There was a rhinoceros in the special seating area, munching a pile of leaves and straw with popcorn scattered within it. Sitting besides the creature was a man, somehow larger than the gray mammal and keeping it occupied with light conversation. In the stands two down from them an African American woman with a haircut larger than the two put together was blocking the view of a perfectly ordinary looking dwarf, who didn’t seem to mind.
“I give up,” Otsune sighed, slouching even deeper into the plastic foldaway that counted as her free seat to this freak show of a tournament. She passed the video camera back to Fujiko. “I should just knock myself out and be done with it.”
Gen looked over to her and smiled in a vain attempt to be reassuring. “Are you okay, Ms. Tsunade? You’ve been tense since we got here.”
“Well how the hell am I supposed to be relaxed?” she snapped, needing an outlet to pour onto, grabbing her long hair and shaking it out of position. “I’m in a underground stadium that’s defying every law of physics I’ve ever came across. Men are cartoon sized big. An eagle is giving me the eye and for some reason martial arts is a lot more popular than I ever remember it being!”
“Ha, that’s so unlike you, Ms. Tsunade,” he continued with the apparent sympathetic ear. “Didn’t you tell me once we should take in all the facts for all situations before making our judgment?”
“Well yeah.” She tried to shrug her hair back into place. “Forensics student. Scholarship. Empiricist. Pissed off.”
“Even though we never see you study,” Fujiko butted in.
“So what about it?”
“Well, I admit it’s an impressive place,” Gen continued, looking around. “Having an underground arena this big, but there’s nothing more to it than that. I’m not surprised the government would make something this big. Probably meant to be a bomb shelter for the entire city or something. I’m sure we could find tons of stuff if we looked it up on the Internet.”
“The government?” Fujiko said. “Yeah, I guess only they could make something this big under the city without anyone noticing.”
“Exactly,” Gen continued, accepting his own explanation without hesitation.
“That woman’s the CEO of Sakimoto Industries as well,” Fujiko added. “Probably got them to commission the whole thing. Maybe that’s why those buildings were being demolished. They were going to have that area as the entrance when they had finished building.”
That wasn’t it! Couldn’t they see? How this place made no sense? How this couldn’t be part of their world? She had seen the entire structure, studied every inch, every dark corner that had passed over Fujiko’s special magnified lens, from the wood beyond the lighting constructs above them to the mahogany door that stood out at the end of the opposite side of the arena. What it told her was clear; should have been clear to anyone willing to look.
The first, and worst sign was the absence of even a single support column. Nothing gave signs of any load bearing panels holding up this massive box of space. The entire room, and that’s all it really was, just one large room, was an approximate three hundred by two fifty meter box that couldn’t possibly hold up all the junk that was supposed to be on top of it. Even if the walls were made of some super strong substance, there was the weight of a city there, followed up by several hundred tons of bedrock. The maths didn’t need doing, though she could. At the very least the whole place should be collapsing upon them from the centre and showering them in sharp, jagged death.
No place on earth could house an arena like this, especially a location one hundred meters below a metropolitan city.
“Well, it is awesome place,” Fujiko sighed, lying back. “Though if I was working, I’d be annoyed that my tax dollars were going to waste on it.”
“And I know you can’t understand a word I’m saying, but I’m sick to death with no one here speaking English and you can just sit by and take all of my well earned fury.”
The big guy whose name she never learned was trailing behind her, his little finger dragging the rest of him down the busy street as she pulled him along. He spouted noises, with much anger behind them, probably about what in the ninety two hells she thought she was doing, but none of it sounded threatening. That was probably best for the both of them.
“Look,” she began, as they stopped off in a quiet alley that rang alarm bells in her head for reasons she didn’t care about. “The InBetween realm has many stupid, complex rules that govern its inner workings and we all have to pay attention to them if we’re to get along with the accursed dimension. One of the more simple ones is that there is no oral language barrier there, because everyone communicates with their souls and the language of the soul is universal blah blah blah. And that’s why we can’t understand each other at the moment beyond your shouting of a type of paint, even though you’re in high school and probably should be taking some English classes seeing as you’re so smart with the ‘stand on the head’ genius epiphany you came up with yesterday.”
