The other side of the unknown

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

"Why, why did this happen?"

"It hurts! It hurts so much I'm going to die…"

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

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

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

"It's really too much…" Yumiko muttered. "Almost nothing makes sense now."

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

"There is?" Yumiko looked straight at Satsuki.

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

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

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

"Sayuki! Michiru!" Yumiko yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

"Calm down Michiru, let me explain…"

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

"Speaking of pigs," Sayuki put in, "Don't we have someone that should not watch here?"

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

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

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

"Are you implying you would do that it didn't mean trouble for you? You are the worst!"

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

"Good grief! Girls today are so complicated…"

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

This time even Sayuki and Michiru blushed along with Yumiko. "We're sorry…" they whispered in shame.

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

Jim whistled. "What was bad in just fooling around?"

"I don't know… Perhaps the fact that you got along with it?"

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

"Breaks usually don't involve messing with others, do they?"

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

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

"Move?" The urgency in the woman's voice surprised Yumiko. "Where, and why?"

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

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

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

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

Jim grinned. "With the right tricks, that won't be a problem "

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman smiled. "Don't mention it."

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

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

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

"I just asked a question! Besides, don't you think it's cool, too?"

"You've got a point…"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sayuki chuckled. "You seem on good terms."

"If it weren't for his attitude, we could even be on better terms," Satsuki commented dryly.

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

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

"It's going to be a long way to Tokyo… A little joke or two won't hurt."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, it's me, dad! Are you all right? Is mom with you?"

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

Yumiko's grasp on the phone tightened. "Did something happen there too in Kameoka?"

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

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

"It's a promise. Please be careful out there, Yumiko."

"I will, thanks. Talk to you later, dad."

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

Satsuki glanced back at her. "Is it better now?"

Yumiko nodded. "Much better, thank you."

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, why?" Sayuki asked.

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

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

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

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

"That's not an answer to the question, is it?"

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

Michiru's face softened. "Would you be able to tell us more?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even Yumiko agreed with her. "I was impressed, but even I didn't go that far, Sayuki…"

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

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

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

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

Michiru shook her head. "Of course not."

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

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

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

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

"That's a famous supernova," Michiru recalled, "I remember that from physics class."

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

"Another Ancient?"

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

"Satsuki…" Yumiko faltered, "Don't tell me… You are…"

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

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

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

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

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

"Really? What is it?"

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

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

Michiru sneered. "It's common sense."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You don't want to prevent us from going to Tokyo, do you?" Michiru blurted.

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

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

"Oh!" Sayuki let out an exclamation of surprise. "So the highways are broken? How? They were fine when we came to Kyoto, and there were no signs of roadworks…"

"That's because there's someone very willing to take any steps necessary to interfere with us," Jim stated, "When I checked out the route to take to get back to Tokyo, I was informed of this and we planned an alternative route. On top of that, there are few other people like us in the area, so we can get additional support."

"This likely makes no sense, but I can't understand why someone…something would go this far," Yumiko said.

Satsuki tried to answer her concerns. She spoke slowly and chose the words carefully. "A reason likely exists. Whether it's valid or not for our system of values is an entirely different matter. They view you, Yumiko, as a danger."

Yumiko gaped and her friends were shocked as well. "Me? How could I have possibly…"

Michiru couldn't contain her anger. "Yumiko has not done anything bad! She doesn't deserve this!" she snapped.

Sayuki shrugged. "I'm out of ideas on how that would be possible as well."

The distress and confusion of the three girls, and in particular Yumiko, was clearly visible. After briefly pondering on the matter, Satsuki decided that a break was in order, or the situation would get unbearable for their minds.

"There might be one," she started, "but let's leave this for later. There's a service area close: let's all relax a bit before going ahead. What do you think?"

"Yeah, perhaps it might be a good idea…" Yumiko nodded unconvincingly.

"Perhaps we can get something to eat? I'm hungry…" Sayuki complained.

Michiru gave her a cold stare. "With all that's going on, you are thinking about food?"

"Why not? It's not like I have to stop eating, you know. And besides, I heard noises coming from your stomach too."

Her friend's cheeks turned bright red and she turned on the defensive. "Yes, but… that's not the point…"

Yumiko chuckled. She was surprised herself: her mind had been burdened with so many questions and doubts since the previous night that all she had felt was anxiety. Thanks to the involuntary, but frequent, bickering of her friends she was at least feeling a little better. It was like Satsuki said, she likely needed a break and cast those heavy thoughts aside for a while.

She smiled. "Good idea, Satsuki. I'd love to walk around a bit after all this time."

About an half hour later, Jim drove their car into the nearest rest area on the side of the highway. The definition of "rest area" was somehow an understatement: it covered a very large surface and was composed by several buildings, from gas pumps to full-fledged shopping malls and restaurants to provide a break for travelers tired after long journeys. Due to the summer, the extensive parking lots were almost filled completely and many people were walking around. Men wearing safety vests were doing their best despite the heat to ensure that the flow of vehicles in and out was as orderly as possible.

After they parked, the group decided to take a look at the various shops before getting something to eat. Satsuki suggested they all moved together, to make sure that everyone would be under her and Jim's watch, to prevent any possible issue from arising. A few minutes later, they all entered the largest building of the area.

The inside was a large open space, where the center was occupied by tables and places to sit alternated with smaller stalls selling foods and various souvenirs. There were many large stores and restaurants, often quite crowded. Long corridors on both sides of the hall led to other areas of the building with even more commercial offerings. Large numbers of people were concentrated near displays that were broadcasting the situation in Kyoto. Yumiko, Michiru and Sayuki did their best not to look.

"I forgot to ask something," Sayuki said as they browsed souvenirs, "What will happen when we arrive in Tokyo? Will your task be over?"

"I've been wondering this myself," Michiru pondered.

"We didn't get to that part yet," Satsuki answered, "In short, there are a few people we want to talk to, along with Yumiko." She paused for an instant, noticing the glare in Michiru's eyes, then quickly provided an explanation. "You will be needed too, as you were with her most of the time. There's no intention to leave you out."

Michiru humphed. "You'd better."

"Actually, Michiru, I'm sure I will be fine," Yumiko commented with a hint of embarrassment at her over-protective stance, "They're on our side after all. I believe the worst has passed for now, or so I hope."

"I will believe it when I see it. I wouldn't want you to get in more trouble. It was truly terrible to see you plummet in that well!"

"Oh, playing the role of the mother?" Sayuki grinned as she circled an arm around her. "Okka-san, can you let her go on her own?"

"Who are you calling okka-san?"

Yumiko groaned as the two started bickering. "There they go again… Even considering what has happened, they just can't help it."

"At least you can't get bored like that." Jim made a large grin. "This will lead to a happy life in your later years!"

"Please don't encourage them to follow your same path," Satsuki chimed in, "It's enough trouble handling one of you."

The man winked. "It's just payback for the trouble you gave me."

For moment Yumiko thought she had seen a trace of shame on Satsuki's face, but it disappeared so quickly that she thought she had imagined that. In stark contrast with this impression, her voice was even firmer than before.

"Please don't mention that."

"Of course, I was just messing with you."

"I wish you didn't!"

Just by watching the conversation, Yumiko felt she could trust the man and the woman completely. They had been supportive of her and her friends a lot, and despite their disagreements, they did not doubt each other at all. To her, they were ideal for the task they were carrying out.

But more than wondering about that, she had to stop the shameful show that her friends were putting up. It was too embarrassing.

She grabbed Michiru's arm. "Shall we go and look at some wares, Michiru?"

Her friend caught the message immediately and she stopped her quarrel with Sayuki. While Yumiko was usually too nice to get angry at them, the rare times she did she had given them a thorough earful, and neither of the two wanted to see that again.

"Yeah." Michiru nodded. "Let's go and see around! Sayuki, will you come with us too?"

Sayuki shook her head. "No, I think I'll check if there's anything for me on the other side… you know, like sports shoes or something. I love browsing through that stuff!"

Michiru was about to comment, but Yumiko squeezed her arm and she stayed silent. The girl then dragged her away towards a stall that was selling food, under the amused gaze of Jim and Satsuki. She was released only when they were well away from the others.

"Honestly, sometimes I think you two enjoy arguing together." Yumiko puffed.

Michiru avoided direct eye contact. She almost was on the verge of crying. "I'm sorry, I hope you're not angry…"

"No, no, I'm not angry at all! I only wanted to stop you, not to make you sad, I swear!"


"Really, I can assure you."

Michiru sighed in relief. "Thank goodness."

"You got to do something about that side of you, Michiru," Yumiko continued, "Being scolded by me doesn't mean I want you to disappear."

"I know, but after the accident in Kyoto, I'm very worried about you."

"I can see that." Yumiko patted her on the head. "But I'm still here, and I'm still your friend. Nothing has changed on that regard."

"Excuse me, girls," a woman behind them said.

As tall as Yumiko, she was beautiful: the smooth skin of her face, framed by long and smooth black hair, showed almost no trace of imperfection. At first sight, she looked on her twenties, but her eyes, black as well, showed the maturity of someone several years older. She was dressed in a very elegant dress and all her movements were calm and collected.

"Excuse us," Yumiko apologized, "we didn't mean to be in the way."

"Oh, you weren't. You were so lively I got curious. Where are you going to?"

"We're going to Nagano."

"Are you going there for the holidays?"

"Well, we're just stopping there for a while, then we'll get back home."

"I see, I hope you have fun there. Actually, I have a question to ask."

"What is it?"

The woman pointed at a shelf containing drinks. For some odd reason, a pack of cookies had been left there by a careless traveler.

"Do you see that?" she asked. "When you see something out of place, how do you feel?"

Yumiko was kind of surprised by the strange question. It was completely out of context and had no relationship with what they were talking about earlier. Nevertheless, she felt compelled to reply, out of politeness.

"Depends on what it is. Normally it's not a big deal."

"It may be. Don't you feel something discordant… like a balance has been tipped? Like your own world has been subverted? That a wrong must be righted?"

"I don't quite understand…"

"Don't you feel that you won't ever be at peace until whatever is discordant has been put where it belongs? Would you keep a yellow cup among black and white ones?"

Yumiko felt exasperated by the situation, and tried to content her interlocutor. "I guess so. I figure I will move it to whatever place is proper for it."

The woman took a long step forward and put her face next to Yumiko's. Her expression was calm, but her eyes exuded clear hostility, almost hatred, towards the girl. Her voice turned to a low, threatening hiss.

"Exactly. The Abyss is the right place for you."

Yumiko stood still, shocked and confused at the same time. In the blink of an eye, her familiar, known reality had been replaced by a hostile, dreadful environment. Her instincts were telling her to scream or to run away, but she found herself unable to do either: the changed had been so sudden that it had caught her unprepared, she was too scared to even think a way out. Her eyes widened as she noticed that the woman's fingernails were growing unnaturally long.

The sound of metal hitting the floor echoed across the stall, and the woman quickly turned in the direction of the noise. She saw Michiru next to a fallen pile of tin cans which were rolling on the ground in all directions.

"I'm sorry, I tripped and made everything fall," Michiru bowed apologetically.

The woman muttered an exclamation of disappointment under her breath and moved her attention back to Yumiko. She realized she had managed to walk away from her as she had been distracted, and was now out of her arms' reach. Her teeth clenched in frustration when she saw Jim next to her, eyeing her severely.

"You've got some nerve in trying to do funny things in the open, you know," Jim's words were harsh and sharp. "Or are you one of these people who likes being punished in front of everyone?" He cracked his knuckles. "Either way, I don't care. Just get out of my sight now, or you'll regret it. Severely."

"Why do you insist in interfering?" The woman cursed. "Fine. I will take my leave for now, but don't think this is the last time you'll hear from me." She pointed accusingly at Yumiko. "By my Lord's command, you are not allowed to live, Yumiko Hasegawa. Remember that."

She walked away in frustration while people sent questioning and puzzled glances in her direction. Once she was gone for good, Yumiko and Michiru both felt relieved.

"Thanks, Jim. I was so scared I didn't know what to do," Yumiko said.

"Don't thank me, thank your friend. Had she not turned that pile of cans over, I would have not noticed it."

Michiru put up a humble smile and chuckled. "This time, I was able to do something at least."

"Let's go back to the others," Jim proposed. "We already caught too much attention here."

While they walked away from the stall, Yumiko's mind was in turmoil. Even though the immediate danger had passed, she did not feel completely at ease.

"Those words… what did she mean by that?" she thought out loud.

Michiru snapped her fingers as a forgotten memory came back to her. "Didn't that thing in Kyoto say something similar? Something about being cursed."

"Yes, I remember. It almost drives me insane, thinking that someone is out to get me, and I don't even know why."

"Time out, time out!" Jim interrupted her. "Don't overthink things. While I can't dismiss the fact that you are being under threat, we've been working a lot to find out the cause. Even well before the matter in Kyoto."

Yumiko's eyes widened. "What do you mean?"

"I'll let her explain better," Jim pointed at Satsuki and Sayuki, which were walking in their direction.

"Did you finish shopping already?" Satsuki asked. "Did anything happen? You look a little shaken."

Jim promptly briefed the two on what had happened. Once he had finished, Satsuki nodded gravely.

"It looks like we've been tracked," she suggested. "We'll have to adjust our route."

Jim rubbed his chin. "I thought I was careful, but I guess they're much smarter than I had imagined."

Sayuki was as worried as her friends, but like in Kyoto, she forced herself to focus on what to do and provide at least some support to Yumiko. She took a deep breath and tried to speak as calmly as she could. "We can worry about who was that woman and why she was here later. I think we should press forward to prevent any more issues."

Michiru sent her a supportive glance and walked next to her. "We don't agree that often… But in this case I think Sayuki is right as well. The earlier we get moving, the better."

"I have the same opinion." Yumiko forced her voice to stay firm. "If I may, however, I have one request, Satsuki. Will you be willing to tell me more about me being targeted? Jim said to ask you."

Satsuki made an angry gesture towards the man. "I guess so he didn't have to do that himself. No problem, though. Once we are on the road again, I'll tell you more."

"Thank you."

With Yumiko's fears cast aside for the moment, Sayuki brought the conversation back to the topic. "You mentioned changing course… do you have an idea already?"

"We do." Satsuki nodded. "I and Jim arranged an alternative plan in case of problems, so we should be safe."

"Wow, you seem really well prepared."

"When you deal with certain things, you learn to plan ahead a lot," Jim saod, "or you won't make it very far."

"Shouldn't we get going immediately?"

"Almost. There's something we need to do first."

"What is it?"

A broad grin appeared on Jim's face. "Eating! Didn't we stop to eat? I don't know about you, but I'm very hungry, and I would love to have something before spending more hours sitting in that tin box."

After a quick meal, the group left the rest area and was again on the road. As anticipated by Satsuki, they adjusted their course: while their ultimate destination did not change, they left the expressway and moved exclusively through prefectural roads, allowing them to move more discreetly. On the other hand, this caused a major delay, so Satsuki and Jim planned to spend the night in a ryokan near Nagano, ran by another member of the Guardians.

As they slowly moved through traffic, Yumiko decided to bring up the topic of the threats against her. No matter how insignificant the answers might have been, she felt it was important to know as much as possible.

"Satsuki, do you think you can tell me more about why them, I mean the Darkness, hates me?" she asked.

"As Jim told you, we don't know the real reason," Satsuki explained, "but there are some probable causes to that. I'm sure you heard about the Stanton incident."

Yumiko nodded. "My mother told me about it a while ago. Some doctor went crazy and tried to kill me right after I was born… or something like that."

She paused as words that were not her own floated in her mind.

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

Having noticed Yumiko spacing out, Satsuki called out to her. "Yumiko, is something the matter?"

She shook her head. "No, it's nothing."

"As I was saying, this was an event that drew the Guardians' attention to you. You see, some people are born with a natural tendency of being closer to the Darkness than the others. It's very rare, and it usually has no importance in a normal life of the individual. In your case, this… tendency was stronger than in normal people."

"Does it mean that Yumiko has an illness?" Michiru looked at Yumiko, making no attempt to hide her anxiety.

"I can't believe this myself!" Sayuki added, "I mean, Yumiko exercises regularly, eats well and cares about her own health!"

Yumiko turned pale. "Satsuki… what does it mean?" she faltered.

"Be at ease, it's neither an illness nor a curse." The woman made a dismissive gesture. "It had not, and won't have, any influence on what you are and how you live. Think of it like people that are taller than others."

That answer seemed to calm Yumiko down, so Satsuki continued her explanation. "The matter is, what is completely irrelevant to you may not be so for the various entities that make up the Darkness. For reasons that are hard to understand, they often loathe these peculiar people, and would like to get rid of them, at almost any cost. The first attempt against you was the Stanton incident. After that, the Guardians kept a distant but vigilant watch over you, to ensure the Darkness would not cause you any harm. There were no issues until the beginning of this year, when activity from them increased all of a sudden. And that is when I and Jim were dispatched to protect you."

"Hold on a second." Michiru's voice was full of surprise. "Do you mean we've been under watch all these years and we never noticed?"

"It was done very discreetly. And as you saw firsthand, there are certain arts that can be used to conceal one's presence."

Sayuki snapped her fingers. "Now that you mention it, was also what happened to Yumiko in Shibuya also related?"

"There's no definite proof, but it's the most likely explanation."

"So that is why the oni called me Cursed One and that woman said I should not live," Yumiko pondered.

"That may have been the initial reason," Satsuki continued, "but what happened to you in Kyoto complicated the situation. When you were there you had what we call a Contact."

"A Contact?"

"The simplest explanation I can give you is that you made your trait, which tied you to the Darkness, explicit. An actual bond to the Darkness."

"An actual bond to the Darkness…"

Michiru held her shoulder. "I and Sayuki have been wondering, Yumiko… What actually happened there? Why did you end up… like you were when you came back?"

Yumiko sighed. "It's kind of difficult to explain. Under that well, there was this dungeon…"

The girl went on and explained her wandering in the stone corridors, her discovery of the torii, the large sealed rock behind it, her encounter with the kannushi and his tale. Everyone listened intently, with Jim and Satsuki often exchanging glances and reflecting over every single detail of that tale.

"… after he disappeared, I heard that oni coming close and I wanted to escape. I tripped, and I touched that rock…"

"What happened afterwards?" Sayuki inquired.

"I don't quite understand." Yumiko held her head with both hands. "There were lights… that changed constantly, and then this dark cloud covered everything, and I felt it inside my own mind. Then I realized I had fallen on my back. And as I was getting up, I felt so much pain, and …" She paused.

"Did it pass?" Michiru pressed her. "What happened to you?"

Yumiko blushed. "I really don't want to tell if possible… It's too embarrassing."

"And that's when whatever you made a Contact with turned you into something else." Satsuki took the floor. "Temporarily, as you all can see. And that something else wiped out the force that was sent against you."

"That was the strangest part, actually," Yumiko continued somewhat unwillingly, "I knew I was doing all these things, but at the same time I felt I wasn't the one doing them. Like there was another will that wasn't my own… similar to a child playing with a new toy."

"And it was probably like that. My bet is that it was that spirit thought to be a kitsune."

"That's it," Yumiko concluded, "after I saw Satsuki talking to me, I felt back in control, and I ended up like… in the state you saw me later."

"Say, Yumiko, how did you feel after that?" Sayuki asked. "Did you feel different, or strange?"

"No… I don't feel that strange presence anymore. It almost feels like a dream."

"Thank goodness!" Michiru hugged her. "I know this goes without saying, but no matter what, you're still our Yumiko! Right, Sayuki?"

Sayuki smiled and raised her thumb in approval.

Yumiko looked away to avoid showing her eyes, which had become slightly watery. "I don't want to sound melodramatic, but thank you."

"We'll take care to figure out what happened and what to do next," Satsuki stated reassuringly, "so that you can continue your lives as usual."

Yumiko brushed the tears off her face. "After we are in Tokyo, what will we do?"

