|The King of Fighters XV||Team Stories||Interviews||Gallery||Credits||Trivia|
This page includes English translations for the Team Stories found on The King of Fighters XV Official Website.
It is the day after an invitation to the King of Fighters winds up on Tung Fu Rue's doorstep.
"I have no intention of joining the tournament."
Shun'ei and Meitenkun are wide-eyed at the first words their master speaks on the matter.
"What?! What do you mean, Grandpa?!"
"Awww man! So we're sitting it out this time around?"
Seeing his pupils' shocked and disappointed faces, Tung shakes his head.
"Now, I didn't say that. You two should team up with the Kusanagi boy this time."
"That's the one. Shun'ei, Meitenkun, you grew so much in the last tournament — both physically and mentally. You should have no trouble teaming up with other fighters. Think of this as part of your training!"
The old master holds out a couple of plane tickets to the two boys. Shun'ei and Meitenkun each take one, staring intently at the text printed on them. As he watches his young disciples, Tung's expression softens.
"I shall speak with Kyo's father. Be careful on your journey to Japan."
"Benimaru Nikaido? How'd you end up subbing in for Kyo?"
Fresh off the plane from China to Japan, the disciples make their way to the airport's exit, where they are unexpectedly greeted by Kyo's usual teammate Benimaru. As soon as he sees Shun'ei's puzzled expression and Meitenkun nodding off, Benimaru chuckles bitterly and shrugs his shoulders.
"Apparently his hands are full with some 'other business,' so he asked me to come instead."
"I don't remember agreeing to this..."
At Shun'ei's astonishment, Benimaru puts a hand to his forehead, exasperated.
It was only yesterday that Kyo had asked Benimaru to substitute for him. Daimon had been busy with his Judo alliance, and Kyo had something else to attend to, so Benimaru figured he'd sit out the KOF this time around. But just as he was getting relaxed, he got a sudden call.
After explaining this to Shun'ei and Meitenkun, Benimaru turns to face the pair again.
"You don't mind if I join your team, do you? Not that you have much of a choice, from the looks of it."
"Yeah. But I know we've fought before, it's just that we don't know a thing about each other. What if—"
...What if I lose control of my power and start going berserk?
Shun'ei clams up, swallowing his words. Benimaru frowns at the boy's downcast expression, but before he can say anything, a loud yawn pierces the silence.
"Don't worry about it, Shun!"
Shifting his pillow under his arm, Meitenkun tugs at the hem of Shun'ei's clothes with his free hand. Surveying Benimaru and his fellow disciple with drowsy eyes, the boy smiles innocently.
"Besides, Master Tung said this was part of our training. So why don't we all just get along, huh? Happy to team up with you, Benimaru!"
Seeing the grinning Meitenkun hold out a hand, Shun'ei lets the tension leave his body and laughs awkwardly.
"...I guess you're right. Let's do this, Benimaru Nikaido."
"Yeah, back at you, you two!"
As the three exchange handshakes, a plane roars overhead. Shun'ei and Meitenkun look up, catching sight of a white vapor trail cutting across the clear evening sky.
"Let's bring Grandpa back some good news, shall we?"
"Eheheh, sounds like a plan to me."
Benimaru slaps his hands on the shoulders of the grinning disciples, cracking a smile of his own.
"Now then, how about we go celebrate our new team with a meal? It's on me, so feel free to go ham."
"Really and truly?! Thanks a bunch, Benimaru! I say we go grab some Japanese barbecue!"
"C'mon, Meiten, mind your manners..."
"Barbecue, you say? Okay, coming right up."
Meitenkun practically jumps up and down in eagerness, while Shun'ei frowns and jabs him with an elbow. Benimaru, however, pays the pair no mind, searching for a shop with the manner of a seasoned pro. Moments later, he thrusts his smartphone in front of the disciples.
"How about this spot? I went with some buds a while back. Pretty tasty."
As he swipes through the photos on the screen, one after another bewitching platters of what look like Japanese Black Wagyu appear, flanked by a luxurious assortment of side dishes. Shun'ei and Meitenkun stare at the screen as gasps of wonder leave their lips.
"Th-This is incredible. Can we really go?"
"Loosen up! This is a celebration, ain't it?"
Benimaru's smile shows no sign of someone trying to show off for the youngsters. Shun'ei lets his gaze fall from the man and mutters softly.
"Didn't expect that..."
"You act showy and shallow, but you can look after people when it counts."
"Heheh, lemme tell you a secret: it's all about the contrast. Ladies go wild for that kinda thing."
Just then, Meitenkun shows the screen to Shun'ei and exclaims with excitement.
"Hey, lookie, Shun! They got a whole buncha desserts, too!"
"What?! Oh boy, that looks tasty..."
Shun'ei is unable to hide his smile at the sight of the colorful confectionaries. Seeing the unexpected hint of childish innocence on Shun'ei's face, Benimaru grins and puts his arms around the boys' shoulders.
"Well now, got a sweet tooth, do ya? Chow down to your heart's content, Shun ♪"
"Hey. I appreciate the grub, but don't go acting like we're best buddies now."
"Awww, don't be shy, Shunny! ♪"
"Don't make fun of me, dammit!"
The bright evening sunlight shines on the trio as they leave the airport behind them.
However, none of them could have predicted that only days later, they would meet a girl whose appearance would herald a calamity in the tournament...
Sacred Treasures Team
In the dead of night, wind blows through a subway tunnel steeped in shadow, causing the tail ends of a man’s coat flutter side to side. Behind disheveled bangs hides a cold stare, which turns to the sound of two sets of clacking heels approaching from behind.
"I hope we have found you in good spirits, Iori Yagami."
"We told you that your nightmare was only just beginning. The souls that poured out of that broken vessel continue to wander the earth."
"This, and your boiling blood—it's all a portent of despair. The cracks in this world's fabric continue to grow and spread."
"Tch. Same crap as always..."
Purple light floods the station with a roar, drowning out the faint glow of the electric signage. Mature and Vice narrow their eyes at the fierce, steady, and somehow ominous blaze.
Iori turns slowly, curling fingers wreathed in purple flame.
"Get lost. Otherwise, these flames'll send you off—to hell, that is."
Faced with a fiery savagery, Mature lets out a sigh of contentment. Vice, on the other hand, grins like a cat that's found a plump mouse.
Light flickers behind the strangely relaxed pair, silhouetting them in purple flame. Their eyes gleam in the intermittent darkness.
"We'll be in the front row watching you writhe in this nightmare."
"Make sure you give us a good show."
Vice rocks and sways, and Mature leans forward bewitchingly. They stretch out their fingers, pointing at Iori...or beyond him.
"Your destiny lies just ahead..."
An out-of-service train thunders past, cutting the tension like a knife. Where Iori had been glaring, the two beauties had already vanished. Hair and coat buffeted by the gust of wind, he slowly clenches his hand, flames now dissipated.
The sound of heels clacking on the tiles once again appears behind Iori. As the measured steps move closer, he feels eyes on his back.
"So this is where you were. I've been looking all over for you."
At the woman's voice, Iori turns.
The dignified voice belongs to Chizuru Kagura. She stares directly at Iori and continues to speak.
"Iori Yagami. Will you join me as part of Team Sacred Treasures?"
A flock of pigeons takes off against a backdrop of thin clouds rolling in the clear sky.
A young man whiles away time in a park in the corner of the city, far from the metropolitan hustle and bustle. As the water fountain burbles behind him, the man—Kyo Kusanagi—glances down at his watch. A minute before the arranged meeting time, a motorbike engine purrs through the tranquil thicket.
"My apologies. I hope you didn't wait too long."
The sports bike stops in front of him, and Kyo shrugs at the woman gracefully dismounting it.
"Pretty late for you, Kagura."
"They sealed off the highway due to a traffic accident. I rushed over fast as I could."
"Hey now, you better not have broken the speed limit getting here."
After glancing over to the bike, Chizuru takes off her helmet and knits her beautiful brows at Kyo's teasing.
"You know I wouldn't do something like that."
She takes a moment to collect herself before locking eyes with Kyo, gravitas in her gaze.
"Now, onto the main topic, Kusanagi."
As he begins to listen to what Chizuru has to say, the wisecracking attitude vanishes from his face.
The warmth of the sunshine that had filled the park disappears, as if clouds were passing over the sun. A faintly chilly shade falls over the pair.
"Remember Verse, that mysterious monster that appeared in the last tournament? Orochi's residual spirit wasn't all that it resurrected."
"Yeah... You're talking about these guys, aren't you."
Kyo takes out his phone in response.
His screen shows a photo Chizuru had sent to him a few days prior: three individuals blending into the cityscape, members of the Orochi clan they had supposedly defeated and sealed away.
Chizuru frowns at Kyo's hardened expression and continues to speak in a hushed tone.
"Since then, some sort of power has begun to interfere with Orochi's seal. The Yata clan can still ward it off for now...but this power grows day by day."
"Do you think it's their doing?"
Kyo points at his phone, but Chizuru shakes her head in response.
"I'm afraid that is beyond my knowledge. Even so, this seems somewhat different from the power of the Four Heavenly Kings. If I had to describe it, it's as if the natural order of the world itself is being altered..."
Chizuru pauses. A strong wing kicks up, rustling the trees noisily. Crows caw in the distance.
"Are they trying to start something? Or perhaps they've been wrapped up in this again? I'll need your and Yagami's help if I'm going to figure out the truth."
Sunlight suddenly cuts through the cloud cover.
Chizuru turns to face Kyo with a sense of formality, her voice elegant and dignified.
"Kyo Kusanagi. Will you join me as part of Team Sacred Treasures?"
Kyo shifts his eyes from hers to his feet.
"Man, I've told you this stuff with ancestors and duties has nothing to do with me. Besides, just thinking of being all buddy-buddy with Yagami makes me sick. I can't do it."
Having spoken his mind, Kyo lets out a short sigh.
"...Or at least, that's what I'd like to say. I doubt you'd give up that easily. Just this once, alright?"
He raises his head to meet Chizuru's gaze. His stiff, disgruntled grimace, along with any resignation or shock, is gone from his face—only a wry smile remains. Seeing this, the priestess' anxious expression melts away, and her lips turn up into a smile of their own. "Thank you, Kusanagi."
But the next moment, Kyo turns away.
"I'll team up with you, but I have one condition."
"Once everything's cleaned up, I don't want to hear any complaints about what I do afterward."
Kyo tosses these words over his shoulder, somehow eliciting a strained laugh from Chizuru. She murmurs in a voice quieter than the rustling grass.
"...Two peas in a pod, you are."
"Huh? You say something?"
"No, it's nothing."
Chizuru reaches toward her motorbike and picks up her helmet. Straddling the bike again, she speaks to Kyo as he watches her with a hint of reservation.
"I understand. If we fulfill our goal, I promise not to meddle with both of your affairs. But until the threat to Orochi's seal is eliminated...our mission as Team Sacred Treasures takes priority, and I expect your cooperation."
"Sure, I'll 'cooperate'. I'll give you the bare minimum, at least."
Chizuru raises an eyebrow to his lackluster reply before revving her engine and zooming away. After watching her leave, Kyo looks back to the smartphone in his hand.
A different message from before is displayed on the screen. On the sender-line is one word: "Dad".
"Okay... So what the hell am I gonna do about this pain in the ass?"
Though he sounds at a loss, his finger swipes through his phone until it reaches a certain phone number.
He taps it without hesitation and brings the phone to his ear as he begins to walk.
