Tag: TOFOTN (page 2 of 3)

Act Three – Chapter Three

Back in the small village of where Heavenly Springs resided, in the alleyway where Sagara had been two nights ago, Melissa began her pursuit of clues. Back then, she had been observing him since his hectic departure from the village. But then she hadn’t paid too much attention to the surroundings- not to mention it was dark and, unlike Sagara, she didn’t have magic eyes. The buildings between the alleyways were only about five stories high, yet between them a whole division of homeless people could probably hide and plan an invasion of the rest of the village if only they had the time to do so.

The alleyway and buildings around her were silent and empty save for a prowling, black and white cat, who stared at where she was standing. She was invisible now, and in a few seconds, the cat wouldn’t be able to hear or smell her either. It continued to look in her direction, making Melissa feels apprehensive. Cats were tricky ones, and she didn’t have illusions that could fool primal instincts. With a hiss it ran off and she relaxed again.

There was no sign of obvious demon activity anymore. There were no signs of any activity for that matter. The matter of the Dark Scourge leaving little save for the discarded carpet that Sagara had used to help destroy the monster. If that was still there, it meant that no one, especially no demon, had been here to cover up any tracks. That was to be expected. The whole reason the Balance existed was for the important critical mission of cleaning up after every stinking demon that dared step foot in the realm of her great leader.

The alley itself was nothing special, she observed, the only thing particularly interesting about it was that it was exceptionally muddy. “Is this suspicious?” Melissa asked herself, her voice being drowned out by her illusions. In American cities she knew muddy back alleys were considered normal, but she never really remembered seeing areas like this in documentaries involving Japanese villages. She always saw Japanese villages as places of rich cultural heritage. More importantly, she imagined no mud secluded in the back alleys of their abandoned industrial complexes.

As she reached a crossroads in the alley, she recognised the area where Sagara finally noticed the location of the Dark Scourge. It had been hard to see him at that point, since the Scourge had filled the alleyway with its own special blend of darkness, and with the full moon shining brightly on the top of the building where she had been standing, everything below her had been near impossible to see by contrast.

Allowing herself a grin, she came across a set of decent footprints. Having kept track of Sagara for most of his life, she recognised the heavy imprint that belonged to his shoe almost immediately. Close by it was another set, it looked like a girl’s trainer. She concluded that this had to belong to the Natoko girl that had been possessed. Judging by where the other prints had left themselves in the ground, the various sandal footsteps must have come from the elderly people that had chased them that night. Corrupted and panicked, the prints crisscrossed over each other in a dance of fury. She had no explanation to offer for the events of that night. It may well have existed as a sin of lust, but the Dark Scourge didn’t have the ability to affect other’s emotions, only to tear them asunder.

Going further down into the alleyway, following the only real clue that she had, she became aware of three other types of footprint outside of the others. One pair were just bare feet and Melissa quickly discovered them to belong to a man that was currently sleeping off a previous intoxication. The other two sets of footprints were older and much cleaner than the others she had found. She was thankful that people rarely came down this alleyway, since it meant that any marks she may find would more likely to have a point in her investigation- she was also relieved that Sagara hadn’t come down here instead of her, since she knew the fool wouldn’t have noticed any of this and, if anything, would have just walked over some of the few clues that they had.

She kept at it for another half an hour, scanning the alleyway, checking the trashcans and even confirming that the drunkard was nothing more but a drunkard. It was with a heavy sigh that she realised that she had wasted an hour of her time doing this.

Maybe that was for the best though. Maybe in that time, her foolish ward had finally found a way to make himself useful. His task was simple in its own light, and perhaps he had managed to glean some useful information from one of the suspects.

“Yeah right.”

The drunkard choked himself awake and Melissa headed for the exit to the alleyway, pulling out the folder Sagara had given her. She had planned on investigating the False Balance some more, the only problem being that the only ones she could have interrogated about it were now disembodied and probably as willing to converse with her in epithermal form as she could make them with physical forms. She would have to go for the more human address and go from there.

“Aw dammit, Sagara.”

She stared at the address on the sheets inside the folder, the only things in there written down in their native language in what looked like a copy and paste job. She was stuck again.

***

“Could everyone with a number two on their registration card please come to the front?” the man with the large megaphone shouted, deafening at least a hundred of the participants in the room. At hearing the message, around thirty people quickly stood up and bounced towards the entrance, myself included. Some took it slow and others tried to start the match there and then, eager to get an early start to this pathetic rat race.

Sagara was different. He waited, perhaps a bit too long, not wanting to get pushed from behind. As the man with the megaphone turned to leave, he got up and jumped after him, flashing his card to the gentlemen as I came up behind him to do the same. After being allowed through, he wandered casually behind the people ahead of him, ignoring me completely, unaware of my presence mere feet behind him. No, that was careless thinking. He knew I was here. He just hadn’t singled me out as significant. Another one of the bustling teenagers sent out here to fight in some meaningless battle of superiority. Such a wasteful fight had nothing to gain for me, but the price for removing Sagara from the competition was high indeed and it had taken much effort just to inhabit this body so I could enter the competition on a day’s notice.

Reaching the fighter’s entrance to the arena, he stood back for a moment in awe at the mass of people cheering on the fighters. There were thousands of them, all here to watch this fight of fools. He grinned and scratched the back of his head, stepping onto the large stage. Was he embarrassed? I asked myself as I followed him up to the stage, my target being literally the last but one to get on was on one of the designated squares the furthest to the outside. From what they had been told everyone had to stay in a separate square until this Battle Royale started. Everyone knew that such crap didn’t mean squat as soon as the bell rang, but falling out the ring did mean disqualification and I couldn’t blame the rats for being nervous that a slip could lose them everything.

There was silence for a moment in the arena, and then a commentator’s voice echoed throughout the dome.

“Ladies and Gentleman, please give the fighters of the Battle Royale tier 2 a loud cheer. Only one of them is coming out of this with a prize.” With this, the frenzy of noises that existed a minute ago respawned in the air, deafening the fighters again. The audience was the only real winners here. Their entertainment would be powered by the creatures that surrounded me and the creatures would suffer in turn. A perfect Balance.

The cage smashes down around me, trapping us all within the arena with each other. Everyone filled with the knowledge that only one would be getting out conscious without humiliation. It doesn’t have to be me. I know that. In fact, a sacrificial push on my behalf may be what is needed to get Sagara out of the ring. A few more moments, the cheers died down, and all the fighters poised themselves, trying as much as possible to get as many opponents into view as possible.

“The match will start in twenty seconds. Anyone who moves out of his or her square will be immediately disqualified. Get ready, fighters!”

That was all that was needed really. Those who fall in the early stages are immediately booted out. The Futabatei of the False Balance would become immediately impotent in whatever he was trying to gain, and I would get my reward. People around me started putting up their guard. Others sit in meditation, praying to that what never existed to bless them for this match. The second ranked smart ones were doing last seconds warm ups (there were no top ranked smart humans here). A few of them, like Sagara himself, were just grinning, getting ready to take everything that came at them.

Strangely, everyone was making a point to stay on his or her square. It seemed nobody wanted to lose it all now on a technicality.

“Ten…nine…eight…” the voice continued. Sagara grinned as he finally got ready, prepping himself and making sure everything was perfect for the match. He still wasn’t paying attention to me, this frail body I inhabited fooling whatever senses he had. He was certainly the moron I had expected, yet I didn’t dare fumble myself. I saw one large child eying him up, intending to go for him first. I would let him, and then both would fall for my master’s sake.

“One!!” Sagara’s knee lifted itself raising him into the air and extending his foot that then connected with my jaw. Shattering, I lurched back under the duress before ejecting into the air. Flying over another two children; both dressed in traditional karate gi, I landed into another. I didn’t see what happened to them, waves of fighters getting in the way of my vision. After this move, others charging him quickly stopped, unsure whether or not to fight him after his display of power. One of them jumped him anyway, while four others started scrapping amongst themselves. The one jumping him would fail to touch the Futabatei, as he stepped sideways and, pushing the boy on his back slightly, caused him to join in with another fight. He watched the boy become distracted and, trying to get back to Sagara, quickly fell unconscious to an elbow at the back of his head.

I slid off the arena floor, hearing a loud cheer for my friction. Tasting the blood that this stolen body contained, I gurgled it as my head hit the ground a moment later, trapping me in the darkness as my eyes fell shut.

***

“I’ve got him, you guys,” Fujiko cried to the group in joy, shrugging her landlord’s shoulder quickly.

“You’ve seen Sagara?” Gen called back to her, turning round again to see if he could pick his cousin out from the swarm of brawlers. “Let me see,” he asked, offering out his hands to take the camera off of her.

Fujiko moved back for a second, not entirely wanting to let go of her precious camera. Reluctantly, she passed it onto him and he turned round to gaze through the lens.

“He’s there,” Fujiko pointlessly pointed towards the crowd of fighters. Some were already unconscious, having been knocked against either the ground or the cage. No one was, technically, eliminated yet, since they had to wait for the cage to lift itself before they could start throwing people out. It wasn’t too barbaric either. The only one had been the poor fool to land so deftly through the bar and out onto the other side of the arena floor. People in the arena were too busy watching their own backs to take advantage of anyone unconscious on the floor. As Fujiko’s finger began to get in the way, Gen finally caught a sight of Sagara.

“Got him,” the landlord of Heavenly Springs shouted out to those around him. The others quickly followed his finger to see if they could catch a glance of the ninja as well. It was near impossible though, Gen had already lost him, his hand trailing wildly. Just as he thought he had got his cousin back in shot again, a girl jumped up in front of the camera on purpose and began to take her top off.

“Give it back,” Fujiko insisted, clutching onto his arm for dear life, getting a grumble of irritation out of the landlord. Otsune just laughed and tried to focus away the parading fat woman. She intended to at least try and enjoy this match. If anything, to keep her thoughts off of everything that was happening.

“Oh no,” Fujiko cried out in alarm, “I think he might be knocked out. He’s on the floor.”

“What?” cried Sarah as she jumped off her seat and bounded over Aki’s head before grabbing the camera off of Fujiko. Otsune could just make him out too, her mind only briefly wondering just how useless these seats were this high up. The teenage ninja was indeed on the floor, and if she looked close enough, she could have sworn he was whistling.

“Boss?” Sarah muttered, dropping the camera onto the floor, eliciting a squeal from the girl next to her.

***

The cage was up now. I had to find a way back into the arena. There was no time for rituals though and none of the potential bodies were exactly staying still. With the cage up and out of the way, getting back in would be easy, but I knew I had to wait until the Nuets weren’t looking. Their job was specifically to make sure people like me didn’t get back in.

Sagara wasn’t all too concerned with the people that were giving him the occasional glance. He was just grinning at them and nothing more. Those staring in confusion would then either be mercilessly knocked unconscious by the moronic ruffian that had seen them drop their guard or just stare longer, before a body was thrown into them and out of the arena. An excellent strategy to say the least. It appears I had solely underestimated him, but not for much longer.

“What’s he doing?” a blond haired boy of about sixteen years of age asked another boy, as they stood above the whistling ninja.

“I don’t know, I think urrgghh….” the boy replied back confused; as his nose snapped itself in half and made him fall unconscious.

“Hang on,” a third boy said, looking at the second unconscious fighter. “Who did that?”

“I don’t know,” the first, blond boy said alarmed, as his unconscious talking partner fell to the floor. He spun round to check if there was anyone nearby. “It certainly wasn’t urrggh.” The boy remained confused right up until his nose also snapped, where he then proceeded to think about nothing.

“Well, it wouldn’t be,” the third boy said laughing. “It was I, after all.” He continued to laugh as he began to bear down on Sagara. “The Futabatei, isn’t it? Imagine what my teacher will say when he knows I faced you.”

“Excuse me?” Sagara said, as the boy fell unconscious, his own nasal bones now a very simple jigsaw puzzle that Sagara’s fist had no intention of solving. The boy was surviving too well. Roughly fifteen people were on the outside now, currently being swept away by the Nuets. Ten or so lay unconscious on the arena floor. There were three knocked out beside the Futabatei and seven people left in a fighting state, four of these already looked exhausted, having been lucky enough to miss the initial waves but unlucky enough to now get picked on by some of the more stronger warriors. The remaining three were strong. Only human, but still strong. They shone in my eyes, the fat sumo especially. He was shining crimson red, as his soul exploded with the built in rage he had held back in the past few months. It was nice, and at the pace he moved overwhelming him might have been possible if not for the fact he was the target of the other remaining fighters. These two weren’t anything special, though the purple suited one was fast.

Staring at the people below him, currently drowning in their own blood, Sagara seemed stuck in thought, as if wondering if he should throw them out of the ring for their own safety. Shrugging to himself, he knelt down and picked up the three unconscious boys around him and began dragging them off of the arena floor. The crowd was laughing at him. Was this a tactic? If it was, he certainly wasn’t prepared for me as he got ever closer. I opted to grab him as he got close, drag him off when he’s off balance in his bizarre politeness. That was nothing in the rules against that.

Knocking the final unconscious person off the side, he turned round and wiped his hands clean of sweat, only to be met by a person wearing a black with red trim karate suit, launching a sidekick at him. Reacting quickly, Sagara grabbed the leg and threw the person off of the stage, eliciting another cheer from the crowd. The blond haired moron fell passed me, screaming something how he had never planned it this way. There were now only two more left, as well as an unconscious guy. The Futabatei wasn’t sure if he should get rid of the unconscious guy or not, and made me fail as he walked away once again.

The two final fighters that were left standing were a complete opposite of each other. The first was tall, and extremely well built. By the way he was moving I guessed that he was a sumo, despite his young age. The other one was small, and almost considered skinny. Nevertheless he was fast. And at some points it looked like parts of his body were disappearing.

It was too much of a stalemate though. The large guy was too slow to get a hold of the fast guy, and the little kid was too weak to do any real damage to the strong guy. “Stand still, little one,” the sumo complained, the fast guy bouncing around him like a jumping jack. Every time the large fighter’s hands even got near him, he had already moved himself a foot away. Regardless of his advantage, the little guy was just as frustrated.

“Fall already,” he shouted, pounding into the flesh of the three hundred pounds of body fat before him. It was beginning to look like the guy was nothing except flesh. No bones, no vitals. He was like an impenetrable cocoon made of rubber. I wouldn’t be surprised if the smaller guy’s hand began to get sucked in.

Sagara went for the small one first, throwing two straight punches off his back arm before launching a backfist at the boy’s head. The boy dodged them all and jumped back, precariously close to myself and the edge of the arena. He looked in my direction, irritation plastered on his face at the obstacles before him. He muttered something incomprehensible under his breath, before he saw Sagara pacing towards him, leaping into another kick. Planning ahead, he waited until Sagara was too far into his kick to pull out of it, before bouncing to the side and receiving a hook kick to the chest for his efforts. The wind expelled itself from the skinny fighter’s body as he saw Sagara standing in front of him. Sagara took a moment before putting his leg down and blasting his palm into the boy’s chest, causing him to go flying passed me and off the stage. Sagara didn’t have time to celebrate though. Hearing a stomp behind him, he turned around to find the Sumo right next to him.

“It seems we are the only ones left,” the sumo replied, in a deep voice, as he stepped forwards, forcing Sagara to move back to the edge of the stage. “Are you prepared for my revenge for your insults earlier?” The sumo waited patiently for an answer. Sagara just smiled casually, before looking past the Wrestler.

“You’re forgetting that guy.” As the sumo looked around, his lack of common sense guiding his thoughts, he felt a hand on his head as Sagara flipped over his head and landed on the other side of him, his arms bouncing his feet into the direction of the sumo wrestler, striking him directly in the stomach. Standing up properly now, Sagara threw the force of his punch into the man’s throat, it being the only place that didn’t have several layers of fat and muscle protecting it. The sumo gasped raucously at this, his eyes bulging, as if the pressure on his neck would force them to pop out. He lifted his hands to grab Sagara, and his head dropped, the signal to fall unconscious taking a little longer than it should, his body weight going with him to the floor where Sagara now stood.

“On no you don’t,” Sagara said, grabbing the sleeping mass before it fell on top of him. I grinned as I saw my chanced, and approached the two as if watching curiously, the Nuets falling for my supposed intrigue as I waited to strike. As he held the blob up, a noise came from behind him.

He turned around just in time to see the unconscious boy, a man of nineteen years, now fully conscious and getting ready to push both off the side. Pouncing into Sagara’s back like a furious tiger, he almost rebounded straight back to the floor, the wrestler’s weight proving too much for the both of them. Undeterred, he stood up and had another shot, tapping his shoulder for luck, before slamming it where Sagara had been a second ago. The Futabatei, not liking his chances, had bailed out the moment he could, something the last remaining contestant found out too late, now trapped under three hundred pounds of blubber as it collapsed on top of him.

Sagara crouched, motionless, the wind taken from his breath, the room now falling silent around him. Looking around quickly, I saw him on the big screen to the left and felt the same thoughts he did, the crowd equally confused. Did they expect him to push around four hundred and eighty pounds worth of meat off the edge of the fighting stage to get the victory? Of course, he would have to. They were the rules, and as he did it would be child’s play to pull him off alongside the sumo, my own colossal strength would quickly replace his and he would fall powerless to his own exerted force, the only one left in the ring after that being the one remaining boy now trapped under the sumo.

I cursed as the bell rang, my opportunity lost. They had decided to go easy on him.

“The winner, ladies and gentlemen, with the chance to go onto the main tournament, Lord Futabatei Sagara!” Everyone continued in silence for a moment, still not fully sure when to react, hoping that someone would start it off for them. Then it began, one person encouraged his friends to start, this happened again with another group, and again. These groups encouraged others to start and before the first person knew what he had started, everyone was cheering. Sagara just grinned.

 

***

“Yay!” cheered Aki, an exclamation of joy rising from her body. “He did it.”

“Did they just called him a lord?” commented Otsune, as she remained sitting in her seat, her fingernails dug deeply into her knees and fully paralyzing her. She was impressed, as much as she herself would admit it, although she felt it was a little cheap for him to sit there until the ring became nearly empty.

“Did you get it all, Ms. Fujiko?” Gen asked, turning to the camera girl. She didn’t immediately answer, as she was still focused on the celebrating winner, but her smile gave her answer.

“I got it, no problem,” the girl finally replied, her camera fixated on the winner. “This is going straight on the Internet when we get back.” In the distance, Sagara wasn’t overtly celebrating, but with eyes closed and mouth grinning, it was clear that he was happy with the win.

“That was cool. Killer. Definitely not boring at all,” Sarah said with a whoop of joy, her voice louder than she probably intended.

“Though he did just sit there for half the fight. He must have only hit five people.”

“Eight,” Aki kindly pointed out, before getting back to cheering, the hood of her top not bothering her, even if it was on the wrong side.

“He won, kiddo. That’s all that matters,” Fujiko pointed out, before shouting towards the arena. “Keep it up Sagara! I got three bets riding on you.”

“You bet on him?” Otsune nearly screamed. “I don’t think he’ll like that.”

“Relax, I got bets on Natoko too,” the nineteen year old freelancer replied calmly, disregarding her friend’s statement with a wave of her hand.

“That’s not what I asked,” Otsune had to scream this time, before pausing in thought. “Hang on… where did you bet?” Fujiko looked around, like she was trying to find the answer. She pointed to a plump female who, despite her oversized body, looked very feline due to her cat like eyes and pointy ears that were far too high to be human. The woman was standing by one of the many entrances into the main arena, taking money off of people as they spoke to her for apparently very little reason. Otsune stared at the creature, for that’s what she was sure it was, and just groaned, lying back and trying to ignore everything.

***

The Internet café ceased being helpful as soon as she realised she had no idea how to type in Japanese text.

The nearby libraries ceased being helpful as she came to realise that the reference books containing the location of the Japanese to English books were also in Japanese.

And all the humans surrounding her were never helpful, most failing to understand her no matter how loud she spoke in her own native tongue followed by a more concise method of shouting louder whilst waving her hands about.

After another hour of wandering aimlessly, Melissa gave up on a park bench.

Even if she did find someone that could speak English, (and from what she was told, most Japanese people should have been able to speak English) it occurred to her all they could really do was recite what was written down on the folder. The remaining contents weren’t suspicious and wouldn’t be a problem, but even in an oral format, the words on the page wouldn’t have been any use to her if she didn’t have a clue what those words meant.

There weren’t even any numbers. The address given was written purely in Japanese symbols. For all she knew the location provided was a named house or even one of the nearby temples. Even worse the top line might even be the name of the person and she’d spend ages assuming it was the first line of the address, not that she could find any street names on any of the roads she had passed so far. And on top of that, unless Fuugosuki was written in there somewhere the location she may have to go to may be too far away to make it in a day, making this all pointless.

If this kept on, there would be no choice but to ask Sagara.

“Why’d that fool have to be cursed like that,” she muttered, a prevailing wind making her grasp hold of the document harder, the temptation to just let it all fly away barely fleeting. “He has no idea how easy he has it.”

She was hungry and had stole some fruit earlier, but still her stomach felt tense. Was there really no other way? She didn’t want to show herself up by asking after all this? He definitely wouldn’t care, she knew that. But asking felt a lot worse, and she had been taught many times that the servants shouldn’t come asking such favours.

She had to solve it by herself, but at this rate it would begin to affect her side of the mission. If she was back in the states fixing it would be a breeze, but that didn’t help at all.

She felt her hand tugging sharply on her head and tried to calm down. It didn’t work and instead her fist slammed down into the bench. She would have to do it. She would have to go to Sagara. Cursing under her breath, she got up, preparing to change her face as she walked and slammed right into a slab of meat blocking her path.

“Yo,” the big guy said.

Act Three – Chapter Two

“And they’re supposed to already be inside?” Otsune asked. “Are you sure we’re at the right place?”

“It’s what it says on the tickets.” Gen said, checking them again. “This is the road.” Observing the road on the outskirts of the city, one of the very few dirt tracks that still existed in Fuugosuki, Otsune looked over Gen’s shoulder to the map indicated on the ticket. It was a simple large block roughly where they were standing, with a little cat waving happily out of it. “This is at least the right area. These should be the buildings.”

“We are not going in there,” Otsune said clearly, addressing the whole group. “It doesn’t look safe and I don’t want to get caught for trespassing. Besides I thought this was supposed to be a stadium.”

“There’s no one here,” Fujiko stated, looking at the others as they wandered round the outside of the building, as if they were expecting to see a tournament pop out of nowhere any time now. “It should be fine if we at least take a look.”

“Are you stupid?” she asked honestly. “If there’s no one here, then we have even less reason to go in.”

“I…guess,” Fujiko admitted, scratching his head and rereading the address of the ticket for the ninth time in the last few minutes.

“That guy must have given us the wrong address or messed up some other way.”

“No way,” Sarah shouted from a few meters away, staring at the decrepit yet still bolted door that was barely holding up in front of her. Otsune could see from the way the child was standing that Sarah was becoming more and more tempted to just try and kick the door down, but was put off by the people surrounding her. “Boss wouldn’t make a mistake like that. This was important to him. And this doesn’t make any sense. I’ve been here before. There were restaurants here yesterday. I own two of them.”

“Ahhh,” Fujiko whined, unable to figure it out. “We shouldn’t have let them go ahead like that. We’re gonna miss it at this rate.”

“We have half an hour before the start, and there’s no other place called this in Fuugosuki. I didn’t even know this place existed in Fuugosuki,” Otsune began to rationalise. “You’d think if we could make the mistake even though we’re so used to this area, then foreigners would also be scattered around lost.” That concerned her as she thought of Sakura and Tina. Both had stayed behind today, with only Tina confirming that she would catch up later. Both of the foreign girls would have difficulties if the natives were lost.

“Hey, there’s some people coming this way,” Sarah noticed. The gang turned to see, walking down the beaten path hand in hand, an old man and a very young girl slowly heading in their direction. They looked nice enough, talking happily to each other, so Otsune took a chance and stepped forward.

“Excuse me?” Unsure of which one to address, she just hoped one would answer her. It was the small girl, who looked about six years old.

“What is it, young girl?” the child replied formally. Otsune stared at her for a moment, wondering if she had bad grammar.

“We’re looking for some martial arts tournament around here,” she asked, ignoring it for now. “But we can’t seem to find it. We were wondering if you knew?” The old man mumbled something under his breath, while the girl looked at her with troubled agitation, as if she had just been told they were going to try and steal her arms. She looked at the ground, then at the old man, before turning to face Otsune again.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean,” she stated. “Anyway, you children shouldn’t be around here. Run along now.” Otsune felt strangely compelled to obey the little girl’s request, as if it were a headmistress telling her to do this. Gen approached her from the side.

“Are you sure, ma…m.” His tongue stopped him for a second, and Otsune could tell he was having the same problem. His common sense telling him he wasn’t being polite enough for this little girl. “We have tickets for this event, you see, and…” He showed her the tickets, her face turning to an expression of befuddlement, as if he had just shown her a miniaturized panda.

“Oh…I see…hhhhmmm…” The little girl composed herself in thought, staring rigidly into Gen’s eyes over the tops of her wireframe glasses, the landlord unable to do nothing save look straight back. There was something funny about the little child, Otsune noted, like they should be looking up at her rather than down.

“Ah, I understand it perfectly now.” The little girl walked ahead of them. “Come now, child. I’ll show you how to get in. It’s relatively simple.”

“Thank you very much,” they both said, bowing fully.

Otsune stared at Gen, who had zoned out, as the old man slowly passed them, still muttering something under his breath. Otsune caught a word or two, hearing what sounded like Russian. The group walked behind the strangers, keeping their heads down until they got to where Sarah and the others were. They turned to look at the two newcomers.

“Are these part of your entourage?” the possibly aged between six and sixty girl asked. Otsune saw Gen stumble over his words, trying to bow extra hard as if it would help start the sentence.

“They are,” Otsune answered, with a feeling that it was best to say yes to everything if they were to get inside today. Whatever was going on seemed a little more formal than it should have been.

“Very well,” the girl turned to her muttering companion. “If you would, my child.” As Sarah stepped backwards out of the way, the rascal of the dorm becoming strangely sullen all of a sudden. The man mentioned something about liberalism and then tapped his stick on the door three times. The door, which had once been painted a full green until time had cracked most of it off, slowly creaked open as if it had never been locked by the bolt that was still attached tightly to it. The group slowly peered inside, not entirely sure if they should be seeing an abandoned apartment complex, with a broken staircase and several hundred layers of dusts, or several thousand members of the audience staring back at them.

It was the former.

Fujiko went to say something, probably what was on everybody else’s lips, but Otsune shushed her with a glance. The main lobby had a hole in it, and death waited for all those who went up the staircase, but other than that; nothing special.

“Don’t be shy, children,” the little girl said. “Step on through. The first time’s always the most confusing.” The wise words brought Otsune the courage to step forward and go first, but Aki strolled in without a second thought.

“So is this where you offer us roles in a porn film or…”

“Sarah!” Otsune scolded, knowing the girl would bring them all shame in front of honourable stranger if she wasn’t careful. She saw Sarah’s face cringe in anger, the girl’s hand clenching into a fist.

“There will be nothing of the sort, my child,” the even younger child interrupted, silencing everyone quickly. “It’s just down these stairs.” And without a further word, she descended into what appeared to be the basement behind the stairs. Aki followed without a single complaint, and the others quickly joined her, Otsune in last place to coax Sarah down.

She couldn’t tell what exactly what happened next. A ten minute walk down a staircase in half darkness would be disorientating for anybody, even more so for the fact they were already on the ground floor. But for the entire time she was walking, all Otsune could hear was breathing, the whole group traveling in silence as they descended wooden stairs that did not creak or give sound to their footsteps, with lights that did not have a source and fresh air that had no conditioner to flow out of.

All the time Otsune could only tell herself that this was impossible. Though she knew that wasn’t entirely true. The ceiling had concrete supports and there were still insects scuttling around (though they were just as silent as the visitors) but somehow it felt incomprehensible that this place could exist.

The stairs ended without incident and, as soon as they hit the bottom, as if an unwritten were no longer in effect, the old man just started mumbling again, Otsune picking up mentioning of a proletarian movement needing to be consolidated by a centralized party to fight for the people. It got ignored as there, all of a sudden, through a mahogany oak door, was a great line of people, who didn’t look at all concerned by their sudden appearance. Behind her, she heard Sarah give the same gasp of amazement she herself had just released.

Everything was so…different. Not dramatically. This felt like the natural progression of events for some reason; they were planning to go to the tournament after all. But it was just…wrong.

It was a normal lobby, the type of normal lobby you’d see at a normal stadium or a major concert, with hundreds queuing up as normal to get into some normal special event. Above them, a normal large panel, made up of thousands of normal neon yellow light bulbs flashing information as normally as one would expect, stating the times the preliminaries started, where the main matches were expected to start and that the normal management were not responsible for any items lost while on the normal premises.

“Abandoned and soon to be demolished apartment complex that should be popular restaurants… giant, multimillion dollar arena.” The size alone wasn’t right, the noise of everyone chatting away was unbearable and the area behind her was missing the door that she came through. Otsune had to remind herself they were at least two hundred meters underground.

She tried to ignore it all and thank the young girl, but upon doing so, found they had walked ahead of them and had already sneaked into the queue. It seemed that that had been their intention to get there before Otsune’s group were.

“W-What’s going on?” Fujiko muttered, looking at the whole scene as warily as she was.

“I don’t know…” Otsune said honestly, with a hint of freak out in her voice. “And you don’t either. Let’s just get our tickets punched, buy some popcorn from the store over there, ignore the guy selling tournament merchandise and just not think about it for a while.” She walked off to stand behind the old man in the queue, who was muttering about the death of serfdom.

***

“Hey,” Sagara said drearily, not putting any energy into standing up straight as Natoko tapped him on the shoulder. “What’s up?”

“I think you’re annoying the boy in front of you.” Natoko pointed to the large mass of meat in front of him in the line. The slightly smaller mass on top of the large mass was shaking, clearly annoyed by Sagara using the lower pieces of mass as a pillow, yet too disciplined by its training to respond accordingly.

“Na, I’m sure he’s fine.” Sagara patted the mass on its back laughing, before catching a glance of where they were. They were surrounded by people on both sides and for some strange reason it felt like there was no way out. “Where are we?” he asked.

“The line,” Natoko replied, growling to some extent. “We’ve got to register so we can be put into groups. Anyway, I should be the one asking that.”

“Groups?” he bounced back. “What for?” This elicited a large sigh from the lips of the samurai. It didn’t seem right that he had no idea what he was doing here, despite him being the one to set this all up.

“I’m not sure, something about the first set of eliminations.” She would have explained further, but she didn’t know herself. “I was hoping you’d know. Seeing as you brought me here, with fried octopus no less.” Sagara clearly didn’t know, as he immediately fell back asleep upon the sumo wrestler in front of him.

Natoko looked miffed for a second before calming down and looking around. There was more than the expected two hundred he had told her about here. It was more like three to four hundred. Some of them were huge. There was one particular, a bruiser with a square jaw, army slacks and hair coming out of everywhere that looked like he couldn’t be any younger than thirty-five, yet stood in the line for those younger than her and giggled alongside two other boys dressed almost adorably in judo suits. Another female sat on the floor in the middle of the line with a thick bandana covering her eyes and rendering her totally blind. Even so, she had no problem playing a variety of coin tricks for anyone happening to watch, and caught a 100 yen coin on the tip of her tongue before flicking it back up and slicing it in half with her little finger.

Wishing to take her mind off the surrealism surrounding her, Natoko looked down to the ground. This was so strange. Could she truly fit in here? It wasn’t exactly a place where she could belong; a lot of the people here were pure muscle that looked like they could break the earth by sitting on it.

They were the type that looked like they had been in actual fights, where she had never even taken a punch from anyone except Sagara. It wasn’t right, she felt like she had just sneaked into a party where she wasn’t invited, and every minute spent was another minute not being caught and thrown out.

She knew she didn’t actually belong here, not properly anyway. Sagara had provided her the ticket. At first she figured it normal, but there were definitely some freaky people round here. Some were clearly devout monks, while some were wandering nomads, four girls stuck together and reminded her of amazons. No one looked exactly normal, but then with her hakama on, she was no exception. But that was probably the only thing keeping her here. They were part of this world of demons, part of this strange realm of never ending corridors. It was like some kind of fantasy adventure where everyone knew what was going on as if it were common sense. She had no right to be here.

That fat boy hadn’t exactly helped, she lamented. His speed the morning before had really put her off. Disappearing in an instant like that made her worry about the level of competition yet. Whilst it was true she hadn’t even fought Sagara properly yet, beyond training and being possessed, she couldn’t judge her skills against anyone until she was up there in the ring. These people were clearly part of Sagara’s world. Could she hope to keep up with that?

The queue shuffled forwards slightly and Natoko didn’t notice, causing the person behind her to push her as he too wasn’t paying attention. She turned around and unleashed a menacing growl that pushed the pusher back a few steps. When she realised what had happened, she turned back around and let  her expression turn to a depressed frown. Was intimidation all she was good at? The boys at the class back home always seemed to lose not because of their lack of training but because it felt like they were facing a professional madwoman brandishing a sword. At least, that’s what she heard them saying a few times. Intimidation did seem to be an important factor in some fights, but it was never a winning one. Sagara had taught her that when he had just laughed off her taunts. The boy’s calm was something she did not have. Her anger was the thing that drove her, but it’s also what made her lose. If she didn’t have anger, what would she have?

Waking up once again, Sagara lifted himself up from the sumo wrestler in front of him. Apparently wanting to keep himself awake, he slapped his cheek hard. Turning around, cleaning up his drool, he looked glad to see Natoko was there, and, slapped her as well.

“What the?” Natoko replied in shock that quickly turned to anger. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Just checking you’re not a dream,” Sagara replied casually, slapping himself a few times to make sure he didn’t fall asleep again.

“A dream?” she asked surprised. “Shouldn’t you be more focused today? That’s several times you’ve fallen asleep.”

“It’ll be okay,” he said, waving her down. “Hey, have you got a piece of paper? I’m supposed to write my dreams down.” Natoko looked taken aback at this near random request, but shook her head anyway.

“That’s a shame. Mom insists I always do it before I forget.”

“Next,” the caller shouted, clearly disliking his job. Natoko looked ahead to find a large empty gap where the wrestler had been. Getting pushed forwards by Natoko, Sagara stumbled to the person with the large box. “Registration card please,” he asked with a need to fall asleep attitude. Sagara dozily searched his pockets for it, before Natoko passed it to him. He flashed in front of the man, who smiled with lips that looked like they were being lifted at both sides by cranes before presenting the box.

