Chapter 3 – The War Within
On the twelfth of September, over two months ago, Jurai Ayeka's spirit was initially elated at what her eyes beheld. She saw her beloved Masaki Tenchi adorned in a white gi and hakama, much like the knightly garb of Azaka and Kamidake. Upon his forehead were three kites, glowing a brilliant emerald, so much like the two triangles on Sasami's forehead. In his right hand, he held a mighty silver broadsword never before seen, its leafy hilt obviously of Juraian make. Seeing him alive after being devoured by the NVO distortion, the older princess ignored that Ryua Ryoko was embraced in his left arm. Even the taunting voice in her mind was silenced when he ruptured the distortion and annihilated it, saving Earth once again.
Then, the victorious prince stumbled to one knee, clutching his head. Concerned, the former pirate spun to face him, only to watch him collapse. She screamed as he dropped the sword, letting it unravel and condense once more into the Tenchiken sword key. His grand attire faded away to reveal his usual clothing, tattered, torn, scorched, just like his skin beneath it. Tears streamed down Ryoko's face while the knights restrained her, allowing Terran medics to swarm Tenchi. Soon enough, Dr. Hakubi Washu joined the medics, taking readings of her own with her phantom laptop while the young prince was wheeled away.
Speechless and horrified, Ayeka slipped to her knees, tears raining down her cheeks. She could feel the dread clutching and clawing at her heart as her beloved knight paladin was taken from her sight. She buried her visage in her hands, weeping before she too collapsed, her strength stolen by her affections.
And, the taunting voice returned, laughing at her loss, at her weakness.
Ayeka's memories of what followed blurred together, though Ryu-Oh remembered quite clearly. While Ryoko was sedated and carried inside behind Tenchi, Makibi Kiyone and Kuramitsu Mihoshi lifted the princess to her feet and guided her into the infirmary. There, she was monitored periodically by the medics, though Tenchi's recovery firmly kept their attention. She did not speak or eat after witnessing his fall, which everyone blamed on her love for him.
They were only half-right.
While in her solitude, the violet-tressed woman's consciousness shrank into the rear of her mind, by both the shock of Tenchi's fall and the second identity consuming her. Within a day, Ayeka rose back to her feet, her bloodshot eyes a slate gray and a vile grin across her lips. She could hear the voice in her mind speaking with a celestial choir, “Lady Tokimi”, who requested the presence of both Ryoko and her half-sister, Jurai Nagi.
Dressed in her pinkish combat uniform from the battle with Kain, the manipulated royal summoned her mini-guardians, but rather than chiming small aspen-like cylinders into existence, each appeared with a deep gong, composed of a black oak. Extending her senses through the devices, she quickly located both daughters of Ryua. With a motion, these manifestations plowed through an adjacent wall, and then another, soon clearing a way to her destination. Sirens blared as she walked with a singular purpose through the caustic dust.
However, Ryoko and Nagi were hardly alone, attended by Azaka, their cabbit familiars, and two Terran agents. The princess ordered her mini-guardians to restrain all parties involved, hoping to simplify her task. The wooden constructs obeyed, gathering around the wrists and ankles of Ryoko, Ryo-Ohki, Ken-Ohki, and the two Terrans before slamming them back and pinning them to the opposing wall. Unfortunately for the dark entity inhabiting the regal-tressed woman, Azaka's shield protected both him and Nagi. The cylinders pressed and ground against his translucent barrier, but the Juraian warrior held firm, refusing to yield.
Then, the knight saw the regal lady emerge from the dust and confusion, and she could see the horror and denial in his eyes.
“No…” he whispered to himself, “Princess…”
Her lips twisted arrogantly as her eyes met his, her voice blending with a booming male overtone.
“Stand down, Juraiko Azaka.”
“Ayeka?!” Ryoko cried incredulously.
Still with her attention on Azaka, the Juraian woman motioned to both sisters in turn.
“I have come for her… and her.”
“For the Matron?” the azure knight asked coolly.
The tainted princess nodded slightly, her blackened minions pressing deeper into the warrior's barrier, bowing and contorting it. Holding his ground, the legendary soldier gripped his staff tightly, his attentions remaining on the young woman before him. Behind her, more agents arrived, though maintaining a distance from her, given her hostages.
“This is an order,” she calmly stated. “Stand down, knight.”
“I will not,” he answered, shaking his head.
“She is a mongrel,” Ayeka scoffed, prideful eyes falling upon Nagi, “a half-breed with Ryoan blood.”
Behind Azaka, Nagi stood firmly, her sword and whip drawn. At this point in her life, the huntress seemed contradictory, bearing both Juraian and Ryoan traits. Her purple hair was cut short and spiked behind her, held in place by her Juraian hairband key. Her crimson eyes were feline in shape, reflecting the elfin shape of her ears. Since birth, a Juraian Mark of Rage had crossed her right cheek, clawing up from her chin. Her cape seemed of Juraian make while her flaming purple bodysuit was likely Ryoan make.
“She is of the Jurai royal family,” the knight answered, “the same as you or I.”
Surprised, his charge glanced at him briefly while the grin faded from Ayeka's face.
“You, who fought a war with Ryua, now protect someone descended from that world?”
Ayeka could see the sweat beading on Azaka's forehead as he resisted her mini-guardians.
“It was war,” he replied stoically. “I did my duty, as did they. I hold them no ill will, nor their descendants.”
