|Inversion of Shadows
BOOK ONE, CHAPTER THREE
He paused, lowered his arm, straightened. His natural frown further downturned the corners of his mouth, nearly to his narrow chin, in mounting irritation and suspicion. Yes, something was most certainly amiss.
He'd noted the difference earlier, of course---after all, he was the Saiyajin no Ouji, not some unobservant novice---but he'd dismissed it, rationalized it as perhaps a side-effect of something else; the other day, he'd been starving enough to eat his mate's cooking, and he still wasn't sure what sort of toxic ingredients she mixed into her excuses for food. It would not have been the first time that the foul concoctions had affected his training . . .
But no. Much as he would prefer to blame the woman for this, he knew that, this time, she had nothing to do with it.
Irritably, he pressed the button to shut off the increased gravity; his body automatically adjusted to the lower pressure as it moved from two-hundred times normal to its natural level. He narrowed his eyes as they caught sight of the still-fresh scratches on his arm.
Them. They were to blame, he was sure of it.
The timing could not have been a coincidence. Ever since that annoying creature had managed to inflict this wound upon him, he was having increasing difficulty summoning his power. Though it had started slowly, his power ceiling had become noticeably lower. He could still transform into a Super Saiyajin, but how long that would last looked to be debatable now.
The door to the gravity chamber hissed as it opened, and a short staircase extended from its hidden compartment. He had scarcely reached the ground when a young voice assaulted his ears.
"Find anything, yet?" Trunks' words echoed through the air.
"Trunks, you gotsta be quiet! You're gonna scare it!" another voice shouted back, making a mockery of its own command. Kakarott's younger brat.
The two were probably playing some pointless game, as they tended to do whenever they didn't spar. It was certainly none of his concern. He ignored the children, and proceeded toward the dwelling.
"What did ya say it looked like, again?"
"I told ya twice! It's grey, gots lotsa muscles, and big glowin' eyes!"
The description actually brought Vegeta up short. It so well fit the creature that had attacked him as he'd exited the gravity chamber a few days prior. He'd blasted the little beast into oblivion, of course, as annoyed at its managing to wound him as he'd been at himself for not detecting its presence. How would Kakarott's little whelp have seen one?
"Goten, we been lookin' forever! There ain't nothin' here!" Trunks complained.
"Is so!" Kakarott's brat shot back. "Theys is jus' real good at hidin'! Even niichan couldn't find it after it hurt 'im, an' he was doin' that ki-sensin' stuff!"
Ah. So that was it.
Leaving the children to their argument, Vegeta entered the house. So Gohan (he had finally relinquished referring to the boy as "Kakarott's elder brat") had suffered a similar injury. Probably didn't even realize the side-effects; the foolish boy hadn't trained since the Cell Games, and thus would not be aware of the apparent reduction in power.
Well, Vegeta reflected sourly, power was wasted on that kid, anyway. He didn't even want it, and was doing nothing to maintain it. Such strength, far beyond what Vegeta had once thought possible . . . and it went entirely unappreciated by its owner. It would have weakened on its own by now, anyway, through lack of use. And for this reason, Gohan, despite his numerous faults, would not be stupid enough to think a decrease in his power was out of the ordinary.
The kitchen, or what passed for one, was empty, which suited his tastes. More out of a need for distraction that actual hunger, he snatched an orange from a bowl of fruit sitting at the centre of the table, and devoured it in two bites, not even bothering to peel it first. His eyes watched out the window, at Goten and Trunks. Both boys were running about the yard, poking their heads behind plants, boosting themselves up to peek inside various windows, and employing all sorts of other childish search tactics.
The injury. It was not an isolated incident.
Such was a thought that might disturb a normal man, but never, by anyone's standards, had Vegeta been normal. Rather, he found it somewhat intriguing. Both he and Gohan . . . and the only thing they had in common was that they were two of the most powerful creatures on the planet. Given the effect of the scratches, that made one thing obvious: they'd been specifically targeted. But by what? However much it galled Vegeta, he did not have enough information upon which to act, and he would not waste his energy on something so vague.
