Tag: TOFOTN (page 1 of 3)

Book One – Epilogue

Sarah shifted awake, her eyes opening just a fraction as her awareness refocused on reality. The sun was on her face and it felt nice. Like she was lying in the arms of her father as he transformed into a big pile of cushions. Summer would be over soon but it was just the right temperature before this stupid country became too warm for her to bear.

These were the best days. She really, really loved them and even more than ever now since she got that stupid woman to buy her a proper bed instead of those stupid Japanese ones. She snuggled up tightly, grabbing a pillow and brought it to her chest, wrapping the covers around her and meowing slightly. She wondered how long she could stay here.

“Play time.”

All comfy movements became fast, jerky ones. How could she fall asleep like that? They were all in danger. The girl was up in a flash and looking around, not quite sure what she would see in the few seconds she had been asleep, Boss raised up upon the bodies of their enemies, maybe still in the middle of fighting, fearful of him fallen.

She had left the games console on.

It was in her room in Heavenly Springs, she realized with disappointment and bewilderment, light peering in from the window as always like it was just another, boring day. The television screen was still left on from another night of playing video games, the demo to her favourite going on without sound, a sign she had muted it as usual, the hours becoming late enough for others to complain.

Quickly shambling off the bed, Sarah’s eyes scanned the room carefully. How was she back here? Wandering over to the television she switch it off, the frequency bugging her ears. This didn’t make any sense. She had no idea of how long she had been asleep, figuring only minutes because of the danger, but if it had been long enough for them to get all the way back to the dorms… Wouldn’t she have woken up on the tram? She always woke up on the tram, she had trained herself acutely for it for whenever she sneaked into the city.

Circling the room again, still a little too dazed to think properly, she kicked her tossed clothes about, the near insignificant act of putting them out to wash not even entering her mind as she tried to figure out what happened.

But there was nothing to figure out though. She was just back. The sun was still shining out of the window, and the temptation to just crawl back into bed for another hour was becoming even harder to resist. She saw a shadow on the opposite roof. Reacting instantly, her hand shot out to grab her binoculars, the focus on them already adjusted to view the girl on the rooftop stepping back and forth.

As Sarah figured the second she saw her, it was the kendo freak. The moron was practicing on the rooftop as she did every morning, swinging that blade back and forth, her endless training refusing to be abated. But hadn’t the sword been broken? Sarah’s mind flashed back to a conversation she thought she heard, but then decided that was impossible. She had been instantly knocked out when the water hit her and her head hit the wall…

Her head! Hand jumping to the back of her skull like she was trying to swat a fly, she felt a little odd at feeling no pain, like going to lean on a wall only to discover it was no longer there. Even as she felt all over her cranium, there seemed to be no pain or anything that would indicate a bruise. Looking back to the kendo freak on the roof through the red binoculars, she saw her training as rigorous as ever, the sword in her hand shining beautifully against the rays of light as she repetitively swung it over her head.

“What the fuck?” Sarah mumbled to herself. The kendo freak definitely wouldn’t have gotten a new sword, at the very least because she wasn’t exactly full of money. Yet there she was, swinging away like usual and now Sarah herself had no injuries where she should have had them.

“It can’t have been a dream,” she muttered to herself. It couldn’t be. She had never ever had a dream that vivid and although she might like to think she had that good an imagination… She ran up to the door, sliding it open and nearly tripping face first over Sagara. She grabbed the door frame and stopped herself from crashing into him, not that the sleeping man noticed. How she had missed his loud snoring there was no way to tell, but her foot kicking his arm as she nearly ran over him did nothing to deter him from continuing his nap.

He was, she quickly checked for any signs of anything, definitely uninjured. That was wrong. She had seen the demon burn his face at least once. It was almost tempting to rip his shirt off and check for any other signs of a fight besides the usual cuts, but she thought it better to ask.

“Oi Boss,” she called to him, not hesitating to slap him a few times in the face, knowing from experience that Sagara never ever remembered nothing when he woke up. He made a very strange comment about sandpits and their use in the field of astrology, before turning over and nearly trapping her foot beneath him.

She swore to herself. If he wasn’t waking up, then that meant at least another hour before he even tried to wake up and another five before he did so. She turned off down the corridor, hating to have to rely on any of the others.

“Look, mother. I told you I’m doing fine,” she heard Fujiko say down the phone, the layabout’s left foot propped against the wall to help her keep balance. Sarah had seen this before, and never quite understood how keeping your balance when suffering a hangover hides the husky groan of your voice to someone on the other end of the line.

“Oi, Fujiko,” Sarah called out, to be responded to by a light wave.

“It’s my account, mother. How do you even know my username and password?” Sarah jumped and called a few times, only to be waved away after bugging the older woman for too long. “Oh, that obvious, huh? No I don’t need anymore money off you guys…”

Leaving the girl in the lobby, to what had to be a fifty-fifty chance of being an imaginary phone call, Sarah looked for someone who could give her a rational answer, and hopefully someone who was rational enough to give her a rational answer. Talking to Natoko while she was training would only put both of them in a bad mood. Sagara and Fujiko were predisposed.

“Ah, good morning, Sarah,” Gen said happily as he walked past her.

“Piss off!” Gen would be useless for an answer. She didn’t want to speak to Sakura. If it wasn’t a dream, she couldn’t speak to Tina, although Sagara bringing back a flaming mass of flesh and bone back home with him wasn’t a total impossibility. She wandered into the television room, where Aki was balancing on her hands while commercials played on the screen. For a second she wondered why she hadn’t considered this to be the dream.

“Ah, Sarah, good morn…”

“Piss off,” Sarah said instinctively, grabbing an apple from the fruit bowl and taking a huge chunk out of it. This tasted real at least. Made of plastic, but still real.

“You know what happened last night?” Aki asked, finally getting off her hands and plodding off to her.

“What? You mean it was real?”

“Of course it was. Well, as real as this world gets.”

“Just so we’re on the same page here. We are talking about a huge illegal tournament, me vomiting in the toilets, getting kidnapped by demons, having Sakura screw us over, an angel with two kick ass swords and a fire demon trying to ask Sagara where his village was.” Aki nodded, with an ‘uh huh’ after each item, with the exception of the last one. As she finished, Sarah let out a huge sigh of relief. “So it did all happen then?”

“Unless we both dreamed it,” Aki said lightly. “I mean, it’s not like I’m injured or anything anymore and I just woke up an hour ago to find myself here.” Sarah looked at the girl. Aki looked 100% healthy save for a small layer of sweat over her crumpled up hair, which was probably nothing more than Aki’s usual waking up routine of doing ‘weird things’ around the dormitory. Wouldn’t she have a few cuts and bruises at the least, especially if she had been bleeding very, very badly from her forehead?

“Let’s go check with someone else,” Sarah suggested, already walking out of the door. She wasn’t too concerned now. Maybe she had overreacted a little too much with believing it was a dream. However, she did want to know what happened. Sagara must have won- must have been faking it or something. They’d all be dead now otherwise, wouldn’t they?

Otsune was in the corridor leading to the Hot Springs, currently trying to swat a cicada or something with a rolled up magazine. She wasn’t having much luck though, swatting randomly as she tried to avoid her carelessly discarded glasses.

“Aki, Sarah. You’re awake,” she said, as she stopped to squint at them. Sarah noticed there was something hovering around next to Otsune’s head, the student flicking her hand against her ear as it came near her. Sarah found herself ready to tell her to go away again when Aki went to say good morning, but stopped herself. Otsune had crossed eyebrows again. They looked smaller without her large glasses on.

“What happened with you, guys?” she asked as she reached them. “We waited by the in desk for three hours, until they just threw us out. Fujiko had to bluff our way in at the hotel to get our stuff and then, when we finally gave up and went home, we find the lot of you here sleeping. I was worried sick.”

“We…didn’t come home with you guys?” Sarah asked, somewhat pointlessly. Turning to Aki with a blank look on her face, she saw that the girl had started eating a banana. However, she also had a similar look on her face, chewing longer than she had to as she waited for something to happen.

“No you didn’t. What happened?”

“It was weird. We were just in the toilets and you were shouting to us, when Sarah went all weird again. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by demons, and that angel.”

“Went weird again?”

“Vomiting more than the total mass of her body,” Aki rearticulated. Otsune turned to the young girl to look as falsely concerned as she always did. Sarah clicked her tongue. Why did that stupid girl have to point out the irrelevant things that would get her into trouble?

“How many times has this happened?”

“I’m…not sure. Never mind.” If Otsune couldn’t help, then there was no reason to talk to her. Maybe she could kick Sagara into being awake. Turning around, she had barely got halfway down the corridor where she heard Otsune scream out and jab the magazine randomly in several directions.

“Get lost already!” Sarah turned back to look around, and for the first time saw what the student had been attacking. She could barely believe it, there was a tiny flame hovering in the air around Otsune, apparently trying to frantically avoid each of the girl’s swipe like they were playing dodge ball. After a few seconds of fruitlessly trying to strike it, she hit it, and they all watched with panic as the magazine instantly caught ablaze. Otsune quickly changed tactics and started to stomp the floor where she dropped the magazine, emitting light yelps of fear as she tried to put it out, only to start swatting the flame above her again before she could finish.

“Morning,” a voice said behind the trio. A sleepy eyed Sagara came walking up to them, rotating his shoulders and scratching the back of his head in one movement. Sarah was about to rush to him but Otsune jumped in front of the boy

“You! Do something. Make it go away.” The ninja blinked at her for a few seconds, eyes only getting up halfway the final time.

“Make what go away?”

“This damn flame,” she grumbled as she took another shot at it. “It won’t leave me alone.” She started to stab at it with her hand furiously, aiming carefully with each jab, only to see the small ball of energy floating around each strike as if it were a dancing feather. Sarah thought that this probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, judging by the fate of the magazine.

“He’s taken a liking to you,” Sagara said, watching the flame now hovering between them.

“He? It has a gender?” She swatted at it again, nearly swiping Aki’s banana out of her hand. “Look, never mind. Do something.”

“Like what?’

“I don’t know- something ninjary! Put it out, kill it- whatever.”

“It would kill me if I tried that.”

“I don’t care. It’s been following me everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. I’m not sure if I should treat it like a dog or a pervert.”

“Treat it like a small floating piece of flame,” Aki suggested, although not very helpfully.

“Never mind this,” Sarah said, forcing herself into Sagara’s view, her foot stamping the floor as she did so. “What happened last night, Boss, after I fell asleep?”

“What? Oh, we got a lift back on Yuya’s Spinner.”

“What?’

“That woman we met up with.”

“And you didn’t even think of getting us?” Otsune interrupted, ignoring the little flame for now while she looked at him with a shaking fist. “We waited there for ages. They kicked us out in the end. Do you know how worried we all were? We had no idea whatsoever what happened to any of you, and Tina’s still not back! If she’s caught in that weird place with monsters like the one we met…”

“Keys isn’t a monster. He’s a spirit,” Sagara said nonchalantly. Otsune tensed up, her face switching to anger before going to calm down.

“Whatever, I’m sure she’s fine. Probably got kicked out when we did. I’ll give her a call when my phone’s charged up, or if Fujiko finally stops talking to her parents.” She stormed off, pacing down the hall as she continued to mutter to herself, screaming wildly as she tried smacking the flame away again.

“What did happen to Tina?” Sarah whispered as she watched Otsune disappear from view. It was kind of hard to guess what the answer would be. She had woke up to find everyone fine and as fresh as they were before the tournament. Was it possible that Tina was okay too? Sagara grew a look on his face that seemed to be trying to smile and look regretful at the same time, his hand going to the back of his head to scratch again.

“She ran off,” he said simply. “But I don’t think Tina’s there anymore.”

“You mean she’s dead?”

“It…” He stopped to think. “It may have been the case that she’s been dead for some time, I don’t know. The way she was speaking, it was like she had been whatever she was for a long time. There might have never been a Tina.”

“You mean we’d been living with a demon all this time?” Sarah asked with concerned alarm mixed in with relief. That meant the amount of times she had tormented that girl and not been incinerated was incalculable.

“Who knows,” the ninja said, his eyes still half open. “I don’t think it even was a demon. I’d ring my mom if the Initiation wasn’t still on.”

“Huh,” Aki muttered, jumping back into the conversation after she had wandered out of it to look through the window on a whimsy. “Didn’t you say that would end after the tournament?”

“I haven’t been told by anyone. Until then, I guess it doesn’t,” he said, not looking as concerned as Sarah figured he should be. “I probably have to do something involving Tina before it’s considered completely finished. This is going to delay going home.”

“But why did you let her…” that sounded very wrong in her ears now, “it… get away then?”

“I wasn’t exactly in the best position to do anything,” he explained with a fixed grin. “After that water spirit drove it off I was too injured to move. Then it was the deal with the Neuts and carrying you lot and getting you to safety.”

“That water woman was there?” Aki said actually surprised enough to mumble through her banana.

“You saw her, did you?” Sagara asked, a puzzled expression appearing, strangely minus a furrowed brow. “She was hiding within Yuya the whole time.”

“So that’s what that was. I thought it was magic or something.” Sarah had never actually seen the water spirit in question, except the times it was in Natoko’s body and chasing after Sagara, though it had been mentioned.

“She works for Yuya now, apparently. I should probably tell Natoko.”

***

“Tell me what?”

“Ah, Natoko,” Aki called out before the ninja could answer her question. “Good morning.” Letting out a small smile to her friend as she more or less flew to her side, the samurai replied with a small nod.

“Good morning, Aki,” she said before turning back to Sagara, her friend climbing onto her as she did so. “What did you have to tell me?”

“It was the water spirit that saved us in the InBetween realm. She’s with Yuya now.”

“Ms. Sakimoto?” she said, with nothing more than mild curiosity as she thought this out. “Thank you.”

“Do you want to do anything about it?”

“No, I don’t think it will be necessary, unless you wish for me to do anything about it.”

“Oh yeah, forgot about that. No, there’s nothing.”

“Will you be requiring me for anything else today?” She smiled as he grinned.

“No, nothing.”

“Then,” she said, bowing lightly. “If you would excuse me, I intend to spend the rest of the day training.”

“Go right ahead.” He was smiling full on now and she figured he had probably guessed her mood. “You wanna spar later?”

“If you like,” she turned away, pacing off down the hallway, not surprised in the slightest that Aki was following her.

“You’re in a good mood today,” Aki commented, diverting herself to the fruit bowl to grab another banana.

“I am,” she confirmed, doing her best not to boast the reasons why. Iziz was fixed. There was no way of telling how or why, but that didn’t matter. On top of that, she knew now that she was strong, and had reasons to be strong. Those few moments against those demons had taught her just as much as all the strikes swung throughout her life, and she couldn’t wait to learn more. She would train now, again and again, getting stronger and stronger, with Iziz by her side and her friends supporting her. That was all she really needed. She couldn’t help but smile, a Sagara like grin appearing on her face. Aki was looking at her strangely.

“You sure you’re not all repressive and denialy?”

“Some people in my position may be,” Natoko replied, completely helpless to prevent a wave of superiority flow over herself as she explained. “But too many important things happened to me yesterday. I faced and suffered horrors which few people have ever seen. Rather than succumb to it, I choose to become stronger, and remain calm in the face of adversity.”

“So you are being all repressey then?”

Natoko slipped.

“What, No!” she shouted, her eyebrows meeting. “I remember perfectly everything that happened yesterday, including the nearly dying and nearly getting raped parts. I was just saying…” But she stopped, Aki was the one smiling now.

“Just making sure,” the short girl chimed as she began peeling the banana, obviously no longer caring. Natoko grunted, and tried to calm down herself. This girl always knew how to infuriate her. She didn’t know why she put up with it half of the time.

Yes she did.

“You want to go to the Yakiniku tonight?” she asked without giving warning. “My treat.” She watched as Aki nearly choked on crushed fruit, trying to do her best to repress her reaction as she did so.

“Oh, can we?” Natoko nodded, watching her friend let go and burst out with emotion at that same moment. She continued to watch patiently as her friend went through a series of twirls and leaps that seemed natural only to her before calming down and getting back to her banana.

“It’s the least I could do after you protected me.”

The words had fallen out of her mouth before she even realized her brain had processed them. She felt like someone had poured a tub of glue into her bloodstream and now it was pumping through her heart.

“That’s okay,” Aki replied, not even noticing her friend had stopped. “You would have done the same for me.”

“You shouldn’t have had to protect me,” Natoko said unintentionally, causing her friend’s feet to stiffen up.

She looked directly at Aki, the happiness gone, not a single care about Korean meat left. Natoko wanted to look away, look down at the floor, but she didn’t dare move her head. She had been kidding herself. The world doesn’t work that smoothly, that idealistically. She couldn’t make a noble choice and then have it follow through, not even for a few minutes, and it was herself that had proved her wrong. Her knees buckled, they were getting ready to run.

“No one should have to protect anyone.”

“What?” They stopped, not even having time to twist around. Her best friend had a simple, light smile on her face.

“But if someone has to protect me, I’m glad it’s you. And in return, I’ll do the same.”

“Aki…” Looking at the girl for a few seconds, it felt that perhaps it might have been possible. She nodded, before walking back alongside her friend down the corridor. Maybe being proven wrong was a good thing.

“Just not too often okay? It’s annoying seeing you go into angst mode randomly.”

“Oi.”

***

And so the day went by in Heavily Springs as normally as one could expect in a world where people spoke about the size of their breasts in Hot Springs. Samurai girl’s continued to train. Their friends ate bananas. Little kids followed their cousins about, while freelance reporters, to be read as ‘unemployed people’, went on trying not to worry about finances.

Meanwhile, ex-forensic students gave up on trying to determine why the world was all dumb and stuff and went about the equally impossible task of trying to snuff flames out while landlords continued to exist in a most boring manner.

In the town, old people still talked to each other angrily, probably about how they weren’t dead yet, alongside the need to build more propulsion jet engines. As they did so, they ignored the youth of today, especially the youth three times their size as he wandered back out of the village, lost and confused.

And finally, just outside the town’s limits sat on a park bench, a young girl consumed pizza at great expense, watching the day fly by and hiding whenever anyone walked past her. As she would leave, though not return home, the sun would set on them all, bringing about the cycle of light and dark, keeping both an infinite balance that kept the world in check and provided a relatively decent metaphor. All was well with the world.

Well, there was one more thing.

 

Sagara couldn’t find the religious cook.

Not that he had tried to look for her. In fact, he was pretty sure that nobody save himself could get up to this part of the roof without having to be lowered down by a helicopter. Even so, he hadn’t seen or heard from her all day.

The girl had come back with them, in a semi-unconscious, near-comatose state that he was pretty sure wasn’t considered all that healthy. But after they got home, she had wandered off in no particular direction and hadn’t approached him since, not saying a word the whole time.

Now the girl he first met naked had been wandering around the whole dormitory grounds for the past half hour shouting for the little religious cook, only stopping every so often to scream at the little ball of fire that was following her around, which, since night had fell, had turned blue so that it didn’t get cold. The girl seemed to be having no luck finding her fellow dorm buddy, so it seemed clear that the religious cook had since left the site, but the village was small, and she wouldn’t have many places to go and, with another hour left until the trams stopped running for the night, it seemed more and more likely that she wasn’t coming back if she had taken one.

He was sure she’d be all right.

Sagara waited another hour before continuing to wait for another hour. Waiting restlessly for someone that had yet to show up. Someone was missing.

Twirling the phone in his hands, his thumb had started to press buttons randomly as the stars continued to travel across the sky, quickly hitting the red button whenever he started to hear ringing.

Nothing seemed to be happening at all. Was someone going to tell him he was finished? If he wasn’t going to get the very obvious sign that he was promised, he’d just have to assume that the mission did include hunting down this fire spirit.

The phone started to beep in his hands, vibrating at the same time. Feeling a certain pang of relief that he wasn’t surrounded by enemies, hiding in darkness, at that moment, he looked to it and read the message.

Sagara I need to see you. Come to the city sometime and I’ll find you. – Raiko

That was a surprise. Staring at the message a second longer, he quickly deleted it, assured that he’d remember something that important. Especially since he too felt like he needed to see her.

Maybe they could go to the café again. That place had nice food. Weird mixed stuff that looked kind of odd, but still tasted nice. Maybe he’ll bring her back and introduce her to the Hot Springs. Somehow he knew she’d enjoy them just as much as he did.

He shifted his seating posture and waited another seventy three minutes.

Someone was missing.

Where was she anyway?

Act Four – Chapter Five

Sarah wasn’t quite sure when Tina had entered the room. During those first few seconds, she hadn’t been paying attention to the door.

From Tina’s fist, the angel screamed, a high pitched sympathy that was as beautiful in its crescendo as it was terrible in its finale. Sarah leaned forward, her nose pressing against the barrier as if it were glass, watching in awe as the angel burned.

“What…” she heard someone mutter from somewhere in the room, although she didn’t really pay any attention to it. “What is that?”

Even those who heard it didn’t seem ready to answer the question at that moment, and Sarah certainly didn’t know the answer. Not the proper answer anyway. It was Tina. Dumb Otsune’s dumb friend who had come from Dumbland, Germany for dumb reasons- Sarah had never listened to the story. And at the same time, it wasn’t her. The growl that she had heard coming from its voice was more similar to that of the gruff-sounding man that worked at the convenience store and knew far too much about trading cards than of the dainty voice of a girl who had only bothered to learn ten words of Japanese since coming here. Not to mention the way her scrawny naked body shambled across the room as rags of flesh burned off her and faded into ash. Right now she was very different from the shy girl that Fujiko always teased.

It wasn’t like these were the only clues Sarah had in figuring that this was not the girl she knew. There was also the fact that Tina had used the red candle that sat in front of the ten year old’s prison to ignite herself, as well as the fact that she had reacted as if her entire body was doused in gasoline.

With the room being bathed with the creature’s flames, she could finally see all the demons that had remained hidden in the shadows. For a second she almost wished that someone would turn the lights back off. Some of the demons were reasonably human- some of them were even kinda cool looking, with large, imposing muscles and clothing that would have instantly made her a fan if they were off some cartoon. The only thing counteracting this being their recently created impotence after the angel had attacked them all, cutting off cool looking horns and spikes at random.

Some of them were a little too freaky though- even for her standards, growing horns and fur in strange places. One of them had even sprouted hooves out of their kneecaps and adjacent to their legs, and another was bleeding heavily from the spores on his now bald head. Some weren’t even human in the slightest and looked like grim mockeries of household items. One was a very warped radiator that had rusted over completely. Another had taken the body of an already deceased horse that had no intention of standing back up. A third one was wrapped in darkness that was so black she felt it had to be called spurgle for some unfathomable reason.

The stupid angel that had attacked Sagara before he was even ready started to fall, its knees quivering as Tina’s ember fist drove through its body like a stake, the stupid god creature’s armour cracking out through his robes. She could see Sagara looking down to his own chest, keeping an eye on the embedded hand just inches from him and cooing to himself. The angel’s whole body was moving around the arm that had plunged through it, turning to something that looked like white flaky ash, dripping to the ground like wet sand from a child’s bucket. Before anyone could do or say anything about it- not that it looked like anyone was going to, the angel had completely disintegrated, his mouth jabbering wordlessly like he was too scared to make a complaint, his robes and weapons disappearing into a pile of cinder and dust below Sagara. The only thing left besides this being two bands of metal that dropped from where the angel had been. They were scaled and shiny, looking to be made from solid gold.

“Took me a while to find you, child of the Futabatei,” the creature said, confirming Sarah’s view that it sounded nothing like the girl who it once was. “This realm is troubling for those of us who see only in flame.” Sarah could see the creature open its eyes to look at Sagara, and cursed under her breath when she saw crimson fire staring out at him from the empty sockets where eyes should have been, blood sizzling down seared cheeks like miniature waterfalls. She was pretty sure Tina had had eyes when she walked passed her.

“Excuse me?” Sagara said. He had begun to sweat, and Sarah knew that it wasn’t in fear. It couldn’t be fear with Sagara. It clearly had to be the heat that the monster was giving off. She could feel it herself, although not as much through the strange barrier.

“You have been annoyingly persistent. It seems that no matter where you go, there is always something stopping us from having the little chat I’ve been wanting. Even my own plans have been getting in the way. But now,” it shouted suddenly, slamming its barbequed hands against the wall, Sagara’s head in between. “Now we have plenty of time to chat.”

From the hallway outside, Sarah heard a small noise of something hitting the far wall, disrupting her attention from the creature just meters in front of her. She inched towards the far end of the barrier to try and see if she could see. Sakura had dropped to the floor, her eyelids stretched wide, her pupils diluted. She was barely moving, her breathing had become as shallow as it could possibly be and her throat was locked tight.

Good, Sarah couldn’t help but think. The stupid moron deserved it. Betraying Sagara was unforgivable. She still couldn’t believe how quick the girl hadn’t hesitated to offer her assistance to the angel, volunteering to get Sagara for him. The angel had been full of crap too, stating things like ‘time is of the essence’ and ‘I shall inform you of everything you need to know about your soul mate later.’ He was clearly just using her, probably wasn’t even a real angel, just a kick ass fighter.

The large, bulky demon stepped forward, shaking its massive head as if just being freed from hypnosis. On his shoulder, the small woman who spoke at the same time he did pulled out a small knife. Maybe the angel wasn’t as kick ass, she thought, if it couldn’t get every weapon. They spoke together again, the man’s voice as incoherent as ever.

“Who are…” was as far as the woman got when all the air around them ignited. Filling the room like water in a jar, an inferno poured from the creature as it stood in front of Sagara, its hollow eyes never looking away from him. Sarah found herself falling back as her view was obscured by the white fire that filled the room. She only just got to see the business woman jump into the passageway in time, though she couldn’t see if the flames follow her or not. Hearing the screams, the girl watched the demons in the moments she could see, shattering her ears with horrendous shrieks, seeing their warped bodies quickly being stripped away by the white hot inferno before her view became completely masked by the firestorm that had erupted, a small grin feeling up her face as she watched them perish.

Her breath wheezed slightly, the fire was burning away the oxygen, even behind the barrier that was proving to be her saviour. The magic candle in front of her was not dropping a single dew of wax even as the extreme temperature threatened to boil her blood.

Then, the fire was gone. All that was left was black ash, slowly drifting to the ground like lint in the sunlight. The room was empty, with no one left save herself, Sagara and Tina.

She could see the woman was still by the door frame, standing there with her eyes darting about and a hesitant step back into the room. As she watched her, Sarah remembered about Aki and spun round. She let out a sigh of relief to see the girl still alive, although bleeding quite badly from her forehead, the blood trailing mere feet from Sagara and the creature.

Like it was unaware of everything that had just happened behind it, the creature brought its head to Sagara’s, the eyebrows of the ninja slowly singing from the heat. For some reason, although she could feel the heat as well, Sarah could now smell the monster. She held back a near uncontrollable urge to vomit and was reminded of the time when Sakura had accidentally dropped the rotten chicken meat behind the bin instead of in it and how the next morning the kitchen was completely unapproachable. She starting coughing like a cat with a furball, doing her best to prevent anything from coming out. Sagara was also having the same problem, trying to jerk away from the decomposing body before him.

“Don’t move, woman,” the creature said suddenly, not looking away from Sagara. It lifted its arm off the wall and aimed it at the woman outside the door, who had been slowly stepping further away from the room, Sarah guessed because of the smell. “I had plenty to fear from the angel, I have nothing to fear from you. Be clever and you’ll live.” The woman seemed to hesitate for a moment, before giving up and doing as it said. She nodded without a sound, and Sarah noticed she seemed to be sweating more than Sagara.

“Good,” it said appreciatively, its face betraying no movement as it continued to gaze at Sagara. Sarah wondered for a second how it had even knew she nodded but then it spoke again. “Now, child of the Futabatei…”

“Sagara,” Sagara said. Sarah nearly laughed, before closing her mouth shut tight again, her small hand encompassing her nose so as to not let anything in.

“What?” the creature replied, its tone sharp, obviously not expecting such a casual interruption.

“My name’s Sagara, just in case you didn’t know.” The creature paused for a second, before answering with a warm fury.

“And why should I care what your name is?”

“Well, it’s polite, and saying ‘child of the Futabatei’ is a bit long winded, don’t you think?”

“Are you actually being serious?” the creature replied, its tone deliberately steady. Sarah felt like pointing out that he was. “This, from someone who can’t even remember other people’s names without having to be constantly told. Natoko had to remind you of hers twice, Otsune four times. I’m betting you don’t even know this body’s name!”

“Should I?” The creature flinched and took a moment to look away. Sarah found herself with the distinct impression it was counting to ten.

Sagara then, if you are so insistent,” the creature acquitted, her breathing ragged. “Now, Sagara, as I was saying… you’ve been persistent. It has taken all of my resources just to plan this window of opportunity for us, and yet I’d wager you haven’t even noticed my presence once until just now. Let’s enjoy it, shall we? Our little time together. Let me fill you in on the bits you’ve probably missed out on, during your little initiation ceremony.

“Go on then,” Sagara said lightly, making Sarah, as well as probably everyone else, wonder as to how serious he was actually taking all of this.

“First,” the creature began. “And you pay attention as well, woman. I’m sure you’ll find this interesting.” The woman remained motionless. Sarah felt like she had walked in on the last ten minutes of a film. “It was I who brought your little friend Natoko into this.” From her collapsed state on the floor, barely visible from where Sarah’s annoyingly angled barrier, Natoko seemed to twitch slightly. The kendo freak looked a mess, even worse than Fujiko did on certain nights. Her hands were clutching her broken sword tightly between them, its once pristine blade cutting deeply into her skin.

“I set it up, the fight between you and the girl, causing your little alliance. Ever since I found myself in that small village where the former base of your clan stood, I knew about that girl’s presence, as well as her strength. She is much stronger than you, Sagara. Only when focused, and especially when angry, but still, much, much stronger.” Sagara said nothing, and continued to watch the demon. Sarah was furious. How dare it say that kendo freak was stronger than Sagara? He beat her with ease when they fought.

“I needed a shield for you, you see,” the creature continued. “I needed someone strong to protect you, so you would survive long enough for us to have this conversation. I had found the chest containing my dear little sister in a few months back, but I had no way to open it. It could only be opened by a Futabatei that wasn’t a Futabatei you see. One who isn’t of the direct line. So I chose your grandmother, a little old woman who ran a dormitory for girls. I possessed the body of one of them and tried to infiltrate the place, but when I revealed myself she let herself die rather than reveal anything or help out.”

I had to kill your grandmother in order to make one of them show up before you did, and then wait until the day you arrived to get him to a place where he could open it. It was very annoying and, I admit, more luck that he wandered into the attic and found the chest. He was able to release my sister. And then she could possess your little shield.” The creature seemed to stop to wait for Sagara’s reaction to this, but Sagara kept looking on with a small smile on his face, like he was being told a story by a grandparent.

“I…” the creature stuttered for a second, its flames dying slightly, watching Sagara’s expression before it caught itself again. “I knew that my sister would only possess a girl, and a strong one at that, and I knew you would notice and seek to free the girl, at the same time recognizing her strength. I know you, child of the Futabatei. You like the strong ones.”

“You did it again,” Sagara pointed out. Sarah swore the temperature in the room increased for a split second, the monster doing its best to ignore him.

“She was alongside you a lot after that,” it continued, growling like a dog as it did so. “Fighting by your side as a samurai should, well,” it coughed what sounded like it was supposed to be a laugh, “her view of a samurai anyway, but always protecting you none the less. I was a little worried when you faced the Riddleklutz. I was stuck in Heavenly Springs in my role as Tina until the next day and didn’t learn about it until afterward.”

“Tina!” Sagara shouted. “That was it. You’re Tina… or were anyway.” He became quiet at the end of his sentence, realizing that he probably shouldn’t have spoken up like that. The flames on the top of the creature’s head seem to wave slightly as he said this. Sarah looked at him, her right eyebrow arched slightly as she squeezed her nose tighter, the smell becoming no more tolerable than before.

“The samurai girl fulfilled her job remarkably well, even if she was constantly suffering from teenage angst the whole time. She eliminated sixteen demons from the Battle Royale with but a swing of that sword, thus preventing them from harming you, and I disposed of those plotting against you directly. I had perhaps expected a bit too much from her though, although she was probably able to defeat the Zworak demon, her pathetic angst prevented her from doing so. It was just pure luck that Yuya had made plans to screw the demons over anyway, and placed that cripple in the tournament to stop any of the candidates from reaching the finals where they would have easily defeated you. After that, it was a simple matter to destroy all the losers, well, except the BlNiock demon, but he’s been handled now as well.” From the doorway, Sarah saw Yuya scowling, shifting her body weight from left to right as her eyes remained glued on the back of the demon thing’s head.

“Don’t get so hot and bothered, woman. Wasn’t your plan to eliminate all the demons after the tournament anyway? The angel too, as well as the False Balance members that came here. Pitting them all against each other and have them wipe each other out, a true Battle Royale. I just thought I’d help speed things up a little. I already killed off all the other hunters, the ones you had supposedly disposed of for the demons, when actually you had them waiting nearby to prepare a little war. Now, there’s just this one left.”

“I never planned to have Sagara killed,” the woman replied defensively. “And you killed the angel as well. That’s going to cause problems.”

“As much as I doubt both your points, why should I care?” the creature replied derisively. “I have what I want now, and that’s all that matters. My careful social engineering has all paid off. A free moment with a defenseless Futabatei, who can finally answer my question. The answer to which I have been searching for so very long, since I first found myself released.” The creature slammed its hands hard into the wall around Sagara and started to set it on fire.

“Now tell me! Sagara Futabatei!” it roared in excitement. “You will answer both my questions! You will feed my curiosity! Where is the village of the Futabatei? Where has the Onikage been sealed and hidden?” Fire spat from the creature’s mouth straight into Sagara’s face. “Where is my little brother? You will tell me!” The room burned a little more with each strike, the demon screaming with a stub for a tongue. Sagara’s eyebrows were gone now, as the creature looked right into his eyes. Sarah was confused. This demon was trying to find Sagara’s village?

“Not telling, don’t know and don’t know,” Sagara replied, listing the answers instantly. He stopped to think as he said this, his head tilting to one side, as if he had to make sure he got the answers right. “Also. That was three questions.”

“Lies!” it cried out, slamming its charcoal covered fist into the boy’s stomach. Sagara lurched with pain. Sarah resisted the urge to scream out for him. “Tell me!” It punched him again, and the ninja sunk further into the wall, his body now merged with the wall. Sarah wondered for a moment exactly what would be behind the wall. The angel seemed to imply something different than simply the next room, but she had no idea what.

“I…” Sagara mumbled, spit dripping out from his mouth as he took a deep breath as the creature took hold of his chin, its incandescent fingers scorching his cheeks.

“The three questions are one, Sagara. I only need the answer to the first to lead me to the others. If you tell me where your village is, I’ll let you go.”

“I can’t tell you that,” Sagara said, as if it were classified information. “I promised not to.” The creature’s free hand slammed into his gut, staying there for a few seconds as it burned the skin under his jacket. For the first time, Sagara’s face crunched up.

“I will not have you ruin my brilliantly devised plan with stall tactics,” the creature barked, continuing to spin its knuckles into the abs of the ninja. Sagara shot out a round of air, clearly not intending to. “Tell me.”

“I told you, I… can’t,” Sagara insisted, desperately inhaling for air, as the creature forced its fist into him again, pushing him back a little more. “Mom would kill me.”

“I will kill you if you don’t tell me,” the creature snarled, but in a matter of fact sort of way. “This is a limited window of opportunity, Sagara! When the timer hits zero, I intend to burn your soul. Now tell me, I won’t have my genius wasted on your stubbornness.”

“It was hardly genius,” a voice stated from behind them. So shocked the creature seemed at the intrusion, that it twisted its neck back to look who it was, bones cracking as it didn’t bother to bring the rest of its body with it. Sarah looked too. Only the woman was standing there, dripping with sweat. Only the woman had spoke. However, she now spoke with a smile.

“I told you, you would live, woman,” it began. “Do not ruin it by insulting me. My plan was foolproof. It has eliminated all threats to myself, and allows me to speak with this boy. Only the girl and yourself are currently in a state to fight, and there is no way either of you could defeat me.” From her corner, Sarah grimaced, wishing she could rip this wall-thing down and throw it at the creature’s face. She wanted so badly to break out and punch and kick and slash and bite the monster that was hurting Sagara. This wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. He had attacked Sagara when he was unable to fight back. The wall was still solid though,denying her her wish, however Aki had got through it still remaining indecipherable to her.

“For centuries I have searched for a Futabatei, only the name being enough to go on. Rumours transpired that my brother was trapped in their village, and I soon found it to be true. So I searched for many moons to find one of you, and then the grandmother came into my sights. But when I tried to get her to reveal the information, she died in front of me. But I knew another would come, so I waited.

“But the second who came was useless to me, an indirect descendent of the Futabatei, blessed with the charge of taking over his grandmother’s business. I could only use him to recruit my sister, whose prison I knew could be freed by only this false Futabatei. It was just this time I learnt of the Initiation from the demons, ones that you had spread the news to, in hopes that I now see were to eliminate them all with promises of power.

“With this news I bided my time, waited for my sister to be set free, amassed a list of all the demons and finally possessed this body when the stoolie here finally arrived.. Then, all I had to do was wait until it was safe.”

“Why didn’t you just possess Natoko yourself?” Sagara asked.

The demon stopped. “Excuse me?”

“Natoko is stronger than me,” Sagara began to explain. “If you had possessed her you would have probably won, or found a way to lead me away temporarily from Heavily Springs to a place where you could have interrogated me without anyone else interfering. You wouldn’t even have had to get the demons or angel or even your sister involved.”

“I…I…but i…”

“Your plan was dumb,” the women laughed unmercifully. “Pointlessly complicated, like you’re trying to impress someone with your genius. It would have even worked if you had just ran into Heavenly Springs, killed a few of them and held someone hostage.”

“I…I needed him worn down. After so many fights, his resistance is lessened.”

“Actually I’m at top game at the moment,” Sagara stated. “The Nuets healed me. And if that was true you should have struck after my fight with Natoko. I was exhausted by that point.”

The creature squeezed Sagara’s jaw slightly- a noise, like pottery cracking, could be heard amid the sputtering of the creature’s flames. Sagara gasped. Sarah told the woman to shut up, but muffled her own voice as she did so, her hand still trying to protect her from the smell.

