Track 28: Anime Beauty/Anime Psycho

“Jacobs-san,” Hiro asked, “Does my ancestor have any reason to suspect you’d know where The Architect is?” I nodded, but didn’t elaborate. In the dim red light, I could see Hiro’s eyes narrow. “Mmm. I see.” He got up. “Well,” he said, “If you’ll excuse me…” He then called out some orders in Japanese. Two of the guards got up and followed him out, one drawing what was a SIG-Sauer P220 or a Minebea P-9 pistol, the other bringing up a PM-9.

The other six guards took up anti-Jumper positions. Four moved into the corners of the room, drawing their pistols, the ones with underbarrel lights switching them on. The other two stood right next to me. One drew a shotgun with a high-powered light built into the slide and began nervously scanning the room. The other had a Heckler & Koch pistol. He kept it pointed at the floor, rightly realizing he was too nervous to be aiming it.

From far away, I could hear people shouting. Then there was a brief exchange of gunfire. Everything went disturbingly quiet. One of the guards asked something, but he was shushed. We went back to waiting. Occasionally we would hear gunfire in other areas of the castle. It appeared to be getting further and further away, but if it really was Mayu, that meant absolutely nothing.

Eventually, silence reigned again. That didn’t stop any of the guards from lowering their weapons. That was smart of them, but it didn’t save them.

What felt like an eternity later, I was stretching my neck to my left to avoid it seizing up. That was the only reason I saw it.

Suddenly, Mayu was in between the two guards, two green metalic pear-shaped objects in her hands. “Tsukamu!” she called out cheerily as she tossed the objects at the guards standing beside her.

Recognizing what they were, I turned my head to the right, hoping to shield my face from whatever fun contents the grenades were about to vent. There, standing between the guards on the opposite side, was Mayu. She had her shitty five-round revolver and pink VP-70 aimed at their heads. She fired just as the grenades went off. One guard fell sideways, his head blown apart by a three-round burst. He had just squeezed out a few shots where Mayu had been. The other collapsed against the wall, clutching his neck. Blood spurted out between his fingers. Judging by the rate at which it came out, he would be dead by the time he had hit the floor. Heroically, he tried to adjust his aim to where Mayu had been standing.

The guard with the shotgun also had the same idea. However, by the time he began blasting away, Mayu was gone.

I turned to hear the guard at the right of my bed yell something. There was the crunch of the door being kicked open, and the guard fired. At the same time, someone else fired a short burst from an assault rifle. I turned to see Mayu standing in the doorway, aiming down the sights of her HK 417. She adjusted her aim and let off two more bursts. She then moved into the room, making sure her back was to the wall and not the door, and quickly and professionally scanned for hostiles, her usual grin plastered onto her face.

When she was satisfied that everyone was dead, she lowered her gun and gave her big, eye closing smile, bowed, and said “O-jama shimasu!” If you had told me that, from her first appearance, to this cheerful pleasantry, the massacre had taken fifteen seconds, I would have said that sounded too long.

“Jacobs-san,” she said with concern, ejecting the magazine. It was translucent, so I could see that it was not empty. She quickly inserted a new one. As she did so, she said, “You don’t look well.” I stared at her, trying to determine whether or not she was faking the concern. It was hard to tell.

We were interrupted by the sound of gunfire. Mayu paused, turned and asked worriedly, “Nani…?” The gunfire didn’t stop. If anything, it began to increase in volume. Mayu turned back towards me, her usual smile back. “Well, it doesn’t seem like we have too much time to talk.”

“Stop the bullshit,” I murmured. “You know… this isn’t a… good time for… whatever this is. I’ve got… collapsed lung… Defenders or whoever… are coming…”

“So you’ll just have to talk faster, won’t you?” Mayu said in a perky voice, her smile expanding again. As she said this, she took out a wicked-looking switchblade from seemingly nowhere and opened it in a menacing manner.

I laughed. “Experienced torturer… would break me in six months… maybe six days. You don’t even… have six minutes. No knowledge of psychology… no carrot… just a stick.” I laughed. Then began coughing. “You don’t…” I rasped, “…have any reason why…” I gasped for breath, “…I should give you The Architect.”

