No, remarkably I'm not dead. Bearing in mind I live in Salisbury, England that's even more of a surprise. The Novichok hasn't got me yet, even if one of my favourite pubs is still closed.
My lack of output has mainly been due to work, which is just insane at the moment. I get home tired and really not in the mood to do more typing most nights. My subject choice last time, RWBY, was probably a mistake, too. The series is going in a direction which, while not actually bad, definitely reduces my desire to write about it. I even thought of returning to the Harry Potter world, but Fantastic Beasts just really isn't floating my boat.
In desperation, I instead turned to my anime collection and one title leaped out: Amagi Brilliant Park, err, I mean Darker than Black. 'Darker…' is part of my Holy Trinity of anime, along with Ergo Proxy and Black Lagoon. I always felt that a third series of DTB was needed as, after all, we never found out what the gates actually were or how Contractors actually came into being. Warning all Hei/Yin shippers, this is a Hei/Misaki tale as the idea that the two of them could actually be fighting on the same side was just too tempting to ignore. Sorry, but you have been warned.
I'm flying without a beta with this one so expect mistakes galore! As I'm expecting thousands and thousands of people to read a washed-up Harry Potter writer do a story about a mildly popular anime that finished in 2009, I'm sure I'll have loads of feedback. Maybe.
Chapter 1 – Encounter at the Gate
Misaki Kirihara cautiously stepped out of the elevator and quickly glanced down both ends of the corridor. Seeing no one, she felt the tension ease from her tense shoulders. The trip here had been a hazardous one and if it hadn't been for such an important purpose she doubted she would have risked it. The Americans were everywhere and they had recruited enough traitors within the Japanese security services to make her existence a tenuous one.
Feeling a sense of urgency rising within her, Misaki scanned the numbers on the doors in front of her and discerned that she would find room 249 somewhere to her right. She headed off in that direction, the trainers on her feet feeling decidedly odd. She'd become so used to wearing sensible, flat shoes over the years that wearing anything else just felt wrong. However, the rest of her clothing was more suited to a low-rent teenager, so the trainers were definitely appropriate, unfortunately. In fact, the staff at the reception desk of the hotel had nearly denied her entry, at least until Misaki had convinced them she genuinely had business here.
Making her way down the carpeted corridors, Misaki soon found the room she was looking for. She knocked sharply twice on the door and waited. It seemed like a long time before she heard the door being unlocked which did nothing to steady her nerves. Only her stern discipline kept her from fearfully glancing up and down the corridor like some scared rookie. She'd been at this too long now to be so unprofessional.
Eventually, the door swung open to reveal an attractive, blond-haired woman who wore distinctive purple lipstick. The woman smiled warmly.
"Ah, there you are, my dear," Oreille practically purred. "Do come in."
Not needing a second invitation, Misaki stepped into the room, closing the door firmly behind her. Oreille was already sauntering back into what appeared to be quite a luxurious suite. The woman draped herself across a large, white sofa, before picking up a glass of what Misaki assumed to be champagne. She might be on the run from the Americans, but it certainly didn't look like Oreille was slumming it.
"Misaki, my darling, it really has been too long. Would you like a drink?"
"It's only been a couple of months," Misaki pointed out, "and, no, I'm not thirsty."
"All the more for me," Oreille declared.
"Are we safe using our real names?"
"Oh, naturally. You don't think for a moment that any room I was staying in could be successfully bugged, do you?" Oreille asked in a shocked tone. "Really, Misaki, this is me we're talking about."
"Sorry," she replied, sounding anything but. "Why did you need to see me so urgently? I had some difficulty extracting myself from that operation. I was pretty sure I was close to infiltrating the government department that…"
"Inconsequential," Oreille interrupted. "I have information that is much more important and something that I think you'll want to hear. You see, I believe I've discovered where they've taken your father."
"You have?" she exclaimed. "Where is he?"
"Would you believe in China? He's been placed in a prison camp set up to house important Japanese officials in the Yunnan region, not far from the Myanmar border, actually."
"I don't understand," Misaki declared. "My father was arrested by the Americans. How could he possibly have ended up in China?"
