In The Fox-Witch's Wake, Pt3: Sword Raised High, Head Higher

tagnone

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Chapter 11: Pray you never see us again

Honoka sits forlornly upon the opened boot of an unmarked van, still as the silent air. Her hair is pulled back into a short and tight ponytail, and her torn uniform unbuttoned to access, inspect and disinfect every wound.

An operative stands close by; while being the same one treating her wounds, it's also without a doubt that this stranger remains on alert to ensure she does not attempt to escape. If there was any human compassion or concern, it is not visible through the visor.

Footsteps signal the approach of another operative. A stainless steel flask with a fingerprint lock is taken from Honoka's side by her sentry, brought to this newcomer.

"Cleared for civilian use?"

"Cleared." One sharp beep and the flask is brought back to Honoka, bearing a fresh thumbprint with mist slowly trailing from its open lid.

The tending operative mounts cotton to forceps and dips it into the flask. "Stay still. This may sting."

The other operative, undoubtedly a field captain of sorts, remains close by as an unflinching Honoka's chest wounds are swabbed over in a cold beige fluid. Hands crossed behind his back, he waits a moment before addressing Honoka.

"What your friend said, is it true? That the boy boasted about being immune to… A specific procedure?"

Honoka says nothing. She manages a faint nod.

The commander hums. He turns to face the other van in the distance housing Togai's body, and speaks into an earpiece.

"RMA1 confirmed? Identifying markers found in the eyes?" A responding garble comes from his earpiece. His countenance relaxes, seemingly pleased.

"Research will pay us for that kid's brain by its weight in gold. Jackpot, everyone."

Honoka's sentry pauses from rubbing the unidentifiable liquid across Honoka's bruised face. "What of the damage to the head?"

The commander remains gazing in the distance. "That's for the scientists to worry over, not us."

"Understood." The sentry finishes the final touches and pulls out a mirror. His business here concluded, the captain walks off to another van.

"Anything else that needs a touchup?" Under the van's light, Honoka chances a look at her reflection and recoils in genuine surprise: Unwounded, unbruised, as if she had just not come out of a fight for her life.

A degree of life comes back to Honoka as she moves actively of her own accord, rubbing her face and her chest, fingers trailing across fresh and unblemished skin. This was no mere concealing makeup she was slathered in. She winces from a painful response, pressing into where a massive bruise once glowered.

"Recovery is faster on the outside than the inside. You will still be feeling the fight for days to come."

"I… I see." Honoka looks up to the school, seeing lights turned on across the entire building's interior.

Come the morning, teachers and students will be making their way back to Takachiho High. The staffroom door will be set back in place, unblemished. The stadium will be as clean and empty as it should have been, swords back in the Kendo club's racks. No signs of blood, puke nor fighting will be seen.

Not a single thing will look out of place save Mister Oguchi's bowling ball dropped on his desk; a not-so-subtle reminder not to display such a dangerous trophy so high up.

"What about my friend…?"

"She'll be fine. Wound wasn't too deep, it's been sealed shut with dissolving stitches inside. It'll still hurt, but she'll have full use of her arm." As if on cue, a yelp of pain breaking through the anaesthetic came from an adjacent van.

"Thank you." Honoka gives another go at bending her glasses back into shape and sets them back on. Perhaps these strangers weren't so bad after all.

"No need to thank us. In fact, you shouldn't be."

"What? What do you mean?" Honoka blinks in confusion. The silent night air seemed to still even further.

"Did you forget? We're not the good guys."

Honoka's gut instincts warned her that the operative was telling the truth.

Out of the other van came a THUMP! accompanying a startled squeak.

"Wha-? No, NO! Don't do it! Don't box meee-HYIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeee, ee-ee-eeeeee…" Unnatural spectrums of light flare through the tinted windows of the adjacent van, Mizuka's shrieking slurs into drooling moans.

"Mizuka!" Honoka throws herself off of the van in absolute alarm, arriving too late as the box is removed, a penlight being shined into Mizuka's dilating eyes.

"Oh… Oh… Oooohhhgghh…"

"What are you doing?! Get off her!" Before Honoka could reach out, her wrist is seized by her closely-followed operative.