Mayu froze like a deer in the headlights. It was like something large and unforeseen was barreling straight towards her. “Why… I should be given…” she said. “Ah. Oh dear. It seems like you misunderstand my intentions.” She walked towards me and knelt by my bed. Looking directly into her eyes, I could see that she had that same spark of insanity in her eyes I had seen all too often back at NIU. “I’m not trying to take the Architect. I’m not trying to kidnap… Mubashir, that’s his name, right? I’m trying to prove myself.”

I been staring at her while she said this. “Explain,” I said.

Mayu got up. That’s probably what saved her. There was the pop of a pistol shot and she stumbled back into the wall. The follow-up shots missed her and hit the headboard of my bed. She vanished just as I turned around to look at the shooter.

There, standing in the doorway was Li, holding a P9. Directly behind him was Mayu. She grabbed the arm Li was holding his pistol in and smashed it into the door. “EHHHH?!” she screamed. She then slammed Li’s head against the doorframe. Li collapsed as Mayu began ranting in Japanese. When he was on the floor, Mayu began to slam the heavy iron door into his head over and over again. As she did so, I notice the arm she was gripping the door with was bleeding from the shoulder. The door closed more each time until eventually it was just clanging against the frame.

After a while, Mayu looked down at what she had done. I couldn’t see the mess, but Mayu’s assault on Li had been so vigorous that bits of blood had spattered her face. Her expression of rage froze, a look of panic bubbling just underneath the surface. It was quickly replaced by her standard smile. She walked back into the room, closing the door behind her.

“Anyway,” she said, “You are Christian, right?”

“Jewish,” I said. I stared at the person before me. Was she seriously going to pretend that she hadn’t just beaten a man to death? Could she really just change gears like that? More importantly, did she really think I’d buy the truck driver’s gear change in conversation?

“So,” Mayu said, her face taking on a zealous glow, “if you found the Messiah, would you try to control it or fall at its feet and beg forgiveness for your sins?” I held up two fingers to indicate choice two. I would have said something about maybe not begging for forgiveness, but I wanted to see where she was going with this. Plus, you know, collapsed lung.

Mayu nodded. “See?” she said. “We both have the same goal. To make the world perfect.” Ok, that was a leap of logic, but I’d let it slide. Mostly because speaking hurt. “The person you call Mubashir, or The Architect, is also what you’d call the Messiah.” The evangelical fervor in her voice was reaching a fever pitch, her smile gone. “I am here to be his Herald. I shall find him and expunge my sins at his feet. Then he will fix the world, ending want and suffering.” She smiled at me. It was not her normal smile, all mask-like and plastic. It was much more disturbing. She then held out her hand, offering me to take it. “Tell me, Jacobs-san, will you help me find Mubashir? Will you help to make the world perfect?”

I sat there, trying to unpack the various flavors of crazy. There was a lot, and I’d need to defuse it all if I wanted to live. If I said the wrong thing, she would start beating me. Or maybe she’d start cutting into me. I noticed that her other hand was soaked in blood and clutching the knife. I’d have to move fast, because she was looking impatient.

I was saved by what felt like a lead curtain falling down over me. Whatever it was, Mayu felt it more. She doubled over and vomited a mix of blood and something chunky onto my bed. Some of it splashed onto my bare arm and I recoiled. Most of it sloshed off the bed and onto the floor. After the third retching, Mayu looked up. The sick had sloshed over her mouth and her nose was bleeding profusely, but it was her eyes that scared me. The previously clear whites were now turning pink, with a few cuts starting to leak tears of blood.

“They’re coming…” she said. Then she vomited again. Outside the door, I heard muffled shouting. I couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like English.

“Give up…” I said to Mayu. “…can’t get out of… this. You can… survive.” This wasn’t because I cared about her. I just didn’t want whoever came through the door to accidentally shoot me. The last thing I wanted was to die in a room that smelled of gunpowder, blood, excrement and vomit.

