Kirie was a seasoned warrior. Disrupting her poise added some holes to her defense, but her absurd reflexes made up for it. While other warriors took minimal risks, she threw herself into the heart of peril. Most might call it foolish and borderline suicidal, but she had always believed in Asa, who was never far away to defend and pull her out of trouble during a promising battle that might immediately turn futile. Battle was like that sometimes. There were always unforeseen factors.
And so she learned.
Kirie saw the Siren's feet shift into a staggered stance that indicated which arm it planned to bring across. The rest amounted to reflex and pure instinct. The catgirl warrior tilted her head down and lifted the handle of her axe one-handed to deflect some of the blow. The long, sharp nails scraped along the flat of the blade and redirected the attack a few inches off the mark towards the protective, steel headband forged by the blacksmith, Sebastian. The new angle and slight defense from the accessory was just enough that the nails cut through, but only managed to deal a shallow laceration just above her ear. The brown clip that held a portion of her hair in place snapped and released.
She fell to her back and brought up the axe to ward off a follow-up strike, but a pair of adventurers who managed to gather their wits had already moved in to force the Siren into a retreat. One made a quick, timid thrust forward while the other took a bold swing at the monster. The more resolute of the two received a slice across the scalp from the Siren's claws, but his follow-through actually saved him as he lowered to mitigate the damage.
Kirie pulled her legs underneath her and set up a defensive crouch. Her brunette hair now hung freely on one side and concealed one of her eyes that held shut as the blood continued to drip from her forehead.
She noticed Asa rush to the edge of the porch just within her periphery. Kirie held up a hand to stop her and ran a wrist over her forehead to indicate she wasn't badly injured.
“Stay up there," Kirie said evenly. “I'm good.” She stared at the steel accessory that the blacksmith had worked so hard on. It lay on the ground a few feet away, split in two. The brown clip that once hid the shameful scar that brought her such chagrin rested at her feet. Kirie strode over it and shouldered aside a fear-stricken adventurer who had yet to join the battle.
She readied her axe and spit a glob of blood in the Siren's direction. “You're gonna pay for that one.”
The Siren leaned back and opened its gaping mouth. A terrible, guttural laugh escaped it. “That right? Well, you almost had me. Too bad you forgot I'm also a spellcaster.”
Kirie stared at the monster and took a few even breaths to calm herself. Truth be told, she hadn't forgotten. It was the level of spell that took her off guard. The Siren had actually cast a protection spell at a high-tier of expertise. Basic spellcasters had the ability to cast protection spells; however, the shapes and durability were another stage of mastery depending on the user. This enemy managed to form a barrier that was actually invisible. Only top-tier spellcasters were capable of such control.
This will be interesting, Kirie thought. She analyzed all the combatants. I can't rely on these other adventurers. She reasoned that the only real reliable ones were Asa, Derek and Anya. But even then, they'd only worked together on a single quest. Their coordination was bound to be off.
Kirie heard Anya shout and release another arrow, “Keep it on the defensive!”
Kirie obliged and charged forward with reckless abandon. Derek joined the offensive in response to her zeal.
Asa also committed to the same mindset. “Fire orb!” the ball of fire launched to intercept the Siren's path as it backpedaled away from Kirie and Derek. It leaped through the air and avoided the flames. The monster latched to the wall with its claws and observed the battlefield with some uncertainty as its head jerked about. The sides of its mouth curved down, but the permanent, open-mouthed grin remained.
“Taking too long,” it said.
The Siren started climbing the wall in an obvious attempt to escape. Its eyes widened in surprise as a wall of protection emerged to bar its way. The timing was enough that the monster collided with the barrier and lost its grip with one claw. It dangled for a moment until the second set of nails loosened, and it started to slide down the side.
Kirie glanced over her shoulder towards the porch. Nice one sis-
The thought cut off when she realized that it wasn't Asa who blocked the Siren's escape. Kirie noticed a terrified young spellcaster standing just behind her sister with a staff held tight in both hands. The poor girl's eyes were clamped tight as she whispered something inaudible to calm herself.
