Lost Innocence

The Guardians of the Dawn Book One

Story by Marco and Luca Beltrame
Artwork by Collateral Damage Studios
Original character design by Dia
Additional character designs by Nesalienna and Fredrick Runtu


Thomas Stanton looked around nervously, contemplating the options at his disposal. A part of him wondered whether there would be any options to begin with. Nothing had been the same ever since he had begun hearing those voices…

Thomas, Thomas, you must focus!

As soon as those words echoed in his mind, Thomas’s head jolted. While it didn’t sound like an order, it felt like one and his body complied regardless of his will.

He moved across the dimly-lit room he had arranged himself. While it used to be his personal office, no one would have been able to trace it to the workplace of a world-famous doctor: the large windows were closed off by planks, most furniture had been disorderly stashed in a corner, and many lit candles placed in a bizarre pattern lay on the floor. A rather disturbing sight, echoing arcane rites from a long gone past.

Nevertheless, not as disturbing as the sight of the crying newborn lying among the candles. She was the reason for everything… the only reason Thomas Stanton was there. Her existence was the meaning of everything. And he had to put an end to that life. It was what he was meant to do, his only reason for existence.

Thomas! Why do you raise your hand against a child? What has she done to deserve your anger?

The man’s head had another jolt. That was the other voice, diametrically opposite in every aspect to the first one. Where the tone of the former had been brisk and imposing, the latter was soft and inviting. The orders were also different: every time it spoke, it was to dissuade Thomas from carrying out his dark proposition.

Regardless of what he was asked, the doctor did not want to have any part in it: he just wanted to go on with his life, like always. He wondered if it was just a dissociative disorder. Yet, such a disease would not make his own body and mind comply without hesitation to the orders of the unseen speakers, even if they were clearly conflicting.

“Yumiko Hasegawa… must die,” he muttered under his breath.

Yes, yes! Kill her, kill her! Dismember, mutilate, disfigure her, leave no trace behind!

Stop, stop! She must live, live!

His body convulsed under the stream of these mutually exclusive orders. Why him? What on Earth had he done to deserve this?

It was fate, Thomas, fate! A fate decided the moment you met the accursed ones, the Hasegawa! May their legacy disappear forever!

Thomas felt an even stronger hate and spite echoing from the voice, so strong that he almost fell to his knees. Still, what it had uttered was technically correct. Everything had begun when he heard about the Hasegawa family.

His mind went back to the previous year. As a pioneer in new and advanced techniques of in vitro fertilization, Thomas Stanton received many requests from couples all over the world, and waiting lists for his services spanned several years. He had made an exception to the rule after reading the request by Kunio and Hilda Hasegawa: some strange interest sparked in him. At the time, he had attributed it to the highly unusual clinical history of the couple: both had suffered strange incidents earlier in their life that almost made them sterile.

Two months later, he met them personally in this office in Frankfurt to discuss the treatment. Thomas was unexplainably nervous, but he could barely contain his disappointment when he first saw the two, because there was nothing out of the ordinary in them.

Despite being a top manager at an aeronautical corporation, Kunio Hasegawa looked like a typical Japanese salary man, wearing dull black outfit with an even more plain tie. Like many other of his countrymen, it was hard to understand the line of thoughts behind that calm-looking face. Just as he looked very stereotypical, his wife’s appearance was very cliched as well, sporting deep blue eyes and shoulder-long blonde hair. She was also quite tall, almost as Thomas himself, and Kunio was like a dwarf in comparison, despite not being particularly short by Japanese standards. Both were in their late twenties.

During the interview, Thomas kept on asking himself why had he been attracted by them. Their medical history was indeed unusual, but no more unusual than other cases that he had handled in the past. He had almost thought of dismissing them when he heard the voices for the first time.

Do it, Thomas.

Thinking it was just stress from overworking, he accepted their request despite his initial doubts.

The voice whispered to him again several times over the course of the months, as he followed up the treatment. The events were few and far between, and he paid no attention to them, not even realizing he was actually doing everything it was telling him to do. Up to that point, nothing diverged from the routine he was used to, until he heard about Hilda’s pregnancy.

He should have felt happy. After all, no matter how good his technique was, there was always a high chance of failure. Instead he felt disgust, and hatred, hatred for that tiny life that had just started making its first steps. He was surprised by the depth of such a feeling: he had never hated anyone as much in his entire life.

It was then than the other voice erupted in his mind, asking him to hurry to the woman’s side and kill her along with her child. At the same time the other presence spoke against it, sparking an unnatural conflict within himself that almost made him lose consciousness. He blamed the highly stressful environment he was working in, and forced himself to take some days off to recover.

Unfortunately for him, the situation did not improve, and actually worsened. The closer the decisive moment of birth came, the voices would speak to him more and more, and their pleas turned to orders. He dreamt of killing people after people with unnatural fury, enjoying every wound, every act of unspeakable brutality he committed. And as he cut, decapitated, and dismembered, he heard two chants on top of each other in a blasphemous cacophony.

Kill.. No, stop! Kill more! Stop, stop, stop stop! Just kill!

The vision had been so vivid that he sought professional psychological help, fearing a mental illness. However, nothing wrong was found with him, save the natural signs of age: he was a perfectly healthy sixty year old man. And so, the unnamed war in his conscience continued, until he believed he was becoming insane. He hoped that with the birth of that child - Yumiko, as her parents decided to call her - everything would come to an end.

Sadly, Yumiko’s birth only proved to be a new beginning. Thomas felt a deep disgust for her parents’ happiness: why would those people be happy with such a low, insignificant creature? A creature that was not meant to be…

A creature that had to be killed, no matter how!

The urge to murder was inescapable, and the opposing voice’s requests were feeble and weak. Thus, Thomas set out to do what he thought he would never do: infanticide. One night he snuck inside the hospital’s nursery and knocked out the nurse on guard, paying no attention to the risk of being discovered. He hastily grabbed the crying baby and hurried to his car.

He then shut himself in his office and began the necessary preparations. Somehow he knew that whatever needed to be done had to follow precise steps. The more he went on, the more it looked like a proper ritual, a ritual that had not been performed since millennia, when mankind was young and strange, obscure presences walked on Earth. He had almost finished when his internal struggle, supposedly over, gained new strength and the two contradicting orders left him standing still, unable to do anything.

Thomas, you must hurry! The police will be here soon, they know you did it! You must kill her!

Don’t do it! She must live!

His true thoughts escaped the cage around them and took form of a loud scream. “Leave me… alone!”

No, Thomas. You have one purpose, and you will carry it to the end!

You have one purpose, you have been chosen!

His right hand reached for a dagger he had placed on the ground, its blade carved with monstrous creatures that no human mind would have envisioned. As he raised it above his head, his left hand moved like a whip and grabbed his wrist. He moved frantically around the room, crashing into the piles of furniture as he was unable to resist the battle taking place between those two entities inside his mind.

He screamed again, over and over, his voice turning into a guttural pantomime of the human language. Then he violently slammed against a desk: there was the sound of a bone breaking and his left arm fell limp to his side.

Almost foaming at the mouth, he rushed towards Yumiko, blade in hand.

“Scyoth, accursed Scyoth, you will never, ever walk on this world again! Your body will be crushed, maimed, destroyed and your soul will know eternal pain by the hands of the creatures of the Abyss,” he yelled. “Everything ends now, by the name of As…”


Do it, do it, do it, do it!

He froze for an instant, the blade almost touching the child’s forehead.

Then, he heard a loud sound and immediately afterwards the whole world moved in slow motion. He was barely aware of something passing through his skull, then blood spurted out of his mouth and he fell to the ground. His vision dimmed, replaced by the cold embrace of the darkness. He felt the presence of more people around him, yet he was unable to understand what they were saying.

Am I… dying?

Neither of the voices responded.

Thomas felt his last bits of consciousness fading. As he fell into the embrace of death, he heard another voice, completely different from those from before. It was proud and full of authority.

You have done well. A king may want to lose a battle to win a war, after all. Enjoy your rest… for you will be needed again.

A couple of days after what had been been called the “Stanton Incident”, the press and the police were still trying to understand what could have happened to drive an esteemed scientist to attempted murder. While Stanton had shown some interest in the occult when he was younger, there was no evidence it had affected his profession. Much to the relief of everyone, Yumiko had luckily not suffered any harm despite what had happened to her.

Nevertheless, the Frankfurt police put the Hasegawa under escort, and kept a close watch on the nursery to prevent further issues from arising, at least until Yumiko could be discharged.

On the last night before she would let go, a shadow approached the cradle where Yumiko was sleeping. It had made no effort in concealing itself, yet no one had noticed it coming, simply because it had ordered the eyes of anyone not to see its passage.

“We meet again, Yumiko Hasegawa,” the shadow whispered, taking a step forward into the dim lights of the hospital.

It was Thomas Stanton, or rather, someone that had been Thomas Stanton. Thomas used to be a tall and stout man, but that figure had only but little resemblance to the man: flesh had been ripped off many parts of the body, showing the bones underneath. The clothes he had been wearing at the time of the incident were also shredded beyond repair.

“I made… a serious mistake a few days ago,” he muttered with difficulty as tufts of grey hair fell from his head, “I was just a pawn in the hands of many masters.”

He moved closer to the sleeping Yumiko. Moving slowly, he placed his index finger over the newborn’s right hand. A single drop of half-congealed blood turned into a strange, black shape over her hand. It was an impossible mixture of different geometric shapes, unable to be conceived by a human mind. The figure wavered, then it was absorbed into the skin and disappeared.

Thomas’s rotten face contorted in what seemed to be a smile. “It is done now. The symbol will protect you in the years to come… for you are the one who lives within the Darkness.”

His shape flickered. “It seems it is time,” he said with a hint of regret in his voice, “There is no more meaning to my existence.”

A strange, swirling vortex engulfed Thomas and he disappeared into nothingness, as if he had never existed in the first place. His last words echoed across the nursery.

Once the time comes… you will know.

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That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

Those who walk in the Darkness


The class representative’s words were followed by the sound of students standing up and bowing to their homeroom teacher. A few moments later, the classroom’s silence was broken by a multitude of happy voices: it was the end of the first term, followed by the long summer holidays which everyone was looking forward to.

In a corner of the classroom, Yumiko Hasegawa was about to leave when she was quickly surrounded by her classmates. It wasn’t exactly an unusual sight: while not the most popular in her class, Yumiko had a definitely a good reputation. Male students had good reasons for wanting to talk to her: a cute face framed by brown hair arranged in a pageboy cut, deep blue eyes, and a well proportioned body that gave off an impression of beauty.

Such interest was not only due to looks alone. She was one of the top performers in the school’s archery club and a good candidate for the prefectural competitions. On top of that, Yumiko was known for a cheerful personality and a certain, indescribable aura of cuteness around her. These qualities also attracted a lot of female students, who saw her as a sort of idol to admire in awe.

“Say, Hasegawa, what are your plans for the summer?”, one of the boys asked her. “Have you got anything in mind yet? Do you want to hang out these days?”

Yumiko made a shy, dismissive gesture. “That would be nice, but I fear I have already plans made…”

He could barely hide his disappointment. “Eh? Really?”.

“What kind of plans, Hasegawa?” Another student jumped in the conversation. “Something of the romantic kind?”

Yumiko’s cheeks became red and she fought rot contain her harassment. “No, no, not that sort of thing…”

The female students sent him deadly stares and murmured angrily. How could he be like this with their beloved Yumiko!

Unfazed by the silent criticism, he continued. “Oh, then what exactly?”

“Well…”, Yumiko coughed and regained her composure. “Just a trip to Kyoto with my friends. What’s so strange about it?”

Unfortunately for Yumiko, that student was known for being quite a teaser. “Nothing, nothing! But something romantic or more would’ve been more interesting!”, he added, followed by cheers of his male companions.

Yumiko’s face became even redder and all the female students flared up. “What are you saying to our dear Yumiko! Apologize!”

“It’s nothing,” Yumiko stuttered while trying to calm everyone down, “I just wasn’t clear enough.”

Kokonoe, a girl who was sitting next to her in class, patted her back. “Just don’t mind him, he’s a perv. In any case, what are you doing to do in Kyoto?”, she asked.

The troublemaker student opened his mouth to intervene, but this time the angry stares from everyone made him reconsider and he kept quiet as Yumiko, more at ease, continued her explanation.

“I’m not completely sure. The reason we’re going to Kyoto is that my family is paying visit to some relatives in Kansai, and I asked if I could bring a couple of friends with me to go to the city.”

“Is there anything you would like to see?”

“Some of the ancient temples for sure!”, Yumiko replied enthusiastically. Since the start of high school, she had discovered quite an interest for the history of ancient places of worship of Japan. “You know, Kiyomizu dera, Sanjūsangen-dō… and there’s this strange place that I really want to see… they call it Rokudo Chinno-ji.”

The chatter around Yumiko faded and everyone looked at her inquisitively.

“Come on, what’s wrong with this now?”, Yumiko blurted, frustrated.

“But, but, Hasegawa…”, Kokonoe said, “do you know what they say about the Chinno-ji?”

“Eh? Not really, why?”

The troublemaker student spoke again. “They say that there is a well in Chinno-ji… and that well is connected to the Underworld! Do you understand, Hasegawa? The Underworld! What if you fall inside? Will you ever come back?”. He talked as if he were a ghost. “Do you want to meet Enma that badly?”

Yumiko was genuinely scared and shivered in fear, followed up by most students. She was about to reply when another girl’s firm voice broke the silence.

“Would you stop? You’re just scaring her… and everyone else for that matter!”

The girl who had spoken was Michiru Ichikawa from class 2-E, who had just entered. She had not a particularly striking appearance: if it wasn’t for her uniform, one would have thought her to be younger than she was. Her dark hair tied in a braid unfortunately contributed to this impression. Few would have noticed her in normal circumstances, however she was well known because she was one of Yumiko’s best friends, and she was very protective of her.

As always when she came to Yumiko, she was accompanied by another student. The other girl’s brown hair, tied in a peculiar ponytail was unmistakable: it was Sayuki Fukuda of class 2-A. Compared to Michiru, Sayuki was definitely taller and had quite an athletic build, one of the reasons she was in the track racing club. A pair of small glasses rested on her nose, giving a strange intellectual twist to an otherwise energetic appearance.

“Don’t pay attention to that, Yumiko”, Michiru said as she got close, “they’re just rumors made to scare people off.”

Yumiko smiled when the saw the two. “Sayuki, Michiru, you’re here.”

“Yo, Yumiko!”, Sayuki greeted her in an overly cheerful tone. “Shall we go? Or we’ll be too late.”

“You are right. Everyone, please excuse me. Let’s see each other after the summer break!”

Yumiko took her school bag and waved goodbye to all her classmates. Most waved back, although the male students just sighed at yet another missed opportunity.

Now together, the three walked out of the classroom and down to the stairs to the school’s ground level, mixing with the other students leaving. As it was the last day of the term, there were no club activities and everyone could leave earlier than usual.

Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru were about to leave the school building when they saw a male student waving at them. As he came closer, they immediately recognized him as Yuuchiro Hasekura. While not exactly a modern Adonis, Yuuchiro was handsome enough to make a girl’s heart miss a beat, although, more than mere looks, what made him so popular was his easygoing nature and a natural charm.

A year older than them, Yuuchiro wasn’t an unfamiliar sight. He and Yumiko had known each other since elementary school, due to their respective families being friends. Sayuki and Michiru also knew him well, as he would often go together with them and Yumiko. They also knew that Yumiko had grown a liking to him, but she hadn’t made any step forward yet.

“Hello, Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru!”, he greeted them friendly. “Are you going home already?”

“Not yet”, Yumiko answered. “As there are no club activities today, we thought we could go and check Shibuya out.”

“I haven’t been there in a while myself, perhaps it’s a little too chaotic for my tastes. Would you mind if I joined you?”

Yumiko’s eyes widened a bit and she involuntarily stuttered in a mixture of embarrassment and excitement. “Actually, well…”

She couldn’t continue, as Michiru grabbed her left arm with such a strength it almost hurt, while Sayuki put herself between the two with a smirk on her face.

“No, no no senpai!”, she said, waving her index finger in denial, “This little activity is girls only, do you understand? No boys allowed!”

Yuuchiro faked a groan. “Oh well, I’ll have better luck next time. I’ll see you all tomorrow, then. Have fun!”

He bid farewell and walked away in the corridor. Yumiko just waved her hand weakly in his direction. As he he disappeared behind a corner, she turned to her two friends.

“Why?” she asked, her voice still shaking.

Michiru’s grasp on her arm tightened. “Because we’re here with you,” she said, “we’d feel, uhm, in the way…”

“Not only that,” Sayuki added, her grin broadening, “How we’d be supposed to talk to you? You’d just be in your own little vacuum, looking at him, and dreaming… things.”

Yumiko’s face turned red in an instant. “Sayuki, I didn’t know you were such a perv!”

A reproachful stare came from Michiru as well. “Aren’t you going a little too far this time?”

“All right, all right, I apologize. But I didn’t imply anything, you two did!”

“Do you call that an apology!?”

Yumiko chuckled. “I’m fine, really! Sometimes you two obsess over me a little too much,”

Sayuki and Michiru both scratched their heads and looked away from her in shame.

“But it’s no problem, really!”, Yumiko concluded with a bright smile. “Shall we go? I’ve been dying for some shopping…”

Her friends both smiled in response and they all walked outside the school gates happily, towards the nearest train station. Then, for an instant, Yumiko felt something…, a presence looking at her from somewhere nearby, and she stopped in her tracks, surprised. Then the sensation disappeared as abruptly as it arrived and she stood there, puzzled. Had she just imagined it?

The voice of Michiru calling out to her brought Yumiko back to reality. She felt ashamed of herself: why was she getting so agitated about that? There were just students around her, and no one else. Worrying about something that did not exist would make her just paranoid. With a couple of quick steps, she closed the distance between her and two girls and she went on talking, without thinking about that strange event anymore.

From a window in a building close to the school Yumiko and her friends had just came out from, a woman was following the group’s movements through a pair of binoculars. On her middle twenties, she was tall and slender, with long and beautiful black hair. At first glance she could be mistaken by a typical office lady, but a closer look would have dispelled such an impression. While she wore a professional-looking pair of trousers and a jacket, it was too informal for a typical Japanese office worker. In fact, it was an attire more customary to journalists or to traveling salespeople. Despite the heat, she looked unfazed.

The woman put away the binoculars into a small shoulder bag and adjusted a pair of thin glasses on her nose. While still looking down at the street, she took a cellular phone and made a call.

“Satsuki reporting”, she said. “She has left the school grounds. It’s in your area now.”

A man’s voice responded through the phone. “Roger. I’m already tracking them. Did anything unusual happen during watch?”

“Nothing suspicious so far, at least nothing compatible with the increase in activity we have seen.”

“Still, we need to stay on guard. There’s no guarantee that things will stay quiet as they are.”

Satsuki sighed. “Definitely. She seems to be affected by this activity: she almost detected my presence earlier even though I took all… precautions I could.”

“Now that’s impressive!”, the man exclaimed in admiration, “I didn’t know she could do that, Satsuki.”

“Luckily it lasted only an instant, or it would have meant trouble for us. At least I was able to extract some new information. We already know she is going to Kyoto soon: from the conversations I managed to overhear, she’s becoming very attracted by the Chinno-ji in Kyoto. My guess is that place is either connected, or involved in a possible Contact.”

“This is definitely progress. Now we have to figure out what it means and how it’s related to the Contact.”

“I’ll report to Masefield and see whether he can ask more people to look into it. Right now, let’s keep on what we are doing: it is precisely because we don’t know what will happen that we’re on watch.”

“All right, I’ll keep an eye on our princess in the mean time. Jim out.”

The man hung up and Satsuki gave a long look at the skyline of Tokyo, an almost impossible combination of tall and short, modern and ancient buildings. No matter what one would think of it, it was undeniably the result of the work of men and women following their goals, no matter how good or bad. A Contact was nothing of the sort: a predestination that no one wanted to be part of: the consequences would be unpredictable, and no gain would ever come out of it.

That is why she had to prevent it from happening.

One of Tokyo’s busiest places, the shopping district around Shibuya Station, in the ward by the same name, was able to confuse anyone coming there for the first place. Many tall buildings with apparently random architectural styles stood next to each other: many of these had screens on their front that showed advertisements or movie clips at full volume, a cacophony of sounds that intermixed with the voices of the crowds, that passed the crossing in front of the train station. The people themselves exhibited the same mixture of styles that were in the buildings, ranging from professional office workers to teenagers dressing the latest fashion. Further away from the station plaza, men and women shouted in front of shops in the hope of attracting customers.

To Akito Katanami, it did not matter. Or at least, it did not matter anymore since his life had been turned upside down in the short span of a troubled year. He got used to walk among the crowd, ignoring the subtle but disgruntled looks people gave him, due to his unkempt and untidy hair and displeasing appearance. Almost fifty, Akito spent his days wandering around Shibuya and Shinjuku almost in a trance, trying to find a new meaning in his now useless existence.If he only could turn back time and make his life what once was!

But you can, Akito., a voice echoed in his mind.

Akito shook a hand in front of his eyes. Since his marriage had collapsed and he had lost his job, random, incoherent thoughts had started surfacing in his mind. Most of them were feelings of hatred and frustration on the state of his present life, but sometimes it almost seemed that someone were talking to him. In more recent times, these thoughts had become more frequent, almost a constant stream of alien ideas he could not understand fully.

How can this happen?, he replied back to himself, I can’t have my house, my wife, and my job back just by mere wishes!

A simplistic thought for a simplistic mind. You are truly a pitiful man, Akito.

He clenched his teeth, and a growl was barely prevented from coming out of his throat. What kind of game was this? Deep down, even his own mind despised him? Had he not suffered enough? Had he not experienced enough humiliation? What else had to happen?

He shook his head. It wasn’t important. He just had another day to go through.

Are you really sure it doesn’t matter to you? What I remember is quite different…, the voice continued.

The words were followed by a stream of memories flowed through Akito’s consciousness. Images from a recent past. Painful, sorrowful, regretful. He knew them all. Every single moment from the past, every bad decision he took, every consequence he suffered from his own incompetence. He lived those again, and again in the brief lapse of a second. He started trembling uncontrollably while drops of cold sweat flowed down his wrinkled forehead.

“I don’t want this!” he shouted, “Stop it!”

The crowd around him immediately took its distance. Worried and spiteful looks were directed at him.

Akito felt cornered: those were the same stares of disapproval that his ex-wife had given him months ago, and the same look his supervisor had when he had announced his immediate termination. Every single person looked the same… faces of people he knew, all around him, all despising him. There was no way to excuse or to escape those eyes and their silent condemnation.

Akito, you are a failure.

“I’m not… I’m fine, I’m fine!”, he yelled, wide-eyed, as he ran away from the crowd.

Akito took random directions, until he ended up in a narrow and apparently deserted alleyway. There he stopped to catch his breath, leaning against a wall. His head was spinning, and he barely repressed the urge to vomit. He had never felt so terrified in his whole life before. He had felt an entire world against him. He could not bear this. Why, why was this happening? What did he do to deserve this?

The voice, who had kept silent for a while, whispered again. Oh, you did nothing. It wasn’t your fault.

“It wasn’t my fault? How come?”, Akito said aloud, no longer caring about his sanity.

It’s all that person’s fault. Her existence is the reason for your misfortune, Akito!

“Are you joking? How can be someone else be related to me?”

You refuse to listen to reason. Let me show you, once again.

More and more painful memories struck Akito, and he fell to his knees, crying without restraint. Amidst that emotional turmoil, he became aware of a difference: all those people staring, all those painful words, all those despicable actions… they were all done by a single person, a high school girl with blue eyes and hair arranged in a pageboy cut.

The images stopped and Akito gasped for air, still confused about what had just happened. What did he just see? Was it the truth? No matter if he had never met her, he even knew the girl’s name…

It is the truth. She was there the whole time, laughing about your misfortune, treating you like you mattered nothing, and kicking you out of the company and your house! It is all her fault!

An uncontrollable anger got hold of Akito, sweeping away any objection he had on the irrationality of those thoughts. If that was the case… could at least get revenge? Could he make her suffer twice… no, thrice what he had experienced? Could he get rid of her… abduct her… kill her… torture her in every possible manner imaginable until his anger was satiated?

You must do this, Akito! Or your life will never get back as it was! You must kill, maim, torture…

Akito clenched his teeth as a new, insane light flared in his eyes. In order for him to turn over a new leaf… Yumiko Hasegawa had to die.

Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru strolled around the shops in Shibuya, checking out fashion stores, playing with UFO catchers (Michiru was particularly skilled and won several prizes) and generally enjoying that late summer afternoon. When they had finished, the sun had almost completely set behind Tokyo’s skyline.

“It’s almost time we go back to the station, or we’ll be late”, Michiru said as they walked out from a convenience store with cold drinks in their hands.

Sayuki groaned. “I wish we shouldn’t leave that early… but my parents would get really angry.”

“Mine aren’t as bad, but I still get the odd stare every now and then,” Yumiko added, “Don’t forget it does take quite a bit via train.”

“Indeed… Sometimes I wish we’d live closer to the city…”

Michiru poked Sayuki, faking a motherly attitude. “And how would you be supposed to do that, hmm? You know it costs money, don’t you? And a lot of it!”

“I… I’ll just think of something when I graduate!”

“Dummy! You need to think things properly!”

“I’m not as dumb as some people say! Look at these glasses”, Sayuki pointed at the pair of glasses resting on her nose, “they make me really smart, you know?”

“Don’t tell me… you got them to look smarter? Tell me you’re joking.”

“No jokes, that’s exactly the reason.”

“As if that would actually make you smarter! Sayuki, you’re truly a dummy!”

“Dummies exist to make smart people shine!”

“That doesn’t make any sense!”

The quarrel was interrupted by Yumiko’s laughter. “Nice show, you two,” she said.

Sayuki chuckled and Michiru gave her a cold stare. “It’s not like she’s actually complimenting us, you know…”

“Nevertheless, this… exciting debate should wait for another day”, Yumiko continued, “we should really get going now. If we miss the next train, we’ll get in trouble.”

“Right!”, Sayuki replied. “Let’s get going!”

They had just begun walking when Yumiko was suddenly aware of someone else next to her. Before she could even realize what was happening, a hand grabbed her shoulder and another covered her mouth. Caught entirely by surprise, she had not even the time to scream: she was dragged away into the darkness.

Yumiko slowly opened her eyes, dazed. What had just happened?

A single look was enough to dissipate all her confusion. Someone behind her was holding her right arm behind her back with enough strength to make an escape impossible. And even if she managed, she would have come into contact with the razor-sharp blade that was dangerously close to her neck.

She opened her mouth to scream, but she was so scared that no sound came out of her throat.

“You’d better not move, or my hand may slip, miss”, a middle-aged man’s voice said behind her.

Yumiko was too terrified to even breathe and did not reply.

“If you do not want to die painfully - because you are going to die anyway - answer my questions, and do not lie.” The tone was calm and icy. It didn’t sound like a bluff.

“What is your name?”, the man continued.

“Y…Yumi…” Yumiko stuttered.

The dagger drew closer to Yumiko’s throat. “I can’t hear you.”

“Yumiko Hasegawa!” the girl screamed

There was a chuckle. “So you are her. You are the cause of everything… of everything that has happened to me!”

Yumiko started sobbing. “Everything? What did I do to you? I’m just a high school student…”

Anger filled the man’s voice. “Playing tricks with me won’t work! I know all about you. I know what you did to me! I just wanted to live peacefully… and you took everything away from me!”

“I don’t understand…”

“There’s no need to for you to! All that matters is that I understand.” The voice had now a hint of gloat. “And I will take my revenge.”

Yumiko became almost hysterical. “Please, I beg you! I haven’t done anything, I swear! Don’t do this to me…”

“I, Akito Katanami, have already decided. I am the judge, jury, and executioner! Don’t expect a quick death, either. I’ll give you ten thousand times the pain I had to endure! You will plead for death, and I will not give you that until I will be satisfied, until I will get tired of your screams of pain!”

The knife started closing in to Yumiko’s throat.

“No!” Yumiko screamed, “please don’t!”

A yell resounded in the alley. “Stop there, you filthy pervert!”

Yumiko glanced in the direction of the sound and saw Michiru and Sayuki coming out of a back street, panting.

Akito looked at the two as if they were trash. “Oh, your friends? Do you want an audience for your death?”

“Why did you come?” Yumiko exclaimed. “He’ll kill you too!”

Despite the situation they were in, a grin appeared on Michiru’s face. “We aren’t that stupid, you know. As you were taken away, we immediately called the police. That means they’ll be here really soon.” She pointed at Akito in accusation. “So, just surrender, and give Yumiko back!”

Akito grimaced. “Why should I be afraid of you, girl? Do you think the police can stop me? I have nothing to lose! I will just carry out my revenge… here and now!”

He thrusted the blade towards Yumiko’s throat.

Then the unexpected happened. Mere instants before the knife reached its target, she felt warmth coming from her right hand and her body jolted, as if struck by an electric shock. While Yumiko did not experience any pain, the same could not be said for Akito. He appeared to be suffering from electrocution, as his whole body was shaken by strong convulsions and he was barely able to stand. His grip on the knife weakened, and and the weapon landed on the ground, out of his reach. Yet, his mind refused to let go of the girl. He would not allow that! With a gargantuan effort, he was able to keep his hold on Yumiko.

“It’s not over yet”, he mumbled, “I will carry out my revenge…”

At that point, Michiru realized she could not bear with it anymore. Why was she just there watching when Yumiko was being treated like that? Why was she allowing that madman to seriously injure or even kill her? In an instant, fear, powerlessness, doubts, everything that held her back disappeared and were replaced by furious rage. No matter what, she would punish him.

And so the girl sprang forward, ignoring the alarmed looks of both Yumiko and Sayuki. “Don’t you dare lay a finger on my Yumiko!”, she cried out.

Michiru threw herself at the man, snatching his exposed arm. Too intent in keeping Yumiko under control, Akito could not push her away. Without any weapons or enough physical strength to be truly a threat, Michiru acted in desperation: her teeth dug deep into the man’s flesh. Akito yelped and took a step backwards, loosening the grip on his hostage.

Sayuki made her move as well. She originally just wanted to wait for the arrival of the police, but thanks to Michiru’s rash decision, all of them could get in serious danger. She clenched her fists: since they were little, every time Yumiko and Michiru got caught up in trouble, it had always been up to her to clean the mess they left behind, and today was no exception.

Cursing against bad luck, she jumped in front of Akito. Caught between Michiru gnawing on his arm and keeping Yumiko in his clutches, the man was completely defenseless: Sayuki’s punch hit him squarely in the face. The girl’s right arm became numb due the impact and pain swept through her body, but she smirked in satisfaction when she heard the sound of a cracked bone.

That was enough for Yumiko to break free: with a tug, she quickly moved away from him, followed by Michiru. Cursing, Akito stretched out his hands, but they only found air to hold on to. Having lost his balance, he fell to the ground, cursing vehemently.

Even if the situation had improved, there was not much to rejoice, and Sayuki knew it well. Her strike had been the result of the circumstances and a large dose of luck: she was still a high school girl against a fully grown man. If the situation dragged on for too long and they gave him time to recover, he would easily overwhelm all three of them with ease. They had to get away as fast as possible. The sound of distant police sirens lifted her spirits up: they still had a chance!

“Let’s go, fast!” she shouted as she helped Yumiko getting up. The girl nodded feebly in response.

Michiru pointed at the nearest alleyway. “This way!”

The three broke into a run, and disappeared from sight just as Akito was back on his feet. He made an angry motion in the air, feeling intense frustration. His jaw hurt incredibly and he could barely move it. On top of that, three high school students had made a fool of him, despite his clear advantage. To add insult to injury, the filthy Yumiko Hasegawa had even escaped! And to think that he was so close to his goal! If only that shock didn’t come…

Akito paused his thoughts, scratching his head in disbelief. What exactly had occurred then? Neither of the girls had moved, or attempted any form of resistance. Even so, the moment his hand had tightened on Yumiko’s arm he felt like he had touched a live electrical wire.

He was not able to think over the matter further, as he was alerted by the sound of coming footsteps. Was it the police, like one of the three had said, or just some bystander attracted by the ruckus? Either way, he had to move away from there. If he got caught, there would be no way to carry out his revenge anymore.

Do you think you will get a second chance?, the voice echoed in his mind. After failing a simple task like this?

Why am I taking the blame? You saw* what happened, didn’t you?, he retorted. How could I have predicted it? I did all I could!*

Like always, you blame the circumstances for your own failures, Akito. Haven’t you learnt anything? You should be well aware that you are not in the position to look for excuses!

The change in tone had been incredible. The mellow and suggesting voice was gone: his unseen interlocutor (or his own mind?) had become scornful and commanding. Surprised, Akito took a step back as his uneasiness grew stronger. There was something strangely inconsistent, even unnatural in what he was experiencing. Cold sweat ran down his forehead as he tried to find a rational explanation. It was just a hallucination, wasn’t it? Just a delusion of his mind! Then why? Why was he so scared?

He wanted to run away, but his legs felt like lead and he did not make a single step.

You have many good reasons to feel terror, worm, the voice continued, You are a failure. Nothing more than a failure. Just a failure. Look at what the whole world thinks about you!

Akito blinked. The lights of Shibuya had changed… they no longer displayed advertisements, or played music. They only showed a single, distinct word.

Shippai (failure). And it was directed at him.

Akito held his head with both hands. How could that be? It was just a lie! It wasn’t his fault…

A multitude of voices whispered in his ear. Just one word. Over and over.


“N…no!”, Akito shouted, forcing himself to speak despite his broken mouth.

The chorus ignored him and repeated the same word in a litany. “Failure, failure, failure, failure, failure, failure!”

He fell to his knees crying, unable to face the constant flow of accusations. It was then that he noticed an alien presence behind him and he glanced behind his back. No one was there, but he could tell the space was occupied by something he could not see.

It is time to say farewell, Akito.

The man felt the presence coming close to him. He felt true terror… the terror of experiencing a fundamental subversion of the very fabric of reality. It was not something any normal human mind could endure, and Akito was no exception: the last sparkle of rationality disappeared from his mind, replaced only by a primeval need to escape. Panting, he got to his feet and broke into a confused run.

He had only made a few steps when he felt his heart pierced from side to side. With a scream, he lost his balance and tumbled on the ground. He desperately tried to ignore the pain and get away from that accursed place, but both his arms and legs refused to move, pinned to the ground by an unseen, unearthly force.

The pain increased and Akito screamed even louder. Was he… going to die?

You wish you would die, the voice commented sarcastically. It is not a privilege you have been granted.

And then Akito realized the truth. A mad, inconceivable truth.

His soul was being consumed.

The mere notion of what was happening to him made Akito triple, quadruple his efforts to break free. No matter how hard he tried, it was all in vain: he was not able to lift even a single finger. His screams became rattles, and foam started coming out of his mouth. His whole body convulsed horribly, one, two, three times, before lying still, contorted in a bizarre and unnatural pose.

The voice’s last words resounded in the emptiness. Worthless until the very end.

“I already said all I could. We’re still investigating the exact sequence of the events and the cause of the death of the perpetrator. Please wait for our press conference tomorrow at 9. Now, please excuse me.”

The police officer made a slight bow and walked away from the crowd of journalists that kept asking questions. A few of them sighed in frustration: while an attempted assault in one of Tokyo’s most popular areas was a grave accident, the police had been very light on details, citing concerns for the victims, who were still minors.

As the people around her started walking away, Satsuki gave another look at her surroundings. The alleyway had been fenced off with the familiar yellow tape used by the police force, and a number of agents was busy going looking for evidence, or communicating with headquarters. Further ahead, a dead body could be seen on the ground, too far to be easily recognizable.

Unlike her peers, Satsuki had no reason to be disappointed. Thanks to her access to additional sources, she had obtained important information right after the news had broken out. The only reason she had come there was to assess the situation with her own eyes.

She took out a tablet from her bag and reviewed her notes. The supposed perpetrator was Akito Katanami, 56 years old. After several years of an apparently quiet life, the past year took a turn for the worse. He lost his job as a salary man at an insurance company, and a few months later his wife filed a request for divorce, citing “obsessive-compulsive” behavior from her then husband. As if that had not been enough, social security had not been enough to cover for the rent, and he was going to be evicted.

“A rather unfortunate life…” she muttered.

“I believe that luck has nothing to do with it,” a male voice behind her said.

Trying to hide her surprise, Satsuki spun round. A man was standing next to her: tall and quite muscular, he stood out among all the other people coming and going from the alley. He was dressed casually, almost too plainly, with the exception of a small necklace hanging on his neck. Dark hair tied in a short ponytail and a largely unkempt beard gave off an unrefined appearance.

“Hello, Satsuki,” he continued, a grin on his face, “has the journalist found the scoop yet?”

Satsuki gave him a stern look, followed by a sigh. “You shouldn’t startle me like that, Jim.”

“I’m just trying to see if you’re paying attention to your surroundings.”

“Apparently I am not.”

“Indeed. You still have much to learn.”

“Excuse me, master.” The woman made a dismissive gesture. “Did you come here just for your usual dose of trite jokes, or is there anything else worthy of note you have found?”

“Sometimes you aren’t fun, Satsuki”, Jim crossed his arms. “Did age tame your rebel side?”

If his statement had meant to be funny, Satsuki did not interpret it as such. “Did you just ignore my question?”

Jim paused for an instant: judging from her glare, she was becoming really angry. Perhaps it would be better to stop with the humor now, at least for a while.

He coughed. “Right, back to the topic. As soon as you told me about that disturbance, I came here, only to find that the situation had already reached a conclusion, and not one I had expected. While you were talking with the police, I took a look around. Nothing immediately suspicious. It looks like a textbook example of an attempted assault by a mentally unstable person. Until you consider Katanami’s target…”

“Yumiko Hasegawa,” Satsuki lowered her voice, “there are no doubts about it. He was trying to kill her.”

“Luckily, this has not happened. Instead the one that ended up being dead was him.”

“The question is how? I can’t see how three school girls could escape, let alone cause any form of harm. On top of that, he even carried a knife, which was found on the ground next to him.”

Jim rubbed his chin. “I agree, quite puzzling. At this point, though, I’m inclined to believe it was the work of some third party, and the girls had nothing to do with it. A third party of the… unexpected kind.”

“You mean, a non natural party”, Satsuki nodded in agreement, “I agree, this seems the most logical explanation, even if we have no direct proof. Why would such a thing happen, though? Our records say that similar occurrences have been pretty rare.”

Jim shrugged. “Beats me. It would help if I could check out what’s left of Katanami, but of course with all the police around I can’t quite do that. And asking around won’t help, either: everyone is so tight-lipped!”

“I can’t blame them. We’re talking about minors here.”

“Yes, and everyone is so proud of their self-censorship. Sometimes I can’t quite understand this country. Normally it would be none of my business, but in this case Yumiko Hasegawa is involved.”

“And that is precisely the reason we are here, to ensure nothing… displeasing occurs to her.”

“But if you remember, the initial assessment indicated that the risk of immediate threats was relatively low, and that is why we were the only ones sent on watch. Today we had a… change of perspective.”

“True. The matter has just become far more complicated than we thought at first. Aside the Stanton incident several years ago, I thought whoever was against a Contact had settled down, but as we see today, that clearly wasn’t the case.” Satsuki sighed. “It will just get harder for us from now on.”

“To be honest, I’m more focused on keeping that girl safe. I don’t care about whatever motive they may have, be either support or opposition.”

“I agree with you. A practical effect of those motives, though, is that we’ll have to tighten our watch on her, without being too obvious.”

“Why not put her under constant surveillance? I would love playing the role of Big Brother with her…”

Jim let out a muffled exclamation of pain as Satsuki’s elbow hit him in the stomach.

“Oh, I know you would love that, Jim Clark!”, she exclaimed, “Unfortunately for you, that’s not going to happen.”

“Well, I tried at least,” he answered, faking disappointment. “Jokes aside, I don’t think it would be necessary at this point. Too much stuff happening at once would mean attracting unwanted attention.”

Our attention, I guess.”

“This might be one of the reasons, but I believe it’s actually something else: it might not even be worth doing at this point. I was finally able to find out when she is going to leave for Kyoto: the answer is very soon. A few days at most.”

“Then we shall move too. Even if we can’t be on her heels all the time, it doesn’t mean that we need to be careless.”

“Can we? We’re stretching a bit the extent of our orders…”

“Don’t worry, I got permission from Masefield in person.”

Jim put his hands on his hips. “Oh? Following protocol? You?”

You were supposed to be the one doing it, you know,” Satsuki retorted.


“You can’t possibly expect to outwit Satsuki Ford at this, can you?”

“Definitely not!”

Satsuki took a last glance at the crime scene behind her. “Well, I guess there’s nothing more to be gained by staying here. Jim, can you continue your investigation on the Chinno-ji? I’ll make sure to keep our target… Yumiko Hasegawa… under watch.”

“Roger. So far I haven’t found anything suspicious, but that means I just have to keep looking better.”

“Good, I’m counting on you.”

Jim made a few steps away and then stopped. “Right, I forgot. Satsuki… one last question.”

“What is it?”

“How about a dinner for two later tonight?”

Satsuki hit her forehead and groaned. “You never change, don’t you?”

Yumiko dreamt. Exhausted from what had happened to her and her friends and the aftermath that followed, she had gone to bed the moment she arrived home and had fallen asleep instantly.

And so she dreamt.

The world was an immense ocean, an universe of many different shades of blue and green. There was no surface: everything was water, because that was how it was meant to be. Cold light shone from apparently nowhere, providing a way to observe that bizarre environment. At a distance, complex geometric shapes of dull colors moved in patterns with logic inconceivable for a human mind, and pulsating spheres were lined up in even more strange forms.

Yumiko’s consciousness floated around in many directions, trying to understand her surroundings. Yet, she was part of this world, since the beginning. Or rather, that world had been made for her. While the reason was unknown to her, she knew it was the truth. Nevertheless, she did not understand why.

“Because you are you, Yumiko”, a voice from nowhere said.

It appeared coming from a man, although the words had been uttered with difficulty, as if the speaker had not been used to speaking.

Yumiko’s thoughts reverberated through the whole world. I don’t understand.

“Chosen and cursed child,” another voice chimed in, this time feminine in nature, “it is not yet time for you to fully realize.”

The girl’s mind wavered with frustration. Cursed? Chosen? What was that supposed to mean? It didn’t make any sense!

“There is much that Man cannot truly comprehend due to His nature,” the male voice explained, “He simply cannot grasp what lies beyond this plane, the infinite facets of the multiverse and the million realities there contained… Although to Us, it is natural as breathing.”

Us? I really, really don’t understand! What are you talking about?

The invisible female interlocutor spoke again. “Worry not, chosen and cursed child. Everything will become natural to you when the time comes.”

“Yes, the time will come”, the male voice added, “if you desire the truth, the truth shall be revealed to you.”

Yumiko was even more confused. The more the conversation continued, the less it made sense.

As if reacting to her thoughts, some of the spheres floating around moved together and arranged in a bizarrely twisted shape. While it was impossible to determine exactly what it was, Yumiko somehow realized it was a place to cross boundaries… a gate.

“Seek out the gate, chosen and cursed child”, the male voice said.

“Seek out the gate”, the other voice echoed, “and everything will be clear to you.”

A sudden urge of curiosity emerged in Yumiko. Would the gate provide an answer for this? For everything? For the purpose of her very existence? Her consciousness moved towards the strangely bent shape.

An instant later, the lights died out, leaving only pitch-black darkness. A mixture of dread, fear, and sense of danger got hold of Yumiko.

Her mind sent waves after waves of fearful thoughts. What’s going on?

There was no answer, only silence. But was it really silence? There was something else out there… a pulsating existence of rage and bloodlust. And it was coming nearer and nearer…

Before she realized, it was already enveloping her. Frantically, Yumiko sought a way to run away, even forgetting it was a dream. Everywhere she expanded her mind, it was there. There was no escape.

It came close, and Yumiko felt her whole soul laid bare and exposed to that terrifying extracosmic presence. She screamed in terror and shame as all her thoughts and feelings were ruthlessly violated.

The growl grew louder, and turned into a howl.

Just as Yumiko felt her own existence being ripped apart, she was aware of light. It wasn’t the diffuse, cold light of before, but rather some welcoming and warming light shining next to her. It originated from a complex shaped symbol that had appeared next to her.

As soon as she was aware of that, the howl ceased instantly, along with the presence that had been tormenting her. That symbol… had it helped her? And why was she feeling nostalgic about it? Where did she see it before?

Her questions were left without answer, as her consciousness began to fade. Before disappearing completely, she heard the two voices again, chanting in unison.

Seek out the gate…

Yumiko opened her eyes wide, feeling disoriented and with no idea of where she was. All she could see was a very familiar ceiling. She glanced around, and more familiar sights came into view: plushies Michiru had given to her as presents; her bow, resting in a corner of the room she was in; a poster of her favorite idol band, hung on a wall.

The girl sighed in relief as she realized she was in her own room. Luckily, it had only been a dream! It had been unlike anything she had experienced before. In particular, the voices’ last words had piqued her curiosity. The gate… that word had a familiar feeling to it. She was sure she had heard about it before. Perhaps it was related to the Rokudo Chinno-ji she really wanted to visit in Kyoto?

“Yumiko, breakfast’s ready! It will get cold if you don’t get up soon!”

Hilda’s voice from beyond the door drew her away from her thoughts. She smirked. After all it was just a dream: how could it be related to an event that had not yet happened? Perhaps she would need to stop watching weird TV shows late at night… Other matters had more priority: after breakfast, she was supposed to go to Michiru’s house! The whole matter was put in a corner of her mind, never to be seen again.

“I’m coming!”, she exclaimed as she got up.

At last, the much anticipated day came and Yumiko left for Kyoto along with her family and her two friends. The trip to Japan’s former capital city was relatively long and uneventful, with exception of occasional breaks. Finally, the city’s skyline appeared beyond the highway.

Crossed by the Kamo river, from a casual observation Kyoto would seem like another typical Japanese city. However, upon gazing over its skyline its remarkable features stood out, heritage of a thousand years of history, strife, and culture. Large wooden buildings, temples and shrines, emerged next to modern buildings in a strange mixture of ancient and modern, an impression further reinforced by the sheer contrast of the traditional style with one of the largest stations of the city, a true work of contemporary architecture.

Kunio drove his van through the city’s bustling streets, filled with traffic, until he stopped in front of a building on the east side of the river, in the Higashiyama district. While by no means old, the three-story building set off a distinct traditional feeling, reinforced by the use of light and dark brown for the front, the small balconies, and the large sash windows. The entrance was covered by a dark brown curtain, and a lantern next to it carried the name of the establishment: Kamogawa Higashiyama Ryokan. The name was familiar to Yumiko despite her not having been there, because it was run by her uncle Kojiro Hasegawa.

As soon as she got out of the van, Yumiko felt intense enthusiasm. That was the moment she had been waiting for most of the year… finally she was in Kyoto!

She could barely contain her excitement as she helped unloading the van and arranging their baggage in the rooms. As soon as she was done, she set out immediately to go sightseeing with Michiru, Sayuki and Yuuchiro, who had joined them at the ryokan.

Although Yumiko wanted to rush to see the Rokudo Chinno-ji first, the following days were spent looking at the many, large attractions that Kyoto offered to visitors: she walked through the red torii of Fushimi Inari; she looked over the town from the top of the garden of the Ginkaku-ji; admired the bamboo forest of Arashiyama; and puzzled herself with the arrangement of the rock garden at the Ryoan-ji.

Three days later, the girl and her friends were walking through Gion, one of Kyoto’s traditional districts, not too far from where they were staying. Lots of small, short and somewhat old-fashioned wooden buildings with sloping roofs were on both sides of the narrow, stone-paved streets of the district, most of them sporting signs indicating the presence of shops and restaurants. Despite being a hot summer afternoon, there were many people walking around, a good percentage of them being Western tourists.

“It’s so hot I could die,” Sayuki groaned, flapping a hard paper fan in front of her face. “Can’t we go back already? At least we have air conditioning…”

Michiru gave her an odd stare as she took a bite out of a kakigori she had bought earlier. “I’m surprised your… indecent way of dressing isn’t helping you.”

Sayuki took a look at herself. Due to the heat and the expected long walks, she had chosen to wear comfortable and plain clothes: a pair of shorts and a somewhat tight shirt that highlighted her athletic build. However, both did little to hide her lines, and they even exalted it. On the other hand, Michiru wore far a far more feminine brightly-colored long dress. In fact, the contrast between the two girls’ way of dressing was evident to everyone.

“What’s wrong my clothes?”, she asked. “I am more for for function over form. You know how much I hate dresses and that stuff, right? It’s already so much of a pain to wear that uniform when I’m at school… now I’m on holiday, please give me a break.”

Yumiko poked her on the shoulder. “Aren’t you worried of attracting too many stares?”

“Would that be a bad thing? People looking at me means I am getting noticed, and getting noticed is the first step towards popularity! It’s all part of the plan for this golden goal!”

The girl yelped as Michiru pinched her cheek. “Why would you want to get known for this, dummy?”

“Hey, that hurts!”

“Sayuki, this is not quite the… popularity you want to achieve…” Yumiko added with a hint of embarrassment.

Sayuki pushed Michiru away and turned towards Yuuchiro, who was just behind them. “Well, if our man here doesn’t say anything…”

The boy broke into a heartfelt laughter and Sayuki looked at him, puzzled. He made a dismissive gesture as he regained his composure.

“Sorry, girls,” he said, “I had forgotten how fun you people were. It’s been a while since we’ve been like this, at least since the start of high school.”

“Indeed, it brings back memories,” Yumiko replied with an embarrassed smile.

“Hopefully it won’t be the last time.”

“Why so pessimistic?”

“Well, I’m on the third year and I really need to think well on what to do after I graduate. It will get quite busy after the summer. So I’m not sure how much time we’ll have afterwards.”

Yumiko lowered her gaze. Her voice had a hint of sadness. “Oh, is that so?”

The sudden gloomy turn of the conversation felt very awkward for Michiru and Sayuki. The two looked at each other, then Sayuki tried hastily to change the topic to lighten the mood.

She pointed at an inconspicuous-looking shop further ahead. “Uhm… that place looks interesting, why don’t we check it out?”

“Indeed it is!”, Michiru added, with an exaggerated nod. “I wonder what kind of stuff it sells…”

Yumiko glanced at the place. It seemed an establishment coming from another era: old-fashioned showcases contained items vaguely resemblant of design ideas from the seventies of the past century, covered with a small layer of dust. Scribbled notes indicated the prices of the goods on sale, written so confusingly that they were truly hard to read. The cash register was even more out of place, an electro-mechanical unit that was more fit for a museum or an antique shop.

The couple sitting next to the entrance was a perfect match for the atmosphere as well. Both people were at least on their seventies and both wore yukata: the man, almost completely bald, was dressed in black, while the woman had a much more colorful garment and her long grey hair was tied in a complex yet perfect-looking hairstyle. They smiled as they saw the group coming closer.

Irasshaimase”, the woman greeted them with a bow, “What can we do for you today?”

“What are you selling?”, Yumiko asked, “It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before…”

“These are mostly items I made when I was younger,” the man explained, “the few I did not make were built by my late brother.”

“They’re pretty unique,” Yuuchiro commented while looking carefully at the merchandise, “did you get inspired by design trends of the past? Did you go to Europe, by any chance?”

The old man shook his head. “No, I’ve never ever left this town. It was all thanks to the kami I spoke to.”

Yumiko was taken aback by that bizarre response. “Pardon… kami?”

He nodded. “Yes. My wife is able to see the kami and I’m able to speak to them. It is thanks to them that we were able to build these items. Sometimes they gave advice, and in rare occasions they even guided those old hands of mine directly.”

“Very nice,” Sayuki cut in, “I wish I could do something like this. It would be really nice to ask for advice on how to find a good boyfriend…”

“First you should learn to get some sense in that head of yours,” Michiru hissed behind her.

The old woman ignored the two girls and addressed Yumiko directly. “In fact, young girl, we were expecting you.”

Yumiko blinked. “Expecting? What do you mean?”

“The kami told my husband that you would come during this summer. And you fit the description they gave us.”

“What… what could possibly a kami want from me?” Yumiko stuttered.

The man stood up and looked at her straight in the eyes. His expression turned to severe, almost demanding, his voice harsh. “You glimpsed at what lies beyond. Beware, for there is no logic nor reason in the patterns that lie there. If you are truly set on finding the truth, seek out the gate.”

Yumiko’s heart missed a beat. The gate? Was it the same as her dream? Had… had it been a dream after all?

The shop owner sat down and smiled like nothing had happened. “… and that’s what they said.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Michiru commented.

Sayuki echoed her friend. “I didn’t understand anything either.”

“The gate? Do you know anything more about it?”, Yumiko asked, suddenly curious.

The old woman looked behind the group and she shook her head. “It’s strange, it seems they are no longer here. It’s the first time something like this happened. I’m sorry, I don’t think we can ask more questions.”

“I see. That’s too bad.”. Although Yumiko had sounded polite, her voice carried a hint of frustration at that underwhelming conclusion.

“While you are here, why don’t you look again at our wares? You may find a perfect gift for someone you care about.”

The anticlimactic conclusion of the conversation had drained Yumiko of any interest she might have had in those items. A glance to her friends revealed that they too were no more willing of staying there. She quickly formulated an excuse.

“I’m sorry, it’s getting late…”.

The smile did not disappear from the old man’s face. “I see. I hope you have a wonderful stay here.”

“Thanks for having us.”

Yumiko bowed, quickly followed by her friends, and left the shop.

“What a letdown!” Sayuki exclaimed once they were far enough.

“Do you really believe they could talk to kami? They could have made this stuff up, you know,” Michiru commented.

“I believe it was just a front,” Yuuchiro said while rubbing his chin, sounding even more skeptical than Michiru, “the typical trap to fool people and tell them to buy souvenirs to listen to the voice of whatever. I read online about a lot of these scams with tourists.”

Despite the skepticism, Sayuki kept her enthusiasm. “Still, I think it would be amazing if it were true! Don’t you think so, Yumiko?”

“Yes…” Yumiko replied absentmindedly. That mention about the gate had shaken her quite a bit. Even if it were a scam, it was too close to what she had dreamt for being a mere coincidence. What was the gate and why would be important to find it? What did really lie beneath that threshold, and why she had to do it?

She was dragged away from her thoughts by Michiru, who was tugging on her arm. “Are you all right, Yumiko? It is very unlike you to be this distracted… Is anything troubling you? Are you hurting anywhere?”

Yumiko looked at Michiru, whose worry was clearly visible. “I’m fine, sorry for worrying you. I guess I was just shocked by that act.”

“I could have fallen for it easily too up to that point,” Yuuchiro commented, “it almost felt real.”

“It surely was!”, Sayuki put in. “I wish I could be this able to find excuses to get home late…”

Michiru turned her head towards her, her eyes half open. “It would require much more brain on your part than those glasses would give you,” she whispered.

“Hey, that’s mean!”

“I’m not being mean! I’m just stating what is evident.”

Yumiko chuckled as she watched the two bickering. Every time she felt worried or in distress, Sayuki and Michiru had been able to lift her spirits, either willingly or unwillingly. It had been indeed foolish of her to worry so much about something she didn’t even know if it existed for real. Perhaps it was just her own fantasy and interest in that well at the Rokudo Chinno-ji. Tomorrow she would visit it, and finally everything would be laid to rest.

“It looks you truly are at ease now,” Yuuchiro stated with a hint of relief in his voice.

Yumiko nodded and smiled. “Yes, I’m fine. Thanks for worrying about me.”

“Don’t mention it.”

They were interrupted by Sayuki, which placed her hands on Yumiko and Yuuchiro’s shoulders. “Well, well! I don’t mean to interrupt you two, but shall we return? Dinner time is soon and I’m feeling very hungry…”

Caught by surprise, the two moved away from her with a jolt. Yumiko blushed and looked at the ground, and even Yuuchiro could not hide his embarrassment.

“Don’t say stupid things,” Yumiko said in a low voice, “It’s embarrassing!”

“Sorry, sorry! It was just too good.”

Michiru patted Yumiko on the back. “You know how delicate Sayuki is. Senpai, I am sorry you had to go through this.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Yuuchiro scratched his head uneasily. “Actually, it is indeed late. We should go back.”

“You are right. Let’s go, Yumiko.”

“Yes,” Yumiko replied, still blushing.

The four turned round and walked away, talking happily. They were so intent in their conversations that neither of them noticed the small house they passed by on their way back. It looked broken and tattered, and partially covered with a scaffold for for renovations. A worn-out wooden sign sticking out from the scaffolding mentioned a jewelry shop.

On the front there was a large and very prominent poster, whose writing said: “The renowned house of the famous couple of collectors, closed since twenty years ago, will finally open next year!”