Mayu raised her head, glaring at me with enough rage and determination to kill. In what must have been an act of supreme determination, she stood up and aimed her revolver at my heart while pulling back the hammer in one smooth move. Then the door was kicked in, John, Eliza, and someone I didn’t recognize coming in. Eliza was carrying an L1A1 battle rifle, John his Type 89-F, and the third guy seemed to be an SAS operative with some sort of M-4 clone.

“Drop the gun, sunshine,” Eliza said, staring down her rifle’s infrared scope. “I’ve just about ‘ad it with this mess.”

Mayu, her voice cold, simply said, “No.”

“I’m warning you,” Eliza said, “I will put a bullet through your fucking skull…”

“Which will cause my grip to tighten,” Mayu said. “Do I have to explain what would happen then?” Her voice, in what I assume had to be more herculean willpower, returned to its normal bubbly demeanor.

“What do you want?” John asked.

“Mubashir.” Mayu made it sound like the most innocent thing in the world. “You know where he is. I would like to talk to him.”

“We don’t know where…”

“LIAR!” Mayu shrieked. Her finger tightened on the trigger. She took a deep breath and cleared her throat. “I’m sorry for that outburst,” she said. “That was rude. But so is lying.” Her voice was bubbly except for how acidly she said lying. “You know, this has been such a disappointment. I thought for sure you would understand. But if you insist on being so unreasonable, I will have to kill Jacobs-san.”

“We don’t know where Moob is,” John said. “We specifically set it up so we didn’t know in case of situations like this.”

“That’s a shame,” Mayu said. “There’s no point in leaving him alive then.”

“Wait!” Eliza said desperately, lowering her weapon. “We don’t know where he is…”

“Not what I…” Mayu began.

“But we know who’s holding him,” Eliza finished.

“Eliza…” I said. “Not… good…”

“Nate,” Eliza said, “the CIA know their business. If she makes trouble, they’ll smack her down.” She turned to Mayu. “Now come on, lower your gun. There’s no way you can get out of here. You got what you wanted, now come quietly.”

“What about the second-best option?” Mayu asked.

“What’s that?” John asked. Then Mayu vanished. “How…? What…? What?” John sputtered this, lowering his gun. He then sighed and just said, “Fuck me, right?”

 

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Ok, some news. There is some stuff that’s going on. Some of it is job-related. Other bits actually have to do with NIU. I actually am very close to getting NIU self-published. I’m going through edits, then I need to get the cover (I’m paying for it, if you saw my art, you’d understand why,) then I’m going to have to do some forms of marketing. It isn’t going to be something that’s immediate, and it could all go up in flames. Just thought I’d let you know.

Track 27: Tragic Monsters

We had to stop halfway to Kage castle. The driver had pulled over because he was about to pass out. Li and Hiro pulled both him and the navigator into the rear bay with me and the dead Defender operator. The navigator seemed fine until they dropped him. It was then that I noticed he had four holes in his rear plate where his heart was. Judging by how his hastily applied bandage was already soaked red, the driver had several entry wounds in his back just underneath his plate and some exit wounds on the other side. I was surprised he had lasted as long as he did.

Li then got into the driver’s seat. That meant both Hiro and I got to sit in the back and watch the time between the driver’s breaths get longer and longer. As Hiro watched, he gripped his mouth, both in thought and to stop himself from saying anything.  His other hand held his sidearm, finger in the trigger guard. I suddenly wondered if he hadn’t made Li drive to avoid the temptation of shooting him.

Eventually, we got to the castle. Hiro and Li had gotten out of the van. For a while, I wondered if they were even going to come back. Then eventually someone got back in and drove the van into what felt like an underground area. When it stopped, Hiro opened the door, revealing what looked like a loading bay. Four Defenders opened the door and grabbed my stretcher. Hiro began walking down with them, chatting with them all the way.

For a second, I wondered why he was going with them. Then I noticed how tired they all looked. I also remembered how many Defenders I’d killed recently and that I hadn’t been the only one killing them. They may have been running low on manpower.

We were eventually led into a room that was a cross between a feudal dungeon and medical facility. That didn’t augur well for me.

