ShipsPassInTheNight

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About ShipsPassInTheNight

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  1. Mitsuba 3.33: You Can (Not) Finish This Damn Story

    She feels the not-train shudder as the force of her fall punches through its armored back, a rumbling ripple in its bowels as it recoils from her assault. A surprised cry of agony goes up in a piercing wail, awakening its servitors… Just like the last time. They haul themselves from pus-laden pockets in their progenitor’s flesh, leaping and oozing and crawling and flying in their hundreds toward the intruder in their master’s sanctum, and She remembers the look of alarm on her Master’s face. She remembers their headlong flight through the belly of a greater beast, their frantic last stand. She remembers their voices trembling in harmony, the wash of her mentor’s power holding off a tide of chitin and brass as she turned her power against the walls, trying to cut a way out… Half sobbing, half singing the final words that led her to freedom, feeling the thuds against her back as he interposed himself between her and them, shielding her a final time with flesh and bone and blood… “No more,” she says, raising her hand. The floor shifts and undulates beneath her feet as she gets up, song-armor clinging to her like a second skin. “Never again.” Her voice echoes like the tolling of a great bell, piercing through the bowels of the demon in a resonant cry, rising and rising and rising on a wave of power that soon verges on the unbearable– She unleashes it with a shout, anger and sorrow and grim purpose spilling forth in a torrent of purifying fire. The demonspawn howl and shriek and sob – a few of them go so far as to beg for mercy in the voices of the departed, but she gives them no respite. When the flames finally recede there is nothing left but ashes, and she strides forward toward the head. This one’s weak and hurt. It should put everything into a single overwhelming blow, she thinks with a savage grin. Perfect. ~~ The next chamber seals itself off, a slab of iron-hard muscle and pulsating brass slamming shut to bar her passage. She touches a finger to its surface, singeing it with purifying flame, and it flinches open long enough for her to slip through the gap… Into a horde of monstrosities who strike as one, a many-headed many-limbed creature throwing crushing bodies and razor-sharp appendages into her path– But she’s already moving, diving past the attacks and into the throng. Her song of destruction rings through the fetid air as she ducks and parries and steps to its ebb and flow, a ray of moonlight leaping into her hands on the seventh syllable. It flashes through the air with a flick of her wrist, leaving smoking ruin in its wake, but there are too many for her to cut down and suddenly something slams into her back and knocks her off her feet and they’re pinning her down, scratching and clawing, and She’s going to die here– A clap of thunder splits the air, shaking the floor with its power; the rumbling roar of some ancient beast reawakened from slumber. The demonspawn flinch as one, and she seizes the opening to wrench an arm free. Her moonbeam flickers to and fro as she begins to carve her way out of the pile, but the pressure lessens abruptly and she heaves herself to her feet to see the monstrosities rush back toward the head of the train. They’re regrouping. Something’s spooked the demon, and it probably isn’t her. What manner of being, she thinks, could provoke such a reaction?
  2. Mitsuba 3.33: You Can (Not) Finish This Damn Story

    She hums softly by faint candlelight, working her way through a pile of paper and ticking the names off a list. Murakami, Ogawa, Nakamura… Six notes over and over and over, matching the dance of the flames. The beginnings of a song, hesitant and wavering but holding the promise of something far greater… All done. Hang on, where’s– She looks over at Takamine and her eyes go wide. Oh, God… how long has he been reading that? Still humming, she shakes his shoulder. He makes a distracted noise without looking up. She shakes him again, urgently, and he leans away from her touch. “Hang on, I’m a little–” She stops humming and the candles go out. ~~ “Fine,” he says a few moments later, when she stops yelling to take a breath. “I’ll ease up on learning the Hymns, but… honestly, shouldn’t I be spending as much time as possible–” No more than two hours a day,” she says. “Yeah!” He shoots back. “Look at the time – it’s barely been half an…” his voice trails off as he looks at the clock, and she sees apprehension creep onto his face. “Oh, crap. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize–” She shakes her head. “The fault is mine.” When he opens his mouth to argue, she continues: “It will not happen again. My apologies, Takamine-san.” “No worries,” he says with that grin of his. “You know, there’s this thing called a cellphone alarm–” A discordant note rings through the air, faint but distinctly wrong, and she goes stock still. It’s shown itself. “Is something wrong–” Takamine says, but she sings three notes, high and pure, and is gone. ~~ She sprints down the road, each step coming swift and sure in time with the Hymn of Saint Theresa. Faster than any horse she ran, she sings, in pursuit of the beast. She feels the eagerness of the song, an almost-living thing coiling and growing around her woven scaffold of word and melody and rhythm, aching to be unleashed… Faster than any wind, faster than daybreak, borne on wings of light– The world falls away beneath her, strength and joy and raw purpose flooding her veins as she steps off the ground and into the air. ~~ The wind screams in her ears, rooftops blurring past beneath her as she heads toward the disturbance. Below her, the grating screech of its presence rushes eastward, matching the trajectory of– The train. She stops singing, heart plunging into the pit of her stomach as Theresa’s hymn frays and dissipates, sending her into freefall… Through the cloud of deception lies heavy on the land, the truth will be seen, she gasps, and in a brief moment of clarity she sees– The not-train dragging itself onward, a million chitinous limbs clattering on metal rails as it heads back to the Beyond, demonic energy swirling in a dark miasma as the beast placates its hell-bound cargo. Home, home, home… Hunger and glee and eagerness mingle in its twisted song as she falls from two hundred feet up, fear and anger battling for dominance as she remembers Master Isidore broken on the anvil of duty, torn almost beyond recognition by a hundred unearthly claws and teeth and talons; remembers his last gurgled words… A wave of grief washes over her. And just before impact, as she whispers a quiet remembrance for her fallen mentor, the Hymn of Isidore unspools into the night air for the very first time… I am the shield of the helpless. I am the cleansing flame. I am the blade that strikes down evil, the light that drives back all darkness. Farewell, she murmurs, and for a moment there is only white.
  3. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    Fire everywhere. Consuming wood and paper, melting plastic, scorching metal, it mingles with the scent of dried blood and demonic taint, and– She sniffs the air. A hint of something… It’s gone as soon as she notices it, a faint yet familiar tang of cordite. She shakes her head and moves on, three bodies acting as one – covering all angles, sweeping the corridor with practiced efficiency, checking shredded wrecks of flesh for signs of life against all hope. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Anger rises within her, cold and brittle. It keeps her composed amidst the flame, and when the first eel-like thrall darts from a side room in ambush she puts a reflexive round through each of its eyes. It hits the ground flopping and shrieking, burning tar sloughing off hardened scales and pooling on ceramic tile before she ends its existence with a short burst to the head. Geminus’ sight is unclear in this building, clouded by ruined ward and shattered rune, but she can see well enough. “Heads up, Akizuki-san,” she calls out behind her. “There are more of them.” Squinting through the metaphysical fog ahead, she sees hazy ribbons writhe and undulate through the walls, swimming through the air as if it were buoyant water. Distance: Unclear. Identity: Unclear. One thing is clear, though – they know she’s coming. Her shot whips their lazy circling into a frenzy, and they converge on her position like sharks with the scent of blood. “Through the walls. Look ou–” More thralls burst into the room in a textbook pincer attack, burning malice and armored bulk striking with the speed of snakes. She sidesteps one – a bayonet coalesces into being at the tip of her rifle, and she uses its momentum as it passes her to rip it open from jaw to tail. Number Two sees a flash of light in its peripheral vision as Erin disposes of another, and then she’s aiming and firing, dodging incoming strikes and engaging new targets without the luxury of confirming kills– The shoal disperses as quickly as it arrives, thralls fleeing through the walls with incredible speed. They leave behind a dozen of their fellows, but at least twice that number still live. The survivors regroup and start circling cautiously, but none of them dare to venture within line of sight. That’s good, she thinks. I thought they’d be a lot tougher. “You all right, Akizuki-san?” She asks.
  4. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    Thoughts whirl through her head, almost too fast to process. Bakufu. Attacked. Yoshida. Hashimoto. Nakano. Kikuchi. Morita. Damn it all to hell– She’s out the church doors and down the steps before she realizes she’s started moving, Number Two listening in her stead as Yuudai rattles off an address. Two steps and she’s astride her bike – helmet on, key in the ignition and ready to go– “Wait up!” Erin rushes down the path. “I don’t know where Raiha’s car is, and–” “Get on,” she growls, revving the engine. The blond girl complies, and they’re off the moment her colleague’s feet leave the ground. The speedometer jumps as she presses herself against the chassis, wringing every last ounce of speed out of her mount. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty… They’re well above the legal speed limit but she keeps a firm hand on the throttle, accelerating into the low hundreds. There’s a red light ahead, a stream of cars meandering across an intersection – Erin screams something like “SLOW DOWN” into the roaring wind but she ignores it and weaves her bike through the mass of moving cars, easing a thread of steel and chrome through the eye of a forty-kilometer-per-hour needle. They leave the sound of honking cars and squealing brakes behind, racing onward to their destination. ~~ She can see the pillar of dark smoke from fifteen blocks away. The wailing of fire engines reaches her ears a few blocks later, followed by the faint crackling of flame. ~~ The area itself is cordoned off, two fire engines and several police cars parked within. As the fire department hoses the gutted building down from a safe distance, she yanks the key and hops off her steed, leaving Number Two to guide the inert motorcycle to a safe halt. She vaults over the police tape and rushes toward the office. Immediately, a harried-looking police officer detaches himself from a group of onlookers and hurries up to her. “Sorry, miss–” She shoots him in the chest without breaking stride. He stumbles backward, twitching and shuddering from the electroshock round, and Number Three flickers into existence behind her. Her clone fires again and again, picking off targets with machinelike precision, and everyone in the vicinity is unconscious before the first policeman hits the ground. “Let’s go,” she says, kicking down the door.
  5. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    She waves goodbye to Raiha as he leaves the church after their sparring match, then heads back down to the lower levels to resume practice. That was a good test of our abilities, she thinks, but I don’t think I learnt as much as I could have. She sorely needs training in close-quarters combat; Raiha’s skill and power are indubitable – years of training under some of the best swordsmen and magisters in the world have seen to that – but sparring is sparring. He’s not coming at her with the intent to kill, and that changes things. I need something closer to a Thrall – something with no qualms and no hesitation. Something that will keep attacking until one of us can no longer fight. She knows where to find something like that. Deep in the basement, past the locked door which Father Nakata thinks he has the only key to… It was damaged in the past and we never saw the need to fix it, so we locked it away in an old cupboard somewhere… I bet it still works. ~~ Checking to make sure Father Nakata is out for groceries, she heads downstairs. Stone walls and creaky staircases, decades- or even centuries-old in some cases, provide a strange sense of comfort. It’s good to know that some things can endure the weight of time, she thinks. They’ll probably still be here when I’m gone. She’s only been down here once or twice, to retrieve yellowed papers from a musty old archive or to dig up some ancient artefact from a bin of its fellows. But the church basement holds a lot more than old documents and rusty trinkets, and she heads down the mildewed corridor to her prize. A thick iron door at the far end looms menacingly in the near-darkness, magical wards blurring her sight. I could barely distinguish the pattern the last time I was down here, she thinks. Now... It sits in a corner, slumped over in an unnatural parody of sleep. There’s no movement as she unlocks the door with a snap and pushes it open with a creak of rusty steel, and she gives the training dummy an appraising look. An innocuous humanoid figure made from haphazardly-welded pieces of steel, it doesn’t look like much of a challenge. But she remembers– “Damn thing got me good–” “If it weren’t so dumb, we’d be using it in combat–” “There’s no shame in avoiding it, Misa-chan. You can go when you’re ready–” She shakes her head, banishing past memories. I am ready. I have to be. She reaches out for an activation rune carved on the dummy’s chest, sending a pulse of power into it. There’s no response for a moment, then she hears a faint grinding of gears. Metal clicks and shears against itself, some unfathomable internal mechanism rousing itself from the sleep of years. Power spreads outward from the dummy’s heart, faint and tentative but unmistakably present to her Sight. The metal facsimile rises slowly to its feet like a puppet on strings – uncoordinated, arms swinging almost comically as it turns its expressionless steel mask toward her. Pale white light glows from one of its three eyes, but the other two are dead and empty. It’s broken, she thinks, feeling a strange sense of camaraderie for the damaged construct. But it still serves its purpose. [INITIALIZING], the dummy rasps. [WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU TODAY, NISHIMURA-SAN?] Saki– Her name cuts like a knife, and it’s a moment before she can respond. “A bout, if you please.” [A W-W-WISE CHOICE. THREAT LEVEL?] There’s no hesitation. “Maximum,” she says. “Throw everything at me.” [VERY WELL. WE BEGIN ON YOUR COMMAND.] She takes in a deep breath, calling on Geminus’ power. “Let’s g–” Power explodes from the dummy, gears howling and metal shrieking as it lunges forward. She barely dodges the strike, sidestepping and pivoting on her heel to deliver a blow of her own, but it’s already turning, reaching out with incredible speed. A clumsy parry – a fraction of a second too late and a fraction of an inch too high – earns her a bone-cracking hit to the shoulder. She staggers backward, one arm going limp as the metal monster advances on her with inhuman grace. It moves with no trace of its earlier clumsiness, every movement calculated with perfect precision. Come on, Geminus. She draws on more and more of her Reaper’s power, but it’s reluctant. I need this. There’s a disgruntled pause as Geminus expresses its displeasure with her recklessness, then she feels adrenaline rush through her veins. The throbbing pain in her shoulder fades into an unpleasant memory, and the world slows down to a crawl. ‘Now we’re talking,” she says, and leaps forward. Her newfound speed and aggression throws the dummy off for an instant. Seizing the opportunity, she hits it in the side of the head, and is rewarded by a dent in its helmet. Then it adapts, forcing her back with a series of swift jabs while jockeying for a better position. One of them clips her in the ribs, and a paralyzing jolt of current nearly prevents her from disengaging. They circle each other for an uneasy moment. Then it puts all of its weight behind a wild punch and she steps under its overbalancing swing to exploit its BAIT– The metal man’s outstretched arm hooks itself around the back of her neck and yanks her off her feet, pressing her against its implacable steel form as it rises to its full height. It reaches around her waist with its other arm, crushing her in a deadly hug, and she feels ribs crack as the air rushes out of her lungs. Desperation clouds her mind, raw and instinctual. She needs to get away, needs to breathe– She struggles in vain against its grip – steel trumps flesh, and then its arm makes a violent wrenching motion and the lower half of her body goes cold and numb… The world spins and rises up to meet her, and the last thing she hears is her voice. “Not good enough…” ~~ Some time later, she opens her eyes. Fire shoots through her chest as she sucks in a breath but she’s too oxygen-starved to care, so she does it again. And again, and again… The pain dulls after a few moments, Geminus’ influence spreading through her like a warm bath. She tries to raise her right arm but it won’t move at all, so she brings the left hand up instead. Her pinky, ring and middle finger are broken, dangling limply as she prods her ribs. Yup. Broken. Frustration, cold and bitter, settles in the pit of her stomach. You can do better, she tells herself. A half-broken dummy shouldn’t be able to beat you up like that. Geminus hums in sympathy and continues its repairs, knitting broken bone and torn flesh back together with unnatural speed. Her ribs pull themselves back together with a stab of quickly-muted pain, and she stifles a gasp. “Thanks,” she mutters, planting her palm on dusty concrete and levering herself up off the floor. Her wounded hand screams in protest, but she ignores it. “How long was I out?” She asks, and “6:21” flashes across her vision. Oh. That’s fast – I used to take hours to heal. I suppose practice really does make perfect, she thinks with a wry grin. Geminus sends her a pulse in query. What now? She doesn’t say anything, but tries to make a fist with her healing left hand. It obeys after a moment’s agony, and she wriggles her right arm. As her Reaper finishes putting her back together, she re-approaches the dummy, powered down in its corner. No. Her hand freezes in mid-air as Geminus fights her for control of her body, hitting her with a pulse of grim warning. Pain returns in full force as her Reaper withdraws its numbing influence, and she has to bite her tongue to keep from crying out. “Yes,” she growls, turning her will inward. I need to be stronger. I don’t care what it costs me – I NEED MORE. Geminus fights her for a moment more before it relents, and she can move again. She feels its disapproval clear as day, but it does what she wants. Pain evaporates like water off a hot stove, bones thicken and toughen, and a dense net of fast-twitch fibers weaves itself together under her skin. Again and again into the breach, she thinks, re-activating the dummy. Again and again and again until it breaks... Or I do.
