, did little to prevent the comparison, but his eyes were perhaps the most striking feature about him, for they were a piercing violet color, and he favored black on the whole.

He was the one who had taken to driving the coach, though, which somehow seemed fitting. Though he easily could've been, with his air of subtle refinement, one of the occupants, on the whole his composure seemed more suited to the job of coachman, and he was surprisingly unfit for a tamer. The other, on the other hand, looked entirely at home making a perimeter on one of the off-duty Rapitaurs, his green eyes alert as he scanned the forest around them for sign of a threat.

And so it had been a fairly companionable group. For most of the day, Shiki and Akiha had talked about trivia, though both were rather tense about the entire situation. Akiha had returned to the floral kimono for the trip, and donned attractive black gloves to hide the fact that her fingernails were extending slowly but undeniably into short but sharp claws. Shiki himself was wearing the newly washed and ironed celestial outfit that he had gone into town with, while Hisui watched the scenery quietly in her maid's uniform.

However, as the sky started to darken with sunset--given that the day had been slightly overcast, the day's end was a deep purple color this day, rather than red--it seemed apparent that the driver was starting to look for a place to make camp. Shiki frowned, hearing the two calling out to each other, and looked to his sister.

“...wait, we're going to make camp for the night?” he asked, very much nonplussed by the thought. Some part of him liked the deep, dark woods, but his reason told him that staying out that way was a rather Bad Idea.

“Kohaku must've picked a route without any staging points on it,” Akiha replied, shrugging and looking around. “You really do worry too much, Nii-san. Those two are competent enough, and I have you to protect me, after all, right?” She smirked a little.

Shiki, though, didn't seem amused, feeling deeply uneasy. Still... “Of course, but I can't do much while I'm asleep, you know.”

Before Akiha could respond, though, the coach reached a clearing and came smoothly to a halt with only a slight screech as the brake slowed the wheels and the Rapitaurs. None of them had ever said anything, so it was likely the centauric pokegirls were feralborn....

Smoothly, though, the black haired tamer slipped down from the driver's seat, stretching slightly as the three inside the coach took in their surroundings. Then, he moved to open the door with a light bow. “My lord, my lady, with your permission, this is where we'll stop for today.”

Admittedly, Shiki decided, the driver had a good eye for terrain. The clearing was perhaps fifty meters in diameter, a grassy field in the middle of the woods, and atop a small hill. It offered visibility in most directions, and with the incline and size, they would be able to see any threat coming from a ways away.

“Very well, then,” Akiha decided, apparently coming to the same conclusion as her brother, for she nodded. “I suppose that we can make camp here, yes.” At this, Hisui stood quietly and was the first of the three to exit--the tamer helped her down the step. Shiki came next, haven risen when his sister nodded, and he made his own way down, before turning to offer Akiha his hand. The violet-eyed boy seemed amused by the implicit refusal to let him help the girl down, but he shrugged slightly.

Instead, those striking eyes turned to the bunny-type pokegirl who had been riding on the back of the coach the whole time. “Go setup a perimeter and make sure there aren't any surprises,” he ordered.

Akiha lifted a brow at this, though, looking between the two. “...I know that you're the expert tamer, but are you sure you should be trusting that to a cute little bunny like her?”

“Hey!” the girl shouted, her face flushing with what could've been either anger or embarrassment. “Don't assume I'm incompetent just because I have these ears!” Really, Shiki couldn't help but notice, her reaction was rather cute. She had an attractive face, the seriousness of which contrasted entirely with the pair of white bunny ears that grew up out of her red hair.

Actually, it wasn't so much red as pink-red, at least in comparison to the distilled crimson that was Akiha's, but it was unfair to compare the two anyway; the bunnygirl's hair was much shorter, falling only to her neck, and thicker than Akiha's flowing, silky locks were. Beyond that, though, she had nothing like his sister's refinement, and indeed wore a rather tight red outfit that accentuated her body quite well, considering that it left almost nothing but her face uncovered.

