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Amaya PI - Blood of an Ushi

ELH Jan 1st, 2017 (edited) 700 Never
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  1. G Doc Version: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1eeJhXGXq4n9zMlwPxswwb0btbyPaRVK0WIJ129WWPMw/edit?usp=sharing
  2. Previous Story: http://pastebin.com/rnpyrj37
  3.  
  4. #####
  5.  
  6. Like most raves, this one was one step above pure chaos.
  7.  
  8. The interior of the old warehouse was awash in strobe lights, multicolored beams, and a low-hanging fog. The bass thundered from massive speakers stacked on one another near the DJ’s podium, so loud that you could hear it from several blocks away. Booze, drugs, sex, and everything in between flowed freely. All of it contributed to the undulating crowd dancing to the beat. Almost all present were mamono of varying sizes and shapes, though if you looked hard enough you could find the occasional incubus. There were no humans to be found. They’d be crazy to show up at this sort of affair unless they had an overwhelming desire to be corrupted. In another life, I might have actually enjoyed coming here. But this wasn’t a social call. I was here on work.
  9.  
  10. My target of interest was one of the girls dancing up on the stage. I’d been asked by her sister to track her down and deliver a message. It’d taken me almost a week to find Seyah the moth girl. Mostly due to the size of Sedis itself, but also because Seyah was notoriously transient. Each time I’d found one of her hangouts she’d moved onto the next. It was mostly luck that I’d managed to hear about this rave in the first place. If I had not eavesdropped at the right place and the right time, I’d likely still be out on the streets looking for Seyah.
  11.    
  12. Seyah was much like her sister in general appearance. Brown, spotted wings sprouted from her back. Rose-colored hair with streaks of white flowed down to her waist. Her arms and legs were segmented, pink chitin. Around her neck was a tuft of tan fur. That’s about where the similarities ended. Where her sister seemed to prefer modest sundresses, Seyah was far more bold. A moist, white tanktop, cut off right below her breasts, struggled to contain her bouncing mounds. Her entire abdomen was on display, skin glistening with glitter and sweat. The beige hot pants she’d squeezed herself into barely fit over her ass and left her with quite the noticeable cameltoe in the front. She had several rings of glowsticks around her wrists, and a larger one around her neck. As she twisted and twirled to the music she left trails of light in her wake.
  13.  
  14. In short, she fit right in with rest of the crowd. Me? Not so much. A Ryu sticks out like a sore thumb most places in Sedis. Doubly so for me thanks to my golden, draconic tail and claws. And that’s not even taking my augments into account. Though being different definitely helped me out here. Less people were inclined to trample on my trailing end, and they tended to part and give way to make moving around them easier.
  15.  
  16. Like the rest of the crowd, Seyah was focused on losing herself and having a good time. Had she not been on the stage it would have been trivial to grab her unnoticed. But that’s what magic’s for: making my life easier. I worked my way towards the right edge of the stage, stopping just behind the last row of ravers. I quickly began casting a spell that would conceal myself and Seyah. It was slightly difficult, due to the proximity to the deafening speakers and the jostling from the crowd. Still, I managed. A cold breeze flowed up from the floor as I released the energy. As it slid over my golden tail and the rest of me, I turned completely translucent. A similar process happened to Seyah. As we were part of the same spell we could still see each other, but to everyone else we’d disappeared. She herself didn’t seem to notice, still dancing.
  17.  
  18. After checking my surroundings for any gawkers, I flowed between moving bodies like the serpent I was and moved onto the stage proper. Before Seyah could process what was happening I grabbed her and dragged us both off-stage. I didn’t stop until we’d reached a dark alcove back behind the stacked speakers. By then Seyah began protesting.
  19.    
  20. “What are you doing?” she said, words slightly slurred. Thankfully it was much quieter here than inside, otherwise I would have never heard her. “Lemme go~”
  21.    
  22. “In a moment,” I returned. I held both of her shoulders and met her eyes. Her pupils were dilated, meaning she was high on something. “Your sister, Katrena, asked me to deliver a message.”
  23.    
  24. Despite her impairment, the mention of Katrena got Seyah’s attention. Her look of annoyance changed to one of apprehension. “If this is about the money I owe her…”
  25.  
  26. I cleared my throat and quoted what Katrena had told me to say. “She says it’s time to come back. She’s found you a job and…”
  27.  
  28. “What, with that whorehouse?” She meant Reri’s, the high-end fetish club where Katrena worked. I personally wouldn’t refer to it as a whorehouse, though. More like a contained den of debauchery. “How is that any different than what I do now?”
  29.  
  30. “Mainly that it pays,” I continued unperturbed. “And it’s safer.” All I got back was a scoff. So I added, “She said you might say that. In that case, I’m to remind you just how much you owe her. You may be family, but some debts can’t be forgiven. And now Katrena’s come to collect.”
  31.  
  32. She pushed away from me and I let her go. But not before I stole a lock of her hair. “Oh yeah? And what’s to stop me from skipping town and never coming back?”
  33.  
  34. I casually flexed my claws, just enough so the bio-metal flashed with reflected light. In them I held the bit of her hair. “Mainly that until you do, I’ll be hounding you day and night. Now that I have this I’ll be able to find you no matter where you go.” I was mostly bluffing. Magic can do some amazing things, but it has its limits. Best I could do with a piece of her hair was know her general direction. Luckily, most people don’t know that. She bought it hook, line, and sinker.
  35.  
  36. “Fucking magic,” she swore.
  37.  
  38. “Yeah, it’s great,” I said plainly. I slipped the rosen strands into my coat and turned to leave. Now that I’d delivered the message there was no reason for me to stick around. “Enjoy the rest of the party.”
  39.  
  40. I let the invisibility spell drop as I slithered back out into the crowd. I didn’t bother looking back until I’d made it to the door. Seyah had returned to her spot on the stage, though I noticed her movements weren’t as carefree as before. Whatever was going on between her and her sister was enough to give her pause. It made me thankful that my own sisters and I had a decent relationship.
  41.  
  42. When I’d made some distance between myself and the rave, when I could no longer hear the bass, I rummaged in my coat for my cell phone. Once I’d located it, I tapped at the screen until I found Katrena’s number. She picked up on the second ring.
  43.  
  44. “Ms. Amaya?” she answered in her usual nervous, stuttering tone. “Do you have good news for me?”
  45.  
  46. “About as good as it’ll get,” I replied. “I found your sister and delivered your message.”
  47.  
  48. “A-And how did she take it?”
  49.  
  50. “About as well as one can hope. I had to resort to a little intimidation but I think she understood her situation.”
  51.  
  52. Katrena let out a held breath. “Thank you. I didn’t know who else to ask for this sort of thing.”
  53.  
  54. I shrugged, despite there being no one on the street around to see it. “Not like I had anything else on my plate. I’m happy to have helped.” I left it unsaid that I still expected her to hold up our bargain. Thankfully she came upon that topic on her own.
  55.    
  56. “I’ll mention it to Reri that you helped m-me. That will make us even, right?”
  57.  
  58. “So long as it gets me out of having to do her a favor in the future, yeah.” I had a tenuous relationship with Mistress Reri. Anything that’d mean I wouldn’t have to play maid or be tied up to get information was payment enough in my book.
  59.  
  60. “I’ll see what I can do. Thank you a-again.”
  61.  
  62. ***
  63.  
  64. My name’s Amaya Minami. When I’m not drowning my sorrows in a drink I’m a private eye. One of the best in Sedis, as a matter of fact. Missing persons, cheating spouses, murder victims, you name it. I have a bit of a reputation around town for being the Ryu that gets results where others fail. But speaking of drink, the night was still young, so I headed for my favorite hole-in-the-wall bar. Squeezed between two noodle shops in midtown Sedis, the Rusty Bucket was one of the few places in Sedis that served decent whiskey. Part of that was thanks to the bartender, an Anubis by the name of Mohl. She had a knack for knowing just how much water to add to a glass without destroying the liquor’s original taste. The other part was because she actually imported the spirits from overseas instead of using knockoffs.
  65.  
  66. I found Mohl behind the bar idly rubbing a mug with a rag, as all bartenders tend to do when there’s nothing else going on. For some reason she was wearing a corset and skirt ensemble that matched her dark, furry legs and paws. As I stepped in from the street, her canine ears perked up and swiveled towards me. She gave me a nod as I sat down towards the end of the bar. Soon thereafter she slid over my usual favorite: three fingers of Zipangu’s Seven Crown with a single ice cube. I took several sips of the auburn drink, savoring the sharp taste as it trickled down my throat. After I did, I asked, “So what’s with the get-up, Mohl?”
  67.  
  68. She shrugged and continued to work on her mug. “Can’t a girl dress up every once and awhile?”
  69.  
  70. “Yeah but you’re Mohl,” I pointed out. “You hate the frilly stuff. Lemme guess, a boy you fancy stopped by.”
  71.  
  72. I got another shrug in return. Looking around, I noted that the only other occupants in the bar were three other regulars, all incubi, absorbed in a game of darts. No help there. As I turned back, though, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Mohl’s tail twitched behind her. Must have been some guy to get that sort of reaction out of her. She’s one of the most stoic people I know. In a way it made me wish I had that kind of person in my life. But such thoughts are best drowned in drink, so I returned to my whiskey, staring at nothing in particular...
  73.  
  74. My reputation has its perks, but it comes with its fair share of problems. It meant I had semi-regular clientele, but also the list of people who had a grudge against me grew with every case. It’s made me slightly paranoid, and for good reason. I’ve been jumped more than a few times when I least expected it. So when the bell above the door to the bar chimed I turned and looked.
  75.  
  76. Standing there was a Nurarihyon. For a mamono they were almost human in appearance. Like most of her kind, she wore a white kimono with black trim that clinged to her otherwise rosy-pale body. Well most of it anyways. She was practically spilling out of her top. On her left breast was a floral tattoo that trailed up to her clavicle. Around her neck was a collar made in similar fashion to her dress. Her neat, white hair was held up in a side-bun by a black flower clip. But what really signified her as a mamono was the copious amount of black smoke that surrounded her. It billowed out in waves from her sleeves, from around her ankles, and from the pipe in her right hand. Thick with demonic energy, I didn’t need to cast a spell to know she was just as powerful as I was.
  77.  