She breathed deeply.
“On top of that the written word is just nonsense in there and about as useful as Ipsum Lorsen on burnt pages. Because, when whoever decided to make the accursed place went about doing so they figured it should follow the same logic as dreams or something equivalently retarded. Otherwise I would take this document containing easy answers in there myself along with a map of your stupidly weird city which I still don’t know the name of and just read where I’m supposed to go. Instead, I’m stuck wandering the same stupid city until I run into thinks he’s so smart mobster impersonator. You got that?”
“Nani?” the big guy replied as Melissa caught her breath. She only just realised he was holding an empty ice cream cone.
“Whatever. Just look at this.”
She lifted the document up to him, watching him at it like she had just presented him with a ball of wool as their anniversary present.
“I need you to take me to here,” she said, pointing to the first address. “Here. Got it? Take me there.”
“Whatever. Here. Here.” No matter how loud she spoke, he didn’t seem to get it.
“Asoko ni ikitaika.”
“Yes. Yes. Hai.”
“Which way is it?”
“Oh right. Look, just take me there.”
The big guy just glared at her, probably thinking it over. Then, taking a big sigh, he plodded off for the bus stop a few feet away. Observing the map pinned up on the board, he motioned for her to follow, and she surprised him by emerging from the alley as a thirty year old man.
Finally, she was getting somewhere.
“Hell yeah,” shouted Fujiko.“I see her. It’s Natoko.”
Quickly turning the camera to follow the intoxicated girl’s finger, Otsune found the samurai girl walking out of the exit into the arena area, head lowered, her sword at her side, looking almost completely inconspicuous among so many of the others that filed in front and behind her. She appeared to hold the calm demeanor that the warrior type she was attributing to would have done, and Otsune couldn’t help but feel a little proud that she knew the girl, even if they did barely speak to one another.
Natoko was currently terrified beyond her wildest expectations of what being terrified felt like. And having rarely experienced the emotion her imagination had ran pretty far. Here, before her, were several thousand people, all apparently knowledgeable in a world of fighting in other dimensions with demons that she had only just recently learned about. Her brain knew that she wouldn’t be noticed by anyone, and so didn’t expect people to just start booing and jeering, but her heart wasn’t thinking like that. It had shrunk up, shying away from the crowd’s piercing glares, afraid to do even the slightest thing wrong, to accidentally break some formality and be the centre of everyone’s unwanted laughter.
Clutching Iziz tighter, it confirmed her suspicions that if it wasn’t for the weapon, she would have never even made it out of the changing rooms. That felt embarrassing in itself. Only one girl came out with her as she approached the arena, and for a second all eyes were on the both of them. The girl wasn’t exactly very friendly either. She only had one eye and seemed to reply to everything with grunting.
Am i ready for this? The question ran through her mind like a constant toe stubbing. She was used to duels, not brawls. Even in one on ones, she felt she could never really cut loose. They fought with the wooden shiai in the kendo dojo at school, and she wasn’t even a member of that particular group. She wasn’t in any sword fighting club at school for that matter, and had always trained with herself, occasionally visiting one of the clubs whenever one of the members had insisted, meaning that her sparring skills weren’t as high as everything else was, however high that may have been.
She had no idea if that even meant anything though. The rules of a kendo match were vastly different to her own method, and the point system was too perplexing for her to get used to in the few times she had been.
And her sword was metal. Extremely sharp metal. Whilst she had never cut anything that was too expensive, in case she incurred the wrath of grandmother Futabatei, she knew it was sharp enough to kill. Should she fight with this?
“Oh, why did I not think of all this sooner?” she muttered to herself dejectedly. The tall, hulking mass of woman in front of her turned to glare, her eyebrows fixed in an angry frown position, and the samurai looked away to show she wasn’t speaking to her.
She didn’t want to kill anybody. Wound maybe, that felt sort of acceptable. Was it? It was to be expected in a fight anyway, and there were plenty of medics in white uniforms around the side of the arena. At least she assumed they were medics. They had red crosses on their armbands and looked ready to spring up in case of an injury. It was just… they had no equipment with them.