"Yo, Benimaru? I've got a favor to ask you..."
Fatal Fury Team
It is late afternoon in a corner of South Town at the Pao Pao Café, right around the time when business starts to pick up.
There, at a table next to a neon-lit bar counter, Terry and Andy Bogard both sit staring at the guy opposite them: their friend, Joe Higashi. It was his proposal that was making them pause.
Essentially, he wants them all to come up with goals to achieve once they win the King of Fighters tournament. Hardly a surprising proposal coming from Joe, but its suddenness makes Andy tilt his head.
"I'm not averse to the idea, but why this again?"
"Where's the fun in just fighting and winning? This gives us a reason to win, while boosting our motivation. Two birds, one stone!"
His infallible smile on full display, Joe takes a chicken nugget and pops it into his mouth. Terry laughs.
"Very you, Joe! Love it! Sure, I'm in!"
He flashes a pearly white grin, while Andy assents with a smile of his own. Satisfied, Joe lowers his fork, adjusts his posture, then leans in toward his teammates.
"Heh heh, I knew I could count on you guys! So here's what I'm gonna do..."
"Whoa, you're just going to blurt that out now?"
"Sure! Anyway, if we win..."
As Joe lays out his plan, he curls his fingers into trembling fists, before rising from his chair and thrusting them into the air.
"I'm gonna ask Lilly out!"
Joe's booming voice resonates throughout the Pao Pao Café, but he is so caught up in the moment that he doesn't register the other café patrons staring at him. The Bogard brothers now see that this was the whole reason Joe suggested coming up with goals to start with.
"Hmmm, okay. I guess that would get you pumped."
Andy and Terry exchange smiles.
Joe settles back into his seat, grabs his mug, then looks over at Andy.
"You're up next, buddy!"
"Me...?! Hmm. A goal, huh..."
Andy scratches his cheek thoughtfully.
"I'm at the Shiranui Dojo all day and night, but maybe I should spend some time elsewhere. Maybe I could travel around and train. Go back to the basics for a bit."
In response to Andy's pensiveness, Terry gives an encouraging nod.
"A training tour, huh? Sounds great!"
"I dunno, man. Bet you'd have a certain someone trailing after you, calling your name."
"I can't believe you think Mai would... Hmm, actually, I wouldn't put it past her..."
Andy's objection to the grinning Joe's comment soon fizzles out when he realizes there may be truth in it. With a small sigh, he takes a gulp of his drink, then turns to Terry.
"What about you, then?"
Terry gives a little pause before answering casually with his usual smile.
"Travel the world, I guess."
"You do that anyway!"
"Right? Then again, it's very Terry."
Terry grins, making Joe laugh raucously, which elicits a soft chuckle from Andy.
Their relationship never changes, but that's what allows them to trust each other and relax. With or without their goals, they are always the same people, and probably always will be.
"Hey, I've got an idea. Not a goal or anything, but how about once the tournament's over, we hit up the beach with Mary and Mai?"
"Sounds like a plan! If we win, we're going to have to celebrate with a vacation!"
"I'm sure me and Lilly will have really hit it off by then. Just you wait; it's gonna be great!"
As the day gives way to night, the café grows busier and busier, the three animated teammates' conversation and laughter gradually fading into the hustle and bustle.
In the midst of a seemingly endless expanse of darkness appears the cracks of a deep fissure. It grows with frightening speed. The gap in the middle widens with a low groan, and beyond shines a universe of innumerable blinking lights. Though the sight resembles a galaxy, there is something altogether otherworldly about it. The space through the gap feels so close as to be separated by the thinnest of membranes, but at the same time, like it is an eternity away. The very moment the trio notice a presence from beyond, countless hands suddenly erupt from the cosmic crevice. A torrent of hands floods into the darkness, swallowing up the three who'd been drifting in that empty space. Something cracks, and with a rumble, Yashiro Nanakase, Shermie, and Chris are thrown onto familiar soil.
Several days later, the three enjoy a pleasant afternoon in the corner of a café, blending in seamlessly with the other customers.
"That spectacle can't have been a mere coincidence. Someone out there must have caused it."
Chris reaches out for his juice on the table, eyes glued to his smartphone.
"Right? It was too real to be a dream."
"Didn't feel as if someone revived us on purpose, though. Not a member of the Orochi clan, at the very least."
Yashiro answers through mouthfuls of his sandwich while Shermie takes out a freshly-purchased magazine and spreads it on the table.
Chris lets the straw fall from his lips and returns his glass to its coaster before continuing.
"It was just a moment, but I sensed a very bizarre power. If you told me it was Gaia's Will of another planet or something, I'd be inclined to believe it."
Yashiro halts mid-bite, sandwich in hand. He looks over at Chris absentmindedly fiddling with his phone. Sensing Yashiro's gaze, Chris returns it with a glance.
"You may be right. Still, who gives a crap who they are? If they're useful, we'll use 'em, and that's all there is to it. We did get this invitation, after all..."
A devil-may-care grin spreads across Yashiro's face as he waves a letter affixed with a gorgeous seal. Chris can't help but smile in response.
"Simple-minded as always... Still, you have a point."
As the two of them return to their smartphone and sandwich, Shermie lets out a soft gasp over her magazine.
She turns the magazine to face her companions and points to one of the pages.
"Say, you two, take a look at this. Those hands we saw... Don't they look like what this kid has?"
The article Shermie excitedly indicates is a feature on the "King of Fighters" tournament. Printed on the page is a photo from the previous tournament, which depicts a boy controlling large, phantasmagoric hands.
"His name's Shun'ei. Not the greatest shot, but he's a cutie for sure. ♪"
Shermie dreamily places a hand on her cheek, which causes Chris and Yashiro to exchange glances before taking a look for themselves. The image is indeed a bit blurry, as if it was taken from a distance. Yashiro furrows his brow.
"Yeah, I guess they look similar, but this photo's kind of crappy..."
"That just means we'll have to see for ourselves at the tourney, doesn't it?"
Shermie pulls the magazine back, the smile never leaving her face.
"Hee hee, right you are! One more thing to look forward to. ♪"
Yashiro pops what is left of his sandwich into his mouth and reaches for his iced coffee. Chris also goes for his drink, only to find nothing but ice clinking inside. He turns and calls out to the staff.
While keeping the approaching waiter in the corner of her eye, Shermie fixates on the magazine article, thumbing page after page eagerly.
Surrounded by the gentle afternoon air and monotonous music playing in the cafe, Yashiro yawns, then leans over and gives the table a light slap. This startles a couple high school girls at the neighboring table, though they soon turn back to their own conversation.
"Right, so about that new song."
At these words, Shermie closes her magazine, and Chris sets his phone down on the table.
"Oh, that's right. Sorry, we got a bit off track."
"Can't wait for our revival concert! We'd better whip up something fun."
The trio then sink back into their normal routine.
Not a single person gives their conversation a second thought: not the chatty high school girls next to them; not the office worker reading a newspaper across the way; and not even the staff drowsily making the rounds in the café.
Indeed, none of them could ever imagine that this eccentric group of friends belong to the very Orochi clan that desires the extinction of the human race.
Art of Fighting Team
The sun shines brightly over South Town. Gazing up at a glimmering, fancy sign above a restaurant on Main Street, two men stand, luggage bags slung over their shoulders.
The restaurant has a line going out the door, above which its sign beams: "Kyokugen BBQ". One of the men, Marco Rodrigues, gulps as he eyes the eager crowd chatting and browsing the menus.
"Looks like business is booming."
The restaurant is even bigger and fancier than the other man, Ryo Sakazaki, remembered. He looks at the restaurant with a feeling hard to describe. Neither apprehension nor displeasure, it is just something he cannot put a name to―much to his chagrin.
No matter how hard he tried to expel all thoughts during training, the name "Kyokugen BBQ" would stand strong, casting a pall over his mood like dark clouds rolling in. Those dark clouds loom over his heart right now.
Ryo and Marco make their way to an employee entrance. Once they press the buzzer and give their names, they are allowed through to the manager's office. It is a tidy place occupied by two people: Ryo's father, Takuma Sakazaki, and Ryo's best friend and fellow student, Robert Garcia. They smile and rise to their feet as soon as Ryo and Marco enter.
"Ah, Ryo! Marco! You're back!"
"Been a while, guys! Sorry I couldn't come get you."
Robert walks over to Ryo and gives his shoulder a friendly slap. In response, Ryo smiles, as Marco bows.
"It's cool. Nice to see business is going good for you guys. Is Yuri here...?"
Just as Ryo turns to scan the area for his little sister, she emerges from the open doorway, visibly fatigued. She trudges her way into the office without noticing the two visitors.
"This is too much work for a side hustle... Sorry, Robert. I don't think I can hit up the dojo today, either."
"I hear ya, Yuri. Even Kyokugen BBQ's poster gal needs a break. Get some rest once you finish your shift, huh?"
"Sure. I'm gonna sleep through until lunchtime... Hm? Oh, hey, guys! You're back!"
Perhaps boosted by Robert's compliment, Yuri straightens her drooping shoulders, and finally notices Ryo and Marco. On seeing how hard Yuri has been throwing herself into her part-time work, the dark clouds in Ryo's heart grow thicker.
"Good to be back. You're looking well, Yuri."
"I guess. It's been crazy at work lately. I'm practically dead on my feet."
Yuri's hair has grown out, and bobs as she moves. Ryo looks on, trying to remind himself there is nothing wrong with helping out a family business. He turns back to Takuma and Robert.
"Oh yeah. I'm thinking about competing in this KOF to see if my training's paid off. How about you, Dad? Robert? Got any plans?"
"My hands are full here. It's a critical time, so I can't afford to be away."
Ryo's brows furrow ever so slightly at Takuma's casual dismissal. Nobody around him seems to notice. Takuma folds his arms and looks over at Robert.
"Robert, you join Ryo's team! And don't forget to advertise Kyokugen BBQ!"
Robert replies to his master with energy before turning to Ryo and holding out a hand with a grin.
"I could use this. Been so busy runnin' this place, it'd be nice to get a sweat on outside the dojo! Thanks, Ryo!"
"...Sure thing! Great to have you on board!"
As Ryo shakes Robert's hand, the firmness of their grips reassures him and brings his usual smile back to his face. Picking up on this, Marco quietly lets out a sigh of relief.
"Great. One spot to go. If it's you and me, then three has to be Yuri."
"Sure thing. You can always count on me!"
Yuri leans in as Robert speaks. Ryo eyes her, his smile fading.
He thinks back to Yuri's earlier remark. After a moment of silence, he speaks in a low tone.
"...No. You're out this time, Yuri."
Yuri and Robert's eyes widen in shock. Takuma looks on quietly, his arms folded, while Marco gives Ryo and Yuri a concerned gaze.
With his eyes fixed sternly on Yuri, Ryo asks a simple question.
"When did you last train at the dojo?"
"Uhh... I wanna say...like, two months ago?"
"Don't tell me you're still in top shape. You know how tough the competition at KOF is. You know what lengths everyone goes to. So, I'll be real: you're weak. You can't win anything!"
Ryo's words clearly hit Yuri hard. She just stands there, opening and closing her mouth, like she's trying to protest, but can't because his words hit home.
After several moments trembling in silence, Yuri speaks, her voice quivering.
"H-How could you say that...? Weak?! I am NOT weak! You, you...jerk!"
Yuri runs out of the office. Ryo watches her go while Robert giving an understanding nod. He pats his best friend on the shoulder.
