Track 26: Giving Up

“Well,” I said, eyeing the Taser warily, “If you have a stretcher you can carry me out on, there’s no reason I can’t come with you.” My breath was extremely shallow and it kind of hurt for me to speak. There were also a lot of long pauses.

“So the chatter was right for once,” Hiro said. He stood up, and gave an order in Japanese. Three of the Defenders slung their rifles behind their back. Two of them broke open a stretcher while the third waved a metal detector wand over me. Hiro, meanwhile, stood back and opened up a cellphone.

“What do you mean, ‘the chatter was right for once?’” I asked. “How do you not know not…” I began coughing.

“Stop talking,” Li said contemptuously. “We need you alive.”

The Defender who had been scanning me with the wand called out that I was clean. At least, I assumed he did, because the two who had been setting up the stretcher picked me up and placed me on it, then proceeded to flex-cuff me to it. The plastic dug into my wrists. Then they used the standard straps that, as well as preventing me from escaping, would also keep me from falling out. They then picked up the stretcher and we began to move out of the office building.

The office building was pretty standard. As we moved, one of the Defenders carrying me said, somewhat bitterly, “You realize, none of this had to happen.”

“Yep,” I said. “I told Charlotte…” I paused for coughing. “But she just had to make the… dumbest plan.” Seriously, why the hell couldn’t we have just left the country? What the hell was Charlotte thinking? I couldn’t really communicate due to the collapsed lung and tied hands.

“So,” Hiro said, “you don’t have any love for my ancestor?” I nodded my head. I mean, I did think that the people who had wanted to pop her as soon as she had gotten back had been a little premature, but I recognized she was severely disturbed. Finding her and neutralizing her (temporarily or permanently, right now I was pretty flexible about that) could only be a good thing. Hiro continued. “Then tell me where she went. This can all be ended with only one more life.”

“Don’t know,” I said. “Goals were incompatible… she fucked off. That’s probably how…” I broke down in coughing again, “…how your first chopper was blown up.”

“Liar,” Li said. “I refuse to believe you just let her get away.”

“I believe him,” Bai said.

“I do too,” Hiro said. “They did not have enough manpower to fight us and secure a prisoner. Plus, my ancestor was deemed highly obsessive by the psychologist.” He looked at me, and I got the idea that he was contemplating something. “Now, Jacobs-san, what did you say your disagreement was about?”

I pretended that I had also been deafened by the recent gun battle. It wasn’t as big of a stretch as it normally would be, seeing as how I’d been in a gun battle where I’d been firing one of the loudest guns I had ever used. That reminded me that I needed to get a way to reduce the Maccabee’s noise. That probably would have been a better use of time then the dual-belt-fed MG.

The door opened and we began to move into a parking lot. I noticed that there were a few Defenders pulling security. I noticed that the Defenders tended to use either Type 89 assault rifles or what seemed to be Hecker and Koch HK 416s and 417s, usually with holographic sights, lasers and flashlights. They also all looked extremely tired. I felt briefly proud having led these guys on such a wild goose chase. Then I realized they had finally caught me and probably hated my guts.

The parking lot had an interesting feature. Around the parking lot (which was empty except for two vans,) a small wall ran around the lot. If an average person ran around it crouched, they could be concealed. I wasn’t sure how much protection it offered, but it was there. Why did I notice it, you ask? Well, first off, it was an odd thing. Second, a bunch of people had just popped up from behind the walls.

They were extremely hard to see, partly because it was dark, partly because they were shining lights directly at us. However, they had set up in a sort of T-shape pattern, and, judging by the sudden severe case of acne the Defenders had sprouted, they were armed. Instantly, a variety of English, Scottish and Welsh voices began calling out things like “SAS! DROP YOUR WEAPONS!”

“No,” Li said, and suddenly, something hard and metal was pressed to the side of my head, “you put down your weapons.”

“Well,” a dangerously pissed Cockney voice casually commented from behind the wall to my left, “this is quite a weird definition of neutral, innit Bai?

“Eliza?” Bai asked. “You’re here?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “I’m ‘ere alright. And I’m quite surprised to see you.”

“And we’re surprised to see you,” Hiro said. I noticed that he had maneuvered so the people ambushing him couldn’t see his hands. I could, and he was fiddling with something in his pocket. “You had to have some sort of warning we had beaten you.”

“And we’d like to know how you got here first,” Eliza said. “Life’s full little disappointments. Now put Nate down. Gently.”

“You won’t open fire,” Li said. “You didn’t come out all this way just for Jacobs just to get a bullet in his brain or for him to find out what happens when a person with a collapsed lung is dropped.”

Eliza didn’t order the SAS operatives to drop the weapons. I don’t know if that was because she wasn’t allowed, if she was bluffing in hopes of intimidating them, or if she was more pissed at Bai then she was protective of me. Finally, she asked, “Bai… why? Just why?”

“We owe the Defenders,” Bai said. “They helped us when…”

“I would’ve helped,” Eliza said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I would’ve come even if everyone else’d told me to fuck off and leave you. You do know that, right?”

“And you know,” Hiro said, “that you attacked us first. You set something that should never have seen the light of day free.”

“First off,” Eliza said, “You’re talkin’ about a person, not some fuckin’ cursed artifact. Second, I wasn’t talking to you, you git.”

“Heyyyy…” I said, “Maybe we can make a deal? Like set me on the ground… gently, very gently, and Eliza lets you drive off?” That was quite painful to say, but at that point I thought it was necessary. “I mean, that way, everyone gets what they want. You guys get to leave, and I’ve already told you all I could.”

