The alleyway faded around them, the only evidence it existed being the dust on their feet and a candy wrapper that got caught in the ride. All else from the city was gone, now replaced with a long corridor. Beside them was now a large set of oak wooden doors, painted a dull black that screamed a Gothic interior decorator had had his way with the place. Beyond the open doors lay the building that was once the café.
Gone now were the walls that once housed a comfortable place to stay during lunch. Instead, to the one called Nobori, was a court chamber from Hell. The walls were all gray, the type of dreary gray set to give an impression that they were all different shades of black. In front of them were lined ten benches made from fine, polished oak, already pulled open. Looking inside, he could see from the floors to the ceiling everything in here was made from wood. The walls were covered in it, different from the decrepit plasterboard in the corridor, the mahogany finish gave it all an important-looking, almost regal design, which was then ruined by the fact that it had also been painted black.
Filed across the benches were fifty dark cloaks that looked like they contained men inside them. Their backs were turned, but screamed evil secret society that needed destroying right now before they got in the way of everything that was good in his life. None of the cloaks turned to move at their presence as they stepped through the doors. There at the front, the courtroom continued as expected, two tables on either side of a gap in the middle where people could walk in from the audience. Another table held two boxes, one black and one white, out of contrast with the rest of the room. In front of that was a large stand, stretching twice as high as himself, and on top of this, stood what he could only assume to be the judge of this courtroom. The punk’s felt his blood thin as he eyed the creature, recognising it instantly from myth. It could only have been described as-
“S-Satan?” he stuttered, seeing the devil, wrapped in a black shroud with only its red, muscular face staring ahead with six slits for eyes and horns perfect for impaling children. Looking directly into Nobori’s soul, El Diablo raised its great, muscular hoof towards them.
“Enter, oh ye of the faithless, and ye, who has never had faith to lose. Enter one and enter all.” The voice echoed three times before each syllable was uttered, and Nobori lost track after that, the voice trapped rattling inside his head. He felt a strange, unsettling urge to obey and began to step forward towards the devil.
In front of him, the moron who needed punking a short while ago burst into a sprint, more than willing to follow at least part of the prince of darkness’s request. Charging down the length of the room, he jumped over the small wooden and pounced towards the dark one, covering the twelve feet that raised the devil like a mere stepping stone.
A flash of crimson filled Nobori’s eyes, his shades powerless to the bright flare. He could only just make out the young student being thrown back just inches from the devil. He landed hard on the ground twelve feet below with various unhealthy cracking sounds spread around him, seemingly unhurt.
“Do not over presume yourself, Hunter,” the devil replied, unfazed by the guy’s actions. “Not only are demons free from your laws here, but to believe me as accessible as a mere Sirynclou is foolhardy.” Both girls ran up to the boy to check if he was okay. Feeling suddenly alone at the back, he quickly followed them.
“You okay, Sagara?” the other student asked, her eyes streaming over her boyfriend to check for injuries. The idiot was too woozey to answer, choosing to gurgle at her instead.
“Now, please take your seats, and we may begin the hearing for your crimes.”
“Hearing?” Nobori asked to anyone, now moving toward the group, doing his best not to eye any of the creatures surrounding him.
“No idea,” Sagara said. “And no care either.” Standing back up to his full height, Sagara surveyed the creature in front of him. Nobori did the same. So this really was the devil. He looked like the mysterious devil that works in the shadows type, yet was acting like the contracts and technicality type prince of darkness who was also swindling people in with god’s laws. This was kind of scary. At least it wasn’t the all powerful titan type, hulking over them with trident in one hoof and damned souls in the other. To face such a creature and live would simply be impossible. Then again, this one would be just as difficult. They should just go along with it for now.
Sagara immediately launched himself back at the judge of the dark courtroom, pulling back a fist that was now sporting a brazen gauntlet aiming straight for the devil’s face and flashing something at the monster in the process. It failed to happen, a red beam pierced the room again and threw him back onto the ground where he just lay.
He seemed to give up this time, looking at the creature with that stupid goofy grin Nobori had already seen several times.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” the ninja girl, who Nobori was beginning to suspect was an actual ninja and not just some costume drama nut, asked. “You already tried that.”
“The Unholy Divine wouldn’t be here,” Sagara replied casually. “Any impersonation of him is forbidden in all realms.” Confused, Nobori and the girls turned to where the embodiment of evil was apparently choking to death. For a second the punk found himself seriously wondering if the weirdo student that earlier was going to be without wallet was now actually going to kill the Devil. A small velvet rope wrapped around Satan’s head, on the end of which was a small curved screaming dagger. On the other end of the rope were two hands, currently connected to Sagara, who was pulling it all towards him.
“Greynock,” Ninja girl muttered under her breath. “You think it’s wise to use that?”
“Of course I do. Greynock is a demon. A demon can get through another demon’s barrier easier than I can.” Sagara said as if insulted, pulling hard on the rope. The blade named Greynock returned to him, bringing with it its silky long body of rope and the hooded cowl that belonged to the Prince of Lies, the weapon seemed to have no problem going through the red barrier that had once stood between demon and crazed student, and now that same student was holding in his hands a large black robe and a very realistic mask, which Nobori found odd, considering it was a depiction of the devil
“What the fuck is that?” Nobori blurted out loudly, his mouth moving before his composure could smother it. The demasked creature hovered before them. Missing its lower completely, all it really had were arms. Even these were not complete, appearing as nothing more than bleached bone. The arms were connected, not by shoulders or collar bone, but by small, metal hooks, to a piece of balsa wood that looked like it had been ripped off a fence, broken on the creature’s left side, and with hooks protruding out the top of the humerus bones.
The only thing that really showed that this wasn’t some strange, hanging ornament would have been the angry face now glaring at them. Whatever the creature was, it was nothing more than a decapitated head with orange, scruffy hair, green, pointed ears and a mask covering its features beyond even the devil mask. This mask was simply that of a skull and looked liked it could have been bought at a store for about two hundred yen. Staring at the monster, Nobori wasn’t sure if it was trying to be terrifying or just having some kind of joke. Sagara spoke up first, looking curious, but unconcerned.
“That’s kind of disappointing too.”
