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?"
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."
"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."
1. 1571 ↩
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."
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.