AN: Hello and welcome to my first entry in a series of works for a series I call Threat High School. If you want to know more about the basic lore of the universe, check my profile for a quick rundown.
This is my first new piece of work after a long hiatus from writing much of anything. I hope you enjoy and leave your feedback. If you like it be sure to stop back for more.
Hanae Okuma wondered how people ever got used to flying. After only her fourth trip in an aircraft, she was determined to never fly again if she could help it.
She clutched her Type-64 Battle Rifle tightly as she bounced around in the back of the Kawasaki C-1 cargo transport aircraft. The rough, winter weather and turbulence over Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, only made her situation worse. The aircraft's heaters did little to protect her from the frigid temperatures outside.
She'd never grown used to the cold, despite the many years she spent as a teenager sleeping on the streets, moving throughout Japan as war-ravaged it, looking for food, shelter, any way to survive. Her mind would always drift back to when she was younger, in some town in the south whose name she couldn't remember. It was sunny and bright there all year round, and two parents waited at home to welcome her.
That was where she was from, not this frigid, alien land everyone referred to as Japan.
"Listen up," someone in the center of the aircraft shouted.
Hanae's eyes immediately snapped up to meet theirs on instinct. The soldier that stood in the center of them was a woman, not unlike the thirty-eight other soldiers that lined the inside of the transport plane, though she didn't look like your average soldier from the Japanese Self Defense Forces. Underneath her body armor and helmet, she wore a bright red lantern hakama over a traditional, pure white kimono. A black face mask obscured her face and polarized goggles blocked her eyes. The only way that Hanae could tell that this woman was her platoon leader, Lieutenant Kawasara, was the single, white, horizontal bar and sakura blossom emblem printed on her helmet.
When the Lieutenant saw that she had everyone's attention, she activated a small holographic projector in the center of the aircraft. It projected a map into the space between the two rows of bench seating, along with a list of different objectives for the mission.
"The plan has changed," the Lieutenant said to them as she began to highlight different points on the map. "Higher has informed us that this will no longer be a routine practice jump. This mission will be your final mental, spiritual, and emotional readiness evaluation, your final test to see if you can become a Miko."
Hanae's stomach sank as she heard those final words. She hadn't even heard what the mission would entail, and she was already certain she wasn't prepared. She'd barely been hanging on for the last three months of training, and she was certain she'd wash out of whatever final challenge they had set up for her here.
If she hadn't seen what happened to the other cadets that washed out of this program, maybe she would've considered that an option, but failure here didn't mean a chance to go home. The only people who'd been allowed to leave this program so far were those with broken minds and bodies, or the dead.
Hanae still wasn't quite sure why she wasn't counted among them yet. Of the women who'd been pulled into this hell with her, she was neither the smartest nor the strongest. The only skill she could claim was superior street smarts, and motivation to survive, but those weren't reasons to pick someone to be a soldier.
She wondered why, out of everyone else here, she was picked to become a supernatural warrior who would protect her country.
She remembered the night she was chosen. She was staring up at the sky in a section of what was once Tokyo, now a pile of rubble, as aircraft buzzed through the sky overhead. She'd kept up with the news reports in the proceeding years of course: conflict in Taiwan, Chinese weapons losing control, UN forces deployed to contain the situation, then carpet bombed Hong Kong off the map as they were steadily overrun. She watched kids not that much older than her coming home from fighting on the Korean Peninsula, torn to pieces by the mechanical horror known as a Robotic Tactical Weapon.
But she never expected the fighting to reach her home, definitely not this quickly. War was something distant from her mind, fought in faraway places.
She was shocked as she watched Self Defense Force aircraft try desperately to tag the unmanned bombers over the city, but it was a losing battle. Though the human pilots flew better, there were too many artificial opponents and they weren't prepared for a fight of this magnitude. She was too scared to move as she watched an American F-16 fighter jet take a hit to its engine and spiral toward the ground, straight down at her like a flaming missile from hell.
Hanae remembered looking away as the aircraft was about to impact. If she was going to die, she wanted it to be quick. Maybe she'd get to see her family for the first time since she was young, and wouldn't have to suffer through sleeping on the street night after night.
The explosion never came, however. Her world went quiet and the cold, Tokyo night air disappeared.
Slowly she opened her eyes. She wasn't standing in Tokyo any longer. Instead, her feet were resting on the surface of a vast lake, making ripples in the calm water. There was no shore as far as she could see, and the only things in front of her were a bright red Torii gate and a small basin for washing her hands.
Her heart beat faster as she took a step forward, scared that she might fall through the water. Was she in the afterlife? If so, she didn't want to move forward. Maybe she could move backward and wake up.
Wake up in the burning wreckage of a city where she was considered nothing? No. She had no choice. She had to move forward.
She walked towards the basin, and the liquid came forth from it on its own like tendrils through the air. It wrapped around her hands and scrubbed them clean before falling away to the ground below her. The concrete dust and rubble disappeared first from her hands, then slowly began to flake off her entire body. Her clothes ignited in blue, purifying fire and burned away to reveal the pure white kimono and primary red hakama of a Shinto Miko.
She'd seen Miko before while passing through shrines, dressed in their immaculate clothes, unlike anything she'd ever worn in her memory. She knew that in the distant past they were once regarded as shamanistic healers who were blessed by a Kami to become powerful users of magic. People believed they could harness their abilities to heal and exorcise evil from those who were suffering. In time though, they'd become little more than symbols of the country's past, used by shrines to take money from tourists.
She looked down at her reflection in the water below. She was clean, like a brand new person, ready to enter the afterlife or whatever awaited her on the other side of that Torii.
She stepped through the gate, and out of the corner of her eye spotted a man she hadn't seen before. He was clothed in Samurai armor and posted like a guard, but he didn't look like the kind of man who would guard heaven. His armor was dirty and cracked from taking repeated sword strikes. His face was weathered, like someone who'd seen many battles.
Hanae blinked, and the samurai transformed into a JGSDF soldier, clad in modern equipment, and wearing the iconic blue helmet of the United Nations Anti-Mechatronics Taskforce. Slowly he faded into the image of another warrior, this time a Medieval European knight, then an American Minuteman, on and on through dozens of iterations and nationalities that Hanae didn't recognize, past, present, and future. Eternal.
This soldier was Hachiman, the Kami of war. She'd never laid eyes on one of the ethereal, powerful beings that govern the Japanese archipelago, but somehow she knew exactly what she was looking at. She slowly drew closer to him, watching him transform before her eyes until he finally resolved into an image of her, but older, clad in the same Miko kimono she wore now. She, however, wore body armor and a helmet that looked like it had seen her through battle many times.
Her future self withdrew a katana from the waistband of her hakama and extended it to her younger self. Hanae wrapped her hands around it and took it from her.
"You are reborn," they said. "With the blessing of Hachiman."
It spoke to her in an androgynous voice that came both from her older self, and from within the sword itself. She felt at peace as the sword caught fire in her hands, consuming the world around her.
In front of her, the figure transformed into an image of a woman in a grey combat uniform. Her face was blurry, but her dark blue hair stuck out at her amongst the flames.
"Take your sword and use it well," they said.
And the other world finally vanished.
