Kitsune had been watching the A.D. Esterhazy Enterprises compound for several hours from a conveniently abandoned apartment building across the street. From the very top of the building, she had been able to stake out which buildings seemed to be offices, which were labs and which were living quarters. Most of the office buildings had a marquise over the front doors with the name of that particular company. The only one she was really interested in was the big one where she and Nick had been taken. What she was looking for would be kept as close to Esterhazy himself as possible.
She never saw any security guards but spotted several external cameras poised above the entrances. Somewhere in the big building was probably a control room with walls of monitors and someone to watch them all. She had seen Chaos and Zero several times, making their way to every building in the compound. At one point, Chaos had looked in her direction, but there was no way he could have seen her. She was too far away and too well hidden. Then she remembered that he was tweaked somehow, too, and she had no idea how. Even if he had seen her and was making preparations for her visit, she wasn't going to let it stop her.
The only time she had seen anyone actually leave the compound was earlier that morning when Chaos and Zero had left and then returned with two BII detectives. Less than an hour later, they had escorted the detectives to the gate but not back to the port. The detectives didn't look as if they had gotten what they wanted out of that brief visit, and she suspected they would be back before too long. By then, she would have all the evidence she needed and be well on her way to Walden City.
Chaos and Zero stopped making rounds after dark and retired to the main building. Most of the executives had gone there long before dark. She had noticed one man in particular leaving the Dane Pharmaceuticals offices who so resembled Nick in his height, build and bearing that she was, for just a second, convinced that Nick had donned some clever disguise in order to gather evidence of the illegal experiments. But when she got a better look at his face, she could see that the man was a good ten years older than Nick, and his eyes didn't make her insides tingle.
The place seemed dead after dark, so Kitsune took a nap. When she awoke, it was well after midnight, and everything was still and quiet. The easiest place to get in looked to be the private port near the main building, although there was nothing but open space between the port and the building, and the space was brightly lit. She could find ways around that once she got in. She stuffed her hair under the collar of her cat suit, pulled the mask down over her face and made her way towards the port.
There were several other apartment buildings between her and the port, and with a running start, she easily leaped the gaps between them. At the last one, without stopping, she pulled a small grappling hook from her belt, hooked it on the ledge and dropped down, guiding herself to the ground along a barely visible line. Once at the bottom, she gave the line a yank and the hook freed itself from the ledge, zipping neatly to her as it coiled the line back into itself. She never asked Nick where he got the thing when he gave it to her. He had told her that every woman should have the right accessories, and she loved that little hook. It went with everything.
She crept along the fence towards the port and entered the compound by climbing the fence at the dock itself, using Esterhazy's private ship, which she noted was a nova class, and the smaller shuttle in which Ghostshadow had picked her and Nick up to shield her from any clear view of the building. Hiding by the rear landing gears, she watched for a while. Then she saw why Chaos and Zero didn't make rounds at night.
It zipped past the corner of her vision so fast that she wasn't sure she had seen anything more than her own shadow. Then she saw it again. Then it stopped, hovered in front of her face and blinked. It was a small metal sphere, with a single glass eye behind which appeared to be a camera. The blink was the camera focusing. Kitsune stayed still. She couldn't tell if it had seen her or not. Nothing stirred inside the building. It blinked at her again then turned and zipped away.
She didn't move. Still, nothing happened after several minutes, but she saw an army of the flying eyes zipping around the compound. This can't be good, she thought. She wished she had a way to disable them, but that might prove more harmful than helpful. She didn't doubt that Chaos was sitting in his office getting regular reports from the flying eyes. If they went down, he would know. Then she would be screwed.
The area between the lit path that led to the building and the chain link fence that ran the length of the dock was in shadows. She waited until she saw no flying eyes and darted into the darkness. Slowly, she crawled towards the building, keeping her body as flat to the ground as she could and keeping her movements unobtrusive. When she got to the corner of the building, she stood up and pressed herself flat to the wall. She was facing the front door, and as far as she had been able to tell, that was the only way to get inside. She inched towards it, pausing every time she saw a flash of silver. She wondered if they were equipped with night vision lenses or if they used infrared or something. They were probably motion sensitive, which meant that when she opened the door, they would know.