"Don't interfere. You wouldn't want to accidentally erase years of her memories."

Honoka watches in despair as Mizuka's own tending operative tersely speaks into her ear, jerking a finger with each word spoken.

"There. Was. Never. A. Fox. EVER… Also: This. Evening. Never. Happened."

"Let go! Stop this!" Honoka pulls with all her might, uncaring if her arms get wrenched off. The operative lets go and steps back, and she rushes over to pull her friend from the van.

"Mizuka!"

"Gwuh?! Uhh, uuuhg! Uhhhyhuhggh…" Mizuka slumps to the ground, twitching about with her eyes rolling up her skull, complying brain furiously burning away memories of that which once was.

Honoka is now the last in town to remember the kitsune named Mishio-No-Sae.

"Mizuka…!" Cradling her slouched-over friend, Honoka looks at the gathering crowd of black-clad, visored outsiders approaching her.

"Why? Why would you do this?"

"We don't owe you an explanation. You're last, by the way."

An operative steps out of the crowd, cradling one of those accursed black boxes. Honoka lowers Mizuka, making her stand.

"You won't get me to do it."

All operatives remain still. Save the occasional beep and garble coming from their headsets, they say nothing. At last, one opens up.

"The final PoI-486 is not cooperating."

Another speaks, the voice identical.

"Kindly cooperate, Miss Sarada."

"Go to hell." Honoka assumes a defensive posture before Mizuka. The operatives remain still.

Several operatives exiting the cleaned-up school join the crowd. The wall of visors and black vests grows ever thicker. The chorus of beeps and static garbles grows. The same exact voice speaks here and there, as if the crowd before Honoka were a singular entity.

"You've been through a very traumatic event this night. Wouldn't you rather forget everything that happened?"

"No!" Honoka tightens her fists and maintains her aggressive posture.

"…After everything that I've been through, you would have me lose sight of how I have finally overcome my pain and suffering? For me, to go back to being haunted by all my scars?"

Honoka catches her breath, and shakes her head bitterly. "You won't just make me forget. You might as well be killing me."

The operatives remain unmoved. "Your safety is not guaranteed in this current situation."

Honoka grits her teeth. "You understood nothing of what I just spoke: You can't scare me. I'm not afraid anymore."

Honoka notes the ever-so-slightest turnings of helmets, as if they were looking towards one another.

"What are you waiting for?!" No response.

Then it hits Honoka: They're hesitating. They don't know if Mishio's protection continues to linger over her. Even with the charm torn to shreds, what's to say what happened with the bowling ball could have been a residual effect, let alone a failsafe?

"…You're scared, aren't you?" The operatives remain silent.

"You are scared. Scared that Mishio's still watching over me. Scared that the accident from before could happen again."

The electronic voice garbles back, a tone of irritation breaking through.

"We are fully prepared for and protected against such a possibility this time around. That mistake won't happen again."

"And yet you do nothing."

"Don't test our patience. What could you accomplish against all of us?"

"I won't know until I try. Bring it. I dare you."

"What are all of you doing?" Half the helmets turn to face the captain entering the scene, having concluded whatever business he had in his van. Parting the crowd and entering the ring, he notes the black box being held before Honoka. His response: To begin waving everyone off.

"Abort! Abort. Update was delayed from HQ: Leave this remaining PoI as-is. Pack it up! We are done with this town."

"Tch." The agent holding the box slaps its lid back on, latching its clasp tight with a karate chop. As the crowd disperses the captain marches straight up to Honoka, his turn to address her.

After a brief staredown he leans forth intimidatingly, jabbing a finger straight towards Honoka's face.

"Miss Sarada Honoka: We know who you are, where you live, the identity behind every last phone number that came in contact with your handphone, and every ancestor in your family tree up to a century back. We possess the full and uncensored local police case files and medical files on you. We know everything we need to about you, up to predicting your next thousand steps."

"Know away as you please. Since you know everything I've been through and everything I just went through, you should know your threats mean nothing." Honoka stares her best into the captain's visor, matched by her defiant reflection glare for glare.

"Since you're so confident I'm only going to make it clear to you just this once, then: No one ever believed there was a fox in Takachiho, and you would do well to keep it that way."