"First of all, we'll let you rest for a few days, although we'll keep watching over you. Afterwards, I'd like to bring you to one of the places where the Guardians operate to talk to the current chief, John Masefield. There we'll plan a proper short and long term strategy. They're already going through our previous reports."

"The people working on these information are really smart, although a bit paranoid at times," Jim pointed out, "but if there's anything useful, they will find it."

"So we just need to sit back and wait until we are back?" Yumiko inquired.

"That's right."

Sayuki stretched. "I wonder how long it'll be. I was never a fan of long journeys."

"At worst we'll be in Tokyo around noon tomorrow. You may want to take a nap, we've got a lot to cover before we get to our rendezvous point."

"Good idea," Yumiko said as she closed her eyes.

It was well into the evening when the group finally reached the prefecture of Nagano, finally within reach of their destination: the heavy traffic and the need to avoid faster roads had caused many delays on their predicted schedule. The landscape around them was mostly comprised by tall mountains covered with forests of pines and similar trees, able to withstand the higher altitudes. Occasionally, the trees thinned out around areas where farms or other houses had been built. brighter spots in seas of dark green. As the sun disappeared under the summits, Jim took a road that brought them away from the town, over narrower streets that went upwards, on the flank of a mount. While they climbed, the number of other cars sharing the same path reduced progressively, until the streetlamps and illuminated signposts were their only companions.

Michiru yawned loudly. "I can't wait to be at home. All this running back and forth has made me very tired."

"I hear you," Sayuki echoed her, "how much till we get to that ryokan? I could really use a hot bath and a bed…"

"It shouldn't be too long now," Satsuki replied, "Half an hour at most."

"I'm starting to feel sore myself." Yumiko massaged her back. "I can't wait to be able to walk freely again."

Jim humphed. "Girls these days! Always complaining…"

He didn't finish his sentence and his expression became grave as he scanned the surroundings left and right. "Satsuki, visitors incoming."

Satsuki had taken notice of the situation as well. "Confirmed, I sensed them too. Five presences, perhaps six. They're closing in fast. Can you call in for support?"

Jim glanced at his phone, cursed under his breath and shook his head. "With these mountains, the area of ad-hoc comms is severely limited. We're not in range yet. And they'll be on us before we are close enough."

"Do you think we can outrun them?"

"I'm not sure. I can try, but don't forget these roads aren't a racing track."

"Let's do what we can."

"What's going on?" Yumiko asked, suddenly alarmed.

"We're being chased, and we're trying to get away, or at least keep whoever is after us at bay until we can call for support. Girls, hold tight, it's going to be a little rougher now."

The car's engine roared as Jim sped up. Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru held themselves close as they glanced at the windows to catch a glimpse of their chasers. It didn't take the girls long to notice their presence: there were at least three figures, vaguely humanoid, flying close to the road in their same direction. While the light was not enough to make out many details, it was sufficient to see the short beaks on their faces, similar to the ones of crows, or the large bird-like wings on their backs.

"Here they are. Satsuki, try to see if you can at least disturb them!" Jim ordered.

The woman replied with a nod. "Roger!"

Satsuki lowered her windshield and pulled out her gun from the holster. Trying to keep herself steady as possible, she pointed it at the flying creatures and fired several shots in quick succession. Two of them jolted and flew lower: whether it was because she hit them, because she missed, or because they had avoided the attack, she could not tell. She was about to fire again with she noticed out of the corner of her eye that two more of them were taking a dive from the opposite side. She threw a warning to Jim.

Fortunately, he had noticed as well. He slammed his foot on the accelerator and he heard the sound something hitting the concrete right where the car had been just a moment before. Satsuki looked back and saw that the two bird-like beings were getting back on their feet, apparently unharmed by the impact. Steel briefly flashed in their hands.

"Everyone, get down!" Satsuki shouted.

Sayuki, Yumiko and Michiru immediately hid under the seats. That move saved their life, as two long and sharp objects, similar to darts, broke the rear windshield and stuck into the passenger's head, very close to where Yumiko and Michiru's heads were before. The three yelled in panic.

Satsuki leaned out of the window and fired more shots at their pursuers, unfortunately without landing any hit: the two creatures just flapped their large wings and took flight again.

"What an annoying bunch!" Jim exclaimed. "I wish they'd given up already."

"They can move freely in the air, while we're constrained by the road," Satsuki commented, "we're clearly at a disadvantage here."

"I can't go faster than this without risking falling off somewhere."

"How far are we?"

"It will take us at least ten more minutes, and I'm not sure we'll have that much time."

"Let's do the best we can." Satsuki turned to the terrified girls in the back. "I'm not sure how we'll get out of this, but our top priority is your protection. We won't allow these abominations to even come close to you."

The three nodded in response without saying a word. They were still very afraid, but at least they trusted Satsuki and Jim's judgment.

As the woman looked at the road ahead again, her senses were struck with a steadily escalating sense of foreboding. The more they went ahead, the stronger it became.

"Jim, slow down," she said.

The man couldn't believe what he had heard. "Are you crazy? It's not like we can just talk to them, sign a piece of paper, and see them off."

"It's not that. There are a few more ahead, and they're waiting for us."

Jim looked at the dashboard and realized that the situation was dire. There was a rather narrow curve about half a kilometer from their current position, and he had no doubts that if someone or something was waiting, it would be there. It was a perfect place for an ambush: the turn meant that he would not be able go too fast to avoid falling off the road. And even if he wanted to mow down whoever lay in front of them, it would probably damage their car and shatter any hope of escaping… assuming those darts wouldn't get them before they got too close.

They were effectively caught between two fires: slowing down would mean having to deal with the chasers, going ahead would just spring the trap prepared for them.

"I see what you mean." He rubbed his chin. "Quite an intelligent strategy, I didn't expect them to be this capable. If that's the case, it may be better to try to drive them away."

"Exactly. Let's get ready," Satsuki concluded. "Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru, get out when we stop, and stay close to me. As long as you're with me, you'll be out of harm's reach."

Following the change of plans, Jim slowed the car down and stopped it on the side of the road. Satsuki got off first, then opened one of the back doors and beckoned to the girls. Sayuki, Michiru and Yumiko crawled out and stood behind her. Jim was the last to come out, gun in hand. The man took position in front of the vehicle and the woman on the back.

The road was surrounded by pines and other trees typical of mountain areas, mere black spots under the feeble illumination of the streetlights. There was no sign of other human activity around, and no other noise except for the gasping breath of the three girls.

That eerie silence was broken by the sound of flapping wings as three of the creatures landed before them. Now visible under the light, their appearance could not be farther from a human being, or even an animal. Their heads resembled the one of a bird of prey, with a pointed beak towered by two small eyes. Hawk-like claws for hands and feet opened and closed rhythmically. They were dressed in clothes resembling the ones of samurai from the Sengoku period, and they all carried a katana strapped to their waist. The tallest of the group also had a fan in one of its hands.

Shortly afterwards, four more of them arrived from the opposite direction, surrounding the group. Their inhuman heads shook with screeching laughter, laughter that turned into sounds of disappointment and frustration when one of them fell backwards with a gurgle: Jim's gun had hit the creature in the stomach. Enraged, the one with the fan made a gesture and the others drew their weapons.

Seeing that it looked like their leader, Satsuki pointed her gun and fired. Unimpressed, the bird-like being spread the fan open: when they came into contact, the bullets bounced off without even reaching their target. In the mean time, another jumped in the air and, holding its blade above its head, dived straight for Yumiko.

Satsuki was not caught unprepared. She rapidly formed figures with the fingers of her left hand and then swung her arm in the direction of the attacker. The air shimmered and a moment later the creature rolled on the ground, holding the severed remains of its right wing.

On the other side, Jim shot down one more bird-man, then ducked just in time to avoid getting his head cut off by a katana. He rolled sideways and fired at the same time. He had intended to aim the torso of his opponent, but he had moved too quickly and ended up hitting its arm instead. That was enough to end the assault of the beast, which fell to its knees squeaking.

Then, for no apparent reasons, the creatures regrouped behind their leader, who had not moved since the battle had started. It took a step forward, and swayed its fan in the direction of the group with a loud cry. A breeze rose out of nowhere, and became stronger and stronger until it turned into a whirlwind. It was so fierce that the Yumiko and the others struggled to stay on their feet.

It was no mystery that its intentions were to blow every single one of them away. And once thrown in the air, its followers would have no problems in going for an easy kill. Jim crawled close to the car, using it as a shield against those powerful gusts. He made a gesture to Satsuki.

"Get behind the car and stay low!" she ordered to the three girls.

Without wasting any time, the girls crouched and moved towards Jim while the woman kept watch on them. A croak coming from above caught her attention: she jumped backwards just in time to avoid a blade that would have easily cut her in half. Because of this Yumiko, who had not yet reached the safe spot, was in the direct line of sight of the pack's leader. When Satsuki noticed, it was too late.

The creature swung its fan again. A concentrated blast of air hit Yumiko, throwing her against a nearby guardrail. Sparkles flew before her eyes when her back hit the metal, and the pain was so sharp it almost knocked her out. She fumbled to get back on her feet, but she was not fast enough: the current grew even fiercer and lifted her from the ground. Frantically, she tried to hold to the rail with all the strength she could muster. It was all in vain, as the the metal was too smooth and she had a not strong enough grip.

Slowly, each of her fingers slipped off. She could only scream while she fell into the woods next to the road.

Falling through the branches of pine trees, Yumiko hit the ground and tumbled down a steep slope until she eventually stopped. She was full of cuts and bruises, her hip hurt where she had first touched the ground, but luckily the trees had slowed down her fall and she had no broken bones. Nevertheless, the pain was so strong she was out of breath and unable to hoist herself up.

Still lying down, she glanced around and she felt a chill running down her spine. She was not alone.

Floating pairs of yellow lights were all around her, past the trees. Were they ghosts? Or perhaps the eyes of some monstrous creatures? Regardless of what they were, she felt it… the feeling of a powerless prey about to be devoured by its predators.

The lights came closer: at that point, rationality completely left Yumiko's mind. She did not want to die! She wanted a way, any way to get out of that situation. A thought surfaced in her head on its own. There was a way. Is she desired the strength to overcome that ordeal, it would be granted easily…

She found herself agreeing with the notion before she even realized it.

And that was when the pain came to her. She screamed at the top of her lungs as the pain increased more than she could possibly endured. As agony shook her, Yumiko realized she was not alone: a presence of some sort was inside her, nothing more than raw, pure animal instinct. A true fiend.

The girl screamed again and again, but little by little she took pleasure in the pain she was experiencing. So sweet, so pure! She wanted more! More! Like the past night in Kyoto, Yumiko felt power surging in her. She was getting stronger…stronger…stronger…

Every conscious thought disappeared, leaving only a single sensation behind.


Yumiko's eyes slowly opened as consciousness returned to her. She blinked many times, temporarily blinded by the sun filtering down from the trees, and only then realized she was lying down. Her back, pressed against something, tingled, her feet were unusually cold, and a breeze made her shiver. She stared at her toes, opening and closing them at random, until she eventually noticed.

She was alone, in the woods… and without wearing anything!

Yumiko sprang up with a jolt, groaning as her aching muscles complied with her order. She quickly glanced at her surroundings, fearing anyone would be there and able to see her in that state.

She was in a small clearing, surrounded by trees in all directions. The sun was still low, so it was likely quite early in the morning. There were no signs of human activity nearby, much to her relief: the only sounds were the leaves storming in the breeze and the occasional chirps of birds.

Wondering on how she would end up there, Yumiko's mind went back to the events from a few hours before. Her memories were fuzzy, and she could not figure out what had happened. She remembered being surrounded, and the bloodlust that surged within her… but everything after that was a complete blank. It was however evident how it ended, as she was still alive and there was no trace of her pursuers. Had it been Kyoto all over again?

Yumiko shook her head to clear her thoughts and stood up. Her first priority was to find out were she had ended up, and how to get back to the others, without being seen by anyone in that state. She could even imagine the news headlines if she were found out… She blushed and covered herself with her hands instinctively.

The girl forced herself to think more logically. Staying there and acting all embarrassed would have not improved her situation: in fact, it would increase the risk of being discovered by anyone doing walking around there, and made things much worse. She had to move out now. But in which direction?

Yumiko looked around. There was no clear indication of the path she had taken the night before, nor any landmarks she could use to get close to the mountain road she was on. At the same time, she felt a strange sense of familiarity when pointing at specific directions: she decided to trust these sensations and took the path where they were the strongest.

As she moved inside the woods, she realized that all her senses had somehow heightened. She was able to notice minute changes in the colors of the barks of trees, spot ants hurrying up and down the trunks, hear the distant sounds of animals, and distinguish many different scents from her surroundings. It was very surprising for her: she had lived in suburban Tokyo all her life, and the times she had gone to the mountains, it had been a completely different experience, very dull compared to what she had been feeling right now. It was extremely pleasant, as if she had been a part of the forest rather than someone merely walking through it.

She went on, following her newly discovered tracking skill and enjoying the sweet sensations from her senses. After a while, a different yet somehow complementary feeling surfaced in her mind. It was a longing for freedom… an instinctive, feral freedom. Although it had a striking resemblance to what she had experienced in Kyoto first and then during the previous night, it had changed in some way: no longer a completely alien presence, it was almost like a part of her while still being separate from her soul, no different than clothes worn over one's body.

The more she walked, the stronger it got. At first it was just a a titter. Then it became a roar. Then a scream piercing her very existence. Yumiko fell to her knees as that dark stream almost overwhelmed her conscience. She was feeling sick and feverish. Her stomach turned upside down and she barely resisted the urge of throwing up. She stared at the ground, counting the pine needles in the hope the ordeal would pass.

But it did not pass. In fact it worsened. She was not sure anymore if what she was thinking was her own, or a product of that extracosmic presence. The barrier between the sweetness and that raw anger blurred until they become one and the same. It was no longer painful, it was almost enjoyable.

Yumiko unconsciously smiled. Just a little more&hellip: Just a little more and she'd be totally free!

"Yumiko! Are you all right?"

A familiar voice brought rationality back to the girl. Breathing heavily, she was able to raise her head and look in front of her. She was overjoyed when she realized that the call had come from Satsuki.

"I'm so happy that you are here…" she muttered.

"The feeling is mutual," Satsuki replied, "I almost thought I'd not find you."

Yumiko got back on her feet. "How did you find me?"

The woman glanced at Yumiko's naked figure. "It has to do with what happened to you. Since last night, you left some kind of unseen traces that I've been following."

"Yes, it happened again…" Yumiko said in a low voice, unable to contain her embarrassment.

Satsuki took off a shoulder bag she was carrying and gave it to Yumiko. "I brought some clothes for you from your baggage."

Yumiko bowed deeply. "Thank you very much! I don't know what I'd have done if anyone would have seen me…"

"Luckily for you, this isn't a very popular spot," Satsuki remarked with a chuckle, "anyway… While you dress, can you tell me exactly what happened after you were blown away?"

Yumiko told Satsuki about how she had been surrounded by things bent on killing her and how her desperate plea for survival was answered by the fiendish presence in her mind, and how she submitted to the unrelenting bloodlust that flooded her thoughts. The woman did not say anything and just nodded as the girl continued with her explanation.

"I don't remember anything else hellip; just bloodlust. Then I woke up as you see me, and I tried to get back to you. That presence came back and I almost gave in again if it weren't for you," she concluded.

"I see." Satsuki put a finger on her lips as she sorted out her thoughts. "I guess that existence you had a Contact with has gone berserk. Like a child, it has no idea of its limits and does things at a whim. While in this specific case it saved your life, I'm afraid it might get worse if left unattended. We have to get it under control somehow."

"And how…" Yumiko clenched her fists in fear. "How can you do that?"

"That is what we have to talk about in Tokyo. My guess is either by restraining it, or by making your mind strong enough to resist its assaults. Either way, do not despair: the Guardians have dealt with much worse cases than this and can surely help you out."

Yumiko bowed again. "I know I've thanked you so many times… but thank you again for taking care of me!"

Satsuki smiled. "Part of my duty, I suppose."

"Satsuki…" Yumiko raised a hand. "I've been meaning to ask you, what happened to you all? Are you all right?"

"Yes, we're all right. After you got separated from us, those bird-like things lost interest in us and they all focused on where you fell. I and Jim took the opportunity to strike, and we were lucky enough to take down the one with the fan. The rest flew away in disarray. I don't think they'll be a threat for us for a while, at least."

Yumiko let out a sigh of relief. "I'm glad everyone is safe."

"I'm guessing you're dying to get back to your friends. Let's move out once you are done."

Once the girl had finished dressing, Satsuki led her through the forest to a path normally used by hikers, and from there to the ryokan Jim had mentioned when they set out. Yumiko couldn't prevent herself from crying when she was finally reunited with her friends, and so were both Sayuki and Michiru. Once they all calmed down, Jim and Satsuki led the three girls to their car and her journey to Tokyo continued.

Yumiko watched the ryokan behind them becoming smaller and smaller, until it disappeared completely. Her thoughts went back to what had happened in the past days. Her whole life had been turned upside down, and even her views on the nature of the universe had changed forever, like the kannushi had forewarned in his message. On top of that, that fiendish presence haunted her mind and always threatened to take control of her.

Would she ever be able to get back to her normal, peaceful days? She did not know the answer. And no one else did, either.

From the window, Yumiko, Michiru and Sayuki watched the landscape as the train they were in moved from the densely urbanized area of Tokyo to the industrial zones of Yokohama and Kawasaki. Only a few days had passed since they had returned home and their normal life had resumed, as if the strange events in Kyoto had never took place, although the news coming from the town kept reminding them that they had been indeed real. Then, that very morning a message from Satsuki informed them that they had been summoned to the headquarters of the Guardians of the Dawn along with instructions on how to reach them.

When the three got off at the Bentenbashi station in Yokohama, they couldn't help but feeling puzzled. Did the supposed protectors of mankind really choose such an underwhelming area for their operations? Most of the buildings were short, decade-old warehouses or factories with their unmistakable chimneys. Large industrial areas were visible further ahead towards the Tokyo Bay. Almost the entirety of the traffic was made up by trucks and large-scale vehicles.

Despite the initial disorientation, the girls were able to eventually find the building they were looking for. The whole area had been inconspicuous, but the edifice in front of them brought the definition to a whole new level. A narrow courtyard delimited by a low concrete wall led to a featureless, roughly cubical construction, whose dark walls were intervals of cement and square-shaped windows. There were no signs, except for a small plaque at the front gate that said Kawasaki-Yokohama United Footwear Manufacturing.

The entrance was as disappointing as the rest. A makeshift reception had been arranged with cheap-looking glass desk on the opposite side as the entrance, where a middle-aged receptionist said next to a security guard. The sound of machinery was all around.

Once Yumiko, Michiru and Sayuki announced themselves, the woman at the desk nodded vigorously, had them sign some papers and instructed the lone guard to bring them to John Masefield's office. He led them through the corridors until they reached an inconspicuous looking door with a sign with the writing John Masefield - head of operations on it. The guard briefly knocked.

"Come on in," said a voice from inside.

The man pointed at the office and bowed before walking away. Hesitating, Yumiko took a hold of the handle. What else could they expect there? Muttering "oh, well" under her breath, she opened the door.

The moment the girls stepped in, they immediately felt more at ease: the familiar faces of Satsuki and Jim greeted them with a smile. Next to them, a rather tall man clad in an expensive business suit was standing in front of a fine wooden desk. He seemed in his fifties, with a short beard, and his blonde hair showing many grey streaks. He was quite thin, up to the point of looking fragile, but his green eyes burnt with determination. He supported himself with a long cane and walked with difficulty.

"Welcome to the Guardians of the Dawn. I am John Masefield, the current head of the organization," he announced with a little too solemnly, with a very thick English accent.

