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Company had come to them. It would have been foolish to expect otherwise, frankly. Limen followed suit, taking refuge behind the tree.

“I’m the one with barriers. Rufus, you ought to portal ahead and get Envoy’s rocks. I’ll stall.”

Admittedly, his barriers would spontaneously shatter themselves if a Devil Hunter so much as touched the wrong way. But that just meant he’d have to be creative — and Limen hadn’t survived the last century through luck alone.

The fastest hunter here would obviously be the one on the motorcycle. Well, putting aside Hanako — he wasn’t sure what the velocity of ectoplasm in air was, but it wasn’t like he would be able to stop her or most other youkai either way. This left Da-Xia to top his hit-list. At the speed she was going, a properly-placed barrier could probably bisect her and her ride cleanly. That was a little morbid, though, and perhaps Limen was feeling a bit sentimental today. He contented himself with going after the knight’s horse.

It took a few false starts to get the timing down. Eventually, however, Limen was able to position his barrier just right. This barrier consisted of a single thin, flat plane; but it was it’s placement and nature that made it effective — in front of the motorcycle’s front tyre, preventing any matter from passing through. Ideally, it would make use of Da-Xia’s own velocity to cut the tyre into ribbons, rendering the vehicle immobile with minimal lasting damage to it or its rider. Of course, there was still one caveat underpinning the whole plan. Was Da-Xia’s motorcycle enchanted? When she had taken the two demons to the noodle shop earlier, he hadn’t noticed any signs of that being the case. The answer would be clear soon.

Even if that didn’t work out, Limen still had a couple more ideas. Slowly, he began to assemble a geodesic dome around the battlefield, comprising dozens of smaller barriers, each only allowing light through one-way: out. Pitch-black on the inside but practically transparent to any outside observers, it would gradually cause the area to dim until every last photon was gone.

“Or until they start prodding it with their swords,” he sighed.

Limen had thought of flipping a coin, but it would seem that Shika had already made the decision for him. Might as well balance the numbers. “I’ll take the park too. It has been rather some time since I last ate a live human.” After all, there had been no point exerting himself hunting when man-made massacres and mass graves were plentiful.

Figuring out quite what he ought to think about the swirling portal of impossible physics Rufus had opened before him didn’t top his current list of priorities, but he would have to interrogate the eldritch being for details some day. Perhaps some experimentation would be in order? Well, even the Envoy had stepped through and emerged seemingly intact, so surely it could be of no harm for now. A more cynical devil might have regarded them all as a bit overeager to trust another demon, be it in their tacit agreement to the Envoy’s terms or their willingness to rely on the powers of an unfamiliar acquaintance. It would be difficult indeed to rebut that advocate’s arguments.

Limen, however, strolled on through the portal.

The air was still refreshingly cool. Fitting weather for a relaxing walk indeed, though he had little doubt that the atmosphere would soon take a turn for the worse. Limen shut his eyes for a moment and listened for that unmelodious melody. “Rocks attract youkai, and youkai attract DHA. I reckon our odds of running into hunters are quite something. What say you…“ He paused, briefly. “That reminds me. Have you a name, barkeep? Or are we taking the alias approach à la Reservoir Dogs?”
In many parts of the world, burns as deep and extensive as Narvia’s would have been fatal. Even if you happened to be in the right place, your socioeconomic circumstances could easily decide whether you’d receive curative or palliative treatment, if any at all. Fortunately, she had been the only one to receive serious injuries — a mass casualty situation would have meant triage. And that, in all likelihood, could have meant a liberal dose of painkillers and last rites for her. Not something Ariel would have liked to administer to another friend.

After that would have come deciding the method of burial. Occasionally a ship might keep the intact corpse onboard, perhaps in some freezer, until they could land for a more traditional funeral. The more efficient method was to eject it out the airlock or perhaps ‘cremate’ it with the engine. The most efficient method involved recycling.

