I do not assume any knowledge of either Brimstone or Vampire Miyu in this story, though obviously people who are familiar with both will get more from it. This story follows the continuity of the Vampire Miyu OAV series, not the TV series. Those of you who are familiar with these shows, especially Brimstone, will not be surprised to be told that this story deals with themes of faith and redemption. I am not an adherent of any particular religion, and those expecting this story to fit neatly within any given system of belief will be disappointed. I'll give this a PG-13 rating for violence and adult content.
A note about punctuation: I use /this/ to indicate where italics would be, I just got tired of my spell-checker choking on the asterix. I still use double asterix for telepathic communication (you'll see).
The Brimstone television series was produced by Peter Horton for Warner Brothers Television, and broadcast in North America by Fox Television Network. The Vampire Miyu comic was created by Narumi Kakinouchi, the OAV based on her comic is distributed in North America by AnimEigo. All the normal fan fiction disclaimers apply.
Ken Wolfe Ken_Wolfe@mbnet.mb.ca July 1999
Heaven can Wait
It was so perfect it was a sin just to watch it. Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, Yankees trailing by two runs. The best the Yankees had to offer stepped up to the plate. He was facing a pitcher who had never, ever struck him out and they both knew it, you could see it in their eyes. If Ezekiel Stone had been in the habit of biting his nails, his fingers would have been bleeding by now. He leaned forward, quivering, squinting at the fuzzy image on the little TV, in great danger of falling right out of the threadbare armchair. The pitch came and the TV switched channels.
Which could only mean one thing. Another visitation by the Devil.
"Damn it!" Ezekiel's head snapped around left, then right. There he was, standing not three feet away, holding the remote and watching the TV with casual interest. Ezekiel shot out of his chair and snatched the remote from the Devil's hand. "Give me that!" He aimed it like a gun and punched the channel button, even though deep down he knew it was futile. The channel changed but the program did not. He tried a different channel, then back to where the game was supposed to be. All the same, some samurai drama subtitled in English, probably on one of the Asian ethnic channels. The bastard was messing with the TV again. Ezekiel threw down the remote in disgust, having at least the presence of mind to throw it onto the - let us be charitable - the 'soft' cushion of the armchair. "You know, your sense of timing is a wonder to behold."
"Timing is everything, Ezekiel," the Devil said cheerfully, ignoring Stone's sarcasm. He was looking very dapper today, in a dinner jacket with white tie no less. He should have been sweating in that, but of course he was not. Neither was Ezekiel, despite the wretched heat in this old building. One of the benefits of being dead. "Besides," the Devil continued, taking on a smug, fatherly tone, "You really do need to expand your horizons. So much spare time on your hands, and all you can think to do is watch baseball, and only Yankee baseball at that."
"It's Sunday," Ezekiel growled in his gravely voice. He wasn't going to give the bastard the satisfaction of being begged to set the TV right again... but damn it all anyway! "Even your boss rested on Sunday."
The Devil smiled at the barb. "You have many miles to go before you sleep, Ezekiel, many miles to go before you sleep."
"You dressed up and came all the way up here just to remind me of that? I'm touched."
The Devil looked hurt. "I'm here to help you, Ezekiel! I could have just left you up here to do the job all by yourself, you know. But no, I take the time to come visit you whenever I see you stumbling or falling astray. When it looks like you need encouragement or guidance or just somebody to tell your troubles to, I'm right here at your side. You should show a little gratitude," he chided.
Ezekiel ignored him and walked over to the kitchenette to get a beer. He didn't need one, he never did, not really. But right now he sure felt like one. "Fine, tell me where I can find the next lost soul you want me to hunt down for you."
"Ezekiel..." the Devil scolded, sounding very disappointed. "I can only do so much for you, I'm a very busy man."
Ezekiel opened his beer, took a swig and waved the bottle towards his companion. "Looks like you're all set for a relaxing night on the town."
The Devil's long face brightened. He posed proudly. "You like it? I'm off to a night at the theater. A disgruntled, washed-up actor who was turned down for even a bit part is going to show up with an assault rifle. Wouldn't want to miss it."
Stone knew it wouldn't work, but he had to try. "Oh yeah? What play are you seeing?" he asked in a casual tone.
The Devil gave Stone his /oh, please/ smile. "Never you mind, you can read about it in the paper tomorrow if you're that interested. But I wasn't lying when I said I'm here to help you. Here..." he pulled something out of his breast pocket and laid it down on what passed for a dining table in this place. "Not that I'm trying to encourage your destructive recreational eating habit or anything, but as you said, it is Sunday and maybe you do deserve a treat. Think of it as my attempt to help you expand your horizons."
Stone stepped over and picked up the little piece of paper with the hand that wasn't holding his beer. "Coupon for... an okonomiyaki lunch? So what exactly is-" He looked around the room. "Damn, I hate when he does that," he muttered. Well, now that he was gone maybe the TV would work. He tossed the coupon back onto the table and went to get the remote. He hit the button and some samurai big-shot in a burning room getting ready to cut his belly open was replaced by an outfielder catching a fly ball and throwing his fist up in triumph. The word 'replay' flashed on the screen. "Aw, shit! Shit! Triple shit!" He stabbed down on the power button and tossed the remote onto the end table in disgust. He had hit the channel return button by mistake. Mister samurai big-shot was doubled over, no doubt with a knife in his guts. His retainers were all crying like babies while the room burned down around them. Another twisted soul sent screaming into hell.
Stone took a deep breath and sighed. "I've really got to stop letting him get to me like this," he said to himself without too much bitterness. Hopelessness. That was what the bastard was really trying to encourage. He wanted Ezekiel to get the job done, no doubt of that. It was any hope for the redemption that lay at the end of that long road that he was trying to squash. And he was good at it. Very good.
Gradually Stone's mind slipped into a place that came as naturally as breathing to him, he started thinking like a cop again. He had learned very early that the Devil's reputation as the prince of lies was well deserved. But whatever he said he was very anxious to see this job done, so he really did sometimes leave clues that were marginally helpful. Okay, samurai dramas and sukiyaki... or whatever in hell it was, he didn't feel like walking over and picking up the coupon. Something to do with Japan then. Well why not, he had already hunted down a homicidal poet from Tang-dynasty China. With his luck it was going to be a homicidal samurai or ninja or something. Could be nasty. But then again, it couldn't be much nastier than that Carthaginian had been. Or maybe it could. If it was the first Emperor or something, it could be somebody who had been in hell for a whole lot longer than Ezekiel had been, maybe even longer than the Carthaginian. If he was lucky, it was a more recent resident, maybe an officer during the Rape of Nanking or something. Ezekiel smiled. That would actually be a pleasure.
Ezekiel shook his head. Bad thought. If you ever start enjoying it when you have to bring one down, you're done for. He had known that even before he'd made his capital error, before he'd done his time in hell. He was still a cop, he was just reporting to a different department, that's all.
After a couple of hours surfing the news channels, he finally found something interesting. He listened for a couple of minutes. "That's gotta be it." He got up and stretched. "All right, time to get back to work. No rest for the wicked."
It was getting dark by the time Stone arrived at the Japanese consulate. He was expecting it to look a little more... Japanese. But it was thoroughly modern architecture, lots of glass and concrete. Stone stepped up to the police line and flashed his badge. The officer nodded, and Stone ducked under the yellow tape barrier and headed for the front door. Nobody ever bothered to look more closely at his badge, otherwise they might wonder what a New York cop was doing in Los Angeles. If they ever did any checking they might wonder what a dead New York cop was doing wandering around Los Angeles large as life. One cop actually had checked... but she hadn't been a real cop, even before she had gone to hell. Stone hoped it wasn't her old partner in charge here.
It wasn't. Stone just waltzed onto the crime scene like he belonged there because that was the way to do it. His trench coat sometimes raised eyebrows, less because of how threadbare it was than because people wondered how he could wear that in a Los Angeles summer and not even sweat. Let them wonder. He spotted what looked like the detective in charge and wandered over. "Evening."
The heavyset, black man with graying hair glanced up from his notebook. "Evening."
"Wilson." They shook hands.
"Just one body, I heard. That right?" Of course he had heard nothing of the kind. Like everyone else who watched the news he knew that there was a death at the consulate being investigated. But it worked as an opener.
"Yeah. The Consul General. Over there." He pointed over to the closet of the very nice, spacious private office. Presumably the Consul's office. The coroner was doing his stuff, it looked like they were just about done. Officers were still combing the site, collecting all the microscopic specks of evidence that they loved to feed to their shiny, expensive diagnostic equipment in the crime labs.
It wouldn't be doing them much good in this case, Stone thought. "How long's he been there?"
"Since yesterday. He always works late and doesn't like to be disturbed, so he wasn't missed until this morning. His secretary came in here this afternoon looking for something and noticed the smell... then she looked in the closet."
The smell of voided bowels. So the perp had just killed him quietly, stuffed him in a closet and walked out calmly enough not to attract attention. "I'd like to have a look."
Wilson grunted his assent and went to confer with one of his officers. Stone walked over and peered over the coroner's shoulder from a respectable distance. Really ugly bruises on the neck, and no large amounts of blood. Strangled or neck broken. The Consul was a handsome Asian man, probably in his forties. His tailored suit was hardly rumpled. Hadn't put up much of a fight... more likely hadn't been given the chance. Stone took one good long look at the room and wandered back over to Wilson, waited for a moment when an interruption would be least annoying. "What used to be in that case?" He pointed at a display case on the wall behind the desk.
"Japanese sword. The secretary said a case for the Consul's kendo stick was missing from the closet, he must have carried it out in that."
"Is the sword an antique or something?"
"Sixteenth century they tell me."
File for future reference. "Valuable enough to kill for?"
"Not for monetary value. Impossible to sell at this point anyway. Took his wallet too, strangely enough."
Stone got a sinking feeling. "He'd have his Japanese passport on him, right?"
"Maybe the perp was looking for somebody who resembles him, somebody he could pass for." Or maybe he's a shape-shifter like Ashur.
"A couple of people in the office figure they saw the guy. The description is similar to the victim. Doesn't make much sense though, you can get a fake passport just wandering the right street corner."
True enough, though maybe the perp wasn't savvy enough with modern crime to know that. But of course Stone couldn't say that. "Maybe the perp offered to buy the sword from the Consul first, then just flew off the handle and killed him instead."
Wilson sighed. Obviously Stone had put enough doubt in his mind that he didn't want it said later he had overlooked this. He made the phone call on his cellular and put a notice out on the passport. By the time he was done there was a newly arrived officer waiting to talk to him. "Sir, one of the girls thinks she saw this guy come here earlier in the week."
"Fine. Let's go." The officer led Wilson over to another office that had been turned into an interview room. Stone tagged along unobtrusively. The witness was a very nervous-looking young Asian woman in business dress who spoke her English with an accent. Wilson reviewed with her what she had told the officer... a man fitting the description had come in earlier in the week seeking information about arranging travel to Japan. She had given him the standard information on passports and visas and he had left.
"Miss Ishigawa," Wilson said gently, using the name the officer had provided him. "You must get people fitting this description coming in every day asking for information. What made you think this might be the man who came yesterday?"
The woman hesitated. She looked vaguely embarrassed as well as being nervous. "I mentioned it just because he was unusual. He spoke Japanese, but with a strange accent, like from the Edo period." She flushed at the blank stares she got. "I mean, like from a samurai drama. And he asked odd questions... he asked about getting to Shiga prefecture but he used the old name for it, Oni. And he just looked..." She averted her eyes and shuddered. "Scary," she finished in a little voice.
Wilson just sat in his chair and eyed her impassively. "That's all?"
"His name was unusual too."
That got Wilson's full attention. "You got his name?"
"It was easy to remember. The same as that famous daimyo from the Warring States era." Again, the blank stares prompted her blush to deepen. "He said his name was Oda Nobunaga. Uh, Oda would be the family name."
"Thank you for clearing that up for me," Wilson said in a voice that was just a little too weary to be polite. "Miss Ishigawa, I'd like to take you down to the station and get a police artist to take your description of the man. I'd like that to be tonight. Think you're up to it?" She nodded. "Good. Sergeant, see to it. Thank you, Miss Ishigawa, you've been very helpful. Please excuse me." He got up and left the office.
Stone walked with him back to the crime scene. "That name mean anything to you?" Stone asked.
"Not a thing. Could be some nut case. Japanese militarist or something. Could be a political thing. Christ almighty." His cellular rang and he snapped it up quickly. "Yeah?" He listened for a few seconds then stopped dead in his tracks. "When?... No, that's okay, I'll call you back." He snapped the little phone shut. "Shit!"
"Somebody used the passport." Stone didn't bother making it a question.
"Plane landed in Tokyo an hour ago. Damn it all to hell!"
Yeah, Stone thought. That about sums it up.
Stone waited at the back of the church until the service was over. He sat quietly in the last pew of the big old steepled church hall while the people who actually had a right to be here filed out. The priest stood there in the entryway, greeting each celebrant and shaking each hand. Stone had never seen anyone not shake his hand on the way out. Somehow, when a blind man stands with his hand extended, walking by without shaking it simply isn't an option.
When the last worshipper had left, Stone got up and walked over to the priest. He inclined his head towards Stone, his keen hearing alerting him to the presence. "Hello, Father," Stone said.
Father Horn's face lit up. "Ezekiel!" He stepped forward and Stone stepped into his embrace. "It's been a while!"
"I know," Ezekiel said. "My last case kept me pretty busy. I only finished it off a couple of days ago. And I'm already on my next."
The old black man stepped away from Stone and gazed out towards him with his white, sightless eyes. "You sent another soul on its way?" he asked solemnly.
"Come, let us pray."
Ezekiel indulged his friend. He even knelt at the altar beside the old man. But he had nothing to say, not in this place. His own judgment was already past and gone, he already knew that he had been found wanting. It was far too late to pray for forgiveness now. He did not need to ask God what his road to salvation must be, his path was written in the names tattooed over his body. His road to heaven lay across a very specific body count.
Besides, he knew exactly where these lost souls were going back to. He had been there himself, after all. Ezekiel imagined that for him to try and pray for their souls would be pointless at best, an affront at worst.
They moved to Father Horn's office, an old room full of leather books and leather chairs that had a not unpleasant smell of age. Father Horn spent a while telling Ezekiel all about what had been going on in his parish. Ezekiel was happy to mostly just listen to matters of church picnics and bake sales for a while. It was nice to hear his friend speak of people who had real lives. Who were really alive.
Like Stone, Father Horn had moved to his new parish from New York just a few months ago. Stone had never asked about it, but he felt certain that Horn had asked for the move, had somehow arranged to follow Stone here.
Stone had told him the whole story, back in New York. I'm the most decorated cop in the history of the NYPD. I killed the man who raped my wife. Two months later I died and went to hell. Fifteen years later, there was a jailbreak in hell. One hundred and thirteen of the most vile creatures who ever existed escaped to walk the earth again. The Devil wanted them back. So he found the best cop in hell and made a deal with him. You bring them back to me and maybe, just maybe, you won't have to come back here again. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.
Stone still marveled at how Horn had accepted the story so easily. He wondered at the sort of faith a man would need to believe a story like this. Stone had seen the fire and brimstone with his own eyes, had felt its power. Horn simply accepted without seeing. Needs must, perhaps.
When he felt the time was right, Stone said what he came to say. "Father, I wanted to let you know. I'll be leaving Los Angeles sometime soon, I'm not sure when I'll be back."
"You're going back to New York?"
"No, the other way. I'm going to Japan."
"Japan?" Horn looked to be very disturbed by this. "Ezekiel, has *he* told you to go there?"
"Not in so many words. He dropped hints, but I was able to figure it out for myself. My next target flew to Japan yesterday. I have to go after him."
Father Horn just nodded. He never asked for details about Stone's targets, which Ezekiel was grateful for. It was an ugly business, he didn't want to unload the sordid details on the only friend who could really understand his position. "I suppose it had to happen eventually, hadn't it?"
"I suppose so." They had spoken at length on this before. So far all his targets had gone to ground either in New York or in Los Angeles. Presumably the 'jailbreak' had dumped the lost souls somewhere on the continental United States and they had gravitated towards those places. They had chosen well, there were probably no better places on Earth for refugees from hell to lose themselves and blend in. Which said some rather interesting things about these cities, to be sure.
"Will you be accompanying somebody from the LAPD?" Horn asked.
