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     Chapter 8
Hollow Victories

       Kana rushed Kikimori in a sprint, carefully watching her opponent standing with her arms crossed. Showing no apparent need to defend herself. The distance closed fast as Kana reared back for a punch, delivering a massive strike to the ground mere feet in front of her target. A massive crater expanded from its impact as dust and debris permeated the air swallowing everyone whole. Kana camouflage her movements with the mask of her improvised cover, hiding behind one of the sparse boulders she memorized in the vicinity.

 

       The contaminants in the air caused an irritating fit of coughing for the imposing opponent. “So this is how you plan to defeat me. Masking my vision behind all this dust,” Kikimori deduced waving the dust away from her face. “Got to say not a bad plan at ALL!” The senior apprentice grunted out with a spinning sidekick, catching a hidden Kenichi trying to ambush her from behind.

 

       Kenichi flew back, skidding off the rough ground. After regaining his bearings, he contorted his body allowing him to bury his hand in the dried surface to slow his movement to a stop. Damn, that hurt like hell. He thought as he cupped his injured arm close to his chest. It might be fractured.

 

       Kenichi raised himself off his knees, running back towards Kikimori. Jumping towards her delivering a flurry of kicks at her head.

 

       Three.

 

       Kikimori jumped back and danced around each kick. Easily weaving in and out of each strike. “I have to say, for you to hide while your Support fights is kinda chicken shit wouldn’t you say. I guess from farmer trash like yourself, it’s to be expected.”

 

       A loud unexpected explosive sound went off in the vicinity around the two. It almost threw Kikmori’s concentration off enough for Kenichi to almost land a glancing blow to her. 

 

       What was that sound just now? She thought, turning her attention in the direction of the sound.

 

       “You might want to pay more attention to the man in front of you or you’ll regret it,” Kenichi warned, switching his offense to a mix of quick jabs and hooks. Despite the barrage of attempts, he continuously failed at landing a blow.

Kikimori's irritation grew with each attack she was forced to dodge. “Why would I be worried about an attack from a Support? You’re just second fiddle to us mains. We say you DO!” Her disgust leaked from her mouth as she gut-punched Kenichi with more force to get her point across. Watching as his body collapsed in front of her.

 

       Another thunderous sound went off in the distance. This time coming from another location around them.

 

       There it is again!? What is that sound? It’s like a small explosion or something. And why hasn’t this dust settled down yet?

 

       Kenichi dropped to the ground clutching his stomach as hurls of blood gushed out his mouth, gasping for air when the blood splutter stopped.

 

       Seven.

 

       I’m not sure if I can take another hit from her.

 

       Kenichi weakly peered up to see Kikimori following up her last attack with a downward strike of her fist. Kenichi's fist clenched as he grabbed the sand on the ground, throwing it into the eyes of his attacker.

 

       “Ahh,” Kikimori reeled back, frantically rubbing her eyes. “You better hope I don’t catch you,” she yelled. Blindingly swinging where Kenichi was though hitting only air as he already limped away further into the dust. “I was taking it easy on you because you are just a Support, but you just pissed me off,” the older Guardian cried out.

 

       Kenichi, now hidden inside the persistent dust cloud, crouched over as he did his best to catch his breath. “That should have bought us a few more seconds. She sounds really pissed.” He glanced in the presumed direction of his partner.

 

       What's taking you so long? I’m getting killed out here. “I need to trust her. Just hold out for a little longer,” he said gazing back into the presumed area of his opponent. Huh, where is she? His eyes darted back and forth trying to find her through the dust.

 

       “Found you!”

 

       Kenichi looked back to see the heel of Kikimori coming down on him as it struck his shoulder slamming him into the ground. He felt himself being jerked up by his clothes to an onslaught of what seemed like heavy hooves continuously attacking his face.

 

       “I told you, I better not catch you. You think throwing dirt in my face was funny!” She reared back her hand, preparing to end his life with the next hit. “Too bad your partner was such a coward.”

 

       Kenichi’s blood-stained eyes stared at the hand coming to take his life before a faint smirk crossed his face. Silently gasping, “Fifteen.”

 

       Kikimori quickly dropped Kenichi as she jumped back to avoid a large boulder speeding by her. Before she had a chance to see the direction it came in, a flurry of smaller rocks came flooding towards her at high velocity. She evade the rocks as they came at faster and faster speeds.

 

       It seems like they are coming in all directions! It must be that farmer trash trying to distract me. There, her cloak. Gotcha. She's running around in circles throwing rocks at me. Her attention was then stolen by another voice at her side.

 

       “Didn't I say your attention should be on me!” Kenichi’s angered but battered face glared down at the shorter woman as his fist came swinging down, intent on knocking her out. “AHHH!” Kenichi screamed in pain as his fist was caught in her hand, as she squeezed down and broke it.

