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Shooting Star Sonia 2: Tribe


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Chapter 1

 

Sonia paced the lobby of NAZA HQ.  The metallic white walls were covered in screens that displayed a mix of mission records and data feeds and news events—she would stop and look one over every so often, but she inevitably lost focus and got moving again.  Her gaze found its way to the yellow reception desk flanked by two staircases.  Both were still empty.

 

“I told you we shouldn’t have come so early, dear.”

 

She put on her Visualizer and turned to Lyra.  “I know, I couldn’t help it.  I haven’t been without it this long in years—I’m not entirely sure what to do with myself.”

 

Lyra chuckled.  “You know Mr. Boreal is working on it with the utmost care.”

 

“Of course!  I trust him more than anyone else to take good care of it.”

 

“But then, taking extra care in a task does tend to increase how much time said task requires.”

 

Sonia thought a moment, then sighed.  “Right.  You’re right, I should take it easy.”

 

She started pacing again.  Lyra said, “You don’t get many chances to relax these days, dear.  You haven’t forgotten how, have you?”

 

“I wouldn’t say I’ve forgotten,” Sonia laughed.  “But, maybe I should focus on something else…oh, what about the ambassador?”

 

Lyra rolled her eyes.  “You’re still thinking about work.”

 

“I’m curious, though.  Is there anything I should know about Goat before we receive him?”

 

“I only met him a few times, so I can’t really say.  He was only a mid-ranked soldier when I was on Planet FM.  Truthfully, I was a bit surprised to hear he’d been given the ambassador position.”

 

“Cepheus said in his message that Goat was curious about Earth.  Maybe that was the motivation he needed?”

 

Lyra shrugged.  She looked up at the sound of footsteps, and Sonia followed her gaze to see Boreal coming down one of the staircases carrying her guitar.  Removing her Visualizer, she rushed over to meet him.

 

“Hope you weren’t waiting long,” Boreal said, holding the instrument out.

 

“Not at all!”  She took the guitar and looked it over gleefully.  “Thank you so much for doing this!”

 

“My pleasure!  I’ve had so much paperwork lately; getting to actually work on something was a nice change of pace.”

 

Lyra appeared on the guitar’s screen.  “My, it’s far more spacious in here than it was before!  Quite the renovation!”

 

“The guitar now has all the functions of a Star Carrier,” Boreal said.  “A couple components couldn’t be replaced—I didn’t want you to lose all your data—so the processing power isn’t quite up to the commercial model’s standards.  The only probable effect is that a few operations might run a little more slowly, but if it gets serious or you notice any other problems, be sure to let me know.”

 

“I will, but I doubt I’ll need to,” Sonia said.  “It’s amazing you were able to make a big new terminal when you’re busy running NAZA!  Everybody’s so excited about the new features that you hardly ever see a Transer anymore.”

 

“Well, it wasn’t all me!  We had a whole team working on it, and the most interesting feature is the Matter Waves that Dr. Vega invented.”

 

He frowned for a moment, and then said, “Also, there’s something else you should know about.  We asked Tom to help us make the Star Carrier, and with the data he gathered from examining the Wave Balls two years ago, we came up with something that should be a big help for you.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“The terminals are equipped with Z Wave Amplifiers.  Now, when you’re Wave Changed, you can become tangible and visible at will!”

 

“Really?  Wow, that’s incredible!”

 

“We’d better tell Bud before he switches it on accidentally,” Lyra said.  “…Helpful as this may be, isn’t it somewhat dangerous?”

 

“There are a few concerns,” Boreal said, his eyes on the floor.  “Still, with the FM-ians being our allies now, we don’t have any real reason to be suspicious of EM beings misusing it.”

 

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Sonia said.  “You worry too much, Lyra!”

 

“Perhaps I do,” Lyra said.  “In this case, I do hope that’s all.”

 

Sonia turned, gesturing for Boreal to come with her.  “Let’s go—they should be here soon!”

 

Sonia and Boreal strolled out of the lobby.  NAZA HQ was within a mountain crater, its multi-tiered silver form built right into the wall, with the majority of the brown stone floor left open as a sort of courtyard.  At the far side was a metal-lined tunnel guarded by a few Satella Officers, from which emerged two children: one of them wore a pale-yellow, sleeveless jumpsuit with blue lines coming up the side of the legs and then meeting in an angle on the chest, along with a red vest and a red beanie that didn’t do a very good job of covering his spiky brown hair.  The other was a bit taller and had darker skin than his companion—he wore a light green gi with thick yellow stripes on the sleeves and legs, with a symbol on the left side of his chest and high white boots on his feet.  A black belt was tied at his waist, its ends adorned with blue medallions, and the long tails of a purple headband fluttered behind him, their shared center showing a white symbol.

 

The shorter one waved.  “Sonia, over here!”

 

Approaching, she greeted, “Hey Claud, I haven’t seen you in a while!  How’ve you been?”

 

“I’m doing great!  Oh, I should introduce you!  Sonia, this is the friend I told you about: Kidd!”

 

The other child bowed.  “It’s very nice to meet you, Miss Sonia, Mr. Boreal.  Thank you for allowing me this privilege.”

 

“Nice to meet you too, Kidd,” Boreal said.  “Claud told us you were fascinated when he told you about the FM-ians, but he didn’t say why you volunteered to partner with the ambassador.  Is it just curiosity?”

 

“It’s partly that.  But also…well, I’ve been considering going on a journey.”

 

“He’s gotten bored beating everyone at the local dojo,” Claud said.

 

“It’s not boredom!  I’ve just begun to feel that I’ve learned all I can here, and that seeing more of the world might be good.”

 

Kidd grinned excitedly as he continued, “I want to see what other opportunities are out there, and how I might be able to keep growing if I take advantage of them!  I know I have so much more potential, but I just don’t know how to tap into it…it’s frustrating, but I want to turn that into drive!”

 

“I see,” Boreal said.  “I can appreciate your motives, but why do you need an FM-ian to do that?”

 

“I suppose I don’t, but…”  Kidd shrunk back.  “The main reason I haven’t left is because I worry it’d be very lonely to travel by myself.”

 

“Ah.”  Sonia smiled.  “You want to take a friend with you.  Well, it’d probably be good for Goat to see as much of Earth as possible, so this could work out well for him too.”

 

Claud lightly jabbed Kidd with his elbow.  “And with you off on your little quest, I’ll be top of the dojo in your place!”

 

“I’m not sure you’ll be able to secure it that easily,” Kidd said with a smirk.

 

“Just be a little cautious,” Boreal said.  “The FM-ians only recently started learning to trust people—you shouldn’t be discouraged if you and Goat don’t hit it off right away.”

 

“Understood,” Kidd said.  “I will keep that in mind.”

 

“Hey,” came a voice from Claud’s Star Carrier, “we’ve picked it up pretty quickly if I do say so myself!”

 

“That isn’t the point, Cancer,” Lyra replied.  “And, as I recall, you weren’t too sure about this planet until several months into your immersion.”

 

“Ah!  Well, uh…”

 

Boreal’s Star Carrier beeped.  He looked at it quickly, and then turned towards the sky and put his Visualizer on.  Sonia did the same.  A streak of light had appeared, difficult to see but definitely growing closer, arcing straight towards the crater where they all waited.

 

“He’s right on time!” Boreal said.  “Let’s try to clear some space!”

 

The group moved closer to the crater wall.  The light continued to fall towards them, its speed increasing until it ultimately hit the ground with a soft thud, kicking up a small cloud of dust that lingered only a few moments before it began to disperse.  Floating in its place now was a being made of blue energy, with a white, horned mask and hoof-shaped gauntlets at the ends of his arms.  He spotted the humans and paused to straighten himself, and then he swiftly advanced.

 

“You must be Goat!” Sonia said, coming forward to meet him.  “My name is Sonia.  This is Mr. Boreal, Claud, and Kidd.”

 

Goat stood up even more stiffly.  “It is a pleasure to meet you all!  FM King Cepheus sends his warmest regards, and he hopes my visit will provide us with a way to further ties between our two planets—as do I.”

 

Lyra emerged from the guitar and nodded to the new arrival.  “Welcome to Earth, Goat.  May I ask how things are back home?”

 

“Planet FM is doing as well as can be expected, ma’am.  King Cepheus has shown admirable zeal in his efforts to reform it, and a large portion of the populace has responded very favorably.  There are several dissenting groups, of course, but they make up a relatively small piece of the planet’s population, and His Majesty expects they will come to see reason in time.”

 

Sonia frowned.  If they were no problem at all, he probably wouldn’t be telling us.  Maybe I should ask Cepheus about it the next time we send a transmission…

 

Cancer was out now.  “Uh, hi, Goat!  You probably don’t remember me—I’m Cancer.  We served together in the Sigma Cluster a few years back.”

 

After a short delay, Goat inclined his head.  “Ah, yes!  Good to see you again.”

 

Boreal took a step forward and said, “We’re honored to have you here, Goat.  I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have!”

 

“If it’s no trouble, I believe I would like to meet my assigned partner first,” Goat said.  He looked over the two boys.  “Is it one of them?”

 

Boreal handed his Visualizer to Kidd.  The boy put on the visor and, upon seeing Goat, nearly jumped.  Bowing instead, he said, “H-Hello!  My name is Kidd, and I have been offered the chance to be your partner, if you will have me.  I hope that we will get along!”

 

Goat came closer and squinted.  “Hm…so, I am assigned to him?”

 

“He was the first candidate we wanted to present, at least,” Boreal said.

 

Goat raised an eyebrow.  “I assumed I was going to be ordered to a specific partner.”

 

“We don’t want to be that strict,” Sonia said.  “The main point of you coming here is to get a closer look at how relationships are formed, right?”

 

Goat nodded.

 

“Well, you can’t force a relationship—you and Kidd are both going to need to decide if you’re willing to give each other a shot.”

 

Goat turned back to Kidd.  “I see.  Forgive me, but I don’t feel that I have much information to go on…”

 

“I’m afraid that’s just the way things are sometimes,” Kidd said.  “For what it’s worth, I think we could become great friends, and I’m willing to try!  And if things don’t work out, then we can decide where to go from there.”

 

Goat thought for a while longer.  When he finally nodded, he said, “Very well.  I would like to attempt being friends with you, Kidd.  I hope that we will get along.”

 

The FM-ian bowed, and then disappeared into Kidd’s Star Carrier.  Kidd returned Boreal’s Visualizer as Goat looked around the screen.  The alien commented, “This storage unit is most intriguing.”

 

“I’m glad you like it!” Boreal said, grinning a bit wider than usual.

 

“Kidd, if it is acceptable, I believe I would like to attempt a Wave Change.  It would be a good way to estimate our compatibility.”

 

“Of course!” Kidd said, practically shaking with eagerness.  “What do I have to do?”

 

“Why don’t I show you?” Sonia volunteered, putting her Visualizer back on.  She took a quick look and spotted a Wavehole near the front corner of NAZA HQ.  “Come on, over here!”

 

As she and Kidd crossed the crater, she explained, “To Wave Change, you need to find what’s called a Wavehole.  They’re sort of like whirlpools where the Real World and Wave World get mixed together.  Mr. Boreal didn’t have time to make you a Visualizer, but Goat should be able to direct you to a Wavehole anytime you want to transform.”

 

She stopped and held her guitar in one hand.  “Now, you’re going to want to stand right here and hold out your Star Carrier.  And then…you ready Lyra?”

 

“Always, dear.”

 

“EM Wave Change!  Sonia Strumm, On The Air!”

 

Sonia shut her eyes to block out the flash of light that accompanied her transformation.  When she stepped out of the Wavehole, she was surprised to find she was still on the ground.  She could see a Wave Road above them and scanned it in confusion; it eventually led to a ramp that sloped down into the crater, and she made a low hum.

 

I guess the Wave and Real Worlds have gotten a little closer with all this new technology.  Speaking of which…

 

She wasn’t entirely sure how to activate the Z Wave Amplifier, so she just focused on Kidd and hoped he would be able to see her.  When he stepped back in shock, she assumed it had worked.

 

“Amazing!” he exclaimed.  His fingers tightened around his terminal.  “Okay, now it’s our turn!”

 

Stepping into the Wavehole, he raised his Star Carrier high and took a breath.  “EM Wave Change!  Kidd Gruff, On The Air!”

Blue light wrapped around Kidd for a moment before spitting him out in a new form.  He wore a blue bodysuit with green swirls on the sleeves and legs, and tan lining on the edges and around his shoulders and waist.  Across his chest was a black X shape.  There was a silver cowbell hanging from his hip, and his feet and hands had been changed to hooves—his head, also, had become that of a goat, covered in white fur and with two long yellow horns.

 

Kidd’s jaw dropped as he looked down at himself.  “Wow…this feeling is incredible!  Can you still hear me, Goat?”

 

“I can,” Goat replied.  “We appear to have merged without any difficulty.  It seems we may indeed make an effective pair.”

 

“Come on, Kidd, let us see what you look like!” Claud called.

 

“Huh?”  He turned to Sonia.

 

“You can only be seen in this form when you want to be,” Sonia said, trying to sound like it had always worked this way.  “Just focus, and it should happen on its own.”

 

Kidd turned to Claud and was still for a moment.  Claud soon shouted, “Oh, wow!  You look so cool!  See, I told you you’d be perfect for this!”

 

Taking a few steps, Kidd said, “I feel much stronger than usual!”

 

“We should test that,” Goat said.  “Sonia and Lyra.  If we may, I would like to request a sparring match.  It would be an excellent chance for us to learn to work together, and I would also like to see your power for myself.”

 

Sonia giggled.  “It’s been a while since we last sparred with someone, so maybe you shouldn’t expect too much.  But I’d be happy to give it a shot!”

 

Kidd bowed and took up a fighting stance.  Sonia bowed back, and then readied her guitar.

 

“So, what sort of abilities do you have, Goat?” Kidd asked.

 

“Truthfully, I’m little more than a melee fighter,” Goat said.  “I am built for quick and precise physical strikes.”

 

“Really?  That’s perfect!”

 

Suddenly he was in front of Sonia.  She threw herself back as soon as she realized he was there—a hoof was thrust over her shoulder, missing her by an incredibly slim margin.

 

Yikes!  He’s way faster than Bud!

 

Sonia flipped backwards and kicked off of NAZA HQ, strumming her guitar a few times as she floated over Kidd.  Musical note-shaped energy blasts flew towards her opponent, but he nimbly dodged each one, waited until she landed, and ran at her again.  Sonia summoned two speakers, each to the side and a bit ahead of her, facing each other; when Kidd was in front of her again, she played, and he was caught between the notes launched from the extra equipment.  Kidd was stunned, so Sonia used a sound pulse to send him soaring across the crater.

 

She winced as he landed.  “Ah, sorry, maybe that was a bit much!”

 

Kidd picked himself up, shaking his head as if he were dizzy.  “No, that’s quite alright…if this is what these battles are like, then I must get used to it!”

 

“I wanted to take it easy on you at first, but you’re a natural!  I’m already having trouble keeping up!”

 

Smiling, Kidd ran forward.  Sonia readied herself, but her foe suddenly launched into a flying kick, catching her by surprise and knocking her back.  She recovered in time to dance around a few punches.  Finding an opening, she played one note, and then put some distance between them before playing more.  Kidd was able to dodge them at first, but she soon summoned a new pair of speakers, and he found himself gradually overwhelmed by the storm of sound.

 

When she stopped playing, he said, “Why did you stop?  I would have found a way out!”

 

“Sorry, it just seemed like I had you trapped—it didn’t seem fair.”

 

Kidd renewed his stance.  Goat advised, “I do possess a special ability that we can use, but since this is our first battle, you may find it a bit taxing.”

 

“Even so, let’s give it a try!” Kidd said.

 

Sonia watched closely.  Kidd moved in again, and she sidestepped his next punch.  Something materialized beside him, however: a shadowy replica of Kidd that appeared to flicker in and out of existence, and it mimicked his action, landing its own punch on Sonia.  She jumped back, noticing Kidd was breathing somewhat heavily.  The image soon vanished.

 

“You can make duplicates of yourself?” she asked.  “That’s going to be really unfair once you master it!  I’m a little jealous!”

 

Kidd prepared to strike, but had to dig in to avoid being flung away by the sound pulse that battered him.  Managing to hold his ground, he lashed out with a punch.  Sonia stumbled back.  A duplicate of Kidd appeared in front of him to knock her further back, and then a second duplicate appeared, sending her back another step.  Kidd steadied himself as they were dismissed, and then threw himself into another kick.  Sonia ducked and he flew over her.  Aiming her guitar, the strings shot out from it and wrapped around Kidd; as his momentum faded, Sonia pulled on the line and spun around, swinging Kidd through the air and ultimately smashing him into the stone wall.  He fell to the ground and laid there, sprawled out in a dazed state.

 

Sonia rushed over.  “Sorry, sorry!  I definitely got carried away that time!”

 

“That’s alright,” Kidd grunted.  “You’re just as strong as Claud said…we’ll need to train quite a bit if we’re going to be a match for you!”

 

As Sonia helped him up, Goat said, “Thank you, Sonia and Lyra.  It was an honor to see you in action.”

 

“What do you think of your new partner, dear?” Lyra asked.

 

“I am impressed.  He is already an accomplished fighter, and he was using my powers more effectively than I thought he would.  This is most promising indeed.”

 

“Thank you!” Kidd said.  “It was a thrill being able to use your power!  I hope I will continue to exceed your expectations.”

 

“Are you two always going to be this formal with each other?” Sonia laughed.  “Anyway, I think you should get some rest, Kidd—Wave Changing can take a lot out of you before your body gets used to it.  Mr. Boreal will answer any more questions, and tell you how to keep in contact with NAZA during your journey.”

 

“Journey?” Goat repeated.

 

Kidd stepped back into the Wavehole, reverting to normal.  “Well, I was hoping to leave home and explore the world a bit.  As long as you’re okay with it, that is.”

 

“Where will we be going?”

 

“Nowhere in particular.  I just want to see what’s out there!”

 

Goat paused.  Kidd looked at his Star Carrier, finding the alien staring at the side of the screen.

 

“…If that’s not acceptable, then—“

 

“No, it’s not quite that,” Goat interrupted.  “I’m simply…nervous to embark on a directionless quest.  It sounds like the goals are less defined.”

 

Sonia stepped out of the Wavehole next, looking past Kidd so as not to rush him.

 

“So that’s your concern,” Kidd said.  “I don’t want to push you into anything you don’t want to do…maybe if we picked a few specific places?  Would you be more comfortable then?”

 

“I…suppose…” Goat said.  He nodded, and then continued, “Actually, my assignment does require me to step outside of what I am comfortable with.  Please carry on as you intended.”

 

“No, I can be more exact without it causing any problems!  We’re going to work together, so I’m ready to make compromises.”

 

“…Of course.  Thank you, Kidd.”

 

Claud ran over, shouting, “That was awesome!  You and Goat go together perfectly—you’re gonna be one of the toughest out of all of us, I can tell!”

 

As they talked, Sonia nodded to Boreal.  He nodded back.

 

“Well,” she said, “if you’ll excuse me, I need to get going.”

 

“Already?” Claud said.

 

“Sorry, but I’m trying to plan my next concert right now, and we’ve still got a lot to do.  I’ll mail you later, though!”

 

“Alright.  Good luck with the plans!”

 

“Thanks.  It was great to see you!  And nice to meet you, Kidd, Goat.”

 

They shared their good-byes, and then Sonia made her way towards Boreal.  “Hope you don’t mind me dropping the rest of the work on you.”

 

“Not at all,” Boreal laughed.  “You go on, I can—“

 

He stopped as his Star Carrier beeped again.  Taking a look at the screen, he frowned, and then surveyed the crater.

 

“…Something wrong?” Sonia asked.

 

“Not sure,” Boreal murmured.  “We’re starting to think it might be an error in the Z wave detector program we’re using.  It keeps going off, but we haven’t seen any unfamiliar EM beings no matter how hard we search.”

 

“Huh.  Do you want us to look around?”

 

Boreal shook his head as he pocketed his terminal.  “No, that’s alright, we don’t need to hold you up when we don’t have any real proof.  But you might want to keep an eye out.”

 

“We’ll do just that,” Lyra said.  “Here’s hoping you’re able to find the problem.”

 

“Right,” Sonia said.  “In that case I really will get going.  See you later—I’m sure I’ll find some reason to be back here soon enough!”

 

 

(Review)

Edited by Ursus Wielder Pahrak
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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter 2

 

 

Sonia looked up from her screen as the elevator doors opened.  Springing up from the bench, she quickly stepped across the lobby to greet her friends as they filed out of the lift.  Luna was first, leading the others in a trail behind her, and she smiled as soon as she saw Sonia.

 

“There you are!” she said.

 

“It’s so good to see you all again!” Sonia said.  She hugged Luna and added, “Thanks for figuring out when everyone could get together.  It’s been way too long since we’ve all been in the same place!”

 

“Of course!” Luna replied.  “Without me organizing them, they’d all be lost.  I guess that’s just my job as the responsible Brother that I am!”

 

Sonia turned to Geo next, hugging him as well.  “How’ve you been?  You don’t mail me much lately.”

 

“Sorry about that,” Geo apologized.  “I figured you’ve been busy—I don’t want to distract you too much.”

 

“Somebody has to,” Lyra said.  “But I imagine you have enough of your own distraction to worry about.”

 

Sonia smiled at Pat, who was right behind Geo.  “You know, I’d still like to see him every once in a while.”

 

Pat chuckled.  “I know, but it’s just so hard to let him go.”

 

“Well, you could both come!  Or would I be too much of a third wheel?”

 

“We’ve already got one of those,” Geo mumbled.

 

“Ah, don’t get on my case, kid,” came Mega’s voice.  “I said I was sorry for setting off those alarms.  How was I supposed to know the security programs were that sensitive?”

 

“Mrrrrrgh!” Taurus grunted.  “You’re always making such rookie mistakes, Omega-Xis!  No wonder you don’t want to fight me.”

 

“I’m ready any time!  Geo’s the one who’s scared!”

 

Geo shrugged.  “I just…don’t really enjoy fighting.”

 

“I feel bad for you, Geo,” Lyra said.  “You’re far too sweet to be stuck with a brute like Mega.”

 

Mega grumbled something to himself as Sonia turned to Bud.  “And how’ve you been?”

 

“I’m doing awesome!” Bud declared.  “Taurus and I have really sharpened our skills—we’re ready for a rematch whenever you get the chance!”

 

“Maybe after my next concert, I’ll let you know.”

 

Zack brought up the rear of the line.  Sonia waved to him, and he quietly waved back.

 

“So!” Luna said.  “Now that everyone’s here, why don’t we start looking around?”

 

“Sure thing!”  Sonia touched through a menu on her guitar screen.  “The staff gave me a Matter Wave tour guide, just give me a second to activate it…”

 

After selecting the program, she pointed her guitar at empty space and said, “Materialize!  Museum Guide!”

 

In a short flash of light, the Matter Wave appeared.  It was mostly purple and had an odd shape, almost like that of a bowling pin, and wore a large pair of glasses.  A microphone floated up to the Guide’s face as it said, “Hello everyone!  My, what a large group you’ve got here!  Thank you for coming here to see our Lost Civilization exhibit.  Let’s get started, shall we?”

 

The Guide led them to the other side of the lobby.  Sonia asked, “Anything exciting going on in Echo Ridge?”

 

“Nothing right now, but I’m working on some events to keep things lively over our summer vacation,” Luna said.  “Some of our classmates need a little help staying out of trouble.”

 

“Any chance of you doing a concert there?” Bud asked.  “I haven’t seen you perform since you came back from retirement.”

 

“Really?” Sonia asked.  “I thought we were talking just a few months ago about getting you a pass…”

 

“Well, I was going to go to the Cyber City show, but some stuff came up.”

 

Sonia shivered.  “O-Oh, right.  Right.”

 

“Probably for the best you couldn’t make it to that one,” Geo said, grimacing.

 

“Let’s not dwell on that fiasco,” Sonia quickly said.  “I’d love to do a concert in Echo Ridge—I’ll see what openings I have tonight.”

 

She stopped short.  “Hey, wait.  Luna, why didn’t you ask me?”

 

Luna looked in another direction.  “I don’t know, I thought it’d be cheating to use my personal connection with you to my advantage like that, and…I know you’re still not always entirely comfortable with getting too much attention, and there isn’t really a good place to hide in a small town like ours…”

 

Sonia smiled.  “Thanks for your consideration.  But I’m enjoying my work a lot more now, so I think I can endure a little fuss.”

 

With a short nod, Luna said, “In that case, we’ll have to arrange something.  But, for now, let’s just focus on the exhibit.  The review I read made it sound like a lot of fun!”

 

They came to a wide-open room with doors on all four walls, with a multitude of glass cases lining the walls and dotting the floor.  The Guide stopped in front of the closest: a tabletop diorama of a continent surrounded by several smaller islands, all sporting stone buildings with simplistic designs.

 

“This month, our museum’s feature exhibit is a study of the lost continent of Mu!” the Guide said.

 

“Moo?” Bud repeated.  “Does it have something to do with cows?”

 

Zack adjusted his glasses.  “Actually, Mu is a continent that was thought to have lived hundreds of years ago, perhaps even earlier than that, though no truly conclusive evidence of its existence has been found.  The information that we have implies that it was a driving force of the ancient world, an exceptionally advanced society with technology and medicine that were leaps and bounds beyond what any other civilization at the time could muster—possibly even rivaling what we have today.”

 

“Zack, shush!” Luna said.  “This is what we have the Guide for!”

 

Zack shrunk back a bit.  The Guide said, “Actually, he’s right!  Experts are conflicted, but there are studies showing Mu had an exceptional influence, up until it suddenly and mysteriously vanished.  This exhibit collects artifacts believed to originally belong to Mu, as well as several other tribes who show clear Murian influence.  This diorama is a reproduction of what Mu may have looked like.”

 

Geo squinted at the display.  “It doesn’t look particularly advanced…”

 

“Unfortunately, several of the scholars couldn’t agree on the exact details of Murian architecture, so the buildings here are more like stand-ins,” the Guide replied.  “Please, take a look around!  I’ll answer any questions you have.”

 

The group scattered, each finding a different exhibit to admire.  Pat found himself staring at a stone tablet bearing a large symbol: at the top was one dot, and on either side began a line that extended out, came a short distance down, and then doubled back before lowering further, extending out again, and then curving down, creating a perfectly symmetrical image with a large gap at its center.

 

“I wonder what this is,” he said.

 

The Guide approached him and answered, “This symbol matches the general design of the Murian alphabet, though its exact meaning can only be guessed at.  Every time it has appeared, it always stands on its own, with no other characters on the artifact to provide any context to interpret it.”

 

“That’s weird,” Geo said.  “Is this symbol really that important?”

 

“Is there some pattern among the artifacts it appears on?” Pat asked.

 

“None that archeologists have been able to determine,” the Guide said.  “Some have theorized it may simply be some sort of sign, in which case this symbol alone would tell a Murian everything they need to know about whatever it refers to.  Not that that helps us out!”

 

Sonia looked over a display of clothes made from dirt-covered, brown material emblazoned with a series of runes.  Golden jewelry complimented the designs, and the mannequins beneath were all wearing white-gray wigs.

 

“Were these their everyday clothes?” Lyra asked.  “Quite an…interesting fashion…”

 

“Maybe they’re ceremonial?” Sonia wondered, glancing at the runes.  She spotted Zack passing by, and asked, “Hey, do you know anything about what these might’ve been meant for?”

 

“Uh…no, I don’t,” Zack said.  “I haven’t actually looked that much into Mu specifically.”

 

“Oh, I see.”

 

They stood there awkwardly for a moment.  Soon everyone regrouped, so the Guide led them on to the next room, which was smaller and had a floor made to look like a patch of dirt on a grassy field.  Two large models were on display, one a two-legged monstrosity with sharp teeth and short arms, the other having four legs and a very long neck.

 

“These next several rooms focus on tribes showing Murian influence, more commonly referred to as the Lost Tribes,” the Guide explained.  “Each of these tribes were known to have great power and wealth during their time, especially near the end of their civilization.  However, after that sharp increase in their power, each of these tribes disappeared very quickly.  In all three cases, it is suspected that infighting was the primary cause of their speedy demise.”

 

Standing near one of the replicas, the Guide continued, “Earliest was the Dinosaur Tribe, thought to inhabit the area now known as southern Netopia.  Though named after dinosaurs, they actually lived around the year 900 AD, and gained their name from the armor they crafted out of dinosaur bones they discovered.”

 

“Made from bones?” Luna said.

 

She turned to a suit on display: the breastplate was long and angular, with hexagonal patterns down its front and some kind of fins jutting off of its back.  The shoulders were rounded and lined with fang-like protrusions, which also appeared on the cylindrical armguards, and a series of disjointed bands loosely filled the space where the upper arms would be.  Every piece looked incredibly heavy and covered in dozens of pits and gashes.

 

“That’s right.  Reportedly, they saw it as a way to prevent anything from going to waste, and it was the durability of that armor that enabled them to thrive in combat.  The prevailing theory is that when dinosaur bones became more difficult to find, the members of the tribe began to fight over them, and that was what led to their end.”

 

“That’s a really weird way of looking at things,” Luna muttered.

 

Zack raised his hand.  “Excuse me, Miss Guide?  What exactly was the Murian influence observed in the Dinosaur Tribe?”

 

“The armor is actually a good example,” the Guide said.  “The sculpting details have some similarities to Murian armor, and several suits even have markings that are consistent with Murian runes!  Though, for the most part, the Dinosaur Tribe didn’t seem to rely on written language very much.”

 

“So, if they didn’t live with dinosaurs, then why these dinosaur replicas?” Geo asked.

 

“Well…they were added to make this room look more exciting,” the Guide admitted.  “Most kids prefer looking at dinosaurs than looking at armor.”

 

Bud examined the plaque before the four-legged replica, reading, “So this is a…Neckistoolongadon?”

 

Pat checked the plaque, verifying that was what it said.  “…There’s no way that’s a real dinosaur name…”

 

“It’s easy to remember,” Taurus said.  “Most of your animal names don’t make a whole lot of sense, you know.”

 

“Don’t go off on that again,” Mega said.  “Last time you got frustrated over how humans named things, you starting sending threatening emails and the police ended up investigating the whole school.”

 

“Mrrgh…maybe that was a bit extreme…”

 

The next room had a floor that appeared to be made of gray bricks, and hanging on its walls was a wide variety of weapons along with more traditional, knight-like suits of armor.  The Guide said, “During the Middle Ages of northern Netopia, a tribe known as the Berserk was the dominating power in the world.  Though their armor is clearly more Netopian than Murian, many of their weapons are nearly identical to weapons excavated from Mu dig sites, and the Berserk’s military organization and tactics are thought to take cues from Mu as well.  The Berserk soldiers were absolutely loyal to their kings and fought to the bitter end to protect their lands and families, but eventually, they turned their swords on each other and their empire crumbled.”

 

“These weapons are amazing!” Taurus remarked.  “I never knew humans used to be such capable warriors!”

 

“They do look super-strong,” Bud agreed.  “It sounds like they were really cool before that last part happened.”

 

Sonia put a hand to her chin.  “Was there something that caused them to turn on each other?”

 

“They probably spread themselves too thin,” Zack said.  “When an empire like that has so much land under its control, people might feel more and more that they deserve a piece of it, and then begin fighting to defend those claims.”

 

“Maybe…it just seems strange that they’d take such a sudden shift.”

 

“It’s not that hard to believe a warrior people would tear themselves apart,” Lyra said.  “The same thing probably would’ve happened to Planet FM too, if it weren’t for you.”

 

Sonia hummed, trying not to look too contented.

 

They moved on to the next room, this one’s floor resembling brown stone.  One wall was made to look like the exterior of an old fortress with a warrior perched atop its roof.  In the opposite corner, another warrior stood on a rock spire, and the tables between them were covered in small, curious-looking weapons.  The Guide elaborated, “Finally, we have the Ninja Tribe, who lived right here in Electopia during the age of civil war.”

 

“Oh, I’ve heard about ninja!” Bud said.

 

“Yes, the idea of the ninja has remained quite popular to this day.  During their time, they operated behind the scenes to instigate or settle conflicts and assassinate enemy leaders.  The Ninja Tribe was not as visible as the other tribes, but they had a unique political influence that gave them just as much power.  They focused on stealth and secrecy, as you can see by these easy-to-conceal weapons and their dark clothing.”

 

“Wow,” Pat said, “I had no idea there was Murian influence in our own country.”

 

Luna stepped up to a table displaying a small scroll.  Numerous strange runes were scrawled all across its surface, and she said, “These look sort of like those Mu letters…”

 

“Exactly right!” the Guide said.  “The primary connection between Mu and the Ninja Tribe are these runes.  They make up the Murian writing system, and it appears the ninja used them when writing down the details of their secret techniques—a secret code only they could read, so that sensitive information wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.  Some reports also claim that these scrolls themselves contained power drawn from the runes, but needless to say those stories are not considered to be factual.”

 

Mega cocked his head as he examined a row of shuriken.  “These things are so tiny.  How were these useful?”

 

“They valued secrecy, remember?” Lyra said.  “It would be very easy for a human to conceal weapons so small, so no one would consider them a threat until it was too late.  Quite an admirable philosophy.”

 

“Admirable?” Sonia nervously repeated.

 

“Because the Ninja Tribe preferred obscurity, we don’t have any reliable accounts of their destruction,” the Guide said.  “All we really know is that they haven’t been seen in a while.  Some believe they may still exist, but given the trends of the other two Lost Tribes and various observations of ninja behavior near the end of the age of civil war, general consensus is that this tribe also ended up destroying itself.”

 

“That or they just weren’t required in the new political climate,” Zack said.

 

“Don’t argue with the Guide, Zack,” Luna scolded.

 

“The final room of our exhibit is just ahead!” the Guide announced.  “In addition to the similarities previously noted, there is something else tying these Lost Tribes to each other and to Mu.  The final display—the pride of this exhibit—is perhaps the most convincing proof yet of Mu’s legacy!”

 

The room ahead was similar to the lobby, with dark blue walls and silver tiles.  At its center was a glass case containing three objects that were all about the same size: a shuriken, a sword, and a skull.  All three were grayish but tinted different colors, with lines forming no clear design running along their surfaces and a faint glow filling the case.

 

“…Mega, Taurus,” Lyra whispered.

 

“I’m sensing it too,” Mega said.

 

“Mrrgh!  What are those things?”

 

Sonia looked at her guitar.  “Something up?”

 

“Let’s hear what the Guide has to say first,” Lyra replied.

 

Once the children were all lined up in front of the case, the Guide said, “These are what are classified as OOParts: Out of Place Artifacts.  This term is used to describe things that don’t seem to come from the same time period as other artifacts found in the same location.”

 

Bud scratched his head.  “Um…I don’t get it.”

 

“It just means something that doesn’t belong,” Luna said.

 

“Think of it this way,” Geo said.  “Cars were invented only a few centuries ago.  But if you dug up a fossilized car alongside remains that were thousands of years old, that would be out of place.”

 

“Oh, I think I get it now!” Bud said.

 

“Each of these OOParts was recovered from dig sites corresponding to one of the three Lost Tribes,” the Guide said.  “However, scientific analysis suggests that they all predate even the Dinosaur Tribe.  That alone would qualify them as OOParts, but it gets stranger than that.  They are all made of the same material, some sort of alloy that we have not been able to identify, and all seem to give off EM waves comparable to modern technology.”

 

“What?” Sonia said.  She put on her Visualizer to find that powerful waves were streaming off of the OOParts, creating a flaming orange aura that seemed to loom over her.  A pit formed in her stomach.

 

Geo put on his Visualizer next.  “Yikes!  That’s insane!”

 

Bud crossed his arms.  “So, these things are all older than the tribes…but use technology that came after them…?  I’m confused again.”

 

“…So am I, actually,” Luna said.  “Zack, did you get that?”

 

“I’m afraid not,” Zack said.  “By all accounts, this sort of thing shouldn’t be possible.”

 

“The professionals don’t understand it much either,” the Guide said.  “Even for OOParts, these three are an extremely difficult case!”

 

“…Unless they’re from Mu,” Pat said.  “That’s why they’re in this exhibit, right?  Someone has proposed that Mu created these artifacts using their advanced technology, and they were later passed on to the Lost Tribes?”

 

“Precisely!” the Guide said.  “Nicely done!  Though Mu is still considered an unproven theory, the proposed link is the only way anyone has been able to explain the OOParts, so for now, they have been donated to this exhibit for safekeeping until scientists feel ready to run a new analysis.”

 

“How is something like that possible?” Sonia said.  “Humans only discovered EM waves fairly recently.”

 

“Indeed,” Lyra said.  “Your planet isn’t as EM-rich as Planet FM.  I could believe us having something like this, but Earth?”

 

“Something’s very wrong here,” Mega growled.

 

As if to agree with him, an alarm began to sound.  Sonia turned around and looked through a door, seeing the room they had begun the tour in; a circle of purple energy was forming around one of the artifacts on display, and once it was complete, darkness filled its interior, and the artifact sank into it and disappeared.

 

“What was that?!”

 

She and the others rushed into the room to see the same thing happening to more artifacts.  After pausing to deactivate the Guide, Sonia looked around for anything unusual, settling on a group of strange objects that hadn’t been there before.  Each one looked like an eyeball made of black and purple metal, large as a person and floating several feet off the ground.  They slowly spread out and went off through the exhibit.  Every time they stopped to look at something, a hole appeared to swallow it up.

 

“Is this a robbery?” Pat said.

 

“It’s a fight, that’s what it is!” Taurus said.  “Mrrgh!  Bud, let’s get to a Wavehole!”

 

Geo and Sonia looked at each other and nodded.  They and Bud ran back to the lobby and Wave Changed, and then Sonia began pointing.  “Taurus Fire, you handle that one!  Mega Man, I saw one go around that corner—it’s all yours!”

 

“About time we get to smash something!” Mega said.  “Come on, kid, let’s rock!”

 

Mega dragged Geo ahead.  Bud charged horns-first at his target, only to trip when a hole appeared in the floor beneath him.  Luckily, his momentum let him clear it, and he only ended up colliding with the wall.

 

“Ouch!” he shouted.  “Ugh, no fair!”

 

“Mrrrgh!  Come on, Bud—we’ll dodge the next one and take it out in a single punch!”

 

“Sounds good to me!”

 

Another hole appeared in the floor.  Bud rolled to the side and came up in a crouch, and then sprang forward and drove his fist right through the machine’s pupil.

 

“Alright!” he said, punching the air.  “Let’s see if we can find any more!”

 

Sonia had made her way to the Dinosaur Tribe room, spotting one of the machines on the head of a replica.  A hole opened beneath her and she began to sink, but she quickly fired her strings to grab hold of the dinosaur’s neck, allowing her to pull herself free and up behind the machine.  One note was enough to blast a hole through it.

 

“What do you think these are?” she asked as she dropped down next to the hunk of metal.

 

“I haven’t a clue,” Lyra said.  “Some sort of transporter?”

 

“Let’s take one back with us,” Sonia said.  “Maybe Mr. Boreal can examine it and learn something.”

 

Meanwhile, in the Ninja Tribe room, Geo was facing down two of the machines.  Whenever he avoided one hole, another appeared, leaving him no time to counterattack.

 

“Come on, kid, it shouldn’t be this tough to crush ‘em!” Mega complained.

 

“Hey, I’m trying my best!”

 

“Yeah?  Well, let’s see how they like this!”

 

“What’re you—“

 

As soon as Geo’s feet hit the ground, Mega dragged him through the air directly into one of the machines, tearing it apart with his fangs.  Another hole then opened beneath them, and they started to sink.

 

“Darn it, Mega!” Geo said, taking aim with his buster.  He destroyed the machine, but the hole didn’t disappear.

 

Geo was about to panic when he felt a hand grab his.  Pat pulled him to safety, asking, “Are you okay, Geo?”

 

Smiling with relief, Geo said, “Yeah, thanks to you.”  A sound nearby alerted him to more machines.  He gave Pat a peck on the cheek and then headed for his next target.

 

Geo, Bud, and Sonia all arrived in the OOPart room at the same time.  Three machines surrounded the case, and they were just beginning to create a hole around it.

 

“Oh no you don’t!” Bud said, rearing back.

 

He shot a blast of fire from his mouth, incinerating one of the machines.  Geo destroyed the second with a charged buster shot.  The case began to sink, so Sonia ran to the edge of the hole and wrapped it in strings, pulling with all her might in the hopes that she could stop it from being taken.  The EM aura was awfully intense this close, and she found her head becoming cloudy as a result.

 

“Whatever these are…I’m not letting you take them!” she said.

 

Bud and Geo destroyed the last machine and turned to help her.  Before they could do anything, however, the aura suddenly grew brighter, and it seemed to reach out towards Sonia.  The weight felt lighter.

 

“What…”

 

A shockwave burst out from the OOParts.  Sonia was sent flying, but she didn’t feel herself hit the wall—her entire body went numb for a few seconds, followed by a brief, warm feeling, before the pain finally caught up to her.

 

That felt…sort of familiar…

 

“Is everyone okay?” Geo asked as he got up.

 

“Yeah, I think so,” Sonia mumbled, shaking her head.

 

She looked up and froze.  The case was back where it belonged, no hole in sight.  Unfortunately, there was no trace of the OOParts either.

 

“Where’d the artifacts go?” Bud asked.  “Did that thing manage to take them?”

 

“I don’t see how,” Lyra said.  “The case looks intact, so they couldn’t have just fallen out, could they?”

 

Geo said, “Without knowing what that was, I don’t think we can say for sure.  Maybe we should get out of here.  If the police show up and see the three of us…”

 

“Yeah, I really don’t want to be here for that,” Bud said.

 

Sonia slowly nodded.  “…Right.  Uh, help me pick up one of these things, please?  Hopefully it’ll be able to tell us something.”

 

***

 

He moved through the room so silently it was as if he was not even there.  Before him was a curtain, the shadow of a person displayed upon it—he stopped before it and knelt, and then waited, still silent.

 

“What news do you bring me, Hollow?” asked a clear, commanding voice.

 

He rose.  “I deployed the Kamikakushi devices to the museum as you ordered.  They retrieved several objects, however, they were destroyed before they could successfully recover the Sacred Artifacts.”

 

“Destroyed?  By whom?”

 

“I have no definitive answer at this time.  As soon as I determine the identities of the interlopers, I shall report back to you for further orders.”

 

The woman behind the curtain thought for a moment.  “I believe we can expedite that process.  If there is someone out there eager to meddle in our affairs, then I suggest we give them something more to meddle in.”

 

Hollow bowed.  “As you wish.  Shall I see to it personally?”

 

“No.  I still need you here at my side, Hollow.  But, the Kamikakushi are obviously not sufficient…perhaps the time has finally come to mobilize the strategist.”

 

 

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Edited by Ursus Wielder Pahrak
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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter 3

 

 

The world was a void made of blinding white light.  Sonia looked down—she was Wave Changed for some reason.

 

“Where are we, Lyra?”

 

There was no answer.

 

“Lyra…?”

 

She started walking.  Before she got very far, she felt a presence looming over her, and she grew stiff.  A voice was whispering something—no, three voices, all whispering the same thing.

 

“Power…”

 

She turned around.  Nothing was there.

 

“Power…”

 

A burning pressure was pushing down on her.  Suddenly, three towers of flame appeared around her: one green, one yellow, and one red.

 

“Power…”

 

She felt a stabbing pain in her heart.  Shaking, she asked, “What is this…?”

 

“Power,” the voices chanted.  “Power.  Power.  Power!”

 

The pain intensified, bringing Sonia to her knees.  “Lyra…can you hear me?  Lyra!”

 

The flames began to close in.

 

“Sonia…”

 

***

 

“Sonia!”

 

Sonia shouted as she jolted awake.

 

“Sonia?”

 

After taking a deep breath, she sighed, “Y-Yeah…uh…”

 

She reached for her Visualizer, continuing, “Sorry, I guess I was…”

 

When she put the glasses on, she saw Lyra floating in the corner of the room.  The FM-ian was leaning against the wall with a sick look on her face, and an orange, flame-like aura of waves surrounded her.  Sonia leapt to her feet.

 

“Lyra, what’s wrong?!”

 

The aura slowly dissipated.  Lyra drifted away from the wall, saying, “I’m afraid I’m not entirely sure.  I’ve been experiencing some discomfort ever since the museum, but it just intensified all of the sudden.  A burning, stabbing pain…”

 

Sonia stepped closer.

