Chapter Fifteen: Miracle

Endless street lights flitted past Mashiro’s car window, rhythmically illuminating her solemn face like blinking christmas lights. Her lips gave way to her umpteenth sigh that night, prompting Makoto to break the heavy silence hanging over them.

“You sure you wanna do this?”

Mashiro turned to her right, where her childhood friend kept sending her looks of concern. “I told you, there’s no other way.”

“But something like this… He’s your father, even if you’re not blood-related.”

“I know that.” Creasing her brow, she fought the temptation to bite her lip. She did not want to worry Makoto any more than she already had. “But this is the path with the least amount of sacrifices.”

“For others, maybe. But you’ll-”

“Enough, Makoto. Please.”

“…You’re right. I already agreed to this. I’m sorry.”

Guilt pricked her heart, but she did not have the emotional leeway to apologize. More pressing matters kept her occupied. To prevent her wavering heart from fluttering further, she thought back to her conversation a few days ago with the other person behind tonight’s scheme.

“You were too careless,” said Kaika.

“Hey, you were the one who suggested going after the VP,” grumbled Mashiro.

“Sure, but you were the one who failed to see through her act. I told you it was the best move to make use of her, but you were the one who insisted on making contact with her yourself. Just so you know, I considered the possibility of her working for Butler. I even had a plan to take advantage of her if that were the case, but you told me she could be trusted. How could you not see through her lies after meeting her so many times?”

“I tried reading her tells and expressions, but it’s practically impossible to get an accurate read on a lifelong politician like her. I did find her readiness to help suspicious, but she openly admitted her ambition to become president, so I thought we could at least rely on her greed. And…”

“And?”

“…I’m sorry. I was careless.”

Kaika sighed. “No use crying over spilled milk. Let’s move on.”

“I appreciate that.”

“But you really did screw up in a grand fashion. And after all that posturing too.”

“You really are a bitch, you know that?”

“Just stating the facts.”

Mashiro clicked her tongue. “Fine, fine. It was all my fault. I ruined all your plans. Happy now?”

“Aww… You don’t have to blame yourself that much. Your ridiculous failure might run deeper than the Mariana Trench and extend wider than the Grand Canyon, but it’s still not enough to ruin all my plans. I still have an ace in the hole. You’re not gonna like it though.”

“Hey, we had a deal.”

“‘Had’ being the operative word. I agreed to follow your naive methods, but we don’t have the luxury to be picky anymore. Fortunately, your failure is also an opportunity.”

“What do you mean?”

“Surrender to your father.”

“…So I’m the bait to lure him out.”

“Why can’t you be this sharp all the time? Flirting with Makoto is distracting you too much.”

“Enough with the jabs. What exactly are you planning?”

“Tell him you’ve seen the error of your ways and that you want to meet with him in person to ascertain his good intentions for the country. If it’s for you, a piece valuable not only personally but politically, he’ll agree. Make sure the meeting place is on neutral ground. I’ll handle the preparations for his welcome.”

“That’s-”

“He has us in check right now, and this is the only move to turn the tables. Anything less leads to defeat. Do you really think someone who can murder people by the hordes, who almost killed Makoto, deserves mercy? Don’t forget his crimes: treason, mass murder, warmongering, the list goes on. Each of those alone gets the death penalty in some of your states. Now think about this. What else is he capable of? What other atrocious things is he already doing behind the scenes? You of all people should know that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Are you really okay with a man like him sitting on top of the world’s largest powder keg?”

“…I’m not.”

“Then you have your answer.”

From there, the two girls exchanged insults like lifelong boxing rivals, with some decent ideas in between. Their bout lasted for hours. They covered all possible angles and avenues of attack, from blackmail to propaganda, before arriving at a final plan. In the end, Mashiro was left no choice but to trod the path of inhumanity as penitence for her failure.

She ended her reminiscence by renewing the oath she swore to herself.

I have to do this with my own hands.

I will bear this sin.

To end everything.

That’s my responsibility as his daughter.

It’s a sacrifice I have to make for the sake of a better world.

That was how she continued to convince herself as the moment of truth drew ever closer. Her scrambled thoughts melted into the streaking lights lining the endless darkness of the highway. Before she knew it, they reached their destination.

“We’re here.” Makoto gently nudged her shoulder. “Ready?”

“…As much as I’ll ever be.”

“You do know there’s a good chance we’re not getting out of this alive, right?”

“Yup.”

“And that even if everything goes right, we still might not achieve our main objective?”

“Yup.”

Makoto locked his fingers in front of him and stretched his arms as if he just woke up. “Let’s go then.”

He got off the vehicle and took Mashiro’s outstretched hand, like a knight guiding a princess. Unlike in fairytales, this princess’s gaze held no frailty. Their battlefield, the ruins of an old industrial mill, stretched out before them, with crumbled brick walls serving as a jotted perimeter. Their enemy, her beloved yet misguided father, awaited them at the far end of the dusty, open field.

The power balance was clearly tilted to their opponent’s side. Butler was surrounded by armored soldiers and uniformed officers, with reinforcements likely lurking in the jet-black vans behind them. In contrast, Mashiro only brought Makoto, without his custom armor, and a driver. The vast difference was expected. They did not come to negotiate as equals but merely to pathetically haggle the terms of their surrender, at least as far as Butler knew.

Wasting no time, the armored soldiers, along with several uniformed officers, crossed the open field and approached them.

A female officer went up to Mashiro. “Apologies for the rudeness, but I need to pat you down, Ma’am.” Upon seeing Mashiro nod, the officer proceeded to check her body for weapons. She performed the check with quickness and precision, eventually finding the hard object inside Mashiro’s jacket.

“That’s just my mobile.”

“Sorry, but we need to confiscate this.” The female officer took the mobile terminal and put it inside a leather bag.

Makoto, who underwent a similar check, sported a frown as he watched his phone join Mashiro’s, not knowing if he would ever get it back.

After the pat down, the officers waved a black rod around their bodies to check for hidden electronic devices. Finding nothing, they put away the detectors and led the two to Butler at the other end of the field. The bag with their phones remained with an officer who stayed behind to watch over their car and driver.

“Been a while,” said Butler as soon as they reached earshot. “You’ve been busy.”

“Not as much as you.” Mashiro let a wry smile slip out. “You really got me with the VP. I’m still miffed about that. Can’t believe I was dancing in the palm of your hand the entire time.”

Makoto remained a few steps behind Mashiro to give the family space to talk.

“Trusting anyone, a politician at that, was your mistake.” Butler stood straight and firm, towering over her like an ancient tree. “You should’ve led the opposition yourself, even if that made it more difficult to gather allies. That said, nothing would’ve changed. Your starting position was simply too disadvantageous compared to mine.”

“Are you trying to console me?”

“Perhaps. You are my daughter.”

“…Thanks. For coming out here too, even if I did include it as a condition of my surrender. I need to see you face to face to make sure I can put my faith in your promises, but you could’ve just as easily declined.”

“Indeed, but your offer was too tempting to pass up.”

The offer, as Butler put it, was Mashiro’s full cooperation in his ongoing and future activities. Having trained and educated her himself, he knew how valuable she was. Moving her from the enemy camp into his own was a significant increase in his human assets.

“I’m glad you still think so highly of me.”

“You know I do, which leads me to my next question. What else do you want in exchange for coming to my side?”

“Spare the people Selena captured. Don’t kill their subordinates either. They were only involved because I recruited them to oppose you.”

“Fine, but I can’t free them. It would set a bad example.”

“I’m okay with that.”

“What else?”

“I want you to stop killing people without just cause.”

“I’ve always killed with just cause.”

Your cause is far from being just. You should abide by the rule of law.”

Butler shook his head. “I can’t do that.”

“Why!? You’re already in power. There’s no need for more murder!”

“On the contrary. Staying in power is harder than gaining it. Rulers rise and fall all the time. I need decisiveness and cruelty to remain in a position to guide this country.”

“That’s not true. There’s always another way. I can help you find it.”

“I’m sorry, but this is non-negotiable.”

Sorrowful creases marred Mashiro’s face. “Is there really no way?”

“None.”

“…Then I can’t help you.”

“You do understand that I can arrest you right here if you don’t cooperate? You won’t be able to do a thing in a prison cell.”

“I know. That’s why I have no other choice but to stop you.”

“Are you perhaps referring to the snipers you placed around this area? My soldiers have already taken care of them.”

Mashiro widened her eyes, her mouth agape. “…What?”

“Did you really think I wouldn’t see through such an obvious trap? I wouldn’t have even considered meeting you in person if the sniper Arashi Tanizaki was at large, but according to my intel, she is trapped in the mountains at the moment. I do commend your acting, pretending to adhere to naive idealism when in reality, you were planning to kill your own adoptive father. Kaika Nikaido’s poison is terrifyingly potent.”

“This can’t be happening…” muttered Makoto.

“You allied yourselves with a dangerously intelligent individual, but she’s spread thin at the moment with two of her best subordinates out of action. I can’t blame her for not being able to use you two to your full potential.” Butler approached his daughter and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Isn’t this enough? You clashed against me with your ideals and lost. Victory has proven my path to be the right one. Come and take your place by my side, Mashiro.”

Mashiro’s shoulders sagged under the weight of his palm. Her entire body swayed, like a tiny tree amidst a typhoon. After blinking her unfocused eyes several times, she weakly nodded. “I… understand.”