"Actually, I've been hearing strange rumours about two nations for some time. Although it's being kept top secret, it appears China and America have entered into something of an accommodation between themselves and are working together."
"What? But surely the two countries are natural enemies. Why would they work together?"
"The obvious answer is that it is beneficial for them to do so," Oreille explained. "It also seems that China has been rather clever and as result, the Americans have almost been forced to work with them. This actually leads me to the real reason why I called you here."
"I thought you called me to tell me about my father," Misaki protested. "You know how worried I've been since he was arrested."
"Of course, my dear, but I have another, equally pressing reason to summon you, and it's all linked to this new-found spirit of cooperation that the superpowers are suddenly feeling. It's to do with Heaven's Gate."
"Heaven's Gate? What has that got to do with anything? No one can get near the damn thing."
"While that was certainly true before, it appears things might be changing," Oreille revealed. "As that dreadful little man Schroeder confirmed, the gate is still there, we simply haven't been able to access it since the explosion. Well, that no longer seems to be the case. There are reports coming out of South American that vast areas that have previously been inaccessible have suddenly become reachable again. This has caught a lot of people rather flat-footed, apart from the Chinese it seems."
"What do you mean?"
"You might be aware that the Chinese government was extremely generous when it came to the relief effort after Heaven's Gate exploded, both in terms of cash and resources. They deployed large numbers of medical, engineering, and administrative staff to South America to provide aid. Most of them, it appears, are still there. What we didn't realise at the time was they also deployed many more soldiers to the area than we'd initially been led to believe. What was meant to be a small force to provide protection to their relief workers turned out to be a small army. Since then, they've been adding to those numbers, too, and have constructed several major military bases in what used to be Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. They've also built some pretty impressive port facilities at Buenaventura, not to mention several major airfields. In short, they're there to stay."
"But… how did the Americans allow all this to happen on their doorstep?" Misaki demanded.
"The Americans were too busy worrying about Hell's Gate here in Japan," Oreille explained. "Ironic, isn't it? The Chinese completely control the area around Heaven's Gate, while America has similar control over Hell's Gate, which is so close to China. As both states hold major playing pieces in the game and are unlikely to be wrestle control of the other's piece, they decided it would be best if they worked together. That includes stashing away Japanese dissident elements in the heart of China, away from the eyes of the American populous."
"Is there no way to free my father, then?" Misaki asked plaintively.
"Not unless you're prepared to fight through several million Chinese soldiers. No, if you really want to save him, not to mention liberate Japan from American occupation, your talents will be best served elsewhere."
"The rumours that Heaven's Gate has become accessible again are just that – rumours. I need someone I trust to go over there and find out exactly what's happening. Who better to do that then someone who has already been within the boundary of Hell's Gate? Frankly, Misaki, my dear, you're the perfect choice to undertake this mission."
"And how will this help my father?"
"Come, come, sweetie, think about it for a moment. Both of the world's premier superpowers are obsessed with the gates. Indeed, Hell's Gate is the only reason the Americans are here in Japan. Everything is tied into these two anomalies, and if we're to stand a chance of evicting the Yankees from the home islands we need to understand what the gates are for and, if necessary, how we can use them."
"Okay, I see your point," Misaki admitted, "but how am I supposed to do this? I can't exactly take a commercial airline to South America now, can I? Surely you don't expect me to do this alone, either, do you?"
"Ah, the details, yes." Oreille reached over and picked up a small, black book which she flipped open casually. "I've arranged to have a fake passport created for you which shows you have joint Japanese/Philippines nationality. You'll be able to take a flight to Luzon and from there on to Hawaii. There, you'll meet up with a handpicked group of mercenaries I've assembled for this job."
Misaki couldn't help but scowl at the word 'mercenaries'.
"It's alright, my dear, I've specially selected this group and none of them has any love for America or China," Oreille explained, completely misreading Misaki's objections. "From Hawaii, a small freighter will take you to a port in Peru. The ship is already loaded with a number of well-equipped, four-by-four vehicles which you can use to travel to Heaven's Gate. There isn't much in the way of border controls in that region anymore, so you shouldn't have too much trouble. Once there, I want you to find out as much as you can and then report back to me. I don't foresee any problems for a woman of your talents."