What the hell, she thought. Let them know.
She walked up to the door, and Chaos kindly opened it for her.
"Miss Kitsune, welcome back," he said. "I would like to hope you'd tell me you've brought the jewel and left the little troublemaker to die at Robyn's hands, but that's not why you're here, is it?"
She said nothing.
"Have I shocked you into silence? Are you really surprised that I was expecting you? It's my job to expect thieves and other security breeches. It was only a matter of time before you came back here."
She drew her shotgun and cocked it.
"Now, that just kills a conversation. I don't want any violence. I want to talk."
She fired at him, but at the exact same time, she felt a strong blow on her arms that knocked her aim off and sent the shell zinging past Chaos's ear. She hadn't even seen Zero anywhere.
"Don't do that again," Chaos said. "I don't think I need to remind you what Zero can do." He stepped up close to her and took the shotgun from her hands. "A rather unwieldy weapon for a woman of your stature."
"But effective as hell," she said.
He pulled the mask off her head. "Only when your aim is true."
His lips curled slightly as if he found that thought extremely distasteful. "I don't bite. That's what Robyn does."
"What are you gonna do with me?"
"Do with you? I'll probably turn you in to the BII for a hefty reward or see if I can persuade you to work for me. Although I'm leaning towards the former. Robyn's little chase has gotten expensive to say the least."
"I'd rather serve time on Boil than work for you anyway."
Chaos smiled. "You have quite a spirit, but I think I can work with that." Chaos popped open the shotgun and dumped the shells to the floor. "That will make our conversation that much friendlier." He headed to the elevator.
Kitsune followed with Zero right behind her. The kid gave her the creeps. She wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the little green mark on his forehead. Maybe it was that his big blue eyes never seemed to blink. Chaos had his own style of creepiness, but at least he blinked and spoke. And he was quite pleasing to look at.
After the elevator doors closed and Chaos had pressed the button for the twenty fifth floor, Kitsune studied the panel carefully. She remembered that they had been taken to the twenty fourth floor to meet with Esterhazy, but she wasn't entirely sure the evidence she wanted would be there. Then she noticed that there were five levels with the designation B. Those looked interesting. If she could get away from Chaos and Zero long enough, she would check those out, too.
The office that Chaos took her to was slightly warmer than the rest of the building, but it was still uncomfortable. Chaos directed her to a chair then sat down on the edge of the desk in front of her. Zero stood by the door, twisting Kitsune's shotgun into a knot.
"Hey, I liked that gun," she said.
"If you make the wise decision to work for me, I can get you another one," Chaos said.
"I told you -- "
"Before you refuse, let me make my argument. I think you'll find it very persuasive to say the least."
"I won't betray Nick, even if you kill him."
"I'm not asking you to betray him. Robyn is taking care of that part of our problem. I'm merely going to suggest that you look out for your own interests. By now, Nick is dead. And that's a tragedy. I personally thought his skills and his secrets would be more than a little useful, but he has seen fit to double cross us by keeping the jewel of blind vision for himself. I don't know what he planned on doing with it, but I have no doubt he would have quickly become intoxicated by its power. He would have left you, or worse killed you, to keep it for himself. I'm sure you sensed the start of that betrayal when he made the decision to take the job. He was already thinking of ways to use the jewel himself. It had to have crossed his mind that an object connected to a very powerful psychic could only enhance his own power."
"That's bullshit!" But Kitsune wasn't entirely sure that it was bullshit.
"Think about it, Kitsune. Why did he agree when your life was being threatened? It wasn't because he loves you. He knew he would need you to get the jewel. He used you. He's always been using you. You went to him because he was pretty and you were lonely. You didn't need him, and he certainly didn't need you. But having a partner was convenient. If anything ever went wrong, he could vanish and let you take the fall. Besides, he's a Falkenberg. They'd never let their son serve time, guilty or not. You were a prop, Kitsune."
Kitsune said nothing. He had made several good points, and he was so convincing. It all made sense. She had never known Nick as well as she wanted to. Maybe he was more like his uncle Irial. And his mother certainly wasn't the most honest person in the universe. Kitsune shook her head. Why would he have run away from home if he fit right in like that? Why would Ryan have called Nick a kindred spirit? Ryan wasn't a saint by any means, but he wasn't of the same ilk as some of the family he had married into.