But answers would be forthcoming. It was just a---brief, he was certain---matter of time.
Silent as the night that surrounded her, she drifted along a mere few feet above empty streets. While most areas of the city were still wide awake, locations near the outskirts were always quiet at this hour. Those forced to live on the streets, whether by poor choice or hard luck, had by now holed themselves up in the several of the run-down buildings that lined the roadways like a browbeaten honour guard for the dishonourable activities that filled the day.
It was just as well, as far as she was concerned. Her contact with people tended to be somewhat limited, and nothing like the poor rabble that would reside here. People in such desperate straits could be dangerous, and though she could handle any of them should they try anything, she preferred not to waste her magic on such tasks; there were far better and more important uses for those talents.
And anyway, the people were not her concern; they were not what had brought her here. Rare were the times she ventured into a city, and only the most unusual of circumstances had ever caused her to do so.
The faintest starlight reflected off her crystal ball, which was currently serving its secondary function as her perch. All other illumination was lost, absorbed into the black cloth of her robes and her tall pointed hat, so that even were anyone present, they would not be able to see her face. Allowing her senses to guide her, she floated along a path created by an abnormal energy, searching for its source.
Either fortunately or unfortunately (she wasn't yet sure which), the search was brief. Near an alleyway, the source emerged, though only its eyes, two brightly glowing pools of orange, were plainly visible. From what she could tell, it was merely scavenging for food. Such was probably the case, especially if it was what she was beginning to fear it might be; no other reason than a search for nourishment would bring it to such a place. There were no targets here.
A slight tremble moving through her, she forced herself to keep her composure. She reached down a small hand to touch the cool surface of her crystal ball, and cast the tiniest of spells. The orb began to emit a soft, steady white light, which more seemed to magnify the surrounding darkness than anything else, but aided her eyes nonetheless. She had to see it, had to confirm it.
The creature looked up at her, the light having drawn its attention, and she tensed as it assessed her, tried to determine if she were a threat. After a long moment, it grunted, almost in disgust, and turned its searing gaze elsewhere, eventually wandering out of the light's reach.
Softly letting free a deep breath, she allowed the light spell to dissipate. While the creature had been eying her measuringly, she had been doing the same to it, albeit more nervously. What she had seen only served to confirm her suspicions. Only served to render true the stories that her grandmother had related to her centuries ago. Stories that, while she'd never outright disbelieved them, she'd taken with a hint of scepticism.
"From the deepest myth of night, forth through darkness into light . . ." she quoted in a raspy whisper. The first two lines of an ancient poem used to describe an even more ancient threat.
This . . . would certainly warrant a more in-depth investigation. And a look ahead. That much she could do on her own before consulting with the gods on this matter; it would ill do to be less informed upon it than they were, though one was quite new in his position and had not yet developed his mild prescience. She did have her pride to think about, if nothing else. After all, her crystal ball wasn't merely a convenient place to rest her behind; she was a fortune teller, the best in the business for well over three hundred years, and was not about to lose face if she could avoid it.
Normally, she would have waited to return home before performing a reading, but there was an urgency to the air, a sense that this should not be delayed. And so she clumsily climbed off the ball, cursing the black folds of her robes for tripping up her short legs. Now firmly standing upon the ground, she thrust out her palms toward the floating sphere, sleeves jerking away from her wrists at the swift movement. She wove her hands in complex patterns and muttered well-practised words, building the framework of magical energy for a look into the future. The crystal ball shivered for a few seconds in response, before it steadied, and the once-reflective surface became a cage of sorts for an image all its own.
Her hands and lips stopped, the spell complete. Intently, she stared at the image before her, memorizing, analyzing every detail. Despite what she saw, she did not shiver with dread; several times, she had foreseen apocalyptic scenes such as this, and they rarely managed to come to pass. And one of them, which before had been certain to come true, had changed when a survivor of such a future travelled back in time to deliver a warning . . .
Nonetheless, it was a definite cause for concern. And for action.