Ezekiel chuckled. "They're not sending anyone. They've just warned Interpol that some unidentified homicidal maniac flew into Japan yesterday with somebody else's passport. If he's as smart as I think he is, he's gone to ground by now. They won't find him, they don't even know what they're looking for." As if I have a better idea, Ezekiel thought.
"So how are you going to get there?"
"I'll manage," Ezekiel said casually. In fact he had no idea how he would get there. He had looked at flight prices in the paper and could hardly believe what he saw. Even giving up recreational eating altogether, it would be weeks before his 'allowance' could cover a flight to Tokyo.
Horn smiled that knowing smile that told Stone he had failed miserably to hide what was bothering him. Without a word, the old priest got out of his battered, creaking wood swivel chair and walked over to the bookshelf behind him. He felt along the shelf for a particular book and pulled the old leather-bound volume out. He walked back to the desk, set it down and opened it. Curious, Stone stood up to have a look, and suddenly laughed. "Father, that's the oldest trick in the book." He winced at his unintended pun.
"Hide in plain sight, Ezekiel," the blind man said, also smiling now. A square hole had been cut in most of the pages, leaving a small compartment.
Ezekiel's smile faded when he saw what Father Horn was pulling out of the compartment. "Aw, no Father, you don't need to-"
The priest found Stone's had easily, raised it and firmly placed the roll of bills into it. "This should help, Ezekiel."
"No, Father," Ezekiel pleaded. "This has got to be from your parishioners. I can't-"
Horn rolled Ezekiel's fingers around the wad of bills and squeezed his had firmly. "Always remember, Ezekiel," he said in a tone that stopped Ezekiel's whining cold. "You are not doing the Devil's work. At most, you are cleaning up his mess for him. You are doing God's work. You always have been. Never, ever forget that."
"Father..." Ezekiel sighed heavily. His imploring tone was gone now. "I'll pay you back when I can."
Horn smiled. He clapped Ezekiel's hand. "I know you will, Ezekiel. You always follow through on your promises, always do your duty, always pay your debts. I am sure that is why God chose you for this difficult work, Ezekiel. I am sure that is why he is giving you a second chance."
"Thank you Father." There was nothing more to say.
Stone walked into the lobby of the building he stayed at. As usual it didn't exactly smell bad, it just smelled very, very old. Which it was. Beggars and dead guys couldn't be choosers.
As usual his landlady was sitting behind the counter. The incandescent glow reflected off her pale face showed that she was messing with her computer, also as usual. She spotted him and waved. "Hi Stone!" she said in her high, rough, cheery voice.
"Hi Max." Maxine was a skinny, vivacious woman just a little younger than Stone... well, just a little younger than Stone had been when he died. They had gradually become close friends since he moved in here. Under different circumstances, he wouldn't have minded if they had become an item. But he liked her far too much to do that to her.
"You're keeping a little more civilized hours these days, you been taken off the night shift?" she asked.
"I've been temporarily reassigned. In fact I need to talk to you about that."
"Oh no! You're not moving out of LA, are you?" she whined.
"I said temporarily, didn't I? We just finished making the arrangements. I'm flying to Japan tomorrow."
"Japan?" she squealed. "Japan? That is so cool! So what are you doing, chasing down some Yakuza drug lord?"
"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." The last part the two of them said in unison, it was his standard issue reply to any question he didn't have a good lie to cover for.
"How long?" she asked.
"It's sort of open ended. I know I'm paying rent by the month but-"
"Jeez Stone, I know what cops make, where the hell do you spend your money?"
This cop makes exactly thirty-six dollars and twenty-seven cents a day... but Stone couldn't exactly say that. "I've got some debts I'm still paying. I know it's a pain, but I can't really afford to pay out more than I have to."
"Ah, forget it," Max said with a lopsided smile. "I know you're good for it. Just pay me for this week. I'll put your TV in storage and use the room for day rentals. It'll be ready whenever you get back."
Ezekiel smiled warmly. "Thanks Max."
"But this means you have to take me out to dinner tonight. Don't worry, just the usual place and we'll go dutch."
"Deal. You get off at the usual time?"
"You bet. Can you wait that long?"
He could wait forever, as far as food went. Literally. "Sure. Say, in the meantime, could you look up some stuff in that internet thing for me?"
Maxine beamed. She always enjoyed showing off her surfing savvy to Ezekiel. "At your service. What can I do you for today?"
"I need you to look up a name for me. Oda Nobunaga."
Max had already done whatever it was she did to connect up. He could hear her modem dialing the number. "Sounds Japanese, this one of your perps? Don't you have police databases for this?"
"It's actually a historical figure, an old samurai or something. One of the guys we're chasing used it as an alias. I want to see if there's some reason."
"Ooooh," Max crooned. "Profiling, delving into the criminal mind. Cool." She started typing. "That's Oda and Nobunaga, two words, right? Spelled like it sounds?"
"'Kay, let's see what comes up. Hmmm... got some hits, must have spelled it right. I'll look at the first one. Here we go, Oda Nobunaga... 1534 to 1582. Was the first of the three unifiers of Japan at the end of the Warring States period, was of middling status in the feudal hierarchy, yadda yadda.... ooh, came to control a third of Japan, then he died when some retainer betrayed him. Don't it always turn out that way? Lesse... bunch of details about the wars he was in... built some bigass castle... converted to Christianity-"
"Says right here. Wanna see?"
Stone sat down and read most of the rest for himself, with Max doing the navigating. The more he read the more he was sure he had guessed right. Nobunaga was the most ruthless warrior in the bloodiest period in Japanese history. He burned down the holiest Buddhist temple in the country, slaughtering all the monks. And then he had turned around and got himself baptized... mainly because he so despised the esoteric Buddhists he encouraged the spreading of a rival religion. Taking the sacraments for all the wrong reasons. There seemed to be a lot of legends about him delving into sorcery - Max found some weird stuff about him appearing in a few ultra-violent Japanese cartoons, where he was usually at the head of some demon army. "Vlad the Impaler," Stone said half to himself.
"You mean Dracula? Yeah, sounds like this guy's in the same league." Her voice lost just a bit of its chirpy bounce. "If your perp really identifies with this creep, he must be a real sicko." She put a hand on his shoulder and gave him that lopsided grin he liked so much. "Watch your ass, okay?"
"I will." He had damned well better.
"Yes... Hi. No... eeyay. Thank you... arigatow. You're welcome... dow itashi, itashimis, itashi... oh hell." Stone opened the little phrase book and started flipping.
"There is an easy way to remember that," the disturbingly perky Japanese business man sitting next to him said. "My American friends who are learning Japanese said so."
"Oh yeah?" Stone had been suffering the man's incessant attempts to practice his barely serviceable English.
The man beamed. "Don't touch da mustache."
Stone thought about that. "Dou itashimashite. Yeah, that works. Tha- Uh, arigato."
Stone hated airplanes at the best of times. The last twelve hours had been agony, even for one who had experienced the flames of hell itself. Middle seat on a 747. This joker to his left, a lady with a squalling baby to his right. Absolutely everybody smoked. The food was inedible. The movie was worse. And whatever his body tried to tell him, when he landed it would not be midnight, it would be high noon. At least that gave him a whole day to find somewhere to stay while he got his bearings. Then the real fun would begin.
Ezekiel was eagerly anticipating the end of this horrid flight, but he was not looking forward to what came after. Back in New York and Los Angeles he had been in his element, a cop on his own turf, hunting down scumbags just like he had done in his previous life. His real life. Here, he would be a fish out of water. The thrice-damned language was the least of his problems. though that was bad enough. All his years of training and work, all the assumptions and instincts that he brought to his new work... any part of it could be utterly wrong here, could be worse than useless. Could kill him... again. Of course, in a way that was par for the course. He had been forced to abandon a lot of assumptions over the past few months. Many of his targets had been centuries and continents separated from his world. Even in life they would have been alien to him. He often thought their time in hell was all he had in common with most of the things he hunted. Hell had changed them all, made them harder, stronger, in some cases nearly invincible.
The most ruthless dictator in this country's history was back on his home turf, hardened and energized by four hundred years in hell. And all there was standing between him and whatever he intended to do here was this stupid bumbling gaijin tourist. Ezekiel hoped they had beer over here, he sure could use one.
Shinma Raiki took her prey by the arm and smiled sweetly. "Oh come on, Kenji. My place isn't far, really."
She could hear the young man's heart fairly leap from his chest. He had obviously not expected this, they had just met yesterday after all. She could see and hear the blood surging through his veins, driven by hormones and by fear. Both the scent of arousal and fear were delicious, though the latter was somewhat disappointing. She had thought this one might be made of sterner stuff. No doubt he was nervous about the anticipated coupling with a woman who he perceived as older and more experienced.
Right on both counts, but off by just a few centuries.
She led him down the dark streets of Nagoya, keeping up the requisite stream of chatter. The city had changed much, since the first time she had walked the earth. The clever little humans had bred like locusts and covered the earth with their works in the past four centuries. But in the past twenty years she had staked out her hunting grounds, made them hers once again.
The boy's trepidation was now being compounded by his growing puzzlement. "Uh... are you taking a shortcut?"
"We don't need to, we're almost there." She had led him onto the forested grounds that surrounded the shrine where she made her nest. Away from the street lamps, he was probably having trouble seeing. "Watch your step."
She suppressed a laugh as he bumped his foot into the step she had just ascended. "Ow!" He looked up at the dark mass in front of him. "Isn't this one of the shrines? Oh, I get it," he said with relief. "This is the residence. You're a shrine maiden, right?"
"This has been my home for a long time," she said by way of not answering the question. She took his hand again and led him into the building. At a wave of her hand they phased into the space only she could access. Only then did she light the oil lamp that had not been there a moment ago.
"Wow." He just stood and looked around while she lit the lamp at the other side of the little room. It looked more or less like the inside of the actual shrine, minus the most important holy artifacts. There were just a few additions to make it more homey. "This must be one of the buildings that's closed to the public. I never thought anyone actually lived here."
Nobody did... at least not in the building everyone else saw. "We make do with the space we have."
"That's a really exquisite cabinet," he said, trying hard to sound like he would know.
He was making this far too easy. She had already decided that his fear would be far more interesting than whatever his young passion had to offer. But now she would hardly need to lift a finger. "That's where I keep my collection. Would you like to see?"
She was putting just a hint of the Shinma trill in her voice, just enough to put him on edge. "Co-collection?" he stammered.
She gestured encouragingly. "Go ahead. Open it up."
He definitely knew that something was very, very wrong now. But he was desperate to save face, so he hung on to the hope that it was just his nerves and everything was really all right. He just walked stiffly over to the massive antique cabinet, fumbled with the latch and opened the doors wide. In the dim light they were probably rather hard for him to make out. He leaned forward and peered at them more closely. She heard him gasp. "My God!" He took an involuntary step back.
He backed right into her and she wrapped her arms around him. "Aren't they pretty?"
He was trembling violently. If not for her he might have stumbled and fell. "Th-this is a joke right? They're not real, right?"
"Of course they're real. Look." She reached forward and picked up one of the vials, held it up so that he could see more clearly. "This is one of my favorites. It's the most exquisite shade of blue. I almost wish I'd saved the pair." Snuggled up close behind him, she could see the side of his fear-stricken face, could almost feel his ragged breathing. The eye of Kenji's she could see was fixed on the thing floating in the little glass tube she held inches before his face. /That is the one I will take/. She put the vial back in its place and stepped back away from him. This was always the most interesting point. The ones she had not bedded were more likely to bolt. She felt certain this one would.
He surprised her by just turning around and staring at her. He smiled, laughed nervously. "Come on, you're just trying to freak me out, right?"
She laughed lightly. The men of this age could be so thick, so utterly unwilling to listen to their own instincts. This one knew, at the very core of his being, that he was in the presence of something that preyed on his kind. But he had spent his whole life being told that he was on the top of the food chain and that nothing could unseat him from that lofty throne.
"Kenji, you are such a bore." She reached into his chest and took a firm grasp of his heart. He gurgled and choked. His arms flailed uselessly. His legs buckled, wracked by violent spasms. She held him up easily, keeping him upright before her, keeping those lovely eyes of his locked on hers while his lifeforce flowed up her arm and into her body. She crooned as his essence settled into her like a warm bath. He aged before her, his skin withering and puckering, his whitening hair falling down to the floor in fluttering cascades. Just as he was about to shrivel into a desiccated corpse she reached out with her other hand and plucked her prize from its socket. Moments later there was naught left but his pitifully quivering heart, steaming and shriveling in her palm. Then that too was dust. The dust itself would soon be gone.
Raiki picked one of the vials from the cabinet, one that was empty save for the clear fluid. She popped the lid with her thumb. Carefully, she lowered the eyeball with its trailing optic nerve into the vial, finally dropping it in and closing the lid. She smiled. "I wish I could say you will be holding a prominent position in my heart, Kenji." She placed the vial on one of the lower shelves. That was for the quick kills that gave her nourishment and a pretty prize but not much else. There had certainly been more interesting catches over the years. Some had merited careful stalking and coaxing that had lasted the better part of a year rather than a mere day or two. Those were the best. In fact she had a couple of prospects that she had been working on for some time. They both looked promising. She spent some time thinking on them, debating which one to pursue first. She made a more or less arbitrary decision. But that would be something for tomorrow, or maybe the day after, as the whim took her. Right now, it was time to make her rounds, sniff out any interlopers. So many of the others who had escaped were content to just roam. But she had a firm sense of territory, and would not tolerate it being violated. She phased out of her personal space and into the real temple in preparation for venturing forth.
A human was standing before the temple. She could feel his presence, his gaze. Powerful, unafraid. Instantly her hackles went up. Humans never came here at night. Something was wrong. Feeling suddenly angry, Raiki threw the door aside and stepped out onto the shrine entranceway. She stood transfixed, overcome by shock and utter disbelief.
The slender, handsome man in the tailored business suit smiled at her. "I thought you might still be lurking here, Raiki-kun." He laid the katana he was carrying against the railing that surrounded the little shrine building. "This was the place I found you, after all."
"Nobunaga-dono," Raiki whispered.
"Ah, so you do recognize me. Am I much changed from before?"
"No," she managed to say, still recovering from her shock. But that was a lie. He looked the same, exactly the same. But there was something different... no, something *more*. His essence was blinding, like it had been refined and purified and left to harden for half an eternity. "Nobunaga, how?"
He chuckled, his eyes danced playfully, mocking her. He spread his arms out. "What is this Raiki-kun, are you not happy to see me?"
She leapt at him, all thought of caution dashed. He received her headlong rush with ease. Her mouth clamped over his and her arms crushed him to her with bone-crushing force. She had killed many a human with less... but she knew now with absolute certainty that he was no longer a mere human, that for him this was the mere love-tap she had intended it to be. Far from having the life crushed out of him, he simply responded in kind, feeding on her presence as she fed on his.
After a long while she gazed into his dark eyes again, eyes now so full of power it was dazzling. "Nobunaga, where have you been?"
He slapped her bottom hard. "Shame on you Raiki, you've grown disrespectful. That's no proper greeting."
That brought a smile to her lips. "Nobunaga-dono, my one and only, my lord and master, would it be indelicate for your lordship's unworthy servant to inquire as to her master's whereabouts these past four hundred years?"
Nobunaga laughed heartily and they kissed again, this one a mere signature placed on the last. "If you must know, I've been in hell," he said brightly.
"You've returned from Jigoku?" she asked, hardly believing it could be true.
"No, the other one."
That took a moment to click. "The storm-god's hell.... no, the one ruled by his fallen lieutenant."
"The very one."
She held him at arms' length and looked him up and down. "It has done wonders for you, my lord. But I can see how agonizing it must have been, can see it in your very bones." Her red lips spread in a grim smile. "You must regret it, converting to that occidental religion."
He snorted. "It was far from the worst place I could have ended up."
"How is it you are back?" she asked, still marveling at this miracle.
"I allied myself with a hundred of the most powerful spirits there and we made our escape. I had a difference of opinion with the ringleader so we went our separate ways. I had to come all the way from America in one of those great metal birds."
He tweaked her nose playfully. "I /know/ what they are called, woman."
Raiki shook her head in wonder. "The world has changed much, hasn't it my lord? Did you learn of what has happened here?"