A fatherly smile, filled with genuine affection and joy, spread across Butler’s face. “I knew you would make the right decision.”

“B-But I can’t betray Kaika…”

“She deserves betrayal. Think of it as punishment for all those she deceived until now.”

Mashiro looked away from her father, creasing her brow as she pondered her reply. “At least let me tell her that our alliance is dissolved before I join you. I owe her that much.”

Butler closed his eyes, mulling over the idea for a moment. “As straightlaced as ever. But that’s also one of your best qualities. Fine.”

“Can I borrow your phone? Mine is all the way over there.” Mashiro pointed her thumb over her shoulder, indicating the officer carrying her mobile at the far end of the field.

Butler glanced at one of his officers, who immediately produced his phone and handed it to Mashiro. Even though he had just attained a crushing victory, he was not foolish enough to lend his own device, filled with confidential information, to his newly reclaimed daughter.

Mashiro pressed on the screen a few times and then tossed the mobile over her shoulder. Before surprise could even register among Butler and his troops, Mashiro topped her act with one more stunt.

She embraced and kissed her father.

Not on the cheeks.

On the lips. With plenty of tongue.

In utter shock, Butler froze in place, eyelids rolled up as far as they would go. His subordinates fell into a state of confusion, unsure what the bizarre display unfolding before them meant and how to react.

Only one person in the audience moved. Makoto, having caught the mobile Mashiro threw his way, proceeded to film and take pictures of the scene. By the time Butler came back to his senses and pushed Mashiro away, Makoto had already raised his hands in the air as a sign of surrender.

Makoto locked eyes with Mashiro, who was busy wiping her lips on her sleeve. “Sent.”

She put away the look of disgust on her face and curled her lips into a victorious grin. “Mission accomplished.”

The soldiers, still unsure of the meaning of what transpired, scrambled to restrain the two of them, but it was far too late.

Butler staggered backward, realization dawning on his face. “The snipers…”

“Decoys.”

“Who did you send it to?”

“Who do you think? I’m sure it’s everywhere already.”

Butler clenched his fists. “How do you plan to escape?”

“We don’t.”

“A suicide mission?”

“Not at all. I trust you. My father is many things, but he isn’t a sore loser.”

“A loser..? Me?”

“Your authority right now is heavily reliant on popular support. How do you think the American people are going to react to this incest scandal? A sex scandal is one thing, but incest… That’s a career ender. Supporting a deviant like you would be political suicide. The sharks looming just underneath you, the VP included, won’t pass up such an opportunity. This is my win.”

Butler stared blankly at his daughter for what seemed like ages. Then the tiniest gasp, a chuckle, escaped his lips. More followed, yet fitting for the stoic military man, his fit of laughter, if it could even be called that, never left the realm of subdued.

Everyone watched the uncommon spectacle in silence, wary of what would come next.

Finally settling down, Butler sighed and looked into his daughter’s eyes. “There are no winners here, Mashiro. We both lost.”

“…What are you talking about?”

“This scandal you fabricated is indeed a heavy, if not fatal blow. But that applies to the both of us. Your reputation is ruined too. Even worse, most of your influence relies on your spotless track record.”

“It was worth sacrificing.”

“What did you sacrifice it for, exactly? Plunging a reeling country into more chaos? Allowing rival nations to take advantage of that weakness? Even if we put all speculation aside, Mashiro, do you really think your reputation was the only thing you cast away?”

Confusion crept into her features. Her mouth dried up faster than a drizzle in the desert.

“You realize, don’t you? We’re both losers. I lost power. You lost yourself. That, even more than this whole farce, was Kaika Nikaido’s ultimate victory.”

“That’s not true. This was my plan. Kaika originally wanted to kill you, but I refused to the very end. We argued about how to attack you, eventually settling on destroying your reputation. But that wasn’t easy to do, which led us to choosing this method.”

“‘We?’ ‘Us?’ Do you really think a plan this disgusting came from your collaboration with her? My daughter is naive, but she’s also more righteous than anyone. I see no trace of you in this plan. Think. Remember how exactly you arrived at this conclusion.”

Mashiro wracked her brain to recall her conversation with Kaika. Like she told her father, it had been her who came up with the plan, not Kaika. All Kaika ever did was reject ideas that were unlikely to work.

Wait…

Rejecting ideas was the same as choosing all alternative ones. By repeating this process, one would eventually be left with one choice. In fact, a choice was basically a rejection of all other options.

That was exactly what Kaika did.

What have I…

What was I made to do..?

Butler shook his head in disappointment, a first to Mashiro. “Kaika never cared about using your talents against me. In fact, she never accepted you or your skills. You’re the personification of everything she hates, so she wanted to destroy you. What better way than to make us clash and crumble together? You’re nothing but my daughter in her eyes, and she was completely right. My defeat was caused by my leniency towards you. I never would’ve shown myself to any other person. Truth be told, I was also worried about defamation. That was why I spent my days away from the public. A mysterious figure is surprisingly well accepted by the masses. People are strangely optimistic, leading them to idealize unexposed details. Kaika used you to attack my shield of secrecy. I lost because I still had a human heart. I can’t defeat someone who can do everything for victory. Even the word “devil” fails to capture how devious that… thing is.”

Mashiro could barely hear her father’s words. A persistent, loud throbbing echoed in her skull, making it difficult to process what was happening. The gaping hole widening in the middle of her chest threatened to drag her into the black abyss of reality, consuming all the joy of victory she lavished in just minutes earlier. Still, she tried her best to escape from the bottomless sludge of hypocrisy and foolishness lurking within. She clambered on the edge, digging her nails into the surrounding flesh as cold, dark tendrils wrapped around her legs, pulling her inside.

A generic alert sound rang from behind her, grabbing the attention of everyone on the scene. The tone came from the mobile she borrowed earlier, now back in the hands of its owner.

“I received a message,” said the soldier.

“…What does it say?” asked Mashiro with a dumb look on her face.

“‘Serves you right, you self-righteous bitch.’”

 

***

 

Ageha parted his heavy eyelids upon sensing a familiar scent. It was hardly noticeable, but with barely anything else in the tiny snow cave, it caught his attention. The smoky aroma, resembling the roasted meat he churned out of several kitchens in his career, emanated from the girl who just entered the shelter. Their shoddily built cave was more cramped than the previous one. The fire inside was also much smaller because smoke could lead to their detection.

“I found some food.” Arashi took something out of her rucksack.

Contrary to what the meaty aroma foreshadowed, she laid out a bunch of wild plants on the ground and cleaned them with some heated water. Unable to move, Ageha gratefully accepted the leaves and stalks Arashi fed him by hand. As he was chewing on a particularly tough piece, he mulled about the reason for the unexplained smell.

This was not the first time she returned with that scent. The same thing had happened yesterday. Not only that, Arashi had not been eating the weeds she brought back. He had thought that maybe she had eaten her share while foraging, but the peculiar scent of charred protein wafting from her hinted at other possibilities.

A speck of doubt found its way to his heart. He wondered if Arashi had caught some animal, cooked it, and ate it by herself. No one knew the girl’s appetite better than he did. Had she given up on him and prioritized her survival over his?

Impossible.

He shook his head, sweeping away his paranoia. Arashi would never do something like that. Then what was the truth behind this mystery? He was about to ask her when he noticed some fresh blood spatter on her coat sleeves. Following the specks of red up her arm, he saw an unfamiliar submachine gun slung on her shoulder.

“Enemies?” he asked.

“Two groups of three. I eliminated them.”

Ageha had not heard any gunshots, which meant Arashi used a knife to kill her targets. The advanced knife techniques he had taught her during their trainings turned out to be a good investment. She had also killed several enemy scouts the same way yesterday.

“Did they have any food on them?”

“Not even a single ration. If they did… you wouldn’t be chewing on grass like a goat.”

That was strange. It was common sense to bring at least a few energy bars when going out into the snowy mountains. Even he, a city slicker, knew that.

Ageha’s forehead creased upon realizing what the enemy was doing. “They’re trying to starve us.”

“I think so too.” Arashi gently pressed a water cup to his lips. “All the animals disappeared because of the activity on the slopes, so there’s nothing to hunt.”

After taking a few sips, he leaned away from the cup. “Their leader is a ruthless bastard. He knows we can pick off his men a little at a time but still sends them out just to wear us down. He even went so far as to stop them from bringing food to make sure nothing falls into our hands. Good thing they don’t know I’m out of commission yet.”

A rumble from his stomach abruptly cut his line of thought.

Come to think of it, I haven’t heard Arashi’s growling stomach for a while now…

His mind returned to the mystery of her smoky scent. Arashi had been filling her stomach with something in the past two days, but according to her, the enemies carried no food and the animals had gone into hiding. Arashi had always been a terrible liar, so there was no room for doubt about those statements. After narrowing down the possibilities from the info he had, the puzzle clicked together, resulting in a harrowing image.

Roasted meat. No rations. No animals. Only enemies.

It can’t be…

But there was no other explanation.

Arashi was eating the enemies she killed.

Ageha pressed his lips tightly together to stop any knee-jerk reactions from coming out. He did not feel strongly about cannibalism. Human meat was still meat. That said, he never considered eating human flesh himself. Due to their stressful lifestyles and unclean diets, humans likely tasted terrible anyway.

Was Arashi so cornered, so starved, that she had resorted to such a thing?

But then why didn’t she feed me the same thing?