The voices of people filled the dining room of the ryokan, where many people were sitting around tables placed on a fairly large tatami that made up most of the floor. Many people were through the dinner course or were talking merrily among themselves. At one of the largest tables in a corner, Yumiko and her friends had just finished eating. That evening they had been to themselves, as both Yumiko and Yuuchiro’s parents were away visiting relatives.

“That was very, very good,” Yumiko commented as she put her chopsticks on a now empty plate, “I can understand why my uncle’s business is successful.”

Yuuchiro wiped his mouth with a napkin and nodded. “I wholeheartedly agree with you, it’s only been getting better since we have been staying here.”

“It’s been too good!”, Michiru supplied. “I need to keep watch on myself or I’ll need a diet…”

She almost jumped off her seat when Sayuki poked her waist with a chopstick with an expression of triumph on her face. “This time it’s my turn to win! With all the sport I do, eating a bit too much every now and then doesn’t hurt!”

The other girl bit her lip. “I have to admit it, it does give you an advantage. I only wish it would be helpful for your brain, too…”

“What did you say?”

At that point, almost all the other guests’ stares were directed at them, and Yumiko, visibly embarrassed, tried the best she could to prevent them from attracting unwanted attention with their behavior.

“Girls…”, she said as she patted Sayuki’s shoulder, “everyone is watching… Perhaps, just perhaps, you may need to be a little more quiet…”

Michiru and Sayuki paused their quarrel for an instant, glanced around, and both their faces became bright red as soon as they realized the situation. Seconds later, they regained their composure without saying another word, their eyes lowered on the table.

Yumiko groaned. “I thought you would get better since we started high school, but it’s always been like this. Why can’t you get a hold of yourselves when there are a lot of people around?”

“Cut them some slack,” Yuuchiro chimed in, “after all, we’re on holiday.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fun, too, just a little too embarrassing at times.”

As they were talking Yumiko felt her right hand tingling: while there was nothing out of the ordinary when she looked at it, she glimpsed the faint presence of something on its back, a bizarrely complex geometric shape. She blinked, and it disappeared, leaving her puzzled. What had she seen?

“Are you feeling well?” Michiru asked.

Yumiko felt troubled, but brushed the feeling off: she was obviously very tired. “Yes, it’s nothing.”

“You seem to get along well,” a deep voice behind them said.

A man clad in a dark yukata had walked up to their table. From his looks, he was likely in his sixties. Bald with the exception of spots spots of white hair on the sides of his head, his face showed abundant wrinkles and carried the signs of a life spent working hard. Yumiko had little trouble in telling who it was, as it had been a familiar sight for her when she was younger: it was the ryokan’s owner and manager and her uncle, Kojiro.

Upon seeing him, Yumiko smiled and bowed her head, quickly followed by the others. “Good evening, uncle Kojiro.”

Kojiro’s lips bent in a small smile. “Good evening to you, Yumiko. Was the dinner good?”

“It was delicious,” Sayuki commented, “thank you for the food!”

“Happy faces are a great source of satisfaction for our hard work. How was your visit today?”

“We’ve seen so many nice places,” Yumiko replied enthusiastically, “this is a truly wonderful city.”

“With the exception of a couple of weird people… and for once, I’m not talking about you, Sayuki,” Michiru explained, ignoring the angry glare from her friend.

Her statement piqued Kojiro’s interest. “What kind of weird people?” he asked.

“Oh, a couple that said they could talk to kami, make predictions, and what not. They also said some nonsense to Yumiko about gates and going beyond… something.”

Kojiro frowned. “I seem to remember something like this, but it was many, many years ago. I seem to recall a couple of jewelers that was famous for this. But…”

Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by a loud thud, similar to the one a body makes when dropping on the ground, coming from outside the dining room. The other idle chatter in the room ceased as well, as guests started looking at each other with worried faces.

An eerie sense of foreboding got hold of Yumiko, and cold sweat ran down her forehead. Somehow, she knew that something terrible was going to happen. Even though she could not see anything, she felt a million stares of scorn and disdain directed at her from invisible eyes. It was almost as if she had become the target from all hatred in the world. She barely resisted the urge of standing up and running away.

Her uncle noticed her distress and offered a down-to-earth explanation. “It’s the new maid… she just joined a couple of weeks ago and she’s still very clumsy. I’m going to give her an earful now, scaring guests is not acceptable!”

Kojiro walked away and past a curtain that led to the reception of the ryokan. A moment later, everyone heard his voice, but the words he spoke were not what everyone expected.

“W…what is this?”

His voice became a groan, followed by a thud and ultimately silence.

“Did… something happen?” Michiru said, her voice trembling with fear.

“Perhaps he tripped?” Sayuki suggested.

Yuuchiro stood up. “Let’s go and see what happened.”

The girls nodded and followed the boy to the reception, with other curious guests trailing behind.

The reception was typical for such an establishment: not particularly large, with most of the space occupied by a counter where guests could register right next to the entrance from the street, which was closed by two folding doors. On a side, stairs led to the upper floors.

As soon as Yuuchiro moved away the curtain, he immediately realized that what had occurred hadn’t been a normal occurrence: Kojiro lay on the floor motionless, his eyes closed. There were no other traces of struggle or of an accident. It was as if he had always been there.

“Uncle Kojiro!” Yumiko screamed as she rushed to his side.

Shaking, Yuuchiro touched the neck of the man: it was cold, and he could feel no pulse. Unable to find any words, he turned to Yumiko and just shook his head.

The girl stared at him blankly, her eyes wide open, before breaking into tears. Crying as well, Michiru hugged her, trying to give her some comfort. The guests who had come let out exclamations of shock and horror.

Resisting the temptation to give in to emotions, Sayuki distanced herself from the body, trying not to look at it. “What could have happened here?”

“I… have no idea,” Yuuchiro said, his face pale. “Can someone call the police and an ambulance?”

“Immediately!” a middle aged man answered as he dialed the emergency number on his mobile phone. There was no answer, not even a message of no signal. Puzzled, he tried again and again, with no success.

“Strange… it doesn’t seem to connect.”

“Let’s go to a koban,” Sayuki proposed, “they’ll surely be able to help there.”

Their discussion was cut off as a door with the sign “Staff only” behind the counter burst open and a young woman with partially done make-up ran outside. Her yukata was draggled and her hair ruffled. It was one of the reception maids, and looked in an extreme state of distress.

“Hurry! Hurry! Run away!” she cried.

The middle aged man held her by the shoulders. “Calm down! What is going on?”

The maid struggled to break free, hysterical. “You don’t understand! You don’t! The dead… the dead!”

“What do you mean, the dead?”

“The dead, the dead! Run away while you can!”

She looked at the dead body of Kojiro and let out a high pitched scream, so loud that Yumiko and Michiru took a step back from the man’s corpse.

What they saw afterwards made the hair on the back of her heads stand out, their blood run cold, and awakened the most primeval fears in their hearts. Something completely opposite to any working logic was happening, something that defiled and despised every natural law that man had understood for centuries.

The dead were living. Kojiro Hasegawa, already passed away, was getting back to his feet. While some would have called it a miracle, a single glimpse at his face would have told otherwise: the eyes were vitreous, his lips bent on one side, and the tongue moved uncontrollably in and out as incomprehensible sounds came out of his throat.

“Hasega…”, the middle-aged guest started, but he couldn’t finish the sentence. That pantomime of living being grabbed his neck with one hand and snapped it with one single movement of the wrist. With a gurgle, the guest crumpled on the floor. Terrified, the maid took a step back, but she lost her balance and she fell right into the arms of the one she was trying to avoid. She was still trying to push him away when her head was tiled sideways with a terrifying sound of ripped muscles and broken bones, and she was swallowed up by the cold embrace of death.

It had all happened so fast, and it was such a shocking sight that no one of the present was able to move or speak. It was then that most of the guests, who were on the threshold between the dining room and the reception, were suddenly aware of many bony hands stretching out from behind. Before they could even move, every single one of them was grasped in an iron grip and dragged inside. Sounds of bitten flesh and dying screams came from the dining room.

Whoever had been Kojiro Hasegawa turned towards her niece, his face displaying a grotesque parody of what seemed a complacent smile.

Yumiko did not move. Her whole world had been turned upside down within minutes, revealing that her normal high school life was just a thin coat over a mysterious, dreadful reality that was about to engulf her completely. Such a realization had paralyzed both her body and mind: she was just waiting for death to come and end everything.

When Michiru saw the being that had been Kojiro coming close to her friend, frantic thoughts flowed through her consciousness. Would she allow this? There was nothing she could do. But how could she stay still? Regardless of what happened to Yumiko, she would not be spared. She would die anyway. If that was the case…

Anger and frustration interwove with the self preservation instinct. Adrenaline rushed through her, and Michiru felt a strange sense of excitement, as her thoughts became faster and clearer. Now she knew what she had to do. She glanced at Sayuki, and realized she had been going through the same train of thought.

That glance acted as a signal of some sort, and the two girls moved in unison. Sayuki leapt sideways, and grabbed a chair standing next to the reception counter. She rose it above her head, then she threw it against Kojiro with all the strength she could. While he tried to avoid it, his now dead body was too stiff: he got hit squarely in the chest and tumbled down. He waved his arms in the air as he tried to stand up again. Sayuki used this opportunity to take hold of Yuuchiro, who was still standing still in shock.

At the same time Michiru moved to Yumiko’s side and grabbed her right hand. As soon as her friend touched her, the tingling in Yumiko’s hand turned into a pleasant warmth, and whatever had been taking hold of her faded away. She was still scared, but now she was able to escape.

“Run!” Michiru shouted. “It’s the only way! Let’s get out of here!”

Keeping hold of Michiru, Yumiko broke into a desperate run right before Kojiro would get too close, followed by Sayuki and Yuuchiro. Slamming the folding door open, she rushed out.

Yumiko felt the hardness of the pavement under her feet as she ran along with her friends, leaving the ryokan behind. After an initial moment of confusion, she struggled to keep the feelings of panic and hopelessness that were filling her mind. She attacked them with the techniques she had learnt while practicing with the bow, and was eventually able to succeed in subduing them. She was still scared, but no longer driven by her own emotions.

She headed for the bridge over the Kamo river: Gion was not too far from there and still filled with people even at that time of the day, so they would be surely able to find help.

Halfway through the bridge, the group noticed that no one of the things that had attacked them were on their heels, and decided to stop to catch their breath.

“What… what just happened?” Michiru asked, panting.

Sayuki leaned on her knees, exhausted. “I wish I knew! It almost looks like those B-movies where the dead rise from their graves… only it’s real!”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Yuuchiro commented. “There’s no rational explanation for it, really. Or perhaps it was just a side effect of medicines, or…”

Yumiko interrupted his conjecture. “No, Uncle Kojiro would never do such a thing. He hated medications and any kind of ‘vice’, including drinking and smoking.”

“Then, how? The dead cannot live again. It’s a simple fact.”

“Fact or not,” Michiru commented, “we have all seen this. We all have seen what happened to the other guests as well. No matter how much unnatural it looks to us, we have to accept it.”

“Michiru is right,” Yumiko added, “I understand what you’re thinking, Yuuchiro. It’s crazy, so crazy… but it is like this.”

“I guess there’s nothing else to do.” The boy was not completely convinced, but he nodded.

“Well then now, what do we do?” Sayuki asked. “I haven’t seen them so far, but there’s no guarantee they won’t come after us…”

Yumiko searched in her dress and let out an exclamation of disappointment. “Has anyone got their phone with them? I think I left mine on the table when we were having dinner… and of course going back isn’t an option.”

“Mine must have fallen off my pockets when we ran away…”

Michiru’s response was equally negative. “Unfortunately, I had left it charging in our room as it was out of battery,”

“Mine, too,” Yuuchiro concluded, cursing. “It looks like things are really going well today!”

Yumiko reassured him. “At least we’re still alive. And that’s what it matters.”

“As we have no way of contacting anyone,” she continued, “let’s go over the bridge. There’s Gion… and also the Chinno-ji. There are always lots of tourists: we can have someone help us.”

Michiru stared at her, puzzled. “Um, Yumiko… what does the Chinno-ji have anything to do with our situation? Are you feeling well?”

“I really don’t know!” Yumiko exclaimed. “It just popped in my mind all of a sudden. I guess I’m just tired…”

“I see, just don’t push yourself too hard. Let’s go.”

“Agreed!” Sayuki echoed.

The group resumed walking across, feeling more relaxed as there were no immediate threats in the surroundings. They had almost reached the street on the other side when Michiru stopped in her tracks.

“What’s wrong, Michiru?” Yumiko said.

“Something is amiss. Look!”

She pointed further ahead, and everyone understood what she meant. All of a sudden fog had fell upon the city, clouding the roads and the lights of the buildings, thick enough that they could barely see ahead of them. But what was truly unsettling was the eerie silence that loomed over everywhere. It almost seemed that every human activity had ceased.

Sayuki was the most frustrated with that unexpected turn of events. “Oi oi… don’t tell me there’s something weirder going on now!”

Despite the uncertainty, Yumiko’s resolve was not affected. “We have to move on nevertheless. It’s not like staying on this bridge forever will help us…”

They pressed forward, until they finally reached the other side of the river. Now close, they could see that most of the houses and shops had their doors open and their lights on, like any normal day, with the exception of the total absence of people. As they moved through the deserted street, Yumiko felt her right hand tingling again. The fact made her uneasy: it had happened earlier, just before Kojiro died and everything set into motion. At the same time, she felt the Chinno-ji getting closer with every step. It made her euphoric, although she did not know the reason.

The group checked every single store for a telephone they could use to call for help. While Michiru felt uncomfortable about it, there was no logical reason for not doing so, given that no one was around. Unfortunately, much to their chagrin, they realized that all the lines were dead: the only solution was to reach a koban or a police station, a task that was made far more difficult by the weather.

They continued walking in the fog for several minutes, with Yumiko leading the way. Finally, they caught a glimpse of human life when the figure of a young man dressed as a police officer emerged from the mist. Sayuki frantically waved in his direction.

“Hey! We’re here!” she shouted.

He turned towards them, then blood spurted from his mouth and his back and he collapsed, much to their shock.

It didn’t take long for them to identify the cause of the accident, because another figure moved into their field of view. And again they felt the same dread and terror they had experienced at the ryokan… ten times stronger.

The creature that stood before them only bore a barely semblance to a human being. It was a skeleton made up of mostly blackened and rotten bones, without any trace of flesh. Its body was wrapped in a tattered armor full of holes, a protection that resembled the ones of samurai during the many wars that had ravaged Japan many centuries before. Part of the head was covered by a dented helmet, and it held a rusty katana with both hands.

And the katana was dripping blood from the man it had just cut down.

Dragging its feet, the long dead warrior moved forward, and with each step more similar creatures came out of the fog and joined its ranks.

This time however, Yumiko did not allow fear to control her mind. She broke into a run followed by the others, and they passed by before those blades could reach them. As they rushed through the streets, they saw both those warriors from times long past and the living dead chasing after them.

Completely out of options, Yumiko set to reach the Chinno-ji. There was no reason such a temple would be safer than anywhere else at that point, yet she felt that it would be the only way to escape. She didn’t even wonder why she knew where to go, despite having never been there.

The mist became even thicker as they pressed on, forcing them to hold their hands to prevent getting lost. Suddenly, Yumiko was aware of another presence in front of her and she stopped abruptly, almost making the others tumble over her.

“What happened?” Yuuchiro asked. “Why did you stop?”

“I don’t know… I feel that something… something is coming this way!”

The air itself formed whirlwinds, which then joined and coalesced into new shapes: first legs, then arms, and finally a head.

When the flows ceased, there was a large humanoid creature, clad only in a loincloth and a pair of sandals. It was tall at least as two adult men, and strong muscles rippled under a thick, dark red skin. Its eyes seemed two globes of black fire, and two sharp horns stuck out on the front of the head, partially covered with dark hair and beard. Cat-like claws stuck out from two massive hands.

The resolve of the group wavered. It was hard enough to accept living dead and skeletons from ages past moving on their own. Yet, the crystallization of all their primeval fears, long forgotten since childhood, now stood before them. What they thought it was just a fairly tale was now there in the living flesh.

An oni. A mythical being that was bent on causing misfortune, disasters, and devouring humans. And it was blocking their path.

The creature smiled devilishly at Yumiko. “Cursed one,” he said, his voice sounding like the death knell of a huge bell, “You cannot run away. Your death was written in destiny before you were even born. You should just accept it.”

He took a step forward, and Yumiko saw he was wielding a massive metal club covered with spikes in one of his hands, a kanabo. Moving the heavy object with the same easiness as if it were a twig, he swung it down on Yumiko.

The oni had been surprisingly fast despite its size: avoiding the attack was impossible. Yumiko could only raise her hands above her head in a vain attempt to defend herself and wait for the inevitable conclusion. Much to her amazement, when the weapon almost made contact with her right hand it stopped in midair for an instant as if it had hit an obstacle and changed its course, whistling past her.

The kanabo was now headed for Sayuki and Michiru. In a sudden act of desperation, Sayuki threw herself sideways, while Michiru dropped to the floor. The iron spikes grazed their hair and clothes, but they were unscathed.

Unfortunately, Yuuchiro was not as lucky. Frozen by terror, he could only watch as the weapon got closer and closer to him, until it hit him in the chest. The impact was devastating: his body was broken in two and sent flying in the air in different directions, before crashing against a house with such violence that cracks formed on its wall.

Yumiko’s mind let out a silent scream. Yuuchiro! Why, why! She still had so many things to tell him… about her, and how she felt… and now he was gone forever. How could she go on like this? Next to her, Michiru looked at his friend’s remains with empty eyes.

Sayuki was the only one who did not give in to despair. No matter how sad she felt, no matter how dreadful the scene she had seen was, she did not want to die. And her will to live was stronger than any other emotion. She noticed that the kanabo had stuck in a wall: the oni was now busy to break his weapon free from the rubble. She took advantage of the opportunity. She dashed forward, and grabbed both Michiru and Yumiko, dragging them with her.

“Move!” she yelled. “We can cry later!”

Her words had at least some effect, because both cast aside their confusion and started moving on their own. Just as the oni readied his club for another attack, they ran around him and disappeared in the mist.

Almost out of breath, Yumiko. Michiru and Sayuki struggled to keep their pace as they forced themselves to keep on running away from the oni and the horde that were chasing them. Fortunately, the creature’s bulky build proved to be a disadvantage for the pursuers: he struggled to advance in streets that were too narrow for him, hitting walls and roofs that slowed him down along with his allies.

Yumiko’s chest was burning and every breath was painful. Each step forward sent waves of pain through her tired legs. At times her vision blurred and more than once she risked losing her balance. Through sheer desperation, she ignored everything and pressed on. Nevertheless, it was evident that she could not keep up for much longer. She glanced at her friends: Michiru was cyanotic and looked like she could collapse at any minute, and even Sayuki was getting tired.

Just a little longer… just a little longer and we’ll be there!

Finally, after a sharp turn, they finally saw the Rokudo Chinno-ji. The temple’s entrance was underwhelming compared to other ancient places of worship in Kyoto: a narrow paved way led directly to a small roofed gate which provided access to the temple grounds. A rock, with the carving “Intersection of the Six Roads”, was on one of the sides of the entrance.

With strength born out of desperation, the three used up their last energy to run through the temple’s entrance. After they were past the threshold, Sayuki closed the gate behind them and slid the lock into position. At last, the girls were able to sit on the ground to catch their breath, exhausted. Despite the temporary safety provided by having a barricade between them and their chasers, neither lowered their guard. They kept an eye on the surroundings for any sign of the oni and his henchmen.

Time passed, and, much to their surprise, no one came. They could no longer hear the sound of the oni’s sandals against the ground, the clanging sound of the armors and weapons worn by the skeletons, or the groans of the undead. Silence had fallen again upon the city, only broken by feeble gusts of wind.

Michiru stood up, unsure of whether feeling relieved or not. “Will… will this be really okay?” Her voice was still trembling.

“For now, it really looks like they have given up,” Sayuki observed, “they’d be here already if they kept up with us.”

“I surely hope so…”

Yumiko walked up to Michiru and hugged her. “Don’t worry, we should be safe here. I’m sure of it.”

She had spoken with such confidence that Michiru was taken aback from that statement. How could she be so calm? She struggled to keep the memory of what had happened to Yuuchiro away from her mind.

“How can you be sure? I mean…”

“To be honest, I don’t really understand why.” Yumiko put a finger on her lips as the tried to find a proper explanation. “It feels weird to me too. The moment I went inside, all my fear and sorrow went away all of a sudden. I don’t know, it’s like when you are troubled and your mother hugs you… that’s the best way I can put it. Nothing I can really explain rationally.”

“Nothing we have seen tonight can be defined as rational… but I guess we’ll leave it at that for now.” Michiru closed her eyes, enjoying the comfort of her friend. Sayuki patted her on the shoulder as well.

When she noticed that her friend was at least less in distress than before, Yumiko decided to take action.

“Shall we take a look around?” she asked. “At the very least, we could stay inside the temple rather than here. And perhaps we can find someone else. If all goes well, we can stay here until it dawns before thinking about what to do next.”

Sayuki nodded. “Good idea. Perhaps a priest can help us with those things… if we find one.”

“You watch too much TV,” Michiru grumbled, “They are ordinary people, they don’t really have super powers.”

“I know, I was asking too much for that… but perhaps they can explain what is going on.”

“For once, I think I agree with you.”

With Yumiko at the front, the girls left the entrance and walked into the actual temple grounds along a straight path. The area was relatively small: the temple’s wooden halls, up to two stories tall and with the traditionally tilted tile-covered roofs, were all placed around a central courtyard. In the center, a tall stone monument surrounded by two lanterns indicated a place where visitors could burn incense and offer their prayers. Like what they had seen around the town, most lanterns were lit and light filtered from the doors, but no one was around.

Further ahead, a small and slightly dilapidated path close to one of the major structures conducted to an area illuminated by a lone stone lamp. While she was not able to distinguish exactly what it was, Yumiko could see something in that penumbra, like a giant and stout rock. That finding somehow piqued her interest, and she hurried there, ignoring the worried glances her friends gave her.

Michiru tried to call her back. “Where are you going? It’s too dark, we don’t know what may be there…”

“Yes, don’t be reckless!” Sayuki echoed her friend.

“Don’t worry,” Yumiko replied without hesitation, “I feel there’s something really important… It will just be a quick look, I promise.”

In less than a minute Yumiko had reached the end of that little road. Her excitement turned into disappointment as soon as her eyes adjusted: it was just a run-down garden full of overgrown shrubs, with many votive rocks and a large stone well covered with a bamboo lid.

She was flustered. Why did she feel it was so important to come there? There was nothing out of the ordinary, after all. She was about to go back to her friends when a long forgotten memory surfaced in her mind, and she stopped in her tracks. That well was important… it was where Ono-no-Takamura descended to the world of Enma, or so it was said. It was for that reason that it had been called Meido gayoi no ido, or the well that led to Underworld.

A well that led somewhere… A gate…

Seek out the gate…

That was what the voice in her dream had said, and that the couple from Gion had repeated that afternoon. So that was the gate that she was supposed to find?

In response to her thoughts, the lid moved on its own and slid aside, revealing a pit so dark that it almost swallowed the pale light of the lantern. Frightened, Yumiko yelped and took a step backwards.

There was a rumble, which grew louder and louder until it became a roar. The ground beneath Yumiko’s feet welled up, and eventually it burst, throwing her in the air: Yumiko screamed as she fell headfirst into into that sinister passage. With the distant cries of Sayuki and Michiru resounding in her ears, she was swallowed up by the darkness.

“Yumiko!” Michiru and Sayuki yelled in unison when Yumiko disappeared from sight.

They hurried there, only to find that they were not able to come near the well: although it was open, an invisible force repelled them the moment they tried to touch its surface. Desperate, they called their friend’s name over and over. There was no response.

Michiru fell to her knees, unable to stop the tears that flowed down her cheeks. Frustrated, Sayuki vented her rage kicking the various stones around. Unfortunately for them, they had no time to ponder on Yumiko’s fate: they heard a large cracking sound and one of the wooden walls of the hall next to them collapsed in a shower of splinters. From the breach, the oni walked in triumphantly, followed by a large number of armored skeletons and undead. He glanced at the two and sneered.

Sayuki contemplated her options. There were none: even assuming they would manage to avoid the oni’s metal club, there was no way they could get past all those rusted blades unscathed. She clenched her teeth. Was it really the end?

Next to her, Michiru just looked back at the creature and closed her eyes. With Yumiko gone, she had no more reason to go on. She just waited for everything to end.

The first skeleton made a step forward… and stopped as a large hole appeared in the center of its forehead. It convulsed for a brief instant and turned into a pile of dust, quickly dissolved by the wind. Instants later, more members of the group contorted in what seemed to be pain and dissolved in the same manner.

Surprised at that unexpected turn of events, the oni spun round and found the cause. A woman was standing on one of the temple’s walls, holding a gun pointed at the assailants. The light of the lanterns highlighted dark hair tied in a long ponytail, a jacket barely covering a well-proportioned body and two determined grey eyes.

“Hold on just a little longer!” Satsuki shouted at the two girls. “Help has arrived!”

The oni growled. “You, of all places! Puny insects that keep on meddling with powers far greater than them.”

“Empty threats from empty beings. If you do not want to be undone, leave this place at once!”

“Do you really think I care for orders from a mere human? I wish I could land my teeth in that little neck of yours… Unfortunately my Lord has given me a much more important task for today.”

The oni made a gesture to a group of skeletons and rotten corpses next to him. “Come with me, slaves!” he ordered. “The rest of you, feel free to kill everyone. But not immediately: ensure they suffer a long and painful agony!”

With his kanabo on his shoulder, the oni jumped into the well, followed by a dozen undead. When Satsuki landed on the ground, they had already disappeared. She cursed under her breath: had she been too late? Either way, she had to focus on what was in front of her. No matter if the enemy forces had divided, there were at least ten skeletons and more undead between her and the two girls. They would surely die if she didn’t take action fast enough.

The woman sprang forward, shooting wildly. Every time a member of the horde was hit, it would start convulsing horribly for a few seconds before dispersing into nothingness. When Satsuki ran out of bullets, the vast majority of her opponents had already been destroyed, leaving less than ten standing in her way. After the initial confusion, they reorganized her ranks and charged.

Satsuki did not slow down. She simply put her gun away and pressed on until she came into contact.

A skeleton swung its katana at her, but she turned on one foot and the blade whistled past her, only slashing through the air. The warrior was still trying to reposition itself when Satsuki landed a powerful roundhouse kick on its spine: its body snapped in two with a crack and it lay still on the ground.

Unfazed by their comrade’s demise, the others continued their assault. Satsuki smashed through a skull with one punch, moved back just in time to avoid a pair hands clawing at her, and grabbed the arm of one undead, using its own momentum to throw it against the rest of the pack. The survivors were baffled: no matter what they tried, that woman possessed strength and agility that they had not seen in their previous preys. Every time she avoided an attack, her countermoves broke arms and legs, smashed heads, and left behind shattered remains.

When the battle ended, all of them lay around the temple grounds, their broken bodies no longer harboring that unnatural spark of life. Satsuki’s hair was ruffled and she bled from a few superficial cuts, but she was otherwise unscathed. She adjusted her glasses and hurried to Sayuki and Michiru, who had watched the whole scene in amazement.

“You must be Sayuki Fukuda and Michiru Ichikawa,” she said. “Are you all right?”

They both nodded.

“Yes, we’re fine…” Michiru replied, pausing as she did not know how to address the other woman.

“Call me Satsuki.”

Michiru’s questions flowed one after the other. “Why do you know our names? Do you know what are those things? What happened to the city? And why there is no one around?”

“Relax, I’ll explain everything soon.”

“How soon?” Michiru grabbed Satsuki’s jacket in frustration. “We’ve seen things that we thought they couldn’t exist, and people died before us! At least give us an explanation!”

Sayuki held Michiru’s friend gently, but firmly. “Michiru, you should calm down. She saved our lives after all. You shouldn’t act like this.”

Her friend realized what she had been doing and backed away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Satsuki. It’s just that…”

“No need to apologize,” Satsuki commented, apparently unaffected by that reaction, “After all I can understand what you’ve been through. Rest assured I’ll tell you everything, but my work here is not done. I need to ask something to you.”

“To us?”

“You were with Yumiko Hasegawa, weren’t you? Where is she now?”

“How to put it…” Sayuki explained, “She was here until a few minutes ago. Then she went to check this well, we heard a bang, and we saw her falling right into it.”

Intuition flared through Satsuki’s eyes. “I see. I need to move quickly, then.”

Michiru gave her a stare full of worry. “Satsuki, will you be able to save Yumiko?”

“Of course. That is what I came here for.”

“Thank you… You have no idea how much I’m worried about her…”

“I didn’t know you were so soft,” Sayuki chimed in, tried to lighten the mood somehow.

“And you are more worried than me, you dummy. Stop acting all tough!”

“You saw right through me…” Sayuki scratched her head. “I guess I’m not too good at lying.”

She turned to Satsuki. “Thank you very much for helping us. Please bring Yumiko back!”

“You can thank me when I get back. Now…”

Another rumble interrupted their conversation. Near the entrance of the temple, several of the stone tiles covering the ground cracked and broke in many pieces as half decomposed hands emerged from beneath. More slabs broke in succession: in less than a minute, the whole courtyard had been uncovered as more came out. Hands were then followed by heads, arms and legs as many decayed corpses came back into the living world. There were at least twenty of them.

Partially gouged out eyes and empty sockets turned towards Satsuki, Michiru and Sayuki. Grunts of what seemed satisfaction rose among the crowd. The stench of death was barely bearable.

“What’s going on now?” Sayuki exclaimed. “They keep on coming!”

“Stand back,” Satsuki ordered, “Or you might get burned.”

“What do you mean?”

The woman did not answer. She closed her eyes and her hands moved in the air following a complicated and apparently random pattern. She whispered a soft chant, although the words were completely alien to both Michiru and Sayuki, and were unlike any other language they had ever heard. The advancing group was within an arm’s reach of them when Satsuki stopped chanting and opened her eyes, making a sudden, arc-shaped movement in their direction.

The result was unbelievable: in response to those unknown words, all the walking dead were engulfed by flames that appeared out of nowhere. Grunts turned into screams of agony as the undead writhed and rolled on the ground in attempt to quench that unnatural fire. But it was all in vain: it consumed both flesh and bone, until there was nothing left. When it dissipated, the temple grounds were quiet again.

“That was amazing! It was even better than those shows on TV!” Sayuki couldn’t contain both the astonishment and the excitement for what she had seen.

There was a hint of irony in Satsuki’s response. “But unlike on TV, that is not something I would like to do every day. It’s more tiring than you can imagine.” She looked around, then continued, “Back to what we were saying earlier. I need to go after your friend at once. Those things are still after her.”

Michiru’s eyes were imploring. “Please help her!”

“I will.” Satsuki patted her on the head. “You two, please stay in the main hall of the temple. I will get back as soon as possible.”

“Wait! There are more of them!” Sayuki screamed, pointing behind her.

Four creatures were crouched on all fours on the main hall’s roof. By posture and movement, they resembled orang-utans, but the similarities with anything natural stopped there. Their smooth bodies were covered with sparse black hair, and deformed skulls with receding hair held two pair of glittering, ruby-like eyes. As they noticed Satsuki, they squeaked in excitement with voices similar to those of a mouse and waved their deformed arms frantically in the air.

Michiru put herself behind Sayuki. “Is there any end of them?”

“Don’t be afraid.” Satsuki squared up. “They’re just a really persistent bunch. If that’s the case…”

The sound of a gun firing echoed throughout the area, followed by another. And another.

Viscous ichor flowed down the heads of the monkey-like beings and their squeals turned into shrieks of suffering as they held their heads in pain. One after another, they fell down the ceiling and crashed on the ground below, motionless. Surprised, Satsuki went to take a closer look: each of them had a single, circle shaped wound right in the middle of the forehead.

What happened did not make Michiru feel safer. “What’s going on? Did someone shoot them?” she asked.

“You’re right, they were.” Satsuki appeared far more relaxed than before. “And luckily for us, it was the work of someone on our side.”

“Hey, girls. Are you all right here?” a man said as he appeared from a poorly-lit corner of the temple’s main hall. He was tall and muscular, and holding a gun in his hand. The sound of his footsteps mixed with the one of the metallic necklace he was wearing.

“Thanks for coming, Jim,” Satsuki greeted him, “Otherwise I’d be stuck here.”

“Don’t mention it.” He glanced at Sayuki and Michiru. “I see we have two of them. What about our main character?”

“According to what they told me, she fell into this well.”

“So it’s there? I guess the legends about this place are true.”

“I would say so, it all fits. Unfortunately, I didn’t expect them to go after her directly: most of them followed her shortly after I arrived.”

Jim rubbed his chin trying to hide his disappointment. “Looks there’s no time to rest.”

“I don’t think it has happened yet, but it will be as bad if they reach her. She might get hurt, or worse.” Satsuki paused for an instant, considering her options. “Jim, I’d like you to stay here while I go after Yumiko.”

The man did not look too impressed at the proposal. “Why? You know, strength in numbers and all that.”

“Don’t forget about these two girls. Who’s going to protect them?”

“But isn’t Yumiko their target? They should be safe now.”

“Considering everything, I’m not so sure.”

Jim sighed. “All right, I’ll be the white knight and ensure that all wrongs will be righted.”

“I’m surprised that you gave in so easily.” The woman chuckled.

“Well, there isn’t any other option.”

As they watched the conversation unfold. Sayuki and Michiru looked at each other, puzzled. They barely understood what Satsuki and Jim were saying and the more they heard, the less the situation made sense. What in the world was going on? And why was Yumiko involved in such a monumental scheme?

“Excuse me…” Sayuki started.

“Ghat’s happening? We don’t understand…” Michiru echoed her.

Satsuki noticed their confusion. “I’m sorry about this. I promise that once I bring her back, everything will be clear.”

With no way to evaluate the situation, all they could do was to trust her. “We… we are counting on you!” Michiru bowed, and Sayuki followed suit.

“Good.” Satsuki smiled for a moment, then her expression turned serious. “Take good care of them for me, Jim. And perhaps I’ll think about that dinner…”

“Now that’s a good incentive!” The man grinned. “Don’t worry. No one will even get close to them.”

“Thanks! I’ll see you later, then!”

Satsuki took a few steps back, then ran to the well and jumped inside, disappearing from sight.

A moment later, more walls around the temple area crumbled down with a great deal of noise, and many more armored skeletons and ape-like creatures emerged from the breaches. Screaming, Sayuki and Michiru held themselves close.

“I wish they learnt that breaks are good for one’s health… even if they’re already dead.” Jim twirled the gun in his hand and pointed it at the horde in front of him. “Very well then. Who wants to be the first to die a second time?”

Yumiko slowly opened her eyes. She found herself staring at a rocky ceiling barely illuminated by a blue tinted light coming from somewhere outside her field of vision. She felt cold stone pushing against her back and realized she was lying on the ground. She kept on staring without moving, her mind completely blank, when memories of what had happened to her returned in a flash: the ground bursting under her feet, the short flight in the air, and the darkness that swallowed her up.

Yumiko stood up and took a good look at herself. Her body ached all over and her arms and legs were bruised, but she had neither major injuries nor broken bones. She did not understand how could she possibly survive such a fall, but nothing that night had been logical and rational, so she just accepted it.

Turning around, she noticed that she was in some sort of underground tunnel. Although it resembled a cave at first sight, some details suggested that it was, in fact, man-made: the surface of the ceiling and the walls were too regular for being natural, and were reinforced by supports at regular intervals. There were no lamps or torches to provide illumination, which rather came out from the stone itself. On one side, the tunnel reached a dead end, while on the other it went on beyond what Yumiko’s eyes could see.

With no other options at her disposal, Yumiko walked down the corridor. As time passed, she felt she was not going anywhere: no matter how much she pressed forward, the passageway did not change. She could not even tell how far she had walked. She was about to give in do desperation when, like what had occurred before, her right hand tingled.

Yumiko looked at it and gaped. There was something flickering with a faint light over its back… a very complex geometrical shape. At first, her reaction was of pure astonishment, she realized that every single fateful event of that night had been foretold by that tingle on her skin. Whatever change had taken place, it was connected to that mysterious symbol.

The symbol will protect you in the years to come… for you are the one who lives within the Darkness.

Words that were not her own surfaced in her memory, increasing her confusion. Who had said that? No matter how much she tried, she would not remember anything about it.

Yumiko rose her hand above her head to get a better look on the mark. The moment she did that, its brilliance became so strong that she was forced to close her eyes to prevent being blinded. When she was able to open them again, the light had returned to its previous feeble flicker.

She barely noticed that, however, because a far bigger change had occurred in the surroundings. The long tunnel in front of her, replaced by a large room similar to a hall. It was so tall that the ceiling was not visible, and for the most part empty. The center was occupied by a large and dilapidated stone torii. It looked very old, as the structure showed several darker spots due to humidity and long cracks ran through it. Just behind it there was a single, massive rock surrounded by a number of smaller lanterns. A rope decorated with paper streamers was tied around it, in a fashion similar to the objects said to house kami in Shinto temples.

A man stood next to the torii. Judging from the white robes and the black hat he was wearing, he was a kannushi, a Shinto priest. The wrinkles on his face, the short white hair and the spots on his face suggested he was on his sixties. He was looking in Yumiko’s direction, but he did not appear to have noticed her.

“E…Excuse me!” Yumiko exclaimed. “Do you know what this place is?”

The priest did not answer. Suspicious about the lack of reactions, Yumiko walked towards him. As she came closer, she realized it was not a real man. His body wavered and flickered, like some sort of projection.

When Yumiko was in front of him, he suddenly spoke with a solemn voice. “I welcome you, fellow traveler.”

That sudden reaction made Yumiko scream and jump back. She then realized the truth: as the person in front of her did not do anything, it likely acting like some sort of recording, playing back a message. She sighed: the number of unexplainable events was increasing by the minute. Even so, the presence of the kannushi in that place had surely some sort of meaning. Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward again.

“I welcome you, fellow traveler,” he repeated with the same tone.

This time Yumiko did not back away. The symbol on her hand flashed and the walls of the hall faded away, replaced with the scene of a battlefield, a plain covered with low and thick bushes and enveloped with fog. Many dead bodies lay around with crows already feasting on them. In the distance, many buildings, likely a village, were burning. It was a terrifying scene, yet Yumiko felt neither dread nor shock. For some strange reason, she was fully aware that it was an event long past being retold before her, like a documentary.

“It is the ninth month of the second year of the Genki era1,” the priest continued, “Since many, many years, my country has known only war. The various warlords fight each other for supremacy, leaving only suffering and ruin behind their armies. Some think that poets will celebrate their glory as conquerors, while others believe that poetry will be written just to commiserate their inevitable deaths.

Such an unstable situation is taking a turn for the worse: Lord Oda Nobunaga, whose name is known to many since he marched into Kyoto recently, has been laying siege to Mount Hiei, and I do not believe the people there stand any chance. If the rumors are true, no one of them will ever survive this ordeal.

But this is likely known to you already, fellow traveler. What I am about to tell you is what I have discovered in this era of strife… Even the most ferocious acts of men and beasts pale in comparison with what I have seen."

The battlefield disappeared, and a village appeared in its place. Compared to the previous view, it was far more peaceful: farmers worked in the rice fields, small children played in the dirty roads, and merchants tried to sell their wares as they passed through. A person far older than anyone else, presumably the village elder, was talking to a group of robed figures outside a two-story wooden house. One of them resembled the kannushi himself in his younger years.

“In these days, fate brought me away from my temple as I had to visit relatives nearby, within a week’s worth of travel. During the trip I stumbled across this village. Its inhabitants were friendly and welcoming, but very worried. From what I could tell, it was not simply the uncertainty that war brought, but a different, deeper concern. I asked a villager about it, and he suggested I talked to the elder, because he believed the village had a problem that could be solved only by someone able to understand kami.

So I went. The elder was, as I was forewarned, very distressed, but he was overjoyed to see me. He believed that their village had some sort of curse cast upon them, a curse that plagued adults, ruined the harvest, and killed children. He pleaded me to bring the spirits away. Although I was hesitant as I had to carry on, dusk was already coming, so I agreed to stay there for the night and think about it."

Yumiko watched the vision as day was substituted by night. A high pitched scream echoed throughout the village, and a man running on all fours came out of a house, foaming at the mouth. A group of men with makeshift spears charged at him: he simply jumped over them, showing a far greater than agility than expected. As soon as he landed, he assaulted the nearest his assailants and bit his neck, tearing it apart. Before he could move further, three spears dug deeply in his body, pinning him on the ground.

The priest walked up to him and waved a small wooden plank in front him several times, only to receive a snarl in reply. He shook his head in disappointment and another farmer brought down a sickle on the madman, cutting his head off.

The scene became still and the kannushi’s voice continued the tale. “If there had been some kind of reason for me staying there, it became clear to me that night, when I saw the effect of that curse. Out of nowhere, a man became insane and started howling like a wolf. He gravely wounded his wife and killed a villager before he could be stopped. I tried to cleanse him, but it was all in vain. Whatever had got hold of him, it was nothing that I could drive away.”

The village dissolved in a shower of colors, which twirled and fused together into a new shape, the interior of a temple. Sat at a table, the priest was intent reading scrolls. Many of them seemed very old and almost to the point of crumbling under his fingers.

“That incident left me very troubled. I had never seen of heard of anything like that before, and I wanted to know more. To do so I called upon the services of an old friend of mine in Kyoto, who knew many people versed in history and literature. Thanks to his patronage, I was able to meet some of them, and every time I explained the strange events that I had witnessed.

Most of them shook their heads and said they did not know anything, except one. He was one of the oldest scholars of the capital, and he had spent most of his long life studying events which defied the laws of nature. I saw the interest sparkling in his eyes when I told him my tale: he remembered a similar story, connected to an ancient worship of the kitsune. Age had taken its toll upon him and he was no longer able to research the matter on his own, so lent me several scrolls that he had found years before, hoping they’d be useful.

Most of them were completely unreadable, or written in languages I could not understand. I spent night after night studying the few fragments I was able to read, and fortunately I was able to decipher enough of their meaning to have at least a superficial idea.

In ancient times, a shrine had been built in Heian-kyo, what today is our capital. The people there worshiped a spirit believed to be a kitsune. This spirit was able to carry out miracles, destroy enemies, and bring good harvest. The worshipers were even able to let themselves be controlled by this kitsune and travel to realities beyond our world, through some sort of gate.

The days of the shrine came to an end abruptly after a brief period of prosperity. One morning, people from the neighborhood found that it had been razed to the ground, and there was no trace of its priests, or all the worshipers. There was no logical explanation on how it would have happened. Fearing a curse, whatever was left of it was quickly buried and forgotten. Many years later, Yamashiro-no-Omi founded a temple over that area, the Rokudo Chinno-ji. Ironically, the rumors that suggested that the temple was connected to another world were indeed true.

The documents also reported that Ono-no-Takamura was indeed able to travel through that gate, but they omitted any detail on what he had found beyond. At this point I had discovered everything I could, so a bold plan formed in my mind: go to the Chinno-ji and see the gate for myself."

The visions disappeared completely, and Yumiko found herself in the same hall she had entered before, in front of the man’s flickering figure.

“Fellow traveler, I went to the temple, but I was denied entry to the well. As I was so close, I did not let that stop me. With the aid of my friend, I was able to convince the monks standing guard there to… get distracted for enough time for me to enter. I hope you do not think ill of me, as I believed I was doing this to find the truth.

My memories are not too clear, but I remember I found myself in these tunnels and eventually reached this place. There I saw the gate." He pointed at the rock. “I gave in to temptation and, following the instructions I had read in the scrolls, I was able to look on the other side.”

His expression became grave and he looked away from Yumiko. “Fellow traveler, it was just an instant… but it was unlike everything I had experienced before. Words alone cannot express it. My beliefs were shaken to their roots, and even the entire world gained a different meaning in my eyes.

In all honesty, it was too much for a weak man like myself, so I backed away in fear. I did the only thing I could do at the time: I put a seal around the gate, so that only people familiar with certain arts would be able to open it. I then left the temple in haste and tried to forget everything. I was a fool to think that no consequence would befall me: I was tormented by terrible nightmares for years and I almost lost my sanity. Thus, I decided to come back here one last time, to leave a message to you, fellow traveler."

He waved his wooden plank in the air. “Take heed and bear witness to this truth, as it is my legacy. This is my last advice to you. If you truly want to cross the gate, your will must be stronger and firmer than all the mountains in the world. Do not go unprepared, or your very existence will be annihilated in the blink of an eye. Should you decide to do so anyway, I pray that evil would never conquer your soul.”

The kannushi bowed and vanished, leaving only the torii and the sealed rock behind him.

Yumiko held her head. It was almost too much for her to bear: kitsune, lost shrines, people behaving like feral wolves, and even gates to other worlds! Had she heard about them just the day before, she would have shrugged them off as simple superstition, but not now. There was not a single reason to doubt them. All she wanted to do was to leave and go back to her friends, but curiosity kept tugging at her.

After a brief internal struggle, she decided to at least take a look before looking for a way out. Cautiously, Yumiko approached the stone, or the gate itself as the priest had said. If not for the rope around it, it had nothing out of ordinary. For being an alleged passageway to other worlds, it was incredibly dull.

The sound of someone giving brisk orders drove her away from her observation. “Hurry up, slaves! The ward is no more, she must be further ahead!”

Yumiko shivered when she recognized that voice. It belonged the oni, the same one that it had chasing her and the others! What was she supposed to do? She had to escape…

She took a step backwards, but she hit one of the lanterns and lost her balance. She frantically waved her hands in the air in an effort to remain standing, and she ended up touching the rock: the mark on her right hand flashed brightly, and the stone lit up in response. Invisible hands pulled on the rope, which became more and more tense until it snapped in two and flew in the air.

Then Yumiko saw…

Countless universes expanding before her, a swirling kaleidoscope that expanded and contracted like a beating heart. Strings of stars came into existence and disappeared within a bat of the eye; voices of newborns, children, adults and old men and women mixed together in cacophony that celebrated the eternal cycle of life and death.

Then the Dark Thing came. Worlds were swallowed up and dissolved into a sea of pure darkness while the voices became screams of fear, terror and agony. The Dark Thing grew, engulfing and devouring everything it encountered until it ultimately became the universe. And then the Dark Thing turned to her…

She was swept by the darkness, it covered her body, it filled her eyes and nostrils, it reached the deepest parts of her mind and her soul. There was no way to resist to the Dark Thing. She gave in, and she became one with it…

Yumiko landed unceremoniously on her back. What had just happened? She glanced at the rock next to her: with the exception of the rope, which was missing, it looked exactly as before. Had it been a dream? Dim clanging sounds brought her away from these thoughts. Her pursuers were getting closer: she would worry about that later. Now she had to find a way to hide, or escape.

She took a step forward… and fell to her knees a strong pain struck her. Yumiko cried out loud: it seemed as if someone had been flaying her alive. She cried again and again as all her attempts to resist the pain were unsuccessful. Staring at the cold stone of the floor, she suddenly became aware that something… something was changing within herself, but she had no idea what.

The pain struck again, stronger, causing her to cry once more, until her voice became a gasping hiss. She couldn’t resist, she couldn’t! She, she…liked it. While her body was writhing in agony, Yumiko began to enjoy her situation. She was delighted for every pang, for every single moment of her suffering. It was wonderful! She wanted more of it, more! At the same time, she felt stronger… Now, no one could stand in her way! She heard her dress tearing, while grey tufts grew on her arms and legs.

Her mind rejoiced: how could she have lived before, without these wonderful sensations? This was what she had always wanted, since the beginning of time… She cried one last time, but her voice turned into a howling of pleasure, the howling of a wolf…

Advancing quickly, the horde of undead led by the oni entered the hall. The creature couldn’t contain his satisfaction: that human had done all the dirty work for them! Without her, they would not have been able to break through that ward. Now her actions brought her own undoing, truly the supreme irony! His Lord would be so proud of him!

He licked his lips, savoring the moment he would lay his hands on her.

His security was shattered as soon as his eyes focused on the torii and the figure standing next to it. Before them, there was not a scared girl, the easy prey they were looking for, but something completely different. It was humanoid, roughly two meters tall, with a sturdy build. Powerful muscles rippled under arms and legs covered with thick grey fur, and a long tail waved at the end of the back. From the waist up, the hair thinned, exposing curvy lines that formed well-proportioned features typical of a woman. However, the most striking feature was the face. It was definitely human, but it sported an additional pair of wolf-like ears on both sides of the head, and two bright yellow eyes.

The strange hybrid between animal and woman snarled, but didn’t move. Nevertheless, the group wavered, blocked by a hostile feeling coming from that lone figure.

The oni gave a long stare at her, doubtful. He then noticed scraps of clothing at her feet and his suspicions were confirmed. So it was like that, then. His prey had changed shape for some unknown reason. There was no reason to worry, however. He had never failed before, and that girl would not be the first one to escape from his grasp. He made an authoritarian gesture with his club, and in response the skeletons walked forward, ready to strike.

Yumiko dashed suddenly, hitting her opponents with a powerful shoulder charge. The front row of the assailants fell into pieces and was flung across the hall. One the survivors jumped in front of her and, swinging its katana so fast that it could not be seen, aimed at the girl’s head. Metallic sparkles flew as the weapon disintegrated the moment it touched her skin. Yumiko’s counterattack was swift and deadly: a downward smash crushed head and arms, making the skeleton roll on the floor like a withered branch.

Another warrior held a worn out bow and shot an arrow at the girl. She took hold of it an instant before it hit her eye and crushed it under her hand. The skeleton was still fumbling to nock another arrow when Yumiko’s punch broke through its skull.

An undead took this opportunity to leap at Yumiko. Its intentions were to restrain her before she was able to attack again, but the calculations were wrong. A clawed hand rose and fell, throwing a disfigured parody of a body against its companions.

It was a one-sided battle. No matter how powerful the undead were against common people, they were simply no match for Yumiko. Some were dismembered, others crushed or horribly mutilated, up to the point of being not able to move anymore. In a few minutes the fight ended: all of them were on the ground. Their leader stared at Yumiko with a fearful expression.

It didn’t take long for his fear to change into murderous rage.

“Cursed One!” the oni shouted. “I swear to my Lord Asgaroth that I will destroy you! I’ll rip your heart out and I will offer it, still beating, to the Dark Lords of the Abyss!”

The girl replied with a snarl.

Holding his kanabo with both hands, the oni brought it down with enough force to crumble even a thick stone wall. In response, Yumiko punched the weapon itself. The moment the two attacks connected, the kanabo snapped in two with a loud crack. Far from being discouraged, the oni became even more furious. He threw away the now useless weapon and waved his fingers before her.

“These hands have broken countless necks!” he exclaimed, “Children, young women, grown men… All of them! And crushing yours will bring me the utmost satisfaction!”

He moved those huge arms as if they were whips, trying to grasp Yumiko’s neck. Yumiko’s hands moved at the same time, closing on those of her enemy, and the two were locked in a trial of strength, each one trying to prevail over the other. The oni’s eyes widened as he noticed the force of her muscles, far greater than these small arms had suggested.

As the confrontation continued, the oni slowly started losing ground. In panic, he realized he had been too hasty in accepting the challenge, and in his fury he severely underestimated his opponent. He was now forced to act defensively, using all the power he could muster to resist against her. But he was getting tired, and Yumiko’s reserves were seemingly limitless. Slowly, she twisted his arms more and more. A smile of cruel enjoyment appeared on her lips, and he felt fear for the first time in his life: it was not a foretaste of victory… it was utter enjoyment in watching his futile resistance.

With one final movement, Yumiko turned both of the oni’s hands outward. Bones broke with a sharp sound and a violet blood poured out of the creature’s elbows. He shrieked in agony and let go of the girl.

She did not leave him time to agonize: she kicked the creature in the stomach with such force that he was thrown backwards, slamming into the torii and breaking one of its columns. The archway trembled and fell, landing right over the oni’s legs and preventing any possibility of escape. Casting away his pride and dignity, he screamed in fear as Yumiko walked up to him, still with that terrifying smile on her face. Ignoring his pleading, she held his head with both hands, twisting it until the spine snapped like a rotten branch. With one dying lament, the oni’s body became impalpable dust, and whatever remained of her underlings dissolved into nothingness. Yumiko howled in satisfaction.

“So you are here…” a woman’s voice said.

Yumiko spun round and saw Satsuki near the entrance of the hall. Her first thought was to jump at her throat and take her life, but there was something strange in that woman. Her eyes were different, penetrating and…scary. For the first time in her new form, she was intimidated. The idea that such a frail-looking creature would pose a threat was frustrating, but she did not doubt her preservation instinct.

“You’ve made quite a mess,” Satsuki continued as she walked towards her, “Give it a rest.”

All of a sudden, Yumiko shook violently and a change took place in her. Her figure became blurred and hair fell at her feet, until she was back to her former self. She looked around, surprised. What she had experienced almost seemed a dream. Did she really fight? And more importantly, who was that woman in front of her, an ally or a new enemy?

“Who…who are you?” she asked, her voice trembling in fear.

She paid no attention to Satsuki’s answer: looking at herself, she noticed she was completely naked. She fell to her knees, covering herself the best she could and trying to hide her embarrassment.

“Take this.” Satsuki took off her jacket and threw it over to Yumiko. “It’s not the best, but it’s better than your current state.”

Totally confused, Yumiko put on the jacket. It was not comfortable, but it was large enough to provide at least some cover.

“That will do for now,” Satsuki commented, “now we should get out of here.”

“Thank… thank you,” Yumiko stuttered. “May I ask again for your name?”

The other woman repressed a chuckle. “I guess you were too embarrassed. My name is Satsuki, Satsuki Ford.” She stretched out a hand to Yumiko. “Nice to meet you.”

Although Yumiko was skeptical, there was something in the woman’s voice and eyes that told her she was sincere. With some hesitation, she uncertainly shook hands with her. “I am Yumiko Hasegawa. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Ford.”

Satsuki smiled at her use of formal speech. “No need to be this formal, just call me Satsuki. Shall we go? We can talk more on the way.”

“Miss Ford… Satsuki, do you know what happened here? To me, and to everything.”

“I can understand you’re confused, I really do. Can you wait just a little bit? First of all, I want to bring you back to your friends. I’m sure they’re worried about you.”

Yumiko gaped. She had completely forgot about them! “Sayuki and Michiru… Are they all right?”

“Yes, I left them in very capable hands. The only harm comes from that man’s jokes.”

“Thank goodness!” Yumiko sighed in relief. “I was worried about them as well.”

“Then it’s settled. Let’s go back to them.”

Yumiko bowed. “Please do, I am in your care!”

Satsuki led Yumiko around the hall searching for a way out of the dungeon. After several unsuccessful searches, they found a well-hidden stairway going upwards in one of the farthest corners of the room. Yumiko frowned: they had passed by there more than once and she was sure she had just seen a wall of solid rock before, but she thought she had just been too tired to notice.

While they climbed, the girl lost track of time. The stairs looked like one another, so it was impossible to even know how much they had went up. Just as she thought her legs were not able to make one step anymore, the path ended against a wooden trap door locked by a rusty deadbolt. Satsuki broke it with ease, and the two were finally able to come out of that dark pit, finding themselves inside one of the Chinno-ji’s halls.

Not willing to wait further, Yumiko rushed to one of the shoji and slammed it open.

The sight that greeted her was not what she had expected. The fog that had engulfed Kyoto had lifted, revealing a landscape of strife and ruin. Many buildings were burning, chunks of concrete had fallen off the Kyoto Tower in the distance, the sirens of ambulances mixed with screams of people in pain, and there were dead bodies scattered everywhere.

“What… what is going on here?” she shouted.

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The other side of the unknown

Kyoto was in a state of complete chaos. Fires consumed smaller buildings despite the heroic efforts of firemen and emergency medical squads frantically looked for survivors in those pile of bodies scattered on the streets, while policemen did their best, without much success, to keep the survivors under control. The air was filled with screams, each one lamenting pain, loss, or hopelessness.

“Why, why did this happen?”

“It hurts! It hurts so much I’m going to die…”

“The Self-Defense Force! Why isn’t the Self-Defense Force already here? We’re all going to get killed!”

To Yumiko, such a sight was almost unbelievable. While she had walked in the mist just a few hours before, she had absolutely no idea that such a thing was ever happening. In fact, the silence and the lack of any human presence had suggested the exact opposite. New questions kept on surfacing in her mind, almost making her feel overwhelmed. She leaned on one of the walls of the temple hall and took a deep breath while she attempted to straighten her thoughts.

Satsuki walked next to her. “To be honest, I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing myself. I’m sorry you have to go through this.”

“It’s really too much…” Yumiko muttered. “Almost nothing makes sense now.”

“I can’t blame you for that. Your whole existence has been turned upside down in a matter of mere hours. Thankfully, there is something that has a sense here.”

“There is?” Yumiko looked straight at Satsuki.