“You’re clearly an amateur at this,” Yuya continued, unconcerned. “Scared for your own safety, you did nothing but ran round far too many of your own hoops. You even had to wait until Sagara and Sanguine were both subdued before you dared step in. Now you waste time taking credit where credit is not due. Your use of tactics is pathetic”

“And you think you could do any better, woman?” it said scathingly as it now watched only her. “From what I can see, you’re doing nothing but stalling. Hardly the best move with someone that can scorch you where you stand.”

“Hmph,” Yuya snorted with a light smirk. “Believe me when I say I am the one in total control here.”

“Smart words, woman,” the creature said. “But useless, I can sense your sweat from here. It’s pouring off of you in buckets, literally draining onto…the floor.” It glanced down, Sarah’s eyes following it. There was water everywhere, spilt out all over the floor, like someone had left the tap on in the next room. Her eyes darted around to try and figure where the water was coming from. There was no reflection from the light outside in the passageway and she couldn’t imagine this demon dimension to be prone to leaking. The water had just clearly appeared, for the demon found its presence quite remarkable in just being there.

What by the…”

“Let me give you the first line in the Balance’s rules of engagement in Geo-modern political infrastructures and dramatically conflicts, as written by Futabatei Tenma” Yuya said, with satisfaction practically leaping out of her voice as she spoke. “Always prepare for a Deus ex machine, and always bring one.”

All at once, the water that had spread across the floor flew up, rising several feet into the air and lunging itself at the burning creature. It immediately let go of Sagara, using its hands to try and block the wave coming over it. The creature was doused completely as the water overwhelmed it and extinguished all fires, the force of the abrupt torrent knocking the creature to the floor.

The creature wasn’t too slow to react though. As it fell, it rolled over its shoulder and flipped back onto its feet hopping out of the way and diving to the far side of the room. It quickly stood back up and looked to Sagara, its head already burning again, as the rest of its scorched body followed.

“Wait there, Sagara,” it said mockingly. “I’ll be with you in a moment.” It punched the air in front of it, almost like it was sparring with itself. Directly in front of the fist, the air ignited, traveling along in a line towards the woman. She watched, arms folded, as the water jumped in the way, dissolving the flames instantly, a trail of steam rising up to the ceiling.

The creature stopped, looking amused with the situation from what Sarah could guess. It struck its fist out again, and watched as more water spat out before the businesswoman, smothering the mini inferno that the creature had created, more steam trickling up to the ceiling.

Another strike, then another. Three times it struck, and three times the water snuffed the flames out. The creature let out a laugh, jumping high to grab hold of the ceiling, its hands going through the material like it were paper, before turning its entire body straight at the woman. She leapt out of the way, the liquid waiting behind her, engulfing the creature yet again, and extinguishing its flames as it closed its eyes to the surging torrent that slammed into it.

“My Shariku Insana System was onto you the second you stepped foot near Heavenly Springs Dormitory five months ago, creature. The only thing that kept you safe was my Great Aunt’s curiosity at what you were and what you were going to do.” The creature fell backwards onto the floor, apparently exhausted from the blast of water straight to its face. It lay on the ground as she hovered over it, cautiously keeping a small distance between them. “If I had known it was going to be a pathetic plan like this, I would have…”

The creature reignited once again, almost scorching the lady and boiling the water that it was sitting in so fast that it quickly turned to steam and floated up above it, giving the creature time to grab the woman and slam her against the wall.

“Fire against water seems like such an unfair fight, doesn’t it?” the creature stated, as Yuya struggled in its arms. Without even looking, the air behind the creature changed once again and filled the entire room with flame save the wall where Sagara and Aki were. The second the fire disappeared, Sarah could see that the entire room had been turned into a sauna, the steam that had once been the force of water now warming the room while it wafted through the air.

“How is it doing that?” Sarah mumbled to herself, as she saw the steam waft to the top of the room. Sagara was looking as well, as he rested within the hole in the wall. “Oi Boss!” Sarah shouted as she saw him. “Get out there and help her already.”

“Oh right,” Sagara said, as if he had completely forgotten he had anything to do. He began to struggle against the wall, his limbs flailing madly in any direction they could. The material that the wall was made out of, which, as Sarah touched it, felt like really think plastic, seemed to have melted back round Sagara and set in place as if he had always been there. The ninja struggled almost convulsively, but could not get any momentum to force himself out.

Sarah looked round the room, hoping to find something she could suggest for him to use. If only this barrier wasn’t in the way, she could help him. The creature was now talking to the woman as he held her, taking his time to mock her efforts.

“My flames burn at a temperature of a three hundred and eighty three kelvin, you see. Although I can choose to regulate it, that’s the average, hence why I was able to evaporate this water you were using.”

“I see. So you can actually make it so that your body doesn’t burn people when you hold them as well, preventing you from killing instantly.”

“That is exactly right. You see I am able to-” Yuya kicked the creature’s side with her spare leg, the one that wasn’t trying to climb up the wall to give her space to breath. The creature dropped her at once as it squealed, causing the steam to follow at the same time, splashing back into water as it hit the ground, covering the demon for another round. It scrunched up at the last moment, hiding its face, as the woman ran off to the other side of the room.

“Yes yes. You’re able to regulate the heat of your flame from ninety degree centigrade to around a maximum of three hundred and ninety two. But you can’t go any lower than ninety unless you shut it off completely. I know all this.”

“I’m stuck,” Sagara told Sarah, still rotating his wrists like he could magically unscrew himself out of the wall. Sarah looked around again. Aki was clearly still unconscious, but the other two were definitely awake. All they had to do was pull him out while this Yuya woman distracted the monster, right? She called out to them.

“Oi, morons,” she shouted harshly, hoping to grab the attention of Sakura or Natoko. The girl’s mind seemed to have collapsed on her, now just sitting there, hands clenched on the floor, back stiff against the wall, as if there were a deadly insect slowly moving up to her.

“Sakura!” She wished she had something to throw at the idiot, to knock her out of her stupor. This could be the girl’s one time to redeem herself for betraying Sagara and she was spending it in a self induced coma.

Sparks flew from the creature’s eyes, as it was mystically engulfed in an inferno again, the water dancing around the room dropped on top of it almost immediately. Growling in frustration, it leapt forward, covering the room in one jump as it threw its whole weight at Yuya’s face. She screamed out, a clear cut merging on her cheek, as her glasses shattered to the ground, her body following them, the creature straight after.

“All you had to do was be quiet, woman,” the creature stated. “Stay unconscious for a few minutes. You’re needed. And I’m running out of time.” It got up, twisting to face Sagara, the muscles on its legs looking like they were ready to eat and someone had already tried to chew on some of it.

Sagara didn’t see. His eyes were closed, his head rocking back and forth as he slammed it repeatedly into the wall behind him like he was trying to break either one or the other.

“Stop,” the creature commanded, grabbing a handful of Sagara’s light brown hair, almost scalping him as Sagara tried to continue. “Stop.” A fist slammed back into the boy’s chest, like an unwanted gatecrasher who wasn’t getting the message. Sagara’s head lolled forward, hanging limply.

“I need you awake, Futabatei,” it said, slapping him reassuringly. “Fall asleep and you’ll never wake up.” Sagara’s head lifted up, looking through the demon with bloodshot eyes. He was slowly looking more and more terrible, as burns were whipped across his face like a hot leather belt, his eyes bloodshot from his own attack. “Where is your village, Futabatei?” It said sternly, holding him by his chin, its other fist pulling back to its waist, ready to strike.

“I can’t tell you. I…I told you that.”

The punch cracked into his ribs, cracking two of them straight out. Sagara’s mouth ejaculated saliva and blood in all directions. The demon didn’t care. “Tell me!” It shouted, punching him again and again, a smell of burnt flesh filling the room as the creature that was once named Tina continued to rush blows at the boy’s helpless body.

“You’re not a ninja, Sagara,” it said, calming down before it killed him. “You’re more important than that. You have a destiny. Don’t ruin it and be a sacrifice. Tell me The Location!”

“I am,” Sagara said, his lips gouging blood as he spoke.

“What?”

“A ninja…” he said, doing his best to crane his neck at the creature to speak to it. “I am a ninja.”

“Don’t be stupid, boy,” the demon said, its voice almost sounding like it was pleading. “Even if it were important, you have no concept of stealth. You’re a warrior, not a sneaker.” It cringed to itself, looking annoyed that it was being sidetracked. “Tell me! And I’ll let you go. You can go be a ninja or warrior or enforcer or whatever you want. Just tell me where your village is.”

“To a ninja,” Sagara continued, to receive another punch by the creature. “Mom always told me…stealth isn’t the most important thing…” Another punch, then another. Sarah’s eyes were watering now, and not just from the smell. She didn’t care anymore. If she knew, she would shout out the name of the stupid fucking village. He was going to die at this rate.

“What’s most important to a ninja….is being cool.”

The creature stopped punching, the crimson fire in its eyes seemed to expand. Its head tilted slightly, Sarah’s head was doing the same, and she could tell exactly what it was that it was doing; looking for what Sagara had done, for his cool plan. Neither of them could see anything.

Nothing happened.

The monster seemed to decide he was obviously bluffing. It also didn’t seem to want to take the risk. The flame in its eyes subsiding slightly, its fist threw itself back as far as it could go without detaching itself. Sarah watched as Sagara’s eyes clutched tightly together, his forehead looking like it was trying to implode upon itself before his stomach was hit again. The creature’s fist flew at him like a cannonball, sailing across the surface of the air and hitting him dead on in the chest in a flash. Despite himself, Sagara cried out, drool dripping from his mouth, as the wall behind him finally gave in and collapsed, knocking the boy threw it.

To Sarah, the next bit was almost too fast for her to comprehend. Sagara seemed to do… something, that let him grab hold of the wall as it fell apart around him, the vacuum behind him sucking out most of the air in the room as it did so. The creature’s fist, which had hit Sagara at full power had also knocked the creature off balance just a little bit. It was all Sagara needed. Grabbing the smoldering wrist of the demon, somehow ignoring the pain he must have been feeling, the ninja pulled himself up, onto the monster’s shoulder and all the way over him, flipping over its head as his hand bounced off its scalp.

Landing on the other side, his foot slipped on the moist floor, taking him to the ground in a second. He made no attempt to get up.

The demon caught itself, grabbing a hold of the remains of the wall. Another step, Sarah thought, and it would have fallen off the side. Now however, it was the only one left in the room still able to fight. “And what was the point of that?” the creature said mockingly. “You don’t exactly have a tactical advantage…despite how clever that was just now.” It sounding like a retard trying to be smart to Sarah. The demon wandered over to the ninja as he lay on the floor, bleeding through burn marks. He tried to kick at its knees, his foot hooking round to tap the back of one of them.

“Heh, and what, pray tell, was that?” the monster snarled, raising its foot, and smashing it into Sagara’s knee. “Thinking you were clever, huh? Thinking you could escape. Let me tell you now. There is no time for escape, or for thinking. Just answer my question. Tell me how to get to your village so I can rescue my little brother and I’ll let you go.”

“What?” Sagara replied weakly, his head, unable to lift itself off the floor.

“Your mother fought and sealed him away, eighteen years ago, that much I know,” the creature said, appearing to believe that there was still time to try and convince Sagara. “I do not know anymore than that. All I want is a chance to convince your mother to release him. And I can’t do that if you’re dead!” Its voice was agitated now, sounding even gruffer than before as it shouted at Sagara.

“Sorry,” Sagara said, as he continue to lay, almost completely motionless. “But whether I die or not, it won’t change anything. Mom can’t unseal a demon once her technique’s complete.”

“Don’t think you can lie to me,” it called out, grabbing the limp body in front of him and shaking it wildly. Sarah called out, but did not even hear her own voice as the steam cleared up off the barrier. “I don’t care about whether or not she thinks she can do it. Me and my brother aren’t actually demons. I’ll make her do it. Just tell me where the village is!” In its rage, the monster dropped its body weight, the one hundred and fifteen pound corpse dropping onto the knee that had just been crushed.

“Sorry, but I won’t,” he said, letting out a nervous giggle. “Mom’s even scarier than you.”

Sarah looked on, her eyes glued to the scene in front of her, as the creature fell pitifully to its knees, like a puppet with strings cut, its skull like features looking down at Sagara as if it were about to cry. “Isn’t it reasonable? Just the location of the village. I don’t even intend to fight. I just want to ask. I just want my little brother back. Please… let me have him back, before time runs out.”

For a second, Sarah thought she heard something, her ears pricked up slightly, ungluing her eyes from the scene as she did so. A constant beeping noise was traveling across the room, and for the first time she noticed a small digital watch lying next to the door frame. She blinked at it a few times, then turned to look and see if anything else in the room knew what it was about.

“No!” the demon called out, turning to face the watch as its hand burst out. “Not yet.” The outstretched hand balled into a fist, as it looked back at the body before it. “Tell me! Now.”

But it was pointless, Sagara had already passed out, his energy drained completely. He started to snore loudly.

“Tell me!” the demon cried out, its voice booming throughout the room, as it raised its fist high into the air, undoubtedly planning to strike Sagara one last time, to kill him as it said it would.

“Even if he wanted to,” a voice said, as the stream in the room formed to clutch the wrist of the monster. “We would not allow him to. That is the task Ms. Sakimoto has entrusted me with.”

“Go away!” the creature shouted, barely turning to look as it unleashed another burning inferno. It slammed into the water spirit with such force that it knocked the woman through the red candle and straight into Sarah. She gasped like a rabbit who hadn’t seen the car coming, seeing the wall break up to crack her in the forehead, the steam and water dowsing her.

Everything went fuzzy. She felt something on top of her. But it quickly melted away. Sarah just groaned, her eyelids drooping, barely seeing Tina jumping off of Sagara.

She just wanted to be back in her room.

Time passed. A dream of a rabbit ended prematurely.

My…my sister?” someone said in the darkness. “What are you doing here?

Sagara…Sarah wanted Sagara. To see him. To play with him. He hadn’t paid much attention to her since coming here.

“Is she okay?”

“Ah, she’ll be fine. She’s strong.”

“Only thing that breaks a candle barrier is water. I knew that. I should have been more careful.”

“Well, she’s still breathing.”

“It seems the one that came with you is gone. What about yourself?”

“HHhhmm, don’t suppose those Neuts are still around?”

“I wish you wouldn’t call them that.”

She had been wanting to play with him, ever since he had shown up, but he had always been training when she saw him, and she had to stay hidden the rest of the day or else they’ll find out she wasn’t going.

“Quite ironic really, if it had kept asking a few moments more it might have gotten the answer. I’m going to keep these, by the way.”

Metal clanged against metal.

“Go ahead.”

“Remember them. You’ll need them when the time comes.”

Every time she had wanted to ask him, he had been surrounded by everyone else in that stupid hotel. It wasn’t fair, why couldn’t she just have him to herself for a few minutes? She didn’t want them staring as she asked him. They’d laugh and prod fun at her. Why was she asleep again?

“…am the negotiator after all. If you think I was just going to go let the Enforcer’s heir be killed…”

She felt something warm brush against her arm, lifting her up as she rolled over to get comfy in it. The body cradled her gently, lurching for a moment, then continuing to be comfy.

“Oi, are you sure you’re going to be okay carrying her like that.”

“Well, we have to leave soon. We don’t want that angel returning.”

“Didn’t it die?”

“I couldn’t tell.” A short laugh. “That’s why I want to leave.”

More movement. Sarah liked this. It reminded her of the times her father used to carry her in from the car. She’d pretend to be asleep, and laugh to herself as he swore about having to carry so many things in at once.

“Fix Natoko’s sword for her.”

“Are you sure? This power isn’t exactly the most common thing in the world. It may be best to…”

“It’s her will to have that sword by her side.”

Behind the lids of her eyes, she saw a shadow staring at her, she looked back at it, wondering what it was. Her hand slowly moved out tentatively to touch it, and it lunged at her like a snake, biting into her head and devouring her face.

She squeaked slightly, and then fell asleep completely.

“Thank Naomi for me when she pulls herself back together.”

“That’s not its name.”

“That’s what it told me it was.”

Act Four – Chapter Four

“You heard me,” she repeated. “Release her at once.” Her voice was unwavering, clear in her actions. Natoko wasn’t entirely sure what was going on here. All she knew was that Ms. Sakimoto was being threatened for some reason, and that she had every intention of striking the man down if he did not do as she asked. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem ready to comply.

“Well, Looks like the next act’s shown up early,” the man said with amusement, his grip kept tight on Ms. Sakimoto’s temple. “Looks like we’ll have to finish up quickly, little Yuya.” He looked at her with a kind smile, the type you would show to a child to make them feel better, and Natoko knew in that moment that he intended to kill her. Sliding in to intercept him, she pulled her Iziz out in but a second, flashing the blade to the man’s hand like it was nothing more than a light bamboo stick. The blade cracked at where his hand had been, cutting the air with such force that the demon’s blond hair waved slightly in the wind.

She stared at him confused, keeping her sword level at where she had intended to strike, the demon’s forearm mere inches away from Iziz’s tip. She observed her blade for a second, wondering if it had become shorter somehow. The man smiled and she saw the marks on his cheeks extending to his ears. Dismissing the thought, she raised it above her head and stepped forward for another strike at the man in front of her.

With a blood curdling scream, the two imp like demons launched themselves at her, their small, lithe bodies overcoming both her and her sword as each one went for a different target. Natoko was staggered by the surprise impact, their assault from both sides knocking her off balance. She hastily regained it, swinging her hips sharply, slamming them into the air and causing the creatures to spin off her as quickly as they had grabbed on. She turned to look at them, taking in their obscene appearance, before readjusting her back leg so that she had the man in her sight as well, not wanting any of them to fade into the shadows that filled this room. As she looked on, she caught the corner of her room in her eye, almost dropping her stance as she saw the occupants trapped behind the red barrier.

“Aki,” she muttered, as one of the imp like demons crawled up in front of her, the crimson fur on its head pointing at her as it paced back and forth restlessly, not daring to get closer. She kept her eyes on it as sharp as her sword, which pointed down at the demon threateningly. It kept its distance, constantly testing its boundaries. Natoko slowly sidestepped across so that she was standing directly in front of the two girls.

“Are you alright?” she asked, not taking her eyes off everything she could see in the room. These were demons, after all. There was nothing to trust.

“We’re fine,” Sarah said bitterly before Aki could do anything. “Get us out of here.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure nothing happens to you.” For some reason, it felt right to be saying those words at that time. In truth, she had no idea if she could protect them from harm, yet at that one moment, that was all she intended to do.

“Is she the samurai?” Her ears caught the first imp in front of her speaking, its tongue speeding through the words like it was a poorly paid actor reading them off a script.

“A samurai? Don’t be silly,” the other imp responded without a fraction of a second’s gap between the words. Her eyes barely had time to look at it before the first demon spoke again.

“She carries a sword.”

“She’s being heroic.”

“She must be.”

“A shiny sword.”

“She can’t be samurai.”

“Why not?”

“Besides she’s not wearing armour.”

“Or a penis.”

“Retainers of a feudal land, they do nothing save stand by their masters.”

“The sword is kind of scary.”

“She carries a sword!” one of them shouted, she was no longer sure which. “What do you think Freud would say about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let’s ask him later.”

The girl shuffled uneasily in her position, her brain threatening to overload with all that she was hearing. At her moment’s falter, the two imps jumped her again, the first slamming into her face as the other tried to take her legs away from underneath her. She reacted quickly, turning her blade to act as a shield as she deflected the first, kicking the second one away. They fell back, rolling back onto their feet as they hit ground, the sound of three ribs breaking cracking across her ears.

She heard a gasp of relief. The man had released Ms. Sakimoto from his grip. Just a little though, allowing her to stand on the ground once again, now wrapped round the business woman’s neck rather than her forehead. She seemed at a loss of what to do, staring at Natoko. The man looked upon her with interest and amusement in his eyes.

“Go on,” The man with the stretched smile said. “Don’t let me stop you.” Natoko’s eyes flickered back onto the imps in front of her. Watching them carefully, she found herself thinking that perhaps she had jumped in a little too hastily.

The two demons were prowling in front of her now, zigzagging over each other’s paths as they waited for a moment to strike, apparently reveling in the amount of control they had in this situation. Their faces were horrific, Natoko realised, her breath feeling raw just at the sight of them, their red eyeballs were literally on the verge of bursting out of the little slits that contained them, and their mouths constantly bleeding over a bush of unkempt facial hair.

“Little samurai.”

“Big sword.”

“Do you know how to use that thing?”

“I’m sure we could show you a very special use for it.”

“Dear brother, how crude.”

“You’re right.”

“It’s okay. Besides, she probably already knows.”

“Now who’s being crude.”

“She is!” they shouted in unison.

Natoko found the insides of her cheeks sandwiching between her teeth and biting tightly. She had a pretty good idea of what they were trying to imply, but it didn’t bother her. What bothered her was to finally see how they were bleeding. Their teeth, three sharpened arrowheads were crisscrossing over each other, slashing their lips apart as they rasped on at her, the blood spilling onto the floor through incurable wounds every time they spoke. An act they didn’t intend to stop.

Neither apparently seemed too bothered at this self mutilation, even as the blood was continuously soaked into their once albino fur. She bit a little harder on the insides of her cheeks, reaffirming her fighting stance, knowing there wouldn’t be enough time to sheath her sword. She cursed to herself, wishing she could use Iaijutsu, hating that she was being made to be weak.

“Oh, she plans to fight.”

“Didn’t she always plan to fight?”

“Isn’t she gonna bow?”

“Don’t they always bow?”

“Chop her head off if she does.”

“Or maybe take her from behind.”

“Oh brother, I’m sure that’s not the real reason these martial artists bend like that.”

She wasn’t sure how much of this she could take. They emitted a whooping laughter as she raised her arms up to strike, like hyenas who were the only ones to find their jokes amusing. She wanted to destroy them, wishing it more than anything, but the two girls behind her were preventing her from moving to attack. There was just no way she could risk leaving them open for any of these creatures to get at them. If she did, they would probably only require a second to rip them apart in any number of ways.

The two demons rushed her parallel to each other, each aiming at the same place they had before- one for her body, the other her legs. She was more than ready for them this time, especially seeing the same tactic. She went for the one at the top, catching him with his sword, and went to kick the one beneath as well, only to find herself hitting air with the second attack.

The lower imp had stopped a second early, grabbing onto her foot, and kneeling on it like a wall. She watched it in what felt like slow motion, as the demon scurried up the space of her leg in two steps, moving too fast for her to even notice its weight. When it reached her stomach, it was gone from her sight, yet she felt it spin round her body and land on the back of her knee, becoming immeasurably heavy all of a sudden, forcing her to the ground and knocking her over to one side. The other demon was on top of her head in a heartbeat, going heavy as it jolted its body into the back of her head.

A crack, and the world around her echoed, time even slower than a lifetime ago. She tried to look up and saw candles shaking around in their own haze, two worried faces looking down at her as the two powers began jumping and clawing on her, ripping cloth as they did so, touching flesh with slippery hoofs, before something hit her head again, making the world ricochet louder.

The entire universe span round four times, knocking her about as it did so. She felt something on the back of her legs and randomly remembered an incident from back at school when another girl had thrown a brick at her head for some reason. She felt warm, acidic air at the bottom of her back and for a second thought that she must be waking up from a bad dream. Sarah’s face appeared, and exploded with panic as she caught another glance at the two of them. She slammed herself against the wall of whatever was containing her and shouted loudly at Natoko.

Natoko wondered why she was angry at her. The little girl was always angry, except when Sagara was around. She would have to ask her about that. Fireworks span round her again, telling her of their loopholes, and suddenly she had a keen urge to go swimming. She never did it often enough, and it had been so long now that she wondered if perhaps she had forgotten. A swim would be good, she felt like she was covered in dirt.

She saw her grandfather, screaming his oath as the bullets rushed towards him, ripping him apart even as he continued to strike. He was so beautiful.

Her head burst out of the water, gasping for air as she struggled like a toddler wearing water wings. She wanted to reach for something, and all of a sudden felt aware of her surroundings again.

The room around her was an incredible bright white, shining down in every direction upon her. Natoko wanted to flinch away, to move her body out of the way of the intrusive light. She swung from side to side, gyrating the few parts of her body that could move to get away from it. But it was difficult, the light was everywhere, leering at her, taunting her. She felt herself wanting to cry, hating herself for her weakness at the same time. It was only light, why couldn’t she get away from it? She wanted to cry, she wanted to vomit, she wanted to expel as much of herself as possible to help her hide from the light, but it was impossible. She was too weak. Something was pressing up behind here, trying to get in.

A shadow cast over her.

She glanced up at it, not sure what to expect. She saw nothing, the light around the shadow was too bright, silhouetted the object before her. The object’s shadow was cooling just by being there. It felt relieving, like a large tree on a hot summer’s day. She reached for it, feeling something heavy on her head again, knocking her roughly. She didn’t notice. The light was fading, dissipating into darkness as she got closer to the object. A quarter of a meter, a tenth, just a few centimetres more…

She got it.

Her hand clutched round Iziz’s hilt, the blade knocking the world to a still hazy reality of darkness and red flame. The weight on her back quickly disappeared as she regained control, . She looked up, realizing that her nose was bleeding, and saw Sarah staring. Not at her, at something above her.

Turning, her shoulder slouching in pain as she did so, Natoko saw black jogging trousers standing over her, standing firm, their occupant bearing own menacingly over the two imp like demons, who had fallen back at the new, unexpected presence there.

“You leave Natoko alone,” Aki shouted. Natoko blinked. What was Aki doing there? She turned back to the mystic cage that was supposed to be holding the girl there. Sarah was still trapped in it, and was now banging on the strange magic that kept her there. Aki was clearly gone. Natoko’s brain buzzed at her, still cloudy from the impacts. Had Aki ever been behind the barrier?

She looked back to her friend, who hovered over her protectively, as she unzipped her jacket and let it drop over the samurai. Natoko looked at it for a second, then figured out why she had done it. She quickly stepped up, keeping firm hold of her sword, and wrapped the jacket around her waist quickly, before facing the demons alongside her friend.

“How did she?”

“What did she?”

“Nothing gets past the red curtain.”

“But she already had.”

“Which must mean she never had.”

“Didn’t even get chance to put…”

“Brother, don’t be so rude.”

“I’m not your brother, I’m your sister.”

“What? That makes no sense.”

“Shut up,” Aki shouted, like a child having a temper tantrum. Before she had even finished her sentence, she bounced at them, intending to kick one of them again. It jumped out the way easily, cackling madly as it did so.

“Missed me, missed me, now I’ve got to f-” It never had time to finish its sentence, Natoko had followed Aki in, bouncing off in the same direction the demon had, cutting Iziz down in its direction, through its furry hide and straight out the other end. The demon tried to scream, its vocal cords vibrating like elastic bands plucked as Natoko’s blade cut right through them, its high-pitch, fast paced voice echoing constantly as they continued on their own for a few seconds longer, before dying completely.

Natoko hadn’t paid them the slightest bit of attention. Turning on the other demon, now ceasing to move in front of its brother, she raised her sword and leveled it for the creatures head. It turned at the last second and bolted out of the way, causing her to cut into the bloody corpse that was still laying there. She had never cut that far into a creature before. Bone was a little harder than she thought. Panic rolled in its beady eyes, its body pouncing out of the way, the imp waved its hands wildly as to silently plead for her to stop.

The samurai did not care. There was nothing to care for. She felt nothing but hate for them. What these two creatures had done…what they tried to do to her… She couldn’t hate them enough. In that second, she ploughed her sword down and straight through the creature, ripping it apart in perfect symmetry.

The imp failed to make a sound in its last stuttering moments, whether it had gone silent or her own ears had just stopped listening she couldn’t tell.

She looked at the two halves of the body, as they continued to wander about, a headless chicken of a demon unsure of what to do next, moving closer to the other dead demon, before finally figuring it out and dropping dead, both halves on one side of its partner.

The audio returned to the room and she became aware of everyone breathing around her. She looked to them all, unaware of how she had missed so many demons a second ago. The man that had been holding Ms. Sakimoto was staring just as concerned as all those around him. Even Ms. Sakimoto herself had a perplexed look on her face. But none of them were staring at her, they were all staring at the two demons.

She glanced over to them, catching a slight smell of burnt cinder in her bleeding nose. The bodies of the two demons seemed to have caught on fire somehow, now slowly incinerating themselves. She watched as the ash that was soon left slowly faded out of sight in the darkness, as the heads of the two creatures slowly ebbed away at the same time. She could feel her own face crunching up in confusion, yet for some reason, didn’t feel a part of it.

An instant later, as the two heads disappeared into embers, the room was filled with an intense high pitched wail of agony that pierced through the room for a full minute. Covering her ears, having looked up to try and locate the noise, she ended up looking back down again when she realized it was coming from where the bodies had been. Listening carefully, she understood that it was the scream of the two dead demons, now filling the air with guttural cries, which she could only figure to be a plea for mercy come much too late.

The howling stopped, cut off in its crescendo all too suddenly. Natoko became aware of reality again as she saw Aki wander over to where the bodies had been. She seemed to have calmed down a lot now that the creatures were gone and looked almost like a child detective as she tried to ponder over what just happened.

“She killed them,” a voice rang out from the shadows. It echoed upon itself.

“Ssssshe actually killed them. Their existence are… are gone.” She recognised this voice as the one belonging to the demon they had fought back at the tournament area.

“But humans can’t kill…”

“She could destroy the bodies, but not the spirits,” one voice, which she could only really describe as spurgley said as it appeared to analyze the situation.

“The assumptions are incorrect,” said a croaky old voice still in the darkness. “For the body of a demon must be considered its spirit, so if its body could be destroyed then it stands to reason that so could its spirit. What has not happened here is that though. The demon is gone when it had nowhere to go. The impossible made current events.”

Natoko looked around carefully, kneeling down lightly to pick up the sheath of her sword and replace Iziz into it. She took a half step back, as the demons refocused on her, trying to keep Sarah behind her again.

“Aki,” she whispered, although there was really no point. “Stay behind me.”

Aki looked at her for a second, the look on her face clearly finding the plan stupid, before moving to stay at the side of her, but taking no form of fighting stance. Understanding her friend’s wish, Natoko looked back at the demons, all of which seemed to have no intention of fighting her, the ones that had slowly come into view during the fight were now slowly slithering back into the darkness.

All, that is, except the man holding Ms. Sakimoto.

“I can see why you found her interesting, little Yuya,” he said lightly, now releasing the woman from his grip as he turned to face Natoko. Natoko watched as Ms. Sakimoto dropped to the floor, her hands instinctively clutching her throat for a few seconds and checking her forehead to see that it was still the right shape. Natoko eyes switched from Ms. Sakimoto’s to the man’s, his gaze boring through her as he smiled politely. Natoko almost felt like introducing herself to the man and had to remind herself that this was the one who she had caught strangling a defenseless woman. Her hand lay back on her sword, waiting for him to make the next move.

Unexpectedly, he bowed to Natoko, making every effort to go as low as he could without kneeling before rising up again. He smiled at her, the slit where his mouth was now going longer than should be humanly possible. Natoko froze up a little on the inside, realising for sure that this man must be another demon.

“I must present my apologies and deepest dissatisfactions, my dear Yamanaka-dono, I had intended to ask of you to become my Muse,” he said lightly, with an almost pleasing to hear voice. “But I have the feeling you are not in the mood to hear about job offers at the present.” He waited for a second, and Natoko threw an angry scowl right at his face. His smile grew wider at this, way past human limits as his lips curled past his cheeks. “I predicted as much.” He sighed as he stood back up. “My apologies again. I shall speak to you another time perhaps. When more convenient- if you survive of course.” Without waiting for a response, he wandered off in the direction of the door.

“Oh, and Yuya,” he said, smiling at the executive with a sweet smile. “Congratulations. You get to live for today. You owe your life to her by the way. Have fun with that.” Yuya seemed to ice up like a glacier, her pupils wide. Natoko only noticed this for a second, before turning her gaze back onto the demon. His comment had only inflamed her. She had had enough of hearing these demons treat her like something to be used. Without thinking even remotely straight, she rushed forward, tightening her grip on Iziz, having every intention of striking the demon in the back as he wandered out of the door.

This seemed to be the spark that granted permission for pandemonium to break loose and entice everyone in the room. The BlNiock demon, not wanting to take any chances, immediately went for Aki, striking at her arm with its claws and knocking her down. Other demons threw themselves at Yuya, having been granted permission to attack her now that all plans had literally gone to hell. Natoko herself had reached the demon, and pulled her sword out, only to watch him turn to face her with that same smile. She closed her eyes, having no intention of doing so, fearing that the worst was about to happen.

Her sword swung out without her seeing it, failing to hit her target, the man not even moving in the slightest to avoid the critical strike, that smile still plastered on his cheeks.

Natoko heard a scream, and turned quickly to see Aki being slammed into the wall by the BlNiock demon’s shoulder, an elbow bending where it shouldn’t, just as Yuya ran out of the room to avoid the demons, stopping as she caught sight of a newcomer.

“Sanguine,” she said, sounding incredibly relieved.

Natoko spun around, staring at the man standing there and feeling a weight press on her soul. So tall as to have to look down upon them, what was so impressive about the man was not his handsome face or Adonis muscles but the pair of wings that sprouted from his back. Natoko gaped at him for a few seconds, not entirely expecting a perfect being to be that close to her. An angel. While she had figured that, with demons existing, other things might had existed as well, angels hadn’t been one of them. She gulped, stepping back, her body still tingling with adrenaline that was angry at the cut off of the fight, a random thought asking what Sakura would say if she ever saw this, before her eyes almost burst out of their sockets, as she saw what he was holding.

Iziz. Natoko’s eyes gaped at she looked at her own weapon, now in the hands of another. Her mind raced as it tried to tell her to look in her hand, the information contradicting itself as it told her that the blade must still be there. She looked down and saw only a hilt. She gazed to the blade being held by the angel, its once splendid hamon now distorted as it lay in two. She felt her stomach trying to heave itself up to her neck, insisting that she stop and let it off. There was a cry inside of the room. Aki was being pummeled by the BlNiock demon. For some reason, it didn’t seem to matter. A moment ago, Aki’s protection was the only thing that mattered, but now all she could do was stare at the broken corpse of her sword.

Before she could do anymore else, she saw the angel rush into the room, his speed a blur before her sharp eyes. Her head followed to watch, her thoughts motionless, watching the heavenly being throw himself at the BlNiock demon, stopping the monster just before it struck Aki again, for what looked to be the final time. The angel’s two hands darted to its side, pulling out twin swords as it let Iziz fall to the ground softly. It struck at the BlNiock demon’s claw, the monster falling back at the sudden presence of the angel, severing the bony protrusions at the finger tips, dropping to the floor like apples from a tree, clanging loudly as they did so, the angel striking them off the demon in a second swipe. By the third, the demon’s teeth were gone, which the creature had futilely tried to bite at the angel with. A few more, swift blows later, and everyone watched as the BlNiock demon was rendered completely impotent, no other choice left but to fall to the floor, perfectly unharmed.

The largest of the demons, a tall, bulky, human like demon, with a woman that was slowly merging with the man’s shoulder, came forward without waiting, pulling back its fist to strike at the angel. Other demons quickly followed, apparently figuring out that now was the time to strike. They all went for the intruder, their intentions to dogpile the angel clear, but failing to even touch him.

She watched, although her eyes saw nothing, as the angel began to strike at every demon, one by one, weaving between them like it was trying to get through a crowd at a club. None of them touched him, yet with every movement a blade tore through a demon’s weapon, dancing around them, twisting and pirouetting around his opponents like they were standing still. And, as he did so, the demons began to fall apart; horns, spikes, weapons, turds, strangely spurgley shapes that floated in mid air as they came off. The demons’ greatest weapons broke and shattered at the mere touch of the angel’s blade.

It felt like a few minutes, yet it was seconds before it was all over. All the demons collapsed, as if the rug had been swept from under their feet in one brisk move. Now the only ones left standing in the room were the angel and Sarah, who was still trapped behind the red barrier. Sanguine, who all this time, didn’t even look like he was aware of what he was doing, turned his double sided swords around and put them back in their up turned sheaths, his hands barely letting go.

Natoko fell to her knees. There was nothing else for her to do. There was nothing else she could do. Iziz was broken. It was empty. She had put the past ten years of her life into that sword and they had been taken away in a moment. There was no way that was ever going to be replaced. In the back of her mind, she heard more demons snarling. Some were staying in the shadows it seemed. She didn’t care. There was nothing left to care about. She was on her own again.

***

Melissa was…overloaded.

First, there was a large room, filled with all sorts of demons, the demons they had been told to track down and deal with ‘as Sagara saw fit’, which was apparently far too vague for him to understand beyond thrusting motions with Draynor to their faces or, if they didn’t have faces, whatever looked most entertaining to hit.

Then, there was the demon that looked most like a man who showed up. It was extremely rare for a demon to reach a level in their possession so that the object they possessed could be mutated to make such a realistic looking human. If it wasn’t for the fact that the demon’s smile could reach all the way to his ears, she would have been convinced for a while that it was human. If the demon had reached that level in its possession, then pummeling it with Draynor would be very entertaining for Sagara.

Then, the swordgirl showed up, and was able to actually kill two demons. An impossible act, even for Sagara or herself. Destroying an object possessed by a demon was fine. It would just throw the demon’s spirit back into the Inbetween realm or, if the demon was already in the InBetween realm, shunt it into the spirit vents and thrust it all the way back to its original realm, the fate the Riddleklutz had suffered just minutes before.

Removing the very existence of a demon was something she had never heard possible. No wonder the demons all went into rage mode. She was certainly a lot stronger than Melissa had imagined. Maybe Sagara had done right in recruiting her.

And now, the angel had appeared. She’d heard rumours from Sagara’s parents as to the pacifistic way in which angels fought, and it was truly breathtaking. It was more like watching a dancer than a fighter, especially since, after taking on so many demons, the angel was completely unhurt and had not taken a single blow from any of the beasts.

Sagara wanted to get down there, but Melissa was insisting they hold back.

“Just because half the demons have been neutralized,” she started, keeping her voice a whisper between clenched teeth, “doesn’t mean it’s still safe to go down there. That angel will attack you too, you know.”