 

Shaking her head, Lyra said, “But, I’m fine now, dear.  No need to worry.  Are you alright?  I thought I heard you shouting in your sleep?”

 

“I was having a nightmare…I felt the same kind of pain you just described.”

 

Lyra raised an eyebrow.  “Really?”

 

Sonia crossed her arms and thought for a moment.  “That aura you had just now…when I think about it, it looked similar to the aura that was around the OOParts.  There’s no way that’s a coincidence.”

 

“Agreed.  I know we just left Mr. Boreal with that device, but I believe it prudent to pay him another visit tomorrow.”

 

“Definitely.  NAZA’s scans are our best bet at figuring out what’s up.”

 

Lyra smiled.  “Well, I’m feeling much better now.  You should go back to sleep, dear—we’ll deal with this in the morning.”

 

Sonia let out a breath, slipping off her Visualizer and setting it back on the table.  “Okay.  Good night.”

 

***

 

Sonia paced across the lobby of NAZA HQ.  Having neither her guitar nor Lyra with her, she found herself even more nervous than last time.

 

She looked up to see Boreal on his way down.  He looked far grimmer today.

 

“Is Lyra okay?” she asked.

 

“For the time being, yes,” Lyra replied.

 

Boreal handed over the guitar.  “I don’t see anything to suggest she’s in immediate danger, either in her wave pattern or your terminal.  But, there’s definitely a new wave pattern that’s been introduced, and it’s very odd.  Whatever it is, it seems to be attempting to integrate itself into Lyra.”

 

Sonia looked at the screen.  Lyra forced a smile.

 

“But,” Boreal continued, “the source of the pattern seems oddly localized.  It’s been absorbed by a program that was already stored in the guitar’s systems: the EM Compatibility Tuner.”

 

“Mama’s program?  I thought it was just designed to work with the Star Force?”

 

“That’s why Rosa made it, but theoretically, it should be able to make an EM being compatible with any power source.  Seems that it’s found a new one.”

 

Sonia turned back to Lyra.  “A new power source?  But what…”

 

She trailed off as she recalled the aura that had enveloped Lyra.

 

“Unless…the OOParts?”

 

“That would appear to be the case,” Lyra said.  “When they vanished at the museum, they must have been absorbed into us somehow.  Oh, this is less than ideal…”

 

Sonia scratched her head.  “I see.  I’m sorry, Lyra—maybe I should have uninstalled the Tuner.”

 

Boreal shook his head.  “This pattern seems very aggressive.  It would probably be trying to assimilate an EM being no matter what.  If I were to take a guess, I’d say the Tuner is acting as a buffer to keep it from overwhelming Lyra, keeping it separate until it can be adjusted to a less dangerous frequency.  It’s definitely a good thing you still had it.”

 

“Really?” Sonia felt herself relax.  “I’m glad.  So, if the Tuner is reacting to the OOParts, does that mean we’ll be able to use them the same way we used the Star Force?”

 

Boreal shrugged.  “Hard to say, given how little we know about these OOParts.  Once the Tuner finishes adjusting you might find yourself with some new powers, but I can’t say with certainty.”

 

Lyra grunted.  Sonia looked to see she was enveloped by the aura again, and began to feel a pain in her chest.

 

“It’s certainly taking its sweet time adjusting,” Lyra complained.  When the pain passed, she said, “I suppose there’s no helping it.  Whatever these OOParts have to offer, it had better be worth this trouble.”

 

Sonia couldn’t help but think back to the exhibit.  These were all found in the ruins of tribes who had turned on each other…is this really something we should be messing with?

 

“Thank you, Mr. Boreal; we shall inform you if the situation changes,” Lyra said.  “Setting that aside for the time being, were you able to learn anything from that strange device?”

 

“Oh, the eye-things from the museum?  Well, I took one apart and poked around, but it raised more questions than answers.  The components all seemed incredibly old—older than you’d expect—and it runs on what would appear to be EM waves of a frequency I’m unfamiliar with.”

 

“More ancient objects with strange waves,” Sonia said.  “And they were stealing everything from the exhibit.  Do you think someone’s putting together a collection of Mu artifacts?”

 

Boreal shook his head.  “I really don’t know.  Just be careful, Sonia.  Whoever wanted those OOParts probably hasn’t given up on them, and…”

 

He paused as his Star Carrier beeped, and then continued, “There might still be an unidentified EM being running amok.  We still haven’t made any progress on that front.  If those waves start affecting you and Lyra at a critical moment…”

 

“Yeah, good point.  I’ll try to stay out of trouble until we get things figured out, Mr. Boreal.”

 

“We’ll certainly do our best,” Lyra said.  “It simply wouldn’t do to have my reputation tarnished in such a way.”

 

They said their good-byes and made their way out of the building.  As they walked, Lyra said, “Before we do anything else, you received quite a lot of mail while I was in there.  I’d recommend you respond soon before your inbox is flooded even further.”

 

“A lot of mail?”  Sonia navigated the menu and found a series of messages, all from the same sender.  With a sigh, she said, “Browse, call Luna.”

 

A holographic screen emerged from the guitar and floated before Sonia; it briefly displayed static, but this was soon replaced with an image of a very angry Luna.

 

“Where have you been?!” she demanded.  “I’ve been trying to get ahold of you for at least an hour!”

 

“Sorry, I had to turn my terminal off for a little while.  I was, um…meeting with someone interested in hosting a concert in a few months.”

 

Lyra looked at her, but said nothing.

 

“Hmph!  You might have let me know beforehand!” Luna said.  “I guess I’ll let you off the hook this time.  I was just checking in is all.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“I mean, I’m curious to know if you’ve heard from Mr. Boreal, mainly.  I just want an explanation for what happened at the museum, that’s the reason I’m trying to get ahold of you!”

 

Sonia started to smile.  “Of course.”

 

Luna fumed.  “What do you mean ‘of course’?”

 

“Nothing, nothing.  I did hear from him, but he doesn’t really have an explanation just yet.  Once I have something substantial you’ll be the first to know.”

 

“Good!”  She paused, then continued, “Also, um…I was wondering when you might have some free time next.  Since the exhibit got ruined, we were all going to meet up and see a movie to make up for it, probably sometime over the weekend.”

 

“That sounds fun!  Let me think…I might be able to clear some time Friday, if that works?”

 

Luna nodded.  “I’ll make it work.  Get back to me as soon as you can, alright?  I’ll need to round everyone up, so you’d better send confirmation soon!”

 

“I promise I’ll get back to you tonight.”

 

“Good.  I’ll talk to you later, then.”

 

“See you, Luna.”

 

After she hung up, Lyra asked, “You’re not going to tell her about the OOParts?”

 

Sonia hummed and let her gaze drift.  “I don’t want to make her worry.  I’ll tell her once we know the whole story, but when things are this vague, all I’m really doing is asking her to make a big deal out of it.”

 

“If that’s your decision, then I’ll go along with it.  But, since this could compromise our emergency readiness, I think we should at least let someone know what we know.”

 

“You’re probably right,” Sonia said with reluctance.  “Well, Bud can’t keep a secret, so I guess Geo’s our man.”

 

Calling up the screen again, she waited a few seconds for Geo to pick up.  “Hey Sonia, how’re things going?”

 

“Hey, Geo.  Do you have a minute to talk?”

 

“Sure.  Did something happen?”

 

“Sort of.  I wanted to ask a favor.”

 

Geo listened attentively as Sonia explained the situation.  After taking it in, he asked, “So there’s no way of knowing how long it’ll take the Tuner to finish?”

 

Sonia shook her head.  “After the attack at the museum, Lyra thinks we should be cautious in case something else happens.  If you could just keep an eye out, we’d really appreciate it.”

 

“Okay.  Mega and I will watch your back, Sonia.”

 

She felt some of her worry fade.  “Thanks Geo, I knew I could count on you!  Also, if you don’t mind, I didn’t want to tell anyone else just yet.  Do you think you could keep this between us?”

 

Geo grimaced.  “Ah man, if Prez finds out I’ve been keeping something like this from her…”

 

Sonia chuckled.  “If that happens, I promise to take full responsibility.”

 

“Alright, I’ll keep quiet.  Hope you’re able to work this out soon.”

 

“Thank you.  If we’re lucky, then there may not even be any reason to worry.”

 

***

 

Sonia leaned back in her seat and looked around the theater.  The spacious room was packed full, and the crowd chattered excitedly as they waited for the movie to start.  A circular projector was built into the floor in front of the many rows of seats, and all other walls sported replicas of scenery: large, crumbling stone buildings made in an archaic style, set against the backdrop of a cloudy night sky.

 

Beside her, Luna said, “I still can’t believe all the other movies were sold out.  This isn’t exactly my first choice.”

 

“Come on, the point is that we’re all here,” Sonia said, lightly nudging her with her elbow.  “Thanks for fitting everyone’s schedules together.  Again.”

 

Luna grumbled one more time and then settled down.

 

A few seats over, Geo held Pat’s hand and leaned over towards him.  “You sure you’re okay with this?”

 

Pat nodded.  “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.  Will you be okay?”

 

“You do scare pretty easy, kid,” Mega agreed.

 

“I guess we’ll see,” Geo said, chuckling nervously.  Pat smiled and squeezed his hand.

 

Zack adjusted his glasses.  “The reviews say it’s actually not all that scary.  It relies on the new Matter Wave special effects for a lot of its shock value, so as long as you anticipate that and a few jump scares you should be able to handle it fine.”

 

“The effects do sound cool though!” Bud said between bites of popcorn.  “I can’t wait to see those ghosts come off the screen!”

 

The already dim lighting lowered even further, prompting the audience to quiet.  The projector flared to life and figures began to form.  The image immediately flickered, and in a few seconds, both the projector and the remaining lights shut off completely.

 

Is this part of the movie? Sonia wondered.

 

The projector turned back on, creating a pillar of light.  A soft voice called, “Good evening, movie-goers…heh, heh, heh.  Tonight’s feature presentation has been interrupted to bring you a special, one night only event.”

 

A feeling of dread spread through Sonia as a figure stepped into the light.  He was tall and thin, wearing a black and grey jumpsuit with armor over his lower legs, forearms, and chest that sported a few white highlights, making the outfit resemble a formal suit.  In his gloved hands he carried a long cane, and a black and red cape flowed behind him.  Reaching up, he pushed back the top hat he wore, revealing a green face partially obscured by a white mask over his eyes, and four crumpled shoots of blonde hair shot out from the back of his head at odd angles.

 

Bowing, he introduced, “I, the Dark Phantom, have the privilege of presenting to you a tale of my own design, a glorious masterpiece that will surely haunt you for the rest of your life…heh, heh, however short that may be!  HA HA HA!”

 

“Sonia,” Lyra whispered urgently, “that’s not a special effect!  That is an EM wave body!”

 

It seemed Mega and Taurus had caught on as well, because Geo and Bud were already getting up.  Sonia moved to join them, but the pain in her chest suddenly returned, forcing her to stop before she could do anything more.

 

Not now!

 

Dark Phantom threw his cape to his side and raised his cane.  “HA HA HA, I hope you find this show to be…a real scream!  HA HA HA HA!”

 

More figures began to appear: small, round beings with no features aside from their simple faces and the top hats they wore.  Dozens appeared, and they floated towards the audience, spreading out to surround the entire room.

 

Catching sight of Sonia, Geo asked, “Sonia, are you okay?”

 

“We…we’ve got to stop them!” Sonia said, still fighting the pain.

 

One of the ghosts threw their hat into the audience.  It crushed the seats it hit, flinging their occupants back a few rows.  The audience finally grasped their situation and the theater was thrown into a panic.

 

Dark Phantom laughed hysterically.  “Yes, yes, that’s what I hoped to hear!  Scream for me, my beautiful audience!  Cause such a wondrous scene that any would-be heroes cannot help but make their entrance!  Heh, heh ha ha HA!”

 

He slipped back into the shadows, his laughs slowly fading away until they could be heard no more.

 

“That sure didn’t take long!” Luna shouted with an exasperated snarl.  “Sonia, you…”

 

She stopped short.  “Sonia?  What’s wrong?”

 

The pain slowly began to pass, so Sonia was able to sound convincing when she said, “It’s nothing.  Stay low, and keep an eye on Zack and Pat!”

 

“Man, what a bummer!” Bud complained.

 

“Mrrgh!” Taurus grunted.  “Hey, I’m always ready for action!  Let’s tear into them!”

 

Sonia, Geo, and Bud rushed to the nearest Wavehole, trying not to bump into the people currently running around in terror.  Geo reached it first and came out with his buster firing, picking off a few ghosts just as they were about to attack.  The swarm was quick to take notice of him.

 

With a gulp, Geo said, “I-I’ll draw their attention so you two can Wave Change!”

 

“Try to sound a little more inspiring, kid!” Mega said.

 

He made his way across the theater, and the ghosts floated after him.  Bud transformed next and quickly rushed to his aid.  Sonia was last, and immediately after the transformation, the now-familiar pain flared up and brought her stumbling into the wall.

 

“This is absurd!” Lyra said.  “…Perhaps we should simply defend the hostages this time.  I don’t think we’ll be of much help to Geo and Bud right now.”

 

Steadying herself, Sonia slowly said, “I…guess you’re right.  Let’s leave this to them this time.”

 

She returned to where Luna was, keeping an eye out for any stray ghosts.  Luna gave her a confused look that made her cringe slightly.  “What are you doing?”

 

“Let’s try getting the audience in one place,” Sonia said.  She felt a little embarrassed.  “I’ll cover everyone while Geo and Bud handle the ghosts!”

 

Luna nodded and they started to move.  Sonia watched Geo and Bud fight off the cloud of ghosts—they seemed to be fine, but whatever they destroyed was quickly replaced.  The ghosts seemed to tighten formation, forming a makeshift wall around the two.

 

That’s odd…

 

A scream caught her attention.  She turned back to see that Luna had vanished, and instantly she froze.

 

“Luna?!”

 

She looked up when she heard a laugh.  Dark Phantom was now standing on the scenery, holding Luna next to him.  Sonia felt numb.

 

The Phantom grinned at her.  “So you three were here all along?  What an astounding twist!  To think we’ll be moving on to the next act so soon!”

 

Luna swung at him, but her blows had no effect.  “Let me go!  What’s the meaning of this?!”

 

“Release her!” Sonia shouted.  She stopped and attempted to calm herself, and then continued, “There’s no reason for anyone to get hurt.  Just tell me what it is that you want.”

 

“Good, it seems I cast this part well,” Phantom said.  “Don’t worry, I have no intention of harming the girl…at the moment.  Heh, heh, heh.  All I really want is to have a chat with you, heroine.”

 

“Great!  Then let her go!  There’s a much easier way to do this!”

 

Dark Phantom raised an eyebrow.  “…Easy?  What sort of amateur complaint is that?  A meeting between a hero and villain is supposed to be a thing of drama, a turning point signaling the next phase of the writer’s vision!  Easy?  Hah!  This may not be the easiest way to draw you out, but it is the method with the most impact!”

 

Sonia blinked.  Lyra muttered, “Seems he didn’t choose a theater purely out of convenience…”

 

Rapping his cane on the floor, Dark Phantom continued, “Now then, line?  Ah, yes, I was just finishing up preparations for the next big scene.  Let’s see, two of our heroes are in the clutches of the viruses, led to their certain demise by the tragic flaw of their compassion…”

 

Sonia cast a glance at Geo and Bud.  She could barely see them through the veil of ghosts.  Bud exhaled a burst of flame, but had to restrain himself so as not to set fire to the whole theater, enabling a few targets to evade and counterattack.  Geo tried using a Mega Attack to leap through the cloud, only for even more ghosts to appear to block him.

 

“…and I’ve procured a hostage, ensuring that our third protagonist won’t do anything rash just yet…”

 

She looked back up at Luna, who continued to struggle in vain against her captor.  “You have no idea who you’re dealing with, freak!”

 

“Yes, yes, all that’s missing is the proper setting.  Ahem…if you wish this girl to be returned safely, you will follow me.  And I warn you now: one false move, and I won’t hesitate to terminate my captive.”

 

“He’s bluffing,” Lyra whispered.  “A hostage is no good if they’re dead.”

 

Sonia shuddered.

 

“…Sorry dear, for some reason I thought that would be more reassuring.”

 

“Alright,” Sonia said, letting her guitar hang from her back.  “Okay, I’ll cooperate.  Just don’t hurt Luna.”

 

“Oh, Luna?” Dark Phantom repeated.  “How poetic!  The moon’s light stolen away on a dark night, changing commonplace darkness into a total abyss!  Heh, heh, heh!”

 

Sonia stared at him.

 

“…Hm?  Oh, yes, let us be off.”

 

He faded out of view, taking Luna with him.  Sonia’s pulse quickened for a moment, but they soon rematerialized near the theater’s exit.  Taking a deep breath, she walked towards them; when she came close, they vanished again, this time appearing on the other side of the purple-walled box office.  In this way Sonia was led outside onto one of the many platforms linking the various skyscrapers that made up the shopping plaza, taking a quick look down at the ground several stories below.  Dark Phantom beckoned to her from the far side of the plaza—she carefully jumped across the platforms and stopped at the base of one tower that reached even higher than the rest.  With a grin, the villain pointed up and disappeared.

 

Sonia sighed in frustration, and then doubled over in pain.  It lasted longer than she hoped.

 

“Oh, don’t tell me it’s getting worse?” Lyra groaned.  “Now, of all times?”

 

“We have to ignore it,” Sonia said.  “Luna needs us.  We can’t let anything get in our way.”

 

She bounded up the multi-tiered Wave Road that wrapped around the tower, slowing only when she could see her target again.  Luna had been tied to the antenna on top of the building, while Dark Phantom stood on a square of the Road right in front of her.

 

“There you are!” he said, waving cordially.  “I was so hoping I hadn’t lost you—you are essential to the final act!”

 

“Alright, I’m here.  What do you want to talk about?”

 

“My, so cold.  Must we really cut straight to the climax?”

 

Sonia scowled.

 

“I believe proper introductions are in order.”  He removed his hat and made an exaggerated bow.  “My true name is Hyde.  The power of the Dark Phantom is born from a union of myself and my dear partner, a being simply named Phantom.”

 

Another voice appeared now, this one sounding gravelly and far older.  “Greetings, my pawns.  Thank you for following the script so perfectly.”

 

“I couldn’t help but notice that you and your friends are also capable of EM Wave Change—though this is the first time we have encountered outsiders with this power.  Perhaps you could enlighten me with some backstory?”

 

“I’m Harp Note,” Sonia introduced.  “My partner’s name is Lyra.”

 

“You have a most peculiar wavelength, Phantom,” Lyra said.  “Yet, there is a familiar quality to it…I don’t suppose you’re a fellow FM-ian?”

 

“I beg your pardon?!” Phantom snapped.  “What an insult!  To even insinuate that I am simple FM-ian filth—the audacity!”

 

Lyra scoffed.  “Well.”

 

“Planet FM,” Hyde mused, stroking his chin.  “We suspected they may have been involved in that little incident two years ago, but to think a few of you were still here…”

 

“The others must be the same trash as well,” Phantom said.  “Appears we have a small infestation on our hands.”

 

Sonia narrowed her eyes a bit.  “Alright, so you know where Lyra and the others came from.  Where did you come from?”

 

Hyde grinned.  “Oh, I suppose a trade would be fair, wouldn’t it?  Heh, heh, heh.  But…I do not believe our Lady would wish us revealing too much just yet.  So sorry!  On to my next question.”

 

“If you won’t answer our questions, why should we answer yours?” Lyra asked.

 

Hyde paused a moment, and then swung his cane out in front of Luna.  Sonia jumped and said, “Alright, alright, fine, what do you want?”

 

“That’s better,” Hyde said.  “Several days ago, a nearby museum featuring an exhibit on the legend of Mu was attacked.  Were you and your friends the ones who repelled the assault?”

 

“We were.  I take it you were the one who launched it?”

 

“My associates, actually.  Now then, for the most part your interference was little more than an inconvenience, but through some freak happenstance, you were just lucky enough to foil the primary goal of the operation.  I am here to rectify that circumstance.”

 

Sonia locked eyes with Luna.  She tried to look calm, but it was clear she was frightened.

 

“Now do listen closely, dear heroine, for this next question is of paramount importance: what did you do with the OOParts?”

 

Sonia gulped.  “I didn’t do anything with them.”  It wasn’t exactly a lie.

 

“Hm,” Hyde muttered.  “You didn’t.  Curious.”

 

He slowly walked around Luna.

 

“You’re certain?  Because we do not have them, and I was told quite explicitly that you were the one handling them when they disappeared.  So I’ll ask you again.  What did you do with them?”

 

“You don’t have to explain anything to him, Harp Note!” Luna yelled.

 

Sonia looked to Luna for just a moment.  “…I didn’t do anything with them…”

 

Quietly, she added, “Intentionally.”

 

Hyde cocked his head.  “Oh?  My, what ominous phrasing…then perhaps I shall rephrase.  Where are the OOParts now?”

 

Sonia set her face.  “They’re…”

 

Pain wracked her once more.  She fell to her knees, grunting—the burning sensation was worse than ever before, as if her skin was about to melt away.

 

Hyde watched her closely.  “How very strange.  Is something ailing our heroine?”

 

“Harp Note?” Luna called out.  “Are you okay?  What’s happening?”

 

Walking towards her, Hyde sighed, “It seems we aren’t getting anywhere.  How unfortunate.”

 

He slashed with his cane, knocking Sonia flat.  Luna gasped.

 

“Oh, I was so hoping you’d be the star I was looking for—I really do loathe recasting this late.”

 

“Stubborn girl,” Phantom hissed.  “You think feigning ignorance will stop our plan?  Outwitting a master tactician such as myself is well beyond your limited ability!”

 

“I’ll tell you what happened to them,” Sonia said, “but first, let Luna go.  There’s no reason for her to be involved in this!”

 

Hyde grinned.  “Isn’t there?  A death on one’s conscious can be a marvelous motivator.”

 

“That’s the pinnacle of lazy writing,” Lyra said.

 

With a growl, Hyde spread his arms wide.  A black claw shot out from his chest, slashing Sonia before retracting back and disappearing.

 

“Harp Note, don’t worry about me!” Luna said.  “I know you can beat him, just—“

 

Hyde thrust his cane into the antenna, narrowly missing her head.  “That’s quite enough out of you.”

 

He put a hand over his face.  “…This was supposed to be such a simple performance.  How did it get so out of control?”

 

Turning back to Sonia, he said, “I will ask you one last time.  Where are the OOParts?”

 

Sonia struggled to her feet.  She tried to give an answer, but the burning pain only grew stronger.

 

“Very well.”

 

Hyde slowly moved forward, dramatically raising one hand.

 

“Alas, your sacrifice shall not be in vain.  With your defeat, I shall prove my power and worth; and, combined with the threat of my hostage, I should have all that I need to convince one of your friends to tell me what I need to know.”

 

Sonia fought to stay standing.  No…

 

Hyde drew back his cane.  “Any final words?  Or are you ready for the curtain to fall?”

 

She glared at him defiantly.  “I won’t let you…hurt Luna…”

 

“Heh, heh, heh.  Shouldn’t you be more worried about yourself right now?”

 

“Just get out of here!” Luna shouted.

 

“No!” Sonia yelled.  An orange aura began to emanate from her.  “I won’t…leave you behind…!”

 

Hyde took one step back.  “And…what is this?  This wasn’t in rehearsal.”

 

Sonia grabbed her head.  The pain was only growing, as if she was falling headlong into an abyss.  She felt as if she would go mad from the agony, but she refused to give in, not when Luna was in danger.  Mustering her strength, she raised her guitar, and the aura around he grew larger.  She glared straight through Hyde.

 

Get away from her!”

 

The orange aura suddenly turned green as it exploded outward.  Hyde pulled his cape up to shield himself, and Luna shut her eyes tightly.  Intense winds rushed around them for a minute, but eventually the air grew still and the green light faded away, so they both looked at Sonia to see what had become of her.

 

Her torso was covered in black cloth and green armor resembling a combat vest, with two narrow plates on her outer forearms; larger, more angular plates protected her upper legs, which were covered in more black that gave way to brown material with a stripe pattern near her ankles.  Her face was covered by a black mask, and her helmet had disappeared.  Her hair was now pulled up into a bun, held securely in place by a green comb molded into the shape of three shuriken lined up next to each other.  More shuriken decorated her belt.  Her scarf had turned red and grown a bit larger, while her boots had become raised platforms resembling geta, and when she looked at Hyde he now suddenly felt an unearthly sense of terror forming in the back of his mind.

 

“W…what on earth are you?!” he cried.

 

Sonia examined her new instrument: the body was square in shape, and though the neck had not changed much the head was narrower and sported three cylinders (two on one side, one on the other).

 

“…Lyra?”

 

“I’m here, dear,” she replied.

 

“I don’t feel any pain.  Do you?”

 

“None at all.  It would seem the Tuner has completed its work.”

 

Sonia let out a loud sigh.  “Good.  Then that means…”

 

She glared at Hyde once more.  He jumped.

 

“We can use this power to send him running!”

 

Holding her instrument, she lifted one hand high and brought it down on the strings.  Hyde readied himself to dodge.  The wind picked up slightly…and then ceased.

 

Sonia frowned.  She strummed the instrument again.  Again, only a light wind was called.

 

Hyde’s body relaxed.  With a smirk, he asked, “…Is that all…?”

 

 “…What?  Th-this doesn’t make any sense…”

 

“Hyde,” Phantom said.  “That form looks just like the Ninja Tribe!  And that aura from before…this girl, somehow, she must have absorbed the OOParts!”

 

Hyde scratched his chin.  “Is that so?  My word, what a reckless heroine we have!”

 

Sonia continued her attempts, but they were all fruitless.  “No, it should—it should be doing more than this, I don’t…”

 

“I must admit, I’m impressed,” Hyde said.  “To think you could harness the OOParts like this…”

 

Running his hand through the breeze, he corrected, “Well, perhaps I shouldn’t be too impressed, heh, heh, heh.  Regardless, my question was answered in the end.  Now, all I have to do is recover the artifacts.”

 

Sonia looked up at him, her fingers shaking.  Lyra was at a total loss for words.

 

Why isn’t this form working?!

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter 4

 

 

Luna winced as Sonia was knocked back by a strike from Hyde’s cane.  She struggled to free herself to no avail.

 

“Please, stop hurting her!”

 

Sonia got to her feet and backed up.  Hyde suddenly appeared behind her, spinning and generating a shockwave.  She was able to leap out of the way—drawing one of the shuriken from her belt, she threw it, but Hyde deflected it with his cane and wagged his finger.

 

“Ah ah ah!” he scolded.  “You really mustn’t be so careless.  In my desperation to defend myself, I might accidentally knock one of those toys right into my dear hostage.”

 

Sonia looked frantically to Luna.  While she was distracted, a clawed hand knocked her into the Wave Road.

 

“I don’t understand!” she said.  “We transformed!  Shouldn’t we be able to use the OOParts’ power now?”

 

“It would seem there’s more to it than that,” Lyra growled.

 

Sonia blocked the cane and threw a punch.  Hyde effortlessly glided away, his laughter drowning out her frustrated shout.

 

Luna bit her lip.  “I wish there was some way I could help her, but…”

 

There was a snapping sound and she stumbled forward.  Looking down, she found that the ropes holding her had been cut through.

 

“What?”

 

She turned.  Someone was emerging from behind the antenna, a floating being made of purple energy.  Luna’s heart skipped a beat.

 

“Ophiuca?!”

 

The FM-ian drifted backward.  “Please don’t fret.  I am not here to hurt you.”

 

Luna gaped at her for a moment.  When the shock passed, she asked, “Did you…free me?”

 

“Yes, that was me.  Forgive the delay, but it was difficult to get close with that horrid man hovering over you.”

 

Luna unconsciously took another step back.  “But why?  And what are you doing here?”

 

“I’ll be happy to answer your questions, but I think there are more pressing issues.”

 

Sonia grunted as she was knocked towards the edge of the Wave Road.

 

Ophiuca faced the battle as she said, “You should get some place safe for the time being—it really would be unfortunate if you were to be caught in the crossfire.”

 

She started forward.  Luna called, “Wait!  Are you going to help her?”

 

“Hm?  Of course.  I too want to have a word with her, and I’m rather frustrated this upstart cut the line.”

 

Hyde faded away as Sonia swung her instrument, reappearing to pin her with his cane.

 

Luna asked, “Can you really help her?”

 

Ophiuca paused.  “…He does seem rather troublesome, I suppose, and Harp Note appears to be crippled at the moment.  It is not ideal, but I believe I can tip the balance.”

 

She made another move to join the fight, but Luna said, “Hold on.”

 

“Luna, you can see that she’s in danger, this really isn’t the time for delays.”

 

“Shut up!  Do you think...”

 

She hesitated.  Taking another look at Sonia, she swallowed hard and said, “You’re more powerful with a partner, right?”

 

Ophiuca stared at her.  “…It would be improper of me to ask that of you.”

 

“Then I’m offering!”

 

“Are you certain?  After what happened last time, I didn’t imagine you’d be so quick to trust me.”

 

“I definitely don’t trust you!  But…I want to help Sonia, so…”

 

She reluctantly held out her Star Carrier.  Ophiuca watched her a moment longer, and then slowly reached out and set her hand on the terminal.  “You humans continue to amaze.”

 

Meanwhile, Sonia was doing her best to endure a flurry of blows.  She had already been driven to her knees, and each hit only stung more than the last—Hyde laughed at her as he continued his assault.  He stopped abruptly and took a step back.  Sonia slumped, unable to strike back.

 

“How karmic,” Hyde mused.  “You sought to take the OOParts for yourself, to make the ancient power of Mu your own, and that selfishness was your undoing in the end.”

 

“I didn’t do this on purpose,” Sonia breathed.

 

“Oh, of course not.  Heh, heh, heh.”

 

He raised his cane.  “It is time for Mu’s blessing to be returned to its font!”

 

Before he could swing, something hit him in the back—he let out a brief yelp as his body went stiff.  Seeing an opportunity, Sonia drew a shuriken and leapt forward, jamming it directly into Hyde’s midsection.  Her foe regained enough mobility to stumble around a bit, and then faded out of view to recover.  Sonia looked to see who had come to her aid, and Luna—or rather, Queen Ophiuca slithered towards her.

 

“Sonia, are you alright?”

 

After a short silence, she shook her head.  “…How hard was I hit?”

 

“Forgive the sudden appearance, Sonia, Lyra,” Ophiuca said.  “But given the circumstances, I hope you don’t mind if I lend a helping hand.”

 

“A helping hand?” Lyra repeated.  “From you?  That is sudden.”

 

Hyde reappeared nearby, clutching his stomach.  “And just what do you think you’re doing?  This isn’t in the script!  A last-minute rescue doesn’t fit this genre!”

 

“More FM-ian filth!” Phantom spat.  “I should’ve known they’d come crawling out of the woodwork to ruin my glorious plan!”

 

Hyde brandished his cane.  Luna asked, “Sonia, can you still fight?”

 

“Y-Yeah, uh, sure,” Sonia stuttered, standing back up.  Her gaze lingered on Luna a bit before she finally turned to Hyde and readied her shuriken.

 

Hyde teleported behind them and spun around.  Sonia jumped clear of the shockwave while Luna was able to lean out of the way, thrusting one hand towards him.  Snakes sprang up and coiled around Hyde’s legs, tripping him, and Sonia took advantage of the opening to fill him with throwing stars.  Hyde eventually pulled free, and Luna immediately sent him flying with her eye beams.  Hyde sent a claw from his chest as soon as he recovered.  The girls easily avoided it and flanked him; he was able to deflect Sonia’s shuriken, but more snakes slipped in under his guard.  Moving to the top of the antenna, he glared down as he tore the creatures free.

 

“Curses,” Phantom grumbled.  “This plan is through.  We must retreat for now, Hyde.”

 

“What?!  But the Lady’s orders were to—“

 

“It is not necessary to remind me!  We know where the OOParts are, that will have to be enough for now.  I was not made for combat!”

 

Hyde made a fist.  “…Will she accept that answer…?”

 

“Retreat, you fool!  If you do not, then I shall leave you to your fate!”

 

With a grunt, Hyde unfurled his cape.  “Very well.  The day is yours, heroine!  I will call upon you for an encore soon enough, and when that time comes, I vow that I will reclaim the OOParts you have stolen!”

 

With that, he vanished.  After waiting a minute to see if he would reappear, Sonia and Luna sighed in relief.

 

“That’s that, I suppose,” Ophiuca said.  “Why don’t we get down from here?”

 

Sonia and Luna silently made their way down the Wave Road to the base of the tower.  When they touched down, Ophiuca immediately separated from Luna and floated off a short distance.

 

“Thank you for your assistance, Luna.  I imagine it would have taken a bit longer to run him off using my own power.”

 

“Consider us even,” Luna muttered.  She turned to Sonia and tentatively reached out.

 

Deactivating her Wave Change, Sonia said, “I’m fine.  How about you?  He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

 

“No, he didn’t.  But Sonia, what happened?  What was that weird form, and why wasn’t it helping you?”

 

Sonia rubbed her neck.  “Well…first off.”

 

Turning to Ophiuca, she said, “What are you doing here, Ophiuca?  Nobody’s heard from you in two whole years—if you’re approaching us now, then there must be a reason.”

 

“Oh there is, but it may not be quite as grand as you’re hoping,” Ophiuca said.  “You see, after you defeated Andromeda, I was quite impressed.  Amazed, in fact.  You took on something we all thought to be invincible and defeated it with this ‘power of relationships’ humans value so much.  Naturally I became curious.  I decided to remain on Earth and observe for a time—see what I could find out about how this power works.  My conclusion…”

 

She shrugged.  “I still don’t understand it.”

 

Sonia frowned.  “Oh.  I’m sorry to hear that.”

 

“Despite the challenge, I haven’t been totally discouraged yet.  I thought perhaps I could learn more from a closer look, possibly from someone with a reputation for having mastered this power.  You seemed the most logical choice.  I’ve been poking around for a while now, trying to find the right moment to approach.”

 

“I see,” Lyra said.  “Then I take it the unidentified EM being NAZA warned us about would be you?”

 

Ophiuca chuckled.  “I know this may sound hypocritical, but they’re awfully nosy, aren’t they?  They tried so hard to locate me whenever I set off one of their sensors—I certainly never intended to drag them in circles like this.  Oh well.”

 

“Hang on,” Luna said, “what is it you’re saying?  You want to learn from Sonia?  Does that mean…you want to be a part of our group?”

 

“For a while, at least.  If you’ll have me.  I was sure no one would be thrilled at the idea of taking me in, but hopefully I’ve demonstrated that I mean you no harm.”

 

“How fortunate it is for you that this emergency arose,” Lyra said.

 

“Are you accusing me?”

 

“Not necessarily.”

 

“I assure you I have nothing to do with that man and whatever he was going on about.  Mu, was it?  And I was looking into other ways to gain your favor, this situation just happened to present itself.”

 

Luna turned to Sonia.  “What do you think?  She did help us out, but…still…”

 

“This could be a long game she’s playing,” Lyra quietly finished.

 

Sonia watched Ophiuca as she considered her options.  Her first instinct was that they should give her a chance.  However, she then felt a sense of reluctance start to form, possibly from what Lyra had said.  No, the more she thought about it, it wasn’t so much that she expected Ophiuca to be plotting something.  It felt more like…resentment.

 

Why do I feel that way?

 

Sonia looked down, suddenly feeling very uneasy.

 

“Um…I guess we could give it a try,” she ultimately decided.  “I mean, if you’re okay with that, Luna.”

 

Luna closed her eyes.  “Hmm…well… I guess the FM-ians are our allies now.  Just don’t expect me to roll out the red carpet.”

 

“No, that’s okay, whatever you want.”

 

Luna opened one eye.

 

“Thank you so much!” Ophiuca said, clapping her hands together.  “Truly, I’m ecstatic!  You won’t regret this decision.”

 

“See that we don’t,” Lyra mumbled.

 

Sonia nodded jerkily.  “Okay.  There’s still some specifics we’ll need to work out, but I think we should go check on the others first.  I want to compare notes and see if we can figure out what’s going on.”

 

***

 

Her eyes combed over the people sitting around the dark blue table in the NAZA control room.  Geo and Bud sat across from her, Mega and Taurus floating just behind them; Luna sat at her left side while Lyra hovered around her right, and Ophiuca was keeping a noticeable distance; at the head of the table was Boreal, his gaze fixed on the surface in front of him as he tried to sort his thoughts.

 

“…So,” he finally said.  “It seems we’re probably going to have a few more incidents in the near future.”

 

“W-Well, it’s not so bad!” Bud offered.  “Whenever they show up again, we’ll just pound ‘em again!”

 

“That’s right!” Taurus said.  “Those viruses were super-weak—whoever’s spitting them out can’t be that tough!  Mrrgh!”

 

“And how long can you keep that up?” Ophiuca asked.

 

“As long as we need to!” Mega replied.  “What’s wrong, don’t have any faith in us?”

 

“I am only saying that they will keep coming.  Again, and again—as many times as necessary until they get what they want, or you can find a way to shut down their operations.”

 

“She’s right,” Geo said.  “We need to figure out what it is these people want.  Maybe there’s a way they can get it without anyone else getting hurt.  You said he wanted the OOParts, and he kept mentioning Mu?”

 

Sonia nodded.  “That’s right.  He said the OOParts were the real target of the museum attack, and that he was going to take them back…or something like that.”

 

“’Return Mu’s blessing to its font’,” Lyra recalled.  “Rather cryptic, but it seems he wishes to take the OOParts to Mu.”

 

Boreal ran a hand through his hair.  “That’s crazy.  He actually thinks Mu exists?”

 

“It may be real, or someone may just be using the name.  Regardless of the truth, our enemies are convinced the OOParts are connected to their goal, and they know that Sonia and I have them.”

 

Sonia fidgeted.

 

“It’ll be alright,” Luna said.  “Harp Note’s tackled bigger threats than this!  If they show up again, you can just hold them off until you work things out with them, like you always do!”

 

With an awkward smile, Sonia said, “Y-Yeah, I guess.”

 

Luna gave her a curious look, but Sonia quickly turned away.

 

“We won’t be holding them off for long unless we get the hang of this transformation,” Lyra said.  “It really is bizarre.  We could feel another power running through us, but we just weren’t able to utilize it.”

 

“I don’t remember you having any trouble before,” Mega said.

 

“No,” Sonia said.  “When the Star Force forms activated, I just sort of knew how to work them.  Besides, they were pretty straight-forward, for the most part.  But this time…I don’t know.  Maybe there’s some sort of trick to it?”

 

Geo thought for a moment.  “You said you had a different instrument?”

 

Sonia nodded.  Lyra added, “I believe I also heard Phantom compare us to the Ninja Tribe.”

 

“Maybe we should take a closer look at the Lost Tribes then,” Geo suggested.  “If you were using the Ninja Tribe’s power, then that instrument must be one that they used.”

 

“And if I learn more about it, I might learn more about this power in the process,” Sonia finished.  “That sounds like it’s worth a shot.”

 

“Great!” Luna interjected.  “We’ll start looking right away.  I’ll call Zack—he’s bound to have some useful information.”

 

“That’d be great, thank you!”

 

As Luna left the room, Ophiuca said, “In the meantime, I feel I should ask just for clarity.  You have no problems with me being around?”

 

Boreal shook his head.  “Earth and Planet FM are allies.  There isn’t anything unusual about your being here.”

 

Ophiuca inclined her head.  Mega grunted, “Still, this is one we might want to be careful with.”

 

She chuckled.  “I consider your caution a compliment, Omega-Xis.  But really, I have nothing to gain from sabotaging you now.  All I want to do is observe.”

 

“Mrrgh…observe, huh?” Taurus said.  “Any plans to jump in if things get rough?”

 

“Haven’t I already shown that I will, if necessary?”

 

“’If necessary’, she says,” Mega said.

 

“Come on, guys, be nice,” Geo said.

 

“Yeah,” Bud said, “between the three of us we might not even need any more help anyway!  Everything’s gonna be fine.”

 

Lyra rolled her eyes.  She met Ophiuca’s gaze for just a moment, and then withdrew into Sonia’s guitar.  Ophiuca merely shrugged.

 

“Anyway, I think we’re going to have to be a lot more careful,” Boreal said.  “There’s no telling when these people could try to attack any of you.  I think it’d be best if we assigned a few Satella Officers to keep you safe.”

 

Geo shifted.  “I don’t know if that’s really necessary.  If something comes up, we’ll handle it—no need to make a big fuss.”

 

“I know you’re all very capable, but if they surprise you that might be irrelevant.  They could have more of those eye devices that generate portals.  With those, it’d be too easy to sneak around.”

 

Bud shivered.  “Um, when you put it like that, maybe we should get a little back-up.  Don’t you think?”

 

Sonia looked up.  “Huh?  Oh, uh, maybe, I don’t know.”

 

Boreal stood.  “You don’t have to decide right this second.  I’ll give you some time to recover, but I think we should determine what we’re going to do before you leave.  I’m going to go see if our analysts have discovered anything—feel free to come find me whenever you’re ready.”

 

He left, and seconds later Luna came back into the room.  “Hey, look at this!”

 

Sitting back down beside Sonia, she continued, “I talked to Zack; he looked through this book about Ninjas he has and was able to find a page talking about trends people had observed in their music.  Apparently they had this instrument, a shamisen, and the picture looked just like what you were using earlier.  Here, see?”

 

She held out her Star Carrier so Sonia could take a look.  The image bore a striking resemblance to the instrument that had appeared in her hands during the fight.

 

“Zack said the book says they were known for playing these really quickly—each note was so fast it was like they were all one continuous sound.  Maybe that’s what you need to do?  Just play really fast?”

 

Sonia smiled.  “This is great!  Thanks, Luna.  I think you’ve got it figured out!”

 

Luna tilted her head a bit.

 

“Well, I’m not sure it’s quite that simple,” Lyra said, “but you’ve certainly given us a place to start.”

 

Bud raised his hand.  “Hey, so I’ve been thinking: the Museum Guide said the Ninja Tribe settled here in Electopia, right?  Even if the Tribe is gone, I’m sure someone around here still knows how to play that instrument.  We’ve just gotta look for someone.”

 

“Maybe,” Sonia said.  “I’ll do some research and see if I can find anyone.”

 

She sighed.  “For now, maybe we should all get some rest.  I’ll tell Mr. Boreal to hold off on the Satella guards for now.”

 

As everyone said their goodbyes and started to leave, Luna grabbed Sonia’s arm.  “Hey, are you okay?”

 

“Yeah, definitely!  Sorry, did I do something to worry you?”

 

“No, not exactly, it’s just…”

 

Sonia waited.

 

“…No, nevermind.”

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“Yeah, don’t worry about it.”

 

Sonia smiled and went off.  Luna stood there for a moment, lost in thought until Ophiuca cleared her throat.

 

“Not to be rude, but ah…where shall I be staying?”

 

***

 

Hyde bowed before the curtain, saying, “I am deeply sorry, my Lady.  I humbly beg your forgiveness.”

 

“With all due respect, I stand by my decision,” Phantom said.  “We know where the Sacred Artifacts are.  If we had continued to battle, we certainly would have been overwhelmed.”

 

Hollow stood deathly still nearby, empty eyes fixed on Hyde.  “But you were not even willing to try.”

 

Hyde gritted his teeth.  “I was, I assure you!  Phantom’s the one who—“

 

“Enough,” the woman ordered.  All were silent.  “Phantom, do you believe this girl has all three missing Artifacts?”

 

“She must have the Shuriken, that much is clear,” Phantom replied.  “We were told she was holding them all when they disappeared, so it stands to reason the other two are in her possession as well.”

 

“Allow me another chance to prove myself!” Hyde said.  “I know who they are now—I can track them down and strike them at their most vulnerable!”

 

“We shall do no such thing!” the woman said.  Hyde recoiled at her words.  “There is no cause for cruelty, Hyde.  Please restrain yourself.”

 

Hyde looked down and nodded.

 

“…Harp Note.  How very interesting.  A human and an FM-ian, able to make use of Murian power…she sounds like someone with exceptional potential.  Let us give her time.  I wish to see if she can master her new abilities.”

 

“As you wish,” Hollow said.

 

“But our plan requires the Artifacts!” Phantom protested.  “If you allow her to hold them, we will not be able to restore Mu!”

 

“Obviously we will still find a way to accomplish our goal,” she said.  “But we have yet to even locate Mu—there is ample time.  And I would be most remiss in preventing someone with great talent to develop.”

