Chapter 323 – Vol. 5 –
As Keiko stood in front of the Nightmare, sword outstretched, she decided that if she wanted to have any chance at survival, she needed to do this perfectly. There was no ambiguity in this fight. Keiko was much slower than her opponent, and, although she knew she was somewhat skilled with her sword, the Nightmare was certainly better.
That meant that victory was just not a possibility. All she aimed for was to give Ash enough time to heal Yumi. All she could do was hope that, if she was still alive by the time the ability expired, Yumi would be back in fighting shape.
Of course, she also couldn't use her Spirit Eye as a crutch either, as this Nightmare was somehow able to cheat it. Therefore, without her Spirit Eye, without the same level of skills, without much mana either as she'd used the majority of it to cast this ability, Keiko had to survive.
As Keiko checked her mana, the Nightmare lunged toward her.
Seeing her own death running at her like this sent chills running up her spine, but Keiko tried to postpone that demise for a few more seconds. She stepped back, slapping away the Nightmare's swords as they slashed at her.
I need to keep as much distance between us as possible, Keiko thought. One wrong move and I'm done.
With that in mind, she put some of her focus on her footwork. Keeping her steps light, she dashed back and then to the side as the Nightmare followed. All Keiko could do was push the demon's weapons away, as not a single time did she see an opening to counterattack. Even then, however, it was too hard to do that.
The Nightmare leaped into the air, and Keiko readied herself, preparing to block the incoming downward slash. She managed to do so, but as soon as the Nightmare reached the ground it spun and attacked Keiko's midsection. Again, she tried to move away, but she was too slow, and one of the Nightmare's blades caught her stomach.
"Ahh," Keiko hissed, as a red line was drawn over her.
The Nightmare didn't stop there. It chased after her again, almost as though it knew that its opponent was outmatched and all Keiko wanted to do was stall. It slammed down its swords on top of her, with so much ferocity and strength in each attack that Keiko felt her bones shaking.
The brief exchange ended when the Nightmare pushed Keiko's sword up with one of its own, and then tried to stab the girl in the gut, only for Keiko to move out of the way, but not before the demon's sword nicked her waist.
Again, another red line was drawn on her, quickly earning drops of blood sliding down from the cut.
Despite how much these cuts stung her, Keiko still held her sword out.
You have to stay focused, she thought, as the Nightmare straightened up and looked at her with empty, vacant eyes. Yumi's depending on you. If you go down now, you're taking her down with you.
Knowing this, Keiko's sweaty palms held her sword's hilt even tighter, with a white-knuckle grip as the swordswoman tried to force her elbows to stop shaking.
"Is that all?" Keiko asked lowly, taking slow breaths. "Aren't you a Zayama? You should be ashamed that I'm still standing!"
The Nightmare's only response was a blank stare, as it held its swords by its sides.
In Keiko's mind, she remembered the years she'd spent training in the Compound. So many hours with Haruna in front of her, tempering her skills as her grandmother watched with disapproving eyes. Keiko knew she'd need to rely on all of those moments to stay alive today.
Remember your fundamentals, she told herself. All you need to do is defend yourself. That's-
The Nightmare dashed toward her again. Eyes widening, Keiko moved her head out of the way of a stab aimed straight between her eyes. A few strands of her hair fell to the ground as she separated herself from the incoming Nightmare. Its blades danced around her, and Keiko put so much effort into deflecting every attack that her arms were getting sore mid-fight. The clanging of their swords rang out loudly, with Keiko's grunts thrown in between.
Eventually, the flurry stopped and both fighters paused. Then, Keiko realized how many hits had been landed on her in the middle of this exchange.
One cut above her left eye, that clouded her vision as blood flowed down from it. One slash at her left shoulder that made the shaking of that arm resume after Keiko had temporarily stopped it. Another cut over her right thigh, and another over her right cheek, that let blood slip into the corner of her lips.
And still, Keiko held firm. Despite the trembling of her limbs with fear, despite the clear gap in skill and speed, Keiko kept her eyes on the Nightmare and remained in position to continue fighting.
How much time do I still have? She wondered. Did Ash heal Yumi already?
The Nightmare, in the first show of emotion that Keiko had seen from it since first laying her eyes on this creature, tilted its head with a subtle confusion as it looked at her. For a moment, it didn't look like a demon, but rather a dumbfounded warrior looking at an opponent that refused to surrender.
"Come on," Keiko said. "We're not done yet!"
One minute, the half-demon thought, as she felt Magia's divine power filling her body. Let's make it count.
Extending a hand toward the Wrath demon, she did not hesitate to give the same attack she had before, on the day Kaori had nearly been turned.
Giant swords fell from the sky as Sinneah backed away from the monster, but this time, as they landed on its bulky frame, they did not do as much damage as they had back then. They still hurt, if its massive groans were anything to go by, but the Nightmare took a few of those swords in stride.