She did not have to tell Ageha where it was from. Despite his trained palate, even he would not be able to differentiate between meats he had never eaten before. With the number of kills she reported, she certainly had enough to go around. That was when Ageha arrived at a more important question.

Why did she even keep it a secret?

And that question led him to the truth.

The only reason for Arashi to keep it a secret was because she herself saw cannibalism as taboo. Despite her terrible upbringing, she still acquired some basic human knowledge and qualities. The reason she had not shared her meals with Ageha was because she did not want him to do something she herself saw as disgusting. She wanted him to keep what remained of his dwindling humanity. Feeding on your kin was clearly another step away from that.

Assuming all that was true, why had Arashi resorted to cannibalism in the first place? Although scarce, there were still wild plants they could subsist on.

That mystery was quickly solved when Ageha recalled Arashi’s actions throughout their isolation in the mountains. She had always prioritized his well being and safety. She had broken her forearm and ribs trying to get food for them. She had taken care of his every need because of his paralysis. Her recent dietary choices were no different.

Unlike Ageha who barely burned any calories lying still in the cave, Arashi needed fuel to fight the enemy. She had opted to break a taboo just so she could protect him, who was currently even more powerless than a child.

The back of Ageha’s eyes burned. Taking a deep breath, he managed to hold the tears in. After blinking a few times to clear his vision, he stared at Arashi until the latter took notice.

“Is there something on my face?” Arashi wiped her cheek with her sleeve, ironically soiling her skin with the blood on her cuff.

“I’m sorry for being such a burden. A girl like you is wasted on me.” He smiled like he meant it, showing a gentle expression almost never seen on his face. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

The smeared blood on Arashi’s cheek slowly turned invisible as her blushing skin gradually matched its hue. “W-What are you saying all of a sudden? Are you going crazy… from hunger?”

“It actually feels like I’m thinking right for the first time in a while. Come over here for a second.”

Blinking a few times, Arashi patted her chest down and crawled to him.

“Closer.”

Thinking he was going to whisper something, she obediently leaned over his head, placing her ear near his lips.

Ageha turned to face her cheek and softly kissed the corner of her mouth.

The unexpected action prompted Arashi to jump up, bonking her head on the cave roof, before scampering away while still on her butt. “What was that about!?”

Ageha licked his lips, tasting the faint flavor of smoke and grease from her skin. That was not nearly enough for him to properly share her burden, but at least it gave him an idea of what her sin tasted like.

“It’s a thank you. For keeping me alive. For everything.”

“Y-You’re welcome!?” screeched Arashi in an uncharacteristically shrill voice.

That was the first time Ageha had kissed her of his own accord. Clearly shocked by it, Arashi remained motionless by the cave wall, like a frightened spider. Despite her strange, almost comedic pose, Ageha felt he loved her from the bottom of his heart. With both of them seemingly unable to move, an awkward silence fell upon the tiny cave. Only the sound of Arashi’s rough and rapid breathing traveled through the stiff freezing air.

The noise of crunching snow from outside broke the stalemate. Ageha gave her a look, prompting a nod in response. She quickly but silently gathered up her equipment, including the newly acquired submachine gun and her trusty custom sniper rifle, before heading out to check for intruders.

Cursing his powerlessness, Ageha could do nothing but watch her tiny back, covered by the enormous weapons it shouldered, until she vanished from his view. The desire to call out to her bubbled up to his throat but never formed words. The need for silence in their situation was paramount, but that was not what made him hold his tongue. The girl he met many months ago was no more. Arashi truly deserved his complete trust, and as such, tactless whispers of unnecessary concern would do nothing but tarnish their sweet and surely short parting.

 

***

 

Arashi kept a low profile while surveying the shelter’s vicinity. They had certainly heard movement, and she was not naive enough to chalk that up to imagination. In the battlefield, the paranoid survive, a lesson her father drilled into her in childhood.

No signs of activity could be seen around the entrance, so she silently moved around the snowdrift to check the upper area. As she slowly walked up the slope, two curved, pointed objects appeared just on top of the snow hill. Closer inspection revealed that the unusually long horns belonged to a large mountain goat. The spine-like bumps covering its greyish brown horns and long beard beneath its chin told Arashi the animal was an ibex.

The enemies searching for us must’ve scared the animals downhill.

Realizing the animal was the source of the suspicious sound, she relaxed her shoulders and breathed a sigh of relief. The goat quickly looked in her direction, ears twitching. Despite the camouflage provided by the white coat she stole from an enemy, the animal easily spotted her and turned tail.

Arashi clicked her tongue as the goat bounded on the snow, heading uphill with impressive ease. A huge chunk of meat like that could feed them for weeks. It would be a long awaited protein meal for Ageha, but most importantly, she did not want to eat mobster meat any longer than she had to.

Roasted human flesh turned her stomach every time she tasted it. The very idea of consuming humans, something disgusting even to the girl who happily ate endangered dolphin jerky, had made her vomit the first few times she put it in her mouth. However, she had forced the badly needed protein down her gullet to recover from her injuries and gain energy to fight. That had been the only way to save Ageha.

She had not fed it to Ageha because she did not want him to experience the same self-loathing. That noble goal did not change the fact that Arashi had been tearing out chunks of her humanity with every human morsel she gulped down.

The escaping ibex was her ticket out of that hellish rut. It was still within the range of her guns, but gunfire would alert the enemies to their location. A knife kill was her only alternative, but she needed to get within arms’ reach for that. A person had no way to win a foot chase against most animals, much less a creature completely adapted to its terrain, but unfortunately for the fleeing goat, Arashi was both a little less and more than a typical homo sapien.

She bolted towards her prey while ignoring the sharp pain shooting from her broken arm and cracked rib cage. The animal heard her rapid footfalls and sped up, eventually diving into a patch of trees. Slowed by the obstacles, Arashi desperately weaved through the maze of tree trunks while focusing on not losing sight of the ibex.

Half a minute into the tree patch, Arashi sighted a clearing up ahead. Thinking it was her best opportunity to catch up to her prey, she dropped her hefty weapons and prepared to sprint the moment she escaped the bush. The ibex slowed down, hesitating to leave the cover of the forest, but quickly resumed its escape upon seeing Arashi rocketing closer. The delay allowed her to shorten the distance between them to about twenty feet when she burst out from the foliage. Arashi drew her knife and pushed her legs to the limit.

Just a few more steps!

An unexpected impact tossed her body into the ground like a rag doll, peppering most of her torso in snow. Her brain barely registered the sound of a gunshot. Searing pain prevented her from fainting from the fall. She wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, but her survival instincts and training forced her into action. Recalling her father’s teachings, she rapidly switched gears.

First, forget everything unnecessary.

Forget the ibex.

Forget the pain.

Second, analyze the situation.

I was shot at, but it missed.

I tripped on a large root hidden under the snow.

It missed because I tripped unexpectedly.

Realizing that dumb luck saved her life, a sigh of relief built up in her lungs, but she postponed that and moved on to the last step.

Third, take immediate and appropriate action.

Arashi launched herself off the ground and ran back into the forest. The second gunshot hit the tree inches behind her as she dove into cover like a panther. A third shot never came, but that was not good news. The enemy sniper was formidable. Realizing it was near impossible to hit her from outside the dense foliage, the sniper decided to forgo shooting to avoid revealing his position.

After retrieving her weapons from the bush, Arashi rested her back on a large tree trunk in the middle of the tree patch and steadily caught her breath.

Should I go back to camp?

She shook her head. The chase took her relatively far from Ageha. Going back now risked leading more enemies to him. The sniper had likely alerted his allies to her position. The best course of action was to lead them away and then take them out one at a time.

Her biggest problem was the sniper. She could not tell his exact location just from those two gunshots, especially because she was focused on running. The tree patch was fairly dense, but it was too small and could easily be surrounded, which meant waiting for the enemy was out of the question. She had to shake the sniper and lead the enemy away from Ageha.

But how?

Arashi replayed the last few minutes in her head. It took her a couple of minutes to find something useful. On the left side of the tree patch, there was a familiar cliff edge. If she was not mistaken, that was one of the ravines she had explored before in search of food. It had a gentle slope and the valley extended a few miles with branching paths. That was a reasonably good place for an ambush.

Arashi’s path-plotting was interrupted by the sound of engines.

Jeeps..?

No, the snow is too thick for jeeps.

And there are too many of them.

The noise rapidly grew louder.

Snowmobiles!

Realizing her shortened time limit, Arashi headed straight for the ravine. Without knowing where she would emerge, the sniper would need a few seconds before opening fire, assuming he was even in a position to do so. It was a race to the valley in those few seconds.

She exited the foliage from the edge closest to the cliff. Her top speed was hampered by the weight of her numerous armaments, but she still managed to make it to the ravine without getting shot at. Glancing behind her, she saw two snowmobiles coming from one edge of the tree patch. As expected, they intended to surround her before going in for the kill with sheer numbers.

Seeing her figure, the snowmobiles changed course towards the cliff. The gentle slope allowed the snowmobiles to chase her, but going downhill was still her best option.

I gotta put some distance between us!

Arashi reached the bottom of the gorge after a few leaps. Her boots cracked the thin ice covering the edges of the stream running along the valley. Eyeing a narrow pathway with the width of about three cars, she left the sound of her pursuers behind.

Her head start would quickly vanish if she kept running due to the speed of the enemy vehicles, so she opted to set a trap instead of going deeper into the river vein. She found a blind spot behind a snow-laced rock and shot her rifle’s grappling hook across the path, hitting the wall on the other side. Then she slackened the thin wire just enough for it to barely sink into the snow, hiding it from view. Concentrating on the sound of the engines, she patiently waited for the snowmobiles to arrive.

