It's a long trip to our destination, cutting right across the city. We make most of the journey by air, relying on the darkness, Sumireko's ESP and my concealment charms to avoid being spotted. It's a little nerve-wracking, but on the upside, we don't run into any more ambushes and we make much better time.
And Nue was right about the view.
We circle the docks for an aerial survey, then approach the warehouses from the landward side, where there's more cover to hide our approach.
"Five youkai, all kitsune," I confirm. "I can tell there's humans around too, but I can't tell where. Can you?"
"Yeah," Sumireko says, eyes staring into the distance as she concentrates. "There's about... thirty or so people around. And a whole lot of guns." She shivers.
"Not dock workers then?" I ask.
Sumireko shakes her head emphatically. I turn my attention back to the buildings.
"The strongest youkai is almost always the leader, and the strongest youkai here is... there," I say, pointing. "Right near one of the others."
"That building, at the far end. I think it's on the top floor Can you see anything there?"
Sumireko frowns. "Point straight at it again?"
I point. Sumireko leans over to look along my arm.
"...okay, got it. Let's try another angle."
We carefully skirt around the site, getting closer to where I think our target is. Sumireko asks me to point at it another two times.
"I... think I've found it," she says at last. "There's an office or something on the top floor, overlooking... whatever is in the rest of the building." She scrunches her eyes shut. "I should be able to see it perfectly from here, but it's... blurry, for some reason."
"It's warded," I say. "I can feel it too. Whatever's in there, they really don't want anyone to see it."
"Well it's not iron ore, that's for sure," Sumireko says, opening her eyes. "Way too much movement going on in there."
"Can you find a way to the office?" I ask.
Sumireko turns to face me, eyes unfocused for a moment. "...yeah, that part of the building's clear. There's a lot of guards though."
"Leave them to me. Can you spot cameras too?"
Sumireko nods. "Yup. Loads of them. I think I can dodge them, though."
I grin. "Having someone with sight like yours sure is handy!"
Sumireko looks away. "I'd rather not be using it to plan an assassination, if it's all the same to you."
"...they tried to kill you, Sumireko. Twice."
Sumireko sighs. "I know." She stands. "Let's go. Before I lose my nerve."
We make our way back around to a spot I picked earlier and jump the fence with ease. Sumireko uses gestures and the occasional telekinetic nudge to direct me around cameras and guards I can't see. Modern technology, and the absence of ambient magic to highlight human presences, makes me very uncomfortable.
We come up against the back wall of a small brick extension to the main warehouse. I double-check there's no spells at work - I haven't felt any magic at all outside the building - and gesture towards my mouth and ear.
"We can talk here," Sumireko replies softly, "but keep it down."
"What's on the other side of this wall?" I ask.
"Is anyone using it?"
"Can we get into the main building from here?"
"...yes, but how are we going to get in?"
I turn my attention to the small window next to me. It's protected by heavy steel bars, welded into a frame and held in place by large sturdy bolts. There's no way I could break through that undetected.
The wall, on the other hand...
I grip the bars, feeling around the bulky frame carefully, and give the whole thing a sharp tug. The bolts rip clean out of the masonry with a crunch. I wince at the sound, and pause, listening carefully.
...nothing. I put the bars down.
Sumireko is staring at me with wide eyes.
"...what?" I ask. "I've seen you move things that big loads of times!"
"Not with my bare hands!"
Sumireko shakes off her surprise and unlatches the tiny window so we can slip inside, a maneuver that would have been a lot harder if it weren't for the fact that we can both fly.
We continue flying afterwards, too. There are spells that can detect magical flight, but whoever is in charge here seems to be restricting magic use to the warded section, and they wouldn't pick up Sumireko anyway.
Sumireko suddenly stops and starts to back up. I catch her shoulder, and she holds up two fingers.
I point up.
Two guards round the corner, both carrying the large, bullet-spraying kind of modern firearm, among many other weapons.
Three seconds later, they're both dead.
I point at the bodies and gesture back toward the restroom.
Sumireko hovers in place, staring, hand clamped over her mouth.
I move closer, a concerned frown on my face, and reach toward her shoulder gently.
Sumireko backs away.
I offer my hand instead.
Sumireko looks between it, my face, and the two dead guards.
I smile reassuringly.
She takes a deep breath, and the bodies begin to float.
Two more guards suffer a similar fate.
