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Sir Vey Lance

Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

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[Long time no see, everyone. Sir Vey Lance here. After a long period of inactivity on both Mitsuba threads, the four of us consisting of wstfgl, shipspassinthenight, myself and Trioctium have decided to revive our brain child with everyone being in one club this time. Due to a large number of key NPCs and PCs being absent/changed/replaced/reskinned, we have decided the best way to do so would regrettably have to be a full retcon. Here's hoping we can last for a bit longer this time]

On the outskirts of Eaglesham, a sleepy old town in the middle of nowhere, was an ancient church dating back to the Victorian era that had seen better days. Pedestrians walking the only road leading into the village from afar could discern with naked eyes the blasted out sections of the church, scars left behind by the aerial bombers after World War II. Vines crept up along the crevasses and forced their way into the gaps, further tearing the shambling structure apart, yet not a single animal chose to make the place its home.

 

Now and again, a large storm would sweep through the region, and people would open their door the next day expecting the church to be demolished by the gale. And against all odds, the structure remained standing.

 

Gossip amongst villagers had it that a frightening ghoul moved between its crumbling hallways and hid behind the pillars, waiting for any man or woman foolish enough to lay foot inside. Being a grotesque creature, he would go green with envy at the sight of the healthy person and proceed to break his limbs, cut his face, and tear away the hair until the person’s appearance was as revolting as the ghoul’s. In reality, this ‘ghoul’ was nothing more than a dehumanization of the homeless vagrants and travelers without money seeking shelter inside. With the recent implementation of the Camden benches, the sidewalk spikes, not to mention the upcoming European Monsoon, it was nothing strange to see these people flocking toward the old church.

 

No, what was disturbing was the fact that ever since one week ago, some of them never made it out.

 

---

 

The green field in the distance was gone. It had been buried under waves of rolling white mist, as if a patch of fair-weather cloud had fallen down to earth.

 

Pulling her mantle closer for warmth, Constable Faith looked up at the old church. The courtyard was enclosed by a tall iron fence, leaving no way to exit or enter aside from the main cobblestone walk out to the field. The vegetation around the steeple seemed hideously warped somehow, some of them even appeared mummified, yet wet with moisture from the gathering mist. Some sort of poisonous substance seeping into the ground and was absorbed by the plants, she thought, but what kind?

 

Though three years of being in law enforcement had sent her patrolling down every dank nook and cranny Eaglesham had to offer, it was an unspoken agreement that the old church was far enough from the main town to be considered out of the local police’s jurisdiction. This was to be her first time entering the infamous landmark. As a precaution, her fingers inched somewhat closer to the pistol holstered at her side. Faith took a step forward, then turned back to look for her partner.

 

“Willis, stop lollygagging and get over here,†she said, beckoning the tall man with auburn hair who looked as pale as if he had just seen a ghost.

 

Beads of cold sweat formed steadily on his quivering forehead as Constable Willis stammered out a response. “D-Do we really have to go in there, Faith?â€

 

“Not this again...Citizens have reported a lot of strange stories about this church. You were there when Mr. Turner came into our office just now, weren’t you? It’s our job to verify the truth behind these rumors.â€

 

“That daft old hobo? Faith, dear, do you even know why the fella is homeless in the first place?â€

 

“Do enlighten me.â€

 

“Because he spent every last penny from his pension on hooch instead of his rent. Trust me you, I got called to see his arse kicked out of a local pub once every fortnight for drinking more than he could possibly pay for. Heck, I’m no lightweight myself and I got tipsy just breathing the same air with him just now.â€

 

Faith sighed and readjusted the cap around her bundled up hair. “Just get to the point, Willis.â€

 

“Alright, sure. My point is, maybe his wife got straight fed up with him and left. He couldn’t cope with the very thought of it, so he invented this fantasy about how, in the dark of night, a ghoul showed up in the church and kidnapped her. There, case closed.â€

 

Silence reigned for a moment.

 

“Willis, are those really the words of a responsible police constable?†she asked in exasperation.

 

He nodded almost sincerely. “My pa always told me to work smarter, not harder.â€

 

“Let’s say your theory is true, then there shouldn’t be any ghoul or ghost or monster lurking within the old church. And thus no harm would befall us for investigating it, yes?â€

 

“W-well, there’s always the off chance that I’m wrong and the place is home to something freaky…My pa also said it’s better to be safe than -†he answered then paused, finally noticing the determined expression on Faith’s face. “Fine, fine, let’s do it your way.â€

 

She smiled and walked ahead to push open the double door. A nasty stench, something like a cross between rotten food and stale air, greeted the pair’s noses as darkness gave way to mountains of dust over box pews, altar, hourglass pulpit, and sounding-board. Ropes of cobweb stretched among the pointed arches of the main hall up in the air, while on the ground various discarded boxes of food could be found lumped together into mounds at the corner. Willis pinched his nose, while Faith squinted at the traces of footsteps and knocked over furniture. Seemed like a mass of people recently rushed out of the church in a panic not too long ago.

 

Sploch….sploch…

 

Something made a continuous dripping noise in the dark. Faith looked around and found herself staring at the source soon after: a small pool of viscous, tar-like black substance on the ground. She gazed up. It seemed to have leaked down to the ground floor following some cracks along the ceiling.

 

“Lots of doors in this place,†commented Willis.

 

“I noticed,†said Faith. “Reckon we should split up: you check all these rooms on the main floor, I will head upstairs and see what I can find. Afterward, we can make a trip to the dock and ask the local hobo community if they could give us some information about this place.â€

 

Willis didn’t seem to like the idea of splitting up, though he stayed quiet, nodded and complied.

 

Faith made her way up the flight of creaking stairs and entered through the single door at the top. It opened up to a decrepit room filled with dust-covered books and rotten wooden furniture. Up here, light barely spilled in through the cloudy windows on opposite sides of the room, courtesy of the mist and the lack of sunlight during a rainy day. Yet, some kind of heat wafted in through cracks in the wall and through the floorboards beneath, setting off a vague alarm somewhere in the back of the constable’s mind.

 

“That idiot Willis, now all his crazy ramblings are starting to make me lose my nerves,†she muttered. Turning on her flashlight for a source of illumination, she searched the area methodically, only to be perplexed by the apparent size of the vestry room she was now standing in. It was grand, yes, though going by the dimensions of the floor below and the stairs placement, she was expecting the second floor to be somewhat bigger.

 

This place was built shortly before the war began, and it wasn’t unheard of for churches to offer shelter to civilians and wounded soldiers. I wonder…she thought idly, knocking the walls around the room and along the corridors lightly with the back of her flashlight. The staccato taps broke away the silence reigning over the second floor, dead and dulled and dispersed. Time and again Faith would crack open a small patch on a wall, thinking that she had found something, only to realize that termites had done a serious number on the material beneath. Feeling somewhat ridiculous, she tapped on another wall, this one made out of rocks, and-

 

Hesitated. It didn’t feel as if she had knocked on something completely dense judging by the hollow noise it produced. Eureka. Faith tucked the small flashlight behind her ear for light, then examined the wall more closely, looking for a loose brick or a leverage of some sort. Only she wasn’t finding it. Up and down, left and right, this end of the hallway to the other, nothing seemed to stand out. Frustrated, she gave the wall a little kick at the end of her search, finding it sliding inward a little.

 

Okay, that was anticlimactic…

 

The room within was small, cramped and reeked of something far worse than the stench of garbage that had been lingering in the atmosphere. The room was coated in equal proportion of mold and a patina of that black, sludgy grime she had discovered downstairs. Faith thought she could discern some articles of clothing laying within the pool of dark fluid, and the moment she stepped into the room, she could feel a wave of dizziness and nausea washing over her mind, as if a dozen voices were ringing simultaneously in her head. Some young, some old, some hoarse, some clear…

 

I WANT TO GO HOME!

 

DEAR, WHERE ARE YOU?

 

IT IS SO COLD. SO COLD. SO COLD. SO COLD

 

She stumbled out of the room, her mind struggling to process the massive amount of sepulchral echoes going through it just now. Somehow, just somehow, she knew on an instinctive level what the black sludge was. It was the missing people, all that remained of them. They were reduced to nothing more than a primordial fluid, having lost every shred of humanity that gave them shapes and thoughts. Her stomach churned, and she could feel the acidic taste of digestive juice overflowing out of her throat. Faith struggled to keep her lunch down and hastily reached for the radio strapped to the side of her coat lapel. It let out a squealing buzz of static and fell silent. She cursed.

 

Bootsteps, crunching just around the corner, somewhere further down the hallway.

 

“Dare da? De te kinasai.†A man’s voice called out in a language unbeknownst to her, hushed and harsh. Judging from the noise, he was dragging behind him something massive, the object scraping against the stone tiles with every step he made. Training took over at this point, and Faith quickly drew the .38 Automatic Colt Pistol, aiming down the iron sight as she did. There were so many questions and confusions going through her head as of this point, but in her mind one thing was clear. Whomever, whatever it is that lurks within the old church as of this moment, it can’t be anything good.

 

“Stop, or I will shoot!†she announced, moments before the person came into view. “Move forward and put your hands where I can see them!â€

 

He stopped, as if gauging the situation, but eventually stepped up next to one of the windows where the overcast was still providing some light and revealed himself. It was a young man, not a day over 20 if he was even that old, and judging from his dark hair and skin complexion, Faith would place him to be either Chinese or Japanese. He was wearing a vicar’s attire dyed red and white, which strangely enough spotted metallic vambraces and greaves like some sort of protection from the medieval age. A silver cross hung loosely around his neck, the object glowing with a faint hue in the dark. What drew the majority of her attention though, was the massive thing he was dragging behind which, while definitely was in the shape of a greatsword, was more akin to a gargantuan slab of steel attached to a hilt. She doubted the youth could so much as lift the thing above his head, let alone swing it.

 

“This place is not safe Miss, you should leave it as soon as possible,†he spoke calmly in clear, if somewhat stilted English.

 

“I will be the judge of that. Who are you and what are you doing here?†pressed Faith.

 

He clicked his tongue, which annoyed her greatly. “My name isn’t anything of import. And I’m here on a mission.â€

 

“A mission,†she repeated dryly.

 

“Yes. A monster had recently taken over this old church as its lair. I have been tasked with its eradication by my Order.â€

 

Faith squinted but didn’t lower her firearm. “A likely story. Alright if you don’t feel like telling me your name, I’m Constable Faith. Regardless of your goal here, we have had records of people being kidnapped and possibly assaulted in the surrounding area. I will need you to follow me and my partner to the precinct. Don’t worry, we are not suspecting you for doing anything unlawful as of yet, but you could have witnessed certain events that would provide us wi-“

 

A bloodcurdling scream coming from somewhere down below interrupted Faith’s speech; shriek of such base, feral intensity that it could only have come from someone being in mortal danger. She spun, recognizing the voice to be that of Willis’, though her gun remained trained on this suspicious individual.

 

“Did you come here with another person, Miss Faith?†the man asked, a flash of genuine worry evident on his face.

 

She didn’t answer his question, which was enough.

 

“Then we have no time,†said the youth. He let go of the blade he was holding on to, but instead of dropping to the ground with a loud thud, the weapon shattered into millions of shimmering particles, which rushed toward the pendant hanging around his neck in a silvery stream. Before she could even process what was happening, let alone react, his arm had already wrapped itself around her waist, and her whole view of the world was disappearing down a spinning tunnel, into a vortex of warped images and those sad, haunting voices filling up the silence saying IT FOUND ITS NEXT MEAL.

 

"Teleportation could be a bit dizzying. Hold on tight."

 

Somewhere between a nanosecond and a day later, Faith opened her eyes and immediately wished she hadn’t. She was standing at the entrance to the church, but right now there was one particular thing that she distinctly remembered not seeing when she set foot into this place. Vast, otherworldly and loathsome, she was looking at a screaming, writhing patchwork of a monster: a hideous, warped agglomeration of countless human faces stitched together into one gigantic head, itself twisting and melding into a grotesque parody of a smile. It was not in possession of any feature that could be labeled eyes within its sockets, but spotted two pools of spiraling darkness brimming with the thick, black sludge she had seen earlier.

 

The monster’s grin became unnervingly broader, showing to the rest of the world its grotesque collection of deformed, rotten teeth, like tombstones erected over a graveyard. It turned to look.

 

“What is this?†she muttered, stunned, moments before a gigantic blade crashed through the ceiling and severed the creature from top to bottom. It reacted violently, and from the creature came a piercing sound – a roar that blended the sound of tearing metal and wounded beasts, a chthonic noise that forced into her ears and tore her nerves.

 

More of that sludge started to ooze away from the creature as its body slowly degenerated into a swarm of cockroaches, spiders, beetles and flies. The bugs scurried away in every direction, leaving behind almost no physical trace of the creature that was once there. Faith thought she could hear voices from the black tar beckoning for her to get closer, that she could see and recognize some of the faces that seemed to bubble up to the surface somehow. She reached out with one of her hands.

 

“Stop.†commanded the youth from before, Willis' body draping across his shoulder like a sack of flour. He came closer to Faith before gingerly laying her partner down on the ground. The constable was still breathing, though he seemed to do so with some degree of difficulty. Broken ribs most likely, she thought.

 

“What the hell was that thing?†she asked again while looking over Willis’ wounds.

 

“A Thrall. Slivers of a Demon summoned into our world through twisted rituals and blackest magic. With its master being…indisposed, the only thing left in the creature’s mind right now is an insatiable desire to consume, which it quenches through the flesh of the poor people who have been seeking shelter within this church.â€

 

“T-then, this black fluid on the ground is…â€

 

“Yes, that is called ectoplasm, all that remains of the Thrall’s victims. Although one have to be somewhat magically gifted to even be able to see such a thing. Please refrain from touching it under any circumstance, Miss. More often than not people who are killed due to supernatural reasons would leave behind psychic echoes. An Altered like you run the risk of being possessed especially.â€

 

His calm, composed demeanor sent a chill down her spine. Given any other day, if someone had approached her with so much nonsense, she would have definitely phoned the local asylum to see if they had any escaped patient. But now that she had seen such a creature with her own eyes, had heard the cries of the dead bemoaning their fates, Faith wondered if she was the one going mental instead.

 

A thousand questions swam to the surface of her thoughts.

 

“Did you kill it?†she asked finally.

 

He shook his head. “No, not yet. Just barely grazed the creature’s core with my last throw. It is wounded and thus is trying to escape and reform itself. I can ensure it will not leave this place, but before that I will need you to take your friend and make your escape from here as fast as you can.â€

 

He then turned back to regard the church, and his voice took on a different quality. It sounded colder, crueler, more vindictive. “And as for you, demonspawn. Run away, hide away, take your last stand. Nothing you do from this point on will make a difference. In the end, it always comes down to the Knights of the Cross to return filth to where they rightfully belong. Tonight, Raiha joins the hunt.â€

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TWO YEARS AGO...

 

The town was burning.

 

It felt as though the whole world had fallen away, leaving only the two combatants as the sole survivors in this hellhole. Blue flames surged from the stump that used to be Yuudai’s right arm, forging themselves into the form of a blade as he stared down the haughty demon before him. The Incubus that had destroyed Fuyukaba.

 

“Do you really think your actions mean anything, _hero_?†The demon asked, placing a sarcastic emphasis on the last word. “You are like a rock trying to stop a tidal wave. All you humans have done, everything you’ve accomplished, has done nothing except postpone the inevitable.â€

 

“Fancy words for someone whose plan is falling to pieces,†Yuudai retorted, his long hair slick with sweat and blood as it draped over his eyes. His cape of Influence was tattered and beaten, but blazed defiantly before the overwhelming presence in front of it.

 

“You really think this Hellmouth is the only important gate in Japan?†The Incubus continued. “Your arrogance never ceases to amaze me. Thousands of millenia of planning have gone into our return, human. Would it surprise you if I told you that we are not the only Incubi ready to re-emerge into the mortal realm?â€

 

Yuudai hesitated, his grip on the hilt of the shattered Shinkatana tightening.

 

The Incubus smiled, showing rows upon rows of glistening fangs. “30 million people in Tokyo to feed upon… I wonder how much despair we can cause by slaughtering all of them like sheep.â€

 

There was a flash of movement, and the world shook under the force of their clash.

 

 

 

MITSUBA ACADEMY: DEMON HUNTERS

 

 

 

There was a veritable gathering of people at the Fuyukaba Train Station. Anyone who was present would probably be surprised at the presence of so many menacing men in suits, standing guard over the area for the sake of the departure of a two young adults and a high school girl. Then again, Fuyukaba was no ordinary town.

 

The citizens of this ‘middle-of-nowhere’ town had seen their fair share of disaster two years ago, when a mysterious fire had consumed most of the houses in the middle of the night. The government had chalked it up to gas leaks and careless flames, but the truth was always far more interesting than that.

 

Hellmouths - portals between the mortal and demon realms - dotted the planet like a bad infection, and there used to be a particularly large one under Fuyukaba. One thing led to another and it resulted in the resurrection of ancient demons that threatened the safety of the world, but through the valiant efforts of local demon hunters, the threat was nullified and the Hellmouth was closed, permanently. But things were never so simple.

 

“You better take care of yourself without me,†Sakura chided, as she straightened the thick jacket that was draped over Yuudai’s shoulders. One of its sleeves hung limply by his side. “I don’t want to see you missing both arms the next time we meet.â€

 

“Nag nag nag,†the brown haired young adult replied. “You can always skip your studies and come with me, you know. It’s not like a university degree’s going to help much when the world’s ending.â€

 

Sakura smacked him on the head. “I’ll have you know that I don’t intend on imitating your delinquent ways. I have a bright future ahead of me, and I’m not gonna squander it fighting eldritch abominations!†Then, in a softer tone, “... But maybe I’ll come visit once in a while. You’ll never survive without me anyway.â€

 

Keiko Mitsuya watched the exchange between the two with vague interest, although her attention was quickly lost to the various Bakufu agents standing guard around the area. It had come as a great surprise that the imaginary realm of demons and magic she had idolized her entire life was in fact a reality, when Yuudai let her in on the secret. Despite spending the last two years training with her Demon Reaper, she couldn’t help but feel rather excited about departing for her first actual mission.

 

“Worried?†A lean, athletic woman asked as she walked up to Keiko and pat her on the head. “You look like you’re going to hyperventilate.â€

 

“O-of course not, Ares-senpai!†Keiko stuttered. “I have been training all my life for this very moment, and I’m ready to take on any of the demons that-â€

 

“It’s Hisako,†the woman interrupted, “and if luck goes your way, you won’t be fighting any demons at all. That’s their job,†she pointed to Yuudai and Reika. “Your weapon is just for self-defense, you got that?â€

 

“Aww, but that’s boring!â€

 

“No buts, young lady. Now get ready, the train’s approaching.â€

 

As the train’s rumbling could be heard approaching from a distance, Hideaki approached Yuudai with a look of concern. “Shinozaki-kun, your abilities may be strong… But I’ve experienced far more than you have, even counting the whole incident two years ago. Trust me when I say you should be careful around Tokyo. The environment will be a lot tougher to fight in, and collateral damage will be a huge difficulty. The Bakufu won’t be able to provide as much support as they do here.â€

 

“I can take care of myself,†Yuudai replied defiantly, but with a knowing smirk. “Thanks for all your help, sensei.â€

 

The Shinkansen came to a halt next to the crowd, and its doors slid open with an inviting hiss. Keiko hopped on, pulling her luggage behind her, and turned around to see Yuudai and Sakura sharing a farewell kiss. “Oh come on, senpai! Get moving already!†She yelled, rolling her eyes. Reika grabbed him by the collar and dragged him on board, and soon, the train began to pick up speed once again.

 

It would take six hours to reach the capital. As Yuudai and Reika started to put their luggage in the overhead compartments, Keiko plopped herself into the window seat and stared at the grasslands that whipped past her just beyond.

 

And so began her great adventure: Mitsuba Academy.

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The Canterbury Cathedral, one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England, had always been the main headquarter to all Seekers and Knights of the Cross operating in Europe. To Raiha, the cathedral looked quite similar to a castle. He could even picture some of the building’s features as medieval ramparts and towers and crenellation, a beacon of hope to those who have lost their faith and an impenetrable bastion against the onslaught darkness.

 

Apparently the Warlocks didn’t get that memo when half a dozen of them got together for a full-scale assault on the place two days ago. All for the sake of destroying a single person residing within. Sir Elaine Astora, a living legend amongst the Knights of the Cross and mentor to one Raiha Shirakawa.

 

The holy pendant hanging heavily around his neck, Raiha got out of the black Sedan rented for him, thanked the driver and headed straight for the medical facility underneath the cathedral. To his surprise, Father Nakata, a greying man of moderate height and slight build, was waiting for him at the entrance. His blue eyes blinked anxiously underneath the wire-rimmed spectacles, and Raiha could see there were heavy bags underneath.

 

“Long night, Raiha?†Nakata asked in English.

 

“Padre please, it’s just you and me here,†he answered tiredly in Japanese. “I have an unconscious warlock in the car trunk and about six Thralls strewn all over my clothes. How is Sir Elaine coming along?â€

 

The old man gestured for Raiha to walk alongside him to the courtyard outside, stopping halfway at a vending machine to buy a hot can of coffee for the young Knight. “Elaine’s in bad shape. Dialysis can only be so effective in purging the Thrall’s poison from her bloodstream as some of the stuff had already soaked into her bones. I heard the doctors managed to arrange for a few donated organs from the central hospital. The rest is in God’s hands now.â€

 

Raiha closed his eyes.

 

“It’s a miracle she held her ground long enough until you arrived,†Nakata continued.

 

“Held her ground? She decimated them! When I got to the door, she already took out five warlocks and a dozen Thralls all on her own. All that was left for me to do was to track down the last one plus cleaning up a few masterless abominations,†Raiha answered, patting the shaken old man gently on the shoulder. “It is not her time to return to the Lord yet, padre. She is too stubborn to die.â€

 

“I sincerely pray so.†Nakata put a hand on Raiha’s arm for a moment, then turned to look away, his shoulders hunched, his head bowed so that the shade from his wide-brimmed hat would obscure most of his facial expression. Raiha looked away as well, only to find himself facing Elaine’s family praying quietly for her in the main hall. Husband, children, grandchildren, they all looked as if they shared her pain laying on the operation table down below; their expressions were the same: neutral, distant, numb.

 

Moments passed and eventually, Raiha broke the silence. “How did you get here so fast?â€

 

“Express ticket. I had a bad feeling when your plane landed and I didn’t see you coming out at Narita. Your friend, Miss Misa, was with me as well. One of the squires in the cathedral got on the phone and informed us of the attack, so I sent her home and booked a flight here soon as I could.â€

 

The Knight shook his head. “Elaine’s training schedule for me went on until the very last day. Got so worn out I overslept the next morning and missed my flight. A blessing in disguise as it turned out, otherwise I wouldn’t have returned to this Cathedral at all.â€

 

“The Lord has a way of guiding his Knights to where their powers would be most needed,†Nakata said. He then reached into his breast pocket and produced a brand new plane ticket before handing it over to Raiha. “I trust that your luggage is still packed? We ought to head for the airport in an hour.â€

 

“Yeah my suitcases are still where I left them, but what’s the rush? We can wait a couple more days to see Elaine’s recovery, yes?â€

 

“Ideally, that would be the case, but have you forgotten?†asked Nakata, his expression ambivalent.

 

“Is there something I should be remembering,†said Raiha, a feeling of unease creeping into his stomach.

 

“Summer vacation is over, my child. You have class in exactly 24 hours from now.â€

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[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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“We are arriving at Tokyo Station. This train service terminates at this station. Thank you for riding with us,†a soothing female voice intoned, and Reika imperceptibly heaved a sigh of relief as the train gently slowed to a halt with a hum. It seemed rather irrational, but despite spending a good part of her life stabbing horrible creatures from dimensions best left unknown until their assorted body parts stopped twitching, she felt uneasy entrusting her safety to a sleek edifice of space-age steel and glass speeding across the countryside at hundreds of kilometers an hour.

 

 

In her defense, normal people couldn’t derail a train with their brain if they got too jumpy. With some reluctance, she closed the box of Pocky she’d been munching on and stood up, tiptoeing and straining to pull her luggage from the overhead compartment she’d stowed it in. “Come on, Keiko,†she murmured, nudging the younger girl, who was still gazing intently at her smartphone. “We’re almost there.†With a grumble of protest, Keiko got up and retrieved her luggage, and a few moments later, the three of them were on the station platform and struggling past the streaming throngs of humanity filling the station at rush hour.

 

 

“You’re looking pretty pale, Reika,†Yuudai said as she nudged her in the shoulder with a grin. Yuudai Shinozaki had fought alongside her for two and a half years by now, and they’d pulled each other out of their fair share of sticky situations. Sure, he was a dense idiot with stupid hair, but more importantly, he was her dense idiot; someone she could trust to be at her side when the chips were down. She envied Sakura a little, to be honest. She found herself a good guy. Must have raised all the right flags.

 

 She shrugged nonchalantly, gesturing at the passing crowds. “Too many people,†she muttered. “Imagine if trouble broke out here. Also…†she trailed off, her brown eyes flicking downwards to look at a particularly interesting patch of ground.

 

Yuudai broke the silence. “Bad memories, huh?†he said with a disarming smile.

 

“Pretty much. At least I don’t get the nightmares since it died, though,†she said with a wan smile. Just the mention of that sent a chill creeping unbidden up her spine. She couldn’t forget that fateful rainy night when she’d put that vile thing down – even as its body slowly melted away, it had cursed her until the very end, spitting a cryptic message at her with its final breath.

 

My pawns are out there.

When heroes’ blood stains their hands,

I will be reborn.

 

Unbidden, a throbbing ache pulsed through her midsection, and her fingers traced the outline of the jagged scar on her stomach, an unwelcome souvenir of her brush with the Incubi. If only you were still here, Kawa-chan.

 

“Reika-chan, are you hungry?†Keiko piped up as she noticed Reika’s instinctive reaction. “You know, I heard there’s a great ramen place not too far from here.â€

 

“Of course she is,†Yuudai scoffed dismissively. “She always is. Look in her bag; a thousand yen says it’s filled with nothing but Pocky.â€

 

“Wrong as always, idiot,†Reika snorted. “There’s also Kit Kats in there. Now pay up.â€

 

Immediately, she found a rumpled bill thrust in her face. “A small price to pay for proving my point. Glutton.â€

 

Yuudai got a punch in his good shoulder in response. “Empty-headed cripple man-slut.â€

 

“Big words coming from a nutcase with an emotional range as two-dimensional as her chest,†Yuudai shot back, grinning bemusedly.

 

“Uh… Um, you smell bad and y-you should feel bad.â€

 

“Yuudai-senpai and Reika-chan sure get along well, don’t they?†Keiko mused happily as they walked off in search of dinner.

 

…

 

“I’m home,†the tall, blond girl grumbled as she pushed open the door, letting the stack of groceries fall to the floor with a limp thump.

There was no response from the unshaven, gaunt man sprawled on the decaying tatami mat save for a barely perceptible fart. On the table in front of him was an overturned can of cheap beer, and the tinny sounds of a drama re-run permeated the living room. The room was a cramped, ill-furnished thing – a more charitable person might describe it as ‘Spartan’, but that would have implied a degree of discipline the current occupant seemed to sorely lack.

 

“Hey, get up, Dad,†Erin Akizuki called out, raising her voice a little. “I managed to get half price bento today.â€

 

“Wrffgl,†the man mumbled as he stirred. He reeked of cheap beer and day-old sweat, and Erin grimaced as the smell wafted into her nostrils. “Did you buy more beer, kid?†he slurred, his gaze sweeping across the room and with some effort, finally coming to rest in his daughter’s general direction.