“Disappointing? What were you expecting?” the girlfriend screamed at him.
“Well, I don’t know. Some kind of big supreme evil that would have been fun to fight. It being a Riddleklutz is just boring.”
“A Riddleklutz?” she asked, “What’s that?”
“Oh geez,” Ninja girl moaned. “You have been pissing off the false balance demons, haven’t you?” Sagara looked at her funny for a moment, and then squinted.
“Maybe,” he replied vaguely. “It attacked me first anyway.”
“False Balance demons don’t attack first,” she corrected him. “That’s the whole point of their belief system. Even if they are our enemies, they only openly attack in self defense or through a complicated contract system that we can usually trace.”
“Well, maybe I attacked it first then,” Sagara claimed, looking like he wasn’t sure himself. “It was gonna kill some things who spat at Natoko, so I had to. Beyond that, I don’t have an excuse.” From above, the so called Riddleklutz looked at the guests to its chambers with no expression on its plastic covered face.
“Silence,” the Riddleklutz tried to shout, although it no longer felt as dramatic as it had moments ago and the noise came out more as a muttered whisper. “Futabatei Sagara. You have taken the life of one of our agents during its mission. Now as you have disrupted the balance, so steps shall be taken to rectify this.”
“You killed somebody?” the girl Nobori guessed was called Natoko barked at Sagara angrily.
“Like I said,” he said with nothing but a grin. “I removed the demon from the planet. It was going to kill somebody.”
“That doesn’t excuse you!” the girl said harshly.
“The creatures it intended to kill had to be removed for the sake of the balance,” the creature bellowed, silencing the cute girl.
“No it didn’t,” Sagara said disdainfully. “The demon broke through several strategically placed defense systems and attacked some old people, probably to get to me.”
“That is because a few weeks previously,” the Riddleklutz answered, “the Dark Scourge in question had killed two of the younger members of society that had a dislike towards the mature and experienced.”
“So…” the girlfriend stuttered as she tried to process the corrupt data through her head. “Because it had killed two people on one side of society, it had to kill two people on the other side of society…in order to set the balance straight, right?”
“That is correct,” the demon said, as if proud of its fellow co-worker, although secretly jealous because it would have meant that the Dark Scourge would have been awarded the employee of the week contest instead of itself.
“But…wouldn’t it have been better if it hadn’t killed anyone at all?” the girlfriend asked, causing the demon in front of them to flinch slightly.
“Well… I… expect a human to say that. Especially one that has no idea about the way these things work, or about our customs or anything.”
“Ha bullshit,” Nobori shouted out, finally joining the conversation. “I’ve heard that tone of voice from hundreds of morons who think they’re smarter than me and-”
“Be quiet,” Ninja girl shouted at the younger boy unexpectedly. “Don’t say anything.”
“What the fuck, girl?” Nobori said annoyed. “I’ll say what I want to him, and you ain’t gonna stop me.”
“Please,” she asked. “Don’t say another word.” The girl etched up close to him and whispered to the tall boy’s arm. “Though their rules aren’t the same as our rules, the Judge is excused from his own Balance’s laws when he is present in his own courtroom,” the Ninja girl began to explain in hushed whispers. “Believe me when I say it’s a lot better that you just remain quiet until we can figure a way out of this. You’re not involved, but if you go with this whole adolescent rebelliousness, you will be.”
“You think I can’t take this thing or somethin’?” Nobori called out, throwing whispers to the wind. “It’s just a piece of wood.”
The girl just stared him up and down in response, and Nobori took a few seconds to realise she was actually checking him out.
Of course she was. Any other fifteen year old might have had a problem facing a demon based on its looks alone, but he was the strongest in all the gangs of Fuugosuki. Even the yakuza boss Nakamura feared him and fell into hiding shortly after Nobori’s gang squared off against them. All he would have to do to this Riddleklutz would wrap his twenty five inch bicep round its face and squeeze!
This girl was pretty hot too; tits and ass, as expected of Americans. She was only a little older than him as well… His cheek beamed red suddenly for no reason and the other girl laughed a little and he quickly realised they were still on the old conversation.
He realised that she realised he was staring, and tried to turn it so that he thought they were still on the last conversation. “Fine,” he said, huffing, turning around to find a seat he could sit in at the defense box. In doing so, he once more became aware of the fifty or so creatures that were now facing now facing him head on.
Staring back at them, not so much in challenge as fascination, he shuddered at what he saw. It was not as if there were simply no head behind the cowls that they wore. A better way to describe it would be that there was nothing within any of the cloth scattering the courtroom. Each cloak floating on the benches by itself, with only darkness on the inside to fill them. Looking at them was like the complete opposite of gazing at the sun. Nobori could not bring himself to look away, despite feeling that his eyes were slowly cooking themselves. There had to be something within those confines, even if it was just air, or some sign of the courtroom behind the robe. Even as it began to hurt, he felt he was onto something, his mind screaming as he caught a glimpse of life.
“Oi, big guy,” a voice came from behind him, knocking him back to reality. “Stop staring at the Mass Singularities and sit down.” Nobori turned to see Ninja Girl, grabbing his arm and pulling him away to the fine court bench they had been provided. “Sagara, you too. No attacking for now.” The student nodded his head and fell back onto the table, his eyes casually drifting on some the folders he was not sitting on.
“So what’s going to happen?” Nobori asked her, feeling that one question would probably not condemn his soul to hell.
“Futabatei Sagara, please step forward,” the creature bellowed. Sagara calmly walked up to the stand that the creature indicated to. Now that he thought about it, Nobori found the boy’s calm attitude almost as unnerving as everything around him.
“The demon’s going to explain,” Ninja girl explained. “But it’s should be obvious by the thing’s name.”
“Ah I see,” Nobori said, understanding the girl. “I like riddles. Well… I mean…” Stuttering, the boy chastised himself for looking stupid and fell silent.
“There’s a bit more to it than that,” she replied, with a smile present even behind her mask.
“Futabatei Sagara,” the demon continued. “As stated, you have been charged with the death of one of the Balance’s Dark Scourges. According to our sources, you apparently ambushed the Dark Scourge during one of its missions to realign the balance as a result of a prior mission to realign the balance that was also as a result of a prior mission. The Court of the Hidden Balance has already decided you are guilty of this crime.”
