Chapter Thirteen: The Finals

“The other contender in our first semifinal match is a survivor who has prevailed in the direst of situations! Like an immortal demon, he rises again no matter how many times he falls! His terrifying mask brandishes his hunger for blood and carnage! Ladies and gentlemen, here comes The Undead!”

Ageha sighed in exasperation as he entered the ring.

Fans called him The Undead because of the creepy grin painted on his mask and his struggles in the ring. He had been fighting with a handicap due to Valeriya’s assassination requests, but only a select few knew about that. From the perspective of the audience, he had barely won his matches after getting thrown around. Having not submitted a ring name, Ageha had no right to complain, but he still found the distasteful alias hard to swallow.

Gazelle was already waiting for him at the other end of the wide ring. Cheers from the crowd bathed them both.

Is it really her?

A simple white mask hid her face. Her disheveled hairstyle resembled Arashi’s, but he was too far away to confirm. She lowered her stance and prepared for battle. Ageha followed suit.

“Who will prevail in this no-holds-barred deathmatch!? At -350 versus +270, the odds are overwhelmingly in Gazelle’s favor! Will The Undead claw his way out of the dirt and onto the stage of victory, or will Gazelle trample him underfoot? Let the games begin!!!”

Ageha drew his blades and beelined towards Gazelle, but she merely waited for him. After Ageha covered half the distance between them, she pulled out a small knife and hurled it at him. He could not follow it with his eyes, but it did not matter. The knife bounced off his raised forearms as he barreled forward.

Ageha slipped and crashed to the ground.

Pellets!?

Small metal spheres were scattered all over the floor. His raised arms had limited his vision and prevented him from seeing the trap.

He rolled on the ground and recovered in a kneeling position, only to find an axe kick falling towards his left shoulder. While dodging to the right, Ageha pushed Gazelle’s supporting leg to disrupt her balance. Missing him by a hair, the kick smashed into the ground and cracked the cement.

Ageha decided to take the fight to the ground to take advantage of his superior power. He let go of his knives and tried to grab Gazelle’s legs, but she jumped into the air and thrust her knee out. He twisted his neck to avoid the blow and backed away.

Let’s try something else then.

Using the Shaolin snake style, he launched a barrage of strikes at Gazelle’s vital points. She easily dodged them by swaying. He switched to the tiger stance and tried to claw out her neck. She leaned back to evade his fingers and hit him with a leg kick. Ignoring the pain, he countered with a low kick of his own. Gazelle hopped backward, jumping over his attack, and threw another knife at his face. He raised his arm just in time to deflect the projectile.

That throwing style…

He clearly remembered Arashi chucking her energy-bar-shaped grenades at him. Gazelle threw knives the same way.

But where did she learn those close combat techniques?

Those kicks did not match Arashi’s practical fighting style. Thanks to Mitsuki’s lessons, he could tell that they reeked of traditional martial arts training. Ageha silently cursed whoever taught her how to fight so well.

Gazelle increased the distance between them and then circled around him. While keeping his eyes on her, he picked up and sheathed his knives. He felt lucky that guns were banned in arena matches. He was not confident he could defeat the current Arashi if she had a rifle, especially in an open arena.

His mind half-occupied by such thoughts, Ageha steadily approached her. He planned to rush in when he got close enough. Gazelle moved first and broke into a sprint. She leapt towards him and spun horizontally in midair. Her form blurred due to the speed of her aerial side kick. Ageha reflexively crossed both arms in front of his chest to block, but the collision still robbed him of breath and threw him backward.

Gotta concentrate!

He landed on his feet and skidded to a stop. His peripheral vision caught a kick whipping towards his ribs. He lowered his right arm to guard but felt no impact.

A feint..!

Pieces of his mask scattered into the air. His right fist barely managed to deflect her immaculate roundhouse kick. It was perfect. Too perfect. He could not believe someone else could pull it off.

Ageha staggered backward. Gazelle poised herself for another attack, but he did not move to defend.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, his hands falling limply to his sides.

Gazelle froze after hearing his voice. With both fighters standing stock-still, the loud roaring of the audience gradually died down.

Ageha looked at her with regret. “Why did it have to be you?”

“It… can’t be…” said Gazelle in a trembling voice. “You were using kung fu, and, and you are not this weak…”

Ageha had been struggling from the start of the bout. His use of traditional arts in real combat was mediocre at best. From her perspective, he was certainly weak, a mere shadow of his former self.

He placed his fingers on what remains of his mask and took it off.

“Ageha…-sama?” she asked.

“You’ve gotten strong, Saya. I almost didn’t recognize you. The spiky hair and new arm threw me off.”

When they met at the cemetery, she joked about Ageha not recognizing her with a different hairstyle.

You were right.

He cursed his blindness.

“Why are you here..?” Her confusion bled into her voice.

Ageha smiled bitterly. “I asked you first.”

“O-Ojousama needed to establish a presence among the underground elites, and we needed money…” Saya grabbed her ruffled hair, trying to regain her bearings. “But you… why?”

