I woke up in a stone room that had been retrofitted as a hospital. The flickering lights were somehow both dim and harsh, and the colors were weirdly muted. I was lying on a bed. To my right, there was a stone wall. To my left was a green and white checkered curtain. In front of me was another bed.
The thing in it was slightly strange. I sat up to get a better look. It seemed to be some kind of charred meat resting the pillow. Then, I realized that it wasn’t just on the pillow. There was more of it under the blanket.
The meat-thing opened its eyes. “Hey, Killer,” it said with a familiar voice. “Glad I could catch you.”
“Jeong!” I yelled.
Suddenly, I realized I was awake. Almost immediately, I realized I had been asleep and lying down. Weirdly enough, I was still in the same room, except now the lighting was much better and the room was full. Across from me, instead of a charred corpse of a comrade, a body bag lay on the bed. In the rest of the room, people were working hurriedly.
I looked around. Again, stone wall on my right, curtain on my left. However, there was one difference. Eliza was sitting on a chair between me and the curtain. “‘Oo the fuck’s Jeong?” she asked. Her fox ears were drooping and her eyes were baggy and bloodshot.
“One of the guys who went with me to Korea,” I said.
“Did you… did you see ‘im out in the woods?” Eliza asked. There was an odd look in her eye that I couldn’t quite place. “Was that why you ‘ad your attack.”
“No,” I said. “I saw someone else.” Then I realized why she was asking. “Who did you see?”
Eliza’s eyes widened for a moment. Then she laughed. “You got me pegged, ‘aven’t you?”
“Well,” I said, “I’ve just seen dead people for the third time. Plus, I saw Charlotte’s… episode, I guess you could call it. I guess I know the symptoms now.”
Charlotte nodded. “Yeah. You would.” She paused for a while. Eventually, she took a deep breath, and said. “I saw me mum and da. My… well, I’d feel guilty sayin’ they’re me real parents, seein’ ‘ow good the BW’s ‘ave been to to me… my biological parents, I guess you’d call ‘em. Then I saw something run after them.”
“So you chased after them,” I said.
“You’d do the same,” she said, somewhat defensively.
“Not denying that.”
She paused. “Would you… would you ‘ave let me fall?” she asked. “Y’know, just kept runnin’ and not looked back?”
“I don’t know…” I said. “Hell, if you’d reacted the way I did, I wouldn’t have even heard you fall.”
“John called your name, remember?” Eliza said. “I didn’t even turn around. Just kept runnin’.”
“Oh.” I considered this for a moment. “I… I don’t blame you. You’re…” I tried to think of a way to describe her Lupine instincts without offending her. “…well, you. I would’ve done it differently, but I’m me.”
“Very eloquent,” Eliza said, a bit of her humor flashing up.
“I was going to say more,” I said. “All this good stuff about how I didn’t think you needed forgiveness and blah blah blah, but you just had to ruin the mood.” I pouted for effect.
Eliza’s smirk widened in appreciation. “Alright, you made your point.” Then, she got serious. “Anyway, what happened down the mountain?”
“Well,” I said, “you know I met Mayu, right?”
“God, yes,” Eliza said.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “There’s a relatively new American saying…”
“Is there any other kind?” Eliza asked teasingly.
I continued, ignoring her. “…basically, don’t stick your dick in crazy.”
“You think she’s crazy?” Eliza asked. “I’ll admit, she seemed a bit off t’me, but so does everyone else in this bloody museum.”
“You should talk to her about her time in that pocket dimension,” I said. “She… she doesn’t come across as innocent. Speaking of that, did they find all the bodies yet?”
“Yeah…” Eliza said. “Poor girl… If she really is mad, can’t say that I blame ‘er. Five ‘undred years…”
“She said that time moved at half-speed there,” I said. “She also said it got steadily slower. Still… I don’t think she came out of there without some blood on her hands. I also think some serious shit went down, and she didn’t cope with it too well.”
“If she did,” Eliza said, “I wouldn’t blame ‘er, poor girl. Our test subject was completely stark raving when ‘e came back, and that wasn’t even a tenth of the time those girls spent in there.” She shuddered.
For a while, we talked about how we’d spent our night. It turned out that the only reason Eliza hadn’t been committed was because a bunch of other people had been seeing dead people. “I mean,” Eliza said about that, “It’s bad enough I’m goin’ crazy, now other people are losin’ it in the exact same way? Fuckin’ ‘ell, oo’s gonna lock me up?” We both laughed.
Eventually, I had to ask, “So, what’s with all the body bags? Are they all the bodies of the heralds?”