“Aww, but incompetent bunnies are so adorable,” Akiha retorted, though, lifting a brow tauntingly, almost challengingly. “Watching them bumble over everything makes you just want to--”

“My lady, forgive me, but Kallen has a job to do,” the bunnygirl's tamer interjected, smoothly interposing himself between the two redheads, but not even he could prevent an amused smile from creeping onto his face. Still... “And don't worry--I guarantee she knows what's she doing.”

Shiki, for his part, was staring at his sister, confused by the unaccustomed outburst. He knew that she'd been acting like that around him, but... wasn't she the one who kept telling him to keep his opinions to himself. “Ah... Akiha?” he murmured, questioningly.

“Spoilsport,” she muttered in turn, before smiling brilliantly at Shiki and pushing thoughts of her strange act from his mind as the two of them set off toward the middle of the clearing, where a bonfire was being setup.

As they did, though, the pokegirl who the driver had been idly chattering with most of the trip strolled past them, her green hair flowing out attractively behind her. It was easily as long as Akiha's--probably longer--and rustled in the breeze, along with her white dress as she almost idly pressed her body to her tamer's back. “You have no sense of humor, Lelouch... You should've let her finish; Kallen's adorable when she's embarrassed.”

The words, spoken with an idle amusement, were still loud enough to be heard by the siblings, and Shiki lifted a brow; they were certainly an interesting couple.... Not, he supposed, that he had any room to talk. But in front of them, Hisui had apparently retrieved a white cloth tarp from the luggage, and she was setting it out near where a small pile of wood and twigs was beginning to take shape.

The other tamer seemed to be the one collecting the tinder, actually, for he was returning across the clearing with more in hand. Giving the two a nod, he set the wood down in the fire pit that was already present, then gave a more formal bow. “Is there anything I could get for you?”

Feeling self-conscious, Shiki returned the bow, whilst Akiha merely nodded. “No, we are fine--Hisui will take care of our needs, Kururgi-san. Do not let us interfere.” This was the normal Akiha again, addressing the tamer formally with his last name, a fact that only left Shiki feeling even more confused now that the brilliance of that smile had passed.

“Alright, then. I'll have Gwen patrol the area for a while, and she'll be our sentinel since she doesn't need to sleep,” he replied with a smile, pointing to the dark, metallic shape that hovered above the coach. Her armor was black, with trim in gold, and around her head it took on a canine shape, with glowing red eyes. Upon either shoulder sat a large cannon, whilst jets upon the 'girl's back were what allowed her to hover.

“She's a... Zeromer, right?” Shiki asked, his blue eyes flickering to the tech pokegirl with a bit of interest. The breed had a bit of a reputation, if only for its variability and combat skill.

“Right,” the brown-haired tamer agreed, nodding.

“That's pretty impressive.”

Apparently noticing their interest in her, the Zeromer shifted forward with a burst from those jets, which looked vaguely like wings upon the back of her armor. Landing near them, she dropped to one knee respectfully--mostly, Shiki realized, because she was taller than any of them, even the lean but rather tall figure of Lelouch, when she was standing at her full height in the armor--and inclined her head to the brown haired tamer, Suzaku, speaking in a fairly normal, if clipped and formal, voice, “Do you have orders for me, Suzaku-sama?”

“Yeah. Go ahead and start a search pattern delta search until nightfall,” he replied, smiling at her, and the Zeromer nodded in ascent.

“Very well. I shall return then--simply call for me if you require anything of me before the sun has set.” Standing, she lifted herself into the air and took off, leaving a slight gust of wind in her wake. And with that, the tamer named Suzaku took off again as well, likely to keep collecting tinder. Lelouch and his green-haired accomplice were nowhere to be seen, and so the three were left more or less alone as they moved to sit down on the seat that Hisui had made.

Thinking of that maid, though, Shiki turned his attention to her a moment as Akiha lifted her aqua eyes to gaze at the quickly darkening sky. For the moment, she seemed content to relax after the traveling, stretching out her legs to one side rather than sitting Japanese-style.