He shrugged. “My new boss told me to win the tournament.”

The silent audience began murmuring due to the lack of action. Eventually, booing filled the spacious stadium.

Now what?

Ageha considered his options. They were in the middle of a deathmatch. The organizers would not allow both of them to leave alive. The stadium was teeming with guards trained and equipped to fight against cybernetically enhanced hostiles. The other fighters in the building would likely be sent after them if they tried to escape.

He still had to kill Jin.

He still needed to stay with Rin.

He remembered Crescent’s words.

He finally realized his reason for fighting.

Then the answer was simple.

Ageha unsheathed his blades. “Seems we have conflicting interests.”

The audience responded with rumbling cheers.

Seeing his display of hostility, Saya took a fighting stance. Before she could back away, he leaned in and slashed at her face. She ducked the knife by an inch and accurately slammed an uppercut into his moving wrist, disarming his right hand. It was a feat impossible without her bionic eye and perfectly honed coordination.

But his first attack was just a decoy disguising his next move. He stomped on her left foot to limit her mobility and stabbed his remaining knife into her chest. The steel tore through her skin like a steak knife in filet mignon.

The brief exchange ended as abruptly as it began. Fresh blood dripped down and fell to the floor.

“What are you doing?”

“That is my line,” she said.

Saya’s right foot was raised as high as his head. His earlobe was torn, and crimson ran down his neck, staining his shoulder.

In their previous scuffle, he stabbed Saya in her right breast. However, his knife did not even scratch the alloy underneath it. She then leaned to her left, letting his blade slip by her metal shoulder, and executed a high kick aimed at his jaw. At least, that was what her target was supposed to be.

Holding her pose, Saya said, “I will not make the same mistake I did when we last fought. I learned my lesson back then and decided to trust you completely and indefinitely.”

“That’s an odd lesson to learn after getting thrown into a sofa.”

“I deserved it.” She looked at his bleeding ear. “And you deserve that gash for what you just tried to make me do.”

Ageha clicked his tongue.

Saya lowered her leg and straightened her posture. She gingerly touched her slit right breast. “You stabbed me here intentionally, knowing there is alloy underneath. Someone as enhanced as you definitely knows that first-hand. Moreover, you kept your weight on my foot to stabilize my kick. I would have lost balance if you so much as lifted your toes.” She glared at him. “How could you?” Her voice seethed like bubbling magma. “How could you try to make me kill you!?”

“There’s no other way,” he said without emotion or hesitation.

“What does that even mean!?”

He smiled weakly. “I thought about my reason for fighting.”

His cryptic reply made Saya go silent.

Ageha stared at the floor. “I used to think it was for my twisted version of fairness. Then I met people I wanted to protect.” He recalled the faces of Kureha, Kaika, Rin, and the person in front him. “I wouldn’t call it noble, but it made me feel like I had meaning, a purpose.”

“Stop babbling, you idiots!” shouted a spectacled fat woman amidst the boisterous crowd. “We didn’t come here to watch you stand around! Hurry up and get on wi-” Ageha’s knife slipped into the flesh just above her collarbone, silencing her forever.

The entire crowd quieted down.

After confirming his throw hit its mark, he continued, “For the past few months, I carried on as usual. I needed to keep my promises and clear my debts, that’s what I thought. But it was agonizing.”

It did not make sense to him. If he had been acting like himself, living as he had before, then why did everything feel so warped? If fairness truly had been the fundamental motivation for all he did, why was he suffering so much as he pursued it?

“I felt lost.” He closed his eyes and gently shook his head. “I couldn’t understand why I was fighting anymore. Ironically, a sermon from an insane sadist cleared it up a little. Getting thrown into this situation finally gave me my answer.”

“Tell me.”

“I didn’t want to get hurt.”

It was a pathetic reason, but he could no longer deny it. He kept his promises because betrayal had hurt him. He killed for fairness because injustice had hurt him. He killed to protect because loss had hurt him. He killed for revenge because despair had hurt him.

He just did not want to get hurt anymore.

But without him realizing, his means had become his end.

He was killing his own heart to follow his self-imposed code because hypocrisy had hurt him most of all.

And that was fine. That was who he was, and he did not intend to, or rather, could not change. But there was a limit to what he could endure.

“Isn’t it hilarious? My body is dull to pain, but I desperately avoid getting hurt, lashing out at everything like a scared child.” Ageha took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “But that’s who I am, and that’s why there’s no other way. If surviving here means killing you, then it’s pointless. Because nothing would hurt me more.” He grinned confidently, as usual. “So kill me. Please.”

“…I see.” Saya sighed. “I did not think you were so weak. To be honest, you fooled me completely. You always look so confident and composed. Even now, you have a smile on. What an elaborate trick.”

“I’m sor-”

“All this time, while laughing arrogantly and making fun of people, while appearing unwavering and indestructible…” Saya placed her right hand on her white mask.