"You know Yuri, a competitive streak a mile wide. Don't worry about her. She'll get back in the groove soon enough."
Ryo's only response is a light sigh. Robert tilts his head thoughtfully.
"So who's our third member? Marco?"
Marco quickly stands to attention. Ryo looks pensive.
"Actually, I've got someone else in mind..."
The Illusion Bar is getting ready to open. King is standing behind the bar counter inside, polishing drink glasses, when she hears the door open and close again. As footsteps approach, she looks up and starts to speak in a cool, dismissive tone.
"Bar's closed... Oh, it's you. Don't startle me like that."
"Sorry to interrupt your opening prep. Mind if I sit here?"
King's expression softens when she sees Ryo. He waves and grabs a seat at the bar counter.
"Knock yourself out. Want a post-training drink?"
King notices Ryo's somber expression, and knits her brow in concern―he is never usually like this after wrapping up training. She lowers the glass she is polishing to give him her full attention, but before she can ask what is wrong, Ryo looks up and stares at her resolutely.
"Hey, King? Can I be serious with you for a second?"
King falters slightly.
"What's got into you?"
"Look. You and I go back a long ways. We understand each other. I feel comfortable being around you."
King can't tell what he is trying to say. She grows nervous.
"We've gotten to know each other really well... You're the only one I think is right..."
His expression earnest, he speaks with sincerity. She knows how he operates, and suspects this has something to do with Kyokugen or martial arts or something. But to her, there is still a slim chance this could be leading somewhere...else... Given his phrasing, King can't quite bring herself to rule out the possibility. Her cheeks flushed, she waits for him to finish.
Ryo's eyes open widely, and he leans in with his hands planted on the bar counter.
"King, I need to know... Would you join our team and compete with us in KOF?!"
King sighs and drops her hands to the countertop, hanging her head, exasperated with herself for getting her hopes up. Ryo naturally misinterprets this: "You won't do it?!"
"No, I will. I was on reserve for this KOF anyway... I'm sure Mai'll have no trouble finding teammates herself."
King flashes a smile to ease the clearly tense Ryo.
"You'll really do it...?!"
"Great! You're the best, King!"
Ryo smiles broadly, taking King's hand firmly; she responds with a firm grip of her own, all the while thinking about how damn dense he is.
Ikari Warriors Team
As if aiming for the clouds above the horizon, a line of military vessels sails forth. They act as the base of Heidern's mercenary force, navigating the globe with no harbor to call home.
Our protagonists stand in a briefing room located on an aircraft carrier nested in the center of a fleet.
In the darkened room, Heidern has taken a position before a data-filled screen, facing those present. Leona, Ralf and Clark are lined up in front of their commander, their eyes trained on him, trying to concentrate on the mission details despite the presence of two unknown faces distracting them.
"Based on our data from gravitational waves observed in various locations, and the intel from our collaborator Dolores, here, we believe the creature will appear again during this edition of the King of Fighters."
When mentioning the collaborator, Heidern glances at the priestess beside her, Dolores, who responds with an elegant gesture. Despite this elegance, she observes the three subordinates keenly, almost seeming to appraise them.
"The monster would likely do far more devastating damage this time. Accordingly, we must neutralize the threat at an early stage... That is our mission." As the commander wraps up, the lights come on, lifting the tenseness of the room.
Clark remains standing at attention, but his expression relaxes.
"Understood. Of course this is an important operation, but I didn't think you'd be on the front lines, Commander."
"Right. And as a member of the team, too..."
After Ralf chimes in, his eyes wander to the corner of the room.
There a girl fidgets out of boredom, her back against the wall. Sensing Ralf's eyes on her, she raises her head and stares back menacingly, her whole body tense.
"Whoops, didn't mean to offend the little leader."
In response to the girl reacting like an alley cat meeting a rival on the roadside, Ralf forces a smile before turning back to his commander.
Having observed this exchange, Heidern allows a short pause before moving on.
At their commander's words, Ralf and Clark tense up; even Leona, who has remained stoic since entering the room, flutters her eyelids.
"Leona, Ralf, Clark, , your priorities are to observe the tournament and monitor Shun'ei. The moment his powers go berserk, intercept and subdue him."
The room falls deathly silent.
The cursed blood residing within her aches. She has resisted it and fought it countless times, even succumbed to it on occasion. Whenever she wavers, the Commander and the others save her. But now, she is determined to be strong, and never lose to it again.
Still, something does not feel right―something different this time, which casts a small shadow over her heart. If her hunch is correct and she loses control, she would be a liability to the mission. Feeling she should say something, Leona is about to speak, when...
"I'm picking up what you're putting down here: we're the best guys for the job."
An infallible smile spread broadly across his face, Ralf breaks the silence. He pats Leona lightly on the shoulder, and nods enthusiastically.
"No sweat, Commander. We can subdue rampaging dudes in our sleep."
"He's right. Nothing out of the ordinary for us. Business as usual."
To the opposite side of Leona, Clark nods calmly in agreement, flashing a familiar grin.
Leona glances at her allies, before returning her gaze to Heidern. Her mouth moves ever so slightly. Only her trusted comrades and commander could ever notice such a smile.
Heidern gives a small nod to her direct yet honest response.
"For the final of the tournament, the fleet will be on standby approximately 40 miles north of the stadium. Stay on guard until the mission is complete. Dismissed!"
"Sir, yes, sir!"
Heidern watches his subordinates bow respectfully, then leave the briefing room with a determination in their step.
Secret Agents Team
In a small corner of South Town, a quiet, little hole-in-the-wall bar is nestled. Sat at the counter are a man and a woman, their tall figures, perfect postures, and elegant gestures marking them with an air of refinement.
They've been sitting in the bar for around an hour now. The man lightly pushes his glasses up his nose as he finishes talking, which the black-haired woman observes out of the corner of her eye. She smiles with interest.
"...So that's what you want?"
The young man nods, then picks up a photo resting on the counter, and quietly stows it in his breast pocket.
"Yes. Though I imagine even you would struggle to get it."
"Quite a rude imagination you've got there."
"If it happens to fall into your possession, would you be willing to give it to me? I'm prepared to pay you in full, of course."
When he slowly turns to face her, the ice in the glass between them clinks. He gives her a faint smile, while she rises quietly from her seat.
"Hmm... If it happens to... Well, we’ll see."
In response, his smile grows broader. As the woman makes her way out, she casts an idle glance at a decorative stool sitting in a corner of the bar, then reaches for the doorknob without paying it any more mind.
"See you around, Hein-y."
With those parting words, the woman, who’s known only as Luong, exits the bar, its door chimes ringing hollowly into the air.
On a bright, early afternoon, the sound of waves melts into the cawing of seagulls.
It's been nearly an hour since she came to this café. Maybe it's the sweltering heat from the sun's relentless rays, or maybe it's the buzz this place has on social media, but an endless stream of young couples are eating there. The café is built out over the water, and is packed with people sharing straws and chatting.
Blue Mary puts her tablet down on the table and lets out a heavy sigh.
"Nope. He's not giving me anything to go on..."
Her colleague Vanessa asked to meet up here, and Blue Mary's been gazing out over the terrace ever since she arrived. At first it was nice to enjoy a meal and some downtime, but then Vanessa texted her, "Sry! Might run an hour late!" Since then, she's been in work mode, stuck killing time.
Mary scowls down at her tablet, which displays a photo taken in secret.
Hein: The Howard Connection newcomer that distinguished himself in the last KOF. It is unclear what he has to gain from them, but he seems to be operating under their radar. So far that's Mary's only lead.
This photo is the only hint she has gotten in the past several months.
"Doubt it's just an innocent date if the Howard Connection was kept in the dark about it..."
The photo shows Hein at a bar on the outskirts of South Town, trading drinks with an attractive black-haired woman. That woman is the mysterious Luong, who appeared in the last KOF as the lover of Gang-il, Kim Kaphwan's martial arts master.
"Just who IS Luong?"
As Mary knits her brows, she spots a familiar red-haired woman out of the corner of her eye, weaving her way through tables toward her.
"Hey, Mary! Sorry I kept you!"
"Seriously. Who arranges a meeting then shows up late?"
Mary turns off her tablet and looks up with a wry smile, which freezes the moment she sees the tall woman with black hair walking behind Vanessa.
It is the very same woman Mary was eyeing suspiciously in the photo seconds ago. Luong smiles demurely and waves. Whether she can discern Mary's reaction remains unknown.
"Hi there, um...Blue Mary, right?"
"...That's me. Real talk, I'm surprised. I was NOT expecting to meet you like this, Luong."
Mary smiles, at which Luong looks pleased.
While the two trade introductions, Vanessa takes a seat. She picks up a menu off the table and speaks to Mary.
"I was picking up a collaborator—one I think you'll benefit from having around."
Mary stows her tablet in her handbag and looks over at Vanessa.
"Hm, I don't remember talking shop with you, Vanessa."
"Just so we're clear: she reached out to me, okay?"
"Correct. I just couldn't get the rush of KOF out of my head. But with my man busy training Kim, I wouldn't want to team up with people I don't know and trust, right?"
Luong takes a seat and accepts a menu from Vanessa. Mary observes her closely, but she can't make out whether the mild concern in Luong's voice rings true. Just as Mary is about to accept she'll probably never get any decent answers, her eyes meet Luong's.
"Then I remembered you ladies, and I figured, well, you both seem nice enough, so we might make a good team. I really think you and I will have a lot to talk about, Mary... My friends tell me all sorts of things―things I'm sure you'll be very interested in."
Luong smiles coyly, revealing quite bluntly she has an agenda. Mary's eye twitches.
"You know what would make us an even better team? If you told me what your game is."
Mary and Luong's mouths may be smiling, but their eyes are anything but. Naive bystanders might see them as hitting it off, but sparks of hostility, mistrust, and rivalry fly between them.
Vanessa waves her closed menu between them, like she's snuffing out flames.
"I don't see the problem. She clearly knows her stuff. And personally, I don't care what her angle is. As long as I can keep my target under surveillance without a mercenary commander interfering, that's good enough for me. It should be a win-win for you, too, getting a hookup for Howard Connection intel, right?"
Vanessa flags down a waiter to take her order. As she gives it, she looks between Mary and Luong. Their expressions have both softened. Vanessa wears her typical, casual smile, but her eyes are all business as she studies them.
"Okay, here's how this is gonna go. First, Mary and I will get Luong into KOF. Once the tournament starts, you two will help me with my job. After the tournament, Luong and I will provide Mary with whatever intel she needs as payment. What's important is that each of us does our part perfectly. Sound good, ladies?"
Luong beams in response, while Mary gives a begrudging nod. Vanessa relaxes and claps her hands together, satisfied.
"Great! All girls for one and one girl for all!"
As the shop talk wraps up, a waiter brings their meals. He sets out several dishes and drinks, before finally setting down a large mug of beer with a solid clunk. Mary grimaces in distaste, while Luong's eyes widen.
"That's a lot of beer. Look at all that foam brimming over..."
"Come on. I know we're done with work, but it's noon!"
"Rude. This is non-alcoholic. Now raise your glasses, ladies!"
"To our new team!" Vanessa checks to make sure the other two have raised their glasses before raising her own. Foam dribbles down the sides of the mug, sparkling in the brilliant sunlight.
Super Heroines Team
The setting sun shines across the Illusion Bar nestled in a street in South Town. Its door, adorned with an "OPEN" sign, bursts open, and a beautiful woman storms through.
"King, you're not going to believe this!"