 

 

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Chapter 5

 

 

Sonia sat on a couch in the gold-walled, blue-carpeted hotel lobby with a shamisen in her hands, rapidly plucking the strings to produce a furious series of notes.  She felt a small burn in her chest, but not strong enough to disable her—it actually felt encouraging, like the music was resonating deep in her soul.

 

“You’re quite the fast learner,” Lyra complimented.  “Considering what we were able to do after just a few lessons, I almost feel sorry for the viruses we practice on next.”

 

Sonia let the instrument fall into her lap.  “It’s not that different from what I’m used to, plus I’ve got plenty of motivation.”

 

She turned the shamisen over.  “…You know, I wish circumstances were better, but it is nice to learn a new instrument, and a new style of playing.”

 

“You have been eager to expand your musical abilities for some time.  I’m glad you have the chance to do so, even if it was a bit of a pain getting that chance.”

 

Sonia sighed.  “Yeah.  Once we’re done here, we should probably try figuring out how the others work before they activate randomly.”

 

Lyra laughed.

 

“I still can’t believe we had that much trouble.  Some heroine I turned out to be.”

 

“Don’t be like that dear.  The script was wretched.  A writer of that caliber simply can’t do Harp Note justice.”

 

“Hah.  I’d like it if that was all…”

 

Lyra paused.  “What’s wrong, dear?”

 

“…Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened, and…I guess I’m worried that maybe—“

 

Before she could finish, Luna stepped off a tube-like elevator next to the indoor waterfall.  Sonia leapt to her feet.

 

“H-Hi!” she said as the other girl approached.

 

“How’s the practice coming?” Luna asked.

 

“Great!  Really great!  If Dark Phantom shows up again, I’ll be able to knock him flat this time!”

 

Luna slowly nodded.  “Oh…that’s good.”

 

“So, have you been enjoying the resort?”

 

“Yeah, it’s been wonderful.  When you found a teacher up here I didn’t think you’d offer to bring us all along.”

 

“Every time we’ve tried to have fun as a group something has come up, so I thought this seemed like a good opportunity to try again.”

 

“Fingers crossed.”

 

Sonia giggled and scratched her head.

 

“And how are you, Ophiuca?” Lyra asked.

 

“I’m adjusting, I suppose,” Ophiuca replied.  “It’s strange seeing this much technology devoted to pure recreation.  This weather control system here is remarkably refined, yet is only used to create snow?  You seem to have your EM viruses under control, but my word, there are so many things that could go wrong.”

 

Luna rolled her eyes.  “You’re still focusing on the wrong things.”

 

“As I said, I’m still adjusting.  I’ve noticed that these recreational activities seem to be involved in relationships somehow, though I’m still working out the details.”

 

“Well, there isn’t really much to it,” Sonia said.  “Friends just enjoy spending time together.”

 

Turning to Luna, she said, “Um, speaking of which, did you want to do some skiing later?”

 

“I don’t know if later will work,” Luna said.  “I was coming to tell you that Bud’s entering an eating contest this afternoon, and he invited everyone to come watch.”

 

“Oh.  Yeah, I’ll be there!”

 

Luna nodded.  “Maybe we could ski tomorrow, if you have time.”

 

“Yeah, that sounds great!”

 

Shifting her weight, Luna said, “Hey, why don’t you show me what you’ve been learning?  I don’t think I’ve heard one of these before.”

 

“Sure thing,” Sonia said, sitting down and picking up the shamisen.  “It’s not perfect just yet, but here goes…”

 

She resumed playing as Luna sat down across from her.  After a few seconds, however, someone called, “Hey, cut that out!”

 

Sonia looked up to see the person approaching, and her skin immediately started to crawl.  It was a large man in a red suit, and when he finally recognized her, his face set into an ugly scowl.

 

“My word,” Lyra whispered.  “Where did our luck go wrong?”

 

“Oh, it’s you,” the man said.  “I’d heard you were staying here.”

 

Sonia suppressed the urge to shiver.  “Hello.  It’s been a while.  Are you working here now?”

 

“That’s right.  I had to take up something after you had the nerve to fire me.”

 

Luna glared at him.  “Sonia, who is this?”

 

Gesturing towards him, Sonia said, “Right, Luna, this is Mr. Golds.  He used to be my manager.”

 

Oh,” Luna said, locking eyes with Sonia.

 

Golds grunted.  “I came over here because you’re making too much noise.  This is the lobby—if you want to play, stick to your room!”

 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb anyone,” Sonia said as politely as possible.  “I won’t cause any more trouble.”

 

“Huh, that’s hard to believe.”

 

Luna stood up.  “Now see here!  If this really is your job, then you need to at least try to be professional about it!   Some bad history is no reason to be rude to your patrons!”

 

Golds let out a short laugh.  “Excuse me?  Listen here, girl, if you—“

 

A tap on his shoulder made him spin around.  Standing behind him was a tall, middle-aged man in a brown trench coat.  He had black hair, and there was a peculiar antenna sitting on top of his head.

 

“Is there a problem here?”

 

Sonia smiled a little.  “No, officer.  This hotel employee was just informing me that I was causing a bit of a disturbance.”

 

Golds cleared his throat.  “Uh, y-yes, that’s all.  Now, I really must be going, if you don’t mind; lots to do, setting up for the eating contest and whatnot.  Pardon me!”

 

As he scurried away, Sonia said, “Thanks for stepping in, Mr. Copper.”

 

“The nerve of that man!” Luna said.  “Hmph!  Can we find some reason to arrest him, just for a little while?”

 

Copper chuckled.  “I’m afraid that would be a misuse of my authority.  But if something presents itself, believe me, I’ll be happy to take him in.”

 

Luna huffed.

 

“Have you gotten a chance to enjoy yourself yet?” Sonia said.  “I know you were sent to keep an eye on us, but I’d hate it if we dragged you to a resort to do nothing but work.”

 

Copper waved his hand.  “Don’t be concerned—my job is all the enjoyment I need.”

 

“Well, if you say so.  Anything to report?”

 

“Nothing substantial.  Though, I’ve been asking around, and I’ve found some strange rumors being circulated.”

 

Glancing over, Luna asked, “Rumors?  What do you mean?”

 

Looking over some data on his Star Carrier, Copper explained, “It seems there have been numerous accidents at the resort lately.  No one has received any serious injuries—primarily it has only been damage to resort property—but people have become a bit spooked by the trend.”

 

Sonia surveyed the lobby.  “I thought this place seemed a little empty.”

 

Copper put away his Carrier.  “I’m looking into it.  You should probably be a little cautious, but again, I wouldn’t say it’s anything to worry too much about.”

 

“Understood,” Luna said.  “Thank you for the warning.”

 

“Well, I’m going to go patrol the grounds.  Just give me a call if you need me!”

 

Sonia waved as he left.  Luna crossed her arms and said, “Mr. Boreal really doesn’t trust us to watch after ourselves, does he?”

 

“He’s just worried,” Sonia said.  “This new threat has him on edge, and I’m…not at my best.  At least I was able to talk him down to one officer.”

 

“Lyra,” Ophiuca asked, “I believe I am missing some context.  What exactly is a ‘manager’ here?”

 

Lyra smirked.  “In this case, it refers to an obnoxious, self-serving, materialistic oaf who is reluctant to let go of control that isn’t rightfully his in the first place.”

 

“That sounds dreadful.”

 

“There’s more to it, but I think the whole story should be saved for later.  I’ll prepare a summary for you.”

 

Luna sat down next to Sonia.  She glared at nothing in particular for a time, but soon her face relaxed.  “…Hey, Sonia?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“You…um…” She hesitated, and then finally said, “Well, are you still comfortable staying here?  With your old manager around?”

 

“Oh, him?  Don’t worry, I can handle it.”

 

“But for you to fire him, he must have been extremely aggravating.  You’ve told me a lot already, and even just from that, I’m ready to hit him over the head myself.  Doesn’t his being here make you uncomfortable?”

 

Sonia folded her hands.  “…A little.  Partly because of how infuriating he is, and partly…well, it’s the only time I’ve fired anyone, and…”

 

Luna leaned towards her.  “Wait, you’re not having second thoughts, are you?”

 

“No, no, it’s just…”

 

“You did rehire him when you came out of retirement,” Lyra pointed out.

 

“Yeah, but I’m not going to do that now!  Back then…I didn’t know how easy it would be to get back into singing, and I also thought I should at least give him a second chance.”

 

Luna squinted.  “I get the feeling you’re still thinking you should give him another chance.”

 

Sonia avoided eye contact.  “No, I just—I mean, I just wonder if maybe I was a little hasty, and, you know, I want to believe anyone can improve…”

 

“Just remember: he was in charge of the Cyber City show.”

 

Sonia groaned and pulled her hood over her face.  “Ugh, you’re right, you’re right, that’s a mistake I do not want to make again!”

 

Luna nodded and grinned.  “That’s what Brothers are for!”

 

“Haha…yeah…”

 

Pushing her hood back, Sonia smiled at Luna and added, “What would I do without you?”

 

Surprised, Luna blushed.  “Huh?”

 

Sonia frowned suddenly.  She started to get up, saying, “Sorry, uh, I was just…I just remembered, I need to go take care of something.  Uh, I’ll see you later?  At the contest?”

 

Luna was still too stunned to reply, so Sonia just nodded and made for the elevator.

 

***

 

The terrace behind the hotel was a massive outdoor food court, its perimeter packed with one stand after another all offering their own unique tastes for the patrons to sample.  At the moment, however, the crowd filling the square had their attention focused on the large grill at its center, currently filled with a sea of hamburgers that covered its entire face and spilled out onto the table encircling it.  About two dozen people were seated along the table, each eagerly eyeing the food before them.

 

Bud pounded the table, declaring, “Alright!  Time to win this thing!”

 

Ophiuca rested her face against one hand.  “…I still don’t understand.”

 

Taurus grunted.  “Mrrrgh!  It’s not that complicated, it’s just a competition!”

 

“Yes, obviously.  But an eating competition?  I thought the humans ate in order to consume the energy they need to function?  Why do they want to compete to see who can process the most in a limited span of time?”

 

“Why do any competition?  It’s to see who’s the best!  And this time, it’s definitely going to be Bud!”

 

“Go get ‘em, Bud!” Mega cheered.  “No one knows how to eat like you do!”

 

Ophiuca shook her head.  Lyra said, “Your critical error is that you’re overthinking it, dear.  Just accept it, and settle in.”

 

“You look nervous, Bud,” Sonia said.

 

Bud scoffed.  “Nervous?  I’m just hungry!  I skipped breakfast to give myself an edge!”

 

“Did you really need to?”

 

“Well, maybe not.  But I’m here to go all out!  Bring it on!”

 

A member of the hotel staff walked out in front of the grill.  “Thanks for coming out here, folks!  We’re just waiting on a few more contestants, and then we can get the contest underway!”

 

Bud tapped his fingers on the table.  “Who else are they waiting on?  If they weren’t prepared enough to get here early, then they’ve got no chance!”

 

Someone ran up to the staff member: a tan girl with brown hair that fell to the sides of her face and also formed a geyser-like ponytail at the top of her head, wearing orange and yellow skirted skiwear and a large yellow headband.  After exchanging a few words, she walked over and took a seat next to Bud.

 

“Hey there!” she greeted with a bright smile.

 

“Oh, hi,” Bud said.  “You know…you look kind of familiar…”

 

“You a fan of skiing?”

 

“Sort of, I really only…”

 

His eyes went wide.  “Hold on!  You’re Amy Gelande!”

 

The girl nodded.  “Yep, that’s me.”

 

“No way!  It’s so great to meet you—I’m a huge fan!  Are you here to practice for the national competition in a few months?”

 

“Actually, I live here!  My family owns this hotel, so I like to help out as much as I can.”

 

“Wow!  But, you must practice a bunch too—how do you find time to do both?”

 

Amy’s eyes drifted.  “Oh…I manage…”

 

The staff member cleared their throat.  “Okay, that’s everyone!  Just give us one minute to set out the plates and then we’ll kick things off!”

 

“So, why are you entering this contest?” Bud asked.

 

Amy brightened up again.  “You kidding?  I love these contests!  I enter whenever I can!”

 

“Really?  I never would’ve guessed.”

 

Amy chuckled.  “That’s my biggest advantage.”

 

Bud’s eyes widened.  She’s serious…

 

A staff member came by and set a plate piled with hamburgers in front of each of them.  Rubbing his hands together, Bud gave one last look to Amy.  “May the best eater win!”

 

Amy cracked her knuckles.  “Agreed!”

 

The announcer raised one hand.  “Okay everyone!  On your mark…get set…begin!”

 

The contestants immediately dug in, tearing into the burgers with blazing speed.  Bud’s hands were empty for only a second at a time as he devoured one after another.  Amy moved at the same pace, and in the blink of an eye, both had cleaned their first plate.

 

“Go Bud!” Geo and Pat cheered as they pressed onward.

 

Ophiuca moaned.  “Ugh…how do they move that fast?”

 

By the time Bud and Amy made it to their fourth plates, contestants started giving up.  Slowly, the number of participants dwindled, but the two of them kept up their ferocious eating.

 

“Come on, Bud, you’ve got this!” Luna called.

 

“Woo!” Zack yelled.  “Way to go, Bud!”

 

The chefs worked quickly to replenish the stock of burgers as fast as they were being consumed.  Their job became somewhat easier with each surrender, but Bud and Amy alone were enough to keep them on their toes.  They were up to seven plates now.  A few other contestants were still pushing, but it soon became too much for them, and they had no choice but to quit.

 

“Amazing!” the announcer said.  “It looks like this contest has come down to a one-on-one battle!  It’s a race to the finish between contestant 1, our own Amy Gelande, and contestant 10, Bud Bison!”

 

The crowd cheered for Amy.  Glaring around, Luna said, “Don’t lose your focus, Bud!  We all know you’re going to win!”

 

The others joined her in shouting encouragements, and Bud felt a surge of motivation.  He was halfway through his eighth plate, and he noticed Amy was only a quarter of the way through hers.

 

I’m pulling ahead!

 

He tore through the rest of his plate with renewed strength.  As he began on his ninth plate, however, he suddenly felt very sluggish.  Worse than that, he realized he felt full.

 

“Uh-oh,” Zack said.  “Looks like how much he’s eaten has finally caught up to him!”

 

Bud continued to eat, but his pace slowed dramatically.  He managed to clear the plate, and a tenth was brought before him—Amy was just finishing up the last few burgers on her ninth.  He grabbed a burger and bit into it.  His mouth was tired from chewing.

 

No way!

 

Bud pulled a bite off of the burger and took a deep breath.  Looking at the mountain of burgers still before him, he swayed, and ultimately slumped against the table.  His friends gasped in disbelief.

 

“Contestant 10 is down!” the announcer called.

 

Bud groaned and looked up.  A tenth plate was brought to Amy; she ate two burgers from it, and then picked up her napkin and lightly wiped her mouth.

 

“Continuing her winning streak, Amy Gelande is the victor!  But what a close match!  Let’s hear it for them, folks!”

 

The crowd cheered.  Zack reached Bud first, shaking him by the shoulders.  “Bud?  Are you okay?”

 

“D-Don’t shake me, please,” Bud mumbled.

 

“Mrrrgh!” Taurus grunted.  “This is impossible!  How could Bud lose in an eating contest?”

 

Geo helped Bud up.  “That was intense.  You did a great job, Bud!”

 

Amy stood up and walked towards them.  Bud managed a smile as he looked up at her.

 

“I’ve never had such a challenge!” she said.  “You’re a league above everyone else here.  Usually I’ve won by seven plates.”

 

Bud chuckled.  “I never thought I’d lose…you’re really something else.”

 

Amy grinned.  “Hey, how long are you going to be staying here?  I’d love to go skiing with you if you have time.”

 

“R-Really?!  I’d be honored!  I’ve got time whenever!”

 

He tried to stand, but only succeeded in knocking Geo off-balance and collapsing back into his chair.

 

“How about tomorrow?” Amy said.

 

“Right, tomorrow!  I’m looking forward to it!”

 

With a nod, Amy headed off.  Bud stared after her, thinking, Wow…

 

“What happened?!” Luna asked.  “You’re not feeling sick, are you?”

 

“I think he just hit his limit,” Pat said.  “It’s definitely weird, though.  I never knew he had one.”

 

“Sorry, Prez,” Bud said.

 

Luna sighed.  “No, you don’t have to apologize.  You tried your best, right?  And that girl said you were able to push her further than anyone else.  You might not have won, but you still accomplished a lot.”

 

“Haha…thanks, Prez.”

 

Luna nodded, and then turned to Sonia, who was edging away.  “Where are you going?”

 

Sonia flinched.  “Huh?  Oh, uh, nowhere, I was just…”

 

Luna frowned.  To the others, she said, “Hey, you all stay here and help Bud.”

 

She walked, grabbing Sonia by her hoodie as she passed her.  “Come here.  I want to talk to you.”

 

“Ack!  Okay, okay!” Sonia said.

 

Ophiuca moved to follow, but Lyra said, “Hold it, dear.  I believe it would be best to give them some privacy.”

 

“I merely want to observe.  This has something to do with their relationship, doesn’t it?  I’ve noticed it seems a bit odd.”

 

“Yes, but when people decide to discuss sensitive matters such as this, they generally prefer to do so alone.”

 

“If you insist.”

 

Luna dragged Sonia out of the food court and onto the roof of the hotel entrance.  The area was empty for now, so Luna let go and crossed her arms.

 

“Is something wrong?” Sonia asked.

 

“That’s what I want to know!” Luna said.

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“Enough!  You’ve been acting weird ever since you fought that Phantom guy, and I want an explanation!”

 

Sonia went to the edge of the roof and leaned against the railing there.  “I mean…it’s nothing in particular.  It just kind of frustrated me is all.”

 

Luna came up beside her.  “This seems like a lot more than simple frustration.”

 

Sonia wrung her hands.

 

“Sonia,” Luna said quietly.

 

Sonia smiled sheepishly, looked up, and chuckled.  “I, um…I guess, I’ve just…got a bruised ego.”

 

She leaned further, covering her face.  “It’s embarrassing to admit it.  I haven’t had much challenge since stopping Andromeda, so I guess I let my success go to my head.  I got overconfident in the power of Harp Note, and now, when I’m in legitimate danger again…I can’t win.  It’s humbling.  I’m sorry if I made you worry.”

 

“Well, I wasn’t worried, exactly,” Luna muttered.  “…What you were able to do—beating Andromeda, convincing the FM King to change—it’s no small feat.  You’ve had two years to think about it, so it’s only natural that you’d feel that way.”

 

“But I never could have done that alone.  You and everyone else lent me your strength; if I forget that, then everything I’m trying to do with Planet FM is basically hypocrisy.”

 

Sonia stood up a little straighter.  “…I’ll definitely do better.  I’ll be more careful in the future, to make sure I don’t get cocky.”

 

She smiled at Luna.  “Thank you.”

 

Luna smiled back.  “S-Sure.”

 

Sonia took a few steps away, but then Luna said, “Wait.  Isn’t there more?”

 

Sonia looked over her shoulder.  “Hm?  No, that’s all.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Positive!”

 

Luna walked towards Sonia.  “It’s just…that still doesn’t explain everything.  I feel like you’ve been acting differently towards me, and I still don’t understand why.”

 

“Have I been?  I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”

 

“Sonia.  Just tell me.”

 

Sonia hesitated.

 

“Is it because I was the one there?”

 

“No, no it’s just…I mean, like I said, I was overconfident, so someone saving me just felt weird.  I’m sorry.”

 

She started to leave again.  Luna grabbed her arm and said, “Stop!  If that was all, then I would expect you to be cold towards me, but that hasn’t been the case.  It’s more like you…”

 

After thinking a moment, she grumbled, “I don’t know exactly how to phrase it.  You’ve been…eager to please?  Like you’re worried something you say is going to offend me, I guess?”

 

Sonia looked back at her.  “Well of course I don’t want to offend you!”

 

“But it’s not like you to hold back!  You always tell me what you’re thinking, or give me a hard time just to see if I get flustered, or egg me on a little before you stop to reassure me!  Why aren’t you doing that now?”

 

Sonia shrank back a bit, averting her gaze.

 

“…Do you, maybe…not want to be Brothers anymore?”

 

“That’s not it!”

 

“Then what?”

 

“Luna, please.”

 

“I’m not letting you go until you tell me!”

 

Sonia shut her eyes.  Luna could feel her arm trembling in her grasp.

 

“…I…” she whispered.  “I was worried that…”

 

Luna stepped closer.  “It’s okay.  Please, tell me.”

 

Sonia took a deep breath.  “Do you…still believe in me?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You first started to believe in me…in Harp Note…because she saved you.  So, now that you’ve had to save her, I just wanted to know if…if your feelings might have changed…”

 

Luna stared at her.

 

Sonia wiped her eyes.  “I-It’s stupid, right?  I know better than that, I must be really out of it to even be thinking it.”

 

“I did it again, didn’t I?”

 

“No, it’s not your fault.”

 

Luna nodded.  “Yes, it is.  I made you think I’d only care if you were powerful, just like…”

 

She sighed, taking a moment to collect herself.

 

“…Sonia, I know I don’t say this often, but…I really do care about you.  Not just Harp Note, but you.  I’m just…clumsy, with my feelings—you know.”

 

Sonia nodded.  “I know.”

 

“But still, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t say it.”

 

Looking into Sonia’s eyes, Luna continued, “I’m definitely impressed with your power, but now that I’ve gotten to know you, I know that there’s so much more to you than that.  You’re the kindest, most compassionate person I’ve ever met.  You always try to see the best in people.  You care so much about the value of life, and other people’s feelings, and…you’re the second most stubborn person I know.”

 

Sonia laughed.

 

“I’m sorry.  I care about you just as much now as I did before.  If you ever doubt that again, say something, alright?  And…I’ll try to make it so that you don’t have to.”

 

Sonia nodded, and then pulled herself closer to Luna.  They hugged each other, and she said, “Thank you.  Really…thank you.”

 

When they pulled apart, Sonia said, “So, is this the end of tsundere Luna?”

 

Luna blushed.  “It’s…a plan of gradual reduction…”

 

“Good.  It’d be too weird if you completely stopped!”

 

“Oh, whatever.”

 

 

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Chapter 6

 

 

The wind whipped around Bud as he skied down the hill, trying his best to keep his path steady.  He leaned back and tried to turn, but quickly lost his balance, falling backwards and sliding for what felt like forever before he finally came to a stop.

 

Spitting out snow, he groaned, “Ouch…”

 

“This is tougher than it looks,” Taurus said.

 

“What are you complaining about?  I’m the one doing it!”

 

Amy skied up next to him.  “You alright?”

 

“Yeah, I think so,” Bud said as she helped him stand.  “I never figured skiing would be easy, but I had no idea it’d be this difficult to learn.”

 

“You’re actually doing pretty well for your first time!  Come on, let’s head back up and give it another go.”

 

As they headed for the nearby lift, Bud said, “You probably spend a lot of time on these slopes, huh?”

 

“Just about every chance I get,” Amy said.  “I love it out here.”

 

They boarded the lift.  Amy slumped back into her seat and sighed, prompting Bud to ask, “You okay?  You seem kind of tired.”

 

“Maybe I am a little worn out from organizing the storeroom earlier.  Dad said he had it covered, but I just wanted to make sure it got done, you know?”

 

“Do you do a lot of work like that?”

 

“Of course!  This is my family’s business—it’s my responsibility to do all I can to help out.”

 

“With all that on top of spending so much time skiing, you must be worn out a lot.  I know I would be!”

 

Amy watched the snow move underneath them.  “…I guess.  But, I don’t mind.  I want to make sure I do my share, especially now that I’m spending time away from here to participate in competitions.”

 

After a brief pause, Bud said, “Um, it isn’t really any of my business, but…well, I hear that pushing yourself too much can turn into a problem…”

 

Amy smiled at him.  “Thanks for your concern, but really, it’s okay.”

 

Bud scratched his head.  “Well…you were saying that you didn’t really have to do that organizing thing—that your dad had it covered?”

 

Amy frowned.  “…Yeah…”

 

“I was just thinking, if you’ve been feeling tired, then it’s weird that you’re sort of taking more work than you need to.”

 

“This place is my responsibility.”

 

“Yeah, I know, but—“

 

“I just…I don’t want to spend all my time skiing and stop helping out.  I don’t want my hobby to take away from helping my family.  That would…that would seem really selfish, wouldn’t it?”

 

Bud stopped to absorb what she had said, and then offered, “It seems like everyone around here is really proud of how good you are at skiing.  Has your dad said anything about it?”

 

Amy leaned to one side.  “He was the first one who encouraged me to ski competitively.  He saw how much I enjoyed it and told me I should pursue it.  Really, he’s only ever been supportive.”

 

“And I bet he’s been sure to give you plenty of time you can use to practice, right?”

 

“Yeah, he does.”

 

“It doesn’t sound like he thinks it’s selfish.  I think you might be worrying too much.  The resort would probably be fine if you let other people do a little more work, and with some extra time to rest, you might get even better at skiing, too.”

 

Amy tapped her fingers against the edge of the seat.  “…Dad has said he’s worried I’m going to exhaust myself.  Maybe I could do a little less.”

 

“Yeah!  You don’t have to totally give it up, just maybe think about changing how you’re doing it.  It can’t hurt to give it a try, right?”

 

Amy smiled again.  “…Thanks, Bud.  I think I might.”

 

***

 

Luna fumbled with her mittens, muttering, “I can’t believe the store sold out of gloves!  They should really keep better track of things so their customers don’t have to settle for mittens!”

 

Sonia reached over to help her, pointing out, “You could’ve brought your own gloves.”

 

“I had to keep tabs on everyone else!  I was so busy making sure they were ready that this just slipped my mind.”

 

Sonia rolled her eyes.  “Of course.  You’re the pinnacle of selflessness, Luna.”

 

Luna scowled.  “What’s that?”

 

With a giggle, Sonia answered, “Oh, nothing.”

 

Luna leaned closer as they walked, her glare only intensifying.  On her next step, Sonia moved just enough to bump into her, and then immediately quickened her pace.

 

“What?  Hey, get back here!”

 

She caught up at the entrance to the food court plaza.  Sonia looked around, saying, “Let’s see, wasn’t the ski lift supposed to be around here?”

 

She paused to glance at Luna, trying not to laugh.  After a few seconds, Luna sighed and smiled.

 

“…I’m glad things are back to normal.”

 

“Me too.  Now let’s go!”

 

At the back of the area was a small stall resting right at the foot of one of the towering mountains behind the hotel, with a glowing blue cable extending from it all the way to the top of the slope.  Sonia and Luna approached it excitedly…but their enthusiasm faded when they saw who was waiting inside.

 

Golds did his best to pretend he didn’t see them.  Luna rang the bell at the desk, calling, “Excuse me!  We’d like two sets of skis.”

 

With a loud sigh, he grumbled, “Yeah, coming right up.”

 

Luna opened her mouth to say something; Sonia took her hand and smiled at her, convincing her to stay quiet.  Golds had an unsettling smile when he came back to the counter, but the girls paid it no mind as they downloaded the Matter Wave skis and climbed onto the lift.

 

“What a creep,” Luna finally said.

 

“Definitely,” Sonia said.  “Hopefully someone else is working when we return these.”

 

When she activated the program, the skis instantly materialized on her feet.  They felt extremely light, almost as if they weren’t even there, and they had the same pulsing glow as the cable above them.  Luna materialized hers as well, and when they reached a plateau they slid out of the seat and onto the snow.  Sonia slipped a bit before finding her balance while Luna pushed a short distance ahead.

 

“Have you done this before?” Sonia asked.

 

Luna nodded.  “Yes, a few years ago.  Haven’t you?”

 

Sonia flailed, saying, “Woah!  No, I never had a chance.”

 

She inched forward.  Eventually they found the others, Geo calling, “Hey!  Running a little late?”

 

“Sorry,” Sonia said, “there was a problem at the shop—“

 

“They’re out of gloves,” Luna broke in.

 

“—and it took us a minute to get our skis, too.”

 

Amy came forward.  “Oh, Golds is on duty, isn’t he?  He’s been trouble ever since we hired him.  We keep telling him he needs to behave, but if this keeps up…well, sorry, I should’ve warned you about him.”

 

“That’s alright, I already know how he can be.”

 

“You know him?”

 

“Yeah, he used to be my manager.  He’s always been difficult.”

 

“Manager?” Amy repeated, looking closely at Sonia.  “…Ah!  You’re Sonia Strumm, aren’t you?  I knew you looked familiar, I just couldn’t place it.  Have you been enjoying your stay?”

 

“I have, thank you!  Aside from Mr. Golds, everyone’s been very helpful.”

 

“Glad to hear!  So, did you come up here looking for inspiration for a new album maybe?”

 

“Haha, something like that.  I can’t reveal anything, though.”

 

“No, I guess not.  Still, it’s such an honor to meet you!”

 

“It’s great to meet you too!  I’ve heard about some of your races—you’re pretty remarkable!  The nationals are coming up, aren’t they?  How’s your training for those going?”

 

“They are, yeah.  I’m more or less prepared, though I’d still like to get a little more work in when I get the chance.”

 

Hearing this, Bud suggested, “In that case, why don’t you go get some training in now?”

 

“Huh?  Oh…well, I guess I could, but I wouldn’t want to just leave.”

 

“Maybe I could come with you?  I mean, I probably wouldn’t be able to handle the slopes you’re training on, but it’d still be fun to watch!”

 

Amy thought for a moment, looking at the highest peak in the resort.  “…Sure.  Yeah, if you’re up for that.  And of course anyone else is welcome too!”

 

“I think I’ll stay down here,” Sonia said.  “I get the feeling it’s going to take me a while to get the hang of this, and I don’t even want to go near the tough courses yet.”

 

“Fair enough,” Amy chuckled.  “I’ll catch you later then!  Good luck!”

 

Amy and Bud headed off.  Mega commented, “Seems like Bud is smoother than he seems!”

 

“Hush, Mega,” Lyra said.

 

Sonia slipped, but was able to get steady.  “Alright, let’s see how bad this is.”

 

“You’ll do fine,” Luna said, “stop complaining.  You were the one who asked me to ski!”

 

“Oh, I guess I did.”

 

“Unbelievable.  Well, chop chop!  Give it a try!”

 

With a deep breath, Sonia started down the hill, Luna following not far behind her.  Geo and Pat soon pursued as well, leaving Zack on his own.  The boy sighed and pushed forward.

 

***

 

Sonia pulled herself up out of the snow with a moan.  Farther down, Luna waved one of her ski poles in the air, shouting something that couldn’t be heard over the wind.

 

“Perhaps you should take a rest, dear,” Lyra said.  “Falling this often can’t be good for your health.”

 

“Yeah,” Sonia grumbled, “but I’d like to give it another try.”

 

“You’ve been saying that in response to your last seven attempts.”

 

Sonia hung her head.  “…Maybe you’re right.”

 

She slowly made her way down to Luna, being very careful so that they wouldn’t collide.  The other girl examined her and said, “You’re not hurt, are you?  That looked like a bad fall.”

 

“I’ve endured a lot worse,” Sonia said.  “Sorry.  I thought this would be fun, but it turns out I’m really, really bad at skiing.”

 

“You’re a beginner,” Luna said, turning to look off the side of the mountain.  “And either way…it’s still fun to spend time with you…”

 

She looked back to see Sonia grinning.

 

“A-Anyway, where are the others?  We should get some lunch before you go back to falling down every few minutes.”

 

“Ignoring that,” Sonia said.  She turned to survey the area.  “I think I saw them as I was coming down.  It’s hard to tell, though, the snow has been getting really thick.  Why do you think they’re generating so much?”

 

“I’ve been wondering about that,” Lyra said.  “I’ve overheard other skiers saying this is unusual, and it only seems to be getting worse.  Perhaps it would be prudent to take a look at the weather control system?  It’s possible there’s a malfunction.”

 

“Hm, I guess we should,” Sonia said.  “It’ll just take a minute.”

 

A thundercrack suddenly echoed overhead.  The snow began to fall even faster, quickly reducing visibility to the point where Sonia could barely see Luna.

 

“My…this might be more than a simple malfunction,” Lyra muttered.

 

“Attention all skiers!” came an announcement over the nearby PA speakers.  “Due to an unforeseen complication, the weather control system seems to be causing a massive blizzard.  Please remain calm and stay off the slopes.  We are doing our best to get the problem under control.”

 

“Luna?” Sonia called, reaching out.

 

“Over here!” Luna replied.  She managed to grab Sonia’s hand.

 

“I’m going to go see what’s up with the weather.  You should get back to the resort!”

 

As they went to move away from each other, both of their skis suddenly flickered and deactivated.  Stumbling briefly, Luna dug out her Wave Carrier and tapped the screen—it flashed an error message, giving a small piece of text claiming something was wrong with the Matter Wave.

 

“Darn it!” she said.

 

“Hello?” came Geo’s voice.  “Sonia, Luna, are you there?”

 

“Yes, we’re here!”

 

He soon became visible, followed closely by Pat and Zack.  Noticing all three still had their skis, Sonia said, “Is it just our skis that went out?  But why would that be?”

 

Luna scowled.  “That stupid Golds must have given us duds!  Can’t he get anything right?”

 

“We can help you get down,” Pat said, “but we should really get going!  If it keeps going at this rate we’ll be in serious trouble!”

 

“Go on ahead, I’m going to check the weather system,” Sonia said.

 

“Should I come with you?” Geo asked.

 

She shook her head.  “Bud is up that way—if I need back-up, I’ll count on him.  Thanks for offering, but please get Luna to safety!  Mr. Copper should still be in the area, so you should probably try to meet up with him.”

 

“Hey, Ophiuca,” Mega said.  “Didn’t you say you visited the weather control system yesterday?  You…see anything strange?”

 

Ophiuca chuckled.  “You should ask what you really mean, Omega-Xis.  Either way the answer is no.”

 

“Sure it is.”

 

Luna turned back to Sonia.  “Be careful.”

 

With a smile, Sonia said, “I will.  You be careful too!”

 

“Of course I will!”

 

As she and the others left, Sonia put on her Visualizer and trudged over to the first Wavehole she spotted.  Once Wave Changed, she looked around, saying, “I wonder what could be causing this?”

 

“A system going this wrong this quickly is highly unusual,” Lyra said.  “I think it’s safe to suspect foul play.”

 

“You think Hyde is involved?”

 

“Well, he’s the first thing I associate with a foul play.”

 

Sonia chuckled.  Her fingers wrapped tightly around the guitar’s neck.

 

“Are you ready for a rematch?”

 

“I’m definitely ready.  Maybe…too ready.”

 

She started to climb, continuing, “I’ve been getting this feeling lately, like I’m itching for a fight.  It’s really weirding me out.”

 

“I’ve been feeling the same.  I assumed it was a result of the OOParts.”

 

“…These things really are dangerous, aren’t they?”

 

“Don’t worry, dear.  You know that there’s nothing you and I can’t handle.”

 

“Yeah…especially with everyone else’s support.  We can handle it!”

 

She spotted a light in the distance and raised her guitar in precaution.  “Hello?”

 

“Sonia?”

 

Recognizing the voice, she moved closer.  Soon she was able to make out a large, horned figure, and saw that the light was the result of jets of flame coming from their elbows.

 

“Bud, there you are!”

 

He spun frantically.  “Sonia, watch out!”

 

Sonia stopped abruptly.  Sensing something above her, she rolled out of the way; moments later something enormous crashed down on the spot where she had been standing, kicking up a thick cloud of snow.

 

“What was that?” she asked.

 

“I don’t know for sure,” Bud answered, “but it’s definitely an EM wave body!”

 

Hearing this, Sonia prepared for the worst.  The cloud slowly dissipated, revealing an eight foot tall being standing there.  Its lower torso and upper arms were covered in shaggy black fur, while its chest was encased in bulbous white armor with a silver breastplate, and more white armor covered its gigantic hands and even larger feet.  An unkempt mess of purple hair spread out from its head and onto its shoulders, and its silver face bore a large nose and two sharp fangs coming up from its oversized jaw.  She swore she could almost recognize the glare it gave her.

 

“Another one, eh?” the creature said.

 

Do I know that voice?

 

“Well, fine by me.  I’ll take care of you both right now!”

 

Pushing off the nagging feeling, Sonia said, “Please, we don’t have to fight!  Who are you—what is it that you want?”

 

A disembodied voice replied, “I’m Yeti, the elite soldier!  This is—“

 

“Shut up!” the creature snapped.  “There’s no reason to tell them who we are you dolt!”

 

“O-Oh, right.  Sorry about that.”

 

A wave of disgust gradually washed over Sonia.  …No…oh my gosh, is it really him?  Did he really get involved in this?!

 

Hoping she was wrong, she said, “Alright, if you don’t want to tell me who you are, that’s okay.  Can you at least tell me what you’re trying to accomplish?”

 

He smirked.  “Accomplish?  I’m going to run all the guests out of this hotel, obviously!  And once I do that, I’m going to have one heck of a payday, hahaha!”

 

She had no doubt now.  You really never did care about anything other than money, did you?

 

“Especially with you two here!” Golds said.  “Hyde said there might be some interlopers, and that I’d get a nice bonus for each one I beat!  Say, aren’t there supposed to be two more?  Why don’t you tell me where they are—I’ve got my eye on a nice new watch!”

 

It wasn’t an accident that our skis went out.  He wanted me and Luna to be stranded when he made the weather go out of control!

 

A faint orange aura started to appear around her as her fury grew.  She thought she heard a voice, but figured it was just the wind.

 

“I know, dear,” Lyra said, “but we need to stay calm.”

 

With great effort, she turned to Bud and calmly asked, “Where’s Amy?”

 

“She’s up next to the weather machine,” Bud said.  “She got knocked unconscious when he attacked—we gotta get her down soon!”

 

Sonia nodded.  Turning back, she said, “You’re putting people in danger.  Please stop this before anyone gets hurt.”

 

Golds snickered.  “Enough talk!”

 

A large snowball appeared in his hand, and he hurled it at Sonia.  She swung her guitar, breaking the incoming projectile apart, and saw that Golds had closed the gap already.  It was difficult to dodge his punch with so little notice, but somehow she managed.  Golds leapt high into the air before she could counter, becoming lost in the snow until he came shooting back down in an attempt to crush his foe.

 

“Fine,” Sonia said as she jumped clear.  “I know it’ll take a lot to make you listen.”

 

She activated her Ninja transformation and plucked the shamisen.  The already powerful winds focused themselves on Golds as he moved to attack again; he dug in to fight them, but a storm of shuriken came with the gust, stunning him.

 

“Are you really willing to injure—or even kill—innocent people just for money?” Sonia asked.

 

Golds snorted.  Taking another leap, he aimed for Bud this time, catching the boy by surprise.  Sonia used one shuriken from her belt to knock Golds back before he could follow-up, and then she summoned another blade-filled wind as she made her way over.

 

“You okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Bud said.  “Who is this guy?”

 

“It’s my former manager.”

 

“What?!  You sure?”

 

“Bud, you should get Amy some help.  I’ll hold him off.”

 

“Okay, if you say so.”

 

Bud charged up the hill.  Seeing this, Golds began to beat his chest, and suddenly the snow lurched and slid, forming a small avalanche that washed Bud back to his starting position.

 

“Mrrgh!  You’ve got a lot of nerve!” Taurus said.

 

“Who cares what you think?” Yeti replied.  “You’re just an FM-ian!”

 

Sonia played a few notes and swung her shamisen, sending out a cutting air wave.  As Golds blocked, Lyra said, “Oh, so you also have a problem with FM-ians?  And just why is that?”

 

“Phantom said you were bad,” Yeti replied.  “He said you were just chaotic imbeciles who don’t know how to recognize a bright idea when it’s right in front of them.”

 

“Well!” Lyra said.

 

“Wait, so you hate FM-ians because Phantom hates FM-ians?” Taurus asked.  “Have you met any FM-ians before this?”

 

“No, of course not,” Yeti said.  “But…if Phantom says it, it must be true.”

 

Bud got to his feet, breathing a puff of flame.  “Get out of my way!  I need to help Amy—I can come back and fight you later!”

 

Golds gave a hideous grin.  “You’re in no position to be making demands.”

 

Another rain of shuriken came down on him.  Breathing deeply, Sonia said, “Why is money so important to you?  What could cause someone to consider money more important than a life?!”

 

Reaching to the ground, Golds said, “You’re just some stupid kid, aren’t you?  You probably don’t know what it’s like to live without money.  Well, I do know what it’s like.  And once I escaped that life, I swore I’d never go back!”

 

He ripped out another snowball and threw it at Sonia, pushing her back a few feet.  He then bounded down the hill, sent Bud flying with a kick, and brought both fists down on Sonia.  She managed to play a quick chord, summoning a whirlwind around herself that shielded her from the damage.

 

“…What will it take?”

 

At the next note she played, the whirlwind dashed out and bowled over Golds.  Lowering her shamisen, she shouted, “What will it take to get through to you?!  I can’t believe that someone could be this far gone!  Isn’t there some way I can make you see that what you’re doing is wrong?”

 

“Wrong?” Yeti repeated.  “No, Phantom said you were the—“

 

“Shut up, you!” Golds said as he sat up.  “And as for you, you think I don’t know what I’m doing?  I know that no ‘decent’ person would take a job like this—but do you think I care?  Kindness doesn’t get you squat in this world.  Money is what you need to get somewhere, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get it!”

 

Sonia gritted her teeth.  The aura continued to build.  “Even if innocent people get killed?”

 

“I hope somebody dies!  Especially that ungrateful brat and her friends.  She deserves it after hanging me out to dry the way she did!”

 

The aura flared with new life.  Sonia gritted her teeth, glaring at Golds with a terrible intensity.

 

Power…

 

She shook her head.

 

Power…the power to beat Golds…power to make him see how wrong he is…

 

She stepped forward.  Lyra gave a pained grunt.

 

“Sonia.”

 

She took another step, and another.

 

“Sonia, stop for a moment!”

 

She blinked.  “Huh?  Lyra?”

 

“S-Sorry, dear.  This energy is starting to become a bit much once again.”

 

“Oh…”

 

Sonia looked down at her shamisen.  She hadn’t realized how tightly she was holding it.

 

…This isn’t right.

 

She stopped to breathe.

 

I’m not here to get revenge, or to punish anyone.  I’m here to help people.

 

She saw Bud behind Golds, quietly making for the weather control system again.  Golds stood tall and smirked down at her.

 

“Aw, are you finished already?”

 

Sonia looked up at him.  You’re terrible.  You’re even more terrible than I ever knew, and I don’t feel one shred of guilt for being angry with you.  But I’m not going to fight you out of anger.

 

Her aura turned yellow then, and obscured her with bright light.  Sonia felt even more power rushing into her, so much that she was afraid she might lose control of it.

 

Power…no.  No, I’m in control.

 

When the aura faded she felt somewhat dizzy, but it only lasted a second.  She looked herself over and was surprised to find that not much had changed.  Her armor was still in the shape of the Ninja form, though the parts that were once green were now silver and her scarf had become yellow.  Her instrument was the exception, having transformed into something with a massive oval body and a very short, fat neck with a head that angled back sharply.

 

“It looks like…a lute?” she mumbled.

 

Golds cocked his head.  “Huh?  Hyde only said you had one transformation!  That lying scum.  Whatever, I’m still going to pulverize you no matter what color you choose.”

 

“Hey, um, hang on a second,” Yeti said.  “Are we…really putting innocent people in danger?”

 

“I told you that’s not for you to worry about!  Besides, what did you think we were doing when we attacked those two earlier?”

 

He looked back towards the control system then, spotting Bud.

 

“Hey!”

 

Golds threw a snowball, knocking Bud to the ground.  Sonia played a quick series of notes, hoping that this new form still worked like the regular Ninja did.  To her dismay, only a handful of shuriken materialized, and most of them didn’t even hit their mark.

 

Not again!

 

Golds spun and hit her with a backhanded strike, flinging her into a nearby tree.  He then jumped over to Bud and grabbed him by the horns.

 

“D-Don’t hurt me,” Bud said.  “I just want to help my friend.  Please, I need to get her out of here soon!”

 

Golds laughed.  Yeti gave a nervous groan, saying, “I don’t know about this, Golds.  You sure this is right?”

 

“Pipe down,” his host said.

 

“Don’t you get it?” Taurus said.  “This guy’s just using you!  Why don’t you do something about it?”

 

“I have to follow Phantom’s orders!  He said I was supposed to work with this guy, that I was doing him a big favor that would help to restore Mu.  He told me himself!”

 

“And you just blindly trust him?!”

 

Yeti didn’t have a response.