“Hey that’s not fair,” the girlfriend girl shouted, defending her boyfriend with a vigorous slamming of the desk. “Doesn’t he have a right to defend himself?”
“Fair?” the Riddleklutz asked, as if confused. “This isn’t like your ‘justice’ nonsense that you have in your ‘law’ courts, young lady. We already know the truth about the entire situation. Being higher beings than you humans, we are able to obtain this information a lot quicker and a lot more reliable than your courts would be able to in any situation. The truth is always clear to us. Now, if I may continue?”
“It’s a fuckin’ demon, ain’t it?” Nobori asked. “Truth doesn’t mean fuck to it.” No one responded to this, although something was hitting his foot from under the table. The two girls were whispering to each other.
“How much do you know?” the ninja girl whispered to the girlfriend beside her. “Earlier, you acted like you knew a lot, but now…”
“I just know about it. I’ve only met a few demons before today,” the girlfriend explained in a hushed voice. “And most of those I ran from. Not everybody who knows about the InBetween Realm is like your clan, you know.”
“You have been found guilty of your crime already,” the Riddleklutz continued “However, we are aware that your reasons for killing the demon were in the interests of protecting others, even if you did not know the actions of these creatures.”
“Actions?” Sagara asked confused, as he watched on with a child’s curiosity.
“That they were to be executed for the sake of the balance,” the creature explained in a stern voice as if it were obvious. Sagara turned his head back and forth, like he was trying to figure out if this made sense to him. It took longer than the Riddleklutz was willing to wait.
“As a result of your actions, we are giving you a chance to be let off in the most reasonable way possible, as in accordance with the way of the Hidden Balance,” the creature explained.
Then, without a warning that Nobori would have appreciated, the demonic creature plucked its own head off the piece of wood it was resting on like an urn to be moved over the mantelpiece. Nobori jumped up at this, snapping back to attention as the demon placed its head facing them onto its high desk, and watched as the broken fence shard with bones attached slowly floated down to meet Sagara. On the piece of balsa wood the Riddleklutz had laid down three face down cards. As the group waited confused, the head continued talking on top of the podium.
“There are three cards. Now, chance will determine your fate here. One of the cards is the King, experienced and focused. If you pick him, you will be put in a riddle of skill. One of the cards is the Queen, intelligent and methodical, to pick her will place you in a riddle of logic. The final card is the Jack, young, but full of potential. To choose this card will place you in a riddle of strength. Now, choose.”
“The Queen of Hearts,” Sagara chimed brightly, grabbing the middle card without a second of pause.
“The Queen of Hearts,” the Riddleklutz exclaimed without emotion. “She who is the backbone of the king! She who relies on firm logic and sound reasoning, with the courage to act on that logic, even if it means taking on her own husband.” Placing the card back on the balsa wood, Sagara watched as the creature started to float backwards. “Your test, to determine your freedom, will be a riddle of logic.”
“Wait!” Ninja girl called out, standing up and leaping over the table. The Riddleklutz did so, and showed no objections as she grabbed the remaining cards off its wooden frame. It was obvious to Nobori what her thoughts were. This Sagara didn’t exactly come across as the smartest guy in the room, and a test of intelligence wouldn’t have suited him at all. If Nobori could figure that out in the short time he knew the guy, these guys must have had it on file ages ago. His eyes scanned the other cards over the girl’s shoulders. Two Jacks and Two Kings stared back at her, surrounded by hearts.
“We are not that petty, miss,” the Riddleklutz stated, from on top of the podium. “We are fair creatures, despite your clan’s wish to oppose us.”
Ninja girl titled her head down, looking defeated, and sat back with the others, the three cards still in her hands. “Then it will be a game of logic that we shall play today.”
And with a snap of its ebony fingers, the Riddleklutz caused the very room to shake, distracting them all momentarily as the foundations rocked upon themselves. Nobori looked around in bewilderment, his eyes fixing on the black void that should have been a ceiling in case it fell down upon them. Instead, the shaking seemed centralized on the large space that had opened up in the middle of the room.
It was from there where, with an oozing that would usually be heard from wet cement that hands appeared. Six large, titanic hands that were each roughly the size of a human’s upper body, each struggling to pull themselves out of the ground that had turned to mush upon itself.
Dragging along the corpse like body of the demon they belonged to, the arms slowly crawled into the room. The stone Titan looked like it only existed for war. Despite its muscular and clearly male body, the face of a beautiful woman was carved into its head, pristine features that had been carved from the clearest of diamonds, the only thing offsetting this being the collection of horns that ran round its head like a crown.
Dropping back to the floor with a crash, the sculpture drooling expression remained perfectly still, sitting with crossed chicken legs as its many arms rose into the air, hanging at different levels with all hands perfectly flat, as if they were about to hold something.
“What…” the girlfriend whispered, like she was trying to make sure the creature could not hear her speak. “What is that?”
“It is the boy’s trial,” the Riddleklutz answered calmly, as the black and white boxes popped open. The contents of each box were clearly visible, and the group could see inside each were similar looking isometric blocks that varied only in their tone. The blocks in the first box were black and were it not for the chest itself being pure white they would have been impossible to see. The blocks in the other box were the opposite: White, with a black container. “This is the Ivoryhead.”
“The rules of this trial are simple,” the Riddleklutz began. “The game itself is not. As we each claim to be proponents of the Balance, so this games seeks to prove that in each of us. The aim of the trial is to make the arms line up with each other so they are level. Each turn you may place four of the weighted blocks of your choice onto any hand. We will each go in turn, and may not interfere with the other when it is their turn. The demon itself will inform us when a winner has been decided.”
“Like that’s fair!” Nobori shouted. “That demon your fuckin’ lackey. How do we know that it won’t just screw it up for the shitface here and let you win in your first turn?” The Riddleklutz turned to the bulky teenager with a rush of the neck that may have suggested alarm, but it seemed to quickly calm down from this affront.
