After their dramatic confrontation over the fate of Ryukyu due to Liza's summer project, Hikaru's relationship with his girlfriend had taken on a frustrated, angry note. Liza hadn't spoken to him since then; every time he tried to call her, she hung up on him. Finally, out of ideas, Hikaru turned to the wisest person he knew on the subject of girls... his mother. "Well, dear, when a girl's feeling confused and hurt, sometimes it takes a little something special before they are willing to talk things through. Bringing them their favorite flowers and candy and taking them out someplace nice can do wonders," Okashi Hikari looked at her son and smiled, "Since you are both so interested in inventions and electronics, what about one of those two tool helpers you've been developing? Not only are they intelligent, they look so darling in those miniature suits of armor." Hikaru hadn't exactly designed the three and a half feet high robots with a high priority for cuteness. That had been unintentional. He had tried to make them look as human as possible, because that was the best model he knew of, and the miniature suits of armor had a very practical application. Working around untested machinery could be a very dangerous enterprise, indeed. For individual identification, he had given one of them white armor, blond hair, and blue eyes, while the other had black armor, black hair, and green eyes. In addition, to test out some different ideas for AI personality simulations that he had, he had created two different programs, one that was always sweet and helpful and another that could sometimes be a sarcastic pain in the rear. The one in white should have had the sweet temperament. That had been his intention. But he'd been tired when he'd finally completed the programs and so eager to test them out that he'd loaded the wrong programs into the wrong ones, and the rest was history. It didn't see right to change them now; he'd kind of gotten used to the reversed behavior, and the idea of doing so felt too much like rearranging the world to fit everyone's preconceived notion of what things were supposed to be. And, for some strange reason, even with the personality switch, the one in black armor reminded him a lot of the face with which the principal of Dark Heart High greeted the academic world at the various inter-school meets that took place. 'It must be the Lord's will,' Hikari thought to himself and then said aloud, "Thanks, mom. I'll take them both with me when I go out. That way Liza can choose which one she likes the best for herself." * * * Even though his own informational sources often were as good as, if not better than, any that the Zeros Academy put forth into their paper, Hamaji Amakusa still kept a subscription up for the simple reason that knowing how the general populace viewed matters was as important as being aware of the truth behind it all. The ZIP did do a fairly decent job of being unbiased towards either side of a situation, but that didn't mean it always came out exactly as it happened. One could learn some interesting from that. On the front page had been a special feature about the taking hostage for ransom of the entire island of Ryukyu by one, Liza Ramidra. That had been a rather ambitious undertaking, but it had failed in the last moments due to the intervention of one of Knight School's finest technological wonders, Hikaru Hikari, who would be entering his senior year this coming term. There was even a full color photograph of him in mid flight as he used his jet pack to rocket towards the summit of the building to save Ryukyu in its eleventh hour. Naturally, it irked him whenever Knight School gained a victory over one of his own students, but this time, there was a hint of pride mixed in as well. This was his son that had done so well, even if it had been for the side of light. At least he'd been brilliant in his execution of duties, something Amakusa could acknowledge privately if not publicly. It also helped that the article went on to document another of Liza's doings that had been an evil act worthy of admittance into her next year, even if it was nowhere near as flashy as what had obviously been her original plan for the project. Then, on the second page, there was something that brought a genuine smile to his face. Kenji Tendo had been arrested under suspicion of having embezzled a large sum of money from the fund set aside for magical girls, kamen, and their companions' equipment. Though there were many depths the man would sink to despite his supposed standing for all that was good, he doubted that Tendo had actually done it. That was, no doubt, a bit of work by some of his other students and news to warm the blackest of hearts. Perhaps, darkness willing, his students had done a good enough job to keep the detestable ninja master behind bars for sometime to come. The third article of note had been written by his niece, Kuniko. That, in itself, was no surprise. He was well aware that she worked for the paper, and he knew that somewhere further within this issue's folds lurked the traditional, before school term interviews with each of the leading institutions' principals. After all, she had interviewed him for it along with the rest of them. But, when she had done the interview, she'd given absolutely no sign of having had this article in the works as well. Given the subject of the article and his present hopes for the future of Dark Heart High, it hit him with a greater impact than it would have normally. It detailed the liberation of the Shield of Apollyon from behind the thickly warded, hidden room that the former shrine's caretakers had contained it in by the trio of Amy Angeleye, Balabalalde, and Yuri Mikagami. Though the method which had been used to either nullify or destroy the guardian wards had not been mentioned, it was not that which piqued his interest. It couldn't be