Sagara didn’t answer, he was almost beginning to shake with frustration, not that that was possible. He wasn’t used to not getting his own way. She could see he wanted to jump down there and play with them all. The demon, the angel, even Natoko if the opportunity presented itself.

 

Her mind stopped for a second, as she saw the angel peer around the room slowly, waiting to see if any of the other demons wanted to try and fight him, maintaining a defensive stance the way angels do.

Then it spoke; quiet, almost timidly, but with a determination that grabbed everyone around him.

“The fighting will stop now,” the angel said simply. “For the trouble we have caused her, we will now find a way to defend Sakimoto Yuya from the trouble we have caused her.”

The demons fell into silence at this, looking at each other in the darkness, Melissa could see what they were about to do. With a roar like a thunderclap, the demons burst into loud, bullying laughter, filling the room. Some of the demons seemed to have a strange definition of laughter and she saw Sakura out of the corner of his eye, holding her hands over her ears to block out the painfully high tones some of the demons were emitting, Melissa’s ears only just able to withstand it.

One demon, which was nothing more than a popular soft drink, scoffed at the angel. “And how do you suggest we do that?” it jeered with a snarl. “Better yet, why do you suggest we do that?” The other demons turned their volume down, waiting for an answer, some still sniggering in the darkness.

“You will do it out of respect for all the energy Yuya-san has put into making this event happen for us, and for the respect due all that energy,” the angel answered, standing firm amongst the demon’s constant mirth. “You will have the honour to help her through the problems that have been caused here, through no fault of anyone here save one.” For some reason, he looked out to the door where Mr. Jupiter was now standing.

“I havvve no honour,” another demon said, this one nothing more than spurgley shadows even within the shadows. “And thusss, no reassson to follow your ordersss.”

A few of the other demons seemed to grunt or cheer in accordance with this, with others following as they used it as an excuse as well. The angel said nothing, and waited for them to calm down.

“The orders are simple, and the method does not require you to do much, as the orders are simple,” the angel said. “All we have to do is convince the one who will be after her to stand down. That is all that has to be done.” Melissa’s hand gripped Sagara’s shoulder. He turned to her and saw her shake her head decisively at him. He hadn’t even tried to move this time, she just assumed he would.

“You want us to kill the Futabatei boy?” the man and woman demons said sneering in unison, as the angel gave them a serene look that somehow conveyed the message that that was the last thing he wanted them to do. “Because if we come across him, that’s what I plan to do anyway.”

“You would not be able to,” the angel said to this demon in particular. “He is stronger than you.” The large demon visibly shuddered at this comment, and Melissa figured that if they were anywhere else than in the InBetween Realm, this mere movement probably would have broken the floor. Before it could reply though, Mr. Jupiter stepped back into the room.

“And how long would we have to wait, my dear Sanguine,” he said, almost teasingly. “I have wasted a lot of time here already, and I have other projects to work on.” Sanguine didn’t even blink as he looked at the demon.

“They are already here,” he said halfheartedly, raising his hand to the air vents where the group were looking from. “Sakura, please brace yourself.”

Melissa’s heart seemed to stop for a pump and spat at Sakura with venom as she saw the young girl simply nod in approval to the angel’s request, stiffening her body up to wait for the oncoming shock. Not in the mood for waiting and with a quick hiss at Sagara Melissa began to etch out backwards through the vents, intending to get away as soon as possible. Sagara stayed frozen for half a second longer, before taking Melissa’s plan and crawling out backwards as well.

With what could only see at the time as extremely bad luck, the air vents chose this moment to inconsiderately fall apart- every metal screw and binding coming undone as if they had always been half-loose and just waiting for that extra shove. Gravity took hold of the three of them immediately and insisted they get down from where they were. The two ninja did their best to keep hold of the vents now above them, but the entire air passage was coming apart from under their hands and they fell hard onto the ground in front of the large assortment of horrific and diabolical demons that, just moments ago, had been scheduling the deaths of the duo.

Melissa immediately cast herself invisible to all eyes who hadn’t seen her before. Full invisibility would be worthless. The angel would see her regardless, but it would give her an advantage against the minor demons.

Allowing the sheets of metal to hit him like they were annoying flies, the angel waited patiently and caught Sakura softly, allowing her to cradle herself in his arms. He smiled at her serenely, and Melissa saw all the panic that had built up within her disappear in his embrace.

She now understood why the little Catholic girl had been shivering so much. She had felt the warmth of an angel and let the creature’s holy resonance touch her soul. To someone like Sagara (and possibly herself) it would have only had a peaceful, tranquil effect that would have perhaps caused him to have an extra bowl of cereal the next morning, but to someone like Sakura, who was now snuggling up into the cloth of the angel’s robe, it would be the reward they had been placing their faith in all these years finally coming to them.

It was the angel who had asked her to bring them Melissa realised. And she had done so happily.

The angel smiled sweetly at the girl in his arms, as if he was an amused parent, whispering something to her. Melissa watched as the girl quickly shook herself like she had just been awoken, apologised politely, and slipped down from his hands, her cheeks flushed red with happy embarrassment.

The girl stayed by him, looking at the angel almost longingly, a small smile on her face that stayed there until she caught sight of Sagara. She looked at him while he stared back, both their faces appearing unsure as to what to show the other.

“I…er…ano…” she looked slightly downcast. “Sorry, Sagara,” she mumbled. “I led you here willingly. Lord Sanguine said he wanted to stop you from doing what you were going to do.”

“I knew we couldn’t trust her,” Melissa said cheerfully, keeping behind Sagara. Sakura seemed to explode with worry at this response.

“No, no,” she said, with panicky insistence. “He doesn’t want to hurt you. He just wants to talk to you.” Melissa went quiet at this. The whole room did. For a moment, all that could be heard was the swordgirl’s sobbing.

“Futabatei,” the angel began, stepping forward with arms raised, like he was about to greet Sagara. “May I ask that you forgive everyone here- let them all go, both human and demon alike, and forgive everyone here?”

Sagara responded by summoning Draynor to his fist and leveling a punch at the angel’s expressionless face. It hit nothing save the thin air where Sanguine’s face once was.

“Sagara!” Sarah shouted from within the barrier. Sagara ignored her for now and turned around, now summoning Greynock from under his sleeve and firing the roped dagger at the angel’s back. With but the smallest of movements, the angel caught the dagger and tugged on it lightly, causing Sagara to fly like a rocket in his direction. Sagara tried to take this opportunity to throw another punch at the angel, knowing that any other attack wouldn’t work against the heavenly body. If he could just turn his punch at the last second, he may be able to feint out the angel and score a blow.

Draynor fell off his hand.

It wasn’t like the demon weapon had been pulled off. Melissa knew only Sagara and his mother had ever been able to do that and she knew it shouldn’t have been possible to anyone else, even an angel. It just fell off, scattering into many metallic pieces on the floor and rolling around, like someone had dropped a bag of coins.

Sagara followed, finding himself among the scattered pieces, looking confused as to why he was there. The angel hadn’t even appeared to move, yet the gauntlet was broken beyond repair none the less. For some reason he couldn’t stand either, and then a ripping sound tore through the room, as Greynock was also pulled away from him, the last of its rope coming out of his body.

“There is no reason for you to continue, is there not?” the angel asked, as if the fight had never happened. “The demons were defeated without causing any damage to humans or the tournament overall, and I myself have failed to inspire the honour among the children of the demons that were participating in the tournament as I intended. If this is the case, then no crime has been committed under the rulings of your Balance and so, there is no reason to continue.” Sagara looked up at the angel, not quite sure how to answer.

“Inspire honour among the children of the demons?” Melissa said, bewilderment filling her voice as she repeated what the angel had said. The angel, for a second, almost appeared to blush at this comment.

“It was foolish of me,” he said honestly. “I became aware of this tournament, and the conspiracies transpiring around it, and saw an opportunity to inspire such notions of honour and fairness among those who would be sneaked in. I had hoped that, at the very least, I would cause some spark in those entering about equality and principle, and treating your opponents with respect. I may have actually done so, but I doubt the results will be shown in any major way.” He paused slightly, as if considering something, Sagara took this opportunity to speak up.

“In other words,” he said, just as calmly as the angel had done. “You went about trying to directly influence other creatures to your alignment?”

The angel paused for a moment, then said, “Yes. Sakimoto Yuya agreed to this and helped integrate me into the group, insisting that she owed me a favour. And although no one was harmed as a result of our machinations within the tournament, something strange has happened. The girl over there….” He indicated to where Natoko was sitting with a pained expression on his face suddenly appearing. “Excuse me.” He glided over to her huddled form as her tears forming a puddle beneath her, Sakura following him as he did so. Melissa had noticed this type of reaction in Natoko previously when she had forgotten her sword after coming into the city. She looked absolutely dreadful, and the angel seemed to think this as well. He crouched down next to her and spoke softly into her ear.

“It will be okay.” Natoko looked up to him, looking out of it, not sure who to expect to be comforting her. She clearly wasn’t expecting the one who had broken the sword in the first place, and with a wail of anxiety she began hitting him, much weaker than she usually could. As the samurai hammered her fists on the angel’s body, the others watched as the angel did nothing in response, letting her get it out of her system as she silently continued to beat him.

“Your sword is special. It will heal itself,” he stated. “Please accept my apologies, I did not know how important it was to you.” Natoko stopped beating to look at him. Sagara could tell she was confused, her eyes wobbling as silent tears continued to flow past her blocked nose.

“You will have to pray for forgiveness later, however,” the angel said, with his back to Sagara. “You have killed two demons. And even if they were demons, forgiveness must still be asked for. Remember this. I am sure that He will forgive you without any quandary, considering the harsh circumstances that you were placed in, but it is still necessary that you ask.” Natoko seemed to have been rendered speechless now. The tears had stopped, and her mouth was beginning to open slightly, hanging in the air.

“Forgive me once more, I have probably angered you,” the angel said to her one last time. “But I have other matters to handle now. Aki will be fine as well. Make sure you keep all the pieces of Iziz safe. I am sure Sakura will be willing to help you leave.” Sakura indicated her willingness with a fast, enthusiastic nod.

“As I was saying,” the angel said, now rising and moving back into the room, his robes flailing dramatically as he did so. “The girl was not supposed to be part of the tournament. Although she had interested Sakimoto Yuya enough to allow her to take part when she shouldn’t have, she was not part of the original plan. Someone has manipulated the events that occurred here by getting her involved in all this.

“Oh that,” Sagara said lightly. “That was me, I invited her. She’s strong.”

“No,” the angel replied, as if to deny the events of the past. “Not just that. Sakimoto Yuya, as well as myself, have ways of looking into the futures that we can anticipate. Prophesiers. You Futabatei may have denied we of His way direct influence, but we can still predict. And even taking you into account, there was no way that that girl should have gained access to the tournament. Someone, someone that is not you, is responsible for her presence.”

“Okay,” Sagara said, with the air of someone that was not okay and instead wishing to have the tape rewound so that he could listen to it again.

“That is why you must forgive us and end your mission so that we may get on with discovering this. If someone can affect this many beings of power with such ease as to remain hidden all this time, then it is drastic that we discover what it is.” He stopped, noticing that his voice had sped up and started again. “Overall you must know that our presence at the tournament resulted in no major damage. Those of the Neutral Realm were able to heal everybody, and there was no direct influence throughout the event.”

“Really?” Melissa said, through gritted teeth, apparently dismissing the ramblings of the angel as nothing more than paranoia. “I see two dead demons, a severely injured girl, a psychologically damaged girl and one currently grabbing the hem of your robes.” Sakura jumped slightly at this, yet still held on tight.

“I said,” the angel commented, lifting his finger up, “that no one has been harmed as a result of the tournament. I am asking that you forgive everyone here so that we may move onto these matters and deal with them. There is a more important issue that I have to discuss with you anyway, but we cannot get onto it until the decision has been made.”

The room went quiet and, Melissa noticed, that as the angel had finished speaking, everyone had turned to face Sagara. Even the demons along with Yuya and Sarah were, and she couldn’t help but emit a grin at how it had turned out. As she looked around, she noticed out of the corner of her eye, that the almost completely human demon was no longer there, and had apparently escaped everything that was going on.

‘What was he going to do?’ she found himself thinking. Forgive them all? It went against the previous plan, but half of that now lay on the floor in pieces. The angel was right about what it had said, his only concern was meant to be the tournament, and everything that happened there. Yet even though rules had been broken, nothing major had happened. The angel somehow knew all this and it was easy to guess that Ms. Sakimtoo had been the one to spill.

What should he do? It was difficult for even her to decide. He had let the water spirit go free on its own even though it had tried to break many of the rules, yet he had killed the Dark Scourge with no hesitation whatsoever. He had also destroyed the body of the Riddleklutz, but that wasn’t too important, since it didn’t mean the demon’s death.

Did it really matter if he forgave them for the tournament? Should he forgive them for now and just dispose of the ones who were involved in attacking Natoko and Aki? There was also the problem with the angel. Melissa doubted that the angel had done anything to Sakura on purpose, since she guessed it was one of the demons who was responsible for her kidnapping, but his mere presence would have severely affected the girl.

Yes, she decided. For now, he should forgive.

Everyone was still staring at him; even the demons seemed to be patiently waiting for his answer. Yuya as well, who was looking around carefully with her hands behind her back as she stood in front of Sarah, who seemed to be viewing the events in front of her as if they were a prime time drama. Without warning, Sagara cleared his throat.

“By the rules of the Balance,” he stated, keeping a firm eye on the angel, making a point not to move his body in the slightest, “I can forgive and negate the events that transpired leading up to the tournament.” Melissa was amazed at how formal he sounded at the moment. She had heard his mother speak like this when she was addressing the elders or some demon she was about to dispose of. Around him, he heard a few sighs of relief. Something vomited. “But,” he said loudly, causing everyone to inhale again. “For directly influencing an important member of the Balance.” He glanced back at Yuya. “I cannot forgive any of you, demon or angel.”

Sanguine’s eyelids widened, only a little, before closing completely, falling into thought. Some of the demons began murmuring again. “You do realize that she has forsaken the Balance, do you not?” Sanguine said, with patient irritation. “She may claim to be your Negotiator, but her interests lie elsewhere.”

“And would that have happened if there weren’t any demons or angels around?”

“Of course not.”

“Then you have broken the Balance.”

“An act she chose to do.”

“A choice that was directly influenced by everyone in this room above the age of twenty. If you guys weren’t here, she wouldn’t have had any debts with you. She wouldn’t have to hold the betting ring and there would have been no mess in the first place.”

“But-”

“This is why you guys can’t be around us humans! You change us! Without even intending to, you ruin our lives! It’s your fault people can’t choose for themselves!”

The silence returned to the room. The angel stopped speaking and closed its eyes, folding up its arms as it did so. Melissa wasn’t sure if they had stopped because he made a valid point, or because he had pointlessly mentioned people’s ages. Regardless, she couldn’t help but grin. “Well said,” she whispered, figuring he deserved at least that, before fading away in preparation for combat, now completely invisible. The angel’s eyes opened again.

“I can see why you Futabatei have managed to get such a foothold on us now,” he said calmly. “You do realize… that if you are to stay alive, you will have to allow me to incapacitate your party and remove you from the battlefield?”

Sagara was about to say something, something amazingly cocky and with a complete disrespect for the angel’s authority, but the angel’s hand was already grabbing the hem of his shirt, pushing him against the wall by Aki so fast that any inspiration for the best cocky reaction ever was lost in the transition from floor to wall.

“I shall leave you in the eternity backdrop of this realm for a short while. You should be able to last a few days without food and water there.” The angel held him there for a second, before beginning to mumble something. Melissa stepped up to help get him out, before realising there was no way in the world she could have done that. The angel was chanting, praying. She understood it at once as a spell that asked the wall to move.

Sagara’s arms started to flail helplessly, his shoulders already sinking into the plasterboard behind him, which was bubbling like wet cement all of a sudden. She saw him about to try and kick away when something distracted her. Footsteps entering the room; and then there was a new intruder, just standing there.

The newcomer’s face was dark for a moment, but as the light of the candle hit them, Melissa realized that it was… someone whose name she had completely forgot. It was Otsune’s friend, the one that wasn’t Japanese. She couldn’t remember the name at all. She wasn’t even sure if she had learnt it in the first place. The angel’s chanting voice echoed around them, lightening the load on her brain, allowing her not to think as she watched this entity enter and walk past her. The angel hadn’t seen the girl. Hadn’t seen her enter. Melissa felt dizzy, like she needed a long nap while wanting to finished a book. Her hand raised to say something, but her eyelids were getting heavy. It was if the entire Realm had been frozen in time, and only the newcomer was left to prowl round.

“You?” said Sarah unhelpfully from behind the red curtain, the only one unaffected by what Melissa realised was a powerful mood spell to make others relax. Knowing didn’t do squat all though as the angel continued, and all Melissa could do was yawn and act fascinated. “What are you…” but the young girl’s answer was cut short as the newcomer wandered up to the candle by her, placing her hand over it and letting the flame catch her finger, traveling along her body on a path that appeared covered in gasoline, perfume sizzling in the air, smothering her with in phoenix fire.

Still everyone seemed unaware of her. Not even the girl appeared conscious of the fact she was on fire. Now, as she walked up to Sagara and the angel, who was still pushing Sagara through the plasterboard and into the infinity of the InBetween Realm. Sagara’s eyes fixated on the girl as her white skin, usually plastered with many layers of make up, slowly turned a charred black.

Standing behind the angel, she looked at Sagara with a face that might have been a grin, bleached teeth showing underneath as her lips fell away. Otsune’s friend tore her fist straight through the angel’s back and right out his solar plexus. The angel stopped, repelled in his spell, his robes exploding around him as a hand pulled out. The girl grabbed the gold cross and began melting it in its palm, before the fist spread open and rested against Sagara’s chest. The angel immediately screamed at the intrusion, its face crinkling in random directions as the flames quickly overtook it.

The angel burned.

Melissa recognised the girl.

Tina! That was it.

 

Act Four – Chapter Three

“I still don’t trust her,” Melissa muttered under her breath, doing her best not to breathe in one of the many layers of dust within the cramped, spirit shafts that ran parallel to the endless corridors of the InBetween Realm. She never did understand why there was so much dust in these tunnels. Only spirits traveled through them. “How could she so easily escape from fifteen demons?”

“Erm, excuse me,” Sakura said timidly, raising her hand like one would to speak to a teacher. “I…I didn’t quite escape. They… let me go.”

“Let you go?” Melissa repeated, causing the group to stop as she looked back at the girl behind her in the shaft, an impossible task seeing as Sagara was between the two of them. “Why would they do that?”

“They…er they know you’re coming.”

“They what?” Melissa almost screeched, just stopping herself before she could do any major damage in the secrecy of their location.

“They…they said they wanted to take care of you now, and let one of us go so that I could lead you to them,” the young cook said, shivering as she did so. “T-they let me go because I was the older one. They said I w-was the most responsible one there, s-so I would c-come back.”

Melissa stared at the girl from behind Sagara’s vacant stare and notice she was trembling still. Every since they had ran into her, the girl had not stopped shaking. It was like she was covered in ice cubes, or a Skneeow was breathing down her neck . Melissa had guessed it was from being in contact with the demons, and the effect it would naturally have on an innocent. It was Sagara’s fault, she thought to herself, telling people about demons and the InBetween Realm like it was some trendy new nightclub. She would have to berate him about it later, up to the point where he might actually learn his lesson for a change.

The potential psychological trauma the young girl was suffering from had been one of the reasons Melissa had ran a profile check on each of those who had witnessed the fight with the water spirit back on the day Sagara had first met them. The results weren’t good. Despite her Japanese name and heritage Sakura was actually one half Italian on her father’s side. This in itself wasn’t an issue, but the girl had originally been born and raised in Italy and for all purposes considered herself a native of Florence rather being a citizen of Japan. Behind this had been a standard catholic upbringing. Sakura was a regular churchgoer all her life and saw Sundays as nothing but a day spent with her god. Her time was used volunteering by the looks of things. She helped out in kitchens and was an assistant leader for whatever counted as Sunday schools in Italy. The only thing god related the girl never kept up at the time was the choir, where she joined for three days before giving up her spot for another member.

Too much religion wasn’t entirely a problem in Melissa’s mind. Despite their upbringing the large majority of the faithful in life never had direct contact with anything outside the Human realms until after they died. Those who did encounter demons either became more vigilant or just went crazy. It was the second type the Balance had a duty to prevent and this was why the girl had required further evaluation.

Sakura’s father had died two years ago after falling prey to stomach cancer. Whatever their relationship had been, her mother had taken the man’s death as an opportunity to return back to Japan. Such a move alone would be rough on the child. From what Melissa had understood this classed her as a special type of minority that the Ministry of Welfare provided services for, something she was in desperate need of due to not knowing a single word of Japanese. She had been enrolled in special classes and was still taking them two years later due to slow progress. Everything was made worse by the accident.

Sakura’s mother had been hit by a bus a year prior and was killed instantly. The police reports suggested that she had been been pushed off a sidewalk by busy crowds and slipped into the oncoming vehicle. Sakura was at school at the time, but the accident left her with no relatives. This had led her straight to a meeting with the city’s Child Guidance Centre and subsequently accommodation was set up through a joint agreement between the Centre, Sakura’s local church and, out of the blue, Lord Mistress Futabatei Chiyo, the then current owner of the Heavenly Springs dormitory. Sakura had been housed at the dorm and had, on what was apparently her own insistence, been put to work with cooking at various agencies in the city of Fuugosuki, namely the local Catholic churches that had sponsored her, all for the purposes of paying rent.

Melissa had only gave the girl a quick cursory background check at the time and had left it on wait and see. But the incident yesterday and the girl’s actions now were causing Melissa to muse over it again. The various events over the past two years showed signs of affecting the girl psychologically. She seemed prone to pathological shyness and Melissa herself had witnessed isolated periods where the girl was just crying to herself for no obvious reason in whatever secluded part of the building she could hide herself in. Judging by her medical records on entry to the country, she had gained roughly fifteen pounds, but was otherwise physically healthy. Though she appeared sociable, it looked like she had no friends at school and only two people of any real companionship inside the dormitory. She regularly attended church still, even after the Pride demon and water spirit had attacked the dormitory, but Melissa had had yet to investigate her activities while she was there.

With the past few days giving her very clear reasons to cry, it was obvious Sakura had become high risk.

“Does that mean they have Sarah and Aki?” Sagara asked, as he poked Melissa’s leg to get her moving again.

“Y-yes, they had us trapped in this…strange thing, like a red… barrier? I don’t know, of some kind, I don’t know, but…”

“A candle trap. Never mind that,” Melissa interrupted harshly, not wanting to waste time. “Listen to me, Sakura. It is very important that you tell us everything you can about what’s going on in that room. What they are expecting us to do, the size of it, the amount of demons there are, and most importantly, who’s running them?” Melissa’s kept her voice stern. She wanted to sound caring, but she didn’t have time to learn how. There was a gap of silence between them, filled only by Sagara’s light breathing.

“I…erm…I-I don’t remember?” Sakura said meekly, instantly fearing a rebuttal and closing her eyes.

“You don’t…” Melissa winced as she banged her head on the low roof below here. She bit her lip to prevent herself screaming out. “How can you not remember? You were surrounded by demons. Surely you must have some idea.”

“I…I…”

“We know there are at least around fifteen demons when we checked in with the Ley spirit. That was twenty minutes ago. Was there more or less than that when you were there?” Sakura didn’t answer, but she sounded more scared than before. Melissa thought she could even hear the vents vibrating from the girl’s silent terror.

“Leave her for now,” Sagara said. “We’ll work it out when we get there.”

“And what if they’re waiting for us with pitchforks the second we pop our heads out the vents?” Melissa replied indignantly, her teeth now gritting one another as she tried to hit him with a glance. “We need to change the plan if we know they’re expecting us. Better yet, you need to change the plan. That’s the whole point of this, after all.”

The three of them spent the next few seconds in silence, as they waited for each other to say something. Melissa had to hold back the extremely tense urge to smash her feet back into Sagara’s waiting face. She knew at that moment, that he had no intention of trying to come up with a plan, for whatever stupid reasons were going through his head.

“Fine,” she said dismissively. “Then we’re going home.” Not hesitating for even a second Melissa began inching back down the small tunnel, as if to expect the others to do the same. Sagara of course didn’t follow suit. As his body blocked her foot, she turned back to him and stared him down, her eyebrows attempting to cross over each other as she did so. The boy just looked back at her.

“What?’ she said, whispering as loud as she could. “You think we can just crawl into there to die? If you’re not going to take this as seriously, Sagara, as the elders want you to, then there’s no point anymore. We might as well just go home, and get the hell beaten out of us by your mother.” Her eyes shifted to the side quickly, before darting back to him. “At least I’ll only get killed.” She started to force herself backwards again. “It’ll be a relief to no longer have to see your annoying face after all this, or having to live with this stupid curse that hangs round you all the time.” She went to move again, but found she couldn’t; Sagara’s hand was pushing against her foot.

“We can’t go back,” he said simply. “Sarah and Aki are there. If that’s the case, then Natoko and Otsune will also be heading there.” Melissa’s teeth gritted, the rest of her head save her eyebrow following as she stared at him in disbelief.

From twenty feet in front of them, a clatter broke them off. Something was in there with them, and Melissa couldn’t tell what. Being at the front of the line, she took point and raised her hand, prepping herself for an illusion if need be. She couldn’t see anything, the vents appearing barren, but it was definitely there. She could hear its hissing breath, taking their stale air around them into itself and breathing it out fresh.

Waiting to die, are we?” something in front of her whispered. Melissa said nothing. She knew responding to demons only drew you in. If this was the first they were facing. She’d have to be quick about it.

“I waited to die once. Still hasn’t happened, it’s like waiting for milkshake to melt.”

A visage flashed before her like the flash of a camera. A humanoid, wrapped completely in bandages, leather binding his face. It hesitated for a moment, like it had just been caught by the person it was trying to sneak up upon, before dispersing.

“What the…” she said with alarm. “What was that?” The creature had disappeared near the left turn in front of them, but it didn’t look like it had gone down that way. It didn’t look like it had done anything, save cease to exist.

“Sakura,” Melissa heard the girl jump at the sound of her own name and almost did so herself as she remembered she was in front of two other people. “How did they plan on capturing us?”

“I…erm… They,” she stuttered, Sagara looking unconcerned as she did so. “They wanted me to lead you through the door.” Speaking within the space of a heartbeat, the girl closed her eyes and looked away, almost as if expecting some kind of punishment for this admission. Melissa tried to look back at them, the task proving difficult with her own body in the way. Had they not seen it? If they wanted them to come through the door, would they still guard the vents as an extra precaution. Something wasn’t right.

“Okay,” the boy behind her replied. “Then we can stick with the air vents. They won’t be expecting us, and we can work out how to rescue the others from there.” She was barely paying attention, her mind distracted a distance in front of them.

“That’s… that’s good enough for now,” Melissa said as she continued to crawl forwards once again.  The metal plating of the vent felt hotter for some reason.

The rest of the excursion through the vents was without event, except at one point where Sakura’s shivering was starting to vibrate some of the thinner pieces of metal, and Sagara had to give her his jacket in order to help her keep warm. This had resulted in five minutes of amazingly acrobatic fumbling in a small, confined space that was clearly not designed for intruding ninja to take their jackets off in. Three minutes and more noise than a ninja should be allowed to make later, and they were on their way again, Melissa idly wondering why they were bringing the young trauma patient with them as they did so.

She felt like she had to made a point of telling them to keep quiet about three minutes before they reached their destination: a large, metallic vent cover that only just showed up in the middle of a three way junction. After some more ever so careful fumbling, they were able to reposition themselves to see the room below them that they had been heading for all this time.

“And what, in Norton’s name, do you propose we do?” a voice snarled from beneath. The room below was pitch black, save for a glowing red candle just outside of their view that flickered on occasion.

“How should we know?” two voices replied at once, one with a deep boom to it, the other high pitched yet monotonous, like its owner was about to fall asleep. Despite this, something told Melissa they were the same voice. “But after all that has been planned, all our efforts and losses, we want what’s ours!”

“Knew I shouldn’t have done this,” another voice, much calmer than the others, said off to the side, to whom apparently no one was listening. “Just can’t trust the common ones to accept their losses when they sign in for something big.”

“All your effort, ha!” the first voice replied. “All you had to do was pick out a contender for yourselves. The deals I had to make just to get to this area of the Realm. I’m in debt to a Tengu now. A damn Tengu!.”

“Ooh, he said damn.”

“A demon said damn.”

“Can a demon say damn?”

“I don’t think he can.”

“It just ruins the whole point, doesn’t it?”

“It something for the holes ‘n blood to say, ain’t it.”

“It’s fun hearing them say it as they cry.”

“Or weep.”

“Same as cry.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Think so. I don’t know. Shall we ask somebody?”

From the vent, the trio heard a large crash followed by the whole room shaking, like someone had thrown their fist into one of the walls. The two voices, who had been speaking very quickly as they spoke to one another, fell silent before they could ask their question. Whatever had happened appeared to have gone unknown by the three that were arguing, although two of the voices had moved to the far side of the room where the two fast voices once were.

“You think we care about your measly debts to native spirits? It is not our fault that you are incapable of travel when trapped in a physical body.”

“No arms.”

“No legs.”

“Paraplegic.”

“That doesn’t…” The voice was muffled by something, cutting it out with a grumble.

“Our daughter has been injured by a mere human,” the two voices said at once- male and female, both of them very angry. “Can you imagine the humiliation we will have to suffer, as we are forced to eat the Princess to our own kingdom? The shame, the dishonour, the degradation. All for a stupid bet!” A loud cracking sound was made, and one of the fast speaking voices screamed out, as if it had realized its own heart had just ripped out and wanted it back.

“Niisama!” the other one called out.

“What on earth is going on down there?” Melissa mouthed to herself. She couldn’t see anything. There was only darkness, which was understandable with demons, but it meant she could only guess what was going on.

“They didn’t have to do that.” This time, Melissa noticed, one of the fast speaking, squeaky voices was a little slower than usual, something thick gurgling in its mouth.

“Yes they did.”

“Why did they?”

“I shall tell you why.”

“Go on then.”

“Because I called you Niisama.”

“And what’s wrong with that.”

“You’re younger than me.”

“Indeed.”

“Indeed.”

“So am I.”

“So you are.”

“My mistake. How foolish of me.”

“You are indeed a fool.”

“So he was in the right to murder me.” Before it could say anymore, it groaned incoherently, and a loud, repetitive stomping noise was heard all throughout the room. It carried on for a clear ten seconds, the groan and screams of pain dying down to an ebb. Then silence completely.

“You could have just asked,” the voice said, before the stomping continued, this time heavier than before, like the one doing it was trying to destroy the whole world with their foot.

“I like them. They’re funny,” a new voice said from the corner. In the darkness in front of her, Melissa could just see the two figures by her shuffling. The voice was muffled , but it was clearly a young child.

Both Sagara and Melissa at once tried to get a better view through the air vent. The girl’s voice had come from the direction where the red candle was flickering, and if they both looked from one of the corners of the vent they could just see Aki’s face, coming in and out of view as the candle’s haze continued to move. As she saw him go to move, Melissa’s hand shot out in front of Sagara.

“Just wait,” she mouthed to him, only guessing he was about to try and rescue them. Rescuing people wasn’t like Sagara at all.

“You do realize you’re going to die here, moron. How can you be so calm?” another voice said, who Melissa instantly recognised as Sarah King. The ten year old also appeared to be speaking somewhere within the vicinity of Aki. Were they both within the Red Candle Barrier that Sakura had mentioned?

“You two,” a calm voice said, who Melissa realized was probably the closest to the two girls. “Please be quiet. Hostages aren’t supposed to have casual conversation.”

“Ah sorry,” Aki said chirpily, as Sarah just mumbled profanities to herself.

“You seem awfully calm yourself, Mr. Jupiter,” a deep, spurgley voice commented, only a few feet away from the calm voice. Melissa kept count. That was at least seven demons in the room. Were there more? She knew some demons wouldn’t speak, since they probably didn’t have any tongues. However, there were some demons about that had twenty tongues, so there was no real telling which demons were in there in the first place.

“I haven’t been called that in a long time, Mr. Mercury,” the calm voice replied, with what she guessed was a smile.

“It is the name I called you for two whole decades,” the spurgley voice pointed out. “Besides, your real name would take too long to say, and I have forgotten the second half of it. So? Why so calm? I understood that you had the most to lose in this?” The calm voice sounded like it was smiling.

“It’s true. I have lost more than anyone here with my part of the bet, including my precious muse,” the male voice stated nonchalantly with nothing sounding wrong with it compared to the unique voice it was speaking to. “But such material things aren’t too much to worry about. I just wish these common demons would hurry up and get over it instead of arguing amongst themselves.”

Although the voice was acting like it was speaking off to the side of everyone else, everyone else had apparently been listening in. A great double roar echoed throughout the darkness, and the room shook with a bang as something slammed on the side of the room where the calm voice and spurgley voice were speaking.

“Common?” the two voices shouted in unison. “You dare insult royalty such as us? Once there was a time you were lower than all of us! We shall suck your spirit right out of that pretty boy body you so like sleeping in!” And with another, mighty battle cry, the owners of the voice seemed to cause the room to shudder again, before screaming out unexpectedly in anguished pain.

“Ah, sorry, sorry,” Mr. Jupiter said, appearing not to notice the torture the two creatures were going through. “It’s just that, well, I’m so much more powerful than you, you see? It’s much too hard for me to notice the difference between an ant and a queen ant.” The two voices started to scream louder, although Melissa couldn’t tell what was actually happening to them. “Wait, do ants even have queens…well I guess that just furthers my point.” Whatever it was, it wasn’t taking a lot of effort from this Mr. Jupiter to overpower them both at the same time.

“That is enough,” a harsh voice called out, a door on the far side of the room swinging open and bathing the middle of the room in a light that silhouetted the human shaped newcomer. “I leave you gentlemen alone for five minutes and you’re already running about like infants in a schoolyard.” The screaming stopped from both voices, silencing filling the room in the same second. Most of the demons were still staying in the unnatural darkness that remained at the edges of the room. One however chose to jump in the newcomer’s direction.

“Infants couldn’t run around a…”

“Shut up!” the female voice shouted, silencing one of the fast speaking demons, who was now revealed to Melissa to be a little, imp like demon, covered in brown hair, which was much longer on its arms than any other part of its body. Another demon was on top of it that looked just like it, except it was almost broken in half as it lay over the other’s shoulder, its skull shattered in the centre with bits hanging out disturbingly loose and dripping something onto the body of the one carrying it. Despite this, neither seemed to have no problem in giggling in response to the newcomer’s cry. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to arrange a hiding place for you this close to the tournament? It doesn’t help with your constant bickering alerting any major force in the area to your presence.”

“That voice,” Melissa muttered, as she finally recognised it. “That’s…The one helping the demons…it’s…”

“Yeah,” said Sagara. “Sakimoto Yuya. Who else would it be?”

“But what’s she doing with demons? She’s supposed to be…” But she was drowned out as those below kept speaking.

“What does that matter now?” the two voices growled out, the high pitched one, now feeling less so, as its anger kept increasing. “Where is our prize, woman?” Yuya scoffed.

“Your prize?” she repeated disdainfully. “What makes you think you get one at all? Your daughter was eliminated in her first Battle Royale. You get nothing.”

“Don’t push us, woman. We were willing to take your nonsense human ways when it suited us. But with this humiliation, this agony, we demand compensation, and we are entitled to it by the law of the Ka’tuk.”

“They’re like the insurance guys,” Aki commented, but was shushed immediately by Sarah.

“There was nothing unfair about my tournament. Your law does not apply here,” Yuya stated, glaring at the demon .

“Now that’s not entirely true,” Mr. Jupiter said, now standing up and walking into the light, revealing, Melissa noticed, quite a handsome young man, with blond hair,a long white coat and an arcane staff in one hand. The only clear off putting thing about him was how his smile reached all the way up to his ears, the flesh of his cheeks having been torn apart to allow this. “Although I’m not complaining myself, perish the thought, it did seem rather peculiar that almost all of our candidates got put into the same Battle Royale match. Now out of the twenty five bets that got placed, only eight of our candidates were in other matches. And then, only four of them actually got any further, and the other sixteen were, quite remarkably I might add, eliminated by that young female.”

“To us,” the high and low pitched voices said at once, “this makes it clear that the match was fixed. Thus, we demand compensation.”

“Y-you think,” Yuya stuttered, her voice tripping over her anger, “that I would risk the one chance I have to clear my debt to you all, just to eliminate sixteen of the candidates at once? Do you think I care who actually won the tournament? What mattered to me was that you were all satisfied. That was the whole point of my participation in this betting ring.”

“There were twenty five demons in the Battle Royale matches?” Melissa whispered in disbelief, looking at Sagara with annoyance for a moment.

“I waited until after the elimination before checking,” he quietly explained, not all that bothered with the revelation, nor apparently with keeping quiet. Melissa’s hand shot out again to silence him, but luckily, the two loud voices had been speaking again.

“We are aware of what you are, Ms. Sakimoto,” a young girl said, stepping out of the shadows along with a bumbling old man. “If you were a demon like all here, you would be more powerful than any of us. To fix the matches up like this, you must have had a reason.”

“All matches involving your candidates were chosen at random,” Yuya defended. “By the Neuts for that matter. All the matches were. Unless Fate is directly intervening, there’s no way I could have caused this to happen. And I wouldn’t even want to for that matter. Do you know the amount of effort I put into making this work right? The amount of security I had to covertly change? The amount of demon hunters I had to redirect and eliminate?”

“And a fine job you did there,” the snarling voice that spoke first said, still remaining in the darkness. “That Futabatei boy didn’t exactly hide his presence at the match. Showboating the whole way, he was.”

“The boy from the family of hypocrites and faithless. We would not be surprised if you hadn’t guided him there yourself. Whatever scheme you are up to, woman…”

“Now let’s calm down, shall we not?” Mr. Jupiter said, stepping up and waving his arms up and down as if trying to control the volume of everybody’s voices. All the demons in the light took a step back into the darkness at this gesture, and everyone fell silent. “The matches have ceased now, so there’s nothing to worry about. Why don’t we all just get back to our respective kingdoms and dungeons and secluded Spanish villas, and just accept that which have been delivered to us.”

