Chapter Fourteen: Brawn and Brains

“Something’s wrong,” said Mei Xing.

Setsu, with Li Xue in tow, stopped walking just a few steps in front of him. Their house was just a few doors away.

They had gone out for a late morning walk at Li Xue’s stubborn insistence. The summer heat was not ideal for such an activity, but the child’s energy had been impossible to contain indoors. Fortunately, there were few guests checked in, so the staff could take care of things while they were away.

The humidity left by a daybreak drizzle had made their stroll quite uncomfortable, but a single carefree smile from Li Xue had completely blown away Mei Xing’s dissatisfaction.

But that pleasant time had ended.

Setsu, who knew about his past, faced him with a trace of unease. “…You’re right. The street is empty.”

Though not the busiest place, it was very odd for their neighborhood to be completely deserted at this time of day. A disgusting sensation made its way into Mei Xing’s gut. A scowl surfaced on his normally laid back face.

They’re here.

He did not know who or why, but people were waiting for them. Judging from the wet tire tracks on the ground, they were numerous. He thanked the corrupt local government in his heart for leaving potholes on the road that collected rainwater. Without the tracks, Mei Xing might have dismissed the odd silence as coincidence.

“Papa?” asked Li Xue, staring at his tightened face.

Mei Xing felt a swirling anger in his chest. It was directed both at his own naivety and at the unknown enemy.

Should I have left the country with my family even if I had to force Setsu to leave the inn she loves?

No, maybe I never should’ve lingered here in the first place.

He focused his mind and cleared away his pointless regrets. The most important thing right now was to protect his family. There was a chance they were also being targeted by being related to him, so leaving their side and acting as a decoy would only expose them to more danger.

He approached Setsu and whispered, “Get ready to run on my signal.” He pointed with his eyes to a small alley between the closest houses. “We’ll go through there, head down the hill, and into the forest.”

Setsu nodded and carried Li Xue in her arms.

“I’ll take her. It’s faster.” Mei Xing picked his daughter up by the armpits and held her to his chest. “Li Xue, we’re going to play a game.”

“A game?”

“Yeah. it’s like hide and seek, so I need you to close your eyes and keep quiet until the game ends.”

“Okay, Papa.” Her pigtails bounced as she vigorously nodded.

“Setsu, let’s walk normally first. Maybe they haven’t noticed us yet.”

“Alright.”

The three of them turned into the alley. A second later, the sound of boots thumping the ground came from behind them.

No luck!

“Run!”

They rushed through the alley, down the hill, and into the bushes lining the forest. Mei Xing knew the forest well. He went foraging for mushrooms there during the cooler months. The forest was not dense enough to lose their pursuers by simply running away, especially in daytime. They needed to find a place to hide.

After a few minutes of running, Mei Xing and Setsu began slowing down. Even adrenaline could not sustain their sprint. They came upon a large tree with a hollowed area near the base. Mei Xing turned around to check for pursuers. No one was in sight. He decided to hide in the sizable tree hole before anyone caught up to them.

After passing Li Xue to his wife, Mei Xing pulled out a few branches from a bush nearby to use for cover. The three of them huddled inside the tree hollow. He hurriedly covered the opening with the branches as best as he could. The camouflage was not perfect, but they had to make do with the little time they had.

“Mama, did the game start?” asked Li Xue, her eyes still tightly shut.

“Shh…” Setsu gently held her head closer, burying it into her chest.

The sound of footsteps, muffled by the soft earth and fallen plantlife, gradually became louder. Only a few sets of boots thumped nearby. The enemies had probably spread out to find them.

Sweat beaded on their skin and soaked their clothes. Li Xue squirmed in Setsu’s arms, clearly irritated by the damp heat enveloping her. The couple tried to keep their breathing as quiet as possible and perked their ears for the movements of their pursuers.

Seconds felt like hours, and the short time they spent inside the dark hole seemed like an eternity.

The rustling around them gradually faded.

“I think they’re gone,” whispered Setsu.

Mei Xing thought for a moment. “Let’s wait a bit more.”

They spent another few minutes focusing their ears for any unnatural sounds coming from outside, but heard nothing.

“I’ll check if the coast is clear,” said Mei Xing.

“It’s dangerous!”

“I’ll just take a peek. We might be able to sneak around behind them and escape.” Keeping the bush cover in place, he peeked out through the leaves and surveyed the surroundings.

There were no people in sight. They could make a break for it while their pursuers were searching deeper within the forest, but more enemies could be waiting at the edge of the forest. He decided to endure inside the hole until the pursuers gave up.

Mei Xing turned to Setsu. “We’re safe for now. Let’s wait here until-”

Something grabbed his hair and pulled him out of the hole with incredible force. He cried out in pain as the force uprooted a bunch of his follicles. The shock from the unforeseen assault froze his thoughts, rendering him immobile. Woken up by Setsu’s scream, he struggled with all his might. His flailing fingers and feet kicked up the soil around him.

“Settle down,” said a nostalgic voice.

He knew the man restraining his head.

“Z-Zhi Zhu?”

“I’m honored you remember me.”

Setsu ran out of the hole and jumped at Zhi Zhu, but he easily swatted her away. She crashed to the ground, her cheek dark red and her lips broken. The blow had knocked her out.

“You bastard!!!” shouted Mei Xing. He tried to pull off Zhi Zhu’s arm, but it felt like lead and would not budge.

“It wasn’t a bad idea to hide in there, but you should’ve used soil to cover your bodies instead of breaking off branches. The young ones completely missed you because they don’t know the forest, but I trained in the mountains when I was younger. Animals don’t break branches like that.” Zhi Zhu pointed his thumb at the oddly shaped shrub Mei Xing had used for his makeshift camouflage.

“What do you want from me!?”

“Your life, you traitor.”

“Traitor..? What are you talking about?”

“Don’t play dumb. I know you’re working with Kaika Nikaido to overthrow your father.”

“Kaika… Nikaido..?” Mei Xing realized what Zhi Zhu was referring to.

“That look on your face confirms it. Akane Kogami was telling the truth.”

“No! Ms. Nikaido visited the inn once. I don’t know anything more about her!”

“But her bodyguard visited your inn at least twice. I have video proof of that.”

“That was…”

True. Ageha had indeed visited twice, and the second time was to confess to killing Zhang Wei Long. Mei Xing had forgiven him for that. In a sense, he had indeed betrayed his father.

Taking his hesitation as admittance, Zhi Zhu slammed his head on the ground, rattling his consciousness.

“You disgust me. You abandoned your father years ago without even knowing how much he cares for you. Now you even stabbed him in the back!!!”

Several men had formed a circle around them while they were talking.

Zhi Zhu pointed at one of his men. “You, pin him down. I’ll go fetch the kid.”

“Don’t you dare touch her!!!” shouted Mei Xing. “I’ll kill you!!! I’ll rip your heart out!!!”

One of Zhi Zhu’s subordinates grabbed Mei XIng by his clothes and pushed him face first into the ground. Mei Xing swallowed dirt as he screamed with all his might. His left arm was twisted behind his back.

“If he keeps struggling, break his arm.”

Ignoring the warning, Mei Xing continued to kick and claw at the ground. His elbow twisted unnaturally bit by bit, but his desperation to stop Zhi Zhu anesthetized him.

Zhi Zhu looked at him from above. “If you had this much guts, why did you betray your father?”

“I didn’t betray anyone!!!”

“Be quiet.” Zhi Zhu kicked him in the face.

One of Mei Xing’s teeth flew out of his mouth. He could feel a few more rolling on his tongue, but he did not care. He screamed curses at the man threatening his daughter.

His courage backfired.

Hearing his cries, Li Xue ran out of the hole and embraced him, covering his head with her tiny, fragile frame.

“Don’t hurt Papa!!!”

She was crying, snot dribbling down her nose and chin.

“…How brave. Boss’s blood, the blood of a true dragon, still runs through both of your veins after all.” Zhi Zhu shut his eyes tight and inhaled deeply. He slowly released the air inside his lungs, his cheeks and lips contracting into a stiff frown. “It would be a shame to spill it at such a place.”

Mei Xing stared at the face of the man he had once called uncle. Glimpsing a faint glimmer of hope in Zhi Zhu’s mercy, he relaxed his clenched jaw.

“But betrayal means death.” Zhi Zhu motioned to his men. “Shoot the girl and rape the woman before killing her. Be as brutal as you can.”