“Which was nothing,” Hiro said.

“Exactly,” I said. “The only way I’m useful to you is exchange. This is the time to do that.” I looked at Hiro as I said that. He was considering it, and seemed very receptive.

“Wait,” Li said, “this seems like too good a deal.” He looked… suspicious.

“Honestly,” Bai said, “It’s the best deal we’ve got and…”

Now, before I tell you Li’s response, I need to say a bit about Bai. As soon as she had heard the SAS and seen their lasers and lights, she had aimed her Glock in the direction of the SAS. Her hand was on the trigger, even squeezing it slightly. Her safety was also off. Having gone through the same training, that meant she was willing to fire.

“You…” Li said. “You set us up.”  He then shifted his aim from my head to Bai.

My breath caught. Oh my God, I thought to myself, this guy is insane. Of the many things that had been drilled into our heads during Hell Semester, gun safety was one of them. If you pointed a weapon at something the instructors didn’t want you to destroy, the best case scenario was a grueling forced march, then grueling calisthenics, then skipping the next meal. The worst case scenario was being shot by Campus Security. It didn’t matter whether or not your weapon was loaded, you were not allowed to treat it like a toy. If Bai had sold Li and the Defenders out to Eliza, the gun would be pointed at the ground.

Bai began protesting in Chinese, but Li shouted something back. “Oi!” Eliza yelled, “Put down the fuckin’ gun! I mean it!” The Defenders whose faces I could see were eyeing each other nervously. Hiro, on the other hand, suddenly became extremely calm. He muttered something in Japanese. Underneath Bai and Li’s argument and Eliza’s shouted warnings to calm down (which wasn’t helping,) I made out the word “San.” That meant, if I recalled correctly, three.

He then began counting slowly. “Ichii… nii… san.” Then he took something out of his pocket and rolled it right underneath my stretcher. It was a grenade. Fuck me.

“Grenade!” I heard someone yell. Then the grenade burst into smoke. I tried not to breathe but that was not really an option, due to how short of breath my collapsed lung made me. I breathed in the smoke. Luckily, it wasn’t designed to be harmful. It was just smoke. Unfortunately, it wasn’t oxygen or anything else I needed. That gave me the unpleasant sensation of breathing in and not getting enough of the stuff I needed. I was choking and coughing, which was intensely painful.

Of course, the smoke had been like a starting gun. Everyone began firing at once, or at least in seemed that way. The people carrying me also began hurrying into the van. As soon as my shoulders were in the van, I heard the person carrying the stretcher near my upper body gasp and I felt myself drop. I looked behind me. The Defender carrying that end was lying on the ground, the pavement he was lying on slowly turning red, a stunned look on his face. From what I could see through the fog, there weren’t many Defenders still standing. One even dropped while I was looking.

I then heard a thump of someone getting in the van with us. I looked back in the van. On the side that was hard to see was Li. He was the one who had just got in, and he was reloading a Makarov. On the other was Hiro. He was firing a SIG one-handed and gripping onto my stretcher with the other.

I looked behind me. The other Defender who had been moving my stretcher had set me down and was now returning fire with his rifle, his gun so close to me that I was afraid the bullets might veer off and hit me. He was promptly hit by a burst of fire and slumped down over my legs. Something wet and sticky began to cover my pants and the smell of shit, piss and blood began to fill the van as well as the smell of gunpowder. Over the din, I could somewhat make out someone with a Scottish accent calling out “Cease fire! Cease fire!” I prayed someone would listen to him.

In response, Hiro yelled to the people in the front seats of the van. It must have been something like “Get us out of here!” because there was a second of wheel spin and then the van began moving out of the parking lot like a bat out of hell. Just before we exited, I heard a thump on the side of the van. Then a man in full body armor and a ski mask lunged for my stretcher. Before I could decide whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing if he caught it, he had missed and Li and Hiro had opened fire.

The van had made a handbrake turn, so I couldn’t tell if they had hit or if the SAS operator had escaped. The turn, however, revealed another operator with an MP-5 pointed at the ground. He hesitated, seeing me.

Li and Hiro did not. I heard them fire at the rapidly disappearing operator and saw him go down. I suddenly realized that a rescue attempt had just been made on my behalf, it had failed, and people had died because of it. I was unsure how that felt, other than that it didn’t feel good.

Hiro, meanwhile, turned to Li. “We,” he said dangerously, “are going to have to talk.”

 

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Track 9: We Have Words

We didn’t speak until we had left the keep, with me leading the group out of the castle and into the woods. Well, everyone except for Charlotte. For the entire time we walked, she was making comments on my rudeness. Finally, I turned around and said, “Do you realize how badly you fucked up?”

“Excuse me?” Charlotte said.

“You walked into a room with someone who’s clearly nuts,” I began, “with powerful people probably listening to every word you say, and told them a hell of a lot more than you should.”

“But…” Charlotte protested.

I cut her off. “Did I make a few mistakes? Yes.” I dropped my voice to a whisper in the vain hope that if someone were to eavesdrop on this conversation and the one we had with Mayu they’d miss crucial information. “That little picture of hers took me off guard…” then I resumed in a normal (ok, louder than normal) voice, “but what the hell were you thinking telling everyone you knew The Architect’s identity? And even worse, what do you think Bai would do if she heard that you…”

“That was a lie!” Charlotte said. “Do you seriously think me so low as to lie to a friend?”