Nobunaga's face became frighteningly grim. "Yes. The wars ended soon after I was betrayed. That whelp Ieyasu won the Shogunate for the Tokugawa family, by vile trickery. What an utter travesty! The idiots did nothing with the powers they had won! Two hundred years wasted! I did more for this country in twenty years than they did in two hundred. They took all my work and just threw it away."
"There has been none worthy to lead them, my lord. When you tried to share your vision with them they betrayed and murdered you. Perhaps they deserve no better."
Nobunaga shook his head. "I was betrayed by a lazy, posturing bureaucrat. The people do deserve better. Look at what has been done to them now. The lowest of the low, the merchant class, rules in our place!"
"I too have been very disappointed by what I found in this new age."
Nobunaga's expression softened, and he stroked her cheek. "And what of you, my pretty spirit woman? How have you passed the centuries?"
"I was lost when I heard of your betrayal and death." Which was true. It had been exhilarating to find a human worthy of being treated as her equal. It had been devastating to lose him. "I looked for you... I know it was madness, human spirits have so many resting places, it was hopeless. But I really didn't care. In that state I was easy prey for the Guardian."
Nobunaga frowned. "The Guardian sent you back? Yet you are here."
"Twenty years ago the masters came to baptize a new Guardian. But she ran, had to be hunted down. Before she took on her mantle many of us escaped."
"So you escaped the darkness a second time. Clever girl."
Raiki smiled. "It was easy this time, for those of us who were ready. We just walked through the gate."
"This new Guardian must have been severely punished."
"The masters tasked her with hunting us down. But she is a stripling, hardly more than a child. Even now she looks so, the masters stopped her time."
"She has come after you?"
"No, I hear rumors. Her name is Miyu. Some say she has become quite capable," Raiki said grudgingly. "But she is still a child. If she can do it at all it will take her centuries." She grinned. "A very long time for me to have a great deal of fun."
Nobunaga chuckled. "I heard tales of one who is tasked to hunt us down as well. It seems we are both hunted fugitives." He did not say it with much seriousness or concern.
"I am so glad you have returned to me," Raiki said. The hands she had been lightly holding him with pulled him closer. "This world has shone much less brightly without you."
He kissed her again. "And I am delighted that I have found you, my love. Now we can continue the work we began all those years ago."
She raised an eyebrow. "You mean to rule this land again?"
"I mean to lead my people to their rightful destiny. There is much lost time to make up for, much work to be done."
"The people are not what they were," Raiki cautioned him. "They worship naught but their own clever philosophies, think only their machines can make them gods. They could not conquer any of the demon realms, they do not even believe in them."
"That will change, once I have the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi."
Raiki's eyes went wide with wonder. Her intake of breath was not quite a gasp. "You still mean to find it?"
"I already have. Or at least I know one of two places where it would be."
Raiki knew what he was talking about. There were two artifacts claimed to be the Sword of Billowing Clouds. "But those are said to be replicas, my lord."
"So it was said in my day. But I know the aristocrats, know how they think. Their minds are greasy, but their hands are like glue. They would never let such a treasure slip from their grasp. One of them is the real one, and I will know it when I hold it in my hand." He held her closer and grinned. "Only one who has been touched by a god could know its true value, could bring out its power."
Raiki returned his smile. "I am Shinma my lord, both God and Demon. You have been touched by both the darkness and the light. What sort of path will you lead your people down?"
"I mean to cast beams of light into the shadows and reveal what is there. I mean to break down the walls between the realm of man and the realms of the spirits. Whether as friends or allies or rivals or enemies I mean to engage the demon worlds, to make them part of our world. Though we may be crushed by them we will learn from them, become stronger. Only that way can my people achieve their destiny."
This was what had drawn Raiki to him, this was what had made her pledge herself to him. In all her centuries in the world of the Shinma and the world of man, never had she seen one so capable of rattling the cosmos to its very foundations.
She grinned. "Sounds like fun."
You hear the most interesting things on the grounds of a middle school. Miyu had discovered this a long time ago. Her fellow students were at the age where they were sophisticated enough to understand much of what happened in the adult world. But they were not yet at the age where they had learned to hide their opinions for reasons of politic or propriety. The world was an open book for them, and they had not yet found all the reasons their parents and teachers found for closing the book. Just sitting quietly and listening to the conversations in a classroom between classes, in the hallway or on the grounds, she could here more candid talk of what was going on in the world outside than she could get from any of their parents' mammoth news distribution empires. Here is where she would hear very interesting things, hear things that might warrant her attention.
Like she was hearing right now.
"My uncle knows one of the priests who work at the Atsuta temple," the boy said. "He says that's the real Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi. It's a designated national treasure, you know."
"So's the one in the Imperial Palace," his companion retorted. "I bet it really was stolen, that's why they're not saying much about it."
"What was stolen?" a third boy said, wandering into the group.
"Nothin'. There was just a thing in the paper yesterday, a security guard died in the Imperial Palace. They're saying it was just an accident or something, but my cousin in Tokyo heard a couple of other guards are missing. And he heard the dead one was found near where they keep the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi."
"The replica of the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi," the first boy corrected him.
"So if it was stolen what are they displaying there now, another replica?"
"Stupid, it's not on display. It's part of the Imperial Regalia. Nobody but the guards and the Imperial Family sees it."
"What are you talking about? That's the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi. We learned that last week." He turned to Miyu, who was listening more openly now. "Miyu, you're in my class, isn't the sword in the Imperial Regalia called the Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi?"
Miyu smiled and stepped closer. How standards had fallen since her day, she had learned this in grade school. "The Grass-cutting Sword and the Sword of Billowing Clouds are one and the same. It was called Ame-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi when the goddess Amaterasu passed it to her grandson, and when he passed on to the first emperor. It later took the name Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi when it was used by Takeru Yamato in one of his campaigns to subjugate the Ainu. It is said to have been lost at sea during the Battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1168. If that is so then both the sword in the Imperial Palace and the one here in Nagoya are replicas."
"Well my grandpa says the one in the Imperial Palace is the real one," the second boy said defensively, obviously regretting that he had asked.
Each generation believes what best suits them. "If somebody stole all three components of the Imperial Regalia, legend says that would give them the power to lay claim to the throne," Miyu observed.
"Yeah, big deal," the third boy said. Like many boys his age he was a dedicated skeptic. Especially when it came to anything his parents told him he needs to respect. Or anything one of the girls might suggest. The conversation went on to different matters and Miyu silently bowed out. She walked out of the classroom and out into the hall, giving thought to what she had heard. She was always sensitive to stories of people vanishing without a trace, especially in the vicinity of ancient places or artifacts of power. It was only rumor, but suddenly she was smelling Shinma again. Worth looking into. If nothing else a change of scenery would be nice. The prey here was proving very elusive, and Nagoya was far from being her favorite city.
Miyu made her way out onto the school grounds. She had almost made it to her private place when he spotted her and waved. She stopped and waited as he trotted over, not letting her annoyance show. It was not with him she was annoyed but with her own involuntary carelessness. She could have made herself effectively invisible, made it impossible for him to notice her. But some part of her had not wanted that, which was what Miyu found annoying.
Kazuya was in his soccer gear. He was still flushed from the noon practice she knew he had been doing. To her vampire eyes he was glowing, fairly bursting with lifeblood. Little tendrils of hunger trickled through Miyu's own veins. "Hi Miyu. Where are you off to?"
"Just out for some air. I was watching you, from the window." Which was true. He was a pleasure to watch at play, strong for his size yet quick and graceful.
He looked pleased. "I think the team's shaping up a little better now."
"They're lucky they have you to show them how it's done."
Kazuya just smiled, taking the compliment gracefully. "I'm glad I caught up with you. I wanted to ask you to stay after class today."
"Yeah. I could use some help."
"Sure." He didn't really need her help, not unless he was trying to challenge her position at the top of the class. Which he was not. He had a passion for excellence, but not for competitive reasons. No, his motivation for asking her was very obvious.
"Thanks, Miyu. Want to go get a drink?"
She wrinkled her nose. "I think your next stop should be the shower room, Kazuya-kun," she said playfully.
He chuckled. "Yeah, I guess so. See you at the library at five?"
"Okay." She watched him jog towards the gymnasium. He had been pursuing her for some time now. That was not unusual, she always attracted the boys' attention. That was mostly how she obtained the blood she needed. This worked fine as long as she was seen to be unattached, available. Of necessity, she had to decline offers of long-term attachment.
Except, of course, for those who became part of her world permanently.
Mostly she sought out those who were unhappy, especially those who were lonely. By now she could spot them a mile away. They were always ready to accept her, as a friend, as a girlfriend, as a senpai, as a little sister... whatever it was they needed. By the time she told them what she was, they welcomed what she had to offer, oftentimes begged for it. An eternal dream where they were no longer sad or lonely.
But Kazuya was different. He had pursued her from the day she arrived. Not aggressively, but relentlessly. He was neither sad nor lonely, Miyu could not recall ever encountering a soul that was so contented and yet so eager to expand. What she could offer him would be of no interest, no eternal dream could ever tempt him.
But it was not a dream he sought from her. He had fallen in love with her.
Miyu sighed. "Dear me, what am I to do?" It was not a glib question. She liked Kazuya, enjoyed his company. If she really were what she appeared to be, they might have actually become the soul-mates he clearly thought they should become. But she was bonded to another, both by duty and by love.
Miyu walked into the trees that shaded one side of the school yard. Here, unobserved, she phased into her private space. He was waiting for her. **You are troubled,** he said without preamble. **The boy still will not be discouraged?**
Miyu floated up and perched on a branch of one of the gnarly, lifeless trees that filled her dark, misty realm. Her school uniform was gone now, replaced by the short white kimono and wide red sash that she had come to think of as her working clothes. "I made the mistake of letting it show, how fond I am of him. Do you think I'm being sentimental, Larva?"
Even though she was high in a tree, the impossibly tall Shinma was close to being at eye level with her. Would be, if he had eyes that anyone could see. **You feel badly that you cannot return his love, not in the way he wants. There is no shame in that.**
"Maybe I should try to play matchmaker. Akiko would be good for him."
**He will still be in love with you.**
"That will fade in time. It always does, despite what all the songs say." She had spent twenty years in an environment where she could observe young love every day, she knew just how fleeting it could be. Miyu often wondered if the Shinma masters really understood what they had done to her, freezing her body in its current state. However old she became, the only place she could fit in would be among those who had just begun to emerge from their childhood.
**That love fades makes it no less precious.**
Miyu smiled, remembering what the child she used to be had said about the sea she loved so much. It was its ever-changing vista, the fleeting existence of every wave, that made it beautiful and wondrous. Anyway, this was not what she had come here to discuss. "I'm going to Tokyo. It will probably be for just a couple of hours, unless I find something really interesting." It was understood that he would be accompanying her.
**You sense something?**
"Just a rumor. It could be nothing." With that, she floated down from her perch and they made their way deeper into the realm of the Shinma. There was but one gate between the human world and the Shinma world, and save the masters themselves she and her servant were the only ones who could pass freely through it. But the gate was not so much a place as it was the intersection of two fields. It touched on many places in the territory she guarded, afforded quick passage between those many places. Much quicker than the bullet train.
"It's over that wall. Then over another. Then another."
Ezekiel shook his head. "This really is the Forbidden City."
"That's in China, man!" his companion said.
"Yeah, I know." Even if he could play cop like he did on the other side of the pond, it looked like Stone wouldn't be getting within a mile of the place. He wasn't sure why he was here. Attacking the Imperial Palace sure sounded like something Nobunaga would do. But like the rest of the tourists out here today all he would be seeing was the outer garden of the Palace grounds. Even these were only open once a week or so. They looked pretty impressive. Made him wonder what the inner grounds looked like.
Larry, the young man Stone had met at the cheap ryoukan he was staying at, snapped another picture. "Betacam city today. All the newsies getting pictures for the evening's conspiracy theory programs. You should see the stuff, makes Hard Copy look like the MacNeil-Lerher report. But this is nothing, I was here when the sarin gas thing happened, that was a hundred times bigger. It's all anyone was talking about."
It was the sensational reporting of the death at the Imperial Palace and the subsequent rumors that had caught Stone's interest. When Larry had told him that the outer gardens were being open to the public today they both decided to come. Larry had made trips to Japan before and knew a bit of the language, so he was the next best thing to a native guide. He'd certainly been a big help in learning how to survive out here. Stone had even indulged in a little recreational eating. He had breathed a very sincere prayer of thanks when he woke up his first morning here to find three thousand six hundred and twenty seven yen in his pocket. Enough to pay for his rent and not much else. It was Father Horn who had figured out the significance of the number represented by the money that appeared in Ezekiel's pocket each morning. It was a Biblical reference, Ezekiel 36:27 "And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them." He often wondered whose idea that was, or whether it made sense to even ask the question.
Ezekiel was glad for the local currency, but he really wished the gun he had to leave behind in Los Angeles had also magically appeared in his pocket. Oh well, different ground rules for a different place. It wouldn't be the first time he'd found some other way to take out their eyes and send them on their way.
He'd lost Larry again. Stone turned around, saw the bearded young man taking a picture of some Japanese family with their camera. He was always offering to do that. The shutter-happy Japanese tourists were always giving him ample opportunity. Stone just continued on his way. They would meet up again later.
Stone was watching the tourists much more than the scenery. Not having much idea what Nobunaga might be up to, he was falling back on standard practice. Everything he'd heard of Nobunaga painted him as an arrogant, self-important man. He would despise being in hiding, would /want/ to show himself. The next place he showed himself might or might not be here, however. Last night he and Larry and a couple of the other guests had been gathered around a little dining table watching TV in the ryoukan's cramped kitchen/lounge. Larry and others did spotty translations of the tabloid style news program. There was mention of a sword, and another version or copy or something of it. Down in Nagoya. Stone would have to decide soon where he should be. If he decided on Nagoya, Larry was saying hitchhiking in Japan was a cinch. That was about the only option open to him.
Somebody was watching him.
He had become used to being stared at, especially by the girls in their private school uniforms... no, not private school he corrected himself. They all wore those here. Part of it might be the trench coat, which would probably kill somebody who was not already dead, in this muggy heat. Especially in subways, a lot of the girls looked as if they were expecting him to open his coat and wag his weenie at them.
But this one was different. Her observation was almost too discreet to catch, not because she was shy but because she was good. And she was alone, all the other students here were in groups. Stone turned to face her, crossed his arms and gave her his interrogation room look, interested to see what she would do. She did not seem the least bit put off. Obviously seeing that she had been found out, she simply approached closer, giving him a better look at her. She was a very pretty girl, with a petite but athletic build. Perhaps fourteen, though something he couldn't put his finger on kept telling Stone that she was older. Her hair was also unusual, it lay across her shoulder in a very long loose braid held together by an elaborately tied red ribbon. She stopped in front of him and continued to regard him with those striking, lustrous brown eyes, as if she were sizing him up. Stone began to wonder if he was the object of some sort of game. Or maybe a dare, 'stare down the Big Gaijin 'til he blinks'.
"You have the stench of death upon you," she said in perfect unaccented English.
Stone blinked. /Huh/?
Her eyes narrowed. "Why are you here?"
Stone decided to just play along. "I'm looking for someone."
She raised an eyebrow. "Found someone you have I would say," she replied, suddenly giving her voice a resonance that seemed far too deep for that tiny throat to produce.
Stone chuckled. "Well, you got me there, Master Yoda."
She smiled. It looked like she understood the reference. "It's no concern of mine," she said, her voice regaining its previous soft silkiness. "Just remember, the Shinma are /my/ prey." She turned around and walked away.
Stone stood watching her until she disappeared behind a stand of trees. Well, that was certainly weird. The comment about death had really thrown him for a loop. But maybe it had been a practical joke after all.
Eventually he found Larry again. "You ever heard of a shinma?"
"Shinma?" He scratched his beard. "Nope. Just a sec." He pulled the small but thick onion-paper soft cover dictionary he kept in his big belt pouch and flipped through it. "Nope, don't see it here. Lesse, what characters might that be. New... new what? No wait a sec, maybe it's the character for God and then the 'ma' in youma. Demon-god maybe."
As the day progressed, Stone found that he could not get the strange encounter out of his mind. It wasn't until much later that it dawned on him what else had been bothering him. He and that girl were the only ones not sweating under the heat of the noonday sun.