  6. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    “Here, catch.†She retrieves a few store-bought onigiri from her fridge and tosses them halfway across the room, then joins Raiha at the table. “Ahh, real food. Thanks,†he says. He plucks them out of the air without looking, and takes a huge bite out of one after undoing its plastic wrapping. “For a moment there, I thought you were really going to feed me that bland crap – Meal, Ready-to-Eat? More like Maliciously Reconstituted Excrement, if you ask me.†“Well, casting pearls before swine is a mistake I only make once,†she shoots back. “At least pearls are solid,†the Knight mumbles. “Everything’s the same texture – gooey and disgusting. I don’t know how you manage to put that stuff in your mouth, let alone swallow.†She seizes the opportunity with extreme prejudice. “Just ask your girlfriend, Raiha-san,†she says, trying in vain to keep a straight face. “Honoka was totally fine with it,†Raiha retorts. “And it wasn’t disgusting. She’d say something if it’d been… right?†He gives her a hopeful glance. “I…†she mulls over the question for a bit. “I suppose she would’ve. It does seem like the sort of thing you’d mention.†“Great,†he says, looking very relieved. “I tried a bit myself and it wasn’t too bad. A bit bitter and definitely too soggy for my taste, but she seemed to like it. Maybe a bit more cream next time…†She reels back from his sudden admission. “Wh– oh, god. That’s too much information.†He frowns at her. “What’re you talking about? This might be useful for you in the future, you know.†“Wh–what?†In a panic, she waves her hands defensively. “This has nothing to do with me!†“Of course it does. If you find a special someone, you’re gonna want to do the same for him. And then you’ll remember this conversation, and you’ll say to yourself, ‘It’s a good thing Raiha-senpai gave me those tips back then’.†Raiha pauses. “Although for some reason, I see you on the receiving end instead...†“I… I…†Face completely red, she tries to form a coherent sentence but nothing comes out. “That’s–†A thought visibly strikes the Knight, and he goes on: “Hey, I know! How would you like to help me out the next time I give it a go? Two birds with one stone – you can get valuable experience, and Honoka will probably enjoy it more.†What? WHAT– She slams her fist on the table. “NO. Absolutely not! What are you even thinking, saying something like that? I’ve misjudged you–†His face twists into a rictus of mock despair. “Come on, Misa-san. My baking can’t be that bad…†“Your what.†“…we’re talking about the chocolate cake I baked for her birthday, right?†Oh. OH, THAT. “Of course,†she says with every ounce of sincerity she can muster. “Of course we are.†~~ Raiha finishes the rest of his meal in relative silence, only pausing to fish his phone from a pocket and stare at the screen with a sigh. The device is clearly broken – a chunk of the plastic case detaches itself from the phone’s rear face and hits the table with a clatter, revealing a cracked battery and shattered SIM card. “Got into any fights recently?†She asks. “Your phone’s totaled. Hope you had the data backed up somewhere.†He nods grimly. “Yakuza business gone wrong – there were power users everywhere, and a warlock even got in on the action.†That’s news. “What powers?†“He killed a dozen people with a sword in under a second. Not in one slash, but many – I think he has some sort of time manipulation. He’s still out there, by the way. Jumped Honoka and me yesterday, but Erin bailed us out.†Still out there? That’s bad news. She considers a few counter-strategies, but it’s tough to decide when there’s so little information. “Anything particular about his power?†“Well…†Raiha thinks about it. “There was something about his victims… oh, yeah.†He nods. “All of them were drained of blood.†“Strange. Maybe he gets power from drinking the stuff,†she suggests. “Were there bite marks?†The Knight shakes his head. “Not that I saw. Now that I think about it, he also mentioned something about not being able to sheathe his blade without drawing blood…†She shrugs. “A blood-drinking blade sounds appropriately creepy. Is there anything else?†He shakes his head again. “I don’t really remember anything more. Sorry.†“No problem. You mentioned other power users – will any of them be a problem?†“No. The warlock killed them all,†Raiha replies. “Then an Avatar of Shiva showed up looking for blood, and I had to kill him too.†She whistles, impressed. Those who channel a deity’s power are often unmatched in a certain domain, which makes fights against them more about survival and strategy than a direct contest of power. Or so I’ve heard, anyway. “That can’t have been easy.†The Knight looks down, face darkening a little. “It wasn’t.†“But you did it anyway,†she says, clapping him on the shoulder. “I’d give you beer if I had any – I don’t think anyone’s killed an Avatar in our area before.†“I…†He looks rather glum for someone who’s accomplished such a feat. “I don’t know if it was the right thing to do.†Oh. Right. There is that. “I have an important question,†she says. “Was he an asshole?†He looks back up, puzzled. “Hmm? I suppose so. He was a rapist, a murderer, a necromancer, a thug… yeah, definitely an asshole.†She nods. “Well, it’s only natural for assholes to get fucked.†Immediately after the words leave her mouth, she fights back the urge to bury her face in her hands. I... probably shouldn’t have said that. This isn’t helping, is it? Raiha shifts in his seat and gives her an uncomfortable look. “I think some people would disagree with you on that. Besides, it’s not that simple – whether or not he was an asshole, I swore an oath to use my power only for humanity, not against it.†“Firstly, I’m not sure any of us count as human anymore,†she says after a moment of consideration. “Secondly… well, I’ve never put much stock in oaths. But I know you do, and it sounds to me like you weighed yours against the risk of letting him live and came to a decision. Or was it a spur of the moment thing?†A moment of silence. "The former," Raiha says eventually. "He was a menace to the world at large, and to my friends and family in particular. Breaking my oath and killing him might’ve been a sin, but it’s one I’ll gladly bear." She shrugs. “There aren’t any judges in our line of work – no juries, either. But that doesn’t mean we executioners have to sit and watch as evildoers run amok.†He nods. "I guess...we all get what’s coming around for us, and sometimes... well, sometimes we’re what’s coming around for someone else." Then he gives her his trademark grin. "But that's enough doom and gloom for tonight. You know there’s a festival coming up this Saturday?" “Yeah. Why?†“Will you be going?†The Knight asks. “Of course,†she says. “A crowd that size is a perfect target.†Raiha frowns. “I decided to give Honoka some alone time with the clingy gluttonous shrimp she calls a childhood friend, so I’ll be on patrol. You need to relax – why not take some time off and unwind?†She shakes her head. “Out of the question.†His frown deepens. “Misa–†“Fine. I’ll mingle and ‘relax’,†she says, drawing quotes in the air with her fingers, "but there’ll be a clone following you around in case anything happens. Okay?†“Ugh,†he says. “I suppose that’s as much as I’m going to get out of you. Fine, just make sure she’s inconspicuous.†“Of course. Do you want camo or civilian clothes?†“Wait, I get a choice?†A wicked gleam appears in Raiha’s eye. “In that case, I choose… a yukata!†He yells, pointing a finger at her dramatically. She groans. “Really? That’s difficult to put on and tough to move around in.†“Yeah, but everyone else will be dressed the same way. It’ll be the perfect disguise!†he replies. “... you make a fair point,†she concedes. “I’ll see what I can do.†“Great.†The Knight checks his watch and makes a face, standing up a moment later. “I have stuff to do elsewhere, so I guess I’ll be off now. Thanks for the food, by the way,†“No problem – wait, hang on,†she says, remembering the scientists’ experimental data. He gives her a puzzled look, and she explains: “I retrieved a hard drive of data from the lab. I don’t know if the Church is interested…†“Of course,†he replies. “Do you have it on you right now?†“Give me a moment,†she says. In her bedroom, Number Two turns away from the sleeping Takamine, glides soundlessly over to the standalone computer and inspects the screen. Copy to Data (D:) complete, a system prompt reads. The doppelganger unplugs the hard drive from the computer and emerges from the bedroom, handing it over to Raiha. “Thanks,†he says as Number Two takes up its vigil again. “Do you know what’s on the disc?†She shakes her head in reply. “Didn’t get the chance to look at it. Not sure I want to.†“Can’t blame you for that,†Raiha mutters and pockets the drive before heading for the door. “I’ll see you around.†“Bye. Oh, one last thing,†she adds, and he turns to her with an oh dear what is it now look on his face. “I’d talk the Avatar-killing thing over with Father Nakata, if I were you.†He gives her a wry grin. “I thought you’d have forgotten about that by now.†“I’m serious,†she says. “When aren’t you?†He counters, and she frowns at him. “All right, all right… I’ll consider it.†“Mmm. See you.†~~ After Raiha leaves, she retrieves Yoshida’s business card from the loaned blazer. It’s completely inert to her Sight, a plain white card with nothing but his last name and a phone number printed in large, blocky text. Should I–? She reaches for her phone. No. Too risky. She leaves her apartment and hops on a bus to the train station. It’s late evening and peak hour is over, so traffic is light and it takes about ten minutes to reach her destination. Once there, she wastes no time in locating a nearby payphone. After checking the surroundings for listening devices, she feeds a few 10-yen coins into the slot with a loud clatter and dials the number on his card. Someone picks up after three rings. “Hello.†The man on the other end sounds exasperated, as if he’d rather be doing anything but this. “Matsudaira Office Supplies and Products, how may I help you today?†“I’d like to speak to Yoshida, please,†she says, and there’s a slight pause. After a few moments, he replies: “Might I have your name and reason for calling?†“I’m Yamaguchi. We met briefly two days ago, and I–†she pauses to think of something convincing. “I think he has some questions for me.†Another pause, longer this time. He’s probably put me on mute while his supervisor decides what to do. “One moment, I’m patching you in.†the man on the phone says. The line beeps and starts playing elevator music. The Bakufu’s probably recording this, and I wouldn’t put it past them to try and trace the call. But that’s why I’m here. The muzak cuts off abruptly. “Hey, Yamaguchi-san,†Yoshida says tiredly. “How’s everything?†“Under control,†she replies. “The parasites give you any trouble?†“No. The Fausts were still alive, but not strong enough to do anything. We’re all under quarantine in a warded room until the specialists decide how to get them out, but nobody was possessed. I’m guessing it was the same for you?†“Yeah,†she lies. “How’s Dr. Morita?†“Still unconscious. The Faust might interfere with healing, so Medical’s first priority is keeping him stable. Or so I’ve heard, anyway.†Guilt gnaws at her, and she tightens her grip on the phone. “I see. Thanks.†A moment of silence. “I suppose you want to know about the facility?†Yoshida breaks the silence eventually. “Only what you’re authorized to tell me,†she replies. “Of course. We have the place under lockdown, and there doesn’t seem to be any more activity. So there’s no need for worry – everything’s secure.†“Great,†she says. “I’ll let my boss know.†He makes an acknowledging noise. “One last thing – Dr. Hashimoto mentioned something about a hard drive of data which he passed to you. Do you still have it?†“Destroyed,†she lies again. “I burned all my gear in the church, just in case.†“Oh,†Yoshida says. “Shame. That was a nice suit.†“Thanks,†she replies. “Is there anything else, or should I just leave the line open until your guys are done triangulating?†He lets out a bark of laughter. “They’ve been done for quite some time, Yamaguchi-san.†“Ah. I should go, then.†She looks around with her Sight, but doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I guess it’d take them a little longer than five minutes to get someone here. “Relax,†Yoshida says. “We’re on the same side.†She shrugs. “Privacy is privacy. And today’s ally isn’t necessarily tomorrow’s friend.†“Of course. Also, regarding the monetary compensation I mentioned–†“Use it to help the workers’ families. I don’t need the money,†she says. “Ah.†Yoshida doesn’t sound too surprised. “I’ll let my supervisor know.†“Great. Sorry, but I have to go now,†she says. “Give my regards to the team.†“Will do. Goodbye, Yamaguchi-san.†~~ The ride home is uneventful – she doesn’t spot anything suspicious, and nobody follows her when she gets off the bus and heads back to her apartment. Number Two has been watching over Takamine all this while, but her classmate hasn’t budged an inch on her bed. The only movement he exhibits is the slow rising and falling of his chest, and his tortured expression from earlier has smoothened into a somewhat peaceful look. Under her doppelganger’s Sight, the Faust resembles a neutered neuron – thin tendrils of red extend outward from a main body, but their ends are broken and seared courtesy of Raiha’s power. Every now and then, the demonic parasite shifts and gropes outward with one of its maimed limbs, but the wards inside Takamine’s body flare with golden light and rebuff the Faust’s advances. Taking extra care not to make any noise, she unlocks the door and creeps in. I feel like a thief breaking into my own apartment, she complains to nobody in particular. What am I even supposed to do now? What if he sleeps until tomorrow? She looks at the clock – it’s 7:40 pm. Oh dear. If he doesn’t get home in time, things are going to get awkward. “…I hate to do this, but you can’t sleep here forever. Sorry,†she mutters. She pokes Takamine gently in the shoulder, but he doesn’t respond. Maybe he’s just too tired, she thinks, and shakes him a little. He stirs, mumbling something in his sleep, and rolls away from her. “Oh no you didn’t,†she says. “Get back here.†“Mmflgh.†Takamine wakes up. Almost immediately, he tries to feign sleep by holding himself stock still and taking regular breaths, but she can tell it’s an act. “Good evening, Takamine-san,†she says, dismissing Number Two. “I know you’re awake. And I’m going to need you to stay calm, because my explanation is going to sound completely insane at first. Okay?†“Oh, god, it wasn’t a dream,†her classmate mumbles and sits up in bed. “You– Why am I here?†“I’ll start from the beginning. Do you believe in magic?†She asks. Please don’t call the police, please don’t call the police… He gives her an incredulous glance. “Nnnno, not really… why do you ask?†Number Two and Number Three materialize from thin air, and his eyes go wide. “There’s–†his disbelieving gaze flickers from one of her bodies to another. “There’s three of you,†he breathes. “Yeah. Magic,†she says. “I must still be dreaming,†Takamine mutters. He pinches himself and winces in pain, examining the growing red patch on his arm. “Ow. Maybe not. So…†he looks back up to her almost hopefully, as if begging her to let him in on the joke and point out the hidden camera. “I’m sorry. There’re no special effects. And this isn’t a hallucination, either,†she says grimly. “Here, hold out your hand.†Her classmate complies, and each of her bodies steps forward to tap a finger on his palm. “This can’t be happening,†he says, shaking his head from side to side as Number Three steps back from the bed. “It’s not– it’s not possible. But…†She dismisses her clones in a burst of energy. “Look,†she says as gently as she can, “I know this is a lot to take in. But the sooner you accept the existence of magic, the better.†Takamine closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths. “Let’s say I somehow manage to accept that you’re… some sort of magical girl.†he says eventually. “What happens next?†“Firstly I’m not a magical girl,†she says. “Secondly, well…†she sits down on the foot of the bed. “I’m afraid something terrible has happened to you.†~~ "So let me get this straight,†Takamine says ten minutes later. “You're some kind of demon-fighting magical girl–" "Hunter," she says quickly. "Yeah, that's what I said. So you're a Hunter and you brought back a demon baby–" "Faust." He nods. "Yeah. You went on one of your missions, a Faust infected you and played dead and now it's in me, and it's going to try and tempt me into becoming a… demon puppet?" "We call those Thralls, but yes. That’s the gist of it.†She tries to meet his gaze, but can’t muster the courage to look up from the floral pattern on her blanket. “I'm really sorry – as I’ve explained, this situation is almost entirely my fault." "Yeah, no worries. I’m assuming that’s also why you tazed me into unconsciousness, chained me to your bed and then had Shirakawa-san take off my shirt and touch my chest?†He asks. “Ugh – now that you put it like that…†she grimaces. “I panicked and did what I thought was best. Sorry.†“No need to apologize so much,†Takamine replies, sounding a little embarrassed. “I was just kidding – if what you say is true, the two of you might’ve saved my life.†“Only because I endangered it in the first place, Takamine-san. You say there’s no need, but apologizing is the only thing I can do now.†she murmurs. “Don’t look so down. Didn’t Shirakawa-san fix me up? You mentioned a seal,†he says. “It’s a semi-permanent cure,†she explains, looking up to gauge his reaction. “The Faust is sealed, so it can’t do any harm in its prison. Its goal is to talk you into releasing it, and it’ll promise anything and everything to make that happen. But make no mistake – it will tear your soul apart once all the seals are broken.†Takamine winces. “That doesn’t sound so good,†he says, but he looks strangely unfazed by her explanation. “So I’m… basically Naruto now, aren’t I?†“I’m serious,†she growls. “If you let the Faust loose, it’ll…†she racks her brain for a strong enough word. “I know,†he replies. “It’ll ruin you, Kira,†she says desperately. He sighs and buries his head in his hands. “I know,†he says in a muffled voice. “It’s just that everything still seems so outlandish and my subconscious is being stubborn… could you give me a little time to sort things out?†“Of course. Take all the time you need.†She casts a glance at her clock. “Speaking of time…†It’s 7:53 pm. Kira’s head snaps up. “Oh crap. What time is it?†She tells him. He fumbles around for his phone and snaps it open. “Oh, no. Fifteen missed calls – I was supposed to be home by six thirty. And now I’m going to be late for dinner at eight… Mom’s gonna kill me.†She hops off the bed and opens the closet door, retrieving her helmet and school uniform. “Not if I have anything to say about it.†~~ “Y’know, you said you were going to stop my mother from killing me,†Kira says a short while later, voice muffled by the helmet she lent him. The address he provided turns out to be a two story, single-detached dwelling with a sign that reads TAKAMINE RESIDENCE. A dog barks somewhere inside the house as she pulls up by the curb, and the delightful smell of cooking wafts out from the gate. “I did. It’s not eight yet,†she replies. He releases his death grip on her blazer and gets off the bike, taking off the helmet and returning it to her with shaking hands. “Well, you damn near did the job for her – I can’t even count the number of near misses we just had.†“It may not look like it, but I was actually driving really safely,†she says, trying not to grin at the incredulous look on Kira’s face. “We were never in any danger – plus, you were the one with the helmet.†“Safely? Safely?†Kira’s mouth opens and closes a few times as he tries to find an answer. After a few moments, he shakes his head. “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.†“Suit yourself.†“…I’ll admit it was kind of fun, though,†he mutters under his breath. “Sorry?†She raises her eyebrows and leans in close. “Didn’t quite catch that last bit.†“Nothing,†he says, and she can’t help but smile. “….Come to think of it,†he goes on, “how did you even get a license for the bike?†A tiny twinge of pain. “You… don’t really want to know,†she replies. “Do you need an alibi, by the way?†Kira frowns. “Shit. Yeah, I do. Schoolwork, maybe…†“Hmm… Literature assignment? Maybe some assigned readings, which I missed.†His face lights up. “Yeah, that works. And you needed me to go through the material with you, but you couldn’t get the hang of it and I ended up staying way too late.†She nods. “Sounds good. Now, just a few more things: First, I’m going to need some way to contact you.†“No problem,†Kira says. “Here’s my number…†He reads it out and she saves it in her work phone before sending an experimental text. His phone beeps a moment later, and she nods. “Secondly, I need you to go to sleep as soon as possible – don’t follow any urges. If you get any, just let me know tomorrow and I’ll figure something out.†Surprisingly, Kira looks rather uncomfortable. “…urges?†“Guh–†Is this what I think it is? She shakes her head. No, nononono. Remember what happened when you jumped to conclusions with Raiha earlier. “I… uh, just follow your normal routine,†she mumbles. “Don’t do anything out of the ordinary – it could be the Faust trying to influence you.†He nods. “Sure. Anything else?†“I don’t think so. See you tomorrow, Takamine-san,†she says, putting her helmet on and kicking the engine into life. “Sleep well.†“I’ll try, Imahara-san,†Kira replies. “I’ll try.â€