 

“…Mrrrgh.  Yeti, have you ever formed a single opinion of your own?  Or do you just let your higher-ups think for you?”

 

“I guess I…well, I’m a soldier, so I’m supposed to follow orders.”

 

“I understand.  I’ve been in that exact same position.  But then I came here to Earth, and I found out that my superiors were wrong.”

 

“No way!” Yeti yelled.  “How…how is that possible?  You can’t get to be in charge without understanding things!”

 

“Every living thing has limits, Yeti, and anyone can make a mistake.  Even the FM King, and even Phantom.”

 

“…I…really?”

 

Golds sighed.  “Will you two shut up already?!  Honestly, what does any of this even matter?  You’re here to make me money, so just do as you’re told!”

 

Seeing that he was distracted, Bud delivered an uppercut with enough force to flip Golds and send him sliding a few yards away.  The man got to his feet and saw that Sonia was trying to rejoin the fight.

 

“Forget the Ninja style, it isn’t going to get the job done like this,” Lyra said.

 

“Right, let me see if I can get the hang of this new instrument.”

 

She strummed each string in succession and electricity burst from the body of the instrument, shaping itself into a long, jagged blade—Sonia was so surprised that she dropped it and stumbled backwards.

 

“Yikes!  It’s a sword?”

 

Lyra sighed, saying, “Wasn’t that one of the OOParts?  So this is the Berserk form?”

 

“But…it also looks like Ninja…”

 

Golds summoned another avalanche, this one knocking down both his foes.  When Sonia got up, she looked around for her instrument, and shortly realized it had been buried in the snow.

 

“Oh no!  Where is it?”

 

Starting forward, Golds created another snowball.  He didn’t see Bud stand up and exhale a swath of flames.  The attack left him slightly singed, but he was still able to shrug it off; he spun and hurled his attack at Bud.  Bud endured the hit and kept breathing fire.

 

“Stupid, stupid kids!”

 

Golds jumped towards him, ultimately driving him into the snow underfoot with a powerful kick.  The flames ceased.

 

“Just give up,” Golds said, stomping on Bud’s spine.  “I never let anything get between me and my pay!”

 

Bud moaned weakly.  Taurus said, “Yeti, think!  Take a look at what you’re doing and tell me what you think of it!”

 

Yeti hummed as if he were trying to make a difficult decision.  “It doesn’t look…but, Phantom…he wouldn’t…though if he…argh!”

 

Golds ignored him as he leaned down.  “What did you really think you would do with that fire?  You didn’t think it would hurt me, did you?”

 

“No,” Bud grunted.  “But it did…melt…the snow…”

 

Golds blinked.  Looking up, he saw Sonia standing there, her instrument-turned-blade in her hands.

 

Leave him alone!”

 

She swung with all her might, landing a solid blow to Golds’ chest.  The electricity shot through his entire body as he was knocked to the ground—he bounced once, and then rolled downhill.

 

“Bud!” Sonia said as she helped him up.  “That was great thinking!”

 

Bud swayed a bit but stayed on his feet.  “Thanks, but I don’t think we’re done yet.  I’m not going to be able to get Amy out of here with him up and fighting.  We’re going to have to focus on beating him.”

 

“Yeah.  Let’s not waste any more time!”

 

Golds sprang to his feet.  “Darn it!  You’re going to pay for this!”

 

“Hold on!” Yeti said.  “I…I’m not so sure about this anymore!”

 

Not heeding his partner’s words, Golds ran forward.  Sonia slid towards him, holding her brightly-glowing sword high to get his attention.  Before she could swing, Golds lashed out with a punch to the gut.  She crumpled and lost her grip on the weapon.

 

“There,” he said, “now—“

 

Something collided with him.  The visibility was so low that he hadn’t even seen Bud charging at him, and now he could do nothing as he was rammed into a tree with such force that it and the three trees behind it all snapped in half.  Golds tried to pick himself up out of the wooden shrapnel, but he was met with a quick jab from Bud’s fist.

 

Sonia made her way over.  When she looked at Golds, out of breath and unable to stand, she said, “I wish I could have helped you.  Things didn’t have to end up like this.”

 

“Feh,” Golds breathed.  “First you beat me up…then you gloat about it…you’re heartless…”

 

She turned her back on him.

 

“I’m sorry,” Yeti said.  “I think…maybe, you were right.  Maybe I should’ve thought more about what I was getting into.”

 

“Mrrrgh, glad to hear it!” Taurus said.  “At least one of you was willing to listen.”

 

Before anything more could be said, however, a shadowy, clawed hand emerged from behind the trees, slashing Golds and making him cry out in pain.  Sonia whirled to see his Wave Change vanish in a burst of blue light that was quickly absorbed into an odd anklet he wore.

 

“Yeti?!” Taurus exclaimed.

 

Sonia stared with wide eyes.  It didn’t seem like possession, but…what happened to him?

 

“Heh, heh, heh.”

 

“Oh, not now,” Lyra said.

 

“You’re growing more dangerous by the day, aren’t you, heroine?” called the voice of Hyde.  “To think you could combine the power of the OOParts…even if it is a flawed combination.  Heh, heh, heh.”

 

Sonia gripped her weapon, and she and Bud looked around for their enemy.  “We don’t have to fight, Hyde.”

 

“Indeed.  This scene has already reached its climax.  I’ve come simply to retrieve a prop.”

 

She thought she saw something in the distance and pointed her sword at it.  It came closer, revealing itself to be one of the ghost viruses they had seen before—Bud destroyed it with one blast of fire.  They turned back to Golds to see that the strange anklet was gone.

 

“Since this scheme was far from essential, I will give you due congratulations this time,” Hyde called.  “But beware that our next encounter may have higher stakes.  Yes, much higher…heh, heh, heh.”

 

That was all he said.  Sonia sighed, looked at Golds for a moment, and then turned to Bud.  “We can’t just leave him.  Can you help me get him over to the controls?”

 

They dragged him up to the peak of the hill, where Amy sat slumped against a stout, silver-walled building with a large antenna on its roof.

 

“I’ll take care of this.  You should call Mr. Copper and have him bring a medic up here.”

 

Sonia quickly entered the machine’s EM space and deleted the viruses within, enabling the system to return to normal and disperse the harsh weather.  She came back out to see Bud staring intently at Amy.

 

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Sonia said.  “The storm didn’t last too long, really, and she’s got to be used to the cold.”

 

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Bud said.  He deactivated his Wave Change.  “I should think about something else, like, uh…well, it was really cool to be able to fight alongside you!”

 

Sonia smiled.  “We’ve worked together before.”

 

“Yeah, but this was different.  It really felt like I got to help save the day!”

 

With a chuckle, Sonia looked down at her new armor and reflected on what had happened.

 

…I’m still a little frustrated.  But, I don’t have to do everything by myself, and it’s nice that I have friends who are looking out for me.

 

“Hey, Bud?”

 

“Hm?”

 

“I’ve been thinking: why don’t we form a BrotherBand?”

 

“Huh?  Really?!  I’d love to!  Hold on, let me get my Star Carrier!”

 

Sonia undid her Wave Change and turned to her guitar screen.  Lyra looked a little worried—Sonia nodded to her, whispering, “We’ll figure it out.”

 

Lyra held out a few more seconds before giving a small smile.  “You’re right, of course.”

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter 7

 

 

Sonia yawned as she rose from the couch, pausing to blink a few times so she could see where she was going.  “What a day.”

 

Copper had been quick to respond to their call, taking Golds into custody while the medic woke Amy and made sure she was alright.  Thankfully, she hadn’t sustained any significant harm; she, Bud, and Sonia had met up with the others and decided to take it easy for the rest of the day.  Despite that, Sonia still couldn’t help but feel exhausted.

 

“We should try to do some research on the Berserk tomorrow,” Lyra recommended.  “Mastering that transformation should put us a step closer to figuring out how the hybrid works.”

 

“Yeah, but that’s tomorrow,” Sonia said as she walked towards the elevator.  “Right now I just want to get some sleep.”

 

She was about to press the button when she heard footsteps approaching.  “Pardon me, are you Sonia Strumm?”

 

Turning, she saw two people.  The closer one was a woman wearing a long, flowing robe-like garment made from purple thread with oversized sleeves that completely covered her hands; it was tied closed at her waist by a pink ribbon-like sash with a trail running down the front of her body, which was flanked by a shimmering light green strip of fabric long enough to wrap up around her neck.  She wore gold jewelry and earrings made of long strips of pink paper, and her black hair was styled in an elaborate bow.  Behind her, there stood someone clad in a blue cloak and teal shawl with odd runes along its length.  A massive gold medallion hung around their neck, and their face was hidden by a triangular silver mask and tall, pointed hood.

 

“Um, yes, that’s me,” Sonia said, unsure what to make of them.

 

The woman smiled.  “Wonderful!  Allow us to introduce ourselves: my name is Vega, and this is my associate, Hollow.”

 

“Vega?” Sonia repeated.  “…Oh!  Dr. Vega?  The inventor of Matter Waves?  What are you doing out here?”

 

“I came here to meet with you, actually.  Do you have a moment?”

 

“Really?  Sure, I can talk.”

 

“Thank you.  I’ve been looking forward to this for so long—I had the privilege of working with your mother in the past, and she always spoke very highly of you.”  She frowned.  “I’m so sorry to hear about what happened to Rosa.  How are you doing?”

 

“I’m…coping,” Sonia said.  “I still miss her a lot, but it doesn’t hurt quite as much now.  I realized that even if she isn’t here with me, I can still make her proud, and that made things a little easier.”

 

Vega gave a sad smile.  “…You’re every bit as remarkable as she said.  I know what it feels like to lose someone.  Being able to deal with it so well is no easy task.”

 

She sighed, and then continued, “Well, I suppose I should get on to business.  I have come to ask for your assistance in a very important undertaking.”

 

Sonia raised an eyebrow.  “Assistance?  Like, helping you with an invention or something?”

 

Vega shook her head.  “No, not that.  I am asking for help from Harp Note.”

 

Sonia’s eyes widened.  How does she know who I am?

 

“I apologize if this shocks you.  You see, I am the one who employed Hyde to retrieve the OOParts.  They are an integral part of my plan, and I was quite eager to reclaim them…however, now that you have shown the capability to control the OOParts’ power, I believe it would be more fruitful to have you as an ally.”

 

Sonia reeled for a moment before she could form a reply.  “…First of all.  The EM being Mr. Golds was fused with, Yeti?  Is he still alive?”

 

Vega chuckled.  “I suppose it would take someone extremely compassionate to befriend an FM-ian.  Yes, Yeti is perfectly fine; defeating him simply returned him to the artifact he is sealed within.”

 

“You mean that weird anklet?”

 

“That’s right.  Yeti is a PM-ian, an EM being created in the ancient land of Mu, and since terminals such as Star Carriers did not exist, the people instead bound their creations to various artifacts to ensure they would not be destroyed permanently.”

 

“I’ve never heard of PM-ians,” Lyra said, seeing no reason to be quiet any longer.  “It definitely seems that they’ve heard of FM-ians, though.”

 

“Please pay no mind to Phantom’s prejudices.  He’s a bit reluctant to let go of the bad history he’s had with your people.  Surely he’s not the only one.”

 

Reluctantly, Lyra said, “You’re probably right about that.  But still, it’s not something I feel especially motivated to forgive.”

 

“That is understandable.”

 

Sonia sighed in relief.  “Good, that’s one less thing to worry about.  But it’s not exactly my only concern.  You…well, you don’t seem like a bad person, but you’re working with people like Hyde?  You’re working with Mr. Golds?  Neither of them seemed to care about hurting people, and if you’re working with them I have to wonder if you feel the same.”

 

Vega nodded thoughtfully.  “I see.  For starters, employing Golds was Hyde’s idea—I agree that he is most despicable, and approving that operation was definitely a mistake on my part.  As for Hyde…yes, he too has a tendency to become callous and overzealous.  However, I feel he has great potential, so I would like to guide him if at all possible.”

 

“Potential?” Lyra laughed.  “The man can’t fight without a hostage, and his writing is atrocious.”

 

“He certainly has room for improvement.  However, having seen several of his productions, I’m quite certain he has a perfect grasp of the essence of Tragedy, and dearly hope he will learn how to more appropriately frame it.”

 

“Why are you so impressed with his understanding of Tragedy?” Sonia asked.

 

Vega glanced back at Hollow, muttering, “I suppose it’s just a personal taste.”

 

She returned her eyes to Sonia.  “Rest assured I will not permit him to do anything that goes too far.  I am no villain, just someone with goals that must be pursued outside of the public eye.”

 

Sonia hummed.  “Alright.  Out of curiosity, what exactly are your goals?  Obviously Mu has something to do with it, but that’s all I’ve been able to gather.”

 

“You’re right that Mu is crucial.  Are you beginning to believe in it?”

 

“I’m considering the possibility.”

 

Vega smirked.  “Well…I don’t want to give out sensitive information to someone who hasn’t officially declared her intention to cooperate with me.  What I can tell you is that the power of Mu can shape this world’s future, and seeing as you are learning to control that power, I would be more than happy to teach you how to do so.”

 

Sonia inclined her head.  “Really?  I would like to know more about how these OOParts work.  But, I’m guessing you’d want me to do something in return?”

 

“That is correct.  I think it would be fair, don’t you?”

 

“It sounds fair.  But I’m a little wary considering I have no idea what you’re asking me to do.  If you can’t tell me anything else, then I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to go with my gut.”

 

Vega put a hand to her chin, mulling over something.  Eventually she said, “I implore you to reconsider.  If I am forced to take the OOParts back from you, then I will have to send for someone far more troublesome than Hyde.  I wish to avoid that if possible.”

 

“What a brilliant move,” Lyra sneered.  “Someone is unsure of your moral soundness, so you threaten her.  It’s so nostalgic for me.”

 

“I’m going to have to agree with Lyra,” Sonia said flatly.

 

Vega closed her eyes.  “…Very well.  I regret that we could not come to an understanding.  Please be on your guard in the near future, and hopefully you will not sustain any serious harm.”

 

She turned and left.  As she passed Hollow, she leaned in and whispered, “We have no choice.  Contact the Rogue.”

 

Hollow nodded once and followed her.  Watching them go, Sonia thought, I don’t understand what she’s thinking.  Why is someone like her doing this?

 

“Sounds like we’ve got more trouble on the way,” Lyra said.  “You should get some rest while you can, dear.”

 

“Right,” Sonia yawned.  “We need to be prepared for whoever’s coming after us next.”

 

***

 

Geo walked out onto the hotel roof to see Sonia standing near the edge, absorbed in something on her guitar screen.  Closing the gap, he said, “Morning.”

 

She looked up with a start.  “Oh, Geo.  Good morning.”

 

“You seem on-edge,” Mega said.  “Still thinking about what happened yesterday?”

 

“No,” Sonia said.  “Well, maybe that’s part of it.”

 

Geo looked out over the snowy field in front of the hotel.  “It must’ve been tough, running into your manager again under circumstances like that.”

 

Sonia tapped her screen.  “…I always knew he was sort of rotten.  It was always about the money, no matter what happened to anyone else, or how anyone felt.  I just never realized he was that horrible.”

 

“Bud said that you still tried to help him, though.”

 

“I still think anybody can change.”  She paused, and then quietly added, “But I guess…not everyone decides to.  Geez, you’d think I learned nothing from meeting Gemini and Walters, huh?”

 

Geo shook his head.  “It’s not that you didn’t learn anything.  I think it’s more like, you want to believe the best of people until they’ve clearly shown they don’t want to change.  Sort of like ‘innocent until proven guilty’, or something.  I think it’s really great that you’re still able to be so kind even after dealing with people like that—you didn’t let a handful of bad examples carry more weight than all the good ones.”

 

“My sentiments exactly,” Lyra said.  “You’ve proven very resistant to cynicism, dear.  That’s certainly something to be commended.”

 

With a laugh, Sonia looked up at the sky.  “Thanks.  I’m glad I can always rely on you all.”

 

Mega cleared his throat.  “So, you said that was just part of it.  What’s the rest?  Did something else happen?”

 

Sonia frowned.  “…I met the person Hyde’s working for last night.”

 

Geo jumped.  “What?  Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah, she just wanted to talk.  Actually, she asked me to work with her too.”

 

“That’s crazy!  Who would want to work for someone willing to hurt people?”

 

Sonia nodded towards him.  “Exactly.  But the weird thing is, she…well, she sort of seemed like a good person.  She admitted that she had made some mistakes and that she wasn’t necessarily going about things the best way, and said that the main reason she’s employing Hyde is to try to help him.”

 

“She was probably just lying,” Mega said.

 

“I think she was sincere.  I can’t really describe it, but I got the feeling that she might have good intentions.”

 

Geo gave her a worried look.  “…You…you didn’t—“

 

“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant, of course I didn’t join her!  I’m just confused is all.”

 

“She wouldn’t be the first dangerous individual who thinks she’s doing the right thing,” Lyra said.  “Even Walters said something to that effect.”

 

Sonia shivered.  “It’s a scary thing to think about.  If it could happen to her, then couldn’t it happen to me too?  I may think that I’m doing the right thing, but what if I’m not?  How can you tell for sure?”

 

Geo stared at her, then looked down to think.  They both remained silent for a while, but eventually, Geo said, “Well…maybe you can’t exactly know for sure.  But you’ve got us, right?  Me, Mega, Lyra, Luna, Bud, Taurus, Pat, Mr. Boreal, Claud…and, um…well, the point is, if you compare everyone’s point of view, then maybe working together we can come up with a better idea of what the right thing is than one person trying to figure it out by themselves?”

 

Sonia smiled.  “I can definitely expect Luna to call me out.”

 

Geo chuckled.

 

“Thanks, Geo.  Again.  It’s nice to have you on my side.”

 

“No problem.”

 

“Well, glad we handled that,” Mega said.  “Was there anything else this person said?”

 

“Huh?” Sonia said.  “Oh, yeah, she said she was sending someone else to retrieve the OOParts soon, apparently someone really dangerous.”

 

Geo grimaced.  “Maybe you should have led with that.”

 

Sonia scratched her face.  “…Probably.”

 

“Did she say when?”

 

“No, she didn’t.  I guess we just have to be on the lookout for anything—“

 

“Sonia,” Lyra interrupted.

 

She and Geo turned to see someone coming towards them: a tan-skinned boy about their own age with messy white hair and red eyes, wearing a black bodysuit with light blue lines running in perpendicular designs along the legs, as well as two heavy-looking bronze earrings.  He fixed an unsettling gaze on them as he finally fell still.

 

“Uh, hello,” Sonia greeted.  “Can we help you with something?”

 

“Which of you is it?” the stranger asked.  “You both have EM beings, so it must be one of you.”

 

Geo set a hand on his Star Carrier.  “What…what do you mean?”

 

“Give it up.  I can see them both: the harp, and whatever that thing is supposed to be.”

 

“Hey!  What’s your problem?” Mega shouted.

 

Sonia gulped.  He can see EM beings?  I have a bad feeling about this…

 

He suddenly turned to look at her, and she felt her heart skip a beat.  “Ah.  It’s you.”

 

“I think I know the answer, but I have to ask,” Lyra said.  “Are you the one Vega sent after us?”

 

The boy smirked.  “Vega doesn’t have the power to send me.  I just heard her talking and decided to come see for myself.  How could I stay away, having heard that some pretender is trying to use the Sacred Artifacts of Mu for her own?”

 

“We can talk about this,” Sonia said.  “My name is Sonia.  What’s yours?”

 

He grinned, and jabbed one thumb towards himself.  “Me?  I am Solo, the Final Heir to Mu.  I have no interest in talking to a mere human—I’m just here to take back what is rightfully mine!”

 

He held one hand forward, and two of his fingers began to emanate white light.  As he moved them, a glowing symbol was drawn in the air: at the top was one dot, and on either side began a line that extended out, came a short distance down, and then doubled back before lowering further, extending out again, and then curving down, creating a perfectly symmetrical image with a large gap at its center.  For some reason Sonia couldn’t help but feel there was something familiar about what he was doing.  Once the symbol was complete, Solo held his arms out to his sides, and three duplicates of the symbol appeared to encircle him.  The four glyphs began to rotate, slowly at first but rapidly gaining speed, until they finally closed in on Solo suddenly and produced a shower of purple-black sparks.

 

Sonia took a step back as she looked at Solo’s new form.  His earrings vanished and his hair stood up in spikes, partially hidden by a rounded black and red helm which connected to a massive purple visor that stretched outward in four sharp points.  Gray-white material formed a half-collar behind his neck and two small shoulder plates with short points rising from their centers.  His left forearm was encased in a cylinder of black armor with a red cuff that spawned a curved point, while his right hand and forearm were shrouded in a brilliant purple flame covered only by a thin silver band around the wrist.  The greaves covering his legs were as simple as the armguard, also sporting large, pointed curves that originated from the ankles, and the boots had a sleek, sharp shape to them.  On his chest was the same symbol he had drawn, here in shimmering crimson.

 

Trying to stay calm, Sonia said, “Solo.  Okay.  And what’s the name of your partner?”

 

“Partner?” Solo spat.  “Don’t insult me.  A true Murian warrior needs no one but himself!  Though if you must know, in this form you can call me Rogue.”

 

“He can transform without an EM being?” Mega said.  “That can’t be right!  No way a human has that power!”

 

Solo waved him aside.  “Run along and figure it out somewhere else.  I want to see what she’s been able to do with the Artifacts.”

 

Geo raised his terminal, but Sonia shook her head.  “I don’t want you to get hurt.  I’ve got a pretty good understanding of how my Ninja form works, so it’ll be fine.”

 

“…If you’re sure,” Geo muttered.  He took one last look at Solo before gradually clearing the way.

 

Sonia reached for her guitar.  “What do you think, Lyra?”

 

At a loss, Lyra sighed and threw her hands up.  “I don’t know what to think.  A human capable of Wave Changing by themselves…and these waves, there’s something about them that just makes me sick.  But it sounds like we have no say in the matter.”

 

“Hopefully we’ll be able to reason with him after a few blows.”

 

“You have your work cut out for you, dear.”

 

Solo crossed his arms.  “Would you hurry it up?  I don’t enjoy having my time wasted.”

 

Sonia narrowed her eyes for a moment, and then said, “Alright.  EM Wave Change!  Sonia Strumm, On the Air!”

 

Upon completing the change, she immediately transformed again into Green Ninja, and held her shamisen ready as Solo moved into a fighting stance.

 

“You do look like a Ninja,” he said.  “Hmph.  Let’s see if you can fight like one!”

 

He lashed out with blazing speed, hitting Sonia with a punch before she was ready.  She was knocked off the roof and spun in midair, landing on her feet with a slight stumble, being careful not to drop her instrument as Solo jumped down after her.  She threw a few shuriken.  He deflected them with a kick, and when he touched down he charged at her again.  This time she was able to jump clear and play a few notes, summoning a shuriken-filled wind to pummel Solo.  Taking the hit, he performed an uppercut, and a tall wave of purple energy appeared from the ground in front of him, surging forward and threatening to knock Sonia off her feet.  Luckily she dodged, and crossed her arms to block when Solo came up and kicked her.  The force was still enough to knock her back across the field.

 

“Ow,” she grumbled, shaking her arms.

 

“Pathetic,” Solo said.  “How was someone like you able to coax any power out of the OOParts?”

 

Sonia started to feel angry, but she tried to set it aside.  “There’s a program that my mother created—it’s designed to help an EM being tap into a power source, so Lyra and I are using it to control the OOParts.”

 

Solo tilted his head.  “…I can’t accept that.  There’s something else mixed with the power you’re using.  What is it?”

 

“Huh?  I thought it was just the Tuner’s work.”

 

Renewing his stance, Solo said, “Well, whatever it is, I’ll find out soon enough.”

 

Sonia prepared to defend herself.  “Wait, Solo, just tell me why you’re doing thi—“

 

He was in front of her before she could even blink.  She managed to dance around his punches at first, but then he unleashed a kick that sent her rolling.

 

“I already told you,” Solo said.  “I am the Final Heir to Mu.  If you want to use the power of my people, I need to see if you are worthy.  And if not…it is my responsibility to take it back.”

 

He put his fist forward in a punching motion, and multiple fist-shaped blasts of purple flame flew out.  Sonia played the chord that summoned a whirlwind around her, and then continued playing as she rode it in a circle around Solo; shuriken rained down at random, but Solo was able to fend them off, and was thus distracted when Sonia shot a burst of wind from her guitar that struck the ground beneath him and spawned a miniature tornado.  Lifted up into the sky, he was helpless as a few shuriken grazed him, and then Sonia leapt right above him and stomped on him, sending him crashing back to Earth.

 

Sonia glided down and landed nearby, taking a moment to catch her breath.  Looking back towards the roof, she could see Geo watching with his Visualizer, and the others were starting to emerge from the hotel to join him.

 

“What do you mean Sonia’s fighting someone?” Luna asked.

 

“This guy calling himself Solo showed up and said he wanted to see the power of the OOParts,” Geo explained.

 

“Hm.  She’s winning, right?”

 

Geo shrugged.  “It’s…close.”

 

Luna turned to the field.  “Can I use the Visualizer?”

 

After a moment, Geo gently removed the glasses and handed them over.

 

“Thank you.”

 

She put them on and marveled at the Wave Roads for a second, but finally settled on Sonia.  Waving, she said, “Sonia!  We’re here for you!”

 

Sonia giggled and waved back.

 

“…So that’s it.”

 

Solo sat up and continued, “I should’ve known.  You’re mixing the power of your relationships with that of the Artifacts.”

 

“Is that so?” Lyra asked.  “I suppose that makes sense.  The Tuner contains the power and releases a modified burst of it when we ask, and then the power from the BrotherBand keeps it from overwhelming us and makes it easier to use.”

 

Solo rose to his feet.  “Disgusting.”

 

He spun, his face twisted into a furious scowl.  “How dare you sully the power of Mu with your filthy bonds!  This is a mockery of everything I hold sacred, and I’m going to make you pay for your offense.”

 

Sonia slowly shook her head.  “…I feel like I’m missing something.  You think bonds are terrible?  So you don’t have any friends, at all?  No one you can depend on?”

 

“You really don’t know how to listen, do you?  I said before: a true Murian warrior needs no one but himself!”

 

He shot out.  Sonia flipped over him and threw some shuriken from her belt, but he kept going until he was clear before turning around.  A few energy fists were shot her way—she batted some aside with the shamisen and dodged the rest, and when Solo moved in with a lunging punch she hopped back just out of range.  Unfortunately, this left her no room to dodge the next wave Solo send along the ground.  He pressed his advantage, dealing a string of blows that seemed nearly endless before rearing back for a finisher.

 

I don’t have good enough footing to dodge.

 

An image came to her mind then, almost like a memory.  Instinctively, she drew her fingers through the air, and just like Solo had done earlier, she created some sort of symbol in the air.  She completed it just as Solo punched.  The instant his fist would have made contact, she disappeared in a puff of smoke, only to reappear several feet into the air and unleash a long stream of shuriken.

 

“Way to go, Harp Note!” Luna cheered as she landed.

 

Watching Solo collect himself, Sonia mumbled, “I’m…not really sure what that was?”

 

“Hmph,” Solo grunted.  “Seems you might have picked up something.  I guess you have made contact with the Artifact’s spirit…well, I suppose that’s almost impressive.”

 

Anger came back to Sonia, stronger this time.  Why is he like this?

 

“I seem to recall being told that the Ninja drew power from symbols reminiscent of the Murian alphabet,” Lyra said.  “I must admit, I didn’t think it would be so literal.”

 

“We’ll take what we can get,” Sonia said.

 

“Don’t think this changes anything!” Solo taunted.  “Even if you can access the glyphs, you’re still unable to use their full potential because of those wretched bonds.”

 

Sonia sighed.  “I’m trying to understand you, but you aren’t making it easy.”

 

Solo just smirked and went on the offensive.

 

Back on the hotel roof, Mega said, “They’ve started fighting again.  Seems like he’s really giving her a run for her money.”

 

“Mrrrgh!  She’ll come out on top like always!” Taurus said.

 

“That’s right!” Luna said.  “We’re rooting for you, Sonia!”

 

Meanwhile, on one of the small slopes not far from the hotel, a figure appeared from behind the trees, unnoticed by the spectators.  Raising one arm, Hollow said, “There.  Go, Kamikakushi.”

 

One of the black eyeball objects suddenly appeared behind the group.  It focused on Pat, and a portal opened up beneath his feet.

 

“Wah!  Geo!” Pat shouted as he began to sink.

 

Geo turned, his eyes shooting wide.  He grabbed Pat’s hands and pulled, saying, “Pat, don’t let go!  Somebody get that thing quick!”

 

Hearing the commotion, Sonia turned to see what was going on.  One of those?  It has Pat!

 

Mega charged at the machine and swung his claw, to little effect.  “Back off!”

 

“T-Taurus, let’s Wave Change!” Bud said.

 

“Where did that even come from?” Zack asked.

 

Ophiuca turned to survey the surrounding area.  Before she could find anything, Luna turned to her and berated, “Why don’t you do something?”

 

The iris of the machine flashed and the portal’s edges abruptly widened.  With no floor beneath his feet, Geo too fell into the portal, and he and Pat both vanished from sight.

 

“Kid!” Mega yelled, following them in.

 

Before anyone else could do anything, the opening shut.  Sonia felt her lungs totally empty.  Pat?  Geo?!

 

The Kamikakushi too disappeared then, and Hollow, still unnoticed, was the last to make his exit.  Meanwhile, Luna, Zack, and Bud just stared in disbelief at the spot on the roof where their friends had gone from.

 

“G…Geo?” Luna said.  “Pat?  You…you can’t be gone!  I didn’t tell you you could leave!”

 

Sonia dropped to her knees.  “No…how did this happen?”

 

Solo groaned, asking, “Are you quite done?”

 

Her anger flared with new life.  Power.

 

Looking over her shoulder at Solo, she said, “What did you do?”

 

Solo leaned to one side.  “Please, I had nothing to do with that.  Why would I waste a thought on your worthless friends?”

 

An orange aura built up around Sonia.  Feeling the burning pain again, Lyra said, “Sonia, dear, please calm down.”

 

Power to beat him.

 

Sonia stood.  Facing Solo, she said, “Bring them back.”

 

Lyra grunted.  “Sonia, I know this is terrible, but please, this is too much!  I can’t handle this energy!”

 

Solo’s eyebrows raised.  “Oh?  Now that’s pure, undiluted Murian power.  Is losing a few measly friends all it takes?”

 

Sonia gave him a hateful glare.  Power to bring them back!

 

Not realizing what she was doing, her arm shot forward.

 

“Please, stop!” Lyra cried out.  “Sonia!”

 

She began to draw a symbol, the same one she had seen Solo draw earlier.  Power, power, power, power, power, power, power, power, power!

 

He laughed.  “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.  I seriously doubt you can handle the kind of power you’re asking for.”

 

As the four glyphs circled her, Sonia’s aura grew stronger and larger.  Lyra begged her to stop, but her pleas fell on deaf ears as Sonia’s rage engulfed her, and she could think of nothing but power.

 

Power to make him regret taking my friends from me!

 

“Luna,” Ophiuca whispered.  “I think you should see this.”

 

Luna finally turned as the new transformation completed.  A gasp escaped her lips.

 

Once again, Sonia’s armor retained the shape of Ninja, but this time its coloration seemed far more sinister.  The once-black cloth beneath her armor had turned crimson, while the armor above was now a blackish-gray.  Her shuriken and geta were purple, her scarf had turned an eerie shade of white, and her shamisen was jet-black with the symbol from Rogue’s chest printed in purple on its body.  The aura around her was purple-black, and she looked at Solo with eyes empty of everything but hatred.

 

Luna shivered.  “What is that?”

 

“I cannot say with certainty,” Ophiuca said.  “But, I believe it is about to become a problem.”

 

Solo lost a bit of his smugness as he saw the result of Sonia’s transformation.  “You were able to do it?  But…that shouldn’t be possible.  This power belongs to the blood of Mu, not inferior humans who rely on others for their strength!”

 

Sonia leaned forward.  In a flash, she dashed out and struck Solo in the head with her shamisen.  He was sent reeling by the blow, but she grabbed him and pulled him back in; a short blade emerged from one of her arm guards, and she jabbed it into his ribs.  Solo gave a brief shout, but nothing more.  Sonia twisted her arm suddenly, digging the weapon in deeper, and also snapping it off to remain in his side.  She jumped, spun, and kicked him in the face, knocking him flat.  Then she turned and started to walk away.

 

“Feh,” Solo coughed, pulling the blade out.  “It’ll take a lot more than that to beat me, pretender.”

 

As Sonia walked, she played a lightning-fast string of very low notes.  A tight funnel of wind formed around Solo.  Razor sharp air currents left deep cuts all across his body, and when he was finally released, he was might by five shuriken thrown right into his chest.

 

“S-Sonia…!” Luna said, tightly gripping the railing.  “What are you doing?”

 

Solo kicked, sending out a shockwave to give himself time to stand.  Sonia leapt over it and played briefly, swinging her shamisen on the final note and releasing several caltrops that scattered over the field.  Not wanting to step in any, Solo made sure he was balanced and prepared to launch a projectile attack.  A gust of wind sent him backwards into the spikes.  Another rolled him forward, pushing the caltrops into the wounds he already had.  The winds changed direction a dozen times at the command of Sonia’s shamisen, knocking Solo around until every caltrop she had placed dug into her enemy.  He pushed himself off the ground and looked up.  The shamisen smacked against his face so hard that he was flipped onto his back.

 

“I can’t watch this,” Bud said weakly, covering his eyes.

 

Solo lay on the ground trying to recover, his breathing ragged as Sonia loomed over him.

 

“Darn…you…” he said.

 

Sonia played.  Winds wrapped around the shamisen, forming a compact tornado in seconds.  She held it high and prepared to swing.

 

“Sonia!” Luna shouted.

 

She did nothing.  Not a single movement.

 

“Sonia, stop!  Please, stop doing this!  This isn’t you!  You would never be this cruel to someone!”

 

She started to shake, just a little.  Solo edged backwards.

 

“I know you’re upset, but this isn’t going to bring Geo and Pat back!  You know that they wouldn’t want you to do this for them!  We’ll find a way to help them, but this isn’t it!”

 

Slowly, very slowly, Sonia started to lower her shamisen.  Solo was crouching on one knee now, trying to determine if he should strike.  As if in reply, a voice said, “That’s quite enough.”

 

Hollow reappeared nearby.  Sonia turned towards him, but did not move to attack.

 

“Begone, Hollow!” Solo said.  “I can handle this myself!”

 

“I think not,” Hollow said, walking over and grabbing him by the shoulder.  “You will fight again when you are ready.  For now, I am taking you back to Lady Vega.”

 

“No!” Solo refused.  “Unhand me, you—“

 

They both disappeared.  Sonia stood there, glaring at empty space as the winds around her instrument slowly started to dissipate.

 

Luna turned to Ophiuca.  “Can you get me down there?”

 

Ophiuca averted her gaze.  “It does not appear to be the safest place right now.  Harp Note seems…not herself.”

 

“That’s why I have to go help her!  Now will you help me down or not?”

 

She received no further reply.  Grunting in exasperation, Luna stared down the sloped roof in front of her, and then dug out her Star Carrier and materialized her skis.  Climbing over the railing, she carefully inched her way down and pulled to a stop right before she hit the edge.

 

“Sonia!”

 

The other girl turned.

 

“It’s over, Sonia.  Solo’s gone now.”

 

Sonia just stared at her, eyes blank.  Luna started looking for a way down.  In her haste, she turned a little too sharply, and one of the skis slipped out from under her.  She tried to regain her balance, but there was too much snow beneath her, and she ultimately flopped forward over the edge.

 

“Prez!” Bud called.

 

Luna felt an impact.  After a few seconds, she opened her eyes to find herself safe in Sonia’s arms.

 

“…Sonia?”

 

She didn’t respond.  Carefully, Luna reached up and touched Sonia’s face.

 

“It’ll be okay.  We’ll figure it out, together.”

 

Sonia was still for a time.  Then she spasmed suddenly, dropping Luna and falling to the ground beside her.  Luna fought the urge to back up as Sonia put both hands around her head, groaning as she lurched repeatedly.  Eventually, her armor flashed back to normal, accompanied with a lurch powerful enough that her whole body leaned back.  A few seconds afterward, she bucked forward—her Wave Change disappeared and Lyra was thrown a few feet away, arms wrapped tightly around herself and eyes unfocused.

 

“Lyra?” Luna asked.

 

The FM-ian was frozen, as if not conscious of the world around her.

 

Sonia dug her fingers into the snow.   Luna could see that clarity had returned to her eyes, only to be slowly overtaken with horror.

 

“…I…”

 

She clamped a hand over her mouth.

 

“I…I…I…I…”

 

Luna lightly put her arms around Sonia as she started to sob.

 

What have I done?

 

***

 

Hope Stelar opened the door and gave a bright smile to her visitors.  “Aaron!  I haven’t seen you in forever!  What brings you here?”

 

She noticed the expression on his face and something in the back of her mind went off.  Sonia and Luna were behind him, looking similarly unpleasant, which didn’t make her feel any better.

 

“…I’m sorry, Hope,” Boreal said.  “It isn’t good news.”

 

Hope’s smile was gone in an instant.  This situation was far too familiar for her to stay optimistic.

 

Boreal removed his hat and fidgeted with it for a moment.  “There was a malfunction in the weather control system at the resort the kids were staying at, leading to an unexpected blizzard.  Conditions got pretty bad all of a sudden—no one was prepared.  Search parties were sent out right away, and they’re still looking, but…”

 

He trailed off.  In a resigned voice, Hope asked, “Where’s Geo?”

 

Sonia lowered her head, shutting her eyes tightly.  “…I’m sorry.  I’m so, so sorry, Mrs. Stelar…”

 

Hope stepped back.  “I see.”

 

“I’ll find him,” Boreal said.  “I promise you Hope, we will not rest until we bring him home safe and sound.”

 

Nodding automatically, Hope said, “Right.  Alright.”

 

No one could think of anything else to say, so Hope slowly swung the door closed.  Boreal took a few quick steps away from the house before stopping and covering his face with both hands.

 

Luna looked to Sonia.  She had her arms wrapped around her stomach like she felt sick, a look of pure anguish on her face.  Luna touched her on the shoulder and led her away.

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter 8

 

 

Sonia reached out, fighting off the searing pain that filled her body.  She could almost reach Geo.

 

“Geo!  No!”

 

He blinked out of existence.  She shouted, and then heard Solo laughing behind her.  Gritting her teeth, she spun and thrust, a shuriken appearing in her hand.  She successfully made contact with Solo…after punching a hole straight through Lyra.

 

The FM-ian’s eyes went dark.  “S…So…nia…”

 

Sonia dropped the weapon and fell backwards.  “No…I-I didn’t mean to…no, Lyra!”

 

She reached forward, but her pain suddenly intensified.  It grew worse than she could ever imagine, until finally, she burst completely into flames.

 

***

 

Sonia’s entire body tensed as she woke up.  She realized there was something in her hand and turned frantically—but discovered that it was just Luna’s hand.  The other girl sat in a chair nearby, slumped forward onto the bed, still asleep but refusing to let go.  Sonia stared at her as her breathing gradually slowed.  When she felt almost calm, she rolled over onto her side and gently wrapped her other hand around Luna’s.

 

She was glad Luna was there.  Still, all she could do was sob.

 

***

 

Solo glared at the floor, still seething with anger.  Not far away, Hyde leaned against the wall, trying half-heartedly to hide his grin.

 

“I am told that Harp Note was able to channel the Rogue Wave during your fight,” Vega said from her throne.  “You assured me that you were the only one who could do that.”

 

“I am!” Solo said.  “She has three of the Artifacts—that much Mu energy must have let her forge a connection.  Once I take them from her, she’ll never be able to use it again!”

 

“But at the moment, she can use it, meaning she is even more dangerous than we anticipated.  It’s no wonder you lost.”

 

Solo looked up and snarled, “I didn’t lose!  Hollow took me away before we had the chance to finish!”

 

Hyde rolled his eyes.  Turning towards him suddenly, Solo said, “Know your place, human!  You have some nerve to mock me, the Final—“

 

“Final Heir to Mu, yes, yes we’ve heard you say that several times now,” Hyde interrupted.  “You know, I’m not so sure a declaration of lineage really works as a catchphrase, especially considering most people have no idea what Mu is.  You might consider trying something else.  Shall I write up some samples for you?”

 

Solo clenched his fists and took a step forward.

 

“Enough!” Vega ordered.  “Solo, I believe you should go to see Hollow.  We are in possession of several objects that may assist you in—“

 

“Forget it!” Solo said.  “I don’t need help from anyone, least of all the likes of you.  We might have similar goals, but once Mu is restored, I don’t plan to show you any mercy.”

 

He stormed off before anyone could argue.  Hyde walked to the center of the room, commenting, “Ah, a warrior youth with wounded pride.  Will he regain his honor, or will his foolish pursuit lead only to his demise?  Heh, heh, heh.”

 

“Be quiet,” Phantom said.  “We did not come here to analyze that brat.”

 

Hyde sighed.  “True.”

 

Kneeling, he went on, “Lady Vega, I believe I have discovered something that will be of great help to our plans.  When Solo and Harp Note battled, I noticed a very particular wave pattern building up at the battlefield, and upon further investigation, it proved quite familiar.  The clash between the two warriors wielding the power of Mu produced ambient energy nearly identical to that of the OOParts.”

 

“Really?” Vega said.  “Was there a great quantity?”

 

“Nowhere near as much as we will require,” Phantom answered.  “Further, we do not yet have a way to contain that energy, though we are working on a device.  I believe that if the two of them were to develop greater mastery over their respective powers, the energy produced would be much greater.  Possibly even enough to accomplish our objective without even laying hands on the Sacred Artifacts—though I must point out that would still be a much more effective method.”

 

Vega nodded.  “Thank you for sharing this with me.  Please continue work on this device, and notify me as soon as it is completed.”

 

Hyde bowed.  “It will be done, Lady Vega!  Leave everything to your humble servant!”

 

“Stop groveling,” Phantom grumbled.

 

Hyde stood and left, leaving Vega alone.  As she pulled the curtain shut around her seat, she thought, Sonia will no doubt continue to draw power out of the three Artifacts she possesses, but if that is the case, she may overpower Solo.  We will need a way to make him stronger as well if they are to clash as equals.

 

She looked down and closed her eyes.  As she weighed her options, she came to realize there was only one thing that could conceivably give that kind of power to Solo.

 

…I had hoped to keep it as a backup plan.  But I need Mu, and if Sonia surpasses Solo, then there will be little else I can do to stop her from putting an end to my mission.  I will tell Hollow to unseal it, and find a way to make Solo take it.  Then, once he masters it, his next battle with Sonia should give us all the Mu energy we need.

 

***

 

Luna quietly approached the park bench and sat down.  Sonia was there, her head hanging and a sullen look in her half-closed eyes, barely able to look up and force a slight smile in greeting.

 

“Here,” Luna said, holding out a sandwich.  “You should eat something.”

 

“Thanks,” Sonia whispered as it was placed in her hands.  In seconds she was slouched forward again.

 

Luna started to wring her hands as she watched Sonia just sit there.  She didn’t have her guitar, or her Visualizer, and her gloves were missing as well; her hood was pulled farther over her face than usual, and poking out from under its edges were a few misshapen spikes of hair.  There were heavy bags under her eyes after the past few sleepless nights.

 

She wasn’t sure what to do.  Sonia had been unlike herself ever since snapping out of the strange transformation she had undergone, and though Luna had done her best to show support, she couldn’t tell if her efforts were really having an effect.

 

I’ll just have to keep at it until they do.

 

Time seemed to drag on.  Luna tried not to look directly at Sonia, hoping not to make her feel awkward, and she didn’t think it would be helpful to strike up a conversation either.  So, they sat together in silence.

 

“…Luna?” Sonia finally mumbled.

 

Luna looked up sharply.  “Y-Yes?”

 

Sonia inhaled, held the breath for a few seconds, and then chuckled dryly.  “Where do I even begin to fix this?”

 

Wondering what exactly she meant, Luna went through everything that had happened on the day of Solo’s appearance, and quickly remembered why Sonia felt overwhelmed.  Somewhere along the way her eyes settled on Sonia’s hands—the sandwich was still sitting there, untouched.

 

“First,” she finally said, “I think you should eat something.”

 

Sonia looked at the sandwich as if just realizing it was there.  She turned back to Luna, who nodded, and then haltingly opened the wrapper and took a bite.