“No…” Mei Xing’s voice was withered and hollow. “Please, Zhi Zhu… I’ll do anything you want..!” His throat shook, releasing a low moan, like a wandering ghost unable to find salvation. “Kill me… Just please… please don’t hurt them… Not my daughter..!”

Mei Xing desperately reached out for Zhi Zhu’s ankle, but the latter lifted his shoe and crushed the chef’s dominant hand underfoot.

“You should’ve thought about that before siding with the foreign enemies.”

Mei Xing, his head wrapped in Li Xue’s body, was enveloped by his daughter’s calming fragrance. It was the aroma of innocence, purity, and youth. It inspired images of her boundless potential and vibrant future behind his tightly closed eyelids.

“Do it.”

A gunshot rang out.

Li Xue’s body flinched violently.

Something warm splashed on Mei Xing’s nape.

Her scent vanished.

Nothing but the odor of rust remained.

Mei Xing unleashed a soundless roar, cursing everything in existence, before succumbing to the darkness.

 

***

 

“Right there, yeah, that’s good,” said Zhang.

Mao pressed her thumb deep into his shoulder muscle, relieving the tightness accumulated from stress. “You work too hard for a geezer. You should let the young ones do more. They’ll never rise up the ranks because of your grandstanding.”

“Thanks for worrying about me, but I’ll be fine. There’s still some oomph left in these old bones.”

“Who said anything about worrying? And don’t say oomph. It’s disgusting coming from a relic like you.”

Two knocks came from the hotel door.

“Later, I’m busy right now,” said Zhang.

“Boss, it’s… urgent.”

Chen, the man behind the door, had served Zhang for decades. He would not bother him with anything trivial.

“Come in.”

Chen entered the room and approached them. Mao continued with her massage, not minding the audience.

“What’s with that terrible face, Uncle Chen?” asked Mao. “Want a massage too? I’ll give you a discount. How does ten thousand Yuan sound?”

“This is not the time, Mao.” Chen pressed his lips together, as if damming up the words about to spill from them.

“…What happened?” asked Zhang.

Chen glanced at Mao, but Zhang dismissed his concerns about confidentiality with a wave of a hand.

“Mei Xing was attacked.”

Mao’s fingers stopped.

All emotion in Zhang’s face evaporated. “How is he..?”

“Dead.”

“…His wife and my… granddaughter..? Li Xue?”

“Dead. According to the report, it was a horrible scene. I beg you not to ask me anymore.”

“What about the lookouts?”

Zhang had several men living near the inn, pretending to be locals. Their job was to protect Mei Xing and his family. Out of respect for his son’s privacy and freedom, they had been strictly ordered to limit their intervention to protection. They only gave the most basic reports about Mei Xing’s life.

“All killed. Reinforcements arrived too late, but they managed to catch one of the culprits.”

Zhang lamented his naivety. He should have caged his son and granddaughter if he knew this would happen.

“Who did it?”

“It was Nikaido’s group.”

“Oh.”

“What should I-”

“Gather everyone.”

“Boss, we’re in enemy territory. We must wait for the right time-”

“Didn’t you hear me?”

“Yes, Dragon head.” Chen marched out of the room.

“What can I do?” asked Mao as she embraced his neck from behind, her cheek pressing onto his.

“Mei… Mei was my hope.”

He was the last treasure my beloved left me.

Cold tears fell from his eyes. “And Li Xue was my dream.”

She looked so much like her grandmother.

“I… I no longer have anything.”

“Then drown in vengeance. I will sink with you.” Mao gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Tell me, Boss. Tell me what to do.”

Though Zhang often told Mao stories about his son and granddaughter, she had never met them. Nevertheless, he could tell that the anger in her voice was genuine. It was as if she had taken on a chunk of his despair, preventing him from breaking right then and there.

“…Destroy Kaika Nikaido and everything she cares about. Make them regret ever living.”

 

***

 

Mao had arrived a step ahead of the other triad members. She watched the main entrance of the luxury hotel Kaika was staying at from an empty balcony of the building across the street.

According to surveillance, Kaika was still inside the hotel. Likely confident in her safety while on American soil, the girl had put little effort into concealing her location.

You’ll regret that arrogance.

Minutes later, the rest of the triad members, numbering a dozen in total, pulled up a block away from the hotel. Almost everyone available had mobilized, but they could only gather that many because very few members had accompanied them to the US.

Zhang had stayed behind at Mao’s fervent request. While she understood his desire to see his vengeance delivered, he was utterly useless in combat and would only be a hindrance.

Mao affixed a small comm device on her ear. “Is everyone here?”

“I’m here! Ying is with me,” said Ying.

“Can’t you do something about your names? Having twins with the same name is too confusing. It’s a pain calling either of you.”

“But Ying is Ying. What can we do?”

Mao sighed. The twins were hard to handle and downright strange, but their abilities were dependable. She decided to not waste time scolding them for things they would never change anyway.

The twins got out of the car closest to the hotel entrance. They were wearing the exact same clothes and hairstyle, a white open collar shirt topped with a black suit and a short bob cut. It was impossible to tell them apart. Even their high-pitched voices sounded the same.

Their androgynous yet well-arranged features made them look a little older than their actual age. The seventeen-year-old brother and sister had killed enough people to give their faces a mature, worn-out tint.

“Ying, let’s go!” said the brother as he tried to rush off towards the hotel.

The sister grabbed his shoulder. “Not yet, Ying. We need to wait for Mao’s signal.”

Mao silently thanked the sister’s calm personality. They did not know which room Kaika was using, so it would be unwise to blindly go inside.

Years ago, Mao had found the two Japanese orphans during one of her missions. Seeing her old self in them, she had asked Zhang to take them into the organization. A few summers later, they had become very efficient, albeit hard to handle, killers.

Dozens of people commuted to and from the hotel. Luxury cars stopped at the front curb for valet parking several times a minute. A couple of security guards were stationed at the main doors.

“Is everyone in position?” asked Mao.

“Not yet. We haven’t secured the rear exit,” said one of the subordinates.

“Hurry up you imbeciles! They might slip away while you’re dawdling!”

Having rushed to the hotel to prevent Kaika from escaping, the triad assault team had not been able to fully arm themselves. Their firearms were limited to pistols and submachine guns. The enemy had someone who could fight equally with Zhi Zhu, a god of battle without exaggeration, so she felt a little uneasy. However, that did not affect her resolve to carry out Zhang’s order.

I’ll make them regret being born.

A white car with tinted windows pulled up at the hotel curb. A valet driver got out of the vehicle and headed for the main doors. Before he could go inside, the eyes of almost everyone around him, including himself, focused on a small group walking out of the building.

An almost six-foot man, sporting a black helmet with matching body armor, led the party of four. Behind him were three females. The one on the left had scruffy hair and a plain white mask on her face, and the one on the right was someone Mao recognized.

Saionji!

In the middle of the mobile huddle was a small girl. She was hardly visible with the human barrier around her, but Mao was certain she was the target.

Kaika Nikaido.

“Nikaido is at the main entrance!!!” shouted Mao as she leapt from the balcony.

Seeing her jump from the fifth floor, some of the approaching cars braked, causing a chain collision on the road. Like a cat, she bounded off the railing of the balcony a floor below. She grabbed onto a street light and swung herself across the street. Faithful to her name, Mao landed on a stopped taxi cab on all fours, her cybernetic limbs crushing its thin metal roof.

Screams erupted around her.

Saionji drew a micro pistol and shot at her, but the bullets bounced off her forearms. The armored man, Ageha Shikimi, placed himself between Mao and Kaika. Mao engaged him without hesitation.

The twins rushed at Kaika’s group from the side. Not caring about the people in the way, the brother drew his dual compact submachine guns and started shooting. Men, women, and children fell to the ground like puppets with strings cut. The masked girl grabbed a passerby and used him as a shield against the bullets. The twin sister drew her pistol and followed after Ying.

The hotel guards drew their weapons to aim at the brother but got mowed down by his submachine gun before they could fire a shot. Ying’s magazines ran out, so he quickly moved to reload them. In that moment, the masked girl blazed towards him. He blocked her turning heel kick with his cybernetic arm, but the impact launched him to the side and onto the door of a parked car.

