Two days later, I discovered to my great annoyance that when Charlotte had said “deep in the mountains,” she had meant it. We got out of her Maybach in front of a clearly renovated Japanese castle. It was located in a small valley that was heavily forested. The road we had taken had passed through more farming towns (more than a few of which had to deal with cramped mountain spaces) than suburbs. Five hundred years ago, this would have had to be a nightmare to pass through due to the dense forest and surprisingly deep river. Now, Charlotte’s convoy (which consisted of us in her Maybach and her bodyguards in several Land Rovers and a Jaguar F-coupe on point) could pass through quite easily thanks to a series of strategically placed bridges.
I was in the front seat, right next to Eliza. For the entire journey, I split my attention between the road and watching her. Unsurprisingly, she was highly intent on her surroundings. Lupines, especially the sub-type she was part of, tended to be hard-wired for guard duty. From the way she scanned the road, I could swear that she half-expected an IED to blow up.
“You worried about something?” I asked her.
“Nah,” she said, “just get a bit jumpy on guard duty. I love it.”
“Really?” I asked. “I know when I had to rescue Nari from North Korea, that just made me even more stressed.”
“I guess I hate that part,” Eliza said reflectively. “But it’s the adrenalin rush, innit? You know in your heart that the people under your care probably aren’t in any danger, but your body gives you that rush all the same, right?”
“I don’t ever get that,” John said.
“Yeah,” I said, “I just feel this sort of dread when I’m responsible for anyone other than myself.”
“Fackin’ ‘ell,” Eliza said. “No wonder you two are always doing something stupid. That’s the only way you can get that buzz, innit? If it’s just a Lupine thing, that’d explain why you baselines make such a right mess o’things.”
“So…” Charlotte said, “guarding people… gives you some kind of rush?”
“Kind of,” Eliza said. “It’s sort of like ‘ow you’d used to smoke some ganj, except insteada makin’ me all zombie-like, it makes me focused. Everything slows down, but I’m faster. I think faster, I move faster, and I perceive things faster. I’m in control.” She then seemed to realize that Charlotte must have been wondering if she had been put in dangerous situations to satisfy an addiction, so Eliza added, “But when shit actually goes down, like it did last summer, it’s a bad trip.” She then added accusatorially, “Like that fuckin’ shite you tried to get me on in Year Nine.”
Charlotte, flustered, responded with, “It… it was a bad reaction. That was quality.”
Eliza made a grunt in affirmation and turned back to her driving. Eventually, she said, “This place is kind of a nightmare to drive in.”
“At least we can drive,” I said. “I’d hate to walk through this gunk.”
We were interrupted by a voice over the radio. “This is point,” one of the guards said. “We’re at Kage Keep.”
“Good,” Eliza said. “I was getting tired.”
The Defenders of Fuji had added visitor parking to their keep. Despite the fact that it was paved, it had been there long enough for the walls to have been obscured by trees again. There was a ramp leading up to a gate, indicating that the ground floor of the castle was higher than the parking lot. Surrounding the lot was a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The point vehicle was already past the security gate and had parked among a variety of cars, ranging from luxury brands I’d definitely heard of to what seemed to be budget vehicles I’d never seen before in my life.
Eventually, we found a space. When the entire convoy had disembarked, the ornate, yet functional gate opened. Out strode three Japanese men. “Ah,” one of them said. “The Fourth Order of the Round Table, I presume?”
“Yes,” Charlotte said. “That is us. I am Charlotte Blackmoor-Ward.” She then bowed and said, “Ohaio… Gozaimas?” She said the greeting like she was asking if she was saying the right thing.
“For an honored guest such as yourself,” our greeter said, returning the bow, “that is close enough. You must want to meet with the Grandmasters. We’ll show your bodyguards to their rooms.”
Charlotte looked a little leery about being separated, but she did as she was told. The first man led her through the door. One of the other greeters began talking to the bodyguards. The third came to talk us.
“Henderson-san? Marshall-san? Jacobs-san?” he said, bowing to each of us. Each of us bowed in turn, John faster than the rest of us. “My name is Nakashima, and I’ll be your guide. A sister group, the Dragons of Life, have requested you have rooms near them.”
Eliza laughed. “That’ll be Bai. We’ve met before.”
“I see!” Nakashima said. “Miss Feng-san seems to be the most social one there. Please, follow me.”
We followed him through two gates. When we got through the gate, I stopped short. In front of us was the most beautiful house I had ever seen. Behind it were two more sets of walls, one lower with a ramp leading up to it, and one even higher. The house itself was a three-story Japanese mansion that looked like it was designed to impress guests and repel intruders. What looked to have been a surrounding drill yard had sadly been half-replaced by more parking. The cars in this lot were much more uniform, mostly being the kind of thing a Japanese salaryman would drive to work in.
“This keep has been in the hands of the Defenders of Fuji for almost a thousand years,” Nakashima said. “It’s been modernized of course. Sadly, though, there’s been talk of abandoning it.”
“Why?” I asked. “Look at it! It’s beautiful.”
“Yeah,” Charlotte said, “but it’s in the middle of nowhere, innit?”
“Yeah,” Nakashima said, scratching the back of his head, “there’s that. But being caretaker of it for a few years makes you appreciate it. It’s expensive, it’s useless, and the security upgrades convinced the Grandmasters that the Ninja was dead, but it is a wonderful place for meditating. It would kill me if they sell it to some developer to tear down.”
“What do you do here?” I asked.
“I work with a skeleton crew, those other guys you saw,” he said. “I’m a cross between janitor, security guard and IT specialist. If you know someone who would want to buy it and could afford it…”
“I could be that guy in a few years,” I said.