Soon enough, the sound grew much louder, telling Arashi the enemies were seconds away from the trap. With her left hand, she took out a grenade she stole from one of the enemy scouts she had killed and removed the pin.

Now!

Arashi braced herself by pinning her leg into a crack in the rock and pulled the wire tight. Her first pursuer fell for the trap magnificently, catching his neck on the wire and falling off his snowmobile.

Seeing what happened to his comrade, the second snowmobile slowed down and ducked to avoid the string, but that was exactly what Arashi wanted. She freed her leg and activated the pull mechanism of her rifle. Arashi hurtled across the valley and intercepted the second rider, who was too busy ducking his head to notice her approach.

Arashi dislodged the grappling hook and slammed the rifle into the rider’s body, tossing him off the vehicle and killing her momentum. Due to the snowmobile’s reduced speed, she managed to hook her leg onto its side and pull herself into a riding position. She then casually tossed the live grenade behind her and sped away. A loud explosion echoed in her wake, taking out the two dismounted riders and one incoming snowmobile.

Unlike motorbikes, Arashi had never ridden a snowmobile outside of Kaika’s video games. Still, her reflexes compensated for her inexperience. A bit of fiddling around gave her a rough idea of how to drive the thing properly. That said, she was too green to shake off the numerous enemies on her tail with driving skill. After slinging her rifle to her back, she armed herself with a stolen submachine gun and started shooting using her alloy hand. She did not look at her targets in fear of losing control of the vehicle, but the spray of bullets still somewhat kept her pursuers at bay. A lucky shot even killed one rider, eliciting a smug smile on her mildly frostbitten face.

Unfortunately, Arashi’s choice of venue proved to be her undoing. The river vein eventually became narrower and narrower until a sheer rock wall blocked her path. Even worse, the enemies’ coordination exceeded her expectations. Engine sounds came from above the ravine, meaning more pursuers had been following from above the valley to attack from higher ground. Her path forward was completely blocked, and going upward was not an option.

In that case…

Her hand reached for the concussion grenades in her jacket. She armed and then tossed them into the piles of snow building up on both walls of the ravine. With an explosive roar, the grenades launched the powdery snow into the air, creating a faux smokescreen that hid her from view. Arashi quickly turned the snowmobile around, carving a sharp U in the snow, and accelerated towards her pursuers beyond the white mist.

An instant before she was enveloped by the falling snow, she shot her grappling hook, hitting a spot high up the ravine wall a fair distance away. With the flip of a switch, the rifle pulled her into the air like an airplane taking off the runway.

Her snowmobile broke through the falling snow, drawing the attention of the enemies. In just a moment, the vehicle was peppered with bullets. Arashi watched the scene while clinging like a spider on the ravine wall.

Should I shoot them from here?

No, I’m a sitting duck in this position.

Should I drop grenades on them?

But I have to save my limited ammo.

Ageha’s shadowy figure surfaced in her mind.

I’ll do it his way.

The enemies were no fools. As soon as they realized the snowmobile was unmanned, they quickly stopped their vehicles and surveyed the area. It did not take them long to spot Arashi above them. Before they could react, Arashi dislodged her grappling hook and fell from the sky like a diving falcon. She sprayed the enemies with bullets from her submachine gun and landed on top of one of the enemies, crushing his head with a cringe-worthy crackle. A total of three hostiles had been taken out in an instant.

Gritting her teeth, she pushed her injured body to move and pounced on the nearest enemy, like a jaguar going in for the kill. Knife drawn in reverse grip, she slipped past the enemy’s muzzle and sliced his neck open before dashing to the next target.

That fighting style was something Ageha used a lot. Diving into the middle of enemy groups created confusion and prevented them from shooting in fear of friendly fire. Arashi’s speed allowed her to rapidly move from target to target, effectively using them as cover whenever the enemies secured their aim.

The moment she reached her third target, a series of powerful impacts rattled her alloy leg and shoulder, tossing her backward. She immediately righted herself and took in the situation. Her target had been transformed into a beehive, limply convulsing on the snowy ground.

They shot through an ally!?

The enemies did not stop there. They continued their barrage of fire, forcing Arashi to duck behind the closest unmanned snowmobile. Even then, a few of the bullets hit her hips and arm, which were fortunately cybernetic.

She had underestimated her enemies. They were no mere thugs. She was facing hardened professional killers with unshakeable loyalty, clearly several cuts above the fodder Ageha massacred during their battle with Valeriya.

Arashi forcefully bit her lip as she set her rifle to assault mode. She had intended to save ammo for the battle with the sniper, but bullets only had value if she remained alive to pull the trigger.

The enemies were annoyingly coordinated. They used their snowmobiles as cover and never reloaded at the same time, systematically wearing her down. She needed a gap in the firestorm to shoot her way out of the rut she was in, and quickly too, before they decided to toss grenades at her.

Digging into her jacket, Arashi pulled out four grenades, everything she had left, and liberally tossed them over to her enemies. A shout in a foreign language, likely Russian based on a few movies she had seen, silenced the gunfire. She dashed out during the lull and expertly picked off three of the remaining six enemies. As predicted, one of her victims died holding an armed grenade. It rolled out of his fingers and exploded, scattering shrapnel and death. As for the grenades she had thrown, they harmlessly sank into the snow because she had not armed them.

The two surviving hostiles bravely returned fire. Slowed by her own shooting, Arashi took a few hits on her thighs. A bullet grazed her left arm, dying her white coat bright red, before she finally finished off the stragglers.

The sound of engines above the ravine stopped her from reveling in her small victory. She rushed to gather her spoils from the defeated but was only given less than a minute to do so. Enemies started shooting at her from above, forcing her to board a working snowmobile and retreat.

Arashi sped out of their range while mentally checking her condition. Aside from her fractured left forearm and ribs, her left arm bled from a bullet graze, a wound she needed to take care of soon. The numerous hits on her ARMS also rattled her human parts, leaving behind a constant dull ache where metal met meat.

Her battered body creaked and trembled from pain and cold, but she pushed forward. The grenades she threw earlier were back in her jacket, and a new submachine gun was slung on her back. She needed to eliminate her pursuers, not for victory, not for survival, but for him. His image blazed within her breast hotter than the sun, driving away the bitter cold of despair.

Please be safe, Ageha.

I’m coming soon.

 

***

 

Noelle gently removed her gloved finger from the trigger. “That’s ten.”

She observed the situation from her perch on a jutting rock. Arashi was still in heated combat against the army sent to hunt her down, which incidentally, included Noelle herself.

A soldier peeked over the cliff just above Arashi, giving him a good shot. Noelle nudged her rifle ever so slightly and pulled the trigger. A relatively muffled bang erupted from her silenced muzzle, which also concealed the flash. The hapless soldier unceremoniously tumbled to the ground, never to rise again.

“And eleven.”

Instead of following Viktor’s order to hunt down Shikimi, she had been moving solo, eliminating major threats approaching Arashi. That said, she did not have to do much. The girl shattered her expectations splendidly. Being her master’s daughter, Noelle expected Arashi to be quite formidable, especially due to her cybernetic enhancements. However, Arashi completely exceeded the capability of her father, or maybe even humans in general. She no longer fought on the level of a single soldier.

Even so, Noelle endeavored to make it as safe for the girl as possible without revealing her actions to her so-called allies or Arashi herself. Viktor was also a skilled sniper, making Noelle a vulnerable target if he discovered her treachery, and Arashi might get confused if she found out there was a sniper on the scene.

Noelle could not find where Viktor was currently hiding. She had heard over the radio that he was the first to engage. Fortunately, he had failed to hit Arashi in the short encounter, giving Noelle time to catch up to them and lend the girl a helping hand.

Finding Viktor was important not only for Arashi’s sake. Her current commanding officer, Nick, had given her a secret directive.

“About your field CO, Viktor… When you get the chance, kill him. Do it clean. No one else can know.”

It did not matter to Noelle who died first, Shikimi or Viktor. She would kill them both as the mission dictated, that was inevitable. A soldier should stake their pride in every mission. That was a lesson granted to her by her most respected master.

Two snowmobiles running side by side appeared from the far end of the ravine while Arashi was busy fending off attacks from several soldiers. If given free reign, the snowmobiles could flank Arashi and put her in a dire situation. Noelle decided to take them out.

Providing aid in this situation was risky. After eliminating one of the targets, the remaining soldier could report the ambush to Viktor, who would probably figure out that there was a rogue sniper on the battlefield. With Arashi engaging a different group, all suspicion would likely fall on Noelle. She had been able to fool the old veteran so far by killing as few soldiers as possible. Even the capable Viktor could not keep track of all his units in an operation so large and chaotic, which was also why he depended on reports from his subordinates when the situation changed. Noelle could not allow that crucial report to reach his ears.

Shooting through both enemies at the same time was impossible due to her elevation. That left only one option. Noelle slowly emptied the air in her lungs, as if releasing a soundless moan during pillowtalk. She held her breath midway and took her shot. The bullet hit one of the riders in the rib cage, causing him to jerk his body sideways. His snowmobile careened into his partner’s, causing them to crash into each other. Before the rolling mess of metal and flesh came to a stop, Noelle planted a bullet into the torso of the other soldier, a feat of inhuman skill.

