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The following is a novelization of the roleplay [WHISPERS OF THE NIGHT] , and by extension, its predecessor [GATHERS UNDER NIGHT], though the cast featured here will be taken from the former.

This work will feature characters created by a multitude of different creators, and aims to weave all their wonderful designs together to create an equally wonderful narrative. A specific list of all creators, and their characters, involved in this specific rendition of the concept can be found below.

@DevVoid ~ Liu Katoru
@=Nightshade= ~ Miharu Kozuki
@Gold The Dragonite ~ Eji Hoshino
@Cmeriwether ~ Mizuko & Junko Shirogetsu
@Void_Nugget ~ Arthur Cunningham
@| Korutesu | ~ Kinoko Rusuban
@Banan-chan ~ Kotori Yami
@D34N.U5R ~ Daisuke Kakashi (renamed Daisuke Kurogane)
@RhythmThief ~ Akio Furusawa

Note that some small changes have been to some characters to enrich their arcs and the overall narrative!

Critique, feedback, and general opinions are all incredibly welcome, and above all, I hope you enjoy!

Reference to Adult Themes
Reference to Depression
Reference to Suicide
Reference to Domestic Abuse
Mild Bad Language
 
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Chapter 1 - Akio Furusawa

Monday, October 16th

So, Hachiko. I must’ve been around seven - that Ultraman T-shirt from my sixth birthday was starting to bear battle scars from my escapades on the playground - and I was…well, I was confused.

It was just some random old statue of an Akita you could’ve found dang near anywhere, right?

Maybe having picked up on my indifference, Dad sat me down on this bench, this very same bench, his eyes casting out into the busy scramble crossing, and started speaking in that low, gravelly voice that may as well have been a lullaby.

As he began recounting the famous tale, Mom, having materialized by my side at some point, handkerchief in hand, began to dab across my increasingly blurry eyes, the very same eyes I find myself drying now.

Dad nodded in silence, as if my tears were indication of a story well woven. We sat there, the three of us, our eyes focused on the monument before us, that had been given a new, tragic quality. My chest was starting to hurt.

“For nine years,” my father began after a while. “For nine whole years he waited. He waited, and waited, and waited for his owner, the only man he’d ever loved, to come home back to him.”

I must have been loudly sobbing by now, because the next thing I remember was Mom’s arms around me. Tight. Shaking. Even then, I was suppressing the strangest suspicion that my father was referring to much more than just Hachiko, though I couldn’t possibly have known back then.

The last thing I remembered was Dad’s eyes on me. That moment just might be the first occasion I can recall him crying.

“Be like Hachiko, my son.” He managed between choked breaths. Mom was shuddering even harder.

“Be like Hachiko.”

Now, I find myself putting my handkerchief away into my inside pocket, fumbling around with the stray bits of tissue and two wrapped pieces of candy Yakky gave me the other day. The square was getting more packed by the minute, looking to crescendo into the morning rush hour. This was my cue.

As if paying my respects to the ceaselessly loyal canine, I leaned forward into a curt bow directed at the immortalized Akita dog, catching the bewildered looks of some passersby. Satisfied nonetheless, I took off into the Scramble Crossing, finding myself absorbed into the stampede.




After having politely shimmied and pardon, excuse me ‘d my way out of the parade of salarymen and women, I took the usual left after the 104 Building into Higashioji Street, soon catching sight of my fellow students adorned in the signature navy blazer of Tensei High.

No other school in the Shibuya area could match the familiar golden shield, emblemed with a regal looking horse coloured in white engraved on the breast pocket. Or so I was told by the recruiter.

Talk of ‘I’m screwed for these midterms’ and ‘Did she send you this video’ warped and wefted through the avenue, until I’d finally arrived at the gates. Putting on my best expression, I transformed; shoulders down, chin up, torso open, cadence cheerful, just like I’d practiced.

Good.

Next, I began sauntering down the hallway.

With a few nods, some heys, what’s up, no ways later, I was soon facing my locker. After a few turns and twists of the dial, I dismissed the odd sensation that something had changed about the storage space, instead opting to lift the gargantuan tome that was my calculus textbook into my grossly under-equipped schoolbag.

As I did so, the glint of something metallic, shiny dropping to the floor with a few distinct clinks sliced into view. Dragging the bag’s strap off of my weary shoulder, I allowed gravity to drop to the ground with a steady thud, as I crouched down to examine the artefact of interest.

The cold steel of the item sent a chill down my fingers, my eyes scanning the image of a dark purple circle, with a bright, particularly incongruous depiction of a rising sun smack dab in the middle.

It seemed, to me, to be some sort of badge, and not the cutesy, stylish ones some of the first year girls had been parading around. For what purpose this new kind served, I could only conjecture.

Unless Rusuban and the other council members decided to recruit a secret society among second years, then I concluded somebody must have simply dropped it as they were passing by.

So when, after 5 or so minutes of standing by my locker, no owner came by to claim the trinket, I supposed I may as well hold onto it, though I can’t say for certain what drove me to that conclusion, nor what caused to me to think that I may come to regret it.




“If you need advice, I’m all ears, y’know?” Nakamura declared triumphantly. “Heck, maybe we can hook you up with one of Junko’s girlfriends. I’m sure one of ‘em will be willing to date even your ugly ass!”

Yakky, brandishing a rolled-up magazine embellished with a particularly tasty-looking rendition of beef tongue with salty green onion sauce, proceeded to smack the innocent document against Nakamura’s arm, causing the latter to wince dramatically between his jeers.

“Cut it! You just got lucky. Hell if I know what she even sees in your punk ass,” Yakky replied, smiling. “Sure as hell can’t be your intelligence.”

“If intelligence was what really mattered, our resident nerd over here would be getting his own soap commercial right about now,” Nakamura huffed, to which our ‘resident nerd’, Ryuzaki, shrugged indifferently in reply, his eyes snapping back to the handheld device in his hands.

We get a lot of flack for being shallow, but I’ll tell ya, chicks are just as bad.” Nakamura continued. “Intelligence? They ain’t looking for chess partners – they’re looking for someone popular, strong… someone other girls want. They want you as a trophy, dude. Something to prove their worth to the outside world. That’s all.“

At this declaration, we all remained quiet, either in silent assent, or weary of voicing our true opinions for fear of dragging up memories Nakamura had expressed explicit desire never to be spoken of again.

“So,” I began, attempting to change the direction of conversation, “When are the two lovebirds heading out on their first date?”

Nakamura smiled, almost appreciative of the change in topic.

“Dude, I’m takin’ her to Central tonight. Why’d you think I got all that homework done in advance? I’m tellin’ ya, if I press all the right buttons…”

He then began to bite his bottom lip, slapping his palms together with gusto, all the while cooing and moaning dramatically. Profound laughs began to erupt from the group, surely in spite of ourselves, as Nakamura took the positive reception as encouragement to add even more vigor to his performance.

“Wait, Nakky-kun ~! I’m sensitive theeere ~ “ he crooned. I blamed the lack of breath in my lungs for distracting me from imagining what Junko would say, would feel, if she were here with us now. If we would still feel comfortable doing what we currently were.

The sound of the bell suddenly resonated through the building, floating up through the hallways and across the rooftop space we found ourselves in.

“Go time,” Nakamura sighed, seemingly disappointed.

I cleared my throat.

“Anyone up to head down to Tipsy Tose after class?” I offered. “Hear they got a brand new game installed after… you know.”

Some things were best left in the past.

“No good,” admitted Yakky. “Home Ec Club. Gotta take my kitchen mastery to an even higher level!”

The rest of us nodded in understanding after sharing knowing looks at each other. He wasn’t fooling anybody.

“Anime and Manga Club screening today,” then replied Ryuzaki, as verbally conservative as ever.

“Another time.” Nakamura eloquently concluded on my behalf.

“No problem,” I lied. “Let’s go again some other time.”

With that, I exchanged final see you laters and even a good luck, use protection!, as I’m meant to, before heading off to Algebra with Mr. Inoue, Ryuzaki in tow.

It was looking like another lonely evening in the library.
 
Chapter 2 - Kinoko Rusuban

Monday, October 16th

As I was saying, cordyceps – if cordyceps get to you, that’s when you know you’re screwed in the most thorough sense of the word.

You would usually find them in the odd woodland or two, growing on the grassy forest floor, winding across the fallen trees, sometimes even infiltrating the vegetation of an unsuspecting agriculturist.

In the case of the latter, perhaps we should dismiss the unfortunate repercussions such an event entails for another time.

In the case of the former, the fungi exhibit a fascinating and somewhat gruesome parasitic behaviour.

They infect their host organisms, typically insects like ants, beetles, or caterpillars. Once infected, the fungal spores penetrate the host's body and begin to grow.

After infecting the host, Cordyceps fungi grow within the body, eventually taking over the host's central nervous system. This control over the host's behaviour forces it to move to an optimal location for the fungus to grow and spread.

Just imagine it – your mind and body slowly being gnawed at, gorged on until you’re nothing more than a husk. A hollowed out puppet. How would that feel?

I had the slightest urge to ask these girls that very same question, though I soon concluded their noggins would surely begin to explode if they began to contemplate anything other than oh, ehm, gee, I have that exact same sweater and he’s so, like, weird but it’s kinda hot.

So I opted to raise the corners of my lips into my standard, winning smile instead. It was like a system reset for the drones, and it had yet to fail me.

“How did you ladies find class today? As much as I enjoy mathematics, it’s like Inoue wants us to doze.” I began, dropping my pitch into a low, silky smooth ripple. “Guess I have a date with the library ~”

They began to aww and coo as if I was a kitten licking my testicles.

“You’re so diligent, Rusuban-senpai,” warbled the one who’s name I’d forgotten, the one in the volleyball team with the nice legs.

“That’s our future prez!” declared another jauntily, her sizable chest bouncing up and down with the rest of her body energetically.

“Geez, enough already.” I moaned after the praises had gone on for just long enough, ruffling my turquoise locks in the standard I know you’re in love with me but I’ll feign ignorance manner, ensuring my palms stayed open.

The latter was a visual body language signal that spoke to our ancestral roots; an open palm meant that the person wasn’t holding any weapons, thus likely meant no harm, increasing your perception of their trustworthiness.

Why else do you think cops insist that you put your hands up? Though, if I may nitpick, this little trick doesn’t account for the fact that, in the here and now, the unseen blade is by far the deadliest.

“Anyway, I’m off to the council room. You girls take care now ~” I winked, before sauntering down the hallway.

Whatever they replied with didn’t matter; I could practically feel their hungry eyes digging into me, mentally undressing me, melding me into their most desirable fantasy like a ball of clay being given form.

Returning to my earlier train of thought, I concluded that I’ll likely never know what it feels like to be corrupted, invaded, manipulated in the way that cordyceps is capable of.

Perhaps because that power already belongs to me.




The council room always felt slightly quaint to me, adorned with aged oak furniture that bore the marks of countless meetings.

Sunlight filtered through the slender square windows, casting elongated shadows that danced along the walls, a silent audience to the discussions that unfolded within.

The air carried a faint scent of polished wood, mingling with the subtle aroma of aged paper from the stacks of documents neatly arranged on the mahogany meeting table at the room's center.

In other words, it was a space steeped in heaps and heaps of utterly pointless decisions made by children who wanted to roleplay the politicians they saw on TV.

“Good afternoon everyone,” I greeted, pushing the door shut quietly behind me. Before me stood council members from the first year all the way up to our third year president, Minoru Ryousuke. He was as wishy-washy and ineffective as they come, though as you can imagine, that equally made him a trivial target.

My position as his successor was all but guaranteed. The elections later in the year would be a formality and nothing more.

“Nice of you to join us,” spoke a dark voice from the other side of the room, leaned against the window, blocking out the sun.

The colour of Daisuke’s eyes resembled his sorry excuse for a personality perfectly; a dull, unnuanced maroon.

In truth, I found him to be an insufferable bundle of self-pity and angst; over what, a run-in with some bone-headed ruffians and a stolen crush? How juvenile.

Regardless, he was assigned to me as my vice-rep, with myself as the overall representative for the cohort, thus, I had to play my role, and play it I did.

“My apologies, I was speaking with some of the first years about some problems they were having with the curriculum.” I lied.

At my invisible mind your own damn business retort, he raised his back off the wall and gave me a knowing look.

“Yeah, I bet you taught them how to unzip their skirts real good, eh Prez?” he jeered, smirking in a way that almost made my right hand ball up into a fist.

“That’s enough,” spoke Mizuko, her voice carrying the complexity and emotion of a punctured tire on a desert road. She gave the both of us a hard, icy glare before shifting her attention to her superior, who had, as expected, been looking in the other direction sheepishly, pretending not to see anything.

Ahem, that’s right,” spoke the coward. “No fighting. You two are a team – as are we all – and thus, it’s imperative we function as one.”

I was almost impressed by his display – it seemed to me that he finally went and picked up a thesaurus.

“Back to matters at hand.” Ryousuke continued. “I simply wanted to congratulate you all on your efforts over the last two weeks regarding the smoking in the bathrooms. Thanks to us, the appropriate signage has been placed, and the perpetrators in question have been reprimanded accordingly. Thank you once more for all of your hard work.”

I nodded, and began to clap, my winning smile prompting the rest of the sheep to follow suit.

Except the resident edgelord, of course, who instead opted to turn around and stare out of the window, as if searching for the answer behind his acutely meaningless existence.

“Our next meeting will occur here at the same time as usual. That will be all.”




Now free from that absolute snoozefest of a meeting, I was preparing to begin my favourite portion of the day when I felt Daisuke’s obsidian glare boring into the back of my head. I was getting tired of this guy.

“Yo.” he began, not moving to increase the canyon of space that lay between us.

“How may I help you, Kurogane-kun?” I managed after taking a sharp breath. He paused for a moment, as if appraising me before continuing.

“The smoking thing. That guy – Liu Katoru, or whatever his name is. He didn’t deserve suspension all of last week. That cig clearly wasn’t his.”

Was that… sympathy I was beginning to hear? From him, of all people? I suppose there’s some secret pact of solidarity between miscreants.

“I’m afraid we have no way of proving that,” I declared, logical and measured as a leader should be. “With nobody able to corroborate his claims of innocence, and the damning evidence provided, it was only rational to assume he was among the guilty.”

“Whatever.” Kurogane replied, seemingly as exasperated by the interaction as I was.

As he turned around to disappear into whatever pitch black cavern he crawled out of, I took notice of something in his hand, the glint of it still familiar.

“Wait,” I commanded in spite of myself. “What’s that thing you’re holding there? I received one too.”

I dug into my own breast pocket, revealing an identical, circular looking badge with the dark purple backdrop.

The green illustration of a fungi revealed itself back at me. In fact, it was what began my train of thought on cordyceps to begin with, though nobody should’ve been aware of my expertise in botany. Had I been more careless than I thought?

In response to my interest, he smirked and shrugged flippantly.

“Heck if I know – found it in my locker this morning. Who knows, maybe someone’s after us?” he mocked, before finally taking his leave. Did his badge have the image of plant too, perhaps? It was all so strange.

Shoving the mysterious object back into my pocket, alongside the anxious thoughts it had given birth to, I was spinning around in the direction of the library when I felt a soft, fleshy impact behind me.

“Woops!” spoke the man, wearing a gray polo and cargo trousers, mop and bucket in hand. “Watch where you’re going there, sonny!”

“Ah, pardon me, I wasn’t watching where I was going.” I admitted courteously. The man’s rugged face was unfamiliar to me. What happened to the old janitor? And when had this new one appeared behind me?

“No problem, just be sure to keep your eyes open, eh sonny?” He advised, before preparing to clean up after the mess of a few hundred teenagers.

Shaking off the hysteria this entire badge business had enveloped around me, I instead opted to head to my next engagement, or more accurately, my next conquest.

I still felt the janitor’s eyes on me, however, as I began to walk.
 
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Chapter 3 - Eiji Hoshino

Monday, October 16th

Calculus, like success, is simply a matter of confidence.

Do you know what you want? Are you sure you’re going to get it? Are you willing to employ any means necessary? Use every trick in the book, every tool in the box?

You can practice and practice all you want, but it’s absolutely useless if there’s no solid foundation of self-belief to begin with. When shit hits the fan, you’re the only person you can count on.

At least, that’s what I told myself as my head bobbed from textbook to notebook, my fingers weaving their way against the uneasy currents of differentiation, integration, and vector calculus.

Eventually, I had to release the sigh I’d been building up. Rusuban had kept me waiting once again.

Despite being our second year rep, punctuality seemingly wasn’t one of his strong suits, especially when it came to our library study sessions. By now, I’d simply learnt to get started on my lonesome if I had any hope of getting things done.

He’d come strolling in some five, ten minutes late rattling off any old excuse about council duty this, or lowerclassmen that. I’d long stopped trying to deduce whether he was lying to me or not, it really didn’t matter.

What did matter was that my time was being wasted.

So when Rusuban fell breezily into his seat opposite my own across the table, a good half hour en retard, I was just about ready to make my way over to Saki’s house to get some actual work done.

“Hoshino, I-“

I held up my palm.

“Save it, rep. It’s clear these study sessions aren’t all that important to you. Why don’t we just call it quits while we’re ahead?” I asked, filtering my voice of any and all hints of emotion. “I’m sure you can find someone else who better suits your schedule, no?”

“My apologies, Hoshino!” he admitted, putting on those silky sycophantic tones that had the first years practically drooling over him. “I know there’s no excuse for my behaviour, but…”

I felt something settle gently on my left shoulder. My spine shuddered.

“Let’s not overreact, now, hm…?” he advised. I thought there had been the slightest edge in his voice I had never heard before, though it vanished as quickly as it appeared.

I took a sharp breath before speaking. His hand hadn’t moved.

“Get your mitts off me and maybe I’ll raincheck round housing that pretty face of yours,” I threatened, though if his chuckles were anything to go by, it didn’t register as one.

“My, my. I see the Golden Tiger’s fangs are as sharp as ever.” he snarked, before relenting and retracting his arm. “I’ll have you know physical touch is one of my love languages.”

“And punctuality’s one of mine,” I retorted automatically. “Look – I can’t keep reminding you about this. If you’re gonna ask me to help you study, least you could do is show up on time. Yes? No?”

In response to my admonishment, he leaned back in his chair and sighed.

“You have a point – as our representative, I should be making a greater effort to be prompt in my appearances. I’ll endeavour to make an improvement, Hoshino-san.”

I couldn’t help but recoil.

“I asked for a yes or no, not a monologue. Whatever. We’re going over chapter 10.”



“So, Hoshino,” Rusuban began randomly, splintering my hard-cultivated focus. “How do you feel about Nakamura and that first year getting together?”

It was in moments like these that I seriously began to question how much I really needed the ‘study buddy to the student council representative’ boost to my college application.

“What about Nakamura?” I asked, opting to get straight to the heart of the matter. Ever since Ayumi’s dumb prediction, I’ve had to speak this jackass’ name a few times too many.

Rusuban held up his palms in innocence.

“I- well, I just thought…” he trailed off.

“What, that I have a thing for that gorilla?” I sighed. “As if. Maybe when he manages to actually beat me at something instead of complaining about me to his cronies all the time, I’ll register him as an actual human being. As of right now, he’s just entertainment.”

In fact, one such sidekick of Nakamura’s was situated a few seats down from us – the orange-haired, cheerful looking one that always seemed to stand at the back, as if scared of coming to the forefront of their failed circus troupe.

He was grappling with a particularly difficult problem, it seemed, if his intense stare at the textbook before him was any indication.

Back to the nuisance at hand, perhaps I had been too harsh in my tirade, as for the first time since the invention of sliced bread, Rusuban was speechless. I shrugged.

“…soooo, you’re indifferent about the whole affair?” he verified tentatively. “I’ve heard the girl he’s with is pretty popular among the first years. It’s completely okay if you’re-“

My hand had found the hardcover of the textbook, pushing it down and slamming the tome shut. I don’t know why I agreed to this.

“Listen, I’m done for the day.” I declared, as monotonal as I could manage, clearing the space of my personal effects.. “Keep working on the bonus question. If you have too much trouble, look at the solution, note it down, and we can go over it tomorrow.”

“W-wait, just-“

I was already out of the door by the time Rusuban started mouthing his useless apologies. I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders.



I’ve always loved walking through Shibuya at this time, drinking in that gentle evening hustle and bustle of trains whizzing past in the distance, pedestrians speeding their way to this place and that, eager to savour the few hours of free time away from responsibility they’re rationed each day.

Today, however, I found myself in no particular rush, content to sway to and fro, wherever the wind carried me. I couldn’t help but think that the later I arrived home, the better.

I was stood at the small shopping square underneath 104, eying a cute pair of sneakers that would go great with my wardrobe when I noticed the outline of another person, stood erect behind me, glaring back at me in the store window’s reflection.

After confirming it wasn’t a figment of my imagination, I turned around slowly.

“Can I help you?” I began, more impatiently than planned, eyes fixed on the shorter girl in front of me, dressed stylishly in a denim jacket, white undershirt, fresh ripped jeans and a comfy looking pair of sneakers.

On her handbag strap lay a familiar looking dark purple pin, the same design as the one I’d found in my locker this morning. The image on hers was different, though – some kind of zigzag pattern the same bold shade of blue as her long hair, appearing akin to a bolt of lightning.

It took me a few beats to remember exactly who she was.

“I like this store too,” Junko began breezily, as if I’d said nothing. “It’s called Joli Becot. French. My best friend, Emiko, bought some flats from here, and they look stunning.”

“Cut the shit,” I replied sternly. “What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be frolicking in a meadow somewhere with your boyfriend?”

Her smile then became so sickeningly sweet it was borderline terrifying.

“Now, now,” she chided, unfazed. Between herself and Rusuban, I was beginning to think I’d lost my edge. “Just because Ryota chose me doesn’t mean the two of us still can’t be friends, you know? After all, there’s nothing more tragic than to see such a pretty girl wallow in jealousy.”

Just who the fuck did she think she was?

“You sound awfully happy for someone dating a literal zoo animal,” I rebutted, bile seeping into my enunciation. “Be sure to feed him his bananas, or we’ll be getting the next instalment of King Kong faster than expected.”

Without warning, she began to laugh- no, cackle in a manner so haughty and ostentatious I truly had to wonder whether she was the reincarnation of a 1960’s housewife.

“It’s unbecoming of a girl to speak so crudely,” she began soon after. “Perhaps work on your speech patterns is in order, lest you chase off another potential suitor ~”

By the time I had organized a witty reply, Junko had vanished into the sea of passersby, the only evidence of her ever having been here the anger flared in my chest, the fury trembling in my fists.

She won this time. I wasn’t going to be heading home for a long while yet.
 
(Please be advised, this chapter in particular features some references to mental health, depression, suicide, and domestic abuse alongside mild strong language. A full list of content warnings can be found in the first post if you'd like more information)

Chapter 4 - Liu Katoru

Monday, October 16th

Liars. The actual definition of depression is, and I quote, “a mental health condition that causes a persistently low or depressed mood and a loss of interest in activities that once brought joy.”

That’s what they’re not getting. Just because I’m not some bubbly, cheesy popstar wannabe like the rest of ‘em doesn’t make me some nutcase.

“No,” I replied to Dr. Takeuchi. It was taking everything I had to stop my eyes from rolling. “No, I wouldn’t agree with that assessment. I’m not depressed.”

The good doctor then leaned back and sighed, his eyes flooded with what he probably thought was sympathy. In truth, the show of pity made my blood begin to boil.

“I know it may seem ridiculous, or perhaps even painful to hear,” he began, choosing his words carefully. “Though I would still give it some serious thought. There’s no shame in admitting it. Knowing exactly what the problem is counts as half the battle, you know?”

All sage advice, I concluded, better suited for someone who was actually depressed, suicidal, and actually gave a shit.

Though, by now I knew the best way to get through these mandatory timewasters was to nod and say ‘yes’ as much as possible. To open my mouth here was a mistake - I just couldn’t hack the thought of the Student Wellbeing bozos adding yet another defect to my already growing list.

The good doctor checked his watch, and began to rise out of his black swivel chair. He almost looked as relieved as I felt.

“That’s our time. Take this.” he handed me a colorful looking poster with some kids my age, or rather actors paid to
look like kids my age, decorated about the front. “Give this a read, and let me know what you think in our next session.”

I decided to take my own advice. A nod, a yes, and even a goodbye later (get a load of me!), I quickly found myself slapped by the chilly autumn wind that swept through Tokyo around this time of year, feeling the bite of the breeze numb my fingers, the foreshadowings of frost assaulting my face.

I guess all that jabbering about climate change might have some substance to it; every year it felt as though this raggedy cloak that barely passed for a jacket was getting worse and worse at its job.

I’d ask for a new one if Mom and Dad gave even the slightest shit about me, but since I have yet to spot any pigs in flying formation, I won’t be holding my breath.



The wooden planks holding our front door together were so rinky-dink a squirrel could break through, nevertheless I’m not sure he’d find anything of use.

Heck, even our trash would have nothing desirable, unless the rodent in question was fond of empty pots of the cheapest instant ramen money could buy.

There were evenings where I wondered how the brand we bought the junk from ever even turned a profit, selling those things so cheap, but I suppose the knowing that wouldn’t change much.

Even if I learned they were using seagull shit as the ‘secret ingredient’ printed dynamically on the box, I’d still go on buying them. Funny how poverty works.

“I’m home,” I announced to nobody in particular. I felt something shuffle in response. I was unable to deduce whether it was a rat or one of my sorry excuse for a parent(s).

“You better not have caused any trouble on the first day back.” The woman that unfortunately gave me life warned, ever so loving and affectionate to her only living child. Her eyes were wet and reddening. She’d been crying again, among other things. “Or else-“

“I behaved myself, alright?” I moaned, much too tired for any of this crap. Plus, it only seemed polite to let her get back to her latest episode of wallowing in self-pity. It’s always awkward interrupting somebody during one of those.

I only needed to know one thing – whether it was safe for me to be here right now.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked, allowing as little disdain as possible to seep through into my articulation.

“Went out to look for work,” Mom replied, back turned as she disappeared around the corner into the living room.

Nice talk.

After some mulling it over, I judged it should be okay; so long as I jerry-rigged the aged locks on my door a bit, made sure the window stays loose, and woke up before he did, maybe I’d actually live to make best use of my new bad-boy status as a resident bathroom smoker.

Of course, that cig wasn’t mine – I shouldn’t need to tell you that – my day-to-day involves enough threats to my welfare to begin with.

Though, Rusuban and his cronies figured that happening to be in the bathrooms at the same time as the others (last time I’m ever skipping Geography, I swear) counts as joint enterprise, so here we are.

Our country’s legal system is a real bitch, huh?




Well, the show’s over. Roll the curtains. I can’t do this shit.

I dragged the thin quilt off of my body, swinging my legs over to the side of my bed, getting up with a creak. Sleep was evading me.

As promised, I fiddled with the locks a bit to ensure I didn’t get any unexpected verbal assaults from the big man downstairs. Unless he happened upon a free (or heavily discounted) sledgehammer on his travels ‘looking for work’, I trusted that I wouldn’t be seeing any of his scrawny, ugly mug anytime soon.

If shit hit the fan, I’d just head over to Daiki’s as usual. Well, assuming Ayumi wasn’t there. Then it just got awkward.

I was gazing out of the window when I heard the front door open, and slam shut. Fuck.

As quietly as I could muster, I crept to my bedroom door, leaning the side of my head into it just deep enough to hear the conversation downstairs carried through the thin walls of my abode.

“How was it?” Mom asked. I didn’t need to see her to know she was just as frightful as I regrettably was.

“No luck,” Dad gruffed. I heard the plomf of something heavy crashing onto the sofa. “They all want 20-somethings fresh from college or wherever the fuck they go these days.”

There was a pause. Mom and I had learned the hard way – if you don’t know what to say to Dad, you best say nothing at all.

“Is he here?” Dad asked, spilling extra poison into the pronoun. I could practically hear my chest thumping. “Hmph, I guess the little miscreant ran over to the Hinata’s. Why don’t they just come over here and tell us to our faces that we’re shit parents?”

Firstly, because you’d scream bloody murder and shout enough expletives to curse their lineage for fifteen generations like the utterly useless waste of life you are, and secondly, Mom freaking covered for me. Why? If he finds out she was lying…

No. I won’t let that happen. Daiki’ll have an earful for me for showing up that early, but I have no choice. I gotta get out of here first thing tomorrow.

Cautiously satisfied, I backed away from the door slowly, making sure no hints of life spilled through the door down into the living room. Finding my way back onto the haggard mattress, I hid under the covers and pressed my face down into the pillow.

As sleep was finding me, a cold, metallic sensation coursed through my fingers, down into my palm.

My hand had somehow found that weird metallic pin that was in my desk at homeroom. The circular object held a single striking image at its centre – the silhouette of a person, shadowed by an even greater, more jagged, darker outline of the same figure.

At first, I thought it was some kinda prank. Maybe some weirdo had a bone to pick with me, wanted to warn me that he’s ‘always watching’ or some weak shit like that.

Now, though, I can’t help but see it as a symbol of strength; of an individual hiding a mightier, perhaps darker version of themselves within that manifests at a time when they need it most.

Perhaps all that anime I’ve been watching at Daiki’s was turning me into a nerd, I thought, as I finally felt my limbs lose their tenseness, my eyes drooping down into darkness.

Though when I awoke again soon after, this time laid out on the cold concrete sidewalk of Center Street, I figured the time for a power like that to reveal itself would be right fucking now.


 
Chapter 5 - Akio Furusawa

???

I was dreaming of her again.

In the quiet recesses of my sleep, where it felt like reality melded with my imagination, her presence wasn’t something ethereal, or understated, like a whisper of the night.

No, it demanded attention, exploding like a dazzle of flame and power.

There she was, dancing through the corridors of my mind, her laughter a dulcet melody, her eyes displaying the heat and warmth of an inferno.

But dreams, like the morning mist, vanish with the dawn.

They leave behind that pain – that ache that lingers, comprised of our fantasies and desires left regretfully unfulfilled, prompting you to wonder where exactly reverie ends and reality begins.

Though perhaps the two were more interlinked than I anticipated, I mused, as on this occasion in particular, Eiji felt like more than just the distant dream she’d always been to me – no, now she felt material.

She lay there, held like a heaven, seemingly unconscious but now coming to, alongside the silhouettes of other figures around her. Around us.

Dazed, I began to feel an unwelcoming, gravelly sensation pulse through my body. I wasn’t on my bed anymore. I wasn’t at home anymore.

If the storefront of Hong Kong Star, dubbed Yakky’s “second home”, to my left was any indication, this was Center Street.

Devoid of the colour and animation that usually inhabited the space, I was left to wonder where all the people – where all the life had been taken to.

Aside from myself and the nine others dotted around, each in a seemingly similar state of bewilderment, the air was deathly still with inactivity.

“I-is everyone okay?” I found myself saying, somehow convinced that this was no longer a mere fantasy. “Did someone bring us out here?”

“Fuck if I know.” confessed one. I felt my eyes widen upon taking in his otherworldly appearance; his tattered white shirt, black suit pants and shoes almost had me chuckling in revelation.

“Ahh, this is some kind of Halloween prank right? That’s why we’re all dressed up like this!” I laughed, gesturing to the man before me as an example. “I gotta say, I actually thought your eyes were yellow! Nice contacts. What gel do you even use to get your – “

“This is no joke,” chimed another, a taller woman with semi-long dark blue hair, her eyes as cold and unfeeling as the breeze flowing through the dilapidated avenue. “In what world would there be absolutely no traffic in one of the most frequented parts of Tokyo? Let alone every single store shuttered up and abandoned…”

“BE-BEHIND YOU!” a different girl with flowing red hair shouted, her throat choking on panic. I looked around to see who she was talking to, before finding everyone’s eyes looking in… my direction.

I took a sharp breath and span around. My palms flew up to cover the involuntary scream that left my quivering mouth.

I mouthed a silent prayer to God, thanking him that I at least wouldn’t see their facial expressions as it happened – but cursing that today would be the day I saw death with my very own eyes.



The creature – if it can even be called that – was a bubbling, shapeless blob of pitch black darkness, absent of any colour or detail save for the singular white mask, the ones used in theatre, present on what may as well have been its face.

It was growing, building, stretching and expanding upwards until it began towering over me, as if preparing to engulf me whole.

My legs wouldn’t move. My eyes would not shift. My arms would not shield my quivering body. All I did – all I could do – was stand there, motionless, my short existence flashing before my eyes in brief, tender images.

The monster soon became still, as if satisfied by my despair, and in an instant, all I could see, could feel, was darkness. I was dying.

As I surrendered to oblivion, I felt a familiar warmth. It started as a small, fuzzy sensation expanding on the crown of my head, soon enveloping my torso, my legs, my entire being.

Suddenly, the darkness exploded into light, blinding my listless eyes until, when I came to, I was once again sprawled out on the ground, though the warmth had yet to fade. I opened my eyes. Was I dead?

“Am I dead?” I asked Eiji, confused. She was looking down at me with a worried expression on her visage, just having thrown a large, two handed hammer with a long handle to the side, creating a sizeable thud as it hit the ground.

“N-No. At least I don’t think so? I-I mean, if you are dead, then the rest of us probably are too, which means… ahhh shit, but then how did-“ she mused outwardly, her gesticulation wild and alarmed.

“In any case,” she concluded hurriedly. “It’s not safe here. Come on, get up.”

Satisfied with the assessment, I took her hand and rose to my feet, beginning to find my balance, though my breath was still bated from the encounter, both with death and with Eiji.

“I don’t know how, but when I saw you about to get eaten, I…” she recounted. “I felt this weird power within me. Like I could just… zoom over there and destroy whatever that thing was. I gave into it, and the next thing I knew…”

She trailed off, looking in the direction of the large bludgeon she had discarded earlier, now picking it up with surprising ease, given the weight and heft such a weapon would possess.

Letting my hormones get the better of me, I decided now would be a good time took the time to take in her appearance in this strange realm.

Eiji, quite literally, looked like a star, with a white crop top over a black bodysuit, covered in stars of gold outlines on her lower body.

