Mercy Killing 3: Daybreak

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The hunt had begun. A Vanus, an Eversor and a Callidus, assembled by midnight, not by choice but forced by circumstance. True, they were fortunate in that the River had produced a vision of her entering this barrier. A mixed blessing at best; it would mean that they had no choice but to assume the vision was both correct and current, and enter immediately, lest they give her a chance to escape.

The dead of night. Hardly an ideal time to search for a hidden enemy, much less in a witch's barrier.

Izuho took point ahead of the Katayamas, examining the witch's sigil through the filter of an ill-fitting pair of night vision goggles. There was no disguising the reason for her presence here, as clear to her as it was to the others. That, then, would explain the sheer concern Harumi had shown when she relayed the mission to them. It was unnecessary, of course. This was the logical choice.

She stood head and shoulders above the Katayamas and appeared a good deal more threatening; it was a safe assumption that she would take a good few more shots than the others if it came to that. In combat, too, she would dispose of familiars more quickly than they could hope to, and with her soul gem hidden within her ever-regenerating body, few could think to threaten her. She was here to protect, then, and to be riddled with claws and bolts in the service of those more valuable than herself. Little more than a human shield.

And that was as well. It would not do if either of the two were hurt.

"I believe we were meant to meet at midnight. Yumishita is running late," Mitsuko quips behind her, prompting a little chuckle from her sister. More than welcome distractions from trying to make sense of this sigil, standing out in the cold night air. A pair of gates, wide open, with a path of thorns both behind and ahead of it. Ringed with words that she could not decipher, that Mitsuko refused to examine for more than a moment. Words radiating a sense of profound anger and disappointment, directed not at herself, but at... at what? The witch herself? Fear, too. Fear without direction, all-pervading, until the witch had created this barrier to shut herself away from the merciless barbs of the world.

It hardly mattered, and they could waste no more time. There was work to be done. Izuho rises to her feet, metal clanking and cloth rustling as the moonlight shines on the patches of scales and reflective carapace that had recently grown around the scars on her arms. A temporary change like so many others, it would pass in time. Motioning for the others to follow, she steps through the portal and into the barrier, with the two joining her a moment later.

The goggles, as it turns out, are entirely unnecessary, even blinding. They stagger dizzily, swaying back and forth in the bright light of the sun that greeted them. Blue skies and shining daylight all around, as far as the eye can see, with not a cloud above. The only blemish, then, is the sun itself. While it graces the world with its gentle warmth, it shows itself as a swollen mass of orange and red, an overgrown flame that bleeds dripping blackened ichor onto the world below. Great droplets of the strange substance, almost reminiscent of crude oil in appearance, slip away from the star's countless gashes and cuts, only to hurtle down and splash against the ground. At least they were nowhere near this... bizarre material.

Memories. Somehow, they all knew, almost instinctively. Collecting little by little on the barrier's ground as they were bled away by... what, exactly?

The answer comes from their surroundings, the same half-idyllic landscape that turns, under further scrutiny, into the face of a nightmare. They stand in the midst of a series of rice paddies with only ankle-length water, while ahead of them, colossal books form a tunnel of sorts, open wide with their spines facing the sky. Houses new and old propped up the gargantuan pages; small apartments of concrete and steel, sprawling thatched-roof farmhouses and stocky brick cottages stand side by side with their doors wide open. They knew better than to even consider entering, of course.

Ahead, towering skyscrapers - not, at a glance, entirely unlike QB Heavy's office buildings, if distorted by heat haze - grasp at the heavens, spires that would have pierced the clouds, had there been any. Somehow, they held the air of a dream too distant to reach, and a dangerous trap all at once.

They were not alone in the barrier. Far from it. They had known that when entering, naturally, but there was more to this place than a witch and a renegade. Every stalk of rice, every rustling page and sturdy brick, every clod of earth underfoot, and the featureless humanoid shadows that flitted to and fro. Each and every one screamed abuse at the heavens, their words daggers of condemnation, with hatred and guilt as the poisons of their choice. At times they were physical words, in that strange and baffling script peculiar to witches. Other times, the fury and loathing was given voice, equally inscrutable, leaving the air riddled with words and the ears filled with an angry din. Each one cut into the witch as it reached her, drawing some of what passed for her blood now.

Most importantly, standing here in the open, they were exposed. The nigh-immediate crossbow bolt landing in one of Izuho's shoulders was proof enough of that, only moments after they had taken in the scene. It didn't hurt, not more than countless other wounds had before it. Practice made perfect, and where that was not true, it at least had the courtesy to create numbness.

"Get under the books!" She shouted, an unusually assertive call to action that rallied the Katayamas immediately. Shadows wrapped around them in defiance of the sun's glare, almost solid, bolts slowing within them as though it were water. Hands of animated mud and earth rise from the ground to meet the Eversor's pleas for their help, otherwise lost to the din, and crumble as they grasp shots only to find themselves unequal to the task.

