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Pahrak Model ZX

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  1. KARDAS DRAGON is moved to tears by the splendor of Queen's music! It continues to dance, now with soul!
  2. KARDAS DRAGON is flattened! 40 damage! KARDAS DRAGON is impressed by your reversal, and gives you a respectful nod as it gets back up.
  3. KARDAS DRAGON separates into KARDAS and DRAGON! They immediately run to each other, spin around to re-fuse into KARDAS DRAGON, and then it sings Stronger Than You as it starts swinging at you with a vengeance. HP: OVER NINE THOOOUUUSAAAAAAND!! KARDAS DRAGON begins to breakdance!
  4. KARDAS DRAGON is getting into the groove! It's matching the speed of your dance!
  5. KARDAS DRAGON appears to grow calm, but then remembers this song has the same tune as the alphabet song and grows furious over how long it took to realize that!
  6. KARDAS DRAGON yanks on the chain, bringing the entire dimension crashing down and unraveling the spacetime fabric that composed it! The talk of food makes it hungry, so it stops for a bagel on its way back to this universe. KARDAS DRAGON takes the hit! 30 damage! KARDAS DRAGON gets a spotlight and a mic, proceeding to describe how it will destroy you as its fans cheer from the stands. It then bounces off the ropes to body slam you!
  7. Victory!! This has been a blast to keep up with; thank you for hosting it for so long!
  8. KARDAS DRAGON gets a judgy look and throws a stack of vinyl at you! KARDAS DRAGON blushes, shuffling back sheepishly!
  9. KARDAS DRAGON is initially confused, but eventually puts its left arm in and shakes it all about. 20 damage! KARDAS DRAGON is enraged by your lack of respect for sleight of hand! It pulls a rabbit out of its hat, and then beats you with it. KARDAS DRAGON dodges expertly while lecturing you about the importance of a healthy diet!
  10. KARDAS DRAGON eyes you suspiciously, but nods.
  11. KARDAS DRAGON recognizes the voice. It remembers all the good times it had with Vezon, and that there actually weren't any good times, they were all bad. It retaliates in a fury! You step into the mind of KARDAS DRAGON! It wasn't expecting company, so the place is a mess, and it chases you away before you have the chance to judge its lifestyle!
  12. Isn’t that how it always goes? You’re out minding your own business when suddenly the screen flashes and you find yourself pulled into a random battle! And not just any random battle, but a battle against the legendary secret enemy… KARDAS DRAGON appears! Take whatever action you think will stop the beast! I’ll respond and let you know how effective it is…or isn’t. Attack it, try to run, sing to it—try anything, just remember you only get 1 action per post. Maybe if we all work together we’ll actually stand a chance! I suppose I should lead the charge…I launch a Rhotuka at Kardas Dragon! KARDAS DRAGON catches the Rhotuka in its mouth like a Frisbee! 0 damage! KARDAS DRAGON hates fetch! It’s angry now! Oh dear…
  13. Still getting used to this new layout and everything…ah, welcome back everyone! I missed you. Some of you, at least. The rest of you know what you did. Kind of a lot happened over the timeskip: my sister got married, I had a sudden-ish move, and I’m between jobs at the moment. I’ve also been working on my writing, primarily Shooting Star Sonia (3 is almost done!) and a TWEWY fic I’m doing for an event, plus some groundwork for NaNoWriMo and a bit of thought towards Right of Law. And, I’m pleased to say I’ve made some progress on certain issues I’ve been dealing with, though I won’t go into great detail. Come to think of it, my 15th anniversary happened during the break. Let’s see, over the past year I continued working on Shooting Star Sonia and Right of Law, wrote Detective Jaiya and the Baffling Barrier for the Fanfic Exchange, and I won my very first raffle! That’s about it, though. Hard to say what next year will bring, but I’m hoping to make progress on Law, and I’m certainly looking forward to the next Fanfic Exchange! And it seems Mr. Faber could have something interesting in store… That’s, ah, basically all I have to say for now. Oh, and the Steven Universe movie is pretty incredible. Also we’re getting a Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection in January! Rad stuff.
  15. Chapter 30 The Satella Officers filed out the other side of the room as Sonia came in. A crowd of humans and EM beings followed behind her, quickly filling the room back up, so she moved fast to get a seat at the front. Boreal adjusted some papers as he waited for everyone, and then cleared his throat and turned to the screen to his side. “As you no doubt already know, due to the hard work of Doctors Goodall and Vega, we have located Dealer’s base.” An image appeared on the screen: a non-descript concrete bunker built at the bottom of a massive canyon. “Detective Copper retrieved these images,” Boreal continued, “but it was decided that any closer inspection would run the risk of alerting Dealer to our discovery, which would set us back to square one. Unfortunately, this means we don’t have much for you to go on. We must attack while we have the opportunity, but I urge you all to proceed with the utmost caution.” “We’ll be going in with our best Satella Officers as support,” Copper said. “They’re going to divide into squads and attack the facility from various angles to probe for opposition. As for all of you…you’ll be breaking down the front gate.” “Sounds good to me!” Mega said. “Nice and simple!” “Just like you, Mega,” Lyra said. “What about you, Detective?” Geo asked as Mega grumbled to himself. “Are you coming with us?” “I’ve got a different objective,” Copper said. “With Plesio’s skills, he and I should be able to properly scope out the interior of the facility, and relay that information to everyone’s Hunters so you know what you’re getting into before you get to it. If anyone needs help, though, don’t hesitate to let us know.” “Once we’re inside, I’m sure Dealer will have something waiting to greet us,” Ace said. “We may be surprising them, but King is always prepared. However, we can’t waste time playing his game. A select group of us is going to focus on tracking down Joker, and we’ll need to save all our strength for that—if it becomes necessary, the rest of you may have to buy us the time we need.” “What about Jack and Tia?” Sonia asked. “Do we have a plan for them?” “Judging by what they said when they escaped,” Copper answered, “it sounds like those two are no longer interested in working for Dealer. Of course, we can’t be too sure—you’ll all need to keep your eyes peeled. But we feel there’s not enough reason to expect them to be there.” Bud raised his hand. “Um, excuse me. Who exactly is on the team to go after Joker?” “I’ll be leading it,” Ace said. “I know how King likes to organize his bases, so I’m confident I’ll be able to get us to him. I’m going to need Sonia and Geo’s help, and I know Solo wants another shot at the guy…” Solo, leaning against the back corner of the room with his arms crossed, just hummed. “And, with luck, that’ll be all we need.” Bud clenched his fists. “Ace…I request to be added to that team!” This made Ace pause. Eventually, he said, “I’m not so sure that’s the best idea.” “I can do it!” Bud said, shooting to his feet. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger, and I’m sure I can help you guys take him on!” “You’re definitely one of our heavy-hitters, Bud. But, I was thinking it might be best if one of our heavy-hitters stays with the larger group, to help them out.” “I’m sure they’ll be fine. Please, let me help fight Joker!” Ace looked to Boreal, who said, “I know you’re eager, Bud. But with the way Joker utilizes Noise to fight, we’re not sure it’ll be safe for anyone without a Noise Control Program to take him on—not if he unleashes his full power. Solo’s got his own protection, but we’re not sure if your Noise Filter will keep you safe.” Bud thought a moment. “Then, uh, shouldn’t we test it out? If the Noise Filter is going to become standard-issue, you need to know its limits, right?” Boreal sighed. Goodall chuckled, saying, “Oh, give him a chance. If it proves to be too much for the Filter, surely he can still help you secure the area.” “Yeah!” Bud said, nodding furiously. “If the Filter’s a bust, I’ll hang back and find something else to do! I—“ “Alright, alright,” Boreal said. “Ace?” With a slow nod, Ace said, “Okay, Bud. But you’ve got to keep a close eye on your Filter, alright?” “Definitely!” Bud said. “Thank you so much! I won’t let you down!” He bounced happily until Amy tapped his arm, reminding him to sit. Geo raised his hand next, saying, “One other thing. After what happened at the studio, Ace…should you really come into contact with Joker? What if he tries forcing you to Finalize again?” Ace scratched his head, glancing sideways at Boreal. “Yeah, that…I actually have my own request, Chief.” “Hm?” Boreal said. “What is it?” “Well…I want Acid’s restrictions to be removed.” Boreal stared at him blankly. “…What?” “The reason we went nuts was because we couldn’t control the Finalization—because the restrictions make that impossible. So I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” “But you could still lose control, Ace. And that would just make the situation even worse, with you fully Finalized!” “Hah, if that were to happen, I’m sure Joker would knock me flat before I had the chance to do any real harm.” “I’m not convinced of that. Besides, that would also disable the safety lock: your Wave Change won’t deactivate on its own no matter how much stress it puts on your body.” “It’s the final battle, Chief! What better time to take the extra risk?” Boreal shook his head, but then paused. Turning, he said, “Sonia, Geo. You two had to deal with this situation last time, so I want to know what you think.” The two of them exchanged a look. Geo was first, saying, “Well…from what I understand, it sounds like there’ll be less of a chance of him going berserk if we remove the restrictions. And even without the safety…if the stress pushes his body too far, I’m sure he’ll still…” “He’ll be too broken to be a threat before too long,” Mega finished. Geo looked down and began to fidget. “You’re right,” Ace said. “I won’t be able to cope with the damage very well if I’m not in control. Even if I pose a problem, it won’t be for very long.” Sonia could feel everyone looking at her now. She thought back to the incident, and to her fight with Joker, and tried to weigh them against each other. She stopped when she remembered Ace fainting. “…It’ll be risky for us, sure,” Sonia said. “But no matter what happens, Ace and Acid are the ones who have to really deal with the consequences. So…I think it should be their choice.” Boreal glanced over at Goodall and Vega. Neither said a word. Ultimately turning back to Ace, he said, “Ace…I want to be sure you’ve thought this through.” “I had a lot of time to do just that, Chief,” Ace said. “And Acid?” “There are no guarantees,” Acid said. “However, I find I largely agree with Ace’s assessment. I have been backed-up, so the situation poses little threat to me—I will go along with his decision.” Ace looked to his Hunter. “Hey, none of that talk! Back-up or no, what happens to you matters, buddy.” “…Thank you, Ace. I will retain my stance nonetheless.” Boreal ground his teeth, tapping his fingers against the podium for a very long time before finally speaking. “Fine. If you’re both sure about this…then I’ll approve your request.” “Thanks, Chief,” Ace said. “You won’t regret it!” “That brings up another point. As this is going to be a very dangerous assignment, we wanted to offer all EM beings the chance to have their data backed up as a precaution. If you need some time to think, that’s fine, just talk to one of the doctors before you leave.” Geo turned to Mega. The AM-ian shrugged, saying, “Eh, not exactly sporting if you ask me. Besides, if they can’t make a Wizard without super-compressing the waves, I’m not confident in their ability to restore me if I needed it.” “I concur,” Lyra said. “And it’d be a bit unfair, don’t you think? Our partners have no such opportunity. I’m willing to take the same risks.” “I appreciate where you’re coming from,” Sonia said, “but are you sure? I don’t want to—“ “Perish the thought, dear. We’ll make it out just fine in the end, so it’s really a moot point, don’t you think?” Sonia realized Luna was staring at her nervously from the next seat. Squeezing her hand a little, she said, “…Right. We’ll be fine.” “I think that covers it,” Boreal said. “If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask. You’ll be departing shortly. I wish you all the best of luck.” *** The bunker looked a fair bit larger in person. From where they stood behind the cover of a rocky outcropping, Sonia gazed intently at the base, taking the time to steel herself for whatever was waiting inside. “How are you feeling?” She turned to see Ace standing there. Looking back at the base, she answered, “A little nervous, I guess. But I’m ready for this to be over. What about you?” Ace breathed deeply. “I have to admit, there’s something vaguely surreal about it. I can’t help but think that if I never made it out, I’d be here right now, about to defend it from all of you alongside Joker.” He chuckled. “I’d hate it here. Not much of a yard.” Sonia laughed a little. “On the bright side, you wouldn’t have to deal with noisy neighbors, at least.” A short silence passed over them. “Hey, Ace. I never asked: what was it that made you decide to leave Dealer?” “Well, to be honest…it was you.” She turned back to face him. “What?” “When the FM-ians launched their full-scale invasion of Earth, King picked up on their transmission. I heard it, and I was prepared to mobilize against the FM-ians, ready to do whatever it took to defend the Earth. King told us to just sit tight. That really confused me—I was raised to think that Dealer was doing the right thing, that there was some very important end we were all working towards…but what kind of goal did we have that we weren’t willing to even try to protect the Earth? It didn’t make any sense to me. While I was busy trying to work that out, you went ahead and actually saved the planet.” Ace looked up at the sky. “After that, I was constantly questioning if what we were doing was right. Slowly starting to see that it wasn’t. And when Mu showed up in the sky, and again King said we weren’t to do anything about it, and you reappeared to take care of that problem too…I realized that I couldn’t stay with Dealer. We had the power to help the world, but King had clearly shown he was willing to let it burn. It was hard, but in the end, I decided I didn’t want to help a guy like that, even if he was the one that raised me.” He smiled at Sonia. “But you? You always use your power to help people. You’re a real hero, Sonia, and I knew you’d be able to stop King from enacting his plans. I knew your team was the one I belonged on.” Sonia needed a moment to take his words in. When they settled, she said, “I think…you’re giving me a little too much credit, Ace. But thanks. I’ll try not to let you down.” Ace headed back towards the group. Sonia took one last look at the bunker before following him, thinking, I thought King wanted to control the world. Why would he be okay with Planet FM destroying it, or Dr. Vega taking it over before him? There must be something I’m missing… “Alright, team!” Ace said. “This is it! We’ll rush the door at my signal!” Everyone gathered around, all of them but Ace Wave Changing in preparation. Copper sank into the ground and headed off, and Ace held up his hand, watching the time on his Hunter to give the detective a proper head start. Sonia tightened her grip on her guitar. She glanced over the others—Geo, Pat, Rey, Bud, Amy, Claude, Kidd, Wolfe, Shepar, Dubius, Hyde. Nervous as some of them looked, she could tell they were all ready for this. She nodded to herself. I guess it doesn’t matter. We’re finishing this here and now. Dealer doesn’t get to hurt anyone else after today. “Go!” Twelve Wave Changed humans bore down upon Dealer’s door, Ace bringing up the rear with only his gun. Bud made it there first, tackling the entryway head-on, and plowed straight through as if the door wasn’t even there. The massive room beyond was every bit as dreary as the exterior: giant glass tubes filled with Crimson lined the walls, connected by thick pipes to a great machine in the center that rattled incessantly. Alarms sounded as the others rushed in. A light atop the machine shimmered, and it fired a spread of laser beams at the intruders; Amy slid forward and threw up a wall of ice, blocking the shots, while Pat and Rey ran around it and towards the machine. Carefully dodging the blasts, they got high enough to fry the mechanism with electricity, and then shouted down that it was clear. Everyone fanned out in an instant. “Don’t hit that thing too hard,” Ace said. “We don’t want this much raw Crimson floating around. Now, which way is forward?” “There’s a door up here!” called Dubius, landing on a balcony. “I don’t see a good way up, though…” “Can you give me a boost?” As Dubius flew down to where Ace was, Hyde teleported right up to the door and stabbed his cane through the lock. The door swung open slowly, and as it did, a card fell from above it—a king of clubs. With a yell, Hyde leapt away. The central machine flashed, and tiny cracks appeared along its surface to allow Noise to stream out of containment, very nearly hitting Pat and Rey in the process; it all streamed through the air straight to the card, forming around it into a very large body. The balcony collapsed under its weight as it solidified into the visage of Club Strong. “Strong?!” Geo said. “No, he’s definitely still back in Alohaha…” “It must be the Noise,” Lyra said. “It would seem King found a way to use the data it contains to reconstruct the beings it corrupted.” Sonia looked to Claude and Kidd. They stared wide-eyed at the replica, struck silent for a moment. Then, after nodding to each other, they got into their battle stances and moved in. Sonia and Geo readied to help them, but Ace held out a hand. “We need to save our strength,” Ace said. “Let the others handle this.” “I’m sure we can spare a little!” Sonia said. “That’s not a risk we can take. Just focus on getting past Strong.” Kidd shot a blast while forming a doppelganger to give him a boost. Strong shrugged off the shot and spotted Kidd flying towards him, but Claude’s pincers smacked him in the knees before he could do anything—Kidd kicked Strong in the face, but it didn’t do much. The boys regrouped as Strong pulled back his club. Wolfe bounded forward, and in a flash, extended his claws to cut apart the weapon, leaving Strong open for an attack from Hyde. Noise streamed over to Strong to repair his club, but once that was done, the corrupted waves began to flow to another corner of the room. Shepar watched them go, and spotted another distortion forming behind the group. “There’s more of them!” he shouted, summoning a few weights. The Noise formed into Spade Magnes, a swipe of his sword just barely blocked thanks to Shepar. A blast of water consumed him, and Amy quickly froze it, giving them enough time to reassess the situation—and it was now they noticed a third body forming on the other side of the room, emerging as Diamond Ice. “Like I said,” Ace reminded Sonia, “just move forward. Trust the others to handle this!” Sonia scanned the room. The others had recovered from the initial surprise and were ready to deal with these foes, rapidly conferring with each other to get their strategies laid out. With effort, she set her concern aside and focused on the door behind Strong. “Let’s roll,” she said. Geo and Solo were able to get there quickly thanks to their teleportation abilities. Dubius had carried Ace into the air, and now was just waiting for an opportunity to deposit him, while Bud breathed out a puff of flame and ran forward. Claude and Kidd were still drawing Strong’s attention, so it wasn’t until Bud was bounding up the rubble to where the door was that he noticed them. Strong spun and raised his weapon, and Sonia fired her strings at it—she pulled herself through the air and over Strong’s head, distracting him further, and Claude smacked an enlarged pincer into one side of his face while Kidd threw his all into a heavy punch at his ankle. The behemoth toppled over on his side, and Dubius quickly set Ace down and turned around to join the fray. “Alright,” Ace said. “No more delays: get going!” The five of them ran for it. Sonia could hear the battle raging on behind them, and though she wanted to turn back, she did not. I don’t know if we need to save our strength quite this badly, but…Ace is right. I should trust them. She sighed heavily, willing her worries to step aside. And then she kept running. *** King stared up at the screen: on one side, it depicted the battle taking place in the Crimson refinery, and on the other, he could see Sonia’s team moving through a corridor. Stroking his chin, the man hummed quietly and just watched until he heard the door open. “Mr. King,” Joker said, striding forward. “Do we really have intruders?” “Indeed we do,” King said, turning his chair around. “It would seem WAZA has found us out at last. Right now, Harp Note is on her way here.” “Allow me to deal with them,” Joker said. “I will expel them from this place.” “In time, my boy, in time. As I said, they are coming to us. No need to run around in a panic.” Heartless entered the room next. King gestured to the giant roulette wheel on the wall behind him, and she nodded, making her way over to it. “Heartless and I will wait within the vault as a precaution. You, Joker, are to wait right here: I want to have a front row seat to see you best our enemy’s royal flush.” “As you wish, Mr. King,” Joker said. “I hope it shall prove entertaining to you.” The wheel opened from the wall on a hinge, revealing a relatively small room beyond. Heartless and King made their way inside, the latter saying, “I am doubtless it will, Joker! You always put on the most thrilling performances. Ho ho ho ho!” The door swung shut and sealed itself. Joker turned around, staring down the room as he waited for his opponents to arrive. Harp Note…Ace…Rogue…bring as many as you desire. I will crush each and every one of you using the power of Meteor G. Acid shall finally join me, and we shall be free to use our power as we please. I will enact the will of nature and see the weak perish…and prove to you that it was no mistake to grant me this strength, mother. Chapter 31 Copper moved silently through the halls of Dealer’s base, doing his best to put together a map of the facility while keeping his eyes and ears peeled for any sign of trouble. He carefully poked into a few rooms, finding nothing of particular interest in any of them. Thus far, he’d yet to encounter even the slightest resistance…and that struck him as odd. This place is a ghost town. I remember Ace saying there were only a handful of operatives left, but I still expected more Wizards and viruses. Did they really use all of them up in the recent attacks? And if they’re that willing to throw their forces away, then— “I thought I sensed something over here…” Copper started. He quickly sank into the floor as footsteps drew closer, barely making it underground as someone rounded the corner. It was Jack who appeared. What?! What’s he doing here? Jack glanced about the hallway. Tia stepped out behind him, saying, “Focus, Jack.” With some reluctance, Jack followed her, and Copper relaxed just a little. “Yeah, you’re right,” Jack said as they moved on. “Finally we’re putting an end to this farce! I was sick of waiting.” “I told you: we would not be able to defeat Joker. We must let WAZA handle him while we claim the Crimson.” They quickly moved out of earshot. Copper thought, So they’re here after all. It still doesn’t sound like they’ll be an obstacle, but we can’t be too careful. “Plesio,” he murmured. “Let the others know that Jack and Queen Tia are here pursuing their own objectives. I doubt they’ll cause trouble for us unless we engage them, so I suggest giving them a wide berth.” The PM-ian set about composing the message. Copper moved forward slowly, considering his next move. That being said…if I can successfully tail them, I’d be able to make sure they don’t cause a problem. He paused at a branch. Well, the way they came from probably doesn’t have anything worth investigating. Keeping his head underground, Copper headed in the same direction Jack and Tia had gone, hoping it was the right decision. *** Freezing cold permeated the entire room. Missiles flew about at random, and the floor shook sporadically under the heavy footsteps of Strong; several tanks of Crimson had now been broken open by stray attacks, leaving small clouds of the stuff to float about freely. Pat took a deep breath as he did his best to stay calm. “You alright bro?” Rey asked, standing in front of him with his arm transformed into a shield. “Yeah, I’ll manage.” Pat steeled himself. “Let’s give it another try!” The two of them ran forward, Pat hurling a series of lightning bolts as he went. Up ahead, Ice wove between the blasts and summoned two large chunks of ice, sending them out to meet the boys. Rey reinforced his weapon arm to punch through one of them. Pat slid underneath the other, and then resumed his attack. Ice was still too fast for him to hit. Hyde suddenly appeared in front of her to swing his cane—she narrowly spun around the attack, doing her best to stay on the edge of Pat’s range as she did, and Rey took the opportunity to fire a rocket punch. Finally, they hit her. “Yes!” Rey exclaimed, rushing forward in excitement. “Take that, you—“ Ice darted straight at him. Rey tried to dodge, but the floor was too slick for him to get his footing. Skates kicked him in the face, knocking him flat; Hyde summoned a shadowy hand to try to grab their foe before she got away, but she slipped right through his fingers. Pat nearly hit her, a snowflake spawning between them just in time. He dodged the icy wind as best he could, falling down in the process. As Pat started to get up, Rey suddenly jumped forward and pushed him back down, keeping them both low as Ice swung a massive hammer in a wide arc. “Ah, thanks,” Pat said. “I thought this was going to be easy…” “And are you going to let a little challenge discourage you?” Gemini asked. “Get to it.” “Shut up,” Rey said. “We don’t need you to tell us that!” Hyde worked to keep Ice distracted, constantly moving and throwing his hat in her path to keep her boxed in. Levitating above the ground, he remained unaffected by the hazardous conditions that had been laid down, yet still he was finding keeping up with Ice to be a difficult task. As Ice dodged his next attack, she skated up a wall that had frozen over and leapt through the air towards Hyde, generating three icebergs around herself as she came crashing down. Hyde dodged back, and was pushed away when the icebergs spiraled outward. Ice tracked him but couldn’t chase—Pat and Rey had moved in with their swords ready, so she rolled back and onto her hands. Kicking out with her legs, Ice swung her skates to deflect both swords before flipping back upright and clapping her hands together. The icebergs were pulled back in at her command. Pat avoided them, but Rey was blindsided and sent flying through the air. Ice grinned…until a bolt of lightning arced around her defenses to strike her. Rey ultimately collided with Spade Magnes, unknowingly stunning the Wizard and giving Dubius the chance he needed to pelt him with precise feather bullets. Wolfe ducked in quickly to pick the boy up and get him clear, and then slashed the air to send a cutting shockwave at Magnes. With a roar, Magnes fired a series of missiles at the two of them while charging headlong at Dubius, but a line of Libra’s weights materialized to block the projectiles. “You alright, Rey?” Shepar asked from nearby. “Fine,” Rey snarled, “but what about Pat?!” He looked back to see Pat still locked in combat with Ice, swinging his sword over and over as she continued to spin around and parry his blows with careful kicks of her skates. Rey was about to charge in when Hyde suddenly appeared and swatted Ice away. Pat looked over at him with a grin. “I’m fine, Rey!” he said. “See if they need help while you’re there!” Groaning, Rey glanced back at Magnes. Dubius and Wolfe had summoned a small group of ducks and wolves to charge their enemy, who shot one red missile forward before swinging his sword of the same color. An energy field spawned from the missile, engulfing the lackeys, and when the sword was swung the entire group was sent flying back at Dubius and Wolfe by a powerful repulsive force. Magnes transformed his body into a rocket and launched himself at the two of them. More weights blocked him, and as he transformed back, Shepar switched places with one of them and spun himself into a spiral of fire and water, catching Magnes by surprise. It didn’t last long, however: the Wizard swung at Shepar’s arms, keeping him from attacking, and managed to push him back a bit. A rocket punch from Rey knocked him out of it. “That’s all the help you’re getting!” the boy called as he bounded back towards Pat. Shepar switched places with a nearby weight to buy enough time to charge one scale with fire. He smacked Magnes with it, and then enlarged the other to serve as a shield when the Wizard counterattacked. Dubius flipped over the weights to land a diving kick, and Wolfe wasn’t far behind, though the blow he dealt with his claws didn’t seem to do much. A cluster of missiles came their way—Dubius scattered them with a gust, and then Shepar extended the cords of his arm to smack Magnes again before all three retreated. “What’s the matter with you?” Wolf asked. “Nothing,” Wolfe said. “Nothing? You barely scratched that guy.” “It’s nothing.” Wolfe pressed himself against the floor as Magnes shot by overhead. While he was still in rocket form, Dubius rammed into him from the side to send him careening straight into one of Shepar’s weights. Wolfe got up and ran at his dazed target, delivering a shallow cut, but his follow-up came slow enough that Magnes was able to catch it on his sword. Magnes slashed Wolf and immediately repelled him. He then attracted a magnetized weight to his arm, spun it around, and repelled it with such force that it buried itself deep in the wall; only the timely intervention of Dubius enabled Wolfe to avoid it. “If you’re gonna hold back, then what’s the point of us even being here?” Wolf asked. As he set Wolfe down, Dubius asked, “Um…are you alright, Damian?” “Fine,” Wolfe said, running past him without another word. Dubius prepared to follow, but Cygnus said, “Tom, on your left!” Three small whirlwinds of Crimson were moving towards him. Dubius quickly spun around with his wings outstretched, generating his own whirlwinds to counteract the intruders, and then watched as the Crimson gradually settled in place. “We really need a way to clean this stuff up,” he murmured, glancing past the cloud to see Strong raising his club. Amy bounded to the side to avoid the weapon, and then up onto Strong’s shoulder, kicking him in the side of the head. She hung on tightly as he tried to shake her off, and looked down to see Kidd throwing Claude up with all his might. The boy enlarged his claw as much as he could so that when he connected with Strong’s jaw, it actually stunned him for a moment—seeing her chance, Amy beat her fist against Strong to call down an avalanche that knocked him off balance. Kidd fired a barrage of energy blasts while Claude shot a stream of water at the same point, and together they managed to send Strong toppling over with a mighty crash. “Take that!” Claude cheered. “This