His sister appeared in the space he vacated, surprising the masked girl. She landed a jab, cracking the girl’s mask. Not even flinching from the blow, the masked girl threw a right straight. The sister weaved past the punch and entered zero range. Before the enemy could react, she shot her point blank in the abdomen twice and then aimed the pistol at her face.

“For my brother.” Ying shot the masked girl in the forehead.

The girl toppled to the ground. Pieces of her shattered mask scattered around her.

Ageha, who had been easily avoiding Mao’s blows, showed an opening after seeing the girl’s death. Mao took advantage of it and attacked his head. He swayed left to avoid her claw. The sharp blades landed on his right bicep.

His arm flew off.

Surprised by the unexpected amputation, Mao leapt back to distance herself. She analyzed the situation. The masked girl was dead. The male twin had gotten back on his feet. Saya and Kaika had returned inside the hotel with triad members hot on their heels. Ageha had lost an arm.

Lost an arm?

According to Akane and Zhi Zhu, Ageha’s body was almost fully cybernetic. Naturally, that included all his limbs.

“Guess the jig’s up,” said the masked man. “‘It’s just insurance’, he said. ‘A simple deterrent.’ I even wore this stupid hot helmet and armor, but nooo, you had to come anyway.” He, no, she removed the black helmet.

Her pale golden mane, balled into a tight bun behind her head, glistened under the bright hotel lights. Beads of sweat rolled down her forehead and nose. She blinked a few times, as if adjusting her sapphire eyes to the lighting.

Mao gasped after realizing the enemy’s identity.

Valeriya Varrenikov.

“This is so hard to move in,” said the Russian as she disengaged her body armor. “With this, I’ve paid back what I owe Ageha and more.”

Her voluptuous bosom, wrapped tight in a dark grey body suit, jiggled out.

Mao and the twins were confused by the turn of events and failed to take advantage of her momentary vulnerability.

Valeriya grinned. “That was your last chance to defeat me, kiddies.”

Mao instinctively put up her guard. She sensed great danger from the one-armed enemy before her, as if she were facing a lion on the hunt.

I mustn’t fall for her bluff.

Mao glanced at Valeriya’s dead ally.

She’s alone.

We have the advantage!

Valeriya glanced at her lifeless companion. “How long are you gonna take a break?”

“…Dammit. I was gonna surprise them!” said the dead girl. Her voice sounded like it came from a speaker.

Mao and the twins widened their eyes as they watched the dead girl speak.

“It wouldn’t be much of a test if you stab them in the back, right? And unfair fights aren’t exciting. Stop sulking. In exchange, you can go all out.”

“…Really? You won’t take that back?”

“Yes, really. It wouldn’t be much of a test otherwise.”

“Thanks, Mom.” The girl hopped to her feet.

Her face was blank, with no visible eyes, nose, or mouth. And it was metal.

“Geez, you only call me that at times like these. I guess I’m the stupid one for feeling really happy anyway.” Valeriya rotated her left shoulder. “Weapons free, Sakuya.”

 

***

 

The soldier pinning Mei Xing down popped like a water balloon, bathing the father and daughter in blood.

“Target one down,” said Arashi.

“Enemy sniper!” shouted Zhi Zhu as he leapt behind a tree.

Arashi had wanted to kill the leader first, but she had not had the time to get a clear shot. She had prioritized saving her protection targets.

Ageha jumped down from the treetops and landed in the middle of the Chinese group. He scooped up Setsu and zoomed towards Mei Xing and Li Xue.

The armed men around him moved. Three of them overlapped in Arashi’s sight for a tenth of a second. It was enough.

“Targets two, three, four down.”

As geysers of blood erupted around him, Ageha grabbed Mei Xing and Li Xue with his other arm and fled the chaos. Zhi Zhu and his men scattered. Arashi killed two more before losing sight of all targets.

“I have them,” said Ageha, his voice coming from her earpiece. “Let’s meet up.”

“Roger.”

Using a gps map in the brand new terminal Kaika had gotten her, Arashi stealthily traveled to Ageha’s group. After joining up, they took cover within a dense patch of trees.

Ageha laid his load on the ground. He did not have his helmet or armor. A black form-fitting suit covered his body from wrist to ankles.

Arashi wrapped the unconscious Mei Xing’s injured hand with a bandage. When she tightened the gauze, his eyes snapped open.

“Stop! Zhi Zhu-”

Ageha covered his mouth with a hand. “Be quiet.”

Mei Xing stared at his face, confused, but he nodded after a few moments. Ageha removed his hand, allowing him to talk.

“Ageha..? Where are Li Xue and Setsu?”

Ageha pointed at the wife and daughter lying a few feet away from Mei Xing. “They’re fine. Li Xue just lost consciousness because I ran too fast.”

Mei Xing scrambled to his family. After carefully examining them with his eyes and hands, he sat on the ground and heaved an enormous sigh.

“Sorry for being late,” said Ageha. “I had to wait until our substitutes got to the states.”

“…You knew about this?”

“It’s a long story. I wanted to call and warn you ahead of time, but I wasn’t sure how you’d react. If you went into hiding without telling us where, the triad would definitely find you first. You can blame me all you want later, but for now, let us protect you.”

Mei Xing’s rigid expression softened. “Thank you for saving us.”

Ageha shook his head. “I don’t deserve your thanks. Arashi, guard them here until I get back. ”

“No,” she said.

I refuse to wait here without doing anything!

Arashi did not want to experience the terror she felt when she saw Ageha lying on the ground in the drug facility again. Just thinking of the possibility that she might never kiss him again filled her heart with inexplicable dread.

“This is no time to be stubborn.”

“She’s right,” said Mei Xing. “This forest isn’t dense enough to hide us forever. Zhi Zhu won’t give up. He’ll call in reinforcements and trap us here.”

“But we can’t leave the forest either. There are enemies stationed at the treeline and around the hill.”

“You have to kill Zhi Zhu.”

“The leader? Easier said than done, especially with pests buzzing around him.”

“I guess that means you’ve already seen him fight.”

“I fought him once.”

“And survived? Then we might really have a chance here.”

“I only survived due to luck back then. But this time is different.”

Mei Xing looked at Arashi. “You, um, what was it again…”

“Arashi,” she said.

“How good are you with that gun?”

“I’m… awesome, dood.” Arashi gave him a thumbs up, her expression the epitome of boredom.

“Dood..?” Mei Xing glanced at Ageha, his eyebrow raised in doubt.

How rude!

I’m telling the truth!

“It’s true,” said Ageha. “She sniped the enemies around you earlier. I just picked you guys up.”

“…Then I have a plan. I know this forest, and I know the enemy.” Mei Xing placed a hand on the tree they were using for cover. “The upper branches of this large tree should be a good sniping spot. If you saved us earlier by sniping, then I’m sure you can climb there easily.”

Arashi nodded.

“I’ll go into the forest and act as bait.”

Ageha stared at Mei Xing. “Are you crazy? You’ll get killed in an instant.”

“That’s why Arashi will snipe any enemies that see me. I won’t go too far so that she can see any pursuers from here.”

“It’s better if I’m the bait. My body is mostly alloy, so I’m perfect for the role.”

“No, you have a more important job. Please secure the perimeter around Arashi. Eliminate all enemies shooting at or approaching Arashi. She’ll be focused on covering for me and won’t be able to protect herself. That should be a piece of cake for someone who survived against Zhi Zhu.”

“What about Setsu and Li Xue?”

“Let’s hide them in the bushes.” Mei Xing pointed at the shrubbery near the base of the tree. “That way, you can protect them and Arashi at the same time.”

“But if an enemy gets through or sees them from afar-”

“I know.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“This is the best way. The triad members won’t shoot them on sight. They are worth more as hostages to lure us out, so they’ll try to grab them.”

“But if Zhi Zhu himself comes for you or Arashi from the start, I’m not sure I can stop him.”

“Zhi Zhu won’t do that. He’s extremely cautious. Knowing him, he’ll send his men first to check for traps.”

“…Makes sense. When I fought him, he sent his subordinates to their deaths just to observe my capabilities.”

“We’ll get rid of as many of his people in the forest as we can. When he gets isolated, you and Arashi can team up and kill him.”

“This strategy sounds very risky. We’ll be safer if-”

“Don’t misunderstand.” Mei Xing looked into Ageha’s eyes, his expression as easygoing as usual. “This isn’t a defensive battle. This is a hunt. Zhi Zhu hurt my family. I am very, very angry.”

You sure don’t look like it.