Michiru bowed deeply and spoke formally. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

"He… Hello?" Sayuki stuttered with a broken English.

"Thanks for having us," Yumiko said, concluding the round of greetings.

The middle-aged man smiled. "Oh, please don't be too formal, I'm not that old. Please take a seat."

There were three empty chairs next to the desk, and the girls promptly sat down. They stayed there without speaking, feeling somewhat awkward. Yumiko glanced in all directions, noticing that the furniture was somewhat out of place for a factory: old books and pieces of parchment were lined up neatly on shelves, and odd shaped items with no clear function were hanging on the walls.

Jim noticed her inquisitive stares. "It's always like this the first time. He likes to collect… things."

"Indeed," Masefield himself remarked, "When you deal with the unseen, you come in contact with many fascinating things."

Sayuki raised a hand. "Pardon the question, but is this… truly the headquarters of the Guardians of the Dawn? To me it's just a boring factory in the middle of nowhere."

Michiru gave her a cold stare. "You could have put it more politely."

"But it's true, isn't it? I mean, that's so unlike what you read in books or see on TV! Usually they are either in deep dungeons or in very tall skyscrapers."

"I can't deny that…" Michiru looked away from her friend and lowered her voice. "I was kind of expecting that, too."

Even Yumiko was in agreement. "I was expecting something special as well, but I guess expectations are far different from reality," she commented, trying to be as polite as possible.

At that point Satsuki, Jim and even Masefield broke into a soft laughter. The girls' cheeks quickly turned to crimson at the same time.

"Was what I said that bad?" Sayuki blurted out.

"No, not at all," Satsuki shook her head, "but it's the first time someone points this out this openly."

Masefield coughed and regained his composure. "Nevertheless, you aren't wrong, Fukuda. This is a very run down place, and it's exactly how we want it to be."

"How so?" Yumiko inquired.

"The Guardians of the Dawn has existed for many centuries," the man explained, "and over the course of time, it has made many… enemies, if you know what I mean. Not every one of them is just a mindless drone, some are far more cunning than the average human. Therefore all our operations keep a low profile, to avoid attracting too much unwanted attention, and safeguard both our members and those we want to protect. Of course, that doesn't quite fit the stereotype."

"I see… I didn't look it that way."

"And so many others. That's why, with the addition of some secrecy and the use of certain non natural means, we're able to go on mostly undetected."

The man grimaced all of a sudden and he held his cane firmly. Within the span of seconds, his expression was back to normal, and he limped back to his desk.

Yumiko stared at him, worried. "Are you all right?"

"It's just an old wound." Masefield sat down with difficulties. "I know that I could get it treated, but to me it is a reminder to never let my guard down."

Out of the corner of her eye, Yumiko noticed that Jim had frowned. Had he been involved somehow?

The other man's voice carried her away from that train of thought. "Very well, now that the introductions are done, shall we discuss the actual matter? I am sure those fine girls don't want to be bothered by an old man like me for too long."

Jim took the floor. "Our report has all the details on the situation so far."

Masefield nodded gravely. "Yes, I read it thoroughly." He turned to Yumiko. "I'm deeply sorry for what you had to go through, Hasegawa. How are you feeling now? Do you sense anything abnormal about you?"

"Nothing too bad, Physically I feel fine. I'm not so sure of my mind, though."

"What do you mean?"

"If I'm alone with my thoughts, I sense this… something else in my mind. I'm not sure about what it is exactly: it's a very feral instinct, almost like a crave, always pushing against my will. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be able to resist it. It was like that when I woke up in the woods around Nagano, and if Satsuki had not found me, I have no idea of what would have happened. To be very frank, it's pretty scary. I go to sleep fearing that I might awake somewhere else… and with a body that's not my own."

Yumiko was visibly trembling and her hands were clenched.

"I see. It must be truly tough for you. I am very sorry for this."

"Can something be done about it?" Michiru asked. "I really don't want her to go on like this."

"We can help: if my intuition is correct, we may already have a plan," Masefield said.

Yumiko's mood lightened up. "Really?"

"Yes. I just need a few more pieces of information. Satsuki, you mentioned in the report that your observations indicate that this entity is not inherently evil and more like an uneducated child. Can you elaborate on that?"

"Certainly." The woman took a step forward. "From the available evidence, this entity, which we call the Fiend, has not been in this world for long. If we trust the ancient records, when it was worshiped as a kitsune its presence was fleeting at best. Now it's clearly different: it's like it has been born anew. And, like a child without any guidance, it is acting on a whim. That is why I'm saying it is not inherently evil. It may be just a conjecture, but I think it has no concept of good and evil."

"It is as I expected, then." Masefield tapped his fingers on the desk. "Then, it is definitely possible. Hasegawa, I'm being told you are in an archery… kyudo club. Can you confirm that?"

Surprised by the seemingly random question, Yumiko nodded confusedly. "Yes, since I started high school."

"From what I know, you need to be fairly concentrated when you shoot an arrow."

"Yes, practice is all about control of the body and mind. It matters a lot more than hitting the target." The girl paused, showings signs of doubt. "But… I hope this isn't too impolite to say… I don't see how it is related to my problem."

"On the contrary, it is very relevant. You are already trained in putting yourself under control when using a bow: my idea is to employ the same technique with the Fiend." He paused, noticing disbelieving stares in all the three girls. "It sounds crazy, isn't it?"

"It is very crazy," Sayuki commented, "I don't really see how this is going to work."

"Let me elaborate further," Masefield continued, "I'm not asking Hasegawa to close her eyes and just calm herself. It's not going to work. What I mean following a specific training to keep the Fiend in check: by exherting control on her mind, she will be hopefully able to prevent it from gaining control of her. And she won't do it alone, either. Satsuki here will assist her during this period."

Satsuki's eyes widened in surprise, but a moment later she had already regained her composure. "I understand."

Yumiko turned to her. "Can you really do that, Satsuki?"

"I'm not sure I can say I can… but I have some kind of… experience."

"I'm glad you're up for this task," Masefield said, "Once I set things in motion, it shouldn't take long to set everything up. Hasegawa, would you be willing to start as soon as you're ready? Rest assured we'll do our best to ensure that the disruption of your normal life will be kept at a minimum."

"I'll do anything that might help." The girl nodded.

"Good. Satsuki will contact you when we are ready."

"Mr. Masefield, I have a question." Michiru raised a hand. "You have mentioned controlling this… Fiend. Can Yumiko truly go back to what she once was?"

In response, the man crossed his arms and his face showed doubt. "It's too early to tell."

"What do you mean, too early? Yumiko has already gone through a lot of trouble, you know."

"What he means," Jim interjected, "is that we don't know much about this Fiend. I had people research the tale the kannushi told Yumiko: information isn't exactly abundant, but from the few fragments available, no one who ever performed the kitsune ritual went as far as her. So it's kind of new to everyone."

"And if kept under proper control, it will never harm her in any way," Masefield concluded.

"Sounds very good to me!" Sayuki exclaimed. "Do your best, Yumiko, and keep that thing out of your mind!"

"Let's pray for the best." Although not fully convinced, Michiru forced herself to trust what had heard.

Yumiko stood up and bowed. "Thank you everyone for taking care of me! I'm truly indebted to you. You've done this already so many times…"

Masefield chuckled. "Satsuki told me that you're the type that gives a lot of thanks. I see she was right. But please sit down, there is another matter to discuss."

"Another matter?"

"The Fiend is just one part of the problem. The other is that you have been targeted by the Darkness for a while. And when you were about to leave for Kyoto, the matter quickly escalated with the results we all know."

Yumiko shuddered. She and her friends had just recently attended Yuuchiro's funeral, and all the repressed pain and grief grasped her heart every time she recalled those moments. She sat down again and nodded without a word.

Michiru sent her a compassionate look. "Do you mean that Yumiko is still in danger?" she asked, trying to focus the conversation.

"It's not like the situation has changed since a few days ago," Jim observed, "From what we understand a part of the Darkness is truly in turmoil when it comes to Yumiko. They absolutely hate her for reasons that are eluding us. I mean, there are very few documented cases of them going all out, and usually involved large-scale wars between Ancients. Not a single human."

"Do you mean it has to do with the Fiend, or something?" Sayuki inquired. "Because she has it, they hate her?"

"No, because as you know some incidents occurred before the Contact happened, including right after she was born." He rubbed his chin. "Those guys should really take a holiday!"

"We'd be much happier if they ever did such things," Satsuki intervened, "unfortunately it's not going to happen."

"One can always dream…"

"Let's get back to the topic, shall we?" The woman dismissed the matter with a gesture. "Humor can wait."

"All right. You truly are too serious, Satsuki."

She ignored his remark and went on. "And what happened in Kyoto tells us that whatever grudge these entities have, they aren't willing to take compromises, no matter how many bystanders get involved. For this reason protecting you and also those around you is very important to us."

"Jim and Satsuki will keep watch on you to make sure that not only you are able to go on with your lives as usual without any outside interference, but also to prevent something like Kyoto from happening ever again. The local teams led by agents Shibata and Katsuyuki will be in charge of protecting your families and relatives," Masefield concluded.

Yumiko felt relieved. "Satsuki and Jim have been a great help in the past days: without them I wouldn't know what would have happened." She turned to Satsuki and Jim. "Again, please take care of us."

"As long as that man knows his limits," Michiru muttered, disgruntled, "I'm fine with it."

Jim wasn't taken aback from that statement. Instead, he seemed pleased. "Oh? What about me? Are you afraid, little girl?"

"Why should be afraid of you? I'm just warning you." She pointed a finger at him. "I get that you're doing this to protect us, but… Don't look where you're not supposed to!"

"Didn't I tell you already that you're not my type?"

"That's absolutely not the point!"

Yumiko shook her head in disapproval, and Sayuki folded her arms. "Certain men cannot be saved. Heaven, please show mercy on him."

"I guess someone else found your attitude irritating at last…" Satsuki commented.

"It can't be helped. I can't please everyone." Jim shrugged, his grin still firmly on his face.

"Please don't think ill of him, girls," Masefield added, "he's like this with everyone."

Michiru groaned. "I guess we'll have to live with it."

After that light-hearted note, final arrangements were made and the conversation ended. Satsuki accompanied Yumiko, Sayuki and Michiru to the exit and a few minutes later they were on a train headed home. As they left, the three girls set aside everything about the Guardians, Fiends, and the Darkness and only focused on enjoying what was left of that hot summer day.

They did not know how long it would last.

Close to the eastern side of Shinjuku Station, hidden between the Hanazono jinja and the Shinjuku City Office, Golden Gai was a tiny area made up by six narrow alleys, connected by a network of even smaller passageways. Lots of two-story buildings, not particularly well related to each other, were packed together, each of them showing many signs indicating the entrance to the diverse establishments of the area, mostly bars. Chalkboards and billboards were next to the doors, advertising charges and prices for drinks, along with crates full of bottles. Space for walking was extremely limited, and it was hard for more than two people to pass through these streets. Despite the scarce illumination, coming mostly from the bars themselves and a few overhead streetlamps, the place had a safe and lively feel to it: happy conversations, mixed with cheers and laughs filtered out from the shops.

Noboru Ogiwara walked out of a bar and took a deep breath. So far, that had been a truly enjoyable night. Actually, he had not enjoyed himself that much since he had met that Naoko…

"What's wrong, Noboru? Shouldn't we get going?" a woman's voice said.

Noboru spun round and noticed that Naoko was standing next to him. Although they had been meeting each other regularly for the past days, he had always felt almost overwhelmed by her appearance: long and beautiful black hair, a skin so perfect that almost resembled a doll's, and captivating eyes that possessed far more maturity than her actual age. Aside from mere looks, she had been a witty, funny and intelligent conversation partner. In short, that woman was faultless.

At times, he did not understand how she could have found any interest in someone like him. Appearance was not his forte: while tall by Japanese standards, he was very thin, up to the point of seeming pinched. His tanned skin, a result of many UV sessions, paradoxically further reinforced his apparent frailty. On top of that, he often had his hair dyed with color combinations which many people found bizarre, including his friends. He had been very surprised when Naoko, whom he had met in an izakaya just the week before, showed quite an interest in him. The two found themselves to be in close harmony of ideas, likes and dislikes. It was one of these encounters that just fit right, no matter the reason. And then, they started to hang out together basically every evening. They talked about many different topics, but in particular the woman had a great interest in the town and its landmarks, as she had always new questions to ask him.

Despite the physical and intellectual attraction he had for the woman, Noboru did not have any plans for a long lasting relationship: he just wanted to make the most of it in the shortest time possible. And such an opportunity had eventually arrived that night, when Naoko had offered him to spend the night in her apartment.

"Sorry, I just spaced out for a second," he replied to his partner, "Let's go."

The two took one of the last trains of the day from the busy Shinjuku Station towards one of the many suburban areas sprawled around Tokyo. About an hour later, they got off and walked out of the station. In sheer contrast to the the bustling activity of the city centers of Tokyo, the area was very quiet. Most of the lights at the windows of the many residential buildings were already turned off and there was almost no real human activity, with the exception of occasional passerby and people going in and out of the always-open conbini.

Naoko led Noboru to the last floor of a five-story condominium, where her flat was. She opened its plain-looking metal door and gestured for Noboru to get in.

"Sorry for the intrusion," the man muttered almost ritually as he walked inside.

He was greeted by an almost pitch-black darkness: all the lights had been switched off and the windows had blinds on. While he blindly moved his hands to find a way to turn the illumination on, he couldn't help but feeling the floor under his feet to be strangely uneven and bumpy. Perhaps it had not been cleaned properly, or he had accidentally walked over something that fell on the ground. Eventually his fingers found a switch and he turned it on.

Noboru immediately wished he had not done so. The studio apartment was a sight of horror and folly: almost empty save for essential furniture, it was completely covered by sticky, thick white filaments. More than a place to live, it resembled the lair of a giant spider. However, even that truly terrifying sight paled in comparison to what was on the ceiling. There were many skinny figures hanging there, bent in contorted and unnatural poses. At first they appeared to be life-sized dolls, but a second glance immediately revealed their true nature: human corpses. All of them were no more than a layer of brown wizened skin over very visible skin, and had two large holes, probably a wound, on the left side of their necks.

Noboru screamed in terror. In what kind of hell had he been thrown into?

"That's too bad. You already noticed," Naoko said. The voice was the one he was used to, but the tone had a strange buzzing sound, as if she had been speaking through some sort of synthesizer.

The man spun round and he yelled even louder than before. Naoko's face was no longer the one he longed to look at. Ruby-like multifaceted globes, similar to the ones of an insect, stood where her eyes had been. Two large mandibles, constantly snapping, emerged from a slited mouth that was too little to contain them. Liquid like saliva dripped from them, fizzling every time it made contact with the floor.

That unholy vision reminded Noboru of the stories he had been told by his late grandmother, about ancient spiders that took form of beautiful women and lured young men to prey on them… the jorogumo. At the time he had just thought they were just a bunch of fairy tales to scare children off… and now he was in front of one in the flesh! Only the heavens knew what would happen to him should he get caught.

Escaping was impossible: the woman was right between him and the way out.

Naoko cackled. "You are the last one… will you stay put and die like you are supposed to be?"

Even if Noboru had never been particularly courageous, his self-preservation instinct gained the upper hand. If he had some kind of weapon, perhaps he would be able to escape! He rushed to the kitchen and frantically slammed open all the drawers he came across. Eventually he found what he had been looking for: a cutting knife with a long and sharp blade. He wielded it with both hands and he rushed to Naoko, who had not moved yet. Using all the strength he could muster, Noboru dug the knife deep in the woman's flesh in a point where a human heart was supposed to be. The mandibles of the jorogumo twisted in a grotesque grimace.

The exhilarating sense of victory was the last thing Noboru ever felt. Naoko's jaws closed on his neck with a snap. Shaken by convulsions, his body underwent a monstrous metamorphosis: his skin sagged and dried up, hair fell off his head, and his arms and legs became bony. Now an incredibly senile semblance of a man, he wavered then crumbled into dust.

The jorogumo cackled again. This last victim had been a little tougher than she had expected, but not enough to make a dent in the plan. Finally she would be able to avenge the humiliation she had to endure when she had attempted to assassinate that cursed girl! Her mandibles snapped repeatedly in frustration and she forced herself to calm down. After all, there was no need to worry. By sapping the life force of these foolish men all too eager for a one night stand, she had enough strength to carry out what she had intended to do. She just needed a little more time for the final preparations. Then, that annoying pest would understand the true meaning of terror and despair! She would make her beg for death under all forms of torture!

Naoko moved to the center of the room, kicking away whatever was left of Noboru. It was time to start the ritual. And when the borders between worlds would thin out… She laughed out loud.

Her laughter turned to a chant. All the lights in the room turned off, leaving only her ruby eyes glittering the darkness.

Lying on her bed, Yumiko peeked out of the window of her room. The afternoon was giving way to the evening and the sun had already set behind Tokyo's skyline. Even in a residential area like hers, there were many people walking around, either busy with work or with other matters, while the occasional car passed by. Every now and then, she heard the happy cries of children from a nearby playground. Away from the horizon, the pale reddish tint of the sky faded into dark, creating a paradoxical impression of neither day nor night but rather a combination of both. It was just like any ordinary evening.

She sighed: "ordinary" times were few and far between these days. She had spent most of the day at another of the Guardians' undercover locations, disguised as a clinic, to begin her "training" (for lack of any better term) with Satsuki. Like the previous day at their headquarters, reality had been far different from her expectations. The activities had been surprisingly commonplace, consisting of a few routine medical tests and lessons on how to meditate effectively. During one of the sessions, she had been asked to recite some words in a fashion similar to zazen, but the language was completely unknown to her. In the end, Yumiko did not understand the purpose of what she had done. So far, there had been no change at all. She could still sense the Fiend on the boundaries of her mind, feeble but always present. And there was no doubt it would try to take control, given any opportunity.

A buzz drew her away from her thoughts: a new message had just arrived on her cell phone. The sender had an avatar of a stylized yet very cute cat: without any doubt, it was from Michiru.

How did it go?

She typed in quickly a response. A few check-ups and a lot of things I didn't understand.

Did it hurt you?

No, not at all.

What did you actually do?

A few medical exams you'd normally take in a hospital… you know, blood samples, X-rays and similar things. Then a lot of strange meditation, or at least something that looked like it. It was all kind of strange. I am not sure how it's going to help me at all…

The image of a dog with a bandanna around its neck, the avatar used by Sayuki, entered the conversation.

Give it time, she wrote, They said it would take a bit, didn't they?

A flurry of emoji representing angry faces were sent by Michiru. It's funny reading that from you, Miss "always on a hurry".

It's because I have bad time management, not because I want to! And this is a different issue!

Yeah, yeah, sure…

Yumiko sent them an image of a stop sign. No need to argue about this now, you two! She let out a half-repressed chuckle when she read I'm sorry coming from both parties at once.

Anyway, she continued, I didn't want to say that this… training was useless. It was very different than what I had imagined.

Like many of the things we saw recently, Michiru commented.

Speaking of weird things, Sayuki wrote, Take a look at the sky. There's something very odd about it.

Michiru replied with a series of exclamation marks. It's true! Yumiko, take a look!

Yumiko got off her bed and walked to the window. While at first she found nothing out of the ordinary, when she looked at the sky she couldn't help but mutter an explanation of surprise. The pale red of the sunset had changed to a faint violet, which turned to a strong green tint when it touched the horizon. It was a sight that could not exist in nature.

Memories from Kyoto came back to her in a flash. What if that strange sky was a sign of events to come?

She sent words of warning to her friends. I see that too!

Sayuki tried to be optimistic about it. Perhaps it's just a strange natural phenomenon.

If that were true, the news would have already reported it. And at the same time it's too strange to be a coincidence.

You have a point… A giant question mark appeared next to Sayuki's sentence. Then what is it?