“How're you holding up, Hisui? You've been really quiet all day,” he asked carefully, admitting to himself that it was hard not to worry a little about such things, no matter how many times Akiha told him he was worrying too much.

“I am... fine, Shiki-sama. It is merely... a strange thing, to be... in the world again. I have rarely left the mansion for as long as I can recall.”

“Oh... I see.” That felt... strange, on many levels. He was the one who was going to inherit the family estate, but Hisui had lived there... such a long time. It wasn't hard to see why Akiha had said the two maids were practically part of the family, really.

“And you, Shiki-sama? The trip is not causing your body too much strain, is it?” Hisui's voice cut into his reverie, soft though it was.

“Ah... No, I'm doing fine. That guy is a pretty smooth driver, whatever else you might say about him.”

“That is true, yes,” she agreed, before casting her blue gaze off into the forest curiously, since it seemed their conversation had ended. Soon after, Lelouch returned from whatever he'd been doing, and the four of them--five once Suzaku had returned, too--discussed dinner.

It seemed that what Hisui hadn't mentioned when explaining Kohaku's inability to clean was that she herself completely lacked any ability to cook. Since neither Shiki nor Akiha had ever learned how, it proved fortunate that, as it turned out, Lelouch was a rather competent chef.

So, with a roaring fire dominating the center of the clearing and Gwen standing guard by the coach with her glowing eyes surveying the area calmly, the rest of the group sat around the fire to eat. Unsurprisingly, the two groups remained somewhat separate; Lelouch and Suzaku sat on one side of the fire, with the bunnygirl who still glared at Akiha every chance she got between them and the green-haired girl sprawled out nonchalantly by her tamer’s side, leaning back on her arms.

“You should’ve made pizza,” she commented, stretching a bit and then poking at her food with a silver spoon. “Don’t you know I need a lot to eat? How do you expect me to get by on this?” Her tone was half amused and half accusing as she lifted a brow at her black-haired tamer.

“Picky witch,” he grumbled, before lifting a spoon of the rather good potato soup to his lips with a simple grace.

On the other side of the fire, though, Hisui was as quiet as ever, eating her soup while sitting Japanese-style, in the same way Shiki did, whilst Akiha was somewhere in between that more strict pose and the magic-type girl’s casualness, though she still managed to look graceful with her legs to one side. Periodically, she would lift her eyes from the food and meet Kallen’s glares with a lifted brow, or smirk.

“Well, you might not like it, but I don’t think anyone else feels like complaining,” Suzaku commented, looking over at the green-haired girl. “Have you even tried it, Ceecee?”

“Of course not. Why should I eat something I know is inferior?” she returned, in that same bored tone, though she lifted a brow challengingly as she asked.

“You really are insufferable!” Here Kallen interjected, probably taking out a bit of the lingering annoyance she felt toward Akiha on the much more viable target of her alpha. “Ungrateful, too. I dunno why Lelouch puts up with you.”

“Because I’m useful,” the other replied without missing a beat, though a slight smirk touched her lips. “Not like I’m a... ‘bumbling bunny,’ after all.”

“Now, now, you two, don’t start a fight,” Suzaku said, trying to forestall further argument in front of their employers.

Akiha laughed softly when she heard this, shaking her head. “No, no, go one--feel free to pretend we’re not here at all.” It was hard to tell, with her coy expression, if the words were mocking or serious, and Shiki turned to look at her, blinking. She was definitely acting weird today.

“Oh, you have good taste, Lady Tohno, food aside,” the Sorceress replied, turning her amber eyes to the red-haired beauty. She was definitely still smirking as she extended this invitation to gang up on the bunnygirl.

However, Akiha had apparently noticed her brother’s confusion, for an uncertain look stole over her face, and she shook her head. “Naturally,” she answered, with a bit of haughtiness but on the whole her affect had become reserved again.