The crop top even displayed a star symbol on her chest, finished off by knee-length boots and a choker.

Though our in-person interactions are unfortunately stained by the context of her bitter rivalry with Nakamura, I strangely felt as though whoever designed this for her must’ve known her on an extremely personal level, and it made me angry that I didn’t.

“You sure you’re okay?” she inquired quizzically, catching my stare. Before I could answer, she inched closer.

“Wait…are you orange-hair? Nakamura’s friend?”

I nodded, unsurprised our shared connection through him was the only reason I was ever the slightest bit relevant to her.

“It seems even in kidnapping, we’re destined to be together ~” a familiar voice chimed. No way.

“Rusuban?!” Eiji exclaimed, deeply puzzled. “What are you- wait-“

She pushed past him, somewhat violently I might add, to scan the faces of the others who, by this point, were either pacing and looking around in alarm, or outwardly indifferent, likely assuming this to actually be a dream. I had long dashed hopes that the latter were correct.

“What the fuck?” she whispered. “Everyone here; we’re students at Tensei!”



Upon her analysis, I instantly remembered where I’d seen the red-haired girl before – Miharu Kozuki, star of last year’s production of Princess Kaguya! Despite being the main character, she seemed to keep little company, as I barely recount seeing her anywhere else in and around school.

The guy with the tattered shirt from earlier – that was Liu Katoru! We had the same homeroom teacher, though he’d been absent for the last week, rumours crediting it to suspension.

All the other faces I had recognized to varying extents, most from simply encountering them during commutes to and from classrooms, clubrooms, the cafeteria… which begged the question, why us?

“I bet this is your doing,” accused Eiji, glaring back at Kinoko.

"You wound me," he sighed dramatically, his tone oddly theatrical given the seriousness of the situation. "We both know Tensei's budget barely stretches to a pack of pencils, let alone hammers or, dare I say, costumes and props for everyone else. We'd sooner see pigs fly in top hats."

Eiji simply grunted in response, seemingly not in the mood for Rusuban’s eerily exuberant demeanour.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree.” spoke Daisuke, Rusuban’s vice-rep, his eyes glaring menacingly in Miharu’s direction. “How did you know he was about to get attacked? Whatever that thing was slipped under everyone else’s radar.”

At his accusation, all eyes became fixed on Miharu. There was a tense silence in the air.

“W-Wait!” she stammered, seemingly confused at how warning me of my impending doom had turned against her. “Didn’t you guys see it too? The stage directions! I-it said hostile creature appears behind orange-haired boy in dark brown robes. You were the only one that matched the description, and I saw something moving underneath you, s-so I –“

She was interrupted by a haughty, demeaning laugh, and instantly I knew who it belonged to. It was nothing like the “seriously hot stuff” Nakamura had once described.

“Stage directions?” Junko jeered. “If you’re going to lie, at least fabricate something believable.”

She wasn’t alone in her skepticism – it appeared that nobody else was buying her explanation. I was afraid of what would happen next.

“Wait,” I interrupted, eager to repay the favour Miharu had previously done me. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. It’s clear there’s more to this place than meets the eye. Why don’t we – “

“Wooow,” said Katoru sarcastically. “She saves your ass once and now you’re in love? Get a grip, dude.”

I felt my teeth grinding.

“Listen to me.” I rebutted, a tad more maliciously than intended. “There’s still too much we don’t know -“

“Which is all the more reason why we need to act swiftly.” judged Mizuko, stood adjacent to her younger sister with arms folded, The junior sibling in question was, curiously, eyeing Eiji.

This was bad. If I didn’t convince them to back off, they just might end up…

“There!” Miharu exclaimed, looking just above her. Either she was as nervous as I was, or my vision was blurring, because I could swear she was glowing red. “Can’t you guys see it?”

I glanced in the direction of her indication, though all I found was the pale moon glaring back down at us, as if watching our futile efforts, as if it knew what fate awaited us in this space.

“No,” informed Arthur, the tall third year with orange hair that had been left to flow freely, an occurrence that, alongside his complete lack of shoes and gloves, seemed dissonant with the otherwise neat butler suit he was wearing. “Please, tell us – what is it you see?”

“I-It says…” she began before pausing. “Billboards, monitors, and various electronic items capable of broadcasting messages begin to fuzz. Enter The Game Master.”

As I turned to share a puzzled look with Eiji, in the corner of my eye I spotted a distinct blot of black, grey, and white, and it took me a few seconds to register the two limbs at its sides, informing me that it was humanoid.

Perhaps what had truly sent the shiver down my spine, however, was the scythe they were carrying; a large, heavy variant with a curved wooden handle and steel blade, the edge’s gleam threatening to rend flesh as easily as shredding paper.

The person beneath the hooded cloak must have spotted me, however, as the head within said hood soon turned in my direction, their face still obscured by shadow.

It was strange – knowing that you were being appraised, assessed, analysed by one whose eyes you yourself cannot even perceive. Strange, and terrifying.

I was saved by the sound of static pulsing through the otherwise sinister silence, just as Miharu had predicted.

We stood there, the ten of us, some fearful, some indifferent, others in between, awaiting the arrival of the foretold Game Master. At some point I had shut my eyes closed and began shaking.

Without warning, the static had cut into silence, before a smooth whirr took its place. I didn’t need to open my eyes to know that they were here.

Their voice was haggard, unsettling, and harmonious all at once. All it took were five words.

“Welcome to the Hollow Night.”

Five words to swallow any semblance of hope we had into a bottomless abyss.
 
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Chapter 6 - Eiji Hoshino

???

I’d been looking for remedies to insomnia, but this was not one I remember reading about.

We stood there, our hearts practically suspended in mid-air, whilst the various electronics in and around the vicinity spurred to life. We had been welcomed into something – the ‘Hollow Night’ - meaning all of this was planned.

Somebody had brought us all here intentionally.

How? Why? I looked to the massive billboard that I’d usually pass on the way to AMX for answers.

“You may be wondering whether this is a dream or reality, though I assure you, what you experience here is no fantasy. “ They began.

There was no clear imaging displayed on any of the screens; our only visual aid being a dark silhouette stood before a grey, hazy backdrop.

“While your physical bodies slumber peacefully under the covers of your beds, your spirits, if you will, are whisked away to this realm.”

I was beginning to feel dizzy, my stomach threatening to lurch, though a bizarre, empty sensation informed me that nothing would come out. I detected a tentative hand on my right shoulder.

“Are you okay?” asked orange-hair, genuine concern spilled out over his features. It almost masked the terror in his eyes, the shakiness in his intonation.

I nodded, and turned my head back towards the explanations of our assumed captor.

“I will warn you now – as you may have already come to discover, this is not the home you all know, despite appearances. In fact, you could not be further from the truth.” they cautioned, their already disquieting voice taking on what seemed to be a hard edge. ”For here, in this realm, you will fight for your very life.”

A thick silence hung in the air, images of the previous encounter scrolling through my tired mind. My knees began to wobble.

The enigmatic spokesperson continued.

“You will encounter many trials and hardships here, my young warriors, but fear not. For I, Juno, will guide the worthy among you to victory and prosperity.”

Juno? What were they saying? The nausea had now exploded into a sharp migraine. I suddenly felt a rocky, hard sensation under my knees. When had I become unable to stand?

I managed to lift my right arm, extended, palm spread out in the direction of orange-hair, only to grab a handful of air.

A glance around revealed that I was not alone in my suffering; the others, from Rusuban to Junko, were all doubled over in anguish.

It seemed we were going to die after all.

“Time is even shorter than expected,” commented Juno, the breeziness in their voice incongruous to our agony. “Quickly – you must initiate physical contact with a fellow player. Your EXS will handle the rest and form the Pact. Now, children!”

At this point I cared little about what they were saying – the pain was becoming too deep, threatening to engulf my entire being. I was fighting to keep my eyes open.

Before long, I’d lost the battle, falling and drifting away into a sea of nothingness. It was oddly peaceful.

That is, until I sensed the faintest brush of something thin and leathery on my fingers.




I had been salvaged from the ocean of torment, my lungs catching up to speed before my tortured mind, gasping and begging for air.

I felt a steady grip on my arm – warming, calming, comfortable. As orange-hair - Akio, as I recall from one memory – maintained his contact, I experienced what could only be described as rejuvenation in every part of my weary body, down to my very bones.

“You’re good,” he exhaled desperately, likely reassuring himself as much me. “You’re fine. I don’t know what that was, but we made it.”

The psychological effects of near-death still swimming freely in my exasperated mind, I rose to see similar recoveries occur among my peers.

I glanced back at my presumed saviour, settling our score to one – one.

“That was you, wasn’t it? The brush I felt.” I inquired. In reply, he nodded quickly, cheeks reddening.

What, was he embarrassed to have touched me or something?

“If that’s the case, why don’t you go Pact with someone else?” I muttered under my breath, annoyed, before taking a moment to realize what had just left my mouth.

Pact. The word had rolled off of my tongue so easily despite me not even knowing what it meant.

What did Juno mean by ‘Pact’? I was surprising myself at how seriously I had been taking this all – though given the fact that this was, by and large, the most visceral dream I had ever experienced, I deduced it was better to be safe than sorry.

Or worse, dead.

As if on cue, the static image that had previously been deathly still began to animate with activity once more. “It seems humanity has become less and less adapted to wield their greatest gift over the years,” Remarked the being. “Nevertheless, in response to your wills to survive, your own EXS reached out to that of another, and formed a connection with them for support; this agreement, this promise, is your Pact.”

Akio and I were… in a Pact? No offense to the guy, but as far as dreams go, this was turning out to be a shitty one alright.

“Your partner will be instrumental in surmounting the obstacles to come – utilize them wisely.” Juno advised.

Utilize?

My thoughts were interrupted by an inhuman, blood-curdling scream erupting from the Scramble Crossing neighbouring us, echoing menacingly through the night breeze.



As quickly as the sound had arrived, it dispersed, carried by the wind through the empty alleyways and avenues of the ‘Hollow Night’, though my heart refused to stop racing.

“With your partnerships formed, I believe you are now ready to begin your journey.” Juno commenced, unwavering. “As discussed, you have been brought here to fight – and fight you will – lest you face erasure. Your task each night is simple – complete the mission I provide to you, eliminating all obstacles in your path.”

“What are we, your henchmen?” Huffed Rusuban, a surprising amount of anger seeping into his usually serene voice.

I supressed the temptation to say Not so cool now, are you?, quickly deciding that understanding the rules of this apparent survival game was a better use of my time.

“To propel you toward that goal, you each have been gifted unique capabilities – powers, if you will – that you can exercise across this domain. These abilities are what is known as ‘EXS’.”

My suspicions were correct - that floaty feeling I got earlier, a sensation that made me feel as light as a feather, was more than just adrenaline pumping through my veins. These weapons… were they extensions of our ‘EXS’ ?

“…Perhaps the best way for you to come to grips with your new abilities would be to test them on live subjects.”

Another scream. This time I could tell it wasn’t coming from the Scramble Crossing; the volume, pitch, and tone all appeared much too thick.

Much too close.

Slowly, I turned around in the direction of the sound. Akio and the others were already backing away, eyes widened in horror.

Behind us, a horde of the same disgusting black creatures that had almost claimed one of our own were drawing near, dragging themselves across the concrete toward their next feast.

I noticed my hammer laying flat on the empty road’s tarmac. When had I dropped it?

I picked it up, my fingers struggling to find their way around its handle, and held onto it tight, for I knew that the next time I dropped it would likely be the last.
 
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Chapter 7 - Miharu Kozuki

???

I was about to die for the ninth time.

In the prelude to what would be my last performance, memories of my short tenure in this cruel world gradually began to reveal themselves to me.

Honing in on one in particular, I found myself transported all the way back to middle school.

This must’ve been around February time, when the excitement of the new year had just begun to expire, resolutions fading away into distant promises, as everyone began to settle back into their previous routines.

I was milling about in the hallway, alone and crestfallen after having received a subpar grade in Chemistry, the sworn enemy of all (sane) students.

The dull, unending pain I had experienced back then was still familiar, the fear of what Mother and Father would say – would do – still fresh in my heart.

Now, to this day I couldn’t tell you why my eyes were drawn to this particular leaflet of the school’s annual production in particular. I had never even seen or read Hamlet. What I can tell you is that something within me yearned to be emancipated – to be unleashed.

I only came to my senses the following Tuesday, discovering myself in the small passage outside the double-doored entrance to the school auditorium, alongside a cluster of nervous preteens.

What had I done?

By the time I had recalled the all-nighters reading over the script, blocking the most monumental scenes in my head, and jotting down character analysis, I heard the auditorium doors swing open.

“Kozuki? Do we have Miharu Kozuki?” a bespectacled woman called. My heart sank, though I raised my hand in spite of myself.

I was then ushered into the lion’s den, the closing of the doors behind sealing my fate. Plodding my way to centre-stage, I gave my name and desired role to the small panel of sat neatly on a rectangular table just in front of the bleachers.

“Give it your best,” I was encouraged, and then…silence. At the realization that this was my cue, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and let go.

In that brief time on stage, I had lived another life - a life full of joy, hardship, love, agony, defeat, and victory all wrapped into one.

From that day on, I wonder, how many lives had I lived? How many deaths had I experienced at the mercy of blades? Heartbreak? Madness? Poison?

And now, the Grim Reaper was calling once again; though which name would he beckon? Which of my masks would he take?

My tale began as Ophelia,

But how shall it be put to bed?

I looked to the stars for an answer,

They answered with the name Red.



There it was again.

As the Noise begin to approach the group, one by one, they flee in varying directions. [Exit Players Upstage Centre, Upstage Left, Upstage Right]

Cowards!

With renewed vigour, I leaped, reaching a height that surprised even myself, twirling in the air as graceful as a swan, before landing Upstage Centre.

I felt the bewildered eyes of my fellow performers upon me – I would inspire them with courage!

“Friends, companions, lend me your ears!” I began my address. “Why doth thou run? We stand at the precipice of peril, where the tempest of fear threatens to consume our spirits whole. Yet amidst this gloom, let not our hearts falter, nor our resolve weaken!”

Reaching behind myself, I unsheathed my blade, a brilliant claymore that dazzled in the moonlight, before sinking it into the ground.

“Like valiant knights, let us not retreat, but stand firm, steeling our souls against the encroaching shadows!” I commanded. “For ‘tis the indomitable spirit that resides within that defines us! E’en if the night be painted crimson with the hues of turmoil and strife, let our courage shine as a beacon in this stygian realm! With valour in our hearts and unity in our cause, we shall defy the odds and etch our names upon the annals of triumph! Let our hearts beat as one, each beat echoing a testament to our resilience, our dauntless resolve! Onward, to our saga's victory!!”

This was the part where they were meant to cheer! Hurrah! Rush into battle! However, all I found were increasingly frightened and bemused expressions among my brethren.

As I was preparing to head into the fray, on my lonesome if necessary, an impassioned battle cry arose from a single warrior among the fearful. I spun in their direction.

“YOU WANT A FIGHT?!” Shouted the blonde-haired soldier, brandishing her bludgeon menacingly toward the incoming horde. “COME AT ME!!”

Without warning, my world was enveloped by luminescence so bright, my hands shot up toward my eyes in defence.

When my vision returned, my eyes fixed once more upon my valiant comrade, now stood as our vanguard, pummeling and swinging her mallet with the ferocity of a golden tiger!

“FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU-“ She bellowed. It struck me as a truly marvelous sight.

Instantly, the orange haired, robed individual she had saved previously dashed into the brawl, shouting away his apprehension and swinging a rather elegant staff into the bodies of any stragglers that somehow escaped the wrath of the demon.

One by one, the previously affrighted band of brothers and sisters threw themselves into battle, until I was the only one that remained.

Satisfied, I released one last cheer.

“To victory!!”



Our battle was legendary.

As one, we breached the front lines of the enemy – one of the blue-haired maidens had provided cover fire, sending small shards of ice flying at their infantry.

Next, myself, the Golden Tiger, and the remaining blue maiden reached their vanguard, the graceful, yet precise swings of the latter’s silver blade quite literally crackling with electrifying power.

As our support, one soldier, to my astonishment, had experienced a profound growth in size, taking on the appearance of a fearsome, furious lycanthrope.

Whilst he began to pounce from position to position, claws and fangs ripping through mass, another rather malicious-looking specialist had his arms inundated with pitch-black flame, tearing through creature after creature, trails of a black inferno in his wake.

Finally – and perhaps the most harrowing of them all – was an individual cloaked in a black and grey robe, their face obscured by the hood of their garment.

By the time I had caught the distant glimmer of their scythe, sweeping through and harvesting the souls of their backline, it was much too late. We had already won.

“Excellent,” The one known as Juno commended, voice booming through the emptied space as we basked in the glory of triumph, panting doggedly. “This will be your first conquest of many, young warriors – remember the sensation. Savour it. I will give you a moment now to recoup.”

With our first battle a landslide victory, I could sense the morale among us begin to climb. Whatever trials this land had in store for us, we would overcome – so long as we remained united as one.

“Everyone…hah…okay?” Spoke the brown-robed boy once more. Upon catching his breath, he stood up to assess the health of our company.

As his eyes scanned our gaggle, they suddenly widened in shock, prompting him to rush over to the shorter of the blue maidens from earlier. She was kneeling, breath bated, clutching at her sides.

“Shirogetsu!” the boy cried. “What’s wrong?”

“I was careless…” the maiden, revealed to be Junko, admitted quietly, a glint of recognition in her eyes as she took a glance toward her caller. Were they already acquainted? “It really hurts!”

I wasn’t sure exactly when her taller counterpart had materialized to her side, though there she was, her once vacant eyes now overcome with worry.

“Quick, let me see!” she commanded.

Shaking her head knowingly, Junko grit her teeth, lifting her hand to reveal a red palm, and an even redder blotch under her vibrant purple kimono, likely crafted from silk.

Her caretaker gasped in shock.

“Wh-Whatever shall we…!?”

“I’ll be fine, sis. We need to…” Junko’s words were painful, struggling. If not for the gravity of the situation, I would be taking pleasure in this, considering she was among my accusers previous.

“Allow me,” Orange robes reassured, kneeling adjacent to Junko’s (assumed older) sister.

Lifting his sceptre, his gentle brown eyes narrowed. With one point of his staff toward the wound, the redness began to fade away, and Junko’s expression gradually began to ease.

“…There,” he exhaled, as if having finally dropped a heavy object he had been lifting onto the floor. “That should do it.”

Junko blinked in surprise, before being lifted up by her equally intrigued sibling. She began tapping the previous location of the wound, verifying its departure, before turning towards her doctor with an incredulous expression.

“I, um, well, thank you.” She managed. Furusawa, right? H-How did you…?”

“I think that’s my power. Or EXS, whatever it’s called. It’s kinda lame I didn’t get fire powers or super speed, but I guess I can heal you guys up whenever you get pushed too far.” He informed, jokingly. “It does get sort of draining though – so I guess I can’t do it too often.”

“I know what you mean,” spoke the one with the tattered shirt, bright yellow eyes in reflection. “Of course, there’s the physical fatigue, but then there’s this other feeling, like you’re running low on gas and need a refill. Weird.”

Various heads across the group nodded in assent, excluding mine. Aside from the physical tiredness of combat, as mentioned already, my body was absent of the second kind; I assumed due to the fact that, unlike my companions, my ability of foresight seemed to be wholly involuntary.

“Speaking of physicality,” spoke the lycanthrope, who had now settled down into his previous appearance, “I felt great. Feel great. My muscles are strong, and my joints feel loose, as though I could, run, jump, and exercise for hours and hours on end.”

“Happen to be hiding any ‘roids in that pocket square, big guy?” mocked the one in the scarecrow hat, my main accuser from previous. I would be keeping an eye on him.

“No, he’s right.” Admitted Junko. “During that fight, my movements were so much faster, more powerful than in the real world – I can’t believe I’m saying that.”

“Indeed,” I spoke up. “I reckon I still possess might enough to overturn ten kingdoms’ worth of armies!”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” cautioned the Golden Tiger. Had the short period of peacetime defanged the beast? “After all, we’ve been reminded that we’re not invincible.”

At this, she gestured toward Junko, and the two shared a glare so intense, I thought they would initiate a duel here and now.

“Oh my,” Junko jeered, eventually lifting up her palms in surrender. “After the amount of expletives you let loose, I’m thinking we leave the fighting to you entirely ~”

Several among our group let out (presumedly good-natured) chuckles, much to the Tiger’s chagrin, recalling her boisterous entrance into battle as though it were a distant memory between friends.

And for a moment, it felt as though we were exactly that – a group of friends with history, rivalries, and solidarity built over years of camaraderie.

I was happy to remain under that illusion.

Though, as I would soon discover, the Hollow Night had a talent for destroying even the most unbreakable of bonds.
 
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Chapter 8 - Daisuke Kurogane

???

I’d never seen disguises so hollow – so easy to expose. Through each of their forced smiles, laughs, chatterings, their fear was plain as day.

Fear of having ‘regrets’.

Fear of being rejected.

Fear of being alone.

Were these the absolute shams I was to partner with? Even in this hellish shithole, I’d rather take my chances.

As I’d recently come to learn, fear was quite the potent emotion indeed.

Cutting my ruminations to an abrupt end, the electronic equipment around us started to buzz with life again.

“I trust the moment of respite has served to replenish your strength,” the asshat on the monitors announced. I’d known the bastard for all of 15 minutes, and already he irritated me almost as much as Rusuban. “Now, I shall set you on your way. Listen closely, as you will now be embarking on your first mission.”

“Mission?” Rusuban parroted. Of all the people to be stuck with in this shitshow, I wonder what I’d done to deserve this guy. Whatever that ‘Pact’ nonsense from earlier was, I pity the poor sap who entered into that shit with him.

“He’s sending us out on errands,” I clarified. “Maybe he’s too useless to get anything done by himself. He’s reminding me of a certain someone.”

Rusuban released a rare scowl in my direction before snapping back in the direction of the giant billboards situated just before the Scramble Crossing to the south.

I’d never seen him work that many muscles before! If he kept that up, he might actually build up a sweat! With such a profound blemish on that popular face of his, maybe he’d have a harder time smooth-talking his way into some girl’s pants.

“Tonight, you are simply to expand your territory.” The figure began to explain.

As if in response to the declaration, a golden lamppost that stood in front of Hong Kong Star flared to life, the bright blue flame within slowly expanding and enveloping the entire street in its glow.

"These are special flames that ward off Noise, " Our ever-gracious kidnapper explained. "By lighting these torches, you effectively create 'safe zones' in which you can congregate, rest, plan, and what have you. You're free to expand your domain as you see fit, but I will have you create at least 3 this night."

I felt my gloved fingers brushing against my chin. This was sounding more and more organized by the minute; it began to feel less like some shitty anime and more like an even shittier game. Just what was the aim of all this?

"You may come across some of those very same Noise on your way to those locations, in which case, you are to make quick work of them. Now, in order to complete this mission, I shall provide you with a vital piece of equipment," ‘Juno’ rambled. They must really enjoy the sound of their own demented voice.

"A special lighter, called a Burner. This lighter will produce the special flame you need to light these torches and ward off Noise. Once ignited, however, the flame will take some time to kindle fully; during this time, do your upmost to protect it, lest the cap shuts and the process begins all over again.”

“They want us to light that,” complained the school ape’s newest mate, gesturing toward the original lamppost, “With a lighter? This is getting ridiculous.”

Way to state the obvious.

"With your current area, known as ‘Center Street’ now captured, you are to do the same for the next three neighbouring areas to the north; the one known as ‘AMX’ , then ‘Tipsy Tose Hall’, and ‘Spain Hill.‘ “

Judging from the way this creep had been struggling with the names of these places so badly, they’re either some foreigner or an old fart. Shit, maybe even some basement-dweller hikikomori who hadn’t showered in 32 days – the possibilities were endless.

“Finally, while there is no strict time limit, I would not dilly-dally here, my young ones. Endeavor to light all the lamps in good time, before the Noise realize what you're trying to do." Juno warned.

"I've selected one among you to receive the burner, though it is ultimately up to you who is in possession of what. The one I’ve chosen should find the Burner within their possession now. For now, I bid you farewell. In case you are not familiar with your home's layout, there will be a map and mission summary displayed on all screens you pass by. I will be watching over you, my children, and will communicate with you from time to time to ensure you remain steadfast on the right path. Until then, best of luck.”

With that, I was finally free of their incessant prattle – even if I knew it was only a temporary respite.

“So, who’s got it?” I offered.


“I-I think this is it!” spoke the tall guy, the dude who literally turned into a fucking werewolf a couple minutes ago. If this was some kind of live-action Twilight fan-fiction, I’d rather get gobbled like that other guy almost did earlier.

Regardless of his unfortunate ability, he brandished a quaint looking lighter that looked like the kind you could grab anywhere, except this one was coated in some kind of aureate material.

“Great,” Rusuban encouraged. I could detect the sycophancy coming from a mile away. The poor guy didn’t know how to do anything else. “Now, to address the elephant in the room – are we to believe what this Juno tells us? Are we to follow his instructions like lambs to the slaughter?”

You’d think he was saying this out of genuine concern for our lives, but I know that inflection – his ego had taken a severe hit. I guess he didn’t like being the puppet for once.

“I don’t know,” pondered Furusawa, one of Nakamura’s cronies, the nice guy. “Everything so far has been… crazy real. Maybe our best bet would be to follow their advice for now.”

“Right, because he definitely has our best interests at heart.” Mocked Katoru, before seemingly catching himself and sighing. It seemed even our resident bathroom smoker was at a loss.

Mizuko was the first to sliced through the indecision.

“We should go along with what we’re told to do for now.”

Upon the eyes of the entire group falling on her, she cleared her throat before stiffening up, a behaviour I’d seen many times already.

“It’s only the most logical choice. If this ‘Juno’ is truly the one who, somehow, dragged us here in our sleep, then it becomes crystal clear that their powers are immense. Look no further than that episode of excruciating pain that hit us before we formed our ‘Pacts’. Or even now – how did that lighter suddenly materialize in Cunningham-san’s possession?”

She had a point. Well, unless the lycanthrope in question had that lighter in his possession the entire time – which would propose a lot more questions than answers.

“Simply put, if Juno wanted us dead, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. “ The Vice-President aptly observed. “Equally, it is possible that our death is still their primary goal, contrary to their previous words, and they set up this ‘game’ of sorts as some kind of sick entertainment toward that. The lack of a strict time limit makes me further doubt that time is even passing normally in the real world, if at all. Regardless, we’re at their mercy either way, so our best option is to simply do what we’re told. Are there any objections?”

Once the Ice Queen got going, she didn’t stop until the problem, or person, had been thoroughly dismantled. It was truly a sight to behold.

Though if that was the case, I can only wonder what she thinks of her younger sister’s new beau – there’s no way didn’t know by now.

“Very well.” The elder Shirogetsu concluded, taking the collective silence as her answer. “Then, I have a further proposal to make. Let’s split up.”

At the noises of discontent, worry, and bemusement arising from the collective of dolts, she simply adjusted her glasses and waited for an opportunity to continue.

“If we take what Juno has said seriously,” She commenced, “It’s very likely we’ll encounter resistance in the form of Noise as we travel to the specified areas. Judging from our previous performance, as a cohort, we’re more than capable of dealing with them. Thus, in the interests of getting this done as efficiently as possible, I propose we split into two groups.”

She folded her arms, gauging the reception of the party before resuming.

“The first group’s objective is simple – they are to scout the areas beforehand, clearing out all and any Noise encountered. Once the area is secured, they will wait behind to guard the area until the second team is in close enough proximity. “

She snapped her fingers, as if having just experienced a ‘Eureka!’ moment.

“Even better, they may proceed to the next sector, whilst perhaps leaving a splinter of their number behind to keep the area safe until the rendezvous is complete.”

“In other words,” chimed Hoshino thoughtfully, “You’re saying we divide and conquer.”

“Precisely,” Mizuko confirmed. Was that the slightest glimmer of a smirk? “The second team will be responsible for actually lighting the lampposts. We have yet to see how long the flame will take to kindle, so ideally, it should be pre-lit and ready for use upon entry of the relevant area.”

She paused, as if pondering something, before bringing her address to its conclusion.

“I trust you see that this is the most efficient way to exit our current predicament.” She finished.

“As expected of the Vice President!” Cheered Rusuban, eager for brownie points even in a life-or-death situation. He was true to his character, if nothing else – once you got past his endless pretences, anyhow. Most never got that far.

“I suppose the question now is – who do you propose goes in each team?”


At Rusuban’s question, Mizuko closed her eyes in a rare gesture of concession.

“There is still much to learn about everyone’s abilities. While I was able to gleam a general understanding of what we’re capable of, some of the specifics are still fuzzy-“

And they’re gonna stay that way. I don’t know what Furusawa was thinking, blurting out his whole ability for everybody and their uncle to hear, but I knew better.

These were still the same fools that ran around in the real world. All that had changed was the setting. They weren’t to be trusted.

By the time I had relaxed my attention back to the conversation at hand, I sensed a multitude of eyes watching me.

“Kurogane,” Mizuko repeated. “I was asking if you’d tell us what your ability does.”

How wonderful.

“I don’t know.” I lied, deciding to keep the sickles concealed too. “I’m surprised it came so naturally to you guys. I haven’t felt anything yet.”

I felt her cold stare appraising me, and I was forced to return the eye contact. I’d been around her long enough to know that any other response would’ve aroused her suspicion.

“Very well,” She conceded after a few beats. “Rusuban, you too?”

He nodded sheepishly.

“Then that leaves…”

I’d even forgotten they were here, they’d been so quiet. Off to the corner was that cloaked person again. I couldn’t even tell if they were a boy or girl – when I glanced into the hood, all I saw was darkness.

Mizuko was about to address them when, knowingly, the enigma shook their head ever so slightly, before holding up their scythe.

Satisfied, Mizuko then nodded curtly. Somehow, they’d been able to communicate some vital piece of information wordlessly.

“Then it’s decided. In the latter group, we’ll have Kurogane, Rusuban, Furusawa, and…”

“Reaper, “ I said, after having interrogated the moniker in my head for a while. “They certainly look the part, no? I hope you don’t mind the name, unless you’d like to give us a better one?”

Refusing to bite, the mystery in question simply nodded and left it at that.

“Understood, we’ll refer to you as ‘Reaper’ from now on. The four of you will make up our second team, whilst the rest of us will clear out the areas for you.”

Battle plan now hatched, the various members of the first team began to ready themselves to set off, their severe cases of Main Character Syndrome surely exacerbated now.

“Furusawa.” She called. “You will hold the lighter. Cunningham-san.”

At her gesture, the tower of a student trudged carefully over to the gorilla tamer, delicately handing over the package as though it contained a newborn baby, the recipient reluctantly accepting the gift.

“Alright then,” she called to her fellow infantry. “Let’s be off. Our first stop is AMX just up ahead. Furusawa, once we vanish out of sight, begin to ignite the flame. Once you deem it sufficiently lit, start making your way over. We’ll likely have cleared out any Noise in your path, but stay vigilant nonetheless. The three of you will guard him.”

I almost wanted to laugh. I wasn’t guarding shit. I would, however, milk these guys for all they were worth while I still had ‘em, so I simply nodded along.

With that, the six of them left, soon disappearing into the distant blackness that encircled us.

Furusawa fumbled with the lighter until the tiniest spark of blue fire began to grow. How long until it grew into its fullest potential? I was eager to find out.

Until then, we stood in silence.
 
Chapter 9 - Kinoko Rusuban

???

I will say, to have pawns in this life is a truly wonderful thing indeed.

Perhaps my language was too harsh; I only wish to communicate the joys of having associates who are willing to get their hands dirty for your sake.

In the days of the Sengoku and Edo period, samurai pledged their allegiance to a lord or a daimyo, and served them with loyalty and dedication.

They were expected to serve their lords faithfully, even to the point of sacrificing their lives in battle for their lord's cause.

In return for their service and loyalty, samurai received land, stipends, and protection, from their lord.

The relationship between a samurai and their lord was based on mutual obligation and loyalty, where the lord provided for the samurai and, in turn, the samurai offered their service and loyalty in times of peace and war.

Is it so wrong to uphold the cultural traditions of my forefathers? For a lord I am, even in a land as strange as this.

My ‘samurai’ of sorts had now expanded my influence to AMX successfully, and the four of us in the second contingent were stalking our way through the decrepit streets that led to Tipsy Tose Hall.

There was only one thing I found unacceptable.

“Furusawa,” I began, establishing eye contact with my dearest subordinate. “I imagine having to hold on to that lighter is quite the responsibility indeed – you seem very on edge. Why not allow me to share in the burden?”

The most important piece is always the King. That artefact naturally belonged in the hands of one such figure.

“Well, I mean –“

“Furusawa keeps the lighter.” Spoke the one person who really, truly had not been asked to. “That was the plan. You’d probably just end up fumbling around and setting yourself on fire, rep.”

I felt Kurogane’s eyes digging into me from behind, though I did my upmost to pay him no mind, continuing to maintain eye contact with my target as though nary a word had been uttered.

“So?” I urged.

Furusawa, ever the wet wipe, began darting his eyes between myself and the bane of my existence, unsure of what to do or say in the midst of turmoil.

Immediately he stroke me as unreliable, and I almost threw away any plans I previously had for recruiting him into my fold.

“I-I’m okay. The guys up ahead have been clearing the path really well, so it’s just been real easy, haha!” He cheered. If he thought that bubbly mask of his was even remotely convincing, he was even dumber than I thought.

Regardless, noblesse oblige.

“Very well,” I affirmed. “We’re counting on you. Ah, Tipsy Tose Hall is just up ahead.”

As we neared the popular corner, arcades and karaoke boxes strewn and weaved across the usually vibrant atmosphere, I felt the spores begin to lose their potency.

I didn’t have much time left.



“Perfect,” Judged Mizuko, perhaps proud of her self-supposed strategic prowess. Starting with the small area in which the lamppost stood, the entire vicinity became blanketed in the soft blue glow of the freshly lit flame.