“You’re saying we should just go back and eat our daughter?” the two demons shouted again. “Unacceptable!”

“Really now,” Mr. Jupiter said with a sheepish smile. “Do you have something else you need to do before returning?”

“Well…we…well.” The large demon and his small companion faltered, taking a step back as Mr. Jupiter simply stood there and waited for an answer.

“None of us… are going anywhere… until that girl returns ….with that Futabatei boy,” a new voice said. This one seemed to have trouble speaking, and was having to breathe heavily every few words.

“Sagara is on his way here?” Yuya said, shock now etched on her face. “How does he even know?”

“Why, these girls informed me. As a matter of fact, they-” Mr. Jupiter began to say, but was cut off when Yuya caught sight of them.

“Where is Sakura Tamburo?” she asked alarmed.

“Well, as I was about to say,” the man continued slowly. “They revealed themselves to be acquaintances of the ninja. I even believe the little one might be his cousin. It would certainly explain how she was able to reopen the Spinner we used to take the first girl. Anyway, we decided it would be an excellent idea if we used one of them to bring the others here, and take care of them that way. Well, I say we- it wasn’t my idea.”

“It was ours,” the man and woman said at once, causing Yuya to look at them perplexed.

“Actually, it was his,” Mr. Jupiter said, but indicated no one. “Well, it was him that convinced the girl anyway.”

“Why would you care?” Yuya said, ignoring the blond haired demon as she faced the very bulky man, completely ignoring the woman on his shoulder.

“Because that boy showed acquaintance with the one who defeated our daughter. With luck, they shall all comes to us, and we can remove several problems at once.”

“Look… whatever,” Yuya said, shaking her head over all that had been going on without her. “If killing them will make you happy and end all this, I’ll let you, and I’ll even cover it up for you. This barrier remains secure right?”

“It will disappear in about four hours. Until then, the captives exist outside of the InBetween Realm. Not even the Ley Spirit could find them.”

“Right, so we can blame Timothy McKay for the disappearance. Revenge or something. I’m assuming he’s gone now.”

“You assssume correctly, human” a voice hissed, the BlNiock demon revealing itself from the shadows. “I am full again.” Melissa was about to stop Sagara from jumping out again, in case he tried to attack the demon like he had before, when she had to look again at the creature that had just shown up. On its head was another demon, although one could almost mistake it for a dog turd. It seemed to scream and complain for a few seconds. “Oh. Sssssorry, master,” the BlNiock demon said sheepishly, and stepped back out of the light.

“A Gomitine,” Melissa whispered, just in case Sagara had missed it. He nodded slightly. Gomitine were disturbing demons who, for indeterminable reasons, could only perform the ritual of the Kotodama on dog excrement. A sin of wrath. They were known for being some of the most diabolical demons in all the realms, mainly because they were extremely immoral, highly intelligent and some of the most purely evil creatures around, known for creating plans of such subtlety that they could cause entire cultures to wipe themselves out just by releasing a strange odour during a highly important meeting between two tribal chieftains. However, despite this, they were immobile, incoherent and quite impotent in terms of the danger they realistically possessed, what with their natural demonic form looking exactly the same as the piece of dog faeces they could possess. If it wasn’t for the fact that some demons could read minds, no one would know they even existed.

“Yes,” said the spurgley voice. “After the boy shows up and brings the samurai girl, then we shall all have our revenge.”

“You intend to kill the girl as well?” Yuya asked, looking disheartened at the plan.

“Oh yesssss,” the snarling voice said. “She who eliminated all of our bids save four. How could we do anything less?”

“Hhhhmmm, that is a shame,” said Yuya, who was mulling it over. “I was hoping to recruit her.”

“Oh yes. She was strong, wasn’t she?” Mr. Jupiter said with an unperturbed laugh. “I wouldn’t have minded having her myself. Maybe I will.” Silence filled the room quickly at this comment, as if the demons weren’t sure what to do. Melissa felt that most were staring at the handsome demon, waiting for his decision. “Ah, I could do with a break. I won’t bother.”

If demons were prone to have outbursts of relief, Melissa felt the entire room would be doing it at this moment. There was an almost palpable sense of fear in this room when it came to this Mr. Jupiter. Whatever he had done to the two demons had certainly shown his strength to all of them.

“Soooo,” the BlNiock demon said. “We just wait?”

“That thing should be back soon,” another demon pointed out. “Shouldn’t we handle that first?”

The group wrapped in darkness mumbled to each other at the mention of this, and Melissa wondered what this thing could be with mild interest. Before anything was said further, they were interrupted by Yuya.

“I would prefer if you didn’t refer to Sanguine as if he were something to be ‘handled.’ Besides, only one of you is strong enough to have any sort of chance against him. Even if you were to team up, he is too powerful for you.”

“I wouldn’t dream of hurting dear Sanguine,” Mr. Jupiter said. “I have made another bet, you see. I wish to make him laugh at least once before I move on. He’s always too serious. It can be a little depressing.”

“Well you…better be quick…then….” the slow breathing demon said. “I doubt…he intends to….stay with us… much longer.”

“Whyyyy we let one of them with ussss, I sssshall never understand,” the snarling demon said.

“It was because some of us needed mediators because they were scared.” A childish voice again. Not the little girl.

“And can you blame usss,” the BlNiock said. “Already others have been killed. I would be among them if I hadn’t asked for protection.”

“And in doing so, you ended up dragging us all into the light,” the young girl said. “Or did you just assume they wouldn’t try things on their own if you brought them close?”

“True and false.”

“They attract and repel.”

“Constantly.”

“Oh they just won’t stop.”

“It’s an addiction.”

“Like cherries.”

“He should be back soon,” Yuya stated calmly, ignoring the two blabbering imps as they continued to themselves. “I have to explain something to the one he’s bringing or else I’ll be creating another loose end.”

“The Riddleklutz?” a demon with a surprisingly normal voice said. “Just kill the damn thing.”

“There it is again.”

“The word damn.”

“It just ruins its overall effectiveness when used constantly by demons.”

“I can’t!” Yuya said loudly, her voice overruling the two imp-like demons. “Not only is it difficult to kill a Riddleklutz, it causes problems to handle Balance demons like that.”

“I guess we should have expected that,” Melissa muttered up in the vents. “Still, I didn’t think it would be this quick in regenerating.”

“False Balance Demon,” Sagara corrected under his breath. He had gone strangely silent while all this had been going on, Melissa noted. He was watching the events below with intense interest, like it was all a television show. Sakura was as well, although she was still shivering.

“We should leave, Sagara,” Melissa said lightly, hoping that he wouldn’t jolt. He turned to her without saying anything, waiting for an explanation.

“There are too many of them, as I feared,” she explained, her voice quick and quiet. “Even if we did something special to try and get an advantage, some of them are just too strong. This ‘Mr. Jupiter’ alone could probably kill us both without thinking.”

Sagara said nothing, now looking back down at the events transpiring below. Melissa wasn’t even sure if he was even listening to her.

“It’s not as if it’s been a total waste,” she explained. “It seems like we accidentally completed our mission. This betting ring plan they were having has been totally messed up, and I’m sure the elders would take priority on Yuya’s betrayal to the Balance anyway. It we leave now, it’ll be fine.”

“No,” Sagara said simply.

“But there’s no reason to stay, we’d just put the hostages in danger if we do stay. At least if we go, there’s a chance they’ll spare them as bait. We can regroup in the meantime and…”

She looked at him, as he continued to stare down the vent. His eyes had turned green. What was he seeing that she couldn’t?

“We’re staying, aren’t we?” she asked him rhetorically.

“Sorry,” he replied, a small smile visible through the darkness.

“Don’t be,” she said back. “You’re the boss.”

“It’s here,” the snarling voice said, catching her attention again. Melissa looked instinctively to the open door, where Yuya was still standing, apparently not daring to approach the darkness by a single step. Melissa couldn’t see anything, though she could hear faint footsteps, and the sound of a voice.

“…still don’t know why one has to come here. She is welcome to visit our chambers whenever she wishes. Although, we guess we do need to rebuild at the moment, after that infernal boy.”

“Ah, speak of the devil,” Yuya said, turning round as she caught wind the voice as well, her hand swinging back, telling everyone in the room to hide. Those that were in the light did so, and to Melissa it appeared that Yuya was the only one there. Even the girls were hidden by a shadow.

“Please do not use that term around me, Ms. Sakimoto,” the man said, stepping in the light of the door frame. Her eyes nearly popping out, Melissa stared with unintended admiration at the newcomer. Gracefully tall, the handsome warrior stood with his four foot long, straight white hair only just reaching halfway down his body. Remaining proud as he surveyed the scum in the room, acknowledging everyone within it, the figure was dressed in a white robe with gold trim all of which had to be made of fine velvet that met up with a large crucifix emblazoned on his chest piece, reflecting all light that touched it with blinding intensity. Some of the demons were heard taking another shuffled step back, as the newcomer’s presence lit up the room just a fraction more with his natural light.

She understood their fear, their insecure caution. On the man’s back, currently bunched up- but still betraying their wondrous splendour, were wings that epitomized magnificence, ivory feathers shining with their own light, shining brightly in Melissa’s eyes.

“An Angel?” She pulled away with a jerk of her neck, feeling her throat empty of air, all of it taken by the newcomer. “It is, isn’t it?” she asked, turning to Sagara, nearly forgetting her own vows of silence and secrecy.

“It’s not one from the False Balance,” he said, looking meekly curious.

“I’ve never actually seen one properly before,” Melissa commented. “Be careful touching it.”

“I know.”

“Lord Sanguine,” Yuya said, addressing the man. “Thank you for retrieving him.” Sanguine bowed slightly, bringing his hand up to his chest while doing so and never taking his eyes off her. Further conversation was interrupted, the second visitor swooping over the angel and into the room. There, hovering in the room between the angel and Yuya, was the Riddleklutz.

“Hello, my dear lady,” it said, apparently being much more courteous to her than it had been to Sagara and the group the other day. Its physical appearance had changed just as significantly as its manners. It was still traveling on a piece of balsa wood that had the bleached boney arms of a human skeleton hanging down from it. It was still defying gravity like she would her alarm clock in the morning. But this time the strange green head with frizzed hair and a cheap Halloween mask had been replaced by a statue of a cat holding an old Japanese coin “It is good to see you again. We have much to talk about it seems.” Before Yuya could say anything, the Angel seemed to will the two of them to look at him.

“Excuse me, I shall return in a moment.” Sanguine bowed lightly again, walking away without waiting for a response. Yuya stared at him as he moved out of sight from beyond the door, but was soon distracted by the presence of the Balance Demon.

“He is indeed a strange one. Although we haven’t actually met an actual Angel before. The closest was a Lightbearer. He works as my assistant you see and,” Yuya looked at him, a look of seriousness behind her spectacles. He stopped talking at once.

“Forgive me, Judge, but we do not exactly have time for small talk. I am in quite a hurry and would wish to conclude our business as soon as possible.” The Riddleklutz seemed to stare at her, although Melissa wasn’t exactly sure where from or how. As she looked down at the creature, who was now nothing more than a ceramic ornament, only identified from the toy mask it was wearing yesterday, she noticed that all the other demons had stayed sunken back in the shadows.

“Very well,” the Riddleklutz replied, sounding a little annoyed but not offended.

“Now, I had given you the location of the Futabatei boy, as you insisted as your price for services rendered, after I heard he had broken some of your rulings. I had expected him to be dealt with, yet I find him at my tournament. Could you explain to me exactly what it was that happened?” The Riddleklutz floated up and down for a few seconds, Melissa could swear it was shuffling nervously at Yuya’s brisk tone. “Well?”

“It appears we underestimated the boy’s sense of honour,” the Riddleklutz explained. “We suppose we should have expected it from a ninja…”

“Don’t give me that nonsense,” Yuya shouted, now visibly annoyed. “That boy’s no more a ninja than you two or I. It’s nothing more than a fad his family keeps up because they live in a small village and want to sound cool. And you should have had been as cautious as you were with any defendant, even more so with a Futabatei.” The Riddleklutz was silent at this, like a schoolchild being shouted at by a teacher. Melissa found herself wanting to laugh. This shouldn’t be the way one treated a Balance judge, even a false one.

“Why are you so concerned anyway?” the Riddleklutz said, its tone changing to one of intense curiosity. Yuya seemed undaunted by this, but the demon continued probing. “You have provided us with anonymous tips before, yet haven’t been concerned when we end up releasing the defendants. What is so important with this one, to you that is?”

“I’m just upset at your incompetence,” Yuya replied, stressing the words as she eyed the little brown cat ornament on top of the piece of balsa wood. “This is the Futabatei we’re talking about. The Enforcers of the Balance, or so they claim. You have to be careful with them, not just accept that they’ll be willing to take the punishment you give them. You know how they feel about your faction.”

“You’re lying,” the Riddleklutz said, its own voice now becoming as stern as Yuya’s. “You wanted the heir removed temporarily. You are pursuing another agenda, one which explains why despite fourteen other demons hunters registered at the tournament only the Futabatei was to be removed from the game. You wanted to keep him safe from something, something that wanted him for very obvious reasons.” Yuya’s face flickered in the light, but she remained defiant to the inanimate gaze of the demon in front of her.

“My my,” said Mr. Jupiter, as he stepped back into the light. “It looks like the Riddleklutz is the smartest in all the land after all, and to think we thought we could, how was it put, take you for a ride.” The Riddleklutz visibly lurched back as, for the first time, it registered the presence of the normal looking demon.

“You? What are you doing here?” it asked, hovering back another few feet. “Sakimoto, what is the meaning of this? Conspiring with demons of this madness? It is against the rules.”

“Oh, I’m sure you could bend the rulings just for me, my dear Riddleklutz,” Mr. Jupiter said, now trailing his gloved fingers across painted statue sitting on top of the balsa wood. “It would really have all our interests at heart.” Some of the other demons laughed or sniggered loudly, and the Riddleklutz lurched back as it began to realize just how many were in the room with it.

“I would never…” The Riddleklutz began to say, but cut itself off. “This breaks the very basis of the contract of the Balance. Even if I am more a figure head, I could never allow such diabolical conspiracy to go, for the good of demons at large at the very least.”

“Good of demons.”

“That sounds strange.”

“Good of his job more like.”

“Imagine, a demon more concerned with job security than with doing evil.”

“Maybe he’s the most evil of us all.”

“A shame,” Mr. Jupiter said lightly, unconcerned for the Riddleklutz’s response of clear frantic backwards lunging that suggested it wanted nothing more to do than hover away. “Why, would you have cared before that I was here, or Mr. Mercury. Two of the Allignment of nine that spell doom for you all. It seems that associating with the Lightbearers in that ‘True’ Balance of yours has cursed you with a sense of honour.”

“Cursed with honour?”

“Shouldn’t it be blessed?”

“Blessed go up. Cursed go down.”

“A demon can never go up anywhere.”

“Especially not in the direction he wants to go.”

“Regardless, Yuya wanted to deal with you quietly, but this hiding is beginning to bore me, and I believe it is boring the others as well.” Without waiting for any form of response, except in a few rapid mutterings coming from the Riddleklutz, Mr. Jupiter’s hand shot out, and closed his palm around the head of the cat statue. The Riddleklutz screamed out, the cry quickly changing to be like a soldier charging blindly at the enemy. Blue flame shot out from in front of it, although Melissa could not tell where from, engulfing the demon in front of it in a white hot inferno that looked a thousand times stronger than the one it had hit Sagara with.

The flames covered the man in front of the Riddleklutz blanketing him in a pallid inferno. Fires burned the floor, the unclean tiles around Mr. Jupiter bleaching instantly, before igniting as if the place were covered in petrol. The blaze lit the room up, and for the first time, Melissa could see some of the demons, their warped features staring as they tried to stay in the darkness, leering at the event going on in front of them with fixed grins.

The fire subsided just as quickly as it had started, with only the tiles on the floor burning bright. The first sound that Melissa heard as the area was pitched into darkness again was the gasp of the Riddleklutz, who, as she looked upon it once again, was visibly shaking in the still gripped tight hand of the demon in front of it. Not even his white, silk clothes had been scorched.

“Maybe you’re not as clever as I first thought after all,” Mr. Jupiter said, with what Melissa thought was a smile. Without changing his expression, the demon tightened his hand, causing the small cat ornament to shatter, exploding into flames instantly, the Riddleklutz’s scream cut short like someone had pulled out the speaker by mistake.

“Well, well,” the demon said lightly. “I guess that wraps that up.” Yuya stepped back slightly and gulped visibly, before reaffirming herself and standing forward.

“That wraps nothing up, you fool!” she shouted, as she leaned forwards to get in his face. “If anything that makes it worse. I could have handled the situation if you hadn’t of butted in. Now the next time he possesses something, he’ll blab out my working with you to the entire planet. I’ll be ruined.” For the first time, Mr. Jupiter’s expression clearly changed, from one of an almost innocent amusement, to an appearance of dreary annoyance. His smile disappeared, his face turning away, yet his eyes still looking at the woman in front of him with derision.

“And to think I liked you,” he said calmly, his hand now wrapped round her forehead. From just behind his loose palm, Melissa could see Yuya’s eyes open wide in terror. The illusionist’s eyes were also wide open, and she could bet Sagara’s were as well. The demon’s speed was incalculable. It’s wasn’t even like there had been a blur, or a small flash, nor even a rush of wind. It was just there. Not even the Eye of Futabatei would have been able to register that.

Around them, the demons grinned their approval, sneering loudly. One of them sounded like it had vomited. Only the two imp like demons said anything.

“Oh don’t kill her just yet.”

“Can’t we have some fun?”

“Some fun is always nice.”

“Goes well with a bit of spice.”

The other demon paused for a second, before saying, with a complete change in tone. “Dude. Don’t just say it because it rhymes.”

“Sorry,” the other demon said, sounding crestfallen.

“Stop, stop,” Yuya said, her words now sounding just as frantic as the Riddleklutz had been. “There’s-there’s no need to kill me, really. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Nothing I can’t fix. I just overreacted, that all.” As she continued blabbering, Mr. Jupiter smiled again, appearing cheery, yet decided.

“Don’t ruin your last moment for yourself, Yuya dear,” he said with finality, his hand closing in to get a better grip. As her glasses cracked against his strong hands, Yuya shuddered, her neck curling up as Melissa saw her eyes closed, not letting herself watch the final moment behind Mr. Jupiter’s gloved hand.

“Get your hands off her,” a voice shouted from outside. All the demons quickly fell silent, fading into the darkness as Mr. Jupiter turned to look at the empty door frame. Even Melissa was jolted by its presence, and she immediately looked to her right to see if she had somehow missed Sagara jumping down to join the fight. He was still laying by her though, watching the new arrival with a smile on his face.

It was Natoko standing there in the doorway, both her hands held tightly on her sword, her right on the sheath, her left on the hilt. She looked ready to strike down the demon in front of her, although Melissa knew that she had no way of knowing that the man in front of her was a demon, nor that the room was filled with many other such denizens.

She was almost tempted to warn her, give some kind of signal that would tip her off without revealing their presence, but there was nothing she would be willing to risk. She stared over to Sagara, who seemed too wrapped up in watching to do anything, then over to Sakura, who was also watching nervously, shivering all the more as she did so.

Mr. Jupiter did nothing.

 

Act Four – Chapter One

Nobori awoke to shouting. There was an argument going on near him, more a heated dispute than a minor quarrel. Nobori didn’t like arguments that much. He was always of the argument that such arguments were worse than physical confrontation. At least with fighting, everything remained relatively simple, with low emotional stress other than physical pain. In fact, he would even go so far as to state that soap dramas that were full of arguments and screaming were a thousand times worse than any violent video game was.

Then again, the law didn’t seem to agree with him, and it completely ignored the fact that he stole regularly and beat people up for their wallets.

He blinked a few times, letting his eyes stretch awake and the warm air leave his mouth. The first thing he saw was a vast white surface and a giant, multi-legged beast crawling across his field of view and out the other end.

Feeling some bones crack, he lifted his neck, shaking absent minded dreams away from the room around him, which he only briefly remembered falling asleep in after being dragged here. It was barren, save for his bed and an identical one next to it. The paintwork hadn’t been done for a while, and it was beginning to peel in every possible place. In the bed besides him was half a body, the remaining half toppled over the side of it out of view.

The half a body grumbled in his sleep, muttering words made incomprehensible by the floor his mouth was attached to. It was slowly waking up, shifting round, taking his forehead off the ground and then suddenly sitting back on the bed in one swift movement as if he had always been awake.

Nobori recognised the boy instantly. The idiot from before turned to look at Nobori, seeing him stare at the ninja like he was some kind of space creature. He gave a groggy look of recognition, before raising his hand. “Hi…errr….Tazuna?”

“Nobori,” the guy said, wondering where he had got Tazuna from, considering neither had never even got round to introducing himself before. The ninja looked over him to Nobori’s shoulder entombed in bandages. Nobori snorted a laugh, and sat up. “Took a heavy shot from some freak with a knife. Those healing guys wanted to fix it, but that didn’t seem right for such a little graze.”

“You have three broken ribs as well,” the idiot replied matter of factly.

“Yeah, well, they’ll heal,” said Nobori, though it occurred to him he didn’t know where they had come from. He was also covered in multiple bruises that he couldn’t account for. “But it’s just not the same if you don’t let your body heal itself from a near critical wound inflicted by an opponent who had to sneak up on you to do it, y’know?”

“Um, I guess,” the idiot said, failing to notice the direction this comment was going. He looked himself over, checking his ankle. The strange white healers that Nobori only saw long enough to tell them to get lost appeared not to have waited to ask for permission from the idiot like they had with him. In fact, it seemed they had done a full job on the ninja, and he looked healthier than when they had met three days ago.

“Well, from what I heard, I don’t blame ya to be honest,” he said, waving his hand down at the idiot. “Why you had to register weapons, I have no idea. If this tournament’s supposed to be as important as they’re making it out to be, it should be more realistic. Any means necessary, y’know?”

The idiot was about to fail to comment, when they both heard a racket going on a few feet away from them on the other side of the door. The female voice was shouting so loudly that she was drowning her own words out and both of them failed to understand most of what she was saying.

“Just let me in! I have to talk to him,” the voice shouted clearly for one second. The muttered voice of someone else, a man, replied. Judging from the woman’s reaction, Nobori assumed that she had been refused.

“Just let me…” they heard an indignant grunt, as the woman made an effort to do something, shortly followed by a high pitched howl and the whimpers of a defeated dog. Seconds later, she burst into the room, her fist clenched aggressively.

“Hi Otsune.”

“Sagara!”

“What on earth…” Nobori said loudly, looking at the woman as if it turned out that she was the evil space creature and Sagara had just been in disguised. The one called Otsune glanced at the one apparently called Sagara for a moment, before straightening her top and curling her hair back around her ears. Behind her, a girl dressed in a hakama and carrying a large sheathed blade, stepped over the defeated man and bowed to him.

“Sorry about that,” Nobori heard her whisper, before turning to face them.

“Hey, Natoko,” Sagara responded brightly, ignoring the first invader. “Oh sorry. This is…”

“Nobori,” Nobori repeated. He wanted to get up and greet them. What was this idiot doing hanging out among such fine women. Well, the one with the sword had kind of a pug nose and the wrong type of cheek bones, but the shouty one with the glasses belonged in fashion magazines with only a bikini on.

“Right.” The ugly intruder bowed lightly to him, but he could only nod his head at her.

“You okay now?” Sagara continued.

“Um…yes, thank you,” she responded slowly.

“You’ve never been healed like that, have you? The first time’s confusing, isn’t it?”

Natoko’s hand instinctively ran up her spine and scratched it a few times, like there was an incurable inch there. “I guess.”

“The first time it happened to me my body spent a whole day insisting I was dead.” He laughed lightly, as if it was one of those events you recalled with nostalgia. “It was funny, but at least you’re all right now.”

“Yes. Yes, I am. All right… now” Natoko said. Nobori guessed she had the same feeling as him, that this was a bad time for a conversation, but still a little too tired to question its existence.

“Good,” Sagara responded simply, before going quietly and wondering why Otsune had been staring at him the whole time.

“Done, are we?” she asked sarcastically, like she was talking to a child who had carried on drawing on the wallpaper in front of her. “Like to talk a little more? Why don’t you ask, ‘Mistress Otsune? Why have you stormed in here, kneeing a grown man in the balls to do so?’” Sagara missed her condescending tone by a few miles, and just carried looking at her, waiting for her to answer her own question.

“Mistress Otsune? Why have you stormed in here, kneei-”

“Sarah’s gone missing, you moron! Sakura and Aki too,” she shouted, making sure every part of his body heard it.

“Oh… okay,” he replied, chirping. Otsune blinked, her anger fading for a split second, before doubling back and insisting its seriousness.

“What?” she yelled out. “They’re gone. They vanished when they were in the toilets. I was standing by the door. Who knows what’s happened to them.”

“Uh huh,” Sagara replied nodding, as if she had just told him they had gone missing in the supermarket and he knew they were in the toy section, perfectly safe. Otsune, hands now on hips, clearly didn’t appreciate the answer.

“Well, if it’s just a ‘uh huh’ problem, then I guess we can relax. And wait for you to find them.”

“Okay,” he said, giving Otsune a reaction she wasn’t expecting. He sprang out of bed, stopping as soon as he got up and turned to the corner of the room. “Melissa, help me look for them.”

A girl faded into view from the corner he was looking, and Otsune jumped back with a squeal of alarm. Melissa, who Nobori was kind of disappointed to finally learn the name of, sat there crouched, her face contorted into a mix of outright horror and extreme annoyance.

“Y-you…You just…I can’t believe you just…” she muttered breathlessly. Sagara just nodded, dismissing any problems she had.

“Could you help us? We need to find…” he stopped his polite request, seeing that she had someone with her. “Who’s that?”

Still slung around Melissa shoulder, the little feral girl they had found lay sleeping, looking rather content despite being kidnapped from her hotel room and brought amongst strangers.

“I got…I found her from the leads we got,” Melissa explained, trying her best to keep her voice level as she put th girl down on the ground before her. “She’s a strange one. It’s like she’s a beast. I figured she might have something to do with it.” There was a gap of silence as the rest of the room observed the girl. There was nothing special about her, though it was hard to tell much when she was sleeping. The only thing that was out of place was that she only had three fingers on each hand. Otsune, realizing that she had a moment to speak, did so.

“Who are you?” she finally asked, her own mouth only just closing after being open for so long.

“I am Sagara’s shadow,” the illusionist explained, her voice low as to hide her own frustration. “Wherever Sagara goes, I go.”

“She’s Melissa. A friend from home. Mom has her help out on missions,” Sagara explained more clearly, causing Melissa to let out a dog-like growl. “Anyway, Sarah and the others have gone missing. We should probably find them before they get lost.”

“Lost?” Otsune cried out, nearly realizing her anger. “They’ve been kidnapped. You don’t just disappear from a toilet like that.”

“Otsune?” Natoko said quietly, silencing the student. “It doesn’t sound like they’ve been kidnapped.”

“It doesn’t?” Otsune exclaimed. “Mind telling me how else a person disappears from a toilet when I’m standing at the only exit?”

“Kidnapping is possible…” Nobori muttered, grabbing everyone’s attention as he spoke to himself, “but not necessarily the only answer.” Realising that everyone was looking, he turned to Sagara. “We’re in that same place we were in yesterday, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, the InBetween realm. The whole tournament’s being held here. It’s the only place to do such a thing without attracting any attention.

“Says the guy who just revealed me to a typical student,” Melissa muttered under her breath. “Besides, none of that’s important. The tournament is over, Sagara. Please tell me you found something out.”

“The tournament’s over?” Sagara asked shocked, like he hadn’t been in the final match. Melissa’s right cheek flinched.

“Yes,” she replied, gritting her teeth.

“Did I win?” Her hand slammed into her forehead, and tried to keep it from falling apart at the seams.

“No. No you did not win. You lost and you fell unconscious and then you let Draynor carry on fighting for you and you nearly died because of it.”

“Oh,” Sagara went quiet at this. The rest of the room was looking at him with hushed voices as well. They heard a small snort from his nose, followed by a splutter of laughter from his lips. Soon, Sagara was on his back, laughing his head off, like he had just been told the world’s funniest joke. Nobori and Otsune stared at him like he had chosen the wrong way to respond to a loved one’s death. Melissa was the only one to look worried. She quickly got up and stood in front of him, her hands latching onto his shoulder, like he was the edge of a cliff.

“Sagara!” she bellowed, causing him to open his eyes slightly, before closing them and continuing to explode with amusement. “Sagara! Snap out of it.”

She didn’t sound worried for him. It was more of a command than anything. “Sagara!”

“Snap out of what?” he said, still giggling to himself, as he calmed down just as quickly as he started. Melissa exhaled heavily, looking relived. Melissa was about to say something when she heard a noise at the door.

“Sagara?” All faces turned to the door, and found a little boy staring back at them with furrowed brow and red cheeks. Realizing he was in the right room, another young child, a boy this time, jumped in and ran towards Sagara, ignoring everybody else, including the man he had to jump over. “You all right?”

“Hey, Timothy,” Sagara replied, still chuckling to himself a little. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He lifted his foot up and wiggled it left to right, before flexing his toes.

“Why do you remember his name?” Nobori complained on the other bed, with a critical edge to his voice.

“Easy to remember, I guess,” Sagara answered casually. “Well, easier than…than…” Nobori’s felt his neck shake.

“Oh my…It’s Nobori! Nobori!” The punk watched Sagara, muttering the name to himself like a mantra for a few seconds, before turning to Melissa. “Does he do this on purpose?”

“Unfortunately… no,” Melissa replied, now having given up her efforts on stealth and leaning on the side of the wall in plain view. “It’s how he’s always been. You should have seen him as a child; kept forgetting his own name. He’s just a freak really.” A gruff cough filled the room and grabbed everyone’s attention, passing it over to Otsune. She waited a few seconds.

“Are we all forgetting something all of a sudden?” she asked politely, but with a hint of homicidal rage in her tone. “We are missing three children, three children that are technically and legally in my care.” Her voice turned to a shout. “Could we please find them? And fast please, Fujiko and the others are waiting for us at the entrance.”

“Who’s that?” Timothy interrupted, not caring for Otsune’s problem and now noticing the unconscious girl who was still sleeping peacefully by Melissa’s feet. He stared at her with what appeared to be a mild concern and stepped towards her to see if she was okay.

“Later, oka…” Otsune went to say as she put her hand in front of him, her words stopped when she realized he wasn’t paying any attention to her. The young boy didn’t even notice her hand, and walked right through it as if it didn’t even exist.

“What the…”

Otsune’s first reaction was to grab again, as if she had missed a cup on the table. Then she quickly felt herself, to check which of them were no longer solid. Feeling flesh and bone as normal as ever, she turned to the boy that had just walked through her ghost style. Everybody was looking at him now as he lumbered over to the body on the floor and even Sagara was showing some concern for what was going on here. Clearly, being intangible was still something to consider ‘weird’ in this place, wherever this place was.

The American girl was the first to act, and simply stepped in front of the boy, whose appearance now seemed that of somebody desperate for water, drool dripping from his lower lip, staggering forwards like a zombie. The foreigner’s body was just as effective as Otsune’s hand was, and she didn’t even feel him go through her as he appeared out the other side of her. She turned and lunged at him like he was a rugby ball, falling to the floor.

She was up in an instant, figuring out quickly that it was pointless to continue trying. Now, Timothy was just standing there, his back hanging limply, like someone had removed one of his vertebrae and left him stood paralysed. No one seemed to know what to do next.

Instead they watched and slowly heard chanting coming from somewhere in the room. Otsune’s magnificent senses swam around the room, trying to trace the vibrations, and soon fixed onto the noise. It was coming from the unconscious’s girl shadow, which was stretching to meet Timothy’s. A few seconds later, her suspicious were confirmed, and a small ball like object had floated out of the darkness between them. Natoko realized it was a skull of some creature coming out of the darkness between them, clinging to it like an oily liquid.

It didn’t have far to come out of the shadow, for it was only the bald head of a demon with holes where eyes should have been. Everyone was rooted to the spot, powerless before what happened next.

“We are three. And we are one,” it bellowed silently. Otsune blinked, and fished her finger into his ear. The words didn’t sound right for some reason. “And yet, we are more than many.”

“Separated, yet together in spirit. We knew we would return to each other. We always have. We always will.” The words felt unique, like each one was at the beginning of a movie, and had an orchestra to back it up. Otsune felt the hairs on her back tingle.

“Though we knew,” it continued, apparently unaware of the presence of everyone in the room except the two youngest, one of which lay unconscious still, “we did not understand. The knowledge was there, but torn. Without memory, without soul, without instinct. One third of the puzzle could not understand itself without looking at the other pieces.”

“What’s it talking about?” Sagara asked, curious, but apparently unfazed. He looked like he watching television.

“I think…” the American` started, pausing for a second as she thought it over one last time. “That this may be the BlNiock demon.”

“The head?” Sagara replied, not taking his eyes off them, the pupils glowing green as he continued to watch. “None of them are demons, I don’t think.”

“Let us…rejoin,” the oily head finished, before diving into the girl. There was a short flash of red light that disappeared instantly, but had blinded everybody in the room. Otsune let out a small whelp before falling to the floor; Natoko stepping in front of her, her hands around her sword. Otsune quickly stepped round though, so as not to miss anything.

The two children were facing each other now; the girl still unconscious, but her body had lifted up and come level with the boy, both of them now swaying back and forth like they were puppets. The oily skull was doing nothing, even the black substance was no longer dripping, sticking in the air around the spirit like bubbles.

Then, the air around them exploded.

Otsune found herself spinning round to get behind Sagara’s bed,  the space in front of her was engulfed by purple flame. The older man swore, loud enough for everyone to hear, even though the whoosh of the inferno had also filled the room. He leaned back and fell off the bed, intending to use it as cover, even those he was bigger than it. The others stood, and let it flow through them. It didn’t look like it was hurting any of them, though they all started to sweat abundantly. Otsune couldn’t feel anything, and even the beds were perfectly fine, not even the cotton covers getting a single singe on them. As it resided, those around her started to pant heavily, the purple fire doing in three seconds what a three mile jog in twenty minutes would.

She had been too busy looking to the others that she almost missed the new presence in the room. Gone was the unconscious girl, gone was the boy who had fought Sagara and won against through child abuse, and in their place, where the floating skull had been was what could only be described as an actual demon.

The demon was purple skinned, its flesh reminding her more of leather than of human. On its head, unsurprisingly were two curled horns that jutted out on the forehead, just above each eye. Its lower jaw appeared to be missing, but only because the large, talon like fangs of its upper jaw were so long that they hid the creature’s chin under their metallic edge.

It didn’t look like it was in a costume.

For one, it was also very much naked, and Otsune felt her brain try to snap when she saw that it had what was necessary to be considered both genders. Trying to judge it objectively, if that was even possible with a creature she had never seen before, she guessed this new demon’s body to be double the age of the children it had been spawned from and might actually still be younger than her, if in appearance only.

Looking at the demon, it took Otsune a few seconds to realize that it was staring back at her. She almost felt that it was offended or confused at why she was looking at it, like she was an old man quite clearly ogling some young schoolgirl. As it stared back, its ruby eyes glowing dimly at her. Her eyes darted down for a second, out of the worst of curiosities. The demon seemed to notice this, and looked down as well, almost immediately letting out the most girlish scream imaginable. Its six fingered hands swinging in front of it to hide its privates and quickly turned around so that no one could see.

“What’s going on? Where am I?” it asked, sounding like a boy whose voice was just seconds from breaking but still keeping together. Otsune’s brow furrowed; it wasn’t what she was expecting. She was partly expecting to die at the hands of a monster.

“It is a demon!” Sagara said with excitement, apparently not listening to its question. Otsune saw that his eyes were still blazing green, and she could only guess that he now saw something, besides the obvious horns and talon like fangs, that proved it to be a demon. “I get it. Each piece on its own wasn’t demon enough for me to notice the full picture, like a jigsaw puzzle.”

“Who are you people?” it asked, its voice high pitched and full or worry. “The last thing I remember is…is…the tournament!” Its eyes bulged wide, and looked around to see if anyone had responded. The American was smiling.

“And would you like to tell is what you intended to do in the tournament?”

The BlNiock demon stuttered, realizing it said something it shouldn’t have, before giggling nervously. “N-n…nothing.”

“Oh really?” the American continued. “you do know that Demons aren’t allowed in the tournament, right? Either for participation or observation. It’s for humans only. You may not be breaking any of the Contracts of the Balance by being in the InBetween Realm, can’t stop that no matter how hard we try. But the second you step into a tournament designated area, you should know what would happen, even with your little trick.” The American smirked. She looked very happy to be dominating the creature, though she hid it well under the grimace. They both heard a snarl, and the America quickly jumped back to avoid a clawed hand as it swung at her. She had clearly got out of the way, when the sleeve of her garb was ripped, seemingly without cause.

“Stupid humans!” it growled, hissing huskily at the girl, as it bore down upon her. “You think anyone listens to the rules of the Futabatei anymore. Your power, your reach; they is limited. The contracts are no longer anything but deterrence.”

The American didn’t respond, but Otsune noticed she had no answer in her silence, like to say anything now would be to admit that it was true.

“Do you have any idea… how big the tournament is going to be this year?” it hissed cockily at the illusionist, her fly to its spider, as its one step forward caused three steps back for her. “Do you have any idea how many demons are going to be involved?”

“There are more than just you?”

“What?” it said, as if someone had whispered something into its ear. “That’s not possible!” It went silent again, and Otsune realized that the demon’s merging from its three forms must not have finished yet, and that parts of it still didn’t know parts that others did. “I entered…I lost! Whom did I lose to?”

“Me,” Sagara said calmly, having sat back down while all this was going on. The BlNiock demon swung round to growl at him, and Sagara took this as his cue. His hand glowed silver as the Draynor gauntlet was summoned and struck the creature right where its jawbone probably was. Otsune gasped, putting her hand to her mouth, as the demon’s teeth shattered and spilled out over the ground as ivory pieces. The demon fell to the floor, letting out a high pitch shriek as it did so. Sagara followed through and delivered another punch to its ribcage. Its body contorted as it fell to his strength and rolled over, an orange liquid that looked like it came from an ice-lolly steaming out of a small wound where Sagara’s fist had been. The ninja was just about to finish up with a blow to the back of the head when he just stopped, his fist still raised in the air.