Hanae woke up a few moments later, slumped against a crumbled wall as though she'd been flung there. The same blue fire that consumed her dream now surrounded her, casting an eerie glow on the world around her. Though the fire didn't burn her, heat from the wreckage of an F-16, crashed just a few hundred meters in front of her, danced over her as she sat, katana in hand and too weak to move.
What followed was fuzzy memories of being put on a litter by people dressed in the same kimono, carried to an SDF helicopter, and flown away into the night. When she finally woke up they pulled her from her hospital bed and ushered her into a room, full of young women dressed in a sea of red and white.
They were told once again what Hachiman had already told them; they had been blessed by a Kami to become Miko, powerful users of magic that had served their country since ancient times. They were told it was their duty to serve their country in this time of war, and protect their families and loved ones from the onslaught of the RTWs with the new abilities they'd been gifted.
It was a very rousing speech, but then fourteen-year-old Hanae wasn't able to appreciate it. It felt surreal, until the next day when she'd been issued a stiff, brand new Self Defense Force uniform and handed over to a drill sergeant to begin basic training. Then she realized this wasn't the kind of thing she could wake up from.
The Miko next to her elbowed her, rousing her from her thoughts. Akane Miyamoto, another cadet from her platoon, looked over at her and smiled brightly.
"Hey Okuma, what's got you down?" Miyamoto asked.
The bright red-haired cadet examined Hanae as the plane buffeted along through the turbulence. Despite being almost ten years older than her, Miyamoto was weaker than most of the other Miko and she suffered for it greatly. She was five feet even and maybe one hundred pounds, but she had to carry all the same gear that the rest of them did.
Her one saving grace was that she was the designated bowman for Hanae's squad. The thin bow and arrow she carried weighed a lot less than their rifles and so did its ammunition, not that it didn't pack a punch. When combined with her abilities as a Miko it could be quite the deadly weapon.
"Nothing," Hanae said enthusiastically. "I'm fine. Just a little nervous is all."
Miyamoto cocked her head to the side and examined her. She placed a hand on her helmet and rattled it around, shaking Hanae in her seat.
"You're lying," she said. "You better tell me what's really up before I throw you off this plane."
Hanae tried to suppress a smile, but couldn't. Miyamoto always kept a cheerful attitude, even in times like these. She'd become sort of an older sister to her, and many of the other Miko in the group.
Hanae wasn't sure how she kept up the energy. Like her, she didn't have any military experience. She was a department store worker in Tokyo that got caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up shot in the head by a KMT insurgent. She was reborn on the operating table and survived, but not without a small, circular, greenish-blue scar in the center of her forehead. She always styled her hair over it or covered it with her helmet, but Hanae saw it a few times when her hair slipped.
She wasn't the best fighter, but she was always there for people, which made her even more valuable, especially for Miko without military experience. Miyamoto always had a way of reminding them in particular that they weren't alone.
Hanae researched up and grabbed Miyamoto's arm to stop her, but smiled all the same.
"I'm fine," she said truthfully. "Honestly. I'll feel a lot better once we're done with this exercise."
Miyamoto relented and dropped her hand.
"Fiiiine," she said reluctantly. "I'll leave you alone, but I'll be right behind you, okay?"
Hanae nodded. She didn't feel like gushing before falling from 800 feet, but Miaymotto's words really did mean more to her than she'd ever know.
Hanae's thoughts were cut short when the red light flooded the cabin of the aircraft. She felt her stomach churn as she watched the aircraft's loading ramp lower. A blast of cold air slammed into her as the frigid Hokkaido winter flooded the aircraft.
Swisps of snow began to blow into the cabin from outside. It looked like almost whiteout conditions. Were they really crazy enough to make them jump in this weather?
She saw the jump master, the only man and the only non-Miko in the aircraft, stand up and make his way to the back of the aircraft. Though his shouts were drowned out by the storm, she understood the hand signal he gave to all of them.
Hanae felt the familiar butterflies of jumping out of perfectly good aircraft hit her tenfold. She made sure her rifle was secure and prepared to shuffle out of the aircraft.
Miyamoto placed a hand on Hanae's shoulder to reassure her. Hanae forced herself to stay upright and let the reassurance of her sister guide her. No matter what happened today she'd have someone she trusted to back her up.
The jumpmaster gave the commands for them to stand up and hook up.
Hanae pushed herself out of her seat and clipped her static line into position. She began checking her parachute and gear on command. Her body went through the motions while her brain was elsewhere.
When she was finished she looked up once again. On command all the Miko sounded off for equipment check. A chorus of "okay jump master," traveled down the line of Miko, past Miyamoto and her until it reached their platoon leader, who would be the first to jump.
She pointed to him and shouted "All ok jumpmaster."
He gave the signal for them to stand by. Hanae knew she only had about ten seconds to steel herself before she'd be flung into the abyss. The wait felt like an eternity before the light in the cabin flashed green. Their platoon leader shuffled to the door and flung herself out into the abyss, disappearing almost instantly in the snow.
Every nerve in Hanae's mind told her to stay, but her well-trained body shuffled along with her sisters, closer and closer to the endless white abyss, where she leapt from the plane with no hesitation like she'd been trained to.
She fell for a few seconds into the void before feeling the familiar jerk on her back as the static line went taut and her parachute unfolded behind her. The straps of her parachute bit into her as she fell through the stinging snow. For a moment the fall was peaceful until she felt a gust of wind grab her chute and drag her backward.
Her stomach lurched at the sudden acceleration. She couldn't tell how far she was from the ground by sight. All she had to guide her was the altimeter on her helmet's Heads Up Display. 400 feet and dropping fast.
She knew this was going to hurt, she just didn't know when the pain would come.
A few seconds before her altimeter ticked down to zero, she started to see the very tops of trees below her. She readied herself for the pain, then cried out as her legs finally slammed into the ground at an improper angle.
She didn't have long to think about it though. The wind still had a hold of her parachute, and it began to drag her along the ground towards uncertain danger in the snowdrifts.
She had no choice. She released her chute and watched it fly away in the powerful winds and disappear into the snowstorm. Hopefully, the snow would cover it, otherwise, it would be a dead giveaway for her position.
Hanae took a minute to catch her breath and walk off the pain as best she could in the snowdrifts. Her entire body felt rattled, especially her legs, but she could walk, so they likely weren't broken.
She shielded her face with her left arm to protect herself from the whiteout that engulfed her surroundings, drowning out the world in a dense wall of snow. She felt her glove slip from the strength of the wind but quickly clamped her hand into a fist to keep a hold of it. Losing a glove in this weather would almost certainly mean losing a hand.
She switched her goggles to infrared mode. They cast an amber and purple glow on the world around her, illuminating the forms of a couple trees and rock formations a few meters ahead of her, and bringing her visibility just slightly up from zero.
Hanae looked over to her right, searching for anyone in her platoon who'd landed close enough to her to find her. After a few seconds of scanning, she found the eerie white glow of another person's infrared signature showing brightly against the cold blue of the surrounding snow.
After a moment her HUD finally read the other Miko's IFF tracking chip and displayed her name, Miyamoto Akane.