“The question isn’t whether I believe you,” I said. “The question is whether they could make Bai believe it. Or anyone else believe it.” I paused, remembering how she hadn’t exactly convinced me when she had made the promise. “You have left it alone, right?”

“Well…” Charlotte said, “Mayu said it best. It would be irresponsible to just leave…” I tensed. If she said Mubashir’s name, there was a very good chance I’d kill her. “…our friend in the hands of people who had no idea what to do with him. I didn’t find him, I just laid a bit of groundwork.”

“Bloody ‘ell,” Eliza said. “You realize everybody’s going to be pissed with you now?”

“Only if they know the truth,” Charlotte said. “And even then, they would have to be rather unreasonable, wouldn’t they?”

“Ok,” John said, taking a deep breath, “what happens if Li finds out Bai told you who The Architect is? Do you think Li is reasonable?” He shook his head. “Not only that, but I don’t think Mayu’s even sane. There’s something seriously wrong with her.”

“Um.” We all turned to look at Charlotte. “The thing about Mayu… we think people in her own organization are planning on killing her. We… don’t want that.”

“Any particular reason?” I asked. Seeing that everyone looked at me with horror, I said, “Look, I know that all life is sacred and stuff. She’s also gotten a raw deal.”

“Fuckin’ A she ‘as,” Eliza murmured darkly.

I continued, “But to get her out, we’d need to kill a lot of people. Then what? What happens when she finds out we don’t want her anywhere near Mubashir?”

Charlotte cleared her throat, then said, “Actually, we may need her.” I raised an eyebrow. “You see, while we don’t need The Architect yet, we need someone who can put a stop to the Dragon’s Teeth and their Goddess… whether or not it they are related to prophecies, final or otherwise.”

“Ok,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean we need her. The Architect is in very good hands.”

“As far as we know,” Charlotte said. “That being said, any number of things could have gone wrong. His former caretakers may want him back, his new caretakers may find him unsatisfactory, he may leave in a fit of pique…”

“This is assuming that you have no resources,” I said. “But you do. You don’t need to take in Mayu.”

“What about control?” Charlotte asked. “If we need Mubashir, how do we control him?” I was about to say something, but Charlotte cut me off. “Oh, don’t tell me how we don’t need to control him. He bloody well admitted to not being able to control himself when his powers were activated. You even saw what happened when his powers manifest on two separate occasions.” It was more like three, but I didn’t feel that was important. Plus, I had only seen the aftereffects of the second time. “If he is provoked again… Well, from your own admission, his episodes seem to be getting bigger.”

I considered this. The first time I had experienced his powers, nothing dramatic had really changed. Yes, I had been felt up by millions of hands in a way that had traumatized me for life, and yes, a brick wall had been subtly altered, and yes, time and space had been bent to hell, but nothing really bad had happened. The next time I had actually witnessed his power in action, I had watched as three people had been turned into gym equipment. Also, thinking about it, I was now unsure if the bunker Mubashir had found had been there before. If it had been there before, I seriously wish Eric and his team had found it during the Hell Semester final.

I also considered something else. “If I’m going to help you,” I finally said to Charlotte, “I need to know, when Mayu told you that The Architect was a chance to make the world perfect…” I paused, because what I was saying sounded insane to me. “…how much did you believe that?”

“I think she’s exaggerating a bit, honestly,” Charlotte said.

“A bit?” John asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, a little more than a bit,” Charlotte admitted, “but I think she sincerely believes that The Architect could be a greater force for good than anything else. Between cultural differences and desperation to be part of something bigger than herself, one could be forgiven for thinking she lied.” The problem with that statement was that I didn’t believe Mayu thought she was lying or exaggerating.

“That isn’t what I was asking,” I said. “What I’m asking is how far are you planning on going with that line of thought.”

“Only as far as our friend wants to go,” Charlotte said. “I promise.”

“I will hold you to that promise,” I said. I wasn’t sure how, Mayu was right about how Charlotte was so powerful. After all, she had brought with her a significant chunk of the UK’s special forces. But this… I’d need to take a stand on this.

“Oi!” Eliza said. “You don’t get to threaten my sister!”

I took a deep breath, but John said, “Yeah, well, she doesn’t get to lie to people and then ask them to trust her. Oh wait! She’s been doing that for almost a year!” He stared directly at Charlotte. “If Bai asks if we kept our promise, I’m either going to have to lie to her or betray you, you understand that, right?”

“I do hope you’ll do the right thing,” Charlotte said.

“You don’t get it,” John said. “There is no right thing! I’m probably going to just flip a coin.” Even for me, someone who was extremely annoyed at Charlotte, this wasn’t good news. I wanted to know exactly what he’d do.

“Konbanwa!!” a bubbly voice behind us said. Charlotte, John and I turned around.

Eliza, who had been facing from the direction the voice was coming from, said, “Bloody fuckin’ ‘ell.” I also heard her flick off the safety of her CZ.

I didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. “Mayu,” I said, “we were just talking about you.”

“Oh good!” She said, her smile growing to the eye-closing one I had seen before. “I hope you have found my proposal acceptable.” As we talked, I heard Charlotte call some of her bodyguards, giving them directions to bring a car. I also noticed that Mayu was bleeding from the eyes and nose.

“I’m actually a bit curious about how you managed to get out, actually,” I said.