Her hand raised toward him, a wave of black rushing through the rosy costume. Deep within, Ayeka's true consciousness could feel her power welling in her core, readying to make real the coming threat. Her spirit wept hearing herself say these horrible words.
“I will go through you, knight.”
The Terrans and cabbits wrestled against their bonds, the feline creatures even attempting to transform into their crystalline aspect. However, Ayeka's constructs denied them with bolts of corrupted power arcing over their bodies.
“If he falls,” Nagi threatened coldly, “I will see you fall too.”
“You barely even control Jurai's power,” the manipulated woman criticized.
“You're not Ayeka!” Ryoko yelled, pulling at her restraints.
When the princess's grayed eyes slid up to meet the amber of her rival's, a glimmer of hope arose in her heart. Someone realized the truth before them.
“You're that damned thing they tried to put inside me!” the former pirate continued.
The regal woman's mind raced, remembering the first incident in Manhattan, the chimera Illirg, the NVO energy consuming her, the voice's origin. This other entity had invaded her body and mind, corrupting and taunting her. As she assembled the reality around and within her, Ayeka's lips smirked, tilting her head to the side slightly.
“… You're… half-right…”
Ryoko struggled harder against the mini-guardians, anger and frustration curling her lip as she spit back, “'Half' my ass! Ayeka would never speak to either of the knights like you do! She wouldn't threaten them, and she most certainly would never be some bitch's lapdog!”
Silently, Ayeka's mind screamed and pounded on her consciousness, wanting to be heard, to acknowledge all of what Ryoko said. She cried for help, to be saved from this hellish prison inside.
Yet, as another dark pulse rolled through her clothing, Ayeka glared back at Ryoko, raising her hand to the former pirate.
“… If only you knew how jealous she…” the royal woman began as a tear broke through the control and rolled down her cheek. “… I was of you…!”
Despite her resistance, Ayeka felt the power flow to her hand and coalesce as an orb of black energy. While the ethereal sphere was aimed at Ryoko, she showed no fear.
“She's not a killer,” she defiantly stated. “You're not her.”
Pleading within, Ayeka screamed at herself to stop, to put her hand down, to vaporize the orb. However, her body did not respond, save to hold her position, ready to attack and perhaps kill Ryoko.
Then, the male overtone spoke alone, “… What do you know of her, Ryoan…?”
Yes, Ayeka's true self could pierce through the entity controlling her, but the effort needed to do so continued to grow. Her will, already significantly crushed by Tenchi's fall, became weary warring with this invader in her soul.
Like Ryoko, Azaka had realized that Ayeka was being manipulated. Having experience in the mental arts, he raised his staff key before him and closed his eyes, focusing his thoughts and will through the device. As the rings around the crest rotated slowly, he extended his power to Ayeka's tiara, synchronizing with it and her thoughts.
In touching her mind, the dark entity roared, “Stop, knight! Stop now!” Staggered, the black orb vanished from her hand, instead clutching at the key on her brow.
Ayeka cried out in her true voice while Azaka patiently spoke directly to her mind, Princess, listen to my voice. Focus your thoughts here, in this room.
Please, Ayeka replied through the keys, help me, Azaka!
Focus on your surroundings, he advised. Stay aware. Do not let the entity cloud your mind again.
The princess fell to her knees, her corrupted mini-guardians fading away as she cried out again.
“I am part of you, Jurai Ayeka!” the dark entity declared. “I am you!”
Freed, her hostages fell to the floor and regathered themselves while a shadowy humanoid form emerged around the regal woman. The being's hands grasped tightly to her shoulders, holding close to her, connected to her presence. Feeling herself ripped between the physical and mental, she curled herself inward, clutching to reality while the entity clawed at her, roared at her.
“All the jealousy! All the frustration! All the solitude! Everything you hold inside!”
All these emotions welled within Ayeka's heart. Memories filled her thoughts: Ryoko's confession to Tenchi, his choice to leave Jurai, the princess's hours of sobbing alone. With all her might, the lady thrust these images and feelings away, wishing them gone.
“Please…” she begged aloud, “stop this… Let me go…!”
Then, Ryu-Oh interfered, enveloping her mistress in an emerald sphere and teleporting her to the tree-ship's bridge. Beneath Ryu-Oh's leaves, Ayeka knelt, raking her fingers through her hair while the dark being continued to cling to her, twisting her heart.
“Accept it, Jurai Ayeka,” it answered. The entity's hand rested on her shoulder and manifested a white porcelain glove, taloned at its fingertips. A wave of nausea hit the princess as the scent of burnt flesh and soil overwhelmed her. “Over the past fourteen months, I have studied you from within. I know your secrets, your strengths, and your weaknesses.”
She covered her mouth as she folded in half, hearing the creature mimic her voice again, “How I loved Masaki Tenchi… how jealous I was of Ryua Ryoko… how afraid I am of Jurai's power…”
Reverting to its booming male timbre, the being added, “Power to surpass a god… and you repeatedly refuse to use it… You would rather rely on those little blocks than unfurl your true glory, and take what you actually want.”
Its head neared her ear and whispered in her voice, “Don't worry. I will show them… for you.”
Ayeka's eyes opened wide, shifting between the foreign gray and her natural amethyst, Azaka's interference wearing thin. The Mark of Rage on her cheeks began to grow slowly, extending another claw along each cheek and another above both her eyes. Feeling her grasp on reality waning, tears rolled from her eyes as she cried out once more.
