"This looks like a safe neighborhood," the red-headed woman said as she stood on the roof of one of a number of empty buildings, looking out with a pair of purple eyes.
There were a handful of people here and there, but for the most part the entire place was empty. A bunch of abandoned shops and stores surrounding what had been a fairly large warehouse in more prosperous times. It would not have been considered a safe neighborhood by most people's standards. In fact, unless the inevitable squatters were considered, most probably wouldn't have even called it a neighborhood.
This was one of the selling points for her.
The other was the sleeping lines of energy that flowed into and out of the area. Whoever had set up business here wasn't a complete fool. The entire area was vibrant with creative energy just waiting to be tapped. Everything from the lines of the streets in the area to the facing and floor plans of the buildings had been designed with ease of travel in mind. The effect made the flow of ambient energy stronger, if also unrefined.
However, the people who had built here had failed to account for the fact that the entire region was naturally easy to overlook. Approaching the warehouse at the center, the ground sloped upward gently and consistently until one came within about two miles of the warehouse, which is when everything sloped downward into a slight bowl. From the layman's perspective outside, one looked up and only saw a line of buildings, old buildings now that the area was mostly unpopulated. The bustling of business at the center would have gone unnoticed and only the people in the know would have been able to find it. Nobody would have simply been drawn there by curiosity.
That trend was duplicated on the spiritual level, isolating the area above like an island in the flows of ambient life and energy. It was a very bad place for anyone running a business depending on attention and new clients, but for someone who wanted a place both vibrant and secret, it was perfect. Sitting down casually, the red-headed woman retrieved a cell phone and started checking accounts over the internet.
She was a tiny woman of clear Asian descent, despite the vibrant red hair. For the moment, she was dressed casually in jeans and a white shirt with a red jacket. It would be hard to guess her age, but she couldn't have been younger than her late twenties and was probably somewhere in her mid-thirties. The clothes were fashionable and high-quality though not extravagant. She looked more like some middle-class housewife out for a walk rather than someone contemplating a major real estate purchase.
A satisfied expression came over her face and then she pitched herself off the side of the roof with all the attitude of a person hopping off a stage to the floor below. She hit the ground thirty feet below as lightly as if she were taking a simple step and then thrust her hands into her pockets and started strolling down the street, whistling to herself.
The red-headed woman didn't pause at all as she felt some of the scavengers of the area finally taking notice of her as she headed on to leave the area. The auras were weak but clear as they moved about out of balance with themselves, each other and the world around them. They wouldn't be even a casual threat to her children, much less herself.
This was why she barely even yawned as the first of the thugs leaped out in front of her, gun in hand.
"Hold it right there, lady!" the thug said with a smirk on his face.
The smile vanished as his intended victim simply turned to the side a little and kept walking as if he wasn't a concern. In fact she barely acted as if he was there at all. Two other thugs stepped into the street at the same time and the three exchanged glances, trying to figure out exactly what this woman was thinking.
"Didn't you hear what I was saying, lady!" the thug with the gun demanded.
When he failed to get any response from her, he snapped a curse and fired his gun at the back of her head. The red-haired woman shifted her head to the side and turned slightly as if to look back at the thugs. The bullet moved on past her harmlessly at the same time and didn't even seem to faze her.
"Do you really want to try this?" she asked casually.
"Listen, lady," the thug said, brandishing his gun again. "I ain't about to take no guff from some tiny Geisha girl who got lucky. Now, if you don't want this to get messy, then you're going to have to hand over your money right now."
"All right," she said. "Do you have a palm reader?"
"A what?" one of the thugs asked.
"A biometric palm reader," the woman repeated. "Maybe a retinal scanner?"
"What the hell does that crap have to do with anything?" the thug demanded.
"Well, without either of those," she said. "I'm not going to be able to give you any money, didn't take out any cash yet, so I'm not carrying anything."
After all, she wanted to establish that she'd been looking into matters in the neighborhood. Coming out of nowhere with large amounts of money attracted a bit too much attention.