My eyes were draw to the once audacious storefront of ‘Kablam.’ Here, the establishment appeared as derelict and seedy as the rest of this sordid place, though upon reminiscing of the first time I’d brought that girl here – Saki, her name was – I was surprised to feel the corners of my lips raised in a smirk.

Interestingly, I found the verbally-challenged observer among us, Reaper, also looking this way, though I wondered whether they were actually gazing at myself in lieu of the facility.

I decided to cut off the train of thought before it even departed, centering my focus back onto my juniors.

“Just one left.” Stated Kurogane, alert. If he kept looking around like that, this next part was going to be a lot more difficult than I’d hoped.

“Thank God.” Hoshino was the next to speak. “We’ve been lucky so far with the Noise, there haven’t been as many as before. The few we have encountered were kinda…well, pushovers.”

“Indeed. Though I did notice some strange behaviour amongst them.” The third year exchange student admitted, Cunningham, I believe. “It was almost as though – “

I felt them nearby – my puppets. They were here, just as expected. Furusawa and the rest were in position.

“Halt, friends!” Kozuki interrupted, her eyes narrowing as if reading something mid-air, before finally spinning to face me, aghast.

Unfortunately, time for extra preparation was no longer a luxury. I needed to act now.

I closed my eyes.

“AAARGH!” I cried, as I felt a sharp pain split across my back. Though I had initially only planned to do it as rehearsed, this was hurting a lot more than I thought it would.

I crumbled to the floor, catching the mortified glimpses of my company. Good.

“Rusuban!” A voice that sounded like Mizuko cried. Christ, even my senses were beginning to fade just after a single hit. In hindsight, I suppose I could have made it attack me with less strength, but I needed this to be as believable as possible.

“Quick, get him out of there! We’ve got company!” Another voice, the clarity and boom indicating it was Hoshino’s.

My vision was fading. Of the little that I could still see, I was picked up rather roughly by a strong pair of hands, and was sailing through the air in great jumps.

When I was set back down, the terrible maw of a beast was surveying me with kind eyes. The corner had become loud and bright with clashing of steel among other sounds.

“You’ll be alright,” Assured the creature. “Healer! Over here!”

With that, the monster released a menacing growl before leaping off to join the others in combat.

Before long, Furusawa had arrived, as beckoned, laying a gentle hand on my shoulder.

I soon felt my faculties return to me.

“Wait!” Screamed Junko. “That one in the middle…. WHAT ON EARTH IS THAT?!”

I sincerely hoped our medic hadn’t noticed the smile that was forming across my lips.



The plan was simple – if this was to be some kind of sick survival game, then it was only logical to make the first move. I would separate the wheat from the chaff.

To those worthy to stand at my side, I would show them love, provide for them, and ensure their safety. To those I deemed unworthy…

My philosophy is a simple one – why sully my own hands when there are others willing to do so for me? It’s not like I’m forcing them against their will.

They like me, they want my approval, my love, and so, they do what they think will earn it, just like how you seek out food when you’re hungry, water when you’re thirsty, rest when you’re weary.

What’s wrong with allowing people to satisfy their needs?

Anyway, I quickly learned the scope of my ability during that first battle; to possess and manipulate these creatures, Noise, via the release of spores that are practically invisible to the untrained eye.

Once absorbed into their bodies, the monsters are mine to command for the next five or so minutes, after which, they begin to disintegrate.

How wonderful, I thought! The power to turn the might of my enemies against them! To procure gold from mere dust! A fitting power for a lord, no?

Unfortunately, the scope of my abilities does not entail the control of other human beings, though I feel that is yet to come. I can’t explain how, but I just know my truest potential is yet to be unleashed.

In any case, I quickly deemed the best way to judge warrior from weakling would be to emulate a situation such that the distinction between the two is made abundantly clear.

Using this gift, I infected a small gaggle of Noise from that initial encounter, and had them flee the battle in order to attract more of their brethren, spreading the infection upon their deaths.

As a result, the amount of Noise in our path drastically decreased, while in secret, they were slowly clustering and building up their forces as per my command.

So long as they did not travel too far, I could feel them – my servants, growing and multiplying by the minute. For each of the eldest infected that had died off, he had recruited 5 more to my cause, as a loyal underling should.

By the time we had reached this place, I had felt the presence of enough Noise to swallow this entire corner in their black mass.

What’s more, at the nucleus of the horde, I felt a presence more powerful than anything we had encountered before.

Regrettably, I did not yet have the mastery over my blessing, nor the remaining EXS required to mesmerize this one, as I had the others, though it seemed the sight of so many brethren congregating was enough to garner its intrigue.

I had anticipated Kozuki may predict my plan, though fortunately, her foresight had come into play much too late. The dominos had already begun to fall.

Now, I find myself an onlooker to the chaos – a judge that will decide who will join me in victory and prosperity, and who will be destined to become footnotes in my conquest.

As my allies do battle with this force of my own machination, I cannot help but feel an excitement bubble up in my chest, a weightlessness that threatens to lift me higher and higher, onto the tallest peaks and mountains, until eventually, I reach the apex of the world, and all that resides within it.
 
Chapter 10 - Mizuko Shirogetsu

???

Life is often likened to a game – you’ll often find sentiments expressing that “You either win or you lose”, or “You must play others before they play you”, so on and so forth.

I find these that these derivations, while not entirely inaccurate, are incomplete. Half-truths, if you will, born of fear and anxiety, the need to seize control of whatever you possibly can in order to alleviate those paranoia that lingers in your mind.

That said, you could argue there is some wisdom in that way of thinking. Perhaps, life truly can be compared to some sort of grand game.

In that case, I must ask - what exactly is the objective of such a game? To ‘win’? What does winning even mean on a stage as large as this, with potential opponents lurking around every corner?

In a game such as this, where there are only so many variables within your narrow scope and even fewer yet under your control, what even were the chances of ‘winning’?

As the chaotic scene before me progressed ever further, my mind continued to barrel down this train of thought, rotating, spinning, and yawing the idea until there was nary a spot I hadn’t investigated and interrogated thoroughly.

My ruminations were brought to an abrupt halt when I heard a scream.

“Watch out!” I heard a voice cry. In the heat of the moment, surrounded by countless black lumps with only so few of us able to resist, I didn’t need to turn in their direction to know that they were talking to me.

I allowed my body’s natural survival instinct, alongside my enhanced physical capabilities in this space, to take charge.

I had spun around, diving backwards, with my back falling toward the ground when I saw what I had been saved from.

Professional athletes, such as boxers, describe specific moments in the most monumental parts of their careers.

Moments in which their minds and bodies were so focused, so in tune with one another, that time itself appeared to have slowed down, each moment perceived in slow-motion.

Here, I began to experience something similar.

Practically suspended in mid-air, I saw the fangs before anything else; sharp, grey, and terrible, eager to rip into the flesh of myself and my comrades.

As its red pupils looked down upon me, I found myself momentarily petrified by the sight in its entirety, though the fear, as it often does, led to resolve.

I thrust the small shard of ice I had formed in my hand through the beasts’ likely ravenous stomach as it was leaping over me.

It yelped accordingly, and with my back now crashed into the ground, it had begun to fall apart, first melting back into its default black ooze before fading away into a wispy black smoke, leaving only my rapid breaths and the sounds of deadly combat elsewhere in its wake.

In the corner of my eye, I caught sight of another– the threat that Junko had alluded to previous.

The Noise in question was a particularly humanoid-looking one, with burning orange pupils and triangular hat, its form mimicking the conventional appearance of a fictional magus.

It was looking right at me.

Startled, I scrambled to my feet, adrenaline pumping through my veins, spurring me to action.

As if taking this act as permission, the creature blazed in a burst of fire, before shooting its way toward me, leaving a flaming path in its wake.

I readied my naginata, watching the monster zoom its way across the battlefield, in the process burning away many of its own brethren to ash, until I began to feel its scorching heat assault my skin.

It had arrived, and as it looked down upon me, it became abundantly clear that if I made even the slightest misstep now, I would not live to regret it.




I stood my ground, ignoring the thick beads of sweat forming across my body.

With a shrieking wail, the organism initiated combat, brandishing dark claws before swiping them, thick clouds of flame trailing with every lunge.

With a deep breath, I silenced my panicking mind to let my body take control once more.

With perfect execution, I ducked, twirled, and parried the beast’s blows, my limbs warping and wefting their way across my polearm effortlessly.

It was as though I was back on the ice rink at Molco, refining my axel jump technique, advancing the range and flexibility of my lunges.

Before long, my precise movements were rewarded, and after another smooth evasion, I span forward, using the momentum to lunge into a forward thrust, enhancing the lethality of my weapon’s front tip with an added icy edge.

I felt the blade sink in with ease.

As expected, the creature bawled in agony. I withdrew the blade as quickly as I had pierced it into my opponent, and the rival in question staggered backwards, hand clutching the gash.

I smiled. Though my breath was bated, and my muscles were beginning to ache, I knew I had gained the upper hand. If I could close things out now, it may yet turn the tide of this battle.

I set about dashing toward my fallen opponent, seeking to end the duel here. By the time I had noticed the several glowing circles scattered across the floor, it was already much too late.

I had been deceived.

With what must have been some kind of smirk, the monster snapped its fingers, triggering a barrage of loud noises, and a sharp, splitting pain across my entire body. I felt my feet lift off of the ground, though my vision had been overwhelmed by the sparks of a massive explosion.

When I felt my back hit the ground, the little air left in my lungs deserted me completely. I would have writhed in pain if any of my limbs were capable of movement at that point. I couldn’t even shout for help.

As my sight began to fade into black, I saw not the creature that had bested me, nor the allies I had been fighting with tooth-and-nail in our short-lived alliance. Nor did I catch a last glance of my junior sister.

All I saw was the moon peering back at me, its soft glow a fitting sendoff.

After some time of lying deathly still, with vision blurred and ears ringing, I admittedly became curious as to why the animal had not yet come to claim my life. I used all the strength I could muster to lean upwards, my weight supported by my weary elbows.

“HOW DARE YOU!?” Howled Junko, a murderous glint in her silver eyes I had never seen before.

I knew not when she had arrived, nor how much of my battle she had witnessed. All I knew was that if left unchecked, her anger would land her in just the same spot my carelessness had led me; if not worse.

Perhaps what caught my eye the most, however, was the fact that she was not alone. Circling the creature were the redhead – Kozuki, I believe – Hoshino, and Cunningham. Had they abandoned their own posts – risked their very safety – in order to support me?

The answer had become abundantly clear when I felt a soft touch on my left shoulder. I looked up.

“Shirogetsu-san!” Furusawa whispered, concerned. “W-what happened? You look terr- ah, sorry, sorry! Allow me…”

As I slowly felt the pain splintered across my being slowly replaced with strength, I managed to catch my breath.

Rusuban and the others were nowhere to be seen, though that was fine. The portion of our party I had available with me now would do.

Once I had strength enough to stand, I nodded gratefully toward my healer, directing him to stay back and hide, the sluggishness in his movements all but delineating his understandable exhaustion.

To the rest, I launched back into the fray, uttering only a single command.

“Follow my lead!”




We needed to act quickly and precisely, with planned, coordinated movements. Considering most of us had practically just met each other for the first time, you didn’t need to tell me how unlikely a task this was.

Even so – as I careened into danger, with my allies covering my flank, I felt a strange sensation nuzzle in my heart, an experience so distant, and yet somehow always in close proximity.

I suppose, to look at it from a rational perspective – you could call it camaraderie.

First was Junko.

I called her name, a communication that conveyed much more than what the ear could perceive, and in response both her and Kozuki dropped out of my periphery.

The creature was getting ever closer, and for a while, the expression it had displayed looked like one of panic.

“It will attempt to protect its head!” Kozuki cried, her predilection of foresight coming through as hoped. “Aim for the lower chest!”

Without warning, two long, sharp glints of silver sailed through the air like bullets, soon enough finding their mark. The beast howled in pain as Junko’s odachi, as well as Kozuki’s claymore, protruded from its middle, the metal of both coursing with electricity.

It floundered and flailed to no avail under the force of electrocution.

Excellent – next was Cunningham.

No verbal cue needed, the hulking werewolf descended upon the creature, curling its hefty paws along the handles of both blades before ripping them out as violently as possible. I almost felt sorry for the pitiful animal.

Arthur lifted both weapons into the air, before thrusting them into the pyromancer’s feet, rewarding us with another shrill cry of pain as well as pinning down its movement.

Next, the lycanthrope danced around the creature, finding its hands and binding them together. There was a flash of light, and then emerged Hoshino, swinging her hammer back on forth onto the monster’s head with violent smashes and pummels whilst Cunningham held it in place.

“Now!” I yelled. It was time to end its suffering, and more importantly, ours.

Heeding my call, Cunningham allowed Hoshino one last downward swing of her mallet, resulting in a sinister crack that resounded throughout the street corner, before biting into the creatures neck, black ooze spilling onto the storefronts and pavement.

Eiji, now having retreated, took my hand, with a burst of illumination we were rising through the air. Once we had enough height, she span me once, before sending me shooting diagonally downward toward our target like a meteor.

As I descended, I readied my naginata in front of me.

I saw one last gleam of its orange eyes, though what I saw in them almost made my heart stop once I had landed a final thrust of my frozen naginata tip through its head, using its broken body to break my fall, sending it into the ground with a crash.

It was past fear, dread, or even despair.

It was acceptance.

Were animals even capable of comprehending the idea, the concept of death? Let alone their place in it?

A few hot, inexplicable seconds passed as I stood over the being’s crumpled body, which was now fading away into a smoky nothingness.

I heard my own tired, frantic breaths begin to calm down, though the stress of the entire situation had stolen my ability to stand, feeling the hard concrete punch my knee.

“We…we did it!” Cheered Cunningham, who had sat on the ground beside me at some point. Nearby were Junko, Kozuki, and Hoshino, all equally as exhausted.

The night’s numerous battles had taken their toll, but I suppose this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, even if comparing that struggle to a ‘straw’ was a gross understatement.

Judging from Furusawa’s own condition, I highly doubted we were in any shape to deal with the straggling noise, or any at all for that matter.

Looking around for any signs of the others, a glowing orb had appeared on the floor, adjacent to where my naginata had dropped after the demise of our foe.

“What is that?” Junko inquired after watching me pick it up.

As I moved to inspect it, my eyes wandered slightly to something that had moved in my periphery, and then the world turned red.

Everybody around me had vanished, save for Junko, who had suddenly stood up, but was gazing at me with a vacant expression.

There was something odd about her expression, and when my vision narrowed onto the knife that had been thrust into her chest, leaving a red blotch spreading across her torso, I began to shake uncontrollably.

“This is all your fault.” She whispered finally, before falling backwards and vanishing into the ground.

I tried to scream, tried to shout, tried to make sense of what was happening, but all that were coming out were choked, strangled sobs.

I struck the ground repeatedly in anguish, but my arms became slacked once I heard her voice reaching out to me again from somewhere distant.

“Sis…! Sis! SIS! SNAP OUT OF IT!” Junko cried. Instantly, the vermillion had been drained from my vision, and she was there, in front of me, just as I’d left her.

I looked up, following her gaze, and then I froze.

His carmine eyes bore into mine, an enigmatic glint shining in them as he held up the same white orb I had just dropped. Before I could utter a word, his lips curled into a knowing smile.

“Thanks for the gift, Vice-Prez.” Kurogane leered. “I’d say it suits me just fine.”
 
Chapter 11 - Liu Katoru

???

I gotta say, watching these gooey little shits burn away atom by atom was satisfying as fuck.

The more I witnessed each and every single one flame down into ashy, wispy smoke, the more I felt something shift inside me, like someone was watching every action I was making.

And they were loving it.

At some point, the temperature had skyrocketed and a few of my ‘allies’ had left my line of sight. Way in the distance I saw Reaper, and for a second I was convinced they were enjoying this even more than I was.

It was like this whole thing was just another Tuesday for ‘em – their scythe moved with enough precision and power, quite literally making the shadows half the horrors they once were, I’d have believed you if you told me that was the actual Grim fucking Reaper.

You know what really set my hairs on edge, though?

It could just be me, but I swear, they were getting stronger, faster, and even more accurate with every group of the little shits they cut down. Were they even getting tired?

“Look sharp,” The prick that had been tailing me called. What a way to ruin my whole mood. With a sigh, I flung my arm out to my four o’clock, my gloved hands finding something squishy and viscous.

“I don’t need your help.” I warned Rusuban. His shit eating grin – like he’d actually saved my life or something – started to piss me off.

I decided to take my anger out on the poor fucker who’d been dumb enough to try and sneak one in on me.

My right hand gripped tightly as I pummelled the pissant repeatedly with my left.

With each blow landing with a satisfying thud, I gained increasingly more strength until, without my noticing, the creature’s head(?) was caving inwards.

Satisfied, I sent a surge of power through to my gloves, the garbage bursting in the ensuing black flame.

Before long, my hands became empty.

“My my!” Exclaimed Rusuban. “D-Did you need to go that hard on the poor thing?”

“My bad,” I replied, turning to him. “Next time I’ll pound you in his place.”

He smiled in his standard shit-gobbling style.

“I’m afraid I don’t swing that way, but I am flattered.” He winked, as if I was another lovestruck girl in his endless fucking fan club.

I could never stand this asshat, and with these sick new abilities, I supposed I could…

Well, let’s just say he’s lucky I have other ways of venting my stress in this place.

“Where’d your sidekick run off to?” I changed the subject, noticing the area had gotten a lot quieter all of a sudden.

Off to the distance I saw a few of the others, sitting down on the ground. The poor boys and girls looked exhausted! I hope they didn’t get a boo-boo!

“I assume you speak of Kurogane?” He inquired, though the way his eyes lost their golden boy gleam, along with their interactions with each other here, suggested the two weren’t as tight as I thought. “I know not where he has disappeared to. You know him – always dancing to the beat of his own drum.”

“I don’t actually, and have no intention to.” I informed him. “Same goes for you, Prez. Don’t think I’ve forgotten what you two did the other day.”

My voice took on an intimidating edge, though either it didn’t register with the jackass, or he didn’t see it as one.

“This again? If you truly were innocent of that whole smoking debacle, then I apologize, though even you must admit the cards were not stacked in your favour. Smoking aside, skipping class by hiding in the bathroom stalls is not-“

“I wasn’t hiding, damnit!” I managed to not yell, but my volume had seen an increase regardless.

“It was…I was…”

“It was what, Katoru?” He demanded. No. No, he did not get to do this. I was the innocent one here. Fuck him. He wasn’t going to turn this around on me.

I was about to tell him as much when his gaze suddenly shifted to our right, where the others had been on vacation.

“Wait…what is he doing?” He muttered. I questioned whether this was an act, before realizing he didn’t really have a reason to trick me here.

That, and I heard screaming.

Following his eyeline, I turned my head left to see the vice-rep looking down the Vice President, Shiro-something, maliciously, holding a glowing white orb in his hand. She, alongside the others, were staring him down almost equally as vitriolically.

“Looks like there’s trouble in paradise, “ I mused, before deciding to check out the scene for myself.

“Looks like there’s trouble in paradise!” I repeated, since I thought it was a good enough line to take to a live audience. “Everything alright here, or do I need to call daddy Juno to sort this out?”

If they found that funny they certainly didn’t show it. Tough crowd.

Upon hearing my voice, the edge-lord in particular had backed away, his eyes slightly distressed as if I’d caught him wacking off to…well, you can finish that sentence however you like.

“Stay back.” The scarecrow enthusiast demanded, eyes an unnatural shade of red. “I won’t let you get in my way.”

This entire situation felt so cringe I thought I was watching some kind of gothic soap-opera they’d broadcast at 2AM on weekdays.

So, I figured I’d put an end to it.

“Ew,” I remarked, hands up in surrender, though he clearly wasn’t a fan of the way I’d begun strolling closer. “Alright, Darth Vader, keep your super-secret plans. You won’t mind me taking a look at that shiny looking thing you got there, though?”

“I said STAY BACK!” He repeated, louder, though when it became clear I wasn’t buying it, he turned to run.

I began to accelerate into a sprint myself, eager to give chase, until the dork went and tripped, sending him straight to the ground, with the orb flying out of his hands, landing with a roll a bit further away from him.

“Miiiine!” I cheered, loving the speed this place gave me for absolutely no reason.

I wasn’t entirely sure when Rusuban had materialized to my left, or how exactly he was keeping pace with me, but there was no way in hell this dude was going to beat me, regardless of whatever it was that shiny orb was.

As the two of us raced to grab it, no time to figure out what the other’s intentions were, or why we were even competing like this over something we (presumably) knew nothing about, the white gleaming of the object, just a few paces away, was swallowed up as Kurogane had dived over it.

I heard a distinct shatter, like a vase plummeting to the floor.

And then everything became white.



When my eyes were finally granted respite, I was still standing upright. I felt a shuffle next to me, though I was too pre-occupied with the sight before me to pay it any real mind.

At first, Kurogane’s appearance was unchanged. It seemed even he was disappointed by the results.

Suddenly, something must’ve clicked, because he really did start laughing like he was a some kind of shounen anime villain, before turning to meet my eyes.

Or rather, the eyes of the person to my left.

Without warning, Rusuban’s smug and entitled façade had shifted into one of anxiety, panic, and worry. As if he had been blinded, he fell to the floor, clutching and clawing the ground beneath him for orientation.

“H-Hey!” I managed. “What the fuck, dude? What’s –“

I was caught off guard by his hands grabbing on my forearms for dear life. I’ll never forget the pure despair that engulfed his eyes in that moment.

“D-don’t leave me!” He cried, desperate. “P-please! I can change! I’ll change! I’ll become whatever you need, just don’t –“

I managed to wiggle one hand free. I opened up my palm before swinging it in an arc in front of me.

The connection made between my gloved hand and his cheek resounded throughout the space so well, shit, E.T himself probably heard it.

“Snap out of it! Get a fucking hold of yourself!” I screamed.

It seemed to work. For a while he was just there, stunned, before he took a silent breath and shook his head.

“…”

Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he got up slowly, before throwing his associate a look so venomous I felt threatened just bearing witness to it.

“You mongrel.” He spoke in ghastly whispers. “How…dare…you?”

I had never seen the President like this. As much as I hate to admit it, the shit was scaring me.

I held an arm in front of him.

“I’ll handle this one,” I spoke in spite of myself. In reality, I wanted nothing to do with this shit. I wanted nothing to do with what I knew was about to go down.

Though, deciding that I’d rather not witness a murder tonight, I figured it would be best if I took the helm here.

I couldn’t tell if this convinced Rusuban’s newfound confrontational side, though he didn’t brush past me in the end. That would have to do.

“What the fuck are you doing, dude? I don’t remember friendly fire being turned on. That was you, wasn’t it?” I asked whilst approaching the new Public Enemy Number One. I was curious just as much as I was trying to buy time to figure out a plan.

“Shut up.” He responded eloquently. Fair enough. “Now step away before I give you a taste of it too.”

Oh, now he’d started to annoy me. He sends one person into a frenzy and then thinks he’s hot shit? Guess I’d have to knock him down a peg.

I knew one thing already – whatever that shit was that he could do, it was safe to say he probably needed eye contact to activate it. Otherwise…

Well, otherwise I was screwed.

“Let’s see what you got, tough guy.” I called, before lunging at him.

I made it a point to look at his torso downwards as I approached. I got a bit nervous when he didn’t make any effort to move, but hey, I liked easy wins as much as the nex-

Swoosh.

I felt a searing pain in my right shoulder that forced me out of my momentum. I glanced to my right, sighting a brand new slice on my right deltoid, trails of red liquid flowing down my arm.

When I looked back at the dickhead, he was suddenly brandishing a weapon I’d seen in video games – kusarigama, or a chain sickle to the un-initiated.

“Avoiding my eyes, are you? As if that’ll help.” He mocked, before inspecting his weapon.

“I’ve never actually held one of these before,” He began to explain, casually. “But it’s like everything just feels natural. I’m sure that’s how the others felt too, huh…?”

So, he cuts my arm and then starts talking at me like we’re old friends.

That’ll do it.

I felt it again – that anger, that restlessness – begin to rise up in my chest.

I took a deep breath, channelling the power as concentration. I would need it.

Sucking up the pain, I continued my progression toward him, albeit at a slower pace than previous.

He smiled.

“Oh, you’re approaching me? Instead of running away, you're coming right to me?"

"I can't beat the shit out of you without getting closer." I admitted through gritted teeth.

He chuckled, before readying his blade once more.

“Then come as close as you like.”

I did as instructed, my pace beginning to crescendo. He smirked menacingly, before sending the bladed edge of the sickle straight for me.

This was going to hurt.

“Argh!” I winced. As quickly as his blade swung across my chest, gifting me with even greater pain and another fresh slice, the blade retracted.

I crouched down on one knee, struggling to find my breath.

With each slice the damned things gave me, I felt some of my energy leaving me with it. I couldn’t afford to take much more.

Luckily, he fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and I’m not exactly known for my forgiving nature.

“Take a look at your blade’s edge.” I revealed.

At this, his smug grin turned into a confused grimace, before reverting back into shit-eating mode.

“All I see…” He informed, “…is your blood spread across it.”

I paused, stifling a chuckle.

“I wonder...” I began, drinking in the moment of victory. “I wonder – when was the last time your blood socked you in the face?”

By the time he noticed the ‘blood’ on his blade going from a deep crimson to a pitch-black darkness, it was far too late.

Emerging from the liquid, my anger, my disdain – my hatred – was given form, messy white hair resembling mine, lifeless eyes the same shade of white, wrapped in a dark cloak that flowed with the wind.

With consecutive mighty swings of its thick arms, it struck the poor bastard repeatedly with a barrage of blows.

“DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE!!“ It cried repeatedly, pummelling the idiot as I slowly approached the scene.

“Don’t tell me you thought you were the only one hiding your ability?” I jeered.

Satisfied, I gave the command, and my spirit – ‘The Tainted’ as I’d dubbed it – sent the loser flying into a storefront window with one last strike, shattering the glass, and causing his limp legs to hang outside the frame embarrassingly for all to see.

“Take a seat, bitch.” I declared, grinning.



The atmosphere fell silent for a few beats, eventually broken by the raging of the Tainted.

I’d ordered it to punch with non-lethal force, and to stay put where it was, but it was absolutely livid, throwing punches in the air and practically frothing at the mouth. I couldn’t communicate with it normally while it was like this.

I knew the feelings well – they belonged to me, after all – but I forced it to stay in place and wait.

I didn’t have time to look behind me to gauge reactions, even though I would’ve loved to see the looks on their faces. I needed to make sure this jackass was out cold, or else I was in trouble.

“Yooo!” I shouted into the dark shop. It was pitch black inside, I couldn’t see anything outside of the idiot’s legs hanging outside the window frame. “Anybody home?”

Silence.

I inched closer.

“If you come out now, I promise I won’t beat the snot out of you again, okay?” I offered.

Closer still, and no sign of movement.

At my order, Tainted appeared by my side, just as a precaution in case Kurogane tried anything funny.

As if in response, his legs suddenly pulsed with activity again, as though he’d come to, and retracted back into the darkness.

I got close enough until I was practically engaging in the shittiest window-shopping known to man.

Hearing a shuffle, two bright red circles suddenly illuminated before me.

Instinctively, I looked to the side, and was greeted with another pair of vermillion eyes.

This time, I didn’t get the chance to look away.

Everything became plunged in red, and my heart began pounding rapidly in fear. Is this what happened to Rusuban?

I began to see illusions of things I hated, and on some level, feared – snakes, eldritch abominations, and that one clown from that haunted house in Osaka all terrorized me in unison.

I shut my eyes.

“This is just an illusion,” I reminded myself. “It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s not re-“

I was cut off by the sound of her voice. She was calling me that nickname I always hated.

“Loo-Loo,” I heard her sing. “Hey, open your eyes, sleepyhead. Else you’ll run into a pole again.”

What I wouldn’t give to see her face again – to hear her call me that dumb name one more time.

But she was gone.

Whatever this was – whatever was going to greet me once I opened my eyes – would just be a piss poor imitation of the only person in this world I ever truly loved.

“You bastard…” I spoke through the Tainted, using it as an extension of my own body.

It was a surreal experience, seeing yourself rocking and cradled in fear like a crazy person, but damn, that’s exactly what I saw.

The bastard was climbing out of the storefront, holding two red laser pointers in his bloodied mouth.

Of course – this was a freaking department store in the real world.

Clever, but not enough to save him.

He ignored the Tainted and made a beeline straight toward me, or rather, my body, and I was suddenly feeling very lucky I had created some distance after I got plunged into that world of horrors.

I was scared that the Tainted’s debut earlier had drained the last of my energy, but this dickhead pissed me off. I felt one more pounding left in me.

I was giving the command through to the Tainted when Kurogane screamed in pain, his eyes wide with shock.

Weird.

I hadn’t even done anything yet. Did the pissant pull a muscle or something?

Though I had to cover my mouth, or rather the Tainted’s, once I noticed something black, with red eyes and a wolf-like snout had bit into his left trapezius.

In the distance, Rusuban was watching.
 
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Chapter 12 - Eiji Hoshino

???

“Holy shit…!” Katoru’s shadow-thingy gasped, speaking for all of us having witnessed this bloodbath.

W-Was he using that thing as a surrogate body? His real one was still cradled on the floor, covering his ears like you’d just told him wrestling was fake.

My arms wouldn’t lift the hammer, damnit, my legs refused to carry me across to knock some sense into the idiots.

There were a lot of things in life I’d wanted to see, and a grizzly murder was not one of them.

As if sharing my perspective, the aforementioned shadow-thingy sprung onto Daisuke, this time in an effort to assist him, punching a hole straight through the canine that evidently had dinner plans with the poor knucklehead.

Daisuke staggered, trying to find his balance as he registered what had happened to him, what was being done to him, before he fell to ground with a thud.

“Rusuban…” I muttered, my eyes landing on his own, which were narrowed in rage. My heart started to pound. “Rusuban, what the fuck was that about?!”

Noise or not, it was clear from the dude’s demeanour that he was responsible for this in some way, shape or form.

At my accusation, he simply shrugged, his cadence suddenly becoming as breezy and carefree as though he hadn’t just attempted murder.

“Figured I’d even the tally, that’s all.” He admitted flippantly. “If he was too distracted to notice the Noise sneaking up on him from behind, after stabbing our backs the way he did, I’d say that’s his own issue, wouldn’t you?”

There were a few profound beats of silence that fell upon us, and instinctively I knew what was going on. We were all picking sides – deciding whether we judged Daisuke’s actions as deserving of such a punishment, or whether it had gone much too far.

I didn’t like it.

“YO!” I interrupted. “Shadow kid! Get him over here to us, NOW!”

Now seemingly in his rightful body, the boy rushed over to us, his ‘friend’ floating beside him, carrying a limp Kurogane in its arms, with no smartass remarks this time!

I suppose death makes even the smartest of asses get their act together.

“I can’t…take you guys… anywhere, y’know that?” Groaned Furusawa, who’d materialized by my side at some point. He was looking pale – likely from overuse of his abilities.

“H-Hey, you don’t look so hot either.” I pointed out, concerned. After all, who would take care of the guy who takes care of everyone else? Others may find it poetic – I found it tragic.

“I reckon I’ve got just enough left in me to close up that nasty wound of his,” He struggled, laying a gentle hand on our beloved vice-rep once he’d been dropped onto the floor . “That’s about…as far as I can go. Any more, and I’ll be joini-“

In reaction to Furusawa falling, I found my arms automatically spread out, finding his own shoulders and grabbing onto them tightly. I wondered if he had been eating well – it was as though I was lifting a small child.

“Alright, that’s enough for you.” I comforted, laying him down gently against a wall, and sitting him down on the ground. “I’d say you’ve flipped off the Grim Reaper enough times today, huh?”

Even when he was on the brink of passing out, his smile – like you’d just told him the funniest joke in the world – made my chest go all fuzzy.

I didn’t know it, and I didn’t trust it.

“Speaking of Reapers,” I continued, addressing the group as a whole. “Where did our own run off to?”

“I think they went to light the last lamppost up in Spain Hill,” Furusawa answered weakly. “Once the fighting started, they approached me, and it kinda became the world’s most intense game of charades. I got it after a while, handed over the lighter, and they ran off in that direction.”

“If that’s then taken care of...” Our resident almost-murderer spoke, in a tone that was still way too eerily casual, “Then what do you suppose we do with Mr. Traitor over here?”

I didn’t know if ‘Traitor’ was the most accurate word to use – at least not yet. Plus, I hadn’t forgotten the way Rusuban himself had been chasing after that orb-looking thing.

Still, something was bugging me about the way that Noise just showed up. How did nobody except Kinoko see it approaching?

From what we’d seen so far, the Noise had a predilection for sticking to the main roads and pavements, almost…almost like people. We should’ve seen it coming from a mile away.

It seemed as though the answers to the questions led to more questions in and of themselves, leading to an endless thought cycle. I supposed they could wait – at least for now.

“Leave him. Between the pummelling and the bite, I’d say he’s learnt his lesson by now.” Mizuko judged, though there was a bitterness in her voice that ran counter to her level-headedness.

“I hope you’re right.” I muttered, and I indeed, I feared what would come next if she – if we – were wrong.



After a few awkward, pensive moments in silence (I mean, what are you really supposed to in a situation like this? Whip out the UNO deck?), Reaper eventually returned to us, lighter in tow, and presumably having lit the final lantern at Spain Hill.

“Fantastic work,” Sung Juno, the various equipment around the space sputtering to life with his enigmatic image. “I noticed there was a slight… disagreement amongst yourselves, though it seems a compromise was struck in the end.”

“Yeah, death tends to be a real dealbreaker.” I wanted to say. Instead, my exasperation gave way to curiosity.

“You can see us?” I proposed. Sometimes you have to play a sucker to catch a fool, I reasoned.

“Of course,” They admitted. “I see and hear everything that occurs in this plane, though do not fear – I am under no obligation to share what is done in privacy.”

What…What did that even mean? That if something went down between some of us in secret, he wouldn’t inform the rest? Why would that ever happen?

More importantly, why did Juno decide to specify that case in particular?

