Book two Prologue

 

Itoko was blind. That never bothered her. What bothered her most was that other people could see her, but she could never tell where they were looking.

 

There were the little signs. The subtle swish of hair as a person turned, the air bouncing off their lips as they exhaled, even the smell from their arm pits as they shifted their stance was enough to tell her whether they were looking at top, middle, bottom or not at all. It wasn’t perfect though, and certainly not accurate. A person could give the impression that they be staring into right where her eyes should be but be doing nothing more than staring off into space as they thought about how the Giants were totally cheated out of their victory against Hiroshima at the last innings.

 

Itoko loved baseball. Not playing it of course, attempting to aim at a small spherical object coming at you like a cannonball was even harder for a blind person that felt vibrations all around her than it would be for a regular human with as much coordination as her. No, she loved listening to it, the tunes played at the stadium, the crowds all chanting as one voice, the scrapes as the runner’s sneaker reached the fourth base with a skid, but most of all she loved that final solid thwack of bat hitting ball as it struck out for a home run.

 

She was sure that no one else in the crowd would be able to see the ball after it gets hit and catapulted into the sky, so she never understood why people disappeared on her when she told them this.

 

Or why they would suddenly turn psychotic and try to kill her.

 

Like these gentlemen running behind her for instance.

 

She couldn’t recall how she had gotten to the bar, but it hadn’t taken the young priestess in training long to abuse the very loose underage drinking policy in effect there. She had got half a bottle down her throat before the inquisitive, lustful staring started to happen.

 

And it would always start to happen. The subtle turning of necks, the scratching, the bowing of heads in her direction but without respect or apology anywhere on the table. She just couldn’t understand why these rejectards did it! She was blind and she was hot! To sighted peoples standards anyway. That was all there was to it. Why hide the fact that you’re staring? Drink in deep, drunken men of the night life. Let your decadence flow out of your eyes and go into the directions that please you most. Drink deep, with the knowledge that this time only you are completely free to do so. Where few other women would let you, you are free to ogle this one. Appreciate the visual beauties that this one never will.

 

Freaks.

 

They weren’t free to do so really. She always she knew when their heads weren’t bowed. Perhaps they could sense that, feel cautious to about a blind girl who can still glide around tables and drunks without bumping into anything even when people fell in front of her for a quick chat, yet still make a fool of herself by heading straight for the men’s toilets (she should have guessed by the smell, but they must have been cleaned recently or something).

 

Being blind all her life made it hard to determine how people reacted when they saw things. Were they unsure of her, or was it immediately obvious? Very few people ever asked her if she was without sight, but that didn’t tell her if it was immediately obvious or just rude to ask. She didn’t know why she cared either way.

 

Wait.

 

If she knew there were only men in the bar then how did she not know there were men in the toilet?

 

And if there were no men in the toilet, how did she know it was the men’s toilet?

 

Oh right, the two girls.

 

The two girls she was running for her life from.

 

Were they girls? She was having trouble determining this, pounding the wall as she passed it, cursing as the small displaced impact slowed her down about half a foot a second, the light pitter patter of their footsteps unrelenting. Girls were usually lighter, generally quicker on their feet in the natural way that ninja did not use to make them go at lightspeed. They also weren’t tiring out. Men that light would have usually stopped because their books had been knocked out their hands by the bully who had swatted the literature for the sole purpose of sodomy and would be far too tired now to reach the alley crossroads.

 

This was the ninth time she had entered this place since reaching the city, and she cursed louder than the last eight times altogether. She hadn’t memorized the city. That was impossible when all you had to go by really was the size and shape of several thousand buildings, all roughly cuboid in shape and all roughly above ten feet higher than her field of senses. But she at least had a general idea…

 

No she didn’t.

 

Who was she fooling? Some brief impulse in her brain that told her she had radar senses? She struck the brick wall besides her again and got a quick flash of where the next turn was. She just had training, and a lot of good guessing, there was nothing in her ears at all that acted like a bat’s, and no little ball of magnesium or whatever it was that pigeons got given by the lords. Grabbing the drain pipe she just knew was there, she used it to swing round the corner into pure shadow. Complete darkness was no reason to stop. Not while her arm still itched painfully from that grip of that girl. Not while there was a chance of feeling that burn again.

 

Her balled up fist came up to the wall again, stopping an inch short when she could no longer tell how close they were. There was no way for her to tell where they could be. It was like that game- what was it called-, where’s kids sneak up on another kid who had to turn round randomly and if he caught them moving, they were out.

 

Yeah, this was sort of like that. Except they might not know where she was either, and if she did give the wall a whallop, she could show herself up right in front of them and then they would finally be able to…

 

Why were they after her anyway?

 

No one attacked the Bargainers. It wasn’t smart. It wasn’t tactical. It was social suicide. They were friends with everyone. No favour was ever done that wasn’t repayed straight away and no special privileges were imparted to those of either side. In a world filled with Demons and Divine, it wasn’t a case of being as paranoid as possible. That got you slaughtered. You had to relax and be nice to everyone, at all times, for any reason. She wasn’t the only one in her clan to be turning blind eyes to all the goings on. You could only survive by completely ignoring politics.

 

And those that had wanted to kill her were more like ants. But weren’t as many as ants. Probably weren’t as many as five, and unless one of them was a great sociopath or had finally snapped after the dilemma of finally meeting your long lost sister only to discover that she’s dead and it was you who killed her because you thought she was going to give birth to a Carver that could enslave the world just because it wanted to, then there was little chance of any of them going that far.

 

The Balance might have reason to. But she was one of the top eight. That gave her protection from that kind of thing. Plus, killing her would set the Lust demons going batshit loopy. The Balance usually tried to keep them occupied in the Six Dry Hells.

 

A rat sniffed at the edge of her bearings and buckled her into a run again. For just a little in that direction, she knew she was safe. And she’d know when she’d reach it that she’d be safe.

 

This alleyway was a ticker all right- whatever that meant. In her head it went in all directions all at once, and despite being only a block big you could get anywhere in the city by going through it, but only to where you wanted to go. It was nice and helpful like that. The only thing you had to do was get from one edge to the other.

 

It was just a good job she hadn’t tripped over anyone in here. The homeless were terrible talkers in this place and she wasn’t in the mood. What mood could she be in at a time like this? She shouldn’t even be stopping to think. It was supposed to be panicked running. Something shuffled towards her and it felt like an old, homeless drunk with a worn face and a whisky bottle being savoured. Running towards him at breakneck speed or the next fastest she could manage, she stormed by him as he muttered at her and spat something that disappeared from her field. Free booze now in hand, she twisted right towards the way he came from and belted towards it.

 

It was unlikely he had gotten that far into the alley, more than likely he had just wanted someplace nice to hide while he enjoyed himself. The alley could give that to him with about two corners and a dumpster belonging to no one. Of course liquor could have easily messed him up. It was certainly doing so to her, pounding in her brain and asking that she stopped shaking so much, her head hurt enough to give it shotgun therapy.

 

Times like this made her wish she had never brought the spear along, that big heavy, cumbersome phallic point that only got in her way when it came to twisting round corners. It would keep scraping the sides of the walls and knock her off balance and that was the one thing she needed to stay on at the moment.

 

For that matter, why were they trying to kill her?

 

Had she asked that already? Her mind was a dash, focusing on the next few seconds and not keeping hold of any of them. She took the next right, it feeling the smarter way to go and continued dashing, her breath heavy like a wet sandbag, her pace bouncing from cautious to sprinting and back again whenever she approached a wall. At this rate she would just bang into one, and leave them a concussed opponent to take out.

 

Seriously, she was on good terms with everyone at this moment! A misunderstanding with Methula had been cleared up by offering cheaper prices on service.  “She may be working with our enemy eternal but damn if she isn’t giving us a better discount because of it!”

 

“That’s what he thought, sucker.”

 

Talking made her realize just how short the end of her tether was coming up, the need to inhale deeper filled her lungs and made her wish her blood/ alcohol levels weren’t scarily close to being equal- not that she was drunk of course.

 

A sudden searing bolt of pain sprang out against her right leg. She stumbled, swung her arms back into balance and took a moment to notice the pain disappear instantly as she heard a loud clunk behind her. The loud clanging filled her ears and hid the walls for a few seconds before she skipped and hopped her way back into full blown running, and praised for her agility with a high speed wall.

 

Ah geez, a dead end. That’s what she got for falling unconscious on herself and losing the freedom of choice. At least she knew they were still after her, for whatever reason.

 

“Running out of room. Running out of breath. Running out of time.”

 

The voice hit her oddly, like she was a batter who had just swung a perfect hit only to realize the ball had never passed him in the first place.

 

Silence…

 

They weren’t nearby, but they were somewhere, hidden in any number of ways that even she, being completely blind and without a sense of taste, couldn’t detect. But she could only go back the way she came from. If only she had remembered to bring her spear, instead of leaving it in the room. She could have bounded passed all these rooftops with a single vault with it, barring the possibility that they were taller than twenty feet high.

 

It was possible that that could work…

 

“Oi!” she bellowed in every language, her sight fading as she screamed it away. “I need an out here right now!”

 

“You’re-not’gnna-get-it.”

 

A glimmer of doubt tried to seize her, but she evaded it and started running again, slamming hard onto wet footsteps and feeling the waves traveled further than the water. A new right appeared and she took it.

 

“I wish I may. I wish I might. I wish you never get an exit tonight.”

 

Of course if it was anything to do with that it would make sense why she was being chased. With two weeks since the end of the tournament, the Pride demons would be ready to strike back in their usual genocidal vengeance at all those that had wronged them (wouldn’t they be more ticked off being righted?) With Pride demons it was always as hard to tell as it was to have fun trying to tell and then counting the obvious hypocrisies and then trying to see how much you could sell them based on those things alone. She had to defeat three demons herself all for the sake of information, but all three were reported dead after being scattered. Even their masters were reported dead, and surely in all the ensuing confusion and ‘curse the false balance and all their interferences, our hate machine shall plough them with a contempt of a thousand bloodworlds’ they would opt to go after Sakimoto and her lot rather than someone who beat their Tri-sons into a pulp with such ease that she had already forgotten how many of them there were.

 

Mind you, her ‘friend’ at that dormitory had told her just the other night that the Heir had so far been getting on quite well in his life since the tournament had ended. Though now was a perfect time to take him out, she hadn’t heard of even a single rumour that suggested someone was taking the job. In fact, from what she had heard no one was even considering him at the moment. Though there was a bit of a buzz about another resident with a sword there.

 

A smell stopped her, clear and distinct where it shouldn’t have been. Her nose had been out of whack since the first five minutes when the sweat kicked in, mixed with alcohol and formed an alliance which let nothing else enter her nostrils. It smelt nice, chargrilled chicken with enough spice to make mouth water and fingers twitch.

 

This was good. Food was nearby, and unless someone had really wanted to get rid of a freshly prepared, exquisitely spiced, heavily burnt portion of chicken, then the exit was very close by. It would be better for her in public. Less likely for an attack to occur. She still had some change too.

 

Listening carefully with her best sense, she heard voices, murmurs, crowd sounds. Nothing distinct, enough of a rumble and rabble to tell her that that a series of meaningless, every night conversations were taking place in the forwards direction; relative safety. If anyone tried to attack her now, ‘they’ would know, and she’d have even more chance of escaping, though it probably meant that one or ten of the humans would die in the meantime if it took them too long to get here, perhaps even the guy selling chicken. That’s if these two went with the orgy of genocide path.

 

But what if it was ‘them?’

 

The wall stopped in front of her, her hand grabbing it and bringing them both to a halt. That wasn’t right. There were voices just ten feet in front of her and this wall was thick enough to hold the even the most domestic of arguments. She tapped the wall and got a feel for it, the waves traveling around both sides of her and cutting off at the edge of her sight, falling back into the path trod upon. She slipped back and wondered how it happened.

 

Clearly someone wanted her in here more than she wanted out.

 

There were two of them after all.

 

Though only one was actually behind her now, and she smelled good. Delicious actually, it would be worth giving up chastity just to get a lick of this one.

 

“Tell you what,” the girl said, with a voice bursting sadistically from her mouth. “We can do two things. One. You can scream all high pitched and freaked out and I can act all superior and domineering as I kill you in a dramatic fashion that will be heavily implied as the camera pans away from the shot and ruins everything with a pathetic crack of the neck.” The girl paused, as if to brace herself on a tightrope. “Or two, we can play a game of tag.”

 

Itoko thought it over a moment as she gasped for air, before remembering just what was happening. “Two sounds good.”

 

“I prefer four myself,” the girl replied. “Anyway. Screw your opinion. We’re doing tag. It’s pretty much the first one but without you going all beggy. I count to ten. You escape. Okay?”

 

Itoko ran passed the delicious smelling girl with a, “Take this as a yes!” and headed for the left she should have chosen earlier. If she had her spear the girl would have already been gutted and selling on eBay with no reserve price.

 

“Okay,” the girl chimed happily, before shouting out in bursts. “One. Two. Three.”

 

Instead Itoko was feeling along the wall around the wall to make sure she got past the girl. The heat coming off the girl was tremendous. The edges felt the only safe place.

 

“Five. Six.”

 

Crap. Time limit! Itoko burst into whatever her legs could manage, feeling her knees screaming at her after stopping so quickly before. She pushed them on, trying to remember which way she had come in from when a wall intercepted her nose, taking her to the ground with a thud and splash ,informing her of the perfect square that was now surrounding the two players.

 

Her nose smelt the blood, noticed the water disappearing into the air, slowing down and evaporating as if beamed away by from some super high tech spaceship that might consider saving her too if she had time to ask really nicely.

 

“Seeeevennn.”

 

She sat up, banging once and heavy on the wall, letting the charge go on full, feeling everything as they all burst with vibrations: the water beneath her feet rippling, the drainpipes rattling, a rat scurrying out of sight, and the large cube containing them all, cutting them off from everything.

 

“Eiiigghhhtt,” the girl said tauntingly.

 

Itoko exhaled. There was no where else to go. And no other option left. She jumped up and turned to face her invisible opponent, her actions pausing the count as she surprised the girl.

 

Only one choice left.

 

Slug the bitch in the face!

 

She leapt forward, the hazy blur of heat in her flight path and swung her fist back. It’d be the first time she hit something. She barely had time to stop and remember the moment.

 

“Nine-Time’s up,” the voice rattled out in a heartbeat.  Itoko stopped. Not because she wanted to but because her arm was no longer there to hit anything.

 

A fast craving for ice cream entered her stomach for just a second, because it was getting kinda hot. Impossibly hot actually. How many layers was she wearing? It really wasn’t the time to be thinking such things…

 

Her arm was gone, the wound already cauterized. She didn’t have that much time to notice because already the shoulder had vanished and was taking her concentration with it. She started to fall back but even that didn’t give her more than a few instances to feel her leg start to go, pain receptors failing to report because they didn’t exist anymore.

 

All feeling disappeared save the one of her soul rising away from her body as it crumpled to ash. She didn’t even have time to feel the last of her hand ebb away into nothingness as she floated for a few seconds, her head was already far gone, the ashen remains with nothing left to do but fully disintegrate, not even able to scatter through the dark alley winds.

 

***

 

The fire spirit watched the body crumple away, the flames ebbing just over the top of the concrete, never quite catching. This was good. No evidence. It needed not to leave a trace behind. That’s what had been told. That’s what it would do. It didn’t quite understand why it had to but it was easy enough. All it had to do was burn the body and the clothes, melt the metal, evaporate the liquid and atomise the gas. Leaving any trace on the ground was a no no. It would ruin the plan.

 

The plan it didn’t get it, but still a good plan all the same. Better than its plan. Its plan failed horribly. Stupid. Pathetic. Retarded! Nothing like this plan.

 

“That’s enough now.”

 

Sneak up on the boy who had evaded it at the last second. All its planning. All its waiting. Good plans were meant to involve lot of waiting, sitting patiently. Playing it cool for the last moment to strike. It should have worked. Why didn’t waiting for him work?

 

“I said that’s enough!” The voice caught its attention. Not looking up, it looked at the floor instead. Nothing was there.

 

“But there’s still the soul!“

 

“Leave it. It is part of the plan. Now we have to retreat back a few steps. Just like I told you. Remember the plan.”

 

Yes, the plan. Not its plan. Its plan failed. Could never have worked. It was no good at planning. At constructing things. At making strategic attacks. It thought it could. But it was wrong. This would be different though. Here, construction was key. Building foundations. It would build up what had been washed in. Pile it up, and set it to their standards. The plan made sense, even if it could not understand the plan. It knew it would work.

 

It was his after all.

 

“Coming, brother.”

 

Chapter one

 

To say that humankind had had its share of new discoveries in the past one hundred and fifty years would be an understatement. We have come to understand almost everything that is useful to us, from electricity and its practical applications in the home, to the atom and harnessing its powers to provide fuel much more efficient that what will have used previously (if not a lot more dangerous). With these understandings have come many reactions, as is the wont of our societies. We have those who become obsessed, who pick away and seek to discover more about what they already know. We have the critics, who would condemn actions as if hours of hard work were nothing, we have those who simply use the technologies we have discovered, then who abandoned them, those who profit from them, those who are saved from them and those who abuse them.

 

With all that we have discovered, humanity has been quick to abandon as well. Our religions of old gods have been replaced by a passion of the internet and a worship of the mobile phone. I had originally thought this to be an obvious step and, although I will admit I am still young and have much to learn, the primary way in which we were to eliminate the lies that plagued the past. Lies of gods, of devils, of those who took clay and created planets and men, and of those who poked spears into chaos and somehow made sense of it all.

 

Five years ago, I had predicted as part of my final philosophy project that the churches would have been abolished by now unless some form of major civil war were to occur to defend them. A foolishly passionate prediction, based on my personal desire more than any actual hypothesis, but not one without some merit. Belief in religious idols has crumbled. The eyes of God are fading. Yet now, five years on, I found myself forced to become a believer.

 

(And that’s just stupid. The last thing I am is a believer really. I’m a knower. The stuff I saw in the last week, in the last month, every since that idiot showed up next to me in the Hot Springs, how could I deny it?  I want to. But I’m a scientist (soon). My whole positivistic standpoint is based on what I see with my eyes.)

 

Demons exist, I know that much now. I knew that from the moment a giant wheel popped up from over the side of the hill and challenged our new resident Futabatei to a duel to the death the same way cartoon characters would. I have no choice but to accept it.

 

It’s quite intriguing actually. If I wasn’t so upset at the time, it would have been worth it to examine what I saw. Futabatei had explained that it had been an ordinary tire at first, more than likely from a truck considering the proportion of the thick tread. Then a spirit possesses it and controls the matter. I haven’t any real information on the spirit in question, except that it is clearly sentient and adaptable in its actions, as well as suffering from an outrageous personality. Futabatei refers to it as a demon of course, and I suppose that would be the best term for it in the meantime until I can acquire more data on the subject, and must I note now there has been no evidence so far that these creatures do actually descend from the depths of some kind of neatherworld.

 

(I have to make a point to myself to remain objective during all of this. Everything from the local shrine to the movie I watched last night has influenced a fictional idea of what a netherworld or hell may be like, but at the moment I can only class it as such out of speculation.)

 

The demons apparently possess their items of choice, and this item, as we found out later, can include living creatures, up to and including female teenagers with an Edo period fetish, through a ritual of animism. If what Futabatei says is accurate, (and despite the boy’s fifteen millisecond attention span until he sees a muffin, he is the closest thing I have to a reliable source on this) then all objects in the universe have a voice, a sort of rudimentary conscious or kotodama that is part of their design. It is this the spirit possesses and from it the inherent design of the object can be reconfigured.

 

Albeit this transconfiguration (word?) occurs slowly. Though I have no idea the duration it took for the tire to be transformed, there were very few changes in the fourteen or so hours that Yamanaka must have been possessed by the water spirit. The change was mainly centered around her emotions, specifically anger and rage, which may have been an individual factor to the spirit in question. OniSui, Futabatei has told me it is called. Apparently, his family is not just into sending perverts into Girl’s dormitories. They are into the raping of languages as well.

 

An Ogre of Water makes sense though. The spirit left taking a substantial amount of Yamanaka’s body with it, leaving her severely dehydrated. It would have also allowed the spirit to control blood flow, and thus affect emotions to some degree. I’ll need to study this the next time I head down the library.

 

The possession does appear transitory, the parasitic entity (perhaps a more scientific term than ‘demon’) appears to have only a basic hold on the victim, be it animate or otherwise, no matter how long the possession has taken place. It appears that a sound beating by a deranged psycho who has been groomed to believe himself above the law when it comes to violence is more than enough to remove the parasite, and leave the victim with only residual signs of being possessed in the first place. An analysis of the tire showed that it had, in a way that is still unknown to me, regressed back a state similar to what it was previously. Though still physically ruined, the markings and spikes that it had displayed previously appeared to have just vanished. Whether these were aspects that left when the spirit left, or some form of alchemic process taken from the tire itself, I am still unsure. From all my speculations, all I can surmise is that things that were there are now not, and Futabatei himself does not appear to have the answer on the one, other than it is the demon that has caused the mutation, which is obvious (Duh!)

 

It’s also of note (and all I can really do at the moment is make half biased observations at this point, the whole thing is cock assed by nature!) that when the demon is forcibly ejected from the item it does not die, and is not destroyed in any way that one would usually expect after years of America television and angsty comic artists. Instead they are merely left separated and completely powerless to simply repossess their medium or any other nearby potential medium. This suggests that that the possession requires a great deal of energy that would have been lost in the skirmish prior to exorcism. What energy in particular is used is unknown again to me, though considering the nature of the spirit that had been exorcised from Yamanaka, it may be based upon sheer willpower, which may have been further lost in the demons in question by Futabatei nature to make people want to give up by means of being annoying.

 

Though earlier I stated that although I were to call them demons, I had no evidence of a netherworld in which they may have come from, I do have first hand experience of another location where they at least reside, if they were not spawned there in the first place. For all intense purposes, I can only really call this place what Futabatei has told me the name is, and will refer to it as the In-Between Realm (hyphen?) from now on.

 

All information has been provided to me by a spirit creature (who is apparently not a demon) that is considered a guardian of the In-Between Realm. Since even the deranged ninja has deferred to him, I have to assume that that the spirit has some knowledge of what it is talking about.

 

The In-Between realm appears to be another plane of existence. Not so much a separate dimension, as all our laws of physics seem to apply there as much as they do here (as far as I can tell anyway), but more just a side route. The best thing for me to compare it would be in C.S Lewis’s Forest between Places, or simply a staircase at the side of a building. The fact that the entire layout of the In-Between Real appears to be ninety per cent poorly maintained office corridors helps me establish this to be the primary purpose of the In-Between Realm. Simply, it is meant to be a place to get from one place to another. The actual other locations so far alludes me, although I’ll hazard a guess at simply other places within the city, as the way we got in was different to the way we got out.

 

The dimensions of the In-Between Realm are approximately infinite (sigh). At least, in the sense of space that they regard, mainly consisting of a series of both parallel and non-parallel corridors that are roughly six feet wide and fifteen feet high. The corridors are made out of wood, nails and plasterboard. I wish I was kidding. Most of the corridors go on for roughly a hundred meters before breaking off into one of many turns that can lead in any other direction, often at a right angle, and further on into the infinite.

 

I could understand infinite nothingness, but Hilbert’s Grand hotel has remained theory for a reason.

 

Above the corridors are metal air vents, easily accessed at one of an infinite number of points. These vents don’t run parallel with the corridors below them and may fork off and lead onto other rooms. The vents are easily large enough to fit a person in, and from the rumblings I heard, though now I’m sure to be mere paranoia, show that they would be perfect for sneaking around unseen in.

 

The place also seems to house doors, which are littered haphazardly around the realm with little pattern to them. These doors, although they can just as easy lead to other adjacent corridors, can lead to rooms as well (surprise! What an observation! I am a genius.). The rooms are either built from other corridors, or simply continue to insult fundamental laws of science. So far I have come across rooms up to the same size of the corridors themselves, up to the size of stadiums. All of which are apparently self-contained and immune to a lack of structural integrity.

 

Though described as infinite, it now occurs to me that the only stairs I saw were in the stadium, and I am unsure as to whether these corridors are on a single level to themselves, or if the other day I was on floor 6,227,020,800. The possibilities for speculation here are endless, and the more excited parts of my brain are more than willing to help explode neurons uselessly in trying to comprehend this.

 

The In-Between Realm appears to be housed by a Guardian, though he had insisted to me that he was not the only one. I won’t even bother going into the description of this creature. Though it was clear it was not designed with Darwinism concepts in mind, I doubt Intelligence design would want to confess to making such a creature either. Caretaker may be a better name for these creatures, for their job appears to be one of janitorial maintenance of the corridors. Due to the sheer amount of the corridors, it is understandable why they don’t do a good job. Even so, it appears they can track anyone who exist in the realm via. a comprehensive electronic map that exists in their office, able to detail the presence of everyone in the In-Between Realm by detecting their souls.

 

If science could cry, it would have died of blood loss by now.

 

The Guardian also appeared to have a guardian for itself. It had lent me this fire spirit to help lead me home, and upon reaching Fuugosuki with me has either been unable to find its way back, or simply does not want to.

 

The fire spirit (again, because I have no better name that goes beyond floating flame or ball of fire that follows me into the shower and does not die die DIE like it should) is a medium orange flame that does not appear to require any form of combustible fuel save oxygen. It floats in mid-air, which can only be explained by a rapid burning of oxygen in the surrounding atmosphere and can control its temperature, having been able to rest upon my skin several times now with it causing nothing more than a sensation of mild discomfort

 

(yes, I know the problems with that, and I don’t care anymore) screw this, I can’t do it…

 

Wait, no!” Otsune screamed out, jumping back and knocking her chair out from under her, the sheet of recycled paper curling itself apart as it lit up like it had been drenched in gasoline. “No, no, no” she called out, taking the acrobatic glass of water resting on her study desk and toss it at the growing fire. With a ‘here I come to save the day’ the glass ejaculated its contents onto the crisp study journal and evaporated in a heartbeat. Stopping just as soon as she had started, Otsune stared down at the book that contained many of her private musings of the last year, realizing it would have been better if she had just slammed her hand down on the corner affected, rather than take out half of her precious journal, before glaring up at the flame.

 

“Get out!” she cried at the floating incendiary, swinging her hand to slap it and catching herself short of allowing herself stupidity. The flame hovered in the air like a bee who was caught between deciding if that giant fleshly thing in front was it was a beautiful flower full of precious nectar, or a war against a destroyer of bees that it had no chance of winning. Unlike the bee, it decided not to leave.

 

Otsune continued to stare defiantly at it, like some schoolyard bully who would see that she was not to be messed with, a force perhaps as strong as itself. She gave up quickly. This had been happening so many times now, and another ‘get out’ was not going to change its mind, not that it had one of course. Constantly burning all matter it touched, the little flame spirit couldn’t hope to contain one, yet something kept it following her. It wasn’t just an attracting force though. It had led her out of the InBetween Realm after all.

 

She needed to repel it somehow. Water hadn’t worked, at least not glasses of it. She could put out the extra fires it started but not the source itself. Otsune had played with the idea of trapping it in the freezer and leaving it, but she wouldn’t really be able to justify the repair bill. Even now she had the window wide open and the fan set to max pointing out of it in the hopes that just one time it might let its guard down and fly across before being catapulted into the air like a very confused cow.

 

She turned back to her desk, hoping to recover what was left of her journal. Luckily this was a new one, and so not many pages had been wasted, the ones that had though were ones that had already been written on, and yesterdays musings on Moore’s insensible mumblings about the most boring of processor limitations that it was amazing anyone could find interesting were completely ruined in fire and water. She wiped it down, the glass besides her beaming triumphantly at its victory that it knew the other glasses would never believe it about while the journal whispered sobbing thank you’s to it as it savoured its survival. Then, reaching for her pen and sitting back down, she let the tip hit the next clean sheet and watch the dab of ink soak into the paper.

 

‘The discoveries of humankind in the last hundred years have been limited, but not without great measu…’

 

She stopped, looked at the page for a few moments, then tossed the pen away with a loud groan and sat back, feeling her chair fall back behind her into a more comfortable position as she stared at first into space, before letting her eyes fall onto the flame, studying it for the septillionth time; no longer with the curiosity that she had given it before, which was a shame because if she had she would have seen the tomato spirit which guides the floating fireball, and if she had said hi in that one second, the tomato would have noticed and given her all the answers she had been looking for. Instead, she looked at it with apathy, like a prisoner staring at his cell door realizing that there really was no way out besides knocking and asking politely but damned if he was going to do that.

 

She gazed at the wondrous creature for a few seconds longer, then forced herself up suddenly, heading out for the door, determined not to waste time anymore.

 

***

 

“Where’s Sagara?’ Otsune bellowed, only to stop herself short when she realized no one was in the lounge area save a sleeping Aki. Feeling a little foolish, she snuck past the thankfully still sleeping girl with as much angry advancing as she could muster. She nearly reached the door to the small kitchen where Sakura usually resided, before turning back to her friend and placing a nearby blanket lightly over her. It was warm, but with men in the dorm now she probably shouldn’t let the young one expose herself like that. She stormed round past Aki again, shushed the small flame following her sarcastically, and headed outside.

 

Sliding the fusuma shut behind her, she listened carefully to the wind. The summer days were preparing themselves now, and they had sent humidity troopers in advance. She hadn’t really noticed that much inside, the wonders of AC protecting her, though she wasn’t really that hot. She never got hot, her body temperature able to adapt nicely no matter the climate. She already knew the springs would be crowded with the remaining tenants that had yet to leave since Gen’s arrival, and now one or two loitered outside as they chatted to each other. Hitomi and another girl she hadn’t yet learned the name of were in the middle of browsing a magazine together. The two stared at her oddly for a moment, as she tried waiting around to see if they did anything, presumably run or panic. But it wasn’t going to happen. She heard them giggle as she reached the corner.

 

They couldn’t see it either, it seemed. It was becoming the common result in her tests so far. Since she had returned from that stupid tournament that stupid boy had dragged her to (well, in honestly, it was Fujiko, who was insistent at getting her out of her summer studies, but it was still his fault over everything that happened next.) the stupid rumours and even stupider whispers were dying down. What started off as the worry and paranoia brought about by a huge demonic tire being found in the springs had been rationalised into an argument by the dorm’s chief martial artist and fitness freak against the new landlord’s eccentric cousin visiting.

 

She was able to accept that. Not many had actually seen the fight in the springs, and only six of them had seen the giant demon tire talk; the ones that had apparently seen Sagara running through the building babbling for his life hadn’t, it seems, seen the ball of energy floating after him either and put the devastation caused by it down to a mixture of things to her later, ranging from a brawl between two gang members hat had found their way into the building to a stray wolf which Setsuna insisted she saw. Their rationalizations seemed just as odd as if they said it was ghosts. An adapting mechanism in the brain, Otsune had decided was responsible for this, built into all of them that allows them to roll with the insanity of a world that promises them everything then gives them a nine to five job and also explains a giant tire wreck which no one was fussed about cleaning up.

 

What she hadn’t been able to accept was that they couldn’t see the fireball.

 

“AAAAAARRGGGHHH!” was what she had expected their reaction to be, as the flame defied all physics. At the very least, she expected the same stare she had given it when first they met. But all residents had denied its existence, even the smart ones and the ones with open minds and Hisa-chan who herself claimed to be psychic and gave them all tarot readings if they asked her without turning into a fit of giggles.

 

Instead anyone who had seen her so far had just stared at her with the ‘ohmigawd I can’t believe I associate with her’ crazy person look, which she was sure she wasn’t (though the only ones she had to back this up were people that were crazy, or at least deluded). And the worst thing is was that she couldn’t blame all of the ignorant fools. She must look mad slapping thin air, the stress of her work finally overtaking her. If they couldn’t see the flame as she could, if only a chosen/random few could, it must have just made her look retarded.

 

She didn’t like that.

 

“Hi, Hime,” she said, calling out to the quietest resident of Heavenly Springs, who was sitting on the porch as she looked ahead into space like usual. “Have you seen…”

 

Her words stopped short, her prey in front of her about twenty feet ahead, his guard up and ready to strike. He was shuffling on his feet, keeping them loose and flexible, ready to move yet hovering, his focus dead ahead, his guard like a boxer’s save his backhand was a little further back. Otsune knew little of the technicals save for what she had learnt in class concerning forensic investigations on bodily assault, but his stance looked solid, a little more solid than the swaying dancer she had since of Sagara Futabatei so far.

 

Soundlessly, he thrust forward, his hips shifting his shoulder, his hand clenching , his entire body weight being thrown into a punch that hit solid air that bopped loudly into the air in front of it. It looked powerful- no, dynamic. It was a smart punch, she could not say whether it as a hard punch without equipment or at least feeling it hit her own cheek, but it was being thrown in the best way possible.

 

Hisami hadn’t noticed her, or if she had wasn’t acknowledging her. The young short haired Okinawian just watched, legs bunched up and resting her head on her knees. She appeared focused on Sagara, though she could have just as much been staring dead into space, her eye’s half closed possibly in a nice daydream.

 

No one could have a conversation with Hisami properly, Fujiko had once told everybody, as it would require at least one real response from the girl and that it wasn’t worth trying in the first place because her answers were usually just ‘go away’.

 

Otsune thought differently, suggesting instead that one just had to ask the right questions, though she herself had found only one so far and that was, ‘Do you think the fence was doing something?’, which had elicited a remark about how the panels were arguing with each other about the state of the global economy and what price they should have been sold for, which was the best thing anyone had said to Otsune in months before Sagara had arrived.

 

The flame spun round her head as she sat down, trying her hardest not to waft it away and possibly set fire to the girl sitting besides her. As much as she needed to talk to him, experience had told her that she did not get a good answer off martial artists in the middle of their practice. Sagara wasn’t going to answer her properly anyway, she knew that. But she should give him as little excuse as possible not to.

 

“Have you…” she went to say to the girl sitting besides her, wanting to fill the gap but unable to find anything to say that wouldn’t just sound like ridicule. All the girls loved to tease Hisami lightly and talk behind her back about how odd she was and Otsune as the eldest had always tried to keep away from such thought. In the end she couldn’t find anything good to come out and just sat there with a half finished sentence at the end of her lips. Hisami didn’t seem to mind.

 

She didn’t noticed how quiet it was until she stopped shuffling. Around the back here even the music that wafted out of most windows was drowned out by the empty air and conversations that must have just been twenty or so meters away were unheard of. Even the animals were quiet; the cicada silent, the birds gone.

 

It made her realize just how quiet Sagara was being.

 

Each thrust, each twist, hitting fast and violent in the summer air, taking out invisible opponents with no feel to them, so quiet one might be surprised to find there was blood pumping through the arms that carried them.

 

Again and again, his arm shot across, each one trying to be better than the last. He would have been much better with some kind of pad. Otsune had suggested the idea to him once randomly, but he had gotten confused, asking why would he need to punch something soft. She had tried to flick his ear for that and nearly got countered for her actions. Her own fault. One does not punch a Rottweiler. Still, it was impressive how quiet he was making himself.

 

Was he trying to ignore her?

 

She got up, stepping passed Hisami and onto the grass he was slowly destroying with every twist of his heel. Why should she have to wait for him to finish? The moron would probably run off as soon as he was finished. She’d have to grab him now, question him and perhaps get an answer for a change.

 

“Good evening, Otsune,” a voice startled her to her left. She swung round with a gasp, her legs jumping back as she noticed Fujiko sitting there in front of her, hiding behind one of the big rocks that covered the ground for no reason beyond decoration and inconvenience. Besides her was Sake, her close friend and personal confident that was always there with an answer.

 

“What have we agreed about talking to Sagara?” Fujiko said, with a sweet tongue.

 

“Nothing” Otsune replied; deadpan. “We discussed plenty, Fujiko. I agreed to nothing.”

 

“That’s not true. I do recall you admitting that the moron doesn’t know anything.”

 

The twist pissed her off. “And yet that does not translate to me agreeing not to keep asking him.”

 

“And yet it would be the logical progression.”

 

“Progression implies that something is moving forwards.” Otsune rebated. “And unless I’ve missed something, which I really, really hope I have, we’re at exactly the same spot we were two weeks ago with just as little answers and no reasons to believe I should do anything else save pester him until he gives me an answer.

 

Otsune turned to look at the weirdo, vainly thinking that perhaps he might have gotten the jist just once and be more than happy to help. It looked like he wasn’t listening. To anyone else, it probably looked like he was ignoring her. But nope, to her it was clear  he was just plainfully retarded.

 

“He’s not just going to start remembering,” Fujiko said listlessly.

 

“Well, he better!” she spat at her friend. “Tina is missing, Fujiko. Lost in that bizarre world where giant rooms don’t need any support and martial arts tournaments are incredibly popular. I would think that someone would have considered this important by now. But noooo, German person we all barely know has just wandered off for two weeks on her own with no explanation. I see no reason why we shouldn’t just help Otsune-sama find her ward even a little. Why, that would get in the way of our delicate little schedule of binge drinking every single day away!”

 

“And what can I do to help that I already haven’t?” Fujiko answered calmly, though Otsune guessed she had struck a nerve simply because she was being calm, the same way a lion calmly asks a rabbit to leave it the fuck alone. Otsune caught herself and calmed down again.

 

That wasn’t the first time they’ve had that exchange, and both of them were becoming exasperated with the whole endeavor, Fujiko perhaps less so than Otsune. To be fair and non-shouty, Fujiko had done her bit, posting queries on websites and trying to get into contact with the girl’s parents, but most paths had come up fruitless and she had ended up finding more flavour in her drinks. Otsune had wanted to ask for Sakura’s help as well, but the girl had been aloof non-stop the past two weeks for some reason.

 

Otsune didn’t say anything for as moment; her brain was racing through the options, the smartest mind in the dorm considering all the options as best she could. Hisami perked her head up for a split second and rushed off round the corner like an oven was on. Otsune had already tried going back, but Sagara wasn’t helping her and the series of abandoned buildings that had held the way just fourteen days ago had turned into a thirty floor apartment complex owned by a old man with a hearing problem and a penchant for loud baseball programs.

 

The police were even less helpful than the inanimate, though she could understand their position. They had calmly sat her down and listened to her plea, even had her write down a statement and waiver a little on process (a few of them knew her after all), but even they couldn’t help out the way she wanted when it was determined that she had no proof that Tina existed. Wherever her friend from overseas had gone in that world, she had taken her bag with her, apparently with her passport, green card and all other essentials that proved she existed as a genuine person and not a figment of Otsune’s overworked imagination.

 

Otsune thought she would at least have a picture of the girl, but there had just been no reason to take one. The girl never came out with them no matter how interested she tried to look, understandable after being attacked by the local madfolk. And she had been keeping in her room the best she could anyway. Otsune could only hope that somewhere along the line she had finally had enough and decided to head back home, but until she could confirm that answer, all that was left was-

 

“Would you stop punching?” she screamed. “What kind of freak spends five minutes whacking the carbon monoxide he spits out again and again and again?”

 

Hisami appeared from around the corner, carrying a plate with cake on it that Otsune recognized to be her favourite strawberries with cream. Sakura usually made them for her on a Sunday, but the little cook had been in overdrive lately and Hisami was starting to look just a little chubbier because of it. She sat back down, staring back where she had been, Sagara no longer in her gaze.

 

“Actually it’s more like two hours since he first started. Unless he stopped since I fell asleep,” Fujiko pointed out.

 

“Just stop, okay, Sagara. Just stop.” She stood near enough so that one might be worried of hitting her if they continued as they were. Sagara threw one more punch out, making her flinch back, and then rested.

 

“If you want me to,” he replied, a small glaze now shining on his forehead but not enough to imply he was tired.

 

“What I want from you is to know where Tina is.”

 

“You’ve already asked me-“

 

“I know I’ve already asked you that. I know I’ve already questioned you on where you saw her last. I know that I’ve quizzed you a thousand times on trying to get you to remember what she even looked like-“

 

“Was it a thousand? Thought it was eleven.”

 

“- but I’m going to keep asking until I get a response.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I need to know where my friend is, okay?”

 

“Shush!” a voice distracted them all, Hisami glaring at them as though she had been interrupted from her reading. The three of them stared back at her for a moment, before Otsune felt an urge to apologise and kept her voice down.

 

”If you want to, but I’m going to keep answering the same way,” Sagara replied before falling silent. It was like he stopped working, just looking straight ahead, her body being in the way not an issue.

 

The urge to garrote him with his own tongue subsided quickly, more out of her immunity due to constant exposure to the urge than out of a desire to stop it. Velvet tongue surrounded by iron teeth! There was no need to continue this. Two weeks had been enough.

 

“Come on Fujiko,” she said, turning away and heading back towards the entrance. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

“Not that I have any intention of moving- with my beautiful alcohol bloated legs, but where are we going?”

 

“We need to do some progressing.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Natoko had been concentrating, her eyes shut, her mind focused, held as tightly as her blade. Iziz dropped, but never drooped, the tsuka loose, flexible, always secure. The two worked each other.  Her mind, her weapon; moving in perfect synch to the gentle whims of the evening’s wind. Moving together, breathing together. A perfect fusion. Mind and matter, not one over the other. Perfect cohesion, all for that one-

 

“3/x + 3/2x = 2,” Aki bellowed, slapping all focus away like a drunkard with a fly swatter. Natoko faltered, the sword slipping a few centimetres down. Definitely not there yet.

 

“What was that, Aki?” she asked, opening her eyes and realising it had gotten darker since she had them last open.

 

“I said, 3/x + 3/2x = 2. What is x?”

 

Natoko sighed. “I don’t know.”

 

“Well, then figured it out. If it all equals two then it’s fractions right, and if you have to divide both numbers by three but one is more than the other then that means-“ Aki cut herself off at the moment Natoko hoped she wouldn’t. The more questions the smart girl of the duo accidentally answered for her the better.

 

“Look. We’ll do it later, okay,” she said after a brief gap in speaking. “I have training now.”

 

“No, we do it now,” Aki said unrelenting. “You’ll just go back to your room again and not let me in. You have to get this done, Natoko. We’re back to school in a few days.”

 

“And I will get it done, just not now.” Or ever, was what she wanted to say.

 

***

 

From the floor to the ceiling, Natoko’s eyes wandered, her mind adrift with the distractions of the everyday. This was always the best time to let them out, she had decided a while ago, when they wouldn’t bother anybody, and no one would bother her.

 

She looked to the dark area of her room (the entire room was dark, but that part was  an extra shade darker) where her schoolbag resided, and quickly looked away again, trying to focus on something else. She didn’t want to go back to school. The learning was one thing, to learn new things was of strict importance to a samurai, to build on understanding and knowledge in all things was what made a warrior great when their sword was not in their hands. And there was so much for her to learn.

 

But the classes. They were so boring. Of course she had long since come to the same conclusion that every other student had in that the only clear reason for them to participate in class was to render their soul useless. Of course, no one could admit this, and to do so would be both considered weakness itself and an excuse for the teacher to cart you off to the counsellor’s office, where you would be convinced that classes were necessary through a strict series of brainwashing talks. She had discovered this when many finally broke in front of her, usually in the form of some adolescent rebellious act involving the school wall and a can of paint, only to reappear later on  all happy and nice, their minds firmly resolved to continue their studies. Happy little peons.

 

The biggest of her problems now would be the school’s presence in her life. Unlike last year, she didn’t need it anymore. With her new position as retainer firmly established, she knew she should dedicate herself to that. But school was demanding eight of her hours per day. Eight hours wasted sitting in classrooms, staring out of windows (if she was lucky enough to get a window seat), wanting to be outside while hoping the teacher doesn’t turn on you. Eight hours forgetting things as soon as they enter because other things are pushing their ways in. There was no stomaching that. Her life was at much risk there as it was in an alley fighting some lava demon. At least with the demon she had a duty to fulfil in despatching it. Could she do that whilst cleaning up the homeroom after class? A terrible pain seized her at the thought of returning, a sickening dread that had already resigned the torture as inevitable. To let it happen would be unforgivable of herself.

 

Her thoughts were distracted as she heard mumbling down the corridor. Voices were whispering to each other, though she could only hear one telling the other to be quiet. Two of the girls returning late at night. Ever since Grandma Futabatei had passed on, they had been slipping like this more and more. Not that she ever imposed any rules. It’s just that everyone knew to be back before late.

 

Though the need for that rule had been getting more stringent as well lately.

 

“Sorry!” A thump, loud enough to wake all the nearby residents sounded throughout the corridor. Natoko sat up as she recognised Sagara’s voice through the darkness. At first she thought that the girls had fallen over each other in their late night drunken stupor, but heard merely an ‘it’s alright’ before their footsteps died off in the distance. Sagara’s however were coming closer and closer and it wasn’t long before two blobs of darkness appeared under her door blocking out the hall light.

 

Without understanding it herself, Natoko shot back down and hid under the cover like a child. Slowly, creaking every crack he could out of the doorway, Sagara slid the door open, loud enough to wake her up were she asleep and clumsy enough to make her question once again just why he referred to himself as a ninja.

 

What could he want at this hour? He had somehow acquired his own phone recently so he should know to contact her on that if he needed her for anything serious- not that he ever had, and if he wanted a late night sparring session, well…he had never done that either.

 

He didn’t come here for… that, did he?

 

No, no, that was just silly. She shook her head awake, trying to clear up thoughts that just seconds ago were thinking of school and were now pondering on similar adolescent thoughts. This wasn’t what she should be doing. She was samurai, her focus should be swift and pure, ready for nothing but the command- to spring into reaction when ordered. She got up, sitting straight and looking at where his emerald eyes would be were it not so dark, and did her best to act as if she was just woke up but was already ready to go.

 

“What do you need?”

 

“Oh, I need plenty,” he said, staring down at her. For a second Natoko felt very light headed, the temperature rose round her neck sharply and her stomach disappeared. It was hard to see him, his face obscured by darkness. She knew he was looking down at her with a greedy look on his face, a lust born of-

 

“Air, food, water. A shelter’s good too, but not really necessary.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Other things too, I suppose. Though right now, I need you up and ready to go.”

 

“But…but we” she felt flustered, her lips now only half doing their job, chattering wildly as if freezing even though she felt she was wearing far too much. This was…well, she had sort of- but not exactly like that, and not so simply. It would be wrong- so very wrong… “Isn’t this a little quick?”

 

Sagara looked perplexed, or at least his outline did. “No? No, if anything this is slow. When a demon shows up you need to move as quickly as possible really.”

 

“A demon?” Her stomach returned. Feeling relieved, she jumped to her feet and threw her covers aside. Iziz, her sword, was never beyond an arm’s reach if she could help it, and neither failed the other now as she took hold of it and wrapped it around the tying of her dressing gown as best she could. It dangled very loosely, but held its weight against gravity.

 

“Don’t know how it got in, but I can’t let it stay about like this,” Sagara said nonchalantly, wandering back out her room and into the corridor like he was just going to get a drink.

 

“Understood,” she said, feeling the urge come up within her. “What are your orders?”

 

“I don’t have any,” he said.

 

“Then… why did you wake me up?”

 

He paused. The question seemed to confuse him for a moment and he looked to the floor as if it had the answer. “I don’t know.  That’s odd.”

 

“Well, we should get going anyway,” she suggested, realising that he intended to muse over it for as long as it took him to figure out. ”Where is the demo-“

 

Click.

 

Click? The light went out, plunging them into darkness, Sagara disappearing from sight. Her hand went to Iziz, knowing full well where it was, keeping it clutched tightly.

 

“Huh, looks like it went for the power.”

 

“The generator’s not far from here,” she pointed out, blinking rapidly in an attempt to adjust. “Follow me.”

 

“Okay,” Sagara said and shot off passed her, luckily in the direction she had intended to take him. Being on top of a hill like this meant isolation easily during blackouts and heavy snowfall, so the place had one installed a long time ago back before she got here.

 

She followed, sword in hand to prevent it from rocking. It was easy to follow this place in the dark. Many restless nights she had wandered its corridors in search of something to do, never really finding it before now.

 

Her room was on the first floor, but on the side of the building where the generator’s shed lay. They had to move fast. There was no way that the other residents would all be asleep just gone midnight, though most wouldn’t notice unless they were watching television.

 

She had already heard a few mumblings, and Junko was already wandering out of her room when she passed her, a small bear dangling from her hand as she asked what was happening..

 

“Power cut. Stay in your room until it’s sorted. Futabatei’s already aware of it.”

 

“Alright,” the girl replied with a yawn, and slipped back through her door. Natoko felt impressed with herself, and moved on. It was just passed the back entrance and through the garden until-

 

“Sagara?”

 

She stopped, no longer sensing his presence. His feet had been thumping the ground hard enough to crack the floorboards and wake the dead beneath them but now she heard nothing but the murmur of a few students, unsure of what was going on.

 

Well, he was a ninja after all, all current evidence notwithstanding.

 

She stepped through the exit, feeling the cooling wind of the night. Just as well it was summer or she’d be freezing in her dressing gown. The temperature would be perfect for a fight. Not as humid as it had been getting lately.

 

He may have been a ninja, but he was still Sagara.

 

She quickened her pace, passing over the grass and reaching the shed which housed the generator. She had never actually been in here, none of the dorm had except perhaps Otsune. They had never had to use it.

 

But she always knew it had been locked. The padlock on it was so large and thick that it looked like overkill, especially when the door itself was a simple, easy to kick down wooden one. It didn’t matter now though, since the lock was missing and the door was half open; not broken though.

 

Bracing herself, she rested her hand upon the hilt of Iziz and bent backwards, lifting her leg and resting her foot against the door ready to push it the rest of the way. The door creaked open to reveal absolutely nothing, swarming out towards her and filling her with mild disappointment. Making sure it was safe with a careful glance at all the corners, she stepped through the door and into the generator room.

 

It was immediately crowded, the large assortment of piping hot gauges and pipes filled three quarters of the room, giving her two feet to work with. The moonlight shined in through the open door filling what was left between the rusted cylinders with enough light to illuminate the place. She was pretty sure she could see the room through the misplacement of pipes.

 

She relaxed her grip. Part of her kept thinking this was a game what with no danger having occurred yet, but she reminded herself that this was a demon that they were contending with. Invisibility probably wasn’t even a sweat for these monsters, and she had to rely on all her senses to make sure one could not-

 

A sheet of paper hung in front of her, stuck against a dial. The sheet of paper read:

                     All Dorm’s power on:

 

                     All dorm’s power off:

 

It was switched to off.

 

Had Futabatei put it on? It seemed far too crude for Grandma to have bothered. But with all the levers and switches, Natoko felt that a qualified engineer would have trouble making sense of all this. Her hand reached for the dial. She hesitated.

 

Wouldn’t it be better if she left it as it was? That way she could operate in darkness. Use the shadows as covers, and then-

 

No! She was not some depraved twisted coward who hid in the petty shadows of the night and sunk knives into unwitting prey. She was not a weakling who could only face her opponent from behind. She was samurai. She was honour. It would be nothing more than pathetic, a travesty. She would not hide. She would not sneak. She would turn the switch on. She would find the dog who hid in the shadows. She would expose him for his weakness, and then she would-

 

“Got your wallet.”

 

Her body ceased to live. Cold and hard it fast became like rock locking her deep in place, unable to escape from the knife. Tight as a collar around her neck. Her throat contracted, feeling the tip daring her to let it pierce the skin.

 

“Well, you don’t actually have a wallet. But you do have a sword.” The voice, male, was a fast speaker, but still sounded old and gruff. “Try to take it, and I’ll take your neck. Understand?”

 

No. No, there was not understanding. How dare this, this monster hold her hostage like this? Did it think to bring her into shame by striking so cowardly from behind? If so it had succeeded, but she would not allow herself to become so easily humiliated, even if that meant-

 

“Yes,” she wheezed, as the arm around her neck squeezed tightly, pressing against the back of her neck and throat at the same time, making her feel like she would immediately pass out. She croaked, more like a frog than to her liking, and breathed in deep when he loosened up on her.

 

“Now, what are you doing here, demon?” the voice asked, still reminding her that knife was trained on her neck should she so much as grow an adam’s apple.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Are you after the Enforcer’s heir?”

 

“You mean Sagara?” That was one of the many hundreds of titles he had used on himself she was sure.

 

“So you confess you know him?”

 

“Yyessss,” she hissed.

 

“Ahuh,” the voice responded, sounding sarcastically unconvinced. “And how would an innocent dorm student be aware that he was considered the Heir to the role of the enforcer.“

 

“If you…” Her loosened up again. “If you had ever met him, you’d understand perfectly.”

 

The hand and knife relaxed a little. Natoko wanted to slip free but knew better.  She stared at nothing but the tree directly in front of her, the only way she could look. “I guess that’s good enough for me.”

 

She felt the pressure lift from her. Stepping forwards she quickly turned around, to come face to face with man about a foot taller than her dressed in all dark grey, but with enough slings and pouches to make it look like he was ready for any situation. She couldn’t tell the colour of his hair and he wore big sunglasses that covered up his eyes. He wasn’t putting the knife away.

 

“You’re not a demon?”

 

“No I’m not.”

 

“Sagara said there was a demon.”

 

“That’s because there is. I thought it was you.”

 

“No, I’m his retainer.”

 

“Oh, that’s you, is it? I heard about you. What was your name again?”

 

“You’ll excuse me if I don’t give my name to a stranger.”

 

“Oh right.” The man was clearly foreign. “Name’s Steve Prince. I’m with the Balance. You’ll have to excuse me. I’m no good with formalities. I always screw it up, especially when I’m with samurai.”

 

Natoko felt a little elation in her heart. She didn’t know she was becoming this popular, and so quickly too.

 

“I”m Yamanaka Natoko, pleased to meet you.”

 

“Right. As absolutely fantastic as it is to meet you, we should get moving. The demon is probably still here. You should lead the way.”

 

“Understood.”

 

“Stay ten feet ahead of me at all times. I’ll cover the rear. Alert me the second you see anything. We don’t know what this thing can do, so we need to be on top of our game here. Got that?”

 

“Yes sir!” she barked, already into action, the urge to fight right now exploding out of her.

 

“Good, you’re a sharp one. I admit I was a little worried.”

 

“I’m a samurai,” she said coolly, keeping her senses high. “It’s what I do.”

 

“I can see that. Good, that’s good.” His voice trailed off, and she felt him disappear behind her. She headed off in front of him as ordered, looking to the roofs. The demon would probably be looking to keep to the dark places and strike when they were completely off guard.

 

“Oh, you’ll want your sword back as well,” Agent Prince said, passing Iziz back to her. Taking it to slip back into her gown’s belt, she felt it droop and caught it before it clattered to the floor.

 

“Oh that’s right,” she muttered to herself. “I had it-“

 

Her eyes looked to her blade, to find only the scabbard in her hands, the handle missing from the top. She hesitated, her brain slipping into neutral and coasting as she saw the tip of her weapon glint in the moonlight as it hovered besides the agent’s head, both of them staring directly at her.

 

“Sorry,” said the agent, holding her own blade ready to stab her, “but you completely deserve this.”

 

***

 

Natoko closed her eyes, not that she wanted to, but it’s became very hard to hold them open when they both knew one of them was going to be missing in a moment. She couldn’t believe how she had allowed it to happen, to be completely taken advantage by someone like that. Of course why he had let her go only to kill her a few seconds later was also confusing for a moment. But only for a moment.

 

Because that’s all she had.

 

She heard a grunt, someone trying to move a heavy piano up a flight of stairs, then a cry in the air as something fell down from above,. The ground vibrated, losing her the floor beneath her, only to meet it a second later as Sagara’s back flashed before her eyes, before shooting up in a cloud of dust.

 

“Didn’t we agree?”’ Sagara shouted to her, hidden behind the cloud of dust.

 

“Huh?” She had meant to say something more intelligent.

 

“Didn’t we agree to call each other if we found something?”

 

“No.”

 

“Really?”

 

“No, you just- you just disappeared.”

 

“Really? Oh,” he said, shooting out of the dust cloud not of his own accord. “Well I meant to. I’ll remember next time.” He got back up, his fist glowing as he fell into stance. He was wearing the weird gauntlet again. Natoko hadn’t seen it all that much, not since the fight the Dark Scourge. She always wondered where he kept it. He always seemed to have it on him.

 

Charging back into the dust cloud, which Natoko noted shouldn’t still be there, his right fist  pulled back ready to strike at whatever he could see first. As he disappeared, Natoko felt the regret of being unable to join in. Without her weapon, she’d get in the way. The sheath might have be able to club the enemy like a bokuto but it would simply fall in two if it came into contact with Iziz. No choice but to wait, ready to strike when the enemy came out, perhaps an unsuspecting blow to the head would teach him for ever daring to take Iziz off her like that, however he may have done it.

 

Then she heard clanging. Tempered steel against forged iron. It was using her sword!. The strikes wounded the air, she felt the powerful blowback hit as Sagara came tumbling out again, this time staying on his feet as he fell out with cries of, ‘Whoa!’

 

She stopped him just short of falling over backwards, looking back into the dust cloud like he had never gone into it, with only one difference.

 

“I’ll be holding onto this for you,” the agent said, swiping the air with Iziz and cutting the dust away. Now the demon had Sagara’s gauntlet encased over his right hand. Sagara casually stared down at his own right hand, unable to tell when he had lost it.

 

“Oh yeah,” he said like he had just remember he had been told to mow the lawn. “You guys can do that, can’t you?”

 

“Well, we cannot suck if that’s what you mean,” the agent said, a grin on his face as he stared down on them like a jackal. There was a cigarette in his mouth now that Natoko was sure hadn’t been there earlier. When did he find the time to?

 

“What is he?” she asked, hoping for at least a little more information to go by.

 

“Greed demon,” Sagara answered simply. “Everything it is is about stealing and taking. It’ll even appeal to your ambitions and abuse them.”

 

“What? My ambition is to be ordered around?

 

“That’s what you told me.”

 

“Guys, guys,” the agent called out. “Can you just die already? I want to be heading back soon.”

 

“See? ‘Want’. Everything it does will be based on that.”

 

“Right!” she barked, understanding and setting herself up to fight.

 

“Not need though. What you need isn’t considered being greedy. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s something you need but you really don’t because it’ll work on that as well.”

 

“Right,” she barked again, trying not to look at him.

 

“Oh, and stuff that you do need like water but in excess, that counts too. So make sure you-“

 

I know what greed, is Sagara!” she cut him off, as the demon’s hand wrapped around her throat and lifted her into the air. Hair started ripping out of the scalp as she stared straight into the eyes of the agent, the two of them shooting through the air like a cannonball. Her hands struggled to lift themselves, the g-force fighting against her as it impaled her into the building behind.

 

Natoko spat involuntarily, her legs giving up before putting up a fight and slid down the wall behind her, her hair scratching against the back of her head like sandpaper.

 

“I’ll be taking that life of yours too now, young lady,” the agent said

 

Her eyes shut again, her new iron collar trapped her, Iziz now above her, ready to finish what it started. To have it all end by her own blade was one way she had imagined going, but not like this…

 

She wouldn’t die like that!

 

But she couldn’t move either, so the choice was no longer hers. All she could do was nothing.

 

Then another loud clang, letting her breath again, a groaning sound collapsing to the floor. She didn’t dare open her eyes, forgetting when she had shut them, her lungs taking the moment to fill themselves back up.

 

Slowly, they opened, a little at a time, looking to see her saviour, standing above her with a grin on his face, but instead the only one that was there was Sarah.

 

“Yo, Kendo? Is this the guy responsible for ruining my high score?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

That’s not who should have saved her.

 

“I’m asking if this ‘secret agent man’ is the one who pulled the plug right as I was reaching the end of the final battle against Rugal? Because that’s not easy you know.”

 

The little eight year old (ten year old? Natoko didn’t know) was glaring at her with the pissed off little girl glare that Sarah had given her since they first met and seem to have no intention of changing anytime soon. In her hand was a steel pipe she was using to pin Steve’s head to the ground. She looked down on Natoko like she expected the samurai to never get up.

 

The secret agent was unconscious on the ground.

 

“Whoever gets in the way of my rivalries suffers torments unimaginable, you know that?”

 

Natoko tried to clear her head. Why was she getting sleepy now when she was so restless earlier?

 

“Yes. Yes, I think he’s responsible,” she answered numbly.

 

“Then why the crap haven’t you pounded him into tar yet.”

 

“I…I didn’t know what his abilities were. If i…”

 

“Are you a moron? The guy’s not gonna give you a list, and it’s not like it’s gonna be any different than what you do with anyone else you hit. It’s simple. Hit for the legs for mobility, arms for disarming, head for severe concussions and laughs.”

 

“Right I-“ the world blotted loudly, the blue in her eyes sang crescendo.

 

“Huh? You alright?” the little girl asked,  still sounding annoyed rather than concerned.

 

“Yeah I’m,”

 

“Yah I’m…”

 

***

 

“Don’t rip it off!”

 

The call of a voice woke her up, along with the cool night air all warm and tangy. She shifted slowly as she let herself fall back into a snooze, before remembering she had just been saved by a small child and bolted upright again.

 

Besides her was the agent, all tied up in more rope than she knew they had at the dorms. She couldn’t even see his arms.

 

“Why?” Sarah asked. She could see the young girl in the generator shed. The girl had apparently found a light switch that Natoko had missed because she could see the inside of it clearly. The room that held all the power shone brightly as the little girl’s hand hovered over the lever next to the sign saying,  ‘dorm power on/dorm power off.’

 

“The lever controls the power, and the sign controls the level. Rip it off, and we’ll have to find another way to turn it back on for you.

 

“Oh don’t be ridiculous . We’ll turn it back on all the same.” As if to spite, Sarah went for the sign first, pulling it off and ripping it to shreds in a heartbeat. She waited a moment, as if to make sure nothing would explode, then flipped the switch.

 

Nothing happened.

 

“Well, I told you,” the agent said, looking pleased that Sarah had failed. Sarah didn’t looked pleased at all and advanced on the bound helpless man, delivering a kick square to his groin before he even had as chance to beg for his future children’s lives.

 

“I was wrong, by the way,” a voice said to the other side of her as a grown man screamed in agony at the foot of a small child. She looked up to see Sagara, fiddling with the screws on his gauntlet as he slid it back on. “He wasn’t a greed demon.”

 

“He wasn’t?” she replied, showing concern where none existed. She had passed out. She had actually passed out. What was her body thinking, doing something so weak at a time like this?

 

“Ah, kendo,” said Sarah, who had just noticed her after playing with the lever. “Congratulations. You are officially this year’s biggest wuss.” Without another word, she turned back to the levers and started playing with them, trying to find which one would magically bring the dorm back to life.

 

“I-“she wanted to hide, but she felt sick and groggy, and her legs were still a few minutes behind her, the man beside her still cursing under his breath wiggling desperately to get free. She tried to focus on that.

 

“What is he then?” Natoko asked, more than willing to listen to whatever answer she was to be given.

 

“Not sure,” Sagara said. “He feels like a demon, but he’s not.” The ninja scrutinised his hand a few seconds longer, and Natoko jumped a little when she saw the gaubtlet vanish from his hand like it was never there.

 

Had that always been able to do that?

 

“I’m just someone who’s very good at convincing souls that things are what they’re clearly not.”

 

“Ah, that makes sense,” Sagara said, standing up and raising his hand to greet the man properly. “You’ll be one of the Replacaninja then. I’m Sagara, pleased to meet you.”

 

“Oh sure, ruin the confusion for them,” the agent said, raising his hand to meet Sagara’s. The confusion hadn’t stopped as far as Natoko was concerned.  He was still tied up in the ropes, completely bound, and shaking Sagara’s hand somehow.

 

“Hey boss,” Sarah called from within the shed. “Is he one of yours? Get him to turn the power back on.” Her voice became dinned by echoes of clangs, as she started kicking the machinery back into life, unsuccessfully.

 

“You probably should,” Sagara said simply to the man, who chuckled in response with an air of cynicism.

 

“If that what the Heir of the Balance is ordering me to do…” the man said, standing up and putting the ropes to the side. Natoko noticed he was taller now, like he had been slouching before. He was also wearing a completely different set of clothes, the blue shirt of a lazy professional with several loose buttons and a dinner jacket slung over his shoulder. Had Sarah changed him when she was out?

 

The man wandered up to the shed and looked around, as if to check for any passing guards, before ducking his head into the shed and announcing ‘On!’. In a flash of electric blue everything became alive in the shed and soon spread to the rest of the dorm, the whirring of machinery she never really noticed coming back to life as the dorm was flooded in light that had had their switches flicked in confusion.

 

“Sorry about all this,” he said. “I’ve been order to contact you, but I figured it would be a little wrong to just walk into a girl’s dormitory unannounced.”

 

“I’m glad somebody thinks so,” Otsune said, walking towards the group.  She was fully dressed save for slippers, and looked like she had her top on the wrong way round. Natoko didn’t get chance to tell her as Gen came up behind her. “Though I don’t follow your logic of turning our power off.”

 

“Why not just convince everyone you were a girl?” Sagara asked the man blatantly.

 

“That would be even worse,” the agent replied. “No, I think taking out all the power and bringing attention to the fact that Something had happened rather than just sneaking in and alerting only one person quietly to my presence was a much better choice of tactics.” He looked aware that he was being sarcastic, but Natoko was too out of it to be sure.

 

“Well, I’m glad at least you’re not a demon.”

 

“Ha, I’m glad too,” he replied. “Though I’m hoping Sagara’s told you by now that demon’s can’t get in here.”

 

“They can’t?” said Natoko shocked.

 

“Well no,” replied Steve, looking confused that he even had to explain. “The old lady that ran this place before put so much security into this place. Demons can’t even get into the town unless they get invited by a member of the Futabatei family.”

 

“Oh and I guess that includes fight challenges too, does it Sagara?” Otsune hinted, now glaring at Sagara. Natoko recalled the giant wheel monster that had attacked Sagara about five seconds to him getting here. It took both of them to put it down. Sagara just smiled.

 

“He did it?” Gen, the landlord asked. “Should I call the police?”

 

“That’s already been attended to, Futabatei,” Natoko replied, surprising herself. “You can leave the rest to us.”

 

Otsune seemed to catch the hint- ‘weird stuff again’, and, having no intention of getting involved, turned on her heels and dragged Gen away from the group. Natoko couldn’t blame her. Otsune was far too normal for this kind of stuff. Natoko watched as the student pulled the landlord away and noticed she lingered for a moment to stare at the newcomer’s face, before being distracted by some near invisible insect and quickly moving on.

 

“Well, I guess I’ll head back to bed too,” said Sagara, already moving on. He was already at the door when the agent shouted to stop.

 

“I am actually here to see you,” the agent got out just before Sagara disappeared. Everyone paused as they waited for him to open the door again, and Natoko had enough time to wonder if she should take control of the situation and ask the man to come back in he morning and perhaps even arrange an appointment if it was that important to see her lord and even go so far as to offer him a room away from the others if he had nowhere nearby to stop the night, but Sagara slid the door back open before then.

 

“You better come in then.”

 

“Actually if we could speak outside, that would be better,” the man insisted, and Sagara stepped back out. Sarah met him halfway across the courtyard and stood beside her cousin. Natoko stayed where she was, feeling odd about herself.

 

“I don’t even have that much to say really,” the agent said, appearing a little vexed at the confession. “I don’t even know why they haven’t just sent you a note.”

 

“What for?” Sagara asked.

 

The man cleared his throat. It felt like a ritual rather than a need to.

 

“Sagara Futabatei, Ms. Sakimoto requests an audience with you at her office branch in Fuugosuki immediately. She wants to know, and I quote ‘What the hell you are playing at?’ You are to come at your earliest convenience.”

 

Chapter Three

 

Natoko knew she wouldn’t recognize the place. Even though the last time she came to the Sakimoto Inc. building in Fuugosuki it was from the sixth floor through a magic portal door that originated in an alley from her own humble town, she was sure she had left through the front door.

 

She couldn’t remember descending down the twenty stone steps that she now hiked up, nor leaving through the automatic glass doors that pinged and said welcome four times in a row (and an extra ‘goodbye’ when Sarah jumped back in and out to test it) and she figured she would have definitely remembered the reception area they now stood in, wide and grand and all but empty save for one sleek black reception desk and shiny white, reflective tiles smothering the walls and designed to blind a person without eyes.

 

“This is incredibly wasteful,” Natoko said looking around. Everything was modern and shiny. It hurt to look. As they approached the reception desk Natoko hazarded a guess that with only the elevator and the doors to the stairs showing, this was probably the entire ground floor of the building.

 

“We should be expected,” said Steve, walking ahead of them. “You’ll just need to sign the visitor’s book.”  Finding it odd there was no one to either welcome them or throw them out, Natoko ended up being last to sign in. Quickly scrawling her name in complete form, she noticed that Sarah still wrote her name in katakana, having not developed a signature yet. Sagara had done the same, but in American.

 

“Good,” the agent said, walking off towards the elevator. “If you would come this way.” Pressing the button, they waited silently as the lift descended, Natoko staying a few steps back from the rest. As they entered, Steve stayed behind, waving them off.

 

The trio waited patiently for the lift, or at least she and Sagara did.

 

“Oi,” Sarah shouted. “What floor do we want?”

 

There was no answer for a few seconds, and then the lift started moving on its own. It occurred to Natoko that she didn’t look at how tall the building was, or what it even looked like. At the time, she was looking at the steps, and then the door, and now she couldn’t tell if they were moving up or down. Yawning quietly to herself, she let her eyes close, taking a minute to catch some sleep.

 

“Jeez this is long,” Sarah said after a minute. “What floor are we going to?” Natoko impulsively looked up for the floor number, but couldn’t see anything. Then she looked behind her and only saw herself looking back. That was odd, there was no floor indicator in here, not even by the buttons. It said there were ten floors but that shouldn’t take too long. Didn’t these types of building have hidden floors from the public? There was a locked compartment under the buttons, maybe they were being sent-

 

thudt

 

The floor disappeared from beneath them as Sarah’s hand shot out to claw at the buttons. The girl vanished form view, replaced by darkness. Natoko heard the girl scream as she plummeted after her.

 

“What?’ she asked. “What?” She was falling. To her doom. Was this all just a trap? A grand trick to lead her lord to his doom. It was a bit too elaborate surely, especially when they had had ample opportunities to die beforehand.

 

The air started slamming her in the face, not the wind picking up speed but her body picking up momentum. Panic took away straight thinking. Was this an attack, the greed demon tricking them so easily again? This would have been a perfect way to kill him. They must have been at least ten floors up. Could Sagara survive a fall from this height?

 

She certainly couldn’t, and Sarah was out too.

 

The little girl was just a few feet above her. Sagara too, looking as calm as ever, like they were still waiting in the lift. Neither seemed to have a way of getting out of this, not that she had expected Sarah to, but Sagara-

 

Five small flickers of light had passed them now. Or they had passed them? No matter. At this rate nothing mattered, save perhaps doing what she could to cushion the other’s fall. She was at the bottom. Should she at least try to save Sarah’s life by acting as a shield?

 

No, she should be protecting Sagara, not the brat. That was what she was there for, and she was going to fail at this rate if she didn’t do something soon. Eight flickers of light, passing by her in heartbeats pumping furiously. Wouldn’t Sagara want her to protect his cousin? Now wasn’t the time to be thinking of other? Twelve flickers. Were they getting faster?

 

She heard a grunt and saw Sarah reaching for her, a futile attempt to grab something safe. Natoko could only stare back as the little girl failed to get anywhere near her, the wind driving them down, her hand touching nothing, both drifting further away. Th girl wasn’t looking at Natoko but beyond her; down her body. Natoko clicked. Iziz!

 

Pressing her own hand against the updraft resistance, she brought her hand to the tsuba of Iziz, nearly missing it somehow but clutching it tightly at the last second and drawing it out in one fluid motion. Then with her other hand, she reached out to Sarah, who took her hand in one swoop and hugged Natoko tightly. Finally, she twisted the blade so it met facing the wall, and with the best lunge she could stabbed forwards. It bounced off with a loud ricochet. Natoko had to push harder to keep it there, grinding against the wall and feeling it dig in, tearing metal asunder as it ploughed down a further ten meters

 

They were slowing down, the descent becoming bumpier as gravity lost its hold on them. Behind her she heard a thud that she couldn’t look at. Iziz was slicing through the wall like a butter knife on fire now, tearing through passing wires and sending sparks in her face. Holding tight enough to draw blood, she felt her wrist burning at the odd angle, muscles threatening to tear, a heavy sword meeting with a heavy building that pulled at the both of them before finally coming to a top. She bit her cheek as her whole body jolted sharply.

 

*Ding* The noise filled her ears as her lungs burned for air she dare not breath in. To her left she saw light as the elevator door opened. Both her and Sarah glanced at it before the girl recognized her salvation and lunged for it, able to reach it easily and pull herself up to safety. With one big breath Natoko followed behind, able to find a foothold in the machinery and pulling herself up. It was only when she got to safety when she realised she may have to lose her sword until Sarah wordlessly took her arm and leaned in to get it. Natoko anchored the young girl as she pulled it out of its niche and passed it back without a sound.

 

Before the two of the had time to say anything Sagara fell between them, landing on his gauntlet as it broke through the flooring, leaving an impressive crack on the stone.

 

“Well, looks like we stayed alive” he said, shaking rubble out of the joints of his gauntlet with his left hand. “I wonder how we’ll get to Yuya now?”

 

“Do we even want to?” asked Sarah rhetorically, starting the long walk down the corridor without thinking. It was a long steel walkway, which looked a little like the InBetween realm, that world of endless office corridors that she still hadn’t got a decent explanation out of Sagara for. Natoko couldn’t tell if they were there right now. It felt like it, but it felt different too. There was a humming, like a motor, and an electric taste to the air that was missing from the mild stench of the InBetween Realm.

 

“Why wouldn’t we want to?” Sagara asked curiously, his arms hanging limp to the side now.

 

“You said she’s the boss of this place right?” Sarah stated. “Which means, she was the one that had that happen just now. Meaning she wants us dead.”

 

“But she’s had plenty of times to kill us before with that man,” Natoko interjected. “Why bring us here to do it?”

 

“Because, Kendo, she hasn’t had time to kill us before. Only time to kill you before, when you so shamelessly passed out in front of your opponent.”

 

Natoko felt a deep hole filling her stomach. “Yes, I had thought of that as well,” she admitted. “But there were easier ways to kill us. The trip here was a perfect opportunity.”

 

“But the best opportunity would be in the comfort of their own grounds,” Sarah pointed out, “Where body disposal is easier and can be done on their own damn terms. Think these things through, moron.”

 

Sagara was just smiling between them, not even trying to break up the argument.  Sarah had good points, she guessed, but she couldn’t believe that Yuya was planning to kill them like this. She had been nice earlier. A little harsh, but the kind of harsh that one would want from a teacher who had your best interests at heart, not someone who was setting you up to strike you down with a bowling ball.

 

She was also a little miffed to be brow beaten by a ten year old.

 

“Fuck.”

 

Sarah swearing in American got her attention and she glanced through the door at the end of the corridor. Impossible. What she saw clearly did not exist. She had seen skyscrapers before, but never ones inside buildings. And she had always been able to see the tops of them.

 

This one was magnificent. A metallic tube, a giant cyber-supercomputer thing or something equally futuristic, embedded in the ground and spiraling hundred of miles into the sky, where the darkness covered it up before her eyes could see the end. It pulsed blue lines of light and radiated static energy that she could feel prickling her hair and making her clothes fuzzy, even this far away from it.

 

And between them, across the steel floor that was smooth yet gripped her trainers like concrete, a maze of barbed wire fences three times as high as herself and humming with the same energy that came from the block wrapped around the ground surrounding the tower like the grass under a tree, a zap that promised nothing better than a blue death for whoever grazed it coming from every wire. It hurt her eyes to look.

 

“What the hell is this place?” Sarah asked

 

“Looks like a tower surrounded by electric fences,” Sagara said walking up to it. In front of them lay an opening to the maze, a simple gap that beckoned them to enter. Besides it was a monitor. On the screen the words ‘Please wait, loading’ were displayed in bold yellow neon letters, a digital girl with a wand doing star jumps in the meantime.

 

“We must have come out at the generator,” Natoko suggested. “Maybe the computer server.”

 

“Oh like you know,” Sarah said.  “This place could just be for serving ice cream and you wouldn’t know the difference.” Natoko fell silent. Seconds later the monitor pinged loudly.

 

“Welcome,” displayed the monitor.

 

“Hi, thanks for having us,” Sagara replied back with a wave, making Sarah chuckle.

 

“You will now play a S.I.S game to get to the end and receive your reward. You may leave at any time.” To their right a door lit up, with a bright yellow light coming out from behind it looking like sunlight. The door had a simple handle on it and looked to be holding nothing back but their potential freedom. Natoko felt the urge to go to it, and was about to step forward when she saw no one else was. It was the smartest move, when it was obvious what the monitor was going to say next, but she couldn’t bring herself to.

 

“The aim of the S.I.S game is simple. Get the key and then get to the tower. Then travel to the top. There is no time limit save your own fleshly lifespan. You may begin when ready.” The monitor went ping again, and the little digital girl bowed before disappearing.

 

“S.I.S program starting. Please enjoy your intrusion.”

 

Natoko breathed in, looking to fill the hole in her stomach with air. “What are your orders, my lord?” she asked.

 

“I don’t have any,” he said. “Do what you want.”

 

“Well, I’m going in,” Sarah said, and without waiting for a response, the young girl strode through the gap like she had an urgent meeting on the other side. She chose left and went with it. The others quickly followed.

 

“I’m surprised you didn’t choose to leave,” Natoko said, quickly catching up. It would be bad for them to get separated, though looking towards the tower she actually had a fairly good view of the exit they were aiming for; another elevator

 

“Of course I didn’t choose it. We fell further than we went up. There’s no way it was sunlight. Beside, I won’t lose to this.”

 

Natoko wasn’t sure if that was true, but she wasn’t going to quit the game if Sarah wasn’t. Protecting Sagara’s family should be considered a priority, and the little girl was bound to get herself into trouble. She should have said something as they were leaving. Her and Sagara would have been enough for this, and Otsune was bound to be mad when they got back.

