Chapter One: A Splash of Red

A man clad in a black form-fitting suit and mask nimbly scaled a wall using a rope attached to a grappling hook. He silently rappelled down the other side after reaching the top. He could clearly see a uniformed man standing a fair distance away thanks to his compact night vision goggles.

In position, as expected, he thought.

The young guard was busy twiddling with his rifle trigger. The intruder was perturbed by the inexperience of his target but quickly attributed it to simple resource allocation. This outlying wall sentry, surrounded by a small forest, was not a high priority.

The intruder had intentionally chosen this entry point because of that. He had surveyed the entire area for many nights until he was confident he could enter without being noticed. He had never attempted something of this difficulty and scale before. Taking out Karasuma Nikaidou, head of the Nikaidou Group of Companies (NGC), would not be easy even with heavy preparation. He had plenty of reasons to be nervous, but he neatly bagged those emotions and threw them in the freezer.

He silenced his breathing and kept his body low to the ground as he slinked towards the guard. He continued his approach until he was within a hair’s breadth of the unfortunate victim’s back. He soundlessly extended his gloved left hand a few inches past the guards left cheek and covered the guard’s mouth. While stifling any call for help with one hand, he mechanically placed the panicked guard in a sleeper hold using only his right arm. This was only viable because of the extensive gulf in strength between the the two. It was a feat somewhat counterintuitive to the intruder’s slim but muscular physique.

When he was certain the guard would never wake again, he carried the body over his shoulder and hid it with the rope behind an exquisitely pruned shrub. The climbing tool was of generic make because he planned to leave it behind.

The intruder moved to the main mansion within the large property while skillfully avoiding detection by the patrols. He was grateful that the owner despised animals because watchdogs were far harder to fool than human guards. He finally reached the service door where the servants and delivery men commuted in droves just an hour earlier. They had been transporting food, tables, and decorations from outside the mansion.

The service door was locked but such things meant little to him. He easily forced the door open by destroying the doorknob with his hands.

“Must have been an impressive party. Having not one but two celebrity chefs cater… Just how much money does that cost?” muttered the intruder under his breath after having ensured his solitude in the preparation room.

Before he could open the door that led farther inside, he heard footsteps from the corridor. He judged that it belonged to a man based on the heavy thuds, which gradually grew louder. It was likely a more experienced guard than the one he dispatched earlier. He had tried his best to keep the metallic crunching noise to a minimum when he forced the door open, but his efforts were for naught.

I hope he isn’t enhanced like me.

He planted his back flat on the wall to the right of the door. The guard swung the door open with enough strength for it to hit the wall. Holding a pistol with both hands, he peeked into the visible section of the room. Finding nothing, he stepped in.

Terror painted itself on the guard’s features when he saw a hand inches away from his face. The intruder expertly muffled the guard and slipped his combat knife horizontally into the side of the guard’s neck. Without pausing, he pulled the knife towards himself and severed the carotid arteries and windpipe. He quickly released the guard’s face and hopped away as he made the cut to avoid most of the blood spatter. A blood trail would lead to his detection.

He clicked his tongue despite the successful silent kill. He was left with a corpse that spread not only blood but also the smell of iron. Being unable to take the enemy’s rear had led to this mishap. He had inadvertently placed a time limit on his mission.

Deciding not to waste time, he abandoned the corpse and silently ran through the corridor leading to the main hall. The corridor was well-lit, so he deactivated his night vision goggles. From this point on, he would have to kill anyone he encountered as quickly and quietly as he could. A small hope that they fit his criteria flickered in his chest.

 

***

 

“Ojousama, you are skipping,” said a young woman in a flat tone. She was dressed in a butler outfit sans coat.

“I know, and I’m humming too. Any complaints?” said the little girl. Her black, long-sleeved dress and long and wavy ebony twintails danced with each step she took.

“I know you are excited that we are finally at the climax, but it would be better not to count your chickens before-”

“I’ll make them hatch.”

“But you cannot. Some eggs just do not hatch.”

“I’m not talking about eggs but plans.”