 

“Dammit, Dad,†she sighed. Sometimes, she was secretly relieved that she was adopted – at least from a certain point of view, she could claim they weren’t related. By his own admission, Kojiro Akizuki was, to quote, “the 31st generation head of the undefeated Akizuki family, a Grade A Prime badass of badasses with over three hundred confirmed kills†who knew “seven hundred ways to kill a bare man with bear handsâ€, a fact that did him little good when it came to paying the utility bills each month. Somehow, they scraped by from meager donations from the family’s ancestral shrine (to his credit, he swept it. A couple of times a month. After being reminded thrice.) and what he claimed was a “disability settlementâ€. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. “No, I don’t. Come on Dad, you’re better than this.â€

 

“I HAVE NO DAUGHTER.â€

 

“Godforsaken sonofabitch motherfu- I mean, yes, Dad,†Erin muttered, picking up the bento boxes and placing them on the table. “Just eat up before it gets cold… I mean colder, okay?â€

 

“GOOD GIRL.†Kojiro yelled out as she turned to leave, and as soon as the door had closed, fell supine and began to snore.

 

Neither of them were going to eat dinner that night.

 

…

 

“Mitsuba Station,†a tinny voice announced over the speakers, and the trio of demon hunters, now invigorated by a helping of the best noodles Tokyo had to offer (or in Reika’s case, several extra-large helpings), stepped out onto the platform, dragging their luggage behind them. It was a wet night, with the pitter-patter of the incessant drizzle outside somehow drowning out the staccato rhythm of pedestrians’ footsteps, the Doppler-distorted whine of cars speeding past on the nearby freeway, even the low rumble of the now-departing train-

“Hold it,†Reika muttered darkly. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.â€

 

“We aren’t in-†Keiko pointed out, but Reika raised a finger to shush her, then gestured at their surroundings.

 

Though the station had been brightly lit by the glare of fluorescent lamps, they found themselves in a world leached of color and tinted an eerie green. Where there were once dozens of cram school students and salarymen hurrying along on their business, there were just flitting shadows soundlessly moving through motionless gantries. Her fears were confirmed as she followed Keiko’s frightened gaze upwards – the once-dark sky had turned a shade of dull red like a dying ember, the full moon now an enormous, looming presence like a balefully glaring eye. She glanced sideways at Yuudai – she could already see the tell-tale flicker of bluish light shining from the empty sleeve of his jacket, and she closed her eyes, willing the power bound within her to emerge-

 

Then, the world turned white as a dozen high-explosive shells went off all around her.

 

…

 

A tremor abruptly shook the ground, catching Erin by surprise and sending her toppling to the ground, the bagful of beer cans she was holding clattering to the ground and rolling off towards the curb. Bewildered, she glanced around – but there was seemingly no one in sight. Weird. Was that an earthquake?

 

 

Hold on… is it just me, or does this place smell of gunpowder?

 

Then, despite the talon of cold, unyielding steel that had clamped around her and was now lifting her bodily off the pavement, all Erin managed to think about was losing her beer.

 

…

 

There was a whoosh as the curtain of blue flames subsided, revealing Yuudai, Reika and Keiko in the middle, shaken but mostly unhurt. Reika opened her eyes, which were now a shade of brilliant, almost luminescent blue, and in her left hand appeared a high-caliber pistol, a series of geometric carvings on the slide and receiver gleaming with a faint blue light from within. Immediately, she felt her consciousness expand, her head starting to pound as a flood of strange sensations overlaid her senses. Large altered territory, five hundred meters radius. Two conspicuous presences, probably Demonic – one at nine hundred meters, stationary at nine o’ clock, the other at three hundred meters, straight ahead and approaching. Incoming salvo of twelve magical projectiles, probably explosive-

 

Yuudai raised another barrier of flames to shield himself and Keiko as Reika took to the air, a surge of electromagnetic force yanking on the steel rebar within the walls of the nearby high-rises and launching her upwards. A second later, the shells landed with a thunderous boom, jarring her to the bone even from thirty meters away and engulfing Yuudai’s position in pillars of smoke and fire. If I don’t take out the big guns fast, the two of them are toast. Good luck, you two.

 

With a loud thump, she landed on a bare concrete rooftop and began to sprint.

…

Three new presences had appeared within a nearby building, still concealed from Reika’s vision but burned into her mind’s eye as a cluster of ugly bright red splotches, a brilliant, flickering hue of yellow indicating the monsters’ cores, the heart of their being. Thralls, low energy state. Expendable fodder. Her pistol barked thrice, and the reddish silhouettes vanished. Three direct hits. Two hundred meters and closing.

Twelve more cannon shots on a high trajectory in my direction. She raised her pistol upwards, feeling her arm ache as she fired a spread of snap shots. She leaped off the building, launching herself forwards with another burst of magnetic force as the one shell she’d missed demolished the structure behind her, showering her jacket with dust and broken glass. One hundred and fifty. Target two has engaged Yuudai and Keiko.

 

As Reika landed, she heard a bizarre clicking noise and felt a blast of hot breath wash over her back as space ripped itself open behind her, another reddish splotch resolving itself in her mind’s eye. She pointed her gun behind her and fired, and felt something wet splash across her back as the presence vanished. One hundred and twenty five.

 

She pulled upon the street lights ahead of her, sending her careening forwards just in time to avoid a fourth salvo. Eighty. Four more presences appeared under a nearby building, and with a whine, her pistol discharged, putting a round straight into the head of the unseen Thrall. With a thought, the heavy bullet shattered into supersonic shrapnel within its first victim’s core, spraying the other three with a lethal hail of fragments. Fifty. She launched herself skywards again, rounding a corner as another salvo from her unseen assailant zipped barely past her like huge, angry hornets. Thirty-five. She vaulted a building, a bead of sweat sliding down her face as she angled a magnetic field to send a spray of bullets a few crucial degrees off course. Then, with another effort of will, her free-fall slowed and she touched down to the ground with a soft thump. Twenty. Clear line of sight to target- Oh, fuck.

 

“A hostage.†Reika breathed, her pistol trembling as she braced it with her other arm.

 

The Warlock, a tall woman with long black hair whose features were obscured by a featureless white mask, had some form of demonic contraption grafted to her back – a monstrosity of black steel and knotted, throbbing veins bristling with turreted guns like a battleship of old. On either side, the machinery unfolded into two massive, wickedly-clawed mechanical arms; one of them was grabbing a teenage girl and interspersing her in Reika’s line of fire. The Warlock’s featureless mask turned to regard Reika, and she could almost swear the Warlock was laughing as her cannons swiveled to face her.

 

Reika’s finger curled beneath the finger guard, resting upon the trigger. The gun barrel wobbled unsteadily, sweat beading on her forehead as thoughts churned through her mind. With my powers, I could bend the bullet just so…

 

I’ve got one chance at it. One chance to save that girl. Her breathing steadied, and her finger slowly closed around the trigger.

 

A lone gunshot broke the silence.

 

…

 

Reika hit the ground, her Demon Reaper clattering to the pavement as she clutched at her ruined shoulder, blood oozing from between her fingertips. The Warlock’s mechanical claw whirred and released its grip, letting Erin’s body, now marred by a gaping exit wound in her chest, collapse limply to the pavement. She lowered the pistol she’d been holding behind her hostage’s back, a thin wisp of smoke still trailing from its barrel, and huffed in disdain. “Bullet tumbled on its way out. Should have nailed her in the head,†the Warlock stated, the mechanical claws retracting back into the bulky rigging as she stalked towards her fallen opponent.

 

…

 

Reika fought the urge to scream, wincing with every agonizing moment as she tried to fight off the pain wracking at her mind. Her fingers blindly clawed at the ground, feeling frantically for the reassuring weight of her Demon Reaper. At last, her fingers closed over cool metal, and hope surged through her.

 

Then, a shadow fell across her, and she knew it was too late.

 

She gazed upwards, her body screaming in protest at the sudden movement, and through the crimson haze clouding her vision, saw the Warlock looming over her, her expressionless mask regarding her impassively as she leveled her pistol at Reika’s forehead. With a low, inhuman monotone, the woman rasped, “The Chooser of the Slain sends Her regards.â€

 

In a final, frenzied effort, Reika raised her own Demon Reaper, her finger squeezing down on the trigger. At this range, she couldn’t miss-

 

Bang.

 

Then, darkness fell.

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Raiha Shirakawa wasn’t what people would label a genius. It wasn’t that he was idiotic as suggested by the perpetual grin on his face; quite the opposite. For starter, his grades consistently placed him in the bragging rights portion on the school’s examination results board. It was just that he much preferred turning off his brain, simply walking into whatever hurdle fate deemed fit to throw at him this time. Things just seemed more exciting that way somehow.

 

With that in mind, even the man himself would concede that there were things in life where people ought to consider and contemplate before they rushed ahead and did it. Not that he ever made a list, but if Raiha did, striking a deal with his manipulative, arrogant, pain-in-the-arse Father would pretty much top every other entry. Second entry would probably be whether the five seconds rule applies to cake and ice cream against very muddy ground.

 

Unfortunately, his friend and demon hunting extraordinaire, Misa Imahara, had not spent more than an hour under the same roof with Raidou, or she too would have arrived at such a list.

 

---

 

Raidou walked through the hall of the great house in the same manner he did the halls of the world—as if he owned them. A trim man of solid stock, he resembled a captain of industry, a scion of blue blood from the old country, a man who had inherited old money—and he was all those things. He had a patrician’s face, fatherly after a fashion; and could have easily been passed off as someone’s eccentric but harmless uncle if not for the steely glint of ambition in his eyes.

 

“You look like hammered shit, son,†the man greeted Raiha, who had just reached the house’s front entrance. “Finally ran into a monster you couldn’t chop to death with that oversized blade?â€

 

Raiha beamed at his father despite his inclination to do otherwise. Raidou Shirakawa, Chairman of the Shirakawa Corporation, was one of the Big Three that emerged at the top of the Yakuza underworld after the last internal war shook it to the foundation. Every lucrative pie in Tokyo had Raidou’s handprint on it: human trafficking, smuggling, prostitution, racketeering, you name it, he sells it. He also took over the role of law enforcement, tolerating no excess amongst his employees and discouraging any freelancing bank robbers, drug dealers, gangbangers from lingering inside the city perimeters. These unsavory individuals more often than not disappear without a trace, as corpses stuffed into barrels filled with concrete and dumped into the ocean are wont to do.

 

The cops would never outright admit it, but they preferred Raidou over the alternative, which was anarchy in the Tokyo criminal scene. Ideally, there would be neither, but the man operated behind a battery of lawyers, which kept him protected from the law behind a barricade of legal loop holes and red tapes and incriminating blackmail material. It did help that Raidou regularly contributed to the police pension fund. And thus when faced with the dilemma between two evils, they chose the subjectively lesser one.  

 

“In my line of work, you win or you die. You on other hand don’t look half-bad for an immoral little old man, pop. Miss me?â€

 

“With every bullet so far, yeah,†he said, the soft vowels of his Kyoto accent pushing through.

 

“What, no love, no hug, no kiss on the cheek for your favorite paranormal caretaker?†He maintained the grin on his face. Smiling always seemed to annoy his dad more than actually insulting him. Or maybe that was because Raiha had an annoying smile.

 

True to his expectation, Raidou seemed somewhat put off by his son’s attitude. He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket for a cigar and flicked his lighter. “Favorite, yes, on account of there being only one, up until now.â€

 

That made Raiha wary. “Leave Misa out of the family business, pop. I warned her not to approach you for help under any circumstance, but it would seem that in she deemed your assistance more reliable than mine.â€

 

Raidou nodded along with his son’s sentences, as if encouraging Raiha to go on. He made a mocking expression of being in pain when the latter caught on and promptly shut up. “Your friend came to me for help and I couldn’t turn her down. You know me, bleeding heart and all. I didn’t even charge her for services rendered.â€

 

“In exchange for a favor, to be named at a later date?â€

 

“Such is the way of the world.â€

 

Raiha looked away from his dad and squinted his eyes, as though pondering something. “How much? I will pay for her.â€

 

“Wasn’t aware the Church paid their Knights so handsomely.†Raidou smirked and gave him a number.

 

Raiha’s jaw landed somewhere in Antarctica. “That’s preposterous! Pretty sure she didn’t ask for a diamond the size of the moon as component for her custom ammunition.â€

 

“Well, some of them were rather hard to come across domestically. Extra cost had to go toward locating a reliable seller oversea, convincing the eagle-eyed custom officers at the airport and of course, insuring the package wouldn’t be robbed by the local undesirable.â€

 

“Far as I can tell, we are the local undesirable.†Raiha snorted.

 

“Exactly,†nodded Raidou. “Since I couldn’t rob my own, someone else has to be robbed, capisce?†He patted his son gingerly on the shoulder, gesturing for the butler to help move Raiha’s luggage into the mansion. “I know you have some reservations about my way of putting food on our table, but no worry there son, I wouldn’t put your friend in any scenario that could cause friction amongst us. It’s simply my way of finding insurance against the supernatural community when you are off doing charity works a few thousand kilometers away like this time. Although it does help that unlike you, your pretty friend doesn’t seem to have a stick up her arse.â€

 

Raiha muttered something. “She used to, but something happened and now she’s clubbing things to death with that stick instead. I would hate to scrape either you or her off the pavement in case something goes wrong between you both, and would be furious with the other in such a scenario.â€

 

Raidou almost smiled at that statement.

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The signs of a demon barrier were often immediately visible to the well-trained. Most noticeably, the sky would take on this bloodcurdling shade of crimson that never failed to send shivers down Keiko's spine. Some things just weren't meant to look like blood, you know? The sounds of the usual hustle and bustle of Tokyo, the city that never slept, became more of a muffled backdrop against the oppressive silence that now permeated the area. Keiko reached out into thin air, summoning her Demon Reaper Blumenkranz like she had done a hundred times before, drawing the black spear as she held it protectively against herself-

 

White light exploded all around her, sending her sprawling to the ground.

 

Her senses were completely shut down by the sudden overload, causing her to feel about blindly on the ground, searching for her weapon. Her ears rang for a good minute or two, and she had a sudden overwhelming sense of powerless and fear. Were all battles this disorienting? Am I going to die here? Keiko's palm touched something metal, and Blumenkranz's reassuring shape rolled into her grip as she tried to push herself into a standing position.

 

"... Answer me! Keiko! Are you alright?"

 

As her vision returned, she saw Yuudai standing protectively over her, blue flames blazing out of the stump of his right hand as it formed into a giant claw. Another layer of blue mist surrounded the both of them like a dome, and Keiko could feel her body becoming surprisingly light. Yuudai was using Gigant Multia, she realized - which allowed him to increase the physical strength of anyone within his Influence sphere. But using it now was too risky, it consumed too much power!

 

A man wearing a skintight suit, a mask and a pair of goggles strode into view. He was holding a pistol connected to a long metal chain, and Keiko was pretty sure she spotted a blade along the length of its barrel. "One times Yuudai Shinozaki, and one times Keiko Mitsuya. Looks like the intel was right," the Warlock spoke in a nasally voice. "My name is Cocytus, and I will be your death today."

 

"Look, Mr Cock, travelling for 6 hours in a train ain't fun," Yuudai replied with a sigh. "I'm not in the best of moods. So I'll give you 5 seconds to run away before I make my move. 5... 4..."

 

"Hahaha! You've fallen into my trap, and yet you still keep up such appearances-"

 

"3... 2..."

 

"Hey! You're in my trap! Haven't you noticed?!"

 

"1..."

 

"Argh, whatever!" The gunslinging Warlock took a step forwards, swinging his kusarigama at Yuudai. Keiko heard her senpai mutter 'Valia', suddenly moving at an impossibly fast speed as he darted across Cocytus, reappearing on the other side with his Influence-arm forming a blade. Cocytus managed to mutter an "Ara?" before falling into four neatly-sliced pieces that collapsed on the ground.

 

The flames on his arm went out as Yuudai turned to walk back to Keiko, who was still gripping tightly onto her spear. "You alright?"

 

Blood sprayed across the floor as a blade penetrated through Yuudai's knee, forcing him to the ground. Behind him, the fallen pieces of Cocytus began to levitate into the air, as his head began to laugh maniacally. "You fool! The great Cocytus cannot be defeated so easily! Your overconfidence shall be your downfall!"

 

"Dammit, not another Karasu clone," Yuudai muttered under his breath. Pain threatened to flood his mind into unconsciousness, but he pushed himself off the ground as he sent his Influence flooding around Cocytus, yelling "Exort Grande!" The entire area in front of him exploded into flames, and the screams of the Warlock could be heard reverberating through the air. Keiko continued to stand rooted onto the ground like an idiot, before she felt herself being lifted bodily by Yuudai as he darted off into the distance.

 

"We have to find Reika," he told Keiko, who was being unceremoniously carried over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. "We can't get split up now, there's no little info on these guys- argh!" Yuudai collapsed in pain as he accidentally landed on his injured foot, sending Keiko sprawling to the ground for the second time in the last hour. The angry howls of Cocytus could be heard rapidly approaching from the distance, interrupted by a series of separated gunshots in the opposite direction.

 

Yuudai stood up, glancing into the distance. "Berserker, can you hold him off for one minute?" He asked Keiko. "I'll go help Reika overwhelm her foe, and then the two of us will be right back to help you. Are you able to take care of yourself?"

 

"O-Of course! You can count on me, senpai," Keiko replied with less courage in her voice than she wished.

 

"Good. Just stay on the defensive. I'll be right back," he muttered. "Valia Magnifique!" Yuudai vanished, leaving behind no trace of him except the rushing wind that followed his wake.

 

...............................................................................................................................

 

"Here, little kitty kitty kitty," Cocytus muttered, his severed body parts slowly levitating across the ground. All of them sported terrible burns where the skin suit had melted away, and his face was curled up into a snarl now. "You can hide but you can't run forever..."

 

Hidden behind one of the buildings, Keiko tried to control her breathing as she swapped Blumenkranz to rifle mode Byakko. She pointed its scope down at Cocytus, aiming directly at his floating head. Her hands stopped shivering as she held her breath, took aim, and fired. It was a clean shot, a powerful blast that ripped a hole right through Cocytus's forehead, emerging from the other side before lodging itself into the ground in a small crater.

 

"There you are," he said, licking his lips, swivelling around to stare right at Keiko as though the gaping hole in his brain was merely a scratch.

 

A shiver ran up her spine.

 

The rifle warped into the blade Seiryuu as Keiko barely hopped out of the way in time, with Cocytus's gun kusarigama slicing through the space where she was last at a moment ago. Keiko began to run, run as fast as she could while Seiryuu's magic propelled her, giving her increased speed and reflexes. Behind her, Cocytus continued to swing his kusarigama with reckless abandon, slicing through concrete and metal alike as his murderous giggles filled the air, rapidly approaching her from behind.

 

Senpai... your minute is up! You better come back fast, or I'll kill you!

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The first thing that Erin Akizuki felt was pain.

 

 

She’d felt her fair share of pain in her life, most of them associated with particularly traumatic trips to the dentist, but this was something else. It was a white-hot, searing agony, nearly indescribable in its magnitude, almost as if someone had branded her across her entire torso with red-hot irons. She tried to scream, to move her arms, to do anything to take her mind off the pain, but nothing came out – she was trapped, a prisoner within a shattered body.

 

In an unusual moment of lucidity, she realized this probably had something to do with the fact that someone had just blown her chest into smithereens with a ridiculously huge bullet and left her for dead.

 

 

Rise, a voice whispered – a soothing, motherly voice, though it seemed to reverberate with power.

 

Then, Erin felt a strange spreading through her body, banishing the searing pain as if it were nothing more than a bad memory. Life gradually returned, first to her chest, then to her arms, then her legs, and her chest heaved as she took a deep, grateful breath through newly-regenerated lungs. For someone who’d been clinically dead half a minute before, she felt more alive than ever.

 

 

Rise. The voice repeated itself again, a tinge of urgency – of fury concealed – in its tone.

 

 

Slowly, tentatively, she clambered to her feet, her heart pounding rapidly in her chest like the rhythm of a war drum. Vision returned as she opened her eyes, seeing the world through irises tinted crimson.

 

RISE.

 

A surge of power pulsed through Erin’s arm like an electric current as golden light blazed from her palm, coalescing into a silvery glaive eight feet long, the edges of its chisel-pointed blade shimmering as though they were a mirage.

 

She gazed upon the demonic realm around her – the blood-red sky, the swollen, bloated, crimson-tinged disc of the moon high above and the hulking silhouette of that monster in human guise, oppressive malevolence emanating from her like a halo, her steel talons gouging gashes in the ground as she struck again and again at the beleaguered warrior locked in combat with her. She looked down, seeing the supine, face-down body of the young woman who’d tried and failed to rescue her, blood pooling around her head. She saw the spark of life still flickering within the fallen warrior, faint and slowly fading, but defiantly clinging on regardless.

 

Then, her gaze fell upon the blade clenched in her trembling hand, and the quaking ceased as she realized what she had to do – or rather what she’d been brought back to do.

 

KILL.

 

…

 

Yuudai backpedaled, the sweeping swipe that should have taken his head clean off merely nicking him in the chin instead. He swore, wiping the blood off with his one good arm as he lashed outwards with a glowing fist of Influence, only for the blade that erupted from the phantom arm to glance off the glimmering barrier of nested octagons protecting his enemy. Damn it, damn it, damn it. Hang on, Reika. I’m almost there… just have to get past this-

 

Alarm shot through his mind as a series of images superimposed itself upon his vision – the enemy Warlock’s hideous metal talons lashing out in a dual-pronged attack, slicing him into two. “Valia,†he hoarsely grunted, and time slowed to a crawl as he ducked under the deadly strike with inches to spare and sidestepped the follow-up swing – only to bring him into the range of the hand cannon in the Warlock’s own hands, the prediction appearing in his mind’s eye just a moment too late. A thunderous concussion split the air, and he felt a searing phantom pain within his false arm. The barrier he’d hastily thrown up had stopped the bullet – if only barely – but its blue flames of his Influence were flickering and unsteady. Already, he could feel a wave of light-headedness washing over him as his injured knee continued to throb – for now, he had the enemy at a standstill, but how much longer could he last?

 

“Exort Grande,†he spat as he cast his phantom arm outwards, sending a spiraling lance of blue fire shooting at the Warlock. It plowed through her shield, but the Warlock raised that hideous pair of mechanical arms, and the blast of fire washed over them like water off a duck’s back. Then, several sets of plating along the arms slid apart with a click, and a chaotic tangle of nearly a hundred spiraling red lines filled the air around Yuudai as his Reaper’s Eye plotted the trajectory of an imminent missile barrage. They saturated the area all around him in every direction – there was nowhere he could move to without taking a missile in the back. He swore under his breath and clenched his fist, summoning the strongest barrier he could, and prepared for the worst-

 

“YEEEEEEART!â€

 

The expected missile barrage never came – Yuudai lowered the arm shielding his face, and saw his enemy had gone still, her masked face inclined downwards to gaze at the shimmering blade that had pierced straight through her barrier, through her back and a whole foot out of her chest. He raised an eyebrow in surprise as he noticed the girl who’d made the surprise attack – a girl who had very certainly been as dead as a washed-out teen idol’s career just moments before, just another casualty of the invisible war he fought. Even the Reaper’s Eye hadn’t seen that one coming. A magic-countering effect, perhaps? He mused silently.

 

Then, he froze for a moment in alarm – his Reaper’s Eye might not have spotted the girl, but it was now informing him with painful clarity that the Warlock’s body would explode in exactly three seconds. Immediately, he dived over to Reika’s body and gritted his teeth, his barrier flaring up just half a second before a wave of heat and force slammed into it like a tidal wave.

 

Yuudai let the barrier drop, his vision unsteady and his ears still ringing from the detonation. The air was clogged with a swirling cloud of dust; there was no sign of the Warlock or the girl who’d struck her down anywhere. Then, his mind’s eye flickered as he felt a ripple of energy wash through the demonic realm they were in. It was a sensation he was familiar with – the aftershock of a Demon in the nether realms withdrawing its tendrils from the world. That Warlock who just took Reika down and nearly got me… was a Thrall all along? I haven’t seen a Thrall of this power since that unpleasantness two years ago.

 

In the distance, he heard Keiko’s voice ring out. Immediately, he picked up Reika’s body – she felt light, almost like a rag doll – and draped her over his shoulder, and hurried off in the direction of Keiko’s voice. He probably owed the new girl a word of thanks, but there wasn’t time for that right now. He had a medical emergency and one more Warlock on the loose to deal with. I’ll just have to make it up to her later, if I see her again.

 

He spotted Keiko a moment later – that Warlock, Cocytus or whatever he was called, had cornered her, and she was desperately parrying and dodging the flurry of strikes he was raining down upon her. Luckily for him, Cocytus seemed single-minded to a fault, and didn’t seem to notice him coming. He willed power into his phantom arm, his Influence spreading out from its clenched fist and changing color, growing into a hazy, grey bow of flickering light. He drew the bowstring back with his good hand, an arrow materializing as he pulled, and with a whispered command of “Noctum,†let the arrow loose. It nailed the Warlock in the back of the head, and he seized up and convulsed for a moment, giving Keiko the opening she needed to disengage and hurry over to his side.

 

“We’ve got to get out of here,†he told her tersely, and the three battered Demon hunters slipped away.

 

…

 

Erin groaned, pulling herself upright and rubbing her head. What the hell just happened?

 

Her head was throbbing furiously, and trying to recall what had happened felt like a titanic effort of will. She remembered going out and getting beer for the old fart. Then, there’d been an earthquake or something, and she’d been grabbed by something-

 

 

She groaned as bile surged up through her throat and she fought back the urge to throw up – a sharp pain had hammered through her head like a spike. Then, as she fell back to her knees, desperately trying not to retch, she saw a silvery glaive resting on the concrete beside her – and everything came back to her in an instant.

 

I… I know how to use that blade. I killed someone with it – no. No. That wasn’t a person. People don’t bloat up and explode like… whatever that was. I killed a monster. Some kind of thing that shouldn’t exist. Somehow, it felt perfectly natural… as if I was born to do it.

 

Gingerly, she reached out and wrapped her fingers around the weapon’s haft, carefully lifting it as though it was made of glass. She gazed around her – the sky had turned back to normal, and she was atop the roof of a five-floored building just opposite the train station. She wasn’t sure how she’d gotten on the roof – that monster’s death throes must have flung her up there. Then, she noticed the state of her clothes, and shrank a little in embarrassment – they were now a ragged, shredded mess barely hanging onto her body; and yet, her skin beneath somehow remained smooth and unbroken. She ran her hand along her chest – apart from the hole in her T-shirt, there wasn’t a single trace that she’d had most of her chest cavity reduced to the consistency of chunky salsa just minutes before.

 

What have I become?

 

 

Before she could adequately ruminate on what had just happened, a surge of panic filled her mind as she felt another presence emerge just a short distance away. She glanced down, and a chill ran through her. Without a doubt, the presence she sensed, so similar to the one she felt from the thing she’d killed, was coming from that young man down on the street below glaring at the Ferrari parked by the roadside. The enemy, she thought, her heart starting to pound frantically.

 

She glanced around in search of the stairs down. She had to get out of there, before he saw her.

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“Can’t you leave the cloak at home for once?†asked Misa as her bike bounced over a dip in the street.

 

“This cloak is my uniform. It’s no more ridiculous than your cat burglar getup,†answered Raiha.

 

The Ferrari’s tires screeched in protest as Raiha rounded a corner, ignoring the sign saying NO LEFT TURN displaying prominently at the side. The car then blasted through the open road like a bullet fired from a gun, cranking up the left lane of Tohoku Expressway and ravenously devouring the ground at one hundred and twenty kilometers per hour. Brilliant white light burned from the Y-shaped angular headlamps running deep into the fenders as the onboard digital assistant incessantly reminded him that he was thirty kilometers an hour above the speed limit. Raiha simply turned off the system. As a rule, when he drove, he obeyed traffic signs and lights even on an empty street. As a rule, when he drove, he was the very model of a law-abiding, safe driver.

 

Tonight was an exception to that rule.

 

His car blitzed through the night, followed closely by Misa’s decked out motorbike. She was in a jet black biker suit with a face-concealing helmet. Raiha, on the other hand, wore a templar mask and a black cloak with a red cross embroiled across the back which he had hastily tossed over his shoulders before leaving the house. Saint Theresa’s holy pendant hung loosely around his neck, still steaming with vapor from the bath he had been enjoying just minutes ago. To say that the cloak didn’t mesh well with the white shirt, blue pants and bathroom slippers he wore underneath was a massive understatement. 

