Even after all of their explanations and claims, it seemed the man still didn’t believe them. Those eyes were looking them all up and down as if they were criminals who’d just committed some crime. Shokuhou-san was willing to play along in order to gain enough of his trust that would allow her to touch him without him seeing her as a threat. He clearly did, because after the four girls’ introductions, he still hadn’t given his name. Nevertheless, the blonde was flashing a kind, yet confident smile just like a pop idol would. That is, until he began accusing her of things.
Claim by claim, Shokuhou-san’s expression faded; her smile slowly disappeared, her shoulders slumped slightly, and her eyebrows pulled upward, clearly showing that she was hurt by being called a liar. In contrast to her outward appearance, the Queen was already formulating lie after lie to cover herself in her head. She wasn’t ready to reveal her hand to this man just yet, and if she had it her way, he’d never learn anything about her after this. Given the chance, she’d just rewrite his memories and make him as blindly loyal to her as the three girls behind her. She just needed to deal with the current problem.
“But,” her hands loosened from her bag, “I did meet them all here.” Her left hand pressed against her chest while her right gestured behind her. In response to their Queen’s distress, the three girls stepped forward and stood around her. “None of us are sure how we got here, but we did all meet here. It’s been how long? Three months now?” She glanced from side-to-side to confirm, nodding as each girl supported her. “And yes, this place is awful. Can’t you see what a nightmare it is? This fog never leaves! A place with such a gloomy atmosphere that’s overrun with monsters will be horrible to anyone, no matter how long they’re here.”
“Like it or not, you’re in the same boat as us. You don’t have any right to accuse Shokuhou-san of anything, especially when you’ve only just met her. This is ‘kill or be killed’ here.” Tachibana spoke up afterward, obviously bothered by the fact that her Queen was being harassed by a stranger. There was no way she could be lying because she had the same memories as well and could clearly remember having met her.
The blonde nodded at each point, then slipped her right hand into her purse, shuffled around, then retrieved a small, glass bottle of perfume to show the man. “As bad as Fiddler’s Green is, there are stores here. How do you think people survive? If we couldn’t get food and things, we’d all die, even without the monsters’ help.”
“There’re looters all over the place. Every day, people gather up necessities like food and clothing from all the stores and shops around. Is being able to find cosmetics and similar clothing such a stretch to you?” Shinohara, that time.
The girls were speaking of their own free will. All three of them had memories of bonding with Shokuhou-san, they all knew that the four of them had been very close friends for months. Just like in a war situation, bonds and relationships were easier to form when the threat of death was ever-present.
“Yes, of course you’re new,” Kamiya repeated sternly. “You have no idea what this place is like, so shouldn’t you listen to what the ‘locals’ have to say instead of trying to poke holes in the stories of strangers and call everyone who are only trying to help you liars? Honestly, why would we even want to? Like Tachibana-san said, we’re all in this together.” Kamiya was the last one to add to the defense.
After each girl made her statement, Shokuhou-san seemed delighted, not because they were working together like a perfect machine, but because they’d so readily defended her. In keeping with her act, she smiled genuinely at each of them, then turned her attention back to the man who probably still didn’t believe any of them. “We can’t all be lying, right?” Whether or not he believed their words, it seemed the man was about to get his own taste of what life in the city was like. All four of the girls turned their heads upward to the sound of a familiar screech. Although distant, they knew how fast the owner could travel. Creepers were coming.
The girl’s shoulders slumped, her eyes conveyed distress, but she didn’t protest, didn’t show any sort of panic or indignation, as would be the reaction if his words were, in fact, untrue. She faded from pride to disappointment, eyes distracted, hands carefully controlled. The girl looked more like a dejected dog than someone who had been incorrectly accused of lying. She knew what she was doing, of course, but not nearly as well as Sherlock did.
“But I did meet them all here.”
She was an experienced liar, not falling too close to either end of the spectrum: not too nervous, and not too determined to appear comfortable. Her hands moved, her breathing stayed steady, but her eyes remained defiantly meeting his. Three months? No. From what he could glean, this place was far too decrepit to allow for such immaculate hygiene for such an extended period of time. The others agreed with her, of course, but they were under her metaphorical control, so they would have to. ‘The fog never leaves… overrun by monsters.’ Too close to the stereotypical horror scenario. Really, the person in charge should be taking greater care to cover their tracks, especially if they were so desperate to get Sherlock involved.
