Cautiously, I aimed my Berretta at the point where I had seen movement, my finger resting on the trigger guard instead of the trigger. “Who’s there?” I asked.
Slowly, obviously so as not to startle me, a pale woman in a red kimono emerged from behind the tree. I quickly realized that she must have some form of albinism, because her facial structure was Asian and she seemed to only be sixteen, but her hair was pure white, and her irises were so blue as to nearly be white. The expression on her face seemed oddly cheerful and she carried herself with the hard-won grace of a dancer or martial artist. The cumulative effect was to render her completely otherworldly.
“Hello,” she said, “I am Nakashima Mayu… sorry, Mayu Nakashima. I believe you are looking for me.” Her voice was both very high-pitched and bubbly, yet oddly formal. Her English was extremely good, but I noticed that she said her “L”s very carefully.
Letting out my breath, I lowered my gun. The light pooled at Mayu’s feet. I didn’t want to holster the gun completely as I didn’t want to be left in darkness. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Nathan Jacobs. I’m here to get you home.” Her breath caught audibly. Ignoring it, I added, “do you have any idea what happened to your fellow heralds?”
Mayu broke down. She went from graceful to collapsed on the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. She was repeating something over and over again, but she was sobbing so hard I couldn’t be sure of the language.
Instinctively, I moved to comfort her. However, I had forgotten two things. The first was that I was standing in a briar patch. The second was that my leg was busted up. My first step caused me to collapse, body-slamming the thicket of thorns.
“Oh no!” Mayu said. “You’re hurt!” I noticed that she sort of tripped over the contraction. She then began to help me out of the thicket.
“Boy, I’m glad you’re here,” I said as she got me supported on her shoulder. “It is a little embarrassing, though. I mean, I’m supposed to be rescuing you, right?” I felt Mayu stiffen right next to me. Crap, I forgot about the whole Japanese and honor thing. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, “It’s a good reminder that I’m not as useful as I think I am.”
“But if your companions find out you were rescued by a girl…” Mayu said.
“Eliza’ll get a kick out of it,” I said, “but if anyone really has a problem with it, they either don’t matter or I haven’t been as effective as I think. Besides, it could be worse. I could have landed in some poison ivy.”
In fact, I could almost hear Eliza cackle, “Oi, Nate! You’re supposed to save the damsel, not the other bloody way around!”
“Poison… ivy…?” Mayu asked, seemingly tasting the words.
“Nasty weed I have back home,” I said. “Instead of getting all these interesting cuts from the brambles, I could’ve ended up with a mildly contagious rash.”
“I see,” Mayu said.
In that instant, I realized how much I missed Eliza’s teasing. She usually knew just how far to go to make me laugh. She also would have laughed at my jokes. Nothing was more gratifying than a pretty woman who laughed at your jokes.
I then remembered about how Eliza had run off and began to worry again. “Hey, Mayu,” I said, “You’re a Jumper, right?”
“Yes…” she said cautiously, obviously not knowing where I was going with that question.
“One of my friends is in trouble,” I said. “She… saw something…” I felt Mayu tense up next to me. “I was wondering if you could go find her.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Jacobs,” Mayu said. Her voice was still cheerful, but there was an edge to it. “I think that jumping, as you call it, would be a very bad idea tonight.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
Mayu completely ignored the question. “You know,” she said, “all the information I have been given has made me quite curious about what’s happened while I was gone. I know I will be busy, but I would like to sample some of the changes.”
“Mm,” I said noncommittally. I would have to tell the Defenders of Fuji about this conversation and how she avoided that particular topic. I also was a little concerned about the constantly cheery attitude. I had noticed the cheer in a lot of Japanese people I had met, but in Mayu it felt a lot more forced. Of course, as she talked about restarting her life, she slowly began to seem more genuine.
“Of course,” Mayu said, “a lot of things will be inevitable. I’ll have to drive, I’ll have to use computers and…” She paused.
“What is it?” I asked. As I turned around to face her, I swear her expression changed from a frown to her permanent smile. It was dark, but I couldn’t really tell.
“I’m sorry,” she said cheerfully. “I’m not sure how much I should tell you. After all, you aren’t part of the Defenders.”
I doubted I’d be able to get any more out of her, so I asked, “So, do you know how to get back to Kage keep?”
In response, Mayu took out a hand-held GPS unit that she had tucked in her belt. “Yes,” she said. “We should be coming up on a road soon that will lead to the castle.” She tucked the GPS back in her belt. “It is very useful, this device, but I do not think I should rely on it.” She sighed. “I did not know how badly I’d need it. This mountain has changed much in five hundred years. I expected the trees to be different, but I think the land itself has changed. I believe the process is called erosion.”
We pushed through a branch and the light from my pistol illuminated a road sign. “Hey,” I said, “I think I remember this stretch of road.”
“That make sense,” Mayu said. “If you have come in from the western side of the country, you would have come through here.”
Suddenly, I heard a rustling sound. I scanned around, using my pistol’s light to illuminate the underbrush. At first, I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Then I realized one of the trees had something oddly colored behind it. It looked like an arm covered in high-tech armor. The arm belonged to someone huge. The last time I had seen armor like that, I had been in North Korea. The person who had been wearing it had been able to survive the entire street above him crushing him, the explosion that caused it, and at least one magazine from a G-3 at near-contact range before finally dying.
“Nathan…” Mayu asked, “what is it?”
“Mayu,” I said, “on my left hip is a SIG-Sauer P-229. Do you know how to work it?” As I said this, we continued to walk down the path. I avoided looking at where the arm was.
“I think so,” she said. “Is it like a Minebea P9?”