"You know I'm right, Kitsune," Chaos said. His voice was so soothing, so reassuring. "It's a hard truth to face, I know. To think that someone loved you, even if he never said so, and then to find he only used you."
Kitsune looked at Chaos's eyes. He had to be right. There were no lies in those eyes. It was just that she couldn't stand to hear it. She had wondered about a lot of the things he was saying. She knew Nick didn't need her. He had never led her to believe there could be any more to their relationship than work. That made it just that much easier for him to leave her on her own. And hadn't he taken the jewel of blind vision with him when he left her on Lyric? Yes, and he hadn't given her the option of taking it herself. He had twisted her trust in him to the point where she would never question his decision. But now she was questioning it. She blinked as tears stung her eyes.
"It's all right, Kitsune," Chaos said. "It's done with now. Nick is dead. Robyn will bring the jewel back here, and we can start working on ways to prevent things like what's happening to Mr. Esterhazy from happening to us. You don't have to live a life of crime and poverty any more. Forget living like a princess. You can live like a queen."
It sounded like a sweet deal, and she had to move on. "I ... I want to think about it," she said. "I just ... it is hard. I did love him. I ... "
"I understand, Kitsune. You're scared and confused right now. Take all the time you need."
"What about the BII and the reward?"
"Mr. Esterhazy can pay them off. If not, Mr. Falkenberg can."
"Pavel Falkenberg. He's been our CFO for two or three months now."
"Is that how you knew about our job on Brandenburg?"
"It's how we knew about Nick. Seren found you on Brandenburg."
"Come on, let me take you to a room."
Lash wasn't sure how long he had been unconscious. It could have been minutes. It could have been days. At one point, he thought he heard someone scream. He might have opened his eyes. He might not have. The image burned into his head was so disturbing that he wanted it to be real. He would hate to think he had imagined it. He had seen Ghostshadow sitting naked on top of Nick, and Nick had driven the wakizashi through Ghostshadow's shoulder. The entire length of the blade had gone through Ghostshadow. Nick was sitting up just slightly, his hand still clutching the handle of the sword.
Lash didn't know what happened after that. He didn't think he wanted to know.
He expected to feel some sort of pain in his head and his shoulder, but other than the discomfort of being tied up, he was fine. He listened for a long time before opening his eyes. He didn't even hear breathing. The room was washed in grey. There was a little bit of light outside, but it was fading. He couldn't see the whole room from where he was lying, but he didn't see Ghostshadow in his field of vision so he took a chance and sat up. He pulled at the ropes that bound him. They were tight. He wasn't going to be able to squirm free. He leaned back against the wall to keep himself upright and scanned the room.
Nick was sitting in a chair that was shoved into a corner of the room. He was holding the sword against his chest, and his eyes were closed. But he was fully dressed and didn't seem hurt in anyway.
"Hey, Nick," Lash said.
Nick didn't move. As Lash watched, a faint blue light seeped out from under his eyelids and brightened until it was as clear and sharp as a laser. Then it faded. When Nick opened his eyes, the glow was popping and sparkling like starlight. But he only looked at Lash as if Lash were someone he had never seen before and would never see again.
"Nick, are you okay?"
"I'm alive," Nick said. His voice was strangely flat, and Lash was worried.
"I had to - "
"If he hadn't let go, we all would have died. I was the only one with the option of coming back."
"We looked for you."
"Ghostshadow found me first."
"Yeah, I see that."
"I might have stayed dead if he hadn't."
"Where is he now?"
"Out on the beach. He's waiting for me."
"You're going to fight him?"
"It's the only way we'll end up leaving this planet. Alive anyway. I supposed I could try to run away from him again, but he'd find me. He'd keep coming after me. As long as he does that, I'll never see Kitsune again, and I'm not willing to endure that."
"Have I ever."
"I died. I saw God. She told me what I was and why I was. When God herself tells you why you exist, something happens to you. And I've been lying here half dead for three days now, trying not to feel what he was doing to me. I had time to think. I had time to remind myself of what Denko taught me. The path I've been seeing myself walking down has gotten a lot clearer."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that. At least one of us should know what the fuck is going on."