I have no idea, Michiru added, I just hope it's not happening again

Let's write to Satsuki and Jim at once, Yumiko suggested.

The girl quickly composed a message for Satsuki and Jim, describing what had happened and asking them to come over at once. Moments after sending it a sudden feeling of nausea and dizziness swept through her, only to disappear as quickly as it had appeared. It was then that she realized that her cell phone had no signal anymore. Caught by an eerie sense of foreboding, she looked outside again.

What she saw actually confirmed her deepest fears: she was not looking at the Tokyo she used to know. The surroundings and the buildings were exactly like before, but there was not a single trace of life. Lights coming from the windows of the nearby houses showed empty rooms, as if their dwellers had vanished all of a sudden. There were no more children in the playing grounds, just empty structures that squeaked with the wind. Driver-less cars stood in the middle of the street, frozen in time. Tokyo had become a graveyard of concrete and steel of gargantuan proportions. Just as when it occurred in Kyoto, something unexplainable was taking place again.

Yumiko felt a lump in her throat. What kinds of unfathomable horrors would come for her this time? She shivered at the thought.

She did not even know if her friends had been caught up or not. The only way to make sure was to try to contact them and tell them to stay on guard. To account for similar problems, Jim had a special application installed on their phones to enable them to communicate even without any access to the cellular network, although with a fairly limited range. The girl quickly typed a message, only to stop with an exclamation of disappointment: she was too far from both. As much as she dreaded doing so, there was no other solution than to get near to either of them. Sayuki lived the closest to her, so Yumiko decided to go there first.

The sound of rustled leaves drew her attention outside. The source of the noise was a tall tree next to her house, a tree that she did not remember being there earlier. It had a thick trunk with many thin and long branches. Most of the foliage was tinted red at the far ends, perhaps due to the heat. Even if there was no wind, its branches swayed as if struck by a breeze. The ground next to it was broken and barren and white bulges sticking out, similar to roots, were all around the plant.

The girl blinked. Somehow the tree was closer than she had thought. Had it moved somehow? Such a thing was impossible, but she had already witnessed phenomena that could not be farther from the natural laws of the world. Her suspect turned to a certainty when she shifted her gaze away from it: when she looked back, it was no longer where it stood earlier. Instead, it had taken root next to the wall that surrounded her house, right in front of her window. Now that it was so near, the shape of one of the pale roots at the base caught her eye. She had never seen a root like that, and in fact she was sure she had seen a similar form somewhere before…

She brought a hand to her mouth when she figured out its true nature. What she thought it was a root was instead a whitened human femur dug into the ground. At the same time, Yumiko noticed that the deep scarlet ends of the leaves were dripping some kind of liquid. On closer inspection it was unmistakably blood.

She took a step backwards, both horrified and disgusted. What was that thing exactly?

As if it had read her mind, the whole tree shook violently and she heard that rustling sound again. It was unlike anything she head experienced before, and very different from the sounds of the woods in Nagano. Aside being louder and coarser, it had a certain rhythmic pattern to it, more similar to speech than noise occurring naturally. It was like a perverted and grotesquely twisted parody of human laughter.

And then two thin branches extended unnaturally and moved on their own, towards the window. Yumiko screamed and threw herself on the floor: she heard many loud thuds coming from the wall next to her. Fortunately, that corrupted tree did not seem able to break through. She did not want to think about what could happen if those tendrils touched her, although these human remains at its feet were a clear sign of the fate of its victims.

Nevertheless, Yumiko found herself in a difficult situation. That plant had shown already that it could move, therefore if she set foot outside she would be at its mercy. Without any form of cover, she would definitely get caught. She was effectively locked inside her own house.

The girl contemplated waiting for Satsuki or Jim to come for her, and soon discarded that strategy. She had no guarantee they would be able to come to her. Staying inside was not a safe strategy on the long term, either. While that creature was too large to come in, she could not rule out the possibility that something else would be able to come at her. And she had still to reach Sayuki and Michiru as soon as possible.

Her eyes frantically scanned the room. There had to be something she could do! Then she noticed her wrapped bow leaning against a wall, and a strategy formed in her mind. It had a certain degree of risk, as she had no backup in case she would get spotted. Still, it was probably the safest option compared to all the other ones at her disposal, and much better than waiting idly for rescue that might not ever come.

Yumiko crawled under the window until she was able to take hold of the bow, and then sneaked next to a wardrobe and took out a quiver along with a chest pad and a single four-fingered glove . Now she had everything she needed: she only needed a good spot to actually carry out her idea. Every now and then she could still hear the branches slamming against the wall, so that tree was only paying attention to where it last saw her. A good advantage for her.

She slowly crept out of her room and in the adjacent corridor. Her destination, her parents' bedroom, was right in front of her. It was the right place for her idea as it had a French window leading to a small balcony. She looked at the door, hesitating. Her parents were not at home when the strange phenomenon had occurred, so she did not expect anything to be there. But what else could be awaiting her?

She shook her head and gathered up her courage. Her trembling hand reached out for the handle and turned it. All her fears were proven wrong as she realized the room was empty and always like she remembered. She sighed in relief and finally stood up.

Now she could actually execute her plan. Yumiko tied her muneate across her shoulder and over her chest, wore the glove on her right hand, and finally unwrapped her bow. It was almost as twice as tall as her, made almost entirely of wood and bamboo. Despite the apparent unwieldiness, the girl was used to it after months of practice and handled it with ease while she checked the grip and the state of the string.

Once she was sure everything was in order, Yumiko pulled out a long arrow from the quiver. Trying to make as less noise as possible, she walked next to the balcony and slid open the window with her foot. She took a peek from the side the wall and saw the tree still bent in lashing out at the wall next to her room. The laughter-like sound had turned to something resembling a frustrated cry as that unnatural plant was unable to make even a dent in the concrete.

Yumiko pulled together her resolve. It was now or never! She silently stepped out on the balcony and turned towards her target. Then her body moved automatically, following a pattern that she had repeated many times when practicing at her club. She moved her body facing her left side at the tree, straightened her back and adjusted her posture, and readied her bow. Taking the string with her right hand and holding the grip with her left, she drew the weapon until the arrow was at the same level as her mouth, pointed right at where the branches divided from the trunk. She hoped to cause enough damage to give her enough time to leave.

The string creaked as it gained full tension, and the noise was enough for the tree to stop pounding on the wall of the house. With a sound of putrid wood breaking up, a bulge appeared on its top. It resembled a completely disproportionate human skull, with a unnaturally small mouth and very large eye sockets that stared emptily at Yumiko. An expression that resembled a grin formed on that abominable face, and all branches trembled with satisfaction.

Yumiko suppressed the disgust and the nausea caused by that sight and focused all her strength on her extended arms. The girl emptied her thoughts and focused only on what was in front of her. Even the Fiend's presence was no more. All that mattered was landing the arrow where she wanted to. Her world was the bow, the nocked arrow, her right and left hands, and her target. Everything else simply did not exist. Her whole reason to live was concentrated in a single, clear thought.

Hanare (release).

The arrow dug right where the throat should have been in a normal human body. The whole plant shrieked as it shook with deep convulsions. The minuscule mouth opened from side to side as a bloody stream flowed out of it. All leaves fell off the branches, turning into dust the moment they touched the ground, and the trunk dried up as cracks formed all over it. With one last jolt, that fiendish tree turned into wood splinters.

Yumiko let go of her bow and fell to her knees, both nauseated and exhausted. The ordeal had taken a heavy toll on both her mind and body. For a while she just stood still, breathing deeply and slowly until she felt she was able to stand again.

She walked back to her room and took stock of the situation. With the abnormal plant out of the way, she was finally able to leave her house and check on her friends. She glanced at her bow, wondering whether it would be useful to bring it with her, but she let go of the idea almost immediately. The weapon was too unwieldy to be used in an agitated situation, and her feat just minutes before had been most due to the circumstances rather than actual skill. Albeit reluctantly, the girl left her gear on her bed and headed downstairs.

When she finally stepped out of her house she discovered that the whole environment had further changed. The sky was now deep violet, partially covered with dark thick clouds similar to smoke. An eerie light, present even if there were no traces of the sun, made even familiar places look strangely sinister. Will-o'-the-wisps briefly came into existence around the intersections, only to disappear a moment later.

Despite all her instincts telling her to stay shut inside, Yumiko forced herself to move forward. Sayuki's home was just a ten minute walk from her place. If she exercised caution, there would be no problems going there.

She had just turned around the corner when she heard the sound of steel grating on the ground coming closer. Panic got hold of the girl: she absolutely did not want to find out the source of that noise! She looked in all directions for a means to escape, and noticed a narrow street going through two rows of short houses with walled fences. She ran there as fast as she could and pushed herself against one of the walls. Her heart was racing and she was in cold sweat. What was going to happen this time? She prayed with all her might that whatever was out there would find her.

Apparently her prayers were unanswered, because the noise grew louder as it neared. Once it was close enough, Yumiko finally saw its cause, and stood motionless, even holding her breath, for it was not a sight pleasant to human eyes. It was not too different from what she had seen in Kyoto: a whitened skeleton, moving on its own as controlled by an unseen puppeteer. Compared to the ones from before, it was twice as tall as a normal person, and even its rusted armor was too large for any human being to wear. It held a giant one-bladed axe with both hands, but apparently the weapon was too heavy to be lifted, and it was just dragged along causing the sound she had heard.

The undead warrior stopped just before the intersection where Yumiko was hiding and its empty eye sockets scanned the surroundings. Its unnatural gaze pointed one, almost fatal, moment in the direction of the girl, then it spun round and went back from where it came, hauling its large axe.

Yumiko sighed in relief. The fact that the creature went away right before she was discovered had been pure luck. She also took it as a a warning not to be too careless: the next time she might not be that fortunate. That meant a change of plans. Instead of going straight away to Sayuki's house, Yumiko decided to use a slightly longer route through a number of side streets instead of using the main roads. While that meant taking more time to reach her friend, it also meant being less in the open and having more chances to hide.

Her mind now set, she walked along the street she had taken to conceal herself. She moved very slowly, her eyes always on the lookout for anything remotely suspicious. Often, she heard sounds like murmured laughter, half-spoken words and slobbering suction which made her freeze in terror: while she could see nothing, she actually perceived a malevolent presence next to her… a presence whose greatest joy was toying with her fears. Around her, the flickering light of the will-o'-the-wisps drew shadows with monstrous and abnormal shapes. It felt like walking in a living hell.

Yumiko came to regret her earlier decision. The giant skeleton might have harmed or killed her, but it was physical menace… far more comforting than what she perceived around her, a potential threat to her very soul.

She reached the other end of the passage and found herself at a T-junction. While she pondered on the correct direction to take, an indistinct form zoomed right in front of her. She blinked: what could it have been this time? All she could distinguish was the contour of a large wheel. Feeling in a knot in her stomach, she hurried forward. It would have been better not to find out.

The girl had made just a few steps then that same figure appeared out of a corner right in front of her. And that was when her blood ran cold: it was nothing more than a scene of horror. It was in fact a wheel, as she had glimpsed earlier, large enough to fit on a cart. Crimson flames engulfed putrid and splintered wood somehow without causing any damage. Yet that was absolutely nothing compared to what was in its center. A severed head, shaven in the way used by Buddhist priests, stood where the hole for an axis should have been.

Its vitreous eyes glared at Yumiko. "It is time for you to pay for your sins, young girl," it said in an old-fashioned Japanese.

Yumiko did not pay attention to those words. She moved out of instinct and fled in the direction opposite to that living abomination. The wheel-monk broke into an inhuman laughter as it chased her.

Yumiko was well aware of she was at a disadvantage. No matter how fast she ran, her pursuer was quickly closing the gap with her. The best she could do finding a place too narrow for it to go through, and in the mean time avoid going on a straight line for too long. She followed a zig-zag pattern, turning at random corners without any care for her actual bearing. But no matter what she did, that creature was always able to catch up.

The girl was at her limit. Her legs were in pain and she was running short of breath. At the current rate, getting caught was just a matter of time. She had to find a place to hide quickly.

She heard a rumble ahead, and when she looked, her spirits sank to a new low. Another wheel-monk had emerged from a junction before her and moved itself to barricade the road. A look behind confirmed that the other was still on her heels and getting closer by the second. She was effectively caught between two fires.

It was hard not to give in to despair. If she had slowed down, she would have been at the mercy of the creature pursuing her, but on the other hand there was no way she could safely avoid the one in front. While searching for a way to escape that pincer attack, Yumiko noticed a gate to a nearby house close further ahead, although dangerously close to the monster out front. It was large enough for her to pass, but too narrow for them to go through, and at least would have given her some precious time. As she was out of other options, she gathered all the strength she could muster and sprinted in that direction.

The wheel-monk in front smiled cruelly as she drew near and it quickly rolled sideways to obstruct her only means to escape. Yumiko was too close to change course: she prepared to threw herself forward, hoping to move past the creature unscathed.

A high-pitched scream made her reconsider her decision. The ground had warped as if it were liquid, forming a long spike that had pierced the wheel-monk's head from side to side. Its ghastly face contracted spasmodically while the mystic fire around the wheel turned into a real, crackling flame, and burned through wood and flesh until only charred remains were left. Confused by that sudden turn of events but determined not to lose that advantage, Yumiko crossed the gate and rolled behind a wall to catch her breath. At least it was safe enough for her to rest a bit.

She cautiously took a peek outside, only to notice that the other creature had been equally stricken by what had happened. It had stopped its chase and it was just glancing suspiciously left and right as much as its strange body allowed it to. Eventually its dead eyes focused on a tree standing tree in a courtyard of a nearby house, not too far from where Yumiko was.

"I see, it was your doing!" the wheel-monk shouted, "May you be forever cursed!"

It grinned malevolently and flames erupted from its mouth, setting the whole tree ablaze in an instant. However, confidence disappeared from its face when it realized that no one was amidst those now charred branches. And yet, it had felt the presence of someone there. Was it some kind of trick, or even a trap? The monster looked around suspiciously for signs of an incoming threat.

Its suspicions ultimately proved true when it heard a voice coming from behind. "Sorry, wrong target."

Yumiko saw a woman jumping down a wall and her spirits soared as she recognized a familiar face. She wouldn't have expected a better outcome: it was her best ally in such a situation… Satsuki.

"What value would your curse have, wa nyudo?" Satsuki continued as she walked towards the creature. "You are the one cursed in the first place. Or am I mistaken?"

The giant wheel turned towards her. "The true nature of those who walk the other world is of no concern to you, woman. I have but one task: extinguish the sinners. And that girl is the most sinful of them all! It is only natural that she deserves death. Only a fool would interfere!"

The woman let out an ironic chuckle. "Yes, and you all are the supreme fools for trying to meddle in her life!"

"Enough with the insolence…" The sound of a gunshot silenced the wa nyudo's words. With a large hole in its forehead, the wheel-monk fell sideways and was consumed by its own flame.

"You truly were stupid," Satsuki commented as she put her gun back in the holster, "Had you paid some more attention to what I was doing instead of talking all high and mighty, you would have avoided this embarrassing conclusion."

She made a gesture in the direction of Yumiko. "You can come out now, it's safe."

The girl rushed to the woman's side. "I'm so glad that you are here!" she cried out, "I really thought I was done for this time."

"I was lucky enough to find you in time. Are you all right?"

"Yes, just a few scratches here and there, but I'm fine." Yumiko paused a moment. "Say, Satsuki… do you know what happened to Tokyo?"

Satsuki shook her head. "I'd be lying if I told you I knew. I can only make conjectures, and the only explanation I can come up is that we're not in Tokyo, just in some place that looks like it."

"How come? Is such a thing even possible?"

"Don't ask me too much," Satsuki replied with a smile on her face, "I'm just speculating."

Yumiko looked away from her, embarrassed. "Sorry, I guess I just got too carried away…" She faked a cough as she tried to keep the conversation on track. "Anyway, how did you manage to find me?"

"I was in the area since after your training session was over. You see, the Guardians have their ways to gather information on what the entities of the Darkness are doing, kind like an intelligence agency. Today I and Jim had received reports of strange activity. Jim was out investigating the whole day, and I joined him after we were done. However, most of the leads we had brought us to nothing. There were no phenomena related to the Darkness."

"So, your intelligence was wrong?"

"At first, I thought so too. But after four or five unsuccessful field investigations in a row, we started getting suspicious. There were too many wrong information to be just chance. I am guessing that somehow whoever is after you found out about what we were doing and deliberately fabricated evidence. In other words, we were given false clues."

Yumiko was shocked. "How could this happen? And why?"

"Do you remember what Masefield told you a few days ago? Not all creatures of the Darkness are brutes. Some are truly masterminds… in their own twisted ways. I guess we will need to be more careful from now on.

As for the reason for this, perhaps it was just a way to drive us away from what was about to happen here. We wanted to contact headquarters when we saw your message. We had barely the time to read it: we felt very dizzy, and when we came to, we found ourselves in this ghost town. We realized you three would be in danger, so I and Jim split up. He went to check on Sayuki and Michiru, while I had to look out for you. But when I arrived at your house, you were not there. It took me a while to locate your presence, and even more to get you without getting noticed by all these things out here."

"Do you know anything about Sayuki and Michiru?" Yumiko asked worriedly.

"My last contact with Jim was a while ago. He said he had almost reached Sayuki's house. Unfortunately to recover you I went out of comms range, so that's all I know for now."

"I hope they're all right."

"I'm sure they are. Jim took care of their safety before, don't you remember? In any case, the plan is to meet up with him now…"

The clink of metal interrupted the conversation. Many armored skeletons, identical to the one Yumiko had seen earlier, emerged from all intersections holding their massive axes above their heads, ready to be brought down on whoever came in range. They formed a semicircle around Satsuki and Yumiko and slowly advanced towards them.

"Or so that's what I'd like to say," the woman remarked. "We have to deal with this problem first."

Yumiko was shivering with tension. She gripped Satsuki's shoulder firmly in an attempt to keep herself under control. The situation was desperate: they had been surrounded and even if Satsuki had been capable of incredible feats, Yumiko was not sure she would be able to keep up with those creatures.

"What should we do, Satsuki?" she said. "Will you you able to deal with them?"

Satsuki's response did not leave much to interpretation. "As much as it pains me to say this, no. At least, not with this many while I need to look out for you at the same time. We have to retreat as fast as possible."

"Can… we really do that? There's no way out for us now."

"Of course we can! If there's no way out… I'll simply create a new one."

Satsuki drew a stone from a pouch in her belt. It was a perfectly smooth oval similar to a giant pearl with an unusual shape. The woman weighed briefly in the palm of her hand and then she threw it against the closest surrounding wall. As soon as it made contact, the concrete cracked and crumbled down in a cloud of dust.

"Now! Let's hurry!" she shouted.

Yumiko had already dashed ahead before she could finish her sentence, and the woman followed suit. They passed through that makeshift entrance into a nearby courtyard and then they were back in the street, outside of that deadly encirclement. The undead behind them attempted a pursuit but they were hampered by the weight of their own axes: their movement speed was less than half of their two targets, and they were hopelessly outrun. Nevertheless, Yumiko and Satsuki continued their run until they were sure they had put enough distance between them and their assailants. They stopped at a crossroads to catch their breath and take stock of the situation.

"That was incredible, Satsuki!" Yumiko exclaimed, panting.

"It's a useful trick when you're cornered," the woman replied, "But I won't be able to do it again. I only had one stone like that."

"That's too bad. In any case it saved both our lives, so… Thanks!"

Satsuki did not share her enthusiasm. "It's still early for thanks. We need first to catch up with Jim and your friends, and then find a way to get out of this area."

"Do you know where exactly we are?" Yumiko looked around. "I'm afraid I lost my way with all that running."

"Judging by the surroundings, we're a little closer than before, but still far. Getting there will take at least twenty minutes, if we exercise caution like we should."