  7. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    Pain sears through her lungs and heart as the parasite activates, thrashing around like a caged beast and whipping otherworldly tendrils out in every direction. Doubling over and grasping her chest amid a chorus of agonized screams, she sees Yoshida pull a glowing phial from thin air and crush it in his hand, releasing a torrent of stored power. All the parasites within a meter or so of him twitch and spasm as if electrified, then fall still. She’s slightly further away and the malignant presence in her chest takes longer to go dormant, but eventually goes motionless like the rest. Her pain subsides as the screaming throughout the train dies down, and she straightens back up. “All right,†the Bakufu agent says. “I’m out of tricks. So glad I brought that talisman along, by the way.†She looks around. Huddled around him as they were, the four scientists seem fine, but the rest of the lab workers are not so lucky. Down the entire length of the train, she sees them swaying in place, inundated with demonic energy. Oh, no. She knows what’s about to happen – she’s seen it countless times before. Possession. The parasites fill their hosts with demonic influence, reprogramming their brains and turning them into mindless killing machines… She considers her options briefly. We’re about three-quarters of the way up the slope, seven hundred and fifty meters of track between us and the underground lab. It’ll leave us stranded and mostly immobile, but it’s better than being stuck here with three carriages full of hostiles... “Take the scientists out the rear exit, Yoshida,†she says. “Smash a window if you have to – I’ll buy you some time.†He nods in response, going for the wall-mounted emergency exit lever. Her doppelgangers materialize on either side of her, raising their rifles to target the closest workers. Adrenaline floods her system as she begins to pull the trigger, but her aim is thrown off at the last moment as the train jolts abruptly to a halt and begins sliding backwards. The brakes, they DISABLED THE FUCKING BRAKES– As if on cue, the possessed laboratory workers turn as one and charge, howling like beasts. All three of her bodies adjust their aim in an instant and open fire, discharging a hail of superheated silver pellets into the onrushing horde at chest height. It’s not working! She screams mentally. Each pellet hits with bone-shattering force, but the workers don’t even seem to notice when they’ve been shot, only going down when a stray pellet hits them in the head. I need something stronger– The nearest zombie leaps the last five feet, a maniac grin on his face, and she pulls the trigger. This time, an explosive round buries itself in his chest, detonating a split-second after penetration to paint the walls and ceiling red. But it’s too little too late and the rest of the zombies rush into her like a wave of muscle and hate, knocking her off her feet and trying to pull her limb from limb. Number Two goes down a moment later, overwhelmed and pulled off-balance, but Number Three avoids the brunt of the charge. The doppelganger caves in a stray zombie’s skull with an elbow strike before firing into the horde, but there’s just so many… Weighed down by half a dozen zombies raining blows on her, she switches Geminus into pistol mode and fires blindly into the pile from below. Each shot detonates in a muted krump, turning another body into a splatter of blood and body parts, but her attackers just keep piling on. She feels a sharp pain in her arm and cries out, redoubling her efforts to free herself. A worker straddling her chest tries to strangle her, grabbing the neck region of her suit and squeezing with inhuman strength. Curling up, she plants both feet on his stomach and kicks with all her might, catapulting him off her. His body collides with several of his comrades, sending them staggering backward. She takes advantage of the momentary lapse in pressure to leap to her feet, dispatching zombies around her with knees and elbows while shooting the zombies still crowding around Number Two. Her unchecked fire combines with Number Three’s in a deadly torrent, mopping up the rest of the zombies in short order, and soon the carriage is clear of enemies. There’s blood everywhere, running down the walls and dripping off the ceiling in a grisly patter, staining her suit and obscuring her vision… She raises a glove, wiping away the blood on her faceplate until only a thick reddish smear remains. That’s strange. I barely killed thirty. Where are the rest– “The wheels, Yamaguchi!†Yoshida yells. “Shoot them.†With a start, she realizes the train is still sliding downward. Three salvoes of armor-piercing rounds stitch a string of holes through the floor, ripping through metal and knocking out the train’s wheels. The newly unsupported carriage drops half a foot and crashes down onto the tracks, throwing up a fountain of sparks visible from the windows. The additional friction dramatically slows the train’s descent, metal screeching and grinding against metal, but it isn’t enough to bring them to a complete halt. We’ve slid back to the halfway point, but at least the train’s not accelerating any more… we might make it. Geminus? The number “01:05†pops up in her mind. Oh, shit. She looks to the front of the train and her eyes widen. They’re… just trying to delay us. Through the walls, she can see the zombies in the middle carriage assembling a makeshift barricade at the doorway from seats and debris, taking up defensive positions around the entrance. One zombie at the far end of the carriage is growing, bursting out of his hazmat suit and swelling in size like a champion bodybuilder… “I need to get to the cockpit,†she says, turning toward Yoshida. The Bakufu agent is wielding a blood-stained fire extinguisher, two dead zombies at his feet. The scientists are huddled behind him at the very back of the train, staring wide-eyed at her. “Wh– wh– wh–†Nakano stammers. She ignores him, turning to Yoshida instead. “Keep them close. Once I clear the next carriage, move them up.†He nods, and she raises her voice. “The rest of you, follow him if you want to live.†~~ Taking up position near the barricaded doorway, she checks up on her doppelgangers’ conditions. Number Three is uninjured, but Number Two isn’t so lucky – the sharp pain she felt earlier was its left wrist breaking. She frowns at the shattered appendage and considers amputation, but decides against it. We don’t have much time left, and I can still shoot one-handed. As she approaches, half a dozen zombies throw their weight against the barricade, wedging it firmly into the narrow doorway. The huge zombie, now twice the height and width of a normal man, hunkers down at the other end of the carriage while the rest of the workers huddle close to the entrance, hoping to ambush her once she enters. Classic firefight tactics. Whoever’s in charge knows their stuff, but they made a fatal mistake. I’m not just a gunslinger. With a loud pop, Geminus’ underslung launchers send three grenades sailing through the air. The first two are low-yield explosives that go off when they hit the barricade, sending debris flying and maiming zombies in their blast radius with a boom. The shockwaves ripple up and down the train, blowing out the windows and pushing her back – then the stun grenade goes off in a blazing flash of light, sending disoriented zombies stumbling back, shrieking and clawing blindly at the air. She piles through the doorway behind Number Two and Number Three, sprinting toward the ruined barricade before the workers can regroup and mount any sort of defense. A shove to clear the way, three steps forward… she rushes through the chokepoint, firing in all directions, blasting bodies apart without breaking stride– Geminus screams a warning as the huge zombie charges her, picking up one of his smaller comrades and hurling the thrashing worker like a javelin. An explosive round liquefies the projectile midair and she sidesteps the resultant mess but– SO FAST –the giant is only a few steps from her, swinging his giant fist as she throws herself instinctively to one side– The strike clips her in the shoulder and she flies backward, flipping head over heels before landing awkwardly on one arm. In her moment of disorientation, the giant turns on its heel and punches Number Two. An explosion of agony wracks her body as her doppelganger slams into a wall with a wet crunch, leaving a crimson trail on white plastic as its broken body slides to the floor. Without additional commands from her, Number Three returns to its default behavior. The doppelganger pours bullets into the giant’s center of mass while backing away, but dense muscle and reinforced bone absorb the worst of the punishment. Screaming in pain and anger, she aims at the giant’s knee and pulls the trigger. Blood and bone fragments fly everywhere as the kneecap disintegrates and the giant falls flat on his face. Grotesquely muscular arms reach out for Number Three, and it barely manages to dodge his lethal grip. The giant lets out a bellow of frustration and begins crawling forward, dragging his crippled bulk against the ground with surprising speed. I need to destroy the head. Number Three adjusts its aim, pointing its gun right between the giant’s eyes, and fires. Missing is impossible at this range – the huge zombie twitches and shudders, arms flailing and thrashing every which way as the explosive charges puree his grey matter. Massive fists smash dents into the ground and grip blindly at the air for long seconds before he finally stops moving, and she lets go of the trigger. Breathing heavily, she gets to her feet. Her left shoulder is dislocated, arm hanging uselessly at her side. Taking a deep breath, she braces the limb in position. Oh, this is gonna hurt. She rams herself into the wall, popping her arm back into place with a pained wince, then turns to look at Number Two. Her ruined doppelganger is completely unable to respond to mental commands, and she dismisses it with a sigh. The body will take slightly more than a minute to re-form, but… Forty seconds, Geminus reminds her. No time for that. “Clear!†“We have a problem,†Yoshida replies, herding Hashimoto and Morita into the room. He pointing back where they came from, and she tracks his finger with her gaze. Oh, no. Two figures are huddled together at the very back of the train, advancing at a snail’s pace. Nakano’s limping and Kikuchi has his arm over her shoulder. “I told her to keep moving, but she wouldn’t listen.†The Bakufu agent continues grimly. He must’ve slipped and fallen all the way back, she thinks. Then: they’re not going to make it. The zombies she’s killed are already pulling themselves back together, flesh knitting and bone flowing like water. A few are semi-functional and crawling toward the scientists, guts dragging behind them –to make things even worse, tiny fingers of flame are licking through the floor of the carriage. Over the grinding of metal on metal, she hears Kikuchi in tears, begging Nakano not to give up. “You can do it, Shima,†the long-haired woman yells. “Please, you’ve got to hurry…†Thirty seconds. The fire’s not spreading very fast, but the zombies are already healing. They’re too slow… Another voice pops up in her head. There’s no time. I need Number Three’s help to breach the next car now– “Yamaguchi? Yamaguchi!†Yoshida snaps his fingers. “Are you–?†“Oh, fuck it,†she growls, sending Number Three back to help them. Geminus lets out a rumble of disapproval but she ignores it, firing back down the carriage to blow apart the regenerating zombies before they can reach the scientists. Number Three crosses the length of the carriage in moments, grabbing Nakano and slinging him unceremoniously over its shoulder. It jogs back, easily outpacing Kikuchi even with its additional burden, and hands him gently to Yoshida. “Stand back and keep to the walls,†she says. “I’m about to try something really dangerous.†Twenty seconds. Hurry. All right. She goes over her plan of attack. Instead of clearing the car before advancing… Marching up to the barricades, she scopes out the final obstacle in her way. Two giant zombies, twenty-seven normals. There’s also some sort of bone plating protecting the giants’ heads, but only on the front. She wedges Geminus into the barricade, making sure the underslung launcher is clear to fire. Here goes nothing, she thinks, pulling the trigger and turning on her heel. Through Number Three’s eyes, she sees the normal zombies shrink away from the projectile; the giant at the far end of the carriage throws an arm up to protect its face, hunkering down to present a smaller target. Do whatever you want, she thinks. It’s not going to matter. Her thermobaric grenade triggers in the exact center of the carriage. She knows how it’s supposed to work: a tiny amount of conventional explosive submerged in magnesium-enhanced fuel goes off, blast pressure superheating the volatile mix before dispersing it into the surroundings. Once the fuel makes contact with atmospheric oxygen, it detonates– She barely makes it five meters before the blast wave slams into her with a WHOOMPH, and she struggles to keep her balance. A cloud of dust and plastic fragments rushes past her, pulverized remains of the barricade dyed red with blood and liquefied bodies. Her ears are ringing even through Geminus’ hearing protection, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t need my hearing to do this, she thinks, as Number Three sprints past her through the cleared doorway. As she moves into position to cover her doppelganger, she realizes both giant zombies are still standing. Their sheer bulk must’ve insulated their vitals from most of the force. The first one throws a punch as Number Three approaches, but the strike is sluggish and easy to dodge. The blast might not have killed him outright, but it knocked him around pretty good. Number Three doesn’t attack at all. Instead, it ducks under the punch and makes a beeline for the cockpit, leaving its mistress to down the disoriented giant. Like shooting fish in a barrel, she thinks, pulling the trigger, but her bullets glance off his armored faceplate and detonate in midair. She makes a few mental adjustments to her ammunition, programming each bullet to explode on impact instead of a few instants later. The effect is immediate and spectacular – her next burst shatters the giant’s impromptu helmet, follow-up shots cracking his skull like an egg. The second huge zombie lowers his forearm, winding up for a lethal blow on Number Three, but her doppelganger’s been saving its grenade for this moment. Another flashbang goes off right in front of the giant’s eyes, and Number Three ducks under the wild haymaker. There. I’ve got maybe ten seconds left, she thinks, finishing off the second giant as her doppelganger shoots the driver through the cockpit door and enters. Eight seconds, Geminus chimes in helpfully. I just need to pull the… Number Three takes one look at the interior, and her thoughts grind to a halt. Oh, god. Fuck me, we’re all dead… The controls are ruined, smashed beyond repair by a fire extinguisher. Number Three pulls what’s left of the brake lever, but somehow the driver’s managed to jam it. SEVEN SECONDS, Geminus screams in her mind. As Number Three tries the lever again and again, she looks out the back and sees the end of the track rushing toward her. Even if we brake now, it might be too late. SIX. “How’s–†Yoshida begins, but she cuts him off. “RUN!†She yells, slinging Nakano over her shoulder and sprinting for the front of the train. FIVE. The other scientists hot on her heels, she leaps over the corpses of fallen zombies, vaulting the corpse of the first giant. The rest of the scientists have to skirt around it, but she can’t think of them– FOUR. Number Three smashes the front window and leaps out of the moving train, rolling with the impact. She steps into a puddle of blood and nearly loses her balance, but somehow manages to stay upright and moving– THREE. “WE HAVE TO JUMP,†she screams, rushing through the cockpit door. “Hold on tight!