Then, after ascending to the top floor, Sumireko stops in front of an unremarkable door. I already know why, but she mimes fox ears to confirm it.
I pause in throught for a moment. Then I turn to Sumireko.
I point at her hand. I hold up mine, and make a scratching motion across the palm with my other hand. I hold up an ofuda and mime wiping my palm on it. Then I raise the ofuda to my nose, sniff at it, and point at the door.
Sumireko hesitates for a moment, then fumbles in her pocket, and pulls out a metal object. She fiddles with it briefly, and unfolds a tiny knife. She offers it to me.
I shake my head and point at her.
Sumireko looks alarmed.
I point at myself, open my mouth in a snarl with my fingers as fangs, point at the door, and finally mime punching myself in slow motion. Then I point at Sumireko, point at the door, and lick my lips.
Sumireko looks really alarmed.
I quickly point at the door again, mime walking with my fingers, then point at myself with my other hand, and use that hand to pound the first.
Sumireko frowns worriedly.
I smile cheerfully.
She reaches for my ofuda.
I shake my head and point at her pockets.
She pulls out one of her zener cards and holds it up.
I nod. I point at her hand, the knife, the card, and then at the floor in front of the door. Then I point at her, motion toward the stairwell, point at myself, and gesture at the ceiling.
Sumireko looks at the door and swallows.
She levitates the card, cuts her thumb, smears the blood on the card, drops it on the floor, sticks her thumb in her mouth and flees.
I press myself against the ceiling and wait.
A minute passes.
Finally, I feel the fox stirring.
The door opens.
A multi-tailed figure emerges.
She spots the card.
I sit up, upside-down, and slap an ofuda over her mouth.
Three things happen at once: she looks up, eyes wide with panic and pain, her back arches, and her knees buckle. She claws frantically at the seal, but only succeeds in snaring her fingers as well. The seal rapidly starts spreading over her, wrapping around her like paper bandages before starting to constrict. Her writhing form is slowly crushed smaller and smaller, until only the original seal remains, before it, too, burns away into nothing.
All without the slightest sound.
I drop down from the ceiling and quickly dispose of the bloodied zener card as well.
Sumireko returns from the stairwell, eyes wide and hands covering her mouth.
I give her a friendly grin.
The room on the other side of the door is empty.
The door on the other side of the room is open.
A four-tailed fox woman is glaring at me.
"You!" she snarls.
I have just enough time to make an aborted shoving motion in Sumireko's direction.
The next thing I know I'm on the floor and my vision is full of stars.
I freeze, already on all fours, and instead turn my head slowly toward the voice.
The fox woman is standing where I was a moment ago, one arm held out to the side, one clawed hand fastened around Sumireko's throat. Sumireko is as white as chalk and unmoving, save for her eyes.
"It really is you," the fox woman says, a nasty grin slowly spreading across her face. "Remember me, you two-faced bitch?"
"N... not particularly," I wheeze.
The fox woman hisses in fury. Her eyes actually glow like hot coals. And more importantly, she shakes Sumireko violently. Sumireko makes a choking sound and claws at the fox's hand, trying in vain to loosen her grip.
"Maybe this will jog your memory," fox woman says.
Her form ripples and changes. The black 'turtleneck' sweater and jeans (at least I think that's what they're called) disappear, to be replaced by a fancy kimono. Her blond hair lengthens from chin-length and winds itself into an elaborate bun. Makeup appears on her face, her claws turn into painted nails, her tails vanish and an ornate kiseru appears in her free hand.
"A long time ago, in city not so far away," she begins, slowly advancing, still effortlessly holding Sumireko up with one arm, "I was a simple courtesan. Fooling great men with my looks, marrying into greatness, sleeping my way to the top. Forgettable, maybe even contemptible, but most importantly, harming no-one."
She shakes Sumireko like a ragdoll again.
"Then along comes a grubby little youkai exterminator. Poor, homeless, wandering vagrant, or so he says. My then-husband, magnanimous idiot that he was, took him in at once. So I tucked in my tails and minded my manners, waiting for him to move on."
She smiles. It's not a nice smile.
"But she wasn't all that she seemed. In fact, I soon learned that she was a youkai, just like me. Quite a crafty little one, hiding she was least expected. And she had a downright devious scheme to go with it. 'Accidentally' out myself as a fox, she said, and play along with her little 'extermination', and we could split the reward money."