“But hatching plans refers to their creation, not about seeing them to fruition.”

“You say tomato, I say marinara.”

“While I also like marinara, that is beside the point.” A trickle of exasperation was audible in the young woman’s reply.

The little girl, who looked no older than twelve, turned to the butler and flashed an irresistibly adorable smile, bleeding with charm and innocence. It was a stark contrast to the words that dropped like lead chunks from her pink lips.

“Relax Saya. My father will die tonight.”

“I never questioned that, Kaika-Ojousama,” said the butler, showing a subtle, playful smirk.

“Now you are just being mean.” Kaika pouted cutely, her wavy fringe shaking from the movement, but all expression disappeared from her face in the next moment. “Spice is about temperance.” Her tone was so frigid it rivaled the Arctic tundra.

A look of regret showed on the butler’s minimally expressive countenance, but she quickly collected herself, straightened her slender figure, and then bowed deeply. Her short, glistening, black hair, which normally curtained her right eye, drooped down.

“I apologize for my rudeness. My joke went too far, Kai-Ojousama.” She continued staring at the carpet. “I merely wanted to remind you that this is still Karasuma Nikaidou we are talking about.”

“I’m well aware of who my father is. Being one of the richest and most powerful men in Japan means nothing tonight and likely any day after that.”

“He has also been reigning over the darkness of NGC for most of his life.”

“I guess that does deserve some credit.” She daintily placed a finger on her chin.

“Uhm, how long am I supposed to keep this pose, Ojousama?” Saya’s back was still parallel to the floor. Her mistress giggled.

“Until you are satisfied? I didn’t ask you to hold it in the first place.”

Saya gave a soundless sigh before raising her head. The stoic mask adorned her face again.

I might have been a little too harsh, Kaika thought, but she immediately dismissed the idea. Calling her by her full name did not warrant such a cold reprimand, but she knew that her relationship with Saya was not frail enough to be hurt by it.

Kaika resumed her buoyant skipping as they passed a large, open wooden door. The corridors they traversed were adorned by vases, oil paintings, and other antique displays, but those paled in comparison to the museum of a main hall that the mansion boasted.

The intricate metal and glass work invested in the chandeliers refracted light in a web of subtle colors. The wide main stairwell extended up towards the second floor until it split into two curving staircases leading to opposite ends of the hall. The colorful threading details of the carpets were highlighted by the white marble floor.

Kaika sighed. Her eyes skimmed over all the wealth, which almost triggered a gag reflex from overexposure. Her sight eventually rested on her father, and her urge to vomit worsened.

“Good evening, Father.” said Kaika. The disgusted face she had on completely vanished. She smiled sweetly at her father like any loving daughter would.

“Kaika!” said the titan of a man after turning to his daughter. “I didn’t see you in the party. Were you feeling unwell?” He smiled with a hint of worry and casually fixed his greyish white locks in an attempt to improve his appearance. He sported a dark grey suit, and his lilac tie was loosened, indicating that the time for entertaining guests had ended.

“Nothing to worry about, Otousama. I just wanted to avoid the crowd. Rather than that, Happy Birthday!”

She gleefully trotted to her father, who was standing on the bottom step of the stairwell. Kaika caught him just as he was about to go upstairs to retire to his bedroom. This seemingly serendipitous reunion was neither happy nor a coincidence.

“Thank you. I’m sorry but I had to invite all those people. I must keep up appearances.”

“Please do not apologize, Otousama. Today is your day, so do not worry about me. More importantly, do you have time right now? I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“But it’s already so late. Are you sure you don’t want to rest in your room?”

“I have been in there the whole day. Besides, you know that I will not be sleeping until much later, right?”

“You were probably studying the entire time. Your body can still relieve fatigue even without sleep. Just lying down should help a lot.”

“…Otousama, do you not want to talk to Kaika?” She made a childish frown while hiding her trembling fists behind her back.

“You know that isn’t true. You’re my greatest treasure. I know I’ve been busy recently and haven’t paid much attention to your activities, but rest assured. You’re always in my thoughts.”

Kaika gave her father a refreshing smile and said, “I understand.”