“Pick one out,” Natoko whispered to him, not willing to chance how stupid he was feeling today. Sagara fished his hand through and after a moment pulled out a little slip of paper with the number two on it.

“Stick that on your registration card, sir,” the man holding the box said helpfully. “It’ll let you gain access to block number two at the time of the tournament.”

“Thank you,” Sagara said. “Where is block number two?”

“Not my jurisdiction, sir. Please move along,” the assistant said with about the friendly helpfulness one would get out of an inconveniently invincible cabbage.

“Surely you could just tell me?”

“Move along, sir,” the assistant interrupted. Sagara found himself forced to obey as he walked off along the side of the queue. From behind, Natoko sniggered a bit and flashed her card at the man. His smile disappeared, and he just thrust the box at her. Pulling out a number five she was kicked away before she had chance to stick it onto her card. Hoping to catch up with Sagara, she only got so far before a snort of superiority froze her in her tracks.

“I see you failed to heed my warning,” Before she even turned to see she knew who it was, the snort alone reminding her of her savior from yesterday. The fat boy with the psychotic cousin stood several places behind them in the line and she hadn’t even noticed. The cousin was there as well, skulking down at the floor at this point and doing his best to ignore everything. “You shall regret that.” Natoko didn’t know fully how to reply to this, she seemed to try by stuttering.

“So…s…” she trailed off, as she felt bad about something. She wasn’t sure what though.

“Humph, if you’re going to whine, woman, you might as well just leave now. Know this before you do depart though. What I say is not to insult you, but to inform you. You are a useless creature here, below the level of my uncle’s son, who himself is a useless creature and only here because of his father’s status.” He pierced his gaze into her in one strike and the floor was her key interest all of a sudden. “And you’re a swordswoman as well, I see,” he commented, snorting again.

“I…i…” She wanted to spit anger and fury at him, but it was gone.

“With your level of awareness it’s clear you’re just an amateur. I’m amazed at how someone like you got invited to this noble event in the first place.” Natoko continued staring at the ground, unsure of how to fully react. She looked up a moment later, and found he had disappeared, choosing to move further down the line without saying anything. With no one left to reply to, she left the area as well, hoping that she wouldn’t run into Sagara.

***

“Please tell me someone else finds all this strange,” Otsune muttered as Aki plopped down in the seat next to hers on the high bleachers, a fresh bag of bananas in her hand. It seemed the snack store really did sell everything, including fresh fruit direct from foreign countries.

“Find what strange?” the dark skinned girl replied. Otsune exhaled as hard as she possibly could, before confirming with her eyes that which she had already checked several times before even sitting down.

The place was huge! It was more like a professional wrestling arena than the abandoned building they had come across just a few minutes ago. This might have made sense were it a wrestling match they had come to see. But she had seen martial arts tournaments before, back when a collage friend dragged her to one for support. They weren’t anything special in the remoteness of any possible significant events in any part of the world. Usually they had just booked a local sports hall or convention centre, and on the other side they’d be a basketball game going on or something and the most interesting thing (because it was clear to her superior mind that there was nothing of any great merit watching two morons bounce around each other for two minutes only to stop when one tapped the other to have a point declared) to see that day would be arguments between the two sports resulting in a basketball in her then boyfriend’s face.

To see an arena, packed with what had to be several thousand members of an audience, and a huge ring in the centre, bigger than any she had seen on television, was beyond a mere term like surreal. Yet it suited the term, ‘just plain crazy’ perfectly.

It wasn’t even a ring really. It was a tiled slab of a square that went about fifteen meters in each direction made out of smooth stone. Wasn’t that dangerous for a martial arts fight? The tournaments she had been to they usually padded the floor.

If this wasn’t enough for her friends to find strange, and to be honest, it was very easy to get used to, certain members of the audience were proving even worse. She turned, just a little, once again, just to check if she was sure. And yes, yes indeed, there, around five seats away from her was an eagle. A fully-grown bald headed eagle, with dark brown wings and a purple tail that she swore looked like it had been dyed with the same stuff Fujiko used when she dyed her hair last year. Weren’t bald headed eagles from America? At first, she had assumed it to be some exotic pet, or more realistically, escaped from a local zoo. It had only been when nobody else seemed to own it or have a problem with it that she gave up that thought, only to be nearly scream as it flew passed her, returning several minutes later with a small bag of popcorn. Could eagles even eat popcorn? Surely it would have digestive problems. She did her best to ignore it, especially when it started glancing back at her. She got the strangest feeling that it might start trying to chat her up.

The others had no problems with anything going on. Fujiko had taken her advice and now relaxed with food and booze that Otsune couldn’t bring herself to consume. Gen hadn’t denied himself though and was consuming about half of what Fujiko was. Sarah looked ready to bolt the second anyone looked away to go find Sagara and Aki was just enjoying herself. Why was she the only one that couldn’t relax? That was obvious to her even as she asked herself. Because it was all so damn weird! Even she was acting weird earlier to Sarah and her attitude with the little girl. What had she been thinking? It was like she was treating the helpful stranger like royalty.

Tina still hadn’t joined them yet. They had been given seating numbers so she shouldn’t have much trouble getting to them when she did show up. But the chances of her even finding this place, much less wanting to stay…

Trying her best to focus on nothing, to become as ignorant as the others, Otsune failed, catching sight of a man walking into the centre of the ‘arena’. She couldn’t really tell how tall he was because he was so far away- Sagara not having got them the best seats to observe from- but he was very well dressed and was carrying a microphone with him. Slowly strolling to the centre, an act that got a lot of the audience to fall silent, the man scratched his mustache and cleared his throat, testing the microphone as he did so.

“Hello!” the man began. “Konnichiwa, Tsubakateenato, Gu’tak and Bonjour to all of you. Welcome to the one hundred and fourth decade’s Young Warriors tournament!”  The crowd erupted into an explosive cheer causing everyone around her to join in. Just in front, the eagle let out a loud shriek, which nearly elicited a shriek from her in return. “On behalf of the committee and the Balance Negotiator Services, may I say how delighted to see so many people here. The stands are practically full to bursting with so many of you- as I suppose many of you can tell. I hope you will be comfortable throughout the fights. It’s surprising that so many people are here in fact, especially since this tournament is supposed to be a well kept secret.” Half the crowd laughed at this, but Otsune wasn’t sure if they were just cheering in general. Everyone except her seemed to be having a good time. Behind her, Fujiko was muttering to her digital camera, as she desperately tried to get it working before she missed too much. The man continued. “Regardless, let me thank you on behalf of everyone at the committee how pleased we are that you all showed up. Thank you very much.” The man performed a little bow to express somebody else’s gratitude and the crowd cheered him on more because of it. Otsune just became more and more unsure why she wasn’t just running away, going as fast as her beautifully conditioned legs could carry her.

“Now before we begin,” the man continued, after most of the crowd had calmed down. “Here to inform you of the rules of the tournament is the woman who lets all of this become possible. Please welcome her kindly, the CEO of Sakimoto Enterprises and the head of the Balance Negotiator Services: Lord Sakimoto Yuya.” There was an increased cheer in the audience, which told Otsune that this woman was famous for some reason, and she doubted it was because she was an executive.

“Thank you, Mr. Taichi,” she said , taking the microphone off the well dressed man and bowing as he removed himself from the stage. “Thank you, everybody. May I say how great it is to see you all here today?” The crowd cheered. Otsune sighed. “When I took control of running this tournament five years ago, I had no idea what I’d be in for, nor how the numbers would grow as time, and the internet as well I suppose, went by.

“I am beyond happy that you have all joined us today for this spectacular occasion. For those of you in the audience who are a little less enlightened, and perhaps a little too petrified with how you got here, just be polite and bow like usual and we’ll all get along fine. Remember, though we fight today for honour, we also respect life of all those on Earth and seek to remain balanced. If you get confused or lost or frustrated, please visit any of the Balance staff in the gray tops, and they’ll be glad to help you with what you need to know.”

It continued, and although many may find Sakimoto Yuya’s speech very uplifting and motivating, to Otsune it was already becoming tedious. As the woman went on about stadium population figures and the history of the tournament in terms of who won it, it was all Otsune could do not to yawn in disrespect.

When it was time to clap, Otsune found herself joining in.

Act Three – Chapter One

Otsune’s was screaming. It eventually woke the boy up.

Alongside the screaming she was also kicking him, as well as the mattress, in the hopes of getting him to fall out of the bed she had rented that night at the Scarlett hotel. Having slept on his arm, Sagara waited a few seconds to get the blood flowing back through it properly. As he got up and turned round, the telephone landed on his forehead, almost knocking him straight back to sleep.

“What are you doing in here?” she shouted, dressed in nothing but a long T-shirt with a peculiar cat emblazoned upon it. “Get out!”

Three minutes later, Sagara was heading to the roof of the hotel. It had been getting harder for non-spiritual entities to get there recently. The evening before, there were several signs, one posted at each of the floors the staircase came out onto. This time, someone had placed a lock on the door and a white sheet of paper displayed the words ‘NO ACCESS’ in red marker pen.

Not fully understanding why it was bolted in the first place, Sagara stared at this sign like it was a shopkeeper who would give him something for free if he whined and hung around long enough. The lock wasn’t like this in fact, and was actually a stubborn money grubber, who had no intention of giving him free access unless he went on a mystic quest it had specially planned for him, where he would descend the steel steps of the tower and approach the mighty guardsman that sat at the bottom reading comics and ask for the key politely. Only then would he stand the chance to open it like any normal being would.

Breaking the wood around the bolt, Sagara strode outside, his eyes taking in the clear summer’s day.

“Morning,” he yawned to Melissa, walking past her stretching his arms out and beginning a morning warm up routine. Melissa didn’t respond for a moment, lost for words.

“Get these on quickly,” she said eventually, throwing various pieces of clothing at him. “Before anyone sees you.” the fault was with Melissa of course. She had informed him she would be providing his warrior’s grab for the day. Putting anything else on would of course be a waste of time.

Barely stopping to dress himself, his bouncing causing a pair of socks to fall to the floor, Sagara may have taken this moment to notice a connection between Otsune’s actions in the morning and his current state of dress, but it was impossible to tell. On top of the pile of clothing, a mobile phone that wasn’t his sat. It was covered in frogs, some were printed on, while others had been doodled on lazily in red permanent marker.

“Use that to keep in contact with me,” Melissa told him. “It’s been modified, so wait a few seconds for the line to secure itself when it rings.”

“How do I contact you?” he asked, one sleeve of his shirt hanging limp as he tried pressing a few random buttons and ringing a man who called himself the Tiger god.

“My number’s on there, but don’t bother. There’s only enough credit for a few texts.” He looked at it for a few seconds longer, dropping it back on his trousers and pulling his shirt the rest of the way on.

“Feel my Tiger Fury,” a voice shouted from a unspecified direction. “It is furious.” The voice cut off, and Sagara was lost trying to find it.

“You’re quite the coward, you know that?” Melissa said as he was halfway between his underwear and trousers.

“Excuse me?” he said, seconds before his shirt went over his head.

“That girl ends up sleeping in your room,” she stated, her tone sharper than any knife. “And you sneak off and sleep elsewhere, just so you wouldn’t have to face her eye to eye.”

His attention moved back to the phone, the frogs screaming at him to give them more friends to talk to, for the ones they had at the moment were drawn in black marker, and these were always the dreary types you met at parties who talked about their tie collection and if it wasn’t for the fact that their sister was hot, the frogs would have shown them another thing they could do with ties and necks. Sagara noticed none of this either.

“I told you it was a bad idea to involve them,” she continued to scold. “Yesterday your actions cost a poor, innocent naïve girl her sanity. And just when I was warning you the night before.”

“She didn’t go insane.”

“It was close,” she retorted quickly. “Bad enough you killed someone who to her seemed to be a fully living human, but to then waste time comforting her in front of the corpse. Ninja. Sagara. Ninja! Having people see you kill is the last thing you want. It makes you traceable. It shows you’re incompetent.”

“It wasn’t my fault she was there,” he replied.

“Wasn’t it?” she countered. “You let yourself get caught by one of our biggest enemies and dragged into the InBetween Realm with a grin on your face. I admit it’s unusual she somehow got to the Realm in the first place, but none of it would have happened had you not invited them all to the tournament in the first place.”

“That’s not necessarily…”

“It was because your cousin was searching for you. Because she idolises you for some bizarre reason and wants to have ‘adventures’ with you. Because she has the same curse her whole family has. But mainly because you’re stupid and announce your presence in a pool full of girls!”

“Not pool, Hot Springs.”

“Stop with the excuses! What kind of leader are you going to be if you just try and bat everything off one at a time?” He stopped bouncing, letting gravity hold him down. He giggled, scratching the back of his head, looking away; turning back to catch her glare and moved away again.

“I just can’t… you know,” he muttered, not finding the words where he thought he left them, “help myself?”

“Yeah, I do,” the girl said, breathing a heavy sigh as she realised talking further about it was pointless. She sat off the side of the building as he finished getting his shirt on.

“Any new orders from mom?” he asked. Melissa sighed in frustration, looking like she wanted to tear out her hair and shove it down his throat.

“None at all,” Melissa replied, trying to stay focused. “As far as we are aware, the mission is to continue on as planned.” She began to count the mission points on her fingers. “Infiltrate the tournament being held today. Maintain cover as a participant for as long as possible, getting at least pass the preliminaries and first round. That’s only a suggestion by the way. Your mom wants you to Place because you’re the future Enforcer and it looks good. What’s important is that you just get in. During this time, discover any information you can about the whereabouts of any demons that may be operating in the tournament. If there are no demons, then the mission is over. If there are demons, then the mission is to deal with them ‘as you see fit.’” He nodded his head, whether he understood or not was a different matter. That gone out look in his eyes told her that he was probably remembering the fact he had said the word Hot Springs earlier, and was now engrossed in the concept.

“Okay,” he replied when she had finished. “That’s good.”

“Is that it?” she asked, sounding like it never would be.

“Should there be more?”

“Well I don’t know. Shouldn’t you be asking me what information we’ve got so far?” He considered this.

“And what information have we got so far?” he asked, repeating like a parrot.

“None, you idiot!” Melissa replied bluntly. “You haven’t looked yet.”

“Hhhhmmm, good point,” Sagara continued, unfazed by his female friend’s comments. “Can you think of anything?”

“Me?” Melissa shouted, getting in his face. “Have you forgotten who this is all about?”

“Who?” he smiled nervously, as she looked ready to bite his nose. From this distance, all it would require was her opening her mouth and slamming it shut.

“This may be my mission, but this is your initiation, remember?”

“Yeah,” he replied simply, not sure what point she was trying to make. She mashed her teeth in frustration.

“I am simply a tool for you to use in all this. You give me orders based on reasoning and leadership, and I’ll follow them.” She waited a second for this to sink into his brain, then waited a second longer, just to make sure. “You do not sit back and expect others to do the brain work. That is your job.”

“But you’re smarter than me… I…”

“You’re a leader, Sagara. You’re supposed to be anyway. That’s the point of this initiation. You’re to become the Lord of the Futabatei clan, the centrepiece as you so delicately put it yesterday. Yet not even I can find the respect to see you as such.” He stayed silent, as she forced him to step back a few times. “To be a leader, you must prove yourself as a ninja, by achieving this mission and successfully completely it. That’s more than the basic grunt work of kicking people until they stop living that you’ve been doing so far. That means thinking, investigating and figuring things out! You got me?”

“I…guess,” he said, agreeing regardless. Melissa groaned loudly. She could be telling him to transform himself into a cardboard box made of jelly and he would still be nodding his head.

“Good,” she turned around, allowing him to relax from her piercing gaze. “Now, what leads, if any, do you actually have?” She sat down by the door. The only way out would be through her, she would make sure he didn’t make some excuse to get away.

“Well…” he quickly tried to think of anything, looking down and almost saying ‘shoes’. “The main lead is the tournament…I think…”

“Y-eess?”

“Since that hasn’t happened yet, there’s very little. I haven’t seen any demons or demon spirits hiding within any objects, except the obvious ones, of course.” Draynor flashed into existence round his fist for a split second, Greynock popping out of it and screaming before being pulled right back in. “Though even if I did they aren’t necessarily related to the tournament.”

“Good. Go on,” she relaxed a bit. Sagara seemed to sense this, and went back to putting his clothes on.

“But there have been other weird things happening anyway?” As he lifted his jacket up, a packed sandwich dropped out of it. He smiled happily at his assistant and began to devour as if it was the first piece of food he had been fed since his stomach was ripped out and emptied.

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been here for two days, and I suffered two demon encounters. That’s kinda weird,” he muttered as he talked with his mouth full. “I was willing to count the Dark Scourge as just luck, but the Riddleklutz seemed intend on simply withholding us.”

“A distraction?” Melissa suggested.

“Possibly,” he said, more focused on his love of bread than anything else at the moment. “The Riddleklutz…. It stated that the Dark Scourge I met in the alleyway was on a mission to kill those people that spat at Natoko. Yet if I hadn’t led them there….something’s wrong here.”

“How do you mean?”

“The Dark Scourge wouldn’t have come out of the alleyway, for fear of exposure on a crowded street, so it was expecting those people to come to it? Yet they only went in the alley to chase me…” Melissa looked on, the gaze in her eyes lost to him. “Is that a lead?” he asked, looking for praise.

After a moment’s pause, in which the entire audience edged onto their seats. “It’s a good start,” she said.

“And then there is this folder I found on the Riddleklutz’s desk.” Out of nowhere he pulled a large brown folder filled with a bulk of white paper and several post it notes poking out in all directions. “It’s titled ‘Agenda for the administration of the Young Warrior’s tournament of the Faithless’s Underground demonic betting circle: Notes on tournament entrees and gambling antes.’”

He held it in front of her. “Would that be a lead at all?”

Melissa blinked loudly.

“…excuse me?”

“Yeah I’m not sure either. You want to read it? You might have a better idea than I do.”

He threw the folder over to her, fifty pages spilling to the floor in the process before her reflexes kicked in and caught the lot.

“…excuse me?”

***

“And so,” a voice, blacker than darkness, which isn’t that hard to achieve when one really thinks about it, said in the  room without the lights on. “So, it finally begins.”

“Yes master,” came a voice that was darker than blackness, which made a lot more sense than what the previous voice was like, but didn’t sound as effective for a metaphor. “It indeed finally begins.”

“Are the preparations set?” a third voice asked. This voice was blacker and darker than the previous two voices put together, creating a whole new colour; one that I shall call Spurgle.

“Yes master,” said a voice that didn’t belong in the conversation. This voice was squeaky and childish. It must have been jealous of the other voices, which sounded so grand, majestic and spurgley that one of them even got a new colour named after what it sounded like. It wished that its voice was so impressive as to have a colour named simply because of its existence. “All is ready.”

“Now,” said the blacker than darkness voice. “All we do is wait for the players to enter the game.”

“Yes,” said the spurgley voice. “I wonder how they will fare against the challenges that we have inserted into the contest. How long before they realise that this is more than a simple tournament?” The voice, in all its grand spurgiliness, which would have caused a grown man to tremble in fear because it really was just that far beyond dark and black, laughed a hollow laugh. It was meant to sound maniacal, but this was one of the many unfortunate side effects of having such a spurgling voice.

“It is but a shame that the tournament is only once every few human years,” the first voice, full in its blacker than darkness splendor stated. “It would be most…agreeable to make this a regular occurrence. But too much would attract too many hunters.”

“That is a point we should have to consider,” the voice, were it not so dark and disembodied, would have turned round to the servant voice without the squeaky voice at this point. “Annabelle?”

“Yes, unholy demon scourge master,” it replied with the darker than black nature that it reflected in its voice.

“How many hunters have been detected so far?”

“Three, my reverent blackest one, of which mold is jealous of. Not including associates. Two of these have already been dealt with and will not be a part of the storyline. The other remains still at large.”

“You talk strange,” the spurgley voice pointed out. “But no matter. This other one, he is the Futabatei, correct?”

“I believe so, most defercationnal one, of whom we let it all go in our pants when we see. If we were to strike at this one directly, it would cause problems. So far our attempts to handle him covertly have failed.”

The Stoolie! So they follow him as well. Make plans that ruin my plans. That can’t be allowed.

“Bah! No matter. His presence will divert attention away from our little game anyway. Our little game…of proportions historic.” The voice, rich in spurgleness, began to laugh hard and loud, when there was a knock from somewhere.

“Room service!” a voice rang out that was as bright and white as one of the voices were black and dark, a sharp contrast basically.

“Room…service,” the first voice repeated. “What is this?”

“It does not matter,” the other voice stated. “Send them away quickly.” The one with the squeaky voice approached me.

“Yes, he who fishes for corruption,” it squeaked as it rang towards the door, opening it ajar. Before it had chance to say anything, the person on the other side burst in, armed to the teeth with drinks and assorted snacks, and knocked the servant against the wall behind the door.

“Good morning,” the young girl announced. How are you? Thank you for your time. Please take care of me. Oh, are the lights broken?” Without waiting for permission she turned to the light switch and flicked in on, revealing three midgets in the room, with confusion drawn on their faces. “Oh they’re alright,” she said, turning to the occupants of the room. “Were you playing a game?”

“Erm ahh,” said the once spurgley voice in surprise. “Yes…a game…of proportions historic.” It tried to make it sound as impressive as before. It failed due to being short fat demon.

“Well that’s nice,” replied the bellhop. “I like role-playing games. There the only reason I haven’t killed anyone yet. Well. No one important.” She started to look round the room, admiring the scenery. From the looks of things, they had managed to turn the hotel room into a Goth’s playground. Chains were scattered around the room and walls and there was an altar when the bed once was, with a very realistic four hundred pound bear carcass. “You know, I may or may not be employed here, but I get the feeling that the management isn’t going to like any of this.”

“Oh curse the grand fates,” one of the midgets said, rubbing his face in his hands. He turned to the bellhop, who was amusing herself with the altar they had brought in. “My dear…er…lady. We did not order any of this room service. In fact, we left specific orders not to be disturbed.”

“Oh, please accept my forgiving apologies then, sir,” the girl said, acting genuinely displeased. “There must have been some confusion with room numbers down below. It’s what you get for having apartment 666 in a place with a total of seventy rooms” She took her hat off and held it down in her hands before turning around to take a bow and seeing the dismembered corpse that was the reason they didn’t need room service hanging on the wall besides the door. “Oh wow. A corpse of proportions bloody.”

“Oh no,” the first midget groaned as the maid observed the bloody remains of a late sacrificial meal. “What are we going to do now?” It started cursing the living arrangements they had been forced to take up. I couldn’t help but sympathise. Constantly teleporting between dimensions would have brought up too much attention, but renting a hotel and using disguises must have felt a lot worse.

“And to think I didn’t have a reason for what I was about to do.”

“Can I eat her, he whose ears can only be dreamed of by raccoons?” the squeaky voice monster asked politely, now strolling over menacingly to the lone non-demon occupant in the room.

“I guess it’s too late now,” the midget replied. Except it wasn’t a midget now. It had changed somehow. “Go on then, close the door first though.”

“Thank you, master of the everlasting book of torture.” Annabelle laughed hysterically as it kicked the wooden object behind it without taking its eyes off of its next succulent meal. “You look delicious, dear.”

“But reasons are all relative anyway,” I said, feeling the room heat up as I set the air on fire. “Excuses for rationalisations for the stupid mistakes we made today.” Annabelle disappeared, replaced by fine ash. “Or at least, that’s what I always get told.”

***

“Well,” Melissa said, still gobsmacked at the wealth of information that had just been presented to her. “A lot of its in Japanese. Some is in English and a lot is in that squiggely writing that happens wen people try to make notes in the InBetween realm. But at the very least, it confirms the presence of demons in the tournament arena.”

“That was kinda obvious anyway.”

“How so?” Sagara went to answer, and she saw him space out, thinking it over.

“Well, there had to be,” he finally responded. “There’d be no point to this otherwise.”

“Hey now,” she replied deadpanned. “This isn’t that simple. There was a chance we’d be coming out of this with absolutely nothing. It’s not like they threw the hardest possible mission in the world at us.”

“Yeah, but it’ll probably turn out that way.” What was he talking about? She coughed, bringing it back to the focal point. “It would be boring otherwise. I don’t mom would allow boredom.”

“Anyway. The file, since I assume you haven’t read it beyond the cover, seems to be a mediator contract between the False Balance and several clients, as well as official procedures and protocols for catering to the demons during the tournament. Seems like the False Balance were sub-contracted as a go between for the people listed here and some unnamed third party referred to only as ‘The Ring’, which i’m guessing are the demons. A lot of it is just small print, the rest are names and addresses.”

“Right.”

“I’ve heard mention of this being done before from some of the other assistants actually. The False Balance sets up consulting services to allow weaker demons to interact with more powerful ones without being devoured because they blinked. Of course it’s not just demons, humans can do it too, so it doesn’t necessarily mean anyone on this list is a demon. It could be some tournament participants have made special contracts with demons through the False Balance for whatever reasons, e.g. power, debt, favour.”

“Right.”

“However it could mean that several of the tournament participants themselves are demons, betting on themselves or fighting humans for some kind of glory. That could get messy.”

“Right.”

“If that’s the case, we’re probably best checking out some of the names listed here and see where they lead. We should be able to cross reference it with the list of participants in the tournament and see which ones stand out. If not we’d just have to check out each of the addresses one by one.”

“Right.”

“I recognise that name for certain. The Fujiwaru cousins. They was in the café yesterday morning giving your little ‘samurai’ free food. You should keep an eye on them in the tournament.”

“Right.”

And then we’d-“ Her brain switched back to reality, and she came face to face with his nodding head. “You’re the one that should be doing this, you know. Not me.”

“You’re doing a good job of it,” he replied with a simplisticness that brought an image of her fingers going through his eyes delightfully upon her brain.

“Thank you,” she replied, smiling sweetly. “Now please, finish the job.”

“Well…” he began to say his eyes zoning out, telling her that he was desperately trying to remember everything she had just said. “I…We’ll head to the alleyway where I met the Dark Scourge as we figured earlier and check there first, then do each of the address one at a time for clues…” He stopped abruptly, his mind applying the handbrake. “Wait. The tournament.” He started to genuinely think, and for a second she almost felt proud of him, the burning alabaster heat that was her hatred cooling down just for a second. “But I can’t check now. If I wait too long… it’s already been a day, the evidence will be gone if I… If I go now, I might still make it for the tournament…but I have to register my presence still…” He paused for a brief period. “I’ll have to check it out tonight…”

She sighed deeply, chiding herself for pushing that now torn fragile thinking process too hard in such a short space of time. She stood back up and turned to leave.

“I’ll check out the alleyway and the addresses on the outside,” she stated, “-if that is your order.” He looked at her, quickly remembering her point in all this.

“Of course…yes,” he said happily. “You go investigate that alleyway then. I’ll head to the tournament and search there and protect people from demons… Report anything you find to me…I guess.” He scratched the back of his head and grinned, like he was hoping he’d get a cookie.

“Understood…sir. I’ll go photocopy this.” It took all of her effort and a loan to finish that phrase, and she felt sick for having even begun it. She quickly headed down in case the interest rates were too high for her to handle.

“Oh, one last thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Keep your little toy out of this. Just let her fight. She doesn’t need to do anything else.”

***

“Ready to go?” Sagara asked her, apparently not noticing her lack of breath. This was good, if he realised she had overslept thanks to Aki…well, she would have felt bad about it at least.

“Yes,” she panted, seeing him go out to leave before she had even finished the syllable. She quickly followed, the hot summer’s day blazing over her unexpectedly. “It’s good weather,” she commented absently, part of her mind wondering where Otsune had gone, since she had needed to speak to her. “I suppose we’ll be inside, but I’d prefer to not have to worry about getting a cold.”

“There should be no chance of that,” he replied, his eyes taken by a stand selling fried octopus. He hadn’t even liked it the first time he tried it, but that didn’t appear to be stopping him from considering buying some more. But this was Sagara and t appeared to be second nature for him to jump at the first foods he saw regardless of his like for them.

“So, we should take the subway over there, right?’ she asked him quickly. She knew it was more proper for him to order her, so asking the question would result in that.

“No, we won’t need to,” he said, still distracted by the store, as well as the man standing there, looking at him expectantly to buy the fried octopus, which wasn’t looking at him at all, mainly due to being dead and without an actual face.

“Then how do you propose we get there?” she asked, seeing him finally give up and walk over to the stand. It wasn’t exactly the best breakfast, but she figured that it wouldn’t hurt.

“Two Takoyaki Spinners,” Sagara requested, giving the money up front.

“Er, Takoaki Spinners, sir?” the man at the counter repeated.

“We don’t… I don’t believe we sell a ‘Spinner’ version.”

“Yes you do. You just don’t know it.”

The man looked distraught for a second, and slowly turned to the person behind him. The cook looked back to the man taking the order, looking a little lost as well. Natoko was just about to intervene when another of the men working in the back just nodded at him, waving his hand and saying it was okay, already grabbing ingredients to make the order. With an uncertain look, the man at the counter took the money graciously.

That was weird, Natoko thought. She was about ready to condone the boy for requesting something that didn’t exist, when the man returned in time much shorter than the fried octopus should have been ready. Offering them throwaway chopsticks, he invited them to sit on the nearby bench, which Sagara did.

“Come on, eat up,” Sagara said, before giving thanks.

“I am fine.” She had figured that he had bought both servings for himself at first, but she wasn’t too hungry anyway. She needed to fight today, and to her, that was best on an empty stomach. That way, her concentration would be full on the fight.

“Eat. That’s an order.” The words came casually, yet they felt like they had stung that elicited joy and melancholy in her. That wasn’t an order. It was stupid. He was treating her like a retainer as it was, but chose to at a time like this. Fujiko’s words came back to her as he carried on eating. She wasn’t even a big fan of Takoyaki.

“Yes, sir,” she said, feeling almost dismissive about it, before breaking the stick in her hand and slurping on the first ball of dough. It tasted sweeter than usual, although the actual creature was a lot chewier, actually taking a distinct effort to finally swallow.

Something fell on her; a head. Turning from her snack, she almost jumped in shock to see he had fallen completely unconscious. “At a time… like this?” she muttered, realising her own voice felt a lot more distant than she usually recalled hearing it. This was bad. The hotel and the others were only a few meters away. What would they think if they saw him sleeping on her like this; when they’re supposed to be doing…something… Something important? For some reason, she couldn’t remember what it was, but it was important. Definitely important. The Takoyaki was tastier than usual.

She tucked herself in against Sagara’s head.

Act Two – Epilogue

Something had happened today. She hadn’t found out what.

Natoko had never been up this high in a building before. The city skyline was an impressive one, such a condensed scattering of lights and sounds that it almost appeared as a field of light bulbs. Despite all this, on top of the hotel, it was eternally quiet for the young samurai, the sounds from below failed to reach her, and even the loudest siren couldn’t reach up here.

She sighed heavily. Something had happened today.

They had all returned to the hotel late that night. She had already met up with Otsune and the others and showed them to the hotel, Fujiko limping through the door with Gen practically dragging himself in behind her. Getting an extra room for them had been a minor problem, but easily sorted when Ms. Sakimoto’s name was mentioned. They should have gone to a coffin hotel in her opinion, but they had insisted in staying in the rich hotel with them.

Something had happened today. She couldn’t even think what it could possibly be.

Aki had been the first to arrive, literally jumping into the restaurant and mauling the samurai with her usual affection, the others following closely behind. There was another girl with them, with brown hair and a ribbon tied around her head, part of her clothing had been singed, and she was wearing Sagara’s jacket.

She didn’t know why, but that was the first thing Natoko had noticed.

Sagara seemed…different. He wasn’t tense- she wasn’t even sure if that was possible for him, but he wasn’t relaxed either. He was distant, and only got through three servings of ramen before excusing himself. Later, they had found him sitting in the lobby, just laying back and watching people walk back and forth as he played with a folder that he had received about the tournament. The others didn’t seem to notice that there was something wrong. When she thought about it, there was no real reason to think that something was wrong. Aki was fine, no change there. Maybe a little more hyper than usual, even now sat atop her shoulders and pulling hairs out one at a time. Sarah only spoke with the group whenever they did something to annoy her, and Sakura was as shy and unresponsive as ever. It seemed that without having anyone to talk to her about how nice her cooking was, the young girl was at a loss for conversation, but other than that, everything was fine.

But there was something wrong.

She stood up, clutching her sword tightly and resisting all urges to scream her curiosities into the atmosphere. It wasn’t like her to be curious about things, but she really wanted to know what had happened. The tournament was making her nervous, and anything to pull her thoughts away from it for an hour would have been most appreciated.

“You are Natoko, yes?” a voice said behind her, causing her to turn, surprised she hadn’t sensed anyone on the rooftop. It was a young girl, about her age. She was clearly a foreigner, as her bleached hair actually suited her. She looked like she was ready for a fancy dress party. She was wearing metal plates on her shoulders and had a mask covering the bottom half of her face. It looked silly. Natoko briefly wondered if people would think that of her if she went to America dressed in her hakama.

“Listen, I’ll make this quick,” the ninja stated, walking up to the her. “Sagara has told you about things he shouldn’t have. About the InBetween Realm. About demons. I know he isn’t entirely at fault, nor are you.” Natoko stared at the girl sternly, not sure of her intentions. “But the InBetween Realm remains hidden for a reason. If everyone started to find out there’s a realm of infinite corridors, it’ll cause more havoc than it’s worth. People would start worshiping demons more for power, chaos would occur everywhere all at once, and that’ll become problematic for everyone.”

Natoko continued to watch the girl as she spoke, wondering her connection to Sagara.

“It’s our job, mine and Sagara, to make sure these demons and devils don’t get in the way of humans, shoving their hands where they don’t belong, affecting our fates like we were all on some chessboard. To do this, we need secrecy, you understand?” She didn’t wait for Natoko to reply. “What I’m basically giving you is a warning. Don’t spread this around. Keep it quiet, and to yourself. Don’t even mention it to people you trust, or even people that already know about it. Let them forget. Let them rationalise it into something else. And most importantly don’t start thinking you’re a demon hunter now. You’re not. Got that?”

Natoko stared at her, and the girl ninja took her silence as a confirmation. The two girls looked on at each other, each unsure of the other. Finally stepping back, the female ninja just faded out of sight, and before she knew it, Natoko was spinning round, shocked at the disappearance of the girl. Realizing that she had really gone, the samurai sighed, scratched her head, and went to sit back down, Aki panicking as she lost her balance on the samurai’s shoulders. Holding Iziz tight between her legs, Natoko looked out to the skyline again, musing over what had just happened.