Whatever – they’d confirmed what I’ve been suspecting all along. Juno’d been watching us like a hawk.

“If that’s the case, I’m guessing you knew what that spherical artefact was?” Inquired Mizuko. The verbosity of Spherical Artefact forced me stifle a chuckle.

“Indeed. You are not the only ones to possess EXS – all living beings harness it to different degrees, for in truth, it is the essence of all that lives, all that exists.” They explained. “So, as expected, Noise also possess EXS. Their entire reason for pursuing you is to absorb the immense amount that you yourselves hold.”

This was (somehow) getting crazier by the minute. I pushed aside my disbelief in favour of interrogating the idea in my head, as outlandish as it seemed.

“Now, when you retaliate and destroy a Noise, what remains of their EXS becomes available for you to absorb. For the weaker Noise, this amount is very minimal, and thus is unable to take shape. “ They delineated. “Stronger Noise, like the one you encountered, harbour much greater EXS than their subordinates, and thus if you are able to fell one, their EXS will be given form, available for any among you to absorb.”

To my surprise, I was actually beginning to understand it all – but what does absorbing their remaining EXS actually do? Replenish our own supply?

“As for the effects of such an action,” Juno began as if having read my mind (wait, can they actually do that??), “Not only will your EXS supply be replenished, but you will also find your abilities upgraded in some way, shape or form. I’m afraid I cannot tell you precisely which part of your repertoire will be ameliorated – that is your duty to discover.”

It was all making sense now – why Daisuke had suddenly gotten so confident after having absorbed the thing – it made his ability stronger! He must’ve felt that, and decided to use us as test subjects.

You can see how well that ended for him.

But, did he know that’s what the orb did? I was beginning to doubt it. Maybe he just surmised it must’ve been something of value and wanted to snatch it, the goblin.

Though, I suppose we’ll have to interrogate him when he gets back up.

I opened my mouth to query more information, but was met with a declaration I’d been waiting to hear all night.

“Now, with the task at hand complete, I shall begin sending you back to your homes. But first, some matters to take care of. “Juno commenced. I suddenly didn’t like where this was going. “The rest of your time spent here will be framed similarly – I will bring you in here, you will have a task, you will perform it, and I will send you back home – nothing more than that. This will repeat for the remainder of the week.”

The gasps that erupted from our gathering understated the true terror I felt in my heart, at the prospect of having to repeat this nightmare for the next six nights.

“Do not bother trying to run away, or perhaps even trying to avoid sleep. I promise, it will not end well for you. Simply heed my counsel, and you will grow stronger than any threat that roams these streets.” Our captor assured, but it was safe to say that made absolutely nobody feel better about any of this. “With that out of the way, allow me to finally introduce the rankings.”

Without warning, a holographic screen appeared before us, suspended mid-air. On the screen were 5 lines of names – pairs – and numbers followed. My eyes were drawn to the first pair.

Yuki no Yurei & Reaper – 27 Points

Perhaps in response to our visible confusion, Juno hummed, as if having observed something, before continuing.

“Based on your actions during each night, I will award the different pairs with ‘points’. I hope you still remember your pairs, yes? There are various ways to earn ‘points’, such as slaying more powerful Noise, like the one you encountered today, completing the assigned mission, what have you.”

I almost wanted to laugh. Points? Maybe this really was a game to them after all.

“In addition, I will use my own judgement to award players points where I see fit. For example, based on feats of leadership and initiative, I have awarded the player known as Yuki no Yurei an additional ten points, in addition to the twelve she has already earned through dealing the final blow to the Noise. To her partner, Reaper, I awarded five points for completion of the final objective by themselves.”

So it was a rigged game. Amazing.

“Yuki no who?” The shadow boy commented.

“Her,” The redhead who’s name had slipped my mind spoke, gesturing toward Mizuko.

“W-Well, yes, but…I never gave that name. Why is…?” The girl of the hour admitted, confused.

“As for the aliases given to each player, fear not. I have created these based on each player’s personality, ability, and history, in order to provide a more…comprehensive manner of referring to your fellow players. Of course, the logistics of your discourse is completely your choice.” Juno expounded.

I wasn’t buying it. These names looked personal – the kind of thing you couldn’t guess just from taking a few looks at someone.

Whoever this ‘Juno’ was, they were a lot closer to home than I’d given them credit for.

With this new information revealed, I opted to take a look at the entire leaderboard.

1. Yuki no Yūrei & Reaper – 27 Points

2. Resolution & Solace – 17 Points

3. Kumo & Fenrir – 9 Points

4. Cordyceps & Red - 6 Points

5. The Twisted & Scarecrow - 0 Points


Upon reading the name ‘Resolution’, this uneasy sensation – like my heart had been invaded – ravaged across my entire body. A cold shiver ran down my spine, and I desperately wanted to go home.

“Wait!” Exclaimed Rusuban. Was he ‘The Twisted’? No – no, probably ‘Cordyceps’ by process of elimination. But isn’t that some kind of plant? Why is that relevant to him of all people? “This ranking – why is it important? What fate awaits those who stand at the top?”

There was a pause.

“…and those who are at the very bottom?” He finished. Rusuban had really been creeping me out lately.

Juno then halted themselves, as if pondering something, before answering.

“Well, what does your heart tell you? What do you think will happen to those at the top? What do you surmise will await those at the bottom?”

The atmosphere was thick and heavy with implication.

In truth, we likely all knew what this was for. What was really at stake in this survival game. It was only that we couldn’t – or wouldn’t – say the words ourselves with our lips. That would only serve to make it real, and not the faraway nightmare we’d all hoped it would end up being.

I looked at my ‘fellow players’, investigating their states of mind, but none would return my eye contact, for which I thank God.

“…I believe that is all for now.” It spoke in conclusion. “Now, I will send you back to your world. Convene, discuss, prepare, if you will, for we will meet again tomorrow. For now, I bid you farewell.”

Shit. We couldn’t afford to go into the next night blind. If we wanted a chance of surviving in this place, we needed to move with purpose and intention.

“H-Hey! Everyone!” I yelled, fighting to keep my eyes open. “Let’s meet on the rooftop, after school. We need to…need to…talk…”

It was too late – I was on the ground. I felt an array of thuds accompany me, and as I made one final prayer that my words had reached them in time, I allowed my eyes to close, carried away by sleep into the next world.



“Fuck…” I groaned after having woken up with a start. My alarm - the alarm that I’d risen to for years of my life – had terrified me. It sounded like one of them, and instinctively I punched the damn thing off of my bedside table.

After crashing against the wall, there it lay – silent and still as a mouse. Taking deep breaths, I made myself remember the last night. The last night of struggling, of pain, of misery. This was only the beginning.

Why us? Why would we have to suffer such hell, ripped away from our lives in order to fight for the very right to have them?

I could find no answer – not in the rising sun through my orange curtain, not in my father rapping on my bedroom door to inform me it was time for my mandatory morning run, and not in the quiet, strangled sobs that were being buried into my duvet.
 
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Chapter 13 - Junko Shirogetsu

Tuesday, October 17th

The portrayal of swordplay in anime, films, and even games had always seemed silly to me.

I suppose when you spend several hours each week practicing actual swordsmanship with your own body, you naturally become more nitpicky when it comes to how accurately your craft is being depicted.

What they usually don’t tell you is how much those wild, seemingly costless swings of your weapon really do matter.

Just the slightest misstep, the slimmest opening allowed, and your opponent will likely never give you the opportunity to even regret it.

Of course, I had never held a real sword – the bamboo swords we use in Kendo, shinai, had to suffice.

That is, until last night.

Now I reckon I’ll never look at a blade the same way again.

There was a profound difference between fighting for sport, and fighting for survival, and I’d been carrying that difference with me, a soreness still fresh in my body, a fear still newly-harvested in my heart.

“…Uhh, were you even listening??” Reprimanded Emiko, an annoyed lilt ever-present in her voice.

As if awaking from a daydream, I shook my head, and pushed my locker shut.

“Seriously, what is with you?” She inquired, now somewhat concerned, but not enough to overshadow her annoyance at not being listened to, at not being the centre of attention.

“Sorry,” I exhaled. “I – didn’t sleep very well last night.”

At this, the corners of her cherry-red lips curved upward into a smirk.

“Oh, my…” She teased, covering her mouth with her right hand. “I didn’t know the date went that well.”

I felt my cheeks burning up, and tried to resist the urge to pound her shoulder.

“Not that!” I admonished, my palm finding her shoulder regardless. If her cackles were any indication, though, I supposed it hadn’t done much damage at all. “Come on, you know it isn’t like that.”

“It’s whatever you say it is, babe ~ “ She crooned, eliciting a deep sigh from my chest. There was no correcting her when she got like this. I judged it best to just let her believe what she wanted.

There was a pause as we drank in the atmosphere of the afterschool hallways. Laughter fell softly among the hustle and bustle of my fellow students heading to clubs, making plans to socialize, or on the rare occasion, to study, among other activities.

Curiously, and perhaps tragically, I found myself in envy of them, being allowed to continue their ordinary, daily lives whilst my own had been helplessly snatched from me.

After all, what was the point in making plans when each day could be your last? I’d heard that sentiment plenty of times prior, though I suppose the added personal experience added a new facet to my understanding of that school of thought.

“Anyway, “ Emiko continued after a while, “I guess I’ll be heading to the library.”

She sighed. If she approached her academics with as much enthusiasm as her appearance, she’d have won a Nobel Prize by now, I mused, though in hindsight, that was likely the jealousy speaking.

“Hopefully my future husband is waiting there for me!” She sang, her mood having performed a swift U-turn. “God, he has no right being that scrumptious.”

“Ew,” I exclaimed, resisting the urge to gag. “Quit fangirling or I just might end myself from the cringe.”

She chuckled, though not earnestly.

“You sound just like her.” She remarked, quieter, before bobbing her head over to her right, where a familiar-looking blonde was strutting through the space, paying nobody any mind, as if she were above us all.

It looked like it was time.

“Tiger? As if. I bet she pees standing up,” I jabbed, as though we hadn’t fought alongside each other for our very lives a few hours prior. Even so, I owed her nothing – we simply collaborated for mutual benefit. Nothing more.

At this, Emiko released a mean-spirited giggle at our target as she walked by us. If Eiji had noticed, neither her facial expression nor body language betrayed that fact.

“I don’t see why Russy-senpai even spends time around a wild animal like her. If only he’d just open his eyes and look my way, maybe he’d realize what he’s been missing out on all this time.”

Okay, this was getting gross.

“Listen,” I interrupted. “I should be getting out of here. Text me later?”

“Well, alright.” Emiko responded. “Have fun shopping with your sister.”

“I will,” I replied, swatting away the guilt rising in my chest. “See you!”

With that, I was free – or more accurately, free from the frying pan, but now falling into the fire, and I was unsure whether I’d be walking out in one piece.


I’d only been to the rooftop a select few times since my arrival here. Even less so once I became attached to Nakamura.

Sometimes he would ask me up there to meet his friends.

“They’re real cool guys, babe,” He’d reason. “I trust them with everything. They’ve been good to me.”

Regardless of his arguments, a guy was a guy, and I’d learnt by now how to handle them.

Rule number one?

Never ever meet the friends, or even worse, family of a boy you’re not serious about. It’ll only make things that much more awkward down the line.

Yes, it was ironic that I’d gone and broken the law in that regard myself, though it was completely against my will. If only I hadn’t gone and hurt myself – then maybe I could’ve hid from Furusawa a bit longer.

My ruminations were interrupted when my vision suddenly when black. My heart sank.

“Guess wh-“

Nakamura’s teasing was interrupted as my right elbow flew behind me, finding its mark.

“Ooof!” He winced, doubling over and leaning onto the nearby lockers for support.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” I gasped. “I thought I was – ah, are you okay?”

He held a palm up while the other still rubbed and comforted the location I had struck.

“All…all good.” He forced, though it was clear as day that he was still in pain as he rose back up. “So - I take it you’re not a big fan of surprises, huh?”

“Sorry.” I repeated, rubbing the back of my neck. “I-I had the strangest dream last night. It’s kind of got me on edge…”

Ryota raised an eyebrow.

“Huh, really? Between you and Furusawa, maybe there’s a spirit haauuunting us!” He jeered, wriggling out his fingers childishly. “And it’s coming for you!

Before I could question exactly how much Akio had revealed, I felt Ryota’s hands tickling my abdomen, petting my sides, and involuntarily I began to writhe.

“Wait-wait- no, stop!” I laughed in spite of myself. “Come on, t-that’s enough!”

After a few seconds, he obliged, and I was released from his torture.

“You’re silly,” I admitted once I’d caught my breath.

“Only when it comes to you.” He admitted, looking down right at me.

In moments like these, when it felt like the whole world belonged to just the two of us, his deep brown eyes gazing into mine, I almost felt bad, wondering exactly when the boredom would hit, when I’d have to go find someone else to alleviate it.

“Hey, do you wanna…get out of here? Maybe catch a movie at Flickz? I heard they got this new action film that came out yesterday, apparently there’s this one scene where-“

“Not tonight,” I admitted. “I-I’m meeting my sister on the rooftop, and I don’t to spring this on her too early.”

His head began to hang low.

“I mean – why not now? The longer we leave it, the harder it’s gonna get.” He predicted. I made a note to myself to find a less stubborn guy the next time around.

“I know, I know,” I agreed, my voice taking on the soft, dulcet tone he couldn’t resist. They never could. “Trust me, it will happen. But we can’t rush it, okay? Now just isn’t the best time for it, what with midterms, and her college applications and everything.”

My hands found his own. I nested one within his palm, whilst the other rested on top, my thumb stroking the top of his hand in gentle circles. I was going in for the kill.

“Do you trust me?” I asked in a whisper.

He looked to the side briefly, likely because he’d explode with any eye contact on top of what I was already employing.

“Yeah,” He confessed. “Yeah, I do.”

“Thanks.”

A hug and kiss on the cheek later, I said my farewells and continued on my path to the rooftop. Game, set, match.

Or so I thought.

“Ah, if you catch Akio up there, why not greet him?” Ryota called.

“He told me he was meeting some people up there too. You know what he looks like, right?”

I did my best to hide the gritting of my teeth, offering a small smile, nod, and wave, though I felt a fire begin to rise up in my chest.

This was going to harder than I’d thought.


The metallic doors to the rooftop opened with a creak, the chill of the evening breeze slapping me.

“Well,” I began, looking around. “Isn’t this quite the turnout?”

“You’re late,” Reprimanded Hoshino, who was leaned against the chain link fence, the sun turning a mellow orange behind her. “Or were you too busy giggling with your friend?”

So she had noticed. I smirked.

“I apologize,” I shrugged, “I know it must be tough to have friends who only reach out to ask for physics notes.”

Eji looked like she was about to retaliate when a voice that wasn’t her own cut her off.

“That’s quite enough, both of you.” Commanded my older sibling, who was stood in the middle of our small congregation. “We have enough problems on our hands without your bickering.”

She turned to me, but her eyes displayed not even an ounce of warmth.

“With you here, that makes seven.”

Huh. All things considered, a better turnout than I’d expected.

Mizuko glared at her watch.

“…We’ll have to start without the other three.” She declared, before clearing her throat. Of course she’d prepared some sort of address.

“As you all know, we are gathered here today to discuss the events of last night.” She began. I took a seat on an empty bench – I had a feeling we were going to be here a while.

“The fact that you are all here eliminates the possibility that it was just an ordinary nightmare – some way, somehow, we all shared the same dream, and experienced that mysterious realm simultaneously.”

“Right,” Hoshino contributed. “A part of me still wanted to believe none of that was real. That you guys weren’t real – just part of the dream. But since we’re all here, that can only mean…”

“Way to repeat what’s already been said.” I thought of saying, but I suppose I had the advantage of having practically been raised by Mizuko – her vocabulary was, for all intents and purposes, my second language.

“That everything was real.” Furusawa concluded. His fingers clutched at the chains of the fence as though he’d fall without their support. “And that we’re going to be there again for the next six nights.”

A tense silence befell the meeting – I suppose it was still a tough pill to swallow.

“…Well, before anything else, why don’t we properly introduce ourselves?” Mizuko offered, likely sensing the restlessness among our gaggle.

I resisted the urge to facepalm – if it wasn’t awkward before, it was certainly about to get uncomfortable now.

“I will go first – My name is Mizuko Shirogetsu, a third year, and Vice-President of our Student Council. I suppose in the ‘game’ I’ll be known as ‘Yuki no Yurei’, in which case you may call me Yuki. Otherwise, in the real world, Shirogetsu is fine.”

After her own lengthy introduction, she gestured to Hoshino.

After a long circle of introductions, some more polite than others, I was able to map out the names of my fellow captives quite well, I’d say:

Mizuko = Yuki no Yurei

Eiji = Resolution

Yours Truly = Kumo

Arthur = Fenrir

Miharu = Red

Liu = The Twisted

Akio = Solace

Furthermore, I remember the names appearing in distinct pairs. If my self-produced glossary is to be trusted, Hoshino was paired with Furusawa, and I was paired with Cunningham, but what exactly did that mean?

“Now…” Spoke Mizuko, satisfied with introductions. “With that done, I suppose we should begin to discuss how exactly we plan to survive this ordeal.”

‘Survive’.

That word was all it took to set wheels in motion that we couldn’t possibly have been aware of at the time, but would regardless come to haunt us for the rest of our days.
 
Chapter 14 - Arthur Cunningham

Tuesday, October 17th

Should you ever visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, as you peruse the works of art that decorate the space’s distinguished walls, there stands a masterpiece that has etched its way into my very soul — Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch.'

The vibrant strokes depict a scene of disciplined camaraderie, each figure poised in valour, unified by a shared purpose that transcends individuality.

When my eyes first lingered upon its sprawling canvas, I was captivated - not only by its artistic brilliance - but by the profound symbolism it exuded.

Amidst the dimly illuminated chaos, I found a representation of unwavering unity and the spirit of perseverance in the face of adversity.

Now, I find myself looking to Rembrandt’s triumph for strength, seeing the faces of my allies and I in the figures that occupy the piece’s centre.

Whether our own tale will be one of unyielding resolve, or tragic ruin, is for us to decide.

“Let’s go over what we know.” Started Hoshino. “Every night, whilst we’re fast asleep, our ‘spirits’ are taken away into that other world, a mirror version of Shibuya, where we fight for our lives. Supposedly, avoiding sleep or trying to run away to somewhere else won’t help.”

I nodded in assent, deciding to contribute my own observations.

“Indeed. Moreover, the space is haunted by those creatures, Noise, whose singular goal is to take us out for the essence that we possess and manipulate, EXS. As such, it is possible for us to sustain injury and likely perish in that other plane – in which case, our fate in the real world could also be death, though that remains to be seen.”

There it was again – the rigid silence that swept upon us as if a gust of wind. I cleared my throat.

“Of course, so long as we look out for one another, I believe such a tragedy will never come to fruition.” I added.

“Also, it seems that any injuries sustained over there don’t carry over into the real world,” Junko remarked pensively. “I had sustained some minor cuts and bruises in that last fight that had vanished by the time I woke up. The mental strain aside, I was in perfectly normal physical condition. I assume so long as we make it to the end of the night alive, we’ll be perfectly fine in the waking world.”

Mizuko’s head bobbed as she sighed in what appeared to be relief.

“Understood.” She said, before closing her eyes as if bracing for something. “There’s another matter I’d also like to discuss.”

With the whole gathering’s eyes on her, she reached into her breast pocket and seemingly pulled something out.

“I received this in my locker yesterday,” She began, the metallic shine of the object flashing brilliantly in our eyes. “Some sort of pin.”

My heart rate started to accelerate.

“I-I also received one.” Reaching into my trouser pocket, my fingers found the steely texture of the item, and I yanked it out. Looking at it now, it was incredibly clear what the meaning of this was – how did I not see it sooner?

One by one, our group members displayed their own pins, identical in structure, with only the image inscribed on the front varying between us.

“No fucking way.” Katoru muttered. “Is it me, or… does the image on this junk relate to those crazy things we were pulling off yesterday?”

“That’s exactly right.” Expressed Mizuko. “My own badge has a rather jagged-looking snowflake displayed.”

“I – I have a Sock and Buskin!” Kozuki squeaked. Was this really the same girl that stood so brazenly before us some hours ago?

As expected, my own badge branded the unsightly visage of a wolf, though curiously, one eye was red and the other blue, despite my distinct lack of heterochromia.

“Then that settles it… “Mizuko continued. I noticed the smallest bead of sweat form on her forehead, and I felt a surprising surge of anger that someone as beautiful as her was being subjected to all this madness. “My only question is, who went and planted them?”

It seemed that, for every answer, five new questions followed. We were going around in circles.

I broadened my awareness to other things I noticed last night, and as my rays of attention and analysis converged onto one such lead, a gasp left my mouth involuntarily.

“Rusuban and Kurogane are missing, but…Reaper. D-Do we even know who they are? They didn’t even reveal their voice! Do you think they could be…”

I could hear my heart palpitating like a drum - I almost didn't hear the rooftop door swinging open with a loud bang.



“Apologies, everyone.” Kinoko sighed sheepishly. “I was looking for Kurogane, but I haven’t caught sight of him all day. I’m not sure he was even in attendance.”

Hoshino’s eyes narrowed, as if about to reprimand him, though her annoyance soon gave way to realization.

“Shit, that’s right, he wasn’t in homeroom. I…” She began to rub the back of her neck, eyes closed. “I don’t really pay attention to him, so…I guess I missed it.”

Despite Junko’s expression clearly scrunching up in what appeared to me as irritation, nobody said a word. Likely because the same could be said for us.

“No matter.” Rusuban exhaled, closing the door gently and standing beside Mizuko.

His proximity to her was wholly unnecessary in my estimation, so I elected to watch him very closely in case he tried anything ungentlemanly. “What have we discussed thus far?”

After being caught up on our conversation, he turned his gaze to the setting sun, and the first signs of evening.

“I see.” He pondered. “Though in the case of the pins, I’d argue they’re more than just symbols. Why go out of their way to deliver these to us if all they served to do was describe information we’d come to learn soon enough anyway? No, I’d say…”

He turned to us, the breeze allowing his green locks to flow freely in the wind.

“I’d say these pins are a warning.” He concluded. “Juno, or whoever is the mastermind behind this entire thing, is here. In this school. In this city. Watching our every move. That was the message they were trying to send – that they’re much closer to home than we could’ve ever imagined.”

My legs began to shake involuntarily. I lowered, taking a seat next to Kozuki, who instinctively shuffled over, withdrawing her limbs into her own space.

“I don’t know what they’ll do if we try to tell someone about all this,” Rusuban resumed. “And considering what they’re capable of, I don’t intend to find out. Like anybody will believe us, anyway…it seems all we have is each other.”

At this, his eyes became hard with resolve.

“For the other two, Kurogane and Reaper, I can’t speak. But as for myself, I promise that I will do everything in my power to make sure that you all get through this – even if it costs me my own life.”

I was taken aback by the sincerity of his words, and felt my vision becoming blurry.

As I removed my glasses for a brief moment, the position of the sun burning bright on the horizon made Kinoko appear almost angelic.

“We’re all in this together, and so long as it remains so, nothing will stand in the way of our saga’s victory!” He assured, before looking sheepishly at Miharu. “I believe those were the words, yes?”

At his attention, she became surprised, as if having been caught daydreaming, before nodding her head vigorously with smiling eyes.

It was clear we’d all been caught off guard by his moving words.

Well, most of us.

“Whatever,” Groaned Katoru, arms folded, though I observed the slightest, smallest beginnings of a grin forming on his lips. “Just don’t go sicko mode on us again and maybe we’ll still be sucking air this time next week.”

Of course, I couldn’t forget what had happened the night before – the coldness in his voice when he’d let that Noise attack Daisuke within an inch of his life – but while the punishment had been a tad excessive, there was no telling what Kurogane would’ve done to us had Katoru not won that battle.

Regardless, I couldn’t sense any of that same darkness in Rusuban’s cadence now. I felt I could rely on him to follow through, or at the very least, cooperate with the rest of us.

“Come to think of it, Kozuki – aren’t we partners?” He mused thoughtfully. “Well, not in that way, of course…unless you’re not doing anything later?”

At his teasing, Miharu’s cheeks almost became the same shade of red as her hair.

“Ow!” Rusuban winced once Hoshino’s fist had found his left shoulder. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding, sheesh. I was talking about that leaderboard thing – everybody was partnered up, correct?”

“Right,” Junko, my own ‘partner’, contributed. I had noticed her eying the rather quiet Furusawa surreptitiously, but opted to say nothing. “Remember that moment near the start when it felt like we were dying? I think whoever we reached out to then became our ‘partner’. Juno called it a ‘Pact’. I’m not sure what exactly that means, though.”

“We’ll have to ask when…when we’re there next.” Mizuko concluded. I supposed she may not have had the strength to say ‘Later tonight’.

With several nods of assent following, it seemed our first meeting had come to a conclusion.

Well, except for one last thing I needed to set straight.

“Rusuban,” I called. “I hope you don’t mind – I have a question for you.”

I scanned his reaction for anything conspicuous, but came up with nothing.

“Ask away.” He cheered.

“Do you mind telling us what your ability does?”



As expected, I wasn’t the only one wary of the fact that he and the enigmatic Reaper were the only among us whose abilities hadn’t been revealed in the slightest.

I felt numerous eyes centre in on him, equally scanning him for any suspicious behaviours.

Despite his inspiring words undoubtedly lifting our morale considerably, he would have to work harder than that to completely alleviate our wariness, especially after Kurogane’s treachery.

“It’s kinda lame, in all honesty.” He chuckled, as he pulled out a familiar object from his pocket.

“Some kind of plant?” I inquired, after having risen up from my seat to inspect the trinket.

“Looks like it,” Kinoko guessed. “I think maybe I could have control over plant life? How about we stop by Miyashita Park during the night to test it out?”

I pondered his offer.

If he was hiding something, this was an illogical move – he’d only be backing himself into a corner by proposing he display his power.

In the case that his presentation failed to deliver...

Well, I’m sure we would figure something out.

“Very well,” I agreed after surveying the group’s expressions. “I look forward to seeing what you’re capable of.”

He nodded, and a few beats of silence lingered in the air until a distinct groaning and rumbling cut the strained atmosphere clean in half.

“Sorry,” Furusawa apologized self-consciously, a hand on his abdomen. “I haven’t eaten all day. This whole thing has had me really worried.”

“Then why don’t we call it a day?” Mizuko suggested. “I suppose ignoring our health will provide no benefit. Let us remain diligent in our day-to-day undertakings.”

“Agreed.” Rusuban confirmed. “I shall see you all again soon.”

With that, we began to arrange ourselves, preparing to go about the rest of our daily lives with the lingering threat of the Hollow Night still haunting our tired minds.

“Hoshino,” Akio approached her, nervous. “I-I was wondering if you wanted to grab something to eat? I-If you’re heading by Center Street there’s this really good place I frequent.”

In response, Hoshino looked slightly confused, as if Furusawa had been speaking another language, her cheeks almost imperceptibly becoming rosier.

“Sorry, not tonight.” Hoshino stammered once she registered what had been said. “I have to catch up on study with a friend of mine. I’m sure someone else’d like to go, though.”

Crestfallen, Furusawa scanned the rest of our cohort, but none would return his eye contact, to his chagrin.

That is, until an arm suddenly draped itself around his neck.

“Fuck dude, that was hard to watch.” Admitted Katoru. “But shit, if you’re buying, I can’t say no to free food.”

Furusawa sighed comically, and several among our cohort released hearty chuckles at the tragic turn of events.

Soon enough, starting with the freeloader and his reluctant benefactor, we slowly began to filter through the rooftop’s door, and down the staircase, though I noticed the others treading carefully, as though they were afraid of stepping on something.

I was almost the last to leave when I noticed Rusuban and Mizuko had lingered behind, exchanging hushed words.

Stepping past the threshold signified by the door, I tried to discern what was being communicated before friction itself had failed me, my feet completely losing their balance.

With my hand catching the door handle, I was able to quickly lift myself back up, but the accident hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“You okay over there?” Called Rusuban. “Apologies – I just needed to talk to Shirogetsu-san about some Student Council business. Go on ahead!”

At that point, however, my mind was no longer pre-occupied with their conversation, as my eyes took in the suddenly squeaky clean shine of the floor leading to the downwards staircase.

Somebody had cleaned it in the time we spent up here.
 
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Chapter 15 - Daisuke Kurogane

Tuesday, October 17th

I came to a decision.

If anybody whose name I knew caught me here, I’d end myself. Right here, right now, using whatever tools were available.

As my hand reached up to pull my hood further over my face, the person in front of me, a mother with two children, shuffled her offspring forward, guarding their rear from the acute serial-killer vibes I must’ve been giving off.

Understandable – if I was lining up to see the fifth instalment of an award-winning animation franchise and some creep behind me was dressed in all black, stealing glances all around like that, I’d be reminding my kids of ‘stranger danger’ too.

Unfortunately, due to the absolute lack of fucks I had left to give, they’d have to put up with my antisocial vibes for a bit longer. Boo-hoo.

To be honest, I can’t say what exactly brought me over to Flickz, the most frequented cinema this side of the city, much to my disdain.

As such, I was seeing brats in Himawari, Tsukioka, and of course, Tensei uniforms swarming the streets like they hadn’t got anywhere else to fucking be. I hadn’t seen any of them, thank God, but I didn’t know how much time I had left.

Shit, who knows? Maybe they were having a grand old time of discussing how much of an asshat I was. Can’t blame ‘em – might just be the first time someone went and put them in their place. Or attempted to, anyway.

I underestimated that Katoru kid – though from the last moments that I’d remembered, that excruciating pain that had hit me – I didn’t think that was his doing.

That was fine. One way or another, I’d get to the bottom of what – or who – had done that to me, and make them regret their sorry existence.

All I needed were more of those orbs – and I think I knew just how to get them.

Eventually, I managed to make it to the front of the queue. An unbearably chipper-looking girl about my age, if not slightly older, beamed at me.

“Hey, welcome to Flickz!” She cheered. “What are ya seeing today?”

“One ticket for…” I cleared my throat, and stared at her intently. “One ticket for Laser Cats please.”

If she was judging me, she must’ve been real good at it, because I didn’t sense an ounce of disrespect in her tempo.

In other words, she was either an immaculate soul or a professional bitch. It was usually the latter.

Ticket in hand, I got it punched through and was making my way down to Screen 6, when my phone buzzed for what might have been the first time in months – I couldn’t remember at this point.

Reading the text from the unknown number, I had to loosen my grip on the mobile device before I crushed it.

This was bad.

With a few swipes, my thumb now hovered over Rusuban’s contact.

I remember when he’d given it to me; at the start of the school year, when I somehow got elected as his Vice-Rep.

Back when I still had some hope left.

We’d exchanged numbers, all giddy and excited with the prospect of being important, of having worth. Of alleviating our fears.

Of course, that was before I came to know who he really was. Who I really was.

The green, glowing ‘call’ button enticed me.

After some time, my index finger found the power button.


Believe it or not, that very well might’ve been the best entry to the Laser Cats series, serving as the perfect conclusion to the Whiskerboom Saga.

It did everything the franchise was renowned for – making you laugh, cry, and think - at least that’s what she used to say.

The thought of her surprised even myself, especially given the trainwreck that was our last meeting.

My shoulder was aching for a whole week, for fuck’s sake. But she wasn’t the girl I knew – not anymore. Whatever was left of that bridge, she’d watched it burn with her very own eyes.

So when, after pushing through the double doors outside, into the orange evening glow, I caught her directly in front of me glued to her phone, I figured I’d tell her exactly that.

“I-ah-um-“

Fuck. She noticed my spasm.

“Daisuke?” Chinami’s eyes were wide with surprise, swiping her phone behind her back. “W-What are you doing here?”

I saw this going one of two ways – I tell her that I, as a grown-ass dude, went to watch the final entry to the movies we’d spend those peaceful summer afternoons at her house lounging around watching.

I tell her that I, at one point, found myself recalling our first meeting towards the end of elementary school, the sound of her voice as she joined me on the pavement.

“Y’know, girls don’t find the whole ‘loner’ thing as cute as you think,” She’d said to me. “I can help you change that. But no matching outfits. If I ever tell you that we should dress alike, you have full permission to knock me unconscious.”

I tell her about how quiet it had gotten since we’d stopped hanging out. How empty and useless everything has become since.

Or, I could not.

“I was with a friend.” I lied. “They took off just now.”

“Huh.” She pondered. “I wonder what they thought of Whiskerboom’s final moments?”

Fuck. Again.

At what must have been the distress present all over my features, she let out a giggle.

“Relax. I know how much you like – liked – those films. Obviously, I just came from watching it too. I can’t even count the amount of times we used to…”She trailed off, as if she’d suddenly become aware of the canyon that lay between us.

“About the other day, I’m…I’m really sorry. I don’t why he gets so-“

“Did you break up with him?” The words left my lips before I could think twice.

A thick silence rafted through the air between us, the commotion of passersby our only respite.

“It-It’s not that simple –“

“Isn’t it though?” I always hated that about her – whenever it came to doing what needed to be done, she could never grow the balls to do it. “Those the kind of thugs you associate with these days?”

I felt a tightness in my chest, and the words were spilling out of me now. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt like this, and I much preferred it that way.

“Daisuke, I…” She squeaked, her eyes becoming wet with remorse. Shit. I forgot how sensitive she could get. “I’m really, really sorry.”

“Not really, are you?” I thought of saying, but the sincerity in her speech served to cool the flames of my indignation.

I heaved a sigh.

“Look, it’s fine.” I spoke, breaking eye contact. “I should get going.”

“Wait!” She called after a few seconds of me taking my leave. “C-Can we talk? Thursday at four-thirty, Cutie Pies?”

The dessert place on Takeshita Street? As if I’d be caught dead in that girly-ass place.

“Fine.” I replied.

On second thought, perhaps I should just end it all here and now as agreed. I knew her name, as agreed, so now my life was forfeit, right?

In any case, I decided to speed off before this mouth of mine got me into any more trouble.