 

       Kikimori's face furrowed greatly, “Support trash! You dare try and touch me!” She growled, until a sound that shouldnt be on the battlefield made its way known. Huh? A whistle?

 

       The signal! Kenichi's other hand came up clenched as he tried to release the hidden sand he grabbed beforehand, intent on blinding her again.

 

       “Oh no you don't. That same trick won't work on me aga–!” Kikmori’s eyes glazed over with tears as the impact of Kenichi's headbutt on her nose staggered her being. The blow knocked Kenichi out completely and he fell limply to the ground following the strike.

 

       Just as she reached to cradle her nose, a cloaked figure crossed in front of her. Kikimori’s quick reflex reached out for the cloaked figure instead, “Die, bitch!” Kikimori roared, reaching for the neck of the figure before quickly realizing the extent of her action. She knew she fell into their trap as a feral roar beside her grabbed her ear.

As she turned she knew she was too close to dodge or block.

 

###

       Kana's fist came out of the ground as she jumped into the dust cloud she created to find the first of the larger boulders she noticed while they were arguing with Kikimori. 

 

       I need to hurry and set this up. The young Guardian covertly ran in its direction, the sight of Kenichi's shadow flying past her peripherals. Did she knock him back that far with just a kick? She’s definitely strong. But I’m sure I still have her beat in strength, she thought, finally seeing the abnormally large boulder through the heavy dust. 

 

       Arriving at the intended location, Kana quickly landed a strong blow to the boulder, destroying it into multiple pieces. Now quickly spread these out to the next boulder.

 

       Kana ran towards the next boulder she scouted, strategically dropping the smaller rocks she cradled in her cloak along her path. Kana’s heart sped in her chest as she narrowly avoided crossing paths with her opponent, lunging behind another large boulder for cover.

 

       Hah, hah, hah. I almost got spotted. That would’ve been bad. Catching a quick breath to calm her nerves she readied herself to continue.

 

       Now just set this one up like the last and then we can move on to the next phase. Kana struck another blow onto the new boulder spreading its remnants across the floor. Just a little more Kenichi, please hold out, I’m almost ready yet!

 

       Kana’s worried gaze lingered on her partner hurling blood out his mouth as he crouched over on the ground. Just a few more seconds. Try and get out of there, please.

 

       Kana battled with herself to forget the plan to save her partner. Right when she made her decision to save him, she saw Kenichi throw what she presumed to be dirt in the monster’s eyes while he stumbled into the veil of dust again. 

 

       No, I need to trust my partner. He’s doing what he can to keep her attention off me. He is trusting me to do my part, I need to do the same.

 

       Finally set up, she scurried herself into the position of the last boulder, hoisting it over her shoulders. With a deep breath, she flung the boulder, watching as it landed its mark. The impact separated her partner and the monster he enraged from delivering what looked like her final blow to him. Her opponent reacted just the way she wanted her to.

 

       Now!

 

       Kana sprinted forward in a circle around her prey, snatching up the smaller rocks she strategically placed on the ground, throwing them with everything she had at the monster that was beating her partner.

 

       Oh no, I placed them too close! Kana's heart lunged in her throat that their plan just fell apart as Kikimori's gaze started following her movements. A wave of relief washed over her as Kenichi’s deafening taunt stole the monsters’ glare off her. Thank you Ken-kun. Now get ready for the final act!

 

       Kana skidded on her knees to a crumbled pile of rocks, removing her cloak before placing it around a medium-sized stone. The cries of a wounded animal assaulted her ears as she worked.

 

       He's screaming in pain, you need to hurry!

 

       Kana finally set up and gathered her strength drawing all the air she could into her lungs before letting out a loud whistle from her mouth.

 

       “FWEEETT!”

###

(The night before the mock battle)

 

       Small embers of burnt wood floated into the air from a campfire located a few miles inside the forest of the dojo. Sitting around its flickering warmth were two Guardians staring into the flame quietly. The wounds from training are healed without thought or notice by them from their Neo Genos Cores. Each thinking of tomorrow and what it will bring.

 

       “Listen, Kenichi, there is no way we will win in a fair fight. I’m sure sensei is gonna place a handicap on them but even with that there is almost no hope of winning,” the pink-haired Guardian said quietly, poking a stick in the flames to stoke the fire. 

 

       “So there is no reason for us to fight?”

 

       “No. A clear winner after what we saw her do to that mountain is inarguable. Tack on the fact that we have her partner to also worry about, assuming he is just as strong.”

 

       “So why do you think he is making us fight then?”

 

       “I’m not quite sure. I have a theory but nothing concrete enough to back it up.”