It was expected of a samurai to kill. A samurai would even kill themselves if the need presented itself. But always they killed or died for a reason, for a master under whom they served. She served Sagara but, while she hoped he still remembered that, he had not ordered her to kill, nor did she know if she was allowed to. If she didn’t have a reason to kill and then did kill, would she truly be a samurai, or just another murderer?
The cage slammed shut, grabbing her attention and causing her to shriek in surprise. She still wasn’t used to that. Why was there a cage? As if she was revealed to be a mouse in an alley full of cats, everyone turned to her, some of the more nastier looking boys grinning greedily at her. She instinctively knew what it meant, feeling her heart tighten up. That was it. Everybody had classed her easy prey.
She looked to the timer, the number ten flashing up on screen in neon yellow, the announcer’s voice booming out to the crowds, prepping them for a great battle. She wasn’t ready for this! She didn’t even know how she should fight. All she knew was what she knew, and that couldn’t be enough! Gripping the hilt of her sword worryingly, her right leg shifted back, wanting to run away. A few of those further back focused away from her, as they decided she was too far to go for first. She hoped briefly that everyone would think like that, but it was clear that the male next to her at least didn’t think that. She swallowed hard, feeling her throat try to go down further than normal, like it was trying to save itself at the cost of her neck.
The counter hit zero. The boy didn’t hesitate. He leapt at her with the speed of a jaguar, his hand with long, sharp nails swept at her, intending to draw first blood. She flinched. Her eyes were closed. Her stance ruined.
She was weak.
The fat man was right.
It took them both a moment to realize her hand had moved on its own.
The boy growled, releasing his fury from the pit of his stomach. She looked up, realizing her sword, her Iziz, had jumped out of its scabbard and blocked the boy’s nails. It hadn’t cut them, but the boy was stuck. She saw him tense up, desperately holding the sword back. His position held for a moment and dropped down to strike her again.
Another moment. Neither were expecting it.
Without intention, she twisted her wrist, her sword swinging down, slamming into his arm with the blunt side of the blade. He grimaced, recoiling with the blow and falling a foot back. She watched him carefully, not sure what to do, when a Muay Thai expert slammed his heel into the feral boy’s head, promptly knocking the boy out.
Natoko watched as the kick boxer bounced away, apparently not even noticing her, or not wishing to fight when he did not have the element of surprise. She looked to the sword that had protected her. She had been the one to move it. Obvious really. Swung the blade out of its scabbard and blocked both shots. She had done it instinctively, with focused ease, and the thought of doing it again made her want to laugh.
A little more confident now. Indeed, the answer seemed blindingly obvious. She should just fight, like she knew how to, like she had always done. Not in the way she had fought with Sagara, not with an imbecilic slashing of her blade, but in the way she had fought all her life. Quick, sharp, decisive.
Standing up tall, she admired her weapon one last time before sheathing it back in its home. She inhaled quietly, and flipped the wooden casing around. It was the way she had practiced all her life, ever since she had received her sword from her grandfather. It was the only way she truly knew, that she could truly use. Why should she change now? Just because it was the way that demon fought when it possessed her? Just because it seemed more appropriate against Sagara?
She should stick with what she knew. With Iaijutsu.
She bellowed a sharp powerful note, and looked to the closest boy. He was a judo practitioner. She should avoid close range. Stepping forward, she pulled out her sword and struck him with a single blow. The impact was so intense it carried him across the three meters of the arena, where he promptly flew out of the cage, her shot as accurate as she intended it. She returned her sheath to her sword, before turning round.
Another male. By the way he was using his feet, he was using Savate, the French art of feet boxing. She should block his first strike, then counter. She rushed to him, and he lifted his right leg, giving her the opportunity to slam the hilt of her sword down on his knee before he got the chance to do anything. Then, pulling Iziz out all the way, she struck him once on the head, using the blunt side again, watching him fall backwards and unconscious, through the wide bars and off the side of the arena.
People had noticed her again, since she had just eliminated two fighters even though the cage had only just coming up. Some stepped back, intending to fight when she had grown a little tired. She had no idea now when that would happen. Flowing across the arena now, she sheathed her sword back again, striking the brutish women in the nose with the hilt of the blade. The muscular girl stayed standing for a few moments, Natoko observing her with little interest, before the pain reached her brain, making her pass out accordingly. Natoko returned her sword fully to the scabbard, never having to pull it all the way out anyway.
