Chapter Fifteen: Boiling Point

“I did not think he was this cold.”

“Ageha, you mean?”

“Yes. I thought that… Kureha-Ojousama’s passing would affect him more.”

“Is that how you see it?” asked Kaika as she swiveled her chair to face Saya. She was seated at the large table in the middle of the room. The butler stood a few paces to her right.

“How can I not? He simply left the mansion after undergoing repairs and treatment. According to our surveillance, he has returned to work at Sapore as if nothing happened. As it is, I feel sorry for Kureha-Ojousama. She… cared for him.”

“What do you propose he do? Kousuke and Kazuki have gone into hiding, and we didn’t know where they were until just recently. Running around blindly is meaningless.”

“I can understand that much, but his attitude is far too unconcerned. He did not even attend her funeral! I called to inform him, but he only gave me non-committal answers. I had thought that he was grieving in his own way, but like this he is exactly like…”

Kai-Ojousama.

“Go ahead. You can say it.”

“I beg your pardon, Ojousama.” The servant made a deep bow.

“I can’t blame you for thinking so given my composure, but even I would be offended if my thoughts are decided for me by an outsider.”

“I did not mean to overstep my bounds. I am just… angry. I did not intend to vent it out like this.”

“For you to be so openly angry… That’s quite a rare sight.”

“Who would not be? I informed him that we have finally discovered your brothers’ whereabouts and that he should come here for a meeting immediately, but he is over an hour late already! What is he thinking..?” Saya closed her eyes and shook her head.

“…Do you feel betrayed?”

Surprise overcame Saya’s static features. It dawned on her that Kaika was correct. She trusted the Ageha she had observed over the past few months, and his disregard for the death of someone he appeared to care for shook Saya’s trust in him and in her ability to judge people.

“You don’t need to answer.”

Saya indulged herself in her mistress’s generosity. A knock from the drawing room door ended their conversation.

“Enter,” said Kaika.

A maid opened the door and introduced the visitor.

“Shikimi-sama has arrived.”

Ageha stepped into the drawing room for the first time in more than a week. He brought the same nonchalant face, effortless clothes, and confident gait. The only difference was a large, black bag strapped to his back.

Saya was battered by a complicated wave of emotions. She was both furious and relieved to see that he looked well. Her disdain towards his indifference to Kureha’s tragedy and her desire to see him again fought to devour each other. The former barely won.

How can you look so normal!?

“You are one hour and twelve minutes late,” said Saya.

“Sorry. I was at work when you called, and I had to grab a few things. I figured it would be faster to bring them along rather than pick them up later,” he said as he tugged on the bag twice.

Each and every unfeeling word that escaped his mouth pierced Saya’s chest. She had never really been that close to Kureha. They hardly spoke because Saya was tasked to be with Kaika at all times, and it would have been out of line to speak to Kureha wantonly when her mistress was present. The only occasions they conversed without reserve were when the foreign element, Ageha, was there. Saya did not want to admit it, but those interactions were precious to her, and she believed they were precious to Kureha and Ageha as well. Ageha’s normalcy despite the destruction of those golden days was an unbelievable sight to her. She doubted reality.

“You..!”

“Saya.”

“I apologize, Ojousama,” said the butler in a strained voice.

She noticed a pained expression that quickly dissipated on Ageha’s face as she rose from her bow. She convinced herself that it was just her attachment playing tricks on her.

“Did Saya tell you why you’re here?”

“Just that you found your brothers.”

“That’s about it, really. We finally caught their tail. They’re hiding in a safe house on Mount Takao. Aside from being close to us when we’re after them, it’s a convenient location. They can maintain their lifestyle even while in hiding due to its close proximity to civilization. They regularly send out men to get luxury items. That was lucky for us because that’s how we found them. Even knowing their lives are in danger, I have to admit they have guts staying within Tokyo.”

“Not as much as you, staying in the same house that’s been attacked twice.”

“I have Saya with me, and those two aren’t idiotic enough to send pawns after their queen was captured. They didn’t know that my knight had abandoned me, after all.”

“Though I did say I’m not a bodyguard, I would have stayed if you’d asked.”

“Then why did you not attend Kureha-Ojousama’s funeral?” asked Saya.

