My name is Akane Akiyama. Daughter of Akio, son of Yoshrou. I am the last of the honorable samurai house Akiyama, founded in the first days of the Edo period. Of course, when the Tokugawa family fell into decline, our house fell with them, and it eventually became easier to leave Japan than it was to stay. That was two generations ago; I have never been to Japan, and I have little interest in doing so.
After meeting my new roommate, I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was connected to modern Japanese culture.
I do not mean that as a compliment.
“So what’s your favorite anime?”
Ling Yu was a little Chinese girl, clocking in at about five feet tall. She had a wide smile plastered on her soft face, and her dyed dirty blonde hair was put up in odango style—two spherical buns worn at about forty-five degree angles at the side of the head. She looked like the most stereotypical Chinese girl in existence. At least she wasn’t wearing a Chinese dress; she had chosen a simple set of blue jeans and a white t-shirt instead. Small mercies, I suppose.
I sighed and finally answered her question. “Seven Samurai.”
“Oh, that’s cool. Not really an anime, but…unless you meant Samurai Seven?”
I didn’t know what that was. “No.”
Ling was an anime otaku. That word is a little tricky to translate, but basically it’s a Japanese nerd. They get obsessed with one subject—anime, games, computers, whatever—and learn absolutely everything there is to know about it. In recent years, the name’s been used in the states to refer to a nerd obsessed with Japanese culture, mostly anime.
Don’t ask me how a Chinese girl got obsessed with Japanese media.
“I prefer Gundam, myself. Especially the newer ones. I know everyone says it doesn’t have the same feel as the original, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Uh-huh.” I glanced around the street, then crossed with Ling following only a step behind. I had left the room to get away from all the stupid anime posters she had on the wall, but with her sticking to me like glue, it hadn’t done much good. Now I was pretty much just wandering aimlessly.
“Everyone always expects me to talk about shojo, or at least magical girl anime. But I really like shounen better. Sure, the leads are usually boys, but there’s more action and less relationships.”
“Of course.” There was a pack of lupes ahead, led by a fully anthropomorphic wolf. I headed down an alley to avoid them.
“Though I’ve really never seen the appeal of harem anime. What’s the point of it? Either it’s obvious who the main character is going to end up with and the rest is just window dressing, or it’s obvious he’s never going to get anyone. I just can’t enjoy that.”
“I can imagine.” A couple rats were swarming a dumpster, but they ignored us as we walked past. Good thing, too. I didn’t think Ling would be useful in a fight.
“But what I really hate is seinen. Too much blood and sex. I mean, I can appreciate a good, violent scene that actually ends with someone dying. But throwing all the nudity and sexuality in it just ruins it.”
“That…” I stopped and turned to look at her. “That’s more thought-out than I expected. I figured you to be more along the ‘it’s stupid because I hate it’ types.”
She frowned. “Of course not. Have you been listening to me at all?”
She glared at me. “Fine. Well, if you had been listening, you’d know I want to go into directing and writing for television—probably animated.”
I started walking again. “Should have seen that coming.”
She huffed impatiently. “Yes, you should have. Where are we going, anyway?”
I shrugged without stopping. “Nowhere. Go back to the room if you like.”
There was a moment of silence. I wasn’t looking in her direction, so I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but I didn’t really care. We came out of the alley to a mostly empty street; on a whim, I headed right.
“Were you avoiding that anthro?”
“Anthro…the full-animal kemos?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been hearing.”
“Well, yeah, I guess. Nothing against lupes, but…” I stopped and sighed, forcing myself with a conscious effort to articulate more clearly. “The daybreakers and nightstalkers and such…they’re a little crazy. I just avoid them all as a general rule.”
“I know what you mean, I guess. I…”
I never found out what she was going to say next, because that’s when the screaming started.
It wasn’t like someone screaming for help, it was just this voiceless, toneless cry, droning on like an alarm. There was no emotion in it, at least not that I could detect. And it was nearby.
I glanced at my roommate. She was in what looked like a fighting stance—although it wasn’t one I recognized—and was coiled like a spring. There wasn’t even a question of whether or not we were going to investigate.
She shook her head, so I handed her my gun, a stupid little Colt revolver with five shots and a safety. I didn’t know anything else about it; I had bought it mostly because I was promised it wouldn’t need maintenance.
Ling took the gun without comment and quickly checked that it was loaded. It was; I always made sure of that. “You gonna be fine with just that?”
I took the long, thin zippered bag off my shoulder and opened it, pulling out the katana I had been given for kendo class in middle school. It wasn’t anything special, it didn’t have any deep meaning other than as a gift. It wasn’t even very high quality. But it was steel and it was sharp, and I knew how to use it.
“I’ll be fine,” I promised. “Don’t shoot me.” We ran towards the source of the screams.
“If they have a gun, hang back,” Ling reminded me. “I doubt you can actually deflect bullets.”
I nodded That’s something that I had been worried about; that maybe Ling would overestimate my abilities. But she could apparently tell the difference between fiction and reality just fine. I really wasn’t giving her enough credit.