Miyu continued to peer through the foliage, watching him from her perch high in the tree. Larva had joined her now. They were both ensuring that nobody would notice them, but being at least partly hidden always helped.
**I sensed him too,** Larva said. **I sense dark power buried deep within him. He has spent time in a place close to the Abyss.**
"He is a dead thing. Or was. Something has brought him back. And he has hunters' eyes. No human should have been able to sense me watching them. I think he was not lying when he said he is looking for somebody. But it is not a friend he seeks, it is prey."
**What sort of prey, do you think?**
"Not Shinma, it looked as if he had never even heard of them. And he is no vampire. Only the power of the Abyss animates him. Could the Occidental Shinma do such a thing to a man?"
**I am quite sure they could not.**
"Then it's no concern of ours." She floated down to the ground and brushed off her school uniform. "I'm going inside to have a look." Larva would be standing ready to assist, there was no need even to ask. Miyu made her way across the grounds again. She had long since honed her ability to merge with the shadows. She had little difficulty making her way to the inner sanctum of the palace. But she still proceeded with caution. There were creatures other than Shinma who could see through her spells. If any of them were involved in this business, she needed to be ready. For a while she wandered, watched, and listened. People murmured and whispered in fear, telling things that absolutely must not go any further. Miyu smiled. A secret was something you told one person at a time. And there were secrets weaving their way through the palace. A man with the bearing of a samurai lord and the strength of a lion, a fox spirit in the shape of a woman. Piles of dust where the guards had been, dust that faded to nothing before your eyes. A heavy steel bolt cut through with a /sword/. Maybe the monsters took /the/ sword? No, it was still here. It had been moved downstairs.
Intrigued, Miyu made her way to the basement levels. She soon found what she was looking for. A room full of books and papers and antiques, a room for work, not for show. The aged man working in this room radiated cultured arrogance. He was an Expert, nay The Expert. He was bent over the table that occupied the center of the room, examining the thing he had laid out there with the help of spotlights and magnifying glasses. The thing was a very ancient sword, its blade pitted and rusted with age. It was of the short, straight double-edged variety that predated the magnificent curved blades that had later become so well associated with this country's sword smiths.
Miyu made herself visible to him. Before he could even react she had paralyzed him with her golden eyes. "Why are you examining this sword?"
"Cataloguing the damage," the man said in a slow, toneless voice. His vacant eyes were locked with hers.
"How was it damaged?"
"It was drawn from its sheath," he continued, his solemn, lifeless voice an interesting contrast to his wide, staring eyes. "Then it was put back. It was not done carefully. The blade is very old. Very brittle."
So. Somebody really had been interested in the sword. But they had left it here. Somehow, they knew or thought they knew it was a fake. Which probably meant they would seek the real one. Conveniently, the most likely candidate was located back in Nagoya.
Miyu passed her hand across the man's face. "Sleep, and forget." He slept, and forgot.
Miyu quite liked Atsuta shrine. The acres of ground were covered with hundreds of centuries-old camphor trees. On a quiet, moonlit summer night like this, the canopy of leaves spread by the great, wide sprawling trees let just enough moonlight through to bounce off the crushed rock pathways and bathe the space under the leaves with a soft, silvery glow. Even if her vigil turned out to be for naught, there were certainly worse places to spend a night. Here, in the center of the grounds, near the main shrine, the sounds of the surrounding city were softened to no more than a gentle murmur, even to her keen ears.
Those keen ears suddenly told her that her long wait might not be in vain after all. She stood up and hopped lightly from branch to branch, the loose lower section of her white kimono fluttering behind her legs. The ancient, twisted limbs did not bend or creak, as if she were weightless. Larva floated beside her. In this light he was naught but a dark, flowing shadow punctuated by a white, gargoylish mask where his face should be, and by bone-white hands. Miyu crouched down upon her new hiding place and waited.
The people on the ground were being cautious, keeping to the shadows cast by the great trees, so they were quite close by the time Miyu got a good look at them. In appearance they were unremarkable. The man was of medium height and slender build, middle-aged but handsome and moving with youthful grace. Only the incongruity of the stylish suit and the sheathed katana he held was unusual. The woman was lovely. Her perfect mask like model's face was framed with wavy black hair that cascaded down her back. Her ample figure and long legs were shown off to good effect by a clinging, short black strapless dress split up the sides. The one unusual thing was that she went barefoot on the rough ground, a fact that did not seem to be bothering her in the least.
To Miyu's eyes they looked quite ordinary. But she knew there was nothing at all ordinary about either of them.
**The dark energy the man radiates, we have seen this before.**
Miyu just nodded. She could sense it herself, all the way from here. What the man she met in Tokyo had was nothing to this. Of course Larva had not bothered to mention that the woman was Shinma, that was plain as day. This was all very curious, but Miyu had no time to think upon it any further. It was time to go to work.
Miyu dropped down lightly to the ground in front of them, and Larva floated down beside her. "I missed you at the Imperial Palace," she said pleasantly. "But I saw the fake you so casually tossed aside. So now here you are, looking for the genuine article."
They had both gone into an alert crouch the moment she appeared, the man's free hand going to the hilt of his sword in a move as natural as breathing. The woman gasped, her face lit up by sudden realization. "Miyu..."
The vampire grinned. She stared down the Shinma, locked eyes with it. This was why she never attacked without warning. She could not send them back to where they belonged until she had met them eye to eye, had bored down into their souls, taken their name from them. "It is time for you to go home." Miyu's eyes narrowed and her smile broadened. "Shinma...Raiki."
Raiki clenched her teeth in anger. But Miyu could taste the fear, however well hidden. The Shinma knew it was finished, knew that the Guardian had the thing she needed to send the wandering Shinma back to the darkness. But there was one little matter to get out of the way first. Miyu turned to the man standing beside her prey. "I have business with this person. It does not concern you. Whatever relation you had with her is now over. You would do best to leave while-"
He leapt forward with impossible speed, drawing his sword, discarding the scabbard and bringing his blade back down in a two-handed overhead cut all in one smooth motion. Acting on pure instinct Miyu threw a fireball in his path. The quivering red globe detonated upon striking its target. He flew straight through the orange flames without even blinking and only Larva's hand backed by a sparkling force shield that nearly shattered kept Miyu from being cleaved in half. They both leapt back from the swordsman but a howling Raiki fell on Larva like a wolverine. She was in her true form now, raking him with long claws on hands and feet, seeking to entwine him with prehensile hair that had lengthened and gone white. Miyu leapt back again but the swordsman pressed her hard, matching her every leap. Whatever she did Miyu could not pull away long enough to mount any counterattack, it was all she could do just to keep out of his reach. She took a misstep... rather than interposing a tree between them as she had hoped she crashed into its stout trunk, stunning her. He was on her in a heartbeat, the fabric of the kimono over her chest clenched roughly in his left hand, his sword held across her throat. "Call off your guard dog, vampire," he said in a voice that was surprisingly calm and steady.
She met his eyes, stared him down. He just stared right back, not even blinking. Not paralyzed. The blade started to cut. "Right now."
"Larva!" she shrieked, eyes clenched shut, trembling with dread. She could feel the power he put behind this blade he held, he really could finish her if he chose.
She heard the swordsman cry out, there was pain and surprise and seething anger in his voice. He let her go. She opened her eyes just on time to see the swordsman cut the other man's arm off at the elbow. It was the newcomer's turn to scream in agony. The swordsman took a mere fraction to wipe blood out of his eyes, there was a deep, ugly gash across his forehead. He drew back to make the killing stroke. An instant before it would have connected Miyu threw an invisible force blast that knocked him back but did not make him fall. She locked her arm in front of her and let off another, and another. He crossed his arms before his face defensively, holding his ground, leaning into her attack as if it were but a brisk head wind. She was doing no more than holding him at bay, the moment she tired he would be on her again, probably to finish her this time.
He saw it the same moment she did, Larva rushing in from beside them, Raiki in hot pursuit. He /threw/ his sword at Miyu, its point bearing straight on her heart. She almost moved quickly enough. It impaled her through the side and she shrieked in agony. "Raiki, to me!" the swordsman bellowed in his steady, imperious voice and he leapt out of sight. Raiki broke off her pursuit and also vanished. Larva ignored them, flying straight for Miyu. The mask he wore was the same as it ever was, but even through the blinding pain Miyu could read the 'body language' of the only part of his body that ever showed, his hands. He was frantic. For all that, the gentle voice of his that spoke to her heart sounded as it always did. **He missed your heart. I must pull this out.**
Gritting her teeth, Miyu just dug her fingers into the bark of the tree behind her and nodded sharply. Putting one hand gently on Miyu's shoulder, Larva grasped the hilt of the katana and with one smooth motion pulled it out of her side. It was not as bad as she thought it would be... it was almost a relief. A thick torrent of blood gushed out from both entry and exit wound. Miyu choked, coughed and vomited more blood. But a moment later she was breathing again, and the bleeding slowed to a trickle. Shortly it would stop altogether. She had sustained worse injuries than this in the past twenty years, had learned the hard way about how her vampire body healed. By tomorrow she would be good as new. In the meantime, it just hurt. Miyu slid down onto one of the tree's big gnarly roots, clutching her aching, blood-soaked side.
This was when she became aware of the man rolling on the ground screaming in agony.
She glanced over at him. Absently, she wondered why he had not bled to death yet. Something interesting was happening to him. The arm that lay on the ground was dissolving away with a harsh hissing noise and streams of white vapor. At the same time the stump on his arm was growing, also hissing savagely, also issuing whorls of white haze. Presumably that was what hurt so much. She looked at his face, locked in a grimace of pain, and finally recognized him. "The man from Tokyo," Miyu said weakly.
**Yes.** Larva had an arm held protectively around Miyu now.
"Help me go to him."
**Are you sure?**
"He helped me." Larva helped her up and supported her as she walked stiffly over to where the man lay. She knelt down near him. It looked like whatever was happening to him was all but done now. The severed arm was almost completely dissolved away. His new one was red and raw, still exuding wisps of vapor as if the blood in it were in danger of boiling over. For the first time she noticed the tattoos. His arm was covered with strange characters and pictograms that she did not recognize. It looked like they were being burned into his newly grown arm. He was still panting and grimacing in pain, but he wasn't screaming any more. He looked down at his new hand with an expression that was something like revulsion. He turned it over before his eyes. The fingers were separated and curled. He flexed them just a tiny bit. Perhaps that was the best he could manage for the moment. It seemed to be enough to convince him that what he was seeing was real. "That is a powerful spell that animates you," Miyu said in a quiet voice, speaking between shallow breaths. It still hurt to breathe more deeply.
He finally met her gaze. His brows knitted. "You..."
Miyu nodded. "I had not thought to meet you again, stranger. Much less here hunting my prey's companion."
He looked down at her torn, blood-soaked kimono. "Oh God, we need to get you to a doctor." He levered himself into a sitting position, wincing and still holding his new arm out like it was too painful to let it touch anything.
Miyu shook her head and raised her hand up. "No, I heal quickly just as you do." She looked at his immobile arm, still fascinated. "Though I confess I have never had the misfortune of finding out if I can grow new limbs."
He looked down at it too, flexing his fingers a little more this time. "This was my first opportunity to find out." He shuddered. "Not an experience I'd like to repeat. I usually just get shot, I think I prefer that." His eyes wandered to the towering mass of black robes with white mask and hands that had wrapped itself around Miyu.
Perhaps it was time for introduction. "I am Miyu. This is my friend, Larva."
"Stone. Ezekiel Stone."
The pain had subsided to the point where Miyu could think more clearly now. "You're hunting that swordsman, aren't you?"
Miyu noticed what lay on the ground between them. She pointed. "You are hunting him with... that?"
Ezekiel chuckled. He picked up the bloody kitchen knife. "Field expedient. Can't carry a gun over here."
Miyu smiled. "I am really not in a position to voice complaint, but perhaps you should have tried to slit his throat instead."
"I was aiming for the eyes. That's the only way to send him back."
That caught Miyu's interest. "Send him back where?"
"Back to where he came from. Where I came from. Back to hell."
She suspected as much, what with him being named after the book from the Old Testament. "So you serve the Storm God."
Ezekiel looked puzzled. "Excuse me?"
Could it be she was wrong? "I mean Yahweh, also known as Jehovah."
Ezekiel nodded. He seemed to also be in less pain now, he just sounded tired, worn out. "Yeah, indirectly. I report to... the one in charge of hell."
"You mean the fallen angel, Lucifer."
"Right." He waved in the direction their quarry had fled. "That other one, that was a Shinma?"
"Yes. That was Shinma Raiki."
He looked over in that direction. "They must have the sword by now. If there were any guards in the building they wouldn't stand a chance."
"Do you know why that man wants the sword? Who is he?"
Stone shook his head. "I'm assuming he wants the sword, that's why I was waiting here. I have no idea why. Maybe he thinks he can usurp the Emperor or something. He's tried before, when he was alive." He noticed Miyu's puzzled frown. "He's Oda Nobunaga."
Miyu's eyes went wide "/The/ Oda Nobunaga?"
"Yeah, I assume so. Stewing in hell for four hundred years has put a new edge on him." He looked more intently at Miyu. "Why are you after the Shinma? What did she do?"
"She is a wandering Shinma, one who escaped from the darkness where Shinma are supposed to sleep. It is my job to find them and send them back."
Ezekiel looked puzzled. "Darkness? Sorry... is that what you call hell?"
"No, it is not hell. It is simply a place where the Shinma can exist in peace."
The first hints of suspicion began creeping into the man's face. Miyu found herself tensing up a little too. They had both just had a brush with death, had probably saved each others' lives. That was no doubt why their guards were down, why they had come to be talking so easily. But the instinctual trust that adrenaline and circumstance had lulled them both into was beginning to fade. "What exactly are you?"
There was little point in being evasive at this juncture. "I am also a Shinma. But my clan is different, we have the task of guarding the gateway between our world and this one. I am a vampire."
Ezekiel looked as if he was wondering how much of this to believe. "Don't vampires go to hell when they're destroyed?" He made it sound like a glib question, but they both knew it was not.
Miyu's eyes narrowed. "I only ever destroyed one Shinma, the Shinma Remules. If you ever meet him in hell, that will answer your question."
Stone regarded her for a good long time. His face was expressionless. He flexed his new arm again, this time it looked like the fingers moved easily. As if that decided something, he picked up his knife and stood up. Miyu tensed up, could feel Larva do the same.
Stone pocketed the knife. "Uh, look, are you sure you're going to be okay? I want to go to the shrine building, see if there's anyone who needs help."
It was a moment before Miyu could bring herself to answer. "It's dangerous for you to go alone." She rose to her feet, a little stiffly, but without Larva's assistance. "We will accompany you."
The ones they found were beyond help. Nobunaga hadn't needed a sword to pound right through guards, doors or locks. Miyu found piles of gray dust that were already dissolving. "Raiki's work."
"That must be where the sword was," Stone said, pointing. An elaborate case lay smashed and empty.
Miyu nodded. "So this was the real one then." Or at least Nobunaga and Raiki thought it was.
"Yeah, looks like it. I'm almost afraid to ask, but do you have any idea where they might have gone?"
"Probably to Raiki's nest. I've been looking for a Shinma who has been taking victims here in Nagoya. Most likely it's her."
They just looked at each other in silence. There was a moment of mutual understanding, the question in both their minds could remain unspoken. /What now/?
Strangely, Stone suddenly looked at his watch. It was on the arm he hadn't lost. "I know dawn comes really early here in summer, you don't have daylight saving time. I saw you in broad daylight in Tokyo, so I guess that's not a problem for you, right?"
Miyu just boggled for a moment, then bent over giggling. She winced and held her side. "Oh... Ezekiel-san, please don't make me laugh right now."
He smiled, it was a look of sympathy and apology. "Sorry, just thought I should check."
"Thank you for asking." It seemed an odd thing to say, but it had been considerate of him to think of it. "I should be in school in the morning, but that's still hours away."
"Oh right, you have school on Saturdays here." Ezekiel suddenly seemed to realize what he had said. "Wait a minute, you go to school?"
Miyu smiled. "How old do I look to you?"
"Fourteen, I'd say."
"I am much older, but while I am Guardian I will always look like this. The only way I can live among humans and not attract attention is to be a student. I have taken the same algebra course twenty times."
Ezekiel winced. "My sympathies. Do you need to get some sleep?"
"I do not sleep. Do you?" Miyu asked, genuinely curious.