“It’s even close to you now.” The woman pointed at a corner of the building close to where they were standing. “Didn’t we talk about this before? Don’t tell me you forgot about it again.”

She had not yet finished speaking when Yumiko gaped and brought a hand to her mouth. Without saying anything more, she rushed in the direction Satsuki had indicated. As soon as she was around the building, she recognized the surroundings: it was where she had fallen into that mysterious well. Three people were next to it.

One was a tall man holding a gun, someone Yumiko had never seen before. The other two, instead, made her heart missed a beat, because they were Sayuki and Michiru, miraculously alive and unharmed. Her two friends looked back at her and their faces brightened with joy.

“Sayuki! Michiru!” Yumiko yelled.

They ran at each other and held themselves close together, truly happy to see each other again. They stayed like that for a while, until Sayuki gave a long look at her friend and realized she was wearing nothing but a jacket.

The sight made her uneasy. “Yumiko… what happened inside that well? Why are you… like that?”

She had just finished talking when Michiru noticed the problem as well. “Yu…Yumiko!” she stuttered as her face became bright red. “You… You are…”

Yumiko blushed and tried to cover herself the best she could. “Please don’t get the wrong idea, it didn’t happen because I wanted to.”

Her friend took her words the wrong way. “Poor Yumiko! Did someone do that to you? Was it one of those pigs? If so, there’s nothing to worry about. Just tell your friend… and I’ll go and break their necks right now!”

“Calm down Michiru, let me explain…”

Her attempt to make Michiru fell on deaf ears, as the girls continued in her rampage. “There’s no need for explanations! What else could have happened? There’s for sure the hand of some evil man involved in this! Most men are pigs after all.”

“Speaking of pigs,” Sayuki put in, “Don’t we have someone that should not watch here?”

The three girls turned towards Jim, who had been watching their conversation with a smirk on his face. Yumiko yelped in shame and immediately hid behind Sayuki, while Michiru flared up, totally enraged. At that point, whatever had happened to her or Yumiko did not matter at all: everything had to wait until her anger could be satisfied.

What are you looking at, mister?” She pointed a finger at the man. “This is no time or place for indecent thoughts! At least, show some manners and walk away!”

Jim shrugged and turned his back to them. “Don’t worry, I don’t have any weird interest. Besides, it would only mean trouble for me, wouldn’t it? Minors and all that stuff.”

“Are you implying you would do that it didn’t mean trouble for you? You are the worst!”

Sayuki had the same opinion as her friend. “Men are so perverted. Consider yourself lucky we won’t sue you for sexual harassment!” She glanced at Yumiko, who was still clung to her and was unsure where to look. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of this.”

“Good grief! Girls today are so complicated…”

The whole argument ended when Satsuki put herself between the three girls and the man. “All right!” she clapped her hands. “I think arguments over these matters can wait, don’t you think?”

This time even Sayuki and Michiru blushed along with Yumiko. “We’re sorry…” they whispered in shame.

“Don’t worry.” Satsuki made a dismissive gesture. “You were just happy to see Yumiko and you just got carried away. On the other hand, Jim…” Her voice turned into a hiss.

Jim whistled. “What was bad in just fooling around?”

“I don’t know… Perhaps the fact that you got along with it?”

“Come on, Satsuki! Until these things turned into dust, I was practically fighting non stop. I deserved a well-earned break, don’t you think?”

“Breaks usually don’t involve messing with others, do they?”

“Well, no one was harmed for some out of the line chit chatter. Besides, isn’t this like I always do?”

Satsuki hit her forehead. “And I feel that’s exactly the problem…” She coughed. “But for now let’s forget about it. We need to get ready to move.”

“Move?” The urgency in the woman’s voice surprised Yumiko. “Where, and why?”

“As you see,” Satsuki explained, “the situation in Kyoto right now is very chaotic, to say the least. Knowing the government, they will ask and obtain an order for a curfew in order to bring the town back to order. And if that’s the case, we wouldn’t be able to leave the town. So I suggest we go back to the ryokan to get your luggage and then we move out as soon as possible.”

Yumiko wasn’t fully convinced. “Aside for the curfew, why do we have to leave the town this fast?”

“We’ll tell you along the way. The more we stay here, the more likely is that people will come and you might not want to be looked at in that state.”

Yumiko blushed again and Michiru stepped protectively in front of her. “And how will we be able to avoid getting noticed, with all this ruckus? I would say that there are more chances of being seen if we leave.”

Jim grinned. “With the right tricks, that won’t be a problem”

Despite Yumiko and Michiru’s fears, no one noticed the group on its way back to the ryokan. In fact, they walked without any effort to conceal their presence, and with Yumiko being just barely dressed. People went past them as if they did not even exist. Sayuki wondered if they were invisible, but Jim explained that it wasn’t the case: his tricks, caused any person under their influence to overlook them as completely normal people, unless they specifically attracted attention.

While on the way, Yumiko and her friends found that the state of the town was worse than what they had imagined. Large cracks ran through the front of most of Gion’s short buildings, and some were missing their whole roofs. Rubble was scattered all around the road, and large spots of congealed blood were everywhere. More dead bodies were floating in the Kamo river. Emergency squads were doing their best to assist the scared population.

It was a very unsettling sight, but Satsuki and Jim urged the three girls to go on. When they reached the ryokan, Jim left them to check on their means to get out of the town while Satsuki escorted Yumiko and Michiru and Sayuki to their rooms. Yumiko shuddered when she crossed the threshold: everything was like they had left it the night before, including the lifeless corpses of the maid and the guests. There was no trace of his uncle.

Feeling uneasy, she hurried to her room and quickly changed into something more comfortable, sighing in the relief at the thought of not having to go around naked anymore. After she finished packing her belongings, she walked out with her luggage and stopped in front of what had been Yuuchiro’s room. She reached out for the door’s handle, but she stopped midway: what good would have been to go there? He was gone, gone forever, and no matter what she did, he would only exist as a memory. Yumiko furiously repressed the tears welling up in her eyes and went downstairs.

Michiru and Sayuki were already there with their trolleys, along with Satsuki. They couldn’t bear staying there, so they moved outside while they waited for Jim to come back. As they left, Satsuki murmured a silent prayer for those who had fallen.

In an effort to shake off the dread that weighed on her chest, Yumiko handed the jacket back to Satsuki and tried to start a conversation. “Thanks for helping me.”

The woman smiled. “Don’t mention it.”

As Satsuki put her jacket on again, Sayuki noticed what seemed to be a tattoo on her left shoulder. It was an elaborate combination of curved figures without an apparent logic.

She pointed at it. “Oh, Satsuki, is that a tattoo?It looks very nice.”

“You shouldn’t pry in other people’s matters.” Michiru poked her. “And this is not the time to worry about tattoos! Satsuki, please forgive her.”

“I just asked a question! Besides, don’t you think it’s cool, too?”

“You’ve got a point…”

“It is really nice,” Yumiko commented. “What does it mean?”

“Nothing big,” Satsuki answered, “I think it just tells me what I am.”

The answer piqued Yumiko’s curiosity and she wanted to know more, but the conversation did not progress further as Jim emerged from a side street and walked towards them. He looked very satisfied.

“All right,” he said as he came closer, “The matter should be settled. I thought it would be more difficult to… procure a way out, but things went far smoother than I imagined. I have a path laid out to leave the town without any possible… interference, and I have procured the car we needed. It’s parked near here.”

“Good job.” Satsuki nodded, then turned to the three girls. “Let’s go. We’ll talk more on the road.”

As Jim had foretold, their way out of Kyoto was without any incident. He drove the car in a long pattern apparently without any logic, often tracing back previous steps through different streets. However, it quickly became evident that there was a reason for those seemingly random turns: all the roads they were in were mostly free of rubble and people. During the whole time Jim talked to other people on his phone, and corrected the course accoring to what he was told. In less than half an hour, they had Kyoto behind them, just as helicopters from the Self-Defense Force flew over the city: they had barely made it.

Jim sighed and finally hung up. “We’re finally out! It was exhausting to follow all these directions to the letter…”

He didn’t have to wait long for Satsuki’s answer. “You insisted on driving, if I recall correctly. I could have done that as well, or did you just want to show off your skills?”

“There’s no need for that. They just come out naturally. I don’t have to do anything!”

Sayuki chuckled. “You seem on good terms.”

“If it weren’t for his attitude, we could even be on better terms,” Satsuki commented dryly.

A large grin anticipated Jim’s reply. “Oh, so you mean you will agree to that dinner for two?”

His proposal was met by a groan of disappointment. “We’re on a mission, Jim, can we try to get focused?”

“It’s going to be a long way to Tokyo… A little joke or two won’t hurt.”

The mention of Tokyo and the thought of going back home made Yumiko notice that she had completely forgotten about her parents. They were out of town when the incident with her uncle put everything in motion, but they haven’t had any contact since then. That realization made Yumiko very worried about them: she prayed that nothing had happened to them.

“Excuse me,” she said, “Do you know anything about my parents? They’re Kunio and Hilda Hasegawa. I haven’t heard from them since this incident occurred…”

Jim nodded. “No need to worry. While you were running around in Kyoto, we made sure they would get taken care of and that they would suffer absolutely no harm. For their safety, they are going back to Tokyo via a different route.”

Sayuki blinked, confused, as she tried to find answers to her doubts. “All of this makes little sense. Why a different route? For their safety? Are they in danger?” She held her head with both hands. “Good grief, it’s frustrating! I really can’t understand. What truly happened last night?”

“I admit I feel uneasy about it too,” Michiru echoed her, “A lot has happened and I feel we’re just hurled from one place to another. Please don’t get the wrong idea, though: we’re not doubting your good faith.”

“Even if you don’t know yourselves, it’s fine,”, Yumiko concluded, her voice trembling, “What I just need to know is if my parents are truly all right…”

Satsuki and Jim exchanged glances. “You are right, and I’d be the same if I were you. All of this would make no sense for an ordinary person. Luckily, now that cell phones work again, I can show you some proof.”

He quickly dialed a number and started talking. “Yes, it’s Clark. Is everything going according to schedule? Good. Would you please put Kunio Hasegawa on? We have recovered his daughter and she’s quite worried.” He then handed the phone to Yumiko. “Here, see for yourself.”

Yumiko sighed in relief when she heard a familiar voice on the other side. “Yumiko? Is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me, dad! Are you all right? Is mom with you?”

“She’s with me right now, and we are being brought back to Tokyo. To be honest, I still can’t believe what happened last night…”

Yumiko’s grasp on the phone tightened. “Did something happen there too in Kameoka?”

“Yes. It was truly unthinkable. Dead people coming back to life, walking skeletons, and worse. At some point I thought we would be done for. Fortunately we were helped by very kind people who brought us to safety. And then all these things turned into dust all of a sudden, and the same people that helped us offered to escort us back to Tokyo. They also told us about what happened in Kyoto.” Relief filtered from Kunio’s voice. “I’m glad you are okay, too. We wouldn’t stop thinking about what could have happened to you.”

“Likewise here, dad! I truly feel relieved now. We’re about to leave for Tokyo too, so I’ll definitely see you there!”

“It’s a promise. Please be careful out there, Yumiko.”

“I will, thanks. Talk to you later, dad.”

Yumiko passed the phone back to Jim, who hung up after giving some more brief orders.

Satsuki glanced back at her. “Is it better now?”

Yumiko nodded. “Much better, thank you.”

“In case you’re wondering,” Satsuki added, turning to Sayuki and Michiru, “your families will be informed shortly that you are coming back, too.”

Sayuki did not pay attention to her words. She was staring at her phone, her mouth wide open in amazement.

“Wow, look at the media!” she exclaimed. “There are a lot of rumors on what happened back there, and any of them couldn’t be farther from the truth: gas leaks, underground explosions, terrorism…”

“Let me see.” Michiru took a look herself and she couldn’t hide her puzzlement. “It’s true, and the social media are even worse. Many are calling out conspiracy theories of the craziest kind, except anything even remotely related to what truly happened. I think this will go on for a while… and makes me wonder what went on outside that mist.”

Satsuki sent out words of warning. “On that topic, please be careful, if possible you should avoid giving too many details about what happened and where are you going.”

“Oh, why?” Sayuki asked.

“There might be… information leaks. It may be counterproductive if too many people knew exactly where you are.”

Although Michiru’s mood had lightened, she was upset by the vagueness of the information they were being given. It was evident that there was a reason for all the secrecy, but she felt flustered because she did not know what it was.

She did not try to hide her thoughts. “All right, you’ve gone to great lengths to help us. May I ask why, though, are you being so light on details? Is there a reason why we should not know? It really frustrates me.”

Jim smirked. “I really like your attitude. It will be very interesting to watch what you’ll do once you’re older!”

“That’s not an answer to the question, is it?”

Satsuki realized that Michiru’s concerns had merit, and that the other two would probably feel the same way. She had to clear up their doubts before they started doubting her and Jim. “Sorry, we did not want to hide anything from you.”

Michiru’s face softened. “Would you be able to tell us more?”

“Of course. As you may have guessed, there is a reason behind everything you have seen,” Satsuki continued, “it may however defy logic and nature, so please bear with me.”

“At this point, I think I can believe anything, everything makes so little sense already.”

“Are you ready for the bedtime story?” Jim said mockingly.

Satsuki coughed and pretended he did not speak. “Let’s start from the beginning, then. Humans aren’t the only intelligent life form on this planet.”

“It almost sounds like something one would find on certain online forums,” Yumiko chimed in, “Not that I’ve ever read them… But many of my classmates, in particular boys, do.”

“With the exception that in this case it’s different and not simple delusions. When mankind was yet to come in this world, other… entities inhabited it. They are far more older than this world itself: a century is an hour for them. No one knows where they came from and why they are here. All we know, by reading ancient manuscripts, is their name. They are called the Ancients.”

Sayuki raised her hand. “Question! Are they gods, or something?”

“If they were gods, we couldn’t be more unlucky.” Satsuki’s reply was surprisingly full of irony. “They have unimaginable powers…but they are like spoiled children. For ages they have kept on fighting each other for petty rivalries. With their servants, they continue their battle even today. A battle that won’t end soon. And still they fight, using anything that can prove useful in their schemes, including humans..”

“Quite scary! But…” Sayuki lowered her voice. “Considering what you are able to do… are you perhaps part of them?”

Satsuki burst out into laughter along with Jim, and Sayuki’s cheeks turned bright red. Next to her, Michiru flicked her head. “How many times do I have to tell you to think before you speak, dummy?”

“But, Michiru! It was a logical conclusion! They all have super powers and…”

Not even Yumiko agreed with her. “I was impressed, but even I didn’t go that far, Sayuki…”

Her friend crossed her arms and humphed. “All right, my fault! Let’s hear the rest of the story and not get distracted anymore.”

“Well,” Satsuki chuckled. “We aren’t Ancients: these wouldn’t go around talking to school girls. For that you don’t have to worry, we’re as human as all of you.”

Human Yumiko’s mind went back to the events that had unfolded at the Chinno-ji. Was she still a human after all that happened? Nothing showed on her face, and Satsuki continued her explanation.

“We call the Ancients and their servants the Powers of Darkness. Bear in mind, that doesn’t mean they’re inherently evil or good, although some may seem like that on the exterior. Their morals, if we can call them like that, are completely different from ours. Does any of you worry about how many mosquitoes you have killed in your lives?”

Michiru shook her head. “Of course not.”

“And that’s the same to them for everything that’s not at their level. They simply do what they want, with little or no attention to the consequences it may bring.”

“Is there anything the… lesser beings can do?” Yumiko asked.

“The idea of these… beings playing with others like toys makes me sick,” Sayuki remarked, “I hope we’re not all doomed.”

“Thank goodness, we aren’t,” the woman went along, “Like in most stories, there’s a glimmer of hope. Around 1000 AD, a light appeared in the sky, and was visible for a month. Scholars and travelers interpreted it as some divine sign.”

“That’s a famous supernova,” Michiru recalled, “I remember that from physics class.”

“It was, but somehow it was more than that. It was the sign of an entity…”

“Another Ancient?”

“No, definitely not an Ancient. Something, or someone, entirely different… god is what comes closest, but no one knows what it was. This entity appeared to select people around the world and gave them a mission: protect mankind from whatever the Darkness schemed. A brotherhood formed, and it kept acting under the shadows, until today…”

“Satsuki…” Yumiko faltered, “Don’t tell me… You are…”

“Ding dong! Correct answer!” Jim exclaimed, “The lucky girl wins a prize!”

“It is as Jim says,” Satsuki said, “This brotherhood was called the Guardians of the Dawn, because it was born to ensure that mankind would always be there to see the next day. Over the centuries, it became a full-fledged organization, and employs the best people and technology against the Darkness. And like you suggested, me and Jim are two of their agents.”

“Wait, wait!” Sayuki interrupted her. “Why keeping this a secret from everyone?”

Michiru was of the same opinion. “It doesn’t sound logical to me too. The governments should be very well equipped to handle this. Is it to prevent spreading panic?”

“This time you’re wrong,” Jim answered, “It is not due to that. Think about it: military would love new enemies to fight against! In fact, I think that diplomatic relationships around the world might even get more tense than what they are now. But even with that said, the real reason is another.”

“Really? What is it?”

“Complacency. If you know someone would always do something for you, you would eventually stop caring about doing it.”

“I can totally relate to that! That’s why my mother gets so angry when I don’t clean my room!” Sayuki shivered at the thought.

Michiru sneered. “It’s common sense.”

“I admit I never thought about it like this,” Yumiko commented, “but I can see that happening.”

“Yes, so mankind would just wait for their enlightened saviors to save the day, no matter what happens,” Jim concluded.

He focused on driving while Satsuki took the floor. “The mission of the Guardians is to protect and not destroy. We’re not out there to get rid of them, just ensuring that their actions won’t cause any harm to innocent bystanders. If we were really bent on wiping them out, we wouldn’t be any better than them. And let’s not forget, Darkness has its own spies everywhere, and occasionally human allies.”

Yumiko frowned at that statement. How could humans ally with entities for whom they were no more than white noise? It wasn’t logical at all. She glanced at her friends and noticed that they too shared the same sentiment.

Satsuki noticed their puzzlement and sighed. “I don’t need to tell you that not all people are good. Our nature is frail, and sometimes we are willing to do a lot to fulfill our goals, no matter what they are. And some see those powers as a convenient shortcut to those goals. I’m not too sure it works out for most, however.”

The whole conversation was becoming very heavy, and Yumiko wanted a break, at least to ease the worries that were brewing inside her mind. She looked out of the car’s window and stared blankly at the landscape passing by. It was mostly composed of a seemingly random mixture of high and tall buildings, irregularly spaced by random patches of green fields and trees. Occasionally a small temple or shrine was visible in the distance. Further ahead, she could distinguish the irregular contours of mountains.

She blinked as she noticed a signpost indicating that they were headed for the Chuo Expressway, towards Aichi and ultimately Nagano: that did not sound right to her, because they should have kept on the coast to get to Tokyo faster.

She had to make sure. “Excuse me, why are we headed towards Nagano?”

“You don’t want to prevent us from going to Tokyo, do you?” Michiru blurted.

Jim was quick in dispelling their doubts. “You girls worry too much. We don’t want to hold you hostage, or keep you away from your families. The reasons involve safety, and are pretty practical. Check out the status of the expressways of around Nagoya.”

Still skeptical, Michiru checked the information on her phone and read out loud. “Service disruption at multiple intersections, causes under investigation. Service will be restored in due time. We thank you for your cooperation and understanding.”

“Oh!” Sayuki let out an exclamation of surprise. “So the highways are broken? How? They were fine when we came to Kyoto, and there were no signs of roadworks…”

“That’s because there’s someone very willing to take any steps necessary to interfere with us,” Jim stated, “When I checked out the route to take to get back to Tokyo, I was informed of this and we planned an alternative route. On top of that, there are few other people like us in the area, so we can get additional support.”

“This likely makes no sense, but I can’t understand why someone…something would go this far,” Yumiko said.

Satsuki tried to answer her concerns. She spoke slowly and chose the words carefully. “A reason likely exists. Whether it’s valid or not for our system of values is an entirely different matter. They view you, Yumiko, as a danger.”

Yumiko gaped and her friends were shocked as well. “Me? How could I have possibly…”

Michiru couldn’t contain her anger. “Yumiko has not done anything bad! She doesn’t deserve this!” she snapped.

Sayuki shrugged. “I’m out of ideas on how that would be possible as well.”

The distress and confusion of the three girls, and in particular Yumiko, was clearly visible. After briefly pondering on the matter, Satsuki decided that a break was in order, or the situation would get unbearable for their minds.

“There might be one,” she started, “but let’s leave this for later. There’s a service area close: let’s all relax a bit before going ahead. What do you think?”

“Yeah, perhaps it might be a good idea…” Yumiko nodded unconvincingly.

“Perhaps we can get something to eat? I’m hungry…” Sayuki complained.

Michiru gave her a cold stare. “With all that’s going on, you are thinking about food?”

“Why not? It’s not like I have to stop eating, you know. And besides, I heard noises coming from your stomach too.”

Her friend’s cheeks turned bright red and she turned on the defensive. “Yes, but… that’s not the point…”

Yumiko chuckled. She was surprised herself: her mind had been burdened with so many questions and doubts since the previous night that all she had felt was anxiety. Thanks to the involuntary, but frequent, bickering of her friends she was at least feeling a little better. It was like Satsuki said, she likely needed a break and cast those heavy thoughts aside for a while.

She smiled. “Good idea, Satsuki. I’d love to walk around a bit after all this time.”

About an half hour later, Jim drove their car into the nearest rest area on the side of the highway. The definition of “rest area” was somehow an understatement: it covered a very large surface and was composed by several buildings, from gas pumps to full-fledged shopping malls and restaurants to provide a break for travelers tired after long journeys. Due to the summer, the extensive parking lots were almost filled completely and many people were walking around. Men wearing safety vests were doing their best despite the heat to ensure that the flow of vehicles in and out was as orderly as possible.

After they parked, the group decided to take a look at the various shops before getting something to eat. Satsuki suggested they all moved together, to make sure that everyone would be under her and Jim’s watch, to prevent any possible issue from arising. A few minutes later, they all entered the largest building of the area.

The inside was a large open space, where the center was occupied by tables and places to sit alternated with smaller stalls selling foods and various souvenirs. There were many large stores and restaurants, often quite crowded. Long corridors on both sides of the hall led to other areas of the building with even more commercial offerings. Large numbers of people were concentrated near displays that were broadcasting the situation in Kyoto. Yumiko, Michiru and Sayuki did their best not to look.

“I forgot to ask something,” Sayuki said as they browsed souvenirs, “What will happen when we arrive in Tokyo? Will your task be over?”

“I’ve been wondering this myself,” Michiru pondered.

“We didn’t get to that part yet,” Satsuki answered, “In short, there are a few people we want to talk to, along with Yumiko.” She paused for an instant, noticing the glare in Michiru’s eyes, then quickly provided an explanation. “You will be needed too, as you were with her most of the time. There’s no intention to leave you out.”

Michiru humphed. “You’d better.”

“Actually, Michiru, I’m sure I will be fine,” Yumiko commented with a hint of embarrassment at her over-protective stance, “They’re on our side after all. I believe the worst has passed for now, or so I hope.”

“I will believe it when I see it. I wouldn’t want you to get in more trouble. It was truly terrible to see you plummet in that well!”

“Oh, playing the role of the mother?” Sayuki grinned as she circled an arm around her. “Okka-san, can you let her go on her own?”

Who are you calling okka-san?”

Yumiko groaned as the two started bickering. “There they go again… Even considering what has happened, they just can’t help it.”

“At least you can’t get bored like that.” Jim made a large grin. “This will lead to a happy life in your later years!”

“Please don’t encourage them to follow your same path,” Satsuki chimed in, “It’s enough trouble handling one of you.”

The man winked. “It’s just payback for the trouble you gave me.”

For moment Yumiko thought she had seen a trace of shame on Satsuki’s face, but it disappeared so quickly that she thought she had imagined that. In stark contrast with this impression, her voice was even firmer than before.

“Please don’t mention that.”

“Of course, I was just messing with you.”

“I wish you didn’t!”

Just by watching the conversation, Yumiko felt she could trust the man and the woman completely. They had been supportive of her and her friends a lot, and despite their disagreements, they did not doubt each other at all. To her, they were ideal for the task they were carrying out.

But more than wondering about that, she had to stop the shameful show that her friends were putting up. It was too embarrassing.

She grabbed Michiru’s arm. “Shall we go and look at some wares, Michiru?”

Her friend caught the message immediately and she stopped her quarrel with Sayuki. While Yumiko was usually too nice to get angry at them, the rare times she did she had given them a thorough earful, and neither of the two wanted to see that again.

“Yeah.” Michiru nodded. “Let’s go and see around! Sayuki, will you come with us too?”

Sayuki shook her head. “No, I think I’ll check if there’s anything for me on the other side… you know, like sports shoes or something. I love browsing through that stuff!”

Michiru was about to comment, but Yumiko squeezed her arm and she stayed silent. The girl then dragged her away towards a stall that was selling food, under the amused gaze of Jim and Satsuki. She was released only when they were well away from the others.

“Honestly, sometimes I think you two enjoy arguing together.” Yumiko puffed.

Michiru avoided direct eye contact. She almost was on the verge of crying. “I’m sorry, I hope you’re not angry…”

“No, no, I’m not angry at all! I only wanted to stop you, not to make you sad, I swear!”


“Really, I can assure you.”

Michiru sighed in relief. “Thank goodness.”

“You got to do something about that side of you, Michiru,” Yumiko continued, “Being scolded by me doesn’t mean I want you to disappear.”

“I know, but after the accident in Kyoto, I’m very worried about you.”

“I can see that.” Yumiko patted her on the head. “But I’m still here, and I’m still your friend. Nothing has changed on that regard.”

“Excuse me, girls,” a woman behind them said.

As tall as Yumiko, she was beautiful: the smooth skin of her face, framed by long and smooth black hair, showed almost no trace of imperfection. At first sight, she looked on her twenties, but her eyes, black as well, showed the maturity of someone several years older. She was dressed in a very elegant dress and all her movements were calm and collected.

“Excuse us,” Yumiko apologized, “we didn’t mean to be in the way.”

“Oh, you weren’t. You were so lively I got curious. Where are you going to?”

“We’re going to Nagano.”

“Are you going there for the holidays?”

“Well, we’re just stopping there for a while, then we’ll get back home.”

“I see, I hope you have fun there. Actually, I have a question to ask.”

“What is it?”

The woman pointed at a shelf containing drinks. For some odd reason, a pack of cookies had been left there by a careless traveler.

“Do you see that?” she asked. “When you see something out of place, how do you feel?”

Yumiko was kind of surprised by the strange question. It was completely out of context and had no relationship with what they were talking about earlier. Nevertheless, she felt compelled to reply, out of politeness.

“Depends on what it is. Normally it’s not a big deal.”

“It may be. Don’t you feel something discordant… like a balance has been tipped? Like your own world has been subverted? That a wrong must be righted?”

“I don’t quite understand…”

“Don’t you feel that you won’t ever be at peace until whatever is discordant has been put where it belongs? Would you keep a yellow cup among black and white ones?”

Yumiko felt exasperated by the situation, and tried to content her interlocutor. “I guess so. I figure I will move it to whatever place is proper for it.”

The woman took a long step forward and put her face next to Yumiko’s. Her expression was calm, but her eyes exuded clear hostility, almost hatred, towards the girl. Her voice turned to a low, threatening hiss.

“Exactly. The Abyss is the right place for you.”

Yumiko stood still, shocked and confused at the same time. In the blink of an eye, her familiar, known reality had been replaced by a hostile, dreadful environment. Her instincts were telling her to scream or to run away, but she found herself unable to do either: the changed had been so sudden that it had caught her unprepared, she was too scared to even think a way out. Her eyes widened as she noticed that the woman’s fingernails were growing unnaturally long.

The sound of metal hitting the floor echoed across the stall, and the woman quickly turned in the direction of the noise. She saw Michiru next to a fallen pile of tin cans which were rolling on the ground in all directions.

“I’m sorry, I tripped and made everything fall,” Michiru bowed apologetically.

The woman muttered an exclamation of disappointment under her breath and moved her attention back to Yumiko. She realized she had managed to walk away from her as she had been distracted, and was now out of her arms’ reach. Her teeth clenched in frustration when she saw Jim next to her, eyeing her severely.

“You’ve got some nerve in trying to do funny things in the open, you know,” Jim’s words were harsh and sharp. “Or are you one of these people who likes being punished in front of everyone?” He cracked his knuckles. “Either way, I don’t care. Just get out of my sight now, or you’ll regret it. Severely.”

“Why do you insist in interfering?” The woman cursed. “Fine. I will take my leave for now, but don’t think this is the last time you’ll hear from me.” She pointed accusingly at Yumiko. “By my Lord’s command, you are not allowed to live, Yumiko Hasegawa. Remember that.”

She walked away in frustration while people sent questioning and puzzled glances in her direction. Once she was gone for good, Yumiko and Michiru both felt relieved.

“Thanks, Jim. I was so scared I didn’t know what to do,” Yumiko said.

“Don’t thank me, thank your friend. Had she not turned that pile of cans over, I would have not noticed it.”

Michiru put up a humble smile and chuckled. “This time, I was able to do something at least.”

“Let’s go back to the others,” Jim proposed. “We already caught too much attention here.”

While they walked away from the stall, Yumiko’s mind was in turmoil. Even though the immediate danger had passed, she did not feel completely at ease.

“Those words… what did she mean by that?” she thought out loud.

Michiru snapped her fingers as a forgotten memory came back to her. “Didn’t that thing in Kyoto say something similar? Something about being cursed.”

“Yes, I remember. It almost drives me insane, thinking that someone is out to get me, and I don’t even know why.”

“Time out, time out!” Jim interrupted her. “Don’t overthink things. While I can’t dismiss the fact that you are being under threat, we’ve been working a lot to find out the cause. Even well before the matter in Kyoto.”

Yumiko’s eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

“I’ll let her explain better,” Jim pointed at Satsuki and Sayuki, which were walking in their direction.

“Did you finish shopping already?” Satsuki asked. “Did anything happen? You look a little shaken.”

Jim promptly briefed the two on what had happened. Once he had finished, Satsuki nodded gravely.

“It looks like we’ve been tracked,” she suggested. “We’ll have to adjust our route.”

Jim rubbed his chin. “I thought I was careful, but I guess they’re much smarter than I had imagined.”

Sayuki was as worried as her friends, but like in Kyoto, she forced herself to focus on what to do and provide at least some support to Yumiko. She took a deep breath and tried to speak as calmly as she could. “We can worry about who was that woman and why she was here later. I think we should press forward to prevent any more issues.”

Michiru sent her a supportive glance and walked next to her. “We don’t agree that often… But in this case I think Sayuki is right as well. The earlier we get moving, the better.”

“I have the same opinion.” Yumiko forced her voice to stay firm. “If I may, however, I have one request, Satsuki. Will you be willing to tell me more about me being targeted? Jim said to ask you.”

Satsuki made an angry gesture towards the man. “I guess so he didn’t have to do that himself. No problem, though. Once we are on the road again, I’ll tell you more.”

“Thank you.”

With Yumiko’s fears cast aside for the moment, Sayuki brought the conversation back to the topic. “You mentioned changing course… do you have an idea already?”

“We do.” Satsuki nodded. “I and Jim arranged an alternative plan in case of problems, so we should be safe.”

“Wow, you seem really well prepared.”

“When you deal with certain things, you learn to plan ahead a lot,” Jim saod, “or you won’t make it very far.”

“Shouldn’t we get going immediately?”

“Almost. There’s something we need to do first.”

“What is it?”

A broad grin appeared on Jim’s face. “Eating! Didn’t we stop to eat? I don’t know about you, but I’m very hungry, and I would love to have something before spending more hours sitting in that tin box.”

After a quick meal, the group left the rest area and was again on the road. As anticipated by Satsuki, they adjusted their course: while their ultimate destination did not change, they left the expressway and moved exclusively through prefectural roads, allowing them to move more discreetly. On the other hand, this caused a major delay, so Satsuki and Jim planned to spend the night in a ryokan near Nagano, ran by another member of the Guardians.

As they slowly moved through traffic, Yumiko decided to bring up the topic of the threats against her. No matter how insignificant the answers might have been, she felt it was important to know as much as possible.

“Satsuki, do you think you can tell me more about why them, I mean the Darkness, hates me?” she asked.

“As Jim told you, we don’t know the real reason,” Satsuki explained, “but there are some probable causes to that. I’m sure you heard about the Stanton incident.”

Yumiko nodded. “My mother told me about it a while ago. Some doctor went crazy and tried to kill me right after I was born… or something like that.”

She paused as words that were not her own floated in her mind.

The symbol will protect you in the years to come… for you are the one who lives within the Darkness.

Having noticed Yumiko spacing out, Satsuki called out to her. “Yumiko, is something the matter?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s nothing.”

“As I was saying, this was an event that drew the Guardians’ attention to you. You see, some people are born with a natural tendency of being closer to the Darkness than the others. It’s very rare, and it usually has no importance in a normal life of the individual. In your case, this… tendency was stronger than in normal people.”

“Does it mean that Yumiko has an illness?” Michiru looked at Yumiko, making no attempt to hide her anxiety.

“I can’t believe this myself!” Sayuki added, “I mean, Yumiko exercises regularly, eats well and cares about her own health!”

Yumiko turned pale. “Satsuki… what does it mean?” she faltered.

“Be at ease, it’s neither an illness nor a curse.” The woman made a dismissive gesture. “It had not, and won’t have, any influence on what you are and how you live. Think of it like people that are taller than others.”

That answer seemed to calm Yumiko down, so Satsuki continued her explanation. “The matter is, what is completely irrelevant to you may not be so for the various entities that make up the Darkness. For reasons that are hard to understand, they often loathe these peculiar people, and would like to get rid of them, at almost any cost. The first attempt against you was the Stanton incident. After that, the Guardians kept a distant but vigilant watch over you, to ensure the Darkness would not cause you any harm. There were no issues until the beginning of this year, when activity from them increased all of a sudden. And that is when I and Jim were dispatched to protect you.”

“Hold on a second.” Michiru’s voice was full of surprise. “Do you mean we’ve been under watch all these years and we never noticed?”

“It was done very discreetly. And as you saw firsthand, there are certain arts that can be used to conceal one’s presence.”

Sayuki snapped her fingers. “Now that you mention it, was also what happened to Yumiko in Shibuya also related?”

“There’s no definite proof, but it’s the most likely explanation.”

“So that is why the oni called me Cursed One and that woman said I should not live,” Yumiko pondered.

“That may have been the initial reason,” Satsuki continued, “but what happened to you in Kyoto complicated the situation. When you were there you had what we call a Contact.”

“A Contact?”

“The simplest explanation I can give you is that you made your trait, which tied you to the Darkness, explicit. An actual bond to the Darkness.”

“An actual bond to the Darkness…”

Michiru held her shoulder. “I and Sayuki have been wondering, Yumiko… What actually happened there? Why did you end up… like you were when you came back?”

Yumiko sighed. “It’s kind of difficult to explain. Under that well, there was this dungeon…”

The girl went on and explained her wandering in the stone corridors, her discovery of the torii, the large sealed rock behind it, her encounter with the kannushi and his tale. Everyone listened intently, with Jim and Satsuki often exchanging glances and reflecting over every single detail of that tale.

“… after he disappeared, I heard that oni coming close and I wanted to escape. I tripped, and I touched that rock…”

“What happened afterwards?” Sayuki inquired.

“I don’t quite understand.” Yumiko held her head with both hands. “There were lights… that changed constantly, and then this dark cloud covered everything, and I felt it inside my own mind. Then I realized I had fallen on my back. And as I was getting up, I felt so much pain, and …” She paused.

“Did it pass?” Michiru pressed her. “What happened to you?”

Yumiko blushed. “I really don’t want to tell if possible… It’s too embarrassing.”

“And that’s when whatever you made a Contact with turned you into something else.” Satsuki took the floor. “Temporarily, as you all can see. And that something else wiped out the force that was sent against you.”

“That was the strangest part, actually,” Yumiko continued somewhat unwillingly, “I knew I was doing all these things, but at the same time I felt I wasn’t the one doing them. Like there was another will that wasn’t my own… similar to a child playing with a new toy.”

“And it was probably like that. My bet is that it was that spirit thought to be a kitsune.”

“That’s it,” Yumiko concluded, “after I saw Satsuki talking to me, I felt back in control, and I ended up like… in the state you saw me later.”

“Say, Yumiko, how did you feel after that?” Sayuki asked. “Did you feel different, or strange?”

“No… I don’t feel that strange presence anymore. It almost feels like a dream.”

“Thank goodness!” Michiru hugged her. “I know this goes without saying, but no matter what, you’re still our Yumiko! Right, Sayuki?”

Sayuki smiled and raised her thumb in approval.

Yumiko looked away to avoid showing her eyes, which had become slightly watery. “I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but thank you.”

“We’ll take care to figure out what happened and what to do next,” Satsuki stated reassuringly, “so that you can continue your lives as usual.”

Yumiko brushed the tears off her face. “After we are in Tokyo, what will we do?”

“First of all, we’ll let you rest for a few days, although we’ll keep watching over you. Afterwards, I’d like to bring you to one of the places where the Guardians operate to talk to the current chief, John Masefield. There we’ll plan a proper short and long term strategy. They’re already going through our previous reports.”

“The people working on these information are really smart, although a bit paranoid at times,” Jim pointed out, “but if there’s anything useful, they will find it.”

“So we just need to sit back and wait until we are back?” Yumiko inquired.

“That’s right.”

Sayuki stretched. “I wonder how long it’ll be. I was never a fan of long journeys.”

“At worst we’ll be in Tokyo around noon tomorrow. You may want to take a nap, we’ve got a lot to cover before we get to our rendezvous point.”

“Good idea,” Yumiko said as she closed her eyes.

It was well into the evening when the group finally reached the prefecture of Nagano, finally within reach of their destination: the heavy traffic and the need to avoid faster roads had caused many delays on their predicted schedule. The landscape around them was mostly comprised by tall mountains covered with forests of pines and similar trees, able to withstand the higher altitudes. Occasionally, the trees thinned out around areas where farms or other houses had been built. brighter spots in seas of dark green. As the sun disappeared under the summits, Jim took a road that brought them away from the town, over narrower streets that went upwards, on the flank of a mount. While they climbed, the number of other cars sharing the same path reduced progressively, until the streetlamps and illuminated signposts were their only companions.

Michiru yawned loudly. “I can’t wait to be at home. All this running back and forth has made me very tired.”

“I hear you,” Sayuki echoed her, “how much till we get to that ryokan? I could really use a hot bath and a bed…”

“It shouldn’t be too long now,” Satsuki replied, “Half an hour at most.”

“I’m starting to feel sore myself.” Yumiko massaged her back. “I can’t wait to be able to walk freely again.”

Jim humphed. “Girls these days! Always complaining…”

He didn’t finish his sentence and his expression became grave as he scanned the surroundings left and right. “Satsuki, visitors incoming.”

Satsuki had taken notice of the situation as well. “Confirmed, I sensed them too. Five presences, perhaps six. They’re closing in fast. Can you call in for support?”

Jim glanced at his phone, cursed under his breath and shook his head. “With these mountains, the area of ad-hoc comms is severely limited. We’re not in range yet. And they’ll be on us before we are close enough.”

“Do you think we can outrun them?”

“I’m not sure. I can try, but don’t forget these roads aren’t a racing track.”

“Let’s do what we can.”

“What’s going on?” Yumiko asked, suddenly alarmed.

“We’re being chased, and we’re trying to get away, or at least keep whoever is after us at bay until we can call for support. Girls, hold tight, it’s going to be a little rougher now.”

The car’s engine roared as Jim sped up. Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru held themselves close as they glanced at the windows to catch a glimpse of their chasers. It didn’t take the girls long to notice their presence: there were at least three figures, vaguely humanoid, flying close to the road in their same direction. While the light was not enough to make out many details, it was sufficient to see the short beaks on their faces, similar to the ones of crows, or the large bird-like wings on their backs.

“Here they are. Satsuki, try to see if you can at least disturb them!” Jim ordered.

The woman replied with a nod. “Roger!”

Satsuki lowered her windshield and pulled out her gun from the holster. Trying to keep herself steady as possible, she pointed it at the flying creatures and fired several shots in quick succession. Two of them jolted and flew lower: whether it was because she hit them, because she missed, or because they had avoided the attack, she could not tell. She was about to fire again with she noticed out of the corner of her eye that two more of them were taking a dive from the opposite side. She threw a warning to Jim.

Fortunately, he had noticed as well. He slammed his foot on the accelerator and he heard the sound something hitting the concrete right where the car had been just a moment before. Satsuki looked back and saw that the two bird-like beings were getting back on their feet, apparently unharmed by the impact. Steel briefly flashed in their hands.

“Everyone, get down!” Satsuki shouted.

Sayuki, Yumiko and Michiru immediately hid under the seats. That move saved their life, as two long and sharp objects, similar to darts, broke the rear windshield and stuck into the passenger’s head, very close to where Yumiko and Michiru’s heads were before. The three yelled in panic.

Satsuki leaned out of the window and fired more shots at their pursuers, unfortunately without landing any hit: the two creatures just flapped their large wings and took flight again.

“What an annoying bunch!” Jim exclaimed. “I wish they’d given up already.”

“They can move freely in the air, while we’re constrained by the road,” Satsuki commented, “we’re clearly at a disadvantage here.”

“I can’t go faster than this without risking falling off somewhere.”

“How far are we?”

“It will take us at least ten more minutes, and I’m not sure we’ll have that much time.”

“Let’s do the best we can.” Satsuki turned to the terrified girls in the back. “I’m not sure how we’ll get out of this, but our top priority is your protection. We won’t allow these abominations to even come close to you.”

The three nodded in response without saying a word. They were still very afraid, but at least they trusted Satsuki and Jim’s judgment.

As the woman looked at the road ahead again, her senses were struck with a steadily escalating sense of foreboding. The more they went ahead, the stronger it became.

“Jim, slow down,” she said.

The man couldn’t believe what he had heard. “Are you crazy? It’s not like we can just talk to them, sign a piece of paper, and see them off.”

“It’s not that. There are a few more ahead, and they’re waiting for us.”

Jim looked at the dashboard and realized that the situation was dire. There was a rather narrow curve about half a kilometer from their current position, and he had no doubts that if someone or something was waiting, it would be there. It was a perfect place for an ambush: the turn meant that he would not be able go too fast to avoid falling off the road. And even if he wanted to mow down whoever lay in front of them, it would probably damage their car and shatter any hope of escaping… assuming those darts wouldn’t get them before they got too close.

They were effectively caught between two fires: slowing down would mean having to deal with the chasers, going ahead would just spring the trap prepared for them.

“I see what you mean.” He rubbed his chin. “Quite an intelligent strategy, I didn’t expect them to be this capable. If that’s the case, it may be better to try to drive them away.”

“Exactly. Let’s get ready,” Satsuki concluded. “Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru, get out when we stop, and stay close to me. As long as you’re with me, you’ll be out of harm’s reach.”

Following the change of plans, Jim slowed the car down and stopped it on the side of the road. Satsuki got off first, then opened one of the back doors and beckoned to the girls. Sayuki, Michiru and Yumiko crawled out and stood behind her. Jim was the last to come out, gun in hand. The man took position in front of the vehicle and the woman on the back.

The road was surrounded by pines and other trees typical of mountain areas, mere black spots under the feeble illumination of the streetlights. There was no sign of other human activity around, and no other noise except for the gasping breath of the three girls.

That eerie silence was broken by the sound of flapping wings as three of the creatures landed before them. Now visible under the light, their appearance could not be farther from a human being, or even an animal. Their heads resembled the one of a bird of prey, with a pointed beak towered by two small eyes. Hawk-like claws for hands and feet opened and closed rhythmically. They were dressed in clothes resembling the ones of samurai from the Sengoku period, and they all carried a katana strapped to their waist. The tallest of the group also had a fan in one of its hands.

Shortly afterwards, four more of them arrived from the opposite direction, surrounding the group. Their inhuman heads shook with screeching laughter, laughter that turned into sounds of disappointment and frustration when one of them fell backwards with a gurgle: Jim’s gun had hit the creature in the stomach. Enraged, the one with the fan made a gesture and the others drew their weapons.

Seeing that it looked like their leader, Satsuki pointed her gun and fired. Unimpressed, the bird-like being spread the fan open: when they came into contact, the bullets bounced off without even reaching their target. In the mean time, another jumped in the air and, holding its blade above its head, dived straight for Yumiko.

Satsuki was not caught unprepared. She rapidly formed figures with the fingers of her left hand and then swung her arm in the direction of the attacker. The air shimmered and a moment later the creature rolled on the ground, holding the severed remains of its right wing.

On the other side, Jim shot down one more bird-man, then ducked just in time to avoid getting his head cut off by a katana. He rolled sideways and fired at the same time. He had intended to aim the torso of his opponent, but he had moved too quickly and ended up hitting its arm instead. That was enough to end the assault of the beast, which fell to its knees squeaking.

Then, for no apparent reasons, the creatures regrouped behind their leader, who had not moved since the battle had started. It took a step forward, and swayed its fan in the direction of the group with a loud cry. A breeze rose out of nowhere, and became stronger and stronger until it turned into a whirlwind. It was so fierce that the Yumiko and the others struggled to stay on their feet.

It was no mystery that its intentions were to blow every single one of them away. And once thrown in the air, its followers would have no problems in going for an easy kill. Jim crawled close to the car, using it as a shield against those powerful gusts. He made a gesture to Satsuki.

“Get behind the car and stay low!” she ordered to the three girls.

Without wasting any time, the girls crouched and moved towards Jim while the woman kept watch on them. A croak coming from above caught her attention: she jumped backwards just in time to avoid a blade that would have easily cut her in half. Because of this Yumiko, who had not yet reached the safe spot, was in the direct line of sight of the pack’s leader. When Satsuki noticed, it was too late.

The creature swung its fan again. A concentrated blast of air hit Yumiko, throwing her against a nearby guardrail. Sparkles flew before her eyes when her back hit the metal, and the pain was so sharp it almost knocked her out. She fumbled to get back on her feet, but she was not fast enough: the current grew even fiercer and lifted her from the ground. Frantically, she tried to hold to the rail with all the strength she could muster. It was all in vain, as the the metal was too smooth and she had a not strong enough grip.

Slowly, each of her fingers slipped off. She could only scream while she fell into the woods next to the road.

Falling through the branches of pine trees, Yumiko hit the ground and tumbled down a steep slope until she eventually stopped. She was full of cuts and bruises, her hip hurt where she had first touched the ground, but luckily the trees had slowed down her fall and she had no broken bones. Nevertheless, the pain was so strong she was out of breath and unable to hoist herself up.

Still lying down, she glanced around and she felt a chill running down her spine. She was not alone.

Floating pairs of yellow lights were all around her, past the trees. Were they ghosts? Or perhaps the eyes of some monstrous creatures? Regardless of what they were, she felt it… the feeling of a powerless prey about to be devoured by its predators.

The lights came closer: at that point, rationality completely left Yumiko’s mind. She did not want to die! She wanted a way, any way to get out of that situation. A thought surfaced in her head on its own. There was a way. Is she desired the strength to overcome that ordeal, it would be granted easily…

She found herself agreeing with the notion before she even realized it.

And that was when the pain came to her. She screamed at the top of her lungs as the pain increased more than she could possibly endured. As agony shook her, Yumiko realized she was not alone: a presence of some sort was inside her, nothing more than raw, pure animal instinct. A true fiend.

The girl screamed again and again, but little by little she took pleasure in the pain she was experiencing. So sweet, so pure! She wanted more! More! Like the past night in Kyoto, Yumiko felt power surging in her. She was getting stronger…stronger…stronger…

Every conscious thought disappeared, leaving only a single sensation behind.


Yumiko’s eyes slowly opened as consciousness returned to her. She blinked many times, temporarily blinded by the sun filtering down from the trees, and only then realized she was lying down. Her back, pressed against something, tingled, her feet were unusually cold, and a breeze made her shiver. She stared at her toes, opening and closing them at random, until she eventually noticed.

She was alone, in the woods… and without wearing anything!

Yumiko sprang up with a jolt, groaning as her aching muscles complied with her order. She quickly glanced at her surroundings, fearing anyone would be there and able to see her in that state.

She was in a small clearing, surrounded by trees in all directions. The sun was still low, so it was likely quite early in the morning. There were no signs of human activity nearby, much to her relief: the only sounds were the leaves storming in the breeze and the occasional chirps of birds.

Wondering on how she would end up there, Yumiko’s mind went back to the events from a few hours before. Her memories were fuzzy, and she could not figure out what had happened. She remembered being surrounded, and the bloodlust that surged within her… but everything after that was a complete blank. It was however evident how it ended, as she was still alive and there was no trace of her pursuers. Had it been Kyoto all over again?

Yumiko shook her head to clear her thoughts and stood up. Her first priority was to find out were she had ended up, and how to get back to the others, without being seen by anyone in that state. She could even imagine the news headlines if she were found out… She blushed and covered herself with her hands instinctively.

The girl forced herself to think more logically. Staying there and acting all embarrassed would have not improved her situation: in fact, it would increase the risk of being discovered by anyone doing walking around there, and made things much worse. She had to move out now. But in which direction?

Yumiko looked around. There was no clear indication of the path she had taken the night before, nor any landmarks she could use to get close to the mountain road she was on. At the same time, she felt a strange sense of familiarity when pointing at specific directions: she decided to trust these sensations and took the path where they were the strongest.

As she moved inside the woods, she realized that all her senses had somehow heightened. She was able to notice minute changes in the colors of the barks of trees, spot ants hurrying up and down the trunks, hear the distant sounds of animals, and distinguish many different scents from her surroundings. It was very surprising for her: she had lived in suburban Tokyo all her life, and the times she had gone to the mountains, it had been a completely different experience, very dull compared to what she had been feeling right now. It was extremely pleasant, as if she had been a part of the forest rather than someone merely walking through it.

She went on, following her newly discovered tracking skill and enjoying the sweet sensations from her senses. After a while, a different yet somehow complementary feeling surfaced in her mind. It was a longing for freedom… an instinctive, feral freedom. Although it had a striking resemblance to what she had experienced in Kyoto first and then during the previous night, it had changed in some way: no longer a completely alien presence, it was almost like a part of her while still being separate from her soul, no different than clothes worn over one’s body.

The more she walked, the stronger it got. At first it was just a a titter. Then it became a roar. Then a scream piercing her very existence. Yumiko fell to her knees as that dark stream almost overwhelmed her conscience. She was feeling sick and feverish. Her stomach turned upside down and she barely resisted the urge of throwing up. She stared at the ground, counting the pine needles in the hope the ordeal would pass.

But it did not pass. In fact it worsened. She was not sure anymore if what she was thinking was her own, or a product of that extracosmic presence. The barrier between the sweetness and that raw anger blurred until they become one and the same. It was no longer painful, it was almost enjoyable.

Yumiko unconsciously smiled. Just a little more&hellip: Just a little more and she’d be totally free!

“Yumiko! Are you all right?”

A familiar voice brought rationality back to the girl. Breathing heavily, she was able to raise her head and look in front of her. She was overjoyed when she realized that the call had come from Satsuki.

“I’m so happy that you are here…” she muttered.

“The feeling is mutual,” Satsuki replied, “I almost thought I’d not find you.”

Yumiko got back on her feet. “How did you find me?”

The woman glanced at Yumiko’s naked figure. “It has to do with what happened to you. Since last night, you left some kind of unseen traces that I’ve been following.”

“Yes, it happened again…” Yumiko said in a low voice, unable to contain her embarrassment.

Satsuki took off a shoulder bag she was carrying and gave it to Yumiko. “I brought some clothes for you from your baggage.”

Yumiko bowed deeply. “Thank you very much! I don’t know what I’d have done if anyone would have seen me…”

“Luckily for you, this isn’t a very popular spot,” Satsuki remarked with a chuckle, “anyway… While you dress, can you tell me exactly what happened after you were blown away?”

Yumiko told Satsuki about how she had been surrounded by things bent on killing her and how her desperate plea for survival was answered by the fiendish presence in her mind, and how she submitted to the unrelenting bloodlust that flooded her thoughts. The woman did not say anything and just nodded as the girl continued with her explanation.

“I don’t remember anything else hellip; just bloodlust. Then I woke up as you see me, and I tried to get back to you. That presence came back and I almost gave in again if it weren’t for you,” she concluded.

“I see.” Satsuki put a finger on her lips as she sorted out her thoughts. “I guess that existence you had a Contact with has gone berserk. Like a child, it has no idea of its limits and does things at a whim. While in this specific case it saved your life, I’m afraid it might get worse if left unattended. We have to get it under control somehow.”

“And how…” Yumiko clenched her fists in fear. “How can you do that?”

“That is what we have to talk about in Tokyo. My guess is either by restraining it, or by making your mind strong enough to resist its assaults. Either way, do not despair: the Guardians have dealt with much worse cases than this and can surely help you out.”

Yumiko bowed again. “I know I’ve thanked you so many times… but thank you again for taking care of me!”

Satsuki smiled. “Part of my duty, I suppose.”

“Satsuki…” Yumiko raised a hand. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, what happened to you all? Are you all right?”

“Yes, we’re all right. After you got separated from us, those bird-like things lost interest in us and they all focused on where you fell. I and Jim took the opportunity to strike, and we were lucky enough to take down the one with the fan. The rest flew away in disarray. I don’t think they’ll be a threat for us for a while, at least.”

Yumiko let out a sigh of relief. “I’m glad everyone is safe.”

“I’m guessing you’re dying to get back to your friends. Let’s move out once you are done.”

Once the girl had finished dressing, Satsuki led her through the forest to a path normally used by hikers, and from there to the ryokan Jim had mentioned when they set out. Yumiko couldn’t prevent herself from crying when she was finally reunited with her friends, and so were both Sayuki and Michiru. Once they all calmed down, Jim and Satsuki led the three girls to their car and her journey to Tokyo continued.

Yumiko watched the ryokan behind them becoming smaller and smaller, until it disappeared completely. Her thoughts went back to what had happened in the past days. Her whole life had been turned upside down, and even her views on the nature of the universe had changed forever, like the kannushi had forewarned in his message. On top of that, that fiendish presence haunted her mind and always threatened to take control of her.

Would she ever be able to get back to her normal, peaceful days? She did not know the answer. And no one else did, either.

From the window, Yumiko, Michiru and Sayuki watched the landscape as the train they were in moved from the densely urbanized area of Tokyo to the industrial zones of Yokohama and Kawasaki. Only a few days had passed since they had returned home and their normal life had resumed, as if the strange events in Kyoto had never took place, although the news coming from the town kept reminding them that they had been indeed real. Then, that very morning a message from Satsuki informed them that they had been summoned to the headquarters of the Guardians of the Dawn along with instructions on how to reach them.

When the three got off at the Bentenbashi station in Yokohama, they couldn’t help but feeling puzzled. Did the supposed protectors of mankind really choose such an underwhelming area for their operations? Most of the buildings were short, decade-old warehouses or factories with their unmistakable chimneys. Large industrial areas were visible further ahead towards the Tokyo Bay. Almost the entirety of the traffic was made up by trucks and large-scale vehicles.

Despite the initial disorientation, the girls were able to eventually find the building they were looking for. The whole area had been inconspicuous, but the edifice in front of them brought the definition to a whole new level. A narrow courtyard delimited by a low concrete wall led to a featureless, roughly cubical construction, whose dark walls were intervals of cement and square-shaped windows. There were no signs, except for a small plaque at the front gate that said Kawasaki-Yokohama United Footwear Manufacturing.

The entrance was as disappointing as the rest. A makeshift reception had been arranged with cheap-looking glass desk on the opposite side as the entrance, where a middle-aged receptionist said next to a security guard. The sound of machinery was all around.

Once Yumiko, Michiru and Sayuki announced themselves, the woman at the desk nodded vigorously, had them sign some papers and instructed the lone guard to bring them to John Masefield’s office. He led them through the corridors until they reached an inconspicuous looking door with a sign with the writing John Masefield - head of operations on it. The guard briefly knocked.

“Come on in,” said a voice from inside.

The man pointed at the office and bowed before walking away. Hesitating, Yumiko took a hold of the handle. What else could they expect there? Muttering “oh, well” under her breath, she opened the door.

The moment the girls stepped in, they immediately felt more at ease: the familiar faces of Satsuki and Jim greeted them with a smile. Next to them, a rather tall man clad in an expensive business suit was standing in front of a fine wooden desk. He seemed in his fifties, with a short beard, and his blonde hair showing many grey streaks. He was quite thin, up to the point of looking fragile, but his green eyes burnt with determination. He supported himself with a long cane and walked with difficulty.

“Welcome to the Guardians of the Dawn. I am John Masefield, the current head of the organization,” he announced with a little too solemnly, with a very thick English accent.

