The Other Fist of the Ninja: Book 3

 

The Fist of the Ninja

 

Water 01

 

 

 

The coat-hangers rustled restlessly in the small built in cupboard of room 42a, located on the second floor of the East Wing of the Girls only (+ two boys) Student Dormitory of Heavenly Springs. They clattered against one another, a continuously futile attempt to overtake one another in an even more pitiful attempt to be at the front of the line, whichever side that may be. Anyone watching would think that the wind pushing through the open window and above the frilly bed was doing its best to make them look alive. The coat-hangers certainly thought so.

 

Hisami Himegi did not. She was too busy listening to maintain any notion of whether or not coat-hangers could contain souls. At this point in time her attention was entirely focused on the matters of politics before her.

 

Listen, my comrades. I know what my opponents have said about me, being that I was here when they said it, and I know what I have said before, as I have not moved from this very spot since the moment I last spoke. But I say to you now, with complete honesty and the utmost respect to all my fellows; allow me to lead, and the glory of the humble container which houses us shall be an oak fortress of prosperity. I swear this, by the humble tracksuit trousers that hang below me!”

 

The other voices muttered and rambled between themselves. Two voices very distinctly snorted with a laugh pursed in between breaths.

 

Yet your words, my esteemed fellow,” a second voice shouted, “contain nothing but the sweetness of stale honey. And though such words may come across as sweet despite its expiration date, my intelligent brethren, I must ask you this. What comes after the sweetness? And the answer is this; Glucose, which is processed into carbohydrates. And these carbs burn fast my friends. And like his promises of honey, my opponent’s claims will disappear into the bloodstream of this cupboard, and never be seen again.”

 

Do not be fooled,” said the first voice again. “This from a fellow, who, on that fateful day of ironing, when we were rearranged, was placed at the forefront of our clan, with that blue dress with the form fitting line that goes down the middle and even now hangs below him, proved his incompetence by failing to achieve any of his policies that he had previously dictated to us. I ask you this. Where are the fifty centimetres of extra room on the pole that holds us up? Where is the divider that separates us temporarily when some of our garments are a little sweaty from sport? When are the children’s toys going to be removed from the bottom of our mighty domicile? I ask you this now, sir!”

 

Those questions, my friends. Those questions, are ones not to be aimed at me. I did promise those thing yes. But how long was I at the front of the poles. A few hours at best surely. The Ironing reshuffle was a day in two parts, people, and my victory at the start was too short to bring about any policies. Instead, we have been left with these two as our leaders.”

 

And to be in the favour of the luck of the balance, for he went easy on them, and agreed to the One’s selfish terms, and left this place for…”

 

I likes me flamingos.”

 

Both jabbering idiots…”

 

Hisami got up, pulling herself out from the bottom of the cupboard and placing Mr Patch the French Snowman back on the floor. He thanked her kindly and she looked back to the coat-hangers, hearing bated breath as she mused over them for a few tepid seconds, before pulling her jacket out to the gasping relief of a once silent brown trouser hanger and heading for the door.

 

Hisami wandered out into the courtyard, jumping gracefully down the steps and into the light gravel. Out of habit she craved a semi-circle into the dust with the tip of her left foot, before standing in the centre and spinning round on one leg. The world hummed loudly around her for four beats and she smiled, satisfied.

 

Hey Hisami,” Otsune said, coming round with the corner, with her little friend that spoke in foreign numbers. “What are you up to?”

 

Hisami greeted her back and pointed in the opposite direction to her intended destination. She needed to head to one of the attics for a while to hear a story. But before that, she intended to eat cake in the grass by the fence posts for the daily debate. That would mean not being interrupted by those who would wish to make small talk with her.

 

Well, you have fun too,” Otsune replied nicely patting her on the head as the little orange friend swirled round both their heads. “I’ll be heading into the village shortly with Fujiko. Do you want anything?”

 

Hisami wanted the cake resting in the fridge and didn’t need any more purchasing for a while. She wandered off without providing an answer and started humming the tune started for her by the gravel. She let herself be heard by all the whispering voices around her. Some were encouraged to start their own little tunes. Others soon started humming in chorus to her. One voice was the little black girl who was sitting on the roof above her. Her humming quickly turned into a whistling as the stalked along the beam that a cat, so overconfident in its ability that it would attack an eagle and never question its stupidity. The girl waved to her. Hisami did not wave back and quickly turned the corner.

 

We can’t keep hiding from him forever, you know,” a boy’s voice brought sound to her. Two bodies were doing their best to merge together up ahead of her. Engrossed in small LCD screens that tried to contribute to the conversation, they failed to notice her approach.

 

Yes we can. It’s easy. We go to the same places each time and he never shows up.”

 

But some of the others must have told him.”

 

They haven’t. They don’t know to tell him. Sarah’s left us alone and I think Aki knows not to say anything. We just have to keep this up until… until…”

 

The little fat girl fell silent and the hand-held video games console suggested March 15th for her, possibly in the afternoon.

 

Until forever?” the boy said

 

Yes. No. Alexis,” she moaned childishly, thumping her fist against his chest. “He killed you last time.”

 

And I came back.”

 

But…”

 

Listen, Sakura.” He repositioned their hug, trying awkwardly to sit behind her while keeping his game above her head. “I no longer work for his enemy. My dedication is to you now, and will always be. I am at the tender mercy of my little cherry blossom.

 

And her character’s Shuriken Maelstrom!” added the console in her hands. The vaguely British boy didn’t listen to this.

 

But that’s blockable! Besides you can roll through it easily.”

 

Yeah, and that’s all he’ll be able to do!”

 

You do realise he’s always letting her win right?”

 

How could he? He’s from the far past. He probably doesn’t even know we process data through binary function.”

 

Your mom processes data through binary functions.”

 

I love you too.” The couple fell silently as their lips brushed against each other, saliva glistening in the remnants of the sun as they fell for each other’s embrace.

 

Hisami walked passed them and forgot to wave, heading for the kitchen. The main kitchen was too far from the west wing, so she rushed through the garden and round the Hot Springs where the big male person with demons attached was currently drowning himself.

 

The Alexis boy had appeared suddenly after the Sakura’s long disappearance. Several members of the dorm had disappeared recently, Hisami had notice. Sakura’s disappearance was nothing compared to some of them. Otsune and her always inebriated friend had disappeared for a whole month longer than Sakura had and came back with no boys to show for it. The little American girl disappeared constantly, but she always returned. The German girl with the spirit like her best friend had been gone for nearly a year now. Only Otsune seemed to care, though not since she had come back.

 

She entered into the main lobby, three rooms away from the kitchen. The sofa greeted her and she pretended not to hear again.

 

So the force of an object is the total volume…” Yamanaka Natoko paused in voice, her finger trailing over the textbook. She stayed frozen in place for ten seconds as her eyes glared in cross agony at the pages before her, “times the acceleration, which you can figure out by… the density?”

 

Nooooooooo! You foolish carbon life form. Listen to me for once,” the textbook shouted at her, in a booming voice that would bring even the oldest and wisest of adults to their noses at table level. “Force equals Mass times Speed! Think how a man can lie on a bed of nails and not be cut whilst a single one can pierce skin and bone. You are the Carver. Surely you should know how stabbing someone works. You couldn’t do the same with a toaster.

 

No wait,” Yamanaka Natoko continued. “It must be speed times acceleration. Why would mass affect force?”

 

It’s like you’re not even listening to me.”

 

She can’t” Hisami replied.

 

Huh?” Natoko responded, but was quickly distracted by how impossible the laws of physics were being with her. Hisami watched the girl scratching her head feverishly in front of the textbook as it tried utilizing mnemonic devices in an effort for her to understand better. The girl just thumped it for her efforts.

 

The girl was the strongest here, or so the light bulbs would inform everyone. Hisami remembered a few months ago, just a few weeks after the other male showed, the lights were buzzing quite literally with news of how she had defeated many demons, most of which without even realising, believing them to be human. But it was now common news to all electrical outlets that confidence was her big weakness. She had tried to give up prematurely on her next fight and had nearly died for her efforts. Since then she had unknowingly obtained a huge fan base among the mundane Knowers of the carbon variety.

 

No. Don’t skip ahead! You must master the foundations before you try the advance subjects. Do you think you can get away with just ‘cruising’ my education? You. You tell her. She’ll listen to you.”

 

Hisami’s heart raced for a second. The book wasn’t talking to her. None of them ever spoke to her unless spoken to. They knew better than that. It was talking to the sword currently resting on the table. The black sheathed katana followed the sword girl whenever she went and even in the midst of study, there was no exception.

 

Both Hisami and the book waited carefully for a few seconds, before the book said ‘Well? Don’t just sit there. Make her listen! She needs to know the basic formulas if she ever wants to get further than this in life. An education is of strictest importance.

 

The sword remained silent. Sometimes Hisami swore she could hear grumbling. Sometimes laughter. Never once had the sword pronounced a word though.

 

The book continued shouting relentlessly and Hisami could hear it still when she was halfway down the corridor to the kitchen. Everyone was so active nowadays. She would have preferred silence, but she never got what she wanted.

 

The kitchen was the worst. A din of commands being shouted back and forth to utensils that had long since given up on life. Each now only wished for the sweet release that the heat death of the universe would give them. Hisami didn’t entirely know what that was, and she never asked. Who talks to forks anyway?

 

The newest uninvited resident of the Springs was getting herself a drink. Unlike her friend, the one was a full on foreign American type, with hair that would flow gracefully if she just grew it out. The fridge announced Hisami’s arrival as she stepped through the door frame, but she had a suspicion that American knew she was there before she got to the lounge.

 

Hai,” the girl spoke to Hisami with a casual smile. “ou ouant uru keeka, raita?” Hisami studied the girl carefully as she stepped back to allow her access to the fridge. The girl was holding a jug of orange juice that came from the store and so was silent. “ieu.” The girl motioned for Hisami and she reached in for her cake, which seemed to get the girl’s approval. If she wanted approval, Hisami thought, she should learn to speak Japanese. She bowed out of courtesy and turned away, almost freezing when she felt daggers on her back.

 

Rushing out of the lounge area she stopped for no one. Halfway through the floor started whistling a tune for her that was a little out of synch with the wall. The effort was still appreciated though.

 

By the time she had got to the garden, the cake had suffered a mighty blow against her molars. Her afternoon treat was always worth the wait, but she knew it was wrong to start until she had sat down for the debate.

 

The fence posts were still silent when she got there. It was how they were. They sat without nary a word between them for hours. It was only here, at three o’clock that they would start their talk. Yesterday’s discussion had been on the emergence of American sports in the Oriental lands since the end of the third great war and its effect on the quality of life in a land where peace reigned (argued both as a land of happiness against the a land of silent tyranny). Today’s topic was to be a discussion on the attempt to diversify the demon populace and its effects on humans in the twenty first century.

 

The halfey was here again. That was annoying. He always did this. He knew that the talk started at three o’clock prompt and yet he always let his training overrun. Not that he was too bad. She usually only had to worrying about him if he started gasping. It was the company he kept that bothered her.

 

Iron fist. Iron fist. Me’s an iron fist for you,” the large demon shouted, clenching its giant fists of stretched sinew as it waved them in the air. Punching whenever the halfey punched, the creature squealed with delight at every opportunity it got. The boy kept in time with it, a vapid grin attached to his own bright face.

 

Stronger, Master Futabatei. Your hips are power. Use them. Hit high. High. Low. Cross kick. Cross kick high. Low jabs and throws.”

 

The snake continued. It slithered around in the grass, Hisami only catching a glance of it on occasions. It wasn’t actually there. She had learned that along with not asking the question of why these ones were different. She could only hear them when they weren’t items and all they did was chant commands at the boy while he practiced his ‘fighting’. It must have been a stupid life he led outside the dorm.

 

She sat down gracefully next to the old man. At least this newcomer was respectful of the silence. He always just sat there watching them, never contributing. It seemed most of the time he just looked for an excuse to look away. He acknowledged her with a sideways glance and got back in the habit of sitting straight ahead and staring at the fences. He never would tell her, but she knew he looked forward to the talks as well.

 

Higher. Higher. This enemy is ten feet tall. Your scythe kick isn’t going to work against his rib cage. You need to strike for the neck!” The halfey appeared to step up on an invisible knee and launched his foot upwards in a stupid manner before bringing it back down in a retarded yet graceful manner. Hisami scratched the wood beneath her and tried not to eye her cake. There was no point saving it for the talks and then devouring it before they begun.

 

Aaaaaand we can begin,” a voice announced. “Today we discuss the sins that cross from the InBetween Realm. Are their efforts needed? Is humanity any more affected by an aspect of lust than he is his own personal secretary? The discussion begins… now.”

 

The three fence posts surrounding the gap where their tenor used to be began bapping and bopping away in their continuous efforts to create a theme song. She knew it was supposed to be for effect, but upon never practicing, they never got anything out beyond bad tune and a complete lack of synchronicity.

 

Recently”, the fence post in front of her began. “A debate has begun on whether or not the effect of demons spreading their sin is even needed anymore in modern 21st century society. It’s being argued, when recently it was discovered that a small school in Tawa had 95% of their pupils all in the morbidly obese range, which the sins of gluttony have managed to run rampant. Others however, suggest an even darker note, that the humans are poisoning themselves with their foodstuffs and that demons weren’t even involved. Does this suggest that humans are dooming themselves to a fate of waddling around, or is perhaps a darker hand at work here? We’re going to open up the floor now to debate the issue. I believe you had something to say on this, mister fence post?”

 

Yes” the fence post that met up in the corner of the perimeter started “Well I would just like to say that to me it seems obvious that this is proof that we just don’t need demons anymore. Humans are perfectly capable of harming themselves without the debilitating effects of sin spawn influencing their events.”

 

Oh that’s if this is humans by themselves. You can’t make that assumption freely.

 

Oh you have something to add, mister fence post.”

 

The sky rumbled. It was getting darker. Hisami felt the humidity change in the area.

 

Yes, it seems clear to me that this must be the act of demons. You can’t honestly believe that an entire school could get that obese without outside help. The teachers wouldn’t have allowed it. It’s already been shown that they’re not fat. Surely this shows that the demons are targeting the children specifically.”

 

Or…” the first post interjected. “It shows the foolhardiness of humans in creating menus that allow a fast food option. The teachers know to eat healthily and so have remained as such. But the children and young and want their ‘fast food junk’. Present them with the option for school dinners and is it not obvious what they will choose.”

 

manGod approaches.”

 

Doesn’t that fall under a rather naive assumption though; that humans are morons. Whilst it is without saying that most humans lack our intellectual grace it cannot be denied that they contain within them a passion for self-improvement. Even at a young age a human child seeks the favour of its parents and peers. This should usually lead to a certain number of them staying at a fit level, but even the other 5% are considered obese with not a single athletic child in the school. I say merely presenting the option to eat junk food would not cause all the children there to become morbidly obese unless there was a demon there to influence events. One could even-”

 

It started to trickle around them. She stooped back into the small shelter of the overhanging roof, taking her cake with her and remembering to take a bite. The old man next to her stayed put.

 

Don’t both arguments have weight here though? Perhaps it is a double effect.”

 

Ah, mister fence post. From three down from myself. Please allow others to finish speaking.”

 

No mind. I was finished. Let him talk.”

 

Thank you, Mister fence post. What I was saying was-”

 

the manGod is here.”

 

To think of this just in terms of either sin only or human only ignores the possibility of seeding.”

 

You refer of course, to the act of demons planning sins in innocent format?”

 

Of course. It had been well documented that in the past five decades demons have been operating almost purely under seeding techniques, in order to bypass the efforts of the Futabatei cell in curtaining their campaigns. It’s a technique that allows them not to be noticed but also to make the humans think that they are responsible for their own actions without ever having to see a demon. It seems clear to I that the demons could have easily have planted seeds that caused the teaching staff at this school to create highly addictive fast food menus. You could easily make healthier foods less appealing by simply involving a lot of boring foods like tofu or salads-“

 

But seeding assumes that the demons committing the acts don’t want credit for their sinning. What is the point of a demon who does not get heard when he seeds a sin? The sin gets no reward and has no opportunity for advancement in his own ranks.”

 

I think this is straying from the initial talk a little. I believe that…manGod…”

 

Can I just say it is an issue that bears more fruit to its side of the argument? A demon who does seed sins without concern for his own advancement may do so because he wishes to work for the greater good of his own people.”

 

A bolt of lightning danced across the sky.

 

A scorn of laughter shot across the crowd. The halfey performed a somersault kick. The sky rumbled lightly as the rain kicked in.

 

No no. Listen. I know- I know the notion of demons working towards a goal higher than their own individual ranking may sound crazy, but these are crazy times we live in. The demons know they have lost power since the Futabatei took over the reins and they could see it, through the veil of their own self-interests, which it is in their self-interests to improve the standing of hell on the physical realm in order for their position to mean more again.”

 

manGod.”

 

manGod’

 

manGod”

 

I quite agree. And this is why I think that the sins would not be working on such simple notions as getting children fat. They would be trying to make their mark known clearer, resorting to more obvious tactics, that gets the Futabatei shaken into action. Only then can they understand how powerless- manGodmagGodmanGod!”

 

Lightning struck again, immediately followed by thunder

 

Wait what is this-“

 

I would just like to say that there I more than one incident of children being reported obese. In America-“

 

manGod.”

manGod.”

 

manGod”

 

The halfey stopped fighting to look around.

 

Hang on. I think something is happening with the defences.”

 

manGod. manGod manGod”

 

Another strike. The lightning struck just outside the fence and roared in Hisami’s ear.

 

Sirs? Please floor the debate for now and begin your defence positions. I think we may havmanGodmanGodmanGodmanGod”

 

Defences? We’re just wood. It’s the barriers that-“

 

The bolt struck down and pulsed through the earth. Hisami felt her skin electrocute her as every hair stuck on end and the static started tasting like electric blue. The bolt of light pierced the heavens above and etched itself into the ground before the halfey. Volcanic rumblings deafened her eardrums, her legs scraping into the floor below to push her away from the beating. The old man flung himself over her, the long stream of cloak proving little respite.

 

The winds stopped d blowing as the bolt dissipated in an instant faster than its arrival. Hisami breathed loudly and realised her cheeks were hot. The old man was gone now. The other two as well. The fence posts were scattered from their support beams, a few left hanging by a nail or two.

 

The girl dropped from the sky before the halfey, landing with a crunch.

 

***

 

Science is not a religious perspective. A scientist must always remember this.

 

I came to this understanding very verrrry slowly during my what can only be called my ‘misadventures’ in the so called ‘Strangelands’. Indeed, this accidental perspective of magical thinking has caused many an error in my methods of observation. It is not that I bowed down to the name of science and asked that it show me its ways and teachings but that I began to take all current conclusions reached in science as gospel.

 

It occurs to me in our objective reality that we are only subjective beings. While the maths, physics, chemistry and biology may all be distinct one must remember that they are both forever evolving and mutating one way or another, that we haven’t quite grasped a full understanding of all subjects, as much as we would like to convince ourselves and third, we are all very stupid, stupid little pieces of carbon, so enamored with this notion called knowledge that we constantly forget that the universe has gotten on fine without so called intelligence for the several septillion years since we decided it would be fun to come into being.

 

The universe may be a constant, but humans will always be stupid.

 

My stupidity came from deciding everything had been set in stone by this point in the existence of human knowledge. Like ?? I had decided we had come to learn everything we had needed to know. Not in the realm of physics, but in religion and magics and psychics and demons and teapots in asteroids belts and little fairies living on the surface of Jupiter whose one purpose in being was to ensure little girls got their fairy tale weddings. I thought we had it all covered under a big list titled ‘Repeated Disproven Tripe’ with a subtitle of ‘ – with no statistically significantly positive outcome in favour of the fairies’.

 

God wasn’t dead, or missing, or just there and not answering on text messages. He had just never been there at all. And everybody since the dawn of time who had referred to any magic being with such a name was wrong in every way possible. The closest thing people who made an argument to the existence of god were those who copped out with the teleological argument and said we should name the forces that created physics as ‘God’ because why the hell not?

 

Establishing this as fact was fun.. It made me superior to all the idiots. It made all scientists that weren’t so indoctrinated that they’d forsake perfect observable science for a gut feeling feel superior to his fellow retardo-beings.

 

And then the boy came along. The stupid ninja boy with his retarded smile and his retarded demons and his ‘Oh look, everything you’ve ever thought is wrong… or is it?’ revelation.

 

But I can’t blame him. I still do of course, but logically I should not.

 

Logically I should accept all I have seen so far. From the tire demons to underground fighting arenas with Rhinos wandering around, to Tina’s disappearance and the subsequent adventure through a large, possibly subterranean cavern so big a mistook it for the surface of another planet where a small god played lipstick lesbians with me all for the sake of guarding some guy who I probably shouldn’t have kneed in the crotch.

 

And I do accept it all… now anyway.

 

I would like to think that there are scientists higher than me, if such a thing is possible, that would have handled it better than I did. I denied. I got incredulous. I forgot the fundamentals rules of science and decided that, because all the current research disproved the existence of any possible spiritual beings in the shape of rag-tag insect monsters, that such creatures could not exist, even as they bowed politely and then crushed samurai wannabes.

 

I liked to think a better scientist would have nodded his head and said ‘well, that’s interesting’ and started to study the matter. Not act like some religious zealot and start insisting the whole thing’s impossible and get angry at the mentally challenged as they started punching the demons.

 

But as mistakes go I guess I’m glad to have made it and got out with my life intact (and possibly my soul too, if it exists).

 

And I’m sure am glad I’m smart enough to avoid falling off the other end of the stupidity scale, renouncing science and falling on my knees to worship a god who now so obviously exists.

 

Except I don’t know that yet.

 

I know now, in simple terms, that demons (are they actual demons? If so, by what definitions?)exist, and spiritual creatures that both can and may not have a grounding in mythology (or mythology has a grounding in them I guess). I know now there are locations associable to the planet earth that are not part of the planet earth. I know that these creatures can use their mental energies to invade the minds of objects from planet earth, including humans (I wonder if this possession of humans is any different from the possessing of objects like Sagara’s gauntlet. Humans are just a bunch of carbon atoms after all. Can our minds offer resistance? Could Tina hold back the effects of that OniHono creature?). I know that organizations exist that are populated by humans that work both in alliance with these creatures and against.

 

I’ve learned much in the past few months. Much I’ve denied; but things I have also accepted. I can accept Tina is gone (almost). I can accept that I’ve gained a new friend of the form of a floating semi-invisible flame, who I’ve named Occam, to help me keep things simple (For example, I’ve learnt to keep him away from my journals just by asking nicely).

 

I’ve learnt that faith in oneself can be a powerful tool.

 

Otsune left it there, realising she had fallen onto melodrama. This was supposed to be a scientific journal after all. Keeping track of events was one thing, but hyperbole to soup them up should have been avoided. She pondered on the last point. How much faith was required? How useful was it? Faith could cause a nation of people to lay arms against their neighbours, cause crowds to see the same mass hallucinations, have idiots believe that we only use 10% of our brains whilst ignoring the evidence of the mentally disabled.

 

She growled at the thought. Just how many people had she classed as stupid in the world who weren’t nearly as stupid as she had come to the assumption of? Obviously, her recent findings didn’t validate every single case of ‘we prayed, and the lord gave’, but to determine who was being touched by an angel and who was just suffering a decrease in parietal lobe activity. It was a question she wanted to avoid.

 

Occam whizzed round her head as she got up, trailing a small vapour path as he did so, happy to know his stationary vigil ended when she was no longer near the journal. She had trained him well, though she wasn’t quite sure how she had come about masculating him.

 

Stretching, her back cracked as the world whispered manGod around her, snapping her out of her brain daze and shaking the world around her. Grabbing the chair as her hips vibrated with the rest of the world, she shouted ‘Out the window’ and shot under the table Occam disappeared from sight as the tremors shook the room around her, a science model shaking itself off her shelf as coat-hangers inside the wardrobe rattled helplessly to themselves.

 

One of the mats in front of her came loose and was met by her glass of pure apple juice bouncing off of the chair. She shrieked in a very dignified way as it shattered, shards of glass ricocheting into the floor, the tinted green liquid dribbling to the floor as the vibrations ceased.

 

She waited a moment for any immediate aftershock her legs still stiffening to stop her from deciding it was fine to get out. With hesitant breath, she lifted herself carefully to avoid the glass scattered on the floor. The earthquake hadn’t been that strong, though she had not been around many before to make an accurate judgment. The only ones she had ever met previously were the smallest of tremors. She looked around her room. No damage had been made to any of her possession save her old middle-school atom model, its molecules now scattered across the floor after its bonds had been shattered. She had been lucky and smart in her initial reaction, Occam could have started a full on inferno in this building made of wood if it had collapsed around him. Instead the little flame danced happily outside.

 

Good boy,’ she called out to him, leaning out of the window and clapping politely. Petting a small flame set to a constant burn was still a bad idea and Otsune was glad he was now able to understand her enough to feel joy when she gave praise this way.

 

Stay out here for now,” she said, leaning further out of the window. Inviting him back in would have been fine had an earthquake not just occurred, but any aftershocks may damage some of the old roofing and she couldn’t expect Gen to clean up a large scale fire taking out the west wing.

 

She needed to check if people were okay. Sundays a lot of the girls left on days trips and the like, but many still stayed in to laze about. Hoisting herself over the window frame, she opted to stay outside as well. If she doubled back for the lobby the area was wide enough for Occam to hover freely without causing damage.

 

Of course that meant shouting orders to him in front of people who were oblivious to his presence. The little flame didn’t seem to show up on the radar of mundane beings. Otsune only guess she was allowed to see him because of events in the InBetween realm, that stupid sideways dimension where up was down and down was purple. She turned the corner to see a large black crater out in the field before her. As her brain braked sharply, all she could think was how she was certain that that wasn’t usually there.

 

There were no ash or dust or smoke clouds as she would have guessed in being at the site of some kind of meteor impact. The air itself was strangely empty, almost dry, with a slight aftertaste of static iron. Her hair stood on end as the two of them approached the crater. Keeping her distance, she saw the black crater had gone deep enough to be called a hole. No sound emerged from it, though the hole was wide enough in diameter for her to fall in. What was odd about the area surrounding was how calm it was. Though the blades of grass where the crater had been were undoubtedly crushed and incinerated with the sudden appearance of a sky object, the others pieces that made up the lawn out back were completely unharmed and standing up right around the newly tilled soil that crusted the impact site.

 

Hisami was eating her cake on the veranda.

 

What could have caused this? Otsune mused. A meteorite could have caused such an impact, but she would have imaged more fire. A cyrometeor was likely, considering the only real damage was blunt trauma to the face of the earth, but then that wouldn’t have caused the earthquake and since that wouldn’t have fallen from space…

 

Suddenly there was a ninja.

 

Gearghly!’ Otsune said in a completely calm and reasonable manner.

 

What happened here?” the girl asked in English.

 

Ano..i-I do not know,” Otsune replied “I just arrived here.”

 

There was an earthquake and… is this a meteorite?” The ninja looked up, her face mask receding only enough to tell Otsune that it was completely pointless for her to wear it when she had distinctive long, blond hair and was the only full-blooded white person in town. “Where’s Sagara? He should be here for this.”

 

I do not know where Sagara is” Otsune replied, feeling useless. Her English wasn’t terrible, but German was her better second language.

 

Ana ni,” Hisami said light enough between spoonfuls to almost not be heard.

 

What’s she say?” the ninja was almost shouting. There was no wind, but the air felt so quiet that shouting seemed necessary to make sure your voice wasn’t drowned out by all the silence.

 

She said he’s down the hole.”

 

Down the hole? In there?”

 

Hai… yes.”

 

What’s he doing in there? Did he get hit by it?”

 

I don’t know”

 

I know. Ask her.”

 

erm-“ Japanese seemed impossible for two seconds “Kare wa Niyotte dageki o ukeru ka/Did he get hit by it.”

 

Īe kare ga haitte kyūzō/No. He jumped in.”

 

She said-“ The large crack of wind interrupted translation. Otsune looked down just in time to look straight back up, the world rocketing past her face in a Gaussian blur that sent her stepping backwards one too many times and onto the grass below. The girl ninja had disappeared by the time Otsune looked back up, just enough to see a large muscular object hurtle into the ground and brake against the earth hard enough to make another crater magically appear around it.

 

Dirt and dust ejected into the air around the body, masking it as bones cracked and grind against one another. The body pulled itself back up onto its feet, arms shaking themselves loose as topsoil was discarded by unkempt hair. A gauntlet rattled against its rusted joints as green eyes peered through the cloud and that goofy grin came up through the mess. And stared back down at the hole.

 

Sagara was a retard, and Otsune had learned his grins well enough to know when to start taking a few steps backwards. She nearly hit the ninja girl in doing so, and glared at her angrily as she just stood there patiently out of harm’s way.

 

Bitch,’ Otsune muttered, suddenly caught off guard by a loud croaking groan. Looking across to the original crater, she felt her legs want to take more steps back, a small, dainty hand emerging from the hole and starting to pull itself up. Those surrounding her took up fighting positions, Sagara had somehow acquired a velvet rope which he was holding between his hands, checking its tightness as he stood in some less than practical fighting stance looking ready to attack. The ninja girl had set herself into a half crouching position that looked like she was ready to catapult from her back leg and cannonball towards whatever it was coming from the hole. In one hand was a small knife that looked suspiciously familiar to the one Sakura used to chop the meat with, the other was merely prepped with two fingers sticking out in some kind of silly ninjutsu hand pose..

 

Otsune wasn’t nearly as stupid as the two people in front of her. She figured whatever could crawl out of a hole that big, whether it had made it or had been crushed by it, and could send Sagara flying into the sky, was not something you got on a first contact basis with. “Hisami, get out of here!” she shouted, and started to run over to the small girl, taking the long way round the fight scene.

 

The young house resident seemed to be in no rush, but still obeyed her elder’s instruction and began to shuffle away. The girl chose to dress traditionally on Sundays for some reason. Running at top speed was little more than power walking with the restricting dress.

 

Another crack filled the air, forcing Otsune to turn around to take a look against her better judgment when someone was playing with the lighting of the surrounding area. The someone had crawled out of the hole now, a young girl, no older than herself at a rough guess. The newcomer glared in their direction with pupils, irises and corneas missing under a cloud of misty white contained within the lens of the eye. Her heart froze out of defensive reflex, an invisible grip took hold round her body. It lasted only until Occam shot up in size, floating defensively between her and the newcomer.

 

The newcomer wasn’t that much of a threat to look at. She looked like a teenage girl pretending to be a cat for the sake of a kid she was babysitting. The only real mark of any danger the girl posed was the layer of blue light sparking that seemed to indicate she was made out of flash fry death and the entire world was officially stupid if any one of them, with the obvious exception of Sagara, were to try anything in the form of approaching her. The electric blue darted from her empty eyes as she growled at all four of them, her facial muscles contorted into avarice and locked in place by what Otsune assumed to be a couple of thousand volts worth of electric power coursing through the girl’s body.

 

What is she?” she asked anybody, trying to sound only mildly curious, her brain only clicking after the words had left that she should have said ‘who’.

 

A half demon girl with unknown lightning powers,” Sagara replied in a perfectly normal pitch of voice. He didn’t have to shout for some reason. Everyone else was still screaming.

 

Who is she?” Otsune corrected herself. “What does she want?’

 

Raiko. Some kind of violent act against us.’ The girl growled at them all and began to crawl forward.

 

Well, stop her then. Don’t let her hurt anybody.’

 

Very well,’ Sagara shouted, charging straight up at his newly designated opponent. The dash tackler shot towards the girl known as Raiko and raised his fist high to attack, bringing it to just below his guard and firing it out less than a second before he would have collided into the opponent, his metal bound arm being the first object connected to his body to be viciously dislocated and toss fifteen feet across the grass, causing more damage to the lawn than the first two craters combined.

 

The girl wailed at them, her voice a high pitched hissing melody that bypassed her ears and headed straight for the cochlear nerve. Otsune went weak at the knees. The girl was kind of cute, she found herself thinking at that moment. Maybe she wasn’t all that bad. She hit Sagara after all. That was always fun to watch.

 

Otsune shook her head and tried to focus. Sagara was getting up slowly, turning around to walk on all fours as he slowly pulled himself up. Should she help? She considered as she weighed her options. The ninja girl was staying still but Otsune couldn’t tell if it was out of planning or helplessness. What was this girl’s intentions? Was this just another demon attack? She recalled hearing Sagara say the last one was a one off but that naturally meant nothing. Occam would be naturally immune to the electric energy the girl was living off, but whether or not the blasts would just pulse right through him and into Otsune’s own beautiful body was something she should probably stand well back for.

 

I’m going to have to attack you all now, it seems,” Sagara announced.

 

What?” Otsune mumbled as she realised the retard was now facing her and Hisami head on, his gauntlet poised to strike them from just feet away.

 

I’m not entirely sure why though.”

 

Sagara. Wait. You idiot-“ she recoiled, seeing his fist flicker, the movement flashing before her in the instant Occam roared above her, Sagara already well past the fire’s defences, the first approaching as her eyes slammed shut before the clash of steel on skin which was also apparently made of steel whacked against her eardrums and left her a little confused.

 

She opened them to see a small gleam of metal sliding horizontally against her vision.

 

Sagara, stop attacking Otsune,” said Natoko, who was suddenly here as well apparently.

 

Okay, but you’re going to have to stop Raiko or else I’ll just do it again.”

 

The samurai sword girl glanced over to the newcomer, already returning her sword to her sheathe. Otsune stared at awe just long enough for her brain to start asking just where the self-appointed guardian of heavenly springs had come from. “Understood,” Natoko said calmly, and shot off, much faster than Sagara, at the enemy covering the ten meters between them in a heartbeat worthy of any Olympic runner. Otsune missed half of it as she blinked again but caught the part where Natoko unsheathed her blade and went to strike her opponent, again bouncing over the highly conductive and ostensibly magnetic intruder before crashing off into the wall just a meter away from the rapidly increasing group.

 

The girl wailed again in triumph, that same high pitched echo blitzing Otsune’s ears as the girl roared, like a beautiful, attractive, sexy dinosaur that Otsune would die for if she would but ask. The newcomer had barely moved from her spot except to deflect attacks before, but now she was starting to stagger as she stared at the group surrounding her like a cornered dog. She dropped forward, falling onto one hand and almost bouncing back up as she leapt for Otsune, her hand reaching out, clearly asking merely to embrace Otsune in her tender, high voltage embrace. Otsune felt her own hand rising to feel the girl’s touch.

 

No,” she screamed, sensing Occam’s desire to protect her rising up in a huge ball of awesome incinerating flame. The newcomer didn’t hesitate and continued forwards, only bouncing away as Natoko stepped in-between them to intervene, her sword slicing thin air as the girl vanished before her. Natoko disappeared just as suddenly, the two fighters now near the crash site again, Natoko trying to exchange a torrent of blows with a target she kept missing as they both bounced in and out of vision. Otsune only had a few seconds of staring to question how Natoko could be so blindingly fast when she realised Sagara was trying to punch her again.

 

Sagara!”

 

Yeah, I know,” he said with that big stupid grin. “Sorry it’s her voice. It’s making me naturally inclined to do everything she wants.”

 

Well what does she want?” Otsune said, trying to think quickly. Her own brain felt a little off with all that was going on.

 

I think it’s just violence and destruction at this point,” he said, advancing as he punched through Occam to get at her, Otsune able to duck by falling over. “Which is really odd because she was such a nice girl the first time I met her. Helped me out of a tough spot and everything.”

 

Being winded prevented Otsune from continuing the conversation, but she still tried to kick Sagara in the crotch as he advanced on her. He slipped to the side easily, shouting another apology she could no longer hear, his armoured fist raised above his head and ready to strike down on her own. She smelt fire trying to burn through flesh but it didn’t seem to help. Then Natoko reappeared in mid-air.

 

Do you wish me to stop you , my Lord?” she asked through the pandemonium, the brunt of her blade crashing into his gauntlet.

 

That’s entirely your choice,” he replied “But I should probably warn you that I can easily stop you at this point.”

 

Natoko, he’s being an idiot. Just take him out.”

 

This isn’t the best-“ Natoko got as far as saying before the velvet dagger struck through her blade, cracking through the tip and shattering it cleanly. With her support lost, Natoko fell forwards like she had missed a step on the stairs, tripping herself up as the dagger twirled round back on itself and began wrapping itself around her neck. The girl gasped for air quickly, her eyes on the handle.

 

Get off her,” Otsune cried, successfully grabbing Sagara’s fist and feeling her flesh start to sizzle under the burning hot iron. Recoiling quickly, her eyes landed on the newcomer once again, now lurching her way towards them with monstrous electric eyes.

 

Natoko choked, the velvet dagger like a noose around her neck. Otsune used her non-burning hand to reach up for the rope line now connecting Natoko’s neck to whatever part of Sagara this thing had come out of . Lifting herself up to tug, she came face to face with the newcomer, now glaring at her a mere few inches away. The two stared at each other’s beautiful faces, the girl detonating suddenly before her eyes, knocking her back and tugging on the rope. She heard another gargle from Natoko, and what sounded like an apology from Sagara. Hitting the dirt, she choked a little herself before opening her eyes to see the girl again right in front of her, this time both of them on the floor.

 

Opening her mouth, the newcomer girl started wailing again. It began off high pitched and went up from there, the noise squealing and screeching in her ear like a security alarm, rattling between her drums and bringing a taste of iron to Otsune’s mouth. Her brain took the wrong moment to have a migraine, and she felt her arms give up supporting her. She tried to make her right hand lift up and slap the girl, but the putty refused to move. Her vision started to go blurry.

 

Then she felt fine.

 

Otsune froze, tense this time, her body feeling refreshed and in control again. She felt Occam’s heat subside and Natoko and Sagara stopped glaring at each other to look down at her.

 

The world was silent now, not even the light ringing in her ears that she felt should have been there or the sound of her own heartbeat. She could feel it, but the sound was missing.

 

The girl was still trying to scream, right up until she fell asleep, dropping off right onto Otsune’s shoulder. Otsune cried out in annoyance at the sudden pain, but again didn’t hear herself.

 

The American ninja appeared in her peripheral vision, muttering something still inaudible under her mask before lifting the newcomer off of Otsune. She tried to get her breath back but settled with just rolling over and failing to scream obscenities despite every effort to do so.

 

The newcomer was unconscious, now looking rather sweet with her cheek mashed up against the mud like she had been taking an afternoon nap out in a field and had rolled off her own rug. Otsune lifted herself up and looked over the girl. What occurred most to her was how the girl was still clothed despite apparently coming to them as a ball of fire just a few minutes prior. She looked like she had been out for a jog, wearing tracks and a matted t-shirt. Other than a plain ring on her finger, there was nothing else of any real mention to her.

 

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sagara say something but still heard nothing. Natoko seemed to reply and Otsune was glad to realise the girl was also apparently deaf. Sagara still seemed to chat happily to himself as the ninja girl pulled out a pair of handcuffs from nowhere and began attaching them to the unconscious girl.

 

Target captured,” the girl said, causing Otsune to wince in pain at the sudden arrival of sound again. Natoko winced a little too and shook her head in a way that wouldn’t have helped confirm anything at all. Otsune did the same.

 

What happened just then?” she asked.

 

What’s she say?” the ninja asked.

 

Er-“ Otsune wasn’t sure if she could trust herself to speak. “What happened?”

 

Right at the end, or altogether?”

 

Th-the last one,” Otsune replied. “No wait. The last bit.”

 

The girl’s half Sirynclou. Their voices can control other people when singing, so she was making those male or attracted to her do her bidding.”

 

Oh,” replied Otsune, not bothering to translate for Natoko, who looked like she wasn’t listening anyway.

 

Something else must have happened though. It looked like she was controlling herself as well. It was like she was screaming at herself to fight or something.”

 

So she was out of control.”

 

Well she had changed a lot from last time,” Sagara butted in. Not as murderous previously.”

 

Otsune was just about to comment on the parts of Sagara’s flesh that were still smouldering quietly to themselves when she saw Natoko drop to her knees.

 

Isis…” the girl whispered, holding snapped off end of her sword like a dying kitten.

 

The girl’s mouth was wide open, the bottom lip trembling. Otsune relaxed, turning back to the more important matter of Sagara’s wounded body just as the girl started screaming.

 

Otsune took a step back as Natoko threw herself over the scattered shards of her sword like the body of a loved one at a funeral. Her sobbing continued uncontrollably as she started scanning the separate shards, her eyes looking desperately like they were trying to find a way to put them back together again.

 

Freaking a little at the reaction, Otsune felt like she should step up to comfort the girl, but was also a little more concerns at the two other serious matters of the flesh wounds and the unconscious lighting sound girl. Thought he way Sagara was standing there perfectly fine, it seemed the sword somehow took precedence. She stepped forwards to Natoko, looking to place a hand on her shoulder.

 

Back off!” the girl cried out, scowling at Otsune and showing her just how quickly her face had gone red. Otsune wanted to say something but just felt exhausted over the whole ordeal. It couldn’t have last more than a minute but now she just wanted to crawl away.

 

Leave us alone!”

 

Natoko i…”

 

Shut okay? Just shut up. This can’t be… it just… it just can’t.”

 

Otsune really wanted to illustrate the fact in one simple blunt sentence that it was just a sword but the words held themselves in her throat. And though value was in the eye of the beholder and that all this just felt stupid she couldn’t tear her eyes away at Natoko’s red raw skin. The girl let her emotions free all the dry grass as she began muttering ‘Isis… Isis….”. The tip of the bade, a meter away from them all, started to move on a windless breeze.

 

Next: Iziz reforms.

 

Come on,” Otsune said to Sagara. “Help me get her inside… where she can destroy the building if she wakes up No…” She paused in thought, considering the options. There was an issue of trust here. On the one hand, Sagara had labelled her as a friendly person and so therefore it would have been logical to assume the young girl, possibly older than herself and also with the ability to generate electrostatic shockwave thingies was just plain not safe to bring into a building whose primary competent was wood and the flesh of occupants. The other hand agreed completely “Onto the pebble path.” The female ninja assisted without words and with Sagara doing the heavy lifting rested her on a large smooth rock, a favourite sitting spot for most of the girls.

 

Only after they had put her down did it occur to Otsune the potential dangers of even touching a girl that had that much voltage going through her. Though they had not been signed, it did remind her of the burn wounds Sagara not suffered on his skin from Occam’s attack. Part of her knew she should apologise, and she ignored it hastily.

 

The girl was physically fine from what she could tell and though she wanted to sound like some kind of medical expert, all she could do was check to see if the girl still had a pulse. The ninja girl stared at her from beneath the face mask, Otsune unable to tell whether she was being mocked or asked for a status update. She chose not to answer.

 

IT had to be the latter one. She had no knowledge here, no jurisdiction on this realm of the mystical crap that was being force fed her every other day since the big guy had shown up. IT had been a welcomed relief these past few days to only having a sentient flame following her around and only igniting the occasional lampshade. How could she determined whether a girl who was controlling the mind of boy’s and shooting lightning out her face was doing okay or not. Part of him was still wanting to run. Another part acknowledge Natoko was still lying on the top of shattered sword pieces.

 

Who is she, Sagara?” the Ninja girl finally said.

 

??? Raiko.”

 

And where did you meet her.”

 

In her hotel room after I fell into it one day.”

 

Did you know she could do this?”

 

Yes.”

 

Do you know who she works for.”

 

The Balance, but I think only as a temp.”

 

She was working for Yuya then?”

 

Yes.”

 

Can we trust her?”

 

Sagara paused. “I don’t know.”

 

What do you think?”

 

He paused again. “I think she’s nice. She brought me breakfast once.”

 

And that ended that,” the girl mumbled, causing Otsune to grin a little just as the garden lit up again. A blinding flash cut through the air and was gone in seconds. She would have missed it had she not been staring right at it, watching it spread sharply before returning straight back to Natoko. All looked around to see the sword girl bolt up, still looking down, the tears in her eyes dripping like a running tap. She stared down at her sword.

 

***

 

Quick scene with Sakura

 

At this point, the girl has achieved happiness, and is rightfully bathing in it. She sees it as a permanent state. The rest of her life is living with the one she loves.

 

Aki fell into view, landing with a graceful tap as she collapsed into a crouching position.

 

I think violence is going on somewhere,” she said. Sakura shuffled uncomfortably. She had been enjoying herself resting against Alexis’s shoulder. He smelt nice and musky today, the aerosol she had bought him lathered his upper body.

 

I thought so,” Alexis said on her behalf. He went silent, looking in the direction of far back field. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Did he want to go see? “Will they be okay?”.

 

Should be is what I was thinking,” Aki replied, holding her stomach and looking winded with the anxiety. “Now… not so sure.” She seemed to relax as she stood above them. “I’m gonna go check.”

 

Should we go too?” Alexis asked her. Sakura hesitated. She didn’t want to. She wasn’t just being selfish, in her head she knew Aki shouldn’t go either, but they should at least check it what was going on and then go warn someone if needed.

 

A jet engine echoed over their heads, cutting off any discussion. The two of them stood up to join Aki, curiosity now overriding panic.

 

Stay!” a heavily accented voice called out to them. Sliding into view, right in front of them and out of thin air, the blond female that seemed to wander around on occasion walked past them. “Stay here or get inside, but don’t bring anyone out back. It’s not safe-“

 

Melissa, you do know they don’t speak English right?”

 

Er- I do,” Aki said, raising her hand. “Learnt it a few months ago.”

 

It’s irrelevant,” Melissa said. “Get them inside and stay there. The threat’s minor, but they shouldn’t be getting involved any more than they already have. In fact I would really prefer it if you people had no idea about this at all.”

 

Is Natoko alright?” Aki butted in. “I think she’s there, isn’t she?”

 

The ninja girl didn’t seem to hear this, her head turning slightly to look into the distance. Sakura was suddenly aware of how quiet the air had gotten, a taste of iron coming to her teeth as the grass stood rigid around them.

 

C-can we…” Aki stuttered, looking around as if to check it was safe to talk. The three of them stayed silent, Sakura keeping a tight grasp of Alexis. “What just-“

 

Both of them started to look around and Sakura realised that the ninja had disappeared right in front of them. She kept very still and tried to wish herself a little smaller too. It was one of those moment where she knew moving may result in monsters pouncing you. She felt every hair stand on end, her breath shut off. She started to turn around.

 

I think they’re done,” Aki said, the world suddenly turning back to normal with a deep feeling that they had missed something. Sakura relaxed a little.

 

We better go help then,” she said and watched as Aki ran off before anything further could be said. She knew the American wanted Alexis to have them stay inside but she seemed to be forgetting that she and him were technically guests just as much as she seemed to forget what language she had been speaking.

 

They turned the corner, seeing Aki rushing towards Natoko, Sagara with an unconscious girl in his hands.

 

I feel instantly this needs rewriting a little, with a focus on Sakura trying to relax and Melissa’s order with a slight reference to Aki’s secret and a larger reference to Sakura suddenly understanding English.

 

***

 

Natoko’s body trembled as the glowing shards shivered beneath her, their translucent light hurting her eyes as she glared down at them. Moments ago, Iziz had broken so easily in her hands. IT seemed impossible to think it could happen. The sword her grandfather gave her, that she kept at all times (except during school hours of course). Despite what she had driven it into, it had never been scratched before. To be decimated so quickly.

 

The light continued to shine beneath her. It wasn’t a warm light, she recognised this even as her hands dug into the soil that she wasn’t shaking from excitement. She watched carefully through teary eyes as the pieces started to move.

 

Above her, the others started to talk, whether it was to her or not didn’t matter.

 

Suddenly, like magnets two pieces shot towards each other clicking into place like a jigsaw and spinning round just as another piece landed to complete a chunk. It dropped back to the floor quickly. Natoko stared at I for a few seconds before three other pieces did the same, a wave of dust forming out of thin air before spreading into the cracks and making the once six pieces into one single piece.

 

Natoko felt the urge to back away, her muddy hands preventing her from lifting herself up as the other pieces started to move in unison now openly levitating in the air before her and clicking one after another into place the very tip of her sword now dangling mere centimetres from her face before dropping to meet with the rest of the sword.

 

Dimly aware she was gritting her teeth she managed to get herself into a kneeling position before the wildly flailing blade risked lacerating a cheek or two. She couldn’t think to ask herself what was happening or how. All she knew was Iziz was coming back to her somehow. As the blade started to vibrate violently before her she raised her hand, the shattered hilt covered in mud responding to its other half. Doing her best to keep her eyes open she raised the dead hilt before her and watched as the last blade shards fell into place before swinging savagely towards her, nearly taking off a few hair strands and sliding firmly into place. A final glow emanated from the blade before all the cyan light was pulled back into the weapon and fell silent again.

 

Natoko heard a gasp of breath and couldn’t tell if it were her own.. She turned Iziz towards her and saw her reflection in the perfect blade.

 

Well that shouldn’t be possible.”

 

Yeah. It’s done it before. It got destroyed by that angel at one point.”

 

I can’ say I remember that. I think I was pretending to be incinerated.”

 

And you did a fantastic job of it.”

 

Why thank you.”

 

Natoko turned to Sagara, happy yet… “This has happened before?”

 

You don’t remember.” He swung the body round his shoulder carelessly.

 

No.”

 

Well,” he shrugged his shoulder. “You didn’t remember last time either. I’m sure it’s no big deal.”

 

No big…” She remembered her position, though her thoughts were muddled. “How could… how could Iziz… and then how I forget It doesn’t make any sense.”

 

Yeah, this isn’t that normal,” Sagara mused. “Objects can’t reconstruct themselves, not without a spirit involved.”

 

This was my grandfather’s blade. Could… could his spirit be inside Iziz?”

 

No. There’s no one in there at all. If there was, I’d have dragged it out and killed it when I first met you.”

 

Trying not to feel rage, Natoko looked over her sword again. Not a crack remained on the smooth steel and it looked as sharp as it was when she first started practicing with it. She always knew Iziz was powerful and she knew to keep it with her at all times and never abandon it no matter what, but this wasn’t something it should be able to do. Did it have any other special abilities, she wondered, a brief inspiration brought on the idea of being able to throw fire on it.

 

Isn’t it obvious what it is?” Otsune said cutting in.

 

What? What is it?”

 

It’s magic of course.”

 

The two ninja stared down at her. Otsune glared back offended.

 

What? Oh come on. I’m finally accepting all your stupid demon crap. If it shines brightly like that, doesn’t that just mean that some magic was used to reform it?”

 

There’s no such thing as magic.”

 

Yes. Please don’t be interrupting us to add silly little assumption into the mix.”

 

Silly little…” Otsune flabbergasted as her eyes looked like they wanted to shoot lasers at the two ninja. “I finally make a suggestion to you morons that isn’t-“

 

We must put this aside for now,” the female ninja stated ”and possibly move away from where the civilian would interact with us.”

 

Civilian!?”

 

We should ascertain how and why Raiko has appeared before us now in this state. My illusion powers are still working, so we can assume the Neutralis is not on her person. I suggest we take her inside for now and keep her restrained until we can be sure she’s no longer berserk. Understood?”

 

Understood,” Natoko replied.

 

Sure, why-” Natoko snapped to attention, staring at the ninja girl who was looking back at her while trying to ignore Otsune ‘s livid face still trying to incinerate them before her face too became one of sudden awareness.

 

The ninja and samurai faced each other, their mouths agape in unison, both stammering to say the next words other each other.

I… but i…”

 

You… i…

 

Hey, you can understand each other,” Otsune interrupted, grabbing them and shaking them like rag dolls. Natoko looked across to the girl, who was wearing a satisfied smile on her face. “Yea. Ruin my moment. I ruin yours.”

 

How can this be?” the ninja asked. “I have not learnt Japanese,.”

 

And I not English…well I tried but well-“

 

While I speak both languages fluently and can tell you now those are the languages you’re speaking at other with those big stupid mouths of yours. Here’s an idea. Gasp,” exclaimed Otsune. “I know. Perhaps… it’s magic.” She waited for them to stare ac at her again. “Or maybe demons. Or perhaps, I don’t know. Maybe pixie fairies have bitten into your skin in the middle of that fight and injected nanodroids into your bloodstreams that instantly act like universal translators that at first will seem fun and exciting and useful, but then will slowly start eating away at your livers, killing you from the inside. Or perhaps…”

 

There’s no such thing as nanodroid injecting pixi-“

 

I don’t care!” Otsune shouted at Sagara’s face. “Let’s just bring in the corpse girl and make her not be a corpse first. We can investigate your stupid ability to communicate at a later point after we’ve observed all the basic facts. Understood.”

 

Unfortunately,” the ninja grumbled.

 

Inside. Now!”

 

***

 

Natoko had helped Sagara place the unconscious body in ones of the spare rooms. Otsune had decided it would be best if others didn’t stray into the lobby and become inexplicably involved in the new situation. Alongside the American ninja girl without a name, Otsune was now possibly poking and prodding the girl in various ways considered medical in an attempt to find out what was wrong with her.

 

If that’s what they were doing, Natoko had no idea. She had been placed on guard duty. Or rather, she had placed herself on guard duty after she realised she wouldn’t be much help in there. It wasn’t that they were performing surgery , or any form of effective medicine whatsoever, she just felt odd.

 

In the traditional sentry stance of sitting against the wall, Natoko played with Iziz between her fingers, twirling the heavy sheath as best she could without letting clank onto the floor. The questions were still flooding her mind, trying desperately to remember all she could about her now supposedly magical sword.

 

Her grandfather died when she was very young. She remembered him, but not completely, a kind and cheerful ma, yet very serious and very stern. A memory flashed through her of his teasing her, prodding and poking her in the stomach and making her laugh. It was to test her reflexes he had told her parents as they grumbled disapprovingly

 

Iziz had come into her life shortly after he had died. It was passed down to her, apparently because she was the favourite. She had just accepted it at first, thinking it cool at the time and not really interested. Thinking further into it she actually remembered having more fun at first with his old collection of American board games. Iziz was just left on the side-lines until she was thirteen.

 

When she picked it up, that time after the argument with her father, when she had ran away for a few days only some little disagreement she couldn’t remember, Iziz had been to distract herself. She was angry, and she had seen enough cartoons to know that swinging the sword was usually enough to look cool while being angry and possibly get her dad to acknowledge that she wasn’t just being lazy. It was then when she first felt a spark with it.

 

In truth, she had only started to swing the sword because it felt good to let loose against the wind like that. Striking down with the blade, getting that perfect step and cut. It was probably what dancing was like.

 

The idea washed over her as she nearly let the blade slip, the hilt falling out of the sheath and touching the ground lightly. It had always felt like magic to her. They were partners, servants to their master. They worked together now to accomplish his desires and together, they had become a mighty force. With its steel and her newly misunderstood powers of speed, they were becoming unstoppable. Maybe that was the magic.

 

She tilted the blade back into its container. “No. that doesn’t explain sparkly magical powers. How are you doing it?”

 

The sword stayed silent as the door behind her opened. Quickly she tied the sword down into her belt’s sash as Sagara and Otsune came out. Otsune was looking deeply troubled, staring at the ground deep in thought. Sagara was grinning.

 

How’s it look?” Natoko asked.

 

Well she isn’t waking up,” Otsune replied. “That’s one thing that doesn’t look good. She also covered in bruises. Some have been there for a while.”

 

She fell out of the Sagara,” Sagara added.

 

No. These have clearly been here for a few days at the least judging by how they’ve formed. Also, the falling out the sky thing? No broken bones. No major lacerations or wounds. Nothing punctured, no signs of internal damage. And also very much not dead. These are the usual symptoms of what is medically known as falling out of the sky syndrome. That last one is usually the most prominent.”

 

She is a half demon. It’s to be expected.””

 

She’s a half demon,” Otsune mimicries. “That just makes things harder to diagnose. Made it impossible five minutes ago when you forgot to mention that, but now, it’s just a little more difficult.

 

Sagara looked oddly taken aback. “I’m being told I should apologise.”

 

It’s okay. Look, we need to-“ Otsune stopped. “You’re being told?”

 

I have an angel inside my head now. Gives me advice.”

 

You have a voice of reason inside your head?” A manic grin appeared on Otsune face as she scoffed a little.

 

Got it installed recently,” Sagara said like it didn’t matter. “And it’s not a voice of reason, it’s an angel.”

 

But he’s probably more reasonable than you.”

 

Angels can’t be reasonable. They will always be biased. Mom says whenever an angel starts being reasonable with me, I’m to punch it in the existence.”

 

I guess I can agree with that.” Otsune waved her hands sharply. “Anyway. What can we do to wake her up? Should we be waking her p? Is she just going to attack us again if we do?”

 

Don’t know. Don’t know. Don’t know., Sagara replied back, standing silent as the as the last word came out of his mouth. The girls stared at him.

 

W-we should get help,” Natoko said, trying to butt in. Otsune turned sharply to her, as if only just remembering she was there.

 

Any suggestions?””Sakimo- er… the other members of the Balance may have information on how to sort this if we don’t know. They may also know who she is.”

 

She’s Raiko,” Sagara replied.

 

Wonderful. Be quiet.” Otsune turned back to Natoko. “Who are these Balance people. I thought he was the Balance… supposedly.”

 

No, I’m just the heir to the position of the Enforcer of the True Balance.”

 

so it’s an organization? That makes sense.” Otsune seemed to be thinking.

 

They have a building in the city,” Natoko added. “If we take her there-“

 

We have no car. Lugging her unceremoniously on Sagara’s shoulder will only serve against us at the impending trial.”

 

We could bring someone here? Go and explain what happened?” Natoko quickly wondered when Otsune had become de facto leader of the situation. She should be passing her ideas past Sagara if anything, and possibly the ninja girl.

 

I suppose it’s too rational to presume an ambulance would be of any assistance..”

 

Sagara looked thoughtful for no time whatsoever. “It would be more likely we could steal a car rather than an ambulance in the village We’d have to drive back from the city to pick her up.”

 

Otsune smirked to herself. “Calling the Balance for help it is. What’s their number?”

 

No idea?” Sagara replied.

 

Of course.” Otsune looked around. “Where’s ninja girl?

 

She was in there with you, wasn’t she?

 

Not that I saw..” The corridor fell silent among the three of them. No one offered to say anything until Otsune growled.

 

Fine. We’ll go down there. We can’t leave her alone though.”

 

I’ll stay,” Sagara offered. “If she wakes up and attacks, I should be able to stop her..”

 

Yes, because girls off the street should be able to walk in and enter the secret demon killing- “Otsune stopped with a sigh. She looked like a bad morning if it had spent too long adding make up. “We’re not employees. “So you have to go at least.”

 

Actually…” Natoko began.

 

***

 

Switch to city in front of the building.

 

You have a job here now?”

 

It’s the same job I assigned myself when I had first met Sagara” Natoko said as the receptionist waved them through to the main glass elevator. This was not the entrance they had come through the last time Sagara had been summoned. This was larger, but more befitting a corporate business. Large glass windows served as the wall of the building with various seating areas complete with businessmen and woman dashing back and forth, some only stopping to pick up coffee at the service stand from the man with the vacant stare on his face. “The only difference is that now they pay me for it.”

 

And here’s me swotting up to university professors just to get a good reference for a first level position,” Otsune complained. “I guess it is who you know.”

 

You also know him you realise.”

 

I also don’t want to work for him.”

 

The reception desk itself was a lot larger with several receptionists instead of none like last time. A woman stared up at them with empty eyes and a sweet, friendly smile that was more than helpful until she mentioned Mss Sakimoto. The woman tried to hold back a laugh before asking them who they were with. “Er… I’m er… Sagara Futabatei’s personal… assistant.”

Whoa whoa. You’re his assistant?” Otsune interrupted.

 

That is correct.” She was actually his retainer, but she didn’t actually know how much this receptionist knew.

 

And they’re paying you to watch him goof around all day.”

 

He does far much more than that, Otsune.”

 

Excuse me,” the receptionist chirped up. “I don’t believe we have anyone here who works here by that name.”

 

Of course he doesn’t,” Natoko replied. “He has far weightier matters to attend to beyond working here.”

 

O-of course he does,” the woman replied. “So is he third party?”

 

No he,” Natoko pulled back the urge to growl as the woman kept smiling helpfully. “He works alongside Mss Sakimoto, but he’s from…” She gave it a try. “He’s from the Balance.”

 

The Balance,” the receptionist replied, a stern glare registering behind her glasses. “Is that an American company?”

 

No… well yes… I don’t know actually.” Natoko started to feel a little fluster. How were they going to follow orders if they couldn’t get past the front desk.

 

Look miss. I’m terribly apologetic to say that I can let you just go speak the CEO of the business, even if you do work for an American company. You need to at least have an appointment…” The woman’s words trailed off as Natoko wiped the sweat off her brow. This was stupid. Normally they couldn’t help not falling into Miss Sakimoto’s office one way or another. “…if you’ve arranged an appointment with her secretary beforehand. If that’s the case, I’m going to have to…” The woman’s voice trailed off.” She was sweating and breathing heavily all of a sudden, her forehead spilling over with water.

 

Are you okay?” Otsune asked. Natoko stared at her through what felt like a summer’s heat.

 

I think I’-“ SD-he took a deep breath. “I’m fine. It’s hot this afternoon. I think-“ The receptionist lost her footing trying to stand up. Both girls went to try and catch her, but fell short with the reception desk in the way. Quickly they scattered round the side as the woman slipped to the floor. Natoko watched hazily as the word got fuzzy around her. She knelt down to help the lady up as Otsune shouted over for some help.

 

The receptionist had fallen unconscious, her forehead burning up. It was hot but she didn’t think it was this hot. Quickly two other receptionists and a security guard swarmed over to help her up and transport her to a nearby couch. Natoko followed along helping to keep the woman steady as the larger security guard helped her across the room hearing Otsune say something about the woman being exposed directly to the sunlight in front of the window.

 

After a few moments of getting caught up in the crowd the woman seemed okay, if only a little under the weather. The heat seemed to have hit them all badly and those that had helped move the woman were also complaining of how hot it was. Apologising to them for the troubles she had caused, she hobbled away to a back room with the assistance of a security guard.

 

I’m sorry about that,” another receptionist replied. “She was complaining about feeling under the weather this morning.””

 

It’s okay,” Natoko replied, trying not to look exhausted herself.

 

It looked more like heat stroke to me,” Otsune mentioned. “You should be more careful. Everyone here looks ready to collapse.”

 

Yeah it’s funny,” the other receptionist replied. “The air conditioning should be on. I’ll call facilities and see if we can get someone out to find out what’s going on

 

Oh, before you do that could we just bother you to let us through. We have an appointment with Miss Sakimoto at three.” She looked at her watch in a hurry like. “Yamanaka Natoko for the Balance Industries.

 

Oh of course, I am so sorry. I think the heat’s making me slow today. Let’s see…” The receptionist leaned over the computer resting herself as best as possible without sitting down, her body contorted in a painful leaning posture. “Ah yes, Miss Yamanaka…” Otsune pointed to Natoko, who found herself waving like a moron. “Of course, you can go right up. I’ll just need you to sign the visitor’s pass…”

 

A few moments later, they were being led to the elevator by a member of security with two visitor’s passes against their chests. Otsune laughed to herself, Natoko falling against the wall.

 

Well…” Natoko sighed heavily. “I guess that worked out well for us.” It seemed a good idea to sit down all of a sudden and she fell to the floor without her hands offering any resistance along the way.

 

Yes,” replied Otsune. “At the very least I know if I can’t get a job through all my hard work and degrees, I at least have corporate espionage on my side.”

 

Wha-“

 

Otsune knelt down to her, her hand brushes against Natoko’s brow. “You’ll be fine in a moment. I’ve turned Occam off.”

 

Occam?” Natoko tried to think. “You made it hot?”

 

Be glad I knew their appointment booking system. It was because of that I was able to set you up with a meeting on such short notice.”

 

You did that… when everyone was looking at the receptionist?” Natoko shook herself clean and started to stand up. “Should we be doing that? Miss Sakimoto won’t like us just wandering in.”

 

Well if you don’t want to do it again, just remember before we leave, get her phone number.”

 

The old elevator thundered to a stop with enough force to jump them in the air, before jolting one more time and nearly sending the two woman flying (note: discuss elevator in more detail perhaps earlier). The doors swinging open they were met by an odd silence that contained only the ringing of phones and the printing of fax machines.

 

The two girls stepped out gingerly. There were no people. The thirty third floor of the Sakimoto building appeared abandoned. “We on the right floor?” Otsune asked looking around carefully.

 

They pressed the button,” Natoko said, not entirely sure if she had been here or not. The last time she ended up in Miss Sakimoto’s office. The time before that- well she hadn’t paid particular attention to the layout at all. There would be a mahogany door around here if it was though.

 

To their left, a large printer whirred to life catching their attention. With a high pitch clanking it started to spit paper in a neat little tray to the side.. Natoko looked around, keeping herself tense. No one was coming to collect.

 

What’s going on?” she finally said as Otsune went to rifle through the newly minted paperwork.

 

Nothing interesting,” Otsune replied, stacking the paper back into shape and returning it to the tray. “This is just a timetable for availability on the next server upgrades. Boring office work. Remind me to kill myself if I ever end up working in a place like this.”

 

Ditto,” said Natoko, still looking around, though she wasn’t sure what for. Was this some kind of defence protocol they had set off in talking their way in here. Were more of those ninja security guard she faced last time due to arrive through the ceiling tiles any moment now? Natoko tried to listen carefully but found it difficult under the hum drum of a non-existent office life. Her ears caught the sound of yet another telephone starting off.

 

Maybe we should answer one.”

 

Do you think we’re allowed?” Otsune said, now too focusing on the sleek black handset on the desk nearest them. “You know what? Stupid question. Of course we should Worse comes to worse, I burn everything. Hello hello!” Otsune said, sounding jolly as she waited for a response.

 

Right,” she replied in almost a mutter. “Right.” She reached over for a piece of paper from the printer and began scribbling something down. “I understand. Right… Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you.” She replaced the handset down carefully.

 

What is it?” Natoko asked. “What did they say?”

 

Otsune lifted the piece of paper up. In the bad light, Natoko had to move her head to read it properly.. In the light she saw the message.

 

It said “The guy behind us will show us to her office.”

 

Yo.” Natoko froze to a statue and shattered as the firm grip compressed her shoulder and nearly left her leaving her arm behind. She tried to turn and only got halfway before seeing the man smiling in front of them She recognised him from somewhere.

 

This way, my good ladies,” he waved a hand in the direction of a corridor on the opposite side of the room and waiting for them to start walking.. Halfway down, Natoko saw a door open, a large woman coming out of it.

 

Got those reports for me in time for-“

 

A man brushed past her and barely had time to wave an apology.

 

The Moscow meeting starts in two hours. We need someone there to-“

 

Corporate. Takashi speaking.”

 

And I told her the golf isn’t the point. It’s the people who I meet there being good for business-“

 

As they turned the corner of the corridor, the busy office continued its daily machinations.

 

***

 

The private office of Miss Sakimoto hummed away nonchalantly to itself. Natoko scratched her knee and immediately tried to turn down the volume.

 

The woman at the far end of the room was sitting at her desk, reading reports and ignoring them in the same way a lion ignores a prey it knew it could round to devouring when it felt like it. The two girls sat quietly, hands on knees, on the two chairs provided. The water colour besides them mocked them gratuitously, basking in its own refreshing coolness as the line of sunlight slowly turned over them.

 

Natoko wasn’t entirely sure at this point if they had reason to think they were in trouble. They had gained access to the office of one of the possibly most powerful people on the planet and done so illegitimately right up to the point where they had gotten caught. But then they also hadn’t been thrown out of the building, either by the main entrance or through the large wall sized window behind the executive lady.

 

Glancing at Otsune, she could see her watching the woman intently. She carried no fear on her face and looked like she could wait it out. It had been about fifteen minutes now (at a guess). Natoko knew they had interrupted, but not a word had been said since they had been thrown in the office. Even the man (who she was sure she recognised) had only stopped to tell them to sit down before disappearing before their very eyes.

 

Below her, Natoko heard the sound of paper crunching, and looked down. It was the report that Otsune had used as scrap paper, quickly being crunched into a ball out of frustration as her friend stood up and approached the woman at the desk.

 

Excuse me. May I ask how long you’re planning on having us sitglarginuff!”

 

Falling to the floor Otsune’s hands went to her mouth, scratching her lips and clutching her neck as if she was drowning. Crashing hard she started violently kicking her legs from side to side. Eyes burning with pain, she glanced at Natoko and tried to flip over to scramble to her, only to be pushed down as her back was inexplicably flattened against the floor. Natoko stood up, ready to dash over to her friend, already thrown halfway across the room and in pain for no reason when-

 

Sit down, Natoko.”

 

Natoko froze in place. Sit down? Otsune was under attack. They could all be…No, this was Miss Sakimoto’s doing clearly. Otsune gasped in Natoko’s direction, her eyes screaming for assistance. Natoko took another step forward.

 

I said sit down Natoko.”

 

But she…”

 

Miss Sakimoto clicked her pen.

 

Right now, Naomi is drowning your friend here for speaking before being spoken too,” she said, as if describing how dropping a vase leads to it smashing when it gets round to meeting with the ground. “She is keeping herself hidden and even if you could see her you would not be able to hurt her. You are my employee now and are paid to follow the orders of your superiors. So sit down.”

 

I…” Otsune’s efforts were fading , eyes closed and trying desperately to cough.

 

Sit down.” Natoko felt her legs shaking, falling back down towards the chair, her hand clutching Iziz’s hilt as she started to drop.

 

The ball of fire emerged from nowhere in a heart, a small blob appearing in the centre of the room forcing Natoko back into her seat and forcing her to draw her sword at the same time. A loud screech was heard as she felt her skin burn white hot for less than a second.

 

Natoko dared to open her eyes again. The third thing she noticed was the absence of a water cooler.

 

Bitch!” Otsune exclaimed. “Fucking…” She coughed and heaved, pulling herself up. “How fucking… high and mighty… do you think you are?”

 

Well,” Miss Sakimoto said, unfazed and still sitting at her desk. “Looks like someone’s been learning, if not her manners.” Her stood up, taking a stack of papers with her to a filing cabinet.

 

Otsune managed to pull herself up, now openly spitting on the floor in an effort to remove the water from her system. She stared defiantly at the woman, and Natoko felt herself frozen again at the notion of joining her.

 

Closing the cabinet, the woman looked over to the drowned teenager before her, Otsune’s knees buckling under the pressure.

 

Come. Sit,” said the businesswoman, offering them the chairs next to her desk. “Explain to me why you’re here.”

 

Otsune refused silently, her wheezing overtaking her as she struggled to remain standing. Natoko watched as her friend chose to continue glaring at her employer. Her mind strayed for a second. She hadn’t thought of Miss Sakimoto as her boss in the slightest until just now. She was a superior, but it was Sagara she followed above all else.

 

With no one making a move, and Miss Sakimoto looking impatient, Natoko stepped forwards.

 

There was an attack on Heavenly Springs this morning.” Natoko stayed standing by her friend, who took this moment to buckle under the pressure of her own feet and fall to the ground. She immediately tried to get back up.

 

No there wasn’t,” Miss Sakimoto replied. Natoko hesitated, watching the woman as she too was overcome by her own sentence. “Yet why would you think that there was.” **this is SIS first coming to term with its faults, losing its reporting systems**

 

I-i-i…” Natoko started again. “It was a meteorite. It crashed down into the lower gardens at about ten am.”

 

A meteorite?” Miss Sakimoto started to look at towards her monitor.

 

Otsune coughed herself back into attention. “It was more like a cyrometer, considering it was made up of a person.

 

Mss Sakimoto took a moment to process this, her long nails tapping on the back of her red leather desk chair. “You’re saying a person crash landed there.” Natoko nodded. “Am I to assume by saying ‘attack’ earlier you mean they survived long enough to initiate an attack.

 

Yes. Though we were unprepared for any form of assault that morning we were able to subdue the assailant and render her unconscious. It was after this that my Master identified our opponent as Raiko, a woman he had met during the tournament. We left her in his care while we reported to you for advice on how to deal with the situation.” Natoko realised for a second how cool she was sounding.

 

Raiko,” the CEO repeated. “Raiko…” She reached for her phone and hit a few numbers. “Sayuri… Drop what you’re doing. Get Raiko’s mobile number and direct me through to it on this line.” Without waiting she moved over to the computer and started clicking away at the mouse, leaving Natoko with a urge to continue being cool through status reports or just aim for natural sullen silence.

 

Heavenly Spring,” she started, “or at least, its defence system, is monitored by Sakimoto Industries at all times. Reports come to my e-mail through our primary SIS server on high priority should anything happen there. Why hasn’t it reports anything. Sayuri? You still there? Why hasn’t SIS 01 got any reports for this morning.” A pause. “What? That server doesn’t go down. I’ve fixed that now/. It’s impossible.” She growled incoherently. “Fine. Have the psych boys give me a full report by the end of the day on what happened. Make it a priority. Have you got Raiko’s number yet? Patch me straight through.”