 

“We should find the key first then.”

 

“Obviously.”

 

“Where do you think it’ll be.”

 

“I don’t fucking know.”

 

“Well, do you have any-“

 

“No.”

 

“Well then we should probably-“

 

“Shut up already!”

 

Natoko fell silent, scanning her horizons. Why was she even bothering? She held back a step and fell into line behind Sagara. She shouldn’t have even been walking in front of him in the first place.

 

“Do you know where the key might be?” she asked him.

 

“Not at all,” he replied. “But then that’s the point isn’t it?” That was true, they had to find it within this maze and it could be anywhere. This was going to be quite the journey. It would probably take them a couple of hours to get around to the other side, and a maze could put a dead end in their path at any time. They might have been able to risk climbing over if they weren’t electrified.

 

It also occurred to her in a setting this weird that they didn’t even know what the key looked like, let alone where it was. Was it a keycard? A regular key, some sort of special item. And there might even be fakes scattered about to get in their way. If only there was some way of getting through this maze faster. If they had come down on bikes or something… Bringing a packed lunch seemed a good idea now. This was going to take a while.

 

“What’s that,” Sarah said up ahead. They had just followed her around the next right turn when they saw what she was looking at. A floating black ball, perfectly spherical, bouncing up and down in the air like a basketball.  Watching it carefully, they got closer, unsure of what it might do, or whether it was even doing anything.

 

“Is it an enemy?” she asked as Sarah approached it. She was sure that this time she and the girl were thinking the same thing, whether or not this was something that would turn from a blob to a monster the second they touched it and began battle. It might even be something helpful, found early in the game by mistake, a health pack or power up. It might have even been the key. Whatever it was, they approached it carefully, inching closer.

 

“Wait,” Sarah said, turning to her cousin. “You can check, can’t you boss? Using your eyes?” By now most of them knew Sagara had, as he put it, Magic Eyes. Most of the girls at the dorm just thought it to be a reason to be a bit more careful around him but some knew the truth, that he could sense demons with but a glance and knew when people were possessed or not. Though she didn’t know when he had told Sarah.

 

“It’s not a demon,” he said, his eyes already their demon sensing green. This seemed enough for Sarah and she approached it, still cautiously, her hand reaching up, aching to touch it.  Natoko braced herself as well, just in case something went wrong.  The sphere started to bounce faster, a vertical pendulum hypnotically bouncing. There was a small crackle of electricity.

 

Natoko’s vision went white, her eyes shutting but still not being enough , her body moving and only just being fast enough, She could feel the flames reaching her, tracing her skin like the delicate finger of a lover she never knew,  threatening to engulf but instead teasing her with its efforts. The sphere exploded and she could not see where Sarah went.

 

It stopped just as quickly. Just one second. And when she opened her eyes she was shocked to find herself still in the maze, the area in front of her now scorched black against the stainless steel floors, the fences surrounding them blackened but still pulsing with energy. Her throat went dry very quickly.

 

“Let me go,” Sarah growled, thumping her arm. It wasn’t until the girl kicked her expertly in the shins that Natoko even realised she had grabbed the child. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she shouted angrily, wiping herself down and surveying the wreckage. The sphere had blown itself into oblivion, leaving nothing but a black soot that smelled of swimming pools.

 

Sarah hesitantly hovered over the soot before her , as if this too might explode, before carrying on up the path.

 

Though she went ahead of them, Sarah didn’t stray too far and appeared anxious around corners. Natoko herself kept her hand on Iziz at all times. There hadn’t been anything but the floating bomb so far and she knew cutting that wouldn’t be smart, but anything else that hadn’t yet made itself immediately apparent she could probably deal with.

 

She stopped again near the sixth or seventh turn they had made so far, and looked to Sagara after peeking around the corner and rushing back.

 

“It’s another one,” she told them. “It hasn’t noticed us yet.”

 

“We should probably go around it then,” Natoko suggested. “If we avoid battle then we’ll-“

 

“-never get anywhere,” Sarah interrupted. “I doubt you’ve noticed but we haven’t had any other turns so far. It’s just been one big path.”

 

Natoko hadn’t noticed, and she was sure she had seen another path earlier. They were probably going to be meeting these things everywhere, or at least other enemies and traps. And they couldn’t do with going about randomly trying different ways. Even if they got the path right first time, this could still take them hours, and they hadn’t brought anything to eat or drink.

 

“We’re gonna need to set it off,” Sarah said. “Blow it up before it gets to us, y’know. Kendo, you got anything to throw at it?”

 

“Nothing I suppose.” She had the key to her room and a bit of money that would do nothing but burn harmlessly in the air.

 

“We better use your sword then.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“You got a better idea?”

 

“No, but that’s out of the question. I’d rather just leave than waste Iziz destroying a simple bomb.”

 

“If it’s so simple think of another way to get past it for us then. Or we could just throw you at it.”

 

“Well, we could-“

 

“-though I was planning on using you as a shield in the worst case scenario.”

 

“Why you ungrateful little brat,” Natoko glared at the little girl. “I help save your life and you repay me by-“

 

“-rescuing your sword for you. Thus we’re even. Now I owe you nothing at the moment, yet I seem to be the only one out of the two of us trying to get something done here.”

 

“I am trying to get things done. It’s just I don’t know what we can do at the moment.”

 

“Well, you’re supposed to be protecting Boss, ain’t ya?”

 

“And I don’t see how protecting him requires setting a bomb off.”

 

“That bomb’s coming,” said Sagara.

 

Both girls turned to see another black orb bobbing along towards them, taking its time like it was choosing a Christmas present in July. Natoko turned back to look at Sarah.  “What do we do?”

 

“We just need to stop it, right?” said Sagara.

 

“Right, but how do we-“ something whizzed passed her eyes as a purple streak. She barely had time to follow it when the bomb detonated, scattering flame towards them.

 

“There. Gone.” Natoko opened her eyes, then moved the arm that was protecting them, to see a gap where the turn in the fence was, the floor again scorched black.

 

“Awesome boss,” Sarah shouted, clenching her fists in excitement. “How’d you do that?”

 

“With Scorlock,” Sagara replied.

 

“We can take them out easily with that thing. Awesome.” The girl was foolish. She couldn’t even see what Sagara had done. Natoko didn’t know either, but she knew less about this place. Looking at the hole in the wall that the bomb had blown off, she saw no remains, but it didn’t look right for some reason. It was just one panel gone with a clean cut. Surely they couldn’t have been that efficient at taking out a perfect square.

 

She was just about to suggest something when two more black orbs caught her eye, one from either side their silence drowning out Sarah’s voice as she lavished praise upon Sagara. Natoko backed off but knew it was too late. They had already noticed her and were bouncing through the new gap in the wall. How she had failed to notice them earlier when she must have walked passed one on the other side of the fence she didn’t know.

 

“Two more, let’s move,” she said. This time, Sarah didn’t disagree and the three rushed ahead on the road they were on rather than switching or going back. Yet they had barely gotten a hundred meters when another one appeared in front of them again. This one was already moving away from them but turned as it heard them approach and encroached silently towards them.

 

Intending to turn straight back, Natoko stopped as she saw the other two had followed them and had nearly caught up. They were trapped. Explosive death on both sides. She saw Sagara lift his hand up to do something and Sarah immediately stopping him, grabbing his hand and pulling it back down.

 

“No, if you shoot them this close to each other, you might set the others off. We don’t know if they’ve got the same amount of explosives in them anyway.”

 

Sagara held off. And Natoko looked around for any other escapes. This wire maze was so closely packed together it might be that they couldn’t see some of the other exits. She searched for a futile three seconds and couldn’t find anything. They were getting closer now, like three wolves who had played the final trick on a pack of rats in a sewer. The three of them closed in together, pressing their backs to the wall.

 

“Maybe you should get ‘em boss,” Sarah said, her voice quaking a little.

 

“But you said-“

 

“I know what I said but we have more chance of getting first degree burns now than dying than we will have in ten seconds time. I think we should go for those.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Of course I’m sure,” the girl barked.

 

“Sorry,” he said with a polite giggle. “Mom said I should always check these things first.”

 

“No, he-,” Natoko began, but cut herself off. She was about to go on to point out that perhaps they should try running past the single one, and hope they could before detonation, and was even ready to say that she would act as a shield for the others if need be so at least only one of them would get hurt, but then she realized she was grabbing onto the fence for her life when she shouldn’t have been able to.

 

The others were looking at her now, but she wasn’t looking at them. They had just assumed; had just felt the energy coming from the fences. With the barbed wire it had seemed obvious. But now…

 

Her left hand swung forwards, taking Iziz with it and cutting a cross through the padded steel wire fence in front of them, tearing through it like a paper door. She watched it carefully, returning her sword.

 

Sarah sounded like she was about to say something, when the fence shimmered, pixelating sharply in the air like a lost television signal, before disappearing in a zip, leaving them a new door to go through.

 

The others were staring at her.

 

“Ah let’s…let’s go this way,” she suggested to them.

 

Sarah blinked herself out of her trance. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!” she shouted, rushing through the gate herself and running parallel to the direction they were going. The others followed.

 

And immediately stopped again.

 

“More black orbs.” This was getting frustrating. She looked behind to see another floating sphere at the other side of the non-electric gate. It approached them at just the right speed to meet up with the others as they came through the hole…

 

The explosion was deafening. Natoko heard nothing but whistling, and saw nothing but white hot oblivion as she turned to take out the next fence. It seemed to disappear quicker than the last one and they fell through it quickly enough to run from the oncoming flame just as it started to die down again.

 

Sagara was talking. She couldn’t hear him.

 

“Excuse me?!”

 

“   -aid they’re being attracted to the noise.”

 

“I thought that was obvious!” She got the feeling she was shouting. Looking over Sagara’s shoulder she saw the black soot fall to the ground. The explosion had taken out the entire area where they had just been traveling, along with fences belonging to about five lanes of the maze.

 

“The blast radius multiplies with more bombs.”

 

“I’m just saying they seem to be noticing us more.” Natoko looked behind her own shoulder now, seeing six more orbs floating towards them. How could they be this fast, yet hover so slow? It’s like they sped up intentionally when they knew they weren’t being looked at.

 

“Where now?” she asked Sagara but with Sarah answering instead.

 

“The center,” she shouted. “Keeping cutting through the fence.”

 

Natoko did so, slashing them one by one. They all faded fast, but it was still two seconds of waiting time as they waited for the fence to dissipate. Without time to think about where they were going, she hacked and spliced her way through five layers, before making the mistake of looking back. Fifteen black orbs hovered behind them, acting like a group of children playing Darum-san at a birthday party. Iziz slid against her hand as she missed the sheath and she nearly cut herself launching the next attack.

 

“We still need the key!” she shouted, realizing this wasn’t going to help.

 

“Shut up, I’m on that,” Sarah shouted, over what sounded like an impossible din. “Look over there!”

 

Sarah’s hand pointed to just past the tower and Natoko glanced up to see what she meant. It was the first time she had noticed it, a large haze of a red light that was dangling in the air on the opposite side of the maze where it had been hidden by the tower from where they had started. In the middle of the light, flashing in big neon, purple letters was the word ‘KEY’.

 

“That’s kind of obvious,” Sagara said, running besides them.

 

“We won’t need to get that far though,” Sarah called out.

 

“Why’s that,” Natoko asked and she advanced to the next fence.

 

“Grunts like yourself shouldn’t have to know what the plan is. Just follow orders and slash the fences.”

 

Natoko wanted to stop out of spite but knew better than that. She took out the next fence and saw the final one in front of her. What had that made, about ten fences in? She felt like she could keep this up forever.

 

“Watch it!” She looked to her left, seeing another black orb just sitting there next to her. Running to avoid it she was already too late. It exploded, killing her hearing again. As the ground shook around she tripped on her own feet and fell onto her palms, slamming them into the steel floor with a hollow thud. She stared down as her hearing quickly returned and thudded the floor again, receiving a loud bomp for her efforts.

 

“The floor’s hollow here, I think-“

 

But her friends had already left her, down through the gap the latest orb had left for them and into the center. She looked around and saw that the explosion hadn’t taken out the army of twenty that was now less than a few feet from her and she scrambled after her lord just before the balls got close enough.

 

Not believing they had left her behind she was halfway to catching up with the fleeting figures when she saw a small blue light in front of her. She broke her direction to the left and was rewarded by not getting blown up as another orb appeared out of the blue light. “They’re teleporting.” That’s what was going on. No wonder they seemed to move so fast. She evaded another blue light as it seemed to appear form nowhere and catapulted forwards to reach the others. They didn’t stop as they approached the center tower, the massive skyscraper looming over them like it was ready to topple down. It felt amazing that they had even reached it. Sarah was panting.

 

“Well, here’s the door,” she wheezed to take a moment. It looked like the elevator they had seen at the entrance only silver instead of white. Beside it was a little niche with a slot, the words insert card here written in both English and Japanese. “All we got to do is go round to the other side of the tower, tear through a whole bunch of other fences, avoid more bombspheres, get the key, turn back, avoid the bombspheres that are following us and make our way back here.”

 

Natoko didn’t get why the girl was going into such meticulous detail, but it didn’t matter. “Why don’t I just cut it down,” she suggested.

 

“The better question is why are we waiting for you to cut it down” Natoko waited for a response. “Come on. Chop chop. Literally.”

 

She composed herself, taking Iziz in hand and aimed for the left hand edge of the door, looking to sever the electric blue line, and with a crisp, clean slice perfectly executed a single mark against the door’s steel frame, the sword rebounding off of it with a loud clang.

 

“Crap,” Sarah shouted. “Fuckit.” Pushing Natoko aside she went to look at the niche in the wall, examining the slot. Natoko ignored her, and retracted Iziz, looking to strike the door again.

 

“Don’t fucking bother!” the little girl growled without looking back. “That door’s too thick for you.” Rummaging through her pockets, Sarah started to look for something. Natoko looked back at the fence the silent orbs reaching closer. None had teleported it seemed, but they were only a good twenty meters away.

 

She turned to the girl who was still examining the niche with one hand and rummaging with the other. Natoko gasped with a mix of shock and disgust as she saw the young ten year old pull out a small flickknife. Twirling it out, she hacked at the slot violently, stabbing it repetitively for all she was worth. Natoko was just about to interject when the outer covering came off and with a laugh the girl pulled the rest of it off, only to reveal a metal coating covering everything underneath.

 

Dammit,” Sarah called out, stabbing at the metal and damaging her knife. “We’re screwed.”

 

“We can still get the key if we-“

 

“You think we’re gonna survive that long with this many things coming at us,” Sarah slapped back before Natoko finished. “It’s just going to take one of those things to kill us and-“ she stopped in mid rant. “I know,” she said and rushed passed them to the door, knocking on it a few times. “This way, boss.”

 

“Okay,” Sagara said, following her. Natoko hoped she meant her as well and quickly followed behind them. They traveled the twenty or so meters to the end of the tower and jumped round it. Natoko had only just reached there when Sarah was already doubling back.

 

“Don’t follow,” she shouted. Natoko watched as the girl started heading back to the door just in time to meet up with the orbs. Watching in horror she saw the girl get  to the door and, picking something up off the ground, started running backwards in their direction

 

“What on earth is she doing?”

 

“I don’t think we’re on Earth,” said Sagara from behind her. “Though I’m not quite sure.”

 

She had just enough time to fail to make a remark when she saw Sarah toss something away from them and at the orbs before switching to a full on sprint in their direction. Natoko only just got enough of an idea to swing round the corner and hide as the light flooded her vision again, the sound following a second behind it as it shook the room again. The ground trembled violently for a full five seconds, and Natoko held her breath for every moment as she kept the corner of her eye poised firmly at the edge of the wall. She saw the light get brighter, upping in contrast as it became blinding, the white filling her eyes and sealing them shut. Then, just as it seemed bearable, flames erupted from around the corner, burning intensely and spreading outwards, blowing all the pressure away. Natoko felt herself slip a little, her breath gone and not wanting to come back again, and then Sarah fell out from around the corner as she jumped to safety.

 

The inferno was gone ten seconds later, leaving no sign of the orbs but plenty of black scorch marks and soot along the ground. No one said anything as they took their time walking back, looking at the once silver landscape now reduced to darkness as dust traveled through the air, hiding the sight of the wrecked fences that had been there previously. Natoko wondered if they should be worried about anymore orbs, but somehow knew it wasn’t a problem anymore. Reaching the doors, they heard a crackling noise and made it out to be the card slot in front of them, struggling for life as it fizzled out, the doors it protected no longer there.

 

“Ding,” said Sarah.

 

***

 

Taking the elevator was a bad idea, though Sagara had got into it without question at first. It had seemed a lot smarter to take the stairs this time round, though they didn’t know how far they had to go, and they didn’t see any door for the first couple of flights. It wasn’t until they were at least ten stories up (in Natoko’s tired opinion) that they found the first one.

 

“Think this is it?”

 

“Who cares,” Sarah said, walking through.

 

The type of music that should be playing in elevators approached her first. It was as relaxing as it was fitting perfectly with the scene before her. The extensively furbished waiting room with three leather sofas each big enough to fit a family on, polished wooden floors, pictures of van gogh sunflowers mixed with renaissance war depictions and more potted plants and water coolers than a whole office block should have and did not help in not confusing her.

 

“Finally,” Sarah grunted, without looking around, instead heading straight for the water cooler like it was perfectly okay and not rude at all and started pouring herself a drink. “You want one, boss?”

 

“Ooh, yes please,” he said, following her up to the nearest water cooler. Natoko couldn’t tell why he was waiting, because there were seven other water coolers right besides the one Sarah was using. She passed him the first one and started to pour another. Natoko got the hint she wasn’t going to be getting an offer of one, and decided it would be rude to take without being offered anyway. Her dry body screamed at her in silent protest.

 

Sarah jumped onto one of the sofas and craned her neck up as they all heard a light beeping noise coming from a panel above them. Natoko twisted round to see a large telecaster dangling above her. On it were a series of numbers.

 

FINAL SCORE

 

Stabby-sama:395 POINTS

 

Slasha-kun: 40 POINTS

 

Sucka-chan: 5 POINTS

 

TOTAL: 440 POINTS     PASS

 

“We were being scored?”

 

“I hate games that score you at the end. You never know what everything was for.”

 

“Yeah, at least with fighting games, it racks up your points as it goes.”

 

“Neh, with fighting games it doesn’t matter. Puzzle games are the worst for it.”

 

Stopping as they realized they were talking to each other, Natoko and Sarah turned to the one thing in the room that hadn’t been described yet, the varnished door at the other end of the room next to a picture of a man with a flag standing over a horde of dying peasants. It opened slowly, and from out the other end popped a man’s face.

 

“You can come in now,” said Agent Steve, beckoning them in.

 

***

 

“Sagara. Good to see you. Come in,” said Ms. Sakimoto as they entered her office Natoko recognized it from last time, a large glass room with the city lit up outside massive windows as if on display at a museum. “Sit down, all of you. Can I get you something to drink?”

 

“We’re good thanks,” said Sagara, raising his plastic cup. He had refilled it just before coming in, as had Sarah. Natoko was feeling quite thirsty.

 

“Very well,” the executive said, finishing off what she was writing and standing up to circle the table. She was wearing tracksuit trousers and trainers, yet had a shirt on top with her hair pinned back. Natoko had remembered her wearing something similar last time, but couldn’t place what. The executive, who Natoko now felt rude calling her by her first name, leaned back on the desk, and surveyed the three of them.

 

“Yamanaka Natoko-san,” she said, starling the girl into readiness. “It is good to see you again. I take it your injuries are all healed?”

 

“What? Oh, oh yes, yes,” Natoko blurted out, completely forgetting her body had been broken beyond repair in the battle against Fujiwaru Hayate just two weeks earlier. She could barely remember even being hurt, and didn’t have any recollection of the damage the boy had done to her spine. She remembered her manners. “I’m fine now. Were they your…” She wanted to say doctors. “The healers?”

 

“The Neuts, yes. They were hired by me. They were all volunteers though. You can’t pay those people anything no matter how hard you try. It’s quite frustrating actually. Makes me feel I have a debt, if you understand.”

 

“Yes.” Natoko didn’t have a clue, though she did find it cool she was healed so easily. She could do with something like that at home.

 

“That’s good,” Ms. Sakimoto said with a methodical nod, before turning to look at the next guest with the polite glare one would give an equally polite unwelcomed intruder. “And who is this?”

 

“This is Sarah King,” said Steve, rubbing his head.

 

Mss. Sakimoto glare softened to shock. “You’re Sarah King?” she said, getting up and moving over to the delinquent youth, extending her hand and holding it there for Sarah to take. Sarah frowned up at her for a moment, but took it when the woman wouldn’t put it away.

 

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Ms. King,” she said, wrapping both hands around Sarah’s and shaking lightly but eagerly.

 

“You know me?”

 

“I suppose you could say that. It’s your father I’m acquainted with.”

 

“My dad?”

 

“Yes. I am acquainted with most of the King lineage. Nice man. Very aloof. Very violent. Just like your cousin here. I can see why you’re so attached to him?”

 

“Do you know where he is?”

 

“Dear child. I don’t think even he knows where he is. More likely searching for adventure again. You know the sort. Crossing deserts. Hiking over mountains, forbidden cities and the like.”

 

“Don’t call me child.”

 

“Your dad’s an adventurer?” Natoko said.

 

“He’s a cocksucking tramp?” Sarah shouted, staring ahead at nobody as she snatched her hand away from the executive, who was still shaking eagerly and looked a little hurt to be pulled away. “And the next time I see him he’s dead.”

 

“Well I suppose you wouldn’t like me telling you how much you look like him, so I’ll just get straight to the point.” Ms. Sakimoto retreated back to her desk. She slid into her clearly expensive leather chair slowly, started rapping her fingers along the edge of her desk and shifted her gaze over to Sagara, who just smiled back.

 

“Now Sagara, would you mind telling me- Just what the nine hells have you been up to?”

 

“Training mostly,” Sagara said.

 

Ms. Sakimoto’s voice was infinitely angrier than Sagara’s and the sudden change of mood frightened Natoko. Sagara sat perfectly calm.

 

“And yet don’t you have more important things to be doing?”

 

“Mom says it’s always important to train.”

 

“Tenma also gave you a mission, but clearly you haven’t been paying attention.”

 

“I thought I had done that.”

 

“Oh dear.” Tenma took her glasses off to rub her eyes. “No. No, you haven’t done that. You haven’t done all that much at all really. You managed to get into the tournament and fight your way through to the finals and yes, it seems you had somehow, though my sources have no ideas how, managed to find the meeting place of all your quarries, but you didn’t judge them as you were required and you certainly weren’t responsible for their final fate.”

 

“That got a bit out of my hands though.”

 

“The whole point of your existence is to keep control, boy! Control, with the ability to hold onto it so that other’s may make their choices. No situation should ever be above the Enforcer. Tenma could run the entire planet by herself if she needed to. You couldn’t even get yourself out of a wall a low level angel had manipulated into thinking it was made of silly putty!”

 

The angel was low level?

 

“I would admit to some small exception with the presence of that creature, but nearly dying was not the way to go about it!”

 

“Hey,” Sarah cut in. “I didn’t see you doing anything to fix all that. All you looked like you were doing is getting ready to die several times over. Ms. Sakimoto turned to the little girl, not expecting the interruption.

 

“Of course I didn’t have control over the situation. I intentionally gave it up in order for Sagara to take it. Of course, in situations that would escalate this far, I would still have measures ready to take over and prevent an all out war.”

 

“Oh yeah, your powers of hindsight are amazing.”

 

“Moving on-“

 

“-yeah that’s what your mom said.”

 

“Moving on,” said Ms. Sakimoto, raising her voice a few decibels. “The fact of the matter is you have yet to finish your initiation ceremony, Sagara. Whether you think you have or not, the elders have deemed you to still be in progress with your mission. And as you know, this status stays with you until you complete your tasks or die.”

 

“Now,” she said, walking to the adjacent wall. “If you would look this way.” She touched the wall, and the lights went dark, an image appearing on the wall immediately. A grid of mug shots appeared on the wall. ”I will show you what you should have been investigating. Now what has Tenma taught you about investigating?”

 

“To discover clues and uncover the mysteries you desire to know.”

 

“Right, and you haven’t done that. Why not?”

 

“I thought I had.”

 

Ms. Sakimoto took a very visible moment to close her eyes and kill Sagara in the back of her head. “This is how many demons our investigations have uncovered so far. Out of the 160 entrants in the tournament, a total of 27 have been determined to be demons entering under the guise of humans. Of these, 21 are now believed to be banished, though we are still investigating that.”

 

“You haven’t found them then?” Sagara asked.

 

“No we haven’t,” Ms. Sakimoto admitted. “Usually we find them stalking about in the InBetween realm just a few minutes after, but nothing’s been found of most of them so far. Some had been found, mostly those eliminated in the preliminary battles.” Ms. Sakimoto looked at them for a moment. “But those that met in the Dark Twist Room have yet to be found since the encounter.”

 

“Dark Twist Room?” Natoko asked.

 

“Oh use your brain!” Sarah replied for the executive. Ms. Sakimoto continued without answering, Natoko feeling her face turn red.

 

“Not only them, but none of the known demons to be in the tournament have yet to be found save those that lost in the prelims. At least seven weren’t present in the room, including the four that made it through to the final eight. We have uncovered a small handful that recovered regardless.” She clicked a button, and red Xs covered most of the mugshot gallery, only six remaining. A strange red gaseous demon listed as Thu’lang’lon, some kind of purple goblin with a line down his face that looked sketched out with a knife. Two human looking demons; Hattori Saizo and Ryuuichi Haruhi, one a teenage woman, another an African, Hayate and…

 

Sitting to attention, Natoko was greeted with the site of a burning corpse looking straight at her. Its head ablaze, Natoko could still make out the gaps where eyes could be now melted away. She didn’t recognize it.

 

“This is the demon of most concern,” Ms. Sakimoto told them. “We have no photos, and this was drawn by myself as the closest image we have of the creature. We thought it first to be a Djinn of some kind, but no such magical energies were traced on the scene after it had left. In fact no magical energies were detected at the scene at all. Considering the creature raised the temperature of the room to around three hundred degrees Celsius in the space of two seconds, the only clue it left behind were inch deep footprints left all over where it had walked. They suggest the creature an ordinary underweight nineteen year old girl, possibly suffering from an eating disorder. As of now I can tell you we have absolutely no data on this creature, and let me just clarify for you that this isn’t supposed to be possible.

 

“This was the creature that killed the angel, wasn’t it?” Sarah asked. Natoko blushed, not even knowing whether the angel had survived or not.

 

“Now, I though it would have been obvious to make this your next port of enquires, but clearly you were content to sit around all day, practicing Iaido with your fists.”

 

“I had been looking,” Sagara insisted, which Ms. Sakimoto met with a grimace.

.

“If you had been investigating,” she said, rummaging around the back of her desk. “And studying the local news, then perhaps you would have found this! On the table she slapped down a newspaper. It was one of the local papers, Natoko noted, the ones she always meant to read more.

 

On the front page there was a picture of an alleyway, police tape surrounding it, as an officer of the law was writing into a small book.

 

Scorched feet baffle local police! read the headline, as Natoko picked up the paper and started to read through it.

 

The remains of an unidentified person were found in the streets of Fuugosuki’s western district last night in the locally nicknamed ‘Alleyway of Desires’ known as a hotspot for muggings and solicitations.

 

The feet were left at the opening of the alleyway, standing together and upright for several hours, until a concerned shopkeeper reported the incident. Many passerbys assumed it to be prank or attempt at public art and were shocked to discover the feet to have belonged to a young teenaged girl.

 

Due to the nature of the death, the local police are having difficulty in identifying the victim, but believe it to be a teenage Japanese girl. They have so far been unable to determine if the owner of the feet was still alive or not.

 

Early reports suggest an explosion of some nature is responsible for separating the victim from her feet. But other suggestions based on the manner in which the feet were found, standing straight, suggests they may have been placed there after the time of death by the murderer.

 

The police are currently suspecting this to be a murder and are asking anyone to reports sounds of any explosions or suspicious activity in the arae around Kujiban Restaurant all night, and especially between the hours of eleven and midnight.

 

The alleyways around the western district are well known as a frequent hideout for muggers due to their winding nature and their usefulness as shortcuts. For many years now… Natoko stopped reading as Ms. Sakimoto started speaking again.

 

“The deceased is young Itoko Kiribayashi of the Kiribayashi clan. She was a participant in the tournament, and we have already confirmed through asking that she is dead.”

 

“Well, I hadn’t seen that before.”

 

“The paper is three days old. The corpse was four days old. The local media has had a small frenzy regarding the identity of the scorched feet and every occupant in your current residence save four has had at least one conversation about it. And you are telling me you have been completely unaware at a time when you should be watching out for fires more than ever?”

 

Sagara grinned. “I guess I have screwed up here.”

 

“Do not think admitting your mistake immediately buys you some leeway. My agents have already discovered every asset of available information at this time regarding this murder. You however have already forgotten the name of the deceased.

 

“Ah, you’re right,” Sagara said, looking mildly shocked and bashful.

 

“Any one of my agents is currently in a better position to be worthy of the title Enforcer’s Heir than you are. All you’re entitled too is unemployment benefit!”

 

The room fell silent. Sagara was smiling, but it looked very weak from Natoko’s seat. The boy’ words were often simple anyway, but he had never been speechless before. In truth, their actions so far had been meaningless. She had barely known of this mission of his, but she should have been helping him all the same. Instead, she had been content to waste the summer away. She shamed herself.

 

“And the alleyway didn’t hide it. Whoever did it didn’t want the alleyway to hide it and you still missed it,” Ms. Sakimoto continued. “Whoever’s doing this wants you to be aware of them. And they’re not giving us a choice but to answer them. Therefore, we need you to hunt it down for us and deal with it as you see fit.”

 

Everyone waited on Sagara, who was looking down at the floor. Natoko couldn’t tell if it was out of shame or if he was merely thinking, but when he raised his head again, his full grin returned, and he replied. “I suppose I better then.”

 

“Very well,” said Ms. Sakimoto. “Though your simple agreement does not restore my faith in you, this entire operation has been placed under your control until either of the two options have been fulfilled. I suppose waiting another week until we bury your body and get on with things as they should be will be more than-“

 

“Oh shut your mouth, you damn hypocrite.”

 

“Excuse me?” said Ms. Sakimoto, with the expression of someone who had just been told their dead mother had been found living perfectly well in Anchorage.

 

“You complain that Boss hasn’t done anything, then make your excuses that you couldn’t do anything because ‘you weren’t allowed’ but then you go ahead and reveal that you’ve done more searching than anyone else, and to completely ruin yourself, you basically reveal that you haven’t learnt anything at all. Not a single fucking thing.”

 

Ms. Sakimoto didn’t say anything.

 

“This isn’t telling Boss off for not doing stuff. This is you trying to scamper away from not being able to do your own job!”

 

Ms. Sakimoto remained silent, and for a single jump of a heartbeat Natoko heard a hissing course through her system, bloodied fangs ripping them all apart, leaving her immobile, and with a strong thirst for water. Sarah hadn’t noticed and just as they were all about to die, Ms. Sakimto stopped herself, readjusted her glasses and let out a small cough to interrupt Sarah.

 

“Very well,” she said. “I’ll admit it. Our investigations so far have been worthless. We know no more than that paper does. And whilst I could say at least we’ve looked we all know that won’t be good enough. So I ask you, Enforcer’s Heir, could you look for me? That is the one thing you are better at than everyone else, after all.”

 

“Sure thing,” Sagara replied, and Sarah felt silent, looking a little dumbfounded, like she didn’t know if she had a victory or not.

 

“Well, that’s all I needed you for. You may leave now.”

 

“You couldn’t have told us that over the phone?” Sarah asked.

 

“I have been trying to tell him that over the phone for the past two weeks.” She looked to Sagara. “You have one of the most secure pieces of technology on the planet in your pocket and you aren’t using it. Try to keep it charged from now on. I will see you all later. See you later as well, Ms. King. Ms. Yamanaka?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“My Agent has measured your abilities. You are strong for your age, but not strong enough to be taking on demons. Let me warn you now that the Balance does not just let anyone become aware of the Balance. You found out due to certain incidents, and we have allowed you to continue remembering. Do not give us a reason to regret our decision.”

 

Natoko felt very small. “Understood.”

 

“Ha, you got burned,” Sarah mocked without remorse.

 

They got up, heading out of the room. In more than a rush to get away, Sarah was gone before Natoko could stand up seconds after Sagara.. Avoiding the gaze of the agent (which she had only just noticed had remained with them the whole time), Natoko followed Sagara halfway across the room before they were stopped again.

 

“Two more things,” Ms. Sakimoto said. “Like I alluded, there are other surviving demons from the tournament, six others altogether. They are your responsibility as well. In all honesty it probably doesn’t matter anymore, but any actions you take on them will be observed.”

 

“Understood,” said Sagara. “And the other thing?”

 

“There was one demon in particular from before. You may have heard him be called Mr. Jupiter.” The light came back on behind Ms. Sakimoto with a flick of her wrist, an image of a young blond haired man looked back at them with a smile even lighter than Sagara’s. This was the angel then from before, what it must truly look like; probably.

 

“Can’t say I remember the name, but I can guess who you mean.”

 

“Due to the level of his strength, and his unexpected appearance in the tournament, a special ruling has been placed on your mission involving him, direct from your mother.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“The rule is as follows: Avoid him. Evade him. Do not approach him. Do not communicate with him. Fight him only to escape and never with any foolhardy attempts to win. Don’t take any hits from him or his kin. And let your allies suffer damage and fall before you before you let him reach yourself. Even if thousands die, he must not reach you, Sagara.”

 

Natoko felt the presence in the room grow cold and damp. Of all the serious expressions Ms. Sakimoto had given today, this was somehow the worse, her eyes narrow slits, her body not moving an inch. Above her, the water spirit stared down at them as well, her expression matching perfectly the women before her. They both stared at Sagara, who smiled back lightly.

 

“This rule is paramount. It is not to be broken above all other rules.”

 

Chapter Four

 

It was dark in Sakura’s room. Only ragged breath told her she was there at all. It was

 

silly. To squalor in darkness was to shun the light. But to bear the light would surely

 

drive her mad. How could she be mad now? Wasn’t she mad before? It was stupid to

 

believe in things that weren’t real.

 

Alexis was dead.

 

But it was the things that she didn’t know were real that she used to hold dear. Silly.

 

Very silly. Completely silly. Worshipping something you didn’t know was there. Just

 

‘feeling’ it was there. No wonder Otsune used to go quiet whenever she would ask

 

them such things. The damn atheist was being polite! The same way same way a

 

person allows a retard to pass by whilst it screams and shouts profanities in the street.

 

No, she mustn’t be rude. To be polite is simply a first step. It is so much easier to be

 

rude than it is to be polite, but it is even easier to be polite to avoid a situation. It is to

 

be nice to others that show we are worthy despite our weakness. To show that we are

 

able to overcome sin rather than simply not have any. One will sin by accident

 

constantly. That is why one must work to forgive themselves.

 

And that is why one must have faith. To assure themselves they act not in vain but on

 

a course to purge their sin and love their lord, to show-

 

Sanguine died too.

 

But how can one have faith if they know already! There was no need for faith

 

anymore.  She knew angels existed. She knew! As did demons and ghosts and spirits

 

and vampires and werewolves. He showed them to her and He made sure she saw

 

them, made her sure that she was not deluded or rendered mad with desperation. He

 

gave her a gift that no other catholic had and then took it away before she could do

 

anything with it.

 

Why did the Lord do this to her?

 

She didn’t know.

 

And she could no longer have faith.

 

Or could she? Was she being silly again? Knowing an angel didn’t mean she knew all

 

the answers. It just told her that which she knew was truth. That the planet was

 

created in seven days and that the Lord’s son died for all their sins. Every fear was

 

rendered useless but it didn’t mean she still knew everything.

 

The Lord let this happen for a reason.

 

Not that he let Sanguine die. Sanguine was an angel. His messenger. Messengers of

 

the lord could not die so simply. This was a test. It must be. But a test of what? To

 

have faith taken away completely and seek to have it restored. It would be impossible.

 

She knew. Knowledge overtook faith.

 

So then, should she seek more knowledge? Study more. With the answer dangled in

 

front of her that every catholic wished to know, should she grab them and devour their

 

contents? That was just greed. To follow her lord; surely she should learn more. Find

 

another, like Sanguine or Alexis. Ask them the truth of it all, have them give guidance

 

in the name of the lord. Tell her what to do next.

 

But how could she do that? Finding an angel was a miracle unto itself. Something that

 

you could only wait to happen. Should she travel with that guy and see if she were to

 

run into another. Such a course may work given the nature of his ‘profession’ but they

 

would meet as enemies if she did come across any divine beings. How a nice polite

 

boy like Sagara could be the enemy of angels she did not understand. Sagara was

 

nice. Nice to her. Nice to people. He helped Natoko out without hesitation; saved her;

 

strove to help others.

 

But then he had killed Alexis.

 

Maybe Sagara was in the wrong; a deceiver. Only pretending to be good whilst

 

having his way in the shadows. That would explain why he had attacked Alexis, but

 

not why he had saved Natoko.

 

She couldn’t understand. If only Sanguine was here, he would have the answers. He

 

gave her both knowledge and faith. Knowledge of the truth and faith in his actions.

 

He was someone she could believe in; could follow. A messenger of his Lord-

 

But then what if Sanguine wasn’t real? What if it had been a trick? What if that is why

 

Sagara refused to do anything asked of him? An angel among demons. Only the fallen

 

were to be in that position; to dwell among the ranks of Lucifer and burn in hell for

 

sins committed against the highest of beings. If Sanguine wasn’t real, then it gave her

 

nothing except the words of tricksters. Or what if he was a demon, appearing different

 

among other demons…

 

No! He was real. She knew it. She felt his presence. His warmth. There was no

 

trickery in the pureness of his soul. He cared for her every moment he could, despite

 

his own mission. He fought to hurt no one, even the demons. A trick such as that

 

would serve no meaning. She must have faith.

 

It hit her again. The sudden upheaval of her senses, her stomach lurching, that

 

overwhelming burden that had visited her hour after hour these past two weeks.

 

Knowledge. Faith. Neither could give her the answer and both taunted her for it. None

 

of these could bring her out of this self imposed exile, coiled up in the dark recesses

 

of her room. Door locked and curtains closed with blinds sealed shut. Nighttime at

 

one pm.. Nothing but the truth of the matter, her stomach rumbling with feelings of

 

intense loneliness not felt since her parents died. She had lost faith then as well.

 

At least then the answers to the questions she sought for didn’t actually exist,

 

somewhere she could never find them.

 

A knocking spooked her, light banging echoing throughout the empty room. Looking

 

to the door, she expected to find someone already standing there, but only saw the

 

shadows of two feet.

 

“Sakura?” came the voice of Otsune from the other side. “Are you there?”

 

Sakura huddled up again, drawing the blanket closer to her, wrapping up all the loose

 

bits and stuffing them together, burying her head in what she could. Sakura wasn’t

 

here. Sakura had gone away. Please leave the room alone.

 

“I just wanted to let you know Natoko and the others are back, if you plan to start

 

cooking dinner soon.”

 

She didn’t even know they had gone out. Had they been gone the entire day? She

 

hadn’t spoken to either of them since the demons had kidnapped her. That was wrong

 

of her. At the very least she should be thanking Natoko for rescuing her, though she

 

couldn’t remember why.

 

“Well, if you’re going to, tell me. I’d prefer some of your food over my own any

 

day.”

 

Listening to the silence carefully, Sakura felt the light pacing of Otsune’s footsteps on

 

the wooden floor for a few seconds longer, before eventually getting louder and

 

disappearing from earshot.

 

“She’s gone.”

 

Filling the room with a high pitched squeal, Sakura looked up to see two feet dangling

 

barefoot off the edge of her bed. She followed the legs up to see the form of a dark

 

skinned child looking back at her. Aki looked down at her, looking overjoyed she had

 

scared Sakura.

 

“Now I know what you’re wanting to ask is how long I’ve been here…” Aki began.

 

Sakura wasn’t thinking that at all. Thoughts barely littered her mind at the moment

 

and the remaining ones were still screaming.

 

“But I think that question is better pointed at you.” Aki’s finger swinging towards her,

 

Sakura watched as it poked her on the nose lightly.

 

“E-excuse me?” she stuttered. The door was locked, and it was still daytime behind

 

the blinds.

 

“It’s a rhetorical question, methinks,” Aki replied. “As I know the answer to be about

 

eight hours, and the rest of the details don’t bother me. This isn’t healthily, Sakura. I

 

mean, others do it, but at least they have the internet to keep them busy.”

 

“I- I am fine, thank you for your concern,” Sakura replied. “Please, leave me alone.”

 

“Oh no you don’t,” replied Aki, getting up and leering at her. “You’re not gonna trick

 

me with any fancy word games. Get up or I’ll slice ya.”

 

Not even considering it, Sakura reached for her blanket, grabbing hold of its hem

 

before freezing up and looking at the girl still staring her down. Grumbling, she got

 

back up.

 

“There. That’s better,” Aki said, with a smile and a pat on the back. “All standing

 

back up again. I find you can’t achieve a lot without standing up first, so at least

 

you’re making it.” Sakura tried for an obligatory giggle, but it just came out as a

 

tearful snort. Trying to compromise, she smiled, Aki returned a beam of her own

 

gladly.

 

“Now,” Aki continued, wandering up to the blinds. “Are you okay for sunlight, or

 

shall we wait in the dark some more?” Sakura imagined there might have been

 

sarcasm with that sentence but didn’t feel any. And though it felt silly to refuse, she

 

was still glad her friend had offered.

 

Shaking her head was all it took to convince Aki, who immediately moved on. She

 

wandered over to the keyboard, examining it for the off switch- hidden in the

 

darkness. A red light came on, and random keys started playing an obscure obscenity

 

of notes.

 

“Aki,” Sakura finally got out before the girl learned where the volume button was.

 

“How did you get in here?”

 

Aki stopped playing, turning it off and turning around. “Through the attic.”

 

“We don’t have an attic,” Sakura replied.

 

“Of course we do. All buildings do. It’s a national requirement.”

 

“Well, I guess we do have one, but I don’t have one in my room for certain.”

 

“And yet you’re not looking up to be sure,” Aki said with an upwards glance. Sakura

 

followed and saw the hole. It was one tile space big, the tile space itself missing from

 

Aki’s entrance. Sakura watched this new addition to her room as if it were a bug eyed

 

alien staring back at her and silently offering her some of its chocolate bar. How long

 

had it been there was a question she knew she should ask, but it wasn’t long before

 

Aki had dragged her up there to find out, hoisting her body through the hole and into

 

curiosity.

 

It was just an attic, but in the same way a castle was just a castle. It was spooky and

 

wondrous and foreboding and chilling and carried with it a sense of curiosity that

 

affected all that entered and demanded they look around. Aki had already started,

 

rummaging through a closet dresser table with a mirror that would have been

 

considered half a mirror were the second half anywhere to be seen.

 

“I found it looking around,” explained Aki excitedly. “It’s cool. It got loads of stuff in

 

it.”

 

Were they supposed to be up there, Sakura wondered, moments after examining what

 

appeared to be a plastic fish doll.  There wasn’t an exit she could see save the new

 

hole where her once solid roof was under. The question seemed a little pointless with

 

so much dust in the air, on the floors and scattered over beams and treasures. No one

 

had been up there in ages. Two sets of footprints filled the room besides her own. One

 

set looked old, the others fresh and barefoot.

 

It must have been back when Grandma Futabatei was here since this was last used.

 

The Heavenly Springs dormitory was a small estate with multiple buildings but only

 

the main and west wings were ever used. Even then, certain passageways weren’t

 

used and the layout was odd at times. There were more rooms on the second floor of

 

the west wing than on both the third and first floors. This attic as well probably

 

shouldn’t have been tall enough for them to stand in like this.

 

“Whoa, look at this,” Aki said, lifting up a scary wooden mask with jagged,

 

outlandish lines that Sakura could not imagine being done with a simple paint brush

 

slapped across it. Aki held it to her own face and cooed as she looked at Sakura from

 

the other side. Staring at her through the eye slits, Aki made a mock attempt at

 

pretending she couldn’t breath before wrestling the mask away from herself.

 

Declining when her friend tried to pass it to her, Sakura moved on to find something

 

else. She coughed, feeling a little bit choked with all the dust, now scattering after

 

being reawakened.  Meeting up with a stuffed penguin that she politely requested not

 

to have to touch by Aki, she came across another set of drawers at the back,

 

surrounded by bin bags and laden with books that looked a century old with jewelry

 

full of nostalgia, along with one simple photo frame.

 

Inside the frame was a colour photograph. A ship; a black liner of some kind that

 

immediately took her attention hostage. Holding it closely, Sakura admired the detail

 

of the picture. It was a group shot, with several lovely looking couples, a girl older

 

than her; a few adults. No one she could possibly know of course but she found them

 

familiar all the same. She could swear the people in the photo were smiling beyond

 

the length of the camera lens and straight at her. She could even see the whites of the

 

man’s teeth. Smiling back a little, she put it down again.

 

It hit her hard, flashes. Shocks. Her brain on fire as it tried desperately to roll itself

 

out. She remembered four years ago.  Hearing the birds on deck as she struggled to

 

even pull herself over to the starboard side to look over the edge and see the endless

 

might of the ocean. The waves hitting the sides of the ship, she remembered her older

 

sister’s friendly laughter, a gentle taunt that angered her enough to throw herself the

 

extra foot forward and finally gaze at that eternal blue of energy that held her vision

 

until the horizon of the sky. She remembered being glad she had agreed to go.

 

But she was wrong to go.

 

It as four years to the day, she remembered now. How could she ever forget? Four

 

years since she had been gazing longingly at that single gull that had somehow made

 

it out this far on a wondrous journey of its own. She remembered turning away from

 

the bird, with thoughts of perhaps entertaining the rest of the afternoon on ship with a

 

book, one of the more complex novels she had taken to reading to fill in the time

 

between the distances she was traveling. That was when she saw him.

 

But four years ago this was impossible.

 

He was looking at her, long before she was looking at him, jerking his head away

 

quickly as their eyes met. How silly, that she had barely thought of him then, even

 

kept her eyes on him in caution as he worked hard to keep his own glance away and

 

then speaking, unable to stop herself, feeling a well inside her build up the more she

 

stared and freeing it with the first words that tumbled out of her mouth at him.

 

His name was Alexis, and they had never met.

 

The dance was the best moment of her life. Every song they played she knew the

 

dance for, her sisters having labourishly taught her. Every waltz she could meet with

 

perfect steps and even the tango was a simple conquest for her as the night went on. It

 

was he who was clumsy, with footwork awkward and inept, it was not too surprising

 

to have other suitors ask to take his place with her, as if in their minds she was a

 

flower being assaulted by a dog who wished nothing more than to smell her. But she

 

stayed with him, taught him and laughed when he started to get better. It was a

 

beautiful night.

 

It was wrong.

 

Just wrong.

 

Wrong, wrong, wrong wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong Wrong!

 

With a squeal she fell back down the hole, tossing the picture to the ground like it

 

burned her fingers, staring at the shards that splattered over the ground. Landing

 

poorly on the bed, she slipped off and felt her elbow crack against wood. She howled

 

in pain, but didn’t let it stop her, rising quickly and heading straight for the door. She

 

unlocked it and left the key.

 

Belting passed people who watched her go, looks of confusion and amusement mixed

 

on their faces, she rushed as the tears started to flow, By the time she reached the exit

 

her energy and frustrations had drained. She wheezed as she brushed passed one of

 

the reception hall’s plants and looked for the exit.

 

What was that? How could it have been real? She had never been on a boat in her life.

 

She traveled from Italy by plane and there was only the time her father insisted they

 

go for a ride in the Mediterranean on a small boat he had somehow managed to

 

charter. But even that was too small for the three of them.

 

And four years ago she couldn’t have been anywhere of the sort. She had been on dry

 

land, the nearest river miles away. That year she didn’t go anywhere. She couldn’t,

 

even if by some reason she had wanted to.

 

Making it to the  One hundred and Eight Steps she stopped. Her breath raced ahead of

 

her, pumping her heart faster than it should have allowed, Sakura looked down and

 

knew how dangerous it was for her to even consider going down like she was now.

 

She would fall and break like a porcelain doll. Wouldn’t that be so much better to

 

what she was feeling now?

 

No, she chided herself. What was that thought? To kill herself now would be the

 

worse. She may be forgiven for throwing herself to her death with just faith behind

 

her, but to know and kill oneself was just asking for punishment. She could never kill

 

herself. Catching herself on one of the lanterns, she lowered herself, shaking

 

erratically to the top step, waiting for her breathe to catch up.

 

It was real. All of it. How could it not be? She could taste the salt in the air and the

 

wet wind on her cheeks, the lurch in her stomach and the floating in her heart. And it

 

was definitely four years ago, back when she was sixteen.

 

Alexis was a year younger. From what she later heard, he had lied to get himself onto

 

the ship though. It was nothing short of desperation on all sides. The need for extra

 

work in the ship’s crew, and his desire to escape his life of poverty. It was by that, and

 

not before long, before they became friends, that the rumours then started to appear.

 

That he was using her; that she was only convenience; that she was money waiting to

 

be pilfered by a poor boy who knew a child’s father wanted her to be happy. How

 

could they even think such a thing of-

 

No! How could she have been sixteen fours years ago. She was only thirteen now.

 

***

 

Finding a payphone had taken longer than Natoko originally expected. There were

 

unsurprisingly few of them nowadays with all the mobile phones people were

 

carrying and it wasn’t until they got to the station that they finally managed to get

 

hold of one.

 

Of course, this wouldn’t have mattered if Sagara’s phone had been working.

 

Not within her own expertise, nor apparently Sagara’s, it wasn’t until Sarah had a go

 

at getting a signal out of the thing that it became clear it was broken in some way, or

 

perhaps without credit. Whatever happened, the frog covered device wasn’t working

 

and it took until the sun came up for them to accept that.

 

She yawned as they stood at the platform, watching Sarah wander into the small shop

 

selling conveniences as the train shot across her eyes at several hundred miles per

 

hour. Taking it in with the same importance as a businessman crossing an empty

 

street in no particular rush, she felt her eyes dry up, the sleek advertisement stricken

 

vehicle bombarding her with possible movies she should consider seeing before

 

disappearing as quickly as it came. The need to fall asleep overcame her, her neck

 

drooping. Being strong of mind and alert at all times was so much easier when she

 

hadn’t spent the last few hours, th hours she usually reserved for sleep, fully awake

 

and fighting for her life.

 

Sleep was her closest companion now, but she couldn’t come in and play. Sagara

 

seemed fine, sitting next to her smiling contently on par. He was either deep in

 

thought or happy just to relax, or maybe he even had some secret ninja technique that

 

allowed him to rest as if asleep. Letting it dwell on her mind for a second, it occurred

 

to Natoko that Sagara probably hadn’t been asleep at all the night before. If he woke

 

her up and then they went out. It had been late…

 

Maybe she should ask him if he could teach her it.

 

Sarah came out of the shop empty handed, darting quickly around other bystanders in

 

the crowd. It was a time for people to start coming into work on early shifts, but then

 

they were in the middle of the city, and most would be traveling in, not out. In fact,

 

most looked to be students like herself. Most looking like they were dressed to party,

 

but no longer had the energy for it. The young American girl slipped over to them

 

casually, walking passed Natoko and sitting on Sagara’s other side.

 

Thoughts of Ms. Sakimoto flooded into Natoko’s head as they waited. That woman

 

certainly was strict. Sagara may have screwed up a bit, but this was his first mission.

 

Shouldn’t it be expected? In truth hadn’t he done well in the areas he had focused on?

 

Slaying demons and reaching the finals in the tournament. And like she had said, most

 

of them were gone now anyway. Wasn’t it better they were gone no matter how

 

Sagara was involved? The merit should come after the results.

 

A nagging doubt did flow over her on this though; Sagara’s talk of the Animism ritual

 

a few month’s ago. Even if the demons were destroyed they could still come back.

 

The details eluded her but Sagara’s gauntlet was just a gauntlet, and he hadn’t seemed

 

to do anything to destroy their soul’s or whatever demons had. That made a bit more

 

sense. If Sagara were only sending demons back to where they came from, it wasn’t

 

exactly the best result they could have on the matter.

 

No, it was more that Sagara hadn’t done it himself that was the problem, and the

 

remaining demons. If the other demons were still the issue then Ms. Sakimoto would

 

have told him to find them as well. As of now, they had two objectives, Natoko

 

cleared this in her mind, trying to keep sharp on the subject rather than get lost in

 

details she didn’t yet understand. Find the fire demon. And find the other demons that

 

also escaped. Ms. Sakimoto had hid all other information –because, of course, Sagara

 

wasn’t to get any help from his family. He was to do it himself.

 

“We should come back into town after getting some rest,” she suggested. “Head to the

 

crime scene.”

 

“Yeah, that’ll be nice,” replied Sarah. “We could wander around an alleyway

 

aimlessly for a couple of hours, and see how the police did a good job at cleaning the

 

mess up.”

 

“They- they might have missed something,” Natoko rebuffed.

 

“Ys, that’s true. Policemen are incompetent most of the time and they do miss things

 

out. There’s even a case there was a good cop who for some reason enjoys his job

 

there and uncovered everything they could find. Of course, That’s bitch’s goons were

 

probably all over the place shortly after that, and anything supernatural that the police

 

would have definitely missed was probably sucked up and banished henceforth and all

 

that. Going there would be pointless.”

 

“You are probably right,” Natoko said, trying to remain dignified and talking to Sarah

 

as if she had just given a child’s opinion that was by sheer fluke a good idea. “In that

 

case we should probably-“

 

“Hey!” Sarah interrupted. “You don’t need to think of anything. You’re Sagara’s

 

slave, right? Just wait until you get your orders.”

 

Many had Natoko’s number of associates grown in the past three years of living at the

 

Heavenly Springs dormitory. Even though she had not been one for easy

 

conversation, picking up people that were willing to talk to her became easy through

 

time. Many held a decent amount of respect for someone willing to practice hard in

 

Iaido everyday and most showed her an admiration of her skills that could only make

 

her beam with pride.

 

In all her time of being there though, she had never really spoken to Sarah all that

 

much. Just the initial introduction, a few attempts a casual conversation, a surprise get

 

together in Sarah’s room one night as they played video games for about an hour and

 

then looking the other way from her in the hallway ever since.

 

It was just the easiest way.

 

“We’ll need to get some more information about this,” Sarah said, unwrapping her

 

chocolate bar and biting into an embedded nut. That was obvious of course, to

 

Natoko’s mind, but it was the right move. “Where though? I could make some calls

 

when I get back to the dorm, but it’s not going to find us anything special.”

 

What they needed was a witness. Someone who saw anything, but they didn’t really

 

have any police power. Even if they found one if they couldn’t convince the person to

 

speak to them nicely they couldn’t threaten them. There wasn’t even any way of

 

finding them either.

 

Although maybe Sagara had a way. That wouldn’t surprise her, seeing as they once

 

got to the InBetween Realm through eating fried octopus. She really didn’t know

 

enough about the things. Her own training regime may have been top notch (though

 

today would be highly dented by her intentions to sleep in this morning) but the things

 

Sagara were involved in overwhelmed her. A few weeks had passed but it was still

 

hard to get used to the fact that the world turned as usual but this time with demons in

 

  1. It was very cool that no one but her and a few select knew of such things, but it

 

didn’t mean she knew everything. It would be another thing she would have to know

 

more of. It seemed like she would have to ask Sagara to teach her a few things.

 

Enough! Cursing herself, Natoko left Sarah to her silence, to Sagara his smiling. She

 

was tired and exhausted. The near death situation alone was enough to get her

 

wanting sleep, and the rest was just a mountain of fatigue toppling onto her. They all

 

needed sleep, whether the other two wanted it or not. Yawning, she decided. This

 

could all wait until the morning.

 

“Do you know where we could get some information, Sagara?”

 

“Well, there is one person nearby.”

 

***

 

Sagara led them, very slowly, away from the station, across the bridge, and back to

 

the subway. By this time it had gotten crowded with the influx of early workers

 

coming in and Natoko had no choice but to stand and doze in the tram system where

 

Sagara had pointed to. He hadn’t made his destination clear yet, and that was probably

 

reason to worry. Not that he might lead them to anywhere dangerous but because

 

there was very little chance that Sagara had got where he was going right.

 

They came back out into the center of the city, her legs feeling like they had been

 

replaced with steel pipes. Maybe she should get some coffee or an energy drink, she

 

mused. It wasn’t the type of thing she’d bother with usually, but it was starting to get

 

drifty in her mind and she was certain now her body was swaying.

 

“Ah, we’re here,” Sagara said, finally stopping at the entrance to the Fuugosuki

 

Business Park. The soft grass looked inviting from here as the sunrise bounced off the

 

waters and the small tourist shops that scattered around the lake were already open

 

and ready for business. Wherever Sagara had planned for them it may be worth

 

requested just laying down and sleeping in the park for a few hours.

 

Then she realised where she was.

 

The takoyaki stand.

 

It wasn’t the same place as last time, but apparently it had moved today. She

 

recognized the man at the booth as they approached it: a small stocky man with neatly

 

combed hair and a face sweaty with grease that wasn’t his. The man’s face gave her

 

enough shock to wake her up just a bit. They weren’t going back to the InBetween

 

realm now were they?

 

Although that wasn’t so bad.

 

“We can ask this guy,” said Sagara.

 

“Good morning, sir,” the man behind the stand said. “Can I take your order please?”

 

“We’d like some information please,” said Sagara the same way she would have

 

ordered a burger.

 

“Well, the information center is just up that way sir, although I could probably help

 

you with some directions.”

 

“No, we need some special information.”

 

The man at the counter laughed a little uneasily. “Excuse me?”

 

“It was about something that happened at the Alleyway of Desire the other night.”

 

“The Alleyway of Desire,” the man said, repeating the words carefully as if to do so

 

would unlock the knowledge from his head. “Is that a club? I’m afraid I haven’t heard

 

of it before.”

 

“You haven’t?” said Sagara, confused himself now. “That’s odd. I thought everyone

 

knew about it.”

 

The takoyaki started to fizzle a bit too loudly, and the man distracted himself by

 

flipping it over and shaking it until it calmed down again. Natoko found herself

 

getting hungry. She hadn’t eaten recently the afternoon before. Stopping, the man

 

looked back up to them and visibly jumped in shock, looking surprised they were still

 

there.

 

He stayed silent for a moment, before looking down at the small wooden counter that

 

sat between them, waiting for something, then smiled and said. “I’m sorry, what was

 

your order again?”

 

“I said can we get some information please?”

 

“Yup, certainly,” the man leaned over the counter a fraction and pointed to a tourist

 

information building roughly three hundred meters away. “That’s the information

 

center there. That’s probably your best start. I know a lot of the local area though if

 

you just need directions.”

 

Looking down at Sarah, Natoko was glad to see the little girl was frowning as well, a

 

hyper realistic déjà vu was passing through the both of them. Sagara continued.

 

“Oh I see,” he said. “It’s like that, is it?”

 

“It’s like that? Yes.” The man looked like he was agreeing for the sake of it.

 

“Mom told me about these guys,” he said turning to Natoko. “It’s actually quite

 

interesting.”

 

“What’s up with him?”

 

“Nothing big. Watch this.” Reaching his hand out, Sagara pointed silently in the other

 

direction. All three watched him for a second before looking to where he was

 

indicating to; nothing but a cloudy blue sky and what might have been birds in the

 

distance.  The counter assistant looked at him for a moment, following the direction of

 

Sagara’s finger. They all looked that way and waited patiently for nothing for well

 

over ten seconds, long enough for Sagara to put his hand down. The man eventually

 

turned back to them, still smiling, before looking down at the counter and up again.

 

“I’m sorry, what was your order?”

 

“Could you wake up please? We’d like to order some information,” Sagara said, as if

 

they had both reset.

 

“Oh I’m sorry, was I daydreaming?” He laughed lightly. “I do that sometimes, you’ll

 

have to forgive me. Some information you say, well we-“

 

“Sorry,” Sagara interrupted. “I mean, wake up.”

 

“But I-“

 

“But I am awake now.”

 

“Wake up-“

 

“I-”

 

“Wake up. The Balance has need of you.”

 

Natoko was just about to grab Sagara and scold her for bothering an innocent

 

salesman, when the man started coughing as if his lungs were trying to escape. He

 

shuddered for a moment, grabbing hold if the counter and rocking the small cart at

 

them with his head shaking backwards and forwards in a perfect rocking motion.

 

Finally sneezing, the man reeled back upon seeing how close his head was to the

 

surface, and turned back up to face Sagara.

 

He looked a little more cross than before.

 

“Man, you’ve got some nerve you have, you little creep. Snapping me out it like that.”

 

“Well mom says you deserve everything you get for doing it to yourself. And it’s also

 

unhealthy. Though she didn’t say why. And I never asked.” He sounded oddly proud

 

of this.

 

Gathering as much as he could, the man spat out on the floor, before starting to wipe

 

his face with his sleeve.

 

“You know how boring this is?” he started. “Do you? I serve dead octopus to illiterate

 

tourists who can’t even be bothered to learn the difference between ‘thank you’ and

 

‘please sit down’. I mean, it might be interesting if I at least got to kill the octopus

 

myself, but no, we don’t even make the things properly, they just gets cooked and

 

served here. Waste of my fucking time.”

 

“You could always quit.”

 

“Quit?” he said with a snort. “You think I can just quit? The fuck you know? You

 

guys have it built, you know. You get to play ninja all day without ever having to

 

worry about a paycheck. You spend all day acting cool and having fights with

 

dramatic poses, but the second you have to think for yourselves as to what you have

 

to do next, you come whining to guys like me, who don’t get paid by the headcount

 

and have to get a nine to five just to pay the bills.”

 

This man was being a bit too informal with Sagara at this point. Though she wasn’t

 

aware completely of what was going on, she knew it shouldn’t matter. Letting others

 

insult her lord was something she couldn’t allow.”

 

“You insolent cur!” she shouted. “You dare-“ But Sagara put his hand up to wave her

 

down, probably for the best.

 

“Oh yeah I dare. You think your ‘Balance’ stuff means anything to people like us.

 

I’m not going to get anything for giving information to you yet I still have to give it

 

anyway yet risk losing the memory I hold so dear.”

 

“Well again, that’s your own-“

 

“Oh yes, Me, I’m the ultimate deus ex machina here, ready to swoop in at the last

 

second to save you from the bloodied onslaught of lack of information and whisk you

 

away to where you need to go next, and do I get anything from it? Oh no, you’ll just

 

feel a little obligated to buy some extra fried dead squid and then a little guilty

 

because you conveniently don’t have enough cash.”

 

“I do have some-“

 

“And as if that’s suppose to make me feel better about it anyway. It’s not like I can

 

pocket it and this country doesn’t like tips for some reason. It’s insulting apparently.”

 

“Boss, who is this guy?” asked Sarah, who was getting a little cross and a little

 

defensive of the man’s wildly waving arms. The man looked Japanese, Natoko

 

thought.

 

“This is an Alac, he takes his own will away to prevent himself going mad.”

 

“My name is Hiroshi,” he insisted, though his name badge had on it Kiyoshi. “And I

 

don’t take it away; I keep it safe. When you girls finally get out of school and have to

 

start working you’ll understand.”

 

Not if I can help it.

 

“So what is it you want to know? The sooner you’re gone the better I can fake an

 

illness to get the rest of the day off.”

 

“We’re looking for a fire spirit.”

 

The man froze to let a contemptuous grin rise on his face, followed by a fake scoff of

 

laughter.

 

“Fire spirit? Fire spirit! Oh great, and if it’s not bad enough, you’re asking for

 

information you can find on the damn news channel.” The man grabbed a skewer of

 

octopus off the grill and chewed into it, taking him time. “You want fire. Seven

 

homeless people have been burnt in their tents up at Fuugosuki park in the past two

 

weeks. A perfume store’s been set ablaze. They were showing extreme footage of a

 

burning man on the net and that Priestess girl loses her body. Get a freakin’ clue, you

 

retarded slutjockeys!

 

“You know we probably should have consulted the news first. It is the third time

 

we’ve been given that clue,” Natoko said, though no one was paying attention.

 

“Did she have any enemies, anything like that?” Sarah asked getting a little bolder

 

now.

 

“Course not. She’s a Bargainer. Their types don’t get enemies. Everyone knows that.”

 

“I didn’t.”

 

“And if anything, Itoko’s family had less enemies than any other of the five great

 

families. We’re talking perhaps the one shaman tribe in the whole universe that

 

universally accepted by anyone and everything. Where most of the shaman types are

 

usually all for battling demons, these guys are being social organizers.”

 

“Social Organizers? Is that like a special skill?

 

“What? No. Just, you know, setting up parties and such.”

 

“With demons?”  Sarah looked amused at this.

 

Well, demons weren’t specifically invited. It was more to get the groups of people

 

together that were Knowers for drinking, partying, chatting and gambling. Though

 

demons were known to get on the guest menu, as long as they didn’t eternally damn

 

someone.”

 

They stepped to the side as a family of three shuffled up to the stand and ordered.

 

Hiroshi looked at the tourists like they were aliens for a moment, then remembered

 

his job and got onto serving them. Engaging in small talk with the father of the two,

 

Natoko got the oddest feeling that Hiroshi knew these people, even though Hiroshi

 

himself was completely unaware of this. After getting three rounds of fried octopus,

 

they left, the man with a sullen look on his face.

 

“I have no idea how much these actually cost,” Hiroshi commented, the prices

 

displayed behind him. “Anyway, put simply, ain’t no one in that family that had any

 

enemies. Everyone loved them. They held the best parties and were friends with

 

everyone, even the demons and Divine. Hell, her dad was the one that arranged that

 

three day drinking contest between your mom and that Alchoid demon. As long as

 

they were around, no one wanted to hurt anyone.”

 

“And yet incineration is quite a nasty way to go,” commented Sarah sarcastically.

 

“Which is what is making me it was an accident.”

 

“As in ‘Whoops I dropped my lighter?’ ”

 

“Well, essentially yeah. No one can account for Itoko’s last actions, but apparently

 

she had been out hitting bars. There are demons out there capable of incinerating

 

human. Well, it’s one of the basic myths. An accidental burp would have taken out

 

anyone. Then it was time to escape.”

 

“That sounds kind of unlikely.”

 

“It’s more likely than someone killing her for a reason, and it was in the Alleyway of

 

Desire too, which makes murder even less likely.”

 

“Yeah that would affect things,” Sagara said, understanding that which boggled

 

Natoko, further bugging her.

 

“Exactly. Being killed there; people would want to hide it. Even demons would want

 

to hide it. Everyone would be on your butt for killing a member of the Kiribayashi. It

 

would just be better if it wasn’t found. An accident, they’d panic and run though,

 

leaving the remains to be found.”

 

“Unless it’s like what that Yuya said,” said Sarah. “And they wanted it to be found.”

 

“Well, let’s hope that’s certainly not the case,” Hiroshi replied.  “In fact if it is it may

 

be better leaving Japan now.”

 

“Why’s that?”

 

“Paranoia. You kill an average Bargainer, one who doesn’t matter, that’s fine. You

 

kill the type that has friends everywhere, from the lowest pit to the highest heaven,

 

and you leave it for people to find but keep hidden who did it, it’s gonna get everyone

 

asking a bunch of questions. And the big one is just who profits from such an action.”

 

“And why’s that bad?”

 

“Because who profits is entirely up to the person asking the question,” Sagara

 

answered for the man. “And because the answer at the top of the sheet is going to be

 

the Balance.”

 

“Us?” Natoko replied. “Why would we want to kill her?”

 

“Such people allow demons to enter this realm through the Ritual of Animism, based

 

on the requests of other demons that have already gotten into this realm. We have

 

dealings with them to limit it, but it’s their choice so we can’t completely stop it.”

 

“Unless of course you kill them.” That brought an idea to Natoko’s mind.

 

“Could Ms. Sakimoto have ordered her killed?”

 

“No reason why she wouldn’t,” Sagara replied. “But she seemed to blame it on the

 

Fire spirit anyway. It probably is that which did it. Even if it isn’t, it shouldn’t stop us

 

from trying to find the fire spirit.”

 

“But if it isn’t the Fire spirit that did this, shouldn’t we be looking for the real killer?”

 

Sagara looked at her lightly perplexed, then looked up to think it through.

 

“Well, we could do that I suppose,” he said. “But we should really look for the Fire

 

spirit. That’s what Yuya told me to do.”

 

“But if it’s not the killer, then we could be going in the wrong direction in seeking

 

justice for this girl’s death.” Sarah scoffed silently behind Sagara.

 

“Not really,” Sagara corrected her. “Our job isn’t justice. It’s finding the Fire spirit.”

 

“But if this girl was murdered on Ms. Sakimoto’s orders, then we need to-“

 

“Do nothing about it,” Sarah interrupted. “Like Sagara said, that’s not part of the

 

mission. Let the stupid twat stay dead is she’s nothing to do with this.”

 

“Erm excuse me,” Natoko interjected harshly. “I’m sure Sagara is just as concerned

 

with providing at least the police with clues to a murder if he should come across

 

any.”

 

“No, Sarah’s right. There would be no need to care. The Balance isn’t about being

 

good. It’s to keep it in balance with evil. Helping a murder case would go against

 

that.”

 

Not quite understanding, Natoko looked to Hiroshi who was beginning to look bored,

 

yet still with a watchful eye. She got the feeling he was listening intently, taking

 

notes. All ready to give the information to someone else.

 

“So, what should we do then?”

 

“I have no idea.”

 

Natoko sighed, feeling an urge to take over, but suppressing it. The last thing she

 

should do was give orders. That wasn’t her job. Advice maybe, but even that should

 

be restricted. Asking questions should have been okay though.

 

“Do you have any further information for us?”

 

“Not really. Figure things out for yourself. Learn to wear some makeup to hide yer

 

face and don’t hold your sword in a in a rag like that. Too obvious. You’ll get

 

yourself arrested..”

 

Shuffling the long box on her back, Natoko felt a scowl coming on. “Um, thank you.

 

Anything else?”

 

“Are you expecting a clue from me or something? I’ve got nothing. The police have

 

got nothing. Even you Balance guys clearly have nothing. No one has a clue why

 

Itoko died. Someone did it, that’s for sure. But who and why and even how are all out

 

of reach. All I can tell you is don’t bother looking up personal motive, it’ll take years.

 

Like I said, everyone knew her.”

 

“And yet, no one knows why she died.”

 

They left shortly after that, the man giving them no more information. As they left he

 

fell into a lapse of violent coughing, and shifted back to the relaxed, happy look he

 

had on early, greeting two joggers as they passed him by.

 

Chapter Five

 

How they did it every day, she was no idea. How they could even consider the thought that brought about the action that told them it was okay to take just one step forward was an enigma beyond her meagre comprehension. To continue after that step, when legs were lump meat and the action required solid steel, was both a miracle and a travesty.

 

How, just how, could she climb this many stairs?

 

It was exhausting even when she wasn’t sleep deprived. Everyone hated it in some way. Sagara showed discomfort to it and even Aki slowed down near the top.

 

One hundred and forty last time she counted. One hundred and thirteen the time before that. The stairs were growing. She knew it.

 

Even so, she bore onwards, lifting kneecaps and immediately resting on them, bringing toes, caked in sweat under clammy climate on the inside of her running shoes which in turn, absorbed the heat of the morning sun through their black leather skin. Why didn’t she have water with her? There were plenty of times to get it.

 

She hadn’t slept at all. The luggage containers where they had sat had been inconveniently full in the entire tram, leaving her to sit with Iziz between her legs, keeping a light watch to make sure it didn’t fall or wander off anywhere. Now she felt it dangle limply from her back, threatening to fall if she swayed a little too hard to the right, or nudge herself backwards into sweet oblivion.

 

Taking their time, all six legs going at three times less their regular speed, Natoko, Sagara and Sarah plodded home. They had found nothing in the end. No clues from takoyaki salesmen. No brooding epiphanies. Certainly no helpful strangers that popped out of nowhere with mysterious clues. Just nothing but what felt like blisters.

 

They really ought to have visited the alleyway once.

 

“Ah, so you’re back,” a voice boomed from above. The sun was in Natoko’s eyes as she glanced up past Sarah and Sagara ton see the silhouette looming before them. The figure was blurry and back, but the voice was blatant. Otsune had been waiting for them.

 

“Now normally I’m not foolish enough to stand at a spot for an hour, waiting for people to come back so I can shout at them. It’s an act of the stubborn; a motion of unbelievable and highly unnecessary action done by the prude and overbearing. But on this particular occurrence I believe this merits to be a exemplarily reason to be doing it.”

 

“Hey, we’re back,” said Sagara. Natoko was too tired to react. Thoughts of the Hot Springs were coming to her.

 

“Yes you are,” said Otsune, with a mock happiness embedded in her sarcastic tone. “You’re back and you’re okay and are in no way near any danger of having anything happen to you that may be considered dangerous.”

 

“”Well, I wouldn’t say that. Mom said evil lurks in all shadows. The forces of good too.”

 

“You’re mom says a lot of things, doesn’t she?” Natoko could see Otsune was speaking through clenched teeth, a mechanical smile on her face where the cogs turned loudly and jutted twice as hard. Natoko felt like backing away, only the thought of having to climb up more stairs stopping her. “Does she any anything about missing children?”

 

“She does actually, she says a missing child can connect a planet, but can only bring it-“

 

Slap!

 

A hard wind cracked against Sagara’s hand, a snap of skin against skin woke Natoko out of her reverie for a moment, a hit of failure accompanying. Otsune had gone to slap Sagara mid-sentence, the expression of happiness gone from her face, one replaced now with a rage that one believed to be righteous.

 

Her hand hadn’t reached Sagara’s face. He was too fast for that. The slap had her hand clapping against his, the ninja keeping a firm grip of four of her digits, holding her tight as a mousetrap. Having to struggle to pull away, Otsune didn’t deter one bit.

 

Sarah looked ready to pounce, her little hands balled up into fists. Natoko felt a little upset that the little girl was ready to attack yet she wasn’t.

 

“Trying my best to ignore the fact that you took Sarah on one of your excursions without informing me, Sakura has also been missing for the past three hours,” she told them. “She’s ran off and hasn’t come back since.”

 

“So?” replied Sarah indignantly.

 

“According to everyone who saw her, she was in tears when she left. According to Aki, it’s because of you she’s like this.”

 

For the first time Natoko saw that Aki had been waiting for them as well. She was sitting on one of the garden rocks, a vertical granite stone with enough of a flat surface for someone to sit on and play video games whilst ignoring the drama of front of them.

 

“What did you say to her, huh?” Otsune pressed. “What could have been so bad as to make her run out in tears?”

 

“As in today?”

 

“Yes, as in today.”

 

“I haven’t spoken to her today. We just got back.”

 

“Okay then, yesterday. I’m more than willing to accept that Sakura would lock herself in her room before dealing with these things.”

 

“I didn’t speak to her yesterday either.”

 

Otsune was stumbling with her argument. It couldn’t keep up using Sagara as fuel. “Well when did you last speak to her then?”

 

“When we got her to lead us through the vents to the demon’s hidout.”

 

“Time please.”

 

“4554: 10548625754.”

 

“Earth time!”

 

“As in Gregorian?”

 

“Yes!”

 

“15:25 22nd September 2005.”

 

Otsune looked a little distrustful, and turned to Aki for some help. Aki said nothing, engrossed in the grey console wrapped around her fingertips.

 

“Aki,” Otsune finally spoke after enough seconds to see a mouse scuttle by and out of sight. “When did he last speak to her?”

 

“I think it’s been a couple of days now,” Aki replied. Otsune huffed to herself, lost in what to do. With no reason to shout anymore, she stuttered a little bit, trying to bring herself about.

 

“Let the little hooker do what she wants,” Sarah butted in. “You should keep your business to yourself.” She pushed passed Otsune, dragging Sagara along for the ride, who nearly collided with the befuddled woman. The group separated quickly.

 

“You kids are my business!” Otsune shouted to her.

 

“Not that we asked for it,” Sarah spat back with spite.

 

Natoko figured she was dismissed and climbed the rest of the stairs, the final three steps reminding her of the previous one hundred and fifty two. “Shouldn’t you give her some more time?” she asked as she became level with Otsune. “Three hours is hardly too much a concern?”

 

“I’d have less concern if someone else took some of it,” Otsune replied, looking weakened by the short ordeal. Natoko couldn’t imagine why Otsune was so stressed by such a thing. Things had been calm for days, and now she was ready to kick their butts the second they got home. Otsune sighed loudly to herself and started walking back “So what happened with you guys?” she asked.

 

Natoko told her essentially what had happened, without all the unnecessary details that an innocent shouldn’t hear. She knew Otsune was as aware as she was, though perhaps less so, on these things, but it didn’t prevent her feeling a need to protect. Natoko told her just enough so that she knew Sagara still had his initiation, and then fell off towards her bedroom. On the futon before she could do anything else, the sleeping mat still out from the night before where she barely had chance to even rest in it, she felt a wave of final bliss that refused to let anyone interrupt. Her body ached. After all the excitement and sleep deprivation there was now a part of her that was convinced she couldn’t go to sleep.

 

Her thoughts wandered; to things Ms. Sakimoto had said; to Sagara’s mission; to the thought that the Balance was the prime suspect. Was that possible? Ms. Sakimoto was a businesswoman type. Could she cut people off like that with a blink? Would she know about it if it was true? Natoko knew the Balance had several factions, or at least got that as the general idea. That was complicated; a murder of a girl loved by everyone, demon and angel alike, and only charred remains as a clue, with a fear amongst all. It wasn’t going to be easy; and not even completely necessary according to Sagara. They just had to find one of the potential suspects. It didn’t even matter if they were the killer or not.