 

“Are we certain it’s an ambush?†she reconfirmed.

 

“Three Hunters were supposed to arrive tonight by train. All of a sudden we now have a legion of demonspawn gathering at the only train station around here.  I highly doubt they are there to say hi.â€

 

“Fair point. Shirakawa-san, if I recall correctly you told me that you recently learned to use your artifact’s powers to sense magic,†Misa said over the wireless earpiece, her voice drowned out by the buffeting of the wind in the background.

 

“Yeah, more or less,†Raiha answered.

 

“Well, can you tell how big of a welcoming party are we expecting from this distance? How many Thralls, how many Warlocks, their positions relative to the ambushed Hunters, that kind of thing?â€

 

“Oh…uh…well…†Raiha paused. “To be honest, I haven’t quite mastered it. Anything that isn’t related to holy magic registers as a noxious odor to me, so it’s hard for me to tell each of them apart given their combined number. Thralls, Warlocks, Demons, Hunters, you all smell equally bad to me.â€

 

“Wow, you sure know how to make a girl feel special, Shirakawa-san,†said Misa, her voice dripping with either saccharine or napalm.

 

“If it makes you feel better, I think your….hair...smells really nice,†he added lamely.

 

“That’s very sweet of you, but we need to focus here.â€

 

“Except for that time where we fought the necromancer in the sewer and you walked right into a discharging sewage pipe. Man, I have seen three days old roadkill that wished they could smell half as bad,†Raiha went on merrily, courtesy of the complete lack of a filter between his brain and mouth.

 

The temperature within the car seemed to drop a few degrees as Misa quietly turned her head a little toward its driver, her expression completely masked behind the glass panel of her helmet.

 

“Shirakawa-san, I’m thinking of a word which describes my opinion of you right now rather perfectly. It starts with F, care to venture a guess?â€

 

“… … Focused?†Raiha answered, once again showing his impeccable mastery of polite repartee.

 

There was a profound moment of silence, the kind that usually fell moments before a public execution.

 

“Sorry for calling you smelly,†said Raiha apologetically.

 

“Apology accepted. Sorry for implying you were a fucktard,†said Misa.

 

“Wait, what?†Raiha’s head would have whipped to the side if not for the fact that he was driving. “I thought it was finicky or foolish at worst! Okay no, truce is over. This means war!!â€

 

“If you thought it could have meant anything else, Shirakawa-san, clearly you haven’t been listening to yourself,†she said sweetly. “Thanks, by the way. No, thank you so much. For three months now, I’ve been trying my best to hold on to the feeling of having someone else’s shit in my hair. I was this close to forgetting it entirely, and I don’t know how I would’ve kept on living if you hadn’t reminded me of that. What would I ever do without you around?â€

 

Raiha thought about it seriously. “Probably shrivel up and die. But hey, don’t feel obliged to thank me.â€

 

“…One of these days, we’ll sit down somewhere and I’ll teach you about sarcasm,†said Misa.

 

“That sounds great!†said Raiha, and the grin vanished from his face shortly after. “We are close. Stay on your guard.†His head was still ringing from the noxious stench of demonic presence he had detected earlier. He hadn’t been lying to Misa; Warlock or Hunter, good or evil, they all smelt equally repulsive to him. Years of working together had allowed him to tolerate Misa’s somewhat, but it was without a doubt that he’d sniffed out some new people here.

 

One illegal U-turn, three speed limit violations and a close call with a traffic cop later, Mitsuba JR Station loomed into sight, and Raiha got out almost before his car had completely screeched to a halt. Golden motes of light swirled around his hands and coalesced into his gargantuan Blade of Mercy, its grip reassuringly warm with holy energy. Then he bowed his head, crossed himself and murmured, “Merciful Father, grant that our hands be steady, our sight true and our feet swift. And should the hunt come to pass, grant our foes salvation.â€

 

Nearby, Misa had gotten off her bike, Geminus primed in her hands. Through his divine sense, Raiha could hear the thrum of energy around the Reaper, could feel it like the basso vibration of loudspeakers through a wall. Two magical duplicates split away from Misa and headed in different directions to secure the perimeter. Her eyes looked strangely restless, darting from one object to another, never settling on something even for a second. “Can you still feel their presence?†she asked quietly.

 

He nodded and they broke into a run, Knight and Demon Hunter, down the stairs leading to the train platform. The ticketing counter had closed for the night, leaving the late passengers to deal with the automatic machine. Late night train stations in general weren’t exploding with activity, this was doubly true for Mitsuba’s, which was more often referred to as ‘that small town at the outskirt of Tokyo’. That was fine by Raiha. The hardest part of fighting for him was always having to explain to bystanders who couldn’t see the lumbering Thrall right in front of their eyes exactly why they were in danger and had to run away now.

 

They both reached the train platform, steeled themselves, then darted out of the walkway.

 

And froze.

 

The station didn’t look remotely like the battlefield his mind had painted. Raiha had expected red blood dying the pristine white walls, flesh and ectoplasm strewing all over the grounds or at least shattered debris forming mounds beneath blasted out sections of the platform. But there was no such thing, not even a broken shard of glass coming from the neat rows of white neon lights attached to the ceiling. A homeless man slept soundly on one of the waiting benches, his blanket nothing more than a few pieces of cardboard taped together, the sound of his snoring deafened out only by the distant horn signifying the coming of the day’s last train.

 

Misa stepped up behind him.

 

“This is strange,†Raiha whispered. “They were here, right at this place. I could still feel the lingering scars a battle of some sort left on the metaphysical realm.â€

 

“They must have erected a dimensional barrier and fought within it. Even Geminus’ eyes couldn’t pierce such a boundary,†Misa proposed.

 

Raiha’s poured a modicum of his Resplendence out into the air, tasting it. Invisible streamers of energy coalesced into being around him, probing outwards in search of foreign magic. “Be that as it may, can you see any anything suspicious nearby?â€

 

Misa used her See-Through-Wall-o-Vision for a while, then sighed and answered. “I’m afraid not. How about you?â€

 

Raiha flashed Misa a glance. His partner had removed her biker helmet and was now looking at him. She had pale skin the color of the living inner bark of an oak, with hair as dark as a storm cloud forming side-swept bangs that covered one of her eyes. “They fled in opposite directions,†he said, after a second. “One group and one individual. Former was on foot, latter through the air. Either none of them left a trail or someone has been hard at work cleaning up the scene. Unfortunately, that’s all I can tell.â€

 

Misa stood there in contemplation, then quietly reached into her pocket and fished out her phone. Pressing 2 on the speed dial pad, she pressed the phone to her ear and waited, Geminus still poised to go off at a moment’s notice. “Father Nakata? We got a situation here, do you happen to know anything about- oh? Mmhmm…mhmmm…understood, are they alright? Raiha is at full and I have some anesthesia loaded up in Geminus, maybe we can stop by and take a look. No? You sure? Alright, mmmhm…Got it.â€

 

Raiha studied the expression on her face and when she hung up the phone, he asked. “So what’s the situation?â€

 

Misa flipped her phone close. “The Hunters just reached the church, heavily injured. Nakata said he will tend to their wounds. The rookie is the least wounded since they covered for her.†She looked at him with a wry smile. “These guys were the ones who’d banished a Demon at near 100%, if the rumors are true. Have I told you how much I love this line of work, Shirakawa-san?â€

 

“When you fight demonspawn, any fight that doesn’t end in your death is a victory.†Raiha shrugged matter-of-factly, dematerialized his weapon and undid the clasp around his neck, rolling the cloak on his back into a bundle. “It’s late. Let’s just go home.â€

 

Her expression turned serious, and she gave him a look that belied her years. “We aren’t pursuing the culprits?â€

 

“No way. If they could beat the crap out of two old hands, I’m not going to pick a fight with them unprepared,†he said and looked meaningfully at the pair of bathroom slippers he had forgotten to change out of in his rush earlier on. “Know yourself and know your enemy, and you will fight a hundred battles without defeat. You know who said that?â€

 

“Sun Tzu.â€

 

“Don’t be silly, Sun Tzu can’t speak Japanese; obviously it was Oda Nobunaga. So here’s what I think: we get a full night sleep first, then come tomorrow we will meet up with whoever is left, try to gather some useful information regarding our foes’ abilities, then plan our next move together.â€

 

She frowned, but ultimately nodded her head. Just to be sure, Misa walked over to the homeless man and quietly nudged him awake, presumably to ask him if he had witnessed anything noteworthy. From the way she kept tapping her right boot soon afterward, Raiha could tell the man probably had nothing of import to tell, but sure loved the opportunity for chatter. She nodded her head and bid a hasty farewell around five minutes into the conversation, dragging Raiha along as they both left the station.

 

It was a breezy and starry night outside. As Raiha walked and stretched out his arms, he realized how much he had missed the town that he had come to know and grow up in. Here, the moments of peace and quiet, though uncommon, brought to mind a sense of tranquility, not the immense loneliness he had felt while living in England the entire vacation. It was the taste of the air, the quiet whisper of wind brushing the branches of the cherry blossom trees during a midsummer night. 

 

Misa fell into step next to Raiha, The walk back seemed much longer now that they weren’t making mad dashes across railroad tracks and vaulting over fences along the way. Out of the blue, she broke the silence between them.

 

“Are you mad that I went to your father for help?â€

 

He crossed his fingers behind his back. “No, why would you say that?â€

 

“I would be. If I were you,†Misa said.

 

He looked to the side and found a billboard advertising instant yogurt immensely fascinating. “I’m not so petty. It was unlikely that I could have bought the things you need, and you would require every edge you can get against demonspawn in a fight.â€

 

She chuckled. “I thought the Knights of the Cross all took a vow of honesty.â€

 

He twitched. “Fine, fine, if you must insist, go ahead and be troublesome. I hate you now, just so you know, for going to that creep instead of waiting for me to bring home all that stuff for you. Stuff that I had to sneak away from my Mentor to buy for you, all the way in bloody Ireland. Now you are in debt to the Yakuza and heaven alone knows what plan my old man has for you in his demented little mind. Mad? I’m like a ball of barely contained rage at this point and I can’t help but notice how bad you smell!â€

 

“I-I’m sorry,†she said, though Raiha got the distinct impression that she was trying not to laugh for some reason. “What can I do to earn your forgiveness?â€

 

“Bribe me!†he exclaimed despite his position.

 

“Fine. I’m the poorer one by a vast margin here, but I’ll buy you lunch tomorrow. Or something. Maybe just a can of juice. Or a glass of water. On a completely unrelated note, how feasible is it for you to bring a cup to school tomorrow?†answered Misa.

 

He leered at her warily. “Is this supposed to be part of the sarcasm lesson you mentioned earlier?â€

 

She winked. “Oh, you are learning.†Then her expression returned to its somber state again. “But in all honesty, sorry about that. The whole ‘lack of ammunition’ thing was just an off-hand comment – I didn’t think you’d actually remember, let alone sneak away from your Mentor to help out. Hell, I pretty much forgot…â€

 

“Imahara-san…you know I hate it when you swear,â€

 

“Fine. Heck, I pretty much forgot about it until you got back.â€

 

Raiha stared at the steps in front of him in a somewhat surly fashion while keeping up the pace. It was the prerogative of a disappointed friend to hold a petty grudge. It was not, however, the prerogative of a Knight of the Cross, so instead of keeping that scowl on his face for any longer, he simply smiled and waved the whole issue away. In the end, all he could offer was guidance, not enforcement on how others should live their lives. The walk continued uneventfully and eventually, they reached the area where both had parked their vehicles earlier on, and Raiha stopped, turned and looked at Misa.

 

“I think you should go home without me.â€

 

“Oh come on!†exclaimed Misa exasperatedly.

 

“Huh?â€

 

She pursed her lips. “I already gave you my apology. Do you want me to prostrate myself on the ground as well?â€

 

“While I do occasionally enjoy the sight of attractive ladies on their knees, I can tell you it’s nothing like that,†he explained calmly.

 

“Is that so? Give me one reason for that request other than that you are still mad,†Misa said.

 

He sighed and gestured at the pair of clamps someone had put on the back wheels of his illegally parked Ferrari. “How about I do one better and give you two?â€

 

---

 

Raiha looked at the demolished left wheel and sighed deeply, part of his mind regretting the moment he had let Misa take a literal shot at the clamp with Geminus, hoping to break them. The antidemon bullet, capable of ripping holes through monstrous mountains of meat and muscle, had smashed through the clamp, the wheel and the asphalt below in a straight line, and judging from the charring, had set a few small fires in its wake too. Had it been just the clamps alone, Raiha was sure he could have just bribed the property owner of whatever parking zone he had utilized illegally to unlock them. Now he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as he stood alone on the pavement waiting for the tow truck to come.

 

“Surely you didn’t plan on slipping away under my nose,†he abruptly said without even turning his gaze.

 

The individual behind him let out a startled gasp, and this time Raiha knew he hadn’t imagined the stench of magic in the air. It was faint and foreign, almost a lingering ghost of what he had felt back at the station, but you would have to wake up mighty early in the morning to pull a fast one over a Knight’s divine sense.

 

He turned back and looked at the person. She was a young girl with blond hair, slender and lovely in a foreign beauty kinda way, with pale, pretty skin and round cheeks that seemed like they would look good smiling. She wasn’t smiling, of course, and her angelic features made an interesting contrast to her decidedly unangelic clothing – just tattered strips of fabric barely covering up the important bits.

 

Magic is very subdued around her, almost non-existent. A Warlock that can camouflage her own signature, that’s new. If she thought her appearance was going to distract him, this girl was in for a world of surprise.

 

“Good evening,†he said, tipping an invisible hat off the top of his head. “Lovely weather tonight, isn’t it?â€

 

She said nothing, her grip on the handle of the weapon tightening.

 

“Not the talkative type, I see,†he said. “I can certainly live with that. You, however, would-â€
 

“YEEEART!â€

 

“-hgkh.â€

 

Raiha stopped halfway and looked down to see her polearm’s blade embedded almost halfway up its blade into the right side of his chest. The girl, still with both trembling hands wrapping around her weapon, looked up at him, a cocktail of fear, hatred and savage thrill evident within her red eyes. They widened at the same time his mouth widened into a grin.

 

“As I said before I was so unceremoniously interrupted, you wouldn’t last the next hour,†Raiha resumed. He wrapped his hands around the haft, yanked it out, and threw it aside along with its owner. The female Warlock let out a cry of surprise and, unsurprisingly, landed on her feet.

 

Raiha regarded the puncture wound on his chest impassively. Despite the size of the opening, only a small trickle of blood came out of it, not enough to even visibly stain his shirt.

 

“…Monster,†she remarked, observing the same thing.

 

“Hello pot, I’m kettle, you are black.†Raiha blew out a breath, releasing his own Resplendence. It raged within his chest before streaming out, and he could feel its might, its fury coursing through him like a tempest surging through his body. The power was invigorating, even overwhelming. It healed his wound almost instantaneously and pushed him to act. To move. To destroy.

 

Afire with divine might, he reached out and summoned the Blade of Mercy once more. The Warlock squinted at the sight of a blade that was as long as a man was tall, golden runes decorating the silver edge running into the obsidian stone hilt. Raiha was quite sure she had never seen anything like this in her life. She looked somewhere between shocked and, strangely enough, amused.

 

“Just how small is your dick?†she asked incredulously, holding back what he thought was a mocking laugh.

 

Raiha blinked, leaping into the air with a somersault and ending with a downward strike. It smashed through the ground beneath and carved deeply into the asphalt. He missed. She dodged the blow narrowly, polearm held at the ready. The Warlock then adopted an aggressive posture, using a standard stance for lunging that put the entire weight of her upper body into the blow. She moved far more nimbly than a normal person ever could, though Raiha wondered why she was choosing to fight without erecting a dimensional barrier – only in such a perversion of space-time could a Warlock call upon their full power. Was it exhaustion on her part, or simply arrogance?

 

The Warlock struck. Raiha skipped to the side and pulled his gargantuan blade out of the ground. Feeling a sense of exhilaration at the contest, he dashed forward and slashed sideways with a twist of his waist, trying to bisect his enemy horizontally. The Warlock guarded using the hafted part of her naginata to intercept the blow, letting Raiha’s blade slam into the handle and nearly sending her flying.

 

As she took the hit, the girl’s eyes flashed with a hint of defiance. She got back her balance, then got into a crouching position using her legs and free arm, the form bringing to mind the image of a predator readying to pounce. As expected, her thrust came at him with dizzying speed immediately after, the same move that had wounded Raiha earlier, but this time he simply leaped to the side, rolling.

 

She was right on top of him as he recovered and looked up, gritting her teeth at the immense amount of stress she was placing her body under by stopping the attack midway and changing her trajectory. She pinned his body to the ground, the tip of her polearm coming into crystal focus mere inches away from his eye, and this time Raiha impressed even himself by dodging it within a hair’s breadth by jerking his head sideways. The weapon dug its head into the ground, and lying there Raiha could hear the sound of the ground simply splitting underneath the sharpened edge.

 

“Got you!†she said.

 

Leaving her weapon lodged where it was, the girl grabbed onto Raiha’s shirt with one free hand, the other she curled into a fist and started brutally hammering down. She fired off some blows into his midsection. When he tried to block those shots, she promptly switched target to his face and, once or twice out of spite, below his belt. Annoyed, Raiha started to let go of his blade and willed into reality more and more Resplendence, feeling the raging tempest coalescing into being.

 

He curled up both legs, pressed them beneath the girl’s abdomen, and then launched her away from him along with his slippers. She let out yet another choking noise as she landed on the ground, the impact tearing away what little modesty she had left on her body. The Warlock promptly stood up with a flip, eyeing the weapon she had left behind.

 

A wind suddenly screamed out from behind Raiha, a wall of frigid air thirty degrees colder than the chilly early autumn night. One moment, the street was completely quiet save for the sound of their fighting, next the gale was strong enough to rip leaves and small branches from the trees lining the avenue. The girl lifted a hand to shield her face against the screen of dust and small debris.

 

Raiha lifted his own hand and stepped forward, peering at her with an expression devoid of joy nor mercy. High above, clouds parted from the sky and gave way to thundering flashes of azure lightning, the fork-like strokes rumbling and crackling as if awaiting only a single command to be unleashed. “Well,†he said, baring his teeth in a snarl, “still not going to use your power?â€

 

“This all looks quite stylishly ominous,†the girl commented to him. “But I still have no idea what you’re talking about.â€

 

He waited for a crash of thunder to roll by before he answered. “I know Warlocks come in all shapes and sizes, but I didn’t realize stupid and suicidal are part of the lineup nowadays.†Without exception, Warlocks are hard-wired into placing their own safety above all else by the Demons they pledge their loyalty to. Occam's Razor would suggest that she isn't one. But in that event there's only one thing she could be...

 

“What? Warlock? All I know is that one of your psycho fuckbuddies used me as a meatshield and blew a hole in my-†she looked down and noticed her current state of dress. “Oh shi-“

 

Click.
 

The look on her face when the flash went off was priceless.

 

“Eh, turned out better than expected,†he said as he glanced down at his phone screen. No distortion; a Warlock’s magic should have turned this screen more pixelated than a pecker in a porno. Should have checked the weather forecast before I left the house, it's raining Demon Hunters today. His voice immediately softened as he took a bow and said, “My humblest apologies for being so violent, milady, I was under the impression that you were one of them. If only you’d said hello instead of, well, stabbing me; our meeting could have started off on a far more amicable note.†He returned to his car and withdrew the cloak of the Cross before handing it to her.

 

She quickly wrapped the cloak around herself, then ran over and grabbed Raiha by his shirt. It seemed comical, considering he was a head taller than her. “Delete that picture. Now!â€

 

Raiha let out a laugh and lifted the phone high above her head. “Nope. Gonna need you to follow me to some place. Only then will I go along with your demands.â€

 

“What’s stopping me from just stabbing you again and getting that phone?†the girl snarled.

 

A stern look flashed across his face. "Well, someone might die this time."

 

"Oh yeah? And who might that someone be, tough guy?"

 

"Me."

 

"THEN WHAT WAS THE POINT LOOKING LIKE YOU WERE READY TO KILL SOMEONE?!" She roared, then sighed as her shoulders dropped. “Look, you are aware that what you are doing is statutory rape, right?â€

 

“Oh dearie me, I can assure you it’s not what you think it is. So sorry to disappoint,†Raiha laughed that statement away, then immediately whipped his head around at the sound of blaring sirens. “Bugger, police.â€

 

“How did they get here so fast?†she asked incredulously. They had been fighting for no more than a minute or two.

 

“Er...well...let’s just say I didn’t exactly follow the road signs on my way here.â€

 

She let out a huff. “Typical Ferrari driver. What do we do now?â€

 

Still with an expression as serene as lake water, he turned back to her. “RUN AWAY!†he screamed as he grabbed her by the wrist, dashing into the night.

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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.”

 

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“A… church?†Erin muttered as she stared flatly at the place the blackmailing pervert had dragged her off to. The building was a frankly uninspiring work of architecture; a dull, run-down concrete box sandwiched unceremoniously between a ramen joint and a car park identifiable only by the weather-beaten metal cross mounted above the doorway and a decaying sign reading “Mitsuba Catolic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary†in block letters. The walls of the building had once been white, but the paint was now stained and peeling and the streetlight in front of the building had burned out, giving the place a decidedly dreary air. Sure, no one would go to a dump like this on Sunday morning, let alone right now. Still, wouldn’t a guy who drives a Ferrari have, like, a hardened private rape bunker or something for all their abduction needs? Unless…

 

“… This kind of thing gets you off, doesn’t it,†Erin groaned as she eyed her abductor suspiciously. “When people say ‘Holy Fuck’ they usually mean it figuratively.â€

 

The older boy looked genuinely surprised and a little offended by this. “Hey, don’t get me wrong! Just because it’s a Cat-holic church doesn’t mean that I came here to get pussy!â€

 

Silence.

 

“Cat-holic? Like, a cat? And ‘holic’, as in ‘alcoholic’?  Get it?†he ventured.

 

More silence.

 

“And ‘pussy’, in English, has the double meaning of both the animal and female naughty bits? So it’s kind of a pun playing on a double meaning? And that’s funny?†the boy continued expositing, seemingly unaware or unconcerned of the look she was giving him at that very moment.

 

Erin was starting to wonder if her captor had eaten too many paint chips as a child.

 

“Y’know, the first time I came here, I actually thought the Catholic Church had lots of cute cats. Like, if an alcoholic loves alcohol a Catholic must love cats, right?†The young man went on, clearly trying to break the stone-cold silence that had fallen. “So one thing led to another, and next thing I knew I was slaying demons in the name of Our Lord And Saviour.â€

 

Scratch that. He didn’t just eat paint chips; his parents must have dropped him on the head for fun.  â€œJust tell me what you dragged me here for.â€

 

“To meet the others, of course,†The young man replied as he stepped up to the doorway and knocked. “All the other Hunters should be here. I don’t know if you can tell, but this place is securely warded; it’ll be safe to talk in here.â€

 

“Do I have a choice?†Erin sighed as she shrugged in resignation. There were worse places to be than some dumpy old church – and as far as she could tell, he didn’t seem to be lying. The little church, despite its looks, did seem to exude a feeling of safety, and out of the corner of the ear, she swore she could have heard a faint, pleasantly melodic hum, almost as if it were beckoning her to take shelter within. She took a step forward, and then another – and promptly walked into an invisible wall with a loud thump.

 

There was a loud crackle and a flash of light, and Erin was promptly knocked on her ass, the world around her spinning crazily and her ears ringing. The reassuring weight of the glaive she’d been holding throughout their escape from the cops seemed to have vanished, and she suddenly felt terribly naked. Well, even more naked than usual, considering how her borrowed cloak had just fallen off.

 

“Whoops,†Raiha sheepishly murmured. “I guess I should have warned her not to walk in until the padre disarmed the wards.â€

 

At that very moment, Father Nakata opened the door, his face pale with worry. “Ah, Raiha-kun! The wards just triggered; were you followed here-“ The older man’s gaze fell upon Erin lying spread-eagled on the ground, trying to articulate coherent swear words and failing miserably. “- Oh. Oh my.â€

 

…

 

A few minutes later, Erin was sitting on a pew in the church, the red cloak draped over her like a blanket as she nursed a hot cup of tea and a pounding head. Apart from the idiot who’d brought her here, who’d slipped off to a back room after a few hastily-exchanged words with the pastor, an avuncular, leanly-built man with a surprisingly deep voice, a few others had joined her in the room. Standing at one corner was a dark-haired, serious-looking girl in motorcycle leathers, her index finger conspicuously hovering close to the safety catch of the rifle she was carrying, and joining her on the pews was a blonde girl about her age who was sizing her up curiously and a familiar face – the young man with the glowing arm she’d seen fighting the monster earlier. Conspicuously enough, the one of his jacket sleeves hung limp and empty, and there was a bandage wound around his knee.

 

“What about that other girl? The one with the pistol?†Erin asked with a tinge of worry. The first of these people she’d met, the girl who’d tried to shoot the monster holding her hostage, was noticeably absent.

 

“She’s hurt badly, but I have faith that she can recover. Raiha-kun’s patching her up right now,†the pastor, who’d introduced himself as Father George Nakata, answered.  Then, noticing Erin’s look of confusion, he continued, “I see you haven’t been properly introduced yet. The dashing young man who brought you here is Raiha Shirakawa, the youngest member of the Knights of the Cross and more pertinently, the only one currently here in Japan. You can tell that we’re rather stretched thin on resources, I’m sure,†he gestured to the drab interior of the church around him – it was devoid of the beautiful stained-glass windows and ornate church organs that were the pride of other churches. Instead, a lone electronic keyboard sat gathering dust at a corner, and adorning the walls were several rather faded posters of cute cats accompanied with Bible verses.

 

“K-k-knight of the Cr-Cross?†Erin sputtered on her tea. “T-that pervert’s a modern-day paladin?â€

 

“Of sorts, yes. I was as surprised as you were when we first met,†Father Nakata replied with a grin. “He might not look the part, but he’s taken to the role admirably; and when it comes to healing, the Knights’ talents are second to none.†He turned to the others, saying gently, “How about the rest of you introduce yourselves, too?â€

 

“Misa Imahara,†the girl with the gun stated with a slight nod, her finger staying close to the trigger of her weapon. “Nice to meet you,†she continued, her expression unreadable.

 

“R-right. I’m Erin, n-nice to meet you too… I guess,†Erin stammered nervously, trying not to make eye contact. The older girl scared her a little, and it was with some relief that she turned to meet the gaze of the younger blonde girl, who was proffering her hand in greeting.

 

“Mitsuya. Keiko Mitsuya.†She declared as Erin tentatively took her hand and shook it. “I’m the youngest here, but don’t you look down on me!†Suddenly, there was a rush of cold wind, and Erin shrank back in surprise as a bulky, elaborate sword materialized in her other hand in a flurry of illusory cherry blossoms. “There is nothing that my Blumenkranz, empowered by the Four Gods and honed by a thousand swings a day, cannot cut!â€

 

“E-Erin Akizuki,†Erin murmured nervously, her eyes fixed on the massive blade Keiko was hefting like it were a toy. Is that even a sword? It looks like it weighs more than she does… and is that a magazine I see on it?! “What on earth is that?â€

 

The other girl puffed out her chest proudly and grinned. “It’s a Demon Reaper, a weapon that gives people magic powers! I used to be a normal, boring person like everyone else, until some nasty Demons attacked my hometown two years back. Then, Yuudai-senpai over here,†she gestured towards the one-armed man reclining on the pews, “Gave me this Demon Reaper so I could protect myself! I’ve learnt a bunch of cool tricks with it!†She tossed the blade into the air with an ease belying its bulk, and with a flurry of clicks and whirs, the weapon’s blade retracted and various parts of it unfurled; when she caught the weapon again, it had transformed into a complex-looking compound bow. “Pretty cool, huh?†she announced proudly.

