Always the Oni, pressing our defensive lines. I can feel the after-echoes of a thousand panicked soldiers. Moses's thoughts shine like a beacon, and Kiyoshi's are, as ever, veiled behind the void.
The Oni are attacking en masse.
We have no choice but to face them. We're the only ones who can.
There they are, striding across the battlefield like demons. Karaku-Oni lays a dozen bunkers to waste with molten light. Asamu-Oni flows over a division and it ages to death even as it fights. Suraisu-Oni sends piledriver after piledriver blow towards a mecha edged in silver flames, and I realize at once that this is Ichirou, fighting at the side of his men. Before we move, I drape a telepathic sensory net around the minds of each of my companions, and a window-within-window field of their own perceptions snaps into being in my sight.
We are as prepared as we will ever be.
We leap from the Sennin and descend on the battle, katas whirling. I get a brief glimpse of Suraisu-Oni sending a bludgeon my way. Then something hits me, and my thoughts are scattered. I land on my feet, barely. There is heat, and a bright light, and I look up just in time to see Karaku-Oni's molten beams converging on... me.
There is heat, and pain, and a bright green light, and then darkness for the instant between the destruction of my optic nerves and the cooking of my brain inside my skull. ... For an instant, it seems to take forever. I have time. Time to realize that I'm about to die. Time to realize that I've failed. Time to feel the heat searing through my face and my body. Time ... reverses.
There is pain, and then a glorious burst of vision, and I can see the world again. Karaku-Oni's beams flow back into his wingtips, and I ascend. The damage caused by Suraisu-Oni is undone, and I ascend. Back... back... back into the Sennin, and suddenly we are not yet upon the battle, and High Dive is panting for breath.
"High Dive," I manage after a moment. "... Thank you."
The others are determined to stop the Oni, and I cannot let them go alone, but I will not suffer the same fate again. I refuse to die such a meaningless death.
We leap from the Sennin, and I head straight for Suraisu-Oni. With one hand I call up a hundred black tentacles, each one seeking out a target in the horde of eyeless below, each one sustaining me, filling me with power. My mind expands, and I focus it all into my right hand. My psychic knife crackles with energy as I descend towards Suraisu-Oni, and all at once I see Mokuzai, mangled and dead, beneath those pistons, and my vision goes red.
I plant the blade in the Oni's chest and hiss, "This is for Mokuzai, you bastard," releasing a massive pulse of psychic energy directly into whatever it is that passes for the creature's nervous system.
It looks down at the blade for a moment, almost nonplussed, and then falls over, paralyzed.
I feel... satisfaction.
I have no time to dwell on the minor victory. Kiyoshi, Una, and the others are already in motion. High Dive dashes to the front of the battle and does... something. There is a green pulse of light, and every Oni and every Eyeless on the battlefield immediately turns its attention to her.
In an instant, she's gone, dashing off towards the horizon with the Oni and the Eyeless army in pursuit.
Moses and I exchange incredulous looks. Then he and Ichirou pin the paralyzed Suraisu-Oni and lop off his head with Ichirou's mecha-sized katana.
I watch for a long moment as my friends rush into battle. Moses striding forward, glowing like a coal, Kiyoshi carried in Una's talons as she carries him from location to location, High Dive leading the entire enemy army by the nose, and I'm at a loss.
What can I do to help here? Even with my katas, I'm not much of a fighter. There's nothing I can do here that will equal their efforts.
The whispers of a thousand panicked thoughts catch my attention, and I realize abruptly that there is something I can do after all. I sit atop the bunker even as Ichirou descends to direct his army, and I reach out with my mind, brimming with power.
I am Ichirou.
I am Lightning.
I am Matthew.
I am a soldier drowning in his own blood.
I am an artillery operator, determined to do her job.
I am an officer, frantically directing his men and hoping desperately that they don't realize how fucking terrified I am.
I am a Heishi, watching the battle with jaw dropped open and horrified beyond all measure.
My mind expands. More. More. More.
This soldier. That soldier. A dozen over here. Fifty officers across the battlefield. Sixty artillery operators. More.
I am Allskin, Biomade, Mechified all united within one mind:
I am Cheldrun. A thousand minds united, until 'I' is a term which scarcely holds meaning.