Heh. Not bad. Kirie allowed herself a brazen grin. She appreciated the spellcaster subverting her expectations for the rest of the group.
She slid to a stop and analyzed the monster's subtle movements. The Siren pressed its feet against the wall and pushed off, assuming that the catgirl would move in with an immediate, wild strike.
It guessed wrong. Kirie had at least some shred of patience and planned the feint perfectly. The axe swung in a wide downward arc and sliced deep into the Siren's arm as it launched through the air. It barely managed to form another invisible protective barrier that blocked a strike from Derek's warhammer.
The monster tumbled to the ground and whipped its legs up to enter some semblance of a defensive stance. As it rose up, an arrow drove into its shoulder that forced it to fall in an awkward stumble.
The Siren planted its foot and barely managed to raise a hand in time to form another protection spell as Kirie charged in to take advantage of its disorientation. The axe drove into the invisible barrier, but this time, the catgirl didn't bounce back. The Siren raised its opposite hand to strike at an opening, but the catgirl's expression gave it swift pause. It was also obvious after just a few seconds that the axe was actually moving closer. The monster let out a heaving gasp and glanced down frantically as the blade dug into the focused section of the protection spell. The melded hexagons were now visible as black cracks crawled along the surface.
“Impossible!” Rachel screamed. Only the singular voice was there now. “Your stats can't already be...!”
The Siren trailed off as Kirie took a sliding step forward and glared at it with pure hatred. The hair covering the one side of her face parted for a second to reveal the crimson hue emanating from her widening pupil.
“Initiate active skill...” Kirie growled.
“No! Fucking bitch!”
“...Seat of Carnage!”
Veins pulsed on the monster's head from the strain. More mana was focused into the protection spell as the flat of the blade visibly passed through another inch. A blood-red flame crawled along the edges of the axe and ate away at the spell.
The Siren raised its other arm and formed another protection spell when it noticed the flat of a warhammer enter its periphery. The hammer collided with the spell, but Derek held fast against it despite the push back. It was enough of a distraction that the monster failed to noticed Kirie's next unexpected move.
The warrior catgirl's hands no longer held the axe. The weapon remained embedded in the spell, continuously eating away at the now-visibly glowing hexagons.
One of Kirie's armored hands was pulled back in a fist. A crimson glow emanated from it thanks to the enhancement imbued by her sister from the damage taken by her protection spells. It wasn't an unfathomable amount, but certainly enough for what she had planned. She swung towards the Siren's face. The monster only had time to let out a choked whimper before the catgirl's fist drove into its mouth and shattered most of the sharp teeth. Its head jerked back from the force and arms fell to the side, fingers twitching and grasping mindlessly in a desperate attempt to comprehend what had just happened.
Pained tears crawled down the Siren's face as the vicious catgirl straightened herself.
Kirie growled through gritted teeth, “You talk too much.”
She grasped the Siren's tongue, pressed her other hand forward for leverage and tore it out. An arc of blood sprayed as Kirie lowered herself, spun with the momentum and grabbed her axe out of the air as the protection spell vanished.
Derek shouted as he anticipated the fall of the barrier on his side, "Initiate active skill, Mora's Pulse!
He didn't even need to swing the hammer. The delayed power of his previous attack had instilled upon the weapon and released at his call. A sickening crack followed as Derek's warhammer released the imbued energy. It slammed into the monster's side as he whirled about, thanks to the disappearance of the protection spell that once held him back. The monster's body launched into a side wall from the enhanced propulsion and chunks of stone exploded outwards from the impact. A cloud of dust erupted and surrounded the combatants, blinding them.
Kirie had observed the trajectory of the Siren's body. She was already charging forward through the billowing debris and emerged on the other side.