Akane was fighting desperately to gather her parachute so she could hide it, but the wind whipped and pulled on it like a sail, dragging her as much as she was dragging it. Eventually, a big gust of wind came through and caught the parachute, pulling her face-first into the snow and dragging her along by her harness.
"Fuck, Miyamoto, hold on," she yelled as she ran after her, though there was no way she could hear her over the howling of the wind.
Hanae instinctively drew out her katana. She ran desperately through the snow, her newfound need to save her friend giving her the strength to run faster through the snow. In one fluid motion, she sliced the lines on her Miyamoto's parachute, releasing her and letting the parachute fly away and disappear into the storm.
Hanae rolled Miyamoto over onto her back and cradled her in her arms.
Hanae lifted up her goggles to get a good look at her. She felt stiff as a board in her arms, nearly frozen to death from the icy snow that had made its way under her clothes. Her eyes were red and her cheeks wet with tears as she cried out in pain.
Hanae's heart leapt as she desperately tried to think of ways to warm her up. She remembered the medics talking about how first-degree frostbite could happen in as little as thirty seconds at these temperatures, and hypothermia not long after.
If that was true, she had to act fast. She dug around in her medical kit and pulled out a thermal blanket, wrapping her in it tightly.
"Hey, its okay," Hanae shouted to her over the howling storm. "You're gonna be fine. I'm gonna get you out of here."
Hanae desperately tried her radio to call for a MEDEVAC, and winced as her ears were blasted with feedback. She pulled down her goggles to try and bring up the GPS on her HUD, but similarly received an error that read 'no satellite connection'. She didn't have a backup, and analog maps would also be useless if she couldn't discern any terrain features in the whiteout.
She felt panic begin to rise within her. She had no idea where she was and had no way of calling for help. She had one way of keeping Miyamoto's strength up long enough to get her to safety, but it was risky. She grabbed her cold hands and pressed them to her neck, parting her clothes just enough to allow her to touch her skin.
"Miyamoto, do it," she said.
The shook her head and tried to mumble "no" through chattering teeth. She tried to push Hanae away, but Hanae held her hands in place and locked eyes with her.
"I said fucking do it," Hanae said. "Please."
Miyamoto paused for a moment, staring into her eyes, then finally acquiesced. Miyamoto's hands began to glow and warmth began to radiate from them as a blue ball of energy lit the area around them.
Even though Hanae was trained in these procedures, she still wasn't exactly sure what Miyamoto was taking from her. One of the older Miko explained it to Hanae like this; when she was awakened to the service of Hachiman, she was given access to the wellspring of spiritual energy inside herself that all things possessed. She could draw on this power from herself, her environment, and other people to manifest incredible acts of healing and destruction.
Her environment, however, could only provide her so much. Animals, and human beings especially, were the true wellsprings of energy. She could give her energy to another person to heal them, but at a cost. Eventually, Hanae had to stop her or she too would become weak.
The older Miko could do this sort of thing without a problem. They had completed their training and learned how to use their abilities efficiently. Miyamoto and her were both just beginners, and the excess of blue glow was evidence of just how much of their energy was being lost as it transferred.
Miyamoto looked up at her, blinking silently. She was still in very bad shape, but she might last long enough for them to reach shelter.
Hanae wasn't doing too great either. Her thermal layer helped to keep her somewhat warm, but in addition to acting like a sail in the wind, her kimono and hakama were both fairly thin. If she was going to survive she needed to get out of this cold.
Miyamoto shivered in her arms, mumbling incoherently as hypothermia overcame her. Even with the thermal blanket, she wouldn't last much longer if Hanae didn't get her out of this cold.
Hanae dropped Miyamoto's rucksack and grabbed her bow, katana, submachine gun and other sensitive items. She threw the older girl over her shoulder and stood up, lifting her in spite of the weight of her gear. At 5'11" she was a lot taller than most fifteen year olds, and military training combined with learning to survive on the streets had made her strong, physically and mentally.
Miyamoto mumbled something that sounded like "leave me," but Hanae pretended she didn't hear it. She wasn't going to leave someone who'd been so good to her to die.
"Hang on," Hanae said to her comrade. "I'm gonna get you out of here."
Miyamoto did not respond.
Hanae plunged forward into the knee-deep snow, sinking with each step as she fought to cover some ground. Her infrared lamp illuminated a few, scrawny trees in the distance. Maybe if she moved in that direction long enough she'd eventually find some tree cover she could use to shield herself from the cold.
With great effort she lifted her feet from the snow over and over again, trying to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and not the weight on her shoulder as she trudged through the snow.
Her decibel-clearing ear protection kept away the sound of howling wind, but somehow that only made things worse as the silence engulfed her. She could only hear the crunch of her feet in the snow and the occasional soft moan from Miyamoto. She jumped when her headset's microphone picked up on what sounded like a woman screaming, just a few meters ahead of her on the right.
She dropped to her knee and set Miyamoto down, quickly snapping her rifle up to her shoulder as she scanned the area for targets.
"Fires and fistfights," she yelled into the abyss.
She hoped to hear one of her sisters return her challenge with the pass, "Are the flowers of Edo," but instead there was another scream, identical to the first one.
Hanae slowly lowered her rifle as a third scream followed after it. It was probably just a fox mother, calling out to her children in the storm. Hopefully, that was all it was.
She picked her comrade back up and returned her eyes to the path ahead. In the distance she could make out some amorphous shape, highlighted in bright white on her infrared camera. It might be a fire, or maybe a reflector panel laid down by one of her sisters, she couldn't be sure.
As she drew closer to the light got bigger and the wind started to slow. The snow stopped pelting her and started to get shallower around her ankles. She deactivated her infrared camera, revealing a warm light, shining in front of her through the softly falling snow. The rock formation that surrounded the light shielded her from the elements and made moving a lot easier.
She gripped her rifle tightly as she drew closer to the light. She needed to be tactical about this if she wanted to survive. She tried to slow her breathing and still her beating heart. Death wasn't exactly something you were supposed to think about at fifteen, but she didn't have much of a choice.
She slung her rifle and picked up Miyamoto's weapon, a Mineba PM-9 submachine gun. She carried it as a backup for her bow and arrow, but it was light and maneuverable enough for her to hold with one hand and keep control of the body on her shoulder with the other.
Hanae closed her eyes and touched her hand to the magazine of the gun. She recited an incantation in ancient Japanese. It sounded like the classical Japanese heard in kabuki theatre, but even older, only decipherable as Japanese due to its phonetic structure.
Hanae didn't know what it meant, most of the Miko didn't either, but as she spoke the magazine of her weapon slowly started to glow blue. She felt energy flow from the ground, through her, and into her fingertips as the natural energy left her and entered the artificial reservoir of the cartridges in her weapon and filled them with the power of the energy within her.
Rounds charged with spiritual energy like this could punch through a steel plate with ease. Miko like Miyamoto could even charge their bow and arrows with the same energy, turning the wooden shafts into warheads with the power of an anti-tank missile. Hopefully, they would give Hanae the firepower she needed to survive an ambush.
When she was done she opened her eyes, her chest rising and falling as she tried to regain the breath she'd accidentally held. She was exhausting way too much energy too quickly.