 

There was a moment of silence before Erin responded. “Sorry. I needed to find my jaw. Did you say something about demons?â€

 

“Oh right, you’re new to this. Oi, senpai!†Keiko called out. The one-armed young man sighed but quickly relented, limping over and taking a seat near Erin. “I’m Yuudai Shinozaki. Apparently, I’m an expert on this kind of thing. Thanks for the save just now, by the way. My friend back there would have died without you.â€

 

“You’re welcome, I guess,†Erin replied hesitantly. “I wasn’t sure what happened back there, though. Could you tell me more?â€

 

“That was a Thrall, the spawn of a Demon.†Yuudai explained. “Demons, as you can guess from the name, are seriously bad news. You could drop a nuclear bomb on one and only tickle it, and they wouldn’t stop at nothing until everyone on the planet is enslaved or dead. Luckily for us, they’re trapped in another universe -- you could call it Hell. Not so luckily for us, they can squeeze little pieces of themselves through the cracks in the wall between the worlds – those are the Thralls. They, and the humans who serve Demons, worm away at these cracks. They want to widen these cracks so their masters can emerge to wreak havoc upon our world.â€

 

“So Mitsuba is on top of one of these… cracks, then?â€

 

“Yes. We call them Hellmouths; essentially, what happened just now was that you unwittingly slipped through the cracks and ended up in the borderlands where the Demon’s influence encroaches upon our world – what we call a Demon’s dimensional barrier. You were caught in the crossfire… then, I guess that power you had awakened to save your life. Do you have any idea where it came from?â€

 

“No, I don’t,†she said honestly. “My dad claimed he was some superhuman badass, but he’s wasted so often that I’d take that claim with enough salt to pickle every fish in Tokyo Bay.â€

 

Yuudai chuckled heartily, and promptly winced and clutched his side, giving a slightly pained smile. “Sounds like the story of a guy I knew. I guess you take after him more than you think; some Transcendents have bequeathed their powers onto their children, after all.â€

 

“He’s not my real father, though…†Erin blurted out. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that?

 

Father Nakata raised an eyebrow upon hearing this, his expression curious. “Interesting. No one – or nothing – tried to make you strike a deal when you awakened, I hope?â€

 

“Eh, no.†She vaguely recalled feeling some kind of compulsion, some instinct driving her to act, but that instinct had felt like one of her own, something buried deep down within her all along.

 

“That’s a relief. I was a little worried we’d brought a Warlock in… though my concerns are probably unfounded, considering you triggered the wards and didn’t catch fire. Now that you’ve heard about us and our fight, would you like to join us?â€

 

Erin suddenly turned pale, and she felt a warmth in her hand as her instincts whispered a warning, a call to fight or flee. “You won’t kill me if I said no, would you?â€

 

Everyone in the room nearly burst into laughter at that, even the girl at the corner. “We’re not that sort of people,†Father Nakata said with a reassuring smile, but his expression quickly turned sombre as he got to his feet, pacing around the pews in a circle. “And we couldn’t afford to, even if we wanted to. To those of us who can sense these things, Mitsuba is a storm waiting to break; the incident that nearly killed you was just the latest in many. We few are the thin red line, the only demon hunters standing between Mitsuba and oblivion. If we fail, millions of people could die. We don’t just want your help… we need your help. We can’t afford to lose you.â€

 

He’s right, she thought as she gazed at the ragged group around her. She saw a young man with responsibility belying his years; a man who had lost an arm in battle and yet had waded into the fray yet again, gaining nothing but another fallen comrade and more battle scars for his labours. She saw a tired, greying old priest far from his prime, too old to face the horrors of the night and burdened by the knowledge that mere children fought and bled in his stead. She saw the look in the serious young woman’s eyes; it wasn’t alien to her, for she had seen it in her father’s in his moments of clarity – the look of one whose past still haunted their waking moments. She saw an earnest little slip of a girl, seemingly carefree in spite of what she’d seen, still determined to fight in spite of what had happened to her mentors. She saw a youth barely out of boyhood emerging from the back room, his face lined and pale and his shoulders bowed, exhausted in his efforts to save a girl – no, a warrior – whose life hung in the balance so that Erin herself could live.

 

It wasn’t much of a choice at all.

 

“Jeez, you guys look so hopeless, I couldn’t say no even if I wanted to,†Erin said, managing a grin.

 

Even Misa seemed to crack a smile at that – barely noticeable, but there nevertheless. Keiko, meanwhile, turned to Yuudai and nudged him in the ribs, whispering, “Is this that tsundere aura I’ve heard all about?â€

 

“… On one condition.†Erin continued, and the room fell silent again.

 

“… What would that be, my child?†Father Nakata said gravely.

 

Erin gestured down to the cloak that was the only thing covering her nudity. “Someone get me some goddamn pants.â€

 

…

 

In an unexpected gesture of goodwill, Misa had given Erin, now thankfully in possession of a new set of clothing in spite of Raiha’s feeble protests, a lift back home on the back of her bike. It hadn’t taken long to get back, and as Misa’s bike roared off into the night, Erin smiled wistfully. Sure, the circumstances of our meeting were… actually bloody awful, but in that pokey little church, I felt something I haven’t felt in ages. I felt… welcome. They didn’t judge me for being that one girl in the back of the class dressed in hand-me-downs and with the hair of a delinquent, for being a nail that needed to be hammered down. Really, it’d be nice to have someone else in life to count on… I’ve been alone for long enough.

 

Then, with her requisite character-establishing monologue complete, she stepped to the front door of her family’s little house… and stopped short. At the edge of her hearing, she could hear a faint thrumming, a barely-perceptible tension in the air stretching out from her home. It was only a meagre shadow of what she’d encountered at the Church, but there nonetheless. My home’s warded, too?

 

She stepped over the threshold, and heaved a sigh of relief when no invisible walls clobbered her in the face. Well… I guess Father has some explaining to do. Did he know all along?

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Raiha walked over to the old priest to report his progress and diagnosis, the rush of energy from his Resplendence finally petered out given how much he had spent patching up the unconscious veteran. He started trembling violently. Fatigue settled onto him like a backpack full of lead. His thoughts turned to exhausted sludge.

 

He vaguely remembered Misa cajoling him to his feet and guiding him back all the way to the front of his mansion after she was done giving Erin a lift. She helped him get down from her bike and asked, "Will that girl, Reika, make it?"

 

The world was spinning like the inside of a tumble dryer, but Raiha managed a nod. "She's no longer ashamed."

 

"Pardon?"

 

He sighed at having to explain the joke. In a way it was like dissecting a frog: you understand it better, but you kill it. "She lost her face back there, her actual face. I transferred in some of her biomass from around the body and stitched up the difference with magic and a bit of prayers. She's not going to be running around anytime soon, but survival is definitely doable."

 

Misa gave him a steady look. "It's better than the alternative. Thanks."

 

His vision narrowed to a grey tunnel, and this time all he could manage was a weak smile and a dismissive hand wave before shambling toward the sweet embrace of sleep.

 

 

*****

 

 

His Mentor, Elaine of Astora, drove him to the main street of the rather small town around noon. It was drizzling lightly, but given the constant rain in London, the weather was hardly capable of – dare he say it - dampening Raiha’s mood. His mentor struggled to maintain the optimistic front still, the poor lady, given how a cadre of her current students had been found charred to the bone in a back alley not long ago. It was an old adage known even to acolytes: every fight against a demonspawn that you can walk away from is a victory.

 

“Raiha dear,†she murmured when the car stopped at a red light, “I do hope that you have given this decision your utmost consideration. Are you sure you wish to be one of us still?â€

 

He chuckled a little. Elaine had been asking that question of him ever since their first meeting in Japan all those weeks ago, when she saved him and his old man from the grotesque monstrosity called a Thrall. “Yes, I am, I assure you. Knighthood can’t be all that terrible, I’m certain, and regardless, I wouldn’t ever be able to sleep soundly at night knowing that there are things I couldn’t see prowling the darkness. Besides, part of saving the world is indubitably saving whatever patch of land you happen to be standing on also, don’t you think?â€

 

She seemed contented, but also saddened by his admission. “It’s just that I have never had so young an apprentice, not to mention how unreasonable I am making you travel here all the way from Japan every break you get from school. If I could I would have come to you instead.â€

 

Raiha nodded. “Have you ever had any apprentice chosen by Theresa before, Sir Elaine?â€

 

“Saint Theresa of the Iron Halo? I can’t rightly remember ever teaching one of Hers, but then again forgetfulness is part of growing old, isn’t it?†she laughed a little at the self-deprecation humor, her eyes darting toward the holy pendant Raiha held in his hand. “However, I do remember the scriptures detailing Her deeds in life: that She raced across the continent within a week carried by no steed but her own feet when news of the war reached her ears, called down a great storm to destroy Gordos’s mighty army before sinking Her Blade of Mercy into the throbbing black heart of the archdemon himself.â€

 

His eyes glinted. “She sounds like a cool person to worship.â€

 

“That she is, dear.†They stopped at a small supermarket not too far from the town square. Raiha volunteered to do the grocery shopping in place of his Mentor, partly to practice his English, partly to give Elaine some time to herself. He hadn’t the chance to meet his ill-fated seniors, but judging from the grandmotherly way Elaine seemed to treat everyone, they must have been like family to her. It wasn’t an easy thing, being a kind person in a cruel line of work.

 

He came back to the car with a few apples, sandwiches and cold fresh milk all neatly organized within a paper bag. Elaine took only one fruit to herself and urged him to eat the most of it, saying it wasn't nice to hold back when one was in his growth spurt.

 

“The place we are heading to isn’t all bad,†she said, her eyes looking at the horizon as if to trying to spot the cul-de-sac. “It’s not as big as the one we had, but it’s secure, and there’s a small yard at the back where we can hold your training. I know you are used to living in a mansion back in japan, so I hope you don’t mind. I really don’t.â€

 

All in all, Elaine of Astora didn’t seem like the kind of person Raiha would picture to be in possession of unimaginable power at her beck and call. He reached out to squeeze her shoulder lightly. “It’s quite alright by me, mentor. The Church said they will have men coming for us within a month yes? So it’s only temporary. And besides as long as I have a place to train and to lie down, I’m set for summer.†Somehow it felt like defending his mentor was part of Raiha’s job.

 

She colored a tad tellingly. “There is definitely room for both activities yes, but…ah…do you mind sleeping on the couch?â€

 

*****

 

Raiha sluggishly opened his eyes as the first rays of sunlight filtered through his window, casting a soft orange pallor over the wall, the furniture and the master canopy bed. He yawned, then rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling a surge of nostalgia and emotions washing over him upon seeing his mentor’s face, even if only through a dream that replayed one of his happier memories of her.

 

Time sure flies…That summer afternoon must have been three years ago, he thought to himself.

 

A quick once-over of the mails and messages accumulated overnight in his phone showed that there was no further update on his mentor’s condition. No news from his Order. Raiha sighed in relief. No news was good news. He got up and sauntered over to the wardrobe, feeling immensely relieved at not having to wear the stuffy Mitsuba No.1 blue blazer over his white shirt and dark tie as part of the summer uniform. Next he took to the comb and, after the gazzilionth unsuccessful attempt at stamping away the cowlicks on his head, decided that decorum was overrated.

 

His father Raidou, despite the man’s traditional upbringing, was heavily influenced by Western architectural designs and cultures during his younger years. Because of that, the Shirakawa mansion dining room was a large dome made from walls of dark smoky mahogany wood that shone in the half-light through the arched windows. Eight white suits of armor stood in silence around the room, complete with scarlet capes, ornamented shields and gleaming broadswords. They stood mute and empty upon nearly formless figures of dark stone, eternally vigilant, the slits in their helmets seemingly glowed in the soft sunlight.

 

At the center of the room, away from the basalt fireplace, lay a long dining table surrounded by deep chairs of rich red leather, its surface formally laid with vases of fresh white laurels, glass tableware and silver cutleries. Only a single plate near the front end of the table was filled with sausages, scrambled eggs, toasted bread and a side helping of pumpkin soup. Raiha sat down, nodded in gratitude to the house servant who waited his breakfast, then ate quietly before leaving for school.

 

He walked down the main road leading uphill toward the only school in town, chiding himself for letting the car get impounded yesterday. It wasn’t a long walk by any margin, but what Raiha couldn’t stand were the stares and the murmurs as he walked past cliques of people, both young and old. They would point at the large scar running across his cheek and form their own hypothesis, whisper in hushed tones to each other about the latest atrocity committed by his family, repeat the same old story about how one day he too would inherit his father’s bloody legacy.

 

It never got easier for him to hear those words, to see people going out of their way to cross the street at his approaching. No matter how hard he tried to prove himself academically, how much he went out of his way to help others, in the end people still held on to the belief that a leopard could never change its spots. He used to resent his peers for ostracizing him in the past, but somewhere along the line, Raiha came to the realization that these people meant no ill will. Canaries weren’t afraid of cats because the latter were mean and impolite, it was because they were canaries and the others were cats.

 

Out of nowhere, the sensation of unholy magic suddenly washed over him. The stench – something akin to carrion and worse – was enough to turn his stomach, filling his nose like hideous packing peanuts. He hadn’t felt it earlier due to how faint it was, and when he first obtained this power a few weeks back Raiha would have equated intensity with power level, making this a small fry at best. But after yesterday encounter with Erin, he realized there might exist magic users capable of dampening their own presence to invoke complacency from their opponents, which would make it suicidal of him to dismiss a threat no matter how small it may seem.

 

He concentrated. The source of it was near, and it was coming closer. Raiha unfolded his right hand, feeling a trickle of Resplendence surge from the relic hanging around his neck, down through his arm, and grew into a tempest of light and power between his fingers. He glanced at the pedestrians from the corner of his eyes. They didn’t seem to have noticed he was channeling divine magic.

 

“I have you exactly where I wanted, Knight,†purred a feminine voice behind him. Something hard and blunt lightly poked at him in the back. Raiha immediately moved on instinct: spun on his heels, ducked his head to minimize his profile and threw his hand up in search of the target’s heart…

 

His fingers groped at something incredibly soft and firm. Honoka Kuzunoha looked briefly at her flabbergasted boyfriend, her wrapped shinai held in one hand still pointing at him, then down at her own breasts with an expression somewhere between confusion and amusement.

 

“Oh shi-,†Raiha almost swore despite himself, immediately grabbing at his wrist. The lightning discharge, having made its way to his digits and found no release, surged hungrily into the new conducting path that was his other arm before finally dissolving back into Resplendence after its fourth of fifth trip around his entire nervous system. When the zapping was over, Raiha had to lean against a nearby wall to stop himself from collapsing onto the ground from the aftershock.

 

Honoka crouched down next to him. “I thought Sir Shirakawa of the Cross was beyond rookie mistakes such as electrocuting himself?â€

 

“Stars and stones, Honoka,†he choked out. “Are you alright? Did I hurt you?â€

 

She pouted cutely. “Not me, but my pride sure took a big hit. No one ever touched these and reacted with so much revulsion before.â€

 

“Ugh…I’m sorry,†he said, feeling relieved that she could still joke about the situation.

 

“Heh, don’t be. I was the one who started it,†she answered, giving him a hand. He weakly stood up with her help and found his limbs numb to the bones beneath. It wasn’t the shock from before for that matter, it was the fact that he had almost ripped out the still-beating heart of his beloved.  Honoka Kuzunoha, like Raiha was before his knighting, was an Altered -- one with a minor gift for magic. An Altered could peer beyond the veil and notice the abyss beyond, but in turn, the abyss noticed them.

 

Accursed magical sense, you are about as useful to me as white crayons, he thought to himself. Bad enough that Raiha wasn’t able to reliably tell an allied Hunter from an opposing Thrall or Warlock using this power, now he had to start worrying about harming innocent Altered by mistake too.

 

Honoka helped dust off the dirt on his uniform, then eyed him from head to toe critically. She was tall for a schoolgirl in her third year and built like a schoolboy’s fantasy of a Scandinavian exchange student. Her hair was so dark its highlights were nearly blue, a torrent of glossy curls held partially in check by a stylish white hairband. She wore a dark blue blazer on top of a white shirt and dark tie in addition to a skirt that reached down to the knees of her long, coltish legs. Her fine mouth twitched, first into a smile then into a frown as she lifted an elegant, long-fingered hand up to the deep scar running vertically to the side of his face.

 

Raiha smiled at the warmth of her touch, the stench of magic unable to put a damper on his joy of finally seeing her again, his heart drumming in merry beats. She pulled his face closer and lifted herself onto her toes to place a kiss on his cheek, then drew back enough to focus on his eyes, her own expression gentle and concerned, “You look like a bruised potato.â€

 

“And you look just as pretty as ever,†he replied, to which she blushed. A blush looked really great on her. Of course, so would tears, soot or even mud. Honoka on a bad day outshined anyone else Raiha had ever known. “Had a summer break crazy enough to turn Phineas and Ferb green with envy. Come, I will tell you about it along the way.†

 

*****

 

Sometimes a person wakes up, and there’s a little voice inside his head telling him that today is a special day. Young children probably could relate with this sentiment most strongly, sometimes on their birthday, but most of the time it’s during the morning after Christmas Eve.

 

Raiha remembered as if it was yesterday one of those Christmases, when his mom was still around. He heard the voice again nine or ten years later, when he went to the abandoned church and got ambushed by a Thrall for the first time in his life. He felt it one more time last winter, the morning he sunk his blade into a fire-manipulating Warlock’s throat and pulled Honoka out of the wicked man’s collapsing dimensional barrier.

 

“So what you are saying is your new power makes me smell no more different than a bottle of fish sauce to you?†Honoka asked apprehensively. "That's real handy."

 

“Yes,†Raiha answered. “It’s a necessary evil. Hundreds of people go missing in Tokyo every day, simply impossible for a few vigilante wannabes like us to sort through manually. At least with this, I can accurately tell if the situation involves supernatural elements and intervene accordingly.â€

 

She was silent for a long moment, and then asked, “Have you ever failed to save someone before, Raiha?â€

 

“Too many times,†Raiha said, his fingers subconsciously wrapping around the silver cross. “What we can do then is to offer the abducted victims a resolution; a quick death over an eternity of damnation. Knights or Demon Hunters, neither of which are saviors. We are simply destroyers who fancy ourselves a clear conscience.†Memories of blood and broken bones came back in full clarity like a panorama of hell unfolding in front of his eyes. Raiha sighed and blinked it away.

 

Honoka’s eyes flicked up to his face. He gave her his usual cheerful smile. She frowned and rested her head against his shoulder.

 

“I don’t have anything against your God, love,†she whispered. “Far from it. I think His teaching makes sense to a lot of people, be nice to others and don’t deny your life its purpose, you know. It’s just that I can’t see why He is putting the people working in His best interest through so much hardship and pain. Demons I can understand from what you told me. Warlocks even. But I don’t understand God. To me, God will always be someone who gaze down from Heaven on a legion of nightmares given flesh and say: okay let’s give this random kid on the street a really big sword.â€

 

“Heh. But he did give me a reward and a reason to fight as well,†he replied instantly.

 

“Is this the part where you flash me a cool smile and say ‘it’s you, Honoka’ (this part she said in a basso profondo voice) and expect me to give you a reward for being so romantic?†Honoka asked.

 

People look at white knights and have all these unrealistic expectations about them being innocent and incorruptible. The truth is that a pure heart and mind only takes you so far – sooner or later the hormones have their say too.

 

Raiha froze, tilted his head, tensed his shoulders, then finally nodded in resignation. She smiled and tip-toed to give him another kiss. This time it was not on the cheek.

 

*****

 

The first half of school that day went by more or less in smooth sailing, considering it was just homeroom and physical education. There were talks about how everyone should be minding their academic performance if they wanted to get into prestigious universities, frequency of truancy being on the rise and something about an upcoming sport festival. Being a third year, Raiha was also given a post-graduation career survey, to which he almost wrote and handed in ‘Slay Demons in the name of our Lord’ before Honoka snatched the paper away from him.

 

Afterward was noon recess, to which neither of them brought a lunch box along as per usual. Raiha because he was sick of eating western food at home, Honoka because she lived with her single mom, who was busy enough working the nightshift at the local hospital. Besides Mitsuba No. 1 prided itself on the variety of food its vendors offered, so it wasn’t like they were stuck with the same option every day.

 

“Raiha, do you mind if we have lunch together with a friend of mine?†Honoka asked sheepishly. “She has been…rather nosy about us, and I promised I would introduce you to her today.â€

 

Raiha took a last sip from the can of coffee on his table and nodded. “Sure thing, the more the merrier anyways. Is this the same childhood friend you told me about last time?â€

 

“Yes, it’s her. She entered here as a first year a few months back, but…†she hesitated, “…I think she’s having some difficulty settling in and finding company.â€

 

“Poor girl,†Raiha sighed, “I know exactly how that feels like.â€

 

Honoka patted him reassuringly on the shoulder, then turned to the side and said, “Oh ho, speak of the devil. Her class must have ended earlier than ours.â€

 

The air near Raiha stirred and all of a sudden his sense was assaulted by the stench of magic again, just as when he was about to get used to his girlfriend’s. It felt familiar too. Slowly, his face turned sideways to look at the person Honoka was referring to. A smug grin made itself evident on his face soon after.

 

“Well, well, well. Hello, Erin-san, what a coincidence,†said Raiha to one flabbergasted young girl.

 

“P-Pervert-san?†she ejaculated in disbelief, her eyes swiveling between him and the other girl. “You are the super special awesome boyfriend Honoka kept talking about?!â€

 

If she was taken off guard, her expression didn't betray it. Instead, Honoka gave Raiha a meaningful look. "Pervert-san?"

 

The first thought that went through Raiha's mind was something like, Wow, Erin is Honoka's childhood friend. What a small world. The second was, Can't imagine how she couldn't find a friend with her charming stab first, question never attitude.

 

And somewhere in there, the practical side of Raiha chimed in with, It would be bad for there to be any misunderstanding here. Better clarify it to Honoka quick.

 

What came out of his mouth was, “In my defense, she flashed me first. What happened next between us was consensual, well, mostly. She’s just being a big baby about the fact that I took a picture of her naked to coerce her into it,†he explained in no uncertain terms.

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It was probably a bad idea for Keiko to show up on the first day of school wrapped in a completely black ninja cosplay outfit. Then again, she did wear the standard school uniform underneath the dark suit, and there weren't any outright rules stating that students couldn't wear additional things over the uniform.

 

"Mitsuya-san..." her homeroom teacher said in a slightly concerned tone. Hatori-sensei was a middle-aged man wearing a brown suit and a tie, with neatly parted hair and a pair of round sunglasses that screamed 'I'm too old to be handling high schoolers'. "The school regulations state that..."

 

"Relax, sensei, I'm wearing the uniform underneath. I'm wearing my protective suit so that I'm always prepared against the forces of evil," Keiko explained as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. "You can never be too prepared."

 

"But- but-" Hatori-sensei muttered, flipping through his file as he searched for the relevant school clause to quote. When it became obvious that he wouldn't be able to find such a thing after five minutes, his shoulders slumped in a characteristically dejected manner, and he moved on to the next name on the register.

 

Another victory for the Berserker!

 

---------------------------------

 

"Welcome..." droned the convenience store worker as Yuudai walked through the automatic glass doors, grateful for the shade from the sweltering sun outside. He wore his usual thick leather jacket, with just enough Influence flowing through his right sleeve to make it seem like an arm inhabited it. The last time he tried to walk around without hiding his arm stump, a couple of high-school girls in Fuyukaba approached him and threw him a couple of dollar bills while whining, "D-don't get the wrong idea, okay? J-just take this and go see a doctor!"

 

While free money was nice, unnecessary police attention certainly wasn't.

 

What was this tsundere aura anyway? Yuudai had lived with it for almost his entire life, and he had certainly enjoyed the increased amount of female attention while he was in Fuyukaba Academy... but now that he really thought about it, the whole thing made no sense. Was it connected to his Influence powers? Did he subconsciously affect the minds of every female in a radius around him? And if so, why only females? Could he turn it off if he wanted to?

 

He grabbed a carton of milk from the fridge, carrying it up to the counter. The cashier was a freckled teenager who looked like she dropped out of high school to work here in order to support her family. She scanned the carton, gave Yuudai a look, and said, "If you buy two of these, I'll give you a 20% discount. I mean, there's a 20% discount on buying two of these. Storewide. I-It's not a special discount for you or anything."

 

Dammit, tsundere aura.

 

---------------------------------

 

The first day of school for Keiko went relatively smoothly, and concluded with a note for first-year students to consider joining a club for after-school activities. Most students already joined one in Term 1, but since Keiko skipped it entirely, she and Erin were two of the few students who still had their options open. Keiko bounded up excitedly to Erin once the bell rang, grabbing her hands and pulling her out of the classroom. "We're joining the Supernatural Studies Club!"

 

Erin, being the paragon of emotion, responded with a deadpan "... okay."

 

As it turned out, there was indeed such a club at Mitsuba Academy. It had a much more fanciful name: The Central Magic Society of Winter. Keiko located the clubroom in no time, having already done her scouting during lunch period, and slammed the door open. "We're joining this club!" She yelled.

 

Sitting within the room was a single bespectacled male student, currently sitting at a lone desk, engrossed in his book. He took a slow look at Keiko and Erin, his eyes lingering over Keiko's ninja outfit. "Identify yourselves, strangers."

 

"DOMO. My true name is Berserker, but you may call me the Ninja Murderer," Keiko introduced, before turning to Erin. "And she is my faithful minion, Dark Grimoire Dragon Holder."

 

The male student slowly took out his phone, holding it against his ear even though Keiko could clearly see from her angle that it was still turned off. "... Hello?" He muttered. "Yes, it's me. It seems the organization's finally caught up to me. If I don't check in within 24 hours... tell my mother I love her."

 

Keiko pulled Erin in and slammed the door behind her. "Stop dilly-dallying and give us the sign-up forms!"

 

He fumbled with his phone from the door slam, before straightening his glasses and turning to Keiko with a practiced smile. "Where are my manners? My name is Keiji. You have come to the right place, Ninja Murderer and Dark Grimoire Dragon Holder." He produced a set of forms with a flourish, as though he had been waiting for people to ask to join for a long time already. "If you initial your names here, your souls will be bound to the Central Magic Society of Winter for all eternity by a binding blood pact. Consider carefully before-"

 

Keiko handed him the completed form.

 

"So, when are we starting our investigations into the supernatural?"

 

---------------------------------

 

But it doesn't only work on females, right? I mean, there was that one time when Karyu started to act really suspiciously...

 

Yuudai got onto the bus that led back to the church, fumbling in his wallet as he tried to count out the coins to pay the fare. It took a certain amount of skill to manipulate a wallet with just one arm, but he had gotten a lot of practice in the past two years. Unfortunately, all his one-armed dexterity couldn't help him when he discovered that he was exactly 10 yen short of the fare, and he looked up at the driver desperately.

 

The bus driver, an obese man wearing a tight uniform, looked Yuudai up and down. "It's alright, just throw in what you have. Don't go around telling people that I told you that, alright? I-It's just this one time thing."

 

A shiver ran up Yuudai's spine.

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The day had started off pretty well, relatively speaking. Father had been sound asleep when she’d left for school ten minutes late, her stomach grumbling in protest. It was twenty minutes’ walk to school, mostly uphill, and any other day Erin would have rued skipping breakfast, but somehow, a trek she had once found arduous had been reduced to a triviality; she’d somehow run the entire distance without breaking a sweat. The first period was PE, and somehow she’d managed a repeat performance, effortlessly reaching the front of the group while running and not only going through a whole round of volleyball without getting hit in the head, but actually managing to score a few points, to her own disbelief.

 

Without a doubt, she owed her newfound athletic prowess to whatever powers had awakened the night before. She wasn’t sure exactly what they were, or where they’d come from, but a theory was coming to mind: she'd been shot by a radioactive bullet. Thus, she had gained the proportional strength and speed of a bullet.

 

 

She felt a tad guilty about it, actually; some kids trained for hours after school for their sport, shedding blood, sweat, tears and assorted bodily emissions to shave off a vital second off their last record timings or shed one last ounce of weight, and she, the sort of person who’d considered a couple of flights of stairs an aerobic workout, had gone to their level and beyond in a single night like the star of a hyperbolic late-night protein powder infomercial.