Would have, could have. Such unpleasantness was all behind them now. Narvia was here, healthy, heartily acting as adorable as usual. That was all that mattered; at least until the next mission came. Until then, the Star Marines — and the adult crewmates, too — could enjoy the boring tedium of daily life. The cycle of numbing pain and peaceful normalcy would continue. Today the Xuanzang had arrived at the rebel world, Plenty. People would be dying in the hours to come. Ariel could only hope that her next séance would not be with any one she knew.

Tarak, as usual, had formulated and presented a plan of action. It sounded decent enough to Ariel; easy enough for her to say, seeing as she had been again assigned to a cushy support role away from all the gunfire and gore. Well, there’d be none of that if things worked out — but she doubted any one here sincerely believed that that would be the case.

Time for work!

Ariel plugged her omni-tool into one of the communications consoles, right beside where Seraphina had plopped down. She wasn’t too familiar with all the knobs and levers, so having it all on a touchscreen would make interfacing a bit easier. Nor was hacking her specialty, though she had engaged in electronic warfare more often than not during the war. It was a bit less stressful than medic work — the fact that your friends’ lives lie in your hands is slightly less of a Sword of Damocles when their blood and entrails aren’t spilling out in front of you — and had definitely been far safer than frontline duty.

“We’re like the lookouts in a heist film.” Ariel could hardly complain. It was an essential role, yet isolated from most of the risk. She’d wanted to chat a bit more, but Seraphina bore the look of a cool all-business operator. No small talk, for now.

A quick series of taps and gestures on her omni-tool booted up an array of programs, some less questionably legal than others. They would be coming in handy soon. “Three of us need to monitor both cams and comms, plus taking over the crashed ship down there. I’ve dabbled a bit in hacking and the like, so mind if I handle the latter, Phi? Then you can take communications.”

“Let’s aim to take control before they notice anything’s wrong. If they do manage to transmit some signal, we’ll have to resort to jamming. But if it’s too obvious, it’d blow our cover anyhow. So—“ Ariel swiped at her screen, and soon a new file had been uploaded into the ship’s database. “I found some rebel propaganda we can use as interference as long as we blast it at full power. Hopefully it’s believable enough.”

“As for Amy — she hasn’t got any military background. But I think we can still leave her to monitor some of the cameras and simpler sensors. Keep an eye out for the Ascendancy forces planetside and in space. Actually… where is Amy?”

It wasn’t the first time Ariel had said this aloud. The last few days, Amy had been unusually absent from the corridors as well. Ever since their first combat with the defectors, in fact — no, cracks had begun showing even during the boarding operation. The team mom and pseudo-counsellor was in dire need of some love and therapy.

Physician, heal thyself.

Amy was an adult. Probably — it was quite taboo among some xeno-anthropologists to assign such labels to non-human developmental stages. But she seemed to fit the mould. That especially included her behaviour with regard to the child soldiers (or in her case, simply ‘children’) — affectionate and protective, even maternal in some sense. She probably had difficulty reconciling her image of the Star Marines as ‘children’ with the reality of the ‘adult’ lifestyle they had taken on. One of dissonantly un-childlike fighting, killing, and dying.

At least she wasn’t starting to sympathise with their opponents. That sort of emotion led to insubordination, and that more often than not meant death.

“Sorry. Phi, give me a moment. I’ll go get Amy back.” Ariel pushed herself away from the consoles, and headed over to the far end of the bridge.

Feelings of powerlessness, at being unable to protect these ‘children’. Ariel had seen similar things before in a few adults who had worked with them in wartime, even with how carefully restricted their rare interactions had been. Those who could not restrain themselves had been assigned elsewhere. And those were trained personnel. For a civilian tossed into a complex modern battlefield without so much as a boot camp, like Amy — the already immense pressure would be amplified, compounded to an overwhelming degree. ‘Failure to adapt’ would be putting things lightly.

“Amy—! Um,” Ariel reached out, half-unsure, before going all in on a gentle, tender hug. “Like Avelyn said, you look super tired today. It’s been a tough week for everyone. And, this mission is about to be even tougher. It’s all really stressful, and all of us feel that too. So there’s no need to keep things pent up. Talk to us. We’ll listen.”