Perhaps it would’ve been a good time to inform her I may not even live to see Thursday – though I doubt she’d believe me even if I told her everything.

Once I’d gotten some good distance, I reached inside my jacket pocket for my phone, reminding myself of the location detailed in the text message.

Deciding to follow in the footsteps of that cautious mother, I also charted the route from the rendezvous point to the nearest police station.

Just in case.


Laughter fell softly as I entered Miyashita Park, a swath of precious green in the heavily industrial and technological kingdom that was Tokyo.

As legions of cyclists whizzed past, I drank in the crisp evening air, my encounter with Chinami still fresh in my mind.

I had never understood it – why people pretend to be things they clearly aren’t. Why they put on masks and play mind games with each other endlessly.

To mask their fears? Who said fears needed to be covered up to begin with?

Why shouldn’t they be brought out into the open, showcased for all to see without judgement?

Eventually, I’d arrived at the meeting spot. I hadn’t yet seen anybody wearing a black and white ribbon, so it looked like they hadn’t yet arrived.

I leaned my forearms onto the bridge’s wooden railing, looking down below at the gently rocking waters.

The pretences, the deception – I’d grown so fucking sick of it. I’d swore that no matter what, I’d never become one of them. I’d never sell myself out to try and ‘fit in’, like she and so many others had.

Even if it meant that I was alone for the rest of my life, I didn’t care. Nobody would miss me anyway.

Shit – ‘the rest of my life’? The thought almost made me laugh.

Thanks to the mess I’d gotten myself into, I didn’t know how much ‘life’ I actually had left. For all I knew, this was it.

But I’ll be damned if I let any of those pricks think they’re good enough to take me down. If I’m going down, it happens on my terms and nobody else’s.

My fingers were disturbed by a cold, metal sensation. I gripped the pin, the image of a scarecrow with menacing red eyes glaring back at me.

That’s right. I was going to be exactly who I was – and lay bare all their fears.

Let’s see how arrogant they get once they don’t have any guises to hide behind anymore.

“You’re early, Scarecrow.” A voice spoke. I managed to stifle the reaction to jump, but my heart momentarily stopped nonetheless, leaving a deep ache still lingering in my chest.

“I happened to be nearby,” I responded, finding my feet.

I had to say, they didn’t look anything like I thought they would, but they had the ribbon, so it must’ve been them.

“So,” I began. “I take it you’re Reaper.”
 
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Chapter 16 - Akio Furusawa

Tuesday, October 17th

“Hey, we’ve been walking around for ages.” Katoru complained. “Let’s just pick somewhere already. Or has that Good Samaritan energy wore off? ”

I was reluctant, and he knew it.

“Nonono!” I blurted. “Sorry, I know you must be hungry. I guess I just can’t make up my mind.”

At this, he smirked wryly with a knowing look.

“Then I’ll pick.” He suggested, or rather, commanded, leaving me no time to reply before his verdict had come through. “You’re familiar with Asia Fantasia, yeah?”

Crap. Of course I was familiar with my favourite restaurant – I’d been avoiding it for a reason!

“S-Sure, Fantasia works.” I agreed sheepishly, trying my best to disguise my apprehension.

As if exasperated by my very existence, he sighed and trudged off in the direction of Center Street, leaving me to follow behind like an anxious child. I could tell he was starting to evaluate whether or not starvation was still on the table – or at the very least, eating with anyone else was still on the table.

Perhaps I should’ve turned him down, you’re probably thinking. And you’d be right.

Honestly, I couldn’t say for why I’d entertained him for this long – more than a few times in the last half hour or so we’d been gallivanting, I’d been tempted to just take him to any old place, pay for his meal, and then walk away.

We barely talked. Heck, I didn’t know if he was even aware of my existence prior to last night.

Even so, he had that look in his eye. The one that was clearly screaming and crying for help, but didn’t know how to ask.

I knew because my Dad had it too.

“S-So, Katoru-kun,“ I began. “What do you-“

He spun round to face me, his visage overwhelmed with disgust.

“Ew. Ditch the honorific, it sounds weird.” He instructed. “What are we, childhood friends?”

Evidently not.

A few beats passed in silence, and there must have been substantial amounts of hurt displayed on my face, because he began to cackle after catching a sidelong glance at me.

Dude…” He wheezed, hands around his stomach, trying to find his breath. I’d never heard him laugh like this before. “What are you, an injured puppy?”

“Heh, sorry…” I replied sheepishly, rubbing the back of my neck. “I just wanted to, uh…break the ice?”

At my honesty, his expression suddenly became more level. Was that compassion I just detected?

“I…I hear ya, man.” He admitted, surprisingly. “But shit, after the craziness that we went through last night, you’d have to try real hard to surprise me at this point. Unless you’re actually serial killer.”

This was my chance.

“Tonight’ll be my debut.” I smiled.

I turned to meet his eyes, narrowing my own and smiling menacingly like a villain whose meticulous plan had been executed flawlessly.

Eventually, he couldn’t contain his laughter, and this time I joined him in a hearty guffaw, my hands clutching at my hair as I looked up. My eyes opened to catch the setting sun.

Darkness was encroaching – moving in – and sooner or later, neither of us would be able to escape it.

And that was okay.

These little moments - getting rejected by the girl I like, feeling awkward making a new friend, eventually laughing our heads off together – they proved that it wasn’t over yet. That I could still fight.

That I could still live.



Once, Ryuzaki had told me a story.

A long time ago, there was once a ramen cart by the name of Neko Ramen, travelling along the entire country from Kyoto, to Osaka, and beyond.

The name was - and get this - a reference to the chef’s secret ingredient, namely, actual cats.

The worst part?

Every customer that encountered the enigmatic establishment was smitten by the sheer tastiness and quality of the bowls they devoured.

“Bullshit.” Katoru replied, eloquent as ever, and eyeing our takoyaki tray for his next victim.

I chuckled.

“Had a feeling you’d say that. But just imagine! You walk up to it thinking it’s any old ramen place, next thing you know, your family pet’s been missing for days.”

This time it was his turn to laugh, and it was laced with substantially less disdain than anything I’d witnessed from Liu before.

“I might just have to off myself after that,” He conceded. “Or dedicate my life to the rescue of abandoned animals. Shit, maybe I’d even get my own line of pet food.”

I began to twist my fork between my fingers, the warm orange glow of the busy restaurant shining in its reflection.

Maybe I should get Dad a pet. Someone to keep him company, I mused to myself.

“Yeah? What kind?” Katoru inquired. I’d been thinking out loud.

“I- well, uh…”

No turning back now, I supposed.

“Maybe an Akita?” I suggested.

“Like Hachiko?”

“Yeah, exactly. He’s always been a real big fan of that story. I suppose it…gives him comfort.”

I couldn’t meet his eyes any longer, otherwise I feared he’d be able to see right through me – to see all my father’s pain reflected in these same eyes I inherited from him.

Luckily, Katoru decided not to follow it up, though I didn’t know if it was due to indifference or sympathy.

“Think your family could use a pet?” I asked after a few beats of silence.

“Hell no.” He concluded quickly. “Let’s just say they’re not the most responsible people I know, and that’s putting it lightly.”

I decided to repay the favour and let the moment pass, though it was hard to ignore the now broken chopsticks he dropped from his palm.

As if unsatisfied with the existence of his emotions, he sat back in his chair, taking a deep breath with a slight shake of his head.

Then his eyes fell back onto me. If looks could have weight, I was being crushed.

“I…I had an older sister.” He began, looking down at the now empty tray. “She passed away a while ago, and things haven’t been the same with us since.”

I didn’t speak.

“I miss her sometimes. Or, I guess, I miss the way things used to be when she was still around, y’know? But I guess you never know what you have until it’s gone. It’s real pathetic, huh?”

He looked up at me, and his eyes widened.

“H-Hey, you good?”

It was only then that I’d noticed something small and wet had run down my right cheek. I grabbed at a nearby napkin and dabbed my eyes.

“Yeah, I – I’m sorry to hear that.”

He nodded, but said no more. I decided to even the playing field.

“My family situation’s not the best either,” I began.

I took a deep breath, and then I told him everything.

For a while, the conversation petered out. We sat there, two very different souls that had been hurt in two very similar ways, perhaps wondering what to do with all the anguish that we’d been trying to ignore for so long.

We hadn’t yet found an answer. I didn’t know if we ever would. Even so, simply having been vulnerable to one another – as frightening as it was – had made all the difference.

My Pact may originally have lied with Eiji, but my heart was telling me an entirely new one had just been born.



It was a strange feeling, engaging in ordinary, day-to-day stuff when you knew full well that today could be your last.

“I’d streak all of Center Street. Butt naked, all my dangly parts flowing freely in the wind,” Yakky once said. “It’d be goddamn glorious.”

“Really? That’s the final memory you’d like people to have of you?” Ryuzaki mocked. “Here lies Yuki Nakajima – son, friend, and brother, buried in his award-winning birthday suit.”

At our laughs, Yakky jutted his chin out at Ryuzaki.

“Then what would you be doing, smartass? Trying to beat the world record of having wacked off the most times to some bishoujo?”

Actually,” Kenta replied, pushing up his glasses. “I think I’d finally finish that Gundam suit I’ve been working on. Then spend the rest of my waking hours cosplaying it around the city. Maybe even talk to a few strangers.”

I was surprised. That was actually kind of nice.

“That’s all? Man, I’d be all over the place!” Nakamura cheered. “I’d streak, AND wear some mecha robot suit, THEN take the Beef Bowl Challenge at Donburi Town, go sky-diving, crash a car into a tree –“

“We get it, we get it!” Yakky smiled. “Sounds like an outlaw’s to-do list.”

Suddenly, all of their eyes had fallen onto me. I realized that, despite proposing the question, I was the only one who hadn’t yet given my answer.

My mouth was open when the rooftop door had swung open. Eiji had walked in with her friends, and casted a sidelong glance at us – at Nakamura – before leading her posse to another corner of the space.

“I’d let everyone I care about know I feel,” I found myself saying. “Even if they’d never feel the same way. I would just say everything I had left to say. That’s all.”

Without my intention, the group had fallen silent, their eyes still on me, but noticeably softer.

“…W-woah, sorry! I didn’t mean to –“

Before I’d even finished my sentence, the three of them had materialized next to me, their arms draped around each of our necks.

“Let’s make a pact,” Nakamura announced, his tone surprisingly grounded. “No matter what, we’ll always be friends. We’ll always look out for each other. And most importantly, if one of us is ever in trouble, the others will drop everything to help them out.”

I felt something fall down my cheek.

“Naturally.” Ryuzaki agreed.

“Do we even gotta say it?” Yakky cheered.

“Damn right!” I managed, before closing my eyes, squeezing the tears down, my heart pounding with gratitude.

“Great!” Nakamura exclaimed. “Now, speaking of help – Ryuzaki, I’m gonna need that Chem homework from last Thursday –“

“Oh, screw you!”

And then we did what we were best at – laughing and laughing and laughing until our throats were hoarse and dry.

As I lay in the coldness of my bed, for perhaps the last time, I found my chest was warming with the memory of those days long past.

If I could wrap them up and bury them into the ground, etch them into the earth, as proof of my existence, proof that I was here, that I lived, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

My door creaked open.

“G’night, “ I heard him whisper.

“Night.” I replied. “And Dad?”

I closed my eyes.

“I love you.”
 
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Chapter 17 - Mizuko Shirogetsu

Hollow Night

“Sis, I’m scared.”

I had expected as much. The first few times were always the most difficult, coming to grips with a new way of breathing, walking, gliding that completely contradicted what you’d been practicing.

My eyes turned to search for hers, finding them much closer to my own eye level than expected. When had she gotten so tall?

“It’s okay,” I affirmed, reaching out my hand. “I’ll make sure you don’t fall.”

Her nervous gaze flickered between myself and the ice, hesitant. I waited.

After a few beats, her small fingers found mine, and slowly, we crept onto the rink. Instantly, I felt her grip tighten as she tried to find her balance, unstable feet swinging to and fro.

“Calm down.” I instructed upon seeing her frantic movements. “Make sure your back is straight, feet shoulder width apart. Control your breath-“

Without warning, both her feet had left the ground. In the moment, she appeared suspended in mid-air for a few precious seconds, before eventually plummeting onto the slippery surface below.

“Owww!” She exclaimed, rubbing her back. “Y-You said I wouldn’t fall! You lied!”

I could no longer contain the sigh I’d been holding back. This wasn’t going to work. Luckily, I knew exactly what would.

“I’m not responsible for your lack of balance.” I jeered, grinning in the way I knew she despised. At her sudden stillness I took the opportunity to intensify my assault. “I apologize for bringing you here – I should’ve known it was too much for you.”

I turned my back to her.

“Go sit by Mother while I-“

At the sharp pain that had bit into my right oblique, I almost lost my balance myself.

Backing away, I spun around only to see Junko there, standing erect and confident, her thumb and index finger close from presumably just having pinched me.

“Gotcha!” She smiled mischievously. I felt my teeth begin to grind. I suppose even all those years ago, we knew how to step on each other’s toes better than anybody.

“Oh, now you’re in trouble!” The words left my mouth before I had the chance to register them. She was the only person who could get me like this.

We spent the rest of our hour at the ice rink playing cat and mouse.

With every slip, tumble, and fall she kept getting better and better. Soon enough I was actually having to put in effort to catch up to her.

“It seems the two of you really enjoyed yourselves out there, hm?” Mother remarked. Eyes fixed on the road ahead. “I may have to join you next time.”

“Yes! Yes!” Exclaimed Junko, excited. “We can all skate together!”

I said nothing, though my lips were curving into a smile, in spite of myself.

Well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing ever, I remember thinking, and I would end up being absolutely correct.

The worst thing ever, instead, had unlawfully entered into the box junction we had been waiting at.

We never went back to that ice rink again.

Now I look at my sibling once more, her face an echo of my own, yet simultaneously, markedly different. When had the silver of her eyes lost their innocent glow?

Beneath all of the designer clothes, makeup, and accessories, where had my little sister escaped to?

The chill of nighttime had struck me once more.

“Back here again.” She complained, looking around until her eyes met mine. “…is there something on my face?”

I shook my head.

“No.” I confirmed. And that was exactly my problem.


This had all but confirmed it. Our lives truly were on the line, and if we wanted to survive, we’d have to play by our captor’s rules.

“Fuck.” Katoru cursed. “Kinda hoped the entirety of yesterday was a dream within a dream, but I guess that scenario’s been used already, huh?”

“We’ll make it through this.” Furusawa encouraged. “We just need to stick together.”

I took some time to register our location. We had been placed in Center Street again. Would this be the location we started from every night?

To look at it from the perspective of a ‘game’, it made sense, given its namely central and well-connected location to Shibuya’s other areas.

As I turned to the group to share my findings, I found the atmosphere had become incredibly thick with tension. The eyes of my comrades were hardened and hostile.

I decided to follow their hard gazes, and soon enough, I felt a rage of my own begin to bubble.

“Kurogane,” Rusuban started, though the pure venom in his voice was hard to ignore. “I believe you have some explaining to do.”

A few beats of taut silence passed, before Daisuke replied with a grin.

“I don’t owe you shit, rep. Same goes for the rest of you.”

My chest was heating up. I opened my mouth to speak, though it was not my voice I heard.

“Shut the fuck up.” Katoru spat. “You talk a lot of shit for someone who damn near died a few hours back. If it weren’t for robes over here-“

“Nobody asked you to help me.” Kurogane jeered. “You were better off leaving me for dead. Now you’re gonna regret it.”

Perhaps flabbergasted wouldn’t even begin to do justice to my bewilderment at his irrationality and ingratitude. Was this the real him?

“The hell is wrong with you?” Hoshino spoke. “You think this is some kind of game? Not for us!”

She shot an arm out, her hand gesturing to the rest of our party.

“We’re fighting for our fucking lives here, idiot! You think going off and doing your ‘edgy loner’ act is gonna fly here? Well, be my guest. If you end up a statistic in the morning, that’s on you.”

No more was said after that. Hoshino had gotten to the heart of the matter. His grin had now shifted into a grimace, and soon enough, his hands had found the black kusarigama given to him.

Nobody moved.

While Daisuke was presumably stronger due to having stolen that Noise’s EXS, even he must’ve known that trying to engage us here was a hopeless endeavour.

Realizing this, he shook his head angrily and pointed the sickle’s curved blade in our direction.

“Stay out of my way.” He warned, though I noted a distinct reluctance in his voice that was not present before.

He span the chain in a circle before throwing it, the blade hooking the rooftop railing of a nearby building. Yanking on the irons, he catapulted toward it, before unhooking the blade mid-air, and repeating the process.

Before long, we were watching him as he weaved, zipped, and grappled his away across the rooftops, until he went completely out of sight. When had he learned to traverse like this?

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, a shadow scaled the building Daisuke had swung over, arriving at its top in an instant.

Their cloak swaying in the wind, the darkness underneath Reaper’s hood turned to meet us – meet me, I felt – briefly, before they too disappeared, heading in Kurogane’s direction.

“Well, now I just feel boring.” Katoru jeered after a while.

Great. Now both of them are gone..” Hoshino complained. “I don’t get what their deal is, but we can forget about them. Let’s just focus on the mission.”

On cue, the various monitors, billboards, and screens began to whizz to life. As Juno’s ghastly image filled the displays once again, I had to question – could we truly forget about them?

Or was this the beginning of something much bigger than we’d anticipated?


“Welcome back to the Hollow Night, my children.” Juno greeted. “I imagine you are eager to begin, so I will keep my communication brief. As previously discussed, each night you are to complete a mission I give to you. I will award points to pairs based on the actions you take over the course of each night. You will be returned to the real world upon the mission’s completion.”

Good, nothing had changed. As despicable as they were, it seemed we could rely on Juno for at least being fair. Or so I hoped, anyway.

“I have some questions.” I spoke immediately. It was better to get the mechanics of this place sorted before we went careening into any more life-or-death situations.

I took Juno’s silence as approval.

“Firstly, I noticed we’ve started in the same place as yesterday – can we trust that this will be our starting point each night?”

“Astute observation, Yuki no Yurei.” It congratulated. I’d almost forgotten about those codenames. “Yes, you can trust that your mission briefing will always occur here. Of couse, you’re free to leave, as some among your rank have already done, but you can be sure that you will always start here.”

Very well – now, onto the bigger matter at hand.

“Okay. Secondly, we’re still not entirely sure about the relevance of the things you called ‘Pacts’. What exactly are they? What do they mean for us?”

As I figured, it must’ve been quite the topic, as some moments of silence had passed, presumably for Juno to gather their thoughts.

“Simply put, Pacts are agreements made between players for mutual benefit.” Juno commenced. “If you recall, each of you formed a Pact with another player last night in order to survive the illness that had befallen you. This was due to the hostile climate of this dimension – especially for those such as yourselves, who were not aware of EXS prior to coming here.”

Was that the feeling of death that had gripped us so? It was our bodies beginning to break down due to the oppressive aura of this realm?

“Since forming that Pact, your EXS have become linked. You likely do not even realize it, but the two of you are constantly exchanging your EXS to each other in order to survive here. This has other implications I shall not expound upon here for the sake of simplicity, but simply know that you maintain a connection with your partner at all times.”

“I’m connected to that douche?” Katoru inquired. “Yeah, fuck that. Is there a way to break off a Pact?”

“…I suppose so.” Juno replied. Something didn’t feel right about their tone. “If someone involved in a Pact is killed, the bond is broken, and their surviving partner is free to form a new contract.”

I was afraid they would say that. In other words, I was stuck with Reaper until one of us…

“Aside from this, there is no other way to break a Pact. It is a vow. I believe betrothed repeat similar promises to each other?”

Til’ death do us part.” Cunnigham recited solemnly.

“Precisely. Finally, there is a serious consideration to take into account with your Pacts. In the event that your partner does meets their demise, you will only have about 10 minutes to form a new Pact, or find other means of survival before the toxic atmosphere of this place claims you as well.”

“Will you tell us if someone… if someone has been killed?” Asked Furusawa tentatively. He was stealing glances at Katoru, who was seemingly no longer in a joking mood.

“I am afraid not.” They admitted apologetically, though provided no justification as to why.

The air was heavy with words left unsaid. It was difficult enough to ensure our own individual survival – now it seemed we had to consider the wellbeing of our companions in equal measure.

“If that is all for questions,” Juno announced after a pause. ”Allow me to brief you on your mission for tonight.”

I clutched at my chest, finding it hard to breathe. A soft sensation landed on my shoulder.

“We have nothing to fear.” Rusuban consoled. “Remember that.”

Flashbacks of our conversation yesterday echoed in my mind, and before I knew it, my gaze had landed once more on my younger sibling, whose own eyes were fixed onto the massive billboard above.

I hoped with every fibre of my being that Kinoko was incorrect. It was a horrible feeling – the need to examine and scrutinize your own flesh and blood for traces of disloyalty, but it needed to be done.

The sooner I could clear her, the better I could protect her.

I made a promise to Mother that I would take care of her, and care for her I would.

Even if she would end up hating me for it.
 
Chapter 18 - Liu Katoru

Hollow Night

Well, that’s that. I was fucking doomed.

But you know what irritated me the most about it? This one wouldn’t even be on me!

I could picture it already.

I’d be milling about somewhere, minding my own business when suddenly, my chest starts tightening up, the world starts spinning, and everyone here starts to look like pixel art.

Of all people to be stuck with, dear Lord, why that dickhead?!

“Listen,” I whispered to Furusawa, whose eyes were trained on our beloved game master. He leaned toward me. “I gotta split.”

As a result of having divided his attention two ways, it took him a while to register the words that’d left my mouth.

I looked at him for a few beats before his eyes finally found my own, his voice coming out in panicked whispers, as if we were about to be caught shoplifting.

“What? No way! Dude, you’ll get killed out there by yourself!”

“Shit, if Scarecrow over there was so confident about it, I think I’ll be okay. Plus, you saw the way I creamed him yesterday, right?”

I’m pretty sure that was all me, a voice spoke. I almost gave into the urge to look around for the owner.

Shush, I replied mentally. We both know I was the genius behind that operation. Perfect calculations deliver perfect results, baby.

Yeah, we both know math isn’t your strong suit. Not if that laser pointer fiasco was anything to go off of.


Who’d have thought your own shadow, or spirit, or whatever this thing was, would be so difficult to talk to? I had to wonder where it had inherited all this wittiness from, though I didn’t enjoy the conclusion I reached.

Deciding to ignore the ridiculing of my counterpart, I turned my attention back to Furusawa, who’d been eying me like I’d just told him the earth was a right-angled triangle.

“Did you even hear me?”

I stammered, “Uh-I yeah, totally.”

“What did I just say?”

I paused for a brief moment.

“That you’re considering a life with Christ. And something about your car’s extended warranty –“

“Dude, this is serious!” He admonished, dumbfounded.

“Will you two SHUT IT?!” A harsh whisper sliced the air between us, and we both span our heads in the direction it came from. “We’re trying to listen to the damn mission!”

Akio must’ve been as shocked as I was to hear Junko talking so roughly – up til’ now she’d been playing her role of pretty princess quite well.

I take it Hoshino was amused by the whole exchange, smirking as she turned her attention back to the billboard.

Furusawa and I shared a look as if to say “Let’s table this discussion for later,” before joining the brief.



“Five powerful artifacts have been scattered across the Hollow Night. You are simply to locate and retrieve these artifacts for me. Once each artefact has been secured, your task will be deemed complete. That is all.”

What?

“Yeah, right.” I spat. “Spill it. What’s the twist here?”

Juno remained silent for several moments.

“I do not know what twist you speak of – all I require is that you decipher where these relics are being held, and claim them.”

“Fine.” Our local werewolf declared. “How are we meant to find where they are being kept?”

“I’m afraid you will have to look amongst yourselves for the answer.” Juno responded . “I assure you, the power lies with you to do so. You are free to refer to this map I have crafted for you in order to properly orient yourselves.”

Instantly, their ugy mug was replaced with a plan of the Hollow Night, or to be more accurate, Shibuya. I’d judged it unhelpful – until I took a second look at it.

“Wait,” Junko spoke. “What are the coloured paths about?”

As her highness implied, the paths between the different locations had each been coloured, either green, yellow, or red.

The central area, from where we were up until about Shibu-Q Heads northside was wholly green, though yellows and reds began to dominate the further away from the center you veered.

“These colours delineate the potency of the Noise you may encounter in that area.” Juno informed. “Green means you will encounter relatively weak Noise, Yellow denotes Noise of middling power, whilst Red…well, I’m sure you understand the pattern.”

Red means it’s a death trap, if that wasn’t abundantly clear.

I got it, damnit!


I felt Tainted chuckle. Where did he learn how to do that?

Just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page, genius.

In any case, this was fucked with a capital F.

The Noise these guys nearly lost their lives to yesterday – we’d encountered it in Tipsy Tose Hall, which was an area surrounded by green paths on the map.

In other words, that thing was the chairman of the shitty committee. The best of the worst. And that was being optimistic.

“The artefacts could be in any one of these locations, so please do prepare yourselves accordingly. Should you meet any resistance on your path, I’m sure you know what to do. As always, I will be watching over you. Godspeed, my brave soldiers.”

Likely satisfied with their speech, the masked miscreant’s voice cut off with a whirr, leaving only the staticky image of the map, alongside a counter in the top right.

0/5 Artefacts Found

In addition, the leaderboard thingy from previous lay just below it:

1. Yuki no Yūrei & Reaper – 27 Points

2. Resolution & Solace – 17 Points

3. Kumo & Fenrir – 9 Points

4. Cordyceps & Red - 6 Points

5. The Twisted & Scarecrow - 0 Points


Hoshino was the first to open the floodgates.

“Well, that was fun.”

“Tell me about it, “ I shrugged. “I’d much rather find five fucks to give about this entire thing.”

Rusuban shook his head, “Now now. Let’s be focused. This is a matter of life and death, after all.”

No shit. I thought.

No shit. The Tainted spoke.

I held back the urge to gasp.

Just when I’d decided to offer a tentative olive branch at our shared disgust of Rusuban, I felt Tainted’s presence leave me as its shadowy form began to materialize before us.

What, did dude want to stretch his non-existent legs or something?

“Yo.” It began, its voice a dark and booming variant of my own. I’m pretty sure that’s what I sound like anyway. “I see you’re in quite the sticky wicket, as our friends across the pond would put it.”

I turned to Furusawa, who facepalmed sheepishly in response to my mischievous grin. I doubted even the Hollow Night could handle two of me.

“Luckily,” The Tainted continued. “I have a plan.”



Interesting. I was hoping Tainted would just be my dumb but loveable muscleman, incapable of rational thought, but right now ‘he’ seemed more autonomous than I’d given him credit for.

“My, how convenient. You’re able to track concentrations of EXS?” Verified Rusuban, though the cautiousness in his voice was clear.

It seemed everyone else wasn’t quite used to the whole dark spirit emerging from the bleakest depths of my soul schtick yet, judging by the sharp increase in space they had created between us and themselves.

Either that, or they decided to keep their distance after witnessing the walloping I gave my ‘partner’ the night previous.

Furusawa, however, hadn’t moved from his spot by my side.

“That’s right.” Tainted confirmed. “Though it isn’t super precise, and I’m practically blind to small traces of it. Not to mention I won’t be able to tell you exactly what’s at the source of the concentration.”

I understood the implication as if the words were my own. In essence, he could lead us straight into a pack of Noise and we wouldn’t know a damn thing until it’s too late.

Still, it was real fortunate to have someone capable of guiding us. Otherwise we’d be here for 3 days too many.

Sadly, the gratitude that washed over me was made brief by Tainted’s next few words.

“Here’s the bad news,” He began, and I practically felt the impact of my heart sinking into the abyss. “I’m detecting a bunch of strong signals everywhere – specifically toward the Northeast and Southwest.”

After a rigid period of stillness, Mizuko got to the heart of the matter.

“You suggest that we ought to split up.”

“Precisely – it’d take way too long otherwise. If only there was someone else capable of tracking...”

As if on cue, a rough growl emanated from our gathering, numerous heads turning in alarm.

“Apologies,” Cunningham spoke, this time in his slightly hairier rendition. “I believe I’m what you’re looking for.”

Now having earned our attention, Cunningham tapped his protruded snout with a clawed finger.

“My sense of smell is enhanced greatly while I am in this form, finely tuned to even the subtlest of smells.” He explained, eloquent as you’d expect from an English transfer student. “I surmise that, once I can pick up on the scent of EXS, I should be able to guide you to its source.”

Impressed, I turned back to the Tainted, who was similarly nodding his head in approval.

“Nice.”

I glanced at Furusawa, who clearly wasn’t as stoked as we were. His eyes, as usual, were on someone else.

He questioned, “Hoshino, what’s the matter?”

I followed his gaze to the Golden Tiger herself, whose brows were furrowed, eyes lost in thought.

“It’s just…”

She took a moment to find the right words, before addressing us gravely.

“Don’t you think this is all too convenient?” She eventually brought forward. “That we just happen to have exactly two people capable of guiding us through this? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Juno wants us to make it through this.”

The Tiger had a point. If Juno wanted us dead, they could easily unleash a legion of shirtless bears emerging from the fog, complete with machine guns, lasers, and standard issue flamethrowers built-in.

After deciding I’d definitely be seeing Dr. Takeuchi again soon, I tuned back in to the discussion at hand.

“It’s just like we discussed last night,” Mizuko offered. “Giving us these abilities, setting us achievable objectives…I’m starting to become convinced that our captor does not actually wish to see us dead. At least, not right away. First, they want to see us struggle. They want to see us fight.”

“Disgusting.” Junko judged. Ha, Judge Junko. If we both made it out of here, I thought, we’d have to approach the NHK about that one.

“At any rate, let us begin making headway.” Rusuban proposed. Something about his tone felt strange, though I couldn’t decipher exactly what. “Shall we begin deciding teams?”

It was when our second tracker boomed a commanding “Not so fast,” that I remembered what was supposed to be going down right now.

I was suddenly fighting real hard to contain the grin that was forming on my lips.

“Russy-chaaan ~ “ I sang. “I believe you have something to show us.”
 
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Chapter 19 - Kinoko Rusuban

Hollow Night

I suppose you think I’d be worried right about now. Terrified, even.

Perhaps if I were any old amateur you could pluck from the streets, you’d be correct.

Such a person would not even have made the effort to prepare – I imagine they’d have run off alongside the other two in a situation like this, fearing exposure.

As I’m sure even you have come to understand by now, I am no such novice.

“Of course!” The first step was to beat them to the punch. “I said I’d present my power to you all, wouldn’t I? Thank you for reminding me.”

That slightest hint of confusion on Cunningham’s face made it all the more difficult to hold back a smirk of my own.

Likely attempting to grasp control of the situation, he cleared his throat.

“Thank you. I understand Miyashita Park is quite the distance, and, judging from the map, we’d endure some lethal encounters if we were to head that way.”

He stepped aside to reveal a small patch of green, the same one I’d been practicing on moments ago whilst the rest of them were focused on Juno.

“Would this be a sufficient enough stage for you?”

“Not in the slightest,” I didn’t reply.

Instead, I simply nodded, making my way over to the designated spot, all eyes on me.

I took a deep breath, playing my part with diligence, before stretching forth my hand toward a small chrysanthemum.

I’ll admit, I still found the entire process strange – it was akin to accessing a new section of a building you’ve frequented your entire life. Old, yet new. Foreign, yet familiar.

Still, I kept my composure and followed the same process as I’d been told.

Tense spaces of silence swept through, carried through by the biting October wind.

Just as I was about to put the contingency plan into action, my target eventually began to grow taller and taller, until it blossomed into a massive flower the size of a cactus.

Hah…Sorry it took so long…” I panted. “It seems just that alone takes so much from me!”

Admittedly, this wasn’t an act. I’d been warned that the procedure would be draining, but I hadn’t expected this. I had to be even more careful when displaying this ability.

“Alright, Green Thumb,” Mocked Katoru after a while. He was clearly enjoying having the superior ability – or the perception of such, anyway. “Take five. We’ll call you when the climate change Noise makes an appearance.”

I shook my head, pretending that the grinding of my teeth was due to my visible tiredness. My eyes found Mizuko’s, and soon enough, she got the ball rolling.

“If there’s no other business, let’s go over our strategy.” She declared.

Please, do be taking notes.



“As a reminder, our goal here is to secure five artefacts scattered around the area, and to do so as efficiently as possible.” The Vice-President spoke. “Seeing as how we have two among us capable of tracking these objects down, we are to split into two teams to collect them.”

Cunningham chimed, “Precisely,” though soon after his visage became notably more downtrodden. Whilst my intellectual superiority must hurt, I doubted that was the cause.

“My friends, there’s something you must know. I think I’ve discovered what the ‘twist’, so to speak, of this mission really is.”

Perhaps to illustrate his point, or maybe as a wanton act of vandalism, the boy suddenly grew into his hulking Lycan form, before diving into the front window of Hong Kong Star’s storefront.

The absurdness of the entire act made me chuckle, though I kept it inaudible.

“Apologies,” He said sheepishly, in response to the varied reactions of shock from our cohort. “I needed to get these.”

In his now fleshy hand was a singular white piece of chalk, likely the same used by the restaurant for the advertising of their dishes to passersby.

I applauded his show of initiative – I imagined due to the kerfuffle yesterday, he’d realized that all the stores here are actually stocked full of the items they peddle during the daytime.

It was almost an impressive enough display to change my mind about the destiny I’d chosen for him.

Almost.

With our group’s attention solely on him, he began to draw across the tarmac we stood on, his strokes skilful and precise, surely that of a seasoned artist.

My curiosity was peaked, and the others followed as we crouched around to behold the diagram he was concocting.

“Here we are,” He announced conclusively, wiping his brow. “This is simply a crude copy of the map up there, duplicated for our convenience. Now, listen to this.”

Cunningham then pointed toward the Northeastern section of his piece.

“This area, at least according to my nose, is heavy with the waft of EXS. Considering that this part of the area contains the most red and amber routes, that is to be expected, though I have the slightest suspicion that Juno has taken advantage of this very fact.”

“That’s right,” Katoru’s minion affirmed in response to Arthur’s eye contact.

