November 20th, U.C. 0051, 10:30 AM
“You’re the one who asked me to help you get stronger,” Aina reminded Jin, as she sat cross-legged on Jin’s upper back. “I’m not even that heavy. You can do ni more.”
Taking a deep breath, Jin placed her palms on the tatami and began her 99th pushup of the day. While it was true that Aina’s weight didn’t add much to the challenge, Jin had already pushed herself past her limits, and she struggled for almost a minute to complete the pushup. When she finally reached the top, her eyes went wide, and she let out a gasp before collapsing.
“Just mou ichido,” Aina said. “I’ll even get off you.”
“Iie, Aina-senpai, mite!”
Aina turned her head in the direction that Jin was looking and noticed a strange person clad in a black kimono strolling across the courtyard. It appeared that he was carrying something on his back, but he was far enough away that Aina couldn’t tell what. There were other meido closer, but they weren’t reacting to him. Were they all assuming that if he wasn’t supposed to be there, someone else would have stopped him? It could be that a sniper in one of the watchtowers was preparing to deal with him, and that was why everyone was keeping their distance, but Aina didn’t want to risk letting him get to the mansion unhindered. Leaving Jin lying on the ground, she ran to intercept him.
Sensing her fast approach, he turned to meet her, hiding whatever he was carrying on his back from her sight. “Konnichiwa,” he greeted Aina, holding his palm aloft.
“Konnichiwa,” Aina replied, coming to a stop in front of him. She still suspected that he was trying to bluff his way through by acting as if everything were normal, but while he was talking, he at least wasn’t getting any closer to the mansion.
“I have never met one such as yourself,” the man complimented her. “You hide your wings very well.”
“May I ask what you are doing here?” Aina quickly changed the subject, hoping no one had overheard his comment.
“I awoke in this field not long ago, but I cannot remember how I came to be here. My attempts to return to the mori have been foiled by a powerful kekkai surrounding us in all directions, so I am on my way to this mansion to ask its lord for assistance.”
“I am in the employ of that lord…” Aina began to explain.
“Splendid! He must be an open-minded and intelligent man to employ one such as us. Will you escort me?”
“…but I cannot allow you within the mansion.”
“Nani?!” The man made an exaggerated expression that clearly conveyed anger.
“We are in a state of sensou,” Aina explained. “No one is allowed in without an invitation.”
“In that case, you can vouch for me.”
“I cannot do that, but if you would like to wait…”
“Does the blood bond between us mean nothing?! I cannot believe you would side with the ningen over your kin.”
“I believe you are mistaken. We are not kin.”
The man bent down to sniff Aina. As he did so, she peeked around him to see what was attached to his back, finding a pair of short black wings. She tensed on seeing them, initially taking them as evidence that he was a magical boy, but she felt no magic in him.
“You tricked me,” the man accused.
“That was not my intention. Besides, we were both mistaken. I assumed you were ningen as well. Don’t tengu have long hana?” Inwardly, Aina was cursing herself for taking so long to identify what he was.
“We can shorten them through the use of—”
He was cut off by a cry that echoed throughout the courtyard. “Teki shuu! Teki shuu!” It was Chikako’s voice. Both Aina and the tengu reached for their blades, but the tengu did not draw his, instead looking around for the attackers.
“I believe she is referring to you,” Aina explained, once it was obvious that the tengu was neither attacking nor fleeing.
“Are you at sensou with us tengu?”
“Iie, we are at war with other ningen. Demo, our teki is cunning, and we cannot rule out the possibility that any stranger may be working for him.”
“I am not your teki,” the tengu announced.
“I believe you,” Aina assured him. “Demo, I suspect you were probably brought to this field by him. If you cooperate, we will return you to the mori at the earliest opportunity.”
At that moment, Chikako arrived, sword drawn in her right hand, carrying Jin under her left arm.
“Point me at him,” Chikako ordered.
“Matte, Chikako-sama,” Aina bade, “I do not believe he means us harm.”
“Kankeinai. An invisible otoko on our property is a threat we cannot ignore.” She held out her sword in the general direction of the tengu. “If you truly mean no harm, show yourself.”