Michiru bowed deeply and spoke formally. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“He… Hello?” Sayuki stuttered with a broken English.

“Thanks for having us,” Yumiko said, concluding the round of greetings.

The middle-aged man smiled. “Oh, please don’t be too formal, I’m not that old. Please take a seat.”

There were three empty chairs next to the desk, and the girls promptly sat down. They stayed there without speaking, feeling somewhat awkward. Yumiko glanced in all directions, noticing that the furniture was somewhat out of place for a factory: old books and pieces of parchment were lined up neatly on shelves, and odd shaped items with no clear function were hanging on the walls.

Jim noticed her inquisitive stares. “It’s always like this the first time. He likes to collect… things.”

“Indeed,” Masefield himself remarked, “When you deal with the unseen, you come in contact with many fascinating things.”

Sayuki raised a hand. “Pardon the question, but is this… truly the headquarters of the Guardians of the Dawn? To me it’s just a boring factory in the middle of nowhere.”

Michiru gave her a cold stare. “You could have put it more politely.”

“But it’s true, isn’t it? I mean, that’s so unlike what you read in books or see on TV! Usually they are either in deep dungeons or in very tall skyscrapers.”

“I can’t deny that…” Michiru looked away from her friend and lowered her voice. “I was kind of expecting that, too.”

Even Yumiko was in agreement. “I was expecting something special as well, but I guess expectations are far different from reality,” she commented, trying to be as polite as possible.

At that point Satsuki, Jim and even Masefield broke into a soft laughter. The girls’ cheeks quickly turned to crimson at the same time.

“Was what I said that bad?” Sayuki blurted out.

“No, not at all,” Satsuki shook her head, “but it’s the first time someone points this out this openly.”

Masefield coughed and regained his composure. “Nevertheless, you aren’t wrong, Fukuda. This is a very run down place, and it’s exactly how we want it to be.”

“How so?” Yumiko inquired.

“The Guardians of the Dawn has existed for many centuries,” the man explained, “and over the course of time, it has made many… enemies, if you know what I mean. Not every one of them is just a mindless drone, some are far more cunning than the average human. Therefore all our operations keep a low profile, to avoid attracting too much unwanted attention, and safeguard both our members and those we want to protect. Of course, that doesn’t quite fit the stereotype.”

“I see… I didn’t look it that way.”

“And so many others. That’s why, with the addition of some secrecy and the use of certain non natural means, we’re able to go on mostly undetected.”

The man grimaced all of a sudden and he held his cane firmly. Within the span of seconds, his expression was back to normal, and he limped back to his desk.

Yumiko stared at him, worried. “Are you all right?”

“It’s just an old wound.” Masefield sat down with difficulties. “I know that I could get it treated, but to me it is a reminder to never let my guard down.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Yumiko noticed that Jim had frowned. Had he been involved somehow?

The other man’s voice carried her away from that train of thought. “Very well, now that the introductions are done, shall we discuss the actual matter? I am sure those fine girls don’t want to be bothered by an old man like me for too long.”

Jim took the floor. “Our report has all the details on the situation so far.”

Masefield nodded gravely. “Yes, I read it thoroughly.” He turned to Yumiko. “I’m deeply sorry for what you had to go through, Hasegawa. How are you feeling now? Do you sense anything abnormal about you?”

“Nothing too bad, Physically I feel fine. I’m not so sure of my mind, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I’m alone with my thoughts, I sense this… something else in my mind. I’m not sure about what it is exactly: it’s a very feral instinct, almost like a crave, always pushing against my will. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be able to resist it. It was like that when I woke up in the woods around Nagano, and if Satsuki had not found me, I have no idea of what would have happened. To be very frank, it’s pretty scary. I go to sleep fearing that I might awake somewhere else… and with a body that’s not my own.”

Yumiko was visibly trembling and her hands were clenched.

“I see. It must be truly tough for you. I am very sorry for this.”

“Can something be done about it?” Michiru asked. “I really don’t want her to go on like this.”

“We can help: if my intuition is correct, we may already have a plan,” Masefield said.

Yumiko’s mood lightened up. “Really?”

“Yes. I just need a few more pieces of information. Satsuki, you mentioned in the report that your observations indicate that this entity is not inherently evil and more like an uneducated child. Can you elaborate on that?”

“Certainly.” The woman took a step forward. “From the available evidence, this entity, which we call the Fiend, has not been in this world for long. If we trust the ancient records, when it was worshiped as a kitsune its presence was fleeting at best. Now it’s clearly different: it’s like it has been born anew. And, like a child without any guidance, it is acting on a whim. That is why I’m saying it is not inherently evil. It may be just a conjecture, but I think it has no concept of good and evil.”

“It is as I expected, then.” Masefield tapped his fingers on the desk. “Then, it is definitely possible. Hasegawa, I’m being told you are in an archery… kyudo club. Can you confirm that?”

Surprised by the seemingly random question, Yumiko nodded confusedly. “Yes, since I started high school.”

“From what I know, you need to be fairly concentrated when you shoot an arrow.”

“Yes, practice is all about control of the body and mind. It matters a lot more than hitting the target.” The girl paused, showings signs of doubt. “But… I hope this isn’t too impolite to say… I don’t see how it is related to my problem.”

“On the contrary, it is very relevant. You are already trained in putting yourself under control when using a bow: my idea is to employ the same technique with the Fiend.” He paused, noticing disbelieving stares in all the three girls. “It sounds crazy, isn’t it?”

“It is very crazy,” Sayuki commented, “I don’t really see how this is going to work.”

“Let me elaborate further,” Masefield continued, “I’m not asking Hasegawa to close her eyes and just calm herself. It’s not going to work. What I mean following a specific training to keep the Fiend in check: by exherting control on her mind, she will be hopefully able to prevent it from gaining control of her. And she won’t do it alone, either. Satsuki here will assist her during this period.”

Satsuki’s eyes widened in surprise, but a moment later she had already regained her composure. “I understand.”

Yumiko turned to her. “Can you really do that, Satsuki?”

“I’m not sure I can say I can… but I have some kind of… experience.”

“I’m glad you’re up for this task,” Masefield said, “Once I set things in motion, it shouldn’t take long to set everything up. Hasegawa, would you be willing to start as soon as you’re ready? Rest assured we’ll do our best to ensure that the disruption of your normal life will be kept at a minimum.”

“I’ll do anything that might help.” The girl nodded.

“Good. Satsuki will contact you when we are ready.”

“Mr. Masefield, I have a question.” Michiru raised a hand. “You have mentioned controlling this… Fiend. Can Yumiko truly go back to what she once was?”

In response, the man crossed his arms and his face showed doubt. “It’s too early to tell.”

“What do you mean, too early? Yumiko has already gone through a lot of trouble, you know.”

“What he means,” Jim interjected, “is that we don’t know much about this Fiend. I had people research the tale the kannushi told Yumiko: information isn’t exactly abundant, but from the few fragments available, no one who ever performed the kitsune ritual went as far as her. So it’s kind of new to everyone.”

“And if kept under proper control, it will never harm her in any way,” Masefield concluded.

“Sounds very good to me!” Sayuki exclaimed. “Do your best, Yumiko, and keep that thing out of your mind!”

“Let’s pray for the best.” Although not fully convinced, Michiru forced herself to trust what had heard.

Yumiko stood up and bowed. “Thank you everyone for taking care of me! I’m truly indebted to you. You’ve done this already so many times…”

Masefield chuckled. “Satsuki told me that you’re the type that gives a lot of thanks. I see she was right. But please sit down, there is another matter to discuss.”

“Another matter?”

“The Fiend is just one part of the problem. The other is that you have been targeted by the Darkness for a while. And when you were about to leave for Kyoto, the matter quickly escalated with the results we all know.”

Yumiko shuddered. She and her friends had just recently attended Yuuchiro’s funeral, and all the repressed pain and grief grasped her heart every time she recalled those moments. She sat down again and nodded without a word.

Michiru sent her a compassionate look. “Do you mean that Yumiko is still in danger?” she asked, trying to focus the conversation.

“It’s not like the situation has changed since a few days ago,” Jim observed, “From what we understand a part of the Darkness is truly in turmoil when it comes to Yumiko. They absolutely hate her for reasons that are eluding us. I mean, there are very few documented cases of them going all out, and usually involved large-scale wars between Ancients. Not a single human.”

“Do you mean it has to do with the Fiend, or something?” Sayuki inquired. “Because she has it, they hate her?”

“No, because as you know some incidents occurred before the Contact happened, including right after she was born.” He rubbed his chin. “Those guys should really take a holiday!”

“We’d be much happier if they ever did such things,” Satsuki intervened, “unfortunately it’s not going to happen.”

“One can always dream…”

“Let’s get back to the topic, shall we?” The woman dismissed the matter with a gesture. “Humor can wait.”

“All right. You truly are too serious, Satsuki.”

She ignored his remark and went on. “And what happened in Kyoto tells us that whatever grudge these entities have, they aren’t willing to take compromises, no matter how many bystanders get involved. For this reason protecting you and also those around you is very important to us.”

“Jim and Satsuki will keep watch on you to make sure that not only you are able to go on with your lives as usual without any outside interference, but also to prevent something like Kyoto from happening ever again. The local teams led by agents Shibata and Katsuyuki will be in charge of protecting your families and relatives,” Masefield concluded.

Yumiko felt relieved. “Satsuki and Jim have been a great help in the past days: without them I wouldn’t know what would have happened.” She turned to Satsuki and Jim. “Again, please take care of us.”

“As long as that man knows his limits,” Michiru muttered, disgruntled, “I’m fine with it.”

Jim wasn’t taken aback from that statement. Instead, he seemed pleased. “Oh? What about me? Are you afraid, little girl?”

“Why should be afraid of you? I’m just warning you.” She pointed a finger at him. “I get that you’re doing this to protect us, but… Don’t look where you’re not supposed to!”

“Didn’t I tell you already that you’re not my type?”

“That’s absolutely not the point!”

Yumiko shook her head in disapproval, and Sayuki folded her arms. “Certain men cannot be saved. Heaven, please show mercy on him.”

“I guess someone else found your attitude irritating at last…” Satsuki commented.

“It can’t be helped. I can’t please everyone.” Jim shrugged, his grin still firmly on his face.

“Please don’t think ill of him, girls,” Masefield added, “he’s like this with everyone.”

Michiru groaned. “I guess we’ll have to live with it.”

After that light-hearted note, final arrangements were made and the conversation ended. Satsuki accompanied Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru to the exit and a few minutes later they were on a train headed home. As they left, the three girls set aside everything about the Guardians, Fiends, and the Darkness and only focused on enjoying what was left of that hot summer day.

They did not know how long it would last.

Close to the eastern side of Shinjuku Station, hidden between the Hanazono jinja and the Shinjuku City Office, Golden Gai was a tiny area made up by six narrow alleys, connected by a network of even smaller passageways. Lots of two-story buildings, not particularly well related to each other, were packed together, each of them showing many signs indicating the entrance to the diverse establishments of the area, mostly bars. Chalkboards and billboards were next to the doors, advertising charges and prices for drinks, along with crates full of bottles. Space for walking was extremely limited, and it was hard for more than two people to pass through these streets. Despite the scarce illumination, coming mostly from the bars themselves and a few overhead streetlamps, the place had a safe and lively feel to it: happy conversations, mixed with cheers and laughs filtered out from the shops.

Noboru Ogiwara walked out of a bar and took a deep breath. So far, that had been a truly enjoyable night. Actually, he had not enjoyed himself that much since he had met that Naoko…

“What’s wrong, Noboru? Shouldn’t we get going?” a woman’s voice said.

Noboru spun round and noticed that Naoko was standing next to him. Although they had been meeting each other regularly for the past days, he had always felt almost overwhelmed by her appearance: long and beautiful black hair, a skin so perfect that almost resembled a doll’s, and captivating eyes that possessed far more maturity than her actual age. Aside from mere looks, she had been a witty, funny and intelligent conversation partner. In short, that woman was faultless.

At times, he did not understand how she could have found any interest in someone like him. Appearance was not his forte: while tall by Japanese standards, he was very thin, up to the point of seeming pinched. His tanned skin, a result of many UV sessions, paradoxically further reinforced his apparent frailty. On top of that, he often had his hair dyed with color combinations which many people found bizarre, including his friends. He had been very surprised when Naoko, whom he had met in an izakaya just the week before, showed quite an interest in him. The two found themselves to be in close harmony of ideas, likes and dislikes. It was one of these encounters that just fit right, no matter the reason. And then, they started to hang out together basically every evening. They talked about many different topics, but in particular the woman had a great interest in the town and its landmarks, as she had always new questions to ask him.

Despite the physical and intellectual attraction he had for the woman, Noboru did not have any plans for a long lasting relationship: he just wanted to make the most of it in the shortest time possible. And such an opportunity had eventually arrived that night, when Naoko had offered him to spend the night in her apartment.

“Sorry, I just spaced out for a second,” he replied to his partner, “Let’s go.”

The two took one of the last trains of the day from the busy Shinjuku Station towards one of the many suburban areas sprawled around Tokyo. About an hour later, they got off and walked out of the station. In sheer contrast to the the bustling activity of the city centers of Tokyo, the area was very quiet. Most of the lights at the windows of the many residential buildings were already turned off and there was almost no real human activity, with the exception of occasional passerby and people going in and out of the always-open conbini.

Naoko led Noboru to the last floor of a five-story condominium, where her flat was. She opened its plain-looking metal door and gestured for Noboru to get in.

“Sorry for the intrusion,” the man muttered almost ritually as he walked inside.

He was greeted by an almost pitch-black darkness: all the lights had been switched off and the windows had blinds on. While he blindly moved his hands to find a way to turn the illumination on, he couldn’t help but feeling the floor under his feet to be strangely uneven and bumpy. Perhaps it had not been cleaned properly, or he had accidentally walked over something that fell on the ground. Eventually his fingers found a switch and he turned it on.

Noboru immediately wished he had not done so. The studio apartment was a sight of horror and folly: almost empty save for essential furniture, it was completely covered by sticky, thick white filaments. More than a place to live, it resembled the lair of a giant spider. However, even that truly terrifying sight paled in comparison to what was on the ceiling. There were many skinny figures hanging there, bent in contorted and unnatural poses. At first they appeared to be life-sized dolls, but a second glance immediately revealed their true nature: human corpses. All of them were no more than a layer of brown wizened skin over very visible skin, and had two large holes, probably a wound, on the left side of their necks.

Noboru screamed in terror. In what kind of hell had he been thrown into?

“That’s too bad. You already noticed,” Naoko said. The voice was the one he was used to, but the tone had a strange buzzing sound, as if she had been speaking through some sort of synthesizer.

The man spun round and he yelled even louder than before. Naoko’s face was no longer the one he longed to look at. Ruby-like multifaceted globes, similar to the ones of an insect, stood where her eyes had been. Two large mandibles, constantly snapping, emerged from a slited mouth that was too little to contain them. Liquid like saliva dripped from them, fizzling every time it made contact with the floor.

That unholy vision reminded Noboru of the stories he had been told by his late grandmother, about ancient spiders that took form of beautiful women and lured young men to prey on them… the jorogumo. At the time he had just thought they were just a bunch of fairy tales to scare children off… and now he was in front of one in the flesh! Only the heavens knew what would happen to him should he get caught.

Escaping was impossible: the woman was right between him and the way out.

Naoko cackled. “You are the last one… will you stay put and die like you are supposed to be?”

Even if Noboru had never been particularly courageous, his self-preservation instinct gained the upper hand. If he had some kind of weapon, perhaps he would be able to escape! He rushed to the kitchen and frantically slammed open all the drawers he came across. Eventually he found what he had been looking for: a cutting knife with a long and sharp blade. He wielded it with both hands and he rushed to Naoko, who had not moved yet. Using all the strength he could muster, Noboru dug the knife deep in the woman’s flesh in a point where a human heart was supposed to be. The mandibles of the jorogumo twisted in a grotesque grimace.

The exhilarating sense of victory was the last thing Noboru ever felt. Naoko’s jaws closed on his neck with a snap. Shaken by convulsions, his body underwent a monstrous metamorphosis: his skin sagged and dried up, hair fell off his head, and his arms and legs became bony. Now an incredibly senile semblance of a man, he wavered then crumbled into dust.

The jorogumo cackled again. This last victim had been a little tougher than she had expected, but not enough to make a dent in the plan. Finally she would be able to avenge the humiliation she had to endure when she had attempted to assassinate that cursed girl! Her mandibles snapped repeatedly in frustration and she forced herself to calm down. After all, there was no need to worry. By sapping the life force of these foolish men all too eager for a one night stand, she had enough strength to carry out what she had intended to do. She just needed a little more time for the final preparations. Then, that annoying pest would understand the true meaning of terror and despair! She would make her beg for death under all forms of torture!

Naoko moved to the center of the room, kicking away whatever was left of Noboru. It was time to start the ritual. And when the borders between worlds would thin out… She laughed out loud.

Her laughter turned to a chant. All the lights in the room turned off, leaving only her ruby eyes glittering the darkness.

Lying on her bed, Yumiko peeked out of the window of her room. The afternoon was giving way to the evening and the sun had already set behind Tokyo’s skyline. Even in a residential area like hers, there were many people walking around, either busy with work or with other matters, while the occasional car passed by. Every now and then, she heard the happy cries of children from a nearby playground. Away from the horizon, the pale reddish tint of the sky faded into dark, creating a paradoxical impression of neither day nor night but rather a combination of both. It was just like any ordinary evening.

She sighed: “ordinary” times were few and far between these days. She had spent most of the day at another of the Guardians’ undercover locations, disguised as a clinic, to begin her “training” (for lack of any better term) with Satsuki. Like the previous day at their headquarters, reality had been far different from her expectations. The activities had been surprisingly commonplace, consisting of a few routine medical tests and lessons on how to meditate effectively. During one of the sessions, she had been asked to recite some words in a fashion similar to zazen, but the language was completely unknown to her. In the end, Yumiko did not understand the purpose of what she had done. So far, there had been no change at all. She could still sense the Fiend on the boundaries of her mind, feeble but always present. And there was no doubt it would try to take control, given any opportunity.

A buzz drew her away from her thoughts: a new message had just arrived on her cell phone. The sender had an avatar of a stylized yet very cute cat: without any doubt, it was from Michiru.

How did it go?

She typed in quickly a response. A few check-ups and a lot of things I didn’t understand.

Did it hurt you?

No, not at all.

What did you actually do?

A few medical exams you’d normally take in a hospital… you know, blood samples, X-rays and similar things. Then a lot of strange meditation, or at least something that looked like it. It was all kind of strange. I am not sure how it’s going to help me at all…

The image of a dog with a bandanna around its neck, the avatar used by Sayuki, entered the conversation.

Give it time, she wrote, They said it would take a bit, didn’t they?

A flurry of emoji representing angry faces were sent by Michiru. It’s funny reading that from you, Miss “always on a hurry”.

It’s because I have bad time management, not because I want to! And this is a different issue!

Yeah, yeah, sure…

Yumiko sent them an image of a stop sign. No need to argue about this now, you two! She let out a half-repressed chuckle when she read I’m sorry coming from both parties at once.

Anyway, she continued, I didn’t want to say that this… training was useless. It was very different than what I had imagined.

Like many of the things we saw recently, Michiru commented.

Speaking of weird things, Sayuki wrote, Take a look at the sky. There’s something very odd about it.

Michiru replied with a series of exclamation marks. It’s true! Yumiko, take a look!

Yumiko got off her bed and walked to the window. While at first she found nothing out of the ordinary, when she looked at the sky she couldn’t help but mutter an explanation of surprise. The pale red of the sunset had changed to a faint violet, which turned to a strong green tint when it touched the horizon. It was a sight that could not exist in nature.

Memories from Kyoto came back to her in a flash. What if that strange sky was a sign of events to come?

She sent words of warning to her friends. I see that too!

Sayuki tried to be optimistic about it. Perhaps it’s just a strange natural phenomenon.

If that were true, the news would have already reported it. And at the same time it’s too strange to be a coincidence.

You have a point… A giant question mark appeared next to Sayuki’s sentence. Then what is it?

I have no idea, Michiru added, I just hope it’s not happening again

Let’s write to Satsuki and Jim at once, Yumiko suggested.

The girl quickly composed a message for Satsuki and Jim, describing what had happened and asking them to come over at once. Moments after sending it a sudden feeling of nausea and dizziness swept through her, only to disappear as quickly as it had appeared. It was then that she realized that her cell phone had no signal anymore. Caught by an eerie sense of foreboding, she looked outside again.

What she saw actually confirmed her deepest fears: she was not looking at the Tokyo she used to know. The surroundings and the buildings were exactly like before, but there was not a single trace of life. Lights coming from the windows of the nearby houses showed empty rooms, as if their dwellers had vanished all of a sudden. There were no more children in the playing grounds, just empty structures that squeaked with the wind. Driver-less cars stood in the middle of the street, frozen in time. Tokyo had become a graveyard of concrete and steel of gargantuan proportions. Just as when it occurred in Kyoto, something unexplainable was taking place again.

Yumiko felt a lump in her throat. What kinds of unfathomable horrors would come for her this time? She shivered at the thought.

She did not even know if her friends had been caught up or not. The only way to make sure was to try to contact them and tell them to stay on guard. To account for similar problems, Jim had a special application installed on their phones to enable them to communicate even without any access to the cellular network, although with a fairly limited range. The girl quickly typed a message, only to stop with an exclamation of disappointment: she was too far from both. As much as she dreaded doing so, there was no other solution than to get near to either of them. Sayuki lived the closest to her, so Yumiko decided to go there first.

The sound of rustled leaves drew her attention outside. The source of the noise was a tall tree next to her house, a tree that she did not remember being there earlier. It had a thick trunk with many thin and long branches. Most of the foliage was tinted red at the far ends, perhaps due to the heat. Even if there was no wind, its branches swayed as if struck by a breeze. The ground next to it was broken and barren and white bulges sticking out, similar to roots, were all around the plant.

The girl blinked. Somehow the tree was closer than she had thought. Had it moved somehow? Such a thing was impossible, but she had already witnessed phenomena that could not be farther from the natural laws of the world. Her suspect turned to a certainty when she shifted her gaze away from it: when she looked back, it was no longer where it stood earlier. Instead, it had taken root next to the wall that surrounded her house, right in front of her window. Now that it was so near, the shape of one of the pale roots at the base caught her eye. She had never seen a root like that, and in fact she was sure she had seen a similar form somewhere before…

She brought a hand to her mouth when she figured out its true nature. What she thought it was a root was instead a whitened human femur dug into the ground. At the same time, Yumiko noticed that the deep scarlet ends of the leaves were dripping some kind of liquid. On closer inspection it was unmistakably blood.

She took a step backwards, both horrified and disgusted. What was that thing exactly?

As if it had read her mind, the whole tree shook violently and she heard that rustling sound again. It was unlike anything she head experienced before, and very different from the sounds of the woods in Nagano. Aside being louder and coarser, it had a certain rhythmic pattern to it, more similar to speech than noise occurring naturally. It was like a perverted and grotesquely twisted parody of human laughter.

And then two thin branches extended unnaturally and moved on their own, towards the window. Yumiko screamed and threw herself on the floor: she heard many loud thuds coming from the wall next to her. Fortunately, that corrupted tree did not seem able to break through. She did not want to think about what could happen if those tendrils touched her, although these human remains at its feet were a clear sign of the fate of its victims.

Nevertheless, Yumiko found herself in a difficult situation. That plant had shown already that it could move, therefore if she set foot outside she would be at its mercy. Without any form of cover, she would definitely get caught. She was effectively locked inside her own house.

The girl contemplated waiting for Satsuki or Jim to come for her, and soon discarded that strategy. She had no guarantee they would be able to come to her. Staying inside was not a safe strategy on the long term, either. While that creature was too large to come in, she could not rule out the possibility that something else would be able to come at her. And she had still to reach Sayuki and Michiru as soon as possible.

Her eyes frantically scanned the room. There had to be something she could do! Then she noticed her wrapped bow leaning against a wall, and a strategy formed in her mind. It had a certain degree of risk, as she had no backup in case she would get spotted. Still, it was probably the safest option compared to all the other ones at her disposal, and much better than waiting idly for rescue that might not ever come.

Yumiko crawled under the window until she was able to take hold of the bow, and then sneaked next to a wardrobe and took out a quiver along with a chest pad and a single four-fingered glove . Now she had everything she needed: she only needed a good spot to actually carry out her idea. Every now and then she could still hear the branches slamming against the wall, so that tree was only paying attention to where it last saw her. A good advantage for her.

She slowly crept out of her room and in the adjacent corridor. Her destination, her parents’ bedroom, was right in front of her. It was the right place for her idea as it had a French window leading to a small balcony. She looked at the door, hesitating. Her parents were not at home when the strange phenomenon had occurred, so she did not expect anything to be there. But what else could be awaiting her?

She shook her head and gathered up her courage. Her trembling hand reached out for the handle and turned it. All her fears were proven wrong as she realized the room was empty and always like she remembered. She sighed in relief and finally stood up.

Now she could actually execute her plan. Yumiko tied her muneate across her shoulder and over her chest, wore the glove on her right hand, and finally unwrapped her bow. It was almost as twice as tall as her, made almost entirely of wood and bamboo. Despite the apparent unwieldiness, the girl was used to it after months of practice and handled it with ease while she checked the grip and the state of the string.

Once she was sure everything was in order, Yumiko pulled out a long arrow from the quiver. Trying to make as less noise as possible, she walked next to the balcony and slid open the window with her foot. She took a peek from the side the wall and saw the tree still bent in lashing out at the wall next to her room. The laughter-like sound had turned to something resembling a frustrated cry as that unnatural plant was unable to make even a dent in the concrete.

Yumiko pulled together her resolve. It was now or never! She silently stepped out on the balcony and turned towards her target. Then her body moved automatically, following a pattern that she had repeated many times when practicing at her club. She moved her body facing her left side at the tree, straightened her back and adjusted her posture, and readied her bow. Taking the string with her right hand and holding the grip with her left, she drew the weapon until the arrow was at the same level as her mouth, pointed right at where the branches divided from the trunk. She hoped to cause enough damage to give her enough time to leave.

The string creaked as it gained full tension, and the noise was enough for the tree to stop pounding on the wall of the house. With a sound of putrid wood breaking up, a bulge appeared on its top. It resembled a completely disproportionate human skull, with a unnaturally small mouth and very large eye sockets that stared emptily at Yumiko. An expression that resembled a grin formed on that abominable face, and all branches trembled with satisfaction.

Yumiko suppressed the disgust and the nausea caused by that sight and focused all her strength on her extended arms. The girl emptied her thoughts and focused only on what was in front of her. Even the Fiend’s presence was no more. All that mattered was landing the arrow where she wanted to. Her world was the bow, the nocked arrow, her right and left hands, and her target. Everything else simply did not exist. Her whole reason to live was concentrated in a single, clear thought.

Hanare (release).

The arrow dug right where the throat should have been in a normal human body. The whole plant shrieked as it shook with deep convulsions. The minuscule mouth opened from side to side as a bloody stream flowed out of it. All leaves fell off the branches, turning into dust the moment they touched the ground, and the trunk dried up as cracks formed all over it. With one last jolt, that fiendish tree turned into wood splinters.

Yumiko let go of her bow and fell to her knees, both nauseated and exhausted. The ordeal had taken a heavy toll on both her mind and body. For a while she just stood still, breathing deeply and slowly until she felt she was able to stand again.

She walked back to her room and took stock of the situation. With the abnormal plant out of the way, she was finally able to leave her house and check on her friends. She glanced at her bow, wondering whether it would be useful to bring it with her, but she let go of the idea almost immediately. The weapon was too unwieldy to be used in an agitated situation, and her feat just minutes before had been most due to the circumstances rather than actual skill. Albeit reluctantly, the girl left her gear on her bed and headed downstairs.

When she finally stepped out of her house she discovered that the whole environment had further changed. The sky was now deep violet, partially covered with dark thick clouds similar to smoke. An eerie light, present even if there were no traces of the sun, made even familiar places look strangely sinister. Will-o’-the-wisps briefly came into existence around the intersections, only to disappear a moment later.

Despite all her instincts telling her to stay shut inside, Yumiko forced herself to move forward. Sayuki’s home was just a ten minute walk from her place. If she exercised caution, there would be no problems going there.

She had just turned around the corner when she heard the sound of steel grating on the ground coming closer. Panic got hold of the girl: she absolutely did not want to find out the source of that noise! She looked in all directions for a means to escape, and noticed a narrow street going through two rows of short houses with walled fences. She ran there as fast as she could and pushed herself against one of the walls. Her heart was racing and she was in cold sweat. What was going to happen this time? She prayed with all her might that whatever was out there would find her.

Apparently her prayers were unanswered, because the noise grew louder as it neared. Once it was close enough, Yumiko finally saw its cause, and stood motionless, even holding her breath, for it was not a sight pleasant to human eyes. It was not too different from what she had seen in Kyoto: a whitened skeleton, moving on its own as controlled by an unseen puppeteer. Compared to the ones from before, it was twice as tall as a normal person, and even its rusted armor was too large for any human being to wear. It held a giant one-bladed axe with both hands, but apparently the weapon was too heavy to be lifted, and it was just dragged along causing the sound she had heard.

The undead warrior stopped just before the intersection where Yumiko was hiding and its empty eye sockets scanned the surroundings. Its unnatural gaze pointed one, almost fatal, moment in the direction of the girl, then it spun round and went back from where it came, hauling its large axe.

Yumiko sighed in relief. The fact that the creature went away right before she was discovered had been pure luck. She also took it as a a warning not to be too careless: the next time she might not be that fortunate. That meant a change of plans. Instead of going straight away to Sayuki’s house, Yumiko decided to use a slightly longer route through a number of side streets instead of using the main roads. While that meant taking more time to reach her friend, it also meant being less in the open and having more chances to hide.

Her mind now set, she walked along the street she had taken to conceal herself. She moved very slowly, her eyes always on the lookout for anything remotely suspicious. Often, she heard sounds like murmured laughter, half-spoken words and slobbering suction which made her freeze in terror: while she could see nothing, she actually perceived a malevolent presence next to her… a presence whose greatest joy was toying with her fears. Around her, the flickering light of the will-o’-the-wisps drew shadows with monstrous and abnormal shapes. It felt like walking in a living hell.

Yumiko came to regret her earlier decision. The giant skeleton might have harmed or killed her, but it was physical menace… far more comforting than what she perceived around her, a potential threat to her very soul.

She reached the other end of the passage and found herself at a T-junction. While she pondered on the correct direction to take, an indistinct form zoomed right in front of her. She blinked: what could it have been this time? All she could distinguish was the contour of a large wheel. Feeling in a knot in her stomach, she hurried forward. It would have been better not to find out.

The girl had made just a few steps then that same figure appeared out of a corner right in front of her. And that was when her blood ran cold: it was nothing more than a scene of horror. It was in fact a wheel, as she had glimpsed earlier, large enough to fit on a cart. Crimson flames engulfed putrid and splintered wood somehow without causing any damage. Yet that was absolutely nothing compared to what was in its center. A severed head, shaven in the way used by Buddhist priests, stood where the hole for an axis should have been.

Its vitreous eyes glared at Yumiko. “It is time for you to pay for your sins, young girl,” it said in an old-fashioned Japanese.

Yumiko did not pay attention to those words. She moved out of instinct and fled in the direction opposite to that living abomination. The wheel-monk broke into an inhuman laughter as it chased her.

Yumiko was well aware of she was at a disadvantage. No matter how fast she ran, her pursuer was quickly closing the gap with her. The best she could do finding a place too narrow for it to go through, and in the mean time avoid going on a straight line for too long. She followed a zig-zag pattern, turning at random corners without any care for her actual bearing. But no matter what she did, that creature was always able to catch up.

The girl was at her limit. Her legs were in pain and she was running short of breath. At the current rate, getting caught was just a matter of time. She had to find a place to hide quickly.

She heard a rumble ahead, and when she looked, her spirits sank to a new low. Another wheel-monk had emerged from a junction before her and moved itself to barricade the road. A look behind confirmed that the other was still on her heels and getting closer by the second. She was effectively caught between two fires.

It was hard not to give in to despair. If she had slowed down, she would have been at the mercy of the creature pursuing her, but on the other hand there was no way she could safely avoid the one in front. While searching for a way to escape that pincer attack, Yumiko noticed a gate to a nearby house close further ahead, although dangerously close to the monster out front. It was large enough for her to pass, but too narrow for them to go through, and at least would have given her some precious time. As she was out of other options, she gathered all the strength she could muster and sprinted in that direction.

The wheel-monk in front smiled cruelly as she drew near and it quickly rolled sideways to obstruct her only means to escape. Yumiko was too close to change course: she prepared to threw herself forward, hoping to move past the creature unscathed.

A high-pitched scream made her reconsider her decision. The ground had warped as if it were liquid, forming a long spike that had pierced the wheel-monk’s head from side to side. Its ghastly face contracted spasmodically while the mystic fire around the wheel turned into a real, crackling flame, and burned through wood and flesh until only charred remains were left. Confused by that sudden turn of events but determined not to lose that advantage, Yumiko crossed the gate and rolled behind a wall to catch her breath. At least it was safe enough for her to rest a bit.

She cautiously took a peek outside, only to notice that the other creature had been equally stricken by what had happened. It had stopped its chase and it was just glancing suspiciously left and right as much as its strange body allowed it to. Eventually its dead eyes focused on a tree standing tree in a courtyard of a nearby house, not too far from where Yumiko was.

“I see, it was your doing!” the wheel-monk shouted, “May you be forever cursed!”

It grinned malevolently and flames erupted from its mouth, setting the whole tree ablaze in an instant. However, confidence disappeared from its face when it realized that no one was amidst those now charred branches. And yet, it had felt the presence of someone there. Was it some kind of trick, or even a trap? The monster looked around suspiciously for signs of an incoming threat.

Its suspicions ultimately proved true when it heard a voice coming from behind. “Sorry, wrong target.”

Yumiko saw a woman jumping down a wall and her spirits soared as she recognized a familiar face. She wouldn’t have expected a better outcome: it was her best ally in such a situation… Satsuki.

“What value would your curse have, wa nyudo?” Satsuki continued as she walked towards the creature. “You are the one cursed in the first place. Or am I mistaken?”

The giant wheel turned towards her. “The true nature of those who walk the other world is of no concern to you, woman. I have but one task: extinguish the sinners. And that girl is the most sinful of them all! It is only natural that she deserves death. Only a fool would interfere!”

The woman let out an ironic chuckle. “Yes, and you all are the supreme fools for trying to meddle in her life!”

“Enough with the insolence…” The sound of a gunshot silenced the wa nyudo’s words. With a large hole in its forehead, the wheel-monk fell sideways and was consumed by its own flame.

“You truly were stupid,” Satsuki commented as she put her gun back in the holster, “Had you paid some more attention to what I was doing instead of talking all high and mighty, you would have avoided this embarrassing conclusion.”

She made a gesture in the direction of Yumiko. “You can come out now, it’s safe.”

The girl rushed to the woman’s side. “I’m so glad that you are here!” she cried out, “I really thought I was done for this time.”

“I was lucky enough to find you in time. Are you all right?”

“Yes, just a few scratches here and there, but I’m fine.” Yumiko paused a moment. “Say, Satsuki… do you know what happened to Tokyo?”

Satsuki shook her head. “I’d be lying if I told you I knew. I can only make conjectures, and the only explanation I can come up is that we’re not in Tokyo, just in some place that looks like it.”

“How come? Is such a thing even possible?”

“Don’t ask me too much,” Satsuki replied with a smile on her face, “I’m just speculating.”

Yumiko looked away from her, embarrassed. “Sorry, I guess I just got too carried away…” She faked a cough as she tried to keep the conversation on track. “Anyway, how did you manage to find me?”

“I was in the area since after your training session was over. You see, the Guardians have their ways to gather information on what the entities of the Darkness are doing, kind like an intelligence agency. Today I and Jim had received reports of strange activity. Jim was out investigating the whole day, and I joined him after we were done. However, most of the leads we had brought us to nothing. There were no phenomena related to the Darkness.”

“So, your intelligence was wrong?”

“At first, I thought so too. But after four or five unsuccessful field investigations in a row, we started getting suspicious. There were too many wrong information to be just chance. I am guessing that somehow whoever is after you found out about what we were doing and deliberately fabricated evidence. In other words, we were given false clues.”

Yumiko was shocked. “How could this happen? And why?”

“Do you remember what Masefield told you a few days ago? Not all creatures of the Darkness are brutes. Some are truly masterminds… in their own twisted ways. I guess we will need to be more careful from now on.

As for the reason for this, perhaps it was just a way to drive us away from what was about to happen here. We wanted to contact headquarters when we saw your message. We had barely the time to read it: we felt very dizzy, and when we came to, we found ourselves in this ghost town. We realized you three would be in danger, so I and Jim split up. He went to check on Sayuki and Michiru, while I had to look out for you. But when I arrived at your house, you were not there. It took me a while to locate your presence, and even more to get you without getting noticed by all these things out here."

“Do you know anything about Sayuki and Michiru?” Yumiko asked worriedly.

“My last contact with Jim was a while ago. He said he had almost reached Sayuki’s house. Unfortunately to recover you I went out of comms range, so that’s all I know for now.”

“I hope they’re all right.”

“I’m sure they are. Jim took care of their safety before, don’t you remember? In any case, the plan is to meet up with him now…”

The clink of metal interrupted the conversation. Many armored skeletons, identical to the one Yumiko had seen earlier, emerged from all intersections holding their massive axes above their heads, ready to be brought down on whoever came in range. They formed a semicircle around Satsuki and Yumiko and slowly advanced towards them.

“Or so that’s what I’d like to say,” the woman remarked. “We have to deal with this problem first.”

Yumiko was shivering with tension. She gripped Satsuki’s shoulder firmly in an attempt to keep herself under control. The situation was desperate: they had been surrounded and even if Satsuki had been capable of incredible feats, Yumiko was not sure she would be able to keep up with those creatures.

“What should we do, Satsuki?” she said. “Will you you able to deal with them?”

Satsuki’s response did not leave much to interpretation. “As much as it pains me to say this, no. At least, not with this many while I need to look out for you at the same time. We have to retreat as fast as possible.”

“Can… we really do that? There’s no way out for us now.”

“Of course we can! If there’s no way out… I’ll simply create a new one.”

Satsuki drew a stone from a pouch in her belt. It was a perfectly smooth oval similar to a giant pearl with an unusual shape. The woman weighed briefly in the palm of her hand and then she threw it against the closest surrounding wall. As soon as it made contact, the concrete cracked and crumbled down in a cloud of dust.

“Now! Let’s hurry!” she shouted.

Yumiko had already dashed ahead before she could finish her sentence, and the woman followed suit. They passed through that makeshift entrance into a nearby courtyard and then they were back in the street, outside of that deadly encirclement. The undead behind them attempted a pursuit but they were hampered by the weight of their own axes: their movement speed was less than half of their two targets, and they were hopelessly outrun. Nevertheless, Yumiko and Satsuki continued their run until they were sure they had put enough distance between them and their assailants. They stopped at a crossroads to catch their breath and take stock of the situation.

“That was incredible, Satsuki!” Yumiko exclaimed, panting.

“It’s a useful trick when you’re cornered,” the woman replied, “But I won’t be able to do it again. I only had one stone like that.”

“That’s too bad. In any case it saved both our lives, so… Thanks!”

Satsuki did not share her enthusiasm. “It’s still early for thanks. We need first to catch up with Jim and your friends, and then find a way to get out of this area.”

“Do you know where exactly we are?” Yumiko looked around. “I’m afraid I lost my way with all that running.”

“Judging by the surroundings, we’re a little closer than before, but still far. Getting there will take at least twenty minutes, if we exercise caution like we should.”

Yumiko brought a hand to her mouth in amazement. “How can you tell this easily? I’ve been living in this area since I was little and sometimes I still get lost…”

“Yes, I know this place extremely well.… As for the reason, I can tell after we deal with yet another problem.”

“What’s going on? Are there more… things coming this way?”

Satsuki pointed at a street to their left. “No, it looks like it’s someone entirely different from before. Either way, I doubt they’re going to be friendly.”

On the other side, a lone figure was walking in their direction. It looked like a woman with waist-long black hair, wearing an elaborately decorated and brightly-colored kimono. There was something unusual about her movement and posture, but the distance prevented figuring out the cause. Only when she was nearer many unusual details became clearer. The sharp nails, as long as her forearms, which almost scraped against the asphalt. The two insect-like, multifaceted ruby eyes on her face. Two mandibles protruding where her mouth should have been. It was not a human being.

She stopped a few steps away from the two. She seemed strangely familiar to Yumiko: had she met her somewhere before?

“We meet again, Yumiko Hasegawa,” the black-haired woman said, almost reading her thoughts. “Are you ready to partake in this dance with Death?”

How could this ever happen?

Michiru knew already that there was no answer to such a question. Nevertheless, it was a perfectly natural question to ask. Even more so considering the chain of events that brought her there. But even if she knew the response, it would not be of any help.

Her arms trembled uncontrollably and her heart was racing. There, in the basement her father had set up as a workshop, a thought-numbing fear had been her only companion, threatening to devour whatever was left of her rationality and throw her into a panic. Even the room, which had been always familiar to her, exuded an unsettling, almost malignant, aura under that eerie light. The tools lined up in shelves on the walls looked like instruments of torture; a half-completed wooden box lying in a corner strangely resembled a casket; and a saw, a drill and a vise on the workbench next to her reminded her of a dissection table ready to accept a new corpse.

She recalled how she had been forced to take refuge there. When Sayuki had told her and Yumiko about the strange appearance of the sky, she voiced her own fears, and like a self-fulfilling prophecy they became true mere seconds later. Michiru felt a strong but brief nausea, and afterwards everything had changed. Everyone just disappeared all of a sudden, including her own parents. They vanished like they had never existed in the first place, making the conversation she had with them a few minutes earlier almost an illusion.

Obviously alarmed by what had been happening, Michiru attempted to contact her friends, but she realized she was too far from them to communicate with whatever the Guardians had given them. Very worried about their well-being, she rushed out of the front door and was about to leave when a noise resembling a groan of suffering made her jump back in fright. Was some unspeakable being coming after her? She stuck her head out of the front gate and glanced around. Much to her relief, there were no abominations around, just a meowing grey cat sitting in the middle of the street. As far as Michiru knew, it was not from her close neighbors, because they did not have pets. Did it get lost, perhaps?

The girl loved cats and normally she would have seen that it would get back to whoever owned it. However, given the circumstances she had little to no time to spend idly: she had to contact Yumiko and Sayuki. She decided to pet it just to calm it down, then she would leave.

She knelt in front of it. “Are you lost, kitty?” she said, “I’m sorry I can’t help you right now.”

Michiru stretched a hand out to caress it on the head, but its reaction was not what she had expected. The cat responded with a loud and angry hiss lowering its ears and arching its body in a display of extreme anger. Surprised and scared, she instinctively took a step back.

The animal kept on hissing louder and louder, its eyes fixed on the girl and piercing her. While they were physically no different from ordinary pets, they radiated a feral aura and a deep murderous intent, strong enough to make even the wildest beast cower in fear like a frightened dog. At the same time, the cat’s body started changing at an alarming rate. At first it started standing on its hind legs, like a human; its body rapidly grew in size until it was as large as a stout man; the asphalt under its legs cracked and broke when claws as large as a lion’s emerged from its paws.

What stood there was no longer a common pet, but rather a creature born out of the deepest recesses of human nightmares. As blue flames sparked around its limbs, it licked its lips in anticipation of its next meal.

However, Michiru had not stood idly awaiting her fate. As soon as she had seen that strange metamorphosis taking place, she had hurriedly come back to her house and had closed the door behind her. A single jump was enough for her assailant to reach the entrance. No matter how stout-looking it looked, it proved to be an extraordinarily weak form of defense: two quick movements of the monster’s claws were more than enough to break it down. With a grunt, the cat-like creature stepped in, sniffing the air as it tried to track the girl’s scent.

A long and loud meow of satisfaction indicated that it had been successful. It walked up to a corridor and snarled as it noticed Michiru’s feet sticking out next to a tall closet.

In desperation, Michiru pushed against the piece of furniture with all her strength. Fortunately for her it was almost empty, so it moved easily, tipped on one side, and fell down on the “cat”. The flames around its body quickly consumed the cabinet before it actually reached its intended target, but that was enough to buy precious time for Michiru: she took the opportunity to run to the workshop in the basement and barricaded the entry.

A loud thump made brought her back to the present. The door on the other side of the room where she had shut herself in was wavering, despite the makeshift reinforcements she had hastily set up. She wondered how much it would resist under the constant assault of that monster. It was likely only a matter of time before it would give in and when that happened, it would be over. There were no other means of escape.

She shook her head vigorously, trying to contain her fears. As long as she was still alive, it was too early to give up. At the very least she hoped to find a chance to get out of that situation. She thought about using some of the tools there as a weapon, but dismissed the idea. Winning by brawl was no option, because that creature was immensely quicker and more powerful than her, with a guaranteed suicide as the only outcome. If she wanted to survive the confrontation alive, she had to rely on wit.

She looked through the shelves in search of something useful. Her attention was caught by a tall can of cleaning spray, which had flammable warnings printed all over it. She took it in one hand, deep in thought. Perhaps…

The door bent and crashed down in a shower of splinters and metal, and the unearthly fiend finally stepped inside the workshop. It howled when it realized that its prey was right ahead. Not wanting to give her any further chance of surviving, it leapt forward and landed just a few steps ahead of her.

Screaming, Michiru threw the can she was holding and took cover under the workbench. It was a clumsy and imprecise movement, barely enough to hurl the object in its indirect direction. The beast hissed in contempt at that futile attempt of resistance and easily parried the attack with one of its paws.

When that happened, the can welled up and exploded with a loud bang as the gas it contained reacted to the heat of the creature’s unnatural flames, which set it ablaze instants later. Unlike the creature’s own, which could be controlled by mere will, that natural fire could not be put out that easily. It burned and charred the cat’s fur and flesh while it writhed on the floor, yelling in pain.

Michiru peeked out of her hiding place. Had her desperate attempt truly worked out? Was she finally safe now?

Her hopes were shattered when the creature got back on its feet with a superhuman effort. Even though most of the fire had died out, terrible burns were all over through its body, one of its arms lay limp at its side, and the left eye would not see anything anymore. Despite these wounds an unnatural vitality still beat inside its tortured chest. It would have not allowed itself to die without slaying its prey first.

Terrified, Michiru crawled back while the cat limped in her direction. Her attempts to escape were soon cut off as her shoulders hit a wall. She had been lured in a corner, and there were no other ways out. She yelled hysterically. Would she really die?

The monster rose its claws for the blow would seal her fate forever. A loud crack sounded across the room and it froze, trembling. Blood flowed out of its mouth and from its neck, and it crumpled on the floor, finally dead.

Sayuki stood behind the now fallen corpse, holding an heavy-looking hammer with both hands. She was breathing heavily, her hair was ruffled, and blood trickled down an injury on her left arm.

“It’s over,” she said as she dropped the weapon, “You can be at ease now.”

“Sayuki!” Michiru shouted as she jumped into her friend’s arms. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! I was so afraid I would not make it… I swear I’m not going to argue with you anymore!”

“Somehow I don’t think you’ll be able to keep that promise… But before that, would you avoid hugging me this hard? It hurts!”

Embarrassed, Michiru took a step back and regained her composure. Only then noticed the wound on Sayuki’s arm.

“That’s a bad injury,” she pointed out with a hint of worry in her voice, “Does it hurt?”

Sayuki shrugged. “A bit, but luckily it’s just superficial. I’m fine.”

“Don’t lie to me! I know you like to act tough since we were in junior high… You are not the main character of a tokusatsu show: you can’t get hit in the chest and stand up like nothing has happened!”

“There goes your promise,” Sayuki commented sarcastically.

“It’s your fault for being a dummy and not telling the truth!”

“All right, I am sorry,” Sayuki added, " I didn’t mean to dismiss your worry. But in any case you can trust me. I’ve hurt myself plenty of times, and this is not that serious. As I said, it does hurt a bit, though."

Acknowledging she had been too aggressive, Michiru looked away from her. “I am sorry too, I’m still shaken by what has happened.”

“One apology for each. No problems at all!”

“Indeed,” Michiru replied with a smile, “Shall we go upstairs? I can at least do something for your arm, and then let’s figure out what to do next.”

Michiru led Sayuki out of the workshop. Once they were in the living room, she had her friend lie on a sofa while she looked for something to treat her wound. After a while, she came back with a first aid box.

Even if Sayuki grimaced when Michiru disinfected the injury, it was luckily far less serious than it looked, because it was neither too large nor too deep. Michiru covered it with the largest band-aid she had found, using medical gauze to keep it attached to the arm. It was clearly not a job made by a nurse or a doctor, but good enough to reduce the impact of the problem.

“How are you feeling?” she asked when she had finished.

Sayuki moved her arm in the air for a while and nodded. “Much better, I almost don’t feel any pain now. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Michiru briefly smiled, then her expression turned to serious again. “With this settled, can you tell me how did you find me here?”

“There isn’t much to explain, honestly. After I couldn’t contact you two anymore, I was still thinking on what to do when I heard strange sounds coming from the kitchen… and all the knives were flying in the air… and they had grown eyes! It was very scary. As soon as I stepped inside, they all started tying to stab me. Luckily I was fast enough to avoid becoming a pincushion… but not enough not to get hurt. I ran out of the house as fast as I could, and then I saw that no one was around and the sky had became all weird.

It felt like being in some kind of out-of-this-world light novel… although it wasn’t funny at all when you are actually experiencing it. Then I remembered that application Jim had given us, but both you and Yumiko were out of range. I actually wanted to go to her house first, because it’s very close to my place, but there were way too many things in the way and I didn’t want to risk being discovered, so I decided to come here. I saw the door torn apart and heard a bang: I ran down there just in time to see that cat-like creature walking towards you. It was not paying attention to me at all, so I took a hammer and landed it right on its head."

“I see. So that’s how you ended up being in the right place at the right time.”

Sayuki put a hand over Michiru’s forehead. “Are you sure you’re feeling all right? I understand promising not to argue with me, but even praising me now? What are the gods doing today?”

“Forgiving you for your foolish acts, probably. Do you think we have time to fool around, dummy?” Michiru slapped her hand.

“Aha! That’s more like the Michiru I know!” Sayuki commented, unfazed by her remark. “But you are right. What do we do now?”

“The only obvious choice: find Yumiko. I’m sure she’s worried about us.”

“Even if it’s just this area, it’s still pretty big… If we wander around randomly, we may go on for hours without finding her.”

“Let’s go to her house first. She may be still around there. Also, if we get close enough we may be able to communicate through our phones.”

“Good idea. Shall we go, then?”

Michiru stood up. “Just a moment, I need to get something first.”

She walked outside of the living room and returned a couple of minutes later, carrying a small backpack.

Sayuki squinted her eyes. “Do you think it’s okay to bring stuff around?”

“In this case, yes. After what happened in the workshop, I thought I’d carry something useful with me.”

“The Ichikawa family’s ultimate super weapon?”

Michiru puffed. “We’re not a ninja clan. You read too many manga!”

“Sorry, couldn’t resist!”

“You’re a lost case.” Michiru groaned. “Let’s get moving before something else happens.”

She threw the bag on her shoulder and walked outside with Michiru. The environment had changed again from before: brightly colored streaks ran through the sky like cracks in a vase, strange lights as big as a palm flickered, vanished and appeared again in the blink of an eye, and most of the trees and grass around them were dry and withered. More than belonging to one of the largest cities in the world, the area resembled a large wasteland.

“Oi, it’s even worse than before,” Sayuki commented, “I get the chills just wondering about what will happen now.”

“Let’s find Yumiko as soon as we can,” Michiru said with a hint of urgency in her voice.

While they thought about what direction to take, their attention was drawn by the sound of gunfire coming from around the corner. Their first impulse was to run there, but Michiru suggested to exercise caution: there was no guarantee it would not be some sort trap to lure them in. They cautiously moved forward, and once they were close enough Sayuki glanced on the other side trying not to be seen.

What she saw was the scene of a massacre. Many human heads, apparently cut off from their original bodies, lay scattered on the ground, each of them with one or more large hole in the forehead or the eyes. Their expressions portrayed a large spectrum of negative emotions: hatred, fear, agony, rage… they were so noticeable up to the point of being caricatural. However, the girl did not notice most of these features, because her gaze shifted immediately to the man standing next to that pile: a tall, muscular man with an unkempt beard and a short ponytail with a gun in his hand.

“I have to commend those on the other side for their fantasy,” Jim stated dryly, “flying heads were unheard of before today.” He pointed at the spot where the two girls were hiding. “You can come out now. Good thing I already dealt with these, because your presence can be sensed by almost anyone.”

In response to his call, the two walked up to him. Ever since they had found themselves in that strange environment, they felt truly at ease. Nothing was over yet, but they finally had an ally capable of helping them.

“I’m glad to see you there, Jim!” Sayuki exclaimed enthusiastically.

“I’m very glad to see you two myself,” he replied, “It looks like I made it in time, after all. Sorry for not being there sooner: I had… a divergence of opinions with some of the things that are around here and I had to settle those differences. But I can see you are fine.”

“We would have been even better if you had arrived earlier,” Michiru added, faking annoyance. She was truly happy he had found them as well, but she did not want to show it openly.

“You can always file a complaint and collect your refund later.”

Michiru glared at him. “There you go again with your jokes. Can you take this situation seriously? It’s a miracle that we’re still alive.”

“Then, do you mind telling me what happened? My mind-reading abilities are at an all time low today.”

The girl’s face became red from embarrassment. Sayuki let out an entertained chuckle, ignoring the angry stares from her friend.

“Right…” Michiru pouted. “Here’s what happened…”

She told him about their discussion with Yumiko, how Tokyo turned into a ghost town, and about her encounter with the monster cat. Sayuki added her own account of how she had escaped mostly unharmed from her house, and how she had helped Michiru when she had been cornered. Jim listened to their record without saying anything, with only an occasional nod. When they had finished, he rubbed his chin vigorously as he reorganized his ideas.

“I see. I’m impressed you handled the situation so well,” he commented, “Are you sure you aren’t interested in joining the Guardians? The pay’s good, and I can guarantee it’s going to be quite exciting.”

Sayuki shook her head. “No way! That would mean having to deal with you every day! I’m not ready for this…”

“It is as she says. Working with someone this indecent… unbelievable,” Michiru remarked with a sneer.

Jim was dismissed the criticism with a shrug. “Oh well, at least I tried.”

“You should have never tried to begin with… But enough of that.” With a grumble, Michiru steered back the conversation to the matters at hand. “Jim, do you know what happened to Tokyo?”

“I don’t have a clear idea on why the town turned to this. Satsuki speculated that it’s not really Tokyo, just a place that looks like it. But of course there’s no way to prove that. As you have already seen, no matter its true nature, it’s not where I would spend my holidays.”

“How did you end up there, and how did you find us?”

“Well… I was around here since this morning, because we had received reports of unusual activity in the area. The problem is… there wasn’t anything suspicious. All the clues I had led up to nothing, or perfectly natural phenomena. At some point I even thought that someone was playing pranks on me. But the information were from well trusted sources, so I guess someone anticipated our moves and planted false hints. Later on I joined up with Satsuki and shortly afterwards this… problem broke out. We split up: she went to check on Yumiko, while I looked for you. I went first to Sayuki’s house, but she was not there…”

“That was because I had already left,” Sayuki confirmed.

“Correct,” he continued, “then I decided to check Michiru’s place, and you know the rest.”

The mention of her friend made Michiru worried. “I wonder if Yumiko is all right.”

“She is going to be okay,” Jim reassured her, “Satsuki is probably the most reliable person I know. When she has an objective, she always carries it out to completion. I just wish she’d accept my offer for that dinner, though.”

“He’s right, Michiru,” Sayuki said as she put a hand on her shoulder, “Satsuki is truly an amazing person! She’ll surely keep Yumiko safe. And… let’s ignore the rest of what he said.”

“I guess you are right, I should stop over-worrying,” the other girl sighed. She turned to Jim again. “I guess explanations are over. What do we do now?”

“First, we will join up with Satsuki”, Jim explained, “then we will hopefully figure out how to get out of this place.”

He had barely finished the sentence when a distant sound of crumbling concrete startled both Sayuki and Michiru. Jim did not show any signs of surprise, but worry flashed through his eyes.

Michiru held onto Sayuki’s arm. “What was that?”

“It’s like a wall went down or something,” Sayuki observed, “I wonder what happened…”

Jim had little doubts on what the cause was. “I’m sure it has to do with Satsuki… And it doesn’t look like anything pleasant.”

“Does that mean that Yumiko is in danger?” Michiru wondered.