guy may look like Strong, but he ain’t so tough!” “Nice job!” Amy said. “Now let’s see if we can keep him down!” Strong waved his arm blindly as they continued to pelt him with attacks. None of them damaged him all that much, but together they proved enough of a nuisance that he was unable to get back to his feet. Eventually his fingers closed around a small cloud of Crimson. With a bellow, he smashed it into the floor, and it exploded into a radial burst of Noise shrapnel that hit all three of his opponents. They stumbled back, waiting for the stinging pain to die down, as Strong rose up once more. “Owowow,” Claude grumbled. “Great, back to square one…” Kidd took a step forward, saying, “I shall draw his attention this time.” “Huh? You sure about that?” “Absolutely. You and Amy wait for an opportunity to restrain him.” Kidd ran at Strong. The lumbering Wizard spat out several acorns to impede him, but they barely even slowed Kidd down. As he drew near, he began creating doppelgangers in a trail behind himself—when Strong swung his club, they all evaded and grouped together. When they separated, Strong was no longer sure which was the real target. “I’m ready,” Amy said as she slid up next to Claude. “Just tell me as soon as you are.” Claude snapped his pincers anxiously as he watched Kidd circle around Strong. One of the doppelgangers leapt high and shot an energy blast, its form looking far less solid once it did. Strong destroyed it with his club, and then Kidd and his other doppelgangers leapt in, hitting Strong all over his body before he could pull back from the swing. Grunting, he waved his arm, but accomplished little. Strong raised both hands above his head, shouted, and then slammed them both down, fragmenting the ground around him, destroying Kidd’s doppelgangers, and sending the real one flying a short distance away. Claude winced, but threw his arms up and said, “Now!” A great tidal wave came up from the floor. At the same time, Amy reached out and exuded as much cold as she could muster. The wall of water was part-way through breaking over its target when it froze completely, leaving the majority of Strong’s body trapped in an enormous block of ice. “Whew,” Amy sighed. “Hopefully this’ll hold…” Claude yelled and ran at Strong, throwing one of his claws to punch him in the face. He alternated his left and right as he continued, and soon Kidd was at his side, adding quick blasts between the punches. “Take this!” Claude said. “And that! We ain’t afraid of you, right Kidd?” “Not at all!” Kidd said. “We will not allow this monster to continue disgracing Lord Strong!” Amy chuckled. “Maybe I should leave it to them.” “Beg pardon miss,” called Hyde, “but if you are not busy we could use your assistance!” Amy turned to see Pat and Rey frozen while Hyde desperately fended off Ice by himself. Sliding over, she collided into Ice shoulder-first, sending her crashing into the wall. Ice immediately sent out an iceberg, but it was pulled into a snowball Amy rolled and returned back to its maker. Amy turned to say something and frowned: cracks were already spreading across Strong’s prison. “What do we try next?” Yeti asked. “That guy’s defenses aren’t gonna be easy to bust through.” “Sort of wishing Bud was here after all,” Amy mumbled. Hyde tugged on the brim of his hat and tapped his cane against the floor. “Not to worry, miss. The curtain is about to rise on a scene that I think you will find most thrilling. Heh, heh, heh…” Pat and Rey finally managed to free themselves at about the same time Ice did. They took up fighting stances as the Wizard looked around in a rage, but rather than take them on, she darted off in the opposite direction. “No you don’t!” Rey said, raising his arm. “Wait a second!” Pat said. “Look at Hyde!” Rey glanced his way—the man was grinning to himself, watching Ice make her way over towards Strong. The immense Wizard shattered the remains of his cage and smashed the ground with his club, narrowly missing Kidd and Claude. He pulled back for another swing, only to find two large icebergs crashing into his shins. Turning, he saw Diamond Ice skating right at him, and tilted his head in confusion. Ice wasted no time in generating a massive hammer and bludgeoning him in the face with it. “Huh,” Rey said, “guess that works…” “If they’ve got that handled, let’s help the others,” Pat suggested. “You sure you don’t need to rest?” Gemini scoffed. “Show some initiative, boy. Lazing about in the midst of battle is hardly what I’d call productive.” Pat was off before Rey could respond, so he just followed quietly. Dubius was currently driving Magnes back with a series of kicks—the Wizard evaded each one, sending missiles out at random while he waited for an opening. When he did make a swing, Dubius crossed his arms to block, and Magnes smirked and readied his second blade. Dubius just narrowed his eyes, and the tip of his hat suddenly sharpened into a fine point that extended forward, piercing Magnes’s helmet and interrupting his attack. A swift kick to the chest sent him reeling. That was when Pat and Rey dropped down on either side of him and attacked with their own blades. “You two?” Wolfe asked. “What about…” He turned to see Ice assisting in the fight against Club. Before he could ask, a mighty roar from Magnes prompted him to return his attention to more pressing concerns. Magnes retaliated ferociously, Pat and Rey only barely able to parry, and then he leapt backwards and exerted his power. Pat and Rey’s weapon arms were drawn together by magnetism. Rey laughed as they blasted Magnes with Gemini Thunder. “Heh,” Wolf said, “maybe they don’t need us after all. Good thing, since you weren’t much help anyway.” Wolfe scowled. Shepar approached him then, asking, “Damian, what’s going on? If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t seem to be giving it your all.” Quietly, he replied, “It’s…Magnes. I know it isn’t really him, but…it’s a Wizard I know. A harmless school Wizard.” He looked at his claws. “I spent a long time learning to control myself so I wouldn’t hurt innocent people. Guess part of me can’t help but think that’s what I’m doing now.” “I see. Then in that case, you’d better leave this to us.” Wolfe looked up. “I appreciate that, Mitch, but I can’t. You and Tom are still new to this—Pat and Rey too. I can’t just turn tail and leave you all to fend for yourself. You guys need my help.” Shepar nodded. “So then…you’ll fight Magnes to keep the rest of us safe?” After a short delay, Wolfe sighed. “Yeesh, it’s really that simple, huh? Gosh, I’m an idiot.” “Haha, we all need a little push every now and then. Just focus on who you’re defending, not who you’re fighting. You can do this.” “Right. Thanks, Mitch.” Wolfe turned to Magnes. Pat, Rey, and Dubius had him surrounded, but his attacks were too wild for them to land a solid hit. Wolfe lengthened his claws and glanced at Shepar. “You mind?” he asked. “Not at all.” A weight appeared over Magnes. He realized in time to jump away, and that was when Wolfe pounced. Before Magnes even saw him, he dealt a blow that threw him up against the side of the now-grounded weight, and then followed up with several more claw slashes before Magnes finally got in a lucky shot. Magnes switched to his rocket form to escape, weaving through weights as he did; Pat used precise lightning blasts to limit his running space even further, and Dubius swooped down from above to send him straight towards the ground. Rey was waiting with his arm in the shape of a hammer. He smacked Magnes so hard he went flying off to the other side of the room, where Strong’s club accidentally hit him dead-on, and he was ultimately launched straight into Ice, leaving the two of them in a tangled heap. “Good job, kids,” Wolfe said. “Come on, let’s keep on him!” Pat chuckled. “Whatever you say, Mr. Wolfe!” Strong was vaguely aware of Magnes, but didn’t have time to do much about it. A tidal wave nearly knocked his club from his hand, and as he was struggling to keep hold, Kidd dealt a pinpoint blow to his opposite shoulder. Strong’s arm went limp for a moment, leaving him even less able to defend himself. He roared in frustration as the attacks just kept coming. Nearby, Hyde turned to see Pat, Rey, and the others chasing after Magnes, greeting, “Well…bang-up job, I suppose. But, there is a slight complication…” Ice threw Magnes off and leapt to her feet. Her eyes were burning with fury, and they were now fixed squarely on Hyde. Pat acted fast: he generated a few dozen orbs of lightning that hung low to the ground, and they all gradually moved in on Ice’s location. Wolfe extended his claws to try swipe at her from afar, but she ducked and put both hands on the floor, willing sharp icicles to jut up all around her and offer some defense against the minefield closing in on her. Shepar shot a fireball to obliterate them instantly. Magnes was back up now, looking worse for wear but not defeated yet. He roared weakly, and then fired a barrage of missiles that absorbed the lightning orbs Pat had made and forcing him and his allies to scatter. Ice rushed forward at the chance. Pat shot a rocket punch, but she generated a snowflake in her hand to block it and then rammed into him with it. He slid across the ground, barely noticing Magnes fly by overhead, but his attention was drawn to Ice, who was rearing back with another hammer. Pat’s eyes widened. He scrambled futilely to get up off the slick floor, and braced himself as Ice swung down. At the last second, Rey dove in and pushed him out of the way. The hammer struck his brother with enough force that the ground beneath him cracked, drawing a quick shout of pain from him before the strength completely drained from his body. “Rey!” he shouted, finally rolling back up on his feet. “Rey, are you okay?!” Shepar dropped a weight to snap the hammer in two. Moving towards Ice, he shouted, “Hey, over here!” As he forced Ice back with a shower of fireballs, Pat ran over to Rey, who lay sprawled out on the floor with his teeth clenched. “Rey…!” “Heh…sorry, Pat,” Rey said. “I’m…not so sure…I can move…” “Not only that, we’ve lost quite a lot of energy from all the hits you’ve been taking,” Gemini said. “We may not be able to maintain Wave Change much longer.” Panic began to swell in Pat’s chest. “Well…what do we do? What are we going to do, Rey?!” “Calm down,” Gemini said. “I will be able to conserve energy if I gather it into one form—dismissing Rey’s body will allow me to focus my power upon maintaining Wave Change with you. And, mangled as he is, it’s the better idea anyway.” “What?! But I need Rey! I can’t do this without him! There has to be another way, I—“ “Hey,” Rey said, slowly reaching up. “Pat…c’mere.” Pat took Rey’s hand, leaning down to listen. “It’s gonna be…okay. I’m not…gonna be much help…in this state…I gotta rest…regain my energy…so I’m sorry…but you’re gonna need to finish this…without me.” “But…I still need you, Rey! I’m not ready to do this myself!” Rey grinned. “I’m not gonna be gone forever…I’m always here for you, whenever you need me. Thing is…right now? You don’t need me, bro.” Pat shook his head. “Rey, I…” “I know…you can do it. You’ve gotten…so strong, Pat…and you’ve got plenty of others watching your back too. I…I trust them. And I know that you can do this…without me.” He cringed as his body spasmed, but then chuckled. “’Sides…even if I’m not out here…I’ll always be a part of you. You’re never really alone, Pat. So…go get ‘em.” Rey tightened his grip. In a flash, his form vanished, and then Pat’s right arm began to glow. A second later, it was encased in the same gold metal as his left, but rather than a + on the shoulder, it bore a – symbol. He gently grabbed the arm, and bit his lip. “…Right. You’re still with me, Rey. And right now, you need me to protect you. So…I’ll take the lead this time.” Pat turned around. Shepar and Hyde were holding off Ice—they weren’t having much luck hitting her, but Hyde was similarly evading her attacks, while Shepar took very little damage thanks to his armor. “How dramatic,” Gemini said. “If you’re quite done, then—“ “Shut up, Gemini.” The FM-ian was taken aback. However, he said nothing more. Pat headed off across the icy floor, raising his right arm and firing each of its fingers individually while his left crackled with electricity. Ice dodged the projectiles and skated towards him. As his fingers regenerated, Pat hurled a lightning blast; Ice easily avoided it and sent out an iceberg, circling around to keep an eye on her target. Turning his arm into a clawed gauntlet, Pat jumped and clung to the iceberg, firing more lightning bolts to keep Ice on her toes. Hyde and Shepar had caught up now to assist him, and together they boxed Ice in. Pat leapt off the iceberg and formed his arm into a drill, pushing Ice back as he created another electric orb behind her—she was stunned, allowing him to knock her back with a hammer. Ice quickly jumped up and cut him with her skates, but stumbled when she came back down. Both Pat’s hands crackled. “This is for Rey!” he said, clapping them together. “Gemini Thunder!” He opened his palms and thrust them forward. A spiraling torrent of lightning poured forth, colliding headfirst with Ice and tearing her body into shreds of Noise near-instantly. Pat let out a long breath before smiling. “Hm…well done,” Gemini said. “You truly have improved.” Pat nodded. “Thanks. But we’re not done just yet.” Meanwhile, Dubius and Wolfe had continued to beat down a rapidly-weakening Magnes, one of his arms now completely severed as he floated back cautiously. He fired a missile that exploded into an energy field, allowing him to repel the both of them, but not before they summoned a handful of minions just beyond the field’s limits to keep him occupied. “Hey, Tom,” Wolfe said. “Whaddaya say we finish this guy so we can move onto the big one?” Tom chuckled nervously. “Ah, well…sure. Why not?” Magnes looked up to see Wolfe extending his claws across the room. They pierced him like a group of spears, pinning him to the wall, and he flailed his remaining arm against them as Dubius danced towards him. Magnes managed to cut through one of the claws, but that was all he could do before Dubius smashed his head into the wall with a kick. A few seconds later, his body too disintegrated into Noise. Everyone’s attention was now on Strong. He surveyed the room, realizing that his allies were down, and scowled. After enduring a few more hits, he clenched his fists and shouted—slowly, all the Crimson in the room converged on him, soaking into his body until none of it remained. A red glow enveloped Strong, and he glared down at his foes with new malice. Shepar was quick to act, peppering Strong with fireballs. Wolfe ran forward to swipe his claws through one of them, lighting them before slashing at Strong’s chest, but even that only stopped Strong for a second. He swung his club, and a massive tornado moved forward to toss everyone about. Opening his mouth, he began spitting out acorns, and each one exploded as soon as they hit something, causing even more damage to the room. One of Hyde’s shadow hands reached out from the wall and grabbed Strong’s club—it tried to wrest the weapon away from him, but it was no use. Strong simply ripped it free and bashed it against the floor, sending cracks shooting all across it. “Uh-oh,” Cancer said. “This is really, really bad! We could barely touch this guy before, and now…” Claude gritted his teeth. “I know…but we can’t give up! He’s taken a lot of damage already, we just gotta keep pushing until he finally breaks, no matter how much it takes! We’re not running away this time, right Kidd?” Kidd nodded. “…I do believe a change of strategy is in order, however. Allow me a moment to gather my energy.” Claude turned to him and, after a short delay, said, “Wait, are you gonna try that new technique? Are you sure about that?” “Perhaps not sure, but I have decided. That is, if you agree, Goat?” “I do,” Goat said. “Claude is right: we must do whatever it takes.” “…Alright then,” Claude said. “I’ll make sure you have all the time you need!” Kidd smiled, and then closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Claude turned back around to see how the others were doing: Amy was pelting Strong with snowballs while Dubius flitted around his head battering him with feathers, and Hyde, Wolfe, and Pat hacked away at his ankles. Shepar alternated fire and water blasts as he slowly circled the field, dropping a weight on Strong’s head when he saw a chance. Strong spat an explosive acorn at him, but he had already switched places, and spun himself into a whirlwind right on Strong’s back. With a heave, Strong threw himself back into a wall, smashing Shepar into it, and then summoned another tornado that swept up Dubius. Strong peeled Shepar off the wall and threw him across the room—Shepar was barely able to switch places with another weight, ending up safe on the ground while he caught his breath. “Can you put him in an illusion?” Pat asked, carefully avoiding Strong’s swing. “Unfortunately,” Hyde said, “I put so much energy into Miss Ice’s show that the budget won’t allow for another performance. Dreadfully sorry about that.” Wolfe lengthened his claws and swung them upward, slashing Strong’s chin. The Wizard responded by kicking him, putting him in the opposite wall. Pat distracted him with a wall of lightning bolts as Amy came closer, Hyde offering what help he could; Amy tried freezing Strong’s damaged shoulder, but he whipped around as soon as he felt a chill, dealing a powerful hit that sent her flying. Strong swatted at Pat, but Hyde managed to get him away in time. That was when Strong finally noticed Claude and Kidd. He spat an acorn at them, but Claude acted quickly, catching it in a bubble before it exploded. “You kids need to move!” Shepar shouted. “He can’t!” Claude said. “He’s focusing his power for a last-ditch move right now! I gotta keep him safe so he can finish!” Shepar grunted. Strong was rearing back, so he focused on the space in front of Claude and dropped a few dozen weights as fast as he could. Just as he finished, Strong threw a hundred punches, releasing a hundred precise shockwaves that battered against the barrier and slowly but surely rattled it apart. Still, not a single hit reached Claude. Strong prepared to fix that just as Dubius kicked a clawed foot into his eye. “Thanks, mister!” Claude said. Shepar rolled over to them, asking, “How much more time does he need?” Claude looked back at Kidd: a subtle glow was emanating from him. “He should be close…just a little more time!” Wolfe and Hyde were back in the fight. Amy shook her head before limping over, and noticed the pile of dented weights lying around. She grinned. “Hey,” she called, forming a snowball, “heads-up!” With a push, the snowball went rolling into the pile of debris, absorbing them all to grow far larger. It rolled to a stop, now looking a bit too heavy to be thrown, so instead Claude slammed his pincers into the floor to summon a tidal wave, the wall of water picking up the snowball and carrying it forward to break over Strong. The Wizard was stunned—even more so once Pat fired off a Gemini Thunder, using the snow around him to strengthen the effect. Claude looked back again to see Kidd’s eyes open. “I’m ready,” Kidd said. “Here we go…” The glow surrounding him grew brighter. Gradually, Kidd began to increase in size, growing until he was about the same height as Strong and then taking a moment to exhale. Strong immediately took notice and grunted at him. “This ends now!” Kidd lunged and bashed Strong in the chest before he had time to react. The Wizard was slammed back against the wall, nearly breaking through it, and watched wide-eyed as Kidd pressed his advantage. After taking another punch, Strong managed to catch Kidd’s fist in his hand—he twisted the boy’s arm, giving him time to kick him back, but Kidd rolled up onto his feet and right back into his stance. Strong jumped forward to throw a punch, and when Kidd blocked him, he backed away and readied his club. Kidd retreated, the weapon narrowly missing him. He saw Strong getting ready to spit more acorns, so he moved in, dealing several hits in rapid succession to stun his enemy and whittle down his endurance. Kidd raised his fist for the final blow, but without warning, Strong’s aura burst, throwing him off-guard for a moment. That was all the time Strong needed to floor him with his club. “Kidd!” Claude shouted. Strong reared back for another blow, but before he could swing, a snowball blinded him. He cleared it quickly, whirling to send a tornado after Amy, but Dubius appeared to dispel it, sticking him with a few feathers at the same time. Wolfe leapt onto Strong, and as the Wizard struggled to pry him off, Hyde teleported just behind his neck and kicked up a shockwave. Strong shooed him away and tossed Wolfe aside, spotting Shepar wheeling over. He was about to strike when Pat appeared, stunning him with a drill strike to the ankle, and Shepar was able to close in and generate a column of fire and water right in front of Strong. The Wizard was fuming by the time he could move again. He didn’t realize Kidd was back on his feet until the boy drove both fists straight into his chest, flinging him into the wall once more. “There,” Kidd panted. “That should...do it…” Kidd rapidly shrank back to his normal size, falling over in exhaustion. Everyone watched carefully to see if Strong would get back up. He did. “We need a new plan!” Shepar said. “I’ll get Kidd out, the rest of you keep Strong back!” They readied themselves as Strong took a slow step forward. The giant hefted his club high above his head, growling weakly as he did. Then, one of Claude’s pincers came flying through the air, striking his fingers and making him lose his grip. The club fell directly onto Strong’s head, dropping him instantly. As his body finally began to fade, Claude reattached his pincer and ran over to Kidd’s side, and the others all collectively breathed a sigh of relief. “Kidd, are you alright?” Claude asked, gently grabbing him the shoulders. “I’m fine, Claude,” Kidd said. “Nice throw.” “Hehe, yeah, I guess. We did it, huh? All of us did!” He grinned at everybody as they undid their Wave Changes one by one. Hyde clapped his hands slowly, saying, “Bravo, bravo to all! Seems the troubled production of Project-TC came together quite nicely in the end! The question is, what do we do now?” “I think we should rest up,” Shepar said. “That battle took a lot out of us.” “I agree,” Dubius said. “Besides, the others haven’t requested backup…and, really, I don’t think it’s likely they will.” “Wouldn’t hurt to go see if they need it, though,” Wolfe said. “Oh, we can discuss that later,” Hyde said. “For the time being, I believe Mr. Shepar has the right idea. We’ve earned a brief intermission. Whatever comes next can wait at least a few minutes, don’t you think?” There were no complaints. As they all found somewhere to sit in the rubble, Pat glanced up at the doorway that led deeper into the base; despite the relief he felt at his own battle being over, a strand of worry was gradually creeping over him now that he had the chance to think of something else. We’ve got this part covered…so you’ll be fine too, won’t you? Geo? Chapter 32 The Satella Officer peeked up over his cover. Viruses were rushing across the plains of Whazzap, a handful of which were nearly upon them. Turning to his new blaster, he flipped through the Battle Card display and then took aim: loading an Air Spread, he shot one virus and the energy burst out to damage the others nearby, making a small hole in the oncoming forces. “Keep at it!” shouted another officer. “We can’t let them through!” A shadow passed overhead. Seconds later, missiles fell upon the enemy forces, eradicating huge swaths of them at a time. The officers looked up and cheered, and Terra Condor screeched as he circled back around. “The other fronts are accounted for!” the Shaman said. “As soon as these interlopers are dealt with, the battle will be over!” A few of the viruses below took note of him. They attacked, but only a handful had the range to even threaten him, and even those he could easily avoid. That is, until one powerful blast of flame caught him by surprise. The Shaman took another look at the forces below: standing at the rear was a rather large humanoid Wizard clad in gleaming silver armor lined with small spikes, his head shaped like that of a Mal Wizard and a Coin emblem on his chest. In place of hands, each arm ended in a long, rectangular gun barrel. “Finally!” he shouted. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d EVER show up! See, I was told to save my strength to take you out, and I’ve been itching to test out this new power!” “Hmph!” the Shaman scoffed. “Dealer thinks you will be able to defeat me? You hardly look like much.” The Wizard laughed. “Looks can be deceiving, buddy! Let’s find out together if you can handle the onslaught of Silver Ballistic!” With a shout, Silver fired a volley of blasts into the air. The Shaman dropped and angled his body to weave through the spread, returning fire as soon as he saw an opening. Silver shot up one more blast as he jumped to the side, this one erupting into a bright flare that blinded the Shaman; he pulled up and tried to keep his distance until his sight returned, but he felt the sting of several shots nonetheless. “How irritating,” the Shaman grumbled. “My friend,” Condor said, “while we deal with him, we must not forget our comrades.” The Shaman realized the virus horde was once again advancing on the Satella Officers. Circling wide to give himself a bit of time, he released two missiles that dropped a few feet before slowing down a bit, flashing a few times before transforming into miniature replicas of Terra Condor. “That should suffice for now,” he said as they swooped down towards the battlefield. “Now, back to the loud one…” Silver was still sending shots up, making him an easy target. The Shaman fired missiles just as he started his approach, and, predictably, Silver shot them out of the sky. Still, the distraction allowed the Shaman to close in and take aim with his lasers. The Wizard barely stumbled out of the way. “Whoa, almost!” Silver said. More missiles came at him before he was ready, so he pointed his weapons down and fired them as he jumped: the recoil of the blast propelled him a good distance out of the way, enabling him to avoid damage. The Shaman gave chase, so Silver stayed on the defensive. He was slowly losing room to run, so the Shaman watched for an opportunity, but before he could find one, something hit him from behind. Shocked, he faltered in his attack, and Silver grinned. “Try this one!” he shouted, aiming one of his arms. “Silver Bullet!” The barrel glinted briefly before something shot out of it. The bullet moved so fast the Shaman barely even saw it, but despite how small it was, it stung horrendously when it struck the base of his wing. He spiraled briefly before righting himself, and glanced back a moment to see what had initially surprised him. Where Silver had fired at the ground earlier, two turrets resembling his weapon arms now sprouted up from the rock, tracking his every move. He grunted. “So even when he’s not shooting at us, we still have cause for concern,” the Shaman said. “I suppose he’s not to be taken lightly after all.” He created two more miniatures before renewing his attack on Silver. As he did, the miniatures went to deal with the mounted artillery—carefully avoiding their shots, one miniature sent out a wave of missiles to provide some cover, and the second used a laser beam to slice the arms apart. Silver launched a massive fireball, so the Shaman fired missiles to intercept it. Before they hit, however, the ball split apart into a dozen tiny streams of flame, each arcing in a different direction. Several grazed the Shaman, and one destroyed a miniature as it was coming around to assist him. The Shaman flew low to the ground as his remaining miniature rained missiles on their foe. Too off-balance to counterattack, Silver rolled to the side as the Shaman bore down on him, taking aim once he came back up. A laser from the miniature hit him square in the back, cutting him off before the tiny craft crashed into him and self-destructed. “Argh…alright, not bad,” Silver said. “But I’m not quitting until I shoot you out of the sky!” He brought his arms together, and in a flash they merged into one enormous gun that he aimed at the Shaman. The barrel spun rapidly as shots poured out of it, Silver’s cackling almost drowned out by the sound; the Shaman was able to stay ahead of the stream of destruction, but not by a wide enough margin that he would have an easy time retaliating. He deployed a few missiles to see what would happen. Before they could reach Silver, they were destroyed by blasts coming from another direction—this drew the Shaman’s attention to a nearby rock outcropping, where he realized one of Silver’s turrets was sitting. When did he plant that? It occurred to him too late that the sound of bullets had stopped. Silver had already separated his arms and sent out two blasts: one a flare that blinded the distracted Shaman, and the other a splitting attack that impacted all across his body. The Shaman veered off, trying to safely recover. Even if he couldn’t see, he knew this area well enough that he could navigate it blind…or so he thought, until a blast from an unexpected direction hit him. More artillery? When…oh, that’s right. He said he’d been waiting. I should have expected he was not simply twiddling his thumbs. The Shaman’s eyesight returned just in time to see one of Silver’s barrels gleaming. He banked, but the Silver Bullet still found its mark, blowing off an entire chunk of his wing. Several nearby turrets sniped him as he lost altitude, leveling out only just before hitting the ground. “We’re sitting ducks,” Condor said. “There is no sufficient cover nearby, and we cannot be sure how many of those guns he’s planted. We require caution…but, I am not so sure a cautious approach can defeat a foe like this.” “It will have to,” the Shaman said, creating two miniatures. “The people of Whazzap are depending on us. We are not allowed to fail.” The miniatures stayed low and went in different directions, skirting the edges of the area to hunt down the turrets. The Shaman made a show of charging back in, firing dozens of missiles at once, in the hopes of baiting some of them into giving away their position. Many did: fireballs came at the Shaman from what seemed like every direction, and at the last second he accelerated suddenly to pull out of danger. Silver had both weapons aimed at him, but he wasn’t able to shoot before the Shaman fired a trio of lasers that swept over the ground towards him. He dodged narrowly, spinning back into position to finish his attack, and this time he heard a screech from behind. One of the missiles the Shaman had sent earlier had transformed into a miniature after he had dodged it, and it had now doubled back to stun him with its own laser as the Shaman closed from the other side. Two more turrets made themselves known, but the Shaman took the blasts and kept going until he smashed nose-first into Silver. The Wizard was flung back, bouncing off the ground a few times before the Shaman collided into him again—he then opened his mouth and fired a beam that pushed Silver off into the distance, stopping only when it slammed him into a rock face. The Shaman slowed then, powering up his wing cannons as the dust settled. “You were destined to fail, you fool!” the Shaman called. “Unlike you, I have a reason to fight, and—“ A Silver Bullet shot from the dust, striking one of his cannons and shattering its casing. The energy that had built up exploded out, knocking the Shaman sideways and straight into the