She shrugged and started to walk away from the situation, chastising herself silently for provoking the fools this way. When she felt the harmful intent forming this time, she didn't step out of the way and let the bullet strike her in the back of the head. It rocked her head forward, but she kept her balance with no trouble at all.
Yawning again, she reached up to the back of her head and scratched it, without stopping her walk. A small caliber, poor-quality round fired by someone of no skill, that wouldn't even leave much of a bruise, much less anything to worry about. Like hitting her with a pebble, they'd have to be an out and out master gunman to threaten her with that pathetic weapon and ammunition combo. And that was aiming for areas of the body that weren't really available from the back. Where they were, they couldn't even hurt her by sheer bad luck.
did you just see that?!" one of the thugs demanded shakily. "The bullet just bounced off."
"Had to be some kind of trick," another said determinedly.
"**** this! I'm doing this the old fashioned way," the third snapped angrily.
With a roaring cry he charged forward down the street at the small woman's back. The woman kept walking until the thug was within arm's length of her. At that point, she stepped back, stepping into the arc of the man's haymaker and simply pointing her shoulder out with a slight lean.
To all appearances, the thug might as well have run full tilt at a granite statue; the impact was largely the same. The red-headed woman didn't even flinch or shift, never took her hands out of her pockets as the thug whimpered briefly and collapsed into a shivering mess at her feet.
"Are we finished?" she asked, arching an eyebrow as the thug at her feet groaned weakly.
Not getting an answer, she went back to her walk.
Behind her, the thugs scrambled to collect their friend and carry him off, hopefully to a hospital but he should survive either way.
As she walked along, she caught sight of a tiny flittering butterfly and bit off an irritated curse as she held out her hand for it to land. Once in her palm, it quickly changed from a beautiful insect into a piece of folded parchment which she worked open and read.
"They know I'm out of town," she muttered as the buildings around her shifted from abandoned and empty shells to brighter and more bustling store fronts.
She'd left the little patch of obscure urban rot and entered the larger portion of the small city. As she read what the letter had to say, she did snap out an under the breath curse as she refolded the parchment after adding her own short note to the message. Then she held it tightly in the darkness of her palms as she concentrated firmly.
Opening her hands again, the parchment was again a butterfly flapping into the air before vanishing around a corner, off to find the next closest person who could help.
"I guess I was the closest one it could find," she muttered. "Wrong place, right time."
She turned a corner and pulled out her cell phone to take a look at the public case history.
American girl missing for two days.
Picking up her pace she frowned as she kept reading. It wasn't her sort of thing, but a kid's life was at stake, so she was moving following her phone's GPS to the hotel where the majority of the witnesses seemed to be. It was already surrounded by reporters from all over the place of course and the woman shook her head in exasperation. However that did give her a good opening for information gathering.
Stepping into the edge of the crowd of journalists, she was about to snatch up a camera and mix with the herd when a voice called out.
"Mao Semezou," the man's voice said. "What are you doing here?"
Pausing and looking to the side, she arched an eyebrow in surprise to see a familiar face start walking across toward her at the edge of the crowd. Several of the journalists seemed to take an interest as the man recognized her.
"What am I doing here," she repeated. "You're a bit far from your normal stomping grounds yourself."
"You know this person, Hendelson?" one of them asked.
Hendelson was tall and broad-shouldered, virtually dwarfing Mao as he walked over toward her. By his voice and character, he was American, but anybody watching carefully could see where he'd picked up some habits from his time reporting in Europe.
"Yeah, Miss Semezou is a bit of an amateur web-journalist," he said. "I give her advice from time to time."
Mao scoffed visibly and crossed her arms, that same eyebrow arching higher.
"Oh, just what we need," another reporter said, "Some blogger trying to get the scoop."
"I'll talk to her, all right?" the tall man said in an appeasing tone as he gestured for Mao to follow him off somewhere quiet. "Let's go talk about not stealing cameras, shall we?"
The red-headed woman waited a little bit before voicing her disapproval.
"Amateur," she said coolly.