“Yeah,” I said, recognizing that the P9 was basically a SIG clone, “but it’s got more of a kick and three more shots. Anyway, I want you to take it and run.”
“Eh? You think something’s out there?” Mayu asked.
Before I could answer, a familiar voice muffled by a helmet said, “Nathan, you’ll have to do better than that.”
My breath caught. Right after I had emptied my first mag into his face, that is exactly what the heavily armored Dragon’s Teeth soldier had told me. Except that then he hadn’t known my name.
“RUN!” I yelled at Mayu. “FUCKING RUN!” With that, I turned around and began shooting at the tree where the soldier, I think that kind was called a Berserker, was hiding.
I turned around to see Mayu looking at me strangely. “Nathan,” she asked, staring at me like I was crazy, “there’s nothing there.”
I was about to argue, then I looked at the tree I thought the Berserker had been hiding behind. Not only was the arm gone, but I now realized how small the tree was. Nari couldn’t have hidden behind it, let alone someone as freakishly huge as a Berserker. I lowered my Berretta, my hands shaking and the barrel smoking.
“Nathan?” Mayu asked. “Are you alright?”
I took a deep breath. Before I could answer, the Berserker asked, “Well, Nathan, what are you going to do?” That was what the Berserker had asked after my first burst, the only difference was that now he knew my name. I turned around to where his voice was now coming from. Nothing but trees.
I took a deep breath. It wasn’t the same Berserker. It couldn’t be. I had seen his helmet shattered by my bullets, and the head and brain inside reduced to bloody hamburger. He couldn’t have survived. He couldn’t. Right?
“Nathan?” Mayu asked.
I took a deep breath. All of a sudden, I realized that Mayu hadn’t heard or seen any of the things I had. “There’s something going on here,” I said. “The most likely explanation is that I’m going insane, but other people seem to be going insane in the exact same way.”
Mayu, who had been edging away from me, asked, “How are you going insane?”
“I’m…” I said, “I’m seeing people who should be dead.”
“Who did you see?” Mayu asked.
“Someone I killed,” I said. “But it could be… it could be one of his brothers. Let’s just say he’s got a big family.” I paused. “If his family’s here… well, it isn’t just me who’s going to be in trouble.”
“I see!” Mayu said, brightening at the possibility of an invasion. She then walked back to support me again. “If that is true, then we need to get back to the castle. Let’s do our best, Mr. Jacobs!”
We then began to walk forwards. After a while, I said, “Before I was cut off from my group, we heard that some search parties found some of the people you went in with.” Part of the reason I said was to strike up some conversation, part of it was to gauge her reaction. Mostly, though, I was curious. Of the sixteen people who had gone into that weird pocket dimension, the only survivor I knew of was Mayu. Of the six others to have been found, two had definitely been murdered, three could be either murder or suicide, and one apparently was “just weird.”
“Who did you find?” Mayu asked. Her cheer was much more… dissonant somehow.
“Well,” I said, “I only found you. And the people on the radio didn’t say any names.” I paused, debating how much to say. “We did find your Sensei and someone whose death… raised a lot of questions apparently. There were a few others, all dead.”
“I see,” Mayu said, as if she was just discussing the weather instead of the violent deaths of the people she had known for five hundred years.
“Do… do you know if there’s anyone else alive?” I asked. “I mean, if they’re still alive…”
“They aren’t.” I shuddered. The way Mayu had said that was too casual for my liking.
“When…” I asked, “when did the last one die?”
“When is a very relative term,” Mayu said, putting her finger to her chin and staring off into space to contemplate. “Time there went… differently. It was slower. At first we thought that it went at half-speed as compared to the real world. I think the second accident happened when we realized that we were falling farther behind.”
“Uhh…” I said, trying to process this. I somehow doubted that any death that happened there was an accident. My guess was that that death would’ve been a suicide. Finally, I asked, “What happened to your sensei? From what I heard, it seemed that he was murdered.”
“We feel that murder is the wrong term,” Mayu said. It took me a bit to realize that we meant everyone in the pocket dimension. “We were selected to be in there for five hundred years by others. They should have considered we might be in there longer. They should have considered our personalities as well as our skills. They should have considered the safety of the place. Therefore, we prefer words like ‘accident’ or ‘mistake.’”
“Well,” I said, “more power to you, but I think that your bosses might…”
“What is it, Mr. Jacobs?” Mayu asked. I could understand why she was concerned. I had suddenly stopped and had begun to stare at what probably appeared to her to be nothing. Even more alarming, I was aiming my gun at the spot and my breathing was becoming rapid and shallow.
“He’s back,” I said through my gasps for breath. There, standing between two trees was a large dark shape. It was humanoid, but too big to be fully human, even if you accounted for its armor. The huge shape stood just out of range of my pistol light’s range, but I could see it had one glowing red eye.
“Mr. Jacobs…” Mayu said, obviously concerned as I shrugged off her arm and began to walk towards the giant.
“COME ON, YOU FUCKER!” I yelled, my vision blackening. “COME ON! YOU WANNA END THIS? LET”S END THIS!” As I roared, I began to fire.
The dark shape didn’t even register my shots. In my state, it was perfectly possible that they were all missing. Of course, knowing Deet armor, it was also possible that they were all hitting and just not doing anything.
“Finish it?” the shape asked when my gun clicked. He then stepped out into the light. I could finally see his helmet. It had been smashed open by rifle fire. My rifle. I could see bits of brain. I fell to my knees, my vision darkening. “I just wanted you to know what you’re up against… Killer.” He said my nickname in a way that was both accusation and threat.
In that instant, I knew. Richard, Charlotte’s mother, and this Berserker… they were all the same. They were dead and buried, but not gone. With that, I passed out, Mayu’s panicked voice slowly fading out.