“It’ll be fine,” the Ninja girl stated. “The mind of the Ivoryhead is dead. When that happens, it can only follow simple instructions. It won’t be able to cheat for the demon without being exceptionally obvious.”
“How horrible…” the girlfriend muttered, looking like she was feeling sorry for the creature who sat there, its eyes wide open as if it were watching them all and listening intently. And yet, as its expression continued to remain frozen, it became clear that what the Riddleklutz was saying was true.
“It’s not that bad,” Ninja girl mumbled to the other. “There wasn’t much of a difference anyway, between this state and the state it was in before. Ivoryheads tend to be very stupid creatures anyway. They’ve got extremely fragile necks that barely allowed the creature to inhale the sulphur needed to ignite its organs. Hell, if a weight larger than a small dog were to be rested on its head, the Ivoryhead would no doubt be crushed instantly and killed, even if its arms look like they were used to turn elephants into putty.”
“You think that makes it okay,” the girlfriend said to her, sounding disgusted. “Even if it was dumb, at least it had the intelligence that it possessed. That’s like saying it’s okay to rip the brain out of a dog. How would you like it if…”
“I have no time to explain the difference in living rights between dogs and demons,” replied the Ninja girl, her deadpan tone rebuffing all further argument.
“So all I have to do is place the right blocks on the right hands?” Sagara said, sliding off the desk and grabbing the chair he was supposed to sit on, before wandering up to the creature with a curious look in his eyes.
“…Yes,” the Riddleklutz said, after a moment of pause. “We suppose it is that simple. We assure you that there is a pattern to them. As for winning on the first turn. Let us tell you now that that is impossible. It is only possible to win on the eighth turn at the earliest, and that partially depends on the moves your opponent makes on their turn.”
“In that case, I’ll start.” And straight away he moved up to the box of black blocks and began fishing around. The blocks, for their size, looked a lot heavier than it would have been thought, and the ninja had to drop the third block he chose back in the box merely to carry the first two over to the Ivoryhead. Dropping them on the floor, he stopped to consider the large arms, and eventually chose the highest one, picking up the bigger of the two blocks and dropping it on the one entitled Negotiator.
It fell quickly, yet stopped a mere two feet down as if something was weighing it down on the other end. Looking, the others saw that the arms entitled Judge and Enforcer had lifted up slightly, where the Recorder arm had also dropped.
“What?” Nobori exclaimed. “Why did that one also drop?”
“Stay alert,” Ninja girl said next to him. “These aren’t scales. The arms move in a certain way, but not in a way that the laws of physics would be happy with.”
Ignoring them, Sagara moved for the second block, also placing it on the negotiator arm. Although smaller, this block, which looked a little blacker than the previous one, caused the arm to drop further than the second one had, so that now the arm well under its shoulder. Stepping off the chair, Sagara moved round to the box again, picking up another two and dropping them on the Judge arm, one at a time. Considering its high position, it looked right for the blocks to be placed there, as that much weight would level off both this arm and this Negotiator arm it was connected to.
With a tight exhale of air, the creature let the Judge arm slip, but the Negotiator arm did not move at all. Instead the Administrator arm lifted a clear three feet, while the Recorder and the Enforcer dropped, the Recorder further than the Enforcer. Reacting a bit too quickly, Sagara tossed the final block onto the Administrator hand as it rose, but did little to stop its movements, even as the Recorder hand lifted again, the Intelligence doing the opposite.
Although the others, even the Riddleklutz, watched like a captivated audience, Nobori leaned forward, trying his best to keep up with what was going on.
“Are the names on the arms important or something?” he asked anyone willing to answer.
“They correspond to the six primary members of the balance,” Ninja girl told him. “In both our Balance and the False Balance, these are the six roles that have existed since the beginning of both groups. The Enforcer. The Negotiator. The Judge. The Administrator. The Intelligence and the Recorder. Each handles a different yet important aspect of the Balance. I… probably shouldn’t tell you anymore.” She looked away, appearing mildly embarrassed to herself. “I don’t know what they have to do with the game though. I’m guessing it’s just symbolic.”
“It is our turn,” the Riddleklutz stated, hovering down to the black box and choosing two items. “Take in note that we can now only win in thirteen turns.” Next it moved over to the black box and picked out two white items. With a clear air of method, the demon hovered over to the Enforcer block and dropped the two black objects. The Enforcer fell until it was but a foot from the ground and stayed there, wobbling slightly. After this, the silent Riddleklutz moved over to the hand with Judge marked on it in crimson and placed its first white object.
To the astonishment of all around, the arm lifted itself into the air by half a foot, as if it were so light that its weight descended into a negative number. The group looked on amazed, as the Enforcer dropped down even further. It would have almost touched the ground had the Riddleklutz then not put the its final marble white block onto the lowest hand, causing it to rise majestically, until it was now level with its own shoulder. The Judge Hand did the same.
“What?” It was Ninja girl’s turn to be shocked now.
“The white blocks make the arms go up,” Nobori said. “And there are probably different levels of weight on them too. If that’s the case, we need to learn how the arms work.”
“The demon said there was a pattern, even though there didn’t look like one.”
“Yeah. Each arm probably moves other arms in certain increments, but it doesn’t work vice versa. This is more a computer program than it is a pair of scales, but I’d have to solve it like a rubix cube, set things up on all sides so everything falls into place.” Folding his arms and looking unnaturally thoughtful for a moment, the boy growled. “Could do with a piece of paper. That way I could jot it all down.”
“Do you honestly reckon you could solve it?” Ninja girl asked him seriously.
“Of course,” Nobori announced, looking smug in himself. “I’m a master of puzzle games. Even at school I had all the math nerds following me round to-“ He didn’t get chance to finish his sentence. Ninja Girl had stood up between them, and now stared deeply at the boy, her eyes meeting level with his, even though he was sitting down.
“I am not skilled in mathematical calculations or long term logic puzzle solving or whatever this stuff is. Sagara doesn’t stand a chance. Now, not being macho, not pretending to be smart to impress and barring whatever urges make you think you have to put a profanity in every sentence…” She stopped herself. “Do you honestly reckon you can figure this out before that creature beats us.” Under her gaze, the boy faltered slightly, his arms coming loose from their fold, before stiffening up again.
