Chapter 11:

Beneath the Mask (1/2)

Spirit Containment Team 1201


Allicity's fingers darted across her keyboard, her face twisted in a measure of frustration.

"I'm really, really sorry, Drake... but you know I can't reject a request from the Oversight Board." She said.

Drake's arms were crossed, his own face calm and collected as he listened to the Headmistress.

"I know." Was all he said in response.

"It's ridiculous that they'd throw you to the wolves like this! I mean... you'll be fine, of course. But still! You haven't even had a new team for a week! None of you have had time to train... let alone deal with a horde of Edriin..." Her voice trailed off into a deep sigh.

"I'll be with them... they'll be alright... besides... they may do better under pressure with me at their backs." He said.

"I suppose... you're unusually calm about this... normally you'd have told me you were going down to argue with the Board. What gives?" She asked warily.

"I don't want to have to be in the same room as them right now." He said.

"Why would you- oh... right... sorry, I had almost forgotten... sorry." She said quietly, hiding her face behind her monitor.

"It's fine." He replied.

"H-here... this is the file for the mission... I know you won't read it, so I'll just give you the rundown. A newly opened shopping mall in the Saitama Prefecture reported a series of people inexplicably falling unconscious at the same time. When a bit of further investigation was done, early reports say that a pod of about twenty Edriin has passed across the dimension and into one of the stores inside of the mall. They've got them contained behind the plexiglass barrier, but they're still waiting for assistance from Spirit Hunters." She said, taking a deep breath as she finished.

"So why us? I'm sure there are hundreds of Gifted in the area who wouldn't mind." He asked.

"The mall is owned by the Kazehana family." She said.

His head tilted to the side slightly, eyes focused more on the wall behind Allicity than her.

"I guess it figures they'd ask for me." He grumbled.

"Umm... who's the Kazehana family?" Valeria asked.

"Oh... that's right... you didn't meet him since he was in such a rush to leave. Kazehana Ryu was the previous Captain of the Sword Arts club." Drake explained.

The girls, who had been completely still and quiet since they had arrived, nodded in understanding.

"I guess I'm not going to tell them to fuck off... this time." He yawned.

"So you'll do it?" Allicity sighed in relief.

"Yeah, is there a specified time limit?" He asked.

"They want it done by tomorrow before they're supposed to open up for the next day." She said

"Alright, let's get ready to go then, you all!"

"Wait, we're going too?" Hibiki asked, her face growing paler with each syllable.

"Of course... do you girls have anything you absolutely NEED for a fight? A weapon? Armor?" He questioned, turning to each of them in turn.

They shook their heads.

"Fine. I need to stop by the dorm to pick something up, you four head to the teleporter and wait for me there." He commanded.

They stood at the edge of the dimension for about five minutes, Valeria constantly picking up pebbles and tossing them over the side, until Xeria explained that the dimension was connected to a city below.

Drake emerged from the dorm building carrying a small plastic bag.

"What's that?" Valeria asked as he came within earshot.

"Our student I.D.'s, we need them in case something goes wrong out in the field. If you destroy something on a mission and you don't have this on you, you'll be billed the cost personally... so don't forget this!" He said.

He handed them each a thin plastic card, containing a small portrait of them, along with pertinent personal and health information.

"How did they find out our height and weight?" Colette asked.

"The teleporter takes that information from each person who passes through it... it's not like people couldn't figure out how tall you are from just looking at you." He said.

"How tall am I?" Valeria asked.

"Five foot two, same for Hibiki. Xeria is five foot even, and Colette is the same height as I am, five foot six... how'd I do?" He asked.

"Wow... what weights?" She asked.

Hibiki made a noise of embarrassment, covering her chest with her hands.

Drake loomed over her, his lips pursed as he considered her.

"One twenty-six.. point two." He said matter-of-factly.

Hibiki' face went red, and her hands darted over her eyes.

"Oooh, me next!" Valeria sang.

He gave her the same treatment, looking her over intently before pulling away.

"One twenty, even." He said.

She gave a squeal of approval, jumping up and down.

"What about me?" Xeria asked.

"One thirteen point five."

Her eyes went wide with surprise.

"I've never told anyone my weight... impressive."

"Do you want me to do it for you, too?" He asked Colette.

"No need, one twenty nine." She said with a smile.

"Ha! I like you... come on, ladies. Let's go ahead and get this done." He laughed.

He ushered them onto the thin tiles of the pad, moving to a small panel and sliding his own student I.D. into a card reader attached to its side.

The panel gave a cheery beep, then a flash of light encompassed them.

