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Sir Vey Lance

Rebuild of Mitsuba Academy

45 posts in this topic

She comes to a halt behind Dr. Hashimoto at Conference Room 2 – the silhouettes of two men and a woman are huddled around a stack of papers inside. Dr. Hashimoto clears his throat and opens the door, and the silhouettes hastily stand up straight, each of them grabbing a fourth of the papers and tucking them away.

“Yoshida-san from HQ should be arriving any time now, so I thought I’d get started on the introductions. Captain Yamaguchi, I’d like you to meet my colleagues,” Dr. Hashimoto says. “Dr. Nakano–”

The leftmost scientist, a youngish-looking man with red hair, extends his hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he says. “Should I be calling you ma’am?”

She shakes his hand with a smile. “Yamaguchi-san will be fine, thanks.”

“–Dr. Kikuchi–” A tall middle-aged woman with hair in a long braid steps forward, almost crushing her hand in a strong grip. “I look forward to showing you around.”

“–and Dr. Morita.” The last scientist, a wizened old man with a bit of a hunch to his back, shakes her hand. “If you need anything, just let us know,” he says with a bit of paternal concern.

“I will. Thank you,” she says.

Dr. Hashimoto clears his throat. “Dr. Kikuchi, is the drive ready?”

“Yup.” The woman produces a hard disk drive and a logbook from under the table. “Just sign here, Yamaguchi-san.” She scribbles her false name in the space provided, pocketing the data drive afterward with a word of thanks.

“So. The JMSDF, huh?” Dr. Nakano asks with a grin. “Can’t say you look the part – no offence!”

She laughs. “None taken. I haven’t been in this line of work long – did some freelance work after finishing my studies, then decided to sign on late last year. Work at the Intelligence Branch has mostly been administrative – writing reports and such,” she says, and he grimaces in sympathy. “Is this your first project?” He asks, and she sees tension in the other scientists’ body language. They must be wondering why a rookie is here alone – their project is probably one of the most important ones out there. This is a little risky, but at least I won’t be expected to know anything about prior projects…

“It is,” she says, rubbing the back of her head in feigned embarrassment. “There were actually supposed to be two of us, but Hanazawa-senpai got a bad case of the flu and the Major said it would be improper to make you reschedule.” She bows from the waist. “I apologize in advance for my inexperience – rest assured, my seniors will be overseeing the later tests.”

They buy her act, and the tension drains out of the room. Dr. Nakano waves his hands frantically as she straightens up: “Oh no, Yamaguchi-san! That wasn’t what I was aiming for. Don’t worry about it – I’m sure you’ll be fine alone.”

She gives him a grateful smile. “Thank you. I’ll do my best.”

“I’m glad your side sent someone down,” Dr. Morita says. “It’ll make getting funds from those penny-pinchers at HQ much easier.” The rest of the room laughs, and she joins in.

“I can’t guarantee anything,” she replies. “But I can tell you that a number of my superiors are interested in the project.”

“Oh?” Someone else cuts in, and she turns to see a nondescript man in a nondescript suit standing in the doorway. The most remarkable thing about him is how very unremarkable he is. Everything about him – facial features, hairstyle, demeanor – is so average he seems almost… artificial. It’s as if someone lined up every salaryman in Japan and took the average when they were drawing the blueprint.

“It’s unusual to see military interest in a project at so early a stage,” he goes on.

“Oh! You’re here already!” Dr. Hashimoto says, before she can think of a reply. “Yamaguchi-san, this is Yoshida-san from the Projects Department at HQ. Yoshida-san, this is Captain Yamaguchi from the JMSDF Intelligence Branch.” Even though it’s been about ten seconds since Yoshida made his entrance, she can hear genuine surprise in Dr. Hashimoto’s words, as if it’s taken him that long to process the information.

“Pleased to meet you,” Yoshida says with a bland smile, extending his hand. She shakes it. “Just call me Yamaguchi-san,” she replies, and he nods. Even his voice is so… so boring. I could finish a conversation with him, turn away and forget the entire thing even happened. Something feels a little off about the entire situation, but she can’t place a finger on it.

She shakes her head. This isn’t important. Get the job done, get out. That’s all that matters, she tells herself as Dr. Hashimoto leads them off.   

~~

Halfway to the decontamination zone marked on her mental map, Yoshida interrupts Dr. Morita’s long-winded explanation of quantum physics to ask: “Are the afflicted personnel under quarantine in this facility?”

The scientist goes on for a few more seconds before the interruption registers. “Indeed, Yoshida-san! Most of the affected employees returned to work after medical and psychological examination, but the two most severe cases have agreed to stay in a makeshift quarantine zone for now.” Yoshida doesn’t seem fazed by this development. He probably has to deal with this all the time, she thinks. Poor man.

“I’d like to take a quick look at them, if you don’t mind,” Yoshida says. After another delay, the scientists exchange glances for a quick moment before Dr. Hashimoto nods.

“Of course. They’re this way,” he says, pointing to the left. “Follow me. Yamaguchi-san, if you’re not interested you can stay here with my colleagues for the time being.”

“It’s fine,” she says, sighing inwardly with relief. “I’ll come along.” I was trying to figure out a way to examine the lab workers without arousing suspicion, but he just did it for me.

She follows the two men down a different corridor, leaving the three scientists behind. After a few minutes of silent walking, she sees two solid metal doors with a small transparent panel set at eye level in each. Each door has three armed guards outside, and their hands drop to their batons as Dr. Hashimoto approaches.

“Sir, do you have authorization to approach?” The tallest guard asks.

“We’re not entering,” Dr. Hashimoto replies. “Just a…” he trails off, looking back at them.

“Inspection,” Yoshida says. “I’m from Headquarters.” The guard remains silent for a few seconds before grabbing a walkie-talkie from one of his compatriots. He mutters something into the speaker as it hisses to life – there’s an immediate response, and he nods. “Take as long as you want, sir. If you want to enter, though, proper decontamination protocol has to be followed…”

Yoshida nods. “That won’t be necessary. Thank you, though.” He takes a quick glance through the glass of the first door, grimaces, and moves on to the next. Dr. Hashimoto takes the opportunity to mutter to her: “Aren’t you going to take a look as well?”

“No need. I can see perfectly well from here,” she says, engaging Geminus’ power and peering through the metal.

The moment she does so, her vision turns red. Shit, she thinks. We might already be too late. The thick miasma of demonic influence is everywhere inside the room, rising from the occupants’ skin in gossamer ribbons like blood under water. It hasn’t spread past the door, though – why? There are no wards that she can see, no magic to hold back the otherworldly influence. There’s only one explanation. It seems as if the affliction is airborne.

At this moment, she realizes both occupants are standing stock still, looking directly in her direction. Oh, dear. A quote from some philosopher flashes through her mind: When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you…

Something stares back through their eyes. She looks away instinctively, but for a fraction of a fraction of a second they lock gazes and she sees–

A garden in full bloom. A brilliant riot of colors spilling across the land and sky, beautiful beyond imagining but nothing moves–

A stagnant sea. Brackish water covered by a thick scummy layer of dull green algae, filthy beyond comprehension yet teeming with writhing wriggling life–

Benevolent amusement. Everything that exists is a curiosity, to be lovingly watched over and tended to–

Cruel disregard. Everything returns in the end, flesh and bone and blood rotting into mulch. Ashes to ashes to ashes to ashes, dust to dust to dust to dust–

She staggers backward, shutting off her enhanced vision almost on reflex. Her vision is blurred, ears ringing, mouth dry like someone stuffed it with cotton…

The next thing she knows, she’s slumped on the floor, head lolled back against the wall as Yoshida holds a handkerchief over her nose. It comes back crimson with blood, and she groans.

“Have to… call the trial off,” she whispers.

“I know,” Yoshida says. “I saw it too.”

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“Run!†Erin shouted, throwing caution to the wind and almost getting bisected by a sweeping leg for it. Her uniform jacket was probably a write-off at this point, but worrying about that at this time was probably having skewed priorities.

 

“Eh? What? There’s nothing here!†Keiji shouted back, apparently oblivious to how her uniform was starting to resemble the garb of a refugee in Darfur, or to the monster homing in on the sound of his voice, mandibles clicking ominously.

 

“Just… just run! It got Keiko already!†Erin yelled exasperatedly, gesticulating frantically towards back from where they came. Come on, take a hint already!

 

“Who took Keiko?! What are you talking about?!†Keiji replied, fumbling around his bag for the ‘Kirlian photography’ kit he claimed he’d gotten off EBay for a few hundred dollars. The crab was already gaining on him; each wasted second bringing the crab a few feet closer. “Don’t tell me the Agency’s come to silence us!â€

 

Oh god, this guy’s a complete moron.

 

 

Then again, it wasn’t like he’d appreciate the truth if he was being eaten by a giant enemy crab. “Yeah, it’s one of their invisible black helicopters!†Erin screamed in desperation, feeling a foul taste in her mouth as she recited that nonsense.†I’ll hold them off here; you have to tell the world the truth!†Erin grabbed her weapon, charging towards the crab as she prepared for another strike on its underbelly. It might not do jack, but I’ve got to hold its attention so this moron won’t get eaten!

 

“No,†Keiji shouted, dramatically dropping his overly-expensive camera kit and yanking his school uniform open to reveal a distressing lack of muscle tone or any indication he exercised. “You still have your whole life ahead of you! If the Agency’s caught up with us, I’m a dead man walking anyway… but I’ll tell them NOTHING! TELL MY MOTHER I LOVE HER!â€

 

Oh god. Of all the times to chivalrously lay down one’s life for a woman’s sake, it just has to be now? The crab was already almost upon him, its claw turning red as it opened up to grasp him; it was going to eat him alive. Perversely, that might have been for the best – it could easily have killed him with an eye blast or a swipe of its claws by now. Damn it, I can’t reach him in time! There’s nothing I can-

 

Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

 

Several plumes of dust blew up in a line leading away from Keiji, and the Thrall turned ponderously around, scuttling in the direction of the plumes; it’d apparently taken the sound of the impacts for footsteps and figured Keiji had bolted. Erin glanced behind her to see Keiko with her bow raised, bruised and battered but thankfully still alive. Looks like she figured it out too. Well, at least that’s two people with more than two brain cells to rub together here. She fired another volley, the arrows splitting into several spectral duplicates mid-flight and throwing up another series of dust plumes as they smacked into the ground, and the Thrall fell for the ruse again, ponderously lumbering in its direction and safely away from its intended victim.

 

Erin glanced over at Keiji, who was still threatening some nebulous point in the sky with his pitiful pocket knife. “Just run, goddamnit! You almost got killed!†Erin yelled.

 

“What’re you talking about?†Keiji demanded, looking decidedly nonplussed. “They haven’t laid a hand on me at all-“

 

Bile rose in Erin’s throat as she raised her voice. “They’re fucking invisible, you moron, of course you won’t see-“

 

Then, she heard the crab shriek again, and something slammed into her torso like a freight train. The impact sent pain lancing through her ribcage and sent her flying, and she felt everything beneath her waist go numb as she slammed back into the ground with a sickening crunch.

 

No. No. I can’t feel my legs. They’re gone.  she thought as her vision began to blur and fade. I was an idiot to let that thing hear me. I’m sorry, Dad-

 

Much to her surprise, Erin didn’t black out. She didn’t feel the weariness that one would expect from one’s life flickering or fading, or even the pain that rightfully should have left her curled up and whimpering like a baby. Somehow, she didn’t feel scared either, as one would very rightfully be if they were lying helpless with what was in all probability a broken spine within the territory of a pissed-off, invulnerable monster that killed everything it touched.

 

All she felt, strangely, was excitement.

 

Unbidden, a grin crept across her face as she slowly clambered to her feet, her legs tingling as sensation returned to them once more. She raised out a hand and her weapon, lying discarded several meters away, dissolved into a streamer of scarlet light, reforming in her hands with a flash of light. With the ease born of years of practice – strange, considering she hadn’t even seen her weapon until two days ago -- she raised her naginata into an aggressive stance, poised to strike with deadly force. She rushed forward, leaving an utterly-confounded Keiji in her wake as she charged the Thrall at an inhuman speed. Evidently, it definitely took notice; its eyes flashed again, and out of reflex, she raised her naginata’s haft to block despite the seeming futility of blocking an invisible bolt of force. A high-pitched crackle split the air, the shimmering distortion around her weapon wavered, momentarily revealing a gleaming silvery blade etched with strange markings beneath, and the ground shook as something gouged out a foot of earth almost two meters to her right. I… deflected it?

 

Then, something caught her eye – the Thrall’s body flickered for an instant, and when it came back into focus, it had turned purple again. It’s just for a moment. Probably not much more than the time it takes to blink; but at the moment it fired, its shell had clearly turned red. There’s a weakness right there!

 

“Snow Sign! PERFECT FREEZE!†Keiko shouted as she swung her weapon, now transformed into an odd, mechanical-looking spear. Intricate patterns of frost started forming upon the ground around her and inched up the Thrall’s legs where it touched the ground, abruptly coming to a halt a couple of inches up; the arms lashing out at Keiko at the time also seemed to slow down as if afflicted by a sudden bout of lethargy, giving her enough time to disengage, leaping away with an overly-fancy series of backflips. Now you’re just showing off. “C’mon! Not so tough now, are you?!†the other girl shouted mockingly.

 

The crab let out a piercing keening noise as it tried to move forwards – only to find that its legs were rooted to the ground, pinned in place by tendrils of creeping ice. It shrieked in anger again, and this time, Erin clearly saw it – as the eerie, piercing light in its eyes intensified, the purple glow shimmered and wavered, and was gone. Now!

 

Erin closed the final few feet, her feet carrying her at speeds more commonly associated with freeway traffic, and with a hoarse cry, dropped into a slide like a baseball batter heading for the base, gritting her teeth as the momentum carrying her under the creature’s underbelly tore her stockings apart and flayed the skin off her shins. The air around her quavered and an ache shot through her head as the Thrall fired another blast in Keiko’s direction, throwing up a shower of debris and shattered earth as it excavated another crater; already, its extremities were beginning to shimmer again as its impregnable defence took hold, but she’d spotted her target. Alright. Here goes!

 

“YEEEEEEART!!!†She roared as she thrust her naginata upwards at an angle, point-first into the notched crack she’d left in the creature’s underbelly. The shell shattered like a nutshell as she threw herself forward, adding her momentum to the strike, and a surge of satisfaction shot through her as she felt the blade slicing through soft flesh. The crab keened in agony as blood sprayed from the wound, a fountain of crimson effectively blinding her and leaving a strange metallic, salty taste upon her tongue. The creature screamed again, a disturbingly human wail of abject agony, and the shimmering edge of the blade flickered and threw off red sparks as the might within it clashed against the eldritch energies roiling around the creature’s carapace. With another heave, she drove the blade even deeper, the weapon seemingly singing with joy as it ripped into the creature’s entrails, and as the field of swirling purple began to ebb away from the naked steel of her blade, retreating and fading inch by inch like water boiling away on a hot skillet, she realized what was happening – her blade’s essence itself was anathema to these creatures, dispersing the foul, arcane power they used as both shield and sword. As the creature’s strength faded with every drop of life-blood that stained the ground beneath, the power of its all-consuming barrier had weakened – and now, she could fight it and win.

 

Erin’s eyes flashed a brilliant red, an intricate tracery of lines of crimson light flashing across her arms as she poured the fire within her into the blade, and a wave of exultation washed through her as she plunged the blade yet deeper, feeling something brittle shatter like glass as the point of her weapon pierced it – and the blade continued to pierce deeper, the Thrall’s innards offering only the slightest resistance, then burst through the top of the monster’s carapace, effectively impaling it like a shish-kebab. With a shout, she pulled the blade through the Thrall, its edge effortlessly slicing cleanly through its flesh before exiting its body at the head in a shower of blood and unidentifiable offal – the crab had been almost completely bisected across its entire length in a single stroke. Erin clambered out from beneath it, flicking a shower of her blood off her blade as the Thrall’s carcass, now bereft of the terrible power animating it, started obeying the square-cube law again, collapsing inwards upon itself before slowly dissolving into the pool of crimson ichor slowly soaking its way into the ground. Then, the tension permeating the air vanished, and the skies above them flickered momentarily, going from steel-grey back to blue.

 

Erin slowly turned around as her weapon disappeared once again, contemplating the spreading pool of blood-red liquid that was all that was left of her enemy. Uh… damn it. An ugly, dangerous monster it might have been… but it looked like an edible ugly, dangerous monster. So much for my dream of making the world’s biggest seafood hotpot.

 

“Wow, good work!†Keiko called out as she bounded to Erin’s side, her face weary but still visibly excited. “How are you feeling?â€

 

“Oddly enough, I feel fine,†Erin murmured, taking a deep breath and stretching her arms experimentally. “I’ve got some weird healing power thing going on for sure; I’m fairly positive I broke my back just now, and yet I’m still moving under my own power.†Then, she remembered the gallons of blood that had drenched her throughout the creature’s death throes, and sniffed in disgust – she wasn’t about to forget the smell of blood any time soon. “You think they finished the plumbing here anyway? I probably need to get all this blood off me; if this was a comic book I’d already be putting on a crab costume and scuttling after evildoers-“

 

This time, Keiko was looking at her in a decidedly befuddled way. “What blood? Sure, your clothes are a write-off, but I hardly see any blood on you.†What? Erin looked down on herself in confusion – and Keiko was right. Only the odd smear of drying blood here and there showed any indication of the literal bloodbath she’d been through a few moments before – and as she stared at one slowly-congealing droplet on her hand, it abruptly shrank and seeped into her skin, vanishing completely. Eh? What’s this? She took a sideways glance at Keiko; she didn’t seem to have noticed that. “Eh, nothing,†Erin murmured sheepishly. “I guess it dissolved into nothingness just like the rest of its body’s doing now,†She pointed towards the pool of blood, and it did seem a good deal smaller than it had been a few moments before. “Never mind that, what about Keiji?â€

 

Keiko pointed to her right, and when Erin turned her head, she saw nothing – that is, until she noticed Keiji slumped on the ground, mumbling something incoherent (not that his regular speech was much easier to understand anyway). “Meeting a Thrall tends to do that to normies, especially if they got as close as he did,†Keiko explained, poking the catatonic boy with a boot. “I got it too the first time I saw one, before Yuudai-senpai gave me my Reaper,†she said with a grin as she twirled the weapon dramatically before it vanished into a shower of illusory petals. “Feels as awful as it looks; that night, Yuudai-senpai and the others were real worried I wouldn’t have made it.â€

 

“So, what should we do with him?†Erin asked warily. Please don’t say ‘silence the witnesses’. Just don’t.

 

Keiko looked around at the old building, the scars of the previous battle seemingly gone with the dimensional barrier they’d stumbled into, and then back down at the supine form of their erstwhile club president. “This place gives me the butterflies; I won’t be surprised if more Thralls come. Since the president is… uh, indisposed right now, I guess let’s call it a day here, then. I’m getting hungry anyway.â€

 

“Good plan,†Erin nodded agreement, until her eyes fell upon the still-collapsed form of Keiji, now repeatedly chanting something along the lines of 'You'll hear nothing from me, pod person! NOTHING!".

 

“So… uh… who’s going to drag him back?†She pointed out.

 

Dammit.

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After a moment’s recuperation, she staggers to her feet. Yoshida and Dr. Hashimoto offer her a helping hand, but she waves them off. “I’m fine. Just a little light-headed,†she says. The guards are hovering anxiously nearby and she hurriedly cooks up an explanation: “Chronic illness. Runs in the family.†They look a little unconvinced, but eventually decide it isn’t worth the effort to dig any deeper.

 

Yoshida falls into step next to her as the three of them make their escape and mutters: “I suppose re-introductions are in order. Special Agent Yoshida with the Bakufu – here’s my badge.†He pulls out an ornate medallion glowing with otherworldly energy, and under her Sight it’s as if a veil’s been lifted from around him. She sees a cloud of Power hanging over his body, and her eyes widen.  How… how did I not notice he was abnormal? He hid his presence so well.

 

Under close inspection, the medallion seems rather familiar... Ah. Father Nakata has one as well. Smaller, less flashy, but similar in concept.

 

“Just call me Yamaguchi,†she says. “I’m not actually with the JMSDF.â€

 

“That much was obvious,†Yoshida replies. “Who do you report to?â€

 

She shrugs. “The Church in my area, mostly.â€

 

He nods, as if she’d confirmed a hypothesis of his, and puts the medallion back in his pocket. As he does so, his power disappears from her Sight again – no. Now that I know what to look out for, I can tell that there’s something blocking my vision. With enough inspection I should be able to see through it. “Good enough. I’m assuming you have some sort of plan in case things go wrong?†He asks.

 

“Yeah. Shoot everything that moves,†she replies. “But I was expecting something on a much smaller scale. The doctor’s reports suggested fleeting exposure to weak demonic influence, not this–†she waves her hands around in the air.

 

“Wholesale possession,†Yoshida says, and she nods. “I’ve already notified my superiors, but…†he gives her a grim look. “Nobody’s available, not even the reserves.â€

 

“What’s going on?†She asks.

 

He shrugs in response. “Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is, something big’s going down elsewhere. You got any backup on your end?â€

 

“Yeah. But they’ll take half an hour to get here, and there’s no way security’s letting them in.â€

 

“Call them anyway. We need all the help we can get,†Yoshida replies. She nods and retrieves her work phone from her pocket, but a flashing message near the top of her screen reads NO SIGNAL. “Can’t get a connection here,†she complains. “You said you notified your superiors – could I get a message out using the same method?â€

 

Yoshida shakes his head. “It wouldn’t work for you, unless your colleagues have the proper equipment. We’ll have to find a landline.â€

 

Dr. Hashimoto groans. “We signal-proofed the facility to prevent interference with the experimental setup. The land lines are monitored, and Security will come down hard if you give away our location…â€

 

“Shit,†she says. “We can’t afford to tangle with the guards. Too many things could go wrong, and I’m not bulletproof.â€

 

“Well, I guess it’s just you and me then,†Yoshida says. “Fair warning – I won’t be of much use if push comes to shove. I’m more spy than soldier.â€

 

“More detail would be nice.â€

 

“Blending in, escaping surveillance, information gathering. I have a handful of talismans I can use in an emergency, but I’m not sure how well the wards will hold up – this was supposed to be a low-threat assignment. What’re you packing?†He asks.

 

“Enhanced sight, a gun and two duplicates of me,†she replies.

 

“Decoys?†Yoshida asks, and she shakes her head. “Additional firepower. Takes too long to get them back if they’re destroyed.†Plus I feel all their pain, so it's best if I keep them intact.

 

He nods. “Alright. So, here’s what I think is going on: the preliminary tests created a disturbance on the other side, which attracted something nasty. We don’t know exactly what it has in mind, but we can guess.â€

 

“Crossing over,†she says.

 

“Ultimately, yes.†He replies. “If the experiment is on a large enough scale to allow a full manifestation, we’re screwed. And calling the test off outright will attract too much attention, both from the authorities as well as whatever’s waiting on the other side of the veil.â€

 

“Um…†Dr. Hashimoto interjects tentatively, and they both turn to look at him. “It shouldn’t be. The trial involves an electromagnetic wave duplicated seven times in different orientations, generating a small oscillating field which we then hope to propagate into the parallel dimension…â€

 

“So how do we turn it off?†Yoshida interrupts him.

 

“I was getting to that,†Dr. Hashimoto says. “A slight alteration to any of the eight waves’ frequencies would eventually knock the entire field out of phase. That’s why we’ve taken such pains to minimize ambient interference.â€

 

Yoshida nods. “If we need the experiment stopped, how fast could you do it?â€

 

“If I scrambled the frequencies… two to three seconds to input the commands, then the entire field should collapse pretty much instantly.â€

 

“Good enough for me,†Yoshida says. “Be ready to take action the moment either of us gives the word.â€

 

“Wait,†she interjects. “I might be missing something here, but why don’t we just cut the power?â€

 

“The shutdown sequence will take place over a minute or so,†Dr. Hashimoto replies. “Keeps everything stable and limits any risks resulting from power fluctuation. If you wanted to cut the power manually, you’d have to manually disconnect the power cable and the three backups – I’ll point them out to you later.â€

 

 â€œGreat, that’s another option. If anything goes wrong,†she says to Yoshida, “I’ll cut the cables while the doctor destabilizes the field. Can you make sure his colleagues don’t get in the way?â€

 

“Of course,†he replies.

 

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t harm my colleagues.†Dr. Hashimoto says, determination in his voice. He flinches slightly as she turns her gaze on him, but recovers quickly and stands firm. “They don’t have any bad intentions – they just don’t know what we know. I wanted to tell them, but…†he trails off, breaking eye contact and staring at the floor.

 

Yoshida claps him on the shoulder. “We’ll try our best, but I can’t promise anything.†She nods in agreement and Dr. Hashimoto grimaces. “I guess that’s that, then,†he says. “Let’s get back to the others.â€

 

~~

 

When they return, she sees the other scientists waiting in the corridor. Dr. Morita is taking a sip from a Styrofoam cup of coffee, Dr. Kikuchi is scribbling something down on a sheet of paper in his hands, and Dr. Nakano is leaning against a wall, tapping his finger against the concrete in an odd staccato rhythm.

 

“Ah, there you are!†The young scientist says, straightening up and striding over as soon as he catches sight of them. “About time – I was worried we’d fall behind schedule. Come along now, the airlock is this way…†His finger continues its tapping against the side of his leg as he herds them down the corridor, and she raises an eyebrow.

 

“Morse Code?†She asks him, and he turns to her with excitement written across his face.