Yumiko brought a hand to her mouth in amazement. "How can you tell this easily? I've been living in this area since I was little and sometimes I still get lost…"

"Yes, I know this place extremely well.… As for the reason, I can tell after we deal with yet another problem."

"What's going on? Are there more… things coming this way?"

Satsuki pointed at a street to their left. "No, it looks like it's someone entirely different from before. Either way, I doubt they're going to be friendly."

On the other side, a lone figure was walking in their direction. It looked like a woman with waist-long black hair, wearing an elaborately decorated and brightly-colored kimono. There was something unusual about her movement and posture, but the distance prevented figuring out the cause. Only when she was nearer many unusual details became clearer. The sharp nails, as long as her forearms, which almost scraped against the asphalt. The two insect-like, multifaceted ruby eyes on her face. Two mandibles protruding where her mouth should have been. It was not a human being.

She stopped a few steps away from the two. She seemed strangely familiar to Yumiko: had she met her somewhere before?

"We meet again, Yumiko Hasegawa," the black-haired woman said, almost reading her thoughts. "Are you ready to partake in this dance with Death?"

How could this ever happen?

Michiru knew already that there was no answer to such a question. Nevertheless, it was a perfectly natural question to ask. Even more so considering the chain of events that brought her there. But even if she knew the response, it would not be of any help.

Her arms trembled uncontrollably and her heart was racing. There, in the basement her father had set up as a workshop, a thought-numbing fear had been her only companion, threatening to devour whatever was left of her rationality and throw her into a panic. Even the room, which had been always familiar to her, exuded an unsettling, almost malignant, aura under that eerie light. The tools lined up in shelves on the walls looked like instruments of torture; a half-completed wooden box lying in a corner strangely resembled a casket; and a saw, a drill and a vise on the workbench next to her reminded her of a dissection table ready to accept a new corpse.

She recalled how she had been forced to take refuge there. When Sayuki had told her and Yumiko about the strange appearance of the sky, she voiced her own fears, and like a self-fulfilling prophecy they became true mere seconds later. Michiru felt a strong but brief nausea, and afterwards everything had changed. Everyone just disappeared all of a sudden, including her own parents. They vanished like they had never existed in the first place, making the conversation she had with them a few minutes earlier almost an illusion.

Obviously alarmed by what had been happening, Michiru attempted to contact her friends, but she realized she was too far from them to communicate with whatever the Guardians had given them. Very worried about their well-being, she rushed out of the front door and was about to leave when a noise resembling a groan of suffering made her jump back in fright. Was some unspeakable being coming after her? She stuck her head out of the front gate and glanced around. Much to her relief, there were no abominations around, just a meowing grey cat sitting in the middle of the street. As far as Michiru knew, it was not from her close neighbors, because they did not have pets. Did it get lost, perhaps?

The girl loved cats and normally she would have seen that it would get back to whoever owned it. However, given the circumstances she had little to no time to spend idly: she had to contact Yumiko and Sayuki. She decided to pet it just to calm it down, then she would leave.

She knelt in front of it. "Are you lost, kitty?" she said, "I'm sorry I can't help you right now."

Michiru stretched a hand out to caress it on the head, but its reaction was not what she had expected. The cat responded with a loud and angry hiss lowering its ears and arching its body in a display of extreme anger. Surprised and scared, she instinctively took a step back.

The animal kept on hissing louder and louder, its eyes fixed on the girl and piercing her. While they were physically no different from ordinary pets, they radiated a feral aura and a deep murderous intent, strong enough to make even the wildest beast cower in fear like a frightened dog. At the same time, the cat's body started changing at an alarming rate. At first it started standing on its hind legs, like a human; its body rapidly grew in size until it was as large as a stout man; the asphalt under its legs cracked and broke when claws as large as a lion's emerged from its paws.

What stood there was no longer a common pet, but rather a creature born out of the deepest recesses of human nightmares. As blue flames sparked around its limbs, it licked its lips in anticipation of its next meal.

However, Michiru had not stood idly awaiting her fate. As soon as she had seen that strange metamorphosis taking place, she had hurriedly come back to her house and had closed the door behind her. A single jump was enough for her assailant to reach the entrance. No matter how stout-looking it looked, it proved to be an extraordinarily weak form of defense: two quick movements of the monster's claws were more than enough to break it down. With a grunt, the cat-like creature stepped in, sniffing the air as it tried to track the girl's scent.

A long and loud meow of satisfaction indicated that it had been successful. It walked up to a corridor and snarled as it noticed Michiru's feet sticking out next to a tall closet.

In desperation, Michiru pushed against the piece of furniture with all her strength. Fortunately for her it was almost empty, so it moved easily, tipped on one side, and fell down on the "cat". The flames around its body quickly consumed the cabinet before it actually reached its intended target, but that was enough to buy precious time for Michiru: she took the opportunity to run to the workshop in the basement and barricaded the entry.

A loud thump made brought her back to the present. The door on the other side of the room where she had shut herself in was wavering, despite the makeshift reinforcements she had hastily set up. She wondered how much it would resist under the constant assault of that monster. It was likely only a matter of time before it would give in and when that happened, it would be over. There were no other means of escape.

She shook her head vigorously, trying to contain her fears. As long as she was still alive, it was too early to give up. At the very least she hoped to find a chance to get out of that situation. She thought about using some of the tools there as a weapon, but dismissed the idea. Winning by brawl was no option, because that creature was immensely quicker and more powerful than her, with a guaranteed suicide as the only outcome. If she wanted to survive the confrontation alive, she had to rely on wit.

She looked through the shelves in search of something useful. Her attention was caught by a tall can of cleaning spray, which had flammable warnings printed all over it. She took it in one hand, deep in thought. Perhaps…

The door bent and crashed down in a shower of splinters and metal, and the unearthly fiend finally stepped inside the workshop. It howled when it realized that its prey was right ahead. Not wanting to give her any further chance of surviving, it leapt forward and landed just a few steps ahead of her.

Screaming, Michiru threw the can she was holding and took cover under the workbench. It was a clumsy and imprecise movement, barely enough to hurl the object in its indirect direction. The beast hissed in contempt at that futile attempt of resistance and easily parried the attack with one of its paws.

When that happened, the can welled up and exploded with a loud bang as the gas it contained reacted to the heat of the creature's unnatural flames, which set it ablaze instants later. Unlike the creature's own, which could be controlled by mere will, that natural fire could not be put out that easily. It burned and charred the cat's fur and flesh while it writhed on the floor, yelling in pain.

Michiru peeked out of her hiding place. Had her desperate attempt truly worked out? Was she finally safe now?

Her hopes were shattered when the creature got back on its feet with a superhuman effort. Even though most of the fire had died out, terrible burns were all over through its body, one of its arms lay limp at its side, and the left eye would not see anything anymore. Despite these wounds an unnatural vitality still beat inside its tortured chest. It would have not allowed itself to die without slaying its prey first.

Terrified, Michiru crawled back while the cat limped in her direction. Her attempts to escape were soon cut off as her shoulders hit a wall. She had been lured in a corner, and there were no other ways out. She yelled hysterically. Would she really die?

The monster rose its claws for the blow would seal her fate forever. A loud crack sounded across the room and it froze, trembling. Blood flowed out of its mouth and from its neck, and it crumpled on the floor, finally dead.

Sayuki stood behind the now fallen corpse, holding an heavy-looking hammer with both hands. She was breathing heavily, her hair was ruffled, and blood trickled down an injury on her left arm.

"It's over," she said as she dropped the weapon, "You can be at ease now."

"Sayuki!" Michiru shouted as she jumped into her friend's arms. "Thank you, thank you, thank you! I was so afraid I would not make it… I swear I'm not going to argue with you anymore!"

"Somehow I don't think you'll be able to keep that promise… But before that, would you avoid hugging me this hard? It hurts!"

Embarrassed, Michiru took a step back and regained her composure. Only then noticed the wound on Sayuki's arm.

"That's a bad injury," she pointed out with a hint of worry in her voice, "Does it hurt?"

Sayuki shrugged. "A bit, but luckily it's just superficial. I'm fine."

"Don't lie to me! I know you like to act tough since we were in junior high… You are not the main character of a tokusatsu show: you can't get hit in the chest and stand up like nothing has happened!"

"There goes your promise," Sayuki commented sarcastically.

"It's your fault for being a dummy and not telling the truth!"

"All right, I am sorry," Sayuki added, " I didn't mean to dismiss your worry. But in any case you can trust me. I've hurt myself plenty of times, and this is not that serious. As I said, it does hurt a bit, though."

Acknowledging she had been too aggressive, Michiru looked away from her. "I am sorry too, I'm still shaken by what has happened."

"One apology for each. No problems at all!"

"Indeed," Michiru replied with a smile, "Shall we go upstairs? I can at least do something for your arm, and then let's figure out what to do next."

Michiru led Sayuki out of the workshop. Once they were in the living room, she had her friend lie on a sofa while she looked for something to treat her wound. After a while, she came back with a first aid box.

Even if Sayuki grimaced when Michiru disinfected the injury, it was luckily far less serious than it looked, because it was neither too large nor too deep. Michiru covered it with the largest band-aid she had found, using medical gauze to keep it attached to the arm. It was clearly not a job made by a nurse or a doctor, but good enough to reduce the impact of the problem.

"How are you feeling?" she asked when she had finished.

Sayuki moved her arm in the air for a while and nodded. "Much better, I almost don't feel any pain now. Thanks."

"You're welcome," Michiru briefly smiled, then her expression turned to serious again. "With this settled, can you tell me how did you find me here?"

"There isn't much to explain, honestly. After I couldn't contact you two anymore, I was still thinking on what to do when I heard strange sounds coming from the kitchen… and all the knives were flying in the air… and they had grown eyes! It was very scary. As soon as I stepped inside, they all started tying to stab me. Luckily I was fast enough to avoid becoming a pincushion… but not enough not to get hurt. I ran out of the house as fast as I could, and then I saw that no one was around and the sky had became all weird.

It felt like being in some kind of out-of-this-world light novel… although it wasn't funny at all when you are actually experiencing it. Then I remembered that application Jim had given us, but both you and Yumiko were out of range. I actually wanted to go to her house first, because it's very close to my place, but there were way too many things in the way and I didn't want to risk being discovered, so I decided to come here. I saw the door torn apart and heard a bang: I ran down there just in time to see that cat-like creature walking towards you. It was not paying attention to me at all, so I took a hammer and landed it right on its head."

"I see. So that's how you ended up being in the right place at the right time."

Sayuki put a hand over Michiru's forehead. "Are you sure you're feeling all right? I understand promising not to argue with me, but even praising me now? What are the gods doing today?"

"Forgiving you for your foolish acts, probably. Do you think we have time to fool around, dummy?" Michiru slapped her hand.

"Aha! That's more like the Michiru I know!" Sayuki commented, unfazed by her remark. "But you are right. What do we do now?"

"The only obvious choice: find Yumiko. I'm sure she's worried about us."

"Even if it's just this area, it's still pretty big… If we wander around randomly, we may go on for hours without finding her."

"Let's go to her house first. She may be still around there. Also, if we get close enough we may be able to communicate through our phones."

"Good idea. Shall we go, then?"

Michiru stood up. "Just a moment, I need to get something first."

She walked outside of the living room and returned a couple of minutes later, carrying a small backpack.

Sayuki squinted her eyes. "Do you think it's okay to bring stuff around?"

"In this case, yes. After what happened in the workshop, I thought I'd carry something useful with me."

"The Ichikawa family's ultimate super weapon?"

Michiru puffed. "We're not a ninja clan. You read too many manga!"

"Sorry, couldn't resist!"

"You're a lost case." Michiru groaned. "Let's get moving before something else happens."

She threw the bag on her shoulder and walked outside with Michiru. The environment had changed again from before: brightly colored streaks ran through the sky like cracks in a vase, strange lights as big as a palm flickered, vanished and appeared again in the blink of an eye, and most of the trees and grass around them were dry and withered. More than belonging to one of the largest cities in the world, the area resembled a large wasteland.

"Oi, it's even worse than before," Sayuki commented, "I get the chills just wondering about what will happen now."

"Let's find Yumiko as soon as we can," Michiru said with a hint of urgency in her voice.

While they thought about what direction to take, their attention was drawn by the sound of gunfire coming from around the corner. Their first impulse was to run there, but Michiru suggested to exercise caution: there was no guarantee it would not be some sort trap to lure them in. They cautiously moved forward, and once they were close enough Sayuki glanced on the other side trying not to be seen.

What she saw was the scene of a massacre. Many human heads, apparently cut off from their original bodies, lay scattered on the ground, each of them with one or more large hole in the forehead or the eyes. Their expressions portrayed a large spectrum of negative emotions: hatred, fear, agony, rage… they were so noticeable up to the point of being caricatural. However, the girl did not notice most of these features, because her gaze shifted immediately to the man standing next to that pile: a tall, muscular man with an unkempt beard and a short ponytail with a gun in his hand.

"I have to commend those on the other side for their fantasy," Jim stated dryly, "flying heads were unheard of before today." He pointed at the spot where the two girls were hiding. "You can come out now. Good thing I already dealt with these, because your presence can be sensed by almost anyone."

In response to his call, the two walked up to him. Ever since they had found themselves in that strange environment, they felt truly at ease. Nothing was over yet, but they finally had an ally capable of helping them.

"I'm glad to see you there, Jim!" Sayuki exclaimed enthusiastically.

"I'm very glad to see you two myself," he replied, "It looks like I made it in time, after all. Sorry for not being there sooner: I had… a divergence of opinions with some of the things that are around here and I had to settle those differences. But I can see you are fine."

"We would have been even better if you had arrived earlier," Michiru added, faking annoyance. She was truly happy he had found them as well, but she did not want to show it openly.

"You can always file a complaint and collect your refund later."

Michiru glared at him. "There you go again with your jokes. Can you take this situation seriously? It's a miracle that we're still alive."

"Then, do you mind telling me what happened? My mind-reading abilities are at an all time low today."

The girl's face became red from embarrassment. Sayuki let out an entertained chuckle, ignoring the angry stares from her friend.

"Right…" Michiru pouted. "Here's what happened…"

She told him about their discussion with Yumiko, how Tokyo turned into a ghost town, and about her encounter with the monster cat. Sayuki added her own account of how she had escaped mostly unharmed from her house, and how she had helped Michiru when she had been cornered. Jim listened to their record without saying anything, with only an occasional nod. When they had finished, he rubbed his chin vigorously as he reorganized his ideas.

"I see. I'm impressed you handled the situation so well," he commented, "Are you sure you aren't interested in joining the Guardians? The pay's good, and I can guarantee it's going to be quite exciting."

Sayuki shook her head. "No way! That would mean having to deal with you every day! I'm not ready for this…"

"It is as she says. Working with someone this indecent… unbelievable," Michiru remarked with a sneer.

Jim was dismissed the criticism with a shrug. "Oh well, at least I tried."

"You should have never tried to begin with… But enough of that." With a grumble, Michiru steered back the conversation to the matters at hand. "Jim, do you know what happened to Tokyo?"

"I don't have a clear idea on why the town turned to this. Satsuki speculated that it's not really Tokyo, just a place that looks like it. But of course there's no way to prove that. As you have already seen, no matter its true nature, it's not where I would spend my holidays."

"How did you end up there, and how did you find us?"

"Well… I was around here since this morning, because we had received reports of unusual activity in the area. The problem is… there wasn't anything suspicious. All the clues I had led up to nothing, or perfectly natural phenomena. At some point I even thought that someone was playing pranks on me. But the information were from well trusted sources, so I guess someone anticipated our moves and planted false hints. Later on I joined up with Satsuki and shortly afterwards this… problem broke out. We split up: she went to check on Yumiko, while I looked for you. I went first to Sayuki's house, but she was not there… "

"That was because I had already left," Sayuki confirmed.

"Correct," he continued, "then I decided to check Michiru's place, and you know the rest."

The mention of her friend made Michiru worried. "I wonder if Yumiko is all right."

"She is going to be okay," Jim reassured her, "Satsuki is probably the most reliable person I know. When she has an objective, she always carries it out to completion. I just wish she'd accept my offer for that dinner, though."

"He's right, Michiru," Sayuki said as she put a hand on her shoulder, "Satsuki is truly an amazing person! She'll surely keep Yumiko safe. And… let's ignore the rest of what he said."

"I guess you are right, I should stop over-worrying," the other girl sighed. She turned to Jim again. "I guess explanations are over. What do we do now?"

"First, we will join up with Satsuki", Jim explained, "then we will hopefully figure out how to get out of this place."

He had barely finished the sentence when a distant sound of crumbling concrete startled both Sayuki and Michiru. Jim did not show any signs of surprise, but worry flashed through his eyes.

Michiru held onto Sayuki's arm. "What was that?"

"It's like a wall went down or something," Sayuki observed, "I wonder what happened…"

Jim had little doubts on what the cause was. "I'm sure it has to do with Satsuki… And it doesn't look like anything pleasant."

"Does that mean that Yumiko is in danger?" Michiru wondered.

"There's no way to tell unless we check it out directly. It can be dangerous, so don't feel forced to follow me. You can hide somewhere and wait, if you want. I can make sure you are not found, you know, with that trick."

Michiru had already made up her mind. "We've been helping each other for a very long time, so we will not leave Yumiko behind," she argued, "Scary or not, we'll follow through until the end."

Sayuki had reached the same conclusion. "I gave a hand to Michiru when she needed it. Why would Yumiko be different?"

A large grin showed up on Jim's face. "You're either incredibly reckless… or very courageous. I like that. The matter is settled: let's hurry there!"

The jorogumo waved her unnaturally long nails in front of Satsuki and Yumiko while uttering a satisfied cackle. "Not that it matters. Ready or not, you will dance… and meet your demise, as it was foretold. And at last, the will of my Lord will be fulfilled!"

No matter the situation she was in, Yumiko felt frustration welling up in her. Something alien in the universe wanted her dead, without any qualms about involving other people and even entire cities. On top of that, there was absolutely no reason for it, or nothing that she could comprehend. How could a young girl like her matter in some extracosmic dispute? More than that, all of she had gone through seemed to have happened on a whim of these all-powerful beings.

"Why?" she shouted. "Why do you want me dead this much? I don't understand!"

"Do you think you truly deserve an answer? Foolish girl," the creature sneered, "You don't need to understand. You don't need to know why. All that matters is that my Lord desires your death. And that will happen now."

Satsuki pointed her gun at the other woman. "Not on my watch."

She fired a series of shots in succession. Her opponent opened her mandibles and a white, thick web shot out of them. It wrapped around the bullets while they were still in flight and made them drop on the ground harmlessly. Satsuki opened fire again, but even in this case her attack was unsuccessful: the jorogumo deflected the projectiles away with her long claws and immediately retaliated with a slash. Caught unprepared by the speed of that assault, Satsuki barely managed to jump backwards, and these sharp nails whistled right in front of her face. She tried to keep some distance between herself and the creature, but the jorogumo was far more agile than she had expected and kept closing the gap while continuously lashing at her. The two were locked in a cat and mouse game with Satsuki being clearly on the losing side, only focused on keeping herself alive.

The woman cursed under her breath. That spider-woman was clearly tougher than what she had faced before. Fighting at close distance might have turned the tables in her favor, but it was far too risky without knowing what that entity was capable of. On top of that she had always to keep in mind that the target of her adversary was Yumiko and that she would go after her at every opportunity. Using a technique like she did at the Chinno-ji was not possible either, due to the time needed to recite the incantation. She would get easily crushed before completing it.

At a distance, Yumiko watched the struggles of her protector against that being from another world. It was the first time she had seen Satsuki in trouble. Up to then she unknowingly believed her to be all-powerful, but the events called that belief into question. It was truly chilling: if by any reason Satsuki fell, she would be next. And all she could do was watch, watch until her demise came. She fought against that desperation as much as she could. She did not want to die! She wanted a chance, even one chance to steer her course away from that fate.