Ageha grabbed her wrist to prevent her from taking it off. “Stop, your identity-”

“You have been secretly wearing yourself down to the point of breaking.” She strengthened her grip and shattered her mask to pieces, exposing her glistening tears to the bright arena lights. “How can I hurt you after hearing all that?”

Her expression surprised him. He had expected her to be disappointed or to recoil, like Rin. He had believed that Saya cared for his counterfeit strength as much as Rin cared for his fake kindness. Her tears proved otherwise.

However, that did not change the current situation.

“But you have to,” he said.

“I refuse!” With her human fist, she punched the center of his alloy chest with all her might, as if trying to rouse his tattered heart. “You deserve to be happy, happier for every scar in here.” Ignoring her torn skin, Saya twisted her fist, grinding her knuckles against him. Her blood soaked into his suit, skin, and deeper, quenching his parched will. “I am going to fight for that chance now, and there is nothing you can do to stop me.” She smiled, her teary eyes brimming with determination. “I could use some help though.”

Her emotionally-charged speech, still delivered in formal language, reminded him of how stubborn Saya could be. The more reasonable one had to fold.

“To the fighters in the ring, please resume the match,” said the announcer over the speakers. “I repeat, please resume the match. Failure to comply will result in forceful intervention.”

Looks like they finally lost patience.

“We probably won’t survive,” said Ageha.

“We will.”

Can’t argue with that.

Ageha feared and loathed getting hurt. In the coming battle, Saya’s demise, his greatest fear, was very likely. However, unlike Kureha’s death or Saya’s brush with it a few months prior, he was there. He was not caught unaware. He could finally do something about it. And he would. Every fiber of his being awoke and trembled with purpose.

He picked up his knife and glanced at the tip. For the first time in what felt like ages, he was certain it pointed in the right direction.

Ageha cracked his neck. “It’s been a while since we last teamed up. Be careful not to get in my way.”

“That is funny coming from the guy I almost defeated just now.”

“‘Almost’ being the operative word.”

They looked at each other and smiled as if they had never been apart.

 

***

 

From her private box, Valeriya watched Ageha pick up his knife. With just a small change in the way he carried himself, he looked completely different in her eyes.

Seems like you finally got over it.

She recalled the night she dueled Ageha. Many factors contributed to her victory: his underestimation of her, her use of Mitsuki’s technique, her one-hit victory condition. But the clincher was Ageha’s chaotic mental state. If not for that, a flesh and blood human like her could not even dream of defeating a monster like him.

Distracted by his quest to find Jin, Ageha did not pay enough attention to his inner turmoil. He lacked focus, one of the most critical assets in combat, and could not properly apply Mitsuki’s lessons. While his movements looked good, that was it. The true objective of martial arts, the simple ability to destroy, did not manifest in his fights at all.

But that was in the past.

Now I can finally see your true self.

Valeriya then glanced at the unmasked Gazelle.

I didn’t think that girl would just sit on her hands, but this is pretty bold.

It was unexpected, but Valeriya could work with it. She told her bodyguard to call for security.

The booing got worse. Seeing the two fighters just standing there, the audience could no longer contain their dissatisfaction.

“This is your final warning.” The voice came from the speakers. “Please resume the match. Otherwise, armed personnel will be dispatched to enforce continuation.” After a short pause, the announcer continued in an informal tone, “C’mon, you don’t wanna be shot to death, right? I’m a fan of both of you! If you fight, at least one of you will make it to the finals!”

Two men in uniform entered Valeriya’s private box. Each was equipped with a shotgun slung over the shoulder.

Moving in pairs?

They’re quite careful.

“What is the matter?” asked the first one to come in.

Valeriya stood up from her chair and grabbed the barrel of his automatic shotgun. “I’ll be borrowing this.” She then kicked him in the balls, snatched his weapon as he fell, and smashed the shotgun stock into his partner’s jaw. Her bodyguard, who was not permitted to bring a weapon into the arena premises, did nothing but watch.

She unlocked the gun safety and shot the bullet-resistant viewing glass. The shotgun pellets only damaged the surface, so she repeatedly pulled the trigger. The recoil hurt both her arm and aim, but she was close enough to hit the same spot. After running out of shells, she checked her target. Though deeply cracked, the glass barely held on.

No choice.

The blond Russian tossed the empty shotgun to her bodyguard. She then pulled up the lower part of her kimono, revealing her toned and shapely legs and wushu shoes. Her footwear looked silly with her ornate robe, but she needed the grip for emergencies.

Valeriya lowered her stance and gathered power in her hips and thighs, as if pushing down a spring. The moment she reached maximum tension, she unleashed a spinning side kick and smashed the window open.

Everyone in the arena, including the two fighters, focused on her private box.

“…Uh, oh, right!” said the announcer. “It appears one of our VIPs destroyed her own viewing glass! This is a first in arena history!”

Valeriya shouted, “Forcing them to fight is boring! That’s worse than watching a fixed match!”

“Uh, do you have a better idea?”

“If they refuse to fight each other, have them fight together! Let’s have the four semi-finalists pair up and fight in a team match!” Valeriya’s powerful yet undoubtedly feminine voice carried well even without a mic.