“I’m not stupid. I can solve this. Though I’m guessing it knows what they all do, so it has an unfair advantage.”
“That sounds an awful lot like an adolescent excuse.”
“No, it’s…” Damn, this girl was probing. “But we have no time limit, right? As long as I’ve got time in between moves, I can figure out the shortest pattern. I can definitely solve it…and I’m not just saying that for pride. Well, I am, but it’s because I can.”
“Fine,” she said, appearing convinced. “Then use me.”
“I can go into Trance mode and blindly memorize anything I see, hear, feel, smell and taste. It’s mainly for my illusions, but I can use it here as well. If we work together, we should be able to determine a pattern.”
“Are you sure,” Nobori replied. “I know you’re a ‘ninja’ and everything but…” He felt like making quote marks with his fingers.
“Trust me, just as I’m trusting you.” She sat back down
“Looks like we’re both being a little blind at this point. Then we need your friend to try out roughly similar blocks on each arm, then we can…”
Standing by the arm of the Enforcer, Nobori watched as Sagara went ahead and finished placing the fourth block of his second go, having wasted no time in shoving them on as quick as possible.
“It is our turn,” the Riddleklutz said as Nobori’s heart sank.
“You gonna find him anytime soon?” Sarah moaned to the girl next to her, the ditzy freak currently confusing every nearby bystander, sniffing around the pavements on her hands and like she were a dog. “Although why I’m letting some dog brain walk me around, I don’t know.”
Aki muttered something incomprehensible, sniffing some chewing gum that had been squashed into the pavement.
“Find anything?” Sarah asked, not quite believing that she was allowing herself to go through with this.
“No,” the African girl breathed. “But…hhhhmmmm.” She stared hard in the direction of the chewing gum, as if she did it long enough it would crack and tell her everything. Sarah sighed as loud as she possibly could, futilely hoping it would make the moron in front of her go faster. Finally giving up on the stupid notion of relying on Aki’s nose, she stormed forward.
“Never mind. I’ll find him myself,” she complained walking off. “I didn’t think this would be so difficult. Whenever we try to hunt down any of the others, we normally find them within a few minutes. We’ve been searching for hours now, and there’s been no sign.”
“Where would Sagara-san go?” Sakura asked, following the youngest of the group, Aki catching up a few seconds later, the chewing gum having told her nothing.
“We’ve found his hotel. The receptionist gave us his room number, but the place was empty, and he’s not with Natoko. We got the note telling her he was with ‘some other girl’.” She felt the note in her pocket absently. The swordgirl wouldn’t miss it if sh never knew about it.
“What other girl is there though?” Aki asked absent-mindedly from behind the others. “Sagara doesn’t know anyone here.”
“He might have met someone else from the dorm… Or it could just be someone from the hotel or the tournament that he’s met,” Sarah answered.
“Sagara-san is on a date with some girl somewhere?” Sakura asked to herself, not realising what she was saying.
“That’s it,” Sarah said, slamming her fist on her hand. “That idiot’s probably met some girl who’s trying to take advantage of him. If so, he’ll be at a dating type place, like a restaurant or at the movies. He probably hasn’t gone far from the hotel either and…”
“Let’s go to the arcade,” Aki said to herself as they walked past one. “I’m bored.”
“That’s it,” Sarah exclaimed loudly. “That’s exactly where they would go.”
“Is the arcade supposed to be a good place for a date?” Sakura asked quizzically.
“Think about it, girl,” Sarah began to tell her. “Boss’s never played video games before coming here. Since he doesn’t go to school here or do any real work except his ninja things, he’s had a lot of spare time. He’s normally been filling up that time watching cartoons and playing video games with me. He’ll probably want to do it more. The arcade will be the most bestest place he would be at the moment. He wouldn’t be able to stand the movies, nor would he be able to afford a romantic meal. It’s either this or a boat ride.”
Sakura mumbled, the bewilderment on her face obvious to all but her traveling companions. “A-Aren’t you assuming too much here?”
“Well, Boss always taught me to ‘gain information on everybody so I can use it at later times, either for or against them,’” Sarah commented, looking as proud of herself as someone who had won a sword fight with a rocket launcher.
“Seems to me you know a bit too much about the boy,” Aki said, eating yet another magic banana. It was her fifth since arriving in Fuugosuki, and the bag she was holding did not seem to be getting any lighter.
“What’s that suppose to mean?” Sarah shouted at the other girl, swiping the stupid girl’s banana out of her hand in anger.
“That you have a crush on your cousin,” Aki said wondering where her banana had gone and ignoring the look of dismay that had etched itself on the younger girl’s face.
“That’s…that’s…” Sarah mumbled, her voice becoming a series of dots used to denote silent disbelief.
“So, we go look in here then?”
“Wha…I…I guess so,” Sarah said, looking up at the sign and trying to ignore what had just been said. “We’ll eliminate the arcades one by one. I pretty much own all of them anyway.” The three small children walked past the café and next door to the Dance Dance Arcade, immediately overcome by flashing lights that threatened to engulf their souls.
“We can now win in fifteen turns”
Five more turns had passed, and somewhere along the line, the number of turns in which the weird freaky demon claimed it could win had increased in their favour. Nobori knew he had to solve this. Not just because he wanted to live, but because he said he could. The last thing he wanted was to look stupid. He’d have died before then.
The moron playing the game had eventually followed orders by the fourth turn, going off on his own line of thought, something which could be translated as randomly guessing, though to even use the word guess was a bit much in Nobori’s opinion, until he decided he wasn’t getting anywhere and passed it over to the others.
Nobori wasn’t having much luck either.
It did seem to be random.
The moron had placed different sized black blocks onto the Negotiator’s hand four times now, and it was beginning to look like it couldn’t cope with the strain. Regardless, the demon’s hand had moved drastically when it had come to a smaller block, but less when it had come to a larger block. Just when he had figured they were playing an opposites game, a smaller block had dropped the hand by the same amount as the large block had.
Did the pattern change each turn. Was there a pattern to how the pattern changed? The other arms weren’t faring too well either, and showed an apparent unpredictability to their actions- something which suggested they weren’t linked but at the same time were.
