Mio watches from the crowd in total silence as Alice issues her challenge to an annoyed Diana. That’s right. This… is normal. It is, isn’t it? What do the people around her think of all this? Try as she might to raise her head, an anxious fluttering in the back of her skull keeps it down. She makes an attempt at glancing up, but… oh. It figures all their faces are nothing but blurs, just like always.
“Heeeh?” To Mio’s side, the one person she can see among all of this - Ragyou - stands with her arms folded, blowing a gum bubble with a totally unbothered look about her. “I heard Alice won a battle the other day, but throwin’ out a challenge, this early in the Royale? And right in front of everyone, too. That’s, like, a total power move, i’nnit?”
Come to think of it, she’s right. This is different than before. It’s not a computer suddenly hitting two people who don’t want to fight with a mandatory matchup. It’s a direct challenge. Something entirely deliberate. So this really is normal, then. The rumble of the crowd doesn’t seem to be in disagreement, either. The typical high school whispers, almost drowned out by the whooping of people looking to see a fight for their own amusement.
Alice flicks her wrist and bright particles of psychic energy flutter from her Link. Soon they take form behind her, into a bird-like creature, taller than its master, with a jagged beak, glowing yellow eyes, a deep violet body, and a pair of twisting black horns, protruding from its head. It isn’t covered in feathers. Rather, it’s made up of some sort of energy. Once it’s taken shape, it spreads its wings, cawing to the sky with a crow that sounds like the marriage of a jet turbine and a crack of thunder. It looms over Alice, lowering itself and pointing its beak at her quarry like an arrow. “Tell you what, Di. I’ll drop the challenge and call off my little Skyshriek if you say I’m in charge. I’m a nice girl, right?”
Diana stares at the overgrown buzzard behind her former groupie and shrugs. “Hmm? Nice girl? Alice, you’re not even a good girl. You’re like a chihuahua that doesn’t know when to stop barking. Yip yip-yip yip-yip.”
Alice is not amused. Rather, she’s seething at her old bestie but manages to collect herself, then open the Royale Challenge screen, thus bringing it up on Diana’s Link as well. “I get it. Talk tough so you can walk away and look like you were in control, right?” Diana sucks her teeth and a smug grin spreads back across Alice’s lips. “Ah. I’m still barking, huh? If that’s a problem, then I guess you’ll have to shut me up yourself. Unless… you can’t?”
Diana stares at the challenge notification on her Link, then surveys the area all around her. All these spectators, whispering to one another, snickering, watching her. So annoying. Without another word, she reaches up and hits one of the buttons on her holo-display.
“Challenge Initiated. Diana Quinn and Alice Marsden. The two of you have recognized one another as competitors in the United World System’s Royale Initiative and agreed to a voluntary official challenge. To this end, all standard rules apply. We thank you for your cooperation with this civic responsibility to ensure the continued safety of mankind and wish you luck, earning your stay in our fine city. The match may now begin. Best of luck to you both.”
The transmission cuts and the crowd bursts into an uproar, so many students cheering as if this is some kind of sporting event. But Alice wastes no time at all. “Finally. Now… Skyshriek? Turn this bitch into birdfeed.” On the command of its master, the psionic bird screeches once more, spreading its wings of lightning wide. With a single beat, it launches itself sky-high to the sound of a tremendous boom. Like a thunderbolt in reverse.
The school’s alert systems blare over the campus, an electronic voice urging all present to seek out shelter, at once. Faculty rush out to the scene, trying their best to hurry the students around the battle indoors.
Once at the height of the city’s domed ceiling, Skyshriek screeches with the crackle of a storm on its voice, then swoops down at Diana as quickly as it’d gone up. Luckily, she’s able to jump clear of it, even spinning on her heel to face it again so her back isn’t to an enemy.
Alice blinks. “Ho? You’re quick, Di. My little Skyshriek’s as fast as a bolt of lightning. Still, though…” Right when she says it, Skyshriek charges Diana again. She jumps to avoid it again, but this time it stops before ever reaching her and opens its beak. Her eyes widen.
Suddenly she goes flying through the air, the bird’s screech joined with a lightning bolt on its breath, straight into her stomach. “Guh!” She hits the ground hard and rolls to a stop.
Alice laughs to the side, her hand to her mouth. “Everyone knows you’re not too bright.”