At that moment, as if hit by sudden understanding, the words had left my mouth before I could gain control.

“Ah! You suspect Juno has hidden the artefacts among these congested routes?”

It was then that Cunningham looked up at me with the most amiable expression he’d given me up to that point. Much to my future vexation, that image of his smile never left me from that moment forward.

“Exactly. Perhaps not all of them, though I suspect the majority of them have been placed somewhere there.”

The sense of accomplishment at having come to a reasonable conclusion was soon overshadowed by a cloud of dread, once we’d realized exactly what that meant for us.

“Shit.” Hoshino mumbled after a while, but said no more. Her admirer decided to finish the thought in her stead.

Furusawa exclaimed, “Wait, that means we’re gonna be heading straight into the danger zone!”

"Yea, yet a greater ill, my friend." Kozuki shook her head, her eyes shuttered.

"But half of our fellowship shall enter yon lion's abode."



The unfortunate truth was that there was still an entire southern part of the city that needed investigating.

If we were to group up and tackle the northern section together, we’d be slower, clumsier, and with the business of Pacts still fresh in our minds, too focused on our own wellbeing.

It simply wasn’t an option.

So what was left to do? Send separate groups to each corner of the map - and it seemed the group sent to Upper Shibuya would be headed on, for all intents and purposes, a suicide mission.

The air was quiet. It seemed, for all their talk about getting through this nightmare and fighting together, the reality of death proved paralyzing.

I would get them to move. It was my duty, after all, as their lord.

“Send me in.” I demanded. “I will go up there and retrieve the artefacts.”

I looked around at their fearful expressions, and as predicted, the one thing that frightens humans more than death is to have been responsible for someone else’s.

“Fat chance.” Hoshino rejected solemnly. “You said it yourself. If they’ve gone and put the relics in those dangerous-ass areas, we’ll have to send our best fighters.”

She sighed deeply, though it seemed to be out of inconvenience more than terror.

“I guess that means I’ll be going.”

There we had it.

From the fringes of our group spoke a soft voice.

“I-I’ll go too!” Furusawa practically yelled, eyes closed shut. “You h-heard what Juno said, right? We’re in a Pact, so…anywhere that you go, I’ll go too.”

Eiji dismissed, “If you say so.” I hadn’t seen her cheeks this red since that day when Ryota Nakamura, of all people, began to cheer her on in the Girls’ Regional Basketball Finals.

Of course, it was a temporary alliance born out of a shared desire to see their school win, though it certainly didn’t help the numerous rumours about the duo that had already been circulating.

“You’ll need a tracker with you.” Katoru’s servant reminded, before turning back to his master. “Seeing as how our own partner is off doing fuck knows what, whatcha say we tag along with these guys?”

Katoru chuckled.

“Sure. I hear gruesome death is real nice this time of year.”

Just when I was thinking that everything had gone according to plan, I heard yet another voice behind me. I turned around.

“I shall come as well.” Kozuki spoke. “Tis’ only right that I risk my life alongside my comrades!”

Was she stupid?

“Kozuki,” I began lightly. “I’m not strong enough to go with you. If we get separated, and something happens to you-”

"Hark! Address me as Red. Should these three succumb in battle, all hope wilt be dashed, naught will avail us. Our chances of triumph are greater with mine power of foresight and the healer among us."

That was it. I couldn’t say any more, or I’d risk giving away too much.

“Very well.” Cunningham concluded after several beats of silence. “Seeing as how Rusuban can’t quite fight yet, the three of us left will go and explore the lower areas. He can stay here, where the torch should keep him safe.”

The situation was slipping out of my grasp – I needed to seize control of it again, and quickly.

“No! Please, let me at least come with you.” I pleaded. “If the nights keep getting tougher, I’ll only become a walking target. Now is the best chance for me to progress my power so that I can be of help when the time comes.”

Mizuko, Junko, and Arthur exchanged tentative glances, as if I were a burdensome younger sibling begging to go out with them.

How humiliating. Be that as it may, it comforted me remembering just how little they actually knew.

Mizuko was the first to speak.

“Alright. But stay close to us, and be vigilant. Run at the first sign of serious danger. Understood?”

I nodded my head gratefully, “You won’t regret this.”

“I certainly hope not,” Junko tried to whisper.

Our roles now sorted, we split into our two camps and made preparations to move out.

“Take this.”

Mizuko was standing behind Furusawa, the lighter from yesterday in hand.

“Reaper handed it back to me before they left. It seems we’ve been allowed to keep it.” She explained as our resident healer carefully took the trinket. “As you navigate, be sure to light every lamp you come across.”

“Understood.” He replied. “Thank you. Good luck out there, okay?”

Perhaps at the genuine display of goodwill, Mizuko wore the tiniest of smiles.

“Appreciated.”

She turned to leave, but, likely spontaneously, decided to part some final words of advice on to the boy. I inched closer to listen in.

“You haven’t noticed, have you Furusawa? The only reason the other three are even the slightest bit okay with this is because you’ll be with them.” She began. “It can be said that humans spend their lives destroying, and most of our abilities reflect this sentiment. In the midst of that, however, your power is kinder than anything else. Cherish it.”

There was a pause as Mizuko allowed her words to sink in. Furusawa’s eyes became glossy.

“I-”

His words were cut off.

“Let’s get goin’, dude!” Katoru called in the distance.

Wordlessly, he bowed in Mizuko’s direction, his forearm wiping across his eyes.

As Mizuko walked back to regroup, Furusawa caught up with the others, and before long, they vanished into the darkness of the night.

“Do you think they’ll be alright?” Junko asked nobody in particular.

Arthur rested a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“I think they’ll get by just fine.”

Regrettably, I could not say the same for him.
 
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Chapter 20 - Daisuke Kurogane

Hollow Night

Chinami used to have a dog. He was a brown, good-natured cross between what we guessed must have been a Great Dane and Basset Hound.

People often remark that their pets are “Great judges of character”, and thus become wary, should said animal react unfavourably toward you.

‘Scooby’, on the other hand, was more fond of strangers than any dog I’ve ever known.

Unscrupulously he’d sniff, lick, and croon at just about everybody he met.

Obviously, this meant that there were either more ‘good’ people in this world than I thought, or that Scooby wasn’t a particularly judicious assessor of someone’s temperament after all.

Considering how affectionately he used to pounce on me in particular, I quickly concluded the latter.

It was admittedly a real strange time to be thinking of the canine; I guess all this chasing was reminding of me the day he’d disappeared.

“Get back here!” I commanded, though the coward was showing no intentions of following my instructions. As if it knew these streets like the back of its – I don’t know, paw? – it hopped rapidly through the wide, decrepit avenues of the Scramble Crossing.

My lungs, the lazy bastards, were starting give up on me. I needed to do something before this goose (well, rabbit) chase ended up being for nothing.

Luckily, I had a plan.

Halting my pursuit, I glared sharply at a Noise to my right in the form of some hyena-looking thing, that had seemingly just wrapped up digging through some trash.

Instantly, it screamed and began to run.

A few lashes later, I’d finally managed to steer it toward the Statue of Hachiko, and I was riding aboard it, soon taking an abrupt right into the West Exit Bus Terminal.

As I bobbed up and down, my carriage practically pissing itself with fear, I kept my grip steady, and when the aforementioned rabbit-looking creature had now come into view, sniffing the ground for goodies.

The pissant thought it’d escaped me.

The hyena screamed when I sunk my kusarigama’s blade into its belly, and dismounting now, I extended the chain, swinging the anguished canine around like a yo-yo, until I let go, sending its carcass flying right into my target.

The escapist, now having been rocked off-balance by the impact, careened into a wall on the left with a loud crash

“Gotcha now.” I mocked, running to close the distance until it was in hunting range. Of course, this was no ordinary rabbit, much closer to the size of a large dog.

After having finished off the poor fucker who’d transported me this far, I turned my attention to my main target, who was now backing up into the corner.

Damn, this felt good.

“Any last words?” I would’ve said, if not for the pain of a solid, blunt impact slamming against my side.

Before my mind could register what had even went down, the world became a blur, and I then crashed through something glassy, shattering upon meeting my weight, for the second time this week.

Muttering some expletives, I laboriously got to my feet, the landing spot of that punch, or whatever it was, still throbbing. I swore to myself that when I laid eyes on whoever did that to me I’d-

Oh, fuck.



My eyes weren’t deceiving me, if the suffering still tearing through my nerves was anything to go by.

Before me stood – and I emphasize – two more fucking Noise, but completely unlike the first.

In contrast to the smaller, yellow-striped cottontail I’d been pursuing, these two completely towered over me, easily surpassing the height of the dormant laundromat they stood next to.

To add to their differences, one of the newcomers took the form of a red, humanoid bull-looking freak that had clearly been benching skyscrapers before showing up here. It was probably – no, definitely the one who had sucker punched me a few moments ago, and if the ringing in my ears was anything to go by, I didn’t think I could take another one of those.

How could I be so sure it was the bull, you ask? Easy.

The other one it had arrived with had no arms.

As much as I hate to admit it, this last one sent a shiver down my spine. As a juxtaposition to its glowing white eyes, which for some reason I felt were overflowing with hatred, the rest of its serpentine body was a jet black.

Stepping over the shattered window frame now, with my hand finding the cold brick wall for support, I had to think up a game plan, and fast.

As much as I hated to admit it, taking on both of these mutants by myself wasn’t an option. I needed to find something I could exploit, take advantage of.

After a few moments of observation, I had an idea. Well, more like a gamble. If I was wrong, I was probably dead. If I was right, then I had a chance, but was still probably dead. So, why the hell not?

I bored my eyes into the bull looking one, who I deemed the more reckless of the two through analysis of his thuggish body language, et voilá. For once, the shit they had me learn in Biology actually came in handy.

For the uninformed, when faced with a stressful or dangerous situation, the body prepares for action by releasing stress hormones like adrenaline.

This response triggers physiological changes, like increased heart rate, rapid breathing, you get the picture.

The individual is then ready to either confront the threat (fight) or flee from it (flight).

As you’d imagine, this adaptive response is real useful for balls-to-the-wall situations like these, especially with an ability like mine.

Unfortunately for this idiot’s accomplices, this was the first time someone had chosen to fight my illusions, and not very well at that.

The wild, amateurish swings of its thick arms, targeted at non-existent apparitions, barrelled through the air, causing walls, streetlamps, and other infrastructure unlucky enough to have been nearby to crumble into debris.

As the other two emerged from the thick dust, visibly alarmed, it was far too late. I was already in position.

“Get over here!” I grinned, and soon enough, the hook of my kusarigama had found its next meal.

Giving its surprised serpentine fellow no time to respond, I yanked the chain back to my vantage point on the opposite rooftop, grabbed the sickle’s handle, and pulled it down until the critter’d been ripped clean in half.

As its essence began to fade away, a familiar white gleam began to shine through at the dissipating corpse’s center.

“This next upgrade better be fucking good.” I muttered, now noticing that the black serpent had disappeared from view completely. I had an educated guess as to where it was heading to now.

So you can imagine my surprise, and dread, when it was not an orb I had been rewarded with, but a book.



I didn’t know how long I’d been running for. If we took into account the trembling in my legs, the heaving of my breaths, and the blurring of my vision, I’d say it had been long enough to collapse from exhaustion.

However, as the roar echoing not far behind me affirmed, collapse wasn’t an option. Stopping wasn’t an option. Or else I’d just be proving Hoshino correct, and (yes, ironically), I’d rather die.

It was the metallic crushing and clunking, I guess like the hammering of raw materials into a desired shape on a production line, that finally got me to turn around.

Now, either Juno forgot to tell us something, or cars were able to fly in this shithole.

I found it strange, considering I was pretty sure that a) There were no other human beings around aside from us, and b) The few vehicles that were parked around looked as soulless and dilapidated as the rest of this place, likely incapable of being driven, let alone able to catch the crazy amount of air that this one was.

So, logically, I could only assume the worst.

With the little strength I had left, I flung my chain to the right, miraculously finding a pipe hooked by the inside of its curved edge.

One arduous pull later, I flew into the dark alleyway, praying that my travel was masked by the car’s subsequent catching fire after crashing against the ground.

Perhaps if I still had the mental faculty to do so in that moment, I’d have thought about the fact that that there was still fuel left in that car for the tank holding it to get ruptured by the crash, resulting in the gasoline igniting.

But I didn’t.

As I sat there like a useless turd, cowering behind a metal garbage container, the reality of my situation started to take hold.

I wish I’d had the strength to wipe my eyes. To remove these useless tears from my face. What good were they?! What I needed was power, damn it! That’s all that ever mattered anyway. Friendship, money, love – they were all just piss-poor substitutes for someone’s powerlessness.

My increasingly numbing arms had now exerted the last of their force, causing the tome I’d been carrying tumbling out of my hiding spot, into the centre of the pathway.

It didn’t go unnoticed.

In the corner of my eye, two tall shadows loomed over the dark backstreet, the backdrop of the fire giving them a demon-like quality. I scoffed.

I’d always thought that shit about your life flashing before your eyes was some bogus Hollywood trope, yet as my final two arbiters enclosed on me, memories I thought I’d burrowed deep in the recesses of my mind decided to resurface, unable to resist the opportunity of humiliating me one last time.

Eventually, I got to her, and her goofy little idiosyncrasies nobody else seemed to notice. Not like I did.

I remember the way she looked as she would stare up at 104, and the sound of her voice as we’d follow the flow of the Shibuya River.

“I heard that there’s a monster at the end of the river. An old, bitter kaiju that feeds on people’s brains!”

“Then I guess you’re safe. You’d wouldn’t make a good meal for ‘em, after all.” I’d replied playfully.

I remembered how she’d put an ice cube in her miso soup, on account of her tongue being quick to burn. The elaborate plot descriptions she’d give of whatever comic she was currently into.

The way she stood beside me when I was depressed and didn’t know what to do – and the way it made her feel lost and uncertain, too. The way she held her tongue when I grew irritated and hurled angry words.

The way, two weeks ago, after having not seen her for almost a year, she stood silent as her boyfriend and his cronies roughed me up for everyone at Tipsy Tose Hall to see.

At times, she got quiet. At times, she got angry. She cried. She slept. She eventually grew tired of me and left me behind to start a new life at high school.

And that was where it ended.

Both my memories, and my life.
 
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Chapter 21 - The Tainted

Hollow Night

Imagine you begin with a completely blank canvas, plain white, the possibilities of what it could become still fresh, unknown, and exciting.

Then, one by one, colours start throwing themselves onto the once barren piece. Slowly but surely, different hues of different intensities, shades, shapes find their home on this space.

Some are stronger than their neighbours.

Others, perhaps, are smaller and faster.

Even still, maybe a specific few were painted to fulfil an even more specific purpose.

By the time you’re finished, well, what do you have?

To others, it might just resemble an unorganized, uninspired mess. They might even go so far as to brand it the kind of immature, infantile arts and crafts project a toddler could put together.

And, objectively, they just might be correct.

But that swell of pride you feel in your heart whenever you look upon the object of their scorn, that eruption of ecstasy – that never quite goes away, does it?

Because at the end of the day, you made it. All the colours that call this artwork their home belong to you. Nothing will ever change that.

I hypothesized that was how the creator of EXS (should there even be one) looked upon their creations.

Their creations that prey on my Master and His allies.

Their creations that are the reason they have to look over their shoulders, into the dark nooks and crannies of this realm, because of these harbingers of death.

I should know – because whoever created them also created me.

I, too, am a harbinger of death.

Even so, as I impaled my fist through my brother, I had to wonder if this was also intentional.

That my creator would give me the freedom of thought, expression, intelligence – or if I only had these qualities because of the person I was joined to?

If I were to be unlinked with him, what exactly would I become? Would I have to stop mirroring his patterns of speech in front of the others? Would I truly become an autonomous individual?

“That’ll be the last one.” My commander spoke upon seeing the remains of my sibling, hanging on my forearm like an oversized bracelet, begin to fade away.

“Phew,” His ally, Furusawa, exhaled, now approaching the golden lamppost I’d previously used to smash another one of my siblings’ head against, at the command of my master.

With a few flickers, the structure burst to life with a brilliant blue flame.

Furusawa again confirmed, “You guys okay?”

At the silent nods of his compatriots, they now looked to me.

“Take it away, Tainted.” He commanded.

And I obeyed.



From what I could understand of my Master’s knowledge, we were currently walking down Jinnan Street, perhaps most notable for the Towa Records location it hosted a bit further down the avenue.

“Are you familiar with this area in the real world, then?” I asked.

He breezed, “Something like that.”

We spoke no more.

Instead, we passed through the district as though we were soundless wraiths, creeping down the decrepit, cracked tarmac with only our footsteps, and the occasional sighing of the wind, as our company.

"Hey, Robes," Master spoke in hushed tones after a while. He glanced at the two trailing behind, Hoshino and Kozuki. They didn't appear to be in a chatty mood.

"Want to hang out tomorrow? There's someone you should meet."

Furusawa eyed him suspiciously.

"And who's that?"

"A good friend of mine, well-acquainted with the love of your life over there. Ever heard of Daiki Suzuki?"

"Oh!" Furusawa exclaimed after a brief pause. "Isn't he Cupid's boyfriend?"

Now seeing the visible confusion on my Director’s face, he elaborated, "Cupid is the nickname for Tanaka-chan. You know, the one with the funny predictions about couples? Between you and me, I've heard she's the mastermind behind most of the rumours about-"

"Yeah, yeah, you lost me already. Listen, Daiki's one of my best pals. Once he hears you're into the Tiger, he can give you some insider info, let you know if she's already seeing someone or whatever."

It was only when a poignant silence fell over the conversation that I’d realized how intently I had been listening, almost neglecting my own duty of tracking.

The sinister quietness between Him and Furusawa made me uneasy.

"...No," The voice definitely belonged to Furusawa, but it was unlike anything I’d heard from him before.

It seemed even my instructor was lost for words.

“No, what?” He managed after a while.

“No, I don’t think I want to meet Suzuki. You and I both know I don’t stand a chance with her. She’ll always just see me as an extension of him. So please…don’t give me hope.”

The identity of him, whom I deduced was not this Suzuki fellow, must have already been known, for no more words were exchanged between the two after that.

At first, I couldn’t tell if the sensation of my heart sinking was truly mine. After recalling that I, in fact, had no heart, I looked upon my boss sympathetically.

We carried on.



There. There it was again.

That sensation of magnetism, like two halves of one whole being drawn back together by some kind of attraction.

“Dead ahead.” I spoke, not taking my eyes off of the seductive white glow, and its accompanying shadow, deep in the distance.

Hurriedly, the two behind me signalled for our rearguard to join us, and before long, I felt all four of them by my side.

"Lo, what is that bright glint I spy before me?" Kozuki inquired.

“I’m sensing a deep well of EXS right in front of us.” I explained, the image of a canvas with a deep purple blot in its middle coming to mind. “It’s unlike anything we’ve come across so far. It has to be one of these relics.”

Hoshino whispered, “So what’s the hold up?”

I paused.

“I’m not sure if the EXS reading belongs solely to the relic. Notice that black mass right below it?”

Luckily, it seemed I didn’t have to say any more for the younglings to catch my drift.

"Verily. We shall advance with subtlety, like panthers in the night. Our chief aim is to probe it. I shall alert thee of any swift changes."

Following her lead, we crept closer into the darkness, and as expected, the distant silhouette far ahead of us slowly came into view.

I almost retreated to shield my Master when I saw movements within the gloom. That said, they were not the same agitated, bestial motions we’d seen plenty of prior.

No, these movements were measured, calm, and prepared. Slowly, the Noise made its ascent to a standing position, and turned to face us, blocking the relic’s shine.

I could see it clearly. It was dressed in a black and purple ō-yoroi – the traditional Samurai armour – its eyes burning with fury.

A sheathed katana shone with a deadly gleam, reflecting the ominous light of the moon above.

Interestingly – or perhaps terrifyingly - the Noise remained completely still. Only its head moved, switching from target to target, as if trying to ascertain who we were, and what we were there for.

Even so, it made no hostile moves.

“…Is he gonna come at us already?” Master asked impatiently. “I’m not in the mood for a staring contest.”

While this may have appeared to be his default disposition to the others, I noticed the extra venom at the tip of his enunciation, and could guess the reason for his soured mood.

“It seems to be among the more tranquil of its kind,” Kozuki commented. “Do you think we could reason with it?”

“Tainted, go talk to it. Tell it to step aside.”

Frankly, I was stunned. What exactly made Him think that I could communicate with it? Did he assume I could do so based on my sharp perception of EXS?

Either way, a command was a command. Slowly, I approached our target, finding its eyes.

Concentrating on that feeling of magnetism – of gravity – I let myself go.

“Do you hear me?” I asked.

It was only the slightest twitch. The others likely hadn’t even noticed it. But I did.

The Samurai’s body jumped ever so slightly, as if surprised by something.

“W̶͈̞͒͂H̵͕͒̃ơ̷̳̹̅ ̵͉̤̂̋A̶̝̫͗̀ȓ̷̦̥̏ë̵̪́͆ͅ ̸̻̓ͅy̶̬̺̋̎ō̵̫̫Û̸̡͈?̷̨̈́ ̴̨̜̈w̷̪̓́h̵͍́͒A̵͚͇̾̒t̸̤̳̓̿ ̷͈̀͑d̸͉͒Ȯ̸͙ ̴͙̋y̵̠̓O̸̧͑̽ų̷͛̀ ̸̬̇w̶͙͎̍Ą̵̦̓n̷̫̙͂T̷̖́?̷̟͔͛̈́”

Its voice was jumbled, incongruous, and difficult to discern. I tried my best to decipher, or rather, predict, what it was trying to say.

“My master, and his compatriots – they’ve been trapped here by someone named Juno. They will kill us if we don’t retrieve these artefacts for them. Please, we wish you no harm. Let us –“

This time, my heart definitely sank.

“Ĵ̴̬U̴͓͛͐͜n̶̰̈́Ö̷̞?̸̨̱͗ ̸͔̂͌j̶̦̫̊ṵ̸͈̊̈N̷̳̈́̀O̷̻̩̿?̴͓̈́!̷͓̜̾ ̷͓̇Ý̵͖ó̶̞͛ű̷̱̥͂'̵̩̅̀r̴̜̐ẻ̵̢̏ ̶̡̭̀̊W̶̧͆̿o̵̗͂͒Ṛ̷̗̓͝k̸͚͉̈́I̶̲̤̍ṇ̶̛͇͌Ģ̶͝ ̸̜̜̉Ẃ̶͍͝i̶̩̮͒t̸̻́h̷͈͝ ̷̣̌T̷̪̼͐̊H̵͕̪͆E̶̛͜ͅM̵̲͊,̶̝̈́͂ ̵̛̹̞A̶̻͐̾R̵̭̃̎E̶̠̔n̸͓͖͛'̷̜̃̃T̶̫̕ ̶̨̛̙̀Y̶̼͌Ő̵̻̟̈́ü̵͉̰?̸̻͝ ̸͚̊͌ÿ̷̳́ö̵͚́͝u̴̹̻͂̇'̸̢̲̓̈́R̸̦͌e̶̦̔ ̶̠̳̃H̶͈̳͆E̴͎̣̒r̷̠͂̽Ë̵̡͙̈ ̸̉ͅT̵͙̱̂o̶͈̔͆ ̷̢͖̅f̸̺̤̑̕ḯ̸͓̠͑n̴̖͕̓I̷̬͋͑ͅs̷͎̊̕H̵̤̦̀̓ ̸̢̲̽U̵̱̎s̷̝̟͋͌ ̵̛̜̲̔Ȯ̶̦̘f̷͍̊͠f̶̨̎!̶̙̎̽ ̵̲̋̐ḭ̴̡̛̓ ̸̫̗̍̈́W̷̖͠Ȏ̸̤n̴͕̝̈́̐'̴͈͖͒ṫ̵͈̞̚ ̶͙̟̃͑L̷̛̠ē̶̻͑͜t̶̓͜ ̷̭͒̄Y̷̧̑Ŏ̸̘͠Ǔ̴͈͐!̶̜̰̃”

It seemed our negotiations were over.

"Withdraw!" Kozuki cried. "NOW!"

Whether it was at my Master’s telepathic command, or my own survival instinct, I did as I was told.

Staring at the now drawn katana, brandished with a deadly flourish, I wondered. Why was it attacking us? What was the trigger?

I found composure, and readied my hands, for tonight, I would be removing another colour from my creator’s canvas.

For good.
 
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Chapter 22 - Junko Shirogetsu

Hollow Night

“Getting anything yet?” I asked, bored.

We’d just arrived at 104, and I tell you, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to just how creepy everything looks here.

As we slithered past the Joli Becot I encountered Hoshino at the other day, the Gatto Nero I got a cute scarf from, and the Bubblevision I find myself sitting at and people-watching for hours on end, I was aware of the strange sensation of being watched.

“Yes, it’s this way.” Cunningham replied in a low, dogly growl. It had just occurred to me that my trying to make conversation might be disturbing his concentration.

Preferring the silence over a potential misdirection into a hungry pack of Noise, I opted to slow my pace and leave Arthur as our field guide. I span on my heel to find my older sister and Rusuban, who’ve been suspiciously buddy-buddy with each other as of recent, trailing behind.

“I’ll have you know my sister is way out of your league, my dearest Representative.” I interrupted in the midst of their mumblings. “Perhaps Hoshino is more your speed?”

As expected, our future President remained unfazed.

“My, if you miss her so much, you need only ask.” He cheered, and I suddenly understood why Emiko and the others were so captivated by him. “Blood, after all, is thicker than water.”

Something about the way in which he said that had unsettled me – though I suppose it could have been the crisp, wintery breeze that blew occasionally down this space’s derelict street corners.

With that, he bent forward into a curt bow, princely as ever, before catching up with our tour guide up front, who had stopped briefly to orient himself.

“Must you be so rude?” Mizuko complained, though I was probably the only one who could tell she didn’t really mean it – not if her marginally upturned lips were any indication.

I took a deep breath and got right to the heart of the matter.

“What did the two of you discuss yesterday, while the rest of us were leaving?”

I was struggling to remember the last time I’d seen her eyes widen like this. Likely because life never seemed to offer her anything that pure logic and preparation couldn’t overcome.

I had the strange desire to see her, for once, troubled and lost, unsure of what to do like everyone else, but pushed the bizarre urge aside upon hearing her reply once she’d regained composure.

“It was student council business.” She responded cooly, though she didn’t look me in the eye.

“What business?” I pressed.

“It’s strictly confidential, I’m afraid, and of no relevance to you.”

“You’re a terrible liar. Do you think I haven’t noticed the visual cues you’ve been giving each other since we arrived? Are the two of you planning something?”

The probing words had spilled out of me more aggressively than I’d intended, but my wish to get down to the bottom of this, whatever it was, remained the same.

Unfortunately, I would not see any signs of her poise giving way again.

“As I said, it’s student council business. We are not planning anything, Junko.” This time she was looking me dead in the eye.

I sighed.

“Now come, we need to catch up. And stay vigilant, I don’t want you getting hurt again like before.”

Suppressing the surprising urge to smirk, I found it hilarious that even in this life-or-death situation, I was still being scolded by my big sister.

And I didn’t mind it one bit.


Now, this was new.

We’d taken a left after 104, toward Dogenzaka, when I detected the slightest increase in temperature.

After taking a swift look around the vicinity, finding nothing of note, I brushed it off as a false alarm and continued alongside the others.

But that warmth never left. In fact, it had proceeded to climb further and further up, until we couldn’t ignore this unfamiliar, oppressive heat.

Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately – we’d discovered the cause soon enough. Or rather, it had discovered us.

“Stay together!” Mizuko’s voice called out. At this point I could barely see her. Her voice, and her increasingly wetting hand clinging to mine for dear life were the only indicators I had of her existence.

“It wants to separate us!”

I was finding it hard to breathe, the steam was getting too thick.

Arduously, I reached my free hand around, finding the warm handle of my katana. I thrust it upward, concentrating.

“Cunningham!” I cried, hoping, wishing, praying that he understood, and that he did so speedily.

It was when my vision was starting to darken that I began flying.

Well, I suppose ‘gliding’ would be a more appropriate term to use here, for both Mizuko and I were barrelling through the air, and for the first time, I missed the cold autumn breeze that was now shocking my body back into wakefulness.

“Thank you,” I exhaled hoarsely.

“I should be thanking you,” Our helper spoke, putting us down gently onto the concrete after having carried us with his thick arms. “Thanks to seeing your blade’s electricity, I was able to find you in time.”

Our lungs washed with relief, both my sibling and I found our feet. From where we stood, an onslaught of thick, gray fog was approaching, angry that two succulent meals were stolen from its jaws.

“I reckon that the source lays somewhere behind all this.” Rusuban, who had been standing somewhat nonchalantly behind us, theorized. “Now, that begs the question as to how exactly we get through this barrier to begin with.”

“It is far too hot to even reach the center,” Mizuko admitted. “Either we target the source in one quick strike, or we find a way to dispel this steam.”

For whatever reason, Rusuban began to clap, like a teacher having heard a model answer to a tough question.

“As expected of the Vice-President.” He smiled. “As luck would have it, I have formulated a plan that will allow us to achieve both objectives. However, the timing is tight, and will require all three of you to move as precisely as possible. Are you up to the task?”

Without waiting for a reply, he began walking off back towards 104.

The three of us exchanged puzzled looks, before trailing him into the darkness, the fog of steam steadily in pursuit.


He wasn’t wrong – if this plan was to work, we had only had one opportunity. We had to make it count.

The temperature was rising again. It was here.

I took a deep breath, the humid air encroaching on my body’s last respite, and lay deathly still as the heat found me once more.

It was when I lifted my forearm at the beads of liquid travelling down my forehead that I heard a sound. A discarded grey tin can, its original purpose having long been lost, rolled lonesome across the street, in the path of the giant cloud of steam moving in.

Now having seen the signal, my annoyingly slippery fingers found my blade, wrapping around the hilt with as tight a grip as I could muster.

A roar bellowed through the avenue suddenly, and even though I should’ve expected it, my head span in an alarm nonetheless.

With a swift, powerful motion, Cunningham lunged toward the hydrant just in front of the travelling smokescreen, jaws clamping onto the cap. The metallic clang resonated through the air as he successfully tore off the hydrant's cap.

Water erupted from the hydrant in a forceful stream, and the werewolf, now drenched and formidable, manipulated the flow with calculated precision.

The creature, wherever within the miasma it lay, evidently tried to close in on Cunningham and halt what it must’ve known was coming next - to no avail, of course.

Skilfully directing the stream, the lycanthrope created a torrent that pierced through the scalding fog, the steam instantly cooling and condensing into droplets.

The fiend, its sinuous and dragon-like form laid bare, hissed and convulsed as its cover was blown.

Unfortunately, escape would not be an option for the creature. I still had a role to play, after all.

Leaping out from the darkness, I pulsed my spirit into my blade, and felt it sizzle with electrifying essence. As though time itself had stopped, my eyes were sharp, and focused. With my aim true, I launched my faithful silver in the beast’s direction.

Though my heart sank as I watched its long grey body smoothly slither out of the blade’s path, the damage had more or less already been done.

By the time the creature had noticed that it, alongside its immediate surroundings, were already soaked, the dominos had already been falling for quite some time.

As gravity finally took control, sending me rolling onto the opposite side of the street, I looked back to see that Cunningham had vanished.

Good.

By the time I looked back in the demon’s direction, hoping to see it convulsing and suffering under the pain of electrocution, I was disappointed to find Arthur had already shot her in its direction, like a cannonball moments before sending many to a watery grave.

In one mighty mid-air slash with the naginata’s edge, the monster became deathly still as Mizuko flew right past it, tumbling with a few successive bounces in the distance.

For many of those rigid moments, I couldn’t breathe. The air hung heavy with an unspoken dread, each passing second stretching into an eternity of uncertainty.

Had that been enough to fell the monster?

Just as I thought I’d pass out from the anxiety, the ethereal creature finally leaned forward lifelessly – or rather, its head did, falling onto the wet floor with a plop.

My lungs have been through way too much tonight, I thought as reassurance washed over my taut body. A familiar clap echoed behind me.

“Well done.” He congratulated. “The three of you performed even better than I expected.”

I felt my chest heating up, and this time I knew the Noise wasn’t responsible.

“Would be nice of you to join us next time,” I snarled.

Rusuban then put his hands on his hips and nodded bashfully, shrugging his shoulders as if to say “Yeah, you have a point.”

“Yeah, you have a point.” He then actually spoke, and all I could do was shake my head in exasperation.

I followed him as we walked to the new gravesite, our enemy’s carcass fading away into the wind.

Tentatively, I dipped my toes into the pool that had formed around it, and as hoped, it seemed I was immune to electrocution. If anything, an oddly relaxing sensation filled me, as though my energy was slowly being restored.

Satisfied, I removed my silver katana, also re-absorbing what little electricity remained active inside, and sheathed it.

“Well, aren’t you in your element?” Rusuban chuckled.

I didn’t respond, instead quickly checking in with our two other team members.

Cunningham’s jaws were hurting slightly, and Mizuko was somewhat scratched up after that tumble, her grace having temporarily been compromised by the slight electric shock her weapon had understandably returned, though she didn’t seem injured otherwise (I was fine too, thanks for asking ~).

Now, came the spoils. In the end, we decided to give the orb to Rusuban, deeming that the sooner his ability upgraded the sooner he could physically help us take down these increasingly stronger threats.

“Excellent,” He remarked after absorbing the demon’s soul, clenching and opening his hands repeatedly. “Something has definitely changed, though I see no greenery around currently to demonstrate. In any case, I think I should now be able to contribute to our battles more.”

“Here’s hoping,” I added.

As we were about to discuss our next steps, Mizuko’s voice alerted, “Wait! There’s something else!”

I’d almost forgotten our entire mission was to locate those relics – fighting for your life tends to have that effect.

We approached her as she unearthed the strangest item of apparel I ever did see – a grey backpack with two miniature squares resembling vents at its bottom.

“Is this what the noise was using to generate all of that steam?” Cunningham thought out loud.