 

“Yeah. I’m a big fan,†he says. “It may not be the most effective means of communication, but there’s something about its simplicity and focus that really captures my attention.â€

 

“Like the sword,†she muses. “Well past its prime but still beloved by many.â€

 

“Exactly!†he replies. “Just like Star Wars said: ‘An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.’ Nowadays everything’s about encryption and data density, but I think that there’s a lot we can learn from good old Morse.â€

 

Dr. Kikuchi snorts. “Don’t let him pollute your brain with his crackpot theories, Yamaguchi-san,†the long-haired scientist says with a good-natured grin. “Dr. Nakano is one of the best cryptologists in the country, but there’s a lot of chaff mixed in with the wheat, if you know what I mean.â€

 

“Hah! Now I understand the expression ‘putting pearls before swine’,†Dr. Nakano shoots back with practiced ease. It feels like this isn’t the first time they’ve had this discussion, and she can’t help but crack a smile as their debate descends into a quagmire of technical jargon and name-calling.

 

“They sure do get along well, don’t they?†She murmurs to Dr. Hashimoto.

 

He nods. “They really do. Dr. Morita and I actually have a bet going: he says three more weeks, but I think it’ll take a little longer before anything really transpires.â€

 

“Ah. I see.†Watching the two scientists bicker for a few moments before Dr. Kikuchi puts Dr. Nakano in a headlock, she feels the dull ache of yearning in her chest. I wish I–

 

Stop wishing, she admonishes herself. My carefree days are long gone. I gave them up forever when I took up Geminus; when I swore the oath; when I joined…

 

No.

 

No, that’s not true. I was happy in the beginning. A treacherous memory claws its way back to the surface, long-buried but unearthed at last:

 

Walking home after school with her comrades-in-arms, one sunny Friday afternoon. Smiling, joking, looking forward to the weekend... not knowing that out of the four of them, only she lives to see Saturday.

 

Friday night. Cool breeze in the air, on a routine patrol with Saki. Getting a text from the other two requesting backup, saying they’ve detected some minor demonic activity.

 

Hurrying down the street, boots pounding concrete as Geminus coalesces in her hands. Then a warbling shriek like a bird’s cry lowered two octaves, going on and on and on, echoing from the ground and the walls and the sky–

 

It was my fault. I should’ve stayed, should’ve fought. Maybe one of them would’ve made it out. They needed my help, but I–

 

She screws her eyes shut, trying desperately to forget.

 

I let them down instead. I could’ve done something, anything, but I didn’t.

 

I ran.

 

~~

 

Someone dumps a folded lump of plastic and rubber into her arms, snapping her out of her daze. She looks around and sees Dr. Nakano turning away from her and handing a hazmat suit to Yoshida, pointing out changing rooms down the corridor. “–just to be safe,†he’s saying. “Theoretically speaking there shouldn’t be any risk, but in light of recent events…â€

 

She tunes the rest of his speech out and heads toward the changing room, noting the rest of the scientists are absent. The pain in her heart fades slowly into familiar heaviness as she pushes the door open to see Dr. Kikuchi sitting on a bench and suiting up.

 

“Over here, Yamaguchi-san!†The scientist waves to her with thick rubber gloves, grinning through a plastic faceplate. “It’s pretty tough to put the suit on by yourself if you haven’t done it before, so I’ll help you out when I’m done.â€

 

“Thanks,†she says. “I… shouldn’t have worn a skirt, should I?â€

 

Dr. Kikuchi laughs. “It doesn’t matter too much. You have to change into a gown, anyway. The gowns should be in that cupboard just next to the lockers – you can stash your clothes there.â€

 

She nods and heads over to the cupboard, picking out a shapeless blue piece of fabric. As she sheds her clothes and pulls the gown around herself, Dr. Kikuchi stands up.

 

“All right, I’m finished! Here, sit down and I’ll help you…â€

 

The scientist keeps up a steady stream of chatter while guiding her through the process of donning the suit. Her legs come first; she steps into hollow rubber trousers and wiggles her feet into the steel-capped boots attached to the ends. Then Dr. Kikuchi lifts the rest of the suit up to chest level and tells her to slide her hands through the sleeves before putting on two sets of gloves, the outer layer secured by an airtight zip. The headpiece is the last step, sliding over and around the front of her head before a last zip around the neck seals her entirely in her rubber shell.

 

“There, all done! Do you feel the air supply working?†The scientist leans over and twists something on her back. Air flows from back-mounted gas tanks into the confines of her suit with a hiss, and she gives a thumbs up.

 

“Great!†Dr. Kikuchi says. “Time to go back and meet up with the others.â€

 

She stretches and tries taking a few steps – the suit is not as cumbersome as she thought it’d be, but it still weighs her down.

 

“Just one question,†she says. “If I need to take this thing off really fast, how would I do it?â€

 

Dr. Kikuchi grins at her. “With a knife. No, seriously – the suit takes forever to remove safely, and there are a ton of decontamination protocols to make sure nothing’s sticking to the outside…â€

 

“Understood.†She follows the scientist out of the changing room and back down the corridor, planning how best to shed her suit in a hurry.

 

Everyone else is suited up and waiting for them next to a foot-thick metal door, and Dr. Nakano claps his hands together. “This way, ladies and gentlemen!†He says, punching a six-digit code into a wall-mounted console. His body blocks her line of sight but she simply stares through him, memorizing the sequence as his gloved finger stabs the buttons.

 

The door unlocks itself with a clank, swinging open slowly with a grinding noise to reveal a small room with showers mounted on the ceiling and a metal grate for a floor. One wall is glass from floor to ceiling, and a guard on the other side gives them a thumbs-up. He pulls on a lever, and a door on the far side of the room opens up.

 

“This is the decontamination zone,†Dr. Nakano explains. “On our way up, the showers on the roof will dispense several types of foam to kill bacteria, wash away harmful chemicals and absorb lingering radiation that might’ve made its way back up.â€

 

“Despite the showers’ best efforts, Dr. Nakano here still hasn’t cleaned up his act,†Dr. Morita cuts in, and Dr. Nakano rolls his eyes.

 

“And despite the showers’ best efforts, Dr. Morita,†he retorts, trying to hold back a grin but failing, “you’re still a dirty old man.â€

 

The old man in question bursts into laughter, and everyone else chuckles a little. “Hah! That’s a good one. You got me good, boy. How long have you been holding on to that zinger?â€

 

“Longer than you think,†Dr. Nakano replies. “Anyway, enough joking around – we’ll have to take the train down. The test site was built about six hundred meters underground to minimize any interference from external radiation, so there’s about a kilometer of track to cover. Follow me and watch your step.†He leads them through the door, and Yoshida whistles in admiration as they step onto the waiting platform.

 

“Wow,†he says. “That’s pretty amazing.â€

 

She nods in agreement – the tunnel, about large enough to accommodate a normal subway train, seems to stretch on forever. It slants down at an angle but remains impossibly straight, lamps set into the wall at regular intervals providing faint illumination. Rails on the floor terminate below the platform’s edge, and she feels the hum of a generator beneath her feet.

 

“The train should be here any moment,†Dr. Hashimoto says, and she peers down the tunnel with her Sight.

 

The carriage is about four hundred meters away, approaching at roughly twice her normal walking speed. At that rate, assuming a kilometer of track… ten minutes per round trip, five one-way.  It’s empty, but seems long enough to accommodate around a hundred people.

 

She can’t help but wonder: what would it be like to be the last person leaving work down there? Switching off the lights, locking the door behind you, taking the train up alone…

 

Dr. Kikuchi laughs in response as she voices her thoughts. “Office policy is to always work in groups so we never leave anyone down there alone, but I’ve shut the place down and headed up with the last shift plenty of times.â€

 

Dr. Nakano shudders. “The last shift is usually a skeleton crew,†he says. “Three, four people?†Dr. Kikuchi nods, and he goes on: “I tend to leave with the crowd – it feels a little safer, somehow. I guess I’m just a superstitious person.â€

 

She shrugs. “There’s some wisdom to be found in myths, for sure.â€

 

“True. Some of the old stories are pretty terrifying, though,†Yoshida cuts in. “Maneating monsters, debilitating curses… you name it, we got it.â€

 

“A fair point,†she says as the train comes to a halt and they get in. “Dig deep enough, and you’ll often find something unpleasant lurking beneath the surface.â€

 

“Not just in stories, Yamaguchi-san,†Yoshida mutters. “Not just in stories.â€

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Footsteps echoed into Raiha’s consciousness. They splashed against water, and he was suddenly aware of the wet, numbing cold spreading through his body. He must be outside, because all Raiha could hear was the pattering noise of rain droplets falling down on the street, the faint scent of petrichor soaking into his nose. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids felt like lead doors jamming themselves completely shut.

 

Someone touched his face, and Raiha weakly stirred in response. He heard a startled gasp, but couldn’t see anything in the dark. And then there was light. And he couldn’t see anything in the light still because the person who held on to the flashlight kept pointing it directly at his face.

 

“Master Raiha?!†a feminine voice shrieked. Raiha dimly recognized the voice of the bespectacled maid in the Shirakawa mansion who always sang Saturday night anime songs off-note when she cleaned the windows. “Someone call for Master Rasen to come back! His brother is here!â€

 

He groaned as the noise jammed knives in his brain, and after a while the ground erupted with a sudden explosion of more footsteps rushing his way. “W…where am I?â€

 

“You are home, little brother!†Rasen’s voice boomed from somewhere nearby, and Raiha could feel himself being assisted up a flight of stairs, his head eventually falling back on something soft and fluffy. Pillows. They smelled of freshly laundered linen and antiseptic.

 

“Doctor Minami,†Rasen said a while later. “How is it? Is he in any danger?â€

 

“Hard to say,†an unfamiliar voice answered back. “He has lost a lot of blood. Could be septic shock or hypovolemic shock. His bones are mostly intact, but I think he hit his head hard when he fell down outside.†Raiha could feel the cold touch of a stethoscope’s chest piece on his skin. “I will give him something to sleep away the pain.â€

 

Someone else was pacing around the room. “We can’t let our guard down yet. The moment Setsuna learns about your brother’s victory over his most powerful servant, he would surely send men after him,†Tsubame spoke. He remembered her silvery voice.

 

“Not if we get to him first. Most of my men are armed and ready to go. I want everything that wretched man owns and loves to burn like a pyre in front of his eyes before dawn. Tsubame-dono, that leaves me with you. Please keep in mind Setsuna-dono did not spare you when it came to realizing his own ambition. But I’m different from him, and so I am willing to give you a chance to get even. I ask of you: are you with Shirakawa, or are you against us?†Rasen’s tone left very little room for interpretation as to what would be the ramifications of saying ‘against.’

 

Silence reigned over the room. And finally, Tsubame answered, her voice resolute. “Thank you for your generous offer, Raiha-kun. I know a way into the Hanayoshi mansion. A secret entrance for times of war, and it’s not as heavily guarded.â€

 

“Good, then we leave in 5 minutes.†Footsteps approached the bed from Rasen’s direction.

 

“You are safe now, no one can come for you here,†Rasen said as he gently squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “Don’t you dare chase me away and fight on your own again! We siblings stick to each other comes hell or high water, you hear me? I gotcha back always.â€

 

His brother words were filled with contradicting emotions. Happiness. Sadness. Relief. Worry. Pride. Anger.

 

“And I gotcha, brother,†Raiha muttered, raising his hand for a fist bump.

 

Rasen gave him a rib-crushing hug instead.

 

Raiha winced, then grinned and closed his eyes, putting an end to a day far l0nger than it had any right to be.

 

*****

 

The tender touch of warm, gentle fingers brought Raiha back into consciousness. His nose felt clogged, as if someone had poured concrete into his sinus, and he could feel pain in his everywhere. It was almost impossible for him to move anything beyond his own eyelids, as if his mind was seeking asylum in a stranger’s body. He didn’t want to open his eyes just to confirm what the small, quivering voice in his head was telling him about his sight.

 

The fingers touched him again, caring and meticulous. Someone was slowly unwrapping the bandages around his limbs and chest. This time he could smell the fragrant scent of medicated oil as it was uncapped, could savor its warmth spreading through layers of his skin. It felt amazing, and Raiha could tell it was working, because the crashing waves of pain, supposedly already abated by his paladin constitution, were slowly reduced to ripples in a lake.

 

It was more than physical relief, too. Being blind and immobile was merely an inconvenience; the worst thing about this state for Raiha was the isolation and anxiety. A simple brush of a human hand took all that forlornness and fright away, a conditional trigger so bone-deep it might as well had been hard-wired into humanity’s DNA. It was a reassurance, a promise, that no matter how bad things might get, there was someone next to him, someone who cared for him, someone who would tell him that he wasn’t alone.

 

That a beautiful woman was the one doing all the touching was the icing on the cake.

 

“I could really get used to this,†he mumbled. “Wonder if my mysterious therapist will treat me to her delicious Napolitan spaghetti after this as part of the treatment.â€

 

The fingers paused, and Honoka flicked him on the forehead. “Don’t push your luck. It’s fish porridge, and I bought it from Sai’s on the way here.†Her silky hair brushed against him. He could tell it was hers from the scent and the texture.

 

His face dropped. “I hate fish….and Sai’s porridge too, come to think of it. He always adds more carrot than I can possibly handle.â€

 

“One paper-thin slice is already more carrot than you can handle, stop being so picky. And what’s wrong with fish?â€

 

“Bone picking. I’m traumatized by that time I got a fishbone stuck in my throat for half an hour,†he half-protested and opened his eyes. The world appeared to him like a mosaic painting with way too few pieces, but at least there were recognizable details now.

 

Raiha was laying in his own bed, his head propped against Honoka’s calves, his legs hanging off the end of the master canopy bed. He could see that she was holding a bottle of pain-relieving herbal oil in one hand, her other hand caressing the bruises all over his shoulders, chest and arms. The cuts and gashes from last night had closed up completely, reduced to faint marks by the Resplendence within his body, but somehow the contusion and the scars remained behind as always. 

 

He stayed quiet and let her concentrate on finishing. All his bandages were tossed aside into a small basket to the side of the bed. Honoka moved her hand slowly but surely, palm running lightly over the patches of bruised flesh in slow, repetitive encircling motions, barely touching his skin. She pressed down with more force over his joints, kneading away the fatigue with her infinitely patient and confident hands. It wasn’t noticeable at first, but soon the stiffness in his neck went away, and so were the kinks along his limbs, leaving behind only a lingering sense of utter satisfaction. Raiha drifted on the sensations, and he let out a contented sigh in the end.

 

“Penny for your thought?†she asked.

 

“It was amazing,†he chirped.

 

“That’s the same thing you always say when I’m done touching you,†she answered. Raiha couldn’t crane his neck to look at her face just yet, but he could hear the mischievous smile in her tone.

 

“I’m sworn to the oath of honesty on matters of great importance,†he replied with a flourish of hand. “Perhaps if the lady wants to hear something other than praises, she should stop being so good at it.â€

 

“Flattery won’t get you anywhere,†Honoka said and gingerly smacked one of his shoulders, the one without any visible wound. “Now get up please, I think my legs fell asleep.â€

 

“Dun wanna. Is comfortable here.†He wiggled like a worm.

 

“How am I supposed to go home and prepare the dish you ordered if I’m stuck here?â€

 

“Hmm…you make a compelling case.†Raiha slowly got up, expecting the lightheadedness to hit as blood rushed around his head. Thankfully, it was nowhere as horrible as he had thought. He walked over to the mirror to check himself in the reflection, squinting past the blurriness, and frowned a little at his nose’s shape from being bashed in by Ashura’s boot. His eyes were blood red, as if all the capillaries inside had burst open, and his hair resembled a crow’s nest from all the tossing and turning. He looked out the window and tilted his head. “It’s still dark outside. Felt like I had a full night sleep though.â€

 

“You did. The maids said you’ve been sleeping for nearly 20 hours since yesterday. I only came to visit you after school was over.†She rose from the bed, straightened the creases on her uniform and stretched, the sight drawing Raiha’s attention with how intriguing and pleasant it was to watch. “Ugh, now it’s my turn to get all stiffed from sitting still for too long.â€

 

He started getting ideas. “I can think of an easy…remedy for that,†Raiha murmured and waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

 

Honoka stopped and turned to look at him, her blue eyes glinting as they peered at his with a kind of relaxed, yet taunting quality. A smile touched her lips. “Tempting. Where’s the pretty please?†she prompted.

 

“Pretty please~†he drawled.

 

“With a cherry on top.â€

 

“Wow, look who wants the moon.â€

 

“Worth a shot,†she muttered with a laugh and turned around, giving Raiha some personal space to put on his clothing. He went for a striped long-sleeved shirt, black slacks, and the Assassin’s Creed blue and white hoodie jacket he got during the last Tokyo Game Show. Together they looked stylish enough and didn’t hinder much in way of mobility, which was a huge plus. His car keys, cellphone, wallet, Saint Theresa’s silver cross and the black cloak were all neatly placed on a nearby table by the house servants. He grabbed all of them san the last item and made a mental note to have his phone repaired.

 

Honoka came over to help him with the buttons, as his fingers were still too clumsy to be done with them in any reasonable amount of time. Her hand brushed his when she was done with the task, and without even thinking he twined his fingers around hers. She shivered a little, and returned the gesture.

 

“When your brother and that woman suddenly appeared right next to me, I feared for the worst,†she whispered and leaned in closer, closing her eyes. Raiha’s chest ached at her words. “They told me the summit went awry. And you chose to stay behind to cover for them and to avenge your sister in law. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do besides praying to your God for your safe return.â€

 

“It's not like I'm complaining, quite the opposite really, but…I thought you were an atheist?â€

 

“Hard for me to remain one, especially when He did answer my prayer,†she answered, pressing her head closer to his chest, as if to listen to his heartbeats, to make sure he was really here with her.

 

Perhaps from an outsider’s perspective, what he shared with her was a puppy love of sort, but doing so would be calling a carpenter a woodpecker. Raiha didn’t roll around his bed waiting for her messages on his phone and had butterflies fluttering in his stomach, nor did they do things like engraving their names on a love lock before hanging it on the school fence and throwing the key away. He simply kept her face in his heart, her presence his love and longing; a kind of sweet, yet sometimes painful presence. It felt like he could conquer the world with one hand behind his back as long as his other hand was holding onto hers.

 

For Honoka, he would do anything. Ashura the dead Avatar learned that the hard way.

 

He pressed his forehead against hers. “I defeated him, and I gave him a chance to walk away from his past. But he saw my mercy as humiliation, my kindness as vanity, and he swore an oath of vengeance on people around me. I couldn’t let that happen.â€

 

“And you put him down.â€

 

His eyes darkened, and he nodded. “Padre said what I did was wrong. But even now I have yet to find my own answer. Killing him felt right, it felt good, as if all three years of being a Knight of the Cross had led me to that moment. I can’t stomach the thought of him coming for you or anyone else because of me.†He looked up, shamefaced. “Do you think God will ever forgive me?â€

 

Honoka was quiet, as if considering her words. Then she wrapped her arms around him tighter and said, “I think God sees hearts, and now I see yours.â€

 

*****

 

In the end, the food market was closed by the time they got there. Since Raiha was about as blind as a bat and thusly incapable of driving, Honoka had suggested that they walked there instead. He did think about asking for a lift from his brother, but the latter’s time was occupied completely by Raidou, who seemed to be immensely pleased by his son’s swift and efficient retaliation on the Hanayoshi. In the end, their boss’ plan had ended up backfiring, effectively turning house Shirakawa into the most powerful crime organization this side of the Kanto region.

 

They settled for a grill and hotpot Korean restaurant nearby, this one a mix between a la carte and buffet. Customers would come in and pay a one-time entry fee, and afterward they were free to order as much fresh ingredient as possible. The table had a round hole in the middle to accommodate a metal plate rim surrounding a pot filled with sukiyaki soup, so that diners were free to grill or soak their food. To the side, a small door allowed the waiters and waitresses to constantly put in more smokeless charcoal when the fire became too subdued.

 

Raiha couldn’t see well enough to tell if the meat was ready to eat from the texture, so he settled for anything that Honoka put in his bowl. Once or twice, it was fish and carrot cake, and he had no choice but to grimace, chew carefully for bones, and swallow.

 

“It’s good for your health,†she added in laughter, looking at his glowering face.

 

Aside from that, the meal was excellent in his opinion, and they both lingered behind even as the clock struck 10 PM, just half an hour before closing time.

 

“Can I ask you something?†Honoka asked.

 

“Of course.â€

 

“I just realized despite how close we are, I have never really seen you in a fight,†she said and tapped her temple thoughtfully. “Okay, aside from that first time we met, but it was over so fast for me to tell, and I think I was hyperventilating pretty hard back then. But exactly how strong are you, Raiha?â€

 

He grinned at her and answered without hesitation. “Quite powerful, I reckon.â€

 

She let out a mellifluous laugh. “Let it be known that humility is dead. Raiha Shirakawa killed it.â€

 

“I mean it’s all relatively speaking, of course,†he quickly added, finally realizing his own hubris. “Compared to Mentor, I’m like a grain of sand trying to hold back the ocean, but I haven’t really lost to any other opponent before. She did mention I’m a magnitude above an average Knight when it comes to the size of my Resplendence pool, and my predecessor left behind for me one of the more powerful relics the Church has ever possessed.† 

 

“Resplendence?â€

 

“Well…†he considered it for a moment. “Think of it as my soul. I can tear away a small piece of it, shape it with an invocation, and then release whatever I get, usually in the form of a lightning bolt or a gust of wind due to the nature of my sacred relic.†He held up the silver cross around his neck. “This once belonged to Saint Theresa, who was really good at conjuring thunderstorms, or so the legend goes.â€

 

“You are fueling your magic with your soul?†she asked, incredulous. “But…your soul regenerates afterward, right?â€

 

“Absolutely,†he said cheerfully. “Give me a few days and I will be right as rain again. Mentor told me if I stick to doing stuff I enjoy, laugh a lot and find activities that uplift the spirit, it might even be as fast as a few hours.â€

 

Honoka nodded, then her eyes flickered downward with thoughts. “So if Ashura could hurt you to that extent, he must have been pretty powerful as well.â€

 

Raiha let out a pff noise. “Not even close, the only thing that he managed to do to me was breaking my nose,†he pointed at his face. “The rest of it…well, I kinda did it to myself.â€

 

“What.â€

 

“It’s not voluntarily,†he lifted up his both hands. “I just never got a chance to practice the big invocations, so I ended up wasting far too much of my Resplendence trying to get any significant result out of them. That’s why my body just sorta gave up afterward. Think of it like rebar and concrete. You pull too much of the inner core out, the exterior shell becomes more fragile and prone to shatter.â€

 

Her eyes widened, finally realizing the implications of it. “You said Resplendence is akin to your soul, then what happens if you use too much of it?â€

 

“What happens to all of us in the end?†Raiha answered. “Without a soul to hold it together, the body becomes nothing than a normal bag of meat and bones.â€

 

A moment of silence.

 

She broke it by swearing quietly. “Damn it Raiha, bad enough that there are all these demons wanting to kill you, now even you are in on it.â€

 

“It was either risking that or lost, and you know how much of a sore loser I am,†he responded jovially, eyes closed in a grin.

 

“Let me put it this way: either use all your power and possibly die fighting, or not use all of it and possibly die screaming. If this Knightly dilemma of yours grows any more horns, I’m shooting and mounting its head on my wall,†she said in exasperation.

 

He laughed heartily. “Don’t worry. It’s not every day that I have to fight someone using earth-shattering invocations. So far a blade through the core still works most of the time.†The laugher died away, and memory of holding the air sphere in his palm returned. Raiha looked up at Honoka, his eyes steady. “May I get your take on something?â€

 

“Ask away.â€

 

“Would you have done the same thing in my place? To that Ashura guy.â€

 

She tilted her head and mulled the thought over. “Hard to say…I think I would have. But we do crazy things for people we love, so two of us being wrong together might not make it a right thing.â€

 

He frowned. “I felt bad for what I said to Father Nakata, but I can’t understand why he would place that scumbag’s life to be equal to the lives of people around me. I thought your answer could have given me a different perspective.â€

 

Honoka studied her boyfriend’s face. “Have you ever killed another human being, Raiha? Even Warlock.â€

 

He shook his head.

 

“When I was 5, my mom always baked these delicious cupcakes and put them in the fridge. She would only allow me to have one after dinner if I behaved myself, and she told me that if I were to eat them without her permission, they would give me a stomachache. I really believed it, you know? That was until one day, when I opened the fridge on my own and ate one out of temptation. Mom made so many, there was no way for her to tell if one or two went missing. Of course I never got a stomachache, and soon it got easier for me to justify stealing those cupcakes, whereas in the past, such thought wouldn’t even enter my mind.â€

 

She lay her hand on his in a tender grip. “I think Father Nakata wasn’t disappointed by you, Raiha, but he feared for you. Your magic is born of faith, if you killed someone with it, it’s because you truly believe in murder being a solution to your problem. Now that you have crossed that line, you no longer fear the consequences of such an action, and it will get easier and easier for you to justify taking lives just like it was for Ashura. At such rate, one day you will have a person standing before you just like how you stood in front of him. He who fights monsters…â€

 

She left the sentence hanging unfinished, as if to see if Raiha could see where she was going. He bit his lower lip and continued, “…should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.â€

 

Honoka looked at his acknowledgement and smiled gently. “We can pass by the church together after this, you can come in and tell him your apology. I know you’ve been dying to say it, it’s written all over your face. You are a good man Raiha Shirakawa, promise me you won’t change for anything.â€

 

Raiha considered that for a moment and nodded. “Thank you,†he told her seriously. “For the advice, and for your faith in me. I promise.â€

 

She nodded in approval and leaned over to kiss him, her fingers pulling his chin ever so gently, and her lips and scent tasted like sunflowers and sun-drenched summer afternoons. “Well then, now that you’ve made up your mind, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!â€

 

*****

 

Raiha never saw the blade coming.

 

One moment, he was being guided down the narrow alley next to the Shinramenya which would take both him and Honoka to the church’s courtyard, the next moment the air was thick with a cloud of vile energy. There was…no, there were 3 sources of it, all coming from the cold steel being pressed against his throat. Raiha thought he could recognize each individual scent: two of them belonging to the short-lived Reaper wielders he had met during the yakuza summit, the last coming from none other than the Warlock that had killed everyone inside.

 

His hand instinctively reached out to Honoka for a Lightning Step invocation.