  78. She scanned the bar lazily, finally coming to rest on me. She made a beeline for the seat next to me. Once seated, she asked in a rich and proper accent, “You are Ms. Minami, correct?”
  79.  
  80. “Yeah, that’s me,” I replied cautiously. I knew little about Nurarihyons. Though they came from Zipangu, just as I did, I’d only ever seen one once at a distance before today. My knowledge was limited to a few simple facts. Mainly that they tended to gravitate towards men that would make powerful incubi and that they often had large retinues of mamono. They didn’t seem like the type to turn a bar into a battleground. But anything can happen, so I stayed on my metaphorical toes.
  81.  
  82. She smiled back at me. “Excellent. My name is Ryoko. I would like to call upon your services.” She took a draw on her pipe and then breathed out a fresh cloud of smoke. It had a pleasant sort of aroma, similar to fresh coffee grounds. “You were not available at your office.”
  83.  
  84. “It must be rather important to bother tracking me down like this,” I said matter-of-factly. Only so many people knew I hung out at the Rusty Bucket. I’d have to figure out who had talked later.
  85.  
  86. “You would be correct. I believe two lives are in danger. They must be found as soon as possible.” She produced two photographs from within her left sleeve and slid them across the bar with two fingers. I didn’t take them just yet though. There had been an awful lot of missing people lately, mostly human girls. They’d all vanished without so much as a trace. Or so my contact in the Sedis Police Department said.
  87.  
  88. “Why me?” I asked. “Not that I’m turning you down, but maybe Sedis PD would be best if they’re in actual danger.”
  89.  
  90. “Because this matter needs to be handled with discretion,” she returned plainly. “The police would draw undesired attention. I believe you’ll understand when you see.” After she motioned at the two photos with the end of her pipe I finally picked them up. I could see why she didn’t want to go to SPD.
  91.  
  92. The first photograph was of a six-legged, black furred arachne: an Ushi-Oni. That alone was enough to cause all sorts of alarms to go off in my brain. Ushi-Oni are notoriously strong and difficult to harm. They have unmatched regenerative abilities thanks to their energy-saturated, black blood. What’s more, that very same blood is an extremely potent corruptor. If a human male is exposed to it, he’ll turn into an incubus. A human female, another Ushi-Oni. It’s why the comings and going of Ushi-Oni are very tightly watched and regulated outside of Zipangu, where they originally hail from. If left unchecked, they could devastate the local human population.
  93.  
  94. The Ushi-Oni herself was adorned in a loose-fitting yukata that was similar in design to Ryoko’s. The seal over her left eye was also white with black runes. Her skin was a light brown with midnight-colored, swirling, fur throughout. Said fur was accented by a deep red color around the ends of her limbs. Her claws themselves were golden, though less vibrant than my own. She had her dark brown hair done up in two long twintails on either side of her horns, with sideswept bangs. Underneath the photo was a name in neat script: “Iani.“
  95.  
  96. Before I looked at the second photo, I asked, “What’s her relation to you? I’m guessing she’s a part of your…” I trailed off, trying to find the right word.
  97.  
  98. “Procession?” offered Ryoko.
  99.  
  100. I nodded. “Yeah, something like that.”
  101.  
  102. “She is indeed. Iani was one of the first to join my husband and myself. I believe this Thursday will mark the tenth year we’ve been together.”
  103.  
  104. “Uh huh, and how did she end up in Sedis? If you’ll pardon me being blunt, the two of you are definitely from out of town. I can count the number of Zipangu expats in Sedis on one hand.”
  105.  
  106. Ryoko brought her pipe to her lips, held it there, then seemed to think better of it. She instead motioned at Mohl to get the Anubis’ attention. “Tea, if you please.”
  107.  
  108. Mohl grunted and began rummaging below the bar. “All we have is black. That alright?”
  109.  
  110. “That will do nicely, thank you.”
  111.  
  112. As Mohl worked, Ryoko returned her attention to me. “It’s quite the tale. But first, you must look at the other photo.”
  113.  
  114. I raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Instead I shuffled the photos in my hand. The second picture was of an average-looking human girl. Late teens, if I had to guess. She was adorned in fairly standard shrine maiden garb - a white top with loose sleeves and a red, ankle-length skirt. Her skin was pale, and her jet black hair barely fell to her shoulders. What really stuck out about her, though, was her eyes. She had heterochromia, her left eye light blue and her right brown. I’d never met someone with it before, but it was one of those details that would make finding her all the more easy. Below this photo was the name “Saya.”
  115.  
  116. “Alright so we have Iani and Saya,” I said, setting the photos back down on the bar for the time being. “What connects them together?”
  117.  
  118. “Saya is my husband’s youngest sister,” answered Ryoko. “She works at the Watari Shrine. You must have heard of it.”
  119.  
  120. I had. You tended to know this sort of thing when your family runs a shrine themselves. “They’re in northern Zipangu if memory serves. Specialize in seals and sealing rituals. That about right?”
  121.  
  122. “Indeed. She’s rather good at what she does. It’s probably why she was chosen to come here in the first place.” Right about then Mohl came over with a small cup of tea. Ryoko took it and bowed her head. She then took a sip. It seemed to sit well with her as she nodded in satisfaction. “Thank you. This will do nicely.”
  123.  
  124. As Mohl scooted back to her previous spot, Ryoko continued to me, “Apparently the Fokir Corporation needed someone from the Watari Shrine to come and do some work for them here in Sedis. What specifically I do not know. What I do know is that Saya arrived in town, completed her task, but promptly vanished before she was supposed to return home.”
  125.  
  126. The name Fokir rang a bell but I couldn’t put a finger on why. So instead I focused on getting as many details from Ryoko as possible. “Who was the last to see her? Someone from Fokir?”
  127.  
  128. Ryoko shook her head. “No. It was one of the cleaning staff at the hotel where she was staying. The Arum Inn near the airship docks if I recall correctly. Apparently Saya was in the process of getting ice for her room when she got a phone call. The maid said Saya seemed distraught before she hung up and hurried off. That was almost two weeks ago.”
  129.  
  130. “Quite a long time, relatively speaking,” I commented. “The golden window for finding missing people tends to be seventy-two hours.”
  131.  
  132. "At first we concluded she must have taken some further days for rest and relaxation. It is quite a rare opportunity for shrine maidens, after all. However, she did not answer our calls, quite uncharacteristic of her, and hence we began to suspect the worst."
  133.  
  134. “So you sent Iani to look for her,” I said. I’d put the pieces together while Ryoko was talking. An Ushi-Oni would be perfect for the task of finding someone, albeit by brute force. Not nearly as subtle as what I did, but both methods tended to get the same result.
  135.  
  136. Ryoko nodded. “Exactly. We had full confidence in Iani that she’d be able to find Saya and bring her back home. However, Iani has not reported since two days ago.”
  137.  
  138. “Hence why you came here yourself to talk to me directly. Was I your first choice of private investigators?”
  139.  
  140. “The second, actually. I believe you’re familiar with Mr. Hras?”
  141.  
  142. I was. And I could guess why she ended up coming to me instead. Hras was a heavily augmented human male. Decent at what he did, but the risk of corruption from an Ushi-Oni would be too much for him. Really it was a wonder that he hadn’t turned into an incubus already. “I am,” I said. “And if I’m right, he turned you down the instant an Ushi-Oni came into the picture.”
  143.  
  144. “Precisely. He recommended you personally, adding that you excel in magic.”
  145.  
  146. Coming from Hras that was quite the ego boost. I tried not to gloat. “I do. But that’s neither here nor there. Do you have a number I can reach you at while you’re in town?”
  147.  
  148. She reached into her sleeve, produced a thick envelope, and handed it over. I took it and peered inside. There I found a small note with where Ryoko was staying and several phone numbers. Along with a rather thick stack of bills. I enjoy being paid as much as the next person, but this was an order of magnitude more than I usually charged.
  149.  
  150. “Um,” I began, trying my best not to sound ungrateful. “You do know that my fee’s only 75 a day, plus expenses, right?”
  151.  
  152. Ryoko reached for her tea once more. She finished the remainder of it with one graceful swig, then simply said, “Money's no object in ensuring Iani and Saya’s safe return.”
  153.  
  154. I decided not to press the point. I could pay off several month’s rent on both my apartment and my office with that much money. As well as cover any incidental aug tune ups. So I slipped the envelope and the two photos into an inside pocket of my coat. “Alright then. I’ll contact you once I find anything. If you think of any more details that might help don’t hesitate to call.” I then wrote down my cell phone number on a napkin and slid it over to her. I’d only just gotten the thing four months ago and I was still getting used to having it.
  155.  
  156. The napkin disappeared up Ryoko’s sleeve as she stood. “Thank you, Ms. Minami. I pray for your expedient success.”
  157.  
  158. I bowed my head and she turned to leave. On the way out she paid for her drink with Mohl. It wasn’t until she’d disappeared out the door that I began to notice just how much smoke she’d left in her wake. It hung in the air like a thick cloud. Mohl sighed and moved to turn on several fans. I stayed just long enough to finish my own drink before heading back out into the night myself. Normally I would have called it a night there and head home, but the money in my pocket weighed heavily on my mind. So instead I turned in the direction of my office and slithered down the sidewalk.
  159.  
  160. ***
  161.  
  162. My office’s nothing amazing. I share the third floor with a small law firm, and luckily I have the corner office. I keep things fairly spartan: a nice wooden desk, several chairs of varying shapes and sizes, a small fridge with a coffee maker on top, some filing cabinets, and a potted plant or two to bring everything together. On the desk was a landline phone, a small lamp, and my laptop. I slid into my chair (really a glorified stool that accommodated my tail) and flipped up the laptop screen. I’m not the most technologically inclined person in the world, but I make due. What matters is I know how to search for information.
  163.  
  164. I started by digging into the Fokir Corporation. It didn’t take me but a few clicks to find what I was after. Apparently they were one of the largest biomedical firms this side of Lescatie. They specialized in augments in general. There are two types of augments. The first, commonly known as prosthetics, refers to any organ or limb that’s outright replaced by metal. Easy to get but the upkeep and tuning costs can creep up on you over time. The second’s a little more tricky and tends to cost far more up front. By using a person’s innate energy stores and few wonders of technology, the existing organs and/or limbs are enhanced. The result is a sort of self-repairing and self-sustaining bio-metal. In my case, both my tail and my claws were the product of the latter’s exceptional bio-engineering.