A sharp swipe of her hand, and the vision dropped out of existence. Strenuously, she pulled herself back up onto her crystal ball, taking off as soon as she was seated comfortably, just as the first tiny spark of day touched upon the horizon.
It was of an ancient race---one of several ancient races, to be more precise. Even the oldest of the beings on the planets they reclaimed only knew them from old, obscure stories. Or at least, that was what it had been told; it had never thought of such things as important, so they rarely crossed its mind. Its only concern was to discover and disable targets, the powerful beings that may otherwise have posed a significant threat to its brethren. An important task, one it and its companions had always performed swiftly and efficiently.
But on this mission, it had been anything but swift and efficient. Oh, to be sure, it had disabled the larger, more formidable creature with its usual precision, yet the other one . . .
He was nearby---the little one, the one that was so baffling. It could feel the child's power: bright, alive, pulsating. Enough so that, in all likelihood, things would be safer were it incapacitated, as well. It had been about to do so when the more formidable one had appeared, and even after that one had been wounded, neither it nor its companions had dared make a move; the venom did not take immediate effect, and so they would easily have been destroyed.
But the little one was alone, now, had no protector. This was a prime opportunity to strike.
And so it moved carefully, low to the ground, ensuring that its feet touched soft earth rather than dry, crumbly leaves, or easily snapped twigs. Stealth was a natural ability of its kind, and had to be if they were to successfully carry out their purpose; they were low-powered, and could never hope to stand up to their targets in battle.
There the child was, back to it, apparently picking something off a tall, leafy plant. As he did so, he made a loud humming noise, choppy, yet somewhat musical. He was quite clearly oblivious to the danger that he was in. Prime opportunity to strike, a better chance unlikely to present itself.
It must have made a sound, though, rustled through a bush, for the child turned to face it. His head tilted to one side, and his face wrinkled as though in thought for a moment, before breaking out into a grin.
"Hey, it's you, ain't it?" the child chirped. "I been lookin' for ya all week! Where ya been?"
Uncertain of how to react, it froze. It didn't understand how it could have let him detect its presence; even among its own kind, it had been one of the stealthiest. How had it blundered so? The little one stepped forward, and so it tensed, baring its teeth, readying its front foot to deliver a clean swipe.
But the little one stopped, and frowned, somehow looking hurt. "Ain't no reason to look so mean, ya know. I ain't gonna hurt you." He proffered his hand, in which rested a number of small, somewhat misshapen purple spheres. "I jus' wanted to share these berries that I picked up for a snack."
It tensed further. This was why the child was so bewildering; he had the potential power to be a threat, yet he didn't act that way. Instead, he made these gentle, almost friendly gestures, making it wonder whether a threat was actually present. No one had ever been friendly to it before, most especially a prospective target; the child was a paradox, and it had no idea how to deal with paradoxes.
"C'mon, jus' take 'em," he urged, sticking his hand out further. "Theys is real yummy. See?" He dipped his free hand into the front of the fitted cloth that he wore, pulled out more berries, and shoved them into his mouth. He chewed them thoroughly, then swallowed, the grin back on his face. "Theys is good. Try 'em."
It allowed itself to relax, just slightly. Having eaten the berries didn't appear to be harming the child, so this didn't seem like a trap. And though it had been able to sustain itself on the various creatures that inhabited these woods, it was a touch hungry at the moment. Perhaps it would not be a bad idea to take him up on his offer . . .
Slowly, it stepped forward, ever wary lest the child make an aggressive move at the last second. It carefully opened its mouth, the child's hand fitting into it quite easily. Its sharp teeth grazed lightly over his palm as it took the food; he giggled in response.
"See? I told you theys was good." He reached into the fitted cloth again, and pulled out yet more. "Here, ya want s'more? I gots lots."
Time was a nebulous concept to it, but it was sure that quite a bit passed while it sat in the woods, sharing a meal with a child that was supposed to have been a target. But surely something so accommodating could not be dangerous; it even caught itself hoping that he would not be destroyed by its betters when they inevitably arrived. Its betters never treated it so decently; indeed, none of the treatment it had received had held the slightest trace of respect or kindness.