“Thirteen.”

The firefight below soon died down. During the break in combat, Noelle planned her next steps. She found it strange that the infamous Shikimi had yet to make his appearance. Was he trying to use Arashi to whittle down their pursuers until she died?

How utterly despicable.

Being part of Nikaido’s gang of freaks, he was certainly capable of such cruelty. He used Arashi’s feelings for him to his advantage.

I have to do it.

For Arashi’s sake.

She might cry for a while…

But that’s better than being a disposable pawn.

I’ll definitely bury Shikimi here.

 

***

 

Viktor tilted his neck side to side, popping several of his vertebra. He had been in position outside of the ravine, waiting for his men to exhaust and then flush out the Tanizaki girl. Things would certainly go faster if he joined them in the valley, but he could not do that because of the enemies’ ace in the hole.

Ageha Shikimi.

That man, no, that monster defied common sense. He had proven this time and time again, culminating in his victory against Valeriya.

Tanizaki fighting alone in that ravine could be a trap to lure Viktor out. If he revealed himself, Shikimi might suddenly pop out from underneath the snow and kill him. That risk was not worth taking. He felt sorry for his subordinates, but extreme caution was the only way to fight against the absurd. Exhausting and then capturing Tanizaki to be used as a hostage would also be an effective way of dealing with Shikimi, from what Viktor knew of him, at least.

Of course, it was also possible that Shikimi died in the plane crash.

Viktor immediately shook his head.

Tanizaki would not be fighting like that if Shikimi had died. Judging from her affection towards him, she was more likely to follow him to the afterlife.

Maybe he’s injured?

Viktor stifled a chuckle. That monster was an invincible killing machine. Just the idea of him resting in some cave somewhere was laughable.

“Sir, squads two and five were annihilated.” The report came from the radio affixed to his collar. “Squad six lost sight of her, but she should still be close by, definitely within the ravine.”

That leaves only two squads in the vicinity…

“What’s her last known position?”

“She was heading northeast again. We still have no clue about her final destination. She seems to be going in circles…”

Going in circles..?

It can’t be…

But Tanizaki’s actions make no sense otherwise.

That monster really was…

“Squad seven, go around the other side and find her. Six, continue pursuit down that river vein.” Viktor stood up and slung his rifle.

“Understood. Should we continue our attrition tactics?”

“No, attack her full force. I’m joining the battle. It’s time to end this.”

 

***

 

Arashi’s gruesome battle had lasted for hours, in what ultimately resulted in the most hellish battleground even a veteran like her had ever experienced. The finish line for her marathon of death ended up being at the edge of a small cliff area within the ravine. She had finally reduced the enemy count to one, excluding the sniper, who had yet to make an appearance.

Scarlet dotted her clothes and exposed skin, crusting into pink crystals from the freezing cold. Her human hand was missing its ring and pinky fingers, but the wounds had frozen over, preventing blood loss. Her frazzled hair had scorched edges, and light burns blanketed her sleepy face. The last enemy lay passed out in front of her, his face brutally bruised by her metal fist. She spat out blood from her cut up mouth and proceeded to deal with the unconscious man.

I did it…

I really did it…

Things had seemed impossible several times during the continuous battles, and she had considered giving into despair more than once, but her luck pulled through in the tightest situations. Just when she had thought they had her cornered, an opening had appeared. Just when she had stumbled and exposed herself, no enemy had taken the shot. Her victory was born from skill and fortune, but she did not feel ashamed of it. She knew it was her indomitable will, her desire to see him again, that carried her to the end.

Is it the end?

It is, probably.

The ravine had gotten quiet. There were no signs of movement around her either. Arashi flopped to the ground butt first and relaxed her breathing for the first time in what seemed like forever. Several minutes passed, or so she thought. She could no longer tell how much time ticked by. Her senses had been dulled by the cold and fatigue, but they were still in better shape than her body.

So sleepy…

Maybe I can nod off for a few minutes…

Arashi tightly shut her eyes, scrunching the bridge of her nose, and shook her head vigorously.

No, no, no!

Can’t lose focus now.

Gotta go back to Ageha.

As she used her rifle to prop herself up, a faint rumbling reached her ears.

No way.

No way no way no way.

The sound of engines.

She knew the sniper who shot at her earlier was still out there but optimistically hoped the enemy had run out of assault troops. Arashi cursed herself for being so weak. Hope had no place on the battlefield.

“Plan for the worst, prepare for the impossible.”

Or so her father had said.

Blaming her naive self would do her no good now. Arashi checked her equipment and carefully jumped down from the cliff she was on. The small jutting rock was a good hiding place, but it would not fool her pursuers for long. She would be completely cornered if found in that spot.

The sound of engines came from opposite directions with Arashi caught right in the middle. She would be surrounded If she waited for them to reach her, so she adopted one of the tactics Saya taught her to use when surrounded.

Don’t run. Don’t hide. Attack.

Crush one side before the encirclement is complete.

The sounds were louder behind her, so she rushed back the way she came, or so she tried. Her cheetah-esque sprinting had degraded into a wobbly jog. Her shoulders heaved with every step, and each foot felt like miles. The scenery in front of her blurred from time to time. Bionic eyes did not blur without direct damage, so it was likely her brain lacking oxygen and sugar. She shut her eyes tight and scrunched her facial muscles, forcefully driving away the fog in her vision.

Focus!!!

It worked, but only for a few moments. She repeated this several times before spotting the enemy squad’s vanguard with her built-in zoom. With a quick rummage of her coat pockets, she pulled out two impact-triggered grenades, armed them, and threw them into the air in a high arc. She then aimed her stolen bolt-action rifle at the enemies just behind the front line. Four gunshots later, the second line of snowmobiles had swerved into the valley walls, their drivers dripping blood from their necks or heads. One of her shots had missed due to the pain from her missing fingers triggered by the recoil.

The enemy vanguard paid no heed to their defeated allies and continued their approach, guns drawn. As they trained their sights on Arashi, who had not taken cover at all, two small dots fell from the sky and landed right in front of them. Before they could identify what the objects were, dozens of shrapnel pierced their bodies as two crisp bangs melded into one.

Arashi did not face the enemies head on out of courage. She simply lacked the energy to keep running around and dodging bullets.

The last line of the pursuers, a four vehicle cell, swerved around the wreckage and aimed their weapons. Due to the lack of nearby cover, Arashi challenged them to a quickdraw contest. Even before the debris from the explosion fell, she took out an enemy with her rifle. Out of bullets, she switched to her submachine gun and exchanged fire with the last two enemies. Both sides suffered damage, but being half metal, Arashi got off relatively lightly. A few rounds hit her alloy forearm and shoulder, further rattling her innards, but that was nothing compared to the rain of bullets that slammed into the enemies’ torsos. Since they wore protective vests, Arashi finished them off by emptying the clip of her submachine gun into their skulls. She traded in her weapon for a new one her last victim so kindly brought her.

While reloading her rifle, Arashi jogged away from the squad coming from the other side and tried to find a good spot to ambush them. Unfortunately, no such convenient space existed nearby. The enemy had caught up to her before she could find cover. She swung her submachine gun behind her and scattered bullets at her pursuers, hoping to slow them down. The strategy barely had any effect, so she opted to focus on running instead. Her alloy legs technically could not feel fatigue, but due to her various injuries and lack of food, they felt like jelly beneath her. Even so, she bore with it and somehow sped up.

Arashi no longer had any grenades. Her last weapons were a standard bolt-action rifle and a submachine gun, both low on ammo, and a combat knife. There were six enemies behind her, a few short of the other squads she had been facing. Thinking about it, she realized the enemy groups varied in number, which was unusual for such an organized regiment.

Did some of them get left behind due to accidents?

It certainly was not unusual to run into trouble in the mountains. She decided to accept that explanation and focused on the task at hand.

She abruptly braked and turned while lowering her butt to the ground, essentially sliding into a sniper crouch. Her rifle was already trained at the closest enemy before she even secured her shooting stance. The muzzle flash signaled the end of her target. She pulled the bolt and chambered another round, all while taking aim at her next target. Bullets battered her alloy legs, which lay in front of her body, shielding her torso. A shot grazed the side of her head, causing warm blood to dribble down her ear and neck. Fortunately, it did not flow into her eye. Even bionic eyes would be affected by the thick opaque liquid.

Her second shot missed its mark but luckily connected with the collarbone of another rider further back, tossing him off his snowmobile.

Four left..!

The closest rider continued to fire while driving his vehicle towards her. Realizing she was about to be rammed to death, Arashi rolled to the side while switching to her submachine gun. At the end of her roll, she fired at the snowmobile as it zipped past her. The bullets hit the engine, causing the vehicle to suddenly slow down. The rider behind it did not anticipate the abrupt change of speed and was forced to swerve around. Arashi unloaded the submachine gun into that rider’s exposed flank, and then she emptied the last clip on the driver of the damaged snowmobile.

Last two..!

That was when it happened.

Two bullets struck the left side of her abdomen, cleanly passing through. Judging from the location of the wounds, they did not hit any organs, but the two holes started spilling what little remained of Arashi’s life. Instead of squirming in pain, she shut her pain sensors down for a few moments through sheer will and killed the enemy closest to her with a rifle round.