“Should I have said something?” she asked the person above her. “I don’t speak a word of English.”

Act Two – Chapter Seven

“What kind of tricked up shit is that?” Nobori shouted, slamming his hands on the black oak table and getting splinter’s for his efforts. Sagara looked to him, responding more to the sound than out of concern, and looked back to the Riddleklutz. This had to be a tactic. There was no way it could jump like that. It just said it could win in ten turns. To jump this quickly…was probably possible

No matter what he had said a moment ago, he still wasn’t one hundred percent sure how this game worked. The very concept was perplexing, and for all he knew the mechanics changed in different circumstances. He needed to think, his hands trying to shut out the rest of the universe. “Shit… Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“Is it possible?” the girlfriend asked from beside him. Ninja girl was still in a trance, staring ahead without care for the fact that what she was doing may now be pointless.

“Probably,” he answered. “I don’t know.” He grabbed his hair, looking back to the Riddleklutz, aware that his head was shaking back and forth. “He knows how it works… I don’t have a fucking clue!”

“Riddleklutz’s don’t have gender.”

“So it doesn’t matter what Sagara does next turn. All he has to do is reverse it, and then do what he says he has to win. But…” He groaned, trying not to mewl like a dog. “No. I haven’t figured out the pattern yet. I don’t know if it’s a bluff or not.”

“There has to be something!” the girlfriend stressed, looking constantly worried as she stared at him, looking like she was hoping for a light bulb to appear above his head. “Take your time. It’s not like there’s a limit or anything.”

Sagara looked bored waiting.

“We feel that we should also inform you,” the Riddleklutz interrupted again. “That it is also possible for you to win in your next turn.”

“Yes!” Nobori cheered triumphantly. “I knew I was on the right track. I can solve any puzzle, me.” Of course, it must have been trying to scare him. Even if it were lying or telling the truth, he could still mess it all up by having Sagara move a couple of blocks off. The Riddleklutz hadn’t said anything about removing them, and didn’t seem to mind when it was by accident.

“Please don’t change your attitude solely on what your opponent is saying,” the girlfriend said, but he was already cutting her out of his thoughts.

“Fuck yeah,” Nobori cried out. One turn gave two options. Either he solved it straight up right now with the one block remaining, or else he had Sagara knock some blocks off. Though if he did that he would have to do it before placing the final block, else it would be the demon’s turn and he might not get the chance to do it before the demon made the final move. The question was could he get Sagara to understand what he meant before the demon could make its move. It looked to be hovering around the black box, and Nobori knew it could move pretty fast.

But then sabotaging was really just a stalling tactic. Even if he knocked all the pieces off and started again, they wouldn’t learn anything, but then they did need more time.

Of course, if he could just make the right choice now. One move remaining. Six types of block. Six different arms to put them on. Thirty six different moves he could make altogether, but for all he knew, the Riddleklutz meant he could win by taking blocks off. There were certainly a lot on there. Maybe the winning amount had been placed already and all the demon intended to do next turn was take blocks off until it matched…

“Dammit!” he screamed, banging his fist against the table. “Fuck. Dammit.” Looking at it all like that, the only clue they had was that the Administrator’s arm was the only one with the right amount on it, while all the others may have excess, but then it could be that four have excess, the Administrator has the right amount and one other just needs one block on it, be it light or dark, be it heavy or light. All he had to do was get them level with each other. It didn’t matter what level they were. Maybe he should have Sagara knock off all the White blocks, try and get all the hands to just rest on the floor. “I don’t know… Is this really possible to do in one move?”

“It is,” Sagara replied. Nobori grimaced, half his face crunching up in frustration as blunt fingernails tried to cut into his palms. Maybe if he just killed this whackjob the demon would let him off or something.

“Are you wishing to skip your turn?” the Riddleklutz asked sternly. “You are not allowed to skip moves. If you do, you will be disqualified…”

“Shut up! I can do this,” Nobori complained, before his voice turned into a mutter. “I should have all the information required by now. I can do this.”

“If you do not make your move soon, we are afraid that the Mass Singularity will take action…”

“Be quiet, you stupid fucked up carnival freak! I can do this.” Despite his words, his body jerked to look behind him, staring at the vast collection of silent bodies and quickly looking away. From a distance those things cold paralyze a person. What would they be like when they had surrounded him? Could he even hit them?

“Want me to tell you something?” the whackjob asked politely.

“I’m not an idiot!” the large teenager shot his answer out like a bullet. “I can’t stand you people, always assuming I can’t do stuff. I can solve this. I know I can.”

“This isn’t your stupidity that’s in question,” the whackjob explained. “It’s your ignorance. You wouldn’t know this, no matter how long you thought about it. Mom always used to say, we’re only allowed to tell the ignorant stuff if they have to know it. You will have to know this if you are to win.”

“If you know it, then why don’t you just solve it?” Nobori shouted angrily, his voice wavering like he was trying not to cry.

“We aim to give humans the freedom of their own choices,” Sagara explained. “It’s why we fight the demons, so they can’t take it away. And we should always help humans do what they want. That is the true Balance.”

“What?” Nobori replied, lost in the gibberish. They were seconds from death. No idealism please.

“You can do this, but the only thing stopping you is the fact that you don’t know what I’m about to tell you.” Nobori wiped his forehead with a bare arm, his eyes feeling a little rawer. “Didn’t you say that you’ll be able to solve this if you had all the information? If I give you the last piece, then you can solve it, right?” Nobori sighed, his hands slipping from his head to crash hard into the table.

“Right… Yeah you’re right,” he acquiesced. “Go on then, tell us.”

“Okay then,” Sagara began. “The Enforcer line is the centre of the Balance. It is the one considered the leader. We are the ones considered the leaders of the Balance, even as our line is the Enforcer line. Everyone else has two parts to the Balance, where we have just one. The centrepiece to everything.”

“You’re saying you’re the answer to the puzzle?” He implied he was Enforcer, that much was clear. That made some sense in the twisted sort of way.

“Oh, don’t tell her I told you that,” Sagara said, pointing to the Ninja girl. “She’ll get angry.”

“Hell, screw that!” Nobori replied, feeling a lot more refreshed. “I just wish you would have told me sooner. How am I supposed to solve it if I don’t have access to a piece of information like that?”

“So wait a second,” the girlfriend interrupted, looking mildly taken aback. “How do You solve the puzzle?”

“That’s easy,” Nobori roared triumphantly. “All we have to do is add a piece to the real Enforcer part.”

“But there isn’t a second Enforcer part,” she criticized. “Unless you’re supposed to add double the amount to the Enforcer arm or something.”

“No no no girl. Jeez are you only good for worrying or something,” Nobori said, too much in a rush to care about his own insult. “We place the final piece on the part that symbolizes the centre. The one that leads all. The head.”

Of course. This was all a lesson in Balance, but the pieces moved around like a baby’s playmobile. Something had to straighten them all out, and since it wasn’t like scales, it needed something else, something to hold them in place. Something more literal.

“The head? Are you sure?” she countered, quickly glancing to the monster behind Sagara. “We do only have one more move. We don’t want to waste it.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. It makes sense, right? You’ve got the centre of the Balance. You’ve got the crown representing leadership, and he did just say that he was of the Enforcer line. I may not understand everything going on here, but it seems clear to me that the Enforcer must balance everything. That makes him the queen right? Same as the card we chose. That whole backbone thing. That was the clue. It all fits.” The girlfriend was staring at him uneasily, as f he had just said something absurd, but nodded her approval anyway.

“If you’re sure…”

“Alright, go for it man!” Nobori commanded, pointing towards the undead structure before them. “Go stand on this thing’s head,”

“On the head?” the girl shouted in disbelief.

“Trust me on this one.”

Without another word, Sagara accepted the command, grabbing the chair he had been using for elevation and positioned it against the Ivoryhead, quickly beginning to climb the arms like a starving monkey who had seen bananas. Stepping on the shoulder of the Negotiator part, he pushed himself up for a final flip and landed spot on the creature’s head with perfect grace.

The Ivoryhead immediately pitched a death cry throughout the room, its neck snapping like a brittle twig as it imploded beneath Sagara’s weight. Sagara wavered on top for a second like his feet had been glued to the giant creature, wobbling around without equilibrium to catch him before being tossed like a drunken pirate from the crow’s nest.

With a loud, bone-crunching thud, the deceased corpse of the recently belated demon fell down on top of him, taking the chair with it and shattering under its own colossal weight. The black and white blocks scattered everywhere as the elbow of the now shattered administrator arm shot at Nobori like a bullet narrowly missing his favourite ear piercing, the same blank staring eyes of the monster telling him that this had been the wrong answer.

As Sagara lay trapped under the dead demon, Nobori caught out of the corner of his eye Ninja girl snapping out of her technique, shaking her head as if disorientated, before looking on, her face contorting as if first to display primal shock, quickly followed by sheer confusion and custom annoyance, before twisting to pure anger mixed with fear. He knew why she was angry. They both knew that Ivoryhead demons had weak necks, that was the first thing she had told them about it. And that anything more than a bottle of four month old coke being place on top was enough to kill it.

For some reason that didn’t matter to him a moment ago.

“You have… broken the trial device,” the Riddleklutz said, as though it felt it needed to explain it. “Therefore, you are disqualified from this trial of logic.”

Sagara was slowly pulling himself out from the creature above him, looking to the others with an apologetic grin that Nobori found himself wishing to strike. The girlfriend was the only one looking concerned. She stood up, looking like she was prepared to act. Sliding out from underneath, Sagara got back up, just as the Riddleklutz floated besides him.

“An excellent strategy I must say,” it said applauding, its bony hands only waving back and forth in the air like pendulums. “To sabotage the game when you realized you could not win in a way that made it look like an accident. Very clever.” Nobori heard Ninja girl mutter under her breath, as the Riddleklutz sounded incredibly amused by its own words. “Even though we have seen through your ruse, we are prepared to ignore it. We shall restart with another, more difficult challenge, and if you solve this, your associates may go free, Futabatei Sagara.”

The girlfriend breathed a loud sigh of relief, and sat back down behind Nobori, tapping him on the back as if to calm him down. He couldn’t though. What was the deal here? There’s no way they should have been let off for that. It’s the same as grabbing the chess board and ejecting it into the air right before checkmate occurred.

“Because there are only two choices left,” the Riddleklutz continued. “We believe we shall make you choose at random between the two trials. Is this fair to you, Futabatei Sagara?”

“What do you want to do?” Sagara asked, waiting on his call all this time. Nobori looked up to the demon, currently caught between choosing the two other cards. He went to think carefully, to consider all his options, when his brain informed him that it had done enough work for today, and promptly suggested that he whack the stupid demon until it was no longer there.

He concurred.

“I want you to kill it.”

“Okay.”

Jumping into the air, Sagara thrust a sidekick at the demon floating behind him. The Riddleklutz was taken aback by the sudden shoe attempting to insert itself into its eye cavity and fell back, wailing in a bizarre manner. The annoying pitch of the howl was enough to deafen Nobori for a moment, Sagara too was waylaid by the sound of pottery screeching together. As the creature fell in the air, Nobori spun round in an attempt to cover his ears further and was greeted with the sight of the audience rising from their seats to appeal the results of his trial. Not one of the fifty-one dark, menacing cloaks in front of them was making a sound, but told him plenty how the escape route was now blocked.

“Yo, dumbass,” Nobori shouted towards Sagara, who looked as ready as he was to fight. “Is there some trick to killing these things, or do I just whack them?”

Sagara didn’t reply, his focus away from the rest of the room and focused entirely on the floating head in front of him, who was now readjusting its equilibrium to face off against the student. It seemed to be the only thing he could look at.

“Yeah, you do that,” Nobori replied. “Leave us with these fucks.” As the first approached him, he pulled his gargantuan fist back and leveled it at the first of the Mass Singularities. Its cloak, although that was all it was, flowed back with the small air current created, before merely dropping back down, looking like a coat hung up on a peg against his hand.

“That’s not going to work,” the girlfriend said, stating what everyone was thinking. “Excuse me, miss?” she called out to Ninja girl, who was still just sitting there. “Can you do anything? Besides look ninjary, that is.” Ninja girl just grunted at the comment, pulling her mask down from under her nose, knowing she no longer had any reason for it. Holding the fabric in her hand, she rubbed it quickly between her fingers, building up the friction as fast as she could. A second later, it made a small ‘bang’ sound, and the silk spat out a purple smoke, engulfing the area in seconds and blacking out everybody’s view.

“Like the idiot said,” she shouted to the others. “Screw this. Let’s get out of here.”

***

“Where are we?” Sakura asked with a hint of isolated terror as she surveyed her surroundings. Old books piled around in stacks on shelves three times higher than herself. A musky air made her apologise for speaking too loud.

It was clear the girl had found herself suddenly in a giant library with no idea how she had gotten there. She certainly hadn’t walked her from the alleyway she was in scant moments ago and she didn’t feel like she had just woken up. As she spoke, the large oak shelves returned her voice and asked her the same question. Looking around, it seemed she was the only one in the nearby area.

“Aki? Sarah?” the girl called out to her friends, her echo also trying to help out, but without a reply either time. Hesitantly at first, she walked down the aisle of books, nervously trying to understand her location. Many of the books were hardback covers with intricate patterns on their spines. None had titles on them, but they didn’t appear special either, just old and perhaps even a little fake, like a pretend bookcase on a Haunted House ride. She couldn’t see if it was the same on the ones higher up above her. Both bookshelves on either side of her were about ten times as tall as she was, and impossible to climb without a stepladder. Sakura decided not to try looking at any of them, at the very least in case she was not allowed too.

“Aki? Sarah?” she tried once again. Her echo seemed to take a little longer in repeating her this time, as if it had decided that it was better to wait a few seconds before trying again but still to the same result. Eventually, she was able to reach the end of the aisle where she had found herself, only to gasp in astonishment at the sight of more bookshelves going off in every direction.

There must have been hundreds on either side of her, completely filling her sight before the horizon was thrown into darkness. There did not appear to be any sign of any far walls at the end of the room, and when she looked up, she saw only darkness where there should be a roof, making her question whether it was either just painted a really dark colour with many coatings of pitch or if there was really nothing there at all. The only sign that this could even be considered a room was the marble floor below her, which dazzled a bright, just been cleaned, white that made her feel guilty to step on it.

It was even bigger than the library she had visited the time she went up to the university with Otsune. It may even have been bigger than the university itself. Taking a moment to reel it all in, she found herself strangely composed, the thoughts of Sarah’s misdeeds now seeming insignificant compared to being whisked off to a strange underground library.

She had no idea what had really happened. Although Sarah had shown her an array of violently negative emotions since they first met, ranging to slamming doors in her face to throwing food back at her, she had never really seen the girl like that before. It was like she had just run a marathon where the prize for winning was a punch to the stomach, and she looked like she was about to be seriously ill.

That was when the wall had started to change colour. If she remembered right, it seemed to centre on where Sarah was leaning her hand against, and then they were here… or at least she was here. There was no sign of the others, or anyone. The only thing she could really do, she decided, after a moment of imagining the horrible events that might occur if she was to explore, was stay put. If those two were here, then they would probably start running around and screaming for her. If she stayed at this point, she would be able to see in all directions, except behind her. If anyone ran past, she would spot him or her.

A scattering of footsteps then beat the marble somewhere near her.

A sprinting dash that disappeared before it begun.

Without thinking, she held tightly to her crucifix.

About ten aisles down, something flashed past the corner of her eyes, causing her to grab a bookshelf for support. She wasn’t that smart, she knew that, but judging by the speed and skin colour that she thought she saw, it was probably Aki, rushing between the corridors of book and wood in an attempt to find her or someone at least.

With all the aisles looking the same however, it was hard to judge if she was right or not and before she get there. Sakura could see nothing save more hardback collections, any sign of her friend ever being there gone. Whimpering to herself pathetically, she began to clutch one of the thousands upon thousands of bookcases. Looking behind her, she couldn’t tell where she had started, but she was certain this was where she had seen the figure, though they were not there now. There were not even any footprints on the floor, and her own shoes were making a small mess from the dirt in the alley. Surely if someone had ran past, they would have made the same marking.

It brought another thought to her. If she was leaving marks on the floor this easily and she could see now others, then it meant nobody had visited this library for a very long time.

“Aki?” she said again, wanting to shout but catching herself. For once, even in whispers, she appeared to be the noisiest object in the building and it was becoming hard to tell if she was the only true person that had ever been there. With all the bookcases looking the same, and no sign of anything, the small girl felt like she would soon be lost to despair, alone in all these gigantic room forever.

Then she noticed the only difference, just a bookcase away from her, down the aisle on green hardback books with intricate patterns and no names that appeared a little shorter than the rest, enough to just see beyond it. At the end of it, just between another set of aisles that went on for infinity, a small desk sat. The desk looked a simple one, reminding her of her own, the only difference being this one had things on it. A small pencil tin, holding one small pencil and filled with an inch of sharpenings, a lamp switched on but with no obvious way of saying how and a large dusty book left open on its front. Unlike all the other books, this looked real, had a name on the spine and was perhaps even antique.

Moving over to it with unintended curiosity, the young girl turned the book over and peered down at the words. They weren’t Japanese fortunately, and read left to right like Italian. Although she was more suited to reading this way, she felt like she shouldn’t have been able to understand it anyway, like it made as much nonsense to her as it did sense. Finding herself speaking the words, she read out aloud:

‘And the Holy Divine agreed, save for one condition. ‘My Counterpart must agree the same. For without that, your Balance will be lost.’ And so the Counterpart, the Unholy Divine, was approached, and issued the same request, although it is arguable that by now it had become an ultimatum, for these humans had grown stronger than any could have anticipated. They had even defeated the Sirynclou, who would forever been banned from singing their changing words again.’

“Excuse me,” a voice said in front of her, causing her to fall backwards onto the floor with a frightened scream, the book to fall straight up into the air and her heart beating like it wanted to get out. Looking up, she saw a boy staring down at her, looking surprised himself.

Where he had appeared from, she didn’t know, but he looked to be an ordinary human. Blond hair, blue eyes, with a lighter than Aki’s and smooth, attractive features that made Sakura hope she wasn’t blushing.

“Erm, hello,” she replied meekly.

“Hi. May I ask what you are doing here?” he asked politely, studying the girl in front of him. He offered her his hand, and she saw no reason as to why she shouldn’t take it to hoist herself up.

“Erm, I don’t…” She stopped as she realised that she was in actual fact taller than he was by at least a foot. She thought that he was probably as old as Sagara and Natoko at first, yet now he looked just a little younger than her, though still kinda nice looking, “know.”

“You don’t know?” he said before laughing. “Well surely you must know how you got here?”

“Erm, no,” Sakura said, a little nervous, trying to think how to explain it. “W-well, me and my friends w-were in this alleyway, and we needed money so my friend told me to find t-this man. And I think he was really nice and polite but then Sarah said he wasn’t. But before that she started hitting him really hard with a piece of wood and she took his jacket. Then Sarah…did something and seemed to get ill and all of a sudden we were here. Well I was here and I don’t know where they’ve gone and I was trapped in this strange place and the room is massive and I can’t find a way out.” She sniffed as she found herself making herself cry. The boy seemed to fade out for a moment, her breath doing its best to hold in the tears by holding itself back. It wouldn’t work though. She was going to cry, and in front of a complete stranger as well.

Her body became warmth and fluffy at the same time she was covered up by his arms. They wrapped around her and instinctively she returned the hug, taking comfort in his chest.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” he reassured her. “Whatever happened, let’s just get you out of here first. Then we’ll find your friends.”  He held her tightly for a few moments longer and she let the tears roll out. Crying in the arms of a stranger. That was stupid of her. How could she bother another human being like that. It was silly. Just silly.

When she calmed down she blushed as he smiled patiently for her. She jumped away when she realised how close she was. “D-do you know the way out?” Sakura asked, finding herself getting comfortable in his embrace, the stranger feeling warm against her bare arms.

“Sure,” he said, clutching her tighter. “I mean, I do work here.” At this, Sakura pulled back from the hug to look at him in the eyes.

“You work here?” she asked here, looking around at the giant library. “But where is here? Where are we, and how did I get here?”

“I’ve just asked you that question,” he said, laughing once more. Then he looked down once more, to see that he was still holding on to her tightly. As Sakura also realised, he quickly let go and turned around. “A… as for where we are, I’m probably shouldn’t tell you. My bosses might not like it.”

“Bosses?” Sakura repeated, blushing lightly and trying not to think of what just happened.

“Never mind that. For the moment, let’s just get you out of here.” He held out his hand for her to take.

“Wait, my friends…” she said as he waited for her to take hold.

“Don’t worry about them,” he said calmly, still waiting. “Wherever they are, they’re not here”

“That makes me even more worried,” she said quietly to herself, and with a prolonged hesitation, took his smooth yet firm grip.

***

Sagara was shouting to his female associate. “I don’t think you should have done that.”

“And I don’t think you should have come up with such a retarded solution to the riddle” Melissa shouted back, jumping back onto one of the benches to avoid a slow moving Singularity. “Standing on its head? What type of groupthink crap were you guys going through?”

“you didn’t stop us.”

“I was in Trance mode. I couldn’t stop you.”

“Well I didn’t fill the room with smoke,” he called back, grabbing the Riddleklutz’s left arm and swinging it away. It only worked for a short distance before the Riddleklutz stopped its own momentum and began to float back towards him. “But if you can’t see their faces anywhere on their bodies, what made you think they have eyes?”

“Oh, just shut up,” Melissa said screaming, now jumping off the table and even further away from the living cloaks as well as Sagara. Attacking them straight on appeared to have been hopeless. When the big guy had whacked the cloaks nothing had happened, and when she had tried to grab where there should have been a head, she was met with nothing but an intense cold sensation, which alone almost knocked her out. Now, moving around to warm herself up, she had to use everything in her power just to avoid having to touching one of those things again. Unfortunately she was running out of places to escape.

The Mass Singularity were dangerous in their simplicity. She dared not touch them, even though it was only a mild cold that had already dissipated. The risks of prolonged exposure should she be swarmed by them were unknown. It was possible she would find out soon though. There were fifty one of them in the room that earlier engulfed them all in is size and that was apparently enough to surround them, meaning the Riddleklutz had shrunk the space around them. Were she to try and run though them to the other side of the room, she’d have to push through at least ten of them. It might not be worth the risk.

At the very least, the creatures could not move at any great speed, nor could they hover any higher than they already were. They had not tried to descend on any of them from above, or tried to climb onto the bench when she was on it. Even so there seemed very little she could do to take advantage of their lack of speed, with so many in the room, there was no definite point of escape. The demons had also been between them and the giant doors that they appeared next to, which allowed them to guard the only exit from the place perfectly. It seemed really dumb now that they hadn’t just tried to run out of the room in the first place, or at least stay near the doors where it was safe.

That was, of course, Sagara’s fault.

During the ruckus, she heard a loud shout of tense frustration from the youth that was deceptively younger than he looked. His arm was trapped in the void of one of the Mass Singularity, right around where its stomach might be and for all his strength he could not pull it out. Looking to help him, she ran up and dived at the creature. It had a better effect than she had imagined, the cloak fell with her to the floor, pulling the darkness away from the nameless youth’s fist. The freezing rag stuck to her like a wet tongue in an ice box, and she ripped it off as quickly as she could, leaving what skin she had to and bringing up illusions to hide the wounds, masking the sensation of pain with the delusion that everything was fine. The cloak twitched as if trying to get up, but before it could do anymore, the big guy slammed his large boot into where the creatures face should have been. Stamping hard twice more, he stopped where the cloak did, the demon appearing dead, but with no way to actually tell.

“Did that work?” she asked, seeing more of the demons advance on them and forgetting her own question. Going back-to-back the two fighters saw that they were completely surrounded by the shadowy demons and Melissa considered using the large bulk of muscle behind her as a stepping stone to get away.

“Oi, Ninja girl,” the youth shouted to her. “You seem to know a little about these things, how we kill ‘em?”

“I’ve no idea,” she replied honestly. “I’m not even sure if you could count them as demons. They seem more like machines.” Keeping her eyes on the creatures at all time, she couldn’t tell if it was luck or strategy that they were slowly surrounding them. “We can’t hit them, because we seem to take more damage than they do, and even when we tackle them like I just did, it seems to have little effect.” She looked down at the cloak below them. It still looked as fine as all the others, it was just trapped under the youth’s size seventeen feet, trying to get up. “The only advantage we seem to have is that they’re really slow. We could probably stand here another five minutes before we get overwhelmed.”

“They’re just cloaks right?” the younger boy asked her. “Do you have anything else like that smoke bomb, like maybe an actual bomb? If we could set them on fire…”

“Right, of course.” It wasn’t the most extreme situation she had wanted to use something like this for (perhaps a small building with Sagara inside it maybe) but it would work perfectly for this. Quickly fishing inside two of the pouches hidden in her khakis, one on either leg, she pulled out two small spheres. It was a little extreme, but it was the only choice at the moment. Holding them in two separate hands she cracked their covers as she had a hundred times before with the placebo containers. This time however, the blue liquid was actually oozing out. She just had to make sure it didn’t touch her.

“Sagara! I’m using this,” she called out, needing him to clear the area where he was still fighting the main demon. Swearing she heard Sagara squeak, she waited another five seconds as the boy grabbed a passing Mass Singularity and threw the cloak at the Riddleklutz, running away before even seeing if it had worked. Melissa took this as her cue and threw the capsule in her left hand first. It would probably look confusing as it did nothing, but no one would even see the second one land.

The explosion obliterated half the courtroom in an instant, the raging fire consuming  a wall and her ears taking the rest in as collateral. As they tried to start taking in new vibrations, the smoke quickly cleared and she saw the absolute nothing in front of her save darkness. Throwing the bomb to the corner of the room was clearly the only thing that hadn’t killed them all, as now only less than half the floor of the room was left to walk along before falling into what looked like bottomless nothingness. Whoever created this place had decided that no one would ever go beyond these walls and simply decided to leave them blank. There may have been more of the realm’s walls somewhere in the darkness, but there was no light anywhere in that direction.

“What the fuck?” the youth shouted, being unable to hear himself. “Was that nuclear or something?” he asked, turning to face the girl. Her own ears were out of commission still, but she could read his lips fine.

“Chemical,” she replied simply, glad to see someone impressed with her work.

“That was fucking awesome,” the young man applauded her. “Can you do it again?”

“Sorry, I only had one of them. It’s kinda too powerful to be carrying around lots of, and I don’t want to be carrying unstable chemicals around in large quantities.” she said, shaking her head as he admiring the carnage that one little girl could do, before turning to her with the look of gratitude gone.

“Oh great,” said the boy, the impressed look on his face disappearing. “So we got rid of what, twenty of them? And now we’ve got to fight these guys with no more room left to run.”

“Err… I guess.”

“Great, that’s just fucking great,” the unappreciative punk said as he turned around to see the remaining thirty two cloaks slowly advancing on them.

***

“Here we are, at the exit,” the boy informed Sakura with a jolly tone. She had barely noticed, the door taking up her full attention as much as it covered the range of her eyes. The two doors were larger than any of the shelves behind her (which themselves had only stopped just a few meters short of the door) and disappeared somewhere after the darkness that she thought was the roof. Yet despite their size they looked like regular double doors, with no more design on them than one would expect for the door leading to an apartment bedroom.

About half way up the doors was a simple handle, which seemed impossible to reach. It was curiously strange to the girl as to why someone would have such a big door for a library that seemed to be for regular, human-sized creatures. Her head feeling a little fuzzy and thinking of the ocean, she shook it off and waited. The boy in front of her pushed hard on the doors to open them, before making enough of a gap to walk through. Holding the massive doors open, he took her hand to guide her through.

As she passed through, they appeared to end up at the library’s reception. This place was also for people her size and the doors behind her felt really out of place shrank down to reach their level. None of the many kiosks were manned and from what Sakura could tell, apart from the boy who held her hand, the whole place was abandoned.

This place was lit better; her eyes adjusting to the intense brightness quickly. All around there were nothing but seats, arranged in very stereotypical settings. There were also coffee tables, flowerpots and radiators sitting in the middle of the floor, as if whoever arranged the place was just told to set it all up but had no idea how a reception should look or what any f the items it was moving were.

To her right she could see four vending machines, which vended unknown products. These machines strangely seemed to create another wall that stopped in the middle of the room. By the way the place was laid out, it looked like they would have to climb over them to get out. To her left, there were various book trolleys, some empty, some completely loaded with books, none of them in between. When she glanced at a book, it looked the same as all the others in the library did. She began to get a sneaking suspicious that they were all just empty boxes that looked like books. She wasn’t even convinced that they had paper in them now. Behind her, the door slammed shut, and she turned around to once more face the boy.

“Are you alright?” he asked her politely; continuing to appear amazingly well mannered and courteous for a boy their age. Most boys she tended to meet were constantly telling rude jokes or being nasty. This boy was much nicer though, as if by staying in this place he hadn’t lost the virtue of youth like every other boy in her class had. Behind him the doors they had come out of had decided to disappear and Sakura wondered for a moment where they could have gone. Looking at him, she felt it would be rude to ask such a strange question, and turned around to try to avoid the subject.

“Yes, thank you… Er, where are we?” she asked him, looking around the waiting room. There were three doors leading out of the rooms, two of them had windows looking into their domains, but the waiting room’s light’s reflection prevented her from seeing.

“I would say that was obvious,” the boy replied walking ahead of her. “It’s the reception where I work. If we go out this door here, we can get to my boss’s office. He’ll probably be able to sort out your little mess.”

“Th… thank you very much,” Sakura said, looking towards the ground, feeling her cheeks blush. She did not know why she felt so shy around this person. She had previously learned to stop being so shy after years living around people like Aki and Fujiko and though she may have had little outbursts around strangers from time to time, she had got better at repressing it. This was different from back then, that time where she couldn’t speak to anyone, but it still felt like a mouse was trapped down her throat. Her thoughts broke from her when she realised he was staring from underneath her.

“Wow, you’re really cute,” he said. Sakura felt the mouse take that moment to jump out of her, causing her to squeak loudly and turn away, her face coated with a thin red paint that had come from nowhere. As he watched her make a fool of herself, he could not help but laugh. “Sorry,” he said as he realised what he had done. “Come on, let’s go. My boss probably already knows where your friends are.”

“Really?” Sakura said, feeling glad as he grabbed her hand to show her the way. Despite her nerves, she noticed that she seemed more joyful than usual around this boy. Even when he laughed at her, it did not feel like he was mocking her, or thinking she was a fool. It was a happy, calm, laugh, as if it was great for him to see her do every little thing. It warmed her heart, knowing that since the moment they had met, they could understand each other.

They moved towards the door at the end of the room, this one had no window on it and was only a small, single door. As he opened it for her, leading to what looked like a corridor, they heard a noise behind them. Sakura turned to see someone coming out of one of the other doors.

“Aki! Sarah!” Sakura cried out, her two friends appearing. “You’re alright.”

“Eh? Sakura?” Aki said, not expecting to see her friend, but quickly smiling when she confirmed it was the girl. “Hey Sakura! You all right?”

“I’m fine,” she replied as she answered the question for the third time today. Reaching her friends, she found Sarah draped around Aki’s shoulder, still as exhausted as when she last saw the young girl. “Sarah? She’s still…”

“She was falling asleep when I found her,” Aki explained. “She hasn’t said anything ever since we got here. It’s kind of worrying.”

“Kind of?” Sakura muttered, wondering how close to death Sarah would have to be for Aki to find it threatening. “At least you’re okay.”

“Your friend doesn’t look okay,” the boy pointed out from behind her. “Better let me take a look at her.”

“Huh? Who’s this?” Aki asked letting the boy walk over to her and pick Sarah up in both arm’s.

“He’s… erm,” Sakura began to reply, before she realised that she didn’t know. She turned to him to let him answer the question but he didn’t give a reply. Instead he began looking over Sarah’s half unconscious body, checking her forehead before leaning back in shock.

“What the?” he said aloud to himself, causing the other two girls to jump to attention.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Sakura asked, deeply worried for her fallen friend.

“Erm… well, nothing serious. She’s just exhausted,” he answered back, smiling reassuringly. “It’s what she’s exhausted from that shocked me. This girl…she’s… she… Well-” The girls staring at him perplexed.

“What?”

“I better help her,” he said distractingly. “I’ll give her some of my energy for now.” Without warning he pressed his hand onto her chest. Sakura expected something to happen for a second, like a dramatic flash of dramatic light to fill the room, as Sarah was dramatically brought back to full life in a dramatic show of overly dramatic magic. Instead, nothing happened at all, and the girl could not help but find herself disappointed. Seconds later, Sarah shot up straight, completely fine.

“Huh? What happened?” she asked, looking confused, but not all that tired. She turned to face Sakura and squinted at her oddly, before noticing the boy who was currently still pressing against her chest.

“Oi? What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” she shouted at him, grabbing his hand and twisting it by the thumb. Bending his wrist further than any body part is meant to go she pulled his elbow around, bringing his arm around his back, and began to dislocate his shoulder.

“Ow… Ow,” the boy began to whine in pain. “Sorry, sorry.”

Sakura and Aki just glared at the scene in front of them. The older, taller and much more mature boy now on his knees in agony as a result of a little, rash, immature girl grabbing hold of him. Sakura rushed to intervene.

“Er… Sarah, he was saving your life,” Sakura stated, though this did not stop her friend as she started to kick the boy.

***

“Oooooh, hole into oblivion,” Sagara muttered to himself, impressed with the new edge of the room that Melissa’s explosion had caused. She watched him as he peered over the edge, looking like he was overcoming a strange urge to spit into the darkness before him, when he was interrupted by a noise behind him. Both turning to see the Riddleklutz just hanging there, Melissa saw it had survived the explosion, appearing unconcerned for its missing left appendage. Sagara ducked before she could see why, the demon releasing a torrent of incandescent flame from its mouth. Quickly crawling under the demon to get behind it behind it, he kicked it hard into the direction of the darkness. For a second, Melissa expected that the evil sprite might vanish from existence just like its fire did. Instead it chose to halt its momentum and float back towards Sagara, unaffected by the tactic.

A punch to the thing that counted as its face proved pointless, the demon did not seem to have any pain receptors or nerve endings of any kind, the scream that it performed earlier seemed only to bring the Mass Singularities to life. It wasn’t even falling off the smoldering piece of balsa that it was hanging lop sided on.