“There’s no way to tell unless we check it out directly. It can be dangerous, so don’t feel forced to follow me. You can hide somewhere and wait, if you want. I can make sure you are not found, you know, with that trick.”

Michiru had already made up her mind. “We’ve been helping each other for a very long time, so we will not leave Yumiko behind,” she argued, “Scary or not, we’ll follow through until the end.”

Sayuki had reached the same conclusion. “I gave a hand to Michiru when she needed it. Why would Yumiko be different?”

A large grin showed up on Jim’s face. “You’re either incredibly reckless… or very courageous. I like that. The matter is settled: let’s hurry there!”

The jorogumo waved her unnaturally long nails in front of Satsuki and Yumiko while uttering a satisfied cackle. “Not that it matters. Ready or not, you will dance… and meet your demise, as it was foretold. And at last, the will of my Lord will be fulfilled!”

No matter the situation she was in, Yumiko felt frustration welling up in her. Something alien in the universe wanted her dead, without any qualms about involving other people and even entire cities. On top of that, there was absolutely no reason for it, or nothing that she could comprehend. How could a young girl like her matter in some extracosmic dispute? More than that, all of she had gone through seemed to have happened on a whim of these all-powerful beings.

“Why?” she shouted. “Why do you want me dead this much? I don’t understand!”

“Do you think you truly deserve an answer? Foolish girl,” the creature sneered, “You don’t need to understand. You don’t need to know why. All that matters is that my Lord desires your death. And that will happen now.”

Satsuki pointed her gun at the other woman. “Not on my watch.”

She fired a series of shots in succession. Her opponent opened her mandibles and a white, thick web shot out of them. It wrapped around the bullets while they were still in flight and made them drop on the ground harmlessly. Satsuki opened fire again, but even in this case her attack was unsuccessful: the jorogumo deflected the projectiles away with her long claws and immediately retaliated with a slash. Caught unprepared by the speed of that assault, Satsuki barely managed to jump backwards, and these sharp nails whistled right in front of her face. She tried to keep some distance between herself and the creature, but the jorogumo was far more agile than she had expected and kept closing the gap while continuously lashing at her. The two were locked in a cat and mouse game with Satsuki being clearly on the losing side, only focused on keeping herself alive.

The woman cursed under her breath. That spider-woman was clearly tougher than what she had faced before. Fighting at close distance might have turned the tables in her favor, but it was far too risky without knowing what that entity was capable of. On top of that she had always to keep in mind that the target of her adversary was Yumiko and that she would go after her at every opportunity. Using a technique like she did at the Chinno-ji was not possible either, due to the time needed to recite the incantation. She would get easily crushed before completing it.

At a distance, Yumiko watched the struggles of her protector against that being from another world. It was the first time she had seen Satsuki in trouble. Up to then she unknowingly believed her to be all-powerful, but the events called that belief into question. It was truly chilling: if by any reason Satsuki fell, she would be next. And all she could do was watch, watch until her demise came. She fought against that desperation as much as she could. She did not want to die! She wanted a chance, even one chance to steer her course away from that fate.

The girl stopped halfway in her thoughts. She had a chance! The Fiend was still there in her mind, eager to emerge from the depths she had confined it to. Maybe, just maybe, if she…

Before she could put her idea into practice, a stern warning come from Satsuki. “I know what you want to do. It won’t be necessary.”

Yumiko stood still, confused. Why had Satsuki refused an easy way out of that state of affairs? Did she truly believe she would win?

“As for the reason,” Satsuki went on while keeping her attention on the jorogumo, “I’ll show you now.”

She yelled. It was a single word that had no resemblance to the human language. It was rather similar to the sound of wood that had just snapped, and sounded like an order of some sort. In response to that command all the trees from the courtyards around them started swaying left and right while simultaneously their branches grew in length and moved in the direction of the jorogumo. Before the woman could avoid them, they wrapped around her monstrous body like ropes, preventing any movement. Despite their frail-looking appearance, they defied every attempt of the creature to break free, no matter how much she wiggled.

Satsuki gestured at Yumiko. “We’d better take this chance quickly. I’m not sure for how long this diversion will be able to keep her at bay. Follow me!”

She rushed through a random alley with Yumiko quickly coming after her. Behind them, the cold words of the jorogumo echoed behind them.

“You can run away as much as you want… It won’t change your fate. You will be found, and you will experience all the exquisite forms of torture that my Lord has thought for you. I will be coming… enjoy your last moments while you still can.”

The two followed a seemingly random course, and Yumiko quickly lost her bearing: she did not understand at all what Satsuki was doing. She was picking directions on a whim, sometimes just backtracking through a different route, and she did not show any intention of stopping. Often she would stop, place a hand on a wall, a lamppost, anything that looked like it could support her, then start running again like nothing had happened. The girl started to believe that they were just wasting time running in circles, with no clear way to truly escape. What that monster had said truly frightened her, and she would often glance behind her shoulders to make sure they had not been found. Every time she would sigh in relief when her fears were proven wrong.

About ten minutes later, the two came out from the intricate maze of streets that made up the residential area into a commercial district. Yumiko knew the place very well, because she would sometimes go there for shopping. In contrast to where they were before, the buildings were taller and without fancy decorations: their fronts were often in dull colors with barely noticeable signs which indicated their names or the specific company they hosted. Further ahead, many shops were lined along a shotengai, deserted and with most of their goods in lying in disarray on the ground.

Satsuki pointed to a four-story edifice which carried a large signboard with the name “Hoken Holdings” on it. “Let’s take a break there”, she proposed, “It should be safe enough.”

Yumiko eagerly welcomed that proposal and feebly nodded in response. She had been running almost non stop since she had left her house and she was feeling very tired.

They sat on the steps to the entrance and they stood silent for a while they caught their breath.

“How are you feeling now?” Satsuki asked Yumiko.

Unlike to what she was used to, Yumiko tried not to sugar coat her answer. “Fine is what I’d like to say, but I’m not fine at all. To tell you the truth, I’m both exhausted and scared. I really don’t look forward to what will be next in store for us. I almost feel my mind is going to fall apart.” She held her head with both hands.

“I can’t blame you. I’d be the same in your situation. Especially after our encounter with that… woman.”

“I won’t deny it, it’s her that terrifies me the most. No matter what you tried, she was invincible.”

Satsuki wagged her finger. “But she wasn’t. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here talking about it, would we?”

“For how long?” Yumiko continued with a hint of hysteria in her voice. “I’m sure she’ll be back eventually.”

“Oh she already tried to track us, that’s why we moved randomly. That, and to avoid getting anything blocking our path. I used certain means to check on the surroundings as we were moving. I’m confident that she lost our trail, and that should give us enough time to regroup.”

Yumiko gaped. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“I just didn’t have time to tell you, given the circumstances. Anyway, I’m glad we took a break. Running and doing that at the same time was exhausting.”

The girl swallowed deeply. There was something else, beside what she had said, that had been bothering her. Satsuki’s refusal to use her power… the power of the Fiend to handle that situation. She was sure the jorogumo would have stood a chance against her. Then why had she avoided the easy way out? She was truly baffled.

Her internal conflict showed up on her face, and Satsuki’s expression became serious. “You don’t understand why I said what I said, am I correct?”

The girl nodded. “I’m not sure if I should bring this up. But it is as you said. I’m confused to say the least.”

“Let’s make an example to make it clearer. When you are driving and you suddenly find something or someone in front of you, what would you do?”

“I haven’t ever driven, but I guess I’d hit the brakes really hard to stop as early as possible.”

“And that most of the time is not the effective solution. You’d make matters worse.”

“Why? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Because most of the times you’d lose control of your vehicle, and that in turn would lead to unexpected consequences, sometimes even more grave. And that occurs because this is an instinctive act, born out of urgency, or fear. Professional drivers don’t ram the brakes, they keep control of how much force they are using, and that keeps them in control even in such situations.”

Yumiko bit her lip. “I still don’t understand how this is related to what we’re talking about.”

“Were you scared? Did you want to get out of there as soon as possible?”

“Yes… And I still am, to be honest.”

“There lies the reason. You knew you had a way out, so you unconsciously reached to it. But that’s akin to slamming the brakes: you’d never know what would happen next because you’re not in control. And on top of that, that entity, the Fiend, is both unpredictable and dangerous, to others and especially to yourself. I have no idea what would happen to you should you keep on letting it take a hold of your body.”

Satsuki’s mind went back to when she had searched for Yumiko in the Nagano area. While it was true that their assailants had gone away, she had not told her how she had found them the following morning, scattered around a group of trees. They had been torn to pieces, mangled up to the point of being barely recognizable, maimed by an assault of unprecedented fury. She feared that if she would let it happen again, Yumiko would actually go on a rampage against anyone who would be near her, no matter if friend or foe. She did not want anything like that to happen.

“I really don’t like it…” Yumiko continued, “But what if there is no other choice?”

“Are you truly sure that you have no other options? To me, it’s going down a slippery slope. You’ve been targeted before, and this is neither the first nor the last time.” Satsuki stood up. “There’s also another reason. Being influenced by the Darkness does not only concern yourself, you might also involve others, knowingly or unknowingly.”

She looked away from the girl as deep sadness flashed through her eyes, if she had recalled back painful memories. Her voice just barely a murmur, she continued, “You may never know in advance what price you will have to pay. And then… it will be too late for regrets.”

The change in the attitude of woman truly astonished Yumiko. She never expected Satsuki to have such a soft side under that confident front. Judging by the way she was talking, she had experienced a grave loss or something equally troubling. She resisted the temptation to ask her: satisfying her curiosity meant prying, and it was neither the time nor the place for such a question. Perhaps once… if they survived the ordeal, there would be time to talk about it.

Satsuki looked at Yumiko again, and the earlier discomfort had completely vanished from her expression. “I think I’ve rested enough,” she said, “What about you? We should get going soon.”

Yumiko stood up as well, still somewhat bothered by the conversation. “I guess I am too. Where shall we go? We’ve drifted very far from our destination.”

“Our plan has not changed. We have to meet up with Jim and then with your friends. Of course, getting back to where we were earlier is not the best option at the moment. We should regroup elsewhere. There’s a large store with an elevated parking lot close. That will be our next destination.”

“I know that very well: I go there from time to time. But since we’re so far from the others, how could they possibly know about it? Perhaps you managed to get in contact with them?”

“Oh, I didn’t, of course. However I was able to leave… clues for him to follow. And let’s not forget that our earlier encounters have surely caused enough ruckus for him to notice.”

Yumiko was not entirely convinced on the course of action. To her, it was just a wild gamble. “You’re assuming that he’ll notice whatever you’ve left behind, and reaches us before we’re attacked again by that woman. If they, or we, don’t meed something in the way. For this plan to work, we need an awfully large number of things going in the right direction.”

“You’re way too pessimistic now. We have two options here: pursuing our only viable chance of survival, or waiting for our fate to unfold. I don’t think there’s much choice here.”

Realizing she had overreacted, Yumiko sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Satsuki. As I said earlier, this is very stressful for me. It’s hard to get a hold of myself. I really did not want anything like this.”

“Don’t worry about it, I can’t blame you. I understand that you may feel hopeless. Way too much has happened already since you went to Kyoto. If anyone needs to be sorry about it, that’s me. It’s my duty to keep you away from all this. So please count on me.”

“You’re very kind, Satsuki. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been in your care.”

“I don’t know if I truly am… I can say I have experience.”

She paused and touched her forehead with her right index finger. “I can feel a few alien presences headed this way. Let’s go or we may be discovered.”

Yumiko gestured her assent and the two left the building, walking along the commercial district. Yumiko felt even more disturbed by the complete absence of human activity than when she had looked out of her window earlier during the same day. The music and recorded voices playing from many stores, the billboards continuously looping videos … they used to be enjoyable and inviting, but now had only an air gloom and decay. Creatures born out of the most perverted depths of inhuman winds roamed the streets, and the two were often forced to hide inside the now empty shops as they passed them. Once, what seemed a very tall muscular man with an abnormally large ox-like head walked past them chewing on something. Terrified, Yumiko realized that it was a human arm. Had anyone else got involved? She tried hard not to think about it. Her first priority was survival, everything else was secondary.

Eventually, Satsuki and Yumiko reached the department store. It was one of the landmarks of the whole district due to its size: it was nine stories tall and large enough to dwarf all the other buildings present in the area. Many billboards were hung on the brightly-colored front, advertising all sorts of products or announcing sales and discounts. A sister building, an elevated parking lot about half as tall stood next to it. Unlike the other shops the two had seen earlier, the shopping complex was closed, and all lights were off: signs placed on the doors and next to the entrances told that an internal renovation was taking place, and that it would be open again only the following week. It resembled the skeleton of a giant in a deserted wasteland.

Satsuki led Yumiko right in front of the entrance of the parking space and stopped there. “This is where we should wait. Hopefully Jim and the others will arrive here eventually.”

Yumiko glanced nervously around herself. “Are you sure it’s safe to stay in such an open spot? I mean, we can get seen from very far.”

“But so can we. We will be safe from the risk of surprise attacks, at least. And in the worst case, we can take shelter in the department store.”

“You are truly some persistent pests,” a voice echoed around them, “In the end, it matters nothing, for I have found you at last.”

While the sound made Yumiko startle and yelp in fear, Satsuki showed neither fright nor surprise. “I had wondered why you didn’t show up sooner,” she said back, “You are slow.”

“What a remarkable display of confidence, woman. Are you truly sure it is not misguided?”

Satsuki pointed her gun upwards. “That is what I’m going to find out now.”

Following the cloud of dust that had risen above the houses, Jim, Sayuki and Michiru hurried in the direction where the crumbling noise had came from. Although it was not far from Michiru’s house, advancing proved to be far more difficult than they had originally expected. The once empty streets were now sprawling with all sorts of hideous creatures, all intent in searching for something, or someone. They saw severed heads engulfed by flames flying in midair, bird-men similar to what they had encountered in Nagano, and even half-decomposed women with disfigured faces. They were so many that they were forced to take frequent detours to avoid any type of confrontation. Many minutes later, they were almost as far from their destination as when they had left. Michiru and Sayuki couldn’t help feeling both urgency and frustration at their slow progress.

While they were waiting for a group of armored skeletons to move out of the way, Jim noticed something shining near a lamppost. He crouched to look more closely, and he found a small, curved symbol somehow inscribed over the metal. It was loosely similar to a calligraphic script, even though it did not resemble any written language. The man put his hand over the mark and stood there as if he had been listening intently to someone speaking. When he stood up, he appeared relieved.

“At last, we’ve got some good news” he announced, “No more running around like children playing hide-and-seek! It was truly getting on my nerves…”

“How can you be so sure, all of a sudden? We’re nowhere close to where we need to go,” Michiru argued with a hint of frustration in her voice.

“Well, I could say a little bird told me something… but since there are no birds here, nor anything even remotely normal , I’ll just skip the rhetoric and jump right to the point: Satsuki left a message for us, including some hints on how to find her.”

The news pleasantly surprised Michiru. “Really? Were you able to get in contact with her directly?”

“Unfortunately no. It’s something she has left for us here. Take a look.”

Jim pointed at the symbol dimly shining at the base of the lamppost. Sayuki and Michiru looked at it in amazement.

“Wow, I’ve never seen anything like that,” Sayuki observed, “what exactly is it?”

“It’s a code we use in the Guardians when we want leave messages unseen to others,” Jim explained, “It basically compresses part of the sender’s thoughts within this symbol, and anyone with the right means can extract the message and have it replayed, like an answering machine.”

“What does it say? Did she tell you what happened, or where they are now?”

“Not as much as I’d like to. Like a phone’s memory, there is a limit to what you convey. It’s very difficult to use it for more than very simple concepts. Let’s say you wouldn’t be able to put an essay or a philosophical treaty in there. But as long as you keep things simple, it can be very convenient.”

“Very nice!” Sayuki exclaimed. “I wish I could use that when I need to answer teachers in class…”

Michiru poked her cheek. “That is your own fault for not paying attention, dummy.”

“What is wrong with that? I have a simple mind, you know.” Sayuki replied with a glare.

“There are so many things wrong with that… But that’s not the time for it right now. Should we focus on the message that has been left for us, instead?”

“Right, the message!” Sayuki snapped her fingers. “I was kind of forgetting about it already.”

Michiru groaned and hit her forehead. “What did I tell you about paying attention?” She turned to Jim. “Sorry for the interruption. What does it say?”

“Why apologizing?” Jim smirked. “If we weren’t surrounded by evil creatures wanting at the very least to eat us, I’d probably have let you two go on a little more … It is a nice comedy show.”

“Don’t make things more difficult than they already are! Can you just tell us the content of the message?”

“All right, Her Highness.” The man shrugged. “Difficult encounter. Need to shake pursuers off. Yumiko with me. Meet at parking lot in shopping district. Follow marks. That’s it.”

“It doesn’t tell a lot… It is really just that?”

“Nothing more, nothing less. While not a lot, there are enough information on where to find them. I’d say this is a pretty good progress.”

“More importantly, she said Yumiko is with her. I’m so glad she’s still all right.” Michiru sighed in relief.

“I knew it!” Sayuki added assertively, “But that also means we shouldn’t stay idle here, we need to get to wherever they are at once!”

“That was the idea from the start”, Jim remarked, “However I’ll need a little help from you girls. Unlike Satsuki, I’m not too familiar with this place. Will you be able to show the way?”

“Oh, I can do that!” Sayuki raised a hand. “There’s just one parking lot that would fit the description in the district, and it’s close to a very big store. I’ve lost count of the times I went there. I absolutely love it! There’s so much stuff I want to buy…”

“And that’s why you always run out of your allowance when you go there,” Michiru muttered under her breath.

“That’s painful, I really don’t want to remember any of that!” She curled her lips in a smirk. “But are you truly in a position to speak? Didn’t you go crazy at all those straps the last time we were there?”

Michiru covered her mouth in embarrassment. “How… How is that related to anything?” she blurted, “Just lead the way. We’re wasting time here!”

“Did I just hit a nerve?”

“You didn’t! Hurry!”

Chortling, Sayuki took the lead, followed by Jim and an annoyed Michiru. They walked along streets and junctions, always on the lookout for ambushes by those otherworldly creatures roaming around: fortunately Sayuki’s knowledge of the surroundings allowed the group to avoid any displeasing encounter. Occasionally Jim would find more messages from Satsuki with some details on her course and on who pursued her. The news both relieved and worried them. Judging from their scarce information, whatever was after Yumiko was far worse than anything they had seen before. They couldn’t afford leaving Satsuki alone against it.

Eventually they arrived at a T junction with a dead end on one side and a long straight road on the other. They were now on the edge of the residential area, and houses were giving way to larger and taller buildings.

“It’s very close now,” Sayuki informed the others, “Five minutes at best. Should we rush through? We’ve lost quite a bit of time…”

“I don’t really like the idea of running,” Michiru mumbled, “On the other hand, it’s about Yumiko. I’m willing to do whatever I can!”

“That’s the spirit!”

“What do you think, Jim? Can we do that?”

Jim shook his head. “Nope, I think it’s a truly bad idea.”

“Why?” Michiru was flustered. “Haven’t we lost enough time? We may be too late!”

“You don’t have to ask me. Ask him

He pointed further ahead. A pygmy figure stood exactly in the middle of the road. No one would mistake it for a natural being: the head was much larger than its thin and frail-looking body, and sported a single, very large eye that occupied most of the face, leaving room only for a receding forehead and a small beard around a minute mouth. It was bald and wore a finely decorated dress of many different colors, more fitting for a noble than the creature that carried them. As soon as it noticed the three it started squeaking, moving its tiny arms in the air. and licking its lips with a long tongue.

Horrified, Sayuki took a step back. “What is that thing?”

“It’s scary,” Michiru put herself behind her friend, “I get the goosebumps just by looking at it.”

“I think it’s saying something, but I really don’t understand,” Jim shrugged. “Not that it matters. I’m sure it’s not an invitation for tea.”

“What can we do?”

“Can we take a different way?”

Sayuki’s expression left little in doubt. “No, there are no other direct ways from here. We’d have to go back quite a lot. And that would mean spending even more time.”

“I see,” Jim grumbled as he pulled his gun out of its holster, “Looks like I’ve got to do the dirty work.”

Michiru looked at him with worry. “Will you be all right?”

“Well, I don’t want to end my adventures prematurely, so, like you Japanese say, I’ll work hard!”

“That’s not what one would say in such a situation! Can’t you take this seriously for a change?”

“Oh, I’m always serious, people just misunderstand me.”

Jim ignored the angry exclamations coming from Michiru and walked towards the one-eyed creature, stopping just a few steps from it.

“We’re truly sorry for the inconvenience we’re causing you, but could you just move out of the way?”

The pygmy halted its pantomime and blinked at the man. “Weak man joking? Weak man ridiculous!” it exclaimed with a gurgling voice.

Jim moaned. “What’s with people and even monsters not taking me seriously? No, I’m not joking, I’m asking you to move out of the way.”

“Weak man is fool. Nyudo takes no orders from weak man.”

“I have a name, you know.”

“Name does not matter. Weak man is weak man.”

“I’ve had better conversations with customer support representatives,” Jim responded, “Let’s make this simple enough for you to understand: move out of the way, and you’ll avoid getting hurt.”

The one-eyed nyudo laughed out loud. “Weak man makes threats? Weak man is big buffoon!”

“Even a buffoon can use a gun.” Jim pointed his weapon at the creature. “And then there’s no more laughing.”

“Man is weak, nyudo is strong! Nyudo shows weak man strength!” the monster cried out.

Before Jim could shoot, the nyudo opened its eye wide. The pupil shone brilliantly and its body underwent a fast and tumultuous change. Its whole body grew in size until it was three times the height of a normal man, and those frail-looking limbs became muscular and thick as logs. Part of the dress tore up, revealing a smooth and dark skin with olive shades, and the surface of arms and hands thickened until it was a strong as a rock. The grown nyudo slammed his foot on the ground, and the earth trembled. Michiru and Sayuki screamed as they struggled to stay standing.

“How is that, weak man?” the creature taunted Jim, its voice now like the roar of a lion. “You scared now?”

“You know what they say,” Jim retorted, “the bigger they are, the louder the sound they make when they fall.”

His words were followed by the loud chant of his weapon. Showing far greater agility than what his bulky body would suggest, the giant shielded its face with both forearms. All bullets thrusted into the thick coat that covered the arms, but they did not inflict even superficial wounds: one flick of the creature’s wrists was enough to throw them away like gnats. A smile of disdain appeared on the nyudo’s face.

An instant later it was high in the air, its right hand clenched and stretched out towards Jim. The man quickly made a backflip and the fist of his opponent whistled very close to his nose before smashing into the asphalt. The impact was so strong that cracks formed in all directions.

As soon as his feet were on solid ground again, Jim fired again. The colossus had its guard down, so he hoped to land at least a hit in a vital point. Instead, the nyudo turned its back at Jim and again the projectiles were stopped by that heavy skin without causing any damage. The creature laughed.

“Even fleas better than weak man!” it snarled. “Nyudo will crush weak man now!”

From the debris the giant picked up a large slab of concrete with the same ease as a children plucking flowers. After weighing it, the nyudo threw the block at the man. Jim rolled sideways barely in time to avoid being hit, and the cement struck the wall behind him, bringing it down amidst a cloud of dust.

“At least you are strong as you say you are,” Jim conceded, “I think your aim needs some improvement, though.”

“Weak man is annoying insect… Nyudo crushes insects!”

The nyudo charged at Jim like a wild boar. The man chanted three short, mystic words under his breath and put his hand on the ground before him. The earth rumbled and broke up when a strong shockwave shot out from Jim’s fingers, headed in the direction of the creature. The nyudo did not even attempt to slow down and simply used its massive arms to protect itself from the upcoming assault. The blast wave hit it squarely, tearing up the asphalt all over it and causing a boom so loud that Michiru and Sayuki were forced to cover their ears. When the dust settled, the giant was unharmed.

Jim sprinted forward, but he could not advance much because the giant jumped again and set down right in front of him. Its two hands moved simultaneously, laying down a barrage of punches powerful enough to disembowel anyone unfortunate enough to get in their path. Jim avoided those gigantic limbs with very calculated movements left and right , but he had to concentrate only on defense, and he was completely unable to counterattack. He was also being slowly pushed towards the dead end behind him, and once there he would have no way to escape.

Michiru and Sayuki watched the fight anxiously. They knew too well that if Jim would fall they would be the next targets of the creature, and they would not stand a single chance against that monster. They cried out in desperation when they saw Jim stumble and fall on one knee.

A victorious yell broke out from the nyudo’s lips as it raised its arms for a final, fatal coup de grace.

It took one step forward, and when when its left foot touched the spot where Jim had placed his hand earlier, its confident cry turned into an exclamation of pain and surprise. The ground under its feet crumbled all of a sudden, forming a deep chasm that swallowed the creature. Just before completely falling into the darkness beneath, its left hand found a precarious hold on one of the walls and the monster struggled to heave itself up, until its head emerged again. Its lone eye stared at Jim with hatred.

“Weak man plays dirty trick!” the colossus exclaimed.

“Who said that this fight was meant to be fair and square?” Jim replied tauntingly as he got back on his feet, “One can always cheat. That’s the difference between using only your muscles and using your brain.”

“Weak man has not won! Hole can not stop nyudo! Nyudo jumps and kills weak man!”

The creature pushed its feet against the walls of the pit, ready to jump out.

“Again with this weak man?” Jim continued, “You are truly a sore loser. Do you really need to get crushed completely to understand defeat?”

He clinched his left hand as he finished speaking: in the blink of an eye the hole shrunk as fast as it had opened, trapping the giant in an inescapable grip. It kept on tightening, and the loud sounds of crushed bones, muscle and sinew intertwined with the nyudo’s shrieks of pain. But even if it was just a cripple and completely unable to move, an unearthly vitality still harbored in that tortured body.

“Weak man is buffoon,” it stammered as it continued its futile attempts to break free, “Weak man will die, die, die!”

“I told you earlier, even a buffoon can use a gun.” Jim pointed his weapon at the eye of the nyudo. “No more laughs now.”

He pulled the trigger. With a jolt, the nyudo’s head fell on a side, a dark ichor flowing out where the pupil once was.

Jim wiped the sweat off his forehead and let out an exclamation of relief. Despite all his talk, he knew it had been a very tough battle. Since he had spent the day hunting for information, he had not been prepared for large or drawn-out confrontations like the one he just had. He had been quite lucky that it played out like he wanted it to.

Michiru and Sayuki hurried to him, overjoyed by that unexpected victory.

“That was incredible, Jim!” Sayuki cheered.

Michiru bowed. “You truly saved us, thank you.”

“I would like to say that it was just ordinary business, but it really wasn’t.” The man rubbed his chin. “I don’t want to do this again for a while.”

“Are you all right?”

“Just a little tired. No time to take a break, however. We still have two beautiful princesses to rescue.”

“Right! There’s no moment to lose. How far are we, Sayuki? I’m not too familiar with this place.”

“All we have to do is to go down this street”, Sayuki told them, “and as I was saying, we should be there very soon. You can actually see the building from here already.” She pointed at a tall building. Although all its lights were off, its nature was given off by the many colored billboards, visible even at that distance. “The parking lot Satsuki mentioned is next to it,” she concluded.

“Jim, can you tell if there are any threats to us on the way? Just to avoid an encounter like this one.”

“I’m not as good as Satsuki with these so-called arts, but I can manage somehow,” Jim said, “Let’s see…”

He stepped forward and slowly looked left and right, appearing completely unmoved and imperturbable. When he faced the department store, he frowned.

“It looks like our problems are just starting, I’m afraid,” he commented dryly.

“What’s wrong?” Sayuki asked, “Did anything happen?

“There’s… something truly hideous there. Far more hostile than anything that we’ve seen so far. And of course, it’s where we need to go.”

“Do you think it’s because of Yumiko and Satsuki?”

“No concrete proof, but I’m sure of it. It was too sudden to be a mere coincidence.”

“What are we waiting for?” Michiru urged the other two, “Yumiko might be in danger, we have to go there as fast as we can!”

“As if we didn’t have enough reasons for urgency…” Jim groaned. “Once we get out of this mess, how could Satsuki refuse that invitation?”

Her gun pointed above her head, Satsuki fired many rounds, one after another. Perhaps because she had hit her target, or perhaps because their enemy decided to move on her own, the two heard a whistle coming from the upper floors of the building next to them. While at first it was as loud as a whisper, it quickly grew in intensity until Yumiko was forced to cover her ears in pain. And with the sound came also the jorogumo, plummeting headfirst towards the ground. Mere instants before touching down, she flipped herself over and landed gracefully on her feet, despite the height she had fallen from. A hole on her kimono showed where Satsuki’s bullets had hit her, without any visible wounds.

She cackled. “Was seeing my face again your dying wish, woman?”

“Actually, I was hoping we’d put an end to this once and for all,” Satsuki answered.

“That is indeed going to happen… but not in the way you imagine. You’ve fooled around for far too long. Therefore, I shall make haste and ensure a swift end to your pathetic existence. Your tortured bodies will be the trophies I will bear with honor in front of my Lord. And your souls shall never know peace in an endless stream of pain and torture!”

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard these threats,” Satsuki asserted, “And guess what happened to whoever made them?”

“That’s just because they underestimated you!” the jorogumo snapped. “But, by the great Abyss, I did not! I know what you and that wretched girl are capable of. This form is unsuited to the task. Another one will serve me better. Watch, fools!”

A thick mist formed around the woman, completely hiding her from sight. Horrifying sounds of bones bending and breaking intermixed with gurgles, hisses, screams of pain and moans of pleasure. The frightening cacophony lasted until the kimono that the jorogumo had been wearing flew out of the cloud, no longer holding the body it had been wrapped around. In a fraction of a second, two large, hairy and insect-like limbs torn it to shreds, and the fog finally dissipated, revealing what it had been hiding.

Yumiko screamed in terror and even Satsuki muttered an exclamation under her breath, because what they had seen would never been conceived even from the deepest follies of men. A massive black spider had taken the place the woman had once stood on. It was as large as a trailer and its body was covered in hard, chitinous scales. Long and disgusting tufts of black hair grew on the abdomen and on its eight legs. But everything paled in comparison to the eyes: ruby and multifaceted, they shared the same malignant intelligence as the jorogumo.

“It is time!” the spider shouted as it jumped in the air.

Satsuki was not surprised from that attack: she took hold of Yumiko and jumped to her right, just before the jorogumo landed where they had been standing a fraction of second before. She clenched her teeth as her arms scraped against the asphalt, but she ignored the pain and sprung up. Yumiko was too confused by the rapid turn of events and was still trying to figure out what was going on when the spider loomed over her. She would have met her doom if it had not been for Satsuki, who tugged her aside mere moments before those large jaws closed on her neck.

“Quick, inside the parking!” she ordered.

Her senses made sharper by a sudden adrenaline rush, Yumiko cast off her confusion and scrambled for the entrance along with Satsuki. The spider chased them, but its efforts came to a stop as it was too large to enter the building from the same passage used by the two. It was also too strong to break down easily, so the best the creature could do was to snap its mandibles in frustration, its crimson eyes glittering with rage.

“Do you truly think you are safe there?” it teased them, “You have just delayed your inevitable deaths!”

The jorogumo leapt and attached itself to the front of the parking. It then moved upwards at incredible speed while spitting long and thick filaments out of its mouth. The web formed a sticky and impregnable layer over everything it touched, sealing off any possible means of escape. Before Satsuki or Yumiko could even realize what had happened, half of the building had already been completely covered.

“What do we do, Satsuki?” Yumiko asked hurriedly. “At this rate, we’ll be trapped there in no time.”

“Let’s see if we can get into the mall. It will be far more difficult for her to move there. The entrance is on the other side: let’s check it out.”

The two ran across the ground floor with the sound of the spider weaving its web reverberating through their ears. The whole place was rather dark, illuminated only by the light filtering through small holes in the web that covered the windows, and a handful of emergency lamps: it was barely enough to walk. As the mall was closed for renovation, only few of the spots had actually cars in them. A few of them had still their doors open, waiting forever for their missing owners to return.

It did not take long to Satsuki and Yumiko to find the entrance to the department store. Unfortunately, their only hope shattered when they saw a sturdy-looking iron grate had been lowered in front of the double doors leading inside, blocking any access. Satsuki held the bars with both hands and gave them a tug. She quickly realized that neither herself nor Yumiko would have enough strength to move it out of the way. And whatever was used to raise or lower it normally would probably be on the other side, out of their reach.

“I didn’t expect this,” Satsuki observed, disappointed, “we may be already trapped there.”

“Perhaps we should try to get out the parking,” Yumiko proposed, “She’s still busy covering everything with that web. If so, we may be able to run away.”

“Only to have her drop from above, right on our heads. She can see us very clearly in that position. It would be over before we even started.”

“Can we hide somewhere until Jim arrives, then? At least while she’s still outside and has no way to get in. Inside a car, for example.”

“Not a bad idea… but the top floor of this parking is open, and once that spider gets there, she will be able to go all the way down to where she are using the car ramps. She’ll be upon us before any outside help would come. Even if we hid, she would just turn everything upside down until she finds us.”

The girl clenched her hands in frustration. “Is it really over, then? Do we just have to wait until we’re eaten alive, or worse?”

Satsuki shook her head. “Of course not. I have no intention of leaving you at the mercy of that spider woman.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“I wouldn’t call it a plan… It’s a gamble, but still better than nothing.”

“I guess gambles are better than nothing right now…”

“That spider is surely not invulnerable. After all, our previous confrontation lasted only a minute or so. The fact that I was not able to harm her back then doesn’t mean it can’t be harmed. We need to find a way to do it.”

“Do you mean a weak point?”

“Yes, a peculiarity we can use to gain an advantage.”

“Do you already have any ideas on what this weak point would be?”

“Not really.”

Yumiko stared at Satsuki in disbelief. Had she completely lost her mind? She had talked about taking advantage of weak points and at the same time had no idea on what those would be! Was that her gamble? How could she gamble if she had absolutely nothing to place a bet in the first place?

“No, I am perfectly sane, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Satsuki commented looking back at the girl.

She blushed and averted her gaze away from the woman. “That’t not really what I was thinking…” she stammered.

“No offense taken, I can understand why you’d think like that. But I had not yet told you what my actual gamble is. One of us needs to keep that jorogumo occupied enough to buy time and allow the other to actually find a weak point and exploit that weakness. As you can see, that is why it’s a gamble in a first place.”

“That’s not crazy, it’s madness!” Yumiko blurted out, “I can understand you would try to keep that giant spider busy, but what am I supposed to do? Don’t tell me I need to find her weak point…”

“Oh, that’s not it,” Satsuki noted, “The role for the bait is yours.”

Yumiko screamed in frustration and incredulity. “Impossible, impossible, impossible! Which side are you on? You are crazy, Satsuki!”

“Didn’t I tell you earlier?” The woman folded her arms. “I have no intention of leaving you at her mercy.”

“And then you ask me to …”

“I can see why Yumiko Hasegawa can’t do that,” Satsuki interrupted her, “but you are not just Yumiko Hasegawa.”

Yumiko’s eyes widened when she understood what her companion meant. “Are you really asking me to…”


“Didn’t you say I should not ever give in to the Fiend, that something bad is bound to happen if I’m not careful?”

“It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? We are having the same argument as before, only on the opposite sides,” she pointed out, amused, “However, my mind has not changed. I still think you should stay away from that as far as possible.”

“Why then did you suggest it now?”

“Mainly because this is the least worst option we have at our disposal right now. And it’s still better than a violent death, so I’m betting everything I have on it.”

“That may be true,” Yumiko admitted, “But I’m worried the Fiend may act on its own and not in the way you expect.”

What she had said was true. Satsuki had faked confidence, but the perspective of Yumiko going on a mindless rampage truly worried her. Even if she had been able to stop her under the Chinno-ji she was not sure she would be able to do it again unscathed. Whatever the Fiend had done to those creatures in Nagano was proof enough that it had grown considerably stronger than before. Still, it was neither the time nor the place to let worry cloud her judgment. She gathered her resolve and did not let any doubt show on her face.

“Try using what you’ve been taught, it may help,” she suggested, “And if something bad happens, I’ll deal with it. You’ve already attacked me once in Kyoto, after all, and I went out fine.”

“I can’t really believe you,” Yumiko conceded, still in doubt, “but I really don’t want my life to end here, so I’ll do whatever it takes to avoid it. It scares me… but I’ll do it, at one condition.”

“A condition? What exactly?”

Yumiko blushed and she lowered her voice. “Please… don’t think bad of me,” she muttered, “I may do, or say… things that are very unlike what I am.”

“I won’t, I promise.”


Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of many feet stomping coming from above their heads, followed by a loud cackle.

“She’s coming. We should get ready.”

Yumiko nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

The girl searched the back of her mind for the presence of the Fiend. She immediately found it, a low but vibrant hum over all her thoughts. She pondered the best course of action: unlike what she had seen in many TV shows she had been a fan of, setting it in motion was not simply a matter of chanting a word of a sentence. It had always acted on its own, unpredictable ways. Since in Nagano it had almost emerged on its own, she tried recalling the sensations she had experienced back then. Unexpectedly, the Fiend responded with a silent growl, and promptly flooded Yumiko’s thoughts with a shower of feral rage.

And before she knew it, it had started already. No matter how much she was prepared for it, the now familiar pain hit her with the strength of a million hammers and she staggered before ultimately falling to her knees. It was so intense that it almost left her breathless. She had not even the energy to scream: only huffs and hoarse sounds came out of her throat. And like the other times it had happened, she enjoyed a perverse pleasure in her suffering. No, it was even more than simple joy, it was her only reason to live! Her thoughts drowned in that sea of agony and pleasantness.

Worried by her state, Satsuki took a step forward, but Yumiko managed to raise a hand and gestured her to stop.

“It’s fine,” she croaked, “it’s very fine. Let me be, I haven’t felt this good in an eternity.”

A part of Yumiko was deeply embarrassed by what she had just said, but she had other problems to worry about. No matter what she had tried, the Fiend was quickly taking over her mind with little to no resistance. What could she do? At that rate, she would have probably assaulted Satsuki…

She felt her last shards of consciousness dissolving into nothingness.

Then, it occurred to her. If rationality had not worked against the Fiend, perhaps raw emotions would. She focused on the jorogumo and directed all her hatred against it. The creature was responsible for everything it had occurred in her life: the time her parents scolded her for being late; the bad behavior of some of her schoolmates; and even for the rain that ruined a good weekend. She had been the cause of every single misfortune! The girl found herself grinning. That stupid spider had been meddling in her life for too long… now it was time for payback!

As she let those feelings run wild, she was barely aware of a change taking place inside her… a rather displeasing change she could not define. Then everything was swept by a tsunami of rage.

Satsuki watched as a new form emerged from the shreds of Yumiko’s clothes. It was that strange mixture of a human being and an animal, perhaps a wolf, perhaps a fox, perhaps neither, that she had seen in Kyoto. Yumiko’s yellow eyes met Satsuki’s for an instant, and the woman was taken aback by the deep fury they emanated. Never before she had seen such a concentrate of these wild, raw emotions. She truly hoped the girl would not turn against her: she felt Yumiko had become far stronger than their previous encounter, and dealing with her would be difficult.

There was no time to confirm or deny those fears, because both were distracted by a loud clink, like an army on the move, coming from an overhead ramp not too far from where they were standing. The noise was followed by the jorogumo’s familiar cackle as the giant spider rushed down to face the two. As soon as it noticed Yumiko’s new appearance, it stopped in its tracks and let out a long and spiteful cry.

“So you revealed yourself for what you are, accursed Scyoth!” it shouted, “It matters not, because I will end you, right now!”

Yumiko simply grinned in response, and then she sprung forward with a loud howl. The spider opened its jaws and shot its thick web at the girl, engulfing her completely before she could even get closer. That sticky cage lasted only mere instants, as Yumiko broke it off with the same ease as if it were made of cardboard. Before the creature could shoot a new thread, she jumped in the air and landed right in front of the jorogumo, while simultaneously clawing at its head. The attack was ineffective, as even Yumiko’s sharp claws bounced off the strong, chitinous exoskeleton of the monster. Two of its legs moved at the same time in retaliation and hit Yumiko in the stomach, knocking her against one of the nearby parked cars. The impact was so strong that its body was bent noticeably.

Yet, the girl did not seem to have suffered any damage: she simply got back on her feet like nothing had happened and charged again. She ducked just before the jorogumo’s mandibles could close around her head and took hold of the creature’s torso with both hands. Yumiko clenched her teeth as she lifted the creature from the ground with a massive effort, then pivoted one, two, three times before finally throwing the monster on a wall. While it was still in the air, it shot one of its threads against the ceiling and used it as a swing to get back on its feet, unharmed.

Away from the two, Satsuki watched the battle reaching a stalemate. Despite Yumiko’s superior speed and agility, she was not able to make even a dent in the defenses of the jorogumo. On the other hand, the attacks by the spider were not capable of causing anything more than superficial wounds. Neither of the two showed any signs of tiredness and kept going against each other with renovated energy. No clear conclusion was in sight, but that was exactly what she wanted. That would give her enough time to find the weakness she was looking for.

She crouched and cautiously moved between the parked cars and tried to get as close as the jorogumo as possible without being seen. She was about halfway to it when it suddenly turned in her direction. Its glittering eyes stared at her with contempt.

“What are you trying to do there, worm?” the jorogumo snarled, “Did you truly think you could play tricks on me? It’s time to wake you up from your fantasies. Come forth, my children!”

Her words triggered a series of loud popping sounds, similar to the one of an egg hatching, all around the building. The noise disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, only to be replaced by many high-pitched squeals.

Then, they arrived.

Tens of spiders as large as dogs, swarmed from the ceiling, the windows, and the ground. Physically, they looked like overgrown tarantulas, with jaws large enough to severely mutilate a human being, dripping a liquid which fizzled every time it touched the ground. Their deep blue, multifaceted eyes looked like gems fixed in a jewel, yet there was nothing beautiful about them. They were empty and soulless, harboring only a primeval and insatiable hunger.

“Eat to your heart’s content!” the spider ordered, “Don’t stop until there’s nothing left!”

The horde turned to Satsuki and teemed towards her. Without waiting for them to get too close, Satsuki took a small wooden figurine from one of her pockets and threw it at the crowd. It broke into pieces as soon as it touched the ground before them, and with a roar the earth tore apart as large pillars of flame burst out, incinerating everything they came into contact.

Although at good deal of the spiders were wiped out from that blazing inferno, the survivors simply trampled over the charred remains of their dead companions, going forward with blind determination. No matter how much their ranks had been thinned, they still were far too many for Satsuki to handle. And like it had happened earlier, she would not have enough time to make use of her best resources. If the situation dragged for too long, she would get easily overwhelmed and devoured until only her completely stripped bones remained.

Satsuki drew back the best she could, while simultaneously shooting in the vain hope of slow that pack down. No matter if every bullet hit its intended target, leaving a spider writhing on the ground, the others pressed on unfazed. They were now only a handful of meters away from her, and the woman had almost run out of bullets. Cursing under her breath, Satsuki instinctively reached for her left shoulder.

“Get down!” a voice behind her yelled.

Satsuki threw herself on the ground, and as she did that she was barely aware of a flash of light flying past her and hitting the ceiling. The cement cracked and broke instantly: large pieces of debris then fell on the marching pack, crushing the vast majority of it under their weight. The lucky few that survived struggled as they attempted to move across that newly-formed mountain of concrete.

The woman scrambled to get back to her feet to confront whatever was left of her assailants, but that turned out to be unnecessary. Bullets coming from behind her hit every one of the spiders, killing them instantly. She spun round and noticed familiar silhouettes walking out of a cloud of dust.

Jim stepped forward triumphantly, a large grin on his face. “Here comes the cavalry! I hope we didn’t make our damsel in distress wait for too long.”

“Took you long enough.” Although Satsuki sighed, her eyes were full of gratitude. “Thank you. I thought I was done for.”

“That’s not going to happen. How could I let you die before we had our romantic dinner together?”

Satsuki hit her forehead. “Even like this, you have time for jokes… I can’t believe it.” She paused and smiled. “I guess I’ll allow that for today.”

“Nice! No matter what has happened, every cloud has a silver lining…”

As he was talking, Michiru and Sayuki rushed at the woman’s side. Both were very relieved to see her safe and sound.

“Please don’t pay attention to this filthy man,” Michiru grumbled, irritated, “More importantly, are you all right? You look injured.”

Satsuki brushed the dust off her clothes. “Just a few scratches here and there, but I’ll live. I’ve been through much worse than this.”

“Thank goodness!” Michiru’s expression relaxed. “I was very worried we’d be too late.”

“To tell you the truth, You had impeccable timing. I’m very grateful for that.”

Sayuki glanced left and right for any sign of Yumiko’s presence, but no matter where she looked, the girl was nowhere to be seen.

“Where is Yumiko?” she asked, “I don’t see her anywhere.”

Satsuki pointed past the pile of rubble near them. A very large spider was furiously exchanging blows with a lone figure that had both traits of a human being and a feral animal. The two kept going at each other relentlessly, without paying attention to anything happening around them.

“There she is,” Satsuki remarked, “she’s the one fighting that thing.”

Sayuki’s eyes widened. “Is that truly Yumiko? I can’t believe it…”

Michiru was equally shocked, and just supported herself against her friend’s shoulder. She had not been prepared for it. No matter how much she knew about it already, reality had proven to be far different.

“I see, it’s the first time you see her like that. She may look far different, but it’s still Yumiko.” Satsuki folded her arms. “Or rather, it’s her appearance when that entity, the Fiend, takes over. It’s exactly the same as in Kyoto, or when we were near Nagano.”

“So…” Michiru stuttered, trying to find the correct words, “that’s what happens. I truly don’t know what to say.”

“I can understand that. Not only it’s something far beyond your craziest imagination, but it’s also happened to your friend.”

Michiru’s hands tightened around the woman’s arm. “What happened? Is she going to be ok?”

Satsuki briefly summarized their encounter with the spider-woman, their flight to the department store, and the sequence of events that forced her to rely on the dark presence inside Yumiko’s soul.

“Regardless how hard they attack each other, neither of the two is prevailing. I managed to sneak up close, but that spider was smart enough to understand what I was trying to do, and sent all her children, as she called them, against me. That’s when you arrived,” she concluded.

“So, she’s a tough one, eh?” Jim fidgeted nervously with his necklace. “Well, as long as we find a way…”

“Have you got any ideas, Satsuki?” Sayuki inquired.

“Not many, I’m afraid. Jim, what have you got with you?”

Jim shook his head. “Not much. A handful of magazines and a little else. Nothing of the right scale for that thing.”

“We’ll have to do with what we have.” Satsuki bit her lip. “Perhaps…”

Their discussion was interrupted by a scream of rage. The jorogumo had turned in their direction and saw what had occurred to the spiders she had summoned. Its crimson eyes emanated a hatred so strong that Michiru and Sayuki felt dizzy.

“How dare you!” the creature snarled, “You will suffer their pain multiplied a million times! Come, come, my children! Destroy these miserable, pitiful insects!”

In response to her order, the popping sound echoed many times, and again countless spiders emerged from the windows and the floor, crawling towards the group.

Jim pointed his gun at the advancing horde. “… Looks like we don’t have time for a plan B.”

“I know.” Satsuki walked next to him. “Can you cover me? I’ll try to burn them all together, and hope it will be enough. I won’t have strength for another incantation.”

“Wait a second, Satsuki.” Michiru held her by the shoulder. The helplessness in her eyes had been replaced by sheer determination. “I think I have an idea.”

“An idea? What do you have in mind?”

“First a question. Can any of your tricks create water, or ice? Anything that increases humidity.”

“I’m not too good at manipulating water, but I think Jim can.”

Jim nodded. “I can create ice, but don’t expect it to be like Antarctica. It only covers a limited area, and will be very thin. For sure it won’t stop that fat spider for long.”

“It should be enough. Can you two protect us while I make my preparations?”

“We can try. I’m not sure for how long.”

“It won’t take long, rest assured.”

While Jim and Satsuki opened fire on the advancing pack, Michiru took off the backpack from her shoulder and pulled three large plastic bottles out of it. Two were common cleaning products, while the the third was empty. Unable to understand what was going on, Sayuki stood in front of her.

“Those are just things you use for the laundry!” she argued, “How can they be possibly useful now?”

Michiru wagged a finger in front of her. “They will far more useful than you think, dummy. In fact, I think they will be a good way to hurt that monster.”

“What are you doing to do, clean it so much that it will die?”

Her friend puffed. “Why don’t you take me seriously?”

“How can you be serious by doing that?”

“Because I know exactly what I’m doing.” Michiru looked away from her. “You know, I’m not as pretty as Yumiko or as athletic like you, Sayuki…”

Her friend’s cheeks turned red with rage. “This is not the time to indulge in self-reflection!”

The girl ignored her remark and continued, “but I like to tinker, since I was little. That’s why I joined the chemistry club last year. And also last year, the club had a peculiar president, who had since then graduated…”

Sayuki gaped. “You mean… that senpai, so bent into doing dangerous things that she was nicknamed bakuhatsu?”

“Yes, her. She taught me a few… unorthodox things. And what I’m doing now is making use of what she has taught me.”

“I can’t even imagine what bakuhatsu told you…”

Michiru gave Sayuki a long look. “Sayuki, you’re a dummy, but you’re great at sports. I need you for this plan to succeed. Will you help me?”

Sayuki grinned. “You’ve actually praised me many times today. This means it’s really important!”

“Just answer the question!” Michiru covered her eyes in embarrassment.

“I will help you, of course. I’ll do whatever it needs to be done!”

Jim paused his shooting and looked at the two. “Can you do whatever you need to do quickly? I and Satsuki don’t have much ammunition left. And I’m sure those spiders aren’t that talkative as you two.”

“Right!” Michiru turned to her friend and held up the empty bottle. “Sayuki, listen carefully. I’ll first fill this bottle with what’s in the others, then I’ll give it to you. When that happens, shake it as much as you can, then throw it at that monster. The closer it gets, the better. However, you’ll only have a few seconds, so make sure to do it fast.”

“What will happen if I’m not fast enough?”

“You may get hurt…”

Sayuki gaped for an instant, then confidence showed up on her face. “You’re crazy, I know… But I guess nothing short of crazy will save us. Leave it to me!”

Michiru unscrewed the cap of one of the two full bottles and poured all its contents in the empty one. She then made a gesture to Jim. “Go now, Jim!”

The man roared in agreement. He stretched out his left hand and chanted a litany made up by short, cold and sharp words. As he went on, the area around the jorogumo and her minions began to condense. Large drops of water formed in the air and fell to the ground: the moment they touched any solid object they released a freezing wave that encased everything around it in ice. The frozen tide swept over the smaller spiders and kept on advancing until it wrapped around the legs of the jorogumo, blocking her movement. Yumiko jumped away before it could touch her and disappeared from sight.

The entrapment only lasted an instant. The spider shook its legs and broke out of that cage easily, followed by its companions.

“Pathetic! What do you think you can do to me with these cheap tricks?” the creature said.

In the mean time Michiru had just emptied the other container. She handed the now full bottle to Sayuki.

“Sayuki, throw it!” she ordered.

Her friend shook the bottle vigorously, and was suddenly aware that something inside was fizzling. Without wondering on what was going on, she took a run and then threw the object with all the strength she could gather. While it flew past the debris, it began swelling up. Once it was close enough to the jorogumo it burst, raining its content around it. The acrid smell of chlorine filled the air.

“What was that?” Sayuki wondered.

“Stand back, or you’ll get hurt!” Michiru pushed her back. “It’s chlorine gas… and it’s already having some effect!”

What she had said was true. The smaller spiders started twisting as if they had been bitten by a poisonous animal, and even the movements of their master became erratic and slow. It twitched, as if vomiting, and a green ichor flowed down from its mouth. It struggled to keep on its legs and stared at the group with hatred.

Jim patted Michiru on the shoulder. “Nice job! And Sayuki, that was a good throw.”

“That’s not all,” Michiru continued, “remember that I said I needed humidity? Well, chlorine can combine with water… and the result is hydrochloric acid. And now they have plenty over them!”

A scream of pain accompanied her words. The jorogumo was wriggling furiously while large welts appeared over its exoskeleton. An even worse fate awaited its children: the acid burned through them up to the point of cutting their thin limbs off or digging through their gem-like eyes. One after another, they turned on their backs and relinquished their lives. Those fortunate enough to be too far to be affected wavered, taken aback by that unexpected massacre. They were still reorganizing their ranks when Yumiko landed among them and ran through the pack, swinging her claws wildly. Every time her hands rose and fell, one spider ended up skewered.

Sayuki watched the whole scene unfold, both surprised and amazed. “Incredible… Did… did you just kill her?”

“I doubt it. It was just a bottle, and not even particularly large,” Michiru replied, “It can’t be that powerful. It may have caused painful wounds, but it will never be able to kill something of that size. That’s ok, though.”


“It bought us enough time.”

Satsuki nodded. “Exactly.”

The woman focused on the twisting spider. At last, she finally found what she had been looking for all that time: a narrow, soft strip of tissue that connected the torso with the abdomen. In order to allow for movement, it was unprotected. Without further ado, Satsuki broke into a run towards the jorogumo. She leapt high using the pile of debris as a platform: while in midair, she moved her right hand in a precise pattern. As she descended, she swung her arm in the direction of the creature, and the air shimmered as something traveled through it. Instants later, the body of the jorogumo was almost split in half.

She landed on one knee, panting. She had used up all her resources in that final attack, and yet she knew it was not sufficient. As grave the wound she had inflicted was, the creature was still hable to seriously hurt or even kill her. On top of that, its “children” which had survived Yumiko’s assault were running in her direction, and threatened to overwhelm her at any minute. Fortunately, she still had one chance, and she was placing all her bets on it.

“Yumiko!” she cried out. “Finish her!”

The girl tossed away the corpse of one of the smaller spiders and pushed herself against the jorogumo. Her clawed hands held both edges of the wound and pulled in opposite directions: the carapace of the monster was ripped apart with a disgusting sound of lacerated tissue. A yellow liquid similar to blood flowed all around and splashed all over Yumiko. She smiled evilly at the sight of her own barbaric actions.

But she was not done yet. She dropped the two halves of the now dying jorogumo and walked next to its head, which was still writhing in agony. Her foot came down one, two, three times until it crushed under her talon. A stuffed wail marked the death of the creature. At the same time, all its surviving children twitched and burst into a cloud of dust.

“Victory!” Sayuki shouted enthusiastically while hugging Michiru. “We did it!”

Satsuki did not share her optimism. “Almost. There’s still something we need to make sure.”

As if her words had anticipated what would occur, Yumiko calmly walked in their direction, that mischievous smile still on her face. Her animal-like hair was ruffled, she was bleeding from a few superficial cuts and her body as almost completely covered from the jorogumo’s blood. She was a living icon of primeval indomitability. Frightened by what their friend had become, both Sayuki and Michiru took a step back.

Yumiko stopped in front of the group, twitching her fingers in anticipation. All of a sudden, her arms fell limp to her sides and her expression became blank. Jim, who had been ready to point his gun at her, opened his eyes wide as he noted that her body was undergoing some sort of change: her figure progressively got indistinct and blurred while many tufts of hair were falling at her feet.

Satsuki, who knew what would take place next, sent a word of warning to the man. “Jim, don’t look at her!”

The man eyed her, doubtful. “Why that all of a sudden… Oh!”

He turned his back to Yumiko just in time before the girl’s naked figure became visible again. She looked exhausted, both physically and mentally: her eyes were clouded, sweat was trickling down her forehead, and she vacillated as she tried to keep her balance. Both worried and relieved, Sayuki and Michiru hurried to her.

Michiru was the first to support her with her shoulder. “Are you all right, Yumiko?”

She was able to give a hint of a response. “I’ve been better… but don’t worry.”

Sayuki held her up from the other side. “You should exercise more, I tell you!” she said, trying to mask the tears welling up on her face with irony.

Yumiko chuckled. “Yeah, perhaps I should…”

“I’m glad it’s over,” Satsuki commented, relieved, “This was a lot harder than I expected. We all deserve some rest.” She addressed Yumiko. “You did a good job out there. I’ll make sure it will never happen again.”

“Thanks… it was particularly embarrassing…” The girl blushed.

Sayuki poked her on the side. “You know, Yumiko? Let’s go shopping tomorrow! At the rate you’re destroying clothes, you’ll be left with nothing to wear!”

“Please, don’t remind me… My allowance is going to take a hit…” Yumiko gave her a sad look.

Michiru hit Sayuki’s forehead with a finger. “Why do you worry about this now, dummy? Yumiko needs to rest, she can worry about this later.” She paused. “Although the idea of going shopping is not bad…”

“You said the same thing as I did! Why is it fine for you and not for me?” Sayuki exclaimed, pointing at Michiru.

“It wasn’t the same!”

“It was!”

Yumiko looked at both of her friends, unsure on what to tell them. “There’s really no need to argue now…”

Jim clapped his hands. “As much as I love to watch you three, I think we should move soon. I have just more than a hunch that it won’t be safe here for long.”