"Well, that's just jinxed it," Misaki muttered.
"Oh, nothing. Very well, I'll undertake your mission. I confess, if Heaven's Gate has opened again, I would like to know the reason why, myself."
"Excellent," Oreille said approvingly. "Now, your flight to Luzon leaves in about eight hours, so you'll need to get organised."
Misaki nodded. At that moment, she didn't know if she was excited or terrified at the prospect of entering the gate.
A sudden jolt shook Misaki awake. Blearily, she adjusted her glasses and looked around her. While visibility to the front was limited due to all the dust the jeep in front of them was kicking up from the dirt road, on either side she could see patches of thick woodland. The land appeared to have flattened out since she fell asleep, although she had no idea about how far they had travelled.
"Sorry 'bout that. Roads are pretty bloody awful."
Misaki looked over at the jeep driver - a huge, hulking Australian who identified himself only as 'Jacks'. He spoke pretty good Japanese, no doubt the reason he'd been assigned to her. Two more men rode in the back of the stripped-down vehicle, although she couldn't remember their names. Both looked vaguely European and both were heavily armed. The other two jeeps in their small convoy were similarly equipped and manned.
"How far have we come?" she asked Jacks, gripping the roll bar to steady herself as the vehicle bumped along.
"Around one hundred and twenty kilometres, thereabout," he replied. "You've slept all that time. You must have been pretty tuckered out, little lady."
"I've been pretty much on the move constantly for the last week or so," she admitted. "I didn't even have time to catch up my sleep on the ship."
The man just nodded and said no more. The mercenaries had proved to be pretty much what she imagined they would be, with the single exception that there were two females in their ranks. Perhaps Oreille had insisted on their inclusion to make her feel more comfortable, but Misaki doubted it. In fact…
A fireball suddenly erupted in from of them, engulfing the lead vehicle.
"Ambush!" Jacks yelled, slamming on the brakes.
As soon as the jeep skidded to a halt, bullets started to impact around them. Several hit the hood of the vehicle, punching neat holes in the metal. One went straight through the windscreen, cracking the glass and nearly hitting her.
Jacks had grabbed his assault rifle and was enthusiastically firing at some unseen target. For her part, Misaki grabbed her combat pack and her own rifle and bailed out of the jeep. She was already wearing her web gear, so she only needed to swing the pack onto her back and quickly tighten the straps. She then clutched her carbine and, from the cover of the jeep, tried to figure out what was going on.
A quick look to her front revealed that the lead jeep was a twisted, burning, mess. No one could have survived what she assumed to have been a hit from a rocket, or perhaps the vehicle had hit a mine. Either way, all four occupants were undoubtedly dead. Looking back the other way, the rear jeep also seemed to be in trouble. They seemed to be under heavy machine gun fire, with tracer bullets riddling the vehicle. The driver was slumped over the wheel while another of the mercenaries was hanging limply over the side.
An agonised cry made her turn back, just in time to see Jacks fall, his neck a bloody mess where he'd been hit. She couldn't see the other two men who'd been with them, but the fact that she couldn't hear any return fire seemed to be a bad sign. Whoever was shooting at them was too well numerous and well-equipped. Misaki quickly realised that if she stayed where she was she would die.
Off to the side was a thickly forested area that offered cover, but unfortunately to get to it would mean crossing an open stretch of dirt. With the amount of incoming fire, she doubted she would make it without being hit. She needed something to hide her movement.
Keeping as low as possible, she reached back into the jeep and grabbed an item off Jacks' webbing. Her movement attracted some fire but she was quick enough that she was only exposed for a second. Gripping the smoke grenade tightly, she pulled the pin and threw it over the hood of the jeep as far as she could. Nothing happened for a moment causing Misaki to fear the grenade had been a dud, but then purple smoke began to swirl in the air. She waited for the smoke to thicken before she made her move.
Almost immediately she saw she had a problem. Whoever was out there must have guessed what she was doing and was blindly shooting into the smoke. Clearly, she could see the tracer rounds buzzing like angry fireflies through the air at chest height. To stand up would mean instant death.