Using a knife, they ripped off my clothes, patted me down for subdermal implants, inspected my mouth and anus, then ran several detectors over me. Then, when they were satisfied that I had nothing inappropriate I could literally pull out of my ass, they put me in a surgical gown and strapped me to the bed. They then hooked me up to an oxygen mask to help my lung heal.

There was nothing to do after that except to stare at the wall. At least I couldn’t hear news about the ongoing Dragon’s Teeth that would give me an ulcer to match my collapsed lung. Of course, that didn’t stop me from worrying about what was going on. It was all so stupid. Here we were, killing people over a single time-traveling Parahuman when we could be doing something to stop the real threat.

I waited. And waited. Due to how boring it was, I was waiting a long time. Then the door opened. A man walked in and started to inspect me. I remembered him. He was the German coroner who had investigated the bodies dumped around Kage keep.

“Hey,” I said, “Long time no see.”

“Ah, yes,” the doctor said, “I remember you. I would like to apologize in advance, I have very little experience working on the living.”

“Are you going to operate on me?” I asked as he began inspecting my chest. “Because that wasn’t very comforting.”

The doctor held up his hands to quiet me and then continued checking my body. Mostly it was just checking my chest. Finally, he said, “No. But if you keep living this lifestyle, young man, you will end up on my slab.” He stood up. “I am going to go back to your English friends. Is there anything you would like me to tell them?”

“Maybe like where I am?” I suggested. “Y’know, slip them a map with a big red dot that says ‘Nate’s here?’”

The coroner laughed. “That doesn’t sound like something I can do. I am supposed to be keeping neutral, you know?”

“Speaking of third parties,” I asked, “did you hear anything about Bai Feng? She’s… well, she might not be a friend anymore. She was helping the Defenders drag me away when her brother shot her.”

“She must be with you,” the coroner said. “If she was with the English, from what you tell me, they’d be using her as leverage.”

“She didn’t come back with us,” I said. “Trust me, I was there.” This provoked a coughing fit. My question now wasn’t whether or not Bai was free. It was if she was still alive. I was… sad. I never really liked her, and she had never really liked me. Still, we had a lot of shared experiences. Of course, I was writing her off early. She might have somehow escaped.

“You really should stop talking,” the coroner said. “It’s going to be quite hard to recover if you don’t shut up.” I was about to respond to that, then shut up. “Good,” the coroner said. “You’re learning. I’m going to suggest that they give you some painkillers.”

“Noted,” a voice said. I looked up. Hiro and several armed Defenders walked into the room. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m just going to talk to him, and these guys are just going to make sure he doesn’t leave.” The coroner looked at me, handcuffed to the bed and hooked up to an oxygen machine. He then looked at the three Defenders with knockoff single-stack SIG-Sauers and raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t been the one chasing him around the Prefecture for the last week,” Hiro said. He sounded extremely tired. “Go, you have a lot of things to tell Blackmoor-Ward-sama.”

One of the Defenders escorted the coroner out. Hiro began pacing for a while. Then he said, “You do realize you’re in trouble, right?”

“Where’s Bai?” I asked. Ok, more like mumbled.

“What?” Hiro asked, understandably not hearing me. He leaned in closer and when I repeated myself, he said, “We have no idea. That, and your concern, honestly lends some credibility to Li’s theory.” I stared at him. Noticing my look, Hiro said, “Yes, I know. He’s insane. Was he always this crazy?” I shook my head.

“Anyway,” Hiro said, still pacing and making nervous motions with his hands, “before she escaped, I honestly agreed with Blackmoor-Ward-sama. My ancestor is a human being. A human being who gave up a life for the Defenders of Fuji. It is not her fault it changed while she was gone. I mean, if the council had decided to… to retire her, I wouldn’t have defied them. Yet… there was a difference.”

He paused. I motioned for him to continue. He shook his head and said something in Japanese. One of the words sounded like “television.” He took deep breath. “Are you sure,” he asked slowly, “that there is no information you have to The Architect’s whereabouts? No ways to narrow down the search?” I remained silent. “You don’t have to tell me where the Architect is, just… do you know what it looks like? Or if it could be described as a he or she? What ancient traps protect it? Hell, you could just tell me if you have a way of finding out more.”