“What do you mean? Are there any other monsters around?”

“No, I don’t mean that. Look outside.”

The large web that the jorogumo had weaved around the building had changed color: it was no longer a snow-like white, but instead a faint brown, like it had somehow decayed. It was also drying up at a fast rate, and some parts had shrunk and fallen off. Through the no longer obstructed windows, the group noticed that the unreal environment they had been in so far was shifting again. The colors in the sky were changing rapidly, almost like a pulsating heart, and the large streaks they had seen previously were growing in size, resembling fissure in a structure about to collapse.

“What’s going on now?” Michiru looked nervously at Jim and Satsuki, hoping for an answer.

“If what I said to Yumiko earlier was correct,” the woman hypothesized, “this whole place was just a copy of Tokyo somewhere else. While this still is a conjecture, that spider woman was probably the one responsible to ensure it continued existing. With her gone, I think we may get back to where we transported from.”

Upon hearing this, Sayuki looked frightened. “Does that mean everything will blow up? It always happens like this in light novels and manga…”

Michiru hit her on the head before she could go on. The other glared at her.

“What did I do wrong this time?”

“And you even ask? You’re just fear mongering!”

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“A bit… but I guess if something truly bad would happen, Satsuki and Jim would have noticed already.”

Jim scratched his cheek. “I think you’re giving us too much credit… Although you’re right that I’m not sensing anything suspicious around.”

“Me neither,” Satsuki confirmed.

Michiru looked triumphantly at her friend. “See? Nothing to worry about!”

“You two…” Yumiko interjected, “I think you’re forgetting something important…”

“Really? What?”

Yumiko spoke slowly while she attempted to keep her embarrassment at bay. “You know, if we go back to the real world, there will be people here. And there’s the the fact that I’m…”

“Ah, right!” Sayuki snapped her fingers. “I knew that we were forgetting about it!”

On the other hand, Michiru said nothing until she realized what Yumiko had meant. Then she let out a high pitched scream.

“Du… dummy!” she stuttered, “Don’t talk like it’s nothing! This is important! What… what should we do? What if… what if…”

Yumiko sighed. “Jim, can you still use that trick like you did in Kyoto? Let’s go back to my house before Michiru faints…”

The man’s laughter echoed across the empty parking. “You girls are too funny, really! You should get paid to do this!”

Satsuki groaned. “Let’s just get moving. I have no intention of becoming famous with an arrest for crimes against public decency.”

The way back to Yumiko’s house was uneventful, and everyone in the group welcomed that much needed change of pace. Soon after they left the department store, that whole strange world they had been locked in for the past hours had disappeared, replaced by the Tokyo they used to know. Apparently no sign of what had taken place had remained: there were no traces of the damage that occurred during both their escape and their battle, and all the buildings were in pristine condition. People walked by, talked and hurried like always, completely unaware of Yumiko and the others thanks to what Jim had done.

For Yumiko, it almost seemed like a dream she had just woken up from. Only the pain from her body and the state she was in reminded her that it had been real. And although everything was now over, her mind was not at ease. That strange, displeasing feeling she had experienced when she let the Fiend inside her soul… it had been accompanied by a change she could not define. But she was sure it had occurred.


She stopped in her tracks and looked left and right. Did someone call her?

Satsuki walked next to the girl. “What’s the matter? Are you feeling tired?” she asked.

Yumiko shook her head vigorously as she tried to pull herself together. Did she truly hear a voice echoing in her head? Had that been the Fiend, or something else? These unanswered question lingered in her thoughts, but no answer ever came from neither the Fiend nor anything else.

She concluded it was just because of fatigue. “No, it’s nothing,” she answered.

Eventually they arrived in front of Yumiko’s house. Having made sure there was no threat in the area, Jim and Satsuki saw the three girls off.

As soon as they were inside, Jim glanced behind his shoulder. “What do we do about whoever’s been following us this whole time?”

“I can’t make sure where it is. It’s very faint,” Satsuki observed, “I can tell it’s different from before. Definitely unlike what we have seen so far.”

“Equally dangerous, perhaps? What can you tell?”

“Nothing openly hostile.” Satsuki brought a finger to her lips. “If I were to make a guess… curiosity?”

“No one would be curious about us unless they knew something.”

“It’s definitely a possibility.”

“Do you want to check it out?”

Satsuki nodded, but then uttered an exclamation of disappointment. “I’ve lost track of it. Can you still pinpoint its location?”

“Unfortunately, it’s the same for me. It has vanished.”

“At least, we know now that it wasn’t a direct threat. And it’s actually good, considering our current state. Either way, we should be even more careful from now on.”

“I agree with you.” Jim stretched. “Man, I really need some rest. All this movement made me very tired.”

“I’m on the same boat. Shall we get back and report?”

“Sure thing. Once we’re done, what about our romantic dinner?”

Satsuki wagged her finger in denial. “Since when did we agree on that?”

“Well, don’t I need a reward for saving you?”

“I think ‘Thanks’ would be enough, wouldn’t it?”

Jim slapped his forehead. “Women! Always playing hard to catch.”

The woman looked at him sideways. “Perhaps it’s time to brush up your tactics.”

“Oh, are you doubting my skills?” Jim grinned. “I’ll make you regret that…”

“Yeah, yeah.” She cut him off with a gesture. “Let’s just get back. We’ve spent enough time chatting here.”

Jim laughed out loud as they walked away. Not too far from them, a girl hiding behind a wall watched them in silence. When they were no longer visible, she let out a half-repressed chuckle.

So, it was like she had been told, and like she had seen. That accursed place. The folly of the creatures that had roamed within. The blasphemies that infected the world. Those people were the root cause of everything. And one of them… She knew her too well.

Yumiko Hasegawa.

Finding out out that such a girl had become a vessel for the impure kind of surprised her. But her duty was absolute. The mere existence of the impure was an unforgivable sin. There was only one action possible.

“Yumiko Hasegawa,” she murmured, “You and your ilk will be cleansed.”

A dark light

In the beginning there was the Void.

Nothing but the Void.

The children of the Void. A constant struggle for survival. Kill or be killed.

Then, It came into existence. Spirit, creature, god, demon? Did it really matter?

Evil gazes from everywhere. Screams from those who have dared to confront it. They disappear into the Void.

A rift. A light in the darkness. What did it lie on the other side?

Approach the light. Approach the light.


A vast and complex landscape, filled with different features Multicolored terrain extended in all directions, sometimes forming depressions, sometimes raising to form elevated bodies.

Funny creatures all around. Frail-looking bodies covered with odd looking skin (or armor?).

They hold strange objects. They shake them. Are they fighting?

A sound.


An order. Come closer.

So close, so close…

What is it* and who is the other? They are one and the same.*

A spark that shines in the darkness.


A fleeting moment.

Detachment. The dull landscape of the Void.

Passing of time. Days, millennia, aeons.

Another rift. Another light. Another approach.

What is this… It is as the ancient record said… Stay away from me, you kitsune!

Rejection. The Void again.

The Void is torn apart. Light that engulfs everything.

Countless universes. A swirling kaleidoscope. Luminous stars that are born and die. A celebration of an eternal cycle.

Hunger. Devour, devour everything! Destroy! Tear apart!

A different presence. Different. Very different. Similar to it.

Embrace it. Engulf it. Become one with it.

Again. Consciousness. A word echoing in the nothingness.



A growl that turns into a scream. Mine!

Yumiko rose from her bed with a jolt. Her heart was beating furiously and she held her chest in an attempt to calm herself down. It had happened again: those strange dreams had started troubling her sleep since the previous week and they had been occurring more and more as time passed. This had been the third time in a couple of days. On every occasion, her memories would be very vague and she could not tell exactly what she had been experiencing, but a lingering sensation remained. A very displeasing feeling, like the one she had lived when she had fought the jorogumo two weeks earlier, and a deep sense of terror the moment she opened her eyes, like her own existence was in danger.

Outside, it was still dark. Faint lights formed patterns on the ceiling of her room, and few muffled sounds came from outside. A glance at the clock indeed showed that it was still very early into the night.

Yumiko sighed: since these visions had started, she had not been sleeping at all. A part of her was even afraid of going back to sleep, as if she had feared something coming for her. She was well aware it was just an irrational thought. After all, the Guardians of the Dawn kept an eye on her on all times, and no more incidents had occurred. Even the Fiend itself had been quiet since the previous crisis had ended. There was no reason to be afraid.

Unless, of course, the cause originated within her… Yet, aside from that displeasing feeling, she had felt no perceivable change. It was truly a mystery.

Yumiko yawned. She had better sleep, or she would not wake up in time for school and her club activities. She made a mental note to mention these dreams to Satsuki for the next training session and she lay on the bed. As her eyes closed and her conscious thoughts drifted away, words echoed in her mind.


The school bell rang, and the sound of chatter quickly filled the once quiet classrooms. The fourth period was over and lunch break had started. Students left their schoolrooms in droves, some headed for the cafeteria, some looking for a place where to have lunch. Yumiko glanced casually at her phone and walked out herself, carrying a small bento with her. Not willing to deal with the crowd at the cafeteria, she had arranged to meet Michiru and Sayuki on the school roof. Spending time with them was her only relief from the trouble from those night visions.

While passing through the corridor, Yumiko heard someone calling out to her. She spun round and saw another girl waving at her. She was slightly shorter than Yumiko and had a minute and very delicate physique, up to the point of looking very frail. However, the energy and will power radiating from her eyes would instantly tell it was not the case. She kept her brown hair loose, seemingly unaffected by the heat. Like Yumiko, she carried a wrapped bento in one hand.

Yumiko smiled. She was the one who occupied the seat next to her in class, Kokonoe Sakahashi. They were on good terms, although they didn’t get to talk much after school or during breaks: when not occupied with the art club, Kokonoe always left early. Nevertheless, she had always been nice to Yumiko.

“Hello, Kokonoe”, Yumiko greeted her schoolmate, “What is it?”

“What are you doing for lunch?” Kokonoe asked back, “Shall we have it together?”

“I’m sorry, I already have plans. I’m meeting with Michiru and Sayuki… I mean, Ichikawa and Fukuda, on the roof.”

“I see. If that is all right with you, can I join?”

“Sure, why not?”

At the end of the corridor, the two climbed two flights of stairs and eventually reached the roof. Despite being glorified in anime, manga and other forms of fiction, it was actually a pretty dull place. Encircled by a tall metallic fence to prevent people from falling off, it was almost completely empty, save for access to the lower floors and a small storage room. There was no way to stay comfortably, and little shade to protect from the heat. For this reason most students tended to avoid the place, and that was the precise reason Yumiko decided to spend her break there. It was not comfortable, but it was surely quiet.

As soon as she and Kokonoe stepped outside, they saw Michiru and Sayuki sitting in a shadow next to the entrance. They both both waved at Yumiko when they saw her.

Michiru smiled in welcome when she saw Yumiko. “Good morning, Yumiko.” She glanced at Kokonoe, “Is her a friend of yours?”

Yumiko nodded. “We’re next to each other in class. She asked to have lunch together, I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not.” Michiru stood up and addressed Kokonoe directly. “I’m Ichikawa from 2-A, nice to meet you.”

“The more, the merrier!” Sayuki grinned. “I’m Fukuda from 2-E.”

Kokonoe bowed slightly in front of the two. “Nice to meet you all, I’m Sakahashi from 2-B.”

“There’s no need to be formal.” Sayuki gestured at the other girl. “You can call me Sayuki.”

“Likewise, just call me Michiru. It would feel very weird around Yumiko otherwise,” Michiru followed up.

“Thanks, Michiru and Sayuki,” Kokonoe said.

Yumiko clapped her hands. “All right, now that introductions are over, let’s sit down and have lunch.”

The girl sat down next to Michiru, along with Kokonoe. She then put her bento on her lap and started unwrapping it.

“Finally it’s lunch time,” she murmured. “I’ve been hungry the whole morning.”

Michiru looked at her yet unopened box and sighed. “I feel the same… But I don’t have much to eat today. I decided I really need to get a a grip on my eating habits…”

Sayuki smirked. “I’m glad you finally noticed.” She poked her friends on the sides. “Yes, definitely too much here. I can only imagine elsewhere.”

“Why do you have to make the situation worse?” Michiru answered with a glare. “Don’t tell me things I already know!”

“Calm down, you two.” Yumiko warned them. “Do you want to scare Kokonoe away?”

Her two friends blushed and closed their mouths shut, glancing nervously at the other girl.

Kokonoe just shook her head and kept smiling. “It’s fine, really. I think it is… interesting.”

Sayuki replied with a nervous grin while Michiru just avoided eye contact with Kokonoe.

Yumiko let out a groan. “Goodness, why is it always like that? Can we set aside the arguments until after lunch? At this rate, classes will begin before we even start…”

Following Yumiko’s proposition, the four girls quietly ate their lunch, talking about little events in their daily school life. Despite the initial impression, Kokonoe was quite talkative, and she told many little anecdotes from the art club. The whole atmosphere was placid and relaxed, making even the summer sun pleasant. It felt like a nice break from their always busy days, and they all thoroughly enjoyed it. Once they were finished, Yumiko closed her bento and stretched.

“Now that was nice!” she exclaimed. “I really needed a break and some food.”

“Yeah,” Michiru echoed her, “even thinking is difficult with this heat.”

Sayuki sulked. “Don’t tell me… After school I need to practice with the club. I’m so going to die running under the sun!”

Their conversation was cut short because Kokonoe stood up and walked in front of them. She was strangely hesitant, in a stark contrast to the easygoing attitude she had when they had talked just a few minutes before.

“Excuse me, Yumiko, Michiru, Sayuki,” she started, “I’m not sure I should be asking this… but I know you were in Kyoto when that incident happened. It kind got to me… What happened there?”

The faces of the other three darkened as memories they did not want to recall resurfaced in their minds. Kokonoe took a step back, feeling uneasy.

“Did I ask something wrong?” she continued.

Yumiko tried to reassure her schoolmate. “Oh, no, you didn’t. It’s just that… a lot of things happened. In a way, I really don’t want to remember. And Hasekura…”

“I understand. Of course, if you don’t want to talk about it, it’s fine.” Kokonoe bowed apologetically. “I didn’t want you to recall something painful. Sorry for bringing that up.”

“Oh, I’m fine. I just need to stay away from those memories… at least for a while. So, thanks for understanding.”

“There’s not much to tell, anyway,” Michiru added, “It’s actually hard to even remember what has happened. It’s all foggy in my head, like it wasn’t even real.”

“Right, right.” Sayuki followed up while fidgeting with her chopsticks. “I felt we were in a dream, or in another world.”

“Another world…” Kokonoe closed her eyes, pondering over what the girl had just said. “That reminds me… Recently, did you ever feel you were in another world? You know… Like being in your house, and realizing that while it looks like it, it is not really your house.”

The three exchanged puzzled glances. Had Kokonoe been involved somehow in the incident from two weeks before, or was just letting her mind wander through the paths of curiosity? They had talked about such a possibility with Jim and Satsuki previously, and decided not to let anyone else know, to prevent bystanders from being involved in whatever else the Darkness was planning.

Sayuki scratched her head and responded dismissively. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand what you mean…”

“Other worlds don’t really exist.” Michiru folded her arms. “I only feel like that when I’m still not fully awake, and it’s just a product of my mind.”

Kokonoe smiled. “I see. That’s good, then. I’m glad you never felt like that.”

Yumiko moved next to her classmate and gave her a worried look. “Are you all right, Kokonoe? Did something happen?”

“Thanks for worrying about me, but I’m fine. I’ve been very busy for the past two weeks, but I can handle it. I still have plenty of energy left.”

“Is that so…” From the girl’s tone it was evident that she did not trust those words at all.

“Did you ever see a Sakahashi tired? Being strong is a trait of my family.”

“What about last year? I remember you were absent for quite a while.”

Kokonoe tilted her head. “Ah, that? That was a different matter. Nothing related to the present situation at all.”

Yumiko was kind of surprised by the reaction of her schoolmate: she remembered well when their homeroom teacher announced that Kokonoe wouldn’t be coming for a while. He sounded quite worried for her well-being, but he had refused to share the details. Yet, she was mentioning that so casually, as if it had just been a minor nuisance. She truly wanted to ask more, but the sound of a bell frustrated her plans. The next period was about to start.

Sayuki sprang up. “This won’t do… classes are about to start again!”

“It’s always the same… there hasn’t been a single time when we are not making a run for it!” Michiru groaned.

Yumiko smiled. “Well, I guess we need to keep this tradition running.” She turned to Kokonoe. “If we don’t want trouble, we have to run to class. Are you all right with that?”

The girl nodded. “I guess it makes the experience more interesting…”

“All right! Girls, let’s go!”

While Michiru mumbled something about “being on time for once”, the four broke into a run through the door and down the stairs as the bell rang its final tolls.

“Come in.”

Kazuo Shibata opened the door in front of him and walked inside. Despite being well into his thirties, Kazuo was often believed to be younger. Perhaps it was because of his lean features, which gave off a certain impression of agelessness; perhaps it was due to his eyes, both penetrating and charming; or perhaps it was his manner of speaking, formal but always friendly. The only sign of his true age was a slightly receding hairline. Dressed in a casual and somewhat dull business attire, he looked like one Japan’s many salary men.

The office he had just entered was small but well-lit. It did not have much room for furniture: a few, mostly empty shelves around the wall, and two cheap-looking wooden desks, each with a small computer and a relatively large monitor. Satsuki and Jim were sitting there, intent in reviewing and inputting information. When they noticed Kazuo, they stopped and smiled at him.

The man’s expression softened. “Good morning, Satsuki, Jim,” he greeted them, “Sorry for barging in. I understand you are quite busy these days.”

Jim let out a dissatisfied groan. “It’s fine, really. I’ve been filing reports and investigations since that matter from two weeks ago. The more I do, the more stuff piles up!”

“Likewise,” Satsuki added, massaging her shoulder, “All this desk work is making my shoulders stiff.”

Kazuo chuckled. “As expected from people who basically live on the field, as the rumors say.”

“You bet!” Jim said with a grin. “In any case, what brings you here? I doubt you have come here just to wonder on our well-being.”

“I finally had time to look into those fake trails before the incident, so I wanted to report what I have found.”

Satsuki’s face became serious. “What did you find? Were all those reports fabricated, or was the evidence genuine? As far as I can understand, it was the latter.”

“It is as you say, Satsuki. The information were absolutely true and verified by multiple independent sources. At some point, those with certain traits were even able to see disturbances beyond our reality. But still… there was no cause for it. It was as if someone had cried wolf, except that there was no such someone. And the disturbances occurred in focal areas that were under monitoring.”

“Are you saying this was done deliberately?”

“I would say even more than that, it was masterminded to generate as much noise as possible. I’ve went through the reports. Even a few days before the incident, a number of these disturbances were detected all around the Taito area. And of course, there was nothing to report when the dispatched agents reached the locations.”

“Sounds like a smokescreen to me,” Jim wondered as he slid his chair against the wall. “To hide something.”

“I have little doubts about that. I remember you mentioning something like that right after you came back from the incident. And in fact, these disturbances follow a precise pattern. I have sent you some details before I came here. Please check them.”

Jim and Satsuki looked at their monitors and opened the message Kazuo had sent them. It was a map of the metropolitan area of Tokyo and its many wards. Several points were overlaid in the northeastern area of Taito, while circles had been dotted many other districts, like Chiyoda, Minato, and Shinagawa. Further southeast, a single, large dot covered Setagaya.

“This is a summary of the disturbances detected before the incident,” Kazuo continued, “and as you can see, they were all over the place. Right before the incident occurred, a large ripple was detected around Setagaya, but it disappeared very quickly. After reading your report, I thought it was too strange to be a coincidence, so I went to check the area and its surroundings. It turned out I didn’t even need to search for anything: there were reports of a police investigation due to a supposed case involving multiple murders. I know a few people in that district that work in law enforcement, so I used my connections to see if this accident was related. To make a long story short, it was. Many dried up corpses had been found in a run-down apartment, completely sealed off from the inside by what seemed a gigantic cobweb. There were also symbols on the walls and the ground. Currently the investigators are saying it’s probably some sort of occult ritual that did not end well, but I’m sure you all know the real reason.”

“No doubt about it, it looks like the work of that jorogumo,” Satsuki observed.

Jim twirled his necklace in one hand. “And what a smokescreen it was. We completely fell of it. I wonder why some of the occurrences were near Yumiko’s house, though. Wouldn’t it be better if they weren’t? Without our support, things may have turned up much worse for her.”

“I guess we were both targets as well, and that jorogumo, or rather her Lord, whatever it is, wanted also the two of us dead.”

“There’s already a long line. They should just wait for their turn.”

Kazuo took the floor again. “It may be as you two said, but personally I doubt it was just her doing. It’s hard to reach this level of coordination if you operate alone. While I can’t exclude the possibility, it is extremely unlikely.”

“Do you mean they may have accomplices we haven’t found yet?”

“Possibly, but not just that. I’m saying that there may be either a leak, or an intentional manipulation of our information network. I don’t think it comes from the inside, though. There’s little to no evidence of that. I’m more inclined to think that some of our covers have been blown.”

“I guess so,” Jim put in, “Since Kyoto, or a bit earlier than that, our profile has been anything but low. I guess we ended up exposing more than we wanted to.”

“I share the same opinion. And given the fact that the enemy is very cunning, they’re doing a discreet job, planting apparently harmless information that would aid their plans. And so we wouldn’t know we are being set up. Of course that doesn’t mean the plans would work out in the end, like the outcome of the incident showed.”

“I don’t think this was the only case.” Jim tapped his forehead with his fingers. “Can you have all the recently acquired information re-reviewed? Just to make sure.”

Kazuo nodded. “I reached the same conclusion, so it’s already being done.”

“You’re always too efficient! You could be sloppy every now and then…”

“As you know, I take particular pride in doing things in the proper way.”

“Come on, can’t you just be different for once? Makes people more interesting.”

Satsuki coughed. “Here you go again…”

“Don’t worry about it, Satsuki.” Kazuo did not seem put off by Jim’s comment. “I don’t mind.”

“With people like him you can’t be too lax. Always be on your guard.”

Jim let out an annoyed exclamation. “What is it now? Are you trying to picture me as some villain?”

The other man winked. “It would probably suit you.”

“Are you on her side, or mine?”

“Neither. Anyway back to the topic. There’s one last thing I need to report.”

Jim regained his composure and looked at Kazuo. “Is there anything more you have found?”

“No. And that’s exactly why I’m going to investigate some of the places where we had found some of the false leads. Some reports mention unusual gathering of people.”

“It could be anything, you know. It may be totally unrelated to that.”

“I would share your opinion, but at least one of them the disturbance appeared mere minutes before, or after, this unusual gathering. It may still be a red herring, but better than searching every reported area for clues.”

Satsuki gave Kazuo a long look. “I know you are a veteran, but the past incidents tell us that we are dealing with something that has little to no restraint for very… unorthodox methods. Therefore, please be very careful.”

“Rest assured I’m not taking this lightly. In addition, I will keep you informed through the whole investigation, since we don’t know if anyone is eavesdropping on our regular communication channels.”

A smile of satisfaction showed on Jim’s face. “You truly thought this through, didn’t you?”

“I’ve learnt to be cautious over these many years out in the field.”

“Then I think it goes without saying, but… Should something unexpected happen, no heroics. We’re not characters of some show, we need to work together.”

“You can rest assured about that. My first and foremost objective is to gather information, so I will try to act discreetly and avoid any confrontation unless absolutely necessary,” Kazuo replied, “This sums up my report and plan. Unless you object, I would like to start my investigation immediately,” he concluded.

Both Jim and Satsuki answered with a nod.

“It is decided, then,” Kazuo said. “You will hear from me very soon. See you later.”

He waved goodbye and walked out of the office. After the door closed behind him, Jim stood up and walked next to Satsuki’s desk.

“What do you think?” he asked. “I have a hard time wrapping my head around all of this.”

“So do I. It’s true that the Darkness follows patterns that defy normal comprehension and logic, but this doggedness is really too much. What has Yumiko done to justify all of this?”

“Beats me.” Jim shrugged. “I’m neither an Ancient nor an all-powerful being. I can’t even imagine what goes through the minds of those entities.”

“But that’s not all. I’ve been meaning to tell you this… there’s something in Yumiko that has been worrying me this past week.”

Jim frowned. “What exactly?”

“Well, she looks… distracted. During the training sessions of the past week, she had evident trouble focusing on the task at hand.”

“Perhaps she has just found a boyfriend and she’s now in la la land?”

Satsuki paid no attention to the man’s remark. “To be honest, I’d be much happier if it were just that. Unfortunately, She looks troubled, not happy. And when I asked her about it, she has mentioned that she’s been having strange dreams that wake up right in the middle of the night. She doesn’t remember much about them, only that she feels really uneasy about going back to sleep. Sometimes, even terrified.”

Jim scratched his head. “That’s definitely strange. Normally I’d brush it off as stress, but not in the case of our princess here.”

“My thoughts exactly. Something is influencing her. And I believe the cause may be internal, rather than external.”

“The Fiend?”

Satsuki nodded. “Yes, I think it’s the most likely explanation… perhaps the only one. Remember? As part of our additional safety measures, there was a ward that would go off in case anything not from this world would come near Yumiko. And it never happened. And we set it up ourselves, so it can’t be related to what Kazuo has told us today.”

“You’re right.” Jim let out a long sigh. “Man, these things keep on getting more and more complicated… What is the Fiend doing?”

There was no certainty in Satsuki’s voice. “I have no idea, to be honest. The best explanation I can come up, and of course it’s all speculation, is that it’s trying to actually gain control of Yumiko. And by doing so, it’s actually destabilizing her mental state.”

“What do we do?” Jim rubbed his chin nervously. “We don’t want her to go into a rampage again. It was bad enough when there were no people. I can only imagine what would happen in a large city like this.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know. I’ll try talking to her and ensure that the training prioritizes her self-control.” She stood up and walked away from Jim. “That’s the only thing we can do at the moment.”

“It’s like living next to a thermonuclear weapon,” Jim commented wryly, “Let’s hope it doesn’t blow up.”

A crowd of students slowly came out of the school gates with a low but noticeable clamor of voices: the long school day was over, and so were the club activities. It was the time to finally go home. Despite being close to dusk, the heat did not give them any leeway and many tried to fan themselves the best they could for some relief. Walking along with the other students, Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru set out for the station to catch a train home. Sayuki was visibly tired and and stretched her arms and legs frequently, while Michiru looked relaxed and with a lot of energy left. Close to them, Yumiko had a preoccupied expression on her face and barely followed the conversation, in deep contrast with the usual self.

Her two friends stopped at a crossing while waiting for a green light and she bumped right into Sayuki’s back. With a yelp, she lost her balance and would have fallen if it had not been for the prompt action of the two girls, who supported her just in time.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I was kind of distracted.”

“What’s wrong, Yumiko?” Michiru asked, worry showing up in her voice. “Is something bothering you?”

“I wouldn’t call a bother. I’m just annoyed.”

“Is it due to the club, perhaps?” Sayuki followed up, “I know your president is famous for being strict.”

“In part.” Yumiko wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Since this afternoon, I’ve been feeling a kind of discordance. Like I’m here, but I feel being somewhere else. Kind of what Kokonoe said today at lunch. It keeps on nagging at me, and I can’t focus very well. During practice I couldn’t hit any target today and the club president gave me an earful. Very frustrating.”

“You shouldn’t let her words affect you,” Michiru commented, “It was just a weird remark, after all. I heard from a classmate she has the tendency of asking strange questions out of the blue.”

“I know. However, it’s easier said than done…”

“What if you aren’t telling the whole truth?” Sayuki smirked. “Are you sure it wasn’t about a boy? Come on, you know you can trust me…”

Michiru stepped between her friend and Yumiko, whose cheeks had reddened. “I’m fairly sure that Yumiko isn’t the type that indulges in certain thoughts!”

“Why don’t you ask her directly?”

“I just know. She’s far more innocent than you.”

“You’re giving me a little too much credit…” Embarrassed, Yumiko made a dismissive gesture. “In any case, calm down and don’t worry. It’s not like I’m suffering from a deadly disease. I’m fine.”

Sayuki sighed. “And I thought it would be something exciting for once.”

“Didn’t we have enough excitement earlier?” Michiru folded her arms in disapproval. “I for one, would like things to be a little more quiet for a while.”

“But I get bored without stuff to do!”

“There’s a lot of stuff you can do, like studying properly. You don’t want your grades to tank, do you?”

“Well, that’s not really exciting…”

“There you go again.” Yumiko held both of her friends by the shoulders. “If you keep on arguing, we will never catch our train!”

The other two girls nodded embarrassingly in response and they all started crossing the intersection. Yumiko was about halfway when she noticed…

A fiery red sky where bony and deformed creatures flew freely over the tattered ruins of man-made buildings. Mutilated corpses of countless people, their faces contorted in masks of terror and their bodies bent in impossible positions, were scattered on the ground along with debris. Groans of pain and fear mixed with the screams of these terrifying things* in the air. Further ahead, groups of naked men and women moved like robots, their hands stretched forward to grasp something that was forever beyond their reach. One man tripped, and the earth beneath his feet mutated into a giant mouth that swallowed him up. The sounds of broken bones and lacerated flesh echoed all around. The others paid no attention to him and continued their pointless search.

Yumiko shivered. Was that a vision?

A long and grave voice resonated over her head. “What is falsehood, and what is truth? It does not matter. Falsehood is truth. Truth is falsehood.”*


Michiru’s voice made Yumiko aware of where she was again. Realizing she was in the middle of the road and that the traffic signal had turned yellow, she hurried on the other side.

“What happened?” her friend said, “You just stood there staring at nothing. Are you really sure you’re all right?”

“I’m sorry.” Yumiko rubbed her eyes. “When I was crossing the road, I saw something…”

“What did you see?”

“I wish I knew. The moment you called out to me, it felt like waking up from a dream, and I only have vague memories of it. I only know it was… very displeasing.” She paused as a realization came to her mind. “That’s exactly like the dreams I’ve been having recently.”

“Perhaps you should ask Satsuki about it,” Sayuki suggested. “It might be the Darkness’s doing.”

Yumiko nodded. “Good idea, although I somehow feel it’s different. I’ll send a message to Satsuki later and hopefully I’ll talk about her tomorrow.”

“Just make sure not to overdo it.” Michiru clung to Yumiko’s arm. “If anything happens, tell us immediately, ok?”

“I will. Sorry for worrying you.”

“All right!” Sayuki exclaimed. “With this said and done, let’s hurry and get our train back home!”

The three resumed their walk towards the station, with Michiru loudly complaining at Sayuki for “taking the situation too lightly” and Yumiko trying to prevent both of her friends from arguing in public. Unseen by either of the girls, another figure watched them walking away from the windows of a convenience store.

“Bright Night Song” wasn’t exactly the best karaoke bar of Tokyo. Located in a small street in the Kichijoji district, outside of the most popular spots, it managed to continue operations mainly thanks to the regulars that kept coming every day. And even if a person would casually pass next to it, there would be a large chance they would not notice the place at all: it occupied the ground floor of a building that had seen far better times in the past, which gave off a decrepit impression.

Every other day a group of about ten people, the bar’s biggest customers, always walked in the evening just after dinner time. However, should one followed them, they would have realized they had not come to sing and enjoy themselves. After talking to the manager, the crowd moved past the actual karaoke rooms and instead entered in a large office in the back of the place, which sported a large sign with Manager’s office - Do not enter on its front door.

No matter what the sign said, it actually resembled a storeroom rather than an office. Part of the walls had not been completely painted and showed the dull color of concrete, and it was filled with old equipment like speakers and microphones, presumably broken, piled up all around. A cheap-looking table had been placed in the middle, along with some plastic chairs next to it. On one side, open binders containing scribbled documents were placed in a disorderly fashion over a small chest of drawers.

The people sat around the table, and a tall middle-aged man set himself at the head, looking at his companions. Half were men, half were women: a few of them were likely in their teens, but most of them were considerably older. The only common feature they had was a pin they wore on their clothes, an emblem resembling a bright star. The one the man wore was slightly bigger than the others. He coughed and everyone’s gaze shifted to him.

“Fellow kamihei,” he started, speaking slowly and solemnly, “let us begin our scheduled strategy meeting.” He looked among his peers until he saw Kokonoe in the back. “Sakahashi, please give in your latest report.”

Kokonoe stood up and bowed. “Gladly, Master. I have kept watch on the impure… Yumiko Hasegawa, for the past days. She seems to keep a low profile for now. However, this is just a facade built up on lies.”

The more she spoke, the more fanatical and excited her tone became. “Her corruption is undeniable. Today I had a conversation with her and her henchmen, whom she calls friends, and it was clear they were hiding something. Too bad for them! I was not fooled. She’s just trying to avoid being discovered. She may even wants to spread her disease! She must be…”

An annoyed remark coming from a boy a couple of years older than her interrupted her rambling. “Can you just present the facts and leave your fanaticism out, please?”

Everyone turned to him, and groans rose among the group. That boy with blonde-dyed hair and the short ponytail, who always wore whatever was fashionable and trendy… Satoshi, of course. Who else could bring that up? Of all the people there, He was probably the most contrarian, and he would have been let go had it not been for his intelligence and problem solving skills. Despite the similarity in age, he and Kokonoe deeply disliked each other and barely dissimulated their hostility.

Unfazed by the reaction of the other kamihei, Satoshi went on. “What have you accomplished so far? You just stalked someone for days, and all you can say it’s that she’s hiding something? Is this the extent of your… in-depth investigation?”

“Do not talk me down.” Kokonoe clenched her fists in frustration. “It is more difficult than you can think, Satoshi. I can’t just walk up to her and ask if she’s an impure! Do you think she’ll just tell me?”

“Why not? At least we’d know by now.”

“Come on, Satoshi,” a middle aged housewife called Michiko interjected, “You should cut her some slack. You’re being very unreasonable.”

“Her methods aren’t that effective, that’s all,” Satoshi replied, “All that stalking isn’t providing us any useful information. Were it for me, I’d just get rid of that Hasegawa… in one way or another. If all you told us is true, of course.”

Kokonoe flared up. “Are you still doubting me? If you have something against me, say it now!”

The man she had called Master rose a hand and interrupted the argument. “Enough, Satoshi. No matter how important our mission is, we’re not murderers. The impure must be cleansed, not killed. Surely you don’t want to harm bystanders.”

Satoshi shrugged. “I get it, I get it. I was merely pointing out more direct approaches.”

“I don’t think anyone here would be able to go that far.”

“Who knows? People can be worse than you may think.”

“Whatever.” The Master ended the discussion with a disgruntled exclamation. “We’re wasting time with worthless sophisms. Let’s get back on track. Any other reports to give, apart from Sakahashi?”

Ichiro, a man in his forties wearing overalls and with a work helmet in one of his hands, stood up. “Did you hear about the murders near Setagaya? From what the news say, there were a lot of mummified men in an apartment. They say a woman was sighted near that place over the course of many nights.”

“I’ve seen that person,” Kokonoe pointed out, “She was walking around the streets during that incident I told you about.”

“I thought it may have been related to this Hasegawa person,” Ichiro continued, “but when a possible profile of the culprit was on the news, she looked completely different from her.”

“I’ve seen her at that time, and it was definitely not Yumiko. Not that it does matter in any way: everything is related to that girl. I’m sure of it. Strange things have been happening since she was born. In light of these news, it may get worse. Master Harada, we must do something at once! I can…”

“Haste is the enemy of good,” the Master admonished her. “Sakahashi, you should keep on observing her a little more, until we have solid proof. There should be no room for even the smallest doubt.”

Frustration showed up in the girl’s eyes, and she looked away from the Master. “If you say so, I will.”

“Enjoy your little stalking game a little more,” Satoshi remarked sarcastically.

The Master slammed his hand against the table and everyone fell silent. “Satoshi, no one asked for your opinion. Can you focus on your tasks instead?”

“Aren’t you all a little too hot headed tonight? However, I didn’t forget. I should have new information for you later.”

The man regained his composure as a smile of satisfaction appeared on his face. “Excellent. Let me know as soon as possible. Anything else to report, fellow kamihei?”

As there was no response from the people gathered around the table, the Master clapped his hands. “All right, the meeting is now adjourned. May the Light guide us on the right path.”

The room filled with idle chatter as the kamihei bowed to the Master and left. Kokonoe stood behind while pretending to read a document, barely hiding her frustration. Satoshi passed next to her and she gave the boy a venomous stare, but all she got in return was a contemptuous smirk.

She did not leave the bar until she was sure everyone else was gone. She walked down the nearby alley, forcing herself to resist the urge of unloading her rage on nearby objects. That Satoshi! Always treating her like a good for nothing, even after her account of the incident! What was wrong with him? Was he trying to get her expelled? The others had not been better, either. They were so laid back, almost as if they had not believed her words. Even if they had seen what she had brought to them! How come they were still doubtful?

There was only one way she could make them reconsider: she had to triple her efforts and bring definitive proof that Yumiko was an impure. From now on, she would act like her shadow and keep her eyes on her classmate at all times. Catching that girl off guard would just be a matter of time. And then… everyone would have to admit that she had been right all along.

Kokonoe grinned in satisfaction and she let out a low chuckle. Satoshi would finally pay back for all the humiliations she had to endure until now. A flawless plan.

“Just wait, Yumiko,” she murmured, “All your lies will be exposed.”

Through a pair of small binoculars, Kazuo watched the group of people leaving the Bright Night Song from a window on a building on the opposite side of the street. It had been his first target due to reports of regular meetings of people around one of the areas affected by the disturbances. Once he arrived in the neighborhood he had sensed a faint, alien presence in the surroundings. He had eventually traced it to the bar, and he had promptly put himself on the lookout for any signs of suspicious activity.

Much to his disappointment, he was not able to pinpoint the exact source in the crowd of people he was keeping an eye on. Once the patrons he had been watching left, that sensation disappeared entirely. Puzzled, Kazuo wondered about its actual nature. Unfortunately, he had no time to follow that trail further, but that did not mean someone else could not continue in his place. He dialed a number on his cell phone.

“Clark here”, Jim said on the other side, “What is it, Kazuo?”

“I’d like you to look into something, if you can,” the man explained, “On the way for my destination, I stopped to keep an eye on a group of people that regularly meets at a karaoke bar near here, which as I told you is very close to one of the disturbance. There was something… unusual among that crowd, but nothing I could discern precisely. I’m not sure it is related to what I’m looking for, but can you find out more nevertheless?”

“Of course! Can you give me more information?”

“The bar is called Bright Night Song, and it’s a group of ten or so people.”

“All right, I’ll make sure to find who rents spaces to them and who they are.”

“Thank you very much. I’ll be continuing my investigation now.”

“Make sure you don’t get… distracted by some local beauty.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Kazuo out.” Kazuo chuckled and hung up.

Now that his watch was over, he had to carry out his original goal: take a closer look where the disturbance had occurred. From the report, it was a back alley not too far from his current position. He left the building and navigated a maze of small and seemingly random back streets, well away from the major roads. Five minutes into his search, he again felt a strange, displeasing sensation coming from somewhere nearby. The more he moved in that direction, the stronger it became. Feeling close to the goal, he hurried along.

Eventually, he reached a dead end. That unnatural feeling was very strong, yet there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary there, just a bunch of stacked crates used by a nearby shop and a couple of bicycles leant against one of the walls. That sight did not discourage him the slightest. He just had to change his point of view.

Many agents in the Guardians of the Dawn had acquired their special traits by months or even years of rigorous training, but Kazuo was different. Even since he was a child, he had discovered that his eyes could see places beyond the natural world simply by staring long enough. After he had joined the organization, many years later, he had perfected this ability to the fullest to locate what was hidden from normal eyesight.

Concentrating, Kazuo focused on a fixed point in the center of the street and waited. The environment around him started to shift and change shape: the lights of Tokyo and the surrounding buildings faded away and were replaced by an uncanny sight. It was a barren hollow covered with a fine dust, surmounted by a dull grey sky. Large holes dotted the landscape, and liquid erupted from them at regular intervals. The spouts turned into bizarre shapes which bubbled for a second before disappearing out of thin air. A few steps ahead from the man, a small bulge on the earth was beating like a heart.

He walked up to the beating rock and it cracked open, releasing an eerie light up to the sky. Kazuo blinked, and he found himself again in the alley. A small patch of something resembling congealed blood was where the bump had burst.

That was enough to make his mind up. What he had seen was a conjuration meant to send noise throughout the netherworld. The Guardians themselves had used such methods to communicate or warn each other without being noticed. However, it was the equivalent of setting a very loud alarm off, so normally measures were put in place so that the creatures from the Darkness would be blind to such signals.

What he had seen was a mischievous twist of the mechanism: the incantation had been engineered to cause as much noise as possible across the unseen worlds but it could only be discovered by the Guardians and no one else. There was little doubt that also all the other disturbances had been caused by similar phenomena. Like he had suspected, all these events had been no more than decoys used with the likely intention of drawing attention away from the incident two weeks earlier. The approach was far more elaborate and well-thought than what Kazuo had imagined. Doing that required a great knowledge of the arcane arts, so their invisible enemy was both well-organized and capable.

A sudden noise drew him away from his thoughts. For an instant, he was again aware of a presence near him, very similar to what he had felt earlier. Exactly like before, it disappeared in an instant before he could identify its source.

The man cursed under his breath. He thought he had been chasing something… but perhaps he had been the chased one all along. Whoever it was, it had clearly outsmarted him. It was very troubling, and he had to find out more as soon as possible. No matter what he had discovered so far, there were too many missing information. And whoever was against them was taking advantage of that.

His mind still deep in thought, he spun round and walked away.

The cemetery was immense. Rows of tombstones extended in all directions beyond the horizon. Most of them were dilapidated and in ruins, so it was nearly impossible to read the names of the people buried there. It was very cramped, and the few patches of free ground were barren, dry and sterile. Large clouds of dust rose every time the wind blew. The whole place was completely silent and devoid of any signs of life. Even grass did not grow there. It was the quintessential representation of death.

Yumiko walked across the graveyard as fast as that tight space allowed her to. That eerie place made her nervous and she wanted to leave as soon as she could. However, no matter what direction she took, there were just more and more tombs lined up. That place was as large as the world itself.

Frightened, she broke into a run. Her flight did not last long, because her feet hit a half-buried rock and she tumbled unceremoniously on the ground. Ignoring the pain from her body and limbs, she struggled to get back on her feet. That was when she saw a grave that was completely different from all the others: the stone had not any signs of decay and looked almost new. Yumiko’s heart skipped a beat when she saw the name inscribed over it.

Hasekura Yuuchiro. A name she never wanted to see there.

“Took you enough to realize,” a familiar voice said behind her.

Startled, she turned and her heart began to race. Standing before her there was none other than Yuuchiro himself. She rubbed her eyes: it was impossible! How could he be there? That oni

“Yuuchiro,” she murmured, “are you still alive?”

Yuuchiro walked next to the burial stone that bore his name and shook his head. “No. As a matter of fact, I am dead. And the dead can’t come back to life.”

“Then… Why? Why are you here?”

“That’s simple. I am here to remind you of your sins.”


Yuuchiro pointed his finger at Yumiko and his face hardened. “Why do you think I died? It was your doing, Yumiko. I died because of you!”

The girl looked away from him. “Don’t say such things… It wasn’t me! It was that oni that cut you down. How could I be possibly…”

“Aren’t you even able to realize who you truly are?” the boy snapped. “You are no more than a cursed being that brings death to others!”

“Then explain this to me properly! I don’t understand, I really don’t understand…” The girl’s voice turned into a plea. “Please tell me, Yuuchiro! What did I do to deserve this?”

“Understanding and explaining is not necessary. Your destiny was written even before you were born. You can’t escape it.”

The loud sound of thunder echoed all around the cemetery and dark clouds covered the sky. Rain would likely start to fall soon.

“Who cares about destiny!” Yumiko yelled. “I want nothing of this!”

Yuuchiro smirked in spite. “Do you think you have a say in this matter? It has happened already, you know? I told you that the dead can’t come back.”

His lower body from the waist down fell to the ground, while the upper torso kept floating in midair. Yumiko looked away from him, holding a hand over her mouth and suppressing the urge to vomit.

“Watch well,” the dismembered Yuuchiro continued, “watch how I ended up being. Thinking about it, it was a wonderful experience. That pain, that suffering… it was brief, but very enjoyable.”

The girl held her head with both hands and fell to her knees. “Stop it, Yuuchiro! It is too much! I beg you, please…”

“Oh, how much I liked it,” he continued, ignoring her desperate request, “Were it not for death, I’d do it a hundred… no, a thousand times again!”

With an abrupt movement, Yumiko stared back at the boy. The desperation in her eyes had disappeared and had been replace by the fiery flames of rage.

“I said,” she shouted, “stop it!

Yuuchiro grinned. “And what are you going to do if I don’t?”

A roar was the only response he got. Moved by an anger she could not control, the girl sprang up and jumped in front of the dismembered body that once had been her friend. One hand caught him by the neck and the other by the hair, then they started pulling. An ordinary human would not have been able to do it, but Yumiko possessed far more strength than she could even realize. She tugged and tugged, until Yuuchiro’s head was ripped off with a loud sound of lacerated flesh. Growling, she threw both pieces away from her.

“Oh my, look at what you have done”, the boy’s head snarled, “You did it again, Yumiko.”

The head rolled on the ground next to a tomb, then it melted as if it were made of ice. Within the blink of an eye, it had disappeared.

Yumiko screamed. It was a yell of satisfaction mixed with desperation. Both were one and the same, a twirl of mingled feelings that ravaged her soul. Was she sad that she had maimed Yuuchiro with her own hands? Or was she happy that he shut down that insignificant insect with her own hands, giving him the treatment he deserved? She could not even tell right from wrong.

With a tremendous effort, she was able to steer her mind in the right direction. She had done something terrible, and she did not even know why. Did the truly have to do that?

A loud, atonic voice echoed across the graveyard. “Because you must!

Yumiko opened her eyes wide and was met with the familiar landscape of her own room. For a while she just stared at the ceiling, too scared to even thinking about moving. That experience had been radically different than the previous times. While before she did not remember anything but vague feelings, she remembered every single detail from that vision, as if she had been really there. How could she even think about doing what she did to him?

Because you must.

That was what the voice had said before she had woken up. It did not make any sense to her. She would never, ever want to be forced to do such a thing.


She yelped when the word resounded in her mind. They did definitely not feel like her own. Nevertheless,they had a strange, familiar aura to them. A part of her thought she was going insane. There was no rational explanation for that. Perhaps everything was just the result of the extreme stress she had endured in recent times, or the presence of the Fiend had caused a personality split. On the other hand, she had witnessed events where logic and nature had no part in countless times.

Somewhat reluctantly, she reached out at whoever had spoken. Who are you?

A reply came in the form of a stream of seemingly incoherent concepts. Imperfect…Consequence…Acceptance!

Yumiko was baffled: it did not make any sense at all. Perhaps she was truly out of her mind.

She decided to give another try. I don’t understand… What do you mean?

No need…Natural…Goal…Comprehend!

Yumiko gave up. There was no way she would understand. Unfortunately for her, the random thoughts continued to pile up with little regard to logic or reason, regardless if she wanted to listen to them or not. It almost felt like someone venting out pent-up anger with no regards of their peers. It didn’t take long for it to become unbearable: it was flooding her own consciousness. Any rational idea she had was immediately swept away by the flow. Feeling at her limit, she rose from her bed and sat down, looking at her own hands. What was she supposed to do now? At that rate…

All of a sudden the rambling ceased. Compared to what came next, Yumiko would have loved for it to continue, no matter her previous opinion. It was a single, powerful sentence that made her blood run cold and the hair on the back of her head stand out. It was a call from the deepest pits of darkness, a phantom that no natural being would even be able to imagine.

You, her mysterious interlocutor said, are mine, Yumiko!

Pushing her back against the fence on the school roof, Yumiko yawned loudly and stretched. She glanced at the bento she was holding over her legs and muttered an exclamation of disappointment under her breath. It looked and tasted delicious, but somehow she had little to no appetite and so the box was still mostly full. That nightmare and everything that had followed had made a strong impact on her. She couldn’t help but sigh.

Michiru noticed her predicament and gave her a worried look. “You almost haven’t eaten anything today, Yumiko. Is there anything troubling you? It is so unlike you to ignore food.”

Yumiko nodded. “Normally I’d shrug it off and say it’s nothing, but I admit you are right, Michiru. I think there’s something wrong with me.”

Like always when her friend was in trouble, Michiru made no made no effort in concealing her worry and took her hand. “Did anything else happen? Is there any way I can help?”

“Normally I think Michiru overreacts, but she’s right,” Sayuki observed, strangely more serious than usual, “You look really troubled today. Did you get scolded again? Or did you have any problems at home?”

“That would have been much easier.” A gust of wind ruffled Yumiko’s hair and she adjusted it before continuing. “Truth be told, I’m not sure about it myself. First, the dreams I’ve been having recently. I call them dreams even though I didn’t remember anything with the exception of very displeasing feelings when I wake up. Then, there was the discordance from last afternoon, and when I spaced out at the station yesterday. Remember that?”

Michiru and Sayuki nodded.

“Then, last night I had another dream, In this case I remember everything, even though I wish I didn’t…” Her voice became a whisper. “It was terrible. Yuuchiro was in it.”

Michiru glanced at Yumiko sideways. “Are you sure it wasn’t just because of what happened? I mean, this has been a shock for us as well. I can’t imagine how hard would it be for you.”

“Right,” Sayuki followed up, “After all, it will take some, if not a long time, before you can truly get over it.”

Yumiko looked away from her two friends. “I thought about it myself. I thought it was just because I lost him all of a sudden, because it was truly painful for me. But that wasn’t it. I wish it were.”

Yumiko then told them about her dream. She spoke slowly and uneasily, recalling memories she wanted to lock away. She mentioned the cemetery she had found herself in, her meeting with Yuuchiro, and the strange discussion that ensued. Talking about what happened afterwards with the boy and what she had done to him was harder than expected: her voice did not want to come out of her throat, and she often stuttered. But she did not stop, and continued until she had told them everything.

“What troubled me the most”, she concluded as she tried to prevent herself from shaking, “is that in the dream, I was enjoying it. Every single thing I did to him…” She buried her face in her hands and let out a long sigh. “What a mess…”

“I’m sorry”, Michiru said, “It must have been terrifying.”

“On the good side, at least it was not real.” Sayuki walked next to Yumiko. “Once you wake up, you realize it was just a dream.”

Yumiko gave her a doubtful stare. “Yes, that’s true. What happened afterwards however, after I woke up, was far too real instead.”

“Eh?” Sayuki brought a hand to her mouth in surprise. “What exactly happened? Did he show up in your room or something?”

“No, something different. I heard… voices. Something, or someone, was trying to tell me something, but all I understood was just incoherent rambling. Except the last sentence. It said ‘You are mine’. I’ve never felt more scared in my life.”

“Truly terrible…” Michiru murmured as mixed feelings of compassion, worry and powerlessness fought inside her.

“I thought it was the Fiend”, Yumiko continued, “but I’m not sure. It had a fairly different aura, more intelligent and aggressive.”

Michiru looked straight at Yumiko. “You should tell Satsuki about this. She knows a lot about the Darkness.”

“I’ve been thinking about that. On one hand, I’m truly scared. On the other hand, it may still be a red herring. I wouldn’t want to cry wolf.”

Sayuki pushed her gently to one side. “Just call her, it won’t hurt. In times of necessity, act before you overthink. That’s my motto!”

“And that’s exactly why you get in so much trouble at times,” Michiru grumbled as she stood behind her friend, “But today, you are right. Yumiko, we may not be able to help you with this, but Satsuki certainly can. There’s still time before class, so just call her. I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you. It’s been too much already.”

Sayuki grinned. “You’d better do that, or Michiru will haunt even your descendants!”

“You’re lucky… For Yumiko’s sake, I’m letting it slide today.”

Yumiko pulled out her cell phone and dialed Satsuki’s number, but not before giving a stern stare to her friends. “Don’t mess up while I’m talking.”

Shortly afterwards, she heard the woman’s familiar voice. “Hello, Yumiko.”

“Satsuki, do you have a minute? I’d need your advice on something…”

“No problem with that. What is it?”

The girl then proceeded to tell the woman all about her dream and the strange voices that had called out to her, just like she had done earlier with Michiru and Sayuki.

“A strange development,” Satsuki commented when she was done, “Just to make sure: do you feel any different from usual?”

Yumiko’s answer was negative. “No, not really, as far as I can tell. To be fair, I can’t almost feel the Fiend’s presence today.”

“I see. There is something I’d like to have checked, just to make sure. I can do that tomorrow, once we’re done with the usual session.”

“Excuse me, but what do you want to confirm?”

“Whether it is yet another ploy of the Darkness to target you, or something else. While so far they’ve been very direct in trying to target you, I can’t rule out the possibility of them using subtler means. Until we can be sure, please look out for anything unusual, and if anything like that ever happens again, let me know as soon as possible.”

“I will. Thanks for taking care of me, as always. Sorry for being abrupt, but I think we’ll have to continue later. The next period is about to start.”

“No problem at all. Talk to you later. Bye!”

Yumiko hung up and walked back to her friends.

Michiru immediately approached her. “So… What did she say?”

“She seemed relieved to know that I didn’t feel any different from usual. She said she’ll need to confirm something the next time we see each other, so tomorrow. It might be something from the Darkness.”

“It’s good to have someone so dependable. I’m sure that she’ll be able to find out what is going on.”

“That is what I am hoping as well.” Yumiko put up a feeble smile.

Sayuki placed herself between the other two and held them both by the shoulders. “So, all is well what ends well?”

“I can’t say it will, but I feel better. You two also helped quite a bit.”

The direct compliment made Michiru embarrassed and she fumbled to find the right words. “Well… It’s only natural to do so, isn’t it?”

On the other hand, a large grin on Sayuki’s face showed how much she liked that. “Ichikawa and Fukuda, your local source of happiness!”

Michiru eyed her. “You sound like one of those strange adverts on TV.”

“That means I’m definitely having an impact!”

“A negative impact, that’s for sure.”

While her friends were arguing so close to her, Yumiko closed her eyes and took a deep breath. What had happened still scared her, but at least she knew there were people she could rely on for support. Thanks to them, the road ahead had become a little clearer, and she was sure it was going to be all right, in one way or the other.

She poked both girls on the cheek. “There’s no doubt we’re back to normal now… You both started quibbling again.”

The two replied with an ashamed apology, loud enough to make her chuckle. “Either way, shall we get back? I’d love avoiding a rush to class at least once…”

“But that’s not fun.” A long exclamation of disappointment came from Sayuki. “Running late is part of the high school life!”

Michiru gave her a long stare. “Perhaps instead it’s because you don’t want to go to class, do you? You should worry more about your school performance.”

“I am always worried… when I have to face my parents.”

“That’s not what you should be worried about!”

“There you go again.” Yumiko groaned. “Let’s just get going before you spend all your time arguing!”

The three friends walked down the stairs up to the second floor. Yumiko had just said goodbye to her friends and was about to walk in her classroom when started feeling a headache, followed by a slight sense of nausea. However, it wasn’t any of the unnatural sensations she had experienced in the past, more like a real illness. A little worried about her own health, she went to the girls’ bathroom to have a good look at herself. There was no one else when she entered, probably because all people had gone back to their classrooms already. A line of sinks, each one with a mirror in front of it, was son one side of the room. Yumiko picked one randomly and she gave a long stare at her own reflection.

At first sight, there was nothing out of ordinary: she was just slightly paler than usual, but nothing that would suggest a true illness. Yet, there was something odd about her eyes, although she could not figure out what exactly. She blinked, and it became clear to her. The inner part of her irises, instead of the usual blue, had turned to a golden yellow. More than unusual, it was somehow familiar. Why?

The moment she realized its meaning, the pain hit her body hard. She held on the sink with blind insanity, trying not to fall down. Tufts of hair merged on the back of her hands and felt her teeth growing longer and longer. It was that Fiend… trying to take her over at school, of all places! However, this time she did not subdue. No matter the pain that threatened to knock her out, she fought back with both determination and desperation, using every single approach she had been taught by Satsuki.

The effort proved even harder than what she had expected. The Fiend was there, irremovable, like a mountain she tried to push away with her bare hands. No matter what she tried, not only it would not bulge, but it would even gain more ground in their invisible confrontation. Yumiko was slowly being cornered, but she stubbornly refused to yield. She could not afford to.

Just as she felt being at her limit, the Fiend’s presence retreated in a corner of her mind and disappeared completely.

Yumiko leant against the sink, exhausted. She was covered in sweat and she was breathing heavily. That had been possibly the scariest experience of her life. She would have never imagined that the Fiend would be able to attempt to conquer her mind on its own. She had been very lucky that it had seemingly lost interest and went away: she had been barely able to offer up a semblance of resistance to its efforts. If she had succumbed, or submitted… heaven forbid what would have happened to her, and whoever was in the school!