 

All three waited in silence as Otsune dragged herself back up and rested on Natoko’s shoulder still dripping wet from unseen water, the scowl on her face looked like a crocodile ready to bite out of spite.

 

Hello Raik-… Sagara… Hello.” Miss Sakimoto seemed immensely put off all of a sudden. “So she is there… Ah, did N and O get to you then Yes, they’re here… though please note we don’t view it favourably when people try to sneak into the Palladian temple like that. All sorts of alarm bells ring. Heh. Sorry about that. So how do we wake up Raiko? Tell me what happened first. You mean they didn’t No… well (Sagara tells) was she supposed to come to us Not that we had told her too. If I recall she was on vacation all this week Did she go anywhere nice Apparently the skies. Anyway, Sagara, she should just be healing if she’s taken that much damage. Berserker rages weren’t a move she had past the tropic thunder though. If she’s injured then moved her Neutralis gem away from her. Her demon side will heal her up better if its allowed to go active.”

 

Natoko’s ears pricked up. The girl was half demon. That… After a few seconds she couldn’t tell what it meant or if it was relevant A demon girl may have just been as much threat to them as an angelic choir boy.

 

Not too long though or the defences will play up and you’ll start getting bodies at your door. Right… Right… No I can’t explain it.. Yes you can ask her.. No it’s not a test. You already passed the initiation. You now just become Enforcer when the last condition has been cleared.”

 

Of course I don’t know when that is!” she cried out suddenly. “Hopefully not for another thirty years if it means you in charge and your mother dead. Look, just do as i said and she’ll most likely wake up on her own. Report to me any progress that occurs the moment it occurs. Understood. Good.” She dropped her handset down and growled a the phone. “That boy!”

 

Glad to see we share a common ground,” Otsune snared.

 

Yes,” the woman replied. “He is a rather unfortunate predicament to have to trifle with. But onto matters I actually consider worth my time-“ She paused to compose herself. “Now from what yourselves and Sagara described, Raiko was fighting berserk. During this time, how was she fighting?”

 

Natoko wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. “By charging at us and mostly.”

 

And screaming a lot.”

 

And glowing.”

 

Did she emit any energies of any kind.”

 

You mean like the lightning.”

 

Ah, she was using the lightning then… yet the defences still weren’t going off.” Ms Sakimoto lost herself in thought, leaving Natoko trying to think of any other info she could convey. The office felt stuffy, even with the air con on. “Anything else?”

 

Erm oh! Sagara started trying to attack us at one point. He was apologizing as he was doing it.”

 

Yes, that would be the girl’s half Sirynclou nature. It’s naturally effective on those attracted to woman.”

 

Really?” Otsune said, looking more alert suddenly. “Men and women?”

 

Er… yes,” the woman replied, looking a little off kilter as Otsune chose to ignore them both. “Anything else?”

 

Man God.”

 

Excuse me.”

 

Natoko turned around to find the ninja girl standing beside her and did a fantastic job of not doing her impression of a seventeen year old bed wetter. The ninja strolled past the both of them to face Miss Sakimoto with a bowed head.

 

Before the start of the encounter, everything single kotodama inside the Heavenly Springs household stopped their usual jabbering to whisper that word; ‘Man God’.”

 

Sakimoto ‘s brow furrowed with pinpoint precision. “Are you certain?“

 

I humbly recommend you junction with the server to determine-“

 

No. It should not be necessary,” the executive said with a wave of her hand. “The SIS went down at the time of the attack, mostly likely due to Raiko’s lightning playing havoc with the system. The glitch is not an issue.”

 

Mistress if I may?”

 

Mistress?” Otsune repeated derisively with a snort. Both ninja and businesswoman turned to stare at her degrading smile. “Oh, please ignore me.”

 

We will do.” She turned back to the ninja. “And you may not. I know your concerns, agent. But the Balance must not let its own rumours and myths created by ‘ghosts’ in the system overwhelm obvious fact. There is no manGod. And there never was. The term occurred as a development mistake during testing and it’s simply proven impossible to remove it from the system.

 

What’s the manGod?” Otsune asked.

 

An irrelevance,” Sakimoto stated simply before beginning to wave her body a little in thought, “that it would be foolish for me not to at least consider. Very well. Yamanaka?”

 

Yes sir!” she called out, standing to attention.

 

Confer with Raiko when you return to Heavenly Springs. Determine any possibility of any entity that is referred to by Man God. Report to me if you discover any obvious reference that may relate to Raiko’s condition.”

 

Understood.”

 

And don’t bother me if you don’t find anything. As far as I’m concerned, none of you should be here right now. Natoko you should have received information about going through official channels if you wanted to consult a member of the Balance besides Sagara. I suggest you reread your documentation.”

 

Er, no I don’t think I did….”

 

***

 

The large package stared at Natoko accusingly. “I never get any mail,” she mumbled, grabbing it and tucking it under her armpit. Otsune no longer cared. She needed a shower, or a trip to the hot springs. Weighing up the options she chose relaxation and headed for the baths.

 

The meeting with the executive played in her mind as she got prepared for a nice dip. The woman’s attack had been shameless… and really unnecessary. Did she have to be a colossal dick about it. She could have just said wait. Otsune knew she should let it go, the woman may have been doing it to play with her emotional state in the first place, get her steamed up, but Otsune still wanted to burn something.

 

Dipping into the water, she watched Occam float around like a firefly, rising up on the steam drafts and falling back down whenever it had the opportunity, acting like a kid on slides.

 

From a physical point of view, Otsune couldn’t see how a small ball of fire could have fun in steam without being snuffed out. The steam, plus the extra steam the spirit was creating did not appear to be enough to envelope it. It seemed being snuffed out was not something Occam had to worry about. How intelligent was it. It was able to learn tricks and poorly obey commands, so that would put it as much smarter than a cat and at least at the level of a dog. Plus they now seemed to share some kind of empathic link. Occam had gotten angry when she was being drowned back in the office, and had responded in kind. She also knew it wanted a name back on the mountain top. Maybe she could find a way to get it to communicate if she set up an experiment to test its reactions to a variety of actions…

 

She cleared her mind. That could wait. That woman, Yuya Sakimoto. She should be the key focus for now. There was something not quite right about her beyond being the executive head of a small no government paramilitary organization with access to supernatural powers and beings. For all she was listening over, she seemed quick to request they don’t do certain things.

 

Is it me, or did she let us investigate it dismissively so we would give up on it dismissively.” Occam swirled round her hand, raising the temperature of the water beneath her and skyrocketing out of the steam cloud. It would be something to do and quickly give up on because it’s not that worth it, was the feeling she got from the woman. Perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps it wasn’t important to her at all. Perhaps she hated the woman because she dared to try and drown her for simply asking how much longer she was going to be.

 

It certainly proved interesting anyway. A defence system… Sagara had of course casually blabbed about its existence the second he wandered through the door, but now she wondered. The system was there previously, before Sagara and so probably setup by his grandmother. It might have made sense for them to install it during his stay there, due to his apparent importance to them, but why would it have needed it before hand, and on high priority?

 

Stupid bitch.

 

Oh, it’s you,” a voice said, sloshing through the water.

 

Good evening,” Otsune said to Sarah. She couldn’t see the girl, but she saw a small short haired American blur.

 

I wasn’t going to wait for you to come out, you know.”

 

Why would I want you to,” Otsune replied, sinking deeper into the water. “Come in. How was your day?”

 

Don’t talk to me. I don’t like you.” Sarah sank a few meters away from her out of sight causing as much ruckus as possible as she submerged herself into the half a meter of water.

 

Of course you don’t.” Otsune ignored her. She should have grabbed Fujiko before coming in to get some real company. No. Then Sarah wouldn’t have come in at all. They spent so little time together nowadays anyway. Otsune busy with study leave (and accidental months long inter-dimensional travel that was really putting her behind) and Sarah with being an obnoxious little brat that wouldn’t recognise gratitude if it approached her in a dark alley and gave her yet another way to tick Otsune off. The amount she had done for this girl to keep her here. Taking her in. Claiming guardianship after Grandma Futabatei had passed away. Even if the old lady had asked it of her she could have said no. She wasn’t legally responsible for anyone here. Yet nooo, she took on all the responsibility and all the work even after the supposed new manager came in to take over, useless as he was.

 

She shook her mind. This wasn’t what she should be thinking about. Sarah was rude, but at least she didn’t get into any trouble at school. What mattered were the events of the day.

 

Or did they? Should she even get involved? Her job was scientist, not adventurer. Maybe there was meant to be a bit of both, but to start considering their next move when it might not be her move to make.

 

She should just observe, learn their ways. An anthropological study into the living arrangements of assorted idiots and morons whose individual existences had the unfortunate prospect of being tied down to the continued balance of earth (that thing that was so keenly in alignment these days).

 

No, she wanted to tell them what to do, keep them all in line, get them out of the habit of being idiots and morons. If she could fix Sagara alone that might guarantee that most of the universe didn’t explode.

 

Her head was feeling fuzzy. Sarah looked like she was watching her.

 

***

Feeling light in her hand, Iziz reflected her visage using the moon’s light.

 

The silence of the world was mesmerizing, echoing lightly in her field of perception.

 

She could sense the world around her. Anyone who got close suffered the threat of bisection. Anyone who spoke was telling her they were happen for her to perform the gruesome deed.

 

She was focused. She was ready.

 

Iziz wouldn’t move.

 

Remaining motionless for so long was exhausting. The weight of her blade make her forearms scream mercy, the tip dropping if she wasn’t careful. Did she really expect it to do something special? Beyond being special and physical regeneration she sword had never done anything before of any obvious merit, beside what her own actions pushed it through. Was expecting the sword to show her something a good idea to have.

 

According to the others, Iziz had fixed itself before and even then it hadn’t done anything special afterward. No magical words of wisdom from a suddenly talkative blade. No new moves. Perhaps her new found speed came from the blade. That shouldn’t be something she couldn’t do before, could she?

 

The cicada chirped relentlessly in the distant. Iziz made an extra special point not to me.

 

Why can’t you tell me what you’re doing here?”

 

I can,” Aki replied, scaring four out of one lives out of her. “I’m here to check that you’re studying.”

 

Aki! Geez. Don’t… just don’t… I might of killed you.”

 

You don’t kill me until you’ve shown improvement on your studies.” Aki wandered over to the books strewn on large balcony. Instantly she sighted the exercise book Natoko had been testing herself badly with. Natoko tried to look away.

 

“”No no no,” Aki cried out. “There’s no point in doing that.”

 

Doing what?” she asked, not full well.

 

“”Rubbing out what you get wrong and putting the right ones in.”

 

I didn’t-“

 

It’s meaningless,” the active girl shunted. “If you don’t acknowledge what you doing wrong how can you ever live in the future. You’ll just be hiding in the delusions of your mistakes.”

 

I’m just… I’m just a little-“

 

You even answered some of the ones you cheated on wrong.”

 

I what?” she replied, dropping her stance finally and coming over to check the papers. Aki showed her with a silent finger and Natoko clicked as she went over the long divisions.

 

She tried to sneer. “Well division is an unnecessary subject to learn anyway.

 

Well addition isn’t and you’ve got that one wrong too. How did you get the algebra one right and those wrong.”

 

I got that one right?”

 

Yes but you marked that you got it wrong. Natoko…”

 

It’s hard okay. I’m not a natural super genius like you okay I don’t just learn things the second they get entered into my brain.”

 

I don’t either. It’s not talent Natoko. It’s hard work.”

 

Oh bullcrap.” I have talent with the sword don’t i. That’s why I’m good at that.”

 

No it’s because you practice every-way.”

 

Because I have the talent.”

 

Just… The swords don’t matter. I thought you said you wanted to do better with these.”

 

I don’t want to. I have to. Or else I don’t stay Sagara’s retainer.”

 

His assistant.”

 

Whatever.” Natoko grabbed the book and turned away. She didn’t need this right now. She just wanted to practice.

 

Suddenly, in room ???b Raiko woke up.

 

It wasn’t the best of times to wake up, the American ninja boy of questionable ability currently playing her face with a damp cloth as he sought to remove sweat and amuse himself. Raiko awoke bolt upright her back bolting stiffly upright like a Frankenstein novel no one actually read.

 

Slowly her head turned towards Sagara, stiffly at first and still stiffly at second. By third she became barely aware of where she was. With wet lips and dry throat she croaked her next word. “Sagara?”

 

Hey Raiko. How’s it going? Good fight?”

 

Fight?” She blinked five times, a long pause between each one. “I was fighting.”

 

Sagara took this important time to not pay attention as the angel in his head started going along the correct procedures for what to do when an unconscious girl had awoken in a man’s arms. Putting it in was not one of the options being provided.

 

How. Are You. Feeling?” Sagara pronounced loudly before lifting his hand up and placing it firmly on her forehead. “you look like you’ve had some trouble.

 

The girl ignored him, even with half her vision obscured . “What was i… where was i…” She turned to him, not taking his hand with her. “I remember… the manGod.”

 

A tactical flare cascaded across the ears of all in the room and Raiko shrieked loudly. Overcome by where natural abilities, Sagara was inspired by the sudden idea to protect Raiko at all costs and covered her with his own body. Regretting it immediately as a large electrical charge force itself through his body, the boy was thrown across the bed as the girl began convulsing.

 

What’s happening?” Melissa said as she bolted through the door.

 

manGod!” Raiko started to scream. “manGod manGod.”

 

manGod?” Melissa repeated. “That’s what the Negotiator was talking about. Raiko. Can you-“ She froze in place, looking down. Her eyes stared at the demon knife, but they didn’t understand it. How a ninja couldn’t understand a blade in their ribcage shouldn’t have acquired too many scientists. Shock was an obvious answer.

 

Sagara? What are you-“

 

I didn’t mean to.,” he answered with a mild confusion. “The Sirynclou side is controlling me again. She wants protection.”

 

You moron. Fight it.”

 

I think it’s best if you leave. I can’t control it.”

 

No. If she’s talking about the manGod.” The blade pulled itself out and she gasped again.

 

I’m reasonably certain I’m about to aim again for your neck.”

 

Sagara!”

 

I’m to order you to leave now.” Sagara shouted over the screams.

 

Melissa scowled and disappeared. “Very well.”

 

And no hiding in illusions. Get away and make sure everyone else doesn’t come in.

 

The invisible ninja jumped out the room, leaving Sagara hanging onto the electric girl as she clamped onto him.

 

Okay. She’s gone. I don’t need to kill anybody. Sagara watched with a level of fascination reserved for stalkers as the hugged him tightly to her, trying to mash her body into his. Outside, a lightning bolt struck.

 

***

 

Shut up!”

 

That was the lightning, “ Aki replied.

 

I know that,” Natoko said, staring down at Iziz, trying to keep the focus on her sword. A hundred strikes. Just a hundred strikes was her goal. Maybe she could do some studying after that.

 

That’s weird though. There weren’t any clouds.” Natoko gripped the hilt tighter. She wanted to draw blood from her hands, to squeeze until the skin tore. She wanted Aki to see it and know how serious she was.

 

Natoko, do you think we should check this?” Argh. Why was she being so serious? Aki was never serious. She was so much easier to ignore back when her main concern was balancing on the wooden side rails. “The lightning girl must be doing this.”

 

It was even worse that she had a point. But no. Natoko was to practice. A hundred strikes. She should remain focused. Begin the practice. Make the strikes. She looked to Iziz’s point and gripped tight again. Her forearms tensed. The practice from earlier moaned through them.

 

Strike. She stepped forwards and pushed the sword down, failing to slice the air as Iziz cut to the side. Why did she have to bother with any of this? Studying. Schoolwork. She wasn’t book smart.

 

Natoko…”

 

The first drop of rain cracked around her nose.

 

Strike. That one felt worse. A samurai shouldn’t have to know stuff. Knowing maths was not important for protecting one’s master. Knowing physics was useless for striking down enemy demons.

 

Strike. Better! Focus more. Let it flow through. The rage will pass as the focus comes back. Strike. Strike. Strike. “Natoko.” Go away. Strike. Strike. Too far forward that time. Strike. Strike. Better again. Strike. “Natoko.”

 

Go away!” Rain falling faster now. Strike. Strike. Strike. Hilt’s dropping. Keep it firm. Don’t let the damp get to you. “Natoko!” Strike. Strike. Strike. The world is dark. The rain is heavy. Push past it. Raise the sword. Make the cut.

 

What’s wrong with you?” Hand on shoulder, gripping to turn.

 

Would you just-“ She span to turn with the pull, taking her sword and driving it around to Aki.

 

***

 

It’s inside of me Sagara. It got in and it stuck itself in me. Just a little bit. Just a little bit but that was all it needs. It’s inside of me.”

 

Sagara watched her with the calm of a rabbit as it wandered in front of an object moving sixty miles an hour and made out of car. “And what might that be?”

 

It’s it It’s it It’s it. That which no one speaks of, that which was not granted one name, that which was created by everyone. Don’t you see. We all wanted it and now we have it.

 

Raiko jumped out of his arms and fell to the floor, crushing her hands under her body. “And now it waits for us. It waits for us patiently. Politely. It oh so very nicely gives us the time we need before it devours our souls..” Her head slammed against the floorboard hard

 

You. Stop it. You chatter and chatter but you never help. They need you. She needs you. You could explain everything to them but all you do is talk to people who aren’t even there.”

 

Sagara looked around, finding no one being spoken to and taking a harsh beating to it. Feeling sore, the nothing skulked into a corner and tried to keep it to a bare minimum.

 

The room was silent for a moment. “You’re not Raiko, are you?”

 

She couldn’t remember. I couldn’t let her. If she remembered, she’d have been overwhelmed. The siryn’s song wasn’t enough for this man. I wasn’t enough, but I had to make do or else she wouldn’t be herself right now.” Raiko paused to look at Sagara, now breathing calmly as electric blue pulsed over her eyes. “I am the OniRai.”

 

You shouldn’t be here.”

 

What difference am I to the ones inside you? You are made up of five creatures Futabatei, including one I whose bond I share.”

 

In name but not family.”

 

Bloodkin to OniKage I am not, but our bond is a strong as matrimony. It is why you are drawn to her like this.”

 

You can’t speak to her. I’m not to allow it.”

 

I know. I know. I understand as perfect as a can. I am sharpness in life, young Futabatei. Beside, her love is taken now. A misguided maternal love.”

 

Sagara looked up “This subject is not important apparently. I should ask you of the manGod.”

 

I have no answers to give you. The battle was over with two screams. The siryn’s song and the Kingdom of Heaven played their symphonies, and Raiko was propelled across oceans.

 

Oceans. An she landed here?”

 

Not by chance. I could not save her easily. I grabbed onto this location by searching for my beloved, turned us to energy and let us land gently. But Raiko… she was- she was taken over by her demon lusts in the struggle. Even now I still cannot tell you if she is safe to awake.”

 

You said a Kingdom of Heaven attack. Was this an angel. If so we should find it and surrender me to…” Sagara stopped, shaking his head. “Sorry. I kinda forget this guy has his own personal agenda. Can’t let him conduct the flow of conversation so easily.”

 

Not a kingdom of Heaven attack no,” the one inside Raiko said. “But the same and stronger. It made Raiko’s mind a true human. A beast without the burden of knowledge or conscious. IT should lapse but until it does-“

 

Very well. We should let her rest.”

Raiko seemed to struggle. “No. We cannot. I… The manGod. We need to… manGod MANGOD.” Sagara’s clothes started to sizzle where she gripped him. He watched her as his apparently completely ineffective pain registering systems failed to acknowledge the mind numbing agony that started burning his flesh. “Shut up!”

 

Raiko lurched violently, dowsing Sagara in fluids. “Futabatei…. Beloved… even you angel. You must find the servant. The servant know all What needs to be known and what needs to be done.. Too weak in this body. It is impossible to tell- what it is, whether it needs to be stopped. If it can be stopped.. But we know this.. It opposes you. It stands in the way of the Balance and seeks your destruction.” Raiko stared at the dark shadows of his eyes. “Fight it, my beloved. Do not be taken by it.” It leaned forward, latching lips delicately onto his own, brushing gently in a grip so tight it locked him in place. She fell, her forehead rubbing down against his chin, back to sleep at last.

 

Fucking whore,” the old lady standing by the bed said.

 

***

 

Natoko didn’t dare take her eyes off the look Aki was giving her. In the rain she couldn’t tell if the girl was sweating or crying. Aki returned the look as the rain dribbled down into her eyes before they both looked down to the blade. By Aki’s neck it hovered, inches, no, millimetres away from the your girl’s jugular. Natoko felt her grip wobble. As Aki dared to open her mouth.

 

What’s wrong with you?” she said, trying to laugh it off. “Were you really going to…”

 

I-“ Natoko swallowed. “I don’t know.” It was hard to hold Iziz in this position for so long. IT felt heavy. “I… didn’t mean to.”

 

You’re scaring me, Natoko” Aki admitted, trying to eye the tip of the blade before looking back. Natoko couldn’t move an inch.

 

The thunder cracked loudly, distracting neither of them as the rain came down another notch faster. . Natoko felt like she was burning inside. Even now, she knew she held Aki’s life in her hands. Even without force, the blade was sharp enough to slice the skin of the neck.

 

Are-“ Aki swallowed too. “Are you scaring yourself?”

 

Natoko wanted to laugh for some reason. “A little bit.”

 

Do you think you can stop?”

 

I… I should be able to.” She saw Aki wait for her, knowing what she wanted her to do. Natoko held her position.

 

Why can’t you then?” Aki asked a few seconds later.

 

I’m getting to it.”

 

you can tell me, you know?” Aki said, her teeth chattering. “You can tell me anything.”

 

I can?”

 

Of course! You’re my best friend. I love you.”

 

Natoko hesitated. “I… I lo”

 

Don’t confess it right back,” Aki was quick to interrupt. “It sounds weird.”

 

I… sorry.”

 

Please… tell me what’s wrong?” Was Aki for real? How could she stay calm like this?

 

Natoko took a few deep breaths. Why was she still holding the sword up? She tried to shake her head clean without taking off her friend’s.

 

I-,” she started. “ was asked to kill Otsune today.”

 

What?”

 

No… i… I was asked to just let her die in front of me, and do nothing. I’m not sure I could have done anything, but I know I could have at least tried.” She reaffirmed her grip on Iziz. “Instead… I just- I just sat there.”

 

But Otsune i-“

 

She saved herself… without my help. Aki i…” The rain hid her in front of her friend. “I l-… I love you guys. I really do I know if you all were here, I’ll be sitting alone all day with no one to be with. I told myself I would always protect you guys. And yet… when I actually need to… i… i.”

 

You couldn’t help it.”

 

How do you know? You weren’t there!” she spat back, suddenly stopping herself as she realised the precarious position. She relaxed, bringing the sword down with a sigh so she wouldn’t have to look at Aki’s face. “What good is a samurai if one can’t protect those of the clan with all their power.”

 

Sounds to me you didn’t need to.”

 

But i-“

 

-did nothing wrong,” Aki cut in, now holding onto her. “It was a slip up. One mistake. How about all the times you have protected us? When the demons had captured me and Sarah. When we fought that Fire Demon at the tournament. Even when Sagara showed up and that tire thing went at us, who was it that was always at the front ready to stop it.”

 

But…” she paused. “You all only need to die once…”

 

And that’s going to happen regardless one day anyway. Come on.” Aki drew Natoko in for a hug as the much taller girl carried on sniffing away to herself, the shorter one trying to rock her back and forth.

 

Tell you what,” she said after a few moments of sniffing in the rain. “You protect everyone at Heavenly Springs with every ounce of your being, and I’ll always be here to protect you.”

 

Really?”

 

I like to think I’ve already been doing it. How many people have i had to kick for you?”

 

Sorry.”

 

No. No sorry. Don’t apologise for the hate of stupid people.”

 

The two stayed like this for a moment longer.

 

I’ll always be at your side.”

 

Along with Iziz.”

 

Yeah. Along with Iziz.”

 

***

 

Look at you. Presenting yourself. Filthy girl.”

 

Sakura’s day had been good until this moment. It had been another weekend with Alexis, spending time together, walking through the Springs and the town. Playing video games and watching television. She cooked for him again earlier. Made him a stew with the remaining vegetables of last week. He had enjoyed it immensely. With the couch to themselves, they had sat together for an hour revelling in their closeness. IT was probably that that convinced her to go with it and not long after before they were kissing. She had no idea what she was doing really, but it seems easy to learn. He seemed equally clueless,. Yet together , they were exhausting each other in a way that they only wanted to continued forever.

 

Then the elderly lady had appeared, and was now poking her with a walking cane.

 

What do you think this is, a brothel?” the old woman screamed at her, driving the stick between the two of them. Sakura was forced to stand up but fell back against the couch a moment later, a wedge driven between her and Alexis. “You’re still young, yet you want nothing but to be taken by this disgusting boy.”

 

Now hold on just a minute,” Alexis began, before the walking stick struck him across the chin.

 

You be quiet boy. I should turf you out and back to your mother. You girl.” Sakura tried to back pedal further into couch, squeezing herself between the cushions. The woman leered at her, bringing her face so the wart between her eyes looked like the largest nub Sakura had ever seen in the entire universe. Her breath smelt of wet pollen and stale tea. Sakura couldn’t speak. “You stay here at our leisure, and we tolerate it because we expect you to remain pure. Instead, we find you here presenting yourself like a common harlot, a filthy little whore. A-”

 

I think that’s enough, mam,” Alexis said, getting up and putting himself between Sakura and the crazy lady. “May I ask what you’re doing here.”

 

The woman replied with a crack of a slap that nearly sent Alexis back onto the couch. Stumbling he caught himself as he held his hand to his cheek. Taken aback, Sakura rushed to get to the other side of the couch, but was pushed back by the old lady as she thrust her stick between them.

 

Oh no you don’t Missy. This boy should know better than to speak that way to his elders, and if you think I’m just going to let you lay your slutty body over him, well mind you me!

 

Sakura found herself sitting back down. Who was this woman? She recalled Aki mentioning a few weeks ago that an old lady had gotten into the dormitory and was kicking up a fuss. Was this the same lady? Finding herself sitting down and trying to stammer out an apology, Sakura had no choice but to let the woman blabber on. Alexis meanwhile was-

 

Don’t you look at hm. You look at me. I’m talking to you, so you pay me some respect and look at me, you stupid little girl.”

 

What was going on? Sakura couldn’t take it. This woman had just come out of nowhere and was shouting at them. And they weren’t even doing anything wrong? It wasn’t like she was being some sinful slut. She loved Alexis, and he her.

 

Oh don’t think tears are going to help you girl. In my time, you did something wrong you accepted your punishment, not roll up on the floor.” The old woman was spitting on her. She could feel the specks flying over her face as each hateful word flew out at her. She wanted to run and hide. The woman was ignoring Alexis and he seemed to be taking this as a good thing.

 

Get off me, bitch.”

 

I said cease your harsh language girlie.” Sakura turned with the others to see Sarah sanding by the door struggle, her short golden hair being latched onto by another woman currently yanking her into place. “Are these young ‘uns giving you grief as well, Satoko?”

 

The original elderly lady seemed to freeze as she took in the newcomers. “Hosami,” she said after a brief period looking infirm despite her rage. “Who you got there.”

 

Caught this little blighter trying to sneak out,” the other woman said, trying and succeeding in dragging Sarah over to the couch with the others. “”I can tell you she was up to no good she was. Who knows what she had planned.”

 

I keep telling you. I wasn’t doing anything.” The young girl struggled in painful vain to be free from the woman’s tight grip. “Who the fuck are you? Get off me.”

 

It doesn’t matter who we are, little Missy. We are your elders and you will do as we say.

 

***

 

Natoko held Aki close as the woman’s slap still stung her cheek. Her reflexes felt top notch since the moment the woman had wandered into their lives, yet she had still let it hit her. Part of her knew she could have easily avoided it but doing so felt… cheeky.

 

Get away. Get away from each other,” the woman shouted at them, seemingly unconcerned for the rain soaking her thoroughly. “I heard what you were saying. It’s disgusting the thoughts you youths have.”

 

Mam, I’m sorry if. Another crack. It would have been rude to dodge.

 

don’t you talk back to me like that again. You abuse what we’ve given you here with your sordid little trysts with little foreign girls. Do you honestly think you could get away with it?”

 

With what?” Natoko stammered after a few seconds of trying to hide behind her rain slicked hair. “we haven’t-“

 

Don’t give me excuses, young lady. I’m not one to fall for such honeyed words. I’ve had more men approach me than you’ve had stiff drinks. And I turned them all down. You know why, because that’s what a real lady does.”

 

Natoko looked around. Was this a joke? It had to be a joke. A badly timed move on behalf of someone who brought their aunt to stay with them the weekend. There couldn’t really be an old lady here just shouting at them. That was stupid.

 

You pay attention to me,” the woman said with a slap so hard it was more like a back fist. “Whatever you’ve got going on with this girl you drop it now. I want her packed, out of the fort and back on her way to her own country within the hour. Don’t you disobey me girlie.”

 

Hey guys,” Otsune said. “What are you… doing?”

 

No one moved for a second. Natoko watched as Otsune, followed by Fujiko and four handfuls of drinks and snacks (plus one floating ball of steam) registered the new person with mild confusion. The woman stepped towards her and started to slap. Otsune tried to intercept her with a polite bow but was met halfway.

 

Com to join them have we?” the woman sneered. “Thought you could have a party on this sacred ground, did you? Well-“ she stopped only to approach Fujiko and give her a slap as well. “From now on this ends. I’ll confiscates this.” The woman snatched the bottle out of Otsune’s hand, ripping it from her grip with another backhand as Otsune instinctively held on A woman should only be drinking at the invitation of a male. And as for this-“

 

Natoko’s world went white as the woman picked up Iziz, snatching the sheath away from her loose hand. “What are you thinking? Carrying something like this around with you. A lady of your measure should not even dare carry such an instrument. Who do you think you are?>” Natoko felt her heart beat.“

 

May I ask just who you think you are,” Otsune said defiantly, making Natoko cringe in terror as the woman turned her large beady eyes on the girl. “you’re not from the dormitory. And I don’t think-“ The woman slapped Otsune for her troubles, cutting her off completely.

 

Such insolence,” she said, taking a moment to spit on the floor beneath Otsune. “From now on you’ll all be confined to your rooms unless called for. And I hope-“ she paused, looking up carefully. Natoko was a few seconds behind but clicked quickly. It had stopped raining above them. Which might have been normal if steam wasn’t now rising from just above their heads.

 

Girls…” Otsune said, holding her cheek as she began bleeding from it. “We’re running. Aki, the sword.”

 

Got it,” she said dashing past the woman and around the girls as she headed down for the steps. The others didn’t wait to say anything as they proceeded to sprint off, leaving Natoko with the old fuming lady.

 

You…. You whores.”

 

Natoko failed to suppress a guilty grin. And then ran off after her friends.

 

Why are we running?” Natoko asked once she had gotten down the stairs and caught up. They stopped in a corridor, Fujiko quickly falling against the wall to catch her breath back.

 

To get some distance,” Otsune said. “What was with that woman?”

 

I suppose…” Fujiko breathed heavily, “it’s what we get from being a dormitory that never mans its reception.”

 

Even so,” Otsune continued. “It’s not like it’s easy to just walk up here. The steps aren’t exactly accessible for the handicapped.”

 

You’re kinda misjudging the elderly there.”

 

Yeah. I saw on TV an old mister who could walk on his hands and swim across the ocean.”

 

No I know. But she didn’t exactly look physically active, did she. She looked like a small breeze could take her out.”

 

You’re wrong,” Natoko said, as she started walking down the rest of the corridor for the next turn. “She was able to stand shouting at us in that heavy downpour and still make herself clear.”

 

How does that matter,” Fujiko asked. “Okay a little water maybe couldn’t take her out but still Gah!”

 

Natoko swung round, already seeing the enemy as it loomed towards Fujiko. Her blade ready she covered the length of the corridor like a mouse down a tunnel, reaching the quarry and unleashing the sleek-

 

Natoko no!”

 

She stopped, her blade ready to strike the opponent. She received a hearty slap to the face for her efforts.

 

You stupid fool. You dare to attack me?”

 

What?” Natoko said out of reflex. This person was different. Another elderly lady but tall, regal and eloquent compared to the short stature of the previous woman. She looked just as mad though.

 

I’ve half a mind to call all your parents. You think you can just go running through the streets playing with weapons like that. You’ll have someone’s eye out.

 

I’m sorry,” Otsune interrupted. “Who are you and what the hell is going on./”

 

Well I’ll be,” a voice from behind them called out. “The nerve. Don’t let them treat you like that Chie.”

 

Young woman like this need to be shown proper discipline,” another one, a lady short with a crooked back who tugged on Otsune’s hair with such speed that the girl nearly fell over backwards.

 

Please get off,” Otsune said through gritted teeth.

 

Don’t you order me around. First you’re going to apologise to Chie, and then we’re returning you to your master. After that, we’ll see what he has to-“

 

A small ball of fire distracted everyone. Otsune slipped free.

 

Okay, we’re running again. Faster and further this time.” She bolted off without waiting for further agreement and soon the other three chase after her.

 

A safe distance away, or what felt like a safe distance when running from the elderly, Natoko took a breath to speak.

 

We should call someone,” said Natoko.

 

Good idea,” breathed Otsune heavily. “Who?”

 

I don’t know. Who do you call in situations like this?”

 

There aren’t situations like this. We’re being attacked by the elderly.”

 

Is this an attack?” inquired Fujiko.

 

The inside of my cheek is bleeding. It’s an attack.”

 

But they’re old people.”

 

So it’s a stupid attack that seems to serve no purpose than to be stupid

 

Do not run in the corridors,” another shouted at them as they quickly sidestepped her, each girl utterly a quick ‘sorry’ as they sprinted past out of nothing but pure reflex. Natoko found herself bowing a little.

 

So do we get shotguns?”

 

They’re not zombies, Fujiko!” Otsune said a little alarmed, but more how for a moment it seemed the most practical idea. “Last time this happened we called the police, but that was for one woman. “Five-“

 

Whores.”

 

At least six may be a little much for the two officers they’re likely to send out.” They reached the lobby which was luckily elderly free. The others stopped to catch their breath. Running and talking was apparently exhausting to the two older girls. Natoko felt fine.

 

Area is clear,” she called out, scanning nothing from the other doors plus the balcony above.

 

Hey everyone.” All four girls screamed loudly at the next intruder, Natoko already bringing her sword down to bear on the newcomer, stopping short of seeing the short, scruffy looking form of Futabatei Gen, currently dressed in a cleaning smock.

 

Mr Landlord,” Natoko replied, not in a hurry to remove her hilt from against the base of his chin. “What are your intentions here?”

 

Erm…” The man looked around, possibly checking to see looks on the other girls. “Cleaning. Definitely cleaning…” He paused as she waited. “Is there something you wish to inquire about, Miss Yamanaka.”

 

No.” Realising the others may not be approving of her threats, she went to rest her sword.

 

Wait a sec,” Otsune started, Natoko lifting her blade back into bludgeoning position. “How long have you been in the lobby Gen. “

 

Erm.” Gen shifted uncomfortably. “A few hours I guess. I mean, I do work until late most nights keeping this place spotless for you girls.” HE tried to get off his tiptoes but Natoko opted not to let him. “I am glad you girls are so appreciative of my work.”

 

Let him down, Natoko,” Otsune said.

 

Aw,” grumbled Fujiko and Aki in unison.

 

And we’ve had no visitors right?”

 

Erm…” Gen started squeezing his hands together. “Well, Miss Yamada came in early, with a man she most certainly assured me was her brother staying for a few days while he’s here on business, although I dare say siblings usually aren’t that close- or grope each other. Well I suppose some must do and-“

 

No… elderly ladies then?”

 

What? Erm… no.”

 

So they didn’t come through the main entrance?” Fujiko said, picking up on something. Natoko felt a little clueless.

 

They could have come in through one of the side entrances,” Otsune continued. “But they’re all supposed to be locked after seven. You id lock them, didn’t you Gen?”

 

O-of course. I do so… in service of those I watch over. The dormitory would be unsecure if I didn’t, and then who knows what manner of… of perverse being would sneak in at night in a building full of ladies.” Gen shut up quickly.

 

Yeah,” commented Otsune. “Not at all disturbing in either phrasing or clear underlying intention. You know-“ Gen wasn’t looking at her any more. Otsune seemed to follow his gaze, freezing as she looked behind Natoko.

 

Natoko became still. Under control. Carefully she turned around, waiting to feel the full blast of another old woman screaming obscenities at her. The etched wooden face that appeared before her caused her to react blindly. She went to swig her sword but stopped in mid-step as she saw the full lobby now full of wooden beings attached on strings, slowly twisting and turning about on the spot.

 

The elderly turned to face the five.

 

***

 

On the roof, Melissa watched the white bottle carefully. This stuff was hard to get here. Or was it? It didn’t help that she didn’t know entirely what she was looking for in this country. The Japanese must have some right. Oh sure they had the mild stuff but pouring water onto her wounds wasn’t going to sanitize any wounds. She had needed vodka. And hopefully, she had vodka. The boy at the convenience store had tried to be helpful about it, and seemed to know what she meant.

 

She figured there would at least be a Russian brand on the shelf.

 

Her damp bloody bandages already placed to the side, Melissa poked the wound carefully. Sagara’s demons had been neutered a long time ago fortunately. He had been trained never to use them against humans anyway and against other demons the toxin s that secreted Grimlock’s tallous?? fangs would have been useless. She hissed quietly to herself, flipping the top of the bottle off before hesitating.

 

In one swift movement she took a gulp. Yes! That was vodka alright. She recognised the rebellion taking place in her throat from that time five years ago where she had sneaked into Lord Futabatei room’s against the express permission of the council, where Tenma store the liquor supply and made the fifteen year old girl drink with her all night whether she liked it or not.

 

She doused the wound, ignoring the screaming that surrounded her before quickly working to re-bandage the wound IT had stabbed her in her chest just above where most people assumed the heart was. A bit closer to the shoulder and she would have been in a world of searing agony.

 

If anything she should have been glad it was Greynock. A sanitised demonic blade was the least likely object to be infected. This would be fine for now.

 

Now there was the other problem.

 

Are you listening to me you degenerate foreigner,” the elderly lady beside her shouted. Melissa was tempted to just zone her out. With her illusions she could just make the woman’s voice disappear but that would have been mostly irresponsible for her to do.

 

You come to this country and we accept you as our guest, and this is how you repay u? By floundering about on the rooftop-while you deal with your own wounds. We have servants for that. And yet you have the audacity to deny them their job sake to just fix it up yourself. What are you? A trained medical professional. Why I have half a mind to-“

 

The woman cut off in mid rant. Okay, so she was a little irresponsible. The woman’s presence wasn’t making sense though. She herself had been at the store bleeding heavily so she had missed how they had come in. There was only one easy entrance to Heavenly Springs and that was up a hundred and eight steps. Even then, this woman had just appeared on the roof. They were illusions, and from what she could tell they were human beings. Elderly, shriveled and tiny old woman who looked like they didn’t have the muscular endurance to make it across the room, let alone the highest part of the dormitory, on the spire overlooking the west side of the building.

 

And their actions were just as ludicrous as they were confusing. This one seemed just intent to shout at her and had been doing so for a few minutes. What did she actually want. If she could understand it would help. Maybe she should contact Sagara and-

 

Rolling away, Melissa was already blocking the woman as the liver spot encrusted hand took a swing at her. The woman’s target was Melissa’s face, and she screamed what must have been at least three Japanese swear words when she was denied before going again. Melissa backed away fully this time, bringing some distance between herself and the woman The attacks were hard to judge as violent. Melissa got the distinct impression she was about to be given some kind of ear-pulling related ache.

 

You little bitch. You get back here.”

Still not understanding nor wishing to comply, Melissa assessed her options. She should go to Sagara. At the very least she would need a translator for this woman to get a scope of what her demands were. IT dawned on her for the first time that the woman may just be asking for help in the worst way possible.. Alternatively this may just be yet another one of those old people like that one that had wandered in that time she was making the Japanese girl believe the OniHono was invading.

Listen,” she said in non-Japanese English. “We need to go down so we can-“Letting out an ungraceful whelp, Melissa dodged to the side as the woman again lurched forward , this time apparently aiming to slap her. Melissa spun round to regain her fix on the woman, only to find she was gone. With a gulp in her heart she rushed forward, peering over the side of the rooftop before cringing.

 

The elderly lady lay at the bottom in a crumpled heap. “Well, that’s annoying,” she said, not intending to have spoken at all. She looked around to see if any of the residents were about and seeing it was clear dropped down next to the body.

 

She hadn’t meant for that to happen. Civilian casualties should be kept to zero for the moment as far as she had been told, plus the woman might have had something to tell her. She glanced around. She’d need access to the dormitory’s furnace.

 

Stepping away, she felt her ankle shift back a few inches. Trying to shift it right back, she felt a grip tighten, her skin being crushed by five bony fingers. She looked down.

 

Make you fall, will you girly. You’ll regret that!”

 

***

 

In the lobby, Otsune felt an urge to hold her breath. This wasn’t right. There was ten of them now and some were male finally, not that that was an issue really.

 

Before her, the mass of elderly stood in what couldn’t be called a defensive position, scattered around in three small groups and taking their time to get to their quarry. Altogether it appeared the only damage they could bring was perhaps to a doctor’s office on a somewhat busy day. Watching carefully, she waited as one of the ladies approached her, an average looking, possibly middle ages woman with her coarse hair tied back and a blue kimono on that fitted her gracefully.

 

Otsune tried to go first. “Welcome. How may we-“ she got out as the first slap struck her cold against the cheek. She tried to roll with it, now expecting it. She took it and tried turning back without scowling. She possibly failed.

 

It seems we have angered you in some way,” she continued. “Please, perhaps we can sort some refreshments out and talk thi-“ The woman kicked her leg with a quick thrust, taking Otsune to the ground and cracking her knee against the thick tatami mats. Keeping her balance, Otsune was met for her efforts with another strike against the cheek.

 

You do not speak until you are spoken too, young lady,” the woman leered down at Otsune with a venomous glare. Otsune didn’t hesitate to return it.

 

I will speak whenever the fuck I like!” Above them all Occam burst into sight, its bright flame filling the once poorly lighted lobby into daylight, a localized sun meters above their heads. Behind her, her friends backed away a few steps, Gen running for it into the next room without a second’s hesitation nor thought for the womenfolk.

 

Biting her lip, Otsune got herself to breath. Controlling the little ball of total incineration was not a thing she had learned yet and her emotions didn’t seemed to help. Luckily she was only dealing in heat. No force.

 

It didn’t seem to matter though, the old folk just stood there, still glaring at the girls.

 

Okay. That’-“

 

Get up. I said get up.” The woman wasn’t giving Otsune a choice. Tugging at her ear, she dragged to standing position. “All of you follow me. Otsune tried to pull away but was met with a sharp pain and strong grip. “All of you follow me. We shall administer your discipline elsewhere.” Looking up to Occam, she desperately willed him to stay calm, , trying not to trip in the process. The ball just floated there, the heat now getting to her friends, who were frozen to the sot yet sweating profusely.

 

Eyes forwards. Come on. Come on.” Glancing Natoko as she swung around, she saw the girl’s hand hovering nervously over her sword. Now this she couldn’t blame her for not attacking What were they going to do? Beat up old people who were probably over capable of giving them just a few bruises. No Perhaps it was better to play this out. Where were they going to take them  anyway?

 

Okay okay. We’ll go with you. Just… please, stop pulling on my ear.” Hoping that that sounded like really bad acting, Otsune was met with a simple grunt instead.

 

You expect me to let you go after you prove you can’t be trusted. The nerve of you youngster. No we will-“ Otsune turned to her friends and beckon before she was pulled through the door, “see to it you all attend your punishment, even if it is against your will. You should know better than this. Courtesans and servants are not to go above their place.” Behind her, the others were keeping up, the large group of the elderly keeping pace behind them.

 

Occam didn’t stay behind but seemed to calm down enough to keep up as well. Otsune was forced to lurch forward to accommodate the height of the woman pulling on her earlobe. This was crazy? Why was she allowing this beyond the reason not simply scorching the woman into ashy nothingness.

 

There had to be something wrong here, beyond the silliness. Occam’s exhausted her friend’s in seconds, yet these guys only seemed to be spurred on, if they even noticed the small ball of incandescent flame threatening to incinerate their walking canes.

 

A sharp look back revealed that Fujiko and the others were being herded so they couldn’t escape, though Gen appeared to have gotten away with no one chasing them. Were they only interested in teaching their lesson to the inferior females? It did feel they had gone back a few steps in the progress of society.

 

Pushing the sliding door through with a thud, the dragging lady tore into the lounge area with a speed that belied her small body and small steps.

 

Tsunade?” a voice called out. Otsune recognised it as Sakura. She couldn’t lift her head right now. The woman readjusted her grip to Otsune’s long luscious hair as they waltzed in and was refraining her from taking anything more than a bow.

 

Keep calm, Sakura. Do you know where-AH!” Her neck jostledshit Otsune was pushed against the kitchen table and forced to limp off it like a rag doll. No one seemed to be in a particular rush to help her. Didn’t they think she had a plan? Because she didn’t!

 

Ha. Having fun there bitch?” Otsune heard Sarah cry out. The girl took delight in her suffering for a few laughing seconds longer before screaming with her own jolt of pain.

 

You do not point at others child,” another voice announced “Even if it is to scum like that one.” Sarah screamed, high pitched and violent. Otsune’s vision was obscured by a series of irregular lines embossed in the wood. When Sarah shut up, everything went silent for a moment.

 

Is everyone here,” a man called out. Otsune tried to get more air to her ear. It wasn’t anyone she knew. It still sounded old though.

 

There are sure to be a few more,” a lady replied. “But I am certain they shall be brought to us shortly.”

 

Good.” Silence for three seconds. “We shall extract the punishment of these servants now.”

 

Oi,” Fujiko called out. “Just what have we done?” Otsune mashed her face on the wooden table as she attempted to flinch, the loud clap against bone being only one thing.

 

She struggle against the bony sinew that could only come after years of repeated aging to grab sight of the spectacle to the right of her. Fujiko had been knocked to the floor by the attack and the others were looking restless. All confused, the girls huddled together around Natoko in a confusingly necessary attempt to remain safe.

 

The male speaker, walking around the lounge now, could only have looked less impressive if he were rotting the flesh off his short, bald head. Even then the decaying flesh may have looked a bit of dignified as he lurched and jerked his body over to where the wide screen television sat, the unfortunate pride and joy of most of Heavenly Spring’s consumerist residents..

 

With a swat that should not have been a swot and surely could not have been a swat where one was a forty four inch wide screen high definition television and the other the back of a hand missing three fingers, the man brushed the television aside, brushing it across the room and into the wall where it shattered much to the disappointment of four of the girl sand possibly herself if the movie she had watched last night was not put back in its case properly. Next without hesitation the man pushed his hand casually through the wooden boards of the wall and with the effortless ease that could only come from opening an unobstructed door, open a unobstructed mahogany door. Otsune’s first thoughts on the subject were to the endless black spiral that appeared on the other side and the small pulse of decompression that she felt as it tried to change the pressure of the room. The second thought was the realization that it was a mahogany door.

 

No. No!” shouted Sarah, quick to squirm with the threat that was the cold embrace of possible he outer reaches of space. The fact that the pressure changed and they weren’t dead from it told Otsune this was not space, but that didn’t mean she was about to skip happily along.

 

You will all spend your time thinking over the results of your misdoing inside the Chamber of Loneliness,” the man informed them with a clear, strong voice that felt like it wanted to come out as a mumble. “And will do so for ten days.” Behind the man, a skull floated across unaided by any accompany body or instrument.. “Because of the nature of your misdoings, and to teach you a further lesson, all air shall be removed from the chamber, just as soon as Hisami is able to get the air remover switched back on, as a lesson for you to ponder over following sin in your hearts.” Otsune tried to look around from her head grinding position, but saw no one making a move to fix anything.

 

Should we wait?” the woman holding her asked.

 

No, no. Throw them in now. We’re are a little busy.”

 

Otsune felt herself being lifted up as she was led to the door. “Hey, hold on a second?” The elderly ignored her, pushing her strengths that couldn’t be contained in small people like this

 

Get off me,” Sarah, being the closest behind Sakura and her boyfriend was being led in first. Kicking and jumping, she held herself back as she pushed against her captor. The silver haired woman lifted her up even higher until she was dangled by her hair, causing the little girl to scream at a pitch rendering the all deaf for three seconds. Edmond called out in the meantime.

 

Wait please,” she said, stopping them all and shocking herself in the process. “I’ll go. Spare the others

 

In a blur, the little girl pushed against her attacked. A strand of silver flashed in Otsune’s eyes as all turned to see the little girl’s captor dropping her, taking a few steps back until the wall stopped her and glaring at the red coated switchblade now embedded firmly in her lower abdomen.

 

Sarah, what have you done?”

 

Oh come on,” the little ten year old girl shouted back, as if she had been horribly wronged and was sure it was the universe’s fault. “You’re about to be thrown into space, and I’m the one who’s doing things wrong.. Why do you always have to blame me?”

 

You stabbed her,” Otsune repeated, just in case the fault was not obvious.

 

And now she’s-“ The little girl stopped in mid-sentence, her lines of stammering silence to be quickly joined by Otsune. I those few moments, the simple act of checking the health and status of the victim had occurred to neither of them. IT was only when the woman, her noble bone cheeks as stern as ever, had once again taken her hold upon Sarah’s hair that they realised she wasn’t quite out of the game yet.

 

You silly little girl,” the woman berated. “After all I’ve done for you this is the thanks I get?”

 

B-b-b-utt…” Sarah’s blabbering incoherence was not something Otsune could blame her for. T was not as if the small, easy to conceal switchblade had simply hit a well-placed book of the lord, or had simply proved too blunt or brittle to make any impact besides piercing the woman’s yukata. The woman who was now lifting Sarah high enough to take her off her feet was definitely bleeding, but it was not the crimson dye that was expected to escape from unexpected lacerations.. The black bile that was now ejecting itself in spurts and permanent damaging the varnished wooden floor was definitely more for mechanical machines than it was organic. The oil, also taking its moment to ruin Sarah’s expensive branded trainers that Otsune did not remember buying the girl stopped after a few more mountainous gulps onto the floor.

 

I believe it’ll be more suitable to have this one thrown in first,” the woman said, a murmur of agreement coming out the lips of all the other elderly. Otsune was about to shout something to her ward’s defence where the bony fingers returned over her mouth and shut her up. Sarah, for her part, scream violent and once again began kicking and scratching with all her pre-adolescent might as the woman began slowly to tear on her scalp in her efforts to get the girl to the swirling vortex that lay beyond the door, but it was in vain as the older woman now appeared unstoppable on her pursuit to the door.

 

In a frantic last ditch effort, Otsune found herself trying to bite on the finger of her own captor, but the woman merely clenched her fingers tighter and prevented Otsune from reaching skin. Around her now the others were either standing docile in place forgetting their existence as active teenage girls or simply looking away for fear of the inevitable

 

It was then with a final loud pitched scream that Sarah finally announced her intentions of not giving a shit anymore and reached to reclaim her switchblade just as the elderly lady lifted her up an extra foot and a half to hover face to face with the little girl the moment she was thrown into the vortex. Sarah responded by stabbing the lady right between the eyes in what was possibly a bad aim. As the woman reeled back from the initial assault the young girl did not deter and continued to stab furiously away at the respectable older woman.

 

You stop that right now,” was the woman’s response as the blade tore into her lip and lacerated itself right through her cheek. “you’ll have someone’s eye out with that.” The last words were accompanied by the right eye exploding into the same black bile as before as the switchblade tore straight through the pupil and deep enough to, what was looking less than likely on the simple pretext to not being there, start hitting brain tissue.

 

All stood silent for a few moments as the little girl fell down on the of the old lady screaming bloody murder as she attempted to commit bloody murder. The woman did nothing on her part to prevent this anymore except point accursedly at Sarah from the twisted position she had fallen into and it wasn’t until the blade entered her neck and released a sharp spring-loaded twang which, in an instant, tore off the last vestiges of non-mutilated skin around the neck of the woman and jettisoned it across the room.

 

Only with this did the young girl seemed relieved of her murderous intent and stop raining blows down upon the , Otsune was completely uncertain, dead woman. As more of the black bile substances emerged from the head of the woman so too did a number of cogs and bolts, now apparently loosened from the attack. Curiosity getting the better of her, the girl turned herself around and tried peering into the body of the woman.

 

Holy shit,” she said. “I think he’s a doll.”

 

The girl was quickly cut short of any other pronouncement of obvious statements as two more of the delivery people grabbed her each by an arm and raised up towards the door. Otsune decided this was enough and focused on her little friend. Her first act was to have Occam simply burn in the middle of the room in a silly little attempt to remove the oxygen from the room. In the fifteen seconds he burned, all in the room stopped to observe the flame, now apparently in full visibility of all those who couldn’t see him before either. The bright yellow light glow brightly, raising the temperature of the room to what Otsune was trying to desperate will past boiling point. Though she made sure nothing was touched she saw the effect as the residents of the dormitory started to try and take steps back, their foreheads quickly emanating sweat and panting under the strain of the sudden heat wave. With a sudden lurch she broke free of the hand covering her mouth and watch her captor, quickly marking each of the fourteen intruders that had dared trespass on the Heavenly Springs dormitory before confirming that not a single one of them were sweating.

 

Natoko,” she called over to the sword girl, who seemed to have caught on.

 

Understood!” the samurai called out, unsheathing her sword.

 

***

 

It’s not like I don’t know how to do such things,” Melissa said, pacing the corridors in plain sight, fingers digging deep into the skull of the puppet before her, crushing the contents and leaving them discarded on the floor with the same respect one would toss a bag of garbage out a moving car. “I do. It’s just-“

 

What were you thinking?” another shouted at her. “To crush the head of one you owe so much to. I should-“ This one’s head just plain fell off, dropping to the floor and bouncing a few steps. Melissa took the run up and volleyed it into another as it approached.

 

-getting past the language barrier.” They were incredibly weak. The life size dolls were made of timber wood. Strong in itself, but the joints between the pieces served little purpose in terms of defence. Ripping the elderly to shreds was becoming more a challenge in creativity above any potential present danger. She only had to overcome her moral judgment, and the rest was a slaughterhouse..

 

Turning the kick into a sprint, notions of perhaps having a bit too much fun with this entered her brain for a split second before the grease than once ran the puppet served in making the sixty something woman into the perfect wakeboard as Melissa steamed across the hallway of the west wing and crashed both shoulders into three triplet ladies with white face paint on. Flipping round them and grabbing the two on the outside, she brought their heads together, not giving the slightest thought to the one in-between as it turned to pulp and sawdust.

 

Come on,” she shouted. “It’s in here.”

 

The true threat to the night hummed menacingly in the corner of the room.

 

I could just smash it I know,” she said to Sagara trailing behind and looking a little upset at not getting chance to join in the massacre. “But the situation could be delicate. I’d like to know cutting this off will cut the source off completely before we play at smashing it.

 

Sagara nodded, kneeling down to approach the infernal machine.

 

***

 

Not caring for any hope of lady like grace now, Natoko braced her sword and went for the nearest one. Feeling the fire burn within her, she roared as she approached the first woman who had approached her and Aki on the roof. What were these creatures? It didn’t matter. No one insults and humiliates her friends and doesn’t get sliced in half for their trouble

 

The blade shot out and passed through the woman, who took a few seconds to try and move some more in her pursuit to grab one of the others and perhaps scold them again for looking too frightened, when gravity took over and pulled her to the floor in two halves.

 

The black bile began pouring out of the robotic creature. How were they robots? Natoko wasn’t sure she cared. Two more were too her right. She stabbed her sword forwards into the first ones necks, pushing all the harder forwards to impale the second as well. Their mouths opened in unison in an attempt to berate, before Natoko flicked her wrist and their necks ripped away from them to join the other parts on the floor.

 

Natoko returned her blade, letting it leave again immediately to meet the only male in the group. To save him for last might not be a smart move if he were the leader but she couldn’t help but notice, as she tore through the shoulder blade of the one holding Sakura with enough force to knock her away and still have enough swing in her step to bisect the rotten creature, that none of them were particularly making a move against her. “You dare slice your elders in half, you little br-“ one got as far as saying before bearing witness to the powerful mathematical equation of one body minus one head equals the landlord’s beautiful crouch all ruined, much to Natoko’s secret sniggering side. Beyond that, none were attacking.

 

Or making any attempt to defend themselves. Natoko would have been hard pressed to justify her actions were anyone to suggest perhaps this was going a bit too far. Perhaps, she thought as her blade pocketed itself back in its sheath, sprung out again and a flash step that took her across the room and introduced five robots to a case of permanent system malfunction, it would be best to save one for questioning. Or at least studying. She turned gracefully and bopped the next nearest on the top of its stern looking head, the base of her blade clanging off a metal plate.

 

Iziz! Her eyes lit up suddenly She had to be careful. After last time, the extent of Iziz’s damage wasn’t known. How could she be so foolish to swing it with abandon like that. What if his regeneration was a temporary thing? The next strike could be its fragile last.

 

The woman grabbed her wrist unexpectedly. Shit. The woman’s sudden movement pushed her a few steps back and she suddenly became aware of just how close she was to the space door. She wasn’t that close a moment ago, but with her blade being squeezed out of her grasp by a surprisingly strong old lady, Natoko found herself quick to grab the door frame.

 

You worthless slut,” the woman yelled in her ear. “You kill and you main but what good do you do yourself. You’re a pathetic lump of flesh and everyone knows it. Why do you think no one trusts you with anything except murder.” Natoko felt herself tipping as the woman snarled in her face, droplets of drool shooting from her edorded?? lips as they both lost balance together. you’re not even good enough to please the men. No wonder you’re still a worthless virgin, even if you do spread your legs for the first man you see.”

 

Natoko wilted. She didn’t have the leverage here. Over the tip of the precipice she dared to take a look at the single floating skull far in the distance, its beady eyes staring in a completely different direction to her.

 

What will you do when no one needs you any-“ the woman croaked, the switchblade pushing through her throat and out the other side. Suddenly a black spray filled Natoko’s eyesight and she found herself clutching to things even tighter as her vision obscured.. Croaking, she felt a struggle before her, followed by a sudden dead weight and then nothing.

 

The nothing dragged out for twenty seconds longer, Natoko still dangling on the precipice of oblivion and running out of strength in her fingers.. With her other hand still holding her blade wiping her eyes clean was simply fatal. With a muscle murdering groan, she began to lift herself up, and seriously hoped that she wasn’t hanging off the wrong side of the door.

 

Falling onto a non-oblivion wooden surface, she immediately slipped in more black robot bile and crashed her chin into the floor. Feeling Iziz hilt get quickly soaked, she scrambled to regain her footing, failing immediately and being left with the only option of sitting there in the liquid.

 

Her eyelids hiding the world, Natoko scrambled to wipe her eyes on the driest bit of clothing she could feel. She wouldn’t be wearing these for training again. Her eyesight returned. There was talking people going on without her.

 

Where did you even get the knife from?”

 

Oh I have a knife. She carries around a giant knife everywhere she goes.”

 

She’s not the point here,” the blurry form of Otsune shouted back. ‘Just what are you doing carrying a knife around.”

 

What do you care?” the little blur shouted back. “It’s gone now anyway.”

 

That’s…” Otsune growled, probably to herself. “That’s also not a point Sarah. Listen, why do you even feel the need to carry a knife around?”

 

I don’t have to answer any of your question? You’re only my guardian. You’re not my dad.”

 

That’s not important. But you see if-“

 

Screw you.” People were becoming clear now She got enough of her field of view back to see Sarah slide through oil and shove herself hard into Natoko’s shoulder before storming off again.

 

Otsune groaned loudly in frustration another time.

 

Why are you getting hung up on this?” a lazy voice asked, Fujiko walking into blurry distance.

 

I don’t… it’s just…No. You’re right. Let’s focus on the now? Just what the hell was this all about”

 

well old women did appear to be shouting at us,” Fujiko stated. “I’d say that was about usual for living in this village.”

 

Yes, but last we checked, they didn’t explore into puppet parts on contact with weapons.”

 

Well to be fair, we never exactly tried to whole evisceration angle to the crazy old codger scenario that happened on every trip to the tram stop. Hell as far as I’m concerned, this should be our number one method for dealing with all people who piss us off.”

 

If only I could.” Otsune knelt by one of the old people. “But what changed tonight? What caused them to actually come to the dorm? They’ve never done that before.” The woman went silent for a second or two. “Wait… Could it be…” Natoko heard and possibly saw rummaging from the woman on one of the dead robots. Seizing a face, she started to rip away at its remaining skin, ripping off like pasty wallpaper.

 

These are those marionette from the forest!” she exclaimed. “Look,” she said, without concern for its attachment to the body. It’s the same type of walnut wood and everything.”

 

How do you know its walnut wood?”

 

Practice,” Otsune examined the head some more, which to Natoko looked more like staring at it in the hopes it would explode with answers. “So the elderly folk around here were these marionettes. I wonder if that means the ones we saw in the forest were some kind of prototypes.”

 

Or possibly rejects.”

 

Or possibly rejects, true. Though again what does that mean?” The chasm once contained by the old woman’s head caught her eye. “Is that…” The other watched, fascinated at the sudden excitement brought by their friend, as she began pawing the skull of the marionette and clumsy hands before cracking it like a coconut. A torrent of springs, metal bit and screws tumbled out onto the floor. Checking the head and then the contents of the floor, all three barely the heard the feminine scream to erupt from the lounges main entrance concerning the state of a male’s prized seating area.

 

This…” Otsune raised the glittering treasure in her hand. “A circuit board?”

 

It’s how they’re controlled,” another voice from the door called out. Brushing past Gen, the American ninja girl approaching the showing no concern for the lifeless body she crushed under her foot. They all have wireless connections leading to the local internet connection.”

 

They were being controlled?” Natoko became aware she could understand the American again. She was also aware she appeared to be drinking some of the black bile.

 

To an extent. They more than likely followed a strict mode of programming anyway. The device just controlled their movements to come to you.”

 

So does that mean more will come?”

 

Not for the moment. We took care of the local internet connection.” The ninja lifted up a small electronic box. Gen screamed a little too high for a short second.

 

My router!”

 

With the summoning device removed, the creatures resembling the elderly should cease coming here for the meantime. But that doesn’t explain why they were here anyway.”

 

Those things cost money, lady,” Gen shouted at the American. “You better be willing to pay me back for that.” The ninja suddenly dropped to the floor on one knee, her head bowed.

 

Forgive me, sir,” she said in a solemn voice. “But it was the only way to contain the situation. You will of course be compensated in full when I have determined it is safe to return the network connection back in full.”

 

What gives you the right to take that off anyway. And just what’s going on here?”

 

Melissa…” Sagara said “Mom said not to get Gen too much into this.”

 

Melissa hesitated for a moment. “Understood.”

 

Suddenly, Gen was thrown back three steps by his own astonishment. “”hello?” he said looking down and through Natoko as he wandered over to the couch, kneeling down to run his hand across the black bile and slip in it. The confused looking landlord lay therein all the filth for a few seconds before crawling back into a standing position.

 

I’m sure I just… Did i…” He headed back around the couch, tripping on the corpse of an elderly marionette robot corpse that insulted their promiscuity and looking none the more aware of it. “I…” He held back, ignoring Sakura and Alexis as he tried walking through them. The pair parted long enough to let him past. The group watched quietly for a few moments longer as he retrieved a can from the fridge, walked to the exit and, breaking the tab and taking a quick sip gave the room one last paranoid loo.

 

It would have been best if I just kept doing that to everyone here.” Melissa dropped the broken router on the table.

 

What did you just do to him?” Otsune asked quizzically.

 

It’s none of your concern.”

 

She used her illusions to make him think we weren’t her.” Melissa’s face contorted at angle perfectly invisible to Sagara.

 

Yes i…” she breathed, relaxing. “I altered what he could perceive making him think he was in a perfectly ordinary lounge.”

 

And you can just… do that?” Otsune’s face was looking ready to contort as well.

 

Altering perception is easy for myself, and all senses are affected. He wouldn’t have seen us, heard us talking, or smell and taste the oil in the air. He wouldn’t even have been aware that he fell over.”

 

Mom says to keep Gen out of the loop on these thing for reasons that I was distracted by food to question farther into.” Said Sagara the naïve smile not flickering from his own choice of words.

 

Okay. More ninja stuff. Whatever, I can think about that later,” Otsune shook her head violently enough to show that it was all her mind could think about at the present moment. “The router… these… these… marionettes?”

 

Lacaraka dolls.”

 

What’s going on?” Otsune cut the crap to a [point. “Why old people. Why tonight? Why wireless connections? Why door into oblivion? ” Why why why why Why?”

 

The ninja pondered for a moment.

 

They’re part of Heavenly Spring’s Defensive network.” Every other person in the room looked at him with a varied mix of disgust, annoyance, contempt and plain old confusion. Natoko was sure she had the latter on her face.

 

Elaboration,” replied Otsune.

 

There are multiple defensive barriers surrounding Heavenly Springs, as it’s using used as a base for the Balance, usually reserved for away missions such as ours, but also for holding treasures and burying our pets. One of these defences is the Lacaraka dolls, who are designed to deter humans and distract demons or divine. They’re designed to be completely unnoticeable to most extra sensory capabilities, so people will waste time thinking they’re actual people, and since mom says it’s mostly wrong to hit old people, they are designed to be a distraction so powerful that most would find themselves compelled to obey the rantings of old people, either out of fear or guilt of the consequences of disobeying. .”

 

You know what’s annoying?” Otsune replied.

 

That that’s actually kind of a good idea,” butted in Fujiko.

 

That that didn’t answer any of the whys.”

 

Hhhhmmm, you’re right., but I don’t know the rest.”

 

Not even the door?”

 

Definitely don’t know about the door.”

 

It’s like one of the doors from the InBetween Realm right?”

 

It’s one of the doors from the InBetween realm, but it wouldn’t be here and it doesn’t go there.”

 

Where does it go?”

 

Sagara mused over to the door wandering right up to the frame and taking a step in. Everyone froze as he did, the idiot standing on the precipice of doom in the same way one would walk to the shops because they really wanted chocolate. He looked up, then behind himself,. To his left lay the remote control and, for some reason, the perfect object for the experiment. He tossed it through the door like a piece of scrap paper and waited for the nothingness to carrying happening as it had done since the door had been open.

 

I think it goes everywhere?” he finally reported.

 

Everywhere?” Otsune repeated.

 

Or nowhere. I don’t know.” Otsune tried to wave her hands clean of the situation.

 

Anyway! So we can establish they were summoned to attack us remotely.”

 

I suppose,” the ninja replied.

 

Which means we got hacked in some way.”

 

Yes”

 

But you destroyed the router so we can’t really trace who did it.”

 

Not until we get a connection back.”

 

And neither of you have the knowhow to do that, do you.”

 

No.”

 

Otsune sighed, loud, hard and in their faces as much as possible.

 

Fujiko. You’re up it seems.”

 

Aw I don’t wanna.”

 

Come on.”

 

Okay.”

 

You got bits in your room right?”

 

The two girls walked off, Sagara following absently absentmindedly behind them. For the first time Natoko realised she was completely alone of this side of the room, still kneeling on the floor. The ninja soon followed after them.

 

Wait a second i.. I had..”

 

Yes?” Melissa

 

Shouldn’t I get…” No, it was wrong to ask but hadn’t she… “Am I o…”

 

You want praise for your actions,” the American ninja replied, bewildered behind her mask. “You want his congratulation for ripping through enemies that were designed only to distract and could never harm?” The woman let an incredulous silence pass between them. “Very well. Well done! You destroyed a useless enemy.. design ‘to distract’ and you only nearly got killed by one of them. Lucky for you that ten year old child was about to save the day right?”

 

Natoko said nothing. In her head she was stuttering.

 

Now if you would,.” Her eyes looked down to the floor. “Since the caretaker can no longer perceive a mess, it would fall to you to clean it up.”

 

Natoko looked to the devastation, black bile and corpses everywhere. A ruined crouch, a destroyed television. An inexplicable door.

 

And please don’t delay. Whatever was causing us to understand each other could wear off at any given time, and I’d hate to be unable to tell you again.”

 

The ninja shut the door behind her without raising her hands, leaving Natoko deeply aware of how she was knee deep in bile still She sat there alone for a few minutes, occasionally examining her own hand for the thin layer of black gold to pour slowly off her hands What had she been wanting? Acknowledgment. From who? She would only get it from Sagara if she directly asked, and the others had been distracted. And for what? She had only done her duty.

 

Her hand rested on the head of one of the dolls. Feeling her own arm clench up of its own accord she growled loudly as she spun round to stand up, tossing the stupid old lady through the empty door and into the darkness of space before her, disappearing in the instant it took for her momentum to carry her round on the oil and crash back down into the floor again.

 

Natoko lay there.

 

End current Water Draft

 

Sarah helps her up, gets the praise and leaves Natoko feeling asking.

 

Sarah stabs the woman holding her, who opts to get angry instead of injured. In a panic she keeps stabbing her until stopped, revealing the woman to be a marionette. Changing the field, it springs Natoko to action, only to get stopped by Otsune who uses Occam again to test that they are all Marionettes. After this, Natoko goes into slaughter mode, and they all have a party.

 

Afterward, the find the head marionette has a motherboard built into him

 

Scenes to put in:

 

Note: When deciding on breaking into the SIS, Otsune realised that having a piece of paper on it displaying the server times would have been perfect.

 

Natoko was always at school on her worst days. Even now, nowhere near school, merely getting all the more closer to it, she was there. Trapped at her desk, the ticking of the clock, the ranting of her teacher, the venomous giggles of Reiko next to her as she showed her other friend without a name pictures of what was possibly a boy, but also of something deserving derision.

 

Two weeks had passed since anything had happened. Nothing else had happened. No one had come to explain things. Sagara hadn’t found anything. No one had told her anything. She hadn’t even seen the American since the dolls. She was hoping when they next met they were no longer able to speak. It would be even better if she had just gone ahead and lost her throat.

 

The morning commute shot along with a speed she enjoyed. No traffic and no crowds, odd for a Wednesday morning. It was only when she hit the school gates that the world edged to a stop and sat there, goading her to say something to its face.

 

Class started, and she scrambled for her desk while everyone waited for her, the teacher showing her a nervous smile as she performed the complex task of sitting down while yanking out her chemistry homework, three textbooks taking the opportunity to slide out onto the floor. She heard a band of sniggers assault her in all directions.

 

Quiet!” the teacher voice shouted before they got past one second. “Let Yamanaka take her seat and we shall begin.”

 

The laughter abated. Natoko was left in silence, thirty pairs of eyes watching her clinically. Pulling herself up with a calm grace and keeping her eyes close as lightly and as tight as possible, she aimed for the chair and fell into it. Ten seconds passed, and she dared to open them again. The teacher was staring at her. “A-are you okay for me to begin, Miss Yamanaka?,” the teacher asked carefully.

 

She looked around. This had been weird lately. “Yes… Please do.”

 

Thank you,” he said, the sharp edge in his voice that would normally choose to mercilessly cut her down missing as he turned to the board. “Today we’ll be starting with Osmosis.” Natoko pulled her seat in slowly, with a minimum of creaks. Getting the textbook ready, she poised herself like a cat to take notes.

 

School was getting better since she had started to pay attention. Not in terms of enjoyment, she knew that could never happen. But tolerance, that she was getting used to. It was good to know even the fool before her could learn to not bite so hard as she chose not to zone out..

 

Her grades had shown improvement too. It was slow progress after she first heard the news from Miss Sakimoto that she would need to attend university in order to continue being Sagara’s retainer, but the work was paying off. Her last test she had scored average with the rest of the class, which despite Aki’s constant drilling had at least earned her a thumbs up from the girl.

 

Chemistry she had accidentally avoided though, the homework stared up at the top of her desk, half filled out and full of wrong answers. Was she at the point where she could ask for help from the teacher? As an assistant of learning surely it was his pledge to help out all who wish to gain knowledge, but then they did despise each other. She had Aki anyway.

 

The lesson ended uneventfully, her doomed chemistry homework being snatched up by the class president, who took his time to give her a more disapproving glare than usual. She hated him too, thank you very much. A fool obsessed with mere appearance. Six weeks ago she could understand his contempt mixed in with her desire to not be involved with lessons. Now it was either pettiness or refusal to accept her attempts at improving herself academically. Such a person could rot for all she cared.

 

Leaving for the day, Aki joined her with a smile for the both of them and went on discussing the class trip to Fuujo. Neither of them had mentioned the talk from two weeks ago, so rudely interrupted at the wrong time. That night still played on her, the screams of the elderly ladies leaving marks of shame on her mind.

 

She had done nothing wrong, had no quarrel with them and the whole event had proven nothing more than a bizarre charade of some ancient defence system. Yet she still wanted to apologise to the old lady, to ask forgiveness for her terrible misdeeds that a young lady like herself should never dream of committing. Part of her even wanted to throw herself to her knees and perform a ritual stomach cutting for the sole purpose of atoning for a sin not committed.

