Guilt and desperation swirled in Sora gut, Bathin’s powers holding her into a vice as he forced her to watch Ursel continue her one sided beating against Eyia. Please… Aunt Inari, please… Eyia’s saved my life so many times now… Help. Please, help me…
The Valkyrie was still trying to purge the Daēva’s dark mark, seemingly far more pressing than the bruises and cuts the dragoon was giving her.
Bathin had lost interest in the pair, vision drifting across the ceiling and voice dropping a few octaves. “Daēva are such fickle creatures, and lack any commanding order, but… No, something is off. Hmm…”
His focus drifting to various points of the devastated room, a livid tone touched his throat. “Diane…”
A quake ran through the woman’s frame as she stepped forward, Sora still struggling against his hold. “Y-Yes, Lord Bathin?”
“This… eye incident that is within Benjamin’s memories and scarring this timeline…” The impending dread the Devil released made Ursel stumble and freeze in her attacks. “Everything—and I mean… everything… connected to it… is to be purged… The bodies, footage, personnel that handled the corpses—no matter how small—it ‘will’ be eradicated… Understand?”
A jerky nod came from the quivering witch, and unable to speak, rushed away at a sprint to enact her orders; it seemed whatever this ‘eye’ was, Bathin was done with his games.
“I will see that your will is done.”
Bowing, the man turned on his heels and swiftly exited after Diane.
“This is taking too long… kill her and be done with it. An unexpected… being… has taken notice of my operation; we are leaving.”
No… Bathin! Don’t! Stop!
Ursel’s hatred returned when glaring down at Eyia, the Valkyrie managing to struggle back to her knees and elbows after her previous beating; the girl breathing as if she were the one in control.
On the other hand, the dragoon was panting profusely, rage on her twisted lips as she brought up her spear to stop Eyia’s spine. “Yes, Lord.”
Helplessly, she fought with every bit of magic she had, struggling to find anything to slip out of the steel-like grip Bathin had over her spiritual network, yet it was impossible; she couldn’t even whisper Eyia’s name, much less rush to her friend’s side as she had done twice now.
What is the worth of being a Founder if you can’t do anything but bring misery?! Help! Someone…
Ursel’s spear shot down, arm jerking back as it missed its mark, barely sliding past Eyia’s exposed side; a small girl was standing behind the dragoon, and Sora wanted to cry while following the girl’s two stiff cat tails—silvery and puffy; not the black, red-tipped fur she expected—this wasn’t Nilly.
Bathin, Ursel, Sora, and everyone else appeared utterly caught off-guard as they followed the tails up the girl’s body, silence ensuing.
Straight and thick silvery hair ended at her shoulders, two slightly folded cat ears, and around the same age as her, Sora couldn’t help but follow the slow moving crimson dripping down the girl’s snow white skin to stain the red shirt Sora knew well—her shirt—from the black jeans to her white sneakers, the girl wore her outfit.
A mildly surprised, curious smile twisted the Nekomata’s mischievous lips as her head tilted to the side, bright blue irises fixated on her stiff hand sticking through Ursel’s armored back, bypassing her armor like hot butter to penetrate the dragoon’s heart. Ursel’s body convulsed, lungs only able to push out a half-gasp before falling forward, dead.
“Oh… Huh… Hehe, I’m sorry… my body kind of just… acted on its own! Oh! An Asgardian! Hehe… Old habits die hard, I suppose.” Her sweet voice held a hidden inferno that made Sora’s spirit shiver as her predatory eyes drifted to the man beside her.
Bathin’s dark aura intensified, yet his grip loosened enough for Sora to slowly fill her lungs again. “A Nekomata… Githa…”
“Is that… Batty? Hehehe, I haven’t seen you in ages… Egypt?” she asked, looking playfully thoughtful as she held her bloody fingers behind her back.
“Why are you here, Githa… What possible business could you have to show up?”
“Mmh… I’m just… looking for someone. Oh! How’s Fleurty and good ol’ Beelze? Oh, hehe, don’t tell me you’re still upset about that arm I ate! Wait…”
She peered closely at him with a snickering grin, seemingly utterly oblivious to everyone and everything else. “… Did you get it back by taking a special human shell?” Clapping followed. “Who’s a smart Devil!”
Bathin took a deep breath before taking on a pleasant smile. “Haaa… Ainmire.”