I decided to see if I could give him my best “Why should I tell you?” face. At this point, I didn’t give a shit about Charlotte or Mayu, but I did care about Mubashir. The guy had risked his life for me, delaying people who wanted to kill me. Well, technically, he was immortal, so he just risked some minor inconveniences. Still, I owed him.

“You don’t speak Japanese, do you?” Hiro asked. I shook my head. “Then the video wouldn’t change your mind. Except maybe the last part.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll just summarize. After all, I’m the guy who was monitoring her first debriefing.”

I froze. The other Defenders became much more attentive. Hiro laughed. It was the kind of laugh that was less about mirth and more about releasing tension. “Yeah, pretty cool right? I get to watch my ancestor talk about how she spent the past five hundred years. Well, for her, it wasn’t five hundred years. They lost track at a thousand, and that was when they got their first revolver. You see, according to her, time there would slow down compared to our world if there were more people. If someone died, time would accelerate for a little bit.”

“Wait,” one of the Defenders said, “if time worked like that, wouldn’t they die from starvation?”

“Apparently,” Hiro said, “that wasn’t really a problem. At least, if you took what she said at face value. However, she mentioned that they did feel hunger and thirst. Maybe that contributed to the massacre.” He paused for a moment, then said, “You see, some of the bodies were… infected by something, of course. But the rest, the majority died to conventional means. Mayu’s explanation to these were usually reasonable, but… once in a while we would get some inconsistencies. Inconsistencies that could only mean she was lying.

“It was when we got to the sensei sent with them that she snapped. You’ve been with her more than any of us. Surely you’ve noticed how disturbingly happy she always is. That smile is a mask, and an obvious one. But when we talked about the sensei, it began to slip. Her smile remained, but you could see the panic.”

“I know…” I rasped, “…that part of her.” I paused to get my breath again. “Did… you see what… happens when she loses it?” The painkillers had finally worn off, and I was finally being smarter about speaking. I did it because I wanted to test if I could speak in short bursts without pain and maybe get some information.

“Yes,” Hiro said. “In fact, when one of the guards mentioned how revered the sensei was before he went into the pocket dimension, she… flipped out? Is that how you say it? Anyway, the person who praised the sensei was killed instantly, one guard is still hospitalized, and three others were injured.”

“Flipped out…” I said, “…is right. Just… gave her wrong colored pencils.” That last burst was way too ambitious, and I struggled not to cough again.

“Wait,” one of the guards asked, “she killed someone over the wrong colored pencil?”

I shook my head. “Injured,” I whispered.

“But you are not surprised.” Hiro said. “May I ask why you helped her?” I shrugged. I wasn’t exactly sure, other than that she had already escaped and I didn’t really want to argue that much with Charlotte while Eliza was still there.

We sat and stared at each other for a while. None of us said anything. I think the Defenders were waiting for me to speak. That would be a long time, as I had come to the conclusion that I would not hurt myself to tell them anything they didn’t know. Then there was a distant thump. Dust fell out of the walls and the lights flickered.

Hiro’s phone beeped. “That was server one.” He looked up from the phone, a look of panic on his face. “We’re vulnerable until server two and three pick up the slack.” He looked at my confused expression. “We have a server for each section of the castle. If one goes down, the workload changes to the other two. We lose some features like automated threat detection and other features get slower.” I nodded, mentally thanking him for that bit of information.

“Well,” one of the guards said, “we still have the other two. That should…”

There was another explosion, much closer this time. This time, the lights went out permanently. After a few seconds, red back-up lights came on. “That,” Hiro said, “was server three.”

 

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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 15: Cabin Fever

We got settled in pretty quickly, along with a lot of the bikers. We promptly sealed off a series of rooms all to ourselves. They seemed to be the section for people who actually lived in the farmhouse. Outside, we could hear our hosts making themselves comfortable. There were only three bedrooms, one master bedroom and two others. Jen got the biggest one, the Murakamis got one of the smaller ones, and Mayu got the last room. John and I crashed on one of the two couches in the common room area.