†She switches Nakano to a bridal carry before leaping out the window, curling her body around him as he grabs at her– TWO. As she leaves the train, she twists in midair so Nakano will land on top of her. In that split second, she sees the scientists piling out the window, Yoshida the last one to fling himself free– ONE– She hits with a thud, rolling down the tracks for a few moments before coming to a halt. ZERO. An ear-splitting crash echoes through the tunnel as the train comes to a crushing halt at the end of the tracks, and she curls up defensively as metal fragments whiz overhead. Relief threatens to overwhelm her, but she pushes it back and gets to her feet. We’re not out of this yet. She looks down the track – the train is mostly intact. Her Sight doesn’t pick up any demonic influence and there’s no movement inside the carriage besides tongues of orange flame, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. An incendiary grenade flickers into existence within Geminus’ launcher and she lobs it through the broken window, starting an inferno that melts glass and scorches steel. Keeping Number Three’s weapon trained on the flames, she turns her attention to the tracks. Nakano lies about a meter from her, groaning in pain as he clutches his leg; Morita’s unconscious but still breathing; Kikuchi is hyperventilating and has an ugly bruise over one eye, and Hashimoto’s clutching his chest and taking slow shallow breaths. Yoshida seems mostly unharmed as he picks himself off the tracks, but the Bakufu agent’s footsteps betray a slight limp as he makes his way toward her. Well, everyone’s alive. For now. “Damn, that was close,†Yoshida says. “You okay?†She nods. “We should get out of here ASAP. You take Nakano, and I’ll take Morita.†Moving an unconscious person is risky, but it beats staying here. Yoshida bends down to help the red-haired scientist up. “My leg… think I broke it in the fall,†Nakano gasps, clearly in pain. She feels a tiny pang of guilt. Should’ve landed a bit better… Her expression must’ve betrayed her thoughts, because Nakano waves a hand. “Not your fault,†he mutters. “Thanks for coming back for us, by the way...†An unfamiliar emotion wells up within her. “No problem,†she says. “Be sure to thank Kikuchi later – I might not have gone back for one.†As she and her doppelganger approach Morita, the previously unresponsive scientist stirs for a moment, staring blearily at the ceiling and muttering “Wha–?†before closing his eyes again. It isn’t as bad as I thought, but he still needs medical attention. The two of her pick Morita up, making sure not to disturb his head or neck too much, and she prepares to move off. Before she does so, though, a thought crosses her mind and she examines her parasite again. It lies faded and unmoving in her chest, bereft of its previous vital energy. She mentions this to Yoshida and he sighs in relief. “Great,†he replies. “I guess the talisman managed to kill them. Or permanently incapacitate them, at the very least.†“We still need to purge them,†she says, and he nods. “My power can get us out of the base quietly,†Yoshida says. “But we need to get to a healer. A discreet one.†“I know just the place,†she says. \/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/ Yoshida’s word is good – although the aboveground facility is in lockdown, the Bakufu agent manages to charm, confuse or coerce every guard he encounters. They’re able to retrieve their personal belongings and leave the facility unmolested, piling into Yoshida’s SUV and heading off into the sunset. Besides Morita, who falls asleep the moment they put him in the front seat, the scientists gradually recover from their shock and begin demanding explanations. As Yoshida answers them to the best of his ability, she tunes the conversation out and leans her head against the window. Fatigue begins to seep into her limbs, and she closes her eyes. It’s been a while since I’ve done this. I’m just glad it ended well… ~~ Someone nudges her and she wakes instantly. “Are we there?†She asks. The sky outside is dark and gloomy, but she feels better than she has in ages. “I don’t know, you tell me,†Yoshida says from the driver’s seat. “The place is warded like a fortress, all right, but are you sure that’s the church?†She looks out the window. “Yeah.†“I told you.†Hashimoto mutters, and she cracks a smile. “Can’t blame me for checking – it’s just a concrete block with a door,†the Bakufu agent grumbles. “Is that even a cross? And they spelt ‘Catholic’ wrong, for the love of god.†“I know,†she says. “But this is the right place. Father Nakata’s patched me up more times than I can count.†“If you say so,†Yoshida replies, pulling up by the side of the road. She gets out and waves – a few moments later, Father Nakata hurries out from the church with a stretcher in his arms. “It’s good to see you, Father,†she says. “Is Shirakawa-san available to help?†Worry flits across Father Nakata’s face, almost too fast for her to catch. “Unfortunately not,†he replies. “Which one’s Dr. Morita?†She points to Morita – the elderly scientist is still asleep in the front seat, head braced against the window. “We tried to keep him from moving around, but I’m not sure if he’s okay…†she trails off. Oh, shit. Her good mood evaporates instantly – Morita’s completely still, face pale and unmoving as Yoshida frantically tries to wake him. “Need a little help here!†The Bakufu agent yells from inside the car. “He’s barely breathing.†She leaps into action, snatching the stretcher from Father Nakata’s hands. Morita’s door swings open as she approaches, and she gets him onto the fabric with Yoshida’s help. “Come on, come on…†she mutters. “We’re on the home stretch, Doctor – just a little bit more.†~~ She waits outside the sick bay with the others, sitting down on a wooden pew as her two doppelgangers hustle into the small room with Morita’s unconscious body. Father Nakata gives them a nod when they’re done maneuvering the elderly scientist into place on the operating table, and they disappear in a burst of energy. “I… I hope he’ll be okay,†Kikuchi murmurs, securing a splint to Nakano’s leg. “Father Nakata knows what he’s doing,†she replies. “If anyone can help Morita, it’s him.†It would be good to have Raiha around, but I don’t know if his healing would work… Dammit. She reaches out and grips the pew in front of her, barely resisting the rising urge to break something. I could’ve cushioned his fall with my doppelganger. The bench gives way beneath her fingers with a crack, and her frustration at her failure boils over. She lets out an inarticulate growl, standing up abruptly and tossing aside the chunk of wood in her hands. It hits the concrete floor with a clatter, attracting several alarmed looks. “I’m going outside,†she declares. Nobody stops her as she stalks out of the church. As the wooden door slams shut behind her, she sighs and sits down heavily on the doorstep. The night air is cool and crisp, but it does little to calm her mind. Why didn’t I think of it earlier? Why? I could’ve prevented this. Cautious footsteps approach from behind, and the door creaks open. “Space for one more?†Yoshida asks, stepping out cautiously. “Dammit,†she mutters. “What do you want?†He shrugs. “Nothing much. Scoot over, will you?†With another sigh, she does as he asks. There’s a moment’s pause before he sits down, producing a lighter and a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “Smoke?†He asks, holding out the cardboard carton to her. She shakes her head. “No.†“Suit yourself,†Yoshida says, lighting up and taking a long drag. A moment later, he blows a stream of smoke from his mouth. “Ahh. Hits the spot.†There’s a long silence before he says: “You know, you shouldn’t be wallowing in self-pity like this.†That stings. “Don’t you have more important things to do than psychoanalysis?†She shoots back. “This could’ve gone better, for sure,†Yoshida goes on as if she didn’t say anything. “But it could also have gone a lot worse, and I’m sure you tried your best.†She glares at him, wondering whether to ignore him or respond. Eventually, the latter option wins out. “Effort doesn’t matter. Results matter,†she says. “I could’ve… should’ve been able to save him.†There’s a moment of silence before Yoshida tries to flick her on the forehead. His movements are slow and easy to predict – after a moment of sheer incredulity, she grabs his wrist in midair with casual ease. Locking eyes with him, she squeezes down until the bone creaks. “Ouch!†He yelps in pain and surprise, and she loosens her grip fractionally in response. “Thanks. For a moment there, I thought my hand was a goner.†“There’s still time for that,†she says. “Care to explain?†The Bakufu agent scratches his neck with his free hand. “You’re not going to like it,†he says. “Try me.†“Well, for a moment there you reminded me of my daughter. She’s a real overachiever just like you, always worried about not being good enough. But nobody’s perfect, and I have to remind her of that from time to time.†He gives her an embarrassed smile. She shrugs and releases her grip – he retracts his arm immediately, rubbing the reddening band of skin around his wrist. “Anyway,†he goes on, “as I was going to say, Dr. Morita’s not dead. Don’t talk about him like that, Yamaguchi.†Frowning, she bends down and tugs half-heartedly at a clump of grass near her boot. “I know,†she says. “It’s just… I could’ve done it better. Shielded him from the fall. Now he might die, and–†A moment of panic. “And it’ll be my fault.†“Uh huh. And what does agonizing over your mistakes accomplish?†Yoshida gives her a serious look. “Nothing,†she says. “Look, I know where this is going–†“Then you tell me,†Yoshida interrupts. “Tell me what I’m going to say.†“You’re going to say that I shouldn’t dwell on the past. That I should learn from my mistakes, and move forward without regret. I know this already,†she says. “Then do it,†he replies. You have no idea what I’ve seen, she thinks, and something dark and ugly rears its head within her. YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’VE BEEN THROUGH. “I know,†she says, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “But it’s easier said than done. I–†Yoshida opens his mouth to speak, but she raises her voice to drown his reply out. “I’m trying, okay? It’s just NOT WORKING!†She shoots to her feet, clenching her fists; the last few words come out in a near-shout. “This isn’t about Dr. Morita any more, is it?†Yoshida murmurs. Silence. “I can’t help you, Yamaguchi,†the Bakufu agent says softly. “Nobody can. But you have to make it work somehow, or it’ll consume you. Too many in your line of work have had their lives poisoned by regret – I’d rather not see another.†“I…†her anger fades, leaving only a sense of... numbness? Emptiness? Loss? She isn’t sure. “I know,†she whispers, leaning against the door and sliding down into a sitting position. “It’s just so hard.†“Don’t give in,†Yoshida says. For an instant, he reminds her of an old man – hunched and worn out, battered by life but still standing. “That’s all I ask. No matter how tough it is, never give up.†“I– I’ll do my best,†she says. “Do you–†Yoshida’s medallion emits a pulse of power. He snaps back to normal, raises the metal disc to his ear, and speaks. “Yoshida here… yes, it was resolved. Afflicted? The two… yes. Brain dead. I verified it myself… hm? Oh, about… a hundred or so hostiles.†He grimaces and holds the medallion further from him, as if trying to escape a very loud noise. “Yes, all clear as far as I’m aware…. As for that, um…. Yeah, a freelancer. Yamaguchi. Hm? No, I didn’t get a clear look. Some sort of explosion-related power…. No. She left once we were done. I have the research team with me, though… yes. One’s unconscious – can I get an ambulance? Ah. Okay. Got it. Yoshida, out.†He puts the medallion back inside his shirt. “My boss called,†he explains. “He wants me to report in for debriefing as soon as possible, and bring the scientists with me.†“…no problem,†she says, still mulling over their earlier conversation. “Thanks for covering for me.†“Don’t mention it. It’s the least I can do, considering you’re the reason we’re alive.†Yoshida stubs out his cigarette and gets to his feet. “I’m going to check on Dr. Morita, then bring the rest of the team to HQ. You staying out here?†She stands up. “I want to know how he’s doing,†she says. “Even if…†she trails off, leaving the rest unsaid. He nods. “Come on, then,†he replies, holding the door open for her. ~~ Morita is still unresponsive, and Father Nakata seems uncertain about the elderly scientist’s chances. “I’ve done all I can for him, but my healing power is limited and I can’t pinpoint the injury,†the priest says. “He needs proper medical care.†“An ambulance should be coming for him soon,†Yoshida replies. “As for the parasites I mentioned…†“Ah. I did a scan of sorts with the wards, and managed to detect hints of demonic presence. But it’s too weak to do anything, so I think you’ll be fine.†Father Nakata turns to her. “Just to be sure… you don’t see the parasites moving any more, do you?†She looks around. “No. They’re all faded and still.†The priest nods. “Magical constructs tend to fade unless reinforced periodically, so I wouldn’t worry too much. In addition, the body tends to purge foreign objects on its own, and I’m not sure if extraction would cause more harm than good...†“That’s great news,†Yoshida says. “I’ll have my office run some tests – if anything out of the ordinary shows up, I’ll let you know. Yamaguchi-san, could I have a short word with you?†She nods, following him out of the sick bay, and he presses something into her hand. “My business card,†he explains. “Try to get in touch with me over the next few days – I’ll let you know how Dr. Morita’s doing, and…†he frowns, as if weighing something over. “And it might be possible for the Bakufu to compensate you for time and effort spent. I can’t promise anything, though.†“No problem,†she says, slipping the card into her skirt pocket. “Thanks for… well, everything, really.†He nods. “Likewise.†~~ Yoshida leaves with the three scientists soon after. From her vantage point on the doorstep, she watches his car disappear swiftly into the distance. “Well, that’s that,†she mutters. Father Nakata steps up beside her and asks: “Imahara-san, have you had dinner yet?†With a start, she realizes she hasn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Her stomach growls in protest, and she shakes her head. “I skipped lunch and dinner, Father.†she replies. “But there’s food at home, and I can–†The priest shakes his head. “I’m sorry for imposing, Imahara-san, but I must know what transpired today – the Bakufu’s clearly involved, and I have an unconscious civilian with a demon parasite in his chest in my sick bay. There’re rations in the storeroom, or I could prepare something else…†“Rations sound great,†she says, heading back into the church. “Sorry for bringing you all this trouble – I’ll explain while I eat.†The storeroom’s right next to the sick bay, and she rummages through a pile of military surplus in search of a foil-packed meal. Should I get the beef or the chicken? Decisions, decisions… screw it. I’ll just eat them both. When she re-enters the main hall with both packs tucked under her arm, Father Nakata stretches out his hand. “Here, pass them to me. I’ll heat them up,†he says. She shakes her head, ripping the beef pack open with her teeth and digging in. “Temperature doesn’t matter,†she mumbles around a mouthful of stew. “So, should I just start from the beginning, or…†“That would be best,†Father Nakata replies. In between mouthfuls of food, she gives the priest a quick rundown of past events. Her first meeting with Shirakawa Senior, accepting the mission from him and heading to the facility, the ill-fated experiment… she goes into great detail about the parasite but glosses over the battle on the train, making sure to mention the leap from the front window. The more details he has about what caused Morita’s condition, the better. Father Nakata listens quietly, only interrupting to clarify some detail or other. When she’s done with the explanation, he nods and gets to his feet with a pensive expression on his face, as if he’s trying to puzzle something out. “Thank you for sharing this with me, Imahara-san,†he says eventually. “No problem,†she replies, wolfing down the last mouthful of chicken pasta. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll head back now.†“I think that’ll be all for tonight,†the priest tells her. “Be safe.†She nods and makes a beeline for the door. “I will. Good night, Father.†\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/ Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. “–ou there? Imahara-san?†A muffled voice asks. She opens her eyes slowly and sees golden sunlight pouring through the window. What’s going on? What time is it? Her gaze travels up the side of her bed to the alarm clock on her bedside table, and she blinks. The display reads “Wednesday 1830â€. “No. That’s not possible,†she mumbles. “Damn thing must be broken.†“Imahara-san?†Someone calls out from the door. “Are you all right? You’ve missed two days of school–†Oh crap. She sits up in bed, groping around for her phone. After a moment of frantic searching, she spots it sitting just next to the alarm clock, and flips it open to take a look at the screen. “Wednesday 1831,†it says. No way, she thinks. I got home last night and went to bed, and– “Hello? Imahara-san, are you there?†A vaguely familiar voice says. What– Getting out of bed, she hurries to the door and looks through the peephole – someone wearing the Mitsuba uniform is standing outside, a stack of paper in his hands. He’s… she frowns, trying to remember who he is… Then it clicks. “Oh, Armband Guy,†she says, unlocking the door and wrenching it open. He gives her a relieved smile. “Great, you’re here! Are you all right? I’ve been knocking for a few minutes now…†“Just woke up,†she replies, stifling a yawn. “Sorry to keep you waiting.†“No problem,†he says, extending the stack of paper toward her. “Here are the notes–†An itch in her throat grows and grows, the urge to cough becoming unbearable. She does so instinctively and Geminus roars to life, screaming a warning– as something leaps from her mouth –into his. She stares in stunned disbelief, Geminus materializing in her hand a moment too late. The parasite is already digging into its new host, spreading a fragile web of demonic influence throughout his chest. This can’t be happening, she screams internally. It was dead, how could it– Then she remembers being the furthest from Yoshida when he crushed the phial. She remembers the parasite in her chest struggling feebly before succumbing to immobility, when the others stopped moving instantly. It wasn’t killed, she realizes with a dawning sense of horror. Only weakened… “What’re you doing? Is there something–†He breaks into a cough. “I… I’m sorry,†she says. Geminus flickers into a more compact form, and she levels the device at his chest. He stares at her, oblivious. “Sorry for what?†“For this,†she whispers, and pulls the trigger.