“Hopefully you’ll have a chance,” Nakashima said. “Anyway, I need to get you guys settled in. You’ll be in the third level.” He pointed to the third section.
The second and third sections probably used to be almost carbon copies of the first, apart from smaller drill yards and bigger houses. The differences came from the modifications. The second section had several helipads, at the time mostly taken up by British army helicopters. When we got to the top of the third ramp, I was able to see over the parapets.
“This is beautiful…” I said in awe. Unlike I had first thought, we were not at the bottom of the valley. It was hard to tell because the trees masked the ground, but you could tell there was a dip between us and the mountain on the opposite side. The setting sun shone off the leaves and lit up the mountain. I only saw it for a moment before we were led into the third area.
Then, we were led into the third section. There, we saw that the drill yard had been replaced by a garden. We walked through a path that cut through some of the more maze-like areas. “Before you pass through the door,” Nakashima said, “would you please give me any weapons you have? We apologize, but we like to make sure that only our organization has weapons on our premises.” He held open a bag
John and I handed over our weapons over without much hesitation (John had a Bren 10 and a knife, I had my Beretta and my SIG.) Eliza, meanwhile, seemed suspicious. “What if… what if we get attacked?”
Nakashima nodded. “I understand. Apart from your word we will keep all our guests safe, you may need some other facts.” He pointed to a place above the door. “Do you see that black dot?”
“No,” John and I said in unison.
“Yeah,” Eliza said.
“That is actually a camera,” Nakashima said. “It can see the entire approach. It is connected to an automated system that identifies both people and suspicious behavior. There are hundreds of other cameras that come in visible, infrared, and night vision variants. The system has around a hundred and fifty percent coverage of all public and restricted behavior. We also have metal, motion, and explosive detectors in strategic areas.”
“So,” Eliza said skeptically, “there’s no way to beat the system?”
“Unless an intruder had inside help,” Nakashima said, “No. Even then, it would still be difficult. We know, we spent much time trying to defeat it.” Maybe it was just me, but he sounded sad by how impenetrable the defenses of his ancestral home was.
“And if the power’s cut?” Eliza asked.
“Well,” Nakashima said with a bow, “if each of the four generators, seven batteries, and external lines were cut, they would have to wait until a windless night.” As he said that, I suddenly remembered that each section had its own windmill. It would also not be that difficult to replace the roof shingles with solar panels.
“What about cyber attacks?” Eliza asked. “The system’s right fancy. Sounds like you’d ‘ave to use a lot of computers.” I noted that she had calmed down enough to hand over her CZ-75. Also, this objection was somewhat half-hearted.
“The computers that control the security system are not connected to the internet,” Nakashima said. “They are connected to the wireless, but they are set up to be extremely difficult to talk to. Nothing is unhackable, but it would be highly unlikely to hack this system successfully and not be detected.”
Nakashima then led us inside. After a brief pause to check us in and store and label our weapons, he led us to the third floor. “You two,” he said, indicating John and me, “will have this one.” The door was opened to reveal a small servant’s room that looked over the walls into the setting sun. On the floor were some tatami mats and two dressers. He then turned to Eliza. “You will be rooming in the next room with…”
“Bai!” Eliza said. The rest of us looked up the corridor. Down the corridor, a short Asian girl with short hair came down the corridor, holding a mug of something hot.
Bai smiled. “Ah, Nakashima-san. You found my friends.” She made a bow that was modified to keep her tea from spilling. “Thank you.”
Nakashima bowed back. “Not a problem, Feng-san. I shall leave you to catch up.”
“Very well,” Bai said. “We do have much to discuss.” She waited a bit for him to leave, then she said, “I don’t know why I waited. He’ll hear everything we say anyway.”
“Really?” I said. “You were good at finding weak spots in NIU’s security.”
“There were two differences there,” Bai said, ushering us into her room. It was a carbon-copy of ours and right next door. “The first is that NIU was designed as a school first, a social location second, and a secure area third. The other difference is that I had the fraternal order of janitors to help me.” She closed the door. “Nakashima is the closest thing this place has to a janitor, and we are reasonably friendly, but he would never help me defeat the security system.”
“That’s probably why you respect him,” John said.
“One of them,” Bai said. “He is also one of the few people here not intent on throwing out the baby along with the bathwater.” She paused, then asked, “That is the correct phrase, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Eliza said. “So, is ‘e some kind of conservative or somethin’?”
Bai laughed. “None of these people could be called conservative,” she said. “The vast majority just want the Prophecy to be over. Also… the Defenders used to be one of the most prominent Ninja clans.”
“Really?” Eliza asked. “Think they could show us some cool ninja tricks?”
“The key phrase,” Bai said, “is ‘used to.’ When static emplacements began to fall out of favor for defensive maneuvers, Ninjas began to suffer an identity crisis. The final straw for the defenders came when they upgraded the security on this castle. It wasn’t as formidable as it is today, but they couldn’t get in undetected with traditional ninja techniques.”
“That…” Eliza said, “must ‘ave been rough.”
“It was,” Bai said. “Now they’re essentially ninjas who don’t want to be ninjas. They’ve turned to more modern techniques and seem to be intent on forgetting the old ways. After the Prophecy is completed, I think they’ll dissolve.”
“That sounds… so sad,” I said.
Bai nodded. “Yes, but it is understandable. There are people that I have to deal with in my group that…”
Suddenly, we heard running. We listened as the feet got closer. They stopped outside our door and turned into a knock. “Come in,” Bai said.
The door opened, revealing Nakashima. “The warpstone is almost spent,” he said. “They’re coming.”