Realising that time was not on her side, Misaki began to crawl towards the treeline on her hands and knees. She could clearly hear the bullets cracking overhead, making her cringe each time one came close. Even as she crawled, she kept looking back behind her, fearing that the smoke might start to thin at any second, revealing her position. In fact, she thought it was already starting to dissipate and she could see the muzzle flashes of her attackers in the distance. Although she had already been moving frantically, it inspired her to move even faster.
Mercifully, she soon started to feel twigs pressing into the palms of her hands and the first branches appeared overhead. Misaki fought down the urge to climb to her feet and run, but kept her nerve and continued to crawl. Only when she started to encounter bushes barring her way did she rise to a crouch and sprint forward. Behind her, rounds continued to impact with fierce intensity. She was out of the kill zone!
Not wasting another second, Misaki began to run as fast as she could. The terrain was difficult, with the undergrowth being thick and unyielding. She didn't pause, however, leaping over bushes and ducking under branches. Blindly, she ran, not having any idea what direction she was going or where she should be heading. It didn't matter, however, she just needed to put as much distance between her and whoever was trying to kill her. Fortunately, she was young and fit, and fear was a great motivator.
She was unsure how long she ran. It was only when exhaustion began to overtake her that she began to slow. The ground was becoming undulating and, emerging from a clump of trees, she found herself facing a deep valley. Gasping for breath, she quickly decided that descending into the valley would be a good idea and she began to pick her way down, grabbing at trees to slow herself as she went. It took her a good half an hour before she reached the valley floor. Only then did she stop to gather her thoughts.
Clearly, someone who was very heavily armed hadn't wanted her group to get anywhere near the gate. Had this been a random ambush, though? Had she been specifically targeted? Who was it? The Americans? The Chinese? Some unknown local warlord? There was no way to know, short of walking back towards her attackers.
So, what did she do now? She was armed and had food for a couple of days in her pack, but that was it. She had no map or means of contact with the outside world. Indeed, she had no clear idea exactly where she was, other than she was probably somewhere in what used to be Brazil. In short, she was lost, had limited supplies, no means of transport, and had a gang of heavily armed people behind her who were trying to kill her.
Misaki realised she had very limited options. Going back seemed like the best way to get a bullet through her forehead, but what else could she do? She did have an emergency compass, but without knowing where she was it was of little use. All she knew was that Heaven's Gate was out there, somewhere to the east.
Heaven's Gate. Someone had tried to stop them going there and she wanted to know why. She had no means of getting there, other than on her own two feet. Unless she could find food along the way, the chances were that she would starve long before she got there, but what else could she do? If she stayed there, she would be hunted down and probably killed. At least trying to reach the gate gave her a purpose, admittedly a near-impossible one.
Filled with renewed determination, she pulled the compass from her pack, intent on heading east. She sighed as she saw that she would need to climb the steep side of the valley. Grimly, she pulled her pack a little higher on her shoulders and headed off again.
Misaki stumbled slightly and came to a halt. Overhead, the sun beat down upon her mercilessly and she silently lamented the lack of cover. Indeed, it was that very lack of vegetation that made her think that she was closer to Heaven's gate than she'd first supposed.
It had been two days since the ambush and she'd been walking constantly since then, resting only when the darkness was too black to make travelling safe. Only then had she found a space to hide herself away, unnoticed, and slept cradling her M-4 carbine in her arms.
Reaching for her canteen, she took a quick drink. Water, fortunately, had not been an issue as she'd encountered many rivers and streams. Hopefully, her water sterilisation tablets would prevent her from getting sick drinking it, but she had a more pressing problem, anyway, namely food. She'd husbanded her meagre rations to this point bit, even so, she estimated that she only had enough to eat for another day or two at the most. Her hope that she would discover edible fruit or berries had proved forlorn, and starvation in these wide, empty wastes now seemed a very real possibility. Idly, she wondered if she would have the courage to shoot herself in the head rather than suffer the agonising pangs of hunger if it came to it.