 

Then again, they haven’t been damn near killed, then learnt that reality was a lie. They ought to be checking their not-being-shot privileges.

 

Homeroom was livened up a little by Keiko’s appearance – she’d showed up to introduce herself dressed as a ninja, and apparently there wasn’t actually any rule against it. Erin was fairly sure ‘Berserker, Loyal Servant of the Eternal Demon Lord’ wasn’t a valid alternate reading for ‘Keiko Mitsuya’, though. Apart from that, homeroom went by unexcitingly, punctuated only by a brief buzz of excitement from the class at the mention of the upcoming sports festival. Erin had called in sick for most of them in middle school, but considering her performance at gym earlier, it seemed a little dishonorable to back out this time round.

 

Honoka had called her out for lunch as she often did. The older girl was the big sister she’d never had; their friendship had begun when Erin was in third grade, when Honoka had chased off a bunch of bullies who’d been harassing her – whatever she’d done, they’d been sufficiently spooked that they kept a wide berth from that day on. They’d stuck together ever since, even through the unfortunate Goth phase in eighth grade that had cost Erin pretty much all her old friends –  to the point that when Honoka had mentioned a few months back that she’d been seeing a guy, Erin couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. This time, however, Honoka had offered to let her meet the guy in question, an offer Erin accepted without hesitation. I’ve got to size up my opposi- I mean, I got to make sure my big sister in all but name finds a good man, right?

 

She certainly hadn’t expected the mystery man to be none other than Ferrari-Driving Pervert from the day before – and what’s more, he’d managed to sum up the circumstances of their first meeting in the absolute worst way possible. She desperately wanted to dig a hole and hide in it. No, scratch that – she wanted the earth to open up into a yawning chasm of utter darkness to swallow her whole, and she’d grab that pervert by the collar and drag him into the abyss with her.

 

Since turning beet-red and trying and failing to blurt out coherent noises seemed to be an inadequate invocation for calling forth the power of the earth, newfound magical prowess or otherwise, Erin settled for punching Raiha in the jaw.

 

She hadn’t quite expected that to send him literally smashing into the ceiling, leaving a rather large dent, before crashing to the ground with a dull thud.

 

“Let me guess,†Honoka smiled sweetly as she said, “There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for how my dear boyfriend ended up with nude pictures of my dearest kohai before I sent him any of my own, and it has something to do with that display of your powers just now.â€

 

“Yeah, t-there’s totally a reason f-for-†Erin stammered, before her eyes abruptly narrowed as she looked her senior in the eye. “Powers? How do you know?!â€

 

“What kind of big sister would I be if I didn’t look out for you?†Honoka said with an enigmatic grin, tapping her temple. “Really, I’m no stranger to weird powers like that, since I have them myself.â€

 

“Really?!†Erin gushed, her eyes widening in excitement as she clasped her hands together. “What kind of powers are they? Could you teach me?â€

 

“Alas, there is little I can do,†Honoka replied, a sad smile crossing her delicate features. “Some, like you, are blessed with powers that let you fight back, but most of us with the gift aren’t so lucky.â€

 

“What do you mean?†Erin asked, a tinge of disappointment evident on her face.

 

“I have the power to predict the weather. When rain comes, I feel a sense of vague foreboding…â€

 

“But isn’t that actually pretty useful? The weatherman gets that stuff wrong all the time,†Erin said hopefully, glancing out of the window for a moment -- the sky looked decidedly cloudless.

 

“… Fifteen seconds after I’m already drenched,†Honoka finished.

 

Silence descended, interrupted only by a groan from the currently-prostrate Raiha.

 

“I’m so sorry,†Erin blubbered as she wrapped her arms around Honoka, the older girl grinning a little as she returned the gesture.

 

 â€œâ€¦ No wonder you never told me what your gift let you do,†Raiha muttered as he got to his feet, having finally recovered from the after-effects of the titanic punch. “You’ve got a good right hook there, girl. Why not save that strength for a Thrall, though-“

 

“You’d better have deleted that photo,†Erin did an about-turn and hissed, making a couple of pointed gestures aimed below his belt.

 

 â€œI did, Paladin’s honor.†Raiha drawled, flicking out his phone and scrolling through its image gallery to confirm that it, in fact, contained no lewd pictures but merely several dozen pictures of kittens accompanied with Bible verses. “I know people keep thinking I’m a chip off the old block, but I don’t deal in child pornography, you know.â€

 

A vein popped in Erin’s forehead. What the fuck did you say about me you little bitch?

 

“Now, now, there’s no need to get so upset, Erin,†Honoka said. “Raiha is the sort of guy who would only insult a proper lady completely by accident. Now, you simply have to tell me what transpired between the two of you. It sounds like quite a story.â€

 

“I was having a nice bath when I abruptly got a message from Misa, telling me to meet her at the train station,†Raiha narrated. Then, he noticed a mortified look on Erin’s face, swiveled around, and froze.

 

“SENPAI! You stood up this Misa-san on a DATE to seduce Akizuki-san over there?!†the tall, busty brunette who’d appeared behind Raiha practically bellowed as she seized him by the shoulders. Erin knew the girl, to her lasting regret – Jane Fletcher, or JANE YAMATO as she loudly insisted to anyone within earshot, was one of Erin’s classmates, and the daughter of some US big-wig at the naval base down at Yokosuka. She was tall, pretty, rich and gregarious, earning her the admiration of a good number of boys – who somehow overlooked the fact that she was as mad as a box of frogs.

 

Evidently, despite all that male attention, she had eyes only for a certain Raiha Shirakawa.

 

“Just how long have you been there,†Raiha breathed, his face pale with shock. Then, he turned his head, a ghostlike rictus of shock plastered over his face, and silently mouthed the words: “Run while you still can.â€

 

“First Kuzunoha-senpai, then me, then this Misa-san, and now Akizuki-san? You really love toying with the hearts of pure maidens, don’t you, SENPAI~†Jane purred, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and leaning in uncomfortably close to him. “But in the race for SENPAI’s heart, I’m not going down without a fight~â€

 

“Excuse me, but that’s my bo-†Honoka interjected, but the interloper leaned in to her and said, “This might be new to you, Kuzunoha-senpai, but this CASANOVA’s shamelessness knows no bounds! This VIRILE MAN-STALLION’s libido cannot be slaked by the BURNING LOVE of just one girl, but if you’d let me, Kuzunoha-senpai…†she gave the older girl a heavy-lidded stare and a cat-like smile. “Join me. We can rule together, you and I. In fact, since Akizuki-san’s here too-“ She turned to look in Erin’s direction, only to see a conspicuously vacated seat.

“-Akizuki-san?â€

 

Erin ended up eating her lunch box in the bathroom stalls again.

 

…

 

Erin’s tribulations had yet to come to an end, it seemed. It was annoying enough having to put up with Jane’s infuriating knowing smirk from across the classroom for the last few periods, but the very moment class had ended, Keiko, still wearing the ninja getup, had grabbed her and dragooned her into the Supernatural Studies Club… or the Central Magic Society of Winter, as it seemed to be called. Apparently, she was the Dark Grimoire Dragon Holder now – she vaguely wondered how Keiko had come up a name from whole cloth without even seeing what her power actually did.

 

I never asked for this, she thought as she contemplated the application form laid out in front of her. What on earth is a ‘midi-chlorian’ and how do I know if I have one? Is it some kind of venereal disease? And why are there so many questions about ‘skyclad tantric fertility rites’, whatever those are?!

 

“Are you sure this is a good idea?†she hissed to Keiko, who was already rapt at attention watching Keiji, the sole member before their arrival, display a bunch of grainy photos he claimed was irrefutable evidence that the Knights Templar had orchestrated World War 1.

 

“Yuudai-senpai told me that contacting potential power-users in town was important,†Keiko whispered back. “There’s nowhere better to look than a club specifically dedicated to supernatural activities!â€

 

Erin forced a fake smile as Keiji’s tirade about lizard people of Lemuria grew in both volume and amount of bombastic gesticulations. “I… somehow doubt that?â€

 

“Even if he isn’t, the fact that this club’s about studying supernatural things means he will come up with leads that could help us flush out the foul Warlocks in town!†Keiko replied. “You’ve got to trust me on this; I’ve been training for two years under the very best. What could go wrong?â€

 

…

 

“So much for useful leads, huh,†Erin wisecracked as Keiko and her left the school gates. It was already evening, and the setting sun had painted the neighborhood in warm hues of gold and orange. “If it helps, we now know that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.â€

 

Keiko shrugged. “We might not have retrieved any valuable intelligence today, but I’m sure our fact-finding expedition tomorrow will surely bear fruit!â€

 

“Mitsuba No.2 High School?†Erin scoffed. “Bah, it’s just a bunch of stories to scare kids away from there. Can’t have kids playing in an old construction site. We aren’t going to find anything but dust and rat shit.â€

 

Keiko snorted, wagging her finger reproachfully. “Don’t you know all stories have a grain of truth behind them?â€

 

“Even the one Keiji spouted about the feminist conspiracy plotting to imprison all men in jars to use as sperm banks?â€

 

 â€œâ€¦ Okay, I guess you have a point. Still, won’t it be cool if we really found something there?â€

 

Erin thought back to the ghost stories she’d heard about the site, and shuddered. Strange noises at night. An unexplained suicide. Children hearing voices, beckoning them to go in and play. Black blood, seeping from the walls. Stories, all of them, but I damn well hope they stay that way. “No, it won’t. I really hope we don’t.â€

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Raiha's side story 01: Takes place three weeks after Raiha and Honoka first met.

 

Raiha drummed his fingers on the table and gazed down at the chessboard. Eight by eight rows of black and white square tiles formed the battlefield, where painted pieces, also in black and white, stood on both ends in symmetrical fashion. A small digital clock to the side of the board ticked impatiently down, a large red button served as a reset countdown switch on its top. Casualties of war sat on the table to the other side.

 

Midgame was well under way, and the pieces were approaching the point where exchanges and sacrifices would have to be made, paving the way for endgame. Such was the nature of European chess. Raiha’s dark army had sustained heavy losses than Honoka’s, but thanks to that he had obtained a more favorable position. So long as he kept up the offense, and provided that he wasn’t moving into a trap, Raiha was certain victory would be his.

 

He picked up his queen and swept the piece forward, exposing a previously impregnable flank in exchange for added pressure on the white hosts. Most of his surviving pawns had also made their way across the map, and Raiha aimed to promote two pawns to queens by advancing them to the eighth rank in the next five moves.

 

Honoka’s lips opened into a lazy smile. She picked up a bishop and made a move that Raiha didn’t quite anticipate.

 

“What’s so funny?†Raiha asked out of idle curiosity.

 

 â€œYou,†Honoka replied, her azure eyes moving up from the chessboard to regard him. “A more aggressive chess player I have yet to play against.â€

 

“It’s usually the best way to win in my experience. Strike fast, strike hard, then be gone before your opponent knows he’s lost.†Raiha said proudly.

 

Honoka reached out and repositioned her knight backward. This move countered Raiha’s intention to promote his pawn, as the moment he did, he would have to choose between losing said pawn or his own queen. “Sometimes in chess, haste does make waste. Aggression alone is not enough to secure victory,†she continued.

 

Raiha moved his other pawn forward, planning to sacrifice his queen in exchange for starting his final assault. “I sense there’s some wisdom you wish to impart.â€

 

“It has to be strategically and judiciously applied. Remember Professor Oak’s ‘there’s a time and place for everything?’†Honoka swept her bishop forward to take the queen, leaving the white knight in its vantage position still. Then she leaned back against her chair and gestured with both her palms upward. “Ta-dah~â€

 

Raiha studied the way the board had rearranged itself and frowned. He had expected the bishop to remain where it was, waiting for a chance to attack his black king while white knight moved up to take down the black queen. Not that he hadn’t considered the move she chose, only deeming it too impractical to warrant much consideration. However now that he looked at it, it did open up more possibilities to defend against his assault, and should Raiha fail to take the white king within the next ten moves, he would be force to make a series of exchanges that would end in the white army’s victory thanks to its superior number. 

 

“Bugger,†he muttered out loud.

 

Honoka’s mouth curled up further into a satisfied smile that showcased her pearl white teeth. It did interesting things to her lips, and hers were plenty attractive to begin with.

 

Raiha sighed dejectedly and ran a hand across his head of red hair. “Three weeks of playing against you and not once have I won a single game. I really thought I knew how to play chess in the past.â€

 

“You are competent,†she concurred. “But there are things you have to learn still.â€

 

“Even more strategies?†Raiha ventured.

 

“Part of it, yes. But also how to read your opponent’s mind.â€

 

He multitasked between formulating more possibilities for the current game and arching an inquisitive eyebrow at the statement.

 

She tapped her head lightly. “Chess isn’t a war simulator, but it’s not a simple game either. It offers two people the chance to match against each other. To study each other.â€

 

Raiha glanced up. “So that they can defeat each other.â€

 

“Yes,†she nodded her agreement. “By playing with you, I can easily deduce that you are an all-in player, so I adjusted my moves accordingly. Backing away from your attacks, biding my time, stacking my odds-“

 

“Mixing your metaphors?†Raiha chimed in.

 

“Not the point,†she chided. “You told me just now that you had far more difficulty fighting Warlocks over Thralls despite the former being generally weaker and more vulnerable, yes? That’s because I do think in a contest of raw strength, very few things can measure up to you. But a Warlock is an intelligent opponent; he will see the impatience in your attacks, and he will try to capitalize on it to defeat you.â€

 

So that’s what this entire thing is about, I was wondering why she suddenly wanted to play chess. He listened to her words and thought about them. As much as he wanted to retort her statement with ‘clearly not intelligent enough to realize being enslaved by a Demon for an eternity is kind of a raw deal’, there was a certain truth behind that assessment. The last Warlock he fought had simply forced the Knight to expend all his energy chasing after his target. By the time he got there, what should have been an easy fight almost resulted in Raiha’s demise.

 

It was a sobering thought for perhaps five second when Raiha realized he could have just taken a cab back then.

 

His eyes went back to the chess board, and this time he touched the spot between Honoka’s bishop and knight. “Why did I lose my advantage here?â€

 

“Coordination,†she explained. “You wanted so desperately to promote your two pawns into two more queens, you sacrificed the rest of your pieces. A good winning strategy relies on multiple pieces supporting each other rather than a few lone wolves.â€

 

“I’m not sure what you are getting at here.â€

 

“Trust in the Reaper wielders more, perhaps? I know differing allegiance makes it difficult for Knights and Hunters to fight alongside each other, but you have saved their people in the past, and on an emotional level they would feel obliged to extend their help to you. It offers a more surefire way at victory with significantly less risk involved.†Honoka gestured at her army and Raiha could see then what his girlfriend meant. The white pieces stood adjacent to each other, awkward and crowded, but boasting superior defense and offense due to their overlapping combat abilities. Meanwhile, his were scattered all over the place, each throwing itself against the impregnable line of defense formed by the enemy pieces, each so narrow-minded in its desire to dominate the game on its own it couldn’t even foresee its own imminent defeat. 

 

Raiha frowned, and then he really frowned.

 

“I take it this is a win for me?†Honoka asked sweetly.

 

“Not yet, the game isn’t over until it’s over,†Raiha said. To be honest, he couldn’t see any possible way for this game to end with a happy ending for the black army. But the thing about a human opponent was that there was always a chance of them committing a human error, from which opportunities could be exploited. He pushed his promoted pawn into a check position and contemplated the inevitable clash.

 

After exactly ten more moves, he couldn’t find any way to turn the battle around. Not that he had been checkmated, but there was simply nothing left for his king to do except to run when the white pieces move over. In fact throughout the game, he couldn’t push away the feeling that Honoka could have won this game handily way back then, but chose the roundabout way just to illustrate her points to him. Downtrodden, Raiha lifted up a hand, intending on conceding by pressing the stop button on the clock.

 

‘Konna koto ii na, dekitara ii na…’ rang his cellphone.

 

“Oh dear,†Raiha said, a mischievous smile drawing across his face as his hand lowered. “It's the padre calling me for work. How unfortunate, but I suppose we’ll have to call this one a draw ^_^â€

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[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.

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Ever since he was knighted, Raiha had noticed his sense of pain dulling. It gave him all sorts of trouble in life: from having no awareness of a speck of dust on the surface of his eyeball, which almost caused him to go blind, to not knowing if his body was in mortal danger by way of blows, burns, stab wounds, gunshots. Sure, it created a neat illusion of an invulnerable Paladin working alongside his innate healing power, but deep down he was aware that sooner or later, his body would expire before his mind could throw in the towel. People thought of pain as something detrimental, something undesirable, but the truth was that getting hurt was part of being alive. A lesson without pain is meaningless. You hurt. Your recover. You move on. Each time you come out of your pain a little stronger.

 

In short, Raiha never once thought of his ability as anything more than a nuisance. But hot damn if it wasn’t a convenient thing to have around Erin. This, the unfortunate Knight considered grimly as he put up the finishing touch on the jigsaw puzzle that was his shattered jaw bone. 

 

Honoka smiled at Raiha, giving the too-close-for-comfort Jane Yamato the female appraisal – a procedure where a girl sizes up a different girl through an amalgamation of factors such as clothing, attitude, jewelry, make up, measurements, and then categorizes her under different tiers on the social threat scale. By process of deduction, Raiha had found out that 1 was his biological mom and 10 was that girl who approached him during Valentine with a skirt so short it was more like a large belt. Mercifully, she simply turned out to be a Warlock trying to kill him in the end, which made the explanation afterward far less awkward.

 

High school boys have something similar to this process also, but it’s kind of a Boolean algorithm: Does this guy read Shonen Jump? If so will he lend me this week’s issue after he is done with it? If yes, then friend. If no, then it's on.

 

“Love,†Honoka said, wrapping her arms around Raiha’s and pulling him away from the first year. Inexplicably, this brought to his mind the image of a ball of yarn in cat country. “I don’t believe you have introduced us?â€

 

He turned to the side, seeking help from one Erin Akizuki, only to see the little rascal had found the solution to this Mexican standoff in the form of running away.

 

Gosh dang it to heck, I wish I thought of that.

 

“She’s a…fan, I suppose,†he said, pondering what to call the result one gets by crossing ten percent diehard admirer, twenty percent kouhai, fifty percent stalker with a crush and one hundred percent troublemaker. “Look, Jane-chan, you can clearly see I have a girlfriend, who is most definitely not my right hand as you have bluntly suggested during our first meeting. So can you please just drop this ridiculous idea about being, and I quote, my right hand woman?â€

 

“I’ll settle for the left hand woman position, I’m not picky~,†she chirped, unruffled.

 

“Oh, I see how it is,†Honoka said unperturbedly, standing right next to Raiha, well within his personal space perimeter. She touched his left arm momentarily with her warm fingers, but never looked away from Jane. “Say, do you know why Raiha is born with two hands, Jane-san? I think it’s so that in case one of them is amputated, there’s still the other one which could pick up the slack for him.â€

 

Raiha’s eyes widened at his girlfriend in terrified terror.

 

Jane’s eyes widened as she put one hand to her mouth and let out a little ‘eep’ of shock. Then, she was right beside Raiha, whispering sotto voce into his ear, “Senpai, you’re in a FUBAR RELATIONSHIP! You’re seriously dating a YANDERE who’s talking about cutting off your hands?! There’s only BAD ENDS in sight if you carry on this path; the only BURNING LOVE she’d give you is gonorr-“

 

“LOOK, GODZILLA!†Raiha spontaneously exclaimed, finger pointing at a window behind the boisterous first year.

 

Her head whipped back almost in a 180 degree arc. “Where? Impossible! That would be a copyright infringement for him to appear in this RP!†Raiha waited until he was sure neither him nor Honoka was within Jane’s peripheral vision. Then he grabbed Honoka’s hand, tossed an enchanted coin out of the window in the opposite direction and used his Lightning Step, rushing toward the very same object with all the speed that burning his Resplendence could give him. There was a flash of golden light as they both vanished and were instantly transported to the ground where the coin had landed.

 

“Eh?†said Honoka in a shocked tone.

 

Raiha looked around until he was certain that no one was looking in their direction with wide eyes and slack jaws. Generally, the human brain had a way of filtering out magical happenings, either through registering without acknowledging the phenomena by coming up with an alternative grounded in physics or just straight up wiping those memories away. However, the same could not be said for Altered or other denizens of the supernatural community.

 

He sighed and drooped his shoulders when it was clear that the coast was...clear. “Arguing with that first year is like talking to a brick wall, except this one talks back and mocks you relentlessly. Take it from me, I should know.â€

 

Honoka stood looking steadily at him.

 

He coughed and waited.

 

“So,†she said finally. “Jane Yamato.â€

 

He grunted vaguely in reply. It sounded like the kind of noise a wounded puppy stranded on a leaf boat during a major flood would make.

 

“You hit that,†Honoka said.

 

“Not even with a ten foot pole,†he answered, nose scrunching up. “I don’t even know how did she learn about me, but one day that girl just showed up and declared myself to be worthy of her affection, and that she wouldn’t take no for an answer.â€

 

“So what was your reply?â€

 

“I said no,†he answered, with emphasis.

 

“I take it she didn’t hear your answer the first time,†Honoka said.

 

“Or the second, the third, and the thirty second time,†Raiha said.

 

She smiled and nodded. “Okay, I believe you.â€

 

“Haaah, I knew just my words alone won’t convince yo- Wait, really? How can you be so certain?†He lifted his eyebrows in surprise.

 

“Because you are a good man, Raiha. Someone who spends all his free time on helping others instead of himself. There’s no way you can find a slot in your busy timetable for dating other girls.†She let out a light laugh, recalling a memory. “Besides you are too shy underneath that nonchalant millionaire playboy facade. Heck, I was the one who had to do the proposing when I wanted us to start dating.â€

 

Raiha turned away, red faced. He had expected Honoka to confront him over his fidelity, innocent as he might be. Or at least to straighten him up for not being more candid in his rejection of the hamster on Red Bull known as Jane Yamato. She did neither. There was a rational mind capable of great empathy that was part and parcel of Honoka’s personality. No matter how bad things may look, she could calmly analyze the situation to see every facet behind it. She was the kind of person who could find the good side underneath any person and bring that out simply by being next to them.

 

It was something that even Raiha, as a Knight of the Cross, couldn’t do.

 

He sighed as if a great weight had been lifted off both his shoulders. “In any case, I don’t think it’s a safe bet to eat at the canteen. Jane might be trying to ambush me there with her lovey-dovey-super-deluxe bento, again. Do you wanna go to Shinramenya?â€

 

She lifted an inquisitive eyebrow. “I do like the place, but the school gate won’t open until three.â€

 

Raiha picked up the coin he had tossed away earlier, showing it to her. “See this? I put a modicum of my Resplendence in here earlier to turn it into a kind of homing beacon. As long as I’m within range, I can teleport myself plus whoever I want to one of these. Works on anything I touch really, but coins are the easiest to throw around.â€

 

“That’s…pretty amazing,†she breathed.

 

“I know right, took me the entire summer to learn it,†he answered with pride before tossing one coin to the other side of the wall separating the school from the street and hiding another coin in a bush for their trip back. “Shall we?â€

 

She pushed hair back from her face and grabbed his proffered hand in respond. “I’m curious. What does your God have to say about his servant abusing Knightly powers for lunch?â€

 

Raiha knew she wasn’t being serious, because she was grinning. “Well, He said: Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Ecclesiastes 9:7â€

 

*****

 

Shinramenya was a few blocks away from Mitsuba No. 1. It was one of the nicer places to eat in town, plus the peaceful and quiet atmosphere made it a hit amongst couples who wished for a place to dine and discuss. The store owner, Kokuma, prepared his own soup base and hand-pulled the egg noodle instead of buying these from a convenient store, which made his ramen a hundred times better than the stuff they mass-produced in Tokyo. It was Raiha’s sort of place, and he felt like a wolf returning to its favorite den upon entering with Honoka.

 

“You mean Erin-chan just appeared in front of you naked like that?†she asked, aghast. "I thought the Goth period she went through in eighth grade was pretty terrible, but this new phase of her is just..."

 

He nodded sagely. “Not a word of lie. I didn’t really have the chance to tell her to put some clothes on before I gave her the Warlock litmus test, first because there was a real chance of her testing positive, second because she gutted me in place of saying hi.â€

 

“Look what the wind brought in! Raiha-kun, Honoka-chan, long time no see,†the store owner greeted them casually in his usual booming voice, then squinted his eyes suspiciously at their uniforms. “Wait a second, aren’t you two supposed to be at school right now?â€

 

“Hey there boss,†Raiha hailed him. “They are selling ramen for lunch at the canteen right now, and we figured if we gotta eat ramen, we might as well go for the genuine stuff, yes?â€

 

“So we snuck out of school to come to your place,†Honoka added.

 

The owner, in his rumbling baritone, let out a sonorous laugh. “Flattery won’t get you brats anywhere. Same order as usual?â€

 

“Yes sir, thank you very much!†they answered in unison. While Kokuma prepared the food, Raiha paced over to the counter and poured two glasses of iced green tea as Honoka secured a table at the back, away from the window just in case someone they knew would look into it.

 

Honoka whispered into Raiha’s ear when he got to his seat. “You are right! Every time we praise his ramen as the ‘genuine stuff’, he gives us extra meat. Look, he’s doing it!†Her eyes sparkled with amusement.

 

Raiha fought off an urge to rub his palms and twirl his moustache. “Excellent, I love it when a plan comes together.† 

 

In life, some people have a natural face for poker. Whether deep down they are weeping mournfully, hurting, or beaming with joy, the façade they use to greet the people around them never alter in the slightest; always the expressionless, hardened visage that even the hardest things in life couldn’t carve their way into.

 

And on the other end of the spectrum was the owner of Shinramenya, who in Raiha’s opinion, was easier to read than a coloring book for kindergarteners.

 

They ate their lunch and talked, with a month and a half’s worth of topics to catch up on. Since Raiha’s training in Britain required him to master every shred of his will, losing concentration over matters such as romance was a big no. He was forbid from using even his phone to listen to music, let alone calling her or surfing the internet.

 

“So what’s your plan for when school is over today?†she asked when the bill came, insisting on splitting it 50/50 instead of letting Raiha treat.

 

He scratched his head. “Got some new Warlocks in town and a patient waiting for me at the church, so I guess that’s the entire afternoon for me. You?â€

 

She shrugged. “I have Kendo. Now that captain Himura isn’t showing up anymore, I have to be the first person to enter the dojo and the last to leave, otherwise people will just slack off, and we will all be in a heap of trouble with the student council. Do you think you can make it for dinner? My mom said it would be nice if you can join us, since we are testing out a few dishes featured on Master Chef the other day.â€

 

Raiha’s eyes lit up. “Really? The last time we met she chased me with a broom.â€

 

“She only knew you as the son of a yakuza boss back then, so please forgive her for doing so,†Honoka explained apologetically. “It took a lot of convincing from me to make her accept our relationship.â€

 

That kind of stung. But then again, if Raiha’s future daughter were to bring home a guy whom he suspected to be a thug one day, he wouldn’t know if there would be enough restrain in him to not run the guy down with his Blade of Mercy. So he cheerfully nodded and accepted her invitation, pondering on what to buy Honoka’s mom as a second meeting gift.

 

His phone chose then to ring. One look at the caller ID was enough to turn his grin upside down .

 

It was Raidou Shirakawa, his father, one of the Big Three that ran the underworld of Tokyo, and the indirect reason as to why Raiha once got chased by a broom.

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Tokyo was a business city. Entrepreneurs of every stripe and color competed ferociously amongst each other here at the largest city of Japan, leaving behind the carcasses of fallen ventures and shattered dreams. The place was full of old business headquarters, most of them long-standing commercial giants extending all the way back to the old days where the Zaibatsu was the end all be all of Japan’s economy. For a budding or small business to set its sights on the Eastern Capital, the only option was to settle into one of the few designated industrial zones around the city’s suburbs. There were talks of fitting Mitsuba into this scheme as well, which explained the plain, blocky, adaptable buildings two or three stories high with no windows that had been sprouting around the town lately. They resembled enormous concrete bricks that had been compartmentalized, but at least they were affordable.