The fox lady puts her pipe-holding left hand on her hip and shifts her weight onto that foot, highlighting her curves.
"I'd grown quite tired of my husband's antics by then, so naturally I agreed. It was a win-win situation for all involved; she'd get the money, I'd be free to go on my way with a tidy little nest egg, and he'd learn a valuable lesson about thinking with his big head instead of his little one. There was only one tiny little problem."
Here eyes narrow and she leans forward slightly to glare at me.
"It was all lies. When the big day came, there was no play-acting. That traitorous, tanuki-humping whore somehow managed to hold onto the seals of the legendary Abe clan itself long enough to seal me under an Inari shrine for EIGHT. HUNDRED. YEARS."
A trickle of drool runs down Sumireko's chin as she struggles to breathe.
"And now you have the NERVE, the GALL, the FILTHY, DESPICABLE ARROGANCE to show your face in front of me AGAIN." The fox woman looms over me, eyes burning like minature suns. "WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY FOR YOURSELF, YOU CRAWLING MAGGOT?"
Sumireko's fist connects with the fox-woman's ribcage, just below the armpit.
My barrier charm fires, slicing the youkai's arm clean off.
The fox woman yowls and staggers in surprise and pain, illusion crumbling back to her modern appearance. Sumireko tears the severed-but-still-moving limb off her throat, ripping one of the fingers clean off with the sheer explosive force of her telekinesis, and throws herself down the stairwell.
The fox woman lets out an ear-splitting roar that sounds somewhere between a scream of pain and rage and the cry of a fox.
The floor where I'd been kneeling explodes from the impact of her fist.
The fist she didn't have a second ago.
The second punch narrowly grazes past my chin.
Suddenly I'm on my back, with what feels like a hole in my stomach, looking up at the ceiling, between a desk and a filing cabinet.
The desk vanishes explosively.
A hand grabs my throat, crushing my windpipe like an overcooked noodle.
I slap a youkai-killing ward on its wrist.
The fox woman tears her arm off and throws it across the room.
I struggle to breathe with a crushed windpipe and no diaphragm. I fail.
The fox watches my charm devour her arm.
"...again. Again." She rounds on me, her face twisted with pure fury. "YOU. YOU ARE AN ABOMINATION." She grabs me by the shirt and flings me across the room. "LET'S SEE HOW YOU LIKE A TASTE OF YOUR OWN MEDICINE!"
I bounce off the wall and land on all fours. My body is furiously healing enough damage to get air into my lungs, but I still barely have the strength to stand.
A hand slaps my back.
PAIN IN MY BACK
PAIN IN MY CHEST
PAIN IN MY EVERYTHING
"Hahahahahahaha! Looks like you burn just like the rest of us!"
"Here, have another one!"
NO NO NO NO
I raise my eyes to glare at the fox-woman. She's not very steady, but...
...I can see her!
She stares at me, eyes wide, brows furrowed.
"You have got to be fucking kidding me."
"...go... to... hell..." I rasp.
Her eyebrows go up.
She grabs my hair.
"One one-way ticket to hell, coming riiiiiiight up!"
She grabs my umbrella.
My arms are too weak to resist.
"Step right this way for our first-class service!"
She kicks a door open and drags me thought it, onto a metal walkway.
I can see machines.
Lots of machines.
"Give my regards to Satan, wretch!"
She whacks something with my umbrella. A lever.
Loud grinding. Growling.
She holds me up to her face.
"You'll be seeing him real soon."
Hard to breathe.
I struggle against my leaden limbs, trying turn onto my back, keep my face to the searing but breathable air.
I shake my head and blink furiously to clear my eyes.
The ward on my shoulder.
The youkai writing that I recognise so well.
The weight falls away from my limbs in an instant. I complete my half-turn onto my back with ease, and suck in a deep breath.
I'm lying in a pool of molten metal in the biggest furnace I've ever seen. A blast of furiously hot air is constantly beating down on me, and it, from above.
The fireproofing magic I learned as a blacksmith just saved my life.
...ow. Still smarting from the fight, but I'm alive.
I lie there for a moment longer, gathering my strength, but it really isn't a good spot to relax in.
After a bit of paddling, and searching, I find a way out. Molten steel flows past me. It's small, but it doesn't seem to be obstructed.
I wiggle through.