“Get a small black block,” he said slowly, doubting himself as he barked the order. “Put it on theeeee…Recorder Arm.”
“The Recorder Arm, currently at forty centimeters, is connected to the Enforcer, twenty nine centimeters, and Judge Arms, one hundred and thirty two centimeters. They will go up by ten centimeters and seventeen centimeters respectively while it goes down but three centimeters.” the Ninja girl next to him muttered in one breath. She was seriously freaking him out now, staring at the demon in front of them ever since she said to trust her. Her eyes were no longer blinking. He wanted to wave his hand in front of her, only thinking better of it in case she exploded or something. “A small black block will bring the Recorder arm, currently at forty centimeters, down by seven centimeters.”
The Enforcer hand was nearly touching the bottom, due to the seven black weights which were now lying on top of it. This action would make both arms go up, but the Enforcer shouldn’t budge all that much due to the weight. The ninja strode over to the box, and pulled out a pyramid shape, quickly tossing it onto the hand suggested. It creaked slowly down due to the weight, but the Enforcer and Judge rose easily in tandem, each lifting a foot in the air.
“They’re not connected by weight,” he muttered to himself again, waiting fruitlessly for some reply off the girl beside him.
“Put a medium white block on the Enforcer arm,” he said, a plan developing in his mind.
“Medium white blocks are worth negative five centimeters. For every five centimeters the Enforcer, currently at thirty nine centimeters, falls, the Recorder, currently at thirty three centimeters, and the Administrator, currently at one hundred and seven centimeters, go down currently at a rate of three centimeters and four centimeters respectively.”
Sagara rushed over to the Black box and got one, not even needing to stand on the chair to put this one on. . As the chick next to him predicted, the Recorder and the Administrator’s Arms fell.
A large groan filled the room, the Ivoryhead was panting, like it had tried one rep too many at the gym. It looked unaware of its own exhaustion. The Enforcer arm shook, bobbing up and down like the muscle was giving up. Four of the blocks fell off, the white one that had just been pout one, and three black ones.
“Hey!” Sagara exclaimed, looking as they covered the ground around him. Without asking, he kneeled down intending to put them back on.
“You have already placed two blocks this turn,” the Riddleklutz spoke. “You may only replace two of those.”
“That’s not…” Sagara started.
“It’s okay,” Nobori said, quickly stepping up, feeling exuberant. “Just put the white one back on.”
“But then won’t I waste a turn?”
“Enforcer arm is currently at twenty eight centimeters from the ground.”
“It’s okay,” Nobori said waving him arms to denote this. Feeling glad that Sagara had followed orders, he sat back down again, not wanting any interruptions. If someone spoke now he’d lose his train of thought. All the blocks weigh something, even the light ones. That was for sure now. If that was the case, there was a limit for the total number of blocks, as well as for the possibility of a trick move.
He felt calm now. Even in some demon dimension. Even with these hundreds of weird creatures behind them, ready to attack in a single moment, he felt ready to solve this. “Place a large black block on the Intelligence arm.” It only had a small black block on it. The highest block, it would be the final piece of information he needed. Standing back on the chair, the punk watched as it dropped.
“Large black blocks are worth ten centimeters. For every ten centimeters the Intelligence Arm, currently at ninety centimeters, drops. Judge, one hundred and forty nine, Enforcer, twenty eight, Recorder, thirty, Administrator, one hundred and three, go up all by three centimeters. Negotiator, twenty five, drops by ten centimeters.”
She repeated it four times. Probably a part of this memorization thing she was doing. A piece of paper would have been better. A piece of paper didn’t remind him of some kind of robotic slave.
“It is our turn,” the demon said unnecessarily. It was obvious it was its turn. It didn’t have to distract him by saying so. They all watched as the Riddleklutz took its time in placing its four blocks one by one, moving all of the arms by the time it was done. For its final move, it dropped a black block onto the Negotiator hand, which quickly gave up on its weight, and had several drop off accordingly.
“We should now be able to win in ten turns,” it said, ending its turn with no thought to the blocks now scattered on the floor.
The number had changed considerably, but it didn’t matter. Ten turns would be more than enough for him to win this. It would change according to Sagara’s moves, he knew that, but it wouldn’t change that drastically. The creature could probably win it in eight more moves, give or take. He had to go on the offensive now, working with what the Riddleklutz had just given him to start lining them up.
“White. Heavy. on the Judge Arm.”
“Judge, one hundred and fifty two, will drop ten centimeters. Administrator, one hundred and six, will rise by five centimeters. Recorder, thirty three, and Enforcer, thirty one, will go down by seven and eight centimeters.”
“Black. Heavy. On the Administrator arm.”
“Administrator, one hundred and eleven, will fall by ten centimeters. Recorder, forty, will go up by one. Intelligence, eighty, down by one.”
He still had no foolproof plan.
“Black. Light. On the Administrator’s arm.”
“Administrator, one hundred and one, will fall by three centimeters. Recorder, forty one, will go up by one. Intelligence, seventy nine, down by four.”
This was good. The Intelligence arm was now down to a reasonable level. It had become the highest one of the lot after all the previous moves. Now, they would be all somewhere in the middle by the next turn. If he kept testing them one by one, and then resetting his moves if need be. It should be a matter of time before the pattern showed itself.
“We feel we should inform you now, Futabatei Sagara, that, due to your actions on this turn, we will now be able to win on our next turn.”
“Shit, looks like we were wrong,” Sarah grumbled, pulling herself out of the arcade with heavy feet. Sakura followed carefully behind her, knowing what the young American was like when she was tired. Aki was behind them both, playing with a toy she had won. They had been at this for hours now, but Sarah appeared to have no intention of giving up in her search for Sagara and every arcade in the area had suffered greatly for it.
“Erm, Sarah-chan?” she muttered when she finally thought it was quiet enough to do so.
“I told you not to call me that,” Sarah growled, her eyes half open and looking for a nap Sakura had disturbed. Sakura looked to the floor, afraid to ask any further. “What is it?” Sarah replied, annoyance engrained upon her words.
“D-don’t you think it’s time we should be getting back?” Sakura asked with a stutter. “It’s gotten late a-and…. Well he’s probably already back at the hotel and with everybody else.”