Ariel had buried herself in the taller woman’s bosom. But now she turned to look upwards, to look at Amy directly. “If… if you want, you can cry on my shoulder too. Let it out. And then — be the best Amy you’ve always been.”
Limen was no alcoholic, but he couldn’t deny being a humaneater. Technically his human body could probably qualify him for the ‘cannibal’ label, although some purists — particularly of the violent, hunting, sometimes demoneating variety — would argue otherwise. Either way, perhaps he had come to the right place to overcome his addiction in a conducive environment and with a support circle of like-minded fellows. Never mind the fact that it was a bar, and the bartender had made off with a few corpses just earlier.

At least the fellow was competent enough a barkeeper to keep his alcohol license, tossing the underage-looking demon a non-alcoholic drink. A little spilled from Limen’s mug, but that was hardly an issue. A quick barrier intercepted the droplets before they soiled Rufus’ lovely floor and reduced them to atomic dust. No signs of tampering or contamination. It was authentic, unadulterated root beer.


Root beer never had been Limen’s favourite drink. It had always been a very American beverage to him, especially since they had long since stopped putting in real sassafras. He set the mug down. In the meantime, it would appear that he had been initiated into the group which had come into existence but two minutes prior.

So be it. “I, Limen, do hereby pledge to remain sober to the best of my ability. Now let us eat and drink in celebration of our newfound temperance. Barkeep, have you got a loving cup to pass around? We ought to give our human friend a particularly warm welcome.”

He began thumping the table in time. Was that the right tempo? It had been many decades since he’d seen that so-called horror film.

“We accept her, we accept her. One of us, one of us.” Gooble gobble… Perhaps it would be best to leave that part out; it wouldn’t do to give her the impression that this troupe of devils was about to feast on her. No human-gobbling here at Humaneaters Anonymous! Da-Xia was no certainly trapeze artist, and it would be a great disservice to liken her to that villainess Cleopatra — but the scene was the first thing that had come to mind. Plus, the Envoy’s reference was surely the more obscure of the two cult classics.

“One of us, one of us.”

Fun and games wasn’t the only thing going through his mind, however. Limen, too, had a question to ask of that same laid-back demon. He put an end to the rhythmic countertop-abuse and let his hands rest on his head. “I am also curious. An envoy represents their master, acting to convey messages and further their interests. What tidings do you bear today, Envoy, and whence do they come?”
“I’m Limen. No surname.”

Seated at the very back, Limen couldn’t see what Da-Xia was typing. Using a mobile phone on a motorcycle was probably a traffic offence. Then again, so was riding without a helmet, and his barriers probably didn’t count. It wasn’t like he distrusted the hunter’s driving skills or anything, but…

All the same, he held on to Hanako a little tighter.

The Japanese economy’s growth had already slowed to a crawl when Limen had set off for the Moon, but the yen must have suffered from some terrible inflation in the past decades. These prices were absolutely mad! Main dishes started at four digits, and even the appetisers and drinks were still at a positively exploitative price. He had intended to pick a bowl of whatever was cheapest. Now it seemed that he would have to weigh which of Da-Xia’s purse and his stomach was of greater importance.

She was a kind lady. But she seemed ‘nice’ in both the modern and the archaic senses of the word — the sort who would give whatever salary she had left (after deductions for gratuitous collateral damage) to any pitiful-looking fellow on the street, even with rent due in a week. It was that rare moral simplicity, a pure code of ethics without discrimination or self-deception. No exceptions; an absolute personal rule of law. She reminded Limen of some devils who would never compromise on their tenets, even if it meant the end of their existences. Those devils had always felt like automatons or forces of nature more so than sapient beings. For a human, it was an uncommon but respectable way to live.

Maybe he was reading too much into things. Much like Hanako, and perhaps the vast majority of otherworldly creatures, Limen had not met such a friendly fellow among the Devil Hunters in many decades. Across all sorts of times and territories, this seemed like a constant policy among them: to shoot first and ask questions only if shooting didn’t work at first. And even then, such questioning sought but one ultimate answer — what methods were needed to kill this daemon?