“You don’t have any right to accuse Shokuhou-san of anything, especially when you’ve only just met her.”
He scoffed. “Of course I do.” Besides, he’d done far worse. Lying was nothing compared to some of the crimes he’d deduced from a single conversation—drug dealing, thievery, abuse, poisoning. Murder. Conspiracy. But now was not the time to boast. The leader had taken out her perfume bottle to show him, taking care not to reveal the other contents of her purse. Small, glass, an amber-colored liquid in a pristine little bottle. New, not something gleaned from trading or scavenging in this horrid derelict place. Her words, though, brought up a far more important issue. You could buy food here—fresh, edible food? Yet to the best of his knowledge, no one was aware of how to enter or leave. Someone was trying to keep them alive, surreptitiously, behind the scenes, leaving evidence for minds like his to keep track of. Probably on purpose.
Looters. Well, there would have to be. Mori—the person in charge wasn’t going to make this easy for them. The most valuable items would be the most dangerous to retrieve, while the nearer, easier ones would be nearly worthless—if not by design, then by the simple laws of supply and demand. If she had truly bought that perfume, it must have been incredibly expensive.
‘No idea what this place is like’? Not very observant, these guards. He could figure it out, and he didn’t need to listen to the (false) sob stories of random strangers to do it. (Of course, if there were truly such ‘monsters’ as they claimed, he would do well to acquire some sort of gun as soon as possible.) Why was the leader so pleased with them? Her eyes lit up, her posture changed. All of which only supported the fact that she had been lying. Untrustworthy. Any visible emotions were the result of very good acting.
“We can’t all be lying, right?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” He would have been all too happy to explain himself, but something told him it was not the time—a phantom screaming, from some distance away, towards which all four girls turned (simultaneously, he noted). Danger. ‘Monsters,’ probably. Not a hallucination, then.
He kept his theories in mind as he turned to track the sound’s progress. Its speed, its distance—his mental map was painfully blank, obscuring its route, but he could guess. It would be here soon. Not in a vehicle, but moving faster than a running human.
Travis moved forward to take the other man’s hand, the hilts of his beam katana clinking against each other. The assassin shook with his gloved hand. The article was a relatively new part of his wardrobe, meant to replace the one his cat decided to tear apart. At the moment, it was still white and clean, though the grime and monsters of Fiddler’s Green might change that in the near future.
“Nice to meet you, too. Name’s Travis Touchdown.”
As ridiculous as it sounds, that was not an alias. It was the kind of corny, over-the-top name that might sound awesome to non-English speakers but totally lame to his fellow Americans. Hey, it wasn’t Travis’ fault that his creator had a silly sense of humor.
Speaking of names, the stranger’s moniker rang a few bells.
“Sherlock Holmes? As in the detective?”
This guy seemed awfully modern for the character and he lacked that cheesy-looking hat. Wait. Did Holmes actually wear a deerstalker? Travis never read the old stories nor did he follow any of the adaptations. Being quite the otaku, he had a personal preference for Japanese media and the west never struck his fancy as much, so his knowledge of the famous detective was rather limited.
Gloves, alright, of course. New. Must be a staple of his wardrobe, therefore, either useful or fashionable. Possibly both, given the relative conceit of the man in question. The gloves were pristine for the most part, small markings of dirt on the fingertips and metallic residue left near the joints. Not quite rust. Probably from the handles of his weapons. The gloves felt sturdy—no thinning, even in the joints, just yet. ‘Travis Touchdown’. Alliterative. Last name a noun. In most cases, that would give it away as a pseudonym, yet this man sounded genuine—none of the tension generally produced by a lie. No change in breathing, nor eye contact, nor hand gestures.
The man’s face registered recognition at Sherlock’s name. Again? And woefully misinformed, likely due to his… rather unusual cultural preferences. The staring continued, as the man tried to reconcile his mental image with Sherlock’s actual face.
“Consulting detective. Close, but no cigar.” Newspapers. Always getting things wrong. That wasn’t even his hat.
