Otsune’s was screaming. It eventually woke the boy up.
Alongside the screaming she was also kicking him, as well as the mattress, in the hopes of getting him to fall out of the bed she had rented that night at the Scarlett hotel. Having slept on his arm, Sagara waited a few seconds to get the blood flowing back through it properly. As he got up and turned round, the telephone landed on his forehead, almost knocking him straight back to sleep.
“What are you doing in here?” she shouted, dressed in nothing but a long T-shirt with a peculiar cat emblazoned upon it. “Get out!”
Three minutes later, Sagara was heading to the roof of the hotel. It had been getting harder for non-spiritual entities to get there recently. The evening before, there were several signs, one posted at each of the floors the staircase came out onto. This time, someone had placed a lock on the door and a white sheet of paper displayed the words ‘NO ACCESS’ in red marker pen.
Not fully understanding why it was bolted in the first place, Sagara stared at this sign like it was a shopkeeper who would give him something for free if he whined and hung around long enough. The lock wasn’t like this in fact, and was actually a stubborn money grubber, who had no intention of giving him free access unless he went on a mystic quest it had specially planned for him, where he would descend the steel steps of the tower and approach the mighty guardsman that sat at the bottom reading comics and ask for the key politely. Only then would he stand the chance to open it like any normal being would.
Breaking the wood around the bolt, Sagara strode outside, his eyes taking in the clear summer’s day.
“Morning,” he yawned to Melissa, walking past her stretching his arms out and beginning a morning warm up routine. Melissa didn’t respond for a moment, lost for words.
“Get these on quickly,” she said eventually, throwing various pieces of clothing at him. “Before anyone sees you.” the fault was with Melissa of course. She had informed him she would be providing his warrior’s grab for the day. Putting anything else on would of course be a waste of time.
Barely stopping to dress himself, his bouncing causing a pair of socks to fall to the floor, Sagara may have taken this moment to notice a connection between Otsune’s actions in the morning and his current state of dress, but it was impossible to tell. On top of the pile of clothing, a mobile phone that wasn’t his sat. It was covered in frogs, some were printed on, while others had been doodled on lazily in red permanent marker.
“Use that to keep in contact with me,” Melissa told him. “It’s been modified, so wait a few seconds for the line to secure itself when it rings.”
“How do I contact you?” he asked, one sleeve of his shirt hanging limp as he tried pressing a few random buttons and ringing a man who called himself the Tiger god.
“My number’s on there, but don’t bother. There’s only enough credit for a few texts.” He looked at it for a few seconds longer, dropping it back on his trousers and pulling his shirt the rest of the way on.
“Feel my Tiger Fury,” a voice shouted from a unspecified direction. “It is furious.” The voice cut off, and Sagara was lost trying to find it.
“You’re quite the coward, you know that?” Melissa said as he was halfway between his underwear and trousers.
“Excuse me?” he said, seconds before his shirt went over his head.
“That girl ends up sleeping in your room,” she stated, her tone sharper than any knife. “And you sneak off and sleep elsewhere, just so you wouldn’t have to face her eye to eye.”
His attention moved back to the phone, the frogs screaming at him to give them more friends to talk to, for the ones they had at the moment were drawn in black marker, and these were always the dreary types you met at parties who talked about their tie collection and if it wasn’t for the fact that their sister was hot, the frogs would have shown them another thing they could do with ties and necks. Sagara noticed none of this either.
“I told you it was a bad idea to involve them,” she continued to scold. “Yesterday your actions cost a poor, innocent naïve girl her sanity. And just when I was warning you the night before.”
“She didn’t go insane.”
“It was close,” she retorted quickly. “Bad enough you killed someone who to her seemed to be a fully living human, but to then waste time comforting her in front of the corpse. Ninja. Sagara. Ninja! Having people see you kill is the last thing you want. It makes you traceable. It shows you’re incompetent.”
“It wasn’t my fault she was there,” he replied.
“Wasn’t it?” she countered. “You let yourself get caught by one of our biggest enemies and dragged into the InBetween Realm with a grin on your face. I admit it’s unusual she somehow got to the Realm in the first place, but none of it would have happened had you not invited them all to the tournament in the first place.”
“That’s not necessarily…”
“It was because your cousin was searching for you. Because she idolises you for some bizarre reason and wants to have ‘adventures’ with you. Because she has the same curse her whole family has. But mainly because you’re stupid and announce your presence in a pool full of girls!”
“Not pool, Hot Springs.”
“Stop with the excuses! What kind of leader are you going to be if you just try and bat everything off one at a time?” He stopped bouncing, letting gravity hold him down. He giggled, scratching the back of his head, looking away; turning back to catch her glare and moved away again.