“Yeah,” Eliza said. “This German bloke’s cuttin’ ‘em up, tryin’ t’figure out ‘ow they bought it. Kind of interested in what he’ll find.”
“Not much,” an elderly man with a German accent and lab coat said as he walked into the room, pulling a stretcher behind him. “For instance,” he said, “the one I’ve done my most recent preliminary on had her throat cut. Was it by her own hand? Did someone else help her? And what was the motivation? None of it can be answered.”
Nakashima (the caretaker of the castle) followed him, pushing the stretcher. “More importantly,” he said, “what are we going to do about this ice cream now that we can’t fit it in the freezer?” As he spoke, he indicated the three cartons of ice cream on the stretcher.
“If you got any peanut butter cup or chocolate,” I said, “I’ll take it. Maybe Eliza and I will split it.”
“You’re bloody right we’ll split it,” Eliza said indignantly.
“We have cookie dough, vanilla, and chocolate,” Nakashima said.
After a brief discussion between Eliza and I, we relived them of the cookie dough and chocolate, plus a few spoons. Before Nakashima and the coroner could leave, I quickly asked, “Hey, Nakashima, I noticed that you and Mayu have the same family name. Any relation?”
“I’m not sure,” Nakashima said. “I’ll have to check my family tree. It is likely, though.”
“Cool,” I said. “Just curious. Anyway, how is Mayu doing?”
Nakashima had a strange look in his eyes as he replied. “I’m not sure. They have the normal caretakers off their shifts and have brought in agents from other cells.” I suddenly realized the strange look in his eyes wasn’t directed at me, but at his own organization. “I am sure everything is fine, though.” He bowed. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must see if I can get rid of this last carton of ice cream. We must get not let it go to waste.”
“Of course,” the German coroner said. Despite his politeness, I could tell he wasn’t convinced by Nakashima’s reassurances.
When they left, Eliza said, “Fuckin’ ‘ell, this shit is getting’ too political for my likin.’”
“Yeah…” I said. After a moment, I added, “Could you tell your sister I’d like to get out on the next flight?”
John walked in suddenly. “Dude, are you serious? We finished the mission ahead of schedule, and we’re in Japan! It’s time to have fun.”
Eliza and I looked at him. “What?” John asked. “It’s over. Sixteen people went into the pocket dimension, sixteen people matching their descriptions were found. We won. Now, we take some souvenirs and bring them home.”
“I honestly am not sure what to think,” Bai said. “While I would like to agree with John, this all seems mismanaged. They wanted people to protect and shape the Architect, and they ended up with only one, whose sanity is apparently questionable. They wanted the survivors found, so they brought in a large force that deeply indebted them. Then their target walks in, making their expensive force completely unnecessary. What on Earth are they thinking?”
“Maybe some of the Defenders didn’t want the Heralds to survive?” I suggested. “If they got us all amped up, we could take care of a few of them. Then they wouldn’t draw suspicion on themselves.”
“But that’s…” Eliza said, “that’s horrendously cowardly!”
A voice scoffed from the doorway. “I’ll say. These so-called ‘Defenders of Fuji’ have lost their way.” In walked an arrogant male version of Bai.
Bai, barely containing her eye-roll, said, “Li has some strong opinions about our hosts. He is not hesitant about sharing them.”
“Nor should I be,” Li said. “After all, they claim to be experts at subterfuge. How is that true when they lost half our order to the Ministry of Security?”
Eliza, John and I stared at Li in shock. This was news to us. We had sort of assumed everything was normal with Bai and her organization.
“First off,” Bai said patiently, “Most of them were probably lost before we left the country. Second, this is not the thing you tell outsiders.”
“I apologize,” Li said as unapologetically as possible. “I assumed you would tell your boyfriend.” He turned to us. “Mark my words, these fools are declining. Their elders are senile and uncaring, their youth are either incompetent or jaded, and there are not enough people in between.”
“Why are you here?” Bai asked.
“You’re needed.” Li glanced at Eliza, then said, “Please come. The elders want to brief us.” Bai nodded and walked out. Li bowed respectfully to Eliza. The reason he was so polite was the last time he had been rude to his sister in Eliza’s presence, Li had not had a good time. Eliza nodded coolly in response.
We then waited in silence until Eliza felt that they had left. “Fuckin’ prick…” she muttered darkly.
“Ok,” John said, “You know how I was optimistic earlier? Screw that, we’re all going to kill each other if we stay here too much longer.” He sighed. “Every single time I say things are going well…”
“Yeah, mate,” Eliza agreed blandly. “Every bloody time. Could you just stop?”