She pulled out an accelerant tablet from a pocket on her plate carrier and bit down on it. She felt her eyelids become lighter and her step a little quicker as the artificial energy was gifted to her. She didn't know what the hell was in one of these things, but it was enough to wake her up no matter how little sleep she'd had.
It was still only a stopgap though. Drugs were no replacement for time to regain energy or another person to pull it from. She could still pass out if she wasn't careful.
A soft, warm light emanated from the cave like someone lit it with candles. This was almost certainly a trap, laid by an instructor to lure an unsuspecting soldier into someplace that looked safe. She considered turning around and ignoring it, but the cold urged her to continue. Miyamoto was going to freeze to death if she didn't find shelter for her.
She slowly moved forward, keeping her self steady as she swept the muzzle of her machine pistol over the cave, looking for anything that moved.
Nothing did, so she continued. The snow vanished as she crossed the threshold of the cave, as though stopped by an invisible wall, and the cold wind gave way to a warm breeze as she made her way inside.
Hanae let out a sigh of relief. Even if this was a trap at least she was out of the freezing cold.
It looked like a long passageway, leading deep into the mountain. The walls were lined with small candles, held in wooden fixtures that looked like they'd seen better days. Their flames were blue but the light they gave off was orange. Wax pooled at their bases, but none of the candles looked like they'd shrunk.
Hanae treaded lightly as she moved further down the hallway, passing long strands of shimenawa and small paper shide hanging overhead. The braided ropes and paper symbols were symbols of ritual purity in the Shinto faith. Usually such things were used to mark the entrance of a shrine, to keep the place of worship pure.
They'd become a part of her daily life since she'd been reborn. In a way they were comforting to her, despite their obvious age.
She set Miyamoto down on the ground and brought up a readout of her vital signs on her HUD. Her outline was highlighted on her goggles, and various medical readouts showed values from sensors implanted throughout Miyamoto's body.
Her body temperature was still dropping rapidly, and her heartbeat was erratic. She was going into shock, and she'd die if Hanae didn't act quickly.
Hanae reached out and lifted her helmet off gingerly, allowing the girl's long, bright red hair to fall out from underneath her helmet. Hanae was struck by how peaceful she looked as she pulled down the mask that covered the lower half of her face. The pain that she was certainly feeling wasn't evident on her face. She looked content, happy even to finally give up and let her body fail after the months of grueling training that had been forced on her.
She didn't have the same instincts as Hanae, the same will to survive no matter what.
Hanae slapped her across her peaceful face, hoping to jolt her awake.
"Hey, open your eyes," she shouted. "I'm not letting you die here."
It felt unnatural for her to use such a harsh tone. She was usually soft-spoken and kept herself hidden, only speaking when necessary. Calling attention to yourself was nothing but a recipe for trouble.
She administered another slap.
"I said wake up," she said, her voice pleading this time.
Miyamoto did not respond.
Her vital signs continued to drop rapidly. Hanae pulled the quick release on her body armor and lifted it off of her. She pulled out her bayonet and started to cut off her wet clothes, throwing it aside and bundling her more tightly in the thermal blanket, hoping to raise her body temperature. She propped her legs up on a nearby rock to force the blood to return to her core and warm her body, but nothing worked. Her breathing continued to slow and her heart rate steadily dropped.
Hanae grabbed Miyamotto's hands and tried to press them to her skin. If only she could just draw a little more of her energy, maybe she could survive. Maybe they could both wait here for a rescue.
It was no use though. Miyamotto's hands were limp. If she could draw energy from her, she wasn't willing to.
The locator beacon on her helmet activated automatically, and the vital systems monitoring kit that she wore under her kimono began to automatically defibrillate her in an attempt to revive her.
Hanae could tell, however, that it was useless. The peaceful look on Miyamoto's eyes, even as her chest heaved with each administration of electricity, told her that she'd lost the motivation to live.
Hanae gently placed a hand on her comrade's cold face as a tear slid down her cheek. This was hardly the first dead body she'd seen, but they'd all fought for life to the very end. She'd never seen someone so beaten that they'd just given up.
Hanae paused for a long moment. She felt helpless. Somehow, everyone she came to care about in her life left her. Miyamoto was the next in a very long list, but somehow it didn't hurt any less.
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she forced herself to stand. If she didn't keep moving she would break down, and one way or another she had to survive this.
She allowed herself a moment to lay Miyamoto's body flat on the ground of the hallway. She bent down and gingerly washed her friend's hands and lips with the water from her canteen, then covered her from head to toe in her thermal blanket and placed her katana over her.
Hanae was angry that she didn't have the resources to give Miyamoto a proper funeral, but she'd do what she could to make her passing to the afterlife easy. Hopefully, the Kami would forgive the uncleanliness of her body and look at her soul.
Hanae clapped twice, bowed three times, and clapped once again, praying that Miyamoto would watch over her, before abruptly turning away, tears streaming down her eyes. She fought the urge to stay vigilantly by her side. If she didn't move now, she'd end up in the same position as Miyamoto. She had to get out of here, if for no other reason than to have Miyamoto's body retrieved for burial.
She felt hollow as she made her way down the hallway, her battle rifle held firmly in her hands with a white knuckle grip. She'd never remembered having an itchy trigger finger before today, and she wasn't sure how she felt about it creeping up on her now. Her thoughts were so clouded that she almost didn't notice the ornate decorations that began to appear on the walls.
Eventually, she came upon something painted on the wall, obscured under a layer of cobwebs. With her free hand, she brushed them away to reveal an image of a Torii with a chrysanthemum blossom painted in the center. It was ringed in kanji that had faded over the years, but Hanae managed to make out a couple.
Hokkaido-Training shrine-Imperial Japanese Army Religious Warfare Task Force-dedicated-1938
That would explain why the text was so old. She vaguely remembered being briefed on such an organization when she was inducted into the program, although a lot of the information she'd been given in the last few months blended into a haze for her. They were the precursor to her own organization, active during the Second World War, a stepping stone in a long patch of orders of magic users on the archipelago of Japan.
She wondered who might be down here. Maybe it'd been forgotten and lost to time. She'd heard stories of delusion soldiers who held onto fighting for years after the pacific war ended, but in the mid-2040s, they'd be well over a hundred years old.
She tried not to think about it as she moved deeper into the mountain.
The warmth of the air increased as the tunnel widened. When the tunnel widened to about ten feet or so bright red Torii gates began to line its walls. Built into one of the walls was a Temizuya, a small well flowing with water for use in purification. A small ladle sat nearby to draw water.
Hanae paused for a moment and contemplated the Temizuya. After what she'd just seen, she wasn't sure anything could wash away the uncleanliness on her hands, but she'd perform the ritual anyway. Hopefully the Kami wouldn't be upset at her for defiling their temple with her presence.
She carefully picked up one of the ladles and bathed her hands in cool water, left first, then right, then her mouth, then left again. It was almost a compulsive action, drilled into her mind during her training as a Miko. The ritual purified her and prepared her to enter a Shrine, a Kami's holy dwelling, untainted by the world. She felt wrong without doing it, even if it meant taking her eyes off her surroundings for a moment.
