The entire compound came to life. A PA system began announcing something in Japanese, and the Defenders began to translate for the various guests. As I walked down the hall, I began to realize that most of the people in the castle were not even Japanese. Hell, I think I heard more French and Chinese. But mostly, I just heard helicopters taking off.
We all gathered out in the second section. A group of British officers and Defender elders were trying to organize the mass of people. “OI!” I heard one officer yell at two men in suits yelling at each other in obviously different languages, “Stop arguing with each other and queue up!”
“‘Scuse me,” Eliza asked one of the several people jostling for position, “where does the queue start?”
“The what?” the man asked. I couldn’t place the accent, but he’d obviously learned English from an American or Canadian.
“By queue,” I said, “she means the line.”
The man directed his look of confusion at me. “Bloody ‘ell,” Eliza said, “this is already a right cock-up.”
Eventually, we were given our assignments, a GPS and some flashlights. Then Eliza made us go back for our guns.
“You realize…” I said as I checked the light on my Berretta, “that not only are we unlicensed to carry weapons in Japan, but that these are probably illegal as hell?”
“You also realize I’m not bloody lettin’ any of us go off t’fight fuckin’ ninjas with our bare hands?” Eliza said.
“You know,” Bai said, “I am reasonably certain that this is supposed to be a rescue mission. If we treat it like anything else, it could easily become something else. If it does, this exercise will end badly.”
“You’re reasonably certain, eh?” Eliza asked. “Well, they bloody aren’t.” To emphasize the point, she nodded at a group of Defenders. “Ever since they first contacted us, they’ve been bloody vague on whether or not they think their harem of harridans are going to come back willingly. You’re right, it’s gonna get someone killed. I’m just makin’ sure it won’t be someone I care about.”
“Ugh,” John said. “I knew I had a bad feeling about all this.”
Then and there, I made a vow to myself be as uninvolved as possible. I would just help everyone find these Heralds, then I would get the hell out of the country, preferably with John in tow. I recognized it was probably one I was going to break because I couldn’t leave anything alone.
As we headed to our zone, Eliza politely asked Bai, “So… ‘ow’s Li doin?” The sun was almost fully set, and we had our lights out. The mountain path was steep and the path was crumbly, so we had to watch our step.
“He…” Bai said, hesitating. Bai, in her own way, was just as loyal as Eliza, which was probably one of the reasons they were good friends. That probably made it hard to talk about her brother. Li, if I was being charitable, could be best described as a complete asshole. Bai, however, wouldn’t ask Eliza for help, mostly because Li’s behavior brought out the worst in Bai. “He is always better behaved around our elders. How is your sister?”
“She’s bein’ difficult,” Eliza said. “She told father an’ me this entire thing was gonna be simple. She left out ‘ow squirrely these Defender people are and her little merger idea.” She sighed. “I’m only a tiny bit away from calling father and ‘aving ‘im shut Char down.”
“Speaking of Charlotte,” I said, “Remember when we were about to take off? There was that weird bit where she was looking out the window. What was that about?”
“Yeah…” John said. “That was… strange.”
Eliza looked away. “She saw mother… her mother, I suppose, bangin’ on the window, like she was tryin’ to get in.”
“That is… that is completely insane!” John said.
“It isn’t just her though,” I said. Everyone turned to look at me. “Remember Richard? When the factory got set up, he… came back. He was trying to warn me about something.”
“What the hell do you mean he ‘came back?’” John asked. “What, did he have a chat?”
“Mostly he just came back and yelled random shit at me that made it seem like he’d talked with a certain death goddess,” I said. “Then he kind of disintegrated and blew away.”
“Are you sure he died?” Bai asked. “There was a lot of confusion when…”
“I saw him die,” I said. “His throat was cut right before my eyes, and it definitely severed all his major veins. I don’t remember if we checked his pulse, but we didn’t bother to bandage him. If he was alive when we left the elevator, he wouldn’t have been for much longer.”
“A simple yes would have sufficed,” Bai said. Looking back on it, there might have been a bit of a teasing note in her voice, but I was so used to Eliza having a monopoly on that sort of thing.
“Just explaining my… HOLY FUCKING SHIT!”
Suddenly, something that looked like the Japanese equivalent of a WWII jeep appeared right in front of us. When I say “right in front of us,” I mean one more step and I would have kicked it in the tire. The path was too small for it to fit comfortably, so it instantly began to slide down the mountain, crashing into vegetation and mostly knocking it out of the way. When the crashing finally stopped, we moved forwards and peered down the mountain.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Eliza said in amazement. “Where’d that come from?”
“It… it’s like a Jumper,” I said. Jumpers, as I had witnessed first hand, had a completely silent teleport. One second, they’d be there, then they’d be gone. Or five feet closer. One that I personally knew, Jennifer Kagemoto, liked to creep people out with that trick.
“That must mean the warpstone let loose,” Bai said.
“Getting back to that jeep,” John said, “I can’t even fucking see it. I’m not sure if it’s because the mountain is so steep or if it just went back to where it came from.”
Eliza, considering this, shone her light onto a tree further up the path. “If it went back to where it came from,” she said, “then why’s that there?”
I followed the beam. There, lying on the ground, something metallic glinted. It hadn’t been there before the car. We all edged towards it.
“That,” John said, “looks like an assault rifle.” He picked it up. “It’s a Type 89. The Japanese use it in their military.” John was a fluent Japanese speaker. I had woken up multiple times to him yelling Japanese phrases in his sleep. “Nice, yet pretty standard.”
“Let’s get a bloody move on,” Eliza said. “This place gives me the creeps.”
We continued on. As we did, we saw more and more random detritus, including food packaging, weapons, gas cans, and even a few more cars. All were in mostly pristine condition. Occasionally, the radio would crackle and we would hear reports of people finding something particularly strange.