sheer coincidence that Kuniko had been the one to interview Yuri. The question was whether this was a hint of young Mikagami further expanding her tendrils of influence into farther reaching places or some plot on the part of his brother by using his daughter to create some form of future havoc. He hoped that it wasn't the latter, though it was not out of any particular reluctance to snuff his only surviving sibling out of existence and, possibly, Kuniko as well. His brother's wife, and Kuniko's mother, happened to be the early incarnation of the goddess of fortune, known colloquially to all as Lady Luck. Though a very chaotic deity by her very nature, she was definitely considered part of the pantheon of good, not evil. Some versions of the prophecy mentioned two separate children of pairings between daughters of light and sons of darkness, one of which had been the scroll that Mrs. Ibuki had laid out before him in an attempt to get him intervene in some fashion that would prevent the worst case scenario from coming to pass. If it was Yuri extending her influence, then things were progressing in a manner which would eventually end in an outcome that he had been hoping for, confirmation that his efforts at hammering Yuri into a shape suitable for the next principal were not in vain at all. However, if it was his brother that was involved... Sometime today, Amakusa would have to put aside his distaste at attempting conversation on any serious topic with his brother and make a phone call. Evasive or not, one way or another, it would confirm for him which of the two scenarios he could soon be dealing with. ******** Dark Heart High Netherworlds Educational Institution for the Universal Propagation of Evil Brainstormed by Mads This Chapter by: Samara Secor Chapter Sixty-Eight: Infiltrations! ******** The owl perched on Atsuko's windowsill showed no sign of moving, and its almost unblinking stare was a bit unnerving. Tied to one of its ankles was a message container. She didn't know where it had come from, but given how badly Reika was freaking out already, it was probably better if she didn't catch sight of the message container and begin speculating on what lay within... or why what lay within shouldn't exist at all. "Gee, I don't know, Reika. Maybe there's big storm in the works? Everyone says that animals can sense these things and start behaving strangely beforehand." "Maybe," Reika still sounded doubtful. "Look, Atsuko... Will you promise me to be careful? These things, whether they exist or not, sound pretty dangerous. I'd hate for you to get hurt." "I'll be as careful as I can. I promise." Shortly afterwards, Reika left, and Atsuko turned back to the window and confirmed that, yes, the owl was still in the same spot it had been when she had first had it pointed out to her. It didn't even fidget when she raised the window and reached out to untie the message from its leg. When it still showed no inclination towards flight after she retrieved it, she realized that it must be waiting for a reply. She looked down at the envelope, her eyes widening in shock. It was addressed to her, and it was from Zeros Academy. She began shaking, memories of the incident with Yuri's principal, Hamaji Amakusa, filling her mind and how what he'd said at the time had made little sense to her, not to mention being more frightening an experience than anything she was used to. After a moment, she got a hold of herself and opened the envelope, reading over the contents several times in order to make sure that she was not misreading things. There was a postscript at the bottom chiding Atsuko's mother for her childishness in even directing such death threats their way, which was not very becoming of a scion of good, was it? From the letter, it was clear that Zeros Academy did wish to recruit her, that her mother had intercepted previous letters and disposed of them while writing nasty responses in return, and though the term 'scion of good' was a bit unclear, if everything she'd heard about the various schools from Yuri was true, that might mean that Atsuko's mother had once been a magical girl. The mere thought of that was mind boggling in itself. She wanted to call Yuri, and she wanted to call Craig. Both had been supportive and understanding. The only question now was which one she should call first. * * * As Andrea Angeleye drove all one of her daughter home, now with an ofuda of more elaborate make on her forehead and a new haircut to boot, she thought back to what Leilei had said. Lacrimamus had had a fair amount of power as a foe but had been a lukewarm evil at best. Even though his defeat had led to meeting the true love of her life, his death had been one of those she'd regretted during her tenure as a Sakura Arts student. No amount of apologies could make up for depriving Leilei of her father, but she had offered one anyway, adding that, if there was anything she could do in the future to even partially make up for that loss, to contact her right away. Glancing over at Amy, she could see that she was now resting. Evidently, all the fuss with the splitting and redoing of the ward had worn her out. She wouldn't have suggested it before, but now that her daughter had finished her summer project, maybe they should see about fitting in a real vacation before the new school year. * * * Leilei gasped, an expression of mixed fear and wonderment on her face. Even after rubbing her eyes thoroughly, the name on the folder hadn't changed. "Does this mean you've decided to challenge him? To earn the right of becoming the next principal of Dark Heart?" "Yes. No. ...Oh, I don't know," Yuri said with a sigh. "I haven't had a chance to look at it yet. It may be that there's not even anything in here that I can use, whether for challenging him or just getting him to turn his attentions away from me. I know it was stupid to even take it, but