“No! Stop tormenting me!”
Answering her plea, the tiara key shimmered a brilliant emerald, issuing a wave of green over the black creature. Though its claw shuddered in pain for a moment, the entity shook away the key's attempted purge, grasping Ayeka's shoulder tighter.
“That worked on Jurai,” it hissed, “but I have grown since then. That mere key will not contain me a second time.”
Porcelain grew around its head, gradually manifesting lips and a mouth, with the same twisted grin. Visibly, the monstrous being became more whole, draining the princess's will with each addition.
Ryu-Oh would have struck him down if she could, but she realized he was far too strong for her now. Even then, the Lady had already chosen to handle this matter herself. The Lady's voice spoke firmly and gravely as she stepped around the central tree.
“Leave my sister alone,” Sasami ordered.
Both Ayeka and the entity turned to see the ten-year-old princess step out. In the shadows of the tree, the younger princess's pinkish eyes seemed almost blood crimson, reflecting the threat in her voice as she glared at the creature. Her azure hair was tied in two great pigtails on either side of her head, easily reaching her feet. Dressed in an artistically embroidered kimono, much like those of her sister, the preteen Juraian hardly seemed imposing in her command.
A chill rushed through Ayeka when the monster shifted its attention to the preteen.
“Ah, the other princess,” it hissed from its smirking lips. “You watched as your sister killed Seia on Jurai.”
Silently, Sasami nodded, shame welling within her elder sister. When the azure-haired girl approached, her violet-tressed sibling waved her away, pleading, “Run, Sasami!”
Yet, she watched helplessly as the Juraian child confronted this black monster, its porcelain mask now growing an onyx right eye.
“I will not tell you again,” the younger princess stated, sororal vengeance burning in her words.
“Brave words, little princess,” the beast commented, clacking its claws together. “Of all your sister taught you, she never did teach you to know your limits.”
In that moment, the two triangles upon Sasami's forehead shone brightly, causing the creature to recoil away from her light, Tsunami's might. Still clinging to Ayeka, it cried out, slithering into the elder princess's shadow and shielding itself with its incomplete arms.
“I know my limits,” the azure-haired girl stated coldly. “You do not.”
As the girl knelt with her sister, the elder of the two also cringed from the brilliant aura, unable to look directly at her. Consolingly, Sasami reached for Ayeka's hand, but an emerald spark shot between their skin, spurring the elder to pull away. Confusion rattled through the regal-tressed woman's already frazzled mind.
How can Sasami do this? she asked herself. When did she become so… powerful?
Sadly, the younger sister hung her head and whispered, “I'm… I'm so sorry, sister…”
“… Why?” Ayeka wondered incredulously, her own shame filling her thoughts. “… This is my fault… my weakness…”
Waves of hot and cold washed over the elder sibling in rapid succession as the war between Light and Darkness waged within her. She could feel those porcelain claws scraping at her consciousness again, threatening to drag her into herself. Her hands slid up along her arms, holding them close, willing herself to remain aware.
“ … I saw,” Sasami whispered, watching her sister suffer, “and didn't act…” Tears appeared at the corners of her eyes and rolled down her freckled cheeks, remorse raging in her heart. “I… should have…”
Regardless of these visible changes in her little sister, Ayeka loved her and forced a smile to console her. “There's nothing… that could be done…”
Defiantly, Sasami stood and barked back, “No! There is something that can be done!”
Once more, the triangles on her forehead flared. Ryu-Oh responded by chiming rays of light from her leaves to the pool around her, enveloping the daughters of Jurai and the shadowy entity screeching at the power around it. In unison, the tiara key glowed upon Ayeka's brow while the elder princess watched the twin triangles vanish, replaced by a pair of jade discs.
In a bright flash of white, the four other keys appeared between the sisters: Tenchiken, Nagi's hairband, and the two staves of the knights. Pulsing in unison with Sasami's markings and Ayeka's tiara, the keys drifted to the elder princess: the hairband to her right shoulder, the staves to her back, and Tenchiken to her hands.
Watching awestruck, Ayeka heard her sister speak in a more mature voice, Tsunami's true voice, singing off the heavens, much like Tokimi had in her thoughts.
“Rise, Princess Jurai Ayeka.”
Carefully, the violet-tressed woman rose to her feet, the beast clawing at her back, restraining her.
“I will not be silenced!” it roared.
Her amethyst eyes met those of her sister, seeing her firm support. Steeling herself with deep breath, she stood and reached for Tenchiken, sensing the sparks arcing from the hilt to her skin.
“This prison will not hold me indefinitely!”
Grasping the sword, Ayeka winced, the purity of Jurai's power rushing through her and the monster clutching her. Together, the keys shone brightly, dissipating the being in her shadow with one last cry.
“I will have you, Jurai Ayeka!”
The keys enveloped the former crown princess. Nagi's hairband snaked around her right shoulder, mimicking the loop around her left. The knights' staves crossed themselves behind her and adhered to the rings, Kamidake's staff to Nagi's key and Azaka's to the existing circle. Warmth filled the young woman, invigorating her, cleansing her. The Mark of Rage on her cheeks reverted to the single claw over each cheek, just as her eyes completely returned to their natural color. Her breath calmed her gazing upon Tenchi's sword in her hands.
“Accept your fate,” the heavenly chorus spoke with Sasami, “daughter of Jurai.”