  165.  
  166. Several things leaped out at me as I continued to read. One: Fokir wasn’t based in Sedis. Their HQ was located in the Royal Demon Realm, also known as Royal Makai. Bit of a trip between here and there. What they had here in Sedis was a few manufacturing plants and several clinics. Two: Nothing in the company’s mission or in their listed services even remotely called for a Shrine Maiden’s services. Especially one well-versed in matters of sealing. Three: One of their main selling points was that they used “proprietary DEM cells.” I know enough about my augs to keep them going. That’s about it. But the mention of DEM cells reminded me of a close friend and sometimes assistant on cases.
  167.  
  168. I’d known Camille for almost two years now. I first came to her seeking help with getting my augs tuned properly after the first few people I tried couldn’t help. Very quickly, I learned that Camille was one of the best back-alley augmetic dealers out there. She had me back up and running (metaphorically) in no time. But that’s not where our working relationship ended. Like most Gremlins, she was a master at most things tech. On more than one occasion I’ve asked her to track down email recipients and hack into camera feeds, among other things. If anyone would be able to help me better understand what Fokir did, it was her.
  169.  
  170. I glanced at the clock in the lower right of my screen. 1:25 A.M. A little late to make a house call. Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Camille not working. Still, I did the smart thing and picked up my phone. A few short rings later and she picked up.
  171.  
  172. “Amy,” she said, chipper as ever. “Aren’t you usually asleep by now?”
  173.  
  174. “Usually, yes,” I replied. “But I’ve got a new case I’m working on.”
  175.  
  176. “Sounds fun. Lemme guess: you need me for something.”
  177.  
  178. I did my best to play hurt, “I can’t just call an old friend and see how she’s doing?”
  179.  
  180. I could see her eyes rolling from here. “Not at one in the morning. I was just about to close up for the night.”
  181.  
  182. “Well if it’s not too much trouble, I need to pick your brain on something related to augs.”
  183.  
  184. She let out a thoughtful hum. “Hmm. I’ll stop by your place then. Have a cup of coffee ready for me.”
  185.  
  186. “Do you still take it with two sugars?” I asked.
  187.  
  188. “Only one tonight, otherwise I’ll never get any sleep.”
  189.  
  190. “Fair enough.”
  191.  
  192. True to my word, I had a fresh pot of the good stuff waiting for Camille by the time she knocked on my door some thirty minutes later. I opened it for her. Looking up at me on the other side of the threshold was the diminutive Gremlin. She kept her emerald-colored hair shoulder length and the sides spikey. Sprouting out from either side of her head were furred, canine-shaped ears of the same hue. They were really the only thing that indicated she was a mamono and not a human. She hadn’t changed from her work clothes, a darker green work suit that left her inner thighs and the middle of her chest from neck to belly button naked. Even a set of goggles was still atop her head.
  193.  
  194. “Mmm. I could smell the coffee all the way down the hall,” she said as she stepped inside. I flowed around her to pour the both of us a cup of coffee. I handed one of the mugs to her, which she promptly sipped at. “Yep. That’ll do.” She then plopped down on one of the chairs opposite my own. “So, what’s this about augs then?”
  195.  
  196. I took a seat with my own cup of coffee in hand. “I’ve been doing a little research into a company that’s related to the new case: Fokir. Ever heard of them?”
  197.  
  198. Camille smiled smugly. “Do I know the name of one of my prosthetic suppliers? Of course I do. What about them? Are you interested in getting some more work done?”
  199.  
  200. “No, actually. I was hoping you’d be able to explain a few things about them for me though.”
  201.  
  202. “Such as?”
  203.  
  204. I set my mug down on the desk. “Well something on their website caught my attention. ‘Proprietary DEM cells.’ What are those?”
  205.  
  206. Her eyes twinkled, her voice eager. “The I’m-talking-to-a-five-year-old answer? They’re special cells that keep your body from rejecting augments. The slightly more complicated answer is that they’re one of the main interfaces between your body and your augments. Remember when I had to recalibrate yours?”
  207.  
  208. I nodded. “Yeah. I also remember you gloating about it months later.”
  209.  
  210. “Well in your case, your natural demonic energy, or mana, was operating at a different frequency than the cells were. Just enough to cause your augs to act up but not enough to cause major problems. Sort of like trying to fit a rectangle into a square hole. It sometimes works but not always.”
  211.  
  212. “Alright. So what makes Fokir’s so special?” I asked. So far I was mostly understanding what she was saying.
  213.  
  214. She shuffled to sit on the edge of her seat and lean forward. “Fokir’s DEM cells are a brand new type that automatically readjust themselves. It’s a huge deal because it theoretically means you’d only ever have to get your augs tuned once in your whole life. Before now, most DEM cells can go about three years before needing retuning or, in most cases, outright replacement.”
  215.  
  216. “So they’re brand spanking new tech then,” I summarized. “How’d they manage it?”
  217.  
  218. I was mostly asking just to be thorough. The proceeding explanation I got from Camille was so full of technobabble that my eyes nearly glazed over. However, one line in particular caught my attention. “...and by using the Ushi-Oni blood in its sealed state, it can be easily turned into these new DEM cells.”
  219.  
  220. “Hold up,” I said, raising a claw. “What was that about Ushi-Onis?”
  221.  
  222. Camille wound back a bit. “Their blood is one of the main components of Fokir’s DEM cells. It harnesses their regenerative capabilities on a micro scale.”
  223.  
  224. “Alright. But why would it make a difference if the blood was sealed or not?”
  225.  
  226. She tilted her head to the side and frowned at me as if I was missing something major. “You’re from Zipangu, Amy. Ever met an unsealed Ushi-Oni?”
  227.  
  228. “Can’t say that I have. I’ve heard stories though. About how they go on unstoppable rampages in search of a human guy. Their blood seethes so hotly that they can’t think of anything else.”
  229.  
  230. “Right. Well when they’re not sealed, their blood is too potent. If you tried to make DEM cells from it, you’d end up with too much residual mana from the Ushi-Oni. Enough to cause major conflict in mamono, and outright corruption in humans. It’s why Fokir’s only just recently begun rolling out the new cells. It’s taken them nearly five years to get it right. Not to mention all the trouble they have to go through just to get Ushi-Oni blood in the first place.”
  231.  
  232. “That explains Saya the Shrine Maiden then,” I mused aloud. “If Fokir had willing Ushi-Onis here in Sedis, then they’d want to make sure their seals were up to snuff. Though it’s just occurred to me that I don’t know of any Ushi-Onis in the city.”
  233.  
  234. “Maybe they were just flown in?” posited Camille. “It would explain why you haven’t met or heard about them yet.”
  235.  
  236. It made sense. The thought of mamono being used as glorified blood pumps didn’t exactly sit well with me. Somehow it was different than human guys being used just for their cum or certain mamono for their milk. Maybe because blood was more visceral. It wasn’t something you really harvested. Not on a grand scale like Fokir would need to produce massive amounts of DEM cells. I had to ask, “How rare are Fokir DEM cells, Cam?”
  237.  
  238. She shrugged. “If I had to guess? Only about ten thousand people worldwide have them. As you’ve probably gathered, they’re not cheap. Nor are they readily available yet. There’s a waiting list months long to get them.”
  239.  
  240. “Guess that means I won’t be making the switch any time soon then,” I quipped.
  241.  
  242. “Hah. Your DEM cells have at least another year or so left in them before you have to start thinking about replacement anyways. Still, if you could get your hands on them I’d love to perform the procedure myself. I’m sure you can afford it on that lofty PI budget of yours.”
  243.  
  244. I shook my head. Even with the massive bonus from Ryoko I wasn’t rolling in cash. “Not really. Between all the bills and other expenses I only just break even. And there’s no way my rainy day fund is enough to cover that sort of thing.”
  245.  
  246. That earned me a snort of poorly concealed laughter from Camille. "That's not very convincing coming from someone with augs like that. They're a bit dated now, but they would have been expensive for their time. Even most nobles wouldn't have been able to get their hands on those puppies."
  247.  
  248. She had a point. But I wasn’t exactly the one who’d picked up the tab. "Well, they're something like a farewell gift from my family back in Zipangu. My folks might be rich, but I'm not."
  249.  
  250. Camille sighed. “Ah well. I’ll get my hands on a sample of Fokir’s new stuff eventually.” She looked down at her now-empty coffee mug and narrowed her eyes. “Was there anything else you needed from me?”
  251.  
  252. “Not really. How are things with Liam?” I’d set her up with the SPD night sergeant a few months ago. I’m a great wingwoman like that. Apparently the two of them had hit it off.
  253.  
  254. “Great,” replied Camille with a grin. “He thinks my genius is cute. Plus he’s totally okay with me bringing new equipment into the bedroom.” Gremlins have a habit of making all sorts of machines to spice things up. It didn’t surprise me that was the case here.
  255.  
  256. “Good, I’m glad. I don’t suppose he has a brother or a cousin that’s into Ryus or something?” I wasn’t desperate but damned if I wasn’t tired of being unattached. Camille empathized with me at least.
  257.  
  258. “Not that I know of. You still haven’t found anyone who’s shown even the smallest interest?”
  259.  
  260. I pursed my lips. “If there’s been someone I’ve completely missed it. I’d hate to think I was dense though.”
  261.  
  262. She lightly chuckled to herself. “Nah you’re not dense. Your high standards is what keeps you single, if I had to pick something.” It’s true. I did have what most mamono would consider “high standards.” So I liked guys that weren’t in it just for the sex and that can appreciate what I do for a living. Sue me.
  263.  
  264. “Sedis is nothing like Zipangu,” I said. “Most human guys here prefer the desert types.” Which, considering Sedis was an oasis in a desert spanning the southern half of the continent, made sense. “Back home I’d have several suitors to choose from. Not good ones, probably, but they’d be there nonetheless.”
  265.  
  266. “That just makes you exotic,” Camille complemented. “There’s gotta be a guy here for you. You just have to look harder.”
  267.  
  268. I sighed. “Any harder and I’ll have to start charging myself by the day.”
  269.  
  270. A slightly awkward pause followed. It ended when Camille set her mug down and stood up. “Well just keep at it. I should get home and catch some actual sleep before tomorrow. I’ve got a double limb replacement to perform in the morning.”
