A series of tiny orbs came flying out from beneath the van, .hurtled by a hidden launcher in a perfectly circular pattern. The silvery spheres rolled across the ground, coming to rest among the scores of glass debris. Then, as one, they began to hiss as they released a thick, oily smoke into the air that blanketed everything in a haze that curtailed even the sharpest of eyes.

     Through the blackout, a car door could be heard sliding open and closed before the wheels of the van crunched and squealed, taking the vehicle back out of the ballroom the way it came. Three pairs of footsteps took advantage of the cover, hurriedly running across the room. More footsteps followed, several distinct sets, coming down across the stairs and out onto the ballroom.

     Brock's sharp eyes spotted the first of the seven before the smoke had even started to lift, seeing the dark figure emerging several feet away. His target was swatting at the smoke, as if his fanning hand could clear a path to his desired foes. The rubber bullets that struck him soon put a stop to his trek, bowling him to the floor where he lay still. A moment later, though, Brock had to fling himself to the ground, for just after, another hail of real bullets came flying, guided by the sound of his initial shots.

     Ash gritted his teeth, keeping a close eye on Misty as the smoke began to filter out. He could tell via sound approximately where the remaining six were, and as the smoke began to clear, they would have a brief advantage with surprise. That would take out two, perhaps three of them without retaliation.

     Sure enough, the smoke vanished almost as quickly as it had come. Immediately, Ash took the opportunity to wing two more soldiers, knocking them from the fight with expert marksmanship before they could do any more damage. He rushed forward, kicking their rifles away even as the remaining four were taking aim.

     Already on the move, Ash was surprised as the four were reduced to three in the next second. Glancing over, he saw Misty taking aim at another, and smiled to himself. Whatever his doubts, he had to admit; the girl could shoot. Then, with a sickening gulp, he noticed four more men descending the stairs, unarmed and severely battered, but looking as though they had plenty of fight left in them. "Brock!" he shouted at his partner, clipping the rifle out of one of the three with his pistol, "Stairs!"

     "I see them!" Brock grunted, running forward. He tossed his weapon aside, clip spent and no time to reload, brandishing instead his meaty, muscled fists. With a berserker yell, Brock fell upon the four, catching one in a running punch that nearly took the man's head off.

     Ash sent a few more shots flying out, taking out the last two rifles, but not their owners. His eyes scanned the battle, counting quick; with the one Brock had just cold-cocked, that left six still standing, and three of them. His gun was tucked back into its holster, now emptied, before he made his own dead-man's-charge towards the first group of three.

     He managed to catch the first off-guard with a flying kick, landing with one foot on the man's chest as the other two squared off against him. Ash raised his arms, feeling his knuckles crack back into place as hands became fists, and grinned. "I hope I still remember how to do this," Ash quipped to his two opponents.

     The first kick came almost too quickly for the eye to follow, streaking at his kneecap. It would have worked beautifully, were it not for the fact that Ash simply wasn't there. He was already several feet back, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet, shifting his weight, eyes darting in analysis of his foes. With light, quick movement, he came in again, this time shuffling forward.

     His own foot flew up, connecting with the first in a vicious front snap to the chin. Before his foot came back down, his other was in the air as he spun back, catching the other man with a reverse side kick that struck the other man's solar plexus and crushed several of his ribs. By the time he had landed expertly to the ground, both men had fallen and were laying still, with no intention of rising again.

     A brief wave of pride washed over Ash, which he indulged in for half an instant before a crack and a scream of agony to his right brought him back to the battle. Whirling around, he saw Misty dispatching the man he had floored with his flying kick back to the ground with her spiked heel, which was currently buried in his crotch. Silently, Ash berated himself for letting his guard down and assuming that he had taken care of the first, but offered his praise to Misty aloud;

     "Not bad, if a little cliché."

     She grinned, pulling her heel from the man's groin with a tug. "There's a reason it's cliché, buddy-boy. Care for a demonstration?"

     He was about to answer when someone shot him in the head.

     The shot had come from over by the stairs; Ash hadn't seen anyone still carrying a gun, and so was a little surprised when he felt his body go flying back, landing hard against the gritty, broken glass floor. Misty's voice screamed his name, and there were several more shots exchanged, all while he stared up at the ceiling. Then the room fell silent, as if someone had turned the battle off as easily as one would flick a light switch. Ash heard his name screamed again, and suddenly Misty's face filled his vision.

     "Oh my God," Misty moaned, cradling Ash's head in her lap, "Please don't die…please…" Tears poured from her eyes, dripping down onto his Plexiglas mask, which was spider-webbed with a series of cracks emanating from the bullet hole. "Please, don't DIE!"