  8. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    The train ride is uneventful and mostly silent. When the doors finally slide open at the bottom, she lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding, but her relief only lasts a moment as Dr. Nakano approaches a thick metal door and unlocks it. It swings open, and her eyes widen as she sees experimental device for the first time. It’s huge… It sits in the middle of a huge hall, a towering obelisk of shining gray and dull black encased in a larger translucent cylinder and surrounded by lab workers scurrying to and fro. A web of cables and wires sprouts from its metal skin, gathering in bundles to puncture the surface of the cylinder before spreading out and finding purchase throughout the entire room. “Atmospheric evacuation successful.†An announcement from the PA system cuts through the general hubbub. “We’re at zero point zero one and holding.†She engages her Sight to see current and data rush through the cables in blazing torrents of neon blue as the device warms up in complete silence, and all chatter dies down. There’s no sign of demonic activity, but she can’t help but feel like something’s about to go horribly wrong. “It’s so quiet,†Yoshida whispers. His face is expressionless, but his fingers are twitching slightly as if afraid of drawing any unpleasant attention. He has the right idea, she thinks, turning her Sight back off. If there is something waiting on the other side, our best bet is to shut the portal down before it manages to accomplish its goals. “We’ve isolated everything,†Dr. Nakano explains. “The reinforced cylinder allows us to carry out the experiment in a vacuum, and if you look at the base of the device you can see a platform designed to eliminate any vibration from the experiment.†“In addition, the receiver and transmitter both draw power from the municipal grid,†Dr. Hashimoto adds as they turn left and begin climbing a staircase mounted on the wall. “The backup generators are pretty far away from us, so you won’t hear anything. See those four cable bundles? The ones with the yellow stripes on them?†He points toward the device, and she nods. “Every two minutes, they feed enough power into our setup to power Shinjuku for a day.†“That’s impressive,†she says. They reach the top of the stairs and file into the control room on the second story, which gives a bird’s eye view of the floor space. “So what exactly should I be looking out for?†“It’s nothing spectacular,†Dr. Nakano replies. “All the exciting stuff is safely behind several dozen layers of radiation shielding. We’ll be sending a signal from the transmitter and attempting to pick it up on the receiver, and you’ll be able to see the input and output separately on these two screens here,†he says, pointing toward a desk-mounted control panel. Dr. Kikuchi clears her throat, then begins what sounds very much like a rehearsed presentation. “Ahem. Right now, the transmitter and receiver are next to each other, but they could theoretically be much further apart because our signal doesn’t take the conventional path through 3D space. Instead, we make two bridges into a… think of it as another dimension altogether. So, the signal goes into this…†the long-haired scientist stumbles over her words, train of thought visibly grinding to a halt. “Parallel space,†Dr. Nakano mutters. “Ah, yes. Thank you. The signal goes into a parallel space… and emerges somewhere else. Even though the entry points might be thousands of miles apart, we have reason to believe that the distance on the other end is two or three orders of magnitude lower.†“If we’re successful,†Dr. Morita follows up immediately, “this could mean faster than light communication. Not instantaneous, since all we’re doing is reducing the distance that our signal travels.†“So, like A Wrinkle in Time,†Yoshida says. Dr. Kikuchi winces, but Dr. Nakano beams. “Exactly! I wanted to use that analogy, but someone said–†he gives his long-haired colleague a smug look, “it’d be too esoteric for… what did you call them again?†Dr. Kikuchi gives him a pleading look in response, shaking her head ever-so-slightly from side to side. “….Moving on,†Dr. Hashimoto interjects, “We expect to see some amount of distortion or change in orientation when the signal returns, due to the unusual properties of the parallel space. What we’re hoping is that whatever change the signal undergoes follows a pattern, so we can simply unscramble it on the other end.†A moment of silence follows his words, and he clears his throat gently. Dr. Kikuchi jumps and fumbles in her suit pocket for a piece of folded up paper. After taking a glance at it, she recites: “If… uh, if today’s trial is a success, we’ll be varying the signal type and distance between the transmitter and receiver devices in future tests to… get a better understanding of what exactly happens to the signal when it passes through P-space. Thank you for your attention.†Dr. Kikuchi looks a little shaken after completing her presentation, but Dr. Nakano grins at her and gives her and a thumbs-up. After a few moments, the long-haired scientist smiles nervously in return and looks away, face slightly red. “Now, without further ado…†Dr. Morita reaches over to the control panel and presses a few buttons, pulling a microphone toward him. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Yoshida’s lips flatten into a thin line. The scientist’s voice booms from the PA system as he speaks: “Recording is on, all systems are running smoothly. Interdimensional Signal Transfer Trial One in three…†Her heart beats faster, and she feels her palms prickle with sweat. Dr. Hashimoto is biting his lip anxiously, beads of moisture forming on his brow. “Two…†Yoshida hunkers down almost imperceptibly, as if bracing himself for an incoming blow. Her heart’s pounding like a drum, and she sucks in a deep breath. “One…†Her entire body tenses up like a coiled spring, and she reengages her Sight. This is it. “Here we go,†Dr. Morita says, and pulls a lever. Immediately, a high-pitched squeal emanates from the speaker as the signal is broadcast. Screens light up all over the console, displaying a dozen readouts and graphs that rise and drip rapidly. “We should have a breach any second–†A blazing red light roars to life in the heart of the device. A sun, incandescent with otherworldly radiance; a heart, pulsing and throbbing with the promise of power beyond comprehension; an eye, unblinking and all-seeing, staring through the veil of reality… She’s already out the door and raising her Reaper to shoot out the power cables when the demon’s influence rolls over her like a wave, invading her eyes and nose and mouth in a suffocating torrent. Geminus pushes back with all its might but is overpowered instantly, like a trickle of meltwater attempting to turn aside a river in flood. I can’t– The world goes red and she collapses against the railing, trying to steady her aim. An explosion of heat and pain goes off in her chest as the demon’s aura violates her almost casually, brushing Geminus aside to reach down her throat and claw against the inside of her lungs. Red begins to fade to black, and all she knows is regret for her failure… Then the overwhelming pressure disappears as fast as it came, and she’s left curled up on the stairs, hacking and wheezing as she gasps for breath. After a moment, she grips the railings and hauls herself back up, turning back toward the control room. “Are you okay?†Dr. Kikuchi is standing in the doorway. “You ran outside so quickly, then you and Yoshida-san just collapsed at the same time–†Yells break out from inside the control room, a moment before the alarms begin to blare. “Warning. Warning,†a woman’s voice declares soothingly over the PA. “This is not a drill. Please assemble quickly and calmly at the evacuation area. This is an emergency. Warning. Warning…†Dr. Kikuchi’s gaze snaps toward the device as bewildered lab workers begin to leave their work stations and hurry toward the exit. Seizing the opportunity, she squeezes past the protesting scientist and enters the control room. Inside, Dr. Nakano is grabbing Yoshida by the shoulder, yelling about unnecessary alarms, while Dr. Hashimoto and Dr. Morita are trying to separate the two. I don’t have time for this, she thinks. She slams her fist into the door hard enough to leave a dent, and everyone freezes. “We need to get out of here. NOW!†She yells. The scientists obey, fear plain on their faces, and she herds them back out and down the stairs to join the flood of lab workers heading for the train. \/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/ As they catch up with the crowd, she can hear concerned murmuring all around her, as people speculate about the reason for the evacuation. Nothing went visibly wrong, and the demon’s aura clearly didn’t affect them. Or if it did, they didn’t notice. “It hit me so hard I couldn’t think for a while,†Yoshida mutters, and the scientists all turn toward him. “But Hashimoto had the initiative to shut it down, and I hit the alarm once I pulled myself back together.†Dr. Hashimoto’s colleagues give him confused looks. “What’s going on?†Dr. Nakano asks him a fierce whisper. “The experiment was going just fine, then the two of them collapsed and you screwed the frequencies up, and then this madman here hits the alarm. And you.†He turns to her. “You damn near punched a hole into a metal door. Can someone just explain all of this to me?†“I work out a lot,†she says. “As for the evacuation, there was a dangerous level of…†she wracks her brain for a moment, trying to think of an excuse. “Radiation,†Yoshida cuts in. “Parallel dimension radiation has a knack of slipping past conventional shielding, and we picked up a dangerous amount of it.†The three uninformed scientists give her a bewildered look. “There’s no such thing,†Dr. Nakano says after a few moments. “Our preliminary tests–†“Trust us. We’re experts,†she says, cutting him off and turning toward Yoshida as they file on board the train. “Can you contact HQ again? We’re going to need backup. Quarantine, screening... this can’t be over just like that. The breach was at least ten seconds – who knows what could’ve happened?†“I’ll try,†Yoshida says, pulling out his medallion. “Are you good at detection yourself? Maybe you could take a preliminary look.†She nods and engages her Sight as the train begins its slow ascent to the surface, but can’t find anything out of the ordinary. “Everything looks normal…†“You can detect radiation by just looking?†Dr. Nakano cuts her off, incredulous. Lab workers in the vicinity turn to look in their direction as he continues, speaking louder and louder: “And he’s contacting HQ with an invisible cellphone? The two of you are clearly insane–†His eyes glaze over behind his plastic faceplate as Yoshida lets out a burst of power, and all conversation within a few meters dies down. She looks to the rest of the people around them– all of them have the same vacant expression on their faces, and they don’t seem to be aware of their surroundings. “Can’t maintain this for long,†the Bakufu agent mutters. “But we have a few minutes before they start questioning us again.†“Got it,†she says, mind racing as she tries to cook up a plan. “Our first priority is finding out what the demon did, if anything. Our second priority is getting out of here and making sure this never happens again. Here, let me take a look at you.†She scrutinizes him with Geminus’ power. His stealth mechanism cloaks his presence, attempting to scramble her sight, but she peers past it and scans his body from head to toe. Nothing. “I don’t see a single trace of demonic taint on you,†she says, looking down at herself. “…you can see through my cloak?†Yoshida asks. She nods in response, still scanning her own body. “Yeah. Now that I’ve witnessed it in action, I can see through it.†“Ah,†he says. “Well, maybe the demon didn’t get enough time to complete whatever it was trying to pull on us.†“It’s not impossible,†she says. Her self-scan reveals nothing as well, but for some reason she can’t shake the feeling that something’s a little off about this. Did I miss anything? She wonders. I can’t place my finger on it, but something’s strange. “You’re frowning,†Yoshida says. “Did you think of anything?†“I’m trying to…†her head is a little fuzzy as she tries to concentrate on something. She can’t remember exactly what, though… “No, I don’t think it really matters. We need to focus on… what’s really important.†“Wait,†Yoshida says, and she falls silent. “Say that last part again.†“I…†she frowns at his odd request. “It doesn’t really matter. We have to focus on what’s important?†He looks at her, dawning comprehension mixing with horror in his expression. “Yamaguchi-san,†he says, very slowly, “I think something’s screwing with our heads.†“Are you sure?†She asks doubtfully. “How do you know?†“First, I need to ask: Can you remember what were you thinking about just now? Just before I asked you why you were frowning?†“I was…†she tries to remember, dredging up her memory of the last few minutes with surprising difficulty. “I was thinking that something was… strange? About all this? I can’t remember exactly…†“And then you said it didn’t matter,†Yoshida says urgently, concern clear on his face. “What could be more important than something out of the ordinary? And why is it so hard for you to remember all this?†Oh, shit. Shit, she thinks, going over recent events in her head. He’s right. Something was definitely– “I don’t know if you’ve figured it out yet," the Bakufu agent says, "but I don’t hide my presence from people by minimizing it. I hide my presence by directly influencing their minds – convincing them I’m perfectly normal, and that they have more important things to worry about. That’s how I got Nakano off our backs. Now that you mention it, I… I think I feel it too. Something similar is happening to us, now.†Or it could be you, she thinks. No, you wouldn’t tell me this if that were the case – there’d be no way for me to figure it out on my own. “…okay,†she says, banishing her doubts. “So, how do we get around this?†Yoshida shrugs. “I’m afraid it’s almost impossible unless you see it in action. My power affects the brain on a subconscious level – trying to see through the block would be like trying to believe the sea is dry, or that you aren’t a human being. Such a claim is so patently ridiculous that you just can’t bring yourself to believe it, but if you witness an irrefutable proof… your mindset might change drastically enough to bypass that.†“No chance of that happening,†she says. “Not unless the demon screws up.†“Hmm.†Yoshida falls silent, scratching his head for a few long moments. “Maybe we could… hmm…†he stops talking abruptly, eyes narrowing as he frowns at her. “I think I saw something. I think… I might know how to defeat its camouflage. But I’ll need your help.†“What do you need me to do?†She asks. He pulls out his medallion. “I’ll use my medallion to temporarily disrupt all demonic influence in our surroundings, but it’ll only work for an instant against this disguise. During that time, I need you to find and kill whatever’s responsible for the cloak. It could be anything: a cloaked thrall on the roof, a warlock among us, even a bug clinging to a window, but for a split second you’ll be able to detect its presence.†“Understood,†she says. Number Two and Number Three appear on either side of her, and all three of her press their backs together. “No matter where it’s hiding, I’ll see it.†“I’ll put my faith in you, then.†Yoshida replies. “Here goes nothing. Three, two, one…†Geminus leaps into her hands as a burst of power pulses from the Bakufu agent’s medallion, and she casts her Sight around with three pairs of eyes– Nothing. She sweeps her gaze up and down, left and right, but there’s not a single red spot in her field of view. “I can’t see anything,†she growls, feeling stupid. Why did I trust Yoshida? We’re not going to find anything, no matter what we try. “This is a waste of time. Why don’t we–†“No.†Yoshida grabs her by the shoulder. “Don’t you feel it? The certainty that this isn’t going to work? That sudden urge to do something else? It’s getting desperate, trying to turn our attention away. But I felt its presence loud and clear this time. There’s definitely something here.†As he speaks, her exasperation evaporates like water on a frying pan. He’s right – whatever was messing with my mind earlier is at it again. She nods, and Yoshida continues: “Don’t give up, Yamaguchi. I’ll use the medallion again, and this time I’ll leave it on until its power is exhausted. In three, two, one…†Another pulse of power, and she looks around again. There’s something here, she tells herself, straining her Sight to pick out any detail. Nothing unusual shows up in her vision, and she shakes her head. It’s trying to hide. There’s definitely something here, she repeats. Again, she squints her eyes as she scrutinizes her surroundings. She starts to feel a headache coming on, but perseveres. Come on, come on… there’s definitely something here. She looks around for the umpteenth time but still sees nothing– No, not nothing. Like tuning out background noise to hear a faint melody in the air, like parsing out the misinformation in an optical illusion and figuring out the truth; she sees, clearly, for the first time–pulsing like a living organism, hiding in plain sight… “Oh, god,†she says, pointing at Yoshida’s chest. “It’s right there. In you.†No, not just in him… She casts her gaze around. Now that she knows what to look for, she sees it: Hashimoto, Nakano, Kikuchi, Morita, the lab workers… the same malignant growth is anchored in their lungs. They’re all infected, obliviously acting as the host to something that spread through an entire lab in a matter of seconds, that can’t be stopped by a respirator or hazmat suit, that’s all but undetectable even to a Reaper user… Everything becomes clear. An affliction invisible to modern medicine, almost impossible to see even with powers. Spreading like wildfire through the human population, lying dormant until it reaches critical mass. Then what? She knows – she’s seen it already. The garden. The sea. Then she feels a tickle in her chest. Oh, no. No, it can’t be– She looks down slowly, almost disbelievingly, at the parasite pulsating in her own body, just next to her heart. “What do you mean, ‘It’s in you’? C’mon, Yamaguchi, talk to me. What’s going on?†Yoshida asks, panic starting to seep into his voice. “It… got us. It got all of us,†she whispers. “We’re all infected.†Yoshida mutters something unprintable. “We can’t let it spread,†he says. “No matter what happens, this train mustn’t reach the surface–†The train’s radio crackles to life, squealing in a familiar pitch. It’s the same signal the scientists broadcast into the breach, she remembers. But how? We scrambled the frequency and… I… didn’t shoot the power cables. And Hashimoto didn’t shut the machine down… The conscious lab workers in the train turn to look at the speaker on the wall, muttering concernedly amongst themselves as the signal blares on. Those affected by Yoshida’s power begin to stir and look around, eyes re-focusing. The Bakufu agent points urgently toward Number Two and Number Three, and she dismisses them before anyone sees. “What… what’s that sound?†Hashimoto blinks blearily as he regains consciousness. “I’ve heard it before…†he mumbles. “It’s the signal we used,†Kikuchi replies, trying in vain to scratch her head through the helmet. “Why would it be on the radio, though?†“I… don’t know,†Morita says, making a face at the speaker, “but the volume is fluctuating. It shouldn’t be.†Nakano is completely silent, but she can see him frowning behind his plastic mask. “What is it, Nakano?†she asks. “What’s wrong?†“If I didn’t know better, I’d say the signal was Morse,†he murmurs, brow furrowed in concentration as he stares at the ground. “The changes in volume are perfectly timed, and if you match the spikes to dots and dashes…†he shakes his head. “No. No, it can’t be. There’s no way. The transmitter doesn’t even have an amplitude control, and there’s nobody left in the lab…†he trails off, looking up at her. “Right?†She ignores his question. “What is it saying, Nakano?†She asks urgently. “What does the message say?†After a few long moments, the scientist answers. “ It says… HELLO, WORLD.†Then the screaming starts.
