The tengu kept one hand on his sheath as Aina crossed the courtyard. Stepping away from the rest of the youkai, he met her in the middle of the field.
“You look unhappy,” he observed.
“Not as unhappy as you.”
“You’re not going to keep your yakusoku.”
“That’s why I’m unhappy. You?”
“I’ve learned some very disturbing things talking with the others. Tatoeba, none of us can remember anything from before we woke up here, not even our namae. I know that I want to return to the mori, but I do not remember what the mori is like.”
“That must be very unsettling.”
“When I think of why this might be, it only becomes more so. It’s possible that you captured us and erased our memories, but I don’t see what you gain from doing that, and from your reactions, I believe you were surprised to find us here. The most likely explanation is that we did not exist before today. We were created here by your adversary in the hopes that we’d cause you trouble.”
“Sounds like you have it all figured out. You’re surprisingly calm, considering.”
“Shouganai. What matters now is my mirai, not my past. That is why I must insist that you let me out.”
“Even if I did, it would be meaningless. In a few hours, you won’t exist anymore.”
“All the more reason we should be released now, so we can enjoy what little time we have.”
“I can’t. You might hurt someone.”
“I will hurt you if you refuse me. I’ve seen your abilities, and I’m confident I can beat you.”
“I have my meirei.”
Still gripping his sheath with his left hand, the tengu placed his right hand on his sword’s grip, threatening to draw. The two of them stared at each other for the briefest of moments before Aina heard the serasera of a a tsuchinoko slithering through the grass from their position towards the rest of the youkai. If it had been listening to their conversation, and it informed the others, there was a good chance they would scatter and try to attack the mansion. To prevent this, Aina had to move quickly.
“Saseru ka!” the tengu shouted. Before he could complete his draw, however, Aina rushed towards him, shoving the blade back into the sheath with one hand, while sinking the tip of her duster into his gut with the other. Realizing that he wouldn’t be able to draw his sword, the tengu released it and brought his hands up to strike at Aina, but this allowed Aina to draw his sword and slice off his upper arms as he struck. Reeling in pain, he fell to his knees, and Aina blasted a torrent of spiritual energy into the crowd of youkai behind him. Most were incorporeal ghosts and could not maintain cohesion in the stream of energy. They were blown away bit by bit until they fully disintegrated.
“Nanto chikara!” the tengu managed to gasp before Aina beheaded him.
Only a kappa and a yadoukai remained alive. With the tengu’s sword in one hand, and her bloody duster in the other, Aina charged them. The yadoukai tried to hold her at bay with his staff, but she danced deftly around it, beheading him with one stroke and followed through to kill the kappa.
In the end, only three bodies remained of the twenty or so youkai who had minutes earlier inhabited the courtyard.
Pausing to reflect on the scene, Aina realized that she hadn’t felt anything beyond the shame of breaking her promise. She felt no anger toward, nor remorse for, the youkai she had slain, even after the fact. It was not quite a new thing for her. She had not felt remorse after killing the Soviets who had come after her. She had no problem with killing enemies, but the youkai had not been her enemies. It was tempting to think that she felt nothing because they were artificial beings doomed to short lives, but that was not an ethical argument.
Regardless of their situation, her own actions were a reflection of her true self, and it seemed that self had no qualms with killing innocent youkai. Perhaps after killing Mari, she no longer had the capacity to mourn the deaths of innocents. Her first reaction to that thought was to fight it. She did not want to become desensitized to the deaths of others. And yet, on further reflection, the gynoids were just as indifferent to the suffering of innocents, and Aina could not condemn herself for not feeling bad without condemning the gynoids, without condemning Sena. And if she could not condemn it, she could not justify putting in the effort required to change it in herself.
Chikako leaned back to dodge the strike that cleaved her blade. The tip of Yoko’s sword passed mere centimeters in front of her face. Without panicking, Chikako straightened up just in time to see Yoko’s raised sword begin its descent towards her.
With her left hand, Chikako reached up and grabbed the blade between her thumb and fingers and snapped it. It was exactly what Naomi had done to Yoko during their last fight.
“Don’t underestimate me,” Chikako smirked. “I am Naomi-sama’s ichiban pupil.”
“I was her number one, long ago,” Yoko said coldly. “And then one day, I said something to disappoint her, and she found someone else to mentor.”
“Nani did you say to her?” Chikako asked, feigning interest.
“That’s the kicker. I haven’t the faintest. She’s always been a fickle bitch, even before the weebs came. It would have happened to you too, if it hasn’t already. Ah, I can tell that it already has.”
“I’m still stronger. That won’t change.”
“It will, because very soon, you’ll be dead.”
Concentrating all of her immense spiritual energy into a single point just beyond the tips of her fingers, Chikako lunged towards Yoko, swinging her arm horizontally, aiming for her neck. Yoko stepped back to avoid the strike, but stayed close enough to counterattack, keeping her body just out of Chikako’s reach. At the last possible second, she noticed the glow of Chikako’s spiritual energy trailing her hand and threw herself backwards. A thin cut appeared above Yoko’s collarbone where Chikako’s spiritual energy sliced through her skin, but the cut was too shallow to do any real damage.