Satsuki had to be informed as soon as possible.

The sound of the bell brought her back to reality. Classes were about to start! She needed to go back before raising too much attention.

While she limped out of the bathroom, she bumped into another person. Too occupied with her own thoughts, Yumiko did not even bother checking who it was. She quickly apologized and went on her way.

Kokonoe watched her walk away in silence with a blank stare.

“So that’s your true nature, Yumiko Hasegawa,” she murmured under her breath.

Standing next to his desk in his office, Jim took a long sip from a cup of hot coffee while he heard Kazuo’s report on his investigation in Kichijoji. Once the other man had finished, puzzlement showed up on his face. “I thought it wasn’t simple, but this is complicated.”

“To be honest, it went beyond what I had expected as well,” Kazuo replied, “However, these facts are undeniable. The way the whole decoy had been set up is unmistakable. It’s highly likely that the other disturbances we had found were caused by the same trick.”

Jim sat over a corner of his desk. “On one hand, we weren’t as lucky in the other spots: I guess whatever was there had worn off already. On the other hand, this is progress. We have more information than what we started, no matter how little.”

“No more than mere hints, but I agree with you: enough to dig deeper in this matter.”

“Let’s review what we have here.” Jim stood up again and walked across the room as he organized his thoughts. “First, we have this big bad spider-like woman. Despite being terribly cliched, she wanted us, and Yumiko dead. To do so, she needed to perform a ritual, but she did not want to bring it to our attention. For this reason, she had to distract us. How about having us run all over the place while she carried out her terrifying evil plan?”

“And so, we come to the decoys,” Kazuo followed up, “They prove to be very effective, and just by luck you and Satsuki were able to prevent the situation from escalating. We thought it was just a keen manipulation of our information gathering, but my investigation showed something different. Whoever had planned this made sure that something would indeed be there, and that it would draw us like flies to honey. On top of that, I was being watched.”

“Say, Kazuo.” Jim stopped suddenly and gave Kazuo a long glance. “Do you really think it was just meant to cover that jorogumo’s doing?”

Kazuo stroke his chin. “Now that you mention it, it feels off. I feel that a piece in the puzzle is missing… that we’re not seeing the whole picture.”

“Exactly. This may be all conjecture, but… Why following you? If the decoys had served their purpose, there would be no need for it. I believe this voyeur was there to make sure something else would not be found. And since you didn’t, whatever that may be, he left.”

“That’s certainly a different perspective. As this mysterious pursuer almost risked being detected, I think it was something quite important.”

“And that’s just not it,” Jim reasoned while twirling his necklace, “Don’t you think it’s been far too quiet? So far we’ve seen that these people from the Darkness have absolutely no restraint. They wrecked Kyoto. They attempted an assassination out in the open in Nagano, twice. They even involved Tokyo in a godforsaken ritual! All of this in the span of a few days. It’s been two weeks now, and absolutely zero activity. I really don’t think they decided to mend their ways, apologize, and retreat.”

Kazuo nodded slowly. “It’s too sudden of a change. While the Darkness may be unpredictable, it is not the unpredictability of madness. This means there is another plan in motion.”

“Correct. And I’m worried about what they may want to pull off this time. For sure it won’t be a surprise sale. We absolutely need to find out more.”

“And those decoys are our only clue,” Kazuo commented as an idea formed in his mind, “Perhaps they can still be useful.”

“Do you have anything specific in mind?”

“Sort of. What I learnt over the years, is that every time the barrier between the seen and and unseen world is crossed, there are some traces left behind. Sometimes a trail, sometimes a little subtler. But nothing that can be completely removed, not even by the most experts in the art. If we were to see these traces, we might be able to trace them back to whoever made them.”

Jim gave Kazuo a hopeful look. “I know I’m sounding overly optimistic… Did you see anything of the sort?”

“Unfortunately not. As useful my second sight can be, it’s not sharp enough for these things. That said, I know that some people can be born with a much sharper trait than mine. I remember meeting one or two when I was on mission abroad, years ago. Do you know if anyone in the Guardians stationed in Japan, or better, Tokyo, has this ability?”

“Well, I don’t know, but I’m sure that the information is in the records.”

Jim sat at the computer and started searching, trying to find profiles that matched Kazuo’s request. He muttered an exclamation of disappointment when his initial search came up with no records. However, he did not give up. The Guardians also kept information on people with unnatural capabilities: perhaps he would find what he sought there.

A minute or two later, he let out a victorious cry. “Yes! There’s someone who matches!”

“Is this person stationed here?” Kazuo asked, “If so, I’ll arrange a meeting immediately.”

Jim shook his head. “There’s no one in Japan among the ranks of the Guardians. Luckily, there’s someone else… one of the people with special traits under the protection of the Guardians. He goes by the name of ‘Tatsui’, although this is likely a fake name. His description says he has an extremely keen sight for the unknown, and is able to catch even small glimpses of change in the netherworld. He’s living in disguise as an owner of a thrift shop.”

Kazuo looked at the screen and nodded. “It should be worth at least asking for his opinion.”

“Be aware that he is keeping a low profile.” Jim pointed at a section of the file with the heading Special notices. “He doesn’t like his sight too much… He had special glasses manufactured to block it as he was going insane. In addition, he originally went under our protection because he had risked his life in several occasions. The record says he doesn’t want a lot of attention from anyone that isn’t a customer, and he goes as far as shielding himself with all sorts of wards to keep unwanted guests away.”

An ironic smile appeared on Kazuo’s face. “I can’t blame him, we all know how the Darkness works. It’s not like I want to keep him involved, either. I’m sure a few well placed questions will be good enough to put us on the right track without exposing him too much.”

“Not a bad plan. Simple and safe. I like both simple and safe.” Jim clicked a button on the screen and the phone in Kazuo’s pocket beeped. “I’ve sent you all the information that is available.”

“Thanks.” Kazuo gave a quick look at his watch. “It’s still early enough. I guess I will go and pay him a visit.”

Jim stood up and patted the other man on the shoulder. “I’ve said it before, but be careful. Whoever was spying on you might come back. And I doubt it’s to ask you out on a date.”

“That’s not in my plans, either. I will be on my guard. I’ll also let you know of any possible developments. Now, if you will excuse me, I’ll be on my way.”

Satsuki walked in the moment Kazuo opened the door to leave. The two exchanged greetings, then the man bowed and left.

“He is off as quickly as usual,” the woman commented as she approached Jim, “did he find any useful information?”

Jim scratched his beard. “Promising leads. Hopefully something more juicy, but needs more solid proof, I’m afraid. What about you? I think you were on watch today… Were you so eager to see me that you skipped your job?” He grinned.

“The same eagerness as when I have to file any paperwork,” Satsuki hissed, “Unfortunately, the matter is serious enough that I had to tell you personally, so I asked Katsuyuki to fill in for me until I was back.”

“So there is an ulterior motive, I see.”

Satsuki hit her forehead. “Everything I say goes in that direction for you… Oh well. Unfortunately, it’s not about me, but about Yumiko.”

“What about it? Did she become rebellious and skip school?”

“Pranks would probably been better. Instead it’s about her dreams and what is happening to her.”

The smile disappeared from Jim’s face. “I take it’s taking a turn to the worse?”

“Luckily, not yet. She told me that she had a dream that she could finally remember. It wasn’t pretty at all. She dreamt of killing that friend of hers, Hasekura, and thoroughly enjoying it. It might have been just a nightmare, but after she woke up she heard some kind of voice that tried to talk to her, although she didn’t understand what it meant… she said it was just a mixture of incoherent thoughts. She thought about the Fiend, but it had a far different aura.”

“I just love when matters keep on getting worse and worse.” Jim sighed.

“So far, it doesn’t seem to have affected her physically, but I wouldn’t test our luck. I scheduled a behavioral check-up for tomorrow. I wanted it done sooner… but all the involved people were already on high-priority assignments.”

“Let’s hope luck keeps being on our side.”

The woman coughed. “That’s not all, though. There’s something else going on, although not directly related to Yumiko. Do you remember the group of people Kazuo had seen in Kichijoji?”

Jim nodded.

“I’ve done some research and they’re actually part of some kind of cult,” Satsuki explained, “The hikari no kamihei… the Militia of the Light, as they call themselves.”

“As if the world didn’t have enough nutjobs as it is,” Jim commented dryly.

“You used the right word. Luckily, based on what I’ve gathered, they’re mostly harmless. They’re just a bunch of deluded people like many others on this planet.”

“How could they be possibly involved with Yumiko, then?”

“It looks like a member of this Militia is actually a schoolmate of Yumiko.” Satsuki adjusted her glasses and continued. “For now I know her name, Kokonoe Sakahashi, and the fact that she is in the same class as Yumiko herself. As you can guess, that is precisely the problem: yes, those nutjobs are technically harmless, but what if they keep on poking around Yumiko?”

“They’re like a monkey juggling a jar of nitroglycerin. One wrong move and… boom!”

“A bit too extreme, but you get the point.”

Jim laid back in his chair. “Certain people seems to love trouble… Let’s hope that this won’t lead to a shorter lifespan on their end.”


A sudden realization hit Jim. “That person that was watching on us right after the incident… Could it have been one of them?”

Satsuki put a finger on her lips. “That’s clearly a possibility. After all, other innocent bystanders were involved back then. I noticed when I was out there, although they were unfortunately beyond any help at that point.”

Jim grinned. “Proof of my superior intellect.”

Satsuki groaned and paid no attention to the man’s remark. “Anyway, that’s all I wanted to fill you in about.”

“You’re cruel. Don’t ignore me like that.”

“I’m not. I’m just being professional.”

“You’re just not being fun.” Jim made a dismissive gesture. “Now that we know, we have to think about what do we need to do with these people. They’re not a threat, but they might make our lives more complicated than what we wanted. And at this point I’d love to avoid any more headaches.”

“I have asked Katsuyuki to look into them more closely. If we play our cards correctly, hopefully no one will face… bad experiences.”

A joke died on Jim’s lips. “Let’s hope so: I’d love to live long enough to get to retirement!”

Yumiko walked out of the school alone amidst those students that had not joined any club or had no activities planned that day. After nearly succumbing to the Fiend a couple of hours before, a persistent feeling of malaise had been haunting her the whole afternoon. She had not even been able to properly follow the explanation of the teachers in class: for this reason, once the period was over she decided to go home early and get some rest before calling Satsuki and informing her of the recent, worrying development.

As she walked in the direction of the station, she took out her mobile phone and composed a long apology to the club president. No matter what, her senpai would surely not have liked it, and she dreaded coming back the next day. After sending the first message, she also wrote a quick note to Sayuki and Michiru to tell them about her early departure.

When her gaze moved away from the phone’s screen, Yumiko barely repressed a scream. The place around her no longer looked like Tokyo, but instead from whatever survived from an apocalypse. The sky had become of a fiery red and despite the presence of light there was no trace of a sun. Gone were also the buildings, replaced by tattered and broken ruins scattered around the land. That paled in comparison to the ground, however: bones, skeletons and broken skulls were scattered all around, each one of them showing sings of a violent death.

Yumiko stood still, stunned. It was too similar to what had happened just two weeks before, when she had been thrown into a living hell. Was this the same, a plot of the Darkness?

She shook her head vigorously in denial. No, it was different. Very different… because she had always lived like that. There was no other world. It was the reality she had always known. She found herself grinning: now she finally remembered. She knew what she had to do.

A loud scream echoed across the sky and an extremely bony and deformed creature perched on the derelict remains of a skyscraper. A half decomposed face, an unholy mixture of a parrot and a dog, turned to the girl and three yellow eyes stared at her intently. The thing then squawked loudly and soared in the air again, flying in circles. Shortly afterwards, two more identical beings arrived from nowhere and flew in formation with the one that had called them. This apparent unison did not last for too long: wings fluttered, beaks snapped, high pitched screams rose as the three started fighting against each other with unprecedented fury.

The struggle ended with no winner at all. While grappled to each other, the creatures slammed into the remains of a derelict skyscraper. With a loud snap, two pairs of wings fell limp to the side, broken by the impact. The remaining beast attempted to wiggle itself away, but the other two kept on clawing and pecking despite the wounds. Unable to sustain the combined weight, it squawked one more time before plummeting to the ground with its companions, not too far from where Yumiko was standing. There they lay, convulsing and twitching until the pale semblance of life that animated those deformed bodies eventually left them.

Yumiko stared at the carcasses with indifference. That conclusion was simply the result of the natural order. Either kill, or get killed. There were no other options.

She found herself grinning. And she was the biggest killer of them all!

Her mind now clear, the girl walked in a random direction, walking past the crumbled buildings and streets. She looked with scorn at those memories of the former glory of a long past civilization: weakness was the sole reason for their demise. They had refused to slay, and they ended up slain. A fitting end for weaklings. Rules, limits… they had just been excuses for their own lack of power. But not her. She was different. She had broken the shackles of her ancestors, and she was now free to do as she pleased… to kill to her heart’s content.

A sound coming from a pile of rubble close to her attracted her attention. Debris flew in all directions while a man similar to those she had seen somewhere (had it been a dream, perhaps? Not that it mattered, anyway) emerged from the mound. The arms were unnaturally long and muscular, while the legs were frail and barely able to sustain that disproportionate body. His left hand ended up in a bony claw, while the right hand held a large slab of concrete. Two black eyes filled with fear and hatred stared at Yumiko. With a growl, it rose the block it carried above its head.

Anticipating her opponent’s move, Yumiko had already rolled sideways: the large object whistled past her head before drilling a large hole in the wall behind her. Before he could attack again, the girl got back to her feet and jumped forward, right in front of that abnormally shaped colossus. A clawed hand descended on her head, but she stepped back at the last minute: it only tore part of her uniform without causing any wound. Yumiko did not leave him any more time to mount a counterattack. Her right hand moved like a whip and pierced through the creature’s throat with the same ease as a knife cutting paper. Deep red blood spurted over Yumiko’s arm as the giant gurgled and collapsed, lifeless.

Yumiko rose her bloodstained arm in the air and let out a victorious cry. What a wonderful experience it had been! When she had dealt the killing blow she had felt truly alive… a sensation unlike any other. She broke into laughter. That was not enough. She needed more. More!

She lost track of time as she wandered through that wasteland. During her roving, all kinds of strange beings challenged her: four-legged animals that mixed features of dogs and lizards, moving skeletons made of randomly-assembled bones, human-like creatures made of mud. Each of them took up a fight, each of them perished. Tens of confrontations later, Yumiko was covered in blood and entrails from her victims, most of her clothes were torn, and her hair was dirty from sweat and dust. However, she did feel tired at all. She could keep going on like that forever, as long as she enjoyed the thrill of taking out a life.

Across the horizon, she noticed a group of buildings that had been somehow spared from the devastation and looked still in shape. The sight piqued her interest, and she changed her course to investigate. When she eventually reached the outskirts of the area, the light of the sun faded out in an instant and was replaced by a sky full of feebly sparkling stars. This sudden change did not surprise the girl at all: she just shrugged and went on her path.

Now that she was closer, she was able to observe the surroundings much better. Rather than just a bunch of constructions, the place was a city, or whatever had been left of it. Rows of houses and other edifices formed a maze of streets whose connections easily defied logic. Compared to the desert she had been in, the ground was paved, and judging by the absence of cracks, it had been a fairly recent change. There was also no rubble or other dirt around.

Despite the signs of living presence, her searches were completely unsuccessful. The inhabitants might have just fled, as there were no indications they had met a violent death. The situation frustrated Yumiko to a great deal. Walking so long without anything to kill was boring, and an utter waste of time! Why had she gone to great lengths to reach such a dull place? Had her perfect instinct betrayed her?

She was about to leave when she heard a sound behind her. She spun round… and she quickly covered her face with her arms as she was engulfed by a bright light. Fearing an ambush she prepared for to repeal an eventual attack, but that never came. Even that strange spark had not caused her any harm.

Yumiko forced herself to open her eyes and look ahead. She found a figure shrouded in the darkness very close to her. Blinded as she was, there was little she could make out of the newcomer’s features: for sure, it was two-legged, and approximately her height. In one of its upper limbs it held a cylindrical object, the source of the beam that was pointed in her direction.

She was still pondering on her course of action when the other creature spoke. “Girl,” it said, “are you lost?”

The voice was low and had a distinct note of tiredness to it. It bore no sense of hostility whatsoever.

Yumiko licked her lips. It looked like the ultimate prey! Now, a single strike and…

“Stay put, you’ve done enough for today,” a voice out of nowhere exclaimed.

Startled, Yumiko frantically looked in all directions to find the source of that sound. When she was finally aware of a presence behind her, it was too late. She felt a single blow on the back of her neck, then she whole body became limp and she fell to the ground. As the shadows carried her consciousness away, she heard one last sentence from her unknown assailant.

“I’m glad I found you in time.”

“I just can’t believe it… What happened to her?”

Michiru’s voice was filled with fear with a hint of frustration. She was in Yumiko’s room, along with Sayuki, Jim and Satsuki. Yumiko lay on her bed, apparently in a deep and quiet sleep. It was a peaceful sight, yet it was of no comfort to everyone present. Even the usually cheerful Sayuki was extremely gloomy.

“I’m not completely sure either,” Satsuki said. “After you got called by Yumiko’s parents, I and Jim started to look for her immediately. After a while, I found her wandering around the streets in a sort of trance, with a grin on her face. I followed her into an alley and there I saw that a policeman had stopped her: after all it was very late, and she was a minor. I sensed aggressiveness in her and that is when I took action just before the situation took a turn for the worse. Afterwards I carried her her and warned you, that’s all.”

“It was so sudden.” Michiru gave a worried look at her sleeping friend. “There was nothing wrong with her at all this morning. We had lunch together like usual, then it was time for class. Then she sent us a message telling us that she was going home. Later, as we were leaving, her parents called us because she hadn’t come back.”

Sayuki nodded. “She was just the usual Yumiko…”

“Well. No matter what we believed, it happened.” Jim took a step forward. “I can only conclude that something has messed with her mind pretty badly, and very quickly.”

“But what could it be? A new plot by the Darkness?”

“I doubt it.” Satsuki tilted her head. “Jim said it was quick… but I believe this was rather the result of something going on for a while. I’m sure you know about Yumiko’s dreams.”

“Yes,” Sayuki replied, “she said she didn’t remember anything, with the exception of well, the one with Yuuchiro in it. She’s been having them for a while, hasn’t she? A week, or more.”

“More or less two weeks since that incident. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

Michiru was hit by a realization. “Now that you mention it, a couple of days ago we were getting home and Yumiko just froze on the way to the station. She was just staring blankly, as if she was somewhere else. It only lasted a moment. We called out to her, and she snapped out of it. Again, she didn’t have any memory of it.”

“Then, it all fits. Although merely a conjecture, I may have an idea on the reason behind all this. It may have been the Fiend.”

These words were met by incredulity and shock. Sayuki stared at her with eyes open wide, while Michiru clenched her hands in frustration. Jim just glanced at the woman and nodded in silence.

Michiru walked up to her and grabbed her hands. “What does that mean? Wasn’t all that stuff you did with her supposed to help her?”

“It seems that I underestimated the Fiend.” Satsuki spoke slowly and chose her words carefully. “Yumiko was telling me that she was feeling better, that she no longer felt that savage presence in her mind. I thought we were going in the right direction… But I was wrong. The co existence of Yumiko’s mind with the Fiend’s is a fragile balance, and I fear that during the incident, where she deliberately let it loose, tipped it in its favor.”

Michiru’s grasp on the woman’s hands tightened. “What do we do now? Due to this… underestimation, Yumiko is…”

She was stopped by Sayuki, who held her by the shoulder. “You’re being unreasonable here, Michiru. They did more than they could to help us. You can’t blame them for this.”

The girl looked back at Sayuki with tears welling up in her eyes. “But…”

“I know, I’m thinking the same. Still, I don’t think anyone would’ve expected this. What happened has happened. Let’s just focus on what to do going forward.”

“You have a point… Even a dummy like you can be reasonable once in a while.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Sayuki patted Michiru on her head. “There, there.”

The other girl faked a humph and wiped the tears off her face. “I’m not a cat… but thank you.”

“Even if what you said is true, I take full responsibility for this.” Satsuki bowed apologetically. “I’m truly sorry for all of this.”

“Is it your Japanese ancestry that makes you apologize like crazy?” Jim commented. “Let’s take a look at the current situation instead.”

Satsuki nodded unwillingly. She briefly looked at the sleeping Yumiko as she considered her options, then she turned back to Sayuki and Michiru.

“There’s still something we can do, perhaps,” the woman said, “A way to prevent the Fiend from completely taking over Yumiko.”

“Really?” Michiru exclaimed. “I’m willing to help! What exactly needs to be done?”

“Good, because you’ll be essential for this to work.”

Sayuki scratched her head. “Can you explain a bit better? I don’t understand…”

“We need to tip the balance to the other side - Yumiko’s side. To do so we’ll have to strengthen what makes her human. To be very practical - spend time with her, at school or elsewhere. Ensure she’s doing what she usually does, and what she enjoys. Her mind must be focused on herself, and not on the Fiend. That’s why you two are necessary for this: you are her best friends. Of course, we’ll also keep on working to strengthen her mind like we’ve done so far.”

“I think it’s a great idea! It’s not very different than what we do every day.”

Michiru had brightened up as well and her eyes were free from the doubts that had clouded them. “You can count on us. We’re going to do our best. Sayuki, you’d better not slack off this time.”

The other girl closed her eyes and grinned. “What a chore, is what I’d say… But for Yumiko, it’s different!”

“I’m glad you can find some motivation every once in a while.”

“Said the one that was crying just a minute ago…”

“That… That was different.”

“Even reruns of this show never get old.” Jim chuckled. “Anyway, we can’t sit idly here. For once, the bad guys are always out there with their evil master plans. And of course they can’t be there all the time, let alone when she’s sleeping.”

“Good point,” Satsuki said, “In the case of the Darkness, we must remain vigilant and keep an eye on her. And I think we can give her something to help with her sleep… a seal, or something of the sort, to reduce the influence of the Fiend. I remember someone mentioning such a thing during the sessions with Yumiko.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Jim turned his head towards the two girls. “Leave it up to the good guys. They always end up winning.”

“I don’t know if I should feel at ease or even more worried.” Michiru groaned.

Satsuki coughed. “Well, he’s kind of right. We’ll cover your backs and ensure that nothing happens to you two and Yumiko. Focus on her well-being, we’ll take care of your safety.”

“Thank you. That’s definitely reassuring.”

“I think it is enough for today.” Satsuki stretched. “It’s getting late and you, as well as Yumiko, need your rest.”

Sayuki yawned. “You are awfully right. I’m getting very sleepy…”

“I am too.” Michiru stretched. “Don’t worry, we’ll go home soon.”

“Good. It’s going to get a little challenging for you from tomorrow on. As for us, we’ll get back to headquarters to report.”

“You two you should get your sleep too. I bet you’ve been running here and there for the day.”

“You’re awfully right. I’ve been up since early morning. Don’t worry, though: I never say no to some good rest.”

Jim grinned, but Satsuki instantly glared at him and he he just let out a half-repressed chuckle. “I get it, I get it. Maybe next time.”

“How about never mentioning such things?” Sayuki remarked, annoyed.

“I’m just trying to liven things up, you know. We’ve been awfully serious all this time.”

Without paying attention to the man, Michiru and Sayuki exchanged glances: they turned to the other two and bowed at the same time.

“Thanks for taking care of us, Satsuki and Jim,” Michiru said. “We’d be in deep trouble if it weren’t for you.”

“We’re just doing our part,” the woman replied. “Well, it’s late enough. We’ll see each other tomorrow. Contact us if anything happens.”

“We will.”

Jim and Satsuki bode farewell to the two girls and to Yumiko’s parents and left the house. As soon as they had walked out of the residence, Satsuki let out a long sigh. “I’m beat. It’s been far harder than I had imagined. And we still have our report to do…”

Jim gave her a sympathetic look. Compared to earlier, his faux disrespectfulness had faded away and his face showed both understanding and worry. “Don’t push yourself too hard. You know it’s not your fault.”

“I’m very well aware of it, rationally at least. It’s the thought of losing Yumiko to the Darkness that really gets to me. I want to make sure I won’t do anything I could regret. It’s happened already.”

“It’s still about Sarah, isn’t it?” Jim murmured.

Satsuki answered with a feeble nod. “Am I that obvious?”

“I wouldn’t say that. I just know you well enough. You’ve been very over-protective of her since the incident.”

“I can’t deny that: Yumiko reminds me of her. And of all the memories I wish I had buried long ago.” She clenched her jacket. “It’s haunting me. I can’t help but thinking it could happen to her as well.”

“I can understand that. Just remember, the circumstances are different. It will not happen again.”

Satsuki lowered her gaze and did her best to keep her sadness under control. “I surely hope so. I don’t want to be responsible for the death of an innocent ever again.”

Shortly after the turn of the new century, the North American business scene was shaken by the announcement of the marriage between William Ford, a very important semiconductor entrepreneur, and a young Japanese woman. Normally, a marriage wouldn’t have caused so much gossip, but Ford’s case was different. Up to that announcement he had a long and troubled sentimental life: most of his relationships and the subsequent, noisy breakups, were well known to the press and to the general public. Thus, it was only natural the announcement that he had turned over a new leaf would be regarded as crazy. Some commentators went as far as call it just a front. It was, however, the plain and simple truth.

But who was the person that had made Ford change so much? The sensationalist press tried its utmost best to find out more about his future wife, only to come back empty handed. Aside the fact that she was of Japanese origin, there was nothing else known about her, her family or her past. Even her name was a privilege known only to a select few. Ford himself tried to keep her away from his public life as much as possible.

Even the marriage did not offer many occasions to satisfy the curiosity surrounding her. It was held in a strictly private form, with few people invited to attend, and all the invited were absolutely tight-lipped on what they saw there. It was only about a year later that a daring photographer was able to get a lucky shot of the couple together when they were visiting a temple in Kyoto. Of the people portrayed, William was immediately recognizable by the familiar blonde beard, his short haircut, and the large smile he usually put up around. The person next to him, the target of all that curiosity, was indeed a Japanese woman, or so it looked, dressed in a yukata. Long dark hair and eyes, along with a slightly pale complexion, almost made her look like a perfect doll instead of a living creature. She was staring off in the general direction of the photographer, and many, especially in the social media, commented on that look. There was definitely something unusual about it, a general sense of uneasiness that was hard to describe.

Of course, that made William Ford’s wife even more mysterious. The two did not pay much attention to that, nor to the clamor when the image went around social media. William always politely declined to comment on any question regarding his private life. No more news filtered to the public, save years later, when William himself made the announcement that his wife had a daughter, Satsuki. Also, thanks to a strong business, he had accumulated a fair share of wealth. Things couldn’t be happier for his family.

Until the day his wife disappeared.

There was no parting of ways, nor a divorce. Close relatives said she had been talking to his husband the day before, then she was gone the following morning. No traces of her were left. Even her items and personal effects were missing from the house. Had it not been for the presence of Satsuki, it would have seemed she had not existed at all. There was no investigation because no one actually asked for one: William simply reported that his wife was no longer there. For a brief moment, he was suspected of murder, but there was not even the slightest evidence of such a conduct, and thus the charges were dismissed quickly.

However, the disappearance of his wife changed William greatly. He had usually been a cheerful and energetic person, but after that incident he lost most of his outward happiness. He became taciturn, and he would often stare into nothingness, as if looking at something invisible. Then nightmares started haunting him, and he would often wake up in cold sweat during the night. Satsuki would often look at him and wonder what had made her father so different from before.

After about a year, the situation was becoming intolerable. Pressed by relatives, Williams sought therapy. After many months, the situation improved, and he no longer avoided contact with other people. On a site visit, he met a woman: in a short time, he ended up marrying her, and the two had another child, whom they named Sarah. Satsuki took the situation with diffidence at first, but as time passed she started to become attached to her stepsister.

Unfortunately, that period of peace did not last for too long. Nightmares started to haunt William again and he would grow increasingly fearful of going outside alone, especially at night. These outbursts of paranoia were too much for his second wife to handle, so the wedding was over as fast as it started. Divorce papers were filed, and both Satsuki and Sarah went to live with her. He was not prevented from seeing them, though. In fact, the presence of his daughters seemed to have a calming effect on his troubled mind. Satsuki was deeply shaken by the turmoil, but on the other hand she tried to shield Sarah from most of it. Her happy relationship with her sister was what prevented her from succumbing to a universe of sorrow.

On Sarah’s eleventh birthday, both her and Satsuki were invited to William’s house to celebrate. And like always when he saw them, William regained a semblance of his former self. He gave them presents and they spent a lot of time talking. Occasionally he would look behind his shoulders as if he were watched, but despite that the evening was enjoyable for all of them. Not too long after dinner, Sarah became very tired and struggled to keep herself awake. Having noticed this, her father brought her and Satsuki to a room he had arranged for the two to spend the night until their mother would pick them up the following day.

That night, Satsuki had a lot of trouble in falling asleep: there was a feeling, something unpleasant that clawed at the edge of her mind. Eventually she attributed it to the poor quality of the bed and sleep came to her.

With sleep also came the nightmares. Voices called her “cursed” and invoked the most painful death for her. Somehow Satsuki knew it was a dream, but she couldn’t wake up, no matter how hard she tried. She thought she had no way out… until a scream pierced through her mind and soul. It was a voice she knew too well.

She opened her eyes with a jolt, breathing heavily. Feeling nervous, she sat on her bed and looked around the room. She could vaguely recognize the shape of the furniture in the darkness and there was nothing out of the ordinary at first sight. She wanted to believe what she had heard was just the product of a nightmare, yet the feeling of uneasiness persisted. Something was out of place, but she couldn’t figure out what it was.

Her doubts dissipated when she heard the scream again: it was real, and the voice was unmistakably the one of Sarah.

Satsuki slammed the door of her room open and rushed to her sister’s room. When she took a step inside, she froze. Her blood ran cold, she felt the hair on the back of her head stand out and she started trembling uncontrollably at the sight of the Horror in front of her. Sarah was in a corner of her room, shivering in fear, but Satsuki’s attention was completely drawn to the tall figure before her stepsister. Its smooth skin resembled that of an insect, and in the pale light, its face looked like a mocking and blasphemous parody of a human face, as if someone had assembled it randomly. But Satsuki’s stare was fixed on its arms: thick and disproportionate, they ended with three-fingered hands having razor-sharp claws. The lifeless body of one of the security guards lie at his feet, broken like an old toy.

Uttering a low, hissing sound, the creature directed its attention towards the shivering figure of Sarah.

“No!” Satsuki screamed.

Everything seemed to happen through slow-motion: Satsuki tried to run to her stepsister, but her legs felt heavy and the distance between her and Sarah seemed infinite. Then the clawed hand descended.

Satsuki wanted to close her eyes, but she couldn’t. They obstinately refused to close. Her sister’s screams pierced through her ears. Blood spurted on her face, as the hand went down again, and again… until Sarah’s figure was unrecognizable.

The creature turned towards Satsuki, and she knew it was her turn to go through the same fate. Her voice turned to a hysterical stuttering as she stepped back, trying to distance herself from that abomination, but she slipped and fell on her back. Terror filled her eyes as that unearthly being was over her.

At that point William Ford appeared at the doorstep. His eyes were resolute and firm, without any trace of the anxiety and paranoia that had plagued him in the past years. His gaze fixed on Sarah’s tattered figure and his expression stiffened.

“You’re going to regret what you’ve done…” he hissed, and raised his right hand, revealing a small, circular stone in his palm. “Look! Your bane comes from afar!”

At the sight, the creature squeaked and took a step back in fear. Before it could do anything else, William threw the stone right at the monster’s disfigured head. Although it was a blind throw, the object reached its intended target as if moved by invisible hands. It hit the creature right in the middle of its disfigured head and disintegrated into a shower of fragments.

The abomination in front of the two jolted and screamed in pain and held its head as its flesh sizzled and smoke rose from where the stone had landed. As it writhed and contorted, other parts of its body started to fume, and its right arm fell to the ground shortly afterwards. It crumpled on the floor, no longer able to resist the unearthly changes happening to it, and its skin started melting like snow in the sun. With only its head with a semblance of shape, the monster let out a final scream of terror before dissolving completely. Where it once stood, only a small stain remained.

Satsuki struggled to get up, but her body was not responding. Her mind was obsessively going over the image of the brutal murder she had witnessed, over and over. Sarah was gone, Sarah was gone!

As her father walked towards her, she was barely aware of a group of other people running inside, saying words she couldn’t understand. Then the world started melting in a kaleidoscopic whirl of colors. As she felt hands grasping her, the colors swirled faster, and faster…

And then there was just darkness.

There was just darkness.

Kazuo raised an eyebrow. That was not the sight he had expected to see when he reached Tatsui’s shop. The store occupied the ground floor of a short and relatively well-maintained building hidden away from the major streets, in an area that was for the most part residential. Despite the rather puzzling name at the entrance (Fushigi na furudoguya, “The mysterious second hand shop”), there was little to no traditional feel to the place. Unlike most similar shops, it had a very minimal feel to it: the windows and the entrance were mostly void of signs, with the exception or one or two posters highlighting sales. The items on display were all neatly organized and there was not even the slightest sign of clutter. However there was no one around, even though it should have been open according to schedule: all lights were off and the shutter had been lowered halfway down.

Kazuo scrutinized the store. Everything was in order, with no signs of a fight or a sudden escape. Perhaps the owner had left everything as it was due to an unforeseen circumstance? That explanation didn’t resonate well with him. Had he done so, there would be something indicating his absence. And no matter the level of security in Tokyo, the owner of a shop would never leave its merchandise unattended out in the open.

The man was about to enter, then he stopped: he recalled Jim telling him that Tatsui used to shield himself with all sorts of wards. He focused his second sight on the entrance, and the suspicion became certainty as he saw many strange geometrical shapes moving up and down across the threshold, their forms changing continuously. Those were likely the protections Tatsui had set up, and should anyone cross into them, he would get alerted in time to escape or to ask for help. Also, any attempt to manipulate them would leave irreversible marks visible to their summoner. From what Kazuo could tell, they were still intact.

Kazuo made a gesture and ushered a single word: the weird shapes stopped in motion before his eyes. People in charge of Tatsui’s safety could use that command to walk through the protections without setting them off. Needless to say, it was a closely guarded secret to prevent it from falling into unscrupulous hands. He strode inside, hoping to find any clues on the whereabouts of the man he had been searching for.

The lights inside were out of order and there were no other windows, so Kazuo took a flashlight from a pocket in his jacket and turned it on. Like the outside, everything was in its place, with no clear signs of anything unusual. Stacked transparent cases containing the different trinkets Tatsui was selling were on both sides of the lone room that made up most of the shop. The cash register was at the back, open and with many one thousand yen bills inside. It was almost as if the owner had disappeared all of a sudden.

While investigating around, Kazuo inadvertently hit a hard object close to a row of shelves: something fell to the ground behind him with a loud thud. He turned to the source of the noise and he blinked. It looked like a mannequin, and seemed fairly out of place in the shop.

Or perhaps it wasn’t a mannequin at all. Feeling a dreary premonition, Kazuo pointed the flashlight at the figure.

His suspicious were confirmed when he realized it was the lifeless body of a man instead. He was around his fifties, with gray hairs encircling a mostly bald head and a face showing some wrinkles. His eyes, already vitreous, were wide in surprise and his mouth was half open, as if he had been trying to say something. The shirt he was wearing stood out most among his clothes despite the pretty dull color: it had the name of the shop inscribed onto it.

Kazuo knelt over the dead man. There were no signs of visible injuries, and the body was still somewhat warm. He likely had met his fate not too long before he came. And unfortunately the corpse’s appearance matched the description he had seen in the records. He was Tatsui, and he had been murdered. Kazuo kept on searching the body to find any clue on what had happened. Much to his disappointment, there was little to nothing out of the ordinary. He had almost given up when he noticed something close to Tatsui’s left foot. Under the flashlight, it looked like some sort of splinter, perhaps wood. As it was unlike anything he had seen in the shop, he picked it up and slid it inside a plastic bag.

As he stood up, he cursed under his breath. Whoever had been behind the disturbances had came to the same conclusions as him and Jim. Evidently Tatsui would have been proven bothersome to whatever plan had been going on, so he had been eliminated. Still, there was something that kept nagging at Kazuo’s mind. The barrier in front of the shop would severely injure most unnatural creatures from the Darkness, and even if they emerged unscathed Tatsui would get alerted immediately. In this case the seals were intact and still active. Also, Tatsui himself had been likely caught unprepared, from what Kazuo could gather. The perpetrator - or the perpetrators - had managed to sneak up on him unnoticed, and even without leaving traces save from that wooden fragment.

In the end, it meant that Kazuo had a hit a dead end. With his contact dead, he would not be able to gain more information on his investigation. He forced himself to contain his frustration.

It was then that he was aware that he was no longer alone in the shop: his senses had caught a presence near him. It was the same he had sensed in Kichijoji the day before. This time it was also full of murderous intent. It was evident that it had not come just to observe him.

Now on full alert, Kazuo drew his handgun and scanned the surroundings with his flashlight. As far as he could see, there was nothing but merchandise around him. He was still the only living presence in the shop. There were no strange sounds coming from inside or outside, either. All he could hear was his own breathing. But the feeling of a presence would not leave him alone. He was sure it was there, somewhere.

He forced himself to look harder, to carefully examine every little detail around him that might give him clues. And then he noticed an odd phenomenon when he illuminated a part of a bench with the cash register on top of it: the light was slightly bent and warped as if it went through a glass, drawing curious shapes on the wall behind. Without asking himself questions on its actual nature, he pointed his gun and fired. Instead of hitting the wall, the bullet met a solid body and ricocheted on the ceiling with the sound of metal against metal. At the same time, the strange, barely visible shape in front of him darkened and took a more defined form.

It was a rat, or a creature that looked like a rat, but it was at least as large as him. Covered in thick, ugly and disgusting black fur, it stood on two legs and wore tattered ornaments that reminded the one a Buddhist priest. Its four-fingered hands opened and closed obsessively, as if they wanted to crush something. Two dark red eyes glittering with malignant intelligence focused on Kazuo. And then, the creature jumped in his direction with a loud squeak.

Surprised but not caught unprepared, Kazuo instinctively rolled on the side and his assailant crashed against the shelves behind him, bending the metal due to the force of the impact. Completely unharmed, the rat-man stood up and tore away a piece of a shelf with incredible ease, wielding it as if it were a club. It swung its improvised weapon in the air, then poised for another jump. Kazuo did not hesitate and threw himself on the ground just as the rat leapt into the air: the rat-man hit the bench behind him so hard that it almost broke in two. Before the creature could attack again, Kazuo scrambled back to his feet and opened fire with his gun. Unfortunately, the bullets were deflected by its iron-like skin without even grazing it, much like what had happened before.

It was not an ideal situation to be in. Given that Kazuo’s weapon was unable to pierce that natural armor, his only chance was targeting softer, more vulnerable spots like the eyes or the mouth. However, it would be impossible in a head-on confrontation: he was no match for the superior speed, agility and strength of the rat-man. Even if he managed to call in reinforcements, they would not get there in time.

Actually, that was not entirely true. There was a way, an option he could make use of. However, he needed at least a few seconds to carry it out. He had to distract that creature somehow. He focused on the entrance of the shop and sent out a mental command. In response, the doors started swinging back and forth with a loud noise. Caught unaware, the sound alerted the giant rat. He squeaked angrily and turned in the direction of the sound for a brief moment, losing sight of Kazuo.

That was the moment he had been waiting for. Kazuo directed his gaze to an unspecified point in front of him and concentrated. The shop dissolved into nothingness, replaced by a dull and plain landscape brightly illuminated by a large moon in a dark sky. In front of him, several indistinct shapes gathered and moved confusedly in the spot where the rat-man had been standing.

It was a familiar sight for him. After discovering his innate gift, Kazuo had experimented with it many times. He eventually discovered that it was just not a way to glance at other, different worlds. Sometimes he would see ghost-like apparitions moving back and forth. Initially very troubled by this discovery, he only found out their true nature many years later, when he had entered the police. Those were vengeful spirits of people who had died by the hands of someone else, whose grudges kept them tied close to whoever had been responsible for their deaths.

Judging from the number there, many had met their demise due to that creature.

That made them potential allies. He stretched out a hand in the direction of those flickering existences and beckoned.

“Come,” he ordered.

One of the ghastly presence wavered and words echoed in the man’s mind. “Will we get revenge, danna? Will we be able to quell our anger?”

Kazuo nodded. “Yes, you will get your revenge.”

“We are eternally grateful for this, danna. We shall obey.”

The spirit wavered again and it slowly flew over to Kazuo, followed by some of its companions. The closer they got, the more distinct their appearance became: what were initially just large will’o’wisps had turned into human-like beings, albeit whitish and impalpable. From their looks and clothes, they had been women and men from many different periods throughout Japanese history. The moment the were within a hair’s breadth from Kazuo’s face, the alien plain and the pale moon disappeared, and the man found himself in Tatsui’s shop again.

Grunts and hisses rose from the crowd the moment those dead eyes saw the rat-like creature in front of them. With a scream of desperation and anger, they flung themselves at it, using their bare hands and teeth as their only weapons. With an annoyed squeak, the rat-man swung its weapon and skewered two of the assailants closest to him: the spirits twitched and vanished into nothing. The others were not discourage by the end of their companions and continued their assault, trying to topple their enemy.

While the fight continued on, Kazuo did not stand still idly. His gun pointed at the creature, he waited for a window of opportunity to land a decisive hit. Then, some of the ghosts grabbed both arms of that steel-clad rat: while it was struggling to break free, Kazuo aimed at its left eye and opened fire. Unfortunately, just as he pulled the trigger the rat-man shook away his opponents and parried the bullet with its makeshift club. That however threw it off balance and one of the ghosts took advantage of the opportunity. Wrestling the weapon away from the rat’s claws, the spirit held it with both hands and brought it down repeatedly on the creature’s head. Amidst a shower of sparkles the shade kept on pounding again and again.

Stunned and confused by that flurry of blows, the giant rat tried to escape. Its efforts were in vain as the other spirits clung to its arms and legs and prevented it from making any movement, while their companion kept on relentlessly landing blow after blow. With a final scream fueled by centuries of resentment, the shade hit the rat-man’s head one final time. There was a loud crack and the improvised weapon snapped in two, but at the same time, blood started flowing down the monster’s forehead and it staggered, falling on one knee. The barely visible mouths of the ghosts opened to let out a victorious cry.

Kazuo almost thought the battle was over, but what happened afterwards dissolved his hopes. Its eyes glaring with homicidal fury, the creature squeaked. With one powerful movement of its arms, it threw away the spirits like skittles and then jumped on the confused crowd with bared teeth and fangs. It slashed and bit, clawed and tore, and within seconds the majority of the group of assailants was no more. One last ghost picked up the remnants of the club and launched a desperate attack, but it was all in vain: the steel-covered claws pierced his head from side to side and it disappeared into nothingness.

Satisfied with its accomplishment, the rat-man squeaked again and turned back to Kazuo.

This time its jump was too fast to dodge. Kazuo clumsily moved to one side but could not prevent being slammed to the ground. He gasped as air got knocked out of his lungs and his vision blurred. Before he could even realize what was happening, the rat-man’s claws found what they were searching for and began tightening around his neck. It was strong, far stronger than he had expected, and he could only offer minimal resistance. He could still feel his gun in his right hand, but he wouldn’t get enough time to aim and fire. His consciousness was already slipping away and death was readying his embrace for him.

“Give back my children!”

A shade dressed in late Edo period clothes which had surprisingly survived the previous onslaught jumped over the rat’s shoulders. Caught unprepared, it loosened its grasp around Kazuo’s neck and shook frantically left and right to get rid of that unexpected annoyance. Eventually it was able to take hold of the new assailant and threw her against a wall with one strong and swift movement. The ghost shivered and disappeared.

Satisfied, the monster focused again on Kazuo. It squeaked in disappointment when it realized he was no longer where it had last seen him. While it turned its large head around to figure out its whereabouts, its right eye felt the contact of cold steel. Only then it noticed Kazuo next to it, gun in hand. An instant later, he pulled the trigger.

Yelling inhuman sounds, the rat-man held its now empty socket and staggered back as it tried to slow down the blood that flowed out of the wound. Its good eye stared at Kazuo with hatred.

The man was sure it was not over yet: after all, a wounded tiger can still maim and kill. However, he would not get caught unprepared twice. Just as the rat readied for another jump, he made a single gesture with the index finger of his left hand. The creature froze and started shouting even louder and held its head as if it were going through extreme pain. The reason manifested itself within seconds: its head was quickly growing larger, like a giant balloon being inflated. Now three times its original size, it trembled and shook before bursting, throwing the dismembered remains of whatever had been inside across the room. With one last convulsion, the now headless body fell to the floor and lay still there.

Kazuo sighed in relief and leaned against a shelf. That had been a very close call: had it not been by the providential intervention of one of his newly-made allies he would have probably not made it. The red bruises on both sides of the neck were the proof of the enemy had been quite powerful. For a while, he just stood there, until the adrenaline rush subsided. Once he was able to think more clearly, he went over what had happened. He did not know if the enemy he had just defeated had been waiting for him, or just dealing with whoever got too curious. Also, he doubted it was the cause of Tatsui’s demise. The dead man bore no signs of physical violence: had that rat done it, the body would have been dismembered. That meant that another, unknown party had been present there. And it came into the shop bypassing the wards without raising any alarm.

It was frustrating. The more Kazuo reviewed his information, the more unanswered questions came up. He took out the bag with the splinter, which had been miraculously kept intact during the fight. That was the only new clue he had been able to find, a small consolation for all he had been through. Nevertheless, it was still better than nothing: it was a trace that could lead him to more clues.

That also meant that his investigation was far from over. But first of all, he had to care of the aftermath of the battle. He glanced over at where the rat’s headless corpse had fallen, and he realized it had been melting down at a very fast rate, to the point that it was barely visible. While that ruled out a major source of problems should anyone have noticed it, that still left out Tatsui. People had to be warned, and police had to be called.

The man took out his cell phone from his jacket. It bore the signs of the struggle and part of the screen was cracked, but it was still functioning. He quickly dialed a specific emergency number and requested assistance from both the Guardians and the police. Once the talk was over, he forced himself to walk out of the shop despite his body aching all over. A very displeasing sensation, like an ominous foreboding, kept on lingering in his mind. Something far more dangerous was brooding under the cover of these incidents. And most of the time these kind of hunches had proven correct.

He had to get to the bottom of the matter as fast as he could.

Yumiko stood in front of the school gates, her eyes going over the familiar features of the building, and took a deep breath. She had been missing from school for the past two days, since the incident at the station. When Satsuki had explained the situation to her, she had suggested to go back to her usual activities and habits as soon as possible, and fill her days with them. The girl had agreed wholeheartedly: the perspective of letting the Fiend run amok in her own body was dreadful, and her past memories were a sufficient deterrent. Ironically, she had neither experienced those strange dreams nor sensed the presence of that disembodied entity since then.

She did not know if that was a good or a bad sign. Nevertheless, she would not lower her guard: it could be the calm before the storm.

Yumiko shook her head and slapped herself on the cheeks. There was no need to get so obsessed with this! If she wanted to keep living a normal life, she would need to stop those dangerous thoughts. Basking in the late summer sun and with a smile on her cheeks, she walked into the courtyard.

Not too far from where she was, Kononoe watched her go inside. Mumbling unintelligible words under her breath and nodding to herself, she wrote a couple of messages on her phone. A short chime confirmed that the intended recipient had received them.

Half-smiling in satisfaction, Kokonoe nodded one more time, then she followed Yumiko.

As he stepped again in the office Jim shared with Satsuki, Kazuo could not help but feel amused: he had been there back and forth so many times in recent days that it was becoming quite a familiar sight. Of course he had not come there just to have an idle chat. He had sent a report shortly after he had left the shop the night before, but he wanted to discuss the matter face to face with Jim. Most of the time these discussions had given him unexpected clues on how to proceed.

“Hello, Kazuo,” Jim said as the other man walked in, “I have just a hunch that you might want to talk about what has happened last night.”

Kazuo smiled. “Incredible, Jim, I don’t know how you are so sharp,” he replied in a slightly sarcastic tone.

“That’s because you have not seen what I’m truly capable of. But today I want to put my superior brain at rest and listen to what you have to say.”

Kazuo chuckled, then he went over the events of the past night: how he had arrived at the shop, how he found Tatsui, how he was ambushed, and how the confrontation with the giant rat played out. Jim mostly listened, occasionally asking one or two questions to better understand the matter.

“… then I warned our contacts in the police, and left just before they arrived there. I took my precautions to make sure I wasn’t seen leaving, at least from ordinary people,” Kazuo concluded.

“Coupled with your report, I have a pretty firm understanding of the situation now,” Jim commented, “What worries me is that things got an awful lot messier that I had originally imagined. Or perhaps I just became complancent since no true threat has emerged since the incident. I mean, if those people wrecked Kyoto, it would be no problem for them to kill someone if it suits their plans. Which is what happened right now. Whoever is behind this wants to truly make sure we don’t know anything, even at the risk of blowing whatever cover they’re under.”

Kazuo nodded. “Indeed. And the most puzzling part is what happened to Tatsui himself.”

“Did someone figure out how did he die, at least?”

“From what I have so far, it’s unusual like the rest of this case.” Kazuo glanced at his phone, reviewing what he had been sent. “From what we gathered, there was really nothing wrong with him. No traumas, no signs of a fight, no health related problems or poisoning. It’s basically as if he had been ordered to die, and his body just complied.”

“I wouldn’t want to run into someone able to do that, for sure. And let’s not forget that the barriers were untouched, not only for whoever did this, but also for their oversize pet.”

“That is the other major source for concern. An ordinary person would at least set them off, and a creature from the Darkness would get seriously harmed. In normal conditions, at least.”

Jim sighed. “Talk about shooting in the dark. We have someone that can walk past protections without touching them, that can kill people without leaving a trace, and that had a giant, bipedal rat as a pet. It would be tempting to say this someone doesn’t exist, except that it actually happened.”

“Well, not entirely without traces.” Kazuo took out the bag with the splinter from the previous night and placed it on Jim’s desk. “This is our only clue so far.”

Jim squinted his eyes. “It looks like wood.”

“It is wood, I had it checked. Lacquered wood used as a layer for wooden objects, from staves to desks. No other special properties.”

“Not exactly an Earth-shattering finding, I’d say. I’d be much better if they had left their address and phone number. Oh, and their name too.”

“Things are not as they used to be”, Kazuo followed up, ironically. “At least we know it’s not from Tatsui’s shop. There was nothing there from which this splinter could have come off of.”

“At least we know it’s from the bad guys. It may come in handy later.” Jim rubbed his chin. “Say, I wonder if the supposed perpetrator, or perpetrators, is not from the Darkness itself, but from the people that pledge loyalty to it. There are many examples of ill-intentioned people getting close to their targets without revealing their true intentions.”

“Somehow I’m not sure about that,” Kazuo shook his head in doubt. “Tatsui had been living under the protection of the Guardians for a number of years, and from what I could gather he was both smart and quite paranoid about getting caught. He would not have fallen for such a trick easily.”

“Even smart and paranoid people make mistakes. What if he let someone in before closing the wards? We assumed that someone had forcefully come inside, but it might not be the case.”

“Right. If the enemy was able to manipulate our information with the decoys, perhaps they were able to do the same in this case. And that’s where we come into play.” Jim slammed his right fist into the palm of his left hand. “At this point we don’t know if this interference is coming from inside or outside. However, you can check Tatsui’s file with the protection program. These programs include reports, regular checks, and people assigned to them. Which means that if we look through the recent past records, we may find some information relevant to the case.”

“I’ll go and check everything at once. I guess I won’t be satisfied until I get to the bottom of the matter.”

Jim patted the other man on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit! Keep me posted as soon as you find anything.”

“I’ll contact you as soon as possible.”

Kazuo said goodbye and left the room. Not much had passed since he had left when Jim’s phone rang. He answered the call and he heard the familiar voice of Satsuki.

“Good morning, Jim,” she said.

“Already out and on patrol? Your dedication is impressive,” Jim replied with his usual sardonic tone.

He heard a groan on the other side. “You know that I need to keep an eye on her, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course, I was just messing up with you. What’s up? I doubt you have called me just to have a chat like the old times.”

“If there were any old times to begin with… But you are right, I have new information based on what Kazuo researched the past days. About the Militia.”

The name piqued Jim’s interest. “Oh? What else did you find?”

“As I told you before, the so called Militia of the Light is indeed a secret society that wants to purge the world from unseen evil, or so they say. Basically they’re just a cult that follows esoteric practices, although those are just cheap tricks without any real power. They know nothing about the arcane, or how to use it. At this point this is more or less what I told you last time. What is new is that I was able to find more about Yumiko’s schoolmate: Kokonoe Sakahashi acts like a sort of messenger or scout for them.”

“What do they truly hope of accomplishing? And why has a schoolgirl been dragged into this?” Jim commented, “Was she forced by her parents, or something?”

“In this case, it’s a bit different,” Satsuki continued, “all clues point to her joining the organization willingly.”

“Willingly? I can’t understand how someone of that age would get interested in those things.”

“Neither would I… but traumatic events can push people into the ‘safety’ of such closed groups, and it looks like it is our case here. According to the records in the school, she was a pretty talented painter, and even won some competitions with the school’s art club. Unfortunately, this led to major pressure on her from her supervisor teacher, her peers, and even her family. She ended up with a breakdown and was absent from school for quite a while. Although she has mostly recovered, her personality is still not completely stable, and has some slight obsessive-compulsive traits. It’s likely she joined the Militia around the time she came back to school.”

“So, we have a potential psychopath in the same school as Yumiko?” Jim let out an exclamation of disappointment. “There are too many nutcases out there.”

“Well… Psychopath may be an exaggeration. I don’t think she’s willing to harm Yumiko at this point, let alone being able to. So far, she’s just been spying on her, likely to report her movements to the Militia. However what happened yesterday changes everything: given Yumiko’s current state, this girl might put herself in danger if she keeps on trying to get involved.”

“Not only her, also the rest of these holy soldier wannabees.”


“Well, what should we do?” Jim asked. “Technically she hasn’t done anything wrong, and of course we can’t play police in this case. Not that I want an unexpected funeral to happen either.”

“For now, I’ll keep an eye on her and Yumiko,” Satsuki proposed, “Should she do anything that might harm Yumiko or herself, I’ll take action immediately.”

“Sounds good to me. To be honest, I’d be happier if nothing happened.”

“So do I, but the last month has been all but calm. I’d better go back to my watch now. I’ll do another report later. Satsuki out.”

Satsuki hung up and Jim sat at his desk, letting out a long sigh. Why problems piled up on each other so easily? He had joked about taking a holiday, but going to a faraway place, away from all that, looked pretty tempting. Trying to focus on the tasks ahead, he picked up a mug from the table and took a sip. He grimaced at the taste of the now cold coffee inside. He then remembered he had prepared it earlier in the morning and then promptly forgot about it.

“Not even the coffee is right this morning,” he murmured. “This is going to be a long day…”

A notebook computer open on his lap, Kazuo read through reports from the previous six months regarding the activity of the Guardians of the Dawn close to the area where Tatsui had been living. While most of the information was irrelevant to his case, after about an hour he found what he had been looking for: detailed information on the latest contacts the man had until close to his last moments. Most of them just mentioned regular visits to ensure his safety would not be at risk and to check on the surroundings. Everything looked in order, but Kazuo did not give up. A hint, no matter how little, was surely out there, and he would find it.

At last, he discovered a lead. One of the last visits, only a week before what had happened, mentioned a survey of the area and the need of special equipment to perform the task. Kazuo knew that those instruments were dangerous, so users had to report every time they took them out and when they brought them back, so he searched the latest logs for that specific device. Surprisingly, the check in and out dates did not match at all with the document he had just read: they were off by several days. Also, the report mentioned the use of one device, but two had been taken out.

He noted down the name of the person who had signed off the report: Takeyoshi Isowaki. He already knew there was little chance this man would be actually involved in the matter: after all a name on a report could be forged, and their unseen enemy had already shown they had enough skill to do far more than that. Nevertheless, he had to pay him a visit. There was still the chance to unearth more clues.

For the first time in the past days, Kazuo no longer felt he was grasping at straws. He closed his laptop and set off to meet Isowaki. He would not let this opportunity pass by.

Sitting on the roof of the school like she always did, Yumiko half-willingly finished eating. While her lunch looked tasty, somehow the flavors felt dull in her mouth, leaving her with a feeling of dissatisfaction. With a sigh, she put away her chopsticks and looked at the sky above her. Unlike the previous days, it was dotted with clouds and sunlight came and went, although it looked it would not rain any time soon.