Everyone looked at him, wondering why he wasn’t finishing the demon off, especially when it was clear he was about to win. Otsune was just about to ask him what was the matter when she realized she couldn’t speak, it was as if her mouth had been glue shut, or he had eaten a vast load of toffee.

It wasn’t just them who couldn’t move. The others were now paralysed as well, the only thing that could still move being their eyes, which darted round to look at the others, presumably to see if it was just them who could now no longer move.

The demon coughed, the orange steaming blood now dripping out of its mouth like spit from a drunkard, and spewed out blood and shards of teeth. As they looked down at it, everyone could see its shadow, now clearly larger than it should be, like a sheet stretched out and under their feet to hold it in place.

“Isthz hea yadow!” the American tired to say, her tongue stuck to the bottom of her mouth, her teeth still firmly clamped together. Despite her incoherence, everybody seemed to understand, and tried to shake themselves free, to little effect.

The BlNiock demon had stopped paying attention to them, its twelve fingers now trying desperately to pick up the shards that were once its teeth in some vain hope that perhaps they could be reconnected. Giving up after a few frantic seconds, it tossed the ivory to the floor and cursed loudly, filling the silent room as it slammed its fists on the floor, its incredibly sharp talons piercing its own palms, to seemingly little effect.

Pausing for a moment, it seemed to start thinking, frantically looking left and right like it was trying to find something. Whatever it was searching for, it seemed to find it and, without warning or provocation, threw itself at the wall where its girl half had been lying. It, not too surprisingly, bounced right off, and Otsune almost expected the audience to laugh. This didn’t stop it from trying again though and, looking even more confident than the last time, headbutted the wall, letting out another high pitched squeal like before and disappearing.

Otsune immediately felt her arms fall from where they were lifted, but was too busy staring at the wall where the demon had gone to notice. Around her, everyone else fell loosely, Sagara’s hand dropping the air where it was raised and Nobori finally standing up from behind the bed.

“It’s gone,” the American stated, just in case anyone hadn’t noticed the creature running up to the wall, which, although still as cracked and ruined as before, didn’t appear to have had a demon just run into it twice.

“What the fuck was that thing?” the muscular man said, sweating profusely from his massive physique.

“I don’t actually know,” said Sagara, making the gauntlet disappear from his hand. “I’ve never heard of a demon like that. We may not even have it in the books back home. Not any I’ve read anyway. Melissa?”

“No, none. In the books we’ve been allowed to read anyway,” Melissa added, giving up on the wall she had been studying. “I’m not even sure what you’d class it as. At the very least it’s a real demon rather than a kotodama type.”

“What are you talking about?” Otsune shouted as loudly as she could, to hide any quake that might still be in her voice. “It was a demon. That’s obvious. I may have been trying to deny these things for a while, but even I can accept that for what it was!”

“Most of those demons don’t exist,” Melissa stated sternly, like she was trying to educate someone in a class below her. “Those forms you are used to seeing are just human interpretation, your brain telling you what you can comprehend without going insane. It goes without saying that people use them as inspiration.”

“Human interpretation?” Otsune repeated. “You mean like self hypnosis?”

“Erm…” Melissa paused, having no idea what the girl was talking about. “Maybe, whatever. Basically, the Futabatei don’t allow people to remember demons for very long, just warped after images based on their worst nightmares. If you guys hadn’t been around Sagara so long, the same would have probably happened to you.”

“But I thought demons needed to possess items. Then why is there that creature?” Natoko asked. “Or are we going through this… effect?”

“This is the InBetween Realm. We’re seeing with our souls, talking through our souls… all that. All demonic spirits can exist here without problems, though I still don’t get the whole three in one thing”

“I should have been able to see through it as well,” he finished. “So, no tricks… I think”

“Well this doesn’t really matter does it?” Natoko added thoughtfully. “You’ve located your demon, right? You can find it again after we’ve found Aki and the others.”

“I’m not so certain we should be wasting time,” Melissa said, pondering the situation. “The things it said. There is more than one demon involved in all of this. The longer we wait, the less chance we’ll find of getting all of them. We should go after it after the flux has opened up again.”

“Are you even listening to her?” Otsune shouted, stepping forward, before nearly leaping back as Melissa stared at her with cold eyes.

“You go look for your friends,” Melissa said, the first word coming out as if it were on fire. “We have things of higher importance to take care of. The reputation of our clan is at stake here.” Otsune thought this over for a second, decided she didn’t like the logic, and stepped forward again.

“Who cares about your clan’s damn reputation?” she argued, her hand swiping the air in front of her as she did so. “Our friends are in danger. That should be the heroes’ first priority.”Otsune reeled back as the girl released an anxious grin on her face and stepped forward, lightly headbutting Otsune, the taller girl only just getting out of the way of a full strike.

“Let’s make it clear and cliché now, before you delude yourself further than you already have with your messed up little lives. The last thing we are, are heroes,” she claimed. “We are not the forces of good, or evil. We are those who walk the middle, who enforce those on either side, who…”

“Erm, Melissa?” Sagara said lightly, interrupting Melissa’s mini speech. “I know you say it’s wrong to complain. I know you’d get angry at me if I said stuff like that, so i…”

“I know, I know,” Melissa said, turning away from Otsune. “It’s just hard to make people understand sometimes, especially morons.” Otsune was about to interject at this, but Melissa kept talking. “I’m… sorry… but there are more important things at stake here. Your friends will just have to wait. If we had a way, I would do my best to help you, but we don’t, so just sit here until we return.” Otsune went to say something after this, but felt no words were right. Anger had gone after the apology and now…

“Let’s go, Sagara,” Melissa stated turning to the door, where the guard remained lying on the floor, groaning to himself for a strangely large period of time.

“No,” he said quietly, stopping her. “I want to help my friends.” Melissa muttered something under her breath before turning round.

“And you heard none of what I just said how?” she said loudly, waving her hands in front of her. “We don’t have time, and we can’t waste time finding more leads afterward.”

“But don’t we need leads to find the BlNiock demon as well?” he asked with a child’s logic.

“Yes!” Melissa cried out with her answer. “Which is why we need to get going?” She turned to the door, with the vainest of hopes that Sagara would follow. He stayed on the bed, smiling to himself.

“In that case” Sagara said. “There is a way to do both.”

 

Act Three – Chapter Eight

 

They had missed the next match, getting lost in the endless corridors leading up to the seats where Gen, Otsune and the others were. It had taken three minutes and Sagara admitting he had no idea where they were before they finally asked a janitor that looked like he was made of glass and painted with acrylic before they finally got on the right path. Natoko was navigating now, though it was difficult.

Despite having been healed earlier, she had dropped again a second after standing up, and could only whimper, feelings of nausea filling her since realising she was still alive. Aki had immediately fell into a bout of worry as it turned out that, although her body was completely healed, her mind wasn’t entirely convinced it should still be alive and was insisting that she didn’t move much until it could confirm this. They finally reached back out into the arena, and immediately heard a rush of cheers, the forth fight was over already.

“The winner of the forth match: Yamato!” Before they could see down to arena floor, everybody had stood up to cheer on the winner, which prevented them from seeing who this Yamato was. It didn’t concern them however, for they heard a squeaky voice immediately behind them.

“Oi, Boss!” Sarah called out, grabbing their attention and pulling them towards her. Sagara wasted no time in sitting Natoko down on her own seat, dropping her from his back and allowing him to finally catch his breath.

“She’s okay, right?” Gen asked, over the din of the crowd’s adulations. Natoko nodded her head, though her pale face told another story. Aki skipped up the row behind and landed on her friend’s shoulders, kneeling in her seat at the same time. She looked as carefree as ever, hung over her shoulder and smiling cheerily, though Natoko suspected that Aki’s position was more to keep an eye on her than anything else.

“She should be okay,” Sagara claimed without a hint of knowledge as to whether it was true or not. A broken spinal column wasn’t exactly something you just got up and walked away from. Other than being completely spent, her eyes already closely and her head bobbing as she tried to keep track of everybody, she felt fine. “I’ve got to go,” he said simply, and walked away. As he turned, he bumped someone, and his hand shot out, grabbing them before they fell down the four steps to a bruised end. The hand was petit, its owner gasping as she felt it being grabbed.

“Sakura,” Sagara muttered, not expecting the teenage cook to be there. “Hey, kid,” he looked at the girl, as she focused on the interesting dirt of the ground. The dirt immediately sprung to attention, feeling slightly embarrassed that it was being scrutinized so intensely. “What’s wrong?”

Sagara waited for her to say something, the little girl looking at him like she was expecting something as well. When nothing came he just shrugged and walked off behind her, saying his farewells as he did so.

“Oi, Sagara,” Fujiko called out as he started to wander off. As he turned to look at the girl, Otsune noticed his smile seemed to have wavered a little bit. “Good luck on your next fight.”

The boy didn’t reply at first, like his mind had been caught on something. Finally he responded.

“Thanks.

“Hey, if it gets too bad,” the girl next to her said. “You can just whack ‘em with that gauntlet, right?”

“No, no I can’t.” Like he had been reminded of it for the first time in a while, Natoko watched as he brought his hand up to his eyes and glared at it for a moment looking, almost lost. “See ya,” he said jumping down the stairways and heading back through one of the exits without warning the now screaming parakeet.

“Sakura?” Gen called to the girl, as she continued staring after Sagara, ignoring the landlord, switching her gaze to look at where Sagara had gone and whatever was so exciting with the ground. Everyone’s attention was briefly on the girl, their gazes being unnoticed until, finally, she turned around and ran off, Natoko hearing something about heading for the toilet.

“What’s wrong with her?” Fujiko asked nonchalantly. “She was like that yesterday.”

“Sagara killed her boyfriend yesterday,” Aki said, who now had a tight grip around Natoko’s head to prevent the warrior from falling asleep.

“What?” Natoko shouted, instantly regretting it as all her muscles screamed with agony. She fell back down, muttering something to herself in annoyance. Otsune took over for her.

“But Sakura doesn’t have a boyfriend,” she pointed out. “Does she?” Natoko didn’t know the answer either. They all knew that the girl never went out at night. She was both too young and too shy, the only place was somewhere at school, or from church, and she couldn’t imagine Sakura having the nerve to date someone in either environment.

“Yeah. That’s what she said,” Aki replied simply, as she began tugging on Natoko’s hair, braiding it between her fingers. Natoko sighed at the girl’s ministrations. Aki could probably describe the murder of her own family and ask someone to pass the salt in the same sentence, so it was impossible to know if she was ever telling the truth or not. The worst part was, she never really had much of a reason to lie.

***

 

Ten minutes later, nine of which Sagara had probably spent being lost as he wandered through corridors he had not been through the first time, Raiko saw the ninja arrive in the centre of the arena to a cacophony of jeering. All around him, there were people booing and hissing him off, his last fight clearly hadn’t won him any favours with the crowd and they now seemed to be doing everything within their power to make him lose the match. The barrier had been set up to prevent such obstructions and had now been set to full since bottles had been set up in the arena. It was a simple barrier really, merely designed to stop anyone trying to enter in the heat of the moment, but it still had the power to incinerate everything it touched given the right setting.

The ninja, trying his best not to be distracted by all the noise that severely contrasted what had happened the first time he had come out, walked up to the stage where Raiko stood waiting for him. She waved to him with a smile before turning back to the microphone.

“And back again after the most colossal fight we’ve had so far… He destroyed the stage, ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for Michael!”

The crowd switched tactics, erupting into a range of adulations for Sagara’s opponent. Raiko felt sorry for the guy. Even though he looked not to care, it must have been clear to both of them that the only reason they were cheering was to spite him. Michael had been a powerful fighter, as to be expected of someone like him, but it was unlikely that public opinion had been swayed in his direction.

Still, for now, she had to make them hate Sagara. Such was the role of the ring girl

“The one known only as Michael has already graced us with his colossal powers, ripping the very arena in half just to subdue his opponent. I don’t know about the rest of you ladies and gentlemen, but I’m very excited to see how well he’ll do against the heir of the Futabatei clan, even if all we’ve seen Sagara-sama do is throw a helpless child out of the ring.”

They switched back to jeering at the mention of this, and she weaved them round her words. As long as she didn’t go full, Sagara wouldn’t have any reason to do anything against her, so she was okay for now. Michael hadn’t stepped out yet. She was warned it might happen in between rounds sometimes and she instantly went to stalling tactics to cover up for the audience.

“For those of you concerned on our youngest fighter, little Timothy McKay only sustained minor injuries at the end of the fight. He has already recovered and didn’t even need to see a Nuet or one of our regular doctors.”

More cheering, but still no Michael.

“And if you look over to my left you will actually seen the little guy sitting peacefully watching the fight like the rest of you. What a little warrior!” She indicated him and saw several thousand heads click to the right. Timothy waved at everybody with a smile and a few hundred even waved back.

She turned around, checking all four of the main entrances to the arena, and then the smaller ones. Nothing. An assistant came running out of the changing rooms shrugging his shoulders.

“Since we appear to have some time, let me tell you about the history of the tournament…”

“Is it natural for announcers to talk this long during fights?” Otsune asked curiously. She had never been in a fight her whole life, but it seemed unlikely they would stop what they were doing to have a brief discussion when they were trying to kick the crap out of each other.

“Maybe it’s a tension thing,” Fujiko observed, shoving popcorn into her mouth at the same time she spoke. “Y’know, trying to rouse the audience, making them think something’s dramatic about to happen.”

“Would that happen in a place like this?” Gen asked, almost rhetorically.

“Hell no,” Sarah piped in. “They can’t find the damn fighter. He’s ran off, scared of Boss” Gen groaned, taking off his glasses and feeling his eyes as he felt that this was the only logic the pipsqueak had for her argument. The conversation ended there, as the lone announcer contained the crowd with stories of honourable warriors from centuries ago who found the place by accident and others also there by coincidence and how it all seemed a great idea to kick the crap out of each other. Because they were men, goddamit, and that’s what men waste their time with. Otsune sighed, coming up from her drink, now wishing she had switched to alcoholic.

“Don’t you think Sakura should be back by now,” she inquired of anyone willing to listen. Most of the group were focused on waiting for the fight to start up, but Natoko, who was slowly drifting in and out of consciousness, only to be stopped constantly by her friend tugging on her hair, heard her question.

“It is strange,” she muttered, finding it difficult to speak amidst the drowsiness.

“And Tina hasn’t come back either,” Fujiko commented.

“Standard operating,” Otsune commented. “I don’t know if you noticed, but she doesn’t want to be around us anymore.”

“Really?” Fujiko replied, a hint of sarcasm easy to mistake for a slur.

“We haven’t even spoken in the past two weeks.”

“Aki?” Natoko said weakly. “Could you please go and check up on Sakura?”

“What?” Aki whined, her happy expression changing to one of regret. “But I wanna stay here.”

“Just quickly find her, and then come back.” Without actually giving a valid reason to the girl, Natoko found it was enough anyway and Aki skipped off down the stairs in the direction of the girl’s toilet.

****

It took five minutes for the last person to get out, but she was only able to hold back her tears for thirty seconds afterwards.

She didn’t want anybody to see her cry, here in the toilets of what had to be another world. Where were they? She didn’t know, she had no way of knowing, but she knew it had to be like the place they went yesterday. Some place that couldn’t exist in Fuugosuki, or under it.

 

She had gone to see him, to ask him things. It had taken her four hours to just pick up the courage. Before getting here. Before getting lost. Before finding Tina. Before Tina had helped her. Understood her. She was happy she had found a friend in the usually reserved girl.

But he wasn’t there at first. It was understandable, he had things to do and she couldn’t bother him, even though she wanted to ask the questions so much. What happened the day before? Where did they go? How did she know Alexis? She had to wait for the answers a little longer, though she didn’t even know if he could provide them, why should he know? …Why did he kill him? She wished for Sagara to magically appear so she could ask him, though hopefully not in front of everybody, for she could imagine them all staring as she asked such weird things.

Then she thought she got lucky, and he came up after Natoko’s fight. The samurai was on his back, probably from being hit hard or something, but she hadn’t been paying attention to the fight, she just wanted to talk to him, ask him the questions!

And then she had lost her nerve.

It wasn’t entirely her own fault. It couldn’t have been. His own words, as bright and relaxed as a sleeping kitten in the sun, his few words showed that he had already forgotten about yesterday. Alexis’s death meant nothing to him. Hearing them, she couldn’t help the urge to escape boiling up inside of her, overflowing down the stairs and straight towards the toilets, where she could try and relax for a few minutes.

But she couldn’t relax, Alexis was dead, and no one was doing anything about it. No one even cared. She could understand Otsune, Fujiko, Gen and the others not to care, but Aki and Sarah were there, and Sagara…

She let out of wheezy cough, as her emotions went silly and came out as liquid melancholy. What should she do? She spent all her energy on bringing up the strength to ask him the questions; she had even rehearsed in the mirror, just to make herself feel better. Now she was just going top hide in the toilets forever, basking in their lonely embrace, the isolation of the public services.

Even this wasn’t to last, as the door open again. She looked to see if the door was locked, and lifted her feet above the bottom of the door.

“Sakura Tamburo,” a man called.

***

Aki had reached the toilet stall, grumbling to herself about the smell. Despite the rest of the dome being spotless, someone had clearly forgotten about these toilets. She walked in slowly, relishing the smells of popcorn and hot dogs that she had smelt earlier, as well as her main favourite of bananas. She briefly considered going back to get one, before thinking that it may be wrong for the situation. She entered the main part of the toilet and called out to Sakura.

She wasn’t too surprised to not receive an answer, Sakura was probably staying quiet in one of the stalls. She kneeled down, making sure that no part of her body touched the greasy floor anymore than it had too, and began peering under the stalls. A brief glance under and over each stall revealed nothing but an older woman whom she had to apologise to for spying on. Not understanding adults, the African girl waited until she knew the whole room was empty, and leapt to the top of one of the stalls. From here, she could see everything, and yet saw nothing.

“Sakura?” she called out in confusion, as her voice echoed throughout the stalls.

***

“Are they going to fight?” Timothy asked her as she sat back down. Sagara wandered passed her and out of sight, the jeers even getting to him.

“Well technically they should,” Raiko replied. “But it does require both of them there. All we can do is wait a bit really. If Michael doesn’t show up, we move onto Hayate and Yamato.”

“And Sagar gets to go straight to the finals?”

“Yeah, guess I can’t like it, but it’s not really his fault. That guy gets a lot of lucky breaks whether he likes it or not.” Across from them, she saw another assistant waving to her with a ‘the show must go on’ hand symbol.

“I think that might be ending soon though,” Timothy replied, but she was already ignoring him, her eyes catching Hayate walking to the stage. She started up the stairs to meet him.

***

The fools. They wait for a battle that will never occur.

It happened long ago. Not with who it should. But with me and I was but the only victor there could be.

Not that I had a choice mind you. Never a choice. But the demons had to die. All demons that oppose the stoolie have to die, including this one. Can’t take the risk now, can we? We need the stoolie to survive.

Sorry about this, cripple. I have to work fast. Have to work hastily. Now that divine intervention is on its way I have to get rid of all of you as fast as I can

“I don’t think you want to do that.”

Huh? And why not?

“It wouldn’t be your best interests. You might, say, lose the arm.”

Oh like I do anything in my own interests. And the arm grows back.

“Then how about this. It wouldn’t be necessary to your actual interests.”

Really. The only thing I need to keep at this moment is my mouth and my stoolie. And you aren’t either of those… are you?

“No but-“

Well then. Time to burn!

Or not!

He holds my hand. None can do that. They wouldn’t let him.

“I have no reason to kill him spirit. You need not worry. He can survive in my eyes, and so can you if you leave now.”

Oh, okay then.

***

make it clear raiko isn’t on stage!

Raiko sneezed. That was always a bad sign. Here in the InBetween realm temperature should only ever bother you if an elemental demon was in the area. Of course what with all the problem causers that were here that could have been true.

But then the trouble causers were also disappearing, one at a time.

Yuya had told her to expect something like this. Sagara had a mission she said, and though they weren’t to help directly they were to stand on the sidelines and make sure it didn’t get out of control.

But the demons disappearing should have been a sign that Sagara was getting his job done. So why didn’t it feel like that? Why did it feel that everything was spiraling in opposite directions and colliding. She stopped, smelling the corridor she was standing in, the repugnant smell of rotten chicken distracting her. The awful smell got her nose wanting to vomit. She covered her face to try and get away from it. This was another thing that got to her about the realm she was in. You never really knew what you were going to come up against and sure it was the same on Earth and in the Strangelands but at least those places had the potential of being cleaned up before you got to them. There could be a rotting corpse in the InBetween realm for years and it would rot to bone before anyone ever found out about it.

About to head through a mahogany door to another corridor, and hopefully away from the smell, she noticed a pile of black dust neatly lumped on the ground. She examined it for just a second, before deciding she didn’t care and shot into the opposing corridor, where the air got back to purifying her nostrils of the smell and back to just choking her lungs with stale air.

“And just what on earth makes you think you can get away with this!”

Crap! Yuya’s voice filled her ears and she realised that her boss was down the corridor around the turn. She couldn’t afford to see her until the tournament was over. Though she had talked Robbie into swapping places with her so that she did his announcing job and he look after a few ‘perfectly normal guests’ Yuya probably wouldn’t be pleased with her skipping her assigned duties, especially when it was clear to both of them that she was only doing it to go see Sagara.

She wondered if she had a crush on him. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about him since yesterday and she was even disobeying orders just to hang with him.

But then there was something else as well.

“Well, answer me boy!” she continued and Raiko got just that little bit curious as to who she was speaking too. Sneaking up to them, she peeked round the corner, partly expecting to see a conversation between the boss and some poor assistant who probably didn’t even realise where he was. Instead, she caught the back of Sagara’s head.

“Don’t think I will just accept your refusal to answer,” she continued. “Do you think me stupid, that I wasn’t raised by the great thinkers of the Cmir, or did you just think that your rules overrode my own.”

“I wasn’t aware that they were separate,” Sagara finally replied. Yuya’s face tightened in anger.

“Yes you did,” she responded after a shot of disgust. “I explained the rules to you right at the beginning. And I clearly stated there would be no attacks on fellow participants between the bouts, mentally or physically.”

“Did I break that rule?”

“You know you did. Do not try and act like a fool to get out of it?”

“But all I told him was to win his next match.”

“I’m not talking about the ‘smack’ talk between yourself and Fujiwaru Hayate. I’m talking about the removal of Wasim real name Gregor and Michael Hale after their fight had concluded. Now I may not be able to do anything about Mr. Gregor, but Mr. Hale was still in the tournament and you can’t just raise yourself up in the ranks by disposing of him early.” She paused to produce an extra long sneer, held for good measure. “Quite frankly I’m ashamed of you Sagara.”

“Hey that’s enough,” Raiko found herself shouting out, turning the corner and walking straight up to Ms. Sakimoto. The women’s skin shined with sweat and heat. Either she had ran to Sagara, or she was nervous about something.

“Stay out of this, Raiko,” Yuya immediately barked out before she could get another word in. “The rules are still the rules no matter how privileged he is. I’m afraid I have no choice but to disqualify him for his actions. You’ve ruined my tournament boy.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Don’t say that,” Raiko quickly defended. “You just said you didn’t do it.”

“I didn’t.”

“So don’t apologise.”

“You would deny it?” Yuya retorted. “The camera’s surrounding corridors 67B alpha show them walking in that direction and not returning. We conveniently had all the exits to that area covered. During the time after their match the only ones that went down there are those two and yourself as you wandered after them.”

“I think I was looking for the toilet.”

“And what? In your bladder induced haste you vaporised the both of them?”

“You speak like there weren’t ways around the cameras, Sakimoto-san,” Raiko butted in. “What if another demon hunter was here? There are plenty of reasons still how they disappeared. Hell, to me it sounds like Wasim killed Michael in a jealous rage after losing.”

“Wouldn’t have happened and I would know. And there are no demon hunters here, Raiko. We’ve been very careful about that. The only other one allowed on the premises is Ms. Melissa and she is not here. She’s currently in Fuugosuki attacking one of the False Balance strongholds.”

“But as you said yourself. You don’t have proof Sagara did it.”

“He’s the only possible suspect at this point.”

“But that should not be enough to disqualify him from the tournament, should it?”

“Why you little bitch.”

“And now you’re resorting to profanities.” She only did that when she was losing or had another agenda that required her to lose. The boss was a tricky one to work out, but it didn’t matter now. Whatever game she was playing, she was playing with the appearance to lose.

“Fine,” she said, looking put out. “He can stay, but I’m watching you Futabatei. Don’t think you can break my rules just because of your initiation.” She began to walk away. “If you do, not even your mother will be able to help you.”

She opened a door and slammed it shut on the other end. The room was filled with sounds of Sagara scratching his head blandly. He didn’t look one but concerned.

“Well, thanks for that,” he said, going to walk on ahead. Before he could go any further she shifted in front of him and locked his path.

“What did you do to me?”

“I displayed my gratitude.”

“No, I mean… Why did I do that? Why did I just defend you? I should be trusting her more than I’m trusting you. Hell, you’re just a stranger to me.”

Sagara remained silent. She looked to his green eyes, but got no answer form them.

“And there’s something else. Something I have to tell you, but I know I can’t yet, but for reason I really have to tell you.”

“Raiko,” he said and just by hearing that she realised she had been more nervous than she had ever been before. “Just because of what your mother was doesn’t mean you have to trust me to stay alive. And just because of who your boss is doesn’t mean you have to believe in me. And it doesn’t matter that because you’re my friend or because of what you have inside of you or anything else. In the end, these only matter if you want them to, and it’s all your choice.”

Raiko looked at him, seeing the seriousness in his green eyes. She agreed with him. Geez, when he put it like that it made a decent amount of sense, but that didn’t stop her from laughing her head off at him.

“What kind of corny is that?” she asked as she aired out laughter. “There’s a difference between giving good advice and just trying to sound sage like, Sagara. And I don’t think you’re very good at either.”

“Really,” he said, smiling a little as well. “Sorry.”

Bringing him in for a hug, she felt his heart beating like a jackhammer. He was warm. “Try again when you’re a little older, and maybe to someone younger than you too.”

“The winner of the second semi-final, Kurogane Yamato!” the overhead speakers blared out as a rapturous applause surged out from the distance.

“Man, were we really here that long?” Raiko said looking to the speaker above them. “That Yamato sure is something.”

“Huh?”

“Looks like you’re not getting your grudge match final,” she said, trying to sense disappointment on his face.

“Looks like.”

“You better get going.” Without anything but a nod to her he headed off in the opposite direction of where he was supposed to be going. Quickly shifting him around, she watched as he headed off to face his hardest match yet.

“Hey Sagara,” she called out, just before he was out of sight. He turned back to her. “If you head over to the west stage and climb the stairs there to the top, the demons are in the VIP room that overlooks the stage.”

“I thought you couldn’t tell me that,” he said, after a moment’s thought.

“Who cares anymore,” she shouted back. “Just do me a favour. Don’t go after them until your match is finished.”

“Okay,” he said now not looking.

He left her to the empty corridor, where all the noise that was left was the buzzing from the speaker. It didn’t matter to him. She was overjoyed by that. Perhaps he would be the one that truly made a difference to the balance.

Then soon, maybe, she’d finally be able to get her chains off.

She exhaled, relaxing for a moment. The smell crept back into her nostrils and made her choke once again. She quickly ran out of the corridor, leaving the rotten smell to its own devices.

***

Melissa grunted, hauling the dead weight back on her shoulder as it slipped off again, the unconscious girl being as unhelpful as possible as the illusionist dragged her back into the InBetween Realm. The big guy was the same, doing his best to stay conscious with the knife wound still bleeding mildly from the bandages. She should have left him in an earth hospital, but the doctors here would have done a much better job. Besides, she wasn’t going to leave him with her owing him one.

Though thy were now able to talk in the language free realm of the InBetween, silence was still their chosen language. He had simply given up trying to speak to her and with the child on her back, she wasn’t in the mood.

She didn’t have a ticket for either of them, but then again, she rarely did. She had even skipped airfare for the trip to Japan in the first place. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do nowadays, but it wasn’t worth thinking about now. Walking past the guards was easy, but then she had difficulty in getting over the turnstile while holding the sleeping child. In the end it had required great concentration to stand on the metal box that the guard stood by, a supposedly human creature in his late one thousand and seventies, flip over quickly while still holding the girl and land silently on the ground, all the time maintaining her illusions so the guard saw, heard or smelt nothing, including the blundering boy that just wandered pass and waved hi to a guard that didn’t respond.

Now she was into the restricted area, a corridor painted a beautiful cream and then soiled by a lack of maintenance- dead demon vermin and more dust than one would ever wish to see in their lifetime. She guessed that the tournament was held too rarely, and that cleaning the corridors where spectators weren’t going to see was seen as a waste of time for half a day’s entertainment every half decade.

She walked on, the feral child making her shoulder ache, as she looked for a sign that led to the fighters’ waiting area. She briefly wondered how Sagara’s matches had gone. If he had won the Battle Royale, he would have beaten anyone in the duels afterwards. Of course, she knew he wouldn’t; it would be too much of a problem. If he had to spend all his time being watched by the crowds, he wouldn’t be able to do any investigating. No, she was sure he would have lost by now, definitely on purpose if not by necessity. There was no way he could have continued the investigation with everyone staring at him.

“And now the big final match up of the night: Kurogane Yamato vs. Futabatei Sagara-sama!”

She cursed seven hundred and twenty two times before she reached the nearest door to the tournament arena.

The door didn’t open, nor did it close, nor did anyone walk through it or shut it afterwards. Melissa looked ahead of her, to where the fight was starting. Dropping the girl onto an empty seat beside her, she decided she could waste a few minutes waiting for this to the end. Her aim was to talk to Sagara anyway so, as annoying as he was being, she would just wait for him to finish his fight with…

Her brain stopped what it was doing, put all its work aside and focused solely on her eyes and what they were telling it. They strained as she stood back up and lent over the guardrail, just in case they had somehow deceived her when she was two feet back from where she was standing now. She gazed, then blinked and gazed again, just in case it was a trick of the light, but it was true. Her perfect vision told her so. Sagara’s opponent was in a wheelchair. A modern one, fully electronic and covered in shiny red plastic that sat just five feet in front of Sagara. She would have thought that maybe someone had parked it there and ran off giggling childishly, if it wasn’t for the announcer starting the countdown in his usual low pitched voice that Melissa noticed wasn’t stuttering at all.

She looked round, to see if anyone else had noticed this, but they only looked as interested as any group watching would be in the finals of a wrestling match, on the edges of their seats as they shoveled popcorn furiously in their mouths, like they wouldn’t be allowed to eat after the countdown had finished. She looked back at the opponent, her mind reeling with many different thoughts as she observed the man who, unless this was an obvious trick, had to be crippled in some way.

The opponent, who appeared Japanese, looked normal enough- a little too normal, bar an unkempt beard and the fact he looked completely unable to fight. He was far too skinny and he had one arm sticking up, slightly out of place above the armrest, as if he couldn’t quite pull it all the way down to rest it like he was the other hand. The illusionist’s breath held its place inside her mouth as she saw the countdown hit two and nothing change. The apparent cripple was just sitting there, waiting patiently for the fight to start.

The announcer’s voice screamed the start of the fight and, like it had been the call for a firing squad Sagara jetted forward, his feet leaving but staying parallel with the ground as he flew towards his opponent, no concern on his face for what he was about to hit. Melissa had expected that much; it was why she was worried. Sagara always used the ancient art of punching someone in the face right at the start of the fight. Staying back and analyzing was just far too above him. What she hadn’t expected next though was for the boy in the wheel chair to spin out of the way at the last second, grab Sagara’s hand and twist it to the floor, causing the ninja to crash head first into the rockwork below.

He was back up in a second and launched a kick at his opponent, who dodged it passively. The ninja didn’t stop and threw two fists at the wheelchair bound fighter, who dodged it again equally as easy. Still not stopping, Sagara planted his hands on the ground and, lifting his legs up, sprang at the foe with his infinite variety kangaroo kick, which missed just as much as the last three attacks had.

Melissa exhaled, as the fight seemed to stop for a second, and took this moment to put her eyes back into their sockets. She looked around at the audience, who still seemed to be acting like this was a normal fight, and that the opponent didn’t have the use of his legs. It wasn’t a trick, it wasn’t like the wheelchair was an empty shell, which this Yamato hid his legs in to fool his adversaries. It was just… well, a wheelchair.

Sagara appeared, although like usual he wasn’t showing it, mildly surprised by what was going on before him. It had probably occurred to him that being bound to a seat should have been a huge disadvantage but Melissa could also guess his more practical line of thinking; that if this guy was in the final, then he must be the strongest yet.

Although it hadn’t been a good answer, it did seem to be correct; Yamato was blocking each of Sagara’s attacks like it was a child coming at him, a light amused smile on his face with each speedy, effortless evasion, as Sagara continued his onslaught fruitlessly. The ninja backed off for a second, and thought up a feint. Swinging his hand loosely at the opponent’s face, he watched as he went to block it then, using all his strength, he pushed the hand aside and punched full on into the open face.

Yamato immediately released gas from his cheek, like he were a balloon, engulfing the stage in a fog before Melissa could see them both vanish within it

“Good,” he said, catching Sagara by surprise as the ninja turned to see his opponent as if he had never moved. Melissa was able to hear them easily despite the distance, her illusions tricking the vibrations into believing she was right next to them. Sagara didn’t hesitate and launched forward to strike another time. It wasn’t his usual style to play defense, but he had the feeling that this guy wasn’t going to go first. The wheelchair pulled itself to the side and took its owner out of harm’s way, but Sagara had disappeared from Yamato’s sight, and the cripple looked around for his lost opponent.

A fist struck out from behind him, but Yamato was too fast for it, disappearing into the ground as naturally as Sagara would kick. It took a moment for the ninja to realize that he was actually sinking into his own shadow, wheelchair and all. He spread his eyes across the arena, and kept turning, not wanting to lose his advantage of mobility once to this guy.

“I am not as easy as that, Futabatei,” a voice called out, croaking across the arena, as if a heavy bar was resting against the wheelchair bound fighters throat. “You had better take me seriously, if you wish to win. You do wish to win, don’t you?”

“Not really,” Sagara mumbled, his eyes scanning the grounds. The boy wasn’t anywhere to be seen. How could a teenager, trapped in an electronic wheelchair of all things, hide from him that quickly? Melissa saw Sagara’s eyes flash a brilliant green. Summoning the eye of Futabatei to help him out showed Melissa just how desperate he was, as she knew he’d be able to see the spirit no matter where it went. He was just about to start attacking thin air, in the thought that maybe his opponent had become invisible in a way he couldn’t tell, when his feet were trapped for the second time that day.

Looking down, his neck jerking along with them as he peered at the ground, Sagara saw a hand sticking out of the concrete below him like fungi that had pushed its way through. He instinctively tried to jump back, intending to get out of the way, but the hand’s grip was strong and knocked him off centre, losing his balance and having to use the strength of his leg muscles to right himself again.

Trying to kick it with his other leg, the hand just ignored him and began to sink, taking Sagara’s body with it. He swung his head round frantically. Yamato may be able to survive, but the boy clearly wouldn’t take the risk to see if he could. It looked like an instant shadow bog, which she knew from her studies to be a swamp of pure liquid darkness. She never knew they could be summoned like this, but Yamato clearly did.

Sagara was at waist height now, his legs starting to feel cold. His fingers thrust out and clenched as hard as they could to the concrete, like he was about to fall off the edge of a very tall Cliffside. It occurred to her that just summoning Greynock to rope him to safety would have gotten him right out of it, but either the rules wouldn’t allow it, or Sagara was being stupid again.

Pushing his biceps, triceps and deltoids to their limits, he breathed in as hard as could, like he was trying to suck all the air out of the room, and lifted. The bog didn’t weigh him down at much as she thought. This was strange, as she had heard that Shadow Bogs were meant to be as strong as black holes once people got trapped in them. Grunting with the pain of his shoulders burning, Sagara kept it up, managing five centimetres, then ten…another fifteen…Yamato apparently started pulling harder and Sagara went back down a little, but he still kept his momentum and kept pushing. Fifteen again…twenty…twenty five…

Something gave up and Sagara shot up with the excess force, flying out of the bog, landing outside with his legs now covered in a thick, goopy black substance that disappeared along with the rest of the bog.

“As expected of the Futabatei clan,” a voice said above him; he twisted his neck up and saw the cripple sitting there, as if he had never gone. “Even I couldn’t tell how you got away from that. Tell me…how did you?”

Sagara responded by turning on his ankle like a spinning top and slamming his foot towards the chin of his enemy. It didn’t connect, and Melissa became under the impression that Yamato’s hand had never let go of his leg, for it hadn’t seem to move from where she last saw it, and now it was holding his attack immobile, just inches from the disabled boy’s bearded chin.

“Or don’t you know yourself?” Yamato said, the attack never interrupting the conversation. Sagara, ignoring any words, used his other foot and swung it in a crescent shape to attack the other side of the boy’s head. Yamato seemed just as unconcerned about this attack as well, and got it as before, the only difference this time, Melissa noted as Sagara’s skull slammed, forehead first, into the hard floor below him, was that he had seen the hand move.

“Do you only know how to kick and punch?” his opponent asked calmly. “The Futabatei are supposed to be ninja are they not. I expected to see some special technique. Are you holding them back?” Sagara stayed quiet, as he pulled himself up, his palms holding his weight off the ground. “I shall have to make you take me more seriously.”

Sagara flipped over his own body to get some freedom. He was paid in kind as his ankle was ripped right out along with a special bonus deal of pain which lit up his face. Yamato dropped the foot to the ground to let Sagara lay there. The ninja rolled away, as far as he could without standing.

“Please tell me I have your attention now?” Yamato said politely, “else I shall be insulted.” He wrapped his fingers round each other as he eyed the broken ninja with mild contempt at Sagara’s supposed superiority. Sagara held his ankle closely, and realized that the cripple probably wasn’t going to let him fix it.