A small red eye split space above them to look at Bathin, making Sora’s ears twitch as she watched Eyia sealing off the curse in her leg with the time she’d been bought. Ursel’s dead! Eyia’s okay… we’re okay… Okay, focus… I can break free; he’s distracted!
“You called, Lord?”
“It seems Githa has graced us with her… rather sudden and… mildly annoying presence, but I can be a good host. If you could get some food prepared… the best, naturally.”
“Of course. I am sure I can procure something spectacular for your unexpected guest.”
Githa hummed. “Ohh… you always do know how to treat a Nekomata, Batty!”
“Heh, of course I do… Now, Githa, what brings the Nekomata Faction here?”
The revelation tightened Sora’s stomach; Nekomata had a faction, which would likely involve the cat that had been following her around, and the answer sparked hope in Sora’s near hopeless heart.
“Mmh… Oh, me? What I’m doing is looking for Nilly… Ugh… I can’t find her anywhere!”
A look that told Sora everything crossed Bathin, seeming to have swallowed bad medicine. “Is that… right? Eh-heh… is Nilly going to be joining us then… If so, I… do not believe there would be enough food in this world to satisfy her gluttony.”
Githa’s right cheek puffed out as she glanced around, and the cat’s slightly annoyed vision soon drifted to her. “No… she’s supposed to already be here with Mia’s daughter, but… I forgot her name…”
What? Why does that matter! I’m here! Trying to open her mouth, nothing came out as Bathin locked her lungs again. Dammit! I’m here! Help!
“… Was it Sita… Gróa… No, no, no—it started with an S… Sora? That’s it! Sora!”
A bright grin split her lips as her shiny blue eyes settled on her; in an instant, she was falling forward, Bathin’s hold vanishing with the cat. Stumbling to regain her position, she saw Githa now standing in front of her, Bathin retreating to where Diane had stood.
“Mmh… Yes, I think you’re Sora. Right?”
Coughing, face red, Sora swiftly nodded, tears finally able to leak out of her eyes. “Y-Yes…”
“Yay!” Githa threw her hands in the air. “I found you, so… where’s Nilly? Oh, hmm?”
The girl’s attention was diverted as Eyia pulled herself up against the wall and looked up at the cat, breathing softly as she studied her. “Reið?”
A loud huff came from the Nekomata and made Bathin’s face screw up with distaste. “No! No! No! No! I used to be—humph—but that was a long time ago. Don’t remind me!”
“Interesting… I was… unaware that you were one of Freyja’s cats before becoming a Nekomata? Is that even possible?” he muttered, and Sora saw Bathin slowly flex his fingers from the corner of her vision. “So, Githa… you killed the Daēva?”
Lips bunching to the side, Githa folded her arms crossly and sniffed, “Not my fault; they attacked me!”
Shifting positions to look Sora up and down she hummed. “Here I was minding my own business… following my nose, as a good Nekoamata should—keeping it as clean as my fur—and then, guess what?!”
“They popped out of the walls—dangerous shadowy stuff flying everywhere!” Closing her eyes and folding her hands behind her back, she tilted her head slightly, and after a moment, her lips peeled back to show her thin white fangs as a wide smile took her indignation. “I could have been hurt. So, I ate them.”
“Huu-haaa… Of course you did.”
The rest of the group stayed silent as the encounter continued, happy to have a bit of time to recover as the enigmatic Nekomata put Bathin on the defensive, and Sora didn’t know if she should run to Eyia or stay where she was; if Githa’s presence was deterring Bathin, and he wanted her, if she drew his attention to Eyia, it might do more harm than good.
“Mhm! They tasted like—oh, mmh… hot! Well, eh… just a little, but there was this sweet aftertaste—kind of like a giraffe.”
Examining her blood-soaked hand, she licked it once, paw bursting into green flames before inhaling for the blazing liquid to flow into her mouth. “This is different from what I’m used to,” she licked her lips, as if sampling it a second time, “and not fully human.”
Bathin cleared his throat. “Hmm… that’s right; you did have a soft spot for giraffes several millennia ago. So, what’s this deal with Sora then? You have me interested.”
Githa put her hands on her hips, shifting to look up at her as Sora took a few breaths, trying to recover from the intensity of the last several minutes. “You—know Nilly?”
She smiled with excitement. “Oh! It’s a red fox! Mia’s daughter, Sora!”
Oh, no… She’s a little like Nilly—maybe not as forgetful, but still has that quality.