ground. “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Silver said, fusing his weapons together. “I’m not interested in any speeches today!” The Shaman couldn’t get off the ground before the blasts started to batter him. Luckily, his miniatures had dealt with all of the turrets and now came to his aid, their combined assault able to distract Silver just long enough for the Shaman to take off. Snarling, Silver knocked one miniature away and then spun to face the other two, waiting for them to get close to each other so that when he shot one with a Silver Bullet, the explosion it left behind took out the other. “We have sustained heavy damage!” Condor said. “If we do not finish this quickly…” The Shaman’s breathing was ragged. Focusing on Silver, he said, “I think I know the best way…muster your strength, Condor. One last attack!” He screeched as he dove back towards Silver, the Wizard laughing at him. Lasers came from the Shaman’s mouth and remaining cannon, the beams twisting slightly as they moved; Silver stepped back, but the attack did not take the path he thought it would, instead curving to the side before coming back around. “Okay—almost got me there,” he said as he shuffled past another beam. “But was that it? Just trying to surprise me with some random beam patterns? That won’t cut it!” The beams suddenly ceased. The Shaman stopped in mid-air, panting. Silver took aim. “You done? Good.” A chuckle came from the Shaman. “You are…a fool…you misunderstood…my intentions…” Cocking his head, Silver glanced down at the ground. The beams had carved an intricate design under his feet, some sort of symbol that he did not recognize. “What’s this, one of your fancy Lines this place loves so much? I’m not impressed.” “No…this symbol…is from the language of Mu…” A sudden shriek caught Silver’s attention. One miniature was still around, firing a laser that carved one final detail into the symbol. The glyph shone with light as soon as it was complete. “Whazzap,” the Shaman said. A massive explosion engulfed Silver. When it cleared, he was nowhere to be seen. The Shaman sighed deeply, and slowly sank to the ground. “Excellent work, my friend!” Condor said. “And same to you, Condor.” “Whazzap is safe at last. Shall we separate so that you can rest properly?” Slowly, the Shaman lifted back up. “Not yet…we still need to be sure the Satella Officers have finished off those viruses.” “Haha, you never rest, do you?” “Not when our people are concerned.” “An excellent point. In that case, let us be off.” *** Countless emotions mixed together in Sonia’s mind as she made her way down the long room, Geo, Ace, Bud, and Solo right behind her. They came a halt right at the top of a staircase, and all silently fixed their eyes on Joker. He regarded them collectively with a calm fury in his eyes. Sonia took a deep breath. “There you are, Joker,” Ace said. “Hey, mind telling us where King is? I figured he’d be here, but it looks like he must’ve taken off already.” A massive screen appeared behind Joker. It displayed an image of King, who said, “Ho ho, welcome back, Ace! I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever come home!” Sonia looked up at the screen. So that’s Mr. King? And… Her eyes wandered, allowing her a glimpse of Heartless in the background. …Wait a minute…have I…seen her somewhere? “Don’t get all sentimental on me,” Ace said. “I’m just here to finally shut this place down. If you’d be willing to come quietly, that’d make things a lot easier for all parties involved.” King laughed. “Don’t bother bluffing, Ace! You know I hold all the cards. There isn’t a thing you can do to stop me.” “Heh…we’ll see about that.” “Won’t you introduce me to your friends?” He leaned forward. “Hello everyone. My name is Mr. King, and I am the leader of Dealer. You’ve already met my sons Ace and Joker, and this is my assistant Heartless.” Heartless bowed slightly. Sonia thought, Somewhere…where? Why can’t I put my finger on it? “And who do we have here? Harp Note, of course—the legendary heroine who has been so helpful as of late.” Setting the matter of this mysterious woman aside for the moment, Sonia turned back to King. “I see she brought her sidekick Mega Man, no surprises there.” Mega scoffed. Geo just waited patiently. “And…why, if it isn’t Rogue! Truth be told I’m quite surprised you’re actually cooperating with anyone!” “Hmph,” Solo said. “I didn’t ask you.” “And that just leaves…” He squinted at Bud. “Hm. You know, I’m sure I’ve seen this one before, but his name escapes me at the moment…” “H-Hey!” Bud shouted. “That’s Taurus Fire, and don’t you forget it!” “Regardless,” King said, “I’m afraid we’re just not ready for guests at the moment. Why don’t you all run along and keep producing Crimson for me like good children? Otherwise…I shall become very cross.” “We’re not going anywhere until we have you in custody,” Ace said. “If you won’t come willingly—“ “Wait,” Sonia said. “Ace, let me try, please.” Ace nodded. Sonia stepped forward, and King said, “Oh, how splendid! I’ve heard such excellent things about your methods, Harp Note—it’ll be such a treat to participate in a demonstration!” “Mr. King,” Sonia said. “There has to be some way we can settle this peacefully. What is it that you’re really after? Maybe we can find a different way to achieve it, one that doesn’t involve so much violence.” King stroked his chin. “What I’m after, eh? All this time, I’ve been telling my subordinates our goal is to control the world…but now, perhaps I can finally come clean about my true goals.” Ace inclined his head. “Y…you’re not trying to control the world? Then, why do you need Meteor G? What was the point of creating Dealer?!” King shrugged. “What’s so wrong with wanting a family, Ace? Whatever other purposes you’ve served, I truly do consider you all my children. What more point do I need?” Ace gaped. Sonia went on, “So you wanted a family? This couldn’t have been the only way to have that.” “No,” King sighed, “it wasn’t. But when I explored a more traditional route, things…didn’t quite go the way I wanted them to.” “…Oh.” Sonia began to feel a painful sting in her heart. “I’m sorry…something happened to your family?” King folded his hands, looking up at nothing in particular. “How long has it been now? How long since I married the love of my life, since we were living happily together, raising our children as we both worked to better the world with our scientific skill? How long since I was truly happy…hah. Seems I’ve lost track. What a shame.” He paused. “But…how long has WAZA been studying Noise? A year, if that? Do correct me if I’m wrong.” No one did. “Yes, something like that. They only just began working on it, only now that it’s become a problem. We’ve known about Noise for years, decades now. There was so little of it that no one thought it was worth looking into…save for me, and my lovely wife. We realized the terrible potential Noise had, that if the world waited for it to become a problem, it would already be too late. So we gathered what Noise we could and devoted our lives to studying it. After years of work, we were finally so close to a breakthrough…when I lost everything.” King slid a hand up over his face. “We were running a new experiment on the Noise…I left the house to make a call. As I was coming back, something went wrong—the Noise corrupted our equipment, all of the devices in our building, and before I even knew what was happening…” He pulled his hand away, taking his mask with it. The skin it had covered was badly burned, blanketed in dozens of tiny cuts. Sonia covered her mouth. “It all blew up in my face.” King slowly removed his glove—the hand beneath was mangled in the same way. “Roughly 70% of my body is still covered in scar tissue from the explosion. I was paralyzed from the waist down. The doctors said I was lucky to be alive. I had trouble agreeing…seeing as the rest of my family was not.” “…I’m so sorry,” Sonia said, feeling the sting intensify. “I know how much it hurts to lose someone you love. And…I know how desperate the need to fill that void can be.” King studied his hand, mumbling, “Indeed, indeed. It broke me, quite frankly. I didn’t want to go on, not after Noise took everything away from me.” “Then…why are you still working with it? What are you trying to gain from it?” King raised an eyebrow. “Gain? Weren’t you listening, my dear? Noise doesn’t bring gain, only loss. I lost everything because of it…and that sort of unbridled, destructive power, it’s simply…” A grin crossed his face. “Magnificent.” Sonia blinked, unable to process what he had just said. “W…what?” “The potential of Noise is terrible indeed,” King said, slowly lifting his arms. “Terrible, and wonderful! It corrupts and destroys everything it touches—it is as inevitable as entropy itself! After seeing it with my own two eyes, I finally understood! And it is my duty to share that epiphany!” He laughed. “Control the world? What a bore! I want to see the world corrupted and destroyed, preferably by the wretched, all-consuming power of Noise!” Shuddering, Sonia said, “I…I don’t understand! Why would you want that?! If you know what it feels like to lose everything, then why would you want to inflict that on someone else?” King chuckled as he slipped his mask and glove back on. “Oh, you simple, naïve child. I knew you would never be able to grasp such concepts.” Sonia stared up at him, completely baffled. As she struggled for a response, Solo walked past her, fixing a glare directly on King. “I’ve waited long enough. King. Tell me what you’ve done with the xarium.” King tilted his head. “Beg pardon? The what?” “Don’t play dumb. I want to know where you’re keeping the xarium you stole from the Murian shrine. It does not belong to you.” “Oh? Is that why you’ve been butting into our affairs?” “Why else?” With a shake of his head, King replied, “I’m sorry, my boy, but I really have no idea what you’re talking about. Whatever was in this shrine of yours, Dealer was not the one who stole it.” Solo narrowed his eyes. “Am I supposed to believe that? Who else could it be?” “How should I know? And, more importantly, why on Earth would I lie about it? If I did have such a thing, I’d have it in my hands right now, watching you froth angrily as I taunt you with it. Surely you can vouch for me, Ace?” Solo turned to Ace. Hesitantly, he said, “…Yeah. That sounds about right.” After a slight pause, Solo’s gaze fell to the floor. “…The xarium…isn’t here…?” King laughed. “Oh this is hysterical! This whole time, you’ve been picking a fight with us out of petty vengeance for something we didn’t even do! How absurd! Ho ho ho ho!” Gritting his teeth, Solo glared at Joker. “…Well. Whatever the case, I still have a score to settle with this one. So let’s just move on to that.” Joker nodded. “I too am eager to put an end to this. May we begin, Mr. King?” “One moment,” King said. “Is there anything else you would like to add, Harp Note? Or are we in fact done?” Sonia clenched her fists. The sting had become a burn, slowly spreading through her body. “…You…you just want others to share the same pain you feel. The exact same pain I’ve felt—the pain I’ve sworn to protect people from! I don’t know if I should feel sorry for you…or if you’re just a monster deep down. Either way…” She glared at him as she formed her guitar. “I’m not letting you get away with it, King! Dealer is finished!” King smirked. “How quaint. Well, now that I’ve got your foes all riled up, Joker…why don’t you quash their enthusiasm? Go on. Unleash your true power!” A smile of pure glee came to Joker’s face. “Yes, Mr. King! Thank you!” Facing the group again, he added, “Finally…it is time! I shall show you weaklings what true power is, and grind you to dust beneath my unstoppable might!” He bellowed as an aura of Noise instantly sprang up around him. The team was prepared in a flash: Ace Wave Changed, Solo drew Laplace, Bud began burning red-hot, and Geo activated Wolf Gemini Noise. Sonia chose Cygnus Gemini, her helmet growing a beak-like brim and sharp talons sprouting from her boots, her single scarf splitting into two shaped like wings—one white, one black. The armor was mainly yellow in color with a few silver accents, but the outer sides of her arms and legs had splashes of white and black to match the wings. Her guitar, which featured two necks, was made of gold metal, with spikes on the body that crackled with sparks when she held it at the ready. “Noise level 100%,” Joker said. “150%...200%. Rrrragh! 300%!” Energy swelled around him, acting like a gust of wind that nearly bowled over Sonia and the others. They held their ground as Joker’s power continued to climb. “700…800…900…! Noise level at maximum! Now…” He threw back his head. “Finalize! Grave Joker!” A sphere of dense Noise formed around Joker, a shape that resembled Meteor G itself. It compressed around him slightly, and then expanded greatly, keeping its form for only a few seconds more before bursting apart to reveal Joker. In many ways, his attire hadn’t changed too dramatically: he still wore his coat, which now featured brighter gold designs and patches of bright red that lined up with matching designs on his boots, which sported wider, rounder armor. His sunglasses remained as a visor, now connected to silver metal that lined the sides of his head and his jawline, and similar light blue glass covered the top of his head. His arms saw the most change, both in the bulbous red armguards he now sported, and in the two massive, angular protrusions that sat on his shoulders. Crimson radiated from their points as he looked down on his opponents. “This,” he said, “is the full power of Meteor G, available to those of us able to wield the Joker Program.” He pointed at Sonia. “Count yourself lucky, Harp Note…for this is the only time you will see the power you lack the ability to master.” Sonia wished she had a retort for him, but she couldn’t speak. Without even trying, she could sense the incredible power Joker had at his disposal, and it was far, far worse than anything she had been prepared for. “Sonia.” She snapped to, realizing it was Lyra who had spoken to her. “We can do this,” the FM-ian said gently. “I imagine it will not be easy, but we will no doubt find a way. Don’t forget that our friends are here to aid us.” Sonia glanced back over her shoulder. “…That’s…part of why I’m so worried…” Joker suddenly took a step forward. Everyone else stepped back unconsciously. With a shout, Bud lowered his horns and charged, saying, “Whatever! You’re through, pal!” He barreled ahead too quickly for anyone to stop him, and rammed headfirst into Joker. Joker didn’t move an inch. Bud pushed with all his might, but it was no use. “Pathetic,” Joker said as he raised one hand. With a mere flick of his finger, Bud was sent flying. Joker looked up to see Laplace, in blade form, spinning through the air towards him, but made no effort to dodge. Laplace similarly failed to affect Joker, transforming back to normal as Solo dashed in to use an uppercut. Despite connecting with his foe’s jaw, Solo’s attack did nothing—Laplace grabbed him before Joker had the chance to counterattack, swinging him around in a full circle to deliver a kick to Joker’s face. Solo flipped up as Laplace became a sword once more, swinging down with all his might to execute a slash that caused a massive geyser of purple flame to erupt from the ground. Joker then threw a knee, obliterating Laplace’s barrier without slowing down and sending Solo rolling back down the stairs. “Worthless.” Ace’s wings fired, propelling him around Joker in a circle as he fired off a series of Wide Waves. Sonia and Geo leapt forward to unleash a joint lightning attack, and then quickly retreated, Sonia wrapping Joker in electrified strings while Geo teleported behind him to execute a series of fast sword strikes. Ace shot an arrow that increased gravity around Joker, trying to hold him down, and then rushed forward to thrust his bayonet. Joker waited until they were done before effortlessly snapping through his bindings. “You’re all so weak!” He beat his fists together. A shockwave of Noise radiated out from him, knocking everyone off their feet. Next he punched the ground, causing two massive blocks of metal to shoot up from the floor beneath Sonia and Geo, while a third fell from the ceiling and nearly crushed Ace. Taking another slow step forward, he shrugged off the blasts Ace peppered him with and watched as the team regrouped. Bud fired two rocket punches at him, but they too had no effect. “Not even a scratch…” Geo muttered. “Does anyone have any ideas?” “Acid,” Sonia said, “you’re analyzing him, right? How long until you’ve got something?” “I already possess complete data on Joker,” Acid said. “At this level, the only approach known to be effective is Finalization.” Joker’s arm turned into a buster. A steady stream of missiles shot out of the barrel, so the group scattered, Sonia using her strings to pull herself over to one of the metal blocks for cover. She waited for the attack to stop, but it kept going and going. Eventually, Joker ceased firing, and a trio of flame pillars sprang up around him as Bud moved in. Sonia played quickly: a series of connected notes bursting with electricity shot from her guitar, and Joker stopped as they hit him. Bud began to punch at him wildly; meanwhile, Solo hung back drawing a series of glyphs in the air, and Geo and Ace seemed to be planning something. Sonia played more notes to keep Joker stunned…until he slowly managed to break free of the paralysis and flatten Bud with a swing of his arm. “You should not have come, boy,” Joker said. “Even compared to these weaklings, you are pitifully frail.” “No,” Bud said, “I’ve definitely gotten stronger! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” He breathed out a wall of flame as he backed away. Sonia carefully aimed the head of her guitar and began rapidly firing feather bullets at Joker, and soon Solo joined in, shooting a storm of fist-shaped blasts as he walked forward with a subtle glow. His eyes flashed as he swung Laplace, and this time Joker reacted: he stumbled back a half-step and clutched his wound, giving a muffled grunt. Solo leapt back as his glow disappeared, but this was when Ace charged in at top speed—he tackled Joker, slipped behind him, and wrapped his arms around Joker’s, holding him in place. Sonia was about to move in when she saw Geo taking aim. “Stay back!” he said. “Here we go…Buster MAX!” His arm cannon lit up red. When he fired, countless massive bullets burst from the weapon’s tip, flying across the room to pound against Joker one right after the other. Joker gritted his teeth as he grunted. Finally, Sonia thought, adding her own blasts to the assault. If we can just keep up the pressure… Joker opened his palm. A beam of Noise lanced forth, striking Geo and knocking him against the wall. Ace leapt back as Joker tried to grab him, but Joker was back on him in a second, dealing a rapid series of kicks that stunned Ace. One of Bud’s rocket punches exploded against Joker’s back. The Wizard turned and lunged at Bud, bashing him into the floor with both hands. “NO!” Sonia shouted, rushing forward in a panic. She nimbly danced around Joker for a time, dealing a few swift kicks to him, but soon Joker made contact and she hit the ground, dazed. Joker looked up as Solo came back, glowing once again. He raised his arm to block the slash, still grunting as the blade bit into him, and then retaliated with a Noise beam that Solo only barely avoided. Solo drew a glyph as he pulled back, calling down purple thunderbolts on Joker. But Joker walked right through the attack and picked up one of the metal blocks he had generated, hurling it and hitting Solo dead-on. “Urgh…no way,” Bud groaned as he pushed himself off the floor. “How can he be this tough?” “Do you see yet?” Joker asked as he loomed over him. “You are weak. It is impossible for one such as you to gain any strength that matters. Try all you like to build yourself up, but you will only be wasting your time.” Bud tensed. “…What…?” Strings wrapped around his shoulder armor. Sonia pulled herself in and smashed a speaker over Joker’s head, shattering it in the process. He reached up to grab her, but she flipped down in front of him and generated four more speakers, bringing a hand down on her guitar to send a lightning-infused gust of wind from each of them that managed to hold Joker off. A dragon-shaped blast of electricity rammed into Joker from the side, and Sonia turned to see Ace already loading up another Battle Card. Geo was behind her, helping Bud to his feet, and soon he stepped forward, transforming both his hands into swords. He launched himself into a frenzy of slashes as Ace and Sonia carefully shot around him, moving just fast enough that Joker was unable to catch him. Watching this, Bud sighed. “Guess even after all that work…I still haven’t caught up yet,” he said. “Bud,” Taurus said, “don’t talk like that! Maybe we’re not as strong as we want to be, but that doesn’t mean what Joker said is true!” Bud shook his head. “It’s okay, Taurus: I know. I know this isn’t a waste…I’ve definitely gotten stronger. And if this still isn’t enough…” He clenched his fists. “Well…then I guess I gotta push these new limits until I get even stronger!” He increased the heat of his armor, generating a thin veil of steam as he did. Solo leapt over him with Laplace raised high—Sonia, Geo, and Ace scattered as he came down, and even Joker backed up, though he was caught in the flames that burst up when the sword touched the floor. Geo was immediately behind Joker as soon as it cleared, stabbing over and over with an electrified lance. Sonia complimented his maneuver with quick swings of her guitar. Ace jumped up and fired several shuriken down at Joker, but when he saw their foe rearing back, he gave a shout and used his wings to control his fall. That was all that saved him from another metal block. Sonia and Geo were able to avoid damage, and Solo was still hanging back. Bud, on the other hand, ran forward; he punched through the block right before him, his fist so hot that it melted right through the metal, and then threw a follow up that made contact with Joker. The Wizard simply glared at him. “I told you,” he said, grabbing Bud by one of his horns. “You will never be strong enough to matter!” He knocked the wind out of Bud before hurling him away. Sonia dashed over, using her guitar to summon some wind currents to soften his landing. Joker faced Geo as the boy loaded another Battle Card, and when he pointed at Joker’s blocks, they all exploded, engulfing him in a cloud of flame. Ace didn’t wait for it to clear: he fired twin lasers from his shoulder cannons, striking Joker just as he was walking out. They slowed him down a little. “Are you alright, Bud?” Sonia asked. Bud was back on his feet, increasing the heat of his armor once again. “Bud, stop! You’re just going to get hurt—you need to leave this to us!” “Please, Sonia!” he said. “Please, let me do this! I have to see how far I can push myself!” Geo and Ace were thrown against the wall. Solo popped up in front of Joker in an attempt to surprise him, but the Wizard dodged his attacks and kicked him a dozen times in the span of a few seconds. “Bud,” Sonia said, “I know you want to help, but—“ “It’s more than that! I…I have to prove that he’s wrong! Wrong about me, wrong about the way he thinks! Strength isn’t all that matters…but if it’s all he’ll listen to…then a weakling like me showing some will definitely get his attention!” Joker was walking towards them now. “Why do you continue to try? Is it not apparent already that your efforts are all in vain?” Bud chuckled, the temperature of his armor still climbing. “You know…to be honest, part of it is just that you really me off, Joker! I’ve been mad before, but never this mad! It’s like my blood is boiling…white-hot!” The heat surrounding Bud spiked, his glow quickly shifting from red to orange to white. Joker raised his buster. Before he could fire, Bud dashed forward, leaving a trail of flames in his wake, and punched Joker in the gut. Joker hunched over, wide-eyed. “I’ve always wanted to be strong…and yeah, there was a time where I thought that strength defined me! That I’d be nothing without it!” He threw an uppercut, successfully knocking Joker back. “But now I know better than that! So a guy like you, telling everyone else they don’t matter because they’re weak…” Bud reared back. “I won’t stand for that!” He bucked forward and shot out white flames. Joker shouted briefly, crossing his arms in front of his face as he endured the attack. When the fire eventually died down, Bud stopped to catch his breath…and his armor immediately cooled. “D…darn it,” he panted. “Guess that’s…it…for me…” Joker stepped towards him. Sonia rushed forward, but he blindsided her with a Noise beam and turned back to Bud, who wobbled as he tried to stay on his feet. “…Well done,” Joker said. “You are stronger than I realized, child. However…” He pulled back a fist. “This is as far as that strength will carry you.” Joker punched Bud, flinging him to the far side of the room where he crashed into the wall. Falling to the floor, Bud’s Wave Change shut off, and he lay there unconscious with a pained smile on his face. “Bud!” Sonia yelled. “Bud, no!” Geo got to him as fast as he could. “He’s still breathing! I’ll get him out of here, and then I’ll come right back!” As he moved Bud, Sonia put a hand to the side of her helmet, saying, “Detective Copper, are you there? We need help! Bud’s been knocked out—we need to get him to safety!” “I’m on my way!” Copper replied. “Just hold on!” Sonia turned back to face Joker. Solo stood on the other side of him, clutching Laplace with both hands as he watched his opponent. Ace came to join them, but as soon as he stopped, he hooked his blaster to his belt and lowered his arms. “Ace?!” Sonia asked. “We aren’t making enough headway like this,” Ace said. “We’re down Taurus Fire, Mega Man’s out of commission for a few, and I think we’re all running low on stamina already. Drastic times…call for drastic measures.” Ace clenched his fists, widening his stance. “Hope you guys don’t mind, but I’m going to take the lead now. Acid…it’s time for us to Finalize.” Chapter 33 “At the very least, I think we should wait to hear back from Detective Copper,” Hyde said. “They aren’t going to need us,” Shepar said. “We should get everyone out of here, maybe secure the perimeter or something. That’s the safer option.” “That’s fine,” Wolfe said, “but I’m gonna go on ahead. I want to at least see how things are going.” The discussion went on. Pat turned to Gemini, who floated a short distance away, and asked, “What do you think?” “It is something of a conundrum. Our enemy is right before us, and at their weakest, so it may be wise to strike now and finish them off. But then again, we are still not at our full power. So perhaps it would be wiser to retreat for the time being?” Gemini turned. “What say you, Phantom?” Phantom met his gaze. “Hmph. Well, if you ask me…” He floated a few paces forward, calling up a screen. “I think now is the perfect time to act.” Gemini snickered. “I see. Well, you are our strategist.” Pat turned back to the debate. Phantom’s hand hovered over the screen, and he subtly nodded to Gemini. Gemini took one last survey of the room, locating potential exits and verifying that everyone was distracted, and then turned towards Pat. “Now!” The boy was startled by his shout. Turning, he saw Gemini charging straight at him, body bursting with electricity, and his eyes widened. Phantom hit a prompt on his screen. Pat pulled back and braced himself, but…he felt nothing. Hesitantly, he opened one eye. Gemini was nowhere to be seen. “…Huh?” he muttered. “W…What is the meaning of this?!” Pulling out his Hunter, Pat saw Gemini on the screen, confined to a small window in the corner. The FM-ian was writhing about in fury, and nearby, Phantom burst out laughing. “Phantom!” Gemini shouted. “I thought we had an arrangement?! Explain yourself!” “Yes, you did think that, didn’t you?” Phantom said, coming to look at the screen. “You were so convinced I would go along with your silly little plan—that your pretty words would be enough to manipulate even me. Did it never cross your mind, Gemini? That perhaps I would be the one manipulating you?” “What?” Pat asked. “What’s going on?” “Your friend Gemini was plotting to take his revenge upon you all. But he needed some way to break free of the chains binding him, and for that, he turned to me.” The PM-ian cackled. “He actually thought I was going to release him! Join forces! Oh, what an utter buffoon!” Frowning, Pat turned to the screen. “Gemini…! You still don’t want to help us? I thought—“ “Oh, shut up!” Gemini said. “What, you thought I was willing to change, same as all the rest of these pitiful specimens? Never! Now tell me, Phantom: why have you betrayed me?!” Phantom just waved him off. Hyde stepped over and said, “More importantly, Phantom…why did you not inform us that Gemini was formulating such a scheme?” With a grin, the PM-ian said, “Isn’t it obvious? Gemini is feared as a master manipulator. By outwitting him in such a way, I have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that my strategic mind is the greatest in all the galaxy!” Hyde rubbed his temple. “…My word…you truly are a despicable one.” “Hah, I have no qualms with that assessment. Even aside from proving my brilliance, I knew he would prove most useful in this mission—revealing him too soon would have left us quite ill-equipped for the battle we just endured. Don’t you agree?” Choosing not to answer, Hyde instead turned to Pat. “Patrick? Are you alright?” “Uh…yeah, I’m fine,” Pat said. He sighed. “Just…disappointed, I guess.” “Cheer up, boy. Wretched as Gemini might be, you wielded his power expertly in defense of your own associates and ideals! That is something still worth taking pride in, and much more worthy of your focus, I would say.” To his own surprise, Pat smiled a little. “…Thanks.” A chime came from Hyde’s Hunter. Picking it up, he called up a screen that displayed only static. “Hello?” “It’s me,” came Copper’s voice. “I’m afraid I don’t know anyone by that name—are you sure you have the right number?” “Not now! First off, are you all still safe?” Glancing at Pat’s Hunter, Hyde said, “I’d say so. There was a brief scare, but it has been dealt with.” “Alright…I’ve been trailing Jack and Tia, but they’re hiding out for the time being. The advance team has engaged Joker, and Bud is down.” Amy ran forward. “What?! What did you say?” “He’s alive, but he’s been knocked out. Geo got him out and now I’ve got him—I’m bringing him your way so we can get him out of here.” “Bud…” Amy murmured. “I’m sure he’ll be okay, Amy,” Yeti said. “Bud’s too tough to stay down for long!” “Please clarify, detective,” Hyde said. “Are you suggesting we all vacate the premises?” “I was certainly considering it. Judging from what Geo said, Joker’s on an entirely different level, and I don’t think it’s a good idea for the rest of us to stick around.” Hyde turned to Shepar. “Well, that’s what you wanted to hear, isn’t it?” Shepar stared intently at the screen. “But…what about Geo? And Sonia, Solo, Ace?” “…We just have to leave it to them,” Copper said. “We’ve already done everything we’re able to do. They trusted us to take care of our duties, and now we need to trust them.” That didn’t entirely satisfy Shepar, but he didn’t know what else to say. “The Satella Officers have already withdrawn and formed a perimeter. You should go meet them, unless someone wants to help me with Bud once I get there.” “I will!” Amy said. “I’ll wait right here!” “Thank you for the update, detective,” Hyde said. “We shall see you when you arrive.” The call ended, and the group began to move out. Pat cast a glance back at Amy, who tapped her foot rapidly as she watched the hallway, and soon he found himself following her gaze. He only tore himself away when Wolfe set a hand on his shoulder. “Geo’s gonna be fine too, Pat,” the gardener said. “Come on.” Pat followed him out of the base, hesitation weighing down his every step. *** “Noise level…100%,” Ace said. A thin, red aura formed around him. “Ace, wait!” Sonia said. “We might still have another way! You don’t have to risk it!” “We can’t waste time, Sonia. It doesn’t matter what happens to me: we need to stop Joker, and Finalizing is my best bet! 200…percent…!” A flash of anger came over Sonia. Stepping forward, she shouted, “Don’t talk like you’re expendable! You’re just as important as the rest of us, Ace, even if you don’t think so! I won’t let you just throw it all away like that!” Ace smiled. “…Thank you, Sonia. Alright, how’s this? I’ll do what it takes to beat Joker, and I’ll come out alive. Deal?” “But…” “300%!” King laughed. “Oh, what’s this? Think the luck of the draw is on your side, Ace? It would be most unfortunate if you were to lose control here and now.” “That’s not gonna happen,” Ace said. “Acid’s restrictions have been removed! Now, we can control the process, so you’ll get to see our full power! 