Chapter 34

10:11 PM

Something was coming. Aina could feel it. She didn’t know what form the attack would take, when it would come, or how many would participate, but an attack seemed inevitable at this point. To be ready for it, she had set up a futon for herself in the safe room that served as Mitsuo’s bedroom, where Diaho had slept when he had served as Akira’s bodyguard.

She had known about the emergency meeting of the free meido that took place that morning, but she did not know the outcome. She had considered attending, but she couldn’t leave Mitsuo undefended, and she believed his presence at the meeting would have only inflamed tensions. So she had sent Sena to the meeting in her place, but she had not heard from her friend since. Her contacts within the free meido were also being tight-lipped. She had texted all of them asking for information, but only one had replied, and her text had read, “Good luck.” As much as she wanted to go search for Sena, there was a good possibility that Sena was being used as bait, and Mitsuo was safest within the mansion. Although no security system was perfect, and the free meido might devise some way to get into the mansion undetected, there was a good chance that the security system would warn them of anyone attempting to breach the mansion’s barrier.

Or it would have, had the barrier remained operational. Instead, the warning came from the force of explosions rocking the mansion as rockets bombarded it from every side in a coordinated attack. The floor swayed beneath them as Aina and Mitsuo ran towards the door before the mansion could collapse on top of them.


Meanwhile

Koharu walked into the meeting room projecting an illusion of calm alertness to hide her exhaustion. She had been working nonstop since the attack on the free meido. Her officers had been assigned to cooperate with non-magical detectives to investigate the attack and keep the peace in the areas surrounding Akihabara and Ikebukuro, and Koharu had spent every waking moment coordinating the effort. She’d had very little sleep over the past two days, and from the looks of things, she wasn’t the only one. Her commanding officer, his commanding officer, and a few other officers of the same ranks were in the room, and most of them looked haggard. The government officials in the room, in contrast, looked wide awake and extremely nervous.

“Koharu-kun,” her commanding officer pulled her aside as she entered the room, “do you recognize these hito?” He handed Koharu a tablet and she scrolled through the photographs, all of murder victims, on the screen.

“I do,” she confirmed.

“Just to confirm you really know, I need you to tell me dare they are,” her CO said.

Gomen, sir,” Koharu said. “That information is classified.”

“Enough with the games,” the superintendent general declared. “We’re all here. Everyone take your seats.”

“Sir, the choukan isn’t here,” Koharu pointed out.

“He won’t be joining us,” the superintendent general announced, shifting uncomfortably as he did so. “We’re on our own on this one. Now, you’ve all seen the photos. For those not in the know, the victims are all high-ranking members of the Naichou. The corpses were all found with kill warrants signed by the Expedition and the Futarchy, explaining that they have tied the Naichou to multiple acts of militancy, including the recent attack on the free meido. We need to quickly determine if these allegations are true. If they aren’t, we may be witnessing the start of a covert invasion under the color of the heiwa treaty.”

All eyes turned towards Koharu. As the lowest-ranking officer in the room, she was in closest contact with the detectives doing the actual investigative work.

“With the information we have now, it does appear that the Naichou carried out the attack,” Koharu reported. “However, some details indicate that there may have been resistance among the Naichou’s leadership. It’s speculation at this point, but the orders may have originated from the goshujin, or some faction of them.”

“Get your people working on that angle,” the superintendent general ordered. The look on his face told Koharu the commissioner general was absent so they could have this conversation openly.

“Certainly,” Koharu replied, “but it might be muri if our witnesses are all killed by the heiwa treaty’s agents.” She summoned a memory card to her hand and tossed it to the superintendent general. “This list contains the real identities of every Naichou agent, from the bottom to the top. If we want to get the truth, I propose we secure as many of them as possible.”

“Alright,” the superintendent general hesitantly agreed. “I’ll distribute this to all departments. As of now, this is our top priority. I want all our resources on this.”


10:42 PM

Aina’s first instinct had been to flee to the northwest, towards the closest GINZUISHOU wall, but HIMITSU appeared to have predicted this. Large groups of meido guarded the paths to the northeast and the southwest. If Aina were alone, they would not be a concern, but she wasn’t confident that she could force their way through while still protecting Mitsuo.