 

“Don’t even think about using your magic, Knight,†his assailant, a figure cloaked in literal shadow, spoke. Raiha could barely make out Honoka’s profile next to him with his current eyesight. She too was standing motionless, a dagger tip pointing directly at her throat.

 

“You might be able to move across the town in a tenth of a second, but I’m faster. The moment you try something, only your headless body will be transported away. Hers too.â€

 

Raiha gritted his teeth. That didn’t sound like a bluff.

 

“What do you want from us?†Honoka asked, a quivering note in her voice. “If your intention was to kill, then we both would have been dead by now.â€

 

The shadowy face turned to regard her. “Perceptive girl. My quarrel today isn’t with you. I have come to deliver lover boy here a warning.â€

 

Raiha heard himself being mentioned. He glared at the Warlock and asked. “That there’s a sword-swinging psychopath after my life out there?â€

 

“Funny. Here's the deal: stay away from the criminal world, and in return I will let you keep your life,†the shadow answered. “Simple, isn’t it?â€

 

“I think you are barking up the wrong tree here. My most egregious violation of the laws so far was going beyond the speed limit, and I paid the fine afterward.†Raiha talked back.

 

“I get angry when people insult my intelligence, Knight, so let’s drop the wiseass charade,†he snarled. “You got in my way today at the restaurant by shielding those two yakuza representatives, and that alone is reason enough for me to kill you right now. But fortunately for you, I also saw how you did it out of the goodness of your heart, when you sent them away and stayed behind to bring down Ashura. That saves me the trouble of going after him myself.â€

 

Raiha scowled. “So what? You want me to sit idly by while you go after my own family?â€

 

He sounded taken aback. “You would stoop to calling those lowlifes your family? Your real family is your Order, men and women who abide by the laws of society and live with honour. These people you sheltered, they just happen to share the same roof with you - that alone doesn’t make them your family. You feel obliged to side with them, but they stand for the opposite of your ideals. You think Ashura is evil for killing a few dozen people, but have you any idea how many have lost their lives to the thugs, the criminals, the Big Three? And if you agreed to kill him, why choose to get in my way now?â€

 

“Maybe I’m just a hypocrite who is not very good at his job.†Raiha laughed bitterly, trying not to question himself over how legitimate those words were. “Just someone who chooses to be a human who cares for his real family first and a Knight second. Besides, my power is to protect people from the threats without like Ashura, Demons, and people like you, not from those within.â€

 

The Warlock shook his head. “Stubborn, but at least you are aware of your own shortcomings. It’s about time you learn that the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.â€

 

God Almighty, I’m being lectured by a Warlock over my choices in life! What’s next? A Thrall coming to exorcise me? Raiha swallowed and kept on talking, trying to resort to other options. As an invocator, he has to speak the words to bring up his power, and as a swordsman, he needs a blade. Neither of which would be possible without the Warlock beheading him first. He had to somehow get the shadowy man distracted for a short moment to give Raiha time to teleport himself and Honoka away. But given that his soul had been mostly used up to fuel Storm of Vengeance, his options were severely limited.

 

“Tell me something. The Reapers, what did you do to them?†he asked. There was another invocation that Raiha could try. But to use that in his current state, not to mention his own unfamiliarity with it…

 

“I destroyed them. They were mindless tools for slaughter, their image a perversion of a noble weapon meant to preserve justice.†His blade seemed to quiver a little as he said that, and Raiha suddenly realized the katana being pressed against his throat was a breathing, living Thrall.

 

“Your weapon devoured them somehow, I can feel the Reapers’ lingering presence still, and they are getting weaker.â€

 

“That’s none of your business.â€

 

The invocation’s power built up painfully slowly but steadily, he just needed more time. Raiha squinted at the Warlock and asked. “What…about the blood?â€

 

“What of it?â€

 

“There was not a single drop of blood at the scene. That was your doing, am I right?†he spoke hoarsely. His voice sounded like it came out from someone else’s mouth. The burden the invocation placed on his crippled mind and body tremendous beyond anything he had ever felt in life.

 

The shadowy man let out a shrill noise, kind of like a laugh, but devoid of joy. “The moment I take out my blade, I can’t return it to the sheath without first drawing blood of the wicked.â€

 

Raiha made a vague noise as affirmation, his mind not paying attention to the warlock as he burned deeper into his soul. He sought and scraped, filling in the empty void with energy drawn from his own life force. And at last, Purity of Lightning flared to life in his mind.

 

“So what is your answer, Knight? Keep in mind that my patience isn’t limitless, unlike my capabili-,†the Warlock spoke again, then suddenly paused.

 

Just as the energy from the invocation started to coalesce into being around Raiha and Honoka, he blinked, and the moment his eyes were open, the Warlock was no more. His departure was even more abrupt than his arrival: no fanfare, no lingering trail of shadowy tendrils, just poof. Gone.

 

“What,†spoke Honoka and Raiha at the same time. The spell fizzled out.

 

“THUNK,†swiftly answered the wall right behind the Warlock just moments ago, as a freaking naginata from out of nowhere buried itself into it.

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The train ride is uneventful and mostly silent. When the doors finally slide open at the bottom, she lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding, but her relief only lasts a moment as Dr. Nakano approaches a thick metal door and unlocks it. It swings open, and her eyes widen as she sees experimental device for the first time.

 

It’s huge…

 

It sits in the middle of a huge hall, a towering obelisk of shining gray and dull black encased in a larger translucent cylinder and surrounded by lab workers scurrying to and fro.  A web of cables and wires sprouts from its metal skin, gathering in bundles to puncture the surface of the cylinder before spreading out and finding purchase throughout the entire room.

 

“Atmospheric evacuation successful.†An announcement from the PA system cuts through the general hubbub. “We’re at zero point zero one and holding.â€

 

She engages her Sight to see current and data rush through the cables in blazing torrents of neon blue as the device warms up in complete silence, and all chatter dies down. There’s no sign of demonic activity, but she can’t help but feel like something’s about to go horribly wrong.

 

“It’s so quiet,†Yoshida whispers. His face is expressionless, but his fingers are twitching slightly as if afraid of drawing any unpleasant attention. He has the right idea, she thinks, turning her Sight back off. If there is something waiting on the other side, our best bet is to shut the portal down before it manages to accomplish its goals.

 

 â€œWe’ve isolated everything,†Dr. Nakano explains. “The reinforced cylinder allows us to carry out the experiment in a vacuum, and if you look at the base of the device you can see a platform designed to eliminate any vibration from the experiment.â€

 

“In addition, the receiver and transmitter both draw power from the municipal grid,†Dr. Hashimoto adds as they turn left and begin climbing a staircase mounted on the wall. “The backup generators are pretty far away from us, so you won’t hear anything. See those four cable bundles? The ones with the yellow stripes on them?†He points toward the device, and she nods. “Every two minutes, they feed enough power into our setup to power Shinjuku for a day.â€

 

“That’s impressive,†she says. They reach the top of the stairs and file into the control room on the second story, which gives a bird’s eye view of the floor space. “So what exactly should I be looking out for?â€

 

“It’s nothing spectacular,†Dr. Nakano replies. “All the exciting stuff is safely behind several dozen layers of radiation shielding. We’ll be sending a signal from the transmitter and attempting to pick it up on the receiver, and you’ll be able to see the input and output separately on these two screens here,†he says, pointing toward a desk-mounted control panel.

 

Dr. Kikuchi clears her throat, then begins what sounds very much like a rehearsed presentation. “Ahem. Right now, the transmitter and receiver are next to each other, but they could theoretically be much further apart because our signal doesn’t take the conventional path through 3D space. Instead, we make two bridges into a… think of it as another dimension altogether. So, the signal goes into this…†the long-haired scientist stumbles over her words, train of thought visibly grinding to a halt.

 

“Parallel space,†Dr. Nakano mutters.

 

“Ah, yes. Thank you. The signal goes into a parallel space… and emerges somewhere else. Even though the entry points might be thousands of miles apart, we have reason to believe that the distance on the other end is two or three orders of magnitude lower.â€

 

“If we’re successful,†Dr. Morita follows up immediately, “this could mean faster than light communication. Not instantaneous, since all we’re doing is reducing the distance that our signal travels.â€

 

“So, like A Wrinkle in Time,†Yoshida says. Dr. Kikuchi winces, but Dr. Nakano beams. “Exactly! I wanted to use that analogy, but someone said–†he gives his long-haired colleague a smug look, “it’d be too esoteric for… what did you call them again?†Dr. Kikuchi gives him a pleading look in response, shaking her head ever-so-slightly from side to side.

 

“….Moving on,†Dr. Hashimoto interjects, “We expect to see some amount of distortion or change in orientation when the signal returns, due to the unusual properties of the parallel space. What we’re hoping is that whatever change the signal undergoes follows a pattern, so we can simply unscramble it on the other end.â€

 

A moment of silence follows his words, and he clears his throat gently. Dr. Kikuchi jumps and fumbles in her suit pocket for a piece of folded up paper. After taking a glance at it, she recites:

 

“If… uh, if today’s trial is a success, we’ll be varying the signal type and distance between the transmitter and receiver devices in future tests to… get a better understanding of what exactly happens to the signal when it passes through P-space. Thank you for your attention.†Dr. Kikuchi looks a little shaken after completing her presentation, but Dr. Nakano grins at her and gives her and a thumbs-up. After a few moments, the long-haired scientist smiles nervously in return and looks away, face slightly red.

 

“Now, without further ado…†Dr. Morita reaches over to the control panel and presses a few buttons, pulling a microphone toward him. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Yoshida’s lips flatten into a thin line.

 

The scientist’s voice booms from the PA system as he speaks: “Recording is on, all systems are running smoothly. Interdimensional Signal Transfer Trial One in three…â€

 

Her heart beats faster, and she feels her palms prickle with sweat. Dr. Hashimoto is biting his lip anxiously, beads of moisture forming on his brow.

 

“Two…â€

 

Yoshida hunkers down almost imperceptibly, as if bracing himself for an incoming blow. Her heart’s pounding like a drum, and she sucks in a deep breath.

 

“One…â€

 

Her entire body tenses up like a coiled spring, and she reengages her Sight. This is it.

 

“Here we go,†Dr. Morita says, and pulls a lever. Immediately, a high-pitched squeal emanates from the speaker as the signal is broadcast. Screens light up all over the console, displaying a dozen readouts and graphs that rise and drip rapidly. “We should have a breach any second–â€

 

A blazing red light roars to life in the heart of the device. A sun, incandescent with otherworldly radiance; a heart, pulsing and throbbing with the promise of power beyond comprehension; an eye, unblinking and all-seeing, staring through the veil of reality…

 

She’s already out the door and raising her Reaper to shoot out the power cables when the demon’s influence rolls over her like a wave, invading her eyes and nose and mouth in a suffocating torrent. Geminus pushes back with all its might but is overpowered instantly, like a trickle of meltwater attempting to turn aside a river in flood.

 

I can’t– The world goes red and she collapses against the railing, trying to steady her aim. An explosion of heat and pain goes off in her chest as the demon’s aura violates her almost casually, brushing Geminus aside to reach down her throat and claw against the inside of her lungs. Red begins to fade to black, and all she knows is regret for her failure…

 

Then the overwhelming pressure disappears as fast as it came, and she’s left curled up on the stairs, hacking and wheezing as she gasps for breath. After a moment, she grips the railings and hauls herself back up, turning back toward the control room.

 

“Are you okay?†Dr. Kikuchi is standing in the doorway. “You ran outside so quickly, then you and Yoshida-san just collapsed at the same time–â€

 

Yells break out from inside the control room, a moment before the alarms begin to blare. “Warning. Warning,†a woman’s voice declares soothingly over the PA. “This is not a drill. Please assemble quickly and calmly at the evacuation area. This is an emergency. Warning. Warning…â€

 

Dr. Kikuchi’s gaze snaps toward the device as bewildered lab workers begin to leave their work stations and hurry toward the exit. Seizing the opportunity, she squeezes past the protesting scientist and enters the control room.

 

Inside, Dr. Nakano is grabbing Yoshida by the shoulder, yelling about unnecessary alarms, while Dr. Hashimoto and Dr. Morita are trying to separate the two. I don’t have time for this, she thinks. She slams her fist into the door hard enough to leave a dent, and everyone freezes.

 

“We need to get out of here. NOW!†She yells. The scientists obey, fear plain on their faces, and she herds them back out and down the stairs to join the flood of lab workers heading for the train.

 

 

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

 

 

As they catch up with the crowd, she can hear concerned murmuring all around her, as people speculate about the reason for the evacuation. Nothing went visibly wrong, and the demon’s aura clearly didn’t affect them. Or if it did, they didn’t notice.

 

“It hit me so hard I couldn’t think for a while,†Yoshida mutters, and the scientists all turn toward him. “But Hashimoto had the initiative to shut it down, and I hit the alarm once I pulled myself back together.â€

 

Dr. Hashimoto’s colleagues give him confused looks. “What’s going on?†Dr. Nakano asks him a fierce whisper. “The experiment was going just fine, then the two of them collapsed and you screwed the frequencies up, and then this madman here hits the alarm. And you.†He turns to her. “You damn near punched a hole into a metal door. Can someone just explain all of this to me?â€

 

“I work out a lot,†she says. “As for the evacuation, there was a dangerous level of…†she wracks her brain for a moment, trying to think of an excuse.

 

“Radiation,†Yoshida cuts in. “Parallel dimension radiation has a knack of slipping past conventional shielding, and we picked up a dangerous amount of it.â€

 

The three uninformed scientists give her a bewildered look. “There’s no such thing,†Dr. Nakano says after a few moments. “Our preliminary tests–â€

 

“Trust us. We’re experts,†she says, cutting him off and turning toward Yoshida as they file on board the train. “Can you contact HQ again? We’re going to need backup. Quarantine, screening... this can’t be over just like that. The breach was at least ten seconds – who knows what could’ve happened?â€

 

“I’ll try,†Yoshida says, pulling out his medallion. “Are you good at detection yourself? Maybe you could take a preliminary look.†She nods and engages her Sight as the train begins its slow ascent to the surface, but can’t find anything out of the ordinary.

 

“Everything looks normal…â€

 

“You can detect radiation by just looking?†Dr. Nakano cuts her off, incredulous. Lab workers in the vicinity turn to look in their direction as he continues, speaking louder and louder: “And he’s contacting HQ with an invisible cellphone? The two of you are clearly insane–â€

 

His eyes glaze over behind his plastic faceplate as Yoshida lets out a burst of power, and all conversation within a few meters dies down. She looks to the rest of the people around them– all of them have the same vacant expression on their faces, and they don’t seem to be aware of their surroundings.

 

“Can’t maintain this for long,†the Bakufu agent mutters. “But we have a few minutes before they start questioning us again.â€

 

“Got it,†she says, mind racing as she tries to cook up a plan. “Our first priority is finding out what the demon did, if anything. Our second priority is getting out of here and making sure this never happens again. Here, let me take a look at you.â€

 

She scrutinizes him with Geminus’ power. His stealth mechanism cloaks his presence, attempting to scramble her sight, but she peers past it and scans his body from head to toe. Nothing.

 

“I don’t see a single trace of demonic taint on you,†she says, looking down at herself.

 

“…you can see through my cloak?†Yoshida asks.

 

She nods in response, still scanning her own body. “Yeah. Now that I’ve witnessed it in action, I can see through it.â€

 

“Ah,†he says. “Well, maybe the demon didn’t get enough time to complete whatever it was trying to pull on us.â€

 

“It’s not impossible,†she says. Her self-scan reveals nothing as well, but for some reason she can’t shake the feeling that something’s a little off about this. Did I miss anything? She wonders. I can’t place my finger on it, but something’s strange.

 

“You’re frowning,†Yoshida says. “Did you think of anything?â€

 

“I’m trying to…†her head is a little fuzzy as she tries to concentrate on something. She can’t remember exactly what, though… “No, I don’t think it really matters. We need to focus on… what’s really important.â€

 

“Wait,†Yoshida says, and she falls silent. “Say that last part again.â€

 

“I…†she frowns at his odd request. “It doesn’t really matter. We have to focus on what’s important?â€

 

He looks at her, dawning comprehension mixing with horror in his expression. “Yamaguchi-san,†he says, very slowly, “I think something’s screwing with our heads.â€

 

“Are you sure?†She asks doubtfully. “How do you know?â€

 

“First, I need to ask: Can you remember what were you thinking about just now? Just before I asked you why you were frowning?† 

 

“I was…†she tries to remember, dredging up her memory of the last few minutes with surprising difficulty. “I was thinking that something was… strange? About all this? I can’t remember exactly…â€

 

“And then you said it didn’t matter,†Yoshida says urgently, concern clear on his face. “What could be more important than something out of the ordinary? And why is it so hard for you to remember all this?â€

 

Oh, shit. Shit, she thinks, going over recent events in her head. He’s right. Something was definitely–

 

“I don’t know if you’ve figured it out yet," the Bakufu agent says, "but I don’t hide my presence from people by minimizing it. I hide my presence by directly influencing their minds – convincing them I’m perfectly normal, and that they have more important things to worry about. That’s how I got Nakano off our backs. Now that you mention it, I… I think I feel it too. Something similar is happening to us, now.â€

 

Or it could be you, she thinks. No, you wouldn’t tell me this if that were the case – there’d be no way for me to figure it out on my own.

 

“…okay,†she says, banishing her doubts. “So, how do we get around this?â€

 

Yoshida shrugs. “I’m afraid it’s almost impossible unless you see it in action. My power affects the brain on a subconscious level – trying to see through the block would be like trying to believe the sea is dry, or that you aren’t a human being. Such a claim is so patently ridiculous that you just can’t bring yourself to believe it, but if you witness an irrefutable proof… your mindset might change drastically enough to bypass that.â€

 

“No chance of that happening,†she says. “Not unless the demon screws up.â€

 

“Hmm.†Yoshida falls silent, scratching his head for a few long moments. “Maybe we could… hmm…†he stops talking abruptly, eyes narrowing as he frowns at her. “I think I saw something. I think… I might know how to defeat its camouflage. But I’ll need your help.â€

 

“What do you need me to do?†She asks.

 

He pulls out his medallion. “I’ll use my medallion to temporarily disrupt all demonic influence in our surroundings, but it’ll only work for an instant against this disguise. During that time, I need you to find and kill whatever’s responsible for the cloak. It could be anything: a cloaked thrall on the roof, a warlock among us, even a bug clinging to a window, but for a split second you’ll be able to detect its presence.â€

 

“Understood,†she says. Number Two and Number Three appear on either side of her, and all three of her press their backs together. “No matter where it’s hiding, I’ll see it.â€

 

“I’ll put my faith in you, then.†Yoshida replies. “Here goes nothing. Three, two, one…†Geminus leaps into her hands as a burst of power pulses from the Bakufu agent’s medallion, and she casts her Sight around with three pairs of eyes–

 

Nothing. She sweeps her gaze up and down, left and right, but there’s not a single red spot in her field of view.

 

“I can’t see anything,†she growls, feeling stupid. Why did I trust Yoshida? We’re not going to find anything, no matter what we try. “This is a waste of time. Why don’t we–â€

 

“No.†Yoshida grabs her by the shoulder. “Don’t you feel it? The certainty that this isn’t going to work? That sudden urge to do something else? It’s getting desperate, trying to turn our attention away. But I felt its presence loud and clear this time. There’s definitely something here.†As he speaks, her exasperation evaporates like water on a frying pan. He’s right – whatever was messing with my mind earlier is at it again.

 

She nods, and Yoshida continues: “Don’t give up, Yamaguchi. I’ll use the medallion again, and this time I’ll leave it on until its power is exhausted. In three, two, one…â€

 

Another pulse of power, and she looks around again. There’s something here, she tells herself, straining her Sight to pick out any detail. Nothing unusual shows up in her vision, and she shakes her head.

 

It’s trying to hide. There’s definitely something here, she repeats. Again, she squints her eyes as she scrutinizes her surroundings. She starts to feel a headache coming on, but perseveres.

 

Come on, come on… there’s definitely something here. She looks around for the umpteenth time but still sees nothing–

 

No, not nothing. Like tuning out background noise to hear a faint melody in the air, like parsing out the misinformation in an optical illusion and figuring out the truth; she sees, clearly, for the first time–pulsing like a living organism, hiding in plain sight…

 

“Oh, god,†she says, pointing at Yoshida’s chest. “It’s right there. In you.†No, not just in him…

 

She casts her gaze around. Now that she knows what to look for, she sees it: Hashimoto, Nakano, Kikuchi, Morita, the lab workers… the same malignant growth is anchored in their lungs. They’re all infected, obliviously acting as the host to something that spread through an entire lab in a matter of seconds, that can’t be stopped by a respirator or hazmat suit, that’s all but undetectable even to a Reaper user…

 

Everything becomes clear. An affliction invisible to modern medicine, almost impossible to see even with powers. Spreading like wildfire through the human population, lying dormant until it reaches critical mass. Then what?

 

She knows – she’s seen it already. The garden. The sea.

 

Then she feels a tickle in her chest. Oh, no. No, it can’t be–

 

She looks down slowly, almost disbelievingly, at the parasite pulsating in her own body, just next to her heart.

 

“What do you mean, ‘It’s in you’? C’mon, Yamaguchi, talk to me. What’s going on?†Yoshida asks, panic starting to seep into his voice.

 

“It… got us. It got all of us,†she whispers. “We’re all infected.â€

 

Yoshida mutters something unprintable. “We can’t let it spread,†he says. “No matter what happens, this train mustn’t reach the surface–â€

 

The train’s radio crackles to life, squealing in a familiar pitch. It’s the same signal the scientists broadcast into the breach, she remembers. But how? We scrambled the frequency and…

 

I… didn’t shoot the power cables. And Hashimoto didn’t shut the machine down…

 

The conscious lab workers in the train turn to look at the speaker on the wall, muttering concernedly amongst themselves as the signal blares on. Those affected by Yoshida’s power begin to stir and look around, eyes re-focusing. The Bakufu agent points urgently toward Number Two and Number Three, and she dismisses them before anyone sees.

 

“What… what’s that sound?†Hashimoto blinks blearily as he regains consciousness. “I’ve heard it before…†he mumbles.

 

“It’s the signal we used,†Kikuchi replies, trying in vain to scratch her head through the helmet. “Why would it be on the radio, though?â€

 

“I… don’t know,†Morita says, making a face at the speaker, “but the volume is fluctuating. It shouldn’t be.â€

 

Nakano is completely silent, but she can see him frowning behind his plastic mask. “What is it, Nakano?†she asks. “What’s wrong?â€

 

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say the signal was Morse,†he murmurs, brow furrowed in concentration as he stares at the ground. “The changes in volume are perfectly timed, and if you match the spikes to dots and dashes…†he shakes his head. “No. No, it can’t be. There’s no way. The transmitter doesn’t even have an amplitude control, and there’s nobody left in the lab…†he trails off, looking up at her. “Right?â€

 

She ignores his question. “What is it saying, Nakano?†She asks urgently. “What does the message say?â€

 

After a few long moments, the scientist answers. “ It says… HELLO, WORLD.â€

 

Then the screaming starts. 

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Unknown to Erin and Keiko, their little abortive expedition had not gone unnoticed. As the two of them departed, Erin having begrudgingly agreed to haul the near-catatonic Keiji off in a fireman’s carry, the air atop the half-finished roof of Mitsuba No.2 High School shimmered, and two people stepped out onto the concrete – the two Warlocks who had ambushed Keiko and her friends on their arrival.

 

“You should have let me kill ‘em, love,†the lanky young man, Cocytus, grumbled with an indignant scowl. He’d eschewed the strange bodysuit he’d fought in during his previous run-in with the group for a casual, inconspicuous jeans-and-shirt ensemble, though the mirrored sunglasses he was wearing did seem a tad out of place. “Would have been easy,†he mused as he twirled his sickle-like weapon in one hand. “Two strikes, straight to the back of the head, bam! Two problems out of the way, and I got two nice, fresh bodies to play with.†He grinned; it was an unpleasant, shark-like rictus that showed far too many teeth. “Hell, it’d be easy for you to take ‘em out right now with those guns of yours. She can’t dodge while weighed down with that boy, can she?â€

 

The woman’s dark eyes turned to look at her companion, her expression neutral and serene. She’d similarly ditched her combat gear for a sundress and oddly enough, an umbrella in spite of the clear weather. “Impatient as always, my dear brother. Those two children are rather interesting, don’t you think? It would be a shame for this game to reach such a premature conclusion.†She made a sweeping gesture down at the slowly disappearing puddle of ichor where a giant armored crab had once stood. “Tell me what you think of that.â€

 

Cocytus snorted, making a face of displeasure. “Is this another of those riddles of yours, love? That’s three days of work and one perfectly good vessel gone down the drain. Now I’m gonna have to make a new Thrall to play guard dog for my projects here.â€

 

The woman’s lips twitched into a faint smile. “Correct, but not quite right. That Thrall was an extension of our master; even in death its carcass should still hold Her presence. And yet, I sense no trace of Her presence, or even anything beyond the usual levels of spiritual activity. What gives, brother?â€

 

“… It was absorbed.†Cocytus concluded. Then, his jaw dropped a little as his skin went a few shades paler. “… Are you saying that she’s...â€

The woman slowly raised a single eyebrow at him, her enigmatic smile still gracing her porcelain features, and nodded.

 

Cocytus licked his lips, his unpleasant smile returning. “You’re right. Killing her now would be a waste of such a fine specimen. I eagerly await the day I break her… and make her mine.â€

 

The woman huffed, raising elegantly-manicured fingers to gently caress his chin. “Must I remind you of where your loyalties should lie?â€

 

Cocytus raised his hand and eased one strap of her sundress off her shoulder. “Wouldn’t you like to know, love?â€

 

…

 

The Next Day

 

Unsurprisingly, the daily meeting of the Student Circle Formerly Known As The Central Magic Society Of Winter (Erin was fairly certain Keiko had surreptitiously changed the club’s name when Keiji’s back had been turned) had been adjourned. Erin and Keiko had dropped the incapacitated club president back at the club room with a hastily scribbled note claiming he should stop pulling caffeine-fueled all-nighters. Not a particularly satisfying excuse, Erin thought, but it was better than Keiko’s suggestion of claiming his memory had been altered by the Thule Society for his own protection. Keiko had said the aftereffects of close contact with Demons usually resembled a really bad hangover, scrambled recollections and all; he’d probably have forgotten everything. Or triggered the awakening of any latent magical powers he might have had; Keiko said that happened sometimes, too.

