Raging flames could be seen from the Mishima Travel Station; the Hunter’s Citadel had burst into flames not moments before the troupe had arrived in the half-empty station. No amount of distance could obscure the distinct, individual embers which scattered from the castle. The smoke was just beginning to coat the skies, taken by the northbound winds which carried the stench of death straight to Team Karasu as though nature itself was on the side of The World.
It was a blessing to the small collection of patient passengers that the automated services were still up and running. A total of three strangers had also taken refuge on the platform, each checking the upcoming arrival time like clockwork. The synthetic engineers that were running the station would occasionally attempt to update the travellers on the journey’s progress but whether or not the expected carriage would arrive was a gamble.
Saboten kept mostly to himself, not interested in the passage of time. Hiro was all the more aloof, his gaze affixed to the sunshine attempted to set in the distance. Ayame, on the other hand, was so desperate for conversation, she would’ve been happy to approach the strangers. The three of them had not yet spoken about their loss. It was unhealthy and the only gap in the nothingness was that occasional inhuman gong which preceded “we are pleased to announce that the next train service will be arriving in fifteen minutes”, followed by disappointment and bitterness.
Keeping herself busy, Ayame had been watching the three travellers in the corner of her keen eyes. Shell-shocked expressions and empty stares accompanied clean clothes and polished shoes; she was certain the leftmost salaryman had a stab-proof vest strapped beneath his nylon button-up, its shadow lurked beneath translucent material although obscured by a blazer.
For an hour or so, the woman standing behind him had been reading a local newspaper in a foreign language whose characters sat as uncomfortable as she did. On the occasion, she’d move and brush a grey-stricken hair to absolve her from the life of a statue. The wind carried her peach essence towards a youth who sat wrapped in a blanket near the edge of the platformer.
Once in every ten minutes, Ayame’s eyes would drift back to the youth in the blanket as they reached between their bare, crossed legs; unable to drive away her own hunger, Ayame watched as this unnamed youth routinely devoured slice after slice of plain white bread.
It looked delicious.
The countdown had returned to five minutes and the train was no where to be heard. The tracks were not yet rumbling, the automated voice was yet to call the arrival off, and not a single prospective passenger had moved a muscle. Why did nobody give a shit about what was going on around them? Screams and yells were beginning to bottle back up between her stomach and her lungs, ballooning until an inevitable pop. Was the rest of the country struggling to cope? Had the monsters even spread themselves across Japan yet? Was the incident contained?
Of course not, the government wouldn’t have the power to contain demons. For the most part, Atticus Kazuhiko owned Japan’s governing body but Tokyo remained the country’s capital. The train’s first scheduled stop was Tokyo: if the city laid in its own ashes, that would enough confirmation that Team Karasu no longer had a chance to bring back civilisation, Hideki’s plan had fallen prey to their surroundings and any further sacrifice would be worthless and wasted. It was a cynical world, Ayame pleaded for a happier outcome.
The scheduled train made its approach with fifteen seconds on its ticker; the tracks rumbled, the travellers put aside their respective time-wasting strategies and stood as the train pulled itself in. It lacked a front carriage or control options, showing only a simplistic, pixelated face and a timer, announcing that the vehicle would depart in less than one minute.
“Hold it, just one second please!” said a voice from behind the group. It was not a native accent and experience had lead Ayame to understand the connotations of such unique sounding voices. It was a Hunter; her voice was muffled and from the same region as Leyim or Alfsol. Saboten was straight onto the offensive as his weapon penetrated the Hunter’s mask enough to force it to the ground in two pieces, retaliation was imminent.
The damage revealed the face of a young woman, bleeding from the forehead but generally unharmed. She spoke again, despite the bladed weapon upon her skin, “please hold on for just one moment, she will be here soon to join you.”
Had The Lust truly not been defeated? The Hunters were still under the bewitcher’s command, Leyim’s pleas had no effect on them. Ayame followed Saboten’s lead and armed herself, wrapped iron hairs around her body to seal undamaged flesh from the world. In this casing, she could not be bitten but… the Hunter in question did not show signs of visible puncture. She unzipped her armoured jacket, revealing skin which bore no signs of infection. “Saboten, don’t attack.”
“Who are you? Why are you following us?” Saboten forced on his threatening act which - in all honesty - would have a lasting effect on most people.
“I am Secondary Captain of the Hunters, Kira Königin,” she saluted the air around them but her attitude lacked vigour, “well, former Secondary Captain of the Hunters… I’m here in the Captain’s stead, ordered to become Team Karasu’s personal Leyim Rossi.”
He lowered his guard for a second, giving the so-called Secondary Captain room to breathe, stretch her arms out and crack her spine in two distinct octaves. Understanding Hässig’s place in all this was the easy part but Leyim’s motives? Indescribable. Why send a replacement that they didn’t know they could trust?
“Relax, I’m just kidding. She’s literally right behind me… please stop looking at me like you’re about to kill me. Look,” she slide to the left-hand side and pointed towards the out-of-use ticket barriers, “she’s right there.”