“I can take them,” Mitsuo had insisted, but Aina had dismissed the idea.

“Mitsuo-sama, you’ve never killed before. You’ll hesitate to do what’s needed, and they will not.”

Hoping to surprise their attackers, Aina chose to escape due west. It was the longest route to the GINZUISHOU, but she had hoped they could elude their attackers and blend in with the general population. However, they were pursued by trackers who were able to keep up with them, even if they dared not engage Aina directly. Their every movement was being reported to the larger group of meido targeting them, and although Aina kept trying to surprise them by taking unexpected turns, she always found herself tailed by a new group of trackers. In reality, she and Mitsuo were being herded. Jin knew Aina well enough, not through her newtype powers, but through a century of observation, that she had planned out Aina’s route in advance. She had placed meido in specific locations around the city in order to force Aina to come to her. Even though Aina thought she was making random choices, her reactions were being governed by biases which Aina herself was not aware of.

It was only when the warehouse that the free meido used as a meeting place came into sight that Aina realized something was amiss, but by then, it was too late to avoid the trap. Meido were converging on them from all sides. In a desperate maneuver, Aina attempted to break through them to the north. Even though she risked being unable to defend Mitsuo by engaging them directly, the GINZUISHOU wall was only a few minutes away in that direction, and they desperately needed to escape. Unfortunately, Jin had foreseen this reaction and calmly stepped from the group of meido to face Aina. Reeling back, Aina grabbed Mitsuo by the hand and lept backwards into the air. Jin followed them, lifting her sword over her head. Aina had ample time to block the strike with her own sword, but the force of the blow sent Aina and Mitsuo flying back into the warehouse, through an open bay door.

Yare yare,” Jin sighed, following them quickly into the warehouse. “How many times did Naomi-sama try to teach you not to take to the air when you panic? When I think of all the time we wasted trying to teach you anything…”

“Jin-chan,” Aina called out, “nani is this about?”

“Don’t call me Jin-chan!” Jin shouted. “We’re not that close.”

“We were the last time I saw you,” Aina said. As she spoke, she and Mitsuo deflected knives and coasters being thrown at them from the dark corners of the warehouse. “Nani happened?”

“You went away,” Jin explained, “and I was finally free of you for the first time since I became a meido. It didn’t take long for me to realize, in your absence, that I had become accustomed to you deciding everything for me. When I faced tough decisions, my first instinct was to consult you. No one else would have been able to pull it off, but from you, I couldn’t see it coming. You were controlling me, gaslighting me.”

“I wasn’t gaslighting you,” Aina claimed. “I was protecting you.. I know the burdens Naomi-sama placed on you, and I was only trying to help.”

“You helped yourself first and foremost,” Jin accused. “Sure, you kept me alive, but only so you could try to use me as a training manual for shin meidou, not that it did you much good.”

“That’s not true,” Aina said. “Name ichi time I steered you wrong. You always agreed with my decisions because I was always right. I did what was necessary to mamoru both of us.”

“That’s what I thought too,” Jin said, almost too quietly for Aina to hear, “even as I resented you for it. You protected me so perfectly, but naze only watashi? Was it because I was cursed with these powers that allowed me to inherit Naomi-sama’s techniques? Were you only saving me because I was useful to you?”

“Iie,” Aina insisted. “I helped you because you were my kohai, and my tomodachi. If this is about Sora-san, I—”

“This isn’t about Sora,” Jin shouted. “It’s about Tsukasa! She was your kohai too.”

“Tsukasa-kun?” Aina asked, surprised.

Taking advantage of Aina’s surprise, and unable to restrain themselves, three meido darted from the shadows, making a beeline for Mitsuo. Aina’s sword, still drawn, fell two of them in one stroke. Mitsuo parried the third meido, but his followup strike was not quick enough, and he was forced to jump back to avoid an onslaught of projectiles aimed at him. Without taking her eyes off Jin, Aina tossed a knife into the remaining meido’s throat.