  9. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    After a moment’s recuperation, she staggers to her feet. Yoshida and Dr. Hashimoto offer her a helping hand, but she waves them off. “I’m fine. Just a little light-headed,†she says. The guards are hovering anxiously nearby and she hurriedly cooks up an explanation: “Chronic illness. Runs in the family.†They look a little unconvinced, but eventually decide it isn’t worth the effort to dig any deeper. Yoshida falls into step next to her as the three of them make their escape and mutters: “I suppose re-introductions are in order. Special Agent Yoshida with the Bakufu – here’s my badge.†He pulls out an ornate medallion glowing with otherworldly energy, and under her Sight it’s as if a veil’s been lifted from around him. She sees a cloud of Power hanging over his body, and her eyes widen. How… how did I not notice he was abnormal? He hid his presence so well. Under close inspection, the medallion seems rather familiar... Ah. Father Nakata has one as well. Smaller, less flashy, but similar in concept. “Just call me Yamaguchi,†she says. “I’m not actually with the JMSDF.†“That much was obvious,†Yoshida replies. “Who do you report to?†She shrugs. “The Church in my area, mostly.†He nods, as if she’d confirmed a hypothesis of his, and puts the medallion back in his pocket. As he does so, his power disappears from her Sight again – no. Now that I know what to look out for, I can tell that there’s something blocking my vision. With enough inspection I should be able to see through it. “Good enough. I’m assuming you have some sort of plan in case things go wrong?†He asks. “Yeah. Shoot everything that moves,†she replies. “But I was expecting something on a much smaller scale. The doctor’s reports suggested fleeting exposure to weak demonic influence, not this–†she waves her hands around in the air. “Wholesale possession,†Yoshida says, and she nods. “I’ve already notified my superiors, but…†he gives her a grim look. “Nobody’s available, not even the reserves.†“What’s going on?†She asks. He shrugs in response. “Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is, something big’s going down elsewhere. You got any backup on your end?†“Yeah. But they’ll take half an hour to get here, and there’s no way security’s letting them in.†“Call them anyway. We need all the help we can get,†Yoshida replies. She nods and retrieves her work phone from her pocket, but a flashing message near the top of her screen reads NO SIGNAL. “Can’t get a connection here,†she complains. “You said you notified your superiors – could I get a message out using the same method?†Yoshida shakes his head. “It wouldn’t work for you, unless your colleagues have the proper equipment. We’ll have to find a landline.†Dr. Hashimoto groans. “We signal-proofed the facility to prevent interference with the experimental setup. The land lines are monitored, and Security will come down hard if you give away our location…†“Shit,†she says. “We can’t afford to tangle with the guards. Too many things could go wrong, and I’m not bulletproof.†“Well, I guess it’s just you and me then,†Yoshida says. “Fair warning – I won’t be of much use if push comes to shove. I’m more spy than soldier.†“More detail would be nice.†“Blending in, escaping surveillance, information gathering. I have a handful of talismans I can use in an emergency, but I’m not sure how well the wards will hold up – this was supposed to be a low-threat assignment. What’re you packing?†He asks. “Enhanced sight, a gun and two duplicates of me,†she replies. “Decoys?†Yoshida asks, and she shakes her head. “Additional firepower. Takes too long to get them back if they’re destroyed.†Plus I feel all their pain, so it's best if I keep them intact. He nods. “Alright. So, here’s what I think is going on: the preliminary tests created a disturbance on the other side, which attracted something nasty. We don’t know exactly what it has in mind, but we can guess.†“Crossing over,†she says. “Ultimately, yes.†He replies. “If the experiment is on a large enough scale to allow a full manifestation, we’re screwed. And calling the test off outright will attract too much attention, both from the authorities as well as whatever’s waiting on the other side of the veil.†“Um…†Dr. Hashimoto interjects tentatively, and they both turn to look at him. “It shouldn’t be. The trial involves an electromagnetic wave duplicated seven times in different orientations, generating a small oscillating field which we then hope to propagate into the parallel dimension…†“So how do we turn it off?†Yoshida interrupts him. “I was getting to that,†Dr. Hashimoto says. “A slight alteration to any of the eight waves’ frequencies would eventually knock the entire field out of phase. That’s why we’ve taken such pains to minimize ambient interference.†Yoshida nods. “If we need the experiment stopped, how fast could you do it?†“If I scrambled the frequencies… two to three seconds to input the commands, then the entire field should collapse pretty much instantly.†“Good enough for me,†Yoshida says. “Be ready to take action the moment either of us gives the word.†“Wait,†she interjects. “I might be missing something here, but why don’t we just cut the power?†“The shutdown sequence will take place over a minute or so,†Dr. Hashimoto replies. “Keeps everything stable and limits any risks resulting from power fluctuation. If you wanted to cut the power manually, you’d have to manually disconnect the power cable and the three backups – I’ll point them out to you later.†“Great, that’s another option. If anything goes wrong,†she says to Yoshida, “I’ll cut the cables while the doctor destabilizes the field. Can you make sure his colleagues don’t get in the way?†“Of course,†he replies. “I’d prefer it if you didn’t harm my colleagues.†Dr. Hashimoto says, determination in his voice. He flinches slightly as she turns her gaze on him, but recovers quickly and stands firm. “They don’t have any bad intentions – they just don’t know what we know. I wanted to tell them, but…†he trails off, breaking eye contact and staring at the floor. Yoshida claps him on the shoulder. “We’ll try our best, but I can’t promise anything.†She nods in agreement and Dr. Hashimoto grimaces. “I guess that’s that, then,†he says. “Let’s get back to the others.†~~ When they return, she sees the other scientists waiting in the corridor. Dr. Morita is taking a sip from a Styrofoam cup of coffee, Dr. Kikuchi is scribbling something down on a sheet of paper in his hands, and Dr. Nakano is leaning against a wall, tapping his finger against the concrete in an odd staccato rhythm. “Ah, there you are!†The young scientist says, straightening up and striding over as soon as he catches sight of them. “About time – I was worried we’d fall behind schedule. Come along now, the airlock is this way…†His finger continues its tapping against the side of his leg as he herds them down the corridor, and she raises an eyebrow. “Morse Code?†She asks him, and he turns to her with excitement written across his face. “Yeah. I’m a big fan,†he says. “It may not be the most effective means of communication, but there’s something about its simplicity and focus that really captures my attention.†“Like the sword,†she muses. “Well past its prime but still beloved by many.†“Exactly!†he replies. “Just like Star Wars said: ‘An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.’ Nowadays everything’s about encryption and data density, but I think that there’s a lot we can learn from good old Morse.†Dr. Kikuchi snorts. “Don’t let him pollute your brain with his crackpot theories, Yamaguchi-san,†the long-haired scientist says with a good-natured grin. “Dr. Nakano is one of the best cryptologists in the country, but there’s a lot of chaff mixed in with the wheat, if you know what I mean.†“Hah! Now I understand the expression ‘putting pearls before swine’,†Dr. Nakano shoots back with practiced ease. It feels like this isn’t the first time they’ve had this discussion, and she can’t help but crack a smile as their debate descends into a quagmire of technical jargon and name-calling. “They sure do get along well, don’t they?†She murmurs to Dr. Hashimoto. He nods. “They really do. Dr. Morita and I actually have a bet going: he says three more weeks, but I think it’ll take a little longer before anything really transpires.†“Ah. I see.†Watching the two scientists bicker for a few moments before Dr. Kikuchi puts Dr. Nakano in a headlock, she feels the dull ache of yearning in her chest. I wish I– Stop wishing, she admonishes herself. My carefree days are long gone. I gave them up forever when I took up Geminus; when I swore the oath; when I joined… No. No, that’s not true. I was happy in the beginning. A treacherous memory claws its way back to the surface, long-buried but unearthed at last: Walking home after school with her comrades-in-arms, one sunny Friday afternoon. Smiling, joking, looking forward to the weekend... not knowing that out of the four of them, only she lives to see Saturday. Friday night. Cool breeze in the air, on a routine patrol with Saki. Getting a text from the other two requesting backup, saying they’ve detected some minor demonic activity. Hurrying down the street, boots pounding concrete as Geminus coalesces in her hands. Then a warbling shriek like a bird’s cry lowered two octaves, going on and on and on, echoing from the ground and the walls and the sky– It was my fault. I should’ve stayed, should’ve fought. Maybe one of them would’ve made it out. They needed my help, but I– She screws her eyes shut, trying desperately to forget. I let them down instead. I could’ve done something, anything, but I didn’t. I ran. ~~ Someone dumps a folded lump of plastic and rubber into her arms, snapping her out of her daze. She looks around and sees Dr. Nakano turning away from her and handing a hazmat suit to Yoshida, pointing out changing rooms down the corridor. “–just to be safe,†he’s saying. “Theoretically speaking there shouldn’t be any risk, but in light of recent events…†She tunes the rest of his speech out and heads toward the changing room, noting the rest of the scientists are absent. The pain in her heart fades slowly into familiar heaviness as she pushes the door open to see Dr. Kikuchi sitting on a bench and suiting up. “Over here, Yamaguchi-san!†The scientist waves to her with thick rubber gloves, grinning through a plastic faceplate. “It’s pretty tough to put the suit on by yourself if you haven’t done it before, so I’ll help you out when I’m done.†“Thanks,†she says. “I… shouldn’t have worn a skirt, should I?†Dr. Kikuchi laughs. “It doesn’t matter too much. You have to change into a gown, anyway. The gowns should be in that cupboard just next to the lockers – you can stash your clothes there.†She nods and heads over to the cupboard, picking out a shapeless blue piece of fabric. As she sheds her clothes and pulls the gown around herself, Dr. Kikuchi stands up. “All right, I’m finished! Here, sit down and I’ll help you…†The scientist keeps up a steady stream of chatter while guiding her through the process of donning the suit. Her legs come first; she steps into hollow rubber trousers and wiggles her feet into the steel-capped boots attached to the ends. Then Dr. Kikuchi lifts the rest of the suit up to chest level and tells her to slide her hands through the sleeves before putting on two sets of gloves, the outer layer secured by an airtight zip. The headpiece is the last step, sliding over and around the front of her head before a last zip around the neck seals her entirely in her rubber shell. “There, all done! Do you feel the air supply working?†The scientist leans over and twists something on her back. Air flows from back-mounted gas tanks into the confines of her suit with a hiss, and she gives a thumbs up. “Great!†Dr. Kikuchi says. “Time to go back and meet up with the others.†She stretches and tries taking a few steps – the suit is not as cumbersome as she thought it’d be, but it still weighs her down. “Just one question,†she says. “If I need to take this thing off really fast, how would I do it?†Dr. Kikuchi grins at her. “With a knife. No, seriously – the suit takes forever to remove safely, and there are a ton of decontamination protocols to make sure nothing’s sticking to the outside…†“Understood.†She follows the scientist out of the changing room and back down the corridor, planning how best to shed her suit in a hurry. Everyone else is suited up and waiting for them next to a foot-thick metal door, and Dr. Nakano claps his hands together. “This way, ladies and gentlemen!†He says, punching a six-digit code into a wall-mounted console. His body blocks her line of sight but she simply stares through him, memorizing the sequence as his gloved finger stabs the buttons. The door unlocks itself with a clank, swinging open slowly with a grinding noise to reveal a small room with showers mounted on the ceiling and a metal grate for a floor. One wall is glass from floor to ceiling, and a guard on the other side gives them a thumbs-up. He pulls on a lever, and a door on the far side of the room opens up. “This is the decontamination zone,†Dr. Nakano explains. “On our way up, the showers on the roof will dispense several types of foam to kill bacteria, wash away harmful chemicals and absorb lingering radiation that might’ve made its way back up.†“Despite the showers’ best efforts, Dr. Nakano here still hasn’t cleaned up his act,†Dr. Morita cuts in, and Dr. Nakano rolls his eyes. “And despite the showers’ best efforts, Dr. Morita,†he retorts, trying to hold back a grin but failing, “you’re still a dirty old man.†The old man in question bursts into laughter, and everyone else chuckles a little. “Hah! That’s a good one. You got me good, boy. How long have you been holding on to that zinger?†“Longer than you think,†Dr. Nakano replies. “Anyway, enough joking around – we’ll have to take the train down. The test site was built about six hundred meters underground to minimize any interference from external radiation, so there’s about a kilometer of track to cover. Follow me and watch your step.†He leads them through the door, and Yoshida whistles in admiration as they step onto the waiting platform. “Wow,†he says. “That’s pretty amazing.†She nods in agreement – the tunnel, about large enough to accommodate a normal subway train, seems to stretch on forever. It slants down at an angle but remains impossibly straight, lamps set into the wall at regular intervals providing faint illumination. Rails on the floor terminate below the platform’s edge, and she feels the hum of a generator beneath her feet. “The train should be here any moment,†Dr. Hashimoto says, and she peers down the tunnel with her Sight. The carriage is about four hundred meters away, approaching at roughly twice her normal walking speed. At that rate, assuming a kilometer of track… ten minutes per round trip, five one-way. It’s empty, but seems long enough to accommodate around a hundred people. She can’t help but wonder: what would it be like to be the last person leaving work down there? Switching off the lights, locking the door behind you, taking the train up alone… Dr. Kikuchi laughs in response as she voices her thoughts. “Office policy is to always work in groups so we never leave anyone down there alone, but I’ve shut the place down and headed up with the last shift plenty of times.†Dr. Nakano shudders. “The last shift is usually a skeleton crew,†he says. “Three, four people?†Dr. Kikuchi nods, and he goes on: “I tend to leave with the crowd – it feels a little safer, somehow. I guess I’m just a superstitious person.†She shrugs. “There’s some wisdom to be found in myths, for sure.†“True. Some of the old stories are pretty terrifying, though,†Yoshida cuts in. “Maneating monsters, debilitating curses… you name it, we got it.†“A fair point,†she says as the train comes to a halt and they get in. “Dig deep enough, and you’ll often find something unpleasant lurking beneath the surface.†“Not just in stories, Yamaguchi-san,†Yoshida mutters. “Not just in stories.â€
  10. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    She comes to a halt behind Dr. Hashimoto at Conference Room 2 – the silhouettes of two men and a woman are huddled around a stack of papers inside. Dr. Hashimoto clears his throat and opens the door, and the silhouettes hastily stand up straight, each of them grabbing a fourth of the papers and tucking them away. “Yoshida-san from HQ should be arriving any time now, so I thought I’d get started on the introductions. Captain Yamaguchi, I’d like you to meet my colleagues,” Dr. Hashimoto says. “Dr. Nakano–” The leftmost scientist, a youngish-looking man with red hair, extends his hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he says. “Should I be calling you ma’am?” She shakes his hand with a smile. “Yamaguchi-san will be fine, thanks.” “–Dr. Kikuchi–” A tall middle-aged woman with hair in a long braid steps forward, almost crushing her hand in a strong grip. “I look forward to showing you around.” “–and Dr. Morita.” The last scientist, a wizened old man with a bit of a hunch to his back, shakes her hand. “If you need anything, just let us know,” he says with a bit of paternal concern. “I will. Thank you,” she says. Dr. Hashimoto clears his throat. “Dr. Kikuchi, is the drive ready?” “Yup.” The woman produces a hard disk drive and a logbook from under the table. “Just sign here, Yamaguchi-san.” She scribbles her false name in the space provided, pocketing the data drive afterward with a word of thanks. “So. The JMSDF, huh?” Dr. Nakano asks with a grin. “Can’t say you look the part – no offence!” She laughs. “None taken. I haven’t been in this line of work long – did some freelance work after finishing my studies, then decided to sign on late last year. Work at the Intelligence Branch has mostly been administrative – writing reports and such,” she says, and he grimaces in sympathy. “Is this your first project?” He asks, and she sees tension in the other scientists’ body language. They must be wondering why a rookie is here alone – their project is probably one of the most important ones out there. This is a little risky, but at least I won’t be expected to know anything about prior projects… “It is,” she says, rubbing the back of her head in feigned embarrassment. “There were actually supposed to be two of us, but Hanazawa-senpai got a bad case of the flu and the Major said it would be improper to make you reschedule.” She bows from the waist. “I apologize in advance for my inexperience – rest assured, my seniors will be overseeing the later tests.” They buy her act, and the tension drains out of the room. Dr. Nakano waves his hands frantically as she straightens up: “Oh no, Yamaguchi-san! That wasn’t what I was aiming for. Don’t worry about it – I’m sure you’ll be fine alone.” She gives him a grateful smile. “Thank you. I’ll do my best.” “I’m glad your side sent someone down,” Dr. Morita says. “It’ll make getting funds from those penny-pinchers at HQ much easier.” The rest of the room laughs, and she joins in. “I can’t guarantee anything,” she replies. “But I can tell you that a number of my superiors are interested in the project.” “Oh?” Someone else cuts in, and she turns to see a nondescript man in a nondescript suit standing in the doorway. The most remarkable thing about him is how very unremarkable he is. Everything about him – facial features, hairstyle, demeanor – is so average he seems almost… artificial. It’s as if someone lined up every salaryman in Japan and took the average when they were drawing the blueprint. “It’s unusual to see military interest in a project at so early a stage,” he goes on. “Oh! You’re here already!” Dr. Hashimoto says, before she can think of a reply. “Yamaguchi-san, this is Yoshida-san from the Projects Department at HQ. Yoshida-san, this is Captain Yamaguchi from the JMSDF Intelligence Branch.” Even though it’s been about ten seconds since Yoshida made his entrance, she can hear genuine surprise in Dr. Hashimoto’s words, as if it’s taken him that long to process the information. “Pleased to meet you,” Yoshida says with a bland smile, extending his hand. She shakes it. “Just call me Yamaguchi-san,” she replies, and he nods. Even his voice is so… so boring. I could finish a conversation with him, turn away and forget the entire thing even happened. Something feels a little off about the entire situation, but she can’t place a finger on it. She shakes her head. This isn’t important. Get the job done, get out. That’s all that matters, she tells herself as Dr. Hashimoto leads them off. ~~ Halfway to the decontamination zone marked on her mental map, Yoshida interrupts Dr. Morita’s long-winded explanation of quantum physics to ask: “Are the afflicted personnel under quarantine in this facility?” The scientist goes on for a few more seconds before the interruption registers. “Indeed, Yoshida-san! Most of the affected employees returned to work after medical and psychological examination, but the two most severe cases have agreed to stay in a makeshift quarantine zone for now.” Yoshida doesn’t seem fazed by this development. He probably has to deal with this all the time, she thinks. Poor man. “I’d like to take a quick look at them, if you don’t mind,” Yoshida says. After another delay, the scientists exchange glances for a quick moment before Dr. Hashimoto nods. “Of course. They’re this way,” he says, pointing to the left. “Follow me. Yamaguchi-san, if you’re not interested you can stay here with my colleagues for the time being.” “It’s fine,” she says, sighing inwardly with relief. “I’ll come along.” I was trying to figure out a way to examine the lab workers without arousing suspicion, but he just did it for me. She follows the two men down a different corridor, leaving the three scientists behind. After a few minutes of silent walking, she sees two solid metal doors with a small transparent panel set at eye level in each. Each door has three armed guards outside, and their hands drop to their batons as Dr. Hashimoto approaches. “Sir, do you have authorization to approach?” The tallest guard asks. “We’re not entering,” Dr. Hashimoto replies. “Just a…” he trails off, looking back at them. “Inspection,” Yoshida says. “I’m from Headquarters.” The guard remains silent for a few seconds before grabbing a walkie-talkie from one of his compatriots. He mutters something into the speaker as it hisses to life – there’s an immediate response, and he nods. “Take as long as you want, sir. If you want to enter, though, proper decontamination protocol has to be followed…” Yoshida nods. “That won’t be necessary. Thank you, though.” He takes a quick glance through the glass of the first door, grimaces, and moves on to the next. Dr. Hashimoto takes the opportunity to mutter to her: “Aren’t you going to take a look as well?” “No need. I can see perfectly well from here,” she says, engaging Geminus’ power and peering through the metal. The moment she does so, her vision turns red. Shit, she thinks. We might already be too late. The thick miasma of demonic influence is everywhere inside the room, rising from the occupants’ skin in gossamer ribbons like blood under water. It hasn’t spread past the door, though – why? There are no wards that she can see, no magic to hold back the otherworldly influence. There’s only one explanation. It seems as if the affliction is airborne. At this moment, she realizes both occupants are standing stock still, looking directly in her direction. Oh, dear. A quote from some philosopher flashes through her mind: When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you… Something stares back through their eyes. She looks away instinctively, but for a fraction of a fraction of a second they lock gazes and she sees– A garden in full bloom. A brilliant riot of colors spilling across the land and sky, beautiful beyond imagining but nothing moves– A stagnant sea. Brackish water covered by a thick scummy layer of dull green algae, filthy beyond comprehension yet teeming with writhing wriggling life– Benevolent amusement. Everything that exists is a curiosity, to be lovingly watched over and tended to– Cruel disregard. Everything returns in the end, flesh and bone and blood rotting into mulch. Ashes to ashes to ashes to ashes, dust to dust to dust to dust– She staggers backward, shutting off her enhanced vision almost on reflex. Her vision is blurred, ears ringing, mouth dry like someone stuffed it with cotton… The next thing she knows, she’s slumped on the floor, head lolled back against the wall as Yoshida holds a handkerchief over her nose. It comes back crimson with blood, and she groans. “Have to… call the trial off,” she whispers. “I know,” Yoshida says. “I saw it too.”
  11. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    [Deleted Double Post.]