  271.  
  272. I motioned at the door and nodded. “Thanks for coming, Cam. I’ll let you know if I need any more help on this new case.”
  273.  
  274. She wasted no time in excusing herself. Now that I had my office to myself once more, I considered what I had learned. If Fokir had brought in some Ushi-Onis then there would be a record of it somewhere. Likely with SPD. Iani’s arrival would also hopefully be documented, as would Saya’s disappearance. Nothing like a good paper trail to follow. I decided that I’d visit SPD first thing in the morning. After that I’d go question the maid Ryoko had mentioned. Hopefully one or the other would pan out.
  275.  
  276. ***
  277.  
  278. I didn’t get much sleep that night. My dreams were dark nightmares of being chased by something evil. Big, black, and nondescript evil. The coffee I’d shared with Camille probably didn’t help either. I was groggy and slow to respond when the sun started to peek through the blinds of my studio apartment. I flopped out of bed and dragged myself into the bathroom. The proceeding hot shower woke me up just enough so that I was no longer bleary eyed. That made wrangling my unruly, white hair into something presentable slightly easier. Today I went with a high-backed ponytail while leaving my bangs to either side of my face. When combined with a golden, sleeveless vest, matching skirt, and black overcoat I looked and felt sharp.
  279.  
  280. I don’t really keep my food in my apartment, considering how little time I actually spend there. Fortunately there was still a frozen bagel and some leftover orange juice waiting for me in the fridge. As I scarfed both down I tapped on my cell phone. I wanted to make sure my contact in the SPD, a Hellhound named Hitomi, was going to be in the office today. Usually it was her who came to me for help on a case. Very rarely did it happen the other way around. After a brief series of texts that confirmed she’d be in, I headed out the door and towards SPD HQ.
  281.  
  282. The brick-and-mortar building that housed SPD’s finest was deeper into the heart of the city, near the castle where Ilassa, the Lilim who ruled over the city, lived. This early in the morning it was a bundle of activity. I only just squeezed my way into the atrium and to the front podium. I didn’t know the Anubis sergeant on duty there, but she seemed to know me. She simply waved me past and allowed me to head upstairs to Hitomi’s office.
  283.  
  284. Her office was at the end of the third floor. An official looking plaque hung on her door read “Detective Hitomi” in golden lettering. The door itself was left ajar. Peeking through the crack, I could see Hitomi already hard at work typing out reports for her superiors. Like most Hellhounds, Hitomi was rather large. But not in the fat sense of the word, mind you. Her six foot frame was pure muscle and sinew. She barely fit behind her desk even though she had the full space to herself. That was likely by design, as she left plenty of room for the chairs on the other side of the desk. Today she was wearing a black sweater and a pair of short jeans that cut off mid-thigh. Not the usual police attire, mind you, but you can get away with a lot when you’re the department’s favorite. Between her black furred limbs and her clothes peeked ashen-colored skin.
  285.  
  286. “Mind if I come in?” I asked as I knocked gently on the door. Hitomi grunted and I came all the way in.
  287.  
  288. When I’d taken a seat in front of her, she questioned, “So what’s this about anyways?”
  289.  
  290. “New case I’m working on,” I admitted. “I was hoping you’d be able to let me see any records related to Ushi-Oni entering and leaving the city.”
  291.  
  292. She raised an eyebrow at me, her red eyes scanning my face. “Ushi-Oni? That’s an oddly specific request, Amaya. Can you tell me why you need this information?”
  293.  
  294. I frowned and shook my head. “Afraid not. But if I recall correctly, those records are accessible to the public.” I didn’t want to give her any hints to what I was doing if I could help it. Even though Hitomi was a colleague, Ryoko had paid for me to be discrete.
  295.  
  296. My stonewalling had the expected effect. Hitomi’s eyes narrowed and she left out a long breath of air. “They are, yes. But I don’t really have time to comb through them for you right now. Not unless it’s urgent.”
  297.  
  298. I weighed my options. It was probably better to tell her a little bit rather than leave her completely in the dark. As long as I worded my explanation properly, that is. “Let’s just say there’s a missing person out there I’m trying to find, and they seem to have run into some Ushi-Oni before disappearing. Last I checked, Sedis didn’t have any resident Ushi-Oni. If they’re here legally, then finding them and questioning them should be trivial. If they’re not…” I trailed off and let Hitomi’s imagination fill in the blank.
  299.  
  300. “If they’re not then we have a potential powder-keg waiting to go off,” she finished for me. “Alright. Fine. Give me a moment.” She tapped away at her computer for a few minutes. Meanwhile I busied myself by looking around her office. She’d added a few new plaques to the walls since I was there last, mainly awards for placing in martial arts tournaments. Hellhounds were pretty ferocious when they want to be (almost always) and Hitomi was no exception. “There,” she finally said as a printer on an end table began to print something. “A list of all the Ushi-Oni that we know about currently in the city.”
  301.  
  302. I snaked over and plucked the single piece of paper out of the tray. On it was a list of three names, Aneka, Karen, and Iani, followed by an address and phone number they could be reached at. Both Aneka and Karen’s information was that of a Fokir clinic, the details of which I remembered from my research the day prior. Iani’s was a hotel room on the second floor of the Red Letter Inn. That made choosing my next destination simple - I’d pass by the clinic on my way to the Red Letter Inn, which in turn was on the way to the Arum Inn.
  303.  
  304. “Thanks,” I said. “This is just what I needed. I owe you one, Hitomi.”
  305.  
  306. She waved me off and returned to her reports. “Just don’t end up in any police reports like you usually do. Honestly it’s like you try to get written up.”
  307.  
  308. I moved towards the door. “Hey I’m dealing with Ushi-Onis here. You know I can’t promise that.”
  309.  
  310. “It’s precisely that attitude which worries me.”
  311.  
  312. Before she could get worked up any further, I excused myself and left SPD HQ. By now the sun was halfway through its ascent in the sky. All around me came the sounds of a city in full swing: people talking, cars honking, machines whirring, vents hissing, and so on. The sidewalk was fairly full of people going about their daily business, focused on getting to their destination as fast as possible with little regard to those around them. Anyone who’s lived in a city long enough knows how to move amid such a crowd. In my case it was somewhat of an art thanks to the sixteen foot tail trailing behind me. I’d learned through trial and error when it’s best to walk and when it’s best to fly. Today was one of the latter days. So I launched into the air, leaving several stunned passersby in my wake.
  313.  
  314. It was a nice enough day for flying. I didn’t usually fly places unless it was night or I was in a hurry. A golden Ryu dancing through the air tends to draw attention after all, even though I wasn’t the only mamono flying about. There were several Harpies and Griffons soaring along at their own heights and paces amid the high rises. Personally I chose to hover at about three stories off the pavement and moved at a moderate pace. The wind whipped at my clothes and tossed my hair wildly behind me. In this fashion I made good time to the Fokir clinic.
  315.  
  316. ***
  317.  
  318. Finding the clinic was simple enough. It was located in the middle of a block between two office buildings. It was about four stories tall, with a frosted glass front that had the word “Fokir” in big, bold, black letters. The street entrance was a series of double doors at the top of a small staircase. Inside, it opened up into a wide atrium that resembled a hospital waiting room. Various individuals, both mamono and human, were haphazardly distributed between the chairs and benches. Most were augmented in some way, some more obvious than others. One that stood out in particular to me was a Salamander with ebony-colored prosthetic limbs, including her tail which was somehow alight with a blue flame. Anywhere else she’d be the center of attention (after yours truly.) Here though? Hardly anyone paid her mind.
  319.  
  320. Clinics like these were one of the few places where augmetics didn’t have a social stigma surrounding them. Humans with prosthetics tended to get a pass, whereas mamono didn’t. Simply put, humans were weak, so swapping out limbs and/or organs wasn’t seen as a grab for power. Mamono though? Any who underwent a procedure were seen as either crazy or power hungry. It went against the “natural order” of fucking one’s husband and constantly feeding on his spirit energy to become more powerful or to heal injuries.
  321.  
  322. Personally? I think that mindset is a result of people being resistant to change and to the unknown. It wasn’t like, for example, the Sabbath coming out with some new bit of Magitek that made your life easier. Augments were instead a product of Gremlin-based research and ingenuity. As Camille once explained to me over a few beers, Gremlins originally came from an ancient, advanced civilization. They have a technological prowess and knowhow that goes far beyond current standards of technology (or so she claimed.) We’re talking the difference between the wheel and an airship. They were first discovered in the ruins of said civilization some 150 years ago. Ever since then there’s been a Magitek boom as Gremlins slowly revealed their secrets. Augments were new in the grand scheme of things, first introduced about fifteen years ago. It’s only recently that they’ve seen widespread use and adoption.
  323.  
  324. I just happened to be an early adopter (relatively speaking.) Sure, Ryu are powerful by themselves, but I wanted the extra security augmetics offered. Especially since I ran into all types during my PI work. All it took was an extension of my family’s influence to secure myself the best augs on the market. I’ve had them now for about seven years. I haven’t regretted a single day thus far. Some might say I play right into the “only for power” stereotype, but they’ve never faced down the metaphorical barrel like I have.  
  325.  
  326. In any event, I found my way to the front desk of the Fokir clinic. It was behind a counter and sliding glass window like most doctors’ waiting rooms in Sedis. On the other side was a fairly innocuous-looking Succubus in a white nurse’s outfit. She slid open her window and asked, “Hello. How can I help you?”
  327.  
  328. The ability to tell a lie with a straight face is an essential skill for a PI to have. Most people don’t like to talk to PIs. But they tend not to mind members of the press. So I flashed one of my fake press passes and bluffed, “I’m Amaya, a reporter for the Sedis Times. I understand that this is the clinic where the Ushi-Onis Aneka and Karen work. I was hoping I could ask them a few questions for an interview.”
  329.  
  330. The Succubus raised an eyebrow at me. “I see. You’re the first reporter to try and see them. Considering they only just flew in a few weeks ago...” She hesitated. She needed a little push.
  331.  
  332. “I promise I’ll be quick,” I assured her. “It’s for a column on augments. Since Fokir uses special DEM cells based on Ushi-Oni blood, I thought it might be neat to get the story straight from the source.”
  333.  