Sagara wasn’t at a complete disadvantage though. The demon wasn’t having much luck against him either. Its only offensive attack being the blue fire that it spat, and that was now meaningless, since the creature seemed unable to crane its neck down or hover its body sideways, possibly out of fear of its head falling off. This meant all Sagara had to do was duck to avoid it, bringing them both to a stalemate in the meantime.

There were only twenty-nine Mass Singularities left since her explosion. But without any other bombs she could see little on how to get rid of them, and she doubted that the demon fiend was going to willingly incinerate its own associates for them. Even if they did get rid of all the other machine-like demons, the dark judge would still be fast enough to follow them to prevent their escape, wherever they intended to escape to.

Looking around for an advantage, or at least some way away from the Mass Singularity that surrounded them, she finally discovered where Raiko had disappeared to, currently hiding under the large stand where the judge demon was presiding earlier. The whole series of events had been too much even for her. She had done fine during the trial, but the scale of the fight would be overwhelming for anyone in combat. Melissa was amazed that she was keeping it together in this war torn courtroom of hell, and even more surprised that the big guy was still in check too.

Reality interceded as a large skull appeared in front of her, its mouth glowing blue. Scaring herself, she quickly grabbed the head of the demon and leapfrogged over it, fiery vengeance emitting from its mouth under her. Landing behind the supposed Judge of the False Balance, she got out of the way just in time to watch Sagara drop kicking the Riddleklutz off into one of the few remaining parts of the wall, trapping it there.

Trying to pull itself back into the room through the small hole it had made, the creature howled furiously , finding itself stuck by its own balsa wood constraints in the oak wall paneling. Sagara approached as it tried to get through, the Riddleklutz looking at him as if it were going to ask him for a hand. Instead it chose to release more flame from the pit of its mask, nearly scorching the seventeen year old as he ducked out of the way again, landing hard on the ground.

“Pitiful creature,” the Riddleklutz mocked as it watched the ninja pull himself off the floor. “We offer you a choice to escape through rational non-confrontation means, and you choose the act of all true cowards? The False Balance is as deluded…” The creature failed to complete the sentence as it watched Sagara’s movements, seeing him walk up to the trapped Riddleklutz and lift his leg high into the air, bringing it down upon the head of the demon stuck in the wall, the heel smashing its cranium and cracking the balsa wood. The wood fell out of sight, disappearing behind the remaining wall of the InBetween realm. The head of the creature simply bounced onto the courtroom floor, landing on its own ear. Slowly, Sagara walked over to the helpless head and, kneeling down, took hold of the chin so he could look it in its crushed eyes.

“You’re a demon, don’t you get that?” he told it. “Your choice is no choice, for whatever human you offer it to. Even a Futabatei.” The demon responded by expelling a gush of flame in Sagara’s face, who was only just able to fall out the way of the initial volley as it engulfed his face. The momentary blaze singing the tip of his hair, the ninja dodged clear, appearing unharmed. He turned back to the Riddleklutz and started violently kicking the severed head into the floor, stomping on it until the fire subsided, the creature now nothing but flesh and plastic shards from inside a skull mask

“Well,” Sagara mumbled, crashing to the floor before he could say anything, the Riddleklutz’s cranial fluids acting as lubricant for his shoes. Looking away with a snort, Melissa brought her attention back to the Mass Singularity, now just two feet in front of her, the speed at which they were going meaning they might prove a threat in the next minute or so. The big guy was had already fell to the stare out contest the creatures had engaged him in, and she could no longer tell him to stop looking at them, though she questioned if falling to their hypnosis may be a better choice than having them kill her without it.

“Hey, Raiko,” Sagara said casually in the now silent room to the once snobbish girl who was now crouched in prayer and chattering to herself. He looked away when he didn’t receive an answer, his eyes catching a folder just laying on the table that he then picked up and stored in his jacket. “You okay?” he asked, going down to shake the girl. Centimeters from her, his hand flinched back as it was electrocuted. Not expecting that, Sagara tried it again, only to realise that the girl seemed to be emitting a huge amount of electrical energy.

“Sagara,” the girl behind him said in an authoritative voice. “The OniRai is about to take control. Please stand back.”

“Okay,” Sagara said, though not looking like he knew why.

“Please stand back,” she shouted louder, causing the boy to obey faster, jumping back further than he intended. Melissa watched alongside him as Raiko stood up and out of the hollow space behind the witness box to her full height.

The girl looked different than before. Her hair was spiky, where before it just laid back and the super long ribbon that was in her hair was now in wrapped between her two hands, binding them together. Looking at the neckband, Melissa’s eyes felt a little odd as she saw little sparks of electricity jump out and attack the air. It sounded like there were thousand of birds surrounding the girl, all twittering away noisily, pecking and scratching each other for blood. Looking closer, Ninja girl could see little sparks all over Raiko’s body, as the pressure in the room tightened and the air disappeared.

Raiko jumped over the twelve-foot stand and landed in the hearing area of the court in the blink of an eye. Another blink, and she promptly disappeared from Melissa’s field of view only to reappear straight in front of her and the big guy. Before Melissa could react, the girl began bashing her way through the demons, speed punching five of them in just one second. The hands impossibly amazing, the girl swiftly moved onto the next load of demons before the ninja could even realise that nine of the Mass Singularity had been punched, six more cloaks slamming back in the air though only five punches had been thrown.

Delivering four more intense kicks to random parts of random demons, Raiko jumped high into the air, kicking more of them as she took off, hitting four with one roundhouse kick, slamming the side of her other foot into three more and, hitting the floor with a spin, punching four more into the tops of the heads surrounding her.

Dropping down, she didn’t stop and crouched to the floor, sweeping her foot along the smooth surface in front of seven more Singularities. Not seeming to hit anything, she jumped back into the air and hovered, her foot continuing its sweeping motion going around her body at least four times. Melissa felt small waves of energy hit her repeatedly in time to the kick as it came round in her direction. Although by the time the first wave had hit her, Raiko had already disappeared, reappearing on the other side of the room from her, pushing the electric blue body off the wall and into ten more of the creatures. Flying through them, it looked like she had missed, although the wind alone caused all of the cloaks to fly high into the air. By then, Melissa had lost all real track of her. All she could tell was that in that span of seven seconds, Raiko had hit every Mass Singularity in the room.

The lightning girl reappeared exactly where she had set off from, her stance loose yet solid. Melissa looked round to see if the girl was still moving around elsewhere.

“What the fuck was that?” the large guy shouted across the room, snapping out of his trance as his neck twisted in every direction to find what was going on.

“It was that girl,” Melissa replied, her voice sounding as shocked as she expected it to. “I don’t know how, but it was that girl.”

“That was- amazing,” Sagara cooed to himself. “It’s a shame it didn’t work.” Sighing, Melissa agreed- the situation being clear even to him. Raiko didn’t know anything about these demons in the end. Having hid at the beginning to charge up whatever it was she did, she must not have seen the others fight these creatures and discover them to be intangible.

“Against humans, that would have been effective. Against these things it’s done noth-”

The room cracked, almost breaking her ears.

It reminded her of a thunderclap, striking the drums in her ears long after seeing the light, but much louder. Without lightning and squeezing the air pressure, the cracks continued. Again and again rocketing through the room until thirty one distinct cracks had passed, building up a crescendo of destruction. It took her a moment to realise that the cracks of thunder were the after effect of Raiko’s onslaught, similar to thunder in a real lightning storm, but uncaring for distance. As the thirty first crack of thunder finished echoing across the room Ninja girl watched in astonishment as each and every one of the demons was set ablaze in an electric blue inferno.

An after effect of the lightning now standing before her.

As the Mass Singularities burned, Melissa’s reached for an explanation. As Raiko had hit a demon, the static she seemed to be producing must caused their cloaks to set on fire. It had just taken a moment for the small, minute fires to spread, before speeding up and burning their bodies. And the sonic booms came afterwards, a tribute to the speed at which she had been dancing. The shadowy cloaks sat there pathetically in response to the attack, accepting their defeat without words. Soon, the whole pack was an inferno, quickly burning up and removing all trace of the creatures that were ever there.

“Time to leave, I believe,” the big guy said. With no demon cloaks to continue burning the fires had decided to turn to the mahogany oak that was nearby and soon the small forest fires turned into an inferno that burned into the middle of the room.

“Okay,” Sagara replied, running along the side of the room, out of the way of the burning firestorm that was now eating at the floor. Raiko’s body appeared and seemed to have calmed down, only her hair remaining frizzed, lone strands sticking up in every direction. Running behind her friend without saying a word, the other two followed. Melissa knew she was the only one that felt concerned for having such a powerhouse hiding among them for the past hour.

Edging along the room, they soon came to the Entrance doors. Sagara went to pull them open, only to find no handle. He began to push on them, finding that they did not like to open that way either and then trying to find a gap in the middle of the two giant doors and pulling it open, but even then it seemed locked. Finally, he tried whining on the others for help.

“Do we need a key?” Raiko asked.

“I have one,” said the big guy, cracking his knuckles and slamming his outsized fist into the door, causing it to break under his terrific strength and make a hole. As he pulled his arm back, he became aware that he could not do so, and that the hole was much smaller than he intended.

“Interesting,” commented Sagara, watching the brute’s bicep with genuine admiration as it lay wedged in the door. “Could you make it bigger?”

***

“So where are you girl’s from then?” the boy asked the three girls as they walked down the corridor. Again it was a pretty average corridor. It was too average, stupidly average, as if it had been designed to be average and nothing more and it was making her suspicious of everything, and it was beginning to really bug Sarah off. It had to be, every twenty feet or so, that the long, narrow room would repeat itself and its furniture. The girl had already noted nine green sofas, nine brown flowerpots, eighteen radiators facing each other and nine ‘out of order’ vending machines since she had first grown suspicious. Maybe it was just her imagination, but it felt that they were walking inside one big hamster-wheel.

“W-We came from the city,” Sakura replied after stuttering a little. “But we’re actually from a little village just outside it. We live in a hotel there.”

“That sounds nice,” he replied stereotypically.

“It is. It has a hot spring and lots of secret tunnels,” Aki said, interrupting out of boredom, only to find she had been ignored.

“I guess you could say this is where I come from,” the boy said, answering his own question. “This place hosts quite a lot of rooms, so you could live here forever, which I practically have.” Sakura laughed happily at this, and Aki walked past the two of them, before running up to catch up with Sarah.

“Hey, don’t you think they’re acting a little weird,” she asked her partner in deviance.

“You mean besides one of them being naive and stupid and the other being a groper and stupid,” Sarah responded annoyed. She still had not got over being pulled away by the two girls earlier as she proceeded to insert the boy’s ribs into his vital organs. Now, Sakura was acting like a complete slut in front of a boy she had just met, holding his hand as they walked through the corridor, and Sarah was beginning to suspect that the same boy was leading them to their doom.

“I mean as in weird together,” Aki restated.

“Then they’re being stupid together,” mumbled Sarah, not caring for Aki’s comments. “It’s their common trait. I hope they have many happy times together focusing on a subject they can both enjoy.” Normally, even when pissed off, Sarah would love to help take advantage of such a situation as beautiful romance started to blossom between her friends. But she was pissed off with Aki as well at the moment, as she had helped Sakura pull her off the boy. Even so, she guessed she could ruin things a little.

“Hey, groper boy,” she said turning around, only to see both him and Sakura blushing. She felt breakfast try to come back up on her as she continued. “We there yet? Where are we going exactly?”

“Well, I was going to take you to the boss, but it’s probably best to get you back home as soon as possible instead. Your parents might be worried about you.”

“I doubt that,” Sarah said, turning back around and continuing to walk. “My parents are away. Aki’s parents are back in Africa, and the parents of the girl whose hand you’re holding killed each other years ago because they were retarded and hated their daughter.” Sarah smiled, counting down in her head as she waited for tears. She only got a few feet forward where the corridor began to rumble, causing her to fall over. The ground began to repeat its seismic shock for a few more seconds before stopping. After that, it was just like none of it had happened.

“What was that?” Aki asked, looking around for any clues. Were she paying more attention, she would have noticed that absolutely nothing had been moved in the corridor, even though the quake had knocked them all to their knees. Sarah felt her eyes stuck between a free chair and the boy, who was crouching down to Sakura.

“An earthquake?” the idiot said worried, seeing the boy offer her his hand and taking it to stand back up stood back up, blood rushing to her face again.

“That cannot be possible,” the boy replied. “Not here anyway. Do you mind if we run? I think there might be problems happening here.”

“S-sure,” Sakura said as the boy started off in front of her, forcing her to follow as he didn’t let go.

“The explosion didn’t happen that far from here. The way out is the door right next to where it happened. I’ll drop you three off and then see what it was. Okay?” The four continued down the corridor for another few hundred meters, Sakura quickly lagging behind, her stamina the worst out of all of them, a diet of fishing her finger in her own cooking pots showing itself more than ever. The boy slowed his own pace down and ran beside here.

“It’s okay, I’ll protect you, no mater what happens.”

“Stop being sappy,” Sarah shouted back at them. “It’s really annoying.”

“Oh?” said Aki next to her. “You so jealous?” The smaller girl stared at the monkey angrily.

“Why would I be jealous? The guy’s a groper,” Sarah said bluntly. “And don’t you dare blush at that, you freaks,” she shouted, turning her neck back, seeing that their blood had already gone to their faces. She growled loudly and just got back to running. It was stupid, how weird they were being. They were acting like they had known each other for years, like the generic best friends who would deny any romance was going on. She sprinted off a little way in front to get away from it when a shock wave emanated from the door she ran past, nearly knocking her into the door on the other side.

“Stop!” the boy informed her. “We’re there.”

“Oh really?” Sarah said with gritted teeth. “Ten second warning next time okay?”

“Sorry,” the boy said bowing in apology, causing Sarah to start gutting him with her eyes. “Anyways, the way out is through there. Just keep walking until you see it.”

“Thank you very much,” said Sakura bowing. She looked back up at him and blushed all the more profusely. “Will I…er. Will we get to see you again?” The boy almost jumped at this, turning around to hide his surprise, only to come to face Sarah, looking at him with blood filled anger in her eyes. She didn’t care right now if they saw each other again. She just wanted out of this strange building. Though she figured she could wait for them to at least swap mobile numbers or something.

“I’d like to,” the boy said smiling as he ignored the small girl. “I want to see you again, that’s for sure. I have to help with whatever’s going on now though, but I’ll definitely find a way to get in touch with you.”

What a great ditch! Sarah felt like punching him just out of principle.

“Okay,” Sakura said, beaming with happiness and what looked like a strange urge to hug the boy again.

“Oi, idiot. Let’s go,” Sarah said to her friend as she began to open the door. “We probably don’t want to stick around for ‘whatever is going on’.”

“Your friend is quite right, Sakura. I will definitely call you, so please just get a move on.” Now he was trying to urge them physically through the door and for a second Sarah wanted to resist, just to see what the commotion was.

“Okay,” Sakura nodded, before following Aki. Reaching the door, she stopped in thought. Had she given her name?

A split banging sound filled the corridor before anyone could reply; this one was a lot louder than the last two and seemed to come from directly above the boy’s head. The boy ducked down and looked up, seeing a colossal fist poking out of the door. It stayed there for a few seconds before trying to pull itself back out, failing to do and giving up.

“Interesting,” someone said from behind the door. “Could you make it bigger?”

“Oh shut up,” another voice came up. “Do you have any idea how annoying you are?”

“I’m not sure,” the previous voice said. “I don’t know how to measure it.”

“That voice,” Sarah said as it dawned upon here. “That’s Boss. Oi. Boss?”

“Huh? Squirt?” the voice previously known as Sagara shouted. “That you, Squirt?”

“Yeah, what are you doing here?”

“Getting out, I suppose?” Neither got the chance to explain further as the boy walked up to the door and opened it by the door handle, pushing it open. From the other side Sagara stepped through smiling towards the girl. Before he left the room however he stopped, staring at the boy standing in front of him.

“Stay where you are,” the boy said, bringing his hand up to Sagara’s neck. Sagara just stood there, Sarah realising that the only reason he wasn’t kicking this idiot in was because of the four extremely thin needles pressing against his neck. “Where is Master Takacheeny?”

“Takacheeny?” Sagara repeated in confusion. “Who is that?”

“The Riddleklutz that was conducting your trial! Where is he?” the boy shouted, pressing his needles into Sagara’s throat slightly, drawing a small amount of liquid crimson. Sarah stiffened and was about to move to intervene when the boy stopped pressing of his own accord, soon realising he was releasing his own generous amount of blood from his upper torso. He looked down to see a small knife in his hip, and stepped back in shock as Sarah questioned just where it had come from.

“Thanks Melissa,” Sagara said casually to someone Sarah didn’t recognise, taking a step back. The next moment he had thrust forward, slamming a rusted gauntlet into the pit of the boy’s stomach and out through the wall.

Sarah heard Sakura squeak, and felt her own body freeze as she saw the boy’s body skewer itself upon Boss’ arm.

“Your needle trap won’t work on someone who can see the needles,” Sagara stated, looking directly into blushing boy’s eyes with his own emerald greens. “The demons usually know that.”

“I’m not a demon,” the boy stated, glowing from his wound with a bright yellow light as he looked into Sagara’s eyes and grinned, the Boss’s hand must have been clutching his heart apparently not bothering all that much.

“It’s the same thing to us,” Sagara said, not giving a chance for the boy to counter attack. “Goodbye.” In a flash he had the knife out of the boy’s hip and danced it across the throat, the gentle child croaking feebly and filling the room with a sweet high-pitched noise that was quickly blighted by a cacophony of choking, blood dribbling out of his mouth as he exhaled it from his lungs. In a second the boy’s head rolled down to the side of his neck and stopped moving altogether. Sarah felt her stomach tighten. She had already been sick today.

“It dead?” a voice asked bluntly, followed shortly by its owner helping the only adult there get his fist out of the door.

“These type don’t require much, this should do,” Sagara informed her, looking tired as he pulled his fist out of the small boy, who felt to the floor like a puppet without strings. She heard Sakura murmur, the girl frozen in fear to do much else, as the body started to sizzle away in front them, the demon in boy form soon reduced to nothing.

“Strange to see one of those here,” the second girl she didn’t recognise said, appearing to make small talk as Sagara’s gauntlet seemed to suck up the remaining blood had covered it. “We must be nearer to the department than I thought.”

“They’re part of the False Balance too, just like their counterparts,” Sagara said, passing the girl her knife. “I’m going to have to destroy them all if they’re part of this.” Sarah heard a gasp and watched as Sakura’s knees had had enough, falling from under the girl’s body and trembling their way into the ground.

“Who’s this?” another girl she didn’t recognise said, pushing past he adult to her. “Hey, little miss. Are you okay?”

“Sakura’s here too?” Sagara asked. “And Aki?” Aki looked to the older boy, before dashing over to Sakura.

“Sakura?”

***

 

Sakura’s eyes were stretched open- seeing everything that she didn’t want to, wanting only to see nothing. The girl that had stabbed Alexis was whispering in the murderer’s ear now, and…

“Oh… right.” Sagara said, grinning like he thought he was stupid for not realising earlier. He moved in front of her, her eyes dashed to him and wondering if the second nicest person she had ever met was about to kill her to. “Sorry Sakura, I didn’t see you there. All the blood must be freaking you out, huh?” That wasn’t it. That wasn’t it at all. He had just… He had…

“You killed him?” Sakura said, still sniffing as she felt her eyes blinking rapidly. She couldn’t feel the tears.

“Yup,” Sagara replied, like he was trying to imagine how bad she must be feeling. “It’s okay though, it was a demon. It just looked like a boy to trick you.” She just wanted to be away at this moment, asleep in her bed, anything.

“You killed Alexis!” Sakura screamed at him, grabbing him by his shirt. “How could you?”

“Huh?” said Sagara dumbly, having no idea what was going on.

“You killed Alexis,” Sakura repeated getting angrier. “You killed the one person that was truly nice to me. It didn’t matter if he was a demon or whatever…I loved him.”

The room went silent, everyone looking at her as she grabbed hold of his shirt and fell into it pathetically, tears staining the garment as she broke down. She felt his arms hover above her for a moment like he didn’t know what to do, choosing to leave them hanging just inches away from her. The urge to have him crush her came up like spitting fat. God forgive her, but all she wanted to do now was die, to just pass on and go with Alexis. She didn’t get any time to, Aki’s voice bringing her back to reality.

“Loved him?” she said, confused. “But Sakura, we only just met him twenty minutes ago. Aren’t you overreacting here?”

“That’s right,” confirmed Sarah, as surprised as everyone. “You told us you only just met him ten minutes before we met him and- did we even learn his name? I don’t think he introduced himself.” She became confused at herself as Sarah spoke, knowing all too well she had never learned his name either, but also knowing that she had just named him. The room went back into silence, Aki hugging her from behind. What was she thinking? She didn’t know him, did she? Was she just being silly again? Everyone else seemed to think it was okay that Alexis had just been killed. Maybe she…

“Whatever’s going on here will have to be sorted out later,” someone stated in a commanding voice again. “We should try and find a way out.”

“Oh. Okay,” Sarah began as she looked at the floor where the boy Sakura had called Alexis had been. “He said that there was a way out here. We were about to head that way before…” she trailed off, unsure of how to finish the sentence.

“I see,” one of the older girls said, covering for the girl as she stumbled on her sentence. “Then let’s leave that way.”

“Hey wait. He said it was a demon,” the big guy pointed out. “What if it was lying?”

“We’ll probably find out as we go,” the other unknown female said simply, pushing the door open. “Come on, lets get out of here” she said quietly. These two will follow us later.” Everyone slowly filtered out until Aki got to the door, where she wavered for a few seconds before disappearing.

The remaining two stayed quiet for a few minutes, Sakura continuing to get his shirt wet where she had grabbed it. Sagara remained quiet and she wondered why she was even hugging him. Though he felt warm, she felt like she could never trust him again.

“Hi…” he finally tried, trying to sound optimistic before stopping himself from saying more. She couldn’t reply for a few moments, sobbing quietly to herself instead. What was wrong with her?

“I’m so confused,” the girl told him. It was so quiet she almost didn’t hear it.

“I guess you would be?” he said, not understanding.

“No!” she cried out. “You don’t… I don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“I loved him… I met him when I was eighteen on my family’s cruiseship. His name was Alexis. He was a year younger than me and he was just as shy as I was… We watched each other for ages until he finally found the courage to ask me out and I found the courage to accept. We dated and- and we fell in love and we planned to get married. I can remember all of it. A least… I think I do.”

She butted her head against his chest. It had been happening for a while now.

“But how can I remember all of it if it never happened?” she shouted at the ninja in front of her. “There’s no way that could of happened, but it has and I know it has and I know I loved him and… and.” Words failed her as she fell back onto the boy’s shirt, now completely soaked.

“That I can tell you,” he finally answered. “Because he was a-”

“Don’t tell me what he was. I don’t want to know. He wasn’t a demon and we both know it.” She sniffed loudly, snorting by mistake, Sagara’s eyes meeting hers perfectly, not looking away, but not holding any sympathy either.

““I’m… I’m not allowed to tell you he wasn’t a demon.” he said, his eyes dashing away for a second before falling silent. All she could do with this was cry more.

Looking over the boy’s shoulder, to the broken corpse of a boy she did not know yet loved more than life itself, laying in the darkened corridor of a dimension that no one no longer knew about, Sakura sat there in the arms of the murderer with quiet sobbing, holding him for comfort as she drained the tears from his body.

A few more minutes past, and without speaking to each other, they stood up and headed for the door.

Act Two – Chapter Six

The alleyway faded around them, the only evidence it existed being the dust on their feet and a candy wrapper that got caught in the ride. All else from the city was gone, now replaced with a long corridor. Beside them was now a large set of oak wooden doors, painted a dull black that screamed a Gothic interior decorator had had his way with the place. Beyond the open doors lay the building that was once the café.

Gone now were the walls that once housed a comfortable place to stay during lunch. Instead, to the one called Nobori, was a court chamber from Hell. The walls were all gray, the type of dreary gray set to give an impression that they were all different shades of black. In front of them were lined ten benches made from fine, polished oak, already pulled open. Looking inside, he could see from the floors to the ceiling everything in here was made from wood. The walls were covered in it, different from the decrepit plasterboard in the corridor, the mahogany finish gave it all an important-looking, almost regal design, which was then ruined by the fact that it had also been painted black.

Filed across the benches were fifty dark cloaks that looked like they contained men inside them. Their backs were turned, but screamed evil secret society that needed destroying right now before they got in the way of everything that was good in his life. None of the cloaks turned to move at their presence as they stepped through the doors. There at the front, the courtroom continued as expected, two tables on either side of a gap in the middle where people could walk in from the audience. Another table held two boxes, one black and one white, out of contrast with the rest of the room. In front of that was a large stand, stretching twice as high as himself, and on top of this, stood what he could only assume to be the judge of this courtroom. The punk’s felt his blood thin as he eyed the creature, recognising it instantly from myth. It could only have been described as-

“S-Satan?” he stuttered, seeing the devil, wrapped in a black shroud with only its red, muscular face staring ahead with six slits for eyes and horns perfect for impaling children. Looking directly into Nobori’s soul, El Diablo raised its great, muscular hoof towards them.

“Enter, oh ye of the faithless, and ye, who has never had faith to lose. Enter one and enter all.” The voice echoed three times before each syllable was uttered, and Nobori lost track after that, the voice trapped rattling inside his head. He felt a strange, unsettling urge to obey and began to step forward towards the devil.

In front of him, the moron who needed punking a short while ago burst into a sprint, more than willing to follow at least part of the prince of darkness’s request. Charging down the length of the room, he jumped over the small wooden and pounced towards the dark one, covering the twelve feet that raised the devil like a mere stepping stone.

A flash of crimson filled Nobori’s eyes, his shades powerless to the bright flare. He could only just make out the young student being thrown back just inches from the devil. He landed hard on the ground twelve feet below with various unhealthy cracking sounds spread around him, seemingly unhurt.

“Do not over presume yourself, Hunter,” the devil replied, unfazed by the guy’s actions. “Not only are demons free from your laws here, but to believe me as accessible as a mere Sirynclou is foolhardy.” Both girls ran up to the boy to check if he was okay. Feeling suddenly alone at the back, he quickly followed them.

“You okay, Sagara?” the other student asked, her eyes streaming over her boyfriend to check for injuries. The idiot was too woozey to answer, choosing to gurgle at her instead.

“Now, please take your seats, and we may begin the hearing for your crimes.”

“Hearing?” Nobori asked to anyone, now moving toward the group, doing his best not to eye any of the creatures surrounding him.

“No idea,” Sagara said. “And no care either.” Standing back up to his full height, Sagara surveyed the creature in front of him. Nobori did the same. So this really was the devil. He looked like the mysterious devil that works in the shadows type, yet was acting like the contracts and technicality type prince of darkness who was also swindling people in with god’s laws. This was kind of scary. At least it wasn’t the all powerful titan type, hulking over them with trident in one hoof and damned souls in the other. To face such a creature and live would simply be impossible. Then again, this one would be just as difficult. They should just go along with it for now.

Sagara immediately launched himself back at the judge of the dark courtroom, pulling back a fist that was now sporting a brazen gauntlet aiming straight for the devil’s face and flashing something at the monster in the process. It failed to happen, a red beam pierced the room again and threw him back onto the ground where he just lay.

He seemed to give up this time, looking at the creature with that stupid goofy grin Nobori had already seen several times.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” the ninja girl, who Nobori was beginning to suspect was an actual ninja and not just some costume drama nut, asked. “You already tried that.”

“The Unholy Divine wouldn’t be here,” Sagara replied casually. “Any impersonation of him is forbidden in all realms.” Confused, Nobori and the girls turned to where the embodiment of evil was apparently choking to death. For a second the punk found himself seriously wondering if the weirdo student that earlier was going to be without wallet was now actually going to kill the Devil. A small velvet rope wrapped around Satan’s head, on the end of which was a small curved screaming dagger. On the other end of the rope were two hands, currently connected to Sagara, who was pulling it all towards him.

“Greynock,” Ninja girl muttered under her breath. “You think it’s wise to use that?”

“Of course I do. Greynock is a demon. A demon can get through another demon’s barrier easier than I can.” Sagara said as if insulted, pulling hard on the rope. The blade named Greynock returned to him, bringing with it its silky long body of rope and the hooded cowl that belonged to the Prince of Lies, the weapon seemed to have no problem going through the red barrier that had once stood between demon and crazed student, and now that same student was holding in his hands a large black robe and a very realistic mask, which Nobori found odd, considering it was a depiction of the devil

“What the fuck is that?” Nobori blurted out loudly, his mouth moving before his composure could smother it. The demasked creature hovered before them. Missing its lower completely, all it really had were arms. Even these were not complete, appearing as nothing more than bleached bone. The arms were connected, not by shoulders or collar bone, but by small, metal hooks, to a piece of balsa wood that looked like it had been ripped off a fence, broken on the creature’s left side, and with hooks protruding out the top of the humerus bones.

The only thing that really showed that this wasn’t some strange, hanging ornament would have been the angry face now glaring at them. Whatever the creature was, it was nothing more than a decapitated head with orange, scruffy hair, green, pointed ears and a mask covering its features beyond even the devil mask. This mask was simply that of a skull and looked liked it could have been bought at a store for about two hundred yen. Staring at the monster, Nobori wasn’t sure if it was trying to be terrifying or just having some kind of joke. Sagara spoke up first, looking curious, but unconcerned.

“That’s kind of disappointing too.”

“Disappointing? What were you expecting?” the girlfriend screamed at him.

“Well, I don’t know. Some kind of big supreme evil that would have been fun to fight. It being a Riddleklutz is just boring.”

“A Riddleklutz?” she asked, “What’s that?”

“Oh geez,” Ninja girl moaned. “You have been pissing off the false balance demons, haven’t you?” Sagara looked at her funny for a moment, and then squinted.

“Maybe,” he replied vaguely. “It attacked me first anyway.”

“False Balance demons don’t attack first,” she corrected him. “That’s the whole point of their belief system. Even if they are our enemies, they only openly attack in self defense or through a complicated contract system that we can usually trace.”

“Well, maybe I attacked it first then,” Sagara claimed, looking like he wasn’t sure himself. “It was gonna kill some things who spat at Natoko, so I had to. Beyond that, I don’t have an excuse.” From above, the so called Riddleklutz looked at the guests to its chambers with no expression on its plastic covered face.

“Silence,” the Riddleklutz tried to shout, although it no longer felt as dramatic as it had moments ago and the noise came out more as a muttered whisper. “Futabatei Sagara. You have taken the life of one of our agents during its mission. Now as you have disrupted the balance, so steps shall be taken to rectify this.”

“You killed somebody?” the girl Nobori guessed was called Natoko barked at Sagara angrily.

“Like I said,” he said with nothing but a grin. “I removed the demon from the planet. It was going to kill somebody.”

“That doesn’t excuse you!” the girl said harshly.

“The creatures it intended to kill had to be removed for the sake of the balance,” the creature bellowed, silencing the cute girl.

“No it didn’t,” Sagara said disdainfully. “The demon broke through several strategically placed defense systems and attacked some old people, probably to get to me.”

“That is because a few weeks previously,” the Riddleklutz answered, “the Dark Scourge in question had killed two of the younger members of society that had a dislike towards the mature and experienced.”

“So…” the girlfriend stuttered as she tried to process the corrupt data through her head. “Because it had killed two people on one side of society, it had to kill two people on the other side of society…in order to set the balance straight, right?”

“That is correct,” the demon said, as if proud of its fellow co-worker, although secretly jealous because it would have meant that the Dark Scourge would have been awarded the employee of the week contest instead of itself.

“But…wouldn’t it have been better if it hadn’t killed anyone at all?” the girlfriend asked, causing the demon in front of them to flinch slightly.

“Well… I… expect a human to say that. Especially one that has no idea about the way these things work, or about our customs or anything.”

“Ha bullshit,” Nobori shouted out, finally joining the conversation. “I’ve heard that tone of voice from hundreds of morons who think they’re smarter than me and-”

“Be quiet,” Ninja girl shouted at the younger boy unexpectedly. “Don’t say anything.”

“What the fuck, girl?” Nobori said annoyed. “I’ll say what I want to him, and you ain’t gonna stop me.”

“Please,” she asked. “Don’t say another word.”  The girl etched up close to him and whispered to the tall boy’s arm. “Though their rules aren’t the same as our rules, the Judge is excused from his own Balance’s laws when he is present in his own courtroom,” the Ninja girl began to explain in hushed whispers. “Believe me when I say it’s a lot better that you just remain quiet until we can figure a way out of this. You’re not involved, but if you go with this whole adolescent rebelliousness, you will be.”

“You think I can’t take this thing or somethin’?” Nobori called out, throwing whispers to the wind. “It’s just a piece of wood.”

The girl just stared him up and down in response, and Nobori took a few seconds to realise she was actually checking him out.

Of course she was. Any other fifteen year old might have had a problem facing a demon based on its looks alone, but he was the strongest in all the gangs of Fuugosuki. Even the yakuza boss Nakamura feared him and fell into hiding shortly after Nobori’s gang squared off against them. All he would have to do to this Riddleklutz would wrap his twenty five inch bicep round its face and squeeze!

This girl was pretty hot too; tits and ass, as expected of Americans. She was only a little older than him as well… His cheek beamed red suddenly for no reason and the other girl laughed a little and he quickly realised they were still on the old conversation.

He realised that she realised he was staring, and tried to turn it so that he thought they were still on the last conversation. “Fine,” he said, huffing, turning around to find a seat he could sit in at the defense box. In doing so, he once more became aware of the fifty or so creatures that were now facing now facing him head on.

Staring back at them, not so much in challenge as fascination, he shuddered at what he saw. It was not as if there were simply no head behind the cowls that they wore. A better way to describe it would be that there was nothing within any of the cloth scattering the courtroom. Each cloak floating on the benches by itself, with only darkness on the inside to fill them. Looking at them was like the complete opposite of gazing at the sun. Nobori could not bring himself to look away, despite feeling that his eyes were slowly cooking themselves. There had to be something within those confines, even if it was just air, or some sign of the courtroom behind the robe. Even as it began to hurt, he felt he was onto something, his mind screaming as he caught a glimpse of life.

“Oi, big guy,” a voice came from behind him, knocking him back to reality. “Stop staring at the Mass Singularities and sit down.” Nobori turned to see Ninja Girl, grabbing his arm and pulling him away to the fine court bench they had been provided. “Sagara, you too. No attacking for now.” The student nodded his head and fell back onto the table, his eyes casually drifting on some the folders he was not sitting on.