We finally found the source after ten minutes of searching. It was farther than we thought; two streets away. I didn’t have time to wonder how we were able to hear the screaming that far away. The noise remained throbbing in our ears the entire time, though it faded in volume every minute or so and came back moments later, as though the screamer was taking a breath. It led us to an abandoned skyscraper just a block and a half from the dorms.
I’m not sure what the place used to be. Something small, with only one register (the counter was still in and everything) and a small back room I could see from the door. The shop itself was nothing special, and looked pretty much untouched from when it had been emptied. Next to the stairs there were a few small piles of dust and trash someone had forgotten to empty into a trash can, and some screwdrivers abandoned from when they had been removing shelving, but otherwise it was downright boring.
The doorway, however, was not.
The shop was covered in a big steel folding gate, the kind they typically use in malls. Since this block was basically an outdoor mall, most of the shops had similar devices, and when this store closed down they just locked it up.
Something had torn through the steel gate like it was tissue paper, leaving a hole we could easily walk through. The glass door behind it was also shattered inward, but that was less surprising. The only good news was that whatever had done this clearly wasn’t very smart; if you’re strong enough to rip metal like that, the sole padlock would have been a much easier target.
I gingerly stepped over the threshold, walking around the broken glass and the claws of the ruined gate. Ling followed carefully behind. The screams had lulled again, for a bit longer than before. I began to think they may have stopped entirely, when they started again—from the secondary room I had seen before, not ten feet in front of us. A few spots of blood led that way; perhaps the thing was injured.
From this distance, it sounded infinitely louder, like a banshee wailing while dragging its nails on a chalkboard. I quickly rushed forward, resisting the urge to cover my ears, quickly finding the source in the old employee office.
It was…a girl.
She was average height, as best as I could tell—she was crouched in an animal stance, ready to pounce. She was white, probably; she was so dirty it was hard to be sure. Her hair was a bit past shoulder-length, and strewn about her head like a stringy mop. I wasn’t even going to try and guess what the natural color was. Her hands were bloodied; as far as I could tell, ripping open the gate had done similar damage to herself.
Her jaw was…unhinged. That’s the only way to describe it. Her mouth was open so wide it looked like she could swallow an apple whole. The second she saw us, her head swiveled in our direction, and she continued screaming without shifting her jaw at all. I did the first thing I could think of: I ran forward, drew my sword, and slashed her. It’s not exactly a complicated maneuver; I had done it a thousand times before.
But that is not…quite what happened.
When I tried to move forward, time…slowed. It was so surprising I nearly tripped over my own feet. The screaming girl’s eyes suddenly weren’t tracking me as quickly, and her screams were far deeper—something to do with the way sound travels, I’m sure. I glanced back at Ling and found her staring at me with wide eyes. She blinked, slowly.
Oh, I thought.
Time returned to normal, with Ling still staring at me. “What was that? You were moving so fast…”
I looked at my body. “I think…I think I may have super speed.” What the hell else was I supposed to think? It definitely felt like I had done something, though I wasn’t really sure what.
Ling frowned. “Wait, you didn’t know you could do that?”
Before I could say anything, the dirty girl picked up her scream again and charged forward. I tried to activate my speed again, but nothing happened.
No, that’s not true. I could feel something in my gut, a reservoir of power that was trying to fill itself. Like the burn in your legs from running too much; I knew I’d be better in moments, but those were moments I didn’t have.
The screamer leaped past me, towards Ling…and bounced off a translucent blue force field that appeared in front of her. I didn’t get a good look at it, but it looked like a softly glowing shield of blue plastic. The girl screeched and fled to the back of the room, where she eyed us warily.
I stared at Ling. She had thrown herself backwards when it lunged, and seemed to have hurt herself banging into the heavy door. “Was that you?”
“No, that was me.”
I turned to see the newest arrival…Derek, as it turned out. He was panting, with his arm outstretched. He was covered in dirt-encrusted abrasions that were still oozing blood; he looked like he had survived a fight.
Behind him was another man in a similar state; other than that, there was nothing notable about him other than the two pillows he was carrying. One looked like it had been dragged through the mud.
Next to him was a girl with iron eyes. She had a gun in her hand, and looked prepared to use it, but I could tell from the way she was holding it that she wasn’t accustomed to it. I knew because it was the exact same way I hold guns.
“Akane!” Derek said. He nodded, pleased to see me, but didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “We’re taking her alive.”
I instantly sheathed my sword. “I don’t think that’s wise. She’s obviously dangerous.”
“And if we take her alive, we might figure out how she’s dangerous. C’mon, it’s you and me. Take point.”
I headed forward, sheathed sword raised. It wasn’t lethal anymore, but it was still a heavy stick. It would serve as an adequate weapon.
“Derek, she’s right, we should kill her now.”
It was the bland man, the one holding the pillows, who had spoken. I didn’t stop, carefully inching forward. I could feel my speed replenishing, but I wasn’t sure if that’s actually what it was, or something else entirely. I didn’t want to rely on that until I was sure it would actually work. Derek stayed back, near Ling, who was still near the door, rubbing her head.
“We can always kill her later,” Derek replied. His tone brooked no argument.