 

       “So what are we gonna do if we know we can’t win?”

 

       A pause of silence filled the area as Kana thought to herself about the upcoming mock battle. Laying back on the cool ground to stare at the stars she could forget that this entire place is man-made. 

 

       “Hey, Kenichi, I have a plan though it still has an almost guaranteed chance of failing”

 

       Wow, she already thought of a plan. I wonder if she has a talented mind for fighting strategies or something. He laid back on the dirt as she had, turning to face her while she continued to stare into the sky.

 

       “Though it may seem we have no chance, there might be if we can distract them long enough for me to land one clean hit on her. No matter how much training she did here I’m pretty sure I still have her beat physically and in speed.”

 

       “So you're wanting me to create that opportunity I’m guessing?”

 

       “Yes, whatever you need to do I just need you to have her full attention on you for about fifteen seconds while also keeping him busy. Then I’ll try and knock her out with a sneak attack”

 

       Kenichi's face fell flat at the big plan he was expecting to hear to secure their victory. “Seems kind of simple. Do you think she will fall for something like that?

 

       “I don't know.” Kana finally rolled on her side to face her doubtful partner. Staring intently into his eyes. “But it's the only chance we have of walking away with a victory.

 

       “Kenichi, after you have distracted her long enough you will hear me signal you with a whistle. When you hear the signal, whatever you have to do, just separate yourself from her while keeping the other one from interfering.”

 

       Kenichi’s face looked doubtful in her eyes as he wrestled with himself wondering if he could pull such a great task off. “Ok, but what are u gonna do?”

 

       “I’m gonna use my cloak as a distraction. Assuming she has roughly the same reaction speed as me, she will naturally see it coming and grab at it expecting me to be inside. I’ll use that small instance in her confusion to come in with a sneak attack and knock her out with all of my strength. If we can do that we have a chance of winning by knockout.”

 

###

       “AAGGHHAA” Kana roared out as she unleashed a punch with every ounce of her strength on Kikimori’s unprotected jaw. The perception of time slowing to a crawl.

 

       We win, bitch!

 

       Kana's victory smirk dropped off her face as she stared down at the bones in her hand slowly breaking to the forearm under the impact of her hit.

 

       What the hell! I didn't even budge her face.

 

       Kana couldn't react to the grab on her neck as the air in her lungs was stolen from her by the following slam into the ground. The monster gripped her neck pushing her further into the broken rubble that was created.

 

       She’s so much faster and stronger than me! Kana wheezed, struggling to take in any breath. Grasping trying to pull the hand off her throat. She’s trying to kill us. I need to get us out of here.

 

       There was nothing Kana could do as she was tossed in the air and felt a powerful blunt force strike her backside flinging her across the field as she tumbled to a stop slamming against a tree. Slumped over she struggled to raise her head as blood filled her vision watching the perpetrator walking towards her.

 

###

       The sickening sound of bones breaking against her face brought a satisfying smile across the face of Kikimori.

 

       She probably thought she was stronger than me expecting to knock me out. Too bad for her I’ve already fully fused with my core. My strength exceeds that of a hundred civilians. I barely even felt that hit. This time I won't miss! She lunged for her throat slowly squeezing down on her larynx, attempting to crush it between her fingers slamming her through the ground with enough force to create a miniature crater beneath them.

 

       Her fury slowly took over her rational thinking as the only thing on her mind was seriously crippling the supposed backup team meant for them. “This is where it ends for you!” She threw Kana in the air before delivering a roundhouse kick to her with enough force to split a normal man in half. Watching as the limp body of Kana crashed upon the stump of a tree.

 

       “You’re more durable than I thought. Well; time to end it here.” Kikimori slowly walked over to the barely alive teen Guardian on the ground before a pair of arms wrapped around her neck and squeezed down.

 

       “Leave her alone!”

 

       It was Kenichi bearing down a rear naked choke as hard as his body would allow him. Broken, bloody, and barely conscious he drew what willpower he had to stop his partner from sustaining any more injury.

 

       Kikimori swung her body, wildly trying to shake the young man off her. “Get off me you bastard,” Kikimori snarled, shocked that the unconscious man that she forgot about earlier was able to sneak up behind her. 

 

       “I said leave her alone!” Kenichi's teeth clenched down hard as he was determined to choke the life out of the person who put them through so much pain. 

 

       This fucking filth. She reached behind her and grabbed Kenichi's thigh before she clenched down with her might. Her fingers easily pierced the skin and muscles of her attacker before the bone she was aiming for was in her hand. With another tight squeeze, the bone shattered in her hand. The grip around her neck immediately let go in agony. Her attention snapped back to Kana; she watched her finally make it to her feet.