My reply came hastily as a dark realization dawned on me.

“No, it can’t have been. This was clearly designed for a human being to use.” I began.

My heart started to beat out of my chest. Part of me didn’t want to continue, but I felt as though if I didn’t get it off of my chest, I would burst.

“What if-“

I struggled to get the words out, though managed in the end.

“What if we’re not the only people who’ve been here?”
 
Chapter 23 - Reaper

Hollow Night

Seven years ago, I watched someone die.

Each departure I’d spectated since then has etched itself into the fabric of my memory, a solemn procession of farewells.

It wasn't the novelty of mortality that gripped me; it was the familiarity, the cruel intimacy - the fragile dance between existence and oblivion.

In those hushed moments, I found myself drawn to the beauty of transience; the acknowledgment of life's ephemeral nature. The unravelling of the delicate thread that bound us to this world.

The stillness that followed a departure echoed with the stories untold, the dreams left unfulfilled, and the symphony of a soul's journey from birth reaching its final note.

While others may recoil from the spectral hand of death, I embrace it with a kind of reverence.

It’s never truly a celebration of the end, but rather a discovery. A recognition that within the finite, there resided an infinite tapestry of experiences, waiting to be explored.

The dance between life and death, with its intricate choreography, captivated me, and in those quiet moments, I found solace in the profound beauty of a life well-lived, even as it gracefully surrendered to the embrace of the inevitable.

Tonight, I find myself captivated once more by the waltz, for it seems yet another soul is to be carried along that stygian river, into its final resting place.

Alas, I send the ferryman my apologies, for this one’s work is not quite finished yet.

I was pleased that one swing was all it took to behead the foul serpent. Indeed, as it fell before me, I felt its strength – an essence that was visible to my eyes only – join the ranks of the many others I have slain.

A furious bellow to my rear interrupted my relishing of the soul’s delicious flavour. At least the snake would not be alone in its final journey, I thought.

Still, there was something I had to take care of before attending to my duties.

“Here,” I spoke, offering the gleaming white orb to my rescuee. “You’ll be needing this. Unless, of course, you’d like me to have it?”

For a few precious seconds, he sat there, dumbfounded, as though his spirit had already left the body behind long ago.

It was perhaps the sound of heavy, rapid footsteps barrelling toward us that shook him from his daze, and thankfully, he already knew what was required of him.

With a sharp, crimson glare somewhere toward my three o’clock, the anthropomorphic bull’s charge was halted, though the pounding of its hooves was replaced by the crashing of its arms against the narrow walls of the back-alley, sending debris flying every which way. How brutish.

I saw it fit to grab my acquaintance, alongside a strange tome that lay adjacent, swiftly carrying both onto the roof.

“Why…?” He stuttered quietly after I threw him to the ground.

I shrugged.

“You know perfectly well why.” I replied curtly. “Now, are you going to eat that?”

I wasn’t going to ask again. Perhaps having realized this, Scarecrow spoke no more. I turned and peered below to see our adversary still in the midst of its tantrum, whilst a pale light shone brilliantly behind me.

“Now, shall we?” I offered without looking back.

In a flash, he appeared by my side, his foot tapping on the ledge, and hands balled up into fists.

“This one’s mine.”


Looking out into the night sky, my ruminations were suspended by the shrill, ear-piercing shrieks of one in complete and utter anguish.

Wasn’t he getting tired of this?

“Did your mother never teach you not to play with your food?” I inquired as he gave the bruised and bloodied creature another lashing.

The repeated cries of the poor soul was his only response. Again and again, he swung the sickle’s blade at the tortured beast, carving black marks across its already collapsing body as it writhed in pain on the floor.

The display was, truth be told, beginning to irk me. Death is to be swift, merciful, and considerate.

This was an absolute betrayal – no, abomination of that sentiment, and I would not stand for it.

I knelt down at the creature’s head, stroking its broken horns and contused snout, providing the little comfort I could.

As I stood up, its eyes closed, as if in gratitude for my next action.

I exhaled, and brought down the gleaming blade’s edge down onto its neck. The cries had finally ceased, and as the matter began to fade away into black, smoky wisps, I offered a silent prayer for the fiend’s soul.

“There shall be no more of that.” I warned him.

A rigid silence came over the entire space in that moment, and I hoped I would not have to finish the work this duo of Noise had attempted to carry out on him – though I would have few qualms if it came down to it.

Eventually, he sheathed his kusarigama, turning away and muttering an annoyed “Whatever.”

Feeling as though I too deserved to be rewarded for my efforts, I took pleasure in absorbing the orb the beast had left behind, as well as the soul added to my collection. Both were delectable treats.

“What now?” He said after a while.

My vision careened over to a small monitor laid out on the other side of glass, underneath one of the many abandoned storefronts that littered the high street we currently occupied.

“This makes the second artefact our cohort has secured,” I relayed, brandishing the book I’d been perusing.

Even after abandoning the area we began in, it was virtually impossible to not hear our captor’s announcements from anywhere in this dark world.

Much to our chagrin, we were also informed of the mission, though of course, had no intention of carrying it out.

“It seems we can’t help but be team players.” I remarked. At this point, I expected some kind of retort, or jest from the misanthrope, there was none to speak of.

As if exhausted by the miniscule social interaction, he raised his weapon.

“If there’s nothing going on here, I’m out.” He said flatly.

I smiled.

“Do as you will.” I replied once he’d began scaling a nearby building. “However, I must implore you – don’t forget our deal.”

He looked at me for a few moments, bored, before vanishing into the night sky.

What a troublesome character, I reflected, soon taking my own leave in tandem.


Quite some time had passed, and I still didn’t feel as though I had gotten close to any answers. In fact, as I read more of the journal, the modicum of information I did have started to become hazy and unreliable.

Perhaps the most irritating quality of the diary was how incomplete it was – blank pages upon blank pages appearing out of the blue, oftentimes smack dab in the middle of visible entries, making the timeline of events patchy and uninformative.

That said, the journal’s very existence confirmed one thing in my mind, and I would soon have it verified.

I halted my traversal of the black cityscape, stopping atop a lamppost facing a small, standing digital display on the pavement below, likely used for advertisements, news, and announcements for pedestrians as they walked by. In the real world, anyhow.

“Juno!” I called. “I know you’re there. Show yourself – we have much to discuss.”

If anything, I appreciated their speed, for the display whirred to life near instantaneously.

“What is you desire, my child?” They asked as softly as their rather grating voice could allow.

Assuming that they could see me as well as hear me, I held up the tome, “This book. What is its origin?”

They were silent for many beats.

“It is as I have already said. An artefact. A relic from a distant time before yours.”

I nodded.

“A ‘distant time before ours’? Do you mean a time in the waking world, or in this realm?” I probed.

Again, a deep silence wefted through the air, until I realized that this time they had no intention to answer at all. So, I decided to cut to the heart of things.

“We are not the first group of people you have captured and held hostage here, are we? How many others have there been? What fates befell the-“

The monitor’s display turned off with a sharp buzz, and once more, I was left to ponder my discoveries alone.

As uncooperative as they might have been, I was beginning to understand the old adage of silence speaking a thousand words. I knew in my heart that my line of investigation was correct; we were simply the latest in a long line of victims dragged to this tenebrous plane.

And once I uncovered the truth behind the account I held in my hands, perhaps I could uncover even more of this realm’s secrets.

Regardless, my course was set – and I knew where I needed to head to next.

I would be paying my ‘friends’ a visit.
 
Chapter 24 - Miharu Kozuki

Hollow Night

“Bullshit.”

I sighed softly, having expected that reply. I’d quickly learnt that Jeremy was the type who had trouble believing in anything his senses couldn’t affirm.

“But wouldn’t it be so cool?” Rin offered, unfettered in her fascination. “For all we know, you could’ve been a knight, travelling the land, valiantly protecting the weak!”

He scoffed, before his eyes began to wander.

“Think I’d rather have been a dinosaur. Nobody fucks with dinosaurs.”

Rin slapped him playfully on the shoulder, her pout steady despite her target almost having dropped his tray, “Hey, language!”

I left the two of them to their usual sibling-like bickering (though the two of them weren’t fooling anybody at this point), and, only for a moment, entertained the possibility of us actually having lived past lives.

Everybody has experienced an encounter known as déjà vu; the phenomenon of feeling as though one has lived through their present situation before. Perhaps it was a conversation you could swear you’ve already had. Maybe even being with a specific person in a specific setting can have you performing mental double takes.

But to think that these glitches in our cognition could be indicative of a larger force at play – the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand my friend’s sceptic reaction.

Though, if I’m indeed walking around with hundreds of years’ worth of experiences in my soul, my spiritual ancestors, having lived through various circumstances, are surely disappointed. With days as cyclic and meaningless as mine, why wouldn’t they be?

Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of said cycle, something strange happens.

It’s a sensation that makes me think my time has all but stopped, and the world has left me behind.

Then, I begin to feel as though I’m floating. Or more like I’m being pulled away by something, lifted higher and higher and higher and higher until –

“Earth to Mimi-chan?”

Until the world drags me back.

“Daydreaming again?” Rin pat me lovingly on my head, like a pet. At some point we’d found a table and sat down, though in the time between going up and coming back down, it feels as though someone else takes over my body for me while I’m gone.

“If you keep your head up in the clouds like that, you’ll become one! And then how will you eat?”

Jeremy chuckled.

“Eating’s the least of her worries. Mr. Inoue’ll literally be praying for your downfall so you can sit that algebra midterm.”

This time, all three of us chuckled – and as it always does, the flow of conversation meandered elsewhere.

Even now, I look to the clouds when I feel lost, or worried, or anxious. I allow the world to pass me by, to leave me behind as I gaze up at the sky.

Eventually, somebody - perhaps the previous inheritors of my soul - will reach down from heaven to take me away. Maybe one of these days, there’ll be nobody left to hold me back down.



“Toward your left!” I cried.

It was cruel that the ‘gift’ I’d been given in this tenebrous realm required me to contain myself in the present moment at all times. Ironic, that I had to cut off my ties to heaven in order to thrive in hell.

Still, it was a talent I intended to leverage best I could. My allies were depending on me, and I – Red – would guide them to victory, no matter the cost.

Upon hearing my warning, Resolution parried the swift swing of the samurai’s blade with her mallet’s handle, albeit with difficulty, the impact of the blow still sending her stumbling backwards. On cue, our unearthly friend materialized behind her assailant, spotting a new opening to exploit, and released a torrent of blows with its thick arms.

“DIE DIE DIE DIE!” The Tainted bellowed. Though when I heard not the impact of fist meeting flesh, but rather the sound of multiple objects clanging against metal at high-speed, my heart sank.

Even at a speed that my eyes could barely follow, the ronin was keeping up, blocking each rapid set of blows with speedy, precise blocks using its katana. Still, our ally’s assault did not stop, and in hindsight, it was likely that The Twisted was anticipating what had happened next.

My vision was temporarily blinded by the ensuing flash of light, and when my eyes had recovered, I had caught Resolution crashing her bludgeon into the samurai’s side, the latter having previously been occupied with the Tainted’s onslaught.

With a spine-tingling thud, the shadow flew into an abandoned apartment complex to our right, crashing through wall. Shards of glass and debris rained down from the impact site, followed by a cloud of thick dust that obscured our vision.

“Plan! Now!” Resolution shouted between pants, her body drooping with fatigue. “I’m…running low on juice.”

“Same!” The Twisted admitted from a distance, now running to regroup with us from the shadows after having been knocked away in a previous skirmish. “Not sure how many more of those Tainted can throw out.”

I couldn’t blame the two. Ever since our failed negotiation, we’d been fighting an uphill battle. The Noise’s power, speed, and reflex were unlike anything we’d seen before. If this turned into a battle of attrition, even with Solace in our corner, our chances of victory were slim.

“Here, lemme help!” The latter called out from behind me. Before I could reach an arm out to hold him back, he had swept past me, and was dashing into the fray.

“Wait, no! Stay back, Robes!”

“No, you look injured. I’ll quickly –“

Of course, this wasn’t the first time I had seen the stage directions. If anything, I’d grown quite fond of their appearances. Granted, the predictions were often maddeningly unspecific for the sake of brevity, and sometimes took a second or two to read fully, not always leaving enough time to react, but I couldn’t count the amount of times they had saved either myself, or my comrades, from certain death.

Yesterday, for example – I had used it to warn my new comrade, Solace, about the dark threat that had been looming behind him, prompting Resolution to come to his aid.

Tonight, however, I find that this same red text that had once saved a life, was now condemning it.

The Samurai Noise tosses his blade like a javelin at the general location of the Players below. Solace, having come to the aid of his allies, is impaled by the sword, and dies instantly.

And, as always, I opened my mouth to give verbal warning to my allies. Curiously, even though I was certain of the words I would use to communicate the threat, the desperate scream that came out sounded nothing akin to what I had mentally prepared.

In the corner of my eye, a sharp glint of silver began to sail down from within the heavy clouds of smoke and destruction.

By the time I’d heard the sound of flesh succumbing to steel, and the horrified shrieks that ensued, my eyes had been cast back to the sky. The moon glared back down at me silently. The shaking wouldn’t stop.

If Heaven was watching, I hoped they would take in my fallen comrade’s soul with open arms. The rest of us would be following soon enough.



I had returned to my body. In the time I’d been gone, my lungs had been operating on standby, and so I was forced to take in huge, heaving breaths in order to replenish my vessel’s dwindling oxygen supply.

How long had I been gone? Had I been killed already? Considering the sheer poignancy of the ache in my muscles, the tiredness in my bones, and the emptiness in chest, my time had not come quite yet.

I pried my eyes away from the starless night sky above. Either due to the hurried intakes of oxygen, or fear, I could hear my heart pounding almost combatively against my chest. Like it was warning me not to look.

But I had to.

I pushed my head in their direction, and, once more, time froze.

Tainted was still, gripping the katana that had been stabbed through him with steady hands. Solace, who stood behind it, walked wordlessly backwards until he hit a wall, causing him to slide down it, his face still splayed in shock.

“First…of all…” The ethereal fighter struggled. “You’re welcome.”

Our eyes were all centred on it, though nobody spoke. As rumblings behind the smoke from whence the blade had been shot began to erupt, Tainted turned to its master.

“Listen-“ It began. At some point, I had started running, so its voice became louder and clearer as it continued. “I’ll be okay. Just going…back inside you to rest for a while, that’s all. But I’m…afraid…this’ll be the last of your EXS. I can’t…track anymore for you either. That’s okay too.”

Tainted’s body was now dissipating into thin strings of smoke, the same way all our adversaries up until now had done. With the last of its strength, it raised a pointed finger to The Twisted.

“You’ve realized it too… haven’t you? They tricked us. You won’t need me…anymore…”

Those were the last words it spoke, before being completely reduced to dust, blown away by the wind. The blade that had brought our ally to its abrupt end fell to the ground with a clank.

For what felt like an eternity, we stood there in silence. Looking back on it now, perhaps that was the first time the we’d seen someone we considered a friend perish before our very eyes, to save another one of our own, no less.

Our quiet vigil was interrupted by the sound of something landing near us, a gust of wind speeding past our circle. None of us moved.

“I’m sorry…” A meek voice squeaked. “I’m so, so sorry…”

Then, a sound I didn’t expect to hear – a noise that was completely at odds with the atmosphere – rang throughout the space.

It was The Twisted. He was laughing.

Well, perhaps laughing was an understatement, for multiple hairs were now standing on end. Over and over, he cackled uproariously. Two days ago, I would have taken this to be a symbol of joy and good humour. But I knew better than that.

Wordlessly, he knelt down, inspected the large sword that had brought an end to his companion, and worked his fingers around its handle.

He stood up and looked intently at me. The look in his eyes – that of pure, unbridled hatred – was an expression I, up to this very day, never forgot.

“Stay here.” He said, devoid of inflection or emotion. “Keep that idiot out of trouble. If he runs out again, I’ll skewer him myself.”

I fought the urge to tremble to my knees and nodded.

Suddenly, his arms up to his shoulders erupted with a raging black flame, even enveloping the Noise’s sword he had pilfered.

The scoundrel in question was staring us down from the other side of the street. Likely having assessed the situation, it unsheathed a pair of spiked, silver brass knuckles, slowly slotting its black finger-like appendages through the slots.

“Jack of all trades, are you?” The Twisted taunted. “Doesn’t matter. You made a deal with the devil the second you became our enemy.”

His grip tightened, and as if reading each other’s minds, the two of them lowered their stances.

“…and the house always wins. Let’s see if your blood is any redder than mine.”
 
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Chapter 25 - Arthur Cunningham

Hollow Night

Strange. At my last checkup, the Doctor said I’d made great progress. He assured me that if I kept up the moderate exercise, avoided undue stress, and continued eating well (which was code for “take whatever your mother gives you and don’t ask questions), the fainting and shortness of breath would both become distant memories.

I suppose I’d simply gotten too overconfident. There was an abrupt sound of something falling, then a gasp, and before long I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“Cunningham! What’s wrong?”

The voice – the hand – was Mizuko’s. Once oxygen had decided to grace my lungs again, I blinked a few times, registering the cold sensation of the tarmac underneath me. My fingers found the left side of my chest.

“Apologies. I suppose that last stunt took more out of me than I thought,” I lied. “B-But, Shirogetsu. Could you repeat what you said?”

Junko eyed me with concern, perhaps weighing if I could still take what she had to say.

After sharing a glance with her sister, she sighed.

“I’m starting to think we’re not the only ones who’ve been here. To the Hollow Night.” She restarted. “To tell you the truth, part of me still suspected there could be others running around somewhere that we didn’t know about.”

Rusuban, who had been uncharacteristically quiet, chimed, “I was of the same mind. At least, until the ‘Leaderboard’ was revealed.”

“Right.” Junko replied curtly. Something about her tone resembled annoyance. “But this –“ She brandished the strange item for emphasis, “This backpack, or gear, whatever it is, wouldn’t just be here for no reason, don’t you think?”

There were some moments of stillness as we pondered her hypothesis. If she was correct, the scope of this nightmare was much, much larger than I’d hoped.

“What if they are just that?” Mizuko questioned. “What Juno simply intended for these to be rewards for us? A tool to be leveraged, just like that lighter?”

The mention of the lighter reminded me of our friends over on the other side of the city. I hoped they were doing well – better than us, anyhow.

“Okay, but then why frame the mission the way they did? They called these things artefacts. Meaning that they’re not meant for us. They were meant for something – or someone – else, and a long time ago at that.”

Mizuko nodded, tapping her foot, and spoke no more.

Ever the hype-man, Rusuban must have noticed our dropping morale, and sought to fix it.

“In any case, we ought to secure more of these relics; that way we can see if the rest of them follow this trend of having been designed for someone in particular.”

I couldn’t tell if it was because I found what he said reasonable, or simply that my current train of thought was leading to a conclusion that made my skin crawl, but I agreed.

As I lifted my forearm up to wipe my blurry eyes, I could’ve swore I noticed a something standing behind Rusuban, but when I looked back up to inspect it, it was gone. Was I hallucinating?

“Very well.” Mizuko declared. “Let us be-“

“…”

“…Sis? Sis, where did you-”

Mizuko’s naginata fell to the floor with a clang.

“Huh? Shirogetsu-san? Shirogetsu-san?! WHERE ARE YOU?!”

This time, I was unable to convince myself of any visual misconception on my part. If you blinked, you definitely would have missed it. But I saw all of it.

Before Mizuko had even finished her sentence, the same figure from previous spawned behind her, and in a flash, left, this time with our ally in tow.



"Cunningham! Cunningham you need to find her right this instant!”

I was panicking. My breathing was off, there was too much fear and sweat in the air messing with my senses, I was-

“I’m trying!” I yelled. “H-How could she just-“

Junko began to bellow for her sister at the top of her lungs. How did it keep doing that? Its movements weren’t normal in the slightest. It felt less like teleportation and more like…more like a glitch!

I had to focus. If I was even a second too late, she was as good as dead.

The hellish image of her limp corpse, the screams of her sister at now being an only child, my own ambitions to spend the rest of my life by her side reduced to ashes – I let that anguish fuel me, drive me into ensuring that it would not become reality.

Perhaps you’ve heard this before – that the world of EXS is like a canvas, with colours of different shapes, hues, intensities, all finding their distinct place on the piece. I needed to look past the bright, obvious tinctures that crowded my vision.

There was a colour that didn’t fit in with the rest, wasn’t there? Almost like a jigsaw piece with no place to call home, constantly looking for new places to try and-

My body sprung into action before my mind could catch up. Feeling my bestial side take over, I submitted to my instincts, claws poised, and swiped ferociously toward my left. My tip of my nails became dipped in a familiar red substance, and a splash of the same liquid stained my clothing.

Yes! I’d managed to land a hit! I naively thought to myself. It wasn’t until the scent of the watery fluid wafted up to my nostrils, that my heart began to sink into the deepest, darkest depths of despair.

I hadn’t struck the Noise at all – rather, I’d struck its hostage.

“No. No. No. No. No. No-“ I began to stammer, looking at my shaking, treacherous, murderous paws.

I felt the rapid pitter-patter of feet approaching me but dared not look her in the eye.

“Cunningham…” She began. I didn’t have to look at her expression to verify the anger that was making her voice tremble. “….what did you do?”

I felt as though I was going to throw up at any moment.

“The Noise, it – it’s using her as a shield! Even if I try and predict where it’s going to appear, I can’t – we can’t strike! Otherwise we’ll –“

I was promptly shut up by Junko unsheathing her odachi, and looked up to find her pointing its whetted tip right at me.

“You are going to tell us when and where it will strike.” She informed coldly. All semblances of patience were long gone from her eyes now. “I will deal the finishing blow. If there is so much as an extra hair on her head out of place, your Pact will be coming to an end very soon - that much I assure you.”

She took my silence as assent, and walked over to Rusuban. He was crouched over what seemed to be a drain strainer, his hands laid flat upon its surface.

She looked down at him, and he nodded without looking her in the eye. He was grimacing in pain, as though he was trying to lift a heavy object.

I grabbed my elbows with my arms, keeping my hands out of sight, closed my eyes, and re-converged the rays of my attention. We only had a split second to get this right – and even then, we had to finish it in one blow. Junko must have known, deep in her heart, what that meant. What she would be risking.

But it seems she’d long since abandoned her fear.

Mizuko was more than just an ally – to me, but especially to her. I had no doubt in my mind that, should it come down to it, Junko would throw away her very own life if it would secure her sibling’s safety.

I prayed I would not live to see that happen.



I couldn’t tell you how much time had passed, but I was at my limit. My eyes were shut tight, in order to decrease the amount of stimuli I had to deal with simultaneously, though I could sense that Junko and Rusuban were still nearby.

The former, as expected, was summoning all of the EXS she had left. Her ‘colour’, so to speak, was an increasingly intensifying shade of blue that was becoming harder and harder to ignore. Rusuban’s EXS, on the other hand, might just be the strangest case I’d come across in my short tenure thus far.

Whereas Junko was a single colour of an extreme saturation, it was like Rusuban was sporting two different colours entirely.

The most noticeable tone was the bright, deep shade of green that was also gradually becoming more intense, perhaps related to whatever he was preparing underground.

In contrast – and I could only wonder exactly what this implied – there was a much darker, swampy shade of green lurking in the recesses of his EXS. This duality, of sorts, was something I had never come across before.

And why did this secondary tinge emanate such a sinister aura?

If not for the hairs on my thick coat of fur suddenly standing on end, I may have reached an answer.

“It’s approaching.” I announced without opening my eyes. “It’ll be here in front of us, any second.”

“Is my sister there?” Junko inquired. Her breath was staggered.

“I don’t know.”

She grunted, but spared me of any further conversation, likely to allow me to concentrate.

In tense moments like these, I often forgot to breathe myself. It felt like a distraction from whatever the task at hand was. Until I’d gotten it done, you could say I didn’t deserve to breathe.

Sometimes, I’d ask myself questions in order to give my brain something to focus on, other than trying to convince me to save my suffering lungs. So, I opted to propose a question that had secretly been at the back of my mind, ever since witnessing Mizuko’s abduction;

Why is the Noise still here?

Surely if their goal, as Juno described, was to gorge on our EXS, then I’d say our rival has a very decent meal on their hands already. Does it gain something out of watching us struggle – ‘playing with its food’, maybe? Does it want to secure the rest of us as its dessert? There were simply too many-

“THERE!” A gruff, canine voice that resembled my own called out. I felt my arm shoot up, index finger pointed toward my two o’clock.

For what felt like the first time in years, I opened my eyes. I wish I hadn’t.

My vision did not deceive me, and neither did the familiar scent of blood – it was Mizuko, the clothing on her right arm torn through, the skin underneath sporting three bloody lines.

Her arms were outstretched, palms open and shaking, as if telling us to calm down. Behind her, was the Noise in question – and it occurred to me that the word ‘glitch’ was the best way to describe its horribly malformed, incongruous shape.

Unlike many of the others we’d encountered, there was no archetype or simile that could be used to depict the kind of eldritch abomination that stood before us. I felt my sanity slipping just by looking at it.

Perhaps what was more bizarre were its movements. At first, I thought it was shaking, when in fact, it was as though its muscles were in the midst of a spasm. Or would ‘vibration’ be more appropriate? Like it was trying to move, but was trapped in its own body, lagging like a character in the video games I’d play as child.

“STOP, DON’T – “

Mizuko’s pleas were interrupted by a loud rumble before the very ground beneath us gave way, crumbling as a colossal green plant, its bright green hues and sharp spikes resembling that of a Dionaea – or Venus Flytrap to the uninitiated – erupted from the realm’s very bowels.

Like a crocodile, it sprung and clamped down on the ‘lagging’ creature, squashing it between its massive, mighty jaws. Terrified, I leaped forward and snatched the distressed Mizuko, before jumping away once more. If Junko was attempting what I thought she was, we needed to get as much distance as possible.

After having landed some distance away, I looked down at Mizuko.

“Thank God you’re okay. I’m sorry for –“

My speaking came to halt once I’d noticed the icy blade she’d likely just fashioned. Before I could plea for her to stop, a cold yet unbearable, razor-sharp pain penetrated my right forearm, forcing her out of my grip.

Between my tortured howls, I heard her whisper an apology before sprinting back toward the others.
I didn’t know what her reasons were, but she couldn’t go back there. That much I knew for sure. Going on all fours would’ve caused me too much pain, but I wasn’t going to catch her otherwise.

“Mizuko…stop…wait!” I tried, reverting back into my human form, finding my feet and chasing after her. “You have to stay ba-“

It was too late. Perhaps now recognizing what Junko was about to do, Mizuko sped up and screamed.

“NO! STOP! INJA!”

Inja? Who on earth is –

My thoughts were silenced as a piercing blue light flashed before us, and then a massive explosion in Rusuban and Junko’s direction followed. Mizuko was sent meteoring backwards into myself, and I opened my arms out to catch her, before my vision was swallowed by an impenetrable darkness.
 
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Chapter 26 - Liu Katoru

Hollow Night

Between you and me, I had no intention of letting this bastard bleed to death. That would be too quick – too merciful. I was going to torch it. Atom by atom. Molecule by molecule. I looked forward to hearing how high it can scream.

But, first things first. I needed to defeat it first, and much to my annoyance, it looked like the sword I had hijacked wasn’t the only trick it was hiding up its non-existent sleeves. With those pesky knuckledusters, I assumed its already rapid movements would become even faster now. I inspected them, spiked and dangerous. Just one punch would be enough to put me in need of a blood donor.

That said, if there’s one thing I’d been taught in my short lifespan, it’s that nothing is ever free. Not really, anyway. For what it had gained in speed, and perhaps strength, it had lost in range. If it only needed to land a few blows to end the match, the same went for me. One touch was all these flames would need to spread into an inferno.

Of course, all that strategy shit was just a distraction from the killing I was meant to be doing. Thankfully, my body was two steps ahead, and quite literally at that. My legs had already started moving.

As I’d hoped, the little bitch lowered into a defensive position, its palms spread out, and vision trained on the blade in my hand. Good. With my left, I stretched my arm backward before hurling a burning black sphere in its direction.

For the first time, I witnessed its eyes widen, likely in shock, and it made the split-second decision to duck. As the ball of flame flew overhead, I stretched my left arm backward and released a jet of fire akin to a flamethrower, and quickly began to gain speed. By the time it looked back toward me, I was right in front of it.

I locked eyes with it prior to releasing the violent downward swing of my blade I’d been preparing. I was disappointed when the katana’s arc halted suddenly, and found that the idiot had opted to catch the blade in both of its palms. I felt a grin forming.

“Let’s see if you can handle the heat!”

The steely glow of the daitō soon became engulfed in black fire, and the sound that came next was like music to my ears. It was the sound of a pained, anguished, visceral scream.

“More.” My whispers crescendoed into cries – demands. “GIVE ME MORE!”

With a strength that can likely only be summoned in the face of true, unfettered death, it pushed the flaming edge upwards, giving it just enough time to roll for safety before I brought the blade down onto the ground. Bits of concrete debris flew up as it made contact.

At this point, I wasn’t even upset that it survived. No, in fact – I think I felt relieved. Over and over in my mind, those sweet, shrill tones played. Oh, you couldn’t fake a shriek like that. It was guttural, fearful, animalistic. The kind that you couldn’t hold back.

“Mmm.” I mumbled in delight. I want to say that something began to feel off, but that would be a lie. If anything, I felt more alive now than I had in the past 16 years.

As I pulled the sunken blade out of the hole it had created, I glanced over to my victim. It was crouched, its body heaving up and down with desperate breaths. But what really stood out to me was the way it looked at me. Was it the helplessness? The despair? All I knew was that something was being done to me alright. Something entirely new was taking over, and I was loving every second of it.

I wanted more. Or, to be more accurate, I wanted this ecstasy to last forever. I felt like I was still dipping my toes. I needed to dive in, to bathe myself and submerge in it completely.

As I pondered the different ways I could rip it apart, piece by piece, to get it to replicate those delightful screams, I heard a noise. It seemed it wasn’t just me – the guys behind me, even my opponent, had spun in the direction it came from.

I may have only heard that sound on TV, but I was pretty certain it was an explosion of some kind. It was coming from the southern part of the city, where the other splinter of our group would have been. Had they gone and died already?

I expected my heart to sink at least a little, thinking about Arthur and Mizuko and Rusuban and Junko all turning up dead when we woke up again. The fact that I didn’t feel a thing both excited me and terrified me to my core. I let the former win the tug of war.

“Oh, no no no no.” It was like my body had gained a mind of its own, with how quickly I’d begun moving. “Keep your eyes on ME!”

It had just barely deflected my swing. It didn’t matter. It began to cock back its arm, as if having found an opening, but I had to hold in my laughter when it cowered backward after I’d brandished my left hand.

On second thought, perhaps I’d spoken too soon. Truth be told, I did hear someone laughing. The giggles that were resounding through the space felt carefree, infantile, and unhinged.

If there was ever a laugh that confirmed someone’s status as a future serial killer, I thought. This would be it.

I wondered if my self-assessment would turn out correct in due time.



Who would’ve thought? Turns out, when you break someone’s mind, get inside their head, and cause them to second guess their every move, you’ve already won. Is this what Dad had discovered too? I scoffed. He would get his own soon enough – I’d make sure of it.

On and on and on and on, I stabbed and thrusted and swung and crashed my blade into it. With each dodge, parry, scamper, and scramble that it replied with, I could see it getting weaker. It was slipping into darkness. Or more like it was being pulled into it.

I put all my strength into one final strike, I felt a so. Clearly, it didn’t put in enough strength, as I sent it tumbling backward, bouncing on the tarmac.

“My, my.” I taunted, suddenly understanding how Rusuban must feel in the real world – like everyone and everything else is beneath you. “Want to take five? Trust me, I have all –“

A look and a few movements were all it took to shut me up. I’d sent the fucker in the completely wrong direction and hadn’t realized it.

“Twisted, remain calm,” Kozuki stammered, choked by the thick black arm hooked around her neck, alongside the pointed edge of a spike.

“I am calm,” I replied because it was true. “Though, now that we’re here…”

I raised my blade.

“You wouldn’t mind dying for me tonight, would you Red?”

Her expression – no, even Robes and Hoshino – that shit was priceless.

“Kidding.” I chuckled. “Well, this time anyway.”

I raised the katana up to the sky with both my hands. Then, I pushed it down onto my knee, snapping the weapon into two.

Wordlessly, I started to walk.

All was quiet. For what may have felt like an eternity, the only sound reverberating through the space was that of my footsteps; slow, deliberate taps against the ground.

The Noise tightened its grip onto Kozuki even further, as if warning me to stay back. To think it would be desperate enough to pull a stunt like this. I smiled, and shared a knowing look with the other two. They nodded gravely.

Without warning, I set the two pieces of steel in my hands aflame and threw them either side of Kozuki’s captor, in a wide arc. As it turned its head briefly to track the leftmost projectile’s trajectory, it was like somebody had thrown a flashbang; it became so bright.

Recoiling in pain, the Samurai let go for a brief moment, and with their vision still in disarray, chucked out mindless blows in Kozuki’s last known position. All of them missed, of course, since Robes had gone and whisked her out of there, carrying her bridal-style with a speed and strength that was incongruous to his skinny frame.

At any rate, the coast was clear for me to go in, and my heart was practically jumping with excitement. Just what kind of sounds would it make? I simply couldn’t wait.

When the light had settled down, I would grab its arms and burn them off. That way it couldn’t fight back. Maybe I should turn one of its legs to ash too, and make it hop around on one leg for me! Oh, the possibilities were fucking endless! How much longer until I cou-

Kozuki screamed behind me.

That was strange. I’d definitely seen Furusawa literally sweep her off her feet. What the fuck is she shouting about now?

And then I remembered what her ability was.

See, that day I learned that you could definitely have too much of a good thing. Take light for example. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to see, right? Especially when it gets dark outside. Fair enough. But what happens when there’s too much of it concentrated in one place.

Your eyes hurt.

You can’t see.

And maybe if you’re a rascal like me and happen to be fighting someone at the time, it makes it very hard to track what they’re doing.