“Yeah,” John said. “You were in the basement, and I’m pretty sure the entire building is jump-shielded.”

“I read about that while I was away…” Mayu said, putting a finger to her lip and staring off speculatively. “They work by flooding the area with particles to stop us from jumping… I wonder, did their machine create a less dense concentration? Maybe that’s why it felt like I was slipping through a crack? And why this jump was so costly…” Again, I noticed the blood running down her face like wet makeup. She smiled again, one of her big ones, and held up a small scrap of paper. “Or maybe I was just lucky! Just like how Charlotte warned me that the Defenders wanted to kill me!”

“I didn’t think she’d come now!” Charlotte said frantically. “I thought that the note would tell her I was working on convincing them not to, and I’d tell her if…”

“If you’d waited,” Mayu said in her innocent, girlish voice, “the faction that wanted to kill me would have done so, and no one would have been able to prove anything.” She gave one of her big smiles. “I could go back if that’s more convenient for you.”

“No…” Charlotte said. “It would be impossible to get you out then.” She turned to John and me. “You two… get her to Jen. She’ll know where to hide her.”

“And then?” I asked.

“We’ll contact you,” Charlotte said.

“And if you can’t?” I asked. “What do we do then?”

“Please…” Eliza said, looking uncomfortable, “can we just go with the plan? This is… we’re wastin’ time. I’m surprised that the alarm ‘asn’t sounded yet.”

Mayu nodded eagerly. “Yes. They should have sounded it by now.” She then looked at John and me. “Even if I wanted nothing to do with the plan, I would want to be far away from what is about to happen here.”

Check and mate, Nate, I thought to myself. Mayu had finally found my button, at least in this instance. I didn’t like her. She was too manipulative for my liking, and Charlotte seemed to have a profound weakness for her. I also didn’t like the fact that she could get to me.

“Fine,” I said. “You win.” For now. “I’ll take the car, and then John and I can stash her with Jen… If that’s ok with you, John?”

I was inherently when John glared suspiciously at Mayu and said, “Sure. I’ll come.” I nodded gratefully at him. I really didn’t want to be alone with a manipulative assassin who wasn’t quite stable. Especially seeing as how our interests didn’t align even in the slightest.

We were interrupted by Charlotte’s Maybach pulling up on the road nearby. One of her bodyguards got out. “Well,” Charlotte said, “as Miss Nakashima suggested, you three should probably get a move on. Again, we will contact you.”

We got into the car. Mayu, I noticed, got in the back. That defeated my half-fantasized, half-realized plan of wrapping my arm around from behind her and squeezing. You could be wrong, I reminded myself. She might not be evil. Still, I decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check the rearview mirror every few seconds to see if she was trying something and lock the doors and windows just to be safe.

“Hey Jen…” I said as we started the car, “if you can hear us, please help. We’re kind of in deep shit.” We waited. “I got my cPhone, John has his, you gotta have one of our numbers…” Nothing happened.

“Who is Jen?” Mayu asked. I looked in the rearview mirror, partly to see her reaction, partly because I was due. John, to my satisfaction, was checking Mayu as well. Mayu, for her part, still had her typical smile.

“A person,” I said noncommittally.

“Are you seriously going to be that kind of asshole?” John asked.

I sighed. “Jen is… basically the only other person in this country we know. I’ve avoided her because even knowing her makes things… complicated.” Well, hopefully that wouldn’t be the case now. I mean, if she hadn’t ever gone to Japan before, the local law enforcement wouldn’t be watching her… right?

Then my phone beeped. Not wanting to crash, I pulled the Maybach over to the side of the road and pulled my phone out. It was a text from an unfamiliar number. I sighed. It could be Jen, so I took a look. After I stared at it for a moment, John said, “Judging by the look on your face, I’m guessing it isn’t good news.” I nodded. John sighed. “Fuck me, right?”

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Track 8: A Modest Proposal

We got back to the castle very late at night. The day had been very interesting, as well as somewhat nerve-wracking.  After all, not only had we been sharing a car with a Jumper, but a Fire Elemental (Jen told us when we asked) and whatever Lydia was (Jen said she was an inventor, but didn’t mention her specialty,) plus Jen’s other two minions following us in the Escalade. Of Jennifer’s two minions in the car with us, I had no idea which was scarier. I guessed the one papers back home called Hoka (which meant arson in Japanese,) so I had a pretty good idea of how to deal her if she turned on us, but Lydia changed the dynamic. At least we were sitting in their blind spot while they were in our car.

When Jennifer had finally let us go, she and her two female bodyguards got back in her Escalade and drove off. We didn’t mention her in anything except mildly approving terms until we had arrived back at Kage keep and were several hundred meters away from the car.

“Well, that was… nerve-wracking,” I said.

“Bloody ‘ell, that’s an understatement,” Eliza growled darkly. “I definitely don’t like that Elemental. Smells too much like petrol for my taste.”

“Well,” I said, “she’s a Fire Elemental, so…”

“I’ve been around those kinda Elementals before,” Eliza said. “the only other one ‘oo ‘ad that smell was a fuckin’ firebug. Fucker liked to burn people a little too much for the coppers’ tastes.”

“Well… that’s bad, but expected,” I said. “But what the hell are we going to do about the car?”

“We’re gonna ‘ave to rip it to shreds, aren’t we?” Eliza said grimly.

“What car is this?” We looked up to see Charlotte and a couple of Royal Marine officers.