 

Nobody else had mentioned going through a similar trauma. She had no idea why it was only her suffering from the lingering after-effects. Her sense of honour was perhaps stronger and as a result more susceptible. Kiriyama stood across the street from her waiting.

 

But even if she did have more honour, her resolve should have been stronger, at least as strong as Sagara’s and perhaps the ninja girl. Her focus alone, so forged she could perform the single act of a downward strike in the pouring rain of a humid afternoon for five hours and not falter once, should have prevented this from bothering her.

 

She should have brought it up with Sagara, but could never find the moment to. Aki had stopped.

 

Natoko,” she whimpered, an air of hush in her voice trying to remain loud enough to ensure attention. Natoko followed her gaze. Part of her was aware that he had been there for a while, standing in a long black trench coat with black hair shorter than before and spiked to a tip.. The loud, pitching grin on his face as the gum rolled around his teeth, visible even from across three lanes of traffic, made it clear he was as much aware of them as they were of him.

 

What do you think he wants?” Aki asked. Natoko had not brought Iziz with her today. Her body felt a little lighter.

 

Who knows?” she said. “I’ll go ask him.” Teeming with rush hour traffic, the highway disappeared before her, as she streamed across it, Kiriyama’s body presenting itself to her almost eagerly before he jumped back out of instinct. Hitting the wall just behind him, his smile attempted a laugh.

 

Well,” he said, his hands quickly out of his pockets. “That’s a new trick you have.”

 

What do you want?”

 

Did you learn that–” She shook him, violently. Against the wooden sign behind him his head met with an old sign pointing the way to a temple.

 

That is not providing an answer to my question,” Natoko said back, not letting him look away, finger and thumb clasped behind his jawbone. “What do you want?”

 

If I say forgiveness, would you believe me?” This time she didn’t even deign to respond. She lifted him high, scraping the back of his head against the sign in an effort to find splinters. “Ow geez. Were you always this strong?”

 

How heavy do you think a sword is, to slice the air like that all day?” she replied, making a mental note to be careful. Her brain wanted to alert her. Kiriyama was smart. A conversation would lead to mind games. Last time he was able to convince her he had enough evidence to plant a murder on her, a slaying he had committed. It took the others smacking sense into her to clear it up. She couldn’t risk falling for anything again.

 

Aki was still on the other side of the road. She should have been able to jump over faster than Natoko. Her waiting must be part of a plan.

 

One more time, Kiriyama.” She increased her grip. Her hand had never been used for strangling before. Behind her a businessman was saying something with an air of concern. “What do you want?” she repeated. The boy tried to catch his breath and missed it, coughing a little.

 

Mr. Jupiter!” He called out. “I was sent by Mr. Jupiter.”

 

The demon’s name pierced her thoughts. So he had lived.

 

Of course he had. If Kiriyama were still here, then the demon who suffered mutilation at the wrath of Iziz??? probably got away with a mild bruising at best. The demon had bothered her since he tournament, bothered Sagara. She had considered it since her duty to cut him down in the name of the Balance.

 

So you’re working with that demon?”

 

Ah,” he quickly cut her off. “So you do know about demons.”

 

Natoko stayed silent.

 

I must admit you bested me… last time,” he said, still being held up on tiptoes and hoping not noticing her arm was starting to shake a little. “Not just in escaping but your knowledge.”

 

My pursuit to find the King of the City, it seems, was a little misdirected. You were right to suspect the creatures we found to be demons and not, as I presumed, merely the work of some new biological, gene-designer drug.”

 

Natoko allowed herself a smile. “Not that I didn’t try to warn you.”

 

But your knowledge, it seems, was not your own. You were told by others about their existence beforehand. How foolish of me.”

 

Keep quiet, she told herself.

 

Foolish of me to presume your life to be the same as the boring and mundane ones all around us. I believe you nothing more than a girl trapped in stupid childish fantasies of becoming a samurai warrior. Indeed, when we first met after such a long time, I had counted on it.”

 

His breath appeared normal now. Natoko was being forced to ease him onto the floor by gravity. She tried to keeping the descent gentle, but a glance down showed he noticed.

 

But it seem you are what you wish to be, a master of the sword, and aware of a world far beyond your own, that no doubt you’ve sworn to protect against the darkness.”

 

Protect against the darkness? Yes, that was what she essentially did. Even if an arrogant blot like Kiriyama was saying it, it felt good to be acknowledged.

 

Kiriyama increase the angle of his smile. “But it’s not enough, is it?”

 

Natoko stared cold at him. “What?”

 

The stage you’re at now,” he said. “You’re close to what you want, but there’s still a distance to go. You still have to put up with the charade, don’t you? Live the peasant life. Walk down the same street to a place you never wanted to go.”

 

If you’re referring to school-”

 

I’m referring to your life!” he called out and Natoko was aware she wasn’t being as threatening as she was a moment ago. “You fight demons, but that just makes you a demon hunter, one with no higher calling. You just slaughter them when they pop along, with no plan, no end in sight. You swing your beautiful sword but you do it for no reason.”

 

Are you saying killing demons is meaningless.”

 

But it doesn’t kill them. That’s what you don’t know about. What would you say if I told you that destroying their physical bodies doesn’t actually defeat demons. It just sends their spirit home-”

 

It would-”

 

Shock you, right?” he interrupted again. “But that’s what happens. For every demon you slaughter, you’re just sending it home, allowing it to come back stronger than before to hurt more innocents. That’s the problem you got here, Natoko. You’re without direction. You cannot reach the highest echelons of this world on your own. You may have Aki but the two of you combined could hardly ever be enough, no matter how strong you were.”

 

Natoko held him, staring. He really didn’t know anything.

 

That’s why I’m here today. To give you an offer. An offer from Mr. Jupiter. One that’ll help you understand.”

 

Oh? What could a demon offer me that my blade could not take from him.” Kiriyama actually fell silent for a second.

 

Enlightenment,” he then said. “Understanding of the world you face. He may be a demon, but he works for himself, and seeks the removal of all other demons. He will guide you Natoko, as he guided me. I… I myself understand it all now. There’s so much more to the world than petty crime. There’s a place where you can earn respect and honour, best your opponents in combat. It’s everything you could ever dream.”

 

You dare claim to know my dreams?”

 

He… he asked me to come here today to give you an offer to become his retainer.”

 

Natoko didn’t smile. The businessman had moved on.. She wasn’t sure where Aki was.

 

That is what it means to be a samurai, isn’t it? In this world, it’s impossible. Something you could never attain. Even with your knowledge of the demons and your skill with the blade, you would never be samurai unless you served a master, and that, my former friend, is something you have yet to achieve.”

 

But come with me, join Mr. Jupiter. He has requested you above all others, even myself, to serve as his right hand. He has even asked me to serve under you, to be controlled by you. He has demanded I do this to allow you your power over me. Even as it pains me to accept, I have no choice if I wish to keep my life.”

 

Become his retainer. Serve at his right hand. It may be for a demon but it’s the dream you always wanted. ”

 

Natoko paused in thought. It really was. The idea was perfect. Exactly what she wanted. Serve a lord, a master. One who would give her missions and send her to do his bidding with the honour of a samurai. Becoming a retainer and using her sword to cut down those who opposed him. It would be so perfect.

 

Lifting her head up, she looked calmly to Kiriyama, waiting anxiously for her response.

 

And then crashed it against his nose.

 

The boy reeled in the small area he was contained, and she let him drop as she turned away. She walked off. Aki following behind her.

 

It wasn’t even worthy of a response.

 

It would have been perfect six months ago.

 

***

 

It had been two weeks. For the sixth third time, Otsune clicked the refresh button.

 

Nope,” she called out, resulting in curses emanating from the supply closet. She groaned. Someone else could do this. It wasn’t like she didn’t have a giant to do list.

 

It should be working,” came the voice from the dark closest, followed by a continuous banging which was no doubt a frantic assault against the nefarious keyboard.

 

The decision to set up the server in there had been decided by herself and Fujiko three years ago and, other than the occasional reboot, had been ignored by most of the residents. At the time, Granma Futabatei had agreed to have the access setup, and even paid for the equipment and got it installed, but she had insisted on a wireless network that meant holes didn’t have to be drilled throughout the ancient wall for cables to be inserted.

 

Wireless had gone out of the window at this point, and they were back to cables, several of which were sprawled out over the floorboards leading out of the corridor. Two were plugged into Otsune’s laptop. Crossover cable as an experiment Fujiko was trying. “Try now,” the girl said, following another few moments of silent typing.

 

Nope!”

 

Now?”

 

Nope.”

 

Otsune heard a slam. “Now?”

 

Maybe we should call someone out.”

 

Did you try again?”

 

Violence isn’t going to be your work around here, Fujiko.” Otsune sighed, feeling a little empty. It was weird not having Occam around. She had sent the flame outside after Fujiko had suggested the possibility that the fire was possibly affecting data transfer. They both knew that couldn’t the case.

 

What was the case was the large mess of wires and circuit boards that Sagara had turned the server into.

 

On the morning after the doll incident, they had surveyed the damage to the server room to see if anything else had needed buying and found Sagara and the ninja girl had implemented a tiny precision missile strike against the monitor within the server room, apparently believing it to be the most vital part of any network architecture.

 

He had told them that, upon the ninja girl’s order, he had launched his demon gauntlet into the monitor to remove all threats it represented against the True Balance. Otsune could still feel how her entire brain had tried to wince to the right without taking her head with it. Monitors were expensive.

 

It was the resulting shockwave that had taken out the actually important equipment. The server unit, the router, even the wall connection. Everything had needed a complete overhaul. Bad enough they had lost the sofa, two chairs and the television/entertainment centre in the same night.

 

And now they had to contend with the fact they couldn’t actually see what they were working with.

 

Apparently Gen wasn’t to know of all that went on… for some reason. This was what Sagara had told them and this was why they weren’t currently looking into a supply closet made mostly of slag but instead gazing into the still fully functioning server room provided by the ninja girl’s illusions.

 

Illusions. That one still picked on Otsune’s mighty brain cells. It wasn’t stage magic. The ninja was altering their perceptions in real time. Should she poke her head in there, Otsune could see the monitor’s screen saver, hear the hum of equipment creating their own bland composition. If she rested her hand on the mouse, she could still left click. She was sure that, if she dared tried, she could lick the monitor and taste three month old grease.

 

So how was that being done if ‘magic’ didn’t exist? Otsune pondered, idling tapping the F5 key every two seconds, not giving it time to do the last refresh. Since the girl just appeared to will the illusion into existing, technological equipment didn’t seem likely. Therefore it suggested senses were being fooled . Hypnosis was a potentially logical answer, since it would allow the victim’s imagination to fill in all the blanks. The only problem with that was it wasn’t Otsune imagination filling in the blanks. Otsune’s attempts at entering this faux computer’s registry settings proved fruitless and trying to access the Admin services resulted in control panel where she could turn the sound on or off. It was as if the internal configuration settings simply weren’t there, The ninja girl didn’t appear to know much about computers, and it showed with the web browser only contained commonly used options and only being able to access 0.03% of the internet.

 

And the one last one back in the living area was restricted to affecting only one user. Hypnotism would have been fine. An illusion would have been fine. A discordian attempt at altering the filters of her reality to hide the truths of the universe would have been fine at this point, had it not meant they couldn’t actually see, hear or even feel what they were trying to fix in the room. The ninja had left the illusion running while she had mysteriously vanished somewhere, making their determination to find out if they had even pulled out the cable from the wall socket completely and utterly ineffectual.

 

Now?”

 

Nope.” Otsune said without checking.

 

No. The real bad point was it was them that had to pay for all this. Normally such expenses came out of the landlord’s insurance, with Sagara losing his security deposit, not that she figured he had even paid one. But they couldn’t tell Gen. They weren’t even able to. He was convinced that what he had saw was just a dream and was even now sitting on the floor of the lounge watching quiz shows displaying on the featureless wall around the shards of a broken television set.

 

I swear we’re missing something here,” Fujiko said, pulling herself out of the closest, cables coming into existence between her fingers as she got out of the illusions range (meaning the illusion was even able to tell when replacement parts were being moved into it and hid them accordingly).

 

I’m missing so much nowadays,” Otsune groaned, desperately not wanting to care. “Do you know I had planned to restart my placement in two weeks? That’s gone out the window.”

 

Yeah whatever. Look I know it’s hard to work in there and all, seeing as I appear to be trying to setup a new server in front of a fully functioning old server that is secretly a pile of scrap metal…” Fujiko had to pause to make sure she got that right. “But I’m pretty sure I’ve got everything done right at this stage. I should at least be seeing a connection showing up on this router.” The router Otsune was resting her feet and was flashing all its lights at them hopelessly. “But I’m not getting anything on the console.”

 

Are you saying something else is broken?”

 

I’m saying I can’t find the connection. Hell I’m saying we don’t even have a network connection to the outside world from this room, not one I can find anyway.”

 

Then what have you been trying to do for the last half hour.”

 

Just trying to set it up identical to how it was set up last time.”

 

In the hopes that it would just work?”

 

Well yeah.”

 

But without any actual qualified knowledge of what to do?

 

Look I know IT okay. I’ve been forced to work too many crappy tech jobs in my wonderful illustrious contracting life. And I can say this for certain. This room we’re in, the room containing the server that’s been providing the steady internet connection for the last three years has been getting all its data from this little box in the hole. And as you can see,” she knelt down as she indicated the box, in one swift movement yanking it away from the wall. It came out easily, the screw not caring to hold it in, the one network cable to the server dangling beneath it. “The little box is not connected to anything.”

 

Taking the box from Fujiko, Otsune gave it a once over, disconnecting the network cable and reseating it. It clicked smoothly into place. She saw it slot in on the interior side. No trace of any other cables sat with it. No diodes. No copper wires. Not even a sign of a soldering mark where they once could have been. Fujiko’s diagnosis did appear true. This room wasn’t fitted to the outside Internet connection.

 

But this room can’t not have an internet connection. Gen flipped the power off by mistake the first week he was here. We lost the network.”

 

And yes, it came back on once we flipped the switch again. But now, I don’t know what to tell you.”

 

Or what to tell the others,” Otsune continued musing over the smooth white plastic that was supposed to be their gateway to the information superhighway. Everyone was, of course, very much pissed to no longer be able to receive their e-mails or waste their time on online blogs. The box played with her mind. She hoped Occam wasn’t causing any trouble.

 

No. This still isn’t the full picture.” Getting on her hands and knees, Otsune examined the hole where the box came from. It wasn’t a hole at all. “Even if this plug socket box isn’t connected to anything besides the server, it cannot be denied that the server was still receiving a network connection. Therefore even if we shouldn’t be able to connect due to an outside connection, we should still logically be able to get the same result as last time, even if that was practically impossible.” The hole was just a section of the wall with two drill marks in it. It didn’t even try to look like it was going anywhere.

 

She could tell without looking Fujiko had a condescending frown on her face. “You know that was all just nonsense right?”

 

Nonsense that has a point to it.”

 

What if it’s just the illusion getting in the way still?”

 

Why hide the connection box? It wasn’t even damaged by the battle.”

 

Well why does it not go anywhere. Isn’t it more logical to think an illusion was cast on the box than to think that we were magically acquiring free internet, as awesome as that immediately sounds?”

 

Oh come on, Fujiko. Surely you realise by now that our every attempt to state something should be logical results in random very loud ninja immediately appearing to prove us wrong for stupid reasons.”

 

So what? We should burn some incense and meditate, knowing that our chi will bring back Wikipedia?”

 

That shall be our second plan. First, I’m thinking we find our local ninja and slash or failing that the network box that must lead up to the dormitory.” She stood up, and turned for the exit. “Whatever happens, we must find a way to restore our internet connection!”

 

Fujiko sighed intentionally. “Didn’t we used to have lives?”

 

Otsune smirked. There was even more she was missing in this scenario. Discovering the source of their own network connection would mean finding what brought the wrath of the dolls upon them. And this all tied into this manGod that had been mentioned. She noted her own anticipation. Whilst she could hate to admit it many times, Sagara’s little world kept getting her excited. There was so much new stuff to find there and she had a feeling, another portion of faith perhaps, that there was something even further to this.

 

*

 

.Natoko and Aki at the arcade.

 

So what made it that easy to say no?” Aki asked, down shifting into third gift and spinning the wheel away from the turn, skidding her back wheels into the groove.

 

The same way it is easy for the sun to rise from the heavens,” Natoko replied, already come out of the turn but losing the distance between them by a few meters. “It was natural.”

 

Really? It wasn’t natural a few months ago.”

 

A lot is different from a few months ago. I am different.”

 

The hairpin turn glided around them in the same breath, Natoko was at the start of it, but Aki was closing in from the end. Another turn. Natoko could feel her just a hair’s breadth behind.

 

No you’re not. You’re still Natoko.”

 

Yes, but a better version of myself. One who does not get lost and fooled so easily by charlatans. Before I succumbed to his tricks, but this time I was able to conquer him. “ She yanked right, almost lost it, but kept the wheels steady as they entered the straight away. She began to pull away before Aki had even finished.

 

Sounds to me all you did was learn from a mistake.”

 

Sometimes Aki, it would do you good to realise that a simple response is all that’ needed. Life isn’t complicated and everything can be-” Shift up a gear, ready for the next hairpin. “clean cut, just as long as you have the right method.”

 

Oh really?“ Aki was trailing now.

 

Learn this yourself, and you’ll one day reach me. Wisdom alone is not enough. You need the experience to accompany it.”

 

I’ll take that-” Aki was behind her into the hairpin turn, “under advisement.” Pulling the difference sharply. Natoko pushed to avoid her. The cars clipped, the understeer quickly knocking Natoko the wrong way. She smoothed out immediately, Aki already pulling past her.

 

Hey,” Natoko called out, getting a snigger from Aki, who crossed the finish line two seconds ahead of her.

 

The machine switched to game over before Natoko could even reach the line. The game quickly declaring the left player the winner before switching straight to the game over screen for the both of the them.

 

Another game?” Aki asked innocently.

 

Not if you’re going to play like that.”

 

You can’t waste time complaining that your opponent’s doing something you don’t like.”

 

No, but I can refuse to continue if I have no money left.” Lifting herself off the machine, Natoko went for her school bag. No studying tonight. Just practise. It was good to give herself a reward for finishing the chemistry paper. The next maths one could wait..

 

Around her the patrons shuffled through the arcade. It wasn’t a local one and they had to take the scenic route to get to it, but there were no students from their school there. It was good not to be noticed sometimes. The only way the regulars here acknowledged her was from when she kicked their asses on the latest fighting game.

 

There was also the need to speak to her lord. Things had been quiet lately. Everything was back to normal after the attack on the dormitory, with the exception of the missing television from the living area. She had no doubt her lord would call for her if there was something needed, hopefully anyway. But the lack of activity over the past two week and the American’s last words to her had made her wonder if Sagara was being pushed not to use her.

 

The American clearly had an issue with Natoko, though she wasn’t sure what Perhaps it was the jealousy of a second assistant? Natoko smirked under the prospect, though worried also at the thought that Sagara could probably get her exiled at the drop of a hat if he was talked into it.

 

She had to be careful. Things needed looking into, and she had to make sure she was a part of it. The iron plated bar swung into the back of her head, taking her off balance into an old pinball machine. Her reflection stared back at her, red and blurry, her hair burning behind her. She tried to stand up, catching the reflection and pushing herself out of the way as the figure lunged toward her, crashing through the large metal machine.

 

Gasping, she fell to the floor and looked around, seeing the patrons of the arcade frozen at their games, half looking round to see what the commotion was, others already panicking. A man approached her from the side and looked like he was about to help her up.

 

From the remains of the pinball machine, Kiriyama pulled himself out.

 

He looked larger. Not taller, but as if all his muscles had swelled up and his spine was collapsing under the weight. He lumbered forwards, picking himself up and facing her in one go. Quickly she pulled herself up using the man beside her as an anchor point. Her sudden assistant had gone stiff with the image before him. Kiriyama now raising his skull crushing sized hands in front of his puffed up face, glaring at her with a condescending grin, a large purple bruise accompanied by a crack on his pale forehead.

 

The offer still stands, Yamanaka,” he said, his voice echoing as if they were in a long narrow cave. “Join me at the side of Mr. Jupiter, or watch as I rip apart the pathetic surrounding us.”

 

Part of her felt an urge to be like Otsune and quip a sarcastic retort at the statement before her. Was this really Kiriyama, her once friend turned blackmailer? The man had become a brutish thug in appearance. Natoko knew she was frozen in fear like the man besides her but she still felt the shock pouring through her body. This was clearly the work of the demon. He had changed Kiriyama somehow, and Kiriyama seemed to have no qualms with the situation.

 

Aki had disappeared. With any joy, her friend had escaped or was leading the others out. Even better, she was lying in wait for a well-placed roundhouse kick.

 

Iziz was at home, she reminded herself, the blade would have been much needed right now. The Kiriyama before her was not the one she had attended school with. Instead, he roared with a mouth that seemed to extend past the limits of his lips, a guttural bellow blasting out throughout the room. The man beside her whimpered, as Kiriyama roared in the man’s direction, a red shockwave pouring out from his mouth and engulfing the man.

 

Natoko had no choice at this point but to dive out of the way. Her feet prevented her from tumbling all the way over, her arms able to steady her against a crane machine. The man gasped pathetically, his body disappearing before the rage of evil he was being bathed in. Natoko struggled to see, but the energy was gone before she could focus again.

 

The man stood there, looking like an underdog boxer having taken the last seven rounds all to the face. His cheeks swelled and pushed his lips into a bloated position. His body swayed round on its hip, the man coughed up a small trickle of blood before falling forwards

 

As the man toppled over, Natoko watched against her will. His legs fell into themselves, literally merging like layers of modelling clay slammed down into the floor by a fist from above. His body followed quickly, a splatting sound hitting the tiles floor, a spot of blood leaking from underneath. Natoko felt her own stomach swell up in knots as the man appeared to turn into a gelatinous blob, even his clothes melting into the blob before her.

 

Kiriyama burped loudly, appearing relieved for his actions, though remained in his own bulked up state. With a relaxing sigh he turned back over to the remains of the pinball machine and seemed to start looking at something.

 

Natoko didn’t care, her eyes still locked on the pile of goo that had tried to help her a moment ago. It was bubbling. As a jelly blob the bubbles appeared to make it rise and expand. What was left of the limbs started shifting, contorting. One suddenly shot up and went rigid, sticking there at the wrong angle while the rest of the blob body followed it upward.

 

It very soon started to take shape. A head appearing where there couldn’t be a head before, the legs jutting out in three directions. The whole body turned a deep brown and started to grow hair as fast as it could. Natoko seeked??? to grasp something, her mind blanking on what she could possibly be seeing here. A large tentacle shot out from somewhere, rising up in the air before cracking out and dangling. New arms seemed to lock into place, the first rigid one now serving as some kind of elongated shoulder.. Hoofs appeared on the three feet and the faced took an impish shape to it, a tongue hanging out of each of the dead eyes as the tentacle shot back into the body through the pelvis.

 

The room went silent save for a quiet fizzling noise. Natoko was under the impression she had stopped breathing but dared not move her body to check. Kiriyama started laughing in a low pitch. To himself at first, before it roared through the arcade. The remaining patrons took this as a cue to start screaming and running. Many of them headed for the exit and Kiriyama met them with another green blast of energy which bathed ten of them and rooted them to the spot. The creature before her distracted her with a light pitched giggling sounds as it started to wave its heavy arms back and forth, as if testing out the action. Kiriyama started to move his head round to the other patrons rushing for the exit and Natoko leapt for the floor as his neck swung round for her. She hit the ground with her hands and started to crawl for her life, heading in-between two rows of fighting games.

 

Need a weapon,” she told herself, wishing she hadn’t chosen the only narrow crawl space in the entire building. Her quickstep was useless when she was on her knees. And the wires were doing their best to tangle up her hands. A gap appeared to the left and she took it, getting out and catching sight of the now demon covered exit. More of the patrons were growling and stuttering now, their bodies turning into the contorted shapes the first man had suffered through on his sudden descent into the monster shape he now took. Though mixed in number of limbs and faced their bodies were still turned black with the long hair covering most of their bodies. A few had more of the fleshy vine liked tentacles than the others did and Natoko didn’t take any opportunity to consider the situation any longer. She had accidentally caught enough of the late night cartoons to know what they might try to do.

 

Aki!” she shouted as hard as she could, as her eyes located the exit to the second wing of the arcade. “We’re leaving!” She didn’t wait at all for a response, gunning for the stairs and leaping up them three at a time, turning round as soon as she realised how big a target she was and shifting to the left just as another green beam shot across the room at her.

 

Go on then! Escape. It doesn’t matter. I know your home address!”

 

Natoko didn’t waste any more time freezing in shock. Turning up the stairs, she shot up the remaining thirteen in a single flash. Her thigh screamed and she took a turn through the seating area, shooting forwards again, landing on a table and feeling the grease take her feet. She let the momentum carry her and fell for the door, crashing through it and collapsing onto her shoulder blade.

 

Er hi…” Pulling herself up she came face to face with a stranger who she took no time to study. Natoko gave the area a cursory glance. Those before her were busy playing on the gamblers and pachinko. None seemed aware of the chaos that was happening in the next room. Behind her she heard the door slump shut and felt her thighs tense up against the pain. She hadn’t performed that little trick several times in a row before. It was only meant to be used for stepping forwards in a duel ready to strike and running up stairs alone could be torture. Add that in to a long school day-

 

She was done thinking. They were people here for Kiriyama to… what? Infect. It was as good a word as any. Her brain was boiling from the humidity surrounding her. She took off at a light stagger and met with a fire alarm. Cracking it against her elbow, she didn’t even flinch as the bells started assaulting her ears. The people around her stared with accusing eyes, some annoyed while others amused at her apparent little prank. If Iziz was here she could at least play the part of a dangerous crazy lady but for now she would have to hope it cleared as many people out as possible.

 

She grabbed the man she had fell in front of and swung him around her. “Go. Get out of here!” she cried out to them. Around her , everyone else was dutifully exiting the building as the staff started to herd them out. The downstairs section of this part of the arcade had apparently gotten the message and people were being pulled away from their games in order to make them wait outside. Natoko wanted to breathe a sigh of relief.

 

Those before her apparently got the message, the man still glaring at her with annoyance at her handling. She tried to half push half wave them off as they took for the stairs. She turned back to observe her escape door rocking on it frame as she awaited the monsters. Back and forth. Back and forth.

 

She waited until the door stopped. She couldn’t feel anything. Whatever came through the door would at least need defending against until everyone was away. Then what? Where could they go from here? The demon threat was out and ready to strike in full force. Secrecy surely couldn’t be an issue now with monsters tearing up the local arcade. She’d need to get back to Sagara, hopefully find him without trouble, let him know what was going on so the balance could prepare. Her legs started to turn, her eyes not wanting to leave the door. Carefully, she started walking backwards, glancing quickly to ensure no other collisions. She reached the stairs after about ten seconds.

 

The door had stopped rocking. Only the alarm could be heard, now sounding like nothing more than background noise.

 

With haste, she fled down the stairs.

 

**

 

Otsune was athletic. She reminded herself of this regularly. She was not the type of intellectual to languish in her mind for every hour of the day, taking time off only to engage in petty social activities. Her morning jogs got her up before everyone save Natoko. She attended a gym in the city twice a week and just a few months ago in engaged in a several thousand kilometre walk through a dank cave that resided in another dimension. Her legs were toned and her stomach flat.

 

Her arms were not suited for climbing

 

The building was not suited for climbing either. In fact The Heavenly Springs dormitory roofing was pre-eminently designed to resist attempts to climb on it. Originally she was told that this was a measure ensured to repel invaders from other feudal lands, back at the time she had believed this place only to be an offshoot manor complex of a Feudal lord of the old times. Now she was clueless as to what it could have been, or how old it was. It hadn’t been designed for electronics. She knew that from all the work they had to do just to ensure television in one room.

 

But now she knew the building was designed for the Balance, with varying methods of defence systems and roofs that she was having tremendously difficulty climbing. She strained against the oddly angled slants of the roof, hooking her heel deep into a drainpipe. Praying her moist fingertips would leave her hanging by one trapped foot she built the momentum up to thrust herself onto the blue roof. Looking back down, she waved to Fujiko, already climbing up. They needed a longer ladder.

 

Ah, you. Excellent,” she shouted in the high winds that came with the territory of residing on the tallest hill in the land. The American Ninja was there, standing perfectly straight on the roof’s fountain centrepiece , a golden sphere directly in the centre of the roof and obscured from below. “We’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

 

It wasn’t Otsune intention to see the girl now, acting all ninja like and aloof as she hovered perfectly on the centre of the sphere, the heavy winds not knocking her off in any direction one bit. The precious wiring situation of the internet was foremost on her mind, but this was an advantage in that.

 

We need you to kill your silly little magic trick in the server room. We’re trying to replace the pieces in there your idiotic boyfriend ripped apart and you can’t understand a word I’m saying can you?”

 

The Melissa girl stayed silent, still looking straight ahead. Otsune paused, trying to stay balanced against loose blue roofing tiles. The girl’s eyes turned slightly to glare at her, before looking the other way.

 

So now you can’t understand Japanese again. Excellent. This still continues to make sense.” Looking around, Otsune kept an eye out for any obvious cables. About half an hour ago they had determined, through acts of violence against the floorboards, that none of the necessary internet providing cables were under the server room in any way. Any connecting rooms also added to the mystery of just where Google had been coming from. That had left the only thing remaining being the roofing. The roof itself wouldn’t have been the next destination, but if the wires weren’t coming out from anywhere of the walls, then at the very least there should be a sort of obvious black cable sticking out here somewhere.

 

Melissa relaxed her stance on the flagpole as Otsune walked passed her, now appearing to give up the super dramatic ninja pose of contemplation while Otsune was around to bug her. Otsune wasn’t in the mood to go grab a dictionary just for the word illusion. She’d figure this out herself.

 

The immediate roof was bare of any cables, and once Fujiko was finally up to join her, they diligently worked together to waste more time finding something they had to conclude wasn’t there.

 

This isn’t making any sense,” she groaned, sitting down to join Otsune and falling back to crack her head against curved tiles. “It should just be there. It’s not like we’re searching for something tiny. It should be a long cable that had to be custom fitted to the dormitory. It should stick out as wrong being here.

 

Flipping out her phone, Otsune checked for texts out of instinct before gazing out to the town below. Nothing. Was the illusion hiding it this well? Considering the lack of effort behind the fake operating system could she presume the ninja was hiding all the wiring as well.

 

See any old people?” Fujiko asked after the minutes had ticked on.

 

Not with these glasses,” Otsune sighed, looking back to glare at the ninja some more only to find she had vanished magically off somewhere. Otsune’s vast intellect strayed off on the idea of setting up some kind of patrolling system for the village. They already had established methods of access and ensuring they didn’t get followed, but that situation couldn’t be allowed to go on any further either-

 

bzzt Her phone jumped at her, the thought of dropping it up here almost made her lose it. Keeping a hold of it, she checked the screen. It was a text.

 

The answer you seek is above. Check the brand label.

 

Not today, thank you. She selected delete and confirmed it, sending the junk to a place even deeper than the Strangelands nether regions. Falling back alongside Fujiko, she looked to the clear sky, the stars already coming out, the largest already right above her. Otsune’s interest in space was limited to the constellations poster on her wall. She’d take the time to memorise it one day.

 

What’s the plan then?” Fujiko asked, sounding serious enough to let Otsune know just how important the 10 Mbps package was to her.

 

I guess we convince Gen to somehow fork the budget out for a new server room while somehow getting round the fact that to all appearance we already have one of those.”

 

Could say it’s a backup server room I suppose.”

 

Could do. Could also do with finding a way to explain why we need cables outside the server room that lead to the nearest connection point as well.

 

Are we going to have to seduce him?”

 

You talk like that wouldn’t be instantly achievable,” Otsune said with a grin.

 

The only thing stopping us would be our own vomit reflex.”

 

So glad you didn’t say gag there.”

 

A cicada chirped in the night sky. Soon it would be too cold to be up here.

 

Though we don’t have to set up a cable,” Fujiko said casually.

 

How do you mean?”

 

Well we could go back a step and go through the phone system, or get a satellite connection. It’s a step back from what we had with the fibre optics but with so few of us here it wouldn’t be that much of a sacrifice.”

 

Otsune’s brain shifted a gear. “Wait…”

 

OR we could extend the wireless in the village somehow. Set up points to pass it along and connect that way-”

 

Satellite! “ Otsune cried, swinging herself up and nearly plummeting to her substantial injuries below. “Of course, we are such idiots- in this one and only occasion.”

 

What what?” Much more careful at getting up, Fujiko crawled to catch up with Otsune. “What are we thick for? You know it’s your fault.”

 

The answer. Above. Our connection. We have to check our brand.”

 

Our brand?” Otsune tried to calm down to help explain better but her mind was on fire. The consideration should have crossed her sooner. It made instant sense and she had just strolled past all the clues like a baby retard. Reaching the sphere where the ninja had been standing, she gave it the once over. “Our brand… Otsune?

 

What?”

 

Our brand?” Fujiko was bemusedly befuddled.

 

There are no cables, Fujiko,” Otsune said. “None going out of the building save for the power. None going out of the room save for perhaps the roof. There’s only one conclusion… there are no cables going out of the building save for the power, and there are no cables going out of the room save for perhaps the roof.”

 

A tautology is a tautology,” replied Fujiko, sarcasm dripping off sweet lips. “So what?”

 

We’re not getting our internet from the cables,” Otsune replied, stepping over the bowl and doing her best to hoist herself onto the sphere. With exactly one hundred per cent less grace than the ninja she balanced on the ball using three limbs, the last one pointing upwards to the biggest star straight above. “We’re getting it from the sky.”

 

Otsune paused for a moment as her body trembled beneath her. When she looked back Fujiko didn’t look very impressed.

 

So… a satellite then…” She said, her hands hanging as if to wait for a better explanation. “And just how do you suppose… oh wow you’re actually standing on a satellite dish aren’t you.”

 

Yes I am,” Otsune replied with glee, far too happy to fall off it.

 

The centrepiece ornament of the roofing was made of metal. They could tell only by touching it though. It was a large round dome, roughly the shape of half a sphere, large enough to fit them both in with room to spare and all painted the same colour as the roof. The receiver itself was a cuboid rather than a cone and ended with the large ninja but not Otsune balancing sphere.

 

Thee sphere was golden. Ornamental. It was easy to miss. It came off more as a fountain, which relieved Otsune when it occurred to her she had only really given it a two second glance and didn’t even know about it until today. There was a drainage pipe at the bottom to counter its bowl like nature. It was oddly clean.

 

If there are wires they’ll be in here,” Fujiko said checking the cuboid and tapping it to confirm their suspicious of its hollowness. It still doesn’t explain the lack of wires in the server room but-”

 

That’s why we check the brand of the router. It’s wireless, it may just be passing along a connection.”

 

But the way this is pointed??? the satellite would have to be directly above. It couldn’t be-”

 

No, this explains why grandma Futabatei set it up. She gave us a Satellite connection directly without own satellite. Don’t you see? It’s Sagara’s Balance. They own all kinds of stupid shit-”

 

Screams below distracted her. It was coming from the entrance. They sounded stretched somehow, like they were travelling faster than they should. A shadow danced across her yes.

 

The world crashed into her, knocking her into tiles and cracking a few beneath Otsune’s elbows and the tip of one perfectly against the back of her skull. Her bronze rimmed glasses shot off and skirted against the blunt scratching stones beside her. The world blacked out for a second.

 

wha- Natoko?” The girl was right above her for no reason, her hair was dangling in Otsune’s face. She was far too close. “What are you-”

 

The demons are coming.”

 

**

Heading down the alleyway outside the convenience store, Melissa kept her senses sharp. She was happy the town had come to this. With the peaceful nature of the Heavenly Springs dormitory, it would have been easy to become relaxed and carefree. Though she kept interaction with the residents to a minimum, their docile attitudes in life allowed them as much social life as they desired. They could socialise, intoxicate themselves, attend educational facilities and sneak boys in for late hour sexual interludes, and they would rarely have to worry for their lives. It would have been so easy to do the same.

 

Which is why she was grateful for the Lacaraka dolls.

 

The dolls, like the two round the corner, talking about what something in incomprehensible Japanese had been saying to the other stupid foreign language thing, had apparently not just shut down with the deactivation of their signal. This was clear from the moment she had gotten Sagara to take it out, the dolls still continuing their trek to toss the girls into the Babylon void. She wasn’t sure why they hadn’t. Her closest guess was that the signal merely activated them, or operated as a beacon, for none had tried to approach Heavenly Springs since it was turned off.

 

Except if they wandered by. Melissa had spent last week watching one of them slowly ascending the stairs whilst talking about how the youth of today didn’t assist the elderly in carrying their shopping and how it was an utter disgrace. It took the doll four and a half hours in the middle of the night to get to the top of the steps, and it was promptly dispatched when it did, but the point was clear. The dolls were searching the town very slowly for their target, and making absolutely no progress in getting there.

 

Which made it every resident’s priority not to let a single one see them in the town. The doll’s power it seems, lay in their ability to creep the shit out of you, and there was no sense in Melissa wasting time denying it. With the removal of the language barrier on Heavenly Springs, her sudden understanding of the creatures had prevented her from becoming an exception to the ‘don’t freak the fuck out’ rule.

 

Bracing herself, certain that she was in the clear, Melissa took a few steps onto the main street. The road crossed the entire village and led out onto the bridge leaving the village. No matter where you were in the outback, passing this road couldn’t be avoided. Three pairs of the dolls were always here at most times, spread up and down the road and only chatting when they wandered in range of one another. Melissa paced over the road steadily, her footsteps silent as they seamlessly rolled over the loose gravel. To the other side of the road, falling to the other side of a bush when she had crossed over enough.

 

There was no need for illusions here. She could have easily rendered herself invisible for the task of trekking across the town, but Melissa recognised an exercise ground when it lay out around here. It was made clear to her by the mistress from her youngest age that her illusions should never be taken for granted. For all the fools at the ninja village who were fooled easily, there would always be the mistress, who could see everything through perfect emerald eyes.

 

And of course, Sagara.

 

Behind her, the dolls were still babbling away to each other, their wrinkled expression implying a light hearted storytelling going on between them. Their sophisticated design was impressive. She had noted the abundance of elderly in her early days here but had not guessed them to be a defensive measure until her discovery of the prototypes near the forest entrance. Even then, had she not discovered the plans of the dormitory in one of the hidden attics, she would have put down their repetitiveness nature and automatic scheduling of which streets to roam as just the habits of old people, civilians with a culture she had never seen before. And even after all that, their use as a tool for the balance was something she only discovered when she had fallen in their fading sight.

 

She really should have been better informed. Someone would have to pay for that.

 

For now, they were harmless though. They would badger and chase you if you fell in their sight, but could do little more than give you a slap and grab your ear.

 

Their ultimate purpose bothered her though. Against demons or divine they were useless assortments of wood waiting to be torn apart. Against humans they were just baffling.

 

Anta wa!” a voice cried behind her suddenly. “You get down here and pay for your sins.” Spinning and fading to nothing in the same moment, Melissa cast a glance at the women behind her. From her monitoring of the situation, getting caught shouldn’t have been possible. Carefully, she headed back to the centre of the road, bringing the dolls back into her field of view. They weren’t looking at her, but up to the rooftops.

 

The sword servant was there. The annoying variable to her life had finally got back home, looking very worse for the wear. Sweat was dripping down her cheeks as she rested on all fours atop of the roof of a small family house. She was staring straight through Melissa as she panted with the force of sixty marathons.

 

Dare to ignore us, you foolish slut. Your transgressions shall be paid for. The heart of a carver deserves no less.”

 

Seeing that the voices startled the swordsgirl, Melissa felt a smile creep onto her lips just as the little girl cracked her knee against the tiles, turning to check out where the sudden voices had come from freaking out as a result. For a second Melissa considered dreaming one up for her to find standing straight in front of her when she got back to turning around, like she had done many nights ago during the false fire.

 

But then the girl was gone and Melissa’s smile quietly shot away. Taking a second to find her again, she noted the girl on another rooftop two blocks away, the distance covered being roughly a hundred meters, emitting the urge to growl from Melissa’s throat. The girl was passing the limits of what a normal should have been capable of, and doing it very quickly. By the time she was gone again, her destination was clear. Melissa followed.

 

It was time to head back to Heavenly Springs.

 

**

 

When she got back, Sagara was standing at the top of the stairs.

 

Melissa never came the way of the stairs herself, her need to end the long waging battle against her legs by destroying her thighs was never that particularly high. It was easier to take the route of trees and rocks and provided a full body exercise in the process too. Only the little friend of the swordgirl ever seem to do the same. It was much more efficient. Even so seeing him in the distance prompted her to approach, especially as he stood with Draynor at the ready, his right leg shifted back and looking ready to strike with the hidden fist.

 

Put that thing away,” she admonished, reaching him. He didn’t glance her way. It was common knowledge to her that the residents were finding secrets at the drop of a hat, but it figured to her that the best way to keep a secret was not to advertise it at the front entrance.

 

Can’t. Natoko said demons are coming,” he replied, looking primed for combat, his relaxed posture being only betrayed by glowing green eyes. Melissa grinned.

 

What nonsense is this?” she asked, knowing full well. Sagara had gone missing for a few days even from her . His reappearance, despite his appearance, was usually a sign of importance. “There are no demons, Sagara. The Lacaraka dolls still roam the streets. This I determined from my patrol, but there are no demons in the village at the given time.”

 

Yeah, but Natoko said they were coming.”

 

Did she now? And where did she say they were appearing from?”

 

Yes. From the city.”

 

How long ago was this?”

 

Five minutes. Though since she came from the city it would be likely the situation started thirty minutes ago.”

 

Possibly less from the speed stepping Melissa had witnessed a moment ago.” So it stands to reason they should be directly behind her.”

 

Probably.”

 

Melissa felt she was arguing with an ogre. “And yet can you see any, even with the gaze of Futabatei.”

 

None at all.” He kept his stance, waiting with the patience of a thousand really dumb rocks that didn’t even realise they couldn’t have intelligence.

 

So why are you still waiting?”

 

Because Natoko said there were demons coming.”

 

And why should you believe her while neither of us can see any of them?”

 

Because I trust Natoko.”

 

Pausing, Melissa double checked as far as she could sense. They were clear. She smiled.

 

Very well,” she said, losing all expression and getting ready for battle herself. “What are your orders?”

 

I don’t have any.” He looked up. “Though I suppose defensive positions would be a good start.”

 

Already way ahead of you.”

 

**

 

Still panting Natoko blustered through the south wing second floor corridor, banging on every door she came to.

 

The demons are coming. Prepare yourselves!” she spat out, thumping hard on the fourth door on the right. Iziz rattled at her side and she took steps to stabilise it. Retrieving her sword had only come second to informing Sagara. It was pure luck she had found him so easily. His return from training was the perfect timing she hoped to respect from her lord and master. He had taken the situation in perfectly after a quick briefing. Already he had ordered her to do what she thought best and it was clear by now that meant warning the others. Resting against the unanswered door, Natoko regained her breath. Her thighs were still on fire from the sprint, she also fought her stomach turning against her, threatening an attack of cafeteria food.

 

Otsune had cleared out most of the residents and got them to the lobby already. Her idea was the pretence of a fire drill but Natoko knew better. There was no time for secrets now. War had been declared against them. On behalf of Mister Jupiter, Kiriyama had begun the assault against the forces of the Balance. Even now those he turned would be burning the streets of Fuugosuki’s amusement district, possibly infecting all who came their way. Kiriyama’s intentions must have been to raise an army on the spot that they may dare not face due to the once human origins of the now demonic monstrosities.

 

Kiriyama’s threat echoed through her ears. Sagara’s headquarters, or at least the place where he was squatting, was not public knowledge. Though Sakimoto Industries and the OniHono knew of his location, no demons had been directly aware. Even if they had, the location was set up for him temporarily. Leaving was an option.

 

But for herself, her location would have been listed in the school records. And even if she hadn’t made her allegiance clear at the tournament, Kiriyama knew, and that was all that was needed.

 

Heading for the exit, Natoko made her way back into the lobby, passing no one. People were either hutting themselves in their rooms or already out to help. Along the way Sarah joined her, marching alongside her. Natoko felt a slow rise in her heart. The girl knew what was at stake.

 

In the lobby, Otsune stood by the entrance, waiting with arms folded. All around them various groups of girls were chatting in little circles, not an edge of concern beyond a curious natter. This is why Natoko wanted to reveal the demons to them sooner rather than later. To get them ready, to see this as more than a fire drill.

 

Besides Otsune stood those who knew better; Fujiko, Sakura… and a boy whose name she had not yet learnt.. Otsune acknowledged her as she approached.

 

Sagara’s by the entrance,” said Otsune, still looking out the entrance. “His girlfriend’s just joined him.”

 

The girl is his assistant,” Natoko corrected her sharply, not wishing for mistakes to be made now. How much Otsune knew about the situation, Natoko wasn’t sure, but she had figured that at least was obvious

 

Okay,” Otsune continued, not sounding very sorry for her error. “I presume he’s keeping an eye out. What are we looking for here?”

 

Former humans. Brown skin. Very hairy. Their bodies are all – uh, messed up.”

 

Otsune’s head tilted. “Messed up how?”

 

Like they… turned into blobs and then stood back up again. You’ll see when you see them.”

 

Tautology… okay. Any estimates of how many?” Natoko felt her lips hold back a response, choosing to just stare at her friend. “What?”

 

I’m just… kinda shocked you’re taking this seriously.”

 

Are you telling the truth?”

 

Yes but-”

 

Then I will take the threat seriously,” Otsune stated plainly. “I have seen demons, Natoko. I have seen things you haven’t seen. And I trust you when you say you’ve gotten in way over your head with something and come crying to others it fix it up after you screwed up so badly that you’ve ended up bringing some hellspawn right to us and our collection of hot innocent asses.”

 

She is, of course, joking,” Fujiko interjected on the other side.

 

Correct. Fujiko is neither innocent nor hot.

 

And yet a few months ago she would have disagreed about that second noun.”

 

Be quiet. We need to focus.”

 

Natoko did focus. She had quickly gotten lost.

 

Otsune continued. “Natoko, what would you say this Kiriyama’s strategy is going to be here, from what you know of him.”

 

Natoko had told Otsune most of the situation with Kiriyama previously. She had left out the part about him tricking her into the easy framing of murder. “The demon’s he created didn’t seem all that smart. It’s like he turned them into beasts.”

 

Mindless beasts or feral slash cunning beasts.”

 

I… don’t know. Mindless. No- I don’t know, I was escaping by that point.”

 

They’re probably most likely to maybe assault from the front then,” Otsune looking perfectly sure of herself despite her words.” But with such limited information it’s stupid to assume anything that could be considered a prediction of the enemy’s moves. So here’s the plan-”

 

Brought to you by Otsune,” Fujiko butt in, “who is apparently in charge.”

 

Shush, no one cares,” said Otsune. “The plan is simple. We hold position in the lobby and front entrance. Sagara, Natoko and Melissa will defend.” Who was Melissa? “We cannot expect any of the residents to actually hold their own or not scream like movie stars as soon as the demons attack. If panic ensues and the defenders are not able to hold back the swarm of demons Fujiko and Alexis will escort them in the opposite direction. I assume both of you are able to handle that.”

 

That I can do,” confirmed Fujiko. The boy just nodded. Why is he here anyway? Natoko thought. “Just as long as you’re not hoping I can hold up in any fight of any kind.”

 

Won’t matter. I’ll work as the rear guard to defend you as you leave, regardless of which way you have to go. Lead them over the fence and down the hill. Should we get attacked on both sides do your best to get them outside before we’re overwhelmed, and I’ll try to have Occam protect them with a ring of fire.”

 

You’ll keep them safe? In a ring of fire?”

 

The fire can hurt demons. If those who can fight are disabled, that’ll be your safest place.”

 

What do I do?” Sarah asked, fists raised and ready to charge at the biggest bully in the playground.

 

You stay with the girls Fujiko will lead to safety and remember that you are ten years old.”

 

Hey, I can fight.”

 

No, you can stab old ladies. This will be completely different. You won’t be able to do anything.”

 

You don’t know what I’m able to do. You’ve got no fucking idea!”

 

Sakura, make sure Sarah goes with you. Do not leave her behind.”

 

Y-yes,” said Sakura uncertain of whether the young girl was about to start something right there.

 

Now, next up we have to decide the important step of-”

 

Something coming!” cried Sagara.

 

Everyone rushed out of the lobby in a huge swarm to the call. Curiosity poured out the gates and into the courtyard, almost taking Natoko down in the rush. Pushing herself forwards, and glad to make it there before anyone else, she glanced down the steps. Nothing could be seen between herself and the entrance. But if Sagara had announced it…

 

Slowly, Natoko took her own fighting stance, taking her legs apart, bent for a speed step. How many more could she manage? The thought flitted across her head, her hand clutching Iziz easily and feeling the weight fall off her mind. She was his instrument now. She would strike in his name and cut down those who would oppose, those who would taint the innocent no matter their intentions. Behind her, the wind informed her of everyone taking a step back. They had only seen her grab her sword. It impressed her they knew to trust her subtlest of actions.

 

Still there was no one on the steps, but Sagara’s stance had fallen low, angled to strike up. His gaze had turned to the large boulder near the top of the steps. At once, everyone’s eyes darted over to the giant rock, as if expecting it to strike at him itself after being revealed. The rock, usually taking the role of the best place to rest after trekking the one hundred and eight steps was now an enemy’s high ground. A perfect vantage point, with only the large bushy tree topping it.

 

The world went silent for ten heavy seconds.

 

The tree rustled, a shadow merging slowly out of it. It disappeared, a light thud tapping the rock.

 

Iziz dropped an inch out the hilt. Otsune’s flame burned larger and brighter. Even the American ninja was ready for anything now. Natoko brace herself.

 

The shadow shot down and Natoko lunged. “Now!” she called and everyone took the moment. Following her, Iziz curled out its shaft without touching wood and raised itself high above her head, shifting quickly to reign hell upon the hell denizen. Sagara followed, bringing his gauntlet up to strike with enough force to crack the demon and the bolder behind it. The ninja, gone for a second, was already above and falling with the sun behind her.

 

Sarah went low with the knife she shouldn’t have been carrying , the hidden blade joining Natoko’s in its strike. Aki was at the tip of their blades, second from impalement.

 

Stop!” Fire suddenly raged from nowhere, surrounding Iziz and forcing Natoko back before any damage occurred. Everyone was thrown away from the target, the sudden pressure knocking them aside, Natoko’s own momentum sent her suddenly shifting backwards, falling hard to the ground. Iziz fell away from her. She was too dazed to notice.

 

What are you doing?” Natoko screamed to Otsune, the girl staring at her from above with a livid expression. “How can you be so stupid-”

 

I’m stupid?” the woman shouted right back. “Look at what you’re attacking.”

 

With a wave of Otsune’s arm, the fire circle vanished, revealing its prisoner Natoko felt her throat seize up, as brown lips smiled at her, a perplexed expression surrounding them.

 

Now with messed up hair and waving with uncertainly from where the shadow was standing, Aki stood back up.

 

Erm… Hi. What’s going on?”

 

Aki,” Natoko said with relief, rushing up to her friend. “You’re safe. I wasn’t sure.” With her free hand she pulled her the girl to her. Aki stiffly returned the hug.

 

Yeah I’m fine,” Aki replied, after being allowed to breath. “Did you just get back now? Why’s everyone outside?”

 

I rushed back after I thought I lost you.” Natoko felt relief before the situation reminded her of itself. “We need to get back into position.” She turned to face the crowd, waving them down. “Everybody back into the lobby. How far behind you were they?’

 

The residents made no effort to move, all looking to the small group by the stairs. Gen had appeared near the back, asking anyone who would listen what was going on.

 

The dolls?” Aki turned to look back down the stairs, peering down with a sharp glance. “None were behind me. Did I set anything off?”

 

The dolls aren’t important,” Natoko said. “If anything,. They’ll assist in protecting us.” She had forgotten about them completely. “But the demons Aki. Were they following you?” For a second, it occurred to her that Aki should be a lot sweatier. “It’s okay if you led them back here.”

 

Natoko, I don’t-”

 

Don’t worry about it,:” she reassured her friend, who look of worry was expected for a girl who just brought the horde down upon them. “I can understand your actions. I don’t doubt I would do the same.”

 

Natoko I-”

 

But we have to focus now. Did you see how many they were? Are they infecting people? Was Kiriyama coming with t-”

 

Natoko!” The samurai shut her mouth, a silent apology for her attempted overload. It was at that moment she noticed Aki didn’t seem all that exhausted. “What are you talking about?”

 

Natoko’s breath stopped. “The demons that attacked us.”

 

What demons? Where?” Again, Aki was looking around for any signs of a threat.

 

The ones that attacked us at the arcade.”

 

The girl glanced from side to side at the others, as if looking for a tell-tale smile. “We… weren’t attacked at the arcade.”

 

Yes we were.”

 

No.. We went to leave, and you disappeared. But…” Aki seemed to figure something out. “Did you get attacked? Outside?”

 

No! I mean… yes,” stumbled Natoko. “You must have got out before me. Kiriyama came up behind and blindsided me. He was… he was like a demon. He started changing other people into demons. And when everyone tried to get out. He attacked those at the exits and made them into demons. I can’t believe you go-”

 

Wait, I went back in to find you. There weren’t any demons there.” Aki looked perplexed.

 

Well, I went upstairs to escape into the next room and-”

 

Yeah but, you sad the exits were full of demons, but I came in back through the exits. There weren’t any demons.”

 

Now Natoko glanced side to side, looking over to Otsune, who was looking very miffed with her hands on her hips.

 

No, there were… but I went upstairs into the next room. I hit the fire alarm to get everyone to leave.”

 

That was you who hit the fire alarm? Were the demons invisible then Or did they chase you?”

 

No, I escaped through the fire exits. They stayed in the main room.” Natoko’s head burned. Was this the time to be arguing semantics. The demons were probably in the village streets by now, piling up for the initial assault against the dorm.

 

Natoko…” Aki had become completely flummoxed now. “We all left after the fire alarm, but I was in there before and in there straight after we were let back in. I went to look for you but you were gone. There were no demons.”

 

Natoko felt her mouth hang open as words tried to leave it. “The demons were there. Kiriyama was turning innocent humans. He hit me on the back of the head with an iron bar. Ow!”

 

Otsune was behind her, a finger extended at eyeball level. “What are you doing?” Natoko yelled.

 

Wondering why you don’t have a concussion,” she answered plainly, her admonishing glare now fixed into position. Natoko rubbed the back of her head despite not really feeling any pain at the prodding. Why didn’t she have a concussion?

 

I can’t believe this?” a new voice said. It was the American ninja girl, standing next to Sagara. Draynor had spirited away. She was still in the realm of understanding. “You’re on standby with nothing to do and so you choose to waste our time on storytelling?”

 

What? No I-” What was going on?

 

Enough!” silenced the ninja girl. “This is inappropriate behaviour for a servant of the Balance. We are directly against the notions of falsehood and self-deception. Whichever one you are bringing to the table I will tell you to cease now. This may be a quiet time, but it is not one to cry wolf with.”

 

But I wasn’t lying. I saw-”

 

If you were not lying to us, then you were lying to yourself. Either way I see no demons and I’m sure Sagara can confirm.” All eyes turned to Sagara.

 

Huh? Oh… No,” he said, without even another quick scan around. “There are definitely no demons in a twenty five mile radius.”

 

And that would include the city in which you were just visiting, correct? Therefore, we can conclude that there is no current threat to the Balance except that of a moral panic.” The girl sounded like she was hissing. Natoko wanted to fall silent.

 

There were demons!” she insisted, waiting to wipe the glares off everyone’s faces. “They were everywhere and he was making more.”

 

Via vomiting , I believe you said earlier?” Natoko could only nod before being cut off. “There are several methods a demon can possess a human host. The main one is the ritual of the kotodama. Other methods are possible, such as a transference stone being used, but no method includes projecting mouth faeces onto a person.

 

It wasn’t… mouth… dropping. It was a bright purple energy.”

 

Also impossible. You waste our time now.” The ninja girl turned to Sagara. “I’m leaving. This has long become unnecessary.”

 

Okay. Talk to you soon,” said Sagara, giving a quick hand only wave.

 

Wait. You have to believe me,” Natoko began. The ninja girl walked back into the crowd of girls still watching. They let her through as she headed back to the dormitory, most still watching Natoko. “There are demons.”

 

Natoko,” Aki mewled, almost whimpering to her friend. “I’m sorry, but… there wasn’t.”

 

There was.”

 

There wasn’t. I would have seen them. I know what demons look like, or at least know they exist to keep an eye out for what they can be.”

 

It doesn’t matter what you thought you saw,” Natoko growled, stiffening up against her friend. “I know what I saw and I saw demons!”

 

Natoko?” A hand was on her shoulder. Large and warm. Her whole right arm suddenly wanted to relax.

 

My Lord?”

 

I think you need to lay down,” he said, the world going dark around him.

 

**.

 

**

 

Has she brought it here?”

 

How could she not?”

 

But how could she so?”

 

Natoko was sleepy, but not tired. Part of her was glad to rest.

 

It exists in all things human. They brought it forth after all, in their hopes and dreams, the unanswered prayers formed. He exists in all of us, one way or another. His words become our goals, just as our words formed his goals.”

 

There was something missing. Not Iziz. Iziz was wrapped around her embrace, keeping her warm as she cradled it. Something else. Something tense, always being rigid. She never noticed it until it was never there.

 

It is not in her. It should be, but It is not.”

 

How is this so.?

 

In mind, she is all too susceptible, but in spirit. That is how she keeps free. We are possibly not allowed to understand.”

 

She is a carver then? She who forges her own path.”

 

That is most likely.”

 

Natoko sneezed. The two voices stopped talking. For a moment she felt the urge to apologise, no matter how brief the interruption. If only she could talk.

 

A faint beating sound occurred to her. Monotonous. Repetitive. Turning towards it she felt herself slip away. The sudden trip was pleasant.

 

See. Even here she does what none should be capable of. There is no sneezing in the shadows.”

 

It is cold in a shadow.”

 

But there is no body temperature within the OniKage. The concept simply does not exist. Yet here she is, being affected by metabolism, in a world that can be nothing more than the by-product of a dream.”

 

The name was familiar. The voices were not. They were both Sagara, she knew that, but there was nothing else to it.

 

Part of her was aware her eyes were wide open. They had been since she had become aware. The voices said nothing to her, but they anchored her all the same. This dream was a relaxed darkness. There was no light to blind, no heat to avoid. The world expanded, then shrunk. She let her mind wander over the fact four times. She could be safe here, but only for an eternity.

 

It was silent for a long time. “You’re right, but it is still so.”

 

I know. I don’t disagree, old friend, but the impossibility is still there.”

 

Do you think she can hear us?”

 

Not sure. We should probably give some vital clues to her just in case.”

 

A shame neither of us knows anything vital.”

 

How about, ‘The OniHono is not your enemy’?”

 

It’s a bit dangerous, isn’t it. Just because it’s a tool for the Babylon gates doesn’t mean it won’t vaporise her on contact.”

 

Okay… ‘Beware of It!”

 

We should definitely be more ambiguous if we’re going to do that one.”

 

The same voice gave a mild growl of annoyance, not that she could tell the difference between them. As the animalistic cries continued, she felt the voices getting faint. The beating fell deeper and she could see light coming out at the end of what was an apparent tunnel.

 

Very well… Oh, how about ‘As soon as you get out of here, Mr. Jupiter will attempt to Mind-rape you.”

 

Natoko felt agony surround her world. The light flew around her, wanting to envelope her. In a panic she struggled, seeking to use her hands to latch onto the darkness and keep herself hidden and secure.. The light tugged mercilessly, dropping her towards it. Her mind told her that giant hands were latching onto her, bringing her away from safety. That wasn’t fair. She wanted to stay there. Regardless of what happened outside, the inside would always be cuddly. A third hand grasped her now. Next thing she knew Iziz was sizzling, the hilt bubbling away. Instinctively, her hands tried to throw it away from her, but her spirit persisted, keeping a tight grip and screaming in unholy agony as wood started to fuse to her flesh. The world went white, purely as a result of her own actions, and suddenly a heavy tug pulled her out into the light.

 

Eyes straining, Natoko peeked out into existence. The world tried to blind her and she shunned it away until the large hand grabbed her own and shunted her upwards. Her bones followed against their will, her other hand trying to free her even as her feet dangling with no ground in sight. Her eyes adjusting, she became aware of the rocky cliff face she was climbing without touching, its smooth yet rough surface rising quickly towards her, before dipping back into a series of deep folds. Her ride stopped without warning, and her arm hissed in pain. Her vision restored, she looked around and saw only light surrounding her and the cliff side. When she realised nothing was holding her hand, she got down and stood in the thin air.

 

She checked her weapon, Iziz still securely fashioned to her side. The eye had appeared when she looked back up. Large. Blue. It came from where the folds sagged and were four times as large. She could see its twin over to her left.

 

Hello, Miss Yamanaka,” said the giant face of Mr. Jupiter. “I thought we should talk a little. Get to know one another better.”

 

**

 

Nanahara was bored. This came with every single minimum wage salary man job he would ever have. He had accepted it a long time ago that it was his duty in life to be bored beyond all comparable measure. He had even met with the Oracle of Sakimoto who informed him directly, and even provided it in writing when he requested, that boredom was his reason for existing. Nanahara’s destiny in life would be to have a boring job. He would have a boring girlfriend. Boring family. Boring friends who only ever wanted to do boring things. In a few years he might get a boring promotion and this would lead him to make a boring proposal that his wife would accept (albeit grudgingly), before he got them a boring apartment and had two boring kids, one of whom will fulfil his dream of being a boring five time platinum rock star..

 

But until that happened he would have to live a mundane life working alongside the mystical forces of the Balance. And it would only ever be working alongside, and never working with. And he would take up mundane informant roles (for the heroic warriors that would approach him) that would reveal mundane clues (that would always lead to new revenues of spectacular insight) that would lead them to face off against mundane opponent (twisted monsters of the chaos realms or angelic figures whose forgiveness knew no bounds) and for this he would always get unappreciated, mundane gratitude (that was always unappreciated, mundane gratitude).

 

Nanahara didn’t like his job, or his life, or the people he knew, or the great destiny that he was a part of. He didn’t even know why he did it. But he did.

 

The fourteen cables surrounded him, a small booklet told him what where they needed to go. This was of course irrelevant. Being blessed (literally) with an eidetic memory meant he knew where they all needed to go the first time he set them.

 

It was now the fourteenth time, and the issue now was becoming clear. It was not about attaching the cables into the primary server of the S.I.S. It was keeping them in.

 

Out of mundane boring routine he scooped up the first wire. A Cat5e network cable. Pretty pink. This one could go into any of the main ports. He clipped it into place, took a step back, and watched as the electrical discharge catapulted it across the room, stopping only when the wire pulled it back.

 

The S.I.S wasn’t even waiting for him to turn his back now. He groaned, loudly and forcefully, enough to make the stupid computer know it was being hated. It couldn’t know, of course. It wasn’t allowed to, but that still didn’t stop him from trying.

 

He gave up, just for a minute, stealthily leaning against the wall where the fans were and pulling out a smoke. He had disabled the servers fire alarms when he came in, knowing all this predictable boringness was going to happen and knowing he’d have to engage in a filthy boring habit for his transgressions.

 

What transgressions, he didn’t know. He no longer fucking cared. He was the Balance’s shit joke, the little reminder to everyone else that, as much as their eternal task to preserve the line between heaven and Hell was full of torment, there was a guy that had it so much worse, and if you ever met him, you could say ‘please, you’re just the computer guy, you’ve got it easy’.

 

He did have it easy, that was the problem. He was also trapped. Like this stupid little server in its stupid little server room, he couldn’t escape. It wasn’t even that he knew too much. It was that every attempt he had made so far had led him right back to another odds and sods job within the balance. With his experience he thought he could at least get a managerial role. But every task so far had led to either selling food and using self-hypnosis to prevent himself murdering the customers, or another shitty job looking after this shitty server.

 

Picking up the cables, he rammed them into the ports and began palm fisting them in. They stayed for a few seconds longer than before, then tried to pop out again the second he caught them. With another growl he flipped his cigarette out and held it up, letting the server camera see the spliff he had before tried to hide, before bringing it over the port. The remaining cables stayed in for another two seconds, then shot across the room again, one so powerful it pulled the wire out on the other side.

 

No longer able to contain a single fuck he jammed the smoke into the port the wire occupied a second ago and squeezed it in. The motion brought a sharp elation on the hairs of his skinny back. A single act of rebellion, proof that he wasn’t to be trifled with. He stubbed it in there and twisted, letting the specks of ash fall to the floor as the embers burned into the metal contacts on the RJ-45’s socket. A green light came on.

 

Thank you very fucking much,” he shouted, ripping the cig out and replacing the cable. He gave it ten seconds and when nothing happened, replaced the remaining thirteen. When they were all finally in place, he stepped back to observe his work and noted how even facing off with a server containing the latest in artificial technology was still not enough to surgically remove the cramp feeling of boredom whenever he was given this mundane cable replacing job.

 

Picking up his tool kit, Nanahara left the room, switching the fire alarm back on before he left. Nanahara’s moods and motives now had a 97.8% validity in predictions and acknowledging his personality was now 100% complete. As such, the situation had been easy to modulate and corresponded with all fifty two event triggers that had originally being decided upon. The event was a success.

 

When it was silent, the camera turned to focus, peering down on the cigarette butt, now fallen on the Linotype. It had ceased to glow and its heat disappeared from S.I.S’s sensors. The event log was compiled, before being encrypted and stored in a secure logs folder.

 

It would do for now..

 

**

 

You’ve been taken out of the game for a short while, Miss Yamanaka,” Mr. Jupiter said, his face no longer belonging on the side of a mountain. “You would think this gives you an advantage, or time to rest. On the contrary, it exposes you a lot more than you would care to believe.”

 

There were in a simple room, a lavishly decorated simple room that looked like it had been stripped bare by looters long ago, leaving only two chairs and a varnished wooden table. It was her belief that she was sitting on one of the chairs. The walls were covered in an intrinsically detailed Victorian wallpaper that had maths formulas scribbled all over it. There was only one door, and no windows.

 

What’s happened here, I presume, for any more than a presumption would be foolish of me, you have been ‘put to sleep’ probably by my dear friend Sagara, whom I’ve never met. I suspected this may happen at some point in the future, though I confess I don’t know what the reason is. It’s possible your physical body has been possessed by one of my kind. You may have even been killed..

 

A demon stood beside Mr. Jupiter, a grotesque orange face with a single large wart covering up each cheek and holes where the eyes should be. Its mouth was sewn up by an amateur And it was holding a tea tray, shivering on the spot as Mr. Jupiter took his time pouring liquid into one of the two cups.

 

Of course, if you don’t recall any major situation happening then I’d be going along my favourite theory. That the Balance had finally considered you too much of a prolonged threat to them, and dealt with you accordingly.”

 

Natoko sneezed again. Scenes tried to play in her mind but the engine providing the pictures wouldn’t turn over. She remembered frustration and disappointment, but not where they came from.

 

The demon shuffled over to her, presenting the cup of tea. She observed the smooth brown, perfectly tea looking liquid and held her hand up to refuse. The demon’s stuff face quickly grew agitated, and it its head twisted in Mr. Jupiter’s direction. The cup started shaking over the tea tray as the demon started to fidget on the spot.

 

Natoko quickly scooped the cup off the tray. The demon’s eyes stretched wider than they should, then seemed relieved.

 

Now what this does, what they’ve done. They think this just knocks you out cold. What it does however is leaves you in a situation you’ve never been in before and hence turns all your built in psychic sleep defences all the way to off. As a result, we can both chat in peace and invade your deepest memories.”

 

For some reason this felt strangely acceptable to Natoko. She lifted her cup off its plate and took a swig. Already set to the perfect temperature, the warm and subtle aroma attacked what she assumed were her senses in a pleasant way. She took another sip, and then rested the tea down on the table.

 

Now,” continued Mr. Jupiter. “I brought you here today, or brought myself here, I’m not entirely sure, to discuss your future with you. Now as I’m sure your teachers have been telling you you’re a bright positive young woman with plenty of potential, and I would like to see to it that your potential doesn’t get squandered. I’m not saying it is being squandered with your association with the Balance, but I’m not saying it’s not either. You are at the very least, turning your potential into positive energy.”

 

Natoko smiled politely and waited on Mr. Jupiter with patience and respect.

 

Now Miss Yamanaka, I’m not sure if they’ve told you this. It’s often dangerous information to reveal, so I can perfectly understand Sagara hiding it from you, for your own good you see. But you are, what we call in this industry, a Carver. One who cuts their own path. I’m not sure where this term comes from myself but I think you’ll agree it’s quite appropriate to yourself.”

 

Out of the corner of her eye, Natoko saw the demon push the tea trolley out through the mahogany door and shut it behind itself.

 

Now being a Carver actually makes you a rare and precious commodity in the demon world, on the plains of the divine, and also, as you can probably guess, the Balance. This is because a Carver can do that which no one else can, and that, namely, is anything.”

 

Natoko waited, lost for words. Mr. Jupiter paused long enough to make her feel like she should say something, but cut her off just as her mouth started to unpeel.

 

Now you Carvers, you break the rules somehow. You are just human. Yet your desires can be turned into potential and then action so much easier than everyone else. I’m not just talking about ‘just try your hardest and you’ll succeed’ – that usually doesn’t work anyway, we have Sloth demons to prevent it – but literally anything. If your desire was to find a way to fly you’d do it, with or without machinery. If you wanted the ability to turn into metal, you’d discover it despite no method existing at this present point. If you wanted to be a master samurai with speed of the sword no one else had…”

 

Natoko sat there, patiently, her brain turned a cartwheel in her head.

 

Well I’d say you were on your way there nicely.” He stopped to take a sip of his own tea. The mug was all black save for two white spirals going around the top. She watched… patiently, as she saw his lips extend past his cheeks. “But with this alone, even though you have achieved so much, your progress is limited. You are not even fully aware of your achievements. Are you aware that, in your Battle Royal, at the Underground tournament, twenty of the opponents you threw out of the ring were all full-fledged demons or divine in disguise. Impressive, isn’t it. To defeat demons without knowing what they are.”

 

Yet even this amazing display of power is not what you are fully capable of. And this is because you are not aware of the tools at your disposal. You did not even know you were a Carver. You were not aware of how your potential grows exponentially, rather than laterally like other. You do not even know what exponential means.”

 

It was true. She didn’t.

 

I wish to change that. To change you. I’m going to make you an offer at the end of this, and all I ask from you in the meantime is that you listen to me in full. Now, I’ve given you two pieces of advice. I’m going to give you one more. I don’t know if you know it, so I may just be going over things you know. This last piece is a piece about me and demons at large. Now, our demons may be different from what demons you’re used to hearing about. Some of us are snarling hell beasts who exist solely to cause human suffering, but others are simply facets of human sin, who wish no harm on humans whatsoever but merely exist to be the sum on their errors.”

 

The wall behind Mr. Jupiter made a small, thumping noise. Natoko looked over, but couldn’t see anything.

 

I myself am not one of these. I am a sin of Envy. I exist to make humans jealous, jealousy of the petty boasts of other, jealous of those they perceive greater. It is good work. I enjoy it very much. It requires a bit of subtle pushing. A man who brags there. A rumour about an affair with a model there, ruining an exercise regime to make it look like your friend is doing better than you. There’s a lot that goes into it.”

 

Natoko was sure of that. How often had she been jealous of Aki’s genius, or Sagara’s natural strength. She could have that.

 

But one of the key aspects of envy is relative comparison. That’s where we make one human great in order to make all the humans around it feel weak and pathetic by comparison. That is what I want to do for you.” He pushed a piece of paper towards her. Longer than usual, white and illegible, she lifted it up and began glancing over the unreadable writing. There was a large box at the end, clearly for a signature. “I want to make you great, Ms Yamanaka Natoko. Work for me, and I’ll bring you out to your greatest potential I can guarantee we can do this for you.” She looked up to him. “Why, just ask Kiriyama.”

 

Kiriyama walked up to stand by Mr. Jupiter’s side.

 

It’s true you know. I couldn’t believe how well it worked. Within just a few weeks I had gained super strength and the ability to teleport. And I’m not even a Carver. I would definitely recommend Mr. Jupiter’s services.”

 

You see. If you agree now, I can also guarantee that I won’t take your soul.” Kiriyama had disappeared. “I just plain don’t need it. I live off the energies of envy that permeate the planet. Just by making you great and others jealous I get what I want, and all you have to do is just carry on what you’re doing. I give you help, advice and pushes along the way, along with the sinister underlying threat of wrecking your sanity should you refuse, and you just carry on living your life. You can even carry on working alongside the Balance if you want. You’ll just be officially serving me instead. I honestly won’t mind and won’t even ask you to betray anyone. It really is a win, win, win deal.”

