The onna-bugeisha ran her sword through the darkly-clad Kaguya-hime. Her victory assured, she drove the blade deep into Kaguya-hime’s heart.
“I hoped, and I prayed, that you were not the she-devil you appeared to be. But it’s true, isn’t it? I was right all along. You intended to destroy us didn’t you, star princess?!”
The princess of Mikado stared through her with piercing black eyes. “Heh. Was I really so obvious?”
Kaguya-hime coughed up another quart of blood as the onna-bugeisha twisted her magic sword into her chest.
“It’s over, Kaguya. Whatever your demented plan may truly be, I won’t let you see it to fruition. You die here!”
Kaguya-hime laughed; a low, deranged chuckle.
“The plan is already a failure. But thankfully, I’ll have another chance to try again. When the earth matches the heavens..”
The onna-bugeisha delivered another swift thrust into Kaguya-hime’s soft bosom, rupturing her silky skin which was as white as the full moon that hung overhead.
“What chance do you have? I told you. Tonight, these grassy fields are where you die!”
“Khekekek… perhaps. But perhaps not.”
There was a high-pitched noise. As if on cue, the silver vessel with which Kaguya-hime had attempted to return to her lunar kingdom exploded, bursting into flames and blossoming like a volcano. Fire fell from the sky in hot chunks, starting a conflagration in the fields and grasslands, and washing the honorable onna-bugeisha in hot orange fire-light. Shards of white-hot lightning buzzed like angry hornets as they flew past her, and one hit her on the left side of her face, ripping a hole in her cheek with its stinger and burning her mouth.
She screamed in agony. Taking advantage of her distraction, Kaguya-hime rolled over and pinned her to the ground, forcing herself on top of her. The scalding stone settling beneath her tongue, the onna-bugeisha grimaced. Surely now the evil witch would choke the life out of her. But instead, Kaguya-hime kissed the honorable onna-bugeisha, filling her nostrils with the sickeningly sweet scent of peaches and making her body go limp. After a long and passionate embrace, Kaguya-hime released the onna-bugeisha as she wiped saliva from her lips, the look on her face triumphant.
What is this? the onna-bugeisha thought. Why can’t I move?!
“Are you perhaps wondering what’s happened to your body? My lipstick is filled with a special poison that paralyzes you completely, a neurotoxin that traps the victim inside their own body,” she said, spitting crimson saliva. “I have imprisoned you, samurai, the same way I once was. Now you too will feel what it is like to live out the rest of your days as a shadow of your former self, unable to move, unable to speak. Unable to die.”
With a grunt of effort, Kaguya-hime pulled the sacred and magical sword from her chest, and laid it at the side of the onna-bugeisha who was as still as the winter air. Almost immediately the wound closed, leaving nought but a hole in her clothes and a smidgeon of blood as proof that Kaguya-hime had ever once been dead.
“My cellular matrix regenerates at an astonishing speed, doesn’t it?” she said, addressing the look of bewilderment on the onna-bugeisha’s face. “They don’t call it the elixir of life for nothing, I suppose. But don’t worry. I shall be sure to preserve you as well. You’ll get to live out every year of my punishment together with me as we both grow old. The only difference is, well, I’ll have to travel the long way. You on the other hand just get to go to sleep, never to awake again. Dreaming for all eternity. Now doesn’t that sound nice?”
The onna-bugeisha tried to scream, to curse Kaguya-hime with every last scrap of strength in her body, but the burning stone and the poison that was slowly retarding her every muscle reduced her protests to nothing but slurred wails, cries fit only for a child. And as she felt darkness overtake her, that was what the onna-bugeisha became. Nothing but a crying child.
Kaguya-hime looked down on her.
“Sweet dreams, princess…”
The onna-bugeisha screamed, jolted awake by the horrible memories of a night long since past. Her breath materialized in front of her, obscuring her view and making the air around her mouth hot and humid like a summer mist. She found herself lying on her back on some sort of mat, staring at an unfamiliar ceiling. There was a mask made of some kind of… flexible glass around her mouth. And tubes, in her mouth and all around her body, attached to her with needles. What were these strange instruments? What were they for?!
Where… was she?
A sharp chirping noise startled her, and she felt the needles in her skin twitch as she jumped involuntarily. Her heart raced. The noise was coming from some kind of moving painting attached to the bed where she lay. It was made up of all jagged lines in various colors, annotated with glyphs from a language she didn’t understand. The lines… mimicked her heartbeat. She then noticed that she had been restrained, and dressed in some sort of strange garment.