Looking at nothing in particular, Githa gave the space a thoughtful study as if looking at things no one else could see. “Yes—what do they call it these days—understudy? I think that’s it; I’m Nilly’s understudy, or acolyte, if you prefer. Hmm… sometimes I’m her friend.” Her expression dulled with displeasure, “Sometimes her babysitter.”
“Indeed,” Bathin interjected. “Now, what is this deal with Mia?”
The Nekomata seemed a little confused. “Umm—I don’t know—keep up, Batty! Geez, you’re not that old for a Devil! Nilly talks with Mia. Uh… I think keeping her safe is good though, right?” she asked thoughtfully, looking at her for confirmation. “Safe is good?”
“Yes! Please!” Sora pled. “Oh, my… I just want to leave! With everyone… It’s been—”
“Don’t get so hopeful, Sora.” Air sucking in through his teeth, Bathin let it out in a low hiss. “Right… Well, unfortunately… I need something from your little fox. With it this close within my grasp… I’m willing to fight for it, Githa.”
Githa looked troubled as she looked between them. “Umm-hmm… I don’t want to eat Devil right now… it’s sour and will upset my stomach. It just doesn’t match well with those shadows.”
“Right,” Bathin nodded. “Why don’t you just turn your ears away for… a few minutes? I don’t need all that long to get what I really need.”
Sora jumped as someone touched her shoulder; looking back, she saw Aiden, ashen-faced and pointing back at their trembling group. “Eric wants a word.”
Turning, she saw Eric had recovered and was back in his human form, clothing ripped in several places, but he seemed relatively unscathed.
A frown touched her face as she hesitantly followed Aiden back, Eyia giving her a smile to tell her that she was fine; Bathin seemed to consider Githa a real threat because his entire attention was on the Nekomata as he tried to reason with her.
“You know Nilly?” Eric whispered with all seriousness.
Sora nodded as the rest of the group listened; Aiden had picked up what slack he could when her spiritual tether had been snapped, which was probably why he hadn’t helped her, being forced to keep Wendy, Nathan, and Ashley safe—she was glad he did.
She renewed her own support for her friends; their eyes were spinning, trying to just just remain conscious with all the powerful spiritual forces that had been tossed around. “I, uh—we’ve met a few times during my transformation.”
Eric breathed a steady sigh. “My mother told me Nilly is a high-level Founder—at least Second Gener—”
He cut off in a hiss as Githa appeared beside them without warning, seemingly bored with Bathin. “Nilly? Mhm! Mhm!” she fervently nodded, silver locks bouncing. “Nilly’s First Generation—she was killed though… Nine times! Then she became a Nekomata—real sad—I cry sometimes when she tells the story to us.”
Jin and Eric seemed winded by the information.
“Why…” Jin breathed. “Why would you reveal that the Founding Mother of the Cats became a Nekomata…”
“Indeed,” Bathin stated as he materialized a few meters away from them, putting everyone but Githa on-guard. “That is… quite juicy information, Githa. I’m not sure Nilly would appreciate you talking about her past.”
“Really?” Githa’s eyes widened. “Oh—Oh! You’re right, Batty. Oh, no… it’s super hush-hush!” Turning to them, she smiled. “Forget that please!”
Sora relaxed a bit. Bathin is cautious of Githa, and I can guess he doesn’t want to get anywhere near Nilly’s bad side if she’s like Gloria.
She glanced back at Eyia as her friend struggled to walk across the room to them, and making a quick decision, she darted toward her and scooped the Valkyrie up in her arms. Running back to Jian, she noticed most of his visible wounds were healed.
A pained, yet appreciative smile touched Eyia’s flushed cheeks, skin slick with sweat, yet not a tear had fallen from her eyes. “Thank you, Sister—no, Sister…”
Vision closing, Sora didn’t hesitate as she brought her faintly glowing tails around to initiate contact with the Valkyrie’s spirit, healing light bathing her in sapphire light—the corruption was leagues above what she’d sensed from the werewolves—and unlike before, copper flames enveloped Eyia as she flipped to a purging force.
A pressure hit Sora’s soul as the marring curse tried to bridge to her, spikes shooting into her spiritual network, yet her natural defenses Inari helped her to cultivate seemed to be helping to combat what almost seemed like an entity trying to use Eyia as a host to reproduce.
Gut tightening, she winced as her stamina flooded out of her, and Sora pondered breaking her connection to Wendy and the others when the corruption attempted to follow the bridge she sustained between them.