“Huh? Please wait a moment.” The sound of hushed discussion could be heard from the speakers.

Valeriya reached into her cleavage and pulled out a strawberry flavored lollipop. She bit the wrapper and peeled it off with her teeth.

“We’ve received an okay! The team deathmatch is approved on the condition that all fighters and sponsors involved agree to the new terms!”

Of course we’ll agree.

The crowd roared with excitement. The rare event whetted the audience’s appetite for novelty and violence.

From the ring, Ageha looked up at Valeriya and nodded. She winked in return, stuffed the round candy into her mouth, and grinned.

Mission accomplished.

 

***

 

“Is this part of your scheme too?” asked Rin.

Kaika crossed her arms. “No. I did see it as a possibility, but I had no hand in it. Saves me some trouble though, so it’s a welcome surprise.”

From Kaika’s private box, the two of them watched the Russian woman in a kimono flash a satisfied grin.

“Do you expect me to believe that?”

“You don’t need to. All I’m asking you to believe is what you see in front of you.”

“You must’ve done something to him. Tricked him somehow…”

“Tricked him into giving up his life to save Saya? You heard their conversation.” Kaika tapped the small receiver in her hand.

Rin bit her lip as her cheeks quivered in mortification. “Even… even if that’s true… There’s no way I’ll let him go back to you! You gambled with Saionji-san’s life! What if Ageha decided to kill her? You treat everyone around you like tools. He doesn’t deserve that!”

“It wasn’t a gamble. I was certain he wouldn’t kill Saya, even if it meant betraying you or himself.”

“…What?”

“You see, Arashi, oh, I mean the girl standing guard outside, was one of the people who kidnapped you before.” Kaika turned to Rin with a serious expression. “Before you misunderstand, I only met her after that incident. Anyway, she told me all about what happened that night. You fainted so you wouldn’t know, but Ageha has already abandoned you once.

That piece of information was the key to getting Ageha back, and it had dropped right into Kaika’s lap the moment Arashi showed up at her mansion. Even she had to applaud her own luck.

Rin’s face was a mess of confused lines. “What are you talking about?”

“Arashi’s partner cornered him, forcing him to choose between his life and yours. And he abandoned you. Ageha doesn’t see his own life as precious. You should know that much. That means he has something else that’s more important than your life, and I know what that is.”

“Shut up.”

“His promise to Saya. He swore to take care of me, and he left you to die to do so. He cared more about the words of a dead woman than you.”

Rin stomped on the floor. “Shut up!”

“That’s why I’m certain he would choose Saya over you again. He could save her life this time, after all. I just gave him the chance to do so, and you the chance to see it.”

“I don’t believe you! You’re lying! You have to be!”

“Then why are you crying?”

Rin emitted a faint gasp.

“You knew Ageha was suffering? No…” Kaika dissected Rin’s expression and gave her an accusatory look. “That’s guilt on your face. What did you do to him?”

Rin’s chin trembled.

“I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that. You wouldn’t hurt him intentionally.” Kaika frowned and looked away from her. “I didn’t bring you here to blame you. I just want you to understand Ageha. I just want you to set him free.”

“Set him… free?”

“He doesn’t love you,” said Kaika matter-of-factly. “At the very least, he cares about Saya more. He is only with you because he thinks he is to blame for your kidnapping, your wounds, your… torture.”

“But I told him that wasn’t his fault!”

“Did you really think he would just accept that and move on? Did you really think he wouldn’t give his all to avenge you? That he could just leave you alone after all that? ”

Rin wept. She tried to contain it, but her shoulders continued to jerk uncontrollably. “No.”

“I’ll be honest with you. I’m not doing this for him. It’s all for my own benefit. I need Ageha. But even that doesn’t matter. All that matters is what you want to do, what only you can do.

“…I can’t take this anymore.” Rin cupped her face, her trademark radiance completely extinguished.

“Sorry, but it’s only just begun.”

Rin lowered her hands and looked at Kaika as if praying not to make it any worse.

“Earlier, I said it wasn’t a gamble, but that’s only up to this point. The true gambit starts now.” Kaika’s terminal vibrated in her skirt. She took it out and answered. “Yes, that’s fine. Team Gazelle agrees to the terms.” Without waiting for an answer, she pressed the red button.

“That’s right, the match!” Rin grabbed Kaika’s shoulders. “You planned something, didn’t you? You made sure Ageha would win, right!?”

“No.” Kaika avoided her desperate gaze. “There was nothing I could do. The opponents are monsters, but so are those two. All that’s left is to believe in them.”

“How can you say that so calmly!? What if he gets hurt!? What if-”

“If either of them dies, you can go ahead and kill me. I know that won’t be much consolation, but at least you can get some form of closure. I told Arashi to stay put until I call her. She won’t interfere, I guarantee it. I’ll leave the method up to you. You can be as cruel as you want.”