But Arashi kept that comment to herself, knowing how hypocritical it would sound coming from her.

She handed a small earpiece to Mei Xing.

He examined it. “What’s this?”

Arashi touched her right ear with her index finger. “Communication.”

“You brought extra?” asked Ageha.

She nodded.

“Good job. It’s a pain when you’re trying to blow me up, but this time, I’m thankful you’re always so well-geared.”

Ageha praised me!

A faint blush appeared on her cheeks.

Mei Xing glanced at them in turn. “You two have a really peculiar relationship.”

Ageha smiled wryly. “You don’t know the half of it.”

Arashi also equipped Setsu and Li Xue with earpieces so Mei Xing could explain the situation in case they woke up in the middle of the battle. Mei Xing and Ageha hid them the bushes.

“Let’s go,” said Mei Xing.

Ageha disappeared into the treetops with one jump. Arashi shot her grappling hook upwards and zipped to the top of the tree.

Mei Xing scratched his head. “Uh, okay. I’ll just run if you don’t mind.”

Arashi got into sniping position and kept Mei Xing in her sights as he dashed away.

In a few minutes, a group of triad members found him. Arashi shot down most of his pursuers with ease. Two of them took cover behind a small tree.

Nice try.

Arashi shot through the trunk. Bark and splinters burst out from the holes carved by her bullets. The two men crumpled to the floor. Their bodies were still intact because the wood weakened her bullets, but the copious volume of blood bubbling from their bodies confirmed their deaths.

Mei Xing rested his back on a tree and caught his breath. Arashi took this chance to scan her surroundings.

“Four down.” Ageha’s voice came from her earpiece.

“Six down,” replied Arashi.

“This isn’t a contest, people,” said Mei Xing.

Arashi spotted movement in her peripheral vision and zoomed in with her bionic eye. “Two hostiles sighted about two hundred feet northeast from here. No clear shot. Requesting support.”

“On top of it,” said Ageha.

Diving down from the branches, Ageha landed on the first target, crushing him underfoot. He swiftly dispatched the second target with a knife to the chest.

Ageha looked around the area. “I can hear a bunch of them coming here. These two were bait. Can you toss a flashbang here?”

Who do you think I am?

“Roger.” Arashi slung her rifle and stood on the tree branch. While calculating the exact distance to Ageha with her bionic eye, she took out a flash grenade. With one swift motion, she launched it into the air. “Fire in the hole.”

Like a baseball long toss, the cartridge-shaped explosive traced a high arc towards Ageha. It hit the top of a tree and fell, rustling the leaves and branches as it tumbled down. Ageha covered both ears with his hands. Enemies appeared around him and aimed their weapons.

A burst of light and sound swallowed them.

Right after the detonation, Ageha sliced open the throats of three people. The remaining enemies panicked and began shooting blindly, some of them hitting their allies.

“More enemies coming your way,” said Arashi. “I will provide fire support.”

“Don’t worry about me. Focus on Mei Xing,” said Ageha.

He dashed behind a tree. The reinforcements trained their guns at the wooden barrier, waiting for him to come out. A few seconds later, Ageha fell from the sky and stabbed the shoulders of two enemies with his dual blades. The triad members turned towards the screams, but Ageha was no longer there.

The enemies could not follow his inhuman speed and three-dimensional movement. He zipped from tree to tree, flew up and down, streaked left and right. A trail of corpses marked his path.

Arashi caught herself before being completely mesmerized by his lethal acrobatics.

I need to focus!

She found Mei Xing running away from a group of enemies. After Arashi picked off the one in front, the other three scrambled for cover. She shot one in the calf, blowing away everything below the knee. He screamed in agony while writhing on the ground. The others cowered behind a large tree. This time, she could not accurately shoot through the thick trunk.

Arashi did not finish off the one-legged enemy. Instead, she watched patiently as he frantically cried for help. One of his comrades rushed out to save him. He picked up the injured man and supported him with his shoulder. Arashi shot the ground around them a few times, intentionally missing by a hair. They shrieked in terror while desperately trying to outrun her bullets. Seeing his friends in danger, the man hiding behind the tree ran out to help them.

What good friends!

Arashi blew away his forehead. The other two froze in shock upon seeing the mist of brain fluid before them, making it easy for her to put holes in their backs.

The massacre continued. Triad members fell like flies against their overwhelming combat prowess. More reinforcements came from the hill, but they too dwindled in a span of minutes.

“Ten enemies heading here,” said Arashi. “Requesting support.”

“Sorry, you’ll have to handle them by yourself,” said Ageha. “Looks like I hit the jackpot this time.”

Zhi Zhu!?

Ageha was about to face the man who had defeated him once. Anxiety strangled Arashi’s heart.

“I will clear out the enemies as soon as I can and support you.”

“No need to rush. Be careful and make sure to keep Mei Xing and the others safe.”

Keep them safe?

I don’t care about these people.

The one I want to protect is you!

Arashi bit her bottom lip. “But-”

“Have a bit more faith in me. I’m a god, right?”

Arashi closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Right.

“Roger.”

“Your relationship is even more peculiar than I thought,” said Mei Xing.

 

***

 

Kaika crouched behind the hotel stairwell while her butler dealt with the fodder coming after them. Saya had initially used only a handgun, but after running low on ammo, she had stolen a submachine gun from a dead triad member to supplement her firepower.

What are they doing here?

Did Ageha and Arashi not make it in time?

…Did they fail?

Kaika had told Ageha about her plan to turn Akane and Zhang against each other by using Mei Xing. At first, she had tried to keep it a secret, afraid that he would abandon her after learning the truth. It was the same fear that drove her to betray Arashi before.

The fear of trusting another.

Unable to trust Arashi’s kindness, Kaika had left her blind. But Ageha had saved Kaika from that mistake. Learning from her error, she chose to believe in Ageha.

After telling him everything, Ageha just nodded and patted her head, as if praising her for a job well done.

He knew how it felt to be unable to trust another person. Ageha had recognized her fear, something he carried himself, and rewarded her for overcoming her weakness.

He understood her.

He really was special.

Not in general.

But to her.

I won’t lose to this fear again.

I trust in Ageha and Arashi.

But if they had not failed their mission, why were Zhang’s men coming after Kaika?

The gunfire subsided. Dozens of corpses, mostly normal hotel guests, were scattered across the hotel lobby. The smell of burning gunpowder permeated the large hall.

“Ojousama, I’ve taken care of the first wave,” said Saya. “We need to move.”

A drop of suspicion created ripples of doubt in Kaika’s mind.

She realized she might have discovered a secret she could never tell Ageha, even at the cost of breaking her promise.

 

***

 

Valeriya leaned back to avoid Mao’s claws but could not counter. The panther-like girl was too fast, and her only exposed parts, her legs, were alloy.

This girl is better than I expected.

Before Mao could retaliate, Valeriya ran to the closest parked car. Mao caught up to her as she reached the vehicle and tried to carve out her flank. Valeriya pulled open the driver-side door, using it to block the strike. The alloy blades sliced into the metal, becoming embedded.

With Mao stuck, Valeriya punched through the glass window at her face. Mao ducked to avoid her fist and sent a low leg sweep under the car door as she wiggled her claws free. The Russian dove into the car and crawled to the passenger seat. Mao leapt over the vehicle and landed on the other side to cut off her escape. Valeriya pulled the handle and kicked the door open, slamming it into Mao. Mao tumbled backwards as Valeriya got out of the car.

The battle had started just a few minutes ago, but Valeriya’s breathing was rough, and her muscles ached from strain. She was taxing her body beyond its capabilities to match the enhanced Mao.

She decided to buy time to recover.

Instead of chasing her enemy, Valeriya climbed on top of the car to gain higher ground. Mao did not come closer and watched her carefully.

“You’re pretty good,” said Valeriya. “Not much talent, but I can see your extensive training and experience.”

“I had a good teacher.”

“You mean Zhi Zhu?”

Mao’s glare grew sharp, like a scalpel ready to cut into skin.

Seeing her guess was spot on, Valeriya smiled. “I knew it. No one else in the Soaring Serpent Society has the skill to train someone like you.”

“You know that old fogey?”

“I sparred with him before I lost my arm. He didn’t have any cybernetics back then. It was a close fight, but I won in the end.”

She was lying. It had indeed been a close match, but Zhi Zhu had emerged victorious. Intimidation gave initiative in combat, and Valeriya needed every advantage she could get against Mao.