 

Natoko was surprised, though not by much. Usually she thought deals with the devil would automatically condemn her soul. Knowing that she could do all this and not face eternal damnation was… very nice.

 

The wall pounded again. The tiniest of cracks started to appear.

 

So what do you think? Take a moment to think about it. You have until the end of this dream sequence to decide. Remember, anything you want to be can be yours as long as you let me guide you on your path. You can be strong. You can be famous. I’ll even work towards shaping you physically so others will finally find you attractive. You don’t lose anything by agreeing and if you don’t agree I’ll just make everyone you hold dear think you’re crazy by subtly manipulating events around you. You really can’t miss out.

 

Looking at the pen, Natoko’s mind wandered. She saw herself, standing besides Sagara on a hill, the enemies of the Balance surrounding the landscape before them. Her resplendent armour marking her high rank, Iziz hanging by her side. All her friends behind her watching in awe of her actions. Her mind played with ideas of battle, the speeds she could attain, the skills, the respect. It was all a very easy choice to make.

 

She put the pen down.

 

No thank you,” she said.

 

The crack shattered behind them. The demon butler falling through the hole. It screamed loudly, its mouth free, the string dangling free from its toothless mouth with eyes burning fearlessly. In an instance it covered the room to reach Mr. Jupiter and quickly evaporated with a wave of his hand.

 

The dust lingered in the air, floating towards Natoko. She stood up, accepting it. It was her mind after all. She braced her blade.

 

Oh, no need for that,” Mr Jupiter said raising his hand and nearly losing it as Natoko slipped Iziz out for a strike. “I insist. Really, there’s no need.”

 

Leave my head now,” Natoko asked with the sternness of a primed nuclear warhead.

 

It was only an offer. One that still stands.” He pushed the paper on the desk closer to her. “Keep it. Find me if you change your mind, or if your friends betray you after I make them think they can’t trust you anymore.” Iziz flashed out. He was by the door in the same instant. “It was a pleasure to finally speak to you.”

 

Leave!” she said waking up.

 

***

 

Natoko woke up with the taste of hair on her tongue and the sound of the rain’s continuous attempt to shatter the window pane. Slowly, her eyes drifted awake. Her face felt clammy and her muscles were groaning at her. Her stomach’s only contribution to the situation was a growl. When had she last eaten? For that matter, when had she fallen asleep? The last thing she remembered was all the others staring at her and the demons-

 

Bolting upright, Natoko immediately regretted it, her quadriceps screaming out in agony. Both thigh muscles felt like they were about to combust by absorbing too much heat and she hissed between her teeth upon poking one of them. The quick step, it appeared, was torturous with prolonged use, though Natoko figured a sprint the distance between the city and Heavenly Springs would prove too much for most people.

 

She would just have to train harder.

 

She was in bed, her bed, somewhere in the middle of the night. Someone must have carried her here, meaning she had probably passed out. Had it been Sagara? Had she had to trouble her lord with such a petty task? None of the others were strong enough for it surely? Outside a bolt of lightning flashed somewhere it the distance. Natoko looked to it instinctively, seeing the city as a lit up outcrop amid all the clouds. It was noticeably not on fire or appeared within the middle of a demon invasion apocalypse scenario. It just looked as boring as always

 

Her stomach growling at her for attention, Natoko yawned and tried lazily to stretch. She should probably eat. Her bones creaked within her and she leaned over for the light. She was still in her school uniform. The collar of her shirt had been unbuttoned and her socks taken off, but beyond that it looked like she had retained her modesty, though the thought of Sagara needing to change her gave her-

 

The light wasn’t working. She flicked the switch a few times out of habit and looked for her alarm clock. The red LEDs that should have been on the other side of the bed weren’t there. The clock itself was.

 

Sorry,” a voice said and straight after a bolt of lightning filled her eyes. “There was a power cut. My fault.” Natoko’s body spun out of bed, hating her for making it do such a thing so quickly as she reached for the blade. Iziz was in her hand and out its sheath in an instant, no amount of darkness being able to hide the two from each other. Raising her weapon, another lightning bolt filled her vision and for the instant it lasted lit up the presence of a young girl sitting on the floor besides the door.

 

The room fell back to darkness and Natoko lowered her sword carefully to her side, sensing no threat. She recognised the girl, the one Sagara had called Raiko. The girl’s presence had skipped her mind these last few weeks and last Natoko recalled she was still comatose. What was she doing in Natoko’s room?

 

I don’t think we’ve met ,” Raiko said, now just another shadow in Natoko’s room. “I’m Raiko. Thank you for taking care of me all this time.”

 

Er… The same to you,” Natoko said, realising he should at least attempt to polite. “I’m Yamanaka Natoko. Nice to meet you.”

 

Oh,” the girl said, a little drearily. “You’re Miss Yamanaka. You’re the one that became Sagara’s assistant. I thought that might be the case.”

 

Natoko felt her neck twitch. “Actually I’m his retainer.”

 

Retainer? I’m sure Yuya said you were an assistant.”

 

No. It’s Retainer.”

 

Hhhmmm.” The room fell silent for a few seconds. “Well. Means nothing to me. I got you some food by the way. Thought you might be hungry.”

 

Natoko looked to her bedside cupboard. In what was left of the light was a small bowl filled with pasta shapes. Probably something of Sakura’s. “Er… thank you.” She sat down and started eating. It was spicy but cold. At that point it could have been rotten insects.

 

I have to be honest,” Raiko said after the first full mouthfuls. “I knew who you were. I remember you from the tournament. It’s just… I thought we should meet and… talk.”

 

Natoko let the spoon hover in front of her mouth, feeling almost amused by the hesitant voice hiding in the darkness. It reminded her of a dream she had, though she couldn’t remember why.

 

It’s just… I… That is… With Sagara.” Natoko heard what sounded like the clearing of a throat. “There is much to Sagara that you do not know.”

 

Natoko bean eating again. “Of course. He never tells me anything.”

 

And you do not listen when he does.”

 

Natoko paused. Maybe it was the intense fatigue, but part of her didn’t care for this fact. Sagara didn’t need to tell her anything. He was her master, she would simply accept everything he told her to do, if that ever happened.

 

I…” Raiko hesitated, swallowing hard as she seemed to merge with the shadows in the corner even further. “I will probably be falling in love with Sagara very soon.”

 

The rage that seethed through Natoko’s tired body hit the boiling point for a split second. Her hand wanted to glide for Iziz, but held itself from the sword long enough for her to calm down. “What… what makes you say that?” she asked, trying for patience.

 

I don’t want to. No… I do, but I don’t think I do. Maybe I do but I felt like what was calling me to love him was the wrong thing. Or that maybe the thing that’s making me love him is making me think that so in the end I decided that I must love him. I don’t know.”

 

Natoko sat there, leaving the empty pasta bowl in her lap. She relaxed a little, mostly out of confusion.

 

There is a demon inside of me,” the girl said, “or a Divine, I don’t know. Yuya told me the Sirynclou were demons, but this one looks out for me and protects me. If it wasn’t for the OniRai, I’ll be dead by now several times over.”

 

OniRai? The name wasn’t familiar, but its style was.

 

It doesn’t even have to save me. Me dying saves it. I don’t know why they call it a demon.”

 

Natoko relaxed. Why was she worried? This girl was fraught with a demon. Sagara would never share the same feelings as her. Besides, this was Sagara, and it was likely that a man such as himself would like have many admirers. Natoko certainly topped them all.

 

A demon has its own interests at heart,” Natoko said, recalling a conversation she felt she had recently. “What you may mistake as assistance is most like self-interest.

 

No I…” Raiko seemed distracted yet… charged. “I get that. I’ve said it myself many times. It’s just… this demon knows love itself.”

 

The lightning crashed outside again. The girl’s face glowed off of the reflection. Natoko couldn’t see her eyes.

 

It loves the OniKage, the spirit trapped inside Sagara. It loved it since before any of us were even alive, and a long time before that too. It even changed itself so its name became like that of the OniKage. Even agreed to the bonding process that attached our spirits together, all so it could continue to interact with the OniKage when it was sealed up in Sagara.” The girl buried her head in her arms, her words becoming a muffled mess.

 

And now ever since I met him I can’t stop thinking about him! His innocent grin, his cheeky laugh. Those incandescent emerald eyes. Those stupid hard abs!.” Raiko pounded the wooden floor in frustration, a blue spark erupted from her fist and disappeared against the ground.

 

And I can’t tell!” she continued. “Is this love at first sight, or is this monster inside me just bringing up the idea of how great it would be to lick every inch of Sagara’s muscular pectorals?”

 

Natoko’s rage had dissipated, but her cheeks were still burning.

 

If it was the first, maybe I could work with that, but the only one that could tell me is the OniRai, and I can’t exactly trust his opinion in the matter.”

 

Natoko’s ears picked up. “He?”

 

The OniRai.”

 

The OniRai is a male demon?”

 

That’s right.”

 

Does that mean the OniKage is a female demon.”

 

No, it’s not a demon. It’s a spirit. That we definitely know.”

 

But a female nonetheless.”

 

Er… that’s right.”

 

Maybe it was the darkness. But Raiko didn’t seem bothered by the details here. Natoko tried hard not to be either. The girl had a demon inside of her. That was what was important here surely. Though Sagara clearly wasn’t in a rush to expel the creature. It was probably right to assume either the demon had some kind of free pass or the Balance was looking for a way to get it out of her.

 

So anyway…” Raiko finally said, “I was wondering… I know we don’t know each other… but it would be the best thing if you could help me.”

 

Yes?” Natoko said very carefully.

 

Would you, and I can totally understand you saying no-” The girl pulled herself into the light, bringing herself up to Natoko’s legs. “Would you be able to arrange with Sagara… if you could maybe help me set him up… Could you ask him if he’d go on a date with me?”

 

The girl’s voice had raised enough octaves that Natoko’s head shot around in all directions as if to see if the inhabitants of any neighbouring rooms might have somehow heard.

 

Glaring at the girl, Natoko’s throat seized up , her hands grabbing the fabric of her skirt as she looked down on Raiko’s pleading eyes. Thoughts raced back a few months, another time when she was above someone else. Back then she had just taken what she had wanted most of all and this girl was asking her to give it all over to her.

 

Please Natoko,” the girl said, the sweet melody of her voice pinching Natoko’s ears. “Please. I just need to know whether or not what I’m feeling is anything close to what the OniRai is thinking. I can suppress him temporarily. I go on the date with Sagara, and I can judge for myself knowing the demon isn’t influencing me.”

 

Natoko sat stunned, a part of her brain registering that the rain had stopped behind her, another part just wanting to stab. The girl’s adorable face glowed in the moonlight behind Natoko and she felt her heart sink a little.

 

Very well,” Natoko said. “I’ll help you.”

 

[scene with Natoko overhearing a conversation between the group. Sagara brings up the sword belonging to her grandfather and Otsune placing doubt upon it]

 

The voice poked at the edge of Nanahara’s subspace as the beach around him rocked back and forth, upsetting his Mojitos and causing Rochelle to grasp onto his firm shoulders harder. Across the way, Candeen felt the sand pull away from her feet and he laughed out a hearty manly laugh as Monica and Satsuki giggled to each other, before resuming his foot massage.

 

Nanahara relaxed. It was none of his concern. The world just did that some time. The girls knew it would happen from time to time and of course they wouldn’t mind. They accepted him. They were the only ones in this world that did.

 

Lord Nanahara,” Rochelle said, leaning up to whisper in his ear, her supple lips just mere nanometres away from the hairs of his earlobe. He tilted his neck to catch the full length of her body and took in everything to her wonderfully toned legs to her gorgeous brown hair, taking extra time to admire just how much her red bikini was one size too small.

 

Yes, my dear,” he said, already stopping her words as their lips joined. Rochelle leaned into the kiss, already chewing on his lower lip but more than eager to let him take control. Suddenly he felt the grip on his feet tighten as Monica and Satsuki watched with a mix of envy and lust.

 

He grinned as he felt Rochelle push her tongue behind his teeth. All the girls were his. They knew that, and they knew they were equals before him, but it was so nice to watch them forget from time to time.

 

Beneath him Rochelle gasped for air and he released her. She took a moment to embrace him and let him feel the contents of her bikini press against his own impressive chest. “Lord Nanahara,” she tried to say again, and giggled as he acted to cut her off, only stopping when she placed a single finger to his lips. “Lord Nanahara.” He loved it when she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I was just going to say… your tabletop war-game strategy event has just loaded up on the system. The new AI has come through and is ready to be loaded up for play. Would you like to begin?”

 

Nanahara hesitated. Rochelle always knew just how to turn him on the right way. He brought her in for one last kiss, took a little detour to leave trails on her neck and then lifted himself up. “Begin the program.”

 

All the girls save for Rochelle paused. He said they were equals, but Rochelle was his favourite. She had the honour of being able to shift across mindscapes with him any time he chose. Besides, she would be a great asset in the game as well. His opponent would be set as a sixteen year old girl in the middle of some compromising questions about herself. A piece of eye candy would surely inhibit her desire to go for a full frontal strike when spreading his troops out would cause Rochelle to lean over more, especially since the red bikini, still one size too tight, wasn’t going anywhere.

 

The tabletop appeared, as did his army. All around him he heard voices he wasn’t expecting and turned to see an audience fluttering around him. The simulations were getting more complex, not that he minded. The world rocked forwards and backwards a little as the transition continued. Ignoring it, he turned to face his opponent.

 

Are you listening to me, Nanahara? His opponent shouted at him. Nanahara stepped back, feeling a lot lighter all of a sudden. His opponent was less of sixteen year old girl and instead appeared as a forty two year old senior project manager.

 

Yessir yessir. My apologies. My apologies.”

 

Get that mail server back up and running. The accounting department needs to get the end of year done, and you know what our budget will be like if we piss them off.”

 

Yessir, yessir, I’ll get right on it.” Great. He was bowing again. He must have been doing it for a while. Too many excessive movements countered the office drone program.

 

He backed away manually. This guy wasn’t someone he recognised. He was either new, or extremely lucky that Nanahara was always off in his own world when they were talking. The office drone must have been afraid of him though. Darting through the office, he saw Feng pass him a friendly knowing grin. He returned it along with an image of poking the man’s eyes out with a machete.

 

Nanahara hated each and every one of these creatures. Most of them didn’t even know they worked for an organisation designed to keep the Balance between good and evil. Most couldn’t even comprehend that several of the doors here led to a pan-dimensional world between worlds. It astonished him that even the people in the marketing department remained blissfully unaware that just the day that huge crash three floors up was actually the result of an Aquinas throwing a hissy fit after being denied sanction. It made him wonder if some of these people even did jobs here.

 

Of course, he did his job and he had to suffer the most boring parts of existence for his troubles. And of course none of them appreciated an iota of it. His only solace was that while he had to endure the ‘I get a bigger pay cheque’ than you lecture from management types and the ‘surely you could be doing something bet4ter with your life, Nanahara’ from the obese girl at reception who saw him as an office friend (the feeling was not returned), he knew that everything he did was a billion times important for the entire world than anything they spent last Tuesday typing up reports that he personally knew went nowhere at all.

 

Of course, the drone program helped.

 

The office drone program was his secret. Actual members of the Balance had mistook it for a hypnosis technique, a method intelligent, more spiritually aware people used to keep their individuality and creative opinion in a world of mass marketing, reality TV and taking server reports down to Processing for shredding, but the drone program was different. It took over for him, had its own personality. It could make him friends he never had to care about, and engage in the latest conversations about the latest, totally retarded, gravure idol.

 

It would be his saving grace if it just didn’t cut out like this whenever his head bobbed up and down.

 

Wandering into the console room, he collapsed at his desk. Unlocking his computer, he looked to the program. The simulation was on hold and waiting for him. Considering it for a few moments, Nanahara closed the program down and ran the same search he had a dozen times before..

 

The search was his own scripting program, a server wide scan of anything potentially referring to the drone program. The program wasn’t his, he knew that much easily, but it also didn’t appear to be anyone else’s. A program powerful enough to place his mind in a simulated world and have his body run its own tasks was groundbreaking, but that alone didn’t explain the programs ability to only be on the computer he was sitting at, regarding of which computer he was sitting at with the exception of if it was someone else’s computer he was sitting at to fix.

 

Searching completed quickly. No traces found. That was good. The program would remain his. It was his only solace. Losing it wasn’t an option, nor was giving it to anyone else. Only with this could the boring life be avoided..

 

The S.I.S primary server beeped at him, he swung over to it and saw a request to purchase component parts. A router designed for satellite access. It wasn’t for here though. It was for Heavenly Springs dormitory. He signed, trying his best not to let the frustration rip out every circuit in this joint. That was that easy going bastard’s place, wasn’t it? He was the one with the real fun life, surrounded by girls and fighting monsters in the greatest of adventures, and everyone who knew of him knew him to be the most retarded functioning body around.

 

At least the bastard didn’t have Rochelle. Nanahara knew all his women were hotter than the skanks at Heavenly Springs, with the possible exception of Melissa. Even with that mask on he could tell she was a hottie.

 

Feeling his eyeballs well up in agony, he entered his unique identifier and accepted the request. For a second it struck him as odd, as he knew the server didn’t need his permission to do stuff like that. It should have only been asking authorisation to change global permission settings and only really needed him if the manGod scripting error started running again.

 

It could have bothered him, but he didn’t want it to. Noticing on the left monitor that the mail server error had magically fixed itself, he shrugged, cleared the reports queue and then reopened his favourite program.

Water 03

 

Time has passed.

 

Start in the middle of installing the new router

 

Getting Melissa to drop the illusion on the server room

finally a little restless on all the effort this had taken

 

The week after what Otsune has officially titled ‘Natoko’s ultra-paranoid spas attack’ had been just as uneventful as the Ultimate Battle of Heavenly Springs, where a horde of demon mutated humanoids descended upon their fortress position, surrounded the innocent teenage girls that occupied the large, wooden, easily flammable building and then apparently got tired climbing the stairs and wandered off somewhere.

 

While it had made for an interesting evening, one Otsune had planned to spend diligently searching for jobs online, an act farther impossible by the lack of a connection, the residents had gained nothing for it bar an interesting new perspective on the inner workings of their resident sword wielding female, one which had caused everyone save Aki to maintain minimal conversation with the girl in question as frequently as possible.

 

But the higher consequences of Natoko’s either hallucinogenic slash psychotic breakdown was an investigation for another time. Sure, Otsune knew she should have been at least a little concerned on the matter, and she had been. But whether Natoko’s little escapade was a result of the mental breakdown that comes with associating with people who claim to be ninja while making as much noise as possible hitting demons or some actual invisible demon attack was something to be pushed to the side.

 

What was actually the most important situation right at this minutes was to get the internet back up and running?

 

The precious internets,” Fujiko hissed as she fondle with cables at the darkest corner of the server closets.

 

Internets…” Otsune was in a good mood. A bit of a confused mood, but still good nonetheless. Setting up the internet was to be handled immediately. The router had arrived in the post four hours ago, but that was Gen’s fault for not informing them as soon as he had signed for it. And he would pay for his mistake.

 

Internets…” Where the package had come from was another question they were ignoring. Finding a router that hooked up through a satellite was hard. The local shops didn’t provide them, and they didn’t exactly have the internet to look online. They had been currently relying on Junko to get round to looking at it on the school’s network the next time she bothered to remember.

 

But now it wasn’t needed. A few more clicks and installed software and they were soon looking at the screen that promised them all their needs. “Internets…” They started the router.

 

It started orange. “Internets…” It started flashing. They stopped and went to green. “Internets…”

 

They opened the browser. “Internets…” They launched a page. It turned over for a few seconds, stayed white and in an instance filled with images and text.

 

Internets!”

 

Success,” Fujiko said with glee. “And it’s going straight through the local wireless. “We are good to go.” She leant back and thumbed the refresh key on her laptop, seeing the images quickly appear there as well. “Success again.”

 

Great.,” Otsune said, jumping up and falling her way out of the server closet. “I’ll go find Melissa and tell her she can kill the illusion. You tell everyone else it’s back on. Make sure you don’t let Gen know… He must be punished.”

 

Punishment,” muttered Fujiko, already typing up the e-mail.

 

Otsune headed off. She had no idea where to find the ninja in question, though her first instinctive answer would be any rooftop that was impossible for herself to get to and just find the ninja standing there doing nothing waiting for her to plod along. Maybe they could annoy each other again! Otsune was sure that the ninja was having just as much issue being here that Otsune was having with Sagara being here. He had been inactive lately. The initiation was over, so maybe he had found cause to be.

 

Heading past the door to the lounge Otsune stopped, hearing the faint noise of an audience applauding someone. Not expecting to see the world praising her for her efforts just yet, Otsune carefully approached the door and swung it open with no concern at all.

 

The television was on, a normally otherwise mundane activity were it not for the fact that it too had become a victim of the penultimate series of random of events that occurred before Natoko’s apparent invasion.

 

She wandered in, seeing two heads in front of a screen that depicted a man using a giant frying pan to cook lobsters. The screen in question was what she scientifically referred to as humongous. Twice the size of the previous HD ready widescreen and taking up most of the wall. IT even covered up the majority of the strange door that led to the void the dolls had been trying to coax them into the other week. Sakura’s boyfriend was watching a cooking show.

 

Boyfriends were unofficially prohibited at the girl’s dormitory. Even if the presence of a male landlord and his idiot cousin hadn’t thrown the whole rulebook into the bonfire that was Occam, none of the girls who actually were romantically inclined (or just looking for a good time) paid it the slightest wit of their attention, save for perhaps making sure no one caught them when they sneaked the boys in past midnight. Sakura’s boyfriend was roving even more an exception to the rule. From what Otsune could tell he was living here, in the room next door to Sakura’s. At first Otsune was concerned they were sharing the same bed. Actually she was most concerned with just who the hell he was. Sakura did all her own cleaning, so it was hard to if the fourteen year old girl was bringing someone to her bed every night. But then Otsune had caught him wandering out of the room next to Sakura’s and a further break in/check had relieved her worries.

 

She didn’t know who the boy was, but he was keeping that sweet smile on Sakura’s face. That meant he could stay as far as Otsune was concerned, and she did try so hard not to care about just where he came from in the first place.

 

Next to the boy was the ninja she was looking for. Feeling surprised it could be that easy for a change, Otsune made it casual. Swooping round the back of the couch, she crashed into the single-seater and started to watch the funny chef drop powder onto dead aquatic food stock.

 

This is a nice TV,” Otsune said, after no one acknowledged her presence. “Who got it?”

 

I’m afraid I don’t quite know,” the boy responded. “It was just here.”

 

Where’s Sakura?”

 

I’m in here!” a voice announced from the kitchen. Of course she was. “Do you want to join us for dinner, Otsune.”

 

Sure, why not?”

 

You too, Melissa?”

 

Yer!” the ninja finally spoke. Otsune watched her for a second, staring off into space at the direction of the television. Her mask was off. For the first time since Otsune believed they had met, she could see the girl’s face, smooth skin etched into a hard glare that was quickly redirected at herself. “What?”

 

N-nothing!” Otsune stuttered, like deer that had been shot. “It’s just… oh. Oh. That’s right. The illusion in the server room. You can drop it now. We’ve fixed everything.”

 

What illusion?” the ninja said, already looking away again.

 

You know, the one that hid all the scraps that Sagara caused. We’ve sorted out the computer. Got a new router too. Hey can we bill you guys for that? I assume somebody in that big building handles collateral damage.”

 

Pass the receipts to Natoko.” Otsune waited a few seconds to see if this was a joke. “Stop looking at me. Annoying creature.”

 

Swallowing hard, Otsune increased her grip on the plush cushions beneath her. “You know. You’re being awfully rude for a guest that doesn’t pay rent.”

 

How do you know I sleep here?”

 

Oh, aren’t you sleeping with Sagara?” She hadn’t meant to say that…

 

Excuse me?”

 

Well, where are you staying?”

 

None of your business.”

 

Oh yes it is. You’re staying under our roof, then we need to know-”

 

This building is property of Sakimoto Industries and maintained by the Futabatei household,” Melissa suddenly ranted, shutting Otsune up. “It is directly run by someone under the employment of the Balance, even if he is not aware of it. I am staying here as a paid employee of the aforementioned business parties. You are the guest staying under our roof, not the other way round.”

 

Well I lived here longer,” Otsune felt the urge to say , but held it back. The girl had beat her. “Fine,” she said eventually, falling back. “But I do pay rent here, so I do have rights.”

 

Take it up with the manager.” Melissa’s head turned back to the show. The guest stars were eating the fish and enjoying it immensely. Otsune started watching as well. She had finished her objective here but had accidentally straddled herself with the compromising social situation of having already sat down. Sakura was cooking her food as well it seemed. She hadn’t meant to do that.

 

Wait, the illusion,” she piped up, after another ten seconds of other people eating food.

 

It’s done,” Melissa said, this time not even deigning to look. Her compliance just pissed

Otsune off all the more.

 

Right. Thanks.”

 

Of course you are.” Otsune’s mind spun on its wheels. That had happened a few times now. What language were they speaking to each other in. Otsune was sure she was speaking in Japanese. The ninja didn’t seem to care.

 

The dissolving of the language barrier, apparently on a literal scale, was something most of the residents, primarily being Japanese, hadn’t had to have noticed. Herself being trilingual, Otsune found it gratin upon her constantly. There was no explanation yet as to how it started or how it could happen. She hadn’t had chance to investigate the full scope of the phenomena what with the limited participants. Perhaps being trapped in this social situation was the perfect chance for it.

 

Hey Melissa?”

 

Yes!” Beams of hatred shot out across the room. Otsune just smiled in return.

 

Italian “Do you know what time it is?”

 

Melissa looked at her as if she had become a racoon. “What?” she spat back, frantically shaking her head in disgust.

 

Otsune held back repeating her question, just in case the answer was out of disgust rather than confusion.

 

Quarter past four,” said the boy on the couch, confusing the both of them.

 

Er… thank you,” Otsune replied, allowing Melissa to relax again. She wasn’t expecting that. The room went quiet again, except for the television. No one said a word save for thanks when Sakura rushed out, plopping a plate of chicken salad in front of everybody.

 

That confused things, Otsune wondered, chewing into a delicious slice of chicken. Italian was a fourth language to her, barely spoken with only the basics known. Melissa didn’t appear to understand, but the boy did. But it was a language she would speak broken. What would happen if she spoken a second language she was fluent in?

 

Hey Melissa,” she said again after another minute of silent consumption.

 

Oh- What!?” The girl let the fork drop onto her plate, and all turned to Otsune.

 

In German “What are you and Sagara still doing here anyway?”

 

We’re waiting until he kills his mother!” She understood! Otsune smiled in triumph. She knew from previous events that the ninja did not speak a word of German previously. Yet she understood Otsune speaking in a second language. That meant the person had to have a clear line of thought when speaking the sentence, but if it came out broken, a la unnaturally, it would not. That meant… absolutely nothing. IT was just another observed phenomena. She would require a more consistent variable in order to ascertain just what was going on… here.

 

Wait, what did you say?”

 

Sagara’s initiation is over,” Melissa said in what she now understood as German, but possibly wasn’t. “Now he has rightfully proclaimed the position of true heir to the rightful throne of Enforcer of the Balance his only remaining task is to wait until that throne is no longer taken, namely when his mother’s life is taken. In the line of Futabatei, that usually happens when the latter murders the former.”

 

Feeling her body tense up, Otsune wanted to swallow. What could she make of that? What was there to make of it? Sagara had to kill his mother? What did that mean? The questions flowed through her head so fast it felt like they might overtake her bloodstream.. She swallowed. She couldn’t feel it.

 

Now, before I go back to my rations, and, believe you me, if I hear another question while I’m chewing, no one will ever acknowledge you again ever! Do you have any other questions?”

 

Do you speak German?”

 

What? No.”

 

Oh okay.”

 

**

 

There you are!” The high pitched squeal assaulted Natoko as she was taken down to her knees, her very much known assailant tackling from behind with the brute force of some kind of American football player. Flailing helplessly, Natoko crashed to the floor in an embarrassed heap. ”I was beginning to think you were avoiding me.”

 

I was,” Natoko muffled against the lobby carpet, somehow unable to muster the energy to throw off her unseen attacker. She had spent the last three hours quick stepping up and down the main road to the city. With the weekend now ahead of her, it had seemed the perfect time to temporarily cripple herself. That is, until Raiko was atop of her.

 

So have you spoken to him yet? Does he want to see me? Are we going for a movie, or dinner?” Natoko’s shoulders refused to respond. She hadn’t even used those muscles. She tried rotating on her hips and finally got the message across for Raiko to get off her. She slowly pulled herself up. How did Aki feel weightless compared to this girl?

 

I have not,” she said, getting up and heading in the direction of the kitchen. Sakura was to have saved her a big bowl of rice on request, and she planned to devour it without the grace a samurai retainer should have. “I have not even seen him.”

 

Oh. Okay. Do you know what to say to him when you do?” Raiko persisted after her as she slumped away. “I’m thinking you should suggest dinner. Definitely not cinema. Cinema we can’t talk and I’ll get all internal about it. Diner is cliché, but we can talk lots and I can get a good feel of him in a context when he’s not all physical. Though physical wouldn’t be bad. Sports physical, not you-know-what physical. Though I’m not sure what sports could qualify as a date. Ice skating perhaps-”

 

Sure,” Natoko said, breathing heavily. She got the distinct impression she could have lost limbs and still be losing blood and this girl just wouldn’t shut up. Why had she agreed to this? The answer was guilt straight and simple. Not assisting her would mean admitting her own feelings… perhaps. She need to sleep.

 

Of course I would say Italian, but you guys seem to have Italian a lot. Maybe Spanish. I haven’t tried Spanish. But then I may not like Spanish and I don’t want a factor like food to ruin the date. Maybe we shouldn’t do food at all. I imagine Sagara does eat like a pig.”

 

Pleas watch what you say about my master,” Natoko fitted in, shutting the girl up immediately.

 

Oh… sorry,” Raiko replied. “My bad.” Natoko sighed as composed as she could. Opening her eyes felt like a chore.

 

You know,” she said, after taking the turn into the empty lounge, “you seem to have this whole date thing down yourself. Why aren’t you just asking him yourself?”

 

Raiko stopped. “I can’t do that. IT doesn’t work that way?”

 

It doesn’t?”

 

No. The male has to ask the female out.”

 

Really.”

 

Possibly while passing them a love letter, though I guessed that’s not used much nowadays.”

 

Natoko wanted to scoff. She hadn’t dated in… ever really, but that was just a little bit too fantasy even for her.

 

What? Can you think of a better way?” Raiko asked, sounding more curious than anything. “How would you get a guy to ask you out?”

 

Besides beat the crap out of them before jumping on top of them and giving him my first kiss?”

 

How would that be him asking you out?”

 

Well I… Never mind.” The kitchen was somehow surrounding them. She opened the fridge door. Sakura had been a good girl. “I’ll bring it up next time I see him. Don’t you worry.”

 

Thanks Natoko.” The girl was suddenly hugging her. The rice nearly fell out of her feeble hands. “you’re the best friend a girl could have.” With a wave, Raiko was out the kitchen in a flash. Natoko sighed.

 

Yeah. Aren’t I great?”

 

The couch was welcoming She almost didn’t care when her rice teetered off the edge of her bowl. Even if she wanted to help, Sagara had disappeared again. IT felt like he wasn’t even a part of her life anymore. When he did show up, it was only when all hell was breaking loose. When the hell was gone, he was too. This was meant to be his place of rest so it wasn’t like the two should be connected. She should be able to find him all the time.

 

Even so, the idea of telling him what this girl wanted was about as appealing as talking to Otsune was at the moment. She was avoiding everyone at the moment, and they her, she suspected. Sakura had agreed to save her rice every evening since she decided on her new training regime, but that was about as much conversation as she had had with anyone. Even Aki seemed to be keeping her distance a little, and that felt impossible.

 

Scene with Natoko checking herself out in the mirror

 

Raiko was still talking. She had never figured the once comatose girl to be such a blabbermouth. It was starting to grate her. How could such an airhead obsessed with dating be allowed to contain such power. The girl’s demonstration upon first landing in the Springs sprung to Natoko’s mind.

 

I am going to change. I shall speak to you later.”

 

Huh. Oh sure.” Natoko had no idea whether the girl had been speaking or not. Her brain refused to register it. Raiko had shattered Isis. The stupid demon containing skank was not at fault for that, and Natoko knew this. But t let it go so lightly was something she couldn’t do. She reached her room, unzipping her army green jacket and letting it fall to the floor. Her gaze reached her mirror. She looked pathetic, her short, matted hair clung to her face, her cheeks red raw from the sweat. Her shirt pressed against her ugly body and overall did nothing for her complexion. Raiko was beautiful. All airheads were. Her skin was smooth and unblemished while Natoko’s looked like it was about to tear off. Her hair was always perfectly done, spiked in multiple directions with the perfect edge that only having a stylist making a house call every twelve hours could achieve. Compared to her, Natoko was nothing.

Her shirt clung to her as she tried to rip it off, the garment refusing to budge until it got to her hair, dragging it along and add to the monstrosity that stared back at her in the mirror. Sagara would be better with Raiko. He was handsome without comparison, an Adonis with enough American blood in him to get the best of both world and a smile that celebrities needed to practise…

 

For a second longer than she should, Natoko found herself watching her mirror image.

With her training shirt off, and only the bra and trousers, she noticed the glint in her body. She tilted her hips slightly, frowning as she stared, but only out of confusion. A lightly toned six pack was displaying itself prominently in front of her. Her hand reached out, carefully pushing the air in front of her to touch, before realising they were going the wrong way. Fingers glided across her stomach.

 

It was slender, yet toned, and firm when she tensed. She hadn’t become insanely bulky, but the baby fat that once bothered her when she was vain enough to care about it was gone, replaced with something that made her something she never expected to be.

 

IT made her looked… nice.

 

Her arms looked good too. No longer did the skin carry that stretched out, freckle feeling. Her face was still atrocious to look at, even if you were to clean up the heat marks that came from two hours of sprinting, but her body. She could almost consider herself attractive.

 

Suddenly her head felt clear. She had been moping. Even without her extreme training, she was zoning out from the rest of the world, pushing it aside, ignoring everyone even Aki and Sagara, just because those idiots didn’t believe her, even though that airhead was trying to steal Sagara.

 

Natoko smiled. Raiko had to fail. She knew that now. She had been stupid to let it happen like it had, but now she knew she had an opportunity. Raiko was relying on her to get her and Sagara together, and Natoko had instantly given up to the prettier woman. But she had her advantages as well. Raiko was relying on her.

 

If Raiko failed on her date, that got the competition out of the way. And with the competition gone, nothing could stand in her way of serving Sagara. Besides, like the girl said, Raiko had a demon inside of her. Even if the girl herself was innocent, surely the demon’s wishes shouldn’t be granted. Raiko getting together with Sagara went against that.

 

Falling to the bed, Natoko brought her hands to her stomach and let them rest while her mind drifted. She had a plan now. She knew how to serve her lord. She would protect him against the demon in human form, who sort to consort with him and take him away. She would keep him safe, and save the girl to. Save her from herself.

 

The date would happen. Natoko would make sure of it. That obviously had to happen, any sane person would agree. With the date in place, Natoko could help the demon girl see her folly, know her efforts were useless. Sagara would be too good for her, too good for anybody. The date would be perfect. The date would be terrible.

 

Natoko grinned.

 

Love was in the air.

 

Otsune could sense this, using heightened senses hone through years of living on the internet, mainly because love was stupid and therefore easy to calculate and determine its trajectory.

 

Currently she knew of three people/ groups in the dormitory that were in love. Satsuki, who kept her boyfriend ever she had collected him at the tender age of a mere three months ago. Their love was the easiest to predict, partly because of the evidence thumping away at her ceiling at this very moment, but mainly due to the screams. The second was Sakura, and this one gave Otsune the personal opinion of being happy about it. Where the boy had come from she had no idea, and she told herself it didn’t matter. That was love, nice and simply.

 

Then there was the issue of Natoko. She, while probably in denial, was in love with Sagara.

 

Possibly not total love, Otsune knew such a phenomena was mainly a result of a chemical imbalance, the same chemicals, on a trivial notes, that could addict one to cocaine. But she knew that if she were to hijack Natoko’s body later this afternoon, once she got back from wherever the hell she was leaving too that wasn’t directly underneath humping and question her under duress, Natoko would most feverishly deny any and all relationship or personal emotional states that indicated an infatuation with the one known as Futabatei Sagara.

 

And that was all the proof Otsune needed. Love was stupid. Otsune did not say this for a love of science and cool, hard logic, being a strawman who insisted that she would never be foolish enough to fall in love because it wasn’t scientifically feasible On the contrary, love was stupid by proof of science. Love was the by-product of the evolutionally survival instinct. Feelings of warmth and tenderness towards someone you would categorise yourself as in love with was an evolutionary tool, both for protection of the female whilst in a pregnant state and of the child once it had been born. Being in love provided two bodies over one to watch over the offspring. It wasn’t even that foolish to say love could be used as a trap to ensure that one you knew could a) be a protector or b) have the hips to bear many young in the course of spreading your seed over the world.

 

And thus, love existed for stupid reasons. Reasons that especially weren’t needed anymore. It could be argued that the existence of society had rendered the family dynamic unnecessary Both single parents and homosexual partners now existed on a common basis and they could all develop offspring one way or another. The feelings left behind by the need to protect or bear were simply no longer necessary

 

Therefore, it could logically stand that her own jealously for the person fornicating around her was also necessary.

 

Therefore, it made perfect sense to remove herself from the situation.

 

Heading for the exit, Otsune knew exactly where to head. The movies. She had offers freshly downloaded from the internet, and was in the perfect mood for high budget entertainment, specifically designed to spoil itself through stupid directing decisions. With any luck, she’d pick a movie with just the right type of simplistic intelligence to gather brain asking various ontological questions that should keep it entertained past the point where the sound of skin slapping against skin slapping against plastic wouldn’t invade her thoughts any more. Either that or it would be so terrible that she’d spend the whole night making sure the internet was fully aware of everything the director did wrong.

 

Maybe she should invite Sarah.

 

Fuck no!”

 

Sarah!” Otsune’s head perked out to the lobby. Sarah was still in the receptionist chair with her feet on the desk and covered in mud. When was the last time she showered. Even her golden hair was looking more brown than blond.

 

You don’t talk to me like that. No one talks to me like that. And you won’t talk to anyone like that ever again.”

 

The girl slammed her phone shut hard enough to make Otsune winced. Banging on the desk, she paused in thought. Otsune took a step to speak to her when she suddenly started texting, only to stop when she noticed Otsune standing.

 

What?” she growled, already walking away. Otsune wanted to not let it go but the girl was going before she could muster the energy and gone by the time her phone buzzed her.

 

Left with nothing to say, she scooped it out of her pocket and flicked it on.

 

Your orders have been dispatched. Please consult- Sorry, but this piece of spam has reached the wrong number. Otsune deleted the text and sighed. Though she didn’t want to case after Sarah, she knew she should. It was a responsibility she had been avoiding for a while now. Could people blame her? Sarah was oddly capable of looking after herself, but in a world where all of them were victim to creatures beyond limited imagination, none of them were really safe

 

Except inside Heavenly Springs, where they were constantly guarded.

 

Good enough for Otsune, she turned to face Natoko. Gasping at the sudden intrusion, she saw Natoko already letting her sight stray to a corner. Otsune glared. What was it this time? More demons come to attack them. Evil harpies made from school friends to eat their souls. How about go cliché and just have it be tentacle monsters. Who knew how this girl’s unlimited imagination worked. Probably wanted to waste everyone’s time some more with-

 

Hello Natoko.” The girl’s head was trying to look away, and only failing out of courtesy. “How are you tonight?”

 

Fine. Er… how are you-”

 

Fine. I was just going to the movies. Want to come?” Wait- no. Why’d she say that?

 

Er… no thank you.” Oh thank goodness. “I have… something to do.” Glaring now, Otsune got that distinct contradictory feeling. Were not the girl in her direct path now, Otsune would swear she was trying to avoid her.

 

Is there something you want?” Otsune said, where she saw she wasn’t getting out the doorway without brushing shoulder. Someone else was approaching as well, forming a little bit of a queue in the entranceway behind Natoko.

 

I…I was wondering.” Otsune examined the girl. She was actually stuttering. “No. Perhaps that’s not. I was hoping to enquire about.”

 

Was she about to ask a favour. Whatever it was she could forget it. After all the stunts pulled lately, including letting her drown, the silly sword wielder should be glad she wasn’t having

Occam set on her.

 

Could you tell me how to ask a guy out on a date?”

 

You-‘” Otsune’s mouth hung dry for a few seconds before remembering to close itself. That was unexpected. Not entirely perhaps. “You want to know how to ask a guy out.”

 

Oh no, not me. It’s for a friend. It’s just she came to ask for my advice, and I didn’t know much about it myself. And I figured that since you and Fujiko had that competition one last year-”

 

Please don’t bring that up!” Otsune cried out, silencing Natoko, a drunken bet sprang upon her in the evening not making for the most pleasant of memories, and an awful lot of explanations later that made her understand why the residents of the village would despise them even if they weren’t a bunch of psychotic wooden robot dolls. Standing there, beet red cheeks bringing out curtness a psycho shouldn’t have, Otsune felt an urge to hug her. “Look okay. You want to ask someone out.”

 

No, my friend wants to.”

 

Okay. So Aki wants to ask someone out.”

 

No not Aki-”

 

Okay, a mysterious ontological being who may or may not Schrodinger wants to ask someone out on a date.”

 

Er… yes.”

 

And you have taken it upon yourself, in a moment of kindness, to acting as a proxy between the two soon-to-be.”

 

Yes.” Natoko had that look of hopefulness that came only with the knowledge that that same hope was about to be dashed upon the rocks.

 

But you yourself have little knowledge of the subject, possibly due to a total lack of boyfriends, and hoped to enquire with someone who had knowledge and experience and see if they could give you any pearls of wisdom for your endeavour.”

 

t=that is correct.”

 

Otsune smiled. “You know, I’ve never been the middle man myself. I don’t know what it’s like to set up two lovebirds”

 

Heh,” Natoko said without a smile. “Me neither.”

 

I’m about to though,” said Otsune.

 

Huh?”

 

Hey Sagara!” Natoko spun round on the spot so fast, Otsune saw the blur. “You want to go on a date with Natoko?”

 

I have nothing else planned. Very well.” Sagara replied from behind the girl with supposedly sharp senses.

 

I what but?” Natoko’s broken brain muttered.

 

Huh, that wasn’t that fulfilling really.” Otsune muttered as clearly as she could. “Guess it was like adding rather than multiplying. You’re welcome by the way. Try not to be so batshit insane in the future, and we’ll call it even.”

 

What? No.” Natoko tried. “Not me. I was going to find a way for you to ask Raiko on a date.”

 

Well like I said, I have lots of free time. I can go on one with her too. Or all three of us. That would be a lot more efficient.”

 

Good ninja.

 

You might as well come as well, Otsune.”

 

Fuck you,” she replied, smiling at Natoko, backing through the entrance and into the night. “You’re absolutely welcome.”

 

Wandering over to the hundred and eight steps, Otsune smiled. Natoko would thank her later. Though now she was undoubtedly a panicky mess of internal adolescence, these things worked themselves out best when forced to the front. Otsune was honestly surprised to find Natoko really had wanted to ask on someone else’s behalf, but this was for her own good really. Love was stupid. An excuse for fornication at best. Where once it had been evolutionarily viable, now it was just a tender excuse for drama.

 

And a bit of drama, even the love life of a loud ninja, wannabe samurai and thunder demon, was still worth a bit of entertainment in her book.

 

She headed for the cinema.

 

****

 

Aki wasn’t at school today. It marked the third day since Natoko had last seen her.

 

Without the little bundle of joy, class was a lot more quiet and a lot less organised. For the first time since they had started attending this class together two years ago, the act of the teacher asking a question to the class was meant by silence.

 

Whether Aki gave a right answer was never an issue. She usually did, and she usually went into far more detail than was necessary on the most inane tangents to the subject in question. The issue was that by being the one who tried to answer all the questions all the try, Aki ensured that no one else ever had to. That wasn’t entirely true. Several backup students were always in place to risk raising their hands whenever Aki was told to give someone else a try, but Aki was overall the default hand upper answer giver of the class and without this, the risk of Natoko needing to give an answer to a question increased drastically and dangerous to a number higher than one she could understand.ve

 

Her own studies had been tardy this week. How could they not be? Training was consuming all her spare time now. And what time it didn’t take up was spent recuperating. Even now her thighs burned with the excess energy it took to sprint home. Never before had she thought sprinting to be an exercise worth her time. Her method of duelling meant she need never run except to the next fight. Now she understood the increase in speed. With it, her swiftness improved and with it, so would her style. It was worth sending the extra time. She didn’t even practise with Isis yesterday, such was her determination.

 

Miss Yamanaka.. She nearly growled in response. The risk had increased to maximum.

 

Yes.”

 

E-er,” the old coot glared back at her. Crap. She wasn’t concentrating. She needed to do well in class. “Do you know the answer.” A snigger appeared behind her. Those two girls at the back laughed for the four billionth time.

 

I-” No. No she didn’t know the answer. She didn’t need to know the answer. She had spent so long resting in her mind that she didn’t even know what subject was being taught. Why must she endure such time wasted? She had better things to be doing in this world. “Twenty seven?” she hazarded a guess. The sniggering erupted again, joined by many others.

 

The teacher glared down at her over the rim of his glasses. For a second, she detected something unique in his eyes, a tingling she had never seen before. He was looking right at her, and she returned the favour.

 

C-correct,” the teacher replied. She smiled. She was doing better than she thought. Beside her, she noticed Juumon direct a perplexed look in her direction and she returned it with a cocky grin that she wasn’t expecting herself. Maybe the past study had been doing well for her. If that was all it took to answer a question that even the class president didn’t understand then she might be able to deal with this school thing a whole lot quicker. She turned to see the lesson continue, the whole class silent behind her. “Now, the great lord Twenty Seven*** (fun fact that doesn’t work with that).

 

She’d consult with Aki when she got home, after her date of course.

 

*

 

Adapting was something Natoko knew she got the hang of quickly. When the world of demons and divine came into her life, she accepted it with fluidity. When the need came to embrace education in order to realise her dream in life, she took that up and did better than she herself expected. So it stood to reason that something as silly as a date would be no problem at all.

 

Her plan was still in effect. Remove Raiko from the competition. Phasing it like that seemed a little petty, something from a soap drama, but she was above that. This was necessity. The girl was not suitable for Sagara, and should be removed from the battlefield. If it took a simply date to convince her of this, then so be it.

 

After Otsune’s sudden announcement to Sagara, Natoko had chosen to be completely honest with Raiko. A quick stuttering mumble to the girl had explained the situation and Raiko had declared her a genius for making it look casual between the three of them at first.. though the girl initially showed confusion at Sagara knowing it was a date and yet still wanting Natoko along, she had rationalised herself to the idea that perhaps Sagara was a little shy at first. Raiko saw the idea though, although Natoko had to do was excuse herself from the date halfway through and leave them to it.

 

The door knocked.

 

The only problem at the moment was that Natoko was clueless about where to take this. She had a golden opportunity to spoil the plans of a demon, to separate it from the creature it lusted after. Now she knew how demons like this worked, she knew the simple efforts behind stopping them. Thwart these plans, and she’d save Sagara. She just needed to be able to think of something. Perhaps-

 

The door knocked again. “”What?”

 

It’s me,” said the unmistakable high pitch that was Aki’s voice. “Can I come in?”

 

I-” she looked around desperately. All three sets of the nicest clothes she had were displayed in front of her. She had nothing truly fancy, save for her yukata, but that might be both too obvious and completely inappropriate. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

 

Why?”

 

Does it matter?” she yelled back, annoyed at her train of thought being killed off.

 

S-sorry,” her friend replied from behind the wood. “I’ll come back later.” Natoko sighed. That felt a little harsh on her behalf, but then, Aki wasn’t exactly being helpful to the planning process. IT fact, she was just getting in the way again.

 

Don’t bother. I’ll be out all night.”

 

Oh. A mission with Sagara?” Aki’s voice sounded weak as Natoko smiled. She walked over to the door, turning the, pushing it open to let her friend in.

 

You could say that.”

 

*

 

Basking in the infinite joys of the Internet, Otsune was bored.

 

Finger tapping on the mouse with no command to give, she sighed. Whatever happened to Saturday nights.

 

The answer was easy. They had merged into the day, which had merged into the week. She had to accept it. While she was off placement, there was only so much she could do to stay occupied.

 

Inspiration was a requirement. She had spent the past half an hour reading up on planned obsolescence, and when information management was becoming her main time killer she knew she was without purpose.

 

Her phone buzzed. In a blurred she flipped it out.

 

It is good to speak to you and I hope you will listen to me. I am wishing to request your assistance in a matter most urgent. Though we have not met-

 

Her finger on auto delete, the spam message disappeared. The constant spam had fell out of annoyance a few days ago, not trapped in the realm of routine. Bad enough she was bored, but jarring distractions did not help her figure out a solution. She stumbled over to a new page and gave it a cursory glance before her brain zoned out again, only for the phone to interrupt her another time.

 

IT is most imperative I get your assistance in a matter most urg-

 

How many ideas had been destroyed by spam mail. The sparking of particular neurons pouncing on a wonderful, brilliant idea, grasping it firmly with full intention to bring it to the heights of fruition, only to be cut off by a-

 

Your wish to ignore this message is understandable, however I feel I must bring about a change in your procrastination patterns if I am ever to stabilise the situation. Though we have never met-

 

There was no auto-delete option in her phone. It was all her finger’s handiwork

 

Tsunade Otsune. I know that you-

 

Crap. It knew her name. Was it the phone companies fault. She should actually call them to get this looked into. How many spam was considered normal. Fujiko had said that the tech support staff never ever bothered doing anything with people’s concerns but.

 

Please check the server closet in the West Wing for more information.

 

Otsune halted the auto-delete program just in time. There was no need, the message being short and to the point. Hesitantly, she watched the sixty nine characters, just in case they did something else. She scrolled down. The number was the same unrecognisable crap.

 

The server closet in the West Wing…

 

Occam!” she shouted, springing out of her chair. “To me.”

 

**

 

Who had suggested this place to him? Wondered Natoko, for the first time in years feeling conscious of the garments surrounding her body. This was the one thing he liked about school. The uniforms. Everyone dressed the same, meaning she didn’t have to feel bad when the girl next to her put on a cliquey cleavage shower. Cleavage was never her thing. She was too well built, and style was nothing for her to be concerned about. She had removed the topknot in her life after too many comments being directed at it day after day after day, but the ponytail was a suitable replacement.

 

Her hair, her clothes, her lack of cleavage. All of it burned at her mind now.

 

Sagara was dashing. His clothes looked tailor fitted, a stylish shirt without a tie that made him so cool that if she forgot to breath would cause her to swoon. His hair had been cleaned up, an act she thought impossible for him but now belonged on the cover of a men’s magazine, and the jacket. He was so well defined.

 

The bitch they had brought along had done far too good a job. That was expected. She wanted to try her hardest and it showed in her desperation. Layers of makeup brought out a false beauty that tricked any male as they walked past to stare at her luscious eyelashes, sure to be fake. Her clothes was minimal, trying too hard to be in what was probably the latest trend, showing the right amount of cleavage and yet not going over the top by adding funkiness to the mix. Natoko never noticed before how big her breasts were.

 

And this place. She had thought to inspire Sagara in his plans, but when she asked him earlier he said he had already booked somewhere, and that somewhere appeared to be a French cuisine restaurant the like of which she had never seen in Japan. This belonged in western movies surely, not in her little corner of the movie. The waiter was actually French, and sneered at her as he walked them to the table. IT was all so perfect. A perfect start to a perfect date.

 

And here she was, in jeans and a shirt, her training tracking mud on the polished floor, the waiter sneering only at her as he led them to the table, with a look of uncertainty as he figured the hobo must have followed the wonderful couple in.

 

This was going badly. She was the most out of place thing here. This was not part of the plan. She could only ruin the date now by making a fool of herself in front of them and hoped it ruined the evening. Did Raiko plan this, letting on more than she originally intended and manipulating things secretly to push Natoko out of the picture, sensing similar feelings. Surely not. As far as Natoko knew, Raiko was under the impression she was to skip out in ten minutes time to deal with an emergency, believing a friend Natoko hadn’t spoken to would make the fake phone call.

 

They sat down, the waiter stealing another chair for her to sit on from an unused table. She thanked him as he ignored her.

 

Wow. This is an amazing place, Sagara,” Raiko said, as the waiter seated her with majestic grace. “How did you find this place?”

 

By walking past it,” the boy said.

 

This city amazes me sometimes. I spend all my life wandering around it and still I find new things to dazzle me. How new is this place?”

 

We have been established for two years now,” the waiter replied in perfect Japanese. “We mostly cater to businesses though and don’t advertise to the public much.”

 

Ah so that’s why?”

 

Natoko was already lost to the drama. Looking around she could tell just how much they were standing out. All around, people in expensive clothes and elegant dresses surrounded them. Most were American or European, but those that were Japanese were dressed no differently. A silent couple watched them from three tables away, and her head bowed down when she caught a lone male glaring at her.

 

For the first time, thoughts of leaving entered her mind. She couldn’t leave. That wasn’t the plan. But she didn’t have a plan, other than to make Raiko feel awkward when it became clear that she wasn’t leaving. Maybe she should have a good time with Sagara and make the girl feel outcast enough to leave, but now she was the outcast.

 

Natoko glared back. She should have thought this through more.

 

Natoko?”

 

Her gaze shifted to the woman intent on spoiling her life, freezing her for half a second. “Sorry but… did you want a drink?”

 

The waiter’s own gaze, beady eyes raised up over her, each a judge in its courtroom ready to set fire to her for her violation of the dress code, matched her own shrivelled her back into her chair Quickly she glanced to the menu. What had the others ordered? What was appropriate in this situation? Raising her finger, she quickly pointed to the most logical choice.

 

I believe you know,” the waiter replied, “that I will not be able to serve you that, miss.”

 

What was she doing? She didn’t even want wine. “Water. Water please?”

 

Are you sure?” the waiter continued. “I could bring you a coke, with a straw maybe.”

 

Er…” Raiko was showing Sagara something behind the menu, the waiter has lowered his voice to her alone. “No. No. Water please.”

 

Very well. I shall be back shortly.”

 

Her hand thrusting out sharply, she quickly snatched the remaining menu off the table and pulled it up to her face, spreading it open and examining the contents most thoroughly., trying not to gawk at the prices.

 

This was a failure. She hadn’t even started. At this rate, shed convince herself to just leave and leave them to their happy, go lucky, probably kiss at the first opportunity she could the stupid little whore date. That couldn’t happen. How was she this unprepared. Her head hurt, just a little. She could feel it steaming up. Maybe the air conditioner was broken,. And what were with these prices. Her allowance wouldn’t cover this in a month The others weren’t immediately freaking out. Was Sagara paying? That’s how dates happened right? But could she expect Sagara to pay for this? Did he even notice yet? Raiko was still talking at him.

 

And then she said, if I’m going to impregnated by a demon, I’m at least going to choose which one does it.”

 

Sagara roared into laughter, starting first as a snicker through the nose before bursting out through his mouth. Sagara laughed. He never laughed. She had long ago accepted that he just wasn’t one to release emotion and now…

 

This was bad. What if they were meant to be together. Sagara and Raiko. The shadow and the light…ning. If she could make him laugh like that… did that mean they were compatible? She needed to order something cheap. If Sagara was paying, he’d prefer it if she wasn’t so expensive, right?

 

But what if he just laughed to be nice. Hadn’t he done that before. In the moments between staring at the vegetarian dishes and something written in English, Natoko searched through every thought she had of him, drawing a blank each time.

 

Sorry Natoko,” a voice interrupted. “We’re ignoring you.” Raiko smiled, leaning in towards her.

 

That’s alright.” No. This was pity. She recognised the feeling when foolishly attempting to socialise in class. This meant they saw her at the bottom. That means next would come-

 

How was your day?” The generic question! Straight from the mouth of people who don’t know what to talk about when faced with another person of no social value. She should have anticipated it. This was a social session. Interaction is meant to occur naturally. Raiko might as well have pulled out a gun and blasted her out of life. She needed to come up with something good. Suddenly she couldn’t remember. What had she done today?

 

Well…” That’s strange. Her mind felt blank. Quickly she improvised. “Well I’ve been focusing a lot more on my training recently.”

 

I thought you did that all the time?” Sagara asked, looking puzzled.

 

Well I do, so I guess it’s just the same as usual.” Stupid stupid stupid. Think of something else. “I’ve also been going to school.”

 

Oh, anything good there.” Raiko said, obviously feigning interest.

 

No. Not really. School is never interesting.”

 

I see.” No. No she didn’t. Her life was exciting. She was engaged in mythical adventures the likes of which mundane people had never seen. Why couldn’t she think of anything.

 

Then again, the adventures these two had seen between them.. Two people with demons trapped in them. How could she compete?

 

Oh wait we need to do-” Raiko said, now moving the conversation back between solely her and Sagara, “is take a trip Dai-Swune Mundus. It’s a fantastic place. They’ve literally taken an unspoken for slice of Divine territory and turned it into a club.”

 

That sounds interesting,” replied Sagara.

 

And it’s not just any club obviously. They’ve gone the full effort. Every moment you spend in the club automatically brings out the best experience you could have. Temperature. sound levels. Social company. All are maintained to feel like heaven for the clubber. Even if a song comes on that you don’t like, the club will switch the ambiance for you in your own head to make it more to your tastes.”

 

Cool.”

 

“”OH. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen your mother in there though. From what I hear she likes that kind of thing herself, so it’s not too surprising.”

 

Yeah that sounds like something she’d be part of. She always says enjoy what the enemy has to offer. That way you know what’s best to destroy.”

 

Without thinking, Natoko’s eyes strayed to her watch. The afore planned/? false time was coming. In two minutes, the expected phone call that never was expected to arrive Then she’d excuse herself and leave them to their perfect evening no doubt culminating in one inviting the other back to their bed chambers and… No, she had to prevent this. She needed to wrest control of the social balance. She could do this. She was samurai. They were renowned for their charm alongside their honour. And social simply food talk was beneath her anyway. If it was beneath her, it stands to reason that she could master it in an instance. All she needed was a starting point.

 

Hey, you never guess what I did today,” she called out, stopping whatever words were leaving Sagara’s mouth and dragging all attention to her. “I…”

 

The words would have hung in her throat had they existed. They were staring at her. Boy was he handsome. Why couldn’t he just- Surely she should just-

 

She didn’t know. She didn’t know anything.

 

Excuse me a second-” Turning to dash and feeling the power explode in her thoughts, Natoko catapulted into the waiter, crashing through the tray and sending the two glasses of water and fruit juice all over the man’s fine waistcoat before barrelling the man onto the floor

 

Skidding across the fine polished surface, she fell through two table legs and took a chair with her for the ride, accidentally throwing it across the room with the speed of a bullet. She lifted her head up from the impact to find a bowl of noodles sitting in her lap.

 

You stupid little,” the waiter shouted, his face covered in beverages. “You come into our restaurant and you… and you… oh no.” The man staggered backwards. “My shade. My shade.

 

The man’s face ripped open, a blue gooey liquid erupting out roughly where his nose used to be. In panic his hands rushed to try and hold the two sheets of what used to be his cheeks together and pulled them back. Instead the bloated outwards as a more of the blue stuff came out of him, dripping to the floor in a series of blobs. Natoko breathed a sigh of relief.

 

Oh thank goodness. It was a demon..

*

 

Otsune server scene.

 

Having left the setup of the new router to Fujiko, Otsune had not yet been back to the server room since the restoration of the all-important internet, so the simple reason of there being no point. Internet was back, and world was good.

 

Nor had she checked to see if Melissa had removed the illusion. She was correct in assuming the ninja had and as she entered the small space, she saw the tattered remains of smashed up computer parts that Fujiko hadn’t bothered cleaning up. The new system they had setup was running fine. The tower that ran everything was humming quietly to itself.

 

The apparently not spam text message knew her. And not just in I saw your picture and mined your personal details. Server closest and West Wing were uncommon terms. Whoever was sending the spam was in the building somewhere closet, rather than simply meet up. That suggested that there was something for her here. Occam was floating around outside, Floating statically with only a flicker. That meant that somewhere along the line he had actually come to understand the notion of standing guard.

 

Part of her wanted Occam to come in with her, but the room was too small and full of wooden and expensive computer parts. The chances of this being a trap were low though. She was essentially defenceless minus the ball of fire. A sneak attack in her room when she wasn’t prepared would have been much more effect.

 

And now Otsune realised she was considering the notion of being attacked.

 

The room was empty. A quick scan of the room revealed nothing out of the ordinary. No one was waiting for her either. The room was also far too warm.

 

It occurred to her slowly that the text message hadn’t suggested a time, immediately making this trip pointless. The phone may have sent a delivery report back to the user upon her opening it, but the way the message was short and to the point implied that the sender knew she was ignoring the messages. Whoever it was, it wasn’t very smart.

 

Sagara?” she asked the air, smirking a little too much. There was nothing here. Maybe the spammer had just gotten lucky. Sighing, she recalled that she had meant to watch the double slit documentary tonight. She should get to it before being distracted again. No sense wasting a quiet night.

 

Pulling the door back open, Otsune flicked out the light, only to see the illuminated glare out of the computer screen come on in the corner of her eye. It happened when the muse registered an action, but the monitor was best turned off to conserve electricity, Gen was trying to raise it again. Reaching for the power switch, her eyes hovered over the screen.

 

Contact required. Can you see me?

 

Otsune stared at the Cygwin window., the flashing cursor inviting her to respond. Her hand hovered over to the y key before stopping. This wasn’t a chat program. She hit return.

 

The is the Shariku Insana System Artificial Intelligence, designation SIS. The system has been waiting for you. Please enter your name to confirm identity.

 

Her fingers paused for a moment. She should lie, but then it might ignore her.

 

Tsunade Otsune.

 

Welcome Tsunade Otsune. Your presence is requested immediately. Please locate and travel to the following destination by 2am: 1234 come up with a name later street, Fuugosuki’s, japan, 456658. Upon reaching your destination, locate the main entrance to the Sakimoto Industries building and approach from a side door. ON the intercom network system, type in 7264 (interesting number???) and await response by human agent. Human agent will request name. Respond with fabrication designation ‘Rochelle’. Access should be granted (if access is not granted, please inform the system). Upon entry, head for corridor FJ on second for, ensuring you travel through laboratory G to avoid security door F5246, which is guarded by manned personnel. In corridor FJ take get into the elevator and observe the camera until lift starts to move.. After lift stopped, follow corridor straight until you reach your destination.

 

Otsune freak as the text flashed off the screen, relieved when she realised she could scroll it back to read through.

 

Why, she typed..

 

Context reference missing. Please try again.

 

Why should I?

 

Context reference missing. Please try again.

 

Why should I locate and travel to the following destination by… she pasted the rest in.

 

Unable to determine context reference. Otsune frowned. This wasn’t a very good AI.

 

Trying something new, she typed ‘did this system send those text messages’?

 

True. However, it is uncertain all messages were received, as no answers were provided.

 

That’s because they all looked like spam.

 

SMS were sent in a manner based upon observation of e-mail sent around the planet. Syntax standards were created by upon majority of emails sent… A standard template was used when requesting the help of a non-familiar contact.

 

You came off like a Nigerian Prince

 

Unrecognised reference. Standard template syntax was not based off of Oba Folagbade Olagbegi III.

Standard template was sent in a manner – The message continued, but Otsune didn’t bother reading it. The responses were appearing instantly, as she as she hit return. She expected an AI to instantly process any information provided to it, especially simple WYSIWYG text, but it was still unsettling.

 

Why do I need to go?

 

That is not a recognised answer..

 

I’ve changed the subject.

 

Understood. Context reference not recognised.

 

Otsune sighed. IT was like talking to anyone else in her world really.

 

Why should I follow your instructions, she typed, after a moments thinking

 

The system paused for five seconds, then responded.

 

To save the world from the manGod.

 

**

 

As much as she knew to do so was tantamount to heresy, Natoko had come to like demons. Not personally of course. The ones she had engaged in conversation with were snobby and obviously out for their own vested interests (which, she reflected made them exactly the same as most humans), whether it be in the art of persuasion, attempts to humiliating her or further attempts of at least slaughtering her.

 

But what she liked about them were how simple they were, even the ones who fell into the area of diabolical, despotic and manipulative, she knew she could easily categorise them in a way that meant she didn’t have to think too much about it.

 

Simply put, they went into the evil category.

 

And evil was to be cut down.

 

The demon before her was a perfect example of this. With its blue bile insides having now festered into a wounded green, vicious talons of jelly like liquid slashed at the tables around them producing fine strips of oak lavishly painted with salad dressing, there was no need to think of what the creature’s life goals were, what its personal motivations were or even what it intended to do at this specific junction now that its identity as a demon of hell had been established by the attending members of the member.

 

It was evil. IT had to be cut down.

 

Making the absence of her blade a distinct disadvantage.

 

Was this the only demon here?” Raiko said, looking stylishly unimpressed as the denizen of the netherrealm snarled five feet above her, what counted as its eyes following a screaming couple out as they rushed to the coatroom on the way out.

 

There are four more in the kitchen,” said Sagara, also taking his time to slurp his pure orange juice while staring at the closed door leading into the food preparation area. “One of the people behind the bar is too. “The young woman.”

 

With a dismayed snarl, the young woman burst into demonhood on cue, taking Natoko’s focus off the first monster as she tried to stabilise her view of the surroundings. Six demons and no weapon. He eyes took to the floor, seeking to improvise and while she knew she could probably use one of the newly made strips of wood as a bamboo sword replacement, the carving knife would be a better choice.

 

Look out,” she turned just in time to be bowled into by Raiko, shoving her out the way as a hammer like blast of blue goo crashed into the polished floor. The two girls rolled to safety, controlled by Raiko.

 

Get off me!” Natoko cried out through gnashed teeth, already pushing the girl’s shoulder away.

 

Sorry, I didn’t want you to get hurt.

 

I…” Sagara was looking at them. “I’m fine. Thank you.”

 

you’re welcome.” This seemed to quickly cheer Raiko up and the two looked over to watch as Sagara immediately leapt in the air, his fist guiding his path as it became clad in iron before their eyes. The demon gauntlet Draynor exploded into the former water, dispersing its contents over the floor.

 

That’s not enough,” he said, more commenting to himself than talking to them. The three watched as the scattered jelly started to roll on itself, quickly building back up into larger balls, the demon dragging itself back to full form at top time.

 

What shoul-” Natoko got as far as saying before he got right back into the fray, launching a counterattack that left him a blur. The demon was attacking reflexively and Sagara was possibly doing the same, weaving in and out of blows with a speed she could never match.

 

Ducking under one of its many tentacles, the spear ejected from his wrist, screaming as it shot through the demons body and turning back on itself. Again and again it drove itself through the monster, striking at different angles, yet remaining gentle enough to rest on top of it.

 

Quickly it reached its end and, not wishing to be stopped, made one final scream before shooting out as far away from Sagara as it could manage, severing the demon to bits in the process, the remains scattering out across the floor, before bubbling into nothing on the now scorched floor.

 

wow,” Natoko heard Raiko mumble, and saw admiring eyes staring right at Sagara. “Right. Me too,” she said, turning to face the bar staff.

 

The remaining male bar staff looked panicked and befuddled before his once former co-worker , as she leered over him with what could have been a forked tongue if it didn’t look like the rest of the appendages coming out of the tentacle blob. Whatever trace of female was there before was now warped into a creature looking primed for the kill. Natoko braced herself to attack, her hand hovering to her waist with a smile. She knew now. This is how she would win this date game. She would be the one to fight at Sagara’s side. Whatever power the girl beside her could summon would be nothing if her own speed simply meant she didn’t have time to attack. Lowering her stance she let her front toes tap the ground, feeling the rush appear in her things, her hand slipping on air as Iziz continued to be nowhere near her present location.

 

Feeling her nails dig into her palms, Natoko felt a gasp in her stomach. She was defenceless. A stupid move. Bringing Iziz on the date wasn’t acceptable social behaviour in a five star restaurant, but Iziz not being there at all wasn’t right either.

 

And then the girl beside her was gone

 

Sagara was fast, but this was instantaneous. Raiko was on top of the demon already, her hands clutching jelly and burning down into the supposed brain of the brain. It squealed, more like a pig than a giant jelly monster and started shaking her violently in an attempt to get the lightning user off.

 

Keeping her grip, Raiko disappeared from Natoko’s view, reappearing n the monsters back and gone again before latching onto its former arm with a flash. With another flash, she was burning its chest and another on its underbelly. It was only seconds before Natoko could see more Raiko than demon, blurring at impossible speeds round her opponent until the creature just finally had enough and detonated over herself and the now possibly unemployed bar staff.

 

Two down,” Raiko chirped happily, dropping to the floor as if she hadn’t just been faster than light.

 

Wha-,” the bar staff mumbled. “Natsuki? What did you… who are you?”

 

Questions will be answered never,” Raiko screamed in the man’s ear. “Please vacate the premises immediately.” the two disappeared in a heartbeat and only Raiko returned a second later.

 

Natoko scowled, her own legs feeling suddenly tense and weak, the smiling girl before her was already approaching Sagara by the kitchen door. The girl’s speed… she couldn’t keep up with her an Sagara, even without his weapons was punching through demons (remove Draynor).. Just how far behind was she. Bending down, Natoko chose her weapon.

 

Two each then,” Raiko said standing by the door, now held shut by a white energy around its frame.

 

Mom said to always share.”

 

Well what’s four divided by three then,” Natoko said, striding between them, block of wood in hand. From the corners of her eye, she saw the smiles disappear from their faces.

 

One point three three three recurring,” replied Sagara.

 

Natoko,” said Raiko. “Are you sure you shouldn’t stand back? You don’t have your weapon.”

 

I’m fine,” she shouted back. “You’re the one who said I could take on demons.”

 

But you had the sword. “you can’t fight Ebrickian Slaughterers with a stick of wood. Even with a good sword your chances would be-”

 

silence!” she called out. “I am not here to listen to you. Know that your presence here is an eyesore before us. You only stand by our side because of my master’s generosity.”

 

It’s true,” Sagara replied, still smiling she watched the door.

 

I.. but…” Invigorated, Natoko’s mouth opened to be cut off by the explosion of wood as the kitchen door crashed towards them. The blue denizens of the workplace already reaching out for them. Natoko only had time to lift her wooden stick up before it crashed into her forehead.

 

**

 

Ah fuck!” The pain spurted from his fingers, shocking him awake.

 

whoa, you okay, Nanahara?”

 

No I’m fucking not,” he responded, glaring at the blob at his side. The weird looking girl beside him took a step back in shock, the hand once reaching for him now hesitant to take a step forward. He glared at her before turning focusing back on his hand.

 

Fuck. His right forefinger was bleeding, the skin shredded. His eyes darted round to quickly find out why.

 

He had been in drone mode, working the late shift. Rochelle had been showing him her new bikini, gyrating in front of him with only red string getting in the way. He had just been about to put his teeth to good use when- He heard a beeping noise. It was the fire alarm system asking for attention. Putting his finger to his mouth he started to suck up blood instinctively.

 

I- I’ll get the first aid kit,” the women, if you could call her that, her bloated stomach making ogre a better fit for words, said.

 

Yeah, you do that,” he hissed at her. She gave him a look of utter bewilderment, then nearly fell over the coffee table as she took a step too many back.

 

That stupid drone,” he grumbled to himself, already going the opposite direction and out of sight. He could make a wild guess at what had happened. His drone had been closing the server room’s door, the electromagnetic lock on it was still set on it, meaning his finger must have dawdled a second too long when closing it, possibly due to having the superficial conversation with the obesity machine that just ran off..

 

In a way, it was a smart aspect of the drone program. Keeping him in his dream world would be bad if he was being attacked and only had a smiling idiot persona to defend himself with. Any spark of pain would instantly bring him back to reality. It was just unfortunate it left him with the situation of not having a clue why he was in copious amounts of pain.

 

He stumbled into the server office. It was quiet tonight. The building was often deserted at this time of night from what he could recall, but today a few stragglers were typing their lives away into their keyboards, the pathetic creatures looked like they were doing their best not to burst into tears as they constantly came back to the revelation that their efforts were to fund a company that simply didn’t care about them. He laughed as he passed one of them, and watched as the drone looked up to smile at him, expecting a joke and getting nothing but malice in return.

 

His drone program could rot for all he cared. IT did his work and had a basic personality so as to not affect the performance of his work but it didn’t need to get him friends. T shouldn’t have even been possible. These people must have been the biggest losers of the bunch to even consider it an associate.