Ageha did not answer.

“Saya, this is not the time nor place.”

“Excuse me.” She did not bow. Her irritation was peaking.

“We haven’t been able to gather much intel so far. We only know that the place is practically a fortress,” said Kaika.

Saya operated the terminal and displayed a map on the screen. Ageha started fiddling with his personal terminal. His seeming disinterest irked Saya further.

Can’t he take this seriously!?

“What are you doing..?” asked Saya, her voice shaking in fury.

But the response she got was completely unanticipated.

“Recording the location. There.” Ageha pocketed his terminal and turned for the door.

“Where are you going?” asked his employer.

“To kill your brothers.”

Eh?

“Have you gone mad? We know nothing of their defenses. We have to properly formulate a plan!” shouted Kaika.

What?

“It‘ll be too late if they relocate.”

“No, it won’t. I’ll make sure we reach them, so don’t go! Think rationally! This isn’t like you!”

Ageha wordlessly paced towards the exit.

The exchange that just took place threw Saya into confusion. What Ageha said and what she thought of him did not reconcile. She realized how foolish she had been.

Kaika said it herself. Ageha was not cunning. He merely distrusted everything and everyone. He was always on guard even when he bantered with Kaika and herself. She recalled the moments when Ageha was with Kureha and searched for wariness in his actions.

How can I be so stupid..!

She found none.

How can you be so clumsy..!

Kureha was special.

And she was gone.

“Saya, stop him!”

Her mistress’s order brought her back to reality. She realized that she needed to prevent Ageha’s rage from consuming him. Going on a suicidal revenge mission would not be something Kureha would want or Kaika could afford. But above all, Saya knew she would never be able to forgive herself if she let him go.

Mustering all her power, Saya rocketed towards Ageha’s back. He reacted instantly and faced her direction. She knew that Ageha anticipated her favorite first strike, a jaw-targeted kick, so she opted to use it as a feint. She still performed the kick but with little force. The rotational momentum she gathered would be used to increase the velocity of her follow up turning side kick. If she could force him to block, he would still be blasted to the wall. It would be her only chance to incapacitate him safely.

She highly rated Ageha’s speed and capability, but surprise was her ally. As expected, Ageha dodged the roundhouse by leaning his head back. She continued to her second attack as planned. Impact.

What just happened!?

Saya was lying face down on the floor at the far end of the room. Her vision sparkled, and her head throbbed. She tried to recall what happened. The memory came together piece by piece.

Ageha dodged her side kick by turning sideways. Without pausing, he grabbed her kicking leg with his left hand and then used the momentum of the kick to pull her in, swing her around, and throw her towards his favorite sofa. The sofa absorbed most of the force, but she still bounced off of it and hit the wall. Her spine and organs would have been obliterated without the cushion. She tried to rise, but her legs would not move. There were a number of reasons for it:  concussion, cracked ribs, shock. But she knew the true cause:

Fear.

The best attack she could come up with was manhandled in the most inhuman way. She opened her eyes and stared at the creature that bested her. A fiend. She trembled. A shaky high-pitched moan escaped her throat.

That all vanished when the demon turned to her with an expression that made it seem like the world was about to end and said,

“I’m going to see her once I finish everything.”

Saya could do nothing to stop him as he left the room. Guilt and a feeling of powerlessness assailed her. Tears began rappelling down her cheeks. She wept on the floor, fists clenched in regret.

“How long are you going to keep lying down?”

Kaika’s words jolted her from despondency. She dried her face with her sleeve and then supported herself with the wall as she stood up.

“I have no excuse.” She spat the words out in self-hatred.

“What are you apologizing for?”

“I… could not stop him.”

“Seeing what happened, no one would blame you. But that isn’t what you’re actually sorry for, right?”

Saya’s heart was squeezed by a vise. Kaika always knew everything. That could be a blessing or a curse depending on the situation. In this case, it was both.

Kaika looked into Saya’s eyes and said, “About letting him go, I don’t think you need to worry.”

“What do you mean? He is going on a suicide mission. Maybe if… if I follow him…” Her face was marred by sorrow.

“I won’t allow it. Your place is here. This is for your own sake, mine, and his as well.”