Diana’s body crackles with static. She picks herself up and instantly gets knocked clean off her feet by another of Skyshriek’s charges. Is this what getting struck by actual lightning feels like? Her body tingles all over, the whole world is white, and all she can hear is ringing. By the time her senses return, Skyshriek occupies all of them, once more in her face with light particles building in its beak.
Alice snickers as Diana hits the ground with a bounce. “Hey, what’s up with that? Not gonna call your Familiar? I’m sure it’s mega lame, but even in a situation like this your pride’s more important to you?” All the while, her bird alternates between slamming into Diana, full-speed, and pummeling her into the ground with bolts of screeching lightning. “Maybe it won’t be a problem, then, if we show everybody how ugly you really are, right? Skyshriek, mess up that pretty face of hers.”
Skyshriek caws and goes up again, then swoops straight for Diana like before, this time putting a spin on things in an electrified corkscrew dive. Diana gets to her feet, her body still crackling, and manages to move, but with this sluggishness, the bird still clips her shoulder, making her wince. Despite missing, it turns on a dime.
Diana pivots and Skyshriek beelines for her with another corkscrew spin, head-on. But this time, Diana doesn’t budge. It’s a direct hit, driving the girl back on her feet across the school grounds and crashing back-first into the wall of the school library. Alice grins and flips her hair, doing her best to act cool. But, in the end, she can’t contain herself. “Finally. I’m finally free. Heh… Heehee. No more Diana to push me around or talk down to me. Kyahahaha! She’s finished! Diana’s finished! I finally get to be the queen for a change!”
But then something occurs to her. The match… hasn’t been called yet. Even the students and faculty still outside watch on bated breath as the dust settles from the collision. An enormous crack stretches across the library’s outer wall. Yet Diana stands even despite her back being responsible for it, gripping Skyshriek by the horns. Even the bird, itself, looks surprised. An expression replaced with terror when the girl piercingly gazes into its eyes. “Don’t screw with me, you flying nightlight.”
Oh, now Alice is sweating. Buckets. Looking a bit closer… “S-she’s not even bruised?! Tch! Skyshriek!” As commanded, the bird opens up, but Diana lets go of its horns as it charges another screech and grabs its beak instead, forcing it shut. “W-what!?”
“Whoa! Diana’s friggin’ awesome!” Or so says a cheer from the gaggles of hyped up students. It’s not wrong. But Mio’s eyes, towards the front of the pack, find purchase elsewhere. For as well as this is going for one of these girls, for the other… their entire world may as well be unraveling before her eyes. And it’s not at all difficult to see.
Alice’s small body rumbles as Diana undoes all of her hope in an instant. “Damn it. DAMN IT! Skyshriek, up!” Once commanded, the enormous bird spreads its mighty wings and begins to flap, kicking up dust and debris all around.
Suddenly, Mio catches an elbow to the head. Not on purpose. One of the students in the crowd - another of Diana’s posse, Maddie - wrests her arm from the firm grip of a nearby teacher, fighting her way to the front of the throng without a shred of regard for anyone around her. “ALICE! What the hell! That’ll kill her, you dumbass!” But it strikes her just as the teachers catch up and grab her, pulling her back. It’s exactly like screaming at a brick wall. No. A panicked animal. Not one word registers.
Alice stands there with a manic expression, biting down on the tip of her thumb hard enough to make it bleed. Rumbling isn’t the word for what her body does anymore. She’s quaking. And to top it all off, she’s fallen into muttering to herself. “Have to win have to win have to win. Accident. It’ll look like an accident. She just fell on her own.”
Diana scoffs. The bird flaps and flaps, but her feet stay rooted firmly on the ground. Rather than pulling her up, she forces it down. “You wanted to see my Familiar, right? Fine. Attack.” Little specks of yellow light glimmer into existence, soon massing together. But what they produce is no beast like Skyshriek, or even Lycan before it. This is something entirely new. A haze? No. A swarm. A mass of beelike creatures, dense enough to look like a thick, black cloud materializes overhead and collapses on Skyshriek. Frantic screeches and bolts of purple lightning are all that escape this mass. And every student watches in total bewilderment.
When the swarm finally disperses, it scatters a mass of purple light particles and sparks with it. Skyshriek is gone. As her and Diana’s Link turn from red to blue, Alice drops to her knees. Her eyes are sunken in and she hugs herself tight. It’s all she can do to keep from shivering as that soulless electronic voice from the band on her wrist announces the result.