Da-Xia was paying for his food. She was different from the rest.

“I’ll have a bowl of kake udon.” Nothing extravagant. It would still make for a hefty bill on its lonesome.

The restaurant’s service was good. Limen’s order arrived in no time, a piping hot bowl of thick noodles and broth with a simple seasoning of sliced scallions. Some would think it bare-bones, or as the critics and connoisseurs say nowadays, ‘minimalist’. Either way, it was hearty warmth in the heartless cold, and that was all he needed. He dug in. A full day’s worth of hunger was at once satisfied by the heat of the soup and the soft texture of the noodles. It was better than a kotatsu in winter.

Hanako was pointing finger guns at Da-Xia. Slurp. Wasn’t that a threatening gesture?

…apparently not. It would seem that it had taken on a playful meaning as of late. Too bad she’d been turned down.

“This body of mine’s perfectly edible too. I promise you, it’s one hundred per cent authentic human flesh and blood. Made it myself.” He extended a hand in offering. “I reckon I’m your senior, after all. Can’t have a kouhai like you starving.”

Now he’d laid his chopsticks to rest on the rim of his bowl, freeing up his other hand. There was this scene that had been on the screens in Akihabara, part of some sort of promotional video. He had seen it played a whole bunch of times; enough times to imitate it by heart. A cutesy head-tilt and a coquettish finger on his chin. It was body language totally unsuitable for what Limen was about to say. “Would you like plasma? Lymph? Or perhaps… C・S・F ?”

Well, that was embarrassing. The offer still stood, though.

“By the way. Da-Xia — earlier, in the warehouse, you said you heard the yuurei speak, right? I didn’t hear that, but I did hear some kind of strange music.” He looked over to the motorcycle where he had stashed his backpack, rocks included. “I thought taking some of those black rocks would stop it, but apparently not. I still hear the music even now.”

Limen pointed vaguely in the direction of the ‘happenstance’ bar. “It’s been pulling me towards someplace over that way. Either of you want to have a gander?”
Très bien indeed. Hanako’s French was more comme ci comme ça, but her baking was truly delicious. Limen was visibly satisfied, and his belly even more thoroughly so. Perhaps he could move in with this young youkai and have her stuff him with pastries and pies forever, should he ever get too lazy to forage for food. That sounded pleasant.

The supernatural screeching was far less pleasing, though. A barrier around his head didn’t reduce the volume any, nor did it shut out the 21st century atonal music that had emerged from the rocks. It was compelling him to come closer, but to call it a ‘siren song’ would be an insult to the creatures of myth. The rock-song was music only in the broadest sense, and this was coming from someone who had witnessed John Cage perform live.

If only to shut it up for a while…

Limen took the risk. Forming gloves — no, an entire hazmat suit around his body, just as a precaution, he scooped up a handful of the rocks and shovelled them into his backpack. There wasn’t anything too important in there, thankfully. Then he enclosed the whole thing in a spherical barrier, and then a back-up barrier. And maybe another four for good measure. Let’s put a little distance too; keep it about a metre or so away. Just precautions. Surely nobody would notice the perfectly reflective ball following behind him.

The additional croissants Hanako had proffered were as tempting a sight as any, though not as coercive as the rocks were. Maybe later. For now, Limen wanted both hands available to hold on to her as he took his place at the very back of the motorcycle. He didn’t have a helmet, after all. Not even Da-Xia had one, for that matter, despite wearing some sort of full body suit.

Safety wasn’t the Hunter’s forte, was it? Nor, it seemed, was observation. Limen hadn’t heard of boys being called ‘maidens’ since the Great Vowel Shift. Was it perhaps an obscure dialect of some variety? No one in their right mind would ever mistake him for a girl, after all. Not that it bothered him all too much either way, but — hmm. This lady was the one who had started the fire, was she not? Could she have possibly…

Nah, no way. Dialect it was.

“I’m ready. Where to, ma… non, notre chevalière servante? I haven’t got a house to go to.”
Now, Ariel didn’t like the phrase ‘I told you so’, or other such sayings along those lines. It was prideful and bitter, and had never contributed anything of value in a crisis. It soured relationships and incited tempers to flare up. It was meaningless aggression in times that called for cooperation and unity.