King, the bar's proprietor, smiles wryly as the woman marches straight for the bar counter, delivering her all-too-familiar exclamation with an all-too-familiar look on her face.
"Hey, Mai. Let me guess: you didn't get to team up with Andy again, did you?"
"No, I didn't! I don't know how many times I've practically begged him, but he won't listen!"
King offers a drink to her close friend, Mai Shiranui, who chugs it down, slams the glass on the counter, then slumps over it. Mai's boyfriend has a habit of putting his brother and friends first and her second; as a result, Mai storming into the bar is practically an everyday occurrence.
Just as Mai looks up and King braces herself to listen for a barrage of woes, the door bursts open again, abruptly drawing their attention. Now it was Yuri Sakazaki's turn to march towards the counter angrily.
"Hi, Yuri. Come sit by me."
Yuri plops down into the seat Mai gestures toward, before leaning in to speak to her friends.
"King, Mai, you're not going to believe this!"
King smiles wryly at Yuri’s angry expression―the same one Mai had worn.
"My brother says I'm weak and I can't win anything and he won't let me on his team, and y'know, I mean, sure I've been busy at the BBQ joint lately, but I still train where I can, so what kinda brother comes home and just says that to his sister?!"
Yuri plants her hands angrily on the bar counter, as Mai give several sympathetic nods.
"That's so unfair. Your brother and Andy look at us like we just sit on our butts all day. We do so much more than they ever realize."
Mai speaks indignantly, swishing around her drink glass as Yuri looks on, impressed. Mai takes a breath, clunking her glass on the counter, then turns to Yuri with an intense look in her eyes.
"Yuri, the only thing to do is to prove yourself! Go to KOF and show your brother you mean business!"
"Oh, you bet I will! Ryo's gonna eat his words! You'd better show Andy what he's missing out on, too, Mai!"
Mai and Yuri shake hands firmly. "Okay, King—" they both start in unison. However, King looks back at them awkwardly. When she replies, she is looking down.
"Uh, about that... I don't think I can join you this time."
"Why not? I know you said you wanted to stay on reserve, but what's going on?"
"Um, to tell you the truth, the other day Ryo asked me to be on his team. I mean, you guys won't have any trouble finding another team member, and he looked so serious that I just kind of agreed."
King adds a "Sorry", but it is barely audible. Mai and Yuri sit open-mouthed for several moments before looking at each other.
King flinches as the two yell loud enough to shake their drinking glasses.
After the shock wears off, Mai looks at King warmly, her eyes expressing slight disappointment, but also delight.
"Well, why didn't you say so?! I would've bought something to celebrate! Congratulations, King! You'd better use this chance to get him to commit to a date!"
"Hey, ease up. Robert's gonna be there too. This is purely a team thing."
As King blushes despite herself, Yuri puffs out her cheeks with a conflicted expression.
"Oh, come on! I wanna call him a big fat jerk right now, but if you're making progress with him then I GUESS that's good... Stupid, complicated feelings..."
As Yuri furrows her brows, Mai pats her on the shoulder. "Come on, Yuri, don't rain on her parade. King's our friend! We should support her love life!"
"You know what? You're right. This is the perfect chance for her! Maybe King and I can be sisters!"
"Are you even listening...?"
King lets out a sigh of equal parts exasperation and resignation at Yuri and Mai, who, bright-eyed, look ready to support their friend's romance at all costs.
Elsewhere, another girl is standing on the very same boulevard, blissfully unaware of the rousing exchange happening in the bar. She is wearing a smart one-piece dress and a basket hat drawn low over her eyes, keeping her face hidden. The sun has set, and the city's neon lights cut through the darkening sky. She stands at the door to the Illusion Bar, gripping a sheet of paper tightly.
Taking a breath to steel herself, she takes hold of the doorknob and enters the bar.
"Um, hi! I heard Mai and Yuri were here?"
As her clarion voice carries through the bar, the three friends pause their chat to look toward the doorway. Their eyes widen.
"Athena? Yeah, Mai and Yuri are here. What's up?"
King gestures to Mai and Yuri, her eyes fixed on the girl, Athena Asamiya.
What is a hit Japanese singer and model doing in South Town? Considering she has come alone―without her martial arts master/producer Chin Gentsai nor her fellow student/superfan Sie Kensou―it is safe to assume she traveled here incognito.
Athena removes her hat, then faces Mai and Yuri.
"Mai, Yuri, I've had this idea, so hear me out, okay...?"
Athena's eyes shine with enthusiasm, to which Mai gasps, as though noticing something. She raises her hand to cut Athena off.
"We know, Athena."
Likewise, Yuri folds her arms and nods.
"Yeah, we know exactly what you're thinking."
Athena's eyes widen.
"Really? Both of you?! Okay, the thing is—"
Athena's expression softens in relief, but just as she is about to explain her idea...
Mai smacks her hand excitedly onto the counter, with a determined smile.
"Our KOF team will be you, me, and Yuri!"
Athena blinks in confusion. Yuri completely misses this and leaps out of her seat with a bold and confident smile.
"Team Super Heroine is born! We've got grace, beauty, and ULTRA-brawn! And we're gonna take on the world!"
"That wasn't what I... Um, Mai? Yuri?"
"With a team like this, we can't lose!"
Athena gently attempts to correct Mai and Yuri, but they are feverishly clasping hands, too caught up in the moment to notice.
King smiles at Athena's consternation.
"Nothing you can do when they get like this. Can it wait 'til after the tournament?"
"Then just talk it out with them then."
Athena slumps in defeat, while Mai and Yuri chat animatedly about the tournament.
"Well, um...go team!"
Mai and Yuri usher Athena to a seat next to them. King looks sympathetically at the misunderstood pop star and reaches for a clean drinking glass.
It would be no mean feat fighting alongside the spirited Mai and the highly competitive Yuri, but Athena had known them for a while, and was no pushover herself. King pours the final team member a glass of mineral water and places it down in front of her.
Galaxy Anton Wrestling Team (G.A.W. Team)
A bone-chilling gust of wind blows through an empty, desolate backstreet somewhere in Moscow, the only light far away in the twinkling stars. Two men walk closely side by side.
One is middle-aged, rather slender for his years; the other, large and brawny, appearing almost bear-like in the dark. Neither is carrying much: just the clothes on their backs. Newspaper pages blow past them before being pressed against the wall. The two men idly glance at the pages.
KOF Stadium Collapse Planned?! Organizers Face Extreme Accusations!
An internal report places the sole blame on its managing director Antonov! Questions have also been raised about his past achievements...
Antonov resigns! The Antonov Corporation's board of directors consider its next CEO...
The words send a shiver down the men's spines.
The larger of the two slams his fist into the wall, jolting the papers loose and sending them fleeing down the road.
"I AIN'T YOUR BOSS!"
The larger man bellows, causing the smaller one to abruptly pull back the hand he offered.
"A setup?! How in the― They know damn well I'd never do something so cold!"
Defeated, he slumps to his knees. This man is none other than Antonov, the former owner of Antonov Corporation, whose name, through no fault of his own, is on all the gossipers' tongues.
When he held the King of Fighters tournament, a fearsome monster appeared and laid waste to the stadium he had spent untold millions on. Even so, the fight to the death between the champion and the monster generated huge ratings, and despite the tournament's many setbacks, Antonov still considered it a massive success... That is, until people online began suggesting he had set everything up.
These baseless rumors spread like wildfire, growing practically overnight into an unstoppable inferno set on engulfing Antonov.
Now, after fleeing together in the dead of night, the former champ and his right-hand man wander the freezing back streets of Moscow.
Antonov stays crouched down for a while longer before abruptly shaking his head.
"No! The show's not over! I'll pull the curtain up myself!"
The smaller man, Yakov, studies Antonov's slumped posture for several moments, before speaking resolutely.
"You won't be by yourself, Boss―I mean, Anton! You've got me! Never been any different!"
The two stare at each other, memories of their time together―right back from their time as students―bringing tears to their eyes.
Suddenly a young boy's voice rings out from a narrow alley connecting to the main road.
“You're the champion, aren't you?!"
"I know that voice!"
The boy stands in the alley, gawking at the two men; he had been going home with his family when he ducked into the alley. It is Misha, the boy who Antonov had shielded from harm at KOF.
With Misha's parents putting in a good word for them, Antonov and Yakov manage to get a room in an apartment. It is a humble place―nothing but a landline phone, but Antonov had trained in frigid Siberia with his loyal Yakov by his side; by comparison, this is paradise.
Armed with their phone line, they start a new business...in what field you already know...
"...So that's how I started this group. Not exactly a short story, I know."
Antonov tips up the brim of his white cowboy hat, a cigar punctuating his grin, and a warm gaze radiating from behind his sunglasses.
"Welcome, Ramón and King of Dinosaurs, to Galaxy Anton Wrestling!"
Antonov spreads his arms wide. Behind him looms a horizontal banner emblazoned with "G.A.W.", a.k.a. Galaxy Anton Wrestling, which would come to be known globally as a "supernova pro-wrestling group".
They are standing in the G.A.W. president's office―well, an apartment room/office. Hardly presidential, it looks more like a storage room for secondhand office desks.
Ramón and Dinosaur feel right at home. They smile and give Antonov a nod.
"Glad to be here, boss."
"A pleasure to work with you!"
Seeing Ramón and Dinosaur shake hands with Antonov brings a smile to Yakov's face, but his expression is soon overshadowed with concern.
"Of course we're glad you're willing to transfer to our group, but are you sure you want to give up your careers in Mexico?"
Dinosaur folds his arms resolutely, his expression serious; Ramón replies cheerfully,
"Just because we left Mexico, doesn't mean we gave up on it."
"If anything, it's the opposite. Pro wrestling doesn't have borders anymore. Wherever we go, our fans are with us!"
Ramón follows-up with a wry smile.
"We know your eyes aren't set on Russia; they're set on the entire world."
Moved, Yakov holds his hands to his chest. Antonov's grin grows wider before he lets out a deep, booming guffaw that rattles the windows.
"GWAHAHAHAHA! I like you guys more every second!"
Antonov looks briefly between Ramón and Dinosaur, then thrusts a finger up toward the sky.
"You're wrong about one thing: G.A.W. isn't aiming for the world. Oh, no. We're aiming for the whole damn GALAXY!"
From behind his sunglasses, Antonov's eyes twinkle like the stars. Ramón and Dinosaur exchange glances and laugh heartily.
"For now, we compete in KOF, and then all three of us will take back the title of champion!"
"That's what I'm talking about! Get the whole world hyped!"
"Yeah! I'll do my part for your future, and the future of this group!"
"Some heel you are, talking like that!"
"Huh?! Well, uh, I'm not in character right now! And we're talking to our boss, so what's the big problem?!"
The fire inside these men could melt the Siberian ice. This is truly the first step for G.A.W. As the three men speak, Yakov looks on, smiling softly, as their bright and cheerful future glints in his eyes.
Under the scorching sunlight, from the gate of an orphanage emerge a pair of tall figures: Heidern and Dolores. The metal gate slams shut as soon as they step onto the road, as if to hasten their departure.
Barely batting an eyelash at the staff tut-tutting on the other side of the gate, Heidern procures a tablet from his breast pocket.
"Guess she wasn't here after all."
"I suppose not. And what haughty attitudes they had... I cannot fault her for running off."
Dolores gently pushes up her pure golden frames and gazes past the gate. Frowning a little at her words, Heidern thinks back upon the conditions of the orphanage they had just finished surveying.