 

Shifting over, removing Iziz as the guard poked her in the back, she thought of Sakura. The young girl went off to do lots of things on her own. She had cooking classes on Wednesdays and usually went to the church on the weekends. It was the right decision to wait longer for her.

 

No, no, that was wrong. Protecting her friends should have been her first priority. It was what she was there for. She should have at least called, at least tried to contact. Sagara would have known a way.

 

And then she was asleep for the day.

 

***

 

Possibly thinking about tulips, but with no way to tell, the one known as Sagara stalked the kitchens. The kitchen, like an eager virgin, gave away its many treats, and Sagara hungrily devoured them all, relishing in dumpling delights, spiced rice balls and some pink liquid he stared at with confusion for a moment, like it was a drink he regularly sipped at but looked away for a moment, only to have a fox swap it for spiked night shadow. He consumed it anyway, uncaring for death.

 

Eight hours later, the harlots of the heavenly springs returned for the day, looking to relax from their various states of being away. The one known as Junko returned from her part time job, and complained incessantly to her friend Hiyori, who was just as tired and boring, though said nothing about her profession. The younger ones would return from play later, just as the ones that had returned earlier would be leaving again. Filing in and out, the residents opted to avoid the gaze of the curious landlord as he mopped a floor with little to no idea what he was doing with the cleaning utensil, a life with a mother negating all hope of learning how to do it properly even as the mop screamed for him to take it in his arms and treat it as if he were a rock star and it his humble microphone stand- together blazing a mark into the world that would bring an eternity of rock.

 

The one they called Otsune waited.

 

She didn’t just wait. Though it was similar to the same type of not just waiting as one would engage in when they would talk to others, have a good time and even read a book on the mathematic principles of the Lagrangian point and how it once related to the embodiment of Theia, to which the Balance originated, it was a wait done with tedium in its name, long glances at the clock and even longer sighing, an urge of giving up and consideration of alcohol, as the one called Fujiko returned with her stash for the night.

 

So when it finally came for Theia’s offspring to come out and the world fell to the dark side once more (though earlier than usual for it was summer, and also because the earth had shifted in its sleep and moved itself that little bit further along with no one noticing except a midget scientist in Mexico who would later become involved in a scandal with his boss and a guy that hated him and their boss so much that he would start rumours), that Otsune finally had enough and, grabbing a quick sip to lift her spirits, proceeded to the lounge to meet the three occupants: Fujiko, Sagara and, of course, Lisa, who wasn’t important.

 

“Right, now you’re going to go and search for her,” said Otsune, announcing her words before even walking into the room. No one appeared to be listening, and she had to repeat herself again to make sure everyone heard her.

 

“Right, now you’re going to go search for her,” is what it should have sounded like. But instead, she replied “I said, go look for her. She’s still gone.” Which was nothing like what was said before.

 

“Go look for who?” asked the ninja, torn between the television and the woman behind him.

 

“You know who,” replied Otsune, but the dumb American didn’t. “Sakura.”

 

“Has she not come back yet?”

 

“No!” replied Otsune, having not actually checked the girl’s room to find it as empty as before. “And you’re not to either until she does.”

 

“But if I’m to leave and not return until she comes back, how will I know when she has returned?”

 

“Don’t play wit with me. If I’d have the time I’d beat you with ease. Just get out there and find her. Don’t come back until you do.”

 

Sagara didn’t come back for several hours, but that was mainly because he didn’t leave for a few of them. First he collected Natoko, who had recovered from her fatigue and was just finishing what should have been her morning practise of a hundred strikes when he approached her again and told her they were going out. With a look of apprehension, she gave in quickly due to a fusion of social pressure provided by Aki, who agreed far too quickly to go considering she wasn’t invited, and her own pathetic delusions of being a super samurai retainer.

 

They would be delayed a short while after that again.

 

“Are you sure you have one?” asked Natoko, as if they were already in the middle of their conversation with Fujiko. “I can always ask someone else.”

 

“No no. I got it. I got it,” Fujiko slurred. Shuffling through her closest and bringing out more things it should be able to hold. ”Why do you need it anyway? You’ve got a cover for it and wouldn’t this just make it harder to pull out.”

 

“It wouldn’t be good if I got caught carrying it in the streets. In fact, I kind of prefer not to use it whenever possible.”

 

“Not much of a sword then, is it?” Fujiko continued, pulling out a full body mirror just a little smaller than the closest door, and a little bigger than the bag. “”How do you think the sword feels not getting used all time. It’s what it’s there for.”

 

“Natoko uses it quite a lot though,” said Aki, leaning over and overriding Fujiko’s hands. “It’s just when you’re not looking she uses it.”

 

“I’ve seen her use it plenty of times.”

 

With a loud gasp, Aki’s hand shot over Fujiko’s shoulder and pulled out a long ornamental bracer. “Is this it?”

 

“That will do fine, thank you Aki,” Natoko said. “Is it alright to borrow this as well then, Fujiko?”

 

“That was for a play back in school. You can have both for all I care.” The woman passed her the sleek black case and Natoko slid the katana known as Iziz down its cylinder before fixing the bracer on under the sleeve of her brown jacket. She bowed lightly in appreciation. Fujiko didn’t notice.

 

Sagara was talking to Gen, who hadn’t made an appearance yet. Their conversation was uneventful and boring, and a main reason not to go to parties with members of the Balance unless you planned on starting fights with the local pirate crew. They were cut off just as Gen was about to tell us something important.

 

“We may leave now,” aid Natoko coolly.

 

“Okay,” replied Sagara turning to go. He had his plain black jacket and white shirt on underneath, with jogging trousers that didn’t fit and a smile on his face that didn’t leave. Natoko had put something warm on, a top and cardigan, with loose denim jeans and her regular entourage of blade and small African girl. They got out the door before being stopped.

 

“Sagara,” Otsune called out. She had been relaxing herself with deep breathing, ready for what may come. Aki hovered in the doorframe before getting pulled out by Natoko.

 

“Seriously, bring her home. I don’t know what’s wrong but she has no where else to go, meaning she wouldn’t be anywhere else unless it was bad.”

 

Descending the steps lightly, it wasn’t until the three got to the bottom that they realised they didn’t know where they were going with this. Searching was one thing but the choice of first direction was a decision none of them were capable of making

In the end they walked forwards, Taking the road straight from the once old temple house and seeing where it led them. It led to a quiet street, house lights turning on all around them as humans settled in for the night. Murmurs of arguments little more important than what showed on televisions, and the rutting of housemates too paranoid to say anything.

 

With the directional sense of a pigeon in a magnet, the three wandered, their productivity declining and waning off altogether by the time they reached the tram station.

 

It was too late for most of the outgoing trams. There would be another in forty five minutes and then none after that save for the ones as final trips returning most of the resident’s home. The station worker watched them with an honestly bored expression on his face, his chin held up by the white glove of on his left hand, his only source of entertainment a small radio which spluttered out depressing tunes.

 

“She can’t be far,” said Natoko, not including time spent since her disappearance and the possibility of plane travel into her calculations. “Where would she have to go in town?”

 

“Nowhere save school,” Aki replied. Both she and Natoko went to the same place as Sakura. Natoko had been held back a year twice in her life at two separate occasions and was paying for it now. “But she doesn’t know that many people in town either.”

 

“What about the church? Doesn’t she go there every Sunday?”

 

“I was getting that feeling too,” replied Aki. “But she sometimes also volunteers at the Yellow Mansion. She might be helping out again.”

 

“Isn’t it a little late?”

 

“They do close late on Thursdays. It’s Korean meat night there. We could check that out. Even if she is working, it’d be nice for us to give her a walk home when she’s done.”

 

“Split up then?”

 

“That’s probably the best idea,” said Sagara, who had been staring at the tracks below as they waited. “There shouldn’t be much danger.”

 

“Of course not,” scoffed Aki. “Why would there be?”

 

“Ah, you better take the church actually.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I can’t go in them.”

 

“Right… oh right. I understand,” replied Natoko as if she just remembered she had told him to take the stairs and he was suffering extreme diarrhoea. “Sorry.”

 

“That’s okay, I should probably have mentioned it. Just remember. No churches or mosques or synagogues, political social houses, temple of the Dusk king or World’s dream enterprises conglomerate buildings. Anywhere else is fine.”

 

The two sides separated, Aki walking with Natoko, humming happily to herself. It was a quiet night, the heat still buzzing through the air, making Natoko take off her jacket before she was halfway down the first street.

 

“So Sagara was telling me about that girl that had died,” Aki said out of the blue. Natoko was shocked, she didn’t think Sagara was capable of starting a conversation.

 

“What did he say?”

 

“Nothing much really. Just that a woman is hiding more than she lets on and that they didn’t have any other leads.”

 

“Well that is it for the moment. We are kind of clueless.” Though not of their own fault. They had been awoken at night and forced through a deathtrap before being given a stern lecture and a verbal beating by a schizophrenic octopus salesman. Even having just got over sleep deprivation, she could still feel her eyes beating from all the explosions blasted into them. “It’s hard to figure out what to do next. I keep thinking we should go to the scene of the crime and –“

 

“I wouldn’t say there’s a need for that,” said Aki. “Wouldn’t they have cleaned up by now?”

 

Why did people keep dismissing that? “I guess, but it feels like the obvious choice.”

 

“For the police maybe. You though should be looking more for who did it.”

 

“I think that’s what they were doing. But if they can’t find out, and Sagara’s bosses can’t find out, how are we supposed to do so?”

 

“Well that’s an easy one,” said Aki lightly. “Just do the one thing no one else does.”

 

Natoko smirked, wishing it could be that simple.

 

***

 

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Natoko asked ten minutes later. Only now was it occurring to her that she didn’t know where the church was; nor had she ever been to it. Sakura spoke about it though never in any detail, and more when she was just informing people where she was going.

 

“Yup, been here before,” Aki replied, casually wandering past the convenience store Natoko was sure they had passed earlier. The feeling of being lost in her own town made her a little nervous. It was a small town, but there were many different areas and many of them looked the same. She usually only went as far as the store and the tram station. The school was on the outskirts of the city and anywhere else didn’t matter. Even so, she was being hit by déjà vu several times over here.

 

“It’s not a big place, but it’s got a spire on it, like on European churches. You’ll know it when you see it.”

 

“You go to church, Aki?” Natoko asked. Religion had never been a big topic in their many conversations, but she always thought Aki spent her Sunday mornings sleeping.

 

“Sakura invited me to go once,” she said. “It was boring. The stories were cool. There this one about a guy who lets this angel stay with him, and these guys come round to hang out with the angel and play with him. But the priest thinks it’s a bad idea, because the angel is important or something, so he has his wife entertain them instead.”

 

“I see,” commented Natoko, who had no idea about any catholic stories.

 

“Then there’s another story where this guy has a beautiful wife and moves to Egypt and as a joke they try to look like brother and sister, but the Egyptian king falls in love with her and marries her. This gets the man’s father all angry and stuff and he wrecks the town blaming the king but the king’s like ‘hey, no one told me she was your wife.’ He gets all confused and throws them out the city, and then the king gets eternally shunned for it.”

 

“Right,” Natoko said, unable to find a comment.

 

“After that it got boring. It was just singing and sitting silent with your eyes closed. I don’t know what that was about.”

 

“Wouldn’t that be praying?”

 

“I dunno,” said Aki looking like she wasn’t ready to start thinking about it. ”Well afterwards Sakura didn’t ask me to go again, which was a shame because they never answered any of my questions properly. Oh but I do know it was around here. It should be just round the next few corners.”

 

“Are you sure?” They had been walking straight, down one of the main roads that led to the bridge if they went the other way. This place should have been unrecognisable to her out of simple ignorance but the landscape had been repeated now for the forth time, her suspicions confirmed as the past the convenience store again.

 

“Something’s wrong here,” she said, after they had past the light of the store, where she could unhook the casing from her shoulders, letting Iziz out just enough to be ready for anything, but not so the police could see it and arrest her.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Haven’t you noticed?” Natoko whispered, though she didn’t now why she was hiding her voice. “We’ve walked past here several times.”

 

“No we haven’t,” Aki said looking around and looking confused.

 

“Yes we have; look,” Natoko indicated to the store they had passed just as a middle age woman came out with a shopping bag full of food. She looked around, didn’t glance towards them and walked away the other way. “We’ve passed that store several times now.”

 

“Did we?” Aki said, peering over to where Natoko said. “What store?”

 

“It appears so. Are you sure you know where we’re going?” Natoko asked just to make sure.

 

“No, that’s not what’s wrong here,” Aki said, hopping onto the road so she could look further down where Natoko had showed.

 

“If you’re going to blame the landscape for changing like before, I should just warn you that we don’t have time to waste on things like that and-“

 

“Natoko?”

 

“What?”

 

“I can’t see any store.”

 

“Huh? Of course you can see it, it’s right there. That lady just came out of it and-”

 

“There’s no lady either.”

 

“Of course there is.” The hunched over old lady was a little distant but still glinted in the moonlight.

 

“I’m just seeing Komamura Street. The only store nearby is the Benri from ten minutes back.”

 

“You’re seeing a different street to me?”

 

“No, I’m seeing Komamura street. I don’t know what you’re seeing.”

 

Natoko looked around. Across the road there was a small park with swings and a climbing frame where it looked like two houses should have been built. To her right was a lamppost with a poster on it that had been there so long it had the original message had faded. A red Mazda was parked just a few meters up from them.

 

Were they real? She could touch the lamppost but for a moment she saw Aki stare at her like she was poking thin air, the girl shaking her head to confirm before plunging her hand through the metal and out the other side like there was only air to stop her.

 

Aki then ran across the road slapping down on the air in front of her. For just a short instant, Natoko heard the metallic thud of what was unmistakably a car bonnet, but on the second impact nothing came and Aki was left swatting invisible flies.

 

What was this? Had they been targeted? There was no one who would have wanted to attack her directly- not yet anyway. She wasn’t known throughout the demons by anyone that was still alive or who would see her as a threat.

 

Not that that had stopped the water spirit from attacking her. Maybe this was another attempt to get at Sagara through his friends. Her thoughts wavered as she saw Aki step back staring into the sky like a giant dog was snarling at her feet. Following the girl’s eyesight, Natoko saw the end of the street and nothing save a few cars and a small van, but nothing more.

 

“Can you see that?” Aki asked.

 

“What is it you see?”

 

“Doesn’t matter. Run!”

 

Chapter six

 

Warmy fuzzy thoughts invaded Natoko’s mind. Memories of struggle and determination, mixed in with those who would accept her, and those who would admire her. The duet of sounds played a song she couldn’t hear.

 

Her mouth was full of dirt.

 

Up less than a second since she fell, Natoko nearly fell straight back down again as her feet caught in glue, something sticking in her back. Wobbling awkwardly, she caught her balance just enough to fall back in the mud.

 

Where were they? A different street than before. This one didn’t have a park and the cars had changed position too, with only one green salon parked next to where Aki was valiantly struggling against the mud.

 

The sloppy wet glop was all around them, filling the street like the dregs of a tidal wave that had brought a farming community along with it. It had swamped the road and most of the pavement for as far as she could see, hardening around her, trapping her feet like sand at the ocean’s edge; solid and immovable.

 

“Aki!” she called out to her friend, who was trying to lean against the car.

 

“I got it, I got it,” the girl insisted, keeping her hands steady, not wanting to lose her posture and snap a shin bone in the process. Reaching over to the car, Natoko saw Aki could only get a finger on it to hold herself, but it seemed enough for the gymnast.

 

Natoko reached for Iziz, looking to use it as a third leg, only to find herself blocked from standing straight, the plastic case dug in her back, the sword itself trapped in the mud. Natoko tried twisting round and immediately regretted it. She remembered basic hip movements from kendo lessons, how a human could snap his own ankle off doing a kick with one leg planted in cement. It didn’t feel worth the risk.

 

Leaning forwards, she could see just behind her the blade sticking up out of the ground with its sheath still on. The tsuba was trapped. She must have flipped the blade in the case without realising. Reaching under, she tried shaking it to the side but found it wouldn’t budge. Iziz was as trapped as she was.

 

Suddenly, the ground started to rumble again, jaunting her unrepentantly and making her glad one hand was already firmly planted on the dry, crusty mud surface. Looking up, she saw a giant figure emerge from the cracked earth.

 

It was about as big as she was for just a moment and rose to tower over her. It reminded her of three large worm heads pushing their way out of the soil on a rainy day. Knocking chunks of tarmac out of the way, it slowly pulled itself up out of the ground where, despite its impressive size, it still looked a little too big to be emerging from a hole in the road.

 

Grabbing her focus, she kept an eye on it. For a moment she thought of the possibility of this being another ‘agent’, someone else who was to attack them and then ask for their friendship. A few days ago she would have found herself odd for thinking such a thing, but then another loud crack thundered from the mud and an elbow started to rise from its own dust. Not thinking at all now, she watched the hand, only a fraction of their attacker, hoisting the rest of the body out of the hard mud. Slowly, and with effort that could only come from something that size, the mud pulled itself out of the ground. Holding itself up on its two lumps of arms, like its feet were also stuck in the dried up mud, the golem didn’t see to have a head for a moment, until Natoko was able to just barely make out the impression of eyes on its body, two appendages coming out where it felt the nose should be, and a mouth where the neck was, roaring loud and hard into the night.

 

Natoko felt a very strong urge to have a weapon in her hand, and reached down again for Iziz, growling at the blade as she jolted it forcefully, hearing the tip rattle trapped in its case. It didn’t feel like it was getting out any time soon and even as she managed to wiggled the sheath out of the end of the case, it was all she could do to lift it up, useless unless she wanted to slice herself in half the next time the demon moved.

 

Demon. Stopping her struggles for a second, Natoko turned to look at it. It had stopped to stare down at her, its two large hollow, beady eyes bearing down on her the way an eagle might on a small rat who had just noticed a moment too late..

 

Then, its neck pulling back, it darted towards her, the entire structure throwing itself at her like a fist. She struggled for movement; for escape. Just an inch and then she could escape death, if only for a moment.

 

Then the golem hit her with a sickening thud which rang in her ears and shook her whole body in mad darkness. Her wrists tingled with the impact.

 

A moment to open her eyes later revealed the monster, just inches from him face, making noises – snarling at her, as it tried to lunge forward again. Natoko felt it push her elbows back wastefully, and was surprised to find in her hands the plastic casing that once held Iziz, defending her from the monster at the last minute.

 

Rather than risk another bad try, the monster lifted up again, not waiting for her to figure out just how she had done that that fast and crashed down at her again. It took her a split second to realise her feet were still trapped in the mud, but that was enough to trip over her own knees and onto her ass. Grunting, she watched as golem body tore down upon her again, this time to be stopped by Aki.

 

The little girl had somehow already broken out herself, and had delivered a flying drop kick to the monster after propelling herself off the car. The monster seemed a lot more hurt than it should have been on being attacked by a fifteen year old schoolgirl, but she had come to accept that with Aki. One kick from her was the kick of a mule’s shortly followed by sledgehammers. She was glad she had never felt it herself.

 

Reeling back for just a second, the earth monster stopping itself just as abruptly. Natoko realised this was her chance to free herself, and began striking the mud at her feet with the casing. It was a lot weaker on the top than it felt with her legs and she started to made cracks just as soon as Aki received a blow that knocked her straight past Natoko and hard into the ground below.

 

“Aki!” she screamed for her friend, seeing the small kicker fall limp to the floor Natoko’s heart stopped as she saw Aki’s body fall silent, her head in an odd position, he neck arched upwards.

 

Wanting to swear and curse at the monster, Natoko found her teeth ground together as she turned back to the monster, already focused on her again. This time, Natoko watched as from its neck sandy bubbles started to pop and crackle around a pit forming in the neck. The block of stone twisting from side to side as sand poured to the ground, it took Natoko until it was nearly complete to realise the monster was growing itself a real head. It looked like a lion with a beak drooping off the chin like a beard. This time she really could see two beady eyes staring at her. Her mouth was starting to feeling a little dry, the sand had somehow already got under her nails and her hair felt itchy.

 

The head finished growing, a shifty mane sprouting up on the back of head that flowed out and blew sand in all directions the wind would take it. The demon roared at her again, the hollow bellowing sounding no more different than moments ago when there was no head. It pulled back, ready to strike this time, not letting a piece of silly plastic get in its way, the both of them knowing the small casing couldn’t have taken another impact anyway.

 

Natoko weighed her options. They were as short as she had thought.

 

It struck at her again, the head firing itself like a bullet, dragging its body along like a helpless sailor with his foot stuck in the ankle rope. Natoko saw it all. The lunge, the explosion of sand as it took off in all directions. She even saw the roar.

 

Then she felt everything

 

Suddenly her feet were free. Just a little, but enough to get herself out of the mud. She looked up to the monster feeling the pressure divert away from her with its presence ready to engulf her without reason. Then she saw Iziz.

 

With a second left, she didn’t wait. She pulled the sheath off of the buried handle and jumped off to the side, rolling across the mud and as far away as she could, scrambling further even as she hear the loud impact shake the buildings around her, rattling glass and setting off low tech car alarms.

 

Glancing back, she had enough time just to see the monster screaming loudly, tossing its head back as it spasmed violently in torment, wet mud splattering everywhere as the blade remained buried to its hilt in the monster’s eye socket.

 

It didn’t matter whether or not the sword was around her waist, or whether she was pulling the handle or the sheath. Iaijutsu was still the same, as long as the sword came out as quickly and smoothly as possible.

 

Not trying to feel too proud, she continued the attack, driving the sword in. Shrieking loud enough to wake the whole neighbourhood, the monster shook wildly, slamming its head back and forth in the air in a poor attempt to get the blade out its eyes; the arms of the monster proving too short to get at it. It fumbled around with itself. Natoko took a moment to breath again. Now what? There was still the problem of it being alive, as well as her not having anything save Iziz’s sheath. Iziz’s sheath was made from a strong oak wood that had supposedly been taken, according to her grandfather, from the oak of a tree that had lived healthily for two hundred years. Whilst it wouldn’t snap like a twig, it still wouldn’t last long. Not to mention that trying to club mud to death would be futile.

 

Stabbing had proved effective though. Maybe such a monster was still weak against physical attacks. She couldn’t imagine why, but such things didn’t matter anyway. From what she remembered from Sagara, she had to sever the link between the demon and the physical object it was contained in. If that was mud…

 

The monster vanished, its screams echoing once into the night and fading into the sound of a car alarm that turned itself off five seconds later. Natoko stayed crouched, looking around, like a bad joke was about to be played on her but she didn’t know where from. The once hardened mud, the texture of which was coming off under her fingernails had been replaced with tarmac, which felt hard and real under her palms. The road was back. The pavement was back. The green car was still there. The monster was gone.

 

Just like that?

 

Hearing a clanging sound, she looked up to see her katana, rattling on the floor, still on the edge of its second bounced as it dropped to the floor once again. Not daring to approach, she watched it wobbled on its hilt before slowly coming to a stop, quickly falling silent in the empty street.

 

Natoko kept still in the middle of the road, her body on fire. Then slowly, she crawled up to Iziz, taking it in her hand and clutching it tightly, her hands shaking cold. Good, you’re not scratched.

 

Her breath was the loudest thing on the street, easily overcoming the sound of cicadas and the hum of cars in the distant. The night being humid wasn’t an excuse, she had barely moved, yet the thought of getting crushed in a heartbeat had drained her body. She looked around. Nothing appeared to be coming.

 

“Aki!” she called out to her friend, who was lying in the same obscure position. She crawled the ten meters up to her friend and hesitated in the final few inches before she could see her face.

 

“Heh, I got pwned,” the girl whimpered, trying to push herself on her elbow and wincing from it.

 

Natoko found she couldn’t grin back. The monster had decimated them both. It having disappeared like that was pure luck for them. A moment longer, and they wouldn’t have to have suffered much longer.

 

Was it defeated? Sagara had told her that no demon was ever completely defeated on Earth, that you could only break the connection between the demon and its container. But that demon’s was hidden within the mud. She couldn’t have hit it.

 

Watching in a daydream as Aki pulled herself up, Natoko jumped up to help her friend, and felt her ankle give way on her, forcing her to have Aki’s shoulder for balance. It was twisted. A pain she had felt many times before. Aki didn’t look any better.

 

They needed to rest. Her ankle needed to be elevated. They needed to get away before the demon came back.

 

Aki moved forward first, plodding down the road with Natoko in tow. “Where are you going?”

 

“Church,” Aki replied, pointing with her unencumbered arm. Following the finger, Natoko wondered how she could miss it. It wasn’t grand, but it stood out from all the other older houses. Its smooth white surface shone in the moonlight, illuminating it like a beacon whilst its spire, not so high, roughly half the height of the building itself looked over them like a guardian. The lights were on as well. Someone was home.

 

Natoko was unconvinced. “No, we should get out of here,” she said, looking to turn in the other direction and feeling her ankle complain from movements that came even before she rotated. It would need elevating, and preferably an icebag- and some chocolate.

 

“Nuh uh,” Aki replied. “It’s a church. Safest place in the whole world from demons. Also, neither of us have phones.”

 

Not in the mood to argue against logic she agreed with, Natoko paced the tormenting ninety steps to the door of the church. It was large and wooden, and could fit basketball payers under it with ease. Aki knocked quietly, and opened the door without waiting a second.

 

“Sorry for the intrusion,” they both said in unintentional unison. The cloakroom was small and unimportant, but the second they stepped into the main hall, they heard their footsteps fill the room with echo. It looked a little odder than other churches she had been too, or imagined in books. It looked like they were in the middle of decorating, with only four of the long benches at the back, two at the front besides a high altar and a table filled with flowers. The rest of the benches had been pulled over to the sides, blocking most of the side doors. A big empty space lay in the middle, devoid of all save the carpet that snaked from themselves to the altar through the middle of the room.

 

They headed for the nearest bench. Natoko sitting first on the edge, Aki monkey crawling around onto the other side of her as if she was already back at the peak of physical health. Natoko glared at her but the girl didn’t seem to notice, instead slowly lifting her friend’s ankle, ignoring Natoko hiss in pain, and lowering it onto the bench in front.

 

“Keep it elevated,” she mumbled, slowly taking off Natoko’s trainer.

 

Looking up to keep her mind off things, Natoko saw a stained glass window meet her gaze at the far side of the room. It depicted an angel with wings twice the size of its whole body. It completely engulfed the glass save for the edges. In its hands was leather bound crimson book, but Natoko couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be. On its right hand side it had a hammer attached to its waist. And from the angle she was staring at it, the being didn’t seem to have a mouth. Leaning to look better, she yelped in pain.

 

“Sorry,” Aki said, finally leaving her foot alone. It had better heal quickly, Natoko thought. She had no intention of wasting more of the week not training. She had already been forced to give up a lot of time the past two days, and she could ill afford to waste anymore with school coming back.

 

“Aki!” she yelled, her friend poking her ankle again, this time for no obvious reason.

 

“I thought I heard somebody come in.”

 

They both span round at the intrusion, Natoko too lost in pain to sense anything properly. In front of her was a young, thirty something man in black trousers and loosely buttoned shirt, watching them with concern as he kept his hands in his pockets.

 

Natoko looked to Iziz, hidden in the shadows, on the bench and the darkness of the room.

 

“Excuse us, father,” she said politely, bowing her head, “but we-“ She looked up, not quite sure why she was calling him father. She wasn’t religious, and he wasn’t wearing a collar. He could have been the janitor for what she knew. He seemed to read her concern.

 

“It hasn’t been too long since we’ve had guests,” he said after a moment’s silence. “But I’m sure I could put up with you for a while. Let me get the first aid box for you and we’ll…” He stopped, looking at Aki as he noticed her for the first time.

 

“Oh,” he said, looking a little put off. “It’s you again.”

 

“Hi,” Aki said, waving friendly to him. “Long time no see.”

 

“The same.” The man looked a little flustered now, his hair, which didn’t look like it had been combed since the morning, made him look a little eccentric as he scratched the back of his head. “I didn’t think you would be coming back. We still haven’t got the stains out from last time.”

 

“Stains?” Natoko dared to quiz.

 

“I’ll get the first aid kit,” he continued. “Would you two like some tea as well?”

 

“Thank you.” Natoko watched as he disappeared around the corner though one of the few open doors left. They waited patiently for a few minutes, lost for conversation, before he returned, carrying two cups, the first aid kit under his arm.

 

“If you’re looking for your friend,” he said, sitting down in front of her foot and passing them the two vanished blackgrain bowls. “You missed her by about ten minutes.”

 

“Sakura was here?” Aki asked. “How is she?”

 

“We didn’t speak. I saw that she was in one of her more delicate moods, and chose to keep my distance.”

 

“Is that a God thing?” Natoko found herself saying spitefully. You comfort people when they’re upset, not leave them to fester.

 

“No, that was my own judgement,” he explained. “Sakura tends to get nervous far too easily as part of her condition. It never does good to approach her when she’s crying.”

“S-sorry,” she apologised. Sakura has a condition? She didn’t know, but she did want to know more.

 

The man looked less willing to talk now, but continued nonetheless. “I hadn’t seen her for a few weeks now, so I was getting worried. Even when she isn’t depressed, she still comes on Wednesday nights and Sundays. She’s lost weight too. That’s not as good as it should be.”

 

“I thought she was okay today,” Aki said, making Natoko realise the conversation wasn’t between herself and the priest, even though he was focusing on her ankle now. “So I went to take her exploring. Though… it turns out she has a fear of attics or something.”

 

“Sakura is strong with others, yet tries so hard to be weak by herself. It is not fitting for such a girl.”

 

“Hey,” Natoko blurted out, suddenly reminded by sharp unnecessary pain. “Did you hear anything…errr.”

 

“Excuse my rudeness,” he replied. “I am Father Goryu Sakagami. Please to meet you.”

 

“Yamanaka Natoko,” she replied, bowing to meet his bow. “Did you hear anything, Mr. Sakigami?”

 

“Hear? Like what?”

 

That was just the type of response that gave her the answer.

 

“Sounds of a fight, anything like that?” He looked unsure.

 

“Not recently. Is that why you two are injured? Do you need me to call the police?”

 

Natoko laughed a little to herself, feeling a lift in her body at the idea of just how ill prepared police would be for what had happened, and how she was able to do well herself in defeating the monster. “That won’t be necessary.”

 

“And why would that be?” the man asked, looking grimly confused. “I don’t believe I would care to find a couple of corpses outside my building.”

 

Natoko giggled nervously, feeling like a schoolgirl trying to deny something to her parents. “Nothing like that. It’s just we heard something ourselves and…” She fell silence. It was weird lying to this guy. She immediately felt wrong about it, wanting to tell the truth. “But we saw no men or women at all.” There, that was thee truth.

 

“And that would be for the best as well, I think. Two girls like yourselves, not to mention the attitude around town everyone has of you since you took that landlord in.”

 

So it had spread that far into town. Most of the residents living near them had made it clear, but it seemed to be a select few more elderly residents going crazy. From the sound of his voice, the priest didn’t like the idea either.

 

“Also,” he said, leaning over the two of them. Natoko jerked, trying to stop it far too late, his hand darting for Iziz faster than she could stop him. “I think anyone that found you would suffer a lot more than yourselves with this at your side.” He unsheathed the blade from its case with a hard yank that Iziz didn’t deserve, and gazed at the blade. To Natoko, it was clear he was checking to see if it was real or not, and didn’t seem pleased when he got his answer.

 

Then she saw the blood.

 

It was caught in the chamber of the sword, now travelling down the length of the blade as gravity rolled it. The priest couldn’t see it from where he was holding it, but it would only take an instant for it to drop to the floor and splash against the cold marble concrete of the floor.

 

Natoko hesitated. If he saw that questions would start rolling at them as to what they were doing and it wouldn’t be too long until the police did get involved. They definitely wouldn’t believe a story about a demon, but even if they weren’t the aggressors they could still get in trouble which would no doubt get the school and her father involved. In reality she couldn’t explain how the blood even got there. It wasn’t from the demon surely?

 

She looked at him. Even from here, with her ankle twisted, she could probably get Iziz off him. He looked back to her, their eyes meeting, and relaxed.

 

“Well, I’m pretty sure it’s a crime to be wandering around the streets with one of these loose. You should get a case for it,” he said slowly sheathing it and passing back with a single movement, a single drop of blood falling on the hilt and keeping itself hidden.  “I had better give the two of you a lift home. Give me two minutes to lock up, and I’ll go bring the car round from the back.”

 

Watching him leave again, Natoko let a sigh go. That would have been a problem, for both her and her lord. It would have been intolerable (though she already knew Sagara wouldn’t be bothered) to get him stuck in such a quandary just because she hadn’t been smart enough to clean her blade. It was these types of actions she couldn’t afford. She may be getting stronger, and had her beliefs, but her actions when not fighting should be considered a swell. A samurai is not just his sword, but his mind and body too, she reminded herself.

 

As they waited, she wiped the drop of blood from the hilt, not wanting it to stain the father’s car seat.

 

Chapter Seven

 

“And you’ve got your phone with you this time, right? I want constant updates every hour of the day,” Otsune playfully chided, making a point to smile to the young girl. Sakura had returned early last night safe and sound, no thanks to the three who went out to find her. Natoko and Aki had apparently just missed her, while Sagara had gone to get something to eat.

 

Sakura responded with a mere nod of her head, making a point to show her green Nokia E210 before slipping it into her backpack. “Bye,” she managed to get out, returning a weak smile that made Otsune want to hug her, before disappearing behind the door.

 

The girl was worth the trouble. Even if she was still a little brainwashed into religion, Otsune knew she was a good person who cared for others. And she was talented. Cooks will always be needed in the world until a way was found to bypass the need for regenerative consumption.

 

Leaving the hallway, having to lunge quickly before her flame just drove right through the sliding door and turned it into a pile of ashes, Otsune headed for the lounge. With one worry out of the way and with all her other worries temporarily incapacitated at her own request, she could focus on the biggest worry to her tenacious grip on sanity at the present time.

 

It was sitting in the lobby as she entered, watching a game show with that same zoned out interest it showed everything within its ‘magic super special’ power eyes. Natoko sat besides it, nodding a good day to Otsune as she came up around them, pulling the television plug out of its socket as she stood in front of them.

 

Natoko frowned, looking more confused than angry. Sagara didn’t seem to notice at all. “Well,” she began. “I had planned to bring this up the other day, but the whole fiasco with Sakura running off got in the way. And then I needed to fill in my gap year form and head into town yesterday to buy some things, and then some other stuff that you are not to enquire of, but I guess now is a much better time than the other day.”

 

“It often always is,” sad Sagara, watching her with the same amount of interest he had given the television.

 

“Just shut up and speak when spoken too, okay?” Otsune said with a happy face.

 

“Okay,” he replied, looking genuinely happy.

 

“Okay. Now, I’m going to ask you the same question I’ve asked now for the thirteenth time, and this time I don’t honestly mind how you respond. Okay?”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Okay, here goes.” Otsune took an unnecessarily long breath. “Where is Tina?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Thought so,” Otsune chimed. “Do you even know the girl?”

 

“I don’t think I met her, but I had heard the name before you started asking me.”

 

“Right, okay, so you at least acknowledge that she could or might have existed, right?”

 

“Right.”

 

“Good. Now, do you believe me when I say she went to the tournament with us?”

 

“ I don’t recall seeing her, but I guess if you say so.”

 

“Sagara If I may,” Natoko interrupted. “I saw Tina attend the tournament myself. I believe the others did as well.”

 

“Well, I guess she was then. But why would you have me confirm something that you know more than me?”

 

“It’s called setting the stage,” Otsune said blandly. “So, you realise that Tina exists as an objective human, based on the anecdotal accounts of others. You also accept that she was with us at a certain place at a certain time, that place being your InBetween Realm place. Now, if she wasn’t seen after that, what else would you assume?”

 

Sagara stopped to think, a bit too much for a question that she thought was clearly rhetorical and was just being said to push him into the corner. Sagara looked away from her for just a moment.

 

“I’d say she went missing at the same place and the same time, that place being my InBetween Realm, as you last were.”

 

Otsune paused. “Correct.” Sagara sighed with relief. “Now you’re up to speed, I have a request.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Take me back to the tournament area so I can find my friend.”

 

“No.”

 

“Just to the tournament area, so we can have a look around for any sign of her.”

 

“No.”

 

“You don’t even have to stay with us. Just get me there and I can do the rest myself.”

 

“No.”

 

“And why not?”

 

“You’re only allowed in the InBetween realm during times of tournaments. After that, those that aren’t to know are supposed to slowly forget and remember it all as if it were a dream. Though, thinking about it, that doesn’t appear to have happened to you.”

 

“How can I forget when my friend’s trapped in there? She’s been stuck there for a month now and who knows what’s happened to her?”

 

“She’s probably fine, though there are fatal dangers.”

 

Otsune scoffed. “How can you say those things in the same sentence? She might already be dead. At the very least, you should be going in to get her out of there since she’s apparently not allowed inside.”

 

“I guess I phrased that wrong. We can’t govern infinity like that properly, so I guess she should be allowed in to an extent.”

 

“So, to that same extent, let me go in and find her.”

 

“No. If you have gotten out, you shouldn’t be allowed back in until the next tournament.”

 

“And when will that be?”

 

“In about four years. They’re done on leap years.”

 

Otsune tried to calm down, knowing that shouting at him wouldn’t cower him into submission. She had to be cleverer than this. She was cleverer than this. It was just a matter of slipping him onto the right conversation.

 

Though in all honesty she didn’t know where she was going with this. It wasn’t like she had any bargaining chips with Sagara. All she could hope to do was coerce and trick him.

 

“So we’d have to wait four years? What if you left something behind? Something that you had mislaid. Surely then you’d be able to.”

 

“Well, it would have to be something valuable. Spiritually that is.”

 

“So a purse or something wouldn’t cut it. It would have to be a weapon like your gauntlet or something?”

 

“Well, Mom always said ‘the purse of a woman is the most valuable thing in the world to her. If you ever want to die, steal a purse off a woman.’ She then sent me off to do just that.”

 

“Yes yes, we’ve already quite established your mother is psychotic what with her child rearing techniques, and it doesn’t surprise me for an instant that she’d encourage you to mug people for reasons that don’t actually involve your own profit, but what’s important here is…wait.”

 

Thinking it over carefully, her brain going at the speed it would take to hit the technological singularity in about four years, Otsune formed a plan.

 

“You know, speaking of losing purses-“

 

***

 

“Well that didn’t go as badly as planned,” Fujiko said stretching with relieved enthusiasm.

 

“I can’t fault the planning,” said Otsune, in the middle of a search for a suitable backpack. “But the morals of the victim were nothing short of alarming. Should I have phrased it to him that I forgot my friend? Would he have been quicker to let me in then? Or would he have allowed me only to get as far as the lost property bin before turning me around again.”

 

“You went back there yourself, didn’t you?”

 

“Where?”

 

“To those buildings we went in last time.”

 

“Well, we got in last time by ourselves. I thought that perhaps we could just go sneak back in ourselves, that maybe the tournament organisers had disappeared or something.”

 

“Only it was the building that had disappeared, wasn’t it? Looks like they finally got round to demolishing them.”

 

“Yes and rebuilding a series of terrible looking restaurants with apartments above them.”

 

“And then making them appear that they were built at least thirty years ago.”

 

“You went too then?”

 

“I checked it out. A place like that would have been perfect for a party.”

 

“Because a dorm filled with teenagers doesn’t accomplish that.”

 

“Well, it does, but everyone here is boring.”

 

“Heh, my apologies.”

 

“Well, not you, and not Natoko and Sagara I guess. Aki as well maybe.”

 

“Anyway,” Otsune interrupted loudly. “Since he’s letting us in now, we should have nothing to worry about.”

 

“Since he’s letting you in, you mean.”

 

“What?”

 

“I’m not going,” Fujiko announced far louder than necessary.

 

“What are you talking about? You’ve got to come too. It’s your ‘purse’, and you wanted to see it earlier anyway, didn’t you?”

 

“I dunno. Isn’t there something weird about this?”

 

Otsune felt like she couldn’t provide a more deadpan expression, her face as still as an irritated, sarcastic mask, made by someone who had lived alongside the most deadpan expression all their life and had it permanently etched in their memory. Fujiko didn’t notice.

 

“I mean, we can’t get in through where the demolished buildings were, but we can get through somewhere else that’ll we’ll get shown later. Where could this be? I mean the place was huge, but surely…”

 

“You’re only just asking these questions now? Are you blind, Fujiko? Stuff that goes against all of what I know and hold statistically significant has happened about three or four times in the past month or so.”

 

“Well, it was weird, but not too much so. I mean, the underground building I could expect of the government, and the thing that possessed Natoko was just a spirit.”

 

“Just a… listen to yourself. Up until a month ago the general consensus around the not crazy people sub culture was that spirits didn’t actually exist. They were old wives tales and stories made by people who liked to control other people through fear of not worshipping non-existent entities.”

 

“I know that in your head you only count yourself as part of that group.”

 

“But now we have a giant wheel attack a stranger who purports to be a ninja even though he has not once snuck up on any of us and had one of our friend’s controlled by another so called ‘spirit’ who can control water…and by stupidproxy the human body.”

 

“Well, it does make sense, the human body does consist of about seventy percent-“

 

“Yes, but the human body does not consist of a feature to store a vengeful spirit! It doesn’t matter that by controlling water it can control a person because, from what we knew, water spirits didn’t exist, and neither do little flames that follow you around and set fire to your work.”

 

“Yeah, but that doesn’t really-“

 

“I have a flame following me around,” she now bellowed. “What’s it going to take for you to believe that place was another dimension. You should be the one trying to convince me, the stupid rigid atheist scientist who dismissed god when she was nine whilst at church after her dad died in what is a clear case of anger displacement!”

 

“You’re serious about that flame, aren’t you?”

 

“Yes. Now you’re going, whether you want to or not, if just to have you realise that there is more out there than there seems, and it’s not just spirits.”

 

“Okay fine!” Fujiko relented with a majestic sweep of her hands. “I guess I can waste one day hanging out with you in underground caverns. Let me go get some things and we can head out.” Getting up, Fujiko went to leave.

 

“Ah, it may be longer than a day,” Otsune admitted, emotions switching from frustration to guilt.

 

Fujiko paused between the door frame. “Like how long?”

 

“As long as it takes,” she tried to phrase this as if it were the best possible answer to hear.

 

“How long?”

 

“Look, I don’t know where Tina is. And I don’t know how big that place is. She could be anywhere in there, and it could take weeks to find her.”

 

“This is why you’ve applied to take a gap year isn’t it?” Fujiko realised. “You think it’s really going to take that long.”

 

“Well, not that long, and if anything, I can come back for the spring semester.”

 

“So you’re saying months?” Fujiko exclaimed, looking angry now. “You want me to abandon my life for a couple of months?”

 

“Tina may lose a lot more than that, Fujiko,” Otsune shouted back, not believing her friend could be this selfish. “She’s already been missing a month. She may already be dead in a place filled with monsters.”

 

“There were no monsters.”

 

“Yes there was. You just didn’t see them.”

 

“Which is certainly convenient for your argument, isn’t it? Look, even if there were monsters, doesn’t that just mean it’s dangerous? You’ve already convinced Sagara not to come with us. What are we going to do if monsters do show up?”

 

“Run of course!” she said with dignity.

 

“And what if we get trapped?”

 

“I can’t believe you’re being this selfish!”

 

“Oh, this coming from the second genius of Heavenly Springs. Aren’t you paying attention, Otsune? I’ve always been this selfish. But I’ll be especially selfish when what’s being asked of me is crazy. A wild goose chase for someone we barely know.”

 

“Barely know? Tina was our friend.”

 

“She was your friend from ‘Germany’. She didn’t speak to the rest of us, and I’m not sure if you noticed, but she didn’t speak to you much either. I don’t even know why she was here.”

 

Otsune couldn’t argue that, looking down to the ground as she tried to think of things. Tina had been shy during her time here, and being assaulted by the townsfolk had made her reclusive and timid. And there was something else too.

 

“That shouldn’t matter,” Otsune insisted. “Whether she was a friend or not, she’s still in trouble, and that means we have to save her. And if Sagara won’t do it, and you won’t do it, then I’ll just have to go myself.” Otsune turned sharply, blocking her friend from her sight, to notice from the first time that Aki had been watching them the entire time while eating a banana.

 

Otsune ignored her too.

 

***

 

“Okay ready?” Natoko asked, her friend’s hand in hers. On the floor, Otsune nodded to her looking as helpless as she was immobile. With a gasp of energy from both, and using back muscles that usually didn’t get touched, they lifted her up and back onto her feet, the heavy backpack wrapped round her nearly knocking Otsune straight back down.

 

Otsune looked like she was kitted out for a hike to Russia via the Himalayas, and was laughing to herself as she tested the new weight on her shoulders. The bag was as big as she was. The green combat trousers, originally bought more for style than efficiency looked a bit too baggy. Thick heeled walking boots that were shiny and new, hadn’t been broken in yet, and a single white, brand-less t-shirt that already had damp patches under the armpits.

 

Otsune wasn’t used to this at all.

 

She wasn’t out of shape, Natoko knew this much. They both woke up at the same early time every morning, when Otsune went jogging and didn’t come back for an hour, as Natoko finished her own training. But even so the extra weight combined with the crushing summer heat was already making her weak at the knees.

 

“And I’ve still got to climb down the stairs as well,” Otsune whimpered, trying to make it sound sarcastic and fake, but showing her trepidation anyway.

 

“Are you sure you’re going to be all right,” Natoko asked concerned. “Shouldn’t we all carry something?”

 

“No…no,” Otsune mumbled. “I’m going to have to carry it all eventually. I may as well start getting used to it. This will do my diet good.”

 

“At least let me take half of it while you go down the stairs.”

 

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” Otsune tried to wave her down. “Just…just stand in front of me when we’re going down. Make sure I don’t fall.”

 

Natoko felt uneasy, but gave in all the same. Her friend was hurting herself, that was clear, but she was also too stubborn for help. “How far are we heading, Sagara?”

 

“About three quarters of a mile,” Sagara replied, having stood there the whole time whistling to himself.

 

“Where are we heading?” Natoko asked.

 

“The tram station, then the entrance to the InBetween realm.”

 

“The tram station?” replied Otsune. “But the one that we went to last time as closed off.”

 

Sagara stopped to look up, thinking. “Is it? Oh yeah, it would be by now.”

 

“Does that mean…”

 

“We’ll have to take the one in the forest then.”

 

“You mean the Tetsumori woods?” Natoko asked.

 

“No, I mean the ones at the edge of town, just at the bottom of the hill near the first bridge.”

 

“Those are the Tetsumori woods. The ones that are twenty miles closer than our original destination.”

 

“Oh, in that case I do mean them.”

 

“Which means we’ll have to walk there?”

 

“Well, we could get a taxi cab, but it isn’t all that far away.”

 

“Every step is a microinch,” muttered Otsune under her breath.

 

“Already done,” said Fujiko, coming round the corner and snapping her phone shut. “He should be here in about fifteen minutes.” Fujiko was dressed in a light shirt and beige combats as well, though she carried a smaller rucksack, more for travelling to town than hiking.

 

“Fujiko?” Otsune said, looking a little happy but confused.

 

“From what I understand, we can get out of that place from multiple exits, right?”

 

“er… I think so,” Otsune replied, looking to Sagara, who simply nodded.

 

“Good. Then I’ll come.” Otsune went to speak but her friend spoke over her.

 

“However! I’ll only be with you for a week,” she insisted. “If by then we don’t have any ideas or clues, then I’m coming back and taking you with me. Understand?”

 

Otsune didn’t look like she could understand children’s math at the moment but she nodded anyway, looking as relieved as one could with a fifty kilogram load on her back.

 

“Do you have any leads?” Natoko asked.

 

“I’ve got a few ideas of where to start,” Otsune gasped. “To be honest, we should be able to check those out within the day.”

 

“Then let’s get going?” Fujiko said, dashing past the two girls and to Sagara, who followed her out the door without a word.

 

“Ah, Fujiko, if you are coming, then we should split up the contents of our bags so we-“

 

“Nope!”

 

***

 

“Thanks a lot,” said Sagara, shutting the back door of the black taxi cab, the loud bang enough to make the driver look behind him to make sure no damage was done. With a courteous wave back, he drove back off in the direction they had just come.

 

Natoko had been in these woods before, mostly when she was just in the mood for wandering, but also to train. It was a dense forest packed with golden grass and the occasional larch, most going so high they blocked the sun off completely, letting very little grow underneath them, a mix of moss and bits of plant life. The place was full of animals, though she couldn’t quite recall which ones. It was always dark when she came.

 

“Thinking bout it,” Fujiko said, still only holding a light bag and not helping Otsune get hers back on her back, “Are we allowed here?”

 

“Why shouldn’t we be?” asked Sagara.

 

“Well, it could be private property.”

 

“It is,” said Otsune. “It’s privately owned land. But it was owned by Grandma Futabatei. I’m not sure if it still is or not, but I’m guessing that, if anything, it was moved into Gen’s possession like the dorm was.”

 

“Well, let’s hope so. At least with the way we’re dressed we can make it out that we’re hikers or something.”

 

“I don’t think any police will be coming anytime soon anyway.”

 

Otsune grunted as she made her way to the gate, slowly getting over the painful first ten steps as her body got used to the burden. What did she have in there anyway? Natoko thought, slowly falling in line behind them, Otsune leading even though it should be Sagara guiding.

 

As they entered, finding the bushes of least resistance, the light dimmed around them. The inside of the forest was a lot more peaceful than the outside world, the smell of damp bark awakening her senses, the cool shade provided by the trees bringing relief from the humidity outside.

 

She should bring Aki here. The girl would love it\

 

“I’ve heard a lot of stories about this place,” Fujiko said, looking like she felt out of place, constantly watching her step as she treated it like they were walking through a swamp, the only things for her to step on being tree bark and rocks.

 

“From everyone back at the dorm right,” Otsune said between hoarse breaths. “I heard a few of them brought guys here. I guess it’s quite romantic. Private too.”

 

“Well, not just that. I heard stories of zombies mostly.”

 

“Zombies?” Natoko said, feeling a bit cautious.

 

“And I immediately don’t believe you.”

 

“No no, it’s true. Junko was telling me about it. She said she brought some guy here after they got a taxi back, and the driver chucked them out at the edge of town rather than going all the way in. They saw it and decided to check it out. It was autumn I think. Place was cold, but not too cold, where the perfect thing to warm you up was skin on skin.”

 

“They had sex here?” Natoko blurted out, not realising herself.

 

“Well, I wouldn’t say they did it as such, though she didn’t tell me and she’s never seen the guy since.”

 

“I can’t see anywhere good,” Otsune thought aloud. “They’d have to bring a blanket or something.”

 

“Or they could have done it on the moss.”

 

“Eewww, no way.”

 

They spoke about sex so easily, Natoko thought. Sagara didn’t seem that freaked out either, not that he would. He plodded on ahead a little. She felt like catching up to him, away from the conversation, but it would be a bit too obvious.

 

Looking around, she lost count of the trees between the trees. This place didn’t look that different from the dark, just lines of near endless wood going off in all directions, any sign of an end perfectly hidden by smaller looking trees about a kilometre away, with what little chance of sunlight getting out being hidden by bush growth. All effort preserved by nature to make sure no one could see out, a dome of foliage and nothing more.

 

“And so she didn’t actually see anything?” said Otsune sarcastically, though Natoko hadn’t been listening.

 

“Well, no, but…”

 

“And barely even heard anything either. Just two kids dumb enough to scare each other.”

 

“I’m telling you, she looked serious.”

 

Otsune growled a little. The weight looked like it was getting to her, she was the only one taking the conversation seriously. “That’s what scaring yourself does. Look, we’ll prove it, Sagara! Do zombies exist?”

 

“What’s a zombie?”

 

“Oh, come on!” Otsune interjected. “The one time I go to rely on your crap and you let me down.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“So useless. Where are we heading anyway?”

 

“The InBetween realm,” Sagara picked up.

 

“I know that.  But how do we get there from here.”

 

“Through the entrance. A Hollow Hallway should be this way. We just have to trick it  into appearing.”

 

“Right, and how does that happen if you announce your intentions in a silent forest?”

 

“Well that wouldn’t matter. It’s only a door. Doors can’t hear people.

 

“Of- of course,” Otsune stuttered. “I knew that.”

 

“They can only sense them.”

 

Sighing loudly to herself with a hint of frustration, Otsune stopped the conversation, breaking twigs under her foot with loud crunches and tired mumblings. On the forth stomp, she hit metal, and her foot jumped back.

 

“What the?” Natoko felt her hand fall towards Iziz, sensing something unnatural besides themselves. The wind brushing to a halt, silencing the invisible animals hiding in the undergrowth.

 

Everyone stared at Otsune, looking at the girl like she was about to detonate and they all knew nothing they could do would stop it. Otsune stared blankly ahead, a stricken grin on her face, not daring to look down as a loud metallic groan started to shake the land, the tree rustling as their foundations were shaken.

 

“Ah, we’ve found it.” Natoko, and the others for that matter, broke their gaze to look at Sagara, then following where he was looking. A few meters ahead of them, where Natoko had been staring mere moments ago in the middle of a large treeless patch of fallen leaves, was a door.

 

It wasn’t particularly special in any way, save for the simple fact it was standing by itself with only its frame for support. It was mahogany wood with a brass handle, and looked the same as all the other doors she had passed on her last trip to the InBetween realm.

 

“Yearghhhh!” Otsune squealed, the ground above her rushing up and overtaking her, snatching her rucksack and pulling her up off her feet, leaving her to dangle in the air. Natoko jumped forwards, seeing her friend in danger and nothing else, pulling Iziz out and bringing the length of the blade against the large clump of earth that was rising into the sky, pushing through it and coming out the other end.

 

Turning just in time to see the chunk she cut off fall to the ground and taking Otsune with it, Natoko looked on as the ground continued to rise without the top, rising to twice the height of herself, before stopping.

 

A raised hole now stood before them, a small black space leading into what looked like an underground cavern. The underneath of the entrance seemed to be made partly of metal, but had too much wet soil plastered over it for Natoko to tell properly. The pistons that had lifted it were bamboo, but were making a hissing noise.

 

The contents of Otsune’s bag scattered over the ground, cooking utensils clanking on top of each other as food went flying; the sleeping bag falling on Otsune’s head.

 

“Oh thank you,” Otsune sighed in relief, clutching the sleeping bag tightly like she wanted to roll up in it and fall pray to bliss circling her shoulders with aggressive comfort.

 

Sliding Iziz back into its sheath, Natoko watched tentatively. It was definitely an entryway, though the inside was immediately pitch shadow, the already weak  sunlight going as far as where Otsune was squatting, then sharply cutting to darkness.

 

Otsune hadn’t frozen this time, already getting up and backing away slowly, just in time for the shadows to start bustling around within the hole, enough to tell them something was inside, making a king’s effort to get outside; to get to them.

 

Why they waited, Natoko didn’t know. She waited because she knew she should be the last to go, the one to protect the others from danger. The others just stood there in collective silence, the whirring and clicking getting louder, the tappity tap from an unknown source of wood as a figure emerged from the shadows.

 

It came forth slowly, as if remembering how to walk, its body lurching and shuffling like its joint were dislocated and it had to refit them all one by one. Natoko bit her lower lip a little and waited for the sunlight to hit first.

 

Bouncing off wood, the light revealed the visage of glazed smile carved into the head of the eyeless dummy. It followed by a hand, made out of thousands of tiny blocks of wood, that shot out to grab the piston of the hatchway. The rest came out fast, as it found its legs, barefoot, revealing nothing but wood, which rattled and chattered together with every step of the soft earth ground.

 

The rest of its body was hidden by a poncho. Woollen and thick purple, with no pattern to it, looking old yet perfectly preserved. Natoko couldn’t see its other arm. It made her tense. She wanted to strike it now, before it registered they were there and became a threat.

 

“Ah!” Fujiko screamed, breaking Natoko’s concentration. She glanced at her friend just enough to know she was okay and leapt out of the way in time to see another puppet mere feet from her, its two, black ball bearing eyes wobbling loosely at her underneath its large sombrero.

 

Before focused solely on her one prey, Natoko now stared around at the forest entire, to see they were surrounded by hundreds of the puppet dolls, each slowly lurching forwards, creaking loudly and ticking quietly. It didn’t take her too long to see they were walking towards her or the others. They were scattered, yet only around the four of them and none seemed intent on attacking.

 

“Natoko,” Fujiko called out, rushing up to her friend, getting in her line of sight a moment too long, before jumping behind her and cowering behind her back with knees shaking. She was a lot more panicked than she usually was.

 

Their gazes met for a moment, and Fujiko blushed.  “Puppets freak me out, okay!”

 

“Stay close,” Natoko ordered, looking back around her, checking specifically that none were sneaking up on her. There weren’t, but seeing as they had appeared out of nowhere in the first place, she didn’t want to take any chances. Slowly, she moved so that Fujiko would be looking the other way, hoping she’d be focused enough to scream if one got close.

 

Otsune was stuck by herself, away from the hole now, but inadvertently close to three of them on her other side, who bounced off one another by accident, swaying backwards like drunks pushed on the street. One fell over.

 

“Come and eat your heart out over at-” it began, but soon fell into demonic rambling that sparked and spluttered like a bad radio before dying out completely. The other two did nothing.

 

Watching over them, Otsune straighten up a little, readjusting her long hair absent mindedly. “Are we safe?”

 

Natoko was beginning to think so. They weren’t attacking, though the rattling did make her nervous. And they were so close. What effort would it take these creatures of wood to reach out and strike any of them, tearing skin in one second and life in the next. She didn’t trust their new companions at all, yet she had no reason to attack yet.

 

“Why not take a bite-“

 

A smash jerked her attention over to Sagara, who was ploughing his fist into the face of the dummy nearest to him, gauntlet already out and going out of the other end of the construct. “out of us over at…the…neew”. The creature stopped as it dangled as lifeless as before, legs still moving as if to continue lurching forwards.

 

“Hey,” Otsune called out, as if to stop a bar brawl. Sagara didn’t listen, instead trying to get the puppet attached to his arm off and away. It wouldn’t budge, clamping onto him like a rottweiler. It swung around his wrist as he started to shake, before simply smashing the body into another puppet that shot off and ricocheted into a tree ten meters away.

 

“Did it attack him?”

 

“It must have done. Why would he attack it?

 

“Because he does that.”

 

It was all Natoko needed. Sagara’s silent order to attack was understood and accepted. Moving lightly enough to release Fujiko’s grab, she jumped to the nearest one, slicing it in half perfectly as she would as a bamboo tree, before leaping back to where she had been and decapitating the one who had come out of the hole.

 

Its head on the floor, the puppet’s body stood up straight, like it had heard a small sound in the night, and did nothing else. Natoko didn’t risk it and sliced its body in a diagonal line for good measure.

 

Sagara was already up to five, though the one around his wrist was still hanging on against whatever will it had. He was using it as shield now

 

***

 

Otsune watched her friend and Sagara slowly descend into becoming the bloodthirsty monsters that for a second she thought these puppets were. There had been n reason to view them as deadly. They appeared to be simple theatre marionettes, definitely European, but she couldn’t tell what age they were meant to be from. Some were dressed like the Queen of the night but had wire frame hair that screamed Russian animatronics and some were dressed like Mexican Day of the Dead dolls, mixed in with the posture of a tourist trap clown puppets with the eyes of a modern day rag doll, and an obvious grunge feeling that could only be obtained through making around fifty of them appear in a silent forest with no antagonistic actions.

 

Of course, none of this took into account the fact they were moving.

 

Were they mechanical? Movement like this would require a simple motor of some sort. However, marionettes of this size would need big ones which she could ‘see’ weren’t being stored in their bodies, at least, not in the three that Natoko had now slashed in half. Though even with a motor, it would make their movements repetitive; predictable. Yet these things were consistently failing to fall to the floor with every step, even though their lurching forced them in that direction.

 

Which gave her the stupid idea of looking up. It was the last thing she wanted to do. It proved her an idiot for even thinking it, and even more so when she saw no one there, or any strings or anything that could imply there was something there controlling these things. And it wouldn’t have even begun to explain the one that pulled itself from the ground.

 

Which of course, led her to the stupid conclusion. There were other things to consider of course, but the stupid conclusions had started to come through on top more since he had fell upon her territory.

 

Magic.

 

Or demons or ninja or ghosts or whatever.

 

The two maniacs were enjoying themselves now, one swinging hands and feet in all directions, more content on hitting wood than on breaking it, the other, cutting through her ‘supposed’ enemy like a mokujin training theatre. Strangely enough they didn’t seem to be running out of targets to hit.

 

Otsune watched them until her gaze fell on the door. It reminded her of what she was doing and she ducked down to look at her rucksack, sighing with annoyance as she then looked to the other half four feet away, three weeks worth of supplies and a day’s worth of effort scattered like autumn leaves across the forest’s floor. With a moment’s pain, she crouched down, picking up what she could and putting it into the sleeping bag, which had mysteriously survived.

 

“Well,” said Fujiko, carrying two tins, which she kindly dropped into the awaiting bag before doing nothing else to help, “they’re probably evil.”

 

“Yeah, probably.”

 

“Should we just…” She pointed to the door.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, let’s go.”

 

“Should we tell them?”

 

“No no, lets just…let’s just go,” Otsune sighed, standing up and slinging the blue woollen bag over her shoulder and making her way for the door in an impractical rush. “I think they’ll figure it out without us.”

 

They reached the simple structure, quickly navigating around the edge of the impromptu and completely imaginary circle the fighters had encased themselves in and reaching the mahogany oak door. It looked expensive, or at least Ikeian. There was moss growing around its base, telling her it had been here a while. It was amazing that no one had just knocked it over.

 

“Oh right, magic.”

 

“Erm, when I said go…” Fujiko began. “I meant escape…out of the forest.”

 

“Are you kidding?” Otsune said. “When we’re this close to finally getting somewhere? The only place I plan to go is through this door.”

 

“Right,” said Fujiko with an air of action, before looking at both sides of the door frame and coming up to the smart conclusion. “Then can we escape?”

 

Ignoring her friend, Otsune reached for the door handle, her hand inching forwards as if to repel back any second. When she finally grasped it, she jerked it a little, but nothing happened.

 

Not sure whether to pull or push, she went for pull, twisting the handle and watching as gravity took the obvious choice of straight down. Collapsing away from her, the door flew open in her hand, dropping the frame into the mud and digging in a few inches, where it hung waiting for her.

 

Slowly putting the door down, she looked to the empty frame, noting the smallest hint of a Gaussian blur, before fallen leaves and moss appeared on the other side. The two students looked at it like a small pond, the smallest hint of reflection coming back at them, just enough to tell Otsune it was real.

 

“Well,” said Fujiko. “Do you still want to go through? I’ll gladly watch you push yourself into mud.” Otsune snapped, grabbing her friend’s wrist.

 

“Oh, haven’t you learnt anything?” she said, and stepped over the doorframe.

 

Iziz sunk itself into the wooden skull of the puppet, not chopping through the wood as successfully as Natoko had hoped, giving her trouble as she yanked it back out. This was exhausting. There had been so many of them, wherever they had came from, and though they had offered no resistance while being cut down, no obvious resistance that is, Iziz was getting heavy in her hand, and the last few of the puppets hadn’t suffered the wrath of Iaido at all, just plain sword swinging.

 

“Tell me,” she said, panting heavily, her matted hair dangling before her eyes as she looked for Sagara, “why did we just do all that?”

 

He was sweating more than her; that was disgustingly clear, but he seemed to be less the worse for wear. Sagara looked around at the devastation of wood littered on the forest grounds surrounding them. “I’m not quite sure,” he replied, then waked past her as though the conversation wasn’t important.

 

Natoko carefully returned Iziz to its sheath, taking her time to stop her shaking hand from mutilating itself into the tip. Sagara approached the hole the first puppet came out of curiously. The two wooden pillars, which had risen like the door’s of a hanger bay, appeared secure. Part of her knew this shouldn’t be working since it only appeared to be holding up soil and moss, but that didn’t bother her more than what was inside the hole. There was nothing to see down there, just a darkness which ended abruptly at Sagara’s face. Approaching him gingerly, she got the impression that it was perhaps only a grave a few meters deep and nothing more, until Sagara stepped in and disappeared before her.

 

“Wait!” she cried like a child not wanting to be left out and hurled herself after him. She stopped just a few feet in, but quickly carried on when she didn’t hear anything save his footsteps hitting heavy against squelching mud. She could tell he was already far in front of her, unconcerned for the zero visibility. Natoko felt for the wall, grabbing clay earth and using it to grope her way further into the hole. Her pace was haphazard. Trying to go fast enough to catch up but keeping wary of possible invisible holes of doom before her. She didn’t know if Sagara was throwing himself in recklessly or whether his ‘magic eyes’ allowed him to see in the dark. Almost definitely the former.

 

Her trainers squelched in mud and sank down an inch if she let them. She had to breath lightly through her mouth, hoping the smell was just underground earth smell and not a need to burn all her clothing later. It was then she remembered the others, mainly because Fujiko had a lighter.

 

“Otsu-“ she started to call out, stopping immediately as she turned around and got nothing but the same darkness that surrounded her on all sides. The entrance was gone. Had she really travelled that far? Surely she had only travelled ten or so steps. “Otsune!” she shouted for the simple sake of it, hearing nothing.

 

If she hadn’t kept her hand on the wall, she would have immediately lost herself then. Trying to keep her heart calm, she plodded on, trying to sense what she could as she gained speed in motion. A samurai didn’t need their eyes; they could sense the distance around them. It was a simple concept that had been held in check for centuries and right now it was coming across as very unhelpful and completely untrue. Her eyes weren’t the only thing lost. Her nose was being assaulted by a gritty earthy smell that was foul and bitter. Her hand muddied up against the wall but only told her she was moving in a roughly straight yet still curvy line. Her ears picked up nothing, not even Sagara’s footsteps, only her own breath, amplified in the hollow cavern.

 

Sagara had gone this way, so she had to follow. She just wished he had waited for her, at least to tell her there was a reason for all of this.

 

Eventually, right around the time she started thinking about digging her way upwards, the muddy walls quickly turned to stone.  It was a smooth rock unlike the pebbles she had already come across that echoed when she rapped it with her knuckles. Beneath her, her feet stopped making sound effects, though the layer of mud cake made her feel taller than usual.

 

She took a moment to clean her trainers by kicking the rock, partly wondering if she should just go in her socks from now on, in the bizarre off case this happened to be the home of one of Sagara’s ‘other’ friends. The floor was damp, so she pressed on, travelling another nameless distance for a few more spaces of time, before her fingers felt a clear square corner, wrapping the corridor around to her left.

 

Reaching out with her right hand, looking for another wall but not daring to leave this one, she felt nothing and immediately gave up on trying to see if there was another side to the corridor. Instead she picked her head around this new corner, only to be greeted with the face of a green imp like creature mere inches away from her.

 

“Ah!” she cried out, losing her bearings altogether and falling backwards. Looking up to the imp, she saw its large face hovering in the air brightly, glowing luminously as it peered down at her with bright green eyes. Her hand went to Iziz a few seconds slower than she liked. It wasn’t saying or doing anything. Its face was motionless, with only a fixed expression of laughter, just like…

 

“Sagara?” she asked to the mask which stopped swaying and dropped sideways, almost disappearing completely in the darkness. The only thing that was left were the green eyes, still hanging in the darkness as she became aware of a light highlighting  the figured of a young man.

 

“You guessed,” a voice came from the darkness. “Come on,” he said, grabbing her hand. “You should see all this.”

 

She jostled herself mentally. She had been like an old housewife frightened by pesky kids. And now as he dragged her along clutching her hand tightly she felt a jolt of excitement at what was around the corner. She could feel her heart beat under her baggy shirt, the stale air hitting her as she rushed through it, and the strong grip holding her hand lightly as he yanked her into the light.

 

Pulled in right after him, she saw they were in a room that went too far up to see the ceiling; the top escending back into darkness save the small circle high above. It was difficult to say how one small light could light the entire room, though for its distance it wasn’t doing a bad job.

 

It was a storeroom was her first guess, the guess that tried to be rational and keep it all in check. The second more wishful guess wanted it to be a tomb. There was no obvious piles of gold, glittering in the very small bask of light, but the room was filled with any number of wooden chests and trunks, all piled on top of each other and filling the room into the darkness above.

 

Her imagination played with what was inside and wanted to look, but before she could do so her eyes were taken off to the right where sat a pile of masks. Some were stacked neatly on top of each other, others scattered as if a wind had swept them about. The one on top was an exact copy of the one Sagara was holding. It was more the size of his torso than his head. Most of the others were smaller, and Natoko started to figure out how some had become scattered. One of the ones on the floor was a simple Kitsune mask that looked awesome. Tentatively she got hold of it and blew the dust off it. It was well crafted and felt hand carved. Before she knew what she was doing she had put it up to her face to test it. She wanted to take it home.

 

Then a battlefield of fire approached her, cutting off every direction with white hot flame. Above her, she heard a mighty roar echoing off into the landscape, filling her ears and chilling her blood ice cold. In front of her an ogre approached, fourteen times larger and greater than any legend she had read. Bracing herself, she felt her master’s grip upon her hilt as he charged into battle with the monster, blade tipped forwards, eager for spilled blood.

 

Pulling the mask away, she gasped as if coming up for air from a freezing swimming where she was seconds from drowning. Her heart felt like it was pounding the bone bars of its cell, desperate for freedom.

 

For a second, she wished she wasn’t her.

 

Placing the mask carefully down with an estranged feeling of satisfaction, she moved on, looking to see what Sagara was looking at. Walking over to the boy’s crouching form, she saw him twiddling with a small gold plated watch. It looked very expensive and the type of thing that could break easily. The boy twisted the exposed hands round a few times, and then quickly gave up on it, choosing instead to pocket it.

 

For the first time, Natoko was reminded that she didn’t know where they were. “Are you sure you should be taking stuff?”

 

“Pretty sure,” Sagara replied. “Ninja are allowed to take stuff, though mom says it’s best to take gold stuff. Better for trading that way.”

 

“I wouldn’t say allow,” Natoko interjected.  “More like they just do.”

 

“Really? Maybe it’s different for Balance ninja. We have a lot of backing.” He looked around some more, jumping onto one of the chests into what appeared to be an empty container. “Though I guess this is a special exception in general.”

 

Looking mildly curious, Sagara hoisted himself up another level and fell into one of the other boxes, disappearing from her field of view. Natoko tried to find herself something to explore and was rewarded with the corpse of another of the puppets. Bracing herself and Iziz, she stopped when she realised the body was already broken in half, the head shattered in the middle. It was lying on top of a box different from the others. This one was a light green shade, with a purple line down the middle that looked like it had been painted on sloppily with a thin layer. The lock was missing.

 

“Huh, the inside of this one is gone,” Sagara muttered, coming back out of the box. “I guess that makes sense, though the entire inner chest is gone as well.”

 

“Missing? Have you’ve been here before?”

“Hhmm, no, but these boxes are usually made the same way across the globe. Four layers of protection to hide the child piece inside, like a Matryoshka. There’s usually this box, another box, and then another container box.”

“Isn’t that only three,” Natoko said conversationally, as she played with the loose latch, flicking it open. She tried to keep it quiet and out of Sagara’s sight. Whatever she found, she wanted to tell him rather than have him see at the same time.

“The fourth is the entire room. It’s meant to remain hidden.”

“And we found it by accident.” She grabbed the ends of the box, and lifted. The weight stopped her immediately. How could such a lid be so heavy?

“Yeah. Luck does that.”

“Yeah,” she grunted, trying to contain herself while she summoned all her strength and lifted the lid over her head. Careful not to make a loud bang, she was assaulted by a blast of dust that ejected from the box. Quickly covering her mouth, Natoko swallowed more dust than she should as she held in her cough, before quickly realising it could be something dangerous and spitting it all out immediately.

Wafting the dust away, she peered into the box not expecting to see anything, but feeling very disappointed when she confirmed it. Letting the dust clear, she sighed as she confirmed the bareness of the box.

“You find something?” Sagara asked from overhead.

“No, nothing,” she said, quietly shutting the box, not wanting to get caught for nothing. Some boxes must have been different from what he said, she thought as she quietly replaced the latch, turning to see Sagara just approaching her.

“Come on, let’s try the next room,” he said rushing off. She couldn’t help but smile as he acted like a kid at an amusement park. Was she getting to the age now when she couldn’t appreciate such excitement, if she didn’t rush off after him and laugh the same? Would it be less real now, if she did it for the sake of trying to be a child? It would be better to be it, rather than do it because she felt she should surely.

She took a few steps to follow then turned back, looking around. She couldn’t say why, but she felt a little obligated to take something. It wasn’t really that wrong. The place seemed abandoned. If that was the case, then it was finders keepers right? She’d just take one thing. If she got caught, it would be explainable considering the circumstances.

Looking to see Sagara wasn’t watching her, she grabbed the same mask as before, before quickly stowing it in her bag and sneaking off after him, now a little more concerned for local security than before.

The rest of the tomb proved as empty of valuable artefacts, nothing more than a series of ornate corridors with carvings over the walls. Most were abstract images or obscure looking demons that looked fancy. The last corridor’s told her a story starting with a celebration and great feast that was quickly interrupted by the fall of a demon and a great battle that followed it. It spawned a romance that started too soon and turned to tragic bickering. By the end of it the hero and heroine acted like they had barely just met. It then oddly jumped into the life of their child and his adventures as a youth, the main hero himself quickly turning old and teaching his son many new things. But before it even had a chance for him to grow up, it showed his son, now just a baby, his father dead and he a much older man. By the time she got to the last carving, she realised what she had just done.

 

Now that she got a closer look, she was thinking this was Heian period architecture, with sleek white pillars surrounding each wall and an elegant grandness applying to all the fittings. She wasn’t an expert but it was definitely a lot more ancient than the rest of the town. The town itself, she remembered reading in a guidebook from when she first moved here, was no more than three hundred years old.

 

The other rooms were barren and empty. A series of four chambers proved uneventful as they crossed them, each room big enough for small mobs to fight in and high enough to suggest some ancient grandness that must have held them in great stead. The second room had a broken banquet table in it. The third room’s walls were covered in rotten wooden arrows, stuck deep into each side of the walls in a perfect grid pattern.

 

The fourth room was rubble.

 

The amount of collapsed stone and rubble didn’t seem like it could have came solely from the roof, nor the opposing walls. Even so, a towering height of rock and lumber blocked their path, not even telling them if there even was an exit on the other side, never mind whether it was covered up.

 

For the first time, Natoko became aware of the fact of being trapped in here forever, the entrance behind them disappearing into darkness and the only other path now being blocked. This room itself may not even be an exit. It may just be the final room, a tomb in the centre of an intricate labyrinth with no escape save the closed off entrance they came from.

 

Beside the entrance she came through and bigger than her own body a chunk of spherical stone rested in place. She pushed against it, and quickly regretted it as it tried to roll back over her. The half sphere wobbled back and forth for a few seconds before slowing down.

 

Sagara checked around, searching the edges of destruction surrounding them, looking for the lowest part. The best they could find, other than the unreliable sphere, was roughly twice their height, but was clearly too tall and sheer for them to scale even if she was to stand on his shoulder for the initial boost.

 

“Should we turn back?” she finally asked after many minutes of silence. There may have easily been a door they had missed in any number of places. They had left the tomb room through the most obvious point of exit about half a mile back, and there was the pitch black corridor which could have had any number of extra doors on the side of the wall she didn’t fumble across

 

“No, this should be fine,” Sagara said raising him arm as it ejected a flash of yellow light that spat through the air above them and into one of the invisible walls hidden by the darkness. She didn’t have time to register what he had even done before he showed her the long purple silk fabric and indicated for her to grab old of it.

 

“Where do you keep that thing anyway?” she said a little sarcastically.

 

“Scorlock?” Sagara said. “She’s always inside of me.”

 

It didn’t look safe to grab onto. Not that it was dangerous, just that it wouldn’t support her weight climbing it. Not to mention she wasn’t very good at rope swinging. Though as she grabbed hold of it, her feet planting themselves on the wall, she found it to be tensile in her hands to the point where it was difficult to control. Taking small steps at first and forgetting her breathing she climbed the wall, feeling Iziz and her bag swaying beneath her.

 

Reaching the top better than she thought she would she hoisted herself over, quickly turning to signal an okay to Sagara before watching him pull himself up the silk like a demented hamster, scurrying all the way up in seconds and leaving himself exhausted by the time he got to the top.

 

She wanted to deride him in some way for trying it like that, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like they were any immediate danger and this was something they could take their time with. Her only worry, as she sat back over the edge watching him get his breath back was if they needed to jump back down, just how many bones would she break on the cool rock surface?

 

“We should have brought some water,” she said, trying to be a little comforting as he wheezed for breath. “I’ve got an apple, but we should probably save that.”

 

“We …should be out soon,” he got out.” We just have to get passed the skeletons and then down the exit on the other side, and we should be good to go.

 

“What skeletons?” she said regretting the question as she formed it. How did she miss them; miss this many?

 

Atop of the rubble, which had caved and collapsed at all different angles, with little dips going one way and giant shards which looked like they had crashed into earth from the sky the other, was a scattered layer of bones. Human bones, Natoko thought at first, for the first she saw were a rib cage and skull. The second set however, another rib cage, looked like they could drape a tent over and have ten of them sleep under it. Standing up to get a better look, quickly finding she had to pay attention to her balance less she fell straight over again. The next few dozen were definitely human. One was roughly human shape, but was the size of a child and had two sets of wings, all made of rigid bone that dangled their owner five feet in the air. . Another was a snake like coil, looking like a large overextended spinal column, with ten sets of legs, all squashed together in the centre rather than spread out.

 

These were the most complete ones. The rest was a pile of assorted arms, legs, tails, tusks and skulls that looked like they couldn’t have belonged to any creature on Earth or her imagination.

 

None were moving, much to her relief.