It was just another ordinary day. Perhaps too ordinary, perhaps too boring. Yumiko yawned and sighed again, stretching against the fence.

Michiru, who was sitting next to her, gave her the usual worried look. “What’s wrong, Yumiko? Are you not feeling well today?”

Yumiko shook her head. “No, it’s not that I’m sick… I’m just kind of feeling dull and without much energy, that’s all.”

She was poked on the shoulder by Sayuki, who was on the opposite side as Michiru. “That’s because you were sick. You can’t expect to jump out of your bed and run a marathon. You just need to sleep and eat well.”

“Although someone does that too well,” Michiru remarked, eyeing her friend, “she’s right. It will take a bit more time. Don’t overwork yourself.”

Yumiko waved her hand in dismissal. “I’m not sure if I am really pushing myself, I would say the opposite. I didn’t do much… and I don’t feel inclined to do more, either.”

Kokonoe, who had also been eating with them, joined the conversation. “Are you sure it’s not just some stress? Perhaps you just need a way to let off some steam. After all, classes have been tough recently.”

Yumiko groaned. “Yeah… it might be,” she said quietly, “It’s been hard to keep up. The senpai at the club has been even stricter than what she usually is. Was it because I was absent? As if it were my fault!”

“If you want to relax, I know a good way,” Kononoe added, “Karaoke. It has worked wonders with me, I truly felt recharged after singing all my problems away. I’m going to do this today with some friends, do you want to join me?”

Yumiko brought a finger to her lips as she pondered over the request of her classmate. “I’m not sure… It looks very tempting, but I don’t know if it’s going to work or not. I think I only did this once or twice since joining high school. It’s kind of embarrassing, too. Sayuki, Michiru, would you come with me? That would be very helpful.”

Michiru’s cheeks turned red. “I can’t sing for the life of me!” Realized she had almost shouted, she lowered her voice. “If it’s you, Yumiko, I’d do that no matter what, but… I can’t today. I have to do some stuff with the chemistry club. Some important experiment I can’t miss.”

Sayuki put up a disappointed face as well. “I’d love that too! But today the club president decided to put up some special training… It’ll be a living hell!” She shivered.

“That’s too bad,” Yumiko replied, even more unconvinced than before, “I truly hoped you’d come.”

Michiru put a hand over her shoulder. “I think you should go anyway. It’s going to be good for you, you need to distance yourself from all your troubles, so to speak.”

Sayuki was of the same opinion. “It’ll be good! Just don’t worry about anything tonight and things will turn out well!”

Although still not completely convinced, Yumiko nodded slowly. “If you say so… I’ll try doing that. A break from everything won’t hurt.”

Satisfaction flashed through Kokonoe’s eyes, but it was just an instant and no one of the three girls noticed. “It’s decided then. Meet me outside of the school after classes are over. I’m sure you’ll like this experience.”

Takeyoshi Isowaki was not a pretty man by most standards. He was short, a bit overweight and balding, and the glasses he wore over his nose had been probably trending twenty or thirty years before. Nevertheless, a single stare into those black eyes would disprove most of the stereotypes associated with his appearance. Quick-witted, he was renowned for his organizational skills, and for that reason he had become in charge of tracking movements of personnel and equipment. He was meticulous up to the point of seeming paranoid, and he took his task very seriously. Since he had taken that position, the number of mistakes, large and small, had dropped considerably.

That was why he was particularly flustered when Kazuo had come to him asking about an inconsistency in the records. He stood up from his chair, a rather expensive-looking executive model and put his hands over the glass table in front of him.

“So, Shibata,” he said in his characteristic squeaky voice, barely concealing his irritation, “let me go over this again: are you telling me that someone had reported a check out of one piece of inventory, but actually two were actually taken and used? How is that even possible? Are you sure you read that report correctly?”

Kazuo handed him two sheets of paper. “Here are the records. I printed them to save you the hassle of looking for them. The first one is the report which mentions the use of one unit, and the second is from the storeroom, which mentions two. The dates match, and so the name of the people involved. Both also carry your sign-off.”

Takeyoshi’s face became bright red: although he was usually a quiet, although quirky, person, he was also known to flare up if his job, or ethics, were questioned. “Are you insinuating I forged those accounts? Do not dare questioning other people’s integrity!”

“I am not, rest assured. You would never do such a thing, or allow someone to do that. I came here not to question you, but to request your assistance in finding out the reason for the discrepancy.”

Realizing he had reacted too harshly, the other man slumped back in his chair, trying to hide his embarrassment. “Right, right. I see.” He took the prints from Kazuo and started reading them. “I remember now. The request was for one: there were no issues with it and the item was available, so it was approved in no time. I should have the approval receipt somewhere.” He accessed the computer on his desk and started looking through files, folders and applications until he found what he had been looking for. “Here, see the final approval.”

Takeyoshi turned the screen towards Kazuo, showing a very simple and short document indicating the approval of the request, carrying Takeyoshi’s electronic sign off. Even there there was a mention of one unit.

“Everything seems to be in order,” Kazuo observed, “and that was kind of expected. Isowaki, I’m not familiar with the process. What do you do after you grant a request?”

“Nothing particularly strange. The actual approval doesn’t come from me, but from the directorate general, at least for that kind of items. Seeing how dangerous they are, whoever is in charge wants to make sure that people don’t treat them as toys. I was told that once someone almost let something truly hideous out of a shrine because one of these accidentally opened a hole in a barrier…”

Upon hearing that, Kazuo felt a piece of the puzzle coming together. It wasn’t a sudden moment: his mind had reconstructed a possible, detailed explanation but he lacked the key detail which prevented it from surfacing from his subconscious. With that last mention, the impasse had been removed. He did not spend any time to rejoice: if it were true, the situation was far, far more serious than he had ever imagined.

He needed to know more. “Do you get any kind of confirmation from the directorate general when you do so?” he asked.

“If you mean an acknowledgment, not really, as it is now beyond my authority. I only get notified when there is a denial. But I think the history of the request is saved somewhere.”

Takeyoshi looked through his documents once more, then he froze and stared blankly at the monitor. “That doesn’t make sense…” he murmured.

Kazuo frowned. “What is it, Isowaki?”

“The times…” Takeyoshi continued, still in deep surprise. “They don’t match. The final sign-off is two minutes earlier than when my request had arrived.”

“Pardon my naivete, but are you sure the clock on your computer is correctly set? Or perhaps the one you sent the data to has the same problem.”

“What are you saying? It’s not possible.” Takeyoshi looked at Kazuo like a parent listening to fantasies coming from a child. “That German guy… Klaus Werner, I think, said that all clocks are synchronized and that perhaps they’d lose a second every ten years.”

“Do you think it’s a forgery attempt?”

Takeyoshi bit his lower lip. “Calling it forgery may be a bit too much. All I can say is that it’s clear that someone has at least tried to change the records and was not able to cover all their tracks. But for what reason?”

“My guess is that the equipment needed to be used, but not for the intended uses mentioned in the report.”

“That may be true, but don’t forget that regardless of the motive, inventory is tracked. It would get noticed very soon.”

“No doubt about it. Nevertheless, a lot of my certainties aren’t that solid these days. Can you check, just to be sure?”

“Sure, although that won’t get us anywhere.” Takeyoshi clicked through a few more windows and typed a little more on the keyboard. Once the search was complete, he looked even more troubled than before.

“That’s strange…” He spoke while he sorted his thoughts out. “As you said, there were two check-ins and check-outs, but the inventory reports no missing items.”

“Do you think the extra item was stolen?”

“The individual items are physically tagged. If it’s not present in its allotted location for more than 24 hours without a proper request, the responsible people get alerted automatically. So I think it’s still there. Were it not for the request you showed me, I would think it was just a hoax.”

“I’m sure it has been returned. Like this, no one would ever notice it was taken without authorization. And formally, the movement has been recorded. You wouldn’t notice the discrepancy unless you searched for it.”

“Now, I wonder why anyone would take such an item… it’s worthless as a weapon, and it has little to no value for the standards of the normal world. So why? It makes no sense!”

“Unless,” Kazuo stated, “if it were required for homicide.”

Takeyoshi’s eyes widened and he gave a very long, disapproving stare at Kazuo. “Now, now, Shibata, did you even listen to what I just said? It has no use as a weapon! At best it can just scratch an ant.”

“It doesn’t mean you would use that to target someone. Imagine the case if you had some kind of barrier that protected a potential target. If you know about the side effects of that item, you could just get rid of the barrier then go directly against your victim, with whatever other means you have at your disposal.”

“If you look at it this way, it can be truly terrifying,” Takeyoshi commented with a trace of uncertainty in his voice, “But how can you be so sure? It may be a just a conjecture.”

“It isn’t, because that’s what happened already.”

The moment Kazuo had finished speaking, confidence disappeared from Takeyoshi’s face and he stood up from his chair with a jolt. “What?”

Kazuo told the other man a brief recount of what had happened when he went to seek advice to Tatsui. He left out the reason for his investigation and the matter of the decoys: although he trusted Takeyoshi, he did not want to risk possible leaks of information to the person (or people) that had orchestrated Tatsui’s murder. Sometimes Tatsui had his tongue slip, and in this case a mistake could have him follow the same fate as Tatsui. It was a risk he was not willing to take.

Once he was done with the explanation, Takeyoshi had become white as a ghost. He unsuccessfully tried to wipe off the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief.

“I could have never imagined that such a thing would ever happen,” he said trying to keep his nervousness under control, “and worse, that there may be someone in the Guardians that is either the perpetrator or an accomplice! This must be reported…”

“Not yet,” Kazuo interrupted him, “there is no solid proof. I need to establish a link between Tatsui’s murder and this matter. At the moment, I would not be able to levy an accusation. Also, if we report this problem, it will surely make the culprit aware of what we’re doing. All evidence would be destroyed, or worse, we might get targeted.”

“I… see.” Takeyoshi stuttered, now almost in panic. “What… what can be done?”

“Not much with the current information. There must be a way to find out which person handled that equipment request…”

Takeyoshi shook his head. “There’s not a single person doing this, all of them do in turn, as far as I remember. What is recorded is the sign-off in Masefield’s name.”

“Obviously, I can’t go and ask them. How many people do this kind of work?”

“Four to five, I think.”

“I see. At least now I know where to look now.”

Although Takeyoshi would be able to easily find the names of the people, Kazuo did not ask for them. It was evident that the man was at his limit and he absolutely did not want to involve him any further.

He tried to be as reassuring as he could. “Don’t worry about looking for them,” he continued, “I can do that myself. Are they in the personnel logs?”

Takeyoshi nodded feebly.

“Thanks, Isowaki. You’ve been a great help. As for the rest, don’t worry. For all intents and purposes, we have never met today. Remember that if anyone asks.”

“A lie?”

“An omission.”

The other man sighed in relief. “Truth to be told, I’m glad I can stay out of this. I may sound like a coward, but I am definitely not fit to play the hero role.”

“And you have no need to play one. If you excuse me, I’ll continue with my investigation.”

He was about to get out of the office when Takeyoshi motioned him to stop. “Uhm, Shibata…”

“What is it?”

“I know I shouldn’t pry further… But there’s something truly bugging me. This execution is too complex. Why would one need to build such a scheme? There are probably easier ways to get hold of that gear…”

“For that, I think I have an explanation.” Kazuo lowered his voice. “Someone has an agenda, an that agenda that doesn’t necessarily overlap with what the Guardians of the Dawn do.”

“But why like this?” Takeyoshi replied, skeptical. “I still don’t understand…”

“Because the Guardians of the Dawn might be the ones carrying out that agenda, whether they want it or not.”

The Lucky Tea House was one of the so-called cafes that were unique to Japan. Located in a bustling street of Kichijoji, it had a bright and large window showing the plastic, lifelike reproductions of the cakes and the so-called parfaits on sale: most of these sweets actually shared just the name of the foreign ones they inspired to, being re-imagined in a peculiar and specific Japanese way. Although not particularly small, the shop was always close to full most of the day due to the popularity of its creations. It was a favorite spot of many high school and university students, particularly women. The idle chatter from all the conversations across all those tight fit tables almost echoed across the whole place. In contrast with all the people enjoying sweets and soft drinks, two men were seated in a corner with just cups of coffee and a glass of water. In fact, they looked very out of place compared to all the other patrons there.

Jim took a sip of his own coffee and let it linger in his mouth for a while before swallowing it to savor the taste. Satisfied, he put his cup down and looked at Kazuo, who occupied the seat in front of him.

“Here we are, like two high school students. If it wasn’t for the coffee, that is,” he said.

Kazuo smiled and put his empty cup aside. “You’re right, but this is the best place where we can discuss this.”

“I’m all ears.” Jim laid back in his seat, perhaps a little too conspicuously. “Your message was a little hard to understand. But I’m sure you have plenty of reasons to hold a meeting here.”

“Indeed. I’ll get right to the point. I believe that our opponents were so successful in planting false clues and getting rid of whoever could help us because they had inside help from the Guardians.”

Jim’s eyes widened, but just for an instant. He bent forward, moving closer to the other man. “I won’t ask you if you are truly sure about this… because if you told me this clearly, you are sure. I kind of expected it, but still, it’s kind of a surprise. Do you have an idea on who and on their motives?”

“Sadly, no.” Kazuo drank some water, then he continued. “What I know is that this unknown insider is well within the directorate general. It means that someone might be putting themselves between all the decisions and actions coming from above and below. Even orders from Masefield might get twisted and warped following whatever plan the insider, or insiders, have. Changes small enough to be unnoticed, but with far-reaching consequences like we have seen with Tatsui.”

“I’ve come to the same conclusion, unfortunately. And I’m sure this has been going on for a while. Quite a way to ruin my retirement plans.”

“If before we only had clues that the incident from earlier are part of a larger plan, this makes it very clear now.”

Jim groaned. “That had been pretty ugly already. I’d love to say that things can’t get worse than they are, but, oh boy, they can and will! Well, at least if we sit idly and do nothing, which is not my style.”

Kazuo nodded. “I think the same.”

“So, it’s time not only to stop being fooled, but also to counterattack!” Jim slammed his right fist into the palm of the other hand. “And the sooner we do this, the better.”

“First of all, we need to narrow down our search,” Kazuo proposed, “by finding the files of people who were on duty on the day Tatsui was murdered.”

“Good plan, but make sure you don’t attract too much attention.” Jim rubbed his chin. “This will blow our cover and warn whoever we’re after.”

“I’m aware of this risk, so I thought of a different strategy. I’ll compare the start and end times of involved people to see if there are inconsistencies. I’ll also ask Klaus Werner for a list of all the accesses and logins during that period.”

“Good, I’m sure Klaus will help you out.” A small grin formed on Jim’s lips. “But you know, that’s pretty impressive and thought out. You’re truly sticking to your roots, eh, keiji-san?”

“Don’t call me like that. You know it’s been years since I left the police.”

“What, are you trying to be like Satsuki and act all serious now?”

“I’m not sure I will ever be able to be at her level…” Kazuo said mockingly.

Jim scratched his head. “Ah, let’s hope she never finds this out…”

He had wanted to say more, but the feeling of an incumbent presence stopped him in his tracks. It didn’t emanate any aura of danger, rather it evoked a malevolent, repugnant sensation, like it was trying to pry open his mind. A glance at Kazuo made Jim realize the other man had noticed it as well.

“Looks like we’re being watched,” Jim murmured. “Stay alert.”

Kazuo drank his coffee with nonchalance while his eyes scanned the surroundings. “It’s close, but not here,” he replied back. “Probably outside.”

Jim looked around as well and then he found a woman standing outside, her face turned in the direction of one of the windows of the cafe. She was in her thirties and was wearing a shirt and a skirt that had gone out of fashion at least ten years before. Her left hand was clenched as if she were holding something, although there was nothing visible. Her eyes showed a constant absent-mindedness, as if her mind was occupied with other thoughts. There were no other distinctive features about her: in fact, she was perhaps even too ordinary compared to the multitude of people walking around her without paying attention.

“That looks like our person.” Jim nudged Kazuo with his foot. “We should get out of here, or we might risk involving innocent bystanders.”

“Good idea. Let’s pay and act as if we didn’t notice her.”

The two men stood up, walked up to the cashier, and paid their drinks as if nothing had happened. They said one final word of goodbye to the staff, then they went outside.

That area was somehow different from the larger streets close to the train station of the district. It was a pedestrian zone where most of the people walked in the middle of a relatively narrow street and the only vehicles that could be seen were the ones used by shops or doing deliveries. The buildings, mostly housing shops, were five stories as best, and with no coherent architecture, typical of Japan’s dense urban areas. People walked or rode bicycles, generally minding their own business. Among the crowd, the woman Kazuo and Jim had discovered earlier stood still, motionless. A few passersby threw worried glances at her, but she did not even notice them.

Kazuo lokked intently at the woman and blinked. “Jim, I can see something…” he murmured trying to not get heard, “she’s holding something similar to those decoys.”

“Playing out in the open, eh?” Jim grinned. “Well, I guess we deserve an explanation now.”

He had just finished talking when the woman snapped out of her trance and turned towards the two men. At first, she gave them the same expressionless stare she was doing earlier, then she seemed to realize who the two were and her eyes widened in surprise. The expression quickly changed into one of disgust, and she took a few steps backwards before breaking into a run, taking a random intersection and disappearing from view.

Jim and Kazuo weren’t taken completely by surprise: both expected that their intended target would try to escape from them, so they immediately set off in pursuit among a puzzled crowd. They followed the same street as her, and they found themselves inside a maze-like network of backstreets that ran behind the major roads of the area.

Jim cursed. “This is going to get tough… At this rate, we’ll end up finding the haystack, not the needle.”

However, Kazuo did not seem troubled. “Well, that woman is kind of special… and thanks to that, I can see her through… other means. Let me guide you.”

Kazuo took the lead and guided Jim through those randomly-connected junctions and alleys. Thanks to his second sight, he was able to keep an eye on the mysterious woman, and both men were faster and more trained than her: despite her initial advantage, she started losing ground quickly. In the span of a few minutes, she was back into their field of vision. She was panting and sometimes gasping for air, but she did not seem to have even the slightest intention of slowing down, no matter the toll taken by her body. At one point, the alley they were in forked into two: Kazuo made a gesture to Jim and the man nodded, taking the other path. The woman did not pay attention and just kept dashing through.

The pursuit continued until the chased found herself in a narrow alley large enough just for one person to move. On the other side, she could see a larger street and further ahead, the train station. Just as she thought she was close to winning that race, Jim walked forward from the end in front of her and blocked her only way to escape. Behind her, the sound of footsteps forewarned the arrival of Kazuo. Caught between two fires, she could not help but stopping her flight, and looked nervously at her two pursuers as they closed in on her.

For a number of seconds, no one of the parties said anything. The low hum of the air conditioners mounted on one of the sides of the street was the only sound that could be heard.

Jim broke that awkward silence. “That was fun, but all good things must come to an end. Miss, I believe we need to have a chat.”

Despite the initial surprise, the woman was not overwhelmed. She took a deep breath and let out a very loud yell. “Help! I’m being assaulted by two men!”

Although her voice had echoed all around no one came to her rescue. She shout again one, two, three times, but the result did not change. People passed by the alley without even paying attention to her or the other two people that were with her. Everyone was acting as if they had not existed at all. Frustrated, she glared at Jim.

The man took that as a compliment and grinned. “Surprised, aren’t you?” he said teasingly, “Well, it looks you underestimated us. Did you really think I would not expect you to play the card of the damsel in distress? I took some… precautions. Don’t bother wasting your breath, you won’t be noticed or heard. Unless your shouts reverberate to hell, that is.”

She replied in a harsh, metallic voice. “Do you really think I…”

She contracted her muscles to make a jump, but, much to her disappointment, she realized she was not able to move her legs. Many ethereal hands had emerged from the ground and had grasped her ankles and calves. Despite their appearance they incredibly strong: she was unable to even make a single step.

“You aren’t as innocent as you look,” Kazuo commented, “You seem to have killed quite a few people… And they’re not happy to see you here.”

“How dare you…”

“Yes, yes, we dare.” Jim came closer. “Now, can you spill the beans, please? What were you doing with that decoy there? What are you after?”

“I have no obligation to answer you!” The woman grimaced, furious. “You are meddling too much, too much! In the name of my Lord Asgaroth, you will be punished!”

Her right arm grew longer as soon as she finished speaking and moved like a whip, aiming at Jim’s throat. But the man was faster: he pivoted on his left foot and turned just enough to avoid those outstretched fingers. His handgun was quickly out of its holster and he opened fire, hitting the woman in the torso and shoulders. Although she yelped as she felt the effects of the blows, she lashed at Jim with the other arm. Only the man’s quick reflexes allowed him to dodge the attack and prevent being sliced in two. Jim fired again, this time hitting her abdomen. The woman contorted her face again but seemed otherwise unaffected.

Behind her, Kazuo stared into the nothingness and made a beckoning gesture, and an ethereal figure of a man appeared next to him. It was a samurai wearing a broken and tattered armor that would be typical of the Sengoku period, spotting a large hole right in the middle of the chest. The head was completely covered by a menacing-looking kabuto, and two blue flames burned where the eyes would be. Without saying a single word, the newcomer drew a long katana and held it with both hands. He then took a step forward.

When the woman noticed the warrior, it was too late. She was still turning in his direction when the blade came down on her neck. The woman’s severed head rolled in the air.

Instead of rolling down on the ground like any object subject to gravity, the woman’s head froze in midair, held still by an unknown and invisible force. Then it smiled… an evil, spiteful smile. It grew larger and larger to accommodate the sharp, pointy and long teeth that were growing inside her mouth, until it became a disfigured pantomime of a human face. The eyes moved uncoordinatedly in all directions before looking the opposite way to each other, and the hair grew thin and long.

With an ear-piercing scream, the flying head bolted in the direction of the samurai. It easily dodged the deadly blade aimed at her and pierced the spirit’s body from side to side like a cannonball. The warrior jolted and dissolved into thin air. With one opponent down, the squint-eyed apparition focused its attention on Kazuo. It picked up speed and dashed towards him. From behind, Jim fired many shots, but the head moved in random patterns and no one of the bullets reached its intended target.

It was now very close. Kazuo dropped to the ground as it whistled above him and drew his gun. As soon as he got back on his feet, the creature dived again on him. He pointed his weapon at the flying head and moved his finger on the trigger. As an immediate reaction, the head jolted to avoid the attack. Only then it noticed that no bullet had actually come out of Kazuo’s gun: it had just been a feint. Before it could do anything else, Kazuo fired for real. The creature’s right eye exploded in a shower of blood.

However, an unnatural vitality still inhabited that deformed existence. Screaming in frustration and ignoring the pain from its eye, it gained even more speed and hit Kazuo in the chest as he was firing again, throwing him off balance: the bullet just grazed its side and stuck into a nearby wall. Kazuo was still trying to recover his balance when the flying head attacked again. He was still fumbling with his gun when those sharp teeth closed on his neck. The bite was so powerful that his head was almost torn off. Blood spurted out of the wound like a fountain as he fell motionless to the ground.

Jim shouted his name, although he was well aware that the other man could not respond to anymore. The flying head let go of Kazuo, a triumphant smile showing on its oversized mouth.

That smile faded quickly when Jim made a single, imperious gesture. The now empty socket where its right eye used to be started inflating and quickly spread everywhere, turning the floating creature into a large and deformed balloon twice its original size. It looked at Jim in panic one last time, then it burst open like a soap bubble, releasing a cascade of blood all over that small alley.

Jim took little consolation in seeing his enemy defeated. He walked up to his companion’s corpse and gave him one last look. Kazuo was gone, and he would not be back ever again. He had been on good terms with Kazuo for a long time. He pushed away the guilt that was building up in his mind: rationally, that had happened so fast that he would not have been able to do anything anyway. However, he couldn’t help but feel frustrated: it almost seemed that Kazuo had died in vain. They had paid a very high price just to gather very little information.

He shook his head vigorously and focused his mind. Mourning had to come later. There was a lot he had to take care of. He pulled out his cell phone from a pocket and dialed Satsuki’s number.

“What’s going on, Jim?” Satsuki asked from the other side.

Jim did not waste time for pleasantries and got right to the point. “We have a situation here. We laid an ambush, however it was not successful and we ended up being the ones attacked. I made it, but Kazuo didn’t.”

“Are you serious?”

“Dead serious. I’m requesting support right now. Whoever we confronted said something that troubles me, but I’d rather speak to you in person about it. Can you meet me at HQ?”

“I can. I’ll ask Katsuyuki to keep an eye on Yumiko while I’m gone. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Satsuki let out a deeply sad sigh. “I’m sorry, Jim.”

“I know. But this has to wait. I have a far more important thing to do right now.”

“What would that be?”

Jim clenched his left hand. “Find whoever was ultimately responsible for what happened to Kazuo and beat them to a pulp.”

At the agreed upon time, Yumiko arrived to the school gates and found Kokonoe waiting for her. The two walked out of the school towards the station, where they would start their journey to Kichijoji. As they strolled along the streets, Yumiko found herself uncomfortable next to Kokonoe. No matter if she were her classmate and that in more recent times they had lunch often: most of what they talked about was regarding school, and at that point she knew little to nothing about Kokonoe herself or what she did outside school, except for the brief mentions she made here and there. It was not shyness either, as she has shown to be very talkative: she was just very reserved about herself. However, that made finding topics to talk about rather difficult. The more Yumiko went through and discarded subjects of conversation in her mind, the more awkward and longer the silence became. Luckily, Kokonoe seemed not to mind.

As they got in the train, they found two vacant stops and sat next to each other. Yumiko took the opportunity to start a conversation.

“Kokonoe, I had the chance to see what you drew in the art club recently. It was amazing!” she said, feeling embarrassed to herself. After all, it was again about school.

Kokonoe tilted her head with an undecipherable expression. “Was it? Thanks, but there’s a lot I need to do before fully getting back to my past levels.”

Yumiko gaped and covered her mouth. “Even better than this? I can’t even imagine that… Wait a second, did you say past by any chance?”

“Yes, past.” Kokonoe nodded. “I used to be far better at this.”

Yumiko was tempted to drop the matter, but it had piqued her interest. Perhaps it was a good chance to know more about her!

“If you don’t mind me asking… Why did you get worse?” she asked, trying to sound as polite as possible.

“It’s nothing particularly private, to be honest.” Kokonoe shrugged. “People say I have a natural talent for painting. I was good at it since I was little. I would resort to drawing and sketching at every opportunity I could. When I entered high school, joining the art club was the obvious choice. Then things got a little tougher, so to speak. As I was trying to find my own style, I started doing more difficult things. The president was encouraging me, but perhaps a little too much, and said I’d need to participate in national competitions. My parents were overjoyed as well, and they thought they’d support me.

Well, their support and expectations ended up having the opposite effect. There was a very strong pressure to excel, to be always better. Every day I would be expected to improve, to show tangible progress. I started thinking I needed to be the best, the absolute best, that I needed to push myself harder and harder… One day I couldn’t take it anymore. I hated the situation I had been found myself into, I hated painting, I hated the need for constant results. I took the painting I was working on and I tore it apart. I don’t remember much after that: I’ve been told that I passed out.

When I woke up, I was in the hospital. I was told I had not taken enough care of myself and got weaker until I collapsed. The doctors also said that I had suffered an emotional breakdown due to the pressure. They were harsh with my parents as well. I heard them saying, How could you do this to your daughter!, or something of the sort. For a while, it was pretty hard, I can’t deny that. Then, out of luck I finally found some reliable friends… And thanks to them I was able to recover."

Yumiko resisted the urge to hug her. It was a pretty sad story. But the way Kokonoe had told her tale was even more surprise of its actual content: there had been no emotion in her voice, she had recounted it as if it had been just a simple fact.

She looked at the other girl apologetically. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to force you to recall those painful memories.”

Kokonoe’s expression did not change. “It’s in the past, and it’s now behind me. Don’t worry about it.”

“For sure, those friends of yours are amazing people. I’d really like to meet them.”

“They are, for sure. They are the ones I always hang out, and they’re the ones we’re hanging out with.”

Yumiko replied with a nod and the conversation went on lighter topics. She felt relieved and overjoyed: after telling her story, Kokonoe seemed to have opened up at last and the two girls had found to have far more than one interest in common. The awkward silence was no more and they kept on talking for the entirety of the journey, as they moved across the city and different train lines until they reached Koenji. At least an hour had passed since they had left the school and the sun was now far lower on the horizon, tinting the sky with a deep shade of orange. The whole atmosphere felt rather relaxed despite the large crowds going in and out of the station.

Led by Kokonoe, the two girls left the station from one of the smaller exits that led to a less crowded area. From there, they moved through large alleys, took shortcuts, and walked through narrow streets until they eventually arrived in front of the Bright Night Song.

The appearance of the place put Yumiko off. From Kokonoe’s descriptions, she had expected something far more popular and fashionable. At least judging from the front, it looked more like an establishment where delinquents would stay, rather than high school girls. And the inside did not seem much better, either: a peek through the front entrance showed just a few people inside. While someone else might have enjoyed the relative lack of customers, Yumiko found it somehow frightening. There was definitely something odd about that place.

She didn’t want to show her disappointment and her nervousness openly, so she just asked confirmation from her friend. “Um, Kokonoe, is this really the place?”

Kokonoe smiled reassuringly. “Everyone says that when they first come here. Don’t worry, it’s much better inside than outside. You’ll have a good time, trust me.”

“If you say so, then I trust you,” Yumiko replied, although she knew it was a lie. Kokonoe’s words had not put her at ease at all. But at that point there was no turning back: otherwise she’d be way too rude to her schoolmate.

Unconvincingly, she walked inside along with Kokonoe. As she had seen from outside, there weren’t many patrons around. She convinced herself this was just due to the relatively early time they had came: after all, most adult people were still working. As they passed by the counter, Kokonoe waved to the manager and he smiled, pointing to one of the rooms further from the entrance.

“They’re already there,” Kononoe said. “Go ahead and introduce yourself.”

Yumiko opened the door… and couldn’t help but gaping. She had expected a group of high school students or just a little older than that, but what she was completely unprepared for the scene before her eyes. It was just… different. And not as pleasing as she expected it to be.

“What… is this…” she murmured.

As soon as he finished listening to Jim’s account on the circumstances that led to Kazuo’s death, John Masefield made a long sigh. Supporting himself with his cane, he walked to his desk and sat down. He looked at the man in front of him with an expression of both sadness and compassion.

“That was truly unfortunate”, he began, speaking slowly. “Shibata was a valuable member of the Guardians.”

“Normally I don’t like praising people highly after they’re dead, but in this case I’d say it’s even an understatement,” Jim replied, “It will be hard to find again someone like him.”

Masefield did not answer immediately. Instead he picked up one of the items he kept on his desk and stared at it in silence, absorbed by its strange and unnatural features. He then put it down and continued talking. “I know I’m playing the card of the heartless boss here, Jim, but you also know that every one of us is prepared to face death daily. It is not the first time this happens and unfortunately it won’t be the last.”

Jim made a bitter smile. “Did you recently get a doctorate in obvious sciences? Still, it’s always hard when it happens, and you said so yourself more than once. Even more so after that incident.”

“Well, you might have a point there.” Masefield picked up another artifact and played with it with one hand. “After all, it was just you and me who came out of that. It was pretty taxing for us, even weeks after that, and it proved to be a valuable lesson. But what I wanted to say was that I don’t want you to get too sentimental about it, or even dramatic with all it’s all my fault stuff.”

“If I had wanted to do that, I’d have taken acting lessons. A part of me would surely enjoy some guilt trip… but facts speak louder than emotions. That woman was too fast and her movements were unpredictable, not to mention the significant distance between myself and Kazuo. Even if I could have shot before that fatal moment, I’d have hit him instead.”

“And that’s what you wrote in the report. Surely there’s no use thinking about it over and over, isn’t it? Let’s just treasure his memory and make sure his death was not pointless.” Masefield paused for an instant as if he were trying to recall something. “Speaking of that… did Shibata have any relatives? We need to tell them.”

Jim shook his head. “No. Well… he had a wife, Sumika, but…”

“Oh, now I remember.” Masefield nodded. “She was killed in action during a night sortie in Okinawa, wasn’t it? Right in front of her husband… It only makes this matter even more tragic.”

“Right,” Jim murmured.

“I guess we will be the only ones who will mourn him. Let’s promise ourselves never to forget him,” Masefield concluded.

“Later on. There are still piles of work left to do before that time comes.”

“It’s hard to imagine you being so workaholic.” A half-smile appeared on Masefield’s face: it was clear that he was trying to lighten the mood. “You have quite the reputation for being a slacker, your successes notwithstanding.”

Jim shrugged. “Those people are just envious of my skill. It’s rare to find someone able to work efficiently while slacking off at the same time.”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that… But more seriously, you should consider getting at least some rest.”

“This isn’t even close to my personal record.” Jim yawned. “As I told you, there are many things I need to care of first.”

“I’m afraid to ask… Let’s just say not to overwork yourself.”

His companion groaned. “Thanks mommy, but I know how to handle myself. And before we get into a discussion, and I know you love them, I’ll get back to work. If anything else comes up I’ll inform you.”

“Thank you. Take care, Jim.”

“You too, John.”

Jim said goodbye and walked out of Masefield’s office, closing the door behind him. Although he had played cool, he was very frustrated by the current situation. He clenched his fists. That had been an even worse outcome than he had originally expected.

“It truly can’t be…” he murmured.

The sound of footsteps took him away from his thoughts. Satsuki was walking down the corridor in his direction. In a striking difference from her usual cool headed attitude, both distress and worry showed up on her face. She was also breathing a little heavier than usual, showing that she had been on a rush.

“I’m sorry, coming here took more time than I had expected”, she said while catching up her breath. “When I arrived, I got told you were in Masefield’s office… How did it go? Judging from your face, not so well.”

“Well, nothing much different than the usual, I’d say.” Jim shrugged. " That man is naturally very compassionate, but he gets into his role a little too much. All for the sake of the organization, and what not. This got me thinking."

“Weren’t you the one who valued acting over thinking?”

Jim hit his forehead. “What’s wrong with everyone today? Am I becoming everyone’s favorite target?”

“Glad that you’re still being yourself even after all that has happened.” Satsuki chuckled.

“To be honest, it’ll likely surface later. It’s just that now I can’t afford it now. As someone said, when you seek vengeance, there are things you must do and things you must not do.”

Satsuki looked at him sideways, a little surprised. “Vengeance?”

“Yeah, I told you earlier. Not on the actual executor: after all she’s already dead. I mean against whoever has put this absurdly complicated plan into motion.”

“We still know close to nothing, but I’ll support you in any way I can.” She paused. “Except for that dinner, of course.”

“Do you think I’d give up that easily?” Jim put up a disappointed expression.

“No, but it’s better to set the record straight.”

“I know you can be stubborn.” Jim waved a finger in front of her, as he were a teacher reprimanding a student. “However, on one front you are not entirely correct. Our last encounter yielded some information, even if very little.”

The mention of new information piqued Satsuki’s interest and she became serious again. “What did you find out?”

“The woman mentioned a name before attacking… Asgaroth. Does that ring a bell?”

Satsuki brought a finger to her lips as she sorted her thoughts out. “Asgaroth… I believe I’ve never encountered this name during my research, but it does seem familiar somehow.” She paused as she reflected on the matter some more, then she snapped her fingers as she recalled some old memories from the back of her mind. “Now I remember! It was mentioned in the reports of the Stanton incident. After the police stormed the apartment of Thomas Stanton, they found many scribbled pieces of paper around the room where he had planned to kill Yumiko. Most of them were unreadable, but on a few there was a name… Asath or Asgaoth. There’s a high chance it is the same.”

“And that’s our clue, ladies and gentlemen. A true trail to the Darkness. It doesn’t seem to be too far-fetched to think that this Asgaroth, whatever it is, is the same Lord that freak woman mentioned, and probably whoever is behind the incidents involving Yumiko. Of course, this only means that we need to find out more.”

“Do you have anything in mind?”

“First of all we need to know as much as possible on this Asgaroth. As the Guardians collected all sorts of knowledge during the years, there might be something in the historical archives. Thankfully we’re in the 21st century and we don’t need to go through them manually. I’ll ask Klaus to help me look for clues there.”

Satsuki nodded. “I’m sure he can do it. He likes solving those kinds of problems. On my side, I will investigate what Thomas Stanton did during his last days, before kidnapping Yumiko. There might be something that was overlooked back then.”

“That is also a good idea.”

The woman looked at her watch and let out an explanation of disappointment. “As I feared… I took more time than expected and I’m sure Katsuyuki will pester me on when I want to switch back.”

“Sounds like him, indeed,” Jim replied.

“Exactly…” Satsuki’s phone rang and she humphed. “Speak of the devil… It’s probably him.” As she looked at the screen, she frowned. “No, it’s from Michiru. Why is she calling now?”

She picked up the call. “Hello Michiru, what is it?”

Jim saw worry showing up on Satsuki’s face. That was a clear indication of bad news: she rarely lost her composure unless it were something truly grave. The conversation went on and now Satsuki became visibly agitated, nodding nervously as she listened to Michiru on the other side.

“I see.” she muttered. “Does anyone else know anything? … Right, there was no one else. Don’t worry. Leave the matter to Jim and me. We’ll find her, no matter what it takes. We’ll contact you as soon as possible.”

As she hung up, Jim asked a question he already knew the answer to. “Has Yumiko gone missing?”

“Yes.” She gave Jim a very troubled look. “That was precisely the reason of the call. Yumiko’s parents have been contacting all her friends. She didn’t come back from school. Michiru and Sayuki were busy with their club activities, so they didn’t leave with her.”

“Seriously!” Jim cursed under his breath. “What about our watch? What is that good-for-nothing Katsuyuki doing?”

“That’s what I wanted to know.”

Satsuki dialed a number and put the phone next to her ear. After a few seconds, she closed the call and shook her head. “It’s no use. He’s not reachable.”

Jim cursed again. “That… Well, it’s no use getting mad at him now. We need to find our princess as soon as possible. Did Michiru give you any hints about her possible whereabouts?”

“Yes, she mentioned that Yumiko was supposed to go to a karaoke bar with a classmate, Kokonoe…” She stopped mid-sentence as a sudden, ominous realization came to her mind. “Sakahashi! And that means…”

Jim reacted in the same manner. “Those nutjobs! She’s been brought to those hikari no kamihei! But you mentioned a karaoke bar, didn’t you? That leaves out only one place she could have gone: the Bright Night Song in Kichijoji.”

“We need to go there immediately! Who knows what will happen to her and to the others!”

“I knew I should have drawn my fortune this morning at that shrine! Let’s find the girl before a disaster strikes… or she becomes a calamity herself!”

Yumiko barely repressed an exclamation of surprise and disappointment. The room she had just walked in was not what one would expect from a karaoke bar. More than a place to sit and sing together, it was a half-abandoned storeroom, with partially painted walls and equipment scattered all around. She did not notice most of its details, however, because her attention was immediately drawn to the people that were inside, sat around a table, the only piece of furniture that was still in a good state. They were around ten, most of them middle aged or older, with the exception of a single boy that looked just slightly older than her. They represented more or less all social classes: some wore expensive suits, while other had overalls. Their only common distinctive feature was a pin on their chest, an emblem that looked like a brightly shining star. Every single one of them was also staring at Yumiko. Those were not stares of curiosity when someone unannounced joins a party, or of indifference: they conveyed deep hatred mixed with anger.

The hostility was so strong that Yumiko took a step back and bumped into Kokonoe, who was just behind her. Yumiko wanted an explanation from her, but she kept her mouth shut the moment her gaze met the one of her schoolmate. Somehow Kokonoe had changed completely. The blank expression that was often on her face, and her tranquil attitude had disappeared completely. She was almost enraged, clenching her teeth in an urge to control the fury that had taken hold of her.

Kokonoe did not say anything and just pushed Yumiko forward, right into the crowd. The people were instantly all over her. Three men, a little better well-built than the others, took hold of her arms and legs. No matter how hard Yumiko tried, they were far stronger than her and all her attempts to break free were in vain. Overwhelmed, the girl was immobilzed and carried to a lone chair in the middle of the room, As soon as she was put down, her arms and legs were tightly tied to ensure she would not be able to escape. Able to only move her head freely, all she could do was to stare at those people in terror.

She screamed at the top of her lungs, hoping to attract attention. Unfortunately, no one came. Contempt-filled laughter rose from the group, as if they had been expecting such a reaction. Kokonoe walked in front of her schoolmate and waved her finger in denial.

“Oh, no, no. That would’ve been too easy, would it, Yumiko?” she said mockingly. “Trying to bring anyone here. Unfortunately, this won’t do. No one will be able to anything from here. No one will ever realize you are being held here.”

“Why?” Yumiko exclaimed in frustration. “What did I do to deserve this!” She eyed all the different people there. “Who are you all, anyway?”

Kokonoe gave a long stare at her, her eyes filled with so much hatred that Yumiko shivered. “It doesn’t matter! What matters here is that we know who you are, Yumiko Hasegawa! You are an impure!”

“Impure? I don’t understand anything of what you’re saying! I’m just…”

Kokonoe grabbed the other girl’s shirt and put her face very close to Yumiko’s. “Cut the nonsense!” She was breathing heavily and had lost any form of restraint, caught by a fanatical rage.

Yumiko was too shocked to respond, a part from unintelligible sounds.

That made Kokonoe even angrier. “Do you think we can’t see your sins? Or perhaps are you just playing dumb? Too bad! I have seen that! Countless of times! When my parents, my schoolmates, my club members… everyone saw the obvious and just turned a blind eye! I will never be fooled!”

She threw Yumiko against the back of the chair she was tied to. “Now, confess!”

Yumiko was on the verge of crying. “Kokonoe, stop it… There’s nothing I can confess… I haven’t done anything!”

“Are you still denying the truth?” Kokonoe raised a hand to hit her.

“That’s enough, Sakahashi!”

The imperious voice of Master Harada resonated across the room and Kokonoe froze. She turned to the group and stared angrily at the man, who had just come in front of the others. He did not look pleased.

“Why, Master!” she said.

Master Harada walked next to her. Despite being not much taller than Kokonoe, his attitude and voice made him like a giant confronting a pygmy. “And what exactly do you want to accomplish?”

“A confession, of course! That’s all we need, right?”

Harada sighed. “Sakahashi… did it ever come to you that this won’t lead us anywhere? Look at her, she’s just scared. What twisted kind of confession is that? Move aside, I will handle this interrogation.”

Kokonoe clenched both her hands in a fit of rage but kept her composure. “As you wish, Master.”

“Yeah, stay put,” Satoshi said from behind, “You’ve already made a mess.”

Kokonoe gave him one angry stare and moved among the rest of those people, but on the opposite side as him.

Harada came close to Yumiko. “Yumiko Hasegawa, allow me to apologize for the treatment you were given by our young member. I wish we would not need to resort to such drastic means… Regrettably, they are necessary because we know all about you.”

Yumiko tilted her head confusedly. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Let’s start from the beginning. My name is Harada, and I lead this group… the hikari no kamihei, the Militia of the Light. Our mission is to get rid of the impure from this world.”

“Impure? That is what Kokonoe just said.”

“Yes, the impure.” Harada nodded. “Existences that are in contrast with the fundamental laws of nature, that are not only twisted themselves but that are able to warp the world around them. And you are one of them, Hasegawa. We know it.”

Yumiko glanced at him unconvincingly.

“I suppose I should tell you, then. Sakahashi has been watching you for quite a long while, Yumiko Hasegawa. She saw what you truly are, and what you are trying to do. That’s not what any person in this world would do. Only the impure do that. And the impure must be cleansed. That’s just how it is.”

There was not even the slightest trace of doubt in Harada’s voice. No matter how reasonable and cordial he looked, he was moved by an even greater fanaticism than what Kokonoe had just openly displayed moment before. The way he acted was just a front to get his point across without scaring people away. His convictions were deeply rooted in the insanity that was brewing inside his mind.

Having reached the same conclusion, Yumiko swallowed deeply and kept silent for a while. When she spoke again, she did so slowly, choosing her words carefully. “Listen. There is a reason for all of this. I can explain everything, even though you may not believe me…”

“You are right on that.” Harada shook his head. “”I’m afraid that explanations won’t do, girl. We already know everything. There is no need for anything else."

“How can you be so sure?” she snapped, irritated by his stubborness. “Do you really think you know the truth?”

“As a matter of fact, we do. The words of man are truer than any of the impure. The impure can not be trusted.”

“It’s nonsense!” Yumiko yelled, frustrated by his unreasonableness. “Don’t decide on your own! You really don’t know anything!”

“We know more than you think we know,” Kokonoe hissed from the back. “I saw what happened two weeks ago. I saw Tokyo becoming… something else and I saw those horrors walking around the streets! And I saw you and your pitiable companions…”

Yumiko’s voice almost died in her throat. “Kokonoe, were you caught up…”

“Yes, caught up in the web you weaved for your nefarious purposes!”

“That’s wrong!” Yumiko was so agitated that she almost made the chair trip. “You don’t understand! You all don’t understand! I am…”

Harada clapped his hands and interrupted that exchange. “What did I tell you earlier? Explanations won’t do. Your crimes are in plain sight. There is no way you will escape your cleansing.”

Having noticed that Yumiko had become pale and was in cold sweat, Harada came closer. “As much as I loathe existences like yours, we are superior humans. We do not dwell in lowly thoughts. If you thought we were going to kill you, or worse, then you are mistaken. The ritual we have set up will free you of your impurity, and if you truly repent, you will be let go without problems.”

Yumiko’s eyes widened in shock. What she had seen was the ultimate nature of the so-called hikari no kamihei. They did not possess any special powers, nor they aimed to rival the Guardians of the Dawn: in fact, they were simply a group of very deluded people that tried hard to find a purpose in boring, difficult, or empty lives. Aside perhaps from Kokonoe, they had no real idea of what was beyond the world they used to know and live in.

Harada turned towards his companions. “It is time then. Fellow kamihei, can you start the ritual?”

The answer was not what he had expected. A loud, ear-piercing scream resonated in the meeting room. Michiko, the good-natured housewife that had been one of their first members, crumpled to the floor, her neck completely torn apart. A terrifying sight that was, however, overlooked by most of the cultists, because their attention had been drawn to the person next to the corpse: it was Satoshi, kneeling over her. When he stood up and faced the others, exclamations of shock rose among his companions, and most tried to distance themselves from him.

His lips and mouth were completely covered in blood.

Although taken aback as the others, Harada forced himself to address him. “Satoshi… what have you done?”, he exclaimed.

The boy looked back at him and shrugged. “It’s no use going around the matter, is it? Do I even have to tell you? I killed her.” There was neither pride nor guilt in his voice, like he had done one of the most natural acts in the world.

That cold admission and nonchalant attitude made Harada furious. “Are you insane? Are you telling me you just murdered Michiko?”

“Yes, that’s what it is. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“You’re just a murderer! Everyone, let’s call…”

“Oh no, no, no, that won’t do.” Satoshi waved a finger in front him in denial. “That would mean that very… annoying people would come, and that would be a hassle. Therefore, before the meeting I made sure no one would be able to pull such stunts, you see.”

Worried exclamations rose from the group of kamihei when they realized that what Satoshi had said was true. Somehow all their cell phones had turned off and there was no way to switch them back on. Visibly afraid, a cultist tried to open the door of the meeting room and stepped back with a yelp of pain when his hand touched the handle.

“Ah, and that won’t do either,” Satoshi added, “You must stay here. After all there will be a great celebration… a celebration for bringing the Scyoth to me!”

“Scyoth? What is this nonsense?” Harada shouted as he tried to hide his uneasiness. “You are insane!”

“Insane? You should be asking that to yourself, old man.” Satoshi gave him an icy stare. “Do you think your good-for-nothing group was truly able to accomplish something on its own? It all happened because I made it so. Information? I made them available. Ensure that pathetic girl was in the right place and time? I gave the hint. I just let you bask in your paranoia so that even lowlifes like you would be useful in bringing the Scyoth to me.”

“All of this… for what purpose? What are you, Satoshi!”

The boy tilted his head. “Oh, I didn’t tell you yet? No matter. You’re about to find out…”

With a jolt, his appearance changed. Most of the hair fell off his head, and his face sagged and wrinkled while a short beard grew on his chin and under his nose: he now looked like more like a priest serving in a temple than a high school student. He jolted again, and his neck grew longer, making him twice as tall as a normal person while his nails transformed into sharp claws. What stood before them was no longer a human being, but rather a strange and disfigured representation of one. The kamihei pushed themselves harder against the wall to stay as far as possible from that scene of horror. Even Harada gulped and took a step back.

“There, happy now?”, Satoshi said, his voice sounding much older than before, “I take you didn’t like it. Well, no matter. Now that you’ve exceeded your usefulness, there’s only one thing left to do…”

His long neck moved like a serpent biting its prey and the Master fell down, his head almost torn away from the torso. A shower of blood rained on the survivors, who started screaming in terror. All but Ichiro, the factory worker that was one of the most physically fit members of the group. Although clearly afraid, he gave a challenging stare to Satoshi. The other just looked back in defiance.

Then Ichiro charged Satoshi directly. His serpent-like head lashed at him, but Ichiro crouched just in time to avoid it, with a surprising display of quick reflexes. When he was close enough, he punched his former companion right in the middle of this chest. However, the blow never reached its intended destination. Just as his hand was mere millimeters away from Satoshi, that strange creature rose his hand and pierced the abdomen of Ichiro from side to side, putting an abrupt stop to his attempt to resist. Satoshi then rose the agonizing worker from the ground with the same easiness as picking a tree leaf up and threw him against one of the walls. The man trembled upon impact, then he lay on the floor still.

Panic spread like wildfire with the survivors, with most now screaming at the top of their lungs or crying their hearts out. They converged to a corner of the room, trying to stay as away as possible from what they once believed was their companion.

Satoshi found the situation amusing. “A nice musical score for this event! Now, once the Scyoth has been dealt with…”

As he looked at the chair where Yumiko had been tied to, he stopped speaking and blinked. There was something rather strange about the girl. During the whole interrogation and before he had revealed himself, she had been frightened, even terrified. Now annoyance was the only emotion that transpired from those blue eyes. Satoshi hesitated, unsure on what to expect. Then Yumiko smiled.

For a moment, the roles of victim and executioner were reversed. Satoshi had shown ruthlessness, contempt, and cruelty, but all he had done paled in comparison to the aura coming from that lone smile. It was an aura of a primeval predator… neither killing for food nor for pleasure, but just for mere cold-blooded instinct. Wanting to prevent anything unexpected from happening, Satoshi walked in front of the girl and rose his clawed hands above her head.

Yumiko roared like an animal in search of its prey and broke all the ties holding her with a mere flick of her hands and legs. She stood up and roared again while her clothes tensed and were torn away as the body beneath them grew and changed in shape. Exactly like two weeks before, and in Kyoto before that, she turned into a mixture of a wolf, a fox, and a human being. She opened and closed her clawed hands repeatedly while her tail waved restlessly left and right as she stared as Satoshi. She had chosen him as her prey.

Despite the intial shock, Satoshi was not caught with his guard down. In fact, he even smiled. “So, that’s what it is,” he murmured, “Your real nature, Scyoth. Not that it will help you anyway. You have to die, here and now.”

His extended neck became even longer and moved in circles around Yumiko, like a serpent about to wrap around its victim. Yumiko was unimpressed and simply raised her left hand, taking hold of Satoshi’s head as it zoomed next to her. He cursed as it struggled to break free, but Yumiko’s grip was too strong.

Without leaving him time to escape, the girl grabbed a part of his neck, then her powerful muscles contracted and suddenly Satoshi’s body was being swung around in the air like a mace. Yumiko smashed him on the ground with violence one, two, three times: Satoshi screamed in pain, and she listened with satisfaction to his suffering. Still holding his head in one hand, she walked next to his broken body and put a feet over his chest, pinning him to the ground. Then she started pulling his neck.

An ordinary human would have not been able to pull such a feat, but Yumiko’s strength was far beyond that. Tug after tug, that serpentine neck was torn away from his body. Satoshi let out an ear-piercing scream one last time, then he stopped moving. Yumiko tossed away his remains distractedly and turned to the kamihei, who had been watching the scene in fear.

Neither Yumiko nor the cultists made a move. She kept on staring at them with her yellow, cat-like eyes, and the others did not now whether to regard her as a friend or as a foe.

One of the oldest men in the group gathered his courage and went forward, trying to test the waters. “Thank…”

He was not able to finish what he was saying. With a step, Yumiko closed the distance between herself and the man, then her claws slashed. His body was split in two from the torso up, and his bloody remains fell over his former companions.

The doubts had been dispelled, and the fate of the remaining kamihei was now sealed. The survivors started screaming uncontrollably, and they all attempted to make a run for the exit, letting go of any restraint, composure, and dignity.

Then the massacre began. Showing far more ruthlessness than Satoshi, Yumiko took them down one by one before they could even cross half of the distance between them and the door: they were bitten, clawed, skewered, and dismembered. The whole room had turned into a crimson holocaust, the horribly mutilated bodies scattered all around the floor being the testament of that tragic one-sided confrontation. Of all the kamihei, only Kokonoe was somehow still alive: while the others had tried to escape, she had stood still in a corner, paralyzed by fear.

The creature she once believed to be her classmate looked at her and took a step forward. Kokonoe pushed herself against the wall in a futile attempt to gain some distance.

“Please, please don’t Yumiko!” she yelled.

Yumiko took another step.

Kokonoe started sobbing hysterically. “Don’t do this to me! We’re friends, right?”

Yumiko moved again.

“Please, please! I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die!”

Another step. Yumiko was now almost within an arm’s reach. Kokonoe saw those yellow eyes glittering in anticipation and satisfaction.

She raised her voice even louder and fell to her knees. “I’ll do anything you want, anything! Just spare me, I beg you!”

Yumiko smirked.

There was suffocated scream, followed by the sound of a body hitting the floor.

Blood. There was blood all over her, flowing down her bare skin. Her hands were almost completely red. She could feel it all over her face as well. The floor was cold under her knees.

Yumiko rubbed her eyes and tried to adjust her vision. What exactly had happened? She could only remember until that boy had started behaving strangely in front of the others… then everything had gone blank. She had no recollection of the events that followed.

The answer she was looking for came as soon as she scanned the room. There were dead bodies everywhere, disfigured and dismembered. No one was alive but her. She had barely realized the extent of that massacre when she felt something touching her right knee: she looked and realized it was Kokonoe’s severed head. Her classmate’s now vitreous eyes stared blankly at her, while her face was a mask of pain and terror.

Yumiko brought a hand to her mouth in amazement and the memories came back to her. What Satoshi had done… and what she had done.

What she did was… it was…


There was no other way to describe it. Their pathetic screams of desperation, their expressions of dread and fear when they realized they were going to die… it had been such an exquisite feeling!

She chuckled. It was not enough.

She tittered. She needed more, more!

Never in her life she had felt so satisfied!

Her hysterical laughter echoed across the room.


Bakuhatsu (爆発)
Japanese for “explosion”.
Jorogumo (絡新婦)
A supernatural spider that takes the appearance of a beautiful woman. Legends report that they ensare young men with their beauty, only to eat them afterwards. They can often control lesser spiders.
Kakigori (かき氷)
A typical Japanese dessert made of shaved ice.
Kami (神)
Spirits or natural phenomena that are the subject of worship in the Shinto religion. They can range from natural elements (landscapes, objects, forces like wind) to actual beings.
Kannushi (神主)
In the Shinto religion, a person who is responsible for a shrine and for the worship of the kami, akin to a priest.
Kitsune (狐)
Japanese word for “fox”, referred in the context of the Japanese folklore, which depicts them as intelligent beings with magical powers.
Kyudo (弓道)
“The way of the bow”, the traditional form of Japanese archery with very long bows.
Muneate (胸当て)
Protection worn by female archers who practice kyudo (traditional Japanese archery). It is meant to protect the breasts from being struck by the bowstring when shooting.
Nyudo (入道)
While the word only means “priest”, it is also associated to many supernatural creatures that take appearances similar to those of priests. Examples are giants like the hitotsu me nyudo (one-eyed priest) or the tako nyudo (octopus priest).
Okka-san (御っ母さん)
“Mother”, term commonly used until the end of the Meiji period.
Ryokan (旅館)
A type of traditional Japanese inn.
Shoji (障子)
A sliding door, usually made of paper over a frame of wood.
Tokusatsu (特撮)
Translated as “special filming”, it refers to live-action Japanese shows that make large use of special effects. Examples include the Kamen Rider franchise or movies like Godzilla.
Senpai (先輩)
Word that indicates a senior person, either at school or at work.
Torii (鳥居)
Traditional gate found in Shinto temples.
Wa nyudo (輪入道)
Literally “wheel priest”, a giant head trapped within a flaming ox cart wheel. They take pleasure in inflicting pain on others and often drag their victims to the Underworld to be judged.
Zazen (坐禅)
A form of sitting meditation common in Zen Buddhism. One of the practices involves counting or repeating mantra to achieve concentration.

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