She placed the ladle back and began to stalk forward, closer and closer towards the sound of dripping water as the cavern got larger. Eventually, it widened into a full-sized cave.
In front of her was a cobblestone path that appeared to be perfectly maintained, winding between a forest of sakura trees adorned with bright pink blossoms. A few small buildings sat just off the path, reminiscent of buildings used in Shrines after the Meiji restoration.
No natural light could possibly penetrate this cave, and no one could've maintained this place for so many years in secret. She could feel the magical energy of this place flow into her as she took her first step onto the cobblestone path. It revived her, renewing her natural energy and pushing aside the artificial high of the accelerant tablet and the tears that wet her eyes.
This place was close to a kami, she could feel their influence flowing through her with each step. Something or someone powerful was enshrined here. Maybe she could find some crazy old priest holed up down here to give her friend a proper burial.
With that in mind, Hanae was careful not to disturb anything as she made her way down the path. The branches of the trees rustled as a few small birds flew overhead, showering her in loose Sakura petals. She couldn't help but smile as pink flowers danced over her.
The whole place had a nostalgic feeling for her, although she'd never lived anywhere like it in her memory. Somehow it reminded her of being a little girl, carefree before the world brought itself down on her shoulders.
Something caught her eye, slipping out from the pink-dusted underbrush of the forest in front of her. From under the brush, a large, white animal emerged, eyeing her as it made its way onto the path, stepping carefully over the cobblestones. The fox's intelligent eyes searched her as it sat on its hind legs and tilted its head, blocking her path forward.
Hanae took a step forward but hesitated. Foxes were wild animals, but this one seemed rather disarming. It reminded her of a well-bred dog. She'd never owned a dog in her short memory, and certainly not a well-bred one. She'd fed a few strays she'd found on the streets, but this one called to her like something from her past.
Slowly she reached down to pet it, placing her hand on its fuzzy head. She waited for it to jump or bite or run, but instead, it held perfectly still, its tongue hanging from the side of its mouth in an adorably dopy manner.
Hanae felt a smile creep over her face. She hadn't smiled in months, and she felt guilty for smiling now, but she couldn't help it. The sensation of feeling her mouth curl that way almost felt foreign to her.
She knelt down and rested her head against the fox's, taking in the moment to relax and let her tears flow. Slowly, however, the fox pulled away from her grasp. It backed away, still looking at her, before rapidly turning around and starting to trot down the past, through the forest of Sakura.
Hanae took off after it, following it blindly down the path as it picked up the pace. Its paws clacked against the stones as she started to see buildings come into view through the forest. She passed what looked like old pacific war era barracks, a training ground with training dummies, an obstacle course, a dojo, and all the other trappings of a military training facility rendered in the style of a Meiji era shrine.
The fox galloped faster and faster until it eventually left Hanae's sight. She chased after it until the path widened and opened into a clearing. The fox was nowhere to be found, and in its place were stone statues of kitsune, fox yokai of ancient lore. Behind them stood a large honden, or central building of a shrine, covered in ornate architecture and painted in brilliant red that hadn't faded with time.
The building was ringed in a small pond dug in a starburst pattern with water so clear it was barely noticeable until light reflected off it and sparkled on its surface. The koi that swam through it almost appeared to be floating as they wandered aimlessly through the pond, weaving in and out of the roots of trees that looked like a cross between a sakura and a cyprus, growing straight out of the pond.
The soft tone of a flute and the dull thud of a drum floated out from the sliding paper doors that divided the shrine from the rest of the world. It reminded her of the music the instructors played while teaching them drill, ceremony, and Kagura.
Hanae slowly lowered her rifle. She lifted it off her three-point sling and moved it to her back. It felt wrong to carry her weapon in her hands in such a peaceful place.
She stepped forward slowly, her boots making gentle ripples in the calm water. When she reached the building she slowly opened the door and peeked inside.
The music became louder, although she didn't see anyone playing it. In front of her, in the center of the shrine's sanctuary was a lone Miko, dressed in a kimono and hakama that lacked the military-style pockets that had been added to her own.
She wasn't completely traditionally dressed though. A Guntō, a katana made for military use, was tucked into her hakama, an old but well maintained type-100 SMG hung from her back, a cartridge belt made of leather hung around her waist, and the battle flag of the rising sun adorned her left arm. She could only catch a quick glance at her name tape, but it looked like it read 狐坂, definitely not a common spelling.
She held a golden bell with a long, colorful streamer that flowed over her body. Every time she moved the bell made a soft sound and the streamer flashed in the light. She spun around until she was facing Hanae, and then stopped, setting down her foot softly and coming to a stop.
She raised an eyebrow and the music stopped. She examined Hanae curiously as she lowered her bell.
Hanae lifted her goggles and pulled down her mask. She was definitely a Miko, but she didn't recognize her as part of her platoon. Maybe she was an instructor playing some elaborate trick.
She thought about reaching for her Katana, but stopped herself. She didn't want to make her hostile if she didn't have to.
"Oh dear, what is that equipment you're wearing?" the Miko asked. "What unit are you with?"
She spoke like someone from an older generation. She sounded young, but her speech was refined like someone of high birth.
"I...I'm not at liberty to discuss that," Hanae said.
She felt like a child trying and failing to intimidate an experienced master.
The Miko smiled and took a step forward.
"I see we are sisters then," She said.
The woman continued to approach her. Her smile was calming and her mannerisms were gentle. It was almost too good to be true…
Hanae felt panic shoot through her as she realized how lax she was being. People died on these training exercises. They were meant to weed out those that were too weak to survive here.
Her hand shot down to her holster, drawing a P228 handgun and pointing it center mass at the other Miko.
"Don't come any closer," She shouted, the weapon shaking in her hands.
She remembered that her weapon was loaded with live ammunition for this exercise. If she pulled the trigger and this wasn't some kind of trick or spell she'd be taking this woman's life.
The mere thought made her want to throw the weapon down and run. She didn't want to see two deaths today, but what other choice did she have. She couldn't go back to the streets of Tokyo. Maybe she could've survived there before the war, but now it was a city under siege and the people on the streets were desperate, and she didn't have their killer instinct.
The other Miko examined the gun for a minute. It seemed like it took her a moment to realize that the futuristic object was in fact a weapon. Her hand darted forward confidently and wrapped her hand around the muzzle, pushing the slide back just far enough to take it out of battery.
"Now, why do you have to threaten me like that?" she said, still maintaining her smile. "Do I make you nervous?"
Hanae felt the familiar calm of a moment ago wash over her again. The woman's smile was genuine and her mannerism wasn't threatening. She was clearly trained to defend against firearms, but she hadn't followed through and disarmed her.
Hanae felt a strange dissonance inside herself like she should've been more alarmed by the action than she was.
"I'm sorry," Hanae said. "You just...startled me."
She holstered her weapon, fumbling to fit it back in as she glanced away from the strange woman's gaze.
The other Miko placed a hand on her arm and smiled at her.
"Oh you poor thing," she said. "You must be new around here then? Did you just graduate from the religious warfare course? I'm surprised Sergeant Major Kurosawa didn't tell me about your arrival."
