Chapter 13:

Beneath the Mask

Burned Out Heroes

By the time Karen regained consciousness, it was already too late.
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“-Ouch...!”Bookmark here

The first sensation she became aware of was intense pain. The ringing in her ears was so severe, it was as if a war were being fought between them.Bookmark here

Sparks of agony flashed behind her eyelids. Only then did she realize her attempts to open them had all ended in failure.Bookmark here

Of course, she lacked the composure to analyze her own situation, let alone tap into her power as an arbiter. Keeping the tears at bay was her way of being defiant, though she did not know if there was any point to it.Bookmark here

“-down. Ju---rethe-”Bookmark here

A new sound made it through the pulsating blare inundating her ear drums and caught Karen’s attention. It was something to hold onto, to keep her conscious as the dark void threatened to pull her under yet again.Bookmark here

“Yes, th---right. It’s o--y, you’re right here with me.”Bookmark here

“!!”Bookmark here

Yes, a female voice. She may have been hallucinating, but pain lessened the more she listened to it.Bookmark here

“-Ngh.”Bookmark here

“Just like that. All that’s left now is to stay awake. You’re pretty tough.”Bookmark here

The voice was most definitely real and Karen was listening intently. Strangely enough, the pain in her head subsided within a few seconds, or minutes, she was not sure.Bookmark here

“...You can open your eyes now. Standing up wouldn’t be such a good idea, though.”Bookmark here

Taking the voice’s cue, Karen did as she was told. The light overhead was blinding at first, but she took in the contours of her surroundings instantaneously.Bookmark here

“...Where am I?”Bookmark here

Karen’s head was still in fog and only able to process that she was not in her hotel room. She had no memory of the tarnished, dusty ceiling. The same was true for the cot she was lying on.Bookmark here

“It’d be better not to think too much yet. Don’t try your powers either.”Bookmark here

“I, what...? Where’s Dad...? And...”Bookmark here

She aimed her cloudy eyes toward the voice and saw there was a young woman sitting next to her. Karen could not make out her facial details, but the hair length and voice all but confirmed this was most likely a woman. The hallucination idea had seemed more plausible, but apparently she had not been hearing things.Bookmark here

“It was an EMP flash. Two of them, actually.”Bookmark here

“EMP flash...?”Bookmark here

“Yes. The electro-magnetic charges scrambled the anamnesis in your body. That’s where the headache came from. Those Ryusei-kai don’t know the meaning of restraint, even to a little girl.”Bookmark here

“...Ryusei-kai.”Bookmark here

Karen used those two words to search her fuzzy memories. It took her addled mind a while to come up with an answer, but it succeeded.Bookmark here

“...That’s right. I-I was attacked-!!!”Bookmark here

“Yes, yes, now don’t push it. Move and that headache will come right back.”Bookmark here

The tipping point reached, Karen’s memories flashed back into place. Sure, her head started throbbing, but that was not important right now.Bookmark here

The last thing she remembered was an explosion of light and an ear-splitting bang. She passed out after that.Bookmark here

Regaining consciousness meant she had been kept alive, but for what reason?Bookmark here

“...Then, this is-!”Bookmark here

It finally dawned on Karen that she had been taken hostage. She would either be used as a means to an end, or perhaps something worse. Whatever the case, she was now a prisoner.Bookmark here

“I-I have to get out of here!”Bookmark here

“Easy. You’ve got time to take a deep breath. No one’s going to eat you, I promise.”Bookmark here

The woman grabbed hold of Karen’s shoulders as she attempted to jump out of the cot and forced her back down. She tried to struggle, but could not even move a finger.Bookmark here

“L-Let go of me! Once my father gets here, you’ll all be-!!”Bookmark here

“See? I told you so. You have to sit still.”Bookmark here

The young woman took hold of Karen’s hands as she convulsed in pain. Of course, the young arbiter attempted to swat them away, but the woman’s grip was far too strong.Bookmark here

“... Breathe with me, okay...? Nice and slow. Now, in...”Bookmark here

“...Agh.”Bookmark here

Karen felt the searing pain recede within the mysterious woman’s grasp. She was taking on Karen’s pain, an empathic phenomena shared by arbiters.Bookmark here

Rather than her captor being an arbiter, it was the fact the enemy who kidnapped her in the first place would shoulder her pain that baffled Karen beyond words.Bookmark here

“Okay, that’s one. One more time. Breathe in and calm down.”Bookmark here

“Wh-... Why should I... listen to you...?!”Bookmark here

“Stubborn, aren’t you? But, you need to relax your muscles first. Otherwise, you’ll never get out of here.”Bookmark here

A few more moments passed with her hands restrained by the woman’s grasp, and Karen’s breathing began to steady. It was not long before her sight sharpened as well.Bookmark here

When suddenly, Karen realized just who it was holding her hands.Bookmark here

“-You...!”Bookmark here

“What? Is there something on my face?”Bookmark here

The shock made Karen’s mind go blank as she vacantly stared up at her captor. Unbelievable, yet there was no denying the truth.Bookmark here

White hair, devoid of any pigmentation, crimson eyes speckled with gold, and a psyche tainted with sorrow. Karen felt as though she were in front of a mirror, and yet something was off about this reflection looking back at her.Bookmark here

“Erde...?”Bookmark here

Even her impared mind could reach that conclusion. The young woman before her was Erde Kaine Hadias.Bookmark here

“Yep, that’s right. We haven’t been introduced, have we, Karen?”Bookmark here

“...You know who I am?”Bookmark here

Erde affirmed Karen’s question without a second thought. What’s more, she addressed her by name.Bookmark here