“Bullshit,” said Mao, not a shred of doubt in her eyes.

Zhi Zhu was just that strong. He had defeated Ageha, after all.

Valeriya casually pulled a lollipop from her pocket, unwrapped it with her teeth, and popped it into her mouth. “Believe what you want, but you can’t change facts. Ask him when you get back. Don’t worry, I won’t kill you. I’ll beat you half-dead though.”

Enemies that did not cower from intimidation generally fell for the reverse: provocation.

“You really think you can do that?”

Ria shrugged her shoulders, palm up. “Why not? I haven’t even been trying, but you’re already too afraid to come near me. It’d be immature of me to get serious against such a cute pussycat.”

“You oversized cunt…” Mao ground her teeth. “Before I kill you, tell me why you’re helping Kaika Nikaido. Boss would want to know that much.”

Cat Fight

I can buy a few more seconds.

“I’m not helping Kaika. I just owed Ageha a favor, oh he’s her boy toy. I intended to refuse because this errand is too much trouble, but that sneaky bastard told Mitsuki about my promise, ah, she’s my unbelievably cute, super-talented, semi-tsundere, semi-kuudere, ultra-moe daughter. For god knows what reason, she likes that playboy. The laws of nature made it impossible for me to refuse when the most adorable creature in the cosmos, that’s my daughter in case you weren’t listening, asked me to help Ageha. What’s more-”

Mao closed her eyes and shook her head. “Stop. I was the stupid one for asking an enemy.”

It’s all true, though.

Not caring about the Russian’s terrain advantage, Mao lunged at her.

I might lose my arm over this.

 

***

 

Ying observed the resurrected girl. She could tell that the enemy, despite having no discernible facial features, was sneering at them.

Her brother had recovered from the kick earlier and had returned to her side. She had half a clip remaining in her pistol. They held an absolute advantage with the two of them against a single unarmed opponent. But for some reason, her instinct told her otherwise.

“You go left,” said the brother.

“Wait, she survived a headshot. How do we even hurt her?”

“She’ll fall eventually if we keep shooting.”

Ying spat out a short sigh. Her brother was always fearless and aggressive. She liked that about him, but his personality often got them in trouble with the bosses. It was her job to keep him in check.

Mao was busy fighting the tall caucasian woman. Even if they could not defeat the faceless enemy, they should at least buy enough time until Mao finished on her end.

“Let’s keep our distance,” said the sister. “No point moving closer to a barehanded opponent.”

“Who said I was barehanded?” asked Faceless.

The sister noticed a small knife sticking out of her left shoulder.

What the…

“Ying!!!” shouted her brother. “Are you okay!?”

Faceless produced a sound similar to a laugh from her blank visage. “Of course she is! I don’t want our little game to end so soon!” She brandished a throwing knife in each hand. “I learned this trick from Mitsuki’s rival in love. It’s meaningless against me, but it’s really effective against lumps of flesh like you two.”

The twins had cybernetic legs, but from the perspective of a monster that stood up after taking a bullet to the head, they were indeed fragile beings.

“Look! It’s like magic!” She played with her knives like a circus performer. “Now you see it, now you don’t!”

A knife flew by the sister’s face, cutting her cheek. If Faceless had not announced the attack, she would have been unable to dodge it.

Faceless moved. The brother opened fire, but most of the bullets missed the zigzagging enemy. The ones that hit only slowed her down a little.

Ying decided to provide cover fire for her brother, but shooting wantonly would do them no good. She studied Faceless’s running pattern and patiently waited for the perfect shot.

Now!

She squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit Faceless’s foot as she was changing direction, causing her to trip.

Faceless fell forward. “Not bad!” She rolled on the ground and got back to her feet in an instant. “But you can’t just focus on me. You have to take care of yourselves too, or this’ll be over before you know it.”

The brother looked down. There was a knife embedded in his left shoulder, just like his twin.

“Ying!!!” shouted the sister.

She threw a knife while rolling!?

“You two match perfectly again!” said Faceless while running straight at the brother.

His left arm hung loosely, but he did not let go of his weapon. He pointed the submachine gun in his right hand at the enemy and emptied the clip to keep her away.

The sister dashed to get in between them.

I won’t make it!

Since she could not get in front of the enemy, she decided to attack her directly. Distracted by the last spurt of gunfire, Faceless took the ARMS-powered flying kick on her flank and got blasted away.

Ying desperately thought of a way to beat their enemy. Shooting her from afar with low caliber guns was ineffective. She recalled the start of the fight. Faceless had gotten knocked down by a headshot.

Multiple shots might do the trick.

Ying glanced at her brother. He nodded, completely understanding her intention. Their extensive experience fighting together and powerful bond as twins allowed them to read each other’s thoughts to such an extent.

Without giving Faceless time to recover, the twins ran side by side towards her. The sister holstered her handgun and took the empty submachine gun from her brother. As Faceless rose  to face them, the brother unleashed a burst of gunfire, forcing her to protect her face and chest with her arms. The sister reloaded her submachine gun while circling around.

The moment he ran out of ammo, his sister passed by Faceless’s side and showered her with bullets. Faceless held her peek-a-boo boxing stance while keeping the sister in front of her.

That was the right move. As far as Faceless knew, the brother’s gun had no more bullets,.

But the twins knew better.

You’re not the only one who can do sleight of hand!

The brother caught the handgun Ying had tossed in the air right before she fired at Faceless. Faceless, focused on the grinning sister, left the back of her head exposed. The brother aimed the pistol at the base of Faceless’s skull and pulled the trigger.

Ying heard a loud cry.

But it did not sound mechanical.

It was her brother’s voice.

The brother collapsed to his knees, both arms hanging limply from his shoulders. Blood spurted from his abdomen. Despite seeing everything that happened, the sister felt the urge to deny it with every fiber of her being.

It was just too unreasonable.

In an instant, Faceless had ducked to avoid the headshot, spun around, and broke the brother’s elbow. Before he could even scream, she had stabbed her fingers into his gut.

No way.

No way no way no way no way!

“How did you dodge that!?” shouted the sister in despair.

Faceless turned to her and replied in an unnervingly mechanical yet feminine voice. “Huh? I heard him catch the gun, duh.”

“That’s impossible! I was shooting at you! How can you hear something like that over gunfire!?”

“Even if you ask me that… Hmm… Gen said something about auditory enhancements for this model.” Faceless tilted her head, a hand on her chin. “Well, I wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t for your grin. That told me something was up so I paid extra attention.”

It was… my fault.

A paralyzing fear bound Ying. She knew she had to save her brother, but her body would not follow her commands.

“Good effort though,” said Faceless. “Although you had guns, you did ‘kill’ me about four times. Not as good as Ageha, but it was quite fun.”

“Wow…” said the brother, blood slowly dripping from his mouth. “You’re amazing. Can you tell me your name?”

“Sakuya.”

“I’m Ying, and that’s my sister, Ying.”

“Are you making fun of me?”

The brother chuckled weakly. “No, we really have the same name. But that’s not important right now. I have something to say to you, Sakuya.” Forcing his left arm to move, he picked up the handgun on the ground and pointed it at her.

But he did not shoot.

He let go of the weapon, letting it hang by the trigger guard on his index finger. It was a sign of surrender.

“I think I’m in love,” he said.

““……What did you say?”” The two teenage girls were shocked.

“Would you go out with me, Sakuya?”

“Uh, but you’re going to die in a few minutes.”

“Then think of it as my last wish.”

“Hmm… I was gonna slice you up in front of your sister, but this seems more interesting. Okay, I’ll go out with you.” Sakuya took the handgun and held his hand with her fingers coated in his blood.

“Great! I was afraid you’d turn me down.”

“Well, I don’t dislike your type, and it’s only for a few minutes anyway.”

“Have you gone insane!?” screamed the sister. “She has no face!”

Sakuya tilted her head. “I don’t think that’s the biggest problem here.”

“I can’t help how I feel, Ying. Sorry.”

Ying could not comprehend his thoughts at all. This was the first time she couldn’t understand her brother.

It’s because of this monster!!!

She pointed her submachine gun at Sakuya and pulled the trigger. The faceless cyborg did not try to dodge, taking the bullets to protect the boy behind her.

“It’s kinda crazy how this happened, but Ying is mine now, I think. Don’t mess with my stuff.” Using her free hand, Sakuya casually shot the sister with her own handgun.