  334. “Hm. One moment. Let me make a phone call.” She picked up the phone and dialed an interior number. I only got one side of the conversation: “There’s a reporter here to see Aneka and Karen. ...From the Sedis Times. Yes. Mhm. Alright I’ll tell her.” I smiled as she hung up the phone and said, “Luckily they’re both free right now. But you only have fifteen minutes. I hope that’s okay.”
  335.  
  336. “That will do nicely. Thank you.” I nodded respectfully.
  337.  
  338. “Have a seat. Someone will be out to get you momentarily.”
  339.  
  340. I had barely sat down on a nearby bench when an Incubus stepped through a pair of double doors to the left of the front desk and called my name. I rose and followed him back through the doors and down several corridors. Eventually he deposited me in a consultation room with a brief, “Wait here.” I did my best to make myself comfortable and wait patiently.
  341.  
  342. Five minutes later a knock came at the door. Proceeding from it were two Ushi-Onis. One was as large as I remember them being back in Zipangu. The other couldn’t have been a day over eleven years old. They were the spitting image of one another otherwise, right down to their navy blue dresses and red seals, and the way they let their hair fall messily past the shoulders. I stood and held out my hand to both of them, “Hi. I’m Amaya. Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice.”
  343.  
  344. The smaller of the two took my hand first. “I’m Karen!” she exclaimed as she gave my hand a vice grip. “And this is my mom, Aneka!”
  345.  
  346. Aneka gave me that sort of smile parents do when their kids are trying to do something cute. “Have a seat, honey. I’m sure Ms. Amaya has lots of questions and we only have a little bit of time.”
  347.  
  348. Karen skittered over to a large oval cushion and plopped down on it. Aneka remained standing next to her. I took their silence as a cue to speak first.
  349.  
  350. “Alright, let’s start at the beginning,” I said as I produced a small notepad and pen. I had to sell the whole press angle, after all. “How long have you worked for Fokir?”
  351.  
  352. “Since my last birthday,” said Karen.
  353.  
  354. “About six months,” explained Aneka.
  355.  
  356. “I see. And how do you like it so far?” I asked.
  357.  
  358. Karen fidgeted on her cushion. “It’s great! I get all the candy and toys I want and all I have to do is give a little blood every week! Mommy gives more than I do, though.”
  359.  
  360. I looked to Aneka. “They only take a small amount from her,” she assured me. “I give about a half liter a week. In exchange Fokir pays for our housing and a modest stipend.”
  361.  
  362. “And what about your husband? Did he come with you to Sedis?”
  363.  
  364. Aneka nodded. “He works in one of the plants. We wouldn’t have come here without him.”
  365.  
  366. I jotted all this down. “Of course, of course. So how do you feel about your blood being used in augments? Excited? Honored? Indifferent?”
  367.  
  368. “I think it’s really really cool!” said Karen. “All those robot limbs are neat. Though I like your tail too, Ms. Amaya.”
  369.  
  370. I smirked. “Thanks Karen. What about you, Mom?”
  371.  
  372. “I definitely feel like I’m helping make a difference,” Aneka explained. “I’m happy that our blood, something that people tend to fear, is being used for good. I can only hope that Fokir is able to convince other Ushi-Oni to join up.”
  373.  
  374. “That leads me to my next question - How do your friends back home feel about this?”
  375.  
  376. A slight frown crept across Aneka’s face. She looked down at her daughter and gently stroked her hair. “They were… less than pleased. The other Ushi-Onis I knew wanted nothing to do with Fokir. They’re set in the old ways of living in deep within the mountains of Zipangu, with little in the way of technology. I’m sure you know how that is, being from Zipangu yourself.”
  377.  
  378. I did. Zipangu’s many wonderful things, but it does tend to have areas that like to keep things “old fashioned.” I took some notes down, asked a few more meaningless questions, then reached into my coat. I pulled out the picture of Saya and showed it to the two Ushi-Oni. “One last question, have you seen this woman?”
  379.  
  380. Karen squinted at the photo, then nodded. “Yep! That’s the priest lady who made sure my Mom’s and my seal were good!”
  381.  
  382. Aneka caught on faster than I’d expected. “Why? What’s this about?” she asked cautiously, her eyes narrowing.
  383.  
  384. “Just following up a potential story lead,” I quickly answered. “I heard she was in the area and working for Fokir. You wouldn’t happen to know how I could reach her, do you?”
  385.  
  386. “I’m afraid not.” Aneka’s tone was curt, suspicious. I don’t think she’d figured out who I really was, but she definitely didn’t buy my explanation. “Sadly I think our time is up. If you’ll excuse us...”
  387.  
  388. “Of course. Thanks for your time, the both of you.”
  389.  
  390. I bowed as Aneka hurried her daughter out of the room. As soon as they were gone, I sighed. All I’d been able to do was confirm that Saya had been here before. My gut told me there was more to it than that, but without anything to go on I was stuck. Though that same instinctual feeling made me think that Aneka and Karen weren’t directly involved in whatever happened to Saya. The former didn’t strike me as the type to do anything that’d risk her daughter’s well-being. That said, her defensiveness suggested Aneka knew something. I just wish I knew what.
  391.  
  392. ***
  393.  
  394. I left the Fokir clinic and began to head to the hotel where Iani had been staying. About two blocks in I couldn’t shake the unmistakeable feeling of being watched. A quick glance around revealed no one obvious, which just made it worse. I don’t like being tailed, imagined or otherwise. There were a few things I could do to see if the threat was real. I opted for the “unexpectedly dart down a narrow alleyway” approach. I made it about halfway down, launched into the air, then landed on the rooftop to my right.
  395.  
  396. And not a moment too soon. As I watched the entrance to the alley, two red, horned Onis in business suits rushed in from the street. They had no identifying marks, and their eyes were hidden behind dark shades. They looked around frantically, yet never up at the rooftops. I guess they forgot Ryu can fly. After about three minutes, one of the two made a phone call. I was too high up to hear what she was saying. At the conclusion of the call, both Onis turned back and rejoined the throng on the streets proper. I waited about ten minutes more for good measure, then leapt back into the sky, using the buildings as cover.
  397.  
  398. I set down ten minutes later about a block from the Red Letter Inn. An unlit neon sign hung over the automatic, sliding double doors. The Inn was fairly nice for a hotel on the edge of midtown - plenty of rooms, clean, and spacious (for most mamono.) After circling the place twice to make sure I didn’t have anyone following me, I went inside. A bored-looking human girl in a modest, professional dress stood behind the front counter.
  399.  
  400. You’d be surprised how far you can get just by acting like you belong somewhere. So long as you do it with confidence, most people won’t think twice about you. Even if you stand out in a crowd like I do. At best, they’ll only remember that you were “some kind of gold snake.” If they remember you at all. So I acted like I was a guest and headed for the elevators. The girl behind the counter didn’t even give me a second glance.
  401.  
  402. The printout Hitomi gave me said room 207, if I recalled correctly, so I took the elevator up to the second floor. The wide hallways were empty, save for a maid cart all the way down at the end of the corridor on the right. I must have arrived just as the housekeeping service was finishing up this floor. That meant I wouldn’t be interrupted in the middle of combing through Iani’s room. Not unless I somehow made enough noise to disturb the neighboring guests. That wasn’t likely.
  403.  
  404. The door to room 207 was locked with a standard card reader with a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on the handle. I checked the hallway to make sure no one was around, then began to murmur under my breath. There are two main limiting factors of magic: time and energy. The faster you want something done, the more energy it takes. Same thing goes for channeling a spell for an extended period of time. In addition, some spells simply take time to take effect or to cast. In this instance, I had plenty of time and nothing to distract me. I needed to use a spell that could fool the card reader and let me in without causing any lasting damage. If I wanted to simply get inside I could have knocked the door in or ripped off the lock. Stealth was the key factor here.
  405.  
  406. The spell was fairly complex, but I managed it without any hiccups. With a release of energy, the card reader blinked green, and I heard the tumbler of the lock turn. I let myself in after another furtive look around. As I’d hoped, Iani’s room seemed to have been left untouched. The room was just large enough to accommodate an Ushi-Oni, but only barely. It was clearly designed for smaller mamono. If I wasn’t as flexible I might’ve had a hard time moving around. A twin-sized bed took up the center of the room. At first I thought it odd an Ushi-Oni would tolerate such a small bed, but then I realized she probably draped her legs over either side and used the backboard as a rest for her upper torso. A single end table sat next to the bed, with a clock and a lamp atop. Heavy curtains acted as blinds over the single, small window. Beneath the window lay several large suitcases of different colors: two red and one white.
  407.  
  408. I made a beeline for the suitcases and examined the tags on the handles. Iani must have stopped by the Arum Inn and picked up Saya’s belongings at some point. The two red bags belonged to the shrine maiden, while the white one was Iani’s. With a surgeon’s care and precision, I combed through each bag. I was looking for anything that’d help me locate either of the two missing, such as an itinerary, or even a few strands of hair from a brush.
  409.  
  410. In that regard I lucked out. I found a spare seal of Iani’s at the bottom of her suitcase. Black runes sprawled across the white cloth, the fabric tingling with residual mana. Unlike most Ushi-Oni type seals, it was designed to suppress a specific Ushi-Oni. That meant it had a link to Iani. A link I could follow with magic, like with hair or anything else saturated with a person’s energy. The only catch was the spell in question had limited range. If she was outside the city limits, or on the complete opposite side of Sedis, then the spell would fail. Also, all I’d know was the general direction Iani lay in. I’d have to blindly follow the tug of magic, in the air and above the rooftops.
  411.  
  412. The good news was I had a different spell that I’d be able to use once I got close: Sense. With it, I’d be able to sense different traces of demonic and/or spiritual energy like a trained bloodhound. The population density of Sedis meant that any energy signatures outside of a block’s radius would be white noise though. That’s why the combination of the two spells was very effective at tracking someone down. They complemented each other’s weaknesses.
  413.  
  414. The only other thing of note that I found in the suitcases was a receipt in Saya’s bags. It bore the Watari Shrine crest, detailing the list of services Saya had provided to Fokir. Something was off. Saya had not only sanctified some equipment and checked both Aneka’s and Karen’s seals, but she’d also provided Fokir with 48 general purpose Ushi-Oni seals on top of all that. I was no expert in how long seals lasted for Ushi-Oni, but I was pretty sure there was no way the two I’d met would burn through that many. Even the one I’d found of Iani’s was likely in case something happened to hers, however improbable that was. So why did Fokir need 48? Were they bringing in more Ushi-Oni? Or was something else at play here?