A harrowing sprint led them below the comforting shelter of bewitched paper. The familiars watch them impassively for now, as though they are mere curiosities that have no place here, a momentary distraction. They were not the objects of the creatures' rage, and so they passed without incident in that regard. Still, curiously, they found themselves weakening, as if withering in the barrier's thin air, taking it in in ragged gasps as they ran. Was this part of Yumishita's powers as well? If so, then it seemed to abate ever so slightly as they found shade under the arcade of books.

"...Don't look," Mizuki cautioned, as her elder sister glanced up towards the pages. That way lay madness. Witches were strange, inhuman creatures, though Harumi - when pressed - had once told them all that they were capable of transforming ordinary, unwitting humans into one of their ranks. How fortunate, then, that they were exempt and needed only to fear a more direct sort of harm. A barrier's words, regardless, were not to be trusted, and no good could come of trying to understand the beasts.

It was their duty to destroy these monsters that could only bring harm to the world. This, the sisters had known since their first days at the Third, and even before then.

The bolt flying through the book, heralded only by the agonised scream of the familiar it pierced, comes as a rude awakening to them all. The Eversor is the first to act, interposing herself between the shot and Mitsuko before grasping it in one hand. She flashes a triumphant smile at the Callidus even through the pain, still managing to take some amount of pride in her work. That shot would not have struck her soul gem, no, but it was the principle of the matter. Her pride is short-lived, however, as she notes the grey-green sphere affixed to the crossbow bolt, and the sharp ticking.

"...Stay back, please." A clenched fist and gritted teeth. Those, alongside the sight of her squadmates scattering from her, are the only courtesies, the only comfort she receives before the end of the countdown.

A second later, the bloody firework consumes her entire right arm, held out from her. The conflagration reduces flesh and bone alike to a mess of gore and smoke. Flecks of white, red and black spattered across the ground, carried by a nauseating stench and lingering embers. The agony was overwhelming, and even she was left bent double from the shock, but only for a moment. She had learned to use her soul gem's power to dull the pain long ago, though she used it sparingly, with how many grief seeds she needed at the best of times. A moment later, her eyes catch sight of Mizuki, looking as though she was about to either vomit or cry, her costume coated with blood and pieces of what had once been Izuho's right arm.

Somehow, her first reaction had been to mumble an apology. An apology for inconveniencing her squadmate with the detonated remnants of her own arm. At least it made the Callidus laugh. That was good enough.

"Can you hide us?" She asked.

"I'm trying already, she shouldn't be able to-"

"She already HAS, obviously," the Vanus snapped. "The roof can't stop her and neither can you. We need to move. Taniguchi, you can walk, right?"

Of course she could. Now running, that would be far more difficult, but when had that stopped her? ...At least her arm was already coming back. As she knew it would. The sickening sounds of regrown, reknitted meat and bone twisting into new shapes was one she could never grow used to, but then, this was never the time to be picky. No time was. It was still raw, the skin left unformed for the moment, and oddly stiff. Was that a tooth she saw on the back of her wrist? ...It would have to do, as long as the arm worked. She had grown used to the constant mutations long ago, overzealous indulgences of a shell housing more life than one body was ever meant to contain.

The cover of shadows does nothing to stem the merciless barrage from above, raining down with uncanny accuracy, some of them resembling steel rebar or a siege engine's payload more than any ordinary crossbow bolt. Even an Eversor's reflexes are not perfect, and eventually the Katayamas sustain some wounds, quickly sealed at the cost of Izuho's own overflowing life, cuts and sores appearing along her skin as she heals them. Fortunately, nothing had struck their soul gems yet, shrunk down to a ring on Mizuki and a necklace for Mitsuko.

"Hold your ground," the Vanus suddenly announces to perplexed stares. "We don't know where she is. I can change that, but I need time. I need to be able to focus. Can you keep me alive for long enough?" A pair of nods meet the demand. What else could they say?

The darkness bubbles up from the ground, joined by mud and stone, creating a dome around them. It might have been a wall, but somehow, despite the constant assault, they could never seem to trace their attacker. Could a Vindicare become invisible as some among the Callidus rank could? There is no time to ponder the question, now. Instead, the barrier creaks and shakes, crumbling little by little with each thunderous, inexplicably jackhammer-like shot that impacts against its shell. Life to protect life, a soothing gloom to shield the innocent from what they need neither see nor feel.