“So what’s going to happen?” Nobori asked her, feeling that one question would probably not condemn his soul to hell.

“Futabatei Sagara, please step forward,” the creature bellowed. Sagara calmly walked up to the stand that the creature indicated to. Now that he thought about it, Nobori found the boy’s calm attitude almost as unnerving as everything around him.

“The demon’s going to explain,” Ninja girl explained. “But it’s should be obvious by the thing’s name.”

“Ah I see,” Nobori said, understanding the girl. “I like riddles. Well… I mean…” Stuttering, the boy chastised himself for looking stupid and fell silent.

“There’s a bit more to it than that,” she replied, with a smile present even behind her mask.

“Futabatei Sagara,” the demon continued. “As stated, you have been charged with the death of one of the Balance’s Dark Scourges. According to our sources, you apparently ambushed the Dark Scourge during one of its missions to realign the balance as a result of a prior mission to realign the balance that was also as a result of a prior mission. The Court of the Hidden Balance has already decided you are guilty of this crime.”

“Hey that’s not fair,” the girlfriend girl shouted, defending her boyfriend with a vigorous slamming of the desk. “Doesn’t he have a right to defend himself?”

“Fair?” the Riddleklutz asked, as if confused. “This isn’t like your ‘justice’ nonsense that you have in your ‘law’ courts, young lady. We already know the truth about the entire situation. Being higher beings than you humans, we are able to obtain this information a lot quicker and a lot more reliable than your courts would be able to in any situation. The truth is always clear to us. Now, if I may continue?”

“It’s a fuckin’ demon, ain’t it?” Nobori asked. “Truth doesn’t mean fuck to it.” No one responded to this, although something was hitting his foot from under the table. The two girls were whispering to each other.

“How much do you know?” the ninja girl whispered to the girlfriend beside her. “Earlier, you acted like you knew a lot, but now…”

“I just know about it. I’ve only met a few demons before today,” the girlfriend explained in a hushed voice. “And most of those I ran from. Not everybody who knows about the InBetween Realm is like your clan, you know.”

“You have been found guilty of your crime already,” the Riddleklutz continued “However, we are aware that your reasons for killing the demon were in the interests of protecting others, even if you did not know the actions of these creatures.”

“Actions?” Sagara asked confused, as he watched on with a child’s curiosity.

“That they were to be executed for the sake of the balance,” the creature explained in a stern voice as if it were obvious. Sagara turned his head back and forth, like he was trying to figure out if this made sense to him. It took longer than the Riddleklutz was willing to wait.

“As a result of your actions, we are giving you a chance to be let off in the most reasonable way possible, as in accordance with the way of the Hidden Balance,” the creature explained.

Then, without a warning that Nobori would have appreciated, the demonic creature plucked its own head off the piece of wood it was resting on like an urn to be moved over the mantelpiece. Nobori jumped up at this, snapping back to attention as the demon placed its head facing them onto its high desk, and watched as the broken fence shard with bones attached slowly floated down to meet Sagara. On the piece of balsa wood the Riddleklutz had laid down three face down cards. As the group waited confused, the head continued talking on top of the podium.

“There are three cards. Now, chance will determine your fate here. One of the cards is the King, experienced and focused. If you pick him, you will be put in a riddle of skill. One of the cards is the Queen, intelligent and methodical, to pick her will place you in a riddle of logic. The final card is the Jack, young, but full of potential. To choose this card will place you in a riddle of strength. Now, choose.”

“The Queen of Hearts,” Sagara chimed brightly, grabbing the middle card without a second of pause.

“The Queen of Hearts,” the Riddleklutz exclaimed without emotion. “She who is the backbone of the king! She who relies on firm logic and sound reasoning, with the courage to act on that logic, even if it means taking on her own husband.” Placing the card back on the balsa wood, Sagara watched as the creature started to float backwards. “Your test, to determine your freedom, will be a riddle of logic.”

“Wait!” Ninja girl called out, standing up and leaping over the table. The Riddleklutz did so, and showed no objections as she grabbed the remaining cards off its wooden frame. It was obvious to Nobori what her thoughts were. This Sagara didn’t exactly come across as the smartest guy in the room, and a test of intelligence wouldn’t have suited him at all. If Nobori could figure that out in the short time he knew the guy, these guys must have had it on file ages ago. His eyes scanned the other cards over the girl’s shoulders. Two Jacks and Two Kings stared back at her, surrounded by hearts.

“We are not that petty, miss,” the Riddleklutz stated, from on top of the podium. “We are fair creatures, despite your clan’s wish to oppose us.”

Ninja girl titled her head down, looking defeated, and sat back with the others, the three cards still in her hands. “Then it will be a game of logic that we shall play today.”

And with a snap of its ebony fingers, the Riddleklutz caused the very room to shake, distracting them all momentarily as the foundations rocked upon themselves. Nobori looked around in bewilderment, his eyes fixing on the black void that should have been a ceiling in case it fell down upon them. Instead, the shaking seemed centralized on the large space that had opened up in the middle of the room.

It was from there where, with an oozing that would usually be heard from wet cement that hands appeared. Six large, titanic hands that were each roughly the size of a human’s upper body, each struggling to pull themselves out of the ground that had turned to mush upon itself.

Dragging along the corpse like body of the demon they belonged to, the arms slowly crawled into the room. The stone Titan looked like it only existed for war. Despite its muscular and clearly male body, the face of a beautiful woman was carved into its head, pristine features that had been carved from the clearest of diamonds, the only thing offsetting this being the collection of horns that ran round its head like a crown.

Dropping back to the floor with a crash, the sculpture drooling expression remained perfectly still, sitting with crossed chicken legs as its many arms rose into the air, hanging at different levels with all hands perfectly flat, as if they were about to hold something.

“What…” the girlfriend whispered, like she was trying to make sure the creature could not hear her speak. “What is that?”

“It is the boy’s trial,” the Riddleklutz answered calmly, as the black and white boxes popped open. The contents of each box were clearly visible, and the group could see inside each were similar looking isometric blocks that varied only in their tone. The blocks in the first box were black and were it not for the chest itself being pure white they would have been impossible to see. The blocks in the other box were the opposite: White, with a black container. “This is the Ivoryhead.”

“The rules of this trial are simple,” the Riddleklutz began. “The game itself is not. As we each claim to be proponents of the Balance, so this games seeks to prove that in each of us. The aim of the trial is to make the arms line up with each other so they are level. Each turn you may place four of the weighted blocks of your choice onto any hand. We will each go in turn, and may not interfere with the other when it is their turn. The demon itself will inform us when a winner has been decided.”

“Like that’s fair!” Nobori shouted. “That demon your fuckin’ lackey. How do we know that it won’t just screw it up for the shitface here and let you win in your first turn?” The Riddleklutz turned to the bulky teenager with a rush of the neck that may have suggested alarm, but it seemed to quickly calm down from this affront.

“Shitface?”

“It’ll be fine,” the Ninja girl stated. “The mind of the Ivoryhead is dead. When that happens, it can only follow simple instructions. It won’t be able to cheat for the demon without being exceptionally obvious.”

 

“How horrible…” the girlfriend muttered, looking like she was feeling sorry for the creature who sat there, its eyes wide open as if it were watching them all and listening intently. And yet, as its expression continued to remain frozen, it became clear that what the Riddleklutz was saying was true.

“It’s not that bad,” Ninja girl mumbled to the other. “There wasn’t much of a difference anyway, between this state and the state it was in before. Ivoryheads tend to be very stupid creatures anyway. They’ve got extremely fragile necks that barely allowed the creature to inhale the sulphur needed to ignite its organs. Hell, if a weight larger than a small dog were to be rested on its head, the Ivoryhead would no doubt be crushed instantly and killed, even if its arms look like they were used to turn elephants into putty.”

“You think that makes it okay,” the girlfriend said to her, sounding disgusted. “Even if it was dumb, at least it had the intelligence that it possessed. That’s like saying it’s okay to rip the brain out of a dog. How would you like it if…”

“I have no time to explain the difference in living rights between dogs and demons,” replied the Ninja girl, her deadpan tone rebuffing all further argument.

“So all I have to do is place the right blocks on the right hands?” Sagara said, sliding off the desk and grabbing the chair he was supposed to sit on, before wandering up to the creature with a curious look in his eyes.

“…Yes,” the Riddleklutz said, after a moment of pause. “We suppose it is that simple. We assure you that there is a pattern to them. As for winning on the first turn. Let us tell you now that that is impossible. It is only possible to win on the eighth turn at the earliest, and that partially depends on the moves your opponent makes on their turn.”

“In that case, I’ll start.” And straight away he moved up to the box of black blocks and began fishing around. The blocks, for their size, looked a lot heavier than it would have been thought, and the ninja had to drop the third block he chose back in the box merely to carry the first two over to the Ivoryhead. Dropping them on the floor, he stopped to consider the large arms, and eventually chose the highest one, picking up the bigger of the two blocks and dropping it on the one entitled Negotiator.

It fell quickly, yet stopped a mere two feet down as if something was weighing it down on the other end. Looking, the others saw that the arms entitled Judge and Enforcer had lifted up slightly, where the Recorder arm had also dropped.

“What?” Nobori exclaimed. “Why did that one also drop?”

“Stay alert,” Ninja girl said next to him. “These aren’t scales. The arms move in a certain way, but not in a way that the laws of physics would be happy with.”

Ignoring them, Sagara moved for the second block, also placing it on the negotiator arm. Although smaller, this block, which looked a little blacker than the previous one, caused the arm to drop further than the second one had, so that now the arm well under its shoulder. Stepping off the chair, Sagara moved round to the box again, picking up another two and dropping them on the Judge arm, one at a time. Considering its high position, it looked right for the blocks to be placed there, as that much weight would level off both this arm and this Negotiator arm it was connected to.

With a tight exhale of air, the creature let the Judge arm slip, but the Negotiator arm did not move at all. Instead the Administrator arm lifted a clear three feet, while the Recorder and the Enforcer dropped, the Recorder further than the Enforcer. Reacting a bit too quickly, Sagara tossed the final block onto the Administrator hand as it rose, but did little to stop its movements, even as the Recorder hand lifted again, the Intelligence doing the opposite.

Although the others, even the Riddleklutz, watched like a captivated audience, Nobori leaned forward, trying his best to keep up with what was going on.

“Are the names on the arms important or something?” he asked anyone willing to answer.

“They correspond to the six primary members of the balance,” Ninja girl told him. “In both our Balance and the False Balance, these are the six roles that have existed since the beginning of both groups. The Enforcer. The Negotiator. The Judge. The Administrator. The Intelligence and the Recorder. Each handles a different yet important aspect of the Balance. I… probably shouldn’t tell you anymore.” She looked away, appearing mildly embarrassed to herself. “I don’t know what they have to do with the game though. I’m guessing it’s just symbolic.”

“It is our turn,” the Riddleklutz stated, hovering down to the black box and choosing two items. “Take in note that we can now only win in thirteen turns.” Next it moved over to the black box and picked out two white items. With a clear air of method, the demon hovered over to the Enforcer block and dropped the two black objects. The Enforcer fell until it was but a foot from the ground and stayed there, wobbling slightly. After this, the silent Riddleklutz moved over to the hand with Judge marked on it in crimson and placed its first white object.

To the astonishment of all around, the arm lifted itself into the air by half a foot, as if it were so light that its weight descended into a negative number. The group looked on amazed, as the Enforcer dropped down even further. It would have almost touched the ground had the Riddleklutz then not put the its final marble white block onto the lowest hand, causing it to rise majestically, until it was now level with its own shoulder. The Judge Hand did the same.

“What?” It was Ninja girl’s turn to be shocked now.

“The white blocks make the arms go up,” Nobori said. “And there are probably different levels of weight on them too. If that’s the case, we need to learn how the arms work.”

“The demon said there was a pattern, even though there didn’t look like one.”

“Yeah. Each arm probably moves other arms in certain increments, but it doesn’t work vice versa. This is more a computer program than it is a pair of scales, but I’d have to solve it like a rubix cube, set things up on all sides so everything falls into place.” Folding his arms and looking unnaturally thoughtful for a moment, the boy growled. “Could do with a piece of paper. That way I could jot it all down.”

“Do you honestly reckon you could solve it?” Ninja girl asked him seriously.

“Of course,” Nobori announced, looking smug in himself. “I’m a master of puzzle games. Even at school I had all the math nerds following me round to-“ He didn’t get chance to finish his sentence. Ninja Girl had stood up between them, and now stared deeply at the boy, her eyes meeting level with his, even though he was sitting down.

“I am not skilled in mathematical calculations or long term logic puzzle solving or whatever this stuff is. Sagara doesn’t stand a chance. Now, not being macho, not pretending to be smart to impress and barring whatever urges make you think you have to put a profanity in every sentence…” She stopped herself. “Do you honestly reckon you can figure this out before that creature beats us.” Under her gaze, the boy faltered slightly, his arms coming loose from their fold, before stiffening up again.

“I’m not stupid. I can solve this. Though I’m guessing it knows what they all do, so it has an unfair advantage.”

“That sounds an awful lot like an adolescent excuse.”

“No, it’s…” Damn, this girl was probing. “But we have no time limit, right? As long as I’ve got time in between moves, I can figure out the shortest pattern. I can definitely solve it…and I’m not just saying that for pride. Well, I am, but it’s because I can.”

“Fine,” she said, appearing convinced. “Then use me.”

“What?” Gladly!

“I can go into Trance mode and blindly memorize anything I see, hear, feel, smell and taste. It’s mainly for my illusions, but I can use it here as well. If we work together, we should be able to determine a pattern.”

“Are you sure,” Nobori replied. “I know you’re a ‘ninja’ and everything but…” He felt like making quote marks with his fingers.

“Trust me, just as I’m trusting you.” She sat back down

“Looks like we’re both being a little blind at this point. Then we need your friend to try out roughly similar blocks on each arm, then we can…”

Standing by the arm of the Enforcer, Nobori watched as Sagara went ahead and finished placing the fourth block of his second go, having wasted no time in shoving them on as quick as possible.

“It is our turn,” the Riddleklutz said as Nobori’s heart sank.

***

 

“You gonna find him anytime soon?” Sarah moaned to the girl next to her, the ditzy freak currently confusing every nearby bystander, sniffing around the pavements on her hands and like she were a dog. “Although why I’m letting some dog brain walk me around, I don’t know.”

Aki muttered something incomprehensible, sniffing some chewing gum that had been squashed into the pavement.

“Find anything?” Sarah asked, not quite believing that she was allowing herself to go through with this.

“No,” the African girl breathed. “But…hhhhmmmm.” She stared hard in the direction of the chewing gum, as if she did it long enough it would crack and tell her everything. Sarah sighed as loud as she possibly could, futilely hoping it would make the moron in front of her go faster. Finally giving up on the stupid notion of relying on Aki’s nose, she stormed forward.

“Never mind. I’ll find him myself,” she complained walking off. “I didn’t think this would be so difficult. Whenever we try to hunt down any of the others, we normally find them within a few minutes. We’ve been searching for hours now, and there’s been no sign.”

“Where would Sagara-san go?” Sakura asked, following the youngest of the group, Aki catching up a few seconds later, the chewing gum having told her nothing.

“We’ve found his hotel. The receptionist gave us his room number, but the place was empty, and he’s not with Natoko. We got the note telling her he was with ‘some other girl’.”  She felt the note in her pocket absently. The swordgirl wouldn’t miss it if sh never knew about it.

“What other girl is there though?” Aki asked absent-mindedly from behind the others. “Sagara doesn’t know anyone here.”

“He might have met someone else from the dorm… Or it could just be someone from the hotel or the tournament that he’s met,” Sarah answered.

“Sagara-san is on a date with some girl somewhere?” Sakura asked to herself, not realising what she was saying.

“That’s it,” Sarah said, slamming her fist on her hand. “That idiot’s probably met some girl who’s trying to take advantage of him. If so, he’ll be at a dating type place, like a restaurant or at the movies. He probably hasn’t gone far from the hotel either and…”

“Let’s go to the arcade,” Aki said to herself as they walked past one. “I’m bored.”

“That’s it,” Sarah exclaimed loudly. “That’s exactly where they would go.”

“Is the arcade supposed to be a good place for a date?” Sakura asked quizzically.

“Think about it, girl,” Sarah began to tell her. “Boss’s never played video games before coming here. Since he doesn’t go to school here or do any real work except his ninja things, he’s had a lot of spare time. He’s normally been filling up that time watching cartoons and playing video games with me. He’ll probably want to do it more. The arcade will be the most bestest place he would be at the moment. He wouldn’t be able to stand the movies, nor would he be able to afford a romantic meal. It’s either this or a boat ride.”

Sakura mumbled, the bewilderment on her face obvious to all but her traveling companions. “A-Aren’t you assuming too much here?”

“Well, Boss always taught me to ‘gain information on everybody so I can use it at later times, either for or against them,’” Sarah commented, looking as proud of herself as someone who had won a sword fight with a rocket launcher.

“Seems to me you know a bit too much about the boy,” Aki said, eating yet another magic banana. It was her fifth since arriving in Fuugosuki, and the bag she was holding did not seem to be getting any lighter.

“What’s that suppose to mean?” Sarah shouted at the other girl, swiping the stupid girl’s banana out of her hand in anger.

“That you have a crush on your cousin,” Aki said wondering where her banana had gone and ignoring the look of dismay that had etched itself on the younger girl’s face.

“That’s…that’s…” Sarah mumbled, her voice becoming a series of dots used to denote silent disbelief.

“So, we go look in here then?”

“Wha…I…I guess so,” Sarah said, looking up at the sign and trying to ignore what had just been said. “We’ll eliminate the arcades one by one. I pretty much own all of them anyway.” The three small children walked past the café and next door to the Dance Dance Arcade, immediately overcome by flashing lights that threatened to engulf their souls.

***

“We can now win in fifteen turns”

Five more turns had passed, and somewhere along the line, the number of turns in which the weird freaky demon claimed it could win had increased in their favour. Nobori knew he had to solve this. Not just because he wanted to live, but because he said he could. The last thing he wanted was to look stupid. He’d have died before then.

The moron playing the game had eventually followed orders by the fourth turn, going off on his own line of thought, something which could be translated as randomly guessing, though to even use the word guess was a bit much in Nobori’s opinion, until he decided he wasn’t getting anywhere and passed it over to the others.

Nobori wasn’t having much luck either.

It did seem to be random.

The moron had placed different sized black blocks onto the Negotiator’s hand four times now, and it was beginning to look like it couldn’t cope with the strain. Regardless, the demon’s hand had moved drastically when it had come to a smaller block, but less when it had come to a larger block. Just when he had figured they were playing an opposites game, a smaller block had dropped the hand by the same amount as the large block had.

Did the pattern change each turn. Was there a pattern to how the pattern changed? The other arms weren’t faring too well either, and showed an apparent unpredictability to their actions- something which suggested they weren’t linked but at the same time were.

“Get a small black block,” he said slowly, doubting himself as he barked the order. “Put it on theeeee…Recorder Arm.”

“The Recorder Arm, currently at forty centimeters, is connected to the Enforcer, twenty nine centimeters, and Judge  Arms, one hundred and thirty two centimeters. They will go up by ten centimeters and seventeen centimeters respectively while it goes down but three centimeters.” the Ninja girl next to him muttered in one breath. She was seriously freaking him out now, staring at the demon in front of them ever since she said to trust her. Her eyes were no longer blinking. He wanted to wave his hand in front of her, only thinking better of it in case she exploded or something. “A small black block will bring the Recorder arm, currently at forty centimeters, down by seven centimeters.”

The Enforcer hand was nearly touching the bottom, due to the seven black weights which were now lying on top of it. This action would make both arms go up, but the Enforcer shouldn’t budge all that much due to the weight. The ninja strode over to the box, and pulled out a pyramid shape, quickly tossing it onto the hand suggested. It creaked slowly down due to the weight, but the Enforcer and Judge rose easily in tandem, each lifting a foot in the air.

“They’re not connected by weight,” he muttered to himself again, waiting fruitlessly for some reply off the girl beside him.

“Put a medium white block on the Enforcer arm,” he said, a plan developing in his mind.

“Medium white blocks are worth negative five centimeters. For every five centimeters the Enforcer, currently at thirty nine centimeters, falls, the Recorder, currently at thirty three centimeters, and the Administrator, currently at one hundred and seven centimeters, go down currently at a rate of three centimeters and four centimeters respectively.”

Sagara rushed over to the Black box and got one, not even needing to stand on the chair to put this one on. . As the chick next to him predicted, the Recorder and the Administrator’s Arms fell.

A large groan filled the room, the Ivoryhead was panting, like it had tried one rep too many at the gym.  It looked unaware of its own exhaustion. The Enforcer arm shook, bobbing up and down like the muscle was giving up. Four of the blocks fell off, the white one that had just been pout one, and three black ones.

“Hey!” Sagara exclaimed, looking as they covered the ground around him. Without asking, he kneeled down intending to put them back on.

“You have already placed two blocks this turn,” the Riddleklutz spoke. “You may only replace two of those.”

“That’s not…” Sagara started.

“It’s okay,” Nobori said, quickly stepping up, feeling exuberant. “Just put the white one back on.”

“But then won’t I waste a turn?”

“Enforcer arm is currently at twenty eight centimeters from the ground.”

“It’s okay,” Nobori said waving him arms to denote this. Feeling glad that Sagara had followed orders, he sat back down again, not wanting any interruptions. If someone spoke now he’d lose his train of thought. All the blocks weigh something, even the light ones. That was for sure now. If that was the case, there was a limit for the total number of blocks, as well as for the possibility of a trick move.

He felt calm now. Even in some demon dimension. Even with these hundreds of weird creatures behind them, ready to attack in a single moment, he felt ready to solve this. “Place a large black block on the Intelligence arm.” It only had a small black block on it. The highest block, it would be the final piece of information he needed. Standing back on the chair, the punk watched as it dropped.

“Large black blocks are worth ten centimeters. For every ten  centimeters the Intelligence Arm, currently at ninety centimeters, drops. Judge, one hundred and forty nine,  Enforcer, twenty eight, Recorder, thirty, Administrator, one hundred and three, go up all by three centimeters. Negotiator, twenty five,  drops by ten centimeters.”

She repeated it four times. Probably a part of this memorization thing she was doing. A piece of paper would have been better. A piece of paper didn’t remind him of some kind of robotic slave.

“It is our turn,” the demon said unnecessarily. It was obvious it was its turn. It didn’t have to distract him by saying so. They all watched as the Riddleklutz took its time in placing its four blocks one by one, moving all of the arms by the time it was done. For its final move, it dropped a black block onto the Negotiator hand, which quickly gave up on its weight, and had several drop off accordingly.

“We should now be able to win in ten turns,” it said, ending its turn with no thought to the blocks now scattered on the floor.

The number had changed considerably, but it didn’t matter. Ten turns would be more than enough for him to win this. It would change according to Sagara’s moves, he knew that, but it wouldn’t change that drastically. The creature could probably win it in eight more moves, give or take. He had to go on the offensive now, working with what the Riddleklutz had just given him to start lining them up.

“White. Heavy. on the Judge Arm.”

“Judge, one hundred and fifty two, will drop ten centimeters. Administrator, one hundred and six, will rise by five centimeters. Recorder, thirty three, and Enforcer, thirty one, will go down by seven and eight centimeters.”

“Black. Heavy. On the Administrator arm.”

“Administrator, one hundred and eleven, will fall by ten centimeters. Recorder, forty, will go up by one. Intelligence, eighty, down by one.”

He still had no foolproof plan.

“Black. Light. On the Administrator’s arm.”

“Administrator, one hundred and one, will fall by three centimeters. Recorder, forty one, will go up by one. Intelligence, seventy nine, down by four.”

This was good. The Intelligence arm was now down to a reasonable level. It had become the highest one of the lot after all the previous moves. Now, they would be all somewhere in the middle by the next turn. If he kept testing them one by one, and then resetting his moves if need be. It should be a matter of time before the pattern showed itself.

“We feel we should inform you now, Futabatei Sagara, that, due to your actions on this turn, we will now be able to win on our next turn.”

***

“Shit, looks like we were wrong,” Sarah grumbled, pulling herself out of the arcade with heavy feet. Sakura followed carefully behind her, knowing what the young American was like when she was tired. Aki was behind them both, playing with a toy she had won. They had been at this for hours now, but Sarah appeared to have no intention of giving up in her search for Sagara and every arcade in the area had suffered greatly for it.

“Erm, Sarah-chan?” she muttered when she finally thought it was quiet enough to do so.

“I told you not to call me that,” Sarah growled, her eyes half open and looking for a nap Sakura had disturbed. Sakura looked to the floor, afraid to ask any further. “What is it?” Sarah replied, annoyance engrained upon her words.

“D-don’t you think it’s time we should be getting back?” Sakura asked with a stutter. “It’s gotten late a-and…. Well he’s probably already back at the hotel and with everybody else.”

“No! I’ve told you this already. We’re finding him. We will not just give up and go back. It makes the whole afternoon pointless.” It had been the girl’s response for the sixth time now, and Sakura had been expecting it all the same. The only difference now was that it had started to get dark. Already the lights in the streets were on and although it wasn’t pitch black it was definitely colder. All the night time people had started to flow out as well, and getting back on the bus would be difficult.

“Now, where haven’t we tried?” Sarah asked aloud, though Sakura really knew she was talking to herself. “Or should we check back on some of the other places. We can’t expect Boss to just sit around in one place and wait for us after all. We should probably head back to the Dance Arcade place and-”

Now she wanted to go back to places they had already been? How did she expect to find him like this? No one they had spoken to had recognized Sagara in any of the places and Sarah had been very thorough in her interrogations. Sakura was feeling a little hungry too, Aki’s supply of bananas having finally ran out about an hour ago, the girl having not shared a single one of them.

Sakura knew she should say something; point out the foolishness of what they were doing. Sagara had a big day tomorrow and he would have gone back by now for sure. But she knew Sarah wouldn’t listen, that she’d just get angry again.

Shuffling to the back, Sakura jus kept walking.

“We don’t have enough to go there,” Aki said innocently, replying to something Sakura had missed.

“Well, we’ll get the nearest stop and walk.”

“We don’t have enough to get there either.”

Sarah stopped, thinking this through. “No, I mean, get as far as we can to there, not the stop just before it. It shouldn’t be that far a walk after…that.”

Aki was still shaking her head.

“What are you going on about, monkey girl? We’ll get on and ride for as long as we…”

“Aki…” Sakura interrupted slowly. “How much money do we have left?”

Aki responded by holding up the large bovine soft toy she had won. Sakura looked it in its plastic eyes and heard it moo at her electronically, before it started screaming psychotically, Aki shaking the spiked club it was holding for effect.

“Are you saying that you’re a retard, or that we have no money left?” Sarah asked back when Sakura couldn’t find the words to respond to the one they had left in charge of Gen’s wallet.

The cow cackled away at them.

“I think you’re saying it’s both, aren’t you?” Sarah continued alone. “You spent all our money winning that damn toy when you were supposed to be looking for Boss!” The outburst caught the eyes of a group of passing students, and Sakura tried to ease the conversation away from the street. She failed miserably as Sarah pushed her away with some force. “How the hell are we supposed to find Boss now if he is at the Pachinko place? It’s an hour’s walk at least!”

That wasn’t Sakura’s concern. They were roughly in the middle of the city’s business district right now. The Pachinko place Sarah was going on about was on the opposite side of the city to where the hotel was, and the hotel was probably a couple of miles away from them. It would take them hours to get back, not to mention all they could do on foot is get horribly lost. They were almost out of food too. All she had on her was some half eaten bread. She had been right in saving some for later.

A waitress from the café they were arguing next to stared out at them. Her eyes spoke to Sakura to go away.

“This is bad,” Sarah mumbled, biting her thumb. “We need some money fast.”

“We should call Otsune,” Sakura suggested. “She’d come pick us up.”

“None of us have mobile phones, dipshit,” Sarah rebuked instantly. “And unless one of us memorized her number, we can’t use a public phone, not to mention we still have no money.”

“We could ask somebody,” Aki suggested blindly.

“And how do you think that would go? I’m not begging for money from strangers.”

Sakura looked around, feeling more lost than she had ever felt since coming to Japan. Even when she could speak to people, she had no one to speak to. It looked like they were stuck with the long hike back.

“Actually, there is one thing we could do…” Sarah said, looking away from the others and into the buzzing hive of night walkers. “Hey, Sakura?” That was bad. She never addressed her by name. “Have you ever heard of Enjo Kosai?”

“I-i don’t think so,” she replied after second’s deliberation.

“Excellent. Come with me.”

With a sturdy hand, she led Sakura into the alleyway, past the dumpster and into the light of a side door. With a gentle push, she leaned Sakura against the wall and began examining her face in the light. Sakura just lay back, feeling pinks of terror dance over her face as the little girl examined her blushing cheeks. Aki just watched on, just as confused but still curious. Sarah glared harder before wiping something away on Sakura’s forehead with a lick of saliva.

“Well, it’ll have to do,” she said, appearing satisfied. “You’re fatter, but Aki’s more likely to freak people out. Plus that shyness thing is practically a fetish for you Japanese. You’ll do fine.”

Sakura stepped back at the mix of apparently positive insults. “Wh-what are you talking about?”

“Nothing,” Sarah replied unconvincingly. “Okay, now go out there and get us a man.”

“E-excuse me?” Sakura stuttered, her voice feeling very heavy all of a sudden.

“You heard me,” Sarah replied. “Go out there. Find an older looking businessman, the bigger the briefcase the better, and ask him if he wants to play with you.”

“W-why?”

“Well how else are we going to get some money? You can’t expect things for free in this world. You must earn what you desire. If you give your services away to someone for just a little hour I promise we’ll head straight back home after checking out the Pachinko place.”

“W-what do you mean services?” Sakura asked, clueless to why an older man would pay to be with her. No one ever wanted to be with her.

“Relax. Nothing bad will happen. I won’t even let him steal your first kiss. Just get him to come back here with you and then we’ll all hang out together. Businessmen love relaxing with children, and it’s the only thing we’ve got. Okay?”

“Well…” It sounded okay, though a little strange. “I guess so.”

“Nice one, girl,” Sarah said, patting her on the back. “Off you go then. Remember, the richer looking ones are more willing to give money away. So go by your instincts!”

Instincts? She didn’t exactly have those. In fact, her reactions were as slow as her Saturdays. She would just have to do it as Sarah said, and the rest would rely on-

“Ah!” she cried out, her head colliding with the forearm of a tall stranger. Looking up to find herself out of the alley, she saw a large fat man in a suit staring down at her.

“Oh excuse me,” he said, looking a little distracted. “I wasn’t looking.”

“Oh it’s…okay,” she stopped. He still wasn’t looking, instead texting into a mobile phone with a speed that surpassed Fujiko’s. “I wasn’t looking either.” But now that she was, she saw that this guy fit perfectly with what Sarah had said. A businessman. Suit and Tie. Briefcase. Even his watch sparkled a gold that couldn’t be fake.

“Well” he said, having only really paused to finish what he was doing. “Never mind. Take care.”

“Ah, please wait,” she shouted, catching his attention before he left. “D-d- do…”

“Hhhmmm, what is it?” he asked her. “Are you lost?”

“N-no. That’s… that’s not it.

“Huh? What is it then?”

She shook her head, the movements doing nothing to get the words out. What had she been thinking? She shouldn’t go up to a stranger like this. He could be anyone. All of a sudden she imagined the man rushing her into the alleyway and making sure she could never breathe again. Her voice started to stutter incomprehensibly.

“I w-was… I-I was. W-well I was wondering i-if. I was wondering if y-you wanted t-to…”

“Oh my,” the man said, now noticing her existence more clearly. “You- you’re not one of those types, are you? You’re… You’re looking to play?”

Ah, he understood. That was lucky. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe Sarah was right about this. It must have been more common than she thought. Rather than speak any further, Sakura just nodded. If he knew what this was, she could just let him take the lead for the rest of it. Though she probably should get Sarah and Aki as well.

“Erm…look,” the man twisted round, looking at bystanders and cars while Sakura turned to see if the others were there. They were not. “Let’s just… go into this alley for a second.”

The man wandered in first, too fast for her to stay at his side. It felt odd but she wandered in after him anyway. He got halfway between the dumpster and the lonely light by the door of the café before he turned to face her, placing his briefcase down, his eyes beaming down at her like a concerned father.

“Now listen to me,” he said, going to extreme effort to bring his rotund body down to her level kneeling so that he arced just a little above her and grabbing her lightly by the arms, just enough so that she felt she could pull away if she wanted. “I’m not sure what you think you’re doing, but it’s not smart and it’s not a good way to get any money.”

Sakura froze, her mind screaming as her teeth started to tremble. She was scared. She didn’t know why she was scared but it gripped her, slammed down and crushed her body like a wolf’s jaw. She didn’t know what she had done wrong but the man seemed pretty upset about it.

“Just how old are you?” the man asked.

“Th-thirteen.”

“Geez, and how long have you been doing this?” Doing what? Sakura asked herself. She didn’t know what she had been doing, or what she had done wrong. Sarah had just told her to ask people and…

“Hey, hey, calm down,” the man replied, his voice sounding concerned even to her terror entrenched ears. “It’s okay. I’m a-“

A clunk ended the conversation prematurely, the man falling to the side of her vision with a grunt. She gasped as he fell over his briefcase and revealed Sarah, holding a discard plank of wood behind him.

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing to my friend?” she shouted, pushing the man against the wall as he flailed helplessly in front of them. As he turned to try and face her, she jumped on top of him, winding him in the stomach and holding him by the neck.

“You sick freak,” she cried out, slapping him hard against the right cheek. The man tried to utter out words, excuses probably, but Sarah heard none of it. She screamed and shouted at him, Sakura unable to hear any of it as she shrank into the corner. Trying to scramble away, the man desperately looked for help and both he and Sakura noticed people staring into the alley. Reaching for them, the man tried to push Sarah out of the way and was met with the tearing of his jacket as it ripped off him and into the mud, the small girl following behind it.

With one last stumble and jostle, the man found his legs again, pulling himself up and running out of the alleyway. They watched as he approached the outside world again, Sarah screaming and shouting all the way.