“I just can’t… you know,” he muttered, not finding the words where he thought he left them, “help myself?”
“Yeah, I do,” the girl said, breathing a heavy sigh as she realised talking further about it was pointless. She sat off the side of the building as he finished getting his shirt on.
“Any new orders from mom?” he asked. Melissa sighed in frustration, looking like she wanted to tear out her hair and shove it down his throat.
“None at all,” Melissa replied, trying to stay focused. “As far as we are aware, the mission is to continue on as planned.” She began to count the mission points on her fingers. “Infiltrate the tournament being held today. Maintain cover as a participant for as long as possible, getting at least pass the preliminaries and first round. That’s only a suggestion by the way. Your mom wants you to Place because you’re the future Enforcer and it looks good. What’s important is that you just get in. During this time, discover any information you can about the whereabouts of any demons that may be operating in the tournament. If there are no demons, then the mission is over. If there are demons, then the mission is to deal with them ‘as you see fit.’” He nodded his head, whether he understood or not was a different matter. That gone out look in his eyes told her that he was probably remembering the fact he had said the word Hot Springs earlier, and was now engrossed in the concept.
“Okay,” he replied when she had finished. “That’s good.”
“Is that it?” she asked, sounding like it never would be.
“Should there be more?”
“Well I don’t know. Shouldn’t you be asking me what information we’ve got so far?” He considered this.
“And what information have we got so far?” he asked, repeating like a parrot.
“None, you idiot!” Melissa replied bluntly. “You haven’t looked yet.”
“Hhhhmmm, good point,” Sagara continued, unfazed by his female friend’s comments. “Can you think of anything?”
“Me?” Melissa shouted, getting in his face. “Have you forgotten who this is all about?”
“Who?” he smiled nervously, as she looked ready to bite his nose. From this distance, all it would require was her opening her mouth and slamming it shut.
“This may be my mission, but this is your initiation, remember?”
“Yeah,” he replied simply, not sure what point she was trying to make. She mashed her teeth in frustration.
“I am simply a tool for you to use in all this. You give me orders based on reasoning and leadership, and I’ll follow them.” She waited a second for this to sink into his brain, then waited a second longer, just to make sure. “You do not sit back and expect others to do the brain work. That is your job.”
“But you’re smarter than me… I…”
“You’re a leader, Sagara. You’re supposed to be anyway. That’s the point of this initiation. You’re to become the Lord of the Futabatei clan, the centrepiece as you so delicately put it yesterday. Yet not even I can find the respect to see you as such.” He stayed silent, as she forced him to step back a few times. “To be a leader, you must prove yourself as a ninja, by achieving this mission and successfully completely it. That’s more than the basic grunt work of kicking people until they stop living that you’ve been doing so far. That means thinking, investigating and figuring things out! You got me?”
“I…guess,” he said, agreeing regardless. Melissa groaned loudly. She could be telling him to transform himself into a cardboard box made of jelly and he would still be nodding his head.
“Good,” she turned around, allowing him to relax from her piercing gaze. “Now, what leads, if any, do you actually have?” She sat down by the door. The only way out would be through her, she would make sure he didn’t make some excuse to get away.
“Well…” he quickly tried to think of anything, looking down and almost saying ‘shoes’. “The main lead is the tournament…I think…”
“Since that hasn’t happened yet, there’s very little. I haven’t seen any demons or demon spirits hiding within any objects, except the obvious ones, of course.” Draynor flashed into existence round his fist for a split second, Greynock popping out of it and screaming before being pulled right back in. “Though even if I did they aren’t necessarily related to the tournament.”
“Good. Go on,” she relaxed a bit. Sagara seemed to sense this, and went back to putting his clothes on.
“But there have been other weird things happening anyway?” As he lifted his jacket up, a packed sandwich dropped out of it. He smiled happily at his assistant and began to devour as if it was the first piece of food he had been fed since his stomach was ripped out and emptied.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been here for two days, and I suffered two demon encounters. That’s kinda weird,” he muttered as he talked with his mouth full. “I was willing to count the Dark Scourge as just luck, but the Riddleklutz seemed intend on simply withholding us.”
“A distraction?” Melissa suggested.
“Possibly,” he said, more focused on his love of bread than anything else at the moment. “The Riddleklutz…. It stated that the Dark Scourge I met in the alleyway was on a mission to kill those people that spat at Natoko. Yet if I hadn’t led them there….something’s wrong here.”
“How do you mean?”