The last pursuer stopped shooting and focused on driving his vehicle into her. Gathering what remained of her energy, Arashi quickly spun around, dodging the snowmobile’s frame by a hair’s breadth, and grabbed onto the rear end of the vehicle with her right hand. Her alloy fingers sank into the metal, giving her a literal iron grip of the hurtling snowmobile. The heel of her boots skidded along the snowy ground as she tried to climb onto the moving vehicle. The enemy looked behind and aimed his weapon. Arashi twisted around just in time to avoid the initial burst. Her mangled left hand held onto her rifle like her life depended on it, mostly because it did. With adrenaline reinforcing her injured human arm, she clubbed the driver’s head with the rifle stock. The driver toppled over and fell from the vehicle, breaking his back as he did so.

After slinging the rifle to her body, Arashi released the snowmobile and tucked in her head to protect it from the inevitable tumble. The fall was not as rough as she expected because the snow cushioned the few low bounces she took. As soon as she stopped, she hurriedly got up and looked around for remaining hostiles. There were none.

They’re gone.

They’re all gone.

She ended up quite a ways away after being dragged by the snowmobile, but no more engine sounds could be heard. All of the six enemies were either dead or incapacitated.

She won.

Energy drained from her body, and her feet began to feel as if they were rooted to the ground. A warm breath escaped her lips, quickly becoming mist. Tears of relief formed at the corner of her eyes.

Then her cheek ached.

It was not actual physical pain but a lingering sensation from a distant memory. It came from the first time she had cornered her father in combat. At the very last moment, he turned things around with a well-timed eye gouge.

“You dunce! The moment a soldier feels victorious is when he’s most vulnerable! Don’t ever let your guard down!”

He hit her cheek with a rock-like fist back then. She hated it. It hurt, badly. And because it hurt, she remembered.

Arashi dove forward. In that instant, a bullet whizzed by the top of her head, blasting her unruly cowlick to shreds and embedding itself on a nearby rock. She did not bother looking at the attacker because she knew who it was.

Fighting a hidden sniper from lower ground with no cover was impossible, so she scrambled to find shelter. Arashi deduced the rough location of the enemy from the angle the bullet hit her hair and then the rock, and scanned her surroundings for anything that could be used as a shield. She found a small protruding rock on the ravine wall. It was barely large enough to cover her body, but it had to do.

With a speed surprising even herself, she slipped into the snow-capped rock’s shadow, barely avoiding the sniper’s second bullet. But there was nothing to celebrate. Now she was trapped behind the small rock with a sniper waiting for her head to pop out.

Being an accomplished sniper herself, she knew there was no way out. The enemy sniper was ridiculously patient, cruel, and shrewd. He had sacrificed his men just to get the best shot possible. That meant he was not moving from his current spot, lest he allow Arashi to escape in that short gap. The sniper would surely wait for her to come out or die from her wounds.

Despite the fangs of despair nipping at her heels, Arashi still moved her hands. She checked the gunshot wounds on her flank. After confirming there was no organ damage, she tore off a piece of fabric from her pants and pressed it against the entry wound. She did the same for the exit wound on her back and then leaned on the rock to put pressure on it. After bandaging both wounds with more ripped fabric, Arashi gathered the snow beneath her and packed them densely, almost into ice, with her alloy hand. She then applied it on top of the cloth and added more pressure. The cold rock on her back served as the cooling agent to aid in the closure of the blood vessels for her exit wounds.

Arashi kept putting pressure on it for about fifteen minutes and then felt around, without removing the cloth cover, to check if the bleeding had stopped. She breathed a sigh of relief after successfully stymieing the blood loss. However, the real challenge had only just begun.

She did not know the exact location of the sniper. Even with the most optimistic estimate, the sniper would still blow her head open first in a straight up duel. There was no other decent cover nearby, so dashing out and running away was also imprudent, not to mention her current condition slowed her down significantly. The only silver lining was that her rifle was still in usable condition.

There was nothing she could so.

Or rather, nothing was exactly what she could do.

No choice but to wait for help.

My father taught me to trust myself…

The faces of Ageha, Kaika, and Saya flitted behind her closed eyelids.

But my family taught me to trust in others.

So she waited.

For minutes.

For hours.

Her consciousness almost escaped her on occasion, but she held fast. Even with the winter gear she stole from her enemies, the cold still gradually robbed her of heat, slowly but surely dragging her closer to eternal slumber. Despite all this, she kept her rifle ready, her finger on the trigger.

She did not waver. She trusted the time she spent with those she loved. She trusted in their words.

So she waited.

More minutes.

More hours.

Her remaining fingers, nose, and ears, now bluish white, were succumbing to frostbite. She could barely feel them anymore. Even so, she kept her left hand wrapped tightly around the barrel of her rifle. The feelings of hunger and thirst had long left her. Her mind focused on one thing.

Survival.

I will survive.

No matter what.

To return to that place.

To return to him.

She waited.

 

***

 

Is she dead?

Viktor did not let his concentration waver for a moment. He had already called for reinforcements upon cornering Tanizaki behind that rock. A helicopter would be arriving soon, so he could just wait it out until they confirmed her corpse. He had kept that in reserve because it was useless for search operations. Helicopters, even more so than snowmobiles, were loud. They were great at finding people in the mountains, assuming they wanted to be found. Conversely, if the people wanted to stay hidden, they would simply run away and take cover upon hearing a chopper approaching.

But Tanizaki had nowhere to run, and based on Viktor’s deduction, Shikimi was out of commission, so he could simply pin her down there until she died from exhaustion or was killed by the chopper.

From what he knew about the girl, he slightly expected that she would face him in one final gambit, but it appeared she was too spent even for that. It was an anti-climactic end to a grand battle, but it did not matter to him in the slightest. All that mattered was to eliminate the targets of Valeriya’s vengeance, the last strand of hope to save his former pupil.

A loud bang rang across the ravine.

The sound did not come from a typical rifle. If anything, it sounded like it came from an anti-materiel weapon. Viktor only knew one person in this battlefield who wielded such a weapon.

Tanizaki!?

Did she find a way to escape from behind that rock!?

Did enemy reinforcements arrive!?

With dozens of disjointed thoughts flooding his mind, he could not help but turn his head towards the direction of the sound.

If Viktor had thought about the situation more calmly, he would have realized that Tanizaki had been using a standard rifle after he decided to join the battle, which meant the loud gunfire could not have come from her. She was still stuck behind a rock, after all.

However, the human brain reacted to stimuli first before any logical processing kicked in, and it did eventually kick in for him. Realizing he was tricked somehow, he put aside the questions about how, when, and where, and immediately resumed his watch over the rock.

The first thing he saw was the scope of a standard bolt action rifle. It was a perfect black dot amidst the background of chaotic nature. It was almost artistic, and certainly beautiful.

 

***

 

Found you.

Noelle had spent the better part of the last few hours sneaking around the ravine, hoping to catch a glimpse of Viktor or Arashi. After killing a few snowmobile riders who were lagging behind their squad, she had carefully traveled to the main stage of the battlefield on foot. However, things were already quiet when she got there.

Judging from the last few gunshots she had heard, Viktor and Arashi were likely engaged in a sniper battle. That, or one of them was pinned down. If so, Arashi was likely at a disadvantage, factoring in her physical condition.

Noelle had wanted to hurry and kill Viktor to save Arashi, but she could not be careless. If Viktor spotted her scurrying around, he would figure out her betrayal and shoot her down. Noelle could not very well ask Viktor for his location. From his perspective, she had no reason to know.

After painstaking scouting, she had finally found Viktor. He was expertly hidden, with a winter mask and white camouflage blending him with his nook. His rifle was curtained by a white furry cloth dotted by black, making it practically invisible.

Wasting no time, Noelle got into a prone firing stance and aimed at Viktor’s head.

And that’s twenty one.

An explosive sound swept across the valley.

Noelle blinked in surprise, something uncharacteristic for a sniper her caliber. She had not pulled the trigger yet.

There’s another sniper!?

Despite her surprise, Noelle pulled herself back to the task at hand. She adjusted her aim and fired, an action so unceremonious to her it was no different from brushing her teeth in the morning.

Three gunshots overlapped.

She missed.

After checking the condition of her target, she immediately pieced together what happened in that instant.

Another sniper took the shot a split-second before she did. Viktor lay prone on the snow, bright red blood dripping from his head. His rifle was destroyed by the shot, causing his head to jerk, which led to Noelle’s astronomically rare miss.

Instinct compelled her to immediately find the other sniper. It did not take long because she had a rough grasp of the location from the sound of the gunfire.

She peeked into her scope, like she had done millions of times before.

In it was Arashi, the girl she wanted to protect.

And that same girl had a rifle pointed at her.

Did she recognize me?

Impossible, not with her helmet and camo.

And even if she did, would she hesitate to shoot?

Of course not.

After all, Arashi was also trained by Noelle’s master.

Case in point, Noelle’s finger had already begun pulling the trigger even as her thoughts raced. There was no hesitation.

Then there was darkness.

 

***

 

After taking out the second sniper, Arashi dropped to her knees and then fell sideways. Her left ear was missing. The first sniper’s bullet had taken it, but she had landed a decisive blow so it was not a bad exchange.

Arashi had not expected another enemy to show up. Finding and killing the second enemy had taken everything she had, every ounce of concentration, every last remaining fiber of energy. She did not have the leisure to confirm her kills. The fact that she was still alive despite being sprawled out in the open was proof enough of the enemies’ defeat.

Her everything had been spent as she waited behind that rock, sharpening her senses, compressing them all into one single point, all to be released when help came.

And help had come.