As a swarm of starfighters whizzed past in the silent vacuum outside, however, she began to think that maybe some firmer rhetoric or even a mind trick would have saved them all some grief. Oh well. She had her orders.

It was séance time.

Not very much time had passed at all. Séances had always felt longer than they really were. By the time Ariel had bid the last ghost farewell, the assault team had just completed their preparations.

“Heads up from the dead! The bridge has been evacuated, save for five people — the fleet commander, an Elaine Solarie Jensen, and her four armed guards. Four males, one female; all adults. They’re expecting us.” Details were thankfully plentiful, as the opposition clearly had no concept of defence in depth. The only real threats appeared to have been all concentrated in the bridge. The rest of the Deilos crew lived up to their name — fearful and cowardly even as their end drew near. “We’re looking at plasma weapons for all five, with quite the eclectic mix. Three rifles, one plasma-thrower, and one with what appears to be a scythe. Their captain is still steering the ship, but she’s still armed with a rifle, so watch out. She’s seated in the centre — white hair, red bodysuit.”

Finbarr had already opened the portal. It was do-or-die time. Ariel offered a final wave. “Stay safe, everyone!”

There was little else she could do.
Amidst all the hullabaloo, the police officers had overlooked Limen slipping across the road and into the warehouse. The hunters were mostly on the retreat, less than fond of all the attention — supernatural or otherwise — they had gotten.

Now he was free to touch all the rocks he wanted. Of course, his overwhelming desire to not get blown up had by now completely quashed any lingering thoughts about going any closer to those unnatural explosives. A quick knock on the rocks with a barrier gave him the only answer he needed: instant dissipation of the barrier. There was hardly any bigger warning sign than that.

The ghost girl’s temptation was hard to turn down. Limen hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so croissants sounded pretty nice, albeit indulgent. But they don’t make them like they used to anymore. Refrigeration was a wonderful technology, but frozen dough was simply inferior; yet that had unfortunately become the norm at some point. The pâtisseries were in a sad state. Perhaps homemade treats were the way to go now, with all the authenticity and character sapped from commercial baking. He hadn’t been to France in a while, either. The southern regions were more scenic overall, but he’d always thought La Boulangerie Viennoise in Paris made the best Austrian-style pastries. They had fit his palate better than even the ‘real deal’ in Wien. Was the little bakery still around after all these tumultuous decades? The odds were not, unfortunately enough, in its favour.

His French was rather rusty, and he’d never exactly mastered the language in the first place. But it would suffice. “Est-ce que je pourrais avoir un croissant, s’il vous plaît.” Still, it felt odd to speak in a Romance language to a yamato nadeshiko — at least, she might have passed for one with a bit of effort — sporting a hime cut.

Then again, it was a French pastry of Austrian origin that she had baked.

“Je suis Limen, un dæmon.” The lingua france of global diplomacy had long since become English, after all — and even then he would have expected it from the lips of a high commissioner, not a high schooler. Perhaps she was a Gallophile. “Et vous, êtes-vous aussi un diable? Peut-être devrions-nous partir, avant que les chasseurs ou la police ne nous attrape, ou pire.” The officers were shaping up to be more troublesome than the now-fleeing hunters, though not so much in terms of threat to life and limb. That is, if you ignored the spooky rocks completely. Did that still count as being hoist with his own petard?

“You ought to go too, tree. Looks like the Doña Quixote there won’t be leaving this place until every last devil’s gone.” The lancer girl was still trying to make skewers out of the plant. There was roasting flesh to go with it not too far away, if shish kebab was what she was planning.

A portal opened amidst the flames.

Did the homeless man just steal some of the bodies? Could’ve just eaten his own arm.

Ah, now he was hungry again. Tired, too. Making a staircase and walking away would be easy, but Limen was feeling a little lazy. He waved at the tree and the biker. “I don’t suppose either of you could give a fellow a lift?”
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