Shax’s illusion scattered, and Ayame woke to find herself staring into the space between Nori Adachi and Leyim Rossi where the two traded the limp body of Sun Toramaru. His Shinigami Lord, Gamigin, had been purged from his subconscious, knocking the kid out flat. Without delay, his fragility became more noticeable as he passed into the Captain’s arm where Ayame half-expected him to crumble, or slip into sand, o something.
She cradled him in arms outstretched, outright refusing to share her warmth. Little more than a distraction, it seemed. Undilated pupils cast their gaze not towards an obligation, but towards her duties. From the get-go, Leyim had been a difficult one to read. Goal-oriented, but she kept her cards close to her chest. As Ayame stepped up to accept Nori’s offer, it was unclear whether or not Leyim would take the opportunity to betray Team Karasu as she had betrayed her own, original objective.
It would be okay.
Sans casualties, things had always gone to plan.
Nobody goes into battle thinking ‘gee, I wish we had the girl with the hair on our side’.
Sometimes it is okay to give up, and go home.
It seemed to be quite the complicated process but nothing that Nori hadn’t performed before; the remnants of which were still apparent on Sun’s chest. An intricate combination of patters and symbols, encapsulated in a circle not unlike the Jigoku Eyes, and drawn in the caster’s blood. “Old witchcraft, reworked,” Nori remarked, painting his own life-force onto her chest. “Do you know how Scarecrow first got ahold of the Shinigami Lords?”
Ayame shook her head, nobody had yet bothered to go into detail. Better late than never, she supposed.
“The Shinigami have always been around, so this isn’t the first time they’ve been summoned. It takes a special kind of ritual to make contact, and then this ritual forms a binding contract,” Nori explained, his face flat with concentration. “The contract binds the caster’s blooding to the Kara Sekai: they become a gate, so to speak.”
“Ichirou Miyazaki…” said Leyim, “it was Miyazaki who opened the gate, right?”
“Yes. Scarecrow’s Chief Medical Officer.”
“That’s a huge amount of work for one person,” Ayame said. “You’re sure there’s not like, another gate?”
“No, there can only be one gate at a time. Plus, Miyazaki revelled in the appreciation. He was a devout follower of Beelzebub’s Cult before his employment. According to the files, just praying to that alter extended his lifespan.”
“The same cult as Alfsol…”
“It was that drive to look God in the eyes that brought Miyazaki to Scarecrow, and the Kanzen Hakujou were born from his blood. In a way, we’re all his children.” Nori paused for just a moment, having to reopen the wound atop his fingertip with the hulking, great sword he carried; for once, their natural healing factor was a nuisance. The sigil was almost complete, “some more than others.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Saboten.
“It’s the eyes, isn’t it?” Ayame said, “I mean, that’s what you’ve all got in common.”
The walking bank of exposition nodded his head, “I don’t know much about it but Miyazaki did something to us. It’s evident that we all somehow share the same blood.”
“Miyazaki took the first Eye and, in doing so, set the genetic code.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“No shit. It’s complicated, kid. But you can’t have one of these Eyes without sharing Miyazaki’s genetic code. That’s probably why Atticus Kazuhiko didn’t get Belphegor, like he wanted.”
“How could you possibly know all this?”
“It’s simple, I’ve got a whole lot of sources,” he said, tapping his temples. “Haagenti keeps me on good terms with each Shinigami in my head. I’m still in contact with each one, at least on some level.”
“That sounds terrible,” said Ayame.
“It’s loud, but it has these advantages.”
An inverted peace sign, cut-off on the left by a crescent moon, and dotted with several unnervingly occult-y symbols. The final test was a set of outlying lines, not unlike the rays of the sun sat in the sky of a child’s fridge-door drawing. “You might feel a bit of a prick,” he said. “You sure?”
Once more, Ayame Suzuki offered her fate up to the room and let it speak its mind, despite having already made up her own. Nori, neutral. Saboten’s vote went reluctantly toward purged, convinced by Ayame’s willingness to have herself painted. Leyim, on the other hand, had a firm favour on keeping the ranks of their party bolstered.
“There’s no reason in throwing away a soldier.”
“You’re really set on that, aren’t you?” said Ayame, “we’re not soldiers, Leyim.”
“But, you are soldiers… Literally,” she said, “that is the reason you were given that Shinigami in the first place. You might not remember first-hand but Scarecrow put you through training. Super soldiers, that is what Scarecrow wanted. I understand that it’s not exactly optimal but we are about to walk into a war with The World, and we need all the help we can get.”
Countering the release of tension in her chest, Nori struck; sinking his hand into the occult symbol on her skin.