now that I have it... Well, maybe things will become clearer after I get a closer look at this." "Do you want to stop in the park on the way home? We could both read over it, and maybe I could give you some advice afterwords," Leilei offered. "Thanks, Leilei, but I think I want to read over it by myself, first. That way, if I can't do anything, and he somehow finds out about it, I won't put anyone else in danger with the knowledge," Yuri explained. "Okay, but if you need help, don't forget about Bala and me or the rest of your friends. We'll be there for you," Leilei said, then giggled, "You might need us all to keep the rest of the staff off your back long enough for you to do whatever it is you need to beat him." "Yeah..." Yuri managed a wan smile as she slid the envelope back inside her blouse. Briefly, she thought that the Shield of Apollyon probably would have been useful for doing something with whatever information she'd found in the folder and that she should have kept it. She gave that thought a mental boot. If Ki survived... No, when he came back, maybe she'd call on him for help, as she would all her friends like Leilei suggested. Finally, they reached the front door of the Mikagami household and she said her goodbye to Leilei before going on inside. Her father wasn't immediately visible anywhere close by; he was probably catching up on some paperwork in the basement. Her mother, however, was visible through the doorway to the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on a plate of snacks. "Oh, there you are, Yuri. Is your friend doing all right?" Mrs. Mikagami asked. "Yeah. Amy seemed to be pretty tired when they finally finished putting on a new ward but, other than that, she was okay," Yuri said, taking a seat at the table, unable to keep the glum look off her face. As her mother set the plate down in front of her, she asked, "Honey, is something wrong? Tell me what's bothering you." Yuri just couldn't tell her about the folder. Not yet. But there was the absence of the shield to explain... "Well, I found out that Ki had to go into the lair of the Doombringers and defeat their leader all by himself, so I kind of... well, gave him the Shield of Apollyon," Yuri's next sentence came out in a rush, "But he really needs it, and I think it'll help. You don't think dad will be too mad at me, do you?" "No, of course not, Yuri," her mother said, giving Yuri's shoulders a squeeze and kissing her forehead. "Your father originally gave it to his valued lieutenant, so I don't see that he'd mind you doing the same thing." Yuri nodded in response and did her best to put a more cheery expression on her face. Then, she began eating the snacks her mother had laid out before her. At first, she didn't feel too hungry, but then she'd found that her stomach had been complaining, but she'd been too stressed out to notice. After that, the food vanished with the astonishing rapidity she usually reserved for when she was late for school in the morning. "Thanks, mom," she said, then yawned. "It's been a long day, so I think I'll make an early night of it. G'night." Once ensconced in the sanctuary of her room, Yuri sat in the middle of her bed, took the folder out and began leafing through the pages one by one. A lot of the information was useless (several of the plants he was listed as being allergic to had somehow mysteriously gone extinct) or simply frightening as it went into great detail about just what kind of powers each and every seal was straining to hold back. And straining was, indeed, the operative word. It seemed that even the strongest seals available to Dark Heart's staff would, at best, hold out for twenty-four hours if they were not renewed regularly. He had a regular appointment for doing so at 6:45 pm each evening, though there were a few cases where he'd had to delay it or move it up an hour because of some school function or personal reasons of his own. During the sealing renewal process and a space of about thirty minutes afterwards were his weakest moments and the most likely window of opportunity for carrying out any serious attack successfully. Any other time was an invitation to commit suicide with her current abilities. Or so she first thought. Then, she noticed something unusual in the midst of the plethora of containment seals Hamaji Amakusa possessed. One of the seals he carried was not one of containment, but one of protection. It seemed that, however powerful he was, his physical body did not have a natural immunity to his own abilities. If he were deprived of that ward and became the focus of his own techniques, it was possible that his own power could be used to destroy him. She looked up from the folder, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. She had thought it might be impossible for her to win, but it was not impossible, merely very difficult. While she had only recently discovered that she could crumble wards with a touch, her ability to absorb and reflect the techniques of others through her mother's mother's sword dated back to her very first, panicked fight against the Sakura Arts fencing team. Ironically enough, the key to defeating Hamaji Amakusa had indeed been given to her by Ki before the Blood Duel. It wasn't just because of the SoulFire wound that the back of his right shoulder was his weak spot. Directly above it rested the ward of protection. If she could take care of that, then... Maybe, just maybe, Dark Heart High would soon have its next principal in training. * * * Before crossing the point of no return, Ki fitted Craig's earpiece sensor securely on one ear. He tested its effectiveness on the nearby buildings he passed, familiarizing himself with the kind of feedback it gave upon sensing different types of sentient creatures or lesser beings. When he was satisfied that he'd know what exactly it was that the sensor detected without a second