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