 

“Luna,” she said, “I appreciate this, but—“

 

“You haven’t been eating enough,” Luna interrupted.  Reaching up to Sonia’s face, she lightly ran a thumb under her eye.  “Or sleeping enough, for that matter.  Eat.  You’re going to need at least some energy.”

 

Sonia gave up and returned to her food.  When she finished, she gave a half-smile and said, “Okay.”

 

Luna hesitantly reached up, trying to smooth a tuft of Sonia’s hair.  “I know you feel awful, but you can’t forget to take care of yourself, Sonia.”

 

Sonia withdrew.  “I know, I just…”

 

Luna immediately retracted her arm.  Was that too much?

 

“…I just…don’t feel…like I deserve that, I guess.”

 

She put her head in her hands.

 

“I messed everything up.  I haven’t been able to do anything but mess up ever since getting these stupid OOParts.”

 

Edging closer, Luna said, “That’s not true.”

 

“It feels that way.”

 

“Okay.  But do you think that’s because that’s actually how it was, or that you’re remembering it that way because you’re already feeling bad?”

 

Sonia ran her hands through her hair, sending them back into her hood.  “…It could be the second one.”

 

She leaned back.  Her hands fell and gripped the seat, and she looked like she was about to stretch out for a moment before she shrank back in again.

 

“I definitely messed up this time, though,” she said.

 

Reluctantly, Luna said, “…Yes.  But, I think…not everything that’s bothering you right now is your fault.”

 

Sonia turned her head.  Luna swallowed hard and hoped she knew what she was talking about.

 

“We’re all upset about Geo and Pat and Mega, but there was no way you could have prevented that.  It happened totally out of nowhere, and you were preoccupied anyway.  So at least don’t blame yourself for that.”

 

“If I don’t take it seriously, then how can I expect to get them back?”

 

“There’s a difference between taking it seriously and taking blame for it!  You’ve already fixed plenty of things that weren’t your fault.  I know this hurts a lot more with how close you and Geo are, but Sonia: there was nothing you could have done.”

 

“But what if I—“

 

“No,” Luna said, pointing.  “Solo would have stopped you.”

 

“You don’t even know what I was—“

 

“Solo.  Would’ve stopped you.  From getting anywhere near Geo.  And we only had a moment’s notice!”  Luna gave Sonia a stern look.  “Repeat after me: there was nothing you could have done.”

 

Sonia grunted.  Luna continued to stare at her, until eventually, she closed her eyes and said, “There…was nothing I…could’ve done.”

 

Luna smiled.  “Good.”

 

“I wish I could’ve,” Sonia muttered.

 

“We all wish that, but that won’t change anything.”

 

“…Right.”

 

Sonia let out a loud sigh.  Tentatively, Luna brushed her fingers against her arm, and she responded by leaning against her.  Luna took a minute to process this and then nervously hugged her around the shoulders.

 

“I guess,” Sonia said, “first I have to deal with the part that was my fault.  That’s more obvious.”

 

“It’s also going to hurt even more,” Luna said.  “It’s understandable you conveniently overlooked it.  But, do you want to rest a little first?”

 

“M-mm.  No, I need to…I need to face this…”

 

Luna felt her shudder.

 

“…I hurt Lyra…she asked me to stop, over and over, and I…I couldn’t stop…”

 

Sonia pulled away, wiping tears from her face.  Luna kept one hand on her sleeve.

 

“How could I let that happen?  I knew what I was doing, I should’ve known better, but I couldn’t stop…it was like something else was taking over—I couldn’t control myself, like my thoughts weren’t connecting to my body…it was terrifying…”

 

She shook her head.

 

“Terrifying—who cares?  I hurt Lyra!  I shouldn’t—“

 

Luna tugged on her sleeve.  “Hey!  It matters that you were terrified!”

 

“But Lyra—“

 

“That matters too!  But it doesn’t have to be one or the other! ”

 

“How can I think like that?  If I hurt someone, then I need to focus on fixing that, not on whether or not I’m hurting!”

 

“If you don’t find a way to stop hurting, then you might hurt someone again!”

 

Sonia’s eyebrows lowered.

 

“…That came out wrong,” Luna said.  She crumpled the bit of Sonia’s sleeve she held.  “It’s just, what you described sounded awful.  Beyond awful.  I can’t just say that it doesn’t matter that you went through that.”

 

Sonia didn’t respond, but her expression relaxed slightly.

 

“I hurt people once.  Well, more than once, but…there was a time I gave into something I knew I shouldn’t have, and did horrible things to people, all because I was hurting.  Getting out of that frame of mind was hard, and figuring out where to go afterward was difficult too.  But I had a heroine come to my rescue.  Do you remember?”

 

Sonia surveyed the park.  “…Where is Ophiuca, anyway?”

 

“Out,” Luna said shortly.  “Now listen.  It isn’t going to be easy, but you need to understand why you did what you did if you’re going to really move on.  We’ll all be there to help you as much as we can, but we can’t do it for you.”

 

Scratching at the bench, Sonia said, “I can’t forgive myself for a mistake like this.  I hurt Lyra.”

 

“I hurt my parents.  Mr. Shepar hurt all of us.  Pat hurt Geo.  And you helped all of us move past that.  I won’t accept that you’ve forgotten all of that just because you’re on this side of the problem for the first time.”

 

Sonia clenched her teeth and leaned forward, gripping her hood and holding completely still for a few seconds.  Then she fell backwards against the bench, pulling one hand down over her face, and murmured, “…I’m feeling lost right now.”

 

Quietly, Luna said, “That’s normal.  Try to remember how you approached other people when they felt lost.”

 

“I don’t know, I just…talked to them.  I tried to understand what they were trying to do, and why they felt like they had to do it.”

 

“Okay,” Luna said.  “Then talk to me.  Help me understand why you did what you did.”

 

She waited patiently.  Ultimately, Sonia whispered, “I was…angry.”

 

Luna nodded.  “Angry about what?”

 

“Solo, at first.  And myself, for not being able to stand up to him, or understand what he was thinking.  I remember feeling impatient, and then…disappointed…in myself.  Then that started turning into exasperation, and I just wanted to actually win a fight for once this year, and…everyone was watching, and I thought maybe I could do it—I really wanted to.”

 

“I see,” Luna said.

 

Sonia ground her teeth.  “…I think…there was something else.  Like a voice, but not quite.  Like when you feel like someone said your name, but you turn around and everyone’s doing something else?”

 

She shook her head, finishing, “I don’t know, that’s the only way I can think to describe it.”

 

“Alright, that’s good,” Luna said.  She paused, and then said, “So, you were fighting Solo.  You were angry, and you wanted to win, and everyone was watching.  And then…?”

 

Sonia clenched her fists.  “And then that portal appeared beneath Pat.”

 

Luna moved her hands around Sonia’s.  “What did you feel then?”

 

“Helplessness,” Sonia laughed.  “You’re right: there was nothing I could have done.  I felt powerless, again, and I hated it.  And then they disappeared, and everything just felt so much worse.  Solo pushed, and…I just saw someone to…to blame…”

 

She shook her head.  Luna wondered if maybe they should stop.

 

“…It was a voice,” Sonia said.  “It became clearer then.  It kept saying ‘Power’, over and over, just like…”

 

She looked up.  “Like the dream I had…the first night after we absorbed the OOParts.  There were these voices, all saying they wanted power, and they were trying to consume me.  It…must have been the OOParts.”

 

“You think the OOParts spoke to you?” Luna said.

 

Sonia nodded.  “I know it sounds crazy—“

 

“No, it doesn’t.”

 

“Well…then the anger just intensified all of a sudden.  That was when I started losing control.  It was like someone else’s thoughts were there, taking control of my body, and I was drowning in rage…”

 

“You felt powerless, so they gave you power,” Luna said.  “I have an idea of what that feels like.”

 

“I heard Lyra,” Sonia went on.  Her voice faltered, and tears began to fall from her eyes.  “I could hear her, screaming, but all I could think about was how helpless I felt, and how angry I was, and how much I wished I could’ve saved Geo and Pat…and then I attacked Solo…I’ve never felt that angry before…”

 

She looked to Luna.

 

“Then I heard you.  I started to realize what I was doing, and I tried so hard to stop…it was so hard to take back control…and then I saw you were in danger, and I panicked, and I knew I had to do something—I couldn’t lose you too, and I got control back, and I…”

 

She breathed.

 

“…I was relieved…the anger was still there, but I finally forced it down…and then…I thought about what I’d done…I really realized what I had done…and I…”

 

She cried harder.  Luna leaned forward and hugged her—it was the only thing she could think to do.  Sonia hugged her back.  When she finally calmed down, they pulled apart, and Sonia looked down for a moment and wiped her eyes.

 

“You’re right,” Sonia whispered.  “I felt helpless, and angry, and the OOParts used that to manipulate me, to take control of me.  So this is what possession feels like…it’s a wonder I ever helped anyone.”

 

“Now don’t say that,” Luna said.  “You might not always understand what someone else is going through, but you always try to.  This’ll just…help you get there a little quicker in the future.”

 

“Heh…thanks, Luna.”  She paused.  “I’ll need to focus more on keeping my anger in check.  And, I need to apologize to Lyra…I’ve been afraid to see her because I didn’t know if she wanted to see me.  Maybe she doesn’t—I can hardly blame her.  Even so…I owe her a really big apology.”

 

She yawned, and then leaned back.

 

“You look exhausted,” Luna said.

 

Sonia nodded.  “…I guess I do feel drained.”

 

Luna closed her eyes.  “Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed you like that.  I’m sorry.”

 

Sonia took her hand.  “Don’t be.  If you don’t mind, will you come with me to see Lyra?”

 

She slowly sat up, but ground to a halt once she did and then began to sway.  Luna said, “Now might not be the best time.  You’re worn out, and seeing Lyra is probably going to be stressful too.  You should rest for now.”

 

Sonia thought a moment.  “Yeah, now that I think about it, I don’t really feel like I have enough energy to stand up.”  She yawned again.  “You were right.  Less food, less sleep…what a terrible idea.”

 

“We can stay here as long as you need.”

 

“Thanks.  Wish I could at least get to a bed, though.  It’d be nice to lie down.”

 

Luna thought.  “W-Well, um…you could lie down here.”

 

Sonia turned to her.  “…Oh.  You mean…?”

 

Luna nodded.  “It’s fine.  We’re…well, you and I…you know.”

 

Sonia gave a small smile.  “…If you’re really okay with it?”

 

Luna nodded again, sliding a short distance down the bench.  Sonia waited a few seconds to be sure, and then slowly lay down, letting her head rest on Luna’s lap.  Luna reached around her awkwardly, saying, “Um, I’m not really sure what to…”

 

Sonia reached up and guided Luna’s hands so that one was supporting her head and the other rested lightly against her shoulder.  “How’s that?”

 

“What?  Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”

 

Sonia chuckled.  Grunting, Luna looked around, starting to feel a little embarrassed.  She could feel herself starting to blush, but she tried to ignore it.  Absent-mindedly, she began to stroke Sonia’s hair.  The other girl breathed deeply and steadily, a weary smile on her face.

 

“Sonia?” she whispered.  She received only a snore in reply.

 

She’s already asleep?!

 

She stared at Sonia for a moment.  Then, with a sigh, she went back to stroking her hair.  Despite her nervousness, Luna soon found herself smiling as well.

 

It’ll be alright, Sonia.  I promise I won’t leave you alone.

 

***

 

Sonia climbed the uphill path to Vista Point.  Luna was holding her hand, giving her the encouragement she needed to keep going.  In her other hand she held her Visualizer; as they drew closer to the peak, she opened the glasses and shakily placed them on her face.

 

Lyra was floating on the observation deck, her back to the pathway.  Sonia felt her stomach twist.

 

Here goes.

 

They stopped at the stairs of the deck.  Taking a deep breath, Sonia said, “Lyra?  Can I talk to you?”

 

“I suppose,” Lyra sighed.  She didn’t turn around.

 

Luna let go, and Sonia walked up the stairs alone.  When she reached the top, Sonia stopped and said, “I’m sorry for what I put you through.”

 

A short laugh came from Lyra.

 

“…I know.  It doesn’t exactly make up for it, huh?  Actually, I…I really don’t know that I can make it up to you.  You were in horrible pain because of me—“

 

“Horrible doesn’t begin to describe it,” Lyra said.  “Agonizing, excruciating, mind-numbing.  Any of those would provide a closer fit.”

 

Sonia’s gaze fell.  “Right.  You trusted me, and I did that to you.  I made a terrible mistake.  I gave in to my anger, and I got carried away, without thinking of how it would affect those closest to me.  You have every right to hate me.”

 

“Agreed.”  She waited a moment, and then turned halfway around.  “…You have figured it out, haven’t you?”

 

Sonia looked around.  “I…I’m not sure what you mean.”

 

“The OOParts.  The part they played in all this.”

 

“Oh.  Yeah, we did actually.  What about it?”

 

Lyra smirked.  “It would provide you with a wonderful excuse.  Aren’t you going to use it?”

 

Sonia shook her head.  “They had an effect on me, but I’m also responsible.  I need to accept that if I’m going to really apologize.”

 

With another sigh, Lyra said, “I knew you’d say something like that…”

 

She approached Sonia and continued, “I know that you’re sincere, Sonia.  I appreciate it.  But even still, it’s difficult to forgive you so easily.”

 

“No, I understand,” Sonia said.  “I know it’ll take a while, if you even do decide to forgive me.”

 

“Well, we don’t exactly have the luxury of time at the moment.  There’s work to be done.”

 

“Forget about that.  You shouldn’t have to work with someone you can’t trust.”

 

Lyra raised an eyebrow.  “Really?”

 

“Really,” Sonia said.  “I would understand if…if you never wanted to see me again.  I won’t force you to stay if you don’t want to be around me.”

 

“I thought you’d be eager to go searching for our friends.”

 

“I am, but I don’t necessarily have to be Harp Note to do that.  I don’t want you to feel any obligation towards me.”

 

Lyra turned and floated a few paces away.  Sonia remained silent as Lyra thought this over.

 

“This isn’t a problem that we can just leave behind,” Lyra said.  “The OOParts aren’t going to stop what they’re doing just because we stop using them.  Continuing to learn how to control them…while it might be unpleasant…is most likely the best option.”

 

She came closer to Sonia.  “If I stay, I’ll need to see that you’re committed to learning that control.”

 

“Of course,” Sonia said with a nod.

 

“And you understand it will take some time for me to fully trust you again, yes?”

 

“Yes, absolutely.  I’ll have to earn it, and I’m prepared to work hard to do so.”

 

“Good,” Lyra said.  She breathed, and then said, “In that case…I’ll stay.  I’ll also do my best to work together with you and control the OOParts, and though I imagine I’ll still be upset with you for some time…”

 

She smiled just long enough to finish, “I look forward to the day when I can trust you again.”

 

Slowly, Sonia started to grin.  “Really?”

 

“Truly.  Now, let’s head back, shall we?”

 

“S-Sure!” Sonia said, trying to hold back the tears streaming down her face.  “Let’s go!”

 

Lyra turned to Luna, saying, “I trust I have you to thank for taking care of her in my absence?”

 

“You don’t have to thank me,” Luna said.  “She’s my Brother, so I took care of her.”

 

Lyra nodded, and then started down the path.  Sonia jumped down the stairs and hugged Luna, saying, “Thank you.”

 

“H-Hey, I just said you didn’t need to thank me!” Luna protested.

 

“I know, but…thank you.”

 

“…Geez…”

 

Sonia gave her some space and went to catch up with Lyra.  Luna smiled, taking a moment to quickly wipe her eyes, and then followed.

 

***

 

A few days later, Sonia, Luna, Bud, and Zack stood in front of NAZA HQ.  They all turned when they heard someone call out, finding Claud running towards them.

 

“Hey,” Sonia greeted, “glad you could make it!”

 

“Like I would miss an opportunity to help out!” Claud replied.  He stopped and calmed down, then added, “I’m sorry to hear about your friends, though.  Hopefully we find ‘em soon!”

 

“I hope so too,” Sonia said.  “With all of us working together, I think we have a good chance.”

 

They made their way inside, finding Copper waiting in the lobby for them.  Sonia couldn’t help but feel hopeful as they approached.

 

“Good morning,” he greeted.  “Unfortunately, I don’t have any news for you.”

 

The hope drifted away.  “I see,” Sonia said.

 

Copper directed them up the stairs to an elevator.  As it ascended, he said, “We have all the Satella Officers we can spare searching, but there’s no telling where that device may have sent them.  It’s beginning to look doubtful they’re in this country, and, well…we just don’t have much global manpower.  We’re only a national organization, so the majority of our resources are located here in Electopia.”

 

“Well, that’s why we’re here, right?” Bud said.  “Just tell us where we’re going, and we’ll get to looking!”

 

They emerged in the control room.  Boreal stood over the blue table at the center of the room, in full view of all the various panels and screens lining the dark walls; he looked up as they arrived, stopping whatever he was working on.  He looked pale and unsteady, like he could barely stay standing, and his eyelids fluttered oddly.

 

I wonder if I looked that bad, Sonia thought.

 

“We, um…” Boreal said, stopping to yawn.  “We looked into where the other OOParts had been found, like you suggested.”

 

He pressed a button and a world map was displayed on the table.  Two small areas were highlighted on the Netopian continent.

 

“The Berserk OOPart was found here—“  He pointed to an area along the northern coastline.  “—near a town called Loch Mess.  It’s a quiet place that you could probably look around very easily, but…”

 

He yawned again.  Copper stepped forward to pick up the briefing, pointing to an area farther south.  “The Dinosaur OOPart was found in the country of Whazzap, a small tribal nation that doesn’t have much formal recognition.  The few relations they do have with other countries are a bit strained at the moment.  We can arrange passage without issue right now, but we have no idea if that will remain the case, so it might be best to get in while you can.  In addition, our sources say they possess a certain cultural fascination with Mu—they may have some information that will prove quite useful.”

 

Sonia nodded.  “What do you think, Lyra?”

 

“It would be most unfortunate if we missed our only chance to learn what we need about one of the OOParts, and more,” Lyra said.  “And, really, now that we know how to use Berserk’s sword, the form is usable enough even without knowing the correct playing style.  I believe we should follow their advice.”

 

“Hm…my only concern is that Dr. Vega must know about these places as well.  What if she sends someone to do something in Loch Mess while we’re in Whazzap?  No one would be there to stop them.”

 

“We do have some skilled operatives in the area,” Copper said, “though you’re right, a Wave Change-user would make things a lot easier.”

 

Claud raised his hand.  “Oh, that’s an easy one: we’ll just split up!  You go to Whazzap, and then Cancer and I can go take a look around Loch Mess!”

 

“What?!” Cancer shrieked.  “B-B-But, if someone does show up and we’re the only ones there, h-how is that going to work?”

 

“He said there were Officers there who could help.  Why worry?”

 

“That’s not a bad idea,” Sonia said.  “Though, we probably shouldn’t send you two alone.”

 

She turned to Luna, who glanced around and hesitated.  “I, um…well, I guess I’d prefer to stay with you, if I had to pick.”

 

Sonia smiled.  “Yeah, I think I’d prefer that too.”

 

“Forgive me for being frank, but there’s still a chance the OOParts could act up,” Lyra said.  “I’d prefer travelling with backup, and you and Ophiuca haven’t had much practice.”

 

“I find myself in agreement with that analysis,” Ophiuca said.  “To be more precise, we’ve had no practice.  Our usability in a crisis would be less than ideal.”

 

Luna grunted but didn’t disagree.  Bud said, “Alright then, Taurus and I can come too!  We’ve got loads of practice!”

 

“Mrrrgh, that’s right!” Taurus said.  “If Hyde shows his mug, I’d love a chance to clobber him!”

 

Claud turned to Zack, saying, “Guess it’s you and me then!”

 

“Huh?” Zack said, stepping back.  “Wait, but I can’t fight!  What good would I be?”

 

“You can’t?  Oh, right…uh, well you look like a smart guy.  Having an extra pair of eyes is always helpful, and you can probably come up with cool strategies and stuff!”

 

“I’ve never really tried doing that…”

 

“Well, if something happens you can give it a try!”

 

Sonia looked around the group, wondering, “I’m not sure if we can really get two balanced teams here…”

 

“Objectively speaking, they might be slightly more even if we went with Cancer,” Ophiuca suggested.

 

Luna said, “Well…we probably wouldn’t do much fighting anyway, s-so I don’t know if it really would change that much…”

 

Zack thought for a moment, and then stood up straighter.  “No, it’s okay.  You and Bud go with Sonia, and I’ll help Claud however I can.  We’ll rely on the Satella Officers if anything does happen.”

 

“I guess,” Cancer said.  “I mean, we’re really just searching, so it should be fine, probably.”

 

“If you’re sure,” Sonia said.  “Thank you.  The three of you stay safe!”

 

Claud gave a big grin.  “Just leave it to us!  If Geo and Pat are anywhere near Loch Mess, we’ll find ‘em!  We’ll even find someone to teach you how to use that flute or whatever it’s called!”

 

“Lute,” Zack corrected.

 

Sonia giggled.  “That’d be a big help!”

 

Boreal coughed as he sat down.  “Okay.  We’ll make the arrangements and contact you all once we’re ready to send you off.”

 

Copper nodded and left the room.  Sonia looked over the map, thinking, They really could be anywhere.  I guess we have to start somewhere, but how can we know we’re not wasting time?

 

“Sonia?” Lyra said.

 

“Hm?”

 

“I know we’re looking for Mega and Geo and Pat, but remember that we’re also aiming to master the OOParts.  Even if we don’t find them, learning how to control these powers will go a long way towards helping us protect them when we do find them.”

 

“Right.  We’ll stay in Whazzap however long it takes to get a good handle on the Dinosaur playing style, regardless of what happens.  I’m prepared for that.”

 

“Good,” Lyra said.  “If we stay focused, it may not even take that much time.”

 

Sonia took note of the uneasiness in her voice, but couldn’t think of anything to say.  I’ll do my best, Lyra.  I’m not going to put you through that pain again.

 

 

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Chapter 9

 

 

Sonia’s eyes were fixated on the two drums standing in front of her.  Both were roughly cylindrical, wider at either end than at the middle, and were just over half her height.  The shells were made of a polished brown material with white lines running down their surfaces, and the skins were off-white.  She held two thick wooden sticks in her hands, and when the time was right, she struck one of them against a drum.  And then she waited.

 

Luna sat nearby.  The area they were using was just outside of the village; they could see its dome-roofed, multi-tier huts on one side, and to the other was a vast expanse of beautiful desert.  She rubbed her temples as Sonia struck a drum and returned to waiting.

 

“This really is dreadfully tedious,” Ophiuca whispered.  “Do humans truly enjoy such a simple, plodding style of music?”

 

“Shh,” Luna replied.  “I know it just feels like a lot of empty space, but this is how they play!”

 

“Forgive me, why is it again that we must be present for this?”

 

Luna hung her head.  “It’s just not that complicated, Ophiuca.  I care about Sonia.  I want to show her support.  Can’t you understand that?”

 

Ophiuca crossed her arms and cocked her head.  “Put plainly, something just isn’t clicking.  You don’t enjoy this, but you’re doing it anyway.  You don’t benefit from this, but you’re doing it anyway.  And all because you think it will have some small benefit for someone you care about?  Will your being in the vicinity at this moment have any significant impact in the grand scheme of things?  I’m afraid I just don’t foresee any results worth the effort you’re putting forth.”

 

Luna watched Sonia.  She started to move, but hesitated, waiting another few seconds before striking the drum.  She nodded with approval, and then she focused again on timing her wait.

 

“I guess it’s not something I can really explain,” Luna said.  “You just want to do whatever you can for people you care about, even if it’s just something small.  Haven’t you ever had that feeling?”

 

Ophiuca leaned back, sifting through her mind for a relevant memory.  Nothing turned up.

 

Sonia set down her drum sticks and stretched, declaring, “Okay, I think that’s enough practice for now.  This isn’t too bad once you learn to be patient with it.”

 

“You’ve made good progress,” Lyra said.  “Though, perhaps we should take another few days to master it.”

 

“Sure, I’m up for that.”  Turning to Luna, she said, “Thanks for staying.  I know it probably wasn’t that entertaining.”

 

Luna stood, pausing to brush some dust off her clothes.  “Well…that’s neither here nor there.  Though don’t be surprised if I ask you to pay me back for this!”

 

Sonia giggled.  She made her way over to Luna, and then they both headed into the village.  As they went, several of the locals passed them: people with tan skin who all wore vibrant ponchos over their clothes, all smiling brightly and stopping momentarily to greet them.

 

“Whazzap!”

 

“Whazzap!

 

“Whazzap!”

 

They nodded to each, returned the greeting, and continued on their way.  Ophiuca murmured, “I’m still a bit confused as to why the name of the country is also the traditional greeting of its people.”

 

“I have to agree with you on this occasion,” Lyra replied.

 

“Anyway,” Luna said, “you’re sure it’s the drums you need to learn?  I’ve never seen you use percussion in any of your other forms.”

 

“I wasn’t sure at first, but I was told it’s the focus of the music played here, so it seemed like the best bet,” Sonia said.  “Plus, now that I am playing it, it feels right.  I’m getting the same feeling I got when I was learning the shamisen.”

 

“Huh.  How do you think it’s going to work when you unlock the form?”

 

“Hard to say.  I’ll just do what I can now, and figure out the details later.”  Sonia put her hand up to block the sunlight, trying to find the exit on the other side of the town.  “Bud said he was going to be at the Lines, right?”

 

“That’s where he should be,” Luna said.  “With his attention span, though, it’s debatable on whether or not we’ll actually find him there.”  She waited a few seconds.  “I haven’t heard anything new from Zack.”

 

Sonia nodded solemnly.  “Claud says they still don’t have any leads.”

 

“…W-Well, there are still a few areas around here that we haven’t searched, and I’m sure it’d be easy to get lost in a crowd in Loch Mess.”

 

“Yeah.”  Sonia turned to catch Luna staring at her.  “…Sorry; you’re worried about me, aren’t you?”

 

“A little.  But, I’m only worrying a little.”

 

Sonia smiled.  “Wow, you must be really worried if you’re admitting it.”

 

“Hmph!”

 

“Haha…I’m kidding.”  She looked at the ground, watching each step she took.  “It is discouraging.  Every day we don’t have any news makes me more afraid that…I mean, I have no way of knowing if they got separated.  I don’t know anything.  It’s hard to stop feeling powerless when I’m so in the dark.”

 

“We’ll find them,” Luna said.  “When we do, I’ve got a lecture ready for them.  They should know better than to keep us waiting so long!  I don’t expect much from Mega, and Geo could go either way, but Pat’s the responsible type who should really know better!  Lollygagging like this, honestly…”

 

Sonia looked over at her.  “You’re really prepared.”

 

“Of course!  We could find them any day now, you know.  A lecture needs to be delivered swiftly to be effective.”

 

Another smile formed on Sonia’s face as she lightly bumped into Luna.  “You sure do have a way with people.”

 

Luna averted her gaze and blushed.  “That had better be a compliment.”

 

They came to an area at the base of a large cliff, bordered on the side opposite the village entrance by a stone temple with no roof.  Scattered all about were gigantic images carved in the ground.  Bud was sitting next to one of them, too busy eating something to notice the two girls as they approached.

 

“Bud!” Luna said.

 

He looked up with a start.  “Oh, Prez!  Sorry, I didn’t hear you.”

 

“Can you hear anything over the sound of your monstrous chewing?  What is that you’ve got?”

 

“It’s these special ribs they make here.  I thought I’d try some while I wait, but they’re so good I haven’t been able to stop eating!  You should try some!”

 

“Maybe later!  Listen: did you ask around like I told you to?  Did anyone say anything about these Lines that we didn’t already know?”

 

Bud stood up, wiping his hands on his jacket.  “Yeah, I asked.  Like the tour guide told us when we first got here, everyone’s convinced these were made by Mu.”

 

Luna crossed her arms.  “So nothing new?”

 

“Well, I was able to get some people’s ideas of what each one means, and those are kind of interesting.”

 

“That’s all?”

 

Sonia stepped forward.  “No, that could actually give us something.  What did they say?”

 

Bud pointed to the symbol he had been sitting next to: a massive form centered around an oval-shaped disc, with structures leading up to a massive spire on its top side and a smaller, almost triangular shape coming from its underside.  “This one’s really important.  Everyone says this is a drawing of the Mu continent!”

 

Luna and Sonia looked it over, the former saying, “This?  It doesn’t really look like a continent.”

 

“That’s what I said.  Then the woman I was talking to said it looks this way because Mu actually floated in the sky!”

 

Luna sighed.  “Bud, be serious.”

 

“It’s true,” Taurus said.  “Apparently, the story is that Mu had technology that let it float, and from there carved these images in the ground.  They say that’s why these lines are visible even from space.”

 

Lyra said, “I’ve seen floating cities on other planets, but an entire continent is a bit hard for me to believe.”

 

“Why’s that?” Sonia asked.

 

“Assuming the mechanisms are similar, it would take an enormous amount of power to keep something that massive aloft,” Ophiuca said.  “Unless Mu’s technology was radically more efficient, they would need energy comparable to that of Andromeda to achieve the desired effect.  I’m not sure which I would consider more likely.”

 

Sonia continued to stare at the image.  “You know…this almost looks familiar, somehow.”

 

“Now that you mention it…” Lyra said.  “…Perhaps it’s the OOParts?”

 

“Probably.”  She shook her head.  “Anyway, what about the other symbols, Bud?”

 

Bud led them towards another symbol, saying, “Most of these are all supposed to represent someone who was a big deal in Mu or something.  Like, this one—“

 

He pointed to a bird-like picture.

 

“—apparently this is a guardian of Mu, and over here—“

 

He pointed to a symbol that looked like a mask with an unsettling smile.

 

“—this one’s a strategist.  But, look at this one over here!”

 

They stopped in front of a symbol that resembled a gigantic footprint.  Bud waved his hands excitedly as he said, “They said this was one of Mu’s greatest soldiers!”

 

“So what?” Luna said.

 

“Sonia, remember what Yeti said?  He introduced himself as an elite soldier!”

 

“Did he?” Sonia said.  “Huh…come to think of it, he did.  And this symbol…”

 

“Mrrrgh!” Taurus grunted.  “There’s no way this is a coincidence.”

 

Sonia slowly turned.  “Then…do each of these represent a PM-ian?”

 

“That’s what we were thinking!” Bud said.  “How cool is that?”

 

Turning back to the footprint, Sonia put a hand to her face.  “You’re right, Taurus: this can’t be a coincidence.  If this really does represent Yeti, and these were supposedly made by Mu, then combined with everything else we’ve seen…I guess, maybe Mu actually did exist.”

 

The sound of voices alerted her to someone coming towards them: he was a tall man with reddish skin, sporting a long white beard and white hair that was even longer.  He wore a dark red robe with an orange shawl that split into several points, as well as a red hat that had the shape of a bowl, and a piece of gold jewelry could be seen peeking out from behind his beard.  In his hand he carried a gold staff with a head shaped similarly to the bird symbol they had just been looking at, and he planted this staff in the ground as he came to a stop in front of them.

 

“Whazzap,” he greeted.

 

“Whazzap,” the three of them replied.

 

“I am the Shaman who leads this village.  I had heard some outsiders were staying with us—would that be you?”

 

“Yes, we’ve been staying here,” Sonia said.  “It’s nice to meet you!”

 

“I was also told one of you was learning how we play our drums.”

 

“Uh…yes, that would be me.”

 

The Shaman squinted at her.  “I see.  For what purpose?”

 

Sonia shifted.  “Er, well…I’m a musician, and lately I’ve been trying to learn some new styles of playing.  Just for some variety.  I’m sorry—when I asked, they said it was alright…”

 

“My people are very trusting.  However, outsiders have often taken advantage of that trust, coming to our land and taking whatever they please, being celebrated in their home country while ours is somehow never mentioned.”

 

“Oh.  You’re worried I’m going to steal credit for your style of music?”

 

“I do not wish to accuse you, but I cannot continue to take such matters lightly.  Our music is an essential piece of our culture—it must be protected.”

 

“I understand,” Sonia said.  “I assure you, I would never do something like that.  I can stop if you want.”

 

The Shaman stroked his beard.  “…You may continue to learn if you wish.  However, for the time being, I would ask that whatever you learn stays here.”

 

“Alright, I promise.”

 

With a sigh, the Shaman said, “I hope I did not seem rude.  Our country has always been looked down on by the rest of the world, and after seeing it robbed so many times, it is difficult to trust outsiders.”

 

He paused, and then asked, “What is it that brings you to Whazzap?  How did you hear of it?”

 

Luna stepped up to answer, “This country was mentioned in a museum exhibit we visited recently.  What we saw looked interesting, so we decided to take our vacation here.”

 

The Shaman smiled.  “Is that so?  The exhibit mentioned Whazzap?  That is good to hear.  Well, thank you for visiting us, and I hope that you enjoy your time here.”

 

“We will, thank you.”

 

When the Shaman left, Lyra said, “Glad you were prepared, Luna.”

 

Luna tossed her hair.  “It is my duty to think ahead, after all.”

 

Sonia nodded.  He was really happy to hear that, though.  I wonder if there’s some way we can help him…

 

“Well well!” someone called out.  “Fancy meeting you all here, heh, heh, heh.”

 

Sonia instinctively grabbed her guitar as she saw a slender person wearing striped greenish pants and an odd purple coat with a high collar walking towards them, a cane in his hand and a small hat sitting atop his numerous blond braids.

 

That laugh…

 

He tipped his hat.  “Good day.  I would introduce myself, but I trust you are perceptive enough that it would be unnecessary.”

 

“You’re Hyde, aren’t you?” Sonia said.  Bud and Luna stepped closer to her.  “What are you doing here?”

 

“Oh, I’ve been in and out of this place for some time, actually.  A culture that worships Mu, possessing legends passed down from that ancient land that no outsider has ever heard?  It’s painfully obvious this location is essential to the plot of my script.  Alas, given the defensive nature of the Shaman, it also became apparent that he would not simply turn over the information I require.  No, to convince the elder to speak, I knew—“

 

“No one is interested in your soliloquy,” Lyra said.  “The point, if you please.”

 

Phantom scoffed.  “Typical FM-ian: no appreciation for the finer details.”

 

Hyde frowned.  “I was getting there.”

 

“Hey, Phantom!” Taurus said.  “I hear you’ve got a problem with FM-ians, is that right?”

 

“It’s a well-informed conclusion, scum,” Phantom said.

 

“If that’s what you think, then fine.  But what really bugs me is that you made Yeti believe it too!”

 

“That simpleton?  He believes anything I tell him.”

 

“And you just take advantage of him like that?!”

 

“Should I not?  I am his commanding officer, and he is but a soldier.  It is my job to think, and his to carry out my will.”

 

“Mrrrgh!  You’re the scum here!  It’s because of you saying things like that that Yeti didn’t know how to think for himself!”

 

“Cut!” Hyde declared.  “Goodness…picking up where we left off: the point I was attempting to make is that I need a way to make the Shaman willing to negotiate, and now I have one.”

 

“And what would that be?” Sonia asked.

 

“Why, you, my dear heroine!  You are here in the hallowed land of Whazzap, on-call to perform on the Shaman’s own stage!  All I need is a foil to set against you, someone with comparable presence yet with beliefs that run totally counter to your own.  Now let me see, where could I find one of those?  I hope I find someone—it would be most difficult for this to be a solo piece…heh, heh, heh.”

 

Sonia’s eyes widened, and she unconsciously took a step back.  “Y…You’re not really going to bring Solo here, are you?”

 

“No, I’m not going to,” Hyde said.  After a small delay, he grinned and said, “I already have!  Hahahaha!”

 

He turned and swung his cane.

 

No one was there.

 

“…I already have!”

 

Hyde tapped his foot.

 

“…Really, can’t even follow your cue?  Ugh, this is precisely why I loathe working with amateurs…”

 

Putting a hand to his head, he said, “Well, he’s here somewhere.  Quite fascinated to learn about a country with such love for Mu…and quite eager to take another swing at the foul pretender who bested him once already, heh, heh, heh.”

 

“She’ll beat him again!” Luna said.  “It was a waste bringing him here!”

 

“I dearly hope she will, but I do not think it will be a waste.  No, a second defeat will be quite fruitful in fact…heh, heh, heh…”

 

Luna squinted at him.  “What does that mean?”

 

Hyde pivoted.  “I’m afraid it’d be a bit soon to spell out everything.  However, I’m beginning to see that this ensemble demands a few more shows, so I expect my meaning will be made plain soon enough.  For now, you have bigger problems to deal with.  Good luck, dear heroine!  I know you’ll put on a splendid show!  Heh, heh, heh!”

 

He walked off.  Luna turned back to Sonia, who was staring wide-eyed at the ground.  “Sonia?”

 

Sonia gulped.  “I-I was hoping…I wouldn’t have to fight him again so soon.”

 

“Likewise,” Lyra said.  “Regrettably, we don’t appear to have a say in the matter.  Time to face things head-on.”

 

“Don’t forget, you’ve got us!” Luna said.  “We’re not going to let you tackle him alone this time.”

 

Sonia looked up at her.  “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

 

“Then I won’t!  But don’t think I’ll allow you to get hurt either.”

 

Bud bashed his fists together.  “I’m raring to go!  Let’s track Solo down and give him the fight he wants!”

 

Sonia breathed, reluctantly agreeing, “…Okay.  Thank you both.”

 

The three of them made a quick survey, and then they went to search near the temple and doubled back from there, finding nothing.  Just as they were about to head back into the village, they spotted one person wearing black standing next to one of the images.

 

He really is here, Sonia thought with a shudder.

 

Drawing their terminals, they approached.  It was indeed Solo, too focused on the image to notice them.  As they came closer, Sonia recognized the image on the ground: it was the same one Solo wore on his chest.  There was an unusual softness in his expression as he looked at it, as if he were in awe.  He closed his eyes as the wind blew over him, leaning back slightly and inhaling deeply.

 

He seems so much calmer than before.  I wonder what he’s thinking?

 

When Solo opened his eyes, he spotted her, and they instantly formed a glare.  Sonia and her friends stopped while there was still a little distance between them.

 

“I see you still insist on mocking me,” Solo said.  “Was it not enough to steal the remnants of my forebears, or to turn my own power against me?  To think you were able to find this place before me, a place rich in the legacy of Mu.  When will these affronts cease?”

 

Sonia found herself shaking.  Luna gently took her hand, which helped her to grow still.

 

“…Listen, Solo,” Sonia said at last.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to attack you like that last time—it was a mistake.”

 

Solo sneered.  “What sort of warrior apologizes for fighting their hardest?  I knew you were too weak to be worthy of Mu’s power.”

 

He lifted his hand.  Sonia said, “Stop!  Can’t we talk about this?”

 

Solo ignored her as he initiated his transformation.  Sonia, Luna, and Bud transformed as well, and each took up a fighting stance.

 

“…Lyra?” Sonia asked.

 

“We’re going to need one of them,” Lyra said.  “Go ahead.  I’m ready.”

 

“Okay.”

 

In a flash of lightning Sonia was enveloped in shining silver armor.  Her greaves widened slightly and took on some golden highlights across their length, ultimately coming to flat plates that extended just above her knees.  Her new torso armor was fairly simple, leading to a dark blue skirt; the armor rounded over her shoulders, and her arms were given only chain mail and silver gauntlets.  Her visor had changed to a strip of metal with several vertical slits in its surface.  In place of a helmet she wore a round blue cap with a tall yellow feather, and a small yellow cloak hung from her shoulders.  She held the lute again, but this time she was prepared to use it.

 

“Berserk this time?” Solo said.  “Hah!  How fitting!  But tell me, what are those doing on the battlefield?”

 

“We’re here to help her!” Luna said.  “If you’re going to try to hurt our friend, then it’s our job to do everything we can to stop you!”

 

“Hmph…humans and their bonds.  Always attacking in mobs when you’re too weak to do anything on your own.  You make me sick.”

 

“What was that?!  I’m pretty sure you’re human too, you jerk!”

 

Sonia plucked each string on the lute in succession, causing the lightning blade to form around its body.  She grabbed the neck with both hands and lifted the weapon.  “Solo, we don’t have to fight.”

 

Solo lashed out with a punch.  Sonia blocked with the flat of her blade, and then hopped back rather than countering.  Fortunately, Solo was so focused on her that he was blindsided when Bud punched him, and was flung several feet away.  Bud lowered his horns and charged, and Solo moved to dodge.  Something prevented him from doing so—he looked down to see snakes coiled around his ankles, and then looked up to see Bud slamming into him.  Sonia swung her sword through the air, sending out a shockwave of electricity, but Solo rolled when he hit the ground in order to stay under the attack.

 

“Disgraceful,” Solo spat.

 

Flames rushed towards him.  Punching upward, he sent a swell of purple energy along the ground that cut through the fire and struck Bud, and then leapt forward and sent him sprawling with a punch.  Sonia waved her sword to force Solo back.  Luna tried using her eyebeams, but Solo was able to dodge.

 

“Are you okay, Bud?” Sonia asked.

 

Back on his feet, Bud said, “You know it!”

 

Solo withdrew, and Bud followed.  Luna looked to Sonia, who was standing still, and said, “Shouldn’t we go help him?”

 

Sonia nodded and slowly moved in while Luna circled around.  Solo suddenly stopped his retreat and attacked, but Bud was able to block.  His counterattack missed however, and Solo got behind him and kicked him into the trio of snakes Luna had sent their way.  Solo locked eyes with Sonia.  She swung her sword, he ducked under it, he connected with an uppercut, she stumbled away.  He was about to press his advantage when a snake landed on him; Bud threw the other two as he came running in.

 

“Now, Sonia!” Lyra said.

 

Sonia lightly struck Solo, stunning him.  Bud took the opportunity to maul him, but he recovered quickly and flipped the boy, slamming him into the ground.  A blast of Luna’s eyebeams hit him in the back.  Sonia stepped forward and swung again, and again dealt only a minor hit.  Solo retaliated with a combination of strikes that ultimately sent her tumbling away towards Luna.

 

“Sonia, what’s wrong?” Luna asked as she helped her up.  “I thought you said you knew how to use this form now?”

 

Readying her sword, Sonia said, “I-I do, I just…”

 

“I see what’s going on,” Lyra said.  “You’re afraid you’re going to lose control again, aren’t you?”

 

Sonia didn’t respond.  Bud got up and shot a blast of fire, so Solo jumped away and unleashed a barrage of energy fists, forcing all three of them on the defensive.  Luna summoned a few snakes to entangle him, but he detected them quickly and destroyed them in an instant.

 

“I know you’re worried Sonia, but we need your help,” Luna said.  “You’re not going to lose control this time, I’m sure of it!”

 

Solo dodged more fire blasts, gradually putting himself between Bud and his friends.  Not wanting to hit them, Bud stopped, and Solo saw an opening to send a wave of energy at him.  Steeling herself, Sonia started forward and swung, landing a solid blow to Solo’s back.  He shouted in pain and surprise as Sonia reared back for a follow up.

 

Is this any different from what I did last time?

 

He spun and punched.  Sonia was sent flying—Luna rushed to her aid, but Solo intercepted her, knocking her to the ground with another blow.

 

As she pulled herself up, Sonia heard Lyra say, “You’re worried about more than the OOParts’ influence, it would seem.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Sonia said.  “I just keep thinking about how badly I hurt him last time.  If I hurt him again, even without losing control, then…”

 

She shook her head.  Lyra said, “I know you don’t want to hurt anyone, Sonia.  But take a look at him.  For starters, he doesn’t seem all that phased by the thrashing you gave him previously.  In addition…”

 

Bud charged at Solo from behind.  When he had almost made contact, Solo ducked and spun suddenly, jamming his fist into Bud’s gut and knocking the wind out of him.  Solo then brushed him off with a half-hearted grunt.

 

“He doesn’t have the same reservations you do.  If you keep holding back, he’s just going to keep hurting you, and Bud, and Luna.  I’m not saying you have to assault him, just that we’re going to need a small show of force to fend him off.”

 

Luna stood tall as Solo approached her.  He punched, but she twisted her body to avoid contact and flicked her tail, hitting him on the shoulder.  Solo swung his foot in a wide arc; Luna narrowly dodged, threw snakes on him, and then tackled him full force, managing to knock him back.

 

“What a nuisance!” Solo said.  He feinted, finally landing a punch.

 

“Luna!” Sonia shouted.  An aura of orange started to appear around her.  “Oh no, no, no!”