“You know that party we went to in Boston?” Eliza said. “It got infested when we parked it there.”

“Oh, bloody hell,” Charlotte said. She then turned to the officers. “Excuse us, gentlemen. My sister, Mr. Jacobs and I need to talk.” They nodded and walked off. Charlotte turned back towards us. “Now, if you two would come with me…”

She led us to a conference room. To my surprise, John was also in there. Charlotte motioned us to sit down. When we were all seated and the door was closed, Charlotte asked, “So, before we get into the real business, why do you think my car is bugged, and why do we need to take it apart?”

As Eliza and I recounted our encounter with Jen, I noticed Charlotte was a lot more thoughtful than I would be if someone had told me my $200,000+ car needed to be ripped down to its bolts. Finally, she said, “You know, there may be ways to make this useful.”

“Uh, how?” John asked.

“Never mind that for now,” Charlotte said. “In the meantime, I’d like to have a nice talk with Miss Nakashima.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Oh, no reason,” Charlotte said. “I just think she’s quite fascinating. And I do feel quite bad for her, what with her being trapped in some horrid alternate reality.” She checked her watch, then stood up. “I do believe our appointment is soon. If you would please follow me…”

We followed her out the door and down into the bowels of the castle. Eventually, we came to what obviously used to have been dungeons. Now, they seemed to have been refurbished into rooms for guests. Groups of three cells seemed to have been consolidated into one room. Judging by the heavy iron doors and the fact that two guards with pistols had been stationed by Mayu’s door, the guests may not have been as willing as someone staying in an equivalent room at a hotel.

The guards let us in, revealing that two of the three cells used to make the room had been turned into a good imitation of a hotel room with a desk, tatami mat, dresser and TV. The door to what had been the third cell was open and I could see it was a bathroom. The tasteful wood paneling was so soothing that at first I truly believed that this was a room designed with comfort first in mind. They had even put in a fake window opposite the door that mimicked sun rising and setting.

Then I saw the door close behind me. It didn’t look even half as intimidating as it had from the front. Hell, until you noticed that there wasn’t a door handle, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a normal door when it was closed and you were standing in the room. But that one missing feature changed everything. This room was definitely still a prison.

Mayu, though, seemed not to notice that. She was kneeling down at the low desk, a calligraphy brush in her hand, completely focused on what she was doing. I noticed that she was dressed in a much more Western style, with two tank tops (a white cotton one on top of a pink one) and a pleated blue skirt. “Please excuse me,” she said distractedly. “I’m just putting the finishing touches on this…”

“Certainly,” Charlotte said. “Please tell us when you’re done.”

We waited for a minute, watching Mayu work. Her long white hair made it hard to read her expression, but her body language was so focused that it looked like obsession. Finally, she put the brush on a tray beside the paper. Then, she stood up and bowed, smiling so wide her eyes closed. “Hello,” she said. “I apologize for my rudeness, but I was busy working on something and had almost finished.” She straightened up and her smile returned to its usual position, revealing her so-blue-they-were-almost-white eyes. “I hope you may forgive me and that the rest of your visit may be more pleasant.”

“As I said before, quite alright, dear,” Charlotte said.

“Hey,” John said, “do you mind showing us what you were working on?”

“Sure!” Mayu said. She carefully (in retrospect, reverently,) picked up the paper, removing the weights. She held it out in front of her with pride. “Do you like it?”

My breath almost caught in my throat. On the paper was a perfect drawing of Mubashir Mubarak, the man we now knew to be The Architect. His blocky head was not the most distinctive or handsome thing in the world, and the black ink couldn’t capture his brown skin, but it was definitely a three-quarters headshot of him. As casually as I could, I said, “That’s very good, Mayu. Where did you get the inspiration for him?”

Mayu stood there for a moment, her usual smile fixed on her face. Now, however, it seemed like it was masking a loading screen. Finally she said, “…I must have seen a similar face in a history book. Maybe American?” She then pointedly asked, “Why? Does he look familiar to you?” In that moment, I knew that she had seen each and every one of us recognize Moob. I also knew, short of getting her to confirm it, I could never prove it.

I’m not sure if John had come to the same conclusion as I had (namely to not mention Mubashir to Mayu) but he asked, “So, I see you decided to change clothes.”

Mayu smiled. “Oh, of course! I’m not sure if Nathan noticed the smell last night, but I hadn’t changed out of that kimono in hundreds of years.” Now that she mentioned it, I did recall a rather foul smell last night. “Besides, I want to get comfortable in these kinds of clothes.” She giggled. “After all, I’d look pretty silly going out in public in a kimono!”

“Of course!” Charlotte said. “But I am sure you could pull it off.”

Mayu smiled and bowed. “Very kind of you, Blackmoor-Ward-ojou, but I don’t want to pull it off. It… it would feel like stasis.” She pulled out of the bow, and I could briefly see a haunted look in her eyes. It was instantly gone and replaced with her usual grin. “Anyway, is there something your Ladyship would ask of me?”

“As a matter of fact,” Charlotte said, “I was wondering if you knew anything about The Architect.” John, Eliza, and I looked at Charlotte. This wasn’t the deal we had made with Bai. “The Defenders of Fuji have lost much information over the years. At one point, they knew more about The Architect than any other group in the world. They knew how to find…” there was a barely perceptible pause, “…it, how to control it, how to destroy it, things of that nature.”

Mayu giggled. “Well…” she said, “they last one is easiest to answer. You can’t.”