  415.  
  416. I chewed on this new information for a bit as I did my best to repack the three suitcases. Once that was done, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed one of the numbers Ryoko had left me. She picked up just as I was about to give up and call a different number.
  417.  
  418. “Ms. Minami, I presume?” she asked in a drawn out way that suggested I’d woken her from a nap. “How goes the search for Saya and Iani?”
  419.  
  420. “I’ve made some progress,” I replied levelly. “I should be able to find Iani before dusk if all goes well. Nothing yet on Saya though.”
  421.  
  422. I heard Ryoko take a draw from her pipe. “Ah. I see. Well perhaps Iani will be able to help you in that regard.” She paused, then added, “Was there anything else in particular you wished to discuss?”
  423.  
  424. “Yeah. You should probably come by Iani’s hotel room and pick up her stuff. Saya’s is here too. Room 207 at the Red Letter Inn. I imagine you’ll be able to get in if you pay the room bill at the front desk.”
  425.  
  426. “I see. I’ll send one of my retainers to do just that. Thank you, Ms. Minami. Good luck in your search.”
  427.  
  428. Then she hung up with a yawn. I guess Nurarihyons aren’t diurnal. But I had more important matters to worry about. Mainly finding Iani and hoping she’d have some clue about Saya’s whereabouts. I doubt I’d get anything from questioning the maid at the Arum Inn that Iani wouldn’t already have. So I stole out of Iani’s hotel room and left via the same lobby I’d come in through. Normally I would have taken a side exit, but it seemed they were all wired up as emergency exits. Still, the girl behind the front counter was on the phone when I left, and paid me no mind.
  429.  
  430. I should have known better.
  431.  
  432. I made it about twelve feet outside when I heard the screeching of tires. Suddenly three black SUVs emerged from traffic and pulled up to the sidewalk. Out of them jumped the two Onis that were tailing me earlier, along with five muscular Salamanders and five incubi. They were all on edge, as if expecting a fight.
  433.  
  434. “Well shit,” I mumbled under my breath. “Just when everything was going so well.”
  435.  
  436. ***
  437.  
  438. One of the suits, an incubus, closed the distance between us. He was thin and spry, with reddish-brown hair arranged in a crew-cut. Standing at about five foot five, I had at least seven inches on him. His eyes were obscured by dark sunglasses, and he had a wire running from his collar up into an earpiece. He came to a stop and spread his arms just wide enough that I could see into his coat. There in side holsters were two compact automatic pistols. I only hoped that he was using demon silver bullets and not the other kind. The former would simply sap my strength. The latter would put actual holes in me.
  439.  
  440. “You will come with us,” he accosted me in a typical thuggish way. The kind of way one uses when they think they have the upper hand and believe there’s nothing the other party can do about it. The move that let me see his weapons had been deliberate. It spoke volumes. This guy and his fellows were more than prepared to use force if I didn’t comply. Innocent people were bound to get caught in the crossfire if I let that happen.
  441.  
  442. Still, I wasn’t about to just up and go with them. I began focusing energy into my claws. Not enough to make them spark and crackle with power, not just yet. “And what if I don’t want to take a ride with Fokir rent-a-cops?” I spat, buying myself time.
  443.  
  444. The edge of the goon’s mouth twitched into a smirk. “That would be… unfortunate. We know who you are, Ms. Minami, and where you live. There’s nowhere to run.”
  445.  
  446. Double shit. I knew the whole reporter angle was going to fall apart once someone started poking, but I’d hoped it would have bought me more time. Sometimes I hate the fact I’m the only Ryu in town, much less a golden one. It makes hiding in the shadows of society practically impossible sometimes.
  447.  
  448. I needed a play here. Unfortunately my only option that wouldn’t see me going with them to Demon Lord knows where was to pick a fight. If the rest of the goon squad had guns I’d be in trouble, but I might be able to handle things if only a couple did. Only one real way to find out.
  449.  
  450. I held up my hands in fake surrender. “Alright, you got me,” I said, inching closer to the incubus in front of me. Just a few more inches and…
  451.  
  452. “Stop right there,” he commanded. I came to a stop just out of reach of the incubus, wound my coils underneath me, and prepared to launch myself at him. His fellows all produced collapsing shock batons with surprising speed. Only the one gunman in front of me then. Good.
  453.  
  454. Just as he began to reach into his coat, I flew forward. My claws crackled with mana, preparing to deliver a high-frequency pulse like a lightning strike. Enough power flowed through them to knock out most mamono, let alone a single incubus. As my palm connected with his torso, I released the built up energy. It sent him flying back into one of the SUVs with a low rumble of thunder. All of the air in his body got knocked out of him, causing him to wheeze and fall forward. He was unconscious by the time he hit the pavement.
  455.  
  456. The rest of the goons sprung into action. All eleven of them charged me, shock batons sparking and at the ready. The two Onis from before reached me first. I snaked around the first blow, a downward strike aimed at my head. The second I caught on my forearm. Electricity ran through the glorified metal pipe and into my arm. Not nearly enough to overload my augs, but still enough to cause the muscles there to spasm and contract. Plainly said, it hurt like hell. But I was a Ryu. I had more than enough draconic fortitude to weather quite a few blows. Didn’t mean I wanted to be hit by multiple batons at once, or hit at all, if I could help it.
  457.  
  458. As the remaining assailants closed the gap and formed a sort of circle around me, I spun and whipped the end of my tail at knee-level. All four of the remaining incubi were knocked off balance and sent either stumbling back or to the ground proper. The mamono weathered the blow, and jabbed at me. I dodged best I could but four batons still connected. If I thought one had hurt, this was another level entirely. My entirely body writhed as the voltage flowed through it. I gritted my teeth through the pain and let out a draconic roar. Apparently it was louder and more impressive than I thought, as three of the goons stepped back hesitantly.
  459.  
  460. “My turn,” I snarled. I lunged at the nearest of the group, one of the Onis. I slid beneath a chest-level slash and brought my claws up right into her jaw. The strength of the blow was enough to lift her a foot off the ground, her head snapping back. As she tumbled through the air, I wheeled on the other Oni nearby. I caught her wrist as she flailed at me. With a sadistic grin, I twisted her hand so the baton in it returned to its owner’s chest. I followed up the resulting discharge of electricity with another from my own claws. She crumpled on the spot. Three down for the count, nine to go.
  461.  
  462. “Group up again!” shouted one of the Salamanders. Her tail blazed brightly, as they tended to during a fight. “She can’t take us all on at once!” Her fellow mamono took up equidistant positions around me in seconds. Then with a roar, they attacked.
  463.  
  464. I swerved out of the way as the one behind me to my left and the one to my immediate right lunged at me. I used their own momentum against them, and sent the two spiraling into one another. The other three Salamanders took alternating swings at me. There wasn’t much time between their rain of blows, but it was enough. I flipped one of the ones behind me over my shoulder and towards the street. I noted with satisfaction that the resulting thump dented yet another SUV. The other two paused, looked at one another, then nodded. In unison they leapt at me.
  465.  
  466. When I moved out of the way, they anticipated and moved with me. I shielded myself with my arms, earning another two shocking raps across them. Before they could pull back their arms, I reached out and grabbed the business ends of both batons. It hurt, but I was pissed. Anger and adrenaline are helluva drugs. So much to the dismay (and dare I say horror) of the Salamanders, I grinned. Then I sent two more pulses through my claws and overloaded the batons.
  467.  
  468. The effect was almost instant. I must have put more juice into my claws than I’d thought, because both Salamanders’ eyes rolled back into their head from the resulting discharge. The acrid smell of something burning hit my nostrils as they fell. I flung the batons I now held away and roared once more. By now the incubi had picked themselves up. But they didn’t dare approach me. They looked more like scared mice than trained fighters. Good.
  469.  
  470. I pointed a finger at one of them and laughed. It was a deep, guttural, cruel sort of thing, meant to build on the fear that was already present. “Go and tell your masters,” I said. “That they’ll need more than this sorry excuse of hired help to bring me down.”
  471.  
  472. That was when I heard the hammer of a gun click.
  473.  
  474. The incubi who I’d sent flying into an SUV had recovered enough to draw one of his pistols and level it at me. Three sharp barks sent bullets whistling in my direction. There wasn’t a thing I could do to stop them. All three found their mark, passing through my abdomen and tail like ghosts. As they went, I felt my energy go with them. So they had been demon silver after all. Great for my overall health, but not so great if more hit me. It didn’t matter what kind of mamono, incubi, or human you were, whether you were augmented or not. The sapping effects of the bullets were multiplicative. The more that hit you in a short window, the more strength you’d lose. Only high ranking spellcasters, or those with vast amounts of mana, could withstand several at once. Anymore and I’d likely keel over right there. I had to escape. Now.
  475.  
  476. I launched into the air as fast as I could manage. The incubi kept firing at me, but none of his shots hit. I was already twenty stories up by the time he stopped. I kept going until I was eyelevel with the penthouse of tallest skyscraper in Sedis. The sun glinted off of my scales as I snaked through the sky, sending a cascade of golden light towards those on the ground. I needed to get somewhere safe and hole up until nightfall. Otherwise I’d risk more of Fokir’s hired help raining on my parade.
  477.  
  478. Several options presented themselves to me. I dismissed the first, going to SPD HQ. The last thing Hitomi would want to hear is that I’d gained the ire and notice of a mega corp. The SPD were good people, but there’s some times when the law just doesn’t work in their favor. At best that little sprawl would be written off as some footnote in a patrolman’s report. That’s just how things worked in a city this big. So the SPD was out. That left Camille and Reri’s. The only reason I considered the latter was because the owner had a crazy amount of security for a fetish club. I’d be safe there, albeit probably goaded into another rope harness lesson with me as the subject. As for Camille’s garage… Well at least she could take a look at my augs, make sure the shocks hadn’t done any major damage to them. I couldn’t just fly there though, not without dragging Fokir down on her head.
  479.  
  480. I muttered under my breath and gathered what energy I had left. I weaved it into a cocoon around me, then whispered under my breath. My body shimmered and disappeared, taking on the exact appearance of the sky around me. Once I was sure I was invisible, I weaved my way towards the outer edge of town to what I hoped would be a temporary safe house.