With the director treating them like a pair of rabblerousers despite their scheduled appointment, the angry bellowing of what seemed to be staff members in the distance, and the gloomy expressions of children they had passed in the halls, it was clear that this was not a happy place for children to live in.
Dolores' eyes return to Heidern at some point, but he pays no heed. Dispassionately, he speaks.
"The search for the girl takes priority. We didn't come to fix their problems."
Dolores offers a smile in response.
"Heh... Right you are. But there is a lot of ground to cover in the city. Do you truly expect to find her?"
"I'd rather you didn't make light of me."
The commander walks off, Dolores following close behind.
Their target is an up-and-coming young graffiti artist living in South America, whose works are a hit with the youth in the area, and even abroad via social media. She’s able to stay relatively undetected as, the artist would pop up in unexpected places, perform, and then disappear as soon as the police showed up.
Normally, searching for someone like that in a city this size would present a major challenge. Unless they are a real pro.
"With a trail like this, there should be no trouble tracking her."
Standing at a distance observing the young folk coming and going, Heidern pulls his tablet out once again.
The crowd mostly comprises local teenagers, with some younger faces here and there. All of them are cheering and whistling in a frenzy, enjoying the vivid colors flying before their eyes.
In front of them, a single girl faces the wall, bright yellow jacket fluttering behind her. After casually donning a gas mask, she holds up spray cans in both hands and begins to paint, adjusting her position with nimble steps as she goes. At a glance, it appears that she is just a normal artist bursting with talent and vitality. However, it's the hands floating above her head that draws interest.
"Tag in, Amanda!"
The girl chucks a spray can into the air, where it is deftly caught by a strange, purple hand emitting an eerie aura. The hand then begins painting in a spot beyond her reach.
These hands bear a strong resemblance to the phantom ones controlled by the boy Shun'ei, but smaller and seemingly lacking destructive force. What's more, they move as if possessing a will of their own.
Smiles leave the onlookers' faces as they notice Heidern and Dolores' approach, almost as soon as the girl finishes painting.
"You must be Isla."
The girl turns in response to Heidern, pulling the gas mask from her face as she eyes him suspiciously.
"And what if I am, huh? Who wants to know?"
Isla leads the pair to a tiny park with barely any people around. Stopping beside the playground in the corner of the area, she stares them up and down in obvious distrust.
The girl takes an intimidating stance and glares angrily, while her phantom hands—who she calls "Amanda"—clench into fists as if ready to box. Though she appears aggressive, she seems more cautious than hostile.
After exchanging glances with Dolores, Heidern looks Isla square in the eyes and begins to talk.
"We would like you to join our team for the upcoming tournament."
"Why? What's your game?"
"Sorry, but I can't answer that right now. I only divulge intel on a need-to-know basis. Still... I'd say joining this tournament would be to your benefit."
Heidern stares silently at Isla while her expression grows even more grim. Dolores watches on a few steps away, appraising the girl from a distance.
After a short pause, Isla clicks her tongue in displeasure.
"...Well yeah, I could use the prize money to get the brats at the orphanage some good food. Plus, me and Amanda'll become world famous. Couldn't ask for anything more. Still..."
The young girl pulls the brim of her cap down, her voice lowering to a growl.
"This is fishy as hell. Wouldn't trust you as far as I could spit."
Her interest in the conversation gone, Isla turns her back on the pair. Amanda makes a gesture as if to shoo them away.
Doubt was only natural—a couple of adults she'd never seen before suddenly showing up, asking her to come with them. Not only that, but her past experiences means she bears a deeply-ingrained mistrust of people who act all high and mighty just because they are older than her.
Heidern begins to wonder whether Leona should have come on this mission, given how close she is in age to the target.
Dolores breaks her silence, her voice cutting through the tension hanging over the park.
"And what if I were to say that boy...Shun'ei, would be attending this tournament?"
Isla's shoulders stiffen. She stops in her tracks and slowly looks back at the woman.
Unlike before, the girl's voice betrays a faint interest. Dolores narrows her eyes and adjusts the bridge of her glasses.
"Because he is the only other person on this planet with your power."
"You must be very curious, I assume. Curious about this boy who is just like you..."
Isla turns to face them, wide-eyed. Though she does not respond, the astonishment in her gaze and stiff expression serve to answer Dolores' question.
Allowing herself a brief sigh, the woman continues to speak, cold stare piercing through the girl.
"This power to control phantoms... Haven't you ever wanted to know where it came from, or to ascertain its secrets?"
"The secret...of me and Amanda..."
"If you cooperate with us, I promise you this: we will reveal everything once you've fully demonstrated your ability."
Isla cannot bring herself to meet the woman's gaze. Beside her, Amanda bobs around in a panic.
A lengthy pause ensues. The playground equipment creaks sharply in the wind, resonating loudly in the quiet. A couple children run off after a ball in the distance, and Isla, eyes still downturned, opens her mouth at last.
"...If I work with you guys, you'll tell us what the deal is with us, yeah?"
She seems barely able to utter the question. Heidern responds quietly.
"Your collaboration would come with proportionate compensation. That I can assure you."
Isla lets out a long, deep sigh in response. And then, shaking her head as if to steel herself, she finally turns her entire body to fully face the pair.
"Hmph, don't think this means I trust you. You guys are all the same... But..."
Isla pushes up her cap with a smirk. That fearless grin is the first time either Heidern or Dolores had ever seen her smile.
"...if you make me the leader...!"
"..You big fat liars! I'll never forgive you! I hate you, old man! And I hate YOU, K'!"
Both K' and Maxima had made the wrong call. Only one of them had been careless enough to say Kula would feel better by the next day as she ran crying from the room. But no matter which of them it was or how tired they were from hunting NESTS survivors, they both should've apologized to the poor girl on the spot.
Kula had vanished in the dead of night, along with her favorite backpack.
In a back alley devoid of any signs of life, a lone building stands tucked away from view. K' and his companions hole up in a room inside, one of the many hideouts the group rotates between. In the living area—hardly "livable" among the disorganized piles of machine parts—Whip arranges pictures on a table with a stern expression.
"We've picked up Kula's trail... Things aren't exactly going in our favor, though."
K' and Maxima sit on the sofa on the other side of the table. Under the girl's thorny gaze, the pair examine the photos.
They show a blue-haired man grabbing Kula's arm, along with a silver-haired woman laughing in amusement at them. Though the man's goggles cover his eyes, his attitude toward Kula is clearly far from friendly.
Maxima lets loose a small, troubled sigh, while K' clicks his tongue in irritation.
"He went into hiding after NESTS' destruction, but now he's joined forces with Ángel, abducted Kula, and entered the KOF tournament. He appears to have little connection to the survivors, but we can't overlook this situation."
Whip raises her eyebrows and bluntly addresses the pair.
"Your mission: make contact with this man—known as Krohnen McDougall—capture him, and rescue Kula. To that end, the three of us will enter the tournament together."
"Roger. No objections here, given what we're up against..."
She places a "King of Fighters" invitation over the photos, her stern glare allowing them no room to refuse. Maxima slumps in concession, but K' glances away, disinterested.
"She's the one who left, though. Why the heck do we have to go get her?"
This elicits a wry smile from Maxima and an exasperated sigh from Whip.
"C'mon now, partner, you know that won't fly. It's our fault the princess ran off in the first place."
"Again with this attitude..."
"That punk abducting her, entering the KOF... All of it's just to get under our skin. I'm not interested in taking the bait."
Having said his piece, K' folds his arms and purses his lips tightly. His words convey more than irritation—they include a hint of caution. Maxima and Whip nod in agreement.
"Can't fault that logic. If I'm being honest, I was thinking the same thing. Still, even assuming his goal is to draw us out, I sense he might turn violent if his targets never show up."
Maxima knits his eyebrows and rubs his temples. Both K' and Whip sense what he's getting at. A destroyed building, two voices cheering into the open sky—the memories are old, but still terribly vivid.
Whip presses a finger to her brow, discontented, and speaks in a low groan.
"You're right, this isn't the same as last time. We can't run the risk of offending him—not when there's a chance of putting both Kula and the audience in danger."
The way Ks face stiffens at Kula's name is almost imperceptible, but it doesn't go unnoticed. As he sits with his arms folded, Maxima pats him on the shoulder, while Whip speaks admonishingly.
"You know what she's getting at, right, partner?"
"We have to go, even if we know it's a trap."
"Damn it all..."
Despite his complaints, it's easy enough to tell that K' had conceded.
Whip visibly relaxes and takes the invitation off the table, seemingly satisfied.
"I'll take care of the paperwork. If there are any new leads on Kula's whereabouts, I'll let you know."
She rises from the sofa and takes one more look around before continuing.
"One more thing... You should clean up this room a bit more. You don't want Kula to get hurt, do you? Anyway, I'll be in touch."
K' mouths a small curse as she walks to the door. Giving his partner a sidelong glance, Maxima rises to his feet.
"Well, guess we'd better have a stock of ice cream ready once the princess returns."
"...You just want some for yourself, don't you?"
K' casts a look of disdain at Maxima, who is checking the fridge in the kitchen, and stands up from the sofa. It is then he notices the photo of Krohnen McDougall still on the table. He takes it in one hand.
"This is some bull you've gotten me caught up in."
K' strikes his metal glove against his belt buckle and presses the flame on his fingertips to the picture. He glares at it like a carnivorous beast until the very last bit burns to ash.
Not even locals would stray close to the ruins displayed on the soldier's handheld device.
The aerial view shows an asphalt road teeming with weeds and tree roots, leading up to an abandoned house covered in ivy vines. A silver-haired young woman clutching a shopping bag in her arm knocks on a crooked door. Shortly after, a young man slowly appears, goggles covering his face.
The soldier watching from afar gasps in surprise and turns to another soldier nearby, speaking in a hushed voice.
"Isn't that him?"
"Oh yeah. That's the one who kidnapped Kula Diamond."
Just then, the man in the video glances upward, looking straight at the camera through his lenses.
He raises his hand overhead and points straight at the soldiers beyond the screen.
"Hey, you don't think he noticed, do—"
Before the soldier can finish, it's already too late. Intense flames fill the screen, leaving nothing but static on the feed. It takes the soldiers staring at the fuzzy screen five seconds to realize their reconnaissance drone has been destroyed.
The man slams the door shut and gives the nearby sofa a solid kick. The silver-haired young woman—Ángel—pays his tantrum no mind, dropping the shopping bag and the remains of the burnt drone onto a table.
"Buzzing around like a buncha freakin' flies! Those guys're a pain in the ass!"
"Sorry babe, didn't think I was being tailed. I did pick this up, though."
"Why'd you bring this crap back with you?"
Scowling at the complete lack of remorse in her reply, the man picks up a drone part from the table. The girl shakes the soot from the package of rations and stretches with a soft moan, paying no heed to his venomous stare.
"They've caught up with us. Think it's time to mosey on?"
"Hmph... You think we gotta choice...?"
The man chucks a part behind him in frustration.
The propeller traces an arch through the air, landing with a dry thud just as the door to the rusted fridge opens.
"Gah! All outta ice cream already!"
Kula Diamond gapes at the empty space, not a speck of ice to be seen. The man stomps up behind her, irritation written all over his face.
"Hey brat, we're getting outta here. Come quietly if ya know what's good for ya."
Although the man's sharp voice gives Kula a start, she turns her head and greets him with an exaggerated pout.
"Agaaain? We've been moving foreeeveeer. I can't take it anymore!"
"Not much of a hostage, are you?"