As soon as I'm out, I stop and wring every last drop of molten metal out of my hair and clothes. It's impossible to get the stuff out after it cools. I speak from experience on this one.
Then I look around.
I'm in the warded portion of the warehouse. It's a wide, open space, full of loud, metal machines, crashing away.
Molten metal is flowing out of the seal-covered furnace, being poured into molds, set, removed, and further machined, into...
They're making weapons!
My little revelation is interrupted by a chunk of heavy machinery flying at me.
I dodge it just in time.
Total pandemonium erupts.
People and machines are flying everywhere.
A giant, misshapen steel fist pounds a fleeing kitsune into a bloody stain.
I dive behind one of the many pieces of machinery and scramble away from the main furnace.
Away from the roar of the machines, and the magical ringing of so many seals in such a small space, I can hear voices.
"Stop her! Shoot her!"
"She's a monster!"
"Let me out! I didn't sign up for this!"
"You cowardly fools! Run the other way!"
"Save me! Please god save me!"
Sumireko is floating in the far corner of the room. Her eyes are wild, tears a streaming down her face, and her mouth is lock in something between a laugh and a scream. Two giant metal hands are flying around the room, mimicking her own hands, pulverising everything.
Machines. Youkai. Humans.
"You useless, spineless, incompetent -"
The fox woman that nearly killed me is barking orders at the top of her voice, but nobody is listening.
So she attacks Sumireko herself.
Sumireko swats her out of the air like a bug.
She slams into a nearby piece of machinery with force to embed her in the metal. She spasms a few times, trying to free herself.
"She's just a stupid human! Kill her!"
I step in front of her, grinning.
"Go to hell."
And then I grab her face.
With a hand hot enough to melt steel.
I pour all the power I can muster into her, channeling more and more heat, burning her head, burning her body, melting the machinery, melting the floor.
I don't stop until I run dry, and all that's left is a molten puddle.
I drop onto all fours, panting for breath.
The warehouse falls silent.
After what feels like an eternity, I get to my feet.
I step over a piece of unrecognisably mangle metal and cast my eyes all around.
After a minute or two, I spot her.
Sitting in a corner, hugging her knees, shaking.
She doesn't seem to notice my approach, staring sightlessly ahead, breathing in shuddering gasps.
I triple-check that I've cooled off, and gently grab her shoulder.
She yelps and scrambles away from me.
"K-K-K-Kogasa?" she gibbers, looking around wildly.
"I'm right here."
Sumireko finally seems to notice me.
"I... I t-t-though you were dead."
"T-t-t-the fox youkai, she -"
"She's gone now. It's okay."
I pull Sumireko into a hug, as she breaks down sobbing.
"...feeling better now?" I ask.
"...a bit," she whispers. "Oh god. I... I've never been so scared..."
"You're safe now. It's okay."
Sumireko stirs, and I help her shakily to her feet. She just stands there for a while, head down, steadying her breathing.
Then she looks up.
She takes an unsteady step forward. I hover beside her, ready to catch her if she topples.
"Oh god. What have I done?"
Sumireko shakes free of my grip, and her steps get steadier as she approaches the nearest piece of debris.
The head and shoulders of a crushed human being stick out from under the pile, in a growing pool of blood.
Sumireko dry heaves. She clamps her hand over her mouth, but doesn't look away. She takes another step forward and retches again.
Then she squeezes her eyes shut and vomits as if her life depended on it.
She continues long after her stomach is empty.
"Hey." I gently rub her back.
"...I killed them," she whispers.
"You were defending yourself."
"I'm a mass murderer."
"They were tying to kill you."
"They were running away."
I don't have a response for that.
"They were running away, and I killed them. Crushed them like ants. Oh god. I'm a monster."
I pull Sumireko into a hug, ignoring the smell.
"I'm sorry," I say. "I failed you. I promised I would protect you and I didn't."
"I wasn't strong enough."
Sumireko puts her arms around me, slowly. "Thank you. For being here."
"What!? I dragged you into this!"
"It wasn't your fault."
"It was entirely my fault!"
Sumireko shakes her head. I can feel her hair tickling my neck. "It was my fault. Reimu was right. I was stupid, and I paid the price."
I release Sumireko and look her in the eyes.
"No, okay? Don't think like that. You made a mistake. We all make mistakes. I made mistakes. I shouldn't have sealed that fox. I shouldn't have underestimated her. I shouldn't have let her get you. Those were my mistakes, and I'm sorry."