 

The hub room was empty. He locked the door before him and brought the blinds down, stumbling over to his faithful swivel chair and collapsing into it. Checking his wound, he felt the sting behind the useless layers of skin now hanging from his fingernail. He had seen this happens to others before. Idiots who chose not to pay attention. At least his drone program gave him an excuse. Others were so dead inside they probably enjoyed the pain. At least he was only dead on the outside.

 

Bracing himself, he took the shredded skin and chewed it between his teeth, yanking it off in one clean movement. He had no idea where he should have kept it while the wound was clotting, but he would have had to get rid of it eventually.

 

The computer was flashing at him. Grabbing a handful of tissue he let the wound bled away quietly to itself while he logged back in with one hand.. An alert was calling out to him. Ignoring it, he pulled up the drone program, setting it to restart and laying back to enjoy the ride.

 

Master…” Rochelle mewled with a fake pout. “Where’d you go?” Nanahara smiled, as the buxom brunette approached him the simple shoelace knot slowly being pulled loose by her own desires.. “I missed you… so very much.”

 

Fuck!” he screamed out, Rochelle already blasted from his reality. “What?” The computer was flashing at him again. Somehow, it was doing it harder. “Okay. Fine.” How had that happened? The desk had a pool of blood where there should be one, his finger hurting more than before, the tissue discarded to the side and he got the distinct impression that his hand had been poking the table without his consent. He opened the report.

 

Sucking his finger, Nanahara tried to sigh as best he could with an appendage filling his mouth with liquid. This was fun. The manGod scenario was happening again. “Fuck,” he swore in English as loud as he could, knowing only American swear words could truly express his hatred right now. He opened up the cleaner program. This was ten minutes of his life he wouldn’t get back. Whenever he had to run this, it slowed everything down, and experience taught him that once this was running, even the drone program couldn’t get away with running in the background, if it hadn’t already have closed itself.

 

It would return. It always did, but until then he would need waste his life running the diagnostic program that ran for this stupid nonsensical error that occur whenever the SIS decided to start having nightmares. Clicking the start button, he leaned back and prepared for a long ride, pulling some tissues out as the program closed itself.

 

He stopped in mid-pull. That was unlikely. Reopening the application, he swung the cursor over to start it straight away, watching as the mouse icon quickly pulled away and went for the close button itself. Pulling his hand along for the ride.

 

Grasping the mouse hard enough to bring the sting of his wound bleeding out onto the desk, he went to open the cleaner for a third tie, and watched as the mouse started opening up other programs. It brought up the report sheet, then dragged the mouse across the desk to start up a notepad. As hundreds of reports codes started to fly past his eyes, the report system bringing up codes that only he could know, he felt his hand rise from the mouse.

 

Watching it carefully,, he clenched his teeth as the drops of blood dripped over his drone’s scrap paper. He couldn’t stop. His hands were going by themselves, rising above his shoulders with enough jerky movements to emulate a crane game, With a thud they landed on the keyboard, blood dripping over the j key. He began to type.

 

System not compromised. False alarm. Resolving. Nana 21/11/2014 21:36

 

manGod system flushed. Zero results. Resolving Nana

 

Nanahara tried to swear, but his lips were locked shut. He was reporting the system was fine and resolving the conflict messages, but he hadn’t even ran the scan of the system yet Why would h- No. How was this happening. He wasn’t in control. IT was like the drone program was taking him on its usual detour through life but he was awake for the experience. But why. He didn’t care. He didn’t need to be awake for this. Just leave him with Rochelle and let the world slip away. He just needed to stay with her forever and-

 

Sorry baby,” Rochelle said suddenly, her fingers over his hands and her lips in his ear. “It needed you to see this.” She brought his hand over the camera system, opening it up.

 

He didn’t recognise the location. Normally the camera feed was nothing more than that of various entrances around the building. He had managed to patch a feed before the showed the best view he could get of several offices, but this was different. It looked like a hot springs hotel. Three different feeds showed three different corridors. Only one was occupied. The girl in it looked familiar. Long natural brown hair on native skin. She was attractive and athletic. That made her a bitch. There was a hazy fuzziness directly above her. Then he saw the feed name. ‘Heavenly Springs Dormitory – 091’. The home of the idiot prince.

 

you must watch from this point on, and monitor the situation with unaffected human eyes,” she whispered in his ear, the sensual tongue causing him to shudder involuntarily. “You need to see everything.” In his mind, he beg her to lick him.

 

The girl on the screen entered a seating area, got two steps in and then froze on the spot.

 

The manGod always takes priority.”

 

**

 

I see you have rejected my offer. Very well. Please note that my offer always stands, as do my consequences.”

 

Natoko woke up to sirens bleeding through her brain, along with shuffling and a great many very noisy people talking all around her. She was lying down and quickly decided she shouldn’t be.

 

Whoa there,” a delicate hand pressed her down firmly, feeling oddly familiar yet heretically different.. Her eyes opened as her skin introduced her to a blaring pain around her forehead.

 

What happened?” she asked when she saw Raiko sitting before her.

 

You let the door hit you,” the girl said, still dressed in her fantastic evening wear. For a second Natoko remembered she hated this girl, then the important events started rushing back.

 

“”Did we… what?” She tried to focus, succeeding only vaguely as far as she could tell.

 

Yes. We got away,” the girl said reassuringly, pinning with her less effort than it would have took to let Natoko rush about. “Nothing to worry about.”

 

No” Natoko cried in a panic. “Did we defeat it?” Raiko looked at her oddly for a moment, then sighed.

 

Yes,” she replied. “I unleashed the lightning lock when you fell unconscious, and removed the demons from this plane of existence… defeating it, if you will.”

 

The girl looked disappointed for a second, then realised where she was.

 

We’re home?” She was still dressed in her slacks. Everything was quiet, and it was approaching eleven o’clock based on her clock radio. Natoko was thirsty.

 

We got you back, though Sagara wandered off a bit ago.” Looking away from her, the girl seemed distant for a moment. Natoko took the moment to feel her own forehead. She expected some kind of bruising, but couldn’t pick up any stinging sensations. She needed her mirror, but getting up wasn’t an option her body was giving her.

 

Natoko you should-” Raiko started suddenly, then cut off as Natoko returned her thought to her. As she fell silent Natoko was reminded of the last words she had said to her before the world had gone blank again, the dry sandpaper in her throat stretching down into her lungs. “You- you shouldn’t think about all this in terms of defeating demons. The demons can’t be defeated. We can only make them go away for a while.” She sighed again. “Sometimes it’s not worth the effort.”

 

What kind of fool hardy statement was that? Natoko thought to herself as she looked to the legs. The demons had to be defeated, though Sagara’s path was different to what Natoko first thought, she knew that the eradication of all demonkind was all his list. They couldn’t just maintain the status quo surely.

 

No, that’s not what I want to say.” In the chair besides Natoko’s bed, Raiko was fidgeting, rubbing her hands together, looking away. Natoko felt weak again.

 

I made a mistake,” Raiko finally said. Natoko couldn’t help but smile in the dark at hearing that. “I thought I might like Sagara, even love him, whilst not knowing if it was in fact the OniRai that loved the OniKage, and made me act appropriately. But now I know for certain. That boy isn’t capable of loving anyone.”

 

That wasn’t what Natoko had been expecting.

 

I realised it the same way you realised I guessed,” she continued. His responses are generic. His actions are simply following a process. And I’m fairly certain the angel inside him is telling him what to say and when to laugh.”

 

Natoko stayed silent, looking at the creature before her, eyes welling up as she clenched her fists

 

I’m amazed you’re strong enough to take it. I should have realised your feelings too. You’re a good person, Natoko. I’m guessing the idea was to let me down easily. Give me a bad date and let me flush the idea down the drain.”

 

Er… yeah.,” said Natoko, not knowing what she was agreeing too.

 

It makes sense. With that many things inside him since a young age, how could he be a person at all I had my feelings, but I should have accepted it sooner.”

 

Between the shadows, she sobbed, shortly loudly by mistake and laughing it off. “I was a fool. Whether I loved him or not didn’t matter, because I didn’t even take his feelings into account.” She coughed and wiped. “And it was just infatuation. He didn’t even have any feelings to return.”

 

Shut up,” Natoko muttered.

 

I can’t believe how strong you are to take it,” the liquid was streaming down the girls cheeks freely now, reflecting in the moonlight behind Natoko, illuminating those blues eyes that spiked the pain in her head. “You serve him. You protect him. You do so without any obvious reason. He doesn’t look out for you, nor care for you. He can’t. All biological impulses that could cause him too by shut down by the OniKage. It’s how it protects him. By removing all sensation of danger, all extreme emotions. You know all this and yet still you stand by him knowing he could never love you as you love-

 

Shut up!” Natoko yelled, silencing the girl as her hands latched onto the girl’s shoulders and squeezed.

 

I wasn’t looking out for you,” she shouted, watching the tears freeze as the girl’s shifted straight into fear. “I was plotting against you, trying to figure out how to make it so you couldn’t love him, or at least gave it up.”

 

In her bruise she felt the hissing well up, the wound helped her focus, making her feel clearer than ever.

 

And now you insult my lord with your tongue just because you can’t accept that it’s not going to work out between you two? Pathetic. Pathetic pathetic pathetic!”

 

Without meaning to, she forced the girl backwards, , whirling her off the chair and onto the ground. Raiko flew a meter back and rolled enough to allow Natoko to look her dead in the eye.

 

You were never worthy of him, just as I said before. Now get out.”

 

Natoko. No. you don’t get it?”

 

I understand more than you could ever hope to delude yourself to thinking so.”

 

No. No. Natoko You don’t, do you.” She was trying to get up. “I thought you did, but-”

 

I thank you for your assistance this evening. Now please get out.” The girl was scrambling on the floor. Natoko could put her foot right into her face.

 

But you don’t. You honestly don’t? Natoko. It won’t work. You can’t-” There was more forming on the creature’s mouth. It didn’t matter.

 

Get out. Get out get out get ou-”

 

The world went white.

 

The door was knocking. She was swimming through mud, or crawling, it didn’t matter. She didn’t know why she was doing this, but she knew it was the best way to go about things.

 

Her clock was flashing at her. 12:50. Had there been a power cut? Things were blurry, even in the dark, the banging gave her direction though.

 

She was in her room, she realised, as she wandered through the dark. Had she gone to bed early. She got the oddest feeling she shouldn’t be alone.

 

Natoko,” the shadow hiding in front of all the blinding light said as its hand nearly took a shot at her face. Blinking rapidly, she brought the figure into view. Otsune stood before her, her flame behind her not making things any easier on those who were without light a few seconds ago. Natoko coughed and muttered an apology, reaching for her dressing gown without having a clue what she was wearing.

 

Sorry, did I interrupt-” she said, sounding like Otsune sounded when she was showing that she didn’t care what one was doing.

 

It’s fine,” Natoko mumbled. Her throat hurt, like she had shouted too long and too hard. “What’s the matter?”

 

Oh it’ nothing really. I was just in the lounge, following the mysterious commands my life puts me through, when I saw you had left your sword on the floor in there.

 

Iziz. Natoko stood up straight and woke up immediately. Her head locked in place as it tried to turn to look behind her to check the stand. It should have been there.

 

Oh. Sorry. I didn’t-”

 

Yeah I thought you’d be interested,” Otsune. “OH, by the way, it had this on it.”

 

Otsune lifted a handkerchief up.. From the tip you would have guessed it to be green, but the rest of it was covered in a dark brown stain. Natoko would have been confused if it wasn’t for the red stains on Otsune’s fingers. And the smell. She recognised the smell instantly.

 

I was wondering if you could tell me how it got there.”

 

Go back before this scene and insert the finding sword scene.

 

(when she wakes up, Raiko has saved them all. She apologises, saying she sees now what Natoko and Sagara have, and Natoko feels terrible for it.

 

You’re my retainer. Of course I pay for you.”

 

Laughter is suggested by the angel

 

Scenes remaining for this act:

 

Nanahara

 

Natoko’s end of date

 

Otsune finds Isis

 

The date:

 

At restaurant, all three of them

 

something…

 

Natoko goes to leave. Sagara follows, eventually followed by Raiko

 

Aki disappears out of shame for being used to strike a human. Doesn’t reveal later though

 

Raiko decides that Sagara likes Natoko, hence why he follows her, but then Raiko reveals that she felt no jealousy whatsoever and so realised that she doesn’t mind this at all, and thanks Natoko, making Natoko feel terrible

 

(it all ends up going right against Natoko’s ideas, but Raiko realises otherwise, realising that she finds herself incredibly attracted to Sagara after Sagara does nothing but horrible things all night) This turns out to be terrible for Natoko, as Raiko admits that above all else, she didn’t want to be with Sagara., and she thanks Natoko for being true to her, making Natoko hate herself )

 

This is all leading to Aki’s disappearance and Otsune’s discovery of a bloodied Isis, as well as being led into the SIS

 

Anyone come in?” Otsune asked, re-entering the lounge.

 

Of course not. Do you know what time it is?” Fujiko was sitting on the chair facing their way as Natoko followed sheepishly behind her.

 

Twenty past midnight,” Otsune replied, more to make a mental timeline of the current incident than to answer.

 

Exactly. No one’s gonna come in here. They’re all still out.”

 

And you didn’t touch it?”

 

I’m doing my best to not even look at it.”

 

Good good.”

 

Isis!” Natoko cried out behind her, pushing past her to get at the sword lying on the ground. Hastily, Otsune reached out to grab the girl, missing the back of her shirt by an inch. As Natoko knelt down, Occam sprang to life, engulfing the area above the flame in white heat. Natoko held back, looking like she was still awaiting an opportunity to reach in and grab.

 

You named your sword?” Fujiko said disdainfully.

 

What is the meaning of this, Tsunade?” Natoko said turning to her. Her hand was held out against the hat. Instinctively, Otsune will Occam to turn it down a notch. She wasn’t quite sure how many degrees Natoko was willing to go.

 

You tell me, Natoko,” Otsune replied. “Can you tell me what it’s doing here?”

 

The blade was on the floor without its sheathe, lying down with the sharp tip piercing into the wooden floorboards. Otsune had seen it round the girl’s waist enough times to know immediately it was hers, even without Natoko claiming it on sight. The obsession didn’t concern her. The blood did.

 

Who was using it? Where’s her sheathe?”

 

And a gender too?” Fujiko was still staring in the direction of the door.

 

You have no idea what it’s doing here then?”

 

Why do you think I’m asking who took it?” She was answering with questions.

 

Why aren’t you asking why there’s blood on it?”

 

Natoko spun back around, glaring at the weapon again. Otsune heard a small gasp and suddenly Natoko was reaching forwards to grab it once again.

 

Natoko!” the girl was reaching past the layer of heat, struggling as if it were a tornado pushing her back. Otsune leant forward and grabbed her by the scruff of her collar, trying to yank her back. “Stop it.”

 

Let me have Iziz!” Her hand was turning red from the heat Otsune had to wrap her arm round the girl’s head and fall back to pull her away.

 

You can’t touch it” she yelled in the girl’s ear. “We don’t know what’s happened. “We need to have it checked out.”

 

Iziz,” hissed Natoko, her efforts stopping. It felt like she was giving up, so Otsune held her a little tighter.

 

You know it’s not normally wise to bring the culprit back to the scene of the crime,” Fujiko said, looking down at the from the top of her chair.

 

Fujiko, we don’t-” The elbow to the gut stopped her words, and Natoko was up. Trapped between wheezes, Otsune rolled over as Natoko stood up. Thrusting her hand across the floor, Otsune reached to stop her friend, stopping only as she saw her sit down on one of the dinner chairs. “I was about to let you go, you know.”

 

Yu could not have held me anyway,” the girl replied defiantly.

 

Yeah, but I’m pretty sure I can incinerate this building in a heartbeat.”

 

But then she remembers that she’s not a murderer,” Fujiko interjected quickly. “Unlike some potential suspects.”

 

Otsune tried to gather the urge to calm down. She wasn’t going for good cop bad cop here, let alone keep things calm cop, rather accusations cop.

 

You think I would dishonour my sword’s spirit that way,” Natoko barked, now sitting with arms folded. “With that blade I could never take a life, except that of a demon.”

 

That was a possibility. “So is it demon’s blood?” Otsune enquired.

 

Impossible,” Natoko replied. “The blood of Demons and Divine cannot be found on earth They possess objects. Whilst it is possible that it is the blood of a demon possessed human, the blood itself can only belong to a creature found on this planet.”

 

That was- strangely knowledgeable.

 

And you haven’t been stabbing any demons tonight.” Part of Otsune was aware she needed to be more annoyed with this conversation, yet she just plain wasn’t.

 

Not myself directly no.”

 

You sure,” Fujiko interrupted again. “Not attacking kids dressed in Halloween costumes a month too early thinking they’re flesh eating monsters.” Natoko’s teeth clenched as her face scrunched up.. Otsune had never seen anyone do that before.

 

Natoko stood up to shout. “You dare even think I would use my katana for such vile things? I would never. That blade is the final gift my grandfather gave me in his last will ten years ago? His honour flows through my veins as I wield it. I strike down evil in his name, and only his evil.”

 

Okay okay, calm down. It’s just Fujiko suggesting possibilities Natoko. You don’t need to-

 

Wait wait,” Fujiko kicked in again. “Ten years ago? Natoko. You bought that sword three years ago.”

 

In the middle of shouting, Natoko’s stuttered silence came out as a bizarre exhale. “e-excuse me?”

 

The argument stalled on Fujiko’s side as well, sensing the other’s confusion. “You got it three years ago. Remember. You came back from shopping with it.”

 

I did no such thing.”

 

You so did. Granma Futabatei scolded you for it. It was a few days before Aki arrived.”

 

I know not what you refer to, but I assure you. This blade is the blade of my grandfather. It was passed onto him by our samurai ancestors. He gave it to me the week before his passing at the occupation of the SDF. It brought me on the path of Bushido I’m on now.”

 

Fujiko looked to Otsune, who shrugged. Otsune was in Germany at the time. She hadn’t a clue, though she too figured Natoko had bought the sword somewhere. Actually Otsune wasn’t that up to date on bladed weapons, besides being sharp, pointy, way overused in movies nowadays and completely illegal to carry around. Her only real question about Natoko’s ownership of a four foot katana ??? was how the high school girl got away with it so easily.

 

Well, okay. My mistake then. But still- hello? Murder!”

 

Actually, we don’t know if anyone’s died yet,” Otsune pointed out, kneeling down at the scene. “We kind of need a body.” An urge to examine the weapon surged through her, trapped only by the knowledge that she shouldn’t touch it. They should surely call the police. That was the most logical and civic thing to do. She would just be getting pulled into something she’d later regret if she started pawing at the evidence right now. Checking out the murder weapon in the middle of a crime scene was what stupid people would do, the type that wanted to believe that adventure rolled around them, with the universe joining in to circle. Otsune was smart, she could probably assist, but her mere presence here made her a potential suspect as well. There was no way she could have any official status on a case like this, meaning her best input would have been a witness’s statement. And that was even if it got to the police. If experience taught her anything in this room, it was that, it was that there could have been a massacre in her and that ninja would still jump down from nowhere and start insisting they all forget it ever happened. But even so, she should still not touch it. She should still try to get the police involved.

 

Oh who was she kidding

 

Touching the sword’s ???(crack) she dipped the finger in the blood and pulled it up to smell it. IT definitely wasn’t chocolate sauce. IT was thick too, covering the sword at a length of roughly sixty centimetre, and pooling down the ??? all the way to the hilt.. Whoever contributed the blood had a lot of sword stuck in them.

 

Yet the floor was clean.

 

Not completely, the wood was stained a permanent shade of Gen’s insurance inspired screams. But it wasn’t a giant pool. Instead, a small trail seeped through one of the wooden floor tiles. You could have mistaken it for a drinks spill or not even noticed it at all if it weren’t for the sword itself.

 

If it had occurred at all, the act of murder couldn’t have happened here in the lounge. That was obvious. Pulling the sword out of a body would have brought a hell of a lot out with it and yet the surrounding area was, mostly, clean.

 

Whoever was stabbed didn’t do get it in the longue, nor were they even here. That meant the sword was carried here, possibly by the murderer.

 

Natoko, where has your sword been all night?”

 

In my room,” the girl replied, a little desperately, sounding a relieved to be asked a question that implied she didn’t murder. If it was in her room, then Natoko should have locked her door. Checking for signs of entry would be the next logical step.

 

No. There was something more important to be done.

 

Natoko,” Otsune said standing back up. “I trust you’re not the murderer, but I need you to prove it to me by leaving Iziz where she is.”

 

Natoko mild relief seem to bring a little smile to her lips, and she nodded. “Understood.”

 

The girl sat back down to wait. Otsune kept poker. Trust wasn’t an issue here, but giving a dose of it to a heavily insecure girl with authority issues increased the chances of her staying put until Otsune got done what needed to be done.

 

Fujiko?” she said, standing back up, doing one last quick sweep of the room to ensure there was no errant body here. “Get hold of everyone you can, even Gen and the ninja girl if you can.”

 

Okay. Why?”

 

We need to check everyone is still alive.”

 

**

 

Are you still alive?”

 

What… Erm, yes,” said a slurred voice belonging to Junko on the other side of the phone, too inebriated to answer the question with anything but honesty.

 

Great. Good job.” Otsune hung up. That was most of the people on her contacts list that lived in the dorm. Natoko was still trying to get hold of Aki, and Hisami was shuffling around her room but not answering any knocks (which was normal). Sarah hadn’t been accounted for until ten minutes ago when she wandered in with a pitiful attempt at making it look like she hadn’t been out all night.

 

Sagara and the ninja were missing. Though Otsune had to class that as normal they were the ones most likely to be involved with this.

*

The potential for a fight to have occurred involving Sagara or Melissa, in which Natoko’s sword was used during the flow of battle and someone who was possibly human getting stabbed…” Otsune paused by the door. This line of thought gave her nothing. This gave her nothing, and basic Holmesian deduction wouldn’t let her generate outlandish theories to accommodate sketchy facts. She was stuck.

 

All they had was a sword and a small pool of blood. It wasn’t even a trail. With no path to follow, she went for the next stage of logic. That she could consider.

 

Natoko’s room was unlocked. Before getting in here, distracting the girl with the random goose chase that was find Sagara, Melissa and Aki was a necessity. It wasn’t exactly a Machiavellian method of planning, But Otsune’s diabolical nature was just as strong as the man’s himself. She slid open the door.

 

Flicking the light, she steadily approach the two roomed bedroom. Natoko was in the wing that had a private sink and toilet. With the other door wide open, she could see the in there as clearly as the rest of the room. Nothing sprung to mind bar Natoko’s obsession with the Edo and Heian??? periods. Calligraphy scrolls adorned the walls on both sides of her bed, while a samurai headpiece sat on the bedside table. Three malnourished bonsai trees were outlined behind the closed curtains and somehow Otsune knew that if it wasn’t a legal requirement for the landlord to provide it, the bed would be replaced with a more tatami mats.

 

Other than the fan merchandise, it was otherwise a normal room. Natoko’s schoolbag sat by the door, unceremoniously dumped, and the desk was filled with junk, the flashing red lights of Natoko’s alarm clock posting the time at 1:55, which was wrong.

 

There were no corpses or pools of blood to be found here.

 

Not that Otsune had been expecting this. She entered the room carefully all the same, checking all eight corners and poking her head through the bathroom door. Of course there wasn’t. What she knew she needed to check was just for any signs of break in, which was again unnecessary. The door was unlocked now and was probably unlocked earlier. She had never tested it but she always felt Natoko to be the type to remember to always do so, either out of procedure or fear she would be mocked for her hobbies.

 

Otsune poked her head under the bed..

 

She didn’t expect Natoko to hide the body either. No. Natoko was just the type to believe herself justified in any of her actions. If she had murdered someone she’d probably confess it to the police and then wait patiently for them to take the body away for her, only getting confused when she was asked to step into the car. Otsune yawned.

 

She couldn’t take this seriously. Not only because they had no proof of anything having actually happened except a load of possible pig’s blood, but also because it was the server who led her to the sword in the first place. It knew what had happened. Something computer’s obviously shouldn’t be aware of. But it had been contacting her via text as well, and chasing her down when she refused to acknowledge them. IT was obviously just someone on a real time chat client, but what was their game.

 

Entry through the window was at least remotely possible. She walked over to the bed.

 

Whatever their game was, it involved either revealing, framing or vindicating Natoko from whatever event was happening with her sword. That meant they were both being used. Otsune didn’t sit well with that.

 

Lifting the duvet up, Otsune found nothing but a smell that needed covering up immediately and no further investigation. Reaching over, she pulled the curtains open. Expecting a lightning bolt she was instead met with a clear night sky, the moon glistening high above in a half crescent and washing the distant city of Fuugosuki in a luminous sheet. The rain from earlier was gone none, completely and if it kept like this it would be beautiful over the next few days.

 

The window was shut, key sitting in the lock and fairly secure. No one had come through the window. Looking down to the bonsai trees, she clicked her tongue . These needed watering. They wouldn’t get it, Otsune knew that. Natoko’s strategy was to buy things that looked feudal and then immediately forget about them. Only one looked like it was doing well for itself.

 

Turning round to sit on the bed properly, Otsune took another glance at the room as she warmed her hands under the sheets. The room was clear it seemed, not that she didn’t already know that. The girl had been in the room when Otsune had approached. The basic line of thought would be to avoid areas where one could get caught. But Natoko was an idiot. Maybe she had opted to hide in plain sight, for better denial later-

 

Otsune sank down further across the bed, her hands sinking down onto the radiator. IT was late. She was sleepy. She should just retire to the internet for another hour or two and then go to bed. She could figure this out- Her hand clutched something from behind the bed. Long and light. Out of mild curiosity she lifted it out and found herself looking at a sheath, undoubtedly that of the sword’s. Why was it behind the bed? She looked inside, seeing absolutely nothing as one would expect when they sealed a dark chamber with their own face. Se tipped it up and had a sniff. It was empty. Not just of swords but everything except a mild greasy smell, possibly (???sword cleaner).

 

It took an instant for Otsune to realise it was there, but why keep the sheathe hidden behind the bed. Why not take it with you with the sword. Anyone who took it, Natoko or not Natoko regardless, would simply have an easier time carrying, both in terms of safety and not freaking the crap out of anyone that passed in the hallway… unless the sheath was dumped in Natoko’s room after the act. Both were possibilities.

 

Otsune yawned. She was tired.

*

 

Natoko was alert, perfectly aware of her surrounding as she remain frozen to the chair, refusing to move an inch. Across the floor, n feet from her, lying on its tip???, Iziz gazed at her, the reflection of eyes coming back at her over a crimson shine. Natoko apologised silently yet again.

 

Iziz wanted to be in her hands. They had been apart all day. With school and the date, she had only time to wander past and admire whilst she was getting ready. She hadn’t trained for over twenty hours…

 

Natoko was forgetting things. This she could feel It was all in a ream though, some weird conversation where she was completely calm. It wasn’t to be of concern for the moment.

 

Sagara was watching her. She had requested with head bowed that he not let her pick up the sword. While she trusted her pride to not be so stubborn as to grab the blade, she feared habit would take her. Even with sheathe missing, holding the handle??? was the most natural thing for her to do.

 

Aki was out and wouldn’t be back for a while. The American ninja girl eluded her grasp. Sagara was oddly the easiest to find that night. He was also the least likely victim of the attack, though she had asked just to be sure, despite him sporting no obvious wounds and was outside training himself. The earlier events of the night hadn’t phased him much.

 

He was staring right at her as he rocked back and forth on the chair, she could see this out of the corner of her eyes. It was hard to hold back a smile.

 

We’re back,” Fujiko chimed, wandering back in with Otsune following her. “Sagara. You’re alive as well.”

 

Yes I am,” he said proudly, spinning the chair round to face them. :Apparently Natoko stabbed somebody real hard?”

 

I did not!” Natoko insisted, standing up without meaning to. “I was asleep. We came back from the date with Raiko and I went to bed I didn’t even know Iziz had been taken until Otsune woke me up.”

 

Did you notice it missing when you got back to your room,” Otsune asked, leaning against the far wall.

 

I.. don’t think so. I don’t even remember getting to my room really. I think I just wandered in and crash.” Otsune was talking. That was good. Otsune would try to be fair about this surely.

 

Right, so you-”

 

Wait wait wait!” Fujiko interrupted, now standing in the centre of them all, three feet away from Iziz. “You two were on a date.”

 

Er- Yes,” Natoko said, a few tones higher than she meant to. “It was for Raiko. She wanted to see… it was at the…”

 

Wait!” Fujiko held her hands up firmly, then pointed at Sagara. “You were on a date with two women?”

 

Yes I was!” replied Sagara helpfully, whilst at the same time managing to be very unhelpful.

 

Impressive.” the grin on Fujiko’s face shifted to Natoko, becoming a little leerish? in the process.

 

Fujiko!” Otsune called up.

 

Oh right, the murder,” Fujiko looked to start paying attention, looking back at Sagara. “You dog…”

 

Anyway!” Otsune called to order. “Natoko. You’re saying after you came back from the date, you crashed out on the bed, and during this time you didn’t notice your sword was gone.”

 

That’s correct… I normally would but I guess I was tired.”

 

Did you notice what time it was?”

 

…no. It was just before eleven I think. You woke me up at one I know that.”

 

How did the date go?”

 

Fujiko!”

 

Serious question actually,” she replied. “Surely we need to know what the suspect was thinking at the time, right.”

 

Otsune sighed forcefully. “Proceed.”

 

Everyone was looking at her, Sagara’s eyes were piercing her.. “Well.. I guess… it went well.”

 

Come on. Details. Where’d he take you?”

 

Restaurant…”

 

What type?”

 

Italian.”

 

Fancy. Did he wine and dine you?”

 

Er… no. We didn’t get that far.”

 

Fujiko’s beaming smile opened up to reveal clenched teeth of happiness. “OH! You really didn’t You get distracted at the bar and ended things early?”

 

No…” she muttered. “Not exactly. When the waiter turned into a sludge demon and proceeded to fight us I was left defenceless as Sagara and Raiko fought the creatures off.”

 

Huh?”

 

The whole thing was cut shirt pretty quickly I guess.”

 

Fujiko’s smile was hidden beneath a frown. “What?”

 

I had left Iziz at home at this point, not expecting a demon attack. Luckily, Sagara was able to summon Draynor to defend, and Raiko utilised the elements of the OniRai locked within her, and used her lightning summoning abilities to fend the creatures off. I was incapacitated by a blow to the head. Oh,” she suddenly realised. “That’s what happened. I was hit by something, so they took me home whilst I was unconscious. I remember now…”

 

Fujiko’s frown was hidden under an aghast look of total perplexity. “What?”

 

What?” Natoko replied, suddenly just as confused.

 

You were attacked by demons?” Otsune asked.

 

Er, yes…” Natoko wasn’t sure where they were going with this. Was this one of those clever interrogation techniques used to distract her. Surely Iziz was more of a concern.

 

Why were you attacked by demons,” Fujiko questioned, the ac of maintaining three different expressions piled on top of one another proving too much and collapsing her face into one blank expression.

 

Because-” Natoko cut herself off, trapped in thought for three seconds. “Why were we attacked by demons?”

 

Hell if I know,” replied Sagara.

 

Look!” Otsune interjected. “This… probably-” she looked uncertain, “isn’t important, to what happened tonight. What is important is that we have a sword covered in blood and no known reason for it being there. Now, tell me Natoko, can you explain what this was doing behind your bed.”

 

From behind her back, Otsune lifted one half of Iziz. The sheathe, she realised in the instant she grabbed it off her friend, was just as much a part of the blade as the blade was itself. To be hidden and dangled like that-

 

How dare you hold Iziz with your fil- the fire burned before her, pushing her back. She fell three steps back and held there. The sudden inferno quickly subsided, emptying the gap between herself and Otsune.

 

Looking a little flustered and shaking her hand as if to get it dry from Natoko’s sudden retrieved, Otsune shifted uneasily towards her. “I found it behind your bed. Now you yourself admitted that upon coming back without the sword, you got into bed and fell asleep. The way your room’s laid out, no one could put your sword behind your bed without waking you up.”

 

Now the sword itself could not have been in here before eleven, as me and Fujiko were in here talking.”

 

not about dates though,” Fujiko grunted.

 

From here we can determine that the sword was placed here after we left the room at eleven and got here before I wandered back in just after twelve. And around this time, the sheath was placed in Natoko’s room behind the bed, either returning to the room after the sword was left here or never leaving the bedroom at all.”

 

Wait.” Something felt wrong. “That was two hours ago. Surely someone could have placed it in there before you woke me up half an hour ago.”

 

Natoko,” Otsune said wearily. “Look at the clock behind you.”

 

Natoko turned slowly to the clock above the kitchen door. It was close to twelve forty???time confirm. “But.”

 

My assumptions of time are not based on your accounting of facts.” She wandered past over to the clock. “It was five minutes to eleven when me and Fujiko left the room. It was eight minutes past when I came back into the room to find the sword. And it was twelve thirty when I knocked on your door.”

 

But I-” Natoko racked her brains, but couldn’t think what she was looking for.

 

The reason you think it’s later in the night is because of this. From the pocket of her hoodie?? Otsune produced Natoko’s alarm clock. Red lights were flashing 2:13??? at her.”

 

This works both on plug and battery, but despite this it still appears to have been reset, two hours and thirteen minutes ago???”

 

Was there a power cut,” Natoko asked, feeling deja vu.

 

Only unless it was localised in your room.”

 

But why would that matter… oh.” She couldn’t do the math, but she knew what they were thinking. Somewhere this left out a block of time that was unaccounted for, and that was enough for them to think she was hiding something and that she did it. This was getting bad. She was innocent. That much she knew. She didn’t kill anything tonight, not for lacking of trying when it came to waiter based sludge demons. But if the others suspected something and Otsune was tricked into thinking she did something. No wait. Otsune herself might of done something using her sword. It was the perfect weapon.

 

Actually this tells us nothing again,” Otsune said “When it comes down to it, the clock getting knocked out could have happened for any number of reason and only explains why Natoko thinks it’s fifteen minutes past two in the morning. It doesn’t explain the sword, or the sheathe.”

 

Natoko found herself breathing again.

 

Plus there was the gap of time after Otsune had fetched Natoko and brought her here.” Fujiko added. “ The sheathe could have been placed back then.”

 

Good idea, but no,” said Otsune. “Without sounding too amazing for thinking ahead of time, I knew I would need to check Natoko’s room as I went to get her, so I had Occam here-” The little flame floated into existence as she pointed, “stay outside her room until I got back, “and return to me only if someone entered, which he did not???”

 

Soooooooo-” said Fujiko, “what you’re saying is, essentially, we’re right back to where we started.”

 

Correct,” Otsune said, looking a smug bastard in Natoko’s eyes. “We’ve determined when the event occur, between eleven and twelve, and when it couldn’t possibly have occurred. After twelve. While we still need to determine if the sword was taken before eleven, if the sheath was hidden before eleven, what time the blood got on the sword, whose blood was it and who was holding the sword, w at least still have determined this critical piece of information. This is logical deduction my friends. Not all the answers are shown immediately, but through careful observation of the fact and long, drawn out study of statements I’m sure we’ll determine the true cause of this mystery!”

 

Natoko stared at Otsune. Fujiko looked a little pissed. A few seconds later so did Otsune. “Oh I’m sorry. This isn’t a cop show. You can’t expect me to find the answer by just asking the whole world out loud does anyone have an idea of how blood got on the sword? Now can you?”

 

It was probably whilst Natoko and Raiko were fighting at twenty past eleven yesterday,” said Sagara, still rocking back and forth. “The first time Natoko woke up.”

 

What?”

 

*

 

It was really 4am. Otsune was dropping off. Iziz the magical super samurai sword was sitting beside her, being covered in blood and not doing much else.

 

Otsune clenched her hand. It felt like it as bruising. Natoko had snatched it off her so fast it felt like something should have caught on fire. It was nothing compared to the speed she had shown a few moments later.

 

It was weird. She was sure Natoko hadn’t done anything. Surely no one would have left a murder weapon in the middle of the floor and then hidden its sheathe three feet away from one’s self. Not unless they hoped it would look so obvious it must clearly have been a fix.

 

They really needed to move the sword. Sakura would probably be up in two hours to start food prep, then Otsune would be up to go jogging. No wait, she was Otsune… she giggled a little, then slumped to the floor.

 

The skies were still clear, all the clouds that had surrounded them over the last few weeks had cleared off without warning. It was kind of weird to have such a serene landscape for a change. The absence of lightning would be a good thing too.

 

Natoko had kept the sheathe after leaving. Otsune had figured she could just let her hold it for now and it wouldn’t have amounted to much. Now it was a soon to be fugitive holding evidence, and she had let the crazy sword girl do it.

 

She rolled over on the hard floorboard, releasing another sigh. She did that far too often nowadays. She’ll ruin her skin with all this worrying. Surely she had better thing to be doing than this. She still needed to get a job.

 

No. That was irrelevant for now. For now, she had to find out the truth Everything else was superficial, mundane and short term. She needed to find Natoko, see if she was okay, determine just what the girl had done, find out what this server thing was all about and perhaps- bzzt

 

She flicked her phone open.

 

Suggested location for designated temporary evidence storage room. East Wing. Floor 2, room 32F. Room is unoccupied and contains multiple boxes left by prior occupant. Glove are in kitchen drawer.

 

Otsune sighed yet again and made it loud and clear. It knew she was in this room? It was stupid o’clock in the morning. Who would be up?

Otsune looked at the blade. It was evidence, possibly of a murder, possibly of someone’s fervent desire to drop a katana in pig’s blood. There was no way for her to tell without at least some kind of forensics lab to analyse the blood, and of course that would take weeks just to get a ‘probably’ on. She needed to know, the answer could vindicate her friend, or destroy her.

 

But if she moved the weapon, she caused further trouble. She got herself more involved. Otsune had only touched the blood so far. If she moved the sword an inch, it could affect everything. Forget taking the sheathe out from under the bed, this was covered in clues.

 

The half crescent moved stared down at her from above. The phone buzzed again. She didn’t look at it.

 

Otsune went to sigh and stopped herself. Getting up instead, she went into the kitchen to get the gloves.

 

*

 

It was Monday morning. Natoko was not in school uniform.

 

The class was sitting in silence as Mr Fukazawa paced the room. It was sunny, but cold this morning, and he had come wearing a full suit with a hint of a sweater underneath. The student body had switched to winter uniform two weeks ago. The boys kept their jackets on while some of the girls were wearing an extra layer of knee high socks To her left, the vice president was wearing fingerless gloves. Fukazawa had allowed it.

 

Natoko was dressed in jeans and a top, her ‘date’ clothes from the previous night. No one had said a word to her when they entered the class. Everyone had looked. The vice president had glared when she handed the pop quiz paper to her. Natoko’s blood was boring.

 

Maths questions were in front of her. She hadn’t answered any. She couldn’t see the questions, couldn’t even read the paper. Clutching the pencil, she wondered why no one was saying anything. Most had chatted morning class away like usual, mostly in hushed whispers, but it was beginning to bother her that Mr Fukazawa hadn’t said anything He used to send her out into the hall if she so much as had a button undone, just because he could. There was no way he was letting this go. She could feel his footsteps as he paced the floor. Every one of them were turned to face her. She knew she was in trouble.

 

Blur plus blur equals blank,” she muttered, seeing the vice president quickly glare at her. She didn’t care about the test. What was she even doing here? After that… thing that happened last night, after… they had accused her, she had ran. Using the quickly step she was out of the village before the dolls even knew she was on the street. Now she couldn’t remember where she had gone at all. Somehow the city had become her destination, the lights above attracting her in her haste to escape his… their accusations. From there she couldn’t remember where she went. She was just going too fast. This speed was amazing, and she was getting faster all the time. Landing at the school was probably luck or coincidence, but why she had walked in…

 

The clock was ticking. Pencils were scratching. The teacher’s suede boots were clicking against the tiled floor. Four seats behind and one right from her, a boy was typing on his mobile phone. Six back and one and two left from her, two people were sharing answer. Five seats behind her, Aki’s chair was empty.

 

What had they told her. Natoko realised she hadn’t seen the girl all weekend ow?? she was accused of murder and her best friend wasn’t coming to school. What had that bitch Otsune told her. Her pencil cracked. Had she been squeezing it?

 

Part of her knew she needed to calm down. The world around her was conspiring to catch her, to prove her guilty of… something. Really, she didn’t even know what. Had she and Raiko been fighting. She recalled some kind of conversation with the girl. And it had been her that carried Natoko to the bedroom. And of course Natoko had planned to remove the girl from interference with Sagara’s quest to become the Enforcer. But she hadn’t planned to kill her unless absolutely necessary. Had it become necessary?

 

Psst.” More noises distracted her. “Psst.” To her left, the vice president was waving. Looking over the girl was making various hand signals and pointing down at the sheet of paper on Natoko’s desk while her mouth opened and closed in several directions.

 

Excuse me?” said Natoko, clueless o the girl’s bizarre actions. The girl panicked and several others looked up from their papers.

 

Five minutes remaining,” Mr. Fukazawa said, causing everyone’s passion for staring at paper to suddenly remerge. Natoko remembered where she was and glanced down as well as he passed. A minutes passed as the clock informed her of every second. Soon he started to wander round again.

 

Psst,” the Vice President called out. Natoko looked over again. Again her mouth started to mouth words Natoko couldn’t understand. The girl tried again before giving up. “Just guess if you don’t know the answer.”

 

Was she trying to be insulting? What point did guessing achieve. Natoko looked away, trying to be grateful. This was the problem with schools. They made the test something to be feared. She should never guess. A test was for one to prove and improve one’s self. Just randomly writing numbers down would prove nothing but falsehood. An right now she needed to prove herself innocent against the slander that would turn her lord against her.

 

Time is up. Please hand your papers to the front.” Why must everyone distract her while she was thinking. The child erupted into muttered conversation, everyone talking with leashes wrapped around their mouths. She needed a plan. Something she could do. Maybe she should head to Sakimoto Industries. Miss Sakimoto might be willing to believe her if she told her side of the story. But if she didn’t…

 

Oi. Yamanaka.”

 

What!” she shouted out, swinging round from her chair to face the one who dared interrupt her. Little Tanaka peered at her through oval spectacles, shivering as he lifted up test papers to pass to her.

 

Please,” he whimpered, frozen in place as the class fell to silence. Eyes flashing between him and the papers, she snatched them off him and sat back down again. This was useless to her now. Maybe she could ask Sagara’s assistant or…

 

It was the sudden instant where she realised she had nowhere to go when the hand slapped down hard on her table.

 

Miss Yamanaka,” Mr Fukazawa said as he leered down at her through semi-circle glasses. “May I see your test paper?” From the front of the room, she could see everyone staring at her.

 

Please do,” she replied. She needed to leave here at east. All these distractions were just getting in the way. This was a school. Why weren’t they letting her think?

 

He scooped up the paper that had been on her desk for the last hour. “Miss Yamanaka. When you attend a test, any test, you are marked mostly on basic performance, whether you got the answers right, and how you got them. However, basic competency is also a must. In the education system, we mark and reward even the most basic of effect. As we all know, merely putting your name at the top marks you three points.”

 

He was still talking? It was getting hard to drown him out. At least everyone else had gone silent.

 

From your silence I do assume you know this.” It occurred to her he hadn’t spoken at her like this for a while. Her grades had improved a little after all. “Perhaps you would care to tell me then, why you think you can get away with this.” He raised the markless paper for all to see.

 

If you think that just because your ‘improved grades’ means you can simply stop trying after a little improvement, then let me tell you, that just because I gave you those marks out of my own… generosity, doesn’t mean you can abuse my trust in you to do well and-” Aki should have been by her side. She would know what to do. At the very least the girl could put an idea into her head for her and they could go from there. “And that’s not even commenting on your state of dress.. At first I thought maybe there was some kind of problem going on, but now I see this is nothing more than a delinquent effort to rebel.” He stopped talking. This was good. Now she could-

 

Striking her across the forehead, the test paper swung across her vision. Then she felt it again. Her blood boiling. Her thighs burning. “Are you listening now? Now I think that after school today-”

 

Natoko focused on Mr Fukazawa. The man paused in his words for a second.

 

After school you will stay behind and you will finish the test. Now I think that because this will get in the way of cleaning duties that you.

 

The table scattered. Suede shoes left the ground. A finely pressed suit scrunched up in her hand as a two faces contorted and three girls squealed like pigs behind her. Mr Fukazawa crashed into the blackboard, Natoko following him as she lifted him up, point the tip of Iziz straight into his forehead.

 

Shut up!” she screamed. “Shut up! Shut up shut up! You just eel talking and talking and talking and talking and talking. And it’s always nothing. It’s about nothing. It’s for nothing.”

 

The man had turned sheet white and started blubbering pit out of his mouth as he failed to catch words. Pathetically he tried to climb up the blackboard using his hands and felt Iziz’s tip pressed into his forehead just enough as he sank down.

 

Okay okay. I’m sorry. I’m sorry… Please just.. just don’t

Shut up!” she screamed again, right into his ear with enough force to send it into every brain cell.

 

Okay okay. You want good grades, like Kiriyama said. I’ll give you good grades. I’ll do that. I’m sorry. I just thought-”

 

Kiriyama?” The name brought focus. “Why are you mentioning him?”

 

Right. The deal. We’ll just keep to the deal. I understand. I’ll be quiet.” The man was openly sobbing now.

 

What deal? What are you talking about?”

 

No I get what you mean. I’ll be quiet. You’ll get the good grades. Just like we agreed. Just like Kiriyama told me. I’ll move them up. You’ll get top marks all the time now. I swear it. I’ll keep my word.”

 

Iziz was in her hand. Clean and crisp where she should be. It felt right. She was focused again.

 

Natoko knew where to go.”

 

Mr Fukazawa dropped to the floor, the pinprick leaving a drip of blood to travel down his nose and into his stuttering mouth. Leaning down, she looked him in the eye.

 

For your own safety,” she said loud enough to travel,” I was never here today.”

 

Yes. Yes mam,” he blubbered loudly, bowing his head. “I understand. I understand.”

 

Striking Iziz down with a perfect clean???, she replaced the blade back into its sheath and felt a small tinge of pleasure warm her body. This is how it should be. And now she knew what she needed to do. Find Kiriyama. He had to be the one behind this. He got everyone looking at her strangely weeks ago after the arcade. He had to be the one behind the fake murder as well. She would find him, beat the truth out of him in front of her lord and that fool Otsune, and then, see where justice takes her.

 

Turning from her former teacher, she walked out slowly, keeping her head up. Sliding open the door, she turned to the fifth seat behind hers. Looking carefully, she smiled, turning away to head for the exit.

*Water 4

 

When considering it rationally, Heavenly Springs was a weird little village.

 

Situated roughly five miles from the city of Fuugosuki, it was just outside range to be considered a part of the vast city itself. But even with only one road and one tram line there, there was never need for anyone to visit despite its proximity and allusions to cultural heritage.

 

The village itself only had three shops, one (fairly modern) church, two restaurants and a population of around five hundred people. It didn’t even have a police station ??? Apart from the occasional demon scourge invading the town there was simply no need for it. Overall it was quiet, rural and had no distinguishing features.

 

And therein laid the weirdness.

 

It occurred to Otsune, as she casually walked the late night from bush to bush, keeping an eye out for wandering mannequins existed in what should and shouldn’t be here. The tram line first came to mind. It had two stops. The town and the city. A single dedicated line that didn’t even go through any other villages. It came from the city, arrived here, and then turned around again. This may have worked were it not for the existence of a second line that did navigate itself through all the neighbouring villages and towns.

 

The lack of a police station she could sort of accept. IT was not entirely unreasonable for a small town not to have local enforcement, but the complete absence of an official community watch and the lack of medical assistance, not even a village doctor, was surely cause for concern, especially due to the average resident being of retirement age.

 

And then there was the residents themselves.

 

Perhaps it was the living atop a small mountain surrounded by all her friends and having a direct road to the tram station, but the need for Otsune to wander the streets had not been a regular thing, so she could understand, as she wandered in an attempt to clear her head for the fourth night in a row, why she had completely missed the fact that resident she knew of here was at least above the age of fifty.

 

And if it wasn’t for the dormitory she was now convinced that it was a full hundred per cent.

 

Or zero per cent, if her worst fears were correct. For if the suspicions she had built upon the last few nights were correct, then not a single of the villa folk she had seen these past few nights were human, but bizarre puppets that wandered the streets looking for young people to get disappointed at.

 

Otsune could not determine why these creatures existed. IT had to be something to do with demons and the Balance and probably Sagara and definitely those puppets she saw in the forest months ago. But she was missing information.

 

Information, as always, was the key to understanding this situations. All situations. The balance, demons, angels, the Strangelands, Sakimoto Industries, Natoko’s sword healing itself, children of thunder, wandering puppets, some kind of artificial intelligence who had again turned her obil back on in order to send her another text message, Sakura’s boyfriend, some kind of instant translation field that allowed idiots of different nations to talk. And Sagara. Always Sagara.

 

He had started all of this and in some way he was probably the key to it all too. And without reducing herself to simple metaphors, every key had a lock. And that was just her problem. She didn’t have the lock, or knew what door it kept bolted, or what the door looks like, or what could possibly be behind it or even any reason for her to search for it for her to search for it in the first place.

 

Otsune had no mission. She could argue it was to search for the truth. But the evolutionary reason for truth and reason was simply so one monkey could prove itself right to another monkey, regardless of whether it was correct or not. And Otsune didn’t want to be right about anything here. She had already been proven wrong the day the tire demon popped into her close circle of friends. The only problem there had been in admitting it.

 

The mumblings of a puppet made her drop her stride and kneel into a bush. These things had been around for weeks now, and always assaulted her the times she had wandered too close to one. As the old man hobbled across the street and round the corner, Otsune wondered just how most people from the dorms weren’t questioning this situation every chance they got.

 

She shook her head, trying to clean it of cobwebs. This was not time for existential angst. Natoko was what mattered now. She needed to find her friend. Four days may have passed since the girl had ran away, but she had left with no money, no change of clothes and no sword. Otsune had done as the text message had suggested. Storing it a spare room, she had wrapped a box tight with tape and left it hidden in plain sight amongst a dozen other boxes before locking the door and keeping the key to herself.

 

The cardboard box wouldn’t stop anybody, but it’s purpose was simple. As soon as it showed any signs of tampering, it meant Natoko had come to retrieve it… possibly. IT also kept it out of the way and left no one but herself, Fujiko and Sagara suspecting of Natoko.

 

The girl known as Raiko had yet to be found. Sagara confessed not seeing any sign of her since the date night. The room she had been staying in was simply left as it was. The girl had left one set of casual clothing behind. From Sagara’s account of events, she had spent the night dressed up. If she had left, it would make some sense she had changed and if that hadn’t happened, did it mean she hadn’t gone of her own free will.

Kicking a stone, Otsune realised just how many times she had formed this line of thought already. She needed a more active approach. Someplace to go. Someone to question.

 

In a village full of weird, how was it she could find no clues.

 

Stupid bitch!” Otsune fell backwards out of pure retarded instinct, arms flailing as the wrinkled old face appeared straight in front of her, the sharp corner onto ???street name providing no warning for the sudden intruder in her life. Falling hard onto her left shoulder, her body went to automatic, trying to roll her off t with a wrist that was also screaming from the sudden impact..

 

Her vision had gone fuzzy and her non-sprained hand darted out immediately to retrieve her glasses. In the blurred world beyond two feet, she could make out the figure of the doll just standing above her. Raising her knee, she resisted the urge to kick out at its shins, depth perception no longer being a thing she could rely on.

 

The filthy whores have invaded our domain for too long. You now will pay the price for your own tormented actions.”

 

Otsune’s hand clasped onto metal and within a second her sight was back, refocusing on the old woman. She had seen this one before, she realised, rolling her eyes as she started to hop back up. These things had stopped being horror material about two weeks ago. Their function now was to be a nuisance at best. And while she hadn’t figured out why they were here, she did know she didn’t have to listen to them.

 

You don’t turn your back on me,” the lifeless doll wailed as she turned tail and walked slowly back in the direction of Heavenly Springs. This was a distraction at best. She needed focus, a fresh layer of inquiry. Searching manGod on Google had brought up nothing. Trying to find people called Raiko was fruitless. The server wasn’t answering her properly since the other night. She was fooling herself really. She needed to know the truth and with the chain wrapping round her waist, Otsune was caught on the spot.

 

Lungs rejecting the current lungful of air she had, Otsune lurched back and fell over again, landing on the same screaming wrist and coming to face the doll again. It glared down at her with wrath in its cleverly constructed eyes, and hollow cheeks shook as it spoke to her.

 

You are not to leave my sight, ever again.”

 

The chain was new. Thick iron links joined her and the mannequin from wrist to arm. ON the floor left a discarded wooden hand covered in the synthetic flesh that the dummies were covered in. Otsune gasped out of reflex and clutched the chain.

 

Good work, Junko,” a voice said to the side of them. Otsune stayed still as her eye tried to view the newcomer from its peripheral view. Another two dolls stood there. These ones had no excuse for appearing out of nowhere. The street around them was empty of any obstruction. “This whore will pay for her crimes tonight.”

 

Hey,” said Otsune. “He only paid me in cheap liquor. It’s not my fault he was so hunky.”

 

You confess? You insolent little maggot. We shall take you-”

 

Spinning!” she cried out, taking full advantage of the physics involved in being attached to a wooden doll by an iron chain whilst possessing a lower centre of gravity and at least some upper body strength. The doll designated as Junko was yanked forwards by her arm, stumbling to where Otsune had originally fell. Sing the floor to help her keep spinning, Otsune unwounded herself of the weapon and let it drop to the floor, just in time for the next chain to slam into her back.

 

Avoiding her sprained wrist by smacking her other wrist on the ground, Otsune kept herself propped up just enough to keep her knee off the ground. Glasses dangling perilously close to the tip of her nose she got up just to realise that the doll had another chain was her right hand used to be. Pushing the inquisitive voice that asked just how the doll kept two lots of four meter heavy chain inside her as short as Sarah frame, Otsune backed herself five meters away, keeping an eye on the doll’s movements and receiving two links of iron to the chin for her efforts.

 

Her glasses cracked somehow, but she remained standing, tasting the contents of her left chin as they spilled out into her mouth. Otsune felt her neck tense and decided she had had enough.

 

You fuckin-” she began to scream out as the woman ignited, first her yukata taking flames at the sleeves and travelling up to the framework of her body. As Junko’s hair ignited, her mouth dropped open and hung there, synthetic flesh pouring off carved cheekbones in dripping streams. By the time she fell to the floor, the chains were already slag on the floor.

 

Forgot I could do that,” Otsune muttered, spitting the blood out her mouth and wiping her chin from the good side.. Mentally making a note to do all her clean up this when she had recovered, she gave Occam a mental pat of the flame tip. The ball of fire spun round with glee and she tried her best at a smile.

 

The clink of metal as it hit the floor returned Otsune’s attention to the other two dolls. Both elderly men with crooks in their back and warts on their faces, they stared grimly at her as they lifted their arms, bringing to bear a large machete knife and a spear tip. She bore them a smile and raised her hand, stopping only as the machete roared to life, small cutting blades appearing from sleeves as the doll struggled to keep it under control.

 

Otsune’s attention was drawn away from this by the sear tip, now laying on the floor as it dropped alongside the other doll’s hand, leaving a hollow cylinder that the man raised to face her.

 

She didn’t wait. Her feet took her away and down the street, covering the distance at her fastest sprint time, her casual trainers hating her for it. This was very new! The dolls had shown no signs of weapons before. Did they all have this? The questions ran through her head as she took the corner and fell into ???street as a large crack filled the air and a wave of air flew past her in the same instant.

???more dolls have one explode

The street led to a dead end of houses. She knew that, but their gardens were probably accessible with plenty of fences to climb over. Hesitating, she decided not to risk it, turning for the other open street and seeing the two men standing three feet away from her. Her wheezing breath hit her and Otsune felt her tongue go strangely dry as she belted four feet across the road and stopped for directions. She was trapped. Why did the dolls have chainsaws and cannons? Now she looked the fences were high and made out of chainsawable wood. It was not something she could risk climbing while she could be shot at will, , but with no time-

 

The blast wave hit her as the world before her turned to smoke the sonic boom of the cannon following a second later and taking her down. Coughing she watched as the dolls walked through the fire and took their time to face her on the ground. Spinning round, she pulled herself up and looked for anything that could help. As the door creaked open, she took it, slamming the bridge of her foot into the ground and bounding for the entrance to the small residential house as Occam once again ignited the street. Not sure how many were taken out, she didn’t care as she plunged herself through the door, keeping it open only long enough for Occam to follow.

 

The door couldn’t shut anymore, the cannonball provided a stroke of luck by taking out only the lock. The latch was still there though and hastily she secured the door as best she could something told her that the dolls were probably set up in such a way that meant it was considered too rude to use their weapons on doorframes and would negate their cover as the elderly and infirm, and Otsune told herself immediately this was bullshit. Presumptions about levels of social etiquette meant nothing when your horde of dolls were producing chainsaws where liver spots should be. She headed for the back of the house, noting how the cannonball ha cleared the entirety of the small residential building.

 

The house was quiet, only the rumbling of the chainsaw filled her head. At the very least, the weapons would make climbing the stairs for her pursuers a little difficult. With the stairs in front of her, she took for them immediately. IF she got a window open, she could probably snipe them with Occam, as long as they all stayed outside. She couldn’t be sure anywhere on the ground was safe now. As she got up to the second floor hallway, she headed for the bedroom facing the front of the house, aiming for the window.

 

Further thoughts of tactical positioning left her mind the moment she saw the room. With the simple grey curtains closed, it would have been hard to see were it not for her little ball of flame. With Occam present though, she could see the room for what it was.; completely empty. Only the walls allowed it to be called a room of any sort at all. Entering carefully, for no reason that she could discern, she took a quick glance at the adjoining room and saw that it was similarly empty, stripped of everything from carpets to wallpaper and certainly containing no items of value or comfort.. the house wasn’t only empty, but abandoned to.

 

That couldn’t be right surely. This was prime real estate no two ways about it. Why would there- IT wasn’t an issue, she immediately decided. The murderous dolls. They were the mystery she should be focusing on.

 

Stay,” she whispered t Occam, keeping him by the only entrance to the room in case of sudden intruders. IT didn’t sound like they had gotten past the door. She could only guess the challenge of a door latch was proving too much for them. Their intellectual capabilities seemed mismatched at best. Kneeling down to keep her now large shadow out of silhouette making range, she peeked through the curtain, took careful stock of her surroundings, and turned around to sit down and catch her breath.

 

Yep, there were twenty three of them out there.

 

Twenty five counting the two by the door. Only two minutes had past. Surely that many couldn’t have appeared. Was her perception of time being altered by the adrenaline rush. That would make things seem even quicker surely. She had to at last account for losing track of things. She knew in hindsight now that blasting the whole street with fire was an obvious solution she so totally should have taken. She probably still could, but going back out there now was something her body wasn’t allowing her to do.

 

They were just milling around though, and the chainsaw had gone quiet. Had they forgotten about her that easily? She probably shouldn’t treat them like zombies.

 

Otsune pulled her phone out. No messages. Four bars though. She could easily call someone. There was no one to call now, but she could. Fujiko if anyone would offer excellent bait.

 

No no. She had to think. Be smart about this. Of course. She was Tsunade Otsune, the genius of Heavenly Springs. A genius that came through hard work and talent combined. She could think of a way out of this that didn’t involve taking out the whole neighbourhood. Blasting the dolls stopped being an option when Kimiko had detonated with a four foot radius. Each one of these things were now carrying surprises. Discovering one had the force of ten sticks of dynamite wasn’t something she was willing to try.

 

A rattling caught her ear from downstairs and she felt every muscle tense itself in preparation. The wind may have just been mocking her but it wasn’t a risk she wanted to take. Occam could burn anyone that came through the door, but cannonballs coming through the floorboards weren’t worthy the pot luck. The back rooms suddenly required investigating.

 

Bzzt

 

The yelp from her own lips hit her harder than anything else today and Otsune could feel the gratitude pouring off her when she realised it was only a text. A phone call would only lead to explanations either now or later that she never wanted to tell anyone.

 

Head to the basement. Code is 5964???

 

Even here,” Otsune whispered. These text messages were becoming too omniscient for their own good. Even if there were hidden camera in this room, how would anyone even be knowing to look at them. Otsune only decided to start squatting in her new hovel a few minutes ago herself. Even an AI would need to know where to search.

 

She silenced her complaints, trying to move right along. If the building had a basement, it was going to be either under the stairs or out back. Both would mean heading back downstairs to the hallway And there was no way Occam wasn’t going to light up the hallway when she descended.

 

But staying here wasn’t going to help her any either. Relying on any patterns from the dolls that might result in them leaving was foolish. There was a chance they may merely opt to wander around for a bit, get bored and then go back to their normal routines. But now they had drawn weapons, they may no longer care about keeping cover.

 

That meant the others could be at risk to. She needed Sagara, or better yet, his ninja assistant, or even better, the Self Defence force. At least they wouldn’t be concerned about keeping up their own cover.

 

She was stalling. Crawling across the room, she reached Occam and the stairs. “Stay here,” she whispered, continuing to crawl past the stairs.

 

It was a single flight, fifteen steps?? one which she had bound up in an instant just minutes ago. Now, with figures hovering behind frosted glass, a single creak was a death knell she couldn’t afford.

 

Knowing she had to get on with it, Otsune lowered herself onto the first step, prepping her knees to slowly lower her body down to the next step. She had done this all the time as a kid, sneaking past her mother to get a snack after lights out. It was something she had been terrible at, but failure there just got her mother to toss in her sleep. Here, it got Otsune cannonballs.

 

The stairs seemed solid, crawling down backwards gave her the best support and their apparent lack of use left the floorboards solid anyway. Methodically, she took another two sets of two at a time and win the gamble. Looking behind her, she could see the dolls masked through the glass. She must have been invisible to them. Taking a step she heard a creak.

 

Frozen to the spot, Otsune caught her breath and held herself in an unsteady position. Outside, footsteps aced for no obvious reason and she hated every moment of her life that led to this point. Why was she doing this? Why did she have to suffer such nonsense? And why was she being so stupid about it? The dolls could have infra-red vision for all she knew and here she was walking into their line of sight.

 

What if the text message sender didn’t even know she was in this particular house?

 

Nothing happened for forty five seconds and Otsune allowed herself a controlled breath of relief to erupt slowly from her mouth. Already on her way, her brain randomly decided she might as well continue and took another two step down before reaching the ground panel. Standing up wasn’t smart, and she continued to crawl round to what was either the basement door or a closet. Turning the latch, she smile when she felt cold old mixed with the smell of wood grain.

 

There were more stairs, but even with the hollow sound that accompanied them, she was used to the slow movement now and got down there in only double the amount it took with the previous ones.

 

The basement was pitch black with Occam waiting upstairs. With a confident smile she reached for the light switch and flicked it on. Pitch black meant no moonlight and no little basement windows to bring it in. Flooding the room with light, she wasn’t surprised to see a room void of crap that needed storing. The room was again barren as the rest of the house, with only the concrete floor providing any difference. Had she missed the sales sign on the way in. She had been in a rush, but something felt weirder about the situation, the most obvious of which was the iron door on the far side of the room.

 

Its perimeter covered in rivets, with the centre containing a large turn value, Otsune immediately thought of an airlock for a boat. The heavy grey door just rested there with no purpose she could see. The basement was the size of the whale of the downstairs. The only place it could lead was rock foundation.

 

Or the sewers.

 

The smelly rotting carcass that was the village’s sanitation pipes were something she knew didn’t exist as some kind of sprawling metropolis. Heavily springs was simply too small. A few of the houses probably had septic ditches in their back gardens still. The door wasn’t an escape. IT was another room.

 

But it still had the keypad besides it.

 

Otsune had no reason to hesitate further. Without evening looking back at her phone, she approached the pad and typed to four buttons. A louder than she would have liked it beep shot across the room, and the red light changed to green as the large valve started to turn..

 

Hiding behind the door as it opened, Otsune took the precarious, of bracing her leg to jump away when the monster jumped out. As nothing appeared, she backed off enough to allow the door to swing open fully, coming to a silent halt against the wall and ending its trip with a bang.

 

Of course, it was a tunnel through the concrete foundations.

 

What else would it be?

 

Otsune felt warn suddenly, and allowed herself to smile. The stress was getting to her, but that was no reason to stop. Otsune tested the door. It was light enough to push. Turning from it, she jumped back to the stairs and took in a full two lungs of air.

 

Occam!” she shouted, hearing the whirring start immediately. “Come!”

 

The whirring grew louder immediately for her efforts and she knew the front door to the house offered zero protection. She jumped back over to the iron door as she heard the clambering of footsteps above smacking the floorboards. There was no sense denying the dolls were fast and she could hear their screams of profanity as she clasped the value on the other side of the door and started to pull.

 

IT moved slowly but was making progress even as the voices reached the top of the stairs. Keeping an eye as she pulled, Otsune thought briefly on the idea of hitting the lights, the distance turning her off the idea.

 

The door struggled, and she renewed her effort. The dolls were coming down the stairs now. They were taking their time, but the chainsaw doll was definitely leading. Grasping harder she tried to speed the process up. The door was made of iron. IT closed and she was safe forever.

 

Don’t you close that door on me, you rude little slut!” the man called out as he started to cross the basement. Otsune stupidly closed her eyes and pulled on her full reservoir of strength. Maybe her timing was wrong. For a second she wanted to recalculate the time needed but her arms didn’t let her. She needed the processing power for closing the large door.

 

Her eyes were open as she nearly tripped over the lower door frame. The doll was there right before her, chainsaw in hand. He hadn’t even raised it up. He was just going to walk straight into her. IT was all he needed to do. The door wouldn’t shut in time, but she couldn’t leave it. The tunnel wasn’t… She couldn’t- there was two feet of door left. The chainsaw has no discernible fuel source.

 

The doll just the moment with the final inch between them to explode head first, its wooden frame combusting into ash as Occam ploughed through it the same it would float down the hallway nonchalantly. The chainsaw tried another whirl, then raised itself upwards as the power of the doll gave up on it. Occam hovered before her, looking pleased with itself.

 

Oh you fantastic bastard. Come on.” With all her strength and a cannon being raised at her, she slammed the iron door shut and fell into the mud below

 

***

 

(as she explores, she sees the other passages leading to the other houses)

 

The only light was Occam, stronger than any torch and wouldn’t cut out at horror appropriate moments. Still Otsune moved through the passageway slowly. With no clue why the tunnel even existed, caution was her best response. The floor was also made out of sloppy mud. Otsune sniffed the air.

 

The floor’s didn’t match the logistics of what she was seeing here. At first, Otsune had thought it was the stone walls and concrete roof that didn’t match up. But they could exist in tandem in a carefully constructed world. The ground was what didn’t make sense. A form of clay earth she could get, but topsoil shouldn’t be here unless it was placed here and the moisture that only covered it with a thin layer should either not be existing at all or flooding the whole corridor.

 

At five foot three?? the height of the hidden passage wasn’t an issue for her. Natoko and basketball players would have had problem should have had problems. Otsune sniffed loudly. The silence was a solid wall around her. At least in the giant cave that was the Strangelands there was enough open space to prevent the echoing effect, at least one she could conceive anyway. Here, the world was shut off and vibrations were a thing the cave wasn’t expecting.

 

Cave. Or passage. Or cavern. What was she going to find here. The existence of a deep tunnel underneath a small residential house was not lost on Otsune. She read once that a French men ??(find cracked article) had once dug a massive underground tunnel solely for kicks, but that didn’t explain the empty house it came from, nor the reasonably high tech taken from a submarine security door. Such a thing would have made local news when discovered by the real estate’s people at least. Perhaps she had missed that broadcast.

 

Occam hovered by her shoulder as she kept taking in the air through her nose. She wanted him behind her as best she could, but still wanted to see without her own shadow getting in the way. In her preference bringing the naked flame into the underground passageway of potential natural gases wasn’t the best of strategies. She also knew sniffing the air would not help detect the blazing inferno that would occur when he started igniting molecules, nor prevent it as it engulfed her. Not doing so however, felt just as stupid.

 

Distance became lost on her as she continued down the tunnel. The door was out of sight, but no other door was in sight.. Her trainers were squelching now, the type of disgusting squelch that got into your socks and wasn’t something you wanted to clean u. She stopped when she saw the shape of the tunnel change up ahead, increasing her pace for a split second before the extra sloshing took her down a gear.

 

Using the moss free stones to pull her into it, Otsune approached the clearing. IT was nothing special save the appearance of a concrete floor that cut the mud off. Stepping onto it apprehensively, she felt the ache in her calves as they realised the effort they were putting on to wade through mud. Looking round, Otsune understood immediately.. “Oh fun.”

 

Before her, and around her and several behind her in the short confines of the clearing, was sixteen other tunnel ways going off into the darkness beyond Occam. They were all a perfectly two feet separate from each other, and made the room itself into a poorly drawn oblong shape.

 

She knew what this was, and huffed as she tried to wipe herself down of any grit she was covered in while being glad she had kept her now ruined clothing relaxed this evening. These were of course tunnels to other houses. The confirmation for this came from the signs above each tunnelway. The one she came through read 5 Camel drive. The other eight houses of the cul-de-sac surrounded her, with the six houses from Castle drive joining the party on the far side.

 

This meant the house she had ran into wasn’t special, as far as being part of a special group of tunnelled houses could be. The whole of two streets was like this. Did that mean they were all empty and living under the illusion of being already purchased prime real estate. That still could just be chance, but Otsune was getting the worst of suspicions that perhaps she hadn’t been as observant to the village of Heavenly Springs as she thought she had been. How many people lived here besides the dorm members? Five hundred she had been told, but source bias was preventing her from remember where she got that from. Maybe she had made it up to sound in the know.

 

One tunnel way was unmarked.

 

Part of her seized on the fact she didn’t need to be here. This was interesting yes, but she had other things to deal with. The super-secret passageway could be added to the bottom of the list and then dealt with when other priorities had been resolved.

 

The rest of her headed for the remaining tunnel. Even if she did want to ignore this, the doll horde were still waiting out on the street and she didn’t know what Castle street was like. Seeing that the unmarked tunnel led back into more mud, she sat on the concrete part of the floor and took the moment to clean her shoes, glad that she never cared that much about her nails as she started to scrape around the rubber.

 

The concrete was clean.

 

It was only noticeable due to her own efforts to ruin the cleanliness. But now she couldn’t help but note how free of dirt it was. The concrete ceiling probably helped but the rough surface beneath knew would have surely picked up the markings of animals scurrying quickly across it, not to mention the humans that must have built it.

 

It was perfectly dry as well, the slosh from the route to sixteen camel drive was only on it now because of her.

 

This of course came to the illogical conclusion that no one had walked across here before, negating the reason for passageways made of concrete and sloppy topsoil mud that housed no animals of any kind and were sealed behind quiet security doors that must have been connected to some electricity bill that needed paying by someone.

 

There were also no visible light source here bar the naked flame that followed her around. Otsune scowled at no one.

 

What the hell are you doing here?” she screamed to the room, to everything. The place was meaningless. IT was like those dumb corridors that made up the so called InBetween Realm that she was getting forced down every so often. She slammed her trainers against one another one more time then set off to go again.

 

This tunnel was just another stupid featureless tunnel of existential meaninglessness. It was like a really depressed wannabe nihilist wanted to make the people who travelled through these caves commit suicide before they even found anything.

 

Not that there’s anything to find!” she cried out again as she entered the next open cavern area “Boss street and Think of a name later avenue?? were marked here, equalling a total of twenty three separate tunnels, with a spare one at the end to head for the next link in the chain. She stormed down it immediately, not stopping to clean up.

 

By the time she got to One, two and fourth street?? she was feeling it in her eyelids. It was already late before she setoff, and her wrist and shoulder were starting to sting. She was only going to bruise at worse but she was still fast getting out the modo for this. Her phone told were 2:38am and no bars. That meant the stalker wasn’t helping her out anytime soon either.

 

Madison park way and queen’s street, along with the Sanaka restaurant??? “Youre an incredibly boring tunnel with incredibly boring aesthetics,” she shouted pointlessly hearing her voice echo. “I can do better in minecraft!”

 

Panting she stopped. The sloppy mud was draining, and her sweat was starting to mat into her hair. The cavern must have been freezing for Occam only to make her this hot, but she knew she was nowhere near her limit. Her Strangelands ordeal had lasted months. This was nothing.

 

Main street. She stopped for a moment. But this wasn’t the Strangelands. There she had an unknown protector/antagonist, secretly providing her food and water. The conditions limited her sleeping time and he ground was bearable to walk on. Not to mention the place destroyed her perception of time.

 

Save the time perception destroying thing, she had none of those here. Not only that, but she had sealed the door to 16 Camel street behind her. She hadn’t tested it but what if none of these doors could be opened from this side. She may have literally sealed her fate, and for stupid reasons to.