 

       “I’m glad your not dead ye–!” Kikimori's words were stolen from her as a glob of mucus landed on her face. The utter disgusting and humiliating act froze her at once. Her head lowered as her body shook in unbridled anger.

 

       “I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU, BITCH!!” 

 

       Kana's head was crushed to the ground, the result of a vicious and unseen backhand. Then she felt it. It crawled over her body ignoring all the pain and wounds she had suffered. The eerie and terrifying feeling of her skin tensing up as if it had a sixth sense of the danger she wasn't aware of.

 

       Standing above her, a livid Kikimori was clad in the very mystic armor she wore when she blew a hole in the mountain. Her eyes exposed the very nature of the wrath she was feeling. Small lightning arcs erratically danced around them recklessly ripping the ground apart. Her grip tightened around the shaft of Gungnir. Spinning it in her hand she pointed the tip at Kana's throat before coming down in a rage of anger.

 

       “DIEEE!”

 

       “Stop!”

 

       Kikimori's spear halted just over Kana’s throat by the voice of a forgotten spectator. The very heat of the spear scorched the battered Guardian's skin, slowly burning a small hole into her neck. The armored Guardian's body seethed as her mind struggled to regain control of her body.

 

       “I restricted the use of Shakti in this battle, yet you broke the rules. Stand down Kikimori, your anger cost you this battle.” 

 

       Kiyoshi's words stung her pride that she lost to some newbies. But her master's words were nonetheless true, as she stared at Gungnir she unconsciously drew out. She drew in a calming breath to ease her frustrations. “Yes, master.” Kikimori defeatedly responded as the ethereal armor and spear dissipated from her body.

 

       Moping back to her partner lazily leaning on the same rock he was at from the beginning. “Whoa girl, I thought you were gonna kill those greenhorns,” Sato stated in awe.

 

       I probably would have if Master didn't bring me back to my senses. I went too far.” Kikimori’s voice lowered as the shame of losing control cost her yet again.

 

       When will I learn!? A whole year of training and still I can't control it. She berated herself internally. “I’m leaving,” Kikimori frustratingly sounded off. Walking past Sato, to find a place to be alone.  

 

       Kiyoshi strolled over the battleground, surveying its damage and the events that transpired. They lasted much longer than I ever gave them credit to. Though their plan ended in failure, the fact that their teamwork allowed them to land a blow on Kikimori speaks volumes in itself.

 

       Kiyoshi peered over at the hunched-over unconscious Kenichi. Though only a newly awakened support, he was able to keep Satana occupied long enough to let his partner fix the battlefield to their advantage. Quick thinking with the sand to create distance and disorient his opponent. And though he would have died in real battle if he did a headbutt that would knock himself out, he showed amazing willpower to continue fighting through his injuries before then and after to protect his partner

 

       Kiyoshi turned his attention to the gasping Kana on the ground. Her partner was severely outclassed in every metric, yet, she pulled through with her side of the plan to deliver a final blow. Her strength is at an amazing level. And her speed is also top-notch. With some very intense training, they could be a very deadly team in the future. Especially when they awaken their Shirai Ken.

 

       Kiyoshi, satisfied with what he saw, strolled back in the direction of the academy to prepare the training regimen for his new team.

 

       “I presume you got what you needed Mrs. Hanji?” He said offhandedly to the red-haired beauty who was also watching.

 

       “Yep!” she amusingly answered with a taunting salute.

 

       Kiyoshi’s irritation over her flamboyant nature aside, Fuyuko Hanji was top-tier when spotting future talent. If she was satisfied by what she saw then it made his observations all the more concrete.

 

       “Ayumi. This is Kiyoshi,” a video screen appeared in front of him. On the screen was a smiling Ayumi dressed in a semi-formal skirt and blouse with her lab coat draped over her shoulders sitting at a desk in her office. 

 

       “Yes, Kiyoshi. How may I help you?” She joyously asked. 

 

       “Send a recovery team to the city training ground for two incoming patients to be admitted to Barzakh.”

 

       “Wow, you only had them for a week and you're already sending them there. How cruel, you need to treat your new toys better,” Ayumi feined worriedly. “So how’d they do against the princess?”

 

       “Well, current condition aside, they were able to land a blow on her.”

 

       Ayumi had a genuine look of shock on her face before it fixed on a sly smile. “Whoa, that's impressive. Well don't worry once they get here I’ll fix them up as good as new for you.” Her voice gleaned with excitement as she shot a thumbs up at the teacher. “Besides I get to see my Ken-chan again.”

 

       “Well, I’ll leave you to it.” Kiyoshi ended the transmission as a smirk graced his face at the potential future of his two teams. Things are about to get interesting. Kiyoshi's body disappeared in a flash as he went to work.

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