With Yoko off balance, Chikako delivered a hard kick to her stomach, sending Yoko flying back in the direction of the central spire, and causing a few soldiers to jump out of the way. The other soldiers opened fire on Chikako, preventing her from following up her attack. This time, she dodged, jumping over the shots and sending out a barrage of flatware and coasters that pierced the guns’ barrels, rendering them useless.
Yoko, however, had regained her footing, and while Chikako was still in midair, rushed forward, planted her feet, and delivered an uppercut straight to Chikako’s gut. The force of the punch sent Chikako back into the air and away from the central spire, but Yoko ran forward and did it again, this time sending her back towards the spire. She repeated it a third time, sending Chikako away from the spire once more, but when she tried for a fourth, Chikako unholstered her duster and jabbed it downward, forcing Yoko to jump out of the way.
Once she landed, Chikako retreated as quickly as she could, backflipping over a Humvee parked directly behind her. Gathering all her spiritual energy once more, Chikako shoved the Humvee towards Yoko. Its wheels lifted off the street and it tipped onto its side, landing a few meters away, right where Yoko had been a moment earlier. It skid for a few inches, threatening to tip once more, but Yoko kicked it back towards Chikako.
But Chikako had disappeared. The soldiers nervously looked around, trying to spot any sign of her.
“Don’t panic.” Yoko commanded them. “Break into your assigned units. Check everyone’s faces. Report if there’s anyone missing… or anyone extra.” She waited while the soldiers carried out the orders. When the sounds of their heavy footfalls gave way to silence, Chikako was still nowhere to be found. This disappointed Yoko. She was so sure Chikako would have tried to blend in with the soldiers, but because she had guessed incorrectly, she had given Chikako enough time to flee. There was no point in going after her now.
However, Chikako had not gone very far. She was lying on a balcony on a nearby building, listening to the scene unfold below. Despite the blows she had taken, she was mostly unharmed. She would have some bad bruises on her stomach, but she had managed to shield her internal organs by tightening her abdominal muscles and absorbing much of the impact with her spiritual energy. Even so, she hadn’t expected Yoko to hit so hard. What was worse was that she had used up too much of her spiritual energy inefficiently. She needed to recuperate before she did anything else.
Closing her eyes, she focused on entering a state of complete relaxation. At first, she could hear only her own breath, but as she relaxed further, she allowed in the sounds of the surrounding city. The building she was on was mostly empty, having been evacuated when the SDF arrived, but she could still make out the shuffling of a few people inside. They didn’t seem to be searching for her.
She could hear Yoko’s footsteps as she patrolled around the spire and the quiet chitchat of the soldiers. Relaxing further, she could begin to hear their breathing, a discordant symphony of respiration which was oddly calming. She could even count them, the five people in the building, the hundred soldiers—wait, a hundred and one soldiers. She almost hadn’t noticed that last one. It was so quiet, almost as if it didn’t want to be noticed as it threaded itself between the others.
Chikako’s eyes flew open. It wasn’t a soldier at all: It was Jin. She chanced a peek over the edge of the balcony to see Jin approaching the central spire, following a bizarre, zigzagging path which only Jin could see, but which nevertheless avoided the gazes of all one hundred soldiers and Yoko. Knowing Jin, it was possible that she would reach the spire, but it was also possible that her body wasn’t up to the task of executing the ambitious plan her mind had come up with. It would only take one mistake, one pebble kicked on accident, to blow her cover.
The hissing of the dinner knife flying towards her reached Yoko’s ears in time for her to turn and snatch it out of the air. Only a single projectile, it was probably meant as a distraction, so she didn’t let her gaze linger in the direction from which it had come, instead turning to watch for the real attack. But then a fork and another knife came from the same direction, and Yoko deflected them with the knife she still held, this time looking up at the balcony from which they had been launched, but finding only three empty slingshots there. Her first guess had been correct.
With all the spiritual energy she had left, Chikako slammed her shoulder into Yoko’s body, catching her by surprise and knocking the wind out of her. She continued running towards the spire, Yoko drooped over her shoulder, hoping to distract the soldiers from Jin. She made it most of the way to the spire’s entrance before Yoko regained herself and brought her fists down on Chikako’s back. They both tumbled to the ground, bouncing painfully, but Chikako got the worst of it, and Yoko was back on her feet first.
Before she could attack, however, a large crystal tentacle expanded from the base of the spire, enveloping Yoko’s body, leaving only her head sticking out. She craned her neck to look back at the spire and saw Jin with one ungloved hand resting on it, her sweat dripping down its side. The soldiers turned to fire on her, but the GINZUISHOU surrounded her, rendering their gunfire useless.
“The tatakai is owari. Leave,” Jin’s voice reverberated through the square, the central spire vibrating to amplify her message.
Chikako got back to her feet, drawing her duster once more, but this time, the GINZUISHOU expanded to capture her, pulling her next to Yoko, their heads protruding from the crystal mere feet from each other.
“Nani kore?” Chikako managed to ask before the GINZUISHOU retracted, pulling all three meido into the spire.