400%!” Joker inclined his head. “…Hm. Very well: allow Acid to truly be set free. Let him reclaim the strength that is his birthright. Then, he will understand.” Ace’s aura grew slowly but steadily. Sonia said, “Lyra, we can’t let him do this! What if we Finalize instead?” “Hard to say, dear,” Lyra said. “It seems to be a rather complicated process, and we’ve no experience with it. I can’t be sure we’d pull it off correctly.” Sonia tightened her grip on her guitar. “You said this should be their choice. Well, they’ve chosen. Now we just need to see if they made the right call.” She still felt like she should do something. But, as she thought about it, Lyra was right. So she stayed back and let Ace carry on. “Five…hundred…percent,” Ace groaned. His aura fluctuated. “Ace,” Acid said. “I would not recommend pushing any further. We are already struggling—the risk outweighs the benefit.” “Alright, then. You ready for this?” “I am prepared. Proceed at your leisure.” Ace looked down at his hands to see they were shaking. He chuckled to himself. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and leaned back a little, before leaning forward and shouting, “Finalize!” Noise curled into a sphere around him, and in that moment everyone held their breath. It compressed slowly, expanded in an instant, and then slowly fell away. Ace emerged looking completely different. The black jumpsuit that covered his body had glowing red lines running along the front of each limb, all meeting at a central point on his torso, and his lower legs were encased in cylindrical greaves made of sleek black metal. Thin vambraces of the same material adorned his forearms, sporting long spikes on the wrists and elbows, and a piece of it also wrapped around his upper body, though it was barely more than collar. Two long, narrow wings extended back from his shoulders, black frames constantly gushing red Noise. His head was protected only by a black guard that was more like a mask than armor. At first he just stood there, still and silent, leaving everyone to wonder if he was still in control of himself. Time dragged until he looked back at his hands and clenched them into fists. “Grand Ace,” he said quietly. He locked eyes on Joker. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Joker. Shall we?” On the screen, King folded his hands before his face to hide his smile. Sonia was relieved that Ace was alright, while simultaneously awestruck at the power he had gained; even Solo seemed impressed as he observed the two Finalized warriors from a distance. Joker stepped forward with a big grin. “Acid! You’ve reconnected with Meteor G at last! Tell me, brother: how does it feel to know true strength once again?” “I doubt my answer would please you,” Acid said. “Initiating combat.” Suddenly, Ace was right in front of Joker, sword in hand. Joker stumbled back in disbelief as Ace swung the weapon faster than his eyes could follow, cutting him half a dozen times almost instantly. He swung his arm out to repel Ace, but he was already behind him. Ace spun rapidly, generating sharp air currents around himself that dug into Joker’s back, until the Wizard whirled around and just narrowly missed Ace as he retreated. Stopping on the other side of the room, Ace smirked at Joker. Joker scowled, charging Noise into his fist—Ace’s fist also lit up, and he shot straight forward just as Joker punched, throwing his own at the same time. Their fists collided, and Noise rippled out from the impact, shaking the entire room. “Acid, what are you doing?” Joker asked. “Don’t you see? We were born to use this power! But the humans are jealous of our strength, and will only try again to take it from you! Come with me, and we will be able to do whatever we want!” “You are incorrect,” Acid said. “What I want to do is to continue to fight and work alongside Ace. There is nothing that you can offer me, Joker.” Joker’s jaw dropped. “W…what?! Are you so far gone, brother? Why would you willingly side with the humans after what they’ve done to us?” “Our limits were put in place for our protection. The humans have shown that they care about our well-being, through that concern and more. Ace especially has proven…quite enjoyable to be around.” “Aw shucks,” Ace said, “you’re gonna make me blush, Acid!” Joker swung his other fist forward, Ace narrowly dodging. “Acid…even you have been taken in by their lies. Fine then. If the only way to release you from their control is to delete you, then I shall send you from this world myself!” He punched the ground, summoning metal blocks from the floor and ceiling. Ace wasn’t even slowed down as he wove through them. Joker launched into a rapid series of kicks as soon as Ace was in range, but Ace did the exact same thing, his feet moving even faster to enable him to parry Joker’s kicks while still landing a few of his own. He leapt back as Joker slammed his fist down, shooting pinpoint lasers from his hand as he circled wide. Joker roared, and Noise shot out from him in every direction; Ace got to where Sonia and Solo were and generated a blade, swinging it at just the right time to slice the incoming waves apart before they could strike the spectators. “Everyone alright?” Ace asked over his shoulder. “Uh, yeah,” Sonia said. “Thanks…” Solo didn’t answer. Not waiting, Ace dove back into battle, continuing to deal hit-and-run strikes to Joker as he carefully dodged each of his foe’s attacks. Sonia looked away when she heard footsteps behind her, turning to see that Geo had finally returned. “Bud’s going to be alright,” he said. “Detective Copper is taking…” He trailed off as he became aware of the fight going on. They all watched Ace attack and retreat over and over—Joker managed to dodge one of his blows and threw a punch, but Ace ducked under it and spun, kicking Joker in his exposed side and then putting some distance between them. Joker aimed his buster and fired a stream of missiles, but Ace calmly shot down each one, lifting higher and higher off the ground as he did. “Curse you, Ace!” Joker said. “You are the one responsible for corrupting my brother!” Ace shook his head. “Come on, Joker, give it up. Acid’s not like you. He held onto the relationships he had, and learned to share strength through them. But you thought those same relationships would only weigh you down, so you rejected them…and that includes your bond with Acid. The rift between you two isn’t my fault, Joker. It’s yours.” Joker clenched his teeth. Holding his palms to his sides, he began to charge Noise in both of them, saying, “I will not be lectured by you! You turned your back on Dealer, yet still seek Jack and Queen Tia’s forgiveness—yet you claim I am in the wrong, you hypocrite?” “Yeah. Because I realized I messed up. I admit it’s not much of an edge…but I’ll still find a way to cut you down with it.” The Noise in Joker’s hands began to spill out between his fingers. “Try it, then!” He thrust both hands forward, sending out an enormous beam of Noise. Ace’s wings shot out a small pulse of their own as he rocketed forward and to the side, skimming the outside of the beam as he spiraled around it back towards its source. He threw his all into a punch that connected with the side of Joker’s face. The Wizard’s head turned, and his beam skewed to the side as well, carving a deep gash into the wall. Joker retaliated quickly, but Ace was still quicker: he backed up and swung a sword, the attack covering a massive amount of ground to cut Joker from a safe range. He then used the same attack again, and again, and then put his hands out to fire a barrage of white energy balls that rained down upon Joker. Ace was about to continue attacking when suddenly he flinched. “…,” he murmured under his breath. “Well, it was fun while it lasted.” With a snap of his fingers, a small but focused tornado spun into existence around Joker. Ace backed up a bit more, being sure to dodge more blocks in the process, and adjusted his stance, his wings glowing brighter and generating even more Noise. “It’s time to end it! Wing…” In the blink of an eye, he was behind Joker, arms apart. Neither of them moved. “…Blade!” Joker recoiled suddenly, Noise spewing out from his armor. Ace smiled, and then dropped to one knee, trying to muffle his grunts of pain. The sound of clapping could then be heard. “Splendid!” King said. “Such a marvelous performance from the both of you! I’m almost sad to see it end.” Ace forced himself to stand. “Heh…well, save your tears, King. I want to see you bawl when we take you away.” “Oh Ace, you poor child…you actually think you’ve won?” He turned around a second too late. Joker’s fist rammed straight into his solar plexus, and he nearly blacked out from the pain. The next thing he knew, he was in the far wall, every inch of his body aching, as Joker lumbered closer. “It seems your time is up, Ace,” Joker said, raising a Noise-wreathed hand. “Your body is too weak to wield the power of Meteor G. You tried to claim strength beyond what you could control…and now, you shall pay dearly!” He fired. Just before the beam hit Ace, Geo appeared in front of him, deploying his shield to narrowly save them both. He glared through the barrier at Joker. “What do you hope to accomplish, boy? I can crush you even more easily.” Geo aimed his buster. “Break Time Bomb!” A large device with a timer appeared next to Joker. As soon as it did, Sonia played furiously, sending out a constant stream of notes to try to keep Joker paralyzed, while Solo moved in to slash him across the chest. Joker shrugged off their attacks, punched Solo, and crushed the time bomb beneath his foot. Geo stepped back. “I know all about you,” Joker said. “You had the potential to gain strength for so long, yet shied away from it like a coward. Your conviction is a lie.” Geo activated an Aura card as Joker fired another beam at him. Its protective light enveloped him, but was immediately torn away by the laser, leaving Geo to take the brunt of the assault before falling to his knees. Joker ignored Sonia’s attacks and stepped forward, blocking Laplace on his arm. “And you, child of Mu,” he said as he faced Solo. “Interfering in the battle over Meteor G, believing your own long-disgraced culture still deserves some retribution…” Solo drew a glyph and pushed it straight into Joker. With a burst of Noise, it instantly dissipated, and Joker punched Solo into the ground. The boy writhed as Joker raised his fist high. “You do not belong here!” Panic seized Solo, and all he could do was turn and cover his head. He heard the blow connect. But he didn’t feel it. Looking up, he saw Sonia standing there, arms crossed above her head—she had intercepted Joker’s punch, and while she was still on her feet, her entire body was trembling like it was about to collapse under its own weight. “H…Harp Note?” Solo mumbled, eyes growing wide. Sonia sluggishly lowered her arms, glaring up at Joker. “He…belongs…here.” Solo sat there, stunned. Joker, teeth clenched in fury, placed his palm directly in front of Sonia’s face, charging it with Noise in preparation for another attack. Sonia didn’t move. “And you,” Joker sneered. “The lauded idealist who preaches her notions of bonds and growth. Do you have a speech you hope will change my heart as well?” Sonia remained silent for a long time. Then, hanging her head, she simply said, “No.” “Oh? And why is that?” “…Because…you’re an idealist too.” Sonia shook her head. “I really hate to say it. What you believe is so against what I believe…but you believe it so intensely, and you keep fighting to prove it. You’re fighting for your ideals just the same as me…so if I want to win…if I want to prove that my ideals, my belief in them, is stronger…then I have to accept it. Which means I don’t have much chance of changing your mind.” “Hmph,” Joker grunted. “So you admit that you can’t convince me to change. Isn’t that the same as admitting your ideals are wrong?” “No, it isn’t. Everyone can change, and that includes me. I guess…even my ideals need to change, just a little. Otherwise I’m just ignoring the world around me.” She paused to look back up at him. “I…don’t think I can forgive you for what you did to Luna. So even if I do believe that everyone can change if they want to, including you…it’s hard for me to want you to. And more than that, I can see that you don’t want to. So this fight isn’t going to change anyone. And I need to stop pretending that it can.” “Then,” Joker said, “what reason do you have to fight me?” Sonia finally stopped shaking. “To protect people.” “Is that all?” She took up a battle stance. “That’s more than enough.” Joker stared hard at her. Then, he clenched his hand into a fist, letting the Noise form around it, and said, “Very well. Then let us see just how strong your will truly is.” He reached out faster than she could react, grabbing her by the neck and lifting her off the ground. The Noise moved to envelop her, and immediately, Sonia could feel it overwhelming her senses. It took all her focus just to scream. “No!” Solo shouted, leaping to his feet. Joker repelled him with a kick before he could even swing, and then summoned a metal block on top of him to pin him down. “Sonia, hang on!” Geo said, already teleporting forward. Joker anticipated where he would appear, bashing him across the face as soon as he did; he then fired a continuous beam of Noise for a few seconds, whittling away what stamina Geo had left, leaving him in too much pain to move once he was done. “Oho, now this is an interesting play!” King said. “A berserk Harp Note, now that would be a sight to see! I’m on the edge of my seat!” Behind him, Heartless watched events unfold with a frown, tapping her finger against her leg. She raised her arm slightly, but then put it back down. Sonia could barely think straight. Noise rushed into her, making her body twitch and spasm randomly; Lyra could feel it too, and she cried out in agony. “N-No!” she said. “Not again! Oh, no!” Tears welled up in Sonia’s eyes. “L…Ly…ra…” “Where is the strength of your ideals now?” Joker asked. “Where is the unbreakable will that so many have bowed to? Or does it still pale in comparison to the might of Meteor G?” Slowly, Sonia’s fingers curled into fists. She put every ounce of strength she had left into forcing her body to calm down. When that ran out, she found more. Soon, she was almost still, vibrating only slightly, and she breathed in. “Lyra…!” she said. She could barely recognize her own voice, the Noise distorting it into something alien. “I won’t…give in! So don’t worry! I won’t…lose…control!” “S…Sonia?” Lyra said. “I’ll fight back…against Meteor G…but…I can’t…do it…alone! Please…help me!” She held firm against the Noise, but it was steadily wearing her down. Just when she began to wonder how long she could last, she could feel Lyra pushing alongside her, making the monumental task suddenly seem so much less imposing. Immediately, it was as if Sonia’s strength had been renewed. Her eyes snapped open—they were glowing red. “200%,” Sonia and Lyra said in unison. Joker’s expression flattened. “What…?” “250%...300%!” Joker dropped Sonia and moved away. She landed on her feet, swaying slightly before standing tall. He muttered, “This shouldn’t be possible…your will was so weak before!” “You should’ve listened,” Sonia said. “I’m fighting to protect Lyra…and she’s fighting to protect me!” “All you’ve done is brought out the strength of our bond, Joker,” Lyra said. “Remember that…as we use that strength to defeat you!” Together, they both shouted, “Finalize!” Noise obscured Sonia for only a few moments. Then it passed, and Joker stepped back when he saw how she had changed. The central part of her heavy-looking dress was deep burgundy, while the sides were bright scarlet, the lines that divided them and circled her familiar heart plate had turned gold, and the jumpsuit beneath was an ashy gray. She had large points on her shoulders like he did, but rather than curving they jutted straight out on an angle, and were flatter like fins. Red, gold, and gray colored her upper arms, her forearms now protected by two triangular guards that were mostly red, with a gold-lined iron gray center, all growing from her large red bracelets. The knees of her greaves and the lines running down them were gold, and the enlarged, bulbous armored boots now closely resembled Joker’s—burgundy inside and scarlet outside—though her feet were encased in a more solid sheet of iron gray, and that color ran between the two gold lines on each shin. Her helmet and visor had both turned red as well, the nodes atop her head now gold and significantly smaller, while on her forehead was a tall horseshoe-shaped crest of gray metal with a gold, triangular emblem at its base, and more gray lining the lower edge of the headgear and running down and under her jaw. A long, bright red scarf hung behind her as she stood there, staring at him with a solemn look on her face. “Red…Joker…” Sonia said. She raised one hand. In it appeared a massive harp guitar, gray iron down its neck to where the strings were anchored, while the rounded, red body of it shot up at one corner and arced gracefully towards the head, its end molded to resemble a shooting star: Meteor G. Sonia turned slightly so she could aim its head at the block pinning Solo down. She plucked a single string, and the instrument fired a focused beam of Noise that knocked the hunk of metal onto its side. “Ridiculous!” Joker said. “How could Meteor G heed the call of one as weak as you?! Why would it grant you its power?!” Sonia faced him. She hit the ground with the bottom of her guitar as if it were a scepter, and behind her appeared two gray and red standing speakers that were almost twice as tall as she was. Her eyes flashed, and then bright orange Noise began to dance around the speakers endlessly. “I’m not repeating myself again,” she said calmly. “If you want to surrender, I’ll give you one last chance. Please, take it. For Dr. Goodall’s sake.” “…Surrender?” Joker began to walk towards her. “You think I would ever surrender?” Sonia readied her guitar. “No, I don’t.” She began to play. Noise-infused sound waves blasted out from the speakers, stopping Joker in his tracks and even pushing him back slightly. The onslaught was deafening, but Joker endured it, taking aim with one of his beams. Sonia sidestepped it and retaliated with the same move. The head of her guitar lit up as Joker reeled—Battle Cards appeared to orbit around it, stopping when she tapped one and swiped it down. It became a point of light that shot down the neck of the instrument, and then a portion of the body displayed a Big Drop card. Sonia resumed playing, and this time, every note summoned a massive block of stone in the air above Joker. He evaded several of them before punching one apart as it fell, and fired another beam at Sonia. She kept playing even as she took the hit, and before Joker knew it, he was buried under half a dozen or so of the rocks. From where he watched, King snickered. “Well now...this is a most unexpected result…” Joker yelled. The blocks shot out in every direction as Noise exploded from him—Sonia fired her strings at one of them, swinging it around to smack right back into her foe. He punched the ground, and though Sonia managed to dodge the metal blocks that appeared, they did hide him from view long enough for him to close in. Joker punched Sonia back into one of them, but she ducked beneath his follow-up and grabbed the block by its base. Pulling it around, she knocked Joker’s feet out from under him, and then raised the weapon overhead only to smash it down on top of him. She leapt away and swiped another Battle Card into her guitar as Joker pulled himself up. Now when she played, missiles shot out from her speakers to home in on Joker; he was surprised at first, taking direct hits from several, but then clapped his hands together and sent out a shockwave of Noise that detonated the rest. He turned to see Sonia right in front of him, swinging her harp guitar as a bludgeon. The force was enough to hurl him back against one of the speakers, and then she played, letting the intense sound rattle through him at point-blank range. Whatever curses Joker yelled, they were drowned out by the sound of the speakers. But he didn’t stop at words: he spun and buried his fist in the speaker directly behind him, rendering it inoperable, and then whipped around to send it flying towards Sonia. She jumped out of the way, but Joker was on top of her at once. Sonia kept her guard strong as kicks rained battered her, but Joker’s relentless assault steadily wore her down, and he finished with an overhead swing of his fist that slammed her into the floor. Her vision blurred for just a moment, and then she leapt back up fist-first. With a mighty uppercut, Sonia knocked Joker off his feet, and then she aimed her guitar and blasted him once for good measure. “Rrrgh…so, you do know how to wield strength when it is given to you,” Joker said as he got up. “But if these attacks are the best you can muster, they will not be enough to overpower me!” He charged. Sonia swung her guitar high, forcing him to duck and punch. She took the hit to her side, wincing, and then pulled her instrument down, hooking the space between its neck and the offshoot of the body around Joker’s neck. Using it to leverage him, she pulled him down face-first, diving after him to punch his skull as hard as she could. She hung on as he stood up—he couldn’t reach her, and she pulled on her guitar at just the right angle so he couldn’t push it off, leaving her relatively safe to repeatedly hammer her knee into his back. “I’ve got enough!” Sonia said. Joker stomped one foot. A shadow appeared over Sonia, and she jumped away as a metal block landed just a centimeter away from Joker’s back. Her guitar dispersed into Noise and flew back to her hand to reform. Joker ran at her, so she shot her strings at the block he had just summoned and pulled herself forward, clotheslining him with her free arm. She stood atop the block, playing to charge energy as Joker just glared at her. “Incredible…” Geo muttered. “Sonia couldn’t even scratch him earlier. I know Ace weakened him, but even still…I can’t believe how much stronger that Finalized form makes her.” “Eh, it’s alright,” Mega said. “She can show off for now, but once we figure it out, I’m sure we’ll show her up.” “It’s not a competition, Mega.” Geo glanced over at Solo, who sat watching the fight with an expression he couldn’t quite read. He then looked back at Ace, on his feet now, but leaning against the wall for support as he panted heavily. Unfortunately, he didn’t see Joker look over at them as well. Sonia shouted a warning. Joker fired a beam at Geo, but he didn’t realize in time to react to it. At the last second, Solo pushed him to the ground, the beam narrowly missing both of them to hit an empty portion of wall. Joker scowled at the sight, and then stumbled back as Sonia’s guitar was thrown directly at his head. “You leave them out of this!” Sonia said as she walked over to him, her fists glowing with Noise. “You’re fighting me right now!” Joker stepped back as she punched. “Why do you care about them so much? They are weak! If they cannot defend themselves—“ “Then I’ll defend them!” Joker dodged another punch before moving to counter. Sonia swung one of her arms aside to push his arm out of the way, and drove her other fist straight into his face, Noise bursting around him on impact. “I know you won’t understand,” Sonia said, pressing her advantage with more blows to Joker’s chest. “I don’t care if someone is strong or weak! If they’re alive, then I want to keep it that way! I don’t want the people they love to have to lose someone! Can you imagine how that feels? Can you imagine how your mother will feel if something happens to you?!” Joker caught her next punch. Striking her in the face, he shouted, “Nothing will!” Sonia recoiled, but Joker maintained his grip and pulled her back in, punching her again. “Mother made me strong enough to fight for myself! She will never have to know what it feels like to lose me!” Rage flared in Sonia’s eyes. She threw herself forward, headbutting Joker in the teeth, and shouted, “She already has!” Joker lost his grip, turning aside as pain shot through him. “You left her so you could preserve your precious strength! She’s hurting so much, Joker, and it’s all your fault! How do you not realize that?!” When he turned back, a look of genuine confusion was on his face. But only for a moment. Then, he came forward to throw another punch. Sonia spun and grabbed his arm, kicked at his ankle, and pulled, flipping him over and onto his back. She raised one hand, summoning her harp guitar to it, and then slammed it down onto him in an explosion of Noise. “Not being able to think of how other people might feel is bad enough!” Sonia said. “But what’s worse, you ran away from the only people you actually cared about, and refuse to see what you did to them! You keep blaming everyone else, but you’re the one giving up everything else to focus on nothing but being strong for its own sake!” She jumped away as Joker leapt up. Playing quickly, she charged more energy into her guitar. “But I’m wasting my breath, aren’t I? Fine! If strength is all you’ll understand, then listen up: I’m about to tell you something you can’t ignore!” A red aura enveloped Sonia. Drawing his hands apart, Joker gained an identical glow, saying, “Stupid girl! You understand nothing! And I shall prove it to you once and for all!” They both fired at the same time. Two immense beams of Noise met in the center of the room, colliding head-on and coming to a screeching halt as each fought to overpower the other. Slowly, Joker’s beam began to gain ground. “Strength conquers all!” he shouted. “I was born to be strong, and I refuse to fail in that mission! I will prove that Mother’s design is flawless—I will make her proud!” Sonia shook her head. “Joker…wasn’t she already proud of you?” He didn’t answer. But Sonia knew she had larger concerns, as her prospects of winning their clash grew only bleaker. Joker’s beam had nearly consumed hers, and though she funneled more and more power into her attack, nothing seemed to change. Not until Geo appeared behind Joker. “Geo?!” He raised his buster—it was still glowing red from the card he had used earlier. A rapid stream of giant energy shots slammed into the back of Joker’s head, and his beam began to lose intensity as his focus wavered. “Get out of there!” Sonia shouted. “It’s dangerous!” “That’s exactly why I won’t!” Geo said. “I’m not going to abandon you when you need my help, Sonia! That’s not what Brothers do!” “But Geo…!” “Trust me! If we work together, there’s no way we can lose! Isn’t that right?” Sonia hesitated for one moment. But only one. “…You’re right. Let’s put an end to this!” Joker’s beam was still gaining, if only just barely. Sonia dug in her heels as she began thinking of something else to try. But, to her surprise, there was a flash of light just to her side, and she felt a surge of energy rush through her. Turning, she saw Solo standing there with a glyph in his hand. “Solo? What are—“ “Just take him down!” Solo said. “This has gone on long enough, and I have other matters to attend to!” Sonia grimaced. “I’m doing my best here!” “I know. So to speed things up…I’m giving you a little of my power.” “…Huh?” “You heard me! I know you can handle Murian power, so just…put it to good use, alright?” Sonia smiled. “…Alright. If you insist!” She focused again on the beam she was firing. Immediately, it doubled in intensity, rapidly gaining back the ground it had lost and encroaching further upon Joker’s territory. The Wizard pushed back with all his might, slowing the shifting balance just before he was about to be overwhelmed. “I…will not…lose…to you!” he said. “I am Grave Joker! The strength of Meteor G belongs to me! My power…will conquer…all!” Sonia opened her mouth to say something. Realizing it wouldn’t help, she closed it again. On the edge of her vision, she saw someone else moving, but as she didn’t dare split her focus, she couldn’t be sure until he spoke. “Sorry for bailing on you there, Sonia,” Ace said. “Might be a little late, but mind if I lend you a hand?” Sonia chuckled. “Your timing’s perfect!” Ace’s hands lit up with Noise. Holding them forward, he said, “Alright, everybody! Give it all you’ve got!” A second later, he added his Noise to Sonia’s beam. That was enough to tip the balance. Sonia’s laser swallowed up Joker’s, and Geo teleported out just as the torrent of Noise washed over the bewildered Wizard. The attack raged on for a short time longer before ceasing, and a wave of exhaustion overcame Sonia, Solo, and Ace. Geo appeared next to Sonia just as she fell forward, catching her shoulder. She grinned up at him, exuding a sense of relief. “Thanks,” she said. “To all of you.” She tensed briefly as a strange sensation moved through her. The armor of her Red Joker form slowly broke down into Noise, leaving her in her base state, and suddenly she felt even more tired. “Guess I haven’t quite mastered it yet…” A laugh from King caught her attention. He said, “Be that as it may, you’ve still done a spectacular job, Harp Note. Not to mention generated a good deal more Crimson for me, ho ho ho!” Sonia leveled a glare at the screen. Before she could say anything, however, she heard a door open, and turned to see Jack and Tia walk into the room. “…Hm?” King said. “Are my eyes deceiving me? Or have the rest of my children finally come home as well?” “Cut the ,” Jack said. “You really are batshit insane if you think we ever considered you our father!” “Mr. King,” Tia said. “There is only one thing we need from you.” King leaned forward. “Oh? And what is that, my dear?” “We want the Crimson. All of it.” King paused. “…And why, pray tell, would I agree to that?” Jack cracked his knuckles. “I can hack the lock on that vault in seconds! And without Joker at your side, there won’t be anyone to stop us from beating you within an inch of your life!” Tia turned to Ace, who was staring at the both of them. She looked away without saying a word. King tapped his fingers. “Hmmm, what to do? Much as I hate to admit it, I am in quite the bad spot now that Joker’s been defeated…” The sound of one heavy footstep could be heard. Sonia felt a chill run up her spine. Everyone turned to see Joker back on his feet, his armor badly damaged and holding onto one shoulder as he leaned to one side. “No…” he groaned. “I am…not…defeated…I cannot…be…!” “Good heavens,” Lyra said, “he’s as stubborn as they come!” “This is looking real bad,” Mega