Lelouch, who had been silent through this, now lifted his head from studying something in his lap. “...don’t look now, but we’ve got trouble,” he announced, his face becoming more serious. Immediately, Kallen’s followed in suit, and even the nonchalant Sorceress seemed a little on edge.

For his part, Shiki couldn’t hide the sudden trepidation that stole over his face, setting his bowl of soup aside as his hand covertly sought for Akiha’s. Finding it, he decided from the way she squeezed his fingers in her warm ones that she was equally uneasy, though her face betrayed nothing. Hisui shifted close to the two uneasily as well as Shiki asked in as low voice, “How bad?”

“I’d say we’re surrounded. About ten humans, with at least one ‘girl each.” That was Suzaku, his carefree voice having become low and precise. “Bandits, without a doubt.”

This announcement brought a pall of silence down onto the group for several long moments, as both Shiki and Akiha tightened their grip. So much for it being safer than an airship trip.... Instinctively, Shiki’s free hand found itself slipping into his pocket and gripping the knife there. Perhaps it was useless, but feeling it nonetheless eased his mind just a little. “...what should we do, then?” he asked, slowly, keeping his voice down as he looked between the two tamers.

“Stay here, and run if any of them get close. You’re noncombatants, so you’ll only be in danger if you get in the field of fire,” Suzaku said, and the other nodded.

“Right; this is what you hired us for, after all,” he added, lifting his head and scanning the perimeter with those striking violet eyes. “Kallen, get ready. They’ll probably break out on one side first and try to push us into their net on the other, but we’re in the best position here in the center. They’ll have to cover a lot of ground to reach us, no matter where they start attacking from. Suzaku, have Gwen prepare--have her use the new setting on the hadron cannons.”

The brown-haired tamer nodded, before withdrawing some kind of communicator and speaking into it in a low voice. As he did, Kallen’s eyes--they were a strikingly light shade of blue--seemed to glow a moment, and a sleek black pistol in a somewhat outdated style, with an elegant grip and a slender barrel materialized in her hand. It seemed she was a Gun Bunny; at the moment, it felt decidedly fortunate that Lelouch’s faith in her abilities had seemingly been well founded.

In some regard, with the tension that now permeated the group, it felt wrong that... for the better part of ten minutes, nothing happened except for a change in the pattern of the Zeromer flying overhead. The last rays of the sun had vanished below the treeline when something finally happened.

Once, Shiki had heard it said that war was essentially boredom punctuated by a few brief interludes of terror, but it had always seemed like a depressing way to look at things. Only now did he understand the truth of it; just as he had started to relax a little, feeling annoyed at the general lack of any... resolution, there was a sharp rustling of leaves from one side as something broke through the underbrush.

In the dark, with only the fire and the pale crescent moon above for light, the exact form of the first attacker was impossible to make out, especially since the deafening blast of gunfire that followed it made his head spin. Kallen had opened fire, and the projectiles released with flashes of the muzzle that lit up the clearing struck with deadly aim, bringing down the dark shape with ease.

However, its loss seemed insignificant as the undergrowth around it opened up and four more shapes burst forth. These were more recognizable as they moved closer to the ring of firelight. One was a scarred ‘girl in traditional Japanese-style armor, with a katana--a Ronin--while next to her was a plant-covered shape that was harder to identify. Further to the right, a brightly striped Tigress with fangs and claws that glimmered in the firelight rushed onward like a train, her body large and strong, while above them a brownish bird-type with wings on her back rather than her arms--a Rack--started to dive at breakneck speeds.

The boy’s blue eyes barely had time to register this, though, before Kallen’s pistol flashed again, its bullets striking the Rack’s wings and breaking the momentum of her dive as she was suddenly struggling to stay aloft. From another section of the sky, a golden light swept over the clearing, and Shiki looked up only to be blinded as the Hyper Beams that had been charging in Gwen’s dual cannons shot forth at a downward angle, the explosive impact with the ground sending earth everywhere as it carved out a trench. The Tigress nimbly leaped aside, avoiding the attack, and the Ronin jumped backward, but the plant-type wasn’t fast enough and her irregular shape was completely consumed by the attack, leaving only ash.