 

God, I hope that didn’t happen. The last thing I want happening to that guy is him finding out he might have been on to something all along.

 

With that out of the way, she’d decided to try finding Honoka at the kendo club, but the vice-president, a towering third-year boy with a face seemingly chiseled from granite and a hat seemingly indistinguishable from his hair, had told her she’d left early for some reason. Also conspicuously absent was the club president; he’d been there on her previous visits practicing non-stop as if his life was some crappy Jump manga. No one had seen him for the past three days of school either; rumors were starting to spread already. For a moment, she wondered if he’d been eaten by a demonspawn, but quickly brushed off the notion. People go out of touch or go missing for all kinds of reasons. Most of them don’t have to do with hellish hell-monsters from the depths of, well, hell using your soul as a piñata. Since when did I start suspecting everything in my life was subtly connected to a greater conspiracy?

 

 

Isn’t that how Keiji thinks? Crap, the crazy is contagious?  I should get a tinfoil hat to keep out his bad brain vibes.

 

… Wait. That’s exactly what he’d say.

 

Erin was rapidly coming to the conclusion that she probably needed a break. Okay, no demon-fighting shenanigans. No craziness. I’ll just get my homework done here while it’s quiet, get something nice for dinner on the way home and have a good night’s sleep. Shouldn’t be too hard.

 

Of course, that plan somehow broke down just three minutes after leaving the school gate.

 

Well, it was no fault of her own; she just happened to stumble upon Honoka and her pervert boyfriend being accosted by some shadowy, hooded figure with a decidedly creepy-looking red sword. She didn’t feel terribly obliged to save that idiot; after all, he’d shrugged off a stab wound just shy of his heart and being punched into a ceiling with little more than some grumbling. For all she knew, his attacker might run out of patience and leave before he finally gave up the ghost. Nevertheless, Honoka was there; she’d looked out for Erin for years and it seemed right to return that favor for once.

 

It was also no fault of her own that her thrown naginata had almost impaled Raiha through the head, passing just an inch past his ear. She hadn’t expected that guy to just vanish into thin air just like that – and judging from Honoka and Raiha’s reactions, they seemed about as shocked as she was.

 

Then again, maybe they were shocked because she’d nearly impaled him through the head.

 

"Hey, watch where you're throwing that thing!" Raiha exclaimed.

 

“You’re right,†Erin shot back. “Maybe I’d taken a little more time and aimed a couple of inches to the right,†She gestured pointedly at the naginata, which was still quivering from the impact.

 

“Ha ha ha, how funny,†Raiha muttered as she strode towards him to retrieve her weapon. “If I recall, this is the first time we’ve met where you haven’t managed to horribly injure me. Are you losing your touch?â€

 

Erin harrumphed and rolled her eyes. “Pah. Even if I’d aimed right, I wouldn’t have hit anything important.â€

 

 

Meanwhile, Honoka smiled sweetly, unlocked her smartphone and intoned crisply into its microphone, “Siri, tell me the location of the nearest burn center.â€

 

“Not you too,†Raiha groaned.

 

 

The older girl raised a hand to her lips to suppress a giggle. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Erin-chan’s learnt my ways well.â€

 

Erin reached the wall and plucked the naginata from it with a little huff, pausing for a moment to marvel at how close it’d passed by Raiha’s head. Reminds me of that story about William Tell. Except that there’s no crossbow, just a giant fuck-off javelin. And the kid is a head taller than me, almost certainly boning my best friend and might actually be an unkillable holy zombie thingy. So… uh, not really like William Tell.

 

Then, just as the weapon vanished in her hand, her vision swam and a spell of light-headedness washed over her. She staggered, leaning on the wall to catch her balance, and became very keenly aware of the basso grumble emanating from her stomach.

 

 

“Uh… you two, you want to grab some dinner?†she weakly mumbled.

 

...

 

 

It had transpired that the two had eaten already – some lovey-dovey candlelight affair at some posh place with far, far too much silverware, no doubt – but Raiha was nice enough to treat her to some burgers at a nearby fast food restaurant. He might be a pervert defiling her BFF’s purity with depraved, dastardly perversities straight out of those websites Erin would never admit to reading, but he definitely knew how to make a girl happy – in this girl’s case, giving her food she didn’t have to stick into a microwave first. She was strangely famished – even the humble cheeseburger tasted like manna from heaven.

 

Which was why she’d gone for seconds. And then thirds. And then fourths. At that point, despite probably having more in his wallet than Erin had gotten since the start of the year, Raiha looked like he was having second thoughts about saying he’d pay for all of it.

 

“It’s normal, I guess,†he muttered under his breath. “Some power users exhibit surges of greatly accelerated metabolism when under stress.†He glanced back to the growing pile of empty burger wrappers. “Totally normal.â€

 

 â€œMmmf. Hey, Honoka,†Erin said through a mouthful of beef patty, oblivious to Raiha’s soliloquizing. “I heard there’s a festival at the big shrine by the riverbank. You wanna hang out?â€

 

“Sure!†Honoka replied brightly and clasped her hands. “We should catch up; I’ve hardly seen you all summer thanks to that internship.â€

 

“Hey,†Raiha interjected. “Honoka, weren’t we going to go together-“

 

There was a sudden pause, interrupted only by the sad, wet splot of a half-eaten burger landing on the table.

 

Erin’s gaze locked on Raiha’s – her eyes now the incandescent crimson of hot coals. “What’s wrong with me spending a little girl time with my best friend? How can you be so cruel?†Erin whined in a faux-cutesy falsetto, pouting in a manner that was less impish innocence and more clear evidence of clinical insanity.

 

The temperature of the surroundings seemed to drop several degrees. “I’m sorry. I forgot that kids shouldn’t be going to the festival unaccompanied. But you’re a big girl now; you don’t need your onee-sama to chaperone you any longer… right? †Raiha said, looking her in the eye and grinning a little too widely.

 

 

“Guys. Guys.†Honoka interjected, raising both hands in a conciliatory gesture. “We could all go together-“

 

“With him?†Erin hissed.

 

“With her?†Raiha muttered.

 

Honoka sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Never mind.â€

 

“Very well. Let it not be said that Knights have no honor,†Raiha declared with a huff. “While my honor dictates that I respect the wishes of a lady, you, girl, are clearly no lady. Thus, we shall settle this like gentlemen. Tomorrow. The nearby arcade, 6 o’ clock.†He raised two fingers, before melodramatically lowering one of them. “Two shall enter. One man will leave.â€

 

Erin’s eyes flashed as her grin widened. “Real confident, aren’t you? Brace yourself then, for I will kill you on the morrow.â€

 

Honoka’s palm went to her face. “… You’re both idiots.â€

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Pain sears through her lungs and heart as the parasite activates, thrashing around like a caged beast and whipping otherworldly tendrils out in every direction. Doubling over and grasping her chest amid a chorus of agonized screams, she sees Yoshida pull a glowing phial from thin air and crush it in his hand, releasing a torrent of stored power.

 

All the parasites within a meter or so of him twitch and spasm as if electrified, then fall still.  She’s slightly further away and the malignant presence in her chest takes longer to go dormant, but eventually goes motionless like the rest.

 

Her pain subsides as the screaming throughout the train dies down, and she straightens back up. “All right,†the Bakufu agent says. “I’m out of tricks. So glad I brought that talisman along, by the way.â€

 

She looks around. Huddled around him as they were, the four scientists seem fine, but the rest of the lab workers are not so lucky.  Down the entire length of the train, she sees them swaying in place, inundated with demonic energy.

 

Oh, no. She knows what’s about to happen – she’s seen it countless times before. Possession.  The parasites fill their hosts with demonic influence, reprogramming their brains and turning them into mindless killing machines…

 

She considers her options briefly. We’re about three-quarters of the way up the slope, seven hundred and fifty meters of track between us and the underground lab. It’ll leave us stranded and mostly immobile, but it’s better than being stuck here with three carriages full of hostiles...

 

“Take the scientists out the rear exit, Yoshida,†she says. “Smash a window if you have to – I’ll buy you some time.†He nods in response, going for the wall-mounted emergency exit lever.

 

Her doppelgangers materialize on either side of her, raising their rifles to target the closest workers. Adrenaline floods her system as she begins to pull the trigger, but her aim is thrown off at the last moment as the train jolts abruptly to a halt and begins sliding backwards.

 

The brakes, they DISABLED THE FUCKING BRAKES–

 

As if on cue, the possessed laboratory workers turn as one and charge, howling like beasts. All three of her bodies adjust their aim in an instant and open fire, discharging a hail of superheated silver pellets into the onrushing horde at chest height.

 

It’s not working! She screams mentally. Each pellet hits with bone-shattering force, but the workers don’t even seem to notice when they’ve been shot, only going down when a stray pellet hits them in the head. I need something stronger–

 

The nearest zombie leaps the last five feet, a maniac grin on his face, and she pulls the trigger. This time, an explosive round buries itself in his chest, detonating a split-second after penetration to paint the walls and ceiling red.

 

But it’s too little too late and the rest of the zombies rush into her like a wave of muscle and hate, knocking her off her feet and trying to pull her limb from limb. Number Two goes down a moment later, overwhelmed and pulled off-balance, but Number Three avoids the brunt of the charge. The doppelganger caves in a stray zombie’s skull with an elbow strike before firing into the horde, but there’s just so many…

 

Weighed down by half a dozen zombies raining blows on her, she switches Geminus into pistol mode and fires blindly into the pile from below. Each shot detonates in a muted krump, turning another body into a splatter of blood and body parts, but her attackers just keep piling on. She feels a sharp pain in her arm and cries out, redoubling her efforts to free herself.

 

A worker straddling her chest tries to strangle her, grabbing the neck region of her suit and squeezing with inhuman strength. Curling up, she plants both feet on his stomach and kicks with all her might, catapulting him off her. His body collides with several of his comrades, sending them staggering backward. She takes advantage of the momentary lapse in pressure to leap to her feet, dispatching zombies around her with knees and elbows while shooting the zombies still crowding around Number Two.

 

Her unchecked fire combines with Number Three’s in a deadly torrent, mopping up the rest of the zombies in short order, and soon the carriage is clear of enemies. There’s blood everywhere, running down the walls and dripping off the ceiling in a grisly patter, staining her suit and obscuring her vision…

 

She raises a glove, wiping away the blood on her faceplate until only a thick reddish smear remains. That’s strange. I barely killed thirty. Where are the rest–

 

“The wheels, Yamaguchi!†Yoshida yells. “Shoot them.â€

 

With a start, she realizes the train is still sliding downward. Three salvoes of armor-piercing rounds stitch a string of holes through the floor, ripping through metal and knocking out the train’s wheels. The newly unsupported carriage drops half a foot and crashes down onto the tracks, throwing up a fountain of sparks visible from the windows.

 

The additional friction dramatically slows the train’s descent, metal screeching and grinding against metal, but it isn’t enough to bring them to a complete halt. We’ve slid back to the halfway point, but at least the train’s not accelerating any more… we might make it. Geminus?

 

The number “01:05†pops up in her mind. Oh, shit.

 

She looks to the front of the train and her eyes widen. They’re… just trying to delay us. Through the walls, she can see the zombies in the middle carriage assembling a makeshift barricade at the doorway from seats and debris, taking up defensive positions around the entrance. One zombie at the far end of the carriage is growing, bursting out of his hazmat suit and swelling in size like a champion bodybuilder…

 

“I need to get to the cockpit,†she says, turning toward Yoshida. The Bakufu agent is wielding a blood-stained fire extinguisher, two dead zombies at his feet. The scientists are huddled behind him at the very back of the train, staring wide-eyed at her.

 

“Wh– wh– wh–†Nakano stammers. She ignores him, turning to Yoshida instead. “Keep them close. Once I clear the next carriage, move them up.â€

 

He nods, and she raises her voice. “The rest of you, follow him if you want to live.â€


~~

 

Taking up position near the barricaded doorway, she checks up on her doppelgangers’ conditions. Number Three is uninjured, but Number Two isn’t so lucky – the sharp pain she felt earlier was its left wrist breaking.  She frowns at the shattered appendage and considers amputation, but decides against it. We don’t have much time left, and I can still shoot one-handed.

 

As she approaches, half a dozen zombies throw their weight against the barricade, wedging it firmly into the narrow doorway. The huge zombie, now twice the height and width of a normal man, hunkers down at the other end of the carriage while the rest of the workers huddle close to the entrance, hoping to ambush her once she enters. Classic firefight tactics. Whoever’s in charge knows their stuff, but they made a fatal mistake.

 

I’m not just a gunslinger.

 

With a loud pop, Geminus’ underslung launchers send three grenades sailing through the air. The first two are low-yield explosives that go off when they hit the barricade, sending debris flying and maiming zombies in their blast radius with a boom. The shockwaves ripple up and down the train, blowing out the windows and pushing her back – then the stun grenade goes off in a blazing flash of light, sending disoriented zombies stumbling back, shrieking and clawing blindly at the air.

 

She piles through the doorway behind Number Two and Number Three, sprinting toward the ruined barricade before the workers can regroup and mount any sort of defense. A shove to clear the way, three steps forward… she rushes through the chokepoint, firing in all directions, blasting bodies apart without breaking stride–

 

Geminus screams a warning as the huge zombie charges her, picking up one of his smaller comrades and hurling the thrashing worker like a javelin. An explosive round liquefies the projectile midair and she sidesteps the resultant mess but–

 

SO FAST

 

–the giant is only a few steps from her, swinging his giant fist as she throws herself instinctively to one side–

 

The strike clips her in the shoulder and she flies backward, flipping head over heels before landing awkwardly on one arm. In her moment of disorientation, the giant turns on its heel and punches Number Two. An explosion of agony wracks her body as her doppelganger slams into a wall with a wet crunch, leaving a crimson trail on white plastic as its broken body slides to the floor. Without additional commands from her, Number Three returns to its default behavior. The doppelganger pours bullets into the giant’s center of mass while backing away, but dense muscle and reinforced bone absorb the worst of the punishment.

 

Screaming in pain and anger, she aims at the giant’s knee and pulls the trigger. Blood and bone fragments fly everywhere as the kneecap disintegrates and the giant falls flat on his face.

 

Grotesquely muscular arms reach out for Number Three, and it barely manages to dodge his lethal grip. The giant lets out a bellow of frustration and begins crawling forward, dragging his crippled bulk against the ground with surprising speed.

 

I need to destroy the head. Number Three adjusts its aim, pointing its gun right between the giant’s eyes, and fires. Missing is impossible at this range – the huge zombie twitches and shudders, arms flailing and thrashing every which way as the explosive charges puree his grey matter. Massive fists smash dents into the ground and grip blindly at the air for long seconds before he finally stops moving, and she lets go of the trigger.

 

Breathing heavily, she gets to her feet. Her left shoulder is dislocated, arm hanging uselessly at her side. Taking a deep breath, she braces the limb in position. Oh, this is gonna hurt.

 

She rams herself into the wall, popping her arm back into place with a pained wince, then turns to look at Number Two. Her ruined doppelganger is completely unable to respond to mental commands, and she dismisses it with a sigh. The body will take slightly more than a minute to re-form, but…

 

Forty seconds, Geminus reminds her.

 

No time for that. “Clear!â€

 

“We have a problem,†Yoshida replies, herding Hashimoto and Morita into the room. He pointing back where they came from, and she tracks his finger with her gaze.

 

Oh, no.

 

Two figures are huddled together at the very back of the train, advancing at a snail’s pace. Nakano’s limping and Kikuchi has his arm over her shoulder.

 

“I told her to keep moving, but she wouldn’t listen.†The Bakufu agent continues grimly.

 

He must’ve slipped and fallen all the way back, she thinks. Then: they’re not going to make it.

 

The zombies she’s killed are already pulling themselves back together, flesh knitting and bone flowing like water. A few are semi-functional and crawling toward the scientists, guts dragging behind them –to make things even worse, tiny fingers of flame are licking through the floor of the carriage.

 

Over the grinding of metal on metal, she hears Kikuchi in tears, begging Nakano not to give up.

 

“You can do it, Shima,†the long-haired woman yells. “Please, you’ve got to hurry…â€

 

Thirty seconds.

 

The fire’s not spreading very fast, but the zombies are already healing. They’re too slow…

 

Another voice pops up in her head. There’s no time. I need Number Three’s help to breach the next car now–

 

“Yamaguchi? Yamaguchi!†Yoshida snaps his fingers. “Are you–?â€

 

“Oh, fuck it,†she growls, sending Number Three back to help them. Geminus lets out a rumble of disapproval but she ignores it, firing back down the carriage to blow apart the regenerating zombies before they can reach the scientists.

 

Number Three crosses the length of the carriage in moments, grabbing Nakano and slinging him unceremoniously over its shoulder. It jogs back, easily outpacing Kikuchi even with its additional burden, and hands him gently to Yoshida. “Stand back and keep to the walls,†she says. “I’m about to try something really dangerous.â€

 

Twenty seconds. Hurry.

 

All right. She goes over her plan of attack. Instead of clearing the car before advancing…

 

Marching up to the barricades, she scopes out the final obstacle in her way. Two giant zombies, twenty-seven normals. There’s also some sort of bone plating protecting the giants’ heads, but only on the front.

 

She wedges Geminus into the barricade, making sure the underslung launcher is clear to fire. Here goes nothing, she thinks, pulling the trigger and turning on her heel. Through Number Three’s eyes, she sees the normal zombies shrink away from the projectile; the giant at the far end of the carriage throws an arm up to protect its face, hunkering down to present a smaller target.

 

Do whatever you want, she thinks. It’s not going to matter.

 

Her thermobaric grenade triggers in the exact center of the carriage. She knows how it’s supposed to work: a tiny amount of conventional explosive submerged in magnesium-enhanced fuel goes off, blast pressure superheating the volatile mix before dispersing it into the surroundings. Once the fuel makes contact with atmospheric oxygen, it detonates–

 

She barely makes it five meters before the blast wave slams into her with a WHOOMPH, and she struggles to keep her balance. A cloud of dust and plastic fragments rushes past her, pulverized remains of the barricade dyed red with blood and liquefied bodies.

 

Her ears are ringing even through Geminus’ hearing protection, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t need my hearing to do this, she thinks, as Number Three sprints past her through the cleared doorway. As she moves into position to cover her doppelganger, she realizes both giant zombies are still standing. Their sheer bulk must’ve insulated their vitals from most of the force.

 

The first one throws a punch as Number Three approaches, but the strike is sluggish and easy to dodge. The blast might not have killed him outright, but it knocked him around pretty good.

 

Number Three doesn’t attack at all. Instead, it ducks under the punch and makes a beeline for the cockpit, leaving its mistress to down the disoriented giant. Like shooting fish in a barrel, she thinks, pulling the trigger, but her bullets glance off his armored faceplate and detonate in midair.

 

She makes a few mental adjustments to her ammunition, programming each bullet to explode on impact instead of a few instants later. The effect is immediate and spectacular – her next burst shatters the giant’s impromptu helmet, follow-up shots cracking his skull like an egg.

 

The second huge zombie lowers his forearm, winding up for a lethal blow on Number Three, but her doppelganger’s been saving its grenade for this moment. Another flashbang goes off right in front of the giant’s eyes, and Number Three ducks under the wild haymaker. There. I’ve got maybe ten seconds left, she thinks, finishing off the second giant as her doppelganger shoots the driver through the cockpit door and enters. Eight seconds, Geminus chimes in helpfully.

 

I just need to pull the… Number Three takes one look at the interior, and her thoughts grind to a halt.

 

Oh, god. Fuck me, we’re all dead…  

 

The controls are ruined, smashed beyond repair by a fire extinguisher. Number Three pulls what’s left of the brake lever, but somehow the driver’s managed to jam it.

 

SEVEN SECONDS, Geminus screams in her mind.

 

 As Number Three tries the lever again and again, she looks out the back and sees the end of the track rushing toward her. Even if we brake now, it might be too late.

 

SIX.

 

“How’s–†Yoshida begins, but she cuts him off. “RUN!†She yells, slinging Nakano over her shoulder and sprinting for the front of the train.

 

FIVE.

 

The other scientists hot on her heels, she leaps over the corpses of fallen zombies, vaulting the corpse of the first giant. The rest of the scientists have to skirt around it, but she can’t think of them–

 

FOUR.

 

Number Three smashes the front window and leaps out of the moving train, rolling with the impact. She steps into a puddle of blood and nearly loses her balance, but somehow manages to stay upright and moving–

 

THREE.

 

“WE HAVE TO JUMP,†she screams, rushing through the cockpit door. “Hold on tight!†She switches Nakano to a bridal carry before leaping out the window, curling her body around him as he grabs at her–

 

TWO.

 

As she leaves the train, she twists in midair so Nakano will land on top of her. In that split second, she sees the scientists piling out the window, Yoshida the last one to fling himself free–

 

ONE–

 

She hits with a thud, rolling down the tracks for a few moments before coming to a halt.

 

ZERO.

 

An ear-splitting crash echoes through the tunnel as the train comes to a crushing halt at the end of the tracks, and she curls up defensively as metal fragments whiz overhead. Relief threatens to overwhelm her, but she pushes it back and gets to her feet. We’re not out of this yet.

 

She looks down the track – the train is mostly intact. Her Sight doesn’t pick up any demonic influence and there’s no movement inside the carriage besides tongues of orange flame, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. An incendiary grenade flickers into existence within Geminus’ launcher and she lobs it through the broken window, starting an inferno that melts glass and scorches steel.

 

Keeping Number Three’s weapon trained on the flames, she turns her attention to the tracks. Nakano lies about a meter from her, groaning in pain as he clutches his leg; Morita’s unconscious but still breathing; Kikuchi is hyperventilating and has an ugly bruise over one eye, and Hashimoto’s clutching his chest and taking slow shallow breaths. Yoshida seems mostly unharmed as he picks himself off the tracks, but the Bakufu agent’s footsteps betray a slight limp as he makes his way toward her.

 

Well, everyone’s alive. For now.

 

“Damn, that was close,†Yoshida says. “You okay?â€

 

 She nods. “We should get out of here ASAP. You take Nakano, and I’ll take Morita.†Moving an unconscious person is risky, but it beats staying here.

 

Yoshida bends down to help the red-haired scientist up. “My leg… think I broke it in the fall,†Nakano gasps, clearly in pain. She feels a tiny pang of guilt. Should’ve landed a bit better…

 

Her expression must’ve betrayed her thoughts, because Nakano waves a hand. “Not your fault,†he mutters. “Thanks for coming back for us, by the way...â€

 

An unfamiliar emotion wells up within her. “No problem,†she says. “Be sure to thank Kikuchi later – I might not have gone back for one.â€

 

 As she and her doppelganger approach Morita, the previously unresponsive scientist stirs for a moment, staring blearily at the ceiling and muttering “Wha–?†before closing his eyes again. It isn’t as bad as I thought, but he still needs medical attention.

 

The two of her pick Morita up, making sure not to disturb his head or neck too much, and she prepares to move off. Before she does so, though, a thought crosses her mind and she examines her parasite again.

 

It lies faded and unmoving in her chest, bereft of its previous vital energy. She mentions this to Yoshida and he sighs in relief. “Great,†he replies. “I guess the talisman managed to kill them. Or permanently incapacitate them, at the very least.â€

 

“We still need to purge them,†she says, and he nods.

 

“My power can get us out of the base quietly,†Yoshida says. “But we need to get to a healer. A discreet one.â€

 

“I know just the place,†she says.

 

 

 

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

 

 

 

Yoshida’s word is good – although the aboveground facility is in lockdown, the Bakufu agent manages to charm, confuse or coerce every guard he encounters. They’re able to retrieve their personal belongings and leave the facility unmolested, piling into Yoshida’s SUV and heading off into the sunset.

 

Besides Morita, who falls asleep the moment they put him in the front seat, the scientists gradually recover from their shock and begin demanding explanations. As Yoshida answers them to the best of his ability, she tunes the conversation out and leans her head against the window. Fatigue begins to seep into her limbs, and she closes her eyes. It’s been a while since I’ve done this. I’m just glad it ended well…

 

~~

 

Someone nudges her and she wakes instantly. “Are we there?†She asks. The sky outside is dark and gloomy, but she feels better than she has in ages.

 

“I don’t know, you tell me,†Yoshida says from the driver’s seat. “The place is warded like a fortress, all right, but are you sure that’s the church?â€

 

She looks out the window. “Yeah.â€

 

“I told you.†Hashimoto mutters, and she cracks a smile.

 

“Can’t blame me for checking – it’s just a concrete block with a door,†the Bakufu agent grumbles. “Is that even a cross? And they spelt ‘Catholic’ wrong, for the love of god.â€

 

“I know,†she says. “But this is the right place. Father Nakata’s patched me up more times than I can count.â€

 

“If you say so,†Yoshida replies, pulling up by the side of the road. She gets out and waves – a few moments later, Father Nakata hurries out from the church with a stretcher in his arms.

 

“It’s good to see you, Father,†she says. “Is Shirakawa-san available to help?â€

 

Worry flits across Father Nakata’s face, almost too fast for her to catch. “Unfortunately not,†he replies. “Which one’s Dr. Morita?â€

 

She points to Morita – the elderly scientist is still asleep in the front seat, head braced against the window. “We tried to keep him from moving around, but I’m not sure if he’s okay…†she trails off. Oh, shit. Her good mood evaporates instantly – Morita’s completely still, face pale and unmoving as Yoshida frantically tries to wake him.