Karasuma was not lying. Kaika knew that her father loved her second only to the existence of his economic empire. Even distinguishing between the two was splitting hairs.

“While it’s still far off, I intend to hand everything over to you. Never forget that.”

Yes, I know. But we have a timing disagreement. Kaika chuckled inwardly.

“Still, I don’t think I can quite agree with you acting like this just to get what you want.”

“Like what?”

“A child. You’re fifteen. You should act with more grace, as any Nikaidou must.” He was not serious about this complaint. Kaika knew that he liked her cute act and she used that.

“I think it fits me far better than acting like a depressed teenager.”

“I don’t think anyone should be acting like a depressed teenager, not even depressed teenagers.”

The father and daughter both broke into laughter. Karasuma believed that he could see through Kaika’s acting, and he was right, but only when she chose to let him do so. However,  even Kaika was finding it hard to keep herself in character. This was not due to her father’s sensitivity but her swelling excitement for the impending reveal.

Saya remained near the entrance while Kaika and her father idly chatted. She made a call on her terminal. A short while later, a guard appeared at each of the four entrances to the main hall. Kaika noticed their presence. The preparations were complete.

Bon appétit!

Saya raised her hand as a signal. The guards at the east and west entrances of the second floor slowly headed down the stairs. Following suit, the two guards on the ground floor approached the father-daughter pair, who continued their cheerful exchange. Despite his focus being robbed by Kaika’s cute gesticulations, Karasuma paused and swiveled his head as he peered at the approaching guards.

Saya’s estimation was correct. You didn’t keep that throne by sitting on your hands.

Seeing her father alert, Kaika lowered her head and started trembling. She embraced herself as she shook and surrendered to the sensation of electricity hurtling through her veins. The back of her eyes burned, and her throat parched. She relived what her father did to her and what he made her do. Her mind swam in a sea of recollections, and her petite frame’s shaking gradually increased until it peaked.

Then she squeezed together all those memories and tossed them away like a used gum wrapper. They held no real value to her. She was going to kill her father but not for those inconsequential reasons.

The trembling stopped. Her reverie felt like hours, but only seconds crawled past. Karasuma, seeing his daughter in a strange state, approached her in worry. He stretched his hand out to her but flinched to a stop.

Kaika burst into maniacal laughter.

Her face contorted.  Her attractive features fell into the uncanny valley. Her cheeks flushed as she continued to engulf the main hall with her laughter.

“Kaika!?” Karasuma tried to grab hold of her shoulders. He probably thought it was some sort of breakdown.

Kaika deftly avoided his grasp by stepping back and, with disappointment poisoning her every syllable, spat out, “You still don’t get it?” She shook her head. “I knew it. You are so-”

Boring.

That was her naked thoughts balled into a single word. That word was her first step crossing the Rubicon, the genesis of her betrayal, and her truth.

However, before she was able to drive the stake into her loving father’s heart, he suddenly pushed her aside. She fell to the floor sideways due to the sudden assault. This forced the guard that was supposed to be approaching from the east into her view. Confusion ate into her mind.

Why is one of the mercenaries dead!? Saya reported to me earlier that she had successfully switched out four of the mansion guards!

She filtered through the possibilities as fast as her synapses allowed.

Did that bastard foresee the attack? Has he seen through my act all along? Did I underestimate him? Did all my plans, all that preparation just crumble to dust?

Her paranoia boiled over.

She stared with a blank face at the blood slowly soaking into the carpet and weakly whispered,

“Did I… lose?”

 

***

 

The intruder reached a corner near the end of the east hallway leading to the main hall. He hid himself in a blind spot when he saw a guard standing near the entrance. He easily identified that the guard’s right arm and shoulder were cybernetic based on his uneven arm volume and stance.

He knew it was dangerous to take on someone with Artificial Musculature and Skeleton, commonly called ARMS, not because he suspected defeat, but because it would likely result in drawn-out combat. The disturbance could alert the security of the entire estate.

Even an MMA champion will easily fall in a ring against two mediocre fighters.

That did not apply to himself, but he still opted for prudence.