  12. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    The more I look at this, the more familiar it seems, she thinks. The mission brief is lengthy and technical to a fault, but annotations help to explain and simplify the most abstruse parts. There’s a summary at the end, which she eventually skips to. It reads: “CH-69 failed to make quantum teleportation a viable means of massed information transfer, but data retrieved from the project suggests the existence of a parallel dimension. CH-70 retrieved evidence (>99.5% confidence) that said dimension exists; Project ST-71 (currently under way) aims to send and retrieve a signal via dimensional bridge.” Haven’t any of them played video games before? She wonders, scanning the rest of the brief for any mention of a “resonance cascade”. This is a recipe for disaster. The section on “Abnormalities and Possible Risks” is worrying: preliminary trials for the signal transfer have apparently induced mental breakdown in two laboratory workers and varied hallucinations amongst two dozen more, but the higher-ups are pushing forward with the project nonetheless. She takes a look at the affected individuals’ interview transcripts – the term ‘Grandfather’ seems to appear in all of them, along with descriptions of abnormal behavior: “Continuous coughing… subject claimed to feel phlegm buildup but tests unable to detect signs of infection. Recommend quarantine.” “Complaints of itchiness coupled with constant fidgeting, rubbing and scratching of skin… biopsies indicated no rashes/parasites. Recommend quarantine.” Flipping to Annex A, she sees a timetable of scheduled experiments, tomorrow’s date marked as “Trial 1” in bold red font. Stapled to it is a sheet of paper labelled “Plan for Entry”, with a list of instructions and helpful information. She frowns at the stack of paper in her hands. “I don’t like this.” She mutters out loud, getting ready for bed. Hashimoto was right to worry – it seems like demonic influence to me. ~~ Clunk. Clunk. Boots echo on concrete as she sprints down a ruined alleyway, gasping for breath. Have to… get away. Get away get away get away. Her head is light and her mind fuzzy as she reaches the end and chooses a direction at random, fleeing blindly like a rat in a maze. Clunk. Clunk. Please don’t find me. She’s clinging on to Geminus for dear life, a white-knuckled grip on the metal. It rises and falls with each of her terrified steps, but she can still feel it shiver. Take your time, she begs. Please. Clunk. Clunk. She runs until her body gives up, her legs burning and her lungs screaming for air, and then she runs some more. I can’t… I can’t do this. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to get caught and– and– FOUND YOU. She stops dead in her tracks as it bursts from the ground in a shower of soil and crushed concrete, unfurling itself into a writhing hell of barbs and grasping limbs. The fear hits her like a hammer and she wobbles on boneless legs, slumping to the ground. All thoughts of escape evaporate, leaving one last desperate hope. One way out. She raises Geminus to her temple, but a scythed tentacle snaps out at the speed of thought and knocks the barrel away before she can pull the trigger. No! Nononono– Her mouth opens wide in a despairing scream as it draws her into itself, but no sound emerges. The last thing she hears is: Clunk. Cl– ~~ Her eyes snap open but see only darkness. The world presses down on her, heavy and smothering, and what little air she can breathe is hot and stale. She cries out but the sound is muffled, and in a moment of mindless panic she struggles against her bonds, clawing at heavy fabric– A reassuring pulse of power cuts through the terror. It’s all right, Geminus seems to say. You’re safe. Gathering her bearings, she gropes blindly for the edge of the quilt. Cool air washes over her as she pulls the cloth from over her head, and she sucks it in with the desperation of a drowning man. The familiar sight of her bedroom greets her as she looks around. There’s no way I’m getting any more sleep, she thinks, getting out of bed with a sigh and heading for the bathroom. It’s six in the morning. Might as well wash up and get dressed. The fear ebbs away with every passing second, and shame takes its place. You’re just a scared little girl jumping at shadows, she accuses herself as she splashes cold water on her face. None of it was real. It didn’t happen like that at all. A pause. No, that’s a lie. Back then… I ran away too. She shakes her head. No point dwelling on what’s already happened, she thinks, filing the bad dream away in some dark corner of her memory. I have work to do, and a muddled mind will kill me as surely as any enemy– Clunk. Clunk. This time, she recognizes it as someone knocking on her door. She peers through the wood and sees a middle-aged man standing outside, a suit carrier in one hand and a box tucked under his arm. That’ll be Shirakawa’s stylist, then. Who else would it be at this hour? ~~ He works quietly but efficiently, occasionally instructing her to look up or down. Her hair is trimmed, combed and set in place with gel; her face dusted with powder and worked over with cosmetics. After half an hour, he says: “All done” and lets her take a look in the mirror. A different person peers out the glass at her – more mature, more commanding… more confident. “I look ten years older,” she murmurs. That’s who I have to be, if I want this to work. He hands the suit carrier over to her and she inspects its contents. White shirt, red tie, gray blazer and… She holds up the skirt and heels questioningly, and he raises an eyebrow. “They’ll restrict my range of movement,” she says. He nods knowingly. “You’ll be putting on something more suitable upon entering the mission area.” It’s the longest sentence she’s heard from him since his arrival. “All right then,” she mutters, retreating into the bathroom to get changed. ~~ After the stylist takes his leave, she waits ten minutes before making her way to the nearby train station on foot. Once there, she heads to the taxi stand, pushing her way through the morning crowd, and hails a cab. “Where to?” The taxi driver asks her as they move off. She tells him her destination, and he frowns. “Isn’t that a restricted area? I don’t think they’ll let me drive right in.” “It’ll be fine. Just drop me off at the guard post outside,” she replies. “I’ll make my own way in from there.” “Will do. I don’t suppose –” The disposable phone tucked into her blazer pocket hums and she flicks it open, holding up a hand to forestall the driver’s next sentence. It’s Dr. Hashimoto. “Hello?” He asks. “Captain Yamaguchi?” “Good morning, doctor,” she says. “Yamaguchi here – I’m on my way to your office right now. Be there in…” she shoots the driver a questioning glance. “Thirty-five minutes,” the driver replies, and she repeats his words into the phone. “Great.” She can hear an undercurrent of nervousness in his voice as he goes on: “A few of my colleagues were supposed to have a meeting at Headquarters today, but it got postponed. I hope you’re okay with the observation booth being a little more crowded?” The question is phrased awkwardly, as if he’s trying to be oblique… We may not be the only two people on the line. He’s in a secure government facility, after all. “That won’t be a problem,” she says. “I’ll give you another call when I arrive.” “Thanks. I’ll be at the guardhouse to escort you in.” ~~ The rest of the journey takes place in silence. The concrete and glass of the city center fade away into brick and mortar, which are replaced in turn by green trees and fields as the taxi leaves the city behind. After some time, she sees high walls topped by barbed wire in the distance. Armed sentries keep watch from towers interspersed around the perimeter, and road signs warn commuters “ONLY AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL WILL BE PERMITTED ENTRY” in huge block letters. The taxi pulls up outside the gates, and she digs around in her skirt pocket for some money. “Thanks,” the driver says as he passes her a handful of change. “Have a nice day.” “You too,” she replies. “I hope everything goes well.” The last statement is directed more to herself than to him, but he nods and gives her a grin nevertheless. As the taxi peels off into the distance, she hears someone calling for ‘her’. “Over here, Captain!” She turns to see a bespectacled man in a lab coat waving to her from the guardhouse. He’s probably in his late thirties or early forties, with a slight pot-belly and a thinning head of hair. She heads over to him and shakes his hand. “It’s good to finally meet you in person, doctor,” she says. “Likewise.” He replies. “Come, I’ll get you your security pass…” ~~ Her fake ID makes it past inspection, just as Shirakawa promised. As she leaves the guardhouse, stepping through a metal detector at the exit, Dr. Hashimoto hurries up to her. “I take it you’ve seen the reports I sent to... our mutual friend?” He whispers. She nods in affirmation. “In your opinion, what are the chances that something will go wrong today?” She considers the question for a moment as they head toward a nondescript two-story building. “Well, doctor, if the problems experienced by your staff are what I think they are, I’d say something has already gone wrong. Very wrong.” He nods grimly. “Our mutual friend mentioned something about ‘extradimensional interference’, but he didn’t give me any more details. I understand you’re some sort of a specialist who deals with this kind of thing for a living?” “More or less,” she says. “I’ve been a Hunter for about a year and a half, now.” “A… Hunter.” Dr. Hashimoto connects the dots almost immediately. “So you’re saying…” “Yes.” “Shit.” He clenches his fist. “Is there… something on the loose in the facility? What kind of threat level are we talking about?” “The Others come in a wide variety,” she says. “On one end of the spectrum, some of them are more than a match for a squad of armed men – if one of them were on the loose in your facility, you would find out very quickly.” She pauses for a few seconds, thinking. “I think this is some sort of… spillover. Or something exerting its influence from the other side.” “That’s both comforting and worrying at the same time. You’re more than a match for one of those… Others, I hope?” He asks tentatively, as if afraid to upset her. “The weaker ones? Of course,” she replies. “But the things on the other end of the spectrum… well, doctor, I trust you’re familiar with the term ‘apocalypse’?” He goes pale. “Relax. The world’s still fine, isn’t it?” She asks, and he nods after a moment’s hesitation. “By killing their servants, we prevent them from gaining enough power or influence to cross over entirely.” “…oh dear.” Dr. Hashimoto says. “Then today’s experiment–” “–Is dangerous, yes. But if the reports were accurate, I doubt anything of significant size will be able to cross over immediately. What I’m worried about is the condition of your staff members. If the preliminary trials alone were sufficient to result in psychosis and hallucinations…” “Then there’s no telling what will happen today, is there?” He finishes her sentence for her. “That’s correct. But I’ll do my best to keep you in one piece.” “That’s comforting,” he replies, and she isn’t entirely sure if he’s being sarcastic. ~~ The facility’s interior resembles a hospital, with spotless white tiling on the floor and walls, complicated machinery everywhere and harried looking employees in lab coats rushing back and forth. “Most of what we’re doing on the above-ground floors is stress testing and theoretical work,” Dr. Hashimoto explains as they walk, more for appearances than anything else. “Every piece of equipment has been designed and constructed to withstand five to seven times the projected mechanical or electrical stress, and we’re running stringent tests to make sure nothing goes wrong.” She nods, looking around the area. Besides the workers, she sees several guards in blue uniforms patrolling the area, armed with batons and pistols. Undeniably effective against humans, but a single Thrall would tear through the entire compound unopposed. A fire escape plan is posted on the wall about a hundred meters away, and Geminus memorizes it in an instant. She brings up the map in her mind, plotting alternative routes of escape if anything goes south, then realizes Dr. Hashimoto is talking again. “Experimental data from the Testing Zone is sent up to our storage setup on the second floor,” he says. “We use it for tests and computer simulations, and whatever we don’t have to muscle to handle on-site gets outsourced to one of several supercomputers.” “Anything interesting so far?” She asks offhandedly, scrutinizing each employee for unusual body language. Dr. Hashimoto nods. “There were a few minor deviations from our predictions – some signal variances happening slightly more often than they should. Nothing statistically significant yet, though. We’ll have to conduct more tests to confirm the results, but if the trend continues we might be able to shed some light on a number of theories by early next year…” “Anything… interesting, I mean,” she interrupts, and he blinks. “Oh. Oh. No, I don’t think so – although it’s quite possible I missed out on something.” She shrugs. “It’s possible, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Although, if you have the data...?” “Ah, yes. One of my colleagues has prepared a sample of the data for your boss. We’ll need you to sign off on it, though…” “Of course," she says with a grin. "Wouldn’t want any non-authorized personnel to get their hands on it, would we?”
  13. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    [TOO EARLY IN THE MORNING] “Welcome back to school, 2-C!” Fujimoto-sensei bounds into class with a wide grin on his face, a blue folder in his hands. “How was your summer?” He fidgets impatiently as the class rep makes them all stand and bow, sweeping an expectant gaze around the room when they’re done. “Nobody wants to share?” He asks, face falling in mock disappointment. “Well, then. Sensei will start! During the first week, my family and I took a train to…” ~~ The loud scraping of about two dozen chairs jolts her awake. A trail of drool runs down one cheek and onto her desk, and she laboriously raises her head from her table to see what the commotion is about. Her classmates are getting up and heading out, P.E. gear clutched in hands or tucked under arms as they amble toward the changing rooms. Oh, great. Homeroom’s over. Geminus rumbles in disapproval and gives her a pointed nudge. She frowns in sleep-addled confusion, fumbling for her phone. There’s no incoming call. “You traitor,” she mumbles. Geminus nudges her again, slightly more urgently. “What is it? Just spit it out,” she says, and Geminus materializes on the table in the form of a stack of paper. The word “HOMEWORK” is printed on the topmost sheet. Oh. Dammit. She groans and reaches into her bag for the summer homework, and retrieves a crumpled sheaf of papers after a few moments’ digging. Now which one’s math… argh, I should’ve sorted them out last night, she thinks. After five feverish seconds of sorting, she finds the assignment in question, leaps up from her desk and starts chasing Fujimoto-sensei down. It doesn’t take too long before she sees his familiar (highly treasured, if somewhat old-fashioned – apparently his wife knitted it for him) maroon sweater, and she calls out to him: “Sensei! Wait up!” He turns around, mild surprise on his features. “Oh, Imahara-san. What is it?” “I’m so sorry, Sensei – I forgot to turn in my holiday homework.” She extends the document to him, and his eyebrows raise a little. “Hmm? I was sure I’d gotten everyone’s already…” he checks the pile of papers tucked under his arm. “Mmm… you’re right.” He gives her a smile, taking the assignment from her. “Must’ve gotten a little rusty after my long holiday, haha! I’m not sure how I missed you out…” “I’m not sure how I forgot either,” she lies. “Must’ve been zoning out or something.” Geminus rumbles again, and she feels a little admonition mixed in with the disapproval. I’m sorry; I won’t use your power to camouflage my presence in class any more… “No harm done.” Fujimoto-sensei nods to himself, checking his watch. “Well… you should probably get changed. It’s physical education next, and as I always say, a healthy body is a prerequisite for a healthy mind. Have fun!” ~~ “That’s ridiculous!” One of her classmates yells, refusing to give up the ball. “It was clearly still in play.” “Like hell it was. You crossed the line, man. You totally crossed the line.” Another classmate shouts back, and everyone looks at her expectantly. “It was in,” she says. “Carry on.” Assorted whoops and groans fill the air as the two teams square off again, and she holds back a yawn as she watches from the sidelines. This sucks. I thought I’d stretch my legs a little, but here I am. Stuck on referee duty. Someone taps her on the shoulder out of the blue and she acts on instinct, slamming her elbow backwards and up while taking a quick step forward. It connects with something, and she hears a yelp of pain. “Ouch!” One of her classmates is rubbing his forearm as she turns around, a pained expression on his face. “That was unexpected.” “Oh, shit. I’m so sorry,” she says, adrenaline ebbing away. “I don’t know what came over me. Are you all right?” He nods, letting go of his arm. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt that much. Besides, it's my bad for not saying anything.” She nods. “Sorry. Uhh, anyway, what I wanted to ask was, do you wanna swap out? You seemed pretty bored, and I’m beat. ” He holds out his armband, and she looks at it with a twinge of surprise. “Oh,” He says, misjudging her reason for hesitation. “I’ll go grab a new one for you, this one’s probably a little dirty–” “It’s fine,” she says, grabbing the armband from him (Takamura? Takahashi? Takamine? She tries in vain to remember) and putting it on. “Thanks.” ~~ During lunch, she frowns glumly at a scrap of lettuce that fell out of her sandwich and wonders: Just how many of my classmates do I actually know? I’ve been in this class for about half a year now. She recognizes each and every one by their face, just in case someone tries to replace one of them with a spy, but their names are beyond her. That one’s… Nakamura, I think. Murakami, Ogawa, No Idea, Yamaguchi… she gives up halfway down the first row. “Ughhh,” she grumbles. “I suck at this.” A moment’s pause. “Doesn’t really matter, though.” Just then, a message appears on her work phone. I have delivered an envelope to your residence, Imahara-san. Within are details of something I hope you can help me with. –Your friend She dismisses the message, sliding the phone back into her pocket. Looks like Shirakawa Senior’s help doesn’t come for free, after all. ~~ There is, indeed, a plain manila folder under her door. No stamp, no address. Delivered by hand, then. The first thing she sees when she opens it is a handwritten note. Dear Imahara-san, it says, I have been in frequent contact with someone who I believe could be a great asset in the future. However, he is starting to have worries for his safety (with good reason. See annex A: Scheduled Experiments) and wants a strong arm and steady trigger finger on-site tomorrow in case the worst happens. I believe his area of expertise is of particular interest to you, and as such you would stand to benefit from his continued security. Would it be possible for you to aid him in this endeavor? If so, please reply to my text message. Besides the note, the folder also contains information on one Dr. Hashimoto, a government-employed theoretical physicist, along with a summary of something called Project 71… Oh dear, she thinks, flipping through the rest of the brief. This doesn’t look good.