 

“This was quite lucky, actually,” Sagara said, getting up and forming his gauntlet around his hand, setting it down into the skull of the first human like body and turning it into dust.

 

“What are you doing?” Natoko said. Regardless of what these were, Natoko felt they should respect the dead, even if they were resting in a place like this. “Have you no…” She stopped herself, not actually knowing what she wanted to accuse him of. Respect. Honour. The answer to those Sagara had already made clear.

 

“It’s not what you think,” he explained. “These aren’t the dead. They’re demons.”

 

“I could tell that much,” she said, looking at the gargoyle midget. “But even so, it doesn’t seem right to…”

 

“Right doesn’t matter . We have to prevent wrong from occurring through demons whenever we have a chance. Given enough time, these creatures will form on their own to finally be able to move around and attack people As soon as they constitute nerves that is.”

 

“Nerves, they’re growing themselves?”

 

“Well yes,” said Sagara looking oddly confused. “Thought I had explained the animism and kotodama to you?”

 

“You did,” Natoko replied, feeling a little flustered. “I didn’t get it completely though.”

 

“It’s simple, the demons come out of the InBetween realm in weakened states. They dragged their spirit to an object and possess it. When they do, they can change it over time, morph it into a new form; whatever they feel best. The more inanimate the object, the slower it takes. Though it looks like these guys were already destroyed once and they’ve got no matter to mutate. The entire stock must have been trapped here for safety before they were dispossessed. Odd it hasn’t been done already.”

 

“So the demons are still in these things.”

 

“Yup. It depends on how the demon’s done the possession or the strength of it on how it pulls itself into the object. These guys must be fairly persistent. Probably high Wrath demons or something. They wouldn’t be the type to give up easily, hence why they’re being so unrelenting now.”

 

They looked to where the skull sat in pieces. Already she could see the bit vibrating wildly, almost humming as they hovered in mid air. They got so far before Sagara slammed another punch into the solar plexus, scattering the remaining ribs around the surface of the rock. “Ah, here it is,” he said, revealing a small feather trapped within the bony remnants of the chest bone. “This would be the centrepiece of the demon, where its spirit resides. The feather must have been important to someone, else it couldn’t be used.”

 

“So the demon possesses something of value?”

 

“Exactly, as long as the object is something of high value to at least one person, its spirit can be overtaken more easily by the spirit of a demon. It becomes noticed, and can be taken. Though it doesn’t always have to be valuable. It’s just they tend to be more attracted to objects that have more meaning for someone.”

 

“Including humans?”

 

“Well yeah. They’re usually very valuable to a human.”

 

“And all demons do this?”

 

“Every case we’ve had shows it so far, for the last… seven thousand years or so? Even the strongest demons have no form here on earth, they have to make it. Though they can take that form back with them afterwards, and the form can still be destroyed. Same with angels too.”

 

“Angels?” she said, her mind momentarily forcing itself back, remembering those few moments where she thought of saving everyone, moments taken away from her with ease by that one sparkling figure.

 

“Yeah,” replied Sagara, picking at the feather “Same applies. Just find the object and break it up.” He starting picking at the individual strands of the white feather, peeling them off one at a time and tossing them in random directions. “The point is that they spread their spirit around the object, so this is effectively like ripping them apart. Break it apart too much and-“

 

A piercing scream assaulted the room, thousands of hissing screaming demons all at once, invading her ears and minds. She forgot what she was thinking about as all noise was cut off with a sudden silence.

 

“- you disperse the spirit, throwing it off to another realm, usually their home or the InBetween Realm, where they can’t bother us again for a while. As mom says, this is the important thing to remember. All enemies only have one weak point. That’s what makes them so annoying. At least with humans you can play with them, pick off their kneecaps, remove their teeth… I think dad told her to shut up on the next part.”

 

Natoko smirked lightly, her ears ringing from the sound of a demon screaming a thousand times in one petrified moment.

 

“But with demons there’s only one point to it. Everything else is just time wasting. Sometimes it’s easy-” He crushed the skull of the midget gargoyle under his hand, revealing a comb which shattered under his grip and released anther bone chilling scream. “Sometimes-“ he jumped up the rib cage of the large demon, bounced off it like a springboard and lunging up to grab the tip of the solar plexus, driving on the momentum and slashing the bone through with the dagger on his Scorlock, releasing an ornate Shichishito blade from its confines and allowing it to drop to the floor skewering it with his fist as he landed right on top of it “it’s less easy.”

 

Natoko felt a little dizzy watching him, and turned away before he noticed, feeling her heart beat. His moves were awesome, they made hers look boring and rigid.

 

“So there you have it,” he said. “That is what you wanted right?”

 

“What I… no, I wasn’t…”

 

“Didn’t you want me to tell you more things about demons?”

 

“Oh right, I erm…yes.”

 

“I figured this was a good start. Someone… I can’t remember who said I needed to go into more detail with you if you were going to join us”

 

“Well this time was no different really. Just the opponent was already dead…weren’t they?” If they still screamed…”

 

“I told you, they just go back. We can’t kill them. In the end. If we could we would have got rid of them a long time ago.” From behind Sagara, a pale glow formed from nowhere. Natoko’s eyes widened, seeing a neon green monster, floating up quietly, a look of horror and anger on its bird like face. Its twisted upside down beak stretched out, looking to swallow him.

 

“Sagara!”

 

“Ahuh, I know.”

 

“If you could get rid of us so easily, you would not make the same mistakes as the rest of your kind over and over again, Futabatei.”

 

“Huh, so these are from the clan,” he said, looking to the remaining skull of various animals. “Mom said something about this being stored around here.”

 

“We will incinerate the flesh from yours like we did your ancient ancestors.” From behind the first, two more appeared, one looked like a mastiff that had been inflated like a balloon, the other a knight in ceremonial armour. Together they fizzed in and out of reality through a purple blur.

 

“You didn’t do this. These kin fell centuries ago.”

 

“Yes, and they died here at our feet, begging for our mercies.”

 

“This was the Futabatei pet cemetery.”

 

“And they died like animals.”

 

“They were animals.”

 

“Monster Futabatei,” the knight said, seeming to try and take over for his brethren’s arguments. “You would exile three of the Pride while we are at our weakest, whilst we cannot fight. Have you no shame? Destroying the regenerating corpse of an already defeated opponent.”

 

“Oh you’re Pride? I thought you would be Wrath. Oh, and it wasn’t a duel,” Sagara pointed out to them. “More like an extermination I guess.”

 

“Monster!”

 

“No, wait, what’s the term. Eradication. Massacre? No wait… Pest control. Yeah, that’s it.”

 

“Sagara!” The three demon spirits flew towards him snarling, their energies burning out with rabid hatred as they plunged towards Sagara. The ninja did little to them except let them fly through him, where they came out the other end and promptly disappeared.

 

“Oh, that’s the next thing,” he said casually. “Demon spirits can’t do squat to anyone. They’re non-corporeal at that point. Most of the time people can’t even sense them. Those three only showed up because they were strong when combined but even then all they can do is really want to hurt somebody.”

 

“So they’re harmless unless they’re physical?”

 

“Well they can still talk people into doing things. Make them go crazy, kill their families, you know…” The ground ruptured, the already shaky foundations crushing underneath themselves, striking cracks through the ground and knocking Natoko off her feet. Sagara continued talking. “It’s all only temporary though. They can only stay in this realm until their energy is drained and the InBetween realm’s Return command comes into play and they get pulled straight back.” Natoko stopped herself with her right hand, looking around quickly. They must have done something to the rocks they were standing on. Everything was coming down.

 

“Hhhmm, looks like they got us after all,” Sagara said, finally noticing.

 

“What?” She couldn’t hear him over the noise.

 

“We won’t be able to make it back out in time it seems.” His gaze was the way they had come, now blocked off under fifty tons of rubble, the same way the demons had gone.

 

“How could they do that?”

 

“They were too weak to possess an item, but they could still try. It usually causes the item to shake. They probably went for something unstable.” He went to sit down. “Guess we’ll have to wait it out now.”

 

“Wait what out?”

 

“Life.”

 

She couldn’t believe it. “You’re giving up after all that?”

 

“Yeah,” he replied calmly. “There’s nothing to do. The exits are blocked off. We’ll live for about three days and die unless we’re rescued.” With a final guttering rumble, the floor stopped shaking, trapped in place. “Wanna play a game?”

 

“Forget that,” she said, desperately searching and almost forgetting to look up at where all the light was coming from. “Fire your Scorlock up there!”

 

“Hey, you’re right.,” Sagara responded, looking up to see the small grating at the top of the high room and firing his small blade up into the air. They watched it whiz up, flashing purple silk at them for a few seconds, before a distant thud was heard, followed by several clunking noises as it wrapped round the middle bar.

 

“Got it,” he said. “Hold on please.”

 

“Er, sure,” she said, grabbing on and feeling the floor leave behind them before she even got secure, the Scorlock taking them up like a sandbag had just been dropped.

 

“Wait, this can reel itself in?”

 

“The rope’s purely imaginary. It can do lots of things.”

 

“Why didn’t you do it earlier?”

 

“Didn’t think of it.”

 

“Well it better stop before it gets to the top!”

 

“Can’t say it wi-“

 

Grabbing the grate at the last second, Natoko ditched Sagara and saved her skull being crushed though two steel bars. Looking through the grate and getting a blindful of sunlight for her efforts, she just made out grass growing over the bars and got a lungful of fresh air.

 

It took a few moments of Sagara having very strong legs to prop himself on both sides of the walls and even stronger arms to lift both her and the grating at the same time, but eventually they were able to pull themselves out of the chasm of a hole and back onto the surface world, where they were greeted with fresh, lush grass to roll through and Hikihime Hisami, who had bought them both drinks by the time they had got their bearings.

 

“No way!” Natoko gasped as she clicked where they were. They had taken the taxi more for Otsune’s convenience than actual distance, but to have travelled though such a tunnel for even a mile, let alone three. This was the back of the east garden, the drainage ditch everyone knew of but never thought about. But how high up? Heavenly Springs dormitory was on a mountain!

 

Too much in shock to think about it properly, Natoko downed her ice tea and passed it back to Hisami, who took Sagara’s glass of orange with a bow and walked back towards the kitchen. The two of them sat there for a few minutes longer. She was exhausted, but it looked like Sagara just wanted to laze about.

 

“Well, that was pretty interesting,” he said, as she heard the door slide behind Hisami all the way around the corner.

 

Feeling the sweat drip off her chin in the summer heat, Natoko nodded to agree.

 

“Those skeletons were pretty freaky. I think I learned far more than I wanted to.”

 

“Not to mention all the ghosts down there. The bad memories too.”

 

She gave him a puzzled expression.

 

“Oh that’s right, you wouldn’t have seen them.”

 

“Wouldn’t have seen what?

 

“Huh? Oh that’s something we can do,” he said, not listening to her. “What time is it?”

 

“I haven’t a clue. Why?”

 

“We need to go back into the city and check out the crime scene.”

 

“What?” she glared angrily.

 

****

 

Sakura looked up; finding herself back at the church again.

 

at the one place she could rest. Not the dorm where she had a bed but couldn’t go two minutes without being shaken by a loud, laughing scream or beaten into her mattress by the thundering footsteps outside her door. Here, even if the room was filled with a thousand people, she could be at peace.

 

Because this was God’s house.

 

The renovators bustled around here, veterans and part timers chatting away as they hauled woodwork and wiring back and fourth, leading her to avoid areas where usually she sat in silence. Even with the noise and wind bustling through the large double doors she could feel the warm tranquillity of His embrace. Here, she need answer no questions, no concerns for how she was, and no worries on what she might need. He knew what she needed, and therefore she wanted nothing.

 

Even the stares of the young workers, glaring at her out the corners of their eyes, sometimes outright staring at her as they wondered how long she was going to be, didn’t even once make her question what must they be thinking of her, just sitting on one of the lone benches near the front of the altar, didn’t once displace her mind from serenity. She merely rested, her eyes drifting, her head bobbing.

 

And then they were gone.

 

As soon as she realised Sakura shot straight up, wearily confused until she saw that the sun was no longer in the western window and the doors shut. The workers had left their equipment scattered around in various neat piles that still left an open path for her to get out safely. The church was still in the state where she didn’t know what they were even fixing. Some work to the roof she had guessed, but most of it had been on the other side where she couldn’t see. It didn’t matter, though she was a little upset at having not got round to making them snacks as she had planned.

 

Resting at God’s house wasn’t her intention, but even on the cold wooden bench she felt more refreshed than in any of the last ten times she had slept over the fortnight, and when she stretched she felt energy going through herself and out into the world.

 

Now, she was happy, and relaxed and content. She was also ready. Turning, only momentarily being surprised by the large white sheet that covered most of the stone floor that hadn’t been there early, she saw Father Sakagami and gave him a warm smile.

 

“I’m ready for my confession now, father.”

 

***

 

“Forgive me father, for I have sinned,” she started as she always started. It was the part she hated the most. The part that sounded most like a trance. It was repetitive like a phones salesman. How many people went in here, and just ruined themselves by switching to automatic. They didn’t get it like she did.

 

The priest waited shuffled silently on the other side of the grate. “I have…I have let evil things happen, father,” she said, feeling as uncomfortable as she always did at the beginning, her energy draining in an instant and her happiness being overcome by fear. This was natural, she knew, but it didn’t help. It wasn’t supposed to. “I have watched as the people around me have done things, and let others do things, whilst I have done nothing to stop them.”

 

“You cannot stop another person’s actions so easily, my child. Most can barely control their own. You can only help them to control their actions, so they do not become a danger to others or themselves.”

 

“But what if I thought they weren’t a danger, and then they did something very bad, something I could never expect of them, and then everything went back to normal again.”

 

“A single act of evil should not be judged so easily. If a person regrets their mistake, and seeks to atone for it, that can be enough.”

 

“But what if they didn’t regret it, not at all.

 

“Then they must be made to regret, to realise their folly. People without faith are weak, Sakura, and they quickly make themselves believe they are strong. It is easy to convince one self that their action is the correct answer. Common sense is not as strong as it may seem. Many even follow our path believing it to be correct when it is wrong in their hearts.”

 

“But my friend, she stole a man’s wallet. She tricked him and used me to do it. I tricked him as well, though I didn’t know what I was doing at the time.

 

“And my other friend, he did something bad too, and yet he does not seek the forgiveness of our lord. He refuses it. Even when the angels would ask him for it directly and give him an offer of peace, he threatened them and made them leave.”

 

“There are some that are beyond help my child, but even those who refuse are in truth just hiding from their own demons. They are not right in their decision, but now may not be the time for them to meet an angel. You must be patient. There is no harm in waiting.”

 

Sakura clenched her knees tightly in her grasp. “No, you don’t understand father. I don’t mean seeing angels in my dreams or in visions. I met one, he spoke to me. I spoke back. We wandered through the corridors of the library side by side, talked so long about anything and everything, and even though I knew him for so little, I couldn’t help but feel he knew me all along. And then… and then…” Her voice drowned to whisper. She paused to see if he had heard her properly or not.

 

“Oh, I see,” the father chortled through the panel. “Well I admit I wasn’t expecting that. So what was this boy’s name?”

 

“Erm….” Sakura had stopped. The father was keeping this from being a confession now. She could tell that, but it didn’t matter. She learnt long ago from her father that the priest’s contributions to the confession were useless comforts that didn’t always catch the full intent of the lord due to their own weaknesses. Right now, she knew he was trying to help though. “Alexis I think, though he never actually told me.”

 

“And when are you seeing this Alexis again?”

 

“W-well, that’s the problem,” she said sniffing, tears dripping down her eyes so fast she could only feel a river on her cheeks. “I didn’t think I’m going to get to see him again.”

 

“Did you not get his number?”

 

“No.”

 

“Well, maybe you can meet him again at the library. I’m sure if you go there again you’ll meet him.”

 

“No, I won’t.”

 

“Now, you didn’t know that. Did he say he wasn’t going to be there again?”

 

“No, but…”

 

“Well there you are then. I’m sure if you just head down there the next time and ask if he had been there, or even just keep an eye out for him, I wouldn’t be too surprised if you found him just waiting around for you. I know from experience what boys tend to do when they have a girl they like.”

 

“He won’t be coming back. It’s impossible for him. Because…” The words drained from her mouth, coming out as wasted energy. There was a few moments silence.

 

“Because?”

 

“Because….because….” Her head slammed into the wood. “Because Sagara killed him.”

 

“What?”

 

“He stabbed him and killed him and let him just drop to the floor dead and no matter what I do there’s no bringing him back. And no matter what happens, no one else even begins to care, even though they saw him do it and watched Alexis die, they just watched him fall and then left.”

 

She wrapped herself in the corner of the booth, talking between her legs. “It’s not fair. When someone I like finally comes into this world, all they do is die on me, just like father.”

 

“S-sakura, you’re saying this…this Sagara, actually killed someone, in front of you?”

 

Sakura realised she was muffling her own words. “Yes.”

 

“And you sure you haven’t misunderstood. Blown it out of proportion?”

 

“Yes! I mean no. Sagara definitely killed Alexis!” She had been wanting to say it so long, to someone who would finally least to her and not judge.

 

“Then Sakura, you’ve got to-” he stopped mid-sentence and changed gears. “No, I’m going out of my place here. My child, you must believe if these events are wrong to act out on them. Even if these people are your friends, you must not let them force you onto their path if this is what they do. You should tell others, other than me without fear. Though it pains me to say it, as long as there is a body, it will not be as if your claim is nonsense.”

 

“But it will be! That’s the problem, I can’t prove Alexis’s death because he died in the InBetween Realm and no matter what we do, I don’t know how to get back there.”

 

“The InBetween realm?”

 

“Even if I did, Alexis’s body was gone the next time I looked; I wouldn’t know where to find it. There were so many corridors and I was barely looking. Alexis led the way. I probably wouldn’t even be able to find the library.”

 

“The library was in this realm?”

 

“And I didn’t even know how we got in there. We were just in this alley and Sarah was just feeling a little ill and suddenly I was there, and I didn’t even know how to get us out. This friend of Sagara’s led us out a door somewhere, but I didn’t know where. I wasn’t even looking.”

 

“Sakura, could you just-”

 

“And I think something happened to this friend of his as well. She disappeared when the angel got killed and-“

 

“Sakura!” She stopped screaming, her pulse racing. She was standing up somehow. Turning, she could see Father Sakagami’s eyes staring at her through the confession box, a leer that cut away all thoughts.

 

“Do you mean the realm of unending corridors?”

 

****

 

The car slowly jutted to a stop as it turned into the nearest empty space in the car park, fitting in at an angle perfect for causing optimum amounts of frustration for the owners of the cars on the left, right and front sides of it. As Father Sakagami stopped, he turned the key out and got straight out, indicating for her to do the same.

 

“Sakura partly recognised the location. They were in the city centre, somewhere near the main shopping district and the biggest shopping centre in town. She very rarely went here, never having a reason to go and never being invited by others to go, so she rarely got to see the massive coliseum sized complex that hosted a shop of every kind within.

 

It was busy for a Sunday, and people were rushing about quickly, not taking their time at all as they brushed past each other with large shopping bags and smaller wallets. Only a few seemed to have stopped to appreciate the day of rest, and even they were clearly just taking a small break before getting back on with things.

 

Father Sakagami didn’t appear to be listening to her. Having barely spoken two words since her confession, he was starting to scare her a little bit. Father Sakagami was one of the few people she believed she could trust ever since coming to this country. It was he who had helped her with her Japanese alongside her mother and further on even when she passed away, and he who taught her to think carefully of her faith and to be willing to ask questions to keep it strong. He was modern and open minded, yet had the strongest faith of any priest she had met, even the bishop that had come to visit.

 

So to see him like this, agitated, impatient, making her hurry up to the point where he looked like he was resisting the urge to drag her along, wasn’t something she was used to or comfortable with. It was even a little scary.

 

He knew abut the InBetween realm, Sakura thought as they came onto the pavement and marched briskly into the crowd, but not in the same way she did. He was calling it the realm of a thousand corridors and hadn’t told her anything since

 

Reaching the Himitsuya shopping district Father Sakagami stopped and reached into his pocket, pulling out a small pedometer. The district was a large five storey building which save for a small inner garden area that served as a food court was completely indoors and within the space of the building itself.

 

Attaching the pedometer to the hem of his trousers, he started walking. Sakura kept up behind him, watching him carefully as he went to his best yet very odd efforts to walk in a straight line. Not even a baby carriage swayed him to the side and he briskly paced form one side of the building to another. Sakura could only watch, completely confused and without money to get home herself. When he got to the end, he pulled the pedometer off his waist, and checked it.

 

“Four hundred and fifty five meters and seventy three centimetres,” he said, writing it down off his hand in black ink and heading off again, turning to go inside the building.

 

“When you first notice something wrong in your life,” he said, with an air that he had been having a conversation with her that she had not been having with him, “do you notice something is wrong?”

 

Sakura guessed her participation didn’t seem to matter in this conversation, and stayed silent. “You often don’t. When the probable first starts occurring, you’ll either not notice entirely or come up with some rational excuse. People will always do this. It’s better than suffering new hardships that they don’t know how to cope with.”

 

Sakura was getting a little lost.

 

“When the first one happens it’s easy. It’s often so major and so big that you wouldn’t think it strange at all, just ill-timed. “The second one is the hardest, nothing to do at all sometimes, except just get curious.”

 

They took a left as they entered, heading for the farthest reaches of the building. They ended up at a small clothes boutique which didn’t look that expensive. Father Sakagami looked like he had no intention of shopping, and heading straight to the far end of the room, keeping in a straight line as best as possible with clothes racks in the way.

 

There, he pulled out the pedometer again, pressed a button that seemed to reset it and started walking yet again

 

“Most of the time the wrongs things can hurt a lot, and you don’t know what to do. Sometimes they’re extremely painful, and you just have to suffer. And then comes the strange events, where there’s no rulebook. You know something’s gone wrong, that someone’s cheated, but there’s no manager to lodge a formal complaint with.”

 

“This case is a little different though. This isn’t someone being in the wrong. This is about something hat is wrong. Therein lies all the difference.” They were leaving the store again, going in the same straight line. Sakura was getting a little sweaty trying to keep up so much that she wasn’t listening that well.

 

“I noticed it around a year and a half ago. It was my first time in the Himitsuya shopping centre and I was searching for a book required for my next study section. I had no idea what the place looked like and had begun to get lost pretty quickly. I spent about an hour unsure of where I was supposed to be going, and even the local maps weren’t being of any help.

 

“It was incredibly pointless and incredibly frustrating. All I wanted was a book, but I wasn’t going to find neither it nor the way out at the rate it was going. So I opted, rather than getting lost or just asking, to wander in a straight line until I got some where. After all, the district was just a series of squares. I was bound to get me somewhere eventually.

 

When I had gotten into the store I had to walk alongside it first, so at the time I think I just sort of guessed it but wasn’t sure, but it had taken me around four minutes to walk up to the entrance outside from the other side of the building, and walking through the crowd I realised I was up to minute six when it-“

 

Sakura’s mind wandered away from the conversation politely when she noticed the bookstore. She had a close bond to on the few times she had been down here and wondered if she should ask if they can stop in. Last time they had a book scriptures and though she hadn’t understood most of it she knew it would benefit her greatly in her understanding of the country’s language.

 

“And that, is when I knew I had stumbled upon something that shouldn’t be there: the realm of never ending corridors?”

 

Sakura switched back. “What did you…say?”

 

“When I got there, I knew something was wrong. I had definitely travelled further than I should of. Gone lengths longer than was physically possible. I knew this building didn’t connect to any others, and I was two floors up, so I could not have strayed to a basement level. For sure I knew I was in a corridor that did not, could not exist in the world as we know it.”

 

“What did you see there?”

 

“Nothing. It was absolutely empty.” He said this as if it brought the greatest joy in all his life, and that he was now ready for the Rapture to descend and take him away.

 

“Oh.”

 

“For as long as I travelled in that realm, I discovered nothing. Corridor after corridor. Quite boring actually.”

 

“I can imagine.” Sakura scolded herself instantly for being sarcastic.

 

“And they’re all the same corridor. No differences. No change in consistency I’m sure. Had I the eye for it, even the grains and speckles of the dust were repeating in each room.”

 

“But I knew what I had discovered was impossible, and that alone sustained my travels further. I thought perhaps this was a message or trial of some nature, bought on by our Lord. Maybe I was even to meet someone of great importance and so braved myself to take the route.”

 

“Unfortunately, after about twenty minutes I had become completely lost. The corridors, as I believe you might know, have many different doors, and appear to go in many directions. I had foolhardy tried them at random, with the thought of coming across a map, or making one in y mind, but with everything identical, it was far too easy to become lost.”

 

“And then, just when I was beginning to fear the possibility that I may not even be able to find my way back through the door I came through, that I would be lost here and even fail my trial, when a security guard appeared. Shopping centre security.”

 

“A guard, but I thought-”

 

“As did I. He sounded very rough, and was angry at me, yet trying to remain nice at the same time. He said to me. “What are you din here. You people aren’t allowed around this area. You must leave at once.” I do admit At the time, I was too confused and lost altogether, so I nearly lied to the man and said I had gotten lost, but I knew that wasn’t true so I told him my curiosity had gotten the better of me, and I apologised. He seemed furious at me and I do believe he was more worried about his own job and failing to stop a straggler like me from getting so far than the fact I was there anywhere. Anyway, he quickly led me back to the entrance and tossed me out, not literally of course.

 

“So you were just in another part of the centre.”

 

“Sakura, you and I both know that’s not true. But even so, you’re right, I did doubt myself at first, so I rushed back outside, and counted the windows out the outside second floor. There were thirty, and the last was this shop you see here.” He pointed to a toy shop that specialised in make your own bears. Sakura had one at home dressed in black, though not from this store. She had made the collar herself. However, it was not the last store in the row. Next to it, before the door at the end, lay a collectors shop. It was half the size of the regular shops and looked like it was stuff old models and cards with no use except to those who sought them. It was a shop of false greed.

 

“That shop should not be there,” he told her, after her gaze had wandered enough. “And neither should that door. I don’t know what is truly beyond the other side, but I believe it is something I must determine. Now, you say you’ve been there yourself.”

 

For the first time in a while, Sakura realised he was letting her speak for herself, and waited anxiously for her answer.

 

“Er…yes,” she started. “We went there once-“

 

“And how did you get in.”

 

Sakura stopped. How did she? There was her and Sarah an Aki, and…she didn’t want to remember the next it, and there before she knew it she was waking up in a library. “We were in an alleyway. IT was when my friend robbed that man. Then the word started to spin around us and-“ She tried to fill the gap but could come up with nothing. “I just woke up there, nowhere near my friends.”

 

“I see,” said Sakagami. “That is definitely different to my own method.”

 

“And then when I got there, there was this giant library. Books filling the walls and more shelves that I could count. It was bigger than any library I had seen before.”

 

“And what were the books. Were they of a particular type?”

 

“Erm, well they were empty, the ones I checked though. Oh, except one. It was on a pedestal and spoke about Humans getting stronger and defeating some creatures.”

 

“I see,” said the father transfixed on her. “This is amazing. I think you may have gotten closer than I did.”

 

“What is?”

 

“Sakura, I was stopped before I could get anywhere close to where an answer might lay. But you, more innocent and pure, started in the library itself, while your other ‘friends’, including that Sarah girl, were kept away from it. Why you were separated when you started so close? There can only be one answer.”

 

“What answer?” she asked, confused. “What was in that library?”

 

“I don’t know, but I believe this library may have been the destination for those seeking answers. You who have followed his words from young and seek his knowledge, was placed where you needed to be, and got answers you needed, or tried to anyway. Did you, or were you stopped by any chance.”

 

“Ah…yes,” she realised. “That was when I met Alexis.”

 

“He was the guard that stopped you.”

 

“Yes, but he wasn’t a guard. He was an assistant there.”

 

“Hhhhmmm,” he pondered deeply for a moment. Sakura was now hanging onto the talk tightly. “It seemed that if you are not ready, as I wasn’t, or not worthy, then you get denied. This may be why the books were blank as well, to you that is. You may need to be ‘higher’ if you will, than either of us.”

 

“You mean like a bishop or his holiness.”

 

“Exactly. But it certainly merits further investigation. Sakura?” He slapped his hands down on her shoulders. “Will you accompany me? If answers are in reach it is our duty to obtain them.”

 

“But, if there are guards…”

“This is a trial for us. The guards are merely another part of it to stop anyone from getting through. If we are pure of heart, and have the knowledge we now do, I believe we can get all the way to the library. There, we will seek answers.”

 

“Answers. To what?”

 

“Why, to everything of course.”

 

****

 

Telling Sagara the time was useless. Even when knowing it, he still took as long as he possibly could, causing them to miss the tram they were waiting for. The he got hungry, sidetracking them into a café that was perfectly positioned to see the tram- as it came speeding out of the station. They managed the third one an hour later, just as the city was beginning to light itself up.

 

Finding their destination hadn’t been too difficult. Having convinced herself earlier that they needed to go to the scene of the crime- after Sarah and Sagara had dismissed the idea as stupid, Natoko had been online and found out where the murder occurred. It was amazing how little there had been on it. But in the end it was just another murder in the city; no matter how gruesome it was. Now, they had a printed map, and even her sightseeing camera; for evidence she insisted.

 

The night had started to cool down as they reached Funakoshicho; the road where the body had been found, and Natoko was just starting to appreciate the wonder of a coat. Being Sunday night, there was little going on. A few party groups passed by them as they headed down the street, as well as the stray loaner with shopping bags weighing them down and a neck angled for the floor. No one bothered two stray teenagers.

 

She had been on this street several times before, though never really used it for anything other than passing through. Across the road there were a series of pachinko parlours with bars above them. Aki insisted they go here every few weeks and they would both lose a fortune in currency that held no real value to them. By the time they were halfway down he street, the last of the small groups of passer-bys had disappeared from sight.

 

Quickly realising that Sagara was acting like he knew where he was going, Natoko jumped ahead, keeping an eye out for the alleyway. “It’s over there,” she said, partly guessing. The website had merely described it as the alley next to a curry parlour, and this was the first she could see.

 

Twisting round to look into the alley and doing her best to take notes, Natoko could see nothing special about it. The alley was wide, enough for a garbage truck to park itself into. The open space was barren however, with only an empty dustbin sitting by the wall.

 

Of course the body was missing. She didn’t know why she had been expecting to see that there, but felt a vague disappointment that it was gone. It was clean of anything else though, the garbage cans were currently missing and there was only a side door in to the curry parlour decorating the alleyway before it fell into darkness only a few meters in, making her realise that they really were better checking this in the day. They were more likely to get mugged than gain any useful information.

 

Though when she thought about it, it had been raining as well since then. There was the one summer shower on Thursday that drenched the whole city. Though it was gone by the morning, she had to give up outside training when it got so bad her training shirt was becoming a second skin.

 

Any evidence would have been washed away by now. How could she have not thought of this sooner? Did she just assume the crime scene would stay perfectly intact while it waited for her to come along and investigate? The others were right not to bother with this place after so long. Even after two days, anything they would find would either be worthless or a huge distraction.

 

“Hi there,” Sagara said to her.

 

“What? Oh hi… sorry,” she replied, realising he had been trying to speak to her.

 

“You’re looking all right.” Was that a question? Her mind felt a little fuzzy, her eyes growing heavy.

 

“I guess there’s that, but it’s not that big a deal for you, is it?”

 

“What is?” She shook her head, making sure she was awake. “Sagara?”

 

“Well, it was a nice body, but it’s not like you needed it in the first place.”

 

“Sagara?” she called out louder this time. “Are you all right? What are you talking about?.”

 

He wasn’t looking at her. He wasn’t looking at anything.

 

“Huh?” he said, like she was distracting him. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me.”

 

Other than the usual, Natoko thought. It was a feeling above all else. Maybe he was just being more active.

 

“Oh… oh right, of course. Okay, just bear with me a minute.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“Hold on, we need to do something,” he said, wandering back out the alley. Natoko thought he was already giving up, but he simply peered out like the alleyway was a door and shot straight back in again.

 

“It probably wouldn’t work if there was anyone else out on the street. We just need it to be the two of us. Alone.”

 

“Excuse me?” Her heart skipped a beat, her thoughts running further than the city and reaching godhood in but a moment, before figuring that he probably didn’t mean anything like that.

 

“Though we probably should have brought Sarah as well. She’s better at remembering stuff than us.”

 

Her heart skipped a different type of beat this time.

 

“But if need be, we can just come back and ask again. We shouldn’t need too much, just enough information to give us more clues than the police have. We should be able to go from there.”

 

“But there’s no where else to get clues. There’s nothing here.”

 

“Except the ghost.”

 

Natoko’s eyes jumped to the empty alleyway, then stared back at him dumbfounded. “There are ghosts here?” she asked, immediately believing him and wishing she could see them.

 

“Ghost. You can’t see her then, I thought as much.”

 

“Well,” she scoffed a little, “yeah. They’re ghosts. You can see them with those eyes of yours maybe, but I won’t be able to. I don’t have any special abilities.”

 

“You don’t need special abilities to see ghosts. All you need is a mark of freedom.”

 

“Ok. How do I get that?”

 

“You don’t get it, you’ll just have it. Mom says it’s the act of trying to get it that causes people problems. They try to search for ghosts, because in their heart they believe they don’t exist and believe they know it in their hearts. You’ll be the same. Even if you want to believe in ghosts, no one else really does. It’s the accumulation of the excuse that’s the problem.”

 

“Er… what?” she tried to say politely.

 

“People say it all the time you know; with everything.” Sagara eye’s looked up like he was trying to remember something. “They compared their actions to the other persons. They feel jealous of the other person, who is strong where they are weak, or feel pity for them, and then they see how the person does it. Before they know it, they say things like ‘well, if they can do it, why can’t I’ or ‘no one else is doing it, I better not either.’ People copy other people, even when trying to say they’re different, People look to others for examples of what to do. And if everyone in the crowd looks to another person rather than themselves, then soon you just have a crowd of people looking and doing nothing more. This is the most dangerous thing in the world.”

 

“Mom told me this story once. Said I should use it for others. She called it ‘the accumulation of an excuse is world shattering and stupid and these idiots should be killed.’”

 

“In a room full of thirty people, all thirty are told not to leave in any circumstance. When in the room, a fire alarm goes off, and one person stands up to leave, only to see the others still sitting there, not moving because they’ve been told to stay put. Now, what do you think the other person would do, as he saw smoke starting to pour in through one of the opposing door?”

 

“It’s kinda obvious where you’re going with this, so I think I’ll say he stayed.”

 

“Ah you would think that. Common sense and all. But once they see everyone else staying where they sit and even as the building burns around them, as the room itself starts getting a little misty, they think to themselves those same words: ‘No one else is doing it, I better not either.’ They’ll consider leaving, that’s certain. They’ll even probably get up. And they may even reach the door. But even the strongest of minds will be shaken by a crowd following one distinct thought, no matter how retarded it is, ripped away from the most obvious course of action out of the slightest ripple of doubt, and only a handful in an ocean will kick the door down and leave with the full knowledge of their actions.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“It’s called diffusion of responsibility. And the entire planet is renowned for relying upon it to get by in most cases. People will let it let other people guide them, teach them, boss them around, force them, and they can give every inch of themselves to it and never be aware of having done so, even when every other person is completely an utterly wrong.”

 

“And what does that have to do with this?”

 

“Because you can’t see ghosts.”

 

“Because no one else can?”

 

“No one can see ghosts,’ is what people say. No one wants to see ghosts is often what it means. To see them means to see the dead; and that is unbearable. And what starts as no one else can see ghosts, begins to include the self. People make excuses. Reasons why we can’t. Ghost sightings are usually rare enough. It becomes easy for a person to convince themselves they were wrong. And even when they tell themselves they saw a ghost, there is still disbelief in it, a need to prove right when they truly think they are wrong.”

 

He turned to her, grabbing her shoulders tight his eyes still half rolled back as he recited.

 

“So do you follow me? Do you get what I say to you? You believe that ghosts aren’t real. And you believe it because others can’t see ghosts either and say they aren’t real. And you believe it because others say they have seen ghosts, but the sightings are so few and far in-between that although they seem convincing at the time the majority of the population have failed to see ghosts and it’s the majority vote you ultimately go for.”

 

“I… guess so.”

 

“Well look at us. Right here, right now. In this alley. To you, it is just the two of us. No one else to tell you you’re wrong. 50% responsibility each. I know for certain, even without my eyes, because I don’t need my eyes to know that ghosts exist and can be seen and heard. I know that there is one floating in front of us, mumbling to herself, and you are merely uncertain. Now which of us is completely right here?”

 

“Well…” He was right in her face. She could see the green shine to his eyes as they rolled back to face her. It was mesmerising. “It’s you of course. You’re right. You can see her. I definitely know that. You’re 100% sure of it.”

 

“And that should be all you need,” he pointed to their left, and Natoko saw the ghost.

 

A young blond haired girl, dressed in ceremonial robes befitting a temple priestess of the highest Shinto sect. She stood straight, bearing down upon Natoko with shimmering grace, long sleek robes flowing through the air pooled around their feet, through where Natoko was standing. The beautiful maiden gazed upon her, the black rag covering her eyes.

 

“So she can see me now,” the ghost said. “Great, glad one of us can.”

 

“She…she’s a ghost?” Natoko stuttered.

 

“Surprised?” asked the ghost.

 

“No. No. Well, yes actually. You’re a ghost. That’s amazing.” She stepped up to the girl to get a closer look. Save for her face, the rest of her body was covered in her robes. Even the girl’s staff, a simple wooden stick sparkled beautifully.

 

“Kiribayashi Itoko. Please don’t fall in love with me.”

 

“Er erm… Yamanaka Natoko, same to… you.” The ghost tittered.

 

Though she was clear to see, the girl was transparent. There wasn’t much to see behind her, so she felt a little blurry to stare at. Even so it was clear it was there.

 

“Well, good to know that works,” said Sagara, clapping his hands together as if to brush the dust off. “I don’t get to use the speeches mom made me memorise often. It was kind of fun.”

 

“That was just a script?” the blind girl said, though Natoko had wanted to. “You people never fail to seriously alarm me.”

 

“That’s a shame. It’s one of the main things ninja aren’t supposed to do.”

 

“What, like let Shrine priestess get horribly burned to incineration by creatures of the netherworld. Well you’re doing a great job there.”

 

“That’s true. I really need to improve on these things.”

 

“I guess expecting you to be perfect in these things is kinda impossible. Anyway, I take it you wanted something from me. I may be dead and annoyed and wanting ice cream, but I assume I can still be of some assistance.”

 

“Well, we don’t need much,” Sagara said. “I just figured you were the best person to ask who killed you.”

 

“Oh but that would ruin the mystery. Is this a mystery, or do you already know yourselves?”

 

“We don’t know.”

 

“I guess we do,” interrupted Natoko. “We were pushed this way in search of that fire spirit. And if she was burnt to death, then he becomes the prime suspect.”

 

“It’s a she, I think.”

 

Turning back to the blind girl, they waited for more elaboration. When they didn’t get any, Natoko continued.

 

“So we-“

 

“Well I don’t know for sure if it was a she. I mean when I first met it was a man. But it certainly felt female.”

 

“Felt?”

 

“Oh not in a groping way. I held back. Lighter steps. Gymnastic like agility when moving. Felt feminine too, though the voice was generic.”

 

“Generic?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“How so?”

 

“Just generic, like it didn’t belong to either a male or a female, or no one for that matter. A nice person though, well, up until the murder.”

 

“So what happened then?”

 

“You guys continue,” said Sagara, stepping out of the alley. “I’ll be back in a moment.” He shot off before Natoko could protest, leaving her with the ghost. She looked to her to continue.

 

“I got burned I guess,” Itoko replied with a grumble. “They started chasing me through the Alleyway of Desire just after I left the bar.”

 

“What time was this?” Natoko asked, feeling years of detective novels barely read and rarely completed now being brought to their full potential.

 

“Well, it could have been either a time known as late, or else it could have been a time I don’t know.”

 

“Couldn’t you be more specific?”

 

“Well, maybe if the two of us had met at an early age and, after a period of trying to exclude each other, we were thrown into a situation that required both of us to work together to survive and as a result began a friendship lasting all our lives where we laughed, cried, shared our secrets and inadvertently spent one night together, then perhaps you could have been there that night to lend me your eyes. And I don’t mean just telling me the time, I mean actually pulling them out and trying to stuff them into my sockets. Because if you weren’t going to, then I could be. Until that then happens in the past, I have no way of telling you what the time was.”

 

“Ah sorry,” Natoko stuttered, feeling more of a jerk than she knew she should have been.

 

The spirit sighed heavily to calm herself, her breath not bringing any steam to the air.

 

“Then the two … people – boys, girls, demons, divine, not sure, neuts, whatever- followed me into the alleyway. It was then I realised they were chasing me. I ran through the alley but it trapped me.”

 

“These two did something?”

 

“Yup, they must have done really. I couldn’t get out. They stuck a wall somewhere, probably about there,” she point to the left wall unhelpfully. ”We said a few things to each other, chatted and stuff, then I died.”

 

“They burned you to death.”

 

“It was either that or by crushing me, I’m not sure. Hard to pay attention really, I had so much other stuff on my mind.”

 

“Like what?” said Natoko curiously.

 

“My life mainly. Do you even realize how dumb death is? I get killed, murdered, abandoned in a dark alleyway with my body rotting and even when people find it they leave it alone because they don’t want to get involved, and ignoring the two little shoes just sitting there with feet still in them. Now my soul’s finally let free and all that, but I still can’t see anything. My self perception won’t allow it. Now I have to question whether or not I’m really a ghost or just an after memory left behind by someone stupid enough to be hanging in dark alleyways when they can’t even see it’s dark.

 

“Well, you’re a ghost of course,” Natoko tried to help. “Sagara just went off on a whole script to explain that to me.”

 

“How do we know? How do we know ghosts exist? Only people like him can see them, and they could just be lying in order to make themselves look extra cool.”

 

“Well, we have demons. It makes sense that ghosts should exist as well.”

 

“No it doesn’t make sense. Do you think that just because demons exist it automatically means ghosts should exist as well?”

 

“Well I…” Natoko thought about it. “Well, if demons exist then hell must exist. And dead people go to hell-“

 

“What says so?”

 

“Well, the demons, for one.”

 

“But they’re all liars, all of them. Each and every one is a riddle of an enigma of a fabrication of a psychological headfuck of a traumatized expansion pack out for the latest games console. You can’t trust what they say, what they do, even what they eat. How can you even prove their origin when you only have their word for it?”

 

“Well, I suppose you have a point.”

 

“If you were told,” Itoko went on, not listening to the other side of the debate, “without knowing previously, of course, that we were able to travel to the moon, do you instantly think that means we can travel to the other side of the universe.

 

“Well, no, of course not, it’ll take a lot more to do that than just…”

 

“Exactly, and just because you’re told that demons exist doesn’t mean you should assume ghosts exist, or anything else mythical for that matter. Vampires, werewolves Death gods.”

 

“Right, I suppose I should be more careful with my thoughts.” The robes were starting to move and shift in the alleyway, air rippling them like a loose parachute.

 

“And especially ghosts. I mean, come on, it should be a simple logic of statistics. If ghosts existed then anyone could be one once they hit that final bullet with their face. But we’ve never seen them, never proven them. It’s all just anecdotal evidence and hearsay.”

 

“You know I’m pretty sure this counts as more than anecdotal evidence for me right now, what with the whole standing in front of a ghost and everything right this very moment.”

 

“Pfft, yeah, and who the hell’s gonna believe you? A wannabe samurai demon hunter who sees everything though her very shiny yet clearly tainted filter. Your story will be about as believable as picture of alien spaceships with the camera set to full blur.”

 

Natoko sighed, letting the ghost of a memory of a dead person or whatever it was go on by itself. Where had Sagara gotten to? She couldn’t leave her post, even if the alleyway was starting to get cold. She looked out onto the street and saw the warmth of the Pachinko parlor, now closing up for the night.

 

“Hey, she asked, interrupting yet calm. “Do you think you could tell us what killed you yet.” The dead blind girl stopped ranting, her form hovering back and forth like a camera trying to get itself in focus with the lens permanently shattered. It looked like it didn’t want to answer.

 

“Even if you aren’t a ghost you must have some idea of what happened in those final moments. If you tell us, we could get vengeance for you. I’m sure my master would be fine with it.

“I don’t want vengeance,” muttered the specter.

 

“You don’t?”

 

“All I want now is the ice cream I was saving for when I got home.” She looked to a split bag of rubbish, tainting the decrepit alley. “It’s all I can think about. And what’s the point of that huh? I’m not real anyway.”

 

“No, I guess not,” Natoko muttered, not really interested in petty complaints as she caught Sagara wandering back in.

 

“Okay, I’m back,” said Sagara, turning the corner, walking up to the two of them and just standing there. “Oh, did she go?”

 

Natoko looked back to find herself alone in the alley again, the silk robes had disappeared from the ground and walls, not a single sign of the girl remained.

 

“I guess so.”

 

****

 

“Even that didn’t feel helpful,” Natoko complained. “We barely got anything out of her. All we know is where she was attacked and it was probably two people that were probably female… or probably male, or other things. It wasn’t that helpful.”

 

“You know,” Sagara said, “it occurs to me that most of the people I meet are female. How odd is that?” Natoko glared at the boy, his mind as far away from the mission as it could be whilst standing in the middle of it.

 

“Well…yes, you live in a girl’s dormitory, which is still an issue for a lot of the others you know.”

 

“Really?”

 

“I mean, most either don’t care or think you’re okay, but I think they all get a little upset about you wandering around like you do. Some even told me it was kind of freaky.”

 

“Huh?” Sagara seemed to contemplate this for a moment. “Do you think I should hug them then?”

 

“What? No. Look, we’re going off focus here.”

 

“But mom says-“

 

“We’ll talk about it later.”

 

“Hugs fix everything.”

 

“Focus!” she shouted accidentally.

 

“Okay.”

 

“Why are we walking into the alleyway anyway?” she asked, clicking on the fact it was getting very dark.

 

“I was following you,” he replied, getting an internal groan out of her. They wandered through darkness, letting night vision kick in, the ability to see more alleyway not helping at all. The alleyway was just an alleyway. And there were no more ghosts either.

 

“How would the alleyway trap her?” Natoko mused loudly. “It didn’t look like she could be fooled by that.”

 

“Because someone wanted it to.”

 

“But there would have been an extra wall or something. Isn’t it odd that she would get to the exit only to not be able to leave.”

 

“The alleyway would have moved it, though that shouldn’t be right if it were a demon.”

 

Natoko accidentally groaned. “What does that mean?”

 

“The alleyway trapped her on their request. That shouldn’t happen. It’s only meant to respond to humans. I guess that means it wasn’t a demon that did it.”

 

Natoko didn’t understand. She hid it. “Even so, it’s pointless now, right? If there’s no sign of it, we’re not going to get any clues from it, and for all we know she just ran into any of the walls.”

 

“That’s true.”

 

“I guess the bar she mentioned is the next best bet,” Natoko said. “If they let us in.” Natoko stopped speaking as she turned the corner, the large ogre looming into view above them. “What on-“

 

“Why wouldn’t they?” said Sagara, She barely heard him, the sudden appearance of the creature taking her attention away like a crowbar to the face. A loud drip of drool splashed onto the floor as Sagara seemed to cheer about something she ignored completely. Before them stood a snarling beast, seven times as tall as either of them, its muscles wide enough to crush cars and so broad it clearly struggled with staying in the confines of the alleyway without taking the walls down around them. Its brown fur was matted with sweat and the creature roared from a brutish snarling head with no face Pounding the ground with each step, it bare left foot having three extra toes and its right missing one, it advanced towards them menacingly.

 

She recognised it. This was the creature from the mask.

 

“Wh-wh-what?” Natoko stuttered. “What is this?”

 

“It’s chocolate.”

 

“It’s what?”

 

“Hold on, I’ll be back,” As Sagara ran back behind them, it seemed to notice them, even without a face, and lunged forwards pushing into a stairwell and ripping it from the side of the building. The mass of metal clambered towards them, like a large stone dropping. Natoko went to pull Sagara out of the way, but only took a few strands of shirt with her. Seeing he had no intention of noticing his imminent demise, she threw herself to the wind and as far out of the way as possible, the jumble of metal collapsing on top of her master.

 

“Sagara!” she shouted, loud clangs filling the air and deafening her. She winced in pain to the awful melody, barely unable to watch as Sagara was crushed out of sight by the metallic debris.

 

“No!” she cried out, turning to the monster and running up to face it head on, feeling a rage push itself into her brain, turning her eyes red with unrelenting fury. Tossing herself at the enemy, unclasping the buckle on Iziz’s container, she swung her blade in the moment with one quick slash, going right through its leg and releasing a torrent of howling and blood.

 

Underneath the monster, the large sinews of its quad directly above her, she swung round to observe the damage she had done. Barely nothing. She thought it had been more.

 

“Hey, I’m stuck.”

 

The red faded as she started directly at the mass of metal, seeing Sagara underneath all of it, the single hand that wore Draynor holding the mass just a little above him, keeping him safe.

 

The stairwell, all seven storeys of it had folded in half as it landed on him and looked to cut him off from escape. Only able to see his hand and realising he was trapped for the interim, Natoko had to pay attention quick as the beast above her bent over to get a look. Even without eyes, it stared deeply at her, guessing where she had gone. Its right leg lifted, trying to kick at her, but the narrow alleyway stopped it from getting her so easily.

 

Pulling her sword back in, she got ready for her next move. She had time, the monster unable to turn around in the short confines. Though it looked like it could just walk backwards to get at her, it didn’t seem to think of that. Its leg wasn’t bleeding anymore, the wound driven through by Iziz looked nothing more than a dent in its skin, a scar that had healed over years ago. Already she knew she needed to hit more vital things. Things that, with the destruction of the stairwell were now impossible to reach. Sagara could probably jump it, and with training she might eventually make it, but for now she had no chance.

 

Her assessment stopped when she saw the monster’s legs flexing, bobbing up and down on disfigured knees. Getting what it was doing just seconds before, Natoko lunged out the way as it launched itself up a foot and came straight down a heavy four, rippling the ground and cracking it on its more solid point.

 

Breathing heavily for her sudden movements, Natoko’s eyes passed back to Sagara, who was struggling in his own little trap, now trying to punch through the loose metal and instead merely pushing it along with him still inside.

 

Swiping at her like a giant baby grabbing for a small tin soldier, Natoko was too slow to evade and could only defend as the large four finger hands swiped her from the side and immediately recoiled as she drove Iziz between the cracks of its index finger. The hand catapulted into the air as it roared with agony, trapping the sword between its fingers and taking her with it. Dangling in the air helplessly, she failed to be glad that it wasn’t paying attention to her and instead struggled to pull Iziz out. Succeeding far better than she liked, she wrestled it from the titan’s grip and fell backwards three storeys, landing with a gut emptying thud against the creature’s thigh muscles. She rolled round, hearing the roar of pain turn into a blood curdling scream.

 

Looking up at the monster and then straight back down, she saw that she had accidentally stabbed the monster’s leg with Iziz and was now carving off a suitable chunk of muscle like roast pork as she slid down the greasy fur. Pulling the sword away, she lifted it across the wound and lifted up the slab, revealing a hollow nothingness on the other side.

 

It isn’t bleeding, she thought. From what Sagara had told her earlier, that made sense. She wouldn’t just get away with hacking and slashing away at this thing, hoping to drain its hp until it was defeated. She had to find the weak point.

 

Seeing its hand going for her once again and rewarding its efforts by slamming Iziz into the meat just above its pelvis, Natoko focused. The head seemed the obvious choice, if only to cut it off. There was no sign of anything there though. Its emptiness implied it may not be a useful part of its body, though it did make her question where the roaring was coming from, the lion’s bellow still whimpering with earthquakes.

 

Looking at it as a whole though, nothing seemed evident, its bland furry skin was a full coat of hair that was nothing but slippery. Its hands and feet though had a different number of digits on each limb but were without nails, scratches or creases to strike her as being of any significance and its smooth bald head was lacking any special markings, including features.

 

She thought hard of what Sagara said, and then struck out a guess. Replacing Iziz into her sheath, Natoko focused the blade carefully, the monster’s roar falling to a light growl. She closed her eyes, foolish but necessary. Her concentration was jagged and nothing around her was helping. To get a perfect slice, based on the angle and the weight and the surface she was standing on, she would need there to be nothing around her at all. Nothing but darkness, and her target.

 

Iaido is not the action of drawing the blade.

Nor the feeling behind the draw.

Not even the nothingness that comes from the draw.

It just is.

 

Iziz shot out like a rocket, out of the sheath, out of the air and finally out of her hand. She felt the thud as it fell into her target, and opened her eyes knowing success as she saw it firmly planted within the monster’s solar plexus.

 

It didn’t roar this time, instead just looking down to see what had hit it, observing it with a curiosity a child would give a spider it had just squashed. Its hand reached up to touch it, but Natoko was already there, grabbing the hilt of her faithful blade and letting both of them fall, dragging the blade through the monster’s rigid bone rib cage, falling onto its stomach. Carrying on down, slitting it across the abdomen and all the way to the ground below. Gazing straight back up, she saw the now half opened monster lurch forwards, nearly crushing her between its legs, before burping loudly and falling back.

 

The alley fell silent for too long a moment. She waited to see if the monster would get up again. If she had cut out its precious object, it was defeated. But if she hadn’t, then this may just be a trick of brute cunning. She waited, only to hearing clapping behind her.

 

“Marvellous,” proclaimed Sagara, slapping his hands together for all they were worth, but with still with a delightful grace that usually beguiled him. “To defeat it without aid, and so quickly…”

 

“Ah,” she found herself blushing at his compliments and deciding herself safe. “Thank you, it was nothing.”

 

“Hey, you saved me. That is something to me. If you hadn’t of stopped it, it would have crushed me.”

 

“Well, I guess.” She smiled, unable to look completely at him, his bright eyes shone as he gazed over her with a dashing smile enough to make any fair maiden swoon. “But you could have probably have got out, it would have had to move the stairwell to get you, so you wouldn’t have probably got out, and then…” Her words melted like candy in her mouth, as his hand fell on her shoulder, the other cupping her chin, his chest so very close to hers.

 

“You did well,” he told her, looking rather taller than before. “I have never been more happy that I chose you for my retainer over all the others.”

 

“I…I,” she got out, before her heart completely froze in anticipation.

 

“A reward, for my faithful one,” he said, drawing closer to her.

 

“Sagara,” she whimpered, feeling herself go weak in his arms, feeling her mouth tremble as his got closer, feeling the cold pull of gravity as she let herself go in his cold embrace, her reward granted when her head struck the concrete.

 

She cried out with a loud ‘OW!” shooting straight back up and looking for where he had gone, feeling both confusion and longing dancing within her, her heart thawing quickly and now beating far faster than before.

 

Sagara was gone, as was the beast. Only the metal stairwell remained in a crumpled heap on the dark floors of the alley. She swallowed, trying to grab onto things, settling with the wall as her fingers started to jitter in shock. Slowly getting up, shaking, afraid she might fall again, she hobbled up to the only thing that seemed real, the stairwell, and grabbed onto it. She swallowed again, realising that she was trying to hold back the urge to be sick, her brain a blank on what just happened and trying to reject everything.

 

A loud crack brought her out of it.

 

Still dazed, she lumbered around the broken stairwell, the mangled remains feeling more fake every second they faded away. Passing through it, she saw Sagara sitting on the floor looking away from her, eating what was nothing more than a large bar of milk chocolate, cracking it sharply with every bite.

 

“Ish guud!” he mumbled to her, quickly clearly his mouth. “You want some?”

 

Natoko was lost for words. She gaped at him, before looking back to the empty alleyway behind her and back again, part of her trying to compare the lips that almost glanced hers and the lips now painted with melted brown goo. Blanking for an answer, it took her three tries before she noticed she had left t Iziz on the floor.

 

“What was…what just……what-what?” She held her head in her right hand and shook. “Oh just explain things like you usually do.”

 

“Abut wat jus’ happen’d?” he said with a full mouth. She simply nodded.

 

“This pace ‘s c’lled the alleyw’y of desirers,” he cleared his mouth of food. “Though it’s called different things by different groups. It’s made to grant the wishes of all humans who go inside it. Though yours was a little more different than most I hear about.”

 

He waited a moment, but she didn’t respond this time. She wasn’t in the mood for follow on questions.

 

“You see, humans have all sorts of dreams and aspirations in life and strive to achieve them. In the past, these dreams were usually encouraged by Divine or Demons, either to better the human or further corrupt them and their ideals. After my ancestors kicked up their fuss and got some fired, a few shacked up in random places like this one. This Alleyway is part of the InBetween realm, so we can’t kick ‘em out, so they stay here and grant wishes to everyone wandering in. I think there’s at least one angel and one demon here, but they’re not showing themselves.”

 

She still said nothing. The mess he was making as he wiped chocolate onto his shirt was horrendous. She wanted the other him back.

 

“It doesn’t tell them what to do, or even whether they’re right or wrong. It’ll just gives them an action that works with their own wishes, and challenge them to pursue it all the way. After that, it’s up to the person what to do with it.”

 

She listened to the rest of his reasoning, though by the end of it she had scrunched herself up into a ball besides him, desperate to drown on her own thoughts than his words. He fell into silence when he finished, occasionally cracking into more chocolate, taking another five minutes before he finished the massive bar of chocalate.

 

It was okay, she told herself. He hadn’t seen. He had been distracted himself.

 

She freed herself from her hands a little. “This is how they trapped the girl, right? They desired her to be trapped.”

 

“Probably.”

 

“So it means her killer was human, then?”

 

“Yep, this place doesn’t work with demons or divine.”

 

“Or at least one of them was human. The other could have been a demon.”

 

“That works too, although the others would have probably picked up on that by now.”

 

“We should head to the bar,” she said after another long pause, getting up with the help of the fully intact stairwell. They headed out for the opposite exit, Natoko feeling drained and nearly ready for bed. They spoke of what would happen next, and the questions they should confirm at the bar, Natoko making a point to see that he was remembering them. She thought of the ogre, the faceless ogre that had come from that place, and the mask too, feeling glad inside. Even if it had been fake, she had still defeated it. It wasn’t like it was just in her head. She had made it real, and then destroyed it. So it still counted, right?

 

She thought this over, playing with it in her mind and deciding to keep her victory. They got to the exit less than five minutes later as they stepped into reality again, Sagara turning to her to say, “So you want to kiss me, huh?”

 

****

 

“I actually believe the corridors as designed to be identical, to shake away the unwanted, to prevent easy access to the common man. If the door is as easy as this to go through, then it stands to reason, based on the idea that few if not any have found these, that measures are taken to prevent people from getting in.

 

“The corridors are a maze, an illusion to the mind. Long, numerous and disorientating. All one can do is get lost in them. If we are to traverse them without becoming misguided, we will need both faith, and some high tech mapping equipment.”

 

It took her a moment to realise he was joking, that light smile that traced his lips whenever he had allowed the mood to get serious. They both knew well that to become obsessive was a sin, that even their studies of faith must be taken lightly from time to time, lest they become fanatical. But, listening to him, she felt he was merely taking a breather before continuing a sprint around the world than detaching himself from his gluttony.

 

Suddenly her mind clicked. “You…you’re wanting us to go in there?”

 

“Of course, is that not what I meant all along?”

 

She wanted to shout at him. Of course it wasn’t. She didn’t even know there were other entrances to the place she had gone. She wasn’t even sure where she had come out; it was all too fuzzy at the time. And if she went in again, so impulsively, they would only face dangers.

 

Calm yourself, Sakura,” he said, as she felt her eyes welling up in panic. “We’re not going today. After all, it is the day of rest, and you have school tomorrow, I believe.”

 

“Ah, yes.”

 

“We will simply have to arrange going on Friday night after school. A day and a half should be plenty of time to discover what we need, and I’m sure it would be okay to go a little further, if to discover the truth our lord wishes us to find.”

 

“But…but…”

 

He knelt down next to her, meeting his eyes with her own. “I’m not going to force you, sakura. This may be a difficult task ahead of us, and I myself know that we cannot go in half heartedly. But I believe, I know that this is a trial set to us by the Lord. What we have found here is unique and separate from the rest of the world. If it is placed here, based on what you said, then he must have answers in there waiting for us. We cannot afford to refuse to follow them.”

 

Sakura hesitated, looking to that simple wooden door less than ten meters away

 

“Will you join me? That is the question I wish to ask now, but I know to force it upon you too soon would be unpleasant of me. I leave you time to answer me later. Come now, let us get you home.”

 

“Ah wait,” she called off, as he turned to leave. His face was a lucid colour of disappointment, his forehead matted a small vial of sweat. Part of her wanted to resist, to deny it to herself. But she knew, though it was tempting, that if she didn’t go further her she would simply turn back to the ball she had lain in for the past fortnight. She knew despair wasn’t considered a sin, for it was impossible not to drown in sadness at time, but, if she kept it going like she had… And also one more thing came to mind.

 

Alexis’s boss.

 

It was a stupid thought she knew, but Alexis mentioned he worked for someone. He was taking her and the others to his boss down one of the long corridors where the decorations repeated themselves just as much. If they found the library, she could find the boss, and possibly some real answers.

 

“I’ll do it. I’ll go with you.”

 

His face lit up with exuberance, the father simply bowed politely towards her, giving thanks without restraint. “We can leave on Saturday if you want, rather than Friday. A basic exploration first. We must be careful about it.”

 

She nodded, feeling the weight of her missions suddenly being thirsted upon her shoulders. This was her mission. “Right,” she said firmly, bearing it all gladly.

 

***

 

Fresh and fit with renewed energy before, Sakura was quickly worn out from travelling up the stairs. Her efforts did not deter her though. She was in a good mood and ready to move on. She was ready to start again with her mission in mind.

 

Though before then, there was the rest of her week in mind.

 

Getting to dinner, she opted to prepare a more Japanese meal to make up for missing most of the last two weeks. Even when she had cooked for people, it had been half hearted, lazily cut, and undercooked to serve as fast as possible. These people rarely noticed, most of them living on take outs on the side, but that was no excuse for her own tardiness.

 

She opted to make a traditional Sashimi dish, along with various small side dishes for people to pick and enjoy from. Driving it a little longer than usual, though there really was no need, she soon had ready a table of dishes suitable for a feast. Plates of meat piled up high along with fresh bowls of vegetables and quick snacks. To the side she even had a bowl of curry, though not enough if everybody wanted some. She also had some Takoyaki, just in case he appeared.

 

She didn’t know what Alexis was. A boy just a little older or younger than herself was the obvious answer, but it was clear he was special in some way, before he was killed. She would need to find the library, the same way father Sakagami was going. If she got there, she could get more information about this boss of his. She had heard Sagara call it a Mercurali. It sounded distinct, but it may get her somewhere. Whatever happened she should find someone and get o meet them.

 

Though she didn’t know why she hadn’t told Father Sakagami of it. Perhaps he would call her quest a fool’s errand. Alexis was already dead, gone. She knew she shouldn’t go after the dead. It can only lead to heretical behaviour.

 

But this place was special, wasn’t it? Maybe Alexis would be some kind of exception.

 

****

 

Otsune’s paced ahead, constantly checking with vague concern to see if Fujiko was following her. She didn’t recognise this corridor either. There wasn’t any corridor yet that was even remotely familiar. What remained of her bag slipped in her hands, and she had to keep lifting it up again to readjust the remaining stitches so what little food she had wouldn’t spill out onto the floor. She had managed to get Fujiko to hold some of the stuff, mainly because the girl was still breathing out of her mouth in shock. But the rest was still heavy. She’d feel pure unquestionable hatred at Natoko if she wasn’t still feeling relieved by her lightened load.

 

Though the current situation was taking that away.

 

Had he even led her to the right realm? The walls did look roughly the same as last time. Nine feet high by five feet wide, plasterboard on all sides (though a lot stronger on the floor than it should have been and covered in a standard industrial matting that must have cost a small fortune to buy and fit for the entire three kilometers they had already walked). The lengths of the corridors were remarkably different this time though. These ones were spaced out by about roughly five hundred meter stretches before coming to the brown oak mahogany doors that connected one meaningless corridor to another meaningless corridor.

 

These were all going straight too. Before it had been stretches of about one hundred meters followed by various turns and more than two doors in each corridor. There were also more holes in the vents above previously (one meter width by half a meter height precisely. Standard sheet metal. Nothing you saw here could be considered special or not found in a poorly designed factory), though not really. It was still one per corridor. There were just more corridors last time.

 

It was still as dirty as the last place though, and was home to many little bugs and creatures scurrying to the corners and edges of the rooms as they came past. A little too disgusting in some places. Bearable though. At least they were just earth bugs and earth rats, not hideous little demon mutations designed to house a hundred tentacles and instil terror in the hearts of teenage girls.

 

But they were still lost.

 

The compass was useless of course. She knew it would have been no help in making a map of uncharted territory (map reading she was good at, map making was another matter), but it was especially useless in a corridor that only went one way. They were going south by south east, and had been doing for the last hour. Fujiko had ran out of babbling conversation.

 

Everything she had said so far was the disbelief Otsune had expected of her. Stammers of confusion over where they were. Questions of impossibilities and the tricks that must be used. Rationalisations as to their current location, before a generally excepting silence that she was still processing through as she trundled behind. She’d probably just need one more random stab at the dark as to what was going on, and then finally except they were in a extra dimensional realm that ran parallel to earth. At least, that’s what Otsune’s current theory was as to where they were. She may need more information but at least she was accepting of it all now. Overall, Fujiko was going through denial quite well, certainly a lot faster than she had.

 

The small ball of flame that floated on the opposite side of Otsune was of great aid to this.

 

It had quickly become apparent that the flame was visible to everyone in the InBetween Realm. That was not a thoroughly explored hypothesis, but Fujiko could see it now, and was freaking out dramatically because of it. Stating that it was only relatively harmless hadn’t sped the matter up at all and now Fujiko kept Otsune between the two of them at all times, shifting around to avoid it whenever it spasmed.

 

It had actually gotten a little smaller being here. That wasn’t surprisingly with the stale bad taste that permeated the air. It begged the question as to how this place even had air circulation. Though there were air vents, the place was completely silent save for their footsteps and occasional chatter. If oxygen was being regulated she should have heard some fans in the vents by now. Though the fact the air was stale told her there were no fans, but this was immediately criticised by the fact they were still alive and not currently flopping around the floor like retarded fish suffering at the hands of eleven year old who had dragged them out of their breathable atmosphere.

 

Part of her brain was actually beginning to tell her not to really think about it, and that it was perhaps best that she should forget it. Inconceivable! (though she clearly already had done). Otsune was a forensic scientist in training. To abandon the how and why would render it meaningless. Yet as she went on the option to file the whole place under ‘magic’ was getting stronger, almost competing in league with her stomach and the nagging doubt that this was all a bad idea in the first place as without Sagara she may not even make the first step on this expedition.

 

“Erm, Otsune,” muttered Fujiko.

 

“What is it?”

 

“I know it’s a dumb question, since we’ve only been going in a straight line for the last half an hour, but where are we going?”

 

“To meet the spirit that guards this place,” Otsune said off hand. She wanted to eat. She knew she should conserve but already she was starting to feel weary. If they stopped no doubt their weaknesses would catch up with some kind of excuse for them to turn back. They needed to go on at least until they found something of merit.

 

“Do you know where it is?” her friend asked back.

 

“Sure.” It’s this way.

 

“It’s just… I mean…” Fujiko gathered herself. “It was all a bit weird at first. But now it’s getting boring. I’ll admit it was kind of cool how we got in here. But shouldn’t something more exciting be happening now?”

 

Otsune scoffed a friendly laugh. “Sorry the mystical fantasy dimension that connects other worlds that all kids dream of isn’t an ambiguous yet strangely inviting beach and forest for you. I’m sure they’ll try to do better next time. Though if you’re lucky you’ve just jinxed the entire place and something wonderful and magical will happen any second now.”

 

“Promises, promises,” muttered Fujiko sarcastically. “Look, couldn’t we stop for a while and get an idea of what we’re doing.”

 

“Great idea, but we can do it while walking.”

 

“But we shouldn’t just go randomly into this…”

 

“It’s not like we’re getting lost. Look: straight line.” Pointing seemed a bit too demeaning, but she did it anyway.

 

“I know that but- oh look at me complaining. What the hell’s wrong with me?”

 

“That’s easy. You’re in denial. The real question I’m having is why you didn’t enter it sooner. We were attacked by a giant wheel a few weeks ago that challenged a ‘demon hunting ninja boy of great stupidity +5 to a duel and then surprisingly lost.”

 

“But that was…I don’t know- something kind of acceptable, though it wasn’t. I don’t know. It felt kind of foggy. Easy to forget.”

 

“As easy to forget as a possessive water spirit calling us all whores? Maybe you’re used to that, but it certainly left a dent in my mind. As soon as it was coming out, I was thinking how on earth it could have purified the water from inside Natoko’s body. You do know water doesn’t just slosh around the body like a river, right? It’s like trying to pull sugar out a cake.”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe it was Sagara or something, but he seemed to make it okay what was going on. Like it was-“

 

“Normal, yeah” Otsune sighed. “I felt like that too.” She recalled the night it went on. Fujiko had just ran up to her room to tell her the things Natoko had said to Sagara. The distraction caused her to reread her journal. Made her realise she had barely written a sentence about the monsters and the destruction, just a new resident being the cousin of the landlord and how he got in the springs with her. Even now it felt a little wrong. There was still the nagging urge to just dismiss all this. If Tina wasn’t missing…

 

“Otsune?” Fujiko looked up, her eyes having travelled down. She was about to turn to her friend when a sleek red caught her eye. Focusing on it, she realised it was the end of the corridor. Pushing her glasses back up, she stared at it. It was simply the next door, but this one was a bright red, painted vividly bright compared to the dull brown ones she had seen so far. The surrounding wall was lit with a neon pruple light and trying to look like a groovy nightclub. It didn’t work in Otsune’s eyes.

She sped up, glad for the change to the monotony, even when seeing just a variance of the same old thing. There was nothing else different. This could have been done years ago.

 

When they got to the door, a simple door, a door the same as the others and nothing more save it was red, they heard music. Not a heavy beat, though it had a taste of American rock to it. Judging by the volume however, it told Otsune that it had only started when they got near.

 

She hesitated. That meant that they were expected, and somebody needed loud music when approaching them. Did Sagara send a note over to someone to pick them up; or even throw them out? Perhaps it wasn’t Sagara at all. Demons were meant to be in this place after all. What if this was a trap, Hansel and Gretel with rock music and an end to monotony for temptation. Anyone they met at all would be instantly suspicious, not to mention incredibly dangerous. The closest thing she had to a weapon was the cooking knife she brought, and that was blunt and possibly still lying in the forest somewhere.

 

Then again she could be wrong. It could be a friendly tea party, or to be more realistic, some kind of automated system they had activated. Either way it didn’t matter, because Fujiko was already opening the door.

 

Opening it wide, the two saw another door came into view. This was a set of two mahogany doors that looked like they had been converted from a smaller frame. They thundered with the music behind them, the beat growing louder as less barriers held it back. These doors were a polished sleek black and looked like other people would open them for you. Otsune glared at them suspiciously, before eyeing a stand to her left. A wooden sandwich board, it held its advertisement in simple pink, chalked in letters.

 

Blood Club

 

Come and Join Us

 

“Oh no,” Fujiko said defiantly, stepping back. “It ends here. Anything that obvious.”

 

She stopped as they heard the door handle rattle, and quickly turned. Too fast for them even to run back behind the door, they watched as a tall, very large bald man with sunglasses and a suit movies stars couldn’t afford pulled himself out of the room backwards, keeping the door as closed as possible to keep the music in. As he shut it, he turned to see them, jumping like a father pretending to be scare of his child.

 

“Ah, I’m afraid there is no entry past this point,” he said with an accent that sounded a little Germanic. “In fact I’m afraid the back office area is considered off limits altogether. I will have to ask you to leave.” He indicated to his left and showed them another door Otsune had missed. It was another oak one, but was marked exit in large crimson letters.

 

“What is this place?” Otsune asked, staring the man inquisitively, getting a strong urge to keep an eye on his mouth..

 

“This is Club Blood. But I’m afraid you’re not the type we allow in here. The clientele are more exclusive, and that don’t include you.”

 

“And what do we do to become more exclusive.”

 

“I think that should be obvious, don’t you? “ he grinned, baring canines about seven millimetres longer than they should be. “Now please, scram! Er, if you don’t mind.”

 

Otsune had none of it. “Now listen mister, we need to get through this door. I don’t care about what’s inside. I just need to get around it so I can carry on.”

 

“There is nothing to carry on around after here. And if you don’t need to go in you only need to go outside. Now… git! Er… if you would be so kind.”

 

“Now look-“

 

“Thanks,” declared Fujiko with a big cheerful grin, grabbing Otsune and quickly pulling her away. “But we’ll just go the way we came, if it’s all the same to you.”

 

“Hey, we’re not-“

 

“Ignore her, she thinks she can get into any club just by arguing or showing her boobs.”

 

“Wha, no I don’t-“

 

“We’ll be heading that way now”

 

“If you insist,” said the Bouncer, who already looking very relieved that they were complying. “A very good day to you both, madams. Oh, I mean ‘And don’t come back!’”

 

“Fujiko, let me-“ she shrugged hard, breaking loose of her friend’s grip, “go.” Stopping the struggle, she looked at the man in front of her, eyeing him down. He was tall. Seven foot. Cartoon tall. He looked a little worried now, like he didn’t entirely know what he would do if they pushed any further. As the man gazed down at her through his sunglasses, his rigid muscular neck staying straight vertical as he peered down Otsune couldn’t help but grin.

 

“Don’t you think you’re being a little rude,” she asked him derisively. “We haven’t even done introductions yet.”

 

“Excuse- I mean What?” He paused. “It’s not my job to do introductions er… madam. I’m just paid to not let people in.”

 

“Oh it’s no one’s job to really be polite or respectful. But isn’t that dangerous? It gives us an excuse to be rude to each other. Do you want to be rude?”

 

“It’s-“ The bouncer looked around, and stuttered to himself a little. “It’s not my job.”

 

“Then make it a small distraction to the weariness. Entertain two girls for a few moments. I’m sure your boss won’t mind.”

 

Fujiko was looking at her blankly, like she didn’t know she was meant to play along. Not that Otsune needed the help.

 

“What…” He cleared his throat. “What do you have in mind?”

 

“Introductions first surely,” Otsune said. “Let me go first.:” She bowed deeply, as full as she could without kneeling and hoping she wasn’t getting this wrong and exposing herself. “I am the great Tsunade Otsune, the greatest mind of my generation, and a woman beyond my years. This is my esteemed companion Fujiko: an aspiring journalist and occasional drunkard.”

 

Fujiko bowed, though more out of embarrassment than obligation.

 

“And now you are?”

 

“Ah, i…I am.” He coughed again. Then once again, but louder. He got about seven rounds in before saying “Tanaka. Tanaka-san. Please to meet you. Now I must apologise but I’m really afraid I must ask you to-”

 

“You didn’t bow?”

 

“Excuse me…I mean- what?”

 

“You should bow. You didn’t even do a bob.”

 

“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry, but…I er mean. I have no time for such a… for such a bob.”

 

“No time to be polite? You insult me, dear fellow. You cannot even meet our greeting with you own. Why, this wouldn’t be acceptable even if there wasn’t a hole in your head.”

 

The large hunk of meat in front of her jerked. Otsune smiled.

 

“Look, I’m sure you must think this is awfully clever of you,” the man said, looking like he should be sweating, “but it doesn’t amount to anything.. I can’t let yo-“

 

“My friend has gone missing!” she announced seriously, catching his attention. “She went missing the day of the tournament, and there’s been no sign since.”

 

“I… I’m afraid I don’t know which tournament you refer to . There have been no martial artists here.”

 

“And yet I could have been referring to baseball,” she replied sharply. The man quickly turned away, as if he could hide himself on a busy street. He was slipping. “I don’t have time for this. It was pure luck I found you now and I need your help.”

 

“I wouldn’t say it was luck entirely,” the bouncer muttered. “More of a defensive system for wayward intruders. You know you’re really not supposed to be-“

 

“Are you just going to throw us out then?” she asked hard. “After hearing that? You’ll just throw away your responsibility. A woman has disappeared while in your realm, Mr. Keys. Isn’t it your duty to ensure no one comes to harm like that.”

 

“Actually, you would not know what my duties are, not that I am this Keys of whom you refer.” Taking a step back, the bouncer realised for the first time she had him pinned against the wall, unable to move past her. He seemed to have forgotten it was a door.

 

“So you would leave a lady in distress, just because it isn’t your job? Just because you aren’t being told to? Are you not a gentlemen? A real man would drop all to assist a maiden in distress. Are you not a man, sir? Or are you just a coward.”

 

The man tried stepping back, looking very small all of a sudden as he pressed against the wall, looking down at her like she were a rabid wolf. She put on her best angry face and meant every bit of it. He then sighed loudly. “Okay, okay, you have made your point, my dear.” The man shifted forwards and immediately disvapourated into Keys, the nine foot tall, mass of broken skin, fur and insect heads fell into a slouch before her. Fujiko gasped behind, but quickly went silently again.

 

“I guess you had better tell me all about it.”

 

***

 

“That was pretty clever.”

 

“The mind is the best weapon after the gun.”

 

“Really. Huh, I did something similar back in college. Of course, then it was sort of a different result and a huge distraction for the rest of the night.”

 

“Wha… What did you do?”

 

“Ladies,” Keys interrupted. “I do not believe this is the sort of conversation you should be having in someone else’s abode. I do not mean to be considered rude, but perhaps…”

 

“Ah sorry, sorry.”

 

“It might have been acceptable if only you came yourself, Otsune-san. You were introduced by Sagara, but I shouldn’t reveal myself to your friends. It’s quite the slippery slope if you ‘catch my drift’.”

 

“Yeah well it probably won’t happen again,” she said, not making any promises.