Nick smiled and stood up. He walked over to Lash. "It is rather amusing that Talon was able to get you to help me without telling you anything. Somehow I don't think it would have worked quite as well if he'd been totally honest with you." He bent down and untied Lash.
"I don't think I would've taken this damn job if he had. You're just as crazy as he is." Lash stood up, rolling the kinks out of his shoulders. "Am I going with you?"
"That's why I waited for you to wake up. I need you. This isn't going to be pretty. If I win, I don't know what kind of shape I'll be in. If I lose, you can't let him have my body. I'm not going to leave him standing if he does kill me, so you shouldn't have too much trouble taking him out."
"You're not gonna lose."
"If I die, take my body to Teatree and tell them I want to be cremated."
"Nick, don't talk like that."
"The way of the samurai is found in death. By living each day as though already dead, one may attain freedom in the way."
"What's a samurai?"
"You're a thief, not a warrior. You don't have to die."
"I don't expect you to understand."
"I'm not a warrior either."
"Let's get this over with."
Ghostshadow was standing at the edge of the water as it rolled up and over the rocky shore. The tide was going out. The sun had sunk halfway into the dark green water far out on the horizon. The light of it hurt his eyes and made him think of Isobel. Sometimes, looking at her had hurt his eyes like that, but in a pleasant way. He had been thinking about her too much since he had seen her at the bank. Even when he was with Nick, he had been thinking about her. It hadn't struck him as strange at all until he realized what it probably meant, and then he was only barely able to keep himself from tearing Nick to shreds with his teeth. He had long ago decided he wasn't capable of love, and to see it trying to creep in where it wasn't welcome made him angry. And it was Nick's fault. He had kept the jewel of blind vision knowing that Archer would send all his people after the jewel and would keep doing so until he got the jewel. Kitsune had only had to worry about the BII. Nick had done everything he could to keep her safe even when he wasn't with her because he loved her.
Maybe Ghostshadow was just jealous. Maybe he was sad that he had walked away from his own chance. Maybe he was disgusted by the weakness of such a sniveling, insipid human emotion and its ability to break even the hardest, blackest heart. He wasn't too concerned. He knew he was going to die. He would have plenty of time to think about it after that.
He turned away from the setting sun. Nick and Lash were heading towards him. There was something very different about Nick, but he wasn't sure what it was. He had always been able to see the faint blue lines of the angel around Nick, but the angel's wings had always been tucked close to its back. Now the wings were spread wide, and white sparks raced along the lines. But it was more than that that was different.
Lash stopped several feet away, near where the rocks gave way to black sands. Nick stopped with less than a foot between him and Ghostshadow. Ghostshadow smiled. "Pretty came to play," he said.
"I don't think you'll like the way I play," Nick said.
"Oh, but I do. I've seen you fight. I know that style. The art of no mind, no body. In fact, I know some of it myself. I know you know that Sagara Denko was forced into military service in the first year of the war. He refused to fight, so they made him train the infantry. When they realized just how good he was, they made him train the special forces. Including me. He eventually refused to teach us any more, and they threw in him prison. So I don't know nearly as much as you do, but I know enough."
"Even if you knew it all, you don't have the spirit to use it properly."
"No, but I have the spirit to make you hurt, pretty."
"But remember, I like pain."
"Good, 'cause I've got lots of it for you."
Nick took two steps back and drew the wakizashi. With his foot, Ghostshadow lifted the quarterstaff he had brought into the air and caught it in his right hand as it came down. Neither of them moved. Lash crouched down and put his hands over his mouth.
The buzzing and the drum started without warning. There were no cold chills, no wash of blue over his vision, and Nick started to understand. Shaman could use small bits of the power of the other two stars, and Yuusei made sounds similar to what Nick was hearing. But it wasn't Yuusei. Nor did the voices he sometimes heard come from Firefly. It all came from him. He watched the fight unfold in his mind. Ghostshadow made the first move.
Ghostshadow rushed at Nick, raising the quarterstaff over his head. Nick sheathed the sword. He caught the quarterstaff as it came down towards his shoulder. The impact in his hand hurt more than he expected. The staff had an iron core. Still holding onto the staff, he delivered a jumping front kick to Ghostshadow's chin. He landed on the outside of the stick and drew the sword, slashing Ghostshadow's elbow. He followed up the slash by hitting the side of Ghostshadow's head with the scabbard.