A flash of green was the first of a number of colors that cascaded through their heads as they arrived.

"Whoa... whoa... my head..." Valeria moaned as she stumbled off of the pad.

"Easy... just take a few breaths. Your body will have to go through that a few times before the system gets used to moving you." Drake sighed.

"It's not so bad going to Ivoria... why is it so harsh leaving?" Hibiki asked.

"It can only pull you so hard, but it can push as hard as it likes, just be grateful we didn't have to head to the States... it's probably the most nauseous you can get." He chuckled.

The girls took a few moments to steady themselves, Drake stepping to each of them and giving them a quick jolt of Gaia's energy.

"You good? I hope so, cause we're not walking too far." He said, pointing his fingers across a street adjacent to them.

They had landed in the center of a small park, flanked on both sides by empty streets.

Well, mostly empty. An enormous group of people were crowding along a sidewalk to their right, eyes locked on a doorway leading into a larger, grey building.

"That's likely our cue. You girls sure you're ready? I won't say anything if you decide to back down here." He said.

Colette looked to the others, who gave tiny nods.

"Umm... sir?" She said.

He turned back to her, his eyebrows arched slightly.

"Yes, Colette?"

"We... we discussed the information you talked to me about... and we think we have some things figured out." She said with a smile.

"That so? Well, let's hear it."

"I'm the Tank!" Valeria cheered.

"I'm the Vanguard." Colette said with a nod.

"That makes me the Mage." Xeria smiled.

"A-and I'm the Support." Hibiki mumbled nervously.

He looked over them, a light smirk plastered to his face.

"Well well... I can't say I'm incredibly shocked... I knew Colette might share the information I gave her with the rest of you... but I suppose the question is... do you have your placement parsed out?" He asked.

He knelt down, tapping his finger against a small patch of dirt. The earth changed from a dark brown color to a light tan, having morphed from dirt to sand. He pressed his fingertips into the sand, poking four well defined holes into the surface.

The symbol resulting was little more than a Y. There were a few slight oddities to it, mainly the right tip of the Y being an inch or so higher than the left.

"This." He said, tapping the area above said right hole. "Is where the Tank should stand when in formation."

He changed focus to the left tip.

"This is the Vanguard."

Lower to the dot in the center.

"The Mage."

Then the bottom dot.

"Finally, the Support. Obviously, the location of a Spirit Hunter may change depending on the flow of battle, but this is more or less where you'll want to start."

Hibiki glanced over the crude diagram, her green eyes searching for something.

"Instructor... we're a five man team aren't we? Where's your position?" She asked.

He grinned up at her, nodding his head slowly.

"That's the question, isn't it? Where do I go?" He asked.

He traced a long oval around the Y, then placed another dot far outside of it.

"This is where I'll be." He explained.

"That's so far behind us! How would the Tank keep you safe if you're all the way back there?" She cried.

He laughed, drawing a small arrow from the tiny dot to the circle.

"This position is called the Rear Guard. The duty of said position is simple, prevent your teammates from being flanked by enemies. To put it gently, I'm the guy with a giant target on his back."

He ran his hands over the sand, wiping away the diagram and returning the sand to the same , dark, earthen consistency as the rest of the ground

"Rear Guard isn't a position that you'll see very often... since most people aren't suicidal enough to stray from their Tank, especially during a fight. Of course, since I've got a Tank for my own personal use, I don't have much to be concerned with." He said.

"Now... let's head over there before those Edriin break out of the building."

They crossed from the small park to the crowd of people, who were currently being held back by a barrier that cut them off from the doorway leading into the mall.

There were a few uniformed individuals littered among the group, their unity made apparent by the pink trim of their suits of body armor.

"The Sanctuary of Sakura." Drake said.

One of the armored personnel turned to face them, a small woman with mint green hair. Her face lit up as her eyes scanned across their uniforms.

"Ivoria students? I'm guessing you're the ones the building owner requested. Name's Takemiya, I'm the leader of this little team from the Sanctuary." She said, extending a hand to Drake.

He took it, shaking it while never really looking at her.

"Greymoor, leader of the Ivoria Spirit Containment Team 1201, Iron Union." He said.

"Greymoor? So you're that kid who beat down an Aevator on your own? You're a lot smaller than I'd thought you'd be... gotta admit there's something a little off putting about you, though. Hell... I'd say you're kinda scary. Still, you're on our side, so I don't have any right to complain."

She nodded to two figures standing in front of the entrance, and they nodded in return, stepping aside to allow passage.