  481.  
  482. ***
  483.  
  484. “What the hell happened to you?” asked Camille, wide-eyed, as she shut the garage door behind me.
  485.  
  486. “Fokir,” I managed to grunt as I sought out the nearest space to curl up and rest. Camille’s garage hadn’t changed much since I’d last been. It was still a mess of miscellaneous parts that ranged from simple capacitors to outright prosthetic legs. Several couches and a desk stood out amid the madness, like rafts in an ocean. I made it to one of the former before collapsing.
  487.  
  488. Camille waited for me to catch my breath before coming over. She offered out a bottle of water with a straw in it. I took it wearily and quenched my thirst. Maintaining that invisibility spell for so long had taken a lot out of me, especially after being hit by those bullets. It probably didn’t help that I’d taken a circuitous route here in an attempt to lose any possible tails.
  489.  
  490. “So what’s Fokir want with you?” she asked as I passed the bottle back.
  491.  
  492. I shrugged. “Apparently I got close to something. Something involving the two Ushi Oni that are here in Sedis working for them and the shrine priestess who worked on their seals.”
  493.  
  494. “Only two? Hm. I expected more. Especially since Fokir’s ramping up production.”
  495.  
  496. I raised an eyebrow at her. “Who told you that?”
  497.  
  498. She smiled knowingly. “Oh, no one you’d know. But after our little chat I did some asking around. Discretely, before you worry. Turns out a friend of a friend who works in one of the Fokir labs knew something.”
  499.  
  500. “Go on.”
  501.  
  502. “Well apparently the scientists at his lab were excited about getting a shipment of Ushi-Oni blood. My guy wasn’t a hundred percent sure, but from what he overheard there was also a directive from the higher ups not to discuss where the blood had come from. They were to focus on their work turning it into DEM cells and not question anything.”
  503.  
  504. “Somewhat suspicious…”
  505.  
  506. “Yeah. But because they weren’t scheduled to get some for months yet, they couldn’t help but gush. When it comes to nerd types, we tend not to look a gift horse in the mouth. So they willfully overlooked what might be a less-than-legal source.”
  507.  
  508. I rubbed my forehead in thought. “Maybe they thought it came from the Ushi-Onis in town already?”
  509.  
  510. It was Camille’s turn to shrug. “Maybe. But we’re talking about more blood than two Ushis could provide. An order of magnitude more.”
  511.  
  512. “Definitely suspicious then,” I confirmed. “Only one of the Ushis in Sedis is really providing any meaningful amount of blood. The other’s just a kid.”
  513.  
  514. “I take it you talked to them then?”
  515.  
  516. “Yep. Pretended I was a reporter writing a column. As you can see, that didn’t hold much water for long.”
  517.  
  518. Camille gave me a once over, then moved towards one of her shelves. She returned moments later with an aug diagnostic kit in hand. Before I could protest she flipped up one of the false scales on my tail and shoved a lead into the port underneath. The other end connected to a handheld tablet. As she read the screen, she tutted, “According to this you’ve been subjected to a number of high voltage shocks and been shot with demon silver. You must have really pissed them off.”
  519.  
  520. “Any damage?” I asked.
  521.  
  522. “Some burnt out capacitors and fried DEM cells around the points of impact. Nothing that won't fix itself in a few days since you have the fancy stuff. I’d definitely recommend against getting hit by more, though.”
  523.  
  524. I pulled the plug out and let it dangle from her tablet. “Thanks, Cam.”
  525.  
  526. She set the kit aside and joined me on the couch. “So what’s next? I can’t imagine you plan to stay here for long.”
  527.  
  528. “No,” I said, frowning. “I was going to wait until nightfall, then track someone down. I’m hoping they’ll have answers in some form or another.”
  529.  
  530. “I see. Well you’re welcome to hang around as long as you need to. If you need anything, just shout.”
  531.  
  532. I nodded. Camille took it as a sign to resume working on a prosthetic arm at a bench nearby. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. I awoke some time later to find that twilight had already fallen. Despite my body wishing it could remain where it was, I slid off the couch and towards the exit. I said goodbye to Camille as I excused myself through the same door I’d come in. The temperature had dropped quite a bit from this morning, as it tends to in the desert. I tugged my overcoat closer to my body, then jumped into the chilly air. I practically vanished against the darkness of the night sky, despite the illumination from the city below.
  533.  
  534. My short flight ended when I landed on a rooftop a few blocks away from Camille’s garage. I pulled Iani’s seal from where I’d stashed it in my coat and focused on it. I whispered a few words, imbuing them with mana. The seal’s edges glowed, and it tugged against my claws. I spun in place until I was facing where the seal was pointing. It was leading me towards the industrial district of Sedis. I had a hunch where in particular.
  535.  
  536. Sure enough, as I flew in circles ten minutes later, my hunch was validated. I was above one of Fokir’s manufacturing plants. It was a fairly innocuous looking building from the sky. Brick walls, lots of windows, four stories tall and two whole blocks wide. The only thing that signified it belonged to Fokir was a small sign above the main entrance with Fokir’s logo on it: a Dragon’s tail in the middle of a gear. Since it was past business hours there wasn’t much activity on the ground. But I wasn’t about to enter at street level.
  537.  
  538. Most people (and companies) don’t realize how easy it is to break into a building. Sure, you can put all sorts of sensors, wards, cameras, and what not on doors and windows. But there’s always a weak link somewhere. For a building this big, it’d be cost prohibitive to have someone watching every single window, remotely or otherwise. All I had to do was find a manager’s office or something close to it. Regardless of the company and people involved, it’s almost inevitable that the boss is fucking someone on their desk. And generally you don’t want other people watching when that happens.
  539.  
  540. I found a suitable office on my second pass around the building: a corner office on the west end. After double-checking there were no cameras with sightlines, I floated down next to one of the windows. I placed a claw against it and carefully poured energy into it. Moments later an aperture in the glass opened up, the sides stretching and pooling as if made of cloth. I squeezed through the opening, then sealed the glass behind me. All said and done, I was standing in the office with no one the wiser.
  541.  
  542. Before I began wandering the building, I cast Sense. Suddenly a multitude of energy trails assailed my senses. I pushed them aside and focused on the seal in my hand. As I did, one particular trail seemed to glow and twist in the air. It was faint, but Iani had to be close. So I once again cast invisibility on myself and followed the trace.
  543.  
  544. I only had to dodge a few janitors on my journey. Otherwise the building was quiet. I was led out of the offices and into one of the main manufacturing spaces. There I overlooked an assembly line of sorts for augments from a catwalk that went around the edge of the whole room. Iani’s trail flowed downwards, so I hopped down as quietly as I could. I weaved between the various workbenches and carts full of parts. Then I came to a stop. If my spell was doing its job properly, then Iani was directly below me. The trail simply met the concrete floor and went straight through it. As far as I could tell, though, there was no way down. In fact, I hadn’t seen anything that even indicated there was a basement. No stairs leading down, no elevators, nothing. I was missing something.
  545.  
  546. I furtively checked the rest of the space out. Still nothing. I was about to give up and just try punching my way through when I noticed that one of the workbenches wasn’t where it should be. There were twelve rows of three benches, all bolted to the floor and equidistant from one another. But not this one. This one was farther away from its fellows by about six inches. I carefully gave it a once over and found what I was looking for: a small red switch behind a plastic case on the underside. When I flicked it on, the concrete floor directly behind the bench parted noiselessly to reveal a staircase heading down. Bingo.
  547.  
  548. Once inside, I looked back up at the opening I’d made. Just when I was about to worry, it slid shut. Only one way from here: down. The stairs just kept going. They curved slightly to the left, as if I was walking around a giant cylinder. Eventually, after what must have been at least three stories of descent, I came to a set of double doors. I opened them gingerly and peeked inside. What I saw shocked me.
  549.  
  550. The dim, oval room, easily 50 yards in diameter, was full of Ushi-Oni. Twenty-five in total with room for more, all seemingly unconscious. Each was chained against the wall of an alcove by what must have been pure demon silver shackles. Various leads and tubes sprouted from their arms, all leading to a reservoir in front of them. Inside, a bubbling black liquid pooled. Their blood.
  551.  
  552. Before I could so much as slip inside and approach one of the Ushi-Oni, the lights overhead suddenly glowed with light. Then I heard clapping. “Well done, Ms. Minami,” said a voice from across the room. I squinted in that direction and growled. The incubus from earlier that day was there with twice the amount of help he’d had before. And they all were wielding submachine guns.
  553.  
  554. “We know you’re here,” the incubus continued. “So you might as well drop the invisible act.”
  555.  
  556. I said nothing. The fact they hadn’t shot me yet meant they didn’t know where I was exactly. By speaking I’d just give my position away. Instead I slowly moved into the alcove I’d stopped in front of. It was a tight squeeze, between the Ushi-Oni and myself, but I managed to get right up against the wall.
  557.  
  558. “Fine,” said the incubus. “We’ll do this the hard way.” To his fellows, he commanded, “Search the place. Shoot anything that moves. But not the Ushi-Oni if you can help it.” On cue the goon squad fanned out and began sweeping the place. I had a minute before I’d be found, if I was lucky. But I had the beginnings of a plan.
  559.  
  560. See, the Ushi-Oni here were being kept docile and at a low state of awareness by the demon silver bindings. Like bullets made of the same material, the shackles were designed to sap the strength of whatever they held. Remove them and you’d quickly have a very angry Ushi-Oni on your hands. Do that and remove their seal, and, well… Demon silver bullets can only stop but so much.
  561.  
  562. I reached over and plucked the seal off of the Ushi-Oni’s eye. Then I began to work on the shackles. I had to be careful so as not to make any noise. By the time a group of about five mamono rounded on my alcove, I’d managed to weaken the bindings. Right as they were about to begin poking the air where my tail was coiled, I snapped the chains holding the Ushi-Oni down.
  563.  
  564. “Oh. Shit.” said one of the goons.
  565.  
  566. “Enjoy, fuckers,” I said as the Ushi-Oni stirred to life. She blinked twice, then bellowed. The goons frantically began unloading on her but it was too late. She rocketed out of the alcove, trailing tubes spewing blood behind her, and began tearing both people and things apart. All attention went to the Ushi-Oni, and for good reason. One of them must have hit an alarm, as a klaxon began blaring. The distraction gave me time to slip into the next alcove and free another Ushi-Oni. I repeated this process thrice more.