He balanced all his weight on his good, left foot and tried to stand up. Melissa could see it hang limply, his support resting mostly on his other foot. She stared at his opponent, trying to figure out any weakness. Anyone else would have perhaps been staggered by the idea that Yamato being unable to stand wasn’t a weakness, but Melissa knew Sagara had already tossed it aside in her mind.

***

“I…I need to go toilet,” Sarah mumbled, seeing Sagara flail helplessly around, his ankle broken. The group didn’t hear her, for she had barely muttered it before dropping down from the guardrail and running off. Otsune had picked it up though, and called out to her.

“Sarah, wait!” But it was no use, the young girl rushing away, hiding her face from the group. Otsune was about to step up when she realised no one else had even blinked at Sarah disappearing. “Could people please react when the youngest of us runs off on her own in a building full of strangers?

“She’ll be fine,” Gen said quickly, wanting to cheer Sagara back up. “She’s only going to the toilet.”

“Man, you’re useless,” Otsune replied, not caring for his feelings. She stood up and quickly chased after the girl. She wasn’t that interested in the fight herself and was actually quite glad to be getting away from the weirdness of seeing a highly trained fighter like Sagara losing to a guy in a wheelchair. She headed down the flight of stairs where Sarah had ran off, and guessed she had headed for the toilet. As she reached stalls, she saw the girl quickly look back, apparently looking exhausted.

“Get lost,” she screamed at her, forcing Otsune back a step by sheer anger alone. Sarah rushed into the toilets, slamming the door behind her. Otsune was tempted to shout back, but held herself. Sarah was often like this to everybody she knew, it was only Sagara that she acted nice around, and for people like Otsune, who she knew didn’t see her as a friend and just a ‘geek’, she showed nothing but venomous hatred.

“Sarah-chan,” she responded, trying to push the toilet door open, but finding it held shut, the ten year old girl’s weight pushing it back as hard as she could and strangely succeeding against the girl who ran five miles every morning.

“Don’t call me –chan!” she shouted from the other side of the door. “I’m American, you moron.” Otsune hesitated.

“Sarah…” she repeated, trying not to slip with the  –chan again. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing!” she shouted back, her voice full of false insistence. “Just leave me alone, bitch!” Otsune knew that Sarah swore a lot and ignored it, her hand resting lightly against the door as she waited for the force to disappear from the other side. Was Sagara losing bothering her that much? She knew the child practically idolized the boy- for reasons she couldn’t understand, but this reaction seemed to her to be far too extreme. She opted to act the mother for a moment.

“You can’t stay locked in there forever, litt…”

“Huh, Sarah?” a voice in the room interrupted Otsune, and she recognised it instantly by its accent to be Aki. “What’s going on?” she said, her voice muffled, but as light as ever as if she had somehow missed the little argument the other two were happening.

“Aki? Where have you been?” Otsune asked, still unable to see the girl.

“Looking for… Sakura,” Aki answered simply giving Otsune the feeling she was eating bananas on the other side. Sarah had gone quiet. “I can’t find her though. I’ve looked everywhere.”

Otsune couldn’t imagine there would be many places to look inside a toilet, but she could imagine Aki checking under every toilet seat, behind every U-bend and even down all the sinkholes. She was about to ask the African girl to get Sarah to open the door, where she heard a noise. It sounded like someone had dropped a bucket of water, filled with something mushy, all over the floor. She had the strangest feeling that Sarah had been sick.

“Is everything all right in there?” Otsune shouted, trying the door again, but still finding it pressed shut. She waited for an answer. Then the door responded by vibrating violently, back and forth, like it had had enough of being trapped in the doorframe all the time. The rumbling stopped as quick as it had started. Otsune stared at it, knowing that it shouldn’t have been able to move like that without falling from its hinges. Hesitant, she reached out carefully  to push it, hoping for it to open normally with the two girls waiting for her and leaving her able to pass it off as another of those things she should be trying her best to ignore, when the door swung open slowly, creaking loudly, trying to unnerve her.

“Aki?” she whispered, her voice hiding behind her like a scared child, the entrance to the lavatory swinging open, revealing its emptiness. On the floor, as she expected there would be, was Sarah’s dinner. Looking away with a retch, trying her best to ignore the putrid smell that was trying to convince her nose that it should persuade her stomach to contribute to the floor, she looked around the now barren toilet, the children clearly gone.

***

He reached for it, but it evaded his grasp.

He went for the other one, then quickly changed direction, then used his other hand to get hold of it, but it simply evaded him.

He went to kick, slipped in pain and then, just as he intended, used the distraction for another grab.

“What are you doing?” the opponent asked, like a teaching catching a child sneaking away during class. “You are surely more skilled than this, are you not?” Sagara kept clear, focusing his efforts on the only weak point he could see- the slower hand. Melissa had caught sight of it as well, when she had seen it move to grab Sagara’s foot.

Now he was definitely trying, looking on the verge of feeling frustrated. Unable to get hold of it, to do anything he could with it. But it wasn’t working, and all it appeared to be doing was making Yamato annoyed at him. He switched from grabbing it to launching full force at the cripple, who promptly swung out of the way with an electronic reverse  and by fluke alone felt Sagara’s grip round his hand.

Without a millisecond’s hesitation, before he had even secured his grip, Sagara slammed his fist into the boy again, feeling the boy’s nose break against his knuckles. The crowd cheered him for the strike, regardless of the fact they were rooting for Yamato just a second ago.

“You can’t do any tricks if I have hold of you, can you?” Sagara said, grinning sheepishly at his opponent, who couldn’t even reel back from the attack because of his own chair. As if to prove him wrong, Yamato disappeared, leaving a tree trunk to drop to the floor. Sagara stared at it, as if to say it was a rhetorical question, when four Yamato’s appeared around him. Sagara swung round, trying to watch them all as they observed him, the same expression of amusement on all their faces.

“I guess I overestimated you,” he said contemptuously. “If you only just figured out how I’m doing my techniques…you must have never been a ninja in the first place.” Melissa listened hard, but it was four voices speaking to him, being unkind and not revealing which one was the real one and leaving her to realise even she couldn’t tell. Sagara took the obvious course and struck out at the first one, but his foot went right through it. The clones laughed at him, their cackling bouncing off each other and echoing in the boy’s ears as the cripple spoke to him.

“You’re like an animal. A hunter with only cunning to help you. How can you call yourself a ninja. You’re more like a rabid wolf.”

“Not a wolf,” Sagara replied, more sharply than he intended. “Ninja.”

“You attack directly, without stealth, with only little planning. How in all the realms are you a ninja? By name only, and ninja aren’t chosen by family. That’s samurai.”

“Shut up,” Sagara muttered under his breath and his eyes glowed brighter. He was trying to find the flaw in the illusion. He always found them with hers, no matter how much she tried to trick him. This one was a lot more difficult though but she could see it. The clone in front of him didn’t have its arm sticking up rigidly. That was a fake.

“Tell you what,” the voices proposed as he continued searching. “I’ll allow you one free shot. If you get me, you’ll probably win. If you don’t…” the voices trailed off, as Sagara kept looking. Another one had missed a company sticker on the leather of the chair. With those two, and the one he had hit through earlier, he took a complete guess and struck, reaching forward for the real one’s arm, then kicking the still present tree trunk and slamming it into the face of the one behind him, ejecting it into the air like it had been fired from a catapult preventing the clone’s sneak attack. Taking the moment into his grasp, he pressed all his strength into his shoulder and rammed his fist straight into the chest of his hidden opponent. unleashing a sound that split his ears almost as it did his opponent’s ribs. Yamato gasped loudly, and leaned forward into his own lap, out for the count.

“A clone that could turn solid at will,” Sagara muttered, as he finally figured out what his body had a moment ago. “Lucky…” A palm slammed into his head, emerging from the still falling tree trunk, and Sagara dropped to the floor.

“This is what it means to be ninja,” Yamato said, furrowing his brow at the near unconscious Sagara as his lifted his jerky arm towards Sagara’s face. “To be unknown in your actions, is to be unconquerable!”

***

“Sagara!” Natoko called out from the stands forgetting she wasn’t supposed to be standing up like that. Her legs protested as her backbone threatened to snap again, but she ignored all of it as she called out for her friend, afraid that if this person could take out her last opponent as quickly as he did, that Sagara may face a similar fate for lasting so long.

Even she hadn’t been able to tell from afar, what the enemy had been up to, and still hadn’t figured it totally out. She wanted to rush in and protect the one she was supposed to, only stopping herself when she remembered that it was just a match, and Sagara should be in no real danger.

Back in the arena, Yamato’s clones had disappeared, leaving just the two of them in the arena. Both were off their feet, but only one was still up. Yamato grunted, turning his chair around, knowing it was over even before the announcer had claimed it.

“And the winner of the Young Warriors Tournament and this year’s champion,” the voiceover shouted across the arena, eliciting a rise of cheers before it had even finished. “Kurogane Ya…” the voice died out, and Yamato turned around, mild curiosity filling him with the sound he was hearing.

Sagara clearly wasn’t defeated yet.

No one around her knew whether to boo or cheer at him. It was one thing to encourage a nearly defeated warrior to stand up and fight, but this guy was both a cheater and a child abuser in their eyes. Yamato ignored all of this and turned, glaring at his opponent with large, unfocused pupils that shrank the second they saw the boy in front of them rise.

The blood was trailing from his nose, splashing beautiful crimson into the hard surface directly in front of it. His fist however, was another matter entirely, it was tensed up on the ground, elbow pointing in the air, a metallic gauntlet covering where there was once skin. The demon had come out to play, and even Natoko could tell this immediately. The gauntlet was a part of him

At once, a huge klaxon filled the ears of everyone in the arena, and Yamato’s neck twitched as best it could. Next, the voiceover announced the disqualification of Sagara for using a demon cursed weapon in the arena, causing almost everyone in the audience to erupt into a frenzy of cheering. As if they expected Sagara to just give up at, blue petals started to float into the arena, traveling through the air like large raindrops. Around her, Natoko saw the disappointed mixed with nervous confusion on the faces of her friends, and realized there were so few of them left. Down at the arena, she could see the one called Hayate, watching all this time, turn around without a count and wander off. At the side of the arena, Timothy was nearing crying, his tears being wiped away the second they were still forming, everyone watching the unconscious boy for his next move.

It was only Draynor that had stayed awake.

Yamato seemed to have noticed it too, staring at the demon through blue eyes as if he expected it to rocket towards him at any second. It stood still for a moment, as if annoyed that its owner had just been disqualified, before flicking up with its fingers and slamming into the ground, using the momentum to bounce up again, and then again, higher and higher until soon it was lifting Sagara’s entire body six feet high into the air and crashing back down, a fountain of blood splattering from Sagara’s as it did so, cuts that Natoko was sure hadn’t been there previously opening up all over his body. He fell down again, apparently to repeat his nose-breaking scene, when the gauntlet struck as hard as it could into the ground and forced his whole body to flip over like a pancake being tossed from a pan. Going to land away from Yamato, the demon put one last strike into the ground and flew towards the stunned warrior like a rocket engine.

Yamato was only just able to get out of the way but Sagara’s legtagged him in the head. The disabled boy’s head torqued sideways and rattled off the side of his chair. A tooth dislodged from his lower jaw and flew in the air as the demon fist came back for him without waiting, not letting its furious onslaught stop for an instant. He dodged it deftly for a second time, but still getting a foot in the face. It was simply too fast for him, and Natoko guessed that the bound warrior wouldn’t survive a full on strike from the gauntlet itself. It was just about to come for a third time, when a hand shot out of the ground, a shadow bog having appeared where Draynor landed. The hand grabbed Sagara’s forearm but did nothing to stop him. Yamato let out a ghastly scream, as his actual arm twisted in the air, contorting backwards, like it was being yanked by a rope attached to a moving train.

“Enough!” he shouted, his pride having been shattered along with the bone in his shoulder. He grabbed the forearm of the oncoming assault, and released the brakes on his chair, causing them both to skid a full seven meters and fall off the edge. Draynor was now pointing at a grounded Yamato, who held on with all his might to prevent the burning demon from touching his face. As the unlikely warrior struggled, Natoko caught a peek at Sagara’s face, seeing it as relaxed as ever, perhaps even more so now that he was peacefully asleep, as unaware as a newborn of the destruction his right arm was trying to cause.

Yamato was having none of it though; the match was over, and now he had no concern for Sagara’s well being. His free arm, as wrecked as it was, held back the pain and reached for the boy’s throat squeezing it harshly, with an intent to strangle the energy out of him. Natoko got up, realising what he intended to do. There was no way for her to get down in time as the boy continued squeezing Sagara’s tongue stuck out, the ninja choking in his sleep. The damn cripple ignored it all. He was still so busy being fixated on the gauntlet, that he didn’t even noticed the wind rushing up behind him.

With a crack of thunder, it was all over.

Act Three – Chapter Seven

 

“Well, that fight wasn’t too bad,” Otsune commented as the second set of fighters came off the stage. In truth only one was leaving at the moment, the other had already flew off after an high velocity punch had sent him flying, his rather large opponent proving unbeatable without resorting to sniper rifles.

“That was awesome, Definitely the best fight so far,” Fujiko screamed. “I got the perfect angle for that punch.” This was true, unfortunately the positioning of Fujiko meant that Gen had to be crushed as she balanced on top of him in order to get it ‘just right’.

“Isn’t that one of the girls that Sagara was with yesterday?” Aki mused as singer danced over the stage, waving the hand of the winner as he tried humbly to pull away.

“I think so,” Sarah replied as she stared hard at her, trying to remember if she had seen her before. “Yeah, wasn’t she with the bastard that punched through the door I was leaning on? Moron almost hit me.”

“Huh?” Otsune muttered, as she overheard the conversation. “Why was he punching through the door? Where were you guys yesterday?”

“Demon dimension,” Aki bluntly answered as she tried to pick out where Natoko was.

“Demon dimension?” Otsune replied puzzled. “Why were you guys in a demon dimension? No wait. How did you guys get in a demon dimension? No wait again. Why am I even assuming you’re telling the truth?”

“No idea, Sagara never told us…AH!” Aki exclaimed, as she started waving wildly towards the arena. “Found her. Get on her, Fujiko. She’s up next. Woohoo. Go Natoko!” A few of the crowd, easily inspired, began cheering as well.

“Uumm, good afternoon,” a voice whispered meekly besides them. It went unnoticed by most, only Otsune was able to pick it up. She turned to see Tina, scratching her tangled hair fiercely as she tapped her foot impatiently. Besides her, a short, black haired girl stood there, with her hands clasping each other timidly.

“Sakura?” she said in surprise. “You’re here… How did you get here?”

“Found her by reception,” Tina muttered, her obvious need for the toilet overcoming any desire to prolong the conversation. “She looked lost so I led her back here.” Before Otsune could say thanks, she was already running back down the stairs.

“T-tina!” Sakura called out, stopping the girl as she released a frustrated groan to look back. “I..eeerr…um…I.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tina responded. “You’re welcome.” And promptly she twisted back round and fell out of sight.

“What was that about?” Otsune asked absentmindedly.

“It was…um,” Sakura fidgeted, playing with her skirt. “Nothing much. She just… just helped me out a little.”

“Sure thing.” Sakura never explained anything to Otsune. She probably never would. Otsune still didn’t even know why the little girl would start crying over the tiniest of matters. But she didn’t need to know to be her friend.

“Is it okay if I sit here?” the young girl asked politely, as if expecting to get turned down.

“Sure, sure, sit down.” The much older girl quickly moved some the heavy bags that were covering a seat and placed them on Gen, who chose this moment to have a hairline fracture in his left leg. No one noticed as Sakura moved herself over and sat down. Otsune looked at her concerned. She could tell that something had happened to the girl yesterday, after they got back from meeting with Sagara, but as to what she was clueless. She thought that Aki or Sarah might know, but no one was saying anything to anyone.

“Has…has Sagara been yet?” the girl stuttered profusely. She had probably spent the last few hours sitting back at the hotel, plucking up her courage to just stand up, let alone to come visit them.

“Oh yeah,” shouted Aki, as she finally caught glance of her friend. “You should have seen him. He was excellent. Child abuse for the win!” She stopped talking to slyly gauge her friend’s reaction, to see if she should be insulting the guy instead. Sakura seemed to release a smile on probation at the news, which Aki saw as a good thing and continued to tell her of the fights in great detail, having apparently forgotten that Natoko was about to get on the stage.

Sakura listened, on the one part, but also began to search for Sagara in the arena. She had questions for him, but she didn’t know quite what they were yet. Alexis had been killed, but how did she know he was called Alexis? Why did his mere presence make her feel so comfortable? The thoughts had been troubling her all day, and it was only when the cleaning lady kicked her out that she made her way over here. The crowd screams interrupted her thoughts.

***

“Hey wait. Wait!””

One comes to catch the other, a winner as sore as influenza.

“Get lost, will ya.”

Despite his words, the shorter one waits for the other to catch up.

“Oh come on. You said you were okay with it.”

“I’m not in the mood.”

“Oh and like you ever are.” The taller one gets to him, wraps his arm around the dark skinned ones shoulders. The dark one resists for a moment, but I sense he is only playing. An embrace of friends. Beautiful.

“It really got to this point, huh?”

“Yeah it did.” They separate, and both stop walking to talk in the corridor. They do not see me. There is nothing to see in me. Creatures such as these can only see me when I want to. It’s how I survive. How my plan survives.

“I guess you’re right then,” the dark one replies. “You are stronger.”

“Hey, we said this,” the other retorts, angry at falsehood. “This match didn’t mean anything. How could it? A tournament like this is an insult to what a fighter is. You can’t say a fight where we can’t even do our best means anything. We need to be able to kill each other without interference before we can truly decide.”

The dark one, I never remembered their names, looks away. I feel the cold drip down cheek bones, a hand heat up as it grips the wall.

“Then, that hurts a lot more,” he says, pain in his words. “It tells me what I knew for years, what I always thought I knew. Even between our acts and tricks. Our fight club cons that we’ve done over the centuries. You are truly stronger than me.”

“How can you-“

“Because I was trying my hardest!” it shouted out, its voice roaring down the corridors. The other one jumps up on alert and stares his friend down. It still can’t see me. I am there as I am not there. I do not exist as they can see me. They will not know. “Because everything I did in that arena I did with the intention of killing you. I wanted to know, wanted to finally find out. That moment that we waited twenty thousand years for, and when it came you weren’t even trying.”

They both fall silent. The bigger one falls back to the act it was playing earlier, scratching its head, looking around nervously, but this time I sense no play being played.

“I may have…thought the same thing.”

“You what?”

“I wanted to fight you too.” He giggles. “How could I not? That’s all we’ve ever been with each other for. I just felt it was wrong to announce it. I felt…like we should just do it whenever. Let the time come without prearranging it. What good is a duel if it’s at high noon?”

“Yes.” The dark one became more alive. “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” That’s great, because I don’t. “Fights should be random and spontaneous and without thoughtful planning. They shouldn’t be like play. They should be savage and unnecessary and tear at you like a wolf.”

“And make you feel dead and alive inside, as your nose feels like its gushing blood and your stomach just wants to vomit but you hold it all in so you can release it on your opponent.”

“And your opponent doesn’t care because, although it’s unplanned and unfocused. Crazy and wild and pure….”

“He feels the exact same thing the whole way.”

They stared at each other, craning their necks to look into the other’s eyes, then they fell into each other. Embracing passionately. They merged with each other like vanilla and chocolate ice cream, melting into the other’s arms and becoming a one that was beyond fighting.

“To think the divine one was right all along. We should have listened sooner.”

Had they just realised their love? Or was it something that they had shared many times before but only now truly appreciated? I couldn’t tell. All I could tell was that I had now incinerated the leg off the tall one, and it took him three seconds to notice.

“K’Tung’lik!” the dark one cried, as his companion fell to the floor, wailing as the Kotodama threatened to break. The tall one held on, and the dark demon turned to face me as darkness bathed him in royal light, taking the skin right off his borrowed face before he could even approach me.

“Boom boom boom. I want you to go boom. Why is this song in my head? Oh how I want you dead.”

The one now lying on the floor began speaking, but I was too busy singing to notice. A blade protracted from his mouth, only millimeters thick but longer than he length of his body. He charged to impale me, and both were gone as he fell into my wall of fires.

“You…you…” the dark one said, the reality of the events overcoming him.

“That’s right. No ambiguous mist floating in the air. You all know what that means ladies and fisherman.”

“B-b-“ His fist clenched. He was bleeding a liquid that wasn’t blood out of it.”Bastards!”

“Oh boy, aren’t you stupid?” I tell him, the boy not listening because he’s charging right at me screaming profanities. “Or, as the Japanese would say, stupid!”

I raise my hand, releasing white death upon him, but he’s not there. He’s behind me, his feet faster than they could have been, his body aimed entirely at my head. There is no dodging in that one second. No time to escape. All that’s left is for gravity to have him fall into me and incinerate yet another of the demons that threaten my stoolie.

Another scream, and they’re both gone. Ashes blown away by forces beyond all they could have hoped to recognise.

The stoolie has to survive this. You get that as well don’t you, you little spy. You must lead him to the demons for me, so I can burn them all.

You have no choice. It has no choice. Even I have no choice.

I need it for what I need.

So then I myself can play forever.

***

Natoko shuffled around nervously. It was time. Her fight was next. All she could feel was her heart trying to hide in her stomach and her hand tingling over her sword. She had the advantage of being one in a crowd last time; anonymous and indistinguishable. But already she could hear her reputation growing, her name being shouted out in the bleachers, getting louder and heavier as more joined in. She felt the weight press upon her shoulders, her knees wanting to give out.

“Where the hell is Sagara?” Her lord had wandered off at the end of his fight, possibly to rest up. He had missed the last fight completely. At the very least he should have rested up on the sidelines. The nervous guy was strong and even now they had to take a break to clean up the stage, the large crack that ripped it in half being refilled by some very fast brick workers

He had spent the last match trapped round a small circle, so he shouldn’t be too tired. He’d need to move about for the next guy a lot, so his evasive style would help. But his hit and run tactics probably wouldn’t do so well on a flat surface. But…

She was trying not to think of her own fight.

“Where is he?”

“Where’s who?”

“Ah!” she screamed out, seeing her lord behind her, sipping on a fruit juice box out a vending machine. He sucked hard on the straw, getting the last few drops, while she put her spine back in place.

“It’s nothing,” she said, looking back to the stage. The girl who had replaced the announcer after Sagara’s fight hadn’t shown up yet. She still had a few moments. Part of her suggested stretching before the match. Another part suggested turning to stone.

“Your match next, right?” Sagara asked, chewing on the straw.

“Yeah,” she said, not wanting to look at him.

“Do what you want to, okay?”

“I don’t know what I want to do,” she whispered instantly. Turning back, she couldn’t tell if he had heard her or not. He didn’t say anything, and was now looking around for a bin.

“I’ll take it,” a little voice called out from beneath them. She looked down to see the boy called Timothy. Sagara looked at him unconcerned, then nodded and passed it to him. “Do you want ‘nother one?”

“Sure thing,” Sagara replied, and the boy shot off. Natoko watched as he sprinted off down to the corridor.

“So are you two friends now or something?”

“That probably won’t be possible,” Sagara replied.

“Yeah, I guess there is too much of an age difference there.”

“That’s not what i…” His words blurred out of her mind, her body stiffening. From where the boy had disappeared, another had come. It was the new announcer girl, and behind her was the fat boy who was to be her opponent. They couldn’t be ready yet. Surely the cement had to dry or something. She knew it had been quick before but that didn’t mean anything. She wouldn’t have time to…

“Raiko!” Sagara cried out, standing to meet the girl. “You made it,” he paused for a moment as confusion subdued him and read him his rights. “How did you get down here? Do you work here?” Natoko watched as the girl made a detour from the stage, looking like she knew she had to hurry up.

“Didn’t you see me earlier. I was on sta-” She stopped her words halfway through their mission, and reassigned them to toilet duty. “Yeah, I work here. They’re just getting me to announce the fights. Mind if I hang out with you afterward?”

“Sure thing,” Sagara piped, ignoring whatever lies she was having. “By the way, you don’t have that gem thingy do you?”

“The Neutralis orb?” she stated, patting her side. “I have it, but it’s on standby mode. Don’t want to ruin any of the fights.”

“I got your drink, Master Sagara.” In front of them was Timothy, holding out a drink for the demon hunter. He took it gladly and started sipping on the green, alien liquid.

“Huh?” Raiko said onomatopoeically. “Who’s this?”

 

“I can’t remember his name. It’s some weird foreign language,” Sagara explained, getting Natoko’s brain to spaz out on her. “But he says he wants me to teach him, because I defeated him in my fight.”

“Teach him?” Raiko replied, glancing down at the boy, who smiled childishly back at her.

“Well, I used to know how to fight, but it went recently. Don’t remember where I put it…” Timothy’s voice trailed off as a shadow overcast him. The boy turned round to come face to bulge and was rendered silent by the stare of the fat guy in front of him. He took a step back, dancing back behind Sagara. The fat kid, who must have only been around fifteen, stared hard at Sagara. The boy snorted at him.

“It must have not been that much of a fight,” he commented, observing the previous fighters, “if both of you are uninjured.”

“It was memorable,” Sagara said happily. “Never headbutted the ground that many times in a row before.” The fat boy just snorted again and looked away.

“Weaklings like you shouldn’t be in the tournament,” he said almost failing to contain his anger. “A moron who doesn’t fight for himself that can be hurt by an eight year old, and a one trick pony that can only control its own shadow. Pathetic.”

A silence filled the air between them, Sagara just grinning as the boy glared at him. As the boy went to speak again, Sagara tensed his fist and for just a second Natoko thought she wouldn’t have to fight.

“Right, okay,” Raiko said clapping between them. “Stop right there. I’m the one who decides who’s fighting today.”

“No, you’re not,” said everybody else in unison.

“Well, even so,” she continued unabated. “It’s the samurai girl’s turn to fight, not yours Sagara. So just hold back.” She beckoned at Natoko. “Come on you two. Let’s get on stage. She went off ahead and Natoko started to follow behind, stopping as the little boy spoke.

“He’s right, isn’t he?” the boy said solemnly.

“Who is?” Sagara replied.

“That big guy!” Timothy cried out. “I didn’t know what I was fighting for. I can’t remember. That’s why I lost.”

“You lost because I beat you.”

“But don’t you have the same problem? You weren’t fighting to win either. I could feel it. You were just fighting because you had to be there.”

“Well there is the secret mission. But I don’t see how that relates to this.”

“But shouldn’t you?” the boy cried out, looking ready to cry tears of desperation, like he was trying to reach for something in the darkness. “Shouldn’t you be willing to bet what’s important to you? Shouldn’t you have to? Because that’s what everyone else is doing!”

She wasn’t.

She had nothing to fight for in this match.

***

“And now! Yamanaka Natoko!” The audience burst into fanfare, as screams and cheers erupted into the arena. And she knew, somehow, that in the middle and top of that cheering were Aki and the others, watching on.

She didn’t really have to do this, did she?

“Have fun,” Sagara said pushing her off. Before she knew it, she was on the stage, and the match was beginning.

“Fujiwaru…Hayate…wasn’t it?” Natoko asked, as she got up on stage. Just looking at him her nerves were blasted away, replaced with a confidence in the knowledge that she could fight. Her hand already gripped tight to Iziz, she was ready to spring forward and strike when the opportunity presented itself.

She just…didn’t know why she should.

“Be quiet woman,” he said rudely, disregarding whatever comments she had to say. “Let’s get on with this. This stepping stone is taking far too long for one such as I.”

“Stepping stone?” she said angrily, insulted not just at the words, but the breath they came from. She gripped the handle of her weapon tight enough to draw blood, as if it were a fish trying to break free from her clutches, and waited for the countdown. The second it finished, she was all too ready; the weapon left its sheath at the same time as the klaxon. It took but a millisecond for it to reach its target, the jawbone of the one called Hayate.

It missed completely, causing the girl to stall forwards at her own force, her opponent disappearing like a mirage. She glanced behind her shoulder out of reflex, but saw nothing there either. As strange as it seemed, her opponent had completely disappeared. Turning she waved her katana sideways hoping to catch anything that was moving there. Nothing was again, but this time she saw her opponent, ducking underneath the blade. Not waiting for him to do anything, she allowed herself to be carried by her sword’s momentum, out of harm’s way.

The boy stood back up again and just smirked, apparently not intending to attack in any way. A ravenous monster came out of Natoko’s mouth as she charged at him, growling heavily, sliding her sword back into her sheath and straight out again in the same second. As he stepped to the side, with as much effort as one would yawn, she twisted the sword at a diagonal arc to strike at his rib cage. This time however, he merely leaned to his right to avoid her blow. Natoko didn’t stop there and went riding on the wave of her own strike. She turned the sharpened blade back around and went to clout for a third time and, not caring for how he reacted, pushed her body weight forwards with the intention of ramming him with the hilt.

A wasted effort.

Nothing had hit him again.

Her frenzy began to peak as he just stood there, seemingly amused at her actions. She took a step back and replaced the sword back into its resting place. She watched him silently for a moment, as he stayed standing, before striking at him, the distance between the scabbard and his face covered in a blur as she began to make stabbing motions. Ten strikes all missed his face by millimeters – then twenty by three seconds and finally thirty before she had to stop, all energy spent in five seconds. Each one should have hit him;  at the very least, set him up into a position where the next one would strike. He looked bored.

“I make a point of letting my enemies hit me at least once,” he scoffed. “Could you stop the warm up already?”

“What? You dare?” She faced him full on again, ready to take whatever he could dish out. Whatever happened next slammed into her with the force of a small train, cracking one of her ribs. She drooled over his fist, which had somehow hit her even when she was looking at him. The next moment, he was three feet back, standing as if a statue again. Her knees buckled to gravity, the pressure too erratic, and she fell. The girl had to question for a moment whether or not he had just hit her, for even the pain rupturing through her body didn’t seem proof enough.

“How on earth did you get so far?” he asked her, sounding honestly concerned about the truth of the situation. “Was it all just luck? It seems impossible that an angry little bitch like you could last this long.” She stared at him as he said this, the anger he spoke of only growing with his insults. Her rage burned as if it were to evaporate her own blood. Staring him down like an animal she watched as, for some reason, he started to move around her slowly, appearing shocked of something. She didn’t care for what he was doing, and stepped forward, ready to strike as blindly as before. She saw him go to step away, but this time she saw him! As he started to sprint to the right, she caught him with Iziz and her blade cut through his thick flesh.

His speed kicked in, and the burst sent him flying. He traveled the length of the arena and ended up a heap on the floor. As if unwounded, he spun back towards her, still ready as if never scratched. Natoko, her growls subsiding, focused long enough to realize he hadn’t been injured. Her sword had cut through him, but something else was coming out besides blood.

“Sand?” she whispered through heavy breath, as she saw the grains begin to ooze out of the boy’s rib cage. It came out like a waterfall, giving the impression that either the boy was made out of the little grains, or he wore an armour of them. Judging by his expression, one of anger rather than pain, she guessed it to be the latter.

“What did you do just then?” he shouted out her, sand continuing to jut out as he did so. “How did you hit me, and from that distance?” Natoko questioned it herself. She knew, now that she had calmed down a little, that he had been far enough to get away at his speed. Yet he had been moving slowly for some reason. Natoko dismissed his words.

“Don’t make excuses for your own mistakes,” she called out boldly. He stopped at this and, rather than become further offended, cooled down again and gave a snort of superiority.

“You’re right. It hardly matters, I guess,” he swung back into a fighting stance. “Especially since it made your own defeat quicker.” Her eyes widened as he smashed into her, as if he had just fired himself from a gun and covered the full twenty meters in a split second. She would have fallen out of the arena right there and then, but something blocked her in the shape of a knee. She saw nothing, but she could only guess it to be the boy again, whose speed had allowed him to get behind her the instant after his own attack.

“I’m not through yet!” he bellowed, though she could not she where from. She slammed hard into the ground and felt her nose crack, the rest of her body following, her sword leaving her hand and sliding a few feet away, just out of reach.

“To hit me, even my training armour….” Hayate whispered, as he appeared on top of her, again as immobile and free of exhaustion as before, “and then to say it was my mistake? Unforgivable! Even if you do somehow leave this arena alive, this will be your last day as a warrior.”

Natoko ignored all this. She didn’t care about what he was saying. As she looked up, blood exploding out of her nostrils as she did so, she saw Iziz, just a foot away and nothing else. She reached for it, the metal so far away.

Hayate slammed his foot back into her ribcage as she squirmed, not intending to let her get away as he continued to shout at her, trying to claim his superiority when it was not necessary to do so.

Natoko failed to hear him, instead reaching for her sword all too far away. It hurt. The pain from her stomach alone was excruciating. Never in all her training, from the kendo matches to Sagara’s sparring had she been hit like this. No one ever got a chance to. Her face oozed pain and it was hard to tell if she was just bleeding or if tears were joining the mix.

Why was she putting herself through this pain, this humiliation? Was it because of her training? No, she had no desire for competition, nor a wish to prove herself in such battle. Was it for her honour? No, she may have been a samurai, but her own code was not designed to maintain her reputation at all times. Was it because of Sagara? He may have given her the ticket, but a rematch was irrelevant to her and his orders didn’t require her to win.

Then why was she fighting this battle? She asked herself a thousand times over, as Hayate started to pummel her with his fists. The bruises, the whelps, the cuts that came as the skin gave up, she had stopped feeling them, her body numb. Even as she knew she was being hit, her skin tightly bound armour ripping apart at her blows. He was laughing dominantly now, as he reveled in his assertion of strength. He struck again and again, menacing blows that were now cutting into her ribs. By luck alone, the only thing that had been slowing him down was the fact that his arms were not as strong, nor as fast as his feet. It was like they were that of a normal twelve year old boy and not of this boy that resembled a bullet more than a teenager.

None of this mattered to Natoko, who was sitting focusing on her sword alone. Her mind was no longer on the fight, as if it had gotten out a moment again and was now sitting on the side, thinking existentially. She just couldn’t think why she was fighting in the tournament, why she was here on the floor, being beaten and humiliated in front of people she didn’t know, in front of her friends, in front of Sagara.

She didn’t want to fight him. She had no reason to fight him except for a mild dislike. And she would not let that turn to hatred and ruin her.

Then you know what to do.

But everyone’s-

It doesn’t matter. Only he will hate you for it, and it’s the only way to beat someone like him.

But…

You know there isn’t a reason to fight, and you are so far beyond the fruitless act of winning against a Pride demon.

B-

You’re my Carver. You exist to survive!

She knew what the voice meant, and she found herself agreeing on it as the best course of action. With renewed vigor, she came back to reality, instantly feeling the pain in her ribs from the earlier strike. She did not care for it though and gripping her sword tightly spa round and slashed wildly at the boy, cutting into his forearm. The boy, who had sensed the attack coming, reeled back and put his arms up to defend himself. The sword dug into his muscle, no sand left to protect him there and embedded itself, until both jumped away.

“What?” he complained once again, to the attack he had missed; his own, red blood now pouring out of the wound like the sand did from his stomach. In front of him, the samurai girl stood up slowly, almost falling down again from the pain. Determined, she turned to him and stood, straight up, facing him eye to eye. For some reason, he did not take this moment to attack, even after she slid her sword back into its resting place, presumably for another strike.

“There is no point to this,” she told him, her words determined as the blood dripping from her lips. “I give up.”

The boy paused. “E-excuse me?”

“You heard me.” She turned to the announcer girl. “I give up. I forfeit my right to continue.”

The arena fell to a hush, Hayate was frozen in shock, the words traveling further than she thought they would. As nothing more happened, they started to close, far enough for his brow to become furrowed with anger. The announcer girl looked flabbergasted, fumbling to grab her microphone again to officially end the match. Natoko, having said all that she needed to, went to walk off the stage, remaining as tall as ever, doing her best to hide her wounds so that she wouldn’t worry her friends.

“You dare turn your back on me?”

The boy’s knee slammed into her like a stone through water. He landed on the other side of her like she was a fly on the windscreen.

Her eyes immediately gave out as the air ejected itself from her system the back of her head hitting the floor even as she remained standing for just a brief second, before her entire body catapulted into the air. For an eternity her nerves told her she was flying upwards, though she could feel nothing to prove it, save for her head jerking painfully as it collided with something solid.

“That type of attitude gives you the impression that you thought you could beat me,” something explained coldly to her as her backbone twitched separately from the rest of her. “A pitiful human like yourself could never beat me.”

Holding Iziz tightly, nothing else happened.

“Shit!”

Sagara, still on the sidelines, stood up and ran over to Natoko. Raiko watched, holding her mouth and quickly waving the Nuets over. The swordgirl didn’t look all too good. Her eyes were open, and staring at him vacantly, her tongue sticking a lot further out than it should be. Dropping to her side, Sagara faced the once fat boy was just standing there

“There’s no point,” he stated. “She’s not dead, but she will be in a m…” The arrogant words of the boy were interrupted as a foot slammed into his jaw, completely dislocating it and removing three teeth. He fell hard to the floor, instantly unconscious, his African attacker not even looking at him as she screamed her friend’s name and ran over to her.

“Natoko!” Aki called out worried, trying to reach her best friend, tears streaming across her face, as she checked for a reaction off her friend. There was none, she was only just breathing lightly, her own tongue preventing air from entering her mouth. From what Raiko could see, she already wasn’t breathing.

“Get back, Aki,” Sagara said calmly as he looked behind him. Three of the people in white suits that were littered around the arena were running up to them, insisting they get out of the way. Aki hadn’t heard them, and Sagara had to physically grab her before they reached the nine-tenths dead girl and pull her out of the way.

The lead Nuet, a man with no hair, fell to his knees in front of her and slammed his hands into the swordgirl’s chest. It looked like he had hit her hard enough to break even more ribs and it wasn’t until a white glow emerged from his hands that Aki stopped screaming and stared, finding herself mesmerised.

“She was possessed by a demon a month ago,” Sagara stated in a level voice. The bald man said nothing, but the glow started to turn a light shade of gray in response. His fellows meanwhile, an old lady and a man with a tail that looked more monkey than fake, stood at either side of Natoko, and slammed knives into the ground around her, before each drawing a semi circle that met where the other began. As they finished this, they knelt down, and with their hands to the ground they began to chant.