It was only around midday, but Misaki could already feel her energy levels dropping sharply. She missed the lush canopy of trees that provided overhead cover for her during the first day of her trip. Increasingly now the terrain consisted of rough, yellowing scrub grass or just red dirt. There were still patches of woodland, but they seem to be becoming less and less frequent. With the sun at its hottest, however, she needed to find some shade, if only for a while. Squinting into the distance, she was delighted to see a substantial crump of trees some way off. A brisk half an hour's walk should see her there where she could rest.
Her spirits briefly revived by the thought of a sit down in the shade, she resumed her march. In fact, it took her nearly an hour to reach the welcome refuge of the trees and by the time she arrived she was dead on her feet. Stumbling forward, she had just enough energy to get beyond the treeline and into the heart of the woods before her legs gave out. Gratefully, she slipped the straps of her backpack off her shoulders and let her rifle slide from her grasp.
Misaki's drooping head snapped up at the sound of a human voice, the first she'd head since the ambush. Her eyes widened as she saw who had spoken.
Ahead of her, sitting on the low branch of a tree, was a young girl. She was perhaps around twelve or thirteen years old, with luxurious, golden hair that hung down past her shoulders. The girl wore a simple white dress and had open-toed sandals on her feet. She was, Misaki had to admit, quite stunningly beautiful and her radiant smile seemed to light up the whole clearing.
But why would a young girl be out here in the middle of nowhere, sitting in a tree seemingly without a care in the world? Unless…
Unless she wasn't human.
Slowly, Misaki reached for her rifle. She had just wrapped her fingers around the pistol grip when the girl spoke again.
"It's alright. You won't need that. I won't hurt you."
The girl spoke with such conviction and confidence that it convinced Misaki that her first thought had been correct. This beautiful child must be a Contractor.
"Who are you?" she asked, not loosening her grip on her weapon.
"You can call me Ama," the girl replied while gracing Misaki with a beaming smile.
"Ama? That's an unusual name. Where do you come from, Ama?"
"The same place as all the others," the child replied mysteriously. "Really, Misaki, you can trust me, you know. Please relax."
Misaki stiffened. "I never mentioned my name," she pointed out sharply.
"I knew it anyway. I know lots about you, Misaki," the girl declared happily. "For instance, I know that you have a big bunch of Chinese soldiers chasing after you. They're less than ten kilometres behind you now."
"Shit!" Misaki cursed, spinning round to scan the horizon behind her.
"Don't worry, they won't find you here. Not even with the dogs they brought with them."
Dogs? Damn it all, Misaki cursed silently. She might have guessed things had gone too smoothly since the ambush. As she tried to plan the best way to avoid her pursuers, a thought occurred to her.
"How do you know I'm being followed?" she demanded of the young girl. "For that matter, you never said how you knew who I was. Are you a Doll?"
"A Doll?" Ama repeated in amusement. "Oh, no. I'm certainly not a Doll, although I do have a number of special talents."
"A Contractor, then?"
"Hmm, closer, but still not very accurate," Ama replied, a radiant smile still affixed to her lips, "but what I am isn't really important right now. You're in a very difficult situation here, Misaki, and unless you get help, you'll undoubtedly be killed."
"You're going to help me?" Misaki asked suspiciously.
"Yes," Ama replied.
Silence descended in the wood.
"Okay," Misaki drawled when it became apparent the girl wasn't going to say anything further. "What are you going to do?"
"For the moment, I'm just waiting," Ama explained, her legs swinging beneath her carelessly as if she was on a family picnic, not confronting an armed woman in the middle of a blasted wasteland.
"Waiting? What are you waiting for?"
"The same thing you are."
Misaki growled. She was beginning to suspect that this adolescent beauty was playing her for a fool. She took a step forward, fully intent on confronting the girl when she caught movement to her right out of the corner of her eye. She spun around and started to raise her weapon… before freezing dead in her tracks.
Standing before her was a tall man with jet black hair. He wore black combat pants with a black vest and had a web belt with several pouches and a water bottle at his waist, along with two knives. The most startling thing about the man, however, was the white Pierrot style mask which had a purple lightning-bolt across the right eye slit.
Of course, she recognised him instantly. Somehow, on the other side of the world from where they last met, she had again found BK-201.
Or perhaps, he'd found her.