The bullet lodged in her right shoulder and knocked her down. While writhing in pain on the ground, she twisted her neck and gazed at the newly formed couple.

Sakuya glanced at the gun in her hand. “I was aiming for the head. I guess copying the action isn’t good enough for shooting.”

The brother squeezed the faceless cyborg’s hand. “Hey, Sakuya.”

“That wasn’t my fault. She started it.”

“That’s okay, I understand. I wanna ask you a favor, as your, um, boyfriend. Would you do it for me?”

“Depends on what it is. Want me to cut you up?”

“Please don’t kill Ying.”

“Like I said, you’ll only last a few more minutes.”

“Not me, my sister.”

“Oh, right. Sure, why not.”

“…Thank you.” Ying smiled and closed his eyes.

The sister crawled on the ground like a worm, inching her way towards her dying brother. Ignoring her bleeding shoulders, she squeezed the last remnants of her strength and poured it into reaching him.

Despite their differing personalities, they understood each other completely, as if they were two personas of a single person. That was why they had named themselves Ying after joining the triad. No matter how different they became from each other, she would never lose sight of him.

That was what she thought.

But now, she did not have a clue about what her brother was thinking. She felt completely lost. She wanted to touch him, feel him, connect with him again. Her fingernails clawed at the ground as she pulled herself onward.

Just a few more feet..!

“Oh he died.” Sakuya released Ying’s hand, letting him fall to the ground like a rag doll. “I scrambled his organs worse than I thought.” She lost interest and walked away, leaving the twins alone.

Ying eventually made it to her brother’s side. He sat motionless on the ground, a peaceful smile on his face.

Why are you smiling?

I don’t understand, Ying.

I don’t get it at all.

More than sadness from his passing, a boundless anxiety overwhelmed her.

Not knowing was frightening.

She wanted to know.

She needed to know.

About him.

About herself.

But how?

What can I do?

She grabbed her brother’s hand, wet with his own blood, hoping for a revelation. Surprisingly, one actually came.

This warmth.

His hand was burning hot. They had touched and held each other before, but it had never been this scorching.

Is this what it means to love someone?

She had found her answer.

I just have to fall in love with Sakuya too.

 

***

 

The brother could no longer keep his eyes open.

The last thing he saw was his sister desperately crawling towards him.

I did it.

I saved Ying.

Sakuya, the crazy robot girl who gouged out his innards, had agreed to spare his twin.

I can’t believe it worked.

He knew defeating Sakuya was impossible the moment she dodged his last bullet. Left with no other choice, he had decided to surrender and beg for his sister’s life. The confession was a spur of the moment idea he got after realizing that their opponent was a fickle teenage girl. At the very least, she spoke and acted like one.

Sakuya probably knew what he was thinking but went along with it for fun. He would never know for sure.

All sensation gradually left him.

He wanted to see his sister’s face, hear her voice, touch her hand, one last time.

But he could no longer see anything.

Hear anything.

Feel anything.

He could no longer take care of his little sister. Despite her mature manner, she was very innocent and socially awkward. It was his job to support her, but that was now impossible.

His regrets caused the last remnants of his life to sizzle inside him. It was not enough to make his broken body move. All it did was make him feel like he was burning alive.

He felt someone grasp his hand.

Ying?

His last thought flickered out.

 

***

 

He has improved.

Zhi Zhu parried Ageha’s fist with his bent wrist and countered with a wing chun punch to the chest. Ageha stepped back just enough to avoid the blow.

While hopping back to put some distance between them, Zhi Zhu analyzed what he had learned from the fight so far.

I knew it was odd how quickly he moved after being exposed to a flash grenade.

His last dodge confirmed it.

Bionic eyes.

Ageha had a complete grasp of Zhi Zhu’s range, an achievement made possible by the measuring capabilities of his enhanced vision.

It had not been long since they last fought. To be able to use new bionics so well in such a short time was impressive. Such a feat required talent, intensive training, and an excellent cyber mechanic.

Rifle gunfire rang in short intervals. The sniper was still busy protecting Mei Xing from his subordinates. Sacrificing a good portion of his men to figure out Ageha’s available resources and plan turned out to be worth it. All Zhi Zhu had to do now was kill Ageha while his ally sniper was occupied.

Ageha shuffled forward and thrust out a front kick at max range. The speed of his attack surprised Zhi Zhu, delaying his parry by a split second. Though most of the force was redirected, a dull pain still ran through Zhi Zhu’s alloy forearm.

Such amazing power.

Both of them had extensive enhancements, including all four limbs, but Ageha’s ARMS were more advanced. Zhi Zhu was completely behind him in power and speed.

But that was all.

In terms of experience, training, and technique, Ageha was no match for him.

What a waste.

If this young man became my student…

The monster he imagined terrified him.

Reading the path of Ageha’s punches and kicks, he swayed to avoid the combo and kicked the young man’s kneecap, killing his momentum. Ageha pulled out a handgun from his rear belt holster and unloaded several shots in Zhi Zhu’s direction. While blocking the bullets heading for his face with his forearms, Zhi Zhu drove his right foot into the gun barrel, breaking it to pieces.

Ageha threw the remains of the handgun at Zhi Zhu, but the master easily swatted away the projectile and dashed in for a kick. Ageha leapt up the tree behind him to avoid the attack. He grabbed onto a thick branch with both hands and planted his feet on the trunk. Like a spring, he gathered power in his legs and launched himself headfirst towards Zhi Zhu.

Despite the terrifying velocity of Ageha’s dive, Zhi Zhu calmly sidestepped his flight path and prepared to attack him once he landed. Ageha extended his arm as he flew past his target. His knife, hidden until the last moment, nicked Zhi Zhu’s throat.

Ageha landed forearms first and shifted his momentum into a forward roll. Zhi Zhu’s scythe-like kick missed him by a hair’s breadth. Ageha got to his feet and raced to a safe distance.

Zhi Zhu touched the wound on his neck, feeling the blood coat his fingertips.

That was close.

He is more resourceful than before.

No, he is more desperate.

That makes him more dangerous.

I have to take this more seriously.

Ageha said something, but Zhi Zhu could not understand it.

“I don’t know much Japanese, Ageha Shikimi,” said Zhi Zhu in fluent English. “I apologize for prattling in Chinese in our last duel. It didn’t occur to me that you wouldn’t understand.”

“What the hell are you?” asked Ageha. “I threw everything and the kitchen sink at you but all you get is a scratch.”

Zhi Zhu smiled. “I’m just older and smarter, that’s all. That ‘everything’ you mentioned is limited by your experience and knowledge. Those are probably tactics you’ve tried and succeeded with previously, am I correct?”

Ageha did not reply.

“The variety of our options is simply too different. It’s the only good thing that comes from getting old, so please don’t blame me too much.” Zhi Zhu chuckled softly. “For example…” He turned around and ran away from Ageha at full speed.

Surprise delayed Ageha’s start, but he chased after Zhi Zhu as expected. Zhi Zhu nimbly weaved around the trees along his path. He abruptly turned left, causing Ageha to overshoot the turn. Zhi Zhu circled back to the area where they came from as Ageha slowly caught up to him.

When Zhi Zhu was almost within arm’s reach, Ageha tripped. Zhi Zhu sent a back kick to meet his fall. The off-balance Ageha had no means to dodge, but he still managed to defend by crossing his arms in front of him. Though weakened by his block, the kick still launched him backward. He landed on his back and skidded on the grass.

Zhi Zhu trailed after him and shuffled to the side for a soccer kick aimed at his unprotected ribs. Ageha dropped his elbow and took the attack on his arm. The impact caused him to slide across the forest floor. Using the momentum, he rolled sideways and pushed off the ground to get back on his feet. He threw his knife at the approaching Zhi Zhu, but the expert merely deflected it with his forearm.

Zhi Zhu stopped about a dozen feet from Ageha. “I’m honestly impressed. It’s like you don’t even feel pain. Your insides ought to be in pretty bad shape right now.”

“How did you trip me? Something caught my leg.”

“You mean this?” Zhi Zhu stretched out an almost invisible string between his hands. “It’s a nanotube alloy thread, very thin, but practically unbreakable. I wound it around the trees as I ran. You have to be very cautious when the enemy takes unexpected actions. Deception is a fundamental element in combat. Chasing me headlong was foolish. That little stumble almost cost you your life.”