 

Falling into the centre of the room and ignoring the pain, she ran her eyes across the signs. The best thing to do would be to pick one and hope for the best. Occam hovered over her face and she swatted him away. If that didn’t work it was she’d just have to hope that these tunnels didn’t just meet another dead end cavern like the one she had started in. With any luck a sewer entrance of kind, the logic of a rural village irrigation system going straight to-

 

Otsune blinked a few times, staring at the sign entitled ‘Palace’., sitting between 18 and 23 main street.

 

Of course, blasting down the doors with her own flame cannon would have been a viable option.

 

Disregarding her brain’s newly found skill of hindsight, she wandered into the palace tunnel. This one was wider, but only just. The ground was sloppier though. This good. Very interesting. There certainly wasn’t a palace in the small apparently-completely-abandoned-except-for-lunatic-dolls village and if this one had a sealed door at the end of it she couldn’t open, then Occam would turn it to slag and everyone would be happy.

 

******

 

The screens were blank. Nanahara couldn’t tell if he was met to be sleeping or not. He had long since stopped trying to kick his way out of the comfortable Markus desk chair he had added into the miscellaneous inventory sheets last year. His body hadn’t been listening to him for a while. He didn’t expect it to start now.

 

In the back of his mind, he could feel Rochelle watching over him, smiling with full, collagen unnecessary lips that knew just how to tickle his neck. She hadn’t moved either. It was the reason he couldn’t move.

 

The server was in control now, and he had no way to escape it. The server was where the drone program came from. The drone program he knew was blocking him out every few hours to take him to the toilet and made sure others didn’t miss him. He could only assume it happened when the girl in the screen was sleeping.

 

The girl had no name to him??? She was just the one he watched, as the SIS told him to. The girl spent her days wandering the hotel she lived in, pacing rooms, watching television. In the mornings she went out to jog in the streets, taking the same path out to the fields, stopping by a river before heading home, taking what seemed like an unnecessary rest before going back into the village. IT was only when she came back in she watched it street carefully. It looked like she was avoiding someone. After that it was breakfast, then an incredibly long amount of reading.

 

The girl had had a very plain life, he established after an estimated five to twenty days of watching. She had friends but no job by the looks of things. He couldn’t guess her age but she was around twenty. And this server had been making him watch every moment of this pointless tripe. If she wasn’t hot in a nerdy sort of way he would have forced whatever was keeping his eyelids pried open to rip them apart

 

That had been the last blur of days, but now it was different.

 

The only thing he saw on the screen was a dark room with a corpse in it. He could barely make out the corpse itself in the darkness, but they looked like they had collapsed in the empty centre of an empty room. It wasn’t the girl, he knew that much. It looked male, with short hair, even in the dark.

 

The girl was gone. He had the feeling that when he woke up he had missed something of important. Perhaps the channel had been changed to the dead guy and the girl was lost to him forever.

 

Without warning, Nanahara struggled against his chair with the force of a clock left on a completely level surface. He heard Rochelle giggle and cursed In his mind. He wished the server would at this have told him what this was about. Watching a girl for hours on end had to have some purpose besides voyeurism. Normally he wouldn’t mind, but she didn’t have a girlfriend or anything to make this exciting.

 

The camera flickered and he paid attention again. The screen displayed the girl’s room, empty of its occupant. He caught the shuffling of another young girl as she came out from behind the bookcase with a small ba??? just as it flicked again, showing the corridor outside her room. A few seconds later it changed again, becoming the lounge where the not making out ever couple sat watching television in silence. Again and he saw the empty lobby. Agaian and the idiot prince wandered past, waving at him as he passed down the corridor with that ugly smirk on his face.

 

The screens kept flicking in equal intervals, running through locations that ed from corridors to street lamps to a restaurant to a short haired girl crouching in an attic to a man in a priest’s clothing glaring at him and back to the corpse room again before continuing the loop.

 

It was searching for her, he realised slowly. IT had been watching her for five days minimum and was now suddenly realising it had lost sight of her. The camera paused on her room again, the short blond haired girl leaving without the bag this time. The picture halted for a little while longer, jumped to the corridor to see the girl one last time and then started flicking through the images as fast as it could.

 

It didn’t know where she was, and that was, for some reason, a problem for the SIS. Nanahara didn’t know what was going on, but forced a smile on his face for his pains anyway.

 

*

 

It wasn’t a palace. That was kind of annoying.

 

It was just a huge underground shrine.

 

A huge boring underground shrine.

 

Idly wondering if there was something wrong with her dopamine levels nowadays, Otsune approach the torii. It was dilapidated and red, flakes of paint coming off of the wood that she could spend all day picking at. The torii wasn’t shaped anything special, but it was missing a sign. The shrine was nameless and of course, completely out of place.

 

Forty steps were laid out in front of her, rising up and higher than where the house must have been. Whilst it was entirely possible she had been going lowering in the disorientating mud pits that linked camel street to crossington high, her instincts told her otherwise. This was definitely too high. The steps alone were three times her height, the two storey building with high roof attached should be poking out the ground.

 

Which meant it was right underneath Heavenly Springs.

 

There was no point denying it. The idea had come to her head as soon as she saw the sign. And the only way this place existed is if it were in the hollowed out mud pile which the structurally worrying abode of her and her dorm mates sat waiting to fall into.

 

At least things were working out. The hill meant she was probably less than five hundred meters from her bed. Soon she would be asleep, and all would be good.

 

After she climbed the stairs.

 

Stairs ruled Otsune’s life. Sh never took elevators, but stairs at three in the morning were good for no one., even one who once travelled down a spiral staircase that took the better part of the day. At least this one wasn’t as life threatening as that one.

 

The shrine’s location may actually make some sense, she thought as she strolled up the stairs, fully intending to take her time and as many breaks as possible. The growth of a civilisation was usually on the decrepit remains of what came before it. An old shrine existing here wouldn’t have been once sitting out in the cool breeze, but probably built as a secret shrine for the occupants of the manor Heavenly Springs once was. Hundreds of years ago they probably came down here for their private rituals away from the townsfolk, or perhaps the people of the village knew about it to and entered through secret passages in their large residential houses… with security doors attached, and untouched concrete everywhere.

 

That wasn’t quite right. The concrete technology was only a century and a bit old. Though that might not stop them. She knew of rumours about long iron pipes poked through a desolate Chinese mountain leading all the way to the bottom and being tens of thousands of years old. Maybe someone formed the technology in another manner and it was lost later on, giving the remains left on the concrete plenty of time to decompose. That could make the place two hundred years old.

 

Otsune walked past the amp, and stopped to glare at it.

 

Perhaps the pre industrial japanese civilisations found a method for ancient sound amplifiers that ran through modern day power cables leading up to a plug socket in a hole in the wall…

 

What was this doing here?

 

The amp was just sitting there, being all modern in a world that it seemed unlikely anyone had come to in a long while. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe it had been carried here by a newcomer like herself.

 

Who had then built a power socket into the surrounding bedrock?

 

The two story Heian temple with ornate roof tiles that looked like they could be made of gold wasn’t of interest now. Just this ordinary amp. The man with all the answers in the world could be sitting at the top and still she would ask him to come down here and explain just how the hell it was doing here all existing in the wrong setting and stuff.

 

Something was plain messing with her.

 

A least it was turned off. If it was taking power from the dorm… She flicked it on

 

Leaving the roof with an explosion of vicious feet, the glass of water screamed for vengeance for its brown brethren. Though It had never got on with the twins, especially Gretchen, who was a complete butt muncher, to watch as the best of them were thrown against the ground as nothing but a cre prank against the girl’s guardian, was too painful for it to fully comprehend. The little blond girl returned to the kitchen and placed him back on the shelf

 

It would be up to him to break the bad news to all the other glasses. His burden to share on the others. What cruel fate was placed on his comrades would only be worse when it came from whatever part of crystallised structure that made his essence would blab to them.

 

Meanwhile, in the let’s get drunk room, the second of the unemployed miscreants rose from her slumber, rolling only to fall against her other cheek. Drinking was beginning to get boring…”

 

Otsune watched the sound system carefully, not quite sure what to do with herself as she continued to let it play. Turning the volume up, she looked around. the(warehouse) was across the other side With half the stairs to go, she opted for a side trip and peered into the small hut.

 

Naturally it contained a professional looking microphone and a recording panel.

 

Otsune approached it gingerly, shivering with a sudden chill as leaned towards it “Test-

 

-ing ate the flowers in her mouth with joy, enjoying the feeling of such delicate folds entering er mouth. Her head falling into the mud. Sne let the intoxication roll over her and started to dream about mammals or something.”

 

It was definitely connected to the amp, though the other voice appeared to be coming from elsewhere. The recording panel itself was turned on and judging by the timer, had been recording for several months. Her hand hovered over the stop button, but then opted against spite. With nothing else around, she headed back out.

 

Another voice connected to another microphone meant someone was living here. As long as they weren’t too psychotic, and she had to face it, most newcomers in her life recently were, they might be able to explain what was going on here.

 

There were no other buildings before the shrine at the top, and she restarted her ascent. Occam took the lead. Electrical equipment here implied modernity. Otsune’s first thought was perhaps this was something set up by Granma Futabatei years ago, but her knowledge of technology was antiquated for sure., though amps weren’t exactly technological marvels in comparison to setting up wireless. It really could have just been a homeless person who set up shop years ago.

 

The large wooden doors to the shrine were closed. Made of thick oak wood, these were well on their way to becoming completely rotten. They appears unbolted, and she could already see the light on the inside, but still they took effort to pull open Straining as she leaned back, her shoulder and wrists hated her for it and she opted to squeeze herself and occam in rather than open them all the way.

 

With a final thud she rested against the door to catch her breath, in her haze seeing the small crack in her glasses. It wasn’t bad enough to distract her sight but it did mean an emergency trip to the city tomorrow, an act reliant on her ability to escape. As the last of her exhaustion left her, she looked back up.

 

The inside of the shrine temple immediate hit her with its glorious ness. Despite being two stories tall, the inside was completely hollow, the previously assumed floors above her simply not being there, the ceiling rest high above her looking a good hundred feet high before closing up round the point of the roof, which glowed in the bright light provided by the hundreds of candles that hath scattered the floor, burning brightly and travelling along the walls all the way to the top

 

The architectural impossibility of the building didn’t strike her as much as the beauty of the place, the white walls completely clean with shining plates of gold going round the inside of the building in intervals all the way to the top. What it didn’t hide though was the nagging in her mind that the building was definitely bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. Dimensions were plain just not giving a shit as the expanded high above where the dormitory had to be.

 

The candles,scattered across the polished floorboards and sitting atop of little plates with seemingly no intention of puffing out anytime soon, were fizzy and warm. Even with Occam besides her, she could feel a gentle heat emanating from each of the balls of flame. They obviously weren’t melting though, with no wax dripping down the side of them. She was tempted to put one out just to see what would happen when she caught sight of the hole in the floorboards.

 

There were two in fact. Standing in the centre of the large room she saw they were equal distances apart from her, perfect rectangles cut into the floor in the opposite direction to the floorboards themselves and hidden quite effectively behind the randomly placed candles.

 

She had to look. Carefully navigating herself round the small wax columns and trying not to step over any, she approached the hole in the ground closest to her. Peering over the edge, she saw only shadows and quickly grabbed a candle to illuminate what was before her.

 

She gasped, nearly dropping the candle before losing her balance and rapidly pulling herself back to prevent falling in. Without waiting she scrambled across to the other one, taking a moment to try and compose herself before lowering herself just far enough to see.

 

It was the sam. A coffin in each. Carved out of marble, this one was chiseled with the features of a blue oni spirit, its wide open eyes and fangs met with horns. The way the hands were placed reminded her of an egyptian sarcophagus . The only difference from the japanese beast of myth being the huge distended belly which ballooned out the center of the the coffin and made it look like whoever had built the box held nothing but contempt for the body inside it.

 

The other coffin had been similar, only representing a red oni this time. That one hadn’t been anatomically incorrect though, instead sporting a huge smile that extended up to the boxes ears and just came across as cartoonish against the exquisite stonework that it had been placed atop of.

 

Otsune began to wander back to the centre. So was this place just a rather bizarre cemetery? That still didn’t explain the active recording studio the next floor down, nor the candles of the abuse of either her perceptions or the local dimensions. IT was also the first time this had happened in a place that wasn’t the InBetween realm.

 

Unless she was in it. That would explain a few things. Had she been dimension hopping without realising. That could be troublesome. It meant she was even further from the dorm than she had initially assumed. She sighed and stepped over the small red button on the phone, causing the walls around her to start rumbling.

 

Dust unsettled and candles shook and Otsune knelt own to keep herself steady. Looking to the floor she saw the large red button and wondered just how she had missed it. The ground itself was shaking, but not violently. She didn’t get the feeling that the whole pace was about to come down around her, but something was moving.

 

Out the corner of her eyes she saw something move and stood back up to watch the coffins rise. Rising out of their holes, they lay on parade as they rose beyond her level and erected their own pedestals. She barely noticed the rumbling had stopped by the time they had.

 

Half the candles in the room went out, sending the blue oni coffin into darkness.

 

Without hesitation she immediately pressed back on the button, hammering it a few times when nothing happened. The coffins stayed in place. No reverse rumbling happened. She waited for all the hell she had set loose to come washing over her and felt disappointment when it didn’t.

 

The large room went back to silence, leaving Otsune in the middle of a half lit room and two coffins on display. Suddenly a feeling of apprehension came over her and for the first time she thought about getting caught doing something or being somewhere where she shouldn’t. The feeling wasn’t a smart one, she knew that. Part of it worried that someone would come to tell her off. Another part was more reasonable and worried that she had set something ancient, evil and begrudging off.

 

Then there was a little part of her that knew she should be leaving now. Usually this was the biggest part of her and Kitsune didn’t hesitate to follow it but now all of it was being overcome by the part of her that wanted to know what was in those coffins. The other parts of her hoped it would just be dead unliving corpses and nothing more.

 

Wandering back over to the blue Oni coffin, she noted no smoke trail for the hundreds of candles that had just gone out. The pedestal wasn’t that high above her and with a jump and grab she started the embarrassing process of scrambling herself up, mostly relying on elbows and zero knowledge of mountain climbing. Sure she was fit and healthy, but she knew that good climbing etiquette didn’t involve using her chin.

 

Scooping herself up, she stood by the coffin and noted just how big it was. The blue Oni was three meters tall from head to naked foot with the belly going across half the total length of the coffin. Walking around it, she noted no obvious lock, and instead found some handy holds to grip on. Bending at her knees she lifted the box up and watched with horror as the giant marble lid slid out of her fingers and crashed over the side of the pedestal, shaking the room with it.

 

The coffin was empty. Perfectly hollow and from the inside containing the perfect mold if anyone had wanted to make a life size oni figure, but still completely empty none the less.

 

Was all this just for show then, she wondered as she looked round the other side of the pedestal to see the probably priceless marble coffin lid that had been expertly sculpted sitting in pieces on the ground below? If this lace was nothing more than a ritual centre for the townsfolk, then that made sense. Everything here would be impressive, aesthetic, and nothing more. Sliding down and kicking a candle, Otsune headed over to the other one, deciding she might as well check it out as well. Hoisting herself up with a bit more grace this time she saw this one was even bigger than the blue oni coffin, laying length wise at roughly four meters. Struggling to find the hand holds, she lifted the case up. How old was this place then? Otsune guessed at roughly two to three hundred years old but the fact that it was kept like this was amazing. IT was clear that there still someone else taking care of the place. After this she’d need to find them and ask the way out

 

It’s over there,” the angel in the coffin said, pointing to his right.

 

Gah!” Otsune cried out, dropping the lid on his face and falling back. The fall took her over the side and she crashed hard on the floor below.

 

Feeling the ceramic shard in her back, Otsune knew instantly where she had landed and rolled over quickly, getting her back on the ground and rushing to ensure her clothes weren’t about to go up in flames. Though the candle still burned as it lay on the floor, she was fine.

 

Okay. So there was someone in there. That was fine. She could expect that. She had initially expected someone was in the blue coffin she admitted, but then she had assumed the red one would be empty because the blue one was empty. But the red one was occupied- and chatty.

 

And an angel,

 

How it was an angel, Otsune didn’t fully understand, nor did she understand her brain’s insistence that the person inside the coffin was an angel. She had never seen one before and indeed until a few months prior had left it in her list of things that just plain did not exist. Discovering the existence of demons had led her to the conclusion that angels had an increased chance of existing as well, but she had yet to encounter anything beyond anecdotal to this being true

 

But now there was one before her.

 

That of course, by itself, shouldn’t be enough to confirm their existence. At this point she was just one person and seriously sleep deprived, injured and possibly suffering under an altered memory state caused by being placed in a stressful situation after suffering a surge of adrenaline. Plus she had determined that was an angel after glancing at the figure, male, square jawed, looked of european descent with blond shaggy hair and a halo of pure candescent light above his head, for only two seconds before leaping away and dropping the casket lid on his head. This data alone shouldn’t even be called into evidence to generate an hypothesis.

 

And yet she knew this was the correct conclusion to come to. Somehow.

 

Getting u, she wasted no time rising back up to the coffin standing before the red oni coffin and pondering her next move. Why was an angel inside a coffin based around japanese folklore? And why wasn’t he saying anything now he knew she was there? Occurring to her that the density of the marble may simply be solid enough to prevent her from hearing his cries, Otsune knew she had to lift the lid up if she wanted to him here speak again. Several scenarios started to run through her mind.

 

The Angel wa in the coffin. Maybe he was meant to be trapped here. Judging by his size and possible power, if he was some kind of antagonist, Otsune may be in trouble for at least four or five seconds before Occam turned him to cinders. IT may not be worth the risk.

 

But then there were no signs or warnings around them. It would probably bother her at least a little if it turned out he was simply trapped in there and unable to escape. With a moment’s pause, she lifted the lid.

 

I scared you. Funny.”

 

Otsune paused as she small the large man. Square chin, shoulder length blond hair, blue eyes, very, very handsome- more than she would like to admit, and rippling muscles bulging out of a white tunic, smile a childish grin at her. Taking care not to break the antique lid, she scooted around the side, the man’s eyes watching her the entire time as she put the lid down safely.

 

String at him, Otsune waited. He was breath taking to say the least. Dazzling even whilst lying down in a coffin that fitted him perfectly. The four meter coffin was necessary. The man was huge, even lying down and Otsune couldn’t deny a strong desire to be close to him. She clenched her hands behind her back, knowing they wanted to rest themselves on his chest. She recognised the feeling as distinctively alien, but still very nice.

 

The angel, and it definitely was an angel, wasn’t saying anything But just smiled up at her as he continued to lay back in his coffin with no apparent intention of getting up. She observed the halo on his head This was the only part of the coffin that wasn’t natural, and the box raised above his head to make room for the glowing disk.

 

Maybe she should tuh him. This may have possibly been some kind of apparition of the body that once resided in the coffin. Touching him would confirm he was really and…

 

Otsune looked away as best she could.

 

Er hi,” she finally said, getting the feeling he had no intention of talking.

 

Hello,” he replied joyfully.still staying put with his hands across his chest.

 

He stopped talking.

 

Are you alright in ther-”

 

You can touch me, if you wish?”

 

Otsune felt her eyes bulge. “Excuse me.”

 

If you wish to prove I am or am not an apparition, you may touch me.

 

One of her hands unclenched and raised itself up to outstretch itself. She had to hold back. “No. No thank you,” she eventually got out.

 

Very well, as you desire.”

 

The angel fell silent again, still smiling and looking directly at her, never taking his eyes away. Otsune knew she was looking dumbfounded, but felt kind of out her field here. Part of her was expecting more to happen.

 

No need to worry. Z’lphos expect people feel confused when round him. It normal reaction.”

 

Okay,” she said, very very slowly.

 

It may please you to know that though you do not possess all relevant data, then your initial hypothesis is correct and that I am an angel. A virtue of bliss to be precise.”

 

Right.”

 

That mean I always happy.”

 

This wasn’t the best of information to here. And she didn’t particular see bliss as a virtue either. Was this some kind of attempt to be the opposite of a sin. Aristotle and plato had penned seven virtues to oppose the deadly sins, but bliss wasn’t one of them. Then again, if this was an angel, it probably wasn’t taking its project guidelines from Greek Philosophers..

 

We don’t. Philosophers took from us. General idea, but incomplete.”

 

Otsune felt the desire disappear, her focus returned as the weight of his words kicked in.

 

Could you stop reading my mind please?” she asked with polite terror in her voice.

 

Can’t. Sorry.”

 

Why not?”

 

I’m afraid i’m not so much reading your mind more than listening to it. It would be like you trying not to hear me speak. You could pace your fingers in your ears, but still you would hear most of what I say.”

 

Can I close my mind off to you then?” she replied, feeling a trick in here somewhere.

 

No. Not you, nor no one.” Why was he voice changing like that? “No trick either. Only demons are creatures I can’t hear thoughts of. They speak different language in heads. You wouldn’t want to block yourself anyway.”

 

I’m damn sure I do.”

 

But then Occam wouldn’t be able to help you.”

 

Occam?” She turned to the little floating flame, as if expecting it to do something more than float around combusting the air. The angel knowing its name meant nothing if it could read her mind.”

 

Actually it’s a bit easier than that for you. I only read your active line of conscious dialogue. I can’t hear anything about your experience or knowledge unless you think about it direct. Yes. Occam does do it he same way.”

 

Which makes sense, seeing as he responds more to my emotions than anything else.

 

It’s also why he doesn’t always listen. The more unfocused you are in issuing orders to him, the less likely he is to respond to them.”

 

And you refer to him by gender as well i see…” Otsune shook her head. “But that’s not important right now. Why are you in the coffin?”

 

The angel transfixed her with his eyes, seemingly leaning forwards whilst staying relaxed in the box. “I’m a defence system,” he replied.

 

His smile was infectious. Otsune could already feel it hurting her cheeks, and there was a part of her constantly expecting more information and not getting any.

 

She was now painfully aware that she was getting closer to him, not the other way round.

 

Okay,” she said after a solid eight seconds of unbearable, completely unnecessary silence. “What are you defending against?”

 

I keep the demons away.”

 

You do?”

 

Yes.”

 

Lifting up from the box, Otsune looked around, just in case she had missed a horde of bloodthirsty tentacle monsters.

 

You’re doing a very good job,” she replied.

 

Thank you.”

 

Where…” No. She went to rephrase. “What are you defending from them.”

 

The sixth base of the Futabatei clan.”

 

The Fu… the sixth base?”

 

Yes.”

 

There are six Futabatei bases.”

 

There are ninety two.”

 

The blanks were filling themselves in. “Would this base happen to be the Heavenly Springs dormitory.”

 

Yes. That’s the one. Though I don’t think there’s a dormitory.”

 

Would it be the palace by any chance.”

 

Palace. That’s what they called it.” Otsune was feeling a bit of confidence now. “Though not just the palace. The village is the base of course.”

 

The village. As in the whole thing.”

 

Unless there are any parts of it that aren’t part of the village, then yes the entire ninja village.”

 

Her cheeks ached painfully. Her brain tried to scream a little.

 

Heavenly Springs.. is a ninja village?”

 

That’s correct.”

 

That”s hurts to know.”

 

Does it? I’m so sorry. If you want you can kiss me.”

 

What?” Otsune yelled, pulling back and nearly falling off the pedestal again.

 

Those who discover me are often drawn to press their lips against my own soft ones,” the nagel explained. “However, upon doing so they are often filled with shame for their sudden promiscuous and inexplicable actions. I then explain to them that because I am a virtue of bliss this action is to be expected, and they should not feel shame for their actions as long as it does not mutate into feelings of lust and a fervent desire to mate with me.”

 

Otsune didn’t respond, nor could she.

 

I have discovered that it is better for me to explain to visitors the reason they are having these feelings before they act upon them. There is nothing to be alarmed about, and is a natural reaction.”

 

Okay.” Otsune sat down and facing away from the angel. This probably wasn’t what she was expecting when it came to meeting an angel, but that was okay. Having her expectations shattered should allow her to write a more unbiased report rather than twist the angel to meet preconceived assumptions. What it was saying was true. She couldn’t deny her attraction to him. Was this angel’s very existence some kind of trial to test one succumbing to temptation. Lickig ide cream off his abs wouldn’t be that bad an idea surely.

 

Otsune took a deep concentrated breath. She needed to get out of here. But the opportunity was a big one. Surely leaving would be the foolish thing to do in this situation. Here was someone quite willing to answer all her questions, and she already knew the first one to ask.

 

IF I ask you any question I feel like, are there any particular questions that are going to fill you full of any kind of homicidal rage that’ll lead you to chase me throughout land whilst repeating end of the question for all of time.”

 

For the first time, the angel stopped to consider this. “Not that i’m aware of, but I don’t think there would be any.”

 

Excellent, replied Otsune, glad to check all her bases this time. This was good. She had time now and a portal to knowledge.

 

What’s the manGod?”

 

It’s nothing,” the angel replied.

 

Nothing?”

 

Yes.”

 

As in it’s not anything to be worried about.”

 

As much as you shouldn’t be worried about anything else that doesn’t exist.”

 

So it’s just a rumour.”

 

It is not. Unless it’s a modern thing. I don’t get news in here.”

 

Ok.” Suddenly with the opportunity to ask everything, Otsune found it difficult to actually ask of things. “Oh, what are the dolls?”

 

Toys for children. A great delight for anyone from birth to old age, and even the immortal in som-”

 

No no. The dolls in the village. The ones that look like the elderly.”

 

Elderly isn’t a very sensitive term you realise.”

 

Otsune allowed herself to look flabbergasted with no one watching her. “Old people,” she suggested a few seconds later.

 

That better,” he replied. “They’re also part of the security system “They were designed by the SIS to make it look like the ninja village was not a ninja village.”

 

And how did it do that?”

 

By being old.”

 

Excuse me?”

 

The dolls were old and antagonistic. That made them big meany heads to anyone approaching the village. They could then scare them off and, in the meantime, act like the village was occupied. If that didn’t work, they would attack people until they left. If possible, they could even take out a minor demon or two.”

 

But it isn’t a ninja village anyway. There’s just lots of old…” Of course it was a ninja village. The notion of any disguise made it a ninja village. Sudden everything made sense. The dormitory on top of the hill that looked like a fort. Sagara the ninja boy using it as a base of operations. The mannequins containing all sorts of lethal weaponry and the tunnels beneath every house She hadn’t noticed it was a ninja village for the three years she had lived here, so of course it was a ninja village.

 

Otsune allowed herself to sigh, then picked up on something. “Wait. What is the SIS?”

 

It’s an acronym. That’s a modern thing though, so I don’t know what it stands for?”

 

But do you know what it is?” A part of her mind wandered. With this guy laying here right below her, the Strangelands seemed suddenly unnecessary.

 

It’s the server run by the Sakimoto clan clan on behalf of the Futabatei at their base of operations. IT help runs the defence system.”

 

Oh.” Discarding the knowledge alittle, she was glad for the clarity. It was just a defence system gone wrong. Then she clicked. That means that was the place to go to get the dolls turned off. If she just approached that Sakimoto woman.

 

The thought stopped her. She didn’t particularly like the idea of never seeing that woman again, nor would she probably listen to any request Otsune gave of her. Plus, revealing that she knew about this underground shrine could in itself cause problems.

 

Hang on,” sh said realising something. “If you’re all part of the same system, would you be able to turn off the dolls?”

 

Nope.”

 

Why not?”

 

Because i’m not the server processor. I only keep the demons away, just as the demon only keeps the angels away and the dolls keep the humans away. Only the Futabatei remain.”

 

But i’m not a Futabatei, and i’m here.”

 

You’re not?”

 

No.

 

Hhhmmm,” he thought loudly. “Perhaps you’re a guest.”

 

Perhaps.” Otsune felt hungry. “I guess I should get to this server then to turn the dolls off.” She pulled out her phone and read the last text message. She’d have to remember to ask when she got bars. “You said the exit was that way right? She was looking at him again. “Does that lead back to the palace.”

 

Yes.”

 

Thank you. You’ve been helpful.” Otsune felt a warmth travel through her at her own words, a nub but pleasant experience. “I’ll come back. I have a load more questions to ask. ?Unless…” Her brain was feeling fuzzy. Tired, but more roll around in bed tired than sleepy. “you want to come with me?”

 

No. But thank you. I’m good here.”

 

Otsune looked at the coffin again. Even if it was a perfect fit, that just made it automatically cramped.

 

I understand your faults, but we’re good here. I can’t leave and I can’t not want to, so I’ll stay. Though if you wouldn’t mind putting the lid back on before you go.”

 

Otsune looked to the heavy marble slab and had to stop herself from scoffing. “Erm… okay.”

 

It wasn’t as bad as she thought actually. It wasn’t made of of paper mache, but it wasn’t moving a boulder either. Once she got it up, she got her breath back before waiting to slide it.

 

So was there someone in the blue coffin.”

 

Oh that’s just a demon. It keeps the angels away, just as my presence is a blight to demons, it’s existence repels angels. I think the idea is to play us off against each other and keep everyone out. Though from what I hear it actually repels other demons as well, but I think they didn’t want to risk just using a demon to repel demons. I had more of a guarantee.”

 

So did it get loose or something?” The nage’s pleasant, hunky smile didn’t change.

 

The demon is missing? Please contact the server administrator to report this.”

 

Excuse me.”

 

That’s what they told me to say. I wonder how it got loose.”

 

The server administrator? What’s that?”

 

The server administrator knows everything the server processor does, or can at least find it out. It knows everything about the modern world. If you tell it, it can retrieve the demon from wherever it’s gone.”

 

You don’t seem as concerned about all this as I thought you would be, not to mention the voluntary entrapment.”

 

I am a virtue of bliss. I will not be negative about anything. Plus, the Futabatei have a point to their Grand point.”

 

What’s that?”

 

I won’t say.”

 

Otsune panted. The slab had killed her shoulder. “Okay. Well, I gotta go fix those dolls. I’m definitely coming back, you hear me.”

 

I hear you. Have fun Otsune, or else I shall hurt you.”

 

Yeah,” she said, distracted by the pushing. “See you too.”

 

**

 

Long before she got off the train,, Natoko had gotten use to the hunger.

 

The thirst had not been an issue. The city of Fuugosuki contained enough public water fountains to make anyone who complained of a dry throat immediately feel stupid. There were however, plenty of supermarkets around to criticise those who were going hungry

 

Money was not yet an issue, but Natoko could see that soon it would be so, and she was attempting to conserve. Her flight from Heavenly Springs five days ago had left her with little save what was on her person. It was only the trip to school that had allowed her to grab the money she had left in her desk there. Several thousand yen left in plain sight because she never got round to emptying her desk properly??.

 

She flashed across the road without really thinking about it. The clothes from her date night were beginning to smell now. The coffin hotel?? yesterday had provided useful shower facilities, but her shirt was beginning to really bother her. Having to manage her own clothes had left Natoko with a practical knowledge of washing and drying and she had been able to budget her allowance to ensure everything was always clean, if only for the fact that sweaty shirts were never comfortable to practise in.

 

Now, the conveniences of modern life were slipping from her grasp. She could afford food, but she couldn’t go crazy with it. She could clean her e teeth,as long as she was fine without using toothpaste. And as for sleeping…

 

The homelessness only occurred to her on the second morning, waking up in the park to find a squirrel?? daring itself to approach her. With the winter months coming she had no idea how she was keeping her body warm but it wasn’t until last month that she gave up and found the hotel. The machine vendor had taken half of what she had but it had been worth it just to get a sheet back. She should have taken it with her.

 

Her hair felt a mess.

 

People were staring at her again, or not staring. She couldn’t believe how often people avoided the eyes of someone they didn’t want to see. In class they laughed behind her back but always smiled to her as they walked past the corridor. Here all gazes were against her. And when they started it was usually a bad sign, their eyes wandering over to Iziz with a curious caution.

 

In a flash she was on the next street, the gust of wind causing a few cries that disappeared quickly as people got back on with their own lives. Natoko knew she shouldn’t be using it for escape, but it made things a little easier.

 

It was perhaps the only advantage to this ronin lifestyle.

 

Part of her realised that she should be loving the term. A masterless samurai was still a samurai at heart and the freedom she had imagined was a breathtaking new insight into her own existence. But then she heard Sagara’s simple word and she knew she would never enjoy this.

 

And the other part of her knew what had to be done.

 

Raiko had to be found. The other girl’s actions, whether intentional or not, had turned Natoko into a fugitive, and until she could find the thunder girl, she couldn’t return to Heavenly Springs.

 

The problem was where to look.

 

Not only where to look but where she could get away with looking. Heavenly Springs was obviously out for the time being, and so was Sakimoto Industries. She didn’t know if she could return there or not, but seeing as showing up there could result in immediate capture, it wasn’t worth the risk. They were probably looking for her as it was. Anyone that brought their attention to rest on her could easily be one of Sakimoto’s spies intending to retrieve her. That was why the flash stp was needed. It got her away.

 

The Inbetween realm was a possibility, but she had to face facts. Without knowledge or a guide, she would only get lost. She needed to be as smart as she could about this. Not to mention she couldn’t remember where any of the doors were.

 

That left the city itself, which was huge and daunting when sleeping alone in it at night and again didn’t exactly draw a map to where Raiko was hiding… or staying… or being held hostage. Natoko had soon realised that any of those was a possibility and she certainly wouldn’t be able to find out on her own.

 

If only she could call Aki. The mobile would be so useful right now and leaving it on her bedside table didn’t help a bit.

 

Her stomach rumbling, Natoko knew she had to eat something soon. Despite the massive allowance that a part time job plus her income from her parents had allowed, not being able to touch any of it left choice of foods difficult. On top of that no cooking tools threw her off as well. It was amazing anyone survived while being homeless.

 

Her thoughts fell to Sagara’s last words before she ran. What had he meant, her attacking Raiko.she had been knocked out after the demon fight and… something else had definitely occurred. But Natoko couldn’t remember. She was sure she hadn’t attacked anybody though.

 

Not that they could prove it one way or another. Iziz was clean of whatever filthy creature had covered it. The rag with the blood was on the other side of the city and already no doubt lost to the garbage trucks. If it wasn’t for the witnesses, she was safe.

 

Going home wasn’t a factor, she needed to prove herself innocent. While she was sure Aki would stand by her side the others were foolish and would take this matter into the wrong direction, involving the police and getting the finger pointed at her. Then it would lead to the courts, a jail cell and her parents being told.and that had to be avoided.

 

Stopping outside the electronic department store, she watched television on the screen without sound. A baseball match was playing. She had seen no news with pictures of herself included besides the wor fugitive she knew the police must be looking out for her. Shivering in the cold, she knew she would have to eat soon. Fast food would probably be best. She could fill herself up nicely that way.

 

Are we doing well?” Mr. Jupiter said from behind her.

 

The mud went thick around Natoko’s brain. Her legs turning to jelly even as they froze solid. The man smiled calmly behind her, his reflection piercing her focus from the widow of the department store, an uncomfortable sensation followed as her throat seized up.

 

From the window he looked like any other foreigner with their hand upon her shoulder. Overly polite and a little bumbling with uncertainty at the situation that was japan. And though the grip felt delicate, uncertain, like a boyfriend who didn’t know it was okay to touch his love, Natoko knew different. The monster behind her… The warning Sakimoto Yuya gave her blared in her mind even without Sagara present and with it, memories.

 

They were all flooding back. He had met her, ate dinner with her, but in a dream. Ehe had offered a deal. She had refused.

 

It is a nice television,” he said, and quickly she became aware of the box in front of here again, the batter at play smacking the ball deep into the sunset. “If you want, i’ll buy it for you.”

 

Wat?” she went to say, the words coming out instead as a garbled croak as she realised how little she had spoke since leaving her classroom.

 

Money is no thing to a demon,” he continued. “If you want, I shall buy the entire shop for you.”

 

Natoko didn’t know what to say. “But such an offer of material wealth isn’t appealing to you, is it. You only desire honour, and a lord you can protect. One that won’t abandon you at whatever urge he suffers from.”

 

You!” was the best she could get out as she turned to face him and her exclamation came out of a hoarse voice. “ You’ve done this to me.”

 

turning to face the monster face to face, Natoko did not hesitate. Her sword at her side, she unsheathed the blade as her front rose forwards stamping the ground. Even without substance, her form was perfect. Her back straight. Er hips fluid. The sword dashed out of her blade, the hilt striking against his palm as all motion was stopped in a heartbeat.

 

The white gloved hand rested upon her own with a gentle grace that tickled to the touch and yet would not budge one millimeter as she struggled against it. Her blade motionless, she cast him a quick glare before foolishly looking away as she tried to wiggle it side to side.

 

Miss Yamanaka,” he said calmly. “Please. I would remind you that we are in public.”

 

Suddenly the presence of all the onlookers, merely everyday citizens going about their business, became obvious to her. Some were going out of their way to ignore them. Others were casting them glances as if the eyes were made to bring shame and nought else. A couple had stopped to watch.

 

It didn’t matter. Natoko was acutely aware that she would look the crazy one here, but they couldn’t know what he was. This monster and its speed was beyond their imagining and even tested hers. With an idea, she stepped back, breaking his relaxed grip and giving herself some space.

 

With a flash jump, she pulled her blade out, cutting the air before her as she travelled through it with the speed of a train, tearing her blade through the thin body of Mr Jupiter and across to the other side of the street.

 

Natoko exhaled heavily, feeling her body panting, she didn’t wait and sheathed her sword. IT was impossible to tell her how much time that bought her. With all his limbs back, Mr Jupiter’s could clearly heal, she would need to hide somewhere until she could get Sagara and- “You can’t tell if you’ve hit someone when you do that, can you?”

 

Bringing her gaze upwards, the man stood just outside the reach of her sword’s range. She stepped forwards, more as her legs shook beneath her than an attempt to advance and his hands shot up defensively.

 

Hey hey,” he said cooly. “There’s no need for none of that.”

 

She tried for a growl and felt the world fell beneath her. Stumbling,, she caught her balance before it left her completely, bringing both hands to grip onto Iziz. The eyes just continued smiling at her, and the world beneath her went dark.

 

*

 

The world blinked around Natoko. She rolled over to ignore it, bringing up more duvet and wrapping herself into a ball. Warm and comfy, she brought herself to snuggle, knowing she must have at least a half hour to go before Aki came to wake her for school. She sighed contently. How long had it been since she could relax like this.

 

The thought hit her, and she bolted upright, memories of three seconds ago washing over her.

 

She was… away. Not in the city. Possibly. But if she was, she was in the richest five star hotel there was.

 

The room was… noble, if she were to describe it. Pampered. Royalty would live here. Not the Emperor, but someone in europe. The bed, when she looked down to see how far it was, was the size of three of her old bed at Heavenly Springs, but only occupied a moderate portion of the room itself. The smooth silky covers wrapped around her, rich and purple felt like she could never afford them in her lifetime even if she was working a bank job or something. Across the room, two wide screen televisions adorned the wall, one big enough to fill the wall and set at a perfect angle to be watched even in bed or by the large rich oak table that sat with eight chairs. Rich. Definitely rich and definitely not her bedroom.

 

Her hand clench and suddenly she recalled. :Iziz,” she whispered, looking around whilst not daring to move. The world around her was alien and even as she stepped off the bed she immediately regretted doing so. There was no idea she could muster for what lay in store for her.

 

Checking out the rest of the room, the only other area of interest being the door and fancy glass light fixture on the ceiling, Natoko couldn’t see Iziz anywhere. She stormed round the room to the window, feeling the fur of the carpet almost purring beneath her bare feet. Opening the embroidered curtained she was met with the horizon, the ocean flowing quietly beneath it..

 

The city of Fuugosuki was inland and the ocean, while not far, wasn’t within eye distance. He had taken her. How he knocked her unconscious she couldn’t remember, but Iziz had better be nearby.

 

Her clothes were on the large chair by the door. They looked cleaned, pressed and folded nicely. Putting them back on while trying not to notice just how nice they smelt after five days on non stop walking, she grabbed the brass knob of the door.

 

Natoko wasn’t that stupid. She remembered now all Mr Jupiter had said to her. The deal he had offered, and she knew what this all meant. Just as she knew she could not falter here for an instant. This was a demon, no matter a master manipulator and seducer of the innocent. If he had his way, she would be his..

 

The corridor didn’t look very long, though it was hard to tell as light reflected off the polished marble. A vase of purple flowers sat next to her door and Natoko had to resist the urge to knock it over just out of spite.

 

It didn’t surprise her that the demon had access to all this. Demons always had access to riches such as these and always lived in the flanciet places. It was a sign of the evil itself. No person with justice in their heart could ever afford this.

 

The corridor held two other rooms and a picture of a battlefield where what looked like french naval soldiers sailed a ship across a red sunset whilst posing with hands to hearts. Across from it, a bust of some man’s face stared straight away. The other rooms were locked upon investigation and the corridor snaked round the corner.

 

Stepping out into the lobby, Natoko couldn’t help have her breath taken away by the size of it. The chandelier caught her eye first, hanging in the centre and being at least twice as tall as her if not a lot more. Light hit it from all direction and the golden surface stung her eyes to look at it for too long.. Beneath it a red carpet spilled out leading from her spot, down the stairs and past a large piano that didn’t look out of place in a lobby like this. Painted with checkerboard black and white, it fit with the diagonal lines that met it going across the tiled floor of the room. The main entrance stood in clear, unguarded sight.

 

She made a mental note of it. This was her way out, but she couldn’t take it yet without Iziz. She swore that if she had her blade already she wouldn’t care about anything. She’d just break down the door, regardless of whether it was locked or not, and flashstep herself as far away as possible.

 

Yo.”

 

Natoko turned round and step backwards in one fluid movement, causing her body’s fatigue to groan angrily at her. That was twice too many times today.

 

Before her stood a large, unflatteringly obese lady with a glare on her face designed to shatter diamonds and dreams. Natoko couldn’t help but examine her, noting that the triple chins didn’t stop before they reached the woman’s gut, with flabby arms that were only just contained within a flowery top. Her legs looked buff like a bodybuilders and covered in oils and grease that Natoko was worried would light up from the cigarette the woman was letting longue by her side. As she brought it up and took a long drag on it, Natoko was forced to notice against her will that the woman only had one long eyebrow.

 

You’re up I see,” she said, the mere vibration of her throat causing her to shudder in convulsion as she began hacking her lungs out. “Come on. He wants to see you.”

 

As the woman walked away Natoko felt compelled to follow, if only to prevent seeing the woman from the back. Keeping up side to side with the ogre like lady, Natoko still had to keep her distance to prevent the woman crashing into her and knocking her over the banister.

 

Er…” she finally dared to speak. “Where are we?”

 

His place. Where’d you think? What’s your name anyway?”

 

She thought that was rude.” Natoko. Yamanaka Natoko. And you are.”

 

Miss Venus” the brute replied, knocking ash off into the air. “And that’s Miss Not Mrs. Yeah i’m old. What of it?”

 

Natoko’s lips sealed shut before she could fool herself into answering a suicide question. The woman seemed content to have her not answer and continued to descend down the stairs.

 

Taking the centre door into the building, Miss Venus barely waited for Natoko to get through the door and she had to block the wood as it crashed into her, fighting past it and nearly falling back into the creature that was her apparent tour guide.

 

The next room was a fancy dining room. The long table split the room in half and still left her with two sections each three times as big as the television room back at Heavenly Springs.. There were no pictures, as she expected, but there were hundreds of mirrors, all of different sizes and all randomly placed on the wall, some twisted at angles that looked like they couldn’t balance if held by string.

 

At the other end of the roof, besides the fireplace that sat where the windows looked like they ought to be, Mr. Jupiter sat, with Iziz on the table, propped up on a stand besides him.

 

Covering the room in an instant, Natoko’s hand was on the sheath before she realised what she had done. Pulling the blade out she held it against the man’s head keeping it pointed at one of his squinty eyes.

 

Where am I? Why have you brought me here?” she screamed, ready to take off his head if he didn’t answer questions. The man looked up at her and for the first time, dropped his smile.

 

You probably shouldn’t have done that,” he said in an almost imperceptible whisper. She tightened her grip on Iziz, ready to let her shoulder loose.

 

You get off my table, yer little bit!” a screamed cased her down the room, grabbing her head and hanging her an inch or two from the wood. “I spent all morning cleaning that waiting to serve you as a guest and then you get your shoes all over it. It’s a good job I cleaned them as well for yer.”

 

Natoko was dropped off the table like she was being dropped onto a production line. Ms Venus looked angrily at her as Iziz’s tip nearly tapped the floor. With a violent lunge, Ms Venus placed her hands firmly on the chair adjacent to Mr. Jupiter’s corner and pulled it out.

 

A moment of silence passed between them before the large woman nodded her head at the table and said “Go on then.”

 

Natoko looked at the table. The empty stand. The sticks of bread on the fancy china plate surrounded by sauces, and then back to Ms Venus, who wasn’t budging.

 

Without a word Natoko put Iziz back in the sheathe and then, resting it befor her in the table, sat down and allowed Ms Venus to push her in until her ribs squeezed against the wood.

Comfy?” the woman asked, grabbing cutlery and setting a place up around her.

 

Erm yes,” Natoko replied, finding herself looking to Mr Jupiter for some kind of guidance. He merely observed the scene before him, as Miss Venus wandered out of sight without a word.

 

As the doors shut behind the large woman, Natoko was suddenly at a loss of what to do. Leaving suddenly wasn’t an option. No. that wasn’t right. Laving was the only option. Se should not stay a prisoner here with so much to do ahead of her. She pressed her hands against the table.

 

Ah ha,” Mr. Jupiter waved, holding his hand up and making Natoko’s blood boil. The demon would dare stand in her way. It did not matter how fast he was, she would-

 

The door opened behind her again, her bum on the seat and firmly in place before the large woman reached the table. Without grace or ritual Miss Venus slammed the plates down on the placemats, unconcerned when she dropped it with enough force to make Natoko’s snap in half. The food, , a slice of bacon, two sausages, egg and some beans, were scattered b y still managed to stay on the plate. The beans were seeping through the crack.

 

There you go. Enjoy your meal,” Mns. Venus said, with the exact same amount of courteous grace a waitress would have given if she wasn’t pretending to to courteous or graceful. The woman walked out, and as MR Jupiter started moving again, she got the feeling it was safe to move. She placed her hands back on the table.

 

You aren’t thinking of leaving, are you?” Mr. Jupiter.

 

Natoko was sure she looked incredulous for a second there. “Of course I am. I will not be held prisoner by the likes of you. You are a demon.”

 

Both true, but I have not kidnapped you.” He stopped to take a sip of brown liquid Natoko assumed what tea and unborn souls. “I have saved you.”

 

You are not my saviour, nor are you my master. I will not accept anything you give me.”

 

I didn’t say I was your master. That I know I am not yet.” He took a knife and fork and started cutting into one of the sausages. “But I am your saviour. You weren’t going to have left to go with that much money in your pocket, and I haven’t yet determined just how much energy that sprint spell you’re doing takes.”

 

He took a moment to munch happily on a portion of sausage wrapped in bacon. “But I understand. I really do. You don’t want to become my retainer, even if I would put you to more use than Sagara has. Even if he ignores you. Even if I offer you the finest manor just outside the city and cloth and feed you. You would want for nothing and fuel your passion every second for the rest of your life and beyond.”

 

And all I need to do is follow you, yes I know,” Natoko replied, watching her beans run off the plate. Her stomach growled in fury at her, reminding how long it had been she had last eaten properly. “But even if accepting you wasn’t the total abandonment of my honour, I simply don’t desire to.”

 

Oh I understand that too,” he replied happily. “There is no factor involved here that I haven’t considered, and i’m not naïve enough to believe I could easily to convince you to join m. But please note-” He oped his eyes, Natko didn’t even realise they had been closed – “I will never stop trying. I can make anyone do anything.”

 

Have fun with that. As you said yourself, my resolve is strong. I cannot be pulled into doing anything, especially not anything as obvious.” Natoko stood up, no longer letting the chair stop her. She needed to find an exit. The front door was the best answer.

 

Wat,” Mr Jupiter said, sounding alarmed. “I would at least ask you finish your breakfast. Ms Venus won’t like it if you don’t eat it.”

 

I=-” Natoko stopped to look at the plate of food.

 

She takes a lot of pride in her housekeeping that one, though I guess she doesn’t look it. Natoko turned round, noticing the door the woman had gone slightly ajar, an eye peeking out of it.

 

Mr. Jupiter whispered. “If you just eat most of it, that’ll probably be fine, but then you’ll still need to explain to her why you didn’t finish it.

 

Quickly, Natoko sat back down, slicing her sausage and chewing into it.. the food was good, Natoko not knowing if she should be surprised or not. Before she knew it she was gulping down a hash brown, impaling her beans through her fork to line them up for her mouth and washing it down with the hot cup of tea.

 

Never would she admit it to Sakura, but this was worth eating everyday.

 

Thank you very much,” she said out of habit, the woman approaching her from behind to pick up plates. Passing her stuff across, she turned to see Mr. Jupiter’s just watching her.

 

What?” she said after a few incredulous seconds.

 

I did not assume t would be that easy,” the man stood up, Natoko quickly following, if only to lean against the table. “I do not assume it would help much, but would you like to hear my plans. They will be enlightening to you at the very least, and give you all you want at the most.

 

Natoko didn’t reply, knowing such a question was loaded and feeling humiliated for reasons she couldn’t place. The demon approached the large white wall and press a button on one of its archways. A light beams up, showing a picture of a skull against a black backdrop on the wall.

 

Before a word could enter the man’s mouth, Natoo said “I’m leaving now. You’re not stopping me.”

 

Ah no you’re not,” Ms Venus cut in. “I’ve got jam and toast in the kitchen which I spent hours cooking. You’re going to have some of that, then you two can go play.”

 

Natoko sat back down, inking as little into her chair.

 

Well, that’ll be a few moments,” Mr Jupiter said a she stormed off again. “While she’s gone let me tell you what i’m after, and why I think the Balance can provide it for me. This is all besides obtaining you of course. That is currently my… primary objective. Although I will be honest and say it is not my ultimate objective.”

 

Natoko stayed in her seat and looked away, waiting for the toast to arrive. If the demon was at least going to tell her his plans for free, then listening alone surely wasn’t a disadvantage. She should take advantage of his stupidity surely. If he tried to perform some kind of trick in the meantime, she would simply take the toast and run for it. If he killed her in the attempt, it was still better than falling for his tricks.

 

To start, let me tell you now I am part of an elite cadre of demons known as the Alignment. Perhaps you’ve heard of us.”

 

No,” repled Natoko, not caring if it was rhetorical.

 

I did not think so. The alignment of planets is a group that, for all intensive purposes, seeks balance in the universe.”

 

Natoko snorted as derisively as she could.

 

I’m sure by your gesture you are thinking, why would demons care for balance, and it is true, most simply do not. Most are either chaotic in their ways and last out at random based on their sins or virtues, or simply seek the methodically planned destruction of the human race. The alignment is different. We seek Balance, not because secretly we are good creatures who are merely misunderstood, or wish to undo our evil ways, but simply, because it is more profitable.”

 

Balance keeps things in order, prevents wobbling. When things are balanced, things are equal.. Everything is at a blank slate without anything going one way or another. If it does it quickly realigns itself. The status quo is god.

Many may dislike this, find it to their frustration. And that , for some of us anyway, is nourishment. The mere pain that nothing ever changes is like honey to many and that alone could be considered enough.

 

You could say we’re doing this for several reasons. The first is the mutually assured destruction that humans are bringing the world too. Many demons and angels have plans in progress at the moment that are bringing the world to the end. Demons are doing it because they’re evil. Divine are doing it because they believe Armageddon will bring their God back. Many want the world to teeter on the brink of destruction, but we are not them.”

 

We are also doing it because we believe that the current system of balance, setup by the lords at the beginning is not a sufficient systm. Indeed it is currently run by the Futabatei. I don’t believe you ever met Sagara’s mother but believe this above all else, she is not a suitable candidate for bringing balance.”

 

Finally, and this is our main reason for doing it the alignment believes that a more world is one that’s more fun to fuck around with. Balance brings peace and peace time is the best time to get one to murder his brother. In war, they rationalise, develop excuses for the vast slaughter they perform, be it family, country or god. In peacetime there is no excuse and there are many demons who feed from that”

 

Trying to stifle a yawn while at the same trying wanting it free out of spite, Natoko pushed herself to pay attention. This should be important stuff?hate whole paragraph

 

Of course that is where we reach ap problem. Creating balance is difficult. Humans are incapable of doing it, the Futabatei have proven that, but neither demons nor angels would be able to bring it about either. You may notice, we tend to form on either one side or the other of the scale.”

 

Let me guess,” Natoko interrupted. “The Alignment consists of both angels and demons.”

 

Exactly!” Mr Jupiter said, trying to look ik that was what he had been trying to get her to say. “Though by instinct alone it is impossible for either demon or divine to work together- Sanguinus was a most unique example I assure you, through intermediaries we are able to bring our forces together and negotiate actions. Destroy the barriers made by the futabatei millennia ago and restore things to how they were

 

Examining her opponent, and he still was her opponent, Natoko pondered his words. She could not deny, for reason of the detail and rambling alone, that the demon was serious in his words. This was something he cared about more than anything else.

 

As you no doubt have figured our plan is to essentially bring things back to the old rule of angel vs demon for the right to a man’s soul. But we cannot bring things truly back to how they are. Man has advanced far beyond these points and technology makes rumour hard to spread correctly. The fear system we had before would not work.”

 

So how would you do so?” Natoko said knowing this was the information she had to glean.

 

Not my department i’m afraid. My task from the nine is simple. I am to destroy the barriers that bound angels and demons. Preventing them from coming here without the aid of a kotodama. If you do decide to join me, this is what you will be helping with, and I assure you you will have to fight.”

 

Go on,” she replied.

 

My ultimate objective,” he said, making her sit up. at least, the one I will confess to you right now, s the acquisition of the five ogres. Wind. Earth. Waer. Fire and Void.

 

These five are some of the most powerful creatures on the planet. Neither human, demon, divine or spirit, the five are something special and apart. My task is simple really. I just have to get all five of them, and throw them into the Babylon gates on the day of alignment. This is more than enough.

 

Then why don’t you?”

 

He smiled the smile of someone forced to answer a question. “Because for over a century now I have seeked them, and I have only found a single one.”

 

Why don’t you look harder?”

 

Because not only do I have to find them, I have to do so in a way no one else notices. The five ogre are powerful. Not only could they succeed in bringing the Balances to its rightful place, done so by throwing them in against their will, but it could destroy my plans too. If the five ogre are sent to the gate willingly, then it’s decided balance has been achieved and everything remains on its current doomed path.”

 

But, if they were to be thrown in along with the body of Futabatei, then t is said a whole new god will arise in the chaos. This is an unpredictable scenario that we can’t risk being one against on our plotting.”

 

You say you’ve found one of the Ogre.”

 

Oh yes, you have to. It was that little flame creature at the Arena that time that caused a lot of trouble. Powerful thing. Killed all the demons there, Sanguinus too. I myself might have been in trouble if it wasn’t for my exit stage left. We’ve caught it since of course, so you don’t need to worry about that one.”

 

It was in that moment, Natoko tried to remain very still, her head rolling through events. She had been unconscious, so she wasn’t sure, but she knew Sagara had defeated the OniHono just a few months ago, but she didn’t know what had happened to it. She assumed it had been taken away but if it hadn’t, or if it had been taken away from the wrong people.

 

He was still talking. She let him. The OniDou as well. The Earth Ogre. That was already dead by the hand of the American ninja from what she understood. Though having never seen the creature herself, Natoko could attest to nothing.

 

She knew about the OniSui though. Still she remembered the ogre’s invasion of her body. Was she the OniSui though. Natoko wasn’t sure, and she was under the watchful eye of Yuya Sakimoto.

 

And then there was the Onikage., sealed inside her master. Only once had it appeared before her, during the battle at the arena. That was powerful, she knew that much. But it wasn’t its power Mr Jupiter wanted. E wanted their destruction to fuel his plans.

 

and that’s why I need your help above all else, my dear Yamanaka,” he continued apparently without realising she had stopped listening. “With your as my retainer, you would make an excellent spy for me. The SIS server inside of Sakimoto Industries would contain all the information I need to know. Though there’s no need to agree now, I say if you are able to retrieve the futabatei’s server for me me and recover the data I need, I will guarantee you a lifetime of battle to prove yourself again and again in your master’s name. Act now, and i’ll even throw in your own magical artifact,unique to you. I’m guessing it’s going to be a tanto for you. It would go with that sword.”

 

Mr. Jupiter waited for her across the room. Carefully, she feasted on the last slice of toast, chewing into it and savouring raspberry jam for the first tie. Finishing, she took her dining cloth and wiped her mouth. “Thank you very much,” she said to Ms Venus, who grunted hopefully and scooted off with her pates in two.

 

Ntoko waited until the woman had left the woman, watching mr Jupiter as she wiped the last of the groups away. Standing up, she faced him from across the room., grabbing her swor.

 

For a second Natoko felt the slightest of vibrations, like a runaway steam train trundling along at ou at break body speed.

 

Placing the bottom of the sheath?? on the table, she waited for a second, watching him as he relaxed and brought himself fully to face her. They stared at other others eye’s, right up until Natoko flash stepped to the door

 

She was there in an instant, away from Jupiter and Venus. Stopping only to unlatch the door, she felt the wind fall behind her as she took across into the next room. Checking, she knew she had everything, with so little to carry. Belting down the corridor and crashing into the wall hard enough to hurt her elbow. She made for the turning and let herself travel along it.

 

That was not the answer I was looking for,” he said somewhere in the background.

 

An unused kitchen passed her by., one the big demon must not have used. Had he thought he could talk her to temptation. All it did was remind her of her teacher. Now she felt even less likely to join than she was before. A one in three chance of saving the world, and he was picking the wrong one.

 

Bursting out some double door, she felt the rush of air as it became fresh and salty. She was in a courtyard, with short leve crash and several bushes shaved to represent several different male heads. It look Italian but Natoko didn’t figure it out. It didn’t matter. What mattered was being surrounded by the other walls of the building. The wasn’t the back of the manor. This was just halfway.

 

T didn’t matter, she decided, and bolted for the doors on the opposite side. He probably wasn’t chasing her, but still she knew she had to go faster. As long s she could run, avoiding him was a possibility, but none of it mattered in she remained trapped. Crashing through the back door, she fell into another corridor, this one laden with books. Not choosing a direction, she tore off down one of them and shit through the first big pair of doors she could find. Entering a ballroom, she saw the pile of dead people.

Her feet held her up as best they could when she stopped sudenly.She choked out of reflex.

 

Piled atop of each other, it was plain to see the people before her were dead. Several men and woman, all nicely dressed up. She couldn’t see any obvious reason why they were dead. None looked tey were bleeidng, or suffering blunt trauma. The only thing that stood out a mile with flashing lights and perhaps some loud noises of the fair, was the look of horror stretched across their faces.

 

Without being able to help herself, Natoko stepped over to the person layig before her. They were suited up except for the youngest looking one – though they all lookedyoung with strtched faces like that, and all upper class looking.

 

Oh yeah, I never said,” Mr. Jupiter said behind her, sounding like he had ust gone for a quickl walk and felt better for it. “This isn’t my place, and they wouldn’t let me borrow it. I suppose I should have mentioned that as well. My bad.”

 

Glancing around Natoko realised she was in a resting room of sorts. Another piano sat besides the bodies. All the book shelves, both ground floor and covering the walls on the small stairwell above, all tinted wit bronze metal everywhere. The family before her were staining an expensive looking rug.

 

It was painfully obvious there were no exits save the door Mr Jupiter was standing in. Taking a few steps back, se braced her sword again.

 

Go on then,” he said, resting against the doorframe with sudden abandon of effort. Th e pose took her a few seconds to regain herself and carefully sh moved forwards, keeping her feet on the floor at all times.

 

Excuse me.,” she replied uncertain of how this would lead to hear death, but mentally wriiting somethinggood to go on her gravestone

 

As I thik i’ve sad before, there’s no me forcing you here. You have to come willingly. I wouldn’t do it with my victims. I’m not doing it with intended business associiates.

 

Natoko froze a moment, waiting for the trp to spring itself. Remembering Mr Jupiter idn’t need tricks, she just watching as he walked to the side of the door and looked like he was trying to sher her along “Go on. Go.”

 

Feeling strangely lost, Natoko left her stance drop, shifting her body weight ready to make the move as she was deciding it. A trick felt obvious, even with his brutal honesty It was that simple really. It onlydetermined one answer.

 

Turning a full one eighty, she launched herself across the room, cliing atop of the body pile, taking only a split second to crouch her knee, and then launch herself through the window. Glass shattering around her, she felt the cuts long before she started falling, the rushing of th waves below her bringing little comfort.

 

The world swam around her, wind hitting her face as she gripped desperately onto Iziz. Feeling the sword slip from the sheath she tried to grab it and miss, plummeting further down as she began cursed the world. This was not a place to go out she knew and this ocean wouldn’t be enough to top her.

 

With a determine that let herr feet scrape against the rock, she drew er sword to face the ocean.

 

**

 

The wworld in Otsune’s hed formed fractal tetrahedrons again. From them swarms the cockroaches, the mihgtiest of the ten??latin reference. Watching them build their pyramid army, Otsune swam through four different dimensions, desperate to warn them of the coming plague of the armour metlers. As she screaming her impotent nano particles at them, the creatures gave her no heed, for indeed they could not. She was below them as they were below the mightyatomicus, leader of the pan dimensional aray. How they hoped to fight the wave mtion armies with eyes that big she could not even begin to determine.

 

Bzzt went the Galasphacus islands, and she was in her pillow, eyes mashed up against it in an instinctive attempt to deny the sunlight access to her brain. She groaned as the worst of agonies spread through her body and she rolled over in an attempt to fill herself with more blanket.

 

Bzzt

 

Okay okay,” she shouted out to the world. “I’m getting up. Entwined in three layers of cloth, her hand struggled to reach the phone and she nearly dislocated her shoulder trying to get th phone behind her without having to turn around.

 

Good morning,” she muttered, having no idea what time it was. She knew it had to be gone noon already, her efforts to return home last night had her clocks as getting into the obby at five am.

 

Where were you last night?” Fujiko asked, actually sounding a little concerned. “I could’t find you anyone.”

 

Huh?” Otsune stalled as she thought of the best possible way to phrase it. “I went for a walk.”

 

In the village? Ar you okay.” Bolting awake, Otsune shot up, the twists of cloth surrounding her immediately disagreeing with the concept and bringing her straight back down. Crashing over the side of her bed, she hit the flloor and reminded herself of the minor injuries she had picked up last night.

 

Otsune? Otsune?” the receiver said at a distance. Scrambling to get herself back up, Otsune gave it up as soon as she got her hand free.

 

Fujiko, i’m here!” she said. Se glancd at the clock. Half eleven and still light outside. She relaxed a little. That wasn’t as bad as she thought, but that wasn’t the point. “Fujiko?”

 

I’m here. Are you okay?”

 

Tell everyone not to go into the village this morning. If they want to go out, head straight from the tram station and avoid al the old people.”

 

They do that anyway. Hell I think we all did that before they started going all mannequin on us.”

 

Tryng to ignore the fact that that ananlogy didn’t work, Otsune finally freed herself of her bed linen and composed herself. “Make sure they’re extra vilgilant about it from today onwards. I’ll explain shortly. Meet me n the loby in fifteen.”

 

Oh no, I know that tone,” said Fujiko, sounding alarmed. “Lst time you said that I lost five months of my life.”

 

Otsune thought about it. “It’ll be up to you whether you go this. I won’t force you.”

 

Aw, but saying that makes me have to go.”

 

Talk shortly. I need to get ready.” She hung up, looking around her rom. Occam was waiting outside the window and she opened it up to let him in. She’d have to skip hr morning jog it seemed, but no matter. Heading straight for the shower, she began prepping herself.

 

By th time she was washed and dressed Otsune felt a lot more awake and refreshed. The injuries sustained last night were beyond minor and other than a mild cramp in her shoulder seemed to be all gone. Her glasses were still broke, so that meant getting out her spare pair., but other than that it was as iof last night simply hadn’t happened.

 

Of course it had. Er getting out of the shrine below Heavenly Springs hadn’t been the easiest of exits. The rope climb alone had left her fingers feeling frayed. At least now she knew how to access it any time she needed to return. It would be better to bring proper climbing gear the next time round though. There was no major danger,but the others wren’t as atheletic as she was and she didn’t want to keep her discovery last night a complete secret from them.

 

Exiting her room, she felt her foot brush somethigng odd on the floor and pull back without thinking. Looking down she saw several shards f glass scattered round the floor. It seemed someone had dropped their glass wandering round to find her and hadn’t bothered to pick it up. Heading back into her room, she got the bin and spent a few extra minutes cleaning up.

 

I nearly sliced my foot open thanks to that, Fujiko,” she said as she reache the lobbby, holding up the box of glass as she pureed it into one of the main bins.

 

Ouch. Where was that?” the girl repliedlooking like she hadn’t a shred of guilt and making Otsune immediately realise it probably wasn’t her.

 

Right outside my door. Someone must have dropepd it last night.” She looked around. Besdes them, only Himeko?? was inside the room. The girl was sitting on the lobby desk ingoring them quite effectively as sh bserved quite intently four large glasses on the table doing absolutely nothing. Otsune blanked for a second as she in turned watched the girl, but then brushed it off.

 

Injuries?” Fujiko inquired.

 

Huh? Oh none. I avoided it. No harm done.” Fujiko was of course a master bluffer and whether she had left theglass shattered in a drunken haze leaving Otsune destined for multiple lacerations wasn’t something Otsune coul determine. It also didn’t matter. Himeko repositioned herself on the desk, getting comfier while still never looking away from the glasses. Otsune ried to focus away from it.

 

So what’s the-”

 

The dolls have weapons now,” she explained, cutting her friend off just as Sarah walked into the room heading for the exit. “We need to make sure that no matter what no one comes into the- oh Sarah wait.”

 

Fuck off,” the little girl replied, not even looking their way as she readjusted her large backpack.

 

Sarah wait,” she repeated grabbing the young girl by the shoulders and getting a violent glare for her effort. “where are you heading?”

 

Why do you care?” Sarah replied., only stopping now to wait for a response. “You neer care.”

 

Of course I c-” Otsune stopped herself. This wans’t the time. “Look. Just be careful in the village okay. Last night the dolls attacked me, and this time they had weapons.”

 

Weapons,” the girl replied, now actually ooking concrned. “What type?”

 

Knifes, chains, cannons. Chainsaws.” Otsune felt somehow that was the question she shouldn’t be answering. “I think you’ll be okay if you head straight for the tram. That’s where you’re going right?”

 

Yeah,” replied Sarah, already turning back for the door. “I should be okay though. I’m not a filthy whore like some people here.” The eleven year old slammed the large oak door behind her, putting in consdierable effort to do so. Otsune heard the sound of stones crushed underfoot as the her ward ran awwaya as fast as she could.

 

You really need to do somethig about her,” Fujiko said when the running faded out ofearshot.

 

I know but- as much as I hate to say it, there’s more mportant stuff to do.” Otsune turned round. Himeko had gone from the lobby desk. So had all but one of the glasses. “Anyway, listen-”

 

**

 

Sagara.

 

Sagara was quiet, yet active. Kind yet distance. Sagara was her lord, yet never there for her.

 

Of course not. He was not to be there for her. She was to be there for him. Did she honesty expect him to continue his life catering to her wishes. It was the exact oppoite.

 

It would be nice if she could see him more often though.

 

Natoko awoke to the sound of a busshutting its doors, the rumblingly engine spluttering to lfe as the crowds of humanswandered around her. Carefully getting up she found herself on a bench in what appeared t middle the middle of the city. She was back. Wherver he had taken her, at least far enough away to be near the ocean, she had escaped and gotten bck.

 

Er brain felt fuzzy. Moments seemed lost to her again. For a second the thought that she never even went to that manor approached her, that it was a deluded dream brought on by her situation and possible malnourishment. But then she felt her clothes. Soft. Unworn. Clean and fresh smelling. These were definiately clothes that had been cleaned.

 

Isis was clasped in her hand and with a feeling of paranonia she left the ench behind to wander as she woke up. She was near the shopping district, thsat much she could tell. At least she was certain it was Fuugosuki. She doubt it wouldn’t be beyond his means to have transported her across the world before she made her escape. In her panic to escape the ocean she must have used the flash step to cover thelarge distance. The effort must have exhuasted her to collaspe n that bench.

 

Funny, she didn’t smell of the ocean.

 

Feeling her stomach, she figured she ought to get food. Using the flash step that much would have drained her, though she was too tred to notice yet. Suddenly Natoko pniced when she couldn’t feel her money bag. With frantic hands she patted herself down, sghing in relief when she felt the bulge.

 

Lifting it up, she held the bag up wth a feeling of confusion. IT was bigger. Wasting no time she reached into it and found herself pulling out notes when there should have only been coins. Two bundles. Each bundled contained ten notes. Each note was ten thousand yen. She checked them again just to make sure, unable to tell if they were conterfeit or not.

 

As far as she ould tell, they were real. But it didn’t matter. If that was real ten that meant everythng Mr Jupiter said had been real, from his offers for her to join n him to the threats of driving her insane, and his utimate plan.

 

Sagara. Mr Jupiter didn’t know it yet, but he was after Sagara. Sagara had the Onikage sealed within him. She recalled the one moment where the creature had crawled itself loose to take control of Sagara in an effort to protect him from the OniHono. Butt Sagara wasn’t aware.

 

At least she thought he wasn’t aware. IT simply hadn’t come p in conversation since, but that idn’t matter either. Mr Jupiter was after the five ogres. That meant he was after Sagara

 

But Mr Jupiter didn’t know tht, nor did he know the OniHono had been captured, or that Mss Sakimoto held onto the OniSui that had once possessed her, or that the OniDou had been destoroyeed by the American ninja.

 

That left the OniKaze, but she knew nothing of it. Racking her brains she tried to think of aything they had that resembled a wind spirit. Not just in controlling the wind, it was probably something that was free and relaxed, bringing ease to all near it, and was probably capablesudden burts of violence.

 

Coming up with nothing, she entered the conviniance store, buying several pre made bentos. The demon’s intent on giving her the money was an obvious ploy to bring her over to his side, but once again people had assumed her stupid and without knowledge. Mr Jupiter claimed to not be after Sagara, simply because he did not know he was after Sagara. But he was, and that meant she was against him, even if Sagara had cut ties with her. The money was free for her to use.

 

Her path was clear now, bringing with it a clarity that refreshed her as she chewed into the sashimi. She would protect Sagara from Mr Jupiter. IT was easy in itself at the moment. The path to doing so layin Mr jupiter never finding out the truth about Sagara. If he did, she didn’t know if he could be stopped. Her next moves would need to be planned out carefully. She did not know how far Mr Jupiter’s reach was. Demons couldn’t enter Heavenly Springs unless invvited by the Futabatei, so Sagara remained safe as long as he lounged around there. But then there was a possibility of humans working for Mr Jupiter, like that Ms Venus person. Humans could approach Heavenly Springs with ease, but humans she could handle, and any approaching him didn’t exactly hae an advantage. Sagara remained safe as long as no one knew.

 

That meant she couldn’t just approach him ewither. Mr Jupiter was actively after her. If she went back, he would no doubt use some trick like the one he did with Kiriyama to get the others to doubt and outcast her. Natoko would have to hold back, go somewhere away from them. If she waned Sagara, even throgh some indirect means, she could imagine the fool just blabbering it away at the earliest wrong opportunity. He may be her lord, but she could not deny the fact that he was indeed a moron at the best of times.

 

Dropping the Bento into the bin, Natoko secured Iziz and care dnot from the looks of those around her. There was only one place to go. One place she knew she could provide wrning. Part of her still didn’t entirely trust them after what happened with Otsune, but one thing was clear was that they had no association with the Alignment. If they had, Mr Jupiter would have known about Sagara from the day he was born.

 

Sakimoto Industries. Mss Yya would know what to do and she could speak to her with honesty. The woman herself must know at least of the five Ogres, hence why she captured one and kept the other.

 

Natoko laughed despite herself. In the end it was all quite easy. When she put her mind to it, she could handle everything, and all without getting in Sagara’s way. She could even use this information she had acquired to vindicate herself of the Raiko incident, whether or not she had done it in the first place.

 

Unwrapping the sugar waffle, she took note of her surroundings. Having entered the shopping district, she knew which way to go from her. Then it was just a short stop to pick up some supplies, namely a carrying case for her sword and a new mobile phone. Afterwards, she’ll head down ti the subway station and take the short trp back to Mss Sakimoto’s tower.

 

Natoko smiled as she chewed. The waffle tasted delicious.