A young boy, three years her junior ran at her, jumping a lot higher than she expected a human could. He went to kick her, with the heels of both feet. She pulled her sword out, this time allowing it to cut his under soles. He cried no pain, but fell before her, and was caught up in another battle before she could do anything. She returned her sword, taking it out a second later to defend against a kendo fighter. She didn’t even look at his face. Her blade blocking his, she grabbed her scabbard with her other hand and rammed it against his jaw. As close to the edge as they were, he fell off before she even knew to stop her follow up.
It continued for another three minutes. Natoko knocking out fighters like they were bowling pins, just waiting to be taken out and carried away. Her movements were fresh, flowing out of her in continuous bursts, like someone was turning the tap on and off constantly.
She was finished before she knew it, having just kicked one fighter before striking the backs of his knees with her scabbard, knocking him out of the match before she could even figure out what style he had. That was when the bell had rang. Apparently, the two other fighters on the other side of the ring had thrown themselves out during their scuffle and were still fighting even now. She looked around, hearing nothing but her mouth panting. Everyone was staring at her. Her knees wobbled. Her heart tried to explode. She hadn’t done something wrong had she? No, of course not. But then-
Then it started. Cheer and applause, as deafening as the silence.
She had won.
The announcer announced her as the winner, and for the first time she realised he had been talking through the whole match. Wandering off the stage, trying not to care about the praise being lavished upon her, she was quickly met by a tall, yet stout man who asked her to follow him. She did so, looking back at the last moment to observe the carnage she had wrecked, the bodies of those she had knocked unconscious lay strewn outside of the arena, with only so many medics to handle them all. She had done well, she noted, proving herself and her style. She was a fool for changing, for going to a way she did not understand as much as Iaijutsu. And now, she knew how strong she was.
So why did it feel worthless still? No reason but a thrill meaningless to her.
“What the hell!” Otsune cried out, through with holding back the feelings that had been welling up inside her every since she entered this place. “When the hell did Natoko get that fast?” Her question was drowned out by the ongoing cheers of the crowd, who right now didn’t care for the student’s important question.
“Huh?” Aki replied, looking down at her elder for the top of her chair, bouncing up and down with excitement, possibly the happiest girl in the audience now that her best friend had won. “Natoko’s always been that.” With her detailed explanation complete, Aki went back to screaming and cheering, providing the energy for all those in the group that weren’t excited, namely everyone except Fujiko.
“Been like what? And how come didn’t she kill anyone?”
“Blunt edge of the sword.”
“Blunt? But- she’s using the Iaido right -the art of drawing the sword. It would get jammed if she tried to pull it out that way.”
“The sword must have rearranged itself.”
“That…that doesn’t make any sense!” Otsune insisted. She caught a glance of Sarah in the row in front of her. She too, looked a little bewildered by what she had just seen. Otsune looked back at the arena, almost expecting the mirage to disappear and show Natoko soundly defeated while some unknown muscular brute adulated in his victory. “None of this makes any sense.”
“Huh? Said the Rhinoceros.
“Oh you be quiet,” Otsune said, sitting in a huff.
Raiko wasn’t liking this one bit.
In fact, Raiko was hating it, and the temptation to handle it all through more ultraviolence methods was becoming more alluring.
How much longer did they have to put up with this?
Yuya stood up from her chair in the V.I.P room and smiled as much as she could without the others in the room noticing.
“By my own beard!” a man roared next to her- his wife repeating it all, rising up from the leather chair where he was seated before tossing an enchanted chalice- centuries old straight into the wall behind Raiko. It would have shattered had not the wall decided to instead.
“That wasn’t my little girl…was it?” He turned to Yuya, waiting for an answer, barely noticing his wife in the corner, repeating his words. “Tell me that that was not my little girl that just got tossed out of the ring like a filthy human by a filthy human.