"Yeah. But I can never sleep after combat, my nerves just go right to hell. Ah, sorry. Didn't mean to do that."
Miyu just smiled at the unintended joke. "Ezekiel-san, I think we need to talk about what we are going to do next. But I would like to go to my private place and rest. Would you accompany me?"
"Sure. I didn't have time to find any place to stay in Nagoya anyway. Are you sure you don't need to have that looked at? You really look like..."
Miyu raised an eyebrow. "Hell?"
He chuckled lightly. "There I go again."
"Thank you, I'll be fine. And my place is not in Nagoya, not exactly." Miyu spread her arms to her sides and phased them in.
Ezekiel was suddenly standing in the middle of a very spooky looking forest. The black trees were all bare, as was the ground. There was a dim, ruddy glow as if it were sunset, but the red light that bathed everything seemed to come from everywhere. Though nothing in the surreal landscape moved, he felt a breeze blowing the cool air past him. "Did you teleport us? Where on Earth are we?"
"Nowhere on Earth, Ezekiel-san. This is my private place, on the very edge of the Shinma realm."
"Well you're right about one thing, this sure isn't anything like hell." Which may or may not mean anything, Stone reminded himself. Each person's vision of hell was as individual as each person mortal sin was, he had learned that some time ago. Miyu was still standing in front of him, just as she had been a moment ago in the shrine. But she looked different. She was in a different kimono, a slightly longer red one that still opened up in the front to show off her slim legs. This one wasn't torn and soaked in blood. And she wasn't holding her side any more. "You're looking better."
She smiled. "This place refreshes me, relieves my pain. All sorts of pain." The fleeting wistful look was gone in another moment.
Ezekiel looked around. "Where did your buddy go?"
"Larva? He is here. He feels less need to be protective of me, in this place."
"He doesn't talk much, does he?"
"His voice was hidden along with his face," Miyu said, as if explaining something very obvious and normal. "He speaks only to me now."
Ezekiel decided not to pursue that. He pointed. "What are these?"
"Ah..." Miyu floated slowly up to one of the little translucent balls that were floating around between the trees. She took it between her hands and smiled down at him. Her expression was suddenly contented, loving, as if she were holding a baby. "These hold the souls of people I have given eternal dreams," she said reverently.
"Is this where you bring the Shinma you catch?"
She laughed, a light, happy, sparkling giggle that pushed back the gloom of this place. "No, these are humans."
Ezekiel frowned. He suddenly became very much aware of the fact that he was in her realm. But he felt bound to ask. "Are these people whose blood you've drained?"
Her smile became just a little sad. She floated down so that they were closer, her legs still tucked under her as if she were sitting on some invisible cushion. "I am a vampire, the blood of humans is my food. But as a Guardian I am a very different kind of vampire, different from the wandering Shinma who take blood and give nothing in return. I only take the blood of those who wish to take my gift in return."
"What gift?" Ezekiel asked, succeeding in keeping most of the hostility out of his voice.
"An eternal dream of peace and happiness. Here..." She floated closer and held out the glassy ball she was holding. "Touch it, and you will see. Don't worry, you won't be caught in the dream, you will only see it."
Ezekiel hesitated. She looked so open and sincere, so eager to make him understand. Looking into those golden eyes, he thought it would be difficult to deny her anything. Was she hypnotizing him? He hoped he had enough presence of mind to tell. He reached up and touched the globe with his fingertips. He blinked, and they were elsewhere. His heart didn't leap quite as badly as when she had deposited them into her strange forest.
Miyu still floated before him, holding the ball he was touching. But the forest was gone. Instead, they were on a street in Anytown, Japan. A young couple sat on a park bench, looking utterly contented. He could believe they had been sitting here watching fluffy clouds go by for a thousand years.
"This is the boy's dream," Miyu said softly, as if not wanting to wake anybody. "A wandering Shinma took his girl from him. I offered to give her back to him, in this dream. Now she will never leave him again."
As Ezekiel watched, the couple looked at each other, smiled, then went back to watching the world go by. A bird flew to the ground in front of them, chirped for a while, then flew away. They watched it go. They looked at each other, smiled, and went back to watching the world go by.
Ezekiel removed his hand from the ball and they were back in the forest again. He shook his head slowly. "Do they... does he know that he's just in a dream?"
"He does not want to know. I am very selective, Ezekiel-san. I only choose those who want their dream so badly that it is all they want."
"Is this supposed to be Heaven?"
Again the light, sparkling laughter. "For them it is." She let go of the ball and it floated away. "I visit them all, now and again, so that I can share in their happiness."
"But it's not really Heaven," Ezekiel objected. "This is like purgatory. Eventually they have to move on."
Miyu looked surprised and puzzled by his remark. "Why? This place has existed ever since the Guardians existed. Even if one day there is no longer a need for Guardians, it will remain. These souls will never have a need to go anywhere else."
"Not even on Judgment Day?"
Miyu cocked her head in puzzlement for just a heartbeat. "Oh, you mean the day prophesied in the Book of Revelations. But none of these people are Christians, Ezekiel-san. They have not chosen the storm-god's resting places, they have chosen this one."
Ezekiel shook his head, wondering if the girl was teasing him or whether she really believed that. Not girl, he reminded himself. Vampire. No telling how old, how cunning. They should have been talking about more immediate, practical matters. But Ezekiel couldn't help wondering what to make of this place. "What difference does it make if they're Christians? I've hunted down denizens of hell from Tang China and Carthage. God judges all men, wherever they are."
Miyu's lips curved in an indulgent but not unkind smile. "I have gone to Catholic schools in my time. The priests and the sisters there told us that none could escape God's judgment. That I can easily believe. But then they presumed to tell me how God judges men, as if they understood this themselves. Do you presume to understand how God judges men, Ezekiel-san?"
It was an honest question, deserving an honest answer. "I've been told that I would have gone to Heaven if I hadn't decided to kill a man."
One of Miyu's slim eyebrows went up. "Had this man done you wrong?"
Ezekiel looked aside. For all that she said, for all her quiet confidence, it was still hard not to think of her as a young girl. Even barring that, it was hard for him to talk about the matter at all. "He raped my wife," Ezekiel said quietly.
He saw her float back down to the ground before him. He looked into her eyes again. She no longer held the little glass ball, but stood with hands clasped before her, looking up at him intently. Her expression was unnerving. It was sympathetic, but also calculating, as if she were assessing him. Could she read his mind?
Then her sad smile broke the spell. "The storm-god judges harshly, I think."
Ezekiel shook his head. "No. Whatever he did, I didn't have the right to kill him. It was wrong."
"You sent him where he would have gone anyway. It seems to me the storm-god was simply angered by your attempt to judge the man in his place."
"Do you presume to know how God judges?"
She did not lose her smile, did not seem to mind having her own words thrown back at her. "Like you, I only understand how I was judged by the gods I serve. I rejected my vampire heritage, I wanted only to be human. Because I failed in my duty as Guardian, many Shinma now walk this land." She spread out her arms, the blood-red cloth of her kimono's wide sleeves spreading out under them making her look like a dark angel. "Until I send them all back, I will be as you see me."
Ezekiel was intrigued by the story. "And when you've sent them all back, what then?"
"What then?" She looked away, her face showing no sign of emotion. "Then I get to tell my mother the one thing I want her to hear from me."
Ezekiel got the impression there would be no point in asking her to elaborate on that. All he knew was that this was the only time he had really seen her hide behind a poker face. Whatever it was she saw at the end of her road, it was what kept her going. For her, it was something that he might choose to call redemption. "If your only crime was not wanting to be a vampire, sounds like it's the Shinma who judge harshly."
She looked at him again, her face still placid but no longer a rigid, stoic mask. "Do you think that I should feel bitter about my fate, Ezekiel-san?"
Ezekiel suddenly felt awkward. It was a moment before he could decide how to answer. "It looks like you've been given a chance to get back what you lost. Just like me. Not everybody gets a second chance. It's hard for me to feel grateful, considering who I'm working for. I guess I'm just playing the cards I was dealt. What else can we do?"
Her smile made her look young again. "Indeed. Instead of railing against the gods we should be hunting our prey. Would you have any objection to allying yourself with a vampire?"
Ezekiel was relieved to be shifting to more immediate matters. There was too many fundamental assumptions being questioned by what he was seeing here, he was content to set those questions aside for now. He managed a smile of his own. "No objection at all." A guy fresh out of hell had no call being snobbish. "Both our targets are from your country, so you probably know them a lot better than I do." He realized what he had said and slapped his forehead. "Sorry, I keep thinking of you as Japanese."
She laughed lightly. "I am. The Shinma realm is a parallel of the human world, our countries overlap yours. I am of the Japanese Shinma. Japan is my homeland no less than this is." she said, raising her arms to indicate her surreal forest.
Ezekiel leaned against one of the black trees. "Okay, so this is your home turf, and both our perps are locals. Now that they've got this sword they're after, any idea what their next move is?"
Miyu hopped lightly up onto a lower branch of the tree, an act that looked as natural as a bird perching. She looked very comfortable, sitting up there in her elegant kimono. "Every Shinma has their own personality and their own way of hunting for the blood they need. I am quite sure that Raiki is responsible for the disappearances that have plagued Nagoya for many years. This tells me several things about her. She is territorial, and therefore has a nest that she protects."
"What sort of nest?" Ezekiel asked. He had switched over to investigative mode, his cop's mind naturally treating this fellow hunter as he would treat a designated partner. A small part of him remained aware of this, reminding him that he was speaking with a vampire from an alien world.
"Something like mine, a realm that can only be accessed by other Shinma. But mine is special, it is an extension of the Gate. Hers will be accessible only from one point in the city. We will need to find that point to find her nest."
"What sort of place are we looking for?"
Miyu answered immediately, as if this were something she had already given much thought. "The paths to the spirit realms are more easily accessible around holy places. It is likely to be a temple, shrine or a church. The missing people have all been young men. Most likely she is seducing them."
Ezekiel had gotten a pretty good look at the Shinma just before it hit the fan. She was certainly a looker. "So would she need to take these men to her nest to drain their blood?"
"No, but I think she would want to. If she is territorial she is likely one of the higher class Shinma, very prideful creatures. She would want to take her victims in her nest."
"Have you plotted out the disappearances?" Ezekiel wondered if she would know what he meant.
It seemed she did. "She has taken this whole city as her territory... successfully, it would seem, meaning she is very powerful. It could be anywhere."
Ezekiel sighed. "Yeah, from what I've seen there's a shrine around every corner in this country."
"I have been trying to find her nest for months, Ezekiel-san. And she is likely to be more cautions now."
"If she's the cautious type, Nobunaga is anything but. Even for hell spawn, attacking the Imperial Palace is a pretty gutsy move. Whatever they're up to, I think he's driving it."
The vampire girl nodded. "That makes sense. Everything I was taught about Oda Nobunaga points to a man who would never take advice, much less take orders. He would not tolerate her presence unless she obeyed his every whim."
"So then what's her motivation for following him?"
Miyu shrugged. "Shinma can be bound by the same things that bind human hearts. In some way she needs him. Perhaps she is even in love."
Ezekiel nodded, scratching the stubble on his chin. "Whatever it is, it's mutual. Nobunaga could have taken your head, but he used you as bait to draw Larva away from Raiki."
Miyu looked away, as if troubled by the unpleasant memory. "His power is utterly unlike that of a Shinma. I cannot fight him."
Stone got the impression she did not like admitting that. "When we catch up to them, you can leave him to me. Which brings us back to how we're going to find them."
"Whatever they are doing, the Shinma will still need blood to survive. She will have to come out and hunt. I will be watching for her."
Ezekiel felt it inappropriate to mention that could take more months. He preferred not to wait that long. "I'm hoping Nobunaga will show himself first. I can't believe somebody like him would be content to hide out at his girlfriend's place. Everything he's done here so far has been very visible, what he did here will be hitting the papers when the bodies are discovered."
Miyu nodded. "Perhaps. I am troubled by this business of the sword."
"Is there something special about it?"
"That's what I'm worried about, Ezekiel-san. I don't know what is special about it. Nobunaga must have had a reason for stealing it."
"I thought maybe he just thinks the Imperial Regalia rightly belongs to him," Stone said. "But it looks like he was only interested in the sword."
"The sword is the part of the Regalia that represents strength. Nobunaga's political philosophy - such as it was - revolved around rule by force. The mirror represents wisdom, the jewel compassion. I could easily believe those qualities are of no interest to him."
"He's inhumanly good with a sword," Stone said. His left hand came up involuntarily to rub his new, bare arm. "Was he known as a good swordsman in his time?"
Miyu nodded. "More of a war leader, but yes."
"Time in hell seems to give people more of what they had in life, or give them powers that represent what happened in their lives."
"Interesting," Miyu said, looking thoughtful. "Would that mean his arrogance has also been strengthened?"
"Yeah. Based on others I've sent back, it could."
"Then he has likely come back to claim the throne he almost took in life. But unless his arrogance has blinded him utterly, he must surely see that the days when Japan could be conquered by a swordsman are long past."
Ezekiel gave a noncommittal grunt. "Maybe he plans on going into politics." Miyu looked surprised. "That was a joke."
Miyu smiled. "It has been half a century since the humans in this country dabbled in Nobunaga's kind of politics. He would find himself very much out of style. But even if he has a plan for conquering this country, I believe there is something else he will direct his attention to first."
"Killing us, of course."
The girl seemed almost amused at the idea. Stone very definitely was not. "Yeah, he might. That would solve the problem of finding him. But we have to make sure they don't catch either of us alone. I have ways to deal with Nobunaga and I assume you have ways to deal with the Shinma. But the two of them together could probably kill you or me alone."
Miyu nodded. "Yes, we should stay close to each other. If I might suggest, you should find a place to stay near my school."
Ezekiel crossed his arms. "And which one of us is the bait?"
The vampire's grin came close to making Ezekiel shudder. "Whoever they happen to attack first. You object?"
"No. But before we go out of our way to make ourselves visible targets, I'd like to find something a bit more effective than this." He pulled the kitchen knife from his pocket.
"I think we can help. Larva," she called. Immediately, the tall black shadow materialized under and slightly to one side of her. He held a sheathed katana out to Stone.
Ezekiel took it. "Nobunaga's?"
Impossibly, Miyu's smile became even more chilling. "It would please me greatly if you could send him back to hell with that sword." Her hand pressing against her side may or may not have been an involuntary gesture.
Ezekiel looked dubiously at the sword in his hand. "Swell. Thanks." For the tenth time he really, really wished he had not ended up in the only civilized country on the planet that had completely outlawed firearms. "So can you.... uh, teleport us or whatever to your school? I'd like to get the lay of the land while nobody's there. If they attack you first, we may end up fighting them there."
"I would prefer to keep the fighting away from there," Miyu said, her expression hardening a bit. "But you're right, that would be a sensible thing to do."
Ezekiel wasn't sure how to interpret her statement. Of course she would not want to blow her cover, but he felt sure there was something more involved. He watched as she floated silently to the ground. She spread her arms wide, and suddenly they were standing among a very different stand of trees. The light was even dimmer than in the vampire's realm, but somehow it still looked a whole lot less oppressive. Nearby it opened onto an athletics field. The dark school building on the other side was just starting to be lit by the light of the emerging dawn.
"I'll show you around," Miyu said. He noticed she was still in her red kimono... probably did not want to risk seeing her human identity wandering about with a walking shadow and a foreigner with a great huge sword. Neither of them commented on the fact that Larva was now accompanying them. "Afterwards I can show you where the nearest lodgings are. I would offer to let you stay in my realm, but it can be unsafe for humans to fall asleep there."
Ezekiel had not even been considering that option. "Sounds good." He followed the girl for a few seconds, then suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. "Aw, man!"
Miyu turned sharply at Stone's exclamation. "What is it, Ezekiel-san?"
Stone held his arms out straight in front of him. One had a sleeve, the other was bare up to the elbow. "You wouldn't know where I can find a cheap tailor, would you?"
The young teacher stopped walking and looked at the black convertible sportster that had just pulled up to the curb beside him. He drank in the sight of the woman at the wheel who had just called him. /Wow/. If he had ever met her before, he would certainly have remembered it. "Yes, I'm Kobayashi," he said hesitantly.
"I'm Amano Yuri, Miyu's guardian."