“But you can?” Eliza said suspiciously.

Mayu giggled again. “Don’t be silly! Your organization has the ear of a Queen of a great military power and an organization that can access the nuclear armaments of multiple nations. And if you are an example of your sister’s servants, I can tell just by looking at you there are only two situations in which I would be superior.”

I shot a look at Charlotte. I hoped it said, “She’s useless and we shouldn’t be talking to her.” I could see Eliza and John giving her similar looks.

Charlotte ignored these looks. Mayu, I’m pretty sure, saw them. “First of all,” Charlotte said, “Eliza is not a servant. She is my sister, if not in blood, then in spirit.”

“Oh!” Mayu said, bowing. “Please forgive me! I did not mean offense!”

“Sure…” Eliza said. With anyone else, she would have either made a joke or remarked how she was pretty much Charlotte’s de facto bodyguard to put them at ease. With Mayu, she just regarded her with suspicion.

“Second,” Charlotte said, “what are these two things you can do better than Eliza?”

“Well,” Mayu said, focusing solely on Charlotte, “the first thing I can do better than her, than anyone, is to find The Architect. I’m the only one on the entire planet who can find him because I’m the only one who knows what to look for.”

John chimed in. “How do you know it’s a him? Couldn’t The Architect be an it or a her?”

Mayu just smiled at him. “Didn’t I tell you I’m the only one who can find him?”

“We don’t need to find him just at the moment,” Charlotte said. “But…”

Mayu cut in. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Could you take out your phone or send an email and instantly know for certain where The Architect is?” Charlotte froze. I’m sure the rest of us did as well, and I’m convinced Mayu noticed it as well. Mayu giggled, covering her hand with her mouth. “Silly me! Of course you can. No responsible person would let someone that powerful fall into the wrong hands. Don’t worry, you don’t need to prove that to me.”

“Yes, quite,” Charlotte lied. “Of course.”

“The next question,” Mayu said, cocking her head, “is what are you planning on doing with him?”

“What we’re going to do,” I said, cutting in before Charlotte could say anything else, “is not any of your business. I’m sorry, but if we’re going to keep The Architect safe, we need as few people as possible to know about the situation as possible.”

“So you’re going to keep him locked away?” she asked. She sounded innocent as usual, but I could hear something else underneath. Something desperate. “You realize this is a god we are talking about. This is not some lost child or broken man. This is a chance to make the world perfect.” She paused, seeing that John and Eliza were looking at her with suspicion. As if she had planned it, she added, “He’s also the only one who can stop the Lady of Death and the Angels. You need him.” Not included in that speech, but heavily implied was, You need me, too.

I had gone very quiet and bland. That was because I had remembered what Mubashir had said to me the night his powers had been revealed: “At first, I thought Allah was just punishing me for my suicide. Now, I’m starting to wonder if he’s punishing me for telling Him I could do a better job.” He didn’t want to play God, and after Al-Qaeda, he probably had had enough of being someone’s weapon. Whatever Mayu had planned for him definitely involved both.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said, “you have an interesting proposal, but it’s the kind of thing we need to discuss in private.” I walked over and knocked on the door.

“Nathan,” Charlotte said reprovingly, “Don’t be rude. Surely she has more to say to us.”

“I’m sorry, Charlotte,” I said, “But she’s said enough.” I stared at her pointedly. “We’ve all said enough.”

 

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Track 7: Trip Around It

“Oi, Nate,” Eliza said as we drove to the nearest city, “what’cha readin’?”

I looked up. “It’s PP99.  It’s about this weird Psionic phenomena that happened in 1999. It came out last year because something similar happened.” We were driving down the road to the nearest city. I was surprised because Eliza almost never talked while driving.  I think it was a consequence of how seriously Eliza took guard duty, her earlier bad experiences with driving, and the fact that we were driving her sister’s hundred-thousand dollar car. “You know how Psionic energy exists on a spectrum that’s parallel to electromagnetic energy?”

“Yeah,” Eliza said. “Just like that theoretical spectrum that Jumpers use to jump.” I noticed that her eyes rarely focused on just one thing and her ears were constantly rotating. It was weird how she was simultaneously relaxed and alert.

“Didn’t know about that one,” I said. “Where did you hear that?”

“Jen,” Eliza said. That made sense. Before Mayu, Jenifer Kagemoto was the only Jumper we had access to. “At least, at first. Then I Googled, and got a bunch of academic journals that said the same thing, just like complete chunguses.”

“Well,” I said, “I will have to check that out. Anyway, apparently in 1999, the background level of background Psionic energy just spiked.”

“So it doubled?” Eliza asked. “Like, just randomly?”

“You got the ‘just randomly’ part,” I said. “But…” I struggled to remember the exact phrase. I could tell that if Eliza wasn’t on guard mode, she would have turned to cock her head at me in curiosity. “The book says that the electromagnetic spectrum equivalent is like going to sleep in a place with abnormally low background radiation to waking up in the core of a nuclear reactor that’s in the process of melting down.”

“And… and where did this happen again?” Eliza asked, understandably worried.

“It was a worldwide phenomenon,” I said. “The interesting thing is how quickly people ignored it. This guy was a scientist studying it, and he had this anecdote about how quickly it was forgotten. This was in ninety-nine, and apparently there were only fifty places you could go to even measure ambient Psionic levels. He was being interviewed by someone at a cable news channel, and when they asked what all this meant. The author had no clue, so the anchor just listed a bunch of scenarios. Each and every time, the author either said he had no clue or dismissed it outright. Eventually, the anchor just got bored.”