The being known as Rachel lifted its one working arm in a desperate attempt to aim at Kirie's face. A blast of red energy erupted from her palm, but it pierced nothing but air as the catgirl shifted her head without breaking stride. She swung the axe in a horizontal slice and the blade cut deep, almost halfway through the sinewy skin to the stomach. Dark crimson sprayed against the wall and slicked the cobblestones.
The monster fell to its knees, blood pouring from its wide mouth like a waterfall.
“Impossible-” it gurgled. The remaining chunk of its tongue attempted to form more words as it stared up at the warrior catgirl. "Y-you...can't be..."
Kirie didn't give it a chance to finish. The axe ate into the back of its neck. It wasn't a clean cut as fatigue leadened her limbs. When she pulled it free, only a thin chunk of flesh still held the head on the monster's shoulders. She brought her weapon down one last time; the steel dug into its neck and severed the head entirely.
She let her arms fall to her side as exhaustion took over. Everyone around her took a few staggering steps back and stared at the mutilated form of the Siren. One of the adventurers retched off to the side. A sword clattered to the stone as its wielder lost feeling in his fingers.
Kirie fell into a stumbling run as she saw Asa fall to her knees. She used the staff to prop herself up, and ragged breaths escaped her as she lowered her head. The tears fell freely.
Kirie stood over her with teeth clenched as the adrenaline and rage subsided. A similar tearful look fought to break her composure, but she quelled it. She extended her hand, which her sister gratefully accepted.
They immediately went to check on Alphonse. His breathing had evened out, but he lay unconscious. Asa rested a hand to his forehead and began to run an appraisal of his status. A flash of static intruded on her vision and she retracted her hand.
“I-I don't know what's wrong. It went into his mind.”
“Try a healing spell! Anything!” Kirie shouted.
Asa rested her shaking hands on his chest and channeled the necessary mana. It crawled along the contours of his body, seeking out injuries and mending. She let out a relieved breath when the magic traveled to his head and lingered. The magic pulsed around his head a few times and then subsided.
Nothing. No change.
Kirie knelt next to him and punched a weak fist into his shoulder. "Goddammit, Alphonse. This is nothing to you! Wake up you stubborn bastard!"
His eyelids seemed to twitch with recognition, but they didn't open. His chest rose and fell methodically, as if he were merely taking a short rest.
A younger Alphonse, no more than fourteen-years-old, sat on the cracked sidewalk with his knees hugged to his chest. An emergency siren from an ambulance wailed somewhere through the labyrinth of skyscrapers. The crash of a shattered window made him flinch. People started screaming. Popping sounds echoed off the tall buildings. Gunshots.
He'd sat there for three days listening to it all.
The young boy's mind strayed a bit to meaningless things. The weekend was over, he thought. He was supposed to go to school today. He didn't learn much from that place, since most of the teachers had left, but it was a nice escape.
The whole city would descend into full-blown anarchy soon, if it hadn't already. He knew the rest of Earth wasn't like this, but he had to ask: why did it happen where he lived?
He looked over his arms wrapped tight around his body in a feeble attempt to ward off the cold. A group of men in black body armor with automatic rifles jumped from an armored vehicle a few blocks away. They breached a door with a battering ram and moved in on one the buildings.
More gunshots. More screams. More dying.
He saw a person run out of an alley next to the building. The man made it halfway across the street before splotches of red blossomed on the back of his shirt. He landed on his face with a sickening thud and remained there unmoving. The sound of his falling body reminded Alphonse of...
An image flashed in his mind depicting two pairs of dangling feet, swaying in a light breeze from an open window.
He felt his cheeks puff up and tried to swallow back the acid building in his throat. A few drops of rain dampened Alphonse's hair and gratefully distracted him before the memory could spring fully to life again. Sheets of it soon traveled down the street like a wave. A ray of sun broke through the clouds and seemed to command the rain's departure. The rain reluctantly compromised and died down to a slight drizzle.
His shirt stuck to his body and puddles formed under his shoes. Water dripped into his eyes.
A voice startled him, “What are you doing out here, kid?”