No fingerprints at the corner of the sunglasses. The man didn’t adjust them very much, which meant he must wear them nearly all the time, even at night. Not for convenience, nor function, but fashion. The cuffs of his sleeves, on the other hand, were worn down, as were the knees of his jeans—partially by design, partially by experience. Had a rough time, Mr. Touchdown? Even before he came to this city, most likely.
A vein popped up at the young nobles forehead when he heard the man speaking, as this ‘greeting’ seemed to be addressed to him as well.
“WHO ARE YOU CALLING VACANT?!”
There it was. His temper. He didn’t even tried to hold it back.
“Look, you’re not seriously trying to argue with me, are you? If there was something in your head besides cobwebs and tumbleweeds you wouldn’t explode like that but calmly contest the accusation. That’s the sort of thing that smart people do.”
Although the young man couldn’t be too lacking in intelligence. His clothes were rather aristocratic, although old-fashioned, probably indicative of wealth and therefore a good education, and his fingers curved like a pianists’. He must not have been here long; his clothes remained in fairly good shape, and his prim, manicured nails suggested a cushy lifestyle which he would likely fall out of rather soon.
“Excuse me?” Vacant? What sort of greeting was that? Well it was probably too much to hope that everyone here had some degree of manners. This one looked to be quite a bit of a recluse himself, so maybe such mannerisms were lost on him. “Greetings, good sir. You may call me Lance. May I have your name?”
Polite, at least. More than polite, in fact. Old-fashioned; the sort of dialect heard in Shakespeare, almost, or anything set in the middle ages. ‘Good sir’? Not even Mycroft was that courteous. It was almost unnatural. His clothes had been well-worn, unusual as they were—designed for some sort of combat, probably, largely form-fitting, with a utility belt of some sort, though it seemed to be more concerned with sheathes than pockets. Two weapons, both some sort of lance—fitting, considering the man’s name. (A name which sounded uncomfortable in his mouth. A pseudonym, probably.)
“Sherlock Holmes. How long have you been here? Two weeks? You must have something interesting to say, this place isn’t exactly normal.”
“And a humble greeting to you as well, mortal.”
“See, now that’s interesting—you address me as a ‘mortal,’ as though you’re not one yourself. Or are you another one of those deluded idiots who seem to think they’re fictional characters? As amusing as it is, it does get old after a while. Your clothes make it something of a puzzle, though. Clearly high quality, as though you’ve had someone tailor them specially for you, although who would do something like that, I’ve no idea. Armored, too. And that cape—are you supposed to be some sort of superhero?”
She blinked, her head turning to greet the stranger with a cold expression.
A woman in armor. Not a full suit of armor, but certainly enough to function. Gauntlets, breastplate, plackart, some sort of improvised skirt-plates. Not exactly the conventional sort of armor—probably customized, given its high quality. Well-used, too. He couldn’t be sure (he hadn’t had much experience with armored strangers) but it looked like most of the nicks and scratches were from swords, rather than blunt weaponry, or gunshots. Her hair was tucked up, presumably to keep it out of her way—the front sweat-plastered to her forehead. One of those renaissance-fair types, probably, but with the skill to back it up.
“I said, you’re all so vacant. Been getting into fights, have we?”
She understood how the human mind worked better than anyone. As far as anyone knew, she was the strongest telepath in the world, and with the ability to pick apart a person’s brain, she was able to learn how certain things worked. Mannerisms, expressions, motivations, and everything else. Just as Shokuhou-san approached the man, his eyes scanned over her and her friends without a hint of relief or thankfulness that he’d found something else that wasn’t a monster. In fact, it was as if he was judging them. To further support her assumption that he didn’t trust them, when he spoke, he all but confirmed it. Her mention of monsters was repeated as if what she’d said was something insane. Had he not seen them yet? The filth that lurked Fiddler’s Green was commonplace for everyone trapped within the city, so he must’ve been a newcomer. That was fine, she thought. Even if he didn’t believe her, he’d see the truth soon enough. After all, she was still planning to make him one of her pawns. She just needed to act innocent for a few more moments.
“Yes! They’re horrible! I can’t believe you haven’t seen them yet. They’re nearly everywhere; we don’t have a choice, we have to fight them or they’ll get us! Right?”