The chant was impenetrable. They muttered it unconsciously, the words reverberating around the silent arena for fifteen seconds. Just as Aki was about to get worried, clinging feverishly onto Sagara’s arm trying to get him to release her, the glow coming from the bald man’s arms shot out and ignited the circle in the same green glow. All three of them jumped away, and although only Sagara would be able to see it at first, the fire of the gray glow slowly sank into Natoko’s solar plexus.

Soon, it was gone, and Natoko bolted upright, finding herself reasonably shocked to be alive. She spun round, and Aki bolted from Sagara’s grasp to hug her friend in joy, any signs of worry now completely gone. The swordgirl looked around, ignoring the gymnast’s affections. The medic’s had moved onto the boy and, although less dramatically were doing something to get his teeth back into place.

“How am I alive?” she asked anyone willing to listen. Aki was just nuzzling her friend’s neck like it was the only thing that mattered at that moment. It was Sagara who answered.

“Energy summoners; we call them Nuets” he stated, looking as relived as he could be. “They can summon the energy of the three primal forces and bend it to their selfless desires. They used the white to regenerate your injuries, and the gray to purify the demon influence.”

“What?” she replied, cantankerous at such a nonsensical answer.

“Because you have no wounds,” he repeated. She was about to inquire into an explanation that ran between spiritually clinical and just plain obvious, when she felt a rush of energy behind her. The medics had finished, and the boy was standing up again, ignoring the healers. The three stared hard at him, as he observed them, now completely uninjured, and without his heavy sand to restrain him, even the wound she had thrust into his forearm had gone. Both Sagara and Natoko prepared themselves, and it was only Natoko’s grasp that stopped Aki from charging him on the spot. For some stupid reason, they waited for the obnoxious boy to make the first move.

The boy snorted, turning round to walk back to the waiting room. Raiko sighed heavily from the side and could not help but be grateful for this response, though she was more than prepared to fight him if chose to attack the one who had blindsided him. Such was her job. She relaxed, as did the others next to her, save the little girl who tried to take him out from behind again, stopped by the swordgirl. The rest lasted but a second, as she saw Sagara step up and step towards the sadistic speed child.

“Oi,” Sagara called out, his bellow catching the boy’s ears as he reached the doors.

“What?” he said with an annoyed snort, as if being near them and having to talk was incredibly weary.

“Win your next match.”

***

Melissa felt like something strange was happening, like everyone she knew and loved was laughing at her while purple robed people stood in front of them, stabbing each other to death, merely to confuse her at a time when she was sure she was right. This feeling usually only aroused itself when she was on the right track to something.

Why couldn’t these damn demons just all get the same hotel room? It wasn’t anything special to separate your forces as such if they just wandered casually from one building to another wearing pink shirts anyway.  This new hotel room was on the other side of town, but the corridor looked identical.

With a growl in her stomach she wandered up to the cleaner they had been following as he fumbled round for his keys and knocked the man straight out using her elbow and the base of his skull. He fell to the floor with a thump and no further objections. The urge to remove his neck to keep a loose end clean was abated. With the big guy following her and stealth required she didn’t really need screaming to occur.

Instead the big guy sniggered and threw the sleeping body over his shoulder, the broad piece of meat being enough to carry the pink shirt without problems. With the keys in her hand, she unlocked the door silently and crept in.

The place appeared lavish at first. It wasn’t an upscale hotel they were in, but this apartment had a small lobby for them to step quietly into and put the body down. As they entered, It was immediately obvious that the place had been stripped. There was no fitted carpet, no paint nor paper on the walls and especially not pictures. There was no drawers to place your keys or knobs to hang your coat and further in it was only more of the same. No chairs. No beds. No dressing tables. No kitchen. Only a toilet and a sink were left of the original room, with lawn chairs and a cheap metal table with food scattered across it amid glasses of half drunken water, dust and a few scrap sheets of paper. The last place looked rather cozy compared to this place, and that had been made of ashes.

Stepping into the next room the closest thing that showed something lived here was a mattress and a phone. Whatever was here was only intending to stay for a few short days. Ironically, the place was clean and fresh, the wooden floorboards looked safe to walk on; even the mattress looked brand new. This made it feel a hundred times worse than if it was broken and dilapidated. Something was here, and extremely cleanly despite no need to be.

But no one was here, and yet, she felt there should be. This instinctual feeling was enough to tell Melissa there was probably was something powerful hiding. She made herself invisible again, creating a hard illusion to look round the room for her. Observing as it stalked around the room her life like figure slowly went around the five-room apartment. The kitchen and bathroom both came off as empty, the only thing significant being the state of the fridge, which had crumbs scattered around it and empty bags of bread inside (the bread was sliced, and came from America according to the packaging). The two main rooms that appeared as a leisure area were clean too. Although, upon closer inspection, the floor of the first was worn down slightly, indicating that someone was on it constantly. She imagined a fighter with this, constantly practicing his moves, the idea of it being a demon participating in the tournament seemed more and more likely. The floor of the second room had a girl on it, dressed almost royally with legs neatly crossed reading through small spectacles.

With a glance, the girl closed her book in one hand and pulled a large revolver out of nowhere. Blinking for too long, Melissa barely had time to question where the gun had come from when the bullet tore through her, ricocheting in the wall behind her. She dissipated and returned to the front room, where the big guy had bolted to attention as the ricochet pierced the radiator and sent him ducking for cover. Unable to help herself, she exhaled loudly with the force of a bullet that had not gone through her and fell to the big guy for support.

“Huh, Doushita no?” She readjusted herself against him, trying to focus. That was a first. She had never been shot before and though she still maintained that track record her instincts were telling her otherwise. Coughing it out, she got up in time to see the red haired girl rushing them, striking the big guy in the back with a large knife that cut right into his shoulder.

Reeling back herself, Melissa watched as the big guy started to fall, the pain dropping him to one leg as the red haired girl turned straight for her. Releasing the knife to leave it in the mass of muscle she lifted the gun to aim it for Melissa’s head without intention to miss a second time. The ninja froze, her legs locking for reasons she couldn’t understand. She would have been able to avoid the bullet, but didn’t get chance to as a hand wrapped itself around the barrel and yanked it out the way.

“Mada mada,” the big guy whispered, as the red haired girl looked at him with eyes freaking out. Not holding back, the large youth pushed his other fist out as he pulled her in, the two forces clashing in the centre, the girl’s light body failing to prove immovable.

With the force of a truck the girl slammed into the opposing wall, breaking through half of it and sticking there. Not wanting to take any chances Melissa stepped up in front of her, pulling the gun away from her hands before bringing her own together, opening up a conduit for energy.

From the hole from between her fingers, she unleashed the Unbreakable Snake. A vicious green energy poured out like a train emerging from a tunnel and circling the girl in front of her.

“You fucking twat!” the girl called out with a strong English accent. With enough leverage it popped her out of the hole along with the snake and Melissa could see her reach to escape. The green energy tightened quickly round the girl, rendering efforts futile as they raised her up and slammed her against the wall twice over. The girl’s head smack the brick, knocking her down and out onto the floor. She rolled around a little before Nobori stepped on her.

“Little shit face human. Get off me!”

“Iten nanimono da” the big guy said speaking to the girl as she continued to squirm. Melissa relaxed and checked the rest of the room out. If anyone else was going to attack they would have come to help surely, but that did not mean they wouldn’t get other residents reporting a gunshot disturbance. They would have to move fast.

“Nani!” the big guy called out, just in time for them to see the red haired gun twist a gun from her hand into the direction of Melissa.

“Damn skank bitch!” the red hair called out, before firing a volley of shots that missed Melissa entirely. She was already dashing away before the girl pulled the trigger, wondering how the girl’s hand had freed itself from the bondage. The gun was a six shot revolver, already out before Melissa could react. The girl carried on swearing profusely, before the big guy clipped her in the back of the head, silencing her cries.

Melissa relaxed as the girl stopped. Taking the gun out her hand, Melissa looked down to the aggressive woman, wondering if they should kill her. At the very least, she opted to have the snake bind her hands properly this time. She couldn’t see any more hidden weapons on the girl’s body, but then she wasn’t too sure where this gun came from either.

“Moriika,” the big guy asked before sitting down on the floor. Melissa was about to ask him what he thought he was doing when she saw the knife still sticking in his back. Leaping over him, she looked to where it had struck. It was wedged in pretty deeply in his right shoulder blade, but it didn’t look far enough passed his thick muscles.

“Mata kun. Kono gaki da”

She picked the knife out and carefully pulled his leather jacket off him. He looked fine, the cowskin armour having done its job. To be on the safe side, she lifted his shirt off of him and began tying it around the wound, the makeshift doing for the time being. She patted him gently on the other shoulder, trying to get across he could rest.

“Oi oi. Tatakandaka.”

She left him and checked the rest of the place. The room where she had found the girl was empty save for the book she was reading, an alien science fiction novel that was useless to Melissa and a pile of clothes that looked unwashed. The final room was a poor excuse for a bedroom. It was empty and yet as clean as before, a second mattress in the corner and a cupboard on the opposite side. The mattress seemed to have been slept on recently, probably by the subject currently hiding in the closest, and smelt of sweat. Finally pegging the location of something that was hopefully significant, Melissa approached it with caution. It was impossible to tell if whatever was in there had noticed her and she held her breath in hope that it wasn’t some drug addict that thought they were hiding from the police again.

She braced her hand against the handle that led to her answers and pulled it ajar. The rest was ripped open by the creature within the closest, pouncing upon Melissa through the door, shattering it into splinters around the two of them. Melissa was so shocked at the attack that she faded away out of reflex, and the newcomer looked around in untamed disorientation at where its prey had gone.

Melissa observed the one who had been hiding, as she remained invisible in the corner. It appeared to be a young girl of around eight. She was had short, ruffled hair and a near animalistic look on her face. Her hands were strange, but not out of the ordinary, it was just that she only had three fingers on each hand; both were missing the middle two things and the way she planted her hands on the floor appeared almost cat-like. Despite the expression of untamed fury on the child’s face, it still merely looked like an eight-year-old kid playing at being an angry tiger. Melissa watched as the child quickly spun around, as if expecting her opponent to have somehow got behind her. Seeing nothing, the girl jumped round again, clearly puzzled when there was nothing there to attack. It would have all seemed stupid if it weren’t for a strike able to completely shatter the cupboard door.

The girl-tiger seemed at a loss, as it became unwilling to let down its guard for something it knew must be there, and this echoed in Melissa thoughts as she pondered the situation. Was this the demon they were looking for? Despite being mindless and very strong, she was also rather cute. She had huge eyes that looked about everywhere, and it felt like she should have a tail and maybe some tiger ears poking at her head. It could have been a mindless demon forced into a young girl through the ritual of the Kotodama, or it could have been a young girl with very serious issues.

Also, a feral demon like this should have been able to smell her, she realized, as she quickly covered the gap in her illusion, making herself truly undetectable. Though it was possible that the demon hadn’t had the little girl’s nose developed to be able to do so, or even be a demon that couldn’t smell in the first place. She briefly considered if this was a ruse and then decided, regardless of the truth, this was the end of her current task. It was probably best to just show this girl to Sagara, and let him sort out the rest. Yes, it was lazy, but there was nothing else to do. She was too tired to fight anything anymore, and a bigger demon might cause problems. Besides, she thought, they could just come back later and scope the place out.

Approaching the girl, she went a step faster as the little feral wandered out of the door into one of the other rooms. Melissa followed her casually from behind. As she was right behind her, she saw the girl stop, and then turn around, staring directly into the older girl’s knees, keenly unaware of her presence. The girl was still looking for the intruder, and she growled fiercely to scare them off. The growl felt like a mountain lion’s and it was making Melissa not want to take any chances. This girl, whoever or whatever she was, would put up a struggle if she attempted to start it. Even though she didn’t appear to be demon or human, she was definitely worth showing to her so called lord.

Forming a small blunt club in her hand she lifted it over her head, circling her prey and aiming for the back of the girl’s neck, hopefully to knock her unconscious.

As she raised it, she was surprised to hear the girl growl loudly again before turning back to look her directly in the eyes. Panicking slightly at this, she fumbled with her makeshift billy club and quick swung it against the girl. The girl fell back hard and quick, but remained on her hands for a second after the strike. It looked like she was going to pounce, instinctively guessing that the intruder was right in front of her. The feral braced herself and Melissa stood back prepared, only to see the little one pass out a few seconds later. Melissa looked on cautiously. It seemed it had taken the girl a few moments for the signal to get to her that she was supposed to fall unconscious, more body than mind.

On top of that, she seemed to have some kind of natural instinct, for the feral had been completely unable to sense Melissa before Melissa showed herself as a threat. The quick thinking illusionist guessed that this was probably similar to how the girl knew she was coming to the apartment in the first place and why she was hiding in the closest away from her friend. The ninja got down and felt the girl’s pulse. Finding a slightly irregular one, she relaxed her breath and slung the little child over her shoulder, mildly wondering how she was going to explain to Sagara why she was attacking children.

Act Three – Chapter Six

“And now, Futabatei Sagara-sama!” the loud voice over announced, the crowd bursting into cheer for their various reasons. Natoko breathed a heavy sigh of relief, sitting down on the chairs provided for participants wishing to observe, glad that her lord had actually managed to show up and not blow everything for a second time.

Sagara had come in through the wrong door, but, as if they were expecting him, the spotlights were on him instantly. He winced as the light covered him, but was soon walking down the stage staring at everyone. He looked quite humbled at the several thousand people staring at him at the same time and the samurai found herself wondering if being directly observed by this many people should count as automatic disqualification for being a ninja. He reached the arena, the miniature battleground now scattered with patches of quick drying cement where pot holes had been, the heads that were once in them having been removed as well.

“Possibly the most famous competitor in today’s tournament,” the announcer continued, standing in the middle of the arena as Sagara approached him. “Sagara-sama has so far been determined as the fan favourite, even though we’ve seen very little regarding his skill so far. If this fast brawler’s anything like the other members of his lineage, we should be in for quite a show, ladies and gentlemen.”

The cheering continued. Natoko felt deafened by all the voices, especially the ones behind her, who came at her like a klaxon.

“His opponent perhaps isn’t so famous,” the announcer continued, the little boy sitting in the ring having waited too long for Sagara. “In fact, we’re having trouble finding anything about him. Standing at a mere three foot nine, Timothy McKay from the United Kingdom is perhaps the youngest fighter here. No, he’s not a Cmir, ladies and gentlemen, he is really just eight years old.”

She had no idea what a Cmir was, or why the announcer was treating him with such reverence. Questions to be asked later and then not expect a proper answer from.

Screams and cheers erupted for the child as he waited patiently on the arena floor, looking around with an open mouth as the crowd did their best to encourage him. Natoko had seen him in the waiting room early, but hadn’t really taken much notice of him besides his encouragement of Sagara’s immaturity. She assumed that he was the kid of somebody with connections in the tournament or something, but a participant? Other than his white karate gi, which was a little too big on the boy, making him look like a cute baby who had tried on its older brother’s suit, it didn’t seem right that he was fighting. The only thing that she could see that suggested anything special about the boy was that he was missing two fingers from each hand. How did he get this far? And how could Sagara even hit him, knowing that he was too young to fight?

Sagara jumped forward and kicked the child in the stomach.

Timothy keeled over, coughing loudly as he rolled over and immediately burst into tears. The wild cheers, previously undirected, dropped to stunned silence as the entire arena witnessed the brutal act. The silence quickly became boos and jeers. Natoko gasped in horror with the rest of the fighters at what Sagara hadn’t even hesitated to do. Even the shady looking fighter cringed as Sagara stepped up to the boy and shot another kick at his ribs just as the bell rang to start the fight.

“That creep!” Natoko cried out, her eyes now glued to the match. She couldn’t believe Sagara had just hit a kid like that. He didn’t even seem that bothered as the child rolled round on the floor. He just remained as calm as ever, with even a smile on his face as he stepped back. The poor little boy, sobbing quietly and complaining how much it hurt, shook quietly to himself as the crowd tried to cheer him on. He did so for a few seconds more, before he leaped at Sagara, kicking the boy hard in the balls.

Out of reflex, the audience created the world’s loudest snigger as Sagara’s mouth fell open and his legs gave out on him. He fell back, trying to roll with it and succeeding only to fall, the little boy now higher than him.

“Serves him right,” Natoko mumbled, sitting back down from the chair she had exploded from. “I can’t believe him, striking a child like that.” Besides her, she heard a grunt. It came from the shady male, whose name she had forgotten. He was smiling.

“If you were in the arena, would you have attacked him?” the boy asked. Natoko paused, hesitating to answer a possible enemy.

“Of course not. He’s just a kid.”

“Then…” the boy continued, keeping his eyes on the fight as Sagara lay there, clutching his groin. “Wouldn’t you have lost?”

“I…erm…” Natoko faltered. What would she have done? Just picked the boy up and threw him out of the arena?

“This is a fight, girlie. You win through whatever means necessary. Besides… don’t let the runt fool you. He’s strong. Futabatei knew just what he was doing when he hit him.”

“What?” she looked to the ninja, still on the floor, as he opponent kicked him in the crotch once again. He didn’t look like he knew what he was doing at all.

“Futabatei kicked him full force, not holding back at all, yet the boy isn’t winded.” Natoko looked at little Timothy. The boy beside her was right. The eight year old wasn’t even out of breathe, his tears replaced with a face only marred by the smallest drop of sweat. “He’ll actually lose if he doesn’t pay attention.”

As he slumped back onto his knees, his hands now protecting as much of his body as possible, Sagara was quick to realise how near the edge they had gotten in such a short amount of time. As the next kick came, he blocked it with his hand, the leg falling off to the side. He quickly pushed himself off his back leg and moved to counter the boy that had been kicking him with a swift right hook, only to be strewn onto the floor, the kid’s foot still going at his ribs.

It took both ninja and samurai a moment to realise that he down again, still on his hands, on the floor, being kicked in the rib cage by an eight year old and getting perilously close to the edge of the arena.

“That’s not right,” Natoko muttered to herself, as, without a block this time, Sagara pulled himself up and desperately jumped wide to get away from the danger zone, landing exactly where he was before, still getting kicked in the ribs, the boy doing something she missed to get him back on the floor again. Sagara tried again, leaping like a frog on the boy’s knee before it struck him again, vaulting over him and landing right by the edge of the ring.

He was making his body move, that was clear. She was seeing his body move, moving forwards and away, moving to the side and away, but always landing in the exact same place. She highly doubted that he was jumping round the world. The boy reigned blows to Sagara’s ribs. They still weren’t really hurting him. They must have stung certainly, for the child was wearing trainers, but the biggest damage they were doing was that they were slowly moving him to the edge of the arena. It was like the child had found a huge immovable rock in the forest, and this was the only way to budge it.

Sagara was paralyzed, trapped in the space in front of Timothy but without any chains holding him down. He looked at how far away he was to the edge of defeat, one and a half meters, and still slowly traveling. He looked to the kid, who Natoko saw wasn’t tired a bit, dancing on the ground with a one step kick routine. The child looked focused, but no more than if he was playing with toys, repeating the kicking motion and getting an inch each time. Sagara tried to jump away yet again, but appeared in front of Natoko once again. It was becoming futile.

“Interesting,” the shady guy said, reminding Natoko that he was there. “Glue? Obviously not, since he’s still moving. Some kind of special rope?” He stopped to consider this, and Natoko felt a well in her stomach fill up.

“Perhaps a portal that deposited him where the child wanted,” she quickly suggested, feeling the well empty when the boy stayed silent to consider this.

“But if that were the case, why not just drop him out of the ring.”

“Oh… right,” she said, deciding to shut up. Across from the shady guy, she noticed the nervous guy staring at her. The boy smiled as she noticed, and waved lightly to her. She instinctively waved back, before feeling a little weird and turning back to the fight.

Sagara must have been finding his situation even weirder. It wasn’t that much of a strategy, in fact, it should be a bad strategy. All he was doing was kicking him, inch by slow, helpless inch, yet somehow it was working.

 

“The inability to hit a small child of eight years old is of such a precise measure,” the nervous guy started to say. “That it is practically considered scientific fact that you cannot do so unless your brain had been surgically grafted to your hand, and then any attempts to hit the child after this would probably resulted in a brain hemorrhage.”

Natoko and the shady guy stared at the nervous guy, who looked back expectantly. “Shut the fuck up man!” Shady guy spat back, silencing everybody. Nervous guy trembled and started looking at the floor, only Natoko feeling sorry for him.

It wasn’t just jumping. Sagara tried to crawl to the side of his dangerous opponent. He only got so far, a few mere slabs of stone, when his chin thudded into the ground and he found himself back where he was a second ago, still being kicked by the very repetitive child.

Bad enough that the boy was just doing the same thing over and over, but Sagara should really try to think his way out of this. Already she had lost count of how many times he had just tried jumping away, and all it was doing was getting him closer to the edge. A foot or so now, and he’d just drop off at this rate.

Finally engaging some random thought process, Sagara deflected the boy’s next kick and got up as quick as possible. In his rush, he had forgotten that he shouldn’t have been able to do this. It was only when he was standing straight up that he realized that he was. He looked down to his feet, and deciding to take advantage of whatever he had just done. He stepped forward to hit the boy, only to slam back into the ground again.

So it was just limited to the small area around him, about five square foot. That didn’t make any sense. What was the kid doing? Sagara got up again, and looked around, waiting for something bad to happen to him. Timothy backed off for a moment, not wanting to take the chance of a Sagara countering any of his kicks.

Musing over his situation, Sagara quickly checked his feet, to see if there was anything sticky on them, just in case. Seeing that he could lift both his legs, he tried jumping up and down on the spot, which he was able to do perfectly. He then took a step forward experimentally and his head was driven once again into the ground like a professional wrestler had landed on it.

He was limited to vertical movement, which still made no sense, but seemed to give Sagara something to go on. Timothy seemed to have no real fighting skill and his attacks were similar to that of an eight year old. He also looked a little driven, almost possessed. Overfocused yet not exhausted. Bouncing up and down, Sagara tried to stall defensively as he got his breath back.

“Hey, the shadow,” the shady guy said, and her attention followed his to the big screen between them and the other side of the arena. The hundred foot tall screen displayed a close up of the two fighters, Sagara facing the camera with an empty expression as…

That was it! Her mind flared, shady boy. His shadow wasn’t right. It was simply too big, an inconspicuous pool surrounding his feet. It looked like his shadow, but it couldn’t be. It was too spread out to completely belong to him, and the horribly bright lights above meant he shadow shouldn’t be that big at all. The little kid didn’t even have a shadow. She had picked it up a little earlier. It made sense earlier because of the lights, but how could one of them have a shadow and the other not? The shadow was actually containing him.

Timothy was still holding back, taking his time, clearly waiting for Sagara to fall before risking stepping forwards again. It was a shadow right, that the boy was using to trap him? Nothing but a intangible shadow. But it wasn’t just a shadow, it was unaffected by the light. What made this shadow special from all the other shadows in the arena, which had been hidden away from the bright lights above.

She stepped forwards, looking down at the circle below her lord on the big screen, focusing solely on the darkness as the shady boy suggested that the portal thing may have been right. Then, she saw it. It was difficult at first, because it was hidden within it’s own darkness, but it was there, just sitting underneath him. A demon! Controlling the shadow; trapping her lord. Weren’t they supposed to register such things? Though now she thought about it she hadn’t actually checked.

The spirit had eyes, she could see that much. They were a very dark hint of purple, and appeared near invisible. Sagara stepped over the eyes, blinding their view of the world above them, and he instantly saw them reappear, trying to get a good view again and moving the shadow as they did so.

He did it again, and again. Before any of them knew it, he was standing right next to Timothy, who was only a foot out of reach in the first place. Before he could figure it out, the young boy was seized in Sagara’s hand, and tossed out of the ring like a rag doll, his head smashing face first into the concrete below.

The whole crowd fell silent from its mix of jeers and looks of confusion, as they realized that the match had ended in a heartbeat. As the child struggled to get up, failing with a slip, they went to boo again, but it did not matter. The bell rang loudly, and Sagara was declared the winner.

Immediately bottles began ejecting themselves from the audience, a well placed bottle spilling brown liquid out on Sagara’s feet. The ninja looked around, trying to keep out of everyone’s wrath, falling back down into his own face as his shadow remained trapped. He had to slowly yank himself over to the edge as objects kept flying, bottles and snack trays and beer kegs coming too close for comfort, all projectiles missing the little boy completely, despite being right in the flight path.

By the time Sagara got off the stage, having fell right into his own face once again, the spirit continuing to pin him all the way off the arena, Timothy had gotten up, and was once again crying. The entire medical team had rushed around him to check if the little tyke was okay.

“Oh you brave little thing,” one of the nurses said, as she patted his nose, dabbing the infinitely small amount of blood coming from it as if he was internally bleeding. Sagara moved up behind her.

“How is he?” he asked glumly.

“You monster. How could you?” the nurse shouted back at him, her demeanor changing from bedside manner to demonic hatred. The ninja was clueless as to what to do. The child was fine, bawling his eyes out at the booboo of losing. As the white clothed nurse women grouped around him, the boy just started to cry loudly, though she could easily see it was just for attention. With nothing to do, Sagara moved up to Natoko, and just shrugged at her. She just gave him a disappointing look and remained silent. He stared back, quiet and spent, before slumping off back down the corridor and out of her sight.

***

Nobori leaned forwards in a desperate attempt to grab her shoulder, to slow her down somehow. He missed and tried to leap forward as she started crossing the street at an accelerated pace. He kept up as far as the corner before slowing back down to a casual walking pace, letting him bump into her without showing concern.

She hadn’t spoken a word to him since they had left the building. It was no real difference from before. He couldn’t understand her then either, nor could he understand why he could no longer understand her. The obvious assumption would be that she was mad at him for whatever reasons women get angry, probably something to do with the tiny mistake he made the day before with the demon. But, if anything, she had been trying to talk to him more than anything. Paying attention in English class had become tedious when he realised he could just not attend school anymore and only one or two of her words came out making any sense.

She sped up again, varying her pacing by zipping side to sides between the bustling crowds. Most were clearing a path ahead of him, as the men in suits did whenever he passed, the floors and skies and other sides of the street becoming the center of their attention for just the time it took to pass them, then he’d hear their noses fold up as they’d turn back to him, before becoming inconsequential altogether.

Speed up. Slow down. It had been one or the other ever since they had left the hotel. Down the stairs and over the road. Up the bridge and down the express line. Through the train station where the cleaner homeless gave out tissues and through the centre that had banned him last year. All to chase the cleaner. All for reasons only the Ninja girl knew.

There was nothing special about wage slaves. They worked too hard for too little. They gave up joy with the intent on success by conforming, and fell only into the ritual of meaninglessness. There were better ways to live one’s life. So why was this cleaner special? Why were they traveling halfway across the city to stalk him?

A busload of passengers appeared through tiny doors between them and the target, and the ninja girl crossed the road without any shift her step, traveling across fluidly and more than likely keep track of her prey. With the pink shirt standing out against the crowd, Nobori kept his eye on the target most of the way, but would have lost it ages ago if it wasn’t for silent girl.

His stomach rippled as he felt the change again. Looking to his hands they looked more wore now, calluses from years of construction work bubbled up over his mitts, and stubble that came from shaving everyday poked out of his chin. He glared at her quickly, watching her slip behind an old lady on a bicycle and come out the other end a university student who had just woke up.

It had been happening since they had started. Before the girl only changed herself, but after they started their little stalkathon he had started changing too. And it wasn’t just a difference in looks. Down the stairs he heard a jingle in his pockets from coins he didn’t have and over the road they changed into the rustling of notes. He went up the bridge as an old man and got on the train a businessman whose jacket smelt of smoke that came only from cigars. The homeless old man, a regular stop of his for conversation, didn’t recognise him and only spoke to mention that a shaved head looked ugly on his then female frame. And by the time he went through the shopping centre, he tasted the hamburgers eaten the night before when he had slept on an empty stomach.

The pink shirt got on a bus at the depot. He wasn’t a suspicious creature of any sort. His body never jerked suddenly to lose the trail or stop completely to see if anyone else would too. Nor was he too perfect in his actions, smoothly gliding as if nothing was wrong. At one point he even looked round as if a sixth sense told him something was wrong, but passed it up without even thinking paranoia.

The ninja girl followed him onto the bus, Nobori getting on quickly. This time they just turned invisible. Nobori’s mind drifted without a body to keep hold to, and his passed on to thoughts of Daisuke and the others. They hadn’t met since he had gone on the excursion yesterday and though they usually met at the back of the parking lot near Takumi’s, none of them had been there. His mobile had been stolen from the arcade the week before, so he had no way of getting to them. None of this really concerned him though. A part of him did want to make sure they were all right because, y’know, just to make sure, but another part felt nothing for these creatures who hovered around him and nodded their heads to everything he said, told him he was cool and then never appreciated it.

At least with this girl, things were finally starting to get interesting. Hanging around the streets all the time was finally starting to pay off.

Something landed on his shoulder, and he turned to find himself aware he had a shoulder again. Shuffling carefully, he lifted the girl’s head up so she could get a little comfortable, though also because the idea of a girl resting on his shoulder appealed somehow, even if that girl was currently an eighty year old man. He got comfortable again, realising no one around them cared.

The way Japanese society was, they could have detonated and the people wouldn’t care.

Yawning to himself, he caught a glance of the folder, the one she had been carrying around since this all started. He hadn’t had a chance to reach it yet and took one while she was sleeping. He cringed when he realised it was all bureaucratic gobbledegook, stinging him with abstract clauses and none specific implications. The language jumped between English, Japanese and what he thought may have been English but with symbols he didn’t recognise.

The Japanese bits were easier to read, but didn’t mention much. It listed the residence of an Itoko, as well as a bizarre address reading McKay, BlNiock (both with poor use of Japanese kana) and what appeared to be a moment when the typist accidentally leaned on the space bar and then hit the comma before moving on. They were heading in the direction of this place. The address they had gone to before was also listed. In fact, all three were separate hotels spread over Osaka now he looked at it.

The bus slowed to a halt, and he quickly shook ninja girl aware as he saw pink shirt halfway through getting off. She was already off the bus with him before Nobori even had time to let her pass.

Act Three – Chapter Five

Everyone was in the waiting room now, taking those precious few moments they were allowed to rest up in preparation for battles that each of them knew they wouldn’t be allowed one spare breath. The room was bland, Natoko thought, but certainly looked expensive. It had leather chairs and a bar, and was an impressive improvement from the hyena den that they had been made to squat in earlier.

Eight people littered themselves around the room now, most keeping a respectable distance from each. One boy, a shady looking brat with tight muscles who glared at her every time her eyes bounced in his direction, sat by the bar, nursing a simple coke and playing with a pack of cards the way magicians do. At one point he made the whole deck disappear and appeared to have no intention of bringing it back.

The fat boy that she hated was leaning by the entrance, as if there was no reason to enter further into the room and he might as well perch himself there until it was time for his match. Just a few feet away from him, another lad shuffled about nervously. It looked like he wanted conversation, but didn’t know where to get it from.

Sagara was playing rock paper scissors with an eight year old boy. They were annoyingly loud about it and everyone kept jerking their heads at them every time Sagara cried out when losing, which had been every turn so far.

The only one not staring at the two children was also the only other girl in the room. Standing at around six foot, the blond haired girl was the tallest here, beating the nervous guy by about a foot. Dressed in knee cut denim jeans and a white tank top her reason for not staring at the boy, or anything for that matter was her white and red bandana, which covered her eyes. It looked hand made, the red stains blotched everywhere in a poor attempt to dye it. Natoko couldn’t tell if she could see through the fabric but she was easily fiddling with a large naginata that bore markings to suggest it actually came from the Haishou era.

The last member of the room was the bar staff, a waiter with a thick mustache that had been systematically removing the glasses from the room since they had all entered. This meant they were missing a person, she noted, if it was to be an eight way tournament, though she felt relieved if this meant she might get a free round.

Yet even the nervous guy looked a little more excited than she did. She felt dead inside. What had Sagara meant by her forgetting her reason? She could admit to herself she was a little overjoyed that the last battle showed her years of training hadn’t been for nothing. That each practice swing of her sword had brought her to the level she displayed an hour ago. But at the moment, the only thing she really felt was how much she was going to love taking that boy apart at the folds. Did she really want to fight for just that? If only the other person had quit in front of them all, perhaps she could have joined him.

“Well, you both made it I see,” a voice said, snapping her out of her thoughts. From the entrance, Sakimoto Yuya walked in, looking a little miffed when Sagara didn’t reply, the boy taking his time to finish the ninety sixth round with a stone again. Natoko stood up attentively and felt a smile come to her lips when Yuya nodded back to her.

“I hope you don’t plan on winning entirely through luck, Sagara,” the businesswoman asked him when he finally noticed her presence. He didn’t bother to stand up, but just turned to her and said.

“I don’t think I even plan on winning.”

“Let me take this moment to explain this tournament to you,” Yuya said, choosing to ignore the boy. “This tournament, as all entering should know, is a qualification test!” Natoko’s eyes lit up with this. A test? She had assumed it was merely some kind of strange entertainment event. Maybe a test of skill for the fighters involved, but somehow what the woman had just said felt more important than that.

“There are three stages to the test. Know that you have already just passed two. The first stage was simply getting here. With the tournament being held in the InBetween Realm, which exists outside of Earth’s natural sphere, it is near impossible for most humans to participate. That is the first test; to simply obtain your invitation and get to the tournament before it begins. Regardless of what you may think, you have all been handpicked by me to participate in this tournament. That includes the three of you who think you have entered through false means.”

Natoko’s ears pricked up and this, and she looked at the woman with astonished awe. Did this mean that the woman had also picked her? Some other force choosing her to be one of the tournament participants. Could it be that, despite all odds, this woman had given Sagara the extra invitation, knowing that it would ultimately get to her? If that was the case, it was impressive and she even felt moved that such effort was made for her, but still Natoko felt she need not have bothered.

“The second test: was what was known as the preliminaries. That which you have all just passed. It is also the best way to eliminate most of the more useless bodies from the event. The so called ‘Battle Royale’ was designed to eliminate all but eight of those who made it pass the first test. Such a test was not merely a test of strength and skill in fighting but also your tactical awareness and ability to think in an extremely stressful and chaotic situation. In simple terms, it was a real fight. Since you are all here, I can assume that you showed appropriate tactics in surviving through the chaos that occurred but moments ago, no matter how bizarre your methods chosen.”

Natoko looked down at her sword, bound tightly to her waist. What she had done did not feel like a good move tactically, nor did she feel that she kept a cool head. In truth, it felt like she had got lost in her passions and just kept hitting everyone. Was that tactical enough? Someone with a firearm could have defeated her easily.

“And now comes the final test: Dueling.” Natoko looked back to the woman. “A simple duel may seem strange after fighting in a brawl like that. Surely, one might think, the Battle Royale beforehand was much more testing than this. But a duel is different to the fights you have all just had. It is a time to truly prove yourself. Believe me when I say this is much harder than both of the other tests. You are not investigating. You are not simply trying to survive. You are attempting to eliminate your opponent, fighting with everything you are, and with everything you have. And they are doing the same. You cannot hide, you cannot simply wait for the opponents to exhaust each other. You must stand forwards, fight and destroy those who would aim to stop you. Only that, will get you both victory, and the qualification.”

“The matches are done similar to the Battle Royale rules,” Yuya continued. “With the obvious exception that it’s only two people fighting at one time. The cage aspect has also disappeared, which means you can be immediately knocked out of the ring after the match begins. You can lose the match in one of five ways: knock out, give up, get knocked out of the ring, the referee decides that you are not fit to continue the match or, of course, death. You can argue with the referee if you want to, and if you are able to, he’ll probably let the match continue, but the rest will be immediate in deciding your fates.”

She walked over to the white board, and began drawing in a pyramid formation. “You should all know how a basic tournament works. There are eight of you, so there should be a maximum of seven fights, with each of you having a chance to fight in three of them depending on how well you do. If, after a certain fight, both participants of that tier are unable to continued, both are disqualified, meaning some of you may get to miss a fight. There is no time limit, and no real form of disqualification. The only real rule on disqualification is that you may not use any weapons or spells that you have not already registered. Divine and Demonic weapons are also not allowed and will result in disqualification the second they are detected. Also be aware that actions taken against other participants before the fight are forbidden. For the record, Itoko, this includes bringing about the false enlightenment of the passion gods.”

“Aw,” the blind girl muttered, like she wasn’t allowed to go out and play in the mud.

“Now,” Yuya continued without indulging the girl. “Let me show you who will be fighting who. I, myself, will pick a sheet of paper out of this box with a number on it. If you are that number, depending on which tier you were in earlier, you will go in the next position on the board, going one through to eight.” She walked up to a man that was holding a simple cardboard box. She looked away and fished her hand into it. The first piece of paper she pulled out was a number one.

“Who is number one?” Nobody answered, and Natoko checked her won sheet of paper just in case. Sagara stared blankly forwards, Yuya meeting his eyes. “It’s you, Sagara.”

“Oh right,” Sagara said, holding his arm up and eventually catching onto her stares. He looked back to Natoko quickly, in case he had misunderstood her.

“Very well,” Yuya said. “Futabatei Sagara is in fight number one.”

This process continued for a short while, as each fighter was chosen one at a time. There were no real objections to the first fight, which was Sagara and the playful eight year old kid. Nervous guy and shady guy were paired together, much to the nervous guy’s anxiety as the shady guy reached into his trousers to simply pull out the pack of playing cards. The blind girl was paired with a guy called Yamato, who appeared to be the missing one, though Yuya offered no explanation as to how this was.

“That’s it,” Yuya stated, as the man finished writing their names on the whiteboard. We will ask you to wait another five or ten minutes and as we finish preparations and the half time show, which you are of course free to watch. Until then, just sit, relax or prepare yourselves however you see fit. I’d offer you all good Luck, but negotiations were made to prevent her interfering in today’s matches.”

“But what about…” Natoko called out, where she realised she hadn’t been mentioned. The participants of the room turned to look at her, even Sagara, and she felt herself shrink back at the glances.