She took a step back, and for the first time, Hanae noticed the insignia on the shoulders of her kimono. A red and yellow bar with three stars?
"Allow me to introduce myself," the Miko said. "I am Captain Kosaka. It's nice to meet you. What's your name?"
Hanae felt her heart leap into her throat. Drawing her weapon on an officer probably wasn't going to make her any friends.
She immediately dropped into a low bow.
"Good afternoon ma'am," she said. "My name is Cadet Okuma Hanae. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Captain Kosaka laughed lightly and returned Hanae's bow.
"Cadet Okuma huh?" She said as she examined her. "Don't stress so much. We're not like other units in the Army. We're sisters here. It's okay to be informal sometimes."
Hanae slowly rose from her bow, not leaving her position of attention as the Captain examined her. She took in the details of her uniforms, especially her rifle, the fabric of her vest, and her handgun.
"Self Defense Force?" She asked, reading from her unit patch. "You have such strange things gear. Is your weapon made of bakelite? What unit did you come from?"
Hanae didn't know how to explain without sounding crazy. In fact, she wasn't sure that she wasn't crazy. She was talking to a woman from the forties that she'd found in a cave after all.
"I...I got lost ma'am," Hanae said. "I don't think I'm supposed to be here."
Wherever here was though, she supposed it was better than out there in the cold.
Traveling to the forties presented its own challenges though. If the Japanese military of the mid-2020s would force her to fight then the Japanese Army of the early forties certainly would as well. If she had to die fighting though, she'd much rather die fighting a threat to humanity than Americans, or poorly equipped Chinese civilians.
"I have something important I need to do elsewhere," she continued.
She didn't mention what something was, even though there was probably someone else here who could perform a funeral for Miyamoto. Pulling her weapon on an officer, showing up with a dead body…she'd only be digging herself a deeper hole.
Captain Kosaka raised an eyebrow but seemed to accept her statement. As a Miko, Hanae was probably not the strangest thing she'd ever seen.
"Lost huh?" the Captain said. "Well, you might be lost beyond my help, but we could always pray for guidance. Amaterasu is the one who lights heaven after all; Perhaps she could illuminate the way to."
Captain Koska picked up a Gohei wand, an instrument used for ritual purification, and invited Hanae forward to the altar. Hanae reluctantly nodded, and removed her helmet, exposing her long, black hair, which she loosened and tied into a ponytail with a piece of red thread.
The Captain began to wave the Gohei over her, the paper Shide streamers made a soft rustling sound as the wand was waved, the very same sound that was supposed to wake Kami for them to hear the prayers of their worshippers. When she was finished, the Captain set the wand aside, lit incense, and stood next to Hanae.
They closed their eyes and bowed, then clapped twice in unison. As Hanae was about to lower herself for her second bow, she started to feel weak in her knees. She bent over to try and bow, but ended up falling to her knees.
"What's happening?" She asked Captain Kosaka.
She blinked groggily as he rested on her hands and knees. She felt her spiritual energy leaving her body in much the same way it did when she charged her weapon earlier, although it felt like a much slower trickle.
The Captain quieted her gently and knelt down next to her, placing a hand on her back.
"It's alright. This is normal," the Captain said to her. "Just let the kami speak to you and you will find your way."
Hanae was pretty sure nothing that was happening to her was normal. She continued to get weaker until she was resting on her elbows. Her vision slowly faded and she got dizzier and dizzier until she fell onto her side and slumped onto the ground.
For a brief moment, her mind was engulfed in blackness, then a warmth began to wash over her. She felt sand beneath her fingers as she slowly pushed herself off the ground and into a sitting position.
A coastline stretched out in front of her like a nostalgic memory from her childhood. She rested gently on soft sand in front of a collection of small houses on the waterfront. In the distance, a family was playing with their young child. The mother picked up the child, maybe 2 years old and swung her in a circle while the dad watched, laughing heartily. Hanae smiled along with him as she watched them run across the beach, into the distance.
She stumbled to her feet, and tried to follow after them, but storm clouds were growing in the distance. Heavy rain started to pour onto the beach all at once, drenching Hanae and blinding her to the family in front of her.
Thunder and lightning cracked as the waves offshore grew taller and taller. In between the ear-splitting noise, however, she heard something else. A single jet engine moving low and fast, in from the sea. She heard it fly over her, and flopped onto her stomach just in time for a bomb to land a hundred feet beyond her, destroying one of the homes that lined the shore and raining chunks of wood onto her.
She vomited onto the sand when the shockwave from the explosion hit her. Her ears were ringing and her teeth were chattering.
She struggled to get to her feet, but she was blind and deaf and nauseous. She couldn't figure out which way was up until a large, metal foot kicked her in the side, flinging her across the beach towards the wreckage of the house.
Hanae landed on her back, struggling to regain her breath and keep herself from vomiting again. She fumbled around her belt, trying to find her helmet. Luckily it was still clipped to her belt.
She donned it and pulled on her goggles, clearing the rain from her eyes just enough to be able to see the beach in front of her.
In the distance, something was marching up onto the beach in perfect columns. Their glowing red opticals pierced through the rain, showing their vast numbers as they methodically marched up onto the beach.
The lead group of robotic tactical weapons eyed Hanae as they closed in on her. They raised their arm-mounted type-97 rifles and zeroed them in on her.
Hanae picked up and ran. She didn't have time to go for a weapon or try to fight slid down the backside of a dune just as the wall of robots unleashed a hail of fire on her, kicking up sand and dust.
She ran towards the bombed-out house, hoping to find some shelter from the onslaught. She was halfway to the mostly intact front door when all of a sudden her world was bathed in light as two flares were fired into the air above her. The vague shape of a column of American M1 and Japanese Type-10 tanks was illuminated in front of her, assuming hull-down positions behind whatever sand dunes they could find.
Then all hell broke loose as the vehicles opened up on the RTWs with all they had.
Hanae kept running into the hailstorm of deadly rounds. There was little else she could do other than stand there and die. She crashed through the front door into the house.
A good section of the roof was missing after the adjacent building exploded. The torrential rain was already starting to pool on the floor and waterlog the furniture. Hanae waded through the water, trying to find a way out as tank shells zipped overhead.
She flung open the door to the back bedroom, and stepped into a puddle of something sticky in the dark. Her boot knocked up against something soft and fleshy.
She recoiled and looked down to find the bodies of the two parents she'd seen earlier, brutally mutilated by shards of flying debris. The mother still held her small child tightly in her arms. The child cried and thrashed in confusion, screaming out for her mom as her blood-soaked her white dress.
Hanae held back the urge to vomit again and knelt down to take the child. If she didn't get both of them out of here soon they'd wind up as a smoking crater.
When Hanae reached out to grab her, however, she realized her clothes had changed from the Miko Kimono she was wearing earlier to a Self Defense Force uniform. Just as she was about to take the child from her mother, however, the woman coughed up blood, splattering it all over Hanae's uniform.
"Please, take her," the mother croaked with what little energy she had left. "Her name…is Hanae."
Hanae felt her heart skip a beat as she met the woman's eyes. Blues eyes with black hair and Japanese features, just like her own. Was this…?
There was no way. If this was some kind of joke she would slay a Kami herself for pulling it.