 

“Need a little help here!†The Bakufu agent yells from inside the car. “He’s barely breathing.â€

 

She leaps into action, snatching the stretcher from Father Nakata’s hands. Morita’s door swings open as she approaches, and she gets him onto the fabric with Yoshida’s help. “Come on, come on…†she mutters. “We’re on the home stretch, Doctor – just a little bit more.â€

 

~~

 

She waits outside the sick bay with the others, sitting down on a wooden pew as her two doppelgangers hustle into the small room with Morita’s unconscious body. Father Nakata gives them a nod when they’re done maneuvering the elderly scientist into place on the operating table, and they disappear in a burst of energy.

 

“I… I hope he’ll be okay,†Kikuchi murmurs, securing a splint to Nakano’s leg.

 

“Father Nakata knows what he’s doing,†she replies. “If anyone can help Morita, it’s him.†It would be good to have Raiha around, but I don’t know if his healing would work…

 

Dammit. She reaches out and grips the pew in front of her, barely resisting the rising urge to break something. I could’ve cushioned his fall with my doppelganger. The bench gives way beneath her fingers with a crack, and her frustration at her failure boils over.

 

She lets out an inarticulate growl, standing up abruptly and tossing aside the chunk of wood in her hands. It hits the concrete floor with a clatter, attracting several alarmed looks. “I’m going outside,†she declares. Nobody stops her as she stalks out of the church.

 

As the wooden door slams shut behind her, she sighs and sits down heavily on the doorstep. The night air is cool and crisp, but it does little to calm her mind. Why didn’t I think of it earlier? Why? I could’ve prevented this.

 

Cautious footsteps approach from behind, and the door creaks open. “Space for one more?†Yoshida asks, stepping out cautiously.

 

“Dammit,†she mutters. “What do you want?â€

 

He shrugs. “Nothing much. Scoot over, will you?â€

 

With another sigh, she does as he asks. There’s a moment’s pause before he sits down, producing a lighter and a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “Smoke?†He asks, holding out the cardboard carton to her.

 

She shakes her head. “No.â€

 

“Suit yourself,†Yoshida says, lighting up and taking a long drag. A moment later, he blows a stream of smoke from his mouth. “Ahh. Hits the spot.â€

 

There’s a long silence before he says: “You know, you shouldn’t be wallowing in self-pity like this.â€

 

That stings. “Don’t you have more important things to do than psychoanalysis?†She shoots back.

 

“This could’ve gone better, for sure,†Yoshida goes on as if she didn’t say anything. “But it could also have gone a lot worse, and I’m sure you tried your best.â€

 

She glares at him, wondering whether to ignore him or respond. Eventually, the latter option wins out. “Effort doesn’t matter. Results matter,†she says. “I could’ve… should’ve been able to save him.â€

 

There’s a moment of silence before Yoshida tries to flick her on the forehead. His movements are slow and easy to predict – after a moment of sheer incredulity, she grabs his wrist in midair with casual ease. Locking eyes with him, she squeezes down until the bone creaks.

 

“Ouch!†He yelps in pain and surprise, and she loosens her grip fractionally in response. “Thanks. For a moment there, I thought my hand was a goner.â€

 

“There’s still time for that,†she says. “Care to explain?â€

 

The Bakufu agent scratches his neck with his free hand. “You’re not going to like it,†he says.

 

“Try me.â€

 

“Well, for a moment there you reminded me of my daughter. She’s a real overachiever just like you, always worried about not being good enough. But nobody’s perfect, and I have to remind her of that from time to time.†He gives her an embarrassed smile.

 

She shrugs and releases her grip – he retracts his arm immediately, rubbing the reddening band of skin around his wrist. “Anyway,†he goes on, “as I was going to say, Dr. Morita’s not dead. Don’t talk about him like that, Yamaguchi.â€

 

Frowning, she bends down and tugs half-heartedly at a clump of grass near her boot. “I know,†she says. “It’s just… I could’ve done it better. Shielded him from the fall. Now he might die, and–†A moment of panic. “And it’ll be my fault.â€

 

“Uh huh. And what does agonizing over your mistakes accomplish?†Yoshida gives her a serious look.

 

“Nothing,†she says. “Look, I know where this is going–â€

 

“Then you tell me,†Yoshida interrupts. “Tell me what I’m going to say.â€

 

“You’re going to say that I shouldn’t dwell on the past. That I should learn from my mistakes, and move forward without regret. I know this already,†she says.

 

“Then do it,†he replies.

 

You have no idea what I’ve seen, she thinks, and something dark and ugly rears its head within her. YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’VE BEEN THROUGH.

 

“I know,†she says, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “But it’s easier said than done. I–†Yoshida opens his mouth to speak, but she raises her voice to drown his reply out. “I’m trying, okay? It’s just NOT WORKING!†She shoots to her feet, clenching her fists; the last few words come out in a near-shout.

 

“This isn’t about Dr. Morita any more, is it?†Yoshida murmurs.

 

Silence.

 

“I can’t help you, Yamaguchi,†the Bakufu agent says softly. “Nobody can. But you have to make it work somehow, or it’ll consume you. Too many in your line of work have had their lives poisoned by regret – I’d rather not see another.â€

 

“I…†her anger fades, leaving only a sense of... numbness? Emptiness? Loss? She isn’t sure. “I know,†she whispers, leaning against the door and sliding down into a sitting position. “It’s just so hard.â€

 

“Don’t give in,†Yoshida says. For an instant, he reminds her of an old man – hunched and worn out, battered by life but still standing. “That’s all I ask. No matter how tough it is, never give up.â€

 

“I– I’ll do my best,†she says. “Do you–â€

 

Yoshida’s medallion emits a pulse of power. He snaps back to normal, raises the metal disc to his ear, and speaks.

 

“Yoshida here… yes, it was resolved. Afflicted? The two… yes. Brain dead. I verified it myself… hm? Oh, about… a hundred or so hostiles.â€

 

He grimaces and holds the medallion further from him, as if trying to escape a very loud noise. “Yes, all clear as far as I’m aware…. As for that, um…. Yeah, a freelancer. Yamaguchi. Hm? No, I didn’t get a clear look. Some sort of explosion-related power…. No. She left once we were done. I have the research team with me, though… yes. One’s unconscious – can I get an ambulance? Ah. Okay. Got it. Yoshida, out.â€

 

He puts the medallion back inside his shirt. “My boss called,†he explains. “He wants me to report in for debriefing as soon as possible, and bring the scientists with me.â€

 

“…no problem,†she says, still mulling over their earlier conversation. “Thanks for covering for me.â€

 

“Don’t mention it. It’s the least I can do, considering you’re the reason we’re alive.†Yoshida stubs out his cigarette and gets to his feet. “I’m going to check on Dr. Morita, then bring the rest of the team to HQ. You staying out here?â€

 

She stands up. “I want to know how he’s doing,†she says. “Even if…†she trails off, leaving the rest unsaid.

 

He nods. “Come on, then,†he replies, holding the door open for her.

 

~~

 

Morita is still unresponsive, and Father Nakata seems uncertain about the elderly scientist’s chances. “I’ve done all I can for him, but my healing power is limited and I can’t pinpoint the injury,†the priest says. “He needs proper medical care.â€

 

“An ambulance should be coming for him soon,†Yoshida replies. “As for the parasites I mentioned…â€

 

“Ah. I did a scan of sorts with the wards, and managed to detect hints of demonic presence. But it’s too weak to do anything, so I think you’ll be fine.†Father Nakata turns to her. “Just to be sure… you don’t see the parasites moving any more, do you?â€

 

She looks around. “No. They’re all faded and still.â€

 

The priest nods. “Magical constructs tend to fade unless reinforced periodically, so I wouldn’t worry too much. In addition, the body tends to purge foreign objects on its own, and I’m not sure if extraction would cause more harm than good...â€

 

“That’s great news,†Yoshida says. “I’ll have my office run some tests – if anything out of the ordinary shows up, I’ll let you know. Yamaguchi-san, could I have a short word with you?â€

 

She nods, following him out of the sick bay, and he presses something into her hand. “My business card,†he explains. “Try to get in touch with me over the next few days – I’ll let you know how Dr. Morita’s doing, and…†he frowns, as if weighing something over. “And it might be possible for the Bakufu to compensate you for time and effort spent. I can’t promise anything, though.â€

 

“No problem,†she says, slipping the card into her skirt pocket. “Thanks for… well, everything, really.â€

 

He nods. “Likewise.â€

 

~~

 

Yoshida leaves with the three scientists soon after. From her vantage point on the doorstep, she watches his car disappear swiftly into the distance. “Well, that’s that,†she mutters.

 

Father Nakata steps up beside her and asks: “Imahara-san, have you had dinner yet?†With a start, she realizes she hasn’t eaten anything since breakfast. Her stomach growls in protest, and she shakes her head.

 

“I skipped lunch and dinner, Father.†she replies. “But there’s food at home, and I can–â€

 

The priest shakes his head. “I’m sorry for imposing, Imahara-san, but I must know what transpired today – the Bakufu’s clearly involved, and I have an unconscious civilian with a demon parasite in his chest in my sick bay. There’re rations in the storeroom, or I could prepare something else…â€

 

“Rations sound great,†she says, heading back into the church. “Sorry for bringing you all this trouble – I’ll explain while I eat.â€

 

The storeroom’s right next to the sick bay, and she rummages through a pile of military surplus in search of a foil-packed meal. Should I get the beef or the chicken? Decisions, decisions… screw it. I’ll just eat them both.

 

When she re-enters the main hall with both packs tucked under her arm, Father Nakata stretches out his hand. “Here, pass them to me. I’ll heat them up,†he says.

 

She shakes her head, ripping the beef pack open with her teeth and digging in. “Temperature doesn’t matter,†she mumbles around a mouthful of stew. “So, should I just start from the beginning, or…â€

 

“That would be best,†Father Nakata replies.

 

In between mouthfuls of food, she gives the priest a quick rundown of past events. Her first meeting with Shirakawa Senior, accepting the mission from him and heading to the facility, the ill-fated experiment… she goes into great detail about the parasite but glosses over the battle on the train, making sure to mention the leap from the front window. The more details he has about what caused Morita’s condition, the better.

 

Father Nakata listens quietly, only interrupting to clarify some detail or other. When she’s done with the explanation, he nods and gets to his feet with a pensive expression on his face, as if he’s trying to puzzle something out. “Thank you for sharing this with me, Imahara-san,†he says eventually.

 

“No problem,†she replies, wolfing down the last mouthful of chicken pasta. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll head back now.â€

 

“I think that’ll be all for tonight,†the priest tells her. “Be safe.â€

 

She nods and makes a beeline for the door. “I will. Good night, Father.â€

 

 

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/

 
 

 

Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.

 

“–ou there? Imahara-san?†A muffled voice asks. She opens her eyes slowly and sees golden sunlight pouring through the window. What’s going on? What time is it? Her gaze travels up the side of her bed to the alarm clock on her bedside table, and she blinks.

 

The display reads “Wednesday 1830â€.

 

“No. That’s not possible,†she mumbles. “Damn thing must be broken.â€

 

“Imahara-san?†Someone calls out from the door. “Are you all right? You’ve missed two days of school–â€

 

Oh crap. She sits up in bed, groping around for her phone. After a moment of frantic searching, she spots it sitting just next to the alarm clock, and flips it open to take a look at the screen. “Wednesday 1831,†it says.

 

No way, she thinks. I got home last night and went to bed, and–

 

“Hello? Imahara-san, are you there?†A vaguely familiar voice says.

 

What–

 

Getting out of bed, she hurries to the door and looks through the peephole – someone wearing the Mitsuba uniform is standing outside, a stack of paper in his hands. He’s… she frowns, trying to remember who he is…

 

Then it clicks. “Oh, Armband Guy,†she says, unlocking the door and wrenching it open.

 

He gives her a relieved smile. “Great, you’re here! Are you all right? I’ve been knocking for a few minutes now…â€

 

“Just woke up,†she replies, stifling a yawn. “Sorry to keep you waiting.â€

 

“No problem,†he says, extending the stack of paper toward her. “Here are the notes–â€

 

An itch in her throat grows and grows, the urge to cough becoming unbearable. She does so instinctively and Geminus roars to life, screaming a warning–

 

as something leaps from her mouth

 

–into his.

 

She stares in stunned disbelief, Geminus materializing in her hand a moment too late. The parasite is already digging into its new host, spreading a fragile web of demonic influence throughout his chest. This can’t be happening, she screams internally. It was dead, how could it–

 

Then she remembers being the furthest from Yoshida when he crushed the phial. She remembers the parasite in her chest struggling feebly before succumbing to immobility, when the others stopped moving instantly.

 

It wasn’t killed, she realizes with a dawning sense of horror. Only weakened…

 

 â€œWhat’re you doing? Is there something–†He breaks into a cough.

 

“I… I’m sorry,†she says. Geminus flickers into a more compact form, and she levels the device at his chest.

 

He stares at her, oblivious. “Sorry for what?â€

 

“For this,†she whispers, and pulls the trigger.

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Having explained about Lightning Step and its capability for instant reinforcement, Raiha gave Erin and Honoka two of his coins as the three of them parted way at an intersection. The young Demon Hunter regarded the object for a while, then reluctantly accepted the enchanted coin only after making him swear to never use it to “accidentally†teleport next to her at night or during bath times. The Knight stuck out his tongue.

 

“A man dying of thirst won’t come to the desert for a drink, if you catch my drift,†he said and waved his goodbye, grinning at the sight of the pipsqueak grinding her teeth.

 

The smile didn’t last long as he walked away. His hand went up to feel his throat, and then rubbed around to ascertain he wasn’t bleeding from any wound. The diminished sense of pain was beneficial but troublesome in its own way. He spread his divine sense out in a dome encompassing the entire neighborhood, making doubly sure that no Thrall or Warlock was going to swoop down and prey on Erin and Honoka the moment he walked away. Nothing suspicious came up. He wasn’t sure if the old adage ‘no news is good news’ applied in this case.

 

He could feel the hair on his neck starting to rise even as he deliberately cut through tunnels and alleyways to lose any physical tail. The Warlock was still spying on him somehow. If that thing were to minimize his magical presence, conceal it behind a veil or a dimensional barrier, there was no way for Raiha to spot the creature in such a big town. The Knight had a sinking feeling that no matter where he went over the next few days, the Warlock could just show up out of the blue like just now. He was like that big, cartoony Tom cat standing patiently outside Jerry’s mouse hole, just waiting for its occupant to make one false move that would bring down the cat’s massive paw on the mouse. Never in Raiha’s life had he felt so much sympathy for Jerry.

 

Then again, he remembered that Jerry always won in the end, through some cunning tricks and devious planning that always left Tom defeated and deflated, sometimes literally. Maybe there was some hope in the saying that real life imitates art.

 

The problem, he thought, was that he was used to being the faster, more elusive one when it came to a fight. A blazing fireball or a gargantuan icicle might be extremely impressive, but they would amount to nothing if these attacks couldn’t land on their target. Between Lightning Step and his natural reflex, Raiha could end a fight before it even began by slaying his opposition in a single move. Failing that, he could wear the guy out by dancing and darting across the battlefield, forcing the opponent to exhaust his power while slowly succumbing to a death by a thousand cuts. But the Warlock, with his inhuman, faster-than-lightning speed, effectively rendered both approaches useless. Had the man committed himself toward the kill just now, Raiha doubted he would have realized he was dead by the time his head landed on the ground.

 

Could something alive truly be that fast? He guessed that since demonspawn didn’t exactly play by the rules of physics, anything could happen within the Warlock’s dimensional barrier. Heck, maybe the moment someone entered it, he or she would be bisected without exception. That would make him effectively unbeatable in a fair fight. Raiha were there when the Warlock went to town both times. First at the Shinjuku summit, where he cut down a room full of people in less than half a second. The other time, he effortlessly closed the distance covered by divine sense with Raiha being none the wiser to the assailant. Let’s assume for a moment that the blatant entering equal death hack wasn’t possible. What sort of ability could cause these two scenarios? What were the common links between them?

 

Impossibly short duration, his mind brought up the key phrase, followed by a few other echoes of victim’s lack of awareness, Warlock’s sudden appearance and disappearance, consistent sword wounds. He considered the branches and offshoots spreading away from these key points, dismissing those that led nowhere or toward dead ends, then trying to connect all the lines that remained. As a wise man once said: once you eliminate the impossible, no matter how improbably, must be the truth.

 

“You might be able to move across the town in a tenth of a second, but I’m faster,†the Warlock had said.

 

Something to do with speed, and not just in term of spatial displacement - the teleportation effect I saw was a byproduct of the main power. The killing was done in a blink of an eye, which means so massive speed generated within a very short span of time. In other words, a burst of sort that could precisely kill multiple people in an instant while leaving the surrounding objects intact. The Warlock used a blade judging from the wound and my encounter with him, implying either his attack was done through multiple swords striking at once, or one sword striking multiple times at once.

 

Being at multiple places at the same time…

 

His steps slowed, then stopped. The jigsaw pieces clicked into place. “Mother of God,†he gasped, his legs suddenly feeling loose and watery. He fervently prayed that he had made some mistakes in his assumptions. Because if he wasn’t wrong, and deep down Raiha knew that he hadn’t made any mistake, the Warlock’s ability wasn’t all that different from a dimensional barrier that automatically bisected anyone who got stuffed into it.

 

This wasn’t a foe anyone with a shred of sanity could possibly hope to beat.

 

He closed his eyes and resumed his walk, feeling beads of cold sweat forming steadily on his forehead. The supernatural world that he lived in was getting stranger, darker by the hours. Every day brought with it new foes and changes that all threatened to rip the status quo apart. Every defeated Warlock and Thrall simply lay the foundation for more powerful ones to come, yet countless innocents like his Mentor had to shed their blood simply to maintain this world state, simply because the alternative was hell.

 

A hell that sometimes seized Man by their throat and demanded that they pick between itself and another, slightly less horrifying, hell.

 

*****

 

Raiha wasn’t sure where he was heading. The important thing was to move, to draw the stalking Warlock as far away from his friends as possible. A while later, he found himself stopping in front of the old, dilapidated church, headquarter to all his demon hunting operations for the past three years. 

 

He stepped over the protective wards and entered through the wooden door.

 

It was a small and modest place inside. There were two rows of four pews on each side of the main room, a pulpit, a table with Bible stand, subdued lighting and a single overhead fan that creaked incessantly as it operated. There were a few beds in the back of the church to accommodate the wounded, one of which was currently occupied by Reika, the veteran hunter whose face had been turned into a wreck earlier on.

 

He stepped closer, placing his hand on her forehead and pouring a measure of Resplendence through it to examine her condition. She seemed to be in a state of deep sleep, her brain making steady but slow progress on repairing itself back to consciousness. Raiha briefly debated attempting to give it a nudge, but decided not to. For starter, one false move could potentially reduce Reika into a comatose state for the rest of her life. But more than that, the human body was an amazing machine built with the capability to repair itself as long as it drew breath, performing miracles on par with a magical practitioner’s greatest effort. The Knight had done what he could, the rest of the recovery process was up to her to overcome.

 

He heard someone stepped into the room from the back door and turned to face the individual. His eyes were capable of taking in the surrounding in greater details now, though he had to squint past the dim light regardless.

 

“Raiha?†Nakata asked, evidently surprised to see the Knight here.

 

He tried to smile back, but it probably looked a little sickly. “I got bored of lying around and doing nothing, so I came here to see if there’s anything I can help you with.â€

 

The padre took note of Raiha’s condition and broke into a weary smile. “You seem to be in much better shape than yesterday.†he said. There was relief in his voice, but something about his expression betrayed a bone-deep weariness. “I was thinking of visiting you, but got into some troublesome business with Misa and the bakufu people at the last minute.â€

 

Raiha’s eyes turned to one of the unoccupied beds. Its sheet was covered in sweat and what seemed to be blood. “What went wrong while I was away?â€

 

“What didn’t go wrong,†Nakata replied. He gestured for Raiha to follow and began to walk down a clean hallway with dark, heavy beams of old wood overhanging it. The young Knight kept pace and found himself at the archive in the back, where Nakata seemed to be in the middle of writing a letter. “Misa told me she might have witnessed the beginning of a Demon Incursion.â€

 

Raiha’s manner became absolutely serious. “How bad is it? Do we need to contact the Grandmaster?†Then he gulped. “Is she alright? Is she…tainted?â€

 

Father Nakata shook his head. “It seems to be a botched attempt, and no, she wasn’t tainted as far as I can tell.†The padre proceeded to tell Raiha everything: Raidou’s secret mission for Misa, the government’s secret research facility, their experiment on making contact with the other dimension, how a Demon had nearly wormed its way through the portal instead, and of the ensuing chaos.

 

Raiha listened with a deep frown on his face, but when the subject of the parasite implanted within everyone on site was brought up, his eyes immediately widened. “Damn, damn, damn,†he uttered, bolting upright.

 

Nakata lifted both eyebrows. “I ran a diagnosis on everyone. The trace of demonic energy inside them was really faint to amount to anything much. Misa also told me that she couldn’t see them moving at all.â€

 

“Those parasites are not magical constructs, padre,†exclaimed Raiha as he made a frantic line for the phone attached to the wall. “They are a kind of ascended Thrall called Faust. Major league Demons use them to forcefully convert people into their Warlocks, and just like the hosts, those things can’t be killed. They can only be banished back to the Abyss, and the moment they are, there shouldn’t be any physical trace left behind. If Misa claimed to be able to see them still, it means they aren’t completely wiped away just yet. Those parasites are still alive!†His fingers deftly dialed the numbers. “Come on, come on, pick up the phone, Misa!â€

 

Something clicked on the other side of the receiver, and a ragged female voice quietly greeted him. “H-hello?â€

 

“Misa? Where are you right now?†Raiha asked.

 

His demon hunting partner for one year drew in a long breath. “This voice…is that Raiha?†She was quiet for a moment, as if trying to figure out what to say by looking at a cheat sheet in front of her. “I’m at home.†Pause. “I fucked up. I need your help.â€

 

Raiha blinked at the phone. Then Nakata. Then without hesitation, he stormed past the front entrance of the church and vanished with a thunder clap, heading straight toward Misa’s home.

 

*****

 

A bolt of lightning flashed down near Ryugan, depositing Raiha somewhere toward the west side of Mitsuba. The district was originally just a small economic zone reserved for poor foreign workers to the outskirt of Tokyo, hosting homes that once had been tiny affairs, stuffed with too-large families and children. But that was a thing of the past, and Ryugan had grown up alongside the size of the community residing within it.

 

He looked around. Most of the houses built on the allotted space hadn’t had much room for expansion, so instead they had grown upward, giving the neighborhood a stretched, elongated look. There was no shortage of common houses that went as high as four to five stories, and even then they were dwarfed by the ancient oaks and sycamores growing on both sides of the pavement. The trees decorated the yards and fields in stately majesty, except for the parts where they had been roughly hacked up to make way for balconies and power lines.

 

His eyes scanned the surrounding as he murmured Misa’s home address. From what little he had heard, Misa lived on her own in a rented apartment around here somewhere. Time and again, her parents had offered to move her to the city where the both of them were working, but she had always declined them out of concern for the Hellmouth in Mitsuba. He had to hand it to the girl. She got guts.

 

He could feel a little cloud of disturbance in the air, a kind of demonic energy left behind by power users when they exercised their abilities. Raiha took in a deep breath, readying his Shield of Faith before following the trail toward a multistory apartment block, brushing his way through a gang of bikers congregating directly in front of the entrance. Some of the mohawked, leather-vested thugs gave him a threatening look, but backed off when they recognized the young master of house Shirakawa.

 

The lift was disabled at night to save on electricity, so Raiha made his way to the nineteenth floor on foot. His Assassin Creed jacket was drenched in sweat by the time he stood in front of Misa’s room. To his surprise, she grew plants on the corridor section, the greenery giving the drab concrete a rich, organic glow. It stood out quite markedly from the rest of the surrounding apartments.

 

“I’m here, Misa,†Raiha announced, ringing her door bell. “Are you in there?â€

 

A moment later he could feel someone moving closer and stopping on the other side of the door, presumably to look through the peep hole. A lock disengaged afterward, then another, then a door chain, then some rattling thing that he couldn’t quite place. He noted as he waited, that somehow Misa had a steel reinforced door unlike the majority of the tenants around here. Though he wondered if it had much use as deterrence against a determined demonspawn.

 

Misa opened the door partway and peered out at him, wearing a floral print shirt and pair of shorts. Her eyes flicked left and right. In her right hand she was holding Geminus, a small key dangling on a chain wrapped around her wrist.

 

“Did you come here alone?†she asked.

 

He nodded.

 

She opened the door just enough for Raiha to get in, then promptly closed it.

 

Misa’s place was, for lack of a better word, girly. The room was done in soft green and orange. There were frills and ruffles. The curtains had them, the couch had them, the recliners had doilies wrapped over the surface of their arm rests, the table, and just about every other surface capable of supporting lacy bits of decoration was wreathed in them. They looked old, but cared for. He got a feeling Mrs. Imahara picked them out personally for her daughter.

 

Misa’s contribution to the décor was an amalgamation of ballistic knives, kukris, daggers, machetes, balisongs all hanging by their straps from hooks on the wall, the same way most normal people would hang up their keys. Practical violence within arm’s length: those had her signatures all over them. Cardboard crates containing questionable hardware took up one corner of the living room, while family photographs lovingly framed and displayed occupied the shelf on the opposite end. It made for a perplexing juxtaposition.