“You do know what elimination means, do you not woman?” the fat kid asked her, not even deigning her worthy to look at. “It’s a simple process. When six people have been chosen for three fights, the remaining two must fight each other. Is that not obvious?”

The shady guy grinned as the room fell into silence to center on her. Even the nervous guy smiled to accept what she said with some grace. The fat boy sniggered.

“Are you such a moron that you cannot even do that?”

Natoko cringed, and turned to Sagara, perhaps in some fleeting hope for help, but he had just wandered out of the room, scratching himself.

“Watch it, Hayate,” Yuya warned the boy.

“I do not believe you told us we were not allowed to taunt each other before the match.”

“I didn’t, but if it starts a fight, I’ll blame you over the other person.”

“I- I didn’t…” Natoko stuttered, feeling impotent rage quell up inside her. She did not care for striking him down now if it meant being disqualified, but there was shame in forcing a fight when everyone had agreed to certain challenges, and that damn Hayate boy knew it.

***

In the streets of the Fuugosuki, Melissa prowled, stalking her target with invisible steps that came from a stranger’s boots. The big guy had followed her, and she kept the illusions up to fit him as well. Invisibility doesn’t serve a purpose in a bumbling street filled with hundreds, but plain sight camouflage was perfect for stalking this prey.

“It was how he went about cleaning that got me, like he just accepted that was the way the room was set out, even though I had no idea what the room originally looked like.”

“Kikoenna, ojou.”

“Whatever. Just keep following him.”

***

Sagara’s fight would probably be up soon. Hopefully the fool would do well in staying in there for as long as possible. She’d hate to have to nurse him back from the ashes of defeat.

Otsune didn’t care anymore. Let the world explode with stupidity around her. Let life seek to make sense as a zoo flies around her and a deathtrap never activates. Let her be inside a realm completely devoid of possibilities for existing. Let science be abused, raped and tortured, until it finally came to believe it liked the situation it was in and seek more.

Just a few more hours, and she could go home and refuse to ever come along on any trip Sagara gave them ever again.

Even better, why leave the dormitory? The world was a scope of indoor networks now anyway. She just needed to shut herself inside, and never let any of them approach her again.

Yeah, that was the most rationale course of action.

It beat trying to figure out why a famous pop idol was singing on the main stage, and why her own body was dancing along to the beat with everyone else.

***

The rhythm was intoxicating, alluring and seductive, but ultimately avoidable. The half Sirynclou is nothing for me to be afraid of. As I wander the halls, the demons come. To face the stoolie. They seek to harm him. To drive him away from me.

But I will not be denied.

Not when I am so very close.

All shall burn who stand in my way.

***

Descending the last of the stairs, she looked around the abandoned lobby. A ticker tape scrolled above her, mentioning names she didn’t recognize. This had to be the place, she told herself, though there was no reason to assume it correct. The place she was shouldn’t even exist, yet the proof of it was clear to her.

In front of her, an old man swept away the dirt left by a thousand people. The place looked like it had been busy. And she could tell by the screams just under the din of the music that they had all moved into the adjoining room.

But she still had to get her ticket stamped, didn’t she? Or could she just walk in now. Or perhaps she was too late altogether. There was no one left at the ticket booth to ask. They had all packed up and disappeared by the looks of things. They hadn’t left a note either, and all that was left was the man sweeping the floor.

Sakura waited for him to notice her.

***

Back in the waiting room, Natoko paced frantically. “Where is he?” she muttered under her breath, keeping an eye in the direction he had gone. The half time concert show has just finished its encore. The little kid had already left for the stage, leaving a concerned man by the door, hoping more than the first event wouldn’t be ruined rather than Sagara actually showing up.

“Could you go pull…I mean drag your friend out from wherever he’s gone?” the man asked Natoko politely, in a way that felt like he had got her attention with a crowbar to her face.

The samurai girl didn’t reply, but silently headed for the direction he had gone, the noise of someone standing up behind her stopped her for a second.

“Don’t worry,” a calm but deep voice said from behind her. Natoko was surprised to see it was the girl with the bandana over her eyes. The girl turned to the man by the door. “He’s on his way to the arena. You can go now.”

“Erm, very well,” the man said confused, turning to leave, but doubling back all of a sudden. “You’re all allowed to follow and watch by the ringside if you want, as long as you don’t  interfere. Or interject.”

The man walked off out the door, leaving Natoko unsure of what to do. Was the blind girl telling the truth, or was this some simple way of getting Sagara disqualified? She turned to look at everyone else, to see what they were doing. Shady guy and nervous guy had already left to watch. The others seemed to be staying. Natoko turned to the girl, whose name she heard was meant to be Itoko, to ask her something. Before she could, a loud cheer came from outside the door.

“That’s your lord showing up,” the girl said, staring at her for the few seconds it took Natoko to realise that this wasn’t possible. “I suggest you hurry up if you want to watch him.”

“Aren’t you going to watch?” the fat boy said rudely. Natoko took a second to realise for once she wasn’t talking to him. “You seemed interested in that boy.”

“And you in that girl?” she suggested subtlety. The boy responded with a hollow laugh, freaking out those still in the room with its horrible pitch and tone of superiority.

“I’m just surprised how something so weak can get in this tournament. She clearly had a lucky match.” He snorted at this, and went back to leaning against the wall. The blind girl considered this for a moment.

“Things are not always as they seem,” she replied. “You, for example, seem to have fourteen extra layers of skin over your natural layers. One of which is a barrier of some kind.”

“So it is noticable then,” he said with a sigh, moving to stand and face her. “And what do you plan to do now that you know?”

“As I said stereotypically but a moment ago using my rather round and, if I do say so myself, cute mouth…” She paused for a moment. “What did I say?” She waited for him to reply, but the fat boy called Hayate had just chosen to wander to the main stage.

“Oh, that was it,” she said, grabbing his wooden spear, and holding it up for others to see. “It’s meant to be a naginata, but I left mine at the hotel, so I had to sharpen this out of a stick I found.” She paused again, not sure if that was the right conversation, nor no longer able to tell if she was even having a conversation. Around her no one seemed to be making any noise, and so she sat down back quietly, slightly embarrassed.

It clearly was a naginata, Natoko noted, before putting it all aside and rushing up the steps to see her lord fight.

Act Three – Chapter Four

There was a rhinoceros in the special seating area, munching a pile of leaves and straw with popcorn scattered within it. Sitting besides the creature was a man, somehow larger than the gray mammal  and keeping it occupied with light conversation. In the stands two down from them an African American woman with a haircut larger than the two put together was blocking the view of a perfectly ordinary looking dwarf, who didn’t seem to mind.

“I give up,” Otsune sighed, slouching even deeper into the plastic foldaway that counted as her free seat to this freak show of a tournament. She passed the video camera back to Fujiko. “I should just knock myself out and be done with it.”

Gen looked over to her and smiled in a vain attempt to be reassuring. “Are you okay, Ms. Tsunade? You’ve been tense since we got here.”

“Well how the hell am I supposed to be relaxed?” she snapped, needing an outlet to pour onto, grabbing her long hair and shaking it out of position. “I’m in a underground stadium that’s defying every law of physics I’ve ever came across. Men are cartoon sized big. An eagle is giving me the eye and for some reason martial arts is a lot more popular than I ever remember it being!”

“Ha, that’s so unlike you, Ms. Tsunade,” he continued with the apparent sympathetic ear. “Didn’t you tell me once we should take in all the facts for all situations before making our judgment?”

“Well yeah.” She tried to shrug her hair back into place. “Forensics student. Scholarship. Empiricist. Pissed off.”

“Even though we never see you study,” Fujiko butted in.

“So what about it?”

“Well, I admit it’s an impressive place,” Gen continued, looking around. “Having an underground arena this big, but there’s nothing more to it than that. I’m not surprised the government would make something this big. Probably meant to be a bomb shelter for the entire city or something. I’m sure we could find tons of stuff if we looked it up on the Internet.”

“The government?” Fujiko said. “Yeah, I guess only they could make something this big under the city without anyone noticing.”

“Exactly,” Gen continued, accepting his own explanation without hesitation.

“That woman’s the CEO of Sakimoto Industries as well,” Fujiko added. “Probably got them to commission the whole thing. Maybe that’s why those buildings were being demolished. They were going to have that area as the entrance when they had finished building.”

That wasn’t it! Couldn’t they see? How this place made no sense? How this couldn’t be part of their world? She had seen the entire structure, studied every inch, every dark corner that had passed over Fujiko’s special magnified lens, from the wood beyond the lighting constructs above them to the mahogany door that stood out at the end of the opposite side of the arena. What it told her was clear; should have been clear to anyone willing to look.

The first, and worst sign was the absence of even a single support column. Nothing gave signs of any load bearing panels holding up this massive box of space. The entire room, and that’s all it really was, just one large room, was an approximate three hundred by two fifty meter box that couldn’t possibly hold up all the junk that was supposed to be on top of it. Even if the walls were made of some super strong substance, there was the weight of a city there, followed up by several hundred tons of bedrock. The maths didn’t need doing, though she could. At the very least the whole place should be collapsing upon them from the centre and showering them in sharp, jagged death.

No place on earth could house an arena like this, especially a location one hundred meters below a metropolitan city.

“Well, it is awesome place,” Fujiko sighed, lying back. “Though if I was working, I’d be annoyed that my tax dollars were going to waste on it.”

***

“And I know you can’t understand a word I’m saying, but I’m sick to death with no one here speaking English and you can just sit by and take all of my well earned fury.”

The big guy whose name she never learned was trailing behind her, his little finger dragging the rest of him down the busy street as she pulled him along. He spouted noises, with much anger behind them, probably about what in the ninety two hells she thought she was doing, but none of it sounded threatening. That was probably best for the both of them.

“Look,” she began, as they stopped off in a quiet alley that rang alarm bells in her head for reasons she didn’t care about. “The InBetween realm has many stupid, complex rules that govern its inner workings and we all have to pay attention to them if we’re to get along with the accursed dimension. One of the more simple ones is that there is no oral language barrier there, because everyone communicates with their souls and the language of the soul is universal blah blah blah. And that’s why we can’t understand each other at the moment beyond your shouting of a type of paint, even though you’re in high school and probably should be taking some English classes seeing as you’re so smart with the ‘stand on the head’ genius epiphany you came up with yesterday.”

She breathed deeply.

“On top of that the written word is just nonsense in there and about as useful as Ipsum Lorsen on burnt pages. Because, when whoever decided to make the accursed place went about doing so they figured it should follow the same logic as dreams or something equivalently retarded. Otherwise I would take this document containing easy answers in there myself along with a map of your stupidly weird city which I still don’t know the name of and just read where I’m supposed to go. Instead, I’m stuck wandering the same stupid city until I run into thinks he’s so smart mobster impersonator. You got that?”

“Nani?” the big guy replied as Melissa caught her breath. She only just realised he was holding an empty ice cream cone.

“Whatever. Just look at this.”

She lifted the document up to him, watching him at it like she had just presented him with a ball of wool as their anniversary present.

“I need you to take me to here,” she said, pointing to the first address. “Here. Got it? Take me there.”

“Yomigadekinai?”

“Whatever. Here. Here.” No matter how loud she spoke, he didn’t seem to get it.

“Asoko ni ikitaika.”

“Yes. Yes. Hai.”

“Which way is it?”

“Tooi da.”

“Oh right. Look, just take me there.”

The big guy just glared at her, probably thinking it over. Then, taking a big sigh, he plodded off for the bus stop a few feet away. Observing the map pinned up on the board, he motioned for her to follow, and she surprised him by emerging from the alley as a thirty year old man.

Finally, she was getting somewhere.

***

“Hell yeah,” shouted Fujiko.“I see her. It’s Natoko.”

Quickly turning the camera to follow the intoxicated girl’s finger, Otsune found the samurai girl walking out of the exit into the arena area, head lowered, her sword at her side, looking almost completely inconspicuous among so many of the others that filed in front and behind her. She appeared to hold the calm demeanor that the warrior type she was attributing to would have done, and Otsune couldn’t help but feel a little proud that she knew the girl, even if they did barely speak to one another.

 

Natoko was currently terrified beyond her wildest expectations of what being terrified felt like. And having rarely experienced the emotion her imagination had ran pretty far. Here, before her, were several thousand people, all apparently knowledgeable in a world of fighting in other dimensions with demons that she had only just recently learned about. Her brain knew that she wouldn’t be noticed by anyone, and so didn’t expect people to just start booing and jeering, but her heart wasn’t thinking like that. It had shrunk up, shying away from the crowd’s piercing glares, afraid to do even the slightest thing wrong, to accidentally break some formality and be the centre of everyone’s unwanted laughter.

Clutching Iziz tighter, it confirmed her suspicions that if it wasn’t for the weapon, she would have never even made it out of the changing rooms. That felt embarrassing in itself. Only one girl came out with her as she approached the arena, and for a second all eyes were on the both of them. The girl wasn’t exactly very friendly either. She only had one eye and seemed to reply to everything with grunting.

Am i ready for this? The question ran through her mind like a constant toe stubbing. She was used to duels, not brawls. Even in one on ones, she felt she could never really cut loose. They fought with the wooden shiai in the kendo dojo at school, and she wasn’t even a member of that particular group. She wasn’t in any sword fighting club at school for that matter, and had always trained with herself, occasionally visiting one of the clubs whenever one of the members had insisted, meaning that her sparring skills weren’t as high as everything else was, however high that may have been.

She had no idea if that even meant anything though. The rules of a kendo match were vastly different to her own method, and the point system was too perplexing for her to get used to in the few times she had been.

And her sword was metal. Extremely sharp metal. Whilst she had never cut anything that was too expensive, in case she incurred the wrath of grandmother Futabatei, she knew it was sharp enough to kill. Should she fight with this?

“Oh, why did I not think of all this sooner?” she muttered to herself dejectedly. The tall, hulking mass of woman in front of her turned to glare, her eyebrows fixed in an angry frown position, and the samurai looked away to show she wasn’t speaking to her.

She didn’t want to kill anybody. Wound maybe, that felt sort of acceptable. Was it? It was to be expected in a fight anyway, and there were plenty of medics in white uniforms around the side of the arena. At least she assumed they were medics. They had red crosses on their armbands and looked ready to spring up in case of an injury. It was just… they had no equipment with them.

It was expected of a samurai to kill. A samurai would even kill themselves if the need presented itself. But always they killed or died for a reason, for a master under whom they served. She served Sagara but, while she hoped he still remembered that, he had not ordered her to kill, nor did she know if she was allowed to. If she didn’t have a reason to kill and then did kill, would she truly be a samurai, or just another murderer?

The cage slammed shut, grabbing her attention and causing her to shriek in surprise. She still wasn’t used to that. Why was there a cage? As if she was revealed to be a mouse in an alley full of cats, everyone turned to her, some of the more nastier looking boys grinning greedily at her. She instinctively knew what it meant, feeling her heart tighten up. That was it. Everybody had classed her easy prey.

She looked to the timer, the number ten flashing up on screen in neon yellow, the announcer’s voice booming out to the crowds, prepping them for a great battle. She wasn’t ready for this! She didn’t even know how she should fight. All she knew was what she knew, and that couldn’t be enough! Gripping the hilt of her sword worryingly, her right leg shifted back, wanting to run away. A few of those further back focused away from her, as they decided she was too far to go for first. She hoped briefly that everyone would think like that, but it was clear that the male next to her at least didn’t think that. She swallowed hard, feeling her throat try to go down further than normal, like it was trying to save itself at the cost of her neck.

The counter hit zero. The boy didn’t hesitate. He leapt at her with the speed of a jaguar, his hand with long, sharp nails swept at her, intending to draw first blood. She flinched. Her eyes were closed. Her stance ruined.

She was weak.

Beyond pathetic.

The fat man was right.

It took them both a moment to realize her hand had moved on its own.

The boy growled, releasing his fury from the pit of his stomach. She looked up, realizing her sword, her Iziz, had jumped out of its scabbard and blocked the boy’s nails. It hadn’t cut them, but the boy was stuck. She saw him tense up, desperately holding the sword back. His position held for a moment and dropped down to strike her again.

Another moment. Neither were expecting it.

Without intention, she twisted her wrist, her sword swinging down, slamming into his arm with the blunt side of the blade. He grimaced, recoiling with the blow and falling a foot back. She watched him carefully, not sure what to do, when a Muay Thai expert slammed his heel into the feral boy’s head, promptly knocking the boy out.

Natoko watched as the kick boxer bounced away, apparently not even noticing her, or not wishing to fight when he did not have the element of surprise. She looked to the sword that had protected her. She had been the one to move it. Obvious really. Swung the blade out of its scabbard and blocked both shots. She had done it instinctively, with focused ease, and the thought of doing it again made her want to laugh.

A little more confident now. Indeed, the answer seemed blindingly obvious. She should just fight, like she knew how to, like she had always done. Not in the way she had fought with Sagara, not with an imbecilic slashing of her blade, but in the way she had fought all her life. Quick, sharp, decisive.

Standing up tall, she admired her weapon one last time before sheathing it back in its home. She inhaled quietly, and flipped the wooden casing around. It was the way she had practiced all her life, ever since she had received her sword from her grandfather. It was the only way she truly knew, that she could truly use. Why should she change now? Just because it was the way that demon fought when it possessed her? Just because it seemed more appropriate against Sagara?

She should stick with what she knew. With Iaijutsu.

She bellowed a sharp powerful note, and looked to the closest boy. He was a judo practitioner. She should avoid close range. Stepping forward, she pulled out her sword and struck him with a single blow. The impact was so intense it carried him across the three meters of the arena, where he promptly flew out of the cage, her shot as accurate as she intended it. She returned her sheath to her sword, before turning round.

Another male. By the way he was using his feet, he was using Savate, the French art of feet boxing. She should block his first strike, then counter. She rushed to him, and he lifted his right leg, giving her the opportunity to slam the hilt of her sword down on his knee before he got the chance to do anything. Then, pulling Iziz out all the way, she struck him once on the head, using the blunt side again, watching him fall backwards and unconscious, through the wide bars and off the side of the arena.

People had noticed her again, since she had just eliminated two fighters even though the cage had only just coming up. Some stepped back, intending to fight when she had grown a little tired. She had no idea now when that would happen. Flowing across the arena now, she sheathed her sword back again, striking the brutish women in the nose with the hilt of the blade. The muscular girl stayed standing for a few moments, Natoko observing her with little interest, before the pain reached her brain, making her pass out accordingly. Natoko returned her sword fully to the scabbard, never having to pull it all the way out anyway.

A young boy, three years her junior ran at her, jumping a lot higher than she expected a human could. He went to kick her, with the heels of both feet. She pulled her sword out, this time allowing it to cut his under soles. He cried no pain, but fell before her, and was caught up in another battle before she could do anything. She returned her sword, taking it out a second later to defend against a kendo fighter. She didn’t even look at his face. Her blade blocking his, she grabbed her scabbard with her other hand and rammed it against his jaw. As close to the edge as they were, he fell off before she even knew to stop her follow up.

It continued for another three minutes. Natoko knocking out fighters like they were bowling pins, just waiting to be taken out and carried away. Her movements were fresh, flowing out of her in continuous bursts, like someone was turning the tap on and off constantly.

She was finished before she knew it, having just kicked one fighter before striking the backs of his knees with her scabbard, knocking him out of the match before she could even figure out what style he had. That was when the bell had rang. Apparently, the two other fighters on the other side of the ring had thrown themselves out during their scuffle and were still fighting even now. She looked around, hearing nothing but her mouth panting. Everyone was staring at her. Her knees wobbled. Her heart tried to explode. She hadn’t done something wrong had she? No, of course not. But then-

Then it started. Cheer and applause, as deafening as the silence.

She had won.

 

The announcer announced her as the winner, and for the first time she realised he had been talking through the whole match. Wandering off the stage, trying not to care about the praise being lavished upon her, she was quickly met by a tall, yet stout man who asked her to follow him. She did so, looking back at the last moment to observe the carnage she had wrecked, the bodies of those she had knocked unconscious lay strewn outside of the arena, with only so many medics to handle them all. She had done well, she noted, proving herself and her style. She was a fool for changing, for going to a way she did not understand as much as Iaijutsu. And now, she knew how strong she was.

So why did it feel worthless still? No reason but a thrill meaningless to her.

***

“What the hell!” Otsune cried out, through with holding back the feelings that had been welling up inside her every since she entered this place. “When the hell did Natoko get that fast?” Her question was drowned out by the ongoing cheers of the crowd, who right now didn’t care for the student’s important question.

“Huh?” Aki replied, looking down at her elder for the top of her chair, bouncing up and down with excitement, possibly the happiest girl in the audience now that her best friend had won. “Natoko’s always been that.” With her detailed explanation complete, Aki went back to screaming and cheering, providing the energy for all those in the group that weren’t excited, namely everyone except Fujiko.

“Been like what? And how come didn’t she kill anyone?”

“Blunt edge of the sword.”

“Blunt? But- she’s using the Iaido right -the art of drawing the sword. It would get jammed if she tried to pull it out that way.”

“The sword must have rearranged itself.”

“That…that doesn’t make any sense!” Otsune insisted. She caught a glance of Sarah in the row in front of her. She too, looked a little bewildered by what she had just seen. Otsune looked back at the arena, almost expecting the mirage to disappear and show Natoko soundly defeated while some unknown muscular brute adulated in his victory. “None of this makes any sense.”

“Huh? Said the Rhinoceros.

“Oh you be quiet,” Otsune said, sitting in a huff.

 

***

Raiko wasn’t liking this one bit.

In fact, Raiko was hating it, and the temptation to handle it all through more ultraviolence methods was becoming more alluring.

How much longer did they have to put up with this?

Yuya stood up from her chair in the V.I.P room and smiled as much as she could without the others in the room noticing.

“By my own beard!” a man roared next to her- his wife repeating it all, rising up from the leather chair where he was seated before tossing an enchanted chalice- centuries old straight into the wall behind Raiko. It would have shattered had not the wall decided to instead.

“That wasn’t my little girl…was it?” He turned to Yuya, waiting for an answer, barely noticing his wife in the corner, repeating his words. “Tell me that that was not my little girl that just got tossed out of the ring like a filthy human by a filthy human.

“I-I’m afraid so,” Yuya said, the smile on her face dropping so that even Raiko thought she was genuinely sad. The man, a big, bulky mass of muscle went to stamp his foot on the ground, but was stopped by his quick acting partner, who leapt under the foot in sacrifice.

“What is going on, woman?” he demanded with a roar that shook his thirteen foot tall frame.

“Don’t use that tone with me!” Yuya shouted back without hesitation, causing the man to back down. “I don’t know who that girl is. It’s not easy keeping a trace on everyone in the InBetween Realm, you know.”

“Of course the main problem with determining if we are all contained within a simulated reality is the idea that not only might the system have certain safeguards that would make a prisoner find ways to rationalise any glitches found as a result of computational stress upon the system, but finding out may do nothing but ruin the simulation for the players. Having found out, the player’s feelings on the novelty of the game may only last so much longer.”

Everyone stopped as the old man blurted this out long enough to have it fry their brains. As the small queen shushed her servant, the Gronog calmed down enough to compose himself, and turned to face Yuya head on.

“You claim your Shariku Insana System is flawless, woman,” the demon continued. “Yet you are telling me you cannot even keep track of one, immensely powerful human?” Husband and wife demon spoke in unison as the Gronog spat his venom at Yuya’s feet. Raiko was more than used to this by now, but she wished she was in the outside world speaking to them, where she could understand only the more timid woman.

“It’s not as though we cannot keep track of her, my dear Dayton,” Yuya began to explain. “It’s just that there is nothing to know. We have her name, her age, her family, her school, medical and parental records. We have everything one could acquire on such a girl and other than a semi-famous historical figure that may or may not have been her ancestor and what appears to be a pathological obsession with her sword, there is nothing to know.”

“Is she here to usurp all that we have done?” the man asked, standing a lot shorter.

“Every human child in that arena is there to usurp all that is being done here,” she said straight up. “Because they want to win. She is just another fighter.”

“Don’t give me that!” the man shouted, his anger getting the better of him again. “We’ve put a lot into this tournament. I don’t want it all ruined because of some ‘mystery samurai’ showing up and defeating all the competition.”

“Yet if that is how it is to go, you would not have a right to complain. You all entered this knowing what was to happen. The possibility was low, but there was always to be chances that there would be strong humans joining randomly. They are all faithless after all.”

“But that was my daughter just eliminated now! Every demon was just eliminated now!” He roared, breaking the coffee table with his mere presence, causing his assistant to shriek. Even Raiko felt her skin wanting to bend to his will. “By a single human warrior. And don’t tell me she didn’t know what’s she done. No one walks out that calm after a fight. Our family’s names been insulted irrevocably in the space of three seconds. I demand vengeance!” he hissed, the human body that contained the demon failing to perform the necessary notions for this and just gawking instead. Yuya went to leave. “Where are you going?” he shouted.

“I shall wait for you to calm yourself down,” she said formally. “There is no need to be angry if your daughter lost to someone so strong. She shall learn, if she has anything on your side.” She pointed this comment to his wife, who timidly nodded in reply, before leaving without another word, her trainers softly masking her footsteps. “Besides, she didn’t eliminate all the demons.”

Raiko was left standing in the middle of it all, and found the demon staring back at her, looking unsure as to whether or not he wanted to continue his ramblings at her. He eventually decided with a snort larger than his body not to bother with it and went to sit back down to watch the fight through the protected glass. Raiko calmed down. She hated this job. If only this monster had gotten angry enough for her to have the excuse to destroy it. Then she could have gone to see Sagara.

But no. Her job was guard duty.

“Woman!” the man roared.

“Yes,” she replied, her voice squeaking as she had been told to let it do.

“Fetch me a beer.”

“Ah, right away, sir.”

“Stupid wench.”

She tried her best not to unleash forty thousand volts through the demon’s hide.

She unfortunately succeeded.

***

 

The friendly assistant, who smelled like tuna, had guided her into another waiting room; a lot different from the unclean changing room she had been stored in earlier with the other girls of the tournament. This room was brightly lit and clearly had more effort put into it than the changing rooms from earlier. There were lush, leather sofas to relax on and a large bar that seemed to cater specifically for the winners of the elimination tournaments. She noted that, for Fujiko, the place would have been a perfect place to hang out, were it not for the large ‘No alcohol’ signs prominent everywhere in the room. Even in this realm, it seemed minors weren’t allowed to drink.

“Natoko!” a cheerful voice rang out and. Natoko assumed it was Aki come to greet her. Instead it was Sagara. “You won. Congratulations.”

“Er…thanks,” she replied, hesitantly. “You too.”

“From what Mom’s told me about these things we should be expecting a dramatic rematch soon,” he said excited, bouncing happily on the cushy armchair that had been provided. “I wonder which one of us will win after our differences cause us to conflict.”

“Erm, yeah,” she replied again, watching her usually stoic master revel in simple pleasures. “Hey, Sagara?”

“Yeah?”

“Why are you fighting?”

“I’m not fighting,” he answered in turn. “I’m talking to you.”

“No I mean. “She started again. “Why do you fight in this tournament? Personally. Not just the demons. I mean, well, more like in a philosophical way. You know, the whole Zen thing.” She cursed. She should be able to say it better than that.

“Because it’s my mission…and it’s fun I guess.”

“Is that it?” She felt a little sore. Was he just not giving her the full answer? She wouldn’t be too surprised if he had to keep some things from her, and she as a retainer shouldn’t complain anyway.

“Yup,” Sagara paused for a few seconds. “I suppose you want me to ask the same question?”

“Please.”

“Why do you fight, Natoko?”

She composed herself. “Have you ever found yourself, doing something with all of who you are, all your power, all your mind, all your heart, only to get it laughed upon by your closest friends?” she paused, figuring it was the best way to start. Sagara was already shaking his head, not understanding what rhetorical meant. “Before you came here, before you brought all the demons and spirits, strange realms and giant tires with you, I still spent my days training hard. Day in and day out, I swung this sword as I had countless times before; improving my stroke, making it cleaner, smoother. Some nights after school it really was all I did.”

Sagara sat down, knowing this would take a while.

“I had always figured that, if one was to try their hardest at something then, no matter what it was, everyone around them would respect them for that effort. I looked at my friends and saw Otsune studying in her room, Sakura cooking, even Fujiko working on her website and Aki just playing around. I saw these and, while I might not want to join in, admired them for keeping up with these things with such resolve.

“So it was pretty hard for me when I found none of them respected me for what I did. The signs they gave me over time were things I tried to just ignore. Fujiko would come at me like a badly made Chinese martial arts movie. Sakura couldn’t understand why I was doing such a thing. Otsune told me that such things weren’t needed anymore. It felt kind of painful, having your closest friends just dismiss what you do. It felt strange too. I mean, I was learning an art, that’s gotta be considered cool on some level, right? Only Aki seem to quietly accept it, but that didn’t feel acceptable on its own for some reason.

“Sometimes I wanted to quit, just on this. But by that point, I felt that, if I let my sword go, and just follow on with them, then everything I do from then on would be meaningless. It wouldn’t be something that made me who I am. It would just be something I did because I felt I had to choose something to replace that what I gave up. And I don’t think I could accept that. Not just to myself, but the duty I had towards my friends as well. I’d be betraying who I am and who they thought I was if I stopped. So I continued. I continued to swing, continued to get stronger, so that, one day, I could protect them with all my heart.

“And I was so happy when that day finally arrived.”

“That’s why you fight?” Sagara replied, looking genuinely interested, yet sounding confused.

“No, that’s why I train,” she said. “To make myself better. To be a better friend. I don’t have a reason to fight.”

“Huh?” he muttered, looking at her like she had just turned into a radiator made out of paper. “Yes you do.”

“What?” she called out. “No, I don’t!”

“Then you’ve just forgotten.”

“Are you telling me that-“

“Mom told me that everyone has a reason to fight, but sometimes they forget, and that there should be nothing more to it than that. You’ll remember in time.” He turned round at this point and headed to the bar, giving the girl a few seconds to realize that the conversation was over for him.

“Oi, don’t spout philosophy and turn away,” she shouted back. Moving to chase him she got stopped when she heard cheers and a voice blurt out over the loudspeakers. It came out mumbled, but she assumed that it was the next winner.

“That was fast,” she stated, turning around to partly expect someone to be walking in through the door at that moment. Strangely enough, there was standing the overweight cousin of the boy who had tried to stab her the previous day. He was already looking at her as she turned to him. He scoffed in disgust as he realised who it was.

“You?” he said surprised, as if a turtle had just won a race. “You made it past the eliminations?” Natoko stared austerely at the boy, though her mind reeled in alarm as this boy looked down on her from the steps. Her previous experiences were constantly getting pushed aside and replaced with new ones. With decision she grinned back at him. It didn’t startle the boy though.

“I’m not as weak as either of us thought,” she replied boldly, staring back at him, meeting his eyes and claiming them for her own. “And I’ll beat you as well when the times come.”

“Evidently,” he said simply, before walking up to a nearby wall. “I expected my stupid cousin to be here. He was in the last match. Instead I find another weakling.” He leaned against the wall and then…nothing, like he hadn’t even bothered to hear the last bit of her taunt. Almost tempted to flatten him there and then Natoko prayed he would be her first fight. To strike him down with her grandfather’s blade, and destroy he who would mock her.

She may have not had a reason to fight, but now she definitely had an excuse.

 

***

 

The elevator played music with a melody as meaningless to Melissa as the lyrics, its incessant randomness attacking her voice as Japanese comedians laughed to each other loudly apparently without telling any jokes. The guy next to her laughed along with them, but quickly shut up when he caught her glare.

They rode up the rest of the building in silence, her giant yet supposedly younger companion trying not to fidget and failing. He was the one who had led them here after spending enough time riding buses and subways to another part of the city that looked the same as the part they had started at, but he didn’t have to have come this far with her. The boy no longer seemed that bothered though and had simply wandered into the building with her even after she had said thanks.

Trying not to shuffle too much in the cramped elevator, she took another look into the folder at the more English parts. The first part that she saw was the label of what appeared to be the false name that was used to book the room in question. The only problem was that name being in Japanese. The second part was equally unhelpful though, as it just said ‘BlNiock’. With such an odd combination of letters it wasn’t too far off to assume it could be the name of a demon. There was no such demon that she had heard of called a BlNiock, but it wasn’t impossible that such a creature could exist. Probably a minor one though. And if it was working through the False Balance then it was most likely weak, as the only demons that ever did that were the ones afraid of point blank annihilation on behalf of the stronger demons it might try to deal with.

There was also a third part to the top label, but it was simply a blank space ended by a comma, as if someone had held the spacebar down without realising it. It probably was just a typo, but her mind kept playing with the idea that it was something beyond that. The elevator finally rang as they reached their floor, and the big kid waited with his arms crossed for her to leave the elevator first. Passing the stupid dumb freak she found herself in more familiar territory. This hotel floor felt more along the lines of buildings back in America, and she felt herself glide down the corridor with ease, right until the point where she smelt heavy ash.

Hearing the boy sniff behind her, she followed the path down, looking to the numbers and trying to find a room with markings on it that matched anything on the address. As she turned down the passageway, the smell weighed on her nostrils and she quickened to a jog as she noticed bizarre looking black footprints faintly appear on the carpet ahead of her.

“Aw no. No no.” She turned another corner, and saw the black prints get darker as they walked backwards to the white door second on the left. The door was shut and, as they rushed up to it, was found to be hosting the number 666 proudly on the door frame, written on a post it note.

The smell was thick here, the big guy behind her muttering to himself as he held his giant hand against his face. She could almost feel her eyes watering behind the illusions as she tried for the door handle and, upon finding it to be non-cooperative, stepped aside for the big guy to ram it open.

The language of unnecessary violence being as universal as the soul, the big guy charged into the weak door almost faster than she could get out the way. The door came off its latch and flew forwards, the smell of warm ash jumping out from before where it had seeped, now filling the corridor with putrid darkness.

Though visibility was still high, the two wandered cautiously into the room, their mouths covered with as much clothing as skin as they could muster. This much soot and ash was confusing, seeing as there was no fire in sight. She started to look around as the big guy opened the window to try and get it all out.

The room was empty

“Koko nandeska?”

“You said it, big guy.”

Whether it had been abandoned she couldn’t tell, but even if that was the case, it implied that the previous tenant had decided to steal a lot more than just towels. All the furniture was missing, from the bed to the meaningless armchair that existed only to store stuff on to the entire ensuite bathroom and everything in-between.

And it had all been replaced with ash.

Someone had beat them to it, and they had burnt away the contents of the room. The walls no longer bore wallpaper or paint. The wooden floorboards beneath them were untouched, even though there was no way a hotel wouldn’t have carpet here.

More alarming was the sound of water trapped and pressing to escape. Melissa soon found the source coming from a series of pipes in the corner of the room. They had been melted down perfectly to meet with the tops of the floorboards, a blob of metal laying on top of each iron water pipe.

Whatever had done this, seemed to have incinerated the entire room in the perfect shape of a cuboid meeting the dimensions of the apartment. And without being detected by any fire alarms, now presumed melted, though the heat that was enough to incinerate the contents of an entire room should have been enough to alert those in the surrounding rooms.

The only thing that that remained was a smell. Decomposed meat. About four weeks old. There were just minute traces of it, but still enough to get her to gag a little. Surely there should be no such smell, Melissa noted. If there were bodies in here that got incinerated, she would be smelling fried chicken, and any previous smells would still be burned away.

What had gone on here? She was hoping to finally get some answers but now it looked like someone was actively stopped her progress. Were the demons onto them? More than likely after the incident with the Riddleklutz yesterday, but this was far too extravagant a solution to hide evidence from them when they had plenty of time to just simply relocate; or had this been done to remove all traces from the room after they had done such a thing.

Or was someone else hunting the demons?

That was a possibility, though it didn’t help her if they were. With the room leaving no traces, she was now back down to square one. She didn’t have any equipment with her to trace what the soot originally was, and there was so much of it that all she was likely to find was wood and expensive bar snacks.

“Shizuka!” She didn’t need to know what the big guy was saying to hear the footsteps from approaching down the hall. Gliding over the floorboards without scrape or squeak, she pushed the door shut, muting all sounds as they were made.

She backed off, waiting to see if the footsteps were heading to this room. If a demon was returning, that would be perfect timing, the big guy would work as a perfect aide in her interrogations. Of course there was always a chance of-

“Cleaning!” A jangle of keys. The cleaner was here. Of all the worst times. The big guy shuffled in panic, the idea of being caught here without reason clearly scaring him. She shushed him with a wave of her hand in case he tried to imitate the previous tenants. Then she concentrated.

Illusions are the simplest of things really. All it is is a matter simulating the right electrons in the air, at the right time, and for the right reasons. It’s perfectly easy to make someone believe they’ve missed their bus, or to make a blind man see a butterfly. All it really took was timing.

So when the cleaner entered, looking slightly surprised to find the door already unlocked, the four star bedroom with bathroom suite that was displayed in front of him didn’t even register as false to the cleaner’s mind. Melissa and the big guy watched, hidden within the patterns of the wall as the cleaner began stripping a bed that wasn’t there, placing sheet as epithermal as air into the cleaning cart, and laying sheets down to have gravity take them from him, only to carry on making the bed regardless.

Patiently they stood, and Melissa watched the man, MP3 player blaring in his ears to make it just a little easier on her efforts. It was hard though. The entire bathroom suite disappeared for thirty seconds behind the young’s man’s back to reveal the big guy, who was cocky enough to make her laugh with silly faces, nearly making her drop the illusion altogether.

By the time it was finished, Melissa was sweating, and the young man started scratching his right arm until it went sore. Emptying a bin that wasn’t there, he drank water from a tap with no rejuvenating qualities. With a scratch of his head and a curious mutter, he closed the door behind him and locked it, trundling his cart back down the corridor.

“Phew, abunakatta,” Big Guy said, as he came back to his own eyesight. He checked his hands to appreciate them being there, and then Melissa didn’t care. She had four seconds to pick the lock of the door and get them out of there.. This room was now useless to her, and the sooner she got out, the faster the answers would come. The prelims had to be over by now. She was running out of time.

“Yo yo matte matte!” She didn’t care if the big guy followed her now. He was a nice sized meatshield, but would probably slow her down. Not that the suspect knew it was about to be followed.

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