 

“Oh you just must understand my situation, my dear Otsune-san. A lot of people nowadays, even the young, rebellious type still do not just enter doors they are unfamiliar with, but even so, a few people now and then still come here and when they do it is my responsibility to make sure they leave.”

 

“And I tell you I have reasons for coming here beyond idle curiosity.”

 

“A lot of people come here and only travel this far if they’re curious. The adventurous type if you will. But then they get an answer to suit their nerves followed by a jolly good bit of light threatening and they’re running out of here like the clappers to tell stories to their friends that no one will believe. That’s how it’s meant to go. To let you in this far… Well I shouldn’t be doing it.” His right hand, a mix of bear fur and some sort of lobster claw, lifted up to scratch the metal plate where his chest could be considered to be. He seemed a little relieved by it.

 

“Yeah, I’ve had a few people try not to help me this past month. None have succeeded. Besides if it bothers you that much, then you’ll be pleased to know we’ll be out of here as soon as we’ve used your machine. The rest I can do myself.”

 

“Well, if you insist,” the giant beast with the insect head and no visible location for where his voice was coming out said with a mode of decorum to him. “Young master Sagara does surprise me though. His clan works so hard to keep these things secret. Even if he had let you known a few things. To let you into the InBetween Realm by your own even after warning you how you should exit is irresponsible. Why, there’s still chance that even a healthy young minded person like yourself may still cause an error when coming out by yourself and be trapped who knows where.”

 

“Error?” Otsune repeated with concern. “Are you saying we don’t just walk back through one of the doors?” the Ley spirit paused to look down upon its two large green spherical eyes that told her nothing of what it was thinking.

 

“Oh dear no. Well, I suppose essentially you do in the end. But there are still dangers without the correct guides and knowledge of what you’re doing. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now but most of the doors aren’t well marked.”

 

“They’re not marked at all.” Otsune started to fell grumpy. This wasn’t going to go to plan at all.

 

“And even if they were, with all the different types of door, a mix up is still possible, especially to new travellers of the realm.” He reached a door that looked identical to all the others that lay halfway down the two end doors that made this corridor and went straight in. Otsune guessed it to be familiar and saw she was right when she found herself back in the control room where she had met the spirit.

 

The large tracking machine at the back chirped and buzzed happily to itself like a steam powered counting machine. Covering most of the wall lay the screen that told Keys where everyone was in his jurisdiction of the realm. The spirit also seemed to have added a new desk which was now decorated by twenty thick black box binders that looked to be carrying a mountain of paperwork. The mop and bucket, used for clearing up regular spills and his soul whenever he let it drip out his head was sitting by itself in corner to the left of the door.

 

“Whoa,” Fujiko said behind her as she shuffled in from behind. “What is this place?”

 

“This my dear Miss. Fujiko, is the 952nd operating hub of the InBetween Realm, covering most of southern Japan and Korea, as well as some of Mexico, Hawaii and the Midway Islands. From here, we can answer your friend’s request and, if she would be so kind, do Nothing more.” He stated this last bit as firmly as a schoolteacher would to boys who were on their last warning. Otsune noted it down for his benefit.

 

“Though perhaps it would be best if I imparted some basic advice. You’re saying that young Sagara-san didn’t tell you how you were going into the InBetween realm.

 

“Well, it wasn’t like it was his fault. Well, actually he did start the fight, but I’m sure he had good reason to attack motionless puppets.” Otsune wasn’t entirely sure herself if she was being sarcastic or not.

 

“I would if I could,” muttered Fujiko.

 

“Even so,” Keys said with a sigh. “It was certainly irresponsible of him to not mention how you were to get out in advance. He is certainly aware of it.”

 

“That’s his modus opearandi,” Otsune said returning the sigh. “We’re used to it now.” The Ley spirit seemed to accept this with a light grumbling, and blundered over to his large console display. There was very little on it compared to the last time Otsune had looked, where the screen was filled with the participants of the tournament and its audience. Now, aside from the small group of three roughly in the center which she assumed had to be them, it was almost empty, a few dots hanging around on their own moving in apparently random directions. Were they humans or demons?

 

With a wave of his massive arm, Keys caused several points to light up from before. A mix of green and yellow lights shot up over the place, as well as two purple ones and a bunch of blue. They were all flashing in unison and Otsune tried to avert her eyes from the impression being left on them.

 

“Now, Each and every one of these lights flashing in a space between spaces. Most of them are doors, almost all lead simply to an opposing corridor with no major significance to them. The blues ones however, are all exits from the realm. Going through these will return you to earth.

 

“Looks like a lot of ways,” Fujiko commented. Otsune counted sixteen.

 

“My humble area is compared to others, but take up he majority of Japan, as well as a lot of outlying ocean. Even with this many, it is not as if there are many entrances all

over the place. There are several in the city, but most are several tens or hundreds of miles away from each other.”

 

“However, there are four different types of doors, and it will do you well to remember these.”

 

“Your first is a standard door. These are naturally occurring doors and act as simple passageways to the InBetween realm. You simply wander in, and you’re there. These ones are the worst really,” he said with a chuckle. “Anyone can, without looking, find one of these and find themselves lost in a realm eternal. Over the centuries I’ve been left handling many a confused soul who just came in off the streets, unsure of whether or not he was in the right place. As such, we usually keep them heavily locked and monitored based on their location. Some we have destroyed because they’re too inconvenient.”

 

“Oh,” said Otsune with a start. “Like the one from the tournament. That’s gone now.”

 

“Actually, if I remember correctly, the one you are referring too is under a heavy illusion spell. Members of the balance lift these when the time comes for the tournament in order to let the public through.”

 

“The second is a summoning doorframe and can simply be called upon by a user to let them in. Very handy. The user can get to all sorts of places and not really be limited. The only problem is that doing so is like sounding an alarm to imprisoned demons.”

 

“How so?”

 

“Essentially, these doors are unprotected, and any demon paying attention may be able to get out. They’re immediately marked when they do, and merely passing through the door severely weakens them, but it can cause havoc. We occasionally get amateur spellcasters trying them, just to dabble. Can cause great fuss.”

 

He moved on. “The third is a Hollow Hallway, which I believe, is what you came through. It’s like a mix of the previous two. It has to be summoned by someone, yet it is always there; a magical portal of sorts. In the past some Oracle Divine used to use them to pop out when summoned by the outside world. But… the Balance has ended all that now.

 

“Now the biggest problem with these and that which Sagara really should be ashamed that he hasn’t told you, is that they are one way.”

 

“So we can’t go back that way?” She hadn’t turned around to check, Otsune thought. Too busy arguing.

 

“No, you see these doors just borrow the energy of another door to open up. This is always fixed. But it needs to be opened from the other side and can never be opened from this side.”

 

“So the oracles can only show up when summoned.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“And we can only get back when Sagara lets us.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“That idiot.”

 

“Well, it’s not too bad,” Fujiko tried to perk up. “We could just use another exit, meaning we’ll have to come back to you when we need to go back.”

 

“Well, there is that. Of course, I am a spirit of this place, and am affected by the laws of the Balance like any other. I will not be allowed to lead you out, but I can point you in the correct path.”

 

“Oh great.”

 

“Finally, there are a few workarounds to the doors. Tricks that can be played to get in. The King’s curse for example will teleport the victim into the InBetween realm if circumstances dictate it. Oh, and there is a breed of very rare Indian octopus which does the same thing. Very odd that. Don’t know what causes it myself.”

 

“I’ll find out for you later,” Otsune said dryly. “So how do we tell those doors from others?”

 

“Well, if I may,” he stepped passed them to look at the fire spirit, which had been hovering quietly behind them for a while now. At Key’s attention, it spiralled around him several times, before floating back over to Otsune, who quickly shooed it away from her face again. “I see it’s taken a liking to you. Perhaps you should give it a name.”

 

“Please,” Otsune replied. “I don’t need more jokes off people about this thing. It’s even worse when they can see it.”

 

“Ah, there is no reason for me to mock here. This would actually be perfect for you. Fire spirits react well to doors and exits and can pass through without problem, hence why I let it lead you out the last time. They’re like dogs desperate to go out for a walk really. If you take this with you it should lead you back out without problems to a working door

 

“Ah, I was hoping to offload that back on you.”

 

“Oh, I’m afraid that’s impossible. I simply wouldn’t take the blasted little thing back.”

 

“Huh? Are you saying you offloaded it onto me?”

 

“Let’s not get into such petty details now.”

 

“You did. You had it lead me out so you didn’t have to bother with it again.”

 

“Otsune-san, if you please,” the giant spirit indicated towards the monitor, and Otsune grumbled herself into silence.

 

“Now we’re looking for your friend, correct? What was her name?”

 

“Tina Gottfeld.”

 

“Ah, she is Dutch?”

 

“German.”

 

“Of course, of course. Let us see.” And with a wave of his outstretch paw, the lumbering spirit shut all the lights off of the machine.

 

Otsune watched the machine carefully for the moment, waiting for it to load the results up in some way. It wasn’t until she realised that Keys was now looking at her rather than the machine when she realised it had already finished.

 

“Nothing, it seems,” he said to confirm her suspicious. “She is currently not within my jurisdiction of the InBetween realm.”

 

“So what does that mean?”

 

“Well,” Keys stuttered for a second. “She’s not here, simply enough.”

 

“But has she been here recently. Which way did she go after we lost her two weeks ago?”

 

“Oh, I’m afraid we can’t tell that. This doesn’t keep a record, it only checks the present moment.”

 

“That’s not very good.”

 

“With an area this big to cover, we should be surprised it does that.” Keys looked back at her as she glared at him with annoyance. “Let me just see what else I can do for you. I can check with the surrounding areas, but it’s unlikely she got that far walking since the tournament.”

 

They waited, as he picked up and unnaturally large red, toy-like telephone and started punching numbers into it. One by one, he called a number of people, engaging them in small talk and posing the questions, as well as waiting for the answer himself. It took about twenty minutes and Otsune was just about to bite into something in her bag when he finished the eighth call.”

 

“That’s the last of them I’m afraid,” he said joylessly and with a hint of disappointment himself. “There’s not a single Tina Gottfeld in the entire realm covering most of this side of the globe.”

 

“So in that time she could have essentially gone anywhere?”

 

“Well, I personally would have believed she would have left through one of the assigned exits made during the tournament. But yes, basically this states she has left.”

 

“Or that she’s dead.”

 

“Oh no, she’d show up here if she was dead, alive or even now a wandering spirit going through the vents. As long as your spirit resides here, you’ll show as a blink on our screens.”

 

“Great” Otsune grumbled, sinking back down into Key’s seat. “So we’re still as lost as before. That’s no help.”

 

“I wish there was something more I could do. I must admit I’m now curious myself as to your friend’s location.”

 

“Well it’s great that you view this as an interesting little diversion to your bored voyeurism!” Otsune shouted back. “I’m missing one girl who I desperately need to find again.”

 

“Calm down, Otsune,” Fujiko intervened. “He’s tried to help.”

 

“What the hell does that matter? He failed, and we’re still missing someone. Doesn’t anybody get this? This isn’t a case of saying you tried you’re hardest and better luck next time. This is a missing person that only I seem to care about. Human life isn’t that meaningless is it?”

 

Fujiko snapped back. “You know you can just shut up about saying that no one cares when-”

 

“-everyone is trying to help, yes yes. Only after I whined you into submission about it.” Grunting, Otsune got back up. “This isn’t helping either. We can argue and get angry and split up and apologise casually to each other later. For now, what else can we do?”

 

“Have you not contacted the police yet?” Keys asked.

 

“We don’t have any real proof she existed,” Fujiko told him as Otsune tried to go through a few ideas. She came up short when she realised she was finally out. Even if they went back to the tournament scene, the forensics trail would be too weak for them now. Even if she did know what she was doing, she wouldn’t be able to get the equipment without convincing the police first, and even then this guy probably would start getting forceful if she brought more people in. Not to mention this place was apparently infinite. Following any trail could take months. If several were found with most being false it would be beyond pointless.

 

“Only a Savadali would be able to help you now,” Keys said with a sigh, similarly out of ideas.

 

“A Savadali? What’s that?” Otsune asked, expecting more useless information.

 

“Huh? Oh, It’s a monster in the Strangelands that’s said to eat prime number concepts. This weak, useless one has never had the opportunity to meet with one, but it has been told to me that they instantly know where anyone and everyone is in all of creation.”

 

“Such a creature exists?” Otsune replied. “That’s perfect. Where can we find one?”

 

“Oh, I’m afraid I cannot allow neither you nor your friend to follow that course of action. It only lives in the Strangelands and can only ever be there. And the Strangelands are not a place for even the strongest of warriors, let alone two lovely ladies like yourselves. Come, it is time I showed you out.”

 

“But-“

 

“Do not but me, Miss Otsune, I have been more than polite and helpful. I am sorry we cannot find your friend, but I’m not even supposed to let you be here without a member of the Futabatei. Now, it is time for you to leave.”

 

The trio plus fire spirit left the hub in silence, Otsune and Fujiko pacing slowly behind him. Even Fujiko seemed upset that this hadn’t worked out at all. But all Otsune could think about was how she was letting down a friend.

 

Keys led them for a couple of minutes in silence, and answered Fujiko back when she started making small talk, asking the sort of questions that Otsune felt Keys would have been reluctant to answer but couldn’t turn down at the moment due to either the mood or Fujiko’s own way of phrasing things. Otsune already knew the answers to all of them and barely listened, instead trying to make more new plans.

 

She was empty now, having already gone completely over the top and all the way back down the other side she had come up with nothing but stress. All that remained was this Savadali that the Ley spirit spoke of. If only they could get to these Strangelands. She would have to check with Sagara when they got back how dangerous such a place could be. If Keys hadn’t been there, he probably wouldn’t know.

 

“Ah, speaking of which,” Keys began, as he took note of a door that looked identical to the four surrounding it all the other walls, save a large diagonal scratch that looked like a jagged knife had been dragged through it.

 

“Yes, this is one of those doors to the Strangelands. If you ever were to come back you’d be careful never to go into one of these. A very dangerous place, and not one for people to survive in very easily. Once you go through it would cause no end of problems. I myself wouldn’t be able to rescue you since I cannot enter without immediately steaming away and becoming loose from my body. In fact I’m not sure who would be able to help you. Even the Futabatei wouldn’t go in there without reasons they would consider proper..

 

“Oh really?”

 

“Yes, and even more so-“

“Kay thanks, bye,” blurted Otsune, swinging the door open and pushing herself and Fujiko through before Keys could even finish his sentence. Immediate regret plunged through her as they found themselves twirling in a space without form or ground of any sort. Otsune immediately thought she was falling, but then realised it was impossible to tell, the mist surrounded her completely, blocking Fujiko’s form as they both moved away from each other, lost in surprise and smoke.

 

****

 

They reached the bar, which happened to be the only one on the street, in relative silence. Only her exhaustion and an endless loop of audience laughter filling her head. When they entered no one noticed them and she excused herself quickly to the toilet, pushing her way through and quickly locking herself in the furthest stall.

 

Going to sit down on the toilet, she stopped herself when she saw the state of it. Opting for leaning against the wall, she exhaled loud and hard to herself, feeling the wall vibrate calmly around her. She shouldn’t be able to feel free in a toilet, but she did somehow. Her heart pounded away to herself as her mind ran the same two images over and over again. Two pairs of lips; one covered in chocalate, the others… so handsome.

 

He knew. He knew what she thought. Whether it had always been the case or had become obvious from the scene she placed before him. An Alleyway that grants wishes? Preposterous. Insane, even by what she had seen so far. Whatever nonsense he was trying to pull he was going to have to come up with a better logic than that.

 

Time passed. She sighed. “Crap.”

 

Why did it have to show him what she wanted?

 

Why did it have to show her?

 

Her hand was playing with her book bag and felt something hard within it. Reminding herself, she opened it up and pulled out the mask. She held it up so it stared back at her, wanting to panic at something.

 

What had she been thinking taking this? It wasn’t hers, and it wasn’t like her to steal. The last thing she had ever taken that wasn’t hers was a chocolate bar from the local convenience store back when she lived in Tokyo. Even then she never brought herself to eat it.

 

So why then had she taken this mask, hidden it even from her Lord? If he had told her to take it, it might have made a bit more sense, but she had received no such order. He probably wouldn’t even mind.

 

It was just a mask after all.

 

Why then, did she get the strongest of impulses to put it on, like nothing mattered save to wear it and hide herself from the world forever, to hide herself from the scorn, and from the sight of those chocolate lips. The answer was obvious really.

 

She needed to know how the fight went.

 

***

 

“I’m telling you, please! That’s all we know? She just left with two men. I know she did. Now please stop!”

 

Natoko found herself looking back into the toilets; just a quick glance, just to make sure they were still there, before turning back to the devastation that wasn’t there a moment ago.

 

The bar, though she had never been herself, was known throughout the dorm for its lenient policies towards many underage drinkers as long as they came in with older friends and at the moment wasn’t in the state of rowdy yet peaceful calm she had left it in when she had rushed away just five minutes ago. Now, all of the closed off booths, kept private from each other by five feet high walls were exposed the various residents of each collapsed on top of each other and the walls in various states of consciousness. A family with two kids rushed by her quickly and warned her with silent alarm in their eyes that she should leave quickly as well.

 

Natoko stepped through the mass of bodies carefully like each were a mine ready to explode. Most were very unconscious, with some groaning as they twitched on the floor quietly to themselves

 

Some looked very injured, and one man’s arm, a burly type, who looked far less like a businessman in his smart suit and unbuttoned shirt than she cared to get involved in, was nursing an arm that looked bent in the other direction. He looked at her with a sneer behind dark shades, but said nothing.

 

She quickly found Sagara at the far end, hidden behind one of the few boards left standing, crouching over a man whose shop branded apron proclaimed him to be employed there. The barman was sweating violently under the youth above him.

 

“And she walked out with them, not before or after them?” Sagara asked patiently.

 

“Yes!” the man yelled in panic. “Maybe. She could have done. They were talking for quite a while. They must have left together.”

 

“”What did they look like?”

 

“I don’t know. I didn’t pay them much attention. One was wearing a thick coat I think. He wore it, even when it was hot inside. I remember that much because of how weird it was.”

 

“And the other person?”

 

“The other?”

 

“You did say two, right? I wasn’t paying that much attention.”

 

“Right, two yes.” The man was breathing heavily now, nearly hyperventilating. He took a quick glance at her and then looked back to his attacker, unable to tell whether or not she was there to help. Natoko didn’t know herself. “The other one, I don’t know; generic.”

 

Sagara pondered this. “How so generic?”

 

“I don’t know. Just generic. He looked generic. Please let me go. I need this job and we’re not supposed to spill info to attackers.”

 

Sagara looked over to Natoko. “How does one look generic?”

 

“How did this turn into a bar fight?” Natoko screamed back at him with more pressing concern. Sagara looked to his victims, and then to the rest of the bar, before shrugging a ‘I dunno’ at her.

 

“Why are you attacking these people?” she reiliterated.

 

“Mom always told me that bar fights were mandatory.”

 

Natoko felt her face fold up on itself, her thoughts failing on her. “She…what?”

 

“She didn’t explain it to me though, I’ll have to ask her when I next see her.”

 

“Are you completely-“ she started. “No, never mind. We have to get out of here. If the police find us…” -then she’d get away scot free for merely being dragged into the mess while he could face a very long prison term far far away from her. For a second it was quite tempting, and easy to attain… To find a way to keep him here long enough.

 

“Okay, but shouldn’t we finish asking the questions?”

 

“I don’t think the police are going to see your mother as an excuse here.”

 

“That’s okay. The police are meaningless. We are the real enforcers.”

 

The contents of the chocolate he just ate and the possibilities within flashed across her mind for a second. Then she got thinking. If he had been the sole cause of all this, and he had, then they wouldn’t get a chance to come back here. They should ask what questions they could, before anyone came back to life and started reaching for their phones.

 

“Well, to think that your kind would go so far. I thought you didn’t attack humans.”

 

A voice from behind caused her to freeze up. Snotty, pompous, yet with more right than most to talk grand and look down on other people. She hadn’t actually heard it that much, yet knew she would always recognise it.

 

“Hey, it’s you,” Sagara said, before looking around again. “Hhhmmm, too many conscious people to fight you.”

 

“With an introduction with the least respect possible it seem,” the other voice said, strolling up closer. She couldn’t hear a single foot step. Were it not for the voice and the fear it plunged into her back, she could not even tell he was there, even as she heard every other breath of the thirty people in the room. “Do you seek to insult everybody, or is it merely a by-product of your usual waste?”

 

“Well it definitely doesn’t come from what I eat,” Sagara retorted, though completely without intention. “Though I suppose I am made up of what I eat.”

 

“Be silent, I wish nothing of you save your destruction. Even neutral ground like this won’t save you if you badger on any longer.”

 

The speaker stood next to them now, and she couldn’t help but see him, already smirking at her as she turned to face him, his eyes beaming into her.

 

“Ahh, I thought it was you. Even with a hierarchy, vermin stick together.”

 

“Fujiwaru… Hayate,” she croaked, but he was already focused away from her.

 

“I have already caught most of the conversation, so I must thank you for saving me some time. If you excuse me, there are some other questions of more use I need to ask.”

 

Her back ached as she looked at him, a pain that was no longer there, never there in fact, but hurt with a sting she tasted daily. The boy was the one she had lost to in the tournament, falling to him even when she had given up for reasons she had now forgotten. From what she was told, he had seen fit to ram his body into her at just over the speed of a train. She was lucky not to have died instantly from what she was told later. She was even luckily to be standing here completely uninjured from the ordeal.

 

Hayate was large again, as he had been before their last fight before she realised that he was filled with sand, not with a special covering, but under his skin. To break through his armour merely sped him up.

 

“We should go,” said Sagara, dropping the barman. “Wait for him to come out.”

 

“I…okay.” She wanted to argue it. A part of her hoped that Sagara would cream this guy and leave him a bloody smear on the floor next to broken wine bottles for the rest of the room to think about in confusion when they finally woke up. Couldn’t they just break him a little bit?

 

“You need not show such meaningless concern. No fight can occur on neutral ground, not with so many people here and not unless I do something more… obvious. Know that I have no intention of harming anyone. In fact I would say my mission is one of protection.”

 

“What would you have to protect?” Natoko asked, immediately regretting her slip as he looked back at her and turned her to the size of an ant.

 

“Something worth a lot more than what your mindless flesh protects. Pride and honour. Something your kind, who quits in the middle of a duel, knows nothing about.”

 

“I had my reasons”

 

“As I have mine now. To investigate the murder of the priestess. To discover the root cause behind this whole endeavour, as fighters fall one at a time, all to burn in the same fires that the Tournament did. To determine who is behind it all, even when we all know the answer already.”

 

“You know who it is?” she asked, trying to remain calm again, her hands shaking from behind her back, as she wished Iziz was in a better place to pull out.

 

“Of course. The ones playing dumb with me right now. Who else would have the logic to do this?

 

Natoko didn’t realise what he was saying at first. “Wait? You mean us?”

 

“Your human balance has already taken out a lot of our kind. I myself have already had to face the Negotiator’s target squads. Three of them in fact. It concerns me that she would risk losing so many, though I suppose all ninja are expendable.”

 

“My orders are clear though tonight, though they disgust me. I am not to attack you, the perpetrator, until it is confirmed without doubt you are responsible and our revenge is precise. And I am to be safe in the knowledge of when you can’t attack me, and confirm the presence of the Human balance and their actions of revenge.”

 

“What makes you think I did it?” Sagara asked.

 

“Ah, to play the fool so well. The reasoning is as simple as you had left it in your blunders. With the ring of Gambler Demons burnt to a crisp and three members of the tournament similarly incinerated and myself having just avoided the burning, it is simply reasoning that you were the ones to start this fire.”

 

“Or the Onihono,” Sagara suggested. “Who did, by the way.”

 

“There has been no reference to that at all,” Hayate dismissed quickly. “To even kill one who would work with demons. If they make that choice, shouldn’t you allow it? I can comprehend the notion of stopping us from imposing our will upon the innocent and ignorant, even If I do not care about it. But her death? She was never a threat to any human, even when she fought in the tournament.”

 

“Look, we, the Balance, we didn’t kill her, or anyone… I think,” Natoko argued. “In this case anyway. We were asked to find the killers.”

 

“You mean you haven’t figured out your own orders. Your master here is killing off the noble demon line as nothing more than a sick game to get himself promoted. He is a maniac only good for killing.”

 

“And you’re just a demon,” Sagara replied, letting Draynor spread its power over his fist.

 

A siren caught her attention, too muffled to be right outside the bar, but just enough to shake her up. “We have to go, Sagara. We can do this later.”

 

“Oh, you’re right. I can’t fight him in front of so many anyway.”

 

“Yes, you may leave these to me. Know that I will not harm any of them. I am not weak like you to throw my fists around at those unworthy. After my questions I will vacate the premises. I will even pay for your damages.”

 

Storming out of the entrance with Sagara wrist held tight, Natoko swore profusely under her breath. This wasn’t going well at all. The trail was too cold, and the information they had found was just generic. Useless. They’ll need something a lot better than what they were getting so far.

 

***

 

“We didn’t get much in the end,” Natoko said simply, her voice mellow and gentle against the loud beating of the train.

 

“I got chocolate,” Sagara exclaimed, lifting up what was left of the bar. It was lasting him far longer than it should, seeing how he had been nursing it in the same way a homeless man would nurse a bottle of vodka.

 

“But we didn’t learn anything about the killer,” she grunted back. “Itoko didn’t see her killer, or enough of them, and what she did see was just confusing. According to the barman they were men, but she said they were women.”

 

“Actually, she didn’t see anything,” he poked his eyes as if to remind her tactfully.

 

“Well, yes, of course I mean…” she stuttered to a halt. “She heard wrong. They saw men leaving. She heard women. It could have been two different groups of people, or she could have been wrong.”

 

“Or he could.”

 

“That seems less likely, not to mention the ghost may not have remembered everything anyway.” She let the thought slip through her a moment. “All she could have told us was wrong.”

 

They fell into silence, staring into sleek reflections on the other side of the cart, lights and city flashing before them. A man on the far end of the cart coughed in his sleep. Natoko was sure he had missed his stop.

 

“And now that guy’s going to get ahead of us. We should have stayed and listened if he wasn’t going to fight us. Any info would be good at this point.”

 

“Mmmhhmm,” Sagara mumbled halfway through chewing.

 

“And where does he get off accusing us. I mean, he’s the one with the demons.”

 

“And he is one himself,” Sagara mentioned. Natoko paused at that but didn’t find it that shocking a revelation.

 

“Of course. Ms. Sakimoto showed us his picture. Even more of a reason. Are we to just believe that they are looking for the killer out of a need for justice or even revenge for a human? Like we’re supposed to believe that.”

 

“Actually, the Pride got on well with Itoko from what I heard. But I don’t think that’s their intention at all. The thing’s that burning stuff is dangerous. It can kill demons.”

 

“Well, yeah, but we’ve killed demons, though I suppose they probably want us dead too.”

 

“Not as much though. This thing actually kills them. Not just breaking them up. What it did to those demons in that room back destroyed them completely. That doesn’t happen easily.”

 

“You mean it incinerated them?”

 

“Yup. Completely. All the way down to the spirit. It was actually quite weird to watch, usually you see them take their time to step out of the kotodama core and get all annoyed, but this time they bolted right out and exploded.” He cracked another large piece off the bar. “That sand guy got him arm burned off too, and now he can’t grow a new one back”

 

“Hayate.”

 

“No, no, the sand guy. The one we saw in the bar. It was completely severed and couldn’t grow back. I guess it cuts off certain growth links for a while too.”

 

“But, he had his arm. It was there. It came far too close for comfort at times.”

 

“Not. That was another demon he grafted there. Only choice really, or go armless.”

 

“Right,” said Natoko, deciding to take his word for it.

 

“He seemed to think he fought me…” the boy mused.

 

“Have you?”

 

“No. I’d like to though, but why did he think I had?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Did he think I took his arm off?”

 

“Maybe tomorrow we can-“

 

Tomorrow, she had completely forgotten. Let it slip away into the rivers of her mind where all non consequential stuff and the stuff she needed most try to hide. It had gone from her, but now it had swam back and stood forefront in her mind, threatening to ruin everything.

 

She had school tomorrow.

 

****

 

Otsune drifted in secularist space.

 

She didn’t of course. There was no such thing as secularist space and this was nothing more than a mere fantasy dreamt up by her own psychic urges. But for now and two hundred and fifty seconds ago, she let herself float through it, strumming the light iron wires of a telsa coil guitar that played a melody that was both good and non-good to the none around them that heard it.

 

Trees grew peacefully from barbed wires villages, liberating those trapped as they grew through the millimetre thick cheese wires and onto freedom. They were growing faster than she had originally predicted, some too fast for them to remain cohesive but too slow for them to fall apart. They chose to become cities instead and travelled to pursue the sun and learn what answers it could provide about the depressive state of their economy.

 

And so they moved through fields of stardust, travelling on the waves of discarded mountains housed by detectives who could only solve mysteries that had no answers. The detectives welcomed the cities, and fed them with video tapes, digital media and whatever else they could spare. Then they asked them to quickly leave, for the Randivists were coming, to tell them they could not only be wrong and they must also be right as well and would kill them with the letter A if they did not acquiesce.

 

So they left, just as the machetes started to fall, and continued on towards the sun. The cities had grown in number now, equally well over the square root of pi times the diameter of a cherry pie plus many thousand exatants more. Each desired to know the answer, and so they leapt forth on turtles that sat upon turtles, all of whom fought to be on top.

 

Half a light year and many months before they would reach their destination, and it wasn’t long before the cities started to become paranoid. They slowly started whispering to each other, wondering what the other cities, too far away to hold an intelligent conversation with, were thinking. The meanest city, older and slyer than the rest, cackled to itself as it spread a rumour around that the sun will only answer one of them. The other cities soon became suspect of the others, and without proper citations and an extensive bibliography they could neither prove nor disclaim the rumour. Suspicion soon amounted into chaos, as the oldest city was found dead one winter’s century, a bottle of empty sleeping pills at its side, its great buildings cracked, ruined and abandoned.

 

Soon the pilgrimage became a race, and each city sought to beat the other cities. Some were honourable and merely rushed ahead, seeking to avoid conflict. Others were crafty, and found ways to pull them back, shattering their monorail systems or demolishing the empire states, slowing them down bit by bit. Others declared war, and launched whole skyscrapers at the others, wiping out many millions of them. One, the lowest of them all, hurled itself into a passing Jupiter, destroying nearly all of them.

 

The remaining soon wiped themselves out, until only one city remained, its inhabitants angry and at war with each other, now that food and resources had become scare, what with the city travelling throughout space without farms or replenishables. Soon they were forced to eat the buildings, and the building did not like this, but being pacifistic chose only to destroy themselves than wage war with their residents. Soon, all were destroyed, save one human and one building.

 

And it was then the building said to the human, “We have travelled for one light year and billions of miles have we travelled, and great though our efforts may be and many our successes we have allowed fantasy and nonsense to skewer our ways. What we were was not order, but what we became was not chaos and all that we have left is our foolship and, the Answer. Now, as the last city of the barbed wire falls, you must alone gain the answer we seek, and know now, why our quest was fruitful.”

 

And so Otsune left the building as it fell away and floated, strumming her telsa guitar to the sun as she approached it, awakening it from its cold slumber. Then she waited, letting it drink its coffee and stretch, before it was finally ready to ask. With bated breath, she unleashed the question in the form of atoms, divided and sub divided across time and space. She start a soliloquy of compounds and elements and fractures that lasted for fourteen days and twenty two nights, and was immediately asked in every language under the sun and none inbetween. Only at the end did she put a question mark, and awaited its response.

 

The sun told her it didn’t have a fucking clue and burnt each and every one of them up, telling them to never bother it again.

 

Otsune awoke, a handful of pebbles pressing into her face. They were asking her to solve quadratic equations. She answered all of them and shook herself awake, breathing in more iron and tin dust molecules than oxygen or anything else that might be useful. She retched loudly without thinking, spitting it all back out onto a ground that looked like it most mostly desert rubble.

 

She looked up, awake now, too busy to look around her to think of the question of how she fell asleep. They were nowhere it seemed. A rocky desert, dry unnecessarily. The type of place nothing could live forever. There were no plants, no trees, no animals, no birds, no clouds, no lunar decorations, no moisture….no water.

 

“Ouch, ouch ouch,” mumbled a voice from behind her. Twisting round, she saw Fujiko pulling herself up, roughly one half of her friend was covered in a thick layer of dust from the ground which did nothing to hide the large black bruise on her forehead. Cursing and groaning to herself, she tapped the mark several times with her finger, hissing each time before she finally got smart enough to stop. “Where are we?” she groaned out with numbing pain in her voice.

 

“The Strangelands, I guess,” Otsune said, turning to look at the landscape. It was no different from where she was standing now. An endless crimson backdrop of rock and dust, existing futilely in all surrounding directions, with nothing else to show her except a pointless future that would probably last a few days at most. “Though you could hardly call it strange when it’s just monotonous.”

 

“I .. think you’ve just justified its name there.”

 

“Hmm, you’re probably right.”

 

“So what happened? Why are we injured?”

 

Otsune wasn’t injured at all. In fact she felt more energy going through her than usual, almost burning her up, making it more than easy to determine what happened.

 

“It looked like we landed here more than came through anywhere. My bag’s had time to open up and spread itself about, which probably means…” They looked up in unison, easily able to see into the perfectly clear sky, and the only object which stood out in all the land besides themselves. About twenty feet above them, hanging in the air like a spider from a web, was a door frame. The door was shut behind them, the little flame hovering by it.

 

As if a dog noticing they were awake, the flame blazed over to her and spun around itself as if with joy. “Yeah, yeah I’m alright,” she said to it, dodging quickly as it tried to rub itself against her.

 

She looked to her bag, seeing the contents scattered out around them. She had two bottles of water. A few cans of refried beans, a lighter, an extra top, her binoculars (upon closer examination broken), half of the german edition of Atlas Shrugged (the second half, she had yet to read the first) and the tattered remains of her ruined rucksack. She began picking them up, trying hard to resist drinking any water. It was clear they would need it.

 

Fujiko looked to her watch and checked it “About three hours,” she told herself. “Were you just waiting for me?”

 

“No, I just woke up seconds before. I think I was dreaming.”

 

“I’m kinda hoping this is the dream.”

 

“Unless you’re talking Giant theory, I think you’re probably wrong.”

 

“Me too, but I was hoping.”

 

Otsune sighed. It was very quiet here.

 

“So then,” Fujiko started listing on her fingers, “where, what, why, who, when. I can immediately guess why you’ve done this, so I suppose all that’s left is how do we get out of here?”

 

Otsune looked up again. “We’re not going back the way we came, unless we make a ladder of some kind.” She couldn’t tell with the rocks in the distant, but the ones close up were either insignificant or part of the ground itself. “And if that time has passed, we may not be able to rely on Key’s coming to get us.”

 

“Geez, it’s hot,” Fujiko said, fanning herself.

 

“Really,” said Otsune, not noticing. The whole place felt just felt dry to her. Base on the complete lack of clouds, sun or even wind she could tell it was unlikely there’d be any weather change any time in the next couple of days, perhaps even weeks. That limited their time severely to the point of dangerous. Two bottles of water and cans of refried beans that they’d really have trouble heating up missing firewood and whatever Fujiko had in her bag was all they had left to survive on.

 

The conclusion was kind of obvious, and it appeared that waiting for a stroke of luck now was the only thing they had left. Relying on sheer chance was never a good start to any expedition, but she had nothing else. Aiming for the tallest set of rocks she could see in the wasteland, she headed out, taking time at first to let Fujiko follow her.

 

Fujiko was quiet for a bit, an oddity that had been happening all day. For the first mile, she complained lightly, mainly requesting booze from herself, her foolishness for not bringing any and her further foolishness for still having some in her. Then she went into a tirade about how this would make an excellent story on her website. Eventually, after the first half hour of walking, she brought it up.

 

“So how are we supposed to find this Savadali?

 

Otsune paused to listen. The silence was worse here than anywhere else she might ever have been on earth. A light humming could travel endlessly through this plain and never hit another sound. It was very likely that their presence was the first here for years. How could such a place exist? Not a trace of life existed. No insects scurried passed her feet, no lizards buzzed to themselves in distant holes and there wasn’t a single birdsong. Plant life was nonexistent too. That made it an extremely arid desert, though in the areas Key had explained were his jurisdiction of the InBetween realm there were no such deserts.

 

She could actually see the entire sky in a clear dark blue and there was nothing. No light source though, especially not a sun, which begged further questions.

 

She had almost forgotten she had been asked a question. “We just find him,” she replied, not even knowing the appearance or gender of the creature was or even if it was a creature. No, Keys said it was a monster, and he defined it generally, though the real test was how it devoured prime numbers.

 

It gave them something to look out for. No one creature, even a monster, could exist on its own. Not completely anyway. Even if it shunned others, there must be others to shun and at the very bottom of her logic was the fact that the Keys knew about it. If that was the case it must mean it had been discovered. All she had to do was discover it again

 

A formless entity she had never met or even knew of until a few hours ago. A entity whose intentions and reactions she shouldn’t guess and whose existence was only determine by anecdotal evidence from a creature who was sewn out of other creatures.

 

Her brain started to slip again, but held on tightly, knowing they were coming near to the start of the incline. This slope seemed to go up about thirty four feet and hid all that as on the other side of it. Grunting as she realised how steep it was, she pulled herself up quickly, Fujiko seriously struggling behind her and, after a few moments of trying, giving up halfway.

 

Otsune ploughed on, grabbing into dirt. She was already dirty now, though was no need to care about her appearance since it was unlikely she’d run into her former boyfriend or anything of the like. Scaling cross the rocks, she felt her toes all sweaty and clammy, her hands losing their moisture, the urge to lick the dirt off them strong. Her knees had had enough but knew they couldn’t stop unless they lose momentum. Slowly, but very hastily, she reached the top of the steep mountain horizon.

 

It was flat at the top save for the steep drop that she nearly threw herself down and Otsune kept on her knees out of fear her legs might just launch her over for the sake of trying. The steep drop went so far down that it took her a moment to realise she was actually looking at a giant well. The diameter she guessed was roughly 950 meters across. She peered down, seeing it went a lot further down that she had been up. There was no bottom to see from here, the descent fading into darkness farther than her eyes could reach. Taking off her glasses made it instantly worse, but she didn’t need them to see the staircase chipped into the walls of the deep dank hole.

 

“Oi,” she shouted, but heard no response. “There’s something here. It’s been made.” She turned back quickly, seeing Fujiko crashed halfway up the hill.

 

“Is it a Ferrari?”

 

Otsune looked back down the hole. If they headed back and circled round the steep incline, they’d be at the stairs. Though she could only see the first few, they were clearly created by hands, rather than the weather. Hands meant humans, or at least creatures with opposable thumbs. Creatures brought their survival rate from a steady neutral death by attrition to an unstable might be saved/might be fucked imbalance that could go either way. It was definitely worth the risk. The flame buzzed happily around her as she realised they might be safe after all

 

“No.”

 

And looking up, to see the rest of the landscape was exactly the same as the previous landscape, made the options a lot easier to figure out.

 

It was certainly better than up here.

 

***

 

The hole looked a lot larger standing in it than it did looking at it from overhead. From where she was standing earlier, high above on what had before been nothing more than a steep hill and from this angle was a great cliffside, they would have appeared as ants where they were standing now.

 

It seemed to be rock all the way down. Besides them were the stairs. All had been chiselled and cut perfectly into smooth oblong steps roughly five meters long by a half meter wide. There would be no problem getting down them without fear of falling, but what staggered Otsune is how this must have meant there were hundred of thousands of them, perfectly formed and, if they were like the ones at the top, still sharp at the edges.

 

The stairs were built into the wall, rather than added on. They required no support as they were part of the structure of the hole. That worked for them. It meant rather than a cylinder this was more a cone. Judging by how steep the stairs went down, it should only be a ten mile walk before the both sides of the wall met at the bottom.

 

There was of course one other problem.

 

“We are not going down there?” cried Fujiko, already keeping a good distance back form the hole lest she fall into it at any time. “We don’t know what’s in there?”

 

“We’ve got no other choice,” Otsune sad simply. “It’s either this or random wandering in any and all directions.”

 

“Shouting wildly at the door frame is better than either of those ideas. At least we know someone’s there. He might be going to get us a rope for all we know, or Sagara and the others.”

 

Waiting to be rescued by the others had crossed Otsune’s mind, along with a few dozen other ideas involving trying to get back into the door. It wasn’t too bad an idea, bar the fact that they Ley spirit may have just gone back home without a care, or was maybe too embarrassed to tell anybody. Maybe they could get rescued and come back with better supplies. They definitely needed them at this rate.

 

But Keys would probably do its best to prevent them from coming back, and this was the only chance left of finding Tina.

 

“No, he said he couldn’t come through the door to this realm, and he can’t leave the InBetween realm afterwards. He’d have to wait for someone to come to him, and that could take weeks or months.”

 

She waited for Fujiko to accept this, forming a counter argument for when the girl would bring up the idea of Key’s radioing in and how they would have no idea if he had such equipment that could contact people outside the InBetween realm. Fujiko said nothing.

 

“The way I see it,” she said after a moment, “this is the only route we have left for ourselves.”

 

They started moving out, heading down the steps. Initially hesitant, as if they would set off a trap and have all the stairs collapse upon them, having them slide down the rest to their death, they soon picked up the pace. With her boots broken in, the two of them had no problem making quick time at traversing the massive hole

 

***

 

Falling into silence, the two young woman descended further into the depths. The light never seemed to be a problem. There was always more than enough to see in front of them, and just enough to see the hole before it disappeared into darkness. For a short while Otsune played with the possibility that there might be some trick behind this and they were repeating themselves, but this was abandoned as it became clear the opposite wall was getting closer.

 

For another two hours, they descended, their conversations quickly running out of steam. A small platform, unusually longer than the rest and perfect for sitting, provided them with an easier break than the other steps had given them, and for the first time Otsune allowed herself to open her water bottle and drink a few drops. Fujiko produced her own liquid, a can of fizzy orange. She downed half and held the rest in her hands as they continued on again. When she had finally finished it, she tossed it down the hole, and waited for a sound, which clanked six seconds later.

 

Hearing this sped them up with renewed vigour, and they rushed down the next mile with an increased step. Seven seconds meant about five hundred feet of darkness remained before it at least hit a step, so Otsune was keeping a pace of sorts, though she now too wished nothing more than for the hole to end.

 

Another half hour passed, until the wall on the other side finally was within throwing distance of a professional baseball pitcher, though the ground beneath them was still in darkness. The top of the hole, many miles up, only showed as a small circle of light which could be easily hidden by a hand. Otsune’s legs felt wasted now, and part of her irrationality prayed for a bed at the bottom to fall into, though she knew that this was probably just the start of another journey.

 

Then, finally, after around four hours of straight walking, the bottom came into sight, a small slab of rock no less than ten meters wide, the last arch of the staircase descending onto it. No longer nor ever again in the mood for running, the two instead approached slowly and with caution. The bottom of the pit still hadn’t become dark, but from the angle they sat it was too difficult to tell what exactly was down there and it was only with the last few steps that they could see their destination. A beautiful, brilliant golden door.

 

Even in the darkness, it found a way to shine brightly. Otsune might have even gone so far as to say this beautiful example of architecture was the very reason there was still light down in this darkest of cavern, though she doubted that would work.

 

The pattern of the door was split in a perfect half; left and right, each side with different markings. The left side was rather simple, a series of lines going from bottom to top, becoming more narrow the further they went up. The right side was a blob of mixed up spirals and stars that looked like a collage drawn by a six year old. In the center of the right part of the door rather a large perfect circle hollowed out into the frame. The circle had another circle stuck into it, a line shooting up and over he top of the door and into the rock above.

 

“Should we open it?” Fujiko said, too curious to be exhausted.

 

“Are you mad?” Otsune replied. “Of course we should.” And without waiting for further comments, she grabbed the door handle and went to pull expecting far more resistance than she got from such a heavy looking frame. Instead it swung open so fast that she might have been crushed between the rock and high density, solid structure had not the extra effort nearly blown her off her feet and out of the way.

 

Above them, a small bell chimed from somewhere they couldn’t see.

 

The door hung open, and promised easy passage, yet even Otsune felt a little reluctant to go in. A door meant a creator to that door, their actions unknown. They peered through together, their necks only just peeking round the frame, preparing for a guillotine they both easily imagined.

 

Beyond the golden door was a multitude of sacks, spread all over the room. Old, musty and dusty, they held various items which appeared to be food, though Otsune couldn’t tell for sure the shapes and colour not looking like anything from earth. Other bags held nothing but several different colours of dust or spice that gave aromas that wouldn’t smell good in any cooking. Otsune thought the closest smelt, and looked exactly like, sand but the others seemed to have a taste to them, a bit too close to manure though to risk testing.

 

The sacks were set up like aisles for easy access to whatever sack was chosen, but there were no signs or markings on them. Otsune felt it to be like a vegetable store, especially because of the counter.

 

From the golden door all the way to the other end of the room, there was a simple green carpet with a pattern of simple spirals and the type of boring mediocre symbols that a carpet designer would make if he wanted to get fired from his job. It ran across the fifteen or so meters to the other end of the room, where a counter stood by itself. The counter at the end of the long room was the first thing Otsune had seen in this place that actually looked rotten. While everything else looked like it had no state change in the first place, the counter was dilapidated and falling apart. The left side looked weak and ready to collapse at the most inconvenient time of putting your full to the brim coffee mug down on it.

 

Behind the back of the counter, which housed nothing more than a small brass reception bell, was snoring. The snoring was light, yet distinct. Each inhale sounded like the cry of a falcon in the early hours of the morning, while the exhale sounded like an angry manager, venting his frustrations over the new proposal over some temporary member of staff. As Fujiko pocketed what looked like a green sausage, Otsune approached the sound.

 

Just over the counter, leaning back on the most rickety old stool Otsune had ever seen, sat a small man dressed in a ruffled three piece suit and a green cotton night cap which covered most of his face. So small was he, sitting back on his stool, that Otsune wouldn’t even have been able to see his boots from the other side of the counter, barely gripping onto the edge themselves.

 

The two of them watched him snoozing away for a few moments, caught with the horrible urge to wake him up and the conflicting urge to let him sleep peacefully. Opting for the ‘copious amount of sincere apologies’ approach, Otsune rapped the bell lightly, producing a solid ting that snapped her out of her own tiredness.

 

The little man didn’t respond and after a few moments, Otsune hit it again. When he didn’t respond the second time, she quickly lost it and whacked it hard, making the bell plummet through the desk and onto the stone floor beneath.

 

With a loud guttural sniffing, the small man woke up.

 

He didn’t wake up sharply, but took his time, as if he had woken himself up. Losing his balance enough to have to push himself back against the wall to stay from meeting the floor, the man rocked forwards and sat up straight, scratching his chest and knocking his suit out of shape even more than it had been before. With the most loudest, disgusting yawn Otsune had ever heard and could have gone her long beautiful life without ever hearing once, the man span his neck on the spot, before getting up and moving to the counter, picking up the reception bell and dropping it back onto the desk with as much care as one would toss their car keys into the most unlocatable part of the house. He reached under again, this time pulling out a large bottle of brown liquid. Before she had time to guess what it was, he froze in place, like a spy who had just been caught and was incredibly stupid. With a flash, he lifted his night cap and peeked through it, seeing the two of them standing there.

 

“Hi,” she said, as he looked at the two of them like they were long dead relatives. “We’ll like to order a room.”

 

The old man continued to stare at them, shocked out of his wits.

 

“We don’t sell rooms,” he eventually got out.

 

Otsune laughed to herself. “That’s okay, we were just wondering-“

 

“How did you get here?” he blurted out.

 

“Oh we…came down the stairs,” she said, looking to the golden door, which had swung itself shut quietly.

 

“But what about the Howling Wolf Eye” he little man said. “Ain’t no one who gets passed that.”

 

“We haven’t seen any Eye. We haven’t seen anyone for that matter since e fell through the door from the InBetween.”

 

“The InBetween realm, you say?” He smirked, like he had just got a joke. “Oh, you’re from there. Tha’ makes a lot more sense.” He laughed heartily to himself for a few seconds. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m Oscar. Please to make your acquaintance.” He raised his hand and Otsune took it immediately, a reflex action from living in foreign lands. She immediately regretted it where his hand felt like shred cabbage still juicy from a soaking, and she tried to end it as quickly as possibly, pulling away a little too rudely.

 

“Tsunade Otsune,” she replied back. “Please to meet you.”

 

“Fujiko,” Fujiko replied with a simple wave.

 

“I ain’t never had anyone come through the golden door before. From what I hear, most just choose to die up there. Had to remove a body once. Someone had fell. Some old bald geezer. Must of tripped I guess. Lucky you didn’t really.”

 

“It was starting to become tempting,” Fujiko replied. The little man laughed out with a hoarsely chest, before lifting the bottle of brown liquid besides him and taking a swig. Otsune was sure he hadn’t removed the top when he started, but it was gone by the time he finished.

 

He burped. “’cuse me. Would you like some?”

 

Otsune nearly responded by retching. “No thanks, we’re good.” Fujiko looked ready to intercept, but was held back with a shooing glare from Otsune

 

“Suits yerself.” He took another heavy swig. It flowed down the bottle like sauce rather than brandy, though it seemed to be having the same effect. “Ahhh,” he sighed. “So what are you here for ladies?”

 

“Well…” For a second Otsune wasn’t actually sure of herself. She technically had three answers all of which might be impossible. ”We’re looking for a Savadali, I guess.”

 

The man snorted, bursting into laughster so hard a bit of the brown liquid shot from his nose. He held himself back just enough to speak, wiping himself clean. “A Savadali. Ha, of course. Every poor explorer with a spirit over their head comes looking for one of those.”

 

“A spirit?” she repeated as her own little nuisance shone brightly besides her almost pathetically. “I thought you said you never received any regular visitors.”

 

“I don’t. You really are the first since I started, save the dead guy.”

 

“But you say you’ve had them before.”

 

“No, I said,” he hiccupped. “that every explorer that comes here. There’s a difference.”

 

A difference worth ignoring, Otsune thought. “So,” she said, in a cut the crap or your face/your choice tone, “do you know where we can find a Savadali?”

 

“Oooh, they’re not easy, I can tell you that. I wouldn’t be a hundred percent sure if they’re even still around. Still, I suppose by the prophecy they’re must be at least one left, even if they were all to die.”

 

The man may be useless but his information probably wasn’t. “What’s the prophecy?”

 

“Oh, how did it go…from far and from wide, the Savadali shall be. Come together they may…something something.” The man racked his brains for a few seconds in silence. “No, it’s gone. Something about the one remaining one having the power to see all. I never really learnt it. The guy here before told me it before I took over the job in the first stages of my training.”

 

Training? Otsune thought. What was there to do?

 

“Would he know it?” Otsune asked

 

“He probably would, but you won’t be asking him now.” The man pointed his finger at the top of his forehead and sliced it down with a slitting noise; the wrong way, but still just as deadly.

 

“So what else do you know? There must be some kind of clue as to where to find them.”

 

“Well if I had to say there was any clue, you could probably get them at the Circus of Answers.”

 

“Circus of Answers?” Fujiko said, alarmed and confused

 

“Don’t repeat what he says,” Otsune sneered and then stare down the little goblin man as he looked timidly back, his hard scrunched features losing the war against her eyes. “Fine, I’ll bite,” Otsune said. “Where do we find this Circus of Answers?”

 

“Hhhmmm, it’s about two hundred and fifty cycloons from here. There should be a path that leads thereat the next crossroads. From there it’s pretty straight.”

 

Otsune considered this. “If I asked you what a mile is, could you answer me?”

 

“My predecessor probably could,” he said with a bellow, joyful voice as if to say sorry I’m useless, “but no, I can’t. Is it food?”

 

“No. What about a day? Do you know how long that is?”

 

“No.”

 

“It’s what we call the time it takes for the sun to rise in the east and set in the west. To us, it happens roughly every twenty four hours and in that time, roughly on foot walking, a human can travel probably around fifty miles. Would you be able to tell us how long it would take in those terms?”

 

“What’s a sun?” Oscar asked sheepishly.

 

“Oooooh, definitely the wrong answer,” Otsune sighed.

 

“What are you trying to do?” Fujiko asked.

 

“Just trying to figure out if it would be quicker to take his path and travel to the Circus of Answers to find some randomly vague quest update, or whether I should just give, up, gut him now, slice him up and use divination, because Mozart knows that probably works here too, find out where to go from his remains and waste time doing it that way.”

 

She thought it over quietly for a few moments, already knowing the answer.

 

“Well I don’t know how long either’s going to take, so we might as well be doing the first.”

 

“Well hehe,” he snorted. “If you be going on a journey, then you’ll certainly be needing some supplies then.”

 

“Oh goodie,” said Fujiko with realisation. “Capitalism exists in the Strangelands as well.”

 

“Oh no no,” said the drawf. “I won’t be charging you anything. That wouldn’t do at all. We’re supposed to help travellers here. Give them supplies. Keep them stocked up and able to survive. We have a saying here: ‘The longer you stay alive, the better it is for you.’”

 

“I think that’s a pretty damn universal sentiment myself,” Otsune replied. “…so I’d have to agree. What can you give us?”

 

“Well, take what you need, whatever you can carry?”

 

“Really, we could take all of it?”

 

“Well, I’d ask that you leave us some for other travellers, but then again, “he said with the giggle of a forty year old man that you’d try to avoid at parties, “it’s not like we have people queuing up all the time. Take as much as you can physically carry, as if you were about to collapse from the strain. Old Jake will handle the rest.”

 

“I thought you said your name was Oscar?”

 

“It is,” he said, and promptly left through the side door.

 

“You know,” Fujiko said, as the man shut the door behind him with a quiet thud. “He said we could have whatever we want.” She put her hand into a bag of red dust that reminded Otsune of curry powder. “But I’m not sure I want to take any of this. It all looks useless.”

 

“What looks like food would be the best thing,” Otsune guessed, unable to identify anything within any of the sacks, apart from one that was full of simple green leaves from top to bottom. Sniffing one, she got a scent of lemon, the type used in washing up liquid.

 

“This looks like meat,” Fujiko mentioned, holding up a big rump attached to a very thick bone. Otsune guessed it to be bovine of some sort. It was glazed and looked like it had been well cooked. The entire sack was full of the same. None were warm.

 

“Should we-“

 

“No.”

 

“Well we have to take something. I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking two hundred and fifty of anything is a lot. We don’t know how long we could be out there.”

 

“You have done so many two hundred and fifties in the space of that conversation I wouldn’t know where to begin. Actually I do, milliseconds, millimters, milli-“

 

Without waiting, Fujiko took a bite into the rump in her hand and chewed it carefully. Otsune watched as her face grimaced for a second, before swallowing it whole.

 

“Not bad,” she said after a moment of indecision.

 

“Yeah right.”

 

“No seriously. It’s not delicious but it’ll do. If we take a few of these. Wrap them up. I’m sure they’ll do us for a while.”

 

“They’d do us for a day and then go completely rotten.” Stopping, she remembered her own words. “Fine take about six. That should do us.”

 

Fujiko had trouble holding even four, the grease slipping them out of her hands. Otsune looked to the other sacks. One held light pink spheres that, when she took a bite out of, reminded her of a time when she got bullied in the playground for bringing in a copy of Beyond Good and Evil. It was a bit bitter, but it felt edible and healthy and with enough juice to replace water for a thirst quencher. She got twenty into her bag before she stopped.

 

“Check if there are any sacks behind the counter,” she said, still chewing through one of the fruits. We’re not going to be able to hold all this.”

 

“I thought he said he was handling the bag situation.”

 

“He was also cryptic over how much we could carry. We’ll grab all we can now. Drop what we can’t later.”

 

Otsune reached the far right corner of the room, the sacks at the back no less confusing than the rest. One sack contained small bags of gravel that looked heavy enough to kill a man cold, yet the stuff inside was sweet and tantalising in her mouth like fizzy drops. Another contained thousands of tiny skeletons, of what looked like spiders.

 

“Hey, Otsune,” Fujiko whispered as loud as she possibly could. “You better come look at this.” Otsune put the bottle of chardonnay back carefully, not wanting to risk her friend seeing, and came to take a look, her little fire whizzing ahead of her.

 

Fujiko was crouched behind the back of the counter, honesty doing what her friend had asked of her. However, the back of the counter was almost completely bare, apart from two other bottles, one neon pink and the other empty. But in the center, just under where the little man’s feet would have been, was an ivory telescope.

 

Bleached and squeaky as she picked it up, Fujiko admired it carefully like a museum exhibit set to shatter. The four sectional tool fell into itself as she tilted it, clunking heavily as the ivory rolled back and forth.

 

“What are you doing? Put it back!”

 

“Aw come on, there’s no harm until I break it.” Like she was a pirate, Fujiko held it to her squinted eye and twisted round the room, stopping on the golden door with a curious look.

 

“That’s exactly the point. We’re doing well here. And I think it’s common sense to make sure the natives of a ruined dystopia wasteland don’t start becoming homicidal because we touch the only valuable item in the room..”

 

On far too perfect a cue, the sidedoor rattled as the handle twisted. Moving with speed both didn’t know they were capable of, they planted themselves back where they had been and continued looking, both feigning a look of ‘oh, welcome back.’

 

“Here ya are,” he said, straddling forth and dropping another sack on the counter. It looked just a little bigger than Fujiko’s book bag and about half as deep, and wouldn’t fit more than two slices of Fujiko’s meat in there.

 

“Aw, thank you very much,” Otsune replied with a rapid bow. This wouldn’t do at all. Maybe for the pink fruit. But they were going to need plenty more than that…probably.

 

“Do you want me to tell you how to use it?” he asked, as Otsune picked uit up and opened it.

 

“Er, I think I can manage, thank you.”

 

“Well, if you’re sure. You should be able to get a sack’s worth in there.”

 

She quickly found what he meant. A pocket sized sea of dirac, the bag held far more than it should of. All the meat went in perfectly, yet was just as easy to pull out. She became extremely curious as to how it was doing it, but held back, eager to study it later.

 

With this, filling up on supplies became quick and easy, especially since the bag didn’t seem bothered about the mass or weight that was being placed in it. She got fifty of the pink fruit in the end, and they took a little extra meat as well. She even, when Fujiko wasn’t looking, dropped a bottle of the wine, for only when they could afford to, of course.

 

By the time they were finished, the sack was full of meat, fruit, gravel bags, the odd green leaves shaped like falling stars, a bag of purple powder that tasted like omelettes and an extra two bottles Fujiko thought she had snuck in without Otsune seeing.

 

The little man didn’t seem that bothered that they hadn’t taken as much as they could carry and nothing more, but seemed more than content to let them overload the bag. When they were done, he led them through the rickety side door and out the other side.

 

Otsune was a little taken aback by what she saw.

 

They were outside, again. The rocky wastelands of before stretched out beyond them. This time a pure white instead of burning crimson, the rocks stretched out far beyond the horizon an arching purple nightscape going over their heads, yet still light enough to see hundred of miles, or possibly cycloons away. The roof sparkled lightly, stars dancing in the air, though it didn’t feel at all like night time.

 

The building they had come out of was against a great wall, the room jutting out in a small clump of jagged rocks. It was impossible to see the end of either side of the wall and it travelled all the way across, hiding any sign that their hole had existed behind it.

 

The biggest difference though was the path, half a foot lower wherever it went. It followed her eyes all the way to the horizon.

 

“You won’t want that path,” Oscar said, seeing where she was looking. You need to follow this ‘ere path until you get to the turn, then take a left and straight on at the crossroads. You should reach the circus in no time.”

 

He said it like it was common knowledge, but Fujiko used to do the same thing to people asking where the toilets were at clubs. She wanted to think the chances of him being truthful to them as slim, but so far he had showed himself nothing short of altruistic, helping them from the very start and being completely honest. He was polite, but didn’t hide his scruffiness. He was rude and blunt but had given them stuff without question nor fee beyond that which was reason.

 

She hated to say it, but he might actually be a nice guy just helping them out.

 

“Well, see you then,” she said with a deep bow to show gratitude, and began on her way, Fujiko and the flame following quickly behind.

 

****

 

Pleated skirt, down to the knees, not like some girls who cut off three quarters and complain it’s cold. Socks up to her shins. Itchy, scratchy, uncomfortable. An extra pair underneath to pad the new shoes. Black penny loafers, far too new to have been broken in yet, just waiting for the descent down the hill to test the backs of her heels. Seifuku, white; plainer than even her regular sweat shirts. Neckerchief, yellow and black. Hair, loose in a single knot, making one who never cared for it want to wear it with flair. Schoolbag, discarded, left to rot behind the desk. Homework, barely touched, only complete thanks to a friend, scoring irrelevant for now. New books, only one, the rest to be bought tonight on the way home, many opportunities ignored. Lunch money, a handful of yen, her favourite snacks await.

 

Looking down at herself in the mirror, it didn’t seem worth an hour’s preparation. There had been her shirt to iron, having left it too long, but even so she felt like it would have been more fun to rush it in a ten minute panic. At least then she could wake up better.

 

Always the earliest to wake up she grumbled to herself as she saw her alarm click over to seven o’clock. It was much more different waking up to train, but the excitement last night had drained her. She’d have to do extra tonight; if she had time.

 

Sagara had agreed to wait for her on the investigation and contact her if he found anything. She’d need a mobile phone to get this to work. She could stop by a shop later tonight and get one. Having put the budget aside a while ago, she had let that slip for too long as well.

 

Yawning and aching, Natoko knelt down for her bag and got straight back up, the whole process taking too long, pangs of grogginess flowing throughout her body, cracking her supple joints like a wooden doll. Would she have felt like this even without school? No, probably not. Regardless, she turned to leave, opening her door and falling promptly over Sagara.

 

Landing without injury, she realised just how strong the urge was to stay there, her head buried in wooden floorboards, her legs laying on top of meat. Not moving was proving much more promising now than ever having to move or think again, oblivion much more enticing than action.

 

Soon getting up, she felt it was a little darker in the world than before. Sliding round, she saw than she had somehow not woken him up. This was perfectly normal however and she got up without thinking about it too much, more playing with the idea of waking him up.

 

“Sagara,” she whispered, though everyone else in the surrounding rooms had already left, each one banging her door awake just to be safe. Did he stay here to see me off? she thought, watching his drool already off his cheek and down in a little puddle. No, more than likely he just collapsed again in a random spot. After a few months it was expected of him to just be found in the most bizarre of places. Mainly corridors, he had been found under tables, in the hot springs, one time even on top of the main television. It was big enough, but she had no idea how he hadn’t crushed it or just fell off. That was the only time she had seen Gen get mad at him, shouting wildly at the unmoving body, failing to lift it up. She chuckled at the memory.

 

She had the tram to catch, as did a lot of the dorm. With people still rushing about, she knew she had time, so she started walking out early, taking in the day. It was as bright as any day in the summer had been, and already the oxygen was smouldering in mid air, burning all that it touched.

 

Iziz; left by her bed.

 

Aki was waiting for her, or at least hanging from the large cherry tree in the courtyard, showing no care that her skirt was flapping in the wind and exposing her to any that were watching.

 

“Yo,” the girl said, easily ignored and falling out of the tree to land gracefully next to Natoko. Natoko zoned her out, just wishing they could stay at home. Surely hunting demons was more important than school. It wasn’t like she was skipping to hang out with boys or going to the shops to browse or even doing drugs under the bridge. She was going off to fight evil. That was much more necessary than maths, which was stupid. Only Otsune cared about maths.

 

But as bad as the threats of constant, imminent death were, the idea of her parents finding out was even worse. Keepings things quiet was her only choice now. There were still the evenings and weekends for her. More than enough time.

 

Though the way things had been going, she’d probably get attacked at school too. The demon attacked them both without warning, and from what she could tell reason. It happened while finding Sakura, but it was unlikely because of the girl. It had to be something to do with the Balance, them searching and now, being told that they’ve already been marked by the demons. That made it quite dangerous.

 

There was no worry in public apparently. The demons are very careful about major appearances. Sagara explained last night on the tram ride home the Balance has defences against such things, and the demon kings knew it. The chances of getting attacked in the city, the city that held the head branch of the Negotiator’s department no less, was close to none unless the demons were looking to be instantly destroyed.

 

Whether that would stop or not with her and Sagara looking around was another story. The demons were convincing themselves that the Balance was to blame for Itoko’s death, and she could already tell that who within the Balance wouldn’t matter. It was almost weird to think that the demons would even bother. How important was this ghost girl to them? Surely it was just another human, no matter what the importance. But if his lot were investigating seriously, did that mean they wanted justice of some kind? They weren’t just going to start killing indiscriminately? That’s what she’d do if she were a demon.

 

As they reached the bottom, they stopped, or rather she did, having to grab Aki by the collar. Just past what used to be the old Shinto archway, before it got converted into a simple entrance with lamps on either side, stood two people, hunched over and staring at them. She recognised the first as the man who had spat on her over a month ago. The woman she didn’t know; his wife perhaps. Both were dressed in traditional yukata that held their weakening frames, and their faces were crunched up and grimacing, their energies concentrated completely at her.

 

“You let another out,” the man shouted at her after a few seconds of silence. “Why won’t you stop? Why do you doom us all!” he wheezed at her, advancing forwards menacingly but getting no where close. Natoko kept her eyes down and walked away, keeping tight hold of Aki unless the foreign girl did something stupid.

 

“You stupid whores. That woman worked hard, and all you do is ruin all of us.” Upping her pace, Natoko wished that the tram stopped right outside the dorm, preferably over the tops of the two people now chasing them. It’ll be quick to lose them, but others were staring at the now, profanity shooting out of the man’s mouth, his wife glaring at them all the way down and round the corner.

 

***

 

The rest of the walk was filled with loud, minutely detailed small talk about anything she could think of. The tram station was relaxing; a chance to catch up on rest. The tram was boring, forty five minutes of travel reminding her just how clear the trams were when she took them in the holidays, the crowd squashing her against the door and nearly falling over seventeen times per stop wasn’t doing well on her body. Aki somehow got away with a nice clear space provided by some boy who thought he was hitting on her successfully by acting noble and enduring an extensive monologue about bananas she was having.

 

Sitting in class went miserably. Her intended resting pace of halfway between front and back and preferably a window seat had gone terribly. While she was by the window, she was right at the front. Her grades had got her noticed after last year, and Mr. Tsukamoto was looking for improvement.

 

Aki was halfway across the room, already doodling on her new exercise book. Aki had it just as bad as her. Her grades may have been the best in the year, but her attention span was as ever the same. The only reason he hadn’t put her at the front was to stop her from constantly distracting him.

 

This isn’t important, she kept telling herself. What was necessary was their next step in finding the killer. She could handle school later.

 

Itoko was trapped and burned in an alleyway that catered to people’s desires. If that was the case, why weren’t the girl’s own desires filled? Surely she wanted to live rather than die. Did one outweigh the other? What determined it?

 

Sagara had mentioned a demon being the one who granted the wishes, so more than likely it chose the more evil desires. That meant it was a human that wanted Itoko dead and got the wish granted, which meant it couldn’t be the OniHono. Either that or this OniHono had help.

 

Which brought her nowhere. She hadn’t got to see the creature who killed all the other demons, so she didn’t know if it were the type to have associates. If she just knew that-

 

She couldn’t do this. The non-stop prattle of her teacher and the people three seats behind her was already distracting. It didn’t help that they were again with no real leads. There had to be something. Something that showed this OniHono was the killer.

 

But what was she trying to find out anyway? It wasn’t like she was going to have a dramatic smoking room meeting where she could point as the killer as the one they least expected. It was a demon. Sagara knew demons on sight. None could hide from him. And the human that was with it could have been anyone. They could already be dead; killed when useless. Nothing was of help here.

 

“Ms. Yamanaka?” a voice sneered upon her. Successfully ignoring it at first, she had no choice but to turn when her name was repeated again. “Ms. Yamanaka!” the voice came with the friendliness of a weasel waiting for you to leave your food. “Are you sure you want to be continuing like this? You’re already doing so badly and you’ve barely begun the new year.”

 

Some of the class laughed behind her. Not too hard though, unless they be turned on next. “Inattentive. Sloppy. A daydreamer. Those are the words I would best use to describe you. And your grades match my sentiments as well. I’m amazed you even responded to my third call.”

 

Why was he picking on her? Haraguchi and Tsukomi were talking as loud as they pleased on the other side of the room. Matsumoto was reading through a fashion magazine in plain sight. All she had done was looked away!

 

“You must focus on improvement. I can tell it is beyond your meagre measure to aspire to any task set before you and for you to give it any, let alone your all.” His fingers scratched the whiteboard lightly, a tip-tap rattling from each digit. “But unless your grades pick up any time soon, you’ll be seeing your young friend advance ahead of you, and I will be forced to put up with your… lingering presence for another year.”

 

Her hand gripped her pencil tightly, which had been idly doodling before and was now a piece of iron being crushed in her fist. He turned his gaze away, still speaking to her. “The way you are now, all you’ll do is disappoint. Not yourself of course. You probably don’t care, but your father will be upset, Mr. Fukasawa too.”

 

Mr. Fukasawa was her kendo teacher. Thoughts of him had come nowhere near her ever since the end of last term. If there was anyone to be disappointed, it was her with his lessons. He was skilled, but there was no effort behind him. Kendo was nothing more than a club to him.

 

Turning to respond, or at least try to, Natoko was interrupted by the sliding of the teacher’s door. All eyes perked up at this sudden intrusion and met with another student, standing in the doorframe, looking surprised at everyone staring at him.

 

“Ah, excuse me,” the newcomer said, looking neither apologetic nor nervous at this disruption. Natoko felt her heart skip a beat as she looked at the well built, tanned and handsome face of the newcomer as he sauntered up to the teacher’s desk with a swagger that made Sagara look like he was always standing at attention.

 

“Misato?” she whispered.

 

“Ah, yes, I had planned on getting to reintroduce you, Kiriyama-kun. If you had just waited a little longer.”

 

“Forgive my intrusion, sensei. I thought I may not have heard you.”

 

Natoko grinned, the teacher’s face trying to hold back a scowl. She knew neither of them could tell whether or not Misato was being serious or not. He was as ever polite though.

 

“Well, I supposed as you’re here, I might as well get to it. As most of you know,” he said turning back to the class, “Kiriyama has been on an extended leave of absence since before the summer. He should now be rejoining us for regular lessons. Though you may feel free to talk to him after lessons, I ask that you may not begin the gossip mill during lessons. You may take your seat, Kiriyama-kun.”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Misato said, stepping past the teacher and wandering around most of the desks. His seat was nearer the back, but it didn’t seem to stop him from taking a detour and making a quick wave to her as he passed. She smiled back, feeling a lot perkier all of a sudden.

 

***

 

Kiriyama Misato had been a friend of Natoko’s for about two years now, and though she didn’t have a crush on him at all, bar the same feminine urges that all the other girls felt around him when he was doing track and field, he was perhaps the closest person to her here besides Aki. They didn’t keep company all the time though. Misato had a group of male friends that he always hung with, mainly other members of the various teams he had been in. He was a reserve in the kendo club though, and came every so often to participate.

 

Misato was considered by many to be a prodigy. One of two in the entire school who was always in the spotlight (the other was Aki, the one student who was not just two years ahead, but had already been given the option to attend any university of her choice as long as she graduated). He was talented in all subjects he put his hand to, and always solved any question the teachers threw at him, even the ones when they gave information that he had yet been taught. Last year, he had been given the second highest mark in the school of 98% in the spring finals, and rumours were popping up of scholarship’s coming his way (Aki was first with top marks).

 

He wasn’t just a geek though, if he could be considered one at all. He was always in the baseball and football squads and served as captain for each (this was a little iffy at times, she heard, as their big competitions often happened at a similar time, though he still performed well regardless). On top of that, he was easily the most handsome boy in the entire school, which had made it surprising that he wasn’t going out with anyone (though there had been rumours he was dating an older woman, she was sure they were just gossip).

 

All of this then had made it very disconcerting for the entire student body when he just disappeared one day without a word said to anyone. He went to school one day and then simply didn’t show the next. No one knew what happened, save that two others also didn’t come that day. A close friend of his named Shinji and a girl from another class. For three weeks none of them attended classes or showed up at homeroom. Then out of the blue, Shinji came back and sat in class as far as the end of first period.

 

She remembered the day as clear as anyone there. He came in looking cold and pale just as homeroom was finishing, and sat down without saying a word, the headmaster telling the teacher something as he came in. When it got to the end of first period, at the moment every student rushed over to prod to him, that he threw himself back in a frenzied panic, screaming and falling into Natoko’s desk. She had dodged just in time to watch him fall, quickly crawling into the corner. A few of his friends had backed away, while one of them tried to help, but he just sat there gibbering until the headmaster came back to take him away.

 

They never saw Shinji again. They never saw the girl again either. Natoko was told later that Shinji had transferred schools. Natoko knew nothing of what happened to the girl, and no one knew anything about Misato at all, other than he had gone, even when his parents were still living at home.

 

This of course made her very curious to find out now that Misato had returned after so long. What took four months, and left one boy in shock and another girl missing? It couldn’t have been too bad if Misato didn’t even seem nervous. She had to wait until the class was over to find out though.

 

***

 

It wasn’t until end of afternoon period that she got a chance to speak with him. All the breaks between she was left on the outskirts of the crowd surrounding him as the main crowd flooded him with all sorts of questions, ranging from why he disappeared to whether he was rejoining a team again. Aki had passed some information along to her at lunch, but got nothing of interest from him. Natoko was just beginning to wonder whether or not she’d be able to speak to him at all this week when he wandered up to her and, with the same dashing voice that would cause some other idiot to squeal, asked her. “Would you like me to walk you home, Natoko-san?”

 

Accepting professionally and without the slightest hint of emotion, Natoko caught the stares of jealously off the other girls as she trailed behind him. Even the Class rep turning her eyes away in disgust.

 

Walking her home of course meant walking Aki home as well but for the first time in a while she really wished the young girl hadn’t been there. Natoko had plenty of her own questions to ask the boy, but Aki wasn’t giving her two words edgeways. Of course the young girl was still smart enough to ask the most important question when they had separated from the main crowd.

 

“So where have you been the last four months, Misato?”

 

“Yes, I had been wondering that too,” Natoko added. It was the longest sentence she had said yet.

 

“Well, the truth is, America.”

 

“Oh, I always wanted to go there,” Aki replied, as if he had only been gone for two weeks and was just passing them souvenirs of a cartoon key ring and some tasteless local delicacy.

 

“What were you doing in America?” Natoko asked more seriously.

 

“Oh, nothing too special. I got dragged into an educational program by my uncle without warning. So before I knew it I was in a plane and over the ocean. Didn’t really get a chance to say goodbye now I think of it.”

 

Natoko felt a little perplexed. “How could he just drag you off like that?”

 

“If you ever met my uncle, you’d understand perfectly. He pushes my dad around like a pansy. Carted me off before he could complain or even tell the school. When I got back, dad told me he had just put me on a leave of absence. Good thing really, I finished the course ahead of schedule.”

 

“What course was it?” asked Aki, off-topic as far as Natoko was concerned.

 

“Marine biology mostly,” Misato replied, striking Natoko as an odd choice of subjects. “He’s part of a team that studies sharks and other aquatic mammals. It was interesting. Said he needed a set of hands over the summer and figured I’d be perfect for it. Of course it started early, and before I knew it, whoosh, off to the Americas.”

 

“Wait then,” Natoko interrupted. “What about Shinji and that girl then? What happened to them?”

 

“What girl? What happened to Shinji? He wasn’t in class now I think about it.”

 

“He disappeared on the same day as you. So did another girl. They never came back.”

 

“Well, Shinji did,” Aki recounted. “He ended up falling on Natoko and screaming his head off.”

 

“He didn’t fall on me. He fell on my desk,” Natoko quickly rolled back.

 

“He did what?” Misato asked, looking concerned. “Why?”

 

“We thought you’d know,” Natoko said, hesitating briefly. “You all disappeared on the same day. When he came back, he was like a ghost. Then he left altogether. I don’t think the teachers even know why.”

 

“I had no idea. I didn’t speak to anyone except my mother since I left. He was screaming?” Misato and Shinji had been quite close from what she had seen in the past, so she could imagine the thought of his friend being gone to be a painful gap to find missing on his return, though it left her just as confused. Had he simply left on the same day these two disappeared? And what happened to the girl who never returned. Did she simply leave on the same day?

 

“Anyway,” Misato shifted. “I needed to ask you something, Natoko, if you wouldn’t mind. “

 

“About what?”

 

“Oh, first. Are you still in the kendo club by any chance?”

 

Natoko couldn’t help but roll her eyes back. A reminder of the boring times. “Well I haven’t quit yet, if that’s what you mean.”

 

“So still finding it below your level, huh?”

 

“Well,” she tried to hold it in. “Yes! It’s just amazing how they can be in a club like that but never train outside of it. Every time I had to spar I have to lower myself to caveman standards. And even Fukasawa-sensei won’t fight me anymore because it’s gotten to a point where he can’t claim he’s holding back! It’s just stupid!”

 

Misato started laughing, making her flush with embarrassment. “That’s exactly where you were last year, girl.”

 

“The only one that was good to go against was you.”

 

“Really? Thanks for the compliment.”

 

Words left her after this. She felt glad she could make him happy, but couldn’t bring herself to look at the results.

 

“I was wondering if I could have your assistance on a little project I’m working on. It’s a bit of a secret, so I can’t tell you until you agree, but I need someone with a strong will of mind, and you’re the first person that came to mind.”

 

“Hey, what about me? I want to help with mystery projects too,” Aki interjected, getting a laugh out of Misato.

 

“You’re welcome too, Aki,” he grinned.