“The Dark Scourge wouldn’t have come out of the alleyway, for fear of exposure on a crowded street, so it was expecting those people to come to it? Yet they only went in the alley to chase me…” Melissa looked on, the gaze in her eyes lost to him. “Is that a lead?” he asked, looking for praise.
After a moment’s pause, in which the entire audience edged onto their seats. “It’s a good start,” she said.
“And then there is this folder I found on the Riddleklutz’s desk.” Out of nowhere he pulled a large brown folder filled with a bulk of white paper and several post it notes poking out in all directions. “It’s titled ‘Agenda for the administration of the Young Warrior’s tournament of the Faithless’s Underground demonic betting circle: Notes on tournament entrees and gambling antes.’”
He held it in front of her. “Would that be a lead at all?”
Melissa blinked loudly.
“Yeah I’m not sure either. You want to read it? You might have a better idea than I do.”
He threw the folder over to her, fifty pages spilling to the floor in the process before her reflexes kicked in and caught the lot.
“And so,” a voice, blacker than darkness, which isn’t that hard to achieve when one really thinks about it, said in the room without the lights on. “So, it finally begins.”
“Yes master,” came a voice that was darker than blackness, which made a lot more sense than what the previous voice was like, but didn’t sound as effective for a metaphor. “It indeed finally begins.”
“Are the preparations set?” a third voice asked. This voice was blacker and darker than the previous two voices put together, creating a whole new colour; one that I shall call Spurgle.
“Yes master,” said a voice that didn’t belong in the conversation. This voice was squeaky and childish. It must have been jealous of the other voices, which sounded so grand, majestic and spurgley that one of them even got a new colour named after what it sounded like. It wished that its voice was so impressive as to have a colour named simply because of its existence. “All is ready.”
“Now,” said the blacker than darkness voice. “All we do is wait for the players to enter the game.”
“Yes,” said the spurgley voice. “I wonder how they will fare against the challenges that we have inserted into the contest. How long before they realise that this is more than a simple tournament?” The voice, in all its grand spurgiliness, which would have caused a grown man to tremble in fear because it really was just that far beyond dark and black, laughed a hollow laugh. It was meant to sound maniacal, but this was one of the many unfortunate side effects of having such a spurgling voice.
“It is but a shame that the tournament is only once every few human years,” the first voice, full in its blacker than darkness splendor stated. “It would be most…agreeable to make this a regular occurrence. But too much would attract too many hunters.”
“That is a point we should have to consider,” the voice, were it not so dark and disembodied, would have turned round to the servant voice without the squeaky voice at this point. “Annabelle?”
“Yes, unholy demon scourge master,” it replied with the darker than black nature that it reflected in its voice.
“How many hunters have been detected so far?”
“Three, my reverent blackest one, of which mold is jealous of. Not including associates. Two of these have already been dealt with and will not be a part of the storyline. The other remains still at large.”
“You talk strange,” the spurgley voice pointed out. “But no matter. This other one, he is the Futabatei, correct?”
“I believe so, most defercationnal one, of whom we let it all go in our pants when we see. If we were to strike at this one directly, it would cause problems. So far our attempts to handle him covertly have failed.”
The Stoolie! So they follow him as well. Make plans that ruin my plans. That can’t be allowed.
“Bah! No matter. His presence will divert attention away from our little game anyway. Our little game…of proportions historic.” The voice, rich in spurgleness, began to laugh hard and loud, when there was a knock from somewhere.
“Room service!” a voice rang out that was as bright and white as one of the voices were black and dark, a sharp contrast basically.
“Room…service,” the first voice repeated. “What is this?”
“It does not matter,” the other voice stated. “Send them away quickly.” The one with the squeaky voice approached me.
“Yes, he who fishes for corruption,” it squeaked as it rang towards the door, opening it ajar. Before it had chance to say anything, the person on the other side burst in, armed to the teeth with drinks and assorted snacks, and knocked the servant against the wall behind the door.
“Good morning,” the young girl announced. How are you? Thank you for your time. Please take care of me. Oh, are the lights broken?” Without waiting for permission she turned to the light switch and flicked in on, revealing three midgets in the room, with confusion drawn on their faces. “Oh they’re alright,” she said, turning to the occupants of the room. “Were you playing a game?”
“Erm ahh,” said the once spurgley voice in surprise. “Yes…a game…of proportions historic.” It tried to make it sound as impressive as before. It failed due to being short fat demon.
“Well that’s nice,” replied the bellhop. “I like role-playing games. There the only reason I haven’t killed anyone yet. Well. No one important.” She started to look round the room, admiring the scenery. From the looks of things, they had managed to turn the hotel room into a Goth’s playground. Chains were scattered around the room and walls and there was an altar when the bed once was, with a very realistic four hundred pound bear carcass. “You know, I may or may not be employed here, but I get the feeling that the management isn’t going to like any of this.”