That took a moment to click. The transfer student's elusive guardian. It took him just a moment to recover from his surprise. "Oh! I see." He bowed. "I'm pleased to meet you."
She inclined her head. "Likewise," she said pleasantly. "I'm told you are Miyu's homeroom teacher."
"Yes, that's right."
"I'd like to speak with you if I could. I know I should have come to the school and I'm encroaching on your private time, but I was busy during the day. Can I offer you a ride home in exchange?" The car's electric door locks popped open. She smiled encouragingly.
Kobayashi was thrown further off center by the sudden offer. "Uh-"
"I'm only in town for the day," she said, her brows coming down to make her look so sadly apologetic. "I really wanted to have a chance to speak with Miyu's teacher before I left."
"Well, if that's the case-"
"Oh thank you so much," she said brightly. "Please, hop in!" Kobayashi put his briefcase behind the passenger seat and stepped in beside her. "What's the address?" she asked.
He gave the address and right away she put the car in gear, engaged the clutch and accelerated rapidly but smoothly back onto the through lane. She immediately made a turn in the right direction, as if she knew exactly where she was going. Odd that she would know the city so well if she was never here, Kobayashi thought. "I don't believe anybody on the faculty has ever met you, Amano-san."
"Do call me Yuri," she said, gracing him with a dazzling smile. "Yes, I feel badly about how seldom I can come into town. It's been years, in fact, my business keeps me out of the country most of the time. Miyu never complains, her letters are always so cheery. But I know it's hard on her, having no family here. I really wanted to talk to one of her teachers, make sure there are no problems she isn't telling me about."
"Then I'm very happy to say there's little to tell," Kobayashi said. "Miyu is an exemplary student. She currently holds the top position in the entire school, in fact."
"So she's told me," Yuri said. Her driving style was aggressive enough to make Kobayashi nervous, but she seemed to have no problem at all concentrating on their conversation. She made eye contact with him rather more often than he thought was really safe. "I'm very proud of her. But it's more her personal life I'm concerned about. Is she making friends?"
"Well, top students like her always attract a certain amount of jealousy from other students. But she takes that in stride, she appears to be used to it. She is a bit of a loner, but there is a small group of girls she seems to be quite close to."
"That's good to hear." Yuri winked. "She must be very popular with the boys."
Kobayashi cleared his throat nervously. "Yes, I believe she is."
"Is she seeing anybody special?"
"I couldn't really say-"
"Oh come now, Sensei," Yuri said, giving him a sidelong glance and a knowing smile. "Miyu speaks very highly of you, I'm sure not much gets past you in your homeroom."
Kobayashi was astonished at how /relieved/ he felt to hear of Miyu's regard for him. Of all his students, she was the only one that he sometimes found a bit intimidating. "She does seem to be seeing quite a lot of our class president, Ikeda Kazuya."
"Kazuya," Yuri said brightly. "She's mentioned him. What's your opinion of him?"
"He's another of our top students. Very bright, very energetic. He is well liked, but also well respected, both by the teachers and the students in my class."
"Does it look serious?"
"Well, they do seem to be very fond of each other-"
"I mean does it look /serious/," she said, fixing him with an unnerving look.
Kobayashi couldn't help fidgeting a little. He tried to sound casual. "They're both mature, sensible kids. I'm sure they're not doing anything inappropriate."
Shinma Raiki smiled sweetly. "I am so very glad to hear that."
Ezekiel spared a glance at some of the other people in the coffee shop. That quickly put an end to the dirty looks he was getting. "What did I do?" he muttered to his companion.
Miyu smiled. "In this country, schoolgirls do not entertain foreign gentlemen in coffee shops."
"So where do they entertain foreign gentlemen?"
Miyu giggled. "In love hotels, I would assume."
"Very funny." Sometimes Ezekiel caught himself letting his guard down, letting himself believe that he really was talking to somebody who was simply an exceptionally bright schoolgirl. "Aren't you worried about your front's reputation?"
"I already have a reputation as an eccentric. I try to encourage that, it makes it easier to explain some of my odd habits. If anyone asks, I will tell them you are a friend of my guardian."
Ezekiel frowned. "Guardian?"
Miyu took another sip of coffee. "Amano Yuri. She doesn't exist of course, but the school exchanges letters with her."
"Let me guess. Her mail goes to a P.O. Box somewhere. She travels a lot and is never in the country, so nobody's seen her. She's your only living relative, a cousin or second cousin. She's loaded and pays your tuition and expenses."
Miyu nodded, looking impressed. "Right on all counts. Not being an adult, I need her to legitimize my place in the human world."
"So how does Amano Yuri earn her living?"
"I say she is an art dealer. Which is not far from the truth. The money really comes from my mother's trust fund. That she inherited from previous Guardians, some of whose families traded various works of art."
Miyu had been rather vague about what happened to her parents when her vampire blood awakened. He got the impression it was a touchy subject, and didn't want to think too hard about why that might be. "Must be nice, working for an established firm."
Miyu grinned. "Money does not appear magically in my billfold every morning, Ezekiel-san. I must pay my expenses in the human world somehow."
Ezekiel had told her a bit about his situation, and had learned bits and pieces about hers. They had even swapped a few war stories. The more he learned, the more similar their jobs seemed. Except that he still couldn't help but wondering how these shinma fit into the big scheme of things. "That high-class private school can't come cheap."
"I cannot stay in any place for much more than a year. Such schools are more flexible, more accepting of students whose family circumstances necessitate frequent transfers."
She had obviously been at this for some time, which intrigued Ezekiel. He could be getting a glimpse of his own future. "So nobody knows who you really are? Besides Larva, I mean." And besides the ones who she had encased in glass, he refrained from mentioning.
"There is one who found me out. A professional exorcist."
"Oh. Sounds like that could be... awkward."
There was just a bit more of the vampire in Miyu's sly grin. "More for her than for me. I am nothing like the vampire she was expecting." Her expression softened and she cocked her head. "And yourself, Ezekiel-san?"
"Yeah, there's one who knows. A priest." That got the surprised look from her that he had been expecting. He chuckled. "No, he hasn't tried to exorcise me. He's a very good friend, in fact."
"It's good to have someone you can really confide in. Living a lie can be a burden."
Ezekiel smiled. "I know what you mean."
"But you are fortunate. You have an ageless face, you could probably stay in one place for twenty years or more."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"I meant it as one," she said brightly. She rested her chin on her linked fingers and smiled in a way that was disturbingly charming. "In fact I've been thinking how cute you must have been as a boy."
"My mother thought so for what it's worth."
"Have you never considered taking a wife?"
Miyu's face fell ever so slightly at the sudden change in tone. She seemed to perceive that she had touched a nerve. "I see."
"No, you don't." Ezekiel sighed. He hadn't wanted to snap at her like that. "My wife is still alive," he said more calmly. "And I'm not."
"Then we will not speak of it," Miyu said simply. "I meant no offense."
Strangely, he believed her. "I know. Don't worry about it."
Her slightly wicked, slightly impish smile came back. "Perhaps we are ill suited as partners, Ezekiel-san. When we have no work to focus on we end up, how is it you say, pushing each other's buttons?"
Ezekiel also smiled. It was a fair comment. She had not been happy when he had asked about the time when the wandering shinma escaped into this world, he still didn't know much about what happened. "That's the problem being committed to a stakeout. The waiting can drive you crazy." They had been meeting like this for days now. There was less and less to talk about as time passed. No sign of surveillance or impending attack on either of them, no more missing persons, no stories of guys with flaming swords attacking the Royal Family or stealing ancient artifacts.
"We of all people should know patience, Ezekiel-san. We are immortal hunters, after all."
"Yeah. But neither of us gets paid by the hour. And we both have a quota." He tapped his new arm, meaning to indicate the tattoos burned there. The arm was now covered with a new sleeve that didn't look too bad. Miyu had done the needlework herself, which had surprised Stone. "Same Home Ec class ten times," she had said simply. She had also sewn the cloth loop that allowed him to carry the katana under his coat more or less discreetly. /Damn, but I wish I had my gun/.
Miyu nodded, indicating she took Ezekiel's meaning. "Those must be a constant reminder of how far you have to go yet."
"I assume that's the idea." Miyu had been fascinated by the tattoos she had seen on his bare arm, especially once he explained that each one represented one of the lost souls he needed to hunt down. She had asked to see the rest of them... Stone had politely declined.
"Are you that anxious to complete your task?" Miyu asked.
"Yes." Ezekiel realized that by itself was a meaningless answer. "I don't want this to last any longer than it has to. I don't want to get used to it."
"You may need to," Miyu said in a tone that was not unkind. "Both of us may be doing this for centuries."
"I don't intend to be chasing ghosts on the Starship Enterprise." It had become a source of growing anxiety for him these past months. He knew at best this was going to take years, but how many?
Miyu grinned. "I won't need to worry about that, my territory is restricted to these islands."
"Lucky you. I may need to chase all over the Earth."
"And beyond, perhaps."
"Don't look so cheerful when you say that."
She reigned in her chirpiness a bit. "I have found there are may small things that make the prospect of centuries of hunting less daunting. Have you not found the same?"
It sounded like a sincere question. "Yeah, I guess it hasn't been all bad. I can eat my favorite junk food and not worry about getting flabby. I can watch the Yankees play when they're in L.A. I learned to rollerblade. I... what's so funny?"
The hand that had been hiding her smile came back down. "Rollerblades?"
"Yeah, on the beach," Ezekiel said, irritated. "It's all the rage." He smiled evilly. "Love to teach you. Can you rent them around here?"
"Thank you, but my teachers might consider that inappropriate behavior."
"More inappropriate than entertaining foreign gentlemen?"
Miyu's eyes left his and shifted over to two girls who had just walked into the coffee shop. Ezekiel had already noticed them himself, two schoolgirls Miyu's age - apparent age - wearing the same uniform as her. They walked over to the booth Miyu and Ezekiel were sitting in. One of them smiled nervously, throwing just a furtive glance in Stone's direction. "Konbanwa, Miyu."
Miyu smiled cheerfully to them. "Konbanwa Eiko, Mayumi." She then said more in Japanese that included something that sounded like "Izikieru Sutounu." It sounded like an introduction. The two girls smiled shyly and bowed to Stone. "Haro," they said in unison.
Stone smiled and inclined his head. "Hello."
Miyu said something whose tone made Ezekiel assume it was something like "So what's up, gang?" They told her something that either she found worrying or her human persona was supposed to find worrying. He suspected both. There was a brief conversation among them. The two girls soon excused themselves, bowing again to Stone and chorusing a "Bye bye."
When they had gone, Ezekiel turned his attention back to Miyu. "Problem?"
"A boy was missing from school today. Teachers were asking if anyone has seen him. That probably means they called the boy's home and his parents don't know where he is either."
"You didn't notice this yourself today?"
"They only asked some of the boys," Miyu said absently. "But they've been spreading rumors." She looked very distracted.
"Your Shinma's work, you figure?"
Miyu shook her head rather more vehemently than was needed. "It would be too much of a coincidence, if he were just a random target."
Then it clicked. "He's your boyfriend, isn't he?"
Miyu looked a bit uncomfortable. She wouldn't meet his eyes. "His name's Kazuya," she said by way of not answering the question. She slid out of the booth and stood. "I know his parents, I want to go see them. It could be nothing, but I should make sure."
"If it's far maybe I should come with you, at least most of the way."
She nodded, but it looked as if she really didn't care, she was still distracted. Sensing she was anxious to go, Stone also slid out of the booth.
They had been walking down the street in silence for some time before Stone broached the subject. "If it is them, they've found out where you are. This is directed at you." There was no reaction to his stating the obvious. "If they use him as a hostage, what will you do?"
"We will kill them," she said simply, not breaking her brisk stride, not looking at him.
"/We will kill them/." That seemed to put an end to the matter.
Kazuya woke up to blackness again. When he opened his eyes, there were nothing but two burning coals floating in the gloom. Kazuya's cold, naked body shivered. /It's him/. He tried to remain still.
"I know you're awake, Kazuya-kun," the cold, cold voice said. Kazuya sat up against the clammy stone wall. He knew by now that the man behind those glowing eyes could see him perfectly well. His aching bruises attested to the quick precision with which the man would deal out punishment when Kazuya said the wrong thing. Eyes, a voice, blows that struck without warning. That was all the man was to Kazuya.
The eyes came closer, lowered down to his level. There was absolutely no sound, Kazuya could only guess that the man was crouching before him. Assuming it was a man. It was becoming harder and harder to think of this thing as being anything human. Kazuya kept trying to tell himself that the eyes were some sort of trick, all part of the plan to intimidate him, to wear him down.
"So, Kazuya-kun, has sleep brought you greater clarity of mind? Can you now see the truth of what I have told you, how you have been deceived?"
Kazuya met those horrible eyes. He had learned early on that not to do so invited punishment. It hardly mattered, what he was about to say would do the same. "No sir."
He waited for the blow. It did not come. "You know why I keep you in the dark, Kazuya-kun? Because your eyes are the greatest weapons /they/ use against you. The one that wants to snare you came to you as girl of incomparable beauty. That is but an illusion to hide its true form, its ugliness. I am trying to teach you to see with your heart again, Kazuya-kun."
Kazuya clenched his fists. He still had no idea why they were doing this. Maybe they actually believed these things. People in cults believed all sorts of things. If they did, Miyu might be in danger. He had to be strong. For her. "Miyu is not ugly," he said, trying to keep the trembling from his voice. "And she is not a vampire."
The hand that locked around his throat felt like it was made of iron. His windpipe locked shut and he started choking. He beat at the arm and pried at the fingers, even though he knew it would be useless. He had to do something, had to get air into his lungs, had to breathe, had to live.
"You know this do you?" the voice said with silky smoothness. "Stupid infant!" it shouted. "You have but to look within you to seek the truth but you refuse to do it, you prefer your pretty illusion to the truth! You were born with the heart of a man but you are content to stand meekly and be slaughtered like cattle! And slaughtered you will be, Kazuya-kun. It will drain you dry, toss aside your wrinkled husk and forget about you before it has even found its next meal!" He pushed Kazuya aside by the throat a moment before he would have blacked out. Kazuya flopped limply to the ground, quivering, taking in air with great wheezing gasps.
He had no idea how long it was before the man spoke again. "You are a disgrace, Kazuya-kun, I should let that monster feed on you. But unlike you, I know my duty. Once and for all, I must show you yours." There was the hiss and ringing of metal being drawn across metal and then being unleashed. For the first time in an eternity, there was light.
Kazuya squinted, raised a hand protectively. It was still dim, but to his dark adjusted eyes it was dazzling. In an instant he took it all in, the bare cell he had woken in but had never seen, and the glowing blade that suddenly lit it.
And the man who wielded it.
His eyes were even more terrible set in that long, scowling face that regarded him as one would regard an annoying insect. They no longer burned with the fires of hell, they simply bore into him like black holes, dark and frigid. He was not a big man, but to Kazuya he seemed to fill the room, and to tower over him like a god.
"Do you know who I am, boy?" he growled. "I am your rightful ruler. I have come to set our people back on their proper path. But before I do that I must rid us of these monsters that prey upon you. Make no mistake, boy, I have saved your miserable life. Had I not brought you here that thing would have drained you by now. I have set aside our people's rightful destiny, my proper life's work, to save you and all like you who have fallen under their spell, because that is my duty."
He pointed the glowing, silvery sword in Kazuya's face. "All I ask in return is that you help me hunt down the creature I saved you from." His cold face suddenly twisted in rage. "And you dare to refuse?" he growled, his voice rising in anger, his eyes glowing again. "You DARE to refuse?"
Kazuya prostrated himself before the living god, grinding his forehead into the rough stone floor. "Please, please, don't make me do it! I don't care what she is! I love her! If she needs my blood I'll give it to her, I'll give it all! Please, please don't make me hurt her! I beg you, please!"
A boot slammed down on his back, driving him painfully into the floor. His sharp cry was cut short as the air was driven from his lungs. He wept not from the pain of his body but the pain in his heart. They had made him believe, they had broken him. But he didn't care. Even if she was what they said she was, he didn't care. He would not hurt her.
He heard the sword being smartly sheathed, and the room was in darkness again. "We will speak again," the man said. Kazuya assumed he was gone now. He never heard them leave, had no idea how they came and went. Absently, he recalled that his view of the cell had revealed no door. Not surprising, he had never felt one with his endless groping in the dark. What if it was the last thing he ever saw? What if he never saw Miyu again?