“You’re crazy…”

“I bet everything on this. There’s no point in living if either of them aren’t by my side. I’m sure one would follow the other to death anyway. Might as well join them.” Kaika shrugged.

“Why would you go so far?”

“I need them.”

“For what?”

“To see the greatest show on earth.”

“…Is this just entertainment to you?”

“Isn’t everything?”

Rin let go of her and backed away. “I realized something just now.”

“Do tell.”

Rin’s face warped in revulsion. “I loathe people like you.”

Kaika felt an irreparable crack open up across her heart, but she forced herself to smile. She had already forsaken the right to cry in front of her former friend.

“How unfortunate. I love people like you.”

 

***

 

The two teams of finalists gathered in the middle of the arena.

“We met sooner than I expected! This is great!” said Crescent as he juggled his curved blades in the air.

“If it makes you happy, then I’m all for it,” said Ageha.

Saya leaned towards him and asked, “You know this boy?”

Crescent caught his weapon and pointed it at Saya. “Hey bitch, don’t interrupt.” He then turned to Ageha and asked, “Why the change in attitude? Didn’t you hate me?”

“Because I called you a pig? That was just an observation. I didn’t understand your actions, but I have no right to complain about it. You taught me that, so I’m grateful.”

“Oh? Do you finally get it? That we’re the same?”

So this boy was the insane sadist Ageha-sama was talking about.

“No, you are not,” said Saya.

“And what would you know? Outsiders shouldn’t butt in.”

“I have seen your ‘fights.’ Nothing but meaningless venting, like a child throwing a tantrum.”

“And you think that guy beside you is different?”

“Of course. He does it with charm.”

At a loss for words, Ageha and Crescent looked at her.

Saya glanced at her partner and raised an eyebrow. “What? You admitted it yourself earlier.”

And you’re fine like that.

Saya had seen Ageha’s weakness and accepted it. He did not need to be strong, at least in front of her. Everyone, including herself, had been leaning on him far too much. It was high time he leaned on someone else.

Crescent burst into laughter. “You’re pretty broken too. I’ll enjoy taking both of you apart.”

“Which one do you want?” whispered Ageha.

While observing their opponents, Saya said, “I think you are a better match for the boy. I am more vulnerable against blades.”

“Understood. Those two seem know each other, but considering their fighting styles, I don’t see them having good teamwork.”

“Then that is how we will dominate them.”

“And the odds are in!” said the announcer. “Team Gazelle is the underdog at +200 against Team Crescent’s -200!”

“Hey, why is our team named after you?” asked Ageha.

The voice from the speaker continued, “The Undead’s reputation for being beat up no doubt led to this result!”

Saya looked at him with a blank face. “You were saying?”

“Just so you know, there’s a reason for that.”

“I am sure there is,” she said flatly as she looked away.

“Guess I have no choice but to prove it.”

“Please do.”

“Which team will prevail in the arena’s first team finals!? Without further ado, let the games begin!”

Both of them dashed to their respective enemies. 0.5 did not move, while Crescent ran to meet Ageha.

Saya closed in on the giant as the other pair engaged in blade combat. She had seen a few of his matches. He was powerful but relatively slow and lacked mobility. The biggest problem was his durability. The giant could resist lethal attacks on his torso.

In that case.

Saya ran full speed towards him. The giant readied his right hand to catch her, but she did not slow down. She dove to the floor a moment before she was within his range. The giant’s pinky brushed her ankle, but she slipped by and rolled through the narrow opening between his legs.

As she turned to face his back, the giant twisted his body and threw a spinning elbow. Saya bent forward and dodged it. Using her momentum, she planted her palms on the floor and performed a tight front somersault. Her right heel smashed into the giant’s rib cage.

But she knew that was not enough.

Saya immediately rolled to the side. The giant’s massive foot carved the space she had just vacated. Recovering faster than her enemy, she jumped straight up and launched a kick. The giant guarded with his left arm, but her attack broke through and smashed into his head. A concussion would be the least of the giant’s worries.

He should be out for the rest of the fight.

After landing on the ground, Saya decided to help Ageha against Crescent. She took a throwing knife from her thigh strap as she searched the ring for the other pair.

Ageha was charging in her direction.

Before she could react, Ageha extended his right arm with blinding speed. His fist flew past her right cheek, and then a deafening boom rattled her eardrums. Ageha’s and the giant’s fists ricocheted away from each other. The cement underneath Ageha’s feet cracked. He had suppressed the giant’s tremendous punch by diverting the force to the ground.

“Don’t let your guard down!” he shouted.

Saya scanned the arena for Crescent. Using his dual blades as crutches, the boy slowly stood up at the other end of the ring.

Ageha faced off against the giant. “They aren’t human!”

Saya realized what just happened. In the few seconds since the match began, Ageha had already “killed” Crescent twice. The boy was currently rising from his second death. That was why Ageha knew her flying kick was not enough to defeat the giant and had protected her.

Saya wanted to laugh at herself for ridiculing his combat ability earlier.