“How much do I owe you for the lesson?”

“It’s free if you become my student, but I’m sure that’s not happening.”

“You got that right.” Ageha took a fighting stance but did not advance.

“What’s wrong? Come and attack me.”

“Tried that, didn’t work.”

The rifle shots were starting to get sparse. The triad members keeping the sniper busy appeared to be running out.

He’s trying to buy time until help comes.

I better finish this soon.

Zhi Zhu preferred defense, but that did not mean his offensive ability was lacking in any way.

While keeping his center of gravity neutral, Zhi Zhu closed the distance between them with three large strides and drove his fist towards Ageha’s face. The young man parried it with his right forearm, but Zhi Zhu twirled his hand with incredible speed, looping a metal string onto Ageha’s wrist. While tightening the alloy string, Zhi Zhu launched his shin at Ageha’s groin. Ageha backpedaled to avoid it. Though the attack whiffed, it managed to push Ageha’s back against a tree. Instead of attacking the cornered Ageha, Zhi Zhu ran to the side.

Wary of another trap, Ageha did not follow. Zhi Zhu circled around the tree and attacked Ageha from the other side with a punch and kick combination. Ageha blocked the blows, but that allowed Zhi Zhu to loop the string around his wrist once again. Zhi Zhu jumped back while pulling the alloy cord. The string drew Ageha’s wrist to the trunk of the tree, locking it in place.

Ageha struggled to get free, but his arm alone could not beat Zhi Zhu’s full strength. Like a spider weaving a deathtrap, Zhi Zhu wound his end of the string around two large trees to reinforce the restraints.

Zhi Zhu calmly approached the trapped enemy and threw a punch. Ageha prepared to protect his vital parts against the blow, but Zhi Zhu’s target lay elsewhere.

No reason to aim for moving parts.

His right fist landed on Ageha’s immobile forearm. With a press of a button, Zhi Zhu sent an electric shock into Ageha’s body.

“I can’t help but feel a little sad about having to kill someone with as much potential as you.” Zhi Zhu pulled his right arm back for the deathblow. “But that’s life.”

Something’s wrong.

Instead of hanging limply by his bound wrist, Ageha was still on his feet.

It didn’t work!?

Ageha’s left hook landed squarely on Zhi Zhu’s hurriedly raised forearm, causing it to smash into his face. Zhi Zhu got thrown to the side and tumbled on the ground. His vision swayed, and a ringing noise grated at his ears. His cheek bone was probably cracked from the impact. Blood dribbled down his chin, and a few of his molars were knocked loose.

But he was fine.

His current condition was sufficient to defeat his trapped enemy.

Zhi Zhu slowly got up and noticed Ageha pushing off the tree trunk with both legs, trying to free his bound wrist. The young man’s body shook as he desperately struggled to escape from the restraints.

Pointless.

That string is impossible to-

It broke.

Ageha tumbled to the ground after the string’s tension disappeared. He stood up while pulling the remaining wire from his wrist.

Zhi Zhu realized he had underestimated Ageha. Needless thoughts instantly vanished from his mind. The fight he had been enjoying so far had turned into a true deathmatch. The time for self-reflection or impressions was over. His entire consciousness became wired to kill.

“My turn now.” Ageha approached the injured master. “You thought I didn’t learn from our last fight?” He pinched his skin-tight outfit. “This suit has built-in electric insulation. You’re not the only one who likes to plan ahead.”

Ageha sprinted towards him. Zhi Zhu spotted Ageha’s knife on the ground between them. He dashed forward, dove under Ageha’s punch, and rolled on top of the weapon. Taking care not to be noticed, he tucked the blade into his sleeve.

Ageha rushed him with another flurry of attacks. Zhi Zhu parried or dodged most of them, but unlike earlier, they were all close calls. His speed suffered from the damage.

Even so, he patiently waited for a gap in Ageha’s barrage.

Ageha’s roundhouse kick missed.

A chance!

Zhi Zhu stepped into zero range as he drew the knife from his sleeve. Ageha raised his guard to protect his face and chest. This allowed Zhi Zhu to slice open the suit on his left thigh and tear open the fabric. Ageha tried to hop away, but Zhi Zhu grabbed his leg, causing both of them to tumble to the ground.

One shot left.

The electric charge in his right fist had been used up. Only the one in his left hand remained.

Gotta make it count.

Zhi Zhu used expert grappling technique to slither to Ageha’s leg, locking it in place with his entire body. Ageha, fended off by Zhi Zhu’s feet, could not reach any of Zhi Zhu’s vulnerable parts.

Zhi Zhu slammed his fist into Ageha’s exposed thigh and pressed a button.

Ageha convulsed and fell limp.

Zhi Zhu won.

Savoring the taste of his hard-earned victory, Zhi Zhu got up. It had been almost a decade since his last truly thrilling deathmatch. The image of a blond Russian flitted behind his closed eyelids, but he quickly erased such idle thoughts. He still had to take care of the sniper and murder Mei Xing and his family.

But first he had to end his defeated nemesis.

 

***

 

Valeriya combed the hair away from her sweat-soaked face. Her pale golden mane, undone from its bun by one of Mao’s near-misses, sloped down her back and breasts. Her shoulders heaved with each breath, and her fist was trembling from fatigue. In contrast, the candy in her mouth had hardly changed size. In the span of a few minutes, the fight had turned drastically in Mao’s favor.

“You’re not doing so well,” said Sakuya.

Without looking at the combat doll behind her, Valeriya snorted. “Then give me a hand. You’re done, right?”

Mao darted her eyes for a split-second to check on her comrades. The twins were sprawled like old rags in front of the hotel entrance. Blood pooled beneath them.

Sakuya’s shoulders trembled as she snickered in delight. “Not a chance! This is the perfect opportunity for my revenge! It’s pointless for me to kill you because you’re okay with it. But what if that bitch offs you? You’ll never see Mitsuki again, and she’ll cry rivers because you died. To top it all off, you don’t even get redemption for killing Father and creating me! I’m so excited to see what kind of face you’ll make on the verge of death!”

Valeriya shrugged. “Figures. I just asked for the heck of it.”

“That’s how it is, cat lady. I won’t be lifting a finger to help Ria. You can go ahead and slice her up as much as you want. Ah, but I’ll butcher you right after, half for Mitsuki, half for fun. I hope that’s okay.”

Mao spread her claws, her dilated pupils focusing on Sakuya. “You can try.”

“Hey, don’t forget about me.” Valeriya twirled the lollipop in her mouth, sending a surge of sweetness to her tongue. “I think it’s about time I got serious.”

“Quit the bluffing. You’re on your last legs.”

You got that right.

This fight is such a pain.

I wanna praise myself for hanging on for so long.

I wanna go home and watch the latest episode of Prisma Lilya.

I wanna take a bath with Mitsuki.

A weak sigh slipped out of her.

But that might not be possible anymore.

Guess I better prepare for the worst.

Valeriya decided to go on the offense for the first time in the fight. It was a suicidal move considering the difference in their physical abilities, but she had little choice given the situation.

With a lightning fast step in, the blond bullet thrust her fingers at Mao’s throat. Mao quickly raised her right claw to block, prepared to shred Valeriya’s hand on contact. Instead of pulling back, the Russian twisted her hips to the right, transforming her forward momentum into rotational speed. Her fingers almost grazed the razor sharp claws as she spun around.

With her back to the enemy, Valeriya used her right heel to stomp on Mao’s right toes, preventing her from moving away. Pivoting on the same foot, she spun to Mao’s open flank. Harnessing her rotational inertia, she thrust a left uppercut towards Mao’s lower ribcage. The ferocious feline managed to lower her right elbow for a block.

Valeriya’s knuckles would crumble against the metal elbow, so she opened her fist at the last moment, slamming a palm strike into the limb. Mao spat out the air in her lungs as the impact traveled through her arm and into her torso.

Mao desperately swung her right claw at the Russian, forcing her to hop back. But Valeriya’s backdash did not take her far enough to evade the blades completely.

Two wide slits opened on Valeriya’s suit, exposing her cleavage. Blood trickled from the deep cuts on her breasts. Ignoring the pain, she took a fighting stance, ready to defend against Mao’s follow up.

But the next attack did not come.

Mao straightened her posture while shaking off the blood on her claw. She had a condescending smile plastered across her face, like a cat playing with a mouse.