The persistent questions of “what is this for” and “what do they plan on doing to me” were all that remained in her thoughts as the bizarre devices around her continued to chirp and beep. For there was a “they”, or at least a “them”. Kaguya. Someone had captured her while she was immobile, and if she was willing to bet, they were Kaguya’s twisted servants of some sort. Only she in her infinite devilry had access to this kind of technology. These devices which far surpassed the understanding of man, like her flying machine.
That’s when it occurred to the onna-bugeisha. They had seen fit to restrain her. Did that mean… she was able to move? Had Kaguya’s poison worn off?
Experimentally, she twitched one of her fingers in a way invisible to anyone who might be watching. She would assume nothing with Kaguya. Finding that she had at least regained motion in her extremities, she wiggled a few toes, and finally tried tensing the muscles in her arms and legs, tightening them. They felt painfully withered and disused. Slow and unresponsive, but still moving. How long had she been under the spell of Kaguya’s twisted magic?
A door the likes of which she’d never seen swung open on a hinge in a way it would never have been constructed in the palace of the Emperor, and two, no, three figures masked in shadow entered the room, followed by a fourth. The onna-bugeisha was perfectly still.
“As you can see, we have the subject sedated and restrained,” a bug-eyed man in a white haori with many pockets said. In the eyes of the onna-bugeisha, he looked like a demon, or perhaps a shinigami dressed all in white. “Initially we had thought her muscular system to be compromised, but after running the usual array of diagnostic tests and medical exams, we found she was still completely intact. Zero loss in muscle mass, can you believe that? It appears her preservation was even more miraculous than we had first thought.”
No, something feels wrong, she thought. This is nothing like how I can usually move. I feel so slow, so weak… dammit, what did you do to me?
She looked around the room.
“Ah, she’s waking up! Good morning, my lost little princess. How are we today?”
She didn’t answer, playing into the illusion that she couldn’t. She didn’t know what “sedated” meant, but they obviously didn’t expect her to be able to move. Even though they had restrained her, but those straps would come undone if she just forced them, she felt.
“Can she actually hear you?” one of them asked.
“Perhaps, but I doubt she’s in any stable frame of mind to understand it. We have her under pretty deep.”
So I am underground? she thought. Am I in some sort of cave?
By some utter miracle, her sword had been laid out for her on a table in the far corner of the room. That sword was the one thing in this room she was familiar with. Nothing about this place made sense to her, so she had to escape. She could collect her thoughts and figure out where she had been taken once she was free.
“If I remember correctly, you said the woman herself was incidental to this project, correct? Her stasis is the real object of study. You only revived her to study the effects such a long sleep might have on a person.”
“Hmm? Yes, why do you ask?”
“Because the boss wants her disposed of, effective immediately. As soon as you’re sure we can’t learn anything else from her, terminate her. Those were the orders from up above.”
“What!?” the white demon exclaimed. “Why?!”
“I don’t know. Those are just the orders.”
Waiting for the lull in the conversation to end, the onna-bugeisha tested the limits of the straps, and found they strained easily under even a fraction of her strength. Which was great, because a fraction seemed to be all she could muster.
“I dunno, if it were me I’d really like to see what she has to say,” the fourth one mentioned. “Maybe she has something worthwhile to offer to us. To history at least.”
“Don’t be stupid. What could an ass-backwards time traveller have that we would possibly want? She’s-”
“Hey, did she just move?” one of the darkly clad figures asked, pointing at her. She immediately became still again. The demon in white stared at her for a moment.
“Hmmm… don’t be ridiculous, Mr. Isaac. We have her restrained with heavy-duty g-bracers, and sedated with over five milligrams of self-modulating nanoanesthetics. There’s no way she could even move a finger. Now please, I strongly wish that you’d reconsider. Terminating her at this point just seems so unnecessary!”
His name was “Mr. Isaac”? The onna-bugeisha had no idea what those words meant. She’d never heard a language like that before. Was he a foreigner, or was this just the language of demons? Yet he spoke Japanese. They all did. Some strange, almost unintelligible dialect of Japanese, but it was her mother tongue without a doubt.
“I agree,” said the fourth, a much younger voice she noticed. “What’s the harm in keeping her alive?”
“Ughhh…” the man groaned, turning his back to her. “Matsu, would you just shut the fuck up and stop making my life difficult? If the CEO of the company says terminate her, you terminate her! Don’t ask questions!”