"I have it," the Vanus announces eventually, amidst the ruins of their shelter. A beam of the sun's own light, in accordance with her own affinity, called down to reveal the traitor's position. Standing atop the books, with a scoped crossbow at the ready. Had she been there a moment ago? How could they be so blind, when the sniper hid in plain sight? Still, she was not far away. They would only need to-

Any further thoughts are cut off by one bloodcurdling shriek, then another, hateful wails across the barrier as the familiars that inhabit and compose it see the beam of redirected and channeled sunlight, screaming in absolute fury. Their quarry, the object of their loathing had been found, tainted, corrupted by the touch of those who had not yet lost themselves. This would not stand. They had not yet crushed the sun and bled it dry, not yet made it weep its last tears of pitch for its sins. These outsiders would not be allowed to steal their prisoner away.

Somewhere, Mitsuko had said something, coughing up tar-like liquid and staring with bloodshot eyes as if she had seen the unspeakable. Her words are lost in the din, one cry among many that do not reach the Eversor, as she pulls out the remnants of a rusted broadsword from her own leg, a handle of bone and bleeding flesh forming where the blade ended. In the same motion, she hurls it at the distant Vindicare, looking for only long enough to confirm that she has hit her mark, just barely. A dodge, in a technical sense, but a scrap of cloth had fallen to the ground. That was all they would need to scry on her later. Already, Yumishita was departing, but that was not their concern.

With another barked order - her usual timidity, she knew, had no place here when leading a pair relatively unaccustomed to the front lines - she sends the Katayamas scrambling to retrieve the scrap, while Mizuki's illusions obscure them from the horde of familiars. She could feel the heat growing, the same draining sensation that sapped her energy growing ever stronger, almost crippling as she struggles to avoid falling to her knees. The familiars surge in from every direction, looking as though the entire barrier is collapsing to strike her down. With a gasp of effort, she extends the weapons buried within her - the souvenirs of countless past battles - from her own skin, in an excruciating bladed carapace that cut her foes simply by striding through them, a monstrosity of misshapen flesh and old steel.

How many had she killed?

How many times had she been struck down, her body torn limb from limb only to grow back?

How much of her strength had left her, in gasps and whimpers, as broken iron and spirit proved too weak to hold off the hordes?

How many bodies did she stand atop, by the end, and how many more circled her as her squadmates made their reluctant escape?

It didn't matter. None of it seemed to matter at all, by then. In the end, she welcomed the witch, and took her hand willingly, floating up into the air.

The sun. Of course. It was so obvious, now; the radiance that had siphoned away their strength throughout their stay in the barrier. Was that a face she could make out in the flame's lacerated, bleeding depths? It had to be real, like the hand of magic and smoldering gas that gripped her own, terribly weak one. They floated higher and higher, but it must have been nothing. Breathing seemed a distant, pointless luxury now. Surely she would make do without. The witch wished only for company, someone who would stand by her side against the ruthless familiars. Who was she to deny that?

The witch was darkening, at long last. Shrinking, as the soft eyes within the inferno - the same grip that burned her skin away and turned her to ash, ever so slowly and gently - dimmed to nothing. ...A sun could only take so much before buckling. Collapsing under the weight it had shouldered, becoming crushed by those who would heap intolerably heavy condemnations upon it. Even a witch - a monster that knew hunger in the place of remorse and cruelty in the place of compassion - could not shoulder this blame. It could only survive by becoming something else. Darker, smaller, gathering the entire world around itself in the hope that even one part of it could cling to her and provide some small measure of comfort.

So this was how it ended, then. The invulnerable juggernaut of the Third, embraced by the heart of the sun that would soon be reduced to a single black point.

"What's your name?"

It must have been human, once. She almost felt as though she had seen the face, once upon a time. Who was she? What was her life like? The world would never know, now. A story fated to end in a place set apart from the world of all that was right and good. A tale spun to its last in a nightmare beside reality. She could not read the sigils, but she heard the witch's murmur, the whisper of a desperate furnace, and she smiled.

"...It's a good name."

Little by little, she burned away. It didn't matter, the body could be replaced. Instead, she grips the miniature sun in both arms, and stares into the molten eyes.

"...Don't worry, it's going to be okay. This won't hurt for much longer."

She reached in, through excruciating heat that could not hope to pierce the dream-like haze she found herself in. The baying of the familiars below seemed so distant and quiet now, so terribly meaningless. Flames wrap around her, and eventually, her hand of seared bone finds purchase on... something, deep within the sun. Was it a heart? It must be. As close as such a broken, pitiful beast could come to having one. And to think she had always been taught that witches were heartless. She squeezed, of course, as hard as her broken, skeletal claw of a hand could. Crushed it between her fingers. What else could she have done? The fires dimmed, the world drained of colour, and the face faded away with her vision.

"I'm sorry."

When they found her in the morning, collapsed in the street beside the grief seed she had refused to use, she would only say that the witch had thanked her, and refuse to speak further of that day.

So ended the hunt.