 

The yes nearly left her mouth before she caught it. Saying no would let him down, but she had something bigger to handle. Misato was just a student. Whatever it was wouldn’t be important at all. “I’m afraid I might be a bit too busy over the next few weeks, Kiriyama-kun.”

 

“Oh,” he said, looking confused. “No worries then. Let me know if you change your mind. I have no real start date, and I will need your assistance to do this.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“Sorry but,” he tapped his nose knowingly. “Secret.”

 

He left shortly after that. Natoko would have thought he was eager to get away after being rejected, but knew his train was at another station to hers. As they travelled back to the station, she saw some of the other girls still glaring at her and she smiled triumphantly. For her, the one they called ugly, the one they mocked for never wearing her hair special or wearing any makeup, to be asked out of all of them must have been a real kick up their cut up skirts.

 

Not that such things mattered to her of course.

 

Maybe when there had been a mystery to Misato’s actions, but with it now being more of the mundane she reminded herself that there were much more important things to be doing right now. She still had training and homework to do, but also demons to vanquish.

 

Though how was she supposed to do her duty here? Part of her wish that it had been Sagara that had shown up, immediately causing a ruckus or embarrassing everyone in the class all at once. It would have been nice of him and a better way for them to coordinate.

 

But in the end, he had other things to do, just as she did, even if it was all completely unnecessary.

 

***

 

Kiriyama Misato was a being who, from birth, had been born with an overabundance of internal energy. More so than most masters could accrue in a lifetime, and so much that mystical feats were not beyond him. Yet he was unaware of any of this.

 

It showed in everything he did. He was naturally talented at anything he put his hand to, be it art or music or board games like chess. He was intelligent too. Though not top of the year in all subjects, he scored high A’s without much effort, and soared in lessons that actually took his interest.

 

On top of that, he excelled far beyond his peers and even his coaches in sport. He could be pushed to sprint for a day and though would fall exhausted along with his peers, be back up to fighting strength within a minute. As for his strength, well it caught the eyes of the ladies in his class for sure. His muscles started to rip out as puberty hit, and he was soon the biggest in his class that wasn’t filled with fat. He was popular beforehand, but soon became the heartthrob of every swooning girl in the district. His energy helped him with that too.

 

But he still didn’t know of it.

 

Once, on a day where he had free time, for Misato had learned long ago that he needed a strict schedule to keep track of the many things he had been pulled into, Misato was pulled along by friends into a Tai Chi class. His friend, Shinji, had dragged him with a few others for the only reason boys that age would ever care to join a slow motion martial art like Tai chi: girls. Five boys surrounded by many girls was an easy paradise. Misato followed the lesson along and, having martial arts training already, quickly picked it up.

 

Tai chi was not just about movement though, but also breathing. So during the class, Misato would be taught to pull his inner energy in and out repeatedly and focus on the rising and falling of a great tide of water pushing and pulling around him. To feel his internal energy flow gently around himself.

 

Misato, of course, felt nothing.

 

None of the students did in fact, though many thought they had, if only just a little, thinking it was sort of cool, and mistook blood pumping through their veins over the kundalini properties of mystical force flowing through their chakra and giving them life. Though the others felt nothing because the amount of internal energy they had was insignificant, the techniques meaningless and poorly taught, only Misato felt nothing because there was nothing new to feel. Breathing exercises were about bringing up something that was barely there after all.

 

It wasn’t until the third time they went the event happened, by this time only he and his friend Shinji were going. The others had moved on quickly as the need for money and effort sank in. It had been Shinji’s idea in the first place, for the hidden love of his life, one of the four girls that also went to the class that he never spoke to, was there as well.

 

As the girls giggled away, as girls did but only when Misato looked at them, Misato continued feeling nothing, as the rest of the class did. He found it relaxing, but never beneficial. In his head, it felt more and more clear that the teacher was using them as easy income, as he had heard of many martial arts instructors over the years. He was intelligent enough in his mind to reserve judgement for later times, but they were learning nothing of value and losing time because of it. Money as well.

 

So when he began to lose his attention and look away and not pay attention and tried talking to Shinji at the back, it was not very long before he was called out to the front. Misato hated this, and could tell that the small yet gruff bald man in tracksuit bottoms was displeased at any persuading voice that might detract other people, as well as the displeasure he had shown when the others hadn’t arrived. Misato wandered up to the front, in his mind deciding he would be as unhelpful as possible, knowing full well the teacher’s plans to humiliate Misato and impress him at the same time.

 

Misato had seen it before. The man would claim to use his special energies to take Misato down when all he would be doing is using a simple application of force at certain joints in the body to perform a jujutsu like manoeuvre that would send Misato flying, girls squealing in shock and everyone else wanting to sign up on the monthly direct debit. Misato probably wouldn’t have much say in the matter, and told himself to remain firm in what was about to happen and not to let it affect him in anyway.

 

As the teacher approached him, he informed him of a simple energy technique that brought about a visualization of something Misato stopped listening to. Then he got behind Misato and held his arms in a full nelson, locking them arched upwards as the teacher grabbed hold of his neck. The teacher then asked Misato to struggle free which Misato did after about two seconds.

 

The teacher let go, and explained to Misato that he simply wanted him to concentrate on his arms and feel energy flow through them. Then he held his palm out behind Misato’s back and, forming a knife, slit the hand all the way up Misato’s back, saying he was freeing the energy, before tying the boy up again and asking him to break free.

 

Now how long was it, before humans discovered that mud could be used for paint, before sugar, flour and butter could be put in a cake, or leaves applied to that mud to make different colour. And what was it before art was discovered. Simply mud, unusable in its anonymity, and priceless once discovered. Even when humans started to use them, did they know they did, did they feel the consequences of their actions? Misato’s energy was the same as this. Unknown and unused, but with just as much consequences as any other major resource in powerful hands.

 

Visualising it was all Misato had to do to bring out the energy. And with a simple, calm swipe that was nothing more than to swing his arms in the air, Misato severed the teacher’s arms clean through the biceps that held him back and left them bouncing on the floor. The girls screeched. The boys were impressed. The teacher fell to the floor, finding it impossible to carry on living.

 

This was the first human Misato had killed.

 

It would not be the last.

 

***

 

“Sagara,” she called out, slinging her bag on the lobby couch and choosing a random direction. Even if Iziz was to become ten times as heavy, it would still not bring her as much relief to release it from her shoulders than it did that bag. Freedom was a virtue she had missed over the last seven hours and now to reclaim it, no matter how short, was still very bittersweet.

 

“Sagara,” she said, deciding to head for his room. He was living in the far east wing, the part of the dormitory that had emptied the quickest after Granma Futabatei had passed on and the new miser had appeared. It had been the smartest choice to place here there, or at least it had seemed.

 

“Sagara,” she said, reaching his room and knocking. The door rattled against itself, falling open. For a second she was filled with an urge to let it droop open, to see the other side and get a glimpse at Sagara’s hidden side. But then she held back. She couldn’t hear him breathing in there and his snores were the loudest in town. It would have been too rude even in regards to him, to sneak around his room or even peer in through the cracks. Carefully, she shut the door behind her.

 

Knowing that it was unlikely he was there, Natoko left the isolated bedroom of the ninja and headed back to the lobby. A few of the other girls were just heading in, chatting amongst themselves and telling stories from other friends they met that day.

 

She checked the kitchen and lounge, finding it empty save for Sakura cooking for ten in a small panic. Passing a brief hello to her, Natoko watched as she shifted round the cramped kitchen like she were on skates, handling several bubbling pots at a time, the whole room filling with steam over to the empty lounge. The girl barely noticed her.

 

Checking outside got no results either, the hot springs were abandoned in bubbling silence and the grassy area sweated alone in the sunlight. A quick glare over the rooftops showed he wasn’t hiding there either.

 

Beginning to suspect he wasn’t in, Natoko felt her teeth grinding as she paced along the now filling corridors. No one she asked knew where he was and the few that had nothing to do all day hadn’t reported seeing him either. Eventually dumping her bag in her room, she took a few moments to change into something more relaxing, replacing her stuffy seifuku with a nice loose shirt and shorts.

 

Iziz now resting comfortably on her shoulder, Natoko took to searching. Fujiko or Junko would normally be the ones to ask, but neither were in at the moment. Sarah also seemed to be looking for him since she got back (not wearing her school uniform Natoko noticed) but refused to help look with her, instead shooting off in another direction. Eventually she even tried asking Futabatei Gen out of desperation. Futabatei looked uncomfortable giving an answer, and pointed over to the boy’s changing rooms.

 

The male changing rooms were only there out of courtesy really, and an inkling of protection. Before Futabatei had appeared a few months ago, they were never known to be used or not, and even now, the time they were used was restricted. Futabatei rarely used them as it were, and Sagara just blazed through regardless.

 

Hovering outside the frame, nothing but an orange curtain with a blue square pattern blocking her way, Natoko’s body refused to go any further, her legs cementing her to the ground through a force no girl could explain but understood perfectly. Grabbing the curtain she tugged on it, not enough to see behind it at all, but enough to hear a stutter of breath, a light intake of air, followed by the bellows of a grotesque monster snorting out atrocities designed solely to murder the innocent.

 

Certainly, Sagara was asleep in there.

 

“Sagara,” she called out lightly, to wake him gently of course. “Sagara!” she waited again, and then said with considerable force, “Sagara!” The monstrous exhalation of air continued unabated and after a few more attempts, she gave up again.

 

He had only been asleep this morning and had probably gotten a few more hours after she had left.

 

“How long has he been there for?” Natoko asked Futabatei, when she got back to him. Futabatei was in the middle of scrubbing, an apron wrapped around his waist and rubber gloves that looking fitting on such a lowly youth.

 

“Just under an hour I think. That’s when he went to get in the springs.”

 

“He didn’t make it then.”

 

“Apparently not.”

 

Natoko opted to wait, and got some training in before getting called for dinner. Dinner was delayed considerably, Sakura being caught in a daydream with slowly burning pasta and unusable rice. While half of them ordered simple takeout, the rest departed for foods elsewhere. But even three hours after pizza, Sagara lay inside the changing room sleeping.

 

Eventually, she made her way back to her dorm telling Futabatei to have Sagara see her when he did wake up. Sitting on her bed, she sighed deep and loud. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He should be summoning her and she should respond promptly, ready to even take her own life should he request it.

 

Had he done something today that had exhausted him? Futabatei hadn’t said, but he didn’t sleep this quickly usually during the day, and surely something was wrong that he didn’t get to the hot springs in time.

 

She sighed and groaned, sinking herself into her mattress as she left her coke on the side. She needed to go out and do something. Find some demon, find the one that had attacked her. Or just find and attack something, just so she kept reason beyond going to school.

 

Peeking behind her mattress, she saw the now familiar bump of the mask, staring sombrely at the wall that it was trapped between alongside the mattress. Her fingers inched towards it, feeling suddenly tired by the day’s non-events.

 

After hiding it, she had forgotten about it, but raising the small kitsune mask over her head, she was reminded of the events she had seen the day before. The fight, and the fight she had had. This was no ordinary mask, but she had no idea what she was seeing, and no way of telling without anyone finding out she had taken it.

 

Staring at the contours on the inside of the mask, Natoko didn’t realise how close the porcelain was to her face before it was too late. With a sudden magnetic jerk it pulled itself to her face, latching on tightly. She felt a momentary blank as darkness flooded her eyes and left her blind without air. Clearing up, it lit up a large courtyard before her, walls higher than any building alone and whitewashed. Above her the tower was in danger of being taken (she knew but did not know) and the lower floors had fires eating away at the window, chewing away as it ascended slowly.

 

Around her too the inferno blazed, trapping both factions within a doomed prison. Behind her, the guard hesitated, each of them young and inexperienced, looking to run. In front, the bandits, tough looking, but just as scared, the sweat permeating the air around her body. Between them, she floated, held tightly by another, the man speaking to the giant before her.

 

Qcayjn jjy dm, cpcf ck celcjjyfa, cpyb smw?” the one who wielded her yelled, keeping her tip trained on the opponent. Even from this distance, she knew how easily the man would be pierced by her, yet he never moved. Instead, he roared, tossing the loose strands of hair covering his face high into the air, revealing grotesque burn scars that matted his face. With laughter, he swung his axe high into the air.

 

Skj zahppao oe pe? Oq jaaspax hhwb kp oe kds. Skjg zhqks qku. Anwz e.”

 

Behind the monster, the bandits cheered, jeering their opponents as they lavished praises to their chosen. Words coming out as meaningless mouthing, she got none of it.

 

TctC in, qih ffuz ois, sum xfoiq yhi. Mxliq ih ylu ylybn!”

 

He spun her round, shifting her behind him, and waited, body prepared. She could feel the torque from the man’s heels, readjusting himself millimetres in all directions, keeping his feet fresh and his stance ready. He held her tightly, enough to cause damage to any other’s hand, as strong as any other joint in the man’s body, she became part of him, and acted to his thoughts.

 

Ogf mgq cuajl A, sZ.”And with a thud faster than she could track, the giant lunged forwarding, pushing his golden battle axe overhead and straight into the floor in front. The samurai could only watch as the wooden floor cracked beneath them, splitting right down the middle as veins of empty space covered the floor beneath them, letting the wood fall, her master soon with it, the nervous guards behind them. And herself. There was nothing underneath.

 

“Natoko!”

 

Aki screamed with a loud piercing shriek that ripped the mask right off of her. Feeling the familiar sensation of air, she inhaled loudly, getting as much back as she could, trying to breath through her mouth and nose at the same time.

 

Panting loudly, Natoko scanned the room as her vision returned to her, her mattress besides her blurring out of focus. She wasn’t on it anymore, her drink was knocked over.

 

“Are you okay?” her friend asked, panicked; hands gripping tightly to Natoko’s shoulders enough to hurt. Hissing out her pain, Natoko got her to ease off. “You looked like you were having frontal lobe epilepsy.”

 

Natoko inhaled loudly one more time, before expelling all her weakness. “You could say that.” She grinned, trying to sort her own confusion out while tending to her friend’s. Where was the mask taking her? It was something she needed to find out.

 

“Are you sure, that looked really bad. Your body was shaking all weird and you weren’t responding and you knocked over your coke.” Aki was nearly on the verge of tears, sniffing openly to her.

 

“How long for?” Natoko asked curiously.

 

“I don’t know, a few minutes. “I wanted to go get someone, but I didn’t want to leave you, and no one answered when I called out. I think they’re all out.”

 

Natoko only had one other resident besides herself and Aki in her wing, but that didn’t matter. Surely she had only been in there a few seconds. The first time had felt longer and had been short enough for Sagara not to notice her. What was she seeing? It felt like a dream almost, but so vivid and clear. She knew she wasn’t a participant but a weapon in the battle unfolding, so she could only watch and slice, but what was it she was seeing.

 

“Natoko!” Aki cried louder.

 

“Sorry, I’m… I’m definitely fine. I must just be tired.”

 

“You sure?”

 

“Certainly”

 

“Just, I’ve seen these things happen on television. People have blackouts or seizures and they think it’s minor, so they brush them off and tell everyone they’re fine. But then it keeps happening and they’re nothing they can do about it. And then it becomes to late and the person’s brain dies and then it tries to go to hell, only there’s no more space so it has to come back as a zombie and-”

 

“Aki…Aki,” she tried to calm her friend down. “I was fine. I haven’t had any fainting spells or anything worse before. And…” she hesitated, but then remembered it was Aki she was speaking to. “I don’t think it was me anyway.”

 

“Then…”

 

“It was the mask,” she held it up to show Aki. “I think it did it, though I don’t know how.”

 

“The mask made you spasm,” her friend said, her face wavering as if mixed with scared realisation and mixed confusion. Before Natoko could continue explaining, her friend snatched it up and placed it against her face.

 

Natoko cried out and nearly lunged to her impulsive companion but barely got her hands up before Aki was pulling the mask away again. Giving it a once over, she put it on again, longer this time, but with no effects. Eventually she gave it up, nothing happening at all.

 

“Is there a switch?”

 

“No, I don’t think so.” They spent a few moments playing with it, trying to get it to work for Aki, in a small number of ways. Though they soon realised there seemed to be no real solution for it Aki refused to let Natoko try it again.

 

“Was that it?” she asked herself as they finished trying, planting it straight on her face one more time just to be certain. Did it only have that to show her? Not when she needed to know more.

 

Grunting with disappointment, she got up and left with Aki to find something more to do. She still had more practise to get in. Getting Aki to leave while she got changed, she stripped off to put her hakama on, unwrapping the carefully folded training gear, and feeling the smooth yet coarse textures under her skin

 

Slipping it on and tying the sash around her tightly, she scooped Iziz off from its stand and slid it into place with practised ease. Her training schedule for today all mapped out, she headed for the door to get started, the mask greeting her one more time before she left. She slid it back on before she knew what she was doing.

 

Feeling the impact of the landing as her master foolishly allowed her to scrape stone, she screeched in agony, vibrating violently. Her master rolled with the fall but it wasn’t enough. She could feel the extension that held onto the sword being looser than before, a grip less tight and easier to drop things with.

 

Then another shaking thud, scaring the woodwork out of place and leaving her jumpy. It had been infinite floors, yet he had followed them down, crumbling to earth as he shattered through. This hardly bothered the giant, swarming around the young guards and crushing them in its body, ears screams and blood erupting form the rich hard soil.

 

“Hujidec!”

 

“Hsfqsg!”

 

“Iaz fu pzq u. qqdqt fu pzq u.” The master sprinted forward, holding her over his head and screaming loudly, freeing all emotion and letting it lead him to battle. Hurt, wounded and winded, he could only run into his opponent’s mighty hand, who caught both arm and sword in one embrace, cracking and smashing all of them.

 

Natoko gasped for air again, already exhausted, sweat dripping from her forehead, drool running from her cheeks and to the floor boards. Her arms ached like she had climbed just using her fingers. She had creased her hakama.

 

So it wasn’t broken, she realized. Just intermittent, which was better than nothing. Though one more thing topped that.

 

It was just telling her.

 

No one but her.

 

***

 

A week. That’s how long she had waited now. A whole damn week of missing Sagara.

 

Natoko was frustrated. There was no chance of coming up with a plausible explanation for skipping school beyond completely lying, which she couldn’t do for her own selfish reasons. And now, the reason behind them was disappearing as well.

 

It wasn’t that she kept missing Sagara either. Finding him every single day was like playing hide and seek with a rock that stood right in front of you. The only difference was he was asleep in a different place each time.

 

One time he was found in Hisami’s room with legs on the bed and head squashed against the floor. The girl didn’t mind at first until it got exceptionally late and he still wasn’t moving. In the end she had to sleep elsewhere, as waking him up wasn’t an effective way of getting him to move and often got her cheek swatted by a poorly aimed, always missing jab.

 

Natoko wouldn’t have minded that much. In fact, when she thought about it, him taking a nap around these hours was perfectly normal for him. But now with the school hours and travelling getting in her way, she had come back with nothing to do save practise and watch the mask.

 

Examining the mask, she caressed it carefully. Anything harder may break it, and it was too important to leave laying around. Luckily it was decorative enough to hide with her other stuff in plain sight, placed exhibition style against the wall. Taking it down carefully, she headed for the mattress, locking her door on the way. She had bought a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign a while ago, though it was solely for Aki and Aki never paid any heed to it.

 

She had let herself have taster sessions. Trying to watch what was in the mask all night didn’t yield much. The visions seemed pre-recorded, and would start to repeat if she watched it for more than an hour, ten minutes playing time from what she could tell when in the mask

 

So far they had been nothing but battles, always the same mysterious samurai facing the odd bandit giant, ready to use any dirty tactic to win overwhelmingly. So far she really had been unable to do nothing but watch. Only once had she been used to attack, and she felt skin being pushed asunder as she travelled through him, though to little affect.

 

****

 

Patiently waiting, she sat in silence, watching the clock tick forwards.

 

Long ago, a couple of years back, the clock was the one thing she’d look at here. The only thing that remained consistent between Italy and Japan was the way they told the time, and for too long it was the only thing she could understand. It gave her comfort, familiarity. She no longer needed it, now she could understand the teacher, but it was still nice to remember the time it gave her, the only thing here that could make her relax.

 

As it rang, she realised she had missed what homework they had given her as she ran out. It was in the book, and she could always ask Hisami if necessary.

 

Never before had she moved so fast to the train. Not running, for she would tire quicker, but a brisk pace that marched her all the way round corners and to the tram stop. With good fortune she met just as the early tram was set to leave, and got on it briskly, heading for home.

 

She had her stuff, what she needed. A day’s worth of clothes, some prepared lunchboxes, for both her and the father, toothbrush and trowel, though she didn’t know why she needed the second she thought it best to take, and a pen, notepad and camera to take notes.

 

These were always the best things to take on field trips after all.

 

She had her purse too, though it was nearly empty anyway. Her allowance had been ruined buying a new bus ticket,

 

***

 

The plan had been immediately ruined upon getting to the shopping centre to find it closed for the night, all shops shutting at seven and the whole complex shutting down just five minutes before they arrived. The attendant had been kind enough to smile as he turned away but they got no further than a refusal for a refund on the car parking ticket for a mere fifteen minutes parking.

 

As such they set out earlier Saturday morning, catching the tram well before nine ready for the shops to open early morning. Getting there early was vital, Father Sakagami explained, as they’d be less people around and no one to see them go through the door. Sakura reasoned to herself that it might have been better to go through when there was lots of people, so as to get lost in the crowd where going in alone would be a lot more noticeable.

 

It was a little past nine when they finally got in. Most of the shop owners were fully set up and ready to go, most sitting idly by their counters, sighing loudly to themselves as they waited for the flux of customers. Some were going about stacking and reorganising, doing their best to keep themselves busy, while a large media outlet was jammed full of teenagers, bustling and talking, pushing further and further into the store as they launched themselves at the latest product. Sakura recalled some talk about a new game coming out, and as a screaming fanatic was catapulted out of the store by the sheer weight of participants in the queue, only to throw himself back in with an energetic scream. Sakura had to step out of the way and watched as the sin of greed ran about ragged like a rabid donkey.

 

Father Sakagami refrained from speaking, but Sakura knew his troubles over the matter. He had led many a sermon about the overwhelming need to consume new videos and games, and whilst he didn’t argue their violent effects as much as most of the townsfolk did, he was concerned in having the young learn abstinence.

 

Soon, they reached their destination, the simple wooden door that led to where they needed to go. Sakura noted how plain it looked with disappointment. A portal to another realm should look, well, fantastic. Large, grand and majestic, the sort giants would have to push upon with all their strength, that would creak loudly and unleash a large vortex that started sucking everything into the next realm. But this was just a door. A simple wooden door. It didn’t even look like it belonged in a shopping centre. It would have fit better in someone’s house leading to a bedroom.

 

The door was marked with a ‘Do not enter’sticker plastered onto the wall next to it, yet the door itself didn’t even have a keyhole. Unless it was bolted from the other side, they should just be able to walk on through.

 

As they waited, mall security strolled past in the form of a bulky young man. He was the type of youth that Sakura would goat odds to avoid if she passed him in the street, maybe even crossing the road and praying he wouldn’t follow. The type that would get a rise out of any fearful response she gave him for whatever reason. Despite looking young he was certainly well built. Sakura couldn’t help but suspect drugs.

 

He walked past them, looking nonchalant and bored, barely even acknowledging them, heading off away from the direction where the shop selling decadence was. She exhaled, not even noticing she was holding her breath, her nerves were already being plucked like a tightly tuned violin, and the only reason she could breath at all is because she knew she’d kill the butterflies in her stomach otherwise.

 

Besides her, Father Sakagami was looking tense, staring straight ahead at the door. He couldn’t appear more obvious where he planned to go, but looked like he wouldn’t dare make a move, less some hidden guard approach them.

 

She hoped he was right. After all this, she had no idea what was through the door. It could just be the staff room she told herself, rather than a secret corridor.

 

“Should we…” she started.

 

“Wait,” he replied, holding his hand up to bar her, though she hadn’t moved. Staring deep into the door, the priest waited as nothing happened. He seemed to relax an inch after just a minute, putting his hand down. “Just get ready to go on my signal.”

 

Nodding, she prepared herself. He was the adult here. He almost certainly was paying attention to everything. She had seen Natoko slice leaves whilst blindfolded. A man of the cloth could certainly keep a watchful eye on all the corridors, or keep track of the nearby security guard.

 

Holding her ground, she peeked around all the corridors. They were clear, even of passer-bys. It would be the perfect chance. Only the shopkeepers were nearby, all to wrapped up in their jobs to notice. With it clear, she shifted, ready to leap into action, only to have him bar her again. “Wait. Hold it,” he whispered the perfect timing of a crime.

 

“Hooold it.”

 

She checked all the corridors again, the violins tweaked louder.

 

“Hold it.” Someone was banging them now.

 

The security guard came back around the corner. “Now! Run!” the priest shouted, bursting into a sprint and heading straight for the door. Still primed Sakura followed loyally, bounding the small space from the bench to the door in less than two seconds, more than aware that every nearby shop keeper was turning to see what the commotion was.

 

As they reached it, Father Sakagami fiddled with the handle, getting it trapped on itself before pushing it wide open. Hearing an ‘Oi, stop!’ behind her, Sakura dare not look back and threw herself through the opening and before the priest, sprinting as fast as they could, their bags flailing widely in all directions as they lost control.

 

“You’re not supposed to go in here,” a voice shouted behind them, much closer than Sakura wouldn’t have like. Hearing heavy boots getting closer, Sakura dared not turn around and just kept her eye on Father Sakagami’s jacket, loosely tied and bouncing from side to side. He stopped at another door and shot through it. Sakura closed it behind her and for the first time realised that what he said was true. This area was too long. They next corridor went longer than most of the shopping centre so far, with more doors than she could count littered on both sides.

 

“Stop!” the booming voice muffled on the door behind them, thick plated boots getting thunderously closer.

 

“Come on,” the priest shouted, grabbing her hand and almost dragging her off her feet. He got to around the four doors on the right before pushing through it in a heartbeat, closing the door behind them, and shushing her with a hissing finger.

 

Feeling the air in her lungs wheeze on her harder than they had ever done in gym class, Sakura tried holding her breath, feeling her lungs well up like balloon and quickly having to cover her mouth with her sleeve as she exhaled a lot louder than she should. Struggling to control herself, she nearly coughed when she heard the klump klump klump of footsteps getting nearer the door. She shuddered at the thought of the man being this close to them.

 

“Aha!” the security guard shouted, banging a door loud and open. It wasn’t their door.

 

They could get into a lot of trouble for this. How would she explain that she was breaking into private areas on the mall? Would they think her a thief? Nothing more than a street rat looking to claim the latest cool thing as her own, or would they think she was there to take money or cause damage. A secret world wouldn’t be enough of an excuse. She’d get caught and then they’ll arrest her and she‘d have no one who could come rescue her and she wouldn’t be able to do anything.

 

In her rasping breaths, she heard the footsteps grow quieter, until they were completely gone. They rested, Sakura feeling her heart pulsing throughout her body, her thoughts going white. She was definitely shaking and though she couldn’t tell, probably crying as well.

 

A moment later, Father Sakagami braced himself against the door, a final check, before slowly pulling the handle and going back through.

 

“Looks like we’re safe,” he shouted, just as she saw the security guard walking back down the corridor.

 

Soon they were back into full sprint, heading down the corridor they had just hidden in, the guard fast on their heels. This corridor wasn’t helpful at all and had no other doors coming out of it. Her mouth desperate for water, drying up on the sides, Sakura knew she couldn’t go much longer. She couldn’t run. She was always last on the track when it came to it. It was pure will that had got her this far. Father Sakagami was quickly running into the same problem as well. They pounded across the corridor, taking a sharp left turn and being rewarded with no doors there was well. They barely had time to check though for he thundered right behind tem, as close to her to grab. Then, with a lunge, he went for her, missing and getting Father Sakagami’s collar instead. All three fell to the floor in a heap, Sakura crushed under the guard’s weight, trapping her completely.

 

“Would you stop? You’re not allowed past this point…” The man wasn’t tired at all, but seemed to be having some trouble getting off her. She barely listened to what he was saying. “Jeez, I’m gonna get fired f I let you do this.”

 

Getting back up, the guard looked down on them, before leaning forwards and picking them both up by their collars. Both were powerless to debate about being let go, and all Sakura could do was struggle weakly, not even getting that far and hovering there with her head fallen forwards.

 

“Come on, I’m gunna hafta escort you out.”

 

Turning, the guard froze. Sakura could see immediately why. They had reached a crossroads. Without realising it, their path now went in one of four directions, and she knew then that none of them had a clue about which road to take.

 

“Erm,” the guard said with growing discomfort. “Are we even at the mall still?”

 

Neither Sakura not the father answered

 

“Fuck!” the guard cried out. “Which way’s back?” Sakura followed his eyes, trying to see which way looked familiar enough, but she couldn’t even tell which they had fallen over a minute ago.

 

“Oi, this ain’t funny,” the man said. “Which way’s the way out, and where are we….” The man paused, looking at her. “Hey, don’t I know you?” he asked. The questions knocked Sakura off track, and she looked into his hard defined, yet still immature features, and that bristled with prepubescent stubble He did look familiar, but Sakura thought she would have remembered a 300 pound block of pure muscle with a little more startling terror.

 

“Arrgghh, I meet too many people,” he complained

 

“I think it was this way,” father Sakagami said, pointed off to Sakura’s left. Sakura shuddered a little, knowing he had no way of telling.

 

***

 

Sakura was aware the that the large bulky exterior of the shopping mall’s unnecessarily muscular security guard had somehow activated a sheepish instinct to follow in her but it was clear that the hastily thrown together plan of entering the land of unending corridors was becoming a very bad idea. Her first clue was undoubtedly the impressive act of getting lost in a series of identical repetitive corridors separated by remarkably furnished yet very out of place mahogany doors in the time it would take to boil a pot of water and perhaps chop up the vegetables.

 

She didn’t need a second clue. This was clearly now a bad idea.

 

The guard, who looked familiar but had not yet passed on his name o her, was grumbling away to himself as he led them on. “So many corridors. Thought I had this place memorised already. Bad enough i spent three weeks on the job without knowing there was a third floor. Now look.” He chortled to himself. “This area’s not even signposted.”

 

“And if you listen to what I’m telling you, then perhaps you can know-“

 

“Quiet,” the guard spat back at Father Sakagami with such intensity it felt like a delinquent thug ordering a lackey into silence. “You ain’t helping the situation any here. Conversation’s no help for concentration. We just gotta work this backwards. Try to remember the length’s of the corridors to recognise them. Why haven’t they installed any mats or tiles?”

 

“Because this isn’t part of the shopping mall like I’ve been trying to tell you!” Father Sakagami let his voice rise to that of angry distress victim. “We’re in a completely new spiritual area separate from the mall altogether, completely away from the planet itself.”

 

“Impossible, the probability of finding a new dimension of any kind outside of the Mizumi Brother’s model shop is significantly lower to just getting lost.”

 

“Yet that’s what we’ve just done and you’ll have to accept that as truth if we want to get anywhere here.”

 

“The truth don’t come into it regardless, sir. Whether or not this is the mall or not, we’re still just in a constant state of being completely lost. I don’t know. Halfway through my first month on the only job I could get after graduating advanced mathematics and I get lost in a fractal maze hidden round the sides of-” He continued to blabber on with himself, an air around him that apologised for his behaviour and asked them to come back to him shortly.

 

“I believe we should make a run for it,” suggested Father Sakagami.

 

“What?” Sakura nearly squealed, certainly her voice at the last moment of the second syllable. She observed the hulking fellow towering above her. He could cross in a stride the length it would take for her to pass out with fatigue, not that that was much.

 

“There is no sense in following him. Though we might reach a destination that’ll keep his interest long enough for us to convince him to follow it occurs to me he is keeping our wanderings short length so as not to get even further than where we entered.

 

“We won’t be able to escape him though. He’ll notice.”

 

“At the moment he’s ignoring the doors to our sides. At the next one we’ll open it and sneak through. Then we’ll simply get ourselves lost further until there’s no way for him to follow us. It’s imperative we stay together though. One wrong turn will separate the both of us and we have no way of knowing just how unending these corridor’s are.

 

“Then you answer me this. If this really is a fantastical realm of new wonders, adventures and delights, why does it look so boring?”

 

“Ready? We’ll take this next one.”

 

“No,” she whispered as high pitched as she could go, stopping the father as he turned ready to grab the next door handle. He looked back at her with a hesitant expression.

 

“Why?” he whispered, his feet still moving forwards and past his intended door to follow the small giant.

 

“We can’t just leave him here. What if he can’t find his way back and he gets lost in here forever? We could leave him to wander for days and die.”

 

“There is no need for such fears,” Father Sakagami said only now noting he had walked past the brass handle his hovering right arm had been aiming for. “I believe, with complete certainty, that these corridors will lead you to your destination or back out again. Since this is a spiritual walk, more than likely it will just return straggler’s back to the beginning without harm. He’ll more than likely be back before his lunch break begins.”

 

“But if he doesn’t get home he’ll-“

 

“I assure you Sakura. Everything will be fine. We must simply trust the path we take.” Now, this door. Step quietly.”

 

The guard, who was now far enough down the hallway to not only be out of ear shot but also reveal the side doors past his horrendously huge and obstructing body, continued grunting along to himself as they slowed to a halt beyond the third side door on the right hand side of the corridor. Tentatively, Father Sakagami depressed the handle and let is slide open, not even letting the smallest of creaks out into existence. As it extended in front of them, they saw nothing but another corridor, this one bare of security guard.

 

With a finger over his pursed lips, Father Sakagami entered the next corridor. “Let-” he got as far as saying.

 

“Oi!” the guard shouted, noticing them easy as he had looked behind just before opening the door to the next room. “Don’t think I can’t hear ya! You wait right-“

 

“Run,” Father Sakagami said, urging her along. Sakura’s feet didn’t need further reasoning, not with the evidence her eyes provided as the large brute of a man bounced across the narrow corridor and was halfway to them in about four steps. She jerked to the side connected to Father Sakagami’s hand and disappeared round the corner.

 

The turns blurred as her breath quickly left her body, her weight throwing her down with each heel slam. Father Sakagami kept moving, a determined man looking for his goal even within nothingness. They rushed long enough for her to have only half a lung still working and the guard right behind them after a mere thirty seconds. His thunderous boot steps (they were by far the largest feet she had even laid eyes upon) shot behind them, fast reaching them and grabbing them with such haste that he crashed forward, falling through one last door before he secured his grip of the both of them.

 

“I wouldn’t do that again,” he warned, but was cut short when all three at once saw the large fluffy teddy bear looming down upon them adorably. Behind her, Sakura could hear the security guard pitching to scream in abject terror at the thirty foot tall titan of cuddliness only to stop with his mouth half open as they all noticed the bear wasn’t moving.

 

They gazed at the monstrosity’s massive beady eyes and smiley cartoon mouth that made her want to hug it as she rolled around in bed for a few moment’s longer, testing to make sure it wasn’t alive or anything else equal parts disturbing and fatal. There was no reason to assume it was alive but she had once witnessed a demon made out of a dictionary/thesaurus surrounded by other demons that took peculiar forms. She waited for it to speak.

 

It did, and wasn’t going to she decided, staying frozen as the others walked around her to observe it better, the room around them expanding into her narrow vision revealing a spacious open room with large shelves on all the surrounding walls. On the shelves were apparently random items. A watch. A pillow, a kitchen sink; all on display and given their own little space on the shelves or cabinets that scattered the room. Some items, a set of dumbbells, a wine bottle, a wheelbarrow, were too large to go on any shelves and sat more prominently by themselves in special locations. A large dinner jacket, one that could fit fifty of the security guard in them easily was hung up by a pole much taller that the bear who continued to watch the door.

 

Sakura’s first thought was that they had somehow come through the back door to a museum. But it was much too unkempt to be a public one. Each display cabinet was made of a rich brown wood with brass wrappings around them. The carpet was an exquisite taste of greens and red. Meanwhile, around every item, red rope tied by brass poles told the universal language of ‘’don’t touch’ to all looking.

 

Something about the place gave her an impression that this was a private collector’s display room but she couldn’t devote herself to the idea completely. Though the walls were wallpapered, it was a simply lime green with no other markings. Not a portrait nor mirror nor fireplace was to be seen on any of the walls and for such a rich interior and regal skirting, the place looked incomplete.

 

“Is this an antique’s store?” asked the security guard. “I didn’t know we had one of those.”

 

“It’s not a store you fool,” replied Father Sakagami, now more impatient to be interrupted by the man who wasn’t getting what was going on here. “We have found the next step of our journey to discover the truth’s of this world.”

 

The security guard stared with the face of a thug who had been disrespected. “That’s a bit of an assumptive premise,” he called across the room, having wandered over to a display case holding a leaking bottle of some kind of beer. “You have just as little an idea as I do as to where we are. Less, I’d say.”

 

“Less? You still think we’re in the Shopping centre.”

 

“Nah, not anymore. It’s obvious, isn’t it? We’re in the InBetween Realm.” Sakura gasped. The guard grinned. “Oh, turns out you know that name too. I thought so. You’re one of the girls that we found when I was hanging out with those ninja freaks at the courthouse, weren’t you?”

 

Sakura felt a deep chill rise though her back as the figure loomed over her. For the first time she looked at him properly past the matted down hat and sunglasses. She didn’t recognise him, but she knew the event of which he had to mean. The time before last she had been here, she had witnessed Sagara killing Alexis, the boy that, having never met, she loved without a moment’s doubt. Remembering nothing of the event except Sagara’s cold arm’s wrapping round her whilst whispering emotionless apologies, it was only later he mentioned in passing that they were being tried at a courthouse by member’s of the Balance. She had cared little for the details to listen completely though and had at the time excused herself without anyone hearing.

 

“You were there,” she said in barely a whisper, realizing this was actually the first time she had spoken to the man, “when Alexis was killed.”

 

“What? You mean that guy the ninja was fighting?” He grinned and laughed at the time grabbing his cheeks to rub them quickly. “Yeah, I remember that/. Don’t know what it was about. But man must have his reasons, right?”

 

Sakura went livid at this mere discarding of human life. Cretin! How could one be so callous at to dismiss a death like that. No reason, no matter how strong was enough to take a life of another human in any situation. A fool such as yourself must be a blind idiot to see it any other way. To even view it with contempt is to spit on the value of your own immortal soul!

 

The guard looked down at her shock repulsing his body back. It took her five seconds of staring and a ringing in her ears to realise what she had just thought hadn’t stayed in her head. The guard stepped forward, his body blocking the light dangling from the ceiling and overcastting a shadow onto her. Next to her, his fists rocked lazily back and forth, almost like pendulums. He said nothing.

 

Father Sakagami grunted, catching their attention just as he swayed backwards and nearly fell over, catching himself on the display as he fumbled around with a bucket and spade, knocking them onto the floor with an unwelcome clatter.

 

“Father,” she called out, rushing over to him. The vicar took a moment to shake his head, grinning sheepishly as their eyes made contact.

 

“I’m fine, I think,” he said as he stood back up properly. “It’s just-” He swayed again and she took hold of him as he fell. With no chance of lifting his slender frame even an inch off the floor she fell with him, landing to the side. “Sorry,” Father Sakagami muttered again and took a few moments to draw light breaths that appeared necessary. “I think I’m fine now.”

 

They got up slowly, the security guard doing nothing to help them. Part of her wanted to admonish him for his lack of attention on something that was part of his job but she was too distracted by the father’s current condition, even as he made a full recovery upon standing tall. Muttering another apology, Father Sakagami looked over her shoulder to see the items he had dropped. Following his gaze, she turned round to pick them up, missing a word he said as the room disappeared from view. The bad wall paper, the display cases, red ropes and security guards all disappeared from sight before her, sparkling blue ocean came into view.

 

She felt warm, the breeze lightly brushing past her hair, inviting the warm beam of a perfect summer onto her scalp. It was a beautiful day for the beach, she found herself thinking as the sand wiggled through her toes, pumping out through the cracks before being engulfed by the ocean. Above her in the cloudless sky, a flock of birds she somehow knew were Roseate terns shot across the ocean, going only so far out before turning back again. She remembered the fact of birds flying out to sea to pass away and found herself reciting out loud.

 

“Don’t tell her stories like that,” a woman’s voice asked her to the left. Sakura turned and saw a stunningly beautiful woman standing before her. Though the woman’s face shone like an angel’s her emerald eyes sparkling from the light of the sun, Sakura couldn’t help but feel a little perplex at the beauty of the gorgeous woman besides her. The woman was overweight to the point of a bulge in her belly and rather than traditional beach wear, she wore a one piece with a pair of denim jeans and a cardigan in what was clearly a desperate attempt to hide such weight. And though her lips were as smooth as the perfect strawberry and tasted just the same with a hint of cinnamon, she had double chins on her double chins and looked like she’d have trouble even walking out of the house. The beauty spot on her cheek only served to make the woman more disgusting to gaze upon in Sakura’s eye.

 

Yet regardless, Sakura somehow knew that this was the most beautiful woman on the planet and wrapped her arm around the obese woman with a tenderness she had never given anyone in her life before.

 

Below them, she heard a gurgle and turned to see a child, their child, the only being in the world that could outshine the woman standing next to her. The child held a yellow bucket in the shape of a castle to Sakura and she accepted it with a roll of her eyes. The young boy waited with unhindered glee as Sakura filled it with wet sand, taking time to make sure the ramparts were full and letting the boy hit it maniacally with his spade before turning it over and, followed by more heavy banging, released a sandcastle that couldn’t have been more perfect. Malcolm clapped happily to himself and gurgled her into doing it again. She stared with a false annoyance at the other ten sandcastles and proceeded to fill the bucket up once more, only to slip in the sand, light enough to lose the bucket’s grip and watched it fly into the oncoming tide.

 

It floated out away from them, Malcolm’s smile transfixed in fascination as the bucket drifted away, Melanie’ calling out for her to get it quick, Sakura’s own large, muscular hands fumbling like a child to grab it from the playful waves.

 

Sakura dropped the bucket with a squeak, finding herself back on the museum floor. The bucket was right before her, the same yellow castle, and the orange spade just a little away. She twisted to Father Sakagami, looking for Malcolm desperately, before something told her the painful truth.

 

“Did it happen to you too?” the priest asked. Sakura didn’t reply, she expected to blink and find Melanie standing there gorging herself on her ice cream cone again. She blinked intentionally. Reality didn’t return.

 

“Wh-what was that?” she asked as her legs found themselves desperate to pull her back up. Her housework instinct went to grab the bucket again but she hesitated, part of her connecting the dots as the cheeks part of her started to blush at the though of having muscles.

 

“Gregor, come back!” the security guard shouted, grabbing their attention away to see the man dropping a rusted gun back onto the shelf. The man turned to stare at them blankly for a few seconds, and then reached up to rub his hair, bringing his hand down looking surprised it had found anything there. Glancing back at them, he refocused on the gun and giving it the same look he’d give a rat in the kitchen, kicking it away from him before backing off.

 

“What the fuck was that?” he screamed rudely. “Just what the fuck was that? Fuck!”

 

****

 

“Well, at least it’s warmer here. Just right actually, why can’t it be like this all the time?”

 

“Uh huh?” Otsune muttered, quickly drowning out the small talk. The temperature was roughly the same as before, no hotter, no colder. The ground appeared to be made mostly of chalk, and was powdery on her fingertips. Yet walking across it felt as hard as granite.

 

The air was purer here and judging by how big the flame had gotten had a richer content of oxygen in the air; it the flame even needed oxygen. It certainly didn’t require the other two components necessary for a continuously burning flame. Distance was near impossible to judge. She was a good guesser at distance and estimated the landscape at the edge of the horizon was roughly twenty miles away given the size and doing her best to take into account any possibility of the usual optical illusions, even ones she didn’t know about.

 

“You know, he told us he didn’t know what a mile was or a day or even the sun, yet…”

 

“He spoke Japanese with complete accuracy. I noticed that too. I’d be more focused on the fact that without knowing what a day or sun was, he knew exactly what we meant by capitalism.”

 

“So he was lying to us then?”

 

“Not necessarily, he could just pick up the words quick, or he could have been given advanced warning as to some of the terms we use. He was a business after all. It may be a long stretch, but he was a little justified in knowing what capitalism meant..”

 

“But he knew our Japanese as well, he spoke it perfectly.”

 

“The Leys spirit was the same,” Otsune thought aloud. “But it doesn’t tell us anything. We can’t tell enough about this place to know how language works to these people. For all we know, the guy was taught it, learnt it through magic or just conveniently happened to have his language completely match up to ours.”

 

“But what are the chances of that?”

 

“Personally, I’d like to think higher than being able to magically learn our language just by looking at us, just so I can keep some objects of reasoning close to me. But, ignoring my stupid self who likes to study, read up on facts and try to be aware of how things work in the universe, I don’t think it’s going to do that.”

 

Looking out again on the horizon, she rejudged it as about fifteen miles.

 

“As annoying as it is,” she said with a little groan, “we have to be very opened minded about this place.”

 

What were the stars? She thought, looking up at the pale bright lights that showed up in this apparent daytime without a sun. She didn’t recognise any constellations. And her trip to Australia when she was thirteen had taught her what the stars looked like in the southern hemisphere. This had little signs of being southern or northern. So were they on a new planet? An illogical conclusion, seeing as they were on earth half a day ago.

 

“Well,” said Fujiko, turning behind them to check something. I can no longer see the cave door. I guess we’re safe now.”

 

Otsune looked behind. The great wall was still in site, but the little cave was invisible.

 

“No better time to try it I guess,” and reaching into her book bag, she pulled out the Ivory telescope.

 

“You took it?!” Otsune screamed in a whisper, immediately wondering why and turning her voice back to normal. “Didn’t you hear what I said? Homicidal natives! Avoid them! Various other obvious clichés about strange men in foreign lands.”

 

“Aw relax. Wasn’t it obvious? I’d say he was as cautious of us as we were of him. He probably wouldn’t dare chase after us just in case we crushed him.”

 

“We wouldn’t crush him. He lives alone in a wasteland. That toughens you up.”

 

“And we live in the city, facing hardships everyday.”

 

“Getting drunk is not a hardship. You drink like an expert playing beginner’s mode. But in a fight between the two of you, I reckon the unknown creature that survive in a barren landscape by himself has a better chance of winning than the unemployed bum that spends her days drinking.”

 

“That’s not the point though. The point is he had no idea what we’re capable of and tried his best to treat us politely. That’ll be enough to convince him not to chase us.”

 

Otsune couldn’t disagree too much. Superstitions about invaders were usually prevalent the smaller the group. One guy on his own would either be having fantasies about two girls coming down the hole, or be as cautious as possible lest they eat him.

 

Also, her binoculars were broken.

 

“Whoa, this is awesome,” Fujiko said with a wow in her voice. “It’s really clear.”

 

“What can you see?”

 

“Well, Rock for one thing. And nothing else for another.”

 

Otsune pouted. She deserved that.

 

“Have a look.” Lifting up her own glasses, Otsune peered through the glass, immediately into the far distance. She could see the settled dust parked on the ground with perfect pitch and focus. She then turned it across to the wall and every pitted rock came up perfectly. Even the small cave with its loose hanging wooden door was visible with every line of grain, the little image of Oscar planted against the wall, with far too much detail showing. She jerked away and got Fujiko in her sights. Without even a need for tuning, of which there seemed to be no handle anyway, she could make out every pore on Fujiko’s face, slowly showing behind her makeup.

 

“That is very cool,” she admitted. “But he’s still out there, so let’s get a bit further away before the homicidal natives rule takes into effect.”

 

They travelled for three hours, following the marked path set clearly in the dirt. There was no wind, and no chance of it getting worn away, so they followed it straight, without a single sign of life following them.

 

This place truly is dead,” Otsune commented, looking to the far wall, Still there, but now more a blur. It was only now she could appreciate that it did have a top to it, though from the gradually upwards slope she was on she couldn’t see anything still, she had enough of an angle to know very little was on top.

 

“Yeah, we needs a party,” Fujiko hiccupped. A fourth bottle had gotten passed Otsune, and Fujiko had already downed most of it. Otsune had had a sip herself, mainly to keep her spirits up.

 

“We’ve done pretty well for ourselves, I’d say,” chimed Fujiko, a little more happy now she was a little more drunk. “We started completely fucked and without the smallest chances of survival. And now we’ve got supplies to last us two weeks, a light, magical way of carrying them, and knowledge of where the fuck we’re meant to go next. Deus ex McMaccie not withstanding, I’d say we did well.”

 

“Don’t jinx it already.”

 

***

 

“Can’t we stop yet?” Fujiko whined like a petulant child wanting to know if the destination was any closer than five seconds ago. Otsune wanted to say yes just to shut her up, but they had to make good time unless they wanted to regret it later.

 

Not that she knew what good time was in this place. Roughly nine hours had passed since they first started on their way here, according to her watch anyway. Her mind was starting to play trust games with the binary timer slowly dotting away at her wrist. Telling the time in ones and zeros was easy to mess up as it was.

 

Her biological clock wouldn’t start to screw up just yet, though the static climate already had certain parts of her brain curious about why they weren’t getting ready for bed, while others still thought it was daytime. It was just gone midnight in reality back home 00000000 00010100. Her aim was to stop at 00000001 00000000.

 

“Otsune, c’mon,” Fujiko kept at it, making her realise she hadn’t responded to her friend. There was a feeling of appreciation to her friend trailing behind her, the drunkenness wearing off with exhausting exercise. Fujiko had really gone the mile and several cycloons for her. Even if she did have to be dragged into it the girl could have quit any time up until entering the Strangelands, and even then, the little man might have had some way out of this place if they had just asked.

 

Good job they didn’t.

 

This couldn’t change anything though. To relax would be foolish. To get lazy and complacent would lead to a spiralling loss of effort. It wasn’t the start of the race where people could go flaccid. They had to endure, to push further than before and go across all the pages. Anything else would waste Fujiko’s efforts for her friend, and would lose them any remaining chance of finding Tina.

 

All was pointless unless they achieved their goal. This wasn’t some philosophical trek when the journey was more important than the goal. They were fucked unless they got there.

 

A thud behind her was followed by a great groan of agony quickly turning into blissful relief in stereo. Fujiko was laying on the path. Having either fell or dropped, Otsune knew it didn’t matter now. Fujiko had decided.

 

Though she was tired too.

 

“Five minutes,” she said. “Then we’ll walk until one. Then we sleep.”

 

“It gone one,” Fujiko said, lifting her watch and making no effort to display it to Otsune properly. Otsune glared to see ten past one on display and ignored it.

 

“One by my clock,” Otsune retorted quickly with a ‘my word is final or no more booze’ tone.

 

“Fine,” Fujiko muttered. They rested quietly for a minute, Otsune watching the lights flicker on and off, zero and one, in succession. Keeping her mind active, she tried to guess patterns, but they numbly turned to long multiplication to prevent any real effort.

 

“Geez, when you think about it, all we’ve done is walk all day.”

 

Agreeing with a quiet ‘uh huh’, she realised how true it was. From the dorm to the forests, to the tunnel to the hill, they had covered more ground today than she had on foot in the past two weeks. No wonder they were exhausted. After this she’d have to space it out. This was only the start. They wouldn’t last long if they overextended themselves every day. I wonder if any of the leaves have healing properties.

 

Another regret. Questions left unasked. The little man was altruistic and she hadn’t abused it, let it lead her to laziness as all acts of kindness do. He was doing them favours, so she lost the flow. Didn’t ask the important questions. The meat and apples might have held no healthy qualities, even though they be the most likely candidates. The foul smelling dust might have boosted their strength and increased their speed a hundred fold. Having chosen the right stuff, they might have covered this same distance in minutes.

 

Of course, would she have accepted drugs like that, without knowledge of the negative effects, with the knowledge that they’d find Tina ever faster? Of course they were the foolhardy qualities all future addicts must ask themselves, though she never knew for certain. It was a shame that first hand experience of something she was mildly curious in would never be worth the risk. Drearily shaking her head, she snapped out of it. This wasn’t the time to think fantasy transcendism or imagining RPG qualities in foods. It was all just food. She would have asked for his opinion yes, but that didn’t mean the sacks promised power. The powers she had were proving useless anyway. A great mind lost in a wasteland, a beautiful body with no men to seduce, a flame that floated and a telescope that saw only that there was no where to sleep.

 

Any girl in the dorm would be at the same level as she was now.

 

***

 

The city wanted its buildings back.

 

It wanted to make a bed of them.

 

It couldn’t sleep. It couldn’t rest.

 

But it could be without being anything.

 

Save a useless city that is.

 

Otsune shifted as the land crashed around. Undistributed chalk dust jumped high in the air and took its time floating down. Echoes reverberated through her minds and played like an unwelcome alarm clock.

 

Quickly, she stirred awake, barely noticing that she had fallen asleep to look around, searching for the reality or the question of a dream (whichever she found first). Fujiko was waking besides her too, already complaining.

 

“Crap. Wasn’t a dream.” Her mind fluttered for a few moments. “Crap! Fell asleep!”

 

Otsune got up, the power nap refreshing her. Had they moved? were her first thoughts. She hadn’t recalled the hill being this steep before, but she could barely remember they were on a hill before. The noises above were distracting.

 

“Something’s here,” she said. Bracing herself, she scaled up the hill, half crawling to keep herself down. It was the ground that had been shaking, making the rumbling, but something obviously had to cause it. Peeking over carefully, her eyes took scant moments to adjust to the purple light of the neverday of this land. Ahead of her, a large man stood, probably twice as tall as her and just as slim. Large lanky arms dangled besides him, almost as long as the rest of his body. Far longer than they should have been. He was wrapped up tight in dark grey, nearly mummified in long cloth that wrapped round his entire body except his dark tanned legs which glowed like the sun.

 

An explosion flashed against Otsune’s eyes, and the ground exploded ahead of her, erupting a mere meter from the man as his arm jolted backwards. Ducking her head instinctively, she buried her face in chalk until the noise stopped. When she finally got the courage to look back, she saw chalk permeating the air, hiding everything as it fused with black smoke that quickly dissipated into the air, leaving the new figure standing as he had before, now looking straight towards her, causing Otsune to notice for the first time the large metal pipe dangling from his hands.

 

“No, wait, wait,” she screamed, barely having the time to speak, as green light bombed towards her, filling her vision before her arms flew up to uselessly protect her. The force pushed her off her knees, engulfing her in instant twister winds, enough to pull her up and push her down again. She rolled up the top of the hill and running going down again before the short tornado stopped.

 

Spitting out sands and tears, her eyes squinted open and closed themselves straight again, her eyes stinging like she had shampoo in them. She choked more dust out of her mouth.

 

“Otsune, what’s going-“

 

“Stay away!” she screamed, not able to see or hear anything. With more care this time she rubbed her eyes with a clean part of her top, even the driest bit was still matted with sweat and chalk, but soon she was able to see again, her vision blurred. For the first time she noted she had taken off her glasses when she had accidentally drifted off.

 

The top of the hill loomed over her, looking a lot bigger than it had before. The top was scorched black even over the edges and covering the other side. However the exact tip was clean, still bright white as before, as the head popped into view.

 

His face was covered with the same grey bandages as the upper half of his body, his features completely hidden except for bright blue eyes that filled the whole of the iris like an angry artist had thrown paint at them. They were wide and without eyelashes and Otsune felt that all she could do to stop him in those few moments he advanced on her was to just hurry up and kill herself to save him the trouble.

 

Descending down upon her, Otsune felt her hands scurrying over chalk searching for something. Anything. Too far away from their makeshift campsite, she had nothing. Even if she could throw something at him, something told her it would make no difference. His boomstick would make anything she did nothing short of temporary.

 

His presence took a moment for her grab the cuff of her own shoulder and slap herself in her face. What was she thinking? Freaking out like this. Getting all panicky at danger like some dumbass retard. Having just woken up was not an excuse, those were the dumbass reasons anyone would have for running away. Just because she was defenceless didn’t mean she couldn’t fight this.

 

She needed no weapons save the pulsating organ in her skull.

 

“Wait,” she said, loud yet calm, in the way a robber would to prevent hundreds of armed cops from shooting him down. This time it seemed to work and she slowly walked towards him, holding nothing, showing all her cards. For the first time she noticed the small flame between her and the man.

 

Her heart was beating through her chest, slamming on it, an angry husband looking for his wife, a scared child looking for its way out. Showing fear wasn’t an option. It might have worked to the man’s sympathy, but it also might stroke the wolf in him. She showed nothing but surrender. It was so potentially dumb, but there was nothing else. Any threats. Any strengths, would result in cannonfire in her face.

 

“Not a threat. We’re not a threat.”

 

They watched each other carefully, taking each other in, one breathing heavy, the other not at all. Keeping her eyes steady, trying to match his, she only faltered when she saw the launcher move, though even then it was carefully, analytical. A long teardrop shaped container with four sections protruding from it, possibly some kind of ammo holder and possibly meaning he was out, or only had one left. Impossible to guess without further information. The cut out hole in the teardrop was pointing at her.

 

“Sorry.”

 

The teardrop turned away from her, pointing safely towards nothing, the large man scratching the back of his head in silent anxiety. Otsune felt a huge surge of relief, and fell down again, not caring for ceremony.

 

The man stayed silent, as Fujiko slowly approached them. Sticking as close to Otsune as she possibly could, the girl clung tightly to keep herself as near and safe as possible. The man seemed to understand.

 

Both parties stayed silent, the trio keeping huddled together as the man stepped away. Otsune contemplated how he could wipe them out a lot quicker now like this. It took her a moment to notice he was already walking away back to the crossroads. “Were we that close?”

 

“Excuse me,” she shouted over to him before she knew what she was doing and slapped herself again for being so stupid. The man turned back to face her halfway, looking at her from the slits of eyes without pupils.

 

She had to ask.

 

“Do you know where the Circus of Answers is?”

 

The man stared down at her, like he was looking at nothing and waiting for the bus.

 

“The Circus of Answers,” she said louder, like an American asking a foreigner. “We need to find it.”

 

Was the little man telling the truth, she knew the answer already, but a second opinion would help kill some worries, and possibly prevent two deaths as well.

 

He grunted loudly, muffled under the layer, and turned to look back at the cross roads, pointing the large cannon high in that direction and unleashing a single volley that trailed high into the sky, leaving a great smoke path that travelled over the horizon of the next hill and landed with an echoing thud that lit up the far sky.

 

“Hopefully, not there,” said Fujiko.

 

****

 

“Think it through,” Natoko thought to herself as she ripped bread off of more bread and placed it sloppily into her mouth, managing to slurp it up like spaghetti. “If a trail is cold after the first couple of days, how cold is it a month later?”

November had pulled up a few hours ago and the threat of school and work had rendered the dormitory quiet for a night, not that it hadn’t been quiet all day either, or for the last month. Since school had started, silence had reigned a dictatorship over her life. There was noise, but no sound. Nothing important to listen too anyway.

And no clues.

Something inside her had expected things to fall into place at some point. Some magical clue swept under the carpet that once prominently on display linked all other objects together. A missing link. Yes, that was the term she was looking for.

As it was all she had found recently was some crusty bread she bought a week ago at the bottom of her bag that she really shouldn’t be eating and an equation at the back of her maths book that turned the current equations set for her detention/homework from intrinsically complicated to embarrassingly simple, made worse with the knowledge that she still didn’t get it.

Her arms tingled with overuse and her body demanded more water. There was talk of an exhibition going on next month for the kendo club. More local than national. She had discarded it as unimportant immediately after she was invited but now it was becoming quite tempting. Anything to get away from the mundane parts of her life returning.

No! She shook her head to snap the thought away, keeping her mind clear by staring at meaningless differential equations that were one by one gaining funny faces. It didn’t matter how boring this had gotten, didn’t matter how much their leads had whittled down to or how much Sagara was sleeping being beyond personal safety and going right down into muscle entropy. It was still her duty. She had to help Sagara pass his initiation.

That’s what she had decided. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t asked her. Sun Tsu’s general would not follow the Emperor’s orders if they were not of benefit to the emperor Even if the orders go against the wishes of the master, they should still be performed for his betterment.

If Sagara wouldn’t pass this initiation, then she would have to do it for him.

That was her line of thought as she started to fall asleep at the start of November.

***

A bump in the night caught her attention, shadows dancing along the dark walls. She stopped swinging Iziz idly in her left hand and listened. Everyone was asleep or out, but the dorm still liked to talk to itself every so often. The walls carried interesting echoes sometimes.

“Fujiko sure has been gone a while.”

“I need to tell him. I will tell him.”

“But it doesn’t make sense, even if the lampshade were to side with the radiators, entirely possible as both are providers of heat, it still does not take into account that the gas based items don’t get along well with electricity. If they were to team up, it would have had a more explosive impact…”

“Damn these whores for sullying our master’s name!”

Natoko woke up, sharp and fast, with a sharp jerk as she lifted Iziz up into a safer position. That was dangerous, drifting off with sword in hand. Not that dangerous directly. It was the waking up and stretching your arms up and around your head that resulted in a bloody awakening.

It was time for bed. She could continue to be depressed in the morning. Stretching one last time, she deposited Iziz back into its sheath and left the maths books to mysteriously burn to a cinder with any luck on the table. School and life had turned into the usual blur already, so she wasn’t too annoyed that tomorrow would bring up more anger with Mr. Tsukamoto and a few mumbling apologies to hurry and shut him up. She even had it as part of her daily schedule now. Argue with teacher. 0920 hours. Want to go home. 0921 hours.

No, she always wanted to do that.

Releasing a depressive giggle as she passed Junko’s own giggles, she realised that there was at least one other person who didn’t care that they had school tomorrow. Normally she found herself angry that people were bringing their boyfriends into the girl’s only dorm but then her’s was actually living there so she couldn’t be….

Her what?

No, what was she thinking?

Too tired. She was far too tired. Letting her thoughts get bored and curious. Her steel was melting, becoming softer. School did that to her; did that to everyone. There was no discipline there. No personal refinement. Even her reaction just now was that of a nobody. Next she’ll be watching soaps and starting rumours.

“There she is!” a voice boomed out in front of her. “There’s she who wishes they would slip into her room at night and take her. Who wishes for decadence to replace her languor.”

Natoko snapped to attention. The darkness before her revealing a figure. “Sits all night looking for violence and blood. Cock and flesh. Nothing pure. Only demon.”

The voice was croaked and raspy, someone who’s vocal chords had been plucked for far too long and never replaced, a tune that should have stopped long ago. The owner was hidden in the night of corridor east four; screaming in whispers,

“How can she even stand, with all the sin pouring out of her? She should be drowning.”

“Slut.”

“Whore.”

“Harlot!”

She focused into the darkness ahead of her. Three of them. Three voices in darkness, getting closer, ethereal strands of darkness floating between her and the intrusion, blocking her sight.

Iziz didn’t have its sash on her, so she couldn’t leave it hanging on her waist. Instead she held it tight in her hand, half out. She wouldn’t be able to swing properly like this.

“If she wants sin so much she can take it.” One jumped her, turning from a strange lump to a projectile heading straight for her. Wide eyes pierced a gaze in her soul that made her fall back in panic. It wasn’t until she was on the floor that she felt the water splash onto her, the body falling to her side.

It was a man on first glance, though it was too dark to tell properly. The man rolled his head over to look at her as he lay on the ground, his expression frozen.

“She denies it.” said the speckled old voice, wailing loudly, each of its cries pain on the ears. “Denies the manflesh she so craves. Does she think to deny herself in front of us? A harlot pretending innocence only makes them more sinful.”

Natoko recoiled, her hands fidgeting as they felt the weight of their actions. He was dead. The man before bore a cut straight through mouth to chest. Had Iziz really been that sharp? Her stomach heaved on her and resisted humiliating the corpse even further.

“Would she like another?”

Catapulting from the darkness, another figure came towards her, like a sack through the air, it fell towards her with no direction. Her panic made her drop the blade, not wanting to use it again. It gave her no time to move, and the body fell on her with a slump.

“Ha, this one she accepts. She is no maiden of virtue, this one, but cheap gutter trash waiting for the man with a bigger wallet!”

“Get off,” Natoko cried defiantly, fighting against the brute on top of her as he encumbered her with his full weight. His arms fell over her like large branches and belted her in the face as she lifted him up.

“Even a queer is man enough for her!”

Flailing randomly now, her eyes closed as tears leaked out, Natoko took a moment before she realised what was on top of her. Another man for certain, but one just as dead as the one besides her, and he looked kind of familiar.

“Ah geez,” she relaxed, knowing that her blade had not been responsible. They were both dead. They had both been already dead. That made sense. Surely she would have heard him complain otherwise.

It took a moment before she realised that this didn’t stop the two corpses from being right next to her.

With a scream that would have make Sakura proud, she shook herself free of the second body and crawled over to Iziz, picking it up and spinning into position, ready to face her challenger of an empty corridor.

Her thoughts backed up. No one there. Just her and two bodies.

She listened carefully. No one there. Wait. Someone. Not running or sneaking. Just fumbling slowly forwards. Feet moving in centimetres to prevent the smallest slip

And they had insulted her!

After screaming and shouting to distract her, they had left after leaving behind two bodies. Did they believe they could rely on the element of surprise? She herself was beyond such petty tactics.

She rose up, brandishing her blade and starting forwards. They wouldn’t be far ahead, and her eyes had adapted now. What were they? Demons for sure. Who else had reason to invade her dorm at night? It seems that the demon was right in its warnings. The others were seeing them as responsible. No one else had been targeted save her. Maybe Sagara too was under attack! The thought sped her pace.

Rushing down the corridor, she tried to keep her footsteps quiet to prevent disturbing the peace. Waking up others was as tactically effective in protection as reinforcing the walls of your outer defences with all your valuable gold. She would protect them by keeping them safe and asleep. The demons shouldn’t be aiming for anyone besides her and Sagara.

Why was that? For a second she felt the impulsive nerve ending of an answer grip her, but it left as she approached the lobby door. For stumbling footsteps they had gotten a good head start on her. She bounded through into the lobby and felt herself frozen to the spot.

The room was burning.

Her body immediately began to sweat in the intense heat, raging hot fires swarming towards her. She pulled back and watched with eyes crunched up as they stopped just before her. She pulled back, just as a peace of wood above started to crack and fall.

Fire alarms weren’t going off neither in either her brain or the roof. She was stuck watching the oranges flickering dance and merge with each other back and forth, to and fro. They played a merry jog and set the couch on fire.

The figure on the other side walked away from her.

“Wait,” she cried out foolishly. The figure hesitated, and she knew this must be the third of the voices. That didn’t matter though. All it was was another demon intruder that could bring her to life.

Then as it turned to look at her, Natoko’s mid skipped a step and went fuzzy, her thoughts burned in the amber haze and she felt her brain boil in its own juices. It was getting hard to think. She looked directly at the figure, staring it right in its face and seeing nothing but a hollow sphere with a hole in it, looking like an ostrich egg that had been punched.  It raised its hands and she screamed as the fire overtook her. Burning her arms, fizzling her hair and clothes; taking her to the depths of the inferno, she collapsed under the weight of the humidity and perished in everlasting nova flame.

“Evening,” said Aki, as she wandered through the empty lobby. Natoko turned to her, her hands raised over her head and looking like someone in rehearsal. “Look who I find. Should we call the police?”

Natoko let her arms drop, Iziz falling hilt side down and ejecting itself from the sheath and onto the floor as Natoko watched her friend come in through the door. Besides her on Gen’s perfectly polished and in no way scorched save for that one little burn mark from when Fujiko had stamped her cigarette into the ground, was a little old lady, dressed for tradition and looking very meek and distressed.

***

The police hadn’t come into the dormitory. Some mystical, powerful force that could only be described as exercise fearing laziness prevented them from ascending the Heaven’s walkway. They had been more concerned with the old lady being lost than being an intruder. It was of course unthinkable that she had been there to do damage. The police weren’t completely local but they were still on the side of the elderly and of course completely innocent rather than the young and always at fault. They had listened to a few quick words from the two girls, as well as Junko, who had still been awake, heard nothing of interest and then left to return the older woman back to wherever she came from as soon as Aki confirmed that there was no further damage.

They had had about an hour before the police finally did show up, giving Natoko plenty of time to wander round and get Junko up in the first place, the only problem besides ruining her friend’s happy time being that she hadn’t spoilt it completely by giving her two bodies to trip over. Apparently they had gone the same way as the burning lobby. At first she had jumped to the obvious conclusion that she was going mad and about time too. The floor wasn’t marked in any way in the lobby and the air was crisp and cool with the AC switched to mild. She didn’t even have any sweat marks on her top. Wherever she had been, it was certainly not on fire.

Of course it made no sense that a small women could have tossed bodies that had floored her across the length from here to the darkness, but that didn’t deny the weight she had felt. She was definitely winded from the impact. Even now.

They were gone, vanished into space and with no traces left save her own fading memories. She had almost given up on them too when the floor was completely empty, but as she slid Iziz back into place, no blood on it either it seemed, she noticed a small plastic card balancing precariously on the skirting.

An id card, belonging to Hattori Saizo. That name was familiar, and not just historically. The face was even more familiar, she thought, looking at the handsome yet sullen features of its once carrier. This was the one she had slashed. Iziz had cut through him so clean and easily. She never had a proper chance to test that before. Bamboo and air were nothing compared to flesh and bone.

She had seen him before. But where. Too old for school and she didn’t really know anyone else. Someone from the town maybe. Why did the body disappear and not this? Was there someone else here, hopefully long gone after the hour’s wait for the police? Where else had she been recently?

It clicked. For the first time in a while, Natoko smiled.

***

Thunderous footsteps waking up those in the surrounding dorms, Natoko paced across wooden nightingales and through the corridors that led outside. Crossing over the gravel, she made a sharp left and followed the wooden walls that supported the outside wall of the building. It was quicker this way, even though it was guesswork leading her at the moment. There had been no pattern in his tactics of slumber.

Which meant that he’d be in the one place she’d check last.

“Sagara. Sagara,” she called out, entering his room without knocking. “I figured it out. I know what the connection is!”

His room spread out before her, the first none family member’s male bedroom she had been in before caught her by the throat as she realised what she had done. The fear of being in a place she should not was quickly replaced however, as the emptiness of the room dawned upon her. It was spartan. Empty, save for a futon and a bag thrown the corner. The cupboard open, no clothes were hung up and there were no drawers to store anything in. It was considered basic accommodation to have a desk when you rent a room out, but this was missing as well. How could he live like this? She thought briefly, before other duties distracted her attention.

He wasn’t in bed. He was no where near the futon fact. Instead he was resting amazingly comfortably against the wall, his head and shoulders below the rest of him, his back plastered to the wall with sweat, his legs dangling freely swaying palm branches. She approached carefully, but loud enough to try and wake up.

“Sagara, wake up! It’s the tournament. Tournament finalists are the ones they’re going after. Itoko and that demon were attacked by the fire spirit. And I got attacked too. Now there’s…”

Her argument halted itself. He hadn’t shifted an inch, just lying there against the wall. Pushing him awake would be far too rude, she knew. Maybe she could push his legs a little so he fell down…

Looking round his room, as if something there might help her out, she ran out of options quickly. She tried prodding him, watching as he wobbled on the spot backwards and forwards, legs rotating in small circles before coming to a halt like his lower body was stuck in cement.

“Sagara,” she whispered, before realising that ruined the point. “Sagara!” she said with more conviction.

He snored once loudly, then went back to being silent. Natoko felt insulted.

Contorting her face back from him, she couldn’t help but release a guttural growl at the boy. Sleeping? Even now. When clues are dangled before them? How could he be so lazy? It was beyond a joke. No one needed to sleep this much. From what Gen had said he was up during the day, working hard and training. Did that exhaust him this much? Shouldn’t he be out looking for clues as well?

“Sagara!”

 

The air sucked out of Natoko’s ears, falling underwater without the rest of her as she began floating in midair. With just enough time to see herself go limp under Sagara’s heavy body, she felt herself getting rammed by the bullet train and turned the whole world to a blur around her.

 

Then she was in Sarah’s room. The little blond delinquent was now sporting a blue hue which seemed to surround her and everything else in Natoko’s vision. She was on the phone to somebody and looked angry as ever. As Sarah spoke, every word came out north by north east and tasted like strawberries. In her other hand she held a game controller, her big toe on the directional pad.

 

The train hit her again, just a glancing blow this time, just enough to render her nothing but pink fleshy matter, but not enough to prevent her flying through several walls and ceilings without breaking them behind her and into Otsune’s empty room. Nothing happened at all in here. In front of her, nothing appeared and then she was taken away again.

 

Struggling to get a bearing, her world shaking one thousand and eighty degrees and playing her head like a drum, she saw him wandering in the distance, “Sagara!” she shouted. The boy turned, but didn’t seem to see her. She had stopped off in Hisami’s room.

 

The girl was in tears, lying on the floor. Around them, Natoko could hear chanting.

 

“Hisami?” she said, seeing her friend in need. She jumped down and grabbed the floor tightly to try and see her friend’s face. “Are you okay?”

 

“Shut up. Shut up Shut up. Make them leave me alone. Stop them.”

 

“Hisami?”

 

“You gotta get them to stop for me. They won’t listen to me anymore. Only talk. Talk and talk and talk.”

 

“Hisami?” Part of her brain was telling her to speak in Italian.

 

“All the boring talking. It only stops to ask how you are. It never cares. That beautiful mundane. Trapped in mediocrity. So beautiful, never being able to see.”

 

Natoko tensed her arm to drag hersef sideways. It seemed harder than it usually would, pulling herself to Hisami’s face.

 

“You don’t see them anymore!”

 

The face stared right back at her, and Natoko knew this shouldn’t be right. It was enough to get her hit by the train again. She followed it outside, to a flowing stream. Two men stood there, one was a wizened old gentleman who mused philosophically at her while stroking a beard that grew longer as he pulled on it. The other was a ball.

 

One went to touch her and she repelled herself back, shooting away again and returning to the dorm. She hit the sound coming from a radio and skidded past Sagara. “Sagara,” she screamed as she bolted past and he reached up to grab hold of her.

 

“Got you!” he said and then she woke up again.

 “Morning,” Aki said, nearly startling her by appearing in a long robed, pink dressing gown. “Police have left.”

Natoko looked around. The room was still empty. Her lord was still asleep. Aki looked at her in a blur for a few moments and she realized it wasn’t best to stand right now. “Ah yes. Good work,” she hoped she said, though she wasn’t aware of what Aki had done.

“Hey, look at him,” she said with glee, gliding over to the corpse boy before them. “Wonder how he did this?”

“Beats me,” Natoko replied.

“Hey boya,” Aki jeered. “Having your guard down and being completely unprepared accounts for 100% of all deaths you know. It goes alongside not breathing for more than six hours.” She poked his face, undeterred by its position.

Looking away and feeling the card in her hand, Natoko knew right now she should be telling Sagara and only Sagara? But now something else was coming over her. Something deep and overwhelming. An irrepressible urge that could not be swayed even if she wanted to. A rushing tide coming at a beach with an intention to collect as many souvenirs as possible.

In truth, it was not an unnatural feeling. She knew this, even though she had never felt it before. It was irrational, for she knew it to be pointless. But knew it had to be followed through more than even a trip to the lavatory. And nothing could, nothing would, stop her now she had remembered it.

“Aki, listen to what I found out!”

Taking her time to explain, as best as one could in between ragged bursts of information shooting out of her mouth at great speed, she threw down her reasoning on the attacks, her lines of thought on how she knew tournament members to be the targets, her methods and conclusion, making sure not to omit any detail and being thorough in denying any argument Aki might come up with before she had a chance to easy.

By the time she had finished, Aki just stared at her, and Natoko knew it was time to be smug.

The girl then shrugged her shoulders. “Well sure, that’s obvious really.”

Despite every justification, Natoko did not kill her friend.

“Though it doesn’t completely work out,” Aki mused further. “And why is the card still here when the bodies disappeared? It’s like it was setup.”

Natoko tried to ignore her, kneeling down besides Sagara’s contorted form, his loud snoring was only periodic, once every ninety seconds or so like it released little wimpy snorts of clogged air that were disgusting and mesmerising.

Natoko cut them off with her finger.

“What are you doing?”

“Waking him up.”

She held his nose tightly, her other hand wrapped over his mouth and felt the pressure build underneath. Feeling a bit of a bully she waited for him to struggle, feeling a little odd when nothing happened. It should have only taken seconds but he held fast as time passed quicker.

Just when he was going purple and she was just about to consider if he had another blow hole somewhere, the boy’s eyes fluttered open and looked directly at her. She lifted her hand to let him breathe, but strategically kept her hand on his nose and started lifting him.

“My apologies, sire,” she said, feeling a weight of guilt dropping into her lungs and switching to high etiquette as a remedy. “But we need to discuss some matters of importance regarding the initiation.”

“Sure, what’s up,” he replied, completely awake.

***

By the time Natoko had explained everything, only two minutes had actually passed. She was never very good at getting into detail and she had wanted to omit most of the scripting provided by the elderly folk that had invaded. Even so, it was past two now and time was starting to stretch. She’d only get four hours of sleep at this rate.

“So it’s tournament members, huh?”  Sagara repeated, thus helpfully summarising the previous unprinted parts of the conversation. “Well that never occurred to me.”

“See, he didn’t get it,” Natoko stated proudly to Aki. Aki was asleep. Natoko turned back to the actual conversation. “So what should we do now?”

“Well, it’s late and I’m tired. I guess we could leave it for the weekend.”

Not replying for the first moment, Natoko waited to see if this was the one and only time Sagara would burst into a girlish fit of giggles and say ‘psyche’ or something. The second moment turned to hoping he was about to become a schoolgirl. During the third moment, a thousand miles away, the angel of the north sneezed and cause inspiration in a hundred university postgraduates studying mathematics and physics to convert both to Christianity and homosexuality, and by the fourth her face was contorted in anger.

“The weekend?” she repeated, ready to blow and spraying the contents of her head at him in due reward “We’ve wasted enough time already this month. We shouldn’t delay another four days. We have to act now.”

And skip school.