He looked up. The silhouette of a man standing in front of him in the street smudged for a moment. The man refocused in the light. Traces of grey hair were prominent on the side of his head. Deep wrinkles crept from the outside of his eyes. The man seemed to be made of all lean muscle as his arms flexed carrying a large brown bag in his hand.
Alphonse didn't answer and went back to wallowing in his misery.
Huh...? He jerked his head up at the familiar voice. It felt distant, yet close at the same time.
Another voice followed, "Alphonse, wake up!"
The man was still there, and he was smiling down at him. He pointed away from the chaotic city towards the two voices. "Looks like you don't need me right now."
Alphonse shot up to his feet. He stumbled a bit and stared down at his hands that were now covered by stitched gloves. He shook his head violently as he looked down at the body of his present, adult self. He searched around feverishly in the pockets of his rogue attire and found a familiar scarf. He unfolded it to reveal the insignia of a double-edged axe and staff crossed over each other.
That's right. He remembered the Siren tampered with his mind.
He stared at the scarf resting in his shaky hands. This is a memory, but...
Alphonse slowly raised his head and gazed down the road, following the direction the man beckoned towards.
Standing at the intersection were Kirie and Asa. They continued shouting desperately for him to wake up.
That's right, I...
He turned to look back at the man, who would one day become his adoptive father when he was a child back on Earth.
Alphonse felt the smile form on his face when he observed the beautiful catgirl mother standing there instead. She wore the typical sky-blue dress that matched with her flowing emerald hair. The cat ears on her head twitched blissfully. She smiled back at him and held out the brown bag his father had been carrying.
"You don't need this yet either," Rinka said.
Alphonse accepted it with a bit of hesitation. He reached into the brown bag that was weightless in his hand. Despite this, he felt the leather binding of the Construct Contract. He pulled it out and stared at it for a moment. Her words fully registered, and some minuscule understanding vied to make itself known.
Rinka approached him and rested an affectionate hand on his cheek. The muddled confines of his mind began to achieve clarity once again. The memory he resided in began to break down as he focused on the present.
He reached up and gently held Rinka's hand. "Yeah, you're right," he said.
Alphonse started walking to his catgirl companions. The world he once knew -- the lonely memories of his time in that city on Earth -- melted away.
Alphonse's eyes opened. Muffled shouts reached his ears as his senses struggled in tandem. He let out a pained groan as he pushed himself up from the wall. The sudden movement brought a dizzy spell as shapes took form in front of him.
He lurched back as he suddenly felt something slam against his chest. His back collided with the wall again and a forced gasp escaped him.
What the... His vision soon attained perfect clarity.
He looked down and saw a familiar pair of cat ears and crimson hair. Asa was on top of him, arms wrapped tight and face pressed into his chest.
He turned instinctively and saw Kirie staring at him just a few inches from his face. She rested on both knees and raised a hand to touch his cheek, as if she were unsure if it was really him or not. She grinned in an open smirk, as if he had merely overslept and kept them impatiently waiting.
"I knew it," she said. "You tough sonuvabitch." She stubbornly wiped at her eyes with the back of her wrist.
Alphonse reached up and grabbed her other hand. She stared at it for a few seconds before clasping them and intertwining their fingers together.
"Figured you guys would win," he said simply.
The heavy clomp of several boots on the porch approached and interrupted them. Alphonse looked up and saw a group of men in full armor standing over them with weapons unsheathed. The visors attached to their helmets obscured their expressions, but their stances indicated plenty of unease.
A middle-aged man shouldered passed them and gave Alphonse a look of what appeared to be genuine concern. The catgirls immediately moved themselves protectively to shield Alphonse.
The man raised his hands in a placating gesture. "I apologize for the display. It is merely a precaution, given the events that just recently unfolded." He directed his next words deliberately to Kirie and Asa. "My name is Jin Hanlon. I'm a Field Master working for the High Council. Please, be at ease. I only wish to help."