 

Luna rolled away from a kick.  She used her tail to sweep Solo’s feet out from under him and stunned him briefly with her eyebeams, giving her time to back away and catch her breath.  Bud was starting to get up too.

 

Power…power…

 

“No,” Sonia said, her hands tightening around her head.  “No, I don’t want power!  I don’t want to hurt him!”

 

“Look,” Lyra said.

 

Bud and Luna watched Solo carefully.  He stood still, regarding them with cold eyes.

 

“Don’t you think they could use your help?” Lyra asked.

 

“I want to help them,” Sonia said, “but—“

 

“No, stop there.  Say it again.”

 

“What?  I…I want to help them!”

 

“Then we’re going to have to defeat Solo!  Now, can I count on you to do that?”

 

Sonia watched as Bud and Luna both moved to attack Solo.

 

…I want to help them.

 

In one swift motion, he knocked them both aside.  Sonia felt angry, but not out of desire to hurt Solo—just determination to stop him from hurting Luna and Bud.

 

I’m in control!

 

Her aura reddened as she started forward.

 

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Lyra said.

 

Intense heat radiated from Sonia.  Her silver armor changed to a vibrant shade of red, and her skirt and cap became a very dark gray, while the feather in her hat and the cape on her shoulders turned to orange.

 

“Solo!”

 

He turned at his name.  A powerful strike from the thunder blade immediately sent him to the ground.

 

“I won’t let you hut my friends anymore!”

 

Solo jumped away and studied his foe’s new form as the blade vanished from her hands.  In its place came two large bones, and appearing before her were two drums identical to the ones she had spent so much time practicing on, these each bearing an image of a dinosaur painted on their shells.

 

Sonia took a deep breath as she tested the weight of the new instrument.  I’m in control.

 

“Another hybrid,” Lyra said.  “Let’s see, what happened last time?  Using the style of the base form didn’t quite work, so perhaps we should try using the style of the second?”

 

Sonia beat one of the bones against a drum.  A small burst of flame shot out from it—Solo easily dodged.

 

“Drat.  Seems we’ll get the same results either way.”

 

“There must be some way to make it work,” Sonia said.

 

Luna and Bud were on their feet now.  Solo said, “You’ve awakened the third?  Hmph…so you really do grow stronger when something happens to your friends.  You’re just the same as every other human on this rotten planet!”

 

“…Hey, Solo,” Sonia said.  “You said you weren’t the one responsible for Geo and Pat disappearing, but do at least have some idea where they might be?”

 

“Why would I?” Solo said, rushing her.

 

Sonia beat the drum.  Solo again dodged the flame blast that followed, and then moved to make his own attack.  A snake tripped him up, and Bud lunged forward to meet him, delivering a powerful punch.

 

“We’ll keep him busy while you figure this form out!” Bud told Sonia.  “He can’t dodge us all at once!”

 

Sonia turned to Luna, who smiled and said, “As if we would leave it all to you just because you’ve got a new form.  What sort of Brothers would we be?”

 

Slowly, Sonia smiled.  “Thank you.  Let’s wrap this up!”

 

Solo fired several energy fists at them.  Bud shrugged them off and exhaled a wave of flame, forcing Solo to dodge.  Sonia beat one drum, hitting Solo this time, and then focused on timing her pause.

 

Even if it’s not much, getting this style right is the only way I have of attacking right now.  I can’t mess up!

 

Bud punched, and Solo blocked.  Solo countered, but Bud managed to jump just out of range, and Luna fired a blast of her eyebeams at the right moment.  Sonia hit the second drum, hitting Solo again.

 

Furious, Solo shouted, “This has gone on long enough!”

 

He knocked Bud down and moved forward.  Several snakes appeared, but Solo jumped over them, shooting one energy fist that hit the ground in front of Luna.  Sonia struck both drums simultaneously.  Solo prepared to dodge, but nothing happened.

 

That can’t be right…

 

The bones in her hands began to glow.  In an explosion of energy, one generated a blade of electricity, similar to the one she previously held but shorter and thinner.  The other bone generated an identical blade of flame.  Sonia lifted them curiously, and then looked at Solo and took up a stance.

 

“At last, a lucky break,” Lyra said.

 

Solo punched.  Sonia blocked with one blade and swung the other.  Solo blocked.  He backed up a half-step and punched again.  Sonia sidestepped and swung one sword—Solo dodged—then swung the second—Solo redirected it with a kick, disrupting her balance.  Making use of her momentum, Sonia spun around, narrowly dodging Solo’s fist, and slashed him with both swords.  Solo used an energy wave to push her back.  She came back swinging, and he carefully caught each slash on his armguard.  He flipped, trying to hit her with a kick, but he wasn’t fast enough.  When he landed, Sonia was right there to hit him with a cross slash.  He stumbled back and brought his arms up to catch the flame sword before it hit him.  It singed his palms, and left him open for Sonia to elbow him in the chest.

 

Sonia pulled back.  “How about we call it a draw?”

 

Solo was quick to put some distance between them.  Bud and Luna went to Sonia’s side, the latter saying, “Wow, that was so cool!  You’ve got to use this form again sometime, definitely!”

 

“Hah…well, maybe,” Sonia said, smiling a little.

 

“I’m with Prez: you’ve always been cool, but having two swords makes anything even cooler!” Bud said.

 

Suddenly, Solo reared back and shouted.  He punched the ground and said, “No!  I am the Final Heir to Mu—I will not be beaten by a pretender who relies on others for strength!  I refuse to be overwhelmed by a mob of weak, pathetic humans!  Never again!”

 

He charged forward, making it easy for Luna to stun him.  A second later he was swimming in flames.  Sonia walked towards him, arms down but ready to defend herself if needed; Solo crouched, obscuring his face with his hand, and groaned miserably.

 

“Solo…what happened?  There must be a reason you hate people so much.  I’d like to help you, if I can.”

 

He clenched his teeth and glared through his fingers.  “Don’t you dare pity me!  I am superior to you in every way!”

 

Sonia backed up to avoid an uppercut, and then leaned forward to swing both swords in unison.  Solo fell flat, and in a flash, his Wave Change disappeared.  Sonia deactivated her blades and sighed.

 

“I shall see to him,” called a voice.

 

Jumping, Sonia realized that Hollow was standing a few paces away.  She scrambled back, saying, “Y-You?  What are you doing here?”

 

Hollow bent and grabbed Solo by the shoulder, hoisting him to his feet.  “Solo will be fine, if you are worried.  You would be wise to prepare yourself for your next encounter with him.”

 

“Hold on a minute!”

 

The two of them vanished instantly.  What was that about?

 

“How ominous,” Lyra said.

 

Sonia paused a moment, and then said, “I’m sorry, Lyra.  I shouldn’t have been so hesitant.”

 

“I understand why you were.”

 

“I’ll do better next time.”

 

Lyra smiled.  “I believe you.  Now then, with the Dinosaur form available, I think it best we put that style to practice soon, don’t you?”

 

Sonia nodded.  “As soon as we recover, let’s go try it out.”  Heading towards her friends, she apologized, “Sorry for taking so long to get serious.”

 

“I’ll overlook it this time,” Luna said.

 

“Yeah, it worked out!” Bud said.

 

Sonia felt relieved.  Turning to depart, she noticed a crowd of people gathered near the town entrance.  They were huddled together and shaking, looking directly at the three of them with fear in their eyes.

 

Wait…were the Z Wave Amplifiers on?  Oh no, they saw us fighting, didn’t they?!

 

She turned off the Amplifier, and the crowd reacted to her disappearance.  Luna and Bud soon followed her cue, and while the crowd looked around nervously, the three of them made their way onto the Wave Road.

 

“We’re going to need to be more careful about that,” Sonia said.  “I can’t believe I didn’t check to make sure it was off!”

 

“I’m sure it isn’t that big a deal,” Bud said.

 

Sonia spotted the Shaman in the crowd.  He leaned against his staff, looking down at the ground with furrowed brow.

 

“…I hope not…”

 

 

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Chapter 10

 

 

The Shaman was lost in thought as he wandered out of the village.  He had done his best to calm his people after the strange battle they had witnessed yesterday, but being unable to offer a proper explanation had hindered his efforts greatly.

 

I haven’t the faintest idea what to tell them.  Who were those people, and why were they fighting at the Lines?  And that boy…the symbol on his chest…

 

“Quite a turn of events, is it not?”

 

Spinning, the Shaman saw Hyde approaching him.  He glared at the newcomer and said, “I wish not to be disturbed.  Begone.”

 

“I’m sure you have much on your mind.  No doubt you wonder how to defend your people, now that your land has been set upon by demons.”

 

The Shaman raised an eyebrow.  “You think they were demons?”

 

“Isn’t it obvious?  Why else would those things do battle with a boy bearing the crest of Mu?  An emissary from the great ancient continent, and a man wearing the cloak of a priest—only the most vile of creatures would be their enemies.”

 

“And what do you know of Mu?”

 

Hyde sat upon one of the many rocks littering the area.  “Oh, I’ve studied it quite extensively!  Truly fascinating.  For example, that staff of yours: the design on the head is the symbol used to represent the creature who guarded Mu in the skies, is it not?”

 

“You could learn that just from visiting the Lines.”

“Well…I admit, there are only so many sources to draw from.  You probably know a great deal more about Mu than I do.”

 

“Certain knowledge has been passed down,” the Shaman mumbled.  “But if you are asking me to share it with an outsider—“

 

Hyde held up one finger.  “Now I wouldn’t ask you to simply volunteer it, no.  I was going to suggest an exchange of equal value.”

 

The Shaman gritted his teeth and stepped forward.  “You think you have something equally valuable as our ancient heritage?  You’re the same as the others who defile this land!”

 

“Yes, well, normally I would never be so bold as to claim something has equivalent value to something so sacred, but in this particular instance, I believe I am justified in saying so.”

 

With a grunt, the Shaman whirled and began to storm off.

 

“It is an artifact from Mu that will allow you to defend your people from anything.  Outsiders, demons…anything at all.”

 

The Shaman stopped.  Hyde grinned.  Getting to his feet, he adjusted his hat and said, “I only ask that you hear me out.”

 

Looking over his shoulder, the Shaman saw Hyde produce an object: a cloak attached to a collar made of a weathered rock-like material, woven from red and black thread with the guardian’s symbol sewn into it in gold.  He turned fully to admire the garment.

 

“Exquisite, is it not?” Hyde said.

 

“How will a cloak protect my people?”

 

“This cloak was worn by those handpicked by the guardian of Mu to be its partner, those whose dedication to protecting their land earned them the guardian’s favor.  In ancient times, it was mostly symbolic, but now that Mu has disappeared, it has become a rather literal lifeline for the guardian.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

Hyde waved his hand over the collar.  It glowed briefly, and then a being emerged from it: red energy in the form of a bird, its head and beak made of solid armor and pulled into a narrow, condor-like shape.  The Shaman marveled at the creature as it floated before him, and then fell upon the ground in reverence.

 

Turning to Hyde, the bird said, “Why have you awakened me?  If Mu flies no more, than neither shall I.”

 

“I mean you no disrespect, Condor,” Hyde said.  “You see, I thought you may wish to speak with this human.  He has information on Mu that could make our plans to revive it a reality.”

 

Condor looked at the Shaman in disbelief.  “…Is this true?”

 

Shaking, the Shaman said, “I-I…well, that is…”

 

“He’s shocked, poor fellow,” Hyde said.

 

“Please, stand up,” Condor said, an urgency entering his tone.  “Do you truly know something about Mu?”

 

The Shaman slowly got to his feet and cleared his throat.  “Passed down amongst the shaman of this village, there is ancient evidence pointing to the place where Mu now rests.  But, we have never been able to verify it.”

 

Condor rushed towards him, making him jump.  “You know where it is?!  Do you really know where Mu is?!”

 

“Easy, Condor,” Hyde called.  “Our friend is a bit hesitant to part with his information.  You see, people have repeatedly come to plunder this village, and he is determined to protect whatever he can of their culture.”

 

Condor lowered his head.  “…I see.  I understand your intentions, human: I too once gave my all to defend my homeland.”  Looking up, he continued, “But please.  If you know where Mu is, then we can restore it!  To once again see that great continent in the clouds, to fly alongside it for even one more day…I have dreamed of nothing else in my long slumber.  I beg you: tell us where Mu is.”

 

The Shaman wrung his hands around his staff.  Stepping forward, Hyde said, “Say, I have an idea.  Even if the Shaman here tells us where Mu is, it’ll still take us a little while to lift it once more.  Perhaps, in the meantime, you could stay here and help him defend this land, Condor?”

 

“Yes, I’m willing to do that!” Condor said eagerly.

 

The Shaman took a moment to process this offer.  “That does sound tempting…but, then once Mu is restored, my people—“

 

“Will be even safer,” Hyde interrupted.  “For being instrumental in its revival, you and your people would obviously be invited to become citizens of Mu.”

 

The Shaman’s eyes widened.  “Citizens…”

 

“You would be safe forever, soaring above the Earth as the ancients did, you and Condor protecting not only your people, but also the civilization you hold so dear.  Who would dare to steal from you then?”

 

The Shaman shut his eyes tight.  It is our sacred knowledge.  How can I just give it away?  Yet…to have the aid of this legendary guardian…to shield my people in Mu itself…we would be so much safer than we are now.  Our children and their children would never need to struggle for respect as we do.  So then…the best choice for my people must be…

 

“The East,” he muttered.

 

“Hm?  I’m sorry, what was that?” Hyde asked.

 

“The ancient texts say that Mu rests east of here, covered by a shroud of dense magic that repels all intruders.  That’s all I know.”

 

Hyde frowned.  “Hm.  Not very specific, is it?  Still, that’s something I can work with, and a deal is a deal.”

 

He walked behind the Shaman and lifted the cloak, gently setting it on his shoulders.  Condor perched upon the Shaman’s staff, saying, “Thank you!  To show my gratitude, all of my power is yours!  Let us defend this land together, so that one day, we may guard Mu as well!”

 

The Shaman smiled.  “Yes…yes, we shall!”

 

Hyde took a few steps, but then paused.  “You know, those demons are probably still hanging around.  It may be wise to draw them out and deal with them, now that you can.”

 

The Shaman’s face hardened.  “You are right.  We must purify this place immediately!”

 

Hyde resumed walking, exerting all his self-control to prevent from bursting out in laughter.

 

***

 

Sonia beat the drum.

 

“Everyone’s still on edge,” Luna said quietly.  The people moving about the village square seemed tense, darting around in a hurry with subdued expressions very different from their smiles yesterday.

 

“Maybe it’s too much to hope that they’ll just forget it,” Sonia mumbled.  She beat the drum.

 

“What’s done is done,” Lyra said.  “They’ll recover, I’m sure.  We shouldn’t dwell so much on it.”

 

Sonia beat the drum.

 

Bud looked up from the ribs he was eating.  “So, how about those symbols?  That one looked like the one Solo used, and if the rest all are meant to be PM-ians, then are those all the PM-ians?”

 

“Mmm…I don’t know that we have enough to say for sure,” Sonia said.  “Maybe those are just the most important PM-ians, or they form a specific group.  There could be more, and either way, we don’t know how many are working with Dr. Vega.”  She beat the drum.

 

“Well, that footprint was definitely Yeti,” Taurus said.

 

“I believe I recognized the odd mask design,” Ophiuca said.  “If I recall correctly, it was on Dark Phantom’s hat.”

 

“There were two more, weren’t there?” Luna said.  “I know there was that guardian symbol, the one the Shaman’s staff has, and…what was the other one?”

 

Sonia beat the drum, and then looked up.  The Shaman was making his way into the square, causing the people to gather around expectantly.  She set down her sticks.

 

“Was he wearing that cloak yesterday?”

 

“I don’t believe he was,” Lyra replied.  “Best be on your feet.”

 

“My people!” the Shaman declared, raising his staff high.  “I know that there has been much fear as a result of the strange sight we saw yesterday.  I have come to learn that three of the beings we saw were demons, enemies of Mu come to terrorize our land!”

 

The crowd gasped.  Clenching her fist, Luna said, “Demons?  How rude!  Where did he get a silly idea like that?”

 

“If I were to guess, it seems like something Hyde would say,” Ophiuca said.

 

The Shaman unfurled his cloak.  “But worry no longer!  I have been visited by a follower of Mu who has granted me this sacred raiment, imbued with the holy power of the Guardian!  Behold!”

 

Condor emerged from the cloak with a loud screech, and the people backed away in shock.

 

Oh no.  Sonia fumbled with her Visualizer and immediately began searching for a Wavehole.

 

“With the Guardian Condor at my side, we need never fear anything ever again, my people!” the Shaman continued.  “Together, he and I will protect you from all harm!  And, I have been assured that plans are in motion for the great continent of Mu to be restored to its rightful place in the heavens, and that when it does, we shall be allowed to join it!”

 

Lyra perked up.  “So that’s it.  Vega doesn’t just want Mu technology, she wants the continent itself.”

 

“Mrrgh, I think we’ve got bigger concerns right now,” Taurus said.

 

“Rejoice, my people, as we enter into a new era of prosperity and security!” the Shaman said, spreading his arms.  “I shall usher in this glorious age at once, by searching out those demons and exorcising them from Whazzap!  Watch, and see that you shall never know fear again!  EM Wave Change!”

 

Condor grew into a flash of red light that consumed the Shaman.  The crowd recoiled and shouted, and Sonia waved Bud and Luna off in another direction.  “There’s a Wavehole over there we can use!  Let’s hurry!”

 

She looked back to see the Shaman’s transformation completed.  In a radical shift, he had taken a form resembling a crimson jet plane, its long wings carved with notches to evoke the image of feathers and bearing odd, green, spherical decorations.  There were smaller such wings near the rear end of the jet, which housed a focused flame.  The front of the machine looked like the face of a bird, red with a large white stripe down over its beak, and on its forehead was the guardian symbol.

 

“Hear me, demons!” the Shaman’s voice boomed as he rose into the sky.  “I, Terra Condor, decree that you shall leave this land at once!  If you do not do so, I vow that you will be destroyed!”

 

The flame flared stronger than before, and he shot off towards the desert.  Sonia stepped into the Wavehole and transformed, and then she, Bud, and Luna prepared to head after him.

 

“He’s fast,” Bud said.  “How are we going to catch him?”

 

“That’s not the problem, Bud—he’s already looking for us,” Luna said.  “The problem is, once he does, how are we going to fight him?  None of us can fly!”

 

“Hopefully he’ll listen to reason, but if we have to fight it’s definitely going to be tricky,” Sonia said.  “Maybe if we could get on his back…”

 

She noticed someone from the crowd pointing in their direction.  Shoot, not again!

 

“That’s them!”

 

Stepping back, Sonia said, “H-Hang on a second…”

 

“Are they the ones the Shaman’s looking for?”

 

Luna scowled.  “We’re not demons, if that’s what you’re asking.”

 

The crowd murmured.

 

“We’re sorry,” Sonia said.  “We didn’t mean to cause any trouble, honestly, we were just—“

 

“Can you help the Shaman?”

 

“Huh?”

 

Someone stepped forward from the crowd.  “The Shaman would never behave like that.  He must not be in his right mind.”

 

“Whoever gave him that thing must have tricked him,” said someone else.  “If they told him it would help us, he’d probably believe them right away, even if it seemed dangerous.  Please, if there’s something you can do, will you help him?”

 

“Please,” said a third.  “He’s our Shaman—we couldn’t stand it if he got hurt trying to protect us!  Please, can you help him?”

 

Sonia was speechless.  As the crowd stared back at her, she wracked her brain for some response; ultimately, Luna pulled her aside and addressed them in her place.  “Don’t worry, we’ll help him.  Everything’s going to be okay.”

 

Pushing Sonia and Bud out of the square, she said, “Come on.  We’ve got to figure something out.”

 

“If I may, I have a suggestion,” Ophiuca said.

 

“Really?  You?” Lyra said.

 

“But of course.  I feel staging the confrontation at the Lines would be ideal.  The nearby cliff would likely make it easier to reach your foe, if you can draw him in first.  An opening surprise attack could cripple him easily.”

 

“We’re not going to cripple him,” Sonia said.  “But, let’s head that way.  Here’s what we’re going to do.”

 

***

 

Bud stood by himself amidst the Whazzap Lines.  Glancing up the cliff, he spotted Sonia crouched behind some rocks at its edge, and then turned to scan the sky for any sign of the Shaman.

 

“I don’t really mind being the bait, but…how long is it gonna take?” he said, scratching his head.

 

A distant roaring could soon be heard.  Bud saw a point of red in the distance, and waved to Sonia before readying himself.  Terra Condor slowed as he flew into view, lowering his altitude gradually, and stopped above the temple just past where the cliff ended as he glared down at Bud.

 

“So, you chose not to leave,” the Shaman said.  “I will give you one final chance, demon!  Begone, or face my wrath!”

 

“Hey Shaman guy!” Bud called.  “I’m not a demon!  The guy who gave you that weird cloak is the bad guy here, not us!”

 

“Lies!” the Shaman shrieked.  “I see you have made your choice.  Feel the fury of Mu!”

 

Two missiles emerged from the rounded openings on his wings.  Bud incinerated one with a burst of flame and then drew back his fist, punching the other when it came close enough.  It exploded in his face.

 

“Ouch!  Bad idea!”

 

The Shaman laughed, slowly drifting closer.  From her hiding spot, Sonia lifted her guitar, waiting until her target was in just the right spot.  More missiles flew towards Bud, who took off running to avoid getting hit.  When he eventually had to turn, it took him too long to do so, and he was hit and sent tumbling.  The Shaman’s cannons began to glow as he descended on the area.

 

“Take this, you foul monster!” he shouted.

 

Sonia sprang up.  Jumping off the cliff’s edge, she aimed her guitar and fired its strings.  They wrapped around one of the Shaman’s wings instantly, and when she commanded them to retract, she was pulled forward and up, twisting with the momentum so that she was able to land just behind her opponent’s head.

 

“Shaman!” she shouted in his ear.

 

With a tremble, the Shaman flew forward a bit and angled up.  Twin beams of green light shot from his cannons straight into the sky.

 

“Ugh, wretched fiend!” he said.  “Away from me!”

 

Sonia wrapped her strings around the jet’s main body and held on.  The Shaman took off, spinning as he flew higher in an attempt to throw Sonia off.  She clung to her guitar for dear life, yelling over the wind, “Listen to me!  We’re not here to harm Whazzap!”

 

“Why should I believe you?  You fought with an emissary of Mu, and the man who united me with Mu’s guardian told me you came to terrorize my people!”

 

“I’ll explain, just stop for a second!”

 

“No!  I shall hear none of it!”

 

Looping, the Shaman began to dive towards the ground now.  Lyra asked, “Condor, was it?”

 

“You are fellow EM beings?” Condor replied.  “Where do you hail from?”

 

“My associates and I are from Planet FM.”

 

“FM?  Then why are you fighting against Mu?  Have you not come to join us?”

 

“…Beg your pardon?”

 

The Shaman twisted as he sharply leveled off.  Sonia heard a few strings snap, but she was able to just barely maintain her grip, and quickly replaced what had been lost.  As the Shaman prepared to rise again, something struck the underside of the jet, and he hovered briefly as he recovered from the shot.  Sonia nodded to Luna as she ducked back beneath the Wave Road.

 

“We’re not demons, okay?” Sonia explained quickly.  “We’re just humans fused with beings like Condor!  We were just passing through looking for our friends, and that guy attacked us!”

 

“...Even if I believe that, why is he your enemy?” the Shaman said.  “He wore the crest of Mu!  Enemies of the ancient civilization are enemies of Whazzap!”

 

“He and some others are trying to use Mu for something.  We don’t know what yet, but—“

 

The Shaman bucked suddenly, throwing Sonia off balance.  Accelerating, he spun rapidly, finally breaking the strings and hurling Sonia up into the air.  He cleared the way and circled around as she fell.  Sonia shot her strings at the first thing she saw—a pillar in the temple—and swung around it, trying to use up some of her momentum before she ultimately crashed into a wall and bounced off towards the Lines.

 

Luna rushed to her side, asking, “Sonia, are you alright?”

 

“We’re exposed!” Ophiuca said.  “We should fall back and find more cover!”

 

Sonia groaned and got to her feet.  “I’m okay.”

 

The Shaman screeched, “Demons or not, you will leave Whazzap at once!  At last I have the power to protect my people—I shall let no one take it away from me!”

 

Bud had regrouped with them now, saying, “So much for that.  What’s the plan now?”

 

Sonia gazed up at her foe.  With a sigh, she said, “I don’t think he’s going to listen.  He’s been convinced that he needs Condor for the sake of his people, and he’s going to drive off anyone he thinks is a threat.  Lyra, are you alright if we try plan B?”

 

“I’m ready,” Lyra said.  “Remember, defeating Condor won’t kill him, and the Shaman won’t be seriously hurt either.  You’ve no reason to hold back.”

 

“I’ll remember,” Sonia said, holding her guitar forward.  “Bud, Luna, hang back while I get him focused on me.  What you do after that is up to you!”

 

The two of them nodded and retreated as Sonia glowed with a red-hot aura.  She was briefly shrouded in flames, and when she emerged, her armor had taken on that same shade of red, and was now thicker and heavier, with jagged, broken-looking edges and numerous scars across its surface.  Her greaves were twice as wide as before.  A curved plate extended down over her torso, decorated on the front by two lines of four gray hexagons and on the back by four pentagonal plates.  Two wide cylinders encased her shoulders, each holding three white fangs.  Similar fangs were held in her heavy armguards, and small bands of armor were wrapped around her upper arms and legs.  Her helmet didn’t change much in shape, though it had lost its rounded protrusions in favor of a spiky layer of bone that covered most of its surface.

 

She hefted the two bones in her hands as her drums appeared and took a deep breath.  I’m in control.

 

Pointing a bone at the Shaman, she yelled, “If you won’t listen to reason, then get ready!  This performance is gonna blow you away!”

 

She struck one of the drums.  A fireball launched from it directly at the Shaman; he swerved, narrowly avoiding it, but it suddenly exploded and he was singed by the blast.  Sonia struck the other drum.  Another fireball was launched, but this time the Shaman put plenty of distance between himself and the projectile.  He fired several missiles at Sonia, so she pulled back her arms and willed a wall of fire to spring up in front of her, burning them to ashes before they could make contact.  When the flames died down, she resumed lobbing fireballs.

 

The Shaman laughed.  “These are all too easy to avoid!  Defeating you will be simple!”

 

A laser struck Sonia.  Thanks to her armor, she shrugged it off and kept attacking, though the Shaman was only off-guard long enough for her to land a single hit.  A pull of frustration tugged at the back of her mind, but she pushed it away.

 

“Let’s try something else,” she said.

 

She spun the bones once and then resumed playing.  Now, her strikes echoed around her, making each note sound like the footfall of some great behemoth.  At first no attacks were being launched, so the Shaman saw this as an opportunity and prepared to fire.  While he was distracted, Bud jumped onto the Wave Road and shot a flame bullet from his mouth, stunning the Shaman.  With a roar, the Shaman swooped down and rammed into Bud, flinging him against the cliff wall.  Bud hit the ground hard as the jet rose back into the sky.

 

Luna slithered over to Bud and shook him.  He was too dazed to get up, so she started to pull him away.  The Shaman shrieked and aimed missiles at the rock above them.

 

“Luna, we need to get clear,” Ophiuca said.

 

“I’m not going to leave Bud here!”

 

“There’s no point in the both of you getting buried!  He’s well-armored, he has little to fear—we won’t be so fortunate.”

 

“Shut up!”

 

Bud shook his head as the missiles collided with the cliff.  As rubble began to fall on them, he regained enough clarity to leap forward with Luna, getting far enough away that only a few small rocks hit them.

 

“Are you alright Bud?” Luna asked.

 

“Uh, yeah, I think so,” he groaned.

 

The Shaman turned to Sonia, who was still beating the drums.  “You do not act even when your friends are in danger?  Despicable!  This is why you will lose to me, for I fight for the noble cause of a guardian!  My will to defend my people shall overpower you!”

 

Sonia gritted her teeth.  “Defend them?  They’re terrified right now!  Terrified of you!  I can appreciate where you’re coming from, but you’ve gotten carried away, Shaman!  You’re not helping anyone right now!”

 

The Shaman hovered in place for a moment.  “They fear me?  But…no, this must be another lie!  I shall have your silence!”

 

“I think we’ve charged enough energy now,” Lyra said, seeing the Shaman preparing to fire.  “Quickly!”

 

When Sonia next hit the drum, the earth shook.  A pillar of lava burst out of the ground right beneath the Shaman, shooting up into the sky and making him shout as it enveloped him.

 

“Wow,” Bud said, “that’s a cool move…”

 

The Shaman swerved sharply to avoid another pillar.  He tried to fire, but Sonia struck the drum again, forcing him to dodge to avoid being burned.

 

“We need a way to take the offensive,” Condor said.  “I suggest we get out of her range and unleash a full assault.  That should give us enough cover to come back in and catch her off-guard.”

 

“Very well,” the Shaman said, changing his course.

 

As they flew off, Luna moved towards Sonia, but she said, “No, stay back!  He’s going to come and attack, I’m sure of it!”

 

“Isn’t there anything we can do to help you?” Luna asked.

 

“Get to the high ground and see if you can harass him when he comes in.  I need an opening!”

 

Luna nodded, and she and Bud climbed the Wave Road towards the top of the cliff.  Sonia looked into the distance to see the Shaman turning around.  His screech could be heard even from so far away, and he released a massive fleet of missiles that flew forward.  She summoned another fire wall as the torrent of destruction closed in on her, and then closed her eyes and listened.  She could hear the missiles burning up in the flames, as well as the Shaman flying in, the rush of air changing as he swerved to avoid Bud and Luna’s attacks.

 

Almost…

 

The missiles continued to burn.  When a few seconds passed without hearing one of them, she lowered the wall and tensed both arms, getting a look at the Shaman preparing to fire lasers at her.  Flames surrounded her bones as she grinned.  Leaning forward, she hurled both bones, and they spun into wheels of fire as they arced through the air towards the Shaman, impacting his cannons directly before boomeranging back to her hands.

 

“No, the artillery!” Condor shouted.  “They won’t function like this!”

 

“Can you fix them?” the Shaman asked.

 

“Not without disengaging the Wave Change!  Drat, how did I let this happen?”

 

Sonia returned to the drums, declaring, “You can’t win, Shaman, Condor!  Just give up now!”

 

The Shaman glared at her.  “I accepted this power to defend my people.  To ensure a future for them where they no longer have to endure the jeers of the rest of the world!  You may have the advantage, but that future is not something I will give up on so easily!”

 

He opened his mouth and fired a laser.  Sonia took the hit, barely feeling it, and then threw one of the bones again, dealing another solid strike.

 

As the Shaman pulled back, Condor said, “I will not give up either, my friend.  I have sworn to protect this land, and I will not abandon that duty now!  Worry not for me—do whatever is necessary to win!”

 

“Thank you, Condor,” the Shaman said.  “Let us end this!”

 

He circled around, getting far enough away that Bud and Luna wouldn’t be able to hit him.  Looking after him, Bud asked, “I thought he said he wasn’t giving up?”

 

“He’s not,” Sonia said.  “Lyra, how much power do we still have stored up?”

 

Lyra hummed.  “I know what you’re thinking.  It’s going to be close, but…”

 

The Shaman charged in.  As he flew forward, his altitude rapidly decreased, and Luna’s eyes widened as she realized where this path would take him.  “He’s going to crash into Sonia!”

 

Sonia continued to play calmly as the Shaman approached.  Shrieking, he said, “I will defeat you for the sake of Whazzap!”

 

She struck the drum as he passed over the temple.  “Now!” Lyra shouted.

 

Sonia reared back and readied the power she had built up.  Then she started forward and opened her mouth, and out from it shot a spiraling beam of intense flame that met Terra Condor head-on.  He fought against the current, pushing forward until he had almost reached her, but the blast ultimately overpowered him, and he was sent skidding across the ground.

 

“No…” the Shaman moaned as he finally came to a stop.  “No…”

 

Sonia slouched forward against her drums, waiting until the light-headedness passed.  “Please…we’re not here to hurt your people.  There’s no reason for us to keep fighting.”

 

“Why should I believe you?”

 

“They did.  They asked us to go after you and make sure you didn’t hurt yourself.”

 

“…What?  My people were…”

 

Sonia stood and walked forward.  “They’re worried about you.  They don’t understand what’s going on, and all they see is their leader transforming suddenly and saying he’s going to destroy anyone who opposes him.  How would you feel if you saw something like that?”

 

The Shaman didn’t answer.

 

“I know you want to do your best to protect your people.  And Condor, it sounds like you really wanted to keep them safe too.”

 

“It was what we agreed upon,” Condor said.  “I would help him protect his people if he would tell Hyde where Mu rests…it was a matter of honor.”

 

Sonia bristled, but thought it best not to say anything right now.

 

“I only wanted…to see Mu fly again.  I exist to protect it, and I had to watch it fall apart.  I thought that maybe, if there really was some way to restore it…”  Condor trailed off into sobs.

 

“End scene,” someone stated.

 

Dark Phantom faded into view and drove his cane into the Shaman’s back, destroying his Wave Change.  Red energy flashed and disappeared into the collar of his cloak, which Hyde snatched away before Sonia could stop him.

 

“Bravo, dear heroine, and many thanks!” he said as he floated away from Sonia.  “Your performance has provided me with everything I require for my greatest work to come to fruition!  I’ll have some flowers sent to your dressing room, heh, heh, heh…”

 

“Hyde, wait!” Sonia shouted as he vanished.  “Darn!”

 

She stooped next to the Shaman and helped him stand.  He muttered, “That man…was that him?  But he gave me the guardian’s cloak…he…he tricked me…”

 

“He’s one of those people trying to use Mu I mentioned,” Sonia said.

 

The Shaman hung his head.  “I see…”

 

Luna and Bud joined them as Sonia stepped back from the Shaman.  He sighed, saying, “And I told him where Mu is.  What I fool I am.”

 

“But you just did that to get Condor’s help, right?” Luna said.  “You were thinking about your people, like any good leader.”

 

“Perhaps, but I betrayed them.  How can I face them again?”

 

Gesturing, Sonia said, “I don’t think they see it that way.”

 

The Shaman looked towards the path leading to the village.  Some of the villagers were there, watching as if not sure if they should approach, and upon seeing they had been noticed, they tentatively came forward.

 

“Shaman?  Are you alright?”

 

“You’re not hurt, are you?  Do you feel like yourself again?”

 

“You had us worried, Shaman.  Come back to the village—I’m sure you could use some rest.”

 

The Shaman gazed at them with wide eyes.  “You…you don’t resent me?  Even after I frightened you so?”

 

“Of course not!”

 

“We’d like an explanation, but that can wait.”

 

One of the villagers looked to Sonia.  “Thank you all for your help.”

 

“Don’t mention it,” Sonia said.  She smiled at the Shaman.  “We’ll be on our way.  And don’t worry: even if they use that information, we’ll stop them before they can do anything too bad.”

 

“…Thank you,” the Shaman said, his voice shaky.  “I am sorry for ever doubting you.”

 

“Right you are!” Luna said.  “Honestly, ‘demons’?  Who says that about other people anymore?”

 

Sonia chuckled and made for the Wave Road, deactivating the Z Wave Amplifier along the way.  Once she, Bud, and Luna were all out of sight, the villagers led the Shaman back home.  He still looked troubled, but at the same time he looked relieved.

 

“Time to assess the damage,” Lyra said.

 

Sonia frowned.  “Apparently Dr. Vega wants the whole Mu continent, and judging by how pleased with himself Hyde sounded, he has a pretty good idea of where it is after whatever the Shaman told him.”

 

“When you met Dr. Vega, did she give any indication of what she might want with Mu?” Ophiuca asked.

 

“Hm…I think she said it had the power to shape the world’s future?” Sonia said.  She looked down at the image of the floating continent.  “I guess the question is, what does she want to shape it into?”

 

“Perhaps we should quicken our steps,” Lyra said.  “After this battle, I think it’s fair to say you have a good grasp on the Dinosaur Tribe’s playing style.  And, well…”

 

“…Geo and Pat aren’t here,” Sonia finished.  “You’re right.  We’ll leave for Loch Mess tomorrow.”

 

She walked down the Wave Road.  Following her, Bud said, “Hey, um…if you don’t mind, I was thinking I might head back home, actually.”

 

Luna glared at him.  “This is no time to chicken out, Bud!”

 

“No, of course not!  It’s just…”  He looked to Sonia, who had stopped to listen to him.  “Well, if things are gonna get intense soon, then I want to spend some time seeing if I can get any stronger.  I want to be able to help out, y’know?  And I think that if I ask NAZA to help me, I might be able to get a lot stronger.”

 

Luna crossed her arms but said nothing.  Sonia said, “If that’s what you want to do, then go for it!  We’ll wish you the best of luck.”

 

Bud sighed.  “Thanks.  You too!”

 

Sonia smiled and started walking again.  Luna moved at a slower pace than her and Bud, her eyes fixed on the Road in front of her.

 

“Say, Luna?” Ophiuca asked.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Would you prefer if I didn’t accompany you either?”

 

“What?  Where did that come from?”

 

“It just seemed prudent to ask, I apologize if I offended you.”

 

“Prudent to…”  Luna stopped to breathe.  “Tell me why you’re asking this.”

 

Ophiuca said, “I fear I’ve come as far as I can, and…that it really isn’t far enough.  I still fail to understand even minor elements of this power of relationships, and if that should lead me to hesitate to offer support in a battle, it could cost us all very dearly.  Frankly, I can’t think of a reason why you would want to continue to put up with me.”

 

Luna put a hand over her face and groaned.  Leaning back, she looked up at the sky as she readied her response, and then closed her eyes and crossed her arms again.

 

“I won’t lie: you’re not getting it as quickly as I thought you would, and that is really frustrating.  But you’re trying.  I can recognize that you’re trying, so…I’ll keep trying to be patient with you.”

 

Ophiuca paused.  “I don’t understand.  What do you have to gain from this patience?”

 

“Oh, forget about trying to gain something from everything already!  It’s just that I want to respect your effort, alright?  And, you know…”

 

She moved forward, quietly adding, “When you do eventually get it, I think you’ll be a lot happier.  If I can help you get there, then, I don’t know, I guess I might as well.”

 

Ophiuca said nothing more.  She wasn’t entirely sure she understood what Luna meant, but for some reason, she found herself feeling happy to hear it.

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter 11

 

 

Hollow moved silently through the void.  Ahead was Solo, his back to Hollow and his fists clenched, his rage palpable.  Hollow stopped a few yards away and said nothing.

 

Eventually, Solo glared over his shoulder.  “For what reason do you disturb me?”

 

“I have come to store an important object in this dimension,” Hollow answered.  “Lady Vega wishes for it to be as secure as possible.  She hopes it will prove useful in the event that we are unable to reclaim the Sacred Artifacts Harp Note has taken.”

 

“Tch!”

 

Solo turned away again.  Hollow produced a piece of stone carved to resemble armor, which from one curved spaulder-like end jutted off into a sharp, triangular shape decorated by luminescent lines.  A few seconds later, Solo looked back at him.

 

“…What is that?”

 

Hollow let go of the object.  It floated in place as he stepped away.  “Harp Note possesses three of the Sacred Artifacts.”

 

“I already know she has all of them!  Answer my question, fool!”

 

“Incorrect.  She has three of them.”

 

Solo turned completely.

 

“As Mu approached the peak of its prosperity, the Sacred Artifacts were crafted by the EM god who watched over the continent.  A powerful sword was forged for the Berserk Tribe on Mu’s Western shore.  The Dinosaur Tribe in the South was given a Fossil which burned like the sun.  To the East lived the Ninja, who came to possess a peculiar Shuriken.”

 

Pointing to the armor, Hollow finished, “And to the North, a small, nameless Tribe was entrusted with an Artifact known only as the Proof of Loneliness.”

 

Solo’s eyes focused on the object.

 

“Lady Vega was fortunate enough to find this along with the other relics she discovered.  With Harp Note clinging to the other three, this may be the only thing in her possession that stands a chance of restoring Mu.”

 

Solo stepped forward.  “Hm…in her possession?”

 

Reaching out, he took hold of the Proof.  “If it is of Mu, then it is mine by right!”

 

An orange aura sprang forth from the Proof.  Solo watched the armor vanish, and then the aura moved to surround him instead, bringing with it a burning, stabbing pain that filled his body.

 

“Urgh!”

 

He slumped.  Turning, Hollow said, “If that is your decision.  However, I should warn you: it may take some time for you to fully bond with it.”

 

Hollow walked away as Solo shouted in agony.  He stepped into a portal that led out of the void and back to the room where Vega sat, and then went to stand beside her throne.  She glanced at him.

 

“He has taken it.”

 

Vega nodded.  “You have done well, Hollow.  I expected it would take longer to convince him.”

 

“I made no effort to convince.  All I did was place it before him.”

 

Vega laughed.  She stared at Hollow for some time, a sad smile on her face, but then looked forward with a frown.

 

“I am sorry,” Hollow said.

 

“For what?”

 

“You seemed unsatisfied.  I am sorry that I have not perfected my intended personality.”

 

“…You won’t be able to.  Not unless you have any of your memories.”

 

“Unfortunately, I do not.”

 

Vega sighed.  Hollow turned to look at her, but she didn’t look back.

 

There was a knock at the door.  “Come in,” Vega called.

 

Hyde threw the door open and strode across the room, giggling madly the whole way.  Spinning in place, he held out his hand and declared, “My dearest Lady Vega!  This will forever be remembered as a joyous day, for I bring to you a revelation that will deliver our just cause to the gates of absolute victory!”

 

“Have you completed the device for powering Mu?” Hollow asked.

 

“No, we’re still working on that,” Hyde said, “but I bring instead something even more awe-inspiring!”

 

“Please proceed, Hyde,” Vega said.

 

Hyde continued to chuckle as he removed his hat.  Taking a bow, he said, “Lady Vega…I have found the resting place of Mu.”

 

Vega’s eyes shot wide.  “Truly?  You would not jest about this matter!”

 

“I would not!  You see—“

 

“She doesn’t need the whole story,” Phantom said.  “Cut to the chase this once.”

 

Undeterred, Hyde said, “After having Solo and Harp Note put on their little performance in Whazzap, I was able to convince the Shaman he needed the power of Mu’s guardian.  Not that he had it long, heh, heh, heh.  But, since he didn’t know that going in, he was more than willing to pay the price: the ancient knowledge of Mu passed down amongst Whazzap’s shamans!  To the East, he said, under a great veil of magic that repels all intruders.  At first, I did not know what to think, but I set about investigating nonetheless.  And, what do I find in the seas East of southern Netopia?  A realm none can enter, a veritable hole in reality through which one could step through and apparently cease to exist.  The name of this place of mystery you may ask?  Heh, heh…why, it is none other than the legendary, the infamous, the world-renowned and feared…Bermuda Maze!”

 

He swung his cane to punctuate his speech.

 

“Have you entered the Maze and verified that Mu is there?” Hollow asked.

 

Hyde blinked.  “…No.  But, you see—“

 

“Why do you bring unverified claims?  You waste our time, Hyde.”

 

“No, he does not!” Vega said.  She stood, smiling brightly.  “It’s so obvious—so simple!  Where else could it have been hiding for all this time?  At last, we know where to look!”

 

Hyde smirked at Hollow.

 

“You have done exceptionally well, Hyde!  Congratulations are due in no small degree!”

 

Hyde’s smirk widened into a grin.  “My dear Lady Vega, it is an honor to serve!  I am only glad that I could be of assistance to your beautiful genius.  With your permission, I would like to begin exploring options for an expedition into—“

 

“If I may,” Hollow interrupted, “I have already prepared a pawn who I believe would be perfect for searching the Maze.”

 

“Splendid!” Vega said.  “Send them at once, Hollow!”

 

Hyde’s smile evaporated.  “…Uh…yes, splendid indeed.  Glad we can move right along.”

 

“Hyde, please continue working on the device,” Vega said.  “With luck, we’ll be needing it very soon!”

 

“O-Of course, Lady Vega, I shall see to it right away!”

 

Hyde bowed and started to leave the room.  Hollow said, “We do not know if Harp Note has been able to glean this same information.  I believe it would be wise to provide her with a distraction for the time being.”

 

“Yes, quite right,” Vega said.  “Hyde, why don’t you see to that instead?  I’ll take a look at the device myself.”

 

Hyde wrung his hands around his cane.  “As you wish, Lady Vega.”

 

Phantom chuckled as Hyde walked out the door.  “I told you not to get so overexcited, didn’t I?”