Kaika ignored Saya’s look of confusion and helped the unsteady butler by supporting her waist. They moved away from the wall and Kaika made her sit on an unflipped sofa to rest.

“This may not be a suicide mission,” said Kaika.

“Of course it is! He knows nothing about the enemy, and it is only noon! If he goes there directly, he will reach it well before sundown. It would be one thing if he tried to sneak in, but from the looks of it-”

Saya cut herself off before she could describe the horrible image that surfaced in her head.

“I know that much.”

“Then why-”

“Because I also know Ageha.”

Saya knew of Kaika’s abnormal interest in Ageha. Kaika had spent a lot of time analyzing him and planning for ways to influence and manipulate him. She had not held back, going so far as using Saya in her machinations. Her claim had validity, but Saya was dumbfounded at how she could be so confident.

“Ageha is strong. Of course, he is inevitably so because of his ARMS and his ability to endure pain that allows them to be used, but his true strength stems from something more fundamental.”

Saya wracked her brain but could not come up with anything outside of the cliché. She did not speak of them because she understood Kaika’s answer was different.

“It’s his ruthless rationality. He’s analytical and unswayed by emotion. He hates taking chances and always minimizes risk. He has probably avoided persecution so far because of that quality, and his battle prowess was likely honed by that mindset.”

Saya had reported all of Ageha’s combat information to Kaika. It was reasonable that Kaika, combining that knowledge with her own interactions with Ageha, would come to that conclusion. In fact, Saya now felt the same after hearing the hypothesis.

“But that is precisely why I had to stop him. Right now, he has lost his calm and is not thinking logically-”

“Didn’t you feel it, Saya?”

Feel what?

Kaika continued before she could reply.

“Fear.”

Saya immediately understood. She had been consumed by instinctive terror after she was instantly defeated. She felt like she had seen something beyond human.

“You’re misunderstanding something,” said Kaika as if she had read Saya’s thoughts.

“Ageha is strong because his cold, detached reasoning makes him the optimal killing machine. He’s a monster of logic. However, that’s also his greatest weakness.”

Weakness?

Saya could not reconcile that word with that man.

“His rationality tethered him. His logic deluded him. He saw himself as a machine. The problem with machines is they only work according to specifications, well, unless they are defective, but I digress. Ageha hated human irrationality and sought strength to correct that by forgetting that he himself is human.”

The butler glimpsed what her mistress was trying to tell her. She dipped her head in thought.

“I, for the most part, agree with his view on humans. They are filthy, illogical and unfair creatures. However, he and I differ when it comes to our affection for them. He abhors people, with some exceptions.” Kaika shot a meaningful glance at Saya. “But I love humans. Do you know why I cherish them so?”

Saya filtered through her knowledge of Kaika. There was one thing she valued more than anything.

“…Entertainment.”

“One hundred points! Humans go beyond predictions, rationality, logic, and limits! Few things are as entertaining!” A manic smile was spread across her face. “Ageha has now broken free of the chains that bound him. That’s what happened just now and what I believe will recur when he faces my brothers.”

“…A miracle?”

“A gamble.”

A fiend. She had long ago accepted Kaika’s cruelty and twisted motivations, but the display before her caused a seed of doubt to sprout.

Could it be that she… the attack that night..?

“All-or-nothing. If Ageha fails, then I’ll likely fall. If he succeeds, then I’ll have my vengeance for Kureha.”

The wrath in Kaika’s gaze dispelled her doubt. She had learned her lesson from misunderstanding Ageha. This was the devil she chose to serve, and she would entrust her body and soul to her until the end. She took a deep breath, assembled her broken mask, and stood up.

“As you will, Kai-Ojousama.”

 

***

 

“How many?”

“Only one, sir.”

“That can’t be.”

“The sentries and cameras around the perimeter are all intact and have not detected any other intruders.”

“This must be a trap. I can’t believe that little wench found me this quickly. Judging from the strategic ability she has shown so far, that lone intruder is a decoy,” said Kousuke, four of his fingers tapping consecutively and continuously on the table.

“I believe that is highly possible,” said his security chief.