“Was it an American one?” Eliza asked with a good deal of wide-eyed faux-innocence.

“Not sure,” I said, after failing to find a light-hearted way of reminding her about the existence of things like the Daily Mail or the Sun. “But he talked a lot about how most people seemed to lose interest. He was planning on releasing the book two years ago, but then there was another spike.”

“Does ‘e know about the Dragon’s Teeth?” Eliza asked.

“Ironically,” I said, “he did theorize that this new spike could be caused by a massive influx of new Psychics. He just never once mentions the possibility of an army of Psychic clones.”

“Oo’s the author?” Eliza asked.

“Doctor James Breyer,” I said.

“I’ll ‘ave to check ‘im out,” Eliza said. “Always loved non-fiction. Especially the sciencey stuff.”

“So, what about you?” I asked.  “You read anything good?”

We were almost to the city. The trees, farms, and mountain roads had slowly turned into houses and small buildings. Now and then, we’d occasionally see areas that were more urban. If the architecture was different, I could almost think I was back home in New England. The only problem was it made Eliza even less focused on me.

“Oh, what?” she asked, somewhat distractedly. “Oh, yeah. Things I’m readin’. Well, this science bloke I follow’s been doin’ a lot of posts about the incomin’ spaceship. That distress signal it sent?”

“I remember John talking about it a bit,” I said. “I’m just not sure if I remember the gist. Something about it trying to translate its message and access the internet, I guess?” I paused. “Please tell me someone didn’t give it access to the internet.”

“God, no!” Eliza said. “As the guy said, ‘Everybody there has watched Terminator.’ You’d gotta be a complete idiot to do that.” She didn’t sound too convinced, though. “Anyway, they’ve been watching the ship, and it’s moving faster than they thought. The poor bastards break down from time to time, so we’ve no clue when to put the kettle on, so to speak.”

As Eliza pulled us into a parking space, I said, “Is it just me, or do I find the fact we’re being visited by an alien race extremely disturbing?”

“Suppose so,” Eliza said, “but it’d be kinda funny if we spent all our time actin’ like this place’s the most important place in the universe, then some… I dunno, feathered avian bastards just casually blow the entire planet up, wouldn’t it? Anyway, I think this is the place.”

“You know,” I said, as she parallel-parked outside a café, “you have a sick sense of humor.”

“Yeah,” Eliza said, turning off the engine and putting the car into park, “but it’s better’n bein’ mental, innit?”

“Yeah,” I said as we got out, “you may have a point.”

After I managed to get through enough Japanese to order our drinks and pastries, I sat down across from Eliza. The table itself was near enough to the window to see out, but at sort of an angle so that a shooter would have a terrible angle. “You didn’t tell me that this was a maid café,” I said nonchalantly.

“It isn’t a maid café,” Eliza said, an innocent expression on her face. “There’s also butlers.”

I tried to look stern. Then I broke into giggles. Eliza quickly joined in. “So,” I finally asked, “did you come here for the eye candy or to test me for secret fetishes?”

Eliza suddenly sobered up. “Actually…” she said, “I came ‘ere mostly ‘cause I wanted to get away from everyone else at the… at the room, y’know?”

“We’re going to be staying here a while aren’t we?” I asked.

Eliza nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “Charlotte just says she wants to know what’s going to happen with Mayu an’ all, but if she doesn’t like what’s gonna happen to ‘er, well…” She trailed off, then looked at my face. “Nate?” she asked. “Is something wrong?”

I tried to keep my tone casual. “The maid I took my order from? She took a phone call recently. After that, she’s been staring at us, then at the road.” My Japanese course last semester might not have sunk in, but my counter-surveillance course had.

“D’you think it could be because…” Eliza said, pointing to her ears. Then she said, “No… she’d have to’ve been staring before the phone call for me to believe that.”

Pretending to focus on Eliza, I watched the maid in question duck back into the kitchen. She came back out with a butler. The butler had a tray with food and drinks on it. They would their way through the tables that were full of people. Despite my semester of Japanese, the only thing I was able to make out was “Bon appetite!”

“Thanks,” Eliza said. “But can we get this to go?”

Instantly, the maid and butler began hurriedly trying to convince us to stay. I suddenly realized why they weren’t making sense: they were speaking in English and butchering it so badly I couldn’t even recognize what they were saying. Eventually, I could make out that they were saying something along the lines of, “Your friend is coming!”

“Our… our friend?” I asked.

“Hai!” the maid said. “Yes! Your friendu is coming! Pureasu be patient!”

“And… which friend is this?” Eliza asked. “We have so many friends, especially in Japan.”

Our servers picked up on Eliza’s sarcasm and became even more flustered. “Kagemoto Jennifer-sama is your honored friend!” the butler said, bowing deeply. “She is coming! Pureasu wait for her!”

Jennifer Kagemoto. I never knew her reach extended outside of Massachusetts. That… was not what I wanted. How the fucking hell had she managed to track us? From the expression on Eliza’s face, I could tell she was wondering the same thing. Then horrific realization dawned on her face.

“We’ll wait for her,” I told our servers. They bowed and thanked us, then scurried their way back to the kitchen. I turned back to Eliza. “Do you have an idea how she managed to find out where we are?”