When I got within five feet, I stopped. I needed to finish this in one blow, if possible. If I could rely on that speed…
No. Later, once I had more practice, I could use it. Right now, I’d stick with the sword.
But before I could strike, the girl sprung into motion, screaming past me towards the most vulnerable member of the party—Ling, still dazed from earlier.
She shrieked and covered her face in a desperate attempt to shield herself. I tried to rush forward, but I was too far away, and I couldn’t activate my speed.
Before the screamer got to her, Derek interposed himself between them.
I don’t know if he was having the same problems with his powers I was or if he just forgot about them, but he threw Ling out of the way and took the crazy girl’s tackle himself. He grunted in pain, but tried to wrestle her to the ground.
“Akane!” he called.
I came up quickly and struck his assailant as hard as I could in the face. Her nose broke with a sharp crack, and her screams momentarily changed to a screech of pain, but she was otherwise unfazed. Then the pair rolled over, and I couldn’t reach her anymore.
The girl, the one with the gun rushed forward, but I stopped her. “You’ll hit Derek.”
She glared at me, but acquiesced.
I waited for another opportunity to strike, but Derek was stronger than he looked. Years of hunting rats and other, fouler things is a hell of an exercise program. Crazed as she was, the girl was outmatched. He quickly managed to pin her to the ground, though he was still having trouble keeping her there.
“Get a rope,” he ordered. “Quick.”
I searched the room as fast as I could, but there wasn’t anything we could use to tie her down.
“The sheets,” the bland man said. He ripped open a package I hadn’t noticed him carrying, pulling out a set of sheets with long tears and streaks of dirt on them. He tossed me one end. “We can catch her with this.”
We quickly braided the cloth into something vaguely resembling a rope; it would restrain the girl, if only for long enough for us to knock her unconscious.
She, however, seemed to have other plans.
The screamer gave a great howl of anger and threw Derek nearly five feet with a surge of adrenaline. She thrust her hand toward him and fire blossomed out of thin air, a cone of it rushing towards him.
He managed to get his shield up before he got hit, but I could see it was straining him. The flames were pushing against the barrier and licking the edges, and it looked like a large amount of heat was getting through; he was already sweating profusely.
I couldn’t get to the screamer with my sword. She had backed herself into a corner, and her flames would roast me if I tried to get close. If I could activate that speed again…
Bang. A gunshot echoed through the small room.
The flames flickered and disappeared, the girl fell to the ground, and a pool of blood began to grow around her chest, where I could see the exit wound for a bullet. A moment later, Derek collapsed as well as his shield died. I rushed over to make sure he wasn’t hurt, but he waved me off. He took a few deep breaths before speaking.
“Who shot her.”
“I did,” the sheet-guy said. He still held my revolver in his hand. He didn’t look like he knew how to use it much more than I did. “Got it from the…” he wiggled his fingers in Ling’s direction “…her.”
Derek took another deep breath. “What part of ‘We’re taking her alive’ didn’t you understand?”
His friend seemed unfazed. “She was going to kill you.”
Derek sighed again. “Yeah, yeah, I suppose there was no choice.” He held out his hand; I helped him up. “We need to find out what’s going on here.” He looked at me. “Is there any chance you know why we have powers now?”
I shook my head.
“Yeah, me neither.” He brushed his hair back from his forehead. He didn’t seem to have any idea what to do next.
“We’ll need to see if everyone else has powers,” the girl with the gun said quietly. She had holstered the weapon in question. Reminded, I held out my hand for my own revolver, and the sheet-guy gave it. “Derek and…” she glanced at me. “…Akane know each other, so it’s logical to assume there is some common source.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment, considering.
Then a phone rang.
Five simple beeps, then a pause, and five more.
No one moved.
“Who’s is that?” Ling asked groggily. I shrugged.
The bland guy jumped. “Oh, sorry, I think that’s me. New phone.” He pulled out his cell. “Adam speaking.”
Well, at least I knew his name now.
“MC? I…uh, yeah. Yeah, I’ll pass it along.” He hung up. “Someone called ‘Mr. Butler’ wants to see us. She said you’d know where.”
Everyone else in the room looked up, surprised.
“He wants to meet us?” Laura asked. “Are you sure?”
“Uh, yeah.” Adam glanced around. “Guys, who is he?”
I looked at Derek. He shrugged and answered in a defeated tone:
“The biggest gang lord in the city.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 7)
I thought long and hard about the various ethnicities of the main characters. There were only two that needed to be what they are: It’s difficult enough writing serious plots about a swordswoman, but for some reason having Akane English or French just struck me as ridiculous. Adam is multinational, pretty much generic “white,” which is meant to reflect that his family was just average American until they made their fortune during Prohibition.
The others were less important. I always wanted Ling to be an anime otaku, and I thought it was funny to make her Chinese as well. Lizzy is pretty much the opposite of Adam, multinationally brown. Actually, in all honesty she’s pretty much all nationalities.
For Derek and Laura, I rolled dice. They came out Italian and Spanish, respectively, but I already had a few semi-important Italian characters, and didn’t want to imply a connection that wasn’t there, so I made him half instead.