"You're wrong." Honoka whispers while fighting back tears, "I still believe. I won't forget, I absolutely never will. Even if the rest of the world forgot, for everything she did to save my soul… I never will!"

The captain snorts electronically under the revs of starting engines. "Believe away as you want, then. Also, I think this is yours:" He reaches into his vest, slapping the retrieved doll into her hands.

Making out a plain white envelope taped onto the doll bearing her likeliness, she opens it and looks inside. Honoka jumps in shock at the sight and smell of fresh ¥5,000 notes: Enough to afford a smartphone, and then some! She looks back up, seeing the Captain leave with a dismissive wave of the hand.

"Buy yourselves some new uniforms. Glasses, too. Hell, go on a vacation. We're done here. Pray you never see us again."

"Wait!" The captain stops, visor turning to face Honoka. "There's one more you missed: Yamada Saeko."

"Miss Yamada remains guarded under heavy observation and extensively drugged at Kumamoto Red Cross Hospital. She has not been in Takachiho from the moment that 'irregular disturbances' amplified in scale and occurrence. Any risk she presents, and that of her traveling parents, is considered negligible and does not warrant further action."

Exhausted and worn, Honoka's front crumbles ever so slightly; A tinge of desperation finds its way in her voice. "But you have to do something about her! If you know about my-have my police and medical records, you'll know what she's capable of-"

The captain cuts her off impassively. "We are not the arbitrators and mediators of local crimes. That is the role of law enforcement."

Honoka says nothing. She lowers her head. The outsider eases his rigid stance, a consolatory tone barely making it through the scrambling.

"I can let you in on this: She won't be bothering you again. Anything else?"

Honoka takes in a breath, asking with all earnestness: "Why are you doing this… All of this?"

With a moment of ponderance, the agent remains still. He reaches up his neck to press a hidden switch, next flipping up the visor. A pair of all-too-human eyes, weathered by age and experience, looks back at Honoka from behind a balaclava. He speaks, voice no longer masked:

"There are things out there in the forgotten corners of this world. Things, which ordinary people like you do not deserve the cruel fate to know of. Things that would drive people like you and about you to despair, grief, insanity. To safeguard this normal world from such ruinous influence, we make sure it remains in the sweet bliss of ignorance. But for that to truly work, all the other things; good, neutral and harmless alike must be made unknown of, too. It is ultimately for the good of all. Consider yourself lucky, or unlucky, that you have been allowed to go knowing this."

The captain readies to leave, not bothering to lower his visor. Honoka stops him one last time.

"Wait! Please… Please, can you tell me if Mishio-san is okay?"

He looks at her silently. A flicker of hesitation crosses his eyes. How he wished to tell her, to voice amusement and exasperation in equal measure of the resident forest squatter, nuisance and troublemaker, of the scenes and inconveniences she'd cause in her determined quest to break out her unwilling and unamused sister. And yet, policy being policy…

"We are not at liberty to say." He enters his van. The door shuts. The unmarked vehicles finally move to leave together as a group, gravel crunching beneath their tires.

Honoka watches silently as they roll down the slope leading up to the school, back into the roads beyond. The sounds of snoring sharply snort their way into wakefulness.

"H-Honoka…? Why am I on the dirt? Why are we standing out here in the dark? I-ITAI! My shoulder!" Misaki stammers in pain as she pushes herself up to a seating position, massaging away at what she thought was a sprain. She squints at noticing a strange damp texture on her fingers, giving them a sniff.

"Wait. What's this… Blood?! This hole in my shirt! I've been stabbed-wait, but there's no wound? W-what?" Mizuka swings her head about in alarm, trying to making sense of things.

"Actually, why are we also back at school? WAIT. What time is it?" Mizuka fumbles about, reaching for her schoolbag sitting on the ground. Rubbing her eyes, she powers her phone on and glances at the time on its lock screen.

"MIDNIGHT?! What are we doing out here at this time?! Mom is going to kill me!!!"

She turns on her phone's flashlight, finally getting a lit view of her silent friend standing in the dark.

"AIIIEEE! HONOKA! YOU'RE COVERED IN BLOOD!"

Honoka remains silent, watching the unmarked vehicles fade in the distance…


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