thought, that was when he blended into the shadows and began closing the distance, choosing the most unguarded moment, which happened to be when a clan member of a different branch who, apparently having lost all hope of the clan's survival with pride, had decided that carrying out a solo, suicide attack on the front gate was better way to die than waiting for the inevitable. Well, at least he didn't die completely in vain; it was just the distraction Ki needed to pass unseen over the wall. After that, he put as much distance as he could in between himself and the front gate, skirting the gaggle of Doombringers, hellhounds, and other assorted lackeys that had collected to gloat over the charred ashes of their latest victim. Having thought ahead, he took out the largest, smelliest non-enchanted cologne bottle he'd been able to find and used a discreet spritz here and there to throw off the hellhounds that weren't close enough to the reek of charred flesh to ignore everything else. Finally, he reached a point where the only movement signatures the sensor picked up were those of Doombringers. That didn't necessarily mean he was in any less danger. It could mean that they were confident enough in whatever magical enchantments and traps they'd laid in place that they'd scorned any live form of defense other than their own persons. Hopefully, Ki would be able to prove that line of reasoning overconfident arrogance on their part and come out with his own skin more or less intact. ------------------------ Well, I hope this was enough push to give Dark Heart some further confirmation of direction. Was it too much? I don't believe so, but you readers and future authors will be a bit more unbiased judges of that than I. I went back and read over the entire set of previous chapters before I even wrote a word of this one, and this was the inspiration that sprang forth as a result. Some references are fairly recent or obvious, others not so much so, but they are definitely a bit too numerous to count. -Samara Secor (2/22/05) ------------------------ "He, he, he... Ha, ha, ha... Ah, ha, ha..." Kuniko coughed, reigning in her brief moment of unbridled amusement. At this time of night, on the day ZIP's newest issue had appeared in the mailboxes of subscribers throughout the area, there was nobody around to hear her but the person on the other end of phone. And that person was under no position to object to the laughter, especially considering the request she'd just made. "So, let me get this straight. You want to use me as a test dummy? Ha. Let's just put aside, for now, the fact that the pain involved will likely be excruciating and involve some kind of permanent damage to my person. What you're talking about is basically family treason. I may not have that close relationship with my uncle, but, chaos take it, I can't seem to help feeling obligated to him. Even assuming I sat there and took your shots so you could train better, what would happen if you failed? I'm sorry, but I don't really see that I would get anything out of this, even if you did succeed with flying colors. No amount of front page scoops is worth that," Kuniko said. "You're going to have to dangle a better bait than that before I bite." On the other end of the line, Yuri bit her lower lip, chewing on it worriedly. It hadn't been as bad as she'd thought it might be, which would have been outright refusal. After all, that interview had been their only previous contact. But she hadn't simply refused, so what kind of bait would Kuniko go after? "Uh... Maybe I could help you get a position at Zeros Academy in return?" she offered hesitantly. This time, the peal of laughter was so loud that Yuri had to hold the phone away from her ear until it subsided. "I'm really sorry for laughing at you like this. After all, there's no way you could have known," Kuniko's voice said, still sounding as if she was having to spend a considerable amount of effort not to break out into laughter again. "But listen, I've been living in fear of the day I'll be taking over as Zeros Academy's principal. Almost all the other students here think that, because I'm the current principal's daughter, that I make the best target for practicing their immature ideas of worthy tricks. I don't like being the target of these jokes, and I have a bit of a mean streak that tells me I have to one up them. That invariably makes my dad think that I really am the best choice for the job. Problem is, if it's this bad as a student, how much worse will it be as the head cheese? At least at Dark Heart, Knight School, and Sakura Arts, the students seem to have a greater respect for the people at the top of the heap. Sorry, but that one's definitely not an incentive; it's a class A stinker." And that left Yuri with... absolutely no idea what else she could possibly offer. "Do you mind telling me what it is that you do want? Something that you can't get for yourself the way things are now?" she asked. Kuniko told her. Yuri couldn't believe her ears. "That's it? That's really all you want?" "Hey, don't knock my dream before you taste my cooking!" "No, that's not what I meant. It's just that it seems so... simple." "Well, really, Miss Mikagami, I'm just a country girl at heart," Kuniko said with a sigh. "And, even though the wish is simple, executing it certainly is not. The only way I'd be completely in the clear was if, and this is a really big IF, I was missing from sight for such a long time that dad had to give up and choose another successor in my place. Can you or any one of your allies keep me out of anyone's radar for that long a time?" "I'm not really sure," Yuri answered honestly. "I'd have to ask... Can I call you back later, after I have a chance to speak with them?" "Sure. Take your time. But keep in mind, this is the only time and day of the week you can reach me without being overheard on this end."