Ghostshadow stumbled a few steps, putting his hand on his elbow. Static popped and crackled as he healed the cut. He laughed. "This isn't going to be that easy, pretty," he said.
Nick said nothing and waited for the next move.
It didn't take long for both of them to be cut open and badly bruised, but every time it seemed like the fight would end, Ghostshadow would heal both of them. Lash couldn't tell who was actually winning the fight. He thought Nick would have had the upper hand, but every blow he took from Ghostshadow's quarterstaff did more than enough to level the playing field. And then, finally, Ghostshadow delivered a hard shot to Nick's wrist, and Nick dropped the wakizashi. By that point, Ghostshadow didn't have enough energy to continue healing them both. He just waited for Nick to get up again.
Nick was lying face down on the rocks near Lash. For a while, he didn't move, and Lash wasn't sure he was going to. When he did start to get up, Lash said, "Nick, don't. Don't get up. He'll just keep doing this. You don't have to get up."
Nick looked up at Lash as he got his feet under him. Blood dripped from his mouth. He had taken too many shots to the ribs from the quarterstaff. "I'm not done," he said.
"Nick, you can't. He'll just kill you."
"It's not over."
"It's about to be."
Nick smiled. It was that same stunningly charming smile Lash had seen way back on Lyric, but the blood on Nick's mouth took some of the charm out of it. Lash shuddered. "Yes," Nick said. "It is about to be over."
Lash covered his eyes and groaned. "I can't watch this any more," he said.
Nick stood up and turned to face Ghostshadow. Ghostshadow's aura of void was seething and roiling. He was getting frustrated.
"Why do you keep getting up, pretty?" he asked. "You can't win now. Look at you! I've torn you into pieces. Stay the fuck down!"
"I can't let you have it," Nick said.
Ghostshadow just stared at Nick. He had forgotten all about the jewel of blind vision. He laughed. "Right. That."
"You thought I was going to say some silly thing about love, didn't you?"
Ghostshadow set his jaw.
"No, that isn't why I keep getting up. I like the pain, remember? I like to feel my bones grinding together. I like bleeding on the inside. I think I look good in bruise colors. Don't you?"
Nick was about to do something weird. Ghostshadow could feel it, and the angel around Nick was getting brighter. The light was starting to swirl at his feet.
Nick reached into his left pocket and pulled out the light gem. He dropped it into his right hand and looked at it. It began to glow bright blue. Nick closed his eyes. He held his left hand up and pulled the wakizashi to him. He heard Lash gasp. He gripped the sword in both hands, ignoring the pain that ripped up his arm from his broken right wrist. The blade flared so bright that he was sure it could have been seen from space. Slowly, he lifted the sword over his head. He could feel Ghostshadow getting ready to rush at him again, and he knew that if the quarterstaff connected anywhere, the impact would kill him. He brought the sword down as strongly and quickly as he could, and it knocked him to his knees. He didn't see what happened, but he heard Ghostshadow screaming, and then he felt Ghostshadow slide away. He let go of the sword and the light gem and fell to his back.
It seemed like a very long time before he could open his eyes again. Lash was leaning over him.
"What the fuck did you do?" Lash asked.
Nick just shook his head.
"He's gone. Let's get out of here."
The air behind Lash began to ripple and fray. Nick's eyes glowed. "Behind you," Nick said.
Nick pulled Lash's gun and fired. The bullet caught Ghostshadow right between the eyes as he slid back to the beach. Nick dropped the gun and crawled over to Ghostshadow. Ghostshadow's eyes were still open, and he focused on Nick. Nick pulled the two death coins from his pocket. "Didn't know I picked your pocket while you were busy beating the shit out of me, did you?" he asked. He smiled, and his blood dripped down on Ghostshadow's face. He shoved the coins into Ghostshadow's mouth. "You will need both. Even then, it might not help, but I won't take away your chance. Goodbye, pretty." He felt what was left of Ghostshadow's soul slip away. He pushed Ghostshadow's eyes shut, and then found himself in a darkness that lasted for a very, very long time.