“Yes,” Eliza said. “When we parked in her bloody garage for ‘er bloody New Year’s party. She coulda gotten one of ‘er minions to get a GPS tracker on the Maybach. If she got it hooked up to an electrical cable, it could run as long as the car.”

“Surely…” I said, checking to make sure my Berretta and Sig were with me and I hadn’t forgotten them, “surely you had somebody look at the engine. How did they…” I didn’t think I’d need either of them, but with Jennifer I wasn’t confident I wouldn’t.

“I don’t know,” Eliza said, “but I’m going to bloody rip that shit apart when we get back.” She looked up. “‘Eads up, I think that’s ‘er.”

I looked out the window. Right behind the Maybach, a blue Cadillac Escalade was pulling in. When it was fully parked, four people got out. The two of them in the front were Asian, one a woman with a burned face, the other a burly man who was extremely intimidating except for what must have been a terrible case of acne in his youth. The two in the rear seemed less professional. The male was obviously black, the female could have been one of any number of ethnicities or a mix. They all wore suits and sunglasses.

The four scanned the area for a few moments. Finally, as if from some signal, three doors closed in unison. Simultaneously, the woman in the rear helped out someone from the rear seat while her fellow bodyguards watched for danger.

The person who emerged from the Escalade was a graceful woman about the same age as Eliza and I. She wore a blue Patriots hat, tightly-fitting Red Sox Matsuzaka shirt, dark blue jeans, and black thigh-high boots. Her gold eyes confidently surveyed her surroundings, pausing only to smile at us. Yup, I thought to myself, that’s Jennifer, all right.

“So,” Eliza said casually as the two females in Jennifer’s retinue followed her inside, “at least half of ‘er goons are professionals. D’you think she’s got any Paras?”

“She leads a team of supervillains,” I said. “Those guys are probably a mix of inventors and serious Paras. Those two that look like amateurs? There’s gotta be a reason she keeps them around.”

“Fuckin’ ‘ell…” Charlotte said. “Well, let’s just see what she wants.”

As Eliza said this, the door opened and Jennifer and her two female bodyguards walked in. The woman with the burned face leaned against the wall, gaining a commanding view of the entire café. She appeared perfectly still, but I could tell she was calmly scanning the room. The other woman (or maybe girl would be more appropriate, something about her screamed “teenager” to me) was taking in the entire room like she had never seen anything like this before.

“Lydia,” Jennifer said as she sat down between Eliza and me, her cold voice warming with amusement, “don’t gawp.”

“Sorry, Jen,” Lydia said, smiling awkwardly. “I’ll get back to… you know.” She then straightened up and tried her best to be intimidating. I didn’t need the theatrics. If she was on first-name terms with Jen, the chances were pretty high that she was on Jen’s supervillain squad.

Jen, meanwhile turned to us. “Nathan! Eliza!” she said to each of us, giving her predatory smile. “So nice to see you two! I had no idea you’d be here.”

“I’m not sure I buy that,” Eliza said. “Where’d you put the bloody tracker?”

“Really?” Jen said. “I’m surprised. And hurt. What would ever make you think such a thing of me?”

Eliza and I both raised our eyebrows in unison. “Weren’t you the one ‘oo pretty much bragged you were the slipperiest bastard I’d ever miss?”

“Sadly,” Jennifer said, “I’m definitely my father’s daughter and I have the DNA tests to prove it. But yes, I am slippery. And there is a bug in the steering column.”

“Just one?” I asked.

Jen laughed. “I’ll let you find that out for yourself,” she said. “It’ll be good for you and amusing for me. Lydia and Andrew made and placed them, so you might have to strip it down to the bolts. Hell, you may even have to dissect the bolts themselves.”

Eliza clutched her head in her hands and groaned at this news. I turned to Jennifer and asked, “So, may I ask why we’re meeting here? We were previously in Boston, you had ample opportunity to meet us there.”

“To be fair,” Jennifer said, “you didn’t seem to want anything to do with me.”

“That isn’t stopping you now,” Eliza said rather pointedly.

“Well,” Jennifer said, “Lydia happened to note that you were nearby. When I checked, your car seemed to have stopped in what I first thought to be the middle of nowhere. I then did some digging of local news, and found that you were staying at what appeared to be the base of operations for a British military search and rescue training exercise. We also noticed that several rental vehicles had parked there, most loaned out to fellow foreigners. This, understandably, has piqued my interest.”

“And you decided to just up and fly over ‘ere?” Eliza asked.

“No.” Jennifer said.

“Trust me,” I said, “this is not the kind of thing you want to get involved in. Hell, I’m busy trying to get out.”

Instantly, I realized my mistake. “Really?” Jennifer said brightly. “I can help with that, if you’re interested.”

“No thanks,” I said. “It’s… basically, it was kind of a treasure hunt, except no one seems to want it. We found the treasure, now people are arguing about what to do with it. We’re just hoping we can get permission to go home sooner rather than later. How about you?”

“Mmm.” Jen said. “My business here is… a bit more personal. My brother’s killers might have come from here and I’m looking to have a talk with them.”

“Well…” I said, “I guess everyone needs closure. I’d offer to help, but I kind of want to be able to come back here someday.”

Jen nodded. “Of course. In the meantime, let me show you some interesting spots. That is, assuming you have some free time?”

Eliza and I looked at each other. Finally, Eliza said, “I guess. Not like we’ve got anything else to do.”

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Track 6: Nightmares

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?”

 

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Track 4: The Silent Mountain

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.

 

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Track 3: Their House

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.”

 

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