"I'm not a hostage! I ran away from home, and you guys just tagged along."
"Y'know what they call kids who only care about themselves? Spoiled brats."
Pointedly ignoring Kula sticking her tongue out, Ángel smiles wickedly.
"Maybe we should bag her up and tie it off?"
"Sure, if she refuses to go."
Just then, a noise―half cheerful jingle, half static―sounds from the radio.
"In further news, the recently-announced King of Fighters tournament will..."
Kula glances over at the old radio. Following her gaze, the man looks over, too.
Her defiant attitude all but vanished, the young girl listens closely to the unintelligible voice of the announcer with a hint of sadness on her face. This doesn't escape Ángel's notice, whose mouth curls upward in a smirk. She opens a picture on her smartphone and shoves it right under the girl's nose.
"Well now, I wonder if those guardians of yours will come pick up their runaway princess?"
The sight of the picture in front of her makes Kula's blood run cold. It looks to have been lifted from a security camera and shows a young man walking with hunched shoulders. The sunglasses make him hard to read, but his mouth is bent into an expression of anger.
Glancing at Kula's clenched fists, the man with her sneers and shrugs his shoulders.
"If he shows up, I'll beat him to a pulp as planned. Would love to see that guy run away with his tail between his legs.
Hey brat, you'd better bring it if it comes down to a fight. You may not be much, but you can do somethin'."
Kula turns to meet his gaze with a look of contempt. Even so, she offers no rebuttal, instead going to pick up a small backpack filled with her things. Seeing that she's willing to move locations again, the other two reach for their own meager belongings as well.
"Let's make tracks before those mercenaries bust in here."
"Aye aye, sir. I hope the next place we find to squat is more hospit-...-a-...-ble..."
Ángel stows away her phone and looks up as if realizing something.
She taps a finger on her temple for a short moment, but eventually turns to the man, seemingly having given up.
"...Say, what name were you going by, again?"
"You forgot again, ya lunkhead? I ain't gonna repeat myself, so you damn well remember it this time."
The man's eyes narrow. His goggles reflect the flickering light of the worn-out light bulbs, and the tattered blue glove on his right hand glows a dark gray.
"The name's Krohnen."
Everything began the moment he took that hand.
He had survived in harsh desert streets for as long as he could remember, no parents or guardians to speak of. His only concern was his life; he spent his days in the shadows, out of sight of passersby, holding his breath so that he could survive another day.
That woman was the first person in his entire life who'd made eye contact with him. To the young Kukri, she was destiny incarnate.
"Come with me. You shall learn under my tutelage."
The moment he grasped the woman's outstretched hand, Kukri became her disciple.
Kukri's teacher was a hermit living in the back regions of an African desert. She was the sole storyteller of forgotten folklore, and at times, she was an advisor to people, using her metaphysical abilities to communicate with spirits. Life as her disciple was hardly luxurious, but it was peaceful; Kukri never had to fear for his life or wonder when he'd have his next meal.
Still, he couldn't stand his master's dull instructions. She spoke passionately of a universe of possibilities that branched off at infinite junctions, a "crucible of souls" traversing the universes to maintain equilibrium, the "Mother Goddess" governing destruction and creation—but it was all old wives' tales to the boy. Not once during meditation did he hear this "voice of the earth" his master spoke of, and before long he grew tired of her fervorous storytelling.
Inevitably, he would snap and ask, "What's the point of all this?" And every time, she would offer the same response with a gentle smile:
"You, too, shall comprehend destiny one day."
That life would end when Kukri had grown much taller—seven years into his disciplehood.
One day, a sharp impulse struck him from the inside out as if piercing his body through, and Kukri awakened to his power of sand. But instead of simply appearing, the power ran amok against his will, whipping up a fierce sandstorm and robbing moisture from its surroundings. His master had unfortunately gone to the city, and by the time she'd returned, Kukri's power could no longer be contained. Amid the tempest, he feverishly cried out for her to save him.
Eyes filled with resolve, the master dove headfirst into the sandstorm to rescue her disciple...in exchange for her own life.
His memories of the time were hazy. All Kukri could remember were his master's irritatingly satisfied smile, and the empty hollow of the grave he spent a day to dig for her.
That evening, after giving his master a proper burial, the words Kukri had always heard during her teachings rose clearly in his mind.
"The crucible of souls connects all universes, converging all possibilities in the multiverse. However, these can only be perceived as illusions, and only a limited few are capable of meddling with them. Those with such abilities are known as 'Amplified Specters'. Neither the crucible of souls nor these illusions appear naturally on this side. But if there are distortions in space-time or resonance with Amplified Specters...such circumstances may entice them to manifest on this plane."
Kukri shot into the archives of his home and scoured through the literature, relying on his memory of the texts.
The desk was piled high with scrolls, and its legs began to groan under the weight of stone slabs. Kukri paid it no mind, grabbing anything he could find and throwing it on the heap.
"Do bear this in mind: were the crucible of souls to appear in this world, allow not evildoers to approach. That power is incredibly dangerous... Theoretically, it could even revive the dead."
As he skimmed through a text he'd recklessly thrown open, his hand had suddenly stopped at a certain passage.
Hungrily taking in the knowledge, Kukri ruminated on his master's words.
"Theoretically...it could even revive the dead..."
The words he'd brushed off before now ironically told him of his last remaining possibility.
With not a second to lose, he set out in pursuit of his goal. After scraping together the information he needed, he arrived at the King of Fighters tourney put on by Antonov. It was his final destination...or so he thought.
In a city in Southern France, an open terrace faces the main street.
A man sits there, gesturing wildly as he rattles on.
"All my efforts up to now, just a lonely fart in the wind. What the hell do I have to show for them? A pile of worthless papers and this dickhead Ash Crimson here. My dear, sweet master, who guided me in my youth and sacrificed herself to protect me, is nowhere to be found. And SO, the poor bastard you see before you has been left behind in loneliness and solitude. And what's more—"
His suspiciously hooded face and unrefined language contrast sharply against the gaudy, elegant atmosphere of the establishment. One by one, customers nearby retreat to indoor seating, hoping to escape the torrent of unending drivel disrupting their peaceful afternoon.
By the time the man's rant is finished, the only ones left on the terrace are the boy sitting across from him and an upper-class woman, also beside him, who was listening patiently despite the frown on her face. The hooded man—Kukri—spreads his arms at the pair in an exaggerated gesture.
"And thus ends my impromptu tale, a miserable, heartrending story guaranteed to leave not a dry eye in the room—heck, in the entire world! What do you think? Pretty good for something I thought up in five seconds, huh? I've got a hanky if you need to honk some snot."
"Ahaha, that was pretty good! ♪ Not a bad way to kill some time."
Ash Crimson chuckles at his smartphone, neglecting the half-eaten sachertorte in front of him. Elisabeth Blanctorche, on the other hand, puts a hand to her brow and sighs deeply.
Before the previous tournament had begun, Kukri had made contact with the grief-stricken Elisabeth and helped her to recall her memories of Ash. In exchange for reviving Ash, Kukri sought the cooperation of the Blanctorche family, to which the noblewoman assented without hesitation. As a result, Ash is once again by her side as if nothing had happened. And yet...
"What's that sigh for? You're the one who wailed and moaned for me to talk. I made up this tearjerker just for you, like the nice guy I am."
Kukri thrusts a bandaged finger at the woman. Sand scatters onto the table, and Ash wordlessly pulls the sachertorte closer to himself.
"You are our benefactor. We shall accompany you wherever we must in order to repay our debt of gratitude."
Elisabeth speaks in a low, stern voice, pointedly ignoring the finger in front of her face.
"I was...simply curious as to why you extended a hand to us in the first place. No matter the reason, neither Ash nor myself have any intention of ridiculing your circumstances. There is nothing to laugh about."
Her eyes fall to the cup in her hand with dejection, while Kukri maintains his imposing stance. Glancing between the two, Ash smirks in amusement.
"Let it go, Betty. We just have to play the part of Kooky's crew and help him do what he's gotta do at the KOF. Right?"
"Who the hell're you calling kooky, you little twerp? You remind me of another piece of work, and I ain't having it."
"Oh look, they're doing a special feature!"
Ignoring Kukri's objection, Ash puts his smartphone on the table.
The device shows a news program. Large letters reading "The King of Fighters" flash across the screen, and Kukri goes silent. Even Elisabeth takes a deep breath as if shifting gears.
"Next up, we have an exclusive interview with a participant from the KOF! Take a sneak peak inside the mind of a fighter."
The feed switches from the studio to a city street, showing a woman standing opposite the interviewer.
"So Dolores, this will be your first foray into the KOF. How do you feel about—"
The woman pushes up her golden frames and faces the camera. Kukri's jaw clenches at the sight of her.
He stands up without a word. When he finally speaks, the lower register of his voice betrays the emotion underneath.
"I... remembered some urgent business. I'll go on ahead."
With this declaration, Kukri walks briskly out of the establishment, his coat fluttering behind him. Incensed at his egocentric behavior, Elisabeth also stands from her seat.
"Hold on! We are not finished speaking, Kukri!"
Elisabeth's heels clack against the cobblestones in hot pursuit. Keeping her in the corner of his eye, Ash glances at the leftover cake on the table.
"He 'made it up', huh... Sure."
Stabbing a silver fork into his dessert, Ash Crimson chuckles softly.
"Alright, then, might as well play along. ♪"
He mutters in a voice barely audible, and, with a smack of his lips, eats up the final bite.
The afternoon sun streamed through the window of an unassuming apartment in South Town.
On the sofa gripping a retro game controller sat Terry Bogard. Rock Howard threw an apron into a laundry hamper, having just finished cleaning the kitchen. Just another day off.
As a gentle fanfare trumpets, "CONGRATULATIONS" flashed across the TV screen. Terry raised his hands in victory, the worn-out rack behind him creaking in response.
Running his arm through the sleeve of his jacket, Rock turned to his foster father.
"I'm heading out for a minute."
"Oh yeah? Got a hot date or something?"
With a playful grin, Terry turned to Rock, who responded with a shrug of his shoulders and a strained smile.
"C'mon. I'm just gonna take care of some business."
"Okay. I'm sure I don't need to tell you this, but stay outta trouble, okay?"
Terry gave a frendly smile, which Rock reciprocated. Rock knew his guardian wasn't treating him with kid gloves: he was just looking out for him. They were family―not by blood, but family nonetheless. This fact shone a beacon of light in Rock's life.
"You seeing Andy today?"
"Yeah. Joe invited us for a bite, so we're gonna head over to Pao Pao Café."
Terry turned back to the TV, while Rock grabbed his keys and phone off the table.
"You won't be needing dinner then? I'll be eating something before I come back."
The nonchalant wave he received was answer enough. With that, Rock left the room.
The afternoon sun smiling on him, the young man walked down South Town's main stretch, checking a message on his phone.
"'Stay outta trouble...'"
The message was from B. Jenet, leader of the pirates known as the Lillien Knights. They'd met a few times. She didn't seem like a bad person—not exactly a good person either, but still. The title of her message was to the point.
"Come join my KOF team♡"
Mumbling to himself, Rock pocketed his phone.
The inconspicuous diner in the Bay Area wasn't famous enough to be written about, but was popular enough among the locals and truck drivers for them to come back. While more than a few backpackers were drawn to this hidden gem, the heavy air around a man and woman in one of the booths indicated they weren't one of them.
"So, Gato. Your daddy's whereabouts and some other intel... That was the deal, right?"