On her last word, Shokuhou-san turned herself around, and as her long, blonde hair whipped with her body, she used the fact that it would obscure most of her actions and slipped her right hand into her purse. Her fingers found her topmost remote and quickly pressed one of the buttons, then took a half-step forward toward the three other girls as she removed her hand. The three pairs of eyes that were rather dull-looking before regained some of their light and color as their owners were given control of their minds again. The three girls stepped closer to their Queen and nodded in response.
“Not to wish ill fortune on you, but you’ll eventually see the creatures that live here, probably soon. It’s unavoidable, really…” The brunette stepped out and peeked around the small group at the man present, giving him an almost apologetic look.
Shokuhou-san smiled, clasped her hands behind her back, and spun around again, pleased that her subjects had supported her claims. The three girls had all agreed with her, and one of them had actually spoken to confirm it. They couldn’t all be crazy like she assumed he thought, right? As she took her steps to return to her original position in front of the man, Shokuhou-san tilted her head slightly, as if remembering something, “Oh! I’m sorry, I still haven’t introduced myself.” Bringing her glittering eyes to his own, she smiled and brought up a hand with her fingers forming a loose peace sign, “I’m Shokuhou Misaki! It’s nice to meet you. ★”
She then turned and gestured back at the three other girls, which caused them to walk forward and join her. Her extended hand fell to each of them as she named them off. The brunette, “This is Kamiya Ruri-san,” the redhead, “Shinohara Kaoru-san,” and the darker-haired girl, “and Tachibana Ayase-san.” As they were introduced, each of them smiled and waved.
Still smiling as she turned her attention back to the man, Shokuhou-san placed her left hand on her cheek and sighed softly, “I’m really lucky I met such wonderful friends here. We’ve been very close for months now.” Even if it was really only about a week.
Now that her side of the introductions were over, the blonde hooked her left thumb around the chain strap of her purse and let her right hand rest on the bag itself. “I assume you’re new here, then? The creatures here are a fairly common sight.”
She’d begun to explain (“yes, they’re horrible, they’re everywhere”) when, out of nowhere, she turned. Not a casual turn, no; intentional, overdone. Her hair hid her arm. She was doing something, and she didn’t want him to see. In her purse, probably. She must have given some sort of signal to the others, something they could see and he couldn’t, because they straightened, as if waking, and moved in closer to her, almost instinctively. Their eyes brightened to match hers. Odd. Not crying, not joyful, none of the usual eye-brightening emotional reactions—probably not drugs or caffeine either, although it was possible. Two of them nodded, the brown-haired one spoke (“you’ll eventually see the creatures that live here, probably soon, it’s unavoidable”), and people acted natural all around. Too natural, really. It was too much of a shift. He’d have believed there was nothing if they’d stayed stiff, but now… now they’d drawn his attention.
The girl’s hands clasped as she turned, again, to face him—normally, this time, no unnecessary swooshing. She looked pleased. At the performance of her guards? Because they must be guards—trained to act like they weren’t, but guards all the same. (Making too much of an effort to avoid being noticed. If people didn’t actively avoid it, they would do a far better job.) Head tilted, hands overly expressive, eyes still sparkling, she introduced herself (Japanese, of course, as he’d thought). The others followed her lead, but only after her signal, that it was okay—more evidence. If she was supposed to be inconspicuous, it was quite conspicuously not working. They looked almost tired, the three of them. Scratched. Like weapons. Noticeably more “damaged” than their leader, bowing to her every command.
The girl sighed. She couldn’t be more than sixteen or so—been here maybe two, three weeks, at most. Probably less than that, from the state of her clothing and the circles under her eyes. The other girls, too. They must have come with her (though how the four of them managed to get abducted together and stay together was something of a mystery).
“You didn’t meet them here, it’s obvious. You’re all wearing the same uniform. I’m not sure why you’d even bother to claim otherwise. Not to mention you certainly haven’t been here for ‘months.’ You’ve been here maybe a week or two, otherwise you wouldn’t bother calling it ‘awful.’ You’ve still got traces of perfume, too; if you had been here longer you would have run out. Yes, of course I’m new, otherwise I’d know where we are and what’s going on. As it is I still know more than most of you ‘locals,’ if you can truly call yourselves that.”