 

Raiha’s dad had requested for him to meet his brother in one of these buildings just twenty minutes to the east of Mitsuba, toward the direction of Tokyo. So as to make sure his son wouldn’t turn down the offer, Raidou had arranged for Raiha’s impounded car to be released from police custody completed with brand new wheels and a fresh coat of paint the moment he walked home from school.

 

Sitting on the driver’s seat, Raiha couldn’t help but feel an immense sense of frustration. No matter how much he tried to distance himself from the family business in the past, eventually his old man would always have a plan to drag him in, always in the form of an offer that Raiha couldn’t refuse. This time it was another’s man life at stake. This time, it was Raidou’s other son being used as bait. And this time, just like every time, Raiha had bitten hook, line and sinker.

 

There were four other cars at the gravel parking lot by the time Raiha reached the address he was supposed to go to and got out of the Ferrari. He had exchanged his school uniform for a brown T-shirt and dark cargo pants in addition to combat boots, opting for the urban military wannabe look. The black magic-warding cloak he kept stored within Saint Theresa’s relic alongside the Blade of Mercy. Raiha never went anywhere without these three items. Better to bring along his anti-demon arsenal and not need it than to leave it at home and get gutted by something that goes bump in the night.

 

Four men in suits came to greet him. They were all tall and Olympian, perhaps in their early forties or so, their handguns holstered beneath their jackets. They stopped and bowed respectfully a distance away from Raiha.

 

“Wakagashira,†the men greeted him in unison.

 

“Sup,†Raiha replied. “I don’t think we have met before. You guys are my brother’s security details?â€

 

They nodded. “Yes sir. Our department handles enforcement and local logistics for the Shirakawa Corporation.â€

 

In other words, thugs in tuxes. Raiha looked at the few people in the distance who seemed to be moving around crates of heavy ordnances. “That’s some serious hardware you people are bringing to the Shinjuku summit. These kind of meetings go south often?â€

 

“Often enough that you can make a checklist out of it,†said a familiar voice. The newest addition to the scene was a red-haired man older than Raiha. He looked like a scarecrow that had eloped from the cornfield – tall and lanky with legs that could serve for shovels, his gray overcoat not so much worn by him but hung limply on a human coat hanger. “Police bust, friction between the representatives, persona non grata from other gangs, you name it, I have seen it.â€

 

The man approached Raiha and proffered a hand. “You look like hammered shit, little brother. If British hospitality left all that scars on your face, its brutality must rip the skin from your bone.â€

 

Raiha traded grip with him. “Hard but honest work will do that to you.â€

 

His half-brother, Rasen Shirakawa, chuckled. “You know, there are other options to make a living out there.â€

 

“I appreciate the thought, Rasen, but I would make a lousy businessman or yakuza. You should know that I-†Raiha said.

 

“Relax, I have truly given up on having you as my understudy. What I’m saying is if I recall correctly, you wanted to be a doctor in the beginning.â€

 

“And I’m still intending to be one,†Raiha answered. “Think of what I’m doing right now as charity work. It could be worse, couldn’t it? Some people are addicted to anime, gambling, drugs. I’m addicted to saving others. Even men like you depend on having people like me around, brother. We wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise.â€

 

Rasen’s face turned serious only briefly, and for a fraction of a second Raiha could have sworn he saw a reflection of his old man staring at him. It was those hard, piercing eyes that held all the comforting, reassuring charm of a shark. “I wouldn’t have come to you had I any other alternative, brother. I understand your decision to not get involved in this line of work and I respect it. But as things stand, you are the only one I can count on to watch my back tomorrow.â€

 

Raiha’s tough guy exterior cracked a little at his brother’s sincerity. “Not it's my fault, I shouldn’t have been so bashful...In any case, you know my usual restrictions as a Knight: no harming humans with my power, no going against the laws unless innocents’ lives are at stake, no condoning my identity being used a bargaining chip. If it’s okay with you, then I don’t mind helping out.â€

 

Rasen listened to his brother’s terms with a pensive look on his face. He tapped his temple lightly as if considering what would be right to say, and taking into account Raiha’s well-being as a family member.

 

“Are you currently occupied with your Church work?â€

 

“Up to here,†Raiha said and gestured at his neck.

 

He nodded. “I see. How much does your position pay you monthly?â€

 

“Like I said, it’s charity work. I’m lucky enough for the Church to be sponsoring my tickets to England and back already,†Raiha corrected him. “Why do you ask?â€

 

“I will pay you three hundred thousand yen upfront right here. And another three hundred thousand at the end of tomorrow’s meeting.â€

 

Raiha eyed him. “I’m doing this because whether I like it or not, you and the old man are my only family left.†The next part he whispered quietly. “Also because you are a good man, Rasen. A good man who simply made a bad choice.â€

 

Rasen ruffled his brother’s hair and smiled. “And I’m doing this because you are my family as well. Is it wrong for a big brother to give his younger brother an allowance?â€

 

Raiha folded his arms and shook his head. Six hundred thousand yen in total for just attending a meeting and looking tough was such generous an offer, he couldn’t help but feel guilty about taking the money. It was more than what an average salary man would earn working 13 hours a day for the entire month. Besides, Raiha had never really found himself wanting of much material wealth; his mother’s share of stock in the company left behind for him was ten times more than enough for a high school student to live a comfortable life. Even the Ferrari he drove around was a gift from Rasen on his brother’s 18th birthday.  

 

“I’m fine with you taking me to Shinramenya when this whole thing blows over. Double meat and noodle, with extra seaweed and fishcake,†said Raiha. “Besides, I’m interested in seeing what kind of individuals can get the old man spooked to the point of sending his own sons instead of showing up in person. Brief me more on the Shinjuku meet?â€

 

“Absolutely. Follow me,†beckoned Rasen. His brother led him into the building, toward a room of sterile white walls and boring dark-brown carpeting with a sign that read CONFERENCE ROOM, the droning sound of air conditioners the only thing coming from inside.

 

A long table ran down the center of the medium sized room. Papers, clipboards, reports, and folders of every color were arranged and categorized in neat piles on top of its surface. The room smelled of fresh paint, and Rasen walked over to turn on the air freshening machine instead of opening the window. In the meantime, Raiha homed in on the coffee dispenser at the corner with a paper cup.

 

“What’s this place anyway? A warehouse?†Raiha asked out of idle curiosity while taking a sip, disappointed to find out it was the cheap instant kind.

 

“A base of operation,†answered Rasen. “In case our main office in Tokyo is targeted and we need somewhere to gather our force during an emergency situation. You could buy one of these places for a song at the moment, but once Mitsuba is targeted for urbanization in a few years from now, trust me you, real estate value around here is going to skyrocket.â€

 

“Ever the opportunist, eh?†Raiha commented.

 

He nodded and smiled coyly. “You don’t get to be a successful businessman without first being one.†Rasen took his seat at the front of the table and reached for the projector remote in front, gesturing for his brother to direct his gaze at the large screen on the other side of the room. “Now to business, first I need to show you something,†Rasen said. Raiha nodded his compliance, rotating his chair around to look without straining his neck.

 

A series of pictures flashed across the screen, in sync with the rhythmic clicks coming from the remote. Raiha froze, then leaned closer to make sure his brain wasn’t making up the vivid images in front of his eyes, and immediately regretted it. But there was no undoing what he had seen, so he looked, noted the details mechanically, ignoring the frigid chill that was running down along his spine.

 

“Who were these people?†Raiha spoke disquietly.

 

Rasen’s expression never faltered in the slightest. “Our men. They were found by workers at the Yoshina garbage disposal site, wrapped within nondescript black nylon bags.†He kept cycling through the images. “These men I do not recognize, but I have seen the same tiger tattoo worn by those who swear their loyalty to clan Ikazuchi.†  

 

“Ikazuchi, Shirakawa, that’s two out of the Big Three of the underworld,†Raiha said, grim-faced. “Meaning clan Hanayoshi was behind all this?â€

 

“Maybe. Or maybe there’s someone out there playing us like fools against each other. If so his Machiavellian plan is definitely working. Hanayoshi claimed that their men have gone missing as well, and given all the bad blood between our clan and theirs, they immediately pinned everything on house Shirakawa. We can’t depend on the police for this case, as they would be too happy to mess around with our operations under the pretense of investigating the murders.â€

 

“Hence why we are having a summit at Shinjuku tomorrow. A parley before the war,†Raiha said. He eyed Rasen for a moment, his expression assessing. “You want me to play bodyguard just in case they bring out bigger guns than ours during the meet.â€

 

“I know for a fact that they will bring out the bigger guns. The kind that even the Shirakawa Corporation has a hard time acquiring,†Rasen replied, his gaze darting meaningfully at his brother.

 

“The supernatural kind?†Raiha ventured a guess.

 

“Unfortunately so. Ikazuchi is enlisting Reaper Wielders. A pair of them to be precise,†Rasen answered promptly. “Normally their clan acts as the intermediate party, stopping any feud between our clan and the Hanayoshi which threatens to blow up. But if war is inevitable, I have a gut feeling they won’t be allying with us because of our smaller sphere of influence.â€

 

“Hanayoshi on the other hand…well,†his brother looked at him in the eyes and passed him a brown folder. “Have you ever heard of a man called the Ashura?â€

 

“In passing, yes. He’s an Avatar, a mortal who can channel the might of a Hindu God into his own body. Last I heard from father Nakata, fella apparently decided to take his calling of ‘protecting the weak’ to its financial extreme and opened a security company here in Tokyo, although it's more like a private military company, which was why he was expelled from his temple for using the Power indiscriminately.†Raiha said, flipping through the documents. “Hanayoshi hired his entire firm and paid for a year in advance by cash, impressive.â€

 

Rasen smiled ruefully. “And meanwhile I have a Colt .45 to fend for myself. You remember the time Hanayoshi's boss promised to pay our old man back ten times for gunning down his son?â€

 

It never rains but it pours.

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High school sometimes gave its students an ungodly amount of free time in the afternoons after classes. Some hardworking students would spend it wisely revising the class content, or perhaps studying ahead. Others may spend their time doing things they are passionate about, like playing sports or watching movies. A significant majority wasn't as productive, choosing to sleep away the afternoons, or perhaps hang out with their friends.

 

And then there was the Central Magic Society of Winter, who went demon hunting in the abandoned construction site of Mitsuba No. 2 High School.

 

According to Keiji, it was suspicious how the project was abruptly abandoned in the middle of construction. He suspected that the place might have been haunted, and although Erin provided an alternative theory involving mismanagement of budget and the company going bankrupt, Keiji would hear none of it. “Where’s your sense of ADVENTURE, young lady?!†His retort went.

 

The very building itself was a safety hazard, with half-finished supporting structures and roofs threatening to collapse at the slightest gust of wind. It was a wonder that members of the public were allowed to randomly walk in, but then again, the law enforcement of Mitsuba never was very competent compared to its neighbour Tokyo. People went missing every other day without the police force blinking an eye.

 

Keiko, Erin and Keiji strolled in past the 'NO ENTRY' sign, scanning the dusty compound for any signs of movement. The whole scene was strangely entrancing in a certain way. Sunlight filtered in from the holes in the walls and ceilings, creating visible beams of light spread across the dusty compound. Discarded construction tools lay along the edges of the rooms, and Keiko picked up a drill as she pushed the buttons with fascination.

 

“Don’t kill yourself,†Erin warned, looking like she was beginning to regret her choice of friends.

 

“Wait. Did you hear that?†Keiji froze, cocking his head to the side. All three of them fell silent, and Keiko heard a soft clang in the distance. “There! We must INVESTIGATE!†Immediately, he burst into a sprint as he dashed into the compound, with the two girls hot on his heel.

 

Keiji wasn’t the fittest individual, and they soon caught up with him. The sound echoed across the empty hallways again, a metallic clanging noise that reminded them of a pipe striking concrete. “Can you hear it? The... sound of Discovery?!†Kenji wheezed excitedly in between breaths, but it was clear his lungs couldn’t handle much more. He came to a halt, gasping for air as he waved for the rest to go on. “Find out… the truth for me!â€

 

The Truth turned out to be a Giant Enemy Crab.

 

It scuttled to and fro in the middle of a deserted schoolyard, waving its humongous metallic claws in the air as it made threatening crab noises at the two Hunters. Well, as threatening as a crab can sound, at least. One of its legs twitched, striking the ground and making that same metallic pinging noise.

 

“... Seriously?†Keiko whined in disappointment. “My first real enemy Demon is a giant crab?â€

 

Its eyes flared up for an instant, and a pair of lasers struck Keiko in the chest.

 

The lasers were less ‘focused intense light’ and more ‘projected force’, sending her flying across the room as she skidded to a halt. She rolled to her side and got up, brushing the dust off herself as she pointed her blade at the crab. “Aha! Who’s calling me stupid for wearing Kevlar to school now, huh?â€

 

The crab’s eyes flared again, and even with her magically-enhanced speed, Keiko barely avoided the second blast. She ran in a wide arc around the crab, approaching its flank as she leapt into the air, swapping Blumenkranz into Spear Mode as she brought it down with a yell of “Heavenly Dragoon Strike!!!â€

 

The spear struck the Thrall firmly on its back, and the force of the blow sent a gust of wind blowing through the room. To Keiko’s surprise, there was not a single scratch on its shell. A claw came sweeping across the air, knocking her back onto the ground as the crab scuttled around to face Keiko.

 

Erin had summoned her naginata, delivering a powerful slash to the crab’s back that did little apart from knock it around a bit. It spun around, ignoring Keiko’s hail of arrows as it grabbed Erin in its claws and threw her across the courtyard. Keiko continued to run around the crab, throwing the occasional attack towards it as she frantically searched for a weak spot.

 

If it’s a crab, it should have the same holes in its shell as a regular one… It was hard to spot amidst all the movement, but Keiko was quite sure that she had spotted some gaps around its underbelly. She swapped to Blade Mode, trying to get closer through superspeed, but the crab’s long arms swept across the field each time she approached, forcing her back.

 

“Erin! We gotta flank him! Attack his weak spots!†Keiko yelled. She morphed Blumenkranz into Bow Mode, pelting it with spectral arrows as she watched her classmate approach it from behind. With a well-aimed thrust, Erin pierced her naginata into the underbelly of the Crab Thrall, eliciting a sharp screech that forced the both of them to cover her ears.

 

Something shifted in the Thrall’s demeanor as the color of its shell and body changed from red to a deep purple. Keiko hopped out of the way of a claw strike that swept across the dirt floor… and eradicated it. The dirt hadn’t been tossed into the air by the force of the strike, it simply vanished as the claw came into contact with it, leaving behind a curved trench in the floor.

“Matter eradication? Now that’s not playing fair.â€

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The Night Before

 

“We need to talk,†Erin declared as she put down her empty cup of ramen.

 

“Is it about money?†her father mumbled through a mouthful of rice. “I told ya we’re broke for the month, kid-“

 

Thunk.

 

He was interrupted by the eight-foot naginata now embedded in the tatami mat on the floor, its haft reaching almost to the low, grimy ceiling. “… Oh.†Slowly, he rose to his feet and walked off, leaving Erin staring at the empty spot at the low table he’d been sitting at. Moments later, he returned with a bottle of sake and two shot glasses. He filled both glasses, raising one to his lips and quaffing it in one go while pushing the other towards Erin with his other hand. So that’s where our money went. Glorified dragster fuel.

 

“Dad, you do remember I’m still underage, right?†she asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

He hiccupped, giving a pointed look at the naginata still embedded in the floor. “Way I see it, any child of mine old enough to die fightin’ is old enough for a little drink.†His gaze swept back to Erin, looking uncharacteristically sober. “That’s what you’ve been up to, isn’t it?â€

 

Erin shrugged, gingerly picking up the glass and taking a sip -- it burned a little on the way down. “The monsters got me first. I didn’t have a choice but to fight.†She said, glancing towards her mysterious weapon, its edge subtly shimmering as though seen through running water.

 

Kojirou Akizuki sighed, his worn, lined face clearly showing his age, and poured out another shot. “And here I was, hopin’ I wouldn’t have to give you the Talk.†Erin narrowed her eyes at him, and he shook his head, continuing, “No, not that Talk. You should know all about that by now… you really should clear your browser search history, by the way.â€

 

Erin’s second mouthful of sake ended up all over her father’s face.

 

“I’m not judgin’. You kids have it lucky; back in my day I waited a whole night for a single picture, and when the bottom of the image finally loaded, the hot chick turned out to be… not a chick,†The elder Akizuki continued, seemingly oblivious to his daughter’s sputtering and blushing. “Where were we? Ah yes, the “Talkâ€. You’ve run into them, haven’t you?â€

 

“Demons?†she asked, feeling a chill go down her spine as memories shot through her mind. Helplessness.  Pain. Hard asphalt, soaked red with blood – her blood. Rage, fogging her mind like a crimson haze. Then, as her blade, feeling almost as much a part of her as her own arms and legs, speared the foul creature in its heart, her aim guided true by some newly-awakened instinct, a savage thrill… and hunger. “One put a bullet through my heart,†she said coldly, “And when that didn’t kill me satisfactorily, it blew up and ruined my one decent set of clothing outta spite.†Was a hand-me-down from Honoka-senpai too. Fuck my life. “So I was told my powers might come from you.†She plucked the naginata out of the floor, balancing it on the table with one hand. “What on earth is this thing, and why does it make me so happy when I stab people with it?â€

 

Her father fell silent for a moment, looking her up and down, then staring at the weapon. “Kid…D-did I make a mistake when I raised you as a girl?â€

 

Erin fleetingly contemplated whether stabbing her father with the naginata would make her happier too. “Dad,†she hissed.

 

“First up, I’ve never seen that giant penis metaphor in my life; it’s the first I’ve ever seen of your power.†Her father finally said. “I don’t know what it does – you alone would know better than anyone – but you were born with it. You’re definitely too young to remember, but your birth parents abandoned you because of it, which is how I ended up taking you in.â€

 

“Why would you?†Erin asked. “You’re probably the one guy in town least suited to raise a kid.â€

 

He pointed over to the corner of the room, where a large, unstrung long bow of traditional make rested by the wall. “Yeah, yeah, that much is true… I never asked for it either. But with power comes responsibility. I used to be in the business, once… but I washed out.†He glanced at his hand, which was shaking unsteadily – not from the effects of alcohol. “I found you while hunting a source of power, and I couldn’t just leave you to the wolves.â€

 

Erin blinked in astonishment. “That piece of junk… A Demon Reaper?†She squinted at it, her ears perking up, and sure enough, the old, battered length of wood was subtly thrumming with power , tense and coiled up like a spring. “I’m surprised you didn’t sell that thing for more hooch.â€

 

Kojirou hiccupped, frowning at her with a nonplussed expression. “Look, I know you think I’m a deadbeat has-been, but this family still got its pride.†He glanced sourly towards the bow again, and laughed bitterly. “… And if word got out that I no longer had that, I’d be dead. Literally. I’d find a wakizashi mailed to me the next morning with a note telling me to do the honourable thing.â€

 

She stared at her father quizzically, but in spite of his tone, he seemed dead serious. “Who’d give enough of a shit about you, of all people, to mail you a perfectly good sword?â€

 

“The snooty dogfuckers in the Kami-Shizen Bakufu, that’s who.†Noticing his daughter’s look of confusion, Kojirou continued, “Who watches the watchmen?  Those guys, who else. They’ve been running the supernatural shit in this country since before Minamoto  no Yoshitsune’s balls dropped, and heavens above, they’re exactly what you’d expect from a hidebound centuries-old secret society with enough skeletons in their closets to fill the Paris catacombs.†He coughed, pounding a fist into the table hard enough to shake it. “Worst was their boss. They say not to speak ill of the dead, but seriously, fuck that guy. It’s because of them that I’ve dreaded the day I’ll have to spill all this to you.â€

 

“Why?†Erin asked. “They might be a bunch of miserable bureaucratic bastards like the Diet, but what’s that got to do with me?â€

 

Kojirou laid a hand on the naginata on the table – and promptly recoiled, flinching as though he’d received an electric shock. “Above all, the Bakufu values law, order and the status quo – everything kept predictable and under control, with those holding the Reapers , like me, safely under their thumb. And then there’s you – neither soul-bound to a centuries-old relic made by god-knows-what, nor some impressionable kid indoctrinated since birth to be the meat puppet of a living god, but someone who had the misfortune of being born strong enough to fight either and win.†He took another swig of his sake, his expression grave despite his flushed face. “You’re a wild card, a potential threat – if they’d found you before I did, they might have decided leaving you alive wasn’t worth the lost sleep.†He leaned in closer to his daughter, clapping a hand over her shoulder. “When I spoke about leaving you to the wolves, I didn’t just mean the Demons.â€

 

Erin gulped, her hands instinctively reaching towards the naginata. “It’s too late for that now, isn’t it? There are already people who know what I am.â€

Her father sighed, emptying the bottle of sake into his glass. “In hindsight, I was just postponing the inevitable. There really is no running away from fate for people like us... but you’re a big girl now. You can take care of yourself.†He got up, walked around the table and pulled her into a hug, the smell of alcohol still strong on his breath. “Just… just stay safe.†He sniffed, and Erin swore she saw a tear slide down his weather-beaten cheek towards his unshaven jawline. “Y-you’re my only little girl… and I’ve lost enough, already.â€

 

It was the first time Erin had seen her father cry.

 

…

 

So much for staying safe, Erin thought as she glanced at the bleeding gash across her arm where one of the Thrall’s flailing arms had grazed her. She frantically backpedalled, moments before another of its freakishly long legs scythed past her, slicing a perfectly clean cut through a decaying chain link fence behind her. Good god. If that thing had been an inch closer, it would have sliced my entire arm off.

 

She heard a series of whistling noises from above – another barrage of arrows from Keiko’s shape-shifting weapon, without a doubt. She dashed away from the crab to avoid getting impaled by a stray shot, but that worry proved unfounded when every single one found its mark – and promptly disintegrated as soon as they touched the creature’s impervious purple carapace. It’s untouchable, Erin thought, her arm tingling as her arm regenerated, closing the gap the Thrall had torn out. Regrettably, the long gash in her uniform wasn’t about to regenerate any time soon – at least it was a clean cut. The creature shrieked again, scuttling towards her, its overly long forearms stabbing out like spears and punching perfectly round holes into the ground near her feet. She took off again to evade another series of jabs, but promptly ground to a halt, swearing profusely – she’d miscalculated, and standing in her way was the impervious wall of the school building. She turned around to see the crab advancing on her, its spindly limbs extended in a deadly embrace to block her routes of escape. She had two choices – either somehow find purchase on a smooth, whitewashed wall or get sliced into two when the creature’s arms inexorably closed on her.

 

“NOVA CANNON!†Keiko screamed from somewhere behind the crab as a gunshot rang out, and Erin felt a rush of superheated air singe her eyebrows as one of Keiko’s bullets exploded above the Thrall in an airburst of white-hot shrapnel, the shockwave rattling her to the bone. On the bright side, the thing seemed to have distracted the creature , and regaining her composure quickly, Erin dashed between its legs and to safety behind it, the creature ponderously scuttling in an attempt to turn to face her again.

 

On the downside, a conflagration hot enough to scorch the cement of the school yard had, if anything, only succeeded in making the thing angrier. It let out another infernal shriek, and for a moment, it turned red again as its eyes flashed, demolishing a ten-foot section of wall just a hair’s breadth to Keiko’s left. That disintegration field thing… there’s really nothing it doesn’t block, is there?!

 

Hold on, Erin thought as she narrowly sidestepped another claw swipe, If the field blocks everything, it couldn’t see through it either. And since the damn thing, she dodged again, but just a little late to avoid losing the other sleeve of her uniform jacket to another swipe, obviously can see me well enough to wail on me…

 

“Go for the eyes!†she called out to Keiko. The other girl nodded as she raised her weapon, now in the form of a scoped rifle, and squeezed the trigger again. Her aim was true once again – the bullet slammed straight into the Thrall’s first eyestalk, with a second aimed shot hitting the other moments after.

 

Then, Erin screamed as a pincer lanced past her thigh, the flickering purple energy encasing it  flaying several square inches of skin off her leg. She glanced upwards at its eyes – despite the two direct hits, the creature’s eyes were clearly still intact and also encased in the same purplish glow. Its eyes, too?! She leaped backwards, her leg screaming in protest, and the Thrall promptly bore down on her, its pincers clicking ominously. How the hell is it still chasing me? Isn’t it blind?!

 

“It’s no good!†Keiko shouted in desperation. “Even its underbelly’s protected now – I can’t spot a single weak spot on it-“

 

The creature’s eyes flashed again, and Keiko yelped in pain as another force blast sent her flying. Then, it screamed as its eyes flashed again, a second blast swatting her out of the air like a ragdoll and sending her crashing through the window of an empty classroom in a shower of broken glass. For a moment, Erin stopped frozen in terror, her heart pounding in her chest. Is Keiko alive? How can I even stop this thing?!

 

Then, the creature simply stopped moving. Still frozen on the spot, Erin watched in terror as the Thrall stood rooted in place for a moment like a statue. A statue that would horribly maim or kill anyone who walked into it. What’s it doing? Why hasn’t it attacked?

 

The crab slowly, deliberately raised a leg upwards, the pointed tip of its armoured leg glinting red as it caught the light. Then, it brought its leg downwards, letting out the same metallic pinging noise she’d heard earlier on as it struck the ground.

 

The echoes of the noise reverberated throughout the empty schoolyard and the deserted hallways – then, with terrifying slowness, the Thrall turned around to loom over her, its mandibles clicking.

 

Realization struck like a thunderbolt. It’s completely covered in that utterly impervious field, making it untouchable… Except for the tips of its legs, so it doesn’t sink into the ground.  It only attacked Keiko when it heard her speaking… and it found me by making that pinging noise, almost as if it’s using some kind of sonar…

 

It’s picking up vibrations through its feet. It hunts by sound.

 

It’s a little late to figure that out, isn’t it?  Erin mused as she saw the creatures’ extended arms close on her like a vice.

 

“Hey! NINJA MURDERER! AZURE DRAGON GRIMOIRE HOLDER! You’re taking really long, did you find the TRUTH?!†A familiar voice rang out.

 

The Thrall stopped, its arms rising again as it scuttled around, turning to face the newcomer in the schoolyard.

 

“Huh? Azure Dragon Grimoire Holder? Why are you just standing there?†Keiji questioned, apparently oblivious to the polearm grasped in her hand… or the gigantic enemy crab looming over her.

 

Oh shit.

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[school happened peacefully for Raiha on the second day. There was a visiting idol group, the annual dental check, a fire alarm drill, which sparked an actual fire in the lab caused by students knocking over the Bunsen burners on their way to the assembly area. In other words, Mitsuba No. 1 on a normal day.]

 

A large, dark Rolls-Royce pulled in front of the school gate much to the consternation of the students and staff alike the moment the last period of the day ended. A uniformed driver, the same guy Raiha had seen yesterday working Rasen’s security details, got out and opened the door to the passenger seat. Rasen came out soon after, wearing a dark overcoat over a formal three pieces suit, which made him a splitting image of their father from perhaps twenty years ago. His red hair had been done in the slick-back style on top of his head, and just as Raiha was about to point out that he was a black fedora short of rocking the Don Corleone look, his driver proceeded to hand him the exact same thing. If clothes indeed make the man, then even the Hunchback of Notre-Dame would look good in this attire, let alone a man of Rasen’s caliber.

 

Meanwhile I get all the recessive genes in the family when it comes to look, Raiha thought enviously. Thanks, Obama.

 

Walking next to her boyfriend, Honoka let out a small ‘wow’, clearly impressed. The same could be said for a lot of the girls within the vicinity, though Raiha pretended not to notice.

 

Rasen read the faces around him and apparently enjoyed the reactions he was getting out of them. “Ready for the big show, Raiha?†he turned to his brother and asked.

 

Raiha tugged at his nondescript white shirt with the Mitsuba school badge. “Something tells me I’m not exactly following the dress code.â€

 

“That can be easily arranged,†Rasen answered, nodding at the driver. The latter moved to the trunk and withdrew a black garment bag big enough to fit a whole outfit inside. He moved over to Raiha and passed it to him.