“Oh curse the grand fates,” one of the midgets said, rubbing his face in his hands. He turned to the bellhop, who was amusing herself with the altar they had brought in. “My dear…er…lady. We did not order any of this room service. In fact, we left specific orders not to be disturbed.”
“Oh, please accept my forgiving apologies then, sir,” the girl said, acting genuinely displeased. “There must have been some confusion with room numbers down below. It’s what you get for having apartment 666 in a place with a total of seventy rooms” She took her hat off and held it down in her hands before turning around to take a bow and seeing the dismembered corpse that was the reason they didn’t need room service hanging on the wall besides the door. “Oh wow. A corpse of proportions bloody.”
“Oh no,” the first midget groaned as the maid observed the bloody remains of a late sacrificial meal. “What are we going to do now?” It started cursing the living arrangements they had been forced to take up. I couldn’t help but sympathise. Constantly teleporting between dimensions would have brought up too much attention, but renting a hotel and using disguises must have felt a lot worse.
“And to think I didn’t have a reason for what I was about to do.”
“Can I eat her, he whose ears can only be dreamed of by raccoons?” the squeaky voice monster asked politely, now strolling over menacingly to the lone non-demon occupant in the room.
“I guess it’s too late now,” the midget replied. Except it wasn’t a midget now. It had changed somehow. “Go on then, close the door first though.”
“Thank you, master of the everlasting book of torture.” Annabelle laughed hysterically as it kicked the wooden object behind it without taking its eyes off of its next succulent meal. “You look delicious, dear.”
“But reasons are all relative anyway,” I said, feeling the room heat up as I set the air on fire. “Excuses for rationalisations for the stupid mistakes we made today.” Annabelle disappeared, replaced by fine ash. “Or at least, that’s what I always get told.”
“Well,” Melissa said, still gobsmacked at the wealth of information that had just been presented to her. “A lot of its in Japanese. Some is in English and a lot is in that squiggely writing that happens wen people try to make notes in the InBetween realm. But at the very least, it confirms the presence of demons in the tournament arena.”
“That was kinda obvious anyway.”
“How so?” Sagara went to answer, and she saw him space out, thinking it over.
“Well, there had to be,” he finally responded. “There’d be no point to this otherwise.”
“Hey now,” she replied deadpanned. “This isn’t that simple. There was a chance we’d be coming out of this with absolutely nothing. It’s not like they threw the hardest possible mission in the world at us.”
“Yeah, but it’ll probably turn out that way.” What was he talking about? She coughed, bringing it back to the focal point. “It would be boring otherwise. I don’t mom would allow boredom.”
“Anyway. The file, since I assume you haven’t read it beyond the cover, seems to be a mediator contract between the False Balance and several clients, as well as official procedures and protocols for catering to the demons during the tournament. Seems like the False Balance were sub-contracted as a go between for the people listed here and some unnamed third party referred to only as ‘The Ring’, which i’m guessing are the demons. A lot of it is just small print, the rest are names and addresses.”
“I’ve heard mention of this being done before from some of the other assistants actually. The False Balance sets up consulting services to allow weaker demons to interact with more powerful ones without being devoured because they blinked. Of course it’s not just demons, humans can do it too, so it doesn’t necessarily mean anyone on this list is a demon. It could be some tournament participants have made special contracts with demons through the False Balance for whatever reasons, e.g. power, debt, favour.”
“However it could mean that several of the tournament participants themselves are demons, betting on themselves or fighting humans for some kind of glory. That could get messy.”
“If that’s the case, we’re probably best checking out some of the names listed here and see where they lead. We should be able to cross reference it with the list of participants in the tournament and see which ones stand out. If not we’d just have to check out each of the addresses one by one.”
“I recognise that name for certain. The Fujiwaru cousins. They was in the café yesterday morning giving your little ‘samurai’ free food. You should keep an eye on them in the tournament.”
And then we’d-“ Her brain switched back to reality, and she came face to face with his nodding head. “You’re the one that should be doing this, you know. Not me.”
“You’re doing a good job of it,” he replied with a simplisticness that brought an image of her fingers going through his eyes delightfully upon her brain.
“Thank you,” she replied, smiling sweetly. “Now please, finish the job.”