Ageha dodged 0.5’s straight punch and grabbed his arm. Saya caught on to his intention and used a low spinning heel kick to sweep one of the giant’s feet off the floor. With the enemy’s balance broken, Ageha easily pulled him in and threw him over his shoulder. The eight-foot behemoth slammed to the ground, causing the ring to quake.

“We’re switching!” he said.

“But you were winning!”

Ageha threw a punch targeting the giant’s head. 0.5 blocked it and tried to grab him, but he jumped away in the nick of time.

“That was half luck, half tactics. It won’t work again. My eyes can’t follow his speed.”

He was right. Saya did not have enough raw power to defeat the giant, and Ageha did not have enhanced vision.

“Understood!” She focused on her new opponent.

Crescent was already just a few paces away. Saya flung her knife at his face, but he swerved to avoid it.

She calculated her chances against the boy. He wielded two blades. She could block one weapon using her alloy right arm but had no way to defend against the other.

“Catch!” shouted Ageha, as if reading her mind.

With her left hand, Saya snatched his knife from the air and used it to parry Crescent’s vertical slash. Her human arm did not have the strength to directly receive the boy’s blows, so she skillfully warded them off.

“You’re in the way!” shouted Crescent.

Saya dodged his barrage of slashes by shuffling backward. He was fast, but his movement lacked sharpness. Her upgraded eye could easily track them. Saya had expected their opponents to be formidable, but their absurd toughness aside, she felt Team Gazelle had an overall advantage. Even so, she still had no idea how to defeat their mysterious enemies, who survived normally lethal blows.

She took a peek at Ageha’s battle. He threw a right straight at the giant’s chest, but 0.5 stepped back while blocking it with his forearm. The force of their clash shook the air.

What power.

Saya could not generate that much force. Ageha was much larger and more cybernetically enhanced than she was. But more importantly, he could withstand the resulting pain.

A curved blade almost slit her throat.

Crescent clicked his tongue as he spun around for another slash. “I’ll get you this time!”

I have to focus!

She defended against and countered his attacks, but the boy did not seem to be taking any damage. The impasse continued for a few minutes. Saya was beginning to feel the effects of fatigue, but their enemies showed no signs of slowing down.

Crescent slashed at Saya’s leading leg. She decided to let it hit and countered with a roundhouse kick. The blade dug into her suit and scratched her metal calf, but her kick landed squarely into his shoulder. The boy was thrown to the side and tumbled on the ground.

Ageha landed behind her.

“Do not surprise me like that!” said Saya.

“It’s not like I wanted to fly all the way over here.”

The giant stood motionless quite a distance away from them. Crescent was already on his feet.

“Any ideas?” she asked.

“Yes. The big one first. I need to land a good hit.”

Saya burned her synapses to come up with a strategy. “Leave it to me. Please be ready at any time.”

“Understood.”

Saya dashed to the boy and reengaged. After confirming that Ageha had also resumed combat, she initiated her plan.

Crescent somersaulted forward and tried to split her skull in half. Saya used Ageha’s knife to block, but it got knocked out of her hand.

“Now scream!” said the boy as he raised his other blade.

Saya turned around and ran away at full speed.

“Huh!?” Crescent paused for a second but quickly dashed after her. “Get back here!”

The boy’s rapid footfalls closely trailed behind her as she sped towards Ageha. As requested, Ageha was keeping his distance from the giant and looked ready to move.

“Two incoming! Give me a boost!” she shouted as she pulled out a throwing knife.

Ageha turned to face her and clasped his hands to make a launch pad. Once Saya was only a few steps away from him, she threw her knife. Ageha did not even blink as the blade zipped by his ear. 0.5 could not see the attack because Ageha’s body hid Saya’s movements. Her projectile hit the giant’s mask, delaying his movement. Saya then stepped on Ageha’s palms and rocketed to the sky using their combined force. While flying upward, she glanced at her partner.

Ageha kicked Crescent away. The boy had defended by crossing his blades but still got thrown quite a distance. Saya was surprised that he could block at all because her back had hidden Ageha from view until she jumped. From Crescent’s perspective, Ageha’s front kick had come from nowhere. Her plan to use each other’s bodies to hide their attacks had succeeded.

Saya’s boosted jump peaked at about three stories. The giant followed her with his eyesight. He could easily catch and crush her because she had no way to defend in midair, but she was not worried in the least.

He was down there, after all.

Ageha entered the giant’s range. Noticing the threat, the giant focused on him and initiated a kick. As the giant’s right sole shot towards him, Ageha sidestepped to the left while raising his right knee. With perfect timing, he parried the giant’s front kick by pushing it from the side using his raised thigh. The attack passed by Ageha’s waist and missed completely. Before 0.5 could plant his kicking foot on the floor, Ageha stepped to the giant’s right and pushed him sideways with his shoulder. The giant lost balance and almost stumbled.

Wing chun kick parry!

It required perfect timing. Without a bionic eye, Ageha had relied purely on intuition to perform the counter, just like when he defeated Saya. She wondered who was more inhuman between the two fighters below her.