When I say “crashed,” that implies we slept and didn’t get up until morning. Instead, we ended up waking up every time we heard someone come our way. We had several tense exchanges where some person would knock on the door, only capable of speaking in Japanese and John would have to explain that we wanted to keep the room off-limits or that Jen was sleeping. Meanwhile, I’d be pointing the SIG at where the voice was coming from. Eventually, we just decided not to sleep.

Around 11 AM, Jen staggered out of bed in her pajamas (a modest white sports tank top and pink Dora the Explorer fuzzy pants,) mask dangling from her fingers in one hand, a pack of grits in the other. “Ugh,” she said, “that was a long night.” She turned and looked at us. “Why the hell aren’t you sleeping?” We explained. At that point, we were so tired, I forget who spoke and what we said. Jen just looked at us like we were hopeless. “Get some sleep,” she said. “You need it.”

Mayu walked in just as Jen finished pouring water into a tea kettle. The suite we had taken over had no windows in the common room. When Mayu had walked in, she had opened the door and showed us the light coming through the crack in her curtain. I suddenly realized how much I missed windows.

“Kagemoto-san!” Mayu said with a bow. “May I make a humble request of you?”

“I guess,” Jen said, turning on the stove. “Depends on the request, of course.”

“I need some paper and something to draw with,” Mayu said. Her manner was much more nervous than usual. I wondered if she actually did need it. “If it would not be too much trouble, of course.”

“It shouldn’t be,” Jen said. “Anyone have any other requests?”

“Yes,” I said. “John and I need more ammo and clothes that are clean.”

Jen took a sniff. “Yes,” she said, making a comically disgusted face. “You really do. Anyway, what kind of ammunition do you need?”

“Nine millimeter Parabellum and three-fifty-seven SIG for me,” I said, “and probably five-fifty-six NATO and ten millimeter auto for John.”

Jen sighed and lightly face-palmed when she heard this. “You couldn’t have brought anything they’d actually have? You know, like a twenty-two or thirty-eight?”

“Hey,” I said, “the original plan was that we’d be surrounded by a hundred Royal Marines and have an actual supply chain. Plus, I literally only had two hours to prepare.”

“And to be fair,” John said, “the assault rifle and the Uzi knock-off were salvaged here.”

“The Defenders of Fuji,” Jen said, “have an insane number of government contacts and are very creative. Getting military-grade weapons is probably the most benign thing they can do.” She shook her head. “Anyway, I’ll see what I can do. The pistol ammunition is doable. I think. You should probably give up on the rifle ammunition.”

“May I have a weapon?” Mayu asked. Everyone in the room immediately stared at her thoughtfully. “If the Defenders find us,” Mayu added reasonably, “you would need me able to fight.”

Jen nodded, then went to one of the pieces of luggage that had been scattered around the room. She opened a secret compartment and took out a Heckler & Koch VP-70 with a pink slide and matching silencer. “Here,” she said, holding the gun by the barrel. “We took a few spare guns from our armory. This one looked interesting.” Mayu took the gun and pulled the slide to check to see if it was loaded. “Can you work a gun?” Jen asked.

Mayu gave one of her huge eye-closing smiles. “Yep!” she said. “Not this one, but the Defenders sent us a lot of firearms to use.” To prove it, she ejected the magazine and locked the slide back, ejecting the round in the chamber. “You probably shouldn’t store it loaded,” she said after she put the mag in a pocket. “It’s unsafe and bad for the magazine.” She then sat down at the nearby table and began disassembling the weapon, a happy smile on her face.

“Well, have fun with that,” Jen said. “I’m going to have breakfast, then I’m going to put in our requests.” She held up the box of grits and shook it. “Anyone else want instant grits?” John and I raised our hands. Mayu was too busy happily examining the VP-70’s trigger group which she had just removed.

True to her word, after she had eaten her bowl of grits, she grabbed her mask and headed out the door. I was unsure how she was going to intimidate people while wearing fuzzy pink pants with cartoon characters, but I’m sure if anyone could do it, it would be Jen. Before she did, she gave Mayu a couple spare magazines for her new gun.