At this, Tenchiken reconfigured itself, stretching into the naginata form wielded by Masaki Achika in her brief awakening. Ayeka's mind was clear, completely clear for the first time in fourteen months. Bonded with all five keys, she could sense the spirit from each device, from their wielders. She was supported by Nagi's fierce determination, Azaka's dedication to duty, Kamidake's burning passion, and Tenchi's steadfast courage. In a way, she held every aspect of Jurai within her.
However, Sasami stumbled, and Ayeka swiftly caught her sister and steadied her. As the powerful aura vanished, so too did the two discs regress to the twin triangles. Exhaustion consumed the younger princess, her breath deepening and her strength fading.
“This is… temporary…” she whispered somberly. “He is growing… The keys focus and amplify your power… but he will eventually surpass it…” Weakly, she raised her hand, which Ayeka took in hers. “We don't have much time…”
Questions filled the freed mind of the violet-tressed princess, and she began to ask, “How…? How did you get so…?”
Warmly, her sibling smiled and interrupted, “I love you, Ayeka…”
Ayeka's heart melted, and her questions regarding Sasami's newfound power vanished holding her little sister close. The younger had saved the elder, or last given her a reprieve for the moment. A smile of her own crossed her lips as she kissed Sasami's forehead lightly.
“I love you too, Sasami… Thank you…”
After a moment, Ryu-Oh opened a display for her mistress, showing several of her allies in the hangar outside. The sororal joy soon vacated Ayeka's expression as she considered her situation. The beast within her would eventually rip through this cage of keys and take her body again. Seeing Ryoko and Nagi below arguing with Katsuhito and the knights, the princess knew the Enemy was far from finished with them, any of them. However, these five keys boosted her native powers far beyond her usual capacity.
Her nobility made the choice for her.
Gently, she laid Sasami on the deck and stood, waving aside the display as she turned to the central tree. Through her tiara, she quietly gave Ryu-Oh an order, a quite sobering one. With her mistress connected to five keys and the sheer amount of ambient Juraian energy, Ryu-Oh could sense Ayeka's intent and guess at her scheme.
Mistress, the tree pleaded, please do not choose this path.
Ryu-Oh, she answered, if I can, I will not allow myself to become a weapon against my people, let alone my friends. This must be done while I still am myself.
Conflicted, the tree hesitated. She knew well now what her mistress planned, but with all her processing power, she could not determine a better course of action. As Sasami began to push herself upright, Ryu-Oh enveloped her in an emerald orb. The younger princess called to her sister, confused while the regal-haired woman sadly watched her fade away.
“I'm sorry, sister. I'm so sorry.”
While the azure-tressed girl appeared outside with Ryoko and Nagi, the tree-ship Ryu-Oh lifted from her moorings, ripping herself free of them. Across her upper hull, the vessel revealed batteries of cannons that promptly targeted the bolts on the hangar's doors. Blasting through these, the ship then rose up and burst through the exit, tossing the heavy doors to either side on the surface.
Ayeka watched the display of the hangar for a moment longer, seeing Sasami crying out to her, screaming her name. Guilt twisted inside her as she closed the window, needing to settle her mind on her chosen path. Flying beneath the moonlit sky of Manhattan, Ryu-Oh turned toward the city and progressed toward the city, the direction from which the princess had felt Tokimi's commands.
In the flight, the young woman took pause for her loyal confidant one last time.
“Thank you, Ryu-Oh, for being with me all these years,” she said somberly. “I loved our time together and would not have replaced it.”
So did I, mistress, the tree answered through the keys. I wish I could dissuade you.
“As do I. Will you stand with me one more time, for Jurai's sake?”
“Very well. Then, before we face our fate, I ask one last task of you.”
Silently, Ryu-Oh acknowledged her by opening a window before the princess, reflecting her image with the Juraiji for “Recording” in a corner.
With a calming breath, she began, “To whomever is watching this recording, I hope that this message finds you and Jurai safe from harm. As you likely know, a horrible shadow has fallen upon Earth and threatens not only the Empire, but also I fear, the universe at large. I have instructed Ryu-Oh to release her logs of these events to someone I trust in the event that I am defeated…”
She stopped herself, closing her eyes, fighting through her pride to accept the reality.
“… or consumed by the Enemy.”
Steeling her resolve, she opened her eyes and added, “These records will hold not only data on what has and will become of me, but the goddess willing, a record of the Enemy's strength and tactics.”
She lowered her eyes to Tenchiken, raising it and distantly gazing over its intricate design, remembering its current master, her beloved Masaki Tenchi.
“Please,” she pleaded, “make good use of this knowledge and finish the work started here.”
Tears appeared and rolled down her cheeks as her brow and lips tightened, regret and anger both pushing through her. This may well be her last testament, never again to see Jurai's fields or Earth's leaves change color. Worse yet, she might become an instrument of their destruction.
“Know that I fought this vile corruption until my last breath.”
Her eyes closed tightly, her hands clutching the key closer to her chest. She wanted and needed to declare her identity one last time before it was stripped from her again by the monster within her.
“Know that I was Jurai Ayeka, daughter of the Jurai royal family.”
The window closed as she wiped the saline from her face, smiling sadly.
“Thank you so much, Ryu-Oh.”
While the royal tree could not embrace her mistress for support, she could send her warmth through the keys to the princess's mind directly. In a way, this was far more intimate, and Ayeka welcomed those feelings in this time of need.