"Well, you aren't a professional reporter," he commiserated. "And this way you're under the radar. Are you here about the insect-man? Something to do with Socrates Group?"
"Socrates Group collects artifacts," the small woman said with a dismissive wave. "This isn't their sort of thing. Nah, I think the Vollstahl police brass talked to Psyche and Psyche sent out a general call. I just happened to be the closest to the site. Can you get me to the witnesses?"
"Afraid not," Hendelson said. "They aren't letting anybody inside there. Hotel security is trying to keep the kids and their teacher sheltered. They barely let the police inside. Best I can do is to give you a room number."
"That's enough," the red-head said. "Anything else you can give me?"
"Not going to ask why I'm a few thousand miles away from my normal beat?" the reporter asked.
Mao idly tapped her wrist where a lot of other people would wear a watch.
"Right, kid in danger, what was I thinking?" he said. "The victim and the witnesses are part of some sort of international symphony. She's first violin or something like that. The attacker snatched her outside of their last performance when she wandered a bit away from the rest. All the reports say he's some sort of monster. And if you're here
"Yeah, don't get ahead of yourself," Mao said. "And even if it is, you know the drill."
"Same one as always, yeah," he said shaking his head. "I get the exclusive once the secret can be revealed. Until then, all this stuff is a conspiracy theory."
Hendelson nodded with the sound of a long-suffering sigh.
"The witnesses are all on the fifth floor," he said, "Pretty much an entire hallway there."
The reporter pointed up toward the indicated location and then glanced back toward Mao, but the small Japanese woman was already gone.
Mao landed lightly on the edge of a balcony at the second floor before leaping off again, straight upward this time and coming to a graceful landing at the top of the arch. Then it was just a matter of opening the balcony door to the empty room beyond.
Stepping out of the empty hotel room, she let herself feel the flow of chi in and out of the hallway, feeling the weak traces of untrained human beings made stronger by emotional upheaval. Her hands brushed against door knobs and walls as she worked to pinpoint the heaviest bit of emotional upheaval and came to something surprising as she passed one of doors.
There was a lingering trace of chi that felt just the slightest bit off in that room. It hadn't returned for at least a couple of days, but it had been strong enough to leave an imprint that Mao could still recognize.
She knocked firmly on the door and waited.
"Who is it," a nervous voice asked.
"Investigator," Mao said.
The door opened slightly and a nervous slice of a face looked out through the crack.
"Have you found her
?" the girl on the other side stopped as she took in Mao's decidedly civilian appearance. "Are you sure you're the police?"
"Give me a break, kid," the red-headed Japanese woman said. "They called me in from my vacation. I'm just trying to get your friend found as soon as possible."
There was a hesitant sound to the girl's voice, but she eventually unlocked the door and let Mao inside.
"All right, I'm sorry," she said apologetically as the small Japanese woman pushed her way into the hotel room. "Please come inside."
"Don't worry about it," Mao said with a friendly dismissal. "Can you show me the
what's her name?"
"Katrina Strnad," the girl said nervously. "And she has her things over here
The girl walked over to a suitcase and carry-on bag. It was all a bit small for the average teenage girl on vacation. Then there was the violin case. Apparently Katrina traveled light.
There was a small fridge built into the counter of the room and Mao opened it up to reveal a small selection of bottles filled with some reddish liquid which she pulled out and opened up. A good whiff gave her everything she needed to know.
"Does she drink this?" Mao asked.
"Once a day," the girl answered. "I always teased her that it smelled like blood."
It wasn't blood, but a chemical comparison between this and human blood would probably have come out eerily similar. Everything a growing young vampyr needed without the guilt of draining a person dry.
"What color are her eyes and hair?" Mao asked.
"Ummm, brown and
almost black, I think," the girl said.
Common human colors.
Nothing funky like being a full-blooded Japanese lady with flaming red-hair and purple eyes. That meant she might have been born outside one of the families and not even know what she was.
Mao took a moment to shake her head with a sigh and ponder about how inconvenient it was for evolution to add psychic powers or physical deviations to people outside the existing community. This meant she might have to pull out the whole "so you're a psychic" lecture.