There were military personnel in the Eastern part of the city— the Blue Zone, right? That was what she’d heard, anyway. Kinuhata was short on answers about the place she was in. That it was called ‘Fiddler’s Green’ was the most substantial thing she’d learned because not a lot of people wanted to waste their time explaining all the details to a young girl, apparently. She supposed it was fair, considering everyone’s lives were on the line in this environment. Fortunately, she was used to that sort of thing, and the fact there were dim-witted monsters around was actually a little easier to handle than snipers, mercenaries and lethally-dangerous espers. Still, she wanted to know where she was and find out if there was a way to leave. She’d need someone official for that, though.
The Blue Zone was free from monsters for the most part, although those huge, feral wolfhounds popped up every now and then. Just in her short time walking through the Eastern section of the city, Kinuhata had seen four of them. It was nothing compared to the packs they traveled in within the Yellow and Red Zones, though. Although far from normal, this particular zone was the most calm and people were able to stand around and talk without having to look over their shoulders every few minutes. The atmosphere was largely different and made Kinuhata wonder if there was a movie theatre nearby that wasn’t overrun with zombies. If it turned out that there was no way to leave, she’d have to find out for sure.
As the girl walked around crowds of people talking amongst themselves, there was one voice that seemed to stand out. Her English wasn’t the best, but she could make it out well enough from all the badly-scripted foreign films she’d watched. “Aren’t you judging a group of people without super knowing them first? It looks like you’re the vacant one.” She said it as a passing remark, not bothering to stop her stride.
“Oh, I’m the vacant one, am I? Because clearly I’m the one showing as much leg as possible in an attempt to impress people despite only being hm, what, twelve? I’m the one walking around wondering where things are without actually absorbing any of my surroundings, and, of course, the one using adjectives instead of adverbs. You can’t super know anyone. Then again, it’s not surprising considering you haven’t officially learned the language. You’re Japanese, yes? Originally, at least. How did you get here? Did you walk? Oh—no, forgive me, you would have brought more clothes with you than just what you’re wearing. I’d recommend finding something else to wear soon. Your clothes are already starting to pick up rips and tears, not to mention dirt and sweat, and you’ve only been here what, a week? Six days?”
Apparently she’d done a fine enough job protecting herself from whatever lurked in the shadows. Her clothes might have been scratched, but her skin was fine. She didn’t even seem afraid, despite being probably the youngest person he’d met so far—a back-up plan. She had some sort of weapon or talent hidden up her sleeve. That, or she had yet to encounter anything ‘dangerous,’ which was of course the case with him. She’d kept walking after speaking—didn’t intend to hold up a full conversation, yet here she was, belittling him.
He’d been underestimated much too much already by the people of the town, and that just showed how fit they were to judge. No, he wasn’t vacant for being able to tell that whatever danger they’d faced was, in fact real, and he wasn’t vacant for harboring as many as a dozen possible explanations, when the rest seemed contented to let themselves live in this ridiculous parody of a world. The girl looked almost entirely at ease. She was searching for something with which to entertain herself. Here.
Yes, he was clearly the vacant one.
Hsien-Ko smiled as the man began to walk along with her, glad he wasn’t going to be stubborn about it. She raised her arms and began to hop forward, because that was just how jiangshi moved. She didn’t really understand it, but it was how things were.
“Well I don’t know about that,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at the man. “But I’ve seen a few undead in my time, and these Walkers, zombies, whatever you call them, they fit the bill. I don’t think they want to be here, though. Sometimes spirits rise from the grave because they have something to do, and sometimes it’s because something bigger is telling them to. That’s what I think is going on here. But maybe I’m wrong and your idea is the right one!” she said, nodding. Of course, she didn’t actually believe that, but she didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings.
“Of course, that doesn’t explain where the bigger monsters come from…”
“But whatever the reason, it’s a good idea to be safe all the same. Maybe you have a weapon or something, but it’s still not safe to be wandering around all alone, especially if you’re new here. And you must be new here if you haven’t seen any weird things yet.” Another sudden noise caught the girl’s attention, another reason to get out of here. “…Anyways, there’s a few safe zones, but I’m taking you to the airport. The military can probably answer any questions I can’t, but you’re free to do whatever you want afterwards.”
It wasn’t too far to the airport, Hsien-Ko knew. Lucky for the man he hadn’t appeared too far from the blue zones. She knew some people who popped in much deeper in the yellow zones, or worse, the red zones. Even she gave pause before going into one of those.
“How long could you possibly have been gone?”