The giant did not fall but was defenseless for a moment. That was enough.

Saya straightened her legs and pressed them together as she fell. Like a spear, she hurtled downward feet first and smashed into the giant’s nape, forcing him to a kneel. She felt the impact throughout her entire body. Momentarily paralyzed, she rolled off the giant’s back and fell to the floor. Her vision flickered as bile crawled up her throat. She recalled Ageha doing a similarly suicidal move back when they stole a painting in a museum.

He stood up after this?

Still on the ground, Saya forced her eyes open. Through her shaky vision, she saw Ageha reach up and grab the giant’s bowed head with both hands. In response, the giant grasped Ageha’s forearms.

That thing can still move!?

Ageha was in danger. The giant could rip him apart at any moment. Saya tried to stand up but could not put strength in her legs. Besides, what could she do? 0.5 endured her dive attack. She doubted if it was even possible to defeat the alloy giant.

But that feeling only lasted for an instant.

In one fluid yet explosive motion, Ageha pulled down the giant’s head and thrust a knee into the middle of his chest. A sound similar to two cargo ships smashing into each other cleared Saya’s fuzzy head. The giant’s body floated, but Ageha kept a firm grip on his head, preventing him from flying away. As gravity regained hold of 0.5’s massive body, Ageha wound up his cybernetic muscles for another strike. With even more velocity than before, his knee shot up like a cannonball and met the falling giant’s chest. An earth-shattering boom silenced the entire arena.

He’s dead.

Saya was certain. The muay thai knee strike was the most powerful human attack. Combined with Ageha’s superhuman body, it was the very definition of destruction.

The giant went limp.

The various techniques Ageha had displayed in the finals were nothing like his moves in the suspended match against Gazelle. All the frills were gone, and only the essence of the techniques remained. Saya felt that his teacher, whoever that was, deserved praise, but the way he incorporated everything into his personal killing style was even more impressive.

Ageha released the corpse and turned to Saya. “Can you still fight?”

Gritting her teeth, Saya painstakingly stood up. “Yes.”

He turned to face Crescent.

“Amazing!” Pinning his blades in each armpit, Crescent applauded. “That one was built to be sturdy, but you broke it!”

“Everything has a weak point,” said Ageha. “Invincibility is impossible. Believe me, I’ve looked into it.”

Saya realized that Ageha was buying her time to recover. He would not engage in useless chatter in the middle of combat otherwise.

“What weak point?” asked the boy.

“This thing diligently blocked all the attacks heading here,” said Ageha as he pressed a thumb on the center of his chest, “even though it didn’t care much about its head.”

“Wow. Even I didn’t notice that habit! I guess too much information is as much of a problem as too little.” The boy scratched his head.

“What are you?”

Saya wondered the same thing. Even the Nikaido brothers’ cyborgs were not this resilient. They were faster and had sharper, albeit simpler, movements, but a powerful blow to the head was still effective against them.

“What a stupid question. I’m a killer just like you.”

Saya approached Ageha and whispered, “I am fine now.”

She still felt the aftereffects of her dive, but Crescent was alone against the two of them. She judged her condition to be sufficient.

Ageha nodded and looked at Crescent. “Time’s up.”

The boy wagged his index finger at them and said, “No, no, no. It starts now.” He readied his curved blades and crouched down like a cheetah.

Ageha put himself in between Saya and the insane killer.

Both of them rushed forward at the same time. Crescent launched an overhead slash, but Ageha swung his arm upward and smacked it away. The curved sword flew out of the boy’s hand and spun in the air.

That’s strange.

Even after getting hit repeatedly, Crescent had never let go of his weapons.

It’s a trick!

Crescent’s attack had no force behind it. It was designed to bait Ageha into using his left arm. By letting go of his weapon on impact, the boy had avoided losing any speed from the clash.

Crescent used expert footwork to slip by Ageha’s left side while tripping him with his remaining sword. Ageha stumbled forward, but the boy ignored him and closed in on Saya.

Those movements..!

The enemy had changed completely. Before she could ponder the cause, Crescent was already in front her.

I have to get away!

Crescent stomped on her foot, preventing her escape. Due to his small size, she managed to forcefully pull her foot from underneath his shoe. It was too late when she realized her fatal error. The boy had lured her into lifting a leg to ensure the other one, his true target, stayed put.

Crescent stabbed the tip of his curved blade into the paper thin gap of her knee joint. Mind-numbing pain froze her in place. The boy then pulled out the last throwing knife in her thigh strap and thrust it at the center of her chest. Squeezing her willpower dry, she swayed to the right. The small blade deeply pierced her upper arm. Her blood sprayed onto Crescent’s mask, dyeing it bright red. Without missing a beat, the boy grabbed his curved sword with both hands, plunged it deeper into her knee, and then twisted it.

Saya breathed in to scream, but her consciousness blacked out before she could.

 

***

 

Crescent dodged Ageha’s running kick and laughed as he jumped away.