Warmth touched her shoulder at the same time as a soothing could passed over her hand; Aiden and Eyia’s powers fueling her with strength. Redoubling her efforts, she smiled up at Wendy, Mary, Nathan, and Ashley; the four seemed to have sensed her struggling and were sending their emotional support.
A sharp hiss came from Aiden as the curse crumbled and he retracted his hand from her shoulder. “Oof… Can you not do something so dangerous without saying anything?”
Eyia looked thankful, but also a bit miffed. “Indeed, Sister… Such a force is far beyond your current abilities, and without our support, you would have been overtaken… That being said, I am proud of your courage and unfaltering spirit!”
Slumping down next to Eyia with Aiden by her side, Sora breathed a heavy sigh. “Hehe, well, you say that, but I don’t feel all that accomplished so far… You’ve taken on everything—this is the least I can do—and thank you, Aiden… You’re helping more than you know.”
“Really? Hehe… This is a first for me, too, girl… let’s not go crazy!”
Eyia nodded with pure gratitude in her eyes.
“Heh, fine, fine; I got it.”
Now that the curse was removed, Sora could feel the Valkyrie’s strength surpassing her own in leaps and bounds, showing just how powerful Eyia was. “The Daēva’s foul mark has been removed thanks to our united effort; if I have a short rest, I will once again be ready for combat.”
Aiden cleared his dry throat. “What about her?”
“Yes… this Githa is quite strong, and not revealing her true form; I have not sensed such a powerful presence since facing incredible creatures on the Island.”
Jin scooted closer, Eric close by as he nodded at her words, yet all of their attention snapped to the Devil and Nekomata as Bathin rubbed his chin with a grin.
“How about… a deal, Githa.”
Githa’s aimless study shifted back to Bathin. “I’m still looking for… Deal?”
“That’s right. I’m a Devil; we make wonderful deals… binding for us, even. You know this.”
Githa nodded eagerly. “Mhm, mhm.”
“I’ll show you, and this group, a wonderful time, for the, mmh… inconveniences you’ve suffered under my organization’s care… the best this world has to offer. I even have some Dwarven Fire Whiskey you’d love, and… let’s say… four hundred giraffes? I’ll throw in half a Kraken, while I’m at it.”
Sora’s chest tightened as Githa’s eyes widened, wiping back a bit of drool. “Oh! Oh! What about Athena’s olives? They’re the best!”
Bathin chuckled, a thoughtful look on his face before a nod came. “I do… have a source. It’ll take me at least several hours to get all of that prepared, and… all I want is a small, simple thing… almost nothing to you, I’m sure.”
Jin sniffed. “What small and simple thing do you want?”
“No need to rush things, Little Dragon. I’m sure Githa is eager to try some of the best food we can offer at this base.”
Githa nodded expectantly. “I’m hungry!”
The Devil held up his hand. “Of course! I know you’re always hungry for something—heh, you’re a Nekomata—some food should be out shortly. What was it that had you visiting that Sumerian kingdom where we last met?”
“I don’t remember,” Githa replied with a grin. “Food!”
“That’s just like you.”
Eric stepped up to Bathin, glaring down at him. “I think it would be best if you told us what you want.”
Githa eagerly raised her hand next to him. “Oh, I want to know too!”
“Haaa…” Bathin vanished, appearing several feet away to distance himself. “If you must know… I just need a smidgen of young Sora’s spiritual energy—just the tiniest bit—she could infuse a ring with it or something along those lines… That’s all. I could then transport you lot to… mmh, wherever you like… give you whatever you want in this multiverse. I have the power and patrons.”
He turned to Sora, “I could have your father back within moments—a snap of my fingers—and get you registered with the U.S. government—agencies across the board. In fact, there is an official here at the base… There will need to be some… minor complications fixed with him, but it is easily sorted out… You could be completely free from any restraints.”
Bathin’s innocent smile and welcoming gesture made Sora take a step back. “What do you say; is it a deal?”
“Mmmgm…” I mean, it doesn’t seem like a bad deal.
She glanced around at the others as he explained it; Eyia, Jin, and Eric seemed to be the only ones really giving it serious thought—clearly not on board—more weighing the options.
It… sounds too good to be true… too simple. I mean—he is a Devil—there has to be some kind of catch. If just a small amount of my energy infused into something will get us out and everyone safe… isn’t that a good deal? I mean, if everything could go back to normal and no one else gets hurt… I don’t know, though…