 

Raiha noticed a pair of male shoes neatly placed at the entrance despite the fact that she lived alone. Misa didn’t make a remark about them, so he decided to not raise any question. What he said after she was done with locking the door was, “You said you need my assistance over the phone. I’m here. How may I be of help?â€

 

She looked at him. “Am I right to assume Father Nakata told you everything that transpired?â€

 

“He did.â€

 

“He had one detail off. We were wrong,†she said, almost mournfullly. “The parasite was still alive.â€

 

Raiha nodded. “I know.â€

 

Misa’s eyes widened. “How did you…?â€

 

“I read about these things when I was an Acolyte.†he replied, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. “The Lexicon mentioned how they would go dormant to repair themselves for a short period when attacked during the larval stage. We are lucky you are a power user, so it needs to take quite a while longer to mature and assimilate itself into your soul. Now pull your shirt up and lie down on the bed, I will remove it.â€

 

She coughed and looked down. He was reminded of the fact that Misa was, after all is said and done, a female. “Sorry, I forgot. I guess you can wrap yourself in a towel or something. But you will have to tell me with your Sight where the thing is.â€

 

“It’s not about that, Raiha,†she replied. For a moment, her composure faltered and her lips began to tremble. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, smoothing over her features, then opened her smoky dark eyes again. “A classmate came over to deliver some notes for me just now, an hour before you showed up. I came out to greet him, and…and…the creature leaped out of my mouth and wormed its way into his. It was all so sudden, I had no time to react.â€

 

“A host transfer?†he muttered, his voice quiet. There was no precedence of a Faust doing such a thing. He asked her to show him the infected, and Misa led Raiha to her bedroom.

 

A familiar face greeted him behind the closed door.

 

Raiha remembered Kira Takamine as an easy-going second year of medium height, neatly combed dark hair, with a nervous smile and a quiet personality that made him blend in a little too well with the surrounding. He was part of the student council of which Raiha’s girlfriend was the president; the kid who always frowned at Raiha for breaking into the meeting room during school breaks to enjoy the air conditioning despite not being an active member. Most of their exchanges so far resulted in the Knight falling asleep on Honoka’s chair.

 

He didn’t remember Kira with a fixed, tooth-baring grin and eyes so intense with madness like the psychopathic axe murderer from The Shining. He didn’t remember the bulges that moved beneath his skin like some sort of insect trying to break free, the fingernails so yellowed and encrusted they had started to rot, or his wrists and ankles restrained by steel chains, tied to both ends of the bed. Raiha could smell the stink of sweat and the stench of profane miasma. The windows had been shut and curtained, making the atmosphere inside the room almost unbreathable for him.

 

Kira turned to face the Knight and his eyes suddenly widened in frightful recognition. The restrained boy threw his head back in a piercing, sepulchral scream, like that of a banshee’s. Then he started thrashing and jerking his restraints, causing the metal to dig into his flesh, producing a steady, squeaking rhythm from the springy bed, making it sound like a couple of hyperkinetic teenagers were going at each other like rabbits.

 

“Intermediate stage of demonic possession,†Raiha diagnosed, expressionless. “The Faust is corrupting his personality and his memory. In the next half an hour, he will be effectively reverted to a blank slate, where it can start reprogramming him into a Warlock.â€

 

“A Faust?†Misa asked. “Like the one from Mephistopheles’ legend?â€

 

“That’s where the inspiration for the parasite's contemporary name comes from, yes.â€

 

“But then doesn’t that make our work simpler? We can just tell him to reject the Faust’s invasion.â€

 

He shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s not how it works.â€

 

“But that doesn’t make any sense,†she said. “You told me being a Warlock is a matter of choice. That the individuals can choose to renounce the devil within if they have the will to do so. That’s why the Knights of the Cross exist in the first place, to redeem those who have fallen from grace.â€

 

He gave her a leveled look. “And doesn’t that strike you as horribly inefficient? That the demons would play a chess game with pieces that might or might not follow their master’s orders?â€

 

She paused.

 

“Most demons have no choice but to tempt humans with promises of riches and influence because while they can bestow supernatural powers to these individuals, they cannot corrupt free will, which was God’s gift to mankind,†Raiha explained sadly. “But major league demons like Barbatorem, Mephistopheles, Nurgle, have found a way to bypass this. They use a specialized Thrall called a Faust to temporarily corrupt the victim’s soul, weaving its presence and preference into the person’s memory and mind, making it seem like he has chosen to become a Warlock all along. Then when the process is done, he will act on these fabricated details and notions as if they were his own. What comes out in the end is a mental slave so controlled the person doesn’t even know he is being played like a puppet, and this lasts till his last breath.â€

 

“Can he be saved?†Misa went straight to the point.

 

“Give me a minute to find out,†Raiha replied.

 

“Maybe…maybe isolate the parasite, trap it with your own magic, then slowly revert the damage it has caused?

 

He looked at Kira. “I don’t know if that can be done, Misa.â€

 

“Or maybe we can try to burn only the demonic bits, like how they treat cancer with chemicals?â€

 

“Misa, I don’t know if that is possible.â€

 

“Damn it, Raiha,†she snapped. “Then what do you even know?!†Her fists were clenched, her shoulders quivering with suppressed anger.

 

“Nothing, if you don’t give me a minute to find out,†he answered with patience. Raiha hadn’t been shooting down her proposals, he just simply didn’t want to give her any false hope without first confirming their viability. “Misa, I’m going to tell you three times. Calm down.â€

 

“It was all my fault that he is-†her voice was caught in her throat, and her eyes looked to him as if they were pleading. “I should be the one lying there. The guy hasn’t done anything to warrant this fate. Save him, please.â€

 

“Take it easy,†Raiha told Misa while gently ushering her to the other side of the bed. “I will do my best.â€

 

Kira stared at her with wide-rimmed eyes as she circled around him. His head then whipped around and broke into a string of expletives and curses at the Knight when he channeled what was left of his meager Resplendence pool. Raiha’s outstretched palm started to glow incandescently, and the possessed boy started to thrash, trying to get away from it.

 

“Detect Evil and Good,†Raiha whispered the invocation before addressing Kira, his voice slow, clear, like a trainer talking to an untamed lion. “I’m going to diagnose your condition. It’s going to hurt, but that’s the spell burning away the demonic taint inside. Weakness leaving your body, you know, so don’t be alarmed.†Then without delay, he laid his hand on Kira’s chest.

 

The boy started to scream, rocking the bed back and forth with fervor. His flesh started to metaphysically char underneath the Knight’s searing aura. He thrust his head at Raiha’s hand, trying to bite off the digits, his teeth making snapping motions, his enamel visibly breaking at the force his jaw produced. Raiha gestured with his hand for Misa to secure Kira’s head, then redoubled his effort.

 

Kira’s soul had been raped, ravaged, ruined. He was riddled with holes, chunks of his body taken away as if bitten into and ripped out by a particularly vicious predator. It reminded Raiha of the dead bodies from Jaws, people with their body parts and organs just taken, consumed. That was what Kira would look like, if not for the fact that something was visibly worming its way into the vacant space. Something dark, encysted, malignant. Metaphysically speaking, Kira was bleeding and bleeding endlessly, the sheet below him pure white despite the copious amount of ectoplasm soaking into it. It was a matter of time before the injuries manifest themselves in the physical realm. The body was shaped by the soul much like how rebar reinforced concrete. With a damaged core, the shell would eventually crumble. Similarly,  a body without a soul would fester, rot, decay.

 

Victims of a Thrall attack never got an open casket funeral.

 

Raiha heaved a sigh of effort and attempted the magical equivalent of disinfection. He identified the Faust and prodded it with a cleansing spell and isolated the mutilated sections of Kira’s soul. It didn’t seem to work. While most magic teemed and pulsed with life and purpose, even when it was used for malicious or destructive purpose, the kind employed by demon was something completely different. Antilife, antithesis, antimagic, a dissonant counterpart to Raiha’s practice. Worse, he could feel its tendrils forcing its way into him through the connection established between the two of them, trying to corrupt the Knight of the Cross’ soul with its unholy taint.

 

The smart thing to do would have been to fall back. He could phone in Grandmaster Arkynaster for instruction on the matter before working on it, figuring out how to deal with the Faust. Banishment was no longer an option, since the creature had integrated itself so deeply into the boy’s soul. The moment Raiha did that, momentum would send whatever that was left of Kira back to the Abyss along with the parasite through inertia, and while most people utter the phrase without comprehending it, the second year would soon understand the meaning of a life worse than death.

 

But judiciousness wasn’t even an option. Kira had already been suffering for nearly an hour. He might not make it through the next, given how rapid the Faust’s progress was. His sanity would be eclipsed by the parasite’s mind, and he might very well be sent to someplace from where he’d never come back at any moment now.

 

Raiha closed his eyes and steeled his will. He resumed purging the corruption with a far stronger invocation this time, so potent its searing heat scorched away parts of Kira’s soul that remained untouched by the Faust. The poor boy screamed aloud, agonized, yet even through that there was the wicked, horrible laughter of something that didn’t belong within him. Raiha clenched his teeth, forcing his will, his power, his presence into the holes of the victim’s soul, to fill up the gap before the Faust could do it.

 

It worked. The tendrils shriveled, masses of corruption withered away until they could no longer be detected by Raiha’s divine sense. He felt tears burn into his eyes, from the magical backlash, from Kira’s screaming, but he pressed on until he could no longer keep up the purging invocation. The Faust’s roots were forcefully removed and burned away, leaving only the main body lodged deeply next to where Kira’s heart would be. Layer by layer, invocation by invocation, Raiha wrapped the creature within a cage of every sealing spell he had ever learned and read about, isolating that monstrous, vile thing deep within a recess of the boy’s soul, a prisoner within an Alcatraz built to house a single inmate.

 

The Faust struggled, slamming itself repeatedly against the cage until, finally, it stopped moving. Kira’s eyes shot open wide, his body convulsing under wracking waves of pain, and then he sagged down, letting out a low, exhausted whimper as drool dripped from the corner of his mouth. Raiha let out a heaving breath and slumped against his chair. Misa came over to stop him from just collapsing onto the ground.

 

“Raiha?†She breathed. “Are you alright?!â€

 

His mind felt numb with coldness that had nothing to do with the temperature inside the room. “O-overexertion on my part. T-t-the Faust tried to a-attack me. F-fought it off, isolated it.â€

 

“Can I get you anything? Do you need to see a doctor?â€

 

He shook his head. “D-don’t worry about me, check on him instead.â€

 

Misa nodded and paced over to the bed. “Erm...fellow classmate, can you hear me?†She didn't look like she even remembered his name.

 

"It's Kira Takamine," Raiha whispered from the side.

 

Kira stirred, his eyes cracking open. “Imahara-san?†he asked in a hoarse voice. Then he noticed the fact that he was tied down to her bed. “Why am I chained up?†His mouth suddenly fell down, a flustered look dawning on his face. “Did you drug me? We are students...this is wrong...†Then his eyes fell closed again, exhausted.

 

She gave him a flat stare.

 

Raiha started to laugh so hard he ended up with a coughing fit. “I think you can remove the chains already.â€

 

Misa used the key on her wrist to do just that. She unlocked all four padlocks around the bed, then the chains wrapping around his limbs, but it looked as though Kira had already fallen into a deep, exhausted sleep.

 

“What happened to him, exactly?†she asked while helping Raiha to the couch in the living room.

 

“It tore him up inside,†he answered. “You know how people are struck with grief and sorrow when someone dear to them die? Or when someone’s spouse cheats on him with his best friend? A part of your soul dies in the process, creating emotional pain that sometimes drives people insane. That’s what the parasite did to Kira, only a hundred times worse. The thing broke him apart, made him insane so that it could inject fabricated bits and pieces into his consciousness before rebuilding it.â€

 

“So he is fine now?†she asked. Her voice was quiet, hopeful. She gave him a can of vanilla Nescafe still cold from the fridge. It was his favorite. Raiha drank coffee more than water.

 

He downed it in one gulp. “For now, yes. It’s quite unprecedented, stopping a Faust from infecting its victims. Most of the times, I get called in to take care of the aftermath.†His tone left very little room for interpretation as to what “take care†means.

 

Then he crushed the can of coffee with his hand. “However, I wouldn’t use the word fine to describe his condition. If his will is strong, Kira can starve the Thrall by refusing to listen to it, to accept whatever bit of temptation it will undoubtedly try to offer him in exchange for freedom. But if he feeds it, it will regain enough strength to break out of the cage I have made.†He looked at her. “And since he would be using his freewill to do so, there will not be a second chance at redemption for him. That boy’s a ticking time bomb for all we know.â€

 

Misa glanced up at Raiha. “I won’t let it come to that. It was my fault that this happened to him, I will take proper responsibility in helping him overcoming his inner demon.â€

 

“He will have to live the rest of his life without once succumbing to temptation, to greed, to his own desire. The Faust will always be there to offer him an easy way out. Do you think such a thing is possible?†Raiha pointed out. “The moment he becomes a Warlock, he will seek us out, the people who opposed his demonic overlord in the first place, to exact vengeance. We already have our plate full with the ones running around Mitsuba. Can we risk having one more added to the fray?â€

 

“I don’t know,†she replied and shook her head. “But sometimes, you just gotta have faith. Remember those exact words that you spoke to me during our first meeting?" Misa brushed away a few errant strands of hair. "I will help him however much I can, and even in the worst case scenario, I would like to be the one relieving him from his misery. So please Raiha, give him this chance. Give me this chance.â€

 

Raiha took a last look at her, then the unconscious boy, then sighed and raked his hand through his hair. “It’s like you said, Mentor,†he murmured. “It never rains but it pours.†He fished inside his pocket and produced an enchanted coin before giving it to her. "Here, just in case you ever need my help. Tell Kira to come talk to me sometimes if he wants some tips on fighting off the Faust's advance."

She accepted the coin. “Thank you, Raiha,†Misa said eventually. "For better or worse, I'm damn glad you are on our side."

“Any time. You’re my friend. And I’m always up to helping a helpless, dainty damsel in distress,†he made an exaggerated bow and waggled his eyebrows in a way that Raiha knew would get on Misa's nerves.

She glanced up at him, a sparkle in her eyes that somehow combined gratitude and bloodlust. “There's a fine line between chauvinism and chivalry, Raiha. Right now you are just coming across as a huge chauvinist pig.â€

“A hungry chauvinist pig, oink oink,†he corrected her. “All that spellcasting is starving me.â€

“Eat more. Your body is all skin and bone.†She gestured for him toward the kitchen table and said, “Gimme a moment to rummage through my fridge. I’ll get you something.â€

"It better not be combat MRE again, Misa," he said. The last time they had a field op together on the mountain, Misa was in charge of packing the food. Raiha had set his expectation low from the start, meaning no home-made bento packed with love or something equivalent. He had thought it would be something practical like sandwiches and juice boxes, but in the end all she had with her was these semi-solid...substances that tasted like glue. Calling it crap would be an insult to crap, because Raiha was sure that one actually had some measure of warmth and flavor.

"Don't worry it's not," she said.

"Thank Heaven," he answered.

"It's non-combat MRE, seeing as we aren't fighting at the moment," she deadpaned.

"...I hate you so much right now."

 

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“Here, catch.†She retrieves a few store-bought onigiri from her fridge and tosses them halfway across the room, then joins Raiha at the table.

 

“Ahh, real food. Thanks,†he says. He plucks them out of the air without looking, and takes a huge bite out of one after undoing its plastic wrapping. “For a moment there, I thought you were really going to feed me that bland crap – Meal, Ready-to-Eat? More like Maliciously Reconstituted Excrement, if you ask me.â€

 

“Well, casting pearls before swine is a mistake I only make once,†she shoots back.

 

“At least pearls are solid,†the Knight mumbles. “Everything’s the same texture – gooey and disgusting. I don’t know how you manage to put that stuff in your mouth, let alone swallow.â€

 

She seizes the opportunity with extreme prejudice. “Just ask your girlfriend, Raiha-san,†she says, trying in vain to keep a straight face.

 

“Honoka was totally fine with it,†Raiha retorts. “And it wasn’t disgusting. She’d say something if it’d been… right?†He gives her a hopeful glance.

 

“I…†she mulls over the question for a bit. “I suppose she would’ve. It does seem like the sort of thing you’d mention.â€

 

“Great,†he says, looking very relieved. “I tried a bit myself and it wasn’t too bad. A bit bitter and definitely too soggy for my taste, but she seemed to like it. Maybe a bit more cream next time…â€

 

She reels back from his sudden admission. “Wh– oh, god. That’s too much information.â€

 

He frowns at her. “What’re you talking about? This might be useful for you in the future, you know.â€

 

“Wh–what?†In a panic, she waves her hands defensively. “This has nothing to do with me!†

 

“Of course it does. If you find a special someone, you’re gonna want to do the same for him. And then you’ll remember this conversation, and you’ll say to yourself, ‘It’s a good thing Raiha-senpai gave me those tips back then’.†Raiha pauses. “Although for some reason, I see you on the receiving end instead...â€

 

“I… I…†Face completely red, she tries to form a coherent sentence but nothing comes out. “That’s–â€

 

A thought visibly strikes the Knight, and he goes on: “Hey, I know! How would you like to help me out the next time I give it a go? Two birds with one stone – you can get valuable experience, and Honoka will probably enjoy it more.â€

 

What? WHAT–

 

She slams her fist on the table. “NO. Absolutely not! What are you even thinking, saying something like that? I’ve misjudged you–â€

 

His face twists into a rictus of mock despair. “Come on, Misa-san. My baking can’t be that bad…â€

 

“Your what.â€

 

“…we’re talking about the chocolate cake I baked for her birthday, right?†Oh. OH, THAT.

 

“Of course,†she says with every ounce of sincerity she can muster. “Of course we are.â€

 

~~

 

Raiha finishes the rest of his meal in relative silence, only pausing to fish his phone from a pocket and stare at the screen with a sigh. The device is clearly broken – a chunk of the plastic case detaches itself from the phone’s rear face and hits the table with a clatter, revealing a cracked battery and shattered SIM card.

 

“Got into any fights recently?†She asks. “Your phone’s totaled. Hope you had the data backed up somewhere.â€

 

He nods grimly. “Yakuza business gone wrong – there were power users everywhere, and a warlock even got in on the action.â€

 

That’s news. “What powers?â€

 

“He killed a dozen people with a sword in under a second. Not in one slash, but many – I think he has some sort of time manipulation. He’s still out there, by the way. Jumped Honoka and me yesterday, but Erin bailed us out.â€

 

Still out there? That’s bad news. She considers a few counter-strategies, but it’s tough to decide when there’s so little information. “Anything particular about his power?â€

 

“Well…†Raiha thinks about it. “There was something about his victims… oh, yeah.†He nods. “All of them were drained of blood.â€

 

“Strange. Maybe he gets power from drinking the stuff,†she suggests. “Were there bite marks?â€

 

The Knight shakes his head. “Not that I saw. Now that I think about it, he also mentioned something about not being able to sheathe his blade without drawing blood…â€

 

She shrugs. “A blood-drinking blade sounds appropriately creepy. Is there anything else?â€

 

He shakes his head again. “I don’t really remember anything more. Sorry.â€

 

“No problem. You mentioned other power users – will any of them be a problem?â€

 

“No. The warlock killed them all,†Raiha replies. “Then an Avatar of Shiva showed up looking for blood, and I had to kill him too.â€

 

She whistles, impressed. Those who channel a deity’s power are often unmatched in a certain domain, which makes fights against them more about survival and strategy than a direct contest of power. Or so I’ve heard, anyway. “That can’t have been easy.â€

 

The Knight looks down, face darkening a little. “It wasn’t.â€

 

“But you did it anyway,†she says, clapping him on the shoulder. “I’d give you beer if I had any – I don’t think anyone’s killed an Avatar in our area before.â€

 

“I…†He looks rather glum for someone who’s accomplished such a feat. “I don’t know if it was the right thing to do.â€

 

Oh. Right. There is that.

 

“I have an important question,†she says. “Was he an asshole?â€

 

He looks back up, puzzled. “Hmm? I suppose so. He was a rapist, a murderer, a necromancer, a thug… yeah, definitely an asshole.â€

 

She nods. “Well, it’s only natural for assholes to get fucked.†Immediately after the words leave her mouth, she fights back the urge to bury her face in her hands. I... probably shouldn’t have said that. This isn’t helping, is it?

 

Raiha shifts in his seat and gives her an uncomfortable look. “I think some people would disagree with you on that. Besides, it’s not that simple – whether or not he was an asshole, I swore an oath to use my power only for humanity, not against it.â€

 

“Firstly, I’m not sure any of us count as human anymore,†she says after a moment of consideration. “Secondly… well, I’ve never put much stock in oaths. But I know you do, and it sounds to me like you weighed yours against the risk of letting him live and came to a decision. Or was it a spur of the moment thing?â€

 

A moment of silence.

 

"The former," Raiha says eventually. "He was a menace to the world at large, and to my friends and family in particular. Breaking my oath and killing him might’ve been a sin, but it’s one I’ll gladly bear."

 

She shrugs. “There aren’t any judges in our line of work – no juries, either. But that doesn’t mean we executioners have to sit and watch as evildoers run amok.â€

 

He nods. "I guess...we all get what’s coming around for us, and sometimes... well, sometimes we’re what’s coming around for someone else." Then he gives her his trademark grin. "But that's enough doom and gloom for tonight. You know there’s a festival coming up this Saturday?"

 

“Yeah. Why?â€

 

“Will you be going?†The Knight asks.

 

“Of course,†she says. “A crowd that size is a perfect target.â€

 

Raiha frowns. “I decided to give Honoka some alone time with the clingy gluttonous shrimp she calls a childhood friend, so I’ll be on patrol. You need to relax – why not take some time off and unwind?â€

 

She shakes her head. “Out of the question.â€

 

His frown deepens. “Misa–â€

 

“Fine. I’ll mingle and ‘relax’,†she says, drawing quotes in the air with her fingers, "but there’ll be a clone following you around in case anything happens. Okay?â€

 

“Ugh,†he says. “I suppose that’s as much as I’m going to get out of you. Fine, just make sure she’s inconspicuous.â€

 

“Of course. Do you want camo or civilian clothes?â€

 

“Wait, I get a choice?†A wicked gleam appears in Raiha’s eye. “In that case, I choose… a yukata!†He yells, pointing a finger at her dramatically.

 

She groans. “Really? That’s difficult to put on and tough to move around in.â€

 

“Yeah, but everyone else will be dressed the same way. It’ll be the perfect disguise!†he replies.

 

“... you make a fair point,†she concedes. “I’ll see what I can do.â€

 

“Great.†The Knight checks his watch and makes a face, standing up a moment later. “I have stuff to do elsewhere, so I guess I’ll be off now. Thanks for the food, by the way,â€

 

“No problem – wait, hang on,†she says, remembering the scientists’ experimental data. He gives her a puzzled look, and she explains: “I retrieved a hard drive of data from the lab. I don’t know if the Church is interested…â€

 

“Of course,†he replies. “Do you have it on you right now?â€

 

“Give me a moment,†she says. In her bedroom, Number Two turns away from the sleeping Takamine, glides soundlessly over to the standalone computer and inspects the screen.

 

Copy to Data (D:) complete, a system prompt reads. The doppelganger unplugs the hard drive from the computer and emerges from the bedroom, handing it over to Raiha.

 

“Thanks,†he says as Number Two takes up its vigil again. “Do you know what’s on the disc?â€

 

She shakes her head in reply. “Didn’t get the chance to look at it. Not sure I want to.â€

 

“Can’t blame you for that,†Raiha mutters and pockets the drive before heading for the door. “I’ll see you around.â€

 

“Bye. Oh, one last thing,†she adds, and he turns to her with an oh dear what is it now look on his face. “I’d talk the Avatar-killing thing over with Father Nakata, if I were you.â€

 

He gives her a wry grin. “I thought you’d have forgotten about that by now.â€

 

“I’m serious,†she says.

 

“When aren’t you?†He counters, and she frowns at him. “All right, all right… I’ll consider it.â€

 

“Mmm. See you.â€

 

~~

 

After Raiha leaves, she retrieves Yoshida’s business card from the loaned blazer. It’s completely inert to her Sight, a plain white card with nothing but his last name and a phone number printed in large, blocky text.

 

Should I–? She reaches for her phone. No. Too risky. She leaves her apartment and hops on a bus to the train station. It’s late evening and peak hour is over, so traffic is light and it takes about ten minutes to reach her destination.

 

Once there, she wastes no time in locating a nearby payphone. After checking the surroundings for listening devices, she feeds a few 10-yen coins into the slot with a loud clatter and dials the number on his card.

 

Someone picks up after three rings. “Hello.†The man on the other end sounds exasperated, as if he’d rather be doing anything but this. “Matsudaira Office Supplies and Products, how may I help you today?â€

 

“I’d like to speak to Yoshida, please,†she says, and there’s a slight pause.

 

After a few moments, he replies: “Might I have your name and reason for calling?â€

 

“I’m Yamaguchi. We met briefly two days ago, and I–†she pauses to think of something convincing. “I think he has some questions for me.â€

 

Another pause, longer this time. He’s probably put me on mute while his supervisor decides what to do.

 

“One moment, I’m patching you in.†the man on the phone says. The line beeps and starts playing elevator music.

 

The Bakufu’s probably recording this, and I wouldn’t put it past them to try and trace the call. But that’s why I’m here.

 

The muzak cuts off abruptly. “Hey, Yamaguchi-san,†Yoshida says tiredly. “How’s everything?â€

 

“Under control,†she replies. “The parasites give you any trouble?â€

 

“No. The Fausts were still alive, but not strong enough to do anything. We’re all under quarantine in a warded room until the specialists decide how to get them out, but nobody was possessed. I’m guessing it was the same for you?â€

 

“Yeah,†she lies. “How’s Dr. Morita?â€

 

“Still unconscious. The Faust might interfere with healing, so Medical’s first priority is keeping him stable. Or so I’ve heard, anyway.â€

 

Guilt gnaws at her, and she tightens her grip on the phone. “I see. Thanks.â€

 

A moment of silence.

 

“I suppose you want to know about the facility?†Yoshida breaks the silence eventually.

 

“Only what you’re authorized to tell me,†she replies.

 

“Of course. We have the place under lockdown, and there doesn’t seem to be any more activity. So there’s no need for worry – everything’s secure.â€

 

“Great,†she says. “I’ll let my boss know.â€

 

He makes an acknowledging noise. “One last thing – Dr. Hashimoto mentioned something about a hard drive of data which he passed to you. Do you still have it?â€

 

“Destroyed,†she lies again. “I burned all my gear in the church, just in case.â€

 

“Oh,†Yoshida says. “Shame. That was a nice suit.â€

 

“Thanks,†she replies. “Is there anything else, or should I just leave the line open until your guys are done triangulating?â€

 

He lets out a bark of laughter. “They’ve been done for quite some time, Yamaguchi-san.â€

 

“Ah. I should go, then.†She looks around with her Sight, but doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I guess it’d take them a little longer than five minutes to get someone here.