“And if you dare try and fuck around with my friend again, I’ll kill you, you hear me?” That was enough for the bystanders, who looked like they were ready to help the man, to step out of his way and let him pass by unaided. The man didn’t stop to retrieve his stuff and was lost in the crowd before Sakura could catch sight of him. In but a moment, the area fell back into calm, concerned citizens returning to their business as if nothing had happened and leaving the three girls alone.

Watching Sarah breath heavily to herself, using her knees for support, Sakura barely realised she had inched herself up by the dumpster at this point, the dirt getting all over her jacket. The ten year old girl took a few moments to calm down, before wiping the dirt off her legs and turning to face her.

“Well, that worked well,” she said, calm and composed. “Good job, hooker girl.”

“Hooker girl?” Sakura repeated.

“Well, let’s see what we got.” And with that, Sarah started to rummage through the contents of the torn suit jacket she held in her hands, quickly finding a wallet that lit her face with a smile. “Jackpot,” she said in English, sitting down to count through it.

“Wait!” Sakura said, catching the girl’s attention as she went through the notes. “All that. T-that whole thing. It was just to take his money?”

“How else were we going to get it?” Sarah asked. “You think we were just going to wait around for an hour while this guy had his way with you? This is much faster, believe me.” She went back to counting the money. Aki held tightly to her cow.

“But… but stealing’s wrong. It’s a sin and illegal and-”

“-our way home…” Sarah stopped her mid sentence. “Look, there’s nothing wrong with what we were doing. That guy was way too eager to have his way with you. He couldn’t get you in this alley fast enough and…” Sarah stopped, holding her stomach with a groan. “Whoa, headrush.”

“But I don’t think he even wanted to… to play with me. It sounded like…”

“Sarah?” Aki interrupted stepping up. Sakura stopped speaking to see Sarah holding the wall, the wallet slipping from her hands. “Sarah, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” the girl muttered. “Wow. Head rush again.”

“Sarah?” Sakura said, joining her friends. The girl’s face had quickly turned pale. “Are you…”

“What’s that?” Aki asked to anyone who could give the answer. Sakura looked up, following Aki’s eyes to behind them, her hand reaching for her crucifix as she glanced what her friend was seeing.

“I don’t feel so good,” Sarah muttered, as Sakura saw the strange swirling motion that was turning the entire wall from red bricks to a large steel fence. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the alley disintegrated around them as the lights went out, a musty smell filling their nostrils as Sarah vomited hard onto the floor.

Just as Aki went to push her away, her friend looking very concerned right before she fell unconscious, Sakura found herself thinking of God, and her own father. Was this punishment, for what they had just done? Retribution, for their act against a kind man.

If so, they probably deserved it.

Act Two – Chapter Five

“And why do I have to carry all the bags?” a weary Gen asked, stepping off of the tram and onto Fuugosuki platform, where a stampede of busy commuters ricocheted off of him in an attempt to escape the cramped carriage. Otsune never could tell exactly why there were so many people on the tram all the time no matter what the occasion. The only time it ever seemed different was rush hour, where it became customary from some to die whilst traveling home in the stampedes.

“What are you talking about, idiot?” the small blond haired girl asked him, safely avoiding the rush by ducking under the rucksack the landlord was wearing. “We’re carrying bags too.” Over Sarah’s left shoulder was a stylish black backpack. Itno doubt seemed very light from Gen’s point of view and practically empty. Before he could comment Aki jumped in front of him, nearly causing him to drop the entire load.

“Yeah look I’m helping” the African girl commented, waving a small plastic bag in front of his face. Gen could see that it clearly only contained Bananas, the bag only getting lighter before him.

“But, that’s nothing compared to– to…” He knew giving a list of three suitcases and a rucksack that was one and a half times the size of his upper body would not have any effect on the girls.  He chose silence instead.

“Bear with it Gen,” Otsune said, patting him on the backpack as firmly as she could, causing him to stoop slightly. “It’s just to the hotel and possibly up a few stairs.”

“I won’t make it out of… the station at this rate,” he said back to her, turning to see she wasn’t even listening to him.

“Want me to take that, Sakura?” Otsune asked the younger girl, who was currently carrying the only remaining suitcase, which was about half her size. Even so, the timid girl was trying her best to keep it off the ground.

“It’s okay, Otsune. You should ask Sakura if he wants you to hold something,” she replied, trying to be as helpful as possible and clearly not in on the joke.

“Yes. Please do,” mumbled Gen, his face turning a dark shade of red that implied that soon it would burst. Otsune found herself blanking him out mentally, staying a few steps ahead to walk alongside Fujiko, who seemed deep in thought for a moment.

“Hey… Otsune?” the student turned to her writer friend as she addressed her. “Do you think… what with this tournament and all, that we’re gonna see some more demons?”

“What?” the student replied. “You’re sounding serious all of a sudden.”

“Well, it’s just,” Fujiko paused for a second. “It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Sagara says he’s some kind of demon hunting ninja, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, normally it’ll just sound corny and we’d assume he’s some stupid otaku fanboy, but-”

“But then we saw the demon ourselves, right?” Otsune finished the sentence for the girl. It had been on her mind as well.

Fujiko giggled uneasily. “Right.”

“What demon?” Gen asked behind them, before gravity once again demanded his attention.

“And now you’re worried that when we get to this tournament, something like that might happen again?”

“Yeah. Just a thought, you know?” Fujiko seemed embarrassed for the first time in years to her old friend, but she was thinking things along the same line.

“I don’t know if we should be worried or not.” Otsune stated.

“Huh?”

“I mean…I’d like to think that that guy would be all heroic and say something like ‘I wouldn’t bring you along if it was dangerous…’ but I still don’t know him enough. He might not really care. He certainly didn’t seem all that concerned with that water spirit. I mean, I know he helped Natoko and I guess all along he was trying to help her…but then why did he even have to fight her in the first place?”

“That’s true. If he knew she was a demon, then why not just find a way to exorcise her from Natoko anyway.”

“Yeah…” The two fell quiet as they left the station, the hustle of the street drowning out conversation while they adjusted.

“Where are we going?” a voice said from beneath a shell of bags, stopping by the front of the small park.

“Oh,” Otsune stuttered. “I don’t actually know. Where did Natoko say she was staying?”

“Ano…” Fujiko stalled. The girl had been severely drunk at the time of the phone call and it was only her miraculous recovery time that allowed Otsune to bring her along at all. “The Scarlett, was it?”

“Couldn’t have been,” Otsune said dismissively. “That place is far too expensive.”

“Are you guys going to the hotel first?” Sarah asked several steps ahead of them. “Make sure you put my stuff in my room.”

“You’re not separating from the group, Sarah-chan,” Otsune replied sternly, understanding the girl instantly. “The hotel is first. You can find Sagara later tonight.”

“No,” Sarah shouted, not caring for the girl’s feeling. “I want to find Boss as soon as possible. If we find him, we’ll probably be able to stay where he is.”

“Oh, is that it?” Fujiko slyly grinned, finding something she was able to focus on without getting worried. “I thought you rushed us out here a little too fast. Trying to make sure those two can’t get together? Quite the jealous type, aren’t we?”

“Moron,” shouted Sarah, kicking Fujiko’s leg. “I’m not jealous, I just reckon he’s an idiot if he starts going out with that girl. We have to find him as soon as possible.” The conversation was interrupted by a noise behind them. They turned to see that Gen’s legs had had enough and insist that he collapse.

“Fine, you stay with the weirdoes,” she grunted at Fujiko. “I’m gonna go find boss.” Running off in the opposite direction, she was towards the end of the park before anyone could say anything.

“I’ll go too,” Aki shouted, running after her partner in crime. Shortly following her was Sakura.

“And me,” she said weakly, dropping her suitcase with Otsune and chasing after the other two. Otsune watched them, not intending to try and find the boy in a city of millions.

“Are they gonna be all right on their own?” she said turning to the others, even though she knew there was no one there responsible enough to answer that question.

“I should be more worried for the city,” Fujiko replied sarcastically, somehow pulling a bottle of sake out of nowhere, causing her friend to attack her with rancorous eyes. “Relax girl, they’ll be fine, Aki probably has her mobile anyway. And you know what the foreign kid’s like.”

“I guess you’re right,” she said sitting down with the rest of them. “We might as well just enjoy ourselves.”

“Plus, it’ll give Tina a chance to air out as well.” From behind, Otsune heard the her friend fall down onto the grass with an exhausted slump. Otsune watched her with concern, even as she kept her distance. Whatever horrible accident Tina had had with her make up this morning hadn’t had chance to clean itself up and the girl had been sullen for the whole trip since.

“Leave her be.”

“Well, I’m sure they would smell good if they were used individually, Tina-san,” Fujiko continued to joke, getting elbowed lightly in the rib as punishment.

“Ah, please don’t call me that, Fujiko. It sounds weird,” Tina asked. But ignoring her comment, Fujiko intoxicated mouth could only continue, the effects of the sake working more as an on/off switch rather than a gradual descent into inebriation

“Later if you want,” she said with a slur. “I could help you out, show you how to do it right. If you’re looking to seduce a man, perfume should be used expertly, not twenty bottles of twenty different brands just poured over you.”

“No thank you, Fujiko. I’m not looking to seduce anyone, I just-”

“Well, talk to me when you’re ready to admit it to yourself girl,” she said, practically shouting as she interrupted the more timid girl. “Although I wonder who it could be…”

“Fujiko! Leave her,” Otsune commanded, knowing that one friend wouldn’t stand to her own defense, and the other would never even think of stopping.

“Ah, maybe it’s Otsune,” she said excitedly, pointing to the girl besides her. “You’re always so protective of her. I’m sure you two would make a wonderful couple.” Her voice turned sweet, as if she was complimenting something cute.

“You’re sick, Fujiko. And you’re seconds away from dying as well.”

***

The small café had been one of her favourite places to hang out since she first stumbled across it when in hiding from her boss years ago. The quiet bustle of elderly businessmen passing through for a quick coffee was as amusing for her as it had been for them. With only enough roof to house about twenty people, on tables and at the bar, Raiko was always looking to get a wall seat whenever she swarmed in there by herself. She didn’t recognise anybody today, except for the master of the store, but that was okay. She had someone else to talk to today.

“Whoa, slow down there, boy,” said Raiko, tucking into her own waffle slowly. “I’d prefer you to appreciate that what I’m treating you to.”

“It’s really nice,” Sagara said, the current wave of fibre stored in his cheeks. “What did you say this was again?”

“Don’t you know?” Raiko replied confused, looking around expecting to see they were drawing a crowd at his behavior, everyone politely disdaining from watching. “It’s a corn dog. They’re from your country. Not mine.”

“It’s nice whatever it is.”

“Yeah? Cheap as well. All the other places round here charge about the same amount you’d expect to pay to eat the President of the United States, but this place stays nice and cheap even during recessions. So eat as much as you want. Just eat it slowly.”

“I can probably manage that.”

Munching into the corn dog, it was gone in a matter of seconds, disappearing down the mouth of the ninja before it could scream for him to stop. Raiko waited for him to finish chewing, before ordering another one.

“So, Sagara. Tell me about yourself.”

“Huh?” Sagara mumbled back in response, a glass of apple juice blocking his limited efforts to speak coherently

“Well, I just figured if I’m going to show you round town today, you could repay me by telling me about yourself while we do. Balance things out, as it were.”

“Ah, okay.” Sagara went back to drinking.

“I’ve always been curious in meeting one of the other members of the clan. I only know Ms. Sakimoto from part time work. But I’m thinking the future Enforcer should be a lot more interesting.”

It didn’t seem to bother him that she knew everything. Had he already been told about her from Yuya? The Futabatei were supposed to be careful in talking about work related matters, but all he was doing was nibbling on the stick to get whatever remained of the dog off of it. It wasn’t ver cute of him when she thought about. She got the feeling he was the type who’d be very pretty as long as he remained quiet and motionless.

“Are you allowed to talk about it?” she asked him concerned, hoping that he wasn’t too shy about not saying anything.

“No. It should be fine,” he replied, continuing to gnaw. He took a few prolonged seconds before finally saving wood away. “I’m Sagara,” he finally said.

It took a while to get anything else out of him. At first all he seemed interested in was telling her he had brown hair and brown eyes, though they were sometimes also green. Three Corn dogs and a waffle later he wasn’t shutting up.

“And once I’m through the tournament there the whole problem with the demons. Melissa says I have to focus on both, but I don’t know where to start with the demons.”

“I know what you mean,” Raiko replied absently. “I’m supposed to be looking after some of the demons handling the bets and I just know it’s not going to work out. There’s this stupid fat locust demon that makes things you find repulsive sexy, and if he even thinks of doing something to me…” Sagara was staring forwards now, his expression unmoving. It was exactly the same as before, but Raiko found it different somehow. “What?”

“You know where the demons are?”

“You haven’t heard?

“Huh? Heard what?”

Raiko brought her hands to cover up with her mouth. What had she just said? There was no way for her to know but it should have been obvious.

“Of course. It’s your initiation, isn’t it? Oh damn.” Feeling incredible stupid, she stamped the floor under the table, looking away from him, her mouth fumbling the game. “I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to tell you. You’re supposed to find it out for yourself.”

“Well, I suppose now I have.”

“Oh, you mustn’t tell Ms. Sakimoto,” pleaded Raiko. “If she discovers that I’ve been telling you things relating to your initiation. You’re not even supposed to know she’s handling the matter in case you fail.”

“Well, it’s good to have a backup.”

“No, it’s not,” insisted Raiko. “f you know you have backup, you’ll go lax. You’ll start thinking that it’s okay because someone else can handle it if you fail. But this is all supposed to be for you, Sagara. The only reason I think Ms. Sakimoto set this up is so that you could go in and deal with it. It’s supposed to be your actions. That decides the fate of this tournament. Your decisions. Your free will. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

Raiko realised she was panting now, her legs also standing up and her voice doing very little in keeping the secrets of the Futabatei away from everyone else in the café. She coughed to stop herself, and sat back down. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Sagara said, sounding more genuine than he should with spilled secrets. “Besides, you’re wrong.”

“I am?”

“That’s right. It’s not my choice at all. I am just to obey my mother’s commands. I must enter the tournament and root out the demons. That’s my duty, and that’s all I need to do. Other than that, it’s just waiting and finding them… though I suppose what you said just helped. I didn’t know there was betting going on. Though it doesn’t matter about what you just said, since I won’t fail.”

“I see,” she said after a few moments, coming to an misaligned understanding that she wasn’t sure of. “So you’re trapped too.”

“What’s that?” It passed her mind for a moment, that one special moment where she could reveal everything to a total stranger. But this wasn‘t a total stranger. If she had understood what he had just said. He was the one person she could never tell.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said, hating the bright lighting and flowery drapes all of a sudden. This was supposed to be her hiding place, but it served a more torturous function as well when she wasn’t noticing.

“Okay,” he said, apparently unconcerned for the half glass of citrus left on the round table and her own half eaten waffle. Paying the master quickly, she stormed out the main entrance, her envoy in tow.

 

***

 

“When did that happen?”

“Excuse me?” Raiko turned round the corner, through the shortcut alley to the arcade. She had promised him the delights of pachinko, and if they got there before lunch, they’d miss the mass of lunch time goers.

“My eyes aren’t working?” he complained, rubbing them. “They been like this all day?”

“Have you got something in them?” Raiko asked back, walking in reverse to glance at the brown irises behind her. He was rather handsome when she got a close up glare of him. It made the creature inside her stir a little.

“No, that’s the problem. Well, not much of a problem I guess. It’s not like I need them today.” He carried on walking, his hands sinking back down into his pockets.

“You know, Sagara. Even for a faithless, you’re quite fu… ah!” she gasped, noticing the sudden positioning of a wall behind her. It was bouncier than the brick wall she might have expected, even as it were stiff and large. Slowly turning around, she found someone staring down at her, a huge man made entirely of muscle and leather, a red bandana wrapped around his head.

For someone so large, it was amazing she hadn’t sensed him by body presence. Raiko looked up to the face of the thirty something body builder with a caution she would reserve for bears. The man leered down at her like a giant noticing an ant for the first time, and arced slowly towards her.

“Ah, excuse me,” she got out as quickly as she could. At times like this, she figured apologising and getting away was the smartest course of action.

“Quite alright, miss,” the older man growled with a surprisingly light hearted voice. “Wasn’t your fault.”

“Ah, thank you, excuse us.”

“It was mine. You were going to bump into me no matter what you tried.”

Stay calm, she told herself, keeping an eye on the bruiser in front of her. Now that she looked, there were two others in the alleyway with them. Kids, barely teenagers from the looks of things. One was sitting on the dumpster. Both had a look of hyenas on them.

“Is there anything we can help you with?” She knew she was setting herself up. A comment like that screamed for them to reveal their ill intentions, but it was either that or let them have complete control of the field.

“Oh we just hang round here at lunch, take what we can from those wanting to use this shortcut. There’s always some old geezer more than willing to let us snag some money off of him, but I guess we can take a few kids as well.”

She had never seen them before, though she had been out of town for a while. She certainly hadn’t expected to have her tuft taken away by Yakuza wannabes though.

“But we’re older than you,” Sagara replied matter of factly. Raiko frowned. There was no way this man was younger than them. His lackeys for sure, but this wasn’t the time to be thinking such things.

“Oi, wash your mouth and show some respect, boy,” the thug continued, brushing passed her and into Sagara’s face, the two boys stepping up to show she couldn’t run away. “My friends here may be a little young, but I’ll bitch your ass if you start acting like you’re older than me.”

“But I am older than you,” Sagara stated, looking quite confused. “You’re fifteen years old. Same as those two.” Raiko began discussing in her head if this was just the right time for such a debate, though it also occurred to her that Sagara probably had no money whatsoever on him and wasn’t concerned as she was that they might make a grab for it before running off. She had just got to the thought of sneaking her purse into her khakis a little more to make it ungrabbable when the larger guy stamped his foot.

“Like fuck am I?!” the pack of large muscles cried out. “What the hell would you know?”

“I’m not sure,” Sagara replied. “It’s just somehow I know you’re not any older than fifteen years and four months.”

“Whatda ya say, brat,” the thug seemed uncaring for words now, and raised his fist to continue the discussion. Was Sagara right about it or something? How could this brute, who must have weighed in at a heavyweight level and looked not to have an once of fat on his body be only fifteen years. Reality interceded before the answer and Raiko watched as Sagara slipped back and away from an attack that didn’t come, circling behind the supposed teenager and next to Raiko, who congratulated herself on allowing them to get surrounded by street vagrants.

“Hey Sagara,” she whispered to him. “You better be as strong a fighter as you should be. I won’t be able to protect you otherwise with this many.”

“Does that mean we’re to fight them?” Sagara asked, not entirely stupid. “But they’re not demons.”

“Look out!” Raiko screamed before she could answer, the larger one lunging forward to punch him, knocking him back. The right hook connecting with his jaw, Sagara could only spit saliva as he fell. Raiko watched as the ground came to meet him, stopping inches before him, the boy now wrapped round the punk’s punching shoulder, dragging him along too.

“It’s okay, Raiko. I’m strong,” he stated casually, looking fine even with a curled up hand in his jaw. The girl breathed a sigh of relief as he hung there like a playful rat, tying the thug up for moments as he swung back round and away from his attacker.

“Shit, get them!” the thug shouted. “Let neither of them escape the alley.”

“Although Natoko did tell me that I shouldn’t train today,” the ninja mumbled with the group charging towards him, as he pondered his moral situation. The first one came at his right. Holding a baseball bat, jumping up at the ninja, swinging the blunt piece of wood towards his forehead. Tilting his neck, Sagara shifted his shoulder to the side, narrowly dodging the weapon. Because of his lunge, his attacker ended up stepping pass him, and had to take a moment to regain his balance. During this time, Sagara turned around and, grabbing his head, pushed the bat-wielding punk into the wall face first. Letting go, he heard the boy making a groaning noise, his nose also broken, collapsing to the floor in a heap.

Raiko cringed, she didn’t know why she had been so worried. Grinning, she looked to her own opponent, whichever one would approach first, that is.

***

 

Melissa observed; her view of the alley sufficient to take it all in, even the bruise Sagara would later receive from the attack. How did he do this? He was a fool of the highest degree. Even swimming effortlessly around his opponents like they were stones in a pond, Sagara was still an idiot to get into this fight in the first place. Random punks! Even worse would be that he’d probably prolong it. And for as long as possible.

And there wasn’t time for any of it.

The boy with the baseball bat was getting back up. Sagara dodged the other boy’s attempts to shove him towards the floor and noticed him try another overhead swing. It was simple for her lord to evade it, moving swiftly to the side and smiling nervously as the bat slammed into the head of the defenseless youth, knocking him flat and up. It took a few seconds of stifled comprehension for the bat boy to realise what he had done, having not seen his friend before the bat had swung him back round to face his accidental betrayal complete with blood stained face. Deciding to place his blame solely in Sagara rather than accept it in himself, he charged once again with a howl swinging his bat madly straight for the ninja.

As she expected, this completely missed Sagara, who evaded by jumping high into the air. His eyes ignited in fury, the boy spun around trying to find his target . With no other clue, he looked up to see a dark shadow flying towards him in front of the piercing sunlight. Instinctively raising his club up in order to block what was coming at him, Melissa saw the boy close his eyes, flinching too hard as Sagara skidded off his shoulder, knocking him down, but not out.

Already rain clouds were zeroing unnaturally in on their direction, all the buildings that they were covering fading away like dreams that never were. There was no doubt something had zeroed in on him. Curse him. He was supposed to never be found. Even if he was, he was supposed to have certain wards to protect him.

“And as much as I would like them to teach you a lesson, it would cause problems for us later on.”

“Daisuke,” the large man, or boy in Sagara’s eyes, shouted, the girl standing between them not even trying to attack him yet. “Ushiro!”

Far too late. A boot lightly pressed itself against the boy’s nose, breaking it as light as one would safety remove an eggshell, his legs appearing to willingly fall from underneath him before her lord could crash down into him. Now, all four of those who had appeared from nowhere were on the ground, with only two left, and only about two minutes left at the same time.

An attempt at redemption, this is what this was. Her lord had let himself get blindsided the other night, a result of being stupid enough to assume the person wouldn’t attack with his back turned. Even if he didn’t realise it himself, he had let the fight happen, or wanted it to. But there wasn’t enough time, and he had no intention of beating up normal humans without a good reason.

 

“Kisama! Buttoukorosu,” screamed the punk, dropping the bat to feel his nose. Sagara waited patiently for the boy to get his bearings back as the world started swirling around them. Despite his weak size, the boy was doing surprisingly well at standing up to Sagara.

“Yamarou, Daisuke!” the muscular man called out in Japanese. “Tsuyosou, Daisuke. Tame ni tsuyo sugiru. Kare o atsukauyo.” Clapping his hands, the man stepped up to get Sagara’s attention, the smaller one stepping back.

“Omoshiro so,” the man babbled, standing directly in front of Sagara engulfing her lord within his shadow alone. “You’re pretty interesting. Fight like a kung fu film, do ya?” Melissa’s head clicked. The language barrier just dissipated.

“Erm…thank you,” Sagara said casually to the piece of steel in front of him. “You look strong yourself. I’ll fight you next.” Hearing this, the man burst out into hysterics that made him look like a bad actor.

“Fight me, you little prick?” His expression changed, scrunching up like a chocolate wrapper, becoming deeply offended by the mere request. “You think you can fight on my fuckin’ level? Acrobatics. Evasion. Precision. They all mean fuck all my strength!”

She was aware of her eyes widening, the man’s fist was already pass the point where Sagara’s stomach had been, the force  knocking him back. The fist was huge, and covered her lord’s abs easily. It was only on him for a second, and then his body moved away from it, giving his back enough space to slam into the wall, the hard brick refusing to budge before him. Her lord winded, he fell to the floor with a moment of daziness. That was good. Anyone else would have had their cheeks shredded as their teeth tightened over them, but Sagara was relaxed enough to absorb the blow without much damage. The wall hadn’t helped though. The girl screamed out his name,.

“Shall we try?” said Sagara, answering a question Melissa must have missed. Her lord slowly rose up, appearing undamaged to the thug before him and ready to fight for real, when the tweeting of a bird suddenly muted outside of the ally reminded her there were more pressing concerns to deal with.

“Run, you moron,” she shouted, breaking the silence she was supposed to keep round others. She hoped the kids wouldn’t understand her. “This place is trapped in a Spinner!”

“No, it isn’t,” Sagara shouted back without looking at her. “I would have…” he stuttered, breathing heavily, “noticed…” He stopped in mid sentence and she watched as he brought his hands up to his eyes, rubbing them raw as she noticed the thug looking up at her with an astonished gape.

Seeing his expression, she set up the motions for an illusion of heavy air to cover her existence, only to freeze up herself when she saw it wasn’t working. Feeling like she had forgotten batteries, she clenched her muscles to get the illusion working, only to generate nothing. Now she was definitely exposed.

“I can’t sense it,” he shouted back up to her. “I can’t sense anything.”

“The girl,” Melissa said in surprise, looking at the wall of the cafe, as a large metal gate shot up and around the brick and mortar, raising itself into the skies around the building almost as fast as she could jump into its newly formed cage.

“The building’s been possessed by a Spinner demon. It’s shunting us. I didn’t even know something like this could have a voice.”

“It’s an evil café?” the girl said. “That’s just stupid.”

“I don’t know why, but there’s something stopping any special abilities here,” Melissa informed him, starting to climb down the stairs. “I can’t even form illusions at this point and I’m guessing you haven’t been able to sense spirits since you met this girl this morning.” She went to drop down from the stairwell, to land next to her lord. She didn’t make it, the air hanging onto her feet. She found herself levitating against her own will.

“What the fuck?” the man shouted, and she realised they were too far gone now. His little friend didn’t wait for an answer, turning around and running out of the alley as fast as he could, the final part of the gate raising itself into the sky as soon as he passed it, not even turning around to look.

“Oh, we’re trapped,” Sagara stated obviously, looking around to find a way out.

“What’s going on, Sagara?” Raiko asked behind him. “This is a Spinner. Why is there a Spinner demon coming after us?” Looking on, Melissa saw the two face each other, Sagara seemed concerned about something else now, staring at the girl for more reason than answering her question.

“You tell us,” Melissa interceded. “We’re being awfully setup today. And it’s quite easy to see who to blame when you’ve only known them a couple of hours before they lead you down a dark alley containing random encounters.”

“You’re saying I did this?” Raiko said offended, apparently having no problem arguing with someone who was floating six feet above her. “I’m one of you. I serve the Negotiator of the Balance, Sakimoto Yuya. And besides, he just fell into my room.”

“Yes I know. I learnt of your presence last night.” Melissa scanned the girl for the usual abnormalities. “I was willing to pass this off as just a lonely girl who wanted to meet someone else made out of demons until about three minutes ago. Now I’m wondering how many of our laws you’re breaking.”

“I’m not breaking any. I just wanted to meet him.”

“I’ve noticed nothing wrong with me all day,” Sagara interrupted.

“What?” both girls asked sternly.

“All day, I felt no change in my eyes. That can only mean that whatever is wrong with the eye of Futabatei happened when I woke up that morning, and I woke up next to you.”

“The Eye of Futabatei?” Raiko replied. Melissa was slowly understanding now. What was stopping her illusions, and the boy’s eyes, it could only be one thing really. “Of course, you would have that, wouldn’t you? But isn’t it supposed to be automatic?”

“Sagara,” Melissa chimed. “They’re beginning the switch.”

“We’re caught in their trap, Melissa. Might as well go for the ride,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the girl as he considered her question. “I’m a little different to the rest of my family. I have to activate it, but how have you stopped it?”

“Then, then,” Raiko fished into her pocket, pulling out the long line of fabric that made up her headband. “It must be this.” His new, supposed friend pulled the end of the bandage out of her pocket, revealing a glowing gem that had been wrapped up inside the headband. It was dark green and looked like a large expensive emerald, but what was most notable about it was the complete absence of light that refracted through it. In fact, light would just physically stop just a few millimetres before it reached the jade rock. Melissa recognised it instantly

“A Neutralis shard?” Melissa shouted in shock. “Who are you to have one of those?”

“Oh, sorry. She’s Raiko,” Sagara explained. “Raiko, this is Melissa.” The girl called Raiko stared at him, both girls knowing this is clearly not what she meant.

“Oi!” the large man shouted out. “We’re still fighting here. I don’t give a fuck what’s going on around us.”

“You should,” Melissa explained, hovering in front of him, her ability to obey gravity’s laws failing her as she spoke to the muscle bound fool. “We’re being transported to the InBetween Realm, more than likely by a demon.”

“This!” she said, turning to Sagara as she flailed her arms in all directions. “This is what you get for being too relaxed about demon hunting. Not only do you leave enough evidence of that demon for a trace last night, but now we’ve got no choice but to drag innocent people along.”

“Just what the fuck is going on?”

“Shut up. Don’t say anything,” she stressed to the man, trying to get in his face despite her current midair paralysis. “Don’t touch anything and don’t move about, and you might survive.” Her body was disobeying her without gravity, and she felt her weapons jangle as she flipped upside down.

“He’s got no where to go anyway,” Raiko said over them. “We’re already no longer in the city.” The new girl turned to Sagara. “Looks like I’m not going to get to show you around,” she said with a hapless grin.

“Looks like,” he replied sheepishly. “Could you turn that thing off or something? I have a feeling I’m going to need my eyes.”

“Erm, sure,” The girl mumbled, and Melissa’s peeked over as the girl waved her hand over the strange green gem. The emerald stone hummed loudly as the charge built up before cutting off as it switched to standby mode. The girl put it in her pocket and already Melissa felt her senses tingling again, like they had been lightly brushed with a feather. If that was the case then her illusions were probably back up too, although in front of two unknowns wasn’t the best time to show anything special off. It was a very good thing that she had dyed her hair recently. Some respect might have been lost if these people saw it turn back to its original colour.

“We’re still traveling,” Sagara said, his Eyes of Futabatei now prominently green and scanning the area. “We haven’t reached whoever is trying to kidnap us.”

“Kidnap us?” Raiko shouted out, now looking around appearing more worried than before. “What’s going on, why are we being transported like this? Don’t the demons only do this when someone’s really insulted them?”

“I’m not sure, but I’m guessing it’s a vendetta. I have so many of them,” Sagara said with a bright laugh, the type reserved for happy, nostalgic memories. On the floor, Melissa noticed that the unconscious boy fading away. It was only the big guy coming with them it seemed. Sleep wouldn’t allow any of its citizens to travel back and forth between realms without its say-so and it’ll be good if they could only go further with only faithless here. “By the way, if you feel something try to grab you, just try to ignore it. It’ll be a spectre. They’re only curious as to what we are.”

“That’s what it is,” Nobori grunted as he got back up, “I was hoping it was a girl trying to feel me up.”

“Shut up,” Raiko grunted. “You have no idea what’s going on here, so just be a good, little boy and be quiet.”

“Yo, fuck you!” Sagara ignored the obscene outburst and tried to enlighten his opponent.

“Basically what’s happening is we’re being taken to… somewhere by evil unspeakable creatures of doom. To do that they use a Spinner, picking up parts of our reality and replacing it with their own really, really fast, so it doesn’t leave a mark. This will all change when we get there, but basically we traveling through an inbetween inbetween realm before we get to the InBetween realm and this dimension’s native inhabitants are looking at us confused. However, because of the illusions being set up by evil enemy number one, we aren’t supposed to be able to see them. Now that I have my eyes working again, I can.”

“So….” Nobori said thinking. “If I ignore half of the crap you said, what’s going on?”

“Not basically, we’re being kidnapped.”

“And why?”

“Like he said,” Melissa piped in, finally having enough of futile attempts at secrecy. “It’ probably a vendetta. Those morons from the False Balance.”

Act Two – Chapter Four

As expected, girl,” Fujiko said from the other end of the phone. “I didn’t think you’d go so fast. Was he good?”

“What?” Natoko said from the hotel payphone, honestly confused at to what the woman was implying. “No. No!” she exclaimed, quickly realising. “He slept on the floor. We did nothing like that. You sick, crazy freak.”

It was early morning. Sagara had decided not to wake up when she stood on him by accident getting out of bed. Though part of him had, but it was more just his hand that woke up rather than the rest of his body. There was something strangely amusing about seeing the hand drag the 175lb deadweight off the small rug, round the bed and into the balcony window, which it tried to get through for five minutes whilst Natoko got herself a glass of water. Seeing that he was not going to get up anytime soon, she opened the balcony window to see where the hand would go next, before getting bored and going to shower.

She had left it on the other side of the railings, still trying to walk on the surfaceless air while the rest of the body stayed attached to the hotel behind the railings. A splash of water to her face later and she decided that it might be a good idea to ring Heavenly Springs to inform everyone where they were. She was hoping to speak to Otsune or Sakura and tell them everything that had happened that night. Unfortunately, she had ended up with Fujiko, with someone singing in the background.

“Really?” she heard a dopey sounding voice shouting in the background. “Congratulations, Natoko!”

“Shut up!” the tired samurai shouted down the receiver, fruitlessly hoping that the girl would hear and managing to gain the attention of everyone in the lobby at the same time. Feeling herself blushing, she quickly tried to hide her presence in the corner of the phone booth. “Anyway, we’ll be staying at the new hotel for the rest of the trip.”

“Er? Why not stay with everyone else?” Fujiko asked. “Unless you’re planning on going for round two…or is it thr…”

“Be-cause,” Natoko exclaimed, “all registrants have to be at the tournament at nine to help with the arrangements, their match line ups and other things. The matches themselves start at midday. This is closer to the location from what i’ve been told, and if we stay here we have a contact from the tournament nearby. You should just try and get everyone here before then. I know you’ve got seats booked but there’s still probably going to be a rush.”

“Hhhhmmm, maybe we should come in today and stay the night too, to make sure you two don’t get up to anything.” Fujiko giggled a little as she continued her stupid irrational assumptions. Natoko could swear she could smell the alcohol-coated breath of the freelance writer emitting itself through the phone just to annoy her and tried to calm her mind with a soothing image of Fujiko being destroyed by liver failure.

“Fine, do as you wish,” she said sighing. “At least tell everyone where we are. Got that?” Hearing nothing but intoxicated laughter, she left the news up to fate, but as she went to hang up, she heard another voice down the phone.

“…still there, Natoko?”

“Oh, Otsune, thank god. Someone with intelligence.”

“Did you and Sagara really spend the night together?”

“Otsune!” She screamed down the phone this time, and everyone in the hotel backed away from the girl with the suspiciously long bag tied round her back.