"Does that hurt, Kazuya-kun?" the woman's voice said. He did not even flinch. Her voice was so soft and gentle, it did not interrupt the silence, merely wove into it. He did gasp when the cool, wet cloth was pressed against his scraped forehead. He relaxed, his breathing coming easier now. Her hands took hold of him, gently coaxed him onto his back. He heard tinkling water, and she tended the rest of his fresh scrapes and bruises. Wherever his body hurt, her hands were there to soothe. The same hands that brought him food when he hungered, water when he thirsted. Unable to contain himself, Kazuya began to cry.
"Don't be afraid, Kazuya," she said. She gathered him in her strong arms, cuddled him to her breast. Despite himself, Kazuya relaxed, his weeping quickly stopped. She was so much more real to him than the man. Not just hard hands that would bite and sting, she was a warm body separated from his by no more than the gossamer silk she wore. He knew perfectly well what the two of them were trying to do to him, knew it from the first time she had come to him to tend the hurts the man had inflicted. Everything that happened here was calculated. But it was becoming harder and harder to care.
Only one question burned in Kazuya's mind now. He knew he should not trust anything they said, but he had to ask. "Is it true?"
There was only a moment's pause. "Yes, Kazuya. Everything he has told you is true."
She had never answered before, but now that he had seen the man he had to ask again. "Who is he?"
Suddenly there was light again, a flickering golden light utterly different from the harsh, metallic glow of that terrible sword. He looked to see that the tray she had brought held a lit candle beside the water bowl and cloth. It was not obvious how she had lit the candle. He tried to pull away, but she gently held him in place, letting his head rest upon her bosom. He looked up into her face, and nearly choked. She looked so much like his mother, especially the way she smiled at him. "He is the man who will save us from the vampires," she said softly.
"Who are you?"
"I have the honor of being his devoted servant."
Kazuya shook his head slightly. "I... I /can't/ hurt her."
The woman began stroking his hair. "She's your first love, isn't she?" Her eyes told him that he did not need to answer. She knew. "We don't want to hurt her either, Kazuya."
"No. He hates her. I can tell."
"He hates what she is doing, Kazuya. While she is in your world, she needs human blood to live. That is not her fault. But we must send her back to her own world, where she does not need to live off the blood of innocents. I believe she wants to go back, even if she will not admit it. You must know her well, Kazuya. Have you not seen it, her sadness, her longing for the world she has lost?"
Sadness. It was the one thing he could never understand about Miyu. She could delight in the smallest things, just like he could. But the shadow that clouded her face never left her completely, even when she smiled, even when she laughed. He had always longed to find the key to that sadness, to unlock it and set her free, so that he could see her unblemished smile, the smile she must have known before. Maybe they were right. Maybe he could never see that smile, not in this world. Maybe this was the only way to keep them from hurting her.
He looked up into the woman's brown eyes, twinkling in the candlelight. "Can I go with her?"
Her face fell. "Do you really mean it, Kazuya? You're sure that's what you want?"
Her lips curled into a knowing smile. She looked almost grateful, as if she felt privileged to be a witness to true love. "Then I don't see why not."
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, /splash/.
Miyu grinned, looking out at the ripples slowly spreading out across the still pool. /I've beat your record, Kazuya-kun/.
Miyu sat down on the big rock sticking up out of the ground not far from where the pool lapped the stony shore. Like everything here the stone was wet from the day's intermittent rain. Her uniform was already soaked. The elements really did not bother her like they had before her vampire blood awakened.
When Kazuya brought her to his private place it would be on a nicer day than today. Though they had never done anything more intimate than skipping stones across the pond, Miyu could not bring herself to even tell Larva about this place. Miyu owed that much to Kazuya, she felt. Miyu had long since learned to find beauty in darkness, but now a part of her wished for the oppressive clouds to part and for the sun to light up this space, to remind her of the time she shared with Kazuya here.
Miyu was not quite sure why she was here. Perhaps it was a wake. Now that her anger had settled to a dark cloud looming over the back of her mind, she could examine her other feelings more closely. Kazuya had been missing for days. She had now given him up for dead. Whether he really was dead was immaterial. Whether Nobunaga and Raiki really thought they could bargain something for his life or whether this was simply a taunt, she had no delusions about their intent. She would not and could not let anything stand between her and her duty. That would never happen again.
If this was a wake, she should conduct it properly. She stood and folded her hands in front of her. She faced the pond which she felt should be the proper resting place for the spirit she addressed. In a clear voice she gave the eulogy.
"You reminded me of what dreams my vampire blood took from me. In my heart, you are mated to the woman I would have become. Though you never met that woman, she is your widow."
After a moment, Miyu turned and weaved her way through the rough path that cut through the trees and brush that surrounded the little pond. Overhanging branches dripped water on her as she went. She brushed water off her face which was not tears and emerged into the grass clearing beyond.
Kazuya waited for her beside the nearby pagoda, holding an umbrella against the drizzle, smiling at her.
Miyu froze in place. Despite the shock, her hackles went up instantly. She swept the ground with her eyes and with her feelings. Nothing, no sign of danger. Kazuya was already walking over to her, smiling as if nothing was wrong. Preferring to be in the open, Miyu walked to meet him halfway up the slight rise the pagoda stood atop. Could they have been wrong about Kazuya? But there must be some reason for his disappearance.
"Hi Miyu," he said warmly. He came close enough for them to share the umbrella. "I thought I might find you here."
"Kazuya-kun, where have you been?"
His expression sobered. "I was kidnapped, Miyu. By people who say you're a vampire."
Miyu's intake of breath was only part way theatrical. "What?"
He looked intently at her. "It's true, Miyu, isn't it?"
Now Miyu knew what humans must feel when she fixed them with her vampire eyes. She could not meet his gaze and lie. Slowly, she nodded her head. "Yes, it's true." Hesitantly she reached out and touched his arm. "I'm sorry."
Kazuya just smiled and shook his head. "I told them I'd lure you to them. But I won't. I don't care what you are. I love you."
Miyu took a deep breath and let it out, closing her eyes for just a moment. She had to end this, now. She looked sternly up at him. "Kazuya, I'm grateful-"
He put a finger before her lips, effectively silencing her. "I know. We can't be together. Even if you have to leave now, at least let me give you something." He reached into one of the pockets on his uniform's blazer and pulled out a white silk handkerchief. He flipped up the top fold and held it out to her. "Take the corner. I want you to see the inscription."
Miyu did as he asked. Kazuya pinched another corner between thumb and forefinger and pulled his hand from hers, pulling one side of the silk taut, letting the rest unfold and fall. The beautiful embroidered characters covered the unusually large handkerchief. Miyu was seeing it in reverse so she did not realize it was her own name until it was too late. The fabric slipped from their hands, wrapped across her chest and the spell of binding slammed into her. Miyu stared at Kazuya, her face locked as effectively by shock as her rigid body was by the spell.
Kazuya stepped away, his expression showing distress that he was keeping under control. "I'm sorry, Miyu. When this is over we'll be together."
Miyu's eyes were drawn up to the pagoda behind Kazuya. Shinma Raiki stood atop it now. In one prodigious leap she swept down behind Kazuya. She held a sheathed katana. "Kazuya!" Miyu's cry came out as more of a whimper, her cramped lungs straining against the spell. /She's going to kill you/!
Raiki stepped up to Kazuya and held the sword out to him. Kazuya folded and discarded the umbrella, taking the katana. "Watch for her guardsmen. I will call when I am ready for you," the shinma said. Kazuya seemed to be making an effort to avoid Miyu's gaze as he stepped further away. His attention was drawn to the pagoda, and Miyu looked there to see Nobunaga standing before it, a glowing silver shortsword in his hand. The Kusanagi no Tsurugi, somehow transformed from its decrepit state. Nobunaga smiled and gave an approving nod to Kazuya, who bowed to him.
Raiki stepped closer and winked at Miyu. "Turnabout is fair play, Guardian," she said very softly. "Return to darkness, Shinma." Her hands came up and she put her own power into the spell, turning it into something else. A whirlwind whipped Miyu's hair around her. A black hole opened in the air over Miyu's head, something she felt even before she looked up to see it descending upon her. Miyu locked eyes with the shinma and howled her defiance. Her whole body stiffened and black lightning crackled all around her, fighting against the vortex that threatened to pull her up into the darkness. The hole in space halted its advance, held at bay just over her head. Raiki snarled and the power flowing out of her fingertips into the spell actually became visible as a torrent of little red sparking flames. Miyu screamed again, this time more in pain than challenge. Slowly, inexorably, she lost ground and the darkness inched down upon her.
An Occidental Shinma, Miyu had called him. Other than that, there were only two useful things Ezekiel knew about Larva. If you asked him anything, you had to make it a yes or no question. And he played a mean game of chess.
Ezekiel examined the move the Shinma had just made. "I guess that puts me in check." The white mask shifted from side to side. Ezekiel took a closer look. "Oh. I guess that's mate." The mask bobbed up and down.
Ezekiel sighed. He took the white king and knocked it over, conceding the game. The mask turned slightly to one side. Ezekiel guessed what the implied question was. /Another game?/ He shrugged. "Sure, why not?"
Larva waved his hand over the board and the pieces were back in their opening positions. /Showoff/ Ezekiel thought. He was no longer surprised by the various tricks he and his pint-sized keeper could do in this little forest of theirs. Like this chessboard and the two baroque wooden chairs that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
Ezekiel still wasn't quite sure why they were cooling their heels in here. Miyu needed to go check on something alone. She wanted them both available here if she needed help. And that was that. He suspected there was something more to it than that. She had changed since her boyfriend went missing, became even more reticent. She kept up that cool, professional air, but it was clear to see this was personal now. He hoped she wasn't doing something stupid, maybe trying to get payback out of some quasi-Samurai sense of offended honor. Hopefully she just needed some quiet time. He had been sticking to her like a barnacle in her off time, after all. For her sake as well as his, he told himself. Whatever the case, stretch here sure wasn't going to be confiding in him.
They had just made their opening moves when suddenly Larva shot up out of the chair that Ezekiel was sure he had just been floating over. Startled, Ezekiel did likewise. "Whoa, what's the matter?" He had the now familiar sense of vertigo as the blood-red forest dissolved into a street corner. Absently, Ezekiel noted that the weather had not improved since he'd been summoned to Miyu's place. The sky was dark gray, the air was oppressively still and misty and the streets were wet. And Larva was already flying out over the tight-packed houses. "Wait! Goddamn it!" Ezekiel went into a sprint. He knew where he was and what direction Larva had disappeared. He tried to think what was that way. The park, the one Miyu said she and Kazuya liked. That probably wasn't good. So that's exactly where he ran to.
The park was deserted. Not surprising, considering the weather. All for the good, if there was trouble then gawking bystanders were the last thing Stone wanted. He ran through the park, splashing through puddles and mud, stopping now and then to listen. He barely heard it. Miyu's scream, then something like thunder. He ran in that direction. When he rounded a corner in the wooded path he came to a charming little clearing with a gently sloping hillock and pagoda. Right now it was anything but charming. In an instant, he took in the little tableau. Miyu was writhing in a tiny cyclone of darkness, complete with whirling storm clouds, gale-force wind and lightning, no doubt the work of the shinma looming over her. Larva swooped and danced around Nobunaga like a great bat. He darted in close and Nobunaga swung a glowing sword that seemed to be thrumming with power. There was a silvery flash and Larva was thrown back with alarming speed. He landed on his feet - or so it appeared - and continued circling and feinting. So that was why the big guy was being so cautious. Nearby, a schoolboy watched the fight with horrified fascination. Kazuya, presumably. So that was how Miyu got caught, damn her.
Neither fight looked like it was going well, but Ezekiel could only be in one place. He chose the shinma. Her back was turned, and it might just distract Nobunaga too. He ran in that direction, drawing the katana from under his coat. This was when he noticed the boy also drawing a sword and discarding the scabbard. Christ and all the Saints, did everybody in this country carry a great big sword around? Ezekiel stopped some distance from him. He had little idea what the situation was, but the kid was a civilian. "Out of the way! I'm trying to help Miyu!" He had no idea whether the boy could understand him. But his reply was clear enough. He stepped in close and cut for Ezekiel's throat. Stone parried - barely. He tried for the boy's arm and nearly lost his sword for his trouble. He staggered back and they faced each other, panting, swords held at the ready, staring each other down. The kid seemed to more or less know what he was doing, which gave him an edge over a man who had dabbled in kendo a little and knew what to do in a knife-fight. But this was no pocket knife Ezekiel was carrying, it was a three-foot razor blade. Cut the boy in the wrong place and he would bleed out in half a minute. Stone didn't have to worry much about being cut, but he would be no use to anybody if he lost a limb again.
Ezekiel made his move, thrusting for the boy's torso. He parried as he should, but did not yield ground as he should. A good old fashioned kick to the crotch took the boy completely by surprise. He slipped on the wet grass and went to his knees. Ezekiel raised his sword - cut to the shoulder, disarm him, won't bleed too much.
Miyu's terrified shriek paralyzed Ezekiel just long enough for the boy to run him through. Ezekiel dropped his sword and sank to his own knees. The boy's eyes were like saucers, but he still had the blade in Stone's guts. Stone locked eyes with Miyu across the field and through the storm that still enveloped her. /Wasn't going to kill him you stupid girl. Serves you right if that shinma sends you back where you came from/. He knelt there and waited to be gutted. But the boy just withdrew his blade, dropped it and fell back on his arms, panting and looking in horror at what he had done. His face was more animated now, as if he had come out of a bad dream. Stone wondered if it had been a spell or something. He didn't have the strength to tell the boy he was fighting for the wrong side. Assuming he could even understand.
Nobunaga dropped Larva at Ezekiel's feet. The big guy hit the wet ground with a resounding thud and splash. So, he wasn't all flowing robes after all. There was no visible damage, as if that meant anything. Nobunaga lifted one foot, laid it on the shinma's prone form and bent down to glare at Ezekiel, resting his free arm on his knee. The other hand carried the shimmering sword. "So you are the one sent by the Prince of Darkness," he said in slow, accented English. "I am disappointed. You are hardly worth the bother of sending back to him." He raised the sword for a cut across Ezekiel's face.
Kazuya's thrust went right through Nobunaga's kidney. He bellowed in rage and pain.
Stone grabbed his sword and shot to his feet, ignoring the agony. Nobunaga twisted off the point that impaled him, but he was wide open to Ezekiel's attack. Nothing fancy, just wind up and cut straight into his face. His blade sliced through flesh and bone. It almost wanted to stay there, only coming out with a sharp tug. Nobunaga brought his hand up to his ruined eyes and staggered. Incredibly he still had that damned sword. His shrieks became painfully loud and then became more and more inhuman. His hand was no impediment to the glowing, whorling manifestation of his soul pouring steadily out of his eye sockets. The ghostly plasma whirled around the body it was slowly escaping. Whether of its own accord or under whatever part of Nobunaga remained, the animated body staggered wildly across the wet grass, swinging the sword around as if imagining unseen enemies. When it seemed on the verge of dissolving, the body sent the sword spinning away at horrid speed. Whether by accident or design, it came straight for Ezekiel. He dove out of the way, feeling it slice through his coat. He fell down on his stomach, which really hurt.
"Nobunaga-dono!" Raiki came running straight at Ezekiel, her face twisted with blind hate. It twisted even further, forming rows of razor fangs and yellow cat-eyes as she came. Her nails grew into long stilettos, raised to slice down through Ezekiel's head. She thrust, and there was a meaty impact as her headlong plunge came to a shuddering stop. Her claws were inches from Ezekiel's face. Her face now showed nothing so much as astonishment.
Larva's hand was buried in Raiki's chest. An impossible gush of dark blood coursed straight out of her heart, turning his white arm black. Something like lightning crackled up and down his arm, and suddenly Raiki's whole body was on fire. It felt like Ezekiel had stuck his face into a blast furnace. She had time for one high shriek before she was nothing but ashes.
Incredibly the tall shinma stood up, looking none the worse for wear. Ezekiel did likewise, feeling very much the worse for wear. It would have felt so much nicer to just lie there. "Thanks. You okay?" The mask nodded. Ezekiel grunted, as the now familiar burning sensation pierced his body. He yanked the bottom of his shirt out of his pants and pulled it up, exposing his side. One of the many tattoos there was dissolving with a gentle his and a puff of smoke. Stone looked up at Larva, whose mask cocked to the side slightly. Ezekiel chuckled, bared his teeth in something approximating a grim smile. "Another one bites the dust."