The man was a martial artist known as Gato; he sat there arms crossed, frowning deeply, his expression serious. In sharp contrast, the young woman in a dress beamed regardless, and chatted away freely.
Neither the clientele nor staff felt like getting involved with this odd pairing, but they could barely hide their curiosity, with several customers casting furtive glances from behind their newspapers. Each glance was met with a cold stare from Gato, irritated by the attention. Soon, nobody dared look over lest curiosity kill the cat.
"I bet you're all cranky from being made to wait forever, huh? Still, I think the results speak for themselves."
The blond bombshell gave a coquettish wink, holding up next to her face a USB stick, from which dangled a dolphin-shaped strap. For the first time, Gato fully looked up and directed his sharp gaze toward her possession.
"All the intel on daddy dearest is right in here..."
"Hand it over."
B. Jenet pulled back her hand faster than he could snatch the USB stick from it. As his fingers wrapped around nothing but air, his frown deepened.
"Easy there, tiger."
"...What're you trying to pull?"
"I said I'd help out the investigation any way I could. But I don't remember saying anything about doing charity work."
B. Jenet remained calm in the face of Gato's stare—something that would cause any South Town hoodlum to turn tail and run. If anything, she was cocky, and shook her finger at him.
"Now, now, violence isn't the answer! Don't you fret. This info is all yours...once you pay up."
Confusion winning out over his frustration, Gato relaxed slightly. This didn't escape the woman opposite him, who smiled broadly and nodded slowly.
"Indeed. I'd like you―both of you―to help me with a little something."
Gato was primed to object to her audacity...
But when the sea breeze-rusted door opened with a bang, B. Jenet looked up with an excited gasp, and waved. Rock Howard was scanning the diner from the entrance.
"Well, speak of the handsome devil. Over here!"
A vague expression on his face, Rock turned toward B. Jenet's booth. Was he wary? Was he forcing a smile? It was difficult to say. He crossed the floor toward the pair's table, at which point B. Jenet moved over, giving the open seat an inviting pat. Rock slid awkwardly into the booth, glancing between her smile and Gato's grimace.
"I saw your message. I take it that means this is the team?"
"Team...? Just what the hell do you think you’re—"
"Exactly. You're more than just a pretty face, aren't you?"
B. Jenet chimed in cheerfully before Gato could angrily object, not forgetting to give him a fleeting look that all but said, "Play along unless you want me to reveal everything." Despite her boldness, anyone in the establishment with a sharp eye would have noticed the cold sweat running down the back of her neck.
For a moment, Gato stared at her with a look that could curdle milk, but decided to leave it at a bitter snort.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Jenet began moving the tableware scattered in front of them out of the way. In their place, she placed envelopes with gaudy wax seals. The items stuck out like a sore thumb in the comparatively humble restaurant, drawing everyone's gaze.
"Ta-dah! Our very own invitations!"
As she spread her arms wide, Gato snatched one of the envelopes off of the table. He stood without a word, stuffed the invitation into his pocket, and turned a menacing glare to Rock and B. Jenet.
"I'll dance to your fiddle for now... Hell, I'll even give you money, if that's what you're asking. But if you try to slither out of our deal, don't expect to draw breath tomorrow!"
With clenched fists, Gato spat these words at the pirate before turning and stomping violently out of the diner, his irritation on full display. "I'm a gal of my word!" B. Jenet called after with a smile, waving at his retreating form before turning her attention back to an incredulous Rock.
"He can be a wet blanket, but I can vouch for his skill."
"He's not gonna be an issue, is he? I'm not a fan of dissension in the ranks."
"Oh, it'll be fiiine! It's all taken care of, so don't worry your pretty little head!"
He frowned, finding her attempt to play it off only a bigger cause for concern.
"I mean, that's just the way he is, you know? That's why I tried inviting Tiz Tiz at first. He's so gullible—I mean, lovable! Always lifting everyone's spirits. But when I tried to get in touch, his agency said he'd, like, transferred or something? And that's when you caught my eye, Mr. Rock Howard. ♪"
Rock was sipping the coffee that'd just arrived as he cast a sidelong glance at the bubbly pirate. When she finally reached a natural pause, he put the cup down to ask about his suspicions.
"I was wondering about that, actually. Why me? I mean, there was no way to know how I'd respond. There must've been safer bets out there."
B. Jenet turned to look at Rock, wide-eyed. She hadn't anticipated being questioned. Her surprised gaze made him uncomfortable, but as soon as he averted his eyes, the smile returned to her face.
"Hmm, okay, good Q! First off, with you on the team, we've got this tournament in the bag—call it a woman's intuition. And second, well...I just knew you wouldn't refuse. After all, I doubt you'd pass up a chance to fight Terry Bogard under the spotlight."
This time it was Rock whose eyes grew wide as dinner plates. He couldn't help but let out a surprised chuckle—she'd hit the nail right on the head. B. Jenet returned it with a giggle of her own.
"You know what went down at the last KOF, don't you? I bet we'll be getting a taste of something similar this time around."
"Lemme guess—intuition again?"
"You betcha! Should be a fun one, right? You get to fight Terry, and I get to enjoy my fill of the tournament. A win-win if I've ever heard one ♪"
With that, B. Jenet plucked an envelope off the table and thrust it out to Rock. When their eyes met, she gave him a mischievous wink, brushing her hair back with a free hand.
"So! From this day forward, we're a team. Looking forward to fighting with you, Rock Howard!"
Rock took the envelope from her hand, and offered a bright smile in return.
"...Yeah, back at you."
South Town Team
In a room at the very top of a high-rise building in South Town, Geese Howard sits with the mighty dignity of a ruler, gazing out at the breathtaking nighttime view stretching toward the horizon.
A satisfied smile spreads broadly across his face, as he stares down at his domain. To his side, his loyal subordinate Billy Kane pores over some documents.
The documents contain secret intelligence acquired from Heidern's squad, most of which is investigative data on Verse, the strange creature that appeared at the previous King of Fighters tournament. The data concludes with a prediction that Verse will appear during this year's tournament as well...
"Heidern's bunch are calling it 'Verse'... Do you also think it'll finally complete itself this time, Geese?"
Geese answers Billy's question with a knowing smirk.
"I do. But see, Billy, there might be an even better distraction waiting for us."
"Verse is just the vanguard. When the time is ripe, something greater will..."
Before he can finish, the quietness of the room is disturbed by laughter.
Billy shoots a glare in the direction of the guest couch. The man who had just laughed, however, doesn't drop his arrogant grin. As if enjoying the provocations, he puts his feet on the coffee table in front of him.
"Kee hee hee... When I got handed that lump of cash, I never thought it'd be for another crazy monster appearance. You sure are a funny ol' geezer."
Ryuji Yamazaki looks at Geese, his gaze dripping with malice. Geese does not flinch, but Billy glares daggers at the man who dared to disrespect his master.
"Wanna try sayin' that again, punk?"
Billy taps the ground lightly with his staff. Yamazaki breaks his stare with Geese to look at him instead.
"Hey, cool it with the barking. If you want to snap, how about I snap your jaw off, so you can't bite anymore?"
Despite Yamazaki's sardonic grin, no one doubts that he'd follow through on his threat. His eyes are like a viper's before its prey. Billy readies his staff, also poised to kill. The air in the room is so tense that even Ripper and Hopper by the door hold their breath.
"I must ask the both of you to step back."
A figure smoothly steps between the two men. It is none other than the newest member of the Howard Connection, Hein. The butler raises a hand to stop Billy and directs his gaze at Yamazaki.
"Mr. Yamazaki, do remember that you have been employed to accompany and safeguard Mr. Howard in my place. You have been paid in advance for your services, but if you are to cause any further strife, I'm afraid it will be considered a breach of your contract."
Hein's tone is calm and even, but his stare is frigid enough to render any normal person completely motionless. Ryuji Yamazaki, however, is no ordinary man—a sharp gaze like Hein's would no doubt make him flare up instead. "Tch. I don't give a shit..."
To everyone's surprise, however, Yamazaki sinks back into the couch, looking bored.
Disappointed, Billy puts his weapon away and turns to Geese.
"Geese, I understand why we'd want Yamazaki, but why isn't the new recruit going with you?"
"Don't worry. I ordered him to stay."
Geese smiles calmly and looks at Hein, who has stepped back toward the windows. Hein responds with a polite bow and begins to explain.
"I have been granted permission to sweep the city of any dangerous dissenters while you are all away. Rest easy—by the time you have returned, all the trash will be taken care of."
His explanation is crystal clear; in fact, the only thing strange about it is how a fresh face like Hein has earned so much of Geese's trust in the first place. Ripper and Hopper both nod, seemingly satisfied—perhaps they are thinking of the considerable loyalty Hein has displayed during his time with Geese. Billy, however, keeps his eyes on the butler, skeptical.
Then, Ripper glances at his watch.
"Geese, it's almost time."
"We've lingered here for too long. Hein, show our guest out."
With this order, Geese quietly turns his chair away from Yamazaki and Hein.
"Understood, Mr. Howard."
"I'll work for the cash, but listening to your minions ain't part of the contract. I'll have all the fun I like, you hear, Geese Howard?!"
Returning Hein's elegant bow with a nasty smirk, Yamazaki shrugs on his coat and ambles leisurely toward the exit. Hein watches him step outside the doors before following after.
After the two men leave, Billy turns back to Geese and bows.
"I'll take my leave, then."
With his master's assent, Billy walks toward the exit as well.
As he passes through, he whispers to the two guards flanking the door.
"Keep an eye on that new recruit."
After sharing a glance, Ripper and Hopper follow after Billy.
The door shuts once again, and silence returns to the room. After a beat, Geese stands up and strides over to the window.
The expanse of South Town sparkles beyond the glass, the city lights like jewels resting upon black velvet.
Many have walked this city's streets, crafting all sorts of schemes to claim it for themselves. However, none have succeeded...
...save for this man who now stands high above the landscape.
"The time has come for the creature of the secret texts to descend and rule us all...but that is only the opening act of this grand show."
As he gazes down at it all, Geese Howard smiles.
"Vixen and viper... I must commend you for trying to bring all the evils of the city under your control. We will see if this little play you've prepared will entertain me."
EXTRA STORY: Shun'ei
Shun'ei found himself cast into an all-encompassing darkness.
"What is this place? Where am I?"
His voice was swallowed by the darkness, fading before it could even echo. He was floating, groping around in the air fruitlessly, as though suspended in water.
Darkness everywhere... But despite this, he could make out his own form perfectly. Nothing else. Just himself.
Nothing. The silence was deafening, only serving to amplify his fear and solitude. As much as he struggled and writhed, the only sensation he felt feel was the light, unending spin of his body.
His breath quickened; his heart raced; just when he couldn't take any more, just when he opened his mouth to scream...
A noise. The next thing Shun'ei knew, cracks were forming before him.
They spread through the darkness, crunching like crushed glass. The bright, white cracks ran outward like the strings of a spider's web, before finally the center of them all crumpled.
- clink* *clink* *clink* Fragments began falling off one by one.
As they fell away, they revealed a world of countless twinkling lights, like a night sky beyond reason or explanation.
Something about that glimmering world felt familiar to Shun'ei. On impulse, he reached toward it, only to hear a sudden ringing in his ears. Shun'ei grimaced at the din, but after a moment, he realized that it was a voice. He focused, trying to make sense of what it was saying. And make sense of it he did...