"Please," her mother said one last time, thrusting the child into her arms.
Hanae accepted the child and tucked her close to her chest. Tears streamed down her face as artillery started to rain down heavier and heavier, and the march of the RTWs got nearer and nearer.
She had to go. She kissed her mother on the forehead and took off through the back door of the house.
The ground fell out from under her as she stepped outside and her stomach shot into her throat. The world rose up to swallow her as she fell. Her vision blacked out, and her mind slowly drifted until she fell asleep.
She woke up to the familiar rotor noise and smell of hydraulic fluid that told her she was in the back of a UH-60JA utility helicopter. She opened her eyes to find the troop compartment filled with other Miko, all with their faces obscured behind black masks and polarized goggles.
The world was calm again, aside from the chopping of the rotors. Her heart banged against her chest and her eyes darted around the cabin as the adrenaline of the moment refused to leave her system.
The Miko next to her bumped her shoulder to get her attention. Hanae turned to face her. Her uniform was familiar, and she wore the unit patch of the 65th Supernatural Special Operations Airborne Regiment, the SDF's primary magical warfare unit.
That gave Hanae a little bit of comfort. At least she was back in her own time.
"Sensoko, are you green?" The Miko asked her.
It took Hanae a moment to realize she was referring to her.
"Yes ma'am," she replied, noting the Lieutenant's insignia painted onto her helmet.
The other Miko nodded to her and went back to looking at something on her tactical tablet while the helicopter circled in for a landing. Orange light was cast over the fuselage of the aircraft as it set its wheels down onto the rubble of a destroyed cityscape. One of the Miko opened the door and they all filled out into a hasty fireteam wedge.
Hanae followed along and scanned her eyes over the skyline. In the distance, she could see Tokyo tower. It looked like it was still bent out of shape before it was repaired in the early 2040s. The flaming wreckage of an RTW UCAV was still embedded into it. It was still flaming like it was on the night...
Hanae snapped her eyes forward as one of the Miko threw up the hand signal for a halt. She stopped where she was and looked ahead of her, into the rubble of a semi collapsed building.
A soft blue glow was emanating from the rubble. Tall, blue flames funneled up from the body of a young woman who sat slumped in a pile of rubble.
Hanae felt her head spin. She knew who was on the other side of that wall of flames, but she didn't want to see them. She wanted to gag, she wanted to run far away to anywhere but here.
The Lieutenant tapped her on the shoulder once again.
"Sensoko, take care of this," the officer said.
She reached into her assault pack, pulled out a single, wooden arrow, and handed it to Hanae.
Hanae looked down at the arrow. She'd been taught what one of these was in training, but she'd never had to actually do this before.
Another Miko, who her blue force tracker identified as Ai Nagata, waved her forward towards the flames.
Hanae reluctantly approached as Ai waved a Gohei back and forth over the young woman who lay before them. She held out the arrow into the blue flames that danced around her and watched it be consumed as the fire began to fade.
When the arrow finally disappeared, she found herself staring at her own body, clothed in a fresh kimono, and clutching her katana, sheathed in its Sakura pattern saya.
Ai took a step forward and began waving the Gohei over her body once again. The shide that hung from it glowed blue as the medic Miko chanted a healing spell over her to help her recover from the shock.
Hanae was silent and stiff as the Lieutenant brushed past her and knelt down next to her peaceful body. She thought she was going to be sick as she saw her reach out and rest the back of her hand on her forehead.
"Dammit, she's just a kid," the Lieutenant said as she examined her wounds.
Hanae stood and started walking away. She couldn't take this anymore. Luckily none of the Miko opposed her.
"Maybe they'll put her in with SDSE until she's older," one of the Miko speculated behind her.
"Doubt it," said another. "We need all the sisters we can get."
Hanae broke into a run. She wouldn't listen to this. She didn't want to.
She stumbled and tripped on a jagged piece of concrete. She put out her hands to catch herself, but the world swallowed her up once again.
She didn't gently fall asleep this time though. She fell and fell and fell, picking up speed until she face-planted into a pile of mud.
Hanae struggled to inhale as she rolled herself over onto her back. She felt like she'd just taken a nasty fall from a high place.
Rain splashed onto her face as she stared up at the sky. Above her to her right was a Jacob's ladder, a training obstacle made of two fifty-foot high telephone poles. If she had to take a guess, what was where she'd fallen from.
"Okuma, on your fucking feet," someone roared.
She'd recognize that voice anywhere. The distinctive inflection of the drill sergeant who supervised her class of Miko was not something she'd easily forget.
She felt the swift kick in the ribs before she saw his face. She cried out in pain and skittered onto her hands, defensively retreating from him as he advanced on her.
He was a tall man who's hardened features never seemed to change. He was as mean and nasty of a bastard as you'd imagine anyone charged with training conscripts might be, and he had no problem beating the shit out of anyone who stepped out of line, no matter how old or young.
"I said get on your fucking feet you worthless piece of shit," He spat. "You wanna go back to the streets of Tokyo? If the bombs don't get you I bet someone else will find a use for you."
Hanae felt the familiar sickness as she thought about going back to living on the street. That was the reason she'd pushed through training so hard, rather than trying to escape or off herself. Despite how awful it was, at least she had a place to call home, and thirty-seven other people to suffer with. At least she wasn't alone.
She reluctantly picked herself up off the ground to continue moving through the training course but stopped herself.
This isn't right. She shouldn't be here. She wasn't in basic training anymore.
Where had she been a few minutes ago? Praying…or something. No. Definitely praying at a beautiful temple in the mountains in Hokkaido. She'd asked Amaterasu for guidance into the future.
This wasn't guidance from the future. This was pain from the past.
She stopped dead in her tracks.
"Hey, who the fuck told you you could stop moving?" Yelled the drill sergeant.
Hanae felt the familiar dissonance in her mind, the noise that urged her to go forward. It was difficult, almost painful to ignore, but she fought against it. A searing headache overcame her as she turned around to face the drill sergeant.
There was only one way to know for sure. She unbuckled the only weapon she had, her kevlar helmet, and spun around.
She grabbed ahold of the chin strap and swung it at him as hard as she could. The heavy object connected with his old, weathered face. A sickening crack could be heard as his jawbone shattered and he was knocked off his feet.
For a moment she stood still in the rain, er chest heaving, but her headache gone as she stood over the bloodied body. After a moment Hanae sighed with relief as the world melted away once again, although this time the world didn't fall. She woke with her feet firmly planted on the ground, back in the temple she'd been praying in earlier.
Her knees buckled and she stumbled to catch herself on a nearby column. She felt incredibly weak like someone had sapped the life straight out of her.
"Captain Kosaka?" she called out as she tried to catch her breath.
The only response she received was the distinctive sound of a sword being drawn behind her.
On instinct Hanae dove right, narrowly avoiding the whistling blade of Captain Kosaka's Katana as it slammed into the column she'd just been leaning against.
Hanae's heart hammered against her ribs as she crawled back on her hands and knees until her back found a nearby wall.
The Captain withdrew her sword from the post and turned to face Hanae. The same, sweet, inviting look still hung on her face as she swung her weapon into an overhand guard.