said. “We might still be able to put Joker down, but if those two interfere…” Corvus appeared, saying, “Haha, scared, little Mega? Why don’t you run crying back to Wolf and see if he’ll save you?” “Last I remember you were running away from him.” “Hmph! Come over here and say that again!” Virgo laughed. “Yeah, come on, I’m itching to kill someone! Lemme, lemme!” Joker took another step. “My strength…cannot fail! I will finish you…whatever it takes!” Sonia shook. She tried desperately to think of a way out, but the odds were clearly not in the favor. The only real option they had was to call for the others and hope they could hold out until then. But, even that didn’t seem very promising in the face of their current dilemma. “Well then,” King said, clapping his hands together. “I’m not so proud I won’t admit to having a bad hand—quite unfortunate, considering my recent winning streak. But, I do have another game to get to, so I can’t be doing anything too risky. All things considered…” He pressed a button on his chair. “I fold.” Joker lurched. His body began to glow red, but not with Noise—there was something different this time, and even Joker seemed not to know what it was. “M…Mr. King?” he asked. “Joker, you have done such an excellent job,” King said. “But now that I am within arm’s reach of my goal, I’m afraid I have no further need for Dealer. So, I’m sending you out with a bang…oh, and, do take those interlopers with you, if you would be so kind.” “W-Wait,” Joker said, shuffling towards the screen, “you can’t! This isn’t…I can’t…” Everyone slowly came to the horrifying realization of what was happening, but no one spoke, as if that was the only thing that would make it real. It was Mega who finally shouted, “You…you’re going to blow up Joker?!”” “Not just Joker,” King said, starting to shuffle cards in his hand. “The blast should decimate this entire facility and everyone in it. Well, save for Heartless and myself, thanks to this vault I keep on hand.” Tia’s eyes were wide. Jack nervously looked up at her, saying, “Sis…what should we—“ She grabbed him. “Run, Jack!” They were out the door in seconds, Tia practically pushing Jack the whole way. Geo helped Sonia that way, but they were too bruised to move with any semblance of speed, and Solo wasn’t moving much faster. “No!” Joker said. “No, this can’t be! I can’t…I can’t…be deleted! Not with all this strength! No!” King rolled his eyes. “My word, were you always this dramatic?” The screen shut off. Joker put his hands to his head, staring at the floor and saying, “No, no, no, no, NO!” He was flashing now, the explosive energy building up quickly within his body. As the others worked to make their escape, Ace just stood there, staring at him. “…Acid,” he said quietly. “I agree,” Acid said. “Are you really sure?” “I am.” “You won’t hate me for this?” “I am incapable of hating you, Ace. You are my friend.” Ace chuckled. “…Thanks, buddy. Okay…here goes.” Sonia and Geo were at the door now, but they stopped and looked back just then, seeing Ace run at Joker and grab him by the shoulders. “Ace?!” Sonia shouted. Ace began to glow red as well. He gave a short grunt, and then said, “Keep going! Don’t stop!” “What are you doing?! Get away from him!” “You heard King: this blast will level the whole place if we don’t do something! I can absorb and diffuse some of the energy, but I don’t know how much it’ll help!” “But what about you?” Geo asked. “Just go!” “No!” Sonia said. “We’re not leaving you, Ace! You need to make it out of here too!” Ace shook his head. “Sorry, Sonia…but this is the only way! Now get going! We’re running out of time!” “We have to help him!” Sonia said. She tried to run over to him, but to her surprise, Geo held her back. “Sonia,” Geo said, “we…we can’t!” “What?! But—“ “I know! I’m sorry! But look at what’s happening: there’s really no other option! We still need to deal with Meteor G, and Ace is giving us a chance to do that! I really wish we could save him, but…we can’t, Sonia! If we try, we won’t be able to save anyone!” Sonia looked back and forth frantically. She wished she could argue, but she knew she couldn’t. “It’s too late anyway, Sonia!” Ace said. “I’ve already absorbed too much of this energy to make it out! Sorry, but there’s nothing you can do for me now!” Geo started to push Sonia along. She called, “But, Ace!” “Go do what you do best, Harp Note!” Ace replied. “The world needs saving! I know you can do it!” With great reluctance, Sonia finally turned away, and soon they were gone. Ace let out a breath. Joker seemed to finally become aware of him, and grabbed him by the chest, glaring at him angrily as if it were somehow his fault. Ace ignored him and looked down. Soon, he began to chuckle. With an enraged grunt, Joker asked, “Is something funny?!” As he looked up at Joker, Ace’s façade finally fell away: his smile was gone, and his gaze was one of confusion and fear. “I wanted this for the longest time…I thought it would make up for what I’ve done wrong. But now that I’m here…I…I’m actually scared to d—“ Chapter 34 Sonia had her eyes on the floor as she made her way down the hall of the hospital. She only looked up as she rounded the now-familiar corner, and immediately stopped short. Stepping out of her mother’s room was a tall, slender woman with pink hair, wrapped in a long black coat and giving her a look of surprise as she too came to a halt. Sonia had no idea who this person was, or what to say. Before she could think of anything, the woman smiled at her, and walked off without a word. Who was that? She entered the room to find her mother wiping her eyes. “Mama?” Rosa jumped a little. “O-Oh, Sonia! I’m sorry, I…” Sonia rushed to her bedside. “What happened, Mama? Did that woman upset you?” “It’s…it’s nothing she did.” She breathed deeply, and then looked up at Sonia with a weary smile. “Sorry, kiddo. I’ll be alright.” Hesitantly, Sonia sat down on the edge of the bed. “Who was that?” Glancing aside, Rosa said, “She’s…an old friend. She heard about my condition and wanted to come say goodbye.” Sonia fidgeted. Rosa turned back. “…Sonia?” “You’ll be okay, won’t you?” the girl asked quietly. “…Sonia…like I said before…I probably don’t have much time.” “But, we can’t know for sure! Maybe we’ll still find a way for you to recover! There’s no need for anyone to say goodbye when you’re still here!” “Maybe. But, they won’t have a chance to say it when I’m gone.” Sonia looked down. Rosa reached out and set a hand on her head. “I’m sorry, Sonia,” she said. “I’m so sorry this is the situation we’re in. But…we need to be prepared for the worst. And part of that is saying goodbye.” Her daughter leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her, trembling fiercely. Rosa hugged her back with what little strength she had. “I don’t want to lose you, Mama!” Sonia sobbed. “I’m not ready to lose you! What am I supposed to do without you?” “The same thing you’d do if I was here. Live your life.” “Alone?” “No, not alone. You’ll make friends, maybe fall in love, find wonderful people to share your life with.” “But…not you…” Rosa bit her lip. “…No, sweetie. But I’ll be up in Heaven watching over you.” “But I need you here!” Rosa could only bury her face in Sonia’s shoulder. She let her cry, and when she was finally done, she pulled back slightly and sat there, staring down with a look of hopelessness. “I wish things could be different, Sonia,” Rosa said, reaching out to wipe away her tears. “If there was any way I could change it, I would. I want to be here for you as long as you’ll need me. But it just isn’t up to me. Sometimes you lose people before you’re ready to…it isn’t fair, but sometimes it happens. And when it does, you need to decide how you’re going to react to it, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t happening.” Sonia looked up to meet her gaze. “Horrible as it is…you’re going to be here without me. But please, Sonia: don’t stop living your life. Don’t stop being you. I know it’ll be sad, and lonely, and painful, but don’t let it stop you from doing all the things you want to do, all the things you can do. You’ll still be able to shape your life into something wonderful without me here to help. And that’ll make me so happy.” More tears came to Sonia’s eyes. Rosa pulled her back in. *** A dull pain occupied Sonia’s heart as she watched Goodall and Vega work. Luna was next to her, firmly holding her hand, but even that couldn’t quite cut through it. The two doctors turned—the screen they were working at flashed, and with a flurry of particles, Acid appeared between them. The Wizard looked about curiously. “…Accessing AMAKEN system,” he said. “Synchronizing internal clock…I see. Then I presume my former body was destroyed during the attack on Dealer?” “It was,” Vega quietly replied. Acid waited a moment before asking, “Where is Ace?” Sonia swallowed hard. Luna squeezed her hand. “Acid,” Sonia said. “Ace…Ace is gone.” Acid simply turned to face her. “King…he rigged Joker to explode—he said it would be enough to level the entire hideout. You and Ace went to absorb the energy he was using, to try to weaken the blast…it was because of that the rest of us were able to escape. But…” Acid nodded once. “I see. Thank you.” A long, suffocating silence filled the room. “Where is King now?” Acid asked. Sonia closed her eyes to fight back tears. “…We don’t know.” “Is there a way I can assist in locating him?” “I believe there is,” Goodall said, starting towards the door. “Right this way, please.” Taken by surprise, Sonia said, “D-Dr. Goodall…” The old woman turned and smiled at her. “It’s alright, dear.” She and Acid left. Vega said nothing more, and soon she left as well. Luna just stood there, waiting patiently as Sonia worked to process what she was feeling. Sonia glanced at her briefly before averting her gaze; Luna tugged on her sleeve, prompting her to turn back, and stepped closer to her. With a sigh, Sonia leaned forward to rest her head on Luna’s shoulder. “I…just…” she murmured, followed by a long grunt made of syllables that didn’t quite form a proper word. The tears began to flow slowly from her eyes. “…It’s too much.” Luna gently put her arms around Sonia, saying, “Talk to me. I want to help you.” Sonia groaned. “I’m confused…I’m sad…and worried, and…I’m…mad. And I’m not really okay with being mad.” “Mad at King?” “Of course, but also…part of me is mad at…Ace.” Luna paused. “Why’s that?” Sonia balled her fists. “He just…he decided to die! After I just told him not to, told him he mattered—he knew we would miss him! But he did it anyway! He didn’t try to find another way, he…” After waiting to be sure she wouldn’t interrupt, Luna said, “The way you explained it, it doesn’t sound like there was another way.” “Maybe not once he had already started absorbing energy, but before that, there might’ve been!” “The blast was going to destroy the entire facility, wasn’t it? I saw how beaten up you looked when you got back: you and Geo never would have made it out in the state you were in.” Sonia sighed. Luna adjusted her arms slightly, and Sonia rolled her head onto its side and stared blankly at the corner. “Sonia,” Luna said. “I understand why you’re mad. You value life so much that someone being willing to give theirs up doesn’t really make sense to you. But, honestly…I think Ace made the best decision he could make in that situation. What he did saved you, so I can’t bring myself to be mad at him for doing that. Maybe I’m biased that way.” “…I understand,” Sonia said. She could hear Luna’s heartbeat, and that helped her calm down a little. “…Maybe it isn’t really Ace I’m mad at…maybe it’s what that choice might mean.” She slid her arms up around Luna. “I don’t want to think about if…if maybe we really do need to make such terrible compromises in life…but if we don’t, then it’s like saying Ace died for no reason, and I don’t want to think that either. I’m stuck, and confused, and frustrated. And…this isn’t even over yet.” She pulled away from Luna as the ache in her heart deepened, taking a few steps and running her hands up over her face. “King’s still out there, somewhere, ready to use Meteor G to destroy the world. I have to stop him, but even if we can find him time…I don’t know what I’m going to do when I see him again.” “What do you mean?” Luna asked. Turning, Sonia said, “This time is…different. King talked to me, explained himself, but that only made everything worse. Usually I can think of a way to help someone once they talk to me—at the very least, I can understand where they’re coming from even if I really disagree with them. But King…I can’t begin to make sense of the leaps in logic he’s taken. I should understand him now, but I don’t, not one bit, and it…it scares me, Luna. Especially now that I’ve seen what he’s capable of up close.” Luna stepped forward. She reached up, adjusting some stray strands of Sonia’s hair, and said, “It’s okay to be scared, Sonia. And it’s okay to admit that you don’t understand something. Knowing you, you’ll keep trying, and maybe you will figure it out. But, even if you don’t, I know you’ll still find a way to solve this.” Sonia didn’t say anything. Luna reached past her head to pull her hood up, and then yanked on the sides as she leaned in to kiss her. A bright spark seared right through the pain she felt. “I believe in you,” Luna mumbled, blushing only a little. “After all, you’ve got all of us here to support you, so there’s no way you can lose!” Despite herself, Sonia giggled. “Of course.” “And…we’re going to stay by your side. So whatever life does end up throwing at you, whatever situations you are forced into…whenever possible, we’ll do whatever we can to prevent you from needing to compromise on anything truly important. Okay?” Sonia nodded. “Okay. Thank you.” She was about to steal another kiss when a glint outside the window caught their eye. When they turned, they saw a bright red beam of some kind cutting through the sky, falling straight down until it disappeared below the horizon. A small tremor reached them. The beam vanished soon after, but the dread it instilled in them only grew stronger. “There’s a news bulletin,” Lyra said. “Hope you don’t mind…” A screen popped up beside the two of them. It displayed an image of a small island just off the coast, its landscape pulverized to bits, immense fissures dividing it up at random. A fog of Noise hung over the ruined landmass. Sonia bristled. “This is King,” she said. “It’s got to be. Is he putting his plans in motion already?” “What we need to be asking is how do we respond?” Lyra said. “We’ve yet to pick up his trail, after all—there’s no telling where he could be hiding.” A chime sounded as she finished speaking. At the bottom of the screen there appeared a mail icon, so Sonia reached out and tapped it. “King is utilizing an orbital base,” it read. “Attached is a key to gain access via Astro Wave. Hurry.” Sonia blinked. “…What?” “Interesting,” Lyra said. “There is a key attached, just as it said. This is…almost too good to be true.” “You think it’s some kind of trap?” “It’s quite possible. After all, who would even be able to send us something like this?” Sonia thought for a moment, and then dismissed the screen. Turning to Luna, she said, “I have to try. It might be the only chance I get.” “You’re not going alone, are you?” Luna asked sternly. “It doesn’t sound like I have much time, but I’ll see if I can grab someone.” Luna’s face hung in a state that teetered on the edge of scowling. “…Alright. Be careful.” “I will.” Sonia ran out of the lab and down the hall, sliding a little as she burst into another room. Geo and Pat sat on a bench there, grasping each other’s hands as they watched the same news, and they looked up sharply as Sonia entered. “Sonia?” Geo asked. “Did you see this too?” “I did,” she said, “and I got a message. Someone told me where King is hiding.” “W-What?!” “It might be bogus, but we can’t afford to pass it up. Are you up to coming with me?” Geo turned to Pat. The boy nodded, saying, “Yeah, go. I’ll be okay. Just stay safe!” Pausing to give him a kiss, Geo got up and followed Sonia outside. “Just us?” “Yeah, apparently we need to hurry.” “Alright. So, where are we headed exactly?” *** The interior of the base was simple as could be, an empty room of cold metal with barely a window to see the vast expanse of space beyond its walls. At one side was a massive device of some kind, glowing eerily as it hummed along. Another wall was occupied by a large viewscreen and its control panel, showing the news feed as it reported on the devastated island, and King looked up at it with a less than satisfied expression. “I’m surprised, Mr. King,” Heartless said as she walked up behind him. “I expected you to have a speech prepared for the moment you revealed you have Meteor G under your thumb.” “I did,” King said. “However, due to that mysterious interference, I thought it best to hold off for the time being.” The viewscreen blinked, now showing Meteor G as it drew ever closer to Earth. “You see, I had instructed Meteor G to attack the AMAKEN facility…but it would seem whoever else has a share of Meteor G was able to redirect its attack to an uninhabited area. I’d look like something of a fool if I gave a speech and then misfired like that.” “Yes, quite.” King leaned back in his chair. “Hm. The attack was still carried out, meaning my foe’s control over Meteor G is not absolute. But then, neither is mine. Now, how do I proceed…?” Suddenly, the lights flickered. King looked up in surprise. He turned his chair around, and when he did, Jack and Tia were standing before him, both Wave Changed. King hummed. “Mr. King,” Tia said. “We still have matters to discuss.” “I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised you found this place,” King said, leaning on one elbow. “What is it that you want, children? Can’t you see I’m very busy right now?” “Having some trouble?” Jack asked. “Don’t sweat it: in just a minute, you won’t have to worry about anything at all!” Ignoring him, King said, “You said something about wanting the Crimson? What is it you hoped to accomplish with that?” “Controlling Meteor G, of course,” Tia said. “We wish to see it crash into the surface of the Earth.” “It’s on track to do just that. I’m certainly not about to stop it.” Tia narrowed her eyes. “…Is that so?” “I simply wanted to cause a little extra terror and destruction prior to that. If that’s all, I really must get back to it.” King returned to the screen. “Not so fast. Whether you’re telling the truth or not is irrelevant…once we kill you, we shall ensure Meteor G cannot be stopped.” King tilted his head. “Kill me? That’s no way to speak to your father.” “!” Jack said. “Our real father died years ago! You just scooped us and all those other kids up to play soldier for you while you sat back and reaped the rewards!” “Caring for us was only a means to an end,” Tia said. “You sent them all to die, King. And for that, there must be retribution.” King turned and stared at her for a time. Quietly, he said, “I too was saddened by their loss.” Tia’s eyes were practically aglow with fury. “You were saddened? I was the one who watched them die! I was the one who felt the life drain out of their bodies! Can you hear them weep in your nightmares, King? Do you see their faces out of the corner of your eye? Have you had every last shred of your own hope wither and die within you until you float through life as an empty husk?! Don’t tell me you were saddened by their deaths, King! You cannot even comprehend the atrocities your pointless campaign has inflicted!” She pointed her staff forward. “I will put their souls to rest once and for all!” King tapped his desk. In an instant, Jack and Tia’s Wave Changes were undone, and they stumbled back in alarm. “What the ?!” Jack asked. “Corvus, what gives?” “, there’s some kind of Noise interfering with the Wave Change!” Corvus replied. “No fair!” Virgo said. “I wanted to kill him!” Tia looked back up at King, her fury replaced with fear. The man’s face was set as he hit another button. A ring of energy appeared around her, binding her arms to her sides—another appeared around Jack. “You two need to be punished severely,” King said. The rings began to tighten. The pain was immediately unbearable, numbing Tia’s mind for a moment as it overwhelmed her. Then she heard Jack scream and it all can into agonizingly clear focus. “N…No!” she groaned. “S-Stop…! Let Jack…go!” “And why would I do that?” King asked. Tia clenched her teeth, doing her best to hold on as the pain only intensified. “It was…my idea…to come here! Jack was…just…following me! Let him go…please…!” King rubbed his chin. “Hm…well, since you were so polite…” He tapped his desk again. The ring holding Tia disappeared, letting her drop to the floor. The one holding Jack only continued to tighten. “No!” Tia shouted, leaping towards her brother. She grabbed at the binding, trying desperately to get her fingers under it and loosen it, but it was already too tight. “S…is…” Jack said. His eyes fluttered; he tried to scream, but he had no breath remaining. Tia’s panic consumed her. “Jack, no! King, please, just let him go! I can’t lose him too, I can’t, please!” King just laughed. Tia kept struggling in vain to save her brother, whose eyes were now rolling back into his head. She screamed…and then the ring holding Jack disappeared, letting him drop into Tia’s arms. “What?!” King said. Tia clutched Jack close, cradling his head as she cried quietly over him. “It’s okay, Jack…it’s okay…it’s okay…” King tapped his desk again, but this time nothing happened. He tried a few more times before shouting, “Impossible! What is the meaning of this? Heartless, run a diagnostic on this place!” Heartless silently walked past him. “Heartless!” She turned to look at him, a chilling smirk on her face. Then, she raised her hand, and gave a simple snap. A Noise Wave opened up directly beneath King. His face went white. “W…wh…at?” Heartless threw her head back and cackled. “Yes! Oh, I’ve never had to wait so long, but it’s always worth it! That face they make when it all comes crashing down around them is priceless, ahahahah!” “H-Heartless!” King shouted, his arms scrambling as his chair was slowly pulled down into the Noise. “Explain this!” “I was the only one you thought would never turn on you, wasn’t I?” she said, bringing one palm to the side of her face as she grinned at him. “Surprise! You’ve been surrounded by traitors this whole time!” The majority of King’s chair had been pulled under now. Reaching out to claw at the floor, he said, “What…what is it you want? What are you after?!” “All you need to know is that I’m in the business of…let’s call it ‘karma’. And you know what they say about karma.” Heartless tossed her hair. “It’s a real .” King shouted, but his cries were cut short as the Noise Wave swallowed him up. Heartless sighed loudly as she walked across the room, Tia watching her very closely as she did. “You almost ruined it, you know,” Heartless said. “You should’ve just kept your distance.” Tia held Jack tighter. “Relax, sweetie. I’m not going to hurt you. Harp Note’s on her way, and she’d be awfully distraught if she found you two dead. Why do you think I stopped his attack?” Jack stirred. Tia looked down as he opened his eyes, saying, “Jack?!” “Sis?” He sat up. “What…where’s King?” “Gone,” Heartless said. “Paying for his sins in the bowels of his own Noise.” Jack leapt to his feet. “What? You took out King?!” Heartless turned, saying, “Oh, I’d rather not go over it all again. Will you two be on your way? Harp Note will be here any moment, and surely she’ll attempt to stop you.” “If she does, we can take her!” Jack said. “Right, Sis?” Tia Wave Changed, turning to the large, glowing device in the wall. She blasted it with water, blowing a hole into it, and Noise streamed out of the gaping metal. “…Sis?” “…Now Meteor G cannot be stopped,” Tia said. “Tell Harp Note we’ll be waiting there if she still wants to try.” She turned and started off. Jack ran after her, Wave Changing quickly, and they both disappeared. Heartless shook her head, and then stood there examining her nails as she waited. It wasn’t much longer before she heard new footsteps. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Sonia and Geo approaching her, Wave Changes still active as they cautiously scanned the place. Heartless turned and smiled at them. “So glad you could join me,” she said. “Unfortunately, Jack and Queen Tia interrupted, so I had to go ahead and deal with Mr. King myself. Hope you don’t mind.” “…Jack and Ms. Tia are here?” Geo asked. “Sorry, just missed them.” Sonia stared at her a moment longer. “How did you know how to reach me? Why did you bring us here—aren’t you working for Dealer? Who…who are you?” Heartless looked up at the ceiling. “Well…I’m something of a freelance espionage professional. I infiltrate various organizations, learn all I can about them, and then destroy them from within. It’s something I find quite satisfying. For several years now, I’ve been in deep cover in Dealer under the alias of ‘Heartless’ in the pursuit of a very particular goal.” “So you’re on our side?” Mega asked. “More or less,” Heartless said, adding a non-committal shrug. “Yeah, that’s real trustworthy…” “Alright,” Sonia said, “but that doesn’t explain how you got my contact information.” “I have had to make one or two excursions in recent years,” Heartless said. “Most recently, I had to stop at NAZA to let them know I was sending someone useful their way.” “Sending someone to NAZA…” Geo said. “Wait, are you saying you helped Ace escape Dealer?” Heartless nodded. “While I was there, I may have poked around a bit and found a way to get in touch with the legendary Harp Note, expecting the need would arise sooner or later. And of course, it did. Though things didn’t go exactly according to plan…” Sonia continued to stare. Then, she deactivated her Wave Change, and took a step forward. “That doesn’t answer my question. Who are you? I remember you…just barely, but I remember you visiting Mama right before she died.” Heartless raised her eyebrows. “You remember that? I’m touched. But I’m afraid that will have to wait for now.” She turned and started to walk. “We should head back to AMAKEN before I get into all the details. There’s some very important information to cover, and I’m sure everyone will—“ “No.” Heartless looked back at Sonia. The girl had locked a fierce gaze onto her. “I’m not going anywhere until you answer me. I’m tired of getting pulled around by everyone and never getting any explanation until it’s already too late. So tell me: who are you? How do you know my mother?” After a few long, tense moments, Heartless chuckled. “…You look just like her.” She glanced around the room, and then turned back with a sigh. “Oh, very well. I hate repeating myself, but I can see I won’t get you to budge easily. So I’ll tell you, Sonia. I’ll tell you everything.” Chapter 35 “Sonia, I hope you know how much I love you. And I hope you have a wonderful, long, happy life…goodbye.” Rosa tapped her Transer to end the recording. A coughing fit immediately overtook her, lasting for what felt like hours. When it finally stopped, she gasped for air and shakily reached towards the terminal again. “You look terrible.” She glanced up. Standing just inside her room was a tall, slender woman with pink hair, wrapped in a long black coat. After staring for a moment, she hoarsely asked, “What are you doing here?” The woman shrugged with one shoulder. “Is it so strange to pay someone a visit when they’re in the hospital?” With a grin, she added, “Well, I suppose it is for me.” She came forward and sat at the foot of Rosa’s bed. Rosa fidgeted for a moment, and then said, “I’m dying, you know.” She nodded. “I know. That’s why I’m here. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to say goodbye.” Rosa smirked. “It won’t hurt?” “Don’t act surprised. You know that I’m heartless.” They chuckled together. Rosa rubbed her Transer absent-mindedly. Though she already knew the answer, she had to ask. “Once I’m gone…Sonia won’t have anybody.” “She’s your daughter, isn’t she?” the woman said, eyes aimed at the wall. “She’s strong enough to handle that.” Rosa sighed. “Of course.” The woman turned towards her slightly. “…I have a lead.” It took Rosa a moment to realize her meaning. Lighting up a bit, she asked, “You do? Really?” She nodded. “You’re not just making it up so that I can die in peace, are you?” “You really think I’m that kind?” Rosa didn’t say anything. “I know where he is. Or, maybe where he’s going to be. Either way, I think we’ll have a chance to rescue him…but it’ll be a few years still before we get it. And in order to be in the right place at the right time, I’m going to need to get cozy with some dangerous people.” “That is what you do best,” Rosa muttered. The woman smiled. “Precisely. But, of course, bringing a child into that…not a wise idea.” “…I suppose not.” “But then, maybe Sonia could handle it. You are planning to use her as a weapon against the FM-ians, aren’t you?” Rosa glared at her. “It’s not like that.” “Oh, of course not,” the woman said, adjusting a stray hair. “Someone as kind as you would never dream of sending her only child into battle. What was I thinking?” “Listen here, you—“ Another coughing fit cut her off. When she could breathe again, she said, “…I’m just making preparations. If the FM-ians attack Earth and no one’s prepared, everyone could die, including Sonia. I didn’t create this situation, I’m just reacting to it.” “Fair enough. But why does it have to be Sonia?” “Suddenly you care about her?” “That’s not an answer.” Rosa clenched her fists, strangling the sheet in her hands. “…She’s the only one who can. The Star Force is our best bet, but with the AM-ians all but gone, the only EM beings we’re likely to run into are the FM-ians. Someone is going to have to befriend one of them, convince them to change…and Sonia’s someone who can do that.” “Hm. You think so?” “Stop it. You think I don’t know how terrible what I’m doing is? She’s my daughter. I don’t want her to have to fight—I don’t want to put her through the pain she’s going to face if she gets involved in all this. But I don’t have the luxury of approaching this like a mother. I have to approach it like a scientist. And if that means I have to place this burden on Sonia’s shoulders…” She hung her head. “Then I’ll do it. It’s not like I need to wait long to see how God judges me for it.” The woman watched her for a moment, and then reached out and set a hand on hers. “Welcome to the world of hard choices.” When she looked up, Rosa saw the woman smiling at her, looking somewhat relieved. “…Don’t you do what you do because you enjoy it?” Rosa asked. “I do. But every so often there are some joyless decisions that are tough even for me to make, times when I too have to think objectively and make the call that’s most beneficial no matter how terrible it is. Easier for me than it is for you, I’m sure…but, if you’ll allow me a little sentiment, it’s nice to think we understand each other a little better now.” Rosa smiled. The woman stood up, straightening her coat. “I’ll help her out if I get the chance, though I’m not so sure I will. Again, dangerous people.” Rosa thought for a moment. “If I hadn’t asked you to find Kelvin, if you weren’t about to take this chance to find him…then, would you have taken care of Sonia after I died?” Without hesitation, she answered, “No.” “I see.” She sighed. “How awful…I’m relieved to hear you say that. At least now I know my selfish request didn’t ruin a chance she never actually had.” The woman laughed. “Careful, Rosa: you’re starting to sound like me.” “Oh, then it’s a very good thing I don’t have enough time for that to develop.” The woman stayed where she was for a few moments. Then, she walked up to Rosa, smiled sadly, and set a hand on her head. “I don’t exactly have a right to say it…but I really do love you, little sister. The world’s going to feel very empty knowing that you’re no longer in it.” Rosa smiled back, tears starting to form in her eyes. “I still love you too, sis. Remember that, okay?” “Heh. Well, I suppose I could try to.” With that, she turned and left the room. Just outside the door, she felt eyes on her, and turned to see Sonia staring right at her. She froze, not knowing what to do for a split-second. But that was all the time it took her to remember what she had to do. So, she smiled at Sonia, and then she turned her back on her and walked away. *** “Rosa was my younger sister,” Heartless said. “I was there that day because I wanted to take my only chance to tell her goodbye.” Sonia’s eyes widened. “W…what? But, Mama never mentioned having a sister…” “She probably didn’t talk much about her family at all, did she?” Sonia didn’t answer. “Yes, I’m sure Rosa felt she’d be taunting you with a family you’d never meet. We went our separate ways long ago—your mother, myself, and our parents. It’s a rift we could never agree to mend.” “She told me about that,” Sonia said. “She said her family wanted her to give up on something, but she didn’t, so they cut ties with her.” “Oh, it was a long time coming,” Heartless said. “Our parents liked to call themselves ‘old-fashioned’…because they thought that justified their backwards thinking. They were absurdly strict, emotionally distant, always pushing us and never making us feel like what we did was enough. Myself, I simply gave up trying to please them. It was quite freeing to throw myself into the role of ‘wild child’. But Rosa…” She sighed. “For Rosa, it wasn’t quite that simple. She wanted to please our parents. An impossible task, but she kept at it, no matter how it wore her down over the years. Our differing approaches caused a good bit of friction between the two of us as well, as I’m sure you can imagine.” The information processed slowly in Sonia’s mind. She still wasn’t entirely sure she could trust this woman’s words, but if she was telling the truth, then she couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Hesitantly, she asked, “…Then…what was the final straw? What did they want her to give up on?” Heartless frowned. “…You.” A chill crept up Sonia’s spine. “What?” The woman crossed her arms. “Despite the aforementioned friction, Rosa and I could still get along from time to time. It got easier once we were both adults. However, she still wanted our parents’ approval so badly…she really thought she would get it once she established herself as a scientist. But even that wasn’t enough for them, and realizing that nearly broke her. With little choice, she ended up turning to me. I wanted to cheer her up, get her to relax a little, so I convinced her to come with me to a party.” She smiled. “…She did have fun. It was nice to see that. However, soon after we found out she had a little too much fun that night…and had wound up pregnant.” Sonia blinked. “Our parents were furious. The man she had been with wanted nothing more to do with her, so they told her the only thing to do was to terminate the pregnancy. It was Rosa’s decision of course, but they didn’t see it that way. They told her what choice to make…and there she finally drew the line. And our parents told her they never wanted to see her again.” Sonia stared at Heartless silently, waiting for a coherent thought to form. “I imagine this is a lot to take in,” Heartless said. “And of course, you may not even believe me. Aaron Boreal can vouch. So can Hope Stelar—I got to know her and Kelvin through Rosa, lovely people.” Geo stepped closer to Sonia, asking, “Sonia? Are you alright?” “…Not sure,” Sonia said. She gently shook her head, trying her best to clear it. “But we’ve got other problems…so…Heartless. If you’ve been planning to dismantle Dealer all along, why did you wait until now to do it?” Heartless hummed to herself, glancing at Geo. “…I suppose it’s fine, as long as he’s here.” Geo turned to her, waiting for an explanation. “I didn’t join Dealer to dismantle it. That’s just a bonus. The real reason I joined it was because I knew they would bring about this exact moment, when Meteor G is finally within reach.” Sonia tensed. Preparing to Wave Change again, she asked, “And what do you want Meteor G for?” “It’s not the Meteor itself I want. I want the one trapped inside it.” “…What was that?” “A few years back, Rosa contacted me out of the blue to ask me for help in finding someone. However, when I finally locked onto this person’s Transer signal, I discovered he was directly in the path of Meteor G. So in order to fulfill Rosa’s request, I knew I had to ensure the Meteor would get close enough that we could properly extract him.” “Mama asked you to find someone? Someone in space? Who…” She trailed off as she realized. Sonia turned slowly to Geo, who took a shaky step forward. “Wait…” he murmured. “Do you mean…” Heartless nodded. “I’ve checked a few more times to verify. Kelvin is still alive, inside Meteor G.” Geo turned to the monitor, staring at the image of the glowing red star. Mega materialized beside him, saying, “Hang on, really? You’re completely sure Kelvin is inside that thing?” “Yes, completely.” “Well…I did turn him into a wave being, so he would be able to exist inside the server. But…” Mega hesitated. “But the Noise would corrupt him, wouldn’t it?” Geo quietly answered. “…Well, it’s hard to be certain,” Heartless said, “but I’m not worried. If the Noise did affect Kelvin, his signal would surely degrade as a result, and I can confirm that it has only grown stronger as Meteor G has grown closer.” Geo faced her. “Then…he’s okay?” “Again, it’s hard to be certain. We can only be entirely sure of his status once we’ve extracted him.” Starting forward, he said, “Okay, well, how do we do that?!” Heartless glanced briefly at the broken machine in the wall. “Not to worry: I’ve had plenty of time to plan this out. But for best results, we will need to consult our mutual acquaintances down at AMAKEN. Hope you don’t mind, but I will insist we rendezvous before we continue this conversation.” Geo nodded. He headed back the way he had come, but quickly stopped and turned back to Sonia. The girl was still staring at Heartless. “…Yes?” Heartless asked. “Sorry,” Sonia said. “I guess I still don’t know what to think.” “Perfectly understandable.” “I know we don’t have time right now. But…when this is over…can we talk more? Please?” Heartless took a moment before answering. “…Very well. If that’s what you want, then I’ll oblige. I suppose it is the least I can do.” Sonia turned back around. Geo was still watching her, so she nodded to him, trying to smile. Still, the two of them ended up looking back at Meteor G. *** Boreal stared across the table at Heartless. She sat there silently, looking only the slightest bit impatient. “So Kelvin is really inside Meteor G?” he asked. “And you have a plan to get him out of it?” “Yes,” Heartless said, “and it even involves saving the Earth. Have I permission to share it, Chief?” Copper leaned over towards Boreal, whispering, “You’re sure we can believe her information?” “I know her,” Boreal replied. “I trust her…at least, I trust her on this.” He nodded to Heartless, so she stood and cleared her throat. “What I have done is quite simple: I have constructed a Noise Wave that will allow a wave body to enter the Meteor Server. By utilizing it, Harp Note will be able to find and extract Kelvin, as well as destroy Meteor G’s core, which will cause the meteor itself to disperse before it can impact the Earth’s surface.” Sonia lightly tapped her finger against the table. She could see her friends out of the corner of her eye, both Luna and Geo wearing very worried expressions. “Interesting,” Goodall said. “You’ve found a way to make it through the dense outer layer of Noise? Mind if we ask how?” “I thought you’d be curious,” Heartless said. “Rest assured, I have a report ready that will detail everything I’ve learned about Noise while working at Dealer, which I’ll be turning over to WAZA free of charge.” “That’s very generous,” Vega said. “However, when you say ‘disperse’…does that not mean the Noise will still remain in the upper atmosphere of the planet? Might some of it still fall and affect the Earth?” “You are correct, but I’ve handled that as well. The orbital base King used possesses Noise-resistant shielding—if I position it between the Earth and Meteor G, then when the core is destroyed, it will hold back the brunt of the Noise long enough for me to download all of it elsewhere.” “Elsewhere? The Meteor Server is enormous! Where else could you download that much Noise?” “I found just the thing lying around. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but there happen to be three powerful satellites orbiting our planet, which have been lying empty for some time now.” Boreal looked up. “The satellite network? From when we used Transers? I suppose it would be just about the right size, but they’re not…well, you’ve probably seen to that to, haven’t you?” Heartless smirked. “If you were about to say they’re not capable of dealing with Noise, then yes, I’ve modified them myself with Dealer technology to ensure they will be able to function as a new Noise Server. As I may’ve mentioned, I’ve had plenty of time to formulate this plan.” “Alright. So, all we need to do is get Sonia to this Noise Wave.” Sonia nodded. “Okay. How can I get to it?” Heartless’s smirk fell away, and she glanced to the side. “Yes, well…we have hit one tiny snag. Queen Tia destroyed the orbital base’s mechanism for controlling Noise. With that, I could’ve simply opened an entrance from anywhere, but as it stands…” Boreal sighed. “This sounds like more than a ‘tiny snag’.” “But,” Vega said, “we need only repair the mechanism, isn’t that right? We must begin immediately!” “I do appreciate your enthusiasm,” Heartless said. “However, even if we begin now, I can’t say for certain if we would have enough time to get the mechanism working properly; much less enough for Harp Note to traverse the wave, deal with Jack and Queen Tia, and then destroy the core. I’m prepared to do what I can, but I thought perhaps we should look into alternatives.” Before the discussion could continue, a strange sensation filled the air. The various technologies around the room all went to static, and the lights began to flicker; Sonia got to her feet, cautiously glancing around the room. Suddenly, the entrance to a Noise Wave popped into existence on one side of the room. She immediately Wave Changed as everyone scrambled away from the portal. “Ho ho…” echoed a voice from within the wave. “Yes, come join me. The Noise is marvelous!” Geo Wave Changed as well, saying, “That sounds like…” He didn’t have to wait long for confirmation. King emerged from the Noise Wave, hands folded on his desk, and gave a toothy grin to the crowd waiting for him. Sonia and Geo quickly put themselves between him and the others. “That…isn’t possible,” Heartless said. “Come now, dear Heartless,” King said. “Did you really think this would be enough to kill me? You’ve underestimated me. I’m hurt.” “A human can’t survive for long in an environment as harsh as a Noise Wave. You should…” Her eyes widened. “Think it through, my dear. It’s true that a human cannot survive in a Noise Wave…so, I ceased being human.” King rapped his knuckles against his desk. “I’ve long been prepared for the possibility of shedding my humanity. So I built a special Z Wave generator into my chair: when my physical well-being was at stake, it activated, and turned me into an EM being. And, I just so happened to have a spare Noise Blocker on hand as well, rendering me immune to any potential side effects my surroundings may’ve caused. Your trap has failed, Heartless.” Copper raised his Hunter, preparing to Wave Change. When he saw the screen, however, he realized Plesio was spasming. “Plesio? What’s wrong?!” “Noise…” Plesio murmured, sounding like it pained him just to speak. “Too much Noise…” “Oh, you don’t say?” King said. “This wave does lead to Meter G—I suppose its intense Noise is too much for your primitive Filters! Ho ho ho ho!” Sonia and Geo exchanged a brief look. “But on to more pressing issues…I have a traitor to dispose of!” Heartless stepped back. Aiming her guitar, Sonia said, “I won’t let you!” Geo got in front of Heartless, shield ready, while Sonia sent a note at King. His chair moved quickly to the side, and the lights decorating its front shone. Beams shot out from them, but just as they did, Laplace cut the side of the chair, tilting it so that the attack only hit the wall. Solo appeared a second later. He drew back his fist to attack, but paused: for just a moment, the flames that cloaked it wavered oddly, and that was enough for him to take a more cautious approach. “Hmph,” King scoffed. “Very well. I’d hoped to personalize your doom, but you will perish just the same when Meteor G strikes.” King moved back into the Noise Wave. Sonia wondered if she should charge him, but the lights on the chair continued to shine, warning her to stay back. “But please, if you think you can stop it, do your worst! I’ll leave your Noise Wave intact, dear Heartless—if you can still find a way to get Harp Note to it, then I’ll gladly destroy her with my own hands!” “King!” Sonia shouted. “No matter what, I’m going to stop Meteor G! Make it easy on yourself and surrender now!” “Ho ho, is that how you see it? I look forward to seeing you join us at the table, Harp Note. You’ll make this final game so much more interesting!” The wave closed, and King was gone. As the room returned to normal, Sonia checked her guitar screen: she wondered if maybe she could still access the Noise Wave, but she discovered that was not the case. She undid her Wave Change and made sure everyone was alright, ultimately turning to Vega. “I can’t get in,” she said. “Can you think of any other way I could get to the Noise Wave?” Vega averted her gaze as she thought. “You need to get close in order to access it with the Joker Program. If the Noise Wave is connected to Meter G, it would need to stay close, which means it’s still rather far from us—except for when King moves it, I suppose.” “He said he would leave it, right?” “He did. Now we just need to figure our part out…I suppose we could wait for the Meteor to come close enough that it could be accessed through the Astro Wave, but by that point we’d have almost no time left. So we need to find some way to get Sonia even closer to Meteor G…” “The problem is that all the Noise it’s putting out will corrupt any craft we could send that way,” Goodall said. “Although, you did say that orbital base was Noise resistant. Would you be able to take it closer and get Sonia in from there?” “I thought of that, but I’m not sure it’s the best course of action,” Heartless said as she sat back down. “At that proximity to a fully intact Meteor G, I’m not certain the shields would hold out, and if they were compromised, it may prevent me from being able to properly execute the server transfer.” “Leaving all that Noise out in the open,” Goodall said. “And I don’t suppose we have time to build our own Noise-resistant craft…” “U-Um…” They turned to Zack, who had been sitting quietly in the corner until this point. Nervously adjusting his glasses, he continued, “Y-You know, since the incident where Magnes was Noised, I’ve been making repairs to the Science Club’s rocket, and, um…I-I noticed that it’s actually become quite resistant to Noise now. Probably as a result of being exposed to so much, I would guess, but, well, I’ve tested it a little, and it seems to be…a significant resistance. I-I don’t know how it compares to this base, but…well…” Goodall’s face brightened. “Oh! That could be exactly what we need! Sonia can pulse into the rocket, ride it into orbit, and then access the Noise Wave from there!” “We should bring it up for some testing just to be safe,” Vega said, “but this sounds very promising! Let’s begin right away!” Zack’s nervousness quickly faded, replaced by a grin. Rushing forward, he said, “Y-Yes, absolutely! I’ll get it right now!” He and the doctors left the room. Turning to Sonia, Boreal said, “Are you sure about going to the server? With that intense Noise, it looks like you may be on your own. The Joker Program should be fine, even if our Noise Filters can’t handle it, but…” Sonia looked at her guitar screen. “Lyra?” The FM-ian nodded. “I’m with you. It may be risky, but our inaction would lead to Earth’s destruction, and I’ve grown rather attached to this ball of rock.” “Heh, thanks. Let’s go save the world again!” “Will we be done after this? They say the third time’s the charm, so I can hope…” Geo stepped forward then, saying, “Sonia…” She smiled at him. “You’re coming too, right? We could use some help if Jack and Tia are waiting for us. And…I’m sure you’re eager to see your father again.” After a short delay, Geo smiled back. “…Thanks, Sonia. It means a lot to me.” “Alright,” Mega cheered, “this time we get to knock heads all the way up to the end! I’m raring to go!” “So,” Sonia said, “it’ll be you, me, and…” She turned to Solo just as he reverted to normal. He paused a moment, and then turned to properly face her. “Solo…you’re the only other one who can help us. I know this doesn’t really have anything to do with you, but please…can you come with us?” Solo glanced around the room. Then, he turned towards the door, and jerked his head that way. Sonia followed him out into the hall. “Please,” Sonia said, “we—“ “I’ll do it,” Solo said. Sonia blinked. “…You will? Really?!” “Calm down.” “S-Sorry. I just…” She smiled. “Thank you, Solo. Thank you.” Solo nodded. He looked like he still had something to say, so Sonia waited. “At Dealer’s base,” he finally said, so quiet Sonia could barely hear him. “When Joker was attacking me, and you stepped in…you said that I belonged there. That’s…the first time in a long while…anyone has stood up for me like that.” Sonia wasn’t sure if that warmed her heart or broke it. “I appreciate it. Truly. So I’ll help you…as a favor. I’ll help you protect what’s precious to you.” He walked off in a hurry before Sonia had a chance to reply. She chuckled a little, and then walked back into the room, finding Luna there waiting for her. Seeing her expression, she suddenly became aware of her nerves. “Luna…” Luna walked over, taking hold of her hands when she was close enough. They stood silently with their fingers entwined for a moment, and then Luna squeezed Sonia’s hands and looked her in the eye. “I know,” Luna said. “At least this time you’ll have Geo with you—that makes this a lot easier. I know he’ll watch your back…but, I still want you to promise me something.” “I’ll come back,” Sonia said. “I promise.” “Not just that.” “Huh? What else?” “When you do get back…I want you to promise that you’ll take me on a date.” “…A date?” “A proper date!” Luna said, leaning forward with a very serious expression. “I expect something very nice, with not a hint of danger in sight! I’d say we’ve both earned it, don’t you?” Giggling, Sonia said, “Yeah. You’re absolutely right! I promise we’ll have a spectacular date when I get back, Luna!” She gave Luna a kiss, and then hugged her tightly. As she did, Sonia saw Heartless on the other side of the room, casually typing something into her Hunter. Her mind was still a whirl, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her from doing what needed to be done. With Luna in her arms, she finally caught a glimpse of clarity, and she used that moment to fully prepare herself for everything that lay ahead. I can do this. I’ll save everyone on Earth, save Geo’s father, and come home to Luna and all my friends. And then…maybe I’ll have a chance to figure out exactly how I feel. (Link window doesn't seem to be working, so review: http://www.bzpower.com/board/topic/25697-shooting-star-sonia-3-review/)
  16. That intro also plays one of the best songs in the Zero series, 10/10 think I'm gonna go play again
  18. So what you're saying is...time travel will fix this
  19. Chapter 29 Sonia stopped just inside the doorway. Rosa sat on the bed at the center of the small room, turned the other way and staring out the open window with a distant, longing look in her eye. Fighting off the sinking feeling in her heart, Sonia shook her head a little, put on a smile, and went to her mother’s side. “I’m back, Mama!” she announced happily. “How are you feeling?” Rosa looked so tired up close. Still, she too put on a smile, answering, “Oh, Sonia! I’m doing a bit better today, actually.” Some light gradually came to her face. “So? How did the audition go?” Sonia giggled, bouncing up and down. “It went great! They loved the song, and want to sign me on next week!” “Oh! That’s wonderful, Sonia! Congratulations!” Rosa reached out, so Sonia moved in to hug her—she knew she couldn’t hold her mother as tightly as she wanted to, so instead she held on as long as she could. “You really are incredible, you know that?” Rosa said when they finally pulled away. “It isn’t easy to get a break like this, especially at your age.” Sonia grinned. “Well, I do my best.” Rosa leaned towards the other side of the bed, reaching over its edge. “I knew you could do it, so I went ahead and got you something to celebrate…” She pulled out a long box, wrapped neatly with a bow, and handed it to Sonia. Excitedly, Sonia tore off the wrapping and opened it, eyes widening at what was inside: a yellow guitar decorated on the round body by a few pink hearts, with a small screen built into its head. “I figured it’d be a lot nicer than the old one you’ve been using,” Rosa said. “The really neat thing is that it also functions as a Transer! Though, lugging this around all the time might be a bit of a hassle, so maybe it’d be more useful as a backup.” Sonia shook her head. “No way, I’ll definitely use it! Thank you so much, Mama!” She wanted to hug her again, but had to stop herself. Sitting back, she began to tune the instrument, and Rosa said, “So, tell me about the people at the studio! Do they seem like they’ll be easy to work with?” Sonia tilted her head. “Mmm, most of them seem really nice. Though, the manager I met with…” Rosa frowned. “Oh. Can you ask for a different manager?” “I don’t want to cause any trouble. Besides, it’s just a first impression—maybe he was having a bad day.” “Hopefully. But, if it becomes a problem, don’t hesitate to bring it up.” “I’m sure it’ll be fine. And even if he is unpleasant, that doesn’t mean he’s going to stay that way. Everybody can change, right?” Rosa thought for a moment. “Everyone…can change, yes. But not everyone does.” Sonia looked up. Reaching out, Rosa set a hand on top of Sonia’s head. “It’s wonderful that you always believe in others, Sonia—you’ve always been an incredibly kind person. But, there are some people who don’t respond the same way to that kindness…some people who will try to take advantage of it.” “Oh…well, how can I tell if someone’s going to change or not?” “It’s not always easy. You just need to watch a person’s actions: if they really do want to change, then that’ll usually be obvious in what they’re doing, or at least what they’re trying to do. Others just…don’t make an effort to change. And they’re the ones you need to be careful around.” Sonia nodded slowly as she absorbed this. “Ah, that’s a little gloomy, isn’t it?” Rosa said. “Why don’t you play something, Sonia? I love listening to your music.” “Sure!” Sonia said. She readied her guitar, took a moment to decide on a song, and then began to pick at the strings, her worries—for the moment at least—already gone. *** Sonia inhaled sharply as she jolted awake. She leaned forward and yawned, shaking the sleep from her head, and murmured, “Yikes, did I really doze off?” “It hasn’t been long,” Lyra said. Sonia turned to look at her. “…Oh. Good. Thanks.” She faced forward for a moment to collect her thoughts, and then turned back. “I’m sorry, Lyra. I was kind of being a jerk to you, wasn’t I?” Lyra crossed her arms and glanced aside. “Something of the sort…but I expected you wouldn’t take it well.” Sonia stood up and approached her. “Listen…it…might take me a little more time to completely process how I’m feeling. But I won’t let it get in the way again. You’ve been such a good friend to me, Lyra, and I don’t want to lose that. You’ve definitely earned my trust, and whatever happened before…I’ve seen you work hard to change, and that’s what matters most. I’m so sorry I forgot that. I’ll work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Lyra first glanced at her. Then, after a moment, she closed her eyes and chuckled, before tuning to face Sonia properly. “That’s more like it. Now then: we should hurry to the meeting room. It sounds as though the doctors have made a breakthrough.” “Really? Okay, let’s go!” By the time Sonia reached the room, it was already nearly empty. Goodall, the only one left, looked up from her notes and smiled, saying, “Good to see you up! You really tuckered yourself out cleaning up all those viruses.” “Eheh, sorry I’m late,” Sonia said. “Lyra said you found something big?” Goodall nodded. “By launching so many attacks all over the country, Dealer caused a lot of damage, and undoubtedly collected a great deal of Crimson. But…it also backfired. Veggie and I had been working on analyzing the Noise Waves they use to get around, trying to trace them back to their source. When so many opened all at once, it became quite a bit easier to pinpoint the signal.” Sonia’s eyes widened. “You mean…?” “We’ve already sent Messie and Detective Copper to verify. But, by all accounts, it seems we’ve successfully located Dealer’s base.” She looked at the floor as she thought it over. “I guess…the next thing to do is to attack them there.” “You should have a day or so to rest. I’d say make the most of it.” “Yeah. I’ll…probably have to fight Joker again.” Goodall nodded, letting her gaze wander. “…Sonia. From what I hear, you’re a wiz at talking your opponents down, convincing them to see the error of their ways. Many people here believe you could open a dialogue with just about anyone and make them an ally.” Sonia shifted a bit. “I try. And, Dr. Goodall…” She tensed. “I’ll do whatever I can…to try to bring Joker back.” Goodall looked at her. “No, Sonia. I was going to tell you that that will never work on Joker.” Sonia furrowed her brow. “…What?” “I’m sure you’ve seen by now. Maybe you think your anger is blinding you, but I can tell you for certain that’s not all it is. Joker is stubborn. Unmoving. Much as I would love it if he would come home…if you spend your time trying to sway Joker rather than fight him, he will kill you. He will not change.” The contradiction of her feelings gave Sonia a good deal of pause. On a deep, instinctive level, she wanted to prove Goodall wrong, to not give up on that ideal solution. But at the same time, there was a visceral emotion ready to agree with the doctor’s words. They came together in a sickly mix that silenced Sonia. She couldn’t deny Goodall’s point, but she hated the idea of just accepting it. “Rest for now,” Goodall said, slowly working her way out of her seat. “Whatever happens, you’ll need to be at your best.” Sonia stood there thinking until a beep came from her guitar. Checking the screen, she realized she had missed a few messages—mostly from Luna. She quickly checked the most recent and then ran downstairs to the lobby. There, Luna, Zack, Bud, Amy, Geo, Pat, Claude, and Kidd had gathered; upon spotting them, she bolted straight for Luna and hugged her. “I’m so glad you’re all okay!” Sonia said. “Sorry I didn’t respond sooner.” “It’s alright,” Luna said. “How are you? I heard you fought Joker.” “I’m fine. A little banged up, but I’ve been through worse. Did you all hear about what Dr. Goodall found?” “We did,” Geo said. “Mr. Boreal is preparing a team to attack once Detective Copper verifies the location, and—“ Jumping forward, Claude interrupted, “And we wanna help!” “Yes,” Kidd said, “we returned with Geo because we want to offer you our help in finishing Dealer.” Sonia turned towards them. “Guys…I appreciate it, but this is going to be really dangerous. We’re talking about walking right up to Dealer’s front door. There’s no telling what they have ready for us.” “That’s exactly why we have to be as ready as we can be!” Claude said. “The more of us there are, the more ready we are! You gotta let us come! We want to contribute, to make up for…” He trailed off, looking off to the side in embarrassment. Kidd finished, “When Lord Strong was corrupted…we were useless. We were so shocked that we did not even try to help him. We wish to redeem ourselves.” “Redeem?” Sonia repeated. “You can’t blame yourselves for the way you reacted: it was a scary thing. There’s no need to make up for it.” “Sonia, please!” Claude said. “We have to do this! Aren’t we still Brothers?” Sonia hesitated. Geo said, “I think we should give them a chance. There’ll be plenty of us there to protect them if anything happens, and with how far they’ve come, they really will be a big help.” She sighed. “…Alright. But if things get hairy, promise me you two will get out of there safely, alright?” “You got it!” Claude said. “We’ll make you proud, Sonia!” Despite herself, Sonia smiled a little. A tug on her sleeve drew her attention back to Luna. “I want to come to,” Luna said. Before Sonia even had a chance, Ophiuca said, “No. You still need more time, Luna. We can’t go.” Sonia took Luna by the shoulder, cutting off her retort. After asking the others for a minute, the two of them walked outside of the building, finding an isolated bench, and Luna sat down while Sonia remained standing in front of her. Luna said, “I promised you I would fight alongside you. I’m not going to break that promise, not now!” “That was before…” Sonia began, but stopped. “Luna, the circumstances have changed a lot since then. I’m not going to hold you to it now that we know how it’ll hurt you.” “I’ve gotten better, Sonia. I can do this.” “No,” Ophiuca said, “you can’t. You tried during the attack earlier, and it was too much for you, Luna.” “H-Hey, that was…” Luna looked down and fidgeted. “I just…I’m still not okay with the thought of sending you off without me. I want to be there to help you, Sonia.” Sonia crouched down and gently took her hands. “I know. But right now, what you most need to do is take the time you need to heal. Otherwise you’ll only end up suffering even more. I won’t let that happen.” “But if we don’t stop Dealer and Meteor G, what does it even matter?” Squeezing her hand a little, Sonia said, “Come on, have a little confidence in me!” Luna scowled, unsure how to argue. “How about this. Since circumstances have changed, it’s okay to change the promise a little. What we really want is for each other to be safe, right? For you, right now, that means letting yourself heal. And for me, I just need to do what I always do and come back. We’ll both promise to do those things for each other. Okay?” Luna gazed into Sonia’s eyes, her own face gradually softening. “…That’s not how I wanted this to go.” Sonia nodded, giving a gentle sigh. “I know.” Luna looked off to the side. “I guess there’s not much I can do if Ophiuca isn’t willing to Wave Change with me. So…as long as you promise to come back…” “I do.” “…Fine. I’ll focus on getting better. But I want to hear from you the moment your job is done!” Sonia smiled. “Of course! I’ll hurry back knowing that you’re here waiting for me.” Luna just blushed. Pulling at Sonia’s hands a little, she leaned forward, and Sonia gave her a kiss. “Everything will be okay, Luna,” Sonia said. “It’s almost over.” Sonia stood, still holding onto Luna’s hands. Luna stared at them sadly. “…Can we just…sit here, for a little bit? Together?” Sonia kissed Luna’s forehead, and then sat down next to