True to her subordinate’s word, Leyim stepped through the barrier with all the significant battle scars hidden deep within her soul; unlike Team Karasu, Leyim had hidden the trauma, nobody could’ve imagined what she had gone through by looking at her. She joined them with all the charm and grace Ayame had come to admire, her uniform had been modified after The Lust destroyed her kit: swapping her skirt for more comfortable shorts and her dress-shirt for a floral button-up. The bow-tie, top-hat, and razor ribbons made their return, she was an incredible seamstress. Her white-gloved hands gripped that distinctive cane between sandalled feet, she managed to force a smile.
“Do you mind if we tag along? We’ve got an appointment with The Envy.”
Two-thirds of the so-named Team Karasu took the first train ride as a chance to catch up on some well-deserved sleep. Given the current situation, Kira wouldn’t have expected Leyim to follow suit but she was out like a light atop Hironobu’s shoulder. She wasn’t new to this situation, as second-in-command Kira was expected to watch Leyim’s back when she was unable to do so herself.
Those were rare occasions and, as such, Kira was often left alone to other duties. Leyim was an incredible soldier that was a given, she didn’t need an army of Hunters rallying behind her to bring glory to her cause. It was a hefty loss though, no lighthearted gamble through the countryside would fix those burns. If Kira had not been assigned to duties unworthy of Leyim’s presence, she would be crisping beneath the weight of the Citadel too.
She had been elsewhere, tracking the infamous Nori Adachi and that humongous sword of his throughout Mishima. Rumour had it that he was taking down rogue members of other Kanzen projects before the breakout occurred. As a member of Code: Solar, Leyim had deemed his existence a danger towards humanity and, as such, he was to be terminated… before her change of heart.
The Hunters were collected and raised with a single mantra: morals collide with obligation. The spider doesn’t compare itself to the fly, does it? Frankly, the message was lost in the poor metaphor and Kira didn’t quite know what to think. She wasn’t at the Citadel when Leyim returned from her lone hunt, spouting nonsense about the ‘humanity of the Kanzen’.
But… they really did seem to be human. As the train met its first stop, they shuffled off the vehicle and onto the next one with all the hesitation of a school trip, expecting the next group of people to attack them. The suspicious business man left for Tokyo, replaced by an NEA soldier who could care less about the famous Captain Rossi and a young mother with her child. The two shared twin complexities where patches of paleness poured through the darker tones of their skin.
“How long will this train last?” asked the mother, directing her uncomfortable smile towards Ayame, not Kira. “How long until the change?”
“It’s six minutes to Ueno station.”
“How old is you son?” she asked, “where are you going?”
“You sure ask a lot of questions, don’t you?”
“It’s been a bad couple of days.”
“You’re telling me,” claimed the woman. “He’s turning six later this year, aren’t you Sun?”
The little boy didn’t make any particular noise, just a gentle nod in Ayame’s direction. Shyness, it was a trait Kira wouldn’t expect to see in such a situation. “There’s no need to be scared,” said the girl, “my name’s Ayame Suzuki.”
The little boy peered over his mother’s shoulder with a glance stunted by the congregation of stares from the entire train carriage. The natural order of Japanese carriages - which Kira had noticed was absolute silence - was being disturbed by Ayame’s desire for human conversation. If she was to continued, it felt likely somebody would step in to stop her from being so rude.
It was another rule which Kira couldn’t wrap her head around, it was against human nature. “That’s Kira, she’s new to our little group.”
“Over there,” she pointed, “that’s Leyim, she’s a captain. He’s Hiro, he can make himself look super huge!”
Okay, now she was pushing the boundaries. They didn’t know who was on the train and revealing their inhumanity… wasn’t that a bad thing? Was she supposed to step in? “Ayame, I think…”
“And that boy over there, he’s really nice. His name is Saboten, can you say Saboten?”
“Sa-boten?” He looked up at his mother for confirmation, Ayame was quick to congratulate. “Saboten…”
“Attention,” called the synthetic conductor. “We are happy to announce the an update to our travelling route: we will now divert the train onto a direct route to Tonami. Our current destination - Ueno - will be bypassed. This updated journey will take our vehicle less than two hours to complete… Thank you.”
The mother turned her head towards the soldier whom arrived with her, “did you hear that Akio? She said Saboten…”
“Is something the matter?” asked Kira, positive that the answer would be ‘yes’.
“Saboten…” she repeated, “Saboten… Saboten…”
Before Kira could react the soldier, Akio, drove a handgun bullet into the woman’s head. Instinct kicked in, Leyim removed the soldier’s arm from his body while Ayame wrapped the child in her armour-like hair. As he disappeared within her locks, she whispered “don’t worry, you’re safe.”
The soldier, Akio, wasn’t safe. Not around Leyim, not with Saboten looming above him, not after shooting somebody presumed to be innocent. The other woman on board, she had been pinned by Hiro for their own safety but one last passenger remained. The hooded figure did not leap from their seated position, they just kept eating bread from the bag, feet up on the opposite seat: the soldier was beginning for their help.
The hooded figure tossed him a crust, and went right back to eating.
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