“I know.” Sagara stretched up, flipping round and rolling against the diameter of his forehead so he wouldn’t land on her. “But it’s not possible right now. Perhaps the morning would be more likely. But right now this is very unlikely.” He stooped up, a usually impossible motion but Sagara managed without grace or fluidity, and slumped over to where the mattress was placed in the centre of his near barren room.

He missed it by a rough meter, dropping like a penguin realising the iceberg was slippery and cracking chin first into the floorboards. He didn’t seem to mind and carried on laying there. Natoko watched for forty-five seconds until his first shotgun blast of snoring filled the air.

Leaving Aki to her own dreams, she paced out the door, slamming it shut and wandering down the hall, coming back a few seconds later to make sure it was shut properly. Silence quickly filled the room as the two empty bodies slept peacefully at opposite ends of the room, Sagara’s mouth whispering hollow promises of fairy cakes and Aki drooling*[1].

****

You were right before, brother. Please remember that. Heavenly springs does not hold our siblings. Only the OniSui was imprisoned there. Only I went there by choice and none of its current residents know where our brother is hidden.

***

She couldn’t believe him. Impossible. To find the clue they had long waited for. To be given it, even in suspicious and obviously placed by someone who wanted them to find it circumstances, and to just ‘pass it off for the weekend’. There was no logic in that! That was intentional failure!

Part of her was arguing that this must be the plan of a leader, that the leader was holding back information even from the troops, the strategy of a true mastermind that although showing his men as only pawns in his battle he knew the risks of letting too many know too much about everything he was but then she just remembered that it was fucking Sagara again.

She was loyal to him. Even now. This was just a test, but one she had given herself. To be patient at a time of being where she wanted to be far away and perhaps in some fantasy land where talking Australian crocodiles taught her everything they knew bit by bit so she could become their queen was the virtue a vassal needed the most. Great leaders did not come quickly, she had taught herself that. Napoleon and Alexander and Nobunaga didn’t have their wars of life unfold in the five minutes it took her to read the quick tips box. If she were to follow him, she must realise there would be cold patches as well, spell of numbness and indecision.

Maybe it was time take on optional duties, to properly pass the time.

[1] Aki didn’t dream much. It was nearly impossible for her to dream. Not so much out of a lack of falling into REM sleep, but more that she never noticed the difference between being awake or asleep, which led to further complications down the line when she realized that she was no longer married to Fujiko, and that Fujiko didn’t know what she was talking about, or that they had insisted on a Brad Pitt themed wedding. After she realized the events in dreams didn’t happen in reality, she deemed them useless and deciding to stop having them altogether.

 

****

 

Not knowing what she was doing here, Natoko turned round to head home.

Realising it would be rude to not show up at the agreed time, Natoko turned back round and stood by the door for a few more minutes.

Coming to the conclusion that this couldn’t be the place Kiriyama had told her to meet up with him she paced off again, ready to apologise in the morning for not being able to meet up.

Finally, in the fourth loop of the fourth set, she stopped to look at the map, giving her directions to this exact location in fine detail, the Google map showing her exactly where she needed to be with perfect precision, even the words ‘blue door’ scrawled in red pen by Kiriyama himself.

Taking in the door’s rotten form. the blue appeared to be an afterthought like a baker had decided a cherry on top would be nice for his cake, but only had the one in his mouth left to use. The rest of the alley made the InBetween realm with all its neatly placed and repetitive mess looked like it had been cleaned by the type of pedantic mother figure that won’t leave you alone when you’re busy. The ground was wet, the puddles with plenty of garbage and dirt mixed in. She couldn’t even identify most of the dirt in the compact space of the alley. Most of the gunk hanging off the wire fence didn’t look like it had come from anything remotely solid and had just oozed into existence with the intention of causing passer-bys to retch at the sight.

This was definitely the place, but she was getting cautious about waiting here. Even wrapped up with her thick coat, she could feel her bones chill her slowly. This is where white outlines got painted! And the large garbage cans surrounding her probably stored nothing but corpses. Escape should have been her only real focus now. Screw the fact she wasn’t trapped.

“Ah, you made it,” a voice echoed through the alleyway. The blue door was talking to her as Kiriyama slid out of it, keeping the decrepit mess of wood as shut as possible. “Thank you for coming today. I appreciate all your help.” He bowed deeply for her.

“Oh no no no,” she said, waving her hands and feeling flustered. “I’m just sorry I put you off for so long, even though I wasn’t really doing much.”

“I thought you said you had other projects.”

“Well,” she started, feeling crestfallen. “They’ve been put on a delay it seems.”

“Then it’s good for both of us,” he responded, looking genuinely cheerful. “I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do this without you. You’re vital to the plot here.”

Now this is what she needed. Actual appreciation, not just a kooky grin. She responded better with Kiriyama. Always had done. He may have been the popular student in school, but he wasn’t too smug, and he worked hard and got on well with everyone, even her, even though they didn’t talk much during school.

“So what do you need me for?” she asked confidently, though a little anxious when she saw the perfect ball of dark smog erupt from the air conditioning.

“I just need you to stay with me here for today. We’re meeting with somebody first, and I’ll need you to let me do the talking.”

“Oh… ok,” she said, curious and confused.

“Ah….well,” he seemed to stutter a little. “I’ll explain later for sure. If you could just not speak during all of this, I need to have it work perfectly.”

“But…”

Her voice faded as she heard footsteps. Kiriyama had noticed them before her. The two were chatting lightly to themselves, and she heard curse words every other syllable. As she got sight of them apprehension caught her heart. These were…types she’d work hard to avoid. The type where confrontation was part of the mandatory curriculum. They wore beanies and fake designer sunglasses. They were slouched over. One was smoking. Natoko made herself look and feel small, a survival instinct developed for centuries by the Japanese not to avoid a fight she couldn’t win (impossible) but to avoid a social encounter she would not be able to get out of without feeling shamed later.

“Good afternoon,” Kiriyama said besides her, getting up and approaching the men as one was in mid hock and spit. They viewed him as if they were at an art gallery they didn’t quite get.

“Oioioi, who’s this guy,” said the smoker.

“Dunno, don’t care.”

“Good afternoon. My name is Yamato Satoshi. This is Nakamura Kotana. Am I right in thinking you are known as Ryuta and Kenni?”

“Eh?” the smoker emitted a noise that sounds like it would come from a dying cat. “You yak’za or something?”

“The fuck man? Too young to be yakuza,” the beanie, who on closer inspection looked to have a face like a junction of jagged rocks. “They don’t hire kids.”

“Ah no, we are not Yakuza. In fact, we’re actually part of –“

“Not many Yak’za left round here anyway. The king scared most of them off. The ones remaining became worker bees.”

“Yes, I heard the same,” Misato tried to make it sound like he was meant to be part of the conversation. He was failing.

“But what if they’re coming back. There’d try tat.”

“Yak’za ain’t never coming back. No reason to. No business here any more. Not da regular type anyway.”

Natoko found herself fascinated for a moment. Misato was still trying to get a word in edgeways. She had never seen him not be the centre of attention before.

“My apologies sirs, as I was trying to tell you, we happen to be simply a group of two, and we were looking for information.”

“Ah, you lost or something?”

“Ah no, we’re-”

“You look lost to me. Looks like you shouldn’t be round here at all.”

“Ah yes but I…”

“-was just leaving right. Just going to turn around and leave with your girlfriend before you come across circumstances you regret.”

It occurred to Natoko, that she had already forgotten who was who, or who had even spoken last. It didn’t seem to matter.

“Ah no no,” Kiriyama said after a little mumbling. “I had a question to ask you surrounding your boss?”

“My what?” the beanie shouted.

“Your- your boss.”

“Don’t have a boss.”

“Ah yes you do, I- I know that… because… well. I… I happened to overhear…”

Misato was losing it. She could see his fear. They could probably smell it.

“Little boy thinks he can get a piece.”

“Wants to play video games in real life.”

“There’s no health packs here boy. This ain’t school, and it ain’t manga. You can’t come here with some bitch and expect to just ask your way into our things. Respect got to be earned f you wanna go up.

“Ah, so you do have a boss?”

“What?’

“You said to go up. That would imply a hierarchy and from there a top part, where I assume your boss is, you know, the King.”

“He’s psychic, Kenni, how he figured that?” The one who must be called Ryuuta looked panicked, very shaken. His friend glanced at him disappointed for a second. Misato seemed to relax, but Natoko had been picked on enough to know sarcasm in that type. “You better tell him what he wants quick, or you’ll be sorry.”

“Okay, you’re scaring my friend here,” the beanie said, also not looking shaken. “I think you have one more chance to leave, and then you will have no options to leave at all.”

“I just need to speak to-“ The fist came fast, and was clocked  at an angle Natoko was unfamiliar with. It was from above the shoulder, but it was sideways, sloppy and Kiriyama should have been able to avoid it with dashing ease.

Unintentionally rooting herself to the ground, Natoko watched as the beanie followed up, driving his right steel capped boot straight down into Misato’s chest. Misato cried out with agony and rolled over a full turn just in time to receive a slicing kick in the exact same spot. His cries turned to whimpers as he started to incoherently babble forgiveness.

Frozen on the spot, Natoko found herself captivated, wanting to move, but no way sure of herself. Her mind flew back to the other night, mutilating a demon right through its skull. But that was all imaginary. What if she had been fooling herself?

The smoker caught eyes with her and took offence by it. “The fuck you lookin’ at.” He spat at her, narrowly missing. Natoko drove her eyes away to look down at Misato. The beanie was concentrating on his stomach. Standard tactics from what she thought of these guys. Winding him for a long time prevented him from fighting back when they took stuff later. Kiriyama was a wreck.

“See what he’s got on ‘im,” the smoker barked, fiddling around in his pocket and pulled out a switchblade. He left it hanging to his side as he approached her. It felt like he didn’t intend to use it, only threaten. Her uncertainty prevented any reaction.

“Please…” Misato gasped with the little air inside of him. “Don’t hurt her.”

The street was less than twenty meters away. With a sudden dash she’d be out and safe in an instant. Once she was that far, there’s no way they’d try anything in a crowded street. They only got away with it here because of the trash cans.

But she couldn’t, for both reasons.

And then he was on her.

“What’s this you got?” he asked, in the clear tone that told her it could have been a bag of manure and he’d still want it.

Time froze again.

His hand was on Iziz’s bag.

“Remove your hand!”

With a speed that defied his heavy leather jacket and more jewellery hanging off him than queens would have, the smoker’s chin bashed the end of her case and fell to the floor just in time to have the skin of his hand sliced through, his other wrist breaking on the stained concrete beneath him.

A loud clang crashed through her ears, followed by a scream and groan mixed together. It took her a moment to realise the beanie man on top of Kiriyama had fell backwards; knocked cold from something she had missed, her own sudden opponent on the floor with Iziz pointing straight at him.

“If you could hurry up and apologise about taking so long, I’d really appreciate it,” Misato said. Without taking her eyes off the smoker, she saw him roll back over and get up like someone glad to be out of school for the day and nothing more.

“But you can do so later. Now we have more important matters.” He wandered over to the smoker, reaching underneath his shirt and producing a large metal sheet that covered his chest. Standing over the man who had the advantage seconds ago, Kiriyama walloped the metal plate over the man’s head like a pillow.

“Right,” he said casually as the man’s head swayed back and forth. “Not many questions to ask you. Where do we find the King?”

“King?” the man said. Natoko honestly believed he couldn’t understand. She certainly didn’t.

“From my research, I don’t believe he’s your boss, but I know you do jobs occasionally for him. You always receive the word from a public payphone in Takahata, and you pick up whatever juice he deals with in one of six locations. Judging by the fact you always buy the tram ticket straight after receiving the job I believe they’re random. So far I’ve observed seven of your runs and they’re all different places.”

Natoko didn’t catch a word of that. How’d she even get Iziz out the case?

“So you gonna talk or mumble?”

“Fuck you!”

Clang!

“Your response was not understood. Please try again.”

“Fuck you!”

Clang!

“That…that wasn’t what I meant.”

“Kiriyama,” Natoko finally spoke, her voice croaking out of stunned silence as events spiralled out of her control.

“Yeah I know,” he cut her off. “You hear that, boy? She’s getting restless. She’s got some blood from your hand but that’s not going to be enough to meet her quota for today.”

The smoker glanced up on her. His face was red, choked by the metal tray. It looked ready to crack. It would be bruise mountain tomorrow. “She needs it, you see. We’ve got animals back at the hideout for her to practise on. Let her get the cuts in, but it’s not really enough. Sometimes, she’s just gotta let it loose.”

Now the man was whimpering. He hadn’t even noticed his cigarette singeing his pants.

“It’s okay if you don’t wanna tell us though. If you have such loyalty in the king. We have your friend after all. I’m sure he’ll spill all after you lose the ability to live.”

Now he was wetting himself. How disgraceful.

Misato waited a few seconds, and then gave up. “Well, whatever. Kotona?”

The man imagined indescribable things happening and screamed loudly, waving his bleeding hand her and cowering into his jacket.

Natoko didn’t move an inch. She wasn’t about to do anything.

“Wait” the man shouted. “KK. See KK.”

“Whose KK?” Misato said, holding a hand up to call her off.

“Kazui Koizumi’s his name. He’s a doctor. Runs a small practise near the museum in Itayaki. He set us up with the jobs.”

“Right, thank you for your time. Please run away in terror now.”

The smoker seemed to relax for a second and noticed for the first time his combats covered in blood, ash and urine. Getting up, he scampered away quickly, leaving them alone in the alley.

“Right, good job. Had me worried there.” She turned to look at him, feeling her sword go limp from the straight out and point at the neck position she had it in seconds ago.

“Aren’t you…”

“Not at all,” he said, looking a little happy, but distracted at the same time. “I was kind of worried there. It’s hard to suggest to a person where to hit you. I’m just glad he was weak and fat.”

“But he,” her hand went up to touch her own face.

“Rolled with it. Same way you did,” he moved on, checking the floor and stamping on the still burning butt end  “Right, next we have to check out this doctor’s. Do you still have time today or do you-“

Kiriyama was forced to pause. Tips of sword balanced expertly on chins where to relax was to also leak from your skull stopped anyone from talking.

“Aren’t you taking your assumptions a bit too far here, Kiriyama?” Natoko said.

“Later, we have no-“ The sentence was cut short at the same time the air in front of Kiriyama was, the blade dangling precariously close to his nose and shaking alongside Natoko’s ragged breath.

“You’ve just had me stain my sword with a thug’s blood after deliberately provoking them. Though he lives, you should know this. I will end up a murderer tonight if you do not explain things to me this instant just what is going on.”

Kiriyama looked tentative and then tried to relax as best he could. “You know. It’s funny you say that.” Kiriyama clapped his hands and made her blink. Eyelids hid where he went next and pain struck her knuckles as he rapped on them viciously. Next, air left her stomach as he pushed the metal plate into her and the wall met her back as he bounced away, Iziz stolen and set to-

“No! Don’t!” The blade tore through the neck of the beanie man, slitting the ridge of his back like paper, lifting up and down through the man’s chest on both sides. The thug made no effort to respond, no resistance or reaction. He just died on the end of her blade, Iziz struck through his heart and left there.

She was panting, pushing herself back against the wall; pushing hard to go through it. Iziz was covered in the blood that scattered through the alley, draining into the pools of sludge and filth below. Her mouth went to scream, but Kiriyama shushed her with a finger. He released Iziz and backed away.

“Whilst you do deserve an explanation,” Kiriyama said relaxed and far too in control to say something reassuring like he saw the guy pulling a gun and so had to react in that manner in order to save her. “I’m afraid this zone has just become a little hotter than before. So it’ll have to wait.”

“Iziz,” she cried out, ignoring him and lunging over for the sword. The hilt was trapped in something; a bone perhaps. Struggling to pull it out, she saw a small pool form where the blade had exposed the skin. On the edge of her eye a small flash grabbed her attention.

Glancing up, four floor, she saw someone dive their head into the window. Behind her, Kiriyama chuckled to himself. She didn’t quite get it until the face popped out again and took another shot.

The light of the lens struck purple in her eyes. She turned to Kiriyama who was still just smiling and chuckling to herself. Looking back, she saw the man with the camera had gone.

“Kiriyama- What was? What is…” Looking down at the body again, she saw Iziz was still stuck in. Yelping she pulled it out and swiped to clean the blood off out of reflex. Kiriyama was laughing at her clumsiness. “What is going on? She shouted, lifting up the sword to prove her threat once again, waiting for any reaction he may give to strike him down again.

“Oh, get out. Seriously Natoko. I know I was thinking of you in terms of hired thug tonight, but could you at least realise when you’re being blackmailed-“

The sword thrust a few millimetres forward, greeting his nose in a rude and unpleasant manner. She twisted her wrists to prevent a similar strike to before.

“Oh right, the threatening.”

“Explanation. Now.”

“First off. Take a look at this.” Slowly, he reached into his pocket and pulled his mobile out. “It’s a picture my mate Jonny just sent me. For the record that’s not his real name and you’ll never see him again.” Pressing a few buttons he turned it to show at her. On the small screen she saw herself, Iziz in hand, standing over a body of which Iziz was connected on the other side. She felt her stomach contort.

“Even you can understand with that, right; stupid Natoko?” he leered at her, like the sword meant nothing. “You’ve just officially become my hired thug. You will do as I say and command. Things you haven’t done but were stupid enough to pose for will be held against you. From now on, you’re mine to play with.”

Natoko felt numb. Destroying the camera would not help. “I was hoping for a different reaction to be honest. Before the summer, I had you pegged as someone with find glory in attacking punks like this.” Destroying Kiriyama would not help. Sagara would not be able to help her. Iziz was now limp at her side. “I prepared for this response just in case and well, I’m glad I did.” Kiriyama didn’t need to relax.

“Second off, my uncle’s not a marine biologist. Not completely anyway, but he does specialise in the transport of fish. The type you’re not allowed to catch and eat or sell.”

“What… what does that mean?”

Kiriyama sighed and she felt stupid through the numbing. “It means he’s a smuggler. He catches endangered fish and sells them off, though he also handles a lot of other goods and resources, the types that can’t be pulled through to other countries legally.”

Still he held the phone to her face. It was more threatening than any gun. “When he heard what had happened to me, he decided now would be a good time for me to replace my father after he bailed out of the family business. He told me Fuugosuki was mine for the taking. That’s a very odd thing to say though, don’t you agree?”

“Um… What?” was all Natoko could managed. Kiriyama rolled his eyes.

“Tell me Natoko, at a guess, on average, and this isn’t something you’d learn in school, how many crime families do you think a city has on average?”

“”Well I…” The only reference she had was movies and video games. “About… it’s usually five, right?”

“That’s just the strong ones right? That’s a good average. But I mean in total.”

“Fifty?”

“Far more than that. We could be talking thousands if you went far enough. And that’s not even getting petty about it and including every family that commits crime.”

“Now, one more question, if you’ll permit me. How many crime families do you think this city has?”

Natoko stared grimly in the boy’s devious eyes. “S-several thousand?”

“One,” he said firmly. “Just one, and that’s it. We don’t know how or why, but the crime effort in this city is completely unified. Sure there are still random crimes, but even these are low in comparison. In fact, crime rate in this city is so low, it’s amazing they even need police, at least that’s how it looks. And this is why my uncle said the city was ready for the taking.”

“W-what’s your point?” She was stuttering. Don’t stutter!

“The point is the absence of crime should be impossible within a city and such a low level is also concerning. My uncle noticed this, finds it both strange and ripe with potential. So he sent agents to communicate with the city’s underworld. Each time they came back empty handed. The doors to crime in this city simply never appeared, let alone opened.

“He decided that such a syndicate either didn’t exist or was wonderfully well hidden to the foreigners he was sending to get it. So he sent me, a native to the city, and gave me the offer of taking over with his resources at my disposal. I’m must admit that though I’m quite familiar with everything around here, and I know a lot of people, I’ve never yet run across a criminal. In all my years here I’ve never once heard of even a mugging or burglary. The police have it quite easy save for local troublemakers.”

Natoko felt a growl at the base of her throat and didn’t hold it back. This was nonsense to her. Deluded nonsense. He lowered the phone down and put it away. Kiriyama didn’t care now and they both knew it didn’t matter. The Beanie laying between the trash cans also agreed.

“Then I heard a rumour of one apparently great man, a large imposing monster of a figure, who strength belies comparison and whose arms smash all who oppose him. Apparently he appeared just over a year ago and stormed the Yakuza and all other gangs operating in the area and put him under these guys. From what I’ve been told from the little info I got, it is he who works this city, keep the cogs of crime turning whilst keeping them squeaky clean. This is the man my uncle needs to find, to either conquer or compromise with.

“And that’s my project, and it’s what I’ll be using and abusing you for.

“To find the King of the city.”

****

 

“Che, bad timing,” Kiriyama grumbled. “Come on!”

 

For all her new found speed, Natoko found herself unable to kick the ignition. She dawdled those few moments the patrolman came thundering to them in a stiff disciplined sprint which covered the one hundred meters between them in under ten seconds, white gloved hands chopping the air in front of him as if to get it out of the way. Natoko looked straight at his chiselled, serious demeanour and became so entranced in the lion’s gaze that she didn’t even notice that she had struck him in the head with the hilt of Iziz, bowling him past her and to the ground.

 

“Bullseye!” Kiriyama cried out triumphantly looking behind them in an accent that sounded a bit too American for a second there. “Come on. Let’s go.”

 

Natoko didn’t reply, she wasn’t even sure how he could chatter away when air was trying to escape her body from her heart. Looking own at the bodies she found them drifting further away as he dragged her by the arm. The thought of what she was doing flew through her mind. “What are we doing?” she cried out. “What do we think we’re doing?”

 

“Stay calm. Head for the crowd. We can slow down there.”

 

“Misato!” It was the first time she had called him by his name. “What we just did…it was…”

 

“Hey, that was your instincts, not mine.”

 

“But you just-”

 

“Be quiet!” he barked and for the first real time she felt she had no choice but to obey a command, no choice but to bow her head and follow the whimsical pleas of one above her station. “And put that thing away, will you?”

 

Iziz was back in its sheath, but swinging that about was just as illegal as the blade itself. Slowing down and spinning round, she got the whole block into the case and left it zipped up and hanging from her shoulders.

 

They were in the crowds now. Feeling a wave of relief as she let her legs stop, she lost track of everything as she followed the man in charge.

 

***

For the fifteenth time, she turned and surveyed the street behind them. No, the officer still wasn’t following them. He was still just behind the corner, waiting to be suddenly closer than she had thought, ready to continue pursuit like he had never stopped running; a machine with white gloves.

 

It had been five miles and two train rides but that didn’t stop her checking every six seconds like a paranoid lemming believing the cliff was sneaking up behind them so much that they forgot to look forwards.

 

She was going to be in huge trouble for this. She knew it. Everything else had been self-defence or, at the very least, marauding demons. She had justification for those. This though, was at the very least vigilantism and at the most, and certainly in Kiriyama’s eyes, starting a gang war.

 

They didn’t speak until the last train ride.

 

“Listen carefully,” Kiriyama said. “Tomorrow, we will visit this doctor. I will find out who he is. All you have to do is show up. If I’m right, he should have in his office some of the supplies that whoever runs this town deals in. I’ve only seen the boxes so far, so we won’t know what they look like. Seeing as it’s a doctor’s, it may be hard to check.”

 

“Okay…” she said weakly, barely listening. “Understood.”

 

“This means we’ll need him alive to question him further if we can’t figure it out. So please, don’t kill anyone this time.”

 

“What? But you’re the one…” her voice quickly turned to a whisper. “but you’re the one who stabbed the man!”

 

Kiriyama’s face contorted in horror. “How…I did no such thing.” He shouted, drawing a lot of attention, before bringing it down to her level. “How could you accuse me of such a thing?” He looked so awestruck that for a moment she thought back to the alley, that frozen moment, seeing only herself pushing the sword into the man’s stomach. Then she saw his grin as he drew in on her.

 

“Natoko, I have proof, remember?” he flipped open the picture, showing her standing over the carcass of the man who may still be lying in the alleyway. “Now I never intended it to get that bad.” He seemed to get a bit panicky and hid the phone away. “But all the same, you work for me now. If you do anything I don’t want, I’ll expose you to the world as nothing more than a murderer. Friends at school will back me up as the grade A football star. Teachers will point you out as a low grade delinquent with no skills except kendo and I believe we both know that the people who get on well with you in school only do so because of me. Even Aki will take my side over yours.”

 

“But I didn’t!”

 

“Be quiet,” he hissed behind gritted teeth. “Tomorrow, we will visit this doctor. You will attend. I will find out what I want to know and you will not kill anyone else. I do not want a trail here.” The train pulled up. It was his. “I will see you tomorrow.”

 

Watching him pull away and staying rooted to the ground until the train was out of sight, Natoko wasn’t even aware of running to the toilets. Falling into a stall, she rested her head against the wall, too numb to cry.

 

Her lunch left her and hit the seat of the toilet. A muffled groan trapped itself inside her mouth and the past few hours rocketed across her eyes. The man had fallen so still so quickly. The demons… they had usually just disappeared. It was nothing as solid or final as that.

 

And then, just before that…

 

Had she really gotten that fast? The man was on the floor beneath her in a heartbeat, and she had definitely taken him there. But, she had no memory of throwing, but she knew she had. Could she have also stabbed him without realising. Was Misato right? No, she had seen him. That was a trick. Definitely a trick.

 

Pulling Iziz out, safe in the toilet stall, she lent back and lifted the blade, feeling it stick in there for a moment too soon, a plop of air following it on the way out. She dropped it back in when she saw the red.

 

****

 

They had had a mere ten minutes of snoozing last time, not enough for rapid eye movement to begin even under such fatigue and barely enough for the second stage of sleep. Pandiculating loud and wide, she wished they had chosen earlier to nap, her body was feeling a little convulsive.

 

A sharp glance, and even Fujiko’s own comments, told Otsune that she didn’t need the big guy, that it might even be dangerous to follow him and even if he wasn’t, they would have followed the right path anyway, it being the one the small man told them. But she knew better. This guy might belong there. He would be their ticket to the circus. Their access to the area. Or in the event the circus hated him as well, he was a perfectly sized meat shield to protect the both of them as he started to destroy the place.

 

She’d think about the consequences of that later.

 

Half an hour passed. Not too long, but enough to tell her she hated all life and needed it exterminating to fulfil the wrath of the Legros who had been shunned so terribly over the past few hours… Crawling into a ball on the floor would be easy like this. The temperature meant they could sleep anywhere without even the aid of blankets. Even standing up with aches all over felt warm and snuggled.

 

Her thoughts were going numb. She almost missed their destination.

 

She saw the trailers first. All large caravans, made of wood and painted the colour of rainbows they scattered the landscape around the tents, so many of which she stopped counting as they got blurry. A large one pointed their entrance right at them. It was grand and marvellous and reminded her of the memory she had of the circus in her child’s mind. Much larger and imaginary than it actually was, enough to fill two of the dorms, enough to ask how the place had hidden itself in this empty landscape.

 

Various other round tents of all shapes and sizes, including one architecturally impossible, littered themselves between trailer and the big top. They were frilly and innocent, waving flags of different colours in the air. Even in the darkened landscape they shined clearly. And she could hear a light background music that accompanied her everywhere at fairs and theme parks, even with no sounds to hear.

 

As they closed in they travelled over a dark patch embedded in the ground, where the chalk had turned to soot and the ground cracked perfectly in the middle of the circle, a stone hitting a windscreen. Gliding over it with an urge to whistle casually, Otsune noticed a man coming to meet them. He was dressed mostly as a clown, with orange, blue and green stripes covering his and was about her size. His small face however reminded her of Chicago gangsters. Muscular and set in stone, with a sneering glare that made only threats. The cigar did not help.

 

“Are you mad, Mitzy? Firing that stuff at us. One degree off and you’d have wiped the whole place out.”

 

‘Mitzy’ stared at the newcomer a moment, before casting his head downwards and turning away. He slunked a few steps, before the man ran after him.

 

“Oh, come on, Mitzy, you knew I didn’t mean it that way. You’re our top marksmen. I’d have never questioned your accuracy.”

 

Mitzy looked over with eyes that looked like they forgave, but soon turned away and began strolling off, slowly, his odd weapon chipping into the chalk.

 

“Will he be okay?”

 

“Yeah, probably. I can never tell. So, are you girl’s hungry?”

 

“Neh, we got-“

 

“Yes,” Otsune interrupted.

 

“Good good. We ain’t prepared anything special yet. Weren’t expecting nobodies for a few tacticmitts, but I’m sure we can rustle yer something up fierce.”

 

“Thanks.” He was speaking with varied collequisms, like a bad actor making a character on the spot with no research. No matter what, she would get the wrong impression from him. “Is this the Circus of Answers?” she asked tentatively.

 

“Is this the Circle of Answers?” he repeated critically, stopping to chew and pull his cigar. “Lassie, what the fuck do you think it is.”

 

She stared at him sceptically, just to make sure.

 

“Of course it is. You made it. Come on. Relax a bit. Waste some time. We can handle what you want later. Now, I expect you need a few things, like food and rest.”

 

***

Hours ago, thoughts of starvation and feeling her stomach lining rot away as she tore into another limb of her best friend were predominant in her mind. Though she didn’t like to admit it, this had all started to become a bad, tiring, exhausting ordeal even after day one.

 

That was different now. Now, she was snacking little drum shaped crumbly things that tasted like seaweed, and drinking green liquid out of a small, made by a toddler vase. For a short while at least, the Circus of Answers had solved her problems.

 

Fujiko had found the energy to carry on as well, and was now drinking with two sets of asymmetrical twins who gyrated on the top of the table with her, large bottles in both hands. Alcohol was oddly abundant for a waste land. Vegetables too.

 

Whether they were actually vegetables or not was at this point irrelevant. They could have been small sentient hyper intelligent beings boiled in streaming vats of fats and she’d still be chomping on the exquisite beetles just to see if their pan-dimensional intelligence added an extra spice to the taste.

 

She had had parties in her honour before, but they were always planned poorly and her friends were clueless about hiding their surprise trails. This however was the most extravagant party she had ever seen, and the most bizarre.

 

The table, made of fine marble with a thick trimming of gold, was as long as the corridor outside her room back at the dorm and as wide as her wing of the dorm. Reaching over to get food from the other side of the table was impossible even when shouting to the other person on the side; a cthulu war general dressed like a clown complete with fifteen funny noses for each tentacle. To get from one end to the other would take a minute jogging.

 

Feeling overwhelmed, she felt an urge to keep to herself, but people kept greeting her. Mitzy stood to her left, refusing to sit in his chair while the flame hovered around him like it found a new friend. To her right was Fujiko’s seat, but its owner was on the table now. After that, a small badger made small talk with her, telling her that if she needed anything at all save electricity to come to him and he could get it. He’d be more than happy to help. A knight approached her on stilts and offered her a soothing sonnet about his love for the 1989 Ford supra convertible. She accepted with adoration and watched his armour blush as the poem began.

 

The ringmaster, as she had taken to calling him though he hadn’t introduced himself yet, sat at the far end on her left. Almost as large as the table himself, with the top hat being bigger, he lay back sloppily as he sat on his large rotund body, his two tiny feet sticking up in the air. Otsune was sure he couldn’t actually move, and that he wasn’t eating either.

 

“Oh no, can’t eat, can’t eat,” he told her, when she finally got the nerve to approach, a small bowl of the drums in her hand as she thanked him for the party. “I’m on a diet. I’ll be on the marathon soon. My wife convinced me to join up you see, and I figured I’d give it the old go.”

 

She laughed honestly. “And when does this race start?”

 

“Why, in the mind of course, little one. Where all the best races start. It is the urge to expand your mind that is the ignition. All the poor ones start further below. This is where the handbrake is.”

 

Otsune let out a snort of laughter despite herself. “And where will you be running from your brain to.”

 

“Running? Who said anything about running. I can’t even see my legs, my dear monitor of 1080q high definition, I’m hardly going to be able to use them anytime soon. But as for my destination… Why, I seek adventure, I seek wonders, I seek exotic ladies and I seek a good deal. Whichever I shall find first, I shall marry, after my wife divorces me of course.. Is that not correct, dear?”

 

Mitzy stayed silent. He was the only other one near enough to listen.

 

“Ah listen, would you mind if I asked you a question,” Otsune asked when she felt she had a moment to talk again.

 

“Mind. My little reciprocating fan I’d be delighted. This is the Circus of Answers after all. Every show gives an answer, and every performance provides an adequate result for any question. Merely ask your question, and we shall provide. Any question, as long as you know it has an answer, we can reply to it.” And with a wave of his stubby little arms, he brought the tent to silence. All stopped talking at once as they turned to Otsune, their eyes on her with curiosity. Feeling like she was on stage naked, Otsune giggled lightly to herself.

 

“Well it’s not much,” she muttered.

 

“Speak louder,” a voice came from far back.

 

“Hey shut up give her a chance.”

 

“I’ll give you a chance.”

 

“It’s just well.” Her body started to itch towards Mitzy, looking to hide behind his frame as everyone stared. “Well, I was wondering…if you might be so kind…that is, if it’s not too much trouble…”

 

“It’s not, hurry up!”

 

“Shaddup.”

 

With a cough to pick up her seriousness, she focused again, accepting the crowd. “Could you tell us where we could find a Savadali?”

 

The room stayed quiet, pitching the world around her into deadly silence. Somewhere, someone dropped a fork, which complained loudly at his fall.

 

“If…that’s okay?” she weakly added.

 

And with that, slowly, and with a rumble that shook the table violently, the troupe before her burst into cheering. With no reasons, they clapped and whooped and hollered loud into the skies. Fujiko quickly joined in and Otsune was left at a loss for words as a large hand clasped itself on her shoulder.

 

“Good question,” Mitzy said solemnly.

 

“Wahooooo,” the Ringmaster announced. ”A Savadali. An excellent question. Well, you must know one exists, and therefore we must know the location of one. In fact, I dare say we Do know the location of one.”

 

“You do,” replied Otsune with joy and relief. “Oh thank goodness. You have no idea how much this means to me.”

 

“Not a problem, my polyphonic speaker of altruistic desire. It is just our jobs we will be doing. The answer to the question. It is all we live for. All we continue to prosper for. Indeed, the search for an answer. That is-” he stopped to sniff “the true task of life.”

 

The party quickly sprung back into life again, and Otsune briefly caught Fujiko in her eyes, being tossed high up into the air by the two sets of twins flailing loudly and screaming desperately for her life as wine spilled everywhere. When she landed she would only ask for more.

 

Otsune waited for an answer. “Well then,” she said happily.

 

The ringmaster looked down on her confused. “What?”

 

She felt odd. “Do you have an answer?”

 

“For your question?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Ah yes, yes, of course we do,” he turned away quickly to a scream of ‘ hey boss’, his large head floating across the top of his body. “Hey, Ramukiyu Danasa, do that thing you do with the Poiseuille’s Equation. They’ll love it.”

 

Otsune felt like she had blanked out at the critical point of the question/answer scenario.

 

“You’re not going to answer me now?” The Ringmaster’s head bounced back over to her quickly, his eyebrows crossing like he didn’t know what she was talking about.

 

“Excuse me? Oh…No no, my trumpet of tender 1000mpbs tresses. Did you not know? We are a circus of answers. Not a general information bureau of answers. You’ll have your answer in an urotsu.”

 

“How long is…” she didn’t know whether she should be asking how or what.

 

“Oh, you’ll see soon enough.”

 

The badger told them, as they were leaving for their room, that a urotsu wasn’t too long at all, based on its current definition of time. They should see the show in the morning, or what she figured for the morning anyway. From what she figured the party had lasted a mere two hours before the group fell exhausted and start to pair up and leave. She had dragged Fujiko away from the twins before they got too separated and now left with the badger, who was introducing them to their rooms.

 

“We’ve had all sorts of questions in our time,” the badger started to explain, perched on Mitzy shoulder as they led the two woman. “Most usually ask the usual ones. What’s the meaning of life? What’s the point of trying? When did we leave our hearts aside in the rain? All very toilsome. We try to remain professional about it, but I won’t lie when I tell you we embellish the answers a bit just to see how they react.”

 

“So you answer the questions in the form of a performance?” Otsune asked almost rhetorically, trying to get her head around it. “How does that work?”

 

“Oh no, don’t think we’ll tell you that. I’d give you the answer. People have tried that before. Get the answer out of us so they don’t see the show. You’ll have to wait.”

 

“But we want to see the show,” Otsune said honestly. “I just wanted to know how you give the answer. Do you play a story or something?”

 

“Of course we play a story,” the badger snapped out. “Whadda think a performance is? It’s a series of events performed in an entertaining manner. It’s how most stories should go.”

 

“What a crazy idea,” Fujiko said behind them.

 

“You two just be patient, and get your rest. Come to the big top when you wake up. We should be ready then.” He paused, then climbed down Mitzy’s arm to get closer to her. “”Though take your time. We weren’t exactly expecting anyone. Need to make the fireworks and stuff.”

 

“Don’t worry. I think we’re got more than enough rest in us.”

 

“Oh and,” the badger whispered even quieter, jumping across to her. “If you don’t mind me saying,” the badger whispered in right up in her ear (it was remarkably clean, better than some of the girls) “I think he’s taken a bit of a shine to you. Be careful he doesn’t get loyal.”

 

“It’s okay, I’m getting strangely used to that,” Otsune whispered back, looking to her two other companions floating next to each other, one in a drunken giggling haze.

 

“I thought as much,” replied the badger with a strangely lewd grin. “Well, here we are,” he said, jumping off of her and scooting ahead. “Sorry, it’s not the Ritz, but it’ll do ya for now.” Otsune stared ahead dumbfounded there was a old brown wardrobe perfect in size next to two bedsteads and two bedside tables, set up nicely next to each other like a hotel room.

 

On top of each of the metal frames were piles of straw.

 

“Thanks,” Otsune said, not meaning it at all, and for the first time realised she had no undergarments to wear for bed, even before she had lost her change of clothes. “Wait,” her mind whirred thoughtfully. “How do you know about the Ritz?”

 

“Of course I know about the Ritz, it’s where da boss sleeps.”

 

The badger waved out of the small entrance to a tiny hotel in the distance about three stories high. Otsune couldn’t see that far.

 

“Well, we’ll leave you to it,” the badger said as Otsune waited on them, Fujiko choosing the left bed with a loud thud and a sudden snoring motion. The three (four) of them watched her carefully to see if it was an act. It clearly wasn’t.

 

“Come on, boy,” the badger said, pushing Mitzy’s jaw as he reached the quiet giant’s shoulder. “A girl won’t like it if you insist on watching her undress. Let’s give ‘em some privacy. Without moving at all, the badger quickly led them out of the room, locking the cape of the tent behind them with a loud click, before lifting a flap of the tent to toss the key to her.

 

Impressive, Otsune thought, as she took off her top and fell into bed. Whatever these creatures were, their slang was a combination of old northern English, southern France tactlessness, middle American anachronisms and a dozen onomatopoeic from half a dozen countries, including some made up or over extended metaphors. Oscar had been the same to a certain angle. Was it part of the Strangeness?

 

Paying attention, she saw the flame had stayed with them within the cloth tent, a mere meter away from her bed of scout kindling. “Over here,” she shouted to it. “Over here.” It floated over idly, taking its time. “Now, stay!”

 

Getting into bed, slinging her top onto the wardrobe with the hopes it would dry out a little or maybe even completely replace itself with something new, Otsune fell to rest with the only two in a strange land she knew she could trust.

 

Stay sober. Don’t trust anything. They were safe, she knew that now. She had a feeling they would have probably had their wicked way with them and gotten them to like it by now if they had wanted anything bad.

 

She really needed to trust these people.

 

Proper trust.

 

Though she hadn’t given any of that in years.

 

****

 

The doctor’s office was quiet and clean, making Natoko weary of the dirt on her shoes from the alleyways they had been trudging in the day before. Kiriyama walked through the simple, spacious seating area with chairs lined up against all the walls and a large Venetian rug sitting in the middle where plenty more chairs could have gone. In the corner of her eye, she made note of a large vase containing the only plant in the room.

 

The receptionist didn’t notice them at first and in fact continued to ignore Kiriyama even as his shadow hovered over her paperwork. It wasn’t until another nurse coughed loudly behind her that they lady looked up at him. “Oh, good afternoon, sir. Do you have an appointment?”

 

“Ah yes, Ronaldo,” he said without batting an eyelid. Surely he hadn’t-

 

“Ah yes, you’re expected. Please go on in.” Kiriyama’s smile jerked away from his face, twisting in what Natoko could tell was genuine confusion. Thanking her with a bow, he walked the way she pointed.

 

They stepped through to the next room and came across a small man writing on his desk. He greeted them with a quick and short bow that didn’t require him to rise from his work and scribbled faster, the most detailed kanji merged into one long swirly line beneath the chewed out biro.

 

He quickly finished and offered them both a seat. Getting up himself as they sat down, he got as far as the small fridge right by his desk before he froze in a slouched position, arms hanging in front of him. He paused momentarily and turned to look at them, looking away and back again two more times, before finally coming up with words to say.

 

“I’m sorry, but I…I haven’t got any appointments today. I’m not sure…well, did my nurse let you in.”

 

“Ah yes. She just sent us straight through,” Kiriyama replied casually.

 

“And did you have an appointment?”

 

“Oh, it was more of a request really.”

 

“Excuse me,” the short, stuffy doctors looked like he was sweating in a heat wave, the fan next to him set to max and doing nothing to alleviate his frustration.

 

“We’d like to prescribe some information, some extended disbelief and, if you have it, whatever it was that was in those boxes.”

 

“I…whu,” the doctor recomposed himself. “Forgive me, I am not familiar with what you mean.”

 

“The King of the city,” said Kiriyama like he was repeating it. “We’re looking for him, and most of the trails have led back to you.” Kiriyama stayed standing and looked at the doctor, whose crinkled face was crunching up on itself further, a slight bemused grin on his face ready to save it. “Soooo….”

 

Kiriyama peered at the man and he leered at them behind squinted eyes and a polite grin, and Natoko started to feel a little foolish for the both of them.

 

“Psst,” he said to the man behind the desk. “This is the part where you refuse to tell us and we are left with no choice but to hit you.”

 

The threat of violence took the doctor’s smile away. “I- I think you should leave now. I have patience. Many patients coming. They will need treatments.” The man got up shaking, and wobbled towards the door. The smile on his face returned with extra reinforcement and behind the brazen cheerfulness lay eyes that were on guard, not the sort of guard a venerable wise master would give before dispatching the young hooligans who invaded his restaurant and beat up his extremely skilled Chinese cooking force, but the type of guard that was also assigned to bladder control.

 

“Oh really?”

 

“Yes, they will all want to stop being sick. That is what patients do. Now please, get out.”

 

Natoko continued to watch, not sure if she should act threatening or not, possibly stepping forwards to flex muscles and hoping the man wouldn’t notice she didn’t have any.

 

That was what thugs did right? Alongside bully the weak.

 

“Oh but sir not until you’ve answered all of our questions. We only have a few if it is the sheer number that may compel you to refuse, but I assure you once we’ve removed some teeth and responses from you we shall be on our way.” Kiriyama held the man’s shoulder tightly. Natoko bopped him on the back of his head.

 

“You’re scaring him,” she said deadpan. “Back off.”

 

“Ow,” Kiriyama cried out. “Jeez, Yamanaka. That hurt.”

 

The doctor shook himself free of the boy’s grip and stamped his foot. “You get out now. You won’t get any healing from me. I’m all out of spells for you. And I have many other patients to treats.”

 

The two stopped their bickering in unison to look at the man beneath them, a look of mild bewilderment etched on Kiriyama’s face just as she was sure was on hers. The poor man took anther step back to the wall, arms held up in defence as they glared at him.

 

“Please, if I prescribe you some diagnosis will you move away? I have patients. Many patients.

 

“Are you sure you’re a doctor?” Natoko wasn’t sure where the question came from. The only logical answer was her mouth. Everything else was denying responsibility.

 

“What? Of course I am, I have had many educations in the skill of the doctor. Many years of buffing my doctor’s levels have I spent.”

 

“It’s just. An empty reception. A brain dead nurse who lets us in like that, and the way you speak. No doctor would act like that. I’m sorry if we’ve offended you, but you’re… you’re not what you say you are, are you?”

 

The doctor responded by holding his mouth tightly, as if something were escaping from it. The two thugs jumped aside as he lunged for his desk. He didn’t make it, knocking over the many vials of science littered across it with precision clumsiness. Natoko went to rush round the other side to help, only to see the doctor convulsing violently, a empty vial between his lips as he drank greedily . Without reason, he rose into the air.

 

“How…” he screamed, his mouth wired shut as it folded into itself and merged into his cheeks, right as his chin exploded. “How could you have known?” All his skin pulsated viciously at once, expanding his size, before drifting like a balloon of rage and hatred, glowing red ominously at her.

 

“Curse you and your detective like deductions. How could mere mortal children discover the lair of the Thu’lang’lon? And so easily and on top of that, determine with ease how we posed as an innocent genealogist?!”

 

The rest of Natoko’s body couldn’t really respond, so the mouth took priority again and began rambling.

 

“Who…but but…wha!”

 

“Ha, we see now. You are no ordinary ninja samurai girl, you are the ninja samurai girl from the tournament. So it is true, the Futabatei do seek all our heads. Even the heads of we who have no heads.”

 

“Well…I…but…I”

 

“Very well, mortal girl. To the one who dispatches all of our dispatchees with mere mortal methods, let us see now how you face the champion of seven realms, all of them black!”

 

“Hold on!” she shouted.

 

The…thing hovered grotesquely in front of her and for that brief second she thought of asking how it had so quickly come to the assumptions it had made, how it believed its secret identity was revealed and perhaps also explain just why this was all a coincidence and she wasn’t out to smite in the name of the Balance.

 

“No. There will be no holding on for Balance members; only death!” The creature spat at her and a memory rose as she dodged it with graceful ease. This was one of those on Ms. Sakimoto’s list. This was one of the tournament demons.

 

Then she remembered that was what she was supposed to be doing.

 

With a clean cleave, she lunged one step forward, bringing Iziz out with practised ease and bisecting the balloon in front of her. It ejaculated with a magnificent pop and painted the walls of the room in gory red bits that she should have been expecting

Showering her with all its repugnant glory, the organs of the demon fell to the floor pathetically, the left half of what she thought might be a stomach flopping onto the desk. Feeling a little queasy, she controlled her breathing, still a little hoarse from the training session earlier and covered in demon balloon guts not helping.

 

Hearing choking to her left, she was reminded of Kiriyama, who was trying to contain himself as much as she was. His eyes were wide and trying to stare everywhere while looking away. She couldn’t remember if she had felt like that the first time, but she had had it a little easier her first time, where the mechanical wheel demon did not dump faeces on her.

 

“What- what was that?” Kiriyama said with calculated and measures trepidation. He looked to her as she didn’t respond. “What the fuck was that?”

 

“Demon,” she replied. “Get over it.”

 

“How can you just,” he muttered. “That was…” Then he coughed again, erratically, his face pumping like it was ready to be sick. He choked a little but brought himself under control, looking composed again with impressive speed. He looked happy, like things wer under his control. “Excellent. You’re right. This shouldn’t mean anything to what I’m aiming for. Good job. I’m must say I’m surprised at how quickly you’ve adapted.” He slicked his hair back, and failed to keep composed as an outstretched ear rolled off his shoulder.

 

“Let’s search the place.”

 

The detonation of their employee didn’t appear to have affected either of the intern nurses, and they continued away at their paperwork with the same mindless fervour they had given it before they were handed the pink slip that came with the obliteration of their employer. Natoko checked a few of the records, after trying to ask the two ladies resulted in being rudely shunned over paperwork and filing. Within the shelving and cabinets around her, she found nothing but gibberish where they should have been medical history.”

 

“Huh?” replied Kiriyama as he got their efforts wet with whatever internal bile had leaked onto him. “It’s all in Ipsum Loren.”

 

“A code.”

 

“Nope. Gibberish writing, but it’s written perfectly by hand. Impressive.”

 

“So can you decode it?” she asked, as the younger receptionist took the binder in her hands and went to place it back on the shelf without a please or thank you.

 

“That’s just it. It’s not a code at all. Printing presses used to use this in Europe back in 1500’s as tests. It’s still used a lot today to give a view of an average field of text against a certain design.”

 

“Why would a fake doctor be using an old English code?”

 

“It’s not a…” He caught on she was smiling. “What’s with you?”

 

“Just a little jitterish I guess. Needing a bath will do that.” It wasn’t just that. Part of her wanted to laugh. Kiriyama was clueless when it came to demons. It should have been obvious, but she felt it put her a little more in control than he was.

 

Watching Kiriyama move on, she slid past the two nurses, who had now stopped moving altogether and left themselves in static positions of cross referencing and pouring the contents of the kettle onto a frozen hand holding the cup. Back in the office. Natoko wondered if this would get out. That man had made it more than clear that the entire demon scourge thought the Futabatei were up to something, and while this was completely true, she didn’t believe this was going to help.

 

“Hey, what’ this?” Kiriyama said for the third time, going to the shelf.

 

Killing a demon was good and all, certainly a reason to force Sagara awake tonight, but they wouldn’t be able to clean this all up and it wouldn’t exactly fail to bring across the message of the attacks the Futabatei were reigning down upon the brood. At least it wouldn’t be able to say anything. Paranoia was just as good.

 

“It’s one of those bottles. I think we might actually be onto som-!”

 

Though it probably wasn’t actually dead. Sagara had told her that. It was only in on part of the body it contained itself in. Even in a human, it would have been smaller and more distinctly recognised.

 

“Garklg, Nato-“

 

And wouldn’t she have heard their ear piercing scream?

 

“Oh.”

 

“The photo, remember – the photo.”

 

She stepped up and ripped the pulsating blob from the boy’s neck. He gasped for air as she threw it to the floor. With no decent weapon to fight a small pulsating blob, she stamped on it, hearing its scream as it separated from this realm.

 

Kiriyama got his wind back, and then lifted up the bottle. Him dying now would make things more complicated. But she couldn’t help but feel that perhaps she could have let him go a little brain dead.

 

“Anyhow, ignoring near death once again, look at this.” He held a small, empty tube in front of her. “It was that vial he was drinking from. “

 

“So?”

 

So considering its size, it’s probably the same vial as these twenty in a square here.” He knelt down to the box he had just found before being interrupted. In it were several rows of tubes, all empty. “I’m quick to think that this was a stash of whatever he was drinking and he consumed the last one before we could get to it.”

 

Natoko didn’t follow.

 

“This is the package,” he clarified.

 

She looked down at the tubes. “Are you sure?”

 

“Well, it’s the best thing we got and we should probably be leaving soon. You can go home now.”

 

He picked up the box containing the vials and headed out at a quick pace, waving goodbye to the decomposing spirit bodies in reception without noting their flesh was starting to drip from them like raindrops and slinking out towards the street as she chased him.

 

“Wait, why are we leaving so fast?” she said as she chased him out the office, wondering why he didn’t seem so bothered the two nurses had turned to ash.

 

“Just trust me. We got issues coming our way.”

 

“But what does this give us? That box hasn’t even got a liquid in it for you to look at. Shouldn’t we get something?”

 

“There’s traces in each of the vials. I know a guy that can check what’s in it.” He stopped and turned. “Plus we got our next port of call. We do have something. Look.”

 

He lifted the box in front of her and left it there for her to stare at the little yellow sticker located at the bottom of the box. She read it carefully.

 

“Oh… Return address.”

 

***

 

It was late getting back. Not too late but certainly two hours longer than it should have taken her to get home. Taking winding alleys seemed a good idea when getting away but getting lost ruined it for all parties involved. At least the tram was near empty at this late hour.

 

The three girls were watching television, pop stars ran with wolves as Sarah chomped busily on popcorn. Gen turned to her and convulsed his face in agony as she continued to drip demon remains on the floor. She ignored him and paced through to the fridge, pulling out a coke. She didn’t care whose.

 

“Natoko!” Aki rushed to greet her friend before taking a recommended ten paces back. “What happened?”

 

“Just…” She thought of an explanation for the young genius, then divided it through many complicate mathematical equations tied in with effort and laziness. “A lot. A lot happened today. Have you seen Sagara?”

 

“Here!” shouted Sarah, not looking away from the TV.

 

Natoko followed the girl’s voice until she saw round the opposite side of the couch where the boy was sleeping, Sarah cutting off the blood to his back.

 

“Why’s he…never mind.” She cut herself off, dumping herself on the couch with a relaxed sigh and having no choice but to rest her feet on his legs. “Has he been awake today?”

 

“A little earlier for food. I’m beginning to wonder how he’s moving about.”

 

“My…my couch,” Gen muttered.

 

“Well, I need to get to sleep. Could you ask him when he wakes up to-”

 

“Yes, yes, tell him you’re infatuated with him and are a complete loser. Shut the fuck up when I’m watching Tv.”

 

Natoko didn’t make any effort to mutter an apology. She rose up carefully and headed for the door. She’d probably make it to her room. Hopefully, she’d be able to wake up early enough to wash this off before school. Part of her wanted to keep it though. Good memories, that’s for certain.

 

Living the life she had always wanted.

 

****

 

The wall wasn’t just the only landscape there was. It was their saviour too. If it hadn’t been there, marking the path behind them, it would be a great hazard merely to guess which way was forwards.

 

Morning finally came round when a shouting screaming couple awarded themselves in a contest of loud yelling with the prize of more extreme yells. By the time Otsune had stirred enough to start complaining they were gone.

 

“Good morning, Otsune.”

 

“Blerk,” italicised Otsune, unable to see her friend what with all that damn hair in the way. It didn’t take a weary aching neck to know that Fujiko was already completely recovered as if last night (urotsu?) had never happened and was in the midst of morning stretches. Otsune collapsed back onto the bed and woke up a further ten minutes later when Fujiko had stopped and changed clothes. When her eyes opened again, she held breakfast in her hands. A bizarre flat square of substance that tasted close to sugar strawberries. The taste finally woke her up.

 

“I guess I won’t be going on my jog this morning,” Otsune grumbled, not wanting to move. It was as if all the alcohol had drained Fujiko’s body and entered her own overnight. She felt so stiff. It was tempting to take the day off. Dropping herself out of bed, losing grip from the straw and having to crawl back up. Otsune cleared her throat and went through half a bottle of water without thinking about it. Would it be too much to ask for a shower in this place? Did such things even exist? Washing herself in fruit juice would be counter productive. As she was considering this, she saw the wardrobe open, with different clothes inside. Finding a baggy yellow shirt that felt smooth, comfortable and just her size, she slipped it on with a pair of baggy jogging trousers. Stuffing the rest of her clothes, as well as some others into her magic bag, she yawned and went to find Fujiko, only just noticing that the flame was still sitting there in the middle of the room. She got as far as the entrance before she turned back to it.

 

“Come on,” she said, and it floated after her.

 

***

 

The Strangelands felt no different in the ‘morning’ than they did at any other time. Temperature. Air climate. Humidity. All was the same. The circus itself however, was full of energy.

 

All around, creatures of nonsensical, random myth and legend, jumped around to keep themselves busy. Pulling and carrying and crushing stuff. Flipping and joking whilst practising their arts, it looked like they had much to do. Part of her was happy knowing it was for her benefit.

 

“And Tina’s.”

 

Not knowing where to take herself, and unable to find Fujiko, Otsune amused herself with whatever she could find. Based on what the badger had said, she tried to keep her mind off what they were doing. They wanted her to enjoy a show, and not have an illusion ruined, which she knew looking at the ‘making of’ documentary would do for her.

 

After a brief wander, she eventually ran into Mitzy, sitting down on a bench by himself, still carrying the teardrop grenade launcher thing, which sat besides him pointing at the planks of wood he had been carrying a moment ago, looking quite dangerous.

 

“Morning,” she said, wanting to see if he’d understand. He remained silent, but acknowledged her, keeping an eye on her as she sat down besides him. It felt like he was her age, she thought. Definitely under twenty, despite the size, though also like a shy teenager, something she couldn’t help but find cute as he looked away when she saw him staring at her.

 

Too tired for conversation, she was content to sit besides him, feeling the stillness of the air in the little space around them. He said nothing back for ten minutes, then shifted a little closer.

 

“You might not like it,” he said surprisingly, actually making her jump a little at the calm knife he slid into conversation.

 

“What might I not like?” she replied, a little amused.

 

“The answer,” he said, looking back towards the ground. Following his gaze, she understood automatically.

 

“I know. But even so, I’ve got to continue. If I don’t. I’ll lose what’s important to me.” He didn’t respond, and she found herself talking to fill in the blanks. “I figured once, how boring life could be, if we allowed ourselves to stop. Stopping to think is okay, but not just stopping to watch television or to have a rest. I’ve only got a hundred years roughly to be alive after all. I’ve got an eternity to be dead, so I might as well keep moving.”

 

“Haiku,” he said randomly. Otsune couldn’t think of any. She was too tired.

 

“Oi Otsune!” came a voice from around. Into her sight sprinted an energised Fujiko, falling in front of her with a large grin. The badger just came to me. Told me they’d be ready when we were, and to go in at any time.

 

“Excellent,” Otsune said. “Finally, we’re getting somewhere.”

 

***

 

Entering the big top, pushing back a purple curtain with emerald stars emblazed upon it, Otsune’s first thoughts was that it was just a regular big top. She had been in a big top when she was young. Her father had taken her there during one of his visits and she had ended up crying when the clown popped her cat balloon that he had just spent the last minute making for her.

 

Back then, the big top felt huge, with hundreds if not thousands of people in it and rusted poles that climbed into the sky where the acrobats lived. And below, on the muddy circle patch that was the stage, elephants walked alongside magicians and gave them a show that brought tears and joy to all the audience. In her mind, she now knew the size she remembered was wrong. That large, grand, majestic big top was big, but not really that big. It was just imprinted on her memory as big, and though she now knew it to be wrong, the feeling would never leave her.

 

Especially now that it was coming back. Devoid of an audience, the big top’s outer edge was just rows upon rows of chairs that could easily fit those same thousand people if not five times more. The support poles, shining bronze with dragons spiralling around them spitting flaming torches out their mouths were each with a partner who spiralled alongside them as they fell into the darkness above. The muddy patch that was the stage was the size of a baseball stadium.

 

The Big Top was completely empty.

 

Feeling herself being watched, the shadows shifting around the flaps of the tent, light fractures playing tricks as she felt not scared or apprehensive, but like she simply shouldn’t be there, Otsune followed Mitzy and chose seating somewhere in the center of the room, where the view was best.

 

Tucking into a pink fruit that she refused to name until someone told her it, they waited patiently for the show to begin, trying to convince Mitzy to sit down with them, the sullen brute refusing silently. She was just about to convince him further when the fiery torches went out, all shutting off with a click.

 

There in the darkness they sat, until a single ray of light returned sharply, illuminating the center of the ring. It was empty for but a moment, and then the obese stature of the ringmaster rolled into view.

 

Raising the small black cane into the air, and rolling in what looked like a showmen’s bow, the ringmaster announced, “Welcome, my fair one hundred and fifty thousand outerhertz maidens of clock speed, my gorgeous speckled flame of rampant destruction and of course, our own dear Mr. Mitzy. On this plane, in the land, in this very tent we present you our humblest efforts. Our acts of extreme frustration and the heavy angst which permeates our attempts to fulfil that which you desire. The impossible! That which cannot be answer by any other means, be they chaotically or otherwise save the power of the performance. That which answer can’t be given from any mouth save that of the show’s. However, At this very moment, as the Urotsu passes, we will do for you what you request of us, we will struggle and endeavour, and perhaps even provide a laugh or too, if only you would see. And, with bad luck and apathy not withstanding, give you the answer you really ask in your hearts:

 

“Where!”

 

“Can!”

 

“We!”

 

“Find!”

 

“A!”

 

“Savadali!”

 

With each exclamation, lights came on one at a time, showing her faces, of clown knights and strongwolves, Teleelephants and ant acrobatsl. When seven lights were displayed prominently and before her the big top flooded with light, the circus was born with the wail of an invisible brass band.

 

The light of the torches shut off with one loud click without warning, the band falling silent as if the speaker plug had been yanked. Only the Ringmaster stayed lit, lingering in the centre holding what looked like an accordion.

 

“Many Hyporelocks ago, there was a land, taken from another land.

 

“Not as strange as you might think.”

 

Four lights shot on in order, each highlighting the two sets of twins in turn.

 

“It was small,” said the first

 

“and quaint,” said the second

 

“and ideal,”

 

“and f-“

 

“A place everyone wanted to… go,” finished their ringmaster. As the twins started to dance on the spot, the ringmaster was rolled backwards by hands hidden from the spotlight, as an entertaining beat began to play and the lights came back on. A city backdrop was bought into site, high gates on each side and three old stone houses made of wood lowered from the skies. Ants larger than herself travelled down the ropes with them, jumping from one to the next, helping each other with back flips in mid jump.

 

“Why is it called a circus? This is more a theatre,” muttered Fujiko.

 

“Don’t nitpick.”

 

“Aw, but I wanted your job for a change.”

 

And in the lands

Four thousand cycloons following the golden star that is

And passed the glowing rocks

The City of Gates sat, oh what a sight!

With walls as high as they could go

And the people there were the purest bunch

Their hearts as white as snow!”

 

Scuttling from both sides of the strange, the large ants jumped into the show, hoisting the twins up and flipping them back and forth, getting higher and higher as Otsune clenched her teeth. As they fell from far too high a height, elephant trunks caught them and brought them down safely. The badger scurried up and joined them as the happy dancing continued. Bursting into song, the twins sang with reverie, the ants backing them up, praising themselves and their lands and their happiness. Otsune watched with fascination.

 

“And it was during all these peaceful times, where crops were plentiful and time was consuming enough to not fall into the boredom of traversing internet bulletin boards. It was during this time, the first and only visitor appeared. On the forth gilga of the time of Purtnox…”

 

The spotlight shot on again, the ants humming loud above, their apparently wistful tones coming across as nails screeching as a chalkboard as their owner screeched louder.

 

Dressed in shambling rags, a figure dragged itself across the circle on a stick. Otsune couldn’t see a thing beyond its blanket of leaves and couldn’t even discern legs when it tripped over.

 

The rags sang a song from the floor, one of misery and contempt. It was stopped halfway when the ‘townfolk’ (again, just the twins) found it. They twirled round the ragged creature and tore away its clothes, leaving a handsome young man that Otsune was sure she would have seen last night were he there.

 

They quickly clothed and fed him, rising him up and showering him with help. They sang about it too, and only at the end did he sing back.

 

One wish and one wish alone

To each and all I shall grant

Whatever you can think of, whatever it shall be

Just spell it out, without a pout

And your heart’s desire be

 

“NO THANKS!” everyone said.

 

The Savadali looked round in shock and the mini elephants and lions pranced away, continuing their dance with happiness. They flocked merrily around, the ants jumping on top of each others’ thorax, the elephants breathing fire from their trunks. The Savadali looked perplexed and started running around, pulling the shoulder or suitable appendage of each creature in turn asking it something only to receive a shaking snout each time. He begged and harassed one girl in particular, who again Otsune hadn’t seen before, but she was far too happy to ask of anything and did her best to let him down.

 

It continued, until he was left in the centre on his knees in despair, only the girl remained as the others went on their way.

 

Their generosity opens my eyes

But how can they more altruistic than i

All I desire is to grant them a boon

Just an aid, a gift. Is this too soon?

 

The girl stood forwards, turning to smile. She knelt besides him and held him by the chin.

 

Our desire is happiness and we have that times ten

What goes on from this is beyond our ken.

But if it miseries you so, then I’ll have one wish to go

I wish you your desires be found.

 

A crash of drums and a flash of light shot throughout the big top. Lights flickered and flames exploded, dazzling Otsune’s eyes. The orchestra continued it screeching and banging, growing louder and louder, falling deeper. One by one, the faces of the townspeople turned to face the Savadali.

 

Looking worried, the Savadali turned to the closest, an elephant. It approached and said, “I wish for a bigger field, so I may plant more crops for the townsfolk.”

 

The Savadali face turned from worry to a smile, “Granted!” he shouted and from a puff of smoke a brown rug with vegetables appeared, which the elephant dragged away.

 

Up next came the Scarecrow farmer, holding a broken spade “I wish for a new spade, to replace my old one,” he said, watching in joy as the smoke covered his spade. When it reappeared he still held the same spade, the crack carefully hidden between his hands. He bowed and skipped away.

 

A large baggy monster with a large insect mask came up, looking more like a man wearing a costume than any of the others. “I wish to find my brother!” it pronounced. And the Savadali turned, revealing another baggy monster with a spoon for a head. The first looked shocked and then after off along with its sibling.

 

“I wish for a new twin to replace my old one!” said one of the siblings. The other twin looked at him in horror before going up in a puff of smoke. A few seconds later he was still there and both feigned disappointment.

 

“I want power!”

“I want glory!”

“I wish to rule these lands!”

 

The wishes continued, growing more and more gluttonous, as the cast came out of the woodwork and skies to ask for more wishes. Trapped in the centre, the Savadali struggled in terror, pushing himself out, but being followed all the same. The two other twins stopped him.

 

“I wished to be king, but so did he!” they said in unison. “Which of us is to rule now?”

 

“You could both rule!”

 

“Not because of you we can’t,” and both twins jumped at each other, bouncing straight off and to the floor, knives in their hearts. The Savadali looked terrified as an elephant plodded up, conveniently standing in the way of the corpses as they fell, knives trapped under armpits.

 

“I wished to love him, but he wished to love another.” An ant and lion came up besides him. “Now what do we do?”

 

“You could share!”

 

“We could never share!” And the three fought each other. Ant, lion and elephant circling each other in a mock fight. The elephant killed the lion as the lion clawed the ant. The others falling down dead, the elephant soon joined them.

 

The ringmaster continued as the Savadali ran from monster to monster, all killing each other as they went

 

Even Strangers from foreign lands,

Came to ask where they could find their friends

For the wishes granted knowledge too

And soon all asked for everything

And grew fat without a clue;

 

“But if they could all only ask for one thing-“ Otsune hit the mute button on her friend and continued watching.

 

By the end, the Savadali had ran round them all. Each creature now fallen, he stopped at the body of the girl and fell to his knees and screamed. The orchestra, pretending to be dead, still sang and played a sorrowful tune.

 

Only the desolate land was left, the white chalk beneath the carpet falling into site as the carpet of pebbles burned. The cast were gone, the stage destroyed. Only the ringmaster remained, as the spotlight drew down on him again.

 

“And so, a final wish was granted

Though no one knows what it was

If you care to ask, feel free

The Savadali has not yet departed

It sleeps, on mountain high

By the village of many gates

Watched carefully by the Warden’s great eye

Never to escape

 

The arena fell into darkness again, and the two of them waited patiently for a moment, until Mitzy started clapping on cue. Getting the hint, they joined him, and the lights soon came back on. The whole cast, Savadali and girl, Ringmaster and twins, bizarre love triangle of animals and so on, came forwards and took turns to bow to the audience, going out of their way to give grace to the empty seats. The music blared out for a few minutes afterwards and only slowed down when Otsune approached the ring.

 

“Bravo Bravo,” she said as the Ringmaster got close enough. “Very nice. Not bad for a night’s work.”

 

“I don’t know what that is, but I humbly accept your lavished praise,” the Ringmaster replied. “I hope it was to your best expectations and beyond?”

 

“Oh definitely! I couldn’t have asked for anything better really. A little riddley, but I think I get the point. Though I suppose I should ask…”

 

“Oh, please,” the Ringmaster interrupted. “For the sake of your life don’t. The Village of Gates is not far from here. From the opposite direction to the wall it’s straight on. Follow the most goldenest star in the sky. Oh, and use your Focoscope to search for the glowing rocks on the way. Can’t miss it unless you purchase the most expensive of the high calibre sniper rifles.”

 

This was perfect, Otsune thought, as Fujiko said a few words of her own to the performers. Distance shouldn’t be too much of a problem with supplies. And with the extra provisions the badger showed them they could have, they could survive in the wild for months. Now it was just heading straight into the glowing red rock, which should be easy enough to spot in desolate whiteness. They could make their next move from their. Otsune beamed with joy as she looked upon these strangers of the Strangelands who had been truly altruistic. What kindness wouldn’t these people suffer for the entertainment of their guests?

 

Then it hit her, and she wondered why she hadn’t thought of it before.

 

“You know, it never occurred to me,” she asked, the Ringmaster only half listening as he rolled back to loow one of the twins to get a more than friendly hug from one of the twins. “If you guys can provide any answer, that’s just as good as being able to find anybody. Then I don’t need to find the Savadali at all. I can just ask you another question?”

 

“No,” whispered Mitzy.

 

“Could you tell me where I could find a girl named Tina Gottfeld?”

 

The crowd fell silent. Everyone in the big top froze in motions, knight clowns half way between smiles. Strongwolves stuck in strained positions. The giant ant trapeze artist trapped in mid air. One by one, they turned to face her.

 

Otsune waited for the answer, anticipation on her lips.

“Tina?” cried out the Ringmatsser. “Tina Gottfled!”

 

“tina gottfeld.”

 

“Tina gottfeld?”

 

“Tina Gottfeld!”

 

“Tina gottfeld, tina gottfeld,” the small badger started mumbling.

 

“Tina Gottfeld tina gottfeld tina gottfeld.” Soon the name filed the room, the entire top an echoing mash of voice bouncing against each other. “Tina gottfeld. Tina Gottfeld.”

 

Besides her, Fujiko froze up. She felt her own knees grow cold.

 

“Tina gottfeld. Tina gottfeld,” said the knight clown, laughing and crying to itself, banging its gauntlets against its painted mask

 

“Tina gotfeld. Tina gottfeld,” said the strongwolves, as it broke its tiny arms to scratch at its eyes.

 

“Tina gottfeld. Tina gottfeld,” said Mitzy besides her. Otsune was standing up now, alert, no longer happy and excited or in the mood for any show. Now she saw ants dropping from the sky, landing atop of each other as one crushed the other and continued without care. Now twins turned to face each other, kissing passionately as they tried to punch each other with knives in hand. Now she saw as clown knights ripped their armour off, screaming as if it were skin. In the centre of the top, the Savadali actor imploded as the girl slapped him hard enough to take his jaw off.

 

“What’ the fuck’s going on!” Fujiko screamed behind her, the ringmaster screaming and hollering as he began bouncing around the tent like a dying football, they quickly forgot everything else and focused on Mitzy, now staring them down as he had just done the night before, his arm lunging to grab her. Otsune evaded the slow hand easily and watched in scaling fear as Mitzy repelled himself, looking sad even with his face wrapped up.

 

He stepped back saying, “Tina gottfeld,” and turned to the crowd now decadently destroying each other. Otsune saw three, including the badger and the strange man that greeted them gurgling wildly as they ran over to where the girls were sitting with demented glances in their faces.

 

They only got so far, as Mitzy turned to face them. With just a small shift in his shoulder, Mitzy catapulted mortar at those approaching. And they, along with half the stage disappeared in a blast of napalm.

 

Many screamed as agony blistered over their faces. While moving the flame that had floated in front of them away, Otsune saw it had taken out a chunk of the ringleader as well, his white lapels still being torn at by strongwolves.

 

“Leaving. Now. Preferably fast.” Otsune announced simply, already running with Fujiko in tow, letting momentum do its job. Dancing around audience chairs, Otsune saw the ants going for them, crushing each other to get at the two escapees, their large hairy scrapes thundering towards them, shattering plastic chairs with every advance. The larger one, the mother of the group from what Otsune could understand was behind but soon sped up after one of the younger ants and, ripping his body in two, tossed one half at the two of them. It flew overhead and cut off their path, green phantom ooze spraying all over them.

 

It was runny, but still icky. Reaching the end of the tent, the purple cape within grabbing distance, Otsune could only fall from her own exertions of late and the fear coursing through her body. Fujiko tried to pick her up, but only got so far before they realised the Mother ant was upon them. Usually harmless mandibles bared down at them with large skewers specially attached. They extended as she opened wider and Otsune could tell now if it was to chew them, it would only be as a courtesy, and not because she needed small chunks.

 

The ant hissed and drooled at them. Otsune never thought of hearing ant sounds, and she didn’t get more time to as the mother ant detonated in a explosion of emerald crimson. Chunks flying over her failing body, Otsune saw Mitzy stare back at them, his teardrop launcher pointing her way again.

 

There was no time for fear. In five seconds, she grabbed Fujiko’s shoulder, kicked what looked like an extended antennae and fell through the purple curtain, carrying on for forty yards in five seconds, just as the entrance blew open in flames.

 

“Yesterday he was hesitant after the fifth shot. That’s four now, so he should be slowing-“

 

She didn’t get as far as down, as more explosions rattled around her. She turned to see him right on their tails, advancing as slowly as he had to, his range of attack extending somewhere near three Cycloons.

 

“Tina gottfeld. Tina Gottfeld.”

 

***

 

It was like a hive mind. All the same in their strange ways and all without feeling. Otsune couldn’t tell what had triggered immediate psychosis in each and every one of the circus folk, but she knew now that the two of them were dead at this rate. Three garden imps were attacking each other, falling apart with every shattered collision, their discarded remains scrapping all the same. The lion who had read her a poem that reminded her of her first tooth coming out and the promises left behind by mother was now roaring like a pack beast and taking out whatever was moving. They fell out of eye range, sneaking as best they could in open field carnage.

 

“What now?” Fujiko shouted as a short blast of machine gun fire aided the silence for no reasons she could see.

 

“We’re leaving. We got the answer.” They had nothing new with them, and their bags were all with them save a shirt Fujiko had decided she didn’t want to wear today. Other than that they were free to go anytime.

 

Finding the path of least resistance was a deceptively easy task. Hiding behind a row of caravans, they got so far until Otsune foolishly looked back and saw Mitzy standing there looking for them. Seeing him shift his arm scared the crap out of her. They snuck along the caravans, navigating around tight corners of pressed together supply carts and looking ahead

 

What had set it off? she asked herself. Had she broken up some special pact? If that were true, they wouldn’t be killing each other, only the two of them. Were they all linked on some sort of primal level, and she had broken some kind of ritual.

 

No, that wouldn’t make sense. From polite to suicidal, there must at least be some catalyst that started it all, even if it was just the name.

 

Who was Tina, to give this sort of reaction?

 

“Geez you don’t realise how big this place is until you start running from it,” muttered Fujiko. About to say something else, she was further interrupted by a large screaming rabbit flailing widely close round the corner of the next tent. It was setting itself on fire, and didn’t seem to have the ability to see them any longer.

 

“Everyone’s been affected,” Otsune said to herself. “That makes the entire place a death trap then. We have to get out before they realise what direction we’re going in.”

 

“Are they even going to chase us? It looks like they’re wiping each other out.” The large rabbit raged passed them, leaking gasoline as it went. It got as close as a large bail of hay before it was out of legs and collapsed, setting the outer rim of their own tent on fire.

 

“That,” it was tough to name him now, “Mitzy’s still after us. If he’s as accurate as they say, we won’t be able to rest until we’re over the next horizon. “How fast can you run?”

 

“What? You mean that thing that comes after walking?”

 

“Fuji!”

 

“I don’t run, except when I’m nearly late for the tram, and even then I give up.”

 

“How the hell do you maintain your figure?” She sounded rather proud.

 

“I have a brilliant metabolism.”

 

“Well, your fucking metabolism-“ They were interrupted by a loud explosion. Behind them, the big top was quickly immolating itself. Otsune grabbed her friend by the sleeve and started to run. From here, the big top could still crush them if it fell. The height of its flag pole easily covered the radius of the entire troupe.

 

“Tina Gottfeld! Tina Gottfeld!” Otsune glanced behind her before to see the badger; its tongue hanging half out its mouth, severed into three pieces. As it bolted straight for them, Otsune stopped just enough to kick it back down. The badger dodged easily and wrapped itself around her foot, its bumbling form getting as far as her shin before it lunged back and clamped its jaws down around her tibialis anterior.

 

She screamed, pain blacking out her sight as she lost her balance and fell backwards, the badger’s teeth suck firmly in her leg as she shook it violently. She struggled fruitlessly as it held its pace, Fujiko too shocked to react herself. With feeble fists, Otsune smacked the badger as hard as she could, barely getting a bump and injecting more shock through her body for her efforts. Tears rolling down her cheeks, she felt Fujiko get hold the badger and yank. The badger held on tight, “Fia Fottsheld. Fina Shottlefeld,” it rasped on, choking and gurgling as it was finally pulled off. Otsune felt the relief of freedom for just a blissful second, as she tried to relax in the sudden warzone.

 

It lasted until she saw her leg and stumbled at the sight, a bloody mess of crimson leaking out onto the chalk. The damage wasn’t extensive. Three entry wounds and a mess of teeth imprints. It would heal as long as it wasn’t infected, but they had alcohol to help with that.

 

Looking up, she saw Fujiko no longer fighting with the badger, the small furry creature now dead on the floor, blood spilling out of its mouth, both its and her own. It had choked to death.

 

“Fuck fuck fuck,” Fujiko cursed, spazzing out over the small corpse. Otsune felt her own throat give out on her. Apart for the demons Sagara was always killing, she hadn’t every seen anything more dead than roadkill.

Realising there was no time for anything special now she pulled up the hem of her combats and bunched them up around the wound, tying it fast with one of the loose straps. She leapt up and immediately regretted it, grabbing her friend and pouncing away again.

 

Most of the circus was already on fire. Caravans and fireworks exploding randomly around them. The big top itself was now at an angle and heading for their direction. Part of her wanted to start moving sideways to avoid it, but then chose the path out the circus altogether

 

Turning around another caravan, already on fire but with no clear reason why, she caught their first sight of the empty plains. For now, the directions to the village didn’t matter. They just had to get out. They could navigate around at any time once this was all over. Heading over between two white tents, the one on their left burst open, where a headless elephant launched out of the roofing. Landing squarely on its feet, it turned a few times, moving to face them square on, before finally realising it was dead and collapsing, a torrent of blood spraying in all directions.