While he was weighing his options, the guard started walking into the main hall. He used this chance to move closer and get a better view of the superfluously large room. He quickly attempted to grasp the situation. The presence of a young girl was unexpected for the intruder because she had not come up during his investigation.

The intruder readied himself. The guards were probably moving towards Karasuma to reinforce his protection. He would be impossible to kill if they got within ten feet of their charge. It had to be now.

He took a runner’s stance like a cheetah preparing for a hunt. Using the explosive power in his legs, he rushed into the main hall. This alerted the two west entrance guards, who had the east entrance in view. The reaction of the two guards informed the guard whose back was turned to him of the danger.

The guard did not use a weapon and relied on his ARMS instead. He twisted his torso then swung his right arm towards the intruder. It was a perfectly executed backfist and could not be dodged on reaction.

But it was dodged. The intruder knew the attack was coming and dove down as he closed in. The guard looked shocked after cleaving through space instead of flesh, but that did not last long. The intruder, thrusting his knife upwards through the guard’s chin, cleanly lodged the blade between his hemispheres.

This victory did not slow the intruder down. He pulled out the knife, smoothly spun around the standing carcass, and dashed towards Karasuma. Everyone in the room moved except the girl. They were only a short distance away, but the intruder had already achieved his maximum velocity and would reach Karasuma a few seconds before they could stop him. The girl was blocking his path, but he could run her over with little effect on his charge.

I can’t risk avoiding the girl. Four unknowns versus one is not a good idea. I don’t have a choice..!

Karasuma, however, did. He could have used the girl as a shield to buy time, but he did not. He pushed her away from the intruder’s path. The intruder veered to the left and swung the reverse-gripped knife in his right hand across Karasuma’s throat. He dashed past his victim as he made the slice. Karasuma made a gurgling noise as he impotently stared at his daughter and expired.

Red splashed on the young girl. It coated her face, her flowery black dress, her almost pallid skin, her slackened cheeks, and her slightly parted lips.

The intruder had not expected that Karasuma would push the girl away in what seemed like an attempt to save her. He was thankful for the act because he did not want to hurt anyone unnecessarily. Traumatizing a child with a murder scene was already something unforgivable. The intruder apologized silently in his heart.

This must be unfair to you. Seek me for compensation if you wish.

He stopped his dash a few steps away from Karasuma’s corpse. Deciding to immediately escape using the same route from which he entered, he turned around and saw the girl veiled in red. At that moment, what gripped his heart was not guilt but dread. It was an unavoidable distraction. Before he could recover, a kick whipped towards the right side of his jaw. He raised his right forearm to receive the blow, but he was an instant too slow. Only his fist reached his jaw area. A clanking sound uncharacteristic of flesh resounded from the contact.

Kick

Shards of black scattered in the air. His goggles flew off, fortunately not breaking and cutting his eyes. His fist managed to moderately redirect the rushed roundhouse kick. However, the attack still smashed part of his mask and knocked away his knife. He was taken aback at the young woman’s speed despite knowing she had ARMS. She was the farthest away from Karasuma when they all moved.

While the woman was still recovering from her off-balance kick, the intruder endured the impact that lightly jogged his brain and started running.

I can’t get my knife..!

He beelined towards the east hallway. The woman ordered the remaining guards to capture or eliminate him. The three pulled out their guns and scrambled after the intruder. She did not follow them.

The intruder darted through the estate. He ignored the alarm siren that echoed throughout the halls. He was no longer concerned about being detected since the deed was done. He was confident that few could rival his speed in a straightforward race. The lack of night vision was only a minor setback since he already had the path mapped in his head. He eventually reached the corpse laden bush and high jumped over the wall. He disappeared into the forest, as if devoured by the undergrowth.

Only after he confirmed that he had eluded his pursuers did he stop to address the image that persistently stalked his mind. It was not the usual elation after a successful kill. It was not the worry that he could be traced by something he left behind. It was the face of the girl bathed in her father’s blood. It rekindled the fright that almost cost him his jaw.

“She was smiling.”

 

 

Next Chapter

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