Soon enough, Ryu-Oh passed over the great city of Manhattan, her shadow looming over the citizens below. From her exterior hull, searchlights illuminated the streets, hunting for Ayeka's quarry and perhaps salvation for herself. On the bridge of the vessel, the princess scanned several displays, mostly filled with confused and befuddled Terrans. Nowhere did she see the spiked fallow hair she wanted to confront.
However, a tone halted her search, and Ryu-Oh chimed the details of the message's origin. She knew they would come for her in time.
“Let her speak,” she sighed reluctantly.
The scanning windows slid aside while a communication window opened to Ken-Ohki, showing the two daughters of Ryua. With Ryo-Ohki atop her shoulder, Ryoko barked at her rival, “What the hell are you doing, Ayeka?”
Despite the concern in her old friend's words, Ayeka disconnected herself, using all her regal training to distance herself for what she must do.
“Penance, Ryoko, and hopefully redemption.”
“That wasn't you!” the Ryoan woman argued back. “We all know that! This is stupid!”
Shame tainted Ayeka's eyes as she replied, “… Some of it was me, Ryoko… more than I'd like to admit.”
“So what?” the former pirate retorted. “I've thought a lot of bad things about you too over the years! And, I still think you're a stuck up princess half the time!”
Sighing, the princess closed her eyes while the rogue added honestly and soberly, “But, you're not all the time. Most of the time, you follow the rules… even when they don't let you have what you really want. Right?”
The two rivals met gazes. They had known one another for years, lived together for three of those years. They could read one another, and each knew the other's mind fairly well. Here, Ayeka could see the understanding in Ryoko's face, even a hint of regret she would likely deny later.
“You always did speak your mind, Ryoko,” the regal-tressed lady commented with a soft smile. “I always did admire it, even when it infuriated me.” Sadly, her eyes lowered as she added, “Maybe that's why he chose you.”
“This isn't about that!” the Ryoan snapped remorsefully.
“I know it isn't,” came the cool answer. “This creature within me is only temporarily imprisoned by the keys. They augment my power to resist its influence. As such, I intend to use that power to combat this 'Tokimi'. It is possible that I might overcome her.”
Ryoko thought about this for a moment, but Ayeka already had made her choice.
“Even if I don't, at least this creature should die with me.”
“You stupid bitch!” Ryoko yelled back, startling the princess. “Listen to yourself! You think you're alone in this?! That thing out there is passing itself off as my mother for God's sake! You think I'm not pissed?!”
Ayeka knew the connection in retrospect. Tokimi ordered the beast within her to retrieve both Ryoko and Nagi. In those commands was the palpable concern of a maternal figure, and after seeing Sasami, the lady was no longer surprised at the relationships between their fates. No doubt, both sisters felt as betrayed by Fate as she did.
The Juraian glanced aside somberly, nodding. “I know you are.”
While Ryoko readied to argue more, Nagi stepped forward, icily asking, “What about your sister?”
Those words froze Ayeka, cutting her deeply, particularly having just left her younger sibling in tears.
“Would you leave her without family?”
With a sharp breath, the regal lady pushed the pain in her heart aside and softly said, “… Don't.”
“I've lived that life, princess,” the huntress continued unabated. “Would you leave her…?”
“Don't bring Sasami into this,” Ayeka demanded.
“She's right,” Ryoko seconded her sister. “She's with Tenchi's grandpa and the knights, but she needs you, her sister.”
Before the argument could proceed, a notice appeared before the violet-tressed woman. Glancing to her main display, she could see two more vessels flanking Ken-Ohki, Will Pii's Pentinian fighter and the Terran's retrofitted saucer. Alongside the image of Ryoko and Nagi, portraits of the other two pilots appeared.
Pii's visor was alight with the HUD for his craft, his brown hair hidden beneath his headgear. The dull illumination of his console shadowed many of his features and those of his cockpit, though the princess could see his armor once more whole. The agent piloting the saucer had dark skin, his hair cut short and practical. If memory served, he was once a police detective before becoming entangled with extraterrestrial affairs.
“What are you doing here?” Nagi demanded of the intruders.
“Ryoan and Juraian ships might be matched,” Pii explained, “but we want to take her without trouble.”
The agent agreed, “Yeah, you two have caused enough ruckus already just flying over.”
Frustrated, Ayeka shook her head and denied them all, “I will not return yet. I…”
Alarms sounded on Ryu-Oh, drawing the lady's attention away from her allies and to one of her search displays. Highlighted in the brightest scarlet, all her spotlights centered on a singular individual, a mature Ryoan woman roughly twice the age of Ryoko or Nagi. Dressed in a crimson evening gown, the woman turns her blue eyes skyward, seeming to gaze through the display back at Ayeka. Sheathed in matching elbow-length gloves, her arms folded in thought, already analyzing those above her.
The princess saw clearly the heritage between this woman and the two aboard Ken-Ohki. Her figure was voluptuous, very much like Ryoko's. Her demeanor and bearing was cool and calculating, much like Nagi's. Her tan hair spiked behind her, but was tied to fall behind her back nearly to her ankles. If the huntress did not cut her hair short, their styles would be far more similar. This was Ryua Ryoshu, mother to both Ryoko and Nagi.
Yet, a shiver of fear crawled up Ayeka's spine. She could hear the mocking voice echoing deep in her mind, knowing its “Matron” was nearby. Furrowing her brows, the princess directed all their attention to the Enemy.
“There she is!”
While the others reacted to Ryoshu's presence, the regal-tressed lady gave her order.