 

Otsune moved to avoid it, not wanting to see what was in the tent that could do that. She got as far as going around the next tent when she saw Mitzy standing there, facing them square on.

 

“How?” Otsune got out before choosing to escape. Turning back, she waved her hands at their small flame, pushing it into the tent besides them and igniting it like it was made of oil. The tent quickly went up in smoke, blinding the alley completely and helping their escape.

 

Back in the circus, she saw the same situation as seconds before. The big top was coming down now, but slowly. Opting to move to the side, she got them so far across when she noted an abandoned wagon on the peak of the hill.

 

“What are you doing?” Fujiko cried at her, as she stopped to pull it.

 

“Help me out here. We need to get it to the ridge.”

 

“This won’t get us anywhere!”

 

“It’ll get us down the hill. That’s far enough.” She strained to push it by herself. Her leg feeling a lot worse for the wear. Fujiko got behind and helped, driving it passed the remaining tents and onto the ridge. Otsune climbed in limply and pulled herself to the back, helping her friend get in.

 

From above they heard the loud creaking of the big top, finally giving up on itself and toppling down. Jumping to the front, she shunted her body as hard as she could, feeling the cart jerk for her efforts.

 

It was coming down now faster and faster, the pole looked like it would land on them.

 

“Come on,” she screamed, shunting again, Fujiko helping her this time. It plodded forwards but not enough. “Push!” she cried and with just enough effort got the cart moving. Slowly at first, it picked up speed, until it started blazing down the hill, the circus crashing behind them.

 

A roaring explosion came in on to their left, and looking as best they could sliding down a chalky hill at nearly thirty miles per hour on a deteriorating cart they saw smoke looming in the distance.

 

“He’s aiming the wrong way” Otsune shouted. It was with relief but they were going too fast just to say it.

 

“Or at someone else?”

 

Otsune went to say something more when the cart jerked right violently and spun round, dipping a mere foot and catapulting the two woman out to the ground. Otsune landed with her hands protecting her, forcing elbows and palms to take most of the damage yet still leaving her chin with enough impact to sting sharply before scraping across the dusty ground

 

Hating the world and everyone in it, she moaned as her jaw felt like it had fallen out of place. Lifting up, she saw her glasses lying ahead of her, the right lens cracked with a gaping hole. Reaching to grab them, her leg started complaining again.

 

Without time to lose, she got up, putting her specs on and only getting half a picture. Already groggy they made her feel a little disorientated, falling to her knees when she saw Fujiko lying there, a red trail behind her.

 

“Fujiko,” she screamed out, rushing over as best she could with a broken body. Her heart beat hard against her chest, and she started hating herself. This was her fault, her sin to bring her friend into the carnage like this. Fujiko’s limp body lay there without moving, her face down in the chalk. Completely abandoning all study of first aid, Otsune lifted her friend up and over.

 

Crying out again, she felt a little more relieved to see it had only cut her arm, a thick gash going from wrist to elbow, but overall just a scrape. She tried to ignore the prospects of trying to heal such a wound in their situation, and woke her friend up.

 

“Come on,” she said, dragging her by her other arm. Her wounded leg was pulsing pain and she didn’t appreciate it when Fujiko’s limp leg kicked hers.

 

“Don’t wanna. Wanna…go….beer,” Fujiko spluttered, her body making no effort to contribute to the handling of weight.

 

“Believe me, I’ll be force feeding you booze later. It’s the only painkiller we have.”

 

Whether she was energized by the comment or not, Fujiko got her grip back, lifting herself up and walking with aid. The cart was wrecked but they were almost down the hill anyway. Looking behind, no one was immediately chasing them, though her sight wasn’t reliable at the moment, and pulling out the telescope would take too long. They had to be at least over the next ridge before they could rest. Then they’ll need to do something about their tracks, even if they weren’t to be followed.

 

Tears were flowing down her face now. The badger bite hurt like hell, and she just wanted to snuggle up against someone now, even if it was just her fluffy warm bed. It was all so stupid now, so painful. She could feel her legs wanting to start walking home, a place of safety, but not knowing where to go, completely lost in the Strangelands. Giving up now would be easy.

 

But still not acceptable.

 

She didn’t want this to become just another story to talk about when they got back- because she knew they would get back, something to laugh insanely to yourself along with informing friends of her current alcohol rates. It was results she was after. Information to use to find her friend. She reminded herself again. No matter what they felt, Tina had it a lost worse, lost and alone.

 

Lurching onwards, she felt full from all the food and numb when she tried to think of what had happened. For now, she started moving in the direction of the village.

 

****

 

Having not touched any of the other items in the room herself since the bucket, Sakura was unable to describe the reason behind their existence. The bucket was not the odd one out. Each item appeared to have within it something that caused, for lack of a better term, “Visions!” Father Sakagami mused as he leant over a toy dolphin, which moments prior had left him gurgling in happiness to himself as he tossed it into the air. Though he had snapped out of it immediately upon releasing it, he fell straight back into the trance by catching again and repeated the process three times until he fumbled on the fourth, dropping the stuffed animal to the stylish carpet beneath them, “Vision each vivid enough to render the holder frozen whilst they touched.”

 

“Yo, but it ain’t just visions,” the guard butted in. “It’s memories too. I felt Vladimir’s disgust at his friend’s stupidity, and you weren’t just gurgling for your health then.”

 

“Yes. A full memory set, but only of one particular moment. And played on a loop like a home movie. This is incredible.”

 

“It’s impossible is what it is. It’s not like I’m frozen while it happens. It’s just – it’s like I’m remembering something from long ago.”

 

“Yes exactly,” Father Sakagami interrupted “Like finding a childhood toy in the attic and remembering something long forgotten.”

 

“Yeah, you know. Exactly like that.” Both men seemed rather excited and quick to test it further, each by accident grabbing the same rusted bicycle and zoning out in tandem.

 

Sakura merely watched, hesitant to either join in or insist they stop. What was being forced into their heads wasn’t natural at all! And clearly wasn’t safe. Even now part of her felt a pang in her chest at the loss of a son that never was. His innocent smile had not yet faded and she felt a desire to pick him up and throw him high into the air just o hear his delighted squeals. Whether Malcolm even existed wasn’t the worse of her problems. The sudden attraction towards witty, fun loving Melanie was still eating at her. She didn’t have to be a genius to know she had taken the role of a man in that memory but looking at the woman had made her feel repellently sick just to glance at her, a threat of what she too might look like one day, yet with it was a hunger she could not quite identify within herself. A desire almost. Something of an older man she had yet to discover herself.

 

“Whoa!” both men cried out as the bike fell between their fingers. They grinned sheepishly for a moment, and then caught each other’s eyes for but a second. They glance away and moved quickly, their smiles broadening as their cheeks went flush red.

 

“What happened?” Sakura asked.

 

“What?” Father Sakagami muttered. “Oh nothing.” He giggled, very girlishly. “Nothing at all.”

 

“Yeah,” the security guard replied with a snort. “Nothing you need to see, or run to see.” With this the two failed to contain their mirth and burst into thunderous laughter that startled her to move away.

 

“Yeah, you might get wet!” The two chortled loudly again, somehow convincing each other without words to start howling loud and clear as they held each other in the agony of laughter. Sakura looked to the bike and found herself tempted.

 

“I think we shouldn’t use these anymore,” she got out when they in a moment of silence.

 

“Huh? What’s that?” Father Sakagami said, taking his glasses off to wipe his eyes. The two men by luck made eye contact and started all snorting laughter all over again. Sakura waited, wincing when the guard started clapping.

 

“I think they’re dangerous,” she got out once the volume had turned down enough.

 

“What? Dangerous?” said the guard. “Not at all. It’s just bit of fun. Though it is a little weird. Wonder how this gets done to them.”

 

“Perhaps these are memories of travellers that have passed through here, or have perhaps been collected by someone eager to have them. It would explain the displays.

 

Sakura wanted to talk, to tell them how having memories that weren’t your own being forced into you was dangerous. Could these thoughts damage them? Change them. Already she missed Malcolm’s fumbling so intensely that the urge to grab the bucket again to relive the memory was painful enough to clutch at the chest. What would they do if any of the times contained negatives scenes? Memories of a murder or the memories of an atheist. It may inject into them an incorrect faith that another had once so foolishly believed. Instead the two of them were discussing theories.

 

“No no no, it’s got to come from individual people. Someone wouldn’t make memories and store them like this. They’d make a book or something.”

 

“But having perfect one minute scenes like these are like the shorts before the start of a movie. And with such a range it’s like he was testing out his creative talent. We could be in one giant reject section for all we know.

 

“Father -“

 

“And just how could people store their memories to these items anyway.”

 

“Father Sakagami-“

 

“Oh please, you gave the answer yourself early. It’s an item from childhood memory or something. It’s just designed for others to touch it. You could convince everyone to make up one memory like this.”

 

“Sorry Sakura, you were saying-” the vicar cut in before she moved to shouting and not being heard.

 

“I think we should move on.”

 

“What? Oh yes. That’s right. We should find someway to return here though. Might prove handy.”

 

The one room only had two doors leading out of it. The second door was jammed and they had to force it open. Now curious enough to follow along the security guard kicked the door, a trolley skittering across the now open corridor, scattering various small items including a glass vase which shattered across the floor.

 

“Whoops,” he said unsympathetically.

 

The next room was a large empty corridor, undecorated and abandoned with no one rushing to see what the sound was. Sakura felt worried at the thought of someone coming to investigate them and how they would explain themselves but got distracted when Father Sakagami brushed past another digital watch and lost himself in the thought of the best Christmas present a father could receive off a distant cousin who he had only met at a party a few years ago in Surrey.

 

Lost in the moment and complaining that the watch was a piece of junk, Father Sakagami got himself dragged into the next room by the other two (though more by the security guard as Sakura could really only help with balance. Though the long corridor had been bare and empty, much like all the other corridors, this room had gone back to form with the décor of the display room, with the green and crimson carpets and more fitting green and beige stripy wallpaper that matched with the carpet. Various red curtains were scattered around the walls of the room, though looking behind them simply revealed more wall.

 

There were no display items here though, just one large machine in the centre of the room. It reminded Sakura of a car park pay station, though only by its shape and certainly not its size. On each side, it contained the same panel of buttons and displays, all of which looked standard and to be used only by those who knew what on earth they are. On the green screen in the centre there was a line and ‘0%’ in the centre and by its side a hole surrounded by rubber. The most obvious thing to catch her eye however was a large box at the side which looked like things should drop out of it after the player had spent four hours trying to win the other soft toy. The box was fitted into both floor and ceiling. There was no looking over the top.

 

Everyone spent a few moments trying to guess what the machine could do, though none of them had seen anything like it before. Sakura knew it wasn’t any form of other or dispenser tool so Father Sakagami had suggested it to be some kind of factory machine that they would have no way of understanding. The guard stuck his hand in the hole.

 

“Oh, okay,” he said looking distinctly like he wasn’t talking to them. Father Sakagami stepped closer to deliver an ‘eh’ and was promptly interrupted by the guard’s scream as he shake and convulse on the spot, desperately to yank it out of the machine.

 

Not able to get it out, the large man started pounding on the screen, his fist flying erratically as it barely smudged the smooth glass. With a final scream they heard a loud pop and the man fell back with a thud.

 

A large egg fell promptly into the box below.

 

The three of them stared at it for near a minute, turning to each other as if to ask if that really just happened. It had, and the guard pulled out the large metal yellow egg from the chute. It opened from the middle and the three of them tried their best to pull the top off. Succeeding easily, the egg had within it a perfect model of the odd vending machine in question.

 

Curious and closest, Sakura reached for the little model of the machine before them, being overcome by a whiff of fragrance and freedom. Sure he didn’t know where she was at the moment, but it felt just a relief to be goofing off of work and for important reasons no less. After that time before with the bizarre ninja and a courtroom of hell with stupid puzzles, it was good to be getting somewhere where his amazing talents could be put to use again. Now there was just this odd machine to try out. It looked like a large tape recorder but had no really way of guessing. If it’s still working and stuck outside here, it wouldn’t be dangerous and if she just put her hand within the hole she could-

 

Sakura napped back to the room where she was a moment ago, the two men staring at her with inquisitive eyes. Glancing away in shame at her actions, she caught the large man she now knew was called Nobori go to touch his own memory.

 

He phased out for a second, which then went to a minute. When he came out of it, he gasped like he was underground.

 

“Whoa,” he replied, once he got his bearings and had given her the glare. “Is that what I sound like when I’m thinking?”

 

“I see,” he muttered to himself, circling the device needlessly. “So this I where they come from. I see, you simply stick your hand into this device and-“

 

“Yes, yes,” Nobori said, grabbing the priest’s hand and pulling it away from the device. “We got it. So whatever we think of, it records our memories and attaches them to an object relating to the memory. That’s cool.”

 

“Cool? This is amazing. Already we’re talking about machines that can read minds, create something out of nothing, and possibly predict the future. None of this technology exists nor are we close to it.”

 

“Oh yeah,” Nobori grunted incredulously. “Where’d it come from then?”

 

“Well obviously I don’t know. I don’t exactly live with them. We need to find someone who can explain things to us. This is great and all, but it doesn’t lead me to where I want to be.”

 

His voice trailed off as Sakura stared at the machine, the guard following suit. This made memories real by putting them in objects. The thought of being able to share herself without having to tell was very appealing. Her hand dangling before the machine, she resisted the temptation, knowing that she should choose carefully what memories to record. Something of back home in Italy perhaps; a memory with mother and father, to prevent her forgetting when she got older.

 

‘Well, it seems rudimentary how we run this machine,’ Father Sakagami mused, ‘but it appears we must specify in our mind what it is we are wishing to have saved.’

 

‘Yeah, the memories in the others usually seem special, yet mine was just what was happening now.”

 

“Exactly, because you were thinking of that event at the time, so Sakura got the memory of the current event and the current item you were holding and thinking about.’ He stepped up to the machine, plunging his hand into the chamber. ‘I wonder, if it is so simple.’

 

This time, the machine shot a bright flash into the chamber, firing several times and leaving purple in Sakura’s eyes. She watched as Father Sakagami focused deeply, the machine rumbling around him as it churned out a large item with a crash and plop. It took longer than a moment ago and Father Sakagami seemed unsure whether or not to open his eyes when the machine finally fell to a quiet hum.

 

Curious, they peered through the gap in the machine at the same time, to see a small ginger head staring back at them, furry whiskers twitching in as the animal beneath them, a ginger tabby, sniffed the air as it circled around the confined space of the box with three new faces hovering over it.

 

‘Amazing, it can do living creatures as well.’

 

‘Sure. Why not?’ Nobori said. ‘They’re just atoms and molecules in the end. Same as all items.’

 

‘But this,’ Father Sakagami seemed touched to see the small feline meowing up at him as he reached down for it. He picked it up swiftly, ready for the memory to hit him. He went into the now usual trance, the cat escaping from the fingers in those frozen moments, releasing him as soon as it was free.

 

‘Sakura, erm…’

 

‘Nobori.’

 

‘Nobori, this is Sadface Mackenzie. The cat I had when I was eight.’

 

The creature kept its distance, not trusting even its former owner. It was ginger and striped yellow and seemed happy just to have all the attention, though wherever the name Sadface had come from, it certainly didn’t appear to be this cat.

 

Touched by its adorable mewling, Sakura crouched down and caught its attention. As it walked up to her, she looked up, asking ‘May I?’ The priest nodded, and she petted the cat between its ears.

 

A small apartment popped up around her. It was larger than she felt it should be, yet laboriously cramped. Above her, the table loomed larger than life, both sides of the room were only an arm’s length away. Outside, the sunlight bounced through the window, hitting several small plant pots with shoots coming out of them. By the far right, Sadface, or Mackenzie as his mother had wished she had been called had she not given her son the option to choose first, watched as a sunflower waved in the bask of the summer’s day. The waving entranced the tabby and she clawed for it, bouncing it away. With a sudden lunge, Sadface tackled the flowerpot, crashing into two others and bringing the third to the floor. Sakura found herself shocked and ready to cry suddenly but then started laughing wildly with reckless abandon. Clapping his hands, she called out for mommy, who came in with a loud tut as she began chiding the cat for its actions and then him for not keeping a better eye on it.

 

The shouting got louder, and he began to cry again. Sakura felt tears fall down her face as mommy apologised and hugged him, holding him over her shoulder and letting tears soak into her pink top. With her back turned, mommy could not see the cat playing, still tearing the sunflower apart.

 

Sakura came out of it, seeing that the cat had moved on with an air of boredom, jumping up to the display cabinets and wandering through the memories, stepping over a plate and knocking a ceramic mug flying with its tail. It didn’t seem to get flashbacks.

 

It was a strange device indeed and though it held wonder to it, Sakura found herself wondering its use. Such a device was really one without purpose save for amusement, at best nothing more than a mental postcard. Looking the device over one more time, ignoring Father Sakagami as he chased the cat out of the room, calling after it as though twenty years of his life had not yet happened, Sakura saw nothing like a rulebook or basic instructions on the machine.

 

Though vending machines didn’t really say they provided food. Perhaps its use was obvious here in the realm, something incredibly common or altogether frivolous. Perhaps it even was the postcard reason.

 

She was just about to turn round and catch up with Father Sakagami to suggest they leave the device alone lest they create more life from nothing when her eye caught something still in the slot. Nobori had followed the father out of the room, telling her something she didn’t hear as she stuck her head through the gap again.

 

At the bottom of the machine lay something that was hidden in the darkness of her own shadow. Seeing only the cylinder shape of it, she braced her hand against the machine. It looked like father Sakagami had made something else, or there was something else in there before. For a second she had an unexplained flash of Alexis. Could it be, this was something from him? Of course not, she quickly fixed herself, shoving her hand down, she wrapped her hands round the cylinder and held it in front of her. She stared at the item with trepidation, the friends around her that had introduced themselves only an hour ago staring at him with a mild look of patience mixed with annoyance. Well, he had taken it, like they asked. tT wasn’t going to affect him though. Drugs like this didn’t work anyway. There were just stupid excuses set up by the weak for their lapses in judgement, the same with alcohol. Such disgusting liquids given an even worse name to…

 

Her hand rose up to meet him. It exhaled sharply kicking his large fringe back, neck falling by with the sheer force it provided. Slamming the back of his head against the hard wooden carpet as several bright lights flashed before him, she looked up to see the ceiling explode into angels and rose petals, descending majestically down on him, their hands outstretched and shaking violently, the rose petals were singing a warning about the ground and its effects on pan dimensional mouse travel.

 

It was too late, the floor beneath them collapsed and everyone else stayed exactly where they were to their doom, only Sakagami falling to freedom and safety and hell. The laughter from the Satan was unbearable, not to mention tacky. He laughed heartily at the creature’s effects as it removed seven of his human hearts, the lack of vital organs doing nothing but making him die multiple deaths for each flash which streamed across their eyes. He spat at the devil and got a guitar for his efforts. He played it like a sax and the devil was insulted enough the send him back. It wasn’t until Christmas though that he…

 

Another flash tore her blindly away and she ripped her arms off, leaving them in the machines. Breathing heavily, she noticed she was alone in the universe and found tears dripping from her eyes. The angels weren’t there. They were gone, and Alexis had left her. Left her to be strong, to find her own strength, so she couldn’t rely on his. Of course, she couldn’t have his strength; he was bleeding to death somewhere as Sagara killed him again and again, whistling Mozart loudly as he skipped along the large cruise ship and ate beverages the size of kings as god told her she hadn’t been paying enough attention in school recently and that if she kept up her current behaviour she needs to be sent back to ell for a few years but that was okay because that’s where sinners belonged along with the rest of the Eskimos and-.

 

Sakura shook her head. Something was wrong! With her. She wasn’t right? What was right anyway? Could she follow it? Best not to. Turning left she headed more lefter than she had ever left before, giggling at the sound of her own thoughts. Two doors stood in her way, but they proved no match to her amazing knob turning skills.

 

She laughed again as she fell into the wall. She didn’t know why.

 

Dropping the syringe, she teleported into the next corridor.

 

****

 

It was official. She had no idea what time it was.

 

The binary watch told her 00001000 00001100, but Fujiko’s was saying 5:15 pm, a change in difference of three hours and sixteen minutes since they had checked at the end of the first ‘day’. Since then, they had slept four times and walked the rest. Time was becoming meaningless in the Strangelands, but it shouldn’t be becoming inconsistent.

 

Now as she sat waiting for Fujiko to bring out what she could from the bag. Otsune reviewed her guess at how many days had passed. Based on how tired they were it was easy to assume they had been sleeping lots. Especially after the last sleep, where she waited over five hours before Fujiko had woken up. She herself had been asleep for what she believed was eight. Unless they were sleeping entire days away, she could put roughly at seven days having passed. Their mobiles had since gone dead and neither of their watches showed dates.

 

The sleep concerned her. Her schedule was usually seven hours of sleep based on information provided by the National Sleep Foundation, but usually she was so fit for action she’d be awake an hour early. Sleeping in different environments usually made her restless and prone to waking up early, yet here either she was sleeping a lot longer (in crappy conditions no less) or someone was playing with their watches. The consistent light was probably messing with their melatonin levels. Either way they should not be sleeping half the day away,

 

This village was still no where in sight. Based on the information and the star that looked the ‘goldenest’ they were going the right way. As far as a gift from psychotic circus troupe could be relied upon, the telescope had yet to reveal any of the glowing rocks that they searched for, but then they were supposed to only appear halfway. Otsune had long stopped feeling anything for what had happened, and hoped severely that they wouldn’t run into anyone here again until they met this Savadali.

 

“Well, we’ve got about ten slabs of meat left, along with another twenty or so purple apples. Plenty of leaves and pies left and one more bottle of chardonnay, before we can start moving onto the stuff we took from the circus, thought there’s not much of that.

 

“Enough to last us about ten days then, fifteen with extreme rationing.”

 

“How long do you think we have left?” It was the first time Fujiko had asked the question since they had left the troupe. Otsune didn’t want to answer.

 

“If it was four thousand cycloons like they said, it’s probably another seventy hours of walking”

 

“How do you figure that?”

 

“The guy at the shop told us the initial walk to the circus was 250 cycloons, and that took about five hours… right before our watches started being unreliable. We’ve been walking a little slower than that, due to our wounds, but roughly we’ve covered about a thousand cycloons already. We’ll just have to keep making good time, and aim for fifteen days of rations just to make sure.”

 

“Just in case you’re horribly wrong?”

 

“Exactly.”

 

Her distances were slightly off; she knew that for certain. But some things had been changing when their eyes had been closed. Gradually, though she had denied it at first, convinced herself it was a trick of the mind, it had been getting darker, the eternal omnilight of the Strangelands was starting to ebb. There seemed to be no reason behind it, only that it was getting dark. It was possible that the daily rhythms of this land were just much longer and more spread out than their own, though they still had no light source save for the stars in the sky. These had shifted as they walked, trailing slowly in the opposite direction to where they were walking.

 

“So what can we eat now?”

 

But what did that mean? Assuming they were on a rotating sphere, even the rocks that were at the furthest end of the solar system and would take centuries to make a rotation just span round themselves in the meantime. The stars should be changing position constantly. Was this globe so large that it would take years just to do that. And if they weren’t on a globe, why were the stars moving at all? Was it a floating piece of landmass drifting along in space? That would explain the gradual movement, consistent light and why they still had gravity, but if it were moving like that how would it stay connected to the InBetween realm.

 

“Oi!”

 

“Sorry, what?”

 

“So what can we eat now?”

 

“Just the pies it seems. We’ll take one and a half each.”

 

They ate in silence. Conversation had all been drained by now. Topics were hard to come up with when you had nothing around you to inspire, and the topics worth talking about neither wanted to speak of. In fact there was just one topic left to speak of.

 

“Otsune,” Fujiko asked quietly, as she tended to her wound. They had to use old clothes for bandages and precious alcohol for disinfectant. They couldn’t waste the water they had, and juice would have caused further problem. Fortunately what she had been jokingly calling Chardonney was more like vodka in its content. It served perfectly as a painkiller.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“How are we getting out of here? I mean, I guess you don’t know at all, but I was just wondering if you had thought of anything.”

 

“How can I think of anything in this situation?”

 

“Well, you’re smart, and you’re studying to be a detective. I just figure… that you might have had something that would get us out of this. Something you were only going to tell me after we had found Tina or something.”

 

“I’m aiming to be a forensic scientist,” Otsune told her first. “It’s different to that.”

 

“But you have got a plan or something, right?” Otsune watched her little flame, hovering there by itself. It was the only fire they had. Even Fujiko was never cold in this climate so they didn’t even need one each ‘night’ either. Even with the increase in darkness, the land was still lukewarm at all times.

 

“I’m not some English sleuth Fujiko,” she said, disappointed at herself. “I haven’t deduced some solution which is clever and witty. The best thing I’ve got is that we head back to the start point, grab some sacks on the way, and use them as a ladder.

 

“Hey, that is smart. Why don’t we do that?”

 

“Because it’ll be a twenty mile hike there and back on average, slowed down by carrying heavy sacks up stairs surrounding a very deep hole. We may have food there to keep us going along the journey but either a) the little man won’t let us use the sacks at all or specifically if we’re trying to leave. This is possible since he was only wiling to lend us resources when we were going into the Strangelands, and b) the sacks contain those resources. Eating what we need to use as lift doesn’t get us very far.”

 

“Surely though it’s safer than this going in a random direction to find some village.”

 

“It possibly is, but the act of climbing stairs with heavy sacks has an immediate high risk effect. This is low risk, and the potential payout is roughly the same. Also…” she looked out to where they had been, the smoke plumes of the circus tent fell out of sight after their second slope, “there is a chance someone is still following us. I didn’t want to risk that.”

 

“So instead we go the way they tell us to. Those who freaked out and started killing themselves.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“So, there’ no chance of us getting out of this alive then?”

 

“Well, with chaos theory and other random probable…”

 

She caught Fujko’s glare, piercing through her like an ox.

 

“It’s not no chance, but it is little,” Otsune admitted. “Sorry.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Fujiko mumbled, turning over.

 

Watching the back of her friend, Otsune sighed, trying not to annoy her. After all the complaints she had given the others over screwing up, of the endless stupidities of the gang back home, acting like the boss, telling the younger ones off.

 

Now she had screwed up most of all.

 

Not that tired, Otsune chewed into the last of her pie, and dropped to the floor as well. Using clothes for pillows, she felt her aching neck against the lukewarm floor, wishing that they could have come to a land made of pillows.  

 

****

 

Sakura and Sarah and Aki were on top of the bed together, doing their best not to have hardcore make out sessions with each other and maybe the pillows too if they were interested. Sarah was discussing with her the notions of up travel in a place that wasn’t a planet. Aki was perfectly normal in every conceivable way and had no reason to be doubted.

 

‘You see,’ Sarah continued as if she had never started, ‘if up is not to be considered what is above us and more a craning upwards of the neck, then it can be considered that every craning upwards of the neck is the direction of up and even to crane your neck back whilst underwater at the further reaches of the earth would be considering looking up.’

 

‘What about if you look up in space but are hanging upside down?’ Sakura asked, currently making a bottle of Russian clear water into an enormous spiff.

 

‘Nope, that’s down,’ Sarah answered off the mark. In space up is specifically that which is above the North Pole. Down is everything below the South Pole.’

 

‘What about the earth?’ Aki asked normally and with no need for alarm.

‘Oh that’s neither. In fact, it’s its own choice, hence the underwater choice of up and down there.’

 

‘I see.’

 

‘On earth, it’s all perspective and nothing else. Not even smoke and mirrors.’

 

‘I like mirrors,’ Sakura said uselessly, blinking lousily, ‘and smokes’ Coughing up enough to rip up a small goat or something, Sakura slammed her head on The next door, swinging it open.

 

The pain got her thinking and a few moments later she felt clearly. Holding her head, she felt the illusion of a headache still wracking her brains. It wasn’t really there, she told herself, getting it and hoping it wasn’t true at the same time. The flashback had done something to her. Now she was in control again she could-

 

Her feet left her, leaving her hands only enough time to realise what was going on and grab a chair to crash embarrassingly onto.

 

Her eyes opened. It felt like time had past. It felt like nothing had changed. She shook her head to try and fix things. It worked a little but made her brain hurt. She was standing by a large desk. The type presidents use. Halfway across the room, a large black, leather chair was rolled half way across the floor. It led to a series of worker stations, going down the room. From where she stood groggily, she could see they looked lived in, but were currently empty.

 

A workplace was more than obvious, but she recognised it from the warnings Father Sakagami had given her. They were the workplace of drones. Mindless creatures who had given up on faith and dreams worked here. They started naturally enough as a temporary means of support, but they never left. Father Sakagami had described it as the most boring of all hells. I6t always sounded like he spoke from experience.

 

The front desk looked a little different though. It was much richer and looked to be for someone of important station. Was this place different then? Perhaps it was an angel’s desk, a copy of the bible was kept perpendicular at the front for all to see, along with a Newton’s cradle missing three marbles and pieces of paperwork scattered about randomly, only a layer of dust keeping them from returning as soon as possible.

 

And there on the large desk was a folder with Alexis’s face atop it.

 

****

 

We’ll head for the factory tonight.

This will be purely recon. Honest.

Don’t be late or you’ll know what’ll happen.

Delete this message.

 

There was that warning again. So far getting a mobile phone had proven nothing but pain. Her wish to use it to coordinate with Sagara had got so far as being unable to find the phone number in his own frog covered phone when she took it off his sleeping corpse. She sighed heavily, flicking back to the other messages left by Kiriyama. They were piling up now. Constant warnings and reminders about where they were meeting, who they were gunning for, numbers, that constant reminder of a certain photo and, of course, the demand to delete each message.

 

She hadn’t. If he asked, she could simply say she thought she had. It was the truth that she didn’t know how to delete things off the stupid thing, and she wasn’t in the mood to take time out to understand it.

 

Besides, wasn’t it the role of the thug to be stupid and get things wrong? If their entire plan failed (sorry, Kiriyama’s entire plan) failed because of it, it would be the one good thing that would happen to her from this.

 

Aside from the demon killing of course.

 

The demon had recognised her it seems. She was getting famous in the demon world, probably from the tournament. The entire scene may have come from a misunderstanding (Kiriyama certainly wasn’t expecting the doctor to inflate to his true form), but the slaughter of a demon was a bonus. She just hoped it didn’t hurt Sagara’s reputation

 

Then again, what did she care about that? Or him for that matter. The lazy brute had been napping for weeks now, she was beginning to wonder if he was even trying to wake up. He was certainly avoiding her.

 

Though it was stupid to think Sagara would try to avoid people. Again, he was too stupid. He’d tell a grieving woman that her husband just died after being ran over by the same man who had just killed their children as he was running away with his mistress and the goofy grin that would beam off his face would have a paralysing-followed by homicidal effect on the woman. Perhaps if he-

 

“Ms. Yamanaka!” a voice pierced her thoughts and brought her back to the stern flat face of squinty eyes Mr. Tsukamoto. “Are you checking your phone during my class?”

 

This man has never given Natoko respect. It was true, on the very first day of class he had used her as a scapegoat in front of the whole class to establish the small circle of dominance he had over them. She was the example and victim, and even worse she was still as powerless to stop him now as she was then. In turn, she had no right to give respect back. “Sorry sir,” she said, putting her phone away.

 

“Sorry will not cut it, young woman,” the teacher said. “You shall have to stay back after school I’m afraid and catch up on the parts you just missed.”

 

She looked down at her text book, and then across to the one in his hands. They were at completely different parts.

 

“And as you can apparently see,” he said, peering into her book and gazing derisively at the pages like they too were ashamed for not flipping themselves for her. “You have missed out on chapters four, five, seven and twelve that we have covered since you last stopped paying attention.”

 

“That’s impossible, I was only-“

 

“I will not hear your excuses, young girl. Once again you astound me and bring shame to Mr. Fukasawa by your thoughtlessness in class.” He huffed loudly as he peered at her from above his glasses, “I do not expect one that follows the way of the sword would spend time making petty excuses and looking to slip through cracks. You should accept your punishment and move on with it.”

 

He had a point, even though she knew she was only glancing at the phone for half a minute at most. They couldn’t have covered those chapters.

 

“So, I will see you here at the end of classes today at four.”

 

“Understood.” She stopped, remembering her schedule. “No wait, I have club meetings then.”

 

“Well you should have considered that before you went socialising then through a digital medium.”

 

“But I can’t miss practise,” she gasped desperately, even though it was a part lie. She hadn’t needed those cub meetings for months. She was the best there except when Kiriyama showed up.

 

“I believe you can afford to miss one session of practise. Besides, whilst kendo is usually meant to be strenuous exercise, I would be remiss in my own duties if I let you attend. You see, it is the one thing at this school I know you actually enjoy.”

 

Natoko glared sharply at him, not letting any visage of patience appear on her face. How small was he? Just a little taller than Aki, probably weighed a little less. How much would it take her to tear through him? A piece of paper flapping in the wind would be harder.

 

“Ah I see you are regretting the error of your ways. Well then, with any hope, and that is all I can rely on at this point with you I assure you, this will be the start of many improvements I may see upon you.”

 

Spending the rest of the day in a blur, Natoko lamented her distance to Iziz, left in the training hall. Most of the time they did pure kendo training, with maybe a little sparring. She was already the best duellist there and only lost when her mind was elsewhere, or Kiriyama showed up. That didn’t bother her though. But today at the end, she had asked to give a quick demonstration of Iaido to the others. She was the only one in the club that did it, the other six members had no real way to learn, but it was a perfect time for someone other like Aki to examine her form. Aki was perfect in her analysis of course, but she had only one voice. Different opinions always mattered, even if they did have little clue what they were thinking about.

 

And now she was being denied. She had little reason to come to this building in the first place and the reasons remaining were dwindling. She wanted nothing to do with Kiriyama and now they were holding her back on club duties. She needed to get out.

 

Before she knew it, she was there, sitting on her own, gazing at passages within the maths textbook. The book was clearly faulty; all the words were blurred and glazed over.

 

“Who needs maths anyway?” she said to herself with a loud sigh. In this modern world, did it even have the smallest application beyond addition and subtraction?

 

She heard the door slide open, and leant forwards to make herself appear more interested. The book fixed itself and she became bombarded with a triangle with ones on all sides in a section to do with prime numbers. She thought it weird because she knew prime numbers had to work with squares and was interrupted as Iziz thudded down on the table in front of her.

 

She looked up to the face of Kiriyama, who stared solemnly at her, a stern and serious expression that told her it was all business time.

 

“Come on, we’re going.”

 

“But I have-“

 

“I don’t care, we go now. To make a point, he reached into his pocket to pull out his phone. He didn’t need to take it out now for her to respond.

 

Only her duty felt hesitation, the rest of her mind had been out dancing in fields full of sunflowers ages ago. But it anchored her down, whispering to her. She couldn’t leave. Getting punishments was one thing. To skip was out right delinquency, and though Mr. Tsukamoto had always accused her of it, she had never actually stumbled.

 

“Fine. Understood.” She took her sword, wrapping it into its bag. As she zipped it up, Kiriyama was already at the doorway waiting for her. Taking one last look at the numbers in her book, she left it there and shot after him.

 

***

Kiriyama had explained on the train.

 

“My informant had contacted me after lunch. Since your little scene every student had their phone switched off, so I couldn’t get it until then.”

 

“Yeah. Tell everyone I’m sorry I got caught, will you?” she replied with a bitter tongue. The school’s policy on mobiles was clear. Turned off all day. Any phones found on were confiscated. They didn’t even let them check at lunchtimes now unless they were off the premises.

 

“Anyway, the factory in question is on twenty four-seven. Most of its supplies come at night and the night shift is when most staff on all call, seems it’s actually better to check it out in the daytime when they only have skeleton crews on shift.

 

“Well we could have checked it out tomorrow.”

 

“That wouldn’t have given us optimal results,” he corrected her immediately. “The postage address on the parcel suggests it was stamped on a Monday. This means it was most likely posted on the Friday. If it was the factory that sent the parcel, then it stands that the parcels are sent out every Friday. This could be wrong, I admit, but I’d rather not miss the opportunity to see everything rather than come tomorrow and see no one working.”

 

“Wouldn’t a factory send packages daily?”

 

“Yes,” he hissed back. “Possibly, more than likely, but I’d rather not leave anything to chance at this point. Every since that… thing showed came out of the doctor, I’m actually worried as to what this King of the City may be peddling.” Kiriyama went pale at the recall. “You saw that thing he became. It was almost like he wasn’t human.”

 

“No. He was a demon.”

 

“Exactly, and if there’s a drug out there that can actually transform people-“

 

“No no, I mean he was actually a demon. He was never human. Well, he may have been, but more than likely the demon possessed the human’s shell in the ritual of animism and warped it from here.”

 

“Shut up,” he barked. “I’ve no time for your crap.”

 

Natoko glared at the floor. It was easier to look menacingly at the floor than at someone who had regularly beaten you in every fight you had.

 

“It is unlikely to be a demon, because demons do not exist. And whilst I will not completely deny the existence of demons, I will state that it is for more likely to be the result of a drug somehow changing this man than a demon from the ninth circle of hell ascending from a cauldron of brimstone to bring about a holy plague upon us.”

 

“But I fought demons before!”

 

“It was more likely a drug. It may even be that he had hallucinogenic pumping through the air to affect intruders.”

 

“That seems unlikely.”

 

“But it is more likely than demons, which so far have been completely refuted to exist.”

 

“Okay,” Natoko said, feeling a little bemused. “Have it your way.” She left the conversation there, leaving Kiriyama to mutter to himself, happy at her silent victory over him.

 

Drugs. If that was true, she hoped she remained an addict her whole life.

 

***

 

Natoko didn’t bother to ask him where he had gotten the security pass. She was still too happy with herself to care. It occurred to her that Kiriyama should remain in the dark about demons for as long as possible. The more he denied their existence, the more scarred he’d be when he finally found out

 

The inside of the factory was relatively quiet, the whirring of large machinery she didn’t care to understand rattled around her without tune. Pistons pumped in and out somewhere above and a loud horn blared continuously for ten seconds, followed shortly by a silence as her ears restarted themselves.

 

“That’ll be the shift change. Come on,” Kiriyama led her up a metal gang plank and across to a line of metal shelves. He grabbed his wrist and pulled her alongside, making sudden small talk, happy as he could pretend to be whilst picking up parts as two large men laughed to one another without even glancing in their direction. Ushering her along, they went to a third floor level before she finally asked the question plaguing her since they entered less than two minutes ago.

 

“You do realise we’re both in school uniform, right?”

 

“That should be fine. We shouldn’t be getting spotted after all.”

 

They spent the next five minutes hiding in one of the quick access bathroom stalls when another worker appeared out of nowhere and had them dodging his line of sight in zero point one two seconds. Standing in the cramped toilet, Natoko on the crack of the seat while Kiriyama sat down making it look like he was taking his damn time, it became painfully clear that the toilet stall had in fact been the man’s destination. They sat there for ten minutes, before the man’s whistling disappeared to go find another toilet.

 

From there, they went up a another level, down two levels and underneath a very dangerous piece of machinery that looked like it could chew Iziz right up and still have enough motion to spit it right back at them in various skin shredding chunks. They eventually got to a bunch of workers by a conveyer belt. Natoko couldn’t see their faces, but Kiriyama seemed convinced they should stop and listen to them.

 

***

 

“I tell ya, it’s never been the same. This isn’t ‘ow it ought to be. This ain’t where we ought to be.” Tooamblok the ninth grumbled, reaching up for a box and slapping the contents in, folding it three times and sticking five centimetres of selotape on with her four prehensile claws on markers five, seven and eight, before passing it along the production line.

 

“It isn’t, it isn’t. But it is, and you shall deal with that,” The One Truth That All Fear replied, taking the box off of her and sticking the redistribution label on it before slapping it onto the scales and selecting mode five, which would set the stamp machine so it printed ‘fragile’ along with the picture of the glass on sides four and five, but without a ‘This way up’ symbol. “But it won’t be much longer if you continue using that to do your job. There are humans working here as well, my dear. You would do well to hide your appendages.”

 

“They are not my appendages. They are my birthright,” she hissed back at him, splitting them off into four separates entities, each as good as the whole, using them to grab four packages off the conveyer belt and dash them neatly into four packing boxes, making sure each were even distributed to ensure correct balance and weight content and ensuring they were facing the correct direction of the ‘this way up’ sign on each box, before tossing them over to her ‘fellow employee’.

 

“And this is not my job,” she continued. “My job is the defiling of teachers; the decadence of the educator. For centuries I have whispered their worse fears to them, their minor curiosities. I pushed them towards believing things no man would even consider were it not for the tongue of a devil tickling their lobe. I was the corruptor of professors. I made them dance tunes to teach perversion, gave them lessons to share to children that would send parents in an outrage. And how I laughed in their ears as they realised what they had become. What they had let their dreams fade to, and the price they had made others pay.”

 

“And then your work was outsourced to third party humans who did a much better job and only wanted to be paid in money and whores. Now you work here; with me.”

 

“I worm with a fool, worming away with this mindless labour. As pointless as it is rotting.”

 

“You speak out of turn, hellwyrm,” the new one shouted at her, his voice elevating and booming throughout her ninety two senses. “You may find your work boring but it is still important. Our new lord needs the Thousand spread as far and as wide as possible before he begins to mine it. You may not like your job in packaging and distribution, but it serves grander purposes.”

 

“Bah! It is dull and better spent in the hands of mundanes and minions. And there are no teachers on site either save for the supervisor, and he’s far too gone to realise it. I need innocence, and there’s none of that here- oddly enough.” She turned her disembodied eye of the saint of Thebes towards their silent co-workers, the three of them packing in silence. They actually creeped her remarkably well. Her, a great arch mage of the war of After Balance. What was wrong with her this millennium?

 

“There is no need to be concerned. The karma is watching all of this. You will be greatly rewarded at the end, as will we all. You will have enough to feed for a century with these actions your appendages perform. More than enough for you to relax.”

 

“Pfft, relax?” she said with spiteful sarcasm. “We are starting a war that no side will escape. When it comes we will be dragged into it, deeper than others by being the instigators. More and more liars and tricksters will half heartedly promise us freedom and comfort, but such things cannot last for demons. You fool me not.”

 

***

 

Natoko shuffled forwards, the gears of the machine above her chomping away; their purpose unknown. A bad idea in her brain wanted to look up but all the other ideas were depicting of her skull being permanently redecorated. Etching a little closer to the edge she caught the face of one of the factory workers that Kiriyama had insisted they spy upon. A foreigner clearly; but he looked human enough. Only what they spoke of suggested demons.

 

Slipping further to the left, she dropped across to the side where she heard the woman. When she caught wind of it, she felt a little disappointed seeing the plump overweight woman come into view, flailing her arms drastically with little complaint. The other one looked a little scary; foreigners always did.

 

This was beginning to feel like they were wasting time. A horrid thought came over her as she saw herself in their place in a few years time. Maybe she should consider studying, just a little harder.

 

Risking it, she dragged herself a little further, only to be stopped by Kiriyama. She scowled a look he missed. This one was taking far too much pleasure in holding her back for any little reason. Ignoring it, she angled her head to be able to see through the holes and went eye to eye with two children who worked adding the red liquid to vials as a third one, just out of sight, disappeared with a box round the corner. Natoko recognised the two children, and the foreigner as a result.

 

These were more of the demons that were at the tournament. The little boy was the one Sagara had fought at the start of the main tournament, scoring a victory over the cute innocent child and declaring a victory for the forces of justice. At first she hadn’t realised this until later on once they met the child’s sister and the two combined into the one monster demon that had a funny name that she couldn’t quite remember.

 

The woman too, looking a little overweight and bubbly as she angrily babbled away in her demonic tones. This couldn’t be right. There was no way she would meet up with these just after seeing the doctor demon.

 

Above her, Iziz clanked against something and shot away, the case strap tearing itself off of her and flinging the plastic cylinder out in the open five feet away from her. She watched in shock as she heard the bag get chewed up above her, the sword case wobbling back and fro on the spot.

 

The machinery continued to hum away, the exposed cooling fan telling her that getting up and moving to pick it up was not the best idea. Other than that, there was silence.

 

***

 

“What was that?” Tooamblok growled, the noise shooting into the wall. The brief pain of allowing a hunter to get this close overcame her enough to feel foolish once she focused. She sensed nothing, and she could sense all things hidden. There was nothing to worry about.

 

That is until she saw the long plastic case.

 

“Wat be fis?” she hissed through an encapsulate mouth. It was a long black carrying bag, like the one The One brought for the weekly pool tournament on Tuesday. But where had it come from? There were no stairways above her, and any of the others that were strong enough to throw this from below were in the other building currently handling data entry and form requisition.

 

It was a nice bag. Cotton black. Simple but stylish. Looked like it was designed to be easily open and inside… a sword?

 

“Drop that now,” a voice cried out before her. She looked up to see the two creepy children combine into one as it rushed up beside her, panic etched in the Blniock’s ludicrous androgynous face. “Drop it quickly.”

 

Tooamblok looked at him with a sneer, the power over him she had just acquired clear. “And why should I consider this request of yours?”

 

“I have s-sssseen this before. Thissss is no ssssstandard ssssword.”

 

“I can see that,” she said, pulling it from its sheath to see it shine. “This is a master’s work, even by the Near’s standards. To think it should just appear like this. Clearly my curses have finally been heard to escape this hell hole.” She drew the blade and swung it at the failed innocence. “Are you to tell me to drop it now?”

 

“Bad blade bad blade. Is danger to have thissss so close? Thisss belongs to them. To them.”

 

“Well,” she said, dropping it. “Even if it did, it doesn’t any longer. They are none of them nearby, and I am safe to use my birthright to mark it as my own. She brought her appendages to bear and, concentrating with lust in her eyes, engorged each of them and felt their power as the girth grew on each of them, pulsing with the power of her muscles. “It will be mine!”

 

“Iziz will be no such thing!” Tooamblok’s eyes swung round, the rest of her body following. A girl was there, standing defiantly less than two feet away. Tooamblok felt one of her more fragile senses pop and turn to ether, floating away from her forever at the sight of this new creature.

 

“Wha- how did you get so close?” Even now her senses were failing to catch sight of the girl and another two senses fizzled and merged together. She immediately became aware of a third plain that existed within the InBetween realm. One she had found centuries before but lost again after a drunken binge session and a night surrounded by alley cats.

 

From behind the girl, ugly by her standards and even uglier by human standards, was another decked out in a very plain school uniform with a shirt and jacket combo that tantalised even her most bored of taste buds. This was a boy; very handsome, nearly a man. He scurried out from beneath the machine she worked by but didn’t know what it did.

 

“Know this, creature,” the girl said. “I know not who you are nor care considerably. I will give you one chance, and one chance alone, to return my blade to me willingly. Refuse and I shall take it back from you and anything still holding onto it will come off with it.”

 

“The gamble wrecker, the gamble wrecker,” the demon besides her said in fright, making Tooamblok grin. “She ruined everything. Stopped all without realising. Caused chaos where once demons held order.”

 

“Oh, I’ve heard of you. You’re, what was it, Yamanaka Natoko?” She waited for a reply, expecting silence as confirmation and receiving. “Oh you’re exactly what I heard about. I can see the interest in you all over. What say we-“

 

She was cut off as the girl became a blur before her, lunging as if to head butt the steel walkway below them. Tooamblok leaned back out of instinct and felt something tug at her as if to take her arm off. She pulled back, feeling something give, and fell right back into the One’s arms.

 

She blinked twenty nine times, looking around at what had happened. What speed! She had heard the dust prince had had his share of difficulties, as much as one of the royal lines could, but that was ridiculous. The girl actually disappeared from eyeshot for a second.

 

“I said one warning. You waste it with talking and there is no need for me to both-“This time it was the intruder’s turn to be taken aback. Tooamblok smiled again, striking the shock from her mind the way a human would their breath. The little swordgirl had only gotten the sheath. The blade was still hers.

 

“Give- give it back,” she said to Tooamblok, defiantly waving around useless wood.

 

“Wait, bad thought, bad thought,” the Blniock replied, reviewing the situation. “Girrrrlll isss harmless without blarade. Girl is sssnack. I sssse now.”

 

“Ah geez,” the sidekick, who had been quiet until now said. “You had to go and spoil things didn’t you. Didn’t I say recon?”

 

The swordgirl grimaced while staring at Tooamblok, just long enough to bring the sheath crashing down on where her human head was. She shook the whole body like a stone from a tower and Tooamblok dropped forwards. Recoiling, she lifted up and swung back at her, missing completely from point blank range.

 

“You dare swing it so crudely?” The swordgirl said to her right hand side, between where she and the Blniock were. “You were not even worthy of a warning. I will be taking it from you now.”

 

Who did this girl think she was? No human taunts a demon of her pedigree. It was suicide.

 

“Bite me, honey,” Tooamblok replied, raising the sword above her head. She knew very well what she was doing. That’s what senses were. Humans only ever had five senses, seven at most, but they never had the better senses. The sense to perceive what you were thinking, the sense of what food was bad at which restaurant and especially the sense of what people feared the most. This girl loved her sword, so Tooamblok would take it from her.

 

Plunging it into her own gullet, Tooamblok began swallowing the blade straight through her exterior mouth, marking it as her own.

 

“No,” the girl cried out in fear and delicious mouth watering agony. Tooamblok smiled around the hilt. It made the sword go down easier. It was long and she always had to take her time when marking, but it would be-

 

Thrck!

 

The girl struck her with the sheath. It cured the momentarily indigestion and Tooamblok pushed down harder. “Stop it stop it.” The girl cried, her eyes swelling up. “No please, I’ll I’ll…”

 

Oh she felt it and it was fantastic, their vibration, the chattering of the enamel as adrenaline surged at a time it wasn’t wanted, and the overbearing peak of disgust as failure to stop the inevitable. It wasn’t turning vicars into paedophiles, but it would do for a week or so.

 

“Melting. Melting.”

 

“Huh?” Tooamblok replied. Her gut spasmed and Tooamblok felt the disgusted rumbling of an organ she didn’t use. The blade tasted acidic in her mouth as the contents of her kotodama began spilling out into the floor. Looking down she realised the sword wasn’t the one disappearing.

 

“But how, where…I ….no… How I die when I can’t live?” she spat, feeling herself roll away, her eyes beginning to roll. Her thirty one year animism ended.

 

Feeling the disconnection shunt herself from her physical form, Tooamblok was able to look around long enough as everything faded back to her familiar ocean green mist. The blasted sword must have been tampered with, she thought, feeling the pull of the InBetween Realm on her real self. She looked to the others raised above their stolen bodies and let out an embarrassed grumble as they stared up in horror. Feeling the joyous sensation of her nine hundred and fifty six of her senses coming back to full power, she waited for the shunt back to the InBetween realm but was instead met with a trickling feeling where her spirit was.

 

Suddenly choking, a trail of ethereal green erupting out in front of her. She watched her floating entrails just long enough to spit another two parts out, feeling all her selves hudder and scream. What was this? She couldn’t choke. Her- her energies fading…

 

Impossible? Was this-

 

Cheese and crackers. Cheese and cracker.

 

Was this death?

 

***

 

Natoko watched as Iziz fell onto the floor, the effort of escaping from the disintegrating demon not so difficult a challenge for the inanimate object rolling beneath her. Even as the demon fizzled away, it still looked like it was hanging half broken, right up until the death scream pierced everyone’s ears and nothing began to hold the sword. Now it lay in front of her, hilt in her hands, still slightly moist.

 

“Dead. Dead. Gone again. How how?”

 

Now she remembered the name. Binlock. Not the same one as before. Different colour. This one was green and unlike the plump woman a few moments ago, definitely a demon. She couldn’t tell if it was the same one she had met in the InBetween realm.

 

She sliced it in a clean two before it could even panic at her approach.

 

The body hovered and stared at her, trying to mock her feeble attempt at evisceration right before gravity took hold. The two parts dropped from each other, becoming children again before they hit the ground.

 

The children part took a moment to register. The foreigner filled it. He was already backing away.

 

“There is no need for a confrontation here,” he said monotonously in a dreary documentary voice where even the narrator had just plain had enough. “I have no wish to fight. My fear prevents it. I am too scared. I am too scared, Oh please don’t hurt me. Oh please, I beg of you. Spare me. Spare me.”

 

The words came out in a pitter patter behind his unkempt beard, trying for emotion and only getting a single pitch. Natoko pointed her sword at him and spoke:

 

“Tell you King of the City that we require a meeting with him.”

 

“The king. I do not understand. Oh cursed lords please.”

 

“Your lord, master, whatever. Call him and tell him to call us, or we will come back to this factory with the Heir and we will bring it all down and destroy His work. Do I make myself clear this time? This one time only?”

 

“Yes. Yes, of course,” he said with the perfect rhythm that could only be managed without pitch, tone or crescendo. “I leave now. I shall transfer your message. Thank you. Thank you so much.” The foreigner ran away, half jumping half falling over the stairway before Natoko heard a loud clang and the patter of scared sprinting.

 

She waited a few moments, before striking Iziz to the left in a clean chiburi and throwing the mucus off, before returning it for a well earned rest.

 

“We should leave,” she replied.

 

“My word,” Kiriyama finally released. “They’re just children.”

 

“Demons, Kiriyama. Ignore their form and let’s leave. ” As she strode across their unconscious, uncut, bleeding forms, she stared down at them. That was annoying, and she’d rather not cut anything that looked that young, no matter how much of a trick it was. Hopefully this Binlock would know how good it is to pretend being dead for as long as it took them to leave.

 

“Where… where did she go?”

 

“We’ll discuss it later. Leave now, before anyone else notices.”

 

“They all noticed,” Kiriyama replied. “They’re all holding back down there. Do you think we can get out from the second floor?”

 

“Doesn’t matter, we leave through the front; the way we came in.” She headed for the gangplank, descending the steps as all the workers below them worked to avert their gazes.

 

“You… you are not in charge here,” Kiriyama replied, following her as she headed straight to the large delivery bay doors, and the small side entrance besides them.

 

“No, no I am not. My apologies for over assuming my boundaries. I merely wished us to get faster results. A meeting with the King of the city. Surely that’s what you came for. “

 

“Yes, well, this got a little dangerous this time. And, I guess I didn’t expect you to actually get into the killing.” She smiled away from him.

 

“If that’s what you’ll have me be,” she said grimly, bowing politely to a large worker who opened the door for them very quickly and offering him a quick thank you.

 

“Err… yeah,” Kiriyama said uncertainly. “Fine, we got a result. We’ll wait to see what happens next.”

 

“You see, being open gives a better result.”

 

“Err…sure.”

 

***

 

The King of the city watched from the shadows as they scurried away. They had come early. To think the samurai would come so far from home and risk everything so quickly. It was a relief to know things would be safe with that one.

 

The King hadn’t intended for things to go this way. It should have been quicker. The samurai had probably thought the same. She had no real plan, that was for certain, but she was still acting alone, mustering her own forces. That was bad. She was strong. She could become a threat through sheer power.

 

The king walked passed the children and checked the both of them. They weren’t easy to understand. They were two and then one and then two again. To work undercover near them for so long and not know of this. The others had been demons too.

 

The rumours given about this place were that it was an attempt to encroach on the King’s domain. That’s what had started the investigation. Who have thought that this would include demons as well?

 

Sticky demons. Invasive and annoying. To be hated just as much as the bothersome angels and then some,

 

Not for much longer though. The samurai would see to that, whether she knew it or not.

 

It was her job to be a tool after all.

 

***

 

“Oi, loser,” Sarah bellowed from the doorway to the lobby the next day, catching the attention of any one of the fifteen people that were leaving the dorm at that present moment. It was her nickname for all of them after all. Natoko stopped and turned. She knew the little girl meant her.

 

“You had mail yesterday,” Sarah told her. The young child flashed her an envelope and stood on the far side of the hallway expectantly. It took Natoko about five seconds to notice she wasn’t going to come to her and she half jogged, half not tripping and knocking herself out flat on the floor in a fatigue induced stupor to take it out of the young girl’s hands.

 

“Thank you,” she replied, in a mumble with gritted teeth. She looked to the yellow envelope to find it already tore open, the letter folder incorrectly on the inside.

 

“Yeah I thought it might have been important, so I took it without the intention of giving it back to you, but it seems to be part of your role play crap.”

 

“Role play, I don’t-”

 

“Whatever, night elf,” Sarah said dismissively turning and walking back to her room, scraping her mud caked shoes as she went. The girl wasn’t in her school uniform. Actually she looked more like she had just gotten back from playing in a river.

 

So she was skipping school, Natoko had suspected it. The times the young girl had been getting back were just too inconsistent, and never at around four o’clock when all the other lower schoolers would be getting back. She had been less obvious about it before though. Otsune’s leave of absence must have left her thinking she could get away with it.

 

***

 

“Natoko, hurry,” Aki’s voice blared across the room with the strength of a thousand alarm clocks thrown at her one at a time. Her brain realised it was a school day again and naturally slowed down. One more day until the weekend.

 

“I thought guacamole wasn’t going to be nice at first, and when I tried it I thought I was right. It was so dry and like eating sludge, but then I got told you needed to add more tomato in than the recipe states and it became much bet-

 

In an effort to shut Aki up, who had been bleating non-stop since they had left the dorm, Natoko slammed the door open, catching everyone’s attention.

 

“Oh,” she muttered. “Sorry.”

 

Her eyes caught immediate sight of the textbook. Exactly where she had left it last night. Could it be that she got away with it?

 

“If you think you got away with it young lady, then you might as well join Nixon and Fawkes.” Natoko swung round, feeling her hand go for a blade that wasn’t. Halfway to pulling the intangible sword out she saw the two slits that contained the eyes of Mr. Tsukamoto and stopped her short.

 

The bell rang, and Mr. Tsukamoto hhhmphed to himself. “Well, then. Why are you standing there? All students should be sitting.” Natoko’s eyes darted to Aki, already in her chair and smiling sheepishly at Natoko.

 

The class was called by the class representative, and she fell into her chair at the front in time with everyone one. Trigonometry glanced up at her like a child nervous to speak, and she inched to put the book away and in doing so felt the letter fall out her pocket.

 

The teacher got on with beginning the lesson, which was undoubtedly maths by the way she immediately stopped listening. Reaching down, she picked it up. It was a simple vanilla envelope, ripped open by hand. Postmarked for last night from the Tagoa district with no return address. The handwriting on the letter itself was very dignified, looking like it had been written by a European aristocrat. Smooth, graceful and written in romanji for some bizarre reason.

 

The reason she took time in looking at it was because it was hard to pull a piece of paper out of an envelope in plain sight whilst also trying to make it look like you’re working, whilst also trying to not look like you’re working too hard else your teacher will get suspicious that you’re only pretending to be working when you aren’t, which she wasn’t.

 

Getting the paper to slide out, she pulled it open and across her text book as she turned to the next page. She peered up at Mr. Tsukamoto for a split second, seeing him explaining things to the other half of the class. He hadn’t started to wander around yet.

 

The inside was written in a different hand, with black brush rather than fountain pen, and written with some very difficult symbols.

 

To the Samurai,

 

A meeting is acceptable. You should have come sooner. In fact you could have asked at any time. Please meet me on Sunday at 1pm in the Higashi PD Warehouse where I will be wearing a fetching new sports jacket and carrying a rose.

 

Also, if I do not see Sagara there I will kill you all before you see my face.

 

The King of the City

 

Natoko stared at the short letter a few more minutes, missing the class turn to the next chapter but appearing so engrossed that she even fooled her teacher enough for him to let it pass. A full address was written at the bottom. She knew roughly where it was.

 

The king knew Sagara? How could that be? And wanted her to bring him, or else he would kill them.

 

This was bad. Whatever had been happening between them, or not happening for that matter, she couldn’t drag him into this. She was the one being blackmailed. Bringing her friends into it was the worse thing she could do. She was their protector and Sagara’s retainer. She was supposed to keep him out of trouble, especially when it didn’t directly involve him.

 

She needed to keep this away from Kiriyama. If he saw it, Sagara will become part of it too. Even if other demons were involved, the demons he was supposed to be dealing with, these ones were not as important. They were for her to handle.

 

Perhaps she would simply leave it quiet. The letter never came. The king would not have to know, and neither would Kiriyama. All would remain safe.

 

No it wouldn’t.

 

She felt it, on her back, without warning or question. Her inattentiveness, her focus on the front. She forgot the behind and now could feel it resting two small coins on her back. Two desks right and four to the back, the perfect angle for Kiriyama to see everything.

 

***

 

The class fell out of the room all at once, like a doll’s house picked up and shaken by giant baby looking to play. Friday afternoon’s were the only time she didn’t speed out. It was Friday after all. She could take her time.

 

She waited, only realising a few moments later she was standing right by Mr. Tsukamoto. They remained in silence by each other, staring ahead at the crowd pushing itself through the doors, almost threatening to break the frame work. They soon filed out, and she stepped through as he offered her first passage.

 

“Have a good weekend, Ms. Yamanaka,” he said, turning in the opposite direction and heading for the teacher’s office. As soon as he turned, she shot straight for the back exit.

 

She had received no messages from him. Quite an easy feat with an off button. Aki had been blessed with a spare moment to bothering him into helping her with cleaning duty and the girl would at least be able to badger him long enough so that he’d help with sweeping or something. That left Natoko safe to get on a separate bus and away for the next couple of days. After Sunday it wouldn’t matter anyway.

 

The plan worked right up until she remembered it was Kiriyama who she was trying to avoid.

 

There by the side entrance, he stood with Aki, who waved happily and rushed to greet her. It was sad really, Aki knew nothing of what she was being forced into, yet Natoko knew that the girl would beat the snot out of him the second she found out. She remained clueless and went on to tell Natoko about how easily Kiriyama had gotten two of the male students to do all the cleaning for them.

 

“Oh,” he said casually in a moment of silence that Aki had slowly learnt to leave to allow others to comment. “You said you had that message for me, Natoko.”

 

“Huh, did I?”

 

“Yes, remember, from Mr. Fukasawa. You said you were going to give it to me at the end of the lesson.”

 

She cursed to herself, seeing the mild look of curiosity in Aki’s face. Natoko stumbled to find an excuse. Saying she forgot it would get Aki to leave in a flurry, but only to try and find it for them back at school. Plus, alone he could get all the information he needed out of her.

 

Denying it would look a little odd, but it seemed to be the best thing for her. No, no it wouldn’t. They both knew that Kiriyama had seen it, and all he had to do was show her one little picture before showing it to the world. How could she hide it?

 

No. That was the wrong way to think about it. No matter what, Kiriyama wanted some information from her. What she had to do was control the flow? Make sure he didn’t get all of it, especially the bit about Sagara.

 

But she couldn’t not go with Sagara. The king threatened to kill them, and while she had doubts as to the strength of this man and whatever yakuza he had with him, Natoko couldn’t guarantee her safety alone.

 

“Oh yes,” she said laughing as she fell completely dumb. “I have it here. I can’t believe I almost…” She felt her pocket, feeling the phone lump and nothing else.

 

A quick check of her bag showed it not hanging around there, or in her purse. With a shudder she realised she had actually left it somewhere.

 

“Have you lost it?” Aki asked, failing to see the look of contempt shoot out of Kiriyama’s eyes as Natoko started patting down pockets and rummaging through her bag. Did he think she was faking? It couldn’t have gone missing now.

 

“It’s okay, I can remember it,” she blurted out. “He just said he wanted to meet up with us Monday evening for some extra activities.”

 

Yes, this was right. And solved her problems too. If she went with Sagara and left Kiriyama behind, she would be taking something away from him. The Monday meeting could just end up being a washout. Perhaps she could even bargain with this King in some way.

 

“Right yes, of course. Just us two?” he replied.

 

“And the other team members.” She felt the lie slip off her breath, leaving a bitter taste fall to the pit of her stomach.

 

“Ah, of course.”

 

“Oh, can I some?” Aki said.

 

“ Oh, Sorry, Aki,” Kiriyama quickly jumped in. “But it’s for members only, and since I’m technically the fifth, I’m going in too.”

 

“Oh,” she said, looking disappointed for abut the time it takes a mayfly to die of child’s foot. “Okay!”

 

“Well that was simple enough. I’ll text you the rest later.”

 

“Okay,” she said, feeling relief at the little respite she now had.

 

They somehow spent the rest of the twenty minute walk not engaging in hostile silence. It was mainly thanks to Aki who could have even roused up a good, friendly debate in a concentration camp, but Natoko actually found herself smiling at the end of the story involving pocky sticks with the surface area of a snake.

 

It was on the street just before the train station before Kiriyama walked a few steps and twisted round.

 

“Oh, that reminds me,” he said, as they reached the turn off for his station. “I got this in response to that query you were asking about.”

 

Any joy, however false it was, left her immediately, and she felt it drop from her face as well. In his hands was the same vanilla envelope she had lost, containing the same sheet of paper sticking out at her. She let herself growl without realising as she truly began to hate one of her few friends. As he smiled viciously at her, his tone never changing from casual, her hands locked in silent fury. She barely noticed Aki’s face contorting away from a smile.

 

“No need to read it now, if you want. You can have all the time later.”

 

That bastard, he knew all along -had it all along. She gripped the envelope tightly, letting it scrunch up in her hand. “Oh, thank you.” Why play her like that! Revenge for the other day of humiliation. Why was she waiting? He was unarmed. Strike him down with Iziz!

 

She was unarmed too.

 

“What are you doing to Natoko?” Aki asked bluntly. Natoko looked up, seeing the girl standing in-between them. No. Natoko had let herself slip, revealed her hidden agony, and now her lovable friend was going to throw herself straight at the sleeping dragon’s fangs.

 

“It’s just a game we’ve been playing. There’s no need for you to get involved.”

 

“Liar!” Aki shouted right back at him, catching the attention of every passer-by within earshot. “What are you doing?”

 

The next bit happened slowly, but it was with perfect synch to the heads of everyone man and woman in the street looking away that Natoko could only see it as a frame added into a movie reel that shouldn’t have been there, a flash of fist that everyone save her missed.

 

Aki gasped, falling forwards, catching herself and tripping back into Natoko, who had no choice but to catch her.

 

“I said it was a game, and you just became a piece.” He turned away, seeing an old woman with a dog as they passed by and spent twenty seconds to jostle and play with the small shiatsu as it jumped and yelped in a desperate rush to lick his face.

 

No one hit Aki. It wasn’t possible.

 

“Read the note again Natoko, whenever you feel like,” he said, grinning at the both of them. “I think you’ll find you got your dates wrong.” He got back up and wandered off up to his train stop. Out of sight quickly, she brought her attention back to Aki, who was breathing a little hard, and the note.

 

When Aki could stand again, Natoko pulled the note out. All over the original message were notes scrawled out everywhere, pointing out little titbits more than anything, marking the different in language and change in penmanship, and noting the use of different dialects that Natoko couldn’t see.

 

On the back there was another message, written in perfect Japanese.

 

Hiding this from me will not go without consequence. We will meet for there tomorrow to check out the place earlier. There is no sense trusting an invisible king.

 

If you want, you may now bring Aki along, since she is now aware we are all comrades.

 

Natoko couldn’t believe it. He knew. That she would lie, that she would hide. That Aki would know. He knew it would all happen.

 

They stared standing in the busy packed streets outside the station, feeling the silence within the nosy crowds. That was it, she had got herself tricked and trapped, and was left with nothing but to congratulate herself on getting two of her friends dragged in all at once.

 

****

 

Natoko sat in deep meditation, Iziz resting on her crossed legs. Eyes shu0t; she looked at the blade. Mind closed; she opened herself to the world. Body motionless; she breathed deeply through her nose, held it for a few, then released through her mouth. She felt energy curl up inside her, nester, and flow back out in all directions.

 

She sneezed and felt her back give up on such an annoying sitting position.

 

What had she allowed to happen? Her one violent act to another human outside a tournament and it happened to be the only time someone was planning to blackmail her. Why couldn’t he have just tricked her? Then she could feel good about what she was doing, instead of constantly sick.

 

The plan had gone completely downhill, spiralling off an edge and taking her down at the complete wrong moment of when she had attached friends to her with chains. No, that was stupid to think. She didn’t even have a plan. All she had got so far was an expert level of skill at bumbling around from one place to another. So far they hadn’t found out anything about the demons except how to get attacked by them in bizarre hyperreal scenarios. She hadn’t found a way out of school, Sagara was sleeping an irregular amount, Otsune and Fujiko had been missing in the InBetween realm for months now, Sakura was just missing and all she was doing was getting dragged into what she could only assume was a criminal murderworld.

 

“Natoko, can we talk? We need to talk.” Aki rapped lightly on the sliding door. With a hitch, Natoko was on her feet and had her hand sliding the lock into place faster than she could draw Iziz. Hiding was so cowardly, but if Aki didn’t know she was there then – then Aki wouldn’t know she was there. And she still didn’t know what to say to the poor girl yet.

 

Holding her breath with twice as much air as usual she waited for footsteps that never came. That meant Aki was going to wait there for a while. It also meant she was upset. An impatient need for fun and explosivenesses was usually heralded by restless pacing and what Natoko could only assume was bouncing up and down on the spot on her head. Fussy waiting to get Natoko to do something of importance was signalled by an ankle banging on the door on repeat for up to fifteen minutes.

 

Silence meant patient. She could deal with patience.

 

“You left the window open.”

 

Or a mind as reactive as dynamite.

 

With a squeak that would have brought shame to even the most tardy of her ancestors, Natoko fell back into the door. And allowed herself to be trapped by the door she had just locked.

 

“Aki, I…”

 

“What’s he doing, Natoko? Why did Kiriyama change like that?”

 

“He… changed?”

 

“He got mean. Kiriyama was never mean. Always nice.” Natoko grunted out a laugh. He had never been nice, but she had thought the same. The popular boy that was friends with everyone was just a façade. Had he always been like that? Natoko found she didn’t care any more. She just needed to remove him.

And keep everyone else safe.

 

“It’s none of your business.” She looked to the clock in her room. She would have to go soon. Her ‘boss’ was waiting. Glancing behind her, she saw her exit. She would leave without Aki. Leave it all behind. She couldn’t endanger any of them. She was the guard of Heavenly Springs, but she was bringing them all one by one into danger.

 

“No it is. It is my business. What’s Kiriyama doing to you? Why? Why does his face bring me happiness and laughter one moment and his fist punch me the next? Why? And how do we stop it?”

 

Seeing the tears starting up on the girl’s eyes, Natoko lowered her eyes to the girl’s stomach. She wasn’t clutching it, but Kiriyama had hit her pretty hard. At least in normal terms anyway. It looked a very weak punch to her, but it was still bruised.

 

Natoko tried to relax. “How do we stop it? What makes you think I even want you involved in this, you annoying little brat?”

 

“What?”

 

That was it. That was what she had to prevent, and he blew it away in the wake of a light rap of the knuckles one young girl’s abdominal muscles.

 

“I said it’s none of your business, girl,” she barked back as she pushed the girl as hard as she could bring herself to. “You always follow me about, thinking we’re friends. I only put up with you because we’re in the same class and you get my homework done for me and now you presume to understand what’s going on with the men in my life?”

 

She stepped aside and took the lock with her, leaving the door open in front of Aki. “You were the one who overstepped their boundaries, you little- you little bitch. Now I suggest you leave me alone and think about how you’re not going to sneak into my room anymore.”

 

“Uhh, Natoko.” She hated this. Aki’s mind wouldn’t be able to process it.

 

“That was my polite way of saying-“

 

“Natoko!”

 

With her eyes shut and revelling in self sacrificial moodiness, Natoko failed to register even after she swung round to find the large lump of man meat crash into her shoulder, knocking her off her feet and pinning her to the ground even before she lost her footing.

 

Her head smacking the ground was causing Aki to spin and blur above her as she looked on in the same way someone would look watching a cat eat one of its kittens and not knowing if they should obviously stop it or go take pictures. As she tried to move, she realised that plan was out of action. Sagara was sleeping on top of her.

 

“What are you doing?” she cried out without thinking it through, all respect gone out the window like a ton of bricks that then landed on her. “Get off me!”

 

She tried to shake him off, only to be met by grunting. She twisted enough to see his face far too close to hers, as unconscious as she had ever seen him over the past two months.

 

He snored loudly into her ear. She felt the spittle jump onto her cheek. Even now, he was sleeping. How did that work exactly? “Get off me?”

 

Hearing Aki mumble something, she misheard and felt herself snarling at him. He was too heavy for her to lift up and his arms alone seemed to weigh a sack of potatoes each, pinning her down. “I said get off!”

 

He complied, falling aside as her aggravated fist tore into his mouth. Sweeping her legs out into the free air, she twisted around on top of him at the start of the second and slamming her other fist into his jaw the next. That was it. Was all too much. Punch him. Just punch the fucking idiot that caused all this. The one that brought promise to her life and then left it to decay every time she felt it was finally going somewhere. This was all his fault anyway. This stupid bag of meat that could do nothing but sleep. If he had only been doing his job, his perfect role in life, as role she would kill to have, instead of spending all this time sleeping, she wouldn’t be stuck like this. She could be free and they could be together.

 

Remove yourself!

 

Knuckles were bleeding into bones now. It felt good to see his face tear apart from her elbows down into his teeth. She felt cheeks forcing themselves away as they swung from side to side. It hurt, but it felt so much better.

 

Stop hitting him, stupid bitch.

 

Her name echoed across a tannoy and she went for his nose, sticking out against all the other stupid curves of his chiselled face. She bopped it hard like a hammer and got a reward out of it. They tannoy announced her name again. In a minute.

 

Die. Diediediediediediediedie.

 

She was enjoying this. It felt good. She could see why people hit each other now. Not just for power, but for pleasure as well. She felt his body squirm involuntarily under hers, and spasm painfully with each thunderous crack against his jawbone. Even now he was still asleep, enjoying his dreams or whatever crap he was living in whilst she was suffering. The stupid, pathetic hollow monster below her deserved it.

 

“Natoko!”

 

Snapping awake, she felt a vice grip around her hand, already digging into her skin and crushing her forearm. She stopped like a car going through a steel pipe and looked. Aki was there now, to her side, like she always was.

 

“Aki…I…” Looking down, she saw her hands, welts and cuts were already on both cheeks and dry traces of blood stained his lips and chin. Natoko felt her stomach bulge up ready to pop and felt surprised to feel tears coming from her eyes. She didn’t cry.

 

“Morning there,” a voice said below her and she was surprised to see it was Sagara’s. “Did you need me for something?”

 

Seeing the boy below her looking back up at her, a goofy grin as always on his still suffering from multiple lacerations and quite possible in need of a doctor face, Natoko couldn’t control herself. She backed down a little from him, lent in a little closer and, with a complete lack of thought, latched her lips onto his , brushing them tightly against his as she pressed herself against a man for the first time.

 

Her eyes stayed shut, she allowed herself to linger there for a moment, not daring to see the world before her for knowing she would see nothing great. Nothing special. It was no great adventurer or visionary whose lips were mashing against hers now. Not the man who would bring her her destiny. Just a pair of eyes looking at her the same way he would watch the television. Only that grin missing

 

This was Sagara. Just Sagara, her lord, and nothing more.

“I’m sorry,” she said, after she had pulled herself away, keeping her eyes closed even after she had sat back up and come to realise that that was the taste blood getting in her mouth Why did he taste of strawberries?”

 

“Excuse me?” he replied.

 

“I’m sorry. It’s your stupid fault, but I’m sorry.”

 

“Is that why you punched me lots.” He noticed for the first time he was injured.

 

“No…Yes!” she shouted. “I don’t know. I jut needed to, okay? I’m sorry.”

 

“Well, that’s okay then.”

 

“What?”

 

“If that’s what you needed to do, I can’t deny that. That’s the whole point of my existence.”

 

“You’re…” Sagara waited as she left the word hanging. She felt a little off as time passed into double digits, “Point of existence?”

 

“Yup. The balance is here to let humans do what they want, with out the intervention of supernatural or dominant forces, so-“

 

She raised her fist to punch him again, feeling a surge overcome her. Seconds later though, she was on the floor back first, Sagara standing above her, his own fist deflecting hers.

 

“Oh, sorry. I know what I said, but I also have to defend myself against attacks. I mean, you might have been possessed again. You’re not possessed again, are you?”

 

She looked at him, then to the fist, and back again, before snorting to herself, and then laughing, a childish funny giggle. Sagara looked on; a dumbfounded child. Self improvement in a very subtle manner.

 

She laughed by herself. How stupid this was. This is what she had to do to wake him up. Of course it was. It was Sagara. She should have done the least obvious thing first, not the least obvious thing.

 

Looking at him as her laughter subsided, she rested back. “We’re cool now?”

 

“Are we, I’m quite hot actually, and my face is a little numb. And I had something to tell you.”

 

“No, believe me, we’re cool.” She slid around and got up. “Though I could have done with this about a month or so ago.” She brushed herself off and began the next sentence right before she realised Aki was standing there.

 

“Sorry about that.”

 

“About what.”

 

“About everything. I should have told you sooner.”

 

“Told me what sooner? I still don’t know what everything is.”

 

“Well, I…”

 

“That was it,” Sagara shouted, bopping his fist against his palm, oblivious about interrupting. “We need to go now.”

 

“Go where?” said Natoko feeling distracted.

 

“Somewhere important. Come on. Grab your sword. We’re heading to Mt. Minoo.”

 

“What? Why?” She already had Iziz in tow and was getting up when-

 

“Come on come on, let’s go!” he announced, grabbing her by the shoulder and dragging out back into the light of the outside world.

 

***

 

Sagara’s sudden desire for an excursion was met with the obvious pitfalls. She was still dressed wrong for heading out. Her shoes needed cleaning and fixing. They needed to find a taxi heading for Mt. Minoo, for whatever reason and just when they were about to go, Sarah had nipped along for the ride.

 

It happened all so fast that it took until they had gotten half way along the Mai Line before she even realised she wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near any of them today.

 

It had taken a surprising moment of sly cunning and inspiration, but she sent one text to Kiriyama telling him she was lost in the city and out of power, before flipping the lid shut and off.

 

Lo