I see the battle from a thousand viewpoints at once, and the intensity of the experience nearly overwhelms me.
Then I begin to exert my will. To direct myself, and through me, our army.
Moses grapples with Asamu-Oni. Una and High Dive do battle with the great rotting beast. High Dive flashes across my perceptions in the blink of an eye.
The battle rages, and my joy is infectious.
I can see. Everything.
All one and one all. Kiyoshi and Una have destroyed the great beast and seek out their next target. I spare a moment's attention to telekinetically extract Moses from Asamu-Oni's body, and another to send a blast of black energy into the horde of Eyeless that had surrounded High Dive at last.
I gesture, and she floats towards me.
Una snatches her up a moment later, and I release her, returning my attention to... everything.
A moment later, she deposits High-Dive in my lap. I absently rub the Zipsum's belly as we wait for her to recover from having exerted herself far too much.
Kiyoshi can't get close to the thing that had been Katashi Blade. I send out the telepathic call: "Concentrate all artillery fire on this point." This point? The Oni.
He ignores the first volley, his shield absorbing the majority of it.
... He is not so lucky with the second. The Oni vanishes in a storm of smoke and flame.
The battle rages on. High Dive returns to the fight, and brings death everywhere she goes. Asamu-Oni is dead: Moses killed him. Garandu-Oni is dispatched a moment later, and then all at once, it is only Karaku-Oni who remains.
Una fights him like a mad thing, and I do not understand her actions: she is nearly killed, but she does allow Kiyoshi and High Dive the time they need to close.
Karaku-Oni sees me. Rei-me. I am almost unaware of the danger. What does it matter if a part of me falls away? What is one part next to this... this... magnificence?
A molten beam strikes me in the chest, and I know pain, fear, and darkness. The gestalt shatters, and I am only Rei again. Minds whip about every which way for an instant... and then I come back to my senses, staring up at the figures of Kiyoshi and High Dive and Una as they tear Karaku-Oni to pieces.
It is done. The battle is over. I look down at my chest and see the flesh knitting over the exposed bone, pain receding, muscle and tissue actively regenerating.
As soon as my lungs are functional again, I let out a long, slow breath.
We've won. For now. And yet I can't shake the feeling that something is about to change. ... I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. As Una helps me to my feet, I briefly wonder where Nero is in all this.
Elder Moon wants to speak with us: we return to Jin-Kalys' sanctum, and we there hear her make her case.
She thinks he knows how to solve the riddle of peace. I am ready to dismiss her at once, but something stops me. A feeling. A strange thought, bubbling up from my memories of the gestalt, and for a moment I'm not sure if I'm Rei, Ichirou, Matthew, or something else entirely.
I hear her speaking as if from far away, but much closer is the old, familiar whisper of Inase Spark, drowning out even Amaterasu's insistence that I must not do whatever it is that Elder Moon is suggesting.
Thoughts of fear. Thoughts of relief.
I rise to my feet.
Moses can sense Zippora's pain and horror, and I wonder how that's possible: he's no telepath. Aimi knows. She can sense it immediately, even on the other side of Stardown. Kiyoshi hasn't given enough thought to the psychic consequences of having been intimate with a telepath. She knows.
Elder Moon is speaking, and I'm trying to think of a way to overcome the Oni by force of arms, and all I hear is my father's voice.
"Obsessed with death, with pain, with suffering. If death is all you can see, then death is all you deserve."
I look up, startled.
There he is, with the void all around. There he is, looking older now, as he did when I saw him in the wreck of the Bosphorous.
"I don't want to die," I say.
"Is that really true?" he asks.
... No. No, it's not. You can't feel the joy of battle and not wish to taste it.
"You're not alone, Mikomi," he says. "You have long held things worth fighting for. Do you have anything worth dying for?"
I stare at him for a long moment.
All at once, I'm standing with the others in Jin Kalys' sanctum, and Elder Moon is echoing my own words back to me even as Amaterasu shrieks to drown her out: "We must be willing to sacrifice ourselves by the thousands - by the millions - for one another. Wasn't it you who said that, Rei?"
She wants us to use the machine. The machine and Moses's machine combined. Sacrifice.
I nod. I understand. Amaterasu disagrees, but for once, I ignore her.
I think I finally understand Purpose.
And that's when everything goes to hell.