“Just kidding, girl. Listen, er…” Otsune paused for a moment. “We should be getting the tram that shows up in an hour’s time, but where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“The place where the tournament’s at?”

“It says on the ticket, doesn’t it?” She pulled hers out. “Three blocks north, two blocks south, right?

“Right, but Junko walks through that area to work and she says it’s just a bunch of restaurants on that street. It may be there, but I’m sure Sagara mentioned it was a stadium.” He had, Natoko recalled, but now she thought about it, the only stadium in the city she know of was the National and she knew that place. “Plus, if he came from abroad, I figured it would be… well, flashier.” Natoko thought hard about it for a moment. Sagara had told her the address, and she had checked it online this morning on the hotel’s free internet. The location definitely existed, but her senior was right, it didn’t feel right for some reason.

“I’ll try and find someone else in the tournament today, and check with them. We shouldn’t take any chances if we’re relying on Sagara.”

“If you say so,” Otsune replied. “Anything you want us to bring?”

“Just my toothpaste if you would. I had to use the hotel’s today.”

“Yeah, I hear you,” the student replied. “What about your sword?”

“What about it?”

“You forgot it yesterday.”

“No I didn’t,” the samurai felt round her back to her long thin backpack. Judging by the weight, the blade was in there as well.

“What? I’m sure I saw it by the table after you left.”

“And I’m sure I have it.” It was like being asked if both her lungs were still working. It felt stupid to check.

“I’ll go check.”

“That’s not necessary, Otsune. I’m holding it as we speak.”

“Well, if you insist…” The woman still sounded unsure herself.

“Why would I have left it behind?” Natoko cleared her throat loudly. “Anyway, I don’t need anything else.”

“Okay. We’ll get there and check into a hotel as soon as possible. You have my mobile?”

She did, and soon she found herself hanging the phone up, sighing to herself deeply, wondering when she would get round to buying a mobile phone for herself. People mingling round the hotel were still giving her funny looks, but they were easy to ignore. Looking at the clock, she felt hunger trying to rip itself out of her stomach and eat a passing tourist, and decided that it was probably time for some food.

The restaurant seemed rather sophisticated, the type that she would usually find herself getting thrown out of if she entered with any of the others from the dorm. In fact, the entire hotel was of a high class and didn’t feel right in this part of the city. How did Sagara get them into it? He really was a Lord. The place was empty at the moment save for a white haired girl eating some pancakes slowly in the corner and a young man arguing with the waitress at the bar. Her stomach suggested that it might be a good idea to head over there and ask one of them for some food. As she got closer, she picked up their conversation.

“Aw come on,” the man begged to her. “It’s only just gone ten.”

“Sorry,” the waitress said, trying to ignore him as much as he would allow. “But the sign says, we stop breakfast at ten. We stopped making fifteen minutes ago.”

Natoko rubbed her eyes. They still felt irritated from the saliva they had received last night.

“But I got up late,” the boy continued to argue.

“That’s not my fault.”

“No it’s mine, that’s not the point.”

“Oh, and what is?” The boy stopped at this, not exactly sure where he was going with this, as his stomach rumbled loudly, threatening the waitress with physical violence. The woman just exhaled loudly. “Look, if there was one more person, we could open it up quickly for you, but you’re alone.”

“No I’m not,” the man pointed out, noticing Natoko reading the menu next to him. “She wants breakfast too, don’t you?” Natoko didn’t register him at first, she was just annoyed at how expensive everything seemed.

“Excuse me,” the man repeated, catching her attention this time. “Are you getting breakfast?”

“No, I’m just looking for a snack. It’s a bit late for breakfast,” Natoko replied, causing a sneer of triumph to appear on the waitresses face.

“Aw, come on,” the man whined. “Breakfast is healthy, and important if you wish to be strong. Eat breakfast like I do and you’ll be strong fighter like me.” Natoko had stopped paying attention for a moment to stare at the menu again, thinking that the conversation had ended. From her point of view, the idea about being strong and healthly seemed a little hypocritical from this man. From what she could tell by just looking at him it looked like the doctors had got carried away when he was born and thought it would be a brilliant idea to remove all of his muscles and anything else they figured would slow him down in order to make him as light as possible. Even as a bad judge of body size, Natoko could tell he weighed a lot less than she did. It was amazing he ate at all. Natoko’s ears told her that she had a message, and after hearing it she grinned, turned to the skinny fighter again.

“I am stronger than you,” she replied, letting herself grin a Sagara grin. The man scowled at this, not expecting it.

“Yeah right, lady,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “You just go on believing that and…” He didn’t get time to finish the sentence. Natoko decided that touching her wasn’t allowed; grabbing the man’s first two fingers and applying pressure to the fore knuckles. The pain forced him to a knee and one leg, which he was allowed to stand for one second longer as she swept it off the ground, taking a chair along with him.

“Don’t touch me,” Natoko threatened smoothly. The man looked on in shock, both as to how he was on the floor.

“Damn you, bitch,” he muttered to himself. Natoko ignored him to look back to the menu, with the waitress looking on, wondering what to do. As he stood back up, he saw one of the sharper knives lying on the side of the counter. Without hesitating, he grabbed it and swung it towards her.

“Look out,” the waitress screamed, her voice feeling like it turned the air around them into water. Natoko noticed the boy’s attack the second he grabbed the knife, her arm moving up to block it easily. What was with people this week? Seeing her defense, the man changed the position of the knife so that it would run along his arm. Natoko saw this too, and despite how slow time felt it was moving for her, it was still too late to move her forearm out of the way of being sliced. Dropping her leg down to evade, her body ground to a halt, realising that the waitress would be in the line of attack were she to move. She was too late.

Feeling the man’s forearm hit against her own, Natoko found confusion without a scream of pain coming out of her mouth or a crimson tide from her arm. The knife was gone, all three sets of eyes failing to find it as they scanned the room. Instinctively looking to the floor to see if he had dropped it, the boy did the same, clearly having nothing to do with the disappearance of the blade.

“I told you not to do stuff like this,” a voice said to Natoko’s right. Connected to the voice was another young man. He looked similar to her attacker. They both had black hair and brown eyes, but were both clearly Caucasian. The only real difference between the two was that the new man was a lot fatter than the other one, obscenely so.

Despite his weight, he had foreboding grace as he stared her attacker down, like his excess bulk didn’t bother his spine at all. Examining him, her brain catching up to meet the daze of events that had occurred, she recoiled in shock as she saw the knife resting in his hand, broken halfway from the tip. “When did you-” she started, as the newcomer turned away from the both of them to face the waitress.

“Please forgive the actions of my cousin. He tends to be a little- well idiotic.” The cousin’s head fell in shame. Natoko’s mind only just registering that he had put the knife down moments before he had started speaking. “As for you,” he said, turning to Natoko once again. “My cousin will apologise to you by paying for your meal.”

“But she…” the cousin shouted out, his humiliation fading. “But she attacked…” he stopped talking as his cousin turned back to him. Natoko couldn’t see the larger boy’s face, but the thin boy became sheet white as their eyes met. “Fine” he snorted, doing his best to hide it. “What do you want?”

Natoko wasn’t expecting this, something felt horribly wrong with her heart just looking at this guy and she hadn’t even decided on what she wanted anyway yet, not having planned on anything fancy. Though the sudden temptation of money not being a factor appealed to her and figured she could abuse it if this was a rest day. She looked back to the menu to quickly decide, feeling the offer was for a limited time only. During all this, the waitress just smiled and said to Natoko.

“May I suggest something, madam?” She grinned as she looked over to the thinner brother. He gulped slightly at her gaze. “Today’s special offer, or as I like to call it, something obscenely expensive that I just made up, The Grando Salm Supremeo Super Ice Cream Sundae, it’s our tastiest and most expensive item.” Natoko found herself grinning along with the girl, as waves of pure evil flushed over the both of them, seducing them with dairy products.

“Very well,” she said closing her eyes. “I believe a treat is appropriate once in a while, and I am supposed to rest today. Yes, one Grando Slam- whatever it was.” The other girl turned her evil grin into a pleasant ‘thank you for your service, you little moron’ smile, which she promptly directed at the thinner of the two cousins.

“Coming right up,” she said sweetly, preparing to go over to the kitchen when she was stopped.

“Hold it,” the fatter, quicker cousin ordered, before turning to his relative. “Pay her now. We are to leave immediately.”

“Right. Er… how much is it?”

“Ten thousand yen,” the waitress replied without missing a beat.

“Te-“ the boy began before catching his cousin’s gaze. He soon descended into a mumbling of profanities as he started fishing into his pocket, slamming a wad of bills on the table before walking off in front of his cousin. The other one followed, but stopped at the door.

“By the way,” he said to Natoko. “If you really are in the tournament, I suggest you retire.”

“What?” Natoko growled at him.

“I heard your telephone conversation. If you had to look around to see where the knife had gone, then you are not ready for any of what will happen next,” he said bluntly, as if stepping into her life was like stepping in mud. “My cousin is only in it because of father. If you’re at his level, then you are only going to get hurt.”

“Oh,” she said, looking away for a moment, intending to show him nothing but contempt for his attitude. “And what would you know?” she said back to an empty doorframe. They were gone, she muttered, her feet already lifting up and heading for the doorway. The samurai looked through the finely crafted arcade that counted as the exit to the restaurant. From it, she could see the whole hallway, even the blind spots were shown through mirrors on the other side. He wasn’t there. His cousin had plenty of time to leave and she saw him do so, but this one had just gone. A ‘ching’ noise behind her broke her out of her trance.

“Thank you very much, suckers,” the waitress shouted to the empty doorframe, instantly becoming polite again to Natoko. “I’ll get your order. I warn you, your stomach better be empty at this point.

“Thanks,” replied Natoko, feeling worse for wear as the waitress wandered out of sight again. “He was fast,” she muttered to herself in the now empty restaurant. “Perhaps faster than Sagara. And he’s in the tournament?”

“Huh? Did you say something?” the waitress asked, coming back. “Your order will be here in a minute.”

***

“Toffees for you, toffees for me. We all like the toffees, so let’s all have three.”

Sagara awoke as he did every morning, with his body getting up three hours before his brain. The body was unsure of its current location. Without the brain to guide it, it could not be told that it had already partially woken up an hour earlier and began to crawl to the window. It could also not be told that the balcony window had been opened by Yamanaka Natoko and allowed to further crawl to the railings before passing out again because of the gentle, cool breeze that it felt.

Now, without the brain to guide it, it could not be aware that instead of being on the ground floor of Heavenly Springs that it had gotten used to over the past few weeks, it was instead on the fourteenth floor balcony of a hotel in the city of Fuugosuki. This as quite unfortunate for, were the brain active, it could inform the body that it had already woken up earlier and had dragged itself to the balcony thanks to the help of Yamanaka Natoko, and be able to warn the brain of the forty foot drop that its legs had just walked onto. Unfortunately, one could not, and so the other did so.

As it fell to its doom, Sagara’s brain slowly rose due to the refreshing gush of air that was slicing across the screaming body. His first thoughts that morning were of food, his stomach felt tight for some reason, possibly since he had not ate that lunchtime the day before, the crushing lift from all the air he was falling on or his own naturally fast metabolism.

As he began to wake up a little more, he became aware that his mouth was screaming for some reason, as if its life were at risk. He opened his eyes sleepily and realized that his life was indeed at risk. From what he could gather of the situation at first glance apparently, sometime last night, he had fallen off of the balcony and into thin air, which he was still currently falling through. His first thought after this was that it might be a ingeniously good idea to stop his descent before he could have a face-to-face conversation with the ground that would end in one of them dying in a huff. Sagara did what he viewed as perhaps the smartest thing to do in this situation, and grabbed the rocky edge of the seventh floor balcony. His right shoulder informed him that it did not like being dislocated like that, and forced him to let go and continue his descent.

In a fortunate display of both luck and basic physics, his trajectory had now been changed in a direction that to some people might not be considered luck more than instantaneous death. The balcony of room 6F2 came towards Sagara’s feet and literally shuddered at the pain it anticipated. As his feet slammed into the denser-than-his-feet concrete that made up the balcony of room 6F2, he felt his entire body continue to follow. His legs buckled and fell forwards, his knees went into revolt and his chest prepared to crack itself open. Luckily, his arms were still on his side and allowed the vast amount of force to enter them as he pushed himself into a forward handspring. However in doing so they were also made to feel the appalling conditions that the feet and knees were put under they also became part of the revolution, collapsing and letting the body fall onto the floor with an echoing thud. Sagara found himself lying on the floor of the room that consisted of 6F2 and wondering what Australia was currently doing in the room with him.

“Can’t say I was expecting that,” Australia said in front of him, sitting on the bed and looking at him out of the corner of its Opera House. “Are…are you all right?” Sagara stared at the country for a moment, wondering what to make of the situation. He had not spoken to an entire country before.

“Aren’t you… suppose to be with New Zealand?” he asked, dazed at his new found experience of getting up off the wrong side of bed. The country turned its head as it watched him black out for a few seconds.

***

When Sagara came too, he would first find himself on a bed that was badly made and had a strange odour to it. To the side of him, there appeared to be a girl, tending to his body in a series of pokes.

“Tell me when it hurts,” she informed him, spending the next minute or so poking around his arms and chest, stopping when he started to giggle. “Looks like you’re fine,” she stated, praising her ability to completely cure a patient without doing anything. Sitting up on the bed, Sagara found himself looking around. It looked just like his room from last night, except he was allowed on this bed without being attacked. The girl who wasn’t attacking him appeared to be Japanese, with short hair that gave the impression that each strand was coloured black and eyes that were currently blue. Wrapped lightly around her neck was a long white headband, which he saw trailed off into one of the pockets of her dressing gown. It seemed pointlessly wrong to have something that long, especially around her neck. Despite her reassurance, Sagara appeared a little concussed, possibly from the fall, and held his head carefully in case in increased exponentially in weight.

“What happened to Australia?” he asked her. The country was indeed not in the room, and it would not have been able to fit through the door if it had tried to sneak out.

“Hhhhm you’re still a little out of it I see,” the girl replied, failing to answer his most inquisitive question. “I guess it’s understandable. Most people tend to die when they fall to their doom.” She began to check his forehead, finding it nice and cold, putting the other side of her hand on it before replacing it with her other hand. Sagara just sat there drooling slightly, taking what warmth he could. Realizing what she was doing, she pulled her hand away and smiled at him. “I’m Raiko,” she said, informing him of the noise people made when they wish to speak to her.

“Sagara,” the boy replied, yawning slightly and forgetting her name without even noticing.

“Sagara?” she said, rolling his name across her lips. “Futabatei Sagara?”

“Uh huh,” he confirmed.

“The Heir of the Futabatei clan, and future holder of the position of Enforcer?”

“Uh huh,” he repeated.

“So you’re here for the tournament then?”

“Oh, are you…”

“Yup. Me as well. I’m not entering though. Did that last time.” His eyes drooping as she spoke, Sagara tried to get out of bed. In doing so, he suffered the wrath of a mildly complaining shoulder, winced at the pain it gave him and then incessantly apologised.

“Ah, you kind of dislocated that back there. I fixed it for you,” the girl told him, as if she was telling him that she turned off the television. He looked at the joint, circling it a few times.

“Thanks,” he replied, not wondering why the thumb didn’t look like it was in the right place. It was then when he realized that his Draynor had appeared, having been there since the fall, covering the hand that should have shattered all over the girl’s stone balcony.

“I don’t know why you were wearing that demon when asleep, but it’s a good thing you were. You would have shattered your fingers when you grabbed the balcony,” The girl informed him before getting up. “I’ll go get us a drink. Would you like orange, coke or tea?”

“Orange please,” he said, forgetting all about nearly dying when liquid was mentioned. He watched as the girl wandered to the other side of the room, which looked like it was meant to be a kitchen that had been painted onto the apartment room and then had a sink stuck to it.

The girl returned from the other side of the room with two glasses of orange liquid. Taking her word for it that it was orange juice he began to drink, consuming the contents of the glass in one fell swoop, the girl jumping onto the other end of the bed.

“So what were you doing falling through the air like that?” she said curiously.

“Waking up,” Sagara yawned. Since getting to Heavenly Springs, he had been told by many that he always woke up in the strangest of places for reasons that he never told anyone, but this was the first time it had been outside the thirteenth and twelve floor of a building since doing so.

“So not flying then?”

“No, just falling.” The girl let out an exaggerated whine, sipping her juice slowly.

“Well, it’s quite an event to have you here anyway. Actually if you hadn’t woke me up, I probably wouldn’t have.” Sagara looked at the girl at this, and realized she was only wearing a dressing gown. The bed was poorly made too, as if someone had just got up after hearing a loud noise just to the side of the bed.

“Yeah, I guess I should get going. Natoko’s probably wondering where I disappeared to.” The girl had probably gotten up before he had, but he should check the room to see if she left him a note.

“Oh, is Natoko your girlfriend?” Raiko asked, in typical girl curiosity style.

“No,” he said, with little change of the tone in his voice.

“Ah, I see” the girl said, not thinking about it for too long. “Hey, can I follow you around today?” she asked suddenly.

“What?” Sagara replied, not expecting such a question.

“Well, I got back into Japan last night, and I don’t really know anyone here. Well, there’s my boss, but I don’t get on with her. So I was thinking I could hang out with you, since you’re my age, and people of the same age always have a tendency to hang out together, possibly because they’re the same age, but it may be because of the smell.” Sagara laughed.

“Okay, I don’t see why not.” That was the plan Natoko had suggested to occur on this day. There was also the finding demons things that they should get started on but something was telling him that could wait.

“Cool, I’ll go get dressed,” she said, standing and going to her closest, getting changed in front of him.

Sagara lifted the glass up again, trying to rescue the rest of the entrapped juice from its terrorist captor glass.

“Okay, let’s go,” the girl said, now wearing what looked like a white sports shirt and black combat trousers, of which the large, white headband was draping into. She looked more like she was about to start training than go sightseeing. “You should probably go back to your place and put a shirt on first. People in this country aren’t as casual about these things. You probably want to aim to look like the eccentric Englishman than the stupid pig American.”

“But I am American.”

“And I’m a famous singer, but that doesn’t mean we should show what we are all the time, should we?”

Act Two – Chapter Three

The corridors were gone, the room now opened out to a large office space, cubicles littering the plain magnolia carpets. Computers humming away silently to themselves. Only a few lights were on. Like animals in a zoo, a few weary workers shifted uncomfortably in their office chairs, not noticing the two newcomers as they entered the room. Sagara was already looking around aimlessly.

“How did we…” Natoko started, her voice halting as she caught a glimpse out of the window, the lights of a city illuminating the night-scape up to the horizon. She recognised this place, in particular the three large white towers that made up the shopping district Aki would drag her to when it was their turn to do shopping. This was Fuugosuki, the city closest to Heavenly Springs, half an hour’s journey on the tram line and a ten minute walk to the centre of the city itself. How did they end up here?

And how high up was she? Even if the corridor was on an incline. Her mind stung her as she tried to grasp it, Sagara uncaring as he muttered a quick hello to one of the workers, who shifted suddenly in his chair to turn to the intruder. The man stayed silent as he regarded Sagara for a few seconds, the boy just continuing to wave at him until he got a response.

“C-can I help you at all?” the man asked, his face telling Natoko that he clearly didn’t want to provide any sort of assistance to two teenagers who popped out of nowhere. Sagara pondered this for a moment, having not moved for a conversation in the first place.

“Yeah er…” he turned round. “Hey Natoko. What was the name of our hotel again?”

“Why are we on the twelfth floor?” she asked at him as soon as she got a glance at the elevator. This night was progressively getting too much for her brain. If this was what Sagara’s life was like, no wonder he seemed to wander around brain dead half the time. It must be the only way to survive.

“Because this is where the door came out,” he replied far too literally. “I figured it would be the city. Good job it was really.”

No, not lucky. They hadn’t been running that long. And she couldn’t have been that far off when she said it was ten to fifteen miles to the city. Even if she had somehow drastically mistaken a distance that took twenty minutes to reach by train, she was positive that there wasn’t a long stretch of a building going from the town to the city.

A woman wandered into the room between them, looking over documents as her heels clicked the floor. Looking the two of them over, she hovered a few steps back as if caught between forgetting something and wanting to pretend she had forgotten something.  She lost when she caught the eye of the first man, who looked desperate for her to take control.

“Can I help you two at all?” the woman asked in a ‘your life depends upon your answer being inversely proportional to my level of bitchiness’ sort of way. Natoko tried to answer first, and failed.

“I’m Sagara. This is Natoko. Pleased to meet you. We’re intruders. We came through that door running away from possessed old people.”

The woman’s eyes lit up as soon as Sagara pointed. She returned Sagara’s smile, walking backwards to the intercom on the wall and pressing the small red button gently. “Security!” she shouted, her face fierce and mouth roaring.

Natoko sighed. The night was getting worse and it was becoming clear that it would be up to her to sort things out. She stepped forward to try to offer a better explanation, not entirely sure if she could give one, when she realised the guards were already surrounding her. She would have expected a side door, or at the extreme, the main entrance. She did not expect two men to simply fall from the boring white ceiling, followed by another two popping out of the ground as if the carpet wasn’t a physical obstacle. They were dressed mostly in black, a feeling of ninja hidden behind blue shirts and radios strapped to their shoulders. Within seconds they had formed up around them, pulling out their batons, the one wearing the cap looking towards the receptionist lady.

“Yes! What’s the problem, mam?” he asked, in a bright and cheerful voice that reminded Natoko of her sports teacher.

“These two,” she said in an authoritative manner. “They came through that door. Escort them out the building.” Natoko turned to the door they had come through, the mahogany brown wood looked out of place in a clean stylish office like this.

“Yes mam,” he shouted with a salute, before rapidly pointing to her. “You two, flank them, Futsuki, you’re with me. Restrain them if you would please!”.

As the two unnamed guards began to circle them to block off their exits, the office lady backed off a little to give them some room. Natoko found herself a little surprised at their choice of just attacking rather than asking them to leave. Sagara, not as concerned, jumped towards the first man  slamming into his stomach with a sharp kick, before sending two punches to either side of his face knocking him out cold and quick.

His boss advanced, swinging back around to try and swing his weapon into the back of Sagara’s skull. The boy ignored this, ducking and using the open space to spin round and hook his left leg round the guard’s right one before shifting his body round to lift both in the air. Letting the guard fall to the ground with a thud, Sagara let his body spin round once more and followed the man down, driving his elbow into the man’s solar plexus. After this, he shifted his weight across his elbow and flipped back onto his legs, as the men looked on at their fallen superior officer.

He didn’t wait for them. Natoko just watched him as the boy flowed through the air around them without restraint, smiling as he tore into them, lifting one up by his ankle and waving him at the other, he countered a blow and started to wail on the poor guard with his fists. The man fell back with one of his teeth going a different route. Sagara brought it for the ride as he crashed down on top of the man. Not content with merely leaving him to groan on the floor, the ninja landed on him sharply and threw another fist into the man’s face several times..

“Stop this!” a voice emanated from across the room, causing all there to freeze in their place. Sagara kept his place on top of the man, his eyes peering out of the corner to see another woman. She was impressively tall, with her hair tied back and slick spectacles adorning a face Natoko couldn’t help but see as beautiful whilst presentable and perfectly complemented by a stylish red business suit. The only thing that failed to complete the look was that she was wearing white running shoes, one of which had an untied shoelace.

“Ms. Sakimoto?” the other woman called out, her head bowing in deference.

“What is going on here?” she asked the woman, readjusting her glasses as she reached the group. As she started talking, Sagara seemed to assume she didn’t want to speak to him and went on with finishing off the remaining guards. Natoko rushed to hold him back, keen to keep some sanity in their defense.

“Th-they came in here and started causing a fuss,” the woman said, appearing very shy in the presence of what was probably her superior. “Then I called security and he started to beat them up. W-we should call the special department immediately.”

The older woman seemed somewhat distracted for a moment as stared the two of them down, Sagara wrapped p in Natoko’ arm as she tried in vain to pull him off the guard, the woman’s composed glare keeping them contained as she smiled lightly to them.

“It’s a good job you didn’t,” she said calmly, but with a veil covering her words. “We would have had the entire Futabatei clan on us if we sent this one back in a body bag. Why on earth did you call the guard on them?”

“Well… well, they’re intruders,” she decided to say, her voice teetering in fear. “They said so themselves.” It should have been a valid excuse, but it melted away before the woman in front of her. The woman grunted to herself for a moment before readjusting her glasses. “Go on, get out of here. I’ll handle these two. And you four can get lost as well.” The office lady  took a moment to look as shocked and confused as Natoko was, before quickly heading for a desk on the other side of the room. As Natoko’s eyes followed her, she noticed that the four security guards had already disappeared with the exception of a single tooth.

“I take it you are part of the clan as well.” Natoko wasn’t listening, and flinched it when she realised she was being stared at.

“She is,” Sagara said, lying before Natoko had a chance to say anything. “She’s Natoko.” The girl decided it was best for her not to protest or say anything for that matter, and gave a small bow to introduce herself. The woman didn’t respond and instead turned out of the room. Sagara following her down into a corridor with abstract pictures adorning the room exactly every five meters. Natoko trailed behind them.

Keeping a few steps behind Sagara, they followed the woman to a lavish office at the end of the corridor, decorated simplistically with few pictures and mostly modern furniture. A leather couch sat invitingly to the side, a cupboard built into the wall containing thousands of books with the type of complicated titles that told her she’d have to buy them at outrageous prices should she ever become a university student and a huge glass office table that shined in the artificial light, two flat screen monitors saddled carefully upon it, along with a big, half-ripped box with the word ‘Entrants’ written on in felt tip which looked out of place. Besides it was a tray, a lot slimmer, filled with pieces of paper with the same formatting, both contained random pictures of teenagers.

“How’s your mother, Sagara?” the woman asked, making a quick effort to clear up what she could off the desk.

“Still awesome,” he replied casually, looking to the huge plasma screen plastered against the wall.

“Good good. This won’t take long.” Natoko noticed there was no real gap between the two subjects there. “I figured I’d get you registered while you’re here and not horribly lost on the day. I’ll just need you to sign a waiver and you’ll be entered for the competition officially.”

“This is the tournament place?” Natoko said by accident, half distracted by trying to figure out what the smell was. It wasn’t bad in particular. In fact it smelled quite fresh, rosy. It was just out of place. She noticed her mistake when she saw the woman staring at her like she had just insulted her long dead grandmother. Natoko felt a huge urge to apologise.

“This is where the participants for the competition are registered. We’re not in the InBetween Realm anymore.”

“Ah, sorry.” She felt herself blush. She shouldn’t anger this woman. She was clearly very important for the competition.

Sakimoto Yuya CEO

Her eyes fell upon the name plate that was positioned carefully upon the glass desk. It was made out of the same material as the desk, and many rainbows within it as the light bounced from those above.

A CEO? Suddenly Natoko found herself straightening up as much as she could while tipping her head as far forwards as  possible without looking too obvious.

“She’s entering too,” Sagara said, as relaxed as ever, his hand scrolling left to right across the page as he signed his name with a clean composed English hand that looked like it could have been printed from a computer. Sakimoto Yuya said nothing as she passed another form to Natoko. Part of Natoko wanted to read it, her common sense telling her it was important to make sure she knew what she was getting into with this tournament, but she was already keeping them, and dropped the characters of her name down as soon as she got the pen off Sagara.

“Have you made accommodation arrangements?” the CEO asked. For some reason she looked to Natoko for the answer to this question, and Natoko wanted to smile in knowing that the woman knew Sagara wouldn’t be able to answer.

“We have two rooms at the Light Flower Inn,” Natoko replied in the most respectful tone she could.

“No, no that won’t do,” Sakimoto Yuya said, glancing over the documents and adding her own long wavy signature to the papers. “I’ll arrange for you to have a room at the Scarlet. It is the city’s finest hotel. You’ve probably gotten tired of sleeping around on futons and other low beds.”

“I am pretty tired,” Sagara told her. “But mom did say I was supposed to be doing this on my own. I can’t accept any help from members of the clan.”

“Then how about this,” the lady responded. “I will book you a room in the name of your retainer, and if you just happen to be invited by her to sleep there for the night, then that would be acceptable, would it not?”

Sagara thought about it for the whole of two seconds, with the first one point five being to log back in. “I don’t see why not.”

“Is that okay with you, Yamanaka-kun?” the woman asked. Natoko beamed with happiness and pride. The woman called her ‘retainer’. To think it could be spotted already. She must be getting things right if people could tell at a glance. She nodded with delight, and the woman settled the simple matter of the room the two would be sharing minutes later with a phone call.

***

 

“On the floor,” Natoko stated monotonously, pointing to the dark blue carpet beneath them.

“But the bed’s big enough for both of us.”

How did she not notice this?

“On the floor,” she repeated, same tone as last time.

Did the woman notice this? Was she expecting this?

“What’s the big deal of sleeping in the same bed?”

“On the floor.” Her right cheek started to twitch. He apparently didn’t notice.

“It’s cold though. Oh, and if we sleep together we can keep each other warm.”

“On the floor!” she finally shouted, grabbing the hem of his shirt and tossing him there. Too tired to argue any longer, she viewed force as being the only thing he would really listen to. “I’m not sleeping in the same bed as a man. It was bad enough the way the clerk looked at us. I don’t want the cleaner coming in tomorrow morning and finding us-” she paused for a second, the thought entering her head unburdened. “Just no.”

“Alright,” Sagara replied like a scolded dog, laying down on the floor and pulling the blanket over himself. He faced away for her, and the girl couldn’t tell if he had done it on purpose or not. Sighing, she lay down on top of the bed covers, not wanting to ruffle the only clothes she brought with her. She flipped the light switch, plunging them into darkness.

It was peaceful for a moment, finally peaceful. After the hectic three hours they had just had… No, beyond that, it felt more peaceful than she had ever had. No loud streets running away from crazed lynch mobs. No residents bounding through the halls of the dorm at the late hours, laughing and shouting about things that seemed pointless. No tension of her mother coming in through the door to wake her up at any moment. Just tranquility. It seemed strange that it was a public hotel that could bring this feeling of relaxation into her heart. The loneliness of the hotel room made her feel that she could take as big a deep breath as she wanted, and then come back and ask for more.

The peace was nice. The chaos was nice too, in its own way. But the peace has its own unique feel good, a bed fit for a queen being one of them.

She heard him breath heavily, intentionally, still awake, probably far too awake after all that had happened. She couldn’t entirely blame him. He was always bursting full of energy that to just cut it off like that was like pulling the handbrake of an aeroplane.

Who was Sagara anyway?

The thought crossed her mind almost randomly, but she felt it had been there for a while now. She knew really. He was too simple for her not to have figured most of him out already, but there were the gaps that didn’t make sense even when he sat down and talked about them. There was this Enforcer of the Balance stuff, but that was still too obscure. And the way that woman had responded to him, like he was a noble of some kind. A dignitary from a foreign land to whom the highest luxuries should be placed upon without hesitation. The woman herself was a ruler after all. Sagara must have some power to be treated like that by her.

He didn’t exactly act like a prince, although he did seem carefree; the rich pampered brat type in his own way. Though at times she could swear he wasn’t aware of it.

***

There was a clutter and a bang outside the door. It was enough to wake him up. Slowly, the ninja rose from his slumber. It was three in the morning, though Sagara wouldn’t see the clock.

Somebody outside walked into a wall and released a small cry. Their voice was suddenly silenced, though they didn’t realise it.

“I have a visitor” he mumbled waking up, opening the door. “I’m just going to go see her.” Outside, the hallway was silent and filled with darkness, showing some fool had forgotten to turn the light bulbs on. Everybody else in the hotel was obviously asleep, ready for whatever toils would happen in the morning, and so not a single soul stirred as the boy stepped over the depressing mass of broken and bloodied bodies lay strewn across the passageway, their insides laying neatly on top of them in disfigured piles, their blood thrown against the wall the way an angry angst artist would with paint.

From the looks of their clothing, they were to be the late night staff of the hotel, except one person, who had been known as a man from three doors down that had grunted at Sagara and Natoko as their way up to the room. He was still dressed in his white dressing gown that they had seen him in, though was now stained a dark crimson. Natoko’s discarded remains stared at her, who eyes wide and accusing.

Looking down at the corpse, their bodies arranged in the pattern to match the symbol of Ramuhnadin, Sagara stepped over them coughing morning phlegm out of his lungs and headed for the upstairs stairway, the obvious place to go for some reason in the mind of the ninja. On the stairway, things were also going badly for businessmen and chambermaids. Covering the entire area, including the wall, stairs, handrail and even the bloody corpses, with a stench of decay where swarms of insects tick and buzzed to themselves as they slowly devoured the corpses that lay festering beneath them.

Nicknamed Cthulu insects, they looked like beetles and had a mass of tentacles streaming from their mouths. None of them were flying and all of them were ignoring all sentient entities in the area. In fact, they were ignoring everything except the dead, who had their full attention as they covered them with putrid bodies. The Cthulu insects didn’t eat corpses, but they viewed dead bodies the same way German tourists viewed already overcrowded beaches and did their best to cover every nanometre of the long corridor.

Sagara walked over them, the critters sliding across what they had to avoid his bare feet, splitting his path as he walked through them. Underneath the slimy critters was a crusty shade of brown that crunched as he stepped on it, leaving the impression of drying paint. Were he to look back, he would see that it had cracked slightly, allowing a torrent of the beetles to swarm out of it.

He made his way up the next five floors to the roof of the hotel, his mind guided by an impulsive curiosity impossible to reduce. It was only at the last corner where he got to see the screaming woman. She appeared as a impressively overweight cleaning lady, currently covered in insects and shrieking in pain as they swarmed over her skin. Pounding and kicking, she desperately tried to open the door as the bugs made their way into her flesh.

“Oh god, get them off me. Please get them off me,” she screamed, begging to anyone willing to listen. Using the last of her energies to pound on the door in a hope to escape. That was the main problem with Cthulu demon bugs, their very presence was probably burning the woman’s skin, each of their six legs attacking her nervous system directly, sending her into agony worse than any sanitation job could. As he reached her, the door finally gave in, breaking under her constant bashing, seconds before he would have been able to make a grab for her. Without waiting or even noticing him the woman ran outside onto the rooftop screaming right off the side of the building, the beetles probably now regretting latching to her insides as she fell to her death. Sagara scratched the back of his head and looked annoyed at the cold air.