“I-I’m afraid so,” Yuya said, the smile on her face dropping so that even Raiko thought she was genuinely sad. The man, a big, bulky mass of muscle went to stamp his foot on the ground, but was stopped by his quick acting partner, who leapt under the foot in sacrifice.
“What is going on, woman?” he demanded with a roar that shook his thirteen foot tall frame.
“Don’t use that tone with me!” Yuya shouted back without hesitation, causing the man to back down. “I don’t know who that girl is. It’s not easy keeping a trace on everyone in the InBetween Realm, you know.”
“Of course the main problem with determining if we are all contained within a simulated reality is the idea that not only might the system have certain safeguards that would make a prisoner find ways to rationalise any glitches found as a result of computational stress upon the system, but finding out may do nothing but ruin the simulation for the players. Having found out, the player’s feelings on the novelty of the game may only last so much longer.”
Everyone stopped as the old man blurted this out long enough to have it fry their brains. As the small queen shushed her servant, the Gronog calmed down enough to compose himself, and turned to face Yuya head on.
“You claim your Shariku Insana System is flawless, woman,” the demon continued. “Yet you are telling me you cannot even keep track of one, immensely powerful human?” Husband and wife demon spoke in unison as the Gronog spat his venom at Yuya’s feet. Raiko was more than used to this by now, but she wished she was in the outside world speaking to them, where she could understand only the more timid woman.
“It’s not as though we cannot keep track of her, my dear Dayton,” Yuya began to explain. “It’s just that there is nothing to know. We have her name, her age, her family, her school, medical and parental records. We have everything one could acquire on such a girl and other than a semi-famous historical figure that may or may not have been her ancestor and what appears to be a pathological obsession with her sword, there is nothing to know.”
“Is she here to usurp all that we have done?” the man asked, standing a lot shorter.
“Every human child in that arena is there to usurp all that is being done here,” she said straight up. “Because they want to win. She is just another fighter.”
“Don’t give me that!” the man shouted, his anger getting the better of him again. “We’ve put a lot into this tournament. I don’t want it all ruined because of some ‘mystery samurai’ showing up and defeating all the competition.”
“Yet if that is how it is to go, you would not have a right to complain. You all entered this knowing what was to happen. The possibility was low, but there was always to be chances that there would be strong humans joining randomly. They are all faithless after all.”
“But that was my daughter just eliminated now! Every demon was just eliminated now!” He roared, breaking the coffee table with his mere presence, causing his assistant to shriek. Even Raiko felt her skin wanting to bend to his will. “By a single human warrior. And don’t tell me she didn’t know what’s she done. No one walks out that calm after a fight. Our family’s names been insulted irrevocably in the space of three seconds. I demand vengeance!” he hissed, the human body that contained the demon failing to perform the necessary notions for this and just gawking instead. Yuya went to leave. “Where are you going?” he shouted.
“I shall wait for you to calm yourself down,” she said formally. “There is no need to be angry if your daughter lost to someone so strong. She shall learn, if she has anything on your side.” She pointed this comment to his wife, who timidly nodded in reply, before leaving without another word, her trainers softly masking her footsteps. “Besides, she didn’t eliminate all the demons.”
Raiko was left standing in the middle of it all, and found the demon staring back at her, looking unsure as to whether or not he wanted to continue his ramblings at her. He eventually decided with a snort larger than his body not to bother with it and went to sit back down to watch the fight through the protected glass. Raiko calmed down. She hated this job. If only this monster had gotten angry enough for her to have the excuse to destroy it. Then she could have gone to see Sagara.
But no. Her job was guard duty.
“Woman!” the man roared.
“Yes,” she replied, her voice squeaking as she had been told to let it do.
“Fetch me a beer.”
“Ah, right away, sir.”
She tried her best not to unleash forty thousand volts through the demon’s hide.
She unfortunately succeeded.
The friendly assistant, who smelled like tuna, had guided her into another waiting room; a lot different from the unclean changing room she had been stored in earlier with the other girls of the tournament. This room was brightly lit and clearly had more effort put into it than the changing rooms from earlier. There were lush, leather sofas to relax on and a large bar that seemed to cater specifically for the winners of the elimination tournaments. She noted that, for Fujiko, the place would have been a perfect place to hang out, were it not for the large ‘No alcohol’ signs prominent everywhere in the room. Even in this realm, it seemed minors weren’t allowed to drink.