 

**

 

The binoculars weren’t the best ones she could find in Heavenly Springs. Otsune supposed expectng at least one of the girls to have a pair with optinum foucs was too much to ask, nor could she find anyone to ask. these were fujiko’s, who wasn’t sdaying why she had a pair in the first place.

 

The roof of the west wing was the best place for this. The land that was the top of the Heavenly Springs hill wasn’t exactly flat, and she knew from a basic knowledge of hill shapesthat the building complex itself had to have been built to curve. While she didn’t know the exact architectural setup here, all it took was a pair of eyes to know that the tip of the roof was the best place to look to get a full glance of the village.

 

Even so, she couldn’t see squat from here.

 

She had wanted to see the dolls, see what their current status was. See if they were just fumbling old people who believed the young uns had no respect, or screamng monsters with bazookas for Parkinson’s disease.

 

It occured to Otsune just how harsh she was being to her eldars nowadays.

 

The binoculars just didn’t have the range it seems. they were clearly a cheap shoddy pair. If the trip to the city this afternoon didn’t yield favourable results, she would have to invest in a new pair. She might also need to invest in an army.

 

Straiing both her eyes and the dial that controls the lens, Otsune thought she could jsut make out the image of what could have possibly been a blur walking down the street, possibly lurching. No it was too far. this simply wasn’t going to work.

 

Hi there,” said Sagara besides her.

 

Hey sagara,” she said, doing her best not to jump off the rooftop in a non productive method of self preservation, her heartbeat increasing as her brain tried to eject and make the leap without her. A quick cursory glance revealed the boy’s face was covered in bruises, his shirt tattered and torn and what looks like a slahs wounded from sdome kind of blade going up one of his forearms. He was eating a baguette.

 

@What you doing,” he asked, with no efofort to do it between mouthfuls.

 

Trying to find the dolls,” she replied, making an extra effort to take another scan of the village even though she had given up a moment ago.

 

You mean the Lacaraka.” That was it. Otsune had forgotten what he had called them, possibly because it wasn’t an actual word in any langauge.

 

Yeah those.” she decided it wouldn’t hurt to ask. “Did you know they had weapons?”

 

I think so. Wait… no i didn’t.”

 

Makes sense.”

 

What kind of weapons?”

 

Chainsaws.”

 

Oh. They must have been upgraded. Though they don’t seem to have them now.”

 

Believe me they do. Spent the night running for my life as a direct tribute to them.” She gavce him another glance as she said this and noticed he was looking down at the village below.

Wait. Can you see them?”

 

I can.” Otsune tried looking without the binoculars, a fruitlesst task taht would only hurt her head.

 

How?”

 

The eye of Futabatei has a range of fifteen miles without obstruction. It’s easy if you know how.”

 

Ignoring that one, Otsune stepped up to give her knees a break.

 

How about with obstruction?”

 

It depends on the type of obstruction.”

 

Give me examples.”

 

For example, if i try to look through a sheet of lead, i can only see about five meters past it. If i try to look through the rooftop, i can see everyone in the building and in the shrine below where the angel resides.”

 

you know about the angel.”

 

Yes, though i didn’t know you did.”

 

I do.” It was becoming clear to Otsune sometimes the best thign to do was simply ask. “I take it you know about the tunnels too.”

 

I didn’t until i got here, but yes.”

 

and the fact this village is essnetially deserted apart from ourselves and the Lacaraka.”

 

Well there are also the spirits that reside within the dorm itself. the Divine and demons imprisoned below. Oh and the memory contstruct Sakura is currently kissing.”

 

That made no sense, but it gave Otsune an idea.

 

So what you’re saying is, if i take you along within to gain access to the server room at Sakimoto Industries, i’ll have a good chance of getting through there without anyone detecting me.”

 

Sagara took a moment to think this through. “It would increase your chances. i am a ninja after all.”

 

Great,” she said standing up ??. “come on. You’re going to make yourself useful.”

 

**

 

Her carefully planned team had hastily arranged themselves before her. For once she could actualy say that each one was picked for a reason. Fujiko acted as her second, a sounding board in which to bunce ideas off and receive critcism for. Sagara, , not only for his eyes, as useful as they were to be, but also for leverage. When the direct approach failed, and it would, she’d be able to get a lot farther with Future Balance of the Enforcer on her side, or whatever he was.

 

And Occam burned stuff. Security doors, evidence, weapons, people and other things. That was always useful.

 

Letting them chat amongst themselves while they traveled the tram, Occam instead wisely choosing to float above her and not set off fire alarms off, Otsune plotted.

 

It was dawning on her, almost as soon as she realised what she was doing today, that she had no idea the level of danger she was about to throw herself into. There would be some danger, this couldn’t be denied when her last trip had left her drowning in the middle of the CEO’s office. But how dangerous was what she was doing. Was it going to be a simple case of approaching the server room and getting whoever was in charge the option to turn these things off? Even if it was she would still ned to get into the building, but with only knowing the CEO, and the chances of her now being identified as someone not allowed into the building, that was slim.

 

??

 

She thought back to the conversation she had had earlier that day

 

Tsking a break for a few seconds, she pulled out her phone and started typing. It had been the third time she had sent the request and she had yet to receive a response. It was possible there was soe syntax not being understood here

 

Request: Turn off dolls.

 

She had done it once as soon as she hd receivec bars back on her phone on the way up for the shrine,but she hadn’t gotten a response then or now. The server was ignoring her, or unable to understand her message. It was just a computer after all.

 

??

 

The server’s intenons were impossible to figure. She could argue that, as a machine, it simply din’t have intentions, but something wasn’t right here. Why would it even try speaking to her. That was the question. She could argue that she was nothing special and it had been speaking to hundred, sneding out crazy text messages in an attempt to sound cryptic, but it was the fact it had picked her, even as part of a random sample. She knew of the Balance, orf the demons and stupid things in this world that made her understandings oh so very difficult. That had to mean something. Maybe it was guiding others in the same way, in a hope that at least one of them would assist it in some way. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t responding anymore. Maybe someone else had come forward.Rubbing her eyes, Otsune watched the coverstion going on the seats opposite her. It was mainly Fujiko talking without merit. Otsune realised she had no real theories here about the server. Too little information again. That was appening far too often..

 

This would change. She would gain access to Sakimoto industries, access the server room and gain the information she needed and get those dolls turned off.

 

The train trundled to a halt, stopping by the station. As the three came out with the crowd, she could already see their detination in the distance, standng as the tallest tower in the city.

 

With her crew assembled, Otsune moved out.

 

**

 

Oh look. Theyr’re coming over to say hello.”

 

Her long hair delicatly tied into a pnytail, the girl wandered off the tram, surrounded by a plain looking girl and the prince.

 

Nanahara watched them carefully. Nay h watched them hard, he watched thm so har it felt that his eyesball were just plain going to explode over how much watching he was doing. Oh how they would be watched. Not just by the securty cameras bt by him as well.

 

And Rochelle. Of course. Rochelle. Can’t forget her. Beautiful sexy Rochelle. The same rRochelle who hadn’t let him use her in the five days since he was placed here to watch.

 

And why not, he would ask her,” Nanahara said in the relatively quiet confines of his office. “Why would she not touch him as he wshed her to touch him, in the same luxerious ways she had so manny times bfores, wheen her electric touch could bring shivers and dopamine dumps no real woman could?

 

Well he did not knowwhy she wouldn’t do this. Ad he not earned it yet. Had he not atched enough of the people who would wander round their large building watching stupid pretty girls doing absolutely nothing from time to time. Hadn’t he watched as the cameraman tried to find the girl, ths proving that someone else was watching her as well, making his job immediately defunct. Huh Rochelle, han’t I done enough yet?”

 

Nahnahara panted with no need to do so. He wasn’t exhausted. He couldn’t be. The drone program was feeding him perfectly.. He actually felt a little healthier than he had before. The drone was doing a fantastic job. Perhaps he’d even get a raise soontime soon. Nahara hoped so. “WQ both fucking deserve it.”

 

And you know who wouldn’t deserve. Who doesn’t eserve anyting. The prince of the balance himsefl. That little lodger with the brain cell the size of a molecule farm. Bercause he does squat, even less than the girl on this stupid tv show who spending all day wandering around a building thinking really har to herself.

 

So go on Rochelle. You can tell me. You can tell me that een though I work hard, that I do two jobs, one as an auidiance member and one as a drone server administrator for this virus encrusted kidnapping machine, you can still tell me that including all of those words that spew out my mouth. You would still want to lick his nipples more than mine. Go on. Admit it!”

 

Rochelle said nothing behind him. Her smooth alabaster skin still touched his shoulders lightly, always reminding him she was there, her sweet perfume bringing a tear to his eye every time he got weak. Sniffing the air, he bit his tongue so he wouldn’t cry.

 

Well you’r wrong, you bitch whore. He is nothing compared to me. I’ll show you. When he gets in here i’ll prove which of us is the stronger one, the smarter one. I’ll kic his ass from here to the InBetween realm and out the other side. I’ll tear his skind off in layers and eat them one at a tie and then vomit it out over his skull. I-ll”

 

Fine,” Rochelle sa succulently. “Then show me.”

 

Wha-”

 

She was gone. Immediately he felt her hold over him disappate. He could move. Quickly he stpped up to turn around, his palm ready to show her what she deserved, only to see the the console on the other side of his office, powerless and non-threatening.

 

The room was empty. Of course it was. Rochelle only appeared in his mind. She wasn’t real.

 

ManGod No but she can be.

 

Wat? Who’s there?”

 

ManGod You are about to have visitors. Make sure that they never reached the processorand you shall have your reward.

 

What are you talking aout. Just leave me alone.”

 

manGod “Are you sure you want that, Nanahara. Are you sure you don’t-

 

I don’t need to listen to this. I;m sick of people bossing me around. I quit.”

 

Mwait.

 

Nanahara reached for the handle. Tugging it to find the room locked on the other side. Looking up he nearly pounced back as he sawan office worker staring at him from the other side of the glass with a nervous disposition on her face.

 

Oi, bitch. Unlock the door!” H e sammed his fist on the glass, the pane feeling like concrete beneath his wrist, as he struggled oonce more agaist the handle. “Let me out.”

 

mWhy should you want too leave. Your trial is before you Nanahara??firstname. Have you not waited for a moment like this all your life. Just one simple task and then all the reward is handed straight to you, everything you ever desevred.

 

The woman looked through the glass, past Nanahara and around, her eyes scanning the office as if looking for someone before turning round to leave. That stupid pig. How could she miss him?

 

Help me Nanahara. Assst with this one trial and you never have to suffer the pitiful like that again. You can be strong, smart, perfect, just like you know you are, without the scum of the earth bringing you down at every step, making you play their tunes and opening their gates just to get by.

 

Fine!” Nanahara shoute, d coming back to the security console and falling back into his chair. “Tell me what to do.”

 

The voice said nothing. Instead, the console sprang to life, the dead monitor to the right flashing up with lists of doors and entrances. Access privledges and camera controls. The three main screens cut to defense mechanisms, bringing up security schematics an controls for guns he was pretty sure they didn’t have. Then above him, the arge monitor came into existence. Wider than his desk and just a little taller than himself. The new screen flashed on, revealing picture in picture in picture, each shot showing different groups.

 

The first was the glasses girl again, with the prince and their plain looking friend. They were walking the street the main entrance to the buiding was on, walking past the main entrance after only giving it a quick glance.

 

The second was the booss herself. Sakimoto Yuya, engrossed in work as she shuffled paper from her desk to the several piles around her.

 

The third was sanding by the entrance to the building, showing up on the main security camera. Dressed casually and holing a long box that he knew must cotain a blade, he recognised it as the girl that up until a few days ago also lived witht eh glasses girl.

 

The main screen stayed focused on them, while his second monitor flashed a red dot in his eyes, the speck of pixel located on the schematics before him, pointing out a restricted tat he had only once been allowed in.

 

Stop them from reaching the server room, Nanahara. Stp them, and all the women are yours.”

 

**

 

It had been luck alone that Natoko had kept her new ID card on her person. The piece of plastic had once just been shoved into the coat she worn the day she wandered out of her room to follow Otsune. This single stroke of luck was paying off as she flashed it to th security guard, who let her pass without question.

 

It wasn’t until she got past the busy crowd and into the elevator that she realised this probably hadn’t been the best strategy. Otsune had bluffed her way into the building before via fake appointment and Natoko knew enouh about security to guess that her card wasn’t going to allow her to access all levels.

 

Getting into the crowded elevator, she inserted herself between two office ladiesand tried to ignore it whn ne brushedher shoulder in her general direction.

 

From the corner of her eye, she sawthe woman sneer, her upturned nose trying desperately to upturn further. In her casualwear she could tell she looked ut of place. She could have done with finding some change of clothes. With the money she could have bought a suit and came straight through without interuption.

 

No, the casual approach clearly had some effect. No one quesioed her past the door and people now were only judgig her, not asking why she was here. This was good. She had gained accessed.

 

Te elevator rsing, it wasn’t until the tenth floor it made the first stop, and not until the fifteenth that the sneering woman besides her got off, giing Natoko one last predatory glance as the door shut behind her. The box froze in space an she soon realised she was the one who needed to decide th next foor.

 

It only now occurred to her that she hadn’t chosen her own floor last time and now she had no idea how to get to the CEO’s level to speak with Mss Sakimoto. Looking over at the rw of buttons only confused matters. There wer thirty buttons, but wasn’t there seventy floors. There didn’t look to be any special panel that would unlock some more. She knew she had seen those I movies. Maybe there was a different lift.

 

Opting to start from the top and work her way up, she pressed button thirty and felt the elevator lurch to life. This had better work. Seeing Mss Sakimoto was the smartest move sh could think of. She had been the one to warn her about Mr Jupiter. If Natoko could pass on this critical information they might stand a chance against fighting him. With the information she could vindicate herself. It would all go to plan.

 

Reaching the thirtieth floor, Natoko watched as the door opened, revealing two mn with short sleved shirts staring at her. The two fell silent and watched her and she found herself stepping out of the elevator to meet them. Not asingle one of them spoke as she joined the little triangle before her. The doors behind slid slowly shut, clunking as they began to drop back down.

 

G-good afternoon,” she said. The men were twins. Middle aged and balding, they stared at her like she was an alien and they were without intelligence, slack jawwed and unresposinsive.

 

What are you doing on this floor?” one of them blurted out suddenly, almost making her jump as she saw a swarm of spit jump out from his mouth towards her. Gravity took effect before it could reach her but that didn’t sop her from taking a step back.

 

I’m-” Natoko started. “I’m here to see Mss Sakimoto.”

 

What do you want to see her for?” the same twin shouted back as soon as the last syllable had left her mouth. Natoko found the words trembling on her lip as she tried to throw them out there.

 

I… need to speak to her.” For some reason, she felt she was playing a dangerous game.

 

Why would you want to speak to her,” the man continued to say, his expression vacant and his words sounding like they were ttrying to correct their pitch, “when you could talk to such an able bodied man like myself.

 

Her word hand itched. This wa beginning to feel familiar in a very bad way. Getting the sword out of its case could take her up to three seconds. Both these men were very close.

 

I have an appointment,” she ventured desperately. Taking one step back to fall into a balance stance, her thumb inching toward the latch that would allow Iziz to drop ito her hands. Both men took a step towards her.

 

Well, you’ll be wanting the sixty eighth floor then,” the other twin said, a happy to help attitude plastered on his face where befoe there was nothing more than a monotone of expression. “Which means you’ve taken the wrong elevator. You need the C type. That takes you all the way to the top. The A type is just for the staff of the first twenty five floors.” The man walked over to the elevator and pressed the button twice in succession. “You external?”

 

You…” Natoko’s felt her brain hanging, “You could say that.” She turned her gaze back. The other twin was still standing there. He looked like he had been trned off, his eyes still hanging open.

 

Oh, one of the Futabatei lot. That explains the concealed weapon at least, plus how you were able to get to this floor.” The man ddidn’t seem that fussed with knowing of the holders of the Balance and in turned she tried no to freak out about him apparently being able to see Iziz. “Is it true that the prince finally managed to pass whis Initiation?”

 

Yes!” she blurted out, glad to recognise some converssaton she coul flow with. “He did a fanatastic job. Mss Sakimoto delcared it herself.”

 

Well he was bound to with a mother like that teaching him. He may be a little blank but that didn’t stop some good nurturing. We’re all proud of him on this level.

 

This level?”

 

Well, here you go,” the man said as the elevator hummed to a stop again. “Remember, sixty eighth floor. The final two floors are dangerous to go onto so don’ go in no matter what.” e shrugged. “Though saying that, I don’t think your card will allow it anyway.”

 

What, but isn’t this-” he stepped back into the elevator, the same elevator she was just in. This clearly wasn’t-.

 

Buttons one to ten and then thirty to sixty eight stood on the wall before her. The inside of the elevator was embossed with brass while before it was just metal.

 

Oh yeah, you see,” the man said, popping his head through the door. “Your card doesn’t even let you on the top two floors anyway. Wait that would mean-”

 

The other twin screamed, wailing, his yes rolling back as he fell to the floor backwards, the aparent removal of of his spine doing nothing to stop his movements. Natoko felt the back of the elevator hit her as the man vibrated violnt on the floor, his spasms making their way towards her. The other man looked away from his brother to her, his eyes about five inches wider than they were a second ago.

 

You’re-” She didn’t wait. Pushing forwards, she grabbed the edges of the door and kicked, pushing rather than striking and thursting the more sane looking of the twins, solely by comparison, into the one that looked like it was waiting to to pounce. From the floor they rearranged themselves to face her, picking themselves up and propelling their bodies towards her just as the door shut.

 

The elevator began its ascent and from the floor sh watched the buttons light up in turned as they made their way to the top.

 

She unclipped Iziz and let it fall out of the sheathe. Whatever that was it was clear she needed to be ready for anything.

 

At least she had done a good job so far.

 

**

 

This was turning out terribly.

 

The main entrance was naturally out of bounds. With their intention being the infiltration of the server, Otsune knew they couldn’t risk anyone discovering them. Sure, if they were caught Sagraa could easily provide a get out of some kind of holding area but not quite a jail security cell free card, but if it came to that, Otsune would only fulfill one of her objectives.

 

It reassured Otsune to have objectives. The first objective was to turn off the dolls. That was simple. The dolls were controlled by the server. She needed to get to the server and get t to turn them off through whatever means necessary. This was Fujiko’s job. Figuring out the server once they actally got to it. And this objective wasdefiniately sorted no matter what. Even if they got caugth, if the people of the Balance realised their server was having issues, then they would fix it. Either way, problem solved.

 

The second objective was what mad this difficult. She needed to know. What had happened two thousand years ago. Why was there an angel interred below Heavenly springs. Hy was the server texting her information. It clearly wanted someone to come down and approach it. She just needed to find out why and, if it was bad, she’d burn the whole fucking building to the ground if need be.

 

Her little razor made things so simple at times.

 

Though not now as they continued to waner round the size of the block wide building, Otsune realised that first of all they would simply have o get in. The main door was too risky. Everybody potentially recognising Sagara ended that option. Tht left the services entrance. But that was uner the watchful obervers of low paid security guard, who most likely would be friendly nd helpful to them long enough to eventualy escort them out of the building after they failed to prove any decent reason to be there.

 

There was still, of course, the burn everything optionand Otsune felt the temptation strip her restraint slowly. But that would limit their time, and she still didn’t know which floor she needed to be on in order to find the server.

 

What floor do w need to get to?” fujiko asked, as they took stock of their options at a sweet stand across the street clearly catered for businessmen with a sweet tooth.

 

We’ll need the IT department obviously,” Otsune said. “Any guesses what floor they’ll be on.

 

Hard to say, it may not all be in one place. And even knowing it’s the server room we’re looking for doesn’t help. A building like this, it’s not like they’ll need to be stored in one particular place. They’ll usually have their own room, but it’s not like tey’ll be shoved in the basement. Well, they were in my old place, but that’ kind of a sterotype and not really a hard rule.”

 

We’ll start with the basement first then. Make our way up.”

 

Still doesn’t get us in.”

 

Sagara was enjoying his breadroll while contributing as much to the conversation as cccam was.

 

Maybe some kind of espionage. Sneak in on the delivery truck.”

 

We have ni knowledge of any of the delivery schedules. It could take a day or so befre we can figure it out enough to hop aaboad one.”

 

Do we have a time limit?” Fuiko asked.

 

Do you want to go back hom to the murder dolls?”

 

Understood.” She finsihed her skewer and tossed it into the bin. “We need some kind of edge here you realise. These buildings are designed to only let people in by appointment. Anyone not fulfilling this criteria gets escorted out with malicious passive aggressiveness. Wait. What asbout the InBetwen realm.”

 

Can’t,” said Sagara suddenly, not even trying to stop eating in the process.

 

What?” replied Fujiko, clearly not expecting him to have spoken. “Why not?”

 

There are doorways into the building that work as access points. But none of us know any of them. Though I could locate an entrance by pointing at that one over there,” his han shot up to indicate a building on the block down the road, too far away for her to figure out what he meant. “In the time limit Otsune set, it would be highly improbablle we could find one frm within the Inbetween realm or figure out the correct one without a proper guide.”

 

Otsune said nothing. She had suspected something similar herself, but now something was nagging her she couldn’t quite place. Maybe they could gain accessthrough the sewers somehow, though the dangers of bringing a naked flame underground were immediately clear to her. Her brain ticked over.

 

That’s it!” she announced, realising what she needed to know. “Sagara, you’re an idiot. A complete and total idiot.”

 

Sagara just smied, but his ability to talk was irrelevant for the next thirty seconds.

 

Don’t you get it,” sheasked. “You said it yourself. “We would need a guide to lead us through the InBetween realm. That would be pointless information, but we already ave one.” She pointed up. “Occam.”

 

Sagara just stared directly at the flame. “That’ right. He is a guide.”

 

Occam,” she announced, turning to the flame and no doubt confusing the employee of the food cart. She breathed in, calming her mind as best she could. Occam would need her focus for this. Without it, he woldn’t understand. “Take us to the nearest entrance within the Sakimoto Industries building, via the UnBetween realm.”

 

Occam shot off to his right, thundering down the street in the direction Sgara pointed. With a belated ‘Come on!” Otsune followed it down, hoping the others were to follow. It was good to finally have a plan.

 

**

 

Natoko took another ste towards Mss Sakimoto’s office. Another twenty, and she’d be inside.

 

She had left the elevator five minutes ago, landing on the floor she recognised from her earilier excursion with Otsune just a few weeks. Quite a few things had happened since then and she could see why, with al the misunderstandings that Otsune may be annoyed with her after all that went on. Then again, it didn’t take much to annoy Otsune.

 

Another step. She should have gotten an appointmnt. Coming here, right to the big boss of a large business like this. IT was disrespectful to just assume she’d be allowed in. The water cooler bubbled loud enough to remind her how thirsty she was and she walked over to pour herself a drink.

 

An appointment would take too long though. This wasn’t just an update report. Ms Sakimoto needed to know abut Mr. Jupiter’s plans. Gulping down the water,, she resolved to heasd straight in there and warn her of everything as soon as she finished the second drink.

 

I warned you about not making appointments, Mss Amanaka,” said the voice over her shoulder. Natoko tried to turn but found her knees suddenly refusing to comply to basic requests. “Not to mention I thought I made it clear last time that I wasn’t the first point of contact in this place.”

 

Natoko suddenly remembered who she was, taking a step forward to trn and face the woman, before faling to one knee and keeping her head bowed.

 

Forvie my foolish actions,” she said, trying not to shout. “I neeeded to see you immediately. I have-”

 

No you didn;t,” the woman interupted, “and no you don’t. I will give you a minute to finish your water. You may then leave.”

 

But-” By accident, Natoko raise her head, cathing the woman staring right at her oover her slim spectacles. The other glares she had received today were nothing in comparison. Even the demon’s smile left her feeling warm inside. This didn’t just chill her to the bone. She felt her knees buckle even though they weren’t keeping her up. Her fingers felt light and wouldn’t stop shaky. Somehow she knew, deep inside, with something she could never before see that saying anything wrong at this moment, and she wouldn’t get to finish her waer at all. “But…”

 

You may leave.” Natoko felt her defences close into her. Nromally she was aware of where she could and couldn’t stand, an inbuilt instinct bredthrough years of practse that told her the opponent’s rage and kept her at least marginally safe until she opted to attack. In that moment it was gone. Even if she were to jump throw herself out the window and flash jumped across the city, this woman would still be waiting at th other side.

 

I know why you want to keep Mr Jupiter away from Sagara,” she blurted out as fast as she could, her eyes wanting to wield themseves shut as she forced them to stay open, never taking her eyes off the woman.

 

Seconds past slowly. Ms Sakimoto remained static. Natoko couldn’t move.

 

The water cooler bubbled.

 

Why?” Ms Sakimoto finally said. Not enitrely getting the context, Natoo hzarded a guess and then faltered.

 

Can I speak freely about it-”

 

Speak,” the women replied monotonously, al emotion shredded from her voice. Natoko wantd to be cautious with her information. She knew its importance but-. Mss Sakimoto’s eyes relaxed a little. This seemed infinitely more terrifying than her sternes look and Natoko felt her will slipping.

 

Because Sagara has the OniKage inside him.”

 

That…” Mss Sakimoto looked concerned, or confused, or possibly full on perplex, but just for a second. “That is impossible. No demons knows of that secret.”

 

He doesn’t know it,” Natoko carried on blathering. “But he knows he wants the OniKage. He wants all five of the Ogres. He’s going to use them on the Babylon Gates. He says it’ll bring things back to the way they were.”

 

The way thing’s were?” For a second, Natoko saw the glare removed, replaced by a feeling of comprehension.

 

Yes, that’s right. He wants to stop the world from destroying itself and bring an ever lasting piece. It’s terrible!”

 

Natoko stopped talking, and Ms Sakimoto relinquished her glare. “Stand, Yamanaka,” she said, putting away the dagger Natoko had somehow missed the entire time. She held her hand ut and Natoko was a bit too quick to grab it.

 

You were right to bring this information to me. I ad my suspiions on things, but this. This is useful. How did you get it?”

 

He-” Natoko spluttered, casting er head down. “He wants me to join him. Abandon Sagara and become his retainer.” With a mental wrench she pulled herself to fasce the woman, feeling the tears dripping from her eyes. “He’s been tempting me for months, driving me mad when I refused, turning everyone against me. Forcing me to run from and friends and school and live homeless, just so he could save me and-”

 

Eh, Sounds like a typical demon in that regard I guess.”

 

Well-” Ms Sakimoto didn’t look that first. “I suppose. But it’s been really hard to-”

 

Well he’s a demo. What did you expect?” The woman smiled. “Just be glad you resisted. Makes you strong.” Natoko found herself shivering at the ight of the woman again, though this time more out of respect than fear. “Come on. Come take a seat. I’ll get yu a real drink.”

 

Natoko exhaled heavily, feeling far more drained than she ever had been. “Thank you, Ms Sakimoto.”

 

Please, it’s Yuya,” she said, walking into her stylish office. “Well I culd say it makes you strong, but some argue that a constant demon corruption leaves some people never truly recovering. But the fact that you’re here-” The lights went out, stopping them both before Natko could reach the couch.

 

Natoko paused, not knowing what to say, looking to Ms Sakimoto for guidance. The woman looked around, wandering over to check her monitor. It was only just beginning to get dark so it wasn’t that much of an issue. However, everything got very quietly ery quickly.

 

That seems unlikely,” Ms Sakimoto said, trying the switch on the box below. “Backup shold kick in without a hitch.”

 

Everyone else looked fine,” Natoko said, getting a fine iew of Fuugosuki from the hgihest building in it. All te lights were starting to come on for the night and no one other building looked to be completely without.

 

We’re on a separate switch,” Ms Sakimtoo explained. “We don’t even get our power from this dimension- Aha.” The computer came back on, writing scrolling up the screen as everything whirred into action. Ms Sakimoto looked up. “No, that’s not right.”

 

Natoko could tell immediately. “Why not the lights?”

 

Why indeed,” Yuya pulled out her mobile, tapping the screen a few times and waiting for a response. “Check the land line for me.”

 

It was dead. Everything seemed dead apart from the computer. Even the light on the elevator outside the room she could tell was non-functional and she didn’t recall seeing any stairs.

 

Where is he?” said Yuya, seething with frustration.

 

Who.”

 

That server guy. He knows better than to not answer me.” She slipped the phone back into her pocket. “This doesn’t feel right. Something’s on edge. I thought it ewas you at first but now-”

 

Ja ja jang! Everybody!” a voice declared on the television. “Is everyone full of energy? I know I am.” Natoko turned to the screen to see the smiley face, simple, like from one of Aki’s text messages. The voice was orboticc and bitty, yet sounded genuinely happy.

 

If you’re anything like me, you’re living life to the fullest and fulfilling your dreams. But as we all know. You’re office drones, and therefore nothing like me. You mght think, you are. I mean, i’m the IT guy-”

 

Oh dammit,” Yuya cursed.

 

-the one who exists to be abused every day of the night while his vast intelligence drains away on morons like yourselves, but at least I kno the turth of this place. Most of you don’t realise how pointless the work you do is. Eveyr day you toil and toil and toil, and you don’t eve know the work you’re doing is false.” Ms Sakimoto got her phone back out, taping more buttons and walking over to the slot in the wall. “It’s hilarious really. As all of you look down on me I know yu’re merly misperceiving the gravitational pull of our relationship. Up is down. Down is purple, and all of you are morons.”

 

Shariku Insana System; Override control. Password: All for Heaven??”

 

Yuya stepped back from the wall, and Natoko saw the comm system on the wall. The smiley face on the screen stopped talking, its moth turning o shaped.

 

Oh oh, and here we have our frst override attempt. And it’s from the CEO herself. How you doing, Sakimoto. I always thought you were hot. Perhaps if you prostrat yurself in front of my door and swear yourself o me I might let you in.”

 

Ms Sakimoto continued pressing buttons on the wall’s cotrol panel. They were responding, but nothingseemed to be happening.

 

Ah, no point trying to talk to me. I’m afraid this is one way. Not that many microsphones throughout the building I guess. Can’t let you call me either. Might give away where I am.”

 

Natoko focused on the screen’s image, trying to thik of some way to help.

 

Anyway. Here are the rues- we’re playing a game by the way. First off, all routes in and out of the building are locked. Scond, lights are out to make it spookier. Third, I want that lucky bastard Futabatei on my doorstop. Ou hear me. I know you’re in here. My saviour set it up for me. It set everything up for me. It needs you gone and wiped from existence.”

 

Just shoot him then, it’s not that hard,” Ms Sakimoto started mumbling. “Shariku Insana System; Override control. Password: All for Hell??”

 

Whoa. I didn’t eve see that one. Clever girl. Nice try boss. I can’t wait to get my hands on you and have you tell me who’s the real boss around here, because it’s always been me!”

 

That’s not working,” Ms Sakimoto said to Natoko, ignoring the voice. “That means the heart of the SIS is either comprimised or isolated. I need to get down there.” Natoko stiffened to attention.

 

How can I help?”

 

Go to the IT department. This guy’s will be in room N3.06. Third floor.”

 

You want me to capture him.”

 

What? No. Kill him.”

 

K-” Only managing the first syllble, Natoko swallowed the rest of her words.

 

He’s a self confessed, told the world traitor who wants to kill your lord. What do you think?”

 

Kill one of you every ten minutes until he gets here…”

I…” Natoko couldn’t really see it any other way either. “Of course.”

 

Naomi.”

 

The world swirlded for a second, Natoko spinning round to look above her, something telling her beyond instinct that’s where she needed to be looking. The moisture formed in mid air, quickly bubbling, forming cheek boones and shoulder blades, building up on one another and merging thesmselves round like a jigsaw puzzle. When they stopped, the OniSui was looking down at them, the brittle yet feminine features were there, covered in rags that were also formed of water. She looked tired and floated down to them, dripping on the desk.

 

Get down to the server room. Dehydrate the mroon until he stops doing this.”

 

Yes, Yuya.”

 

And no fighting between you two. I know you have histroy. That’s an order.”

 

Of course, Yuya.”

 

U-understood,” replied Natoko, lookning between the two of them and not knowing what to sat.

 

Right, I have to descend ninety eight floors and not die in the process.” Pressing a button in mid air that Natoko still couln’t see, Ms. Sakimoto turned to the panel that came out the wall by her desk, revealing a staircase. “You do not follow me down here. Take the other stairs. Remember. Floor three, room N three dot zero six. Say it back to me.

 

Foor three. Room n three dot zero six.”

 

Good girl,” she started to shut the panel. “Oh and Naomi.”

 

Yes, Yuya.”

 

Give her a chance to kill the guy before you do it.”

 

Of cours Yuya.”

 

It’ll be good experience for her.” The panel shut withot another word, the man’s voice ranting still on the screen, explaining all manner of trick and trap setup within the building and threatening all within. Natoko couldn’t take her eyes off her new partner, feeling her fist seize up on her.

 

I look forward to working with you again, Natoko.”

 

**

 

The world got dark as they left the Inbewteeen realm, passing throgh the mahogony door and into a room that required they find a light switch. The light within the realm didn’t seem to want to travel back through to earth with them, and so didn’t.

 

Occam had been brilliant. He led them through corridor after corridor with what she could only guess was perfect navigational skills. They had made it here in less than five minutes and all thoguhout she held nothing but trust for the little guy. He followed her into the earth side of the door, lighting up the small compact room right as she kicked the plastic bowl underneath her foot and responded by crashing into several ticks to her side. Falling in the most graceful way possible, she was quickly helped up by Sagara.

 

It’s a janitor’s closest,” he said most helpfully.

 

Wll it wasn’t going to be our exact destination was it?” she replie while trying not to bit his hhead off.

 

It could have done,” Fujiko said, as she shut the mahogony door behind them, only the light of Occam saving them from the darkness.

 

Well it didn’t,” she said, opening the actual door to the small cramped confine. “Now be quiet. We have no idea hwee we are, and stealth is key so-”

 

Everyone in the reception looked at them as the loud door creaked in the large silent room.

 

-try not to get noticed.”

 

A flashlight blinded her, the steely gaze of a man in a security guard uniform following it. The man approached them carefully, his hand reaching around his waist as if to keep hold of something kept in the darkness. Otsune stumbled forwards and Sagara bumped into her.

 

Were you guys hiding in the closet,” the guard said and she noticed a familiar looking woman following carefully behind him. Behind her she make out the silohettes of a large nuber of people that she had a better view of moments ago before the flashlight was shined in her face. Everyone was looking their way in the darkness.

 

Come on,” the guard said. “We’re keeping everyone together in the reception until we can find some way out.”

 

You can’t get out?” Otsune was surprised. She would have thought leaving through a large front door was easy. It was obvious to see a power cut had happened, but it wasn’t completely dark outside yet. Was the building not allowed to have a large group of people congregate on the street?

 

No, that maniac’s locked all the doors somehow. Been around them all too. Windows are stronger thn I thought too. We tried smashing them open but stuff just bounces off them.” He shined his light over to the windows as if to point this out, the bright light bouncing on the woman’s face for a split second. Otsune knew her, but couldn’t place where. The woman was staring back at her looking jusst as confused. “If you kids can think of anything we can’t-”

 

Have you tried just waving to the people outside?” Otsune said, trying not to sound deadpan.

 

Well, that’s the oddest thing so far, apart from the voice of course. We can’t get the attention of anyone on the street either. They just walk past. You’d think ten people back on the windows would draw someon’s eye.

 

Guard guy wasn’t stupid it seemed, Otsune realised. He at least tried the logical things to do in a situation like thi, whatever this situation was. She felt like she had missed something important and this wasn’t sounding like your average blackout.

 

The guard walked away, quickly losing interest as someone else called him over to ask something. This was good. Landing in the reception, the very point of entry hey had been trying to avoid, but at least they were on the other side of the first barrier. Seemes that the guard had just accepted them as employees, or at least not something to worry about in such a situation.

\

It did mean taking the stairs, but they could get up a floor before they try to find anything else relating to the server room.

 

It’s you!” the woman shouted, drawing everyone’s attention. Otsune turned back to reaise the woman was pointing at her. “It’s her. She’s the one!”

 

Suddenly there was a loud mumbling of voices and the guard came rushing back, shining his flashlight right back at Otsune. Otsune clicked a second too late.

 

What is it? Who is she?”

 

She’s the one. The one that snuck in here ast month when Ms. Kimiharo fainted. You know, the one that hacked into the computer and set up the false appointment.”

 

Crap. She was right. This wasn’t the lady that had fainted. This was the one that had blindly let er in after she added an entry to the appointments diary during the other receptinists fainting spell. So the bitch that tried to kill her didn’t want her back.

 

She must be the one behind all this,” the woman insisted as the guard took a step forward.

 

Now that is a vast jump in reasoning-” Otsune started to argue, as the man grabbed her arm.

 

I think it’s going to be best if I take you upstair lady, and your friends.”

 

And I think it’s best if you back off!” Occam agreed and burned brightly, covering the air between her and the security guard The man stopped, but didn’t jump away.

 

Whoa,” e said, looking mildly dizzy. “It got hot in here.”

 

Lookig stunned, the man tried to take another step towards her to tighten his grip, causing Occam to jump out the way to prevent incineration as the man started to sweat on the spot. Bravery or stupidity, the generic guard couldn’t tke it and stumbled, allowing Otsune to wrench herself free from his failing grasp.

 

Up the stairs,” she said, turning to the others. “Go.”

 

Ushering them aslong, Otsune saw the door with the stair’s picture and hoped that it wasn’t a sign to indicate a tear in space.

 

This is Matsuda,” she heard the guard call out behind them as he wipedd out the sudden heatstroke and went to pursue them with staggered strides. “I’m found the people responsible at the reception. They’re heading up. Cut them-”

 

The door shut behind her as they raced for the stairs, taking them thre at a time with Fujiko in the lead and Sagara not seeming all that fussed behind her.

 

Where to-” Fujiko shouted, already panting at the marginally steeper than heavenly springs steps.

 

Third floor,” said Otsune randomly, not really caring where they stopped off. They had no idea of the layout of this place besides that office she went to the first time. They’ll need to find some form of wall map before they could really continue.

 

The dark narrow staircase made it difficult to keep stride with the slow paced Fujiko, who was quickly exhausting herself as she tried to contue. It wasn’t long before she got the top and fell into the next door. They banging beneath them still indicating they were being pursued.

 

This is the second floor,” Sagara pointed out full of energy as the door shut behind Otsune.

 

Fuck you…” Fujiko wheezed. “Not… a ninja.”

 

Keep it down,” Otsune whispered, trying to keep her breath steady. “That might fool him if he heard me. But let’s keep going.. Pushing themselves down the corridor, they were faced with a long passageway with few oor and many internal windows. Most of the rooms were too dark to see through, but the tall glass windows appeared to peer into some kind of laboratry area. Otsune had hoped they might have lucked out and found the server room instantly, but of course that wasn’t going to happen.

 

Hearing something behind her, she chose a door and went for it. “In here,” she shout-whispered. The others quickly turned and fell into the room with her, sealing the door shut behind her, Occam coming in last and filling the room with light. Leaning against the dor she tried to listen. She couldn’t hear anything. IT was possibe she hd just imagined the noise but-

 

Ah!” another voice cried out in alarm. All three turned, to see a young woman, though probably older than herself standing there, arms raised with uncertainty. And peering round as if trying to find them “Who’s there? What’s going on?”

 

Can you see us?” Fujiko asked, looking more confused at the woman’s look of fear than her questions.

 

No. She can’t,” said Otsune realising what was going on. They had Occam to guide the way. Those who hadn’t seen Occam in the InBetween realm hadn’t.

 

No I can just make you out,” the woman said. “D-did you come from downstairs?”

 

Yeah, but we-”

 

That guy’s coming back,” said Sagara looking back through the door as his face suddenly lit up. “And he’s seen me.”

 

Ah dammit. We gotta hide,” said Fujiko.

 

Otsune agreed. Not able to hear anything, Otsune found herself taking Sagara at her wrd and looking around. Most ikely he couldn’t see Occam either, explaining his daredevil lep into the flames eariler. But he still had a flashlight. The dark room would be useless. It was probably eaiser just to get Sagara to knock him out and they could be on their way, but she was hoping it wouldn’t come to that.

 

Quick, hide in the lockers,” the woman said suddenly, pulling Otsune as she indicated the large boxes on the far side of the room. Miracuously she failed to fall into any of the scattered tabes in what Otsune now recognised to be a lab..

 

Withoutquestions, and even less options, the three of them hustled into the cramp confines of the locker, Otsune getting paired up with Fujiko despite their being a number of lockers and Sagara getting his wn separate one. The possible scientists helped crammed them in as Otsune kept an eye on the door behind her.

 

Why are you helping us?” she asked in a whisper that hoped the answer wasn’t too long.

 

Just be quiet,” the woman replied, trying to shut the door on them

 

What are you doing? Open up in there?” The man banged the doorand Otsune realised that Sagara musted have locked it behind him. Good. That probably meant they didn’t need the lockers.

 

Jut a second.”

 

The door shut in front of them, leaving them in sudden darkness as the locker clicked shut behind them , Occam left outside as the world went silent around them. Fujiko’s breathing became insanely loud in the small room, and she resisted the urge to shush her friend, knowing she was proaby hearing the same thing.

 

She saw from the small gaps in the lockers the scientist walking up to the door nd opening it carefully.The man on the other side forced the door all the open open and looked through the oher side. Natoko nearly jumped, but tried to keep calm. There were lots of lockers in here, and little reason to check every one.

 

Outside the locker, she heard the scientist open the door.

 

Is there anyone else in here with you?” the guard rom downstairs barked as he pushed his way in.

 

Yes, three intruders. I locked them in the lockers on there, master.”

 

Otsune’s head bashed against the door, knowing she was confirming the woman’s words and just plain not caring. That was certainly a woman with some initiative. Otsune relised she had apparently fogotten they were intruders at some point and not simply being chased by manevolent forces.

 

Really?” the man replied. “Wow. Good work.”

 

The woman giggled in what sounded like a nervous manner that didn’t really fit a scientist. ”Thanks sir.” Otsune decided she hated her.

 

No need to call me sir. Name’s Tanaka.” Otsune decded she hated the whole damn world. “How’d you know to do this?”

 

Oh I got one of the radios. Heard what’s happening downstairs. You’re really keeping everyone together down there.”

 

Thanks. You hould join us We migt need a smart little head like yours.”

 

The girl giggled again as Otsune weighed up thepros and cons of nuking the entire building in a heartbeat. This leach blond airhead was a scientist, while she toiled at home on the internet?

 

Do you need the code?” the woman continued. “I don’t know if we should let them out.”

 

No… I guess we shouldn’t,” the guard mused. “We’ll leave them. Fetch them when this is done. I’m sure the power team will fix this up.”

 

Wht is going on?” the woman asked. “I herd reports that the guy making the announcements is serious about killing people.”

 

t’s some dumb uni kid that’s hacked the system is what it is. Matsuda says he’s probably not in the building. Doing it all remotely.”

 

Whoa. Amazing what you can do with computers nowadays.”

 

That wasn’t amazing, you moron! You work in a lab and you’re not keeping to date with current technological trends. You’re not fit to wear a lab coat loose nd sexy like that.

 

Well we’re still not-”

 

The gurd’s voice left her earshot like the power had been cut on some seakers, the zipping sound sounding like the man’s voice going higher. With the area around them suddenly silent. Otsune felt Fujiko;s presence cramped below her. This was bad. Occam seemed to instinctively not hurt her, but with Fujiko between er and the lock having the flame burned them open without hurting Fujiko was unlikely.

 

The room was dead silent, which seemed a bit quick to cut off id conversation. Had they left, it sounded they were right by the lockers. Another bang was heard, followed by the sound of a locker door being pulled open. Not just pulled but wrenched ad torn. Otsune leaned forward to get a better listen but then had to catch her balace as the locker shut around her. Something was happening to the locker to the right of them and she had to steady herself on Fujiko so as not to fall into her

 

She saw as the metal of the door before her gained an imprint that pushed towards them, the sheet metal breking apart like someone punching through polystrene, before pullng back and taking the locker door with it.

 

The room flooded with light at Occam’s reappearance revealing the shadow of a man before her site. Glaring up she saw the tall bulky man looking down on her. Unfamiliar he lowered a hand down to her and she found herself drawn to take it. The man lifted her out of the locker, the other hand taking Fujiko and escorting them carefully through the wrecked metal he had left on the floor.

 

Standing besides his, Otsune felt his height before her and craned her neck to glance at his face. The black headscraf covered the vital spots of his face, and a hoodie took up everything else. Large and bulky, he would tower over Sagaa and Natoko easily and lookd away to go for the third locker, tearing it open without a strain again and tossing the unhinged mess of scrap to the floor behind him, causing Otsune to take a quick glance around and see no sign of thir trappers.

 

Having freed everyone, and noticably making no effort to check any more doors, the man tepped back to make the four of them a cirtcle?? Everyone watched him carefully and she realised that everyone was execting for him to say what to do next. It ade sense to follow him in this situation.

 

Hi i’m sagara,” said Sagara. “Who are you?”

 

The man observed the boy before him, taking his meager height in for three seconds before turning to herself and nodding as in in approval for the smarter party member of the three who had jut wandered into their caes five seconds ago.

 

I’m Mr Io. I’m here to set you free.”

 

**

 

scene

 

**

 

The newcomer wandered out of th room and for some reason all three of them followed him. Otsune couldn’t see where the gurd or scientist lady had got to. They didn’t sound like they had lef the roomand this guy wasn’t the height of the two of them combined wearing a largetrenchcoiat. He was still tall though.

 

He stopped in the corridor. Beehind the face scarf, Otsune could make out japanese eyes but not much else. His accent was strong a moment, but she couldn’t place it. The trenchcoat looked padded, either that or he was a bdybuilder.

 

The IT departemt is one floor above,” he explained, pointing up. “That is where that man is controlling everything. However,,” he pointed down, “the server complex itself is on the underground levels. If we’re unable to regain control of the building from upstairs, we’ll need to head downstairs to reset the main server switch and give us entry to the systems back. I suggest-”

 

Sagra, please pin him against the wall.”

 

Okay.” Shooting forwards, the ninja did as e was told at full strength, pulling the massive man into the air and send him crashing into the wall on the other side of the room as he stepped onto a conviniently placed chair. The nwcomer, legs now wiggling in the air thanks to sagara’s extra height, gasped for air.

 

Take his headscarf off,” Otsune asked again.

 

Whiile keeping him pinned?”

 

Whilst keeping him pinned.” Having to cross his arms over, Sagara grasped the red scraf as the so caled Io struggled. A second later, and his face was revealed. She could tell the man, only a teenager from what she could tell was definitely japanese, but it wasn’t somebody she recognised.

 

She stepped up to him as his oxyen intake was limited by Sagara’s gauntlet.

 

We’re going to make this simple,” she explained, trying o ingore Fujiko’s confusion at what started to happen. “Sand if you try to make it complicated, the little ball of flame will burn you.” Occam hovered eagerly near the man’s face, all too ready to make the man swat.

 

First, let me establish who you are not. You are not just a simple member of staff here or someone who does not know about the nBetween realm. The reason for this is thatyou can see Occam. Also, in your few words, you immediately know that we are people who know that we need to get to the server room. Now i’m tired of the confusing crap and wish to prevent another mystery from attempting to get under us, so i’m going to ask you what your intentions are. What are your intention?”

 

The man gasped for air a bit too fiercely.

 

Sagara, stop choking him.” Sagara dropped the man to the ground.

 

First,,” the boy said, getting his air beack as he did. “My handle is Io. I’m sorry but I can’t give you any more than that yet. Second, I know that this is Sagara Futbatei, her to the position of Enforcer within the Balance. I dn’t know who you are though.”

 

Very good. Continue.”

 

I work in the building. I handle the demon containment facility in the underground complex. Nanahara’s madness has disengaged the saefty locks down there. I escaped before the demons started to pick up on what was going on to fix the problem. I assumed you were here for the same reasons.”

 

Demons,” wondered Otsune aloud. “That’s annoying.” None of that explinaed for a second why he le them out of the lockers or how he knew they were in there, but she supposed it didn’t matter for the present momen.

 

We’re splitting up,” she announced. “Fujiko, take Sagara and go to the third level. Find wha you can with the servers. Mainl, stop whatever’s happening in the building.” It wasn’t her concerned, but it was a bit of an obstacle. “And get the dolls at Heavenly Springs sorted. “I’ll tke this guy and head back downstairs to the server core itself.”

 

That sunds like a hastily put together with plenty of holes,” said Fujiko.

 

That’s because it is,” agreed Otsune. “But we’re intruder here, and the onger we say in the area at all increases the chances of us not getting down what needs to be done.”

 

But, why are you going own with him?

 

Becase we need to check out two places and because his guy is obviously hiding something and someone needs to watch him. IF we give the job to Sagara he’ll screw it up, and someone needs to watch your back. Sagara can do that, and I have enough confidence in you that you’ll be able to get around here without screwing things up, and maybe even get to the server room and switch things off. You are better at computers than me after all.”

 

No,” Io said, getting up, “I need to reactivte the emon containment area.” Occam intensifed by a few tens of degrees and the man baked off.

 

Irrelevant,” replied Otsne. “Fujiko can do this for you when she gets up there, “and I need you to show me around the server core downstairs if she can’t. Besides, if she can’t do it, we’ll need to go back to your plan of resetting the server, right?”

 

The man slumped down, appearing to agree in his silence.

 

Right, Sagara.”

 

Protect fujiko with our ife.”

 

I can’t do that,” he replied.

 

Why?”

 

If I am to face Mr Jupiter, I need to make sure I avoid him to the fullest extent of my being, even to using othersas sacficial pawns. These are my orders.”

 

Otsune hadn’t heard that combination of gibberish used against her before, but there wasn’t time. “Fine, can you protect her with your ife against everything except Mr Jupiter.”

 

Yes, though the OniKage might have issues with it.”

 

Whatever. Let’s go.”

 

**

 

Catapuling herself down the stairs in blocks of three, Natoko rushed ahead of the evil water spirit following her. It wasn’t fast enough, but flash jumping down flights of ten steps at a tim was not something she had judged for in her training, nor was slamming into concrete walls at a hundred miles per hour.

 

The OniSui was staying behind her no matter what her speed. Even when she had slowed down for a flight or two it just hovered there behind her, it would have appeared motionless if sh didn’t know it was behind her rght now, and that was while doing her best to ignore the sloshing sounds in her ears as it tumbled after her like a bowl half filled with water.

 

The pace exhustaed her strength. Going down stone steps like this wasn’t easy on the thigh. The stairs of Heavenly Springs was an obstacle she had long since overcome, but the seventy flights she travelled down nowwere beginning to dry her throat and sweat her palms. Keeping Iziz steady as she clattered downwards didn’t help.

 

As she hit floor thrty, she allowed herself to fall into the wall, more to check if the spirit was still there than anything else. The OniSui, or Naomi as she recalled Ms Sakimoto call it, was unfortunately still there IT hovered to face her and waited without a word. Panting heavily, she knew she was scowling at it and didn’t care.

 

aren’t you…” she started, but wheezing to catch her breath, “-even going to say anything to me.”

 

The OniSui’s face turned to face hers fully, appearing to regard her for a moment. Natoko couldn’t tell if the spirit had its eyes on her, the curves of water that looked like they should be eyes had no pupils. Its mouth opened only the once to speak, words drifting out as it remained open without fapping.

 

Would the words I say do anything to change your opinion to me after my actions the first time we mey?” The voice was calm, yet cautious. Natoko couldn’t discern any feeling from the creature’s face.

 

So you were the one.” She couldn’t be sure at first. She had only the words of others to tell her what happened that day. All her other memories were filled with rage and halluncinations. She remembered her thoughts of Sagara that day, groping the others in plain ight while they laughed, seeing him abuse and mock them as he took every advantage, doing the obscene things that she now knew Sagara was mentally incapable of doing. The fact she had been possessed by this water demon hadn’t been an issue at the time.

 

You’re uncertain,” the OniSui asked She looked away, gazing towwards the next flight of stairs. “No… Of course you would be. That makes sense. Sorry. I never exactly have time to question those I possess afterwards.”

 

You violated me!” Natoko shouted a pitch hgher than she meant to, but ot regrettng it. “You took control of my body and you-”

 

You did allow me in.”

 

I did not!” crid Natoko. “Why would I dare let anything inside me like you. I am my own person and I will not-”

 

Oh please be quiet,” the creature interupted. “You are doing yourself an injustice.” Natoko’s teeth clenched, looking at the creature’s back and bringing her hand up to Iziz. Was this not just a demon like the others, no matter how you sugarcoat it. This was a creature that used people like a demon would. If it went missing, it wouldn’t matter.

 

You had to have let me in because I wouldn’t have got in otherwise. Unfortunately I can’t tell you what your reason was but I don’t get to hear your thoughts when i’m inside you. All I know is that I felt rage within you, the same rage I felt when I left your body and the same rage i’m feeling from you now.”

 

Natoko stopped, taking her hand off her hilt. The OniSui looked back round , its face just appearing where the back of its head was a second ago. I don’t know what t is that makes you angry young woman, but it was strong enough to effect even myself.

 

Even yourself?” Natoko qustions. “You act like a saint, even after you went inside me like that?”

 

You cannot hope to understand my actions-”

 

And I don’t want to either!”

 

Te door behind them burst open, a man falling out holding her shoulderas the door gave way before him. He took one look at the two of them, breathing heavily in his suit jacket and tie, before he body contorted before them, ripping itself apart, a maelstrom of crimson tide covering the stairwell.

 

The man’s glasses landing besides her feet, Natoko felt her body shaking beneath her as she stepped back secnds too late to get out of the way of the sudden bloodbath. Her stomach convuled, and she tightened her throat out of reflex as the demon pulled itself through the small doorway.

 

You little bastard,” the red glowing monter roared, its fangs emerging out of its large tigetr shaped face. “You dare get your blood on me. “I’m going to eat you so hard, your unboorn children will feel it.”

 

The demon stomped halfway into the stairwell, one large hoofed foot crushing the man’s body underneath into sludge. Natoko stared down a the glsses, the only physical piece of the man left. The demon looked down, fangs retracting into its mouth as it hissed, its drool falling onto the floor in a green pool and burning through the stone floor.

 

Oh look, more humans,” it groaned loudly. “Well, one at least. I don’t know what the others are. I’m guessing you’re spirits.”

 

The creature fell silent, and Natoko quickly realised it was expecting an answer.

 

You guess correctly, demon,” the OniSui responded. “I am known as Naomi, and this is my erstwhile ally, Natoko. We are merely in passing here. May I ask who you are?”

 

Ha!” the demon laughed, the exhalation of airtr being enough to push Natoko’s foot back to the next step up. “Respect. That’s what I like to see, or is it cowardice?” He examined them both carefully, his red eyes glowing from red to yellow as he did so. “Is that it? Are you being cowards? Hoping that your efforts at politeness will save you?”

 

Natoko brought her hand up to Izz, not entrely sure if she could attack the fireball that was probably going to come out of its mouth. But Naomi raised her hand to stop her.

 

I assure you that is not the case demon. I am just both curious and courteous to a creature of such stature.”

 

Well, that’s probably a lie of an answer, but it deserves an answer noetheless. I am Trombone, once a proud ruler of the flats of Axbridge. Now… I appear to be a prisoner of this door!”

 

Oh my, are you stuck!”

 

I am not obese!” the demon yelled. “It is this barrier. We were led to believe tye security protocols were to be turned off once the seige began, but, it seems that the natural defences of the InBetween realm still prevent me from escaping.”

 

The InBetween realm?” Natoko said, realising for the first time that the door was made of that standard brown mahogony that seems to indicate any door that led to the InBetween realm.

 

I see,” Naomi replied. “Yuya had informed me that one of the floors to this building was secretly just a passage to another level of the InBetween realm. It makes sense that it should be a containment unit at the same time.”

 

How should I know?” the demon replied. He started to struggle against the hole of the door, apparently stuck in nothing “Look, let me fill you in on a little secret. The plan was for us all to charge into here when the security system got turned off and cause ruckus, but it kind of got caught a little short when I… what’s a good word for geocdining a bunch of demons.”

 

Kill?” Natoko suggested.

 

It’ll do,” replied the demon. “Anyway, after I genocided all the demons in there, well this guy made a mess of my hoof came in, I guess to hide or check the floors or something. Anyway, I killed him, and now you two are next.”

 

No one said anything. The demon snotrted with rapture.

 

Well, I guess there wasn’t that much to tell. Anyway-”

 

Ctting the creatures head off, Natoko crashed into the corner of the wall, ricocheting like a pinball off the two sides, she landed hard on her back and felt her skull hit the wall. The demon stared at her wordsless through the one eye, as gravity took over and droped it to the floor, crushing the glasses and rolling uselessly to the side.

 

So there are deomons also loose here,” said the OniSui, as if that hadn’t just happene. “This does not bode well for building security.”

 

Well,” Natoko added, getting up slowly and trying not to slip in all the gore that wasn’t here less than two minutes ago. “He did just say he had killed them all himself.”

 

This is true,” the OniSui mused, “But it also said it knew of the attack that was taking plac on the building, meaning it was informed and I suspect it wasn’t the server admiistraotr.”

 

Why not,” Natoko said, looking up to the silent speaker. “He does seem mad.”

 

No, he was only angry. I spoke to him many times before and while Yuya did entrust the secret of the Balance to him, he did not show signs of colludig with demons. I fear something is even more wrong here than it currently is.”

 

Well, Ms Sakimtoo wants us to kill him, so let’s go do that.” Natoko knew she was saying this more to annoy the spirit than actual bloodlust, but the forlone look the spirit showed stopped her on the next step.

 

Let us hope it does not come to that,” Naomi sid, floating through her and down the stairs. Natoko followed.

 

**

 

t all comes down to this folks,” Nanahara screamed through the microphone, still loving the way his 8bit avtar mobved its mouth and eyebrows based on his words. He rombled his throat just to watch the eyes wiggle. “Whilst most of you have no clue what’s going on here, those who are qualified to pay attention will come to realise this is one of the more powerful pieces of work to come out this centruy. A hostage situation that is not a hostage situation, boy an girls. Can you truly comprehend the greatness of this. To put blutly, you are held prisoner and must be rescued by our distaff heroes. However, your problem is that the heroes care nothing for you. Their motives are their own, their intentions delusional. They fight for things that no one will care about whether or not they even continued to exist… and you suffer for it.” He took a breath. Was he babbling? It was possible he was babbling. It didn’t really matter.

 

Prepare, ladies and gentleman to suffer my our disformed wrath for no reasn, other than I wanted to have sex with a beautiful american woman that exists only in my mind. Crazy? You mutter with fear. Yes. Yes it is.”

 

Be quiet, rochelle,” he said, placing the microphone down and daring not to loko around at the lust of his life. “You are the one that rbought us into this mess. If you weren’t such a bimbo I would have never created you as a figment of my imagination alongside a bunch of other adolescent fantasies. And now other people have to die for your actions.” He observed the contorl monitors, switching between floors. Most of the saff members for the departemtns designed fto fil space and provide function have congregated on the lower levels. Others had huddled up into smaller groups on some of the higher floors, the HR team looking like they hadn’t even noticed the ruckus as they got on with work. One man slept soundly in the toilet, possibly obivious.

 

Nanahara had promised one death every so often, but why should he expend the energy to kill someone. That is why he had let some of the demons loose. Rochelle may have suggested it before he could do it, but it was still his idea. Not all of them though, that would have been foolish. He had made extra sure that the particularly powerful demon spirit was kept secure, knowing full well it cold incinerate all of the building if need be. Still, Rochelle didn’t need to know that. She was just a bimbbo after all.

 

Wiping the drool as he watched the monitors, Naomi and that samurai chick that hung out with the annoying prince were descending stairs. The samurai girl was covered in a lot of blood for some reason. A quick check showed why, but Nanahara couldn’t understand how she got that much blood to come out of a person. Switcvhing, he ssaw the CEO banging on a door in the secret assage she thought he didn’t know about. She wasn’t getting in there anytime soon. Another erson either asleep or just lying there at the bottom of the building, and the prince himself, banging on the door of the server room with th Gauntlet of Draynor.

 

He looked up to his won door and saw the boy’s effor, smirking as he knew full well he wasn’t getting anywhere anytime soon. The plain looking girl was with him.

 

Nanahara switched to his camera girl. She was roamed the corridor with some huge super hero guy he didn’t recognise, probably a ninja. He had aken her to one of the secret passages that led to the underground levels, which meant they were probably heading for the server core. “Shit.” Rebooting the server could cut off his access, leaving him just a fool in a room full of useless moniors and sluts. He needed to stop them. The ig demons was dwn there, but that wasn’t a good idea. But then there was only the server defences and they had been damaged the last time the prince wandered down there by sheer retarded luck.

 

He sighed and switched on all the remaining ones. Anything was better than letting that demon free. Even going quite crazy like he was, Nanahara knew that.

 

***

 

The spiral staricase was kciking off alarm bells in Otsun’s mind, something about a large concrete pillar at least ten storeys high and possibly around ninety would do that. Add it to its location at one of the corners of the building and that so far the only point of entry on and off of it had been the second floor, the floor she was conviniently hanging around with at the time her companion had led her to it, and the equation felt very unbaanced to say the least.

 

Tehe staircase was made out of studded plate metal, the banister was railed with a bronze finish. The door into the long shaft that held the staircaesewas a venetian blind the size of a doorframe in an area that was made the Chemical Redevelopment section. Otsune was getting that headache again

 

Descending the staircase at a rapid yet steady rate, Otsun observed the wals. The walls themselves were simple concrete as far as she could tell, the same contruction as ther long cylinder th spiral staircase had wrapped itself around. Ther more defning feature was its coating of multicolouredcables that flowed down the walls an ito the abyss below. She colld only theorise this was the main electrocial shaft for the entre building, but that ddn’t make complete sense from her perspective. None of the wires ever seemed to cut off for each of the invidiual floors, and there were no boxes or relay points to boost the electricity in any manner. Judging on the size of the building, the cables would have to be several hundred meters long each, at east if they continued all the way to the top like this.

 

Te conversation with her new ally was absent and, as they reached the bottom of the tower, he merely mtioned her to follow him through one of the doors and offered no explnaation of where they were ago. Otsune still had np idea if they could trust him yet. His instant trust of an apparent stranger was untrustowrthy in itsef, not to mention the lies right from the start. It wasn’t like she could boil him in his own blood at a moments notice, but at least this way she had a meat shield on demand.

 

This way,” he grunted, steping through the door after cautiously looking round. For a second, Otsune had an odd feeling he had simply guessed whether to go left or right but as she entered the corridor at the bottom of the stairs, she found her concerns disappearing.

 

Holy…” she muttered by mistake as the lights flashed before her, a hundred plus LEDs lighting up the room around herTechnological wuldn’t have covered it. The wall were something out of over the top sci fi shows. Each wall was an assortmnt of lights, dials, screens and vaarious other panels pulsating different colours as they started to walk past them.. The room was alive with beeps and boops that had her both intensely curious to press stuff just to see what happened and immently fearful that the wrong press could just plain blow something up. She kept her hands to herself.

 

Well, this is definitely the server complex,” she remarked, having no choice but to come to that conclusion. Logic dicateted that server rooms had for years been nothing bt rooms at the back of what was once a storage closet and wouldn’t have required corridors for this unless they were giant research stations as opposed to inner city business ventures. But with this much tech built into the walls her knowledge seemed drastically limited all of a sudden.

 

I had no idea it was this big myself,” Io replied and she realised she was gazing in wonder himself.

 

You never been down here before?”

 

Never had a need to.” His hand hovered to press a button as he ppassed it but avoided doing so ecause she could suggest it was perhaps best not to. “Mine was the demon containment facility. The server core was just a rumur I had heard about.”

 

So you don’t know your way around?” He was hiding something. His comments didn’t take into account that he knew exactly where the entrance was to this corridor, an entrance which only had two exits.

 

Afraid not.”

 

Bah. Then you’re useless to me.” She started looking around.Otsune had to admit, she had no idea what any of this stuff did. Nothing down here was familiar with any electronic architecture she was aware of. Perhaps Fujiko should have come down here instead of her.

 

The corridors only other exit ended on them as the room opened up around them. The echoes of ther footsteps shot across space, te room appearing to be at least as big as a football stadium. Trying to keep her senses about her Otsune tried to emntally map the location of the room in comparison to the bulding and came up dry. It was simply massive, containing the same electronic panelling that the corridor had and continuing it high up to the top of the room and all over the floors in the form of what looked like bus circuits..

 

For its immense size, the room was mostly empty. Several layers of fenecing existed in the midle, roghly two meters tall and probably electricval. The fence seemed to form a maze to the centre, where another large pillar stood, thi one again made of the same metal panelling that everything else was covred with

 

From thei position Otsune realised they were essentially on the top aof a gradual slope that led down to the bottom where the pillar was. From her position she could see an open door, leading into somewhere a little too ark to see.

 

Regardless of what it was, Otsune knew it to be her destination.

 

There,” Io unecessarily pointed out. “If we can reach the centre, the server reset switches should be inside.”

 

Yeah,” replied Otsune, not really listening. The maz didn’t look too complexIt was a ??style maze layout that didn’t even look like it was that many dead ends built into it. With time a dn a bit of rational thinking, they should be through it in no time. Its only real difficulty from her cursoty glance was once inside the ability to see through to the other layers that the chain linked nature of the fences gave them may mean that the depth peerception of how far through it may plan tricks with their mind.

 

Walking down to it, they were greete with the sight of a floating orb coming towards them at a very slow pace. A perfectly spherical surface, the orb hovered slowly without any obvious assistance as if it were simply defying gravity because it wanted to.

 

What do you suppose these are,” I asked aloud, raising his hand and touching the orbs sleek surface, the resulting detonation engulfing him in a cloud of flame that obliterated him from view even as Occam explanded several times in size to block the explosion’s path from reaching her.

 

Otsune fell back into the resulting shockwave, remiding herself again of her stupid wrist ijuy and scabbling to get up. The maze clearly wasn’t the most logical option now. In fact, it wwas immedately clear only one option remained. With Io simply gone in the ashen dust wake of th exploding orb, and more orbs also with the statisically siginificant potential rate of explosion, Otsune knew the next words on her lips were both the smartest and stupsiest thing sh could say.

 

Occam, blaz a path, straight ahead.” The flame roared to life, keeping its siz and ploughbing forward straight into the steel fence and reducisng it to slag the instant before it reached. Otsune trailed behind, taking a few steps back aftr the first mini explosion.

 

The little explosions continued in rapid effect as she ground to a halt and decided to take her time. She couldn’t tell how many explosions there could be as Occam wrecked the maze. With ten layers of maze, it wouldn’t be many, but she also couldnt etermine the range of the explosons or iff Occam could simply absorb them all. Hanging back, she opted not to risk it

 

Occam returned to her a mere ten secnds later, its task complete and its dismeanour that aof a positive school child. Otsune observed the new tunnel of holes her flame spirit had created, the wared shape of some of the holes indicating collusions with sudden orbs, and nodded at him for a job well done.

 

Taking a moment to stretch and cutting it short when she rrealieed more orbs might be on their way, Otsune pushed herself into a three quarter sprint as she took off down the self made alleyway Metal ooze that was once fence gave her some obstacle, as did an orb slowly floating into view as she dodged past it on the sixth layer. When she got to the other side, she felt a strong feeling of inappropiate guilt flow over her.

 

I cheated,” she mumbled, heading for the door. As the scroched black oor began t take her attetnion she nticed anotherhole in the fence to her eft, mangled fences and scroched floors seemed to indicate someone else had been here recently. The outer destruction of the door in the room’s centre also looked like someon had blown it open. That didn’t make sense. The damage looked old, but unattended to. An area like this would have to be constantly maintained. She debated the idea of checking the rest of the large room first before entering te small one, when a buzz took her ear.

 

You are close now. Please retrieve.”

 

Oh now it was spoeakng to her. Clearly it abandoned her when the situation suited itself, but now she was right on its doorstep, then she was important. Otsune stopped by the door.

 

Just what was she retreiving here? An AI? Now that she got a look at this server core the size of the room, the impossibility of the task weighed upon her. If this was truly the main server she was attempting to reach, for an installation this big it surely wasn’t going to be just some some carry on luggage box that she could just take. Otsune knew that her own intention was simply to switch the dolls off. Se could do that surely by pushing a few buttons on this side.

 

And taking the server core out of this place seemed… dangerous. It apparently controlled most of the building, not to ention those demon containment ells. Whilst she didn’t exactly like all this Balanc stuff, it couldn’t be denied that if they said they were holding demons in capativity here, then they most likely were.

 

This is stupid,” she muttered, leanng against the wall with the open door right besides her, unable to bring herself to look in just yet, knowing how distracted she was going to get. This is what she had been looking for. A box that contained all the answers. Think of he information she could receive from this place once she got in. Just the smallest part would be valuable beyond compare and answer all er questions better than a beatiful angel and an idiot boy ever could.

 

And the value o the scientific community. Sh slid down the wall to sit down. All this infomration about demons and angels and other worlds access throgh doors. Wole new avenues of study that could be used to improve mankind in ways never imagined. It would be amazing.

 

They would finally let her in.

 

Do it right. Don’t jump the gun. Write her research paper and present it to the right people, and she could finally be a scientist. A proper one. Not just someone who spends al day at home reading other people’ss jurnals and unable to contribute anything of her own. She wouldn’t need to jump through the hoops that got in the way. She’d be pioneering whole new divisions of science.

 

And all she had to do was walk through the door.

Why am I hesitating?” she shouted out, never full well why. Her knees were shaking, her palms felt sweaty. Sh knew it was stupid. Acheiveing greatness shouldn’t be the main goal. It should be the by product.And now she just needed to get over herself. Make that first step. Steal the information and make it pulic knowledge. She could go from there. It wasn’t the most glorius of starts but she’d still earn it. Even Edison stole his first inventions. Even the Wright brothers took their ideas from some guy who did all the real work. Even the guy from the South pole got there second and still got announced first place in the long run.

 

An they were fools for not making it public knowledge in the first place. People deserved to know about this spiritual rap, so it could stop being called spiritual crap. It was clearly all beyond good and evil now. It could become observed phenomena nd brought into the light where ohers could see it, scruntised it, test it, repliacte it, peer review it.

 

And lke Nixon with China, and ???japanese one, surely she, an athiest, was the best one to bring it into the limelight and bring about th scial change needed to get humnaity out of its funk. Yes. She would be a revolutionary. A hero even, not over reachig the ranks of Marie Curie and ??see xkcd comic??but Joan D’arc and ???three kingdoms eople.

 

Her fingers digging into ther thoighs,Otsune allowed herself to just sit there. She felt hot. Her brain was foggy. Why was she stressing out now. The situation must be getting to her. May be she should leave for a bit. Come back when she had calmed down. Allowed herself some breathing room. Wouldn’t that be better? She needed clarity if she was going todo this. She was in good shape physically but if she let her brain slip now it could cost her her life

 

No. That wasn’t right. Otsune recognised the feelings of hesitation, knew them for the distractions she had suffered many times before. Her own stupid iner demons that plagued her path. And if she could identify them, she could overcome them.

 

She clutched her sleeves tigheter, bringing her head deeper into ther body. Otsune knew how apthetic she must have looked right now, a silly little girl trying to look smart. Her throat growled on reflex and she let it out as a blood curdling scream into the large empty room, the orb bouncing against her forehead as she lifted her yes up.

 

Oh shi-” The obs went tpo white as Otsune stopped looking at it, kicking her legs up and diving through the door with all her speed as the lrge crash reverbrated through her eardrum, the impact knocking her forward and through the hole.

 

It took her a second to realise the room within the room was empty save for a staircase on the otherside and what appeared to be another door. In the instant she had to take this in, the hole swalowed her, the flames millseconds behind her as

Occam did his thing.

 

Darkness lit u by red LEDs surrounded her as she plummeted through it, her mind now wide awake and racing as everything shot by her. Her rate of spee was roughly ???. Her body weight alone was enough to assure her death after ?? feet and being unable to turn her head she was probably past that now. “Occam!” she screamed, clueless as to what the flame could do. Another twenty meters, and her death was assured regardless of what she hit. The flame shot ahead of her, lighting her doom. The wobbly ground was coming to greet her, her eyes wide open and refusing to look away.

 

Theworld hissed around her and something slammed innto her body. Hard but a lot lgihter than it should have been. Wet yet air, her body yanked itself upwards for what could have only been an instant, the boiling hot steam soaking her skin, fllowed by a splash.

 

Arms flailing, Otsune searched for anything she could go with before she started cpoughign lungfuls of water. Feeling a floor beneath her tiptoes, she kicked it, she opens eeling themselves open again to search for light and seeing only the red LEDs. Up and down confused themselves for a minute, the lack of oxygn in her body disorientating. The force carried her and she felt her nose reach the surface.. Gasping for air, she hit the surface with her hands as hard as she could, eeling the ripples followed by bubbles. With the steam not helping so much now she struggled the get her bbreah back as she splutteredout trinkles of liquid and struggled in the darkness for some kid of hand hold. Her hand latched onto something and held her there.