Ageha’s teeth creaked as he forcibly contained the overwhelming regret flooding his chest. He checked on Saya’s condition.

Her left leg was almost severed from the knee.

The artery in her arm was damaged or cut completely.

Not only was she unable to continue fighting, she had at most a few minutes to live without first aid. Blood was a scarce commodity for people with extensive cybernetics. He wanted to apply a tourniquet but could not afford to look away from the enemy. The boy was watching them only a short distance away.

“Finally we have some alone time!” said Crescent.

Ageha ignored his comment and rushed in. Saya’s precious life was ticking away.

Despite the urgency, he was completely calm. He forced himself to be. The reason behind Crescent’s drastic improvement was irrelevant. He had to defeat him using available information.

His weapon.

Crescent only had one sword left. If he could disarm him, his chances of victory would increase significantly.

Ageha stepped into the boy’s lethal range without defending his face to bait an attack. As expected, Crescent swung the sword at his head. Instead of parrying, he blocked the attack head on to stop the blade. The serrated edge clawed into his forearm. Before the boy could recover from his wide swing, Ageha swiftly grabbed the sword with his right hand.

Got it!

Ageha squeezed the weapon’s thin blade but it did not break. He concluded that the metal was too strong for his fingers and immediately switched to breaking or bending the blade using his entire arm.

But even that was too slow.

Crescent thrust his knee up and into the bottom of the sword’s hilt. The upward force caused the serrated blade to slide within Ageha’s hand, sawing through his finger joints. The strength of his grip had backfired. His fingers, barely attached to his right hand, were rendered useless.

He tried to create some distance, but the boy persistently followed him. It took every ounce of Ageha’s concentration just to survive the almost invisible blade storm. Crescent’s speed had not changed, but the efficiency and fluidness of his movements had improved. Moreover, compared to his rather wild slashing at the beginning of the match, his attacks were much more refined.

Matching the boy’s speed was taking a toll on Ageha’s stamina. His breathing became ragged, and his reactions slowed. The attacks he could completely dodge earlier nicked his cheek and jaw. Blood trickled down his neck and pooled beside his collarbone.

Crescent stopped his barrage. “Want to rest? It’d be boring if I killed you because you got tired.”

Ageha wanted to say yes, but Saya’s blood loss made that impossible. He shook his head.

“Are you worried about your partner? I don’t think a deserter deserves that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look behind you. She’s trying to abandon you as we speak.” Crescent sheathed his blade. “Go ahead, I’m not trying to trick you.”

Ageha did not believe Crescent but decided to take advantage of his offer to check on Saya. His eyes widened from what he saw.

Saya was crawling on the floor and almost at the ring’s exit. While he was fighting Crescent earlier, she crossed the wide ring, leaving a trail of blood in her wake.

So that’s your answer.

Ageha sighed in resignation. The tension in his shoulders leaked away. He decided to accept his fate. “Hurry up and kill me.”

“Hm? Are you giving up..?” asked Crescent in a lower, colder voice than before.

“Shut up and come, little piggy.”

Crescent drew his curved blade and leaned forward. “I almost forgot,” he said, his voice seething in fury. “I said I’d butcher you, didn’t I?”

The boy rushed forward to attack, but Ageha jumped away from him. Crescent’s flaring anger could be seen in his brash stride as he chased after his prey. Ageha continued to leap backward, but Crescent rapidly closed the distance.

Then the boy slipped on Saya’s blood.

Now.

Ageha bounded towards Crescent like a panther. Though off-balance, the boy still managed to thrust his sword forward. The tip of the curved blade flew towards Ageha’s nose. If not for the small delay in Crescent’s attack, he would have already been skewered. Death stared him in the face, but it was too late to stop now.

“Eh?” muttered Crescent.

Ageha disappeared. Only strands of his black hair, cut by the curved blade, remained in front of the boy. Crescent turned his head and saw a demon right beside him. Still in his attack motion, the boy could do nothing as Ageha wrapped his arms around his neck and sword arm.

Crescent struggled and groaned. “How did you-”

Ageha ripped off the boy’s jaw.

He looked at the young woman lying near the ring exit. She smiled and winked with her exposed eye.

Thanks.

Ageha felt pathetic for not being able to defeat the enemy alone, forcing Saya to use her own blood to help him, but such was fate.

I also owe Ria, no, Mitsuki for this.

When he dashed to Crescent earlier, he stabbed his fingers into the cement floor and used them as an anchor to sharply change direction at the very last moment. It was a bastardized copy of the move Valeriya used to defeat him. It was a copy of a copy, but even so, he could clearly imagine Mitsuki scowling at him for stealing her technique.

Even with the gaping “wound” on Crescent’s face, the boy did not bleed and continued to struggle. That made Ageha curious, but he had no time to discover the mystery behind it.

The gap between his stature and the boy’s was similar to the giant’s and his: an adult and a child. For the same reason Ageha avoided being caught by 0.5 at all costs, Crescent could not afford to be in his grasp. But there he was.

Thus, the final match concluded.

 
 

Next Chapter

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