It could grow to quite like this child.
"Goten-chan? Where are you? It's time to come in, sweetie!" called out a high voice, offensive to its ears.
The child glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the voice before turning back, face puckered in disappointment. "Uh, oh. That's Mama callin'. I gotsta go, or I'll get in trouble." He climbed to his feet, licking berry juice off his fingers. "But don't go too, far, okay? Maybe tomorrow we can play s'more. Bye, bye!"
After giving a little wave, the child darted off through the woods. Gone for the day, it supposed. It really had no idea what his words meant; so many planets, each with their own languages . . . all so complicated that they weren't worth bothering with. But the words did sound friendly.
A shame that, once its betters arrived---which it knew to be in the near future---the one who had spoken them would probably be dead.
Duffel bag slung over his shoulder, Yamucha waved a lighthearted goodbye to his teammates as he exited the locker room. He didn't really need that much practice to return to mid-season form, but always liked to play the full spring training schedule anyway. His teammates, by and large, were a good group of guys and many of them were his friends; it was fun to hang around with them, even though baseball itself was losing some of that quality. For the past couple of weeks, he'd begun to seriously consider retirement at the end of the season. Playing had been enjoyable, but he felt that it was just about time for him to move on.
"Hi, Yamucha! You were great out there today!" squealed a high-pitched voice that he knew quite well. A small bluish creature, almost looking like a strange cross between a cat and a mouse (though the appearance did favour the feline persuasion), floated out at an excited pace, a Titans cap on her tiny head.
Yamucha chuckled. He was a popular player, but his biggest fan and supporter would always be his oldest friend. "Ah, Puar, you know that's nothin'. C'mon, let's go grab some dinner."
Puar took up her customary position on his left shoulder. "Right. And it's my turn to pick the restaurant, so you know where we're going."
Sighing in feigned exasperation, Yamucha shook his head. "You never get tired of that place, do you?" He really was not surprised; back when they'd been desert bandits, they'd been forced to eat whatever they could find or steal, otherwise facing starvation, but once they had become accustomed to city life (to say nothing of living off the salary of a professional baseball player), Puar had revealed her finicky nature. Once she found something she liked, she stuck with it.
The air outside the ballpark was brisk, early evening breeze carrying a slight chill of the recently-ended winter, and Puar curled up a little to shield herself from it. Pale grey clouds shrouded the sky from view, making it darker than it should have been for this hour; in all likelihood, a rainstorm would overtake the city before the night was through, Yamucha could tell from the scent of the air.
With the fact that the ballpark was quite understandably located in one of the city's busiest areas, Yamucha opted as usual to wait some distance before decapsulating his car; traffic jams around here were the worst. He walked down the street with a long, easy stride, returning the occasional wave from a passerby with a brief nod and a smile. One of the perks of his status; he rather enjoyed the attention.
"You sure you want to go there again?" he asked as usual, eyes flicking up to his tiny companion. "I think I'm better known there than I am at the ballpark!"
"Of course I'm sure!" Puar shot back playfully, continuing their accustomed post-game, pre-dinner conversation. "And you sure don't mind being noticed, so don't try pulling that one!"
Before long, they reached one of the quieter downtown streets, and Yamucha stopped to pull out his capsule car. But his hand had just grasped it when a niggling sensation in the back of his mind made him pause, and he frowned slightly.
Puar quickly picked up his discomfort. "Yamucha? What's the matter?"
He didn't answer immediately, rather concentrating on the feeling. Nothing much was there; it was just barely noticeable, perhaps something he would have picked up on more easily a few years ago, when he was a little less removed from combat. It was definitely a sense of a living creature, but he hesitated to define it as ki; something about it was seriously off.
"Yamucha?" Puar repeated, concern etched in her voice.
His eyes narrowed determinedly as he dropped his duffle bag, and pried his companion off his shoulder. "Stay here."