A chill ran down Shun'ei's spine. He felt a strong power stirring somewhere deep inside him, a dreadful impulse, overwhelming emotions. Loneliness. Fear. Despair. Sorrow. Anger.
He swatted the air in a vain attempt to smother the voice.
"YOU ARE THE POWER OF DESTRUCTION. FEEL THE RAGE. THE GRIEF. THE FEAR. THE DESPAIR. DESTROY EVERYTHING."
He could see something beyond the cracks. It seemed spherical, yet box-shaped, yet humanoid...
"Shut up already!"
The voice shook his mind as an urge threatened to burst through his chest. No matter how hard he struggled, he was alone. The loneliness heighted his fear, wearing him down into submission.
A split second more and the pain would have engulfed him. But before it could, the area within the cracks glowed, from which huge red-and-blue hands appeared and shoved Shun'ei...
"*gasp* *huff* *huff*"
When Shun'ei opened his eyes, he was greeted by a familiar ceiling. He sat up with ragged breaths, and looked over to see Meitenkun, who looked back concerned.
"Are you okay, Shun? That one was even worse than the nightmare you had last night."
Meitenkun hugged his pillow tightly out of anxiety. Shun'ei stared down at his hands.
Shun'ei had been having this nightmare for as long as he could remember.
At first, it had just been him floating endlessly in darkness. But as a young boy that was enough to leave Shun'ei stricken with fear and loneliness. When he brought the anxiety from that nightmare into reality, his power became too much for him to handle. It was his master Tung Fu Rue who had given him headphones and bandages, to make it easier to envision containing his power.
But at some point, Shun'ei's nightmare changed. Cracks were forming in the darkness and growing wider each day. It hadn't affected his daily routines; possibly thanks to Master Tung's teachings and Shun'ei's own emotional control visualization and personal growth.
He hadn't even tossed and turned in his sleep.
According to Meitenkun, Shun'ei had only started doing this recently. It started the day after they faced that mysterious monster in the last KOF tournament.
The most Shun'ei could remember of his dreams was up to where the cracks spread. Everything after disappeared when he woke up, so it was hard for him to explain what the nightmare was, or whether it had anything to do with that monster.
The only indelible memory was of sheer agony. And no matter what he did, the nightmare came back, night after night.
"I thought I'd matured after fighting in KOF, but...I'm starting to question that."
Shun'ei and Meitenkun had just wrapped up morning training and were now at a watering hole halfway up a mountain path. As the former splashed water on his face, the latter shook his head vigorously.
"You can't start second-guessing yourself, Shun. Besides, if you ever lost control like before, you have me and Master Tung... Oh yeah, and Terry and Andy, and Kyo..."
Meitenkun started counting on his fingers, then gave up on that and threw his arms wide.
"Anyway, the point is we'd figure something out. Relax!"
Shun'ei studied his close friend for a few moments, before smiling with relief.
"I guess you're right. Thanks, Meiten."
"Heh-heh, this is gonna be fun."
The friends bumped fists and started climbing the steps again. Thin clouds surrounded the mountains, while the morning sunlight illuminated the world around with a pale pink hue.
"Y'know, I'm not planning on losing control."
"I know, I know! That's why you're training so hard."
Their cheery voices resonated through the crisp mountain air.
EXTRA STORY: Isla
Isla had spent her life within a facility's gates for as long as she could remember.
Some of the kids there were orphaned; others, abandoned. All had one thing in common: there was no place for them outside this orphanage. Isla was no exception—she'd been abandoned at the gates to the building. Despite being very young when this happened, she had a vague idea why she'd been left there.
Isla had something the other kids didn't.
She could envision an object moving, and it would. If it was small, she could make it float in midair. She could even break an object simply by willing it. An invisible 'something' was always lurking around her, picking up on her thoughts. It gave her comforting pats on the head when she had trouble sleeping, and it caught her whenever she was about to fall.
Isla couldn't see it, but she could touch it. She named it Amanda.
As she grew older, she came to understand that having this 'something' was strange, and everyone else not having it was normal. She was clever enough to put two and two together and realize that this was why her parents had abandoned her.
No one had to tell Isla to keep Amanda a secret; she did it of her own accord, and eventually it faded into the memories of those around her as the product of a child's overactive imagination. By the time Isla was seven, everyone had forgotten about it entirely.
"There's a lot of children out there who have it way worse than you kids."
"You should be grateful you get to live here at all."
It was like a set of bile-filled mantras the adults repeated every day at the orphanage's morning assemblies.
Within the gray fences of the facility, whoever obeyed the adults was a good child, and whoever didn't was bad. Whoever grew to meet the adults' expectations was bright, and whoever failed was branded as a dunce.
The bright kids can find gainful employment through job referrals from the adults, but the rest would be kicked out without a penny to their name once they reached a certain age—or so the adults had claimed. The children had no way of knowing the truth, but the threat was enough to scare them into trying their hardest to be good.
The children spent every day following a strict daily schedule: lessons, exercise, eat, and sleep. In the common lounge was a TV that never once played movies or cartoons, only messages from the facility's higher-ups. Even balls that flew over the fences would end up confiscated if found by the children. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" was a favorite saying of the facility staff.
This was the life that Isla was living when she discovered her hobby one summer at twelve years old.
It all started with Isla drawing a picture of a dog for a younger boy. She'd try to draw from memory a photo she'd seen once, and though it had been a crude attempt, the boy was delighted. Encouraged, she then drew cats, fish, birds—soon, she expanded from animals to flowers, to objects, to faces. Before she knew it, Isla had fallen in love with art.
She continued drawing on the sly anywhere she could—on the backs of scrap paper, on swiped bedsheets, on the walls behind shelves. Sometimes she even got Amanda to help her out.
But one day, a staff member at the orphanage discovered her drawings. A number of staff then promptly dragged all the kids out of bed in the middle of the night and turned over the whole room—opening drawers, peeking under beds, everywhere—searching for every last one of Isla's pictures. They ordered the children to throw all of their drawings into a fire, and the children were too scared to refuse. Isla's screamed protests fell on deaf ears.
"This rubbish is a waste of your time."
A male staffer declared this coldly, standing before the impromptu fire in the garden.
"Time you spend on leisure is time you're NOT spending on studying. You should always strive to be good boys and girls to avoid causing trouble for us here. Is that clear? Well?"
Isla tensed up in fear, but the staffer didn't seem to care. He gave the whip in his hand a hard crack.
"Think you'll get off scot-free if you keep your mouth shut? Who was it that took you in off the streets and raised you?!"
He glowered down at Isla and raised the whip menacingly.
As the whip sailed down toward her, an emotion that Isla had been crushing down for so long suddenly bubbled up from inside her. It was hatred—intense, powerful hatred for the parents that had abandoned her for being different, for the abusive adults forcing children into blind obedience, and for the outrageous treatment she'd had to endure.
Isla clenched her jaw. At that very moment, Amanda appeared and yanked the tip of the whip in midair. The invisible tug threw the staffer off his feet and sent him toppling to the ground, where he gaped up at Isla in uncomprehending shock.
As if summoned by Isla's raging emotions, the once-invisible Amanda slowly took shape. Before long, everyone at the scene was now staring at a bright purple-fringed hand floating in the air.
"What is THAT?!"
The staffer pointed at Amanda and cried out in a strangled voice. Isla could feel the bewildered stares of the other adults, not to mention the children that she'd grown up with, boring holes into her and her companion. But she was too pissed to care.
"You call us poor, wretched, mediocre, unwanted... You keep making up labels to suit your own damn narrative. What the hell do you take us for?!"
Isla took a step forward, and just as the man scooted back on his rear to get away, Amanda snagged him from under his arms and hoisted him up in the air. Isla looked on, unimpressed, while he flailed helplessly against the dull gray fence of the orphanage. Then she bent at the waist, putting all her power into her legs.
"If the alternative is being the kind of 'productive, working-class citizen' you assholes want..."
She kicked off the ground toward the man, her foot soaring squarely toward his abdomen.
"...Then I'll just be a kid forever!"
Her heel dug hard into his solar plexus. Isla used the momentum to rebound off of him and spring into the air. From the newfound height, she saw the world beyond the fence for the first time.
The morning sun shining in from behind the mountains painted the sky in light hues of pink. The sunbeams bounced off brightly-colored rooftops below, making them sparkle like a vast ocean that stretched as far as the eye could see. This world of colors captured Isla's heart in an instant.
Just as Isla heard the thump of the staffer being unceremoniously dumped on the ground, Amanda flew over to her and pointed out toward the city. The hand had no voice, but Isla knew exactly what her best friend meant: "Let's go." She smiled and nodded.
"Right. Time to go, Amanda!"
That morning, Isla and her "hand" left the orphanage's dull gray fences behind for good.
Ever since that summer day she escaped the facility, Isla had been living happily together with Amanda.
She had no one to turn to, but she made it work. Now grown a few years older, she was working part-time at shops and restaurants and spending her earnings on art supplies for her painting projects around town.
It wasn't long before talk of Isla and her paintings spread among the local neighborhood kids. Boys and girls her age flocked to her out of curiosity, and she hit it off with them fabulously. During that time, a friend promoted her on social media, putting her on track to earn a living through her art. She no longer had to worry about securing money for supplies.
There was one time she approached the old gray fencing to check up on the kids she once lived with. The staffers working there did not try to take her back in, but when she offered money to buy some nice treats for the kids, they simply snatched up the cash without a second word. It probably never made it to the children inside.
People much older around Isla liked to call her a juvenile delinquent behind her back for being an orphanage runaway, but her friends her own age were much more good-natured. They never talked badly about her art or Amanda; rather, they were happy to acknowledge these things as what made her unique. To them, Isla's paintings were a symbol of freedom, and the places she left paintings became welcoming hangout spots for kids.
"Hey, Isla. Have you and Amanda ever thought about doing this stuff in another country?"
One of Isla's friends asked her a question while they were hanging out by a newly-finished grafitti piece. Isla smiled sheepishly.
"Working overseas would be pretty cool, but I dunno..."
"You could get in on some big event, get famous, and net in some sweet offers!"
"Hey, aren't you and Amanda good at fighting? What if you signed up for this?"
Her friend held up a smartphone showing livestream footage from a fighting tournament. Isla peered at it skeptically...until her eyes widened at the sight of a boy on camera.
Sporting headphones, the boy was overwhelming an opponent with well-practiced kung fu. Though they weren't the same size or color, the giant hands that occasionally manifested over his arms looked incredibly familiar. Isla knew they were the same as Amanda.
"That's just like Isla and Amanda!"
"That's not the same. His hand's way bigger than Amanda's."
"Dude... Did he just tear open the ground? That's sick!"
"His name's Shun'ei. He's our age, but he's so cool!"
Isla's friends' excited chatter echoed inside her head.
The screen showed the boy defeating his opponent, then another boy came running up to him, accompanied by a kindly-looking old man. Older adults patted him on the shoulder and ruffled his hair, and despite his protests, the boy seemed to enjoy it. To Isla, his expression was the very picture of happiness.
Look at this lucky bastard.
Annoyed at herself for even thinking that for a split second, Isla stepped loudly away from her friends.
"What's so cool about that guy? He's all flash and no substance. Amanda and I could take him any day of the week."
Her friends looked at each other for a moment, then laughed in cheerful agreement. Soon they moved on to gossiping and complaining about their parents and schools.
Isla faced a blank wall and pulled the brim of her cap down. Nobody noticed her jaw clenched beneath the gas mask she wore.
"...One of these days, I'm gonna wipe the floor with that guy."