“No! I’ve told you this already. We’re finding him. We will not just give up and go back. It makes the whole afternoon pointless.” It had been the girl’s response for the sixth time now, and Sakura had been expecting it all the same. The only difference now was that it had started to get dark. Already the lights in the streets were on and although it wasn’t pitch black it was definitely colder. All the night time people had started to flow out as well, and getting back on the bus would be difficult.
“Now, where haven’t we tried?” Sarah asked aloud, though Sakura really knew she was talking to herself. “Or should we check back on some of the other places. We can’t expect Boss to just sit around in one place and wait for us after all. We should probably head back to the Dance Arcade place and-”
Now she wanted to go back to places they had already been? How did she expect to find him like this? No one they had spoken to had recognized Sagara in any of the places and Sarah had been very thorough in her interrogations. Sakura was feeling a little hungry too, Aki’s supply of bananas having finally ran out about an hour ago, the girl having not shared a single one of them.
Sakura knew she should say something; point out the foolishness of what they were doing. Sagara had a big day tomorrow and he would have gone back by now for sure. But she knew Sarah wouldn’t listen, that she’d just get angry again.
Shuffling to the back, Sakura jus kept walking.
“We don’t have enough to go there,” Aki said innocently, replying to something Sakura had missed.
“Well, we’ll get the nearest stop and walk.”
“We don’t have enough to get there either.”
Sarah stopped, thinking this through. “No, I mean, get as far as we can to there, not the stop just before it. It shouldn’t be that far a walk after…that.”
Aki was still shaking her head.
“What are you going on about, monkey girl? We’ll get on and ride for as long as we…”
“Aki…” Sakura interrupted slowly. “How much money do we have left?”
Aki responded by holding up the large bovine soft toy she had won. Sakura looked it in its plastic eyes and heard it moo at her electronically, before it started screaming psychotically, Aki shaking the spiked club it was holding for effect.
“Are you saying that you’re a retard, or that we have no money left?” Sarah asked back when Sakura couldn’t find the words to respond to the one they had left in charge of Gen’s wallet.
The cow cackled away at them.
“I think you’re saying it’s both, aren’t you?” Sarah continued alone. “You spent all our money winning that damn toy when you were supposed to be looking for Boss!” The outburst caught the eyes of a group of passing students, and Sakura tried to ease the conversation away from the street. She failed miserably as Sarah pushed her away with some force. “How the hell are we supposed to find Boss now if he is at the Pachinko place? It’s an hour’s walk at least!”
That wasn’t Sakura’s concern. They were roughly in the middle of the city’s business district right now. The Pachinko place Sarah was going on about was on the opposite side of the city to where the hotel was, and the hotel was probably a couple of miles away from them. It would take them hours to get back, not to mention all they could do on foot is get horribly lost. They were almost out of food too. All she had on her was some half eaten bread. She had been right in saving some for later.
A waitress from the café they were arguing next to stared out at them. Her eyes spoke to Sakura to go away.
“This is bad,” Sarah mumbled, biting her thumb. “We need some money fast.”
“We should call Otsune,” Sakura suggested. “She’d come pick us up.”
“None of us have mobile phones, dipshit,” Sarah rebuked instantly. “And unless one of us memorized her number, we can’t use a public phone, not to mention we still have no money.”
“We could ask somebody,” Aki suggested blindly.
“And how do you think that would go? I’m not begging for money from strangers.”
Sakura looked around, feeling more lost than she had ever felt since coming to Japan. Even when she could speak to people, she had no one to speak to. It looked like they were stuck with the long hike back.
“Actually, there is one thing we could do…” Sarah said, looking away from the others and into the buzzing hive of night walkers. “Hey, Sakura?” That was bad. She never addressed her by name. “Have you ever heard of Enjo Kosai?”
“I-i don’t think so,” she replied after second’s deliberation.
“Excellent. Come with me.”
With a sturdy hand, she led Sakura into the alleyway, past the dumpster and into the light of a side door. With a gentle push, she leaned Sakura against the wall and began examining her face in the light. Sakura just lay back, feeling pinks of terror dance over her face as the little girl examined her blushing cheeks. Aki just watched on, just as confused but still curious. Sarah glared harder before wiping something away on Sakura’s forehead with a lick of saliva.
“Well, it’ll have to do,” she said, appearing satisfied. “You’re fatter, but Aki’s more likely to freak people out. Plus that shyness thing is practically a fetish for you Japanese. You’ll do fine.”
Sakura stepped back at the mix of apparently positive insults. “Wh-what are you talking about?”
“Nothing,” Sarah replied unconvincingly. “Okay, now go out there and get us a man.”
“E-excuse me?” Sakura stuttered, her voice feeling very heavy all of a sudden.
“You heard me,” Sarah replied. “Go out there. Find an older looking businessman, the bigger the briefcase the better, and ask him if he wants to play with you.”
“Well how else are we going to get some money? You can’t expect things for free in this world. You must earn what you desire. If you give your services away to someone for just a little hour I promise we’ll head straight back home after checking out the Pachinko place.”
“W-what do you mean services?” Sakura asked, clueless to why an older man would pay to be with her. No one ever wanted to be with her.
“Relax. Nothing bad will happen. I won’t even let him steal your first kiss. Just get him to come back here with you and then we’ll all hang out together. Businessmen love relaxing with children, and it’s the only thing we’ve got. Okay?”
“Well…” It sounded okay, though a little strange. “I guess so.”
“Nice one, girl,” Sarah said, patting her on the back. “Off you go then. Remember, the richer looking ones are more willing to give money away. So go by your instincts!”
Instincts? She didn’t exactly have those. In fact, her reactions were as slow as her Saturdays. She would just have to do it as Sarah said, and the rest would rely on-
“Ah!” she cried out, her head colliding with the forearm of a tall stranger. Looking up to find herself out of the alley, she saw a large fat man in a suit staring down at her.
“Oh excuse me,” he said, looking a little distracted. “I wasn’t looking.”