"Did you see which way the guy took her?" the woman asked as she moved to the bathroom and started looking for something that carried a bit of off-human chi. She found it in the form of a hair from a brush.
"He went east from the theater," the nervous girl said. "Is she going to be all right?"
"Yeah, we'll make sure she is," Mao said with an encouraging smile as she moved toward the hallway. "Oh, kid, one thing."
"What is it?" the nervous girl questioned.
"I never said I was police," Mao said. "I just said I was an investigator. I'm more the private type. And you could have just let in someone very bad. Next time ask for ID before you let someone in."
The girl stared at her slack jawed a moment before slamming the door closed.
Hoping the lesson was learned, the red-headed woman moved to the elevators and called for one. She was walking out the hotel door mere minutes later and then pushing her way past the waiting journalists.
One of the reporters that had dismissed her as an amateur of some kind did a sort of double-take as she walked by, but failed to catch sight of her on the second look to confirm that he'd really seen her. The red-head could have simply gone through completely unseen, but there was a degree of notice such methods brought that Mao usually tried to avoid. Especially when it was entirely unnecessary, she did wave briefly at Hendelson and gave him a thumbs up.
Reaching into her pocket, she withdrew what seemed to be a necklace of crystal beads of varying colors. There were green, blue and red crystals assembled together and she tied the hair she'd taken around the beads before encircling it around one of her wrists like a Buddhist or Catholic rosary. She was one of a rare few, the only one she knew of currently living, that could naturally see the trails of life-force, but like a magnifying glass or compass, the extra tool was useful.
Arriving at the theater gave Mao a sharp moment of relief as she took in the lingering feelings of shock and fear that had pervaded the area at the time of the incident. The green crystals of her rosary glowed just faintly enough for her to notice. The trace was already faded past what she could see unaided, and had almost faded away so completely that even the bracelet wouldn't have made it noticeable.
Glancing east, the first thing she noted was the hill on which sat the warehouse she was inquiring about. Ordinarily she'd have considered the site a perfect place to hide given it was naturally predisposed to going unnoticed, but she'd just spent the better part of a day poking around that neighborhood and there wasn't anything there that stood out.
Which meant following the beads in Mao's hands, which was going to be slow based on how weak the girl's aura was. She was probably not further down than the tenth ring, and that was a generous guess.
Walking down the street as the night deepened, she moved slightly one way or another, watching for the glow in the beads to turn weaker or stronger. And that was how she came to the base of a deeply wooded hill she might otherwise have never noticed at all. But she was here now, standing at the base of it and bending down to examine the grass path that invited her upward.
A brief examination found a tiny rivulet, carved once by hand and maintained by the flow of rainfall in all the time since, where the darkness of yin streamed down from an unseen pool up above, a reservoir of yin that looked up at the sun.
That was impressive.
Also, apparently being misused at the moment.
Taking a deep sniff of the air, she stood up and pushed upwards. Immediately, she felt a sense of calming that paradoxically upset her. She didn't like being reminded that she was pushing the borders between human and
something else. Perhaps she had even already crossed it. Years of chi-mastery, curses, her damn passenger and certain
relations with powerful spirits had been driving her further and further toward being more a creature of the supernatural; places of heavy chi like this held a very physical sense of relief for her as a result.
"Not like I was all that far away to begin with," she muttered, fingering her red hair idly.
As she spoke, she came out of the trees into a small clearing at the apex of the hill and found what it was she was looking for: a veritable pool of dark chi surrounded by foreign-planted grey oaks looking up into the sky. In the center of the little bowl was a hole in the ground down into which a ladder descended.
Taking a brief walk around the edge, Mao examined some of the signs and feel of the place.
The blue crystals glowed faintly as she walked around the edges of the bowl, fingers trailing along the bark of the gray oaks. That made her uncomfortable as well, though most would have been comforted to find traces of white magic in the area. It had to be expected, of course, certain types of trees made white magic easier to perform and oaks were high on that list.