Alice cranes her neck up to Diana when her ex-friend approaches, looking down on her in total apathy. Her true Familiar - a little beelike creature about the size of her head - hovers over her shoulder. “Trying to rise above your station, Alice? That’s dangerous. Little workers like you should know their place. I’m the queen here.” At the first hint of the girl’s mascara running, Diana kneels and looks her dead in the eye without a shred of sympathy. “Gross. Talk about ugly. Why do brats like you always think they can get what they want if they cry about it?” Rather than stop, Alice drops her head to keep Diana from seeing the waterworks. It doesn’t work, of course. But Diana’s done with her, regardless, standing upright and turning her back to the pathetic thing. “Whatever. Beat it. Losers are an eyesore.” And with that, the queen departs.
Mio stands among the students in the doorway when Diana makes her way inside, even brushing by a few of them with her hands in her jacket pockets. “Move.” Scathing. These are the kinds of people Mio can expect to meet in the Royale? Beasts like this? She glances back at Alice, hunched over in front of the school, utterly destroyed while other kids whisper snide remarks about how she should’ve minded herself. Everything feels… heavy.
Come lunch time, the bell rings and Mio sits at her desk, as per usual. Or she would. But just as she reaches for her sketchpad in her bag, a loud noise reaches out to her. “Miiicchin!” A wild Ragyou appears, draping herself over Mio from behind, with her head atop her meek teammate’s. “Let’s eat lunch together!” The eyes. So many eyes. This girl pulls eyes her way, just sitting still. With her hovering over Mio like this…
“A-all right…” Such a strange creature. But there’s no helping it.
The pair head out for the school store, Ragyou humming a cheery tune to herself along the way. But along the way, some loud, declarative speech catches Mio’s ear and she pauses. Ragyou stops and turns around upon noticing her little friend no longer with her. “Hm? Micchin? What’s up?” It’s coming from… the outdoor amphitheater? But there aren’t any shows, this time of year. That’s when the alert system sounds off. “No way, another match?!” Ragyou grabs Mio by the wrist and drags her off. “C’mon, let’s go see!”
“Eh? Eh?! B-but-!” Too late. Before she even has time to formulate her protest, she and Ragyou stand in audience to the beginnings of yet another match.
Two figures stand on the auditorium stage - one a well-kempt young man with glasses and rather upright posture who looks like he could even be a direct counterpart to… wait. Ragyou gasps. “Whoa! For real?! Is that-?!” Indeed, standing opposite the young man with her arms folded and as intense a look on her face as ever is none other than the academic ice queen herself. “Charlotte?!”
For just a moment, that frigid stare casts upwards to the unwanted audience arriving on the scene. But that isn’t important now. Charlotte instead directs her attention back to the young man across from her. “It’s unfortunate that things have turned out this way, but we don’t really have a say. In that case, I’ll cut to the chase. I’m sure you understand, but I have no intention of being removed from this city. Please forfeit.”
Her opponent glares across the stage at her through the gleam in his spectacles. “Tch. You seriously think that little of me?” Nothing. So the young man removes his glasses with a sigh. “I suppose that’s a yes, then. But why wouldn’t you? You probably don’t even know my name.”
Charlotte arches an eyebrow. “Have we met?”
Placing his glasses in the breast-pocket of his blazer, the young Esper gives Charlotte a sharp glance. “Ranma. Your top rival in our grade. Second place to you since Junior High. But I shouldn’t expect you to remember. You’re too full of yourself to bother with anyone who isn’t busy worshipping you.”
Charlotte remains entirely unwavering. “It’s sad that you seem to think that, but-”
“Seriously. You, Diana, all of you popular types are alike.” That does it. The more this Ranma had gone on, the colder and colder this aura around that stage became, reaching all the way to the back rows where Mio and Ragyou stand as the only audience to these events. Yet at no point was it clear exactly which of the pair it came from. Now, though… at that last comment… For just a fraction of a second that icy chill surges with something like an electric current. Even from this far at the back of the amphitheater, Mio swears she can see it - a faint twitch of Charlotte’s brow.
Ranma goes on. “Whatever. This isn’t how I wanted it, but now I don’t even care anymore. That top spot of yours is mine now. You don’t deserve it.” Then he points across the way at his prim and proper opponent. “If you’re going to take me that lightly, then I’m going to fight. I’ll make you remember me.”
Taking all of that in, Charlotte’s composure doesn’t falter even a little bit. And with a delivery befitting of her reputation, she responds with an absolutely glacial “So be it.”
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