 

“You know my size?†Raiha asked, peeking through the zipper.

 

“I asked the tailor to make some educated guesses,†he replied. “He still had your recorded measurements from the time I brought you there two years back. But as for the formal pants, I just randomly grabbed size 34. Is it correct?â€

 

“Erm…Truthfully, I haven’t a clue,†Raiha answered and looked to Honoka for help.

 

“Your size is 32, but with a belt, the difference shouldn’t be too noticeable,†she responded.

 

Rasen’s eyebrow disappeared somewhere behind his hairline. “And why is it the lovely young lady knows your size while you yourself don’t, dear brother?â€

 

She shrugged and answered nonchalantly in his place, “You think your brother has enough free time to go shopping for clothes? I’ve been helping him with that all this while.†Honoka then lowered her eyelids in a sultry fashion and spoke mostly to Raiha this time, “Besides, it wasn’t as if I haven’t seen enough to make some educated guesses.â€

 

An expression somewhere between being aghast and amazed struck Rasen’s face with all the speed and grace of a charging rhinoceros. Raiha’s own heart sped up considerably. “In any case,†he tried to steer the topic away, “Wait for me here. I’ll go find a place somewhere to get dressed.â€

 

“Don’t I get to watch?†Honoka hammered the still-hot iron.

 

Raiha recovered from being flustered. “Get in the queue,†he jested and headed toward the changing room in the back of the school. His brother had prepared for him a white coat with black vest and a red shirt complimented by a dark tie. He put them all on, noting the uncanny resemblance in color scheme between the outfit and the vicar uniform he had been wearing as an Acolyte in the past. Intended? There was also a cummerbund accompanying the set, and inside its pleat Raiha found an invitation with his name printed in flowing letters beneath a logo of an oriental tiger.

 

I have seen this before. Ikazuchi’s symbol, he thought. Rasen said they are the one mediating these meetings between the three clans, meaning we are walking into their territory.

 

“Looking good, Raiha,†Honoka said when he came out, all suited up.

 

“Thank you. I dress to impress,†he answered with a courtly bow and filled Honoka in on the situation, about the yakuza’s reenactment of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the magic-wielding hired help the other sides had employed. “Sure hope there’s going to be a peaceful solution to this.â€

 

She straightened his tie. “Worst case scenario, it will be two Hunters and one Avatar against you. Are you certain about doing this alone? I’m sure I could ask Erin or Misa-san to-â€

 

“No, it’s fine,†he said definitely. “This is my family business. I do not wish to involve any of the Hunters. If things get too heated over there, there’s always the best part of valor.†He gave her one of his enchanted coins.

 

“It’s Shinjuku,†she pointed out. “That’s one hour away from here by car at least. Does your teleportation range even extend that far?â€

 

“Only one way to find out,†he shrugged noncommittally. “If perchance you look out the window to a cloudy sky with the occasional lightning in about an hour from now, do me a favor and don’t buy any drink with that coin.â€

 

She smiled. It was always a welcoming sight to him – a quiet, yet proud and fierce smile that showed her teeth. It looked attractive on Honoka. “Ever the jokester, aren’t you?â€

 

“Dumb jokes and bad puns keep me sane,†he concurred, giving her a farewell peck on the cheek. “Especially when I hang around some people who make Batman look cute and playful in comparison.â€

 

*****

 

“The meeting is at 6 PM, so we should be there just in time.†Rasen spoke while reading the schedule on his phone, his voice somewhat slurred by the vibration coming from the car seat. “Oh, by the way†he said in a tone of afterthought. “Perchance you are sleeping with Honoka-chan?â€

 

Raiha’s jaw landed somewhere on the floor. Both sides of his face flared up to the point where he thought they would burst into flame. “Um, is this a good time to bring that up?â€

 

“Someone has to give you the birds and the bees talk, and I reckon you would sooner slit your throat than to hear it from the old man, so it’s up to me to say this. You both are legally adults, so it’s not like there’s anything condemnable about crossing that line. But believe me when I say that paternity will turn your life upside down like you wouldn’t believe, so at least put a condom on before you…ahem…dip your wick.â€

 

Raiha wished desperately that a chasm would magically open up, swallow him whole and crush him into a paper-thick blob. “We…it’s not like…there are other, erm, well, what do you call it. Things. That you can do together and are not related to…er…â€

 

“Love-making?†Rasen spoke the word casually.

 

Raiha facepalmed, mortified. “God Almighty…Fine! Fine! Yes, we are.â€

 

“Oh ho, how many times a day?â€

 

“Kill yourself!â€

 

Rasen laughed heartily, apparently delighted by his little brother’s discomfort. “I was a teenager once too,†he said finally. “I know young people have done and always will do a terrible job at restraining themselves, so a bit of advice from someone who has been through that phase won’t do you harm. Any plan for the future?â€

 

He chewed on his lips and looked outside the car’s window. “I do. We discussed about moving to Tokyo together after graduation, get ourselves a small apartment. I will get into Toudai and work hard to be a doctor, she will pursue her dream of being a restaurateur. I will keep being a Knight too, so that if a Warlock shows up and tries to use her again, I will kick his butt.â€

 

“Mmhm, sounds like someone got the next few decades of his life all worked out.â€

 

Raiha smiled. “What about you, Rasen? When are you finally going to ask for Sakura-san’s hand in marriage? She’s been waiting for you since your days in college together. If you ever need a priest, I can totally help out.â€

 

His brother’s eyes suddenly became cold and hard. For a second, he seemed like he was about to cry as he closed his eyes. But when Rasen opened them, the tears were gone. “There won’t be a wedding.â€

 

“There won’t be one?!†Raiha asked, shocked. “What happened?â€

 

“She’s gone, Raiha,†he replied, his voice betraying only a sliver of sorrow now. “The Hanayoshi did it. They sent me her head stuffed with mud a few days ago.â€

 

Raiha couldn’t believe his own ears.

 

“I want no revenge,†he continued, calming his younger brother with a pat on the shoulder. “The old man pulled the trigger on their clan’s sole heir and that was their retaliation. Hatred begets hatred, and violence will only be answered with violence. The sins of the fathers…someone has to put an end to this vicious cycle. This war stops now.â€

 

*****

                                                                                               

Even after everything he had seen, The Oriole was the very definition of grandeur, style, and ostentation to Raiha. The Japanese-styled restaurant was built around a crystalized pool that housed a school of koi fish, with most of its decorations built to resemble trees and vines, where bridges, stairways to partitions seemingly sprouted from the ground. Every table had that clearing in the wood vibe to it, each set on top of a rocky platform at different elevations around the pool, perfect for a romantic candlelight dinner away from any prying attempt. Raiha could even see tables set on top of small flat stones rising up from the pool like mini islands, and gondolas manned by the restaurant’s employees were in charge of ferrying the customers as well as their orders across the body of water.

 

To further drive home the fairy tale-like atmosphere, low hanging lamps of light were positioned all over the spacious dining place, each one vibrant and swirling as if there were actual fireflies residing within. They come in all colours: teal, aquamarine, scarlet, verdant, chartreuse, each in turn bounced off the surface of the water, casting luminous reflections and half-shadow over the walls. They overwhelmed even the light of the moon and the stars, which customers were also given a clear view of through a nearly imperceptible ceiling made out of glass.

 

Raiha walked through the front archway, his dark cloak trailing behind him. A Browning Hi-Power pistol sat uncomfortably within his coat, its weight constantly reminding Raiha that he wasn’t here to admire the interior design. Few people were aware of The Oriole’s true nature, which was simply a front for the yakuza clan Ikazuchi to launder their ill-gotten money, though there was no denying the fact that its exquisite food and atmosphere had consistently earned the restaurant unanimous praise from critics and connoisseurs alike. On a normal day, the dining place would have been packed to the rafters with customers by now, but today was the Shinjuku summit, which means the place had to be closed down temporarily to exclusively serve the three gathering clans.

 

In the center of the pool, a Lazy Susan - a Chinese form of dining table with a revolving stand on top of it - was being prepared with cutleries, tea cups and spice trays. A few men in business wear stopped Rasen and his retinue inside the door, and everyone each took out an invitation with their name on it. After checking to make sure there wasn’t any uninvited guest amongst the Shirakawa clan members, they bowed respectfully and led the guests toward a waiting room in the back, citing unforeseen circumstances as reason for the delay. The group walked toward the end of the hallway, toward a large room accessible through a sliding Shoji door.

 

“What sort of unforeseen circumstances?†Raiha asked.

 

“One way or another, words leaked out on the street that the Big Three would be holding their meeting here today. We have had a few curious journalists and overeager police officers so far, but please rest assured that the situation would be taken care of to the best of our ability,†the escort bodyguard answered and gestured for everyone to enter the room.

 

Men in formal western clothing were waiting inside, most of them standing, with only one sitting seiza-style on a pillow in the center of the room, a steaming cup of tea on the table in front of him. Raiha recognized Yamamoto Ikazuchi, leader to clan Ikazuchi, if only from a hazy recollection of a tall man of stocky build, with face rugged and hardened by years of making a living in the criminal underworld. He had salt-and-pepper hair now, dark against silver in equal proportion, the kind that many people weren’t lucky enough to get pushing a score and a half years, and his face was neatly shaven. The man turned to the side and looked, visibly surprised to see Raiha standing at the doorway.

 

“Raiha-kun? Now that’s a face I never expected to see today,†he said.

 

“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Yamamoto-dono,†Raiha replied, doing his best to keep from looking nervous or impressed. Truth be told, he was both. Yamamoto, in a way, was a walking relic. He was the reigning kingpin of crime in Tokyo before the other two clans showed up, and even then they respected him enough to include him as part of the Big Three despite the old man’s clan having lost a vast amount of influence over the years. Rasen told him another purpose of this meeting was to gain favor with Ikazuchi in the event that peace talk with Hanayoshi failed, meaning all Raiha had to do was keep a straight face and keep his dumb mouth shut and let his brother do all the talking.

 

Besides, it wasn’t like he could open his mouth readily - not with all this noxious fume of unholy magic in the air.

 

Two men in the corner stood and gazed at Raiha, each packing a katana that was unmistakably a Reaper. The man on the left was the first to move across the room. He had black hair long enough to be mistaken for a girl from behind and the build of someone who works out regularly in the gym. The man also wore spectacles, which was a rarity amongst melee combatants. He regarded Raiha’s cloak, the silver vambraces, and the greaves which he had summoned on top of his clothing and said, “A pleasure to meet you.â€

 

“Good evening,†Raiha responded back.

 

“You are Raidou-dono’s youngest son?â€

 

“What gave that away?†Raiha answered and ran a hand over his head of distinctive red hair.

 

“I made a wild guess.†He grinned and offered his hand. “I’m Ryu.â€

 

Raiha took out his right gauntlet and accepted the shake. His hand had the calluses of someone who knows his way around a blade, and a firm grip that conveyed confidence without resorting to bone-crushing strength. The fella was alright. “Raiha Shirakawa, call me Raiha.â€

 

At this point, the second man approached. Raiha noticed that their katana seemed to share an identical design, which led to him wondering if this was a Reaper that somehow required two wielders. This man was taller than Raiha and built like a mountain of meat and muscle with dark tan, coal-black curly hair that seemed to cover the majority of his eyes.

 

“You. Demon Hunter?†he growled gutturally.

 

“Me. Demon Hunter,†Raiha replied.

 

He took a closer look at the gauntlets and greaves Raiha was wearing, then frowned. “You don’t have your Reaper at the ready. An amateur mistake that might end badly for house Shirakawa.â€

 

There were a number of fairly destructive invocations and sarcastic quips that Raiha could have retorted with.  “Was in a rush so I left it at home. Here’s hoping there’s not going to be any violence today,†he settled for a bluff instead.

 

The muscular man shook his head. “You are a fool. Always hope for the best but prepare for the worst.â€

 

Ryu sighed, tapping his big companion on the shoulder. “He doesn’t need a weapon to blow this whole place sky high. Also I told you before, people can materialize their Reapers or Sacred Arms at will, you just never bothered to learn how.â€

 

“But he said-â€

 

“He jested,†Ryu said with emphasis. “Christ, sometimes you gotta stop taking things at face value. The bakufu gave us a dossier about him. The Knight of the Cross, remember?â€

 

Raiha whistled. “They got a file on me? I’m honored.â€

 

Ryu watched Raiha’s face as if to figure out if he was feigning ignorance. “Everybody is keeping tab on everybody in this city, Raiha-kun. We might be fighting the common cause today, but only because at the end of the day, the enemy of my enemy-“

 

“Dies next,†Raiha finished the sentence.

 

The glassed man frowned. “That’s one variation of the saying, but not the one I was getting at. People are paranoid, rightfully so when they have to deal with individuals who can accomplish as much as an army on their own.â€

 

“Maybe if these ‘individuals’ stick to hunting demonspawn only instead of profiting from their powers, they wouldn’t have to rubberneck so often?†Raiha’s voice couldn’t have been any dryer, but credits were given for trying.

 

“That’s a stone you are hardly in a position to cast,†Ryu scoffed. “Pretty certain playing escort to a criminal boss isn’t something obligated by your scripture and religious duty.â€

 

Raiha folded his arms. “I’m only here because you people are as well.â€

 

He arched an eyebrow. “Not because of the vigilante?â€

 

“The vigilante?â€

 

“That’s what we call the guy who has been going after members of all 3 clans.†Ryu narrowed his brow. “You saw the case reports and the autopsies?â€

 

Memory of the pictures Rasen showed him yesterday came back in full clarity. “Yeah, I did. Think he’s a Power user too?†It was a catch-all term for anyone with paranormal capabilities: Altered, Warlocks, Knights, Avatars, Reaper wielders to list a few.

 

“Has to be. All of them happened too fast, too clean. Cameras on screen were all shorted as if hit by an EMP, no witness whatsoever to speak of. And the state of the bodies when they were discovered afterward…†Ryu grimaced, his free hand balling into a fist. “No animal or machine is capable of doing that. Everything points toward our perpetrator having access to preternatural means, don’t you think?â€

 

“Hanayoshi seems to think clan Shirakawa is behind it all,†Raiha replied.

 

“Well,†Ryu let out a sardonic laugh. “Clearly whoever this vigilante is, he is in possession of tremendous speed and a deadly edge. Just like someone in this room right now, as a matter of fact. So the law of parsimony would dictate that…†he stopped meaningfully.

 

Raiha thought about it. “I see. They believe I did it, and clan Shirakawa merely hung a few of our rejects out to dry to make it look like we were victims as well.â€

 

“We all have a price, Raiha-kun,†Ryu said. “Just because you are a Knight of the Cross doesn’t mean you can’t be bought. After all, you are here with us today.â€

 

“Mmhm, and what does clan Ikazuchi think about this whole travesty?â€

 

He considered his words for a moment. “We think Shirakawa and Hanayoshi need to put behind their differences and work together with our clan to destroy the vigilante and his associates, no matter who they are.â€

 

Raiha nodded. In the worst case scenario, Ikazuchi will declare neutrality from any ensuing conflict. That was good enough.

 

The shoji door slid aside once more, and a gorgeous woman in her mid-twenties entered this time. She was a full head shorter than Raiha, which makes her perhaps five-foot-two, and had long, flowing blonde hair that fell to the small of her back. Her eyes were dark grey with hints of violet twilight at their centers. They glinted with many things: strength, intelligence, wit, but most of all it was an edge of beckoning, almost sensuous desire. Her clothes were in line with the formal business wear shared by the entire room: dark buttoned up coat and skirt, a white blouse embroidered with golden patterns, silver flashed on her throat, wrists and one ankle.

 

Yamamoto looked up. “I see you have deigned to grace us with your presence at last, Tsubame-dono. Am I right to assume your brother, Setsuna Hanayoshi-dono, will not be here tonight?â€

 

Tsubame shrugged, perfectly relaxed. “Well if we want the meeting to produce any concrete result, I find it best that the oaf is sent as far away as humanly possible from the negotiating table.†She gazed down at Rasen sitting on the opposite side of the table from Yamamoto, “Rasen-kun, long time no see.â€

 

“It has been a while, Tsubame-dono,†Rasen replied without looking up. “While it does gladden me that Hanayoshi will be having you as its representative, from what I understand you hold influence over only 30% of your clan. Can we trust the rest of them, led by Setsuna-dono, to honor the terms we discuss today?â€

 

Tsubame twirled her hair with a finger. “Naturally. I have been given the power of attorney by the man himself, so you gents can treat the words coming out of my mouth today as final.â€

 

Yamamoto looked behind her, at the well-groomed man with a briefcase in his hand. “You came here with your consultant alone?â€

 

She smiled. “But of course. To show my sincerity, you can see that I have chosen to leave Ashura and his entire entourage home for this summit as well. The deals we reach on the table later will be made out of the goodness of our hearts and the faith we have in each other, not through threats of violence or violence itself. And since we are all here, shall we?â€

 

Raiha listened to her words, frowning. Something seemed off about the woman’s statement. If Setsuna Hanayoshi himself wasn’t here, the only explanation was that like Raidou, he believed there was a chance for this meeting to turn into a death match. The fact that he recently targeted Rasen’s fianceé, Sakura, means the man wishes for war to continue between the two clans. If that was the case, then why would he send his own sister to the summit, who clearly had a different agenda in mind, and not to mention without any bodyguard?

 

The more he thought about it, the more things didn’t click together. He glanced up at the glass ceiling above. If this was a trap and Ashura, the one Raiha most concerned with, was up there somewhere, there was no way for the Knight of the Cross to detect his presence. Channeling a sliver of a Hindu God into one’s body, while strictly not holy magic from a devout Christian’s viewpoint, was indistinguishable from the real deal when examined under his divine sense. This he learned from experience. So what does that mean from a theological viewpoint?

 

Probably that Raiha thinks too much.

 

He sighed and crossed himself, muttering a quiet prayer for protection before heading toward the negotiation table.

 

By the time he got there, exotic eastern dishes were laid out on the rotating tray, its center decorated with a gigantic ice sculpture of a tiger, clan Ikazuchi’s symbol. Everybody of import took their seats, which amounted to the two Reaper wielders, Yamamoto Ikazuchi, Rasen Shirakawa, Raiha Shirakawa, Tsubame Hanayoshi, and three other men who acted as legal advisors to each clan representative. No one touched the food on the table.

 

Rasen was the first to talk.

 

“How is it that we have come to this day?†he said. “In the past, our three clans came together and agreed to split Tokyo fairly amongst ourselves. And then all for the sake of money and influence, we have turned against each other, discarding the vows we made to ourselves back then.†Rasen’s eyes darted toward Hanayoshi’s representative, who was only two seats away from him. “Tsubame-dono, you have lost a nephew to my clan. I’ve lost my wife-to-be to yours. I do not take this grave insult personally, because we all know this is business. But is there a reason as to why we can’t stop this foolish conflict right here and now before more people die?â€

 

She made a steeple with her fingers. “My heart goes out to you, Rasen-kun. If it was up to me to make the call, such a terrible decision would have never come to pass.â€

 

“In that case,†Yamamoto said to Tsubama. “Why did Setsuna-dono do it?â€

 

“Revenge for his son, and for his business,†she stated matter-of-factly. “Everyone in this room is aware of Rasen-kun’s deep friendship with the press, the politicians and the chief commissioner of the city. But he refused to share his connections with my brother when Setsuna asked for a truce in exchange for a favor from clan Shirakawa.â€

 

“I have only refused clan Hanayoshi’s proposal out of my own conscience,†Rasen said after downing a cup of sake. “It’s one thing to sell guns and drugs to the lowlifes on the street, that’s just a form of population control. It’s another thing to make a living out of harvesting organs from decent folks. Have you ever woken up in a bathtub filled with ice and come to the terrible realization that someone had been inside you and took away your liver, your lung, your bladder, Tsubame-dono?â€

 

“Occasionally, people have to get with the time,†she calmly explained. “For the Big Three to survive, we have to lean on each other for support. We are not asking you to participate in this business, only that you persuade your friends in high places to put aside their investigation for a while, give us time to clean up a few loose ends. Of course, we will pay your clan handsomely for your assistance in this matter.â€

 

They talked more on the matter for a long time, hashing out the details, ascertaining the terms. Raiha closed his eyes, feeling uncomfortable to be sitting in the middle of everything. He would grind his teeth in frustration, but since this was a meeting where clan Shirakawa’s reputation was at stake, he settled for grinding his teeth on a few roasted pieces of Beijing duck instead.

 

Finally, Rasen nodded, looking tired. “I’ll have a talk with these people, see what I can do in exchange for peace between our two clans.â€

 

“And will you agree to our other term, to not take further revenge on clan Hanayoshi for the death of your fiancée?†Tsubame asked.

 

Rasen’s eyes regarded her coldly.

 

“If I take a few dozens of your men and throw their bodies out to a trash disposal site, will it bring her back? Will it bring your nephew back? I have said it before and I will say it again: I never have nor will I exact vengeance. But only if nothing else is going to happen to my men and family courtesy of anyone within this room, and that you return to me the rest of my fiancée’s body for a proper burial.â€

 

Tsubame blinked.

 

It wasn’t a huge giveaway. If this was a poker table, a less observant player might not have even picked up on it. Rasen’s words startled Tsubame, and for a fraction of a second it showed. She immediately covered it with a practiced lascivious smile. “Let’s all be honest with each other here, Rasen-kun. If it wasn’t your brother’s doing, then who else could have accomplished such a thing?â€

 

“That I do not know. But someone out there is responsible for the death of my men, Yamamoto-dono’s men, and yours. Someone who is not affiliated with clan Shirakawa. As for my brother, if I were to walk into a room filled with burned corpses and him holding a flamethrower, I still would believe in him not having done the deed.â€

 

“Do you have proof for your words, Rasen-dono?†asked Yamamoto.

 

“Like I said, my men were victims as well,†Rasen offered.

 

“They could have been any low-level functionaries doomed to serve as distractions,†Tsubame recited the same conclusion Ryu had hinted at earlier to Raiha.

 

Rasen smiled. Professional smiles were being flashed all around the table this evening, it would seem. This one had with it the cold anger of a gentle man. “Look into my eyes, Yamamoto-dono, Tsubame-dono, and tell me you see someone who would hang his friends and family out to dry for the sake of covering his own track. If I want something done, I will do so in the most direct way possible. If I want vengeance on Setsuna-dono, rest assured I will walk through the front gate of his mansion and blow his brain out all over his dining table.â€

 

Tsubame’s eyes widened, and she fell silent. The three clan heads stared at one another for a long moment before Tsubame whispered, “This makes no sense.†She pushed her hair back from her face with one hand in what seemed to be a nervous gesture. “If house Shirakawa isn’t behind it, then who the hell is targeting our people?â€

 

“That I do not know,†Rasen spoke. “But we will get to the bottom of this somehow. Though first thing first, am I right to assume there would be peace amongst our clans from here on out?â€

 

She looked at Rasen appraisingly before nodding. “You have my words.â€

 

Yamamoto looked from the side and nodded approvingly. “Good, then our time spent in this meeting has not come to waste. Would the two clan representatives exchange your sakazuki cups in honor of your agreement today?â€

 

Rasen pushed back his chair, but it was Tsubame who was the first to rise and take a few long-legged strides across the round table to where the Shirakawa’s representative sat. They passed each other their cup filled to the brim with sake, and after a solemn bow, downed the content inside to the last drop.

 

A sick sensation settled onto Raiha. He felt it in his bones before the stench of vile magic knocked his sense of smell into oblivion. Something repulsive and terrifying was coming. Death. Death was coming, tangible, solid, unavoidable.

 

There was a Warlock in the same room with them at that precise moment. And Raiha could feel the individual’s power building up to a deadly release. His instincts whipped him into action, and Raiha immediately dived at his brother along with the Hanayoshi woman, clapped his hands together, and mentally recited the strongest defensive prayer that came to mind.

 

“SHIELD OF FAITH!†he shouted and invoked.

 

Hell broke loose soon after.

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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?”

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The lights went out, all of them at once, plunging the entire restaurant into darkness.

No more than half a second went by before Raiha juked to Tsubame and Rasen so that he was in the centre, gathered them in one arm, extended his other arm upward, and raised his shield. It blazed to life like a fiery comet, forming a multilayered silver-blue half dome. Any physical object that comes into contact with its surface would cause a layer to explode outward violently, cancelling out the force and the resulting shockwave alike. In his mentor's capable hands, Elaine of Astora could produce exactly 9999 layers with this technique, but Raiha was only capable of somewhere between 130 layers. I hope this is enough, he thought grimly.

Tsubame stared hard at Raiha for a moment and then asked, “What’s going on, Raiha-kun?â€

“We are being attacked,†Rasen answered quietly in his brother’s place. This was the contingency plan he had been told about prior to the meeting. “How is it, Raiha?â€

“Someone called forth a dimensional barrier right inside the restaurant,†Raiha answered, putting more effort of will toward maintaining the shape of the barrier before realizing his lackluster explanation. “To you non-initiates, that’s a sliver of Hell brought into our reality, where its denizens and servants can freely use their power.â€

It was pitch black and silent as a graveyard outside, as though some greasy soot had fallen down and coated the entire restaurant with it. Raiha reached into his pocket and tried to use his phone as a source of light. There was a spark, a little puff of smoke, and then it went dead in his hand, same as every other electronic gizmo seemed to do whenever demonspawn came close.

“Can you get us out of it?†It wasn’t a question, but more like a request from Tsubame.

Raiha turned to look at her, then nodded. He summoned the Blade of Mercy in his right hand, and more of his will thrummed through it, setting the winding patterns of runes and engravings along its length to crackling with azure arcs of lightning, chasing the darkness away. Still with one hand holding up the barrier, he slammed the blade into the ground.

And frowned. They were indeed within a dimensional barrier, but only for a moment in time shorter than it would take him to blink his eyes. Gone too was the trace of its master; had it not been for the shattered light bulbs, his malfunctioned phone, and the lingering stench of vile magic, Raiha would have seriously considered the notion that he had imagined the entire thing.

Another smell, sharp and acrid, gave him a pause, followed by a series of dull thuds, like lumps of clay being dropped on the ground. He recognized the scent of slaughtered human, of offal and excrement.

Something was very wrong.

Raiha looked back and gave the other two within his barrier a meaningful look. They both nodded to indicate their readiness. He released his grip on the shield, causing it to shatter into thousands of shimmering fragments, and made his way forward, eyes carefully sweeping around. The first thing he found was Ryu, the Reaper wielder he had talked to earlier, several paces away from where they were standing. The harsh blue light from the Blade of Mercy cast a grim illumination over his remains, and Raiha knelt down to study them.

Ryu was dead from a single wound – a massive, clean cut that started from the top of his head and went all the way to his crotch, neatly severing his body in half along the spine. His skin looked wrinkled, rubber-like somehow, and it took Raiha a good second to realize there was not even a single drop of blood within his vein. The ground around the corpse was wrenched, but it was from the interstitial fluid leaking from within his body and the content of his organs. Strangely enough, he distinctly recall the katana-shaped Reaper being attached to Ryu’s belt even when he sat down at the negotiation table. Said weapon was nowhere to be found.

Raiha stood up, making his way across the table. No matter where he looked, death stared back hard at him in the eyes. The person he was looking for was on the other side of the table, or to be precise, his head and a portion of his torso was. The remaining part was more than a meter away. It was the other Reaper wielder, the hulking man with diminishing intelligence. He too was drained dry of blood, his weapon mysteriously no longer by his side.

A Warlock did this - that much was clear. A viciously sharp blade, like a long-hunting knife or a sword, was behind these injuries. But how did he cause so many deaths within such a short span of time? Were the Reapers his objective all along? And where did all the blood go?

Since when did Warlock become interested in killing anything but Altered?