“You mean to tell me that all of this,” Aina said, “is fukushu for one little onna who died more than hyaku years ago? Do you really think this is what Tsukasa-kun would have wanted, the ni of us fighting?”

“You misunderstand,” Jin smirked. “This isn’t fukushu for Tsukasa. I know you’re not to blame for what happened to her, just as you weren’t to blame for what happened to Sora. The difference between them is that you could have done something for Tsukasa. She needed emotional support, but you ignored her.”

“I didn’t know what to do for her,” Aina admitted.

Sou yo,” Jin said, “and that’s what I found so vexing. You always knew what to do for watashi, so why not for Tsukasa? Demo, I wakatta now. Killing is the only way you know to solve your problems. You’re not baka. I’m sure you can come up with more creative solutions, but in the end, you always return to your favorite tool: violence.”

“If that’s true,” Aina said, “it’s only because I have yet to find a more effective tool.”

“Demo, you never, never stopped to consider how it affects those around you,” Jin growled. “I feel it, Aina-san. I feel the pain of those you killed. I felt the suffering you caused, over and over again, for all these years.”

“I’m not the only meido who ever took a life,” Aina pointed out. “There were plenty of our nakama who also took lives in your presence.”

“All of us combined never matched your body count,” Jin asserted. “If you think about it, I could have saved myself so much anguish, I could have spared the sekai so much pain, if I had just killed you when I had the chance. After all, you’re the one hito whose death I won’t feel.”

“If that’s all you wanted,” Aina said, “then there was no reason to involve the free meido. You knew where I lived. You could have come at me at any time. Their deaths are on your hands.” Aina gestured to the three dead meido around her.

“Iie,” Jin said, “Even if you were a terrible student, I know I can’t beat you fairly. My technique, no matter how perfect, can’t overcome your strength. Demo, if you have some dead weight to mamoru, then I have a chance.”

As if on cue, the meido around them stepped from the shadows, their swords drawn. They moved as one, guided by Jin’s spiritual energy and her psychic powers. As they advanced, Jin held her hand out and received a second sword from a nearby meido. She adopted a stance that Naomi had never taught. It was Yoko’s fighting style.

So Yoko-sama sniffed out Naomi-sama’s true heir after all, Aina thought bitterly. She didn’t have much time to think about it, however. Grabbing Mitsuo tightly, she exploded her spiritual energy outward, pushing away the weaker meido. Undaunted, Jin and a few of the stronger meido pressed forward against the force of Aina’s energy.

Hanase,” Mitsuo grunted. “You won’t be able to fight her like this.”

Aina was about to tell him to shut up when a gynoid’s voice sang from the rafters.

Aaa, aaa-aaaa-aaa
Ita

Damare, Sena-chan,” Jin yelled, “or I’ll come after you next.”

For a moment, the warehouse was silent. With a smirk on her aged face, Jin took another step towards Aina, and then the entire warehouse was filled with a chorus of gynoid voices. Every gynoid who had come to observe the battle showing their solidarity with Sena.

Itawashi ya oi no mi no
Tenareshi tsurugi ni
Chikara komeshi mo
oitaru kaina no awarenaru

(Oh, how pitiful
The man puts all his power
Into his familiar, old sword,
But his aging arms feel pity.)

“Stop it now or I will destroy you all!” Jin screamed. “I don’t care if it’s genocide. You promised not to interfere.”

The gynoids fell silent, having accomplished Sena’s goal, to distract Jin. For the briefest of moments, fear, panic and rage clouded Jin’s thoughts, and in that moment, Aina attacked. Jin barely had enough time to deflect Aina’s strike, and when she did, Aina quickly retreated. The force of Aina’s blow staggered Jin, but five other meido rushed Mitsuo, forcing Aina to return to his defense. When Jin recovered her balance, she followed after Aina, but by then Aina had already slain the five meido. Mitsuo was unscathed, but only because he was able to defend himself for a short time until Aina arrived. Against five experienced meido, this should have been impossible for Mitsuo, but his movements were quick and efficient, with no unnecessary flourishes.