“Of course, I do. And I know you and your father have been looking for me all day.”Bookmark here

“...Because the senator told you?”Bookmark here

“Right again. It’s so nice not to have to explain everything.”Bookmark here

Saying it out loud made it all fall into place. This job to find a runaway daughter had itself been a trap.Bookmark here

“... ‘Resistance.’”Bookmark here

“...You really do catch on quick. I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything less from 01’s daughter.”Bookmark here

Karen simply said what she thought seemed the most likely and happened to hit the nail on the head. The Resistance had enough grounds for abducting her. Bookmark here

“Yes, we are the Resistance. Not terrorists, just to be clear.”Bookmark here

“...... Am I a hostage?”Bookmark here

Karen uttered coldly in an attempt to hide the tremor in her voice. She already knew the answer, but she needed the confirmation in order to be prepared for the worst.Bookmark here

Nothing would change the fact she had been taken against her will. The important thing now was how to recover from the mistake that led her to this predicament. When it came to recovering from mistakes, 01 had given her all the tools she would ever need.Bookmark here

“Didn’t I just say we aren’t terrorists? We’re the Resistance. Taking hostages isn’t something we do.”Bookmark here

“...That’s not very convincing, considering where I am right now.”Bookmark here

Karen countered, mimicking her father’s ironic tone.Bookmark here

When it came to terrorists, there were those willing to burn children alive “for the greater good” and others who committed horrendous atrocities “in the name of their god.” All of the ideals and principles they claimed to hold dear were nothing more than excuses to justify their deeds.Bookmark here

That was the reality. To the best of Karen’s knowledge, righteous terrorists had never existed. These “Resistance” members were not and could not be an exception.Bookmark here

“I bet. You probably don’t trust me at all. But, would you give me a chance to explain? You’ve still got a lot of questions, don’t you?”Bookmark here

“...Yes, I do.”Bookmark here

Karen put her plan into action: draw out the conversation to acquire as much information as possible.Bookmark here

That would also buy time. She had to play every card she had until her arbiterial powers recovered or 01 found this place.Bookmark here

“Let me start by saying we didn’t attack you. That was the Ryusei-kai.”Bookmark here

“Ryusei-kai...?”Bookmark here

“Yes. Your father assaulted a club run by the ’Kais looking for me, right? The place where I used to work. They thought he was one of us and retaliated by attacking you. It was a close call, I’ll have you know. If we hadn’t gotten the tip, you-”Bookmark here

“-So, you rescued me?”Bookmark here

Karen did not believe a single word, of course. The Ryusei-kai raiding her hotel was highly unlikely to begin with, as only 01 and their liaison Berkov knew they had chosen such low-end lodging.Bookmark here

01 was the last person who would ever let vital information slip, and it was nearly impossible to consider the possibility Berkov sold it to the Ryusei-kai. While others may try their luck, Berkov would never pick a fight with 01.Bookmark here

Which meant the true culprit was someone else. Whether they had been tailed or an arbiter had uncovered their location, the Resistance was surely behind everything.Bookmark here

“You’ll find out right away if you look into it, but I’m telling the truth.”Bookmark here

“...!”Bookmark here

Erde had read her intentions the moment she summoned her arbiterial power. Karen had forgotten that arbiters could sense each other's capabilities.Bookmark here

 Now that hers had recovered, it seemed as though this entire facility was being jammed. A gargantuan energy source in the vicinity was throwing the network into chaos.Bookmark here

“I suggest you avoid using your power until you’re feeling better. As an arbiter, I know the pain you’re in right now.”Bookmark here

“...Understood.”Bookmark here

In spite of herself, Karen felt a sense of kinship at Erde’s smile. She was unlike any terrorist Karen had ever encountered.Bookmark here

Her tone, body language, and even her way of speaking all gave the impression of a kind young woman. The thought that she may have found an older sister figure in Erde passed through the back of Karen’s mind.Bookmark here

“We eliminated the ‘Kais, but the Feds would have locked you up if we left you behind. That’s why we brought you back with us like one of our own.”Bookmark here

“...Heh, thanks a lot.”Bookmark here

“A genuine ‘thank you’ is in order if you ask me? You would’ve been killed if we hadn’t showed up. Tortured, too.”Bookmark here

“...Well, probably, but.”Bookmark here

Karen, who thought with emotion more often than not just like her father, hated when someone broached the topic of being in “their debt.”Bookmark here

She refused to take Erde’s story at face value, but there was no denying that she would be dead, or worse, if the Resistance had not gotten involved.Bookmark here

“You can thank us when you feel like it. But in exchange, I’d like you to at least hear me out. I want to clear up any misunderstandings.”Bookmark here

“...Huh?”Bookmark here

She was expecting to be forced to help them, or at least coax 01 into their ranks, so this request took Karen completely by surprise.Bookmark here

But, if all she had to do was listen, then that was exactly what she would do. Not only would it keep the enemy distracted, it would buy her even more precious time.Bookmark here

“You’re feeling well enough to stand by now, right? Okay, follow me.”Bookmark here

Erde stood up from beside the cot and opened the door. From Karen’s perspective, this opportunity to see anywhere outside the walls of this room was a welcome surprise. Conveying that kind of information to 01 would give him an edge when he arrived to rescue her. She might even find a way to escape on her own, if a chance presented itself.Bookmark here

No risk, no reward. Karen reassured herself as she took her first step forward.Bookmark here

Cours Twent
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