“Not highly possible. It’s definitely a ruse of some sort. Keep the sentries at their posts and tell the guards to keep the perimeter secure. Sending one person during daytime is obviously a bait operation. Kaika must be trying to get information or gain entry while we’re distracted. Where’s Kazuki?”

“He left this morning. He said that he had your permission to leave the premises and handle some business in your stead.”

What? He never spoke to me about that. Maybe he had something to take care of and didn’t think it was necessary to waste my time.

Excluding himself, Kousuke trusted his brother more than anyone else. He had certainly earned it. Kazuki had assisted him for years despite being his senior in terms of age. Not blinded by Karasuma’s glaring presence, Kazuki was one of the few people who recognized Kousuke’s ability. Kousuke felt insecure not having his brother with him during this crisis but also relieved that he was safe.

“I see. Send several men to neutralize the target. I’ll stay here in my office and monitor the area using the security cameras.”

“Roger, sir.”

The stiff security chief, clearly displaying his military experience, turned about face and rigidly marched out of the room. This assuaged Kousuke’s fears to a certain extent. Despite the costly overhead, he had hired the best people he could afford for exactly this kind of situation. The police were a joke, so people in power naturally relied on hired professional guards.

He pressed on his terminal, and several video feeds appeared on his display. He easily located the intruder, who was walking towards the mansion on the forest path. He was close enough to the building for the cameras at the walls to see him when zoomed in.

The man was garbed in black. It was a pointless camouflage during daylight hours. He wondered why the man chose to wear it despite that. The man’s face was hidden by a mask of the same color, and his torso was encased by alloy armor.

Isn’t that the armor that Unit 01 used?

He gulped at the possibility that this lone intruder was the one who defeated the cyborg that he sent to kill Kaika. Dismissing that as impossible, he clung to the belief that it took most of Kaika’s resources to survive that attack. This perception was reinforced by his youngest half-sister’s death.

The black infiltrator zipped into the trees once the first group of security personnel reached the gate. They started firing their rifles without restraint. Mount Takao had long lost its tourist appeal due to pollution and had become relatively deserted. It eventually recovered its natural beauty after the tourism industry abandoned it, but it still remained unpopulated save for the occasional hikers. Kousuke had this safe house built years ago taking those factors into consideration.

The armed guards chased after the infiltrator but were met by a falling cherry tree. Shocked by the incredulity of it and unable to escape, two of the guards were crushed underneath.

Impossible!? Even with ARMS, felling a tree like that…

Kousuke zoomed in on the tree trunk and figured out what the intruder had done. The intruder had carved out one side of the tree by rapidly pulling off chunks of it using his fingers. That was certainly possible with cybernetic hands, and so was using alloy legs to kick down a tree with a hollowed trunk. Kousuke’s focus on the absurd feat robbed him of his chance to see the defeat of the remaining guards. Beaten off-camera, they lay convulsing on the forest floor and leaking iron onto the verdant grass.

“Sir, the vanguard unit has been eliminated. I will send two more units to neutralize the target. The target appears to have multiple cybernetic limbs and is armed with a combat knife. He is also carrying a belt bag with unknown contents,” said the voice from the terminal.

“I can see all that. By the look of things, I think he’s the same mercenary that killed Masayoshi. I’m sure he’s a decoy, but make sure to appropriately judge the danger he poses.”

“Sir, the second guard unit just reported that the third was eliminated. They are currently engaging the target in the front lawn.”

What!?

Kousuke directed his eyes to the display and searched for the correct feed. He was stupefied by the scene.

The intruder held a  guard with one hand as he darted towards the rest. Considering the load he carried, his speed as he randomly changed directions to avoid enemy fire  was astonishing. The few bullets that were directed properly bore holes only in his human shield. Using the hostage as a ram, he smashed into one of the guards. Bullets bounced off his arm and body armor as he sliced open the necks of two more people.

Kousuke was terrified. What that man, if he could still be called that, was doing was beyond common sense. Even blocked, the impact of the bullets should have rattled his brain and organs. The risk of dying from a lucky headshot should have prevented him from diving into a rain of bullets. It was pure lunacy. This controlled insanity was one of the major goals when he and Kazuki decided to use drugs to remove emotions and instill obedience in their cybernetic soldiers. The intruder was doing exactly what they had simulated with drugs.