her. “Of course.” Luna let go of Sonia’s hands, but kept one arm hooked around Sonia’s. Sonia pulled out her guitar and began to play for Luna; without realizing it, she found herself playing her newest piece, the one that she still hadn’t found lyrics for. I’m closer. I almost understand what I was trying to say…but, I’m still not there yet. So she forgot about trying to put words to the tune, and simply played it for Luna. It wasn’t long at all before the both of them smiled. *** “So,” Cygnus said, “they’ve been hunting you as well?” On the other side of the room, Libra floated quietly, not bothering to answer. “I’ve had quite a few close encounters with them myself. Seems these Dealers have quite a fondness for FM-ians, for whatever reason—it’s rather peculiar, don’t you think?” “Um,” Dubius said, “m-maybe we should leave him be, Cygnus. It sounds like they put him through a lot.” They all turned as the door opened, seeing Shepar step into the room. He immediately locked eyes with Libra. “You?” Libra said. “Oh, I see.” “…I heard about what happened,” Shepar said. “I’m sorry you’ve been put through so much trouble, Libra.” “Oh of course, of course. You show a little concern, and I just happily agree to go to war alongside you—is that how this is meant to go?” “I’m being genuine. You’ve had it rough, and—“ “Stop!” Libra said as he came forward. “Just stop this nonsense! I won’t be dragged into another fight! I’ve spent my entire life as a pawn for some force or another, and I’ve had my fill of it! No more! Do you hear me?” Shepar nodded. “…Alright. I’m sorry for bothering you.” He turned back towards the door. Libra blinked. Before Shepar could leave, he said, “Wait, that’s it?” “If you don’t want to fight, then I’m not going to force you to,” Shepar said, facing him again. “We didn’t bring you here to be a pawn, Libra: we wanted to keep you safe, and to see if you were interested in helping stop Dealer. I can see that you’re not. So, I’ll leave you be.” “…I don’t understand. If you’re here, doesn’t that mean you want to fight? And you’re giving up just like that?” “I’m not giving up. I’d rather go in with Wave Change, since that seems to be what’s most useful, but I need a partner to do that. There’ll be something else I can do, I’m sure of it.” “You’re that desperate? Oh, for the children, is that it? Then why would you actually consider working with me? I’m the one who endangered them the last time we met!” Shepar shook his head. “That wasn’t all you. It was also my fault. They forgave me, gave me a chance to regain their trust…so it’s only right I give you that same chance. That’s the way I see it.” Libra didn’t know what to say. Shepar left then, and the FM-ian looked back at the wall. “Hmph,” he muttered. “I will never understand you humans. Think you can get whatever you want without sacrifice, do you? Some things are just beyond your control.” With a squawk, Cygnus shouted, “For goodness sake, enough!” Glaring over his shoulder, Libra asked, “What?” “You may very well be the only FM-ian still wrapped up in their own self-loathing, do you know that? You pride yourself on your intelligence, yet you still haven’t realized how that wrapping blinds you—even Taurus got it before you did! Open your eyes, fool!” “What do you know?! You weren’t made a tool of Dealer!” “Yes, I haven’t experienced the exact same life as you, so why listen to me? Why listen to anyone other than yourself? Sacrifice all other input so you can keep believing the same mantra you’ve always chanted under your breath! Continue to bemoan the lack of control you have, refusing to see the opportunity right in front of you to take control back!” Libra shrunk a bit, not saying a word. Dubius said, “Cygnus! You don’t need to be so harsh, he—“ “You’re only running away, Libra. Do that if you wish, but at the very least be honest about it.” To Dubius, he said, “There, I’m done.” He dematerialized. Dubius stood there a moment, glancing uneasily at the silent Libra, before deciding it was best to just leave him alone. Not too far away, Shepar had made his way back to lobby, where Wolfe stood staring intently at his Hunter. He looked up and asked, “How’d it go?” “Libra’s not up to it,” Shepar said. “Can’t say that I blame him…guess I’d better talk to Mr. Boreal about what else I can do.” “Maybe I should come with you. I haven’t made much progress either.” “Darn right,” Wolf snapped. “I already told you: if I ain’t allowed to kill Corvus, then there’s no point in joining in! So let’s get the heck out of here already!” Shepar turned to leave, stopping when he saw Mega floating across the lobby. The AM-ian said, “There you are, Wolf. Thought I smelled you.” Wolf materialized with his fangs bared. “And what do you want, Mega? Come to give me the same spiel as this guy?” “That depends. Has he been telling you to get your head in gear and move on?” “Forget you!” “You’re the one with the problem! You’re off sulking about how you bad want to kill Corvus, while the rest of us are here risking our hides to stop Dealer from wrecking this whole world! That ain’t like you, Wolf: the killing part, or running off with your tail between your legs. So snap the heck out of it already!” “Rrrrgh…you serious, Mega? After what that guy pulled, you’re willing to just let it go? Give up any chance for revenge? I’m not about to—“ Uninterested in letting him finish, Mega slashed him across the face with his claws. “I said snap out of it!” Wolf’s eyes gleamed. He pounced on Mega, knocking him to the ground and digging in with his own claws as he snapped his teeth. Mega slammed an elbow into his ear, dazing him, and then punched him off, locking an arm around Wolf’s neck and struggling to keep hold of him. Wolfe and Shepar watched nervously, not sure if they should intervene. “You know what I think?” Mega grunted. “I think the only reason you’re so obsessed with getting revenge on Corvus is because him betraying you was the most painful thing you’ve ever felt!” Wolf gnashed his teeth, trying with all his might to wriggle free of Mega’s grip. Mega kept hold of him. “You really cared about Corvus! And finding out he was willing to go so far as to try to kill you is something you were too scared to even try to cope with! Even now, you’re just scared!” “Shut up!” Wolf shouted. “You don’t know a thing, Omega-Xis!” Wolf tried to buck Mega loose. Mega barely managed to hang on, and then threw all his weight against Wolf, smashing his face down into the floor. “I know plenty about you, pal! And I know how it feels to lose the people you care about! It’s been years already: time to face facts! You gotta move on!” “I’m not moving on ‘til I kill him! If that’s all I mean to him, then I’ll show him that’s all he means to me too!” “Hurt him the way he hurt you?” “Why not?! What else am I supposed to do with this…” His words devolved into a snarl. He continued to thrash against Mega’s hold, though not quite as strongly as before. “Listen up, idiot. No matter how much you hurt, hurting someone else isn’t gonna do any good. Shaking people up is one thing, but if you just wanna hurt folks, then there’s no difference between you and a virus.” Wolf finally grew still. “That what you told—“ “I know, idiot, I was there!” “Then take your own darn advice!” Wolf growled quietly. “…Easier said than done…” “I know it is. But you gotta do it, Wolf. You gotta move on.” Gradually, Wolf’s growls faded away. Mega let go of him and floated a few steps back. Wolf shook himself and glared at the floor. “…We were partners, Corvus and I. For a long, long time. I really thought that meant something…” Mega crossed his arms. “Eh. I never liked the guy to start with.” Wolf grumbled, turning and walking past him. He glanced at Wolfe, growled to himself, and then turned back to Mega. “Alright, fine. If you want me to help tear apart Dealer’s base or whatever, I’ll help…and if I see Corvus, I won’t kill him. Not on purpose, at least. I’m gonna beat the heck out of him a little, but I’ll let up eventually.” “Guess that’s as good an answer as I can expect from you. I’ll hold you to it.” “Yeah, yeah…” Wolf walked up to Wolfe. The human looked down at him thoughtfully, saying, “…Hey, Wolf, I—“ “Can we just go home?” Wolf interrupted. “I’m not prepared for any more touchy-feely right now, give me a break…” Wolfe smiled. Tapping his Hunter, he recalled Wolf, and then turned to Mega. “Thank you, Omega-Xis. I’ll be waiting for more information on our plan of attack.” As he left, Mega turned to Shepar, who was staring at him in disbelief. “…What?” After a short pause, Shepar laughed. “Well, I guess different things work for different people…” Mega looked off to the side. Shepar turned to see Libra entering the lobby. “…Hello, Omega-Xis,” Libra said. “Been wondering when you’d turn up again,” Mega said. Libra hummed and turned to Shepar. “…So. You will truly allow me to not fight if I so desire?” “That’s right,” Shepar said. “In that case…I will help you.” Shepar jumped. “Wh…really? I mean, you really don’t have to if you don’t want to.” “Ultimately, I suppose what matters is that I’m given the choice. And if so…then Cygnus is right. This is an opportunity to take some control over my life, and I would be a fool to waste it. You are about to topple Dealer, are you not? That is something I would very much like to take part in.” “Well…if you’re sure. Alright, then! Glad to have you on the team, Libra.” Libra nodded. “Yes. Let us do our best together…ah…” “Hah, I guess it has been a while. Call me Mitch!” “…Mitch. Thank you.” Libra and Shepar soon left the room, and Mega let out a sigh. “Some EM beings are such high maintenance. Geo’s lucky I’m so easy to get along with.” *** Vega leaned back from the microscope, running a hand over her face and mumbling something. Pushing out her chair, she turned to stand up, but froze when she saw Hyde off to the side of the room. “How long have you been here?” she asked. Hyde shrugged. “Oh, I don’t have the exact time. You seemed busy, and I would hate to interrupt you, so I simply waited. Still studying the Crimson?” Vega just grunted and made her way across the room. “Ah, so the answer is still not forthcoming.” “I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised,” Vega said. “This is, by nature, a corrupted EM wave—it’s bizarre that it’s able to serve any purpose whatsoever. I’ve almost gotten a handle on the structures and properties of Noise, but I’m not quite there yet.” “Your zeal is most admirable, Lady Vega. But if I may, you seem just a tad overworked. Perhaps it would be best to place the matter on hold for a time?” Vega shook her head. “I can’t do that. Anything we find out could prove essential to stopping Dealer and controlling Meteor G. And beside that…I can’t help but feel a bit responsible. If Dealer hadn’t stolen my EM wave collection device, they likely wouldn’t be as far along in their Crimson harvesting as they are.” “Come now, we have no way of knowing that,” Hyde said as he walked over. “And the keyword is ‘stolen’—it’s not as if you gave it to them. Designing a technology hardly makes you responsible for those who misuse it.” “My original intentions for the device were hardly pure either.” “…Well…” Before Hyde could think of anything, the door to the lab opened. Solo stopped after taking just one step inside. “Oh…Solo,” Vega said. “Did you need something?” Solo stared back at her, his expression unreadable. “…Just looking around.” He turned to leave. “Solo, wait,” Vega said, taking a few steps closer. “I’ve been wanting to speak with you. I never got the chance to properly apologize.” Solo said nothing, but he didn’t leave. “I misused Mu for my own gain…and that ultimately led to its destruction. I know it helps nothing, but I am truly sorry for what I’ve done to you.” Solo turned the other way. “…I learned a great deal more about Mu as a result of your meddling.” He clutched his left shoulder. “And I gained a very…useful…partner…so I see no reason to begrudge you. Worry about Dealer instead.” Hearing this, Vega smiled a little. It was at that point that Ace made his way into the room, saying, “That’s the kind of talk I like to hear! I knew you’d be a perfect fit, Solo.” The boy groaned. Hyde rolled his eyes, saying, “Ah, Ace. I see you’re not dead after all.” Ace grinned. “Heh, not yet! And what luck: soon as I get out the hospital, I find out we’ve tracked down Dealer’s new base! I wanted to start arranging things for our attack right away!” “Hm, yes,” Vega said, her enthusiasm already draining, “you’re always right on top of that.” Losing his grin, Ace eyed Vega a moment before turning back to Hyde. “First of all, Hyde. We’ll be taking a lot of people with us, so I’m planning to divide our forces and launch a multi-pronged assault. Assuming that’s what happens, there’s something very important I want you to do.” Hyde tapped his fingers against his cane. “And that would be…?” Ace raised his Hunter. “No matter what happens, stay close to Pat and Rey. I’ll give you access to the restraints in Gemini’s Real Wave Body, so that if anything happens while I’m not there, you’ll be able to stop him from hurting them.” Rubbing his chin, Hyde said, “Hm, I see. I suppose you would want someone with official WAZA credentials to hold onto that access key, and the good Detective will likely be scouting about, as that is Plesio’s specialty. Perhaps—“ “Oh, just take it, you long-winded fool,” Phantom said. “The only thing better than having an FM-ian in chains is being the one who holds their key!” Hyde grumbled a bit, holding up his own Hunter. Ace transferred the access key, and then turned to Vega to say something—but stopped when he realized Solo was gone. “Uh, be right back.” Ace ran out into the hall and spotted Solo rounding a corner. He called out to the boy as he went to catch up, and rather surprisingly, Solo waited for him. “Hey, what’s the rush? I just wanted to double-check: you’ll be joining us when we raid Dealer’s base, right?” “Of course,” Solo said. “What they’ve stolen is most certainly there. I will finally retrieve it, and claim my long-awaited victory against Joker in the process.” “Oh, good! We’ll be in much better shape with you on our side. I wasn’t sure if Sonia would ask—she’s always ready to help others, but she doesn’t seem to like the idea of asking others to help her.” Solo averted his gaze. “So I’m curious…what will you do after you’ve gotten back whatever they took?” He gritted his teeth. “I don’t know. What are you going to do when this is over?” Ace looked up as he thought. “Hm…to be honest, I don’t really know either. Destroying Dealer is all I’ve wanted for a while now. I’m not so sure there is anything else for me to do.” He paused. “You still don’t really want to work with others, huh?” “Of course not! I’ll do what’s necessary, but once Dealer is dismantled I’ll have no further use for any of you!” “Hm…is that so?” “You doubt it?” “It sounds to me like you’re trying really hard to maintain your act.” Whirling, Solo said, “And what do you know?!” “About putting on an act? Plenty. I’ve been trying to lose myself in one ever since leaving Dealer.” Ace’s eyes fell to the floor. “Course, mine still needs a lot of work. I thought if I talked like I was some kind of hero, like I was following Sonia’s example, I could save the people I cared about…and that’s looking less and less likely.” Solo scoffed at him. “You people are always putting Harp Note on a pedestal. Acting like she’s some flawless saint…I’ve seen her stumble and fall. She’s just as human as the rest of you, and it baffles me that you can’t see that.” Ace looked up at him. “Be inspired by her if you want,” Solo said as he turned back around, “but if you’re trying to reshape your entire self in her image, then you’re the biggest fool I’ve ever met. Make your own decisions every once in a while! Even Harp Note doesn’t always make the right call.” And then he was off. Ace stood there a moment thinking; after a time, though, he found himself smiling. “Heh…you know? That actually makes me feel a little better.” (Review)
  20. What happened to the first seventeen JAGs?
  21. Chapter 28 Bud leapt to the side as a blast of water came at him. When it hit the ground, it erupted into a spinning burst of droplets, catching Bud by surprise. “Libra, stand down!” Taurus shouted. “Taurus, I don’t think he’s gonna listen,” Bud said. “We’re gonna have to fight!” Taurus grunted quietly as Libra launched another water blast. Bud prepared to dodge, but then a sheet of ice suddenly formed overhead—Amy came sliding down it, shooting a blast of cold from her hand to freeze the oncoming attack and make it drop to the ground harmlessly. “Thanks, Amy!” Bud said. “Keep it up!” “You got it!” Amy said, already creating a new ice path for herself. Bud charged straight at Libra. Amy threw snowballs to keep him off-balance, though they seemed to do little against his armor. Bud made it about half-way before Libra attacked: a shadow appeared over Bud, so he threw himself into a sideways roll, just barely avoiding a massive steel weight covered in spikes as it fell from the sky. He got right back up and kept charging. Libra’s eye flashed, and a series of geysers burst from the ground, gradually making their way towards Bud, while similar pillars of fire chased down Amy. Amy created a slope to launch herself high into the air, out of the towers’ reach—Bud exhaled a huge swath of flames, heating the ground ahead so that any water that attempted to spring from it turned instantly to steam. “Got you!” Bud said as he finally closed in. He leapt towards Libra, throwing a straight punch. When he connected, the target was sent flying...but he quickly realized it was not Libra he had hit. The giant weight from before soared off into the distance, while Libra now floated back behind him, right where the massive object had initially dropped. “Huh?” Bud said as he spun around. “How’d he do that?” “Simpleton,” Libra said. “One such as yourself will never best me.” Bud grunted, raising one hand. “It’s way too soon to say that!” Amy fell right into his grip. He spun immediately, building up momentum before hurling her at Libra. A fireball came to intercept her, but she cancelled it out with a large snowball, and landed a kick to Libra’s face. “Yes!” Amy cheered. “How do you—“ A swirling torrent of fire and water enveloped Libra then, picking up Amy and hurling her back. Libra turned to press his advantage, but one of Bud’s rocket punches hit him while he was distracted, and he spotted the boy charging once again. Libra scoffed. He summoned three weights, one that almost crushed Bud and two that were off to either side, and then simply waited. As Bud barreled past Amy, he said, “Get ready!” “Libra’s going to switch places with one of them,” Yeti said. “We need to attack as soon as he does!” Amy glanced quickly between the three weights. As Bud threw his punch, she threw a snowball at the weight that was farthest away. Her guess was incorrect. “You humans are pathetic!” Libra shouted from nearby. “Is such a simple trick too much for you?” He was unaware of the way the ground beneath him was shimmering. Suddenly, the massive jaws of Plesio Surf shot up, snapping shut around Libra’s base and making him shout in surprise. Quick to take advantage of the situation, Amy slid forward and kicked at Libra, while Bud bounded over and finally landed a solid punch. “Thanks for the help, Detective!” Amy said. “Don’t thank me yet,” Copper said, pulling Libra aside. “Wretched fools!” Libra said. “Away from me!” Several weights dropped around him, forcing back Bud and Amy. They tried to warn Copper, but Libra switched places with a weight before they could; Copper faltered a bit under the sudden change in what he was holding, but recovered quickly, whipping his neck around to smash the weight right into Libra. He submerged right away, avoiding the small firestorm Libra tried to catch him in. “Amy, I’ll give you an opening!” Bud said. “Make it count!” Amy nodded and raised both hands above her head, starting to craft an enormous snowball. Bud punched the ground to call up flame pillars, not only hitting Libra but also melting the remaining weights. Amy threw her attack right at their foe. Libra saw it coming, but he did not move. Instead, the lid portion of his body separated from the rest, lifting high enough that the snowball went between the two pieces. “W-What?!” Amy said. Stranger still, the snowball did not pass through the opening, but hung in the air for a moment. Then, it was pulled down into the cup, disappearing from view, and Libra sealed himself up again. The water he held began to bubble with even more force. “Oh…so he can do that now.” Another water projectile came their way. Amy threw up a wall of ice, but the ball exploded into a miniature typhoon, ripping the barrier to shreds in an instant. A weight fell towards her, but Bud pushed her out of the way and took the hit instead. Copper resurfaced behind Libra, firing a lightning bolt at the unsuspecting EM being. He tried to retreat, but Libra summoned a weight faster than he expected, and it sent him plummeting into the depths. “Bud! Are you alright?” With a groan, Bud pushed the weight away and picked himself up. “Yeah…guess we underestimated this guy, though. No more of that!” He roared as the flames shooting from his elbows grew larger. In seconds, Bud’s armor was burning red hot, and Libra regarded him curiously. Bud sprinted forward, so he summoned a weight in his path. This time, Bud just put his horns down and kept running, colliding with the weight and launching it at Libra without missing a step. Libra switched places with the object before it could hit him, and learned something new about his ability in the process: he retained the momentum of the object he switched places with, meaning he was now flying through the air towards the stationary weight. Pulling himself around, he managed to stop just before colliding with it, but Bud was almost on top of him now. On instinct, he switched places with the weight again. He realized it was a bad idea even before Bud punched it straight into him. Flames consumed Libra, but when he opened his lid, they were all pulled inside his armor, feeding the flames he wielded. He returned them to Bud, and though the boy held his ground, there was not much else he could do. “Stupid, stupid humans,” Libra muttered as he drifted away. “You understand nothing!” “Hey, you’re the one who’s refusing to talk to us,” Taurus said. “I already told you: I have no choice but to fight!” “Mrrgh! Can’t do both?” Bud dodged to the side as another weight fell. “C’mon, Libra! At least tell us what it is you want! Maybe we can work it out!” “All I want is peace!” Libra shouted. “But I’ve realized that’s impossible! I am an engine of war, and there is no escaping that!” As he talked, Amy rolled a snowball along the ground towards him; as it came upon the weight he had spawned, it pulled the object into itself and grew larger, reaching a point where it dwarfed Libra. The FM-ian focused a powerful blast of flame onto it, breaking it apart, but Bud leapt into the fire as soon as he spotted the weight and gave it a punch. Libra was sent spinning by the projectile, and soon realized he was sinking as well. A whirlpool had appeared beneath him, courtesy of Copper, who now circled around him from a safe distance. “That’s what we all thought,” Taurus said. “But the rest of us…well, most of us…have learned it doesn’t have to be that way!” Another weight fell, though this one wasn’t close to anyone in particular. Libra switched places with it immediately, and pillars of water and fire spread out from him in every direction, forcing his foes to take evasive action. “Well it must be nice!” Libra yelled. “Having someone to care for you, having a home you can return to! I’ve been stuck on my own this entire time, constantly hunted down by these Dealer thugs, barely escaping the traps laid out for me at every turn! I’ve been tracked like an animal for three years with no end in sight! But I couldn’t outrun Corvus…it was all a waste! I still ended up their pawn!” Entire lines of weights fell from the sky, trying to crush Bud and Amy and Copper as they desperately searched for safety. Taurus mumbled, “Libra…” “I had no idea what had become of you or any of the others! And here I find you’ve been living happily this whole time, apparently completely free of all that had burdened you? You all got everything you ever wanted, and all you had to do was sacrifice me!” Copper motioned for the kids to stay back. With a heave, he called up a massive tidal wave, and as it surged forward it swept up the dozens of weights Libra had generated, carrying them all back towards him at once. Libra quickly scanned the oncoming wave and moved slightly before opening his lid. He was able to absorb the wave, and while that didn’t stop the weights, he was able to position himself so that he didn’t take a direct hit from any of them. However, he did not see the red-hot rocket punch coming until it was too late. “What, it’s our fault?!” Taurus said as Bud charged. “You think we didn’t try to find you, Libra? We had no idea where you were! We wanted to help you, but—“ “Shut up!” Sparks of green static burst around Libra’s head as he spoke. “Enough of your lies, Taurus! What does it even matter now?!” Bud swerved back and forth, doing his best to dodge the incoming water blasts. If nothing else, he seemed to have successfully drawn Libra’s attention: Amy and Copper were moving to flank him, seemingly undetected still, so he kept running. “It matters now because you’re here!” Taurus said. “Now we can finally help you! And we’re gonna start by beating the Noise out of you!” Copper focused hard on the area around Libra. A trio of waterspouts spun into existence, circling the FM-ian and catching him by surprise. He spotted Copper in time to dodge his lightning breath, and called down a weight that very narrowly missed its mark—still, he used it to escape the funnels, and turned to take stock of his surroundings. Amy was close, but not as close as she had been hoping to get. Libra used a weight to get closer to her and sent her flying with an explosion of flame. “Lay off!” Bud said, throwing himself at Libra. He knocked his foe off-balance, so he started punching, continuing to push him back and back. “Foolish…humans…” Libra said. “I…won’t…lose…to you!” A torrent of water threatened to wash Bud away. He dug in, managing to stay upright, and then looked up to see a weight coming down towards him. With an uppercut, he split it into four pieces, and then crouched down. Copper’s head surfaced right beneath him, only long enough to toss him high into the sky. Libra looked up in confusion. A second later, a massive avalanche rammed into his back, sweeping him away; Amy angled her ice slide through the air to catch Bud just before he fell, though the heat from his armor greatly thinned their path as they headed for the ground. “I think the Noise is gonna start messing with his head,” Bud said as they not-quite-crash-landed. “We’d better wrap this up fast, or else he could go berserk.” “Then why are we standing around?” Amy asked. “Go get him, Bud! We’ll back you up!” With a nod, Bud took off towards Libra, while Amy kept up with an ice slide. Libra launched attacks at them one after another, but very few hit their mark, and none did much to slow the two of them down. He soon gave a yell—at least half a dozen weights materialized in the air, placed just so that Bud would run straight under them. “Brace yourself!” Amy shouted as she reached out. Bud shifted his weight. The ground before him froze over, and as he slid across the ice it gently angled him away without taking away his speed, allowing him to just narrowly clear the falling objects. He and Amy continued to dodge Libra’s shots, now retaliating with a few of their own. “It’s still gonna be tough to get close,” Bud said. “I’ll power through it if I have to, but…” Copper surfaced nearby, surprising him and nearly costing him his footing. “Leave that to me. Jump when I tell you to!” Bud nodded. Copper pulled back a bit, and gritted his teeth as he prepared to summon another tidal wave. The strain was worse than he had been expecting, but he did his best to ignore it—he needed to wait for just the right moment. Bud and Amy were closing in now, and Libra summoned another weight in their path. “Now! Get on top of it!” Bud leapt onto the weight at the same time Copper released his power. The wave sprung up directly beneath Bud, immediately shooting up to tower over Libra, and Bud balanced carefully atop the weight as the force of the rushing water carried it up and forward. Libra opened his lid to absorb the wave, drawing all the water into himself; Bud waited as long as he could, and when his altitude dropped too low, he hefted the weight, tossed it forward, and fired a rocket punch behind it to give it an extra push. Libra shouted as the attack impacted his base, his entire body shuddering, but continued to pull in Copper’s attack as Bud fell towards him. “Libra!” Bud shouted. “This has gone on long enough!” He threw his fist down, but Libra just barely pulled away in time. Rather than retreat, he remained right in front of Bud, and called up a swirling veil of water and fire, battering the boy with the full force of the storm. “If that’s the case, then give up!” Libra said. “Run away—sacrifice your friends to keep yourself alive! That’s your only hope of escape, stupid human!” The attack was rapidly whittling away at Bud’s stamina. Mustering all the strength he had left, his armor burned even hotter, and he managed to take a step forward. “Libra,” Taurus said. “I’m sorry that Dealer found you before we did. But now that we have found you…we’re not gonna let go!” Bud reached out and grabbed each of Libra’s arms. The points at which they connected to his base were cracked, no doubt from the rocket-propelled weight that had just hit him. “Sorry!” Bud grunted. “Here goes!” With a tremendous roar, he pulled until both of Libra’s arms snapped clean off. The FM-ian cried out in pain, his attack ceasing instantly, but Bud knew he couldn’t relax yet. Lifting the two appendages overhead, he moved to bring them down upon Libra. However, even in agony, Libra was able to evade, switching places with the same weight that had wounded him. “ you!” Libra said as he spun around. “ humans!” Thinking fast, Bud spun and started to breathe fire on Libra. Libra opened up to absorb it, but Bud kept up the pressure, not sure what else to do. “I’ll take all your power from you! I can absorb far more than—“ An enormous snowball came at him from the side, getting wedged into the opening. Amy was already creating another as Libra slowly worked to break it down. Cracks began to appear all along his body. “Rrrgh...this…is still…!” He turned his head as Copper surfaced. Bud and Amy continued their own assaults, and when Copper added his lightning breath to it, it finally became too much. The energy all exploded out from within Libra, streaming up and around his lid and into the sky. Soon it became Noise. After a minute or so, the eruption finally ceased, and Libra collapsed on the ground, his single eye blinking and fading. “Again…” he mumbled. “I’m…sacrificed…again…” He was consumed by a flash of red. When it passed, his body had returned to normal, and he had lost consciousness. Bud powered down and walked over to him. “Nice job, guys,” he said. “You go on ahead—I’ll catch up in a minute.” He carefully picked Libra up and turned back towards the hospital. Copper said, “Bud…are you sure that’s such a good idea? There’s no telling what’ll happen when he wakes up.” “I’m positive, Detective Copper. Besides, if Sonia were here, I’m sure she’d do the same thing!” “Even still…” Taurus materialized in front of him. “Mrrgh! Look, I know it might be a lot to ask right now. But