 

“Relax,†Yoshida says. “We’re on the same side.â€

 

She shrugs. “Privacy is privacy. And today’s ally isn’t necessarily tomorrow’s friend.â€

 

“Of course. Also, regarding the monetary compensation I mentioned–â€

 

“Use it to help the workers’ families. I don’t need the money,†she says.

 

“Ah.†Yoshida doesn’t sound too surprised. “I’ll let my supervisor know.â€

 

“Great. Sorry, but I have to go now,†she says. “Give my regards to the team.â€

 

“Will do. Goodbye, Yamaguchi-san.â€

 

~~

 

The ride home is uneventful – she doesn’t spot anything suspicious, and nobody follows her when she gets off the bus and heads back to her apartment.

 

Number Two has been watching over Takamine all this while, but her classmate hasn’t budged an inch on her bed. The only movement he exhibits is the slow rising and falling of his chest, and his tortured expression from earlier has smoothened into a somewhat peaceful look.

 

Under her doppelganger’s Sight, the Faust resembles a neutered neuron – thin tendrils of red extend outward from a main body, but their ends are broken and seared courtesy of Raiha’s power. Every now and then, the demonic parasite shifts and gropes outward with one of its maimed limbs, but the wards inside Takamine’s body flare with golden light and rebuff the Faust’s advances.

 

Taking extra care not to make any noise, she unlocks the door and creeps in. I feel like a thief breaking into my own apartment, she complains to nobody in particular. What am I even supposed to do now? What if he sleeps until tomorrow? She looks at the clock – it’s 7:40 pm. Oh dear. If he doesn’t get home in time, things are going to get awkward.

 

“…I hate to do this, but you can’t sleep here forever. Sorry,†she mutters. She pokes Takamine gently in the shoulder, but he doesn’t respond. Maybe he’s just too tired, she thinks, and shakes him a little. He stirs, mumbling something in his sleep, and rolls away from her.

 

“Oh no you didn’t,†she says. “Get back here.â€

 

“Mmflgh.†Takamine wakes up. Almost immediately, he tries to feign sleep by holding himself stock still and taking regular breaths, but she can tell it’s an act.

 

“Good evening, Takamine-san,†she says, dismissing Number Two. “I know you’re awake. And I’m going to need you to stay calm, because my explanation is going to sound completely insane at first. Okay?â€

 

“Oh, god, it wasn’t a dream,†her classmate mumbles and sits up in bed. “You– Why am I here?â€

 

“I’ll start from the beginning. Do you believe in magic?†She asks. Please don’t call the police, please don’t call the police…

 

He gives her an incredulous glance. “Nnnno, not really… why do you ask?â€

 

Number Two and Number Three materialize from thin air, and his eyes go wide. “There’s–†his disbelieving gaze flickers from one of her bodies to another. “There’s three of you,†he breathes.

 

“Yeah. Magic,†she says.

 

“I must still be dreaming,†Takamine mutters. He pinches himself and winces in pain, examining the growing red patch on his arm. “Ow. Maybe not. So…†he looks back up to her almost hopefully, as if begging her to let him in on the joke and point out the hidden camera.

 

“I’m sorry. There’re no special effects. And this isn’t a hallucination, either,†she says grimly. “Here, hold out your hand.â€

 

Her classmate complies, and each of her bodies steps forward to tap a finger on his palm. “This can’t be happening,†he says, shaking his head from side to side as Number Three steps back from the bed. “It’s not– it’s not possible. But…â€

 

She dismisses her clones in a burst of energy. “Look,†she says as gently as she can, “I know this is a lot to take in. But the sooner you accept the existence of magic, the better.â€

 

Takamine closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths. “Let’s say I somehow manage to accept that you’re… some sort of magical girl.†he says eventually. “What happens next?â€

 

“Firstly I’m not a magical girl,†she says. “Secondly, well…†she sits down on the foot of the bed. “I’m afraid something terrible has happened to you.â€

 

~~

 

"So let me get this straight,†Takamine says ten minutes later. “You're some kind of demon-fighting magical girl–"

 

"Hunter," she says quickly.

 

"Yeah, that's what I said. So you're a Hunter and you brought back a demon baby–"

 

"Faust."

 

He nods. "Yeah. You went on one of your missions, a Faust infected you and played dead and now it's in me, and it's going to try and tempt me into becoming a… demon puppet?"

 

"We call those Thralls, but yes. That’s the gist of it.†She tries to meet his gaze, but can’t muster the courage to look up from the floral pattern on her blanket. “I'm really sorry – as I’ve explained, this situation is almost entirely my fault."

 

"Yeah, no worries. I’m assuming that’s also why you tazed me into unconsciousness, chained me to your bed and then had Shirakawa-san take off my shirt and touch my chest?†He asks.

 

“Ugh – now that you put it like that…†she grimaces. “I panicked and did what I thought was best. Sorry.â€

 

“No need to apologize so much,†Takamine replies, sounding a little embarrassed. “I was just kidding – if what you say is true, the two of you might’ve saved my life.â€

 

“Only because I endangered it in the first place, Takamine-san. You say there’s no need, but apologizing is the only thing I can do now.†she murmurs.

 

“Don’t look so down. Didn’t Shirakawa-san fix me up? You mentioned a seal,†he says.

 

“It’s a semi-permanent cure,†she explains, looking up to gauge his reaction. “The Faust is sealed, so it can’t do any harm in its prison. Its goal is to talk you into releasing it, and it’ll promise anything and everything to make that happen. But make no mistake – it will tear your soul apart once all the seals are broken.â€

 

Takamine winces. “That doesn’t sound so good,†he says, but he looks strangely unfazed by her explanation. “So I’m… basically Naruto now, aren’t I?â€

 

“I’m serious,†she growls. “If you let the Faust loose, it’ll…†she racks her brain for a strong enough word.

 

“I know,†he replies.

 

“It’ll ruin you, Kira,†she says desperately.

 

He sighs and buries his head in his hands. “I know,†he says in a muffled voice. “It’s just that everything still seems so outlandish and my subconscious is being stubborn… could you give me a little time to sort things out?â€

 

“Of course. Take all the time you need.†She casts a glance at her clock. “Speaking of time…†It’s 7:53 pm.

 

Kira’s head snaps up. “Oh crap. What time is it?â€

 

She tells him.

 

He fumbles around for his phone and snaps it open. “Oh, no. Fifteen missed calls – I was supposed to be home by six thirty. And now I’m going to be late for dinner at eight… Mom’s gonna kill me.â€

 

She hops off the bed and opens the closet door, retrieving her helmet and school uniform. “Not if I have anything to say about it.â€

 

~~

 

 â€œY’know, you said you were going to stop my mother from killing me,†Kira says a short while later, voice muffled by the helmet she lent him. The address he provided turns out to be a two story, single-detached dwelling with a sign that reads TAKAMINE RESIDENCE. A dog barks somewhere inside the house as she pulls up by the curb, and the delightful smell of cooking wafts out from the gate.

 

“I did. It’s not eight yet,†she replies.

 

He releases his death grip on her blazer and gets off the bike, taking off the helmet and returning it to her with shaking hands. “Well, you damn near did the job for her – I can’t even count the number of near misses we just had.â€

 

“It may not look like it, but I was actually driving really safely,†she says, trying not to grin at the incredulous look on Kira’s face. “We were never in any danger – plus, you were the one with the helmet.â€

 

“Safely? Safely?†Kira’s mouth opens and closes a few times as he tries to find an answer. After a few moments, he shakes his head. “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.â€

 

“Suit yourself.â€

 

“…I’ll admit it was kind of fun, though,†he mutters under his breath.

 

“Sorry?†She raises her eyebrows and leans in close. “Didn’t quite catch that last bit.â€

 

“Nothing,†he says, and she can’t help but smile. “….Come to think of it,†he goes on, “how did you even get a license for the bike?â€

 

A tiny twinge of pain. “You… don’t really want to know,†she replies. “Do you need an alibi, by the way?â€

 

Kira frowns. “Shit. Yeah, I do. Schoolwork, maybe…â€

 

“Hmm… Literature assignment? Maybe some assigned readings, which I missed.â€

 

His face lights up. “Yeah, that works. And you needed me to go through the material with you, but you couldn’t get the hang of it and I ended up staying way too late.â€

 

She nods. “Sounds good. Now, just a few more things: First, I’m going to need some way to contact you.â€

 

“No problem,†Kira says. “Here’s my number…â€

 

He reads it out and she saves it in her work phone before sending an experimental text. His phone beeps a moment later, and she nods.

 

“Secondly, I need you to go to sleep as soon as possible – don’t follow any urges. If you get any, just let me know tomorrow and I’ll figure something out.â€

 

Surprisingly, Kira looks rather uncomfortable. “…urges?â€

 

“Guh–†Is this what I think it is?

 

She shakes her head. No, nononono. Remember what happened when you jumped to conclusions with Raiha earlier. “I… uh, just follow your normal routine,†she mumbles. “Don’t do anything out of the ordinary – it could be the Faust trying to influence you.â€

 

He nods. “Sure. Anything else?â€

 

“I don’t think so. See you tomorrow, Takamine-san,†she says, putting her helmet on and kicking the engine into life. “Sleep well.â€

 

“I’ll try, Imahara-san,†Kira replies. “I’ll try.â€

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Fortune Favors The Bold.

 

The time for the decisive battle had come. It was a confrontation long in the making – two souls inexorably set on a collision by the ever-turning wheel of fate, destined to do battle against the other in mortal combat. This was no mere street fight, but the purest, most primal test of the two foes’ strength, skill and will – a clash that could rightfully be immortalized as a work of art. It would be a battle to be remembered, one that would rock both heaven and hell; and there was scarcely a more appropriate backdrop for this duel for the ages.

 

In defiance of the very seasons themselves, the sakura trees overlooking the austere stone bridge were blooming, their boughs brilliant splashes of pink. At the head of the bridge loomed a monolithic temple of ancient make, a stone dragon statue coiling around its mighty wooden pillars and gazing down upon the soon-to-be battlefield with sightless eyes of carved granite. Presently, a young man appeared atop the tiled, elegantly ornamented temple roof, a massive weapon more akin to a massive, crudely-pointed hunk of iron slung upon his back. His eyes swept across the bridge with a steely gaze, quickly locking onto the interloper slowly crossing the bridge, and a scowl crossed his scarred face. Leaping from the eaves with the grace of a flitting swallow, his feet lightly touched upon the flagstones as he rose, slamming his fist into an open palm in the traditional greeting of a ninja. Or at least, the sort of ninja one would see in a manga or Hollywood movie who’d resolutely insist on wearing garish day-glo colors and loudly introducing themselves during an assassination. “You won’t escape, evildoer,†he declared imperiously. “I, a defender of justice, shall be your opponent!â€

 

His opponent, a blond-haired slip of a girl in a decidedly garish white-and-blue outfit, twirled the massive staff-like weapon she wielded with unseemly grace. “I suggest you don’t take me lightly!†she shot back with a grin, brandishing her weapon as her opponent dropped into the poised stance of a seasoned martial artist.

For a moment, all was still as the two sized each other up, waiting for the other to make the first move.

 

Action!

 

The man was the first to move, rushing forwards and covering the space between the two in a single bound. Immediately, he lashed out with a flurry of quick jabs, testing the girl’s defense, but her guard held firm. She backed out of the way of another thrust and swinging her staff in a wide arc and striking him squarely in the chest, knocking the wind out of him and disrupting his momentum. She followed up quickly, staggering him with a low swing to his kneecaps – then her staff morphed, its ornamented head becoming a garishly decorated hammer that she brought down, slamming her opponent into the ground with a thunderous crash.

 

He got to his feet swiftly, seemingly little the worse for wear despite the brutal blow, fending off a jumping attack with a mighty uppercut, his arm seemingly bursting into flames as he roared a word of challenge. The strike caught his opponent off guard, and he quickly followed up with a series of bone-breaking punches and kicks punctuated with screamed battle cries, culminating in a massive punch wreathed in a corona of crackling flame that sent her flying away, tumbling wildly to the air. For a moment, it looked almost as if she’d fall right off the bridge… only for her to slam into an invisible barrier and bounce off.

 

“Where the hell did half my life bar go?†the girl somehow managed to protest despite her face being embedded into the stone flagstones.

 

“YEEEEEART!†The man shouted in an incongruously high-pitched tone as he rushed forward, and after a frenzied melee involving far too much incoherent shouting, explosions and inappropriately-sized pastel-colored household implements, beat the girl to a pulp with his fists of righteous fury.

 

…

 

“DISTORTION FINISH.†The arcade machine announced gravely as the blond girl slumped to the ground on the screen. “BANG. WIN.â€

 

Raiha glanced at the screen with a look of annoyance. “Hmph. I was just testing the waters. Clearly, I cannot afford to take you lightly.â€

 

Erin smirked smugly. “Aren’t you the one out of your depth here?â€

 

“Ho ho ho, you just wait,†Raiha replied with a thin-lipped smile, cracking his knuckles together in anticipation. “When you grow fat and complacent upon the laurels of your meager victories, I shall begin my counterattack, and you will bleed.â€

 

…

 

The match lasted fifty seconds. To Raiha’s credit, that was five seconds better than his previous best.

 

“Fat and complacent, huh?†Erin sneered, the sides of her mouth twitching upwards into a crooked smile as her character immolated his own clothes in a flamboyant victory display.

 

“I was mistaken,†Raiha said, his expression unreadable. “You’re just fat.â€

 

Erin’s eye twitched, and one of her hands balled into a fist. She forced herself to take a deep breath and count to ten – throwing him out of the nearest window might be cathartic, but would probably cause more problems than it would solve.

 

She didn’t particularly want to be charged for littering, for one thing.

 

“In any case,†her indefatigable opponent went on, “I lost on purpose.â€

 

“What, so that you can concede this fight without utterly humiliating yourself?†Erin narrowed her eyes – he’d been pretty worked up during the game, and he seemed to be the sort of guy who couldn’t lie his way out of a paper bag. That was probably what drew Honoka to him in the first place, actually.

 

He pointed at his (late) character on the screen, a blond, overly-cutesy magical girl in an incredibly tacky outfit. “The short-tempered, immature little brat,†then, he waved his hand over to her victorious character. “Just got humiliatingly trounced by a manly, stone-cold badass. In other words, it was I who actually won!â€

 

What.

 

“Well then… how about you pick a proper ‘manly stone-cold badass’ this time? Don’t you hold back this time,†Erin challenged him, dropping another coin into the machine.

 

 â€œIf you insist,†Raiha said, his joystick flicking back and forth as he mulled over his next selection. “Hakumen… you look worthy. I’m sure you’ll have no problem beating…†he glanced over at Erin’s selection. “… Whatever that is.â€

 

Half A Minute Later

 

“AAAAAAAH NO NOT THE BEES AAAAAAAAAAAH!â€

 

“THE BEES! OH GOD NOT THE BEES!!!â€

 

 â€œARAKUNE… WIN!†the machine declared as Raiha slumped over in despair, oblivious to the small crowd that had gathered to witness his unfortunate character’s premature ascension to Valhalla. “I… should never have let you have the choice of game…â€

 

“Rules are rules,†Erin replied with a huff. “You set the time and place, I choose the weapons; isn’t that how these gentlemanly duels are supposed to go?â€

 

“Yes, and I really shouldn’t have picked the arcade to begin with,†he replied ruefully. “I haven’t been into one of these since middle school. Too busy with the whole ‘protecting mankind from the forces of darkness’ thing.â€

 

Erin gave him an incredulous look. “In other words, you pretty much let me win.â€

 

“Way I see it, you can have the pleasure of my Honoka’s company for a night…†Then, with a dramatic flourish, he declared, “But I’ll have the pleasure of her company till death do us part!â€

 

Erin – and the small bunch of onlookers that had yet to disperse -- merely stared at him blankly.

 

I'm no longer sure if that headache coming on is fatigue or my brain cells attempting suicide.

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Raiha immediately ducked and rolled to his right, and an instant later a stream of projectiles cannonaded through the empty space he had occupied. More bullets came in from somewhere above, though their advanced was halted by a vicious windstream that scattered them in every direction but his.

 

By the time he regained his balance, a cloud of dust and debris stirred up by Misa’s previous assault had cloaked the courtyard from view. But Raiha could hear her rapid footsteps darting through the haze, the click-clack noise of Geminus as she carried the weapon toward a different vantage point. Raiha could tell she was somewhere on the same level, encircling him together with her clones before going in for the finishing blow.

 

Just as planned.

 

Raiha clapped his hands together, murmured an incantation, and summoned three lightning balls in rapid order. The magic coalesced into being with a disproportionately loud boom and was followed by the sizzling of gas being turned into plasma. They spun with storm-wrought fury around him before dispersing into the thick veil of obscuration, and at the sound of her startled gasp, Raiha could tell the balls had sought out all copies of Geminus and tazed their wielders.

 

To his left flank, the real Misa suddenly appeared: a sudden blur of dark hair tied into a bun, narrowed brown eyes, and militaristic combat outfit with reinforced joints and a mesh of insulating weave. She blitzed toward him with the speed and fury of a hunting eagle, and Raiha lifted his gigantic Blade of Mercy as if to meet her head on.

 

At the last second, he raised up a handgun pointing directly at her forehead – even as she did the exact same thing with a firearm strapped to her thigh. There was a sudden moment of clarity in both of their eyes, and the two demon hunting partners immediately sidestepped away from each other instead of risking a shot.

 

For a moment, they stood and gazed at each other, unflinching. If this was a spaghetti western, one would have seen a tumbleweed rolling around in the background just as the The Good, The Bad and the Ugly soundtrack came to a crescendo.

 

“I suppose it’s a draw, again,†Raiha said at last, raising his palms after sheathing both his blade and gun.

 

Thwip, thwip.

 

Two paintballs immediately splashed their pinkish content against Raiha’s chest.

 

“Nope, I won this time,†Misa replied, blowing away the imaginary smoke trailing from her handgun. “The battle is never over until your opponent is dead or incapacitated. You would do well to remember that, young padawan.â€

 

“That’s some real spirit of sportsmanship coming from you,†he regarded his now stained shirt and replied dryly.

 

She shrugged. “The way I see it, a meal that cost me my dignity is still a free meal.â€

 

High above, tumultuous thundercloud began to gather in more and more vast quantity. Drops of rain heralding an imminent downpour started to come down as the both of them raised up their hand to block away the blinding flash of the occasional lightning. A pleasant smile touched Raiha’s lip. He was starting to doubt if the weather forecast about the coming storm during Friday’s night was off.

 

“I think out of thirteen million people in Tokyo, you are the only one who would look to a sky like this and grin,†Misa said, looking up and then at him.

 

“Check your privilege, woman. At least you can practice all your tactical shooting and close quarter combat whenever and wherever you want. When your sole power is gale and lightning, you can’t afford to go ham without announcing your presence to every Warlock and bakufu agent in the entire city,†Raiha answered. “This storm will mask my power usage splendidly. Last thing I need right now is even more undue attention.â€

 

“Fair point. So what’s the deal? You said you are being hunted by a time-stopping Warlock, I reckon today’s meeting is about that particular issue?â€

 

“It’s just a theory of mine,†Raiha said. “Do you know that fundamentally speaking, stopping time is a utterly nonsensical notion?â€

 

Misa made an indifferent shrug with her shoulders. “Air molecules held in stasis would stop whoever initiates the time stop from moving, breathing, speaking, even seeing because light couldn’t travel into his eyes. If his power affects only a certain radius around him, the whole area would be ripped away from the ground and tossed into space as the Earth continued to travel through the universe. Isaac Asimov wrote something along those lines, if I recall correctly.â€

 

“Yes, and the fact that he had seemingly produced such power anyway leads me to conclude that it’s a form of imitation without the inherent limitation,†Raiha nodded. “When a Warlock fights, his powers manifest most readily within a Dimensional Barrier, yes? And things can get real metaphysical within one, as magic and eldritch laws replace reality as we know it.â€

 

“I see. You suspect his Barrier enables him and him alone to take action,†Misa said, gesturing for the both of them to take shelter inside the church as rain began to fall in sheet.

 

“Always fast on the uptake. Yes, that is my conclusion after analyzing the two scenarios I have met him under,†Raiha answered, keeping pace with her. “Therefore, what if we stop him from ever forming his own barrier in the first place?â€

 

“Can that be done?â€

 

“It will require a particular invocation called Divine Sanctuary, one that can mend all wounds in reality and reinforce its wall, stopping any part of the Abyss from breaching over. However, there is one catch to this high tier invocation. As long as I’m maintaining it, it would drain so much of my Resplendence I won’t be able to cast any other spell during the fight.â€

 

“That’s not a problem, isn’t it? I can always tag you out. Without a Barrier to back him up, there’s no way that Warlock could stand up to a Reaper Wielder.â€

 

Raiha shook his head. “It’s not so simple. When I said the invocation mends all wounds in reality, that includes the ones cause by Geminus. To put it simply, neither of our magical weapon will be of much use during the fight. We will have to resort to more mundane means of fighting in that event.â€

 

Misa thought about it for a moment, then looked up. “So mortal weaponry only. That can be easily arranged. Still, have you thought about how we are supposed to find the Warlock? So far, all we have ever done is reacting to threats. There’s no real way for us to initiate this fight, and the moment his Barrier is erected, it will be far too late for us to fight back.â€

 

Raiha smiled, fished out a coin in his pocket and flipped it playfully. “You see, Lightning Step enables me to pour a fraction of my Resplendence into anything I touch, forming a beacon that will never go away as long as I live. Though there’s a range limit to its component, I can instantaneously teleport the both of us to whichever object that I have marked.â€

 

He snatched the coin from the air. “When that Warlock showed up to threaten me, let’s just say he might have put his weapon a tad too close to my neck. Enough for a smidgen of my blood, infused with my own Resplendence, to come into contact with the blade.â€

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A storm was coming.
 

The gale howled. Spears of lightning jabbed at the earth erratically, like a really passionate yet wholly inexperienced lover. Thunder rumbled and rolled across the sky, thrumming through the dense, rain-lashed concrete jungle that was Mitsuba.
 

The recent blackout had enshrouded both the town and the city of Tokyo deep within shadow’s embrace. The night was as dark as ink, and colder than the icy heart of a yuki-onna. It was the kind of night that little voice in our head had conditioned us into fearing, on which things go bump in the dark, where gods and devils moved men as if they were pieces on a divine chestboard.
 

Amidst the elemental cacophony, a small flickering candlelight gleamed amongst the wooden furniture of the restaurant. It illuminated three figures gathering in a corner of the room, whispering amongst themselves. And, appropriately, as a flash of lightning split the sky, a deep, basso voice spoke: “When shall we three meet again?â€
 

A contemplative pause. Raiha lifted an eyebrow.
 

Finally Erin answered, in far more ordinary tones: “Well I got a raid boss to kill with my WoW clan on Friday, so let’s hit the festival on Saturday?â€

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Another can of instant coffee hit the wall with a thump, joining the four others already in the waste-paper basket below with a muffled clatter.

 

Yuudai groaned, swiveling his head to look at the digital clock on the wall – it read a quarter past three. With a grunt of exasperation, he slammed a hand onto the cheap wooden table-top before muttering a string of curses under his breath. This should have been easy. That damned Warlock hadn’t even made a pretense of concealing himself – and I’m seriously supposed to believe the Bakufu doesn’t have a single file on him at all?!

 

The ambush at the train station was almost unprecedented in its audacity; Yuudai hadn’t seen the likes of it since the incident in Fuyukaba. Usually, Warlocks sought shelter behind a veil of anonymity, summoning and commanding their demonic pawns far from prying eyes and sniping at the Bakufu’s agents from the shadows in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. And then there was Cocytus. The presence of onlookers reinforced the nature of reality, hindering attempts to bend it to an individual’s will; it was for good reason that most Demonic attacks happened at night or far from the hustle and bustle of the city, and rarely against large groups. Any Warlocks smart enough to evade capture for long were specters, usually known only by their modus operandi and confused third-hand sightings.

 

Yet, Cocytus had somehow conjured a massive Barrier practically right in the middle of a town center, taken on three Demon Hunters at once and even taken a hostage… and he’d gotten away with it, almost killing poor Reika in the process. Someone with that much magical muscle should have set off alarm bells all the way in the Imperial Palace. To top it off, there’d been two other incidents in the past week alone – the military experiment gone awry Father Nakata had mentioned, and a roomful of Yakuza and two freelancing Hunters getting chopped to mincemeat by an unseen assailant. He didn’t have evidence to prove it, but his gut was telling him that they were all related.

 

              And yet, Yuudai’s investigations had availed nothing, as there wasn’t a single file on the man save for the report Yuudai himself had submitted several days back. Even that document had been buried within reams of bureaucratic nonsense despite its urgency, and to exacerbate matters, the local intelligence officer, Yoshida, hadn’t been answering his calls. Sure, the intelligence spooks may be busy with their secret-squirrel missions, but this situation had clearly escalated. It wasn’t wrong to expect a more timely response, was it? He was starting to get the feeling he was being ignored… or worse, deliberately stonewalled. Bastard. I might be from the sticks, but that doesn’t give you the right to treat me like a goddamn mushroom – kept in the dark and fed nothing but bullshit.

 

              Still, he wasn’t going to stop trying. His greatest strength – and his only virtue, if Reika’s barbs were to be believed – was his bloody-minded inability to accept defeat. His willpower had kept him going thus far, and even against the might of the Lords of Hell themselves, it had never truly faltered. He was going to get to the bottom of this, even if it killed him. Hell, the way things are going, it very well might.

 

              He picked up the telephone beside him again and punched in Yoshida’s office number. The dial tone rang and rang, and Yuudai’s hand tightened around the phone as he gritted his teeth in frustration. Was it going to go to voicemail again?