One of the two units they had produced was lost in the failed blitzkrieg on Kaika’s mansion. He thanked the gods he had never believed in that he brought Unit 02 to the safehouse as an extra precaution.

“Bring Unit 02 to my office!”

“…Understood. Should we also send the sentry patrols after the intruder?”

He almost approved the suggestion but regained some manner of calm after calling his best weapon to his side.

“No. That’s exactly what that witch wants. We can’t risk opening a hole in our defenses.”

She thinks she has me in check, but she failed to foresee that I could castle.

A few minutes later, the security chief entered Kousuke’s office with Unit 02. He handed a remote device to his employer.

“This is the last resort. It would not be wise to use such an unstable weapon,” said the chief as he released the device. “I will now personally lead the three remaining units within the building to intercept the enemy. One unit each will guard the east and west hallways. My unit will stay in the corridor leading to this office. We will perform a pincer attack once a unit engages the enemy. Only when the gunshots cease, and I do not report victory, should you activate it.”

“…Thank you, Sanada.”

“It is my job.” The security chief bowed to his employer before leaving the room.

Kousuke sat back down on his chair and stared at the unmoving cyborg the security chief had just left with him. With a press of a button, it would be injected with stimulants, thereby activating it from its dormant state. He rubbed the remote device like a rosary while mumbling words of consolation like a prayer.

He did not want to look at the display in fear of what he would see, but anxiety surpassed that so he moved his eyes to the video feeds. The intruder was checking each room as he ventured further into the building. He slowly got closer to Kousuke’s location. The office, which was at the center of the large house, was the farthest point from any entrance.

He really doesn’t know where I am?

Kousuke questioned his decision about maintaining the perimeter defenses. It was extremely unlikely, but he pondered the possibility that there was no deeper plot in the enemy’s attack. In the end, he opted to trust the decision he made when he was still unflustered.

Like a gang member with a metal bat, the intruder ran while dragging a corpse on the ground with his left hand. He turned a corner and entered the west hallway where he met gunfire. He immediately threw the body towards the group of guards. Using the hallway intersection as cover, the four guards split into pairs and dodged left and right.

The intruder followed right behind the pitched corpse. He punched through the edge of the left wall corner and smashed the jaw of the guard behind it. He then slit the throat of the remaining guard and used the limp body as a shield.

The two guards across the hallway opened fire, but the bullets only hit their crimson dyed ally. The intruder kicked the cadaver towards the guards. The bloody corpse obstructed their vision. The intruder dove to the ground and rolled to the first guard. He cut open the guard’s knee with a swipe of his reverse-gripped knife and then stabbed the second guard on the right side of the neck after standing up. The intruder pulled back, tearing the throat open. He continued with the pulling motion and stabbed the kneeling first guard’s nape behind him. The smell of iron wafted as abstract patterns of red formed on the white walls.

Kousuke tried to stop his hand from trembling but could not. Seeing the monstrosity that came for him, he felt an urge to relieve himself. He barely noticed his pants getting soaked. There was a toilet several paces away from his desk, but he could no longer remove his eyes from the display.

The swift demise of the west hallway unit meant the failure of the pincer operation. Despite the time the intruder took in checking rooms, he still traveled swiftly deeper into the building.

The intruder arrived at the central hallway that led to his office. The two remaining units led by Sanada were already in position. The intruder still carried a corpse as a shield. Some bullets pierced the flesh barrier but simply ricocheted off his limbs and body armor. One of those bullets hit the camera that monitored the last hallway. Kousuke was now blind.

His teeth chattering, he tightly held onto the remote with both hands as he watched the large double doors at the far end of the room. The gunshots waned. Sanada was silent.

I don’t want to die.

I don’t deserve to die here.

I don’t deserve to die!!!

His fear morphed into fury and elation. He was pushed over the edge.

I’ll kill you you son of a bitch I’ll kill you right here right now die die die!!!!

He pressed the injection switch. The cyborg jerked to life. It scanned the room but found only Kousuke. Kousuke realized his mistake when the visor focused on him. The cyborgs were indeed unstable, as Sanada had said. Moreover, they were not suited for precision work such as protection and defense. They were better treated as bombs than soldiers.