All of this happened with such speed that Shiki could only stare in wonder, while Akiha watched with a different expression, one that was harder to read. Hisui, though, found herself backing away from the group, fighting the desire to flee entirely. From her face, she was more stunned and shell-shocked than really afraid, and her words about rarely leaving the mansion rung out in a corner of Shiki’s mind. “Hisui!” he called out, remembering that they were surrounded and breaking his stupor.

It was too late, however, to stop what happened next. The rear side of the circular clearing burst outward as well, and six more pokegirls entered into the fray. Most of these he couldn’t even track, because another light as bright as Gwen’s beams now blinded him as Lelouch's Sorceress cast a fireball into their midst, hitting one ‘girl head on with the explosive blast of heat and scattering or disorienting most of the others. Above, Gwen’s light returned, but this time the hyper beam fired almost randomly into the forest, and it lasted longer, making the ground shake around them.

In the midst of this, Hisui stood rooted to the spot as one of the dark shapes fell upon her, the firelight revealing it to be a bug-type with deadly stingers upon its forearms, which were pointed threateningly at the frightened maid. Something inside Shiki snapped at this, his mind feeling like it was melting as his vision seemed to narrow to the threatening creature. Somewhere in the background, there was a growl from the Tigress and a shouted command of “Die!” But though a bit of blood from whatever had happened splashed onto his back, he couldn’t care about any of that.

As he was reaching up to remove his glasses, though, Akiha preempted him, sending his mind back into paralysis. The expression on her face was hard to see in the darkness, yet something about it was undeniably chilling as she crossed the distance separating her from Hisui and the attacker with a speed that was definitely beyond what a human could manage. In the process, her gloves flew aside, and there was a strangely inhuman cry of pain from the insect girl as Akiha’s claws raked along her chest.

It didn’t stop there, though. No, it was hard to make out what was happening from a distance, but it seemed as though strands of vermilion hair had somehow wrapped themselves around the bug-type’s wrists and ankles and even her throat; in the darkness, these strands shimmered with a strange, unworldly glow, like hellfire.... Perhaps it was something of that nature, for the first cry of pain was echoed by louder ones; as Shiki managed to again break his shocked stillness and run closer, he could see the chitinous body in his sister’s grip writhing as though in the grip of some sort of seizure, except that it was obviously pain that caused it.

Around those ominous strands of hair, indeed, patches of armored skin started to discolor and darken as though they were being bombarded with the embers of some unseen blaze, burning from some unreal fire. Akiha’s actual hair, on the other hand, seemed almost to be glowing, and it took Shiki several seconds to realize it was because waves of heat rolled off of her as though her body itself was that unseen fire, and though he couldn’t see her face, he somehow instinctively knew it would be contorted in a frighteningly beautiful expression of ecstasy. Nearing her, he found he couldn’t bring himself to close the distance; something inside him--that same something that had nearly responded to Hisui’s plight--rebelled against the sight before him, while the conscious part of him was... honestly enthralled by the sight.

And then, as quickly as it had all started, the moment was over. The vermilion bonds holding the body of the bug-type up disappeared, and Akiha disdainfully discarded the burnt-out husk that barely seemed more than an empty cicada shell now, when it had been a living creature just moments before. Looking upon her as she stood over what was effectively her first kill, Shiki realized that his sister’s breathing sounded much as it had the night they’d made love, and her body was trembling with some emotion that he couldn’t make out without seeing her face. But, in this moment, even that part of him that had been so repulsed a moment before couldn’t help but admit... that she was exquisitely beautiful, standing there like some triumphant, avenging fury.

Nearby, Hisui stood, staring now at Akiha, and it was an action of hers that finally ended the moment. That was to say, overcome by the events of the day, she gasped a little and fainted away. Shiki rushed forward, but he was too slow to catch the falling maid and could only kneel down beside her. A little blood flowed from a tear in her maid's uniform on her stomach, but the wound seemed shallow; the insect pokegirl had been more interested in capturing or disabling than killing. It was possible that the fainting had actually been from some sort of sleeping poison, he realized.