The girl stopped halfway in her thoughts. She had a chance! The Fiend was still there in her mind, eager to emerge from the depths she had confined it to. Maybe, just maybe, if she…

Before she could put her idea into practice, a stern warning come from Satsuki. "I know what you want to do. It won't be necessary."

Yumiko stood still, confused. Why had Satsuki refused an easy way out of that state of affairs? Did she truly believe she would win?

"As for the reason," Satsuki went on while keeping her attention on the jorogumo, "I'll show you now."

She yelled. It was a single word that had no resemblance to the human language. It was rather similar to the sound of wood that had just snapped, and sounded like an order of some sort. In response to that command all the trees from the courtyards around them started swaying left and right while simultaneously their branches grew in length and moved in the direction of the jorogumo. Before the woman could avoid them, they wrapped around her monstrous body like ropes, preventing any movement. Despite their frail-looking appearance, they defied every attempt of the creature to break free, no matter how much she wiggled.

Satsuki gestured at Yumiko. "We'd better take this chance quickly. I'm not sure for how long this diversion will be able to keep her at bay. Follow me!"

She rushed through a random alley with Yumiko quickly coming after her. Behind them, the cold words of the jorogumo echoed behind them.

"You can run away as much as you want… It won't change your fate. You will be found, and you will experience all the exquisite forms of torture that my Lord has thought for you. I will be coming… enjoy your last moments while you still can."

The two followed a seemingly random course, and Yumiko quickly lost her bearing: she did not understand at all what Satsuki was doing. She was picking directions on a whim, sometimes just backtracking through a different route, and she did not show any intention of stopping. Often she would stop, place a hand on a wall, a lamppost, anything that looked like it could support her, then start running again like nothing had happened. The girl started to believe that they were just wasting time running in circles, with no clear way to truly escape. What that monster had said truly frightened her, and she would often glance behind her shoulders to make sure they had not been found. Every time she would sigh in relief when her fears were proven wrong.

About ten minutes later, the two came out from the intricate maze of streets that made up the residential area into a commercial district. Yumiko knew the place very well, because she would sometimes go there for shopping. In contrast to where they were before, the buildings were taller and without fancy decorations: their fronts were often in dull colors with barely noticeable signs which indicated their names or the specific company they hosted. Further ahead, many shops were lined along a shotengai, deserted and with most of their goods in lying in disarray on the ground.

Satsuki pointed to a four-story edifice which carried a large signboard with the name "Hoken Holdings" on it. "Let's take a break there", she proposed, "It should be safe enough."

Yumiko eagerly welcomed that proposal and feebly nodded in response. She had been running almost non stop since she had left her house and she was feeling very tired.

They sat on the steps to the entrance and they stood silent for a while they caught their breath.

"How are you feeling now?" Satsuki asked Yumiko.

Unlike to what she was used to, Yumiko tried not to sugar coat her answer. "Fine is what I'd like to say, but I'm not fine at all. To tell you the truth, I'm both exhausted and scared. I really don't look forward to what will be next in store for us. I almost feel my mind is going to fall apart." She held her head with both hands.

"I can't blame you. I'd be the same in your situation. Especially after our encounter with that… woman."

"I won't deny it, it's her that terrifies me the most. No matter what you tried, she was invincible."

Satsuki wagged her finger. "But she wasn't. Otherwise we wouldn't be here talking about it, would we?"

"For how long?" Yumiko continued with a hint of hysteria in her voice. "I'm sure she'll be back eventually."

"Oh she already tried to track us, that's why we moved randomly. That, and to avoid getting anything blocking our path. I used certain means to check on the surroundings as we were moving. I'm confident that she lost our trail, and that should give us enough time to regroup."

Yumiko gaped. "I didn't know you could do that."

"I just didn't have time to tell you, given the circumstances. Anyway, I'm glad we took a break. Running and doing that at the same time was exhausting."

The girl swallowed deeply. There was something else, beside what she had said, that had been bothering her. Satsuki's refusal to use her power… the power of the Fiend to handle that situation. She was sure the jorogumo would have stood a chance against her. Then why had she avoided the easy way out? She was truly baffled.

Her internal conflict showed up on her face, and Satsuki's expression became serious. "You don't understand why I said what I said, am I correct?"

The girl nodded. "I'm not sure if I should bring this up. But it is as you said. I'm confused to say the least."

"Let's make an example to make it clearer. When you are driving and you suddenly find something or someone in front of you, what would you do?"

"I haven't ever driven, but I guess I'd hit the brakes really hard to stop as early as possible."

"And that most of the time is not the effective solution. You'd make matters worse."

"Why? It doesn't make any sense."

"Because most of the times you'd lose control of your vehicle, and that in turn would lead to unexpected consequences, sometimes even more grave. And that occurs because this is an instinctive act, born out of urgency, or fear. Professional drivers don't ram the brakes, they keep control of how much force they are using, and that keeps them in control even in such situations."

Yumiko bit her lip. "I still don't understand how this is related to what we're talking about."

"Were you scared? Did you want to get out of there as soon as possible?"

"Yes… And I still am, to be honest."

"There lies the reason. You knew you had a way out, so you unconsciously reached to it. But that's akin to slamming the brakes: you'd never know what would happen next because you're not in control. And on top of that, that entity, the Fiend, is both unpredictable and dangerous, to others and especially to yourself. I have no idea what would happen to you should you keep on letting it take a hold of your body."

Satsuki's mind went back to when she had searched for Yumiko in the Nagano area. While it was true that their assailants had gone away, she had not told her how she had found them the following morning, scattered around a group of trees. They had been torn to pieces, mangled up to the point of being barely recognizable, maimed by an assault of unprecedented fury. She feared that if she would let it happen again, Yumiko would actually go on a rampage against anyone who would be near her, no matter if friend or foe. She did not want anything like that to happen.

"I really don't like it…" Yumiko continued, "But what if there is no other choice?"

"Are you truly sure that you have no other options? To me, it's going down a slippery slope. You've been targeted before, and this is neither the first nor the last time." Satsuki stood up. "There's also another reason. Being influenced by the Darkness does not only concern yourself, you might also involve others, knowingly or unknowingly."

She looked away from the girl as deep sadness flashed through her eyes, if she had recalled back painful memories. Her voice just barely a murmur, she continued, "You may never know in advance what price you will have to pay. And then… it will be too late for regrets."

The change in the attitude of woman truly astonished Yumiko. She never expected Satsuki to have such a soft side under that confident front. Judging by the way she was talking, she had experienced a grave loss or something equally troubling. She resisted the temptation to ask her: satisfying her curiosity meant prying, and it was neither the time nor the place for such a question. Perhaps once… if they survived the ordeal, there would be time to talk about it.

Satsuki looked at Yumiko again, and the earlier discomfort had completely vanished from her expression. "I think I've rested enough," she said, "What about you? We should get going soon."

Yumiko stood up as well, still somewhat bothered by the conversation. "I guess I am too. Where shall we go? We've drifted very far from our destination."

"Our plan has not changed. We have to meet up with Jim and then with your friends. Of course, getting back to where we were earlier is not the best option at the moment. We should regroup elsewhere. There's a large store with an elevated parking lot close. That will be our next destination."

"I know that very well: I go there from time to time. But since we're so far from the others, how could they possibly know about it? Perhaps you managed to get in contact with them?"

"Oh, I didn't, of course. However I was able to leave… clues for him to follow. And let's not forget that our earlier encounters have surely caused enough ruckus for him to notice."

Yumiko was not entirely convinced on the course of action. To her, it was just a wild gamble. "You're assuming that he'll notice whatever you've left behind, and reaches us before we're attacked again by that woman. If they, or we, don't meed something in the way. For this plan to work, we need an awfully large number of things going in the right direction."

"You're way too pessimistic now. We have two options here: pursuing our only viable chance of survival, or waiting for our fate to unfold. I don't think there's much choice here."

Realizing she had overreacted, Yumiko sighed. "You're right. I'm sorry, Satsuki. As I said earlier, this is very stressful for me. It's hard to get a hold of myself. I really did not want anything like this."

"Don't worry about it, I can't blame you. I understand that you may feel hopeless. Way too much has happened already since you went to Kyoto. If anyone needs to be sorry about it, that's me. It's my duty to keep you away from all this. So please count on me."

"You're very kind, Satsuki. I've lost count of the times I've been in your care."

"I don't know if I truly am… I can say I have experience."

She paused and touched her forehead with her right index finger. "I can feel a few alien presences headed this way. Let's go or we may be discovered."

Yumiko gestured her assent and the two left the building, walking along the commercial district. Yumiko felt even more disturbed by the complete absence of human activity than when she had looked out of her window earlier during the same day. The music and recorded voices playing from many stores, the billboards continuously looping videos … they used to be enjoyable and inviting, but now had only an air gloom and decay. Creatures born out of the most perverted depths of inhuman winds roamed the streets, and the two were often forced to hide inside the now empty shops as they passed them. Once, what seemed a very tall muscular man with an abnormally large ox-like head walked past them chewing on something. Terrified, Yumiko realized that it was a human arm. Had anyone else got involved? She tried hard not to think about it. Her first priority was survival, everything else was secondary.

Eventually, Satsuki and Yumiko reached the department store. It was one of the landmarks of the whole district due to its size: it was nine stories tall and large enough to dwarf all the other buildings present in the area. Many billboards were hung on the brightly-colored front, advertising all sorts of products or announcing sales and discounts. A sister building, an elevated parking lot about half as tall stood next to it. Unlike the other shops the two had seen earlier, the shopping complex was closed, and all lights were off: signs placed on the doors and next to the entrances told that an internal renovation was taking place, and that it would be open again only the following week. It resembled the skeleton of a giant in a deserted wasteland.

Satsuki led Yumiko right in front of the entrance of the parking space and stopped there. "This is where we should wait. Hopefully Jim and the others will arrive here eventually."

Yumiko glanced nervously around herself. "Are you sure it's safe to stay in such an open spot? I mean, we can get seen from very far."

"But so can we. We will be safe from the risk of surprise attacks, at least. And in the worst case, we can take shelter in the department store."

"You are truly some persistent pests," a voice echoed around them, "In the end, it matters nothing, for I have found you at last."

While the sound made Yumiko startle and yelp in fear, Satsuki showed neither fright nor surprise. "I had wondered why you didn't show up sooner," she said back, "You are slow."

"What a remarkable display of confidence, woman. Are you truly sure it is not misguided?"

Satsuki pointed her gun upwards. "That is what I'm going to find out now."

Following the cloud of dust that had risen above the houses, Jim, Sayuki and Michiru hurried in the direction where the crumbling noise had came from. Although it was not far from Michiru's house, advancing proved to be far more difficult than they had originally expected. The once empty streets were now sprawling with all sorts of hideous creatures, all intent in searching for something, or someone. They saw severed heads engulfed by flames flying in midair, bird-men similar to what they had encountered in Nagano, and even half-decomposed women with disfigured faces. They were so many that they were forced to take frequent detours to avoid any type of confrontation. Many minutes later, they were almost as far from their destination as when they had left. Michiru and Sayuki couldn't help feeling both urgency and frustration at their slow progress.

While they were waiting for a group of armored skeletons to move out of the way, Jim noticed something shining near a lamppost. He crouched to look more closely, and he found a small, curved symbol somehow inscribed over the metal. It was loosely similar to a calligraphic script, even though it did not resemble any written language. The man put his hand over the mark and stood there as if he had been listening intently to someone speaking. When he stood up, he appeared relieved.

"At last, we've got some good news" he announced, "No more running around like children playing hide-and-seek! It was truly getting on my nerves…"

"How can you be so sure, all of a sudden? We're nowhere close to where we need to go," Michiru argued with a hint of frustration in her voice.

"Well, I could say a little bird told me something… but since there are no birds here, nor anything even remotely normal , I'll just skip the rhetoric and jump right to the point: Satsuki left a message for us, including some hints on how to find her."

The news pleasantly surprised Michiru. "Really? Were you able to get in contact with her directly?"

"Unfortunately no. It's something she has left for us here. Take a look."

Jim pointed at the symbol dimly shining at the base of the lamppost. Sayuki and Michiru looked at it in amazement.

"Wow, I've never seen anything like that," Sayuki observed, "what exactly is it?"

"It's a code we use in the Guardians when we want leave messages unseen to others," Jim explained, "It basically compresses part of the sender's thoughts within this symbol, and anyone with the right means can extract the message and have it replayed, like an answering machine."

"What does it say? Did she tell you what happened, or where they are now?"

"Not as much as I'd like to. Like a phone's memory, there is a limit to what you convey. It's very difficult to use it for more than very simple concepts. Let's say you wouldn't be able to put an essay or a philosophical treaty in there. But as long as you keep things simple, it can be very convenient."

"Very nice!" Sayuki exclaimed. "I wish I could use that when I need to answer teachers in class…"

Michiru poked her cheek. "That is your own fault for not paying attention, dummy."

"What is wrong with that? I have a simple mind, you know." Sayuki replied with a glare.

"There are so many things wrong with that… But that's not the time for it right now. Should we focus on the message that has been left for us, instead?"

"Right, the message!" Sayuki snapped her fingers. "I was kind of forgetting about it already."

Michiru groaned and hit her forehead. "What did I tell you about paying attention?" She turned to Jim. "Sorry for the interruption. What does it say?"

"Why apologizing?" Jim smirked. "If we weren't surrounded by evil creatures wanting at the very least to eat us, I'd probably have let you two go on a little more … It is a nice comedy show."

"Don't make things more difficult than they already are! Can you just tell us the content of the message?"

"All right, Her Highness." The man shrugged. "Difficult encounter. Need to shake pursuers off. Yumiko with me. Meet at parking lot in shopping district. Follow marks. That's it."

"It doesn't tell a lot… It is really just that?"

"Nothing more, nothing less. While not a lot, there are enough information on where to find them. I'd say this is a pretty good progress."

"More importantly, she said Yumiko is with her. I'm so glad she's still all right." Michiru sighed in relief.

"I knew it!" Sayuki added assertively, "But that also means we shouldn't stay idle here, we need to get to wherever they are at once!"

"That was the idea from the start", Jim remarked, "However I'll need a little help from you girls. Unlike Satsuki, I'm not too familiar with this place. Will you be able to show the way?"

"Oh, I can do that!" Sayuki raised a hand. "There's just one parking lot that would fit the description in the district, and it's close to a very big store. I've lost count of the times I went there. I absolutely love it! There's so much stuff I want to buy…"

"And that's why you always run out of your allowance when you go there," Michiru muttered under her breath.

"That's painful, I really don't want to remember any of that!" She curled her lips in a smirk. "But are you truly in a position to speak? Didn't you go crazy at all those straps the last time we were there?"

Michiru covered her mouth in embarrassment. "How… How is that related to anything?" she blurted, "Just lead the way. We're wasting time here!"

"Did I just hit a nerve?"

"You didn't! Hurry!"

Chortling, Sayuki took the lead, followed by Jim and an annoyed Michiru. They walked along streets and junctions, always on the lookout for ambushes by those otherworldly creatures roaming around: fortunately Sayuki's knowledge of the surroundings allowed the group to avoid any displeasing encounter. Occasionally Jim would find more messages from Satsuki with some details on her course and on who pursued her. The news both relieved and worried them. Judging from their scarce information, whatever was after Yumiko was far worse than anything they had seen before. They couldn't afford leaving Satsuki alone against it.

Eventually they arrived at a T junction with a dead end on one side and a long straight road on the other. They were now on the edge of the residential area, and houses were giving way to larger and taller buildings.

"It's very close now," Sayuki informed the others, "Five minutes at best. Should we rush through? We've lost quite a bit of time…"

"I don't really like the idea of running," Michiru mumbled, "On the other hand, it's about Yumiko. I'm willing to do whatever I can!"

"That's the spirit!"

"What do you think, Jim? Can we do that?"

Jim shook his head. "Nope, I think it's a truly bad idea."

"Why?" Michiru was flustered. "Haven't we lost enough time? We may be too late!"

"You don't have to ask me. Ask him"

He pointed further ahead. A pygmy figure stood exactly in the middle of the road. No one would mistake it for a natural being: the head was much larger than its thin and frail-looking body, and sported a single, very large eye that occupied most of the face, leaving room only for a receding forehead and a small beard around a minute mouth. It was bald and wore a finely decorated dress of many different colors, more fitting for a noble than the creature that carried them. As soon as it noticed the three it started squeaking, moving its tiny arms in the air. and licking its lips with a long tongue.

Horrified, Sayuki took a step back. "What is that thing?"

"It's scary," Michiru put herself behind her friend, "I get the goosebumps just by looking at it."

"I think it's saying something, but I really don't understand," Jim shrugged. "Not that it matters. I'm sure it's not an invitation for tea."

"What can we do?"

"Can we take a different way?"

Sayuki's expression left little in doubt. "No, there are no other direct ways from here. We'd have to go back quite a lot. And that would mean spending even more time."

"I see," Jim grumbled as he pulled his gun out of its holster, "Looks like I've got to do the dirty work."

Michiru looked at him with worry. "Will you be all right?"

"Well, I don't want to end my adventures prematurely, so, like you Japanese say, I'll work hard!"

"That's not what one would say in such a situation! Can't you take this seriously for a change?"

"Oh, I'm always serious, people just misunderstand me."

Jim ignored the angry exclamations coming from Michiru and walked towards the one-eyed creature, stopping just a few steps from it.

"We're truly sorry for the inconvenience we're causing you, but could you just move out of the way?"

The pygmy halted its pantomime and blinked at the man. "Weak man joking? Weak man ridiculous!" it exclaimed with a gurgling voice.

Jim moaned. "What's with people and even monsters not taking me seriously? No, I'm not joking, I'm asking you to move out of the way."

"Weak man is fool. Nyudo takes no orders from weak man."

"I have a name, you know."

"Name does not matter. Weak man is weak man."

"I've had better conversations with customer support representatives," Jim responded, "Let's make this simple enough for you to understand: move out of the way, and you'll avoid getting hurt."

The one-eyed nyudo laughed out loud. "Weak man makes threats? Weak man is big buffoon!"

"Even a buffoon can use a gun." Jim pointed his weapon at the creature. "And then there's no more laughing."

"Man is weak, nyudo is strong! Nyudo shows weak man strength!" the monster cried out.

Before Jim could shoot, the nyudo opened its eye wide. The pupil shone brilliantly and its body underwent a fast and tumultuous change. Its whole body grew in size until it was three times the height of a normal man, and those frail-looking limbs became muscular and thick as logs. Part of the dress tore up, revealing a smooth and dark skin with olive shades, and the surface of arms and hands thickened until it was a strong as a rock. The grown nyudo slammed his foot on the ground, and the earth trembled. Michiru and Sayuki screamed as they struggled to stay standing.

"How is that, weak man?" the creature taunted Jim, its voice now like the roar of a lion. "You scared now?"

"You know what they say," Jim retorted, "the bigger they are, the louder the sound they make when they fall."

His words were followed by the loud chant of his weapon. Showing far greater agility than what his bulky body would suggest, the giant shielded its face with both forearms. All bullets thrusted into the thick coat that covered the arms, but they did not inflict even superficial wounds: one flick of the creature's wrists was enough to throw them away like gnats. A smile of disdain appeared on the nyudo's face.

An instant later it was high in the air, its right hand clenched and stretched out towards Jim. The man quickly made a backflip and the fist of his opponent whistled very close to his nose before smashing into the asphalt. The impact was so strong that cracks formed in all directions.

As soon as his feet were on solid ground again, Jim fired again. The colossus had its guard down, so he hoped to land at least a hit in a vital point. Instead, the nyudo turned its back at Jim and again the projectiles were stopped by that heavy skin without causing any damage. The creature laughed.

"Even fleas better than weak man!" it snarled. "Nyudo will crush weak man now!"