He bolted down the street in the direction in which his senses were guiding him. While flying would naturally have been much quicker, he was not quite concerned enough to do so when so many people were about. A few passers by gave him an odd glance, but he paid no mind to them.
Yamucha slowed his pace as he grew closer, the sense of cautiousness from his warrior days automatically taking control of his body. And in addition to that sense of cautiousness, he was willing to admit to a bit of fear; the last time he'd been investigating a potential threat in a city, he'd ended up with a hand through his stomach and pretty near died. Something like that wasn't easy to forget.
It took him a few seconds to realize that he had actually halted completely, as though some corner of his mind had conjured an invisible wall in front of him. His fear was gaining the advantage; whatever was out there was more powerful than he was. What wasn't, these days?
A scream ripped through the air, shattered his mental wall, and Yamucha charged forth with a new resolve. He bowled over anyone who stood in his path, not willing to take the extra time necessary to weave around them. More cries rang out, mostly those of shock, but also a few of pain. These sounds further energized his legs, and in another minute, the source of the sounds was in sight.
He stopped dead.
Standing on the sidewalk, amid several prone bodies, was one of the oddest creatures he'd ever seen in his life---and he had seen some pretty strange stuff. It was ridiculously tall, reaching a height that easily dwarfed that of Tenshinhan, or even Piccolo. Despite its height, it was not bulky, though nor was it slender. A sickly yellow tone denoted its skin . . .
Involuntarily, Yamucha raised his ki; the strange creature turned its attention toward him, obviously having detected the increase, and he silently cursed himself for his slip of control. He'd given up the whole fighting gig a few years back, since he had just felt useless anyway, so a serious battle was something that he was rather ill-equipped to handle right now.
What in the world was I thinking? he chastised himself briefly. That thought was the only one which had time enough to pass through is head before the creature lunged at him.
The blow came sooner than he expected---the creature was quick for its size, and had an even longer reach than he had anticipated. Yamucha moved his head enough to avoid being knocked out, but pain exploded through his cheek, staggering him. On a subconscious impulse, he allowed himself to fall; another punch sailed over him, just clipping the tips of his hair.
Its legs were far out of his reach, so rather than try to sweep them out from under his attacker, he hastily climbed to his knees and launched his fist forward, all of his body weight behind it, straight into the creature's gut. The thing stumbled a little, a hoarse gurgling sound escaping its lips, but recovered more quickly than Yamucha did, and shot its leg out, catching him in the chest and sending him flying backward into the wall of a nearby building.
Yamucha felt the hard stone at his back partially give way around his body, until he was half embedded in it. His breath hissed between his teeth from the pain in his chest and back, though he managed to open his tightly-shut eyes so that he might better anticipate the next assault. The creature did not seem to be terribly concerned about him---not that he blamed the thing; he hadn't exactly made a spectacular first impression, after all---and advanced toward him at a casual pace, its arms, he noted, hanging down to just past its knees. Well, that explained the longer reach.
With great effort, Yamucha began pulling himself out of his rocky confines. First one arm, then the other . . . Maybe, if he freed himself quickly enough, he might be able to get the jump on that . . . whatever-it-was. Finally, he dropped to his knees on the sidewalk, and, wasting no more time, cupped his hands at his side. The creature could take a punch, but now it was time to see what it could do against a ki attack.
"Ka . . . me . . . ha . . ." he whispered slowly, channelling ki though his palms, a solid ball of brightly flickering power forming between them. He could have released it at any time, but this creature outpowered him, and he had to put enough into this shot to make it count.
As it turned out, that constituted poor judgement.
Before he could finish gathering enough strength, the creature's eyes narrowed dangerously, and it spit out a stream of saliva at him. Almost feeling foolish, but perfectly willing to trust his instincts, Yamucha abandoned his attack plan, and rolled out of the way. He hurriedly stood, and heard a bubbling hiss at his feet; he glanced down in surprise to see that his shoe was quickly being eaten away, and he pried it off with his other foot before any of his flesh could suffer the same fate. Beside him, a hole had been burned into the sidewalk, fumes still rising into the air.