Ezekiel looked for Miyu. He was relieved to see her walking towards them. She looked okay. Ezekiel was all set to give her a piece of his mind. He didn't care how old she really was, she had acted like a little girl coming here alone and then nearly getting him killed. But something in her eyes chilled him. She was not looking at Larva or him. Ezekiel followed her gaze. He choked, nearly fell down to the ground again.
The Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi was buried in Kazuya's prone form. Even what little of its blade protruded from his abdomen showed that it was once again in its original rusted, pitted form. But before it had reverted it had nearly cut the boy in half. There was a horrific amount of blood soaking into the wet grass.
Miyu knelt down beside the boy and placed a hand lightly over his chest. Incredibly, she smiled. She bent down over his head and stroked his hair. "Don't worry, Kazuya-kun," she said, her voice barely loud enough to hear. "We will be together, always." She bent closer.
All at once Ezekiel surged forward. "No Miyu, you can't!" Hands hard as iron gripped his arms from behind. He struggled futilely against Larva's grip. "He's innocent! At least let him go to his peace!"
Miyu stopped just long enough to fix him with a cold, unyielding stare. "Yours is not the only heaven, Ezekiel-san." She brought her face down to Kazuya's throat. Ezekiel could just watch helplessly, quietly fuming.
Moments later, Miyu stood over Kazuya's body, a translucent, glassy ball held in her hands. A heavy rain was drenching them now. Miyu met Ezekiel's accusing eyes calmly. "I was just on time."
"What, just on time to damn him to your personal little purgatory? Damn it, he died trying to save you!"
"I know that, Ezekiel-san. When he was working for our enemies, and in the end when he turned on them, his thoughts were always of me. That is why I've given him my gift."
"He didn't ask for it! How do you know this is what he wants?"
The quiver in Miyu's lip may have been Ezekiel's imagination. "Because he loves me." She looked like she should have been crying. The rain made it impossible to tell. She averted her eyes, clutched the ball to her chest. "Larva."
The grip on Ezekiel's arms was released. The shadow that was Larva floated silently over to its mistress and wrapped its arms around her. The little girl was all but lost in him, her ivory face floated in the inky blackness, a match to the bone-white mask above her. Her sad, golden eyes found Ezekiel's again. "I will see you again before you leave, Ezekiel-san." Then they were gone.
Ezekiel sat under the pagoda until the rain stopped. At least that was the excuse he gave himself. But he could not stop staring at the young boy's body, the body he knew was just an empty husk now. Could not stop staring, and wondering.
Stone left his sword behind with the other two. As he walked away, his cop's mind naturally generated an incongruous thought. He would sure hate to be the officer who had to try and figure out this crime scene.
Ezekiel watched from a respectable distance while Miyu laid incense and a flower at the grave. The gravestones in this country were a mirror of the houses they lived in, he thought. Tiny, and scrunched all together. Needs must, when you didn't have much room to spare.
He noted that she stopped short of actually praying at the grave. That would have been just a bit much. At length, Miyu came to join him under the tree, occupying the only green space to speak of among these rows and rows of little stone columns. It was uncanny just how different she appeared to him when in her human persona. It was the eyes more than the school uniform, he thought.
"Thank you again for coming, Ezekiel-san," she said, bowing.
"I have to wonder what the point of this is," Ezekiel said. He knew it was an unkind comment. After all it had been a nice gesture on her part, inviting him here. But that did not change what she had done, and the fact that it made this little ceremony something of a farce.
Her calm expression was hard to read. "I know how you feel about what I did to Kazuya. Please try to understand, I did what I thought was best for him. You tell me there was a heaven waiting for him had I allowed his spirit to depart. But you have not seen that heaven, Ezekiel-san." She spread her arms, indicating the endless rows of little stone monuments that surrounded them. "Can you tell me where all these spirits reside, Ezekiel-san? Can you describe it? Do you know anything about it?"
He shook his head slowly. "No."
"Neither do I. But I do know the world I created for Kazuya, I can see it with my own eyes. I can see that he is happy. Knowing this, how could I leave him to the fate of a god I have never seen?"
"I guess that's what faith is all about. Did Kazuya ever say what he had faith in?"
Miyu's face darkened. She gazed over towards Kazuya's gravestone. "He never gave much thought to the afterlife. He was too busy trying to live this one to the fullest."
She almost made Ezekiel feel bad about raising the subject. He decided to change to another that might not strike quite so close to home. "I notice the shinma's bodies also disappear when you send them back. Rather convenient that, no fuss no muss."
"She was not sent back," Miyu said coldly. "Larva simply destroyed her. The moment she took Kazuya, she sentenced herself to death."
Ezekiel was tempted to ask where Miyu thought Raiki's soul had gone. But he really was getting tired of sniping at her like this. However he felt about what she did, it just didn't seem right. Besides, even over here his own slate was far from clean. He sighed. Best get this over with. "Miyu, I'm sorry about what happened to Kazuya. The fact is, I have to take the blame for it. I could have taken that sword cut myself and walked away from it. That's what I should have done. I forgot there was a civilian in the fire zone. That was inexcusable."
Miyu looked very surprised at his apology. "You don't know that, Ezekiel-san. Neither of us is indestructible."
"Even if I'm dead, I'm still a cop. Protecting people from harm is my job."
"I would have felt very badly if you had been killed. We were partners after all."
Stone suddenly jabbed a finger in her face. "And you are damned lucky this is not a permanent partnership, young lady, because I sure as hell would not take your sort of behavior from any partner of mine! Going off and sulking alone in a place that the enemy was sure to look for you was just about the stupidest thing you could have done. And distracting your partner uselessly in the middle of a fight is a perfect way to get us both killed. If you don't trust your partner to do his job right then how can he trust you to do yours?"
Miyu did nothing but stand and blink and stare back at him in bewilderment for a good long time. Then her whole face was slowly brightened by a warm smile that was utterly unlike the feral grin of the vampire Miyu. "Thank you, Ezekiel-san. I will take your words to heart."
"Do that. You might live to send all these shinma back home."
"Do you really think I can?" she asked a little sadly. "Do you think either of us can?"
"I know I intend to. I'll earn my second chance, however long it takes."
Miyu just nodded, perhaps in agreement. "Will you be heading back to America now?"
"Yeah, as soon as I get to Narita I'll put myself on a waiting list for the next flight home."
"Then let me take you as far as Tokyo, it will save you the train fare."
Actually Ezekiel hadn't even been considering waiting until he had enough money for the train, he was just going to hitchhike again. "What, you can teleport me there?"
"More or less. Walking through my realm, it would take but a few minutes."
Ezekiel felt dubious about going back to that surreal forest. But she did seem eager for him to accept the favor. Maybe this was some Japanese obligation thing, he really didn't want to insult her. "I wouldn't say no."
Miyu smiled brightly. She raised her arms out to her sides. This time Ezekiel watched her very closely. It was like a fade-in fade-out, her uniform disappeared and her white kimono appeared all in one fell swoop.
She levitated up among the floating balls to his eye level and winked. "Were you hoping to catch me disrobing?"
She giggled. "This way."
She floated backwards between the dead looking trees, and Ezekiel followed behind her. "Too bad this only covers Japan, I'd love to set up one of these to pop between Los Angeles and New York. Though with my luck the next case would take me to Melbourne."
"If you like it here, you could always come back and visit."
"For the company maybe, certainly not for the scenery. Do these trees ever bloom?"
"They are blooming." She tapped one of the floating globes she passed by. "These are their fruit."
Ezekiel chuckled. "That's grim."
Miyu floated down to the ground. "Here we are."
"Doesn't look like Tokyo."
She smiled. "It's just one hop away from here. But before we go, I confess I had an ulterior motive for inviting you here. I wanted to show you something." As she spoke she held out her hand and one of the ubiquitous translucent glass balls floated down into her palm. "Something that may help you understand my gift a little better."
Ezekiel had an uncomfortable suspicion what this was. He raised a hand in a stopping gesture. "You don't need to do this, Miyu. It's something private between you and Kazuya."
She shook her head, still smiling. "This isn't Kazuya's dream. It's something quite different." She held the ball out to him. "I think you will find it interesting."
Ezekiel sighed. "Oh, all right." He reached out and touched it. The scenery changed.
The feeling was like a knife in his gut. It was his bedroom. /Their/ bedroom. Rosalyn sat there in their bed, reading the paper. Why was she doing that? She would never read the paper until after breakfast. Then she looked up and gave someone the smile that was for him alone, it was shocking seeing it directed at another. But it wasn't another, it was him, walking in and bringing her breakfast in bed. She set her paper aside and it became obvious why she was being pampered. She was going to have a baby...
Ezekiel staggered back, panting. "How... How did you..."
"I did nothing, Ezekiel-san," Miyu said evenly. "This is an empty vessel. The dream you saw was the one you put there yourself." She floated closer, piercing him with those lustrous golden eyes. "Ezekiel-san, let us be honest," she said softly. "Neither of us knows if redemption truly lies at the end of our path. The gods could be lying to us, or when the time comes they could simply find us wanting. Your masters have lied to you about one thing, Ezekiel." She laid a hand gently on his shoulder. "Their heaven and their hell are not your only alternatives." She cocked her head and smiled. Her hand slid around to the nape of his neck. "You have but to say the word, and it is yours," she whispered. They stayed like that for a full minute. She did not even blink, not the whole time.
Ezekiel took her hand, removed it from his neck, and let it go. "Thanks, but I'll pass." Miyu looked just a little bit flustered, as if she had not been anticipating this reaction. "Sorry, is this your first rejection?"
"Yes," she said, sounding a little astonished.
She floated down to the ground. "Nor to you, Ezekiel-san," she said. "It seems I misjudged you."
"If it's any consolation, I thought about it."
She smiled. "I'm flattered." She raised her arms wide, and they were in an immaculately manicured garden. "This is the Tokyo Daubutsu," she said. "A train station is nearby."
"Thanks." Ezekiel frowned. "Miyu, aren't you cold without your uniform?"
Her eyes went wide, then darted down to examine herself. Then she looked back at him, a hint of a blush on her cheeks. "Ezekiel-san..."
If looks could kill... well, good thing he was already dead. He winked. "Made you look."
"I think Larva is right, you are a clown at heart."
"He said that?"
"Why else would you hunt the undead with a kitchen knife?"
"You're saying you've never had to improvise?"
Miyu looked annoyed. "If we meet again, ask me then."
"It may happen, you know. There are plenty more nasty people in Japanese history."
"Perhaps. I think you are more likely to meet my counterpart among the Occidental Shinma."
That caught Ezekiel's interest. "You mean there's one of you wandering about back in America?"
"I only hear rumors. If you do meet her, give her my regards."
"I will. So, which way to the station?"
Miyu shrugged. "I don't know this neighborhood. Ask directions." She vanished.
Ezekiel grunted. "Just like her to get the last swing in," he muttered.
He had to ask directions five times, it was dark by the time he made it to the station. Yes, just like her.
The middle seat on a 747. Again.
The lights were up since most people were still eating. Ezekiel truly felt for the people who had to try and use this slop to stave off hunger.
"You done with that?"
The guy sitting on Ezekiel's right had gone to the washroom, the seat should have been empty. Ezekiel sighed, not even looking. "Be my guest."
The Devil took up Ezekiel's chopsticks, grabbed a little roll sushi and popped it in his mouth. He made sounds of delight as he languidly masticated it. "Oh, that is absolutely, positively atrocious. Simply inedible."
"It wouldn't surprise me to find out you had some part in developing the Japan Airlines menu."
"There is only one way to follow up a meal like that, Ezekiel," the Devil said. He reached into a pocket of his rumpled jacket and pulled out a big curved pipe that Sherlock Holmes would have been embarrassed to smoke. He started stuffing some rather dubious looking leaf into it. "So, how was your trip to the Orient?"
"Real interesting, actually. Expanded my horizons, you might say."
"Did you bring me a souvenir?"
"Just Nobunaga's raging soul."
The Devil paused from lighting up his pipe long enough to laugh at that. It was producing a really terrific amount of smoke. It did not quite smell like hell but it certainly stank to high heaven. "Yes, so you did. I see you had to conscript a couple of locals into picking off his girlfriend, though. Very messy. You want a job done right, and all that."
"Oh I don't know, they certainly held their own. Told me some rather interesting things too. Seems they're something called Shinma, and these Shinma have a whole other world of their own."
The Devil blew out some really impressive smoke rings. "You shouldn't believe everything you hear, Ezekiel. These Orientals, they have to approach everything by three degrees of indirection. Everything they say is some sort of metaphor. Just can't call a spade a spade, know what I mean?"
"Sure I do. The Shinma world is no metaphor, though. I was there."
The Devil puffed on his pipe just a little less enthusiastically. He raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"Yes, that's so. They even invited me to stay for a while. Couldn't, of course, too much work to do."
"Quite right, Ezekiel," the Devil said approvingly. "This was a business trip, after all."
"Besides, I can always change my mind later."
The Devil frowned. "Change your mind about what?"
"About her offer, of course," Ezekiel said casually.
"Which offer would that be?"
Ezekiel watched him intently for a few moments. "You don't know, do you?" he asked in a low voice.
The Devil spread his arms in frustration, at least as far as the cramped quarters would allow. He almost hit Ezekiel with that damned pipe. "For goodness sake, Ezekiel, I try to watch out for you as best I can but I really can't baby-sit you every minute of the day. What, did she offer to help you hunt down some of your lost souls for you?" He stabbed a finger at Stone, looking really irritated now. "That is your job, Ezekiel, don't ever forget that."
Ezekiel's mouth very slowly spread into a smile. "You really don't know what she's up to, do you?"
"Don't get smart with me, Ezekiel," the Devil said hotly. "Whatever that little vixen told you, she and her kind end up in the same places as everyone else. And there's little doubt which place she's headed. Mark my words, I'll be finding a nice spot for her soon enough. Oh, what is so damned funny anyway?" he fumed.
Ezekiel stopped laughing. "Well, if I ever want a vacation now I know a place where /nobody/ can bother me, not even you. And if I ever think you won't follow up on our bargain, I can always change my mind about her offer."
"The only offer that will do you any good is mine," the Devil growled. "You'd do best not to forget that."
"I'll keep that in mind," Ezekiel said casually, not really paying attention any more.
"Sir," came a stern voice from Ezekiel's left. He turned to see a very irate stewardess glaring at him. "Only cigarette smoking is allowed on the plane, sir."
"Don't tell me, tell-" The seat was empty again. But he'd left his damned pipe behind.
I've played around just a little with the Vampire Miyu mythology. The OAVs suggest that the people Miyu keeps in her little collection are in fact still alive, that she has given them eternal life and trapped their souls in an endless dream. It does not seem much of a stretch to imagine that she could do the same for people whose bodies have perished but whose souls have not yet taken flight.
Just to set the record straight: Ezekiel Stone, Father Horn, Maxine, and of course the Devil, are all characters from Brimstone. Miyu, Larva and the Shinma are characters from Vampire Miyu. Oda Nobunaga is an actual historical figure from sixteenth century Japan. The particular Shinma Raiki, Kazuya, and all other characters are my own. The bit about $36.27 appearing in Stone's pocket each morning is from the series, though as far as I know the biblical reference is never specifically mentioned. I also made up the bit about Amano Yuri.
Miyu's offer presents an interesting, fundamental moral dilemma. Will you choose pleasant illusion, or unpleasant truth. To put it in the terms presented in the movie "The Matrix", will you take the red pill or the blue pill?
As for the theological implications of this story... nah, I really don't have anything to say about that.
For those of you whose introduction to Oda Nobunaga is the movie 'Time Stranger', you might be thinking he didn't seem like such a bad guy. That movie didn't really have much to say about what he did during his meteoric rise to power. He had his own brother killed and slaughtered all the monks in the holiest Buddhist temple in Japan, among other things. That movie did get one thing right though: if he had not been betrayed and killed, then for better or worse the history of Japan, and possibly much of the world, could have been very different.
I tried to be careful in my research regarding Brimstone, Vampire Miyu, Oda Nobunaga and the Grasscutter Sword. If anyone thinks I got anything wrong, by all means let me know.