"You made mistakes. You shouldn't have stolen that occult ball. You shouldn't have angered Reimu and lost it. Those were your mistakes, and I forgive you. Can you forgive me?"
Sumireko stares at me. Then lets out a single 'heh' of a giggle, and drops her head onto my shoulder.
"Of course I forgive you," she whispers.
We stand in silence for a moment.
"...now what," Sumireko asks.
"...we leave," I reply. "Before the cops show up."
I pause, and look at Sumireko.
"This... still happened," Sumireko says, gesturing at the wreckage. "I still did it."
"We can't just walk away, like it didn't happen!"
My mouth works soundlessly as I try to form a rebuttal.
I'm interrupted by the sound of a door scraping open. A woman steps into the room, and looks around. She spots us in short order.
"...well, well well," she says. "Credit where credit is due, Miss Tatara, you work fast."
"The Commissioner!" Sumireko gasps.
Three more people file in behind the 'Commissioner'. All of them have tanuki ears and tails.
One of them is Sarutobi, still grinning smugly.
"Here we've been trying to find the foxes' hideout for years, and you wipe them out in an afternoon," the bakedanuki Commissioner continues. "Messily, might I add, but all things considered, I think you've saved us a great deal of trouble."
"Got the foxes out of your turf, you mean?" I ask.
The Commissioner snorts. "I mean you busted their gun-running ring before any more innocent bystanders got hurt."
I snort back. "You're a tanuki. What do you care?"
The Commissioner gives me an incredulous look. "My dear girl, I'm a policewoman. It's my duty to care."
"You're a tanuki," I repeat.
"Yes. Quite. How very observant," she smiles humorlessly. "But as strange as it may be to you humans, I am also a policewoman. And I do care." Her smile softens. "Which is why I would like to offer you a deal."
My eyes narrow. "What kind of deal?"
The Commissioner raises her hands plaintively. "Don't worry, I'm not trying to trick you. In fact, I'm not asking you for anything at all. All I'm saying, is..." she gestures at the carnage, "you've made quite a mess here, Miss Tatara. But you've done us, and the city, a great service, so I'm willing to use my influence to make it... go away." She smiles knowingly. "And all I ask in return is that you leave use peaceful, law-abiding tanuki alone."
"Law-abiding," I repeat flatly.
"...well, okay, maybe we do have a few..." she makes a wavering gesture with one hand "...legally gray operations running on the side. But nobody gets hurt. Not for any price." She smiles widely. "Tanuki's honor."
"You tried to kill me," I retort.
"Ah, yes, that." The Commissioner turns to Sarutobi. "I believe Chief Inspector Sarutobi here owes you a most profound apology." Sarutobi somehow manages to look smug and contrite at the same time. "While we do prize initiative, as a rule, there is a fine line between that and... jumping the gun, as it were. He will be appropriately reprimanded, mark my word." She flashes a professional smile. "Thank you for sparing his life, by the way. It was most generous of you."
...as strange as it may be to you humans...
Thank you for sparing his life, by the way.
...that it. That's what I'm missing here!
The four tanuki in front of me are absolutely terrified of me!
"What about the Sergeant?" I ask, taking a step forward. "Matsuda, I think it was? I didn't hurt him too badly on my way out, did I?"
"Oh, he's fine," the Commissioner replies. "Rattled, but fine. You got him good; he doesn't even remember what hit him."
"And Sumireko?" I press.
"Who?" The Commissioner replies, eyebrows rising. "I don't know any Sumirekos, I'm afraid. Chief Inspector?"
Sarutobi shakes his head, still grinning. "No ma'am. Don't know anyone by that name."
"...and it's going to stay that way?" I ask, smirking.
"Of course," the Commissioner replies. "Can't remember what I don't know!"
This time it's my turn to put on a professional smile. "Well then, Madam Commissioner, I'd say it's been a pleasure doing business with you."
She bows low. "The pleasure is all mine, I assure you."
"Maybe next time I'll be able to enjoy my stay a bit more, hmmm?"
"I ferverently hope so."
"Come on," I say to Sumireko, still smiling, "we wouldn't want to get in the way of a police operation, now would we?"
* * *
That's the most words I've ever written in one go. Final part coming as soon as I've caught my breath.