“He’s not invisible. He’s right there.” Aina gestured to empty space a couple feet to the tengu’s right, and Chikako thrust her blade, hitting nothing.
For his part, the tengu reached into his satchel and removed a shawl, which he draped around his shoulders, hiding his wings. The moment he did so, Chikako’s eyes flitted to his location. “How typical of ningen,” he laughed, “to fear what they do not understand.”
A few moments later, two red dots of light appeared on his forehead, but Aina held up a hand to wave off the snipers. The dots did not disappear, but the snipers did not fire.
“Naze couldn’t she see you?” Aina asked.
“Ningen have a remarkable ability to ignore that which is inconvenient to them. In these times, they find the existence of youkai most inconvenient. This mahou shawl forces them to see things they do not wish to see.”
Aina wasn’t sure she bought that explanation. After all, humans could see the kami, and she didn’t see how the existence of youkai could be more troubling than the existence of kami. Still, it sounded similar to what the gynoids had told her on multiple occasions, so it certainly had a grain of truth.
“You are a tengu,” Chikako said matter-of-factly. Aina was embarrassed that Chikako had realized it much more quickly than she had.
“That I am,” the tengu answered. “Soshite, I merely wish to return to the mori. Now sheathe your blade, or I shall show you what a real swordsman is capable of.”
“As I said, if you cooperate with us, we will return you as soon as possible,” Aina repeated for Chikako’s benefit. “Did you notice any other youkai trapped within the kekkai?”
“Quite a few,” the tengu answered. “Including one that is dangerous to ningen. I plan to offer my assistance in subduing it in exchange for your lord’s assistance in removing the kekkai.”
“That will not be necessary,” Aina informed him. “I will deal with the dangerous youkai. If you will round up the rest, we can lower the kekkai for all of you.”
“I won’t stop you,” the tengu laughed. “It should be entertaining. He’s slumbering behind that large storage shed.”
The four of them walked in silence in the direction indicated by the tengu. When they rounded the corner of the shed, they found themselves face to face with a large, red-skinned oni, who was just beginning to wake.
“Come to be my first meal of the day?” The oni grumbled, wiping his eyes and getting to his feet. He towered over all of them. Even Naomi would not be able to match his height.
As he stood, he did not let go of his large iron club. As he brought it up to rest it on his shoulder, Aina unleashed a trio of coasters, which sliced into the hand holding the club. The oni howled in pain and dropped it to the ground. Anger flashed upon his face and he clenched his other hand into a fist, aiming it at Aina, who held out her hand to Chikako. For a split second, Chikako considered not handing her sword to Aina, but she figured the end result would be the same regardless, and that it was better to end this cleanly, with as little collateral damage as possible.
Grabbing the sword, Aina lept onto the Oni’s fist as he hurled it at her, running up his arm. He tried to swat her away with his other, bleeding hand, but Aina effortlessly vaulted over it and jammed the blade into his closest eye, skewering his brain. Keeping hold of the handle, she pulled it out as he fell backward.
“Oho,” The tengu praised Aina. “Stronger than you look. Your sword work was clumsy though. You wouldn’t stand a chance against a real swordsman like me.”
“I hope I never find myself on the wrong side of your blade, then,” Aina responded politely, as she wiped the sword with a cloth before handing it back to Chikako.
When Naomi heard what had happened, she only laughed.
“It’s not funny,” Akira scolded her. “This is serious.”
“Forgive me, but this ‘country’ continues its descent into insanity. How could I not find it funny? First kami and now this? Just how far are you willing to go in your devotion to anime? You’ll destroy yourselves if you’re not careful.”
“If they’re dangerous, we can’t let them out into the machi,” Akira mused, ignoring Naomi. “We can’t let them stay here either.”
“The more important matter is how they got inside,” Chikako pointed out.
“That should be obvious,” Naomi scoffed. Akira and Aina nodded in agreement. “They’re the new children of the GINZUISHOU,” she explained for Chikako’s benefit.