“Natoko!” a cheerful voice rang out and. Natoko assumed it was Aki come to greet her. Instead it was Sagara. “You won. Congratulations.”
“Er…thanks,” she replied, hesitantly. “You too.”
“From what Mom’s told me about these things we should be expecting a dramatic rematch soon,” he said excited, bouncing happily on the cushy armchair that had been provided. “I wonder which one of us will win after our differences cause us to conflict.”
“Erm, yeah,” she replied again, watching her usually stoic master revel in simple pleasures. “Hey, Sagara?”
“Why are you fighting?”
“I’m not fighting,” he answered in turn. “I’m talking to you.”
“No I mean. “She started again. “Why do you fight in this tournament? Personally. Not just the demons. I mean, well, more like in a philosophical way. You know, the whole Zen thing.” She cursed. She should be able to say it better than that.
“Because it’s my mission…and it’s fun I guess.”
“Is that it?” She felt a little sore. Was he just not giving her the full answer? She wouldn’t be too surprised if he had to keep some things from her, and she as a retainer shouldn’t complain anyway.
“Yup,” Sagara paused for a few seconds. “I suppose you want me to ask the same question?”
“Why do you fight, Natoko?”
She composed herself. “Have you ever found yourself, doing something with all of who you are, all your power, all your mind, all your heart, only to get it laughed upon by your closest friends?” she paused, figuring it was the best way to start. Sagara was already shaking his head, not understanding what rhetorical meant. “Before you came here, before you brought all the demons and spirits, strange realms and giant tires with you, I still spent my days training hard. Day in and day out, I swung this sword as I had countless times before; improving my stroke, making it cleaner, smoother. Some nights after school it really was all I did.”
Sagara sat down, knowing this would take a while.
“I had always figured that, if one was to try their hardest at something then, no matter what it was, everyone around them would respect them for that effort. I looked at my friends and saw Otsune studying in her room, Sakura cooking, even Fujiko working on her website and Aki just playing around. I saw these and, while I might not want to join in, admired them for keeping up with these things with such resolve.
“So it was pretty hard for me when I found none of them respected me for what I did. The signs they gave me over time were things I tried to just ignore. Fujiko would come at me like a badly made Chinese martial arts movie. Sakura couldn’t understand why I was doing such a thing. Otsune told me that such things weren’t needed anymore. It felt kind of painful, having your closest friends just dismiss what you do. It felt strange too. I mean, I was learning an art, that’s gotta be considered cool on some level, right? Only Aki seem to quietly accept it, but that didn’t feel acceptable on its own for some reason.
“Sometimes I wanted to quit, just on this. But by that point, I felt that, if I let my sword go, and just follow on with them, then everything I do from then on would be meaningless. It wouldn’t be something that made me who I am. It would just be something I did because I felt I had to choose something to replace that what I gave up. And I don’t think I could accept that. Not just to myself, but the duty I had towards my friends as well. I’d be betraying who I am and who they thought I was if I stopped. So I continued. I continued to swing, continued to get stronger, so that, one day, I could protect them with all my heart.
“And I was so happy when that day finally arrived.”
“That’s why you fight?” Sagara replied, looking genuinely interested, yet sounding confused.
“No, that’s why I train,” she said. “To make myself better. To be a better friend. I don’t have a reason to fight.”
“Huh?” he muttered, looking at her like she had just turned into a radiator made out of paper. “Yes you do.”
“What?” she called out. “No, I don’t!”
“Then you’ve just forgotten.”
“Are you telling me that-“
“Mom told me that everyone has a reason to fight, but sometimes they forget, and that there should be nothing more to it than that. You’ll remember in time.” He turned round at this point and headed to the bar, giving the girl a few seconds to realize that the conversation was over for him.
“Oi, don’t spout philosophy and turn away,” she shouted back. Moving to chase him she got stopped when she heard cheers and a voice blurt out over the loudspeakers. It came out mumbled, but she assumed that it was the next winner.