“Open fire with all weapons!”
The gun ports along Ryu-Oh's hull slid open and immediately rained down bolts of Jurai's fury upon the Ryoan woman below. Likewise, the saucer unleashed its own barrage of mimicked Jurai energy on the same target. However, before any shots impacted, Ryoshu vanished, letting the blasts riddle the asphalt and concrete below.
Alarms rang out on all ships, pulling their attention to the sky before them, where Ryoshu reappeared. Floating unaided, the woman extended her hands before her as her eyes shifted color, her sclera becoming blue and her irises red. A green, leaf-like Mark of Rage grew along her chest, neck, and cheeks. Deep inside, Ayeka felt the darkness rising within the Ryoan, but before could warn anyone, Ryoshu flicked her wrists at both Ryu-Oh and the saucer.
Unseen walls of force thrust both vessels backward toward the World Trade Center towers. Alerts and sirens screamed aboard the tree-ship as Ayeka steadied herself, speaking to her confidant through her tiara key.
Can you correct? she asked.
Trying… Ryu-Oh answered.
The princess channeled her emerald power through her key, accessing Ryu-Oh's sensors only to see glass and steel rush at her. With a heavy crunch of stone and wood, Ayeka's yacht crashed into one tower, sending concrete, steel, and glass falling down toward the ground. The Juraian woman stumbled at the impact, falling to one knee, but she soon pushed herself back to her feet. The display ahead of her flickered and sputtered, still maintaining an image of Ryua Ryoshu.
Status, she asked of her companion.
Before the tree could respond, the entire ship lurched sickeningly, pitching forward, yawing to port. Ayeka could hear the cracking of wood and stone through the hull, wracking her with an unanticipated fear.
We are about to fall, mistress, Ryu-Oh announced worriedly. Protect yourself.
The lady surrounded herself with a defensive barrier when the deck suddenly shifted and fell from beneath her. She screamed in fright as the vessel fell with the collapsing tower. She heard the stone smashing into her confidant's exterior, shattering it, compacting it, jagged rock marring the beautiful aspen-like craft. The princess was thrown about the bridge, her protective shell saving her from injury.
Soon, Ryu-Oh's fall halted with little warning, following by more crunching wood and stone as she was buried by the tower's continued collapse. Ayeka dissipated her barrier and set her feet once more upon the deck, seeing the rubble blocking most of her displays. Those that could see beyond the mound of debris had visible cracks where the exterior lenses had been smashed. Status windows opened around her, each with a diagram of the ship and details of particular damage to the craft.
The princess's hand gently rested on one of the panels, a sorrow rippling through her expression. Crippled and buried like this, Ryu-Oh could no longer continue combat. Thankfully, her regeneration systems still functioned, and she could be flight-ready again in a few days.
However, the violet-tressed Juraian heard Ryu-Oh's groans through the keys. She walked to the central tree and gently touched her trunk. Through the tactile contact, Ayeka felt the pressure and weight bearing down on the hull, the broken and dislodged lateral ribs, Ryu-Oh's pain. The princess leaned against her confidant pressing her forehead and key to the bark of the tree.
“I am so sorry, Ryu-Oh,” she whispered somberly. “I shouldn't have…”
I… the sentient flora answered, I could not let you be alone, mistress.
Tears rolled down Ayeka's cheeks as a flicker of light caught her eye. Glancing to the side, she saw an image manifest, translucent and barely visible. Gazing at the figure, the detail slowly began to become more apparent, though she did not notice the five keys subtly glowing.
A female humanoid rested on her hands and knees, struggling to hold herself upright. Naked, this woman's skin resembled the fine grain of a elegant softwood, smooth and varnished. Cascading down from her head and along her form was a dense mane of spade-shaped leaves, held together by very thin and delicate branches, all green and new, almost reborn. Heavily, she raised her face, hidden behind her locks of branches.
Her breath taken, Ayeka knelt with this being and carefully pushed aside her strands of leaves, revealing her visage. She seemed like a artisan's masterpiece sculpture, beautiful and refined, without a rough scuff or chip. Each line and curve was carved with the utmost care, impossibly so. However, above her brow, this humanoid plant had a relief of Ayeka's tiara carved into her wooden flesh, branding her.
The princess had never seen this woman before, but knew her very well.
With a nod, this physical appearance of the tree answered through the keys, Yes, mistress.
The image flickered and faded as the glow of the keys likewise dimmed. Ayeka shook her head and rested her hands on the humanoid's shoulders, trying to steady her.
“Please rest. Don't try to maintain this image.”
I am not projecting an image, mistress, Ryu-Oh replied plainly.
Taken aback, the regal-tressed lady paused, attempting to understand what she had observed when another shudder shifted the bridge's deck. The image of Ryu-Oh's humanoid form faded completely while the young woman steadied herself again.
I will rest, mistress, while I continue to record these events.
“Thank you,” Ayeka responded pushing her questions aside. “Where is the Enemy?”
A window opened, showing a cracked and distorted image of Ken-Ohki floating in the sky above them.
She is aboard with Ms. Ryoko and Lady Nagi.
With another breath, Ayeka settled her nerves and gave her last order to her confidant.
“Send me there.”
Good luck, mistress.
In a moment, the princess emerged from an emerald sphere outside Ken-Ohki's crystalline hull. She summoned a few of her aspen-colored mini-guardians to help her levitate. With little warning, a violet orb from the Ryoan ship deposited a distracted Ryoshu in front of Ayeka before the white vessel shot off into the distance.