Rasen approached, frowning, one hand holding his lighter. He looked at his brother. “We checked everyone, no other survivor.†He paused. “Raiha, there’s one thing you should know. The murderer is -â€

He ground his teeth. “I know, the vigilante who has been targeting yakuza all over Tokyo. I remember being shown these exact injuries yesterday.â€

“Did you manage to catch his face?â€

“Didn’t even see him in action,†Raiha said, his voice cracking a little. “I have seen some seriously fast Thralls and Warlocks in my life, but this is just insane.â€

Tsubame approached them, her eyes looking apprehensively at the surrounding darkness. “Raiha-kun, may I have a moment of your time?â€

Raiha rose and picked up his sword on the ground. “What’s wrong?â€

“I found a body over there. He’s my legal consultant but…something seems off about him.â€

He nodded and followed her. The ground squelched beneath his boots. Hanayoshi’s legal consultant was lying right next to the table, split along the spine and drained of blood just like Ryu, his ribs jabbing out like ragged, snapped knives. The culprit seemed to kill in only two types of stroke: either vertically from the head down or diagonally from the shoulder, which set off a small alarm somewhere in the deep recess of Raiha’s mind. The only kind of murder in the supernatural world that required methodical steps, as far as his memory served, were ritualistic human sacrifice.

Hmm?

He hadn’t noticed it at first due to the colour distortion resulting from his blade’s azure light, but the man’s skin was a sickly gray, marred with the purple striations of death, as if he was a corpse in an advanced state of decay. Rigor mortis had already set in, and his hand was so rotten it was just a mush of meat sticking to bleached finger bones, his eyes nothing more than pulped, gelatinous bits of gum, too deformed for Raiha to even tell what colour they were in the past.

“This man has been dead for at least 3 days,†he remarked.

Tsubame blinked. “You saw him walking and talking to everyone just now. Rather animated for a 3 days old corpse don’t you think?â€

Raiha could feel her eyes on him as he reached for a steak knife on the table and started shaving away what little flesh was left on the man’s scalp. He stopped the moment the utensil hit the skull, and Raiha peered into the hole on its surface. “Animated is the right word. Your legal consultant was dead as a door nail even as he interacted with us just now. This is a Vetala.â€

A faint flash of recognition glinted in her eyes. “Like the creature from Hindu mythology? Powerful spirits that possess cadavers, using them as a means of locomotion and interaction?â€

“No,†Raiha said. “That’s what the storytellers of old chose to explain their existence. A Vetala is when a man is killed and brought back to life by supernatural means, usually by the same person. See this hole? The ritual to make one required a steel rod to be rammed through it and left there for a day and a night.â€

“But what’s the point in making one?†Rasen blurted.

“Vetala retain their memory and capability which makes them indistinguishable from their living selves, but they will be absolutely loyal to the one who turned them into that state, enthralled so to speak. And since they are fundamentally dead, they experience no fear, feel no pain, have no remorse, you can cut off their head and they will still be coming at you; in other words, a perfect soldier,†he said and paused to think. “By the way, know what the most crucial component in creating one is?â€

“What is it?†Tsubame asked, and he got a feeling she was getting impatient.

“A drop of blood from an Avatar, to stop the body from decaying and to establish a master-servant bond. You’ve been seeing one lately?â€

She froze, putting two and two together. Raiha got the feeling that Tsubame wasn’t faking her surprise, as otherwise she would never have brought the Vetala’s corpse to his attention. Which means its presence here wasn’t part of Tsubame’s plan for the meeting. Had it not been for the Warlock somehow draining away all of its blood - the Avatar’s drop included - causing it to revert to its true form, there was no way Raiha would have suspected the man throughout the entire meeting.

So that left him with the mystery of its purpose here. Vetala are stronger, faster, and they don’t feel pain, but they don’t have much initiative beyond blindly following the order of their creator. Sending a single one as a bodyguard was about as effective as asking a rock to guard your home while you were away.

Actually, wasn’t there one more use for a Ventala?

He lifted up the upper part of the corpse and peered into its cavity. In the past, just the mere thought of coming into contact with a dead body would have been enough to send Raiha to his knees throwing up. But after being forced to witness the aftermaths of so many attacks from Thralls and Warlocks, his mind no longer felt the revulsion and fright in doing so. He noted the now greyish lining around the motionless lungs and the shriveled heart, finding nothing out of the ordinary, then shook his head and turned to the lower body part.

“Should be in here somewhere…†he said mostly to himself and rammed his arm into the inner abdomen of the Vetala, all the way to the elbow. For a living person, this space would be where the entrails were located, but as his fingers wormed further in, Raiha could tell that he wasn’t digging through the stomach or the intestine, but layers of damp cotton stuffed inside to maintain the shape of the belly when every other organ had been removed.

He felt his grip around a hard object and slowly pulled out an innocuous, large rectangular block full of wires connecting it two ends. It smelled like burned plastic, with wisp of gray smoke coming from the beneath the wrapper. On its side, the phrase ‘C4 High Explosive – For Military Use Only’ could be seen.

The temperature in the room suddenly dropped by a few thousands degrees. No one moved or even breathed.

“Raiha, pass that to me please,†Rasen beckoned, his voice hoarse.

Raiha did that right away.

His brother wiped away a few beads of sweat on his forehead, then used the same stained steak knife Raiha had used earlier to slowly cut away a few of the wires and crack open the bomb’s exterior. He let out a low curse at the sight of a hollow chamber containing a vast amount of white powder.

“Diatomaceous earth and nitroglycerin,†Rasen blurted out. “There’s enough here to blow up the entire room.â€

“Can you defuse it?†Raiha and Tsubame spoke simultaneously.

He shook his head. “There’s no need to. Something did a serious number on it electric fuze. Close call if you ask me, this thing looks like it was going to blow in about half a minute. But just to be sure, I will remove the battery from the trigger.â€

Raiha heaved a sigh of relief. It must have been that Warlock from earlier and their kind’s penchant to wreak havoc on electronic appliances. His brother continued to jury rig the explosive, and at the end he carefully lay it aside before turning to regard the woman next to Raiha, eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Tsubame-dono, you have a minute to convince me why I shouldn’t kill you right now.â€

“Wait…You think I planned this?†Tsubame asked, flabbergasted.

“Here’s what I think,†Rasen calmly spoke and picked up a handgun from a fallen yakuza nearby, pointing it at her, his stance and tone radiating with cold menace. “There’s a nice meeting here with all the clan heads and their paranormal bodyguards, who despite their powers, are still humans. You strolled in here, going on and on about how you are different from your war-mongering brother, even went as far as not bringing your bodyguards along. Then all you need to do is to excuse yourself for a bathroom break, and your zombie will blow himself up like a piñata, taking everyone with it. Suddenly, no more competition from the rest of the Big Three, Hanayoshi is now the king of Tokyo.â€

She looked visibly caught off guard by Rasen’s action, the lighter in her hand almost going out due to her hand jerking defensively toward her face.

“Stop it, brother,†Raiha said, and took a step forward.

“She tried to kill you as well, Raiha,†Rasen said. “No more. I’m not going to let these vile things take away anyone from my family again.†There was ice in his heart, in his words, in his eyes.

Tsubame stared at the gun for a moment. Then an expression of resolution superseded the fear in her face. She lowered the lighter and took a step forward, putting the barrel of the gun directly inches away from her sternum. “Shoot me if that will quell your anger, Rasen-kun, but know that it won’t even cost my brother a single second of sleep. In fact, it will just give all my men, who I have been keeping on a leash, a reason to join Setsuna’s faction in his ambition to destroy clan Shirakawa. Please believe me when I said that I wish for peace between our clans, and that I’m as much of a victim as you two are.â€

Rasen had an ambivalent expression on his face. He drew back the hammer on his gun.

The gears ground in Raiha’s head. He desperately looked for something to say to convince his brother, but came up blank. The scenario presented by Rasen was the most logical thing that would come to anyone’s mind, but his gut feeling told him that Tsubame wasn’t even aware of her role in this entire thing. It was her eyes; when people lie, their eyes don’t look as determined and clear.

Think Raiha, think. What was it that she said?

“If it was up to me to make the call, such a terrible decision would have never come to pass.â€

“In fact, it will just give all my men, who I have been keeping on a leash, a reason to join Setsuna’s faction in his ambition to destroy clan Shirakawa.â€

“Let’s all be honest with each other here, Rasen-kun. If it wasn’t your brother’s doing, then who else could have accomplished such a thing?â€

And he got it. He understood what was happening here, and why. The woman in front of him wasn’t a mastermind. She wasn’t even an unknowing accomplice.

Tsubame Hanayoshi was a target all along. And the Warlock had unknowingly thrown a wrench into what could have accomplished his job for him and easily killed everyone within this room.

In that case, danger wasn’t over. On pure intuition, Raiha moved over to grab the barrel of his brother’s gun and lowered it, lifting the Blade of Mercy to his shoulder. Rasen looked at him. “Raiha?â€

Tsubame looked at an act of kindness from someone who was a complete stranger to her. “Raiha-kun?â€

He looked at the front door leading to the courtyard of the restaurant. “She wasn’t lying brother. If you shoot her now, you would be playing into their hands. Both of you, get yourself a weapon and ready for a fight,†he said. “If I’m not wrong, tonight’s trouble isn’t over yet.â€




*****

The gate to the Oriole’s courtyard suddenly swung inward by the time they moment they made their first step outside, and four black SUVs rushed through it as if trying to outpace each other. Men in suits, about a dozen and a half of them, swarmed away from the cars and took up their positions, lining themselves up like some kind of barricade between the world outside and Raiha’s group. A big brown-skinned man in a trench coat strode forward from that formation, and he clapped his hands while lowering his head in Raiha’s general direction.

“Namaste, Tsubame. It would seem that rumors about the destructiveness of modern ordnance have been greatly exaggerated.â€

Raiha watched her from the corner of his eye. She gulped and regarded the man with an emotion that was a cross between apprehension and fright. “Ashura…You told me your men couldn’t accompany me to the meeting because my brother had a mission for you.â€

Ashura chuckled and reached into his pocket for a cigar before biting off the end. He spat it to one side. “I see no reason to explain to a dead woman.â€

“Then how about I do it in your stead?†Raiha asked mockingly, the Blade of Mercy still crackling with electricity in his grip. “Setsuna Hanayoshi gave you an order. The moment the bomb goes off, you and your lackeys are to come in and remove any trace of my corpse plus my brother’s. With our corpses gone from the scene, making us possible suspects, everyone would jump to the conclusion that clan Shirakawa was behind the massacre, given the rumors so far. And since everyone and their mothers seem to know that I’m capable of lightning discharge, a bomb going off would give you a good starting point to make it look like the clan representatives were electrocuted to death.â€

“Not bad, you figured that out and stopped the bomb from going off all on your own?†He struck a match and puffed on the cigar a few times while he lit it.

“I got help from a Warlock, believe it or not. Gotta hand it to Setsuna for coming up with this plan though. Had it been successful, not only will he gain control over his sister’s faction within Hanayoshi, even the leaderless Ikazuchi would join him in a crusade against Shirakawa. And afterward, they would be begging to join his rank without Yamamoto-dono around, now that the balance between the Big Three has been completely tilted toward Hanayoshi. Did I miss out anything important?â€

“One actually, a reason.â€

“To what?â€

“To why you are standing here giving an exposition instead of running away the moment you figured out the whole thing,†he said.

“You would have hunted down the survivors the moment you don’t find our corpses in there, and I don’t like running away from problems.†Raiha’s voice turned solemn. “I’m here to destroy you.â€

Ashura let out a rumbling baritone of a laugh, as if having heard the greatest joke in his entire life. “On what charge, oh high and mighty Knight of the Cross? Thought crime? Bear in mind I have yet to lift a finger against your three as of now.â€

“Necromancy,†Raiha said the word with a snarl of his teeth. “The Vetala in there, and all twenty of them standing in front of me right now. How many have you killed and remade over the years, Ashura?â€

“Do I look like I keep count?†Ashura answered after exhaling a trail of smoke from his cigar. “Do you count how many bugs you step on while you walk from home to your church? Open your eyes, Knight. People like us, we are above humans. We are meant to rule over them, not bend our heads and obey their whims like some kind of servants.â€

“Big words from a dog eating scraps of meat tossed to him by Hanayoshi,†said Raiha.

His cool and composed mask faltered for but a second, and he waved a hand. “Don’t tempt me to show you what I can do by dropping this cigar and making an effort, brat. You might be blessed with divine strength, but your mind can’t even comprehend the kind of Power I have at my command. I could crush and bury you alongside this entire city with nothing but my bare hands.â€

“Oh geez,†Raiha rested his arms on the pommel of his blade. “I don’t even know what your Power is, but if it’s a physical manifestation of your ego, then I can definitely hear the crust of the earth cracking toward a breaking point now.â€

His dark eyes blazed. “What did you say?â€

Raiha didn’t relent. “I said can it, I’m not impressed.â€

“Is that so?†he asked. “Well, let’s see if I can’t make an impression. Vetala, go after the ones in the back! This one is mine.â€

All twenty men blitzed away from their current position, their movement too rapid and trenchant even amongst top-tier athletes. Each of them bore a short, curved, cruel-looking sword that looked like it was made to inflict massive internal damage the moment the tip plunged into flesh. They leaped and attacked.

Raiha was faster. He gestured with his blade and declared. “Storm of Vengeance.â€

Lightning flashed abruptly from the sky, so bright that it hurt even his eyes, and electric bolts reached down from the storm cloud in a solid curtain that bathed the entire courtyard in azure energy, sending earth and stones spraying up from the impact in clouds and pieces. Where the arcs of destruction struck undead flesh, the entire creature would let out a deafening shriek before simply crumbling into a mound of burned soot. To his right, lightning touched another Vetala and arced around the surface of its skin, searing and blackening everything right down to the skeleton beneath.

Raiha reached out to wind this time, set the air particles spinning, repurposed their well of kinetic energy, and directed their course as they spiraled up. Some of the undead escaped the thunderstorm by luck, only to be caught in the tornado rampaging along the courtyard, its wind howling like a beast in torment. The gale then lifted the Ventala from the ground with savage fury, twisting and crushing the bodies of its foes until it had squeezed out the content. The sound of bones snapping with hideously sharp pops and cracks reverberated throughout the entire restaurant courtyard. Down crashed the wave of undead in a mass of torn flesh and shattered bones.

The magical backlash of his invocation danced through his eyes, his thoughts, his chest, flying wild and out of Raiha’s control. He had never been the eye of a storm with such raw, primal intensity, but cut off a Vetala’s arms and it would just try to bite its opponents, cut off its legs and the creature would be contented with crawling its way forward. The only way to destroy them forever was through exsanguination, a method which Raiha wasn’t privy to, or total annihilation. That was second nature to Raiha Shirakawa.

At the same time, Ashura let out a battle cry, his head dipping slightly, his legs crushing the earth beneath his footing, and he charged forward like a bullet fired from a railgun. Raiha could feel his power overwhelming even the presence of the roaring thunder, wild and strong, and the pressure of it made Raiha redirect the fury of the storm toward the Avatar out of reflex. Lightning raked across the sky again, hitting him squarely in the head.

Ashura ignored a billion volt of shock coursing through his body, treating it as no more than a hindrance. Raiha tried to divert the column of air toward him as well, but it did little more than ripping away his clothing, and Ashura maintained his course, lifting his fist for a punch. Still off-balance from his previous invocation, Raiha could only lift up the Blade of Mercy and attempt to block the attack.

The moment the punch landed diagonally downward, Raiha was crushed down to the earth, as though he had gained a few tons to his body mass. He could feel his lungs strain to draw in a breath, and stars popped up all over his vision before it went black. The storm fizzled away without his concentration, he couldn’t focus, he couldn’t think. Ashura grinned, his fist remained stuck on Raiha’s blade, an overwhelming push that kept the Knight from moving anywhere, and he lifted his other hand for yet another punch aimed at Raiha’s head.

Rasen and Tsubame both aimed their guns and put two entire clips into Ashura’s head. The bullets made contact, and at least one of them went straight for his eye, but at that exact moment they didn’t even so much bounce away as dropping to the ground harmlessly, suddenly drained of their momentum.

The Avatar’s savage gaze went from Raiha to his companions, bringing with it a lessening in the pressure - nowhere enough to physically wiggle out of the deadlock, but it did allow Raiha a chance to reach for one of his coins and tossed it through Ashura’s legs.

“L..Lightning Step,†Raiha weakly invoked. He vanished in a cloud of light and reappeared next to the coin behind Ashura, gasping for air.

“Don’t draw this out, boy,†Ashura turned back to regard the Knight, crimson liturgical scripture glowing from beneath his skin like some kind of tattoo. “You might be blessed with a puny relic by some patron saint, but I can channel the might of Devadi Deva Shiva, a God above Gods. Your struggle against me is as futile as it is pathetic.â€

Raiha clutched the coins he had left in his pocket and scattered them all over the courtyard with a throw. Then dropped back into a guard position with his blade.

Ashura snorted, then dashed forward, both arms clenched tightly around his torso, ready to lash out, his footwork impeccable. He lurched at Raiha, but the Knight sidestepped it easily by teleporting to one of the coins to the side, and after a scant pair of heartbeats, spun on his heel and rammed the Blade of Mercy into his opponent’s back. The weapon came to an abrupt stop the moment its tip touched flesh, and Ashura twisted his body for a counterstrike – but not fast enough before Raiha once again vanished in a golden flash.

The two combatants gauged each other again before they came to another clash. Ashura pressed his charge relentlessly, and Raiha retreated step by step, again and again dodging blows that would have surely ended him if they were closer by a barest margin. The knight dug his blade into the soil at one point and swept up a cloud of dust toward Ashura’s face, but the latter didn’t even blink as the grime struck him in the eyes.

Ashura shifted to a different stance and rained earth-shattering blows down on Raiha, who danced and blitzed across the battlefield to evade them, burning his Resplendence to keep his body from simply collapsing under the inhuman pressure he was putting it through. At the end of the Avatar’s every attack, Raiha countered with a volley of cuts and thrusts swift enough to appear as nothing more than a blur to normal eyes, aiming for obscure body parts that might be more susceptible to harm. Armpits, crotch, ankle, nape of the neck, back of the kneecaps, no matter where he struck, the blade would abruptly stop, drained of all the energy imparted to it.

Ashura lifted up a heavy boot and kicked Raiha in the face. The latter had but a tick to conjure into being a dozen layers from the Shield of Faith, which promptly shattered, the impact sending him flying toward the restaurant building’s direction. He stood up with a flip, spitting out some blood from accidentally biting his cheek.

“The ability to absorb all harmful energy and release them as your own, eh?†Raiha said, gathering more Resplendence to repair his body and fuel his next invocation. “You are one tough nut to crack.â€

Ashura stood at the same spot, a wicked smile spreading across his face. “Right back at you. Teleportation, dual elements invocation, and a skilled swordsman to top it off. Your head would make a fine trophy on my wall.â€

Rasen whispered from behind Raiha. “He’s not an opponent we can take right now, brother. Perhaps we should retreat from here.â€

Raiha glanced back, and proffered his both hands backward. “No other choice. Tsubame-san, grab my hand. On the count of three, I will teleport us both to my friend’s house in Mitsuba.â€

She nodded and did as he told her. “One, two,…†Raiha started counting.

Ashura must have felt the buildup of yet another teleportation spell, because the next thing he said was, “Your brother picked his woman well you know?â€

Raiha’s concentration faltered. It can’t be. “What did you mean by that?â€

The man chuckled. “Who do you think Setsuna Hanayoshi ordered to arrange the hit on your brother's fiancee? Large breasts, angelic face, and the lovely noises she made when I tossed her to my Ventala after having fun with her. Oh I think I recorded it in my phone. Want to take a look? I remember her head even kept moaning for a few seconds even after I lobbed it off.â€

Rasen clenched his teeth and snarled, “You scum!â€

Raiha’s mouth worked and twisted, but not a single sound came out. How could it? Words couldn’t possibly contain the fury, the bloodlust, the hatred that coursed over his mind. Images of the kind, soft-spoken girl Rasen had brought home to introduce to his family just a year ago. It wasn’t fair. They were supposed to have their dreamed wedding in this week. And this monster had trampled all over that.

Tsubame laid a hand on both siblings’ shoulders, and she whispered. “He’s trying to get a rise out of the both of you. He wants you to fight him. Don’t fall for his trap.â€

Tears streamed down Rasen’s cheeks, the first time Raiha had ever seen his brother cried. He had kept the guilt and the sorrow bottled up in his heart to the point of overflowing, and Ashura’s words had caused them to spill out. Sakura-san had been humiliated and killed because she dated a Shirakawa. And there was nothing Rasen could do to the culprit standing right in front of his eyes right now.

Raiha couldn’t tell how that realization made his brother feel. He didn’t know if the despair, the regret, the self-loathing and the helpless fury would crumble him like brittle mortar, or melt him like dirty lead, or shatter him like cheap glass.

But he knew what it did to him.

It brought a storm to life in his mind. It told him to end this vile creature's life. And it showed him how.

Raiha raised up his hands, and initiated the teleporting invocation once again. With a flash of golden light, Tsubame and Rasen were no longer anywhere to be seen.

The Knight remained.

He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, then clapped his hands together, as if praying to Saint Theresa. He let the anger Ashura’s words had ignited flow into his willpower, empowering it. Raiha weaved his Resplendence into the flow of the air all around the entire restaurant and spoke a single word as he dispersed them into the outer atmosphere, dropping the surrounding air pressure to absolute zero.

Ashura’s face suddenly became strained, his breathing shallower, his lungs unable to draw oxygen into them. His words no longer came out of his mouth despite visible effort. There were ripples under his skin, here and there at first, and then his body suddenly swelled up into a grotesque bag of flesh and bones as his blood boiled within his own veins due to the surrounding vacuum. He cried out in pain, but again there was not even a sound. The Avatar agonized in silence.

The fury in Raiha grew. It roared and howled and he reached out with one of his hands again, producing a concentric sphere of immensely dense air particles insulated from the surrounding by his own Resplendence. The moment he unleashed it outside his own protective bubble, there would be nothing but certain death in wait for those trapped within the vacuum. Raiha grimaced, feeling his grip loosening with every passing second.


I solemnly swear


That my blade exists only to serve God


That my desires will not cloud my judgment, and my Power will be used to protect Humanity, never to turn against it

 

And then Raiha stopped the attack, negating both the sphere and the surrounding vacuum.

Ashura dropped to his knees, gasping for breath. “What,†he stuttered the words out with difficulty, “did you just do to me?!â€

“I just gave you ten seconds of your life that you would do well not to forget,†Raiha said in a voice deprived of cheers. “Are you so deluded that you think yourself immortal, Ashura? Your body might be invulnerable against harm, but it’s still a human’s body at the end of the day. You need blood pressure for blood to flow through your organs, oxygen to nourish them, thermal energy to keep them from freezing over, and I can take all of that away from you with but a thought. Engrave that in your mind the next time you use your Power for evil, or I will-.â€

“What will you do? Kill me?†Ashura asked with his still hoarse voice. Comprehension suddenly dawned in his eyes. “How could I have forgotten something so fundamental? The purpose of the Knights is not to destroy those who serve evil. You are here to save them from it. To change their path. You don't end them. You can't end them.†He cackled.

Raiha’s expression was pained. Despite his intense desire to do otherwise, Ashura was right. He was a sworn protector of humanity, not its executioner. It wasn’t his place as a Knight of the Cross to hand down judgment on the man in front of him. He sheathed his sword and, wordlessly, turned away.

Ashura roared, his voice seething with fury and humiliation now. “You think you have won, Raiha?! All you have done was setting in motion the deaths of everyone around you! You might be a foe I couldn’t take out on my own, but all I need to do is to go after those people you hold dear. Your family. The girl you are now sleeping with. The old priest at the dilapidated church. The gun-wielding Reaper wielder. Your classmates. They will bleed in your place, until you beg me to trade your life for theirs. And you won’t be able to do SHIT to stop me from going after them, because the only things you are allowed to kill by your Order are monsters.â€

Raiha stopped walking.

"People,†he said and turned back, static discharge bouncing across his skin, illuminating a nightmarish view of a man who could still a raging thunderstorm, “like to invoke the concept of monsters. These make them seem less monstrous in a way, when they loot and vandalize, rape women, beat their wives, burn books, murder their friends, betray their benefactors. They like to think there's a bogeyman lurking in a closet somewhere that is somehow more of a monster than they are. It makes them feel better, it keeps their conscience clean as they perpetrate these acts.â€

Air howled as it rushed away from around Ashura, plunging him into a vacuum once more, forcing him to collapse and choke for breath. Raiha stepped closer, regarding him with eyes that glowed blue with streaks of lightning scattering away from them. He conjured and raised up the spiraling sphere of supercompressed air, this one even more densely constructed than the last.

Ashura mouth briefly formed a few soundless words: What…are…you…doing...His facial expression spoke volume about the fright and the bewilderment behind them.

The Knight plunged the sphere in his hand into the vacuum. The shift in air pressure was incredible, its blast loud enough to be deafening, and an ocean of wind rushed into Ashura’s windpipe and trachea as a result of following the path of least resistance. The moment this happened, his willpower was no more, and the runic tattoo on Ashura's body vanished without a trace. His eyeballs then bulged and popped right out of their sockets, arterial blood spraying out of his body from every orifice. His ribcage burst out of his torso and expanded outward, vomiting up its content all over the ground. Standing where he was, Raiha could see the torrent of air had exploded out of his both lungs, now nothing more than sad looking greyish pulps stuck to the edges of his rib, though his heart was still beating despite the mortal damage done to his body.

Lightning coursed down Raiha’s fingers, sharpening their edge, empowering their grip, and he wrapped Ashura’s throbbing heart within his palm.

“What I have always been doing,†he said to Ashura. “Killing. Monsters.â€

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Raiha didn’t remember how he got back to the old church afterward. There was a blank spot in his head between the point in time where he murdered Ashura in cold blood and the part where he found himself slumping against the familiar wall he had decorated with cat posters filled with bible verses. He had no idea if anyone tailed him to the place, and frankly at this point he didn’t exactly care. His eyes closed, and the Knight drifted into sleep.

The next thing he recalled was waking up wrapped in a blanket. The mental exhaustion from overusing his Resplendence still went on unabated. Raiha was fading again. He couldn’t hold focus, feeling as if his eyeballs had somehow turned into snow globes, because he kept seeing white spots swirling across his vision. His skin was glowing incandescent, with some kind of blue mesh lighting up the inside of his body, like a honeycomb. The light faded, and blood seeped out of the seams.

Nakata sat next to Raiha, a flickering candle illuminating the shadow under his eyes, wiping away the blood and stitching up the wounds. His expression was grave, worried, his eyes avoiding Raiha’s eyes. The light and the fan were out. A blackout. Guess who was the culprit.

“Bakufu observers were on scene the moment they realized you invoked Storm of Vengeance. They told me what happened over the phone.â€

“It had to be this way,†Raiha answered Nakata. His voice sounded cold. “Ashura's hands were stained with the blood of innocents. He didn’t deserve to live.â€

“Perhaps,†Nakata said. “But yours are now stained with his.â€

A part of him felt sickened. A part of him felt satisfied. And Raiha was ashamed to admit that he felt vindicated for his actions. “I gave him a chance to live, to repent. He answered my mercy by promising to go after Honoka, after Misa, after you.â€

Nakata’s eyes opened wider, and he shook his head. “It doesn’t change the fact that what you did was wrong. You have to understand my child, in the eyes of the Lord, we are as sinful as Ashura. Who are we to judge him? What rights do we have to do so?â€

His tongue could taste the bitter taste of plum. Raiha's expression grew hard, as if hewn from granite, and he bared his fangs like a wolf. “Damnation! Do you think it’s a superhero game I’m playing out there?! Have principles, have mercy, have honor. Am I supposed to save every single person I meet and apprehend every villain I fight without killing any of them like, like Batman? Let me tell you something, padre,†he spat the word, “the only reason Batman looks even remotely successful as a superhero because nobody pays attention to the mountain of casualties he causes by sparing the Joker. One is a mad dog who can't help but kill, and the other is a murderer for not putting down that dog first chance he gets. I refuse to stand amongst the ashes of Ashura's victims and ask myself if my inaction led to their demise!â€

Blood threaded from his nose. “So I did what I did, and I would do it again given half the chance,†Raiha continued. With a shaking arm covered in bandages soaked red, he pushed the old priest aside, turning his back against the church and limping away into the rainy night.

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