“I’m an aho for not considering the possibility,” Akira berated himself. “I assumed as long as the kekkai was up, nothing could get in from the outside. I never considered that he might create dangers inside.”
“You think the defense minister did this?” Chikako asked.
“It’s the most likely scenario,” Akira explained. “If I’m right, he’s taken over the Crystal Palace and altered the parameters of the GINZUISHOU’s anime-ifying effects to summon youkai into existence. I bet he was hoping that a really dangerous one would appear here. Once he realizes it didn’t, he’ll probably remove and re-introduce them to the sekai until he gets the results he wants.”
“Would you like me to go take care of it?” Naomi asked casually.
“Nice try,” scoffed Akira. “I don’t want you anywhere near the GINZUISHOU’s controls. Besides, That’s probably what he expects. We need a strategy to take the palace that he won’t see coming.”
“We could all charge it,” Aina offered.
“Too risky,” Akira dismissed the suggestion.
“Naze?” Aina asked. “As long as he has control of the GINZUISHOU, you’re not any safer in here than you are out there. In fact, it’s probably less safe. If I were him, I’d cause the GINZUISHOU to extend downward from right above us, crushing the mansion.”
“An unpleasant thought,” Akira concurred. “But the fact that he didn’t do that either means he can’t, or he doesn’t think it would work, probably because Naomi is here. If we send her out to take back the palace, we could invite such an attack.”
“If that’s the case, he thinks too highly of me,” Naomi said quietly.
“Just don’t let him hear you say that,” Akira said. “If he’s overestimating you, I want to use that to our advantage. Chikako, I want you to go scout it out. Take back the palace if you can, but don’t take any risks. It’s more important that we know what’s happening in the central spire.”
“Ha,” Chikako slapped her fist on her chest. “I would like to take Aina-san to keep watch for a youkai ambush.”
“Iie, take Jin,” Akira commanded. “I need Aina here in case more of them appear.”
The central spire of the GINZUISHOU stood, as its name implied, near the center of the city. Encased at the top of the spire was the Crystal Palace, a room which housed the core of the GINZUISHOU. Access to the Crystal Palace was highly restricted, with only a few of the nation’s top GINZUISHOU researchers allowed inside.
From a distance to the spire, it was obvious that there was a large SDF force surrounding its base, with smaller contingents controlling access from the streets leading to it. Keeping Jin close behind her, Chikako walked confidently towards the closest group of soldiers.
“Identify yourself!” one of the soldiers yelled, leveling his rifle at her, followed by the others.
“I am Akira Wright’s head meido,” Chikako announced. “Stand aside if you value your lives.”
Before the soldiers could process what she had said, Chikako had unsheathed her blade. Even if they were part of the defense minister’s faction, she didn’t want to kill them unless it was necessary. It wasn’t a moral leaning, she just didn’t want her side to be blamed for the first SDF casualty.
The soldiers opened fire on her. Normally, she would dodge the shots—Naomi’s risk-adverseness had been instilled in her from an early age—but she had to shield Jin. Faster than the human eye could follow, she maneuvered the side of her blade to reflect the beams back at the soldiers. Most of the reflected shots slammed back into the guns that fired them, destroying them or knocking them to the ground, but a few beams sailed over the soldiers’ heads and smashed into the central spire behind them, fizzling as they came in contact with the GINZUISHOU. The soldiers quickly fell back into the larger force, allowing Chikako and Jin to continue their advance. As they drew near, the rest of the SDF force lowered their weapons.
“Above you!” a piercing shriek from Jin made Chikako’s heart skip a beat. She looked up just in time to see Yoko, the defense minister’s housekeeper, jumping down on them from a nearby building.
“Nigete,” Chikako ordered Jin, as she barely managed to block Yoko’s blade with her own. Jin obeyed, backing away from Chikako as quickly as she could. Yoko tried to dart around Chikako to get at Jin, but Chikako moved to block her, slicing at Yoko’s neck. “I’m your opponent,” Chikako told her firmly.
As Jin turned to flee, she caught one last glimpse of the fight between Chikako and Yoko. With a seemingly effortless horizontal strike, Yoko sliced right through Chikako’s blade.