Here, on the rooftop, there were no corpses, beetles or strange, crusty brown floor. There was the Mongalth demon body on the roof of the staircase directly above him, waiting for him to turn to see how close he was to it. He obliged, and the creature stared at him, its large, snaky tongue flickering out of its mouth as it examined its next prey, but nothing else of particular notice. Its body may have been a beetle’s, but from its head a giant snake, which wrapped round the beetle’s head and looked a little too tight..

“Ssssoooo carefree – Hunter,” the demon hissed as it spoke to him. The hissing was loud and distinct as it trailed off the creature’s forked tongue, as if it felt that if it didn’t hiss loud enough, people wouldn’t believe that it was a giant, murderous, demon snake. “Sssome would think… that you did not care about the human scum around chew. You did not even try to help… that fat sssooow over there.” Waving to the snake happily, Sagara greeted the demon.

“Hey Melissa,” he said to the hellspawn like an old friend met for drinks. “Could we keep it quick? I need to rest today.” The demon visibly paused, then slithered a few feet closer.

“Whhhat?” the snake-beetle stated, breathing into him as it did so. “What… iiis this Melissssa talk?”

“Your technique’s improved, hasn’t it?” he replied, kneeling down to look at some of the beetles that had followed him up the stairs. He allowed one to crawl onto his hand, before crushing it with his other palm. It left sticky remains, slowly pulsing between his closed fingers and dropped to the floor. He licked his fingers.

“But you kind of messed up. I can’t smell blood. I can’t smell the insects, and this tastes of strawberries.” He eyed the goo suspiciously for a moment, looking unsure whether to toss it or try some more.

The ‘Melissa’ demon hissed at this. Sagara just smiled as the hiss came out stuttered, “I..Wwwwwe don’t know what yyyyou’re talking about. We killed those peoplessss, ripped them apart and fed them to our babiessss.” If a verbal hiss could be measured on a scale, and that would just be stupid and a precious waste of science points that could have been spent on gravity manipulation, then this hiss felt stronger than ever, the snake angered and insulted, ready to perform multiple lacerations upon Sagara’s pretty face.

“But Mongalth demons don’t consider the Cthulu beetles they use as their babies, Melissa,” he said, interrupting her. “They hypnotise beetles, not give birth to them. If you’re looking for an excuse to fight, you should just ask. You know I’ll say yes.” From his left arm, the small metal band of Draynor appeared, sliding liquid metal across his fist to form the gauntlet.

“Heh,” the creature muttered, the hissing now gone, its tongue flicking out and covering the gap before them at great speed, so even Sagara was mildly surprised when he found he could no longer move his left arm. “Fool,” it said in perfect, unrestricted by snake tongue English. “You fell for it so easily!” The giant snake closed its eyes, seeming to focus for a second, its long, slimy tongue glowing black for a few seconds.

The black energy turned to ashen rays that traveled from the monster to Sagara’s left fist spiraling around her tongue like an electric conduit. The gauntlet glowed red as the heat soared to unbearable levels.

“You’re such a fool, Sagara,” the demon said, the voice sounding less snaky and more squeaky. “The whole insect illusion was just a trick to get a rise out of you. I knew you would reveal the Draynor to threaten me. How do you like my new technique? It emits an electric shock straight through the bodies of demons, just like your gauntlet. And since Draynor’s made out of metal, you should be feeling quite unpleasant as well.”

Sagara stayed quiet, looking ahead like she was a sociology lecturer talking about the differences between ‘mature’ people and the elderly.

“Once more should do it,” and she began to laugh loudly, maniacally, repeating her technique as the yellow glow beamed through the tongue once again. “I finally beat you, Sagara.”

“Ehhh, so you hid your whip as the demon’s tongue. Cool.” Grabbing hold of the demon’s tongue with both hands, he yanked the tongue hard, pulling it towards him. The Monglath watched motionlessly as its mouth gave birth to a fully-grown, seventeen year old white girl who, completely surprised by the course of actions, crashed hard into the concrete roof nine feet below her on the floor, rolled with her momentum to turn the fall into a safe one and promptly landed right into Sagara’s fist as she did so.

Coughing with the sudden escape of air, the girl simply fell onto him, knocked cold as her body knocked her reset button.For a few minutes, the roof was silent of all but the wind.

With a sigh, the boy hoisted the girl up, before resting her onto the floor, looking half tempted to throw her off the side and just go back to bed.

“I’m tired,” he muttered to himself. “And half-naked too. It’s cold up here.” He looked around for something to help keep him warm, not wanting to take the girl back to his room. Seeing nothing else, he opted to take off her jacket, leaving the girl only in a lightly armoured vest. The cotton top was baggy, mainly to hold her equipment, so he was able to wrap into it easily, even though he was much bigger in build than her. Looking towards the unconscious girl, he examined her carefully.

“Hi Melissa,” he shouted, kicking the girl. “Wake up. You’re not allowed to sleep if I’m not remember?” Roughing her up eased her back into consciousness and the bleach hairjob girl awoke with various mumbles, as if she had been sleeping naturally, before realizing with a jolt where she was, using the energy to stand up.

“Ah crap,” she cried out. “I lost again?” She kicked the ground and watched several small pebbles fly off the forty story building. The stones were probably unaware of their potential power when thrown off tall buildings, but about to find out.

“Yep,” Sagara answered unmercifully. “Badly too.”

“But how?” the girl asked, her slim body shivering in the wind as it noticed it had been robbed of her tight jacket, causing her combat trousers to rattle with all the metal in them.

“You’ve died your hair blond,” Sagara replied instead. This was a true statement.

“Sagara,” she said, pouting. “Admire me later. Tell me where I went wrong.” She took a second to try and make a cute yet annoyed expression and failed instantly, looking like someone who had just accidentally killed their entire family with a blunt dinner knife.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked her raising both his arms in front of her and holding them there. “Take a moment to think about it.” Staring, the girl checked each hand, taking a moment to sniff the two pieces of flesh being dangled in front of her, but with a shrug of her shoulder showed that she didn’t understand.

“You grabbed the wrong hand with your attack.”

“Huh, but I grabbed Draynor.” She protested for a second before stopping. Sagara watched for a second as Melissa held up her own two hands and seemed to be weighing them “How?”

“King’s curse,” he said casually.

“Draynor was to my right, which means… Damn it.” She hit her hand across her head. “I got the wrong hand. You used an illusion. You used my illusion!”

“Right, Draynor can only manifest on my right hand. If it came on my left hand, my thumb would get chopped off.” To prove his point, the gauntlet faded on as if it had always been there. The weapon shone in the moonlight, the talons surrounding the wrist glistening. The girl stamped her foot against the floor.

“Aw man, I screwed it up again. I totally suck.” The girl continued her little temper tantrum against the roof of the hotel. Sagara just smiled.

“Yes, yes you do,” he said, agreeing with the deranged girl. “Now, what are you doing here?” The girl stopped her argument with the floor and turned smiling.

“I came here to see my lovely little Sagara, of course. I missed you, dear,” she said smiling, leaning up to hug him.

“No you didn’t,” he said unflinching.

“Your mom sent me here to watch over you,” she replied truthfully, looking away to the moon.

“Yeah, I guessed that too. You were hiding in Heavenly Springs before I even got there, just waiting for me.” Melissa involuntarily screamed wordless obscenities, not expecting it.

“How did you know?” she asked stuttering.

“Aki was complaining about her bananas going missing,” he explained, the grin on his face never wavering as he took the hug in. “Nobody else in that place eats them except for her, and sometimes they’re all you eat.” He yawned a little, his foot starting to etch patterns in the dirt of the ground, looking hopeful that Sleep would be merciful and sneak up behind him to knock him unconscious, hopefully without taking his stuff like last time.  “Plus. Eye of Futabatei. No hiding from me.”

“Dammit,” the girl cursed before sighing and letting her shoulders collapse, giving up on the attempt to kill him. “I have your updated mission statement for you,” she said plainly in a cut the crap attitude, pulling out a small sheet of paper written in a strange code that only she knew.

“Okay, cool,” he replied, releasing her from his grip so she could read off the sheet. Glancing over the fresh sheet of plain A4 paper, she quickly tucked it away, as if feeling it would be better if she explained in non-clinical terms.

“You came to Japan with an order to partake in the tournament being held by the Enlightened and Faithless of the InBetween Realm…”

“Yeah. I know all that. Got it all out of the way and everything. What’s next?”

“You should know what’s next, Sagara,” the girl chided him. “This is for your initiation.”

“But your job is to remind me… So, remind me.” The girl sighed heavily, continuing the debrief.

“In order to past your initiation, you have to enter the tournament and at least pass the preliminaries. This is to prove your physical capabilities. However, As you already know we’ve come across suspicions that a coven of demons are involved in this tournament. As a hunter and Enforcer’s heir, it’s your job to discover what’s happening and deal with the situation as you see fit. As your servant, I’m to assist you in whatever way your order.

“After that, I just have the same old reminders. Try to keep it secret of course and if you can’t, don’t do anything that’ll lead it back to us, and if it’s any of the higher types messing around, then definitely kill ‘em, leaving clear evidence that it was the clan that did it, unless there are humans around, of course.”

“Yeah, I know that bit,” Sagara said as he cut her off. “It’s not like I haven’t done this before.”

“Oh yeah?” the girl rebuked. “You could have handled the water spirit a bit better.”

“Ah yes. That.” He smiled and shrugged his shoulder. “That was a slip. I don’t know why I did it.”

“You let a whole hotel of people know about the existence of demons! How could you ‘let that slip?’ And you never bothered with clean up. We are supposed to keep our profession a secret, you know? What do you think the Futabatei clan is? What do you think a ninja is? Your mom would be so pissed right now if she knew what you were doing.” He was still smiling, as she continued to step forward, pushing him to the back of the wall.

“Two of them are family,” he tried to explain, his face looking like it could be dejected. “Sarah’s probably going to get told when she’s older anyway. I couldn’t help it with two of them since one of them got possessed and the other seems to have such strange demon sensing ability, and the rest just don’t care. There’s no danger, the only one at risk is probably the little overweight girl. I thought she might become scared or something, but she seemed fine. ”

“Well good for her. She becomes all nice and brave, then one day she sees a demon in an alley and tries to tackle it herself. Then what?” Melissa shouted, grabbing him by her shirt collar and pulling him to her face, her eyes ablaze with the fury of the annoyed.

“Can we do this another time? I’m tired.” Sagara whined, yawning to prove a point.

“You can’t just ignore this. You’re supposed to be a ninja,” she said, dropping him and turning around. “Do some damn ninjaring already. Or sooner or later, this open nature of yours is going to bite you.”

“Sorry,” he replied, laughing nervously as ever, scratching the back of his head.

“The clan’s worried about you, you know?” she stated, keeping her face away from his gaze. “Not me, but the elders don’t want to see you screw up and wind up dead. Too much invested effort to have you mess up because you’re lazy.”

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry ‘lis,” he said sheepishly, not even realizing what he had said. She heard it perfectly and turned around, diving into his arms. It surprised him, and he found himself letting her hold him. He heard her breathe against his ear. There was a worry between her lips that was rare for her. He also realized how cold she was without her jacket on.

“This is dangerous, Sagara. Please, for once, just show that you care, just so I can tell properly for a change. Just so I can go about not having to wonder if you’re trying to die or not.” He felt her shiver against him and found himself resting his head on her shoulder. This was rare for her as well, he thought, her hair blowing into his face, the strands drifting across his cheeks.

“I can’t believe you really dyed it.”

Act Two – Chapter Two

“Okay,” he replied. “Should we head back and get it?”

“Are you…” she stopped as the head rush cleared all opposition in her head, survival instinct telling her that the answer would come in an unsavoury flavour. They needed to get away from here. Winning or losing weren’t options and would clearly result in either humiliations or a criminal record. “We need to get out of here.”

“We could probably escape down that way,” he said, indicating the street that led to a main road filled with occupants. “Are you okay to run?”

Three of the mature people, having politely taken to circling like vultures while the two discussed their options, headed to block the direction just suggested with their bodies. Sagara paused a moment, a second’s distraction as he jolted his legs one direction and went the other, picking Natoko up by the hand and dashing off in the where there was only a nervous looking accountant who had believed earlier that this was the place best suited to avoid direct confrontation. Sprinting passed her, the ninja dived into the dark shadows of an adjacent alleyway, the pitch-black shadows coating him instantly.

Glancing up for a quick second Natoko caught the bright light of the moon shining in the sky between the buildings that were the closest thing the village had to an industrial district. She felt hidden in the darkness of the alley where the moon couldn’t touch. Hidden from guilt she somehow felt the strength to continue. If she stayed hidden in the dark, her grandfather wouldn’t get angry for what she had done. That was what she told herself in those few seconds.

“How much time again?” Sagara asked, kicking up mud for her to jump out of the way of.

“Twelve…” She stopped mid sentence, not wanting to answer such necessary questions at a time of unreasonable mob lynching, then feeling the urge to finish off anyway. “…minutes.”

“Right,” he called out after two turns and a mere forty meters of buildings, sliding in his tracks and making her jump to the side to avoid running into him. “Stop!”

“What?” she asked, wondering why he had decided this was the best place for them to get severely wounded. Looking up for a few seconds, he grabbed her with no warning and jumped up to the fire escape of the building they were by. It wasn’t reasonably high, but he was still only able to grab hold of the bottom rung of the stairway connected to the building.

Understanding, Natoko was able to quickly climb over him, onto the stairway before helping him up. Sagara stopped her as she went to continue climbing up the stairs, instead motioning for her to watch as the mob chasing them caught up to where they just were and just stop. Natoko’s heart froze, wondering if the ones below had discovered their location, her eyes gradually adjusting to the near pitch-black situation. Beneath them, there were four different routes, the way they had come from, the way that was presumably the way out, and two others, that ran parallel through the buildings on each side, both ways going into further darkness. Only six of the original group seemed to have shown up, and they seemed to decide that safety wasn’t important in numbers, splitting up into two groups of three and running down the two side alleys.

“What?” Natoko said, almost forgetting to mumble. “Why didn’t they go that way?”

“Simple,” Sagara replied, his voice louder like she liked it. “They can’t see anyone in that direction.” Pointing, it was quite clear if anyone were running down that particular ally, his or her silhouettes would be seen. As they both jumped back down, Natoko couldn’t help but be a little impressed.

“That was smart,” she said. “First you distracted them, then you waited until you found a stairwell that was in a place where there were multiple directions.”

“Actually, I was just waiting for a place where it was dark enough. I am a ninja you know. Darkness is cool.”

“Oh… I see,” Natoko grumbled slightly, embarrassed for them both. In the background, she could hear one of the groups running, almost stomping down the dirt-ridden alleyway. The industrial estate was mostly full of abandoned business that had never quite picked up and weeds grew here more than any potential new ventures.

What was wrong with these people? They already seemed highly frustrated, looking for any excuse to start an incident on the street, but now they seemed intent on doing nothing but start incidents, like they were on a witch hunt and she was the perfectly innocent maiden who had grown better potatoes that year. She didn’t even know any of them, certainly not enough to be personally accused.

“Unfortunately, because it is dark, it shows there’s a problem,” Sagara said, apparently not showing the same concerns as she was. He appeared to start thinking about something, looking up a few times at the bright moon while he did so.

“What?”

“Come on,” Sagara said, jumping back down into the dirt of the alleyway and almost completely into darkness. Natoko found herself following him, subconsciously worrying about the state of her loose jeans. Landing, she found Sagara running in the direction of one of the darker areas of the alley.

“What? Where are you going?” she tried to scream, but found herself instinctively whispering. Thinking he might not have heard her, she ran off after him, catching up fairly quickly to ask him once more.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he said, sticking his arm out behind her and jumping up again. He ended up hanging off another stairwell and waited for Natoko to climb up again, only this time she tried to jump back down.

“Let go of me,” she said struggling. She didn’t care what was down this alley, she didn’t care at all. They should be heading back. She had forgotten her sword and would be useless without it. There were always other trains and if they going to be assaulted by the village elderly and frying pans then perhaps they were safer in their own beds anyway. Trying to pull his arm away from her waist to make him drop her, he responded by tightening his grip around her, with both his legs and remaining arm.

“Climb up now or we’re dead.”

The tone grabbed her like an order barked from a commanding officer. He looking down at her with those green eyes that were apparently special and she found herself glad to have something to obey, beginning to climb up and flipping back onto the stairwell where he immediately followed.

“Look,” he said, pointing about twenty meters ahead of him to the black shadows that covered the garbage alleyway. Leaning over the rail, Natoko glared forward to see what was ahead of them. Just through the fog of stench, she saw two of the elderly persons that had been chasing them, staggering back slowly as a giant, silhouette of a creature snarling loudly in front of them, the mere reverberation of its roar being enough to fell them.

Natoko swallowed hard as she looked on, seeing them now helpless as another figure became clear to her in the darkness. A strange odd looking fellow of a man in a fine tweed suit stepped closely behind the monster, far too close to be considered ignorant of the creature and far too calm to be anything but its accomplice.

The man looked like he was dressed for dinner, wearing a fine, almost polished suit that was only contrasted by his forehead, currently missing and having his brain bleed out all over his fine mustache and onto the floor, culminating into a pool under his long black cane. The gentlemen seemed blissfully ignorant of this as he stood stock still, and his face looked to be focused upon the two intruders’ to his domain, his wraith like companion also showing an interest.

“It’s…it’s a demon” Natoko stuttered, her fingers tightening around the guardrail.

“Yep. Demon. You’re right,” Sagara confirmed. It was impossible to tell if he was being sarcastic or not. “You ready? If you’re going to be my servant retainer person, you’ll need to see if you’re up to fighting demons.”

“But…but,” Natoko began stuttering as she watched the monstrosity hovering above the gentleman.

“Or at least that’s what I’m told.”

She couldn’t help but be a little scared. The last time she was near a demon, it was inside of her. She had never actually had to face one before. And the previous demon was nothing like this either. And she didn’t have her sword? And how was she supposed to fight them anyway? The creature hovering above the finely dressed demon looked like it would treat her as fodder, brushing her aside like a stereotype thug in a cheap period drama. The man that it was with seemed even worse. Despite his brain hanging out of its container, it felt like it was the leader of the duo. Wasn’t it that type that was usually more powerful, taking out even the main character in one shot? Sagara looked to her in the dark, didn’t show if he noticed her discomfort or not, and just smiled.

“Come on then,” he said. “A warm up to the tournament.”

“This seems a lot more intense than a tournament,” Natoko argued, finding herself irritated at Sagara’s joking attitude.

“Then, if you pass this, the tournament should be a breeze,” he said simply, getting a weak grin out of her that felt forced even by her standards

“Anyway listen,” he continued. “This thing is a Dark Scourge, it’s a demon like you said. But the waiter is the real threat here.”

“And what’s the demon?”

Sagara paused. “He is the Dark Scourge.”

“Oh,” she replied, getting mixed up already. “And the wraith?”

“They’re both the Dark Scourge. They’re both the same thing really. His shadow is just an illusion. Ignore it all the time.”

“What?” she said, looking back towards the monster with a mouth the size of her. “Are you sure?” He responded with a nod, not convincing her one bit. The shadow looked to be the stronger of the two, or at least the powerful, brutish flunky. Despite being a shadow, it was clearly not projected against anything, and seemed to exist in mid air. Their conversation was interrupted by one of the demon’s current victims.

“Back off, you stupid bastard!” the woman screamed, hand poised and ready to slap as the demon edged closer, its grotesque features looking more amused than anything else. The man besides her stood patiently, a kitchen knife held casually in his hand.

“You have to knock the waiter out with wood, okay?” Sagara said, ignoring the woman’s plight. He didn’t wait for a response. Dropping down into the fray, the ninja ran towards the apparent illusion and with adrenaline still soaking through Natoko’s veins she fell a few seconds behind, running before she had touched the bottom, and grabbing a plank wedged in a garbage pile. It wasn’t her Iziz, but she could use it like a bokuto wooden sword at least. She paced herself behind Sagara, hoping that he knew what he was doing.

Noticing him, the larger demon roared at Sagara, the bellow sounding more like a wheeze as the shadow darted towards him, its body flowing like a velvet curtain. Instead of running away, he ran towards it. If he was right, Natoko figured that he would run right through it and be able to charge at the demon himself. Launching itself the boy, he stared it directly in the face getting ready to-

“Whoa,” he called out, jumping out of the way. Natoko growled at the boy, cursing his stupidity as to not believe his own eyes. She watched the snake like shadow plunge in the direction where her lord once was, falling into the ground, sliding through it like water through cracks, as Sagara rolled to the side and out of harm’s way for a few brief seconds.

Deciding he can fend for himself, she looked over to where the bald man was currently shivering and ran at him. That then gave her a thought, her rationality overriding the current flow of her emotions. If this were a demon, then technically her ‘sword’ would be useless against. It might have been effective against a human who only had bone to protect them from the wood, but against a demon? What good would slamming a stick on its head do?

“You,” she said toward the old man, holding the wooden stick at him as if his life depended on it. “Give me your knife.” Turning his attention away from the fight, the man chose to spit at her instead, muttering as she swiftly dodged it and snatched the blade from his hand. She had no time to be polite now. Turning to face the leader demon, she saw it just standing there, observing the battle between Sagara and its shadow.

From where she was standing, the Dark Scourge did just look like a servant of sorts, propping itself on the ground as it waited for an order. This thought faded as she saw it start to move, now grinning lewdly as Sagara slipped, rushing onto a trashcan and propelling himself away from the creature with fantastic speed. With complete disregard for the creature following him, he got up again and ran towards the demon waiter like it was the only creature there. Seconds later though, the shadow was upon him again and he was once again forced to bolt back into the darkness to avoid its snare.

The gentlemen stopped, Natoko had noticed. Just for a second, the moment when Sagara was rushing at it, but it was a clear pause, a blind man’s bluff, now waiting for the next moment it had to strike. Sagara was right to an extent. This was the one looking to attack. This was the one that should be focused upon.

With all the noise Sagara was making, the creature wasn’t hearing her sneak up upon it. With the man’s knife in her hand, something that under normal circumstances she would have been scared to have known the old fool had, she stood right behind it, a slight adulation in her stomach that she could be this close to someone without them noticing, before grabbing its neck and slicing the fine blade across it, surprising herself as a torrent of blood ejaculated from the creature.

Howling in agony, the demon growled ferociously at the samurai, its screams cursing with spit and bile as the head turned without the help of the neck, forcing her step back with a gasp, the knife dropping from her fingers as the creature’s upturned eyes injected fear into her heart. She trembled. Here in front of her was a true monster, its body contorted to a pattern that no human could take, its eyes drinking in her body but empty forever. If Yamanaka Natoko had any doubt that demons existed left, they were removed in that instance.

She stepped back a meter or so, to see the demon’s shadow jump up from behind its partner, snarling as they both looked her in the eyes. She futilely tried to stare at both and found herself shivering as the two others had, petrified as they were, the creature licking its lips. Her resolve gone like it was never there, the creature dived down upon her. She closed her eyes.

In a way, she found it a real shame that nothing happened. Feeling her anticipation leave her, she opened her eyes, only to find Sagara standing there in front of her, moonlight bathing the alley, standing next to someone who had an old rag over their head.

“I told you to use the wood,” Sagara pointed out like he wasn’t sure whether or not he need to explain what wood was. “This would have worked a lot quicker if you had.”

“Wha- what’s going on?” Natoko asked, confused as to how everything had calmed down, to the point where Sagara was now stretching casually. He seemed a lot brighter than usual as he walked up to the elderly man.

“Can I borrow your knife?” he asked politely, not waiting for an answer, turning around to pick it up. The demon was gone. Both of them actually. Now she could see the entire alley without problems, litter gathering by every wall, seeing the elderly people standing around like nothing had happened. The strangest thing she could see though was the rag hovering in front of her. It was incredibly dirty and Natoko could smell it from where she was standing, a mixture of sewage works and ten year old mold. Gasping, her brain made the connection, realising what the rag was covering.

“The demon is under there?” she asked, astonished by the absurdity of the situation.

“Yup. Mom says Dark Scourge are kind of like horses. If he can’t see, he’ll just stop moving.”

“But, what about the other demon?” asked Natoko inquisitively, looking around. The shadow creature was now gone, as if someone had flicked a light in the room.

“Like I said, there was no other demon,” Sagara said simply.

“But earlier you said there was,” Natoko complained. She rolled this over her tongue again. “But you also said there wasn’t…”

“Yeah, I did both,” Sagara stood there like there was nothing more to say. Natoko evaded subtlety and went straight for the bluntness.

“Could you please explain?”

“Sure, though I still need to finish this guy off,” he said, reaching under the old piece of carpet as he felt around for something. “Dark Scourges are creatures of shadow that serve the False Balance. Like all demons, they have to possess someone or something in order to exist on this side of the InBetween Realm, but once they do, they can make a few changes to the item they’ve possessed. In this case, they allow their true form to exist in the item’s shadow. But with the shadow hidden under the cloth, it can’t wander about. Then the horse thing also applies.”

Natoko failed to understand any of this, like he had tried to teach her complex maths by standing on his head and rotating backwards. He continued. “This creature had some weird beliefs according to what I’ve been told. One of the main ones is that light and dark should be balanced. Whenever it is light, there should be no darkness, whenever it is dark, there should be no light. These guys try to help ensure that, by spreading the darkness around. Wherever these guys are, there will be darkness, even when there’s not supposed to be. Now that he’s covered up, we can see better.”

“So that’s why the alley was pitch black despite the moon,” Natoko mumbled, understanding at least that much.

“Exactly, but it’s a clear violation of the Balance. Not to mention he shouldn’t be on earth at all. These guys have a habit of coming here and making places that should be light, like this alley, dark during the full moon.”

“Well, what’s the problem with that?” the girl asked as the game of twenty questions continued.

“Well, there’s also the tendency to, while they’re here, rape and kill any males they come across.” He moved up behind the sleeping demon, the knife rotating in his hands. “Although, even without that, it’s just simply not right. If demons exist on earth, humans lose their free will, so they have to go. Even this illusion is damaging.”

“So it was an illusion?” Natoko repeated, trying to keep off baffled and at least stay on slightly perplexed but slowly getting it. “But I heard it growl.”

“Well, I guess it’s a bit more complex than a basic illusion,” he continued. “It’s created to affect and trick four of the major senses. You can see, hear, smell and taste it in every way, so it appears real, but it’s fake. With my eyes, I can sense that it’s not real. It looks semi-transparent to me, but my other senses still got freaked out, hence why I thought it was real for that one moment.”

“So… how did you stop it?” Natoko asked, trying her best to ignore the fact that, even now, in a situation where it could escape at any moment and continue to attack them, Sagara was still tranquil and calm, as if he had a line of morphine constantly pumping into him.

“Because,” Sagara said, now fiddling underneath the old, smelly carpet like he was trying to find something, “of the exact same reason you can be tricked in the first place. You may be able to see it, hear it, smell it like there really is something there, even though there isn’t. But one thing you shouldn’t be able to do is taste the demon. You probably have a lingering effect even now on your tongue, kind of like vomit mixed in with raw sewage and a hint of strawberry?”

“Erm, now that you mention it.” Although she didn’t know what the recipe tasted like, she figured she got the free sample.

“However, the taste shouldn’t be there. Dark Scourges are too savage you see, so they’re not that smart, hence why right now it’s assuming that it’s asleep because it can’t see. It can normally see in pitch black perfectly, but since the rag’s preventing it, it assumes it’s gone to sleep. The same applies with the illusion. Dark Scourges can taste things from a distance away, so it assumes that humans can as well, so it adds that to the illusion. Since we can’t taste things from a distance, you can make yourself snap out of the illusion if you make your body realise this. Understand?”

“I guess, but all so they can rape someone?” said Natoko, still on the last page. “And why males?”

“Well that’s the easiest bit to answer,” he said, turning the demon around. “It’s because they’re evil. “As with all demons, they generally exists to cause bad things to happen. Its reasons don’t apply to our logic. It’s why we have all these folklore and myths and legends and religions that have been made up along the way to warn us that these things are generally not nice things that we, as good citizens of earth, should try to avoid them and not raise from the depths of hell using small cute sheep. Understood?”

“Um, I guess,” replied Natoko, annoyed not so much at what felt like a condescending tone, but more the jumps in logic that he was expecting her to make with him. She carried on watching him tear a small hole in the dirty old carpet currently covering the fearsome ‘Dark Scourge,’ ripping it up to reveal the back of the demon’s rather expensive suit. Without a care for such well-tailored goods, Sagara began to rudely stab the Scourge in the back where the hole was made, black bile first trickling and then spraying out through the gap, Natoko and the two elderly persons watching the amateur surgery session with morbid fascination, slowly becoming aware of a tune that Sagara was whistling rather badly.

“Breaking a possession of the kotodama on humans is a little harder than it is items. If you don’t have special methods like I did with you, though I suppose you were also still alive, then you have to destroy most of the organs.” Judging the hole he had made, Sagara bent down a little further before jamming the knife straight through the creature’s belly, his hand twisting and traveling through the corpse, apparently traveling upwards, keeping a firm grip on the top of the rag to prevent it from falling off.

She felt like saying something. It felt almost cruel to kill it off like this, despite its murderous intentions earlier. Was this what a demon hunting ninja was? It felt like it would be more childish, more heroic. Standing up and stepping well back, Sagara watched, as the demon, still underneath the carpet, began to convulse within the cotton confines, falling to the floor and rolling in a circle, gurgling and sizzling as its flesh began to burn off from the inside. A simple moment later, there was just the rag and the smell of sewage.

The place felt empty now, like a party where everyone had left at the same time and yet. The old people in the alleyway with them still weren’t saying anything. Nor did they look as shocked as she probably did.

“Though why was it here? It didn’t look a wild type.” Sagara paced round the alleyway for a few moments, looking at doors and dustbins. “So it would have had a reason for being here, and therefore-”

Resting for a moment and ignoring Sagara’s jabbering. Part of her wanted to display more interest. Who knows what small subtleties may be used in tracking demons, but another part was more concerned that Sagara was on the verge of routing through trashcans that probably had very little to do with a creature with a freshly pressed tweed jacket.

“How far away is it to the city again?” Sagara asked out of the blue.

“Argh,” Natoko called out, reality piercing her with its incessant timekeeping. “The train. I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed it. Though if we still hurry we could perhaps-”

“Uh huh, how many miles?” he asked again before she could finish the first answer.

“About ten, I think, maybe between fifteen.” She had no idea. Trains were for sleeping or playing cards, nor calculating distances. There was no middle ground.

“And it’s in that direction right?” Sagara pointed towards a solid brick wall with only one door and Natoko nodded hesitantly. If he intended to sprint, the first three seconds should at least prove amusing.

“This way!” a voice snapped down the alleyway. “We’ve found them!”

Natoko darted back to standing up. She almost said ‘oh no, more old people,’ but was stopped as Sagara started banging around behind her. She only got time to notice around eight or so mobster old people were slowly crowding around them, screaming and shouting as loud as they could, before it became clear that Sagara was kicking the back door of someone’s apartment in. She went to protest, but the glints of metal that bounced off moonlight from the approaching darkness told her he might have the right idea.

Rushing to help, the door swung open as Sagara tried the handle for the first time, and the two dove in with hopes they weren’t seen. On the other side of the mahogany oak was a long passageway, with cream tiles littering a pattern on the floor and white walls in need of repainting. Seeing the door at the opposite end of the corridor, Natoko let her legs follow as Sagara took off, the door slamming shut behind her.

“Should we have stayed?” Natoko gasped before sprints. “Maybe we could have done something.”

“Mom always told me not to kill humans unless I really want to.”

“I didn’t-” Natoko short circuited a little. “I meant try to explain our situation. Running makes us look more guilty.”

“True. But still less likely to be stabbed.”

“I really wish I could argue with that.”

They reached the door, Sagara pulling it open and zipping round like he was grinding the floor, running backwards to hold it open long enough for her to come through. Expecting fresh air, Natoko paused a second as she came into another corridor, her dash continuing as Sagara shot past her.

Almost galloping, she looked behind her, the crowd was definitely not following them. She turned round to run again, this time a little less, extreme sprinting not being her forte as much as it was apparently Sagara’s, so it took her a little longer to reach the front door to the building.

And then even longer.

Reaching the next door, Sagara zipped round again, his stamina inexhaustible as the three second slow down to get through the  frame caused Natoko to desire rest. She could continue, but a three hundred meter sprint wasn’t her thing and-

With a sudden jolt Natoko’s brain went into emergency stop procedures, as the instructor to her left side called out to stop, and she slammed down on her legs on the empty path for no reason.

There was certainly no need to stop.

Sagara was certainly still running down the corridor.

She looked behind her.

About fifty meters of corridor? She was no good at actual measurements, just random guesses that felt right, but even so, it was still pretty long.

She looked ahead of her.

The next corridor was about the same length.

“How long is this building?” she muttered as Sagara barely noticed her flight had stopped. Had they broke into the local hospital? No, the village didn’t have anything like that. The industrial complex was tiny when it came to it, one block being at most the length one of these corridors.

But even in a hospital, no one corridor should go on this long.

“Just keep running,” Sagara insisted. “Oh, and keep your eyes closed. You’re not really allowed to see this place.”

“What?” Despite the waves of deep pressure building inside her, telling her something was wrong, something was out of place, she continued unabated down the next length of corridor, desperately trying hard not to look to surprised as another long stretch of corridor was revealed, then another and another. Natoko swallowed hard as she began hoping if Sagara knew where he was going and what he was doing. She barely had time to think as her brain focused on keeping up with him. A retainer should stay with their master at all times, she thought, even if that meant traveling in a straight line through an impossibly long corridor. Now that she thought, she couldn’t see any other doors save the ones they were going through.

Sagara slowed down a bit for her.

Five corridors later, and a door popped out on the side of the final corridor. Sagara came to a slow stop, his breath only minimally ragged at the long distance run. She’d really have to take up running if she was going to follow this guy. Running this much was never necessary before her life was invaded by harsher realities than Iaido practice and Nazi music teachers.

“Geez… thought it never… ended,” she wheezed, Sagara opening the side door.

“Doesn’t,” he said simply, turning through, revealing another long walkway.

“Ah dammit!” she slipped, her legs trying to push her forwards. With one last look to the side, she saw that the other corridor still hadn’t ended either and she began mentally cursing whatever this fate was that had happened to be picked out of the lucky dip this week.

Two corridors later and another turn Sagara seemed to finally stop for good. The air was different here, she thought to herself, realising it could just be her body trying to shut down.

Sagara turned to another door, swinging it open to provide Natoko with even more confusion.

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