From the debris the giant picked up a large slab of concrete with the same ease as a children plucking flowers. After weighing it, the nyudo threw the block at the man. Jim rolled sideways barely in time to avoid being hit, and the cement struck the wall behind him, bringing it down amidst a cloud of dust.

"At least you are strong as you say you are," Jim conceded, "I think your aim needs some improvement, though."

"Weak man is annoying insect… Nyudo crushes insects!"

The nyudo charged at Jim like a wild boar. The man chanted three short, mystic words under his breath and put his hand on the ground before him. The earth rumbled and broke up when a strong shockwave shot out from Jim's fingers, headed in the direction of the creature. The nyudo did not even attempt to slow down and simply used its massive arms to protect itself from the upcoming assault. The blast wave hit it squarely, tearing up the asphalt all over it and causing a boom so loud that Michiru and Sayuki were forced to cover their ears. When the dust settled, the giant was unharmed.

Jim sprinted forward, but he could not advance much because the giant jumped again and set down right in front of him. Its two hands moved simultaneously, laying down a barrage of punches powerful enough to disembowel anyone unfortunate enough to get in their path. Jim avoided those gigantic limbs with very calculated movements left and right , but he had to concentrate only on defense, and he was completely unable to counterattack. He was also being slowly pushed towards the dead end behind him, and once there he would have no way to escape.

Michiru and Sayuki watched the fight anxiously. They knew too well that if Jim would fall they would be the next targets of the creature, and they would not stand a single chance against that monster. They cried out in desperation when they saw Jim stumble and fall on one knee.

A victorious yell broke out from the nyudo's lips as it raised its arms for a final, fatal coup de grace.

It took one step forward, and when when its left foot touched the spot where Jim had placed his hand earlier, its confident cry turned into an exclamation of pain and surprise. The ground under its feet crumbled all of a sudden, forming a deep chasm that swallowed the creature. Just before completely falling into the darkness beneath, its left hand found a precarious hold on one of the walls and the monster struggled to heave itself up, until its head emerged again. Its lone eye stared at Jim with hatred.

"Weak man plays dirty trick!" the colossus exclaimed.

"Who said that this fight was meant to be fair and square?" Jim replied tauntingly as he got back on his feet, "One can always cheat. That's the difference between using only your muscles and using your brain."

"Weak man has not won! Hole can not stop nyudo! Nyudo jumps and kills weak man!"

The creature pushed its feet against the walls of the pit, ready to jump out.

"Again with this weak man?" Jim continued, "You are truly a sore loser. Do you really need to get crushed completely to understand defeat?"

He clinched his left hand as he finished speaking: in the blink of an eye the hole shrunk as fast as it had opened, trapping the giant in an inescapable grip. It kept on tightening, and the loud sounds of crushed bones, muscle and sinew intertwined with the nyudo's shrieks of pain. But even if it was just a cripple and completely unable to move, an unearthly vitality still harbored in that tortured body.

"Weak man is buffoon," it stammered as it continued its futile attempts to break free, "Weak man will die, die, die!"

"I told you earlier, even a buffoon can use a gun." Jim pointed his weapon at the eye of the nyudo. "No more laughs now."

He pulled the trigger. With a jolt, the nyudo's head fell on a side, a dark ichor flowing out where the pupil once was.

Jim wiped the sweat off his forehead and let out an exclamation of relief. Despite all his talk, he knew it had been a very tough battle. Since he had spent the day hunting for information, he had not been prepared for large or drawn-out confrontations like the one he just had. He had been quite lucky that it played out like he wanted it to.

Michiru and Sayuki hurried to him, overjoyed by that unexpected victory.

"That was incredible, Jim!" Sayuki cheered.

Michiru bowed. "You truly saved us, thank you."

"I would like to say that it was just ordinary business, but it really wasn't." The man rubbed his chin. "I don't want to do this again for a while."

"Are you all right?"

"Just a little tired. No time to take a break, however. We still have two beautiful princesses to rescue."

"Right! There's no moment to lose. How far are we, Sayuki? I'm not too familiar with this place."

"All we have to do is to go down this street", Sayuki told them, "and as I was saying, we should be there very soon. You can actually see the building from here already." She pointed at a tall building. Although all its lights were off, its nature was given off by the many colored billboards, visible even at that distance. "The parking lot Satsuki mentioned is next to it," she concluded.

"Jim, can you tell if there are any threats to us on the way? Just to avoid an encounter like this one."

"I'm not as good as Satsuki with these so-called arts, but I can manage somehow," Jim said, "Let's see…"

He stepped forward and slowly looked left and right, appearing completely unmoved and imperturbable. When he faced the department store, he frowned.

"It looks like our problems are just starting, I'm afraid," he commented dryly.

"What's wrong?" Sayuki asked, "Did anything happen?

"There's… something truly hideous there. Far more hostile than anything that we've seen so far. And of course, it's where we need to go."

"Do you think it's because of Yumiko and Satsuki?"

"No concrete proof, but I'm sure of it. It was too sudden to be a mere coincidence."

"What are we waiting for?" Michiru urged the other two, "Yumiko might be in danger, we have to go there as fast as we can!"

"As if we didn't have enough reasons for urgency…" Jim groaned. "Once we get out of this mess, how could Satsuki refuse that invitation?"

Her gun pointed above her head, Satsuki fired many rounds, one after another. Perhaps because she had hit her target, or perhaps because their enemy decided to move on her own, the two heard a whistle coming from the upper floors of the building next to them. While at first it was as loud as a whisper, it quickly grew in intensity until Yumiko was forced to cover her ears in pain. And with the sound came also the jorogumo, plummeting headfirst towards the ground. Mere instants before touching down, she flipped herself over and landed gracefully on her feet, despite the height she had fallen from. A hole on her kimono showed where Satsuki's bullets had hit her, without any visible wounds.

She cackled. "Was seeing my face again your dying wish, woman?"

"Actually, I was hoping we'd put an end to this once and for all," Satsuki answered.

"That is indeed going to happen… but not in the way you imagine. You've fooled around for far too long. Therefore, I shall make haste and ensure a swift end to your pathetic existence. Your tortured bodies will be the trophies I will bear with honor in front of my Lord. And your souls shall never know peace in an endless stream of pain and torture!"

"It's not the first time I've heard these threats," Satsuki asserted, "And guess what happened to whoever made them?"

"That's just because they underestimated you!" the jorogumo snapped. "But, by the great Abyss, I did not! I know what you and that wretched girl are capable of. This form is unsuited to the task. Another one will serve me better. Watch, fools!"

A thick mist formed around the woman, completely hiding her from sight. Horrifying sounds of bones bending and breaking intermixed with gurgles, hisses, screams of pain and moans of pleasure. The frightening cacophony lasted until the kimono that the jorogumo had been wearing flew out of the cloud, no longer holding the body it had been wrapped around. In a fraction of a second, two large, hairy and insect-like limbs torn it to shreds, and the fog finally dissipated, revealing what it had been hiding.

Yumiko screamed in terror and even Satsuki muttered an exclamation under her breath, because what they had seen would never been conceived even from the deepest follies of men. A massive black spider had taken the place the woman had once stood on. It was as large as a trailer and its body was covered in hard, chitinous scales. Long and disgusting tufts of black hair grew on the abdomen and on its eight legs. But everything paled in comparison to the eyes: ruby and multifaceted, they shared the same malignant intelligence as the jorogumo.

"It is time!" the spider shouted as it jumped in the air.

Satsuki was not surprised from that attack: she took hold of Yumiko and jumped to her right, just before the jorogumo landed where they had been standing a fraction of second before. She clenched her teeth as her arms scraped against the asphalt, but she ignored the pain and sprung up. Yumiko was too confused by the rapid turn of events and was still trying to figure out what was going on when the spider loomed over her. She would have met her doom if it had not been for Satsuki, who tugged her aside mere moments before those large jaws closed on her neck.

"Quick, inside the parking!" she ordered.

Her senses made sharper by a sudden adrenaline rush, Yumiko cast off her confusion and scrambled for the entrance along with Satsuki. The spider chased them, but its efforts came to a stop as it was too large to enter the building from the same passage used by the two. It was also too strong to break down easily, so the best the creature could do was to snap its mandibles in frustration, its crimson eyes glittering with rage.

"Do you truly think you are safe there?" it teased them, "You have just delayed your inevitable deaths!"

The jorogumo leapt and attached itself to the front of the parking. It then moved upwards at incredible speed while spitting long and thick filaments out of its mouth. The web formed a sticky and impregnable layer over everything it touched, sealing off any possible means of escape. Before Satsuki or Yumiko could even realize what had happened, half of the building had already been completely covered.

"What do we do, Satsuki?" Yumiko asked hurriedly. "At this rate, we'll be trapped there in no time."

"Let's see if we can get into the mall. It will be far more difficult for her to move there. The entrance is on the other side: let's check it out."

The two ran across the ground floor with the sound of the spider weaving its web reverberating through their ears. The whole place was rather dark, illuminated only by the light filtering through small holes in the web that covered the windows, and a handful of emergency lamps: it was barely enough to walk. As the mall was closed for renovation, only few of the spots had actually cars in them. A few of them had still their doors open, waiting forever for their missing owners to return.

It did not take long to Satsuki and Yumiko to find the entrance to the department store. Unfortunately, their only hope shattered when they saw a sturdy-looking iron grate had been lowered in front of the double doors leading inside, blocking any access. Satsuki held the bars with both hands and gave them a tug. She quickly realized that neither herself nor Yumiko would have enough strength to move it out of the way. And whatever was used to raise or lower it normally would probably be on the other side, out of their reach.

"I didn't expect this," Satsuki observed, disappointed, "we may be already trapped there."

"Perhaps we should try to get out the parking," Yumiko proposed, "She's still busy covering everything with that web. If so, we may be able to run away."

"Only to have her drop from above, right on our heads. She can see us very clearly in that position. It would be over before we even started."

"Can we hide somewhere until Jim arrives, then? At least while she's still outside and has no way to get in. Inside a car, for example."

"Not a bad idea… but the top floor of this parking is open, and once that spider gets there, she will be able to go all the way down to where she are using the car ramps. She'll be upon us before any outside help would come. Even if we hid, she would just turn everything upside down until she finds us."

The girl clenched her hands in frustration. "Is it really over, then? Do we just have to wait until we're eaten alive, or worse?"

Satsuki shook her head. "Of course not. I have no intention of leaving you at the mercy of that spider woman."

"Do you have a plan?"

"I wouldn't call it a plan… It's a gamble, but still better than nothing."

"I guess gambles are better than nothing right now…"

"That spider is surely not invulnerable. After all, our previous confrontation lasted only a minute or so. The fact that I was not able to harm her back then doesn't mean it can't be harmed. We need to find a way to do it."

"Do you mean a weak point?"

"Yes, a peculiarity we can use to gain an advantage."

"Do you already have any ideas on what this weak point would be?"

"Not really."

Yumiko stared at Satsuki in disbelief. Had she completely lost her mind? She had talked about taking advantage of weak points and at the same time had no idea on what those would be! Was that her gamble? How could she gamble if she had absolutely nothing to place a bet in the first place?

"No, I am perfectly sane, if that's what you're wondering," Satsuki commented looking back at the girl.

She blushed and averted her gaze away from the woman. "That't not really what I was thinking…" she stammered.

"No offense taken, I can understand why you'd think like that. But I had not yet told you what my actual gamble is. One of us needs to keep that jorogumo occupied enough to buy time and allow the other to actually find a weak point and exploit that weakness. As you can see, that is why it's a gamble in a first place."

"That's not crazy, it's madness!" Yumiko blurted out, "I can understand you would try to keep that giant spider busy, but what am I supposed to do? Don't tell me I need to find her weak point…"

"Oh, that's not it," Satsuki noted, "The role for the bait is yours."

Yumiko screamed in frustration and incredulity. "Impossible, impossible, impossible! Which side are you on? You are crazy, Satsuki! "

"Didn't I tell you earlier?" The woman folded her arms. "I have no intention of leaving you at her mercy."

"And then you ask me to …"

"I can see why Yumiko Hasegawa can't do that," Satsuki interrupted her, "but you are not just Yumiko Hasegawa."

Yumiko's eyes widened when she understood what her companion meant. "Are you really asking me to…"


"Didn't you say I should not ever give in to the Fiend, that something bad is bound to happen if I'm not careful?"

"It's kind of ironic, isn't it? We are having the same argument as before, only on the opposite sides," she pointed out, amused, "However, my mind has not changed. I still think you should stay away from that as far as possible."

"Why then did you suggest it now?"

"Mainly because this is the least worst option we have at our disposal right now. And it's still better than a violent death, so I'm betting everything I have on it."

"That may be true," Yumiko admitted, "But I'm worried the Fiend may act on its own and not in the way you expect."

What she had said was true. Satsuki had faked confidence, but the perspective of Yumiko going on a mindless rampage truly worried her. Even if she had been able to stop her under the Chinno-ji she was not sure she would be able to do it again unscathed. Whatever the Fiend had done to those creatures in Nagano was proof enough that it had grown considerably stronger than before. Still, it was neither the time nor the place to let worry cloud her judgment. She gathered her resolve and did not let any doubt show on her face.

"Try using what you've been taught, it may help," she suggested, "And if something bad happens, I'll deal with it. You've already attacked me once in Kyoto, after all, and I went out fine."

"I can't really believe you," Yumiko conceded, still in doubt, "but I really don't want my life to end here, so I'll do whatever it takes to avoid it. It scares me… but I'll do it, at one condition."

"A condition? What exactly?"

Yumiko blushed and she lowered her voice. "Please… don't think bad of me," she muttered, "I may do, or say… things that are very unlike what I am."

"I won't, I promise."


Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of many feet stomping coming from above their heads, followed by a loud cackle.

"She's coming. We should get ready."

Yumiko nodded. "I'll do my best."

The girl searched the back of her mind for the presence of the Fiend. She immediately found it, a low but vibrant hum over all her thoughts. She pondered the best course of action: unlike what she had seen in many TV shows she had been a fan of, setting it in motion was not simply a matter of chanting a word of a sentence. It had always acted on its own, unpredictable ways. Since in Nagano it had almost emerged on its own, she tried recalling the sensations she had experienced back then. Unexpectedly, the Fiend responded with a silent growl, and promptly flooded Yumiko's thoughts with a shower of feral rage.

And before she knew it, it had started already. No matter how much she was prepared for it, the now familiar pain hit her with the strength of a million hammers and she staggered before ultimately falling to her knees. It was so intense that it almost left her breathless. She had not even the energy to scream: only huffs and hoarse sounds came out of her throat. And like the other times it had happened, she enjoyed a perverse pleasure in her suffering. No, it was even more than simple joy, it was her only reason to live! Her thoughts drowned in that sea of agony and pleasantness.

Worried by her state, Satsuki took a step forward, but Yumiko managed to raise a hand and gestured her to stop.

"It's fine," she croaked, "it's very fine. Let me be, I haven't felt this good in an eternity."

A part of Yumiko was deeply embarrassed by what she had just said, but she had other problems to worry about. No matter what she had tried, the Fiend was quickly taking over her mind with little to no resistance. What could she do? At that rate, she would have probably assaulted Satsuki…

She felt her last shards of consciousness dissolving into nothingness.

Then, it occurred to her. If rationality had not worked against the Fiend, perhaps raw emotions would. She focused on the jorogumo and directed all her hatred against it. The creature was responsible for everything it had occurred in her life: the time her parents scolded her for being late; the bad behavior of some of her schoolmates; and even for the rain that ruined a good weekend. She had been the cause of every single misfortune! The girl found herself grinning. That stupid spider had been meddling in her life for too long… now it was time for payback!

As she let those feelings run wild, she was barely aware of a change taking place inside her… a rather displeasing change she could not define. Then everything was swept by a tsunami of rage.

Satsuki watched as a new form emerged from the shreds of Yumiko's clothes. It was that strange mixture of a human being and an animal, perhaps a wolf, perhaps a fox, perhaps neither, that she had seen in Kyoto. Yumiko's yellow eyes met Satsuki's for an instant, and the woman was taken aback by the deep fury they emanated. Never before she had seen such a concentrate of these wild, raw emotions. She truly hoped the girl would not turn against her: she felt Yumiko had become far stronger than their previous encounter, and dealing with her would be difficult.

There was no time to confirm or deny those fears, because both were distracted by a loud clink, like an army on the move, coming from an overhead ramp not too far from where they were standing. The noise was followed by the jorogumo's familiar cackle as the giant spider rushed down to face the two. As soon as it noticed Yumiko's new appearance, it stopped in its tracks and let out a long and spiteful cry.

"So you revealed yourself for what you are, accursed Scyoth!" it shouted, "It matters not, because I will end you, right now!"

Yumiko simply grinned in response, and then she sprung forward with a loud howl. The spider opened its jaws and shot its thick web at the girl, engulfing her completely before she could even get closer. That sticky cage lasted only mere instants, as Yumiko broke it off with the same ease as if it were made of cardboard. Before the creature could shoot a new thread, she jumped in the air and landed right in front of the jorogumo, while simultaneously clawing at its head. The attack was ineffective, as even Yumiko's sharp claws bounced off the strong, chitinous exoskeleton of the monster. Two of its legs moved at the same time in retaliation and hit Yumiko in the stomach, knocking her against one of the nearby parked cars. The impact was so strong that its body was bent noticeably.

Yet, the girl did not seem to have suffered any damage: she simply got back on her feet like nothing had happened and charged again. She ducked just before the jorogumo's mandibles could close around her head and took hold of the creature's torso with both hands. Yumiko clenched her teeth as she lifted the creature from the ground with a massive effort, then pivoted one, two, three times before finally throwing the monster on a wall. While it was still in the air, it shot one of its threads against the ceiling and used it as a swing to get back on its feet, unharmed.

Away from the two, Satsuki watched the battle reaching a stalemate. Despite Yumiko's superior speed and agility, she was not able to make even a dent in the defenses of the jorogumo. On the other hand, the attacks by the spider were not capable of causing anything more than superficial wounds. Neither of the two showed any signs of tiredness and kept going against each other with renovated energy. No clear conclusion was in sight, but that was exactly what she wanted. That would give her enough time to find the weakness she was looking for.

She crouched and cautiously moved between the parked cars and tried to get as close as the jorogumo as possible without being seen. She was about halfway to it when it suddenly turned in her direction. Its glittering eyes stared at her with contempt.

"What are you trying to do there, worm?" the jorogumo snarled, "Did you truly think you could play tricks on me? It's time to wake you up from your fantasies. Come forth, my children!"

Her words triggered a series of loud popping sounds, similar to the one of an egg hatching, all around the building. The noise disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, only to be replaced by many high-pitched squeals.

Then, they arrived.

Tens of spiders as large as dogs, swarmed from the ceiling, the windows, and the ground. Physically, they looked like overgrown tarantulas, with jaws large enough to severely mutilate a human being, dripping a liquid which fizzled every time it touched the ground. Their deep blue, multifaceted eyes looked like gems fixed in a jewel, yet there was nothing beautiful about them. They were empty and soulless, harboring only a primeval and insatiable hunger.

"Eat to your heart's content!" the spider ordered, "Don't stop until there's nothing left!"

The horde turned to Satsuki and teemed towards her. Without waiting for them to get too close, Satsuki took a small wooden figurine from one of her pockets and threw it at the crowd. It broke into pieces as soon as it touched the ground before them, and with a roar the earth tore apart as large pillars of flame burst out, incinerating everything they came into contact.

Although at good deal of the spiders were wiped out from that blazing inferno, the survivors simply trampled over the charred remains of their dead companions, going forward with blind determination. No matter how much their ranks had been thinned, they still were far too many for Satsuki to handle. And like it had happened earlier, she would not have enough time to make use of her best resources. If the situation dragged for too long, she would get easily overwhelmed and devoured until only her completely stripped bones remained.