The Ryoan woman now garbed herself in a low-cut gown of primarily red and black, its sleeves a deep regal purple, terminating in sharp talons. A medallion rested just above her brows, extending four golden, feather-like steamers over her spiked hair. Her attention stayed centered on the sparkle on the horizon, where Ken-Ohki vanished.
Ayeka centered herself with a gentle breath, taking Tenchiken in both hands, letting its blue blade extend from its violet guard. Her eyes set on her foe, the other four keys glowing brighter as she readied them for her battle.
Coldly, the dark goddess spoke over her shoulder, her voice ringing much like Tsunami's, “You served your purpose, Jurai Ayeka.”
Indeed, she had. As Tokimi had instructed, Ayeka had lured both daughters of Ryua to where their mother's image could find and confront them. Used and manipulated, fury burned in the princess as she glared at her opponent.
“Not until I see you fall, 'Tokimi'.”
The goddess's brow raised as she turned her dual-tone eyes to her would-be attacker, a mortal who would dare challenge a deity. The eternal woman hardly seemed impressed, but rather intrigued.
“Interesting. Not only do you cage him with those keys, but you challenge me as well?”
Ayeka lowered Tenchiken's blade and drew the hilt back at her side, directing the weapon at her foe's chest. Facing the Juraian royal, the Ryoan matriarch extended her violet claws to her side, her eyes noting the keys and the power brimming through them.
“Sister has been busy.”
“I ask this once,” the young woman said. “Will you remove this creature from me and leave us in peace, all of us?”
The Matron of Ryua scanned over Ayeka, commenting, “Unlike Jurai Kagato, you were a mistake, young princess. The entity within you was meant to guide my elder daughter, not corrupt you.”
For a moment, the Juraian hoped the other woman would humor her request. Sadly, the goddess replied, “However, I see potential in this marriage of Darkness and Light.”
With that last hope dashed, the princess tightened her grip on her beloved's weapon and strengthened her resolve.
“Then, defend yourself, Matron of Ryua.”
Ayeka darted at Tokimi, her blue blade leading the way before she thrust the naginata-like weapon forward. The Ryoan deity simply turned aside, letting the weapon pass her without any damage. Again and again, the Juraian stabbed at the matriarch, but the latter effortlessly avoided each strike.
“Child,” the eternal woman spoke, “I can see into you. You know little about your own power, let alone its use for war.”
The princess's teeth gnashed as she spun at the goddess, forcing more of her power into the sword. The blade emitted a wave of energy that flew at Tokimi, though she simply dove into the dust cloud below them. Ayeka followed, the power radiating from the keys wafting and dissipating the caustic mist.
With her feet on the ground, the princess glanced around her surroundings, searching for a sight or sound of her opponent. However, wisps of wind spoke to her with the matriarch's voice.
“You do not have Takeru's heroic courage.”
The princess swiped at the vapor when the voice drifted past her ear again.
“You do not have Ryuji's stubborn determination.”
She spun and cut into the air once more, frustration growing in her eyes.
“You do not have the knights' duty or passion.”
The smoke then coalesced into an image of Ryoshu, gazing down arrogantly at the young princess.
“You do, however, have the taint of the Kamiki family on you.”
When the Juraian cut through the face of the false avatar, the mist cleared to show Tokimi standing with her right hand outstretched. In a flash of crimson light, an object appeared in her grasp, a broadsword's hilt, Kagato's dark key. Wrapping her talons around the grip, the guard willingly opened and produced a vibrant obsidian blade edged in scarlet.
Ayeka immediately recognized the weapon and raised hers to protect herself, but the slash from the Ryoan deity struck hard. The impact against Tenchiken rocked her backward and upward. The princess attempted to balance herself with her mini-guardians, but already Tokimi was upon her again with another strike. Barely blocking, the Juraian's cylinders were shattered, and she was embedded in a nearby wall.
She fell from the imprint to the ground below, catching herself on her feet and Tenchiken's elongated hilt. Patiently, the Matron of Ryua floated downward, watching her foe slowly recover.
“Submission would be far easier.”
The regal-tressed woman ground her teeth as she thrust forward again, only to have the goddess knock it away with Kagato's sword.
Hit her! Ayeka chided herself.
In that instant, Azaka's staff charged and fired a pulse at Ayeka's unspoken command. Tokimi took pause to summon a crimson barrier, but the blue shot tore through the deity's defense, forcing her to slide aside. Even then, the Juraian power scorched her right cheek.
Stepping back, the Ryoan matriarch raised her talons to the light injury. Hate bled into the Matron's eyes, watching the princess turn the sword at her again. Tokimi sliced at Ayeka again, sending forth a crescent wave of her dark power.
Block! Ayeka demanded.
In response, her tiara and Nagi's hairband shone a deep violet, creating an azure barrier around her. The black pulse merely washed over its surface and dissolved without an ill effect.
Impatience became clear in Tokimi's gaze, seeing Ayeka's emerging talent with the keys. Teleporting, the eternal woman reappeared at the princess's side and ripped through her barrier, as well as the ring and protective costume around her left arm. The regal-tressed Juraian spun away, screaming as her blood rolled down her arm. Quickly, she flowed through the spin and thrust the blue blade at her foe.
Again, Tokimi vanished and reappeared behind the Juraian, yet she caught a glimpse of the approaching bloody blade.