I can do this for a while, Ash smirked, what about-
Before she could finish that question, in between the falling of two swords, the Nightmare charged toward her.
It roared a loud, powerful sound, and Ash's eyes narrowed as she created a sword in front of her that shot out, aiming to catch the opponent's chest. This forced the Nightmare to change course, jumping to the side before reaching Ash with its greatsword raised in the air.
And then, a dragon covered in flames reached it. Satsuhiro cast a spell from behind the Savior that pushed the Nightmare back, searing its flesh, though it was hard to tell how much that was really worth.
By Ash's side, Yumi watched on, and the half-demon briefly looked at her.
Where's my mana?
"Just a little more," Ash told her. "Hold out for me."
"Right," Yumi said, and even to Ash's ears, as distracted as she was by her enemy ahead of her, and the influx of raw desire in her system, she could tell she was getting weaker.
"I can corner it," Satsuhiro said, moving to where Ash was. "Give you room to finish it off with… whatever the hell you're doing."
"Yeah," Ash nodded. "Sounds good."
"Does she need help?" A voice asked from behind. One Ash didn't fully recognize. A girl stood there, wearing a similar outfit to the one Keiko often wore back in the day, with short black hair and silver eyes, looking worriedly at Yumi.
"You can't help her," Ash replied, turning toward the Nightmare. "Just stay back."
Then, she walked forward as Satsuhiro moved up and began casting his Fire spells again. More of those flaming dragons encircled the Nightmare, while Ash spawned more giant swords from above.
One of the swords reached the Nightmare's chest, stabbing into its massive body. Another nearly cut off its only remaining arm, and one landed at its left knee, as it was clear the demon would soon die.
Good, Ash thought. Good, good, now, just…
However, before she could spawn the next sword needed to finish it off, she saw something approaching from ahead.
… What? She wondered, as the image of a little boy calmly walked toward them.
Ash squinted, unsure of what she was seeing.
He stayed far behind the Nightmare, but Ash was certain he was there.
The others soon began to notice him.
"What… Who is that?" Yumi asked quietly.
"Is that…?" Satsuhiro mumbled to himself, squinting as though he didn't quite believe it.
What is this? She thought. What is he doing? Wait, is he even allowed? Ash wondered. The gods aren't supposed to be doing this kind of shit.
Shaking her head, she turned her eyes back on the dying Nightmare.
Focus. Who knows how much time you've wasted. Finish it off.
And so, raising both her hands, Ash closed her eyes and spawned fifteen giant swords in the air, all at once. She wasn't about to take any chances. She needed this enemy dead, here and now.
Lowering her hands, the swords began to descend upon the target. Satsuhiro kept it in place by launching a Fire spell behind it as it tried to retreat, and get out of the way. It was clear that the swords would reach it now, and the creature would be killed.
Which was probably why Niven raised a hand, and a violet barrier appeared over the Nightmare's head, stopping those swords from doing that.
"What are you doing!?" Ash yelled at him. "The Higher Powers can't allow this!"
If the unsatisfied look on Niven's face was anything to go by, it seemed he was aware of that.
Her frustration only grew as she created more swords aimed at the Nightmare, though, and he stopped all of them.
They have to be seeing this, right? What the fuck is-
A voice answered in her mind, and Ash stopped. It was like everything around her went quiet. Temporarily, the confusion faded, the sounds of her friends around her asking questions as though she was supposed to have any of the answers to them also disappeared. Ash looked away, her throat tightened as she stepped back. Unlike that of the girl who had spoken up earlier, this one was one she knew well.
"My dear Niven has made an infraction," Magia told her, and Ash dropped her hands. "It seems that, in knowing he is about to lose his greatest asset, he decided to step in and stop it personally. What a mess."
So, what are the Higher Powers going to do? Ash asked. This can't be allowed.
"Simple," Magia stated. "It falls on me to take Niven away from the battlefield. And, I intend to do that… However," she added, "this infraction has also granted me a certain opportunity. So, Ash, I ask, what if I could make you an offer?"
"… What do you mean?" This time, Ash answered aloud.
"Yumi, the girl with the wonderful hips over there," Magia said, and Ash's eyes were pulled toward her. "She's dying."
I know… But, Ash thought, as she checked her mana. It had just reached 100, meaning she could cast Curse Removal. I'm going to-
"Even in this form," Magia cut her off, "your power is not enough to take the Curse away quickly. It would still take hours. Make no mistake, she is dying, right in front of you."
As Ash heard that, Yumi's eyes reached hers, and as they connected, Ash understood that Yumi herself knew she was doomed.
So, she gulped and thought:
What do you want?
"Ah, well, darling, I can take that curse away, but my only duty is to remove Niven from the battlefield. I don't truly have any incentive to help you with this… Unless you fulfill a very specific wish of mine."
What is it?
"One simple desire," Magia told her.. "Allow me to step in that body of yours, and I will see to it that your friend does not die."