“Oh it’s…okay,” she stopped. He still wasn’t looking, instead texting into a mobile phone with a speed that surpassed Fujiko’s. “I wasn’t looking either.” But now that she was, she saw that this guy fit perfectly with what Sarah had said. A businessman. Suit and Tie. Briefcase. Even his watch sparkled a gold that couldn’t be fake.
“Well” he said, having only really paused to finish what he was doing. “Never mind. Take care.”
“Ah, please wait,” she shouted, catching his attention before he left. “D-d- do…”
“Hhhmmm, what is it?” he asked her. “Are you lost?”
“N-no. That’s… that’s not it.
“Huh? What is it then?”
She shook her head, the movements doing nothing to get the words out. What had she been thinking? She shouldn’t go up to a stranger like this. He could be anyone. All of a sudden she imagined the man rushing her into the alleyway and making sure she could never breathe again. Her voice started to stutter incomprehensibly.
“I w-was… I-I was. W-well I was wondering i-if. I was wondering if y-you wanted t-to…”
“Oh my,” the man said, now noticing her existence more clearly. “You- you’re not one of those types, are you? You’re… You’re looking to play?”
Ah, he understood. That was lucky. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe Sarah was right about this. It must have been more common than she thought. Rather than speak any further, Sakura just nodded. If he knew what this was, she could just let him take the lead for the rest of it. Though she probably should get Sarah and Aki as well.
“Erm…look,” the man twisted round, looking at bystanders and cars while Sakura turned to see if the others were there. They were not. “Let’s just… go into this alley for a second.”
The man wandered in first, too fast for her to stay at his side. It felt odd but she wandered in after him anyway. He got halfway between the dumpster and the lonely light by the door of the café before he turned to face her, placing his briefcase down, his eyes beaming down at her like a concerned father.
“Now listen to me,” he said, going to extreme effort to bring his rotund body down to her level kneeling so that he arced just a little above her and grabbing her lightly by the arms, just enough so that she felt she could pull away if she wanted. “I’m not sure what you think you’re doing, but it’s not smart and it’s not a good way to get any money.”
Sakura froze, her mind screaming as her teeth started to tremble. She was scared. She didn’t know why she was scared but it gripped her, slammed down and crushed her body like a wolf’s jaw. She didn’t know what she had done wrong but the man seemed pretty upset about it.
“Just how old are you?” the man asked.
“Geez, and how long have you been doing this?” Doing what? Sakura asked herself. She didn’t know what she had been doing, or what she had done wrong. Sarah had just told her to ask people and…
“Hey, hey, calm down,” the man replied, his voice sounding concerned even to her terror entrenched ears. “It’s okay. I’m a-“
A clunk ended the conversation prematurely, the man falling to the side of her vision with a grunt. She gasped as he fell over his briefcase and revealed Sarah, holding a discard plank of wood behind him.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing to my friend?” she shouted, pushing the man against the wall as he flailed helplessly in front of them. As he turned to try and face her, she jumped on top of him, winding him in the stomach and holding him by the neck.
“You sick freak,” she cried out, slapping him hard against the right cheek. The man tried to utter out words, excuses probably, but Sarah heard none of it. She screamed and shouted at him, Sakura unable to hear any of it as she shrank into the corner. Trying to scramble away, the man desperately looked for help and both he and Sakura noticed people staring into the alley. Reaching for them, the man tried to push Sarah out of the way and was met with the tearing of his jacket as it ripped off him and into the mud, the small girl following behind it.
With one last stumble and jostle, the man found his legs again, pulling himself up and running out of the alleyway. They watched as he approached the outside world again, Sarah screaming and shouting all the way.
“And if you dare try and fuck around with my friend again, I’ll kill you, you hear me?” That was enough for the bystanders, who looked like they were ready to help the man, to step out of his way and let him pass by unaided. The man didn’t stop to retrieve his stuff and was lost in the crowd before Sakura could catch sight of him. In but a moment, the area fell back into calm, concerned citizens returning to their business as if nothing had happened and leaving the three girls alone.
Watching Sarah breath heavily to herself, using her knees for support, Sakura barely realised she had inched herself up by the dumpster at this point, the dirt getting all over her jacket. The ten year old girl took a few moments to calm down, before wiping the dirt off her legs and turning to face her.
“Well, that worked well,” she said, calm and composed. “Good job, hooker girl.”
“Hooker girl?” Sakura repeated.
“Well, let’s see what we got.” And with that, Sarah started to rummage through the contents of the torn suit jacket she held in her hands, quickly finding a wallet that lit her face with a smile. “Jackpot,” she said in English, sitting down to count through it.
“Wait!” Sakura said, catching the girl’s attention as she went through the notes. “All that. T-that whole thing. It was just to take his money?”
“How else were we going to get it?” Sarah asked. “You think we were just going to wait around for an hour while this guy had his way with you? This is much faster, believe me.” She went back to counting the money. Aki held tightly to her cow.
“But… but stealing’s wrong. It’s a sin and illegal and-”
“-our way home…” Sarah stopped her mid sentence. “Look, there’s nothing wrong with what we were doing. That guy was way too eager to have his way with you. He couldn’t get you in this alley fast enough and…” Sarah stopped, holding her stomach with a groan. “Whoa, headrush.”
“But I don’t think he even wanted to… to play with me. It sounded like…”
“Sarah?” Aki interrupted stepping up. Sakura stopped speaking to see Sarah holding the wall, the wallet slipping from her hands. “Sarah, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” the girl muttered. “Wow. Head rush again.”
“Sarah?” Sakura said, joining her friends. The girl’s face had quickly turned pale. “Are you…”
“What’s that?” Aki asked to anyone who could give the answer. Sakura looked up, following Aki’s eyes to behind them, her hand reaching for her crucifix as she glanced what her friend was seeing.
“I don’t feel so good,” Sarah muttered, as Sakura saw the strange swirling motion that was turning the entire wall from red bricks to a large steel fence. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the alley disintegrated around them as the lights went out, a musty smell filling their nostrils as Sarah vomited hard onto the floor.
Just as Aki went to push her away, her friend looking very concerned right before she fell unconscious, Sakura found herself thinking of God, and her own father. Was this punishment, for what they had just done? Retribution, for their act against a kind man.
If so, they probably deserved it.