“Do you want me to put in a recommendation for your demotion?” he said. “Because I can certainly-”
The onna-bugeisha lunged, ripping through the restraints as if they were paper. In one smooth motion she snatched a syringe from the table by her bed and vaulted off the cot, hooking one arm around the one called “Mr. Isaac” and jamming the needle into the soft flesh of his neck. She didn’t know what the liquid inside was for necessarily, but a child could tell you that if you pushed down on the metal plate sticking out this thing, it would force the liquid out through the needle and into the man’s neck. That couldn’t be good for anyone.
After the shock of realizing she could move started wearing off, the men started to panic, and one of them tried to make a break for it, an act the onna-bugeisha interpreted as aggressive.
“Stop!” she said, not sure if they understood her or not. “If you try to move, this man is dead. I could kill him in a hundred ways right now if I wanted to.”
“You bitch…” her hostage choked.
“How… how is she doing that?” the demon in white asked. “Nobody should be able to move under that much anesthetic! And those straps were made of latticed graphene! They’re stronger than reinforced kevlar!”
The onna-bugeisha slowly backed away towards her sword. Once it was in arm’s reach she grabbed it and tossed the man aside before making a break for the door.
Kaguya… she’s responsible! If I can find her-!
But her righteous fury ended as soon as she barged through the large metal doors marked “emergency exit”. When she saw what the world she’d been spirited away into really looked like.
“What…” her voice quivered, the cold night air striking the bare flesh beneath the thin hospital gown. It felt like her world. Of that there was no mistake. The sensation of walking barefoot through the courtyard of the imperial palace on a crisp summer’s eve was a memory so deeply ingrained into her mind that it would be impossible to forget. But this was not the imperial palace. This was not Kyoto. This was something else entirely. This was a nightmare.
All around her, men with metal arms and machines sticking out of the back of their heads roamed the streets, flanked on all sides by tsukumogami in the shape of porcelain dolls or mannequins, their insectile articulated joints clicking as they walked. Their faces had an obvious air of unreality about them, like a sculpted thing too perfect to actually exist, which contrasted sharply with the metallic amalgams of men she saw around her, their flesh mutilated by machines whose functions she could only begin to guess at. It looked as though they’d been merged with some of the strange tools she’d seen in that medical oubliette.
She looked around. Everywhere she looked things were different and strange, a grotesque parody of the world she’d left behind. Carriages pulled themselves along without horses, belching smoke like bellows. Giant metal snakes crawled like silkworms along branches that wrapped around and went through entire buildings, each as large as a castle and many times as tall. Some of them were even made from blown glass. There were lights and sounds she did not know originating from sources she didn’t dare guess at, and so many of them that they crowded out the senses, daring one to go mad. But the most shocking revelation occurred when she dared to look up.
The night sky was devoid of stars.
She dropped to her knees. How could this be? Was she so far from home that the light of the stars that shone above the palace simply could not reach her? Or was she in hell, her soul claimed by Kaguya’s foul magics? That seemed infinitely more likely as a white dragon soared above her, bisecting the sky with its ghostly red lights. The entire night sky looked like it was burning.
“I know this must come as quite a shock to you,” a voice she did not recognize tried to console her. She whipped around. Another demon stood before her, this one an empty suit of armor. At least, she thought it was armor. It spoke to her. “I am truly sorry for what you’ve lost, but we’re running out of time. They’ll be coming for you any minute now.”
She sneered. “Leave me be, demon. I have enough problems without having to listen to you.”
“And that’s why I’m here,” it said. “To help you solve those problems. To help you find a way back home, or… something like it, at least.”
“And why on earth would a demon want to do that?” she accused.
“Because I have a vested interest in seeing justice done to our mutual acquaintance.”
She turned around to look at it, suddenly taking what it said very seriously. “How do you know Kaguya?”
More men with machines crammed into their heads spilled out the door, chasing her with weapons that looked like nothing she’d ever seen before. She only knew they were weapons from the way they carried them. The armor stood between her and them, its chest opening invitingly.
“We should go. I think you and I have a lot to discuss.”
She nodded. The men yelled “open fire!” and flashes of bright light burst forth from the black objects they held in their hands. The onna-bugeisha jumped inside the armor, the chestplate sealing her inside.
“Hold on tight. I’ll take you where we need to go.”
The armor leapt into the sky, bouncing from rooftop to rooftop. The onna-bugeisha stared down at the city below, entranced by the garish festival nightmare in which she now found herself. It was then that she realized, bathed in the light of the crescent moon, that she hadn’t gone anywhere. It was the world that had changed. She had been left behind. Just as Kaguya said. For how long… she didn’t know.
Her last thoughts before she drifted off to sleep in the armor’s embrace consisted of one simple word, burning with salt and vinegar.