  567.  
  568. The five freed, unsealed Ushi-Onis made short work of the goon squad. I let my invisibility spell drop as they stood seething over unconscious forms. “Watch the doors,” I shouted. “I’ve got to get the rest of you out.” They took one look at me, eyes wild. For one terrifying moment I thought they might round on me. Then the moment passed, and there was a look of understanding in their eyes. They did as I asked.
  569.  
  570. I wasted no time in breaking the chains of the remaining Ushi-Oni. The last happened to be Iani. I knew it was her as she was the spitting image of the picture I’d been given. Plus she was the only Ushi-Oni with a black and white seal. As she came to and regarded me, she asked, “Who are you?”
  571.  
  572. I smiled and held up her spare seal. “A friend. Ryoko sent me to find you. Sorry it took so long.”
  573.  
  574. Iani looked at the tubes in her and growled. She ripped them out in groups and threw them to the floor in disgust. The holes in her arm flowed shut in seconds. “They captured me when I was sleeping, the cowards. Right after I’d gotten a tip where Saya was.”
  575.  
  576. Right. Saya. “I was to find her too,” I said. “After we get out of here we can find her together.”
  577.  
  578. “About that…” Iani grimaced. “She’s closer than you think.”
  579.  
  580. I raised an eyebrow but said nothing as she strode forward. She led me into the gathering group of Ushi-Oni in the middle of the room, looking carefully into each face. I almost didn’t notice one very pointedly avoiding eye contact. Like most of the black arachnids in the room, she had a seal over one of her eyes. The other was brown. I put two and two together and reached out. She shrunk from my touch, but not enough to prevent me from raising the seal.
  581.  
  582. A blue eye stared back at me.
  583.  
  584. “Those bastards,” I spat. “Wasn’t enough that they had illegal Ushis to begin with. They went and corrupted an unwitting accomplice. When I get my hands on them...”
  585.  
  586. Saya’s lips trembled. She opened her mouth to say something, only for a loud explosion to interrupt her. It seemed that Fokir’s cavalry had arrived. The unsealed Ushi-Oni rushed to fend off an armed group that’d come through one of the room’s three entrances. I had no doubt that they’d have little issue handling themselves. My main concern was getting the other twenty Ushi-Oni to safety.
  587.  
  588. My initial reaction was to roar a challenge that we’d smash anything in our way. But a cooler head prevailed. I quickly tapped at my cellphone and prayed that it’d dial out. Moments later, Hitomi picked up.
  589.  
  590. “What the hell is that racket, Amaya?” she asked, barely audible over the rest of the noise.
  591.  
  592. “No time to explain,” I shouted back. “Fokir’s trying to contain five unsealed Ushi-Oni and twenty others after that. Get your best men to 18th and Blore. We’re under the factory there. Hurry!”
  593.  
  594. “I must be hearing things, because it sounded like you said unsealed and Ushi-Oni in the same sentence.”
  595.  
  596. “HURRY.”
  597.  
  598. “Right, hang on. We’re on the way.”
  599.  
  600. I slid the phone back into a coat pocket and took stock of the situation. All we had to do to survive was hold off Fokir. There were only but so many entrances to this room, one of which led back up to the plant proper. If worst came to worst we could just run.
  601.  
  602. Then I heard very loud thumps from the other side of the door I’d come from.
  603.  
  604. I rushed over, ready to bar it, when I realized it wasn’t the sound of mamono and incubi coming this way. Instead, it was the sound of solid concrete blocks sealing off that exit. Ushi-Oni are great wrecking balls when they want to be, but we were at least several stories below ground. There was no way we’d be able to dig and claw our way out.
  605.  
  606. “Fuck,” I cursed as I returned to the group. “I don’t suppose any of you know another way out of here?” No one answered. Saya was crying into Iani’s shoulder. The roar of combat from the unsealed group grew louder. Everything was going to shit.
  607.  
  608. Then it got worse.
  609.  
  610. With a loud hiss, a blue cloud began pouring out of the vents in the ceiling. It only took me one whiff to realize it was magically charged, designed to knock out anyone who breathed too much of it. Even Ushi-Oni. We couldn’t stay here and wait for Hitomi’s backup. Our only option was to follow in the wake of the unsealed group.
  611.  
  612. I shouted directions at the herd of Ushi-Oni and bolted towards the sound of fighting. The doors between the circular prison room and the hallway beyond had been ripped off of their hinges. They hung loosely by mere threads. I knocked them aside and pushed forward. The corridor was just wide enough to fit two Ushi-Oni side by side, with more doors that led off to parts unknown. A red, baleful light illuminated the entire stretch, flickering every so often. Signs of a skirmish became more and more apparent the closer we got to the unsealed group. Chunks missing from walls, bullet holes, and even the occasional unconscious and battered form of a Fokir security member. After the hallway curved to the left, I finally reached the front lines.
  613.  
  614. Fokir had managed to dig in at a series of intersecting passageways. They stood in a firing line across the way, shooting at anything that moved. The unsealed group had taken cover in the side hallways. Two of the five Ushi-Oni were sprawled against the walls, breathing heavily. The other three couldn’t so much as poke their heads out before being driven back. It didn’t take long for the security goons to realize new players had entered the game. I had to hurriedly shepard the Ushi-Oni behind me back the way we came as demon silver bullets filled the hallway where we’d been standing moments before.
  615.  
  616. There weren’t a whole lot of options. If the hallway vents were rigged just like the ones in the holding cells, it wouldn’t be long before the knockout gas caught up with us. I didn’t want to wait and find out. We also couldn’t charge forward without risking massive casualties. There was just too much demon silver being thrown around. Our only hope was to somehow break the firing line.
  617.  
  618. Offensive magic is tricky even under the best of circumstances. If it wasn’t shaped and controlled properly, it’d simply fan out and peter after a few meters. Great for area control, but not for hitting things far away. I would have to consciously weave the spells into bolts that could be then flung at great speed and distance. Something that would very quickly eat away at my energy reserves if I wasn’t careful. I also had to be cautious not to put too much energy into the bolts, else I might accidentally kill someone.
  619.  
  620. I began focusing and gathering up my mana above me. The shadow of a storm cloud formed over me and began crackling with lightning. Shortly thereafter, spheres of electricity about the size of a baseball descended out of the cloud and circled around my head. When I had about twenty of them, I darted out around the corner. Before they could react, I flung the storm bolts into the mass of guards.
  621.  
  622. They streaked through the air, trailing light and thunder in their wake. When they found their mark, the effect was instantaneous. The guard (and often the ones directly next to them) was smote in a blinding flash, causing them to seize up, drop their weapons, and fall to the ground crying in pain. The few that remained on their feet could barely aim their limbs were shaking so hard.
  623.  
  624. “Rush them now!” I shouted at all of the Ushi-Oni present. As a black mass, we charged forward. The unsealed group trailed behind, scooping up their wounded and anyone who fell back. The security goons tried to put us down, but we were simply too numerous for them now. We crashed over them like a wave and kept moving. We kept going until we finally came to a T-Shaped intersection. The far wall was home to a service elevator. Four Ushi-Oni could barely fit inside.
  625.  
  626. “Quickly!” I directed. “Get in and get going. Then send it right back down!”
  627.  
  628. The first two groups made it up and out without any issue. But as the third group disappeared behind the ceiling, more Fokir security arrived. They streamed out of doors in corridor we’d come from and once again took up a firing line. The thirteen remaining Ushi-Oni and I dove out of the way as a hail of bullets pocket-marked the walls.
  629.  
  630. What followed was a war of attrition. I would gather up more storm bolts then put a good number of the guards down. But they were replaced as quickly as they fell. At best I managed to secure lulls which the Ushi-Oni used to escape in the elevator. This went on for what felt like hours. I grew weary, my body sluggish. It wasn’t until I was pulled out of the way by Iani that I realize she and I were the only ones left to escape.
  631.  
  632. “Thanks,” I mumbled as I prepared one final spell. I let loose the resulting giant ball of lightning and scurried for the elevator with Iani. Instead of hitting the guards outright, though, I detonated the ball in front of them. It created a curtain of light and sound that covered our escape. But it also took the last of my energy reserves. The last thing I remember is seeing Iani rush forward to grab my falling body. Then nothing.
  633.  
  634. ***
  635.  
  636. I awoke later in my apartment with a massive migraine. I dragged myself out of bed and found a fresh bottle of scotch waiting for me in the kitchen. Along with a note to call Camille when I’d woken up. After washing down some pills, I found my laptop and pulled up the latest news to find out what had happened after I’d zonked out.
  637.  
  638. Hitomi and the rest of the SPD had showed up about eight minutes after Iani dragged me out of the building. They’d quickly brought order to the chaos, arresting at least forty Fokir employees on the spot. The Ushi-Oni, including Iani and Saya, had all been rounded up and taken in to give statements. Most of their stories were the same: They were normal human girls who Fokir had snatched off the street and corrupted against their will. Upon hearing that I was ready to go back and tear Fokir’s entire plant apart, but I quickly realized that wouldn’t solve anything.
  639.  
  640. Fokir itself issued its own statement, condemning the entire affair as the crazy brainchild of the Sedis branch manager. They “deeply regretted” the pain that had been afflicted upon the poor victims, and had set up a trust fund. Said trust would cover literally any expense the new Ushi-Oni made to acclimate to their new life, with promises that any medical procedure was also on Fokir for life. That alone spoke volumes to how much power and influence Fokir wielded. They’d get some bad PR for this, but nothing more than a slap on the wrist in the grand scheme of things.
  641.  
  642. In the end, Iani and Saya returned home with Ryoko. The latter thanked me profusely and slipped me even more payment. I used it and a few connections to buy Camille some Fokir DEM cells to play with. With any luck she’d reverse-engineer them and help break Fokir’s hold on the market. Only time would tell.
  643.  
  644. As for me, life returned to normal. Or something approximating it, anyways. I’d been mentioned in a few of the news articles as the one who brought everything to light. As a result, business was booming. I welcomed the extra work, even if most of it was fairly mundane. PI work can’t be all glamour and drama after all. It’s what makes those moments especially memorable. Besides, I had plenty to work on before taking such an exciting case again.
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