Jen came back in a short while. In that time, Mayu had stripped and reassembled the VP-70 several times, each time faster than the last. “So,” Jen said, “the clothes can be obtained quickly. In fact, they’re here.” To punctuate that sentence, she threw a couple garbage bags onto the floor. “However, the ammunition and any escape will take longer.”

“What about the drawing supplies?” Mayu asked, suddenly looking desperate. “When should those arrive?”

Jen, barely suppressing an eye roll, said, “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

“But I need them!” Mayu said desperately.

“In between juggling appeasing newly-armed biker gangs and escaping a secret society trying to kill us,” Jen said, sarcasm dripping from her voice, “I promise to do my best to indulge your artistic tendencies. Deal?”

Mayu’s face froze in her desperate desire, apart from the occasional eye twitch. Finally, her face rearranged itself into its usual non-threatening smile. “Of course, Kagemoto-san.”

The next few days devolved into a pattern. At night, John and I would keep watch, despite everyone but Mayu suggesting it was unnecessary. Then, at around seven or nine in the morning, everyone would wake up and we’d have something for breakfast. Jen would go out and ask the bikers about the various favors we had requested. When she’d come back from the meeting, Mayu would ask her about the art supplies. This pattern would repeat after lunch and dinner.

On the second day, we got the ammunition and some bento boxes just before dinner. Mayu took exception to that. “How… how are these incompetents able to get ammunition before they can get art supplies?” she asked, a temple throbbing.

“I don’t know,” Jen said, obviously losing her patience. “Maybe, just maybe, it could be because they have much more fucking important things to do with their time!”

Mayu, ignoring Jen, loaded a paper plate with her portion of food, muttering, “Munona, munona, munona,” over and over under her breath. She then stormed off into her room still muttering. A few minutes later, we heard a muffled scream of rage. In response, Jen sighed in aggravation.

After a few minutes, I said, “Hey, Jen, can you ask if there is a nearby British consulate?”

“Actually,” Jen said, “there’s one in the city we just left.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not thinking of going back in there, are you?”

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“They locked the city down,” Jen said. “Municipal and Prefecture police and the JSDF have set up checkpoints throughout the city.”

“Ok, where’s the next nearest one?”

“You do realize,” Jen said, “that the Defenders of Fuji may have given the police your face?”

“I do,” I said. “I also realize that Mayu’s our ticket out of here and if you two spend too much more time here together, you’ll end up killing her out of sheer annoyance.”

“That is a risk I’m willing to take,” Jen said. “I don’t want to get arrested here. Even without the Defender’s help, I doubt I’d get less than life plus unnecessary additions.”

“If I may,” Hirosama said hesitantly, “the longer we stay here, the more likely our enemies will find us, and I doubt our hosts have the connections to arrange transport.”

“And,” Andrew spoke up, “I might be reading between the lines here, but your boy there might not want these bike guys knowing he’s working with the British.”

“Vice-versa,” John said. “At this point, I don’t give a fuck about our employers. Literally, the only reason,” he smashed his hand down on the table on the word only, “we are even in this Goddamn mess is that someone didn’t think this through.”

Jen blanched at that. I suddenly realized that Charlotte wasn’t the only one who was making rash decisions. “Speaking of our employer,” I said, “what do you think she’s doing?”

“No fucking clue,” John said. “But I kind of wonder how much of a force they can project.”

“Enough,” Jen said. “I was her roommate for two semesters. She’s clever.” She got up. “Still, I think we should give our hosts some time to do their thing. That seems safest.”

That effectively ended the conversation… at least until the very next day. The day went on as usual until Jen got back from her post-lunch visit. She walked in wearing her mask and a skirt suit, carrying a bag that seemed to be from some kind of art store.

“Well,” she said with a mixture of relief and forced cheer, closing the door with the heel of her shoe and raising her mask, “I finally have it. Here’s your art supplies, Mayu.” She set the bag on the table and then went over to the cabinet where she had stashed some food. She extracted a bottle of painkillers and a paper cup and downed two.