Mao didn't use the ladder to get down into the hole, simply dropping down silently and avoiding any creaks or cracks that the old tool might have had in store for her. In doing so, she dived through a thick clump of sickeningly corrupted chi that had her covering her mouth and shaking her head clear. Landing just slightly off balance from the supernatural assault, she stood up and steeled herself.
One foot inscribed a line in the dust on the ground and drew a circle about it as each of her hands jabbed to the side and traced similar lines in the dust on the walls. A soft green glow worked up out of her and into the air and earth around and pushed back at the old trap, shattering it completely.
Grimacing and looking about, she saw old, very old signs of blood caking the walls. A deliberately laid trap to hold off exorcists, but it was old and out of date. Dependence on only using yang was something that most credible exorcists had moved away from over three hundred years ago. Nor was the trap maintained, it was a weak bit of surprise but that was all.
Whatever had originally desecrated this holy site had long ago either died or abandoned the location. Whoever was taking up residence now had either not recognized the chi trap or didn't know how to keep it up. Which meant it wasn't likely to be a psychic or paranatural threat.
That wasn't the same as no threat at all.
Wrapping herself up in the flows of chi, she stepped forward into the corridor ahead, keeping aware for any other old chi trap that might lay waiting for her. But then the woman stepped out into a wide room that shocked her senses yet again.
She stood in an ancient lava chamber, the walls virtually glowing with yang as yin seethed in the center until it was forced back through the corridor behind Mao up into the world above, forming that trickle that she'd found at the base of the hill.
Yang concealing yin, which concealed yang, the duality of the universe in perfect sequence.
It was such a moment of surprise that she dropped the cloak about her and almost failed to note the motion of a knife slashing her way. At the last moment, she dodged out of the way and the knife passed through where her neck had been before. Likely, it wouldn't have gone through, but unlike with the thugs before, there was no certainty of that.
"What demon comes to this holy place?" the man behind the knife demanded.
Mao had expected something like this. The man was long and spindly, almost anorexic, with deep, sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. His jaw standing out against his skin could certainly look almost insectile in the wrong light; and those long strands of standing hair looked something like antennae.
"Shut up," she said coldly, retaliating with a simple strike into the man's face.
The killer tried to dodge, but Mao was already moving to handle that and casually struck out horizontally to slam the psychopath into the wall and unconsciousness with barely a concern.
That just left finding the girl.
The first alcove held a girl certainly, preserved by the flowing yin in the room beyond the walls, but she had still been dead for at the very least a month. The body hung from chains that pulled her back tight against the wall, a host of small cuts were slashed into her skin through the tatters of clothing and cloudy, half-rotted eyes stared outward.
The red-head wasn't surprised that the girl's body was still heavy with chi, or that she sported a pair of matted tails hanging limply from her lower back. Someone with the instincts, if not training, to find this place wouldn't go after just anyone. No, he'd be drawn to weirdoes like Mao, like this poor kitsune girl and like a vampyr. Like attracted like, and unfortunately sometimes a thing that was like was decidedly hostile.
"Got him, kid," Mao whispered quietly as she closed the girl's eyes and continued searching.
The missing girl was in another alcove, again with chains recently spiked into the walls with little in the way of real respect, though the freak had probably thought it was a reverential act. She was weak and barely conscious, breathing tiredly. Breaking the chains off her, Mao took the girl onto her shoulder gently and waited for Katrina to steady herself as much as she could.
"Don't worry," she whispered comfortingly. "I've got you."
The thin killer shook awake and stood up to see Mao helping the young girl forward, towards the exit.
"You will not remove that demon from this place of purification!" he shouted.
The girl on Mao's shoulder flinched fearfully at the sound of the voice and tried to back away from it. The fear was cut off by the sound of a bone-shattering crunch and the sight of the killer's body twisting across the room to slam in a twisted mass against the wall.
"If you'd stayed down, freak," Mao said. "I might have let someone arrest you."
"He's dead?" Miss Strnad asked.