 

***

 

From a nearby dock, Sonia and Luna watched the busy marketplace of Loch Mess.  Connected by Matter Wave bridges, the numerous grassy islets were dotted with wooden stalls that served as focal points for the massive crowd that washed over them, each offering a variety of products that all shared one particular theme.

 

“Messie,” Lyra said, shaking her head.  “Was it too difficult to come up with a name for their local monster that wasn’t so unfortunate?”

 

Ophiuca chuckled.  “And you say I overthink the humans’ behavior.”

 

“They should have been here by now,” Luna huffed.  “What’s holding them up?”

 

“It might just be the crowds,” Sonia said.  “Apparently people have been coming from all over lately to try to see this monster hiding in the loch.”

 

“Hmph, monster.  I bet it’s just a tree someone couldn’t make out through the fog.”

 

“Hah, maybe, but it’s a fun sort of tourist attraction either way.”

 

Sonia spotted Claud emerging from the crowd.  Tapping Luna’s shoulder, she went to meet him, saying, “Hey, there you are!  Are you still enjoying this place?”

 

“Sonia!” Claud shouted excitedly.  “It’s great to see you in person again!”

 

Luna looked around.  “Where’s Zack?  Is he really still running late?”

 

Claud scratched his head.  “Well, um, about Zack…I tried to get him to come with me, but he was busy.”

 

Luna narrowed her eyes.  “Excuse me?  He was too busy to come meet us like we arranged?”

 

“Hey, I’m just the messenger.”

 

“I’m sure whatever he’s doing is important,” Sonia offered.  “We’ll just catch him later.”

 

Luna crossed her arms and exhaled loudly.

 

“So…any news on Geo or Pat?” Sonia asked, cautiously hopeful.

 

“I’m sorry,” Claud mumbled, lowering his gaze.  “We’ve been searching high and low and asking everyone we’ve seen, but…”

 

Sonia’s heart sank.  “I see.  But, nobody’s been around causing trouble, at least?”

 

“Luckily no,” Cancer answered.  “Although Claud’s got the idea in his head that he wants to pick a fight with the monster if we run into it.”

 

“It’d be fun!” Claud said.  “We’ve fought a lot of viruses, but I haven’t fought a dragon yet!  How could I pass up a chance like this?”

 

Sonia smiled a little.  Luna opened one eye to look at her; she looked away again as she edged closer, gently taking Sonia’s hand.  Sonia’s expression brightened a little more.

 

“Oh, and I almost forgot!  We found someone who plays that lute or whatever and says they know the traditions of the Berserk Tribe—I told them a friend of mine wanted to learn, and they said they’d teach you!”

 

“Great!” Sonia said.  “Thanks for doing that.  Once I learn this last style, I should be pretty well-prepared for anything Hyde can throw at me!”

 

Claud led them through the village, being careful not to get too far ahead so they wouldn’t get separated in the crowd.  As they went, they passed another dock that led across the water to a large stone tower with a flat observation deck built at its apex.  A team of workers was currently spread out over its base, which hovered a few feet above the water’s surface and had the distinctive glow of a Matter Wave.

 

“What’s that they’re working on?” Sonia asked.

 

“Huh?” Claud said as he looked up.  “Oh, it’s some kind of emergency shelter!  I guess this place gets hit with earthquakes and tsunamis every now and then, so when they saw the new Matter Wave technology, they wanted to try using it to build a levitating shelter that could get everyone up and out of harm’s way.”

 

“Wow.  Has anyone said when they think it’ll be done?”

 

“Well, it’s done, they’re just doing upkeep right now.  Seems like they’re always doing upkeep.”

 

“Hardly surprising,” Ophiuca said.  “As I said before, levitating material structures is no easy task.  Still, it is impressive that humans were able to produce a functional unit…it will be interesting to see how they’re able to develop it.”

 

As they went on, they passed a second, smaller crowd, this one centered around a group of people with cameras and other equipment.  Craning her neck, Luna asked, “What, are people trying to film the monster?  It’s not going to just show up because someone brought a camera.”

 

Claud moved a little faster, saying, “Uh, hah, yeah, how weird.  Let’s just leave ‘em to it!”

 

Luna quickened her pace to keep up.  “That’s suspicious…”

 

“Honestly, I’d rather avoid the cameras right now too,” Sonia said.

 

“Hmmm…alright.  But I’m going to ask him about it later.”

 

Sonia chuckled.  “Fair enough.”

 

***

 

Sonia set down the lute she had been playing and laid back, sighing as she hit the grass.  Sitting next to her, Luna said, “It’s certainly more elaborate than the Dinosaur style.  You’re getting better, though.”

 

Sonia hummed.  Luna looked down the hill they sat on: it briefly leveled several times as it rose, creating a tiered look enhanced by the paths and docks built into it.  A windmill sat at its base right next to the water’s edge, currently at rest.  She checked her Star Carrier to see if she had missed any calls or mail—there was nothing.

 

Leaning up, Sonia asked, “Are you okay?”

 

“I just don’t understand,” Luna said.  “We all agreed to meet up, and he just decides not to come?  Without a word?  I don’t appreciate being ditched!”

 

Sonia tugged at Luna’s sleeve.  Rolling her eyes, she laid back along with her.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“No, don’t be.  It was rude of Zack to cancel without saying anything.  Does he normally do stuff like this?”

 

“Definitely not!  He’s always been punctual and responsible.  I’ve always been able to rely on him.”

 

“Has he said anything lately?  Do you have any idea what may have changed?”

 

Luna shrugged.  “I don’t know.  He’s been kind of quiet for a while now.”

 

She started picking at the grass.

 

“I was hoping that we could all get together again.  But then Bud heads back home, and now Zack’s ignoring me…I’ve gotten used to having all my Brothers nearby, I guess.  And now…”

 

Sonia’s hand moved towards Luna’s.  “You’re feeling lonely.”

 

Luna silently accepted the hand.

 

“This is only temporary.  I’m sure we’ll be able to see Zack once he’s done with whatever it is he’s caught up in, and I’ll work extra hard to master this style quickly so we can go back and collect Bud.”

 

“Good.  See that you do!”

 

Sonia rolled onto her side.  “So what do you think?  Is Loch Mess a better place to stay, or Whazzap?”

 

“Mmm, hard to say.  The food in Whazzap was definitely better, and it has friendlier people.  But, this place has a more familiar quality to it—it’s closer to what I’m used to.  And, it’s a little chilly, but that’s still better than scorching sunlight.”

 

“Think you’d ever consider either for another vacation?”

 

“Consider, for sure, but right now I’m too homesick to be making definitive plans.”

 

Neither of them said anything for a while.  Luna looked up at Sonia, who was smiling at her, and asked, “What?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“Geez, don’t act so weird.”

 

“What?” Sonia said innocently.  “I’m not doing anything.”

 

Luna rolled onto her side to face her.  “You’re staring.”

 

“Am I not allowed to?”

 

“What kind of question is that?!  Staring is always weird!”

 

Sonia returned to lying on her back, this time closing her eyes and putting her hands behind her head.  “Okay, if you say so.”

 

She waited a minute before opening one eye.  Luna was staring at her—she blushed immediately upon being spotted, turning away quickly.  Sonia grinned and closed her eye again.

 

Moving into a sitting position, Luna paused to adjust her hair and then checked her Star Carrier again.  She cautiously looked back at Sonia.  Her eyes were still closed.  Luna leaned towards her, and suddenly Sonia sprang up and wrapped her arms around Luna with a giggle.

 

“H-Hey, don’t surprise me like that!” Luna said.

 

“Ah, it’d be no fun if I agreed to that,” Sonia said, resting her head on Luna’s shoulder.

 

Luna scowled into the distance.  “Ugh, you’re such a troublemaker…”

 

“What other kind of person could bring out your tsundere charm?”

 

Luna just groaned, and they continued to sit entwined.  She leaned her head against Sonia’s and shut her eyes.  “…Thanks, Sonia.”

 

The sound of splashing caught their attention.  Way down at the bottom of the hill, Claud was crawling out of the water—he stopped to shake himself dry and then deactivated his Wave Change, proceeding to pace towards the windmill with a puzzled expression.

 

“He’s still looking,” Luna said.

 

Sonia sighed, starting to feel the cold a little more.  “I’ve accepted that they’re probably not here.  We’ll just have to hope they’re safe for the time being, I guess.”

 

She grabbed her lute and stood up.  Offering a hand to Luna, she said, “It’s getting late.  Let’s go see if we can get ahold of Zack now.”

 

“For his sake, we’d better be able to.”

 

As they started down the hill, Sonia put on her Visualizer to make sure Lyra and Ophiuca were coming to join them.  When she was back in Sonia’s guitar, Lyra asked, “So, do you have a projection?”

 

“It’ll take a while to totally get used to it, I think, but I wouldn’t expect it to take more than a week,” Sonia said.  “I’m more motivated than ever now!”

 

Claud saw them coming and scurried over to join them.  “You done already?”

 

“For today.  I think what we all need now is a little rest.  Hey, do you think Zack is done with whatever he was doing now?”

 

“Uh, maybe?”

 

“You act like you don’t know anything about what he’s doing,” Luna said.  “Surely there’s something you can tell us.”

 

Claud scratched his head, trying to think of something while they walked.  They were halfway back to town when they saw the film crew again, though by now the crowd had left them, and those who remained appeared to be packing up.  Luna squinted at them.

 

“…Hey, wait,” she said.

 

With a gulp, Claud said, “Hey, we should get moving, no need to bother anyone!”

 

Luna approached the film crew.  Sonia hung back, asking, “Luna?  What is it?”

 

She followed Luna’s gaze, seeing a handful of people chatting near the water’s edge.  One of them in particular caught her attention: a short boy with spiky brown hair wearing glasses and green clothes.  Sonia’s jaw dropped.

 

“Zack!” Luna shouted.

 

The boy flinched and spun around, looking up at her in shock.  “P-Prez?  What are you doing here?”

 

Gesturing towards the crew, Luna said, “So this is why you didn’t come meet us?  I’ve waited long enough for an explanation, so you’d better have a good one ready!”

 

Zack shakily adjusted his glasses.  “Well, um, the thing is, I’ve been—er, rather, when I got here, I—“

 

“Are these friends of yours?” asked one of the people Zack had been talking to.  He wore khaki clothes with a yellowish vest, and from under his pith helmet spilled black hair that fanned outward.  Behind his angular yellow sunglasses he looked at them with a bored, almost annoyed expression.

 

“That’s right!” Luna said.

 

He glanced at Sonia, and then focused intently on her for a moment.   “You…look a lot like Sonia Strumm.”

 

Smiling nervously, she said, “Yeah, I, uh, get that a lot.”

 

“Zack, answer me!” Luna said.

 

“Well…we were looking for Pat and Geo, and I was exploring the area around the loch,” Zack said.  “I was just about to leave when I saw something come up from the water.  It was this dragon-like thing with a long neck, and it looked right at me!  Then it just dove back underwater.  I was stunned, but I knew…it had to be Messie!  I actually got a good look at the Loch Mess Monster!”

 

Luna clenched her teeth.

 

“That’s when I met Mr. Romero here—he’s the host of World Mysteries, a show that goes around reporting on unexplained occurrences, and they’re here to do a few episodes on the recent increase in Messie sightings.  I’ve been helping them try to find her.”

 

Luna closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.

 

“Seems she’s taking it well,” Ophiuca said.

 

Lyra smirked.  “You’re still new.”

 

“Zack,” Luna said quietly.  “If I understand correctly, you’re saying that you stopped looking for our friends, and are now ignoring us, in order to search for some local hoax?”

 

“It’s not a hoax!” Zack said.  “If I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t have believed it either, but I did!”

 

Luna’s shoulders rose.  Sonia stepped towards her as she went on, “I may have been angry, but still, I might’ve been able to let it go if you were doing something that actually sounded important.  But ditching us because you’ve suddenly become a conspiracy theorist?”

 

She glared at Zack and started forward.  “You’ve got a lot of nerve, you pint-sized jerk!”

 

Sonia grabbed Luna’s shoulder and tried to ease her back.  “Luna—“

 

“No, I’m telling him what I think!  Not a single mention of this hallucination, no attempt to explain it to me, I have to find out like this?!  What kind of Brother are you, Zack?”

 

“Hey, hey!” Romero interrupted.  “Not sure I appreciate you looking down on my work like this.”

 

“Oh please!  Do you even believe that this monster actually exists?”

 

“Hey, it’s good entertainment.  This kid’s been a big help—gotten us a few close shots.”

 

“You’d rather help him than us?”

 

“There’s no way I can help you!” Zack shouted.  Luna stepped back in surprise.  “…M-Mr. Romero, I’m sorry, could you please excuse us?”

 

Romero shrugged.  “Whatever.  I’ll expect to see you tomorrow—we haven’t gotten that perfect shot yet.”

 

“Of course; I’ll be there.”

 

When Romero and the rest of the crew had gone, Zack looked down and sighed.  “You don’t need me, and you know it.  There’s no point in pretending anymore.”

 

Luna shook her head.  “What are you talking about?”

 

“Come on, Prez: what good am I to you?  To any of you?  I can’t fight like any of you.  I’ve never been the smartest one in our group either.  When was the last time I actually contributed anything?”

 

“What?  What kind of nonsense is that?”

 

“What I think she means,” Sonia said, “is that you don’t have to contribute something, Zack.  You’re our friend—that doesn’t mean you have to do anything for us.”

 

Zack turned around.  “But I’m not your friend, not really.  I don’t belong in this group anymore.  I don’t have the same experiences as you, I wasn’t even told anything about the FM-ians until months after it was over.  You’ve all entered a world that has no place for me, and I’m…I’m just sick of feeling so left out all the time…even when we all get together, it feels like I’m just there.”

 

Looking over his shoulder, he added, “Well, I’m done.  I’ve finally found something I can actually contribute to, something I can be a part of.  I’m not going to let this opportunity pass me by.”

 

“Fine!” Luna shouted.  “Get out of here, then!  If that’s the case then we’ll be better off without you!”

 

“Luna!” Sonia said, pulling on her shoulder.

 

Zack ran off before she could say anything else.  Luna began to sob uncontrollably.

 

“Oh, Luna…”  Sonia hugged her and waited.  Claud pointed away with his thumb, and Sonia nodded to him, prompting him to leave as well.

 

“…I had no idea he felt that way,” Luna whispered.

 

“I know.”

 

“No, I should’ve known!  If we’re Brothers, then I should’ve known I was making him feel that way, and I should’ve stopped doing that to him!  I should’ve…”

 

She kept crying.  Sonia held her tight.

 

***

 

Romero stepped into his trailer and locked the door behind him.  Removing his hat, he set it on a hook on the wall, and then turned towards the couch that filled the majority of one side of the room.  He jumped back when he saw Hyde sitting there.

 

Waving cordially, Hyde said, “Good evening.  Gerry Romero, I presume?”

 

“Who the heck are you?!  How did you get in here?”

 

“My name is Hyde.  I can walk through walls.”

 

Romero put a hand to his head.  “Right.  Great, another loon is just what I need.”  He went to the nearby mini-fridge and pulled out a bottle.  “Alright, you broke in here for reason so just tell me what it is.”

 

“Well you see, Mr. Romero, I’ve become quite a fan of your show.  I would like to offer my services as a scriptwriter.”

 

“Not sure a documentary-style show needs a scriptwriter.”

 

“But you’ve been scripting certain events, haven’t you?”

 

Romero paused.

 

With a grin, Hyde said, “I did a little poking around, and, ah…I believe I’ve discovered the cause of the recent spike in Messie sightings.”

 

“…And that would be?”

 

“Don’t play the fool.  You knew Loch Mess was going to be your next assignment, so you came ahead of your crew and made sure there would be something for you to actually report on.”

 

Romero held out a moment longer before throwing up his hands.  “Okay, fine, you got me.  What, are you trying to blackmail me or something?”

 

“You must be desperate to stoop this low.  Perhaps you’re under some sort of pressure from the higher-ups?”

 

Romero leaned back against the opposite wall.  “World Mysteries doesn’t have particularly good ratings, and that’s all the network really cares about.  If things don’t change I’ll be on the chopping block.”

 

“How dreadful,” Hyde said.  “Those executives—all they see are numbers, isn’t that right?”

 

“You don’t know the half of it.  I got into journalism cause I thought people wanted to be informed.  Turns out, they don’t care about what’s really going on…but when you make one tiny mistake that sensationalizes a story, they can’t get enough, and the execs won’t let you make a correction because they think that would slash those ratings…”  He sighed and took a drink.  “People don’t want information.  They want entertainment.  Who am I to argue?”

 

Hyde nodded.  “Then you do need a scriptwriter.”

 

Romero rolled his eyes.  “Fine, what’ve you got?”

 

“First of all, I think we should recast the monster.  That Matter Wave submarine you’re fooling everyone with is cute, but it’s rather limited.”

 

“You’ve got better special effects?”

 

“You could say that, heh, heh, heh.”

 

Hyde drew something out of his breast pocket: a thin mask designed to cover only the top half of the wearer’s face, made of an old-looking type of rock.  As he placed it over his face, Romero said, “Please tell me that’s not all you’ve got.”

 

“EM Wave Change.”

 

In a flash, Hyde transformed into the Dark Phantom.  Romero gaped.

 

“To be clear, I’m not suggesting that I take the role,” he said as he stood.  “This is just a demonstration.  Here, why don’t you try this on?”

 

He handed over another object made of the same material, this one a bulbous armguard.  Tentatively, Romero put his hand through the armor, and then looked up at Hyde expectantly.

 

“Plesio, if you would be so kind as to come to the set.”

 

Yellow energy streamed out of the armguard and coalesced into a Wave body.  The bulk of the creature was the same rounded shape as the armguard, with a tail and four fin-like spouts of flame.  The front of its body was decorated with a cone of tan and black armor, from the center of which emerged its long neck, reaching high enough that its tan-armored face nearly touched the ceiling.  It regarded Romero with its empty green eyes and said nothing.

 

“…N…Not bad,” Romero whispered.

 

“Mr. Romero, I would like to introduce you to Plesio,” Hyde said.  “His area of expertise is espionage, but I think a leading role might help him to build his resume.”

 

Plesio remained silent.

 

“So, I use this thing as my monster?” Romero asked.

 

“Half-right.  You see, Plesio has the ability to merge with a human and grant them his form and power.  If you were to take advantage of that…”

 

Romero looked Plesio up and down.  “Merge, huh?  I guess that’d be easier to control.  All I’d have to do is get my camera crew in the right place, go get this thing...”  He turned to Hyde.  “Okay.  What’s the catch?”

 

“Smart,” Hyde said.  “The pressing issue is, there’s someone here who poses a grave threat to your operation.  You’ll have to fight her.”

 

Romero raised an eyebrow.  “Fight?”

 

“I recommend getting the jump on her.  If you were to cause some trouble, say, kick up a tiny tsunami, it would force her to come to you and fight on your terms.”

 

“Tsunami?!  Isn’t that a bit much?”

 

Hyde shrugged.  “Make it slow-moving.  They’ll have time to get to their precious shelter, and the damage to the town would be minimal.”

 

Romero turned and thought for a moment.  He looked up at Plesio again, and then told Hyde, “Yeah…no thanks.”

 

Hyde frowned.  “Pardon me?”

 

“This thing’d make a great monster, but I’m not gonna cause a disaster just to save my show.  That’s insane.”

 

Hyde stared at him for a moment.  Then, taking one step forward, he said, “You know, I don’t quite see how you think you’re in a position to refuse.”

 

“Come again?”

 

“I could snatch up that submarine of yours in a heartbeat, and just leave it in the center of town for everyone to see.  How long do you think it would take for it to be traced back to you?”

 

Romero grimaced.

 

“Where would you be then, hm?  You’d never work again.  You’d be on the streets, with nowhere to turn—for who would trust such a famous fraud?”

 

Scratching his head, Romero said, “Look, can’t we negotiate?  I’m not much of a fighter, so it probably wouldn’t—“

 

Hyde rapped his cane against the floor.  “You will cause enough of a scene to draw your opponent out, or I will see to it personally that any potential future you could have will be utterly destroyed.”

 

Romero shrank under his glare.  Eventually, he closed his eyes and nodded once.

 

“Good.”  Hyde sighed.  “Plesio, do keep him in-line, won’t you?  It is very important that you keep Harp Note’s attention as long as you can.”

 

Plesio nodded, and then disappeared back into the armguard.  Hyde gestured, and Romero left the trailer, leaving Hyde by himself.

 

“…This production will never meet my standards.”

 

Phantom chuckled.  “I thought you were content simply to follow Vega’s orders?”

 

“I live to serve her.  But there’s no way that man and Plesio will be able to defeat Harp Note.”

 

“All they must do is buy time.”

 

“I had hoped to send Plesio into the Bermuda Maze.  He would have been perfect for the role, diving into the heart of the unknown, reclaiming the ancient civilization of Mu, and all under my orders, letting me once and for all dethrone that wretched, arrogant Hollow…!”

 

He raised his hand dramatically.  Phantom said, “Are you quite done?  We have work to do.”

 

Hyde pulled on his hat.  “…Indeed.”

 

 

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Chapter 12

 

 

 

Zack kept his eyes peeled as he made his way around the loch.  The water was churning oddly, rising and falling rapidly but not producing many waves.  He could see a small cove ahead, though he couldn’t see into it due to the grassy hill in the way, so he ignored the activity of the water and made his way onto the bridge.

 

If Messie is causing this, then this might be my chance to get a better look at her.  I have to find Messie, because…

 

His steps slowed.

 

Well…because I don’t really have anything else.

 

“Excuse me, Zack?”

 

He looked around, but to his surprise no one was there.  Furrowing his brow, he turned to his Star Carrier, and nearly jumped when he saw Ophiuca on the screen.

 

“Ah!  W-W-W-What are you doing here?!”

 

“Pardon the intrusion, but unfortunately I don’t have any other way of communicating with you.  I would like to speak with you if that’s alright.”

 

“Um…okay.”

 

Ophiuca nodded, gathering her thoughts.  “Well…I suppose that really, I want to ask you to try talking to Luna again.”

 

Zack sighed.  “I see.  She sent you.”

 

“No, Luna doesn’t know that I’m here.”

 

He raised an eyebrow.

 

“I shan’t pretend that I fully understand human relationships, but I can see that Luna is upset.  At the very least I can sense the loneliness wave she’s emitting.  Snapping at you the way she did was uncalled for, certainly, but I do think that she truly wants to apologize—for that, and her recent treatment of you in general.”

 

Zack fidgeted with his glasses.  “I didn’t want to hurt Prez.  But I can’t stand it anymore, constantly seeing how totally useless I am.”

 

“Being useful to her matters a lot to you, I see.  May I ask why that is?”

 

“Well…I used to be,” Zack said.  “I guess that was a while ago—we were all pretty young.  I didn’t have any friends, but Prez just came up to me one day and told me to help her with her plans to better organize the class.  I guess I never really felt like she needed me, exactly, but…I felt like she depended on me.  Like she trusted me, and wanted to have me around.”  He shook his head.  “But it hasn’t felt like that for a while now.”

 

“She does want you around,” Ophiuca said.  “She and Sonia were talking the other day, before they bumped into you, and I overheard some of it.  Luna missed you terribly.  She was very much looking forward to seeing you again, because she’s always considered you a reliable, responsible Brother.  She was feeling lonely even then.”

 

Zack paused.  “But, she had Sonia with her.”

 

Ophiuca nodded.  “I’m hesitant to read too much into it, given my current lack of comprehension in these affairs, but it seems Luna values each of you for different reasons.  Some of those reasons might be more apparent than others at times, but I believe she considers those reasons equally valuable.  Or rather, I feel she considers all of you equally valuable.”

 

“…Maybe,” Zack said, “but…”

 

“I didn’t come here to solve this problem—I’m quite certain that feat is beyond me.  I just thought you should know that Luna does want to solve it.  She realizes that she treated you terribly, and she feels terrible in light of that realization.  That’s all the information I wanted to give you.”

 

Zack looked up, letting his eyes wander.  “…I really wish I could stay her Brother.  But I want to be useful, and I know that there’s no way I can be anymore.  It hurts, and I feel like the only way to stop that is to try…”

 

He trailed off.  Squinting, he stepped onto the island and approached the cove.

 

“Is something wrong?” Ophiuca asked.

 

“Hang on,” Zack whispered, “I think I see something.”

 

He rounded a corner and came to the shore.  Leaning against a short wall of rock, he strained to see the form bobbing in the water a short distance away, and soon recognized its silhouette.

 

“Messie?!”

 

Zack smiled.  As he continued to watch, however, his enthusiasm faded.

 

“…But, that’s odd…”  He looked for a way over the rock, muttering, “If only I could get closer.”

 

“I’d be happy to take a look for you,” Ophiuca said.  “Just a moment.”

 

She left the screen, and a few seconds later she was back.  “What is it?” Zack asked.

 

Ophiuca looked down.  “It’s shaped like the monster, but…it’s definitely a Matter Wave.  Some kind of submersible vehicle by the look of it.”

 

Zack lowered his terminal, staring blankly at the submarine.

 

“…I’m sorry, Zack.”

 

“This is what I saw?” Zack whispered, his whole body drooping.  “I’ve been all around this town searching for someone’s toy?  This is what I thought would finally…”

 

He clenched his fists around his hair and started to shake.

 

“…Stupid.  Why did I think I could actually do something important?  I should’ve known it was all a hoax.”

 

Ophiuca tried to think of a response as she watched him.  Before long, he returned to his Star Carrier and started typing.

 

“What is it that you’re doing?” Ophiuca asked.

 

“I’m going to take control of that thing,” Zack huffed.  “I’m going to bring it back with me, and we’ll find out whoever’s responsible, and—“

 

His work was interrupted by an emergency notice appearing on his screen.  When opened, it read: “URGENT!  Erratic wave activity has been reported, the town is now on alert!  All residents of Loch Mess are to head for the emergency shelter IMMEDIATELY!”

 

Looking back at the sub, he said, “Shoot, I need more time!”

 

“It may be best to just leave it,” Ophiuca said.

 

“If a big enough wave hits, it’ll be lost forever!  And then I’ll never be able to figure out what’s really been going on.”  Resuming typing, he said, “I’ve been fooled…I was ready to stake my entire self-worth on someone’s joke, and I’m not content to just let that go!”

 

Ophiuca chuckled.  “When you put it like that, I can understand.  Very well.  Give me a few moments with it—I should be able to commandeer it in a fraction of the time.”

 

“Really?  You’d do that?”

 

“Certainly.  You start back, and I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”

 

Ophiuca left the screen then.  Zack stared at the sub at first, but then turned and walked quickly back along the dock.

 

***

 

Claud, Wave Changed, scurried across the bridge from one island to the next.  Sonia was following at a distance, running a little more slowly since she carried Luna in her arms.

 

“Why hasn’t Ophiuca come back yet?” Sonia said.  “She’s got to know what’s going on!”

 

“You don’t have to keep complaining,” Luna muttered.

 

“It’s not that, I’m just worried about you not being able to Wave Change.  You’d be a lot safer back at the shelter.”

 

“Hmph.  It’s not like we even know for sure anything’s going to happen.”

 

“I’m still not sure why we’re out here!” Cancer said.  “Can’t we all just go back?”

 

“No way!” Claud said with a grin.  “Maybe we’ll be able to find the monster and beat it up!”

 

Cancer shuddered.  “Th-That’s what I’m worried about.”

 

Sonia fixed her eyes on the water, watching as it swirled and rose and fell.  “It might be nothing, but since Claud said this isn’t normal I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check.”

 

Glancing at the back of his head, Luna grumbled, “He’s hardly an expert.”

 

Claud sneered over his shoulder.  “Hey, I’ve actually been learning a lot about the ocean and stuff after partnering with Cancer!  I’m telling you: this isn’t what’s supposed to happen if you’re expecting a tsunami!”

 

“Not to mention the timing is rather suspicious,” Lyra added.  “Hyde and his ilk have been tracking our every move, so it’s reasonable to assume they know we’re here now.”

 

“You’re starting to sound paranoid,” Cancer said.

 

“I’m not the one afraid of the local cryptid, dear.”

 

“What?”

 

Sonia caught up to Claud on an island not far from the market.  She carefully set Luna down on her feet, and then stepped towards the water’s edge and crouched.  Scratching her head, she said, “Now that we’re here…I’m not actually sure what we’re looking for.”

 

“Let’s wait and see what happens,” Lyra said.  “If Hyde has staged something, I’m sure he’ll want to raise the curtain soon.”

 

Sonia looked back at Luna.  “…But, what if there really is a tsunami coming?”

 

“Luna will be fine, Sonia.  I’m sure Ophiuca’s on her way here right now.”

 

Luna crossed her arms.  “I’m still not leaving!”

 

Sonia stood and looked out over the water, hoping to see something promising in the fog.  “Do you see anything, Claud?”

 

Claud raised a hand over his eyes and leaned forward.  “Hmmmm, well, there’s that thing over there, but it looks like it’s just a lighthouse or something.”

 

A tall, thin shadow could be seen not far away in the fog.  Sonia nodded, saying, “Yeah, something like that.  Maybe it’s a tree?”

 

“Why would there be just one tree on an island all by itself?”

 

“Yeah, maybe not.  Kind of a weird place for a lighthouse, though.  What do you think, Luna?”

 

Luna inclined her head.  “Eh?”

 

Sonia pointed.  “That shadow over there.”

 

Luna stared at it for a long time, eventually responding, “I…don’t see anything there.”

 

Sonia and Claud looked at each other, then back at the shadow—they could both still see it.

 

“That’s weird,” Claud said.  “Do you think she needs glasses?”

 

Luna stomped her foot.  “I heard that!”

 

“Why would we be able to see it when she can’t?” Sonia wondered.  “…Say, Lyra…do you sense anything?”

 

“Nothing,” Lyra answered.  “However, if I follow your train of thought, it is still possible.”

 

Sonia tapped Claud’s shoulder.  “Claud, would you mind swimming out and seeing what that is?”

 

“Sure thing!” Claud said, beating one pincer into the air and then jumping into the water.

 

As he swam, Luna came closer to Sonia.  “What’s going on?  I still don’t see anything there.”

 

“I think I know why,” Sonia said.  “You should head back to the shelter, Luna.”

 

Luna put her hands on her hips.  “How many times do I have to tell you I’m not going?”

 

Claud was about halfway across.  Suddenly, the shadow moved, bending forward and receding slightly as the water in front of Claud formed into a small wave.

 

Sonia readied her guitar, her fears confirmed.  “It’s a Wave Body!”

 

She sent a sound pulse out to meet the tidal wave, punching a hole through its center; Claud realized the opportunity and jumped through the opening, and then tread water while the shadow began to come towards him.  The wave reformed and continued towards the shore.  Sonia picked Luna up and jumped onto a nearby building; shortly after, water crashed down on the place where they had stood.

 

“I’m taking you back,” Sonia said.

 

“No!” Luna said.  “Claud’s going to need your help!”

 

“You’re in danger here, Luna!  I need to know you’re safe!”

 

“I won’t get hurt!  I promise!  Just focus on the fight, and I’ll join you once Ophiuca gets here!”

 

Sonia still hesitated, so Lyra said, “We don’t have time to argue.  Leave it be, Sonia.”

 

“But…”

 

Her eyes met Luna’s.  Luna urged, “Go, help Claud!”

 

Reluctantly, Sonia nodded.  “Just…stay safe.  Please.”

 

The water had receded, so she jumped back down and approached the shore.  Trying to get a good look at her foe, she said, “Lyra, I was thinking of trying out the new style.”

 

“Go ahead.”

 

Sonia activated her Thunder Berserk transformation.  The shadow was starting to emerge from the fog: it was the long, black and tan neck of some creature whose body was almost totally hidden beneath the water, only the top of its round orange back poking out.  Its head was orange with a long snout and tan-colored jaw, and a line of sharp teeth gleamed within its mouth.  Curiously, it regarded them with something Sonia could only describe as apprehension.

 

Maybe they don’t actually want to fight?

 

Claud gazed up in awe as the creature loomed over him.  “Oh my gosh…it’s…it’s Messie!  She’s really here!”

 

“What?!” Cancer cried.  “Oh no no no no no, no no this can’t be happening!  What did I do to deserve this?”

 

The creature sighed.  “I’m not Messie, kid.”

 

Claud’s smile gradually fell away.  “…You’re not?”

 

The creature shook his head.  “Get going, will you?  I’ve got something I got to take care of.”

 

He swam around Claud and towards the shore.  Claud leapt onto its back, saying, “Hang on a second!  How are you not Messie?  You look just like her, and this is Loch Mess.  Wait, are you just trying to throw me off your trail?”

 

Rolling his eyes, the creature ignored him and faced Sonia.  “Hey you!  You’re this Harp Note I’m supposed to find, right?”

 

“That’s me,” Sonia said.  “I’m guessing you heard about me from Hyde?  What did he say to you?”

 

The creature opened his mouth, and out came a bolt of lightning.  Sonia was too surprised to dodge.  She fell to one knee, meanwhile Claud flung himself at the back of the creature’s head and clamped on with both pincers.

 

“Hey, don’t hurt Harp Note!” he shouted.  “That does it: whatever kind of monster you are, I’m going to beat you!”

 

“Get off of me!”

 

Sonia eased herself up.  “We don’t have to fight.  Who are you?  What’s your name?”

 

“Romer…”  The creature stopped.  “No, uh…what did you say, Plesio Surf?  Ugh, get off of me, brat!”

 

“Romer…Romero?!” Sonia guessed.  “The reporter?”

 

“Of course, the one time someone recognizes me!”

 

Romero dove underwater.  Sonia scanned for some sign of where he would come up, but when he did it was some distance away.  He swung his neck around and Claud was sent flying.  The boy crashed into the water but resurfaced immediately—Sonia sighed with relief.

 

“Why are you doing this, Mr. Romero?” Sonia asked.  “What did Hyde say to convince you this would help you?”

 

“Help me?” Romero snapped.  “Please!  I’m not getting anything out of this madness, other than Hyde keeping his mouth shut.”

 

“Sounds like our scriptwriter isn’t above blackmailing his actors,” Lyra said.  “Hm, this could be complicated…”

 

Romero kicked up another wave.  Claud countered with one of equal size.  They clashed together and burst apart, spewing water all around but not actually hitting anyone.

 

Sonia put a hand to her chin.  “Maybe if I can figure out what Hyde has on him, then—“

 

“Sonia,” Lyra interrupted.  “That’s possible, but most likely we’re going to need to soften him up first.”

 

Sonia thought for a moment, and then reached for her lute.  She started to play a few loud, disjointed notes, leading to one longer string that ended with a long pause.  Repeating this sequence a few times, she caused a line of yellow sparks of energy to come into existence in front of her, hovering a foot above the water.  They shaped themselves into humanoid torsos attached to a yellow metal base.  A round piece a gray armor covered their chests, and one conjoined sheet of smooth yellow armor covered their shoulders and heads.  Each held an octagonal shield in one hand and a rectangular sword like a flat baton in the other.  Sonia continued to play, and they slowly floated forward, splitting into two groups in an attempt to flank Romero.

 

“Sounds like a marching song,” Claud noted.  “I thought you said this one turned the lute into a sword?”

 

“It can,” Sonia said, “but I figured there was also something else I could do with the right style.  The sword isn’t going to help if I can’t get close, after all.”

 

The soldiers tightened their formation around Romero.  Some of them swung their swords, but he twisted away and dove underwater before they could pursue.  Sonia stopped playing and they froze.

 

“Any idea where he is?” she asked.

 

Claud submerged.  A second later, Romero reappeared beneath one group of soldiers, snapping his jaws shut around them.  Sonia ordered the others to strike then, landing a few strikes before he retreated again.  All was still until a lightning bolt shot up out of the water.  Claud surfaced not far away, looking like he was in a hurry, and a wave appeared to carry him directly into the shore.  Sonia created another soldier to shield her from the wall of water, but when she looked up there was still no trace of Romero.

 

Dragging himself inland, Claud said, “Man, you’ve gotta be kidding me!”

 

“Was he too fast for you?” Sonia said.

 

“No, I’m definitely faster!  The problem is that long neck—he keeps hitting me from angles I’m not expecting.  I can’t get close enough.”

 

Romero snapped up the other group of soldiers out on the water.  Sonia glared at him, and her eyes flashed.  Romero flinched like something had struck him, but dove again before she could follow up; Sonia snarled, then took a deep breath and focused on clearing her mind of frustration.

 

I’m in control.

 

Luna watched from above as they waited for their next chance.  She surveyed the area, hoping she could catch something that would help them, but her eyes soon settled on a person rushing down the chain of bridges.

 

“Zack?”

 

Sure enough, Zack was making his way from island to island in their direction.  Parallel to him, a submarine with some sort of draconic figurehead moved through the water, but it soon broke into a brief burst of speed before abruptly grinding to a halt.

 

“Luna!” a voice said.

 

She fumbled with her Star Carrier as she removed it from her pocket.  Ophiuca was there, her face pressed against the screen.

 

“Luna, are you alright?  How did you get up here?”

 

“It’s okay,” Luna said, somewhat confused, “I’m fine.”

 

Ophiuca sighed.  Zack inspected the submarine and noticed Sonia and Claud.  He stood there, not knowing what to do.  Luna gripped her Carrier tightly.

 

“Ophiuca,” she said, “can we Wave Change just long enough to get down?”

 

“Certainly.”

 

Luna transformed, dropped down the side of the building, and reverted back to normal, and then she took off running.  “Zack!”

 

Everyone turned at her voice.  Sonia was about to look back when she saw Romero’s head rising out of the water right next to Zack—judging by his and Luna’s lack of reaction, he was still imperceptible to them.

 

“Where did you get that?!” he exclaimed, bending towards the submarine.  “Not good, not good!”

 

“Zack, get back!” Sonia yelled.

 

The boy was too stunned to process her words.  Luckily, Claud sprang into action, hurling his claws through the air to batter Romero.  He became visible briefly when hit, causing Zack to scramble away towards Luna.

 

“Zack!” Luna said, trapping him in an embrace.  “I’m so glad you’re okay!  Why were you still so far out?  Didn’t you get the warning?”

 

“P-Prez…” Zack stammered.

 

Sonia played, commanding her soldier to step forward.  It brought its hands together in front of its chest and waited a moment, and then, just as Romero was recovering, it released a beam of electricity that rammed into him, making him collapse back underwater.  Claud went in after him while Sonia went to Luna and Zack.

 

“Are you alright?” Sonia asked.

 

“I’m fine,” Zack said, pulling away from Luna.  “What’s going on?  Does this have to do with Hyde?”

 

Another bolt shot out of the water.

 

“He gave a PM-ian to Mr. Romero,” Sonia said.  “He said he doesn’t want to fight, but that Hyde has some way of blackmailing him.  I haven’t been able to figure out what, though.”

 

Zack paused for a moment, and then looked at the submarine.  “…He came after this as soon as I got here…”

 

Looking it over, Sonia asked, “What is this?”

 

“This is ‘Messie’.  Someone’s been fooling us all with this thing, and I’m beginning to think it might be Mr. Romero.”

 

Romero broke the surface, Claud in his teeth.  With a swing, he tossed Claud a few yards away with a mighty splash, and then headed for the submarine again.

 

“Give me that!” he said.

 

Sonia’s eyes flashed.  While Romero was stunned, she engaged the lightning blade, and she jumped, swung, and dealt a powerful slash, moving so that she landed on the submarine’s back.

 

“So this is yours,” Sonia said.  “You’ve been faking Messie sightings?  Is that what Hyde has on you?”

 

Romero clenched his teeth.  “…So what if it is?”

 

Sonia lowered her sword.  “Then we can stop.”

 

“What?”

 

“We’ve got the submarine.  Hyde can’t show it to anyone, so there’s no reason for us to keep fighting.”

 

Romero stared at her quietly.

 

“I didn’t get a chance to ask: what’s your name, the PM-ian fused with Romero?”

 

She received no reply.

 

“…Okay.  Well, do you really want to continue fighting?  I’m not sure what your stake in this is, but there’s no need for us to force this fight.”

 

After a short wait, an almost inaudible, raspy voice said, “I don’t really care.”

 

Romero looked down and muttered, “Hey, Plesio—“

 

“We have our orders.  I’m not to release you until you beat her.”

 

“What?  Come on, bargain with me here!”

 

Plesio said nothing more.

 

“Dang it…”

 

Romero leaned back and took a deep breath.  He then snapped forward, only for Sonia to raise her sword and block his teeth.  She closed her eyes for a moment.

 

“We’re not going to be able to talk our way out of this, Sonia,” Lyra said.

 

Opening her eyes, she pulled back her sword and kicked.  Her foot became coated in electricity as it collided with Romero’s face, and he reeled, flailing his neck as he sank back underwater.  Claud returned to the battle as she deactivated her sword and began creating more soldiers.

 

“The two of you should get to the shelter,” Sonia advised.  “We might be a while longer.”

 

“Absolutely not!” Luna said.  “I can help, now that Ophiuca’s here.”

 

“I don’t think either one of us is going to accomplish much if we can’t find a way to get closer.”

 

As Luna tried to think of something, Ophiuca said, “I believe you’ve got one, Harp Note.  Look where you’re standing.”

 

Sonia looked down at the submarine.

 

“Zack, you should be able to connect to it with your Star Carrier now.  Piloting it to get Harp Note closer to her enemy would be easy.”

 

“Me?” Zack said.  “I mean…yeah, I guess I could probably do that, but…”  He shook his head.  “No, wait: he’s staying out of the visible spectrum.  I wouldn’t know where to steer it.”

 

Sonia took a quick look to make sure Romero hadn’t resurfaced.  When she looked back, she saw Luna producing an item and grew tense.

 

“I still have Geo’s Visualizer,” Luna said quietly.  “I didn’t want to use it, but…with this, you could help Sonia fight Mr. Romero.”

 

Zack marveled at the glasses for a moment, and then turned to Sonia.  She felt a pit form in her stomach, followed by a slight burning sensation, but she took a breath and nodded.

 

“If you’re up for it, Zack, I could really use your help,” she said, trying to smile.

 

Zack’s face lit up.  He hesitated for a moment, then delicately took the Visualizer and slipped it over his regular glasses.  It was a somewhat awkward fit, but it held, and he admired the Wave Roads for a moment before typing into his Star Carrier.  Sonia checked her footing and faced the other way.  When Romero’s head popped up, Zack tapped his Carrier, and the submarine surged forward.

 

“Mr. Romero!” Sonia called.

 

He was surprised to see her riding the submarine, allowing her soldiers to close in on him.  They continued to harry him as she passed them, pausing in her playing long enough to deal one strike of her own, continuing to whittle away Romero’s stamina until he slammed his head down on them.  He went for Sonia next, but the submarine carried her out of harm’s way.  As she conjured more soldiers, Claud emerged from the water right beneath Romero’s jaw with a powerful uppercut.

 

“Thanks for joining us!” Claud said as he swam up alongside the sub.

 

Romero shouted.  “I’m sick of this!”

 

Another wave slammed into Sonia and Claud, knocking the former off the submarine’s back.

 

“Uh-oh!” Zack said.

 

Luna wrung her hands.  “Sonia?!”

 

“Let’s see,” Zack mumbled, “judging by the force of impact, she should be…”

 

He had the submarine circle back to where he figured Sonia would be, but Romero intercepted it.  The creature loomed over it, saying, “I’ll just destroy this stupid thing!  No one will be able to prove anything then!”

 

Luna frantically moved to Wave Change, unsure she would have enough time.  Romero prepared to crush the sub in his jaws when suddenly a blast hit him in the side of the face.  Roaring, he turned to see one of Sonia’s soldiers had survived; he unleashed his own thunderbolt, obliterating it, and then turned to see the sub had gone.

 

From behind the controls, Zack said, “She’s got to be in view, so…here!”

 

Just as he stopped the sub, Claud surfaced next to it with Sonia.  He climbed on first and then helped her up behind him, and then they both waved their thanks to Zack.

 

Zack smiled, relieved that they were okay.  More than that, there was an exhilaration he had never felt before—a satisfaction in his efforts, an anticipation for what the combatants would do next, a determination to see this challenge through to its end.

 

“So this is what it feels like,” he said under his breath.

 

Romero reared back and screamed.  Crouching, Sonia said, “Claud, if you can distract him, then I should be able to finish this.”

 

Claud grinned.  “I’ll make sure he doesn’t see you coming!”

 

As Romero leaned forward, Sonia grabbed one of Claud’s pincers and pulled.  She picked him off his feet, spun around once, and then hurled him directly at Romero’s face, where he clamped on and refused to let go.