That was no surprise because she had set it up herself.

The last enemy she dealt with at the small cliff, the one she knocked out with her fist, had performed his role admirably.

Several hours ago, Arashi gagged and bound the wrists and ankles of the unconscious enemy with the grappling hook wire from her custom rifle. Then she stripped him, propped his back onto the cliff wall, and tied his neck with the rest of the wire, leaving a few feet of wire dangling down. While grimacing at losing her weapon yet again, Arashi jammed her rifle in between two rocks, holding it securely in place. The dangling end of the wire on the soldier’s neck went around the rifle’s trigger, tied in place by a simple knot. Arashi pulled it taut, making sure even the slightest movements from the soldier’s neck would cause the weapon to go off. Because her high-caliber rifle had only one bullet left, it was the ideal weapon to use for the mechanism.

After giving the contraption a once over, Arashi adjusted the man’s sitting position into a precarious kneel and woke him up. She made sure to support him as he regained consciousness to avoid triggering the rifle by accident. Confused, the man looked down and saw his unusual state of undress. After a few moments of studying the situation, he sent Arashi a blazing glare as he angrily bit into the gag around his mouth. She ignored him.

All that was done in preparation for her battle against the enemy sniper. A moment of distraction was all one needed to win fateful encounters. That was why she applied everything she had learned from one of her mentors: Her mistress, Kaika Nikaido.

Kaika had taught her to trust in others, specifically, to trust in enemies.

From their repeated clashes, Arashi knew the enemies were fiercely loyal and thoroughly disciplined. Moreover, they were smarter than your average thug. The naked man had taken stock of his situation and figured out that Arashi wanted him to trigger the rifle by trying to escape. Being the loyal comrade he was, he did the exact opposite. He sat stiff in order not to play into the enemy’s scheme.

That went exactly as Arashi envisioned.

She needed an ace in the hole, and a delayed distraction was perfect for that. It was pointless if the rifle went off before she faced the enemy sniper. That was why she left the man there in his birthday suit. Once he died or fell unconscious because of hypothermia, an easy feat considering his attire, he would fall down and consequently pull the rifle’s trigger. Still, she did not expect the soldier to hang on for so long. That was an impressive feat. He truly had been a trustworthy enemy. She owed her victory to him.

However, Arashi’s struggle was not over. She was injured all over, with frostbite threatening to take her remaining fingers and parts of her face. Her consciousness hung on by a thread.

Even so, she forced herself to get up. She pushed off the ground, desperately clung to the rock she had used for cover, and got back to her feet, only to fall after taking her first step. Her cybernetic legs were impervious to fatigue, but hypothermia had robbed her of coordination and balance. She tried again and failed again. And again and again, until snow totally covered her face from her numerous nosedives.

Walking was not working out so well, so she crawled. Ageha could not move at all, so she had no choice but to go to him. She clawed at the snowy ground and dragged herself onward, ignoring the severe frostbite on her chin, which scraped on the ice. She crawled like her life depended on it. No, she was more desperate than that. She crawled like it was the only thing left for her to do in this life.

All to see him again.

To save him.

Her fingers, ears, chin, face, none of them mattered, as long as she could be by his side.

If she needed to tear away each of her limbs to be light enough to reach him, she would.

If she needed to rip apart her soul to find him, she would.

I killed the enemies…

I just need to go back…

Wait for me, Ageha.

Her eyesight blurred and shook. Her hearing became distant and hollow. Her body felt numb despite its incessant shaking.

Yet she soldiered on.

Until finally, an end to her suffering, her road to salvation, arrived.

Her ears caught a familiar sound. A constant rumbling came from above, slowly increasing in volume.

A chopper..?

Arashi flipped over and looked at the sky. Sure enough, a military helicopter appeared from beyond the ravine’s cliff and loomed above her.

Of course, it was the enemy. They had come to end her, along with her hopeless plight. In a way, she was grateful to be saved from her hellish crawl, but more than that, she was downright pissed.

Stop getting in my fucking way..!

Arashi willed her legs to stand. With her half-frozen left hand, she grabbed her rifle barrel and aimed it at the helicopter. In return, the chopper aligned its built in machine gun in her general direction. It did not have to be aimed accurately. The spray of bullets was guaranteed to coat the area with lethal rounds, turning her body into scraps of meat.

The multi-barreled machine gun began to spin as Arashi put pressure on the trigger. Her body could barely move. There was no escape. Instead of the chopper’s morbid visage, his face appeared in Arashi’s eyes.

Ageha..!

Arashi’s vision turned white.

A wave of heat enveloped her body followed by a ripple of sound.

She blinked and saw a peculiar sight. Instead of surprise, the scene evoked a sense of nostalgia within her. It was not the first time she had seen a helicopter fall from the sky. The sights and sounds were quite familiar, almost endearing. The mass instantly turned into garbage upon crashing to the ground.

“There you are!”

An even more familiar sound reached her ears.

“…K-Kai..?”

Another aircraft, a personnel transport helicopter, flew into view. Two familiar faces, the stoic one nuzzling a missile launcher, could be seen from the chopper’s open door. The voice had come from a loudspeaker attached to the aircraft.

“Not in the best shape, huh?” Kaika bit her bottom lip, a subtle change of expression only visible from that distance due to Arashi’s bionic eyes. “Don’t move, we’ll come get you.”

Tears gushed down Arashi’s cheeks despite how dry her eyes were just a moment ago. Her knees buckled, causing her to flop to the ground. She did not bother wiping away her tears, or rather, she could not feel them anymore because of the frost damage to her facial skin.

The chopper soon landed a short distance away. After the helicopter blades slowed down, Kaika and Saya, dressed in furry white and black winter coats respectively, alighted from the aircraft and rushed to her. Saya immediately carried her back inside, and Kaika closed the door behind them.

The interior of the transport chopper had a long bench attached on each side of the fuselage. Fabric netting served as the backrest for the benches and also a handle for stability in case of sudden aircraft movements. Arashi gave them a quick rundown of her physical condition. As Saya checked on the gunshot wounds on Arashi’s flank, Kaika gingerly embraced her neck.

“Good job staying alive.”

Arashi closed her eyes and nodded her head twice in response.

Kaika gently released Arashi and cleared her throat with a cough after taking a step back. “Where’s Ageha?”

“He’s in a cave. I lured away the enemies… so he should be safe.”

Kaika frowned. “Is he injured?”

“Some burns.”

“Burns? Leave it to that guy to get burns in the snowy mountains.”

“Actually, he-”

“He overused his overdrive to protect you, burning himself and completely draining his batteries in the process.”

“How did you…”

Kaika raised an eyebrow. “We haven’t been apart long enough for you to forget who I am, right?”

Arashi managed to form a smile, the first in what seemed like forever. “No, I remember.”

“Good. Show us the way.” With visible impatience, Kaika whipped out her mobile terminal and displayed a map with a blip signifying their current location.

Arashi made use of the map reading skills she inherited from her father and immediately pointed out the approximate location of their hideout. Kaika immediately informed the pilot of their next destination via the cabin radio.

“Thank you for protecting him,” whispered Saya as she applied a fresh bandage patch to Arashi’s flank.

“…Don’t you blame me for all this? He told me everything on the plane. It was all my fault… If it wasn’t for me… he would be okay. If I… didn’t doubt everyone, if I didn’t lash out at him…”

“Who cares? At least that’s what he would say, don’t you think?”

Arashi chuckled slightly. “Yeah.”

“So… did you rape him?”

“What.”

“Distracting me by doing an Ageha impression isn’t gonna save you. Did you? He can’t move a finger, right? Should be easy for you.”

“…I only thought about it.”

Saya smiled. “You’re too nice for your own good.”

“He kissed me though- Ouch!”

“Sorry, my hand slipped.”

“Are we sharing or not!? Make up your mind!”

“We are… but you can’t blame me for being a little bitter about it. It’s my nature.”

As the chopper engine began roaring in earnest, Kaika’s head popped in between them. “You two are getting along well. That’s sister-wives for you.”

The two women’s faces reddened every so slightly at the word wives.

Kaika seemed unsatisfied from their reactions but continued on. “Here, wear this so we can hear each other better. Choppers are too loud.” She stuffed a small earpiece into Arashi’s intact ear as the helicopter ascended and escaped the ravine. “So what did Ageha protect you from? I can’t imagine he’d have to go beyond his limits against normal enemies.”

“An avalanche.”

“What?”

“An avalanche, a landslide with snow. A big one too.”

Kaika pinched Arashi’s cheek. “I know what an avalanche is. I’m asking what exactly do you mean he protected you from one?”

“He hit away boulders and trees and stuff.”

“I feel that sentence doesn’t give justice to just how absurd of a feat that is.”

“Yeah, he was really cool. I… fell in love all over again.”

Kaika pinched her harder. “Even I’m jealous now. I’m the boss! He should be displaying his best work for me!”

“Stop, Kai! You’re gonna rip off my cheek..! It’s half-frozen!”

“Oh, right. Sorry bout that.” Kaika placed her hands on her hips. “So, who exactly is the enemy?”

“Well-trained. Very organized. I heard them speaking Russian, or what I think is Russian.”

“That matches the info we got from interrogating the pilot’s brother. Did Viktor show up?”

“Baldymort?”

“I’ve never heard that nickname before, but yeah. And you should start reading better books.”

“I didn’t see him… but maybe he was one of the snipers I killed.”

“One of? You mean there were several?”