“You taught him shin meidou?” Jin asked, surprised, as she closed in on Aina. “Him? He’s a goshujin!”

“What little I know,” Aina responded calmly as she forced Jin back with her sword. “Not all goshujin are the same.”

“They’re all evil,” Jin insisted. “You can’t trust them with that kind of chikara. I thought you knew that.”

“He’s doing his best to be a good hito,” Aina said, parrying one of Jin’s swords and sidestepping the other.

As long as Jin was focused on the conversation, she couldn’t psychically coordinate the other meido. Although Jin couldn’t read Aina’s mind, she quickly caught on to what Aina was doing, and urged every meido who could withstand the pressure of Aina’s energy to attack. A brief but bloody melee followed, in which an additional eighteen meido fell to Aina’s blade. She managed to keep Mitsuo from harm, but the two of them had many close calls.

“Forget about me,” Mitsuo shouted over the din of clashing blades. “You can’t defeat Jin-san like this. It’s better that ichi of us survive.”

“I won’t abandon you,” Aina grunted as she blocked one of Jin’s blows.

“That’s a meirei,” Mitsuo yelled as he barely dodged two oncoming blades.

“You can’t order me to forsake my ninmu,” Aina shot back.

But as soon as those words left her mouth, it was her turn to be staggered by one of Jin’s blows. Jin had put a tremendous amount of spiritual energy behind the strike, and although she couldn’t continually release her spiritual energy like Aina could, she could match Aina’s in intensity, if only for brief moments. Aina stumbled, allowing herself to fall backwards rather than futilely try to keep her balance. She began to roll backwards, never taking her eyes off Jin, but two meido who had, until this point, been attacking Mitsuo launched themselves at Aina, who was forced to drop her sword to roll sideways away from them. Unfortunately for her, Jin expected this maneuver and began to swing one of her swords down to where Aina would be.

Without hesitating, Mitsuo threw himself in the path of Jin’s sword, pushing Aina out of the way. He dropped his own sword as Jin’s sliced into his side, but he managed to grab her arm. Even though Jin sensed his intentions, she had placed so much force into her swing that she was unable to stop it in time. As she tried to shake Mitsuo off, Aina picked up the sword he had dropped and put all her strength into a horizontal swing at Jin, knocking the sword out of Jin’s hand. Jin tried to bring her other sword up to protect her, but Mitsuo pulled as hard as he could against her, slowing her movements, and Aina plunged her sword into Jin’s heart.

Aina caught Jin as she fell, lowering both her and Mitsuo to the ground. Gently, she turned Mitsuo over to inspect his wound. It stretched from his right lung to his colon, and he was losing a lot of blood. He was remaining conscious only through sheer determination.

“Medic!” Aina called out, but only gynoids rushed to her side. The other meido were shocked by Jin’s death, and none wanted to be near Aina when Mitsuo passed. The gynoids inspected Mitsuo but only shook their heads. “Are you satisfied?” Aina roared, crocodile tears streaming down her face. She turned in the direction where she had heard the gynoids singing. She wanted to make sure they got this on camera. “Jin-chan was my tomodachi, and Mitsuo-sama was like a son to me. He had nothing to do with the attack on the community center. You’re all no better than the goshujin who—”

A gurgle escaped from Mitsuo and Aina looked down at him. He was trying to say something, but blood was filling his throat, preventing the words from forming. Aina briefly worried he had realized what was happening at the last minute, that he was trying to ruin it. After all, Jin and the twenty-three other dead meido around them had given their lives willingly, but Mitsuo had been an unwitting sacrifice. As it turned out, however, she needn’t have worried. Though he could not speak, Aina could read the words on his lips.

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m daijobu, goshujin-sama,” she sobbed. It was the truth. She would miss Jin, but Jin had a few years at most left to live, and they would have been made uncomfortable by age-related ailments. Besides, this outcome had been Jin’s plan all along. She had died doing what she wanted, and to Aina, that wasn’t something to mourn. Only Mitsuo had been innocent, at least as innocent as someone born to his station could be, and she knew she should feel bad about using him this way.

But she didn’t feel bad at all.