“Well…” he began to say his eyes zoning out, telling her that he was desperately trying to remember everything she had just said. “I…We’ll head to the alleyway where I met the Dark Scourge as we figured earlier and check there first, then do each of the address one at a time for clues…” He stopped abruptly, his mind applying the handbrake. “Wait. The tournament.” He started to genuinely think, and for a second she almost felt proud of him, the burning alabaster heat that was her hatred cooling down just for a second. “But I can’t check now. If I wait too long… it’s already been a day, the evidence will be gone if I… If I go now, I might still make it for the tournament…but I have to register my presence still…” He paused for a brief period. “I’ll have to check it out tonight…”
She sighed deeply, chiding herself for pushing that now torn fragile thinking process too hard in such a short space of time. She stood back up and turned to leave.
“I’ll check out the alleyway and the addresses on the outside,” she stated, “-if that is your order.” He looked at her, quickly remembering her point in all this.
“Of course…yes,” he said happily. “You go investigate that alleyway then. I’ll head to the tournament and search there and protect people from demons… Report anything you find to me…I guess.” He scratched the back of his head and grinned, like he was hoping he’d get a cookie.
“Understood…sir. I’ll go photocopy this.” It took all of her effort and a loan to finish that phrase, and she felt sick for having even begun it. She quickly headed down in case the interest rates were too high for her to handle.
“Oh, one last thing.”
“Keep your little toy out of this. Just let her fight. She doesn’t need to do anything else.”
“Ready to go?” Sagara asked her, apparently not noticing her lack of breath. This was good, if he realised she had overslept thanks to Aki…well, she would have felt bad about it at least.
“Yes,” she panted, seeing him go out to leave before she had even finished the syllable. She quickly followed, the hot summer’s day blazing over her unexpectedly. “It’s good weather,” she commented absently, part of her mind wondering where Otsune had gone, since she had needed to speak to her. “I suppose we’ll be inside, but I’d prefer to not have to worry about getting a cold.”
“There should be no chance of that,” he replied, his eyes taken by a stand selling fried octopus. He hadn’t even liked it the first time he tried it, but that didn’t appear to be stopping him from considering buying some more. But this was Sagara and t appeared to be second nature for him to jump at the first foods he saw regardless of his like for them.
“So, we should take the subway over there, right?’ she asked him quickly. She knew it was more proper for him to order her, so asking the question would result in that.
“No, we won’t need to,” he said, still distracted by the store, as well as the man standing there, looking at him expectantly to buy the fried octopus, which wasn’t looking at him at all, mainly due to being dead and without an actual face.
“Then how do you propose we get there?” she asked, seeing him finally give up and walk over to the stand. It wasn’t exactly the best breakfast, but she figured that it wouldn’t hurt.
“Two Takoyaki Spinners,” Sagara requested, giving the money up front.
“Er, Takoaki Spinners, sir?” the man at the counter repeated.
“We don’t… I don’t believe we sell a ‘Spinner’ version.”
“Yes you do. You just don’t know it.”
The man looked distraught for a second, and slowly turned to the person behind him. The cook looked back to the man taking the order, looking a little lost as well. Natoko was just about to intervene when another of the men working in the back just nodded at him, waving his hand and saying it was okay, already grabbing ingredients to make the order. With an uncertain look, the man at the counter took the money graciously.
That was weird, Natoko thought. She was about ready to condone the boy for requesting something that didn’t exist, when the man returned in time much shorter than the fried octopus should have been ready. Offering them throwaway chopsticks, he invited them to sit on the nearby bench, which Sagara did.
“Come on, eat up,” Sagara said, before giving thanks.
“I am fine.” She had figured that he had bought both servings for himself at first, but she wasn’t too hungry anyway. She needed to fight today, and to her, that was best on an empty stomach. That way, her concentration would be full on the fight.
“Eat. That’s an order.” The words came casually, yet they felt like they had stung that elicited joy and melancholy in her. That wasn’t an order. It was stupid. He was treating her like a retainer as it was, but chose to at a time like this. Fujiko’s words came back to her as he carried on eating. She wasn’t even a big fan of Takoyaki.
“Yes, sir,” she said, feeling almost dismissive about it, before breaking the stick in her hand and slurping on the first ball of dough. It tasted sweeter than usual, although the actual creature was a lot chewier, actually taking a distinct effort to finally swallow.
Something fell on her; a head. Turning from her snack, she almost jumped in shock to see he had fallen completely unconscious. “At a time… like this?” she muttered, realising her own voice felt a lot more distant than she usually recalled hearing it. This was bad. The hotel and the others were only a few meters away. What would they think if they saw him sleeping on her like this; when they’re supposed to be doing…something… Something important? For some reason, she couldn’t remember what it was, but it was important. Definitely important. The Takoyaki was tastier than usual.
She tucked herself in against Sagara’s head.