“Game over, Valeriya Varrenikov.”

Valeriya felt her body grow heavy, as if her weight had doubled.

I knew it.

The claws were coated in poison, and her rapid pulse circulated the venom at a quick pace.

No time to waste.

Valeriya took advantage of Mao’s complacency and tackled her with reckless abandon. Mao’s claws sliced into her right shoulder, but Valeriya pushed forth and successfully took her feet off the ground. She tried to mount Mao, but the lack of an arm and cybernetics proved to be too large a handicap to overcome with technique alone. Mao pushed her to the side and got on top of her.

A single swipe of Mao’s claw would end Valeriya’s life right then and there, but Mao merely pinned her down.

“Just relax and let the drug do its thing. It won’t kill you. I still need to hand you over to Boss for questioning. Nikaido might be more deeply involved with the Russian organizations than we thought.” Mao raised her gaze to check on the other enemy.

“Don’t worry about me,” said Sakuya. “I’m still enjoying the show.”

Mao glanced at the woman below her. “That’s some nutty friend you have there.”

“She’s my daughter.”

“What a terrible kid… I kinda feel sorry for you now.”

The final combat exchange had completely gone in Mao’s favor. All Mao had to do was wait until Valeriya became completely paralyzed.

Mao’s complacence gave Valeriya the opening she needed. She swung her left fist, aiming for Mao’s exposed jaw. The speed of her strike made it almost invisible to the naked eye.

Almost.

Mao caught her forearm with her right claw. Valeriya’s fist was inches away from Mao’s cheek, but it did not reach. The blades dug into her skin.

“Don’t struggle. It’ll be hard to keep you alive if you lose an arm.”

Valeriya glared at her captor and spat out her lollipop. Mao tilted her head to the left to avoid the slimy candy projectile.

“Disgusting!” said Mao. “Do you really wanna die that badly?”

“Don’t insult my girl.”

Mao narrowed her eyes. “What did you say-”

Valeriya stabbed the lollipop stick she had caught with her hand into Mao’s ear, piercing her eardrum.

Mao shrieked like an injured animal. The Russian grabbed her by the hair.

“I said, don’t insult my girl.”

Valeriya pulled down Mao’s head and smashed her forehead into her face. Blood sprayed from Mao’s nose as their heads came apart. She tightened her grip and slammed another head butt, and then another. Dazed from the brutal assault, Mao could do nothing while Valeriya reversed their positions and mounted her. Mao’s eyes could not even focus on her enemy anymore.

Forcing her poisoned body to move through sheer willpower, Valeriya raised her hand and gathered energy for a downward palm strike. It was a lethal blow.

Sorry.

I lied about not killing you.

Her palm fell on target, right on Mao’s jaw.

But the sound of impact was dull, or rather, absent.

Valeriya’s body slumped on top of Mao, covering her face with her bleeding breasts.

“Shit. I can’t move anymore,” she said.

“I knew it’d end up like this,” said Sakuya.

“Thanks for believing in me.”

“Believing? This was inevitable. You planned everything from the moment you took out that lollipop, didn’t you? I got excited for nothing.”

“Well, I took one risk.”

“She was that formidable? You never do that.”

Valeriya hated taking risks in fights. For a prodigy like her, it was usually unnecessary.

She had deduced that Mao’s blades were poisoned from the way she unconsciously kept them away from her own body. The only gamble she took was intentionally getting cut and poisoned to lower Mao’s guard. Still, it was a calculated risk. Poisons used in combat, as opposed to assassinations, were generally non-lethal or curable. It would be too dangerous for the wielder otherwise. That said, there were exceptions, and Valeriya put her money on that not being the case.

“Ria!” Kaika’s voice came from the entrance. “Don’t kill Mao! It’ll be impossible to establish peace with the triads if she’s dead!”

Two sets of footsteps approached Valeriya.

“…What are you doing?” asked Kaika, her voice oozing with exasperation.

Ugh, this isn’t what it looks like.

Before freezing up completely, Valeriya, still straddling the unconscious Mao and smothering her with her breasts, squeezed out her last words. “Wanna join in? Lolis are always welcome.”

 

***

 

Ageha lay lifeless on the forest floor.

He could not move.

He wanted to get up and smash his fist into Zhi Zhu’s face, but he could not move.

Not his arms, not his legs, not his feet, not his neck, not his fingers. He could not move any of them.

Zhi Zhu walked over to his side and stared into his eyes.

“Looks like your strategy fell just a bit short. But you fought very well. Thank you for the match.”

Even with death just a breath away, all Ageha could do was glare at his enemy.

With a satisfied smile, Zhi Zhu raised his right foot and hung it over Ageha’s face.

Ageha could not move.

Not until the right time.

And that was now.

Ageha grabbed Zhi Zhu’s raised foot by the ankle, holding him in place. “Arashi! Shoot him now!!!”

Zhi Zhu’s face crumpled in shock. He raised both arms to cover the top of his head and crouched down as low as he could to avoid getting sniped.

But the shot did not come.

Arashi was busy covering for Mei Xing, after all.

With his free hand, Ageha grabbed Zhi Zhu’s face and squeezed.

Zhi Zhu’s eyeballs popped out of their sockets. Ageha’s fingers dug deep into his skull and scooped out a chunk of his brain, removing his tongue in the process.

“Arashi, report your status,” said Ageha as he sat up.

“Target not specified. I… don’t know who to shoot.”

“Forget about that. How are Mei Xing and the others?”

“I’m okay,” said Mei Xing. “How’re Setsu and Li Xue?”

“Safe,” said Arashi. “Three targets left.”

Ageha shook his hand, flicking away the blood and goop. “Do you need support?”

“Negative.”

He closed his eyes and listened for movement around him. He could not sense any enemies nearby.

“Zhi Zhu is dead. Let’s meet up after you take care of the stragglers.”

“Roger.”

Ageha finally breathed out a sigh of relief and relaxed his shoulders. The battle was over. His body was badly beaten, but nothing required immediate treatment. He pressed the mute button on his earpiece to prevent the others from hearing him.

“Turns out my strategy didn’t fall short, Zhi Zhu. Well, the idea was originally from my boss, so don’t blame me too much.”

It had been Kaika’s suggestion to use specialized insulating material for both his suit and his skin. To Saya’s dismay, the new artificial dermis Tsubasa developed felt like rubber, but that step away from humanity had proven to be worth it. The rest of the bluffs, including the fake sniper call, were Ageha’s on-the-fly tactics.

Deception was indeed a fundamental element in combat, and none matched the mastermind he worked for and learned from. Kaika had proven to be Ageha’s goddess of victory, or more aptly, devil in the shadows.

Ageha glanced at the crimson cavity that used to be Zhi Zhu’s face. “And a piece of advice. Victory speeches should be given after you win. Doesn’t matter if the audience is already dead. Not like they’d applaud anyway.”

 

Next Chapter

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6 thoughts on “Chapter Fourteen: Brawn and Brains

  1. vanadylum

    Evil Overlord List rule 7: When I’ve captured my adversary and he says, “Look, before you kill me, will you at least tell me what this is all about?” I’ll say, “No.” and shoot him. No, on second thought, I’ll shoot him, then say “No.”

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. Kristan Heisken

    Jeez. No matter how mentally prepared I think I am whenever I read this, my expectations are shattered immediately. In this chapter’s case, twice. Each time I think that I can handle the gritty edge that comes along with your writing, someone will die and make me feel bad. Then, neither too soon nor too late, you would skillfully bring them back to life while I sit here emotionally confused.

    Fantastic writing as usual. I’m looking forward to the finale of the volume.

    On a brighter note – “Before freezing up completely, Valeriya, still straddling the unconscious Mao and smothering her with her breasts, squeezed out her last words. “Wanna join in? Lolis are always welcome.””

    These lines have truly cemented best girl for me. Beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Kanda Hikaru Post author

      Thank you. I cannot express how much your words warmed my heart and healed my soul.

      Ria is probably in my top three favorites from a writer’s perspective. I love writing her, being an anime fan myself, but I definitely enjoy writing any scene with Arashi in it the most.

      Like

      Reply
  3. Kurotsubaki

    I’m trembling when i thought mei xing’s family died. And then i found out that it was just a false report. Jeez, this novel is as ‘mental-stirring’ as ever! And i love it!!

    Thank you kanda-san and i love you!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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