Ayame was left in the care of Leyim whilst she recovered, hopefully returning to her original human state and tasked with leading a rendezvous for Cleo and Aoi at a local hospital, if those two managed to survive to see their own objectives to completion. Unlike Saboten, Nori was actually fit to lead Team Karasu. With his training and wealth of combat experience, Nori was objective-minded with a minimum list of contingencies A-through-Z.
The actual maths behind the number was meaningless if Saboten couldn’t… well, actually neither possible outcome was a victory but each one of Nori’s hypotheticals began with the phrase “The Envy is dead,” or some variation of it. It would be Saboten’s final stand: one last mission for the sake of Team Karasu, or what that once stood for, and to sear that name against the Scarecrow’s hard flesh.
Hideki’s small band of survivors had turned out to be much more valuable that that old man could’ve ever considered, standing in that violated reception area, eh? Only one remained; a soldier now by circumstance, tentatively abiding by his initial purpose albeit on the other side of the war. Would Hideki be proud of what he was doing? Passing his civilian life onto Ayame, fingers crossed he wouldn’t stain his legacy on this reality as well.
As the battlefield stretched its way across the horizon, far from the faux safety of their brief homestead, Nori Adachi took his leave to the West with a handshake. In the East, nearby the train station, Saboten could hear the pops and bursts of gun fire from NEA rifles. And, Northwards, The Envy awaited his foil.
Aoi didn’t think of combat as glamorous but it’s not like she considered it a chore; there was a fluidity to it, y’know? Not unlike dancing, especially considering her primary discipline involved a pole-arm, and an array of goodies kept hidden in her own pocket of the Kara Sekai bestowed upon her by Baalberith, the Shinigami Lord of Curation.
Nori would phrase their relationship as being on ‘good terms’ but that was a definite understatement; the two were in perfect sync 100% of the time. Any move Aoi made, she could feel Baalberith’s presence hovering on the outside of her own flesh. Their tendrils, flowing from her lips. Their horns which protruded from her forehead. Their hooves, their setae. A real mess of mythologies like some kind of crustacean hoarder.
Aoi’s pole-arm was unbladed so it didn’t carve through the hordes as much as part, crumble, and incapacitate. The soldiers fell in waves as the bounty hunter struck; a specialist in non-lethal takedowns. Quite the opposite approach to her partner. That wasn’t to say that she didn’t have her fair share of tricks to keep the NEA ruffians out of Saboten’s hair and on the ground, where they belonged.
When the numbers began to spread thin, and the soldiers lost all remaining motivation, she’d reach for the satchel hanging from a left-hand belt-loop where three, thick needles swung in place. Her peripherals — experimental stun-nets, classic flash-bangs, even her pole-arm — laid still and waiting, trapped inside the ink in her skin.
Old witchcraft, reworked.
Aoi’s painted skin had adapted to Baalberith’s influence, becoming something of a filing cabinet with access to a set of ’drawers’ in that pocket realm. Anything she’d need for her mission, Aoi could store within herself, and a representation of said item would manifest upon her skin.
And the needles? There was only one way to pull an item back out; blood. A ritual in of itself, the spike pierced an example effigy imprinted on her right shoulder. A pineapple, representing a flare grenade.
When the waves slowed and soon ceased, Aoi knew that Saboten had begun his descent unto the battlefield. Cleo was on clean-up duty; her crushing presence emerged, forcing any second-wind soldier back to the ground where they belonged. According to the idol’s Shinigami, Cleo was able to create and manipulate a localised centre of gravity but that seemed like an oversimplification. Aoi had considered it before; strictly speaking, if it was true, Cleo would surely not be able to create the ‘safe spaces’ around her cohorts, as she had for Aoi, herself, and the approaching warrior.
It felt more like a manipulation of air pressure, or maybe it was all placebo? Manipulation of the mind itself? Whatever the methodology, Cleo had hard limits. It was a doozy to control but the strained expression and popping veins around her temples gave that away alone. The distance between each straining solider began to shrink until they were piled together, conforming to a shape not unlike a ball of squirming ants. Twitching, even. As though, when the individual pressure points came together, they fed off each other. The strain lifted on Cleo’s face, and the ant-like structure was tossed to the west with ease.
Clean-up duty, complete.
As Saboten entered stage-right, The Envy soon approached from the left. Ominous, the leader of Project Sin had no interest in Aoi or Cleo. Not once did his eyes move from his foil but, as his NEA back-up of four armoured individuals rocked up behind him, he took no pleasure in slaughtering them.
Aoi caught only the slightest movement as The Envy returned his broadsword to his shoulder. It wasn’t back-up, was it? It was refreshments.
For once, The Envy felt fear.