“That was fast,” she stated, turning around to partly expect someone to be walking in through the door at that moment. Strangely enough, there was standing the overweight cousin of the boy who had tried to stab her the previous day. He was already looking at her as she turned to him. He scoffed in disgust as he realised who it was.
“You?” he said surprised, as if a turtle had just won a race. “You made it past the eliminations?” Natoko stared austerely at the boy, though her mind reeled in alarm as this boy looked down on her from the steps. Her previous experiences were constantly getting pushed aside and replaced with new ones. With decision she grinned back at him. It didn’t startle the boy though.
“I’m not as weak as either of us thought,” she replied boldly, staring back at him, meeting his eyes and claiming them for her own. “And I’ll beat you as well when the times come.”
“Evidently,” he said simply, before walking up to a nearby wall. “I expected my stupid cousin to be here. He was in the last match. Instead I find another weakling.” He leaned against the wall and then…nothing, like he hadn’t even bothered to hear the last bit of her taunt. Almost tempted to flatten him there and then Natoko prayed he would be her first fight. To strike him down with her grandfather’s blade, and destroy he who would mock her.
She may have not had a reason to fight, but now she definitely had an excuse.
The elevator played music with a melody as meaningless to Melissa as the lyrics, its incessant randomness attacking her voice as Japanese comedians laughed to each other loudly apparently without telling any jokes. The guy next to her laughed along with them, but quickly shut up when he caught her glare.
They rode up the rest of the building in silence, her giant yet supposedly younger companion trying not to fidget and failing. He was the one who had led them here after spending enough time riding buses and subways to another part of the city that looked the same as the part they had started at, but he didn’t have to have come this far with her. The boy no longer seemed that bothered though and had simply wandered into the building with her even after she had said thanks.
Trying not to shuffle too much in the cramped elevator, she took another look into the folder at the more English parts. The first part that she saw was the label of what appeared to be the false name that was used to book the room in question. The only problem was that name being in Japanese. The second part was equally unhelpful though, as it just said ‘BlNiock’. With such an odd combination of letters it wasn’t too far off to assume it could be the name of a demon. There was no such demon that she had heard of called a BlNiock, but it wasn’t impossible that such a creature could exist. Probably a minor one though. And if it was working through the False Balance then it was most likely weak, as the only demons that ever did that were the ones afraid of point blank annihilation on behalf of the stronger demons it might try to deal with.
There was also a third part to the top label, but it was simply a blank space ended by a comma, as if someone had held the spacebar down without realising it. It probably was just a typo, but her mind kept playing with the idea that it was something beyond that. The elevator finally rang as they reached their floor, and the big kid waited with his arms crossed for her to leave the elevator first. Passing the stupid dumb freak she found herself in more familiar territory. This hotel floor felt more along the lines of buildings back in America, and she felt herself glide down the corridor with ease, right until the point where she smelt heavy ash.
Hearing the boy sniff behind her, she followed the path down, looking to the numbers and trying to find a room with markings on it that matched anything on the address. As she turned down the passageway, the smell weighed on her nostrils and she quickened to a jog as she noticed bizarre looking black footprints faintly appear on the carpet ahead of her.
“Aw no. No no.” She turned another corner, and saw the black prints get darker as they walked backwards to the white door second on the left. The door was shut and, as they rushed up to it, was found to be hosting the number 666 proudly on the door frame, written on a post it note.
The smell was thick here, the big guy behind her muttering to himself as he held his giant hand against his face. She could almost feel her eyes watering behind the illusions as she tried for the door handle and, upon finding it to be non-cooperative, stepped aside for the big guy to ram it open.
The language of unnecessary violence being as universal as the soul, the big guy charged into the weak door almost faster than she could get out the way. The door came off its latch and flew forwards, the smell of warm ash jumping out from before where it had seeped, now filling the corridor with putrid darkness.
Though visibility was still high, the two wandered cautiously into the room, their mouths covered with as much clothing as skin as they could muster. This much soot and ash was confusing, seeing as there was no fire in sight. She started to look around as the big guy opened the window to try and get it all out.
The room was empty
“You said it, big guy.”