"Hanae dear, back so soon?" She said. "Did you find the guidance you needed where I sent you?"
Hanae didn't have time to respond before Captain Kosaka let out a blood-curdling scream, a mix between a wail of pain and a martial arts Kiai, and charged at her.
Hanae instinctively rolled and drew her katana, bringing it up just in time to stop her opponent's sword with an overhead block. The captain grunted and retreated as the sword shock shook the blade in her hand. She clearly wasn't trained to handle powerful strikes like that.
"I'm not going to kill you," she said, her voice eerily calm. "Just put down your sword and we can resolve this peacefully."
Kosaka's words made Hanae fume with anger as she came back to her senses. How dare she taunt her and waste her time while Miyamoto lay dead and her sisters wandered around outside without her?
Captain Kosaka charged again, crying out as she went in for another punishing strike. Hanae blocked it, just barely, before being knocked off her feet by a swift kick to her stomach by the Captain.
Hanae's sword clattered to the ground as the captain prepared for a final strike. She fumbled around for anything she could use to defend herself until her hand came to rest on Miyamoto's submachine gun. Without thinking she leveled it at Captain Kosaka with one hand and pulled the trigger.
A lance of blue light fired from the barrel like a laser, followed by a muzzle flash of pure blue fire, as the spiritually charged round connected with the Captain's body. A two-inch hole burned its way through the center of her chest. Smoke billowed from her body as she fell to the ground.
Hanae stared down at the motionless body and felt a cold chill come over her. Something that hadn't been there before appeared on the top of the captain's head. A pair of white ears, like a fox's, poking out from her dark grey hair.
Hanae understood. Perhaps she should've guessed earlier, but now she understood.
Hanae plunged her sword down into the kitsune's heart, and for the final time, the world faded away.
She found herself standing over the body of a fox-eared woman, on the floor of a dilapidated shrine. The cold that had once been kept at bay, seemingly by magic was now back, or maybe it had always been there and Hanae just hadn't perceived it.
Her limbs were stiff from the cold. Her mind was hazy and she could feel herself fading in and out of consciousness. She let the gun fall next to her.
In front of her was a skull wearing an old issue kevlar helmet. Part of the skin clung to the bone and hadn't properly decomposed like it'd been mummified. Attached to the skull was the body of a Miko, clad in a disused Kimono.
Hanae looked up and scanned the room. Around her lay at least a dozen mummified Miko, each one of them wearing different equipment, some older and some newer, but all with one thing in common, a handprint somewhere on their body.
Hanae looked down and checked her own skin. The imprint of Captain Kosaka's hand was pressed into her skin, though it was fading fast.
She understood, and for a moment felt at peace. If she was going to die, she wanted to keep her strength for the afterlife, not give it to some leach Kitsune. She would follow Miyamoto and they would both watch over their sisters together.
Her body was wracked with shivers and the cold began to seep into her bones. Her HUD alerted her that her vital signs were dropping. A message flashed urging her to seek shelter and warmth as her locator beacon was automatically activated.
Her mind barely registered any of it. She was so cold, colder than she'd ever been in her life. It felt like needles were being jabbed into her extremities. She huddled into a ball, trying to preserve whatever warmth she could.
She didn't lose consciousness, but eventually, time stopped meaning anything. It was just agony. She wanted death to take her. She wanted to escape from this cycle she'd been placed into. She wanted to finally be free.
At some point, after what felt like hours, she heard the rotors of a helicopter somewhere outside the cave. Faces and bodies moved around her and packaged her into a litter. She was far too numb to feel their touch as they carried her onto a waiting helicopter along with a second body, bundled up much like she was
A Miko knelt over her, clutching her gohei along with a syringe of unlabeled liquid. She heard them briefly say something about frostbite before slipping the needle into her arm. She was too numb to feel the pain of the prick, but she did feel its effects as she finally, slowly drifted off to sleep.
In her dream, Hachiman appeared to her again in his many forms.
"You've survived a great deal," He said to her in the voice of a roman centurion, speaking in Latin.
"You're worthy to serve me," He continued, in the voice of a Canadian soldier from WWII.
Hanae wondered if she had the choice to become unworthy, to go back to being a normal girl, and if she would take it.
"Wake up Hanae," he said to her finally, taking the form of Miyamoto.
Her hair blew in the wind, and the scar that once marked her forehead was now completely gone. She looked serene in a freshly washed kimono, her skin no longer blackened by frostbite.
Hanae tried to reach for her old friend as she faded away and started to feel herself waking up once again.
Slowly, her eyes opened, revealing a simple wooden ceiling above her. Her body was warmed and the numbness in her limbs was gone. She was wrapped in a heavy wool blanket that provided her some comfort as she tried to catch her breath.
She glanced around at her surroundings. She was laying on the floor in the Honden of a shrine, surrounded by candles and incense and other offerings one might leave to a Kami. Her heavy combat gear had been removed, and her kimono felt fresh and clean, but her sword and her handgun laid at her sides.
She pulled her hands out from under the blanket to examine them. They looked healthy, despite the fact that she was certainly frostbitten when she went under. Her head felt clearer and her vision felt sharper. She even felt like she could hear the murmurs of the people watching her wake with more fidelity.
Another Miko approached her and propped her up, although she didn't feel that she needed it. She felt stronger than she ever had before.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
It was the voice of a much older and more experienced Miko that she'd known throughout training. Hanae trusted her more so than most of the others.
"I'm fine Sakura, I Mean Sensoko-Sensei," She said.
Her voice didn't betray any hint of deception. Her vitality was evident in her tone. She really did feel fine, better than she ever had before, at least physically.
She felt like she'd been born again, for a second time.
"Good," Sakura said happily. "I was worried about you. The final test is always hard, even for the best of us."
Hanae wondered what Sakura meant by the final test. Was this the end of her training? She certainly didn't feel like she was prepared to fight a war.
She didn't exactly have a chance to ask though. Another Miko guided her to face right, toward an audience of her sisters, all sitting seiza style and watching her. The Miko pulled out a small sake decanter marked with a torii and laid a cup in front of her.
As she filled the cup, Sakura looked at her sadly. She seemed relieved, but not proud like she would be to see someone she cared about finish something significant. Instead, her look was bittersweet, as though there was something else to come.
"Drink this to signify your purity and commitment to the cause," The other Miko said.
Sakura eyed the cup, then Hanae, as though she wasn't sure what she would choose to do.
As she picked up the cup, Hanae wondered if she had any choice in this matter. Could she throw this Sake in the face of her host and walk away? Could she go back to living her life on the streets of Tokyo as she had for so many years?
She likely wouldn't survive much longer, even if they let her leave. She could have freedom, maybe, if she wanted.
She thought back to basic training when she'd fallen off Jacob's Ladder. She remembered when, like a bolt of lighting, Sakura had appeared and decked the drill instructor right as he was about to kick her in the ribs again. She remembered the safety and security of having sisters she could count on, even when the rest of the world was out to kill her. She remembered how hard Miyamoto fought to keep her alive.
Hanae realized there wasn't much to decide on. She put the cup to her lips and drank.
AN: I hope you enjoyed! reviews are appreciated.