"Normally we'd offer our help, but we were strictly ordered not to. Not sure why, though... can't imagine things would go bad because there were MORE of us." She shrugged.

"Anyway, you five will be fine, have a good mission." She said cheerily.

"Cmon girls, let's get in there."

He squeezed through the surprisingly large crowd of people, weaving in and out to avoid hitting anyone. Despite the glances from the now aware onlookers, he tapped his foot against the weight sensor of the automatic door.

He pushed the girls inside, giving Takemiya a nod as the doors slid closed. The inside of the mall was surprisingly barren, rows of empty storefronts and food stalls littered the grounds, giving the area a decidedly dead aura.

Upon further investigation, there WAS one shop still lit near the back of the mall. Drake silently pointed to it, gesturing to them to follow behind him.

"Any of you seen an Edriin before?" He asked.

"I have." Came both Valeria and Xeria's voices from behind him.

"Either of you seen one in person?" He said as they inched closer to the lit shop.

"Yes." Xeria said calmly.

"Why don't you tell everyone what they look like?" He offered.

"Ah, certainly. Well... they're very large, opaquely colored creatures that have a shape resembling that of a vastly oversized wolf." She said.

"Very good. Now, what about the Energy? How do they pass it along to humans?" He pressed, testing the limits of her understanding.

"Like the Arunia, the weakest of Spirits, they are only capable of infecting humans with their energy if they touch them." She explained.

"Well done, you've certainly done your research. Fortunately, Edriin don't usually have powers or immense strength, they tend to hunt in packs in order to circumvent their own weaknesses." He added.

They had reached the end of the mall, turning to face the lit store that stood defiantly in the darkened building. The chain barricade that usually descended for the night had been brought out, blocking them from entering the store itself. It looked to be a clothing store of some sort at first glance.

"Umm... hello? Is there anyone in there?" Drake asked quietly.

A wiry-haired man popped up from behind a counter in the back, his eyes alight with a mixture of fear and relief.

"Yes! I'm here... I couldn't get out when the alarm went off, so I barricaded the store before the Edriin could get in." The old man explained.

"Do you know where they are? We haven't seen them since we arrived, and there are supposed to be twenty of them." Drake asked.

"N-no... I haven't looked up from behind here since the barricade came down, I didn't want to give them a reason to stick around outside my store." The old man shuddered, looking out to Drake quietly.

"Ok. Well we're here to bring them down, we shouldn't be too long, then we'll come back to tell you the coast is clear." Drake said.

The man agreed without a word, ducking behind his counter once again.

"Alright then, I suppose we should go searc-"

His words were cut off by a noiseless motion of shock that made the others spin around. A large, hulking creature had launched itself toward them from a position unknown.

The girls didn't have time to react in the slightest, their bodies completely incapable of moving to try and dodge the impending attack.

Drake DID have time, fortunately, and darted forward, his hand tapping his hip as he muttered "Cthulhu."

A large, black revolver formed quickly in his right hand, he aimed it straight towards the beast's head. With his free hand, he wrapped his arm around Hibiki's waist, pulling her back as he squeezed his finger against the weapon's trigger.

A loud *BANG* that would have sounded more at home on an old musket erupted from the gun as a small, white orb was launched from its barrel.

The ball slammed itself into the creature's head, completely undeterred by the hardened material the beast was made of. It kept going, bursting from where the thing's tail would have been.

The Edriin fell to the ground a foot or so from Drake and Hibiki's feet, motionless and very obviously dead.

Hibiki's face had gone pale with the primal fear that preceded certain death. Her body was shaking violently, her nerves lit up with a rush of endorphins and other chemicals.

Drake slid his arm from around her, only to put it right back when her legs began to wobble with uncertainty.

He turned her to face him, holding her head in his hands.

"Hibiki... take a breath, hun. Everything's fine, I'm here with you." He said, his eyes darting worriedly up and down the long stretch of the mall.

The girls did the same, worried about their teammate, but also concerned about the prospect of a second ambush.

Hibiki took a few ragged breaths, color gradually returning to her face. She gave Drake a light nod, telling him that she could stand on her own.

"That's good, but the question is, can you support your team?" He asked.

She nodded her head, holding her hand to the sky and calling, "Cronos!"

A large, golden pocket watch the size of a small saucer popped into her hand.

"Ah! You've decided on an Avatar, good... how about you three?" He said.

Valeria focused for a moment, before bringing out a thick, grey apron that seemed fit for a blacksmithing forge.

Xeria was clutching a large, wooden staff topped with a bright red effigy shaped like an oak tree.