Whether it had been abandoned she couldn’t tell, but even if that was the case, it implied that the previous tenant had decided to steal a lot more than just towels. All the furniture was missing, from the bed to the meaningless armchair that existed only to store stuff on to the entire ensuite bathroom and everything in-between.
And it had all been replaced with ash.
Someone had beat them to it, and they had burnt away the contents of the room. The walls no longer bore wallpaper or paint. The wooden floorboards beneath them were untouched, even though there was no way a hotel wouldn’t have carpet here.
More alarming was the sound of water trapped and pressing to escape. Melissa soon found the source coming from a series of pipes in the corner of the room. They had been melted down perfectly to meet with the tops of the floorboards, a blob of metal laying on top of each iron water pipe.
Whatever had done this, seemed to have incinerated the entire room in the perfect shape of a cuboid meeting the dimensions of the apartment. And without being detected by any fire alarms, now presumed melted, though the heat that was enough to incinerate the contents of an entire room should have been enough to alert those in the surrounding rooms.
The only thing that that remained was a smell. Decomposed meat. About four weeks old. There were just minute traces of it, but still enough to get her to gag a little. Surely there should be no such smell, Melissa noted. If there were bodies in here that got incinerated, she would be smelling fried chicken, and any previous smells would still be burned away.
What had gone on here? She was hoping to finally get some answers but now it looked like someone was actively stopped her progress. Were the demons onto them? More than likely after the incident with the Riddleklutz yesterday, but this was far too extravagant a solution to hide evidence from them when they had plenty of time to just simply relocate; or had this been done to remove all traces from the room after they had done such a thing.
Or was someone else hunting the demons?
That was a possibility, though it didn’t help her if they were. With the room leaving no traces, she was now back down to square one. She didn’t have any equipment with her to trace what the soot originally was, and there was so much of it that all she was likely to find was wood and expensive bar snacks.
“Shizuka!” She didn’t need to know what the big guy was saying to hear the footsteps from approaching down the hall. Gliding over the floorboards without scrape or squeak, she pushed the door shut, muting all sounds as they were made.
She backed off, waiting to see if the footsteps were heading to this room. If a demon was returning, that would be perfect timing, the big guy would work as a perfect aide in her interrogations. Of course there was always a chance of-
“Cleaning!” A jangle of keys. The cleaner was here. Of all the worst times. The big guy shuffled in panic, the idea of being caught here without reason clearly scaring him. She shushed him with a wave of her hand in case he tried to imitate the previous tenants. Then she concentrated.
Illusions are the simplest of things really. All it is is a matter simulating the right electrons in the air, at the right time, and for the right reasons. It’s perfectly easy to make someone believe they’ve missed their bus, or to make a blind man see a butterfly. All it really took was timing.
So when the cleaner entered, looking slightly surprised to find the door already unlocked, the four star bedroom with bathroom suite that was displayed in front of him didn’t even register as false to the cleaner’s mind. Melissa and the big guy watched, hidden within the patterns of the wall as the cleaner began stripping a bed that wasn’t there, placing sheet as epithermal as air into the cleaning cart, and laying sheets down to have gravity take them from him, only to carry on making the bed regardless.
Patiently they stood, and Melissa watched the man, MP3 player blaring in his ears to make it just a little easier on her efforts. It was hard though. The entire bathroom suite disappeared for thirty seconds behind the young’s man’s back to reveal the big guy, who was cocky enough to make her laugh with silly faces, nearly making her drop the illusion altogether.
By the time it was finished, Melissa was sweating, and the young man started scratching his right arm until it went sore. Emptying a bin that wasn’t there, he drank water from a tap with no rejuvenating qualities. With a scratch of his head and a curious mutter, he closed the door behind him and locked it, trundling his cart back down the corridor.
“Phew, abunakatta,” Big Guy said, as he came back to his own eyesight. He checked his hands to appreciate them being there, and then Melissa didn’t care. She had four seconds to pick the lock of the door and get them out of there.. This room was now useless to her, and the sooner she got out, the faster the answers would come. The prelims had to be over by now. She was running out of time.
“Yo yo matte matte!” She didn’t care if the big guy followed her now. He was a nice sized meatshield, but would probably slow her down. Not that the suspect knew it was about to be followed.