  14. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    Geminus nudges her, giving the signal for your personal phone’s ringing. Taking one hand off the handlebars, she gets out her phone. It’s completely silent and still to prevent any accidents while she’s on assignment, but somehow her Reaper can always tell when she gets a call. The pink flip-phone snaps open with a plastic–y click, and she takes a look at the screen. It’s Mom. “Hello?” She says, pulling over and bringing her bike to a halt. “Hi, Misa! It’s just me today – your dad’s still in the office. Sorry for calling you so late, but I just – have you had any trouble lately?” Mom asks, getting straight to the point. They must’ve gotten the letter already. I put it off as long as she could, but the school needed a parents’ signature and I’m not good at forgery… No, everything’s all right. I’m fine, Mom. Everything’s okay.” She kills the engine and dismounts, sitting down by the side of the road. Wasn’t expecting her to call now, she thinks. But I guess now’s as good a time as any. “Are you sure? Misa, we got your last report card in the mail. A few of your teachers say you, and I quote, ‘haven’t been putting in enough effort lately’ and ‘seem to have difficulty staying awake in class’. I know you don’t like it when we pry, but…” “I’m fine,” she says, a little more harshly than she’d intended. Mother goes quiet. “Sorry,” she adds after a short pause. “Been a little stressed is all.” Mother doesn’t ask why. “Let us know if there’s anything we can do. If you need more money, just tell us how much and–” “I don’t need more money, Mom. Look, I just have some stuff I need to settle on my own. I’ll be fine. I promise,” she lies. “Uh-huh. If you say so”. She braces herself for more questions, but none are forthcoming. “By the way, are you eating well?” Mother asks, switching tacks. “Yes, Mom.” It’s not a lie – sandwiches are cheap, healthy and easy to eat on the go. “Be sure to get enough sleep. It’s good for your complexion, you know.” “Yes, Mom.” “And try to put a little more effort into your studies. You’ve always been a smart girl, Misa. We know you can do it.” “Yes, Mom,” she says, and Geminus tells her your work phone’s ringing too. “Sorry, something just came up. I really have to go.” “All right, call you again soon! Your dad’s trying to get a few days off work next week, so maybe we can come and visit.” “That sounds great,” she says, trying to work up a little enthusiasm. “Bye. Say hi to dad for me.” “Will do. Bye! We love you!” Mother hangs up. She stares at the “Call Ended” icon as it fades, replaced by the home screen. I wish I could tell you everything, Mom. I really wish I could. After some time Geminus gives her another tentative nudge. The other call? She groans and pulls out her work phone. It’s made of hard gray plastic and stuffed full of borderline-illegal applications and information, kept safe by a metal cellphone case. “Imahara here.” “Hey, Imahara-san, I just caught a wild Demon Hunter in the grass, and I’m bringing her to the church now. I think you should meet us there.” “Sure. Is she hurt?” She asks, hopping onto her bike and starting the engine. “No, despite my best efforts,” he replies. I can see how that might’ve happened. ‘You all smell equally bad to me’, indeed. “You’re just slow, Pervert-san.” A girl pipes up on the line, and she finds herself smiling a little. Should I ask what… no, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m not entirely sure I want to know. “Hush,” Raiha says. “Us adults are talking here.” That seems to strike a nerve. “Hey! I’ll have you know–” “I’ll leave you to your bickering. Be at the church in five minutes,” she says before hanging up. It’ll be good for Raiha to have someone else to talk to. Someone as boisterous as he is. Not that I hate talking to him, she corrects herself hastily. I just… never mind. ~~ Well, I overestimated the distance, she thinks as her bike comes to a halt outside the church. The figure “4:38” pops up in her head as she approaches the cast-iron gate, and she tilts her head to the side. “Hey, thanks. That’s pretty helpful.” A year on and I’m still learning what my Reaper can do. I wonder how I could use this in a fight… As she reaches the gate, she hears an electric hum followed by a small pop. One of the street lights flickers and goes out as she turns her head to look, its soft orange glow on the ground replaced by inrushing darkness. There just aren’t enough lamps to erase the shadows once and for all, she thinks sadly. All they can do is burn themselves out to hold back the darkness just a little, until dawn breaks. A sigh escapes her throat unbidden. It’s been night for a long time. When will the sun rise again? She shakes her head, dismissing the depressing train of thought, and fishes a ring of keys from her pocket. In a matter of moments, the lock clicks open and the gate creaks on its hinges, allowing her entry. Engaging her enhanced vision, she scans the area for anything untoward but finds nothing. Well, I don’t know what I was expecting. This is probably the most heavily-fortified spot in all of Mitsuba. To her otherworldly sight, the magical protection around the church’s fenced perimeter is dazzling – hundreds of individual wards woven into an intricate, multilayered shell. Right now, the defenses are inactive, but they’ll activate instantly upon sensing a foreign presence. Or so I was told, anyway. The translucent wall of power lets her in with no difficulty, and she heads straight for the door. Her heart beats a little faster as she examines a sign saying “CLOSED – We Apologise for the Inconvenience” hanging on the doorknob – both sides of the sign say the exact same thing, but ‘Apologise’ is spelt with an ‘S’ on one side and ‘Z’ on the other. An innocuous manufacturing error to most, but she knows that the ‘Z’ facing out would be a warning that the church has been compromised. She enters the church silently, closing the door behind her. As the silver rectangle of moonlight cast through the doorway slowly disappears, almost-complete darkness falls throughout the room. The only source of illumination is a razor-thin strip of light from under one of the side rooms’ doors, and she heads in that direction. Squinting, she examines the number of person-shaped silhouettes in the room before entering. There are four – a man standing and working, a girl sitting next to the door with her hands clasped, and two bodies lying still on the large table in the middle of the room. Alive? Dead? Male? Female? From this angle it’s really hard to tell. Sounds of murmuring emanate from beyond the door. She raps gloved knuckles on the wood. “Father, I’m here. Do you need any help?” The murmuring stops as the girl on the other side of the door leaps to her feet, a Reaper coalescing between her hands. “Who’s there?” “She’s a friend, Mitsuya-san.” says Father Nakata. “Actually, Imahara-san, I’m more or less done – why don’t you come in?” She steps into the room, and the first thing she notices is the Reaper. It looks like a sword but shares a general sense of fluidity with Geminus, similar in some ways and vastly different in others. While Geminus is like a lump of wet clay, moldable to fit nearly any form, the other hunter’s Reaper is more like… She concentrates for a moment, trying to interpret what Geminus is telling her about Mitsuya-san’s Reaper… it’s more like a spring-loaded swiss army knife than anything – ready to snap into one of several powerful configurations at a moment’s notice. Somewhat less versatile, perhaps, but much more responsive. It also happens to be pointed right at her. “Easy,” she says, raising both hands. “I’m a friendly.” “Oh, yeah?” Mitsuya-san says, determination and skepticism plain on her face. “Prove it. Father, is there something only the real Imahara would know?” “Just ask her to split,” Father Nakata replies. The blonde girl frowns in momentary confusion, but regains her composure almost instantly. “You heard the man, now split!” “You could’ve asked more nicely,” she mutters, as Number Two and Number Three flicker into existence on either side of her. “Yup, she’s real,” Father Nakata says. The tension ebbs out of Mitsuya-san’s expression. Nodding in acknowledgement, the shorter girl dismisses her Reaper and extends a hand. “I’m Keiko Mitsuya. Nice to meet you!” “Misa Imahara. I look forward to working together,” she replies, and Keiko nods. A few moments pass in silence before she decides to get some answers. “Will the other two make it?” She asks, and Father Nakata nods in response. He’s wearing a bloodstained apron and gloves over his priestly garments, back turned to her as he fusses over a young woman. “Shinozaki-san got shot in the knee. He’s more or less fine otherwise. Yamashiro-san…” he says, and she hears a squelch followed by a weak groan, “…is in pretty rough shape, but I have faith that she will make it.” That’s all we can hope for, I guess. Turning her attention to Mitsuya-san, she asks: “What happened?” Mitsuya-san glares into space, fists clenched as she answers. “They jumped us at the station. We got caught in a dimensional barrier, then they hit us with explosives. Reika-chan went after the shooter while Yuudai-senpai and I took on Mr Cock.” “Cockytus,” Shinozaki-san says, and she turns to look at him. “That’s his name,” he explains. “I sliced him up good and Keiko-chan shot him right through the head, but he kept on coming and we had to run. Reika tangled with a thrall and… and…” She turns her gaze to the other table, angling herself to take a better Oh, dear god… There’s so much blood. The bright crimson is everywhere, smeared over pale skin and paler bone. Yamashiro-san takes in a wet gurgling breath before coughing violently, each heave and expulsion adding more color to the grisly palette of the operating table. Pretty rough shape? Pretty rough? I don’t even know how she’s still alive, she thinks, shuddering involuntarily and looking away. “Yeah,” Shinozaki-san says, voice thick with emotion. “That happened. Another hunter took the thrall out – damn thing blew up after she stabbed it in the chest. Neither I nor that piece of shit saw her coming. She one of yours?” “No,” she replies. “I think she just got her powers. Regardless, she’s on her way here right now.” “Good. I– we owe her a great deal of thanks.”
  15. Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

    [TWO WEEKS AGO] The Shirakawa mansion is huge. Just across the street from the police station, its two-meter brick walls extend up and down the road for several hundred meters. Security cameras sweep the sidewalk with lazy regularity, and she can’t help but feel a little intimidated as she parks her bike and walks up to the solid iron gate. There shouldn’t be anything to worry about, she tells herself as she pushes the intercom button. It’s just business. And if worst comes to worst… Geminus hums with anticipation. “You’ve been a little antsy lately,” she murmurs. “Well, I suppose two months without any incidents will do that to you.” A surge of agreement, then a query. She laughs softly, considering her answer. “I’d rather not have to go on assignment, if that’s what you mean.” Mild disappointment, followed by a tiny surge of adrenal excitement, as if to say haven’t you been missing this? Even a little? She shakes her head as the gate swings open. “Not one bit.” ~~ The butler ushers her down a winding gravel path toward the mansion proper, and the veritable forest growing just beyond the walls thins and eventually disappears into short grass by the time they’re halfway to the building. There’s no cover at all, she thinks a little nervously. A single sniper on the highest floor would be able to cover pretty much the entire area. But no bullets come whizzing her way – no ambushes, no surprises. At the end of the path, oaken double doors glide on their gilded hinges to reveal a luxurious entrance hall: lush red carpets on parquet floor, tasteful wooden furniture and way too many servants. None of them give her a second look, but she can tell from the way they move that a few of them probably weren’t hired for their housekeeping prowess. A far cry from her own living conditions, but that’s exactly why she’s here. The butler ushers her into a room roughly the size of her apartment. “Wait here,” he says, and exits quietly. She sits down on a couch larger and softer than her own mattress, and wishes she had better clothes to wear. Her school uniform seemed reasonable when she put it on this morning – a dark blue blazer and skirt with a white shirt and black tie – but now she feels incredibly underdressed. She shakes her head, dismissing that train of thought, and takes a look around the room. Not much cover here either. Behind the sofa seems the best bet. ~~ Four minutes and twenty-five seconds later, she hears the butler using a different door and turns to face the right direction before he re-enters. His expression betrays no surprise as he says: “The Boss will see you now.” ~~ She is ushered into a small, cozy room. Shelves upon shelves of books line the walls, and across a mahogany desk sits a man she’s seen dozens of times on the news: Raidou Shirakawa. As the door closes behind her with a soft click, she bows and says: “Good afternoon, sir.” He nods solemnly. “Well-mannered, unlike that son of mine – I like that. Please, sit.” She activates her Reaper’s power as she complies, surveying the room through new eyes. Almost instantly, she finds what she’s looking for, but doesn’t let it show. “Thank you, sir. As to the reason for my inconveniencing you today…” she starts, but he holds up a hand and she trails off. “Please, business can wait,” he says. “Tell me more about yourself.” “Misa Imahara, sir. Second year at Mitsuba High. Um… nothing much interesting about me.” She places one of her hands on the table, palm down. Geminus flickers into being, a tiny tri-barreled contraption glued to the surface of her hand, and she fires silently. Oblivious to her actions, Shirakawa makes a dismissive gesture. “I’m sure that’s not true, but I’ll let that slide.” There is an air of complete confidence around him, as if he knows for a fact that she won’t harm him. “As for your powers, when did you… well, I hope it isn’t rude of me to ask?” “Not at all, sir.” she replies, as the darts’ payloads begin to take effect. “I received my powers early last year. Ever since then, I’ve been putting them to good use. As for the specifics,” she offers unprompted, “it’s a gun, hence my visit today.” He raises an eyebrow. “Just a gun?” How much did you tell your father, Raiha? She thinks. “That’s the only relevant portion, sir.” “I’m a curious man, Imahara-san,” Shirakawa says. “Would you mind indulging me a little?” “Well, sir, I can tell you we’re not the only ones in this room,” she says, and he grins. “Very well. Now, what exactly is it that you need from me?” She hands him her list, and watches as one of his eyebrows creeps very slowly upwards. “Items three through eleven are components for item two, sir,” she clarifies. “I don’t need both.” “Interesting. Very interesting,” he says, tapping one finger in a staccato rhythm against lacquered wood. “It’ll be decently easy for me to get you what you need, but it won’t be cheap.” She leans forward despite herself. “How much?” He tells her. Trying to keep the disappointment off her face, she nods and gets up from her seat. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t afford that. Thank you for seeing me–” He raises a hand again, and she stops talking. “Let me ask you a few questions, Imahara-san,” he says. She nods, and he goes on. “What can you tell me about the security measures in this room?” “There are three men hidden behind the shelves,” she says. “One to my left, one to my right, and one just over your left shoulder. The one behind you has a submachine gun, while the other two have shotguns.” He grins as if someone’s telling him a funny story, and she fires a fourth dart through the door behind her. “I’m sorry. Had,” she corrects herself, and his grin fades just a tiny bit. “Your butler just behind the door is martial-arts trained,” she continues, sitting back down. “Two pistols on him: one in his left jacket pocket and one tucked into his belt at the back. And there’s some kind of security device built into your desk: not just an alarm, but also a hidden microphone and some sort of–” she tilts her head, staring through the wood as the butler slumps to the floor with a muffled thump. “Electroshock device.” A bark of laughter. “Impressive,” he says. “Very impressive. I could certainly use someone like you.” “You words do me honour, sir.” She says, and he leans forward. “One last question. Hypothetically, what would you do if I were to order your death at this very moment?” He asks, looking her straight in the eye. She returns his gaze evenly. “Then I’d do to you what I’ve already done to your bodyguards, sir.” “Hah. Kill me, and all you’re doing is giving my son a reason to go after you. Ultimately, neither of us gains anything,” he says, as if he wasn’t the one who’d suggested murder first. She ignores that fact. “Who said anything about killing, sir? All your men are still alive.” “Forgive me for being presumptuous. You just seem rather…” Shirakawa frowns, as if casting around for the right word to use, “practiced.” That gets under her nerves for some reason. “I kill monsters, not men,” she snaps, and he laughs again. “I think you’ll find the difference between the two to be a very fine line, girl.” “In that case, Mr. Shirakawa,” she replies, “I highly recommend not crossing it.” Panic floods her mind as the last few words flow out of her mouth. Oh god, what have I done? This is Raidou Shirakawa we’re talking about here, and I tranquilized his guards and threatened him in his own home. But he doesn’t look angry – in fact, he seems even more amused than before. “You didn’t let me finish earlier, Imahara-san. I told you how much your request would cost, but I didn’t say who would be paying for it.” “So that means…” “Yes,” he says. “Consider this an investment.” She gets up and shakes his hand. “Thank you, sir.” ~~ [TWO DAYS AGO] At precisely seven in the morning, someone rings her doorbell. She yawns, stuffing the last bit of sandwich into her mouth, then engages her Reaper’s Sight just in time to catch a man in a FedEx uniform strolling back toward the stairs. Did I see him at the mansion? She thinks, trying in vain to remember. One of the men in servant outfits, maybe… I suppose it doesn’t matter. What’s more important is the large cardboard box sitting outside her apartment door. She pads soundlessly over to the entrance and unlocks it, checking up and down the corridor. After ensuring the coast is clear, she grabs the package and makes her retreat. It rattles a little when she gives it an experimental shake, and she freezes. That was a very bad idea. A few uneventful seconds pass, and she lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. Well, I’m still alive. Time to check the contents. The first thing she sees when she opens the box is her list, a red tick next to each of the items except number fourteen. A row of neat handwriting at the bottom reads We regret to inform you that item fourteen is unavailable as of now, but hope that everything else satisfies your expectations, and she chuckles a little. No surprise there. The rest of the contents are categorized and sorted into smaller boxes: Weapons, Ammunition, Chemicals… It’s like Christmas morning all over again, she thinks, and starts unpacking. ~~ [PRESENT DAY] She’s halfway through dinner, mind split between Number Two (trying to find the Arrivals Zone at the airport) and Number Three (tackling a math assignment which she’d somehow overlooked for the entire summer), when Geminus lets out a pulse of relief mingled with excitement. “Done analyzing already, are you?” She takes another bite out of her sandwich and gives her Reaper a congratulatory pat. It cycles through a dozen different forms in the blink of an eye, humming proudly. “Oh. I haven’t seen that one before,” she says, trying to divide 29 by 12 and failing. “Great work.” As Number Three wanders off in search of a calculator, a family of tourists approaches Number Two. The patriarch asks for directions to Terminal Three in broken Japanese and she frowns, trying to concentrate on both at once while finishing her sandwich. The Caucasian man asks, “Are you certain you are not knowing the locale of Building Three?” and Number Two shakes its head. Momentarily distracted, Number Three bumps its shin on the bedframe and she winces in pain. Dammit! As if on cue, Raiha and Father Nakata emerge from the door, dragging their luggage behind them. Number Two mumbles something in English about an information counter, beating a hasty retreat from the tourists and heading toward her comrade and ostensible boss. “Ah, there you are!” Raiha spots her first. “It’s good to see you again.” He’s trying to be upbeat, but his usual good cheer is noticeably subdued today. “Likewise, Shirakawa-san.” She gives Father Nakata a questioning glance. He nods, so she continues, “is Sir Elaine all right?” His face darkens almost imperceptibly. “She’s in critical condition, but I believe she’ll pull through.” “I’m sure she will,” she says, giving her best attempt at an encouraging smile. “Sorry to interrupt,” Father Nakata says. “But as I was telling Raiha here, you’ll be having company soon. The good kind,” he adds hastily. “Three hunters – two veterans and a promising youngster. They’ll be assisting your efforts in safeguarding the area.” “That’s excellent news, Father,” she replies, as they begin making their way out of the airport. “More than likely we’ll be the assistants, though.” “Don’t sell yourself short, Imahara-san,” Raiha says with a grin. “More importantly, don’t sell me short!” He chuckles at his own joke, and she can’t help but smile again. “I learned a lot in Britain. The next time we tangle with one of those ugly bastards, he’s gonna be in for a surprise.” “That’s great,” she says, trying in vain to think of something to say. “Oh, speaking of surprises, I picked up a little something for you in Ireland.” Raiha taps his luggage, giving her a conspirational wink. Oh, shit. I completely forgot. “You… probably shouldn’t have,” she says, and he seems a little surprised. “C’mon, weren’t you the one moaning about your lack of–” he stops and looks around, making sure nobody’s listening in on their conversation, “–specialized ammunition?” Another pause. "That sounded kinda wrong, didn't it?" "No, not at all," Father Nakata says. “Um, about that, I didn't think you'd be able to get your hands on the stuff, so I...” She trails off as he puts two and two together. “No. No way. Please tell me you didn’t–” He looks at her, almost pleadingly, and she gives him an apologetic nod. “Lord grant me strength.”