By the time all of this was done, though, the battle around them had ended. Kallen stood in the woods, near the bodies of several dead men--presumably the actual bandits--as she scanned the area for more targets. Ceecee, on the other hand, looked casual as ever where she stood over the scorched body of one pokegirl, with another one nearby; at a glance, either one could've been either dead or alive.

For his part, Lelouch stood over the body of the Tigress, who looked like she had sliced her own body fatally; the sight of so much blood made Shiki cringe and look away. Elsewhere, Suzaku had managed to capture two or three of the other bandits alive, and was tying them up, while his Zeromer could be seen making a wide circle in the sky to scan for any survivors.

Taking all this in in a glance and feeling his stomach turn at the rather grim results, Shiki looked back to Akiha, starting to say something, but the words died in his throat. Now that he could see her face, it became apparent that... either he had misjudged her emotions or they had changed, because her aqua eyes burned with anger now, her face truly a mask of fury. Such a sight would've given anyone pause, partially with the way her body radiated heat and her slender fingers clenched into fists.

“ planned this!” she shouted, then, and for a moment Shiki thought she meant him, a thought which was rather terrifying, and he shrank back in confused fear, but her gaze was not upon him. No, that rage was aimed rather directly at Lelouch.

Blinking nonchalantly, the boy met her gaze without any hint of guild, reaching up as though to wipe something from his eye. However, when the violet shade of those eyes took on a red hint, it wasn't hard to realize that he'd been removing a contact. Before Shiki could follow the instinctive urge to look away from those eyes, the other was speaking casually. “I don't know what you're taking about. Why don't we just forget all of--”

For a split second, as these words reached his ears, Shiki felt a terrible sense of calm. Why was the clearing so bloody? But then, that illusion was shattered into a thousand grating pieces as Akiha's voice burst through it like a stone thrown into a mirror. “Shut up!”

By the time these words had registered, she'd crossed the distance between herself and the black-haired tamer, her speed even greater than before, and her clawed hands dug into his throat as vermilion strands of hair appeared, binding him. “Shut up, you bastard, you set us up!”

Whatever choked reply he tried to utter was cut off by her hand tightening against his windpipe, and he struggled for air, his arms swinging wildly.

Before Shiki could register what was going on, though, Kallen was pointing her pistol squarely at Akiha, her own face now equally angry. “Let go of him!” she shouted.

Shiki felt his heart constrict at the sight of this, even as he realized in a more lucid corner of his mind that at least his sister was no longer choking the tamer, merely holding him. “Akiha, what the hell are you doing?” he managed, finding his voice even though it was choked with fear.

“'re too dense sometimes, Nii-san. They were using us as bait! It was too neat, too perfect, too planned to be anything else!” This... was entirely different that the frighteningly beautiful Akiha from a moment ago; no, this time her anger and the power that he felt rolling off of her was almost bestial.

Yet... even this Akiha he had to protect. That thought repeated itself in his mind, overwriting that deep part of him that reviled the creature he was watching--that part of him considered her an enemy, a threat, a target.... But instead, his eyes moved to Kallen, who spoke again. “I don't care what you think happened! Let him go or I'll kill you!”

“Are you willing to take that chance, bunny? One wrong move and your master won't have a throat.” Though she was no longer shouting, her voice still felt... bestial, and Kallen shuddered, obviously torn. From the other side of the clearing, Suzaku was watching, rooted to the spot like Shiki and as torn as Kallen.

Twenty paces. If he ran, he could reach Kallen in twenty paces. But that wasn't nearly enough time.... He'd seen her speed with that gun. Shiki gripped his knife tighter as time seemed to stand still in the clearing, no one moving at all except him. Slowly, even not knowing what good it would do from so far away, his hand lifted and started to remove his glasses....