Strike her quickly! The princess ordered, spurring crimson light to gather in Kamidake's staff.
As the shot was loosed, the Matron instantly relocated herself above Ayeka, dropping downward with her dark blade leading the way. Hearing the air displacement, the young woman summoned her mini-guardians to surround her enemy and ignite a Juraian barrier. The Ryoan hissed as she swiped through the log units and barrier, sending another crescent pulse at her opponent. With a gasp, the princess recalled her servants to help her levitate and dart away from the coming strike.
While the black wave cut into the asphalt, Tokimi drifted slowly to the ground, her irritated gaze set on her adversary. Ayeka swung back to face the Enemy, holding her wounded arm close, but far from surrender.
Yet, a shot of blackness arced over her body, momentarily shifting her eyes to gray. She heard the mocking laugh ring in her mind's recesses.
“Each strike weakens the cage around him, child,” the deity spoke plainly. “Your fate is inevitable.”
Ayeka felt the talons sinking into her thoughts. While she was becoming more adept, her time was quickly fleeing her grasp. The blood running in her fingers reminded her of her contingency plan.
“Not if I fall,” she retorted, “or you in my stead.”
“You overestimate your weapons,” Tokimi criticized, “and yourself.”
Hopelessness began to seep into Ayeka's thoughts. She did not want to die, nor did she want to succumb to this vile corruption. A tear rolled down her cheek as she shook her head slowly, refusing to accept this reality.
“… I will not be Kagato reborn…”
The goddess met her gaze, peered through it. Ayeka sensed her sight piercing through her, seeing past her present existence.
“You will not be a conquerer, girl,” the goddess stated icily. “You will be a destroyer.”
Closing her eyes, the Juraian princess's final hope evaporated. Her throat dry, she saw now the fate that awaited her. Her heart twisted, her life cut short by this inevitable happenstance. She thought of Sasami and all the moments they would never share. She remembered Ryoko and all the arguments they would never have. She dreamt of Tenchi and all they could never exchange. Here ended the life of Jurai Ayeka.
Solemnly, her eyes met those of the goddess. “So be it…”
Her fingers curled around Tenchiken, grasping it tightly that her knuckles grew white, that her nails cut into her palms. Her spirit dove deep into the well of Jurai's power within her and drank heavily, unfurling her might. Around her, mini-guardians chimed into existence one after another, ten, then twenty, then forty. The five keys ignited with a beautiful jade light, brighter with each cylindrical servant that appeared. Tenchiken's blade swirled with azure brilliance, becoming a torrent of the princess's will, sparks arcing down its hilt.
Despite what the goddess had said, she felt the touch of her friends and allies in each key. In this last moment, she knew they were with her, holding her aloft, pushing her forward. Tears rained down her cheeks as her thoughts drifted to her little sister one last time, seeing her face in her mind.
“Forgive me, Sasami…” Ayeka whispered before leaning forward and darting at Tokimi.
The dark matriarch scowled, raising her free hand at her side. The princess thrust with her love's sword, and the goddess parried with the blade of her figurehead. The matron swiped, and a barrier from the regal tiara and the incomplete hairband shattered it. The crimson-clad murderess raked at the barrier with her claws, but the young knight's staff glowed bright, allowing its current mistress the speed to swoop out of range.
Then, Tokimi teleported behind Ayeka, slashing her claws at the young woman's back, rending her barrier asunder, as well as cutting into her flesh. The princess screamed before swinging the swirling blade at her foe. The goddess dodged the blade, but not the burst from the loyal azure knight's staff. Tokimi disappeared again while Ayeka winced at her newest wound. However, she left herself open as those claws raked across her abdomen. The broken blade of Kagato's sword then bit into her cheek before she could fully escape.
Sliding away, Ayeka looked to the Ryoan matriarch to watch a blast of black energy fly at her, splashing across her chest, scorching her costume, concussing her fiercely. The keys broke free from the princess scattering along the ground before she too fell among them. Ayeka's eyes wearily gazed at the night sky above her, her breathing slow and labored, pain shooting through her wounds. Also, without the keys' protection, the beast burst free into her mind again, cackling at her defeat.
And, Tokimi stood over her, Kagato's sword regenerating to its full, burning length. The burn on her cheek flaked away like harmless dust, leaving her immaculate once more. Around her, the Juraian keys lost their emerald glow, but before she could consider them further, all of them pulsed white and vanished.
“Welcome, Sister,” she whispered as she knelt next to the defeated princess. Resting her palm over her victim's eyes, she whispered, “Arise, my dark princess.”
Ayeka voicelessly screamed as the Matron of Ryua reached deep into her core and corrupted Jurai's power with shadowy flames. The princess's spirit was ripped from her conscious mind and buried into her subconscious mind, while the invading monster was installed in her place. The princess could still feel and see, but no longer control herself. She merely watched what followed, her aching body pleading for relief.
Recording the entire event, Ryu-Oh wept as her mistress's palms ignited with dark light. “Dark Ayeka” now pushed herself to her feet, her lips curling into a vicious smirk. Standing with her new minion, Tokimi extended her hand as a Light Hawk Wing cracked open reality. Grasping the ethereal construct, she molded a new tiara, the ashen tiara of thorns for her dark princess. Gently, she set this upon the regal-tressed brow with a single order.
“Occupy them while I handle my daughters.”
With a respectful bow, Dark Ayeka darted off into the night, heading straight for the Terran base, straight for her little sister.