Meanwhile, Mayu eagerly began searching through the art supplies. First, there was a pad of paper that she seemed to appreciate. Then there were the colored pencils. There were two boxes, each with different colors. She scattered them out onto the table and began testing every brown on the first sheet of paper. As she did, her ecstatic expression began to become more and more forced. Then it began to become panicked rage.

“You know,” Jen said, walking over towards her, “when someone gets you a gift, it’s polite to thank them.”

“Three hundred and fifty.” Mayu’s voice, normally high and bubbly, was now a soft whisper. She had frozen, staring at the mass of colored pencils and the unsatisfactory scribbles she had made.

“Excuse me?” Jen asked, her voice conversational but with a dangerous edge.

“Three hundred and fifty colors,” Mayu said, visibly and vocally shaking, “and not one of them is the shade I want, you stupid reprobate.”

“I don’t think…” Jen began, her voice dangerous.

“BAKAAAAA!” Mayu screamed, launching herself at Jen, colored pencil in hand. She let out a burst of Japanese just as the colored pencil stabbed into Jen’s temple. As she ranted, she stabbed Jen over and over again, Jen trying to protect her face and neck with her arm. I didn’t catch most of it, but after several more stabs, it turned into “BAKABAKABA…”

Just as suddenly as she had launched herself at Jen, Andrew and Hirosama pulled Mayu off and flung her onto the floor. I didn’t have the best view of Mayu, but I saw her look of shock to have gone from stabbing someone with a colored pencil to being on the floor to looking down the barrel of a Glock and a Desert Eagle.

“Give us a reason why I shouldn’t pull the fucking trigger, bitch?” Andrew snarled.

“Because I said not to.” Jen’s voice, though at a reasonable volume, rang out through the room. Somehow, despite her two-inch heels and Mayu’s best efforts, Jen had remained standing. She was, however, bleeding from her face, side of her head, and arm. Andrew and Hirosama hesitantly began to raise their weapons. “Did I say to let her go?” Jen asked. Her voice was steady and conversational, yet dangerous. Andrew and Hirosama then turned their guns back on Mayu. Once Jen saw her orders were being carried out, she paused, visibly considering her options. As she did so, nobody even dared breathe.

Finally, she said, “Kaori, set a timer to fifteen minutes. Don’t start it until I say. Nobody. Else. Move.” Not even waiting to see if her orders had been carried out, she walked into the suite’s shared bathroom, still bleeding.

If any of us thought she was going to be tending to her wounds, those thoughts were challenged by the sounds of metallic clanking. After a while, she emerged carrying the hollow metal rod where the shower curtain was mounted. “Get her standing,” she said to Andrew and Hirosama. They did.

When Mayu was on her feet, Jen calmly said, “You just made your next fifteen minutes quite problematic.” Then she slammed the curtain rod down onto Mayu’s shoulder. Mayu collapsed with a cry of pain, and Jen tossed the now bent rod away and began stomping and kicking her.

I started forwards, but Lydia aimed her Glock and pointed it right at my face. I put my hands up and shut up. John obviously got the message as well.

Jen didn’t stop robotically beating Mayu until Kaori’s phone beeped. When it did, she stepped back and said, “Get up.” Mayu staggered to her feet. Her lip was split, her nose was bleeding and bruises were forming all along her unnaturally pale skin. “Let me be clear,” Jen continued, “you are here because I allow it. No other reason. You will treat me with respect, or the next time I won’t stop. Do you understand me?”

Mayu nodded. Jen then gave Mayu a brutal backhand across the cheek. “Answer me when I’m talking to you.”

Mayu kept her face turned for a few minutes, then turned back to Jen.  “Hai, Kagemoto-sama. I understand.” She then bowed.

“Good,” Jen said. “Now get the fuck out of my sight.” After Mayu scurried back inside her room, Jen, without turning to face us, said, “Nate, how do you feel about paying a visit to your friends?”

“Whenever you want,” I said.

“How about now?”

“Now works,” I said. “Does it work for you, John?”

“Yep,” John said, “I’m free.” With that, we left as quickly as possible.

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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 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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