 

“You rotten brats!” Romero cursed as he tried to shake Claud off.

 

Sonia readied her sword.  “Zack!”

 

With a nod, Zack hit the accelerator.  The sub shot forward, gaining as much speed as it could.  When she had almost reached Romero, Sonia leaped, spinning in mid-air to build up more momentum; she put her all into one swing, slashing Romero down the length of his neck before landing back on the sub to be carried out of range.  Romero cried out, and in a flash his Wave Change dissipated.

 

Clenching his fist, Zack said, “Yes!  We did it!”

 

“Nice work, Zack!” Luna said.

 

Sonia held onto the sub’s figurehead as it brought her around.  Romero floated on his back next to Claud, a miserable expression on his face as he waited, staring up at the sky.

 

“Are you alright?” Sonia asked.

 

Romero scoffed.  “What, you’re asking now?”

 

“Hey, you’re the one who attacked us!” Claud snapped.

 

“I didn’t want anything to do with this, you little pipsqueak!”

 

Sonia lightly kicked at the submarine.  “Why did you fake the monster?  You must’ve known someone would’ve found out eventually.”

 

Romero chuckled.  “Yeah right.  People don’t care about the truth, kid.  I did what I thought would get people watching, otherwise I was going to be out of a job.”  After a pause, he added, “Guess that blew up in my face.”

 

Sonia watched him float for a minute.  Then, she leaned out and extended her hand.  “Come on.  Let’s get you out of there.”

 

He eyed her hand suspiciously.  Slowly, he reached out to take it.  Before he could, however, something grabbed him and pulled him under.

 

Jumping back, Sonia readied her lute and asked, “Claud, can you see anything?”

 

“Uh, give me a second!”

 

Claud disappeared from view for a moment.  He soon returned with Romero in tow, and something else jumped out of the water not far away.  Alighting on a nearby Wave Road, Hyde paused just long enough to grin at Sonia, and then tucked away the armguard he was carrying and vanished.

 

***

 

People slowly spread out over the marketplace, muttering to themselves as they checked their stalls for water damage.  Sonia stooped to pick up a Messie mask as she crossed a bridge.

 

“Are you sure about letting Romero go?” Luna asked.

 

Sonia turned the mask over in her hands.  “…Not entirely.  But I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe he learned something from all this—maybe he can change.  I want to give him the chance to change.”

 

“I was quite thorough in destroying the submarine,” Ophiuca reported.  “Even the FM King would have difficulty reconstructing its waves now.”

 

“Thanks,” Sonia said.  “And thanks for helping Zack earlier, too.  It means a lot.”

 

“Well, I bumped into him while I was exploring and didn’t see any reason not to travel with him.  ‘Help’ may be overstating it a bit.”

 

Luna picked up her Star Carrier so she could look at Ophiuca.  “I want to thank you too.  If anything had happened to Zack…”

 

“I don’t think he was in much danger to begin with,” Ophiuca said.  She turned to the side of the screen, and then quietly added, “But…you are welcome.”

 

“Come on: we won!” Claud said.  “We got to take on the dragon of Loch Mess and came out on top!”

 

“It wasn’t actually a dragon though,” Cancer said.

 

“Sure it was, just a dragon made of EM waves.  It still counts!”

 

“Alright, fine, if you say so.”

 

“I don’t see why you’re arguing, dear,” Lyra said.  “Now you can claim you slew a dragon.”

 

Cancer thought about this for a moment.  “Wow.  I didn’t think of that!”

 

“Right!” Claud said.  “So, what’re we gonna say when someone asks what we did over summer vacation?”

 

“We…we fought a dragon!” Cancer replied.  “And we won!”

 

Claud cheered.  Sonia chuckled to herself, and Luna just rolled her eyes.

 

They came off the bridge and moved across the next island—Sonia stopped at one of the stalls to return the mask she had found—and stopped when they reached the next bridge.  Zack approached them from the other side.  He came to a halt in front of them and looked at the ground, tightly gripping the straps of his backpack.

 

“…So, um,” he said at last.  “I-I won’t be working with the TV crew anymore, obviously.  I, uh, I just wanted to say…”

 

He stopped as Luna stepped towards him.  She looked at him for a minute, and then said, “I’m sorry, Zack.  I got so used to having you around that I took you for granted.  I wasn’t being considerate of your feelings, and that’s a mistake I don’t plan to make again.  I mean, if you still want to stay friends, that is.”

 

Zack gazed up at her in silence.  Then, as tears formed in his eyes, he said, “P…Prez!”

 

He leapt forward and hugged Luna, sobbing into her.  She hugged him back and said, “I’m so sorry.  From now on, I promise to be a better Brother to you!”

 

Sonia smiled.  Claud put his hands behind his head, saying, “So, how much longer were you thinking of staying here?”

 

“I think I should still take a couple more lessons, just to be safe,” Sonia said.

 

Claud nodded.  “We’ll keep searching while we’re here.  Who knows, we might still be able to find something.”

 

Luna and Zack soon turned back to them.  Sonia said, “You were a big help with that submarine, Zack.  Thanks!”

 

“It was an honor!” Zack said, nodding eagerly.

 

“So, what do you think?  Do you want to form a BrotherBand?”

 

Zack went wide-eyed for just a moment.  Then he paused, withdrew a bit, and contemplated.  Eventually, he mumbled, “Well, um…actually…maybe not yet.”  Looking up, he continued, “I mean, I’m really happy you offered, but I also feel…I guess, if we became Brothers now, there’d be a part of me that would feel like…it was out of pity.”

 

“Oh,” Sonia said, “I didn’t mean—“

 

“No, I wasn’t accusing, you, it’s just…that would always be hanging in the back of my mind.  I don’t think I’d be able to totally reason it away.  So, um, if it’s alright…I’d like to wait for now.  Maybe someday, once we’ve become better friends…”

 

Sonia nodded.  “Okay.  I’ll do my part to make that happen!”

 

Zack smiled, relieved.  Luna said, “So Zack, what do you want to do now?  There’s got to be something in this town that doesn’t involve the monster.”

 

“I don’t really mind,” Zack said.  “I’ll be happy as long as I get to spend time with you all!”

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Chapter 13

 

 

Sonia played a string of fast notes, and then stopped and waited.  After a few seconds, she repeated the string, and then waited again.  She started to repeat it once more, but immediately realized she had started too soon, and her fingers slipped and hit against the guitar’s body.

 

“Shoot!”

 

She took a deep breath and leaned forward.  Rubbing her eyes, she thought, I’ve got to get this right.  Next time I may not be able to afford to make mistakes.

 

She found her thoughts drifting to Geo.  Clenching her fists, she shook her head, and tried to refocus on her music.

 

“Sonia.”

 

She put on her Visualizer and turned her head.  From the bench where she sat, she could see Lyra floating on the edge of Vista Point’s observation deck.  The FM-ian said, “You seem a little tired.”

 

“Oh no, I’m fine!  I’m going to keep at this until I get it right!”

 

Lyra floated closer.  “I think you should take a break.  If you overwork yourself, it won’t do much good.”

 

Sonia looked at her guitar.  “I know, but…I have to be ready.  I have to control whatever the OOParts might try to do.  And we haven’t seen Hyde since Loch Mess, and if Dr. Vega knows where Mu is that probably isn’t good news.”

 

She started to play again.  Lyra came closer, saying, “Sonia, stop.”

 

Reluctantly, she did.  She cautiously looked up at Lyra.

 

“You have come a very long way.  I’ve seen you work as hard as you can, I’ve seen you find your resolve, and I’ve seen you struggling to stay in control of this—and winning.”

 

Sonia picked at the head of her guitar.  “…Has…has it been hurting you, at any point?”

 

“I can feel when you’re frustrated, but I wouldn’t call that painful.  And I can feel when you push back against it.”  She managed a smile.  “Sonia…you’re doing a fine job.  But some things take time, and while it is important to work on them, there comes a certain point where working too hard doesn’t make any progress.  Because it still takes time.”

 

Sonia slowly nodded.  “I understand.  I’m sorry.”  She set aside her guitar.  “…This was something I felt like I could fix—I knew what I had to do, and it was right in front of me.  I wanted to at least do that.”

 

“I appreciate your effort.  But…I do need time.”

 

Sonia looked at the sky.  Lyra did as well, saying, “Vega will make her move when she’s ready.  We have no choice but to wait for that.  And when she does, I’m sure we’ll find out what happened to Geo, and Mega, and Pat.  Well, assuming we don’t find them before that.”

 

“I don’t expect to,” Sonia whispered.  “I’m prepared for it to take a while longer, more or less.  It’s just…difficult.”

 

“I know.”

 

Sonia put a hand over her face.  “I keep thinking about Mrs. Stelar.  She lost her husband, and now her son disappears too, and we can’t even tell her what really happened.  And Mr. Boreal…he still feels guilty for not being able to help Geo’s dad or my mother, and now he blames himself for this too.”

 

She felt a knot in her chest.

 

“…But…all we can do right now is be patient.  So, I will be, somehow.”

 

She looked at her guitar for a moment, but then leaned back and closed her eyes.  She tried not to think of anything at all, letting every thought and worry fall away until it was just her, and listened to the sound of the breeze.  The knot gradually went away.

 

Footsteps approached.  Opening her eyes, Sonia removed her Visualizer and looked down the hill, seeing someone familiar on their way up.  She got to her feet and said, “Kidd?  Is that you?”

 

Kidd bowed in greeting.  “It’s good to see you, Miss Sonia.  I hope I’m not intruding.”

 

“No, not at all!” Sonia said, slinging her guitar over her shoulder.  “It’s great seeing you again!  How are you?  How’s Goat?”

 

“We are quite well,” Goat replied.  “I am most pleased to report that the two of us have been getting along famously.  I feel as though I am beginning to understand relationships, and it has been a wonderful experience.”

 

“It really has been a lot of fun!” Kidd said.  “We’ve visited a few different places around the world, and fought a lot of EM viruses too.  I feel freer than ever!  And having a friend to share those experiences with has made it infinitely richer.”

 

“I’m so glad!” Sonia said.  “What brings you out this way?  Just saying hi?”

 

Kidd suddenly wore a serious expression.  “Truthfully…I came because I felt I needed to tell you something.”

 

A nervous feeling started within Sonia.  “Oh?  What is it?”

 

“We caught a glimpse of someone in the Sky Wave yesterday,” Goat said.  “Since non-viral EM bodies are rare on this world we contacted Claud and provided him with a description of who we saw.”

 

Kidd looked Sonia in the eye.  “He said that it was a friend of yours: Geo Stelar.”

 

Sonia’s heart stopped.  She struggled to process the statement at first, but as it began to sink in, a swell of hope quickly filled her.  “G…Geo?  You saw Geo?”

 

“We believe so,” Goat said.  “We followed him, but unfortunately he entered an area with viruses that were too strong for us to handle at our current level.”

 

“We want to show you where he went,” Kidd said.  “We’re not sure if he’s still there, but…Claud told us he had disappeared.  Even if he’s moved on, maybe you’ll be able to pick up his trail.”

 

A wide grin took over Sonia’s face.  “Y-Yeah.  Yes, yes definitely!  My gosh—thank you, thank you so much, Kidd, Goat!  This is…”

 

She realized she was shaking.  Taking a moment to breathe she said, “Um…sorry.  When did you want to show us this place?”

 

“There’s no need to apologize at all,” Kidd said.  “We’re ready to leave as soon as you are.”

 

Sonia reached for her Visualizer so that she could ask Lyra.  She then found that Lyra was already on her guitar screen, nodding to her.

 

“Thank you,” Sonia said.

 

As they headed downhill, Lyra asked, “Goat, you mentioned a Sky Wave?  I’m not familiar with that.”

 

“It is a Wave Road in the planet’s atmosphere that connects many distant locations, Miss Lyra,” Goat said.  “I would compare it to an underdeveloped Astro Wave.”

 

“Really?  How very curious.”

 

“I believe that it is the result this planet’s continued development of EM wave technology.  If you will pardon the speculation, it is possible that this truly is an intermediary step towards an Astro Wave, though it may take some time to verify this conclusion.”

 

“If so, it shall be very interesting to see.”

 

Sonia was only vaguely aware of what they were saying.  She had to slow her steps so as not to overtake Kidd, and her hands had not entirely stopped trembling.

 

I’ll be there soon, Geo.  I’ll finally be able to bring you home.

 

***

 

The Sky Wave hung just above the clouds, which formed into a wispy sea of white that gently rolled beneath the gold and purple Roads.  Rather than being one continuous Wave Road, it was broken up into numerous squares that reached out a short ways in every direction, connected by the glowing circles of light that would teleport whoever stepped on them to another such square.  Sonia quietly followed Kidd as he led her across the sky.

 

“You’ve seemed less enthusiastic once he told us where we’re going,” Lyra said.

 

“I’m trying not to worry,” Sonia said.  “This place, the Bermuda Maze…it’s become sort of a legend here on Earth.  Ships and aircraft entering it lose their navigation systems, and some of them don’t make it back out.  It’s not someplace most people would go willingly.”

 

“There is something unsettling about being there,” Kidd said.  “Goat says it has to do with the EM waves it produces.”

 

“They are extremely chaotic,” Goat clarified.  “It’s a frequency I’m unfamiliar with, and it seems more prone to scattering than merging.  The Wave Roads we could see were fractured.  The whole time I was there, I felt a certain…”  He trailed off, unsure how to put it into words.

 

“Well, that sounds lovely,” Lyra muttered.

 

Sonia slowed her pace.  “Are you still okay with us going?”

 

Lyra sighed.  “I want to find Geo too.  Let’s just try to be quick about it.”

 

They headed through another teleporter, and then Kidd stopped.  The clouds beneath this square were an ominous shade of gray.  He nodded ahead, and Sonia saw a circle of sickly green light; a chill creeping up her spine at the sight of it.

 

“Geo went in there,” Kidd said.  “I wish I could go further, but we had difficulty escaping last time, and…”

 

“It’s okay.  Thank you so much for bringing me here!  I really owe you one.”

 

Kidd laughed.  “You don’t owe me anything, Miss Sonia.  I hope you are able to find your friend.”

 

He departed.  Sonia stepped towards the teleporter and paused, staring at it grimly.  Steeling herself, she entered it, and the world warped around her before coming back together in a new form.

 

She took a look around her.  Green fog prevented her from seeing much, other than the Road she stood on: it was yellow and green, but with an odd, dingy look to it that she hadn’t seen before.  Like Goat had said, its edges were frayed and there were numerous dead ends and gaps within her small field of vision.  She felt a pressure pushing down on her—Lyra felt it too, judging by how she grunted in distaste.

 

This is no time to dawdle.

 

Sonia walked forward, keeping an eye out for any viruses.  The fog moved with the wind, enveloping her momentarily, forcing her to press on more carefully for fear of stepping off the Wave Road.

 

“Rarely have I seen a place so off-putting,” Lyra said.  “The dread here is palpable…like a graveyard.”

 

“I thought you said Planet FM didn’t have graveyards?”

 

“No, but I’ve seen them on nearly every planet I’ve visited that was inhabited by a material species.  We find something disturbing about them.”

 

“Huh.  Humans usually think they’re creepy too.  Well, not all of the time, or I guess we wouldn’t still have them.”  She stopped as a patch of fog crossed the Road in front of her.

 

“…Why would Geo have come here?” Lyra wondered.  “He’s not the type to charge into the unknown just for the fun of it.”

 

Sonia shook her head.  “I don’t know.  But what bothers me more is…there’s no way Pat could follow him here.  He can’t Wave Change.  Maybe they got separated—but if they did, I don’t see why Geo would search for him in the Bermuda Maze of all places.  I can’t make any sense of it.”

 

Lyra hummed.  Sonia went up a ramp and surveyed the area she could see.

 

“I don’t know.  Something about this whole thing just seems really…”

 

She stopped as her eyes fell on a strip of Wave Road visible through a small hole in the fog.  Standing there, staring back at her in shock, was Geo.

 

“…Geo…?”

 

The fog moved, hiding him from view.  Sonia broke into a run, heart racing as she sprinted towards the place she had seen him, but when she reached it, he was gone.

 

“Where…”

 

She turned as the fog moved, catching Geo running off.  Pursuing him, she called, “Geo!  Geo, wait up!”

 

He took a sharp turn into the fog.  Worried she was going to lose him, she took a leap forward and landed on a corner of the Wave Road, turning just in time to see Geo head onto an oddly-shaped end of Road that propelled him off into the distance.

 

Where is he going?

 

Cautiously, she stepped onto the end and felt herself thrown through the fog in a way similar to the sensation of teleporting.  She was a bit dazed for a moment upon landing, but quickly regained her senses, and found herself on a square of purple Wave Road that was relatively clear of fog.  Geo stood at the far side with his back to her.

 

“Geo!” she said, taking a step forward.  “I’m so happy to see you!  We were worried after—“

 

“Stay back.”

 

Sonia froze.  “…Geo?  I-It’s me, Sonia.”

 

“I know who you are,” Geo said, his voice cold and monotonous.  “Get out of here.  Now.”

 

Sonia blinked.  Taking another step, she said, “Geo, is something wrong?”

 

“I said stay back!” Geo shouted.

 

Sonia recoiled.  An emptiness was starting to come upon her.

 

“I told you to get of here!  So go!”

 

She shivered.  “…I came to get you.  I…I thought we would go back together…”

 

“I’m not going with you.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“That’s none of your business.”

 

“I…”  Sonia took another step.  “I think it is!  What’s wrong with you, Geo?  Where have you been all this time?  If you knew how to get to the Sky Wave, then why didn’t you come home?  And where’s Pat?”

 

Geo whirled on her suddenly, pointing his Buster arm at her.  His eyes gave a crazed, angry glare that somehow seemed a little desperate.  It filled Sonia’s veins with ice.

 

“Get out of here,” he said, slowly and clearly.  “I won’t tell you again.”

 

Sonia looked at Mega.  He wore a similar expression, teeth bared as he stared her down.

 

“Omega-Xis,” Lyra said calmly.  “Exactly what nonsense are you attempting to pull?”

 

“Heh…” Mega chuckled.  “Hah hah hah hah!  Do you need to ask, Lyra?  We’re your enemies now!  It should be obvious, ain’t it?”

 

“I’m in no mood for games, Omega-Xis.  This is too cruel a joke.”

 

“No jokes here!  We’re doing work for Vega, and we have orders to deal with anyone who tries to interfere.  Especially you!  So if you don’t want us to mop the floor with you, you’d better get a move on!”

 

Sonia’s throat tightened.  Shakily, she said, “Geo…you can’t expect me to believe that.  What are you doing?  Why would you say something like that?”

 

Geo said nothing.

 

With a sudden surge of anger, she started forward.  “Geo!”

 

He shot her.

 

The blast of energy struck Sonia squarely in the chest, making her entire body go numb.  Time slowed to a crawl as she fell, eyes wide with shock, taking an eternity to hit the Wave Road.  Reality resumed as she landed and rolled to the side.  Fear and confusion and despair and pain sprang inside of her, and she stared at the fog in silence as Geo walked towards the exit.

 

“Sonia!” Lyra said breathlessly.

 

She regained enough clarity to realize where he was going.  Finding her stubbornness, she pushed against the pain and made a decision.  Her fingers wrapped around her guitar.  “…Lyra…I can’t let him go…”

 

“…I understand.”

 

Sonia pushed herself up on one knee.  In a fleeting blaze, she transformed into her Fire Dinosaur state, and looked over her shoulder at Geo.  He dashed, but with one swing of her arm a wall of fire cut off the exit.

 

“Geo,” Sonia whispered as she stood up.  “I’m not letting you go until you explain this to me.  I’ve spent too long looking for you—I’m not going to give up on you now.”

 

Geo gritted his teeth and shut his eyes tight.  Growling, Mega said, “Alright, fine.  If you’re so eager to get trashed, then we’ll be happy to do that for you!”

 

Mega pulled Geo’s arm around, firing a steady stream of blasts at Sonia.  She turned as they burst against her armor.

 

“You won’t even look at me, Geo?” she asked.  “Please, just explain what’s going on.  It’s hard to believe you’d really be working with Dr. Vega.”

 

Geo looked up.  Sonia saw that he was crying.

 

“Why couldn’t you just leave?!” he yelled.

 

As he set his hand on his Buster arm, Mega’s head was replaced with a Cannon.  Sonia raised her arms to better protect herself from the impact.

 

“Because you’re my friend!” she said.  “Because we’re Brothers!”

 

Ignoring her, Geo opened fire with a Mad Vulcan Battle Card.

 

“This isn’t like you!” she shouted over the sound of the shells.  “You hate fighting!  Something must be wrong—let me help you!”

 

Geo vanished for a moment, and then reappeared directly in front of her.  He let loose with a Synch Hook, managing to push her back a few inches, and then returned to his initial position.  Before Sonia could say anything he swung a Great Axe, digging it into her shoulder armor.

 

Grabbing the handle of the axe, she said, “Geo, I can see that you don’t want to do this!  If you tell me what’s going on, then—“

 

“Shut up!”

 

She felt as if something stabbed at her heart.  Geo dismissed the axe and stepped back, raising one hand above his head.

 

“Just…shut up!”

 

Suddenly, a small burst of rain fell on Sonia.  A stinging pain lanced through her as the attack connected, and her armor reverted back to its normal state.  The wall of flames slowly began to recede.

 

“You can’t help me, Sonia,” Geo said.  “Please, just get out of here.  I can’t afford to be stopped.”

 

Sonia looked down at her hands, surprised at the loss of her transformation.  The flames were gone now, but she still stood between Geo and the exit, so he hesitated.

 

“Sonia,” Lyra said.  “Either we leave like he says, or you’re going to have to fight.”

 

Her heart ached.  Closing her eyes, she thought, He…he’s really serious…I never thought Geo would refuse to listen like this…

 

Taking a chance, Geo ran around her.  He got close, but Sonia transformed again, and again she summoned a wall of flame to cut him off.

 

“No!” he yelled, falling to his hands and knees.  “Just give up, Sonia!  Please, I’m begging you!”

 

Sonia turned towards him, her body tensing with determination.  “I’m not letting you go!  You’re going to tell me what’s going on, Geo, whether you like it or not!”

 

Geo glared back at her.  “Some Brother you are!”

 

Sonia’s jaw tightened as she tried to stop her tears.  Geo got up and pulled his fist back, preparing another Battle Card.

 

“Sonia, you have to decide now!” Lyra said.

 

“Lyra…I need to block him…but we’re going to need to be fast too.”

 

“…Alright.  Just be careful.”

 

As Geo swung, Sonia shone with green light.  A row of bubbles flew at her, one of them striking her dead-on, but she was able to maintain her form.  Her armor had changed to a vibrant shade of green, and the Dinosaur’s drums were gone, replaced by the shamisen of the Ninja.  Geo backed up against the flames.

 

“I thought you didn’t know how to use the combined forms,” he mumbled.

 

Sonia readied her instrument.  “I was able to figure it out finally.”

 

Geo reached forward and shot a flamethrower.  Sonia jumped out of the way easily.

 

“It’s simple.  All I’ve got to do is combine the playing styles.”

 

She played a short string of fast notes, and then she waited.  Then she repeated this.  Air swirled around Geo, so he raised his shield; in seconds, a fiery explosion battered the barrier, and he looked at Sonia in surprise.  Her gaze was locked onto him, eyes teary but defiant.  Another swirl of air prompted him to jump clear of the next explosion.

 

“You okay, kid?” Mega asked.

 

Geo faltered a bit when he landed.  “...If she’s really going to fight…”

 

The next explosion knocked him down.  Sonia stopped playing, but didn’t lower her shamisen.  “Geo, please.  I don’t want to hurt you, and I don’t think you really want to hurt me either.  So why are we fighting?”

 

“Because I don’t have a choice!” Geo cried out.

 

He sent a Fire Ring rolling towards her, but she dodged and resumed playing.  Geo prepared for more explosions, but curiously, nothing happened.  After a few strings of notes, Sonia grabbed the shamisen by the neck and swung—three tornadoes filled with burning leaves sprang into existence, advancing upon Geo as one.  Geo had just enough time to block, though he heard something hit the Road when he did.  When he looked, he saw one shuriken embedded near his feet, and then he glanced back at Sonia.  She drew a symbol in the air, and then the shuriken burst into flames.

 

Why don’t you have a choice?” Sonia asked.

 

“That’s enough talk!” Mega snapped.  “It’s time we get serious, kid!  Let’s—“

 

“Stop!” Sonia interrupted.  “Please, just stop!  You won’t beat me, Geo, and you won’t wait me out either!  I’m more stubborn than you are, and I’m going to pour all of that into getting you to tell me what’s going on!  So give up now before you end up getting hurt!”

 

Geo teleported in front of Sonia and made a fist.  Sonia completed a symbol just as he used a Heat Upper Battle Card, and she disappeared in a puff of smoke while shuriken rained down on Geo.  He staggered back as Sonia landed next to the flame wall.

 

“…I can’t,” Geo whispered.  Looking up, he spoke up, “I can’t, Sonia!  If you won’t let me go, then you’re going to have to beat me!”

 

He raised his Buster, so Sonia grabbed a shuriken.  As she threw it, however, Geo pulled his Buster back and put forward his open palm.

 

“Guardian!”

 

Something materialized in front of him: strangely, it had the exact same shape as the soldiers Sonia commanded with the Berserk style, except it was made of orange energy with iron-gray armor.  It used its shield to block Sonia’s shuriken, and then instantly retaliated with a beam of energy that sent her reeling.

 

There’s a Battle Card that can summon one of these?

 

Geo sent a Ground Wave out towards her.  She jumped away and prepared a shuriken—the Guardian moved with her, shield up.

 

“What do I do now?” Sonia said.  Anger began to pull at her, anger at not being able to help Geo.  She breathed and tried to think.

 

“He said we have to beat him,” Lyra said.

 

“But if I can just get him to talk—“

 

“He’s not going to, Sonia.  You can see that.”

 

She bit her lip.

 

“I know this is hard for you, but you can’t hold back.  He says he doesn’t have a choice but to work for Vega.  Wasn’t something similar true for Romero?”

 

Sonia let go of her shuriken.  “…You think she’s blackmailing him?”

 

“I don’t know.  But even if he’s not a fighter by nature, Geo can muster up a lot of power if he feels he needs to.  And, well…it seems he does feel that way.  Your only choice is to overpower him.”

 

She looked at Geo closely.  He continued to glare at her, but she could still see his tears.

 

“…I understand,” she breathed.

 

She began to play.  Geo lobbed a Heat Grenade, forcing her to move, and then locked on with a Long Sword.  She endured the hit and kept playing.  He opened fire, trying his best to pin her down, but she danced around as many shots as she could and simply shrugged off the rest, continuing to play until, eventually, she abruptly stopped.

 

“Geo,” she said, getting him to stop firing.  “I’m sorry.”

 

She drew a symbol to her right.  She paused, and then slashed her hand through it—a duplicate shot from its side, stopping when it reached her left, and then she fell still again.  The symbols faded away, and in their place appeared two flickering clones of Sonia.  They mimicked her actions as she jumped high into the air and grabbed shuriken in both hands.

 

“But you’re going to tell me what’s going on!”

 

Sonia and her doppelgangers started furiously hurling shuriken.  The throwing stars rained down on Geo and the Guardian—they were able to block a few, but the storm just kept coming, overwhelming them both and soon destroying the latter.  Geo tried to endure the assault, but before long he flopped back onto the Wave Road, his strength spent.  Sonia ceased her attack and dropped back onto the Road, her clones vanishing before she touched down.

 

She slowly walked forward.  When she stood over him, she said, “Geo…enough is enough.  I’ve won.  Now tell me: why are you working with Dr. Vega?”

 

Geo covered his face with his hand.  He took a deep breath and tried to get up, but he broke down sobbing.  Mega closed his eyes and said nothing.  Sonia crouched and sat Geo up, wrapping her arms around him, and waited as he cried into her shoulder.

 

“…Pat,” Geo finally squeaked.

 

Sonia pulled back to look into his eyes.  They were filled with only desperation and terror.

 

“They…they have Pat, Sonia…this was the only way they would let Pat go…”

 

She covered her mouth with her hand.  Lyra said, “Of course.  That’s why they took the both of you: they wanted to threaten Pat as a way to motivate you to do their dirty work.”

 

Sonia dug her fingers into Geo’s shoulders.  “Geo…I’m so sorry.  I had no idea.”

 

Geo looked down, running his hand over his helmet.  “I couldn’t protect him…”

 

“We’re going to get him back.  I promise you, Geo: we’re going to rescue Pat.”

 

“Easier said than done,” Mega said.  “He’s guarded by that Hollow guy, and he’s a lot tougher than he looks.  We tried muscling past him and got our butts kicked.”

 

“Really?” Lyra said.  “Is he partnered with one of the PM-ians?”

 

“I don’t think so, not unless he’s Wave Changed all the time.  He just waved his hands and lightning bolts came down!  I don’t know what’s up with that guy, but he’s definitely not normal.”

 

“How curious…”

 

Sonia looked around.  “Geo, what is it they wanted you to do here?”

 

“They said this is where Mu is,” Geo said.  “Hollow said if I found Mu, they would let Pat go.  But I’ve been searching for so long, and…”

 

He started crying again.  Sonia stood up and offered a hand to him.  “Okay.  Then let’s go find Mu.”

 

Geo looked up at her.  “…What?”

 

“If we work together, I’m sure we’ll be able to find it.  Then we’ll get Pat back and figure out where to go from there.”

 

“Hm,” Lyra said.  “I loathe playing into the enemy’s hands…but, if this is the only way to save Pat, I suppose we’ll have to cooperate.”

 

“Heh…what do you know, kid?” Mega said.  “Come on, get on your feet!”

 

Geo stared at Sonia for a moment longer.  Then, he finally managed a small smile, and he reached up and took her hand.

 

“Thank you, Sonia,” he said as he stood up.  “I’m really lucky to have a Brother like you.”

 

 

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Chapter 14

 

 

Vega’s footsteps echoed around her as she walked through the dimly-lit corridor.  She grinned at the object in her hands: a glass cylinder with blocks of machinery at either end, a little longer than her forearm and roughly twice as wide.

 

Once Solo bonds with the Proof of Loneliness, he will no doubt seek to settle his score with Sonia.  When they clash, we will absorb the energy they release, and then we will feed it directly into Mu…and then…

 

She hugged the device close to herself.

 

No more lives will be thrown away for fools.

 

Rounding a corner, she came to a door that led to an empty, cube-shaped room cut in half by a line of vertical iron bars.  Hollow stood just inside.

 

“There you are,” Vega said.  “I’ve finished the device!  I wanted to know if you had news of either—“

 

It was then she noticed they were not alone.  On the other side of the bars was a green-haired boy in white and purple clothes, curled up in a ball in the corner.  She blinked at him in surprise, her train of thought lost.

 

“…Hollow?  Who…or rather, why is it that…ah…”  She shook her head.  “From the top, please.”

 

“As you wish,” Hollow said.  “During Harp Note and Solo’s first encounter, I took the liberty of obtaining two of her friends.  One of them, the boy with the alias ‘Mega Man’, showed the potential to be a promising pawn—he is the one currently searching the Bermuda Maze for Mu.  This boy is his significant other, detained as an added means of assuring cooperation.”

 

A cackle came from the boy.  “Gee, sure am glad I could help.”

 

He sat up, his back still to the bars.  Vega stared at him and said, “Hollow.  Why was I not informed of this until now?”

 

“It seemed unnecessary, Lady Vega,” Hollow said.

 

Vega raised her eyebrows.  “Unnecessary?”

 

“I had no task for them until now, and that task yet remains incomplete.  I saw no reason to waste your time with half-formed plans.”

 

Grinding her teeth, Vega stared right through Hollow, her fingernails scratching against the device in her hands.

 

“What, ya don’t even know what’s going on in your own base?” the boy said.  “Nice going, genius!”

 

“He has become far more aggressive since being here,” Hollow said.

 

The boy whirled to his feet, grabbing the bars and locking an unearthly glare on Hollow.  “I came out to protect my brother!  You have any idea how terrified he is, getting snatched up and thrown in a cage like this while Geo gets kicked around because of him?  You have any idea what you’ve done to him?!  Once I get out of here, I’m gonna tear you apart, freak!”

 

“Brother?” Vega repeated.  “Hollow, you said you only took two of them!”

 

“Yes, only two,” Hollow said.  “The boy now claims to be ‘Rey’, and refers to the one I brought here—Pat—as his brother.  I believe this may be the result of some mental aberration.”

 

Rey leaned his head against the bars and gritted his teeth.  “Pat…he hasn’t needed me for so long now…”  Looking at Vega, he shouted, “This is your fault!  You shoulda kept a closer eye on your attack dog!”

 

Vega stared at the floor silently.  She remained frozen this way for some time, until she closed her eyes, shook her head, and turned to Hollow.

 

“You will release him.”

 

“As you wish, Lady Vega,” Hollow said.

 

Rey looked at Vega sideways.  “…Eh?”

 

“However,” Hollow went on, “that will be somewhat difficult.”

 

Rey kicked the bars.  “What‘re you tryin’ to pull?!”

 

Vega stepped towards Hollow.  “Are you defying me?”

 

“Not at all.  But you see, Mega Man and Harp Note are currently within the Bermuda Maze.  I could take the boy to them, but there could be complications in traversing the Wave Road with him.”

 

“Yeah right,” Rey growled, “you’re just making excuses.”

 

“Then take him back to Echo Ridge,” Vega said.  “Get him back to his friends—get him somewhere he can receive help.  Then I want you to…no, I order you to go and tell Mega Man and Harp Note that he is safe.  Do I make myself clear, Hollow?”

 

Hollow nodded.  “Perfectly, Lady Vega.”

 

A Kamikakushi appeared as he turned towards the bars.  Rey looked at Vega; she stared at nothing in particular for a moment, but then turned slightly towards him and whispered, “I am so sorry.”

 

Rey sneered.  “Not sure how much good that does.”

 

A portal appeared beneath him.  He disappeared, followed shortly by Hollow and the Kamikakushi, and then Vega was left alone holding the energy collection unit in silence.  She held it up and examined it.  What once filled her with glee now gave her a sick, twisted feeling in her stomach.

 

…No.  This is about a far larger issue.  I can’t afford to get cold feet now, not when I’m so close.  I will punish Hollow for his actions and see that he does not repeat them.  Then, we will locate Mu, revive it, and set about repairing this world.

 

***

 

Sonia stumbled as she landed on another section of the Bermuda Maze Wave Road.  The fog had turned pink here, and was thicker than ever before, to the point where she could barely see a foot in front of her.

 

You’ve got to be kidding…

 

“Sonia?” she heard Geo call.  “Are you still there?”

 

“Yeah, I’m here!  Let’s be sure to keep together—this fog is only getting worse.”

 

She heard Geo’s footsteps, so she slowly moved forward.  Mega said, “It’d be best if we kept talking.  Got any interesting stories to share?”

 

“Yeah, what have you been up to?” Geo asked.  “Is everyone else okay?”

 

“Everyone’s fine,” Sonia said.  “We’ve run into Hyde a few times, but we’ve always come out ahead; I’ve been able to learn how to use the OOParts a lot better now, so they haven’t been able to take control of me again.”

 

“Again?”

 

Sonia’s chest tightened.  “Oh, I…I guess you didn’t see that, did you?”

 

“See what?”

 

She slowed to a halt.  “…After you were taken, I got really angry, and the influence of the OOParts used that to take control of me.  I started to be really cruel towards Solo…and, it was really painful for Lyra, too.”

 

It took a few seconds for Geo to respond.  “Are you okay, Lyra?”

 

“More or less,” Lyra answered.  “Sonia has made a lot of effort to rebuild my trust in her.  The damage has been done, but…hope remains.”

 

“Yeesh, sorry I asked,” Mega said.  “Hey, there’s another jump over here.”

 

Sonia headed towards his voice, and she and Geo leapt onto another section of Wave Road.  The platforms were all a dingy gray color, but fortunately, the fog seemed just a little thinner.

 

“Since I have you here, there’s something I’d like you to confirm for me, Mega,” Lyra said as Sonia and Geo resumed their exploration.

 

“Huh?  What’s that?”

 

“I wasn’t sure at first, but now that I’ve had more experience with PM-ians I’ve come to believe there’s something odd about Phantom.”

 

“You mean besides the bitter hatred of FM-ians?”

 

Lyra chuckled.  “Actually, it’s his wavelength.  Yeti, Condor…I didn’t get much from Plesio, but from what I did feel, I’d say those three all have comparable wavelengths.  But Phantom’s is noticeably different.”

 

“What, you mean like he’s not actually a PM-ian?”

 

“No, I don’t think that’s it.  His wavelength is definitely more similar to that of the other PM-ians than to yours or mine, but…oh, I don’t know how to put it.  Have you noticed as well?”

 

Mega cleared his throat.  “Uh, well…we never did interact with anyone other than Hollow, actually.”

 

“…Oh.”

 

“I’ve found another jump,” Sonia called.  Geo joined her, and they pressed on.

 

“Perhaps it’s nothing,” Lyra muttered to herself.

 

The next area they found themselves in was virtually clear of fog, allowing them to see the raging sea beneath the Wave Road.  Up ahead was a tall rock emerging from the water, topped with an expansive plateau that was connected to the Road, and Sonia and Geo cautiously made their way over to it.  As they came closer, Sonia began to feel a gentle heat.  She slowed, causing Geo to stop and look at her, and then took off with a more purposeful stride.

 

This place feels familiar.

 

They stepped onto the plateau to find a large symbol engraved in its surface: the symbol that Rogue wore on his chest.  Sonia smiled as she came to a stop at its center.

 

“It’s here,” she said.  “Mu is underwater right here—I can feel it!”

 

“Really?” Geo said as he joined her.  “Then…then we need to find a way to tell Hollow!  He has to let Pat go once he sees this!”

 

“There is no need.”

 

Geo and Sonia spun to see Hollow standing at the edge of the plateau behind them.  He remained deathly still as he went on, “Pat has been returned to Echo Ridge at Lady Vega’s orders.”

 

“He…he has?” Geo said, light returning to his eyes.  “Y-You’d better not be lying!”

 

“It is the truth.  I have nothing to gain by lying to you now.  But if you still wish to verify it, you may return to see him.  I will make no efforts to stop you.”

 

Geo looked down to consider this.

 

Sonia glared at Hollow, becoming filled with contempt for the man.  Here was someone who snatched away two of her friends from right under her nose, who twisted their emotions against them for his own selfish gain.  Geo was in despair because of this man, and she could only imagine what effect he had had on Pat.  The rage of the OOParts started to creep through her, but when she became aware of it, she took a beat to try to calm herself.

 

“So what now, Hollow?” she asked plainly.  “I know that Dr. Vega wants to use Mu to shape the future, but what exactly does that mean?”

 

“That is something to be saved for a later time,” Hollow said.  “Right now, we must find a way to restore the continent of Mu, so that it may float in the sky once more.  And we need you to do that.”

 

“I thought you said you wouldn’t stop us?” Geo asked.

 

“I will not stop you, Mega Man.  But Harp Note is still required.”

 

Geo glared and raised his Buster.  “If Pat’s safe, then…I’m staying.  Sonia’s my Brother too.”

 

“We could just get in her way, you know,” Mega grumbled reluctantly.

 

Sonia smiled at them.  “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to, but I’d love the support.  You made him sound pretty tough.”

 

Geo nodded.  “We’re staying.”

 

“Well, alright,” Mega said.  “Heh…maybe now I’ll get to take a little of my frustration out on this robed freak.”

 

“Lyra,” Sonia said, “we’re probably going to need a lot of power to win this.”

 

“I’m prepared, Sonia.  Make sure we win.”

 

Sonia watched Hollow.  The contempt hadn’t gone away, but she could at least think over it.  “Is there any way I can negotiate with you?”

 

“There is not,” Hollow said.  “Lady Vega needs Mu, and it is my job to carry out her will.  I must retrieve the Sacred Artifacts from you to do that.”

 

Sonia gripped the neck of her guitar.  “…And I can’t let that happen.”

 

Hollow raised both arms, and light flashed from his palms.  Three soldiers like the ones Geo had summoned came into existence before him, hunched forward with shields lifted, so Sonia engaged her Thunder Berserk form and created soldiers of her own.

 

“You can do that too?” Geo asked.  “I thought it was just one of Hollow’s abilities since he gave me that Battle Card.”

 

Sonia inclined her head.  “So what exactly are these?  I just know how to use them, but they’re starting to seem like a big deal.”

 

“That’s somewhat inaccurate,” Hollow said.  “This is a special type of Murian virus created shortly before the Sacred Artifacts were.  In order to repel invaders, the EM god who watched over Mu crafted viruses with bodies similar to those of the PM-ians, and taught others how to conjure them as well, allowing for a vast army to be created overnight.”

 

“Wait, what was that about an EM god?”

 

“The sacred being who watched over all of Mu and its people.  The one who lifted it into the sky, who created the Sacred Artifacts, and who razed the land with its awesome might.”

 

Sonia glanced at Geo.  He shrugged, saying, “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

 

Hollow’s soldiers moved forward.  Sonia commanded hers to intercept, blocking their strikes and attempting to retaliate.  As they locked in combat, Geo took aim at Hollow—as he fired, however, a veil of electricity encircled his target, forming a barrier that protected him from the shot.

 

“Darn,” he said, pulling back and drawing a Card.  He blasted Hollow’s soldiers with an Air Spread, stunning them all in one blast, which allowed Sonia’s soldiers to finish them off.  Hollow just summoned more.

 

“These aren’t so tough,” Sonia said.  She generated her lightning blade just long enough to send a shockwave through the air—it cleaved through the viruses easily, but was unable to pierce Hollow’s barrier.  “It looks like that barrier is what we need to be most concerned about.”

 

Her armor turned green and her lute became a shamisen.  She played a fast-paced marching song, and a storm kicked up overhead as half of her soldiers changed from yellow to light green.  They moved forward as one, distracting Hollow’s soldiers in close combat, meanwhile Geo used his Mega Attack to teleport from one to the next, slashing each one apart before ultimately jumping in front of Hollow to thrust a Mop Lance.  It too bounced off of the barrier.

 

“Your efforts are futile,” Hollow said as he raised his arms.

 

Before Geo and Sonia could move, lightning bolts fell down on them.  As Sonia reeled, she saw Hollow summon one red soldier; she was able to throw herself out of the way of the beam of energy it shot at her, but she could still feel the heat radiating from it.  Geo pointed at the soldier and a swarm of piranha viruses emerged from the Wave Road to rip it to shreds.

 

So he can change their elements too.  I’m going to need to watch that.

 

Geo yelled as he unloaded a Mad Vulcan against Hollow’s barrier, accomplishing nothing.  Hollow stared at him and said, “You fight with anger.”

 

“You kidnapped me!” Geo said.  “You captured my boyfriend and held him prisoner so that you could manipulate me!  Of course I’m angry!”

 

Sonia called a storm of pellets down, trying to hit Hollow from behind, but the barrier completely surrounded him, though he did seem a bit surprised.  Turning to her now, he said, “It is harder to tell with you.  Are you angry?”

 

“You bet I am,” Sonia said.  “Geo’s my Brother.  If you hurt him, then you hurt me too.  But I’ve learned to stay in control of my anger.”

 

She threw a shuriken while Geo threw a Scythe.  As the barrier absorbed their attacks, Hollow said, “Ah yes, the Artifacts would amplify your rage.  I should draw that out.”

 

He vanished suddenly, appearing a short distance away and raising his arms again.  Sonia dodged the lightning this time, while Geo used an Invisible Card to avoid damage.  Regrouping with her soldiers, Sonia watched Hollow for some kind of opening, when suddenly he recoiled.  Geo soon reappeared before him holding a Wood Sword.

 

“Yes!” Sonia exclaimed.  “Nice job, Geo!”

 

She dismissed her soldiers.  Putting her shamisen away, she reached for some shuriken when Hollow called down more lightning bolts.  She and Geo dodged while Hollow summoned more viruses.

 

“I’ll blast them away,” Geo said, readying a Battle Card.

 

Sonia grabbed his arm.  “Wait!  I’ll draw their attention—you just focus on looking for opportunities to surprise Hollow.”

 

Geo looked at her with hesitation.  “You sure?”

 

“I’m the one he wants.  It shouldn’t be too hard.”  She smiled a little and added, “Besides, this way you get to be the one to beat him up.”

 

Geo tried not to look too eager as he leapt away.  Sonia drew a symbol in the air, and then she waved her hand to dupl