“Two. Both highly skilled. I beat them though. One after another too.” Arashi forced her still thawing face into a smug grin.

Kaika ignored the bragging and held her chin. “It’d be great if Viktor really did bite the dust, but I wouldn’t count him out just yet. It sounds like you didn’t confirm your kills anyway.”

Arashi nodded curtly. “I could barely move, so…”

“I’m not blaming you. You did well fighting against so many. Actually, we followed the trail of dead bodies to you.”

Saya moved to treating Arashi’s badly frostbitten left hand, grimacing upon seeing the extent of the damage. “This probably needs to be amputated…”

Arashi tried to assuage her grief by raising the corners of her lips. “I’m due for an upgrade anyway.”

The co-pilot exited the cockpit to inform the party about arriving at the designated area. Arashi would have to check by eye to direct them to where Ageha was located. Saya helped her get up and over to one of the chopper’s many small round windows. After half a minute of surveying the terrain, she pointed at the exact location of the cave. Due to the trees surrounding the entrance, the chopper had to land quite a distance from it. Since the cave interior was not visible from the chopper, Saya left alone to avoid exposing Kaika to danger. Arashi was in no condition to help, so she stayed in the aircraft, warm under several layers of blankets and warmers. Her thirst had been quenched by a few gulps of warm water.

A few minutes passed in silence. Neither Arashi nor Kaika said a word while waiting for Saya and Ageha to come out. Saya appeared from the cave entrance, looked around, and then returned inside. Seconds later, she exited again, this time with Ageha on her back. The sight prompted sighs of relief from the two who stayed behind.

“That jerk, always doing things that give me trouble,” mumbled Kaika.

“Don’t you mean ‘make you worry?’”

“Y’know, I think I liked you more when you were mute.”

Strength gradually left Arashi’s body. Ageha’s safety was confirmed, so the tension preventing her from proper rest had finally vanished. That moment of peace allowed her to reflect on the fact that she had overcome a terrible ordeal, and she had done so not by her own power but by using everything she had learned from others. She used to be a blank slate, but with each person she met, she had grown. The person she was now was an accumulation of everyone in her life, and that person was the one who managed to protect Ageha.

She felt proud.

Saya and Ageha soon reached the chopper. The corner of Saya’s eyes were slightly red. She had probably turned off her comm device and bawled upon seeing Ageha safe. She pretended to be calm all the time, but Arashi knew she was very emotional and anxious. Their time together had taught her that much. Arashi felt a renewed regret for doubting and worrying her true family, but she immediately cast it away, deciding to make up for it in the future.

“Long time no see,” said Ageha as Saya laid him down on the bench across from the door.

Kaika puffed out her chest. “My breasts grew two centimeters!”

“Still a liar. Glad to see you haven’t changed.”

“I heard most of what happened from Arashi.” Kaika stepped aside, revealing Arashi sitting behind her.

Ageha’s expression instantly turned grave. “Who did that to you?”

“Doesn’t matter… They’re all dead.”

“…I see.”

“Yup.”

“Thanks… for protecting me.”

“It’s nothing. Think of it as payment for that kiss.”

“Don’t tear off my hair! I can’t move!”

“Whatever do you mean, Ageha-sama?”

“Gotta say I missed this,” said Kaika.

The co-pilot closed the door and returned to the cockpit. As the engine and blades began blaring again, Kaika equipped Ageha with the same earpiece she had given Arashi. The chopper promptly lifted off and began gaining altitude. They cleared the closest mountain and approached a wide frozen lake. Arashi had not scouted that far because traversing the mountain would take too long and involved too many risks.

“Brace for impact!!!”

The chopper tilted sideways. An ear-splitting boom shook the aircraft. Arashi fell to the ground as the helicopter wobbled around in the air.

Surface to air missile!?

The blast had not been a direct hit. They would all be dead if that were the case. A proximity-fuse triggered missile likely detonated a fair distance away. That said, they did not get out of it unscathed.

Kaika scrambled to the radio in the cabin and pressed the large rubber earpiece to the side of her face. “Damage report!”

“We’re losing engine power!” replied the pilot. “It’ll hold out for a while, but our speed and mobility are greatly compromised! We can’t dodge another one of those!”

“It won’t end with just one.” Arashi used the bench to get to her feet and peeked out the window.

The short time between the alert and the actual detonation indicated that the enemy was nearby. Arashi quickly spotted the assailant with her enhanced vision. He was not even trying to hide anymore.

It really was Baldymort.

Viktor, his shaven head coated with blood, was in the process of grabbing another missile launcher from several by his feet. At the chopper’s current speed, he would be able to launch another one before they could reach a safe distance.

Arashi grabbed her rifle and headed for the door.

“What are you doing!?” Saya, who had also seen the enemy, rushed to stop her.

“I’m the only one who can make the shot.”

Saya furrowed her eyebrows but proceeded to open the door. “Ojousama, please grab onto something!”

“You don’t have to tell me!”

The immobile Ageha was secured by a single belt. That was worrisome, but they had no leeway to address it at the moment.

Arashi quickly aimed her rifle, not bothering to crouch down to save time. It was the right decision. Viktor already had them in his sights. Before she could pull the trigger, the missile burst forth from the tube on his shoulder. It was pointless to shoot him now. The missile was already headed their way, signaling certain doom.

No.

I won’t let them die here.

The girl denied fate with all her might, with the entirety of her soul.

So what if it’s impossible?

I just have to do it, right?

Then it won’t be impossible anymore.

Not caring about her faulty logic, Arashi devoted her everything into the next second. All her training, battles, wins, and losses were condensed into a single moment.

Time stopped. Even the missile that should have been traveling at mach speeds seemed to be as still as the frozen lake beneath them.

She pulled the trigger.

The missile and bullet met midway and exploded into a mess of flames and debris.

“Unbelievable,” whispered Saya. “You shot down a missile…”

Arashi lowered her weapon. “I guess I did.” Despite her achievement, no trace of pride showed on her face. She looked as shocked as the butler.

The helicopter continued to ascend and gain distance. Shoulder-fired missiles would no longer reach them soon. Saya went to the cabin radio to explain the situation to the pilot, while Kaika finally relaxed her hold on the fabric webbing. Arashi volunteered to close the door after confirming that they had escaped Viktor’s effective range.

“Is it really that amazing?” asked Ageha, still strapped to the bench.

Arashi turned to him and nodded. “It is.” She flashed a bright smile as she reached for the door handle.

The world tilted.

No, it was only her world that suddenly twisted sideways.

She lost balance. That was no problem. She could simply adjust her footing to right herself.

But her legs would not move.

It took a mere instant for Arashi to realize what had happened. She had seen it happen in front of her recently.

Her batteries had run out.

Without so much as a word, her body slipped through the open door and was absorbed by the sky.

 

***

 

He was the only one to notice. Saya had gone to the cockpit, and Kaika was too far away. Unfortunately, he was also the only one who could not move.

Was that the end?

Was there no way to change destiny?

Arashi was about to fall to her death.

And only he could stop it.

No, even he could not.

He was trapped in his metal shell, cursed with petrification.

Only a miracle could save Arashi now.

But he had to try.

Ageha screamed at the top of his lungs, plunging his entire will and being into his frozen limbs.

Move.

Move..!

Move!!!

Move!!!!!!

“MOVE!!!”

Kaika stood dumbfounded as she witnessed a miracle.

As advanced as they were, ARMS were still electronic devices. Sometimes, even a dead mobile terminal could turn on for a few moments after a long rest. That phenomenon was what allowed Ageha to move one last time.

He rushed towards the falling Arashi, ripping off the belt keeping him in place. It took him just two steps to reach the edge of the chopper. Arashi was still there, just barely within arms reach. She extended her human hand, badly frostbitten and missing fingers.

He reached for it.

Their fingers overlapped.

Then.

Then…

Then he stopped.

His cursed body’s last drops of fuel had burned away.

Arashi’s hand felt farther than the stars in the night sky.

And then it was.

She instantly turned into a dot and crashed into the frozen lake below, breaking through the ice and disappearing into the dark depths.
Ageha and Kaika did not move. Saya, who had turned around after hearing Ageha screaming, also froze in place.

It was Ageha who finally broke the silence. “W-We have to save her…” He wanted to immediately jump out after her, but he could not move an inch. “What are you two standing there for!? We have to save her!!!”

Saya slowly opened and closed her mouth like a dying fish before finally regaining her voice. “We… We can’t… Neither of us can swim, and if we stop now…” Her voice trembled terribly as tears dribbled from her eyes. “If we stop now… we’re all gonna die…”

“That… That… That can’t be… Kai! You have a plan right!? Do something!!! You’re the genius here! We have to save Arashi!!!”

His words jolted the frozen Kaika back into motion, but her face displayed no emotion. The genius had naturally analyzed the situation faster than any of them. She probably knew the best course of action.

She did.

With the blankest face imaginable, she walked over to the cabin radio and said, “Keep going.”

“What… What did you say..?” Ageha’s confused expression smoldered into one of rage.

“Keep going.”

“Don’t do this, Kai!!! You can’t leave her behind!!! We have to-”

“Do you want Saya to die along with her?” The lack of movement on Kaika’s face made her look like a perfect porcelain doll. She stared into his eyes, prodding him to answer.

“I… I…” His voice broke into tiny irreparable shards. “I…”

Kaika turned away from him and muttered, “Keep going,” again and again and again.

 

Next Chapter

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