The girl tapped at her cheek with on of her claws, sticking out her tongue a bit. “Geez, that’s a tough one. I think it was sometime around the 1700s…”
“1730s, if you want to be more precise,” said Mei-Ling. “The decades do get a bit fuzzy, I admit…”
“Right, right, 1730s. So, um, what year is it now?” she said, glancing back at the man. “Oh, wait, duh! Before that, tell me your name! I’m Hsien-Ko, and this is my sister, Mei-Ling!” She tapped the ward paper dangling from her hat, all smiles.
Did she really need to toddle along like that, arms up, hopping around as though she’d learned to walk from a pogo stick instead of a person? If anything, that sort of behavior would simply attract attention from whatever it was they were trying to avoid. He looked pointedly away as though to say ‘I am not with her. I do not know her.’
So she thought they were actual zombies. The traditional, mythological sort, who’ve actually risen from their graves to cause havoc at the whims of whoever summoned them. Really? She thought that made more sense than his explanation? Was everyone here so gullible? Perhaps they’d been made up to appear dead. It was a long shot, but perhaps they were even robots, intended to give the impression being zombies—missing limbs, shambling, moaning, but nothing more than cheap tricks of the movie industry. Zombies were a myth.
“Of course, that doesn’t explain where the bigger monsters come from…”
So the monsters were common, there was a strong military presence (based in the airport, and there was an airport, suggesting this place had been relatively large and prosperous before whatever had happened to it—airports weren’t standard fare for small towns in the middle of nowhere), and it sounded as though the airport wasn’t actually in the safest parts of town. But there were safe parts, so how come some were dangerous, and not others…? Were they supposed to have a fighting chance against the whatever-it-was that made this place so unsafe? It didn’t make sense. That was the worst thing about it. He couldn’t figure out how any of it fit together.
“Geez, that’s a tough one. I think it was sometime around the 1700s…
Right, right, 1730s.”
“What?” Her pause, like she’d heard someone speak. Had he honestly spoken so seriously, so casually, to a schizophrenic—or worse, his own hallucination? She didn’t seem to be joking, about the year nor her “sister,” but she couldn’t possibly believe that. One of those new-agey types, utterly convinced in the truth of their previous incarnations and in the ‘spirit of all living things’ or whatever it was? Perhaps the paper was a talisman. Like a grave, for her sister. Used to keep her memory close by.
Or she’d caught his analytical eye, and was playing with him. “Are you trying to be facetious? Because it’s not working.”
[Youmu had to take a few moments to let that sink in. She didn’t quite expect getting a full-on speech and analysis for an answer to what she thought would be a one-worded question. Realizing her lips were slightly parted in astonishment she snapped back to composure, fingers curling around one of the swords’ handles.]
…I… d-don’t know who told you that or where you gathered all of that information from but you have already proved as someone suspicious, Consulting Detective Sherlock Holmes.
[Confusion translated into anger and the girl pulled the sword out swiftly. She extended her elbows and pointed the now-exposed blade towards him.]
I am not a Jekyll nor any kind of Hyde, my name is Youmu Konpaku and if you do not explain yourself my blade will cut through your feeble body like fresh pudding!
She stood with a stunned look, thinking it over. Letting his words sink in. He found himself smirking, just a little, but it died on his lips as she reached for the handle of her sword. Insecure.
Her stance said that yes, as he had expected, she was a master of her sword (a katana, and a nice one, from the looks of it. Probably vintage). All too happy to threaten him with it, too.
“Your hair’s uneven, like you cut it yourself—no one to do it for you, no one to show you how, so an orphan. I’m not sure why you dye it, since the style is nothing special—I’m assuming you went for whatever was practical—or is it actually natural? Your stance, and the sheathes at your side, both say you’ve trained in the sword. I’m not sure who taught you—someone you haven’t seen in a while? Your facial features say Japanese, and your expression of scorn for your surroundings says you’ve been somewhere much more beautiful than this for most, if not all, of your life. Given the nationality, I guessed a garden or a temple. Was I correct, about that? And you asked what I was, that was obvious. So you’ve lived alone, or not with adults, or at least not adult men. Your nails are chewed short. You’re worried about something. The two swords show you can’t decide on one or the other, so—a split. It’s guesswork and observation. Nothing special, nor suspicious, honestly.”