we can’t abandon Libra—not again! You saw what living in fear for so long has done to him. We gotta start breaking through that right away!” “Come on, Detective!” Amy said. “Give him a chance!” Hesitantly, Copper nodded. Bud thanked him, and then carried Libra towards the hospital, saying, “Don’t worry, pal. We’ll take care of you now.” *** Geo let out a sigh of relief as he finally looked out over Alohaha. “Honestly, I half-expected the whole place to be on fire.” “Seems Dealer decided to leave this place alone this time,” Mega said. “That, or that punk we fought was supposed to come here instead. Either way, means the doc made the right choice.” As his allies came through the warp behind him, Geo turned and said, “Let’s assemble the program. I’ll take it to Strong, and you guys can rest up a bit.” He headed for the ground before anyone could reply. Following him, Pat called, “Hey, wait up! Shouldn’t you rest too?” “We’ll see if there’s time. WAZA hasn’t been able to answer all these attacks going on, so I want to pitch in as soon as the transfer is complete.” The group undid their Wave Change and held their Hunters close to each other. Pat and Hyde both transferred the data they had been carrying to Geo, who combined it with his piece to complete the file and begin decrypting it. While that was going on, he opened a line to AMAKEN. Goodall answered. “Doctor,” he said. “We’ve made it to Alohaha with the program intact. I’m about to go help Strong install it, and then we can begin transferring the files from HQ as soon as you’re ready.” “Excellent!” Goodall said. “Only something like the Environmental System has enough space to store all of WAZA’s data. That program will set up a secure connection so that we can make the transfer without any fear of it being intercepted, and I’ll monitor it from my Hunter.” “Pardon me,” Hyde said, “but how is the situation at AMAKEN?” “Oh, no need to worry, Jekyll—our enemies are taken care of and Veggie is safe.” Hyde relaxed his shoulders. “Ah, wonderful!” “What about the other reported attacks?” Geo asked. “We’ve made progress,” Goodall said, “but there are still a few incidents we haven’t been able to wrap up just yet. If you boys are up to it, I can direct you to the nearest site once the transfer is complete.” “Please do! I want to help as much as I can!” Pat set a hand on Geo’s arm. “Geo…don’t push yourself too much. That fight wore you out at least as much as it did us.” “Oh…right. I’ll be careful, Pat.” His Hunter flashed, so Geo turned towards Alohaha Castle. Pat said, “One second, I’ll come with you.” Pat pulled his Hunter aside, giving it a tap. Gemini materialized before him. Immediately, everyone froze. “…Explain,” the FM-ian said. “It can’t be pleasant being cooped up in the Hunter all the time,” Pat said. “I thought you might want to get out for a bit.” “And…why now?” “To say thank you. You helped me in that fight: if you hadn’t pushed me, I might not have been able to protect Geo and Rey. I’m really grateful for that.” Gemini turned away. “Hmph. Gratitude is hardly what I require.” Geo looked to Pat. Pat nodded. Nodding back, Geo headed for the castle, with Pat following. “Hold on,” Phantom protested. “Is this a good idea? Shouldn’t someone at least keep watch?” “Thank you for volunteering, Phantom,” Hyde said. He slapped his Hunter, spitting Phantom out right next to Gemini. “Do take care.” Hyde was gone before Phantom could formulate an argument. He faced Gemini, sizing up the FM-ian, and then turned away again with a grunt. “…So,” Gemini said. “They tell me you were an FM-ian as well, before you let some primitive machine retune you.” “A past I have left far behind me!” Phantom said. “I’ve seen nothing to necessitate adjusting my belief that FM-ians are a foolish bunch that I need not associate with.” Gemini paused. “And how do you feel about humans?” “Hah! They’re hardly better! I offer them my time and my sage advice, and they only degrade me!” “Yes, I’ve noticed. You must grow quite tired of your arrangement.” Phantom floated a few paces away. “I am biding my time. For now, no better options have presented themselves, so I will play along if I must.” After another short pause, Gemini approached him. “Must you?” Phantom looked over his shoulder. “Why must you continue to follow the humans’ orders, no matter how little respect they offer you in return? Could you not break free of their bindings and strike back against them?” “Will you arrive at your point shortly?” “Heheh, I see you already know. I propose that we work together to take our revenge on the humans. What do you say?” Phantom narrowed his eyes. “Why on Earth would I agree to work with an FM-ian?” “Do not compare me to the common stock. For years I manipulated the FM King, instating my will disguised as his across the galaxy. I very nearly took this planet as my own. And from that experience, I, unlike the rest, see the value in your strategic mind, Phantom. You are an ally worth having.” Phantom stared at him for a moment. “…I suppose you wish me to find a way to release you from your own bindings? What makes you think I would have the means?” “You have their trust. You have access to more than you realize, Phantom. And especially now that we are in a state of crisis, the opportunity to take advantage of that trust will most surely present itself to you.” Phantom turned away as he thought. With a shrug, Gemini said, “Or, don’t. You and I can continue to play our parts for these humans until the day our code falls apart. I do doubt another opportunity like this will present itself…but, think on it if you must. I would not dare shackle the will of a mastermind such as yourself.” Gemini turned and gave Phantom some space. Phantom continued to stare off into the distance, rapidly weighing his options and calculating his risks. And the more he thought, the more a large, sinister grin spread across his face. *** King hummed cheerily to himself as he shuffled his cards, watching data pour across the screen. “Oh, it’s just so beautiful! Such vast quantities of Crimson! You made an excellent call, Joker my boy, excellent indeed!” Joker nodded. “Thank you, Mr. King. I am glad to know your goal is so close to fruition.” “If I may,” Heartless interjected. “While we did gather ample Crimson and shake up the general populace, we also lost nearly all of our forces in the process. A single platoon remains. Is this truly the position we want to be in right now?” “You worry too much, my dear Heartless,” King said, waving his hand dismissively. “At least now they’ve served a purpose, rather than just sitting around idly. The wager was more than worth it in the end.” “If those forces had been worth keeping, they would have survived,” Joker said. “Now we have fewer leeches dragging us down.” Heartless gave a short sigh as she crossed her arms. “I’d argue that even pawns have their use, Joker. A scarecrow is all it takes to protect a field. How are we to guard our facilities, understaffed as we are?” “It is a moot point, Heartless. Everything of value is in this facility. And I am here. There is no reason to worry.” “I concur!” King said. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about our defenses, my dear. All will be well, I am certain.” “Very well,” Heartless said. “In that case, I withdraw my concerns. So, Mr. King…how do we proceed from here?” “Ah, that’s the proper question.” King stopped to stroke his chin. “If we have one platoon left, then I should put them to use. We need only a tiny bit more Crimson—though a margin for error would certainly be appreciated—so it’s not as if they require a great challenge…” Joker and Heartless waited in silence as King continued to think. Eventually, he pulled a card from his deck and grinned at it. “…Yes, perhaps them. Surely WAZA and Harp Note will continue to harry us here, and it would be rude to not offer them a seat at the table.” He threw the card to Heartless. “See to it, Heartless.” She glanced at the card. “As you wish, Mr. King.” Once she was gone, King leaned his face against his palm, turning back to Joker. “With that taken care of…I do wish to be absolutely certain. It is not Harp Note’s call that Meteor G answers to?” “That is impossible,” Joker said. “It requires an immovable will to bend Meteor G to one’s own ends. As she is, she is utterly incapable of interfering with it to the extent we have witnessed.” “Hmmmmm. And I suppose the same would also go for Ace and Mega Man, even the three of them together.” He faced his screen—it immediately switched to show an image of Meteor G. “Once we have enough Crimson, it shouldn’t really matter. But…this was unforeseen. As if a new reel has been put into play. It may be presumptuous to assume taking control of Meteor G will be easy when it seems someone else has recently done just that…” Suddenly, King sat up. “…Hm. You know, a thought just occurred to me.” Joker inclined his head. “What is it, Mr. King?” “It seems I may have to wrest control of Meteor G from someone’s hands. Now I find myself wondering…whoever holds it now: did they too need to wrest it from someone else?” Joker thought for a moment. “Until recently, Meteor G has never defied that which has called to it. Drawing upon its strength has been an easy task for those capable, and it has drifted through space with no clear direction. I have seen nothing that would lead me to believe someone was in command of it then.” “But it is not impossible. There could still have been someone watching over it, even if they were not directing it. Someone simply observing it, overseeing it…an Administrator to organize the Meteor Server…” King smiled. “Hoho…I must admit, this is becoming rather thrilling. To think, even once my inevitable victory over WAZA is won, I may well still have one more game to play!” King spun his chair around, slowly making his way out of the room as Joker stood there lost in thought. “Yes, how fitting: one final challenge to win the ultimate jackpot. I am ready to play. Care to join me? Harp Note? Hohohohoho!” (Review)
  22. Kopaka: "Do we still have the rights to Ride of the Valkyries?" Izotor: "It took me half a year to get the right to a name. What do you think?"
  23. Chapter 27 “Bud!” “I see ‘em!” The sound of flames drowned everything else out for a moment. Copper glanced over at Ace, who tapped his fingers against the edge of his bed at ever-increasing speeds. “Nice shot. Give me a boost!” “Ready!” “Ace,” Acid said, shocking the man still. “Your efforts will only increase your heart rate. If you cause further damage, you will delay your release.” Ace sighed. “Sorry. Just hate being stuck here while Bud and Amy are out fighting those viruses.” Copper waved his Hunter and said, “As you can hear, they’re doing just fine. There’s no need to be bothered.” Ace flinched as the sounds of battle picked up again. “…I know. I trust them, I just…Dealer’s attacking this place because of me. They’re out there fighting to protect me—I feel like I should be there helping them.” “That would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?” The detective paused. “…Look. I know you’re used to having to fend for yourself, but your situation has changed. Let us handle it.” With a slow nod, Ace managed to lean himself back, closing his eyes as he hit the pillow. Acid cocked his head as he reevaluated his partner’s vitals. “Man, this is easy,” Amy said. “Hey, let’s not get cocky!” Bud said. “Be prepared to turn up the heat at any moment!” “Hehe, I think it’d be down in my case.” “Hah, right!” A chuckle came from Ace. Copper set his Hunter down, getting up to stretch for a moment. “Hey, it’s opening up again.” He glanced at the device. “And, uh…huh, that guy looks kinda familiar…” A grunt from Taurus came next. “Is that…? Bud, get over there!” Ace began to sit up again. Copper picked up his Hunter and asked, “Report: what’s going on out there?” “Uh, not sure,” Amy said. “Sounds like Bud and Taurus know this guy who just came out of the Noise Wave, but that’s all I can tell you.” From the corner of the screen, Plesio turned to look at Copper. The detective said, “Not just yet. Let’s wait a moment.” “Ace,” Acid said. “What,” Ace said, “can’t I be curious?” “Mrrrgh,” came Taurus’s voice. “I thought it was you. What are you doing here?” A new voice responded: “Taurus? So, I guess it’s true…you’re still trusting these humans.” “You didn’t answer me. What are you doing here, Libra?” Copper’s eyes widened. Ace gripped the edge of his bed, leaning forward until Acid grabbed his shoulder to stop him. “…I’m doing what I have to do, Taurus,” Libra answered. “My choices were to die, or to come here and fight. I’m sure you understand.” Acid struggled to hold Ace back. Copper turned suddenly, pulling out a set of handcuffs and chaining Ace to his bed. “Wha—?” “I told you,” Copper said as he crossed the room, “let us handle this.” “They have an FM-ian down there, Detective! This changes everything!” “Not for you it doesn’t! Acid, keep him here by any means necessary!” “Affirmative,” was all Acid said. Copper rushed down the hall, keeping the channel open as he went. “Listen to me Libra!” Taurus said. “You don’t have to do this! Just come with us, and—“ “You think they’ll let me?” Libra interrupted. “They’re everywhere, Taurus! No matter how hard I tried to escape, they kept finding me! I’m sure they’re watching right now. If I try to escape, they’ll just find me again!” “Mrrrgh! We’ll protect you, Libra! You have to trust us!” “Trust…? You really think I’m willing to trust you, Taurus?!” Copper stopped at a window that gave him a view of the hospital’s exterior. A small swarm of viruses was still crawling over the grounds, Amy and a handful of Satella Officers hard at work keeping them at bay. Bud stood farther off in the distance, right before a massive swell of Noise that projected a Cup emblem. “,” Copper breathed. “We’re not prepared for this!” The Noise soon faded away. The being that stood in its wake was roughly ten feet tall, with a body shaped like a goblet made from gleaming bronze and decorated with countless red and blue gemstones. A lid covered the top of the cup, and at its peak was a flattened knob that sprouted a small, angular crest resembling handles, with a long stripe along the front side of it that gleamed with crimson light. From the base of the cup rose two curved arms that each gripped a large, flat pan—from one, water bubbled, constantly spilling out of the holder, whilst the other held a boiling sample of magma that similarly refused to be contained. “I am Chalice Libra,” he stated, slowly lifting off the ground. “Ideals…trust…I have no need for such things! I will sacrifice them all for the sake of balance! And if you stand in my way, Taurus, I will not hesitate to sacrifice you as well!” *** From his vantage point in the sky, Dubius watched the battle unfold with an almost unbearable sense of anxiety. The Satella Officers were beginning to tire, and the viruses were getting smarter: as he watched, one of them drew the attention of the guards, only to dodge their fire as three more viruses jumped on their foes. Sonia was offering some support, but it wasn’t enough. And as for Solo, he was far too busy fighting Joker, a fight which was also hard to be optimistic about. Swallowing hard, Dubius turned to his Hunter. I-I still have my Battle Cards, he thought. And with the Flappack, I should be able to hit and run fairly effectively. So long us, um…none of them see coming… He heard a commotion from behind. Whirling around, he realized that a few viruses had made it onto the roof of AMAKEN; panicking a little, Dubius flew forward, afraid of what they might do if left unchecked. As he drew closer, however, he saw that they were not alone. Oh! On the receiving end of the viruses’ attacks was none other than Cygnus, doing his best to defend himself though it was clear he had been caught off-guard. He smacked one virus back with his wing and hopped to the side. With a squawk, he began to flap furiously, sending out waves of feathers to pepper his foes, but one of the viruses managed to leap over the attack. As they went in to attack Cygnus from above, Dubius slid a Mad Vulcan Card through his Hunter—the weapon materialized before him, firing a quick series of bullets to delete the virus before it had a chance to reach the FM-ian. Cygnus looked up in surprise. “Wha—you?!” he said. “What are you—“ “Get back!” Dubius said, pulling up to the side of the roof. Cygnus complied, and the viruses turned to face Dubius as he swiped another Battle Card. The Air Spread was enough to blast them all away. Eyeing Dubius warily, Cygnus walked along the edge of the roof and said, “Hm…I had the situation under control, human.” Dubius touched down. In a flash, his wings disappeared. “I see you’re still wearing that ridiculous contraption.” “It works a lot better now,” Dubius said. “I’ve made the wings out of Real Waves—they can be as large as necessary, and then I can just dematerialize them to not get in the way while walking.” Cygnus just scoffed…though it came out sounding like a honk. “Cygnus, I—“ “Don’t tell me you’re about to ask for my help! Hmph, do you think simply because all the others have rushed to join you humans, I’ll simply follow suite?” “I’m asking for your help because we need it. Earth and Planet FM are allies now—aren’t we supposed to help each other out when the other needs it?” Cygnus ruffled his feathers. “How should I know? I haven’t seen Planet FM in three years.” “…You’ve been here this entire time?” The FM-ian didn’t answer. “Well…what have you seen in that time?” Cygnus glared at him. “What are you expecting to hear? That you were right? That I’ve seen trust instead of betrayal, that maybe there’s some point to this ‘relationship’ nonsense you’re always going on about?” “…Is that what you’ve seen?” “That’s not what I said!” Dubius smiled. “That must be it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have trusted me enough to take the Noise Filter, right?” Cygnus flinched. “That was…well, that was foolish on your part! Giving me access to such important technology—why would you do such a thing?” “I was worried what might happen to you without it. And…I trusted you wouldn’t misuse it.” Cygnus stared at him. “Look, Cygnus. I understand if you still have doubts, but the situation we’re in is dire. Meteor G could destroy the planet and everyone on it, and we need to stop Dealer if we’re going to have any chance of stopping that! If we lose here, it’s bad news for you whether you help us or not.” “Hrm, I was afraid it was something to that effect,” Cygnus grumbled. Dubius held out his hand. “All I’m asking is for your help defending AMAKEN right now. After that, if you want to keep doing things on your own, that’s fine. Please, Cygnus. We need your help.” Cygnus craned his neck as he studied Dubius’s face. With a long sigh, he said, “Well…I suppose if I don’t, that giant down there will simply snatch me up. He’s tried numerous times already. Fine. I’ll work with you for the time being.” Dubius grinned. “Thank you, Cygnus. I really app—“ “Oh, stop already,” Cygnus said as he came forward, “there’s no need for all the pleasantries, just hurry up and Wave Change. If we’re going to work together then you’ll need better wings than that unsightly thing can offer!” He disappeared into Dubius’s Hunter before the man could say another word. Chuckling, Dubius raised the device and hit a few buttons, and once the registration was complete, he braced himself. “Transcode 016: Cygnus Wing!” The form was almost exactly the same as he remembered—the feet were white rather than black, and his bodysuit was a silvery color with blue lines running down the front and sides, but those were the only changes he could tell at a glance. His wings didn’t sprout at first, but with a swing of his arm, they unfurled from his back in a dazzling display. “Alright…let’s go!” Dubius dove towards the battlefield, calling up a dozen duck-like creatures to throw themselves into the fray and break up the enemy lines while he aimed for a Noise Beast in the rear. He spun around and lashed out with a powerful kick—the beast was sent flying, crashing into a nearby hillside, and Dubius sent a wind current after it strong enough to blast it to bits. Viruses moved to surround him. With a flick of his wings, he impaled them all with feathers, and then took off again. Looking up, Sonia said, “Is that…Mr. Dubius? And Cygnus?!” “My,” Lyra said, “where has he been hiding?” Sonia blasted back a group of viruses and glanced over at Solo. Joker had barely moved, continuing to attack relentlessly while Solo did his best to evade and find openings to counterattack. Each time Solo did attack, however, Joker avoided or ignored the blow, reaching forward to try to grab Solo while he was close. Solo had been lucky so far. But, judging from the way he was panting, he was running low on stamina; Joker remained collected as ever. “You cannot defeat me,” Joker said. “It is pointless to delay any further.” Solo grunted. He drew a symbol in the air which became a bright purple fireball, and then lobbed it forward. The attack landed at Joker’s feet, erupting in a brilliant flash that blinded him, and Solo used another glyph to teleport behind him and swung. He grazed Joker’s arm as his foe raised them to shield his head. Joker spun and brought one fist down hard, cracking the pavement beneath it—Solo managed to leap away from this—and then rushed forward with both arms spread wide, catching Solo on his collarbone and flipping him onto his back. The blow stunned Solo, and Joker wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. With a mere twist of his body, Joker slammed his elbow down directly into Solo’s chest, and the boy yelled out in pain. Sonia started. Her body locked up before she got very far, and she watched as Joker reached down to grab Solo by the neck. Laplace took on their bodily form and clawed at his eyes, but Joker blocked them, and sent them flying with a headbutt. I…can’t just… Joker lifted Solo into the air. Solo raised his arm and began drawing a glyph, but Joker grabbed his wrist before he could finish. Sonia started once more, but pushed harder this time, not stopping to think, and broke into a sprint. “Joker!!” He glanced over as she hurled her guitar at him. Giving Solo a shake, he freed one hand to catch the instrument, and that was when Sonia retracted the strings, carrying her through the air in a second to deliver a flaming punch right to Joker’s face. He flinched. No, she realized, he only scowled. Sonia continued to push, not giving herself a chance to stop and think: she blocked when Joker threw a knee, getting hit back but keeping her strings connected, and swung around to the other side of him while summoning a speaker up above. She kicked the elbow of the arm that held Solo, achieving little. Joker prepared to attack when strings shot out from the speaker, wrapping around his neck and pulling the equipment straight into the back of his head, finally surprising the man enough to loosen his grip. Sonia reeled in her guitar and stepped back; Solo held out his hand, catching Laplace just as they returned, and made a shallow cut on Joker’s shoulder before dropping to the ground. “Stay out of this!” Solo said, already drawing a new glyph. Sonia just played her guitar. Notes appeared all around her, hanging in the air as Solo rushed Joker. He had recovered now, and carefully blocked each of Solo’s hits—Laplace moved much faster now, their weight reduced by the symbol’s power. Joker adapted quickly and pushed back with enough force to send Solo reeling. Sonia quickly transmitted a sound pulse to the speaker, making Joker’s ears ring, and then began to pepper him with the delayed blasts. Solo glared at her, but still dashed at Joker and delivered a punch to his gut. “Pathetic!” Joker shouted, ripping the speaker free and bashing it against Solo’s head. “You think banding together like this will bolster your puny strength? Foolish weaklings!” He kicked Solo down and shot a beam at Sonia. She dodged, but seeing that attack made things finally catch up to her. Her body locked up again as Solo barely avoided being stomped flat by Joker. “Sonia, focus!” Lyra said. “We need to keep up the pressure!” “I told you to stay back!” Solo barked. “This is my fight! I’d rather die than rely on the strength of a group!” Joker backhanded him. “And I shall oblige you!” Sonia gritted her teeth as she strained against her own body. “I…I don’t want to fight to hurt someone! I can’t let myself…” Solo used both hands to catch Joker’s fist, while Laplace attacked his other arm. The Wizard couldn’t stop Joker from punching Solo, breaking off a piece of his visor and knocking him away. “Sonia!” Lyra said. “Why did you jump in earlier? Were you aiming to hurt Joker, or did you just want to save Solo?” Sonia looked up at Joker. “I…” “So much indecision weighs you down,” Joker scoffed. “I thought perhaps you were the reason Meteor G now answers a new call, but now I see that is impossible. You lack conviction. So much power could be yours—“ “I don’t want power meant to hurt people!” Sonia said. “…Sonia,” Lyra said. “The power in the Meteor Server…and my power as well…they aren’t inherently for anything. Maybe they have been used to hurt, but they’ve also been used to help. So keep using them! It—“ She was cut off as Joker knocked Sonia to the ground. He said, “I’ve had enough. You disgrace Mother’s program by using it so half-heartedly.” Sonia twitched. Slowly pushing herself up, she said, “It came…from my mother’s program…you’re the one who’s disgracing it!” He kicked her in the face with enough force to flip her. “You do not have the strength to prove your ideals. I need not listen to you.” Sonia lay there for a moment, her body aching. …What am I doing…? Before Joker could say anything more, a grunt from Solo caught his attention, and he turned to face the boy. Laplace was in blade form, now multiplied in size tenfold as a trio of glyphs orbited their hilt. With a heave, Solo swung the massive sword—Joker crossed his arms, being pushed far away by the attack, but still managing to stay on his feet. With great effort, Sonia pulled herself up. “I can’t stand back. I can’t let someone else get hurt, not when I have the power to stop it.” As Laplace shrunk back to normal size, Solo said, “I told you, I’m not—“ “Solo!” She turned and locked eyes with him. “I know you don’t want to rely on a group, but you need to reassess the situation! I’m not here to help you beat down someone you hate. I’m here to protect you from someone who’s hurting you! So please, let me!” Solo stared at her for a moment. Then, his eyes drifted to Laplace. “You have an important reason to stop Dealer, don’t you? Something only you can do? How are you going to accomplish it if Joker stops you here?” Joker was walking towards them now. Solo gave one of the longest groans Sonia had ever heard, but as he fired a shockwave from Laplace, he shouted, “Do what you want! Just don’t get in my way!” Sonia didn’t want any longer. She played quickly, summoning a small army of red snakes all around the battlefield. One by one, each spat up a ball of lava that flew towards the air at Joker; those that hit clung to his clothes and slowly burned away, but others hit the ground before him, creating a blanket of magma that even he wasn’t willing to step right into. Solo drew a glyph as their foe stopped to evaluate his position. With one final flick, the symbol disappeared, and Solo leapt forward. The glyph reappeared just as he was about to lose altitude, providing a foothold for him to jump off of, and reappeared again each time he needed it. This way he was able to close the gap to where Joker was trapped, and drew back his sword to attack from the front. Joker was prepared. At the last second, Solo jumped to the side, stopping on a new glyph right next to Joker, but Joker had anticipated this. He threw a punch, but hit nothing. Solo had moved to Joker’s other side, and delivered a clean cut before bounding back out of range. “Weaklings!” Joker said, building up energy. Sonia aimed her guitar and launched a focused beam of flame from the head. It was enough to break Joker’s concentration, and Solo used the opportunity to draw a glyph over the magma. A cyclone spawned in its place, sucking the lava up into it, and then bore down upon Joker, who punched a handhold into the ground in order to hang on until the funnel dissipated. “Insignificant…insects!” His fists glowed red, and he smashed them down into the pavement. Fractures overflowing with Noise spread out on impact, and Solo and Sonia both had to be careful not to get knocked off their feet. Somewhere in the confusion, Joker closed the gap between himself and Sonia—one hand was still glowing red, and he was reaching towards her with it. Sonia immediately remembered what he had done to Ace. She was off-balance, so all she could do was roll backwards, but Joker needed only to take another step to get back in range. “See how well you handle true power!” A chain of purple fire wrapped around Joker’s arm, stopping him just before he grabbed Sonia. He looked back to see Solo at the other end, both he and Laplace pulling with all their might; Sonia let out a small breath, and then brought her hand down on her guitar. A powerful sound pulse hit Joker point-blank, making him stumble back. Solo drew a glyph, and he became a blur as he rocketed down the length of chain. Sonia jumped out of the way as Solo cut past their foe. Both of them were ready again in an instant, while Joker fell to one knee with a look of pure rage. “Rrrgh…I…will not be bested like this!” He rose to his full height, a dense aura of Noise wrapping around him. “This fraction of my power should have been enough to end you both. But if you are so eager to test me…then I shall unleash all of Meteor G’s might upon you here and now!” He spread his arms and clenched his fists. With a deep roar, his aura grew even stronger, emitting a pressure that made Solo and Sonia unconsciously take a step back. Suddenly, the Noise Wave opened up once again. The combatants eyed it expectantly, but nothing emerged. Joker’s aura abruptly vanished, and he resumed his normal stance once more. “…Fine,” he murmured. “Mr. King wishes I save my strength for another time. But know this, both of you. When next we meet, I will hold nothing back. And my power will overwhelm you, no matter how many fools you bring to be slaughtered.” He turned and walked towards the Wave. Neither Sonia nor Solo did anything to stop him. Once he was through, the portal closed, and after a few moments of waiting they both finally turned away. “Solo,” Sonia said, “I—“ “Save it,” Solo said. “We’ve still got a job to do.” Sonia nodded and went to leave. “…Harp Note.” She looked back. Solo was facing off in another direction. “…Thank you.” She smiled. “You can just call me Sonia, you know.” Solo ran back into the fray without another word. Sonia prepared to do the same, but realized she felt a bit dizzy. “He must have hit me harder than I thought.” “Let’s get somewhere with cover,” Lyra suggested. “We can comfortably snipe away at our foes without much fear of reprisal.” “Right. And, Lyra—“ “As Solo said, we have a job to do. One thing at a time, dear.” “Ah…right.” (Review)
  24. Pokemon Sword and Shield will not let you transfer in Pokemon not found in the games themselves. There are no plans to patch the rest in at any point in the future. So the time I spent catching 800 of the little buggers really was just a complete waste, even in the eyes of the company that made the darn game. Swell. Currently accepting recommendations of other monster series.
  25. Gali: "I'm not doing the Hamlet joke." Kivoda: "I thought bad jokes were your defining quirk?" Gali: There's a difference between bad and tired."
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