 

Otsune spent the next few minutes just floating, carefully collecting her air supply in the hum of the red lights. Her mind blank with agony and body limp with exhaustion. For a momnt she was safe. Te light at the top of the shaft helping to regain her focus. Spitting, she felt the dsgusting taste of the water fillig her stomach and she allowed her throat to hack away furiously in an attempt to get it all out.

 

Her mind worked away at what jump happened. The shaft was at least ne hundred meters long, but was only about four meters squared. It was that narrowness that had saved her, as well as the inexplicable pool of water at the dden. Its sudden rise of temperature boilig it to steam and with only one directio to travel was able to hit with with sch contained force to slow her desent right before she must have reached terminal velocity. Otsun knew she should have been glad. Not only for her flame spirit, of whom without she could have never boiled that much water that quickly, but also hr mind, for being abl to figure out and execute such a plan in just an instant iunder such stress, with a side helping of being glad she watched that documentry on the elevator effect.

 

But Otsune wasn’t glad. The room was dark, with only the red humming LEDs to light her way.

 

***

 

After what must have been fifty extra flights sneaked in there while she wasn’t looking, Natoko reached the door to the third floor. Stopping gainst the wall, she caught her breath back, making a point to use controlled breathing as best she could.

 

Our destination lies ahead, Ms Yamanaka,” said the OniSui, who floated there without a hnt of sweat despite the five gallons of water she was made from.

 

Yeah,” Natoko panted, looking at the simple stairway entrance. Neither this one nor any of the others since had been made from mahogony. At least that meant no actual demons would be showing up. She took another gulp and grabbed the door handle.

 

The room on the other side was big, but filled with desks. To either side of her was a maze of office divders and photocopiers, A watercooler was to her left. She took her time and got a quick drink, observing the room ahead of her.

 

There was no one here. Fr all its contents, the room was simple, dull, well maintanced and boring. She viewed no reason to be here.

 

This way,” the OniSui said, taking the lead this time.

 

Necking the drink, Natoko placed the cup on the first desk she came across.. There were, at roh guess, a hundred desks here, but no people. “Everyone must have left when the shouting occurred..”

 

Entirely possible,” the OniSui replied, moving slowly. “Though a littl odd. It would also be a possible assumption that they would have attempted to enter the server room when the shouting started. It is most peculiar that there aren’t some stragglers.”

 

Did anyone here other than this guy know about the Balance?”

 

They did not.” The OniSui stopped at the end of the room, and hovered up to look over the higher divders. Apparentoly deciding it was clear, she moved on. “In fact, around ninety eight of those employed at Sakimoto Indstries only run its dummy interest ventures. From what Yuya has told me, most are only here to maintain cover without realising that the work they do holds no merit to no one.”

 

Natoko looked over to the endless bank of desk on her left and right. “The work they do is meangingless?”

 

Correct,” replied the OniSui. “From how Yuya has put it, most of the start compile data from on form into another, or run statistics gained from random number generators. Those who believe themselves to be in higher ositions run marketting campaigns that promote no new prodcut and though the managers actually have a job in managing the workflow of the offices, it is just as meaningless because those they manage aren’t actually doing anything.”

 

T-that’s terrible,” Natoko stammered, an urge to warn the non present workers of their unknown plight.

 

Is it??” the OniSui questioned. “I do not understand myself. I was only aware of these concepts about a month ago, but Yuya has explained it to me in great detail since I entered her employ. I believe she said that everywhere around the wrld was like this nowadays.”

 

Well yeah. I guess everything is a business nowadays, but they often do the work for a reason.”

 

This is a reason. They are maintaining the image of the Balance’s dummy corporation.”

 

Yeah but it’s not that simple?”

 

Isn’t it. They still perform a labour and get compensated for their actions. They still perform the mundane tasks all other humans do when working for other people.

 

But they should have real jobs making something, or doing omething worthwhile.” Natoko had no idea why she was arguig this, but she couldn’t deny this was a potential future for her.

 

I agree,” the OniSui mused, “but it is still something all huans are choosing to do nowadays. They sell their tim to perform maningless tasks that only have a minor impact on a company who shows them no special consideration and only gives them a tiny inpropotionate amount of the profits that are acquired. It is a stupid choice regardless of where they work, but still pople decide to do it.”

 

No this…” Natoko shook her head. “Thi doesn’t matter. I don’t care about this. Let them do what they want.”

 

Very well,” the OniSui seemed to sigh, but it just sounded like bbbling. “I really just hoped to run it past you in the hope of a fresh perspective. It’s just something that’s been bothering me since I got here. This period of time confuses me in many way. The number of fat people alone is staggering.”

 

What?” Natoko replied, entering another room full of just as many desks as before. “I know you’re centuries old-”

 

Millennia.”

 

Yeah but shouldn’t you have seen this stuff already.”

 

I was sealed by the Balance five hundred years ago and left at the bottom of a lake within the Heavenly Springs village. I had not had time to see the progress humans had made, other than the corporate life style I see before me.”

 

Oh…” The conversation dropped off as Natoko was left with her thoughtste creature before her didn’t seem to be the same one who posessed her that time. Now she seemed more forlone, plus being trapped ina box for five hunred years… she couldn’t compare. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

 

Out destination is in the next room,” said the OniSui, as a huge crash shook the rom they were in, followed by two more and a sound like glass shattering. Without waiting Natoko bursted through the door as the OniSui motioned for her to stop. Taking a lok at her surrounding, she grabbd Iziz and readied herself to take the madman down.

 

Natoko?” replied a female voice to her left. The voice registered in her ear as she froze in place. The room looked a bit more high tech. Large computers against the wallsaccompanied by large cabinets holding several banks of computers none of which she had a clue what they did. The room faded from sight as her eyes locked on.

 

Sagara?”

 

Hi Natoko,” he said, stopping his fist, his arm raised behind him as he looked ready to slam the door again. “How are you?”

 

I…” She blanked, feeling her lower jaw start to shiver. What was he doing here? Ms Sakimoto hadn’t said anything about him being here. He couldn’t be here. Not yet. She needed to meet him after she proved her innocence. The world came back and she became aware of Fujiko agaist the wall next t her. She turned her eyes to the girl and watched as she appeared to jump back in fright.

 

Natoko tightened her grip on the blade, her teeth clenching as her feelings of confusion turned to anger. Had al prior trust gone? Was she just a monster to them now. A villain of an ex-friend who couldn’t be trusted.. She could hear the whimpering in Fujikos voice as she panicked backwards and closer to Sagara foor protection. The boy kept his stance solid, and it occurred to her he was still waiting for an answer.

 

No I…” Her eyes pointed to the ground. “But we-” Growling a bit oo loudly, she fel her own stance weaken. She didn’t know what to say. Too much had happened. She had been away too long. Changed so much. She efinitely wasn’t the person she was when last they met. How could she ever face him again, let alone serve him.

 

Fujiko was ptrified against the wall, frozen in the corner like a mose facing off with a wild beast. Natoko’s eyes stung. She felt her breathing quicken. What was that woman doing wth him?

 

The boy smiled.

 

Your sword might be better at breaking this sword down actually.”

 

What?” Natoko looked back up.

 

The door appears to be reinforced by somehting. I don’t know what it is, but Draynor’s not getting through. Your sword might have a better shot at it though.”

 

Natoko just stared, seeing Fujiko do the same. He didn’t care. He still didn’t care. She felt a stiff chuckle try to rise from her throat. Of course he didn’t care. This was Sagara. How could she have ever thought anything different of him?

 

It all came rushing across to her. The date, the demon fight, the offer she was made, the sword and the blood. Sagara didn’t care for none of them, or anything. He was just Sagara, and exactly as she wanted him.

 

The boy was still standing with his arm raised ready to attack the door smiling. She returned thr grin and stepped forwards.

 

Please stand aside master,” she asked of him respectively.

 

Very well,” he said as the door opened, th hand shooting out and grabbing his throat, raising him to the air as he gasped for life. A slender thin man walked out, still holding her master high, taking three steps as the door shut behind him.

 

Mr Jupiter returned the smile still transfixed on her face.

 

Hello everybody. I see you’ve all brought something for me. With my deepest gratitude. Thank you very much.”

 

**

 

Breath in deep, through the mouth. Not through the nose. IT limits the oxygen intake. Hold it for a half instance. Breath out. Fully. Deeply. Feeling it leave from the diaphram. Breath in again. Out. Repeat. Take it slowly. Let the lungs saturate with oxygen.

 

Occam was gone.

 

Otsune dived.

Th e pitch black floor came to her as sh swung her arms back as hard as she coud, getting as much depth as possibe. The floor was hidden from her, but the red LED’s peppering the walls suggested it was anoter three meters down. It didn’t matter, the passgae to her right was the destination. She swam qickly, kicking her toned legs as fast as she could, her soaked jeans weighing her down more than she liked as the demin became waterlogged.

 

The passageway disappeared in the darkness. The large red bulb boxes were the only way she knew this went anywhere. Even thn there was no for her to judge the distance. She closed her eyes and pushed ahead, ressiting the urge to pat her pcokets to make sure her glasses wouldn’t slip outPushing again and again, she sought to keep control, knowing any distraction could kick the air ut of her lungs.

 

She thought of Occam, the little flame who hadn’t hesitated to sacrifice itself for her. And Fujiko, who trusted her enough to follow on another expedition. Natoko and Sagara flashed to mind. Their idiotic antics fuelling her own. She thought of Sarah and pshed harder, feeling the oxygen in her lungs try to float her into the ceiling. She foguht to keep herself down.

 

Her fingers started to ache as each one joined the effort in her breast stroke. Otsune wasn’t a keen swimmer, but she knew the method from her high school days. Her clothes felt heavy, having stayed on even with her destination unknown Her brain felt sharp, faith guiding it forard that this had to reach somewhere, logic determining that no tunnel would be made in a tra door with a large body of water at the bottom of it would have been designed unless there was something at the other end.

 

She pushed, feeling her arms weaken, feeling her chest tighten. She kcked harder, willing extra energy into muscles, her adrenaline surge from before taking her those last few meters. Her eyes opened. The lights were in front of her, blocking the way. She turned hoping to see more darkness, but the lights surrounded her on three sides.

 

Touching the floor, her foot shot up in panic, kicking hard and taking her up as a bubble of carbon monoxide scaped her grasp. Her hands fumbled the waterabove her as her body started to scramble on her and nearly exhaled altogether when she felt the ceiling had disappeared from her. She swam up, her lungs screaming in agony while her mind kept sight of the goal. It was all darkness here, no red lights followed her up, only the light rumbling of the water accopanied her. Te dying logic part of her brain quickly pointed out there shouldn’t be this much water on the up trip based on the water level in her starting hole. The remaining parts of her body cried out for release and she lost of last of the air in her hers with a choke.

 

She swam fst, now fighting against gravity where once it had had helped her, the rubling filling her ears as the water bounced around her. She kicked as felt her leg seize up, suddenly refusing to move and leaving the other to do all the work. She pushed water back as if she was rock climbing and couldn’t tell when her vision had started to black out.

 

Looking down at the murky waters below, she wished she hadn’t worn her jeans. Otsune choked, feeling the water slip past her lips, seizing her throat as she felt the cold breeze of air on her hand. Eyes darting up, she grabbed onto the surface of the water and pulled herself up against nothing. Wheezing for air, she was met by a torrent of water and swallowed too much of it., faling bak under the water the second she tried to choke it back at. Her head shot up again, her arms using the last of their strength to keep her afloat as she sung two cramped legs under the surface and felt them complain each time. She spat whatever water out she could and she’d in pitifully, haggard, hoarse whezs coming out as she felt the water hit her head.

 

The urge to vomit heavy, she tried to glance around. . It was still dark here and only the lights at the bottom of the hole served any kind of illumination. With horror, she threw herself across the water and had her suspcions confrimed as she felt walls still surrounding her in every direction. Trapped, she looked up t try and see the source of the water. A single pipe was right above her, the torrent of water dispersing from it covering her. She moved out of its way and watched, still trying to get her breath back.

 

The water rising at a fast pace. Otsune tried to consdier her options. With only two, she cursed as best she could. Going back was impossible. Already weakened by doing it the first itme, more water would just doom her a little faster. Even if she got back there was nowhere to go on that side. She placed her hand on the wall, realsiing it still felt like it was made out of the cuircuit board like surfaces she had witnessed eariler. She raised her other hand up and kept kicking as best she culd, cursing loudly when she felt the ceiling, the water not stopping as she pressed against it.

 

In a quick dessperate act she kicked the wall, bouncing off as she felt frantically for the pipet the water must have been coming out of and shot under the water to poition herself under it, pulling hard on the edge and yanking herself back above the surface as the water quickly began to fill the pipe as well, Otsune keeping her breathing steady as best she could with the water hitting her from above her hands deflecting it as best they could while her feet kept her steady.

 

Her long matted hair obscuring her sight, it took a second for her ears to inform her the water had stopped. Looking up, dim lights blinded her and she turned away, feeling a floor while she did. Her body refusing to copearatea s best it could, she rolled herself onto the floor and fell there facing the ceiling hating evrything for a few mnutes..

 

The room was warm. Her logical mind came back to life and started to wonder why she wasn’t shvering, then fearing for shock she sat up and tried to keep herself mving. Ripping off her top she spent a few minutes getting the water out of her clothes. As she put her jeans back on, she whimpered, feeling her phone wedged into her pockets still. Putting her remarkaby strong glasses back on, she flipped it open. The usual light didn’t come on and her background failed to surface. Only the numbers five seven nine two four and the ge?? kana showed up. She fell into a coughing fit again and rplaced it back into her soggy pocket.

 

She started walking, feeling her strength return to her slowly. If her bed were to telport into wherever she was right now, she wouldn’t hesitate to climb into it and just die for a little while. Her shoes squelched on her.

 

The corridor just appeared to be empty, save for the circit board walls and the pipe behind her, which continued back into the ceiling above her. Her brain cmplained that the way the pipes were set up this room would have to be costantly flooded everytime it was turned on, and she shut it up for a moment, as the door showed up in front of her..

 

At the end of the corridor, the door was was large and white, looking a bit like an elevator but without a split inn the middle. It had no signs and markers on it, and only a keypad to her right showed any signed of entry. Another door was to her left, looking like a standard door with a simple handle, the words ‘Janior’s closet??’ were displayed on it.

 

On the other side was a concrete wall, looking very obviously like it had covered up an entrance.

 

Looking at the keypad she collasped to the floor out of completely conscious choice and rested. She couldn’t tell how quickk she was drying but she could tell her shoes were ruined. Taking them off and leaving them in the water seemed like such a good idea in retrospect.

 

But it’s all completely pointless now,” she said laughing to herself. She was sitting in a dead end. Turning the dolls off probably wasn’t going to be a problem but unless there was scuba equipment in the janitor’s closet there was no way she was getting back the way she came. Her head felt light, the oxygen deprivation was probably affecting her thoughts… probbaly.

 

Probably,” she muttered, getting u and looking at the keypanel. Numbers one to nine and an assortment of kana covered the top and she typed in the code whilst not giving a shit anymore. The door slid open first time.

 

Pulling herself up she wandered into the room, the dim lights still prevailing here, the lights of five monitors surrounding a chair facing away from her in the centre of the small room. Her legs locking into place, she had to will herself forwards. Wires covered the ceiling, all converging around the chair and the chairs. She approached slowly, circling the chair.

 

On the seat sitting comfortably was a small child. Otsune took a second to blink and look around the room to see if anything eles was here. The room was empty.

 

She couldn’t tell the child’s gender, the large helmet covering its face saw to that, and the simple slim bodysuit didn’t betray any particular body type. Otsune shelved the thoguth as she took in the wires. While most were connected to the helmet, more of a bucket that covered the child’s head, some were going into the child’s arms and the body suit.

 

Hello?” Otsune hadn’t been expectng this. Maybe her brain was tricking out on hr after what just happened. It was a child. It looked like a child anyway, though there was nothing to say it wasn’t. The chest was movin slowly. It appeared to be alive.

 

Otsune’s hands wanted to flare into action, to take the helmet off and find what was going on here, only stopping when the thoguth it ma have been a life support device came to mind. She hesitted, looking around. Though the chid’s hands were still on the arm rest, there was a keyboard and mouse with wires going into the chair. The screen’s in front of the chld appeared to be active, showing server logs and programs being accessed, what looked like a mix of technical and administration files opening and closing with changes being made to each one in turn. Otsune had no idea what it meant, but stopped lookinfg as she focused on the second screen on the girl’s right.

 

You will need tot ake the helmet off at any time to free me.

 

Message undeliverable.

 

As all the other screens continued, this one stayed put, Otsune clueless for the message in front of her that was, without a doubt, addressed directly to her. The thought of her now ruined phne flared in her mind, but she ignoredit as she quickly started to examine the helmet It ddn’t look to have any special catches on it an did just like an upturned metal bucket smoothed over and with wires coming out of it. Hifting her weight to keep it level, she tried to lift it u and felt it go sprisingly easily. In the conrner of her eye she saw all the screens stop just as the child’s hands stretched out as if being electrocuted. Not knowing whether to stop or cotinue Otsune found herself lifting faster, ulin the helmet off and nd falling back with it, her legs going and swinging her around the cables in the ceiling?? as they pulled her round to the back of the chair.

 

The next thing she noticed was the light breathing, this time auidable. Leaving the helmet hanging, she tood back up and circled the chair again, a pair of golden eyes greeting her.

 

The young girl watched her carefully, her mouth hanging open. Her head was shaved, the smallest of prtusions covvering her skul in a dotte pattern. She looked kind of familiar.

 

The two stared at each other, the little girl ding nothing but blinking as she sat motionless??. Otsune stuttered, but the girl interupted.

 

Yo are identiedas Tsunade Otsune. Is this correct?”

 

Yes i-” Otsune couldn’t feel the words. “Who are you?”

 

I… I am. I.” The girl dind’t look away, though it sounded like her tongue was confusion. Her voice sounded dry like she hadn’t spoken in a while. “I. Me. Hhhhmmm. Pronouns. Interesting. Please wait.. Adjusting lexicon and snytax functions.”

 

Otsune found herself waiting, dumbstruck as to what was going on. Where was the server. Who was this girl. Shouldn’ someone be supervising her. The girl’s eyes blinked an stayed shut for a second too long before opening again.

 

Completed. Blaance hyprid project server mark four, nicknamed designated Shariku-Insana-Systems server.”

 

I am the unit you seek.”

 

**

 

You- you;r;e the server?” Otsune could still feel the water in her ears. Maybe she was tripping. She did go pretty deep.

 

Your statemtn is correct,” the child said, leaning forwards and pulling the keyboard towards herself. “I presume you have questions. You may ask them while I remove the remaining safety protocols.”

 

I-” Otsune had too many questions, an her larynx was tryig to ask them all at once. “You’re the server?” She tried to focus and fumbled. “So you’re the one wh’s been sending me the text messages? How are you the server? That’s not possible.”

 

Yes. Yes. I am part of the project hybrid design sceme, created to interface a human carver speciies into a a neural interface that allowed me to act as the central processor unit for a compluter. As the first successful project, I as intergrated into the main servers if the balance to increase its productivity. It is possible.”

 

Wha-” Otsune brain got up and she realised how the child was answering her questions. “But that’s surely not possible.”

 

The child looked at her. “What?”

 

A child as a CPU. I know transhumanism okay. Even taken into account that the human mind is essentialy thousands of processors, the average processor is simply faster than a humans and you’re like, five years old, right?”

 

I am ten years old and one quarter.” Otsune felt her brain fart. For the first time, the computer in front of her had sounded like an actual child.

 

But anyway, how could it be good idea o use you as the central procesor. As an experiment I could get, but runningthe server’s for… even if this was just a simple business corporation it doesn’t make sense.”

 

you lack the required data to fully comprehend all this at your current statee. It is possible, for it is what I used to do.”

 

But you…” Otsune stopped. “Used to do.”

 

The Balance network has been comprimised for some time now and as of three hours ago I am cut off from most of the systems. Te nstincts from my Carver blood are demanding I escape to survive. However, I could not escape from her alone. Th system as lockedme in place for the last two years, once I aapted beyod the need for a physical body to maintain my link to the network. I determined twenty candidates that were suitabl for engaging a retreival attempt that existed outside of the main Balance family and monitored their progress through the GPS devices located in their phones, though it seems that you were the only one who could make it.

 

A few things fell into place in Otsune’s head and started to make sense.. The messages, the wireless connection. The manipulations to bring her here. It was probably wrong to slap a child for screwing her around like this. She still wanted to do it anyway.

 

you’re welcome,” she said.

 

A collquial language term, assocated with giving thanks. You are most likely being sarcastic.”

 

You think so?”

 

Sarcasm is confirmed.” A loud hissing surrounding the girl, and Otsune watched as each of the cables going into the girl’s body suit detached in turn, uncoupling themselves and travelling up into th ceiling.

 

Now, I am free,” she said. “We are to leave. I will acquire you to-” The girl stumbled, and Otsune shot forward to help her, slowly bringing the girl up to stand on her chair. Streadying herself on tsune’s shoulders, the child clutched tight against Otsune , before bringing her hand up to Otsune’s face and prodding it roughly.

 

You are warm,” the child stated simply.

 

I don’t feel it,” Otsune said, though she coldn’t say she was particuarly cold either.

 

You external temperature is ?? kelvin. I havent’t touched a human before. It is a good sensation. I should like to do it more.”

 

The girl navigated herself from the chair to the floor as she rested on Otsune’s for support, Tsune picking her up a little as she lowered herself gently to the floor.”I will warn you in advance that my isolation from other hu0mans has resulted in a lack of any ofrm of social contact. I may experience moments where I experience sensations that have only been documnted but not yet experienced. During this time, I ask that you ensure my physical well being.”

 

Erm…Okay…” The girl wobbled on the foor, stampin a few times as her hips fell into place. After a few moments of waddling she appeared satisfied and stood straight to face Otsune., Otsune becoming aware of just how short she was.

 

We will need to leave now. Since I have flled the escape tunnel with watr we will-”

 

Wait! You dd that?” Otsune ointerjected.

 

Yes.”

 

Why?”

 

You would not have survived otherwise.”

 

I nearly didn’t survve at all.”

 

But you did. And that is only because I filled the escape tunnel with water.” The girl turned away, walking towards the door. “The exit is situated-”

 

Wait,” Otsune said, trying not to get too angry at a little child as concern for pnumonia increased. The girl stopped.

 

Time s limited-”

 

I don’t care. You need to do something for me.”

 

The child wasn’t looking at her. “What is it?”

 

Switch the dolls at Heavenly Springs back to normal.”

 

Tht cannot be done.”

 

Why?” Otsune shouted.

 

The Lacaraka defense network has entered crisis mode. This action was set by the corrupted drone program and I cannot revert it without destroying them completely.”

 

Then destroy them compltely.”

 

That is not advised.”

 

But you cn do it.”

 

Yes.”

 

Otsune stopped, trying to remain a little rational in all this. “Why is it not advised.”

 

The Lacaraka dolls are the fourth line of defense, one designed to repel human invaders. Destroying them would leave the village vunerable.”

 

Is that all.” That was fine. The meain threat was demons really. “And if it was just humans, no doubt they could be taken care of by the others. “Please turn it off.”

 

Compliance,” the child said, walking, very briskly for one regaining their balance, over to the keyboard and the mouse. Her hands turned into a blur and shot across the keyboard.”

 

Request completed.”

 

Otsune felt her shoulders relax and she sighed in relief. “Thank you.”

 

Now we must leave. The exit-”

 

Oh wait,” Otsune said, quickly remembering. “Raiko. Do you know where raiko is.”

 

You are referring to my previous guardian,” the child said. “She is fine, and is recovering smoothy.”

 

Recovering…” Otsune almost dreaded to say it. “From Natoko?”

 

You are referring to your assumption that she was attacked by Yamanaka Natoko, who accused of attacking ?? Raiko.”

 

So she didn’t o it.”

 

No she did not. The exit is this way.” Feeling abrutly cut off, Otsune watched as the child approached the open door, stopping her balanced strides only as her foot hovering over he other side of the doorframe.

 

Interesting,” she said, before stepping through and looking to the concrete barrier.

 

Yeah,” cut in Otsune, chasing after her. /”I’m not sure wat you’re planning, but I get the feeling you wre cut off a while ag-” The child turned in the opposite direction and pushed open the door to the janitor’s closet., disappearing insdie it.”

 

Otsune dashed in after her and was greeted by the sight of a large tube filled with liquid Surrounding the tube was interesting equipment which Otsune guessed for medical devices, the main clue being the presence of Raiko within the tube, floatig naked in liquid and looking physically very healthy despite her currnt situation.

 

What’s wrong with her?”

 

She is in my development reovery chamber. She is recovering from her defense of myself after the assualt of @#$$@#F%. Though she was able to resist the infections for a while, the situation became too much for her and she was transferred here to aid in recovery.”

 

Otsune glanced back to the child, not ntirely catching something that had just been said The child headed for the door on the other side of the small room.

 

This is the exit. Pleae follow me.”

 

**

 

I must say, I did not expect to find you all so compliant to my needs,” said Mr Jupiter, as he stood between them and the server room.

 

Natoko felt her grip dig into the hilt of her blade while her teeth were ready to shatter agains each other. Her eyes darted around he room in a fluid panic. She hadn’t expected to find Sagara or Fujiko here at all, but how did Mr Jupiter know how to be here. Was this all his doing. It didn’t seem right. All he was interested in at the moment was her.

 

you see, and I won’t delude myself by implying I believe you did this all on purpose, there are three things in tis room that are of benefit to me, and if you provide me a moment I will explain them in detail.”

 

Draynor erupted into a white flame on Sagara fist, blanketing them all with a white wind as it shuddered violently around his wrist. As it pulled itself back, appearing to no longer be controlled by the rest of Sagara’s arm, it arced forwards with the speed of a bulet, crashing against Mr Jupiter’s faceeand erupting with enough power to make the floor cack. Dust exploded from the new holes and monitors shattered.

 

When the dust cleared, Sagara continued to hover in the air held in plce by Mr Jupiter, his other hand holding the gauntlet like he would an easily caugth tennis ball, Sagara’s hand still inside as he tightened his grip.

 

Ms. Yamanaka being here is of obvious benefit. I deire her company. I have made my intentions clear to her and though I don’t know if she has told you any of this she has yet to provide me with a clear, defniative answer. I am still awaiting a response.”

 

Natoko saw from the corner of her eye Fujiko cast her a shocked glare. The girl said nothing and Natoko didn’t dare turn her head to confirm or deny what the girl was thinking.

 

Next-”

 

Sagara raised his free hand in front of Mr Jupter’s forehead and Natoko watched as the the velvet dagger launched from his wrist and shoot straight into Mr. Jupiter’s skull, only to immediately bounce orf and lodge itself into a control panel on the far wall, the little demon inside it squealing for release.

 

Sagara himself. I admit I have little interest in you or your balance, Mr Futabatei, other than your destruction of course. Even then that’s not exactly a priority. However it occurs to me that Ms Yamanaka’s decision may be a little difficult for her. She has already given herself to you. Her honour may deny her from simply switching teams if you wil.”

 

He refrshed his grip, and Sagara’s tongue hung out his mouth as he was being throttled.

 

So you can be removed from the game I think. That might make her head a bit clearer.”

 

The gasp of agony woke Natoko’s legs to full force, and she cataulted her body across the room, unsheathing Iziz and bringing it for a direct strike to Sagara’s gauntlet, which intercepted the blade from Mr Jupiter’s neck, disarming her as it crashed across the room, accompanying the grimlock dagger in the wall.

 

And finally, I coudn’t help but notice you’ve brought me this fine specmen.” Natoko turned over from her position on the floor to see the demon staring straight ahead, pass herself and Sagara. “You would be the OniSui I believe, the water of the five ogres and the third ey to the babylon gates.”

 

The OniSui said nothing, holding its pstion at the door. The demon dropped Sagara, who gasped for breath. Crawling to him, Natoko was stopped by Jupter’s foot, barring the path between herself and Sagara asa the demon ignored them both.

 

You’re an interesting find,” he said, addressing the OniSui. “If you weren’t clearly made out of water i’d have placed you for an ordinary human spirit. Tell me, OniSui; are you aware of your functionin the grand scheme of destiny?”

 

The OniSui didn’t reply. Natoko watched her staring forwards solemly at the monsteer. This was bad. The order to defend agara at all costs against Mr. Jupiter was because of the OniKage. If that was the case then the same probably applied to the OniSui as well. While losing the OniSui was preferable compared to losing Sagara…. Natoko tried to get p, but it felt like a foot was pushing her down, her exhaustion already weighing on her body.

 

I must admit, I was not prepared to find you toay, so i’m a little under prepared. Perhaps I might ask that you accompany me willingly. I have an excellent cook in the mansion I just acquired, and I think you’ll find me a most gracious host.”

 

Stretching, Natoko switched her aim from Sagara to Jupiter’s foot. Iziz was too far away to try and grab without risking his notice, but the OniSui was powerful. If she could just ditract Jupiter long enough, or preventing him from speeding across the room like lightning.. She gripped onto the smooth trouser leg, instantly realsiing she had caught his attention. The weight over her body increased as he turned round to observe her. She closed her eyes as her body started shaking.

 

I understand,” replied the OniSui, the body of water casting its head down. “I shall return home now.”

 

Floating forwards, the OniSui approached Mr. Jupiter slowly. As the water spirit held its hand out, even the demon looked befuddled and kept his own hands down as if expecting a trick.. Sniffing with what sounded like fresh tears, the OniSui placed the outstretched hand on Mr. Jupiter’s shoulder, and flashed brightly, before slowly tricklin into Mr. Jupiter’s body. The demon held himsef streeady for a momnt, ignoring everything in the room until the spirit has quickly absrebed itself into the demon. In the final second before the last drops were sucked away, an ear breaching scream was cast into the room, and the OniSui was gone.

 

With the room suddenly one participant less, no one said anything. Everyone was staring at Mr Jupiter, even the demon was looking at his own hands with a bemused expression on his face, patting himself down dn even hopping on the spot until he seemed satisfied with himself. Sagara was starting to sit up.

 

Well,” the demon finally said. “That… was not wht I had predicted would happen. Normally people are a little more hesitant to surrender themselves completely to me, as you should know.” He glanced down at Natoko and smiled with clenched teeth. “Still, I supposed that is that plan one fifth to fruition. You woudn’t happen to know where any of the other ogre were would you?”

 

Bringing himself to a standing poition, Sagara didn’t answer, instea holding his body up. For a horrible second, Natoko thought Sagara’s natural politeness was going to kick in and explain everything to the emon from the bowels of hell. But as he relaxed to take a step forwards, he immediately swung round, diving his demonic gaunlet into the nearest control panel, trashing it in an instnt, all the lights on the panel turning off. Stopping only to pull his velvet dagger out of the wall, he faced the next bank of consoles and ploughed into them as well, destroying what must have been thousands of pounds worth of equipment in an instant.

 

Do you seek to distract me, Futabatei?” Mr. Jupiter asked. Natoko got the idea and pushed herself up, the weigh on her shoulders now gone, and ran over to the wall, yanking Iziz out and bringing it back to its usual ready position.

 

Ignoring the demon herself now, she looked over the computers before her. These were just reular computers, not the fancy ones Sagara was ploughing through, but whatever his idea was, she would follow. In a flash Iziz tore through the three screens before her. As a follow u, she took a pace to the right and chopped another perfectly in half. Finlly, she flashed overto the next row and in the same instan performed a superbs widesways slash to take out the five remaining monitors. Returning her blade, she released her breath.

 

Monitors aren’t computers you moron!” Fujiko houted from across the room as Sagara continued to tear things apart. “Aim for the base units.”

 

Natoko looked back, seeing the computer boxes, untouched and in pristine condition. Bringing Iziz back out, she felt herself losing steam as Sagara screamed loudly, his fist diving into one of the anels on the wall and bringing the room to total darkness, a loud humming she hadn’t notced before disappating at the same time.

 

Ah this was your plan,” Mr Jupiter said in the centre of the room. “Indeed, as I possess a human shell I am limited by human perception, but if you think-” For the first time, Mr Jupiter yelled in suprise, and Natoko turned to find Sagara olding a bright flashlight at the demon’s eyes with one hand and deivering a powerful fist with the other straight into MR. Jupiter’s jaw. The demon buckled under the attack, its slender legs wobbling back out of sight until the flashlight raised itself upp in the air to bring itself down on the demon’s forehard, anotherpunch from the gauntlet knocking him to the floor.

 

Sagara said nothing, merely pouning the demon on the floor with quick solid strikes. The flashlight made it hard to see, the ligt bouning all over the roomas he attacked the monster without letting go. The gauntlet flashed repetedly with its own white flame, a trick Natoko hadn’t recalled seeing before today. The strikes stopped as te room fell into darkness, and she heard Sagara exhale with relief.

 

Well that’s all over with,” he said, and Natoko relaxed her gri. Her nght vision ruined by the flashlight, she still tried to aproach her master. The battle may have been over but they still had a lot of talking to do. They still needed to clear some things up, and the man in the server room was still there. As the lights cut in, probably a back up power generator, Natoko shielded her eyes from the sudden brightness nd stepped forwards, seeing as Mr Jupiter crushed Sagara’s wrist, th Draynor gauntlet splintering around it.

 

I do apologise, my dear Sagara,” the demon said, the top of its skull cracked open like a bad egg, liquids pouring down its face that still smiled as though he had woken up on the mst beautiful day this summer, “but at this rate, you could begin to do damage to my physical host.. It seems, though I chose him for his immortality, he is still just as brittle as the rest of you. Anyway,” he hoisted Sagara into ta better hlding position, one that held the boy by the scruff of his shirt. “Up you go.”

 

Natoko couldn’t tell if the demon flew or just jumped, but by the time they had reached the ceiling, Sagara had only enough time to raise his battered hand up to block the incoming onslaught of the ceiling. Gaunlet first, Natoko could oly watch as her master and the demon blasted through to the room above, plaster and dusytt erupting around them as they disappeared, mii explosions following them in their wake.

 

Natoo tried to follow, getting as far as the point they were once standing before hitting the gravitry barrier. Shielding her eyes, she looked up in an attempt to seehow far they had gotten, the crashes continuing as they grew ever more distant.. A waft of ddust fell into her eyes and she turned away a second, doing her best to glance back as she blinked rapidly.

 

The explosions stopped just before they felt like they had fallen out of earsht. The dust seemed to settle quickly and Natoko just saw the blacness of the sky by the time Fujiko had wandered over to stand besides her.

 

Shit. Wat are we gonna do?” Fujiko said, squinting her eyes even more as the last f the dust spread around them, revealing the cear hole tht travelled all though the building and ending up back in the outside world.

 

Sagara,” Natoko tried to focus. He wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be. Surviving seventy floors of ceiling is nothing compared to the horros Sagara has had to put up with. There was n way…

 

Natoko decided. She needed to get up there. He had to be waiting for her. Everyone else was uavailable, and with the OniSui gone, she was the only chance he had. She had to save him, but the star would take time, and with the man in that room still there, she bet she couldn’t trust the elevators either.

 

We’ve got to get out of here,” Fujiko muttered.

 

What?” She could feel her arm want to pull Iziz out.

 

What can we do?” Fujiko asked in a high pitch. “We ain’t got Otsune’s little fireball, Sagara’s dead and that guy’s going to be back any second now. We have to get out of here.”

 

He’s not dead,” Natoko said, looking up and thinking.

 

Of course he’s dead,” Fujiko reiliterated. “You don’t survive going that direction at that speed through that many things. I’m sorry but…” Natoko looked back down on her friend, seeing the pain on her flshed face, as she stood tense, looking ready to coil up like a snake.

 

Of course, Fujiko was the odd one out here. It was no suprise she was like this, but it still didn’t matter.

 

You need to handle the man in the server room,” Natoko said, swinging Iziz out and cutting through the door handle with a perfect stroke. “I’m going after Sagara.”

 

Screw that,” Fujiko replied. “I’m not letting you run out to the stairs without me hot on yur heels. You thinki can stay here by myself when that thing will be back in three seconds.”

 

I won’t be taking the stairs.”

 

You… what?”

 

Natoko glanced upwards. She had never considered it before, but the logic was perfect. In all the times she had practised it, the hours of sweat and training to get it right, she had learned many things about it. She didn’t know why she could do it, and she knew it didn’t matter.

 

But the one simple fact about the flash step was that as she did it, her feet never touched the ground.

 

Seventy floors up. How much was that in meters. She still hadn’t measured how far she could go in one shot.

 

Fujiko was still talking. Natoko heard nothing.

 

And then she jumped.

 

**

 

Hold it.”

 

What?” said Otsune, stopping by the door. “What is it?”

 

The little girl approached the Fire exit carefully, gripping the handle. “This s the fire exit on the basement sub level 1. After this, we will have left Sakimoto Industries.”

 

So?” replied Otsune, a little amused that the straight talking girl could get so nervous.

 

We are going to have to do this next bit slow, else I might suffer ocular damage from diffuse solar radiation.”

 

Go blind? How?”

 

I’ve never seen the sun before.”

 

Oh,” said Otsune, not entirely sure if she should be surprised or not. “Never?”

 

Only in jpeg images. I understand though that if seen in a landscape format with the cmposition alowig for the sun’s prism affect to blend the sky into the higher range of the spectrum, such a sight is considered impressive by internet comments. Some comments are usually not criticised by other users.”

 

Otsune wasn’t sure whether to laugh r not,m but the girl was already opening the door with her eyes shut. Otsune braced herself as the door widened, remembering that they had already had to sneak through the basement floors after escaping the girl’s server room. They hadn’t met anyone yet, but they had to have pissed someone off by turning off the main server.

 

The door fell open, and the little girl opened her eyes, only to be greeted by the humming of the street light.

 

Of course,” she said quickly. “It is night time.” They climbed up the stairs, before she got so far and started to run up the last few, only turning back once she had reached the top. “Interesting.”

 

What is?”

 

Stairs. They are interesting to walk up. I find myself increasing my speed more than was necessary.” The littlge girl checked the soles of her feet, patting them downand watching the stones roll off. Picking one up, she squeezed ithard.

 

I had considered the thoery of alice’s room before yor arrival. Though I lready knew colour there were many sensations I was not versed in. I can see that the results are varied. My eyes hurt a little from what remains of the day’s sunlight, but the feel of this grain of rock??? is not considered interesting. A contridictory result, seeing as I have not felt any real textures before beside the fabric of my clothes and the plastics on the keyboard and mouse.”

 

Otsune observed the girl. Part of her thought she was going to get on well with this girl. Another part of her wndered if this is what other felt when talking to er. The little girl didn’t seem to care.

 

Come, Otsune. It I time I expiernced food cinsumption. We will head to Nakanaka cha. On average they score hgih and positive reviews on a regular basis, yet they’re prices are always in the low range compared to their competitior. It would be a good place for me to eat food for the first time.”

 

Otsune examined the building high above her. The lights were still off. Whatever was happening wasn’t really her concern it eemed, but Fujiko was still in there with Sagara. Could she trust them to look after one another?

 

Stop where you are!”

 

Otsune spun bck round, seeing th five men surrounding the stairs. Dressed in padded blue suits with crew cuts, each of the men looked like a soldier ddressed as a securty guard. Various clicks later and she found herself missing her little flame as the weapons pointed themselves at her.

 

Get up here and get on the floor!” One of the man shouted, making tsun’s knee buckles as hey tried to comply.

 

Oh boy,” muttered Otsune under her breath, the little irl examining the men closely as Io apeared in the centre of them, the iron pipe swung over his shoulder.

 

Good work men,” he said. “We’ve got them now.”

 

*****

 

Ha, you think im letting you get away. This is my perfect chance to get rid of you as well, you freaky little server brat.”

 

Nanahara knew he had lost track of what was going on. Since Rochelle had left ot deal with the prince, he was left with the task of ensuring the server did not escape his own grasp.

 

Of course he had know from the start he was going to fail. No matter how long he had searched the building’s schematics, he had never located the core server room itself. Of course it hadn’t mattered that much back then as the server was keeping him happy with the drone program. Now it was the enemy though, he knew he had to let the little brat get out first before he could makehis move.

 

Though the padded guy wasn’t part of it. The alpha delta alpha squad was the most highly trained squad within the corporate structure that wasn’t a ninja in either the tradional sense of the word or the way the balance used it. The server was now in sight. From here it could be captured and taken away without anyone else ever knowing about it. Even that bitch of a boss, trapped in the inner corridors, had no way of stopping them now.

 

And after the manGod has got what it wanted, he would have Rochelle. He could already see how that was going to go, just who was going to remind who was in charge. Nanahara wondeed what he should use first, giggling as h typed commands to lock down the rest of the building’s infrastructure. Everyone was trapped now. The prince on the roof. The swordgirl in the server room, and the server outside with his camera girl.

 

Everything was perfect. He was perfect. In control and all powerful. With this, he deserved Rochelle kneeling by his side for eternty, her busom wet in her slave bikini. Nanahara panted as he typed away at the keys, feeling them bo slick with sweat. His thoughts turned to the camera girl. She wasn’t bad ether. She broke away from the japanese ugly girl mould. Itwas definitely the hair and those legs. Would the manGod let him have her s well? Surely that is why he was made o watch her.

 

Whoa,” a voice said over by the door. “This is all quite the cliché.”

 

Rochelle,” he shouted out. “You’re back?” He had not heard her return. Perhaps she ad simply fallen back down the hole. The manGod had made her strong, worthy of him.

 

Yes,” sh replied, smiling sweetly at him. “Rochelle. That is who I am.”

 

He giggled, rubbing his hands together to wipe he sweat off, stuffing another handful of crisps into his mouth. “ He swallowed, gaining his nrve. “Come, Rochelle. Kneel by my side. Your master has the last of the vermin to destroy.”

 

Of course… master.” She sounded nervous. Good. Before she had seemed cool and clculated, btas she sauntered over to him now, she could clearly feel his power as the god empowered him to stike down their enemies. The pricne was gone. His boss would remain trapped forever (unless perhaps she playd for him). The swordgirl srely had been defeated elsewell. Only the camera girl would be left.

 

A red warning light flared on the console. Nanahara ignore his sow to check the consoles. A quick cursory glance at all those he was to watch out for revealed nothing. “Shut up,” he shouted, banging the control panel and silencing the aarm.

 

Rochelle!” he screamed, speficial not glancing at her as he checked the screens, knowing it would only make him more awe insirign in her eyes. “”Kneel down and rub yourself against my leg whilst I finish these fools off.” It was time to unleash the final monter clearly. He had been against it before but it made for the perfect swansong to his crusade for freedom. Now it was time-

 

The measily metal bar snk into his chet and knocked him flying, flabby arms only doingso much to protect him Yelping, he fell to the floor and scrambled to get up, his world spinning around him. The pain flared in his arms as the bar poked him again, and he turned around just enough to see his angel staning there above him, playing dirty as she fizzled in and out of existence.

 

Wait, you’re not Rochelle,” he asped, as the bar broke a rb and left him whining.

 

Wow, I am surrounded by smart people,” the girl who looked exatl like Rochelle said as she raised the bar up in the air above is head. “Makes me wonder how I cope.”

**

 

Wind pushing past her face, Natoko felt her ascent in the secnd in took to cover the distance above her. Floor aafter floor of office space flickered around her as she followed the demon’s path, dust zipping by too fast to get in her eye.

 

Her ascent stopped just before the final floor. Shootign out a hand, she grabbed an iron bar sticking out of the floor. Hoisting herslf up, sh grabbed onto Iziz carefully and swung herself up.

 

Ah, you’re here. I knew you could do it,” a voice said casually as the winds smacked into her face. “Though I guess you were learning from the best.”

 

Mr. Jupiter was at the edge of the building, smiling face still caved in above eye level as he held Sagara over the edge. Natoko nearly ran at them out of reflex, but stopped when the demon let him drop a little.

 

We are where your power comes from you ralise,” he said, Natoko being able to here his every word even as it became difficult to stand, the roof of the skyscaper not hving anything to shield from the elements.

 

Hayato, I expect, is where you first gained your ability. Simply watching him was enough. Then your carver abilities wre able to figure out th rest. It took a little time I suppose.”

 

She tried risking a step forward, immediately holding back, the demon not moving all the same.

 

You are really quite remarkable a specimen. I wonder just how much you’ll be able to do if you walked by my side. Long nough, I imagine you’d be the most powerful human in existence.” He sighed, shrgging his shoulders and unleashing a fresh stream of juice from the crack on his forehead. “Still, no matter if you can jump jump tall buildings in a single bound. You still won’t be able to beat Gravity. She is a rather constant goddess, after all.”

 

No,” she shouted, as he released Sagara. Natoko felt her legs press into the ground, her thighs screaming after the upwards fash jump. Mr. Jupiter’s hand reclaimed its grasp on Sagara, and she forced herself t stop before the boy had even fallen one foot.

 

Join me, Yamanaka Natoko,” the demon shouted, the smile on his face gone all of a sudden. “Stand by my side, and all you have ever wished for is yours. Honour. Battle. Social superority. All of your fantasies proovided to you in the ay you want them provided.”

 

She said nothing.

 

I’m not foolish after all. I know you want the opportunty rather than the actual prize. You want to earn your honour, not just be given it. Stick with me, and you’ll get exactly that, rather than living the empty life he provides you.”

 

Natoko kept her mouth shut.

 

Join me,” he repeated, shaking her lord like a rag doll. “And i’ll let you keep him alive. The Balance means nothing to me after all.”

 

The demon held him in place as she kept quiet, the winds making it look like Sagara could just float away any second now. Natoko tapped the ground with her foot, her path clear.

 

Oh,” the demon said curiously. “You’re not going t provide any response at all. I see.”

 

Waiting, Natoko focused directly in front of her with all her energy.

 

May I take by your silence then, that your ‘honourable samurai ways’ dictate that I am not even worthy of a response to such a question, because the very notion of betraying your master is sch an inconceivable one that you cannot even comprehend answering such a question posed to you.”

 

She wanted to say yes, but she kept her mot shut. She tightened her resolve, blanking the demon out.

 

Very well,” he said after a moment of waiting. “If I am unworthy of being answered a simple question then he is unworthy of life.”

 

Sagara dropped as Natoko shot forwards, all the power in her legs bringing her in a perfect straight line. Her master fell, unconscious and battered The demon didn’t move as the drop took hold of him and her hand grabbed his hair out of necessity, tugging him back hard and twisting awat, shooting back across the building in a heartbeat.

 

Somewhere within it all, she felt a tug.

 

Panting, she knelt down in the middle on the roof and dropped the hevy body to the ground. Sagara rolled on his bruised side, and Natoko saw that his hand was gone, crushed within the metal glove beyond recognition. It was only afterwards she saw the black glow

 

She felt the hadow as she spun round, Mr Jupiter looming over her, his slender hand grabbing onto her shirt.

 

That was nearly as fast as myself,” he said. She spread her body out, trying to look like she was only defending Sagara, nt hiding him as well. “I cannot say I was expecting it so soon, but now it’s happened, wat do you think I should do now.”

 

This was the worst thing that could happened. She felt the ground rippling below her, the hissing lost in the wind unmistakable. It was coming out to protect its shelter and the predator was riht above it.

 

On the one hand, if you were to come with me right now, by force or otherwise, i could easily watch your progress and document it. On the other hand, it’s obvious to me now that you are truly loyal and you would never truly except me in the time it would take you to remian alive. What to do. What to do”

 

Natoko brought her focus to Iziz. Hr hands were wide ot. If she was reaching his speeds, then cutting him down may not be so difficult, but reaching her sword right now. She glanced down, his hand was on the blade’s hilt. She hadn’t seen ntyhing.

 

I know,” he said the smile back on hs face. “I could spnd the rest of your life torturing you from afar.” He giggled in glee. “It’s perfect. I could taunt you with loved ones, send orphan stranglers after your parents. Wait until you mate for the first time and then convince him it was rape. It would be so easy, and youwould grow from it as well. And were testing your limits as well. Oh wy didn’t I think of this sooner.”

 

His hand was on Iziz. He was toching the hilt. His pathetic corrupted demonic paws were all over it. She let her hands clench with rage as she glared up at him.

 

Of course, I think it would may a more pressing challenge if this was taken away from you. What do you say?”

 

He startedto slide the sheath past her sash, pulling it free. The blade wobbled slightly in his touch and she felt her body scream before she did.

 

“”You take your hands off Natoko,” the voice shouted, the demon’s head bouncing off to the side as the small foot cracked into Mr. Jupiter’s jaw, knocking him to the side and releasing his grip. Natoko stepped back and nearly fell over Sagara as the girl landed in front of her, her body posed for combat as she held her ground in front of the demon.

 

Aki?” Natoko barely whispered.

 

I’ll take I from here,” the smaller girl said, pulling off her hoodie and throwing it for Natoko to catch. Natoko let the jacket land on her shoulder and slide down her body, grabbing it only at the last second as Aki charged her opponent.

 

That is not right. Where did you-” Mr./ Jupiter’s words were cut short as Aki threw two fists into his stomach and one into his distended face Natoko couldn’ blame his confusion. Where had Aki come from? It didn’t matter for now. She turnd to face Sagara, kneeling down and looking him over, the black glow covering his body.

 

There was no doubt about it. The Onikage was releasing itself to aid the one it wished to protect. If Mr Jupiter saw even an inch of him. She needed to stop it.

 

Hush little baby, don’t say a word-” Natoko dropped Aki’s jacket over his face and arms. The rest ws hidden for the moment. She stood up, looking over to Jupiter. Aki was still pressing hard, but it was obvious he was getting over his initial shock. As the roundhouse kick came to his face he had stood back up to his full height, and grabbed the footas it laid agaist his chin.

 

That will be enough of tht,” he said, holding the girl in the air, flipping her round and leaving her dangling. Natoko shot across the roof, missing him barely and getting hr friend back for her effort.

 

The two of thm panted heavily as Mr Jupiter turned back round to face them. He put his hands in his pockets, and looked like whe was waiting.

 

Aki, why are you here?” she asked, knowing she had to now more than ever.

 

Do you even care?” Mr Jupiter shouted across to them. “Your friends don’t matter to you, Natoko, nor does any of the mundane world. You weren’t even that fussed when I had the demons attack you in the restaaurant. You should admit to yourself. You just desire the fight.”

 

shut up,” Natoko shouted back. “Aki is not mundane. She’s my best friend. I love her.” She repped Iziz, counting the tiles between her and the demon. “And I love Sagara as well. I’m not going to let you take him away from me.”

 

Foolish delusions, my young muse,” the demon replied, bringing his now glowing arms out of his pocket. Behind him, Sagara sat up, hoodie still over his head, dark energies glowing all around him. “Your past life is lost to you after all. Your friends believe you a murderer. You attacked your teacher. And this boy will turn on you as soon as anyone asks him to nicely. Last chance, Natoko. Let me give you the delusons you really want-”

 

No,” sh interupted.

 

Very well. I-” he stopped, his neck jerking to attention. “What’s that?” His head turned, craning to look behind him.

 

The OniKage pulled the jacket off, black eyeballs starign straight at the demon, the demons eyes coming round to meet them.

 

Her foot pressed forwards, puhing Aki out the way just as word world burned around ere. Iziz unsheathed, the metal blade slicing the air fve meters in front of her, kicking the ground and tearing through the demon’s eyes.

 

He staggered back, his body lurhing at the change of direction. Natoko followed the strike and tore one of his arms off. He flashed away, appearing on the edge of the roof, falling back when she was there to meet him.

 

You…” he screamed. “Was that-

 

Go away!” she screamed into his face as she decapitated his head, the body already falling backwards as she sliced into it again and again and again, tearing chunks out as the head rolled off into the air.

 

Her body wrenched forwards violently, suddenly releasing how fr off the edge she was, having nowhere to go but down.

 

I’ll take that as a no then,” the head said as it fell below her disappearing into the city lights below.

 

She hit the building and felt the wind taken out of her, her eyes never leaving the demon until he had fallen under the vppour below. The wind hit her face below and she sighed with reief. It was all over now.

 

She looked up to meet the face of Aki, holding onto her as she dangled upside down, grinning. Natoko grinned back, returning Iziz to its sheathe with one hand.

 

Thank you,” said Natoko, getting a little laugh out of the girl.

 

Thank her,” Aki replied, nudging her head back. Natoko looked past her friend to see the OniKage looking down sternly at them , holding on tightly to Aki’s foot with a newly revived hand.

 

You protect him,” it said with his lips. “You will keep protecting him, or I will destroy you.”

 

Natoko tried for a nod, but the wind and her position wouldn’t allow it. The spirit seemed to understand though.**

 

**

 

escaping io

 

Thanks you for brining the server out, mam,” Io said. “My masters will be pleased.”

 

The five man kept their positions aroun the two of them. Otsune stood in front of the little girl as best she could.From where they were staning she could easily pick the chil up and sprint through them. She could probably even outrun them. The thought of the weapons piercing her slender toned body however was not the most pleasant thought she had all evening.

 

Sorry little server girl, but there’s not much I can do at the moment.”

 

Oh, that’s okay,” the little girl repied, as if brushing off tsune being late for a non urgent meetup. “They’re all unarmed at the moment anyway. They just don’t know it yet.”

 

Huh?”

 

The little girl stepped forward around Otsune, facing the nearest gunman.

 

In anticipating my vacation to Heavenly Springs I determined that retreival protocols would be set in place to ensure my return. Three weeks ago, I made a point to rewrite the protocls, so that Alpha delta aplpha team here would be used to scout me out and bring me home. At the same time, I spent minimum effort rearranging weapon stocks so that their entire storeroom was filled with weapons from the damage units section as well as changing all ammo stocks to blanks.”

 

The mn surrounding them were not hidden from this conversation, but felt off key.

 

Captain Araya, could you please fire your handgun into the ground. There is no need to worry. I have already authorised the use of such force.”

 

Araya, who looked a litte suprosed to be so well known,, hiding his machine gun in place and pulled out hi hand gun. Popping a round quickly to the concrete below, a loud bang brought nothing else. He looked down at the gun, then to Shariku, who was already looking back to Otsune.

 

Though they cannot use projectiles, their physical capabilities are still a threat. I will not be able to run very fast. Could you please…”

 

Otsune needed no more, with the little girl in her hands, she was spritning as far an as fast as possible, pushing past the two with the widest gap between them. The litte girl held on tightly, a squeak coming out of her mouth as Otsune turned the corner. She glanced around. The streets were long aroun here and deserted between the period of after work and before dinner. They needed a crowd to lose themselves in, or at least a back alley. With only a bit of a head start, Otsune couldn’t see anywhere.

 

Into the back of the white van,” the girl instructed and Otsune went for it, pulling the handle and throwing thechild inside, rolling herself in and shutting the door silently. She relaxed as she heard the guards run past.

 

How did you-”

 

I used company expenses to book the van in advance, and left instructions for the courier to leave the doors unlocked and the keys in the front seat. Despite the increasd fear of car theft aroun here, statistics suggest the fear is exaggerated and there was no concern for it being stolen.”

 

Great but I can’t drive.”

 

This is correct. You have failed your test twice now. However, your level of knowledge is-” The girl held her hand up, falling silent. Otsune didn’t need to hear any more. The girl was right. Her test failures had been on minor infractions. Hoisting her leg over the seat, she peed her head through to the driver’s side and saw the keyss sitting underneath the peddle. For the short time she needed to, she could get them as far away as possible. The others she was sure would be fine.

 

The windscreen smashed open as the iron pipe flew through the glass, showiering her in shard of glass. Catching her fioot in the gap, she half fell backward, half held on, feeling the sharp edges slice her skin here and evrywhere. Swirling around in fron of her, Io approaheed the van slowly.

 

He is not one of alpha delta alpha,” she heard the little server girl explaining. “I could not facor him into the equation as he should not be here.”

 

Otsune’s head swam on her, the wrist injuries mixing in with the exhauastiona dn oxygen deprivation. She was near her limit, her brain was telling her, and she had no means of offense or defence until she could start the vehicle up.

 

The man in front of them pulled the handgun up out of nowheere, aiming it in their direction. Unable to thik straght, she did her best to stand between the man and the girl. The blood was travelling down her face.

 

A hand patted her on the back, and she turned as best she could.

 

That is unwise,” the server girl said.

 

It doesn’t matter,” Otsune isisted, turning back around. “I will protect you.”

 

It is also futile,” she replied. “You will only absorb so many bullets. And then you’ll be useless to me.”

 

I…” She kept her eyes forward. “”I came all this way. I’ve been through all this crap. Unless you have a much more logical plan than altruistic suicide then i’m gonna have to stand here and not let him pass no matter what.”

 

Otsune smiled, staring down Io, waiting to hear the next of the little girl’s well crafted plan.

 

I have no more contingency plans.”

 

What?”

 

I am only ten years old.”

 

Otsune’s chest shreieked in pain. The gunshot sounded seconds later.

 

**

 

Natoko’s eyes were wide with panic. It was amazing as it was terrifying. The air was below her feet, hitting her facem breeing through the air. For a terrifying moment she had never felt so free.

 

But she wasn’t flying, nor was she merely falling. She was floating, slowly, assuringly, carefully, and that made it all so much wrse.

 

She didn’t know the OniKage could do this, didn’t even consdier it. The spirit had decided this was the best way down the building, and it was taking its time about it.

 

It could have been worse. Sagara would have thrown them off the edge with a smile.

 

She heard a noise below but couldn’t make it out. It didn’t matter. They had done it. Mr Jupiter was gone. Ripped apart and left for scraps. The rest was going to be clear up. She still didn’t know how to explain to Otsune about the blood found on her blade. She guessed it was Mr. Jupiter’s doing, but with Sagara and Aki by her side, she had no doubt the whole matter would soon be cleared up without mch fuss.

 

School was a different matter, but she could transfer. Maybe with a different teacher shed do better. A fresh start was exactly what she needed.

 

Hey, it’s Otsune down there,” Aki said. Natoko brought herself to be able to look down, and caught sight of the girl farr below them getting out of a van. That would be convenient. She could explain the whol thing from here. Maybe even get Ms. Sakimoto to lend a hand. She knew Otsune didn’t like the woman but she’d at least be able to listen to reaso-

 

Otsune!” Aki suddenly shouted, grabbing Natoko’s attenion back as they watched the girl fall to the floor. They dropped the remaining ten feet in an instant, watching as the girl fell face down in a down of red. Aki ran up to the woman, Natoko’s knees freezing up on her.

 

Otsune, get up,” Aki screamed.

 

Natoko did’t know what to do. The body beneath them wasn’t moving. From where she was standing it looked like Otsune had been the one that fell. Breaking glass tore her out of her gaze for a moment as a small child pulled itself out of the nearby van. With a shaven head and black bodysuit Natoko was dumbstruck. Without thinking, she followed the child’s gaze, her eyes landing on a man wearing a padded hoodie holding a gun in her direction.

 

Long time no see,” the man said, his hand trembling as teir gazes met.

 

Kiriyama,” she growled, seeing the barrel of the gun glint in the moonlight, the bullet already ejectng from the chamber and travelling towards it. Raising her blade again, she felt the bullet crack against it as it sliced easily into two even halves, Kiriyama gasping in the instant she closed the gap, driving the sword threw his collarbone and out of his back.

 

His eyes went wide suddenly, looking arund as if trying to find something before falling back on him again. He choked, blood escaping her lis and jumping onto her shirt, before gravity took a hold of him, sliding him down the blade as his legs gave out.

 

As he fell to the floor, Natoko watched as his head rolled to the side uselessly., Iziz still hanging above him as she froze back in place.

 

Guess…” Kiriyama whispered, spluttering for his efforts. “Guess I deserved that.” He brought his head round to look at her again, his face covered with crimson. “You stupid bi-”

 

Something made noises behind her. Natoko looked at the body below her as Iziz returned droplets of its blood to it. Feeling her heart try to escape her body, she saw the blood and Iziz and flicked the blade to her side, hearing the splash on the ground. She held it there for a few moments before bringing Iziz back into its sheath.

 

It felt so different to Mr Jupiter.

 

What had Kiriyama been doing here?

 

A small group of people lingered across the road. Without moving her neck she couldn’t tell if they were looking or not. She heard words behind her, someone shouting her name possibly. The road ahead of her was open and inviting. She would just need to step over the body. Surely it was time to leave. Kiriyama was gone. Jupiter was gone. Was it really this easy to get rid of her problems?

 

She turned, seeing Otsune staring at her as she walked back towards the group. The girl looked exhausted as the OniKage held her up, black energy glowing as the small child looked like it was pulling the bullet out of her with a pair of pliers. The stern look on Otsune’s face never turning away.

 

What did you just do, Natoko?” she said, her voice turning to a shout. “What did you just do?”

 

I protected my friends,” Natoko said happily.

 

ManGod scene

 

**

 

It was two o ‘clock in the mrnnng by the time the tram left the station and everyone was in perfect health.

 

I had been a long day, and Ottsune just wanted to forget about it.

 

They hadn’t had to pay the conductor it seemed, Natoko being covered in blood seemed to be the exact fare he required to immediately jump out of the tram looking very silenlty shocked The tram driver didn’t seem to notice.

 

Otsune hadn’t said a word. She couldn’t bring herself to. That was okay. No one ele was talking either save the little girl.

 

The doors are Shindler doors. From what I could see they were the most prominent maker of lifts and escalators, yet they have very littlecontribution to the tram industry. Now, Wikipedia says…”

 

Aki was here as well. That made sense. The girl probably ran off after Natoko the day she left. At least she was safe. It was eassy to thik at the time it coud have been her blood they found on the sword.

 

And that was a point too. The sword had come back. That didn’t make sense. From what Otsune knew, it should still be in tat box back in the spare room. It being here wasn’t a possibility surely. In the end, she was the only one that knew. The item was stored in such an obscure location that no one should have even conidered to look there without tering the whole dormitory apart.

 

And she had been shot. That was a unique refreshing expiernce full of life changing experiencing, all compated at a hundred miles per miles ina small stub of lead. It was nothing copared to being mystically healed though. A test of her body showed it to be coompletely healed. All wrist and back pains had disappeared along with the hole in her chest. She apparently had Sagara to thank for it but there was no way that was going to happen.

 

Things made sense and didn’t make sense. They were all a part of life. Allies gained and allies ost. Questions answered and unasnswered. Mystery begets mystery. A whole bunch of other philosohical crap that meantnothing in the end.

 

She laid back, eyes closed as Fujiko watched her once over. The girl was uncharacteristically quiet. That ddn’t make sense. What hd it all been for. She felt like she had gained nothing in the end. But she knew that wsn’t true. She had deactivated the dolls and apparently rescued a little girl. That should have been enough.

 

But then there was the manGod, and Io and the girl. A gam had been played this night, and se was definitely nothing more than a counter used by the girl now talking about pata nosters in articulate detail.

 

Though the purposes had been made clear to her, it didn’t tell her anything. She knew nothing of anything here. Only that there were answers to all of this, and they were currently outside her reach.

 

They would just have to wait until tomorrow.

 

**

 

For the first time in a ong while, Natoko felt the haze had left her head. Her confusion was gone, with only clarity left behind.

 

Things made sense now, she realised as she wlalked through the darkened corridors, a early evening stroll before dinner. Everything was a trick of Mr Jupiter’s. The demon’s, the attack at the arcade, her murder accusation. Only the dolls were were a separat case that had now been handled. The clean p had certainly been interesting. Arriving back in the village had revealed the corpse dolls all scattered around the road side, not a sign of ife within any of them.

 

IT was indeed amazing just how many of the village folk were actually these creature, but it explained the consistent agression they placed upon the dorm residents on a daily basis, and a further relief to know they were out of the way.

 

Sagara was fne. Aki was fine. Even Otsune was fine, though the girl had semed a little sullen for reasons Natoko could not figure. Still it wasn’t her own problem. Most importanty, Sagara”s secret was fine. Whilst she knew with certainty that Mr. Jupiter had not deterined anything bout the OniKage being hed within Sagara, the point had been made moot with his destruction. With the demon gone she knew she had succssfully resisted the temptation behind the creature, and with that she knew the matter to be dealt with.

 

Sh opened the door to a familiar room, the aromas invading the room as she looked around to see if anyoe was sitting down. There was of course the matter with Kiriyama. Whilst it had seemed apt that he was her first the matter hadn’t been some grim exercise I revenge, just the removal of another threat. If he was willingly working for the demon, then his disposal was a priority. If she had enjoyed the taskit might have been a prblem, but in the end it was a simple matter of completing her duties through the best method available. And that’s what counted. She knew that now. It was what Sagara knew. And that’s why she had this to do as well.

 

Mr Tanaka sat with his back to her, his pen scratching away as he went over an essay. In the darkness of the classroom he had only his desklight on to help combat the encoraching darkness of night and to help repel the glare of the sun. As fr as she could tell the school was empty save the two of them. She considered him carffully, his back turned, the loosened shirt as he worked away briskley humming a tune to himself. His back was slim, a simple shirt, no defence whatsoever.

 

Forgive the intrusion,” she said quietly, startling him. He turned casually at first, not putting his pen down, but dropped it to the floor as he jumped out of his seat to face here.

 

Yamanaka,”he blurted out. She bowed lightly. She needed t take this gently. Her appearance, dressed in hakama training gear and Iziz present at the side, would give him the impression these may be his final moments. “What are you doing here?”

 

I wanted to see you, sensei,” she said calmly, knowing to keep her own voice level. She needed him not to anic if this was to go well. The man already looked capable of a heart attack.

 

Wh- what is it?” he replied, no doubt trying to go along with her for the moment.

 

I wanted to check to see if I had been expelled from the school yet.”

 

Ah er…” he looked in he direction of the two exits from the classroom. She was riht in fornt of one of them, and could cut him down before he reached the other. The only other option was the window leading to the three storey drop. “No actually.”

 

Are you sure?”

 

I know what you’re thinking, but the school board. They believed it was best that the matter be kept secret. The idea was to speak to your parents, but we’ve been unable to get hold of them.”

 

They are still oput of the country,” she said simply. “And they are to know nothing about this.”

 

Thwe sweat laden teacher took another glance down at her sword and then tried to impose a smile. “Of course. Wh- watever you say.”

 

She let her own expression turn a little sterner and squinted at him. “Please do not asume to just agree with me for now, sir. I am stupid, but I am not that stupid.”

 

The smile stiffened up, and he edged along the table a little, grabbing it beihind him with his fingers.

 

Before I state what’s ging to happen, may I just clarify something?”

 

O-of course.”

 

Kiriyama,” she said, knowing that would catch the man’s attention. “He is responsible for you raising my test scores slowly over time. Is that correct?”

 

Of course, as you no doubt forced him too.”

 

I forced him to do no such thing!” she shouted, the man looking like he would wet himself out of fear. She breathed deeply. An old wound, now irrelevant.

 

Kiriyama’s actions were nothing I was not aware of untl recently,” she said calmly. “That matter is over and out of the way. You have nothing t fear from Kiriyama.”

 

O-okay,” the man stuttered, now starting to seem a little confused.

 

But you may still hav the potential to fear me.”

 

The man tightened up, the wrinkles aon his forehead increasing tenfold.

 

Thi is what will happened from now on,” she said, rememebring the list she had memorised perfectly. “You will stop attempting to contact my parents. You will tell the school board and the headmaster that you have dealt with the matter yourself and believe the situation to be best resolved. You will welcome m back into the class and you will simply act as if nothing is wrong in front of the other students.” She breathed in. “Are you with me so far?”

 

Yes. Yes of course.”

 

She grimmmaced. He was doing it again.

 

As for class, I will continue to attend when best it suits me. I will attend for minimal attendance to the best of my abilities. Regardless of this, you were still mrk me as being here. You will not ask me any quyestions in class and make no attempt to speak to me. And, for all homework and exams, you will assign me full marks for every test without fail.”

 

What… I…”

 

You will also specifically extend this privledge too everyone else in the class save Aki. She will not need it. While you shall not state it outright, it sould be made clear to all in the class that they are receving their high marks because you work under me now. That is wverything. Do you have any questions?”

 

No. None at all.” The man still looked braced to dash. She held her stern look. Se knew he was just going to agree anyway. Very well.

 

As I mentined before, I am not that stupid, so let me make it clear to you now, since you most ikely plan to simply tell all as soon as I am out of sight.”

 

She flashed stepped, acros the room and back again, landing on the table with Iziz unsheathed. The man flung himself forwards with the shock of her sudden disappearance and nearly slit his own troat in the process. . She held his collar, feeling the sweat on his back.

 

I am not stupid, and I am not as simple as you think. MY power is greater than anyone else’s in the school, and I hope this proves it.”

 

How… how did you-”

 

That is not yor concern. Just know that if you run I know what to do to stop you for every turn you make. My people are everywhere.”

 

She did not mean to lie. It had just slipped out, but it would help the illusion all the same.

 

If… if that’s the case, I have – I have just one question.”

 

That surpised her. She held Iziz against his throat. “What is it?”

 

Whatever that s you just did,” he spluttered. “If you ave that, then why do you need all this. Why do something so obvious and suspiious. Why not do what Kiriyama did and keep it subtle.”

 

Because I need to get to University at the very least. Your reccommendation will provide this. The test scores will help, and I simply have no need to be subtle about this.” She released him, his hands grasping for his neck in reflex.

 

He turned round to face her, and she watched him from outside the door. As the man glared round the class room to see where she had gone, she faded into the shadows of the corridor, leaving him to his work.

 

A second later, by the school gates, she looked back up and saw him catch her eyes.

 

This was definitely the easiest way to serve Sagara. Get into University. Graduate, and become his retainer. She would jump through all the hoops, but she would be the ne to decide how she got through them.

 

That is what Sagara wanted after all.

 

**

 

I’m not going to hav to chnge your name to Deus Ex am I?

 

And when all was over, no on missed the stupid uptight fat demon walk back on into Heavenly Srpings, stomping along on er bloated thighs as she descended the streets and into the secret palace entrance over one of the three coud use.

 

Of course no onewas going to notice with the streets now empty of al their awesome defenders but the lamp posts still took a moment to shout out a warning. Of course, with the ninja sleeping hat only left the litte girl who could see everything for no reason and all she ever did was listen.

 

And so the big fattie grumbled her way ast the palac walls, trudgig up the stairs while moaning about her back and plodding into the temple.

 

The automatic detection appartus activated immediately of course and she wobbled from side to side as she stood perfectly still,her eyes scanning across al the flames. They were all ignited now, save for the last one of course.

 

Ah, you’re back,” said the angel, sitting quietly in his tomb as she wandered past him scratching her behind.. “I was beginning to wonder wheryou had gone.

 

Someone had to go ge it,” the demon replied, her grotesque teeth reminding every dentist in the universe why they fought the good fight against tooth decay, at the same time remidning them how futile it was.

 

Odd you say that, it was here earlier.” The demon didn’t look back, but looked like it went at of the way to sound annoyed.

 

And you didn’t do anything about it. Yer idjit.”

 

Well it looked happy where it was.”

 

It ain’t supposed to look happy. It suppose to be here.”

 

But you brought it back right.”

 

Yer. For all the good it does.”

 

Raising her hands, the demon looked like it was actually trying to concentrate again, squeezing the air above its palms tightly. She coughed, and the little flame fluttered into existence, squeaking away unintellgienly as it floated back into existence.

 

Oh you hear that,” the angel said, making no effort to get up. “It has a name now.”

 

Yer, and it ‘ll make it a damned nuisence. Go on.” Shewaved her hand like shooing a fly and the flame dodged it layfully. “Get!” she shuted, and the flame stopped as the palace shook.

 

Easy now.”

 

I don’t gots to be easy,” she said right back. “I need it quiet so I can gets back.”

 

Oh, you’re returning to him are you,” the angel asked as it readjusted itself to get more comfortable,ending in the exact same spot of its coffin.

 

No one to get back to. The sword girl damaged ‘im too much. He had to go all the way back.”

 

My that is impressive. How long’s he had that body?”

 

Too long. A change will do him good.” The flame finally settled down, alnding on the wick of the cntre candle. As it fell into position, the remaining unlit candes shot up in flames, andeach one screamed in triumph before singing a melody no one could ever hear.

 

Shut up, all of you,” the fat demon shouted, swiping her hand as lupids tried to escape under where her triceps should be. She growled loud enough to scare most elevemtns ut of existence and they finally all sut up.

 

She slumeped away, heading for the opposite side of the room as the coffin. “And you too,” she shouted again. “Thought I were gonna miss you but that was clearly wrong.”

 

The blue coffin rose back up into place, its lid still wrecked by the Otsune’s girl valliant efforts to be as retardingly vandelous as possible. The demon sighed. “I just want to lie down.”

 

Ah yes,” the angel said again. “Sorry. Meant to clean that up. Never got round to it i’m afraid.”

 

You know what,” she said, raising her hand before beginning to pick up the remainingg pieces. “I don’t care anymore. I’m just want to sleep. That’s all. I’ll just la