     "Okay." Ash said simply, staring up at her. The sudden word had startled her, bringing her to look down into his eyes. She finally noticed, and as Ash crossed his eyes, he could see too; the bullet meant to kill him was lodged in his face mask, just barely poking through to the other side. Ash could see the metallic tip gleaming at him just a few centimeters in front of his face, and grinned. "Bulletproof."

     Misty snorted, tossing his head aside. "Lucky, you mean." Still, as he pulled the lifesaving helmet off ('best investment we ever made,' he told himself), he was glad to see a flood of relief pouring over Misty. She sniffled and wiped away her tears, feeling foolish, but offering a brave smile up in return as she helped him to his feet. "You always were lucky, you know."

     "I hate to interrupt the love-fest," Brock approached the couple with several unconscious men in tow. He dropped them next to the others that Ash and Misty had gathered, piling them callously on the ground with a grunt. "But you missed the rest of the battle. Way to go."

     "Brock!" Ash was duly impressed. "You handled four guys all on your own? Damn, man, I had you underestimated!"

     "Well, as much as your praise fills me with boundless joy," Brock's eyebrow tweaked. Looking back over his shoulder, he admitted, "I had a little help." Ash and Misty followed his gaze, spying an unlikely pair standing at the foot of the stairs. Brock waved to Samurai and Giselle as the swordsman sheathed his weapon. "Can you believe it? He had his sword on underneath his tux the entire time."

     "I don't even want to know where he was hiding that thing," Ash quipped back, exchanging a high-five with Brock. Despite the joviality and bravado, though, he was sincerely relieved. They were extremely lucky, as unprepared as they had been; and it only served to further fuel his angered curiosity.

     A voice suddenly echoed across the room, coming at them from every which way. "Well done!" it exclaimed, accompanied by a slow, steady clapping. "Well done indeed. You are everything I could have hoped for, and more!" The voice was deep, male, and very regal. Ash couldn't help but feel a sense of familiarity in the voice, though he couldn't quite place who it belonged to.

     "Who's there?" Ash snarled, tossing aside the now-useless helmet. He was sick of tricks, of mystery and intrigue. Now it was time for answers, or someone was going to feel very, very sorry. "Show yourself!"

     "Calmness, please, Mr. Ketchum." The voice toned with a hint of amusement. "You have passed the initiation. All of you," he added, sight unseen. "And now, if you-"

     "Wait," Brock interrupted, projecting his voice loudly to the ceiling. "A bunch of hired thugs start shooting up the place, nearly kill us, blow the hell out of a perfectly good buffet table…" he gestured to the destroyed remains of the party's food, which was hopelessly filled with shards of broken glass and spread halfway across the room. "…and you're telling us that it was all a test?"

     "That's correct, Mr. Stone. You have all passed. Welcome to The Elite." The name echoed off of the high walls and ceilings, sounding very ominous in Ash's ringing ears. "And now," the voice said, "If you will adjourn upstairs, I assure you that all your questions will be answered."

     It was Samurai who was the first to vocalize their collective thoughts. "And what if we do not wish to join this 'Elite' business you have so generously offered."

     "Awful big noise for a country club," Giselle couldn't help but add her two cents.

     The voice was silent for a moment, as if gathering its thoughts, before starting once more. "I admit that our methods may seem a bit callous," he allowed slowly, "But I assure you, we are far from a 'Country Club.' Our business, as you call it, Mr. Shoto, is no less than world-saving. I promise you," he added after a minute, "If you would all join me in the Green Room upstairs, all of your questions will be answered, and a matter of great importance will be brought to light."

     Samurai exchanged glances with Ash, then with Giselle. She nodded, as if to say 'I'll follow where you lead.' Taking her in hand, the short swordsman led them slowly up the stairs, stepping around the dangerously sharp debris.

     That left Ash, Brock and Misty alone in the ballroom. They looked among one another, confused and with far more questions than answers. Finally, Brock shrugged. "What do you think, Ash?"

     Ash wanted nothing more than to know who was behind this entire orchestrated event, if for no other reason than to give him a sorely deserved punch to the jaw. "Well," he said, after carefully considering the situation, he returned the shrug in kind. "I don't see how things could get any worse."

     "Dude!" Brock hissed, covering his ears. "Karma! Karma!"

     Misty raised a questioning eyebrow, looking to Ash for an explanation. Ash simply shook his head. "Don't ask."

     "Wasn't going to." And together, the three of them ascended the stairs, ready to seek the answers they had been promised, and so richly deserved.

=To Be Continued=
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