 

              Then, someone answered. “Matsudaira Office Products and Supplies, how may I help you today?†The man on the other side sounded familiar somehow, but Yuudai couldn’t quite pin it down. Did they get a new intern again?

 

              Then, a lump caught in his throat. Whoever that is, he’s made a mistake. It’s Matsudaira Office Supplies and Products, not the other way round. “Where’s Yoshida?†Yuudai replied tersely.

 

              “Yoshida-san isn’t available right now, Shinozaki-san. Perhaps you’d like to call back during office hours-“ Another mistake. Local HQ should be open around the clock.

 

              “Cut the bullshit. Who the hell are you, and what the hell happened to Yoshida?†he shot back.

 

              The mystery caller chuckled darkly, and Yuudai narrowed his eyes as realization began dawning on him. “Oh damn, you got me. I was hoping you’d be fooled for a little longer. About Yoshida… hmm. You’ll find out tomorrow morning. It’ll be in the morning papers.â€

 

“YOU-“ Yuudai snarled.

 

“My, my. It’s pretty late now, isn’t it? Your leg isn’t going to get any better if you don’t get any rest, you know. Have a good night, Shinozaki-san, and send my well wishes to Yamashiro-san too. Ta-ta!â€

 

Click.

 

The plastic of the phone receiver shattered in Yuudai’s grip.

 

…

 

Cocytus let the phone receiver fall to the ground with a rattle and stepped away, only for his foot to sink into something unpleasantly soft and fleshy. He drew his foot away, his lip curling in disgust as he looked down at the obstruction – a human hand severed cleanly at the wrist, the skin pale from blood loss and fingers clenched into a grasping claw by rigor mortis. Yet, the cheap carpet of the office was dry, completely unmarred by any blood. The lanky man cursed under his breath, his armor-clad fist slamming into the powered-down computer terminal beside him and leaving a deep dent in the casing. “Damn it, Acheron,†he spat. “Would it kill you to at least make an effort at covering your tracks?â€

 

He pinched the bridge of his nose, chiding himself silently. Honestly, he shouldn’t be fussing over little details like that, not when everything had been going so smoothly. The other Warlock had been played like a fiddle – just an anonymous tip here and planting some evidence there, and that mad dog had taken the bait hook, line and sinker, gutting the supposed “Yakuza stronghold†with an efficiency even Cocytus himself envied. It was a shame he’d left his calling card so blatantly, but it wasn’t as if Cocytus could do anything about that, however. The last time he tried to parley, he’d only walked away from that thanks to his heart being in the right place – rather literally, for said ‘right place’ was in a magically fortified atelier seven stories beneath ground patrolled by six of his finest creations. Damn, those self-righteous types sure are a pain to deal with.

 

Still, this little clean-up visit had reaped an unexpected side benefit – that hot-headed fool Shinozaki had unwittingly given up his location by using the Church’s encrypted line. That was another thorn in his side he could be rid of – once he finished up tying up loose ends here. Luckily, he probably wasn’t too late; he’d blundered in allowing the three Demon Hunters to get away that night, but knowing the tardiness of the Bakufu bureaucracy, his treachery would probably remain unexposed… for now.  He turned towards the doorway, where his faithful ally stood waiting, the four triple turrets of her demonic armament poised at the ready.

 

“Alright, Phlegethon,†he said, “We’re done here. Light it up.â€

 

He hadn’t even cleared the line of fire when the twelve guns boomed a reply, and hastily sidestepped the salvo of hellfire that streaked into the office, setting furniture, papers and dismembered bodies ablaze with equal ease. Damn it, you cheeky little vixen.

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In this place the darkness reigns eternal. There is no dusk, no dawn, just the perpetual gloom of night. The only illumination comes from jagged forks of lightning above, carving a radiant path through tumultuous clouds. In their savage wake thunder shreds the sky, unleashing a torrent of pelting, freezing rain.

 

A storm is coming, and this time there is no escape.

 

Raiha’s eyes blinked open, the fire and fury conjured by the nightmarish vision snapping his thought away from its meditative state. He sat still and quiet, then slowly discharged the Resplendence he had been holding on to, feeling its suffocating effect easing up on both his body and mind as he mumbled a quiet verse.

 

I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

 

A moment of tranquility washed over Raiha, calming his frayed nerves and washing away the irrational terror that lingered behind still. He knew he did not sleep, yet again the same dream came, and he knew better than to merely dismiss it. The storm that haunted him each time he closed his eyes was more than just a nightmare. Conjured up from the deepest corners of his mind, the howling gale and roaring thunder had meaning. But try as he might, Raiha couldn’t figure out what his subconscious was trying to tell him.

 

Was it a warning? A long-forgotten memory? A vision of the future? All three?

 

Taking a look at his cellphone’s display, he exited the Shirakawa family’s doujo and went into the refresher to splash some cool water on his face. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he immediately looked away, then paused and turned back to study his reflection.

 

It had only been three years since he discovered his higher calling, and yet Raiha was already having difficulty reconciling the face in the mirror with its equivalent from junior high. Once Raiha had uncombed red hair that was haphazardly styled to look like a punk artist, silver earrings that glittered in sunlight. He even went as far as getting a matching silver piercing underneath his lower lip during his rebellious state, just to spite his conservative and very much oriental father.

 

Now, not a single piece of jewelry could be spotted on his face, and fatigue was taking its toll. His angular features had become thin and drawn. His sunken cheekbones accentuated the heavy circles under eyes that stared back at Raiha from deep hollows. They were dark and distant, and reflected from them was a weary calm that came from seeing far too much but forgetting far too little.

 

Bracing his hands on both sides of the sink, he slumped his head and let the water from the faucet flow through his hair, letting out a long, low sigh, his hair falling forward to cover his face like a red curtain.

 

It was felling night when Raiha returned to the doujo and reached for his Blade of Mercy, hoping to try again for Divine Sanctuary to work. But tried as he might, the holy incantation was worlds and dimensions above what an amateur like him could possibly hope to accomplish. It was told amongst the Acolyte, that the Saints of old turned ancient battlefields into holy grounds with their mere presence, suppressing the taint of Demons and conjuring fragments of Heaven with choirs of angels simply through words of prayer. Yet here Raiha stood, struggling to even bring his mind to state where he could utter the incantation, let alone empowering it.

 

He tried again, and just like yesterday, his effort was in vain.

 

Two hours later, Raiha lay on his bed with the resigned air of someone who had long abandoned any hope of sleep. With luck, he would have just enough mental resilience to last through the next eight hours of school in the morning. His eyes closed, and his breath slowed down.

 

A terrible world of thunder and lightning, shrouded in perpetual night.

 

He saw it again this time. He couldn’t tell what this vision was about, or where it took place, but it came to him every time he pushed himself to his mortal limit, each time with more clarity than the last. It was as ferocious and frightening as a stormy sea. As strange and stricken as a shape in the mist. As heavy as duty itself.

 

A storm is coming, and this time there is no escape.

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She waves goodbye to Raiha as he leaves the church after their sparring match, then heads back down to the lower levels to resume practice.

That was a good test of our abilities, she thinks, but I don’t think I learnt as much as I could have.

She sorely needs training in close-quarters combat; Raiha’s skill and power are indubitable – years of training under some of the best swordsmen and magisters in the world have seen to that – but sparring is sparring. He’s not coming at her with the intent to kill, and that changes things.

I need something closer to a Thrall – something with no qualms and no hesitation. Something that will keep attacking until one of us can no longer fight.

She knows where to find something like that. Deep in the basement, past the locked door which Father Nakata thinks he has the only key to…

It was damaged in the past and we never saw the need to fix it, so we locked it away in an old cupboard somewhere…

I bet it still works.

~~

Checking to make sure Father Nakata is out for groceries, she heads downstairs. Stone walls and creaky staircases, decades- or even centuries-old in some cases, provide a strange sense of comfort. It’s good to know that some things can endure the weight of time, she thinks. They’ll probably still be here when I’m gone.

She’s only been down here once or twice, to retrieve yellowed papers from a musty old archive or to dig up some ancient artefact from a bin of its fellows. But the church basement holds a lot more than old documents and rusty trinkets, and she heads down the mildewed corridor to her prize.

A thick iron door at the far end looms menacingly in the near-darkness, magical wards blurring her sight. I could barely distinguish the pattern the last time I was down here, she thinks. Now...

It sits in a corner, slumped over in an unnatural parody of sleep. There’s no movement as she unlocks the door with a snap and pushes it open with a creak of rusty steel, and she gives the training dummy an appraising look.

An innocuous humanoid figure made from haphazardly-welded pieces of steel, it doesn’t look like much of a challenge. But she remembers–

“Damn thing got me good–”

“If it weren’t so dumb, we’d be using it in combat–”

“There’s no shame in avoiding it, Misa-chan. You can go when you’re ready–”

She shakes her head, banishing past memories. I am ready. I have to be.

She reaches out for an activation rune carved on the dummy’s chest, sending a pulse of power into it.

There’s no response for a moment, then she hears a faint grinding of gears. Metal clicks and shears against itself, some unfathomable internal mechanism rousing itself from the sleep of years. Power spreads outward from the dummy’s heart, faint and tentative but unmistakably present to her Sight.

The metal facsimile rises slowly to its feet like a puppet on strings – uncoordinated, arms swinging almost comically as it turns its expressionless steel mask toward her. Pale white light glows from one of its three eyes, but the other two are dead and empty.

It’s broken, she thinks, feeling a strange sense of camaraderie for the damaged construct. But it still serves its purpose.

[INITIALIZING], the dummy rasps. [WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU TODAY, NISHIMURA-SAN?]

Saki–

Her name cuts like a knife, and it’s a moment before she can respond. “A bout, if you please.”

[A W-W-WISE CHOICE. THREAT LEVEL?]

There’s no hesitation. “Maximum,” she says. “Throw everything at me.”

[VERY WELL. WE BEGIN ON YOUR COMMAND.]

She takes in a deep breath, calling on Geminus’ power. “Let’s g–”

Power explodes from the dummy, gears howling and metal shrieking as it lunges forward. She barely dodges the strike, sidestepping and pivoting on her heel to deliver a blow of her own, but it’s already turning, reaching out with incredible speed. A clumsy parry – a fraction of a second too late and a fraction of an inch too high – earns her a bone-cracking hit to the shoulder.

She staggers backward, one arm going limp as the metal monster advances on her with inhuman grace. It moves with no trace of its earlier clumsiness, every movement calculated with perfect precision.

Come on, Geminus. She draws on more and more of her Reaper’s power, but it’s reluctant. I need this. There’s a disgruntled pause as Geminus expresses its displeasure with her recklessness, then she feels adrenaline rush through her veins. The throbbing pain in her shoulder fades into an unpleasant memory, and the world slows down to a crawl.

Now we’re talking,” she says, and leaps forward.

Her newfound speed and aggression throws the dummy off for an instant. Seizing the opportunity, she hits it in the side of the head, and is rewarded by a dent in its helmet. Then it adapts, forcing her back with a series of swift jabs while jockeying for a better position. One of them clips her in the ribs, and a paralyzing jolt of current nearly prevents her from disengaging.

They circle each other for an uneasy moment. Then it puts all of its weight behind a wild punch and she steps under its overbalancing swing to exploit its

BAIT

The metal man’s outstretched arm hooks itself around the back of her neck and yanks her off her feet, pressing her against its implacable steel form as it rises to its full height. It reaches around her waist with its other arm, crushing her in a deadly hug, and she feels ribs crack as the air rushes out of her lungs.

Desperation clouds her mind, raw and instinctual. She needs to get away, needs to breathe–

She struggles in vain against its grip – steel trumps flesh, and then its arm makes a violent wrenching motion and the lower half of her body goes cold and numb…

The world spins and rises up to meet her, and the last thing she hears is her voice. “Not good enough…”

~~

Some time later, she opens her eyes. Fire shoots through her chest as she sucks in a breath but she’s too oxygen-starved to care, so she does it again. And again, and again…

The pain dulls after a few moments, Geminus’ influence spreading through her like a warm bath. She tries to raise her right arm but it won’t move at all, so she brings the left hand up instead. Her pinky, ring and middle finger are broken, dangling limply as she prods her ribs.

Yup. Broken.

Frustration, cold and bitter, settles in the pit of her stomach. You can do better, she tells herself. A half-broken dummy shouldn’t be able to beat you up like that.

Geminus hums in sympathy and continues its repairs, knitting broken bone and torn flesh back together with unnatural speed. Her ribs pull themselves back together with a stab of quickly-muted pain, and she stifles a gasp.

“Thanks,” she mutters, planting her palm on dusty concrete and levering herself up off the floor. Her wounded hand screams in protest, but she ignores it. “How long was I out?” She asks, and “6:21” flashes across her vision.

Oh. That’s fast – I used to take hours to heal. I suppose practice really does make perfect, she thinks with a wry grin.

Geminus sends her a pulse in query. What now?

She doesn’t say anything, but tries to make a fist with her healing left hand. It obeys after a moment’s agony, and she wriggles her right arm. As her Reaper finishes putting her back together, she re-approaches the dummy, powered down in its corner.

No.

Her hand freezes in mid-air as Geminus fights her for control of her body, hitting her with a pulse of grim warning. Pain returns in full force as her Reaper withdraws its numbing influence, and she has to bite her tongue to keep from crying out.

Yes,” she growls, turning her will inward. I need to be stronger. I don’t care what it costs me – I NEED MORE.

Geminus fights her for a moment more before it relents, and she can move again. She feels its disapproval clear as day, but it does what she wants. Pain evaporates like water off a hot stove, bones thicken and toughen, and a dense net of fast-twitch fibers weaves itself together under her skin.

Again and again into the breach, she thinks, re-activating the dummy. Again and again and again until it breaks...

Or I do.

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Raiha caught a whiff of demonic taint and reached for the holy pendant hanging on his neck, about thirty second before he saw Misa heading to school on the other side of the road. She didn’t look good. Her strides looked heavy, difficult, and she made this occasional groan every time someone from the morning crowd bumped into her.

Guess I am not the only maniac when it comes to combat training around here.

His eyes narrowed, either from the insomnia-addled migraine or the thought that sprung forth from within. With two third of the Mitsuba’s defense force so indisposed, now would be a really bad time for a Warlock to come a-knocking. He supposed the situation would be a great deal better if those pesky evildoers also suffered from cramps and bruises as part of their training. Yet somehow their demonic powers must have come in neat packages labelled “Just Add Water!” considering the fresh number of Warlocks that kept on showing up, eager for a fight.

In the past, most of them were pushovers, but now and again a real troublesome one would appear, just like the shadowy butcher that could stop the flow of time itself they were dealing with. A whole night of sleeplessness did provide Raiha with a certain idea of how this problem could be dealt with, but he wasn’t entirely convinced of even his own plan.

For starter, it would involve him and his companions being completely exsanguinated…Well, potentially so.

Bringing up a rueful smile, Raiha crossed the road to greet Misa, then instructed her to meet up at the church once school is over. He then took out his phone to message Honoka, asking that she would help him deliver a message to a certain haughty first-year Demon Hunter.

 ----

“Ah, Erin-chan and Misa-san, I have been expecting you,” Raiha loudly announced the moment he heard footsteps entering through the church’s oaken door. "Both of you must be wondering why I have gathered you here."

“Dude, what’s with the lameass Bond villain pose and lines?” Erin answered, her mouth curling up into a grin.

“Don’t look now but I think he’s mentally crossing out an entry in his bucket list,” Misa added with a straight face.

Raiha turned around to face them. “Guilty as charged, always wanted to say that once in my life.” He made a gesture with his hand and beckoned the gale to close all the doors leading into the main hall. “Let’s get straight to business, I’m here to ask for your help in putting down a certain time-stopping friend we have had the pleasure to meet lately.”

“Putting down? As in apprehending him?” Misa reconfirmed.

“No, as in putting him down underground, six feet under.”

Erin crossed her arms. “Funny, always thought you paladins are big on the whole saving lost lambs and turning the other cheek deal.”

“He’s too dangerous. Some of the Warlocks wield their power out of desperation or are simply drunk on it, but this man is an extremist with his own conviction and code of conduct,” Raiha replied. “I have spent the past few days developing a countermeasure for his power. A certain variation of a bounded field that behaves in the same way as a demonic barrier, only instead of empowering the conduit within, it disrupts the Warlock’s ability to channel the power of their otherworldly patron.”

Misa thought about it. “And how about other kind of supernatural power?”

“They will be disabled as well. Unfortunately, I have not reached a state of mastery where I can choose who this technique affects. As long as you are inside, you are as much a victim of it as your foe. But even so, it will be three of us against one of him, mortals against mortal. I would greatly appreciate your assistance in subduing the target. Everything that comes after, I will take care of and take responsibility for it.”

The little voice of doubt rang out in his mind again, this time not questioning his plan, but his goal. Are you sure about this Raiha. If you kill a killer, then the number of killers in the world remains the same.

Raiha closed his eyes. If he had to put the weight of his own sins against the sake of his loved ones, then one way or another the balance could never hold. He suppressed that little voice of conscience, snuffing it out till it was nothing more than a bare echo within the deep recess of his mind. The truth is simple, yet brutal. Once you have prepared yourself to go after killers using their own method, you better have the resolve to do it again. For the number of killers in the world to drop, he will have to put down more than one of them.

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Erin hadn't been expecting Honoka to show up to meet her during lunchtime. Neither did she expect her senior to cajole her to go to that ratty old church after classes. She isn't even religious, is she? Still, every man (or woman, in this case) had their price, and hers was a fresh boxed lunch from the cafeteria. She was just happy to have something that wasn't a cold, possibly half eaten onigiri from yesterday's dinner -- whatever favor her senpai needed from that place would be worth the free meal. 

She'd begun to reconsider that as soon as she saw Raiha at the door. And that was even before he started talking about attempted murder. He was quite convincing about it, though. At least, he was pretty  confident about the bit about pulling it off. He'd clearly put a lot of thought into it, which, come to think of it, was pretty damn disturbing.

I knew this guy was a rich idiot, but is he so disconnected  from reality that he's planning to kill someone and his first concern isn't  how to get away with it?

"We can't just capture him? Like, truss him up and leave him for the cops?" Erin interjected as she slouched down on one of the grubby wooden pews. "He's probably done something that deserves time in the slammer, hasn't he?" 

Come to think of it, I don't even know what he did that makes Raiha want him dead so badly. Small wonder I'm not really buying this.

"Even if he got convicted, it'd only end with a lot of dead cops." Raiha maintained, his expression a grim mask. "From what I know, no prison can hold him, not when I've seen him butcher a whole roomful of armed men in literally an eyeblink."

Oh, so that's what he did. Fighting down the urge to shiver, she asked, "What about the Shinsengumi, or whatever that secret  magic organization is called?"

"We could have helped. Emphasis on could, though," A vaguely familiar voice interjected, making her turn with a start. It was Yuudai, the one-armed guy she recalled from that first night at the Church. "It's all over the headlines now. Mysterious fire at an office  supplies company office at the dead of the night-" Abruptly, Erin became acutely aware that the other girl with her, Imahara-san or something, had stopped breathing. "- cause unknown, casualties uncertain. They couldn't even fight the blaze, had no choice but to evacuate the whole block, and it hasn't even stopped burning yet."

"-suspicious," Imahara finally murmured, a bead of cold sweat leaving a long, straight track as it slid down her cheek.

"What's that got to do with anything?" Erin asked, looking between the two in confusion.

"That company office was a front for the Bakufu's regional headquarters. I really ought to be investigating -- that bloody Warlock Cocytus called this very Church from there -- but I can't afford to leave here. Firstly, my leg's busted," he nudged his bandaged kneecap for emphasis, and winced a little. "Also, he called the Church landline. Bastard knows where I am, and is almost certainly on the way here to flush Reika-Chan and I out. While he's probably not making any moves until sundown, I can't afford to leave this place undefended-"

The door slammed open, and everyone's weapons shifted into their  hands -- in Erin's case, a Holy Bible that happened to be lying nearby. Whatever. Here goes nothing, she thought as she chucked the holy text in the doorway's  general direction -- and heard a highly surprised and surprisingly high-pitched yelp as their mystery intruder got beaned  in the face and tumbled to the ground.

"HEY!" Keiko shouted irately as she clambered to her feet, dusting herself off and waving the offending book in the air. "What's the meaning of this, calling for a secret covenant and not inviting ME? For shame, Erin-chan! I had to put up with that crazy guy's rambling about chemtrails  for-"

Then, she noticed Yuudai  standing there, a bemused expression in her face, and immediately fell to her knees in obeisance. "O, FORGIVE MY IMPUDENCE, MY GLORIOUS LIEGE!"

Yuudai shrugged and turned to the three of them. "Yeah, Keiko's... special, but she's a good fighter when it counts. We'll hold the fort here, so could you do us a favor? Find out what happened, and salvage whatever you can from the headquarters before emergency services get themselves killed running into something they don't understand. I can't trust anyone else to do the job." His eyes took on a desperate cast. "Please."

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Thoughts whirl through her head, almost too fast to process. Bakufu. Attacked. Yoshida. Hashimoto. Nakano. Kikuchi. Morita. Damn it all to hell–

She’s out the church doors and down the steps before she realizes she’s started moving, Number Two listening in her stead as Yuudai rattles off an address. Two steps and she’s astride her bike – helmet on, key in the ignition and ready to go–

“Wait up!” Erin rushes down the path. “I don’t know where Raiha’s car is, and–”

Get on,” she growls, revving the engine. The blond girl complies, and they’re off the moment her colleague’s feet leave the ground. The speedometer jumps as she presses herself against the chassis, wringing every last ounce of speed out of her mount.

Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty…

They’re well above the legal speed limit but she keeps a firm hand on the throttle, accelerating into the low hundreds. There’s a red light ahead, a stream of cars meandering across an intersection – Erin screams something like “SLOW DOWN” into the roaring wind but she ignores it and weaves her bike through the mass of moving cars, easing a thread of steel and chrome through the eye of a forty-kilometer-per-hour needle.

They leave the sound of honking cars and squealing brakes behind, racing onward to their destination.

~~

She can see the pillar of dark smoke from fifteen blocks away. The wailing of fire engines reaches her ears a few blocks later, followed by the faint crackling of flame.

~~

The area itself is cordoned off, two fire engines and several police cars parked within. As the fire department hoses the gutted building down from a safe distance, she yanks the key and hops off her steed, leaving Number Two to guide the inert motorcycle to a safe halt.

She vaults over the police tape and rushes toward the office. Immediately, a harried-looking police officer detaches himself from a group of onlookers and hurries up to her. “Sorry, miss–”

She shoots him in the chest without breaking stride. He stumbles backward, twitching and shuddering from the electroshock round, and Number Three flickers into existence behind her. Her clone fires again and again, picking off targets with machinelike precision, and everyone in the vicinity is unconscious before the first policeman hits the ground.

“Let’s go,” she says, kicking down the door.

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“Where are you?” Misa inquired over the phone.

“Had a spot of problem with parking,” Raiha answered through his earpiece. He could hear the crackling sound of fire and something like falling debris - background noises coming from the other side of the call. “ETA one minute.” He shoved his way through an old fence leading down a deserted looking alleyway filled with flies-infested garbage bags, then ran up a nearby surface and vaulted over the brick wall at the end of the way. Landing with a loud clang made by his steel greaves, Raiha looked up and frown.

At the mass of unconscious people outside the cordon.

“We got a situation at the front. Multiple bodies on the ground. I will try to determine if there are survivors,” Raiha said over the line. “Suspecting nerve gas or some kind of psychic assault, be care-“

“Disregard the scene. That’s my handiwork. Couldn’t afford any obstruction from the authority. Rest assured, they will regain consciousness within an hour or so,” Misa answered as-a-matter-of-factly. “Going by the wind’s speed and direction, they should be safe at that distance.”

Raiha let that information sink in, then exhaled and summoned his weapons from fragments and motes of light. With the Blade of Mercy in one hand and the Shield of Faith surrounding him like a radiant cloak, he took in a breath and walked through the fire and flame.

 

 

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Fire everywhere. Consuming wood and paper, melting plastic, scorching metal, it mingles with the scent of dried blood and demonic taint, and–

 

She sniffs the air. A hint of something…

 

It’s gone as soon as she notices it, a faint yet familiar tang of cordite. She shakes her head and moves on, three bodies acting as one – covering all angles, sweeping the corridor with practiced efficiency, checking shredded wrecks of flesh for signs of life against all hope.

 

Dead. Dead. Dead.

 

Dead.

 

Anger rises within her, cold and brittle. It keeps her composed amidst the flame, and when the first eel-like thrall darts from a side room in ambush she puts a reflexive round through each of its eyes. It hits the ground flopping and shrieking, burning tar sloughing off hardened scales and pooling on ceramic tile before she ends its existence with a short burst to the head. Geminus’ sight is unclear in this building, clouded by ruined ward and shattered rune, but she can see well enough.

 

“Heads up, Akizuki-san,” she calls out behind her. “There are more of them.” Squinting through the metaphysical fog ahead, she sees hazy ribbons writhe and undulate through the walls, swimming through the air as if it were buoyant water.

 

Distance: Unclear. Identity: Unclear.

 

One thing is clear, though – they know she’s coming. Her shot whips their lazy circling into a frenzy, and they converge on her position like sharks with the scent of blood.

 

“Through the walls. Look ou–”

 

More thralls burst into the room in a textbook pincer attack, burning malice and armored bulk striking with the speed of snakes. She sidesteps one – a bayonet coalesces into being at the tip of her rifle, and she uses its momentum as it passes her to rip it open from jaw to tail. Number Two sees a flash of light in its peripheral vision as Erin disposes of another, and then she’s aiming and firing, dodging incoming strikes and engaging new targets without the luxury of confirming kills–

 

The shoal disperses as quickly as it arrives, thralls fleeing through the walls with incredible speed. They leave behind a dozen of their fellows, but at least twice that number still live. The survivors regroup and start circling cautiously, but none of them dare to venture within line of sight.

 

That’s good, she thinks. I thought they’d be a lot tougher.

 

 “You all right, Akizuki-san?” She asks.

 

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