"Whoa!" he breathed. "What'd this thing have to drink---a bottle of acid?"
He had no time to ponder the issue, instead adopting a defensive posture. His display of power may have given the creature pause, though, as it came forward with more caution that it had demonstrated earlier. Yamucha tightened his stance as it approached---
A huge form suddenly charged out from an alley, roaring ferociously as it tackled the creature, knocking it to the ground. Yamucha blinked in surprise at this new arrival: an immense blue-grey bear. The sight struck him as bizarre for a few seconds before his brain made the proper connections. "Puar! Get away from that thing!"
And indeed it was Puar, who had no doubt decided that he was in dire need of assistance and of course offered her own. But this would be far too much for her; she'd only been able to knock the creature over due to a mixture of the element of surprise and the added weight of her current form. Shapeshifting altered only the body, not the shapeshifter's power.
Half a moment was all it took for the creature to throw her off; Puar sailed backward, landing hard. Yamucha saw that the creature was preparing to spit out more of that corrosive substance, and he readied a ki blast---nothing major, for there wasn't time for that, but one that he hoped would create a distraction.
The blast flared out from his palms, just as a cloud of yellow smoke puffed out in front of the creature. The attack slammed into its target with perfect accuracy, between the shoulder blades, and the creature stiffened, growled in pain before whipping back to him. It snarled viciously, and leapt.
But Yamucha was already moving, using a speed he'd long forgotten; he deftly evaded the charge, and raced over to Puar. He allowed himself the most cursory examination of her condition, seeing that she was shell-shocked but apparently uninjured, before hurriedly scooping her up and using his ki to propel them both to the top of a nearby building. Once there, he suppressed his power, and stared over the edge to check if they'd been seen; the creature was standing in the middle of the street, looking around as though lost.
"Whew!" Yamucha sighed, relieved. He gazed down at the small form he held in his arms. "Hey, Puar. You okay?"
Puar wriggled out of his grasp. Her ears were pinned back, and her tail was curling and writhing like a nervous snake. "Y . . . yeah. I changed back before that . . . thing could hit me again. Are you all right, Yamucha?"
"I'll live." His body still ached all over, and now that there was nothing to distract him, he could feel a grinding in his chest: a broken rib, maybe two. He was lucky, really; that thing could easily have killed him. He frowned at his companion. "I told you to stay back."
Puar's tail stiffened, and she scrunched her tiny features into an expression of indignance. "I would not! Don't be running off into trouble all alone and expect me to stand by! You obviously needed some help out there!"
Defeated, Yamucha shook his head. There was little use in trying to argue with her.
"What is that thing, Yamucha?" Puar's voice had softened, and dropped. He noted that she was staring down at the scene below, eyes thoughtful.
"I dunno," he answered truthfully. "And I'm not sure I want to."
The distant blaring of sirens caught his ears, from several directions. Police cars. Some of the fleeing citizens had doubtless called the authorities and reported the situation. The noises apparently irritated the creature, whose movements had gone from confused to agitated.
A sick feeling spreading in his gut, though not from his injuries, Yamucha turned his head away. "C'mon, Puar. We oughtta get outta here while it's distracted."
Puar eyed him with concern, but said nothing and merely climbed onto his shoulder. Yamucha took off, flying at a slow pace so as to not make his power too blatantly detectable. Behind them were the noises of gunfire and screams. Yeah, people were dying out there, but there was nothing he could do to stop it, and he'd only get killed himself if he tried. Did thinking that way make him a coward? In many eyes, including his own, he would judge that it did. But his pride had been stomped on for years until it was as thin as a sheet of tracing paper. Still present, but not nearly as powerful an influence as it had been over him in his younger days.
"Maybe it's not as bad as we think, Yamucha," Puar broke the silence. "Maybe it's just that one monster and one of the others can take care of it, easy."
"Maybe," Yamucha repeated, so softly that he barely heard himself. He was trying unsuccessfully to make himself believe that they could be that lucky. They never were.
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