Without any other target, the cyborg marched towards him. It was supposed to obey his every command, but it seemed to suffer from a malfunction. He tried shouting, pleading, begging it to stop, but it kept its stride. It probably considered Kousuke as a minor threat since it did not sprint towards him, but a threat, no matter how small, was still destined for elimination.

Pressing the deactivation switch would sedate the cyborg, but Kousuke would also be defenseless against the intruder. The doors blew open before Kousuke could reach a decision.

The mindless cyborg immediately recognized the higher threat level of the new enemy. Kousuke stared at the intruder. The enemy was heaving, visibly exhausted. There was blood all over him. He fought all the way here, so it would not be surprising if some of the red liquid was his own. Kousuke’s faint hope billowed.

The cyborg turned to the intruder and dashed. The intruder was caught by surprise and was forced to block a punch by crossing his arms. He was blown back, but he used the force to shuffle backward and create distance. Witnessing the difference in current fighting strength, Kousuke felt ecstatic. He did not mind the wetness in his pants despite returning to lucidity. He was that joyous.

Die, you scum! I’ll make sure your client follows you soon!

The intruder dropped his knife and stuck his hand in the belt bag on his lower back as Unit 02 drew closer. The instinct driven cyborg launched another right punch, this time a hook. The intruder raised his left forearm to block the blow as he dug his right foot into the floor to brace himself.

He blocked the cyborg’s hook, but the force was immense. Cracking his mask, his own blocking arm smashed into his face, but he managed to hold his ground. He countered with a right hook of his own, but it was easily blocked by the cybrorg’s left forearm.

“Go, finish him off!!!”

Gunshots exploded in the room.

Kousuke initially thought it was from security reinforcements, but reality was not so kind. The intruder held a handgun in his right hand and repeatedly shot point blank at the cyborg’s helmet. The bullets ricocheted, but the impact shook the cyborg’s human brain. The cyborg fell lifelessly to the ground. The intruder effortlessly twisted the unconscious cyborg’s neck two full rotations, as if opening a bottle of soda.

…What just happened?

Kousuke’s addled brain tried to analyze what just occurred. The handgun came from the intruder’s bag. The counter hook that the intruder threw was meant to be blocked. The cyborg’s only weak point was its head. It was all planned. Kousuke’s euphoria was suddenly extinguished.

…It can’t be. …He was the one who defeated Unit 01?

Kousuke realized that his first suspicion had been right.  He would not be in this situation if he had obeyed his instincts more.

The intruder retrieved his knife. Blood dripped from his chin. He removed his damaged mask and wiped the red fluid staining his left eye using his wrist. He approached Kousuke, who had already scampered away and hugged the wall.

“You probably think you know why I am here.”

I don’t want to die..!

“But you’re wrong.”

…What?

“Kai, Kaika did not order me to kill you, at least not yet.”

Kousuke saw a lifeline.

“How much is she paying you? I’ll pay you double! No, triple! Just name your price!”

“This is personal.”

“What do you mean!? I don’t even know you!?” shouted Kousuke, his handsome face dripping with tears and mucous.

“But I know you and what you did to your sister.”

Kaika..? No, Kureha..!

“I wasn’t the one who planned that attack! It was Kazuki!!!” He easily betrayed his trusted sibling and partner.

“I was just about to ask you about him. Where is he?” The intruder was now standing over the shivering man.

“H-He left the house earlier today. I don’t know where he is right now, but I can make sure you meet him! He’s the one you really want!”

“That would be the best course of action, but unfortunately, it is taking all I have to speak with you right now. I do not think I can hold off a minute longer,” said the intruder calmly. His emotionless face did not show an inkling of the urgency he spoke of.

“You do not deserve a swift death. You will experience what she did when she was powerless in front of a monster. It is only fair.”

“Please wait! Please, please don’t! I-”

The intruder grabbed Kousuke by the mouth and proceeded to rearrange his limbs as if following a blueprint etched in his mind. Kousuke wished to die each time his consciousness surfaced from the darkness, but it only ended after the black demon gave a nod of satisfaction after seeing his frozen, terror-twisted face.

 

 

Epilogue

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