Colette's was the least noticeable, her wrists now wrapped with two, bright blue bracelets that looked like they were made of pure sapphire.

"Well then! Don't I look like a fool?" He grinned. "If you can summon an Avatar... well, you've already learned enough to make it to your second year."

The girls gave him a look of shock.

"What? The first year is for getting your feet settled. You'd be surprised how hard it is for people to figure out their Avatars." He said with a shrug.

They were assuredly excited to be told such a thing, but, to Drake's happiness, they seemed more focused on the task at hand.

"Even still, this is only the first of twenty... that means nineteen to go. Get in formation, Hibiki at the back, in front of me. Xeria, just a few feet in front of Hibiki. Valeria and Colette, you two stand a few feet apart with Valeria about a foot ahead, just like the diagram." He said with a nod.

The girls did as directed, forming the diamond their instructor had drawn. Colette was the first to note that it actually felt rather natural.

"Well, like I said, this formation is meant to put you in a defensive state. It's more focused on protecting the members of a team than being assault-centric. Now, Valeria, if you can, please put a barrier around the four of you. If not, I can do it." He said.

Valeria gave a look of thought, then held her hands out in front of her. A thin, red-orange sphere bloomed around them silently. Xeria tapped it softly, pulling back with a noise of discomfort.

"It's made of fire!" She said with wonder.

Xeria's staff's had begun to glow a similar orange color, and its effigy radiated with a light heat.

Colette's bracelets were glowing as well, their crystalline blue surface alight with a gleam.

"How long can you hold up time, Hibiki?" He asked.

"Ten seconds for each activation." She stammered.

"That should give you girls plenty of time to make measured moves, alright, start moving forward and scan for the rest of them. Call out before you move, so Hibiki has time to work. Oh, and keep an eye out for any people, if they're trapped under something or have any Edriin on their tails, they take priority." He said. "Go on, I'll be following behind you."

He waved his hand, imploring them to move forward. Valeria struggled to hold her barrier up and move at the same time, but eventually managed to get a feel for it.

Xeria spent her time spinning in a circle, slowly, knowing that she had to be able to see her enemy at range in order to effectively use Ababinili's magic.

Colette was doing something similar, her head on a constant swivel in search of their quarry.

Hibiki was still shaking violently, her face pale and slightly slick with sweat. Her hand was clutching the large pocket watch as tightly as she could, her own head jerking back and forth nervously.

The four moved forward, retracing their own path back to the middle of the mall.

There had been no other motion, save for their own.

"You don't think the Edriin have escaped, do you?" Colette asked.

"No, it's unlikely. Edriin aren't exactly small, as you just saw. If even one had escaped the barrier Takemiya and company have erected, a huge number of people would have seen it by now." He said. "They must be holed up somewhere, since I doubt they can feel the Souls of the people outside."

He instructed them to continue moving forward, his eyes focused on the areas that they passed, each glance slowly scanning the dark corners of open stores and stalls.

A small scratching sound slowly rolled out from one of the shops, a soft ringing following it out after a moment.

"That must be one of them, let's-"

He didn't have a chance to finish speaking. A huge, purple, hound-like beast came bounding out of a nearby store, followed by seven others, completely identical to it.

"They're coming! Ready up!" Drake commanded.

Xeria moved first, planting her foot and swinging her staff in a wide arc, casting a number of bright orange fireballs that slammed into the beasts, blossoming out with a boom.

The creatures were sent sprawling backwards, a few of them toppling into a small stall that looked like it belonged to a cell phone merchant.

Drake gave a whistle of approval, grinning as Xeria blushed softly.

"You're up, Colette! Don't let those bastards have a break!" He shouted, his voice filled with the undeniable sound of joy.

Colette shot through the barrier, which opened to allow her through at Valeria's command, and jumped as high as she could, about fifteen feet, into the air, before aiming a strike downwards with her glowing right hand.

Her fist pounded into the ground, a wave of bright blue pulsating energy erupting from the center of her blow.

The beasts were sent flying once again, stopping midair when Drake commanded that Hibiki stop time for everything but he, her and the rest of the team.

Colette closed in on one of them, her fist shattering its head in a shower of crystal. Xeria sent a cluster of fireballs towards three of them, melting them into large puddles on the ground.

Drake finished the other four off, sending a ray of solid red energy straight through them, courtesy of Pandora.

Both Xeria and Colette had returned to the barrier, panting happily from exertion.

Hibiki let time flow once more, her own breath now ragged from her own power usage.

"My my, it looks like Valeria is the only one with any stamina other than me. I kind of expected more from you, Colette." He teased.