Satsuki drew back the best she could, while simultaneously shooting in the vain hope of slow that pack down. No matter if every bullet hit its intended target, leaving a spider writhing on the ground, the others pressed on unfazed. They were now only a handful of meters away from her, and the woman had almost run out of bullets. Cursing under her breath, Satsuki instinctively reached for her left shoulder.

"Get down!" a voice behind her yelled.

Satsuki threw herself on the ground, and as she did that she was barely aware of a flash of light flying past her and hitting the ceiling. The cement cracked and broke instantly: large pieces of debris then fell on the marching pack, crushing the vast majority of it under their weight. The lucky few that survived struggled as they attempted to move across that newly-formed mountain of concrete.

The woman scrambled to get back to her feet to confront whatever was left of her assailants, but that turned out to be unnecessary. Bullets coming from behind her hit every one of the spiders, killing them instantly. She spun round and noticed familiar silhouettes walking out of a cloud of dust.

Jim stepped forward triumphantly, a large grin on his face. "Here comes the cavalry! I hope we didn't make our damsel in distress wait for too long."

"Took you long enough." Although Satsuki sighed, her eyes were full of gratitude. "Thank you. I thought I was done for."

"That's not going to happen. How could I let you die before we had our romantic dinner together?"

Satsuki hit her forehead. "Even like this, you have time for jokes… I can't believe it." She paused and smiled. "I guess I'll allow that for today."

"Nice! No matter what has happened, every cloud has a silver lining…"

As he was talking, Michiru and Sayuki rushed at the woman's side. Both were very relieved to see her safe and sound.

"Please don't pay attention to this filthy man," Michiru grumbled, irritated, "More importantly, are you all right? You look injured."

Satsuki brushed the dust off her clothes. "Just a few scratches here and there, but I'll live. I've been through much worse than this."

"Thank goodness!" Michiru's expression relaxed. "I was very worried we'd be too late."

"To tell you the truth, You had impeccable timing. I'm very grateful for that."

Sayuki glanced left and right for any sign of Yumiko's presence, but no matter where she looked, the girl was nowhere to be seen.

"Where is Yumiko?" she asked, "I don't see her anywhere."

Satsuki pointed past the pile of rubble near them. A very large spider was furiously exchanging blows with a lone figure that had both traits of a human being and a feral animal. The two kept going at each other relentlessly, without paying attention to anything happening around them.

"There she is," Satsuki remarked, "she's the one fighting that thing."

Sayuki's eyes widened. "Is that truly Yumiko? I can't believe it…"

Michiru was equally shocked, and just supported herself against her friend's shoulder. She had not been prepared for it. No matter how much she knew about it already, reality had proven to be far different.

"I see, it's the first time you see her like that. She may look far different, but it's still Yumiko." Satsuki folded her arms. "Or rather, it's her appearance when that entity, the Fiend, takes over. It's exactly the same as in Kyoto, or when we were near Nagano."

"So…" Michiru stuttered, trying to find the correct words, "that's what happens. I truly don't know what to say."

"I can understand that. Not only it's something far beyond your craziest imagination, but it's also happened to your friend."

Michiru's hands tightened around the woman's arm. "What happened? Is she going to be ok?"

Satsuki briefly summarized their encounter with the spider-woman, their flight to the department store, and the sequence of events that forced her to rely on the dark presence inside Yumiko's soul.

"Regardless how hard they attack each other, neither of the two is prevailing. I managed to sneak up close, but that spider was smart enough to understand what I was trying to do, and sent all her children, as she called them, against me. That's when you arrived," she concluded.

"So, she's a tough one, eh?" Jim fidgeted nervously with his necklace. "Well, as long as we find a way…"

"Have you got any ideas, Satsuki?" Sayuki inquired.

"Not many, I'm afraid. Jim, what have you got with you?"

Jim shook his head. "Not much. A handful of magazines and a little else. Nothing of the right scale for that thing."

"We'll have to do with what we have." Satsuki bit her lip. "Perhaps…"

Their discussion was interrupted by a scream of rage. The jorogumo had turned in their direction and saw what had occurred to the spiders she had summoned. Its crimson eyes emanated a hatred so strong that Michiru and Sayuki felt dizzy.

"How dare you!" the creature snarled, "You will suffer their pain multiplied a million times! Come, come, my children! Destroy these miserable, pitiful insects!"

In response to her order, the popping sound echoed many times, and again countless spiders emerged from the windows and the floor, crawling towards the group.

Jim pointed his gun at the advancing horde. "… Looks like we don't have time for a plan B."

"I know." Satsuki walked next to him. "Can you cover me? I'll try to burn them all together, and hope it will be enough. I won't have strength for another incantation."

"Wait a second, Satsuki." Michiru held her by the shoulder. The helplessness in her eyes had been replaced by sheer determination. "I think I have an idea."

"An idea? What do you have in mind?"

"First a question. Can any of your tricks create water, or ice? Anything that increases humidity."

"I'm not too good at manipulating water, but I think Jim can."

Jim nodded. "I can create ice, but don't expect it to be like Antarctica. It only covers a limited area, and will be very thin. For sure it won't stop that fat spider for long."

"It should be enough. Can you two protect us while I make my preparations?"

"We can try. I'm not sure for how long."

"It won't take long, rest assured."

While Jim and Satsuki opened fire on the advancing pack, Michiru took off the backpack from her shoulder and pulled three large plastic bottles out of it. Two were common cleaning products, while the the third was empty. Unable to understand what was going on, Sayuki stood in front of her.

"Those are just things you use for the laundry!" she argued, "How can they be possibly useful now?"

Michiru wagged a finger in front of her. "They will far more useful than you think, dummy. In fact, I think they will be a good way to hurt that monster."

"What are you doing to do, clean it so much that it will die?"

Her friend puffed. "Why don't you take me seriously?"

"How can you be serious by doing that?"

"Because I know exactly what I'm doing." Michiru looked away from her. "You know, I'm not as pretty as Yumiko or as athletic like you, Sayuki…"

Her friend's cheeks turned red with rage. "This is not the time to indulge in self-reflection!"

The girl ignored her remark and continued, "but I like to tinker, since I was little. That's why I joined the chemistry club last year. And also last year, the club had a peculiar president, who had since then graduated…"

Sayuki gaped. "You mean… that senpai, so bent into doing dangerous things that she was nicknamed bakuhatsu?"

"Yes, her. She taught me a few… unorthodox things. And what I'm doing now is making use of what she has taught me."

"I can't even imagine what bakuhatsu told you…"

Michiru gave Sayuki a long look. "Sayuki, you're a dummy, but you're great at sports. I need you for this plan to succeed. Will you help me?"

Sayuki grinned. "You've actually praised me many times today. This means it's really important!"

"Just answer the question!" Michiru covered her eyes in embarrassment.

"I will help you, of course. I'll do whatever it needs to be done!"

Jim paused his shooting and looked at the two. "Can you do whatever you need to do quickly? I and Satsuki don't have much ammunition left. And I'm sure those spiders aren't that talkative as you two."

"Right!" Michiru turned to her friend and held up the empty bottle. "Sayuki, listen carefully. I'll first fill this bottle with what's in the others, then I'll give it to you. When that happens, shake it as much as you can, then throw it at that monster. The closer it gets, the better. However, you'll only have a few seconds, so make sure to do it fast."

"What will happen if I'm not fast enough?"

"You may get hurt…"

Sayuki gaped for an instant, then confidence showed up on her face. "You're crazy, I know… But I guess nothing short of crazy will save us. Leave it to me!"

Michiru unscrewed the cap of one of the two full bottles and poured all its contents in the empty one. She then made a gesture to Jim. "Go now, Jim!"

The man roared in agreement. He stretched out his left hand and chanted a litany made up by short, cold and sharp words. As he went on, the area around the jorogumo and her minions began to condense. Large drops of water formed in the air and fell to the ground: the moment they touched any solid object they released a freezing wave that encased everything around it in ice. The frozen tide swept over the smaller spiders and kept on advancing until it wrapped around the legs of the jorogumo, blocking her movement. Yumiko jumped away before it could touch her and disappeared from sight.

The entrapment only lasted an instant. The spider shook its legs and broke out of that cage easily, followed by its companions.

"Pathetic! What do you think you can do to me with these cheap tricks?" the creature said.

In the mean time Michiru had just emptied the other container. She handed the now full bottle to Sayuki.

"Sayuki, throw it!" she ordered.

Her friend shook the bottle vigorously, and was suddenly aware that something inside was fizzling. Without wondering on what was going on, she took a run and then threw the object with all the strength she could gather. While it flew past the debris, it began swelling up. Once it was close enough to the jorogumo it burst, raining its content around it. The acrid smell of chlorine filled the air.

"What was that?" Sayuki wondered.

"Stand back, or you'll get hurt!" Michiru pushed her back. "It's chlorine gas… and it's already having some effect!"

What she had said was true. The smaller spiders started twisting as if they had been bitten by a poisonous animal, and even the movements of their master became erratic and slow. It twitched, as if vomiting, and a green ichor flowed down from its mouth. It struggled to keep on its legs and stared at the group with hatred.

Jim patted Michiru on the shoulder. "Nice job! And Sayuki, that was a good throw."

"That's not all," Michiru continued, "remember that I said I needed humidity? Well, chlorine can combine with water… and the result is hydrochloric acid. And now they have plenty over them!"

A scream of pain accompanied her words. The jorogumo was wriggling furiously while large welts appeared over its exoskeleton. An even worse fate awaited its children: the acid burned through them up to the point of cutting their thin limbs off or digging through their gem-like eyes. One after another, they turned on their backs and relinquished their lives. Those fortunate enough to be too far to be affected wavered, taken aback by that unexpected massacre. They were still reorganizing their ranks when Yumiko landed among them and ran through the pack, swinging her claws wildly. Every time her hands rose and fell, one spider ended up skewered.

Sayuki watched the whole scene unfold, both surprised and amazed. "Incredible… Did… did you just kill her?"

"I doubt it. It was just a bottle, and not even particularly large," Michiru replied, "It can't be that powerful. It may have caused painful wounds, but it will never be able to kill something of that size. That's ok, though."


"It bought us enough time."

Satsuki nodded. "Exactly."

The woman focused on the twisting spider. At last, she finally found what she had been looking for all that time: a narrow, soft strip of tissue that connected the torso with the abdomen. In order to allow for movement, it was unprotected. Without further ado, Satsuki broke into a run towards the jorogumo. She leapt high using the pile of debris as a platform: while in midair, she moved her right hand in a precise pattern. As she descended, she swung her arm in the direction of the creature, and the air shimmered as something traveled through it. Instants later, the body of the jorogumo was almost split in half.

She landed on one knee, panting. She had used up all her resources in that final attack, and yet she knew it was not sufficient. As grave the wound she had inflicted was, the creature was still hable to seriously hurt or even kill her. On top of that, its "children" which had survived Yumiko's assault were running in her direction, and threatened to overwhelm her at any minute. Fortunately, she still had one chance, and she was placing all her bets on it.

"Yumiko!" she cried out. "Finish her!"

The girl tossed away the corpse of one of the smaller spiders and pushed herself against the jorogumo. Her clawed hands held both edges of the wound and pulled in opposite directions: the carapace of the monster was ripped apart with a disgusting sound of lacerated tissue. A yellow liquid similar to blood flowed all around and splashed all over Yumiko. She smiled evilly at the sight of her own barbaric actions.

But she was not done yet. She dropped the two halves of the now dying jorogumo and walked next to its head, which was still writhing in agony. Her foot came down one, two, three times until it crushed under her talon. A stuffed wail marked the death of the creature. At the same time, all its surviving children twitched and burst into a cloud of dust.

"Victory!" Sayuki shouted enthusiastically while hugging Michiru. "We did it!"

Satsuki did not share her optimism. "Almost. There's still something we need to make sure."

As if her words had anticipated what would occur, Yumiko calmly walked in their direction, that mischievous smile still on her face. Her animal-like hair was ruffled, she was bleeding from a few superficial cuts and her body as almost completely covered from the jorogumo's blood. She was a living icon of primeval indomitability. Frightened by what their friend had become, both Sayuki and Michiru took a step back.

Yumiko stopped in front of the group, twitching her fingers in anticipation. All of a sudden, her arms fell limp to her sides and her expression became blank. Jim, who had been ready to point his gun at her, opened his eyes wide as he noted that her body was undergoing some sort of change: her figure progressively got indistinct and blurred while many tufts of hair were falling at her feet.

Satsuki, who knew what would take place next, sent a word of warning to the man. "Jim, don't look at her!"

The man eyed her, doubtful. "Why that all of a sudden… Oh!"

He turned his back to Yumiko just in time before the girl's naked figure became visible again. She looked exhausted, both physically and mentally: her eyes were clouded, sweat was trickling down her forehead, and she vacillated as she tried to keep her balance. Both worried and relieved, Sayuki and Michiru hurried to her.

Michiru was the first to support her with her shoulder. "Are you all right, Yumiko?"

She was able to give a hint of a response. "I've been better… but don't worry."

Sayuki held her up from the other side. "You should exercise more, I tell you!" she said, trying to mask the tears welling up on her face with irony.

Yumiko chuckled. "Yeah, perhaps I should…"

"I'm glad it's over," Satsuki commented, relieved, "This was a lot harder than I expected. We all deserve some rest." She addressed Yumiko. "You did a good job out there. I'll make sure it will never happen again."

"Thanks… it was particularly embarrassing…" The girl blushed.

Sayuki poked her on the side. "You know, Yumiko? Let's go shopping tomorrow! At the rate you're destroying clothes, you'll be left with nothing to wear!"

"Please, don't remind me… My allowance is going to take a hit…" Yumiko gave her a sad look.

Michiru hit Sayuki's forehead with a finger. "Why do you worry about this now, dummy? Yumiko needs to rest, she can worry about this later." She paused. "Although the idea of going shopping is not bad…"

"You said the same thing as I did! Why is it fine for you and not for me?" Sayuki exclaimed, pointing at Michiru.

"It wasn't the same!"

"It was!"

Yumiko looked at both of her friends, unsure on what to tell them. "There's really no need to argue now…"

Jim clapped his hands. "As much as I love to watch you three, I think we should move soon. I have just more than a hunch that it won't be safe here for long."

"What do you mean? Are there any other monsters around?"

"No, I don't mean that. Look outside."

The large web that the jorogumo had weaved around the building had changed color: it was no longer a snow-like white, but instead a faint brown, like it had somehow decayed. It was also drying up at a fast rate, and some parts had shrunk and fallen off. Through the no longer obstructed windows, the group noticed that the unreal environment they had been in so far was shifting again. The colors in the sky were changing rapidly, almost like a pulsating heart, and the large streaks they had seen previously were growing in size, resembling fissure in a structure about to collapse.

"What's going on now?" Michiru looked nervously at Jim and Satsuki, hoping for an answer.

"If what I said to Yumiko earlier was correct," the woman hypothesized, "this whole place was just a copy of Tokyo somewhere else. While this still is a conjecture, that spider woman was probably the one responsible to ensure it continued existing. With her gone, I think we may get back to where we transported from."

Upon hearing this, Sayuki looked frightened. "Does that mean everything will blow up? It always happens like this in light novels and manga…"

Michiru hit her on the head before she could go on. The other glared at her.

"What did I do wrong this time?"

"And you even ask? You're just fear mongering!"

"Aren't you afraid?"

"A bit… but I guess if something truly bad would happen, Satsuki and Jim would have noticed already."

Jim scratched his cheek. "I think you're giving us too much credit… Although you're right that I'm not sensing anything suspicious around."

"Me neither," Satsuki confirmed.

Michiru looked triumphantly at her friend. "See? Nothing to worry about!"

"You two…" Yumiko interjected, "I think you're forgetting something important…"

"Really? What?"

Yumiko spoke slowly while she attempted to keep her embarrassment at bay. "You know, if we go back to the real world, there will be people here. And there's the the fact that I'm…"

"Ah, right!" Sayuki snapped her fingers. "I knew that we were forgetting about it!"

On the other hand, Michiru said nothing until she realized what Yumiko had meant. Then she let out a high pitched scream.

"Du… dummy!" she stuttered, "Don't talk like it's nothing! This is important! What… what should we do? What if… what if…"

Yumiko sighed. "Jim, can you still use that trick like you did in Kyoto? Let's go back to my house before Michiru faints…"

The man's laughter echoed across the empty parking. "You girls are too funny, really! You should get paid to do this!"

Satsuki groaned. "Let's just get moving. I have no intention of becoming famous with an arrest for crimes against public decency."

The way back to Yumiko's house was uneventful, and everyone in the group welcomed that much needed change of pace. Soon after they left the department store, that whole strange world they had been locked in for the past hours had disappeared, replaced by the Tokyo they used to know. Apparently no sign of what had taken place had remained: there were no traces of the damage that occurred during both their escape and their battle, and all the buildings were in pristine condition. People walked by, talked and hurried like always, completely unaware of Yumiko and the others thanks to what Jim had done.

For Yumiko, it almost seemed like a dream she had just woken up from. Only the pain from her body and the state she was in reminded her that it had been real. And although everything was now over, her mind was not at ease. That strange, displeasing feeling she had experienced when she let the Fiend inside her soul… it had been accompanied by a change she could not define. But she was sure it had occurred.


She stopped in her tracks and looked left and right. Did someone call her?

Satsuki walked next to the girl. "What's the matter? Are you feeling tired?" she asked.

Yumiko shook her head vigorously as she tried to pull herself together. Did she truly hear a voice echoing in her head? Had that been the Fiend, or something else? These unanswered question lingered in her thoughts, but no answer ever came from neither the Fiend nor anything else.

She concluded it was just because of fatigue. "No, it's nothing," she answered.

Eventually they arrived in front of Yumiko's house. Having made sure there was no threat in the area, Jim and Satsuki saw the three girls off.

As soon as they were inside, Jim glanced behind his shoulder. "What do we do about whoever's been following us this whole time?"

"I can't make sure where it is. It's very faint," Satsuki observed, "I can tell it's different from before. Definitely unlike what we have seen so far."

"Equally dangerous, perhaps? What can you tell?"

"Nothing openly hostile." Satsuki brought a finger to her lips. "If I were to make a guess… curiosity?"

"No one would be curious about us unless they knew something."

"It's definitely a possibility."

"Do you want to check it out?"

Satsuki nodded, but then uttered an exclamation of disappointment. "I've lost track of it. Can you still pinpoint its location?"

"Unfortunately, it's the same for me. It has vanished."

"At least, we know now that it wasn't a direct threat. And it's actually good, considering our current state. Either way, we should be even more careful from now on."

"I agree with you." Jim stretched. "Man, I really need some rest. All this movement made me very tired."

"I'm on the same boat. Shall we get back and report?"

"Sure thing. Once we're done, what about our romantic dinner?"

Satsuki wagged her finger in denial. "Since when did we agree on that?"

"Well, don't I need a reward for saving you?"

"I think 'Thanks' would be enough, wouldn't it?"

Jim slapped his forehead. "Women! Always playing hard to catch."

The woman looked at him sideways. "Perhaps it's time to brush up your tactics."

"Oh, are you doubting my skills?" Jim grinned. "I'll make you regret that…"

"Yeah, yeah." She cut him off with a gesture. "Let's just get back. We've spent enough time chatting here."

Jim laughed out loud as they walked away. Not too far from them, a girl hiding behind a wall watched them in silence. When they were no longer visible, she let out a half-repressed chuckle.

So, it was like she had been told, and like she had seen. That accursed place. The folly of the creatures that had roamed within. The blasphemies that infected the world. Those people were the root cause of everything. And one of them… She knew her too well.

Yumiko Hasegawa.

Finding out out that such a girl had become a vessel for the impure kind of surprised her. But her duty was absolute. The mere existence of the impure was an unforgivable sin. There was only one action possible.

"Yumiko Hasegawa," she murmured, "You and your ilk will be cleansed."

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