Eventually, a German-accented voice called in. “Hey, we think we found your Sensei.”
“Is he cooperating?” a voice asked. It sounded like the commander of the British forces.
“He’s not doing much of anything,” the German said. “Someone cut his bloody head off. It was recent, but not too recent. I’d say he’s been dead at most an hour, he hasn’t even begun to attract flies. Also, the ground is pretty bloodless. The blighter must have been moved.”
Another voice, this one Arabic, asked, “What did it?”
“Some kind of sharp object,” the German said. “Very sharp, and whoever did it must have been either very strong or had a lot of adrenalin. There’s also a lot of stabbing and slash marks on the body, as well as quite a bit of blunt force trauma. Whoever killed him either didn’t decapitate him on the first blow, or had some issues they wanted to work out.”
After that, the bodies kept piling up. An hour or two later, five of the fifteen heralds had been found, all dead. None of them had died naturally. Three were hard to tell if they were suicides or murders, one definitely was murdered. The fifth was weird. We didn’t hear any more than that over the radio.
A little after that, Eliza said, “Holy ‘ell, these poor girls… What the hell ‘appened to ‘em?”
“Well,” I said, “if we really want to know that, we either have to find a survivor or a diary.”
“God…” John said, “can you imagine what a survivor would be like? They’ve lived five hundred years in a place you’re supposed to just sleep in. I’m not sure which’d be worse: being with the same fifteen other people, or slowly watching them die.”
“I think,” Bai said, “that if even a few of those deaths were murders, there must have been a bit of relief for the last one. Then they’d start to go insane.”
“Maybe the last one’d be ok,” John said.
“John,” I said, “you do realize that studies show locking someone in solitary confinement is almost guaranteed to drive them crazy?”
“Almost,” John said, with forced hopefulness. “Key word’s almost.”
Suddenly, Eliza stopped. “Did you see that?” She seemed to be hyper-focused on something far ahead in the undergrowth.
“See what?” I asked. Eliza didn’t respond. Instead, she broke into a frenzied sprint. “Eliza!” I called out. “Eliza, wait!”
Eliza didn’t listen, running with all the speed an adrenalin-frenzied Lupine could muster. In case you were wondering, there’s a reason Lupines have a separate segment in the Olympics. Only Lupines can flat-out sprint for over two kilometers. She quickly pulled ahead of us, running further and further into the darkness. Soon, we would only be able to see her bobbing flashlight.
I hurried even faster. That proved to be a mistake. The mountain trail, if you could even call it a trail, was crumbling from years, maybe centuries of erosion. The path had given out several times before, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when it gave out under my feet.
“NATE!” John called out. He called out my name a second before I realized I was falling. Before I could draw in breath to ask what was wrong, I found myself tumbling down the slope. For God knows how long, I found myself bouncing down the mountain like a basketball.
Eventually, I managed to grab onto a root. Looking up, I could see the pinprick of light that indicated John and Bai’s position far above me. “Nate!” John yelled. “You ok?”
“Yeah,” I shouted back, “I’m…” I heard a creaking sound. In the dim light provided by the people above me, I couldn’t see what I was holding on to. But I did realize I was lower than I was before. “Oh fuck me…” There was a snap and I was falling again.
“NATE!” John yelled again. His voice got fainter and fainter as I fell.
Finally, I stopped falling. That, and the fact that everything felt fine (well, reasonably fine for what had just happened,) was the good news. The bad news was that I had landed in something thorny. “John!” I yelled, “I’m fine!”
“Jesus Christ, Nate!” John yelled. “Where the fuck are you?”
“Bottom of the mountain!” I said. “At least, that’s what it feels like! And before you ask, I’m fine!”
“Do you still have your light and radio?” Bai asked.
“No,” I said. “Light, radio, and GPS are all gone in the fall. I have my phone, but it’s pretty dead.” I cursed my stupidity. Just because my cPhone could run for a month without dying didn’t mean I shouldn’t check it before I go out into the fucking wilderness. Especially when it only took a few seconds to charge. I then double checked my inventory for anything useful. “I still have my pistols. One of them has a light on it.”
“Shine it up here,” Bai said. “We need to know your position.”
I did. It took John and Bai a good fifteen minutes to spot the weak underbarrel light on my Berretta. Finally, John said, “Listen, Nate, stay right there. We’re coming down to get you.”
“NO!” I called out. “You have to find Eliza!”
“You’re at the bottom of a hill,” John said. “There’s a good chance you’ve got a concussion or a break. Eliza has her radio. When she snaps out of it, she can call us. If you suddenly go unconscious because your brain’s been scrambled like an egg…”
“John,” I said, “I’m fine. You know my position, you don’t know Eliza’s at all. Go find her!”
John and Bai were silent for quite a while. Or maybe they were talking, and I was just too far away to hear them. Finally, John called down, “Ok, we’re going to find Eliza. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to try to get back to the castle or meet up with another group,” I said. “Don’t worry about me. Find Eliza!”
“Ok,” John said. “We’ll go do that. Be careful down there, ok?”
I then saw the faint pinpricks of light that indicated John and Bai move off, presumably to find Eliza. Once they were out of sight, I got up. When I did, I realized I was nowhere near as fine as I thought I was. A current of pain shot through my left leg when I stood on it.
When I was finally standing and leaning against a tree (I knew if I sat I would never be able to get up on my own power,) I took stock of my situation. I was in a strange forest-covered mountain with no map or GPS, no phone, and only one good leg. I did have two pistols with three spare mags each and a light. And the best thing? Nobody was trying to kill me.
At least, that’s what I thought. Then something in the bushes moved.