Colette began blushing heavily.

"It's fine! It's alright, promise. I'll be sure to add some basic cardio to your training regimens." He said, nodding.

"There's a... a training regimen?" Xeria asked, her face brightening slightly at his words.

"Nope, but now there will be." He said.

"Umm, are you going to have me or Hibiki actually fight them?" Valeria asked.

"Do either of you have ACTUAL combat skills?" He asked the two of them.

Valeria nodded, Hibiki shook her head.

He pursed his lips, looking between them.

"Hmm... a little disappointed that you don't have combat skills just yet." He ended his sentence with a smile. "It's fine, we can work on them. For now, Valeria can get a bit of a stretch in, I'll take over your spot and let you get some experience."

Valeria nodded, letting her barrier down, only for a bluish-white one to take its place an instant later. Rather than moving to her position, though, Drake stood nearly shoulder to shoulder with Hibiki, his left hand open, holding an orb the same color as his barrier.

"Alright, last little skirmish went great, and we're making fantastic time. Buuuuuut... try and keep in mind that we need to be on the defensive here... nothing wrong with what you did, mind you, but just try and keep the thought as close to the front of your head as you can." Drake said.

With that, they started their walking once again, their pace quite a bit faster considering Drake's apparent experience with his own barrier.

They heard the rest of the Edriin long before they saw them. A rampant noise of tearing and shredding cloth. The girls' heads immediately shot to the store across from them, only two stores away from the opposite end of the mall from the old man's.

"You three ready to fight?" He asked.

When they nodded, he turned to Hibiki and gave her a gentle smile.

"They'll need you to be ready and raring to go... you okay?" He asked.

She gave him a weak nod, but honestly didn't feel well. Her heart was still hammering from the attack that he had stopped. She felt unwilling to do anything but clutch his arm, but still, she knew that her team needed her.

Whether she was ready or not, the Edriin came tearing through the shop without warning. There were ten in total, and they split into groups of two, intent on getting around them and dividing their attention.

Smart... but stupid.

Valeria had reached into her forge apron, retrieving a large, long-handled hammer. It definitely didn't fit inside the apron, and seemed incredibly heavy, easily forty, maybe fifty pounds. She heaved it over her shoulder, then, with a grunt, slammed it into the ground as one of the Edriin pushed against Drake's barrier uselessly.

A wave of bright red fire burst out from under the hammer, engulfing the Edriin in a blast of heat. It didn't do to well, the beast. Writhing silently with panic as it's body began to melt, Valeria grinned at Drake, who nodded his head and gave a her a smile.

He didn't need to tell her not to let up, as she raised the hammer over her head once more, and brought it down right onto the beast, which shattered pitifully.

Xeria and Colette were both doing quite well, they had already figured out a pattern of attack. Colette busied herself by ducking under the beast's strikes, and upper cutting straight into their middles, launching them up into the air where Xeria sent blasts of great fire their way.

*BANG*

The balls of flame engulfed the creatures, who writhed inside silently, before, apparently, burning away.

The two girls grinned at one another.

"Good work... Valeria can mop up the other four, right?" He asked.

She gave him a nod, happily holding the hammer over her head, her eyes filled with a savage glee.

She set about intercepting the last four Edriin, catching them all with a huge, heavy horizontal swing, the force of which sent them slamming back into the store they had emerged from.

The four girls stood, waiting for the creatures to reappear from the store.

They didn't, Valeria had struck them with enough of her incredible strength to shatter them as they had landed, back-up, on the tile floor.

Drake nodded his head, a look of approval plastered to his face. He smiled to the girls, then, his face adopted a look of confusion.

He turned back, his gaze aimed at the other end of the long mall, tapping his hand a single time.

He turned to the site of their second battle, tapping his hand eight times at this moment.

Finally, he turned to the melted remains and shattered crystal that represented the group of Edriin they had just fought. He tapped his hand ten times.

He scrunched his face up, looking back and forth between the spots.

"What is it, Instructor?" Colette asked.

"That's... only nineteen of them." He said.

The girls recounted, coming to the same number as he had.

"Maybe they made a mistake? We didn't GO into each of the stores... maybe the last one was in one of th-"

Xeria's words had been cut off by a scream from Hibiki. The final Edriin erupted from the store just behind him, launching itself towards him, its head angled to the side.

With the sound of tearing flesh, the monster's mouth cleaved Drake's arm off roughly at the bone. He turned to it quickly, giving a long, tired sigh.

"I suppose a perfect mission was just too much to ask for."


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