"Definitely," the exorcist said firmly. "And I'll have to come down and purify this place later. Don't worry about it, kid. We're just going to get you to some place that can help you and then call your teachers."
The girl nodded and weakly leaned into the tiny form of the red-headed woman, falling back into unconsciousness as Mao carried her out of the underground chamber.
The next week found Mao back in Europe, at least temporarily.
Behind her, her children were busy with their assorted tasks. Eija was working at dismantling the dormant defenses, just in case someone came in after them and set them off. Deimosu was packing the weapons and various crystals for delivery to their new home. And Naiki
Mao rolled her eyes and shook her head as she looked across at Naiki, currently leaning out the window and staring down toward the village courtyard below with an appreciative smile on her face. Coming up behind the green-haired girl, Mao looked out the window and found that, yes, there was at least one blond in easy view down the hill. Actually there were two, a sun-kissed surfer boy and his girlfriend, both scantily dressed and getting ready to head on down to the coast for some fun on the beach.
"Naiki," Mao said in a clear tone.
The girl's hand slipped out from under her and her chin dropped to the window frame as she flinched in surprise.
"Ahhh, Mum!" she snapped quickly, standing up straight and rubbing needlessly at her chin as her shark-tail braid bounced behind her with her embarrassment. She'd done more damage to the frame than it had done to her.
Naiki was taller than her mother. The tiny red-head probably topped out at five feet tall, if that. Naiki was almost five foot ten inches with shoulders Mao was certain had not been inherited from her. The sharp row of teeth was also a good sign as to exactly which of the suspects had donated the rest of Naiki's genetics.
"I was, uh, just taking a little break," Naiki said nervously before sliding around, keeping her face toward Mao. "I'm getting right on that packing, almost done in fact." Then she broke for one of the other rooms in the old monastery they'd appropriated for the last two years.
"Always doing something stupid," her son said as he watched his sister leave the room. "I'll bet she causes World War Three somehow."
Deimosu was a little bit taller than Naiki and thus also towered over his mother, Mao. His hair was a brilliant golden blond and he had the build of a classical Greek hero. Not the overdone masses of muscle from those movies in the sixties, but a real perfection of proportion. Sometimes, the only thing Mao saw of herself was what she'd taught and her own confidence from before she'd had to build it back up.
"Let me worry about your sister," Mao said. "How's your end coming?"
"Almost done, Okaasan," he said gesturing to the small arsenal of swords, staves, axes and the like. "Unlike some, I'm not ogling people instead of working."
He shivered then and glanced back over his shoulder to see his mother staring at him pointedly.
"Right, I'll let you worry about Naiki," he said.
Mao nodded and set about her own tasks, setting the seals they would use to transport the bulk of this stuff. It seemed rather a mundane use for a skill meant to trap powerful, unkillable foes in a separate reality for an indeterminate amount of time, but it did work.
"Mitera," Eija said then, turning back to look over her shoulder. "Mr. Harker is coming up the path."
Eija was only a couple of inches taller than Mao. Her skin was pale, though not quite to albinism, and her irises were a deep, blood red. Sometimes the sclera, the normally white portions of the eye, shared the same color, but she usually didn't enjoy opening those eyes. Her black hair was kept long, hanging down to her waist in a single braid. It was long enough that she could cut it herself and not have to sit underneath anyone using a pair of scissors or other sharp instrument.
They each had their preferred language and level of formality for referring to her.
As she nodded, Mao wondered what the girl she'd been a month too late to save would have called her mother. Was she formal like Eija, saying "Mother" or "Haha"? Or was she more casual like Deimosu, or just outright loose like Naiki?
Somewhere, someone was trying to imagine their little girl still calling them and chatting with them.
"Okay, do I pack the glasses with the
" and there was a sound of breaking glass, lots of breaking glass. "Uhhh
okay, we're not packing the glasses
I'll get the broom."
The sound was a relief and she moved toward the door in order to let Mr. Harker in. Before they left, she had to arrange handing over information on the safe houses that Psyche was too polite to ask about.