When the light had settled, I was right in front of the Noise, but something was off. It took me a while to spot what exactly had changed about it, but ‘a while’ was already far too slow.

By the time it’d brought down Kozuki’s rapier onto my upper right arm, I knew that I was in for a long night.



A lot of things took me by surprise that night.

The sound of a scream that, for once, didn’t belong to someone else. Blood all over the floor that I didn’t intentionally spill. Pain so immense, so engulfing I was fighting to stay conscious.

Another flash of light, and I felt the sensation of flying. Flying? Or was it spinning? I didn’t care. I just wanted this pain to go away.

“F-FUCK!” My transporter exclaimed. The whizzing stopped eventually, and I was laid down somewhere. I heard a lot of noises then. Tons of nervous – scratch that – terrified shuffling going on around me. Their voices were hazy, but I could make out the panic.

“Kato ru! Ca n you - m e –“

“C o m r a d e – s tay strong – we w ill – tog et her –“

“ – bleed I n g out. F u r u s a w a , s n a p o u t – you need – h e a l – “

“W h a t – n o i s e –“

“R U N ! T A K E – A N D G O – “


Was I flying again? If so, the turbulence must be real bad down here. I was rocking and jumping, not to mention whoever was carrying me was clearly at the end of their rope physically.

There were some sharp noises in the distance. I didn’t know how else to describe them. It sounded like metal clashing against metal. Like concrete crumbling. It got harder to make them out the further away I was taken.

The last thing I heard was a scream, before the world became wrapped in pure black. It was then that I saw her. She was far away, real far, looking off somewhere in the distance.

“Mizuo,” I called. “Is that you?”

No response.

“Turn around.” I commanded.

No response.

“Mizuo, am I going to die?”

This time, she turned – ever so slightly, just enough for me to see the side of her face. Her cool hazel eyes hadn’t changed.

“Are you afraid?” She asked.

“Are you afraid of dying, Liu? Does it scare you?”

What kind of question was that? Why was she asking me this?

At my silence, her head returned to its previous position.

“We’ll meet again soon. Have your answer ready by then.”

I wasn’t given any chance to respond. As if sucked into a whirlwind, I tumbled and fell into a colossal blackness. In the midst of my spinning, a voice reached out to me.

Liu. Please wake up. Liu. Liu!”

Feeling was returning to my tired body. The cold chill of the ground beneath me was at odds with a fuzzy, enticing warmth radiating from my left side. I opened my eyes to find an orange-haired boy knelt over my outstretched body, his skin glistening with sweat, eyes wide in desperation.

“…Robes?” My voice was hoarse.

He exhaled in relief, rivers running down his cheeks.

“Thank god,” He looked up, as if to actually thank God himself for my survival. We both knew he didn’t exist – not down here, anyway. I didn’t have the strength to point that out.

As he supported my shoulders and back rise into an upright seating position, I noticed a distinct lack of something I’d taken for granted.

“I’m sorry,” Furusawa consoled as if reading my mind. “I…I don’t think I can bring it back. It took most of what I had to stop the bleeding and ease the pain.”

I nodded silently, lamenting my new status as a single-armed individual. As he’d promised, the pain had dulled a lot, but I didn’t have the courage to look at the wound underneath what was left of my shirt’s sleeve. Not anymore.

He laid my back against a dingy wall, and only then did memories of what had just gone down begin to resurface.

“The girls,” I groaned. “Where are they?”

Akio held up his head and squeezed his eyes, as if trying to hold back tears.

“They stayed behind.” He managed eventually. “They stayed behind so…so we could…”

He couldn’t say any more. My breathing had become staggered and uneven. Why had this happened to us? What else was there to do but wait for death to come and collect us, as well?

I closed my eyes, unable to bear darkness of this place any further, with Akio’s quiet, strangled sobs as my only company.
 
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To live is to survive.

Most human babies breathe and “cry“ within a few seconds of being “born”. Why should they cry? Is it not a joyous occasion to have freedom from their mother’s womb? Indeed, their emancipation should symbolize a new era of “growth” for the child.

Yet, they do not laugh.

They do not smile.

They are not at “peace”.

They cry.

They cry because, from the very moment they are banished the safety of their matron’s uterus, they begin to “yearn”.

On a level that is all but invisible to the naked eye, newborns understand that their introduction into the planet of their ancestors, is an introduction to a lifetime of “seeking”.

Seeking what, you may ask? Simple.

To “survive” – and then, to “thrive”.

Nobody needs to teach a baby how to eat, how to sleep, how to defecate, how to cry for shelter, warmth, nutrition and love. This behaviour is instinctual!

Did you know? Once, a human named Abraham Maslow proposed the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ in an attempt to organize these desires. Physiological needs, such as eating, sleeping, breathing and sex occupy the lower, most immediate wants, whilst intellectual, emotional pursuits lie at the crest.

Do you know what this means?

Before love, before fame, before money, before morality, comes survival!

In order to survive, man dominated the world around them, including one another! To survive, they fashioned tools, weapons, clothes, and houses! In order to survive, they grew crops and classified them! In order to survive, they came together in groups, and communities, and societies, constructing rules and regulations to govern them! In order to survive and swim across the waters, man built rafts and boats! In order to survive and soar across the vast skies, man designed aircrafts!

Do my words unsettle you? Do they frighten you? “Fear” is simply your heart commanding you to take action! To overcome the darkness that beckons you! Will you find the resolve to do so?

Humans... they are “happy” when they attempt to overcome something. They simply need to keep climbing higher... or they will never be "happy". They will never “survive”, and thus never “thrive”.

In this realm, nobody can enter or leave without my permission. These humans – the future leaders of their species – will learn of their birthright. And like the story of a young King David besting Goliath, they shall “win”! They shall “survive”! They shall “thrive”!

The time is now. Put on your strength, and make haste - for the trials are only just beginning.
 
Chapter 27 - Akio Furusawa

Hollow Night

“Just a little further…”

The words came out with a choke. I tried to push past the agony in my lungs and press forward, but there was only so much I could do to override my body’s will. I mouthed an apology, allowing my legs to ease into a slow retreat, seeking refuge in the darkness.

Lost in the labyrinth since our separation from the girls, we found ourselves at an empty intersection. Streets lined with desolate storefronts amplified the eerie silence. In the midst of the pavement stood a tree, its fresh splash of green contradicting and yet complementing the urban cityscape aesthetic of this entire place. Well, attempted aesthetic. What kind of a city has no people in it, after all? Below it, stood a familiar golden lamppost, the cerulean fire within flickering with a resilient glow.

To my left, stood a massive ebony tower, its height threatening to pierce the sky itself. I had the strangest sensation of the structure itself looking down at me. In my head, it was smiling, but it was the type of unreadable smirk that made you uneasy.

On its front, just large enough for me to make out in the dark, were the words ‘Towa Records’. I resisted the urge to tremble with relief. We’d been here before, previously, the four – no, five of us. We’d taken the route from Spain Hill, down into Cadul City, which lay just up ahead.

If we retraced our steps, we’d end up back around Tipsy Tose before long. It would be an arduous journey to say the least, but if we stuck to the shadows and took our time, then…

No, there was no time. If Hoshino really was…gone, then I only had a few minutes left before I was gone too. I needed to get Katoru to safety, no matter what.

As I turned to divulge my plan, I had the most bizarre feeling that something was wrong. To be more specific, that something was missing. I squinted closely at the incredibly dark road that we had come down from Cadul City, and then it hit me.

The light from the other torches was nowhere to be found.

The very same torches we depended on for safe travel back – their light had completely vanished from beyond Towa Records.

Either we’d been sabotaged, or completely lied to. Both had dire, very dire implications for the two of us.

Between my desperate wheezes, I heard him croak “Leave…behind…”.

Crap. Was his condition getting worse? Did he have injuries elsewhere I hadn’t noticed? Even so, there was no time to check. I was reminded of that by the subtle, careful creaks and plods that echoed through the abandoned streets we slithered through.

“No way.” I groaned. I’d had my life saved once tonight already – it was time for me to repay the favour. “But, maybe now you’ll give the takoyaki a rest.”

I felt Katoru’s chest heave on my back, and for a brief moment he felt weightless on my hands, on my body. Seeing that he’d retained his sense of humour, I felt a wave of confidence wash over me, and with great timing. I would be needing it real, real soon.

As if sensing my hesitance, he had strength enough left to impart one last message.

“Shibu…store…”

It took me a few beats to remember. Of course! How could I have forgotten the shortcut through the Shibu Department Store? If we took that, we’d at least get to the Scramble Crossing, and then back to Center Street before I would...

“Alright.” I whispered, once I had caught my breath and prepared myself. “Sorry, buddy. This is gonna be a bumpy ride.”

I knew that the moment I started to run, there would be no turning back.

Not once did I look behind; for I knew that if I turned around to see what was making those low, threatening growls that only seemed to grow closer and closer, there would be nobody left to save me.


The back door burst open with a loud bang, slamming against the outside wall. I tumbled forward into the small courtyard, almost falling over onto the unkempt grass. I then scrambled to my feet and headed back inside, my arms finding Liu’s exhausted body.

With what felt like the last of my strength, I picked him up a few centimetres off the floor, and in the distance, I noticed two glowing red circles looking right at us from the hallway’s darkness. They were growing increasingly larger.

“Come on come on come on…!” I murmured with gritted teeth, turning around and practically throwing Liu onto the grass behind.

By the time my hands had found the door handle, I could see it.

Its sleek, onyx silhouette weaved out of the darkness, muscles rippling with lethal intent. Its razor-sharp claws, like ebony daggers unsheathed, glistened ominously, each one looking as though they could tear through flesh like paper. But it was the panther’s eyes – sharp gleaming orbs of crimson malevolence that had penetrated through the blackness – that terrified me the most. In that split second of idleness, its paws had left the ground. It was diving. It was diving towards us.

Liu’s shout was what spurred me back into action, and with a great swing, I slammed shut the door, summoning all the weight I could and pushing my back against it. On the other side I felt a primal force smash and pound against the makeshift barrier. With every strike, I found myself recoiling further and further.

My fearful eyes caught Liu’s, who had been fiddling with a glass bottle, some kind of cloth wrapping coiled around its mouth. Just before a burst of black fire erupted in his left hand, my eyes were finally able to read what was printed on the bottle’s label.

He nodded, and I understood. Katoru held the weapon in his hand, the heat emanating from it matching the intensity in his eyes.

“Three.”

Another bash from the other side of the door. It took everything I had to keep from trembling at the force of the blow.

“…T-two!”

Again, a violent pummel assaulted my spine through the whittling back door. I didn’t know how many more I could take.

“ONE!”

The bottle of alcohol, the liquid inside now becoming a volatile mix ready to ignite, sailed through the air, directly at me. Feeling my apprehension fade away, I pushed off from the door and lowered into a slide across the floor, allowing the momentum to carry me forward.

Instantly, the door broke open, allowing the lethal, airborne concoction to meet its unsuspecting target. With a heart-stopping shatter of glass, the darkness was lit by a raging, open flame layered with orange and black hues. An anguished shriek rose from behind the wall of flame, a dark shadow springing back and forth uncontrollably.

“How do you have the EXS left?!” I shouted, the literal heat of the entire situation starting to get to me.

“I don’t.” He groaned, the fire in his eyes rapidly fading. “We…need to leave.”

I agreed.

Once Liu found his way onto my back, we were back on the move. Soon enough, the desperate screams had faded away, though the glow of the flame behind us burned bright. Bright enough to make out the numerous elongated shadows that stretched across the tarmac, looming in our direction.

Liu moaned, “For fuck’s sake…”

I agreed.


It was over. I couldn’t go on any further.

We’d found shelter in a family restaurant. I was laying Katoru behind the cashier counter when I heard a barrage of hard knocks at the door. My hands curled into fists.

“Liu.” I spoke. “Do you trust me?”

He stared back at me. At first his eyes were suspicious, trying to get a read on what I was attempting to do. Eventually, a glint of recognition shot over his expression.

“Don’t.” He pleaded, his hand finding my left forearm. “Don’t try to be a fucking hero, Furusawa. We’re…close. We can just keep runn-”

He was interrupted by the sound of glass shattering. I smiled at him without looking away.

"Liu, being a hero was never my intention," I began, finding a stray santoku knife. "I could never really fight, stand tall, or speak up. Not like you, not like Hoshino. I was weak."

I rose to my feet.

"But I didn't mind. When I had friends like you, Ryota, Ryuzaki, and Yakky, who needed all of that? There's still so much I wanted to do with them, with you. The others too. I know things will get worse, and one day, you might feel compelled to turn on each other."

I heard them getting closer. I didn’t have much time left.

“When that day comes, Liu, I want you to remember who the true enemy is. If the others forget, then remind them. Remind them of the nightmares we all suffered here together. The lives we’ve all had ripped away from us. Watch over them. The three of us - Kozuki, Hoshino and I - will do the same for you. Okay?”

I didn't wait for a response. I knew Liu; he'd see it through to the end.

Hopping over the counter, I saw countless shapes. I didn't care. My path was set.

I looked back one final time. Liu was expressionless. “Also, call me Akio, okay? Those’re the characters for 'bright' and 'hero'. Pretty unfitting, huh?”

With that, I threw myself into the black pit. My knife swept through some, but for each I defeated, five more replaced them. Soon, I was engulfed.

It was…surprisingly peaceful.



No.

I still had one thing left to do.

With a flick of my thumb, a great, inexplicably intense heat began to consume me. The world had become a shade of bright blue as the blackness engulfing me began to crumble. I needed to hurry.

I tossed the lighter over the counter, into Liu’s hand. He was unresponsive, looking at my flaming body with awe in his expression. I was too far gone to form any meaningful words. All that left my mouth was a tortured scream, which was enough to snap him out of it. His fingers scrambled for the lighter, before balling it up into a tight fist.

It was almost done. With the enormous surge in EXS I was receiving from the burner’s flame, I clapped my hands together. I felt the ground rumble, and suddenly, A shiny gold pillar, obelisk-style, shot up next to Liu, busting through the roof. It had mysterious engravings etched onto the sides, and within, lay a single circular space shielded by a mysterious barrier.

I pointed to Liu, and in an instant, he disappeared, turning into a spritely yellow wisp of energy. It flashed, before the space inside the pillar became occupied with Katoru, his unconscious body curled up in a fetal position.

Good.

Snapping my fingers, the obelisk withdrew back underground, Liu in tow. All that remained was the destruction, and of course, my harbingers. Despite the torment of my flesh under the fire’s animosity, my heart was still. I stood erect, staring up at the freshly made hole through the establishment’s roof.

…Did you see that, guys? I kept my promise, didn’t I? Not exactly Ryota-level for his last day on earth, but... man, it's quiet in here. So, so quiet.

I felt a splash of water caress my forehead. Soon enough, drops of water surged out from the sprinklers above cooling the flames ravaging my body. I knew it mattered not, but I appreciated the final act of kindness regardless.

Dad, you watching? I gave it my all. I stayed loyal. Just like…like…

As I fell, I caught sight of the Noise. They weren't monsters; they were just staring. Were their eyes always this dark shade of green? Didn't matter.

The last thing I saw was the moon, just hanging there like an old friend saying, 'It's okay, the night's got you.'

Somehow, it made everything feel a bit lighter, like it knew all my stories and still had room for one more.
 
Chapter 28 - Eiji Hoshino

Hollow Night

“You’ll understand when you’re older.” Father dismissed. “You’re not like them, Eiji. You’re made for bigger and better things.”

Bigger and better things? I felt a fresh fire begin to bubble up in my chest.

All I wanted was to join the other girls by the benches, and listen to them gossip about the trendiest new idol, or everyone’s favourite candy, or what boys they liked.

All I wanted was to join the boys trying out those awesome new shots I’d seen in that one soccer anime, shouting out things like “Fire Tornado!” while kicking the ball as hard as we could muster, our imaginations filling in the gaps.

I remember my vision getting glossy and unfocused, my indignation rising up to new heights.

I looked to the other adult in the room, crying “Mom! Please! I want to go outside!”

She grimaced, her eyes fixed on some inanimate object elsewhere. If she wanted to say something, she’d already resigned the power to do so a long time ago.

“Until you’ve completed the remainder of these books I’ve assigned, you are staying here. That is final.”

The coldness in his eyes extinguished the fight in my own. It was over.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I ran upstairs without a word, and neither of them came after me.

I didn’t read anything that day.

As I continued to stand there, some kind of spiritual onlooker to my past self, the memories of my last moments in life slowly began to rise to the surface, like a bucket being filled by drops of water.

Considering where I was, my gambit must have failed in the end. I wonder what -

The world was now spinning. The melancholy of my bedroom was being sucked away, out of my reach, sending me tumbling through an empty void.

“Welcome back, dearest comrade. Your bravery shall be spoken of in legend.”

To call it exhaustion would be a gross understatement. I practically had one foot in the grave at the point.

Kozuki, her eyes equal parts tired and relieved, was crouching in front of me. The tingling of my skin in response to the night’s chill was a sensation I, for once, sincerely appreciated.

“What happened?” I groaned as the redhead helped me to my feet, my balance still shaky.

She looked at me for a while and pointed in a direction. My eyes followed, and before I could control myself, I spat “What the hell are you doing here?”

Reaper turned around slowly, the darkness of their hood spilling into my very soul. Their head then craned downward, as if pondering something, before they continued fiddling with an item that was out of my sight.

I made eye contact with Kozuki, and given how quickly she broke it, I must’ve had a fiercer expression that I intended.

“The Samurai.” She began. “It seems our friend here was able to defeat it before it could finish us off.”

“Yeah, after Katoru did most of the-“

Shit. How could I have forgotten?

“Katoru! And Furusawa!” I shouted. “Where are they?”

Miharu grabbed her elbows to help calm the trembling of her body. Reaper didn’t move.

“I asked you a damn question!”

As if having grown tired of me, Reaper breezily turned in my direction and tossed something. The familiar wooden staff rattled against the floor, its elegant yet intricate engravings bereft of the light they once exuded. My heart sank.

“…A-Are they…?” I stammered. “Did you see it?”

I exhaled a sigh of relief in response to Reaper’s head shaking, but we weren’t out of the woods yet. I was looking to the side, noticing Kozuki’s tearful eyes – but also her strangely shocked expression, as if having just witnessed someone’s –

Oh. I thought, as I felt a fist slam into my back.


I will say one thing; crashing into a building is nowhere near as fun (or painless) as it looks on television. If not for the weird boosts in physicality I got from this place, I don’t think I’d be walking again anytime soon.

With a groan, I pulled myself out of the second story I’d been sent up into, falling on my feet onto the street below with a plop, bits of dust and debris accompanying me.

“…Do you wanna explain all that or…?” I asked Reaper. They were holding the treasure I’d caught a glimpse of before, the prize we’d risked our lives fighting that monster for. Reaper had now unsheathed the rapier, which was gleaming seductively, and brandished it dangerously. The blackness under the hood was now had two shining white orbs peering out of it.

"'Tis the artefact!" Kozuki, who had materialized next to me at some point, observed. "'Twas inspecting it before. Now, it seems to have taken them over completely! I sense an insatiable bloodlust emanating from them."

Great. Looks like we were out of the frying pan, and into a fucking volcano. We still didn’t know what Reaper’s ability did – as I’m sure you’ve learnt by now, they weren’t exactly talkative.

"How fares thy EXS?"

“I’m all out. You?”

"I deem I still possess a remnant."

“Good – you’re gonna need it. Here it comes!”

“Up!” Kozuki shouted, and together we leapt into the air, avoiding Reaper’s downward slash of their rapier. Before they could react, we landed a swift kick to their hood.

Soon enough, the ravaged streets of Molco became a maelstrom of kinetic energy. Reaper, her blade gleaming with ominous intent, surged forward with a storm of slashes, each strike aimed at us like bolts of lightning. But we were too quick – too synchronized – and countered her onslaught with perfect precision.

Mixing together all the different combat styles I’d trained over the years, I set my body free, unleashing rapid barrages of punches, each strike feeling as though it would explode on impact.

Reaper, a blur of calculated movement in their own right, danced between the punches, her blade a shield against the onslaught. The air crackled with each impact, a symphony of clashes reverberating through the arena.

Surprisingly enough, Miharu complemented my assault with a whirlwind of kicks, her legs blurring and creating a cyclone of rapid, acrobatic attacks that forced Reaper to constantly shift their focus. Since when could she move that fast?

Even though they were managing to parry my thunderous punches with the grace of a seasoned warrior, and weave through Miharu's kicks with an eerie elegance, I could feel the pressure mounting.

In one swift movement, I feinted with my left fist, using the force to instead deliver a resounding spin kick with the back of my right heel. While it didn’t land as directly as I’d hoped, only sending her backwards somewhat, Miharu seized the opportunity and aimed a series of lightning-fast kicks at Reaper’s flank.

It was now or never.

While Reaper was still dealing with the hurricane that was Kozuki, I dashed in their direction, and leaped. Landing on their back, my arms wrapped around theirs, and I pulled with all my might, opening up their stance.

“Ko-Kozuki!” I grunted, struggling to keep the beast in place. I should’ve already known this from the fact that a single punch had sent me soaring through the air, but their physical strength was off the charts. Just having to hold their deceptively slender arms out in place was probably the most difficult thing I’d had to do that day.

“Hurry!”

With that, Kozuki lowered her stance, eyes focused…

And ran in the opposite direction.

Eventually, I couldn’t muster the strength to keep them in place, and Reaper sent me falling onto the floor behind us with a violent headbutt.

Holding my maybe broken nose, disoriented, I looked up to find Reaper pointing their rapier skyward.

deAtH tO tHe HeREticS.” They spoke in a mangled, distorted voice that sounded like five people speaking at once. Even so, there was something remarkably familiar about their tone.

As dire as the situation was, I felt no fear. Hell, you could even say I was pretty happy. Aside from the nosebleed, anyway.

“You’re not half bad,” I confessed, pointing at the rapier they were flourishing. "But it only took one second – one second where you didn’t have your eyes on the both of us...”

I saw the white beads under the hood widen in horror, just as the sound of metal swiping through air began to echo dangerously across the space. With a clash, Reaper’s scythe met the exposed rapier, sending it sailing out of Reaper’s hands and crashing onto the tarmac.

Instantly, I leapt up, my arms wrapped tight across Reaper’s upper arm and back.

With all the might I could muster, I picked Reaper up and hurled them onto the floor in the most forceful hip toss I’d ever performed. I knew they felt this one by the deep cracks that the impact created in the tarmac, and the resulting boom piercing through the air.

“Victory belongs to those who seize the moment!” Kozuki cried as she grabbed my hand, holding it up as though I’d just won a heavyweight title.

I smiled, before joining her in staring down our fallen opponent.

“And we just did.”


When Reaper came to, the first thing they did was reach for the scythe we’d laid back out in front of them.

“Easy, easy!” I affirmed, my palms held out in surrender. Kozuki and I were sitting on the floor, cross-legged, the white rapier now sheathed and laying behind us while we scrutinized our previous assailant.

"We beg pardon for the ungentle handling – behold, this artifact had seized control of your wits fleetingly. We were left without recourse."

In all honesty, part of me still wondered if Reaper really did want us dead, though I soon enough judged that saving us from the Samurai would have proven counterproductive to that aim.

“Hey.” I called out after they’d risen to their feet. “Just who are you, anyway? You’ve gotta be a student at Tensei too, right? Why haven’t you shown us your face?”

Kozuki looked at me quizzically, but there was no way she wasn’t curious too. The enigma in question stood still for several moments, and it seemed to me as though they were trying to weigh up their next actions. In the end, they simply shook their head, and leaped to a nearby roof.

It seemed our conversation was over.

“Wait!” I cried, jumping to my feet. “We need your help.”

At my genuine plea for help, Reaper seemed intrigued. I glanced at Kozuki, and she nodded.

I decided to continue.

“Please,” I began, pointing in the direction of the main road that was heading south-east. “Katoru and Furusawa – they were in real bad shape when last we saw them. They headed over that way, toward Miyashita Park. Could you go over there and make sure they’re okay?”

At their complete and utter silence, I felt more words spilling out.

“…We’d go ourselves, but that’s a red zone. Between the Samurai Noise earlier, and this whole debacle, we wouldn’t last a second in there. We’re too spent. But you – I know how strong you really are. You’re the only one that can do this, Reaper.”

My hands had curled into fists at some point. Truth be told, I felt uncomfortable putting their safety into the hands of someone who a) had just attacked us, b) was probably working with Daisuke to kill us all, and c) I knew absolutely nothing about, but the safety of those two came before anything else.

Not to mention that if something happened to Furusawa in particular, I’d be in imminent danger myself.

Reaper sighed, and turned back down at us, as if to say, “Fine, but only just this once.”

In a flash, they disappeared into the shadows of the rooftops, weaving and wefting through them, moving toward Miyashita Park.

“Think the other two shall make it?” Kozuki inquired softly.

I folded my arms.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if they don’t.”

Nodding, Kozuki rose to her feet, sheathed white rapier in tow.

“Ah, I forgot to ask what the purpose is behind this object. Strange… it seems quite similar to the weapons we were gifted, no?”

My eyes were locked onto Akio’s sceptre, so I muttered an absent “…Yeah, I guess.”

Perhaps sensing my unease, Miharu rested a firm hand on my shoulder.

“Worry not. We will see them again – I’m sure of it.”

“…I hope you’re right. Anyway, we’d better get back to Center Street. Let’s stick to the back streets, and change the person who’s holding this weird piece of junk every three or so minutes.”

Kozuki assumed a thinking pose, thin fingers stroking her chin.

“Two comrades on a journey with an object of corruption in tow, having to stay vigilant to watch over one another to make sure they do not succumb to its temptations? Where have I heard that before?”

I pushed her playfully on the shoulder, a gesture so carefree it surprised even me.

“Oh, just can it, will ya?”

I remember laughing in that moment. It would be a sound I would not hear again for quite some time.
 
Chapter 29 - Kinoko Rusuban

Hollow Night

The ringing in my ears hadn’t quite died down when I came to. Clouds of dust and smoke arose from the site of the explosion, mere meters away from me, the fate of my allies left ambiguous by the smog.

With the return of consciousness came the return of my memory, and piece by piece, I’d begun to recall the events that had lead up to this moment. Mizuko’s kidnapping at the hands of that bizarre Noise. Arthur’s failed gambit. Our joint gambit that, for all we knew, had also been unsuccessful.

My train of thought was interrupted by a sharp tingling sensation in my head. It was a painless, yet remarkably involved feeling, as though my brain was trying to solve a difficult problem. If anything it felt akin to –

Ah. I thought as the last of my recollections found their rightful place.

Muscles aching, I pulled myself onto my feet and surveyed the area. No sounds – no movement. I trusted that the other three were still unconscious. Or rather, I’d hoped that Cunningham was dead and the other two were unconscious. Still, there was no telling when my prisoner would break free of my control, so I hurried into a rather dark alleyway to my side, a person-sized peapod with a humanoid outline trapped inside coming into view.

A click of my fingers was all it took to get my pet to spit out my kidnappee, who was as unsightly as I remembered, even for a Noise. Just laying my eyes upon such a hideous creature felt like an insult. Nonetheless, I reminded myself I would not have to suffer for long.

“…What did you do to me?” It asked, as it lay on the floor, voice strained and hoarse. My ability was the only thing keeping it in one place, but even that was proving quite difficult. Still, to think that one of these beasts would actually be capable of speech…

I shook my head.

“You mean aside from having saved your life?” I responded. Some gratitude was definitely in order, though I managed to push the creature lack of manner’s aside for the sake of the greater goal. “I’m just keeping you in place, that’s all. In return, all I ask is you provide me some information. “

Taking their silence as assent, I decided to begin my investigation.

“Mizuko called you ‘Inja.’ I take it, then, you’re not another one of these mindless demons we’ve been extinguishing. What – or who – exactly, are you?”

There was a pause.

“I’m exactly who you think I am,” It responded eventually, and vaguely at that. “A fellow prisoner who was brought here a long time ago, to suffer the same things you are.”

Good. So long as that was set straight, my line of questioning could continue. It was when I opened my mouth to do just that, that I had realized ‘Inja’ wasn’t done.

“Now it’s my turn to ask you a question.” It demanded.

Wondering if she was as ungrateful in life as she was now, I conceded, “Very well. Ask away.”

“…What are you doing with Yoshida’s EXS?”



“…Who?”

“Asahi Yoshida.” She began clarifying. “He was a Player in my Hollow Night. Had the ability to control plants, flora, the like. I’m asking why you have his ability.”

I smiled.

“Who’s to say we can’t have the same ability?”

Somewhere in that sorry excuse for a face, I felt her eyes glaring at me.

“Don’t lie to me.” The venom in her voice almost caught me off guard. “I can sense his EXS spilling out of you.”

How intriguing.

“Well.” I began. “...Let’s just say I was given this as a reward for good judgement.”

She stared at me for a few more beats, perhaps trying to read something printed on my expression or body language that I wasn’t aware of. When her head eventually dropped back down onto the concrete in resignation, I cleared my throat.

“If you were a human being like us, why are you here now as one of them?”

Her eldritch body stiffened up, and a tense silence plummeted down upon us.

“…I don’t know. I can’t remember. The last thing I can recall was…we were all…”

Her head shook desperately, as if the words were causing dark memories to resurface.

“Do you recognize this item?”

As I spoke the words, I threw the object I had been hiding behind my body in front of her. A spark of what seemed like recognition flared over her face, before her body shook with agony.

No…” The sudden weakness in her voice surprised me as she cradled the mysterious backpack.

In response to her accusatory glare, I described, “We discovered this after defeating a Noise that used steam. Did it belong to one of your friends?”

Inja stared longingly at the item before nodding.

“Yes. Asuna was my partner. We’d gone through...a lot together.” She reminisced. It seemed they too were forced to play a game with a similar partner system. Intriguing. “Why did this have to happen? Why can’t I remember…?”

I still had many questions, alas, this would have to be enough - for now, anyway. It seemed the last Hollow Night did not end very favourably. At least, not for our friend here.

The dark green glow of her eyes began to fade.

“Well, perhaps we ought to bring this to a close, hm?” I offered.

She looked up at me again.

“One more question.” She demanded. When I opened my mouth to protest, she flatly spoke “You’re going to kill me anyway, right? Not like I’m going to tell anyone.”

Clever girl.

I gestured for her to speak, and she did – asking the question that had been eating away at my mind ever since Juno gave me this secondary ability to control plant life.

“How long do you think you’ll last?”

A deafening silence haunted the space between us. I allowed her to continue.

“I don’t mean in regards to the Noise or whatever.” She clarified. “You must’ve realized it by now. The effects of harbouring someone else’s EXS inside your own. Frankly, I’m surprised you haven’t crumbled yet. But it’s only a matter of time.”

Silently, I turned my back to her and raised my hand. It looks like my time was up – or to be more specific, her time was up.

“…My control over you is about to end.” I informed, dodging the question. “Soon, you’ll be free.”

Her head lowered in what was either acceptance or gratitude. Perhaps both.

“I’ll never be free.” She admitted. “Neither will you. Until this game ends, our lives – our souls – are their property.”

There were only a few seconds left. I took a deep breath.

“Did I stutter?” I jeered.

There was no response.

When I turned around, all that remained was a white orb and a curious pair of glasses.



“Welcome back to the land of the living.”

Rising from my crouched position, Cunningham took my extended hand in a daze, his head shaking as he found his feet.

“Thank you.” He exhaled. His eyes darted up and down the newly ravaged roads of 104, and suddenly became wide with anxiety. “The other two…! Where are they?!”

Wordlessly, he dashed in the direction I pointed, like a dog playing fetch with its master. I followed behind closely.

“…Remind me to never do that again.” Junko croaked. Her eyes half-lidded and speech slurred, her body covered in dirt. Mizuko was dotingly crouched over her younger sibling, cradling Junko in her arms.

Arthur looked over the sisters from a distance.

“Will she be alright?” He whispered.

“…I think so.” Mizuko responded eventually without meeting his eyes. “But I doubt she’ll be able to move again. At any rate, we should get back to Center Street and rendezvous with Furusawa’s team.”

As I once again took in the thick formations of dust careening through the air, the smell of smoke and metal pervading my senses, I found it remarkable that she was capable of so much destruction – simply by concentrating all her EXS into that one singular strike.

This mysterious essence that we refer to so often – EXS – lulled to me seductively from the darkest recesses of my soul. I was soon engrossed with the desire to learn everything I could about this enigmatic energy.

How had it come into existence?

Why are we able to manipulate such a resource so freely in this realm, yet are blissfully unaware of it in the waking world?

…Could one become aware of it in the real world?

So many questions, so little time.

It was when I had returned to the present moment that I noticed all three of their eyes fixed onto me.

“Rusuban.” Mizuko called. The slight tinge of annoyance in her voice hinted that this was not the first time she was doing so. “…What happened to Inja?”

“Inja?” I echoed. “Oh, you mean that Noise?”

I shook my head solemnly.

“…I’m afraid it didn’t survive the attack.” I informed. “I don’t think so, anyway. When I came to, there was nothing – no trace of it left.”

After a few moments, Arthur got to the heart of the matter.

“Shirogetsu-san, why are you calling that Noise ‘Inja’? You called it that before too, when you…”

He rubbed his right forearm with a grimace, and it was only then I’d noticed the fresh stab wound, red and round against his white skin.

“Yes, Shirogetsu-san, what was the meaning of all that?” I followed up.

She sighed deeply before removing her glasses momentarily, revealing her cool blue eyes that were washed with guilt.

“…I still barely know myself.” She conceded. “When it – she – ‘kidnapped’ me, I heard her voice. She told me that she wasn’t an enemy. That she’d been trapped here, just like us. She said she…she wanted to help."

My eyes stayed focused on her, though out of the corner of my eye I noticed Cunningham’s left hand ball up into a fist.

“So when it brought me back here, and I saw that you…you were…”

“It was a trick.” Cunningham interrupted bluntly. “A ruse meant to get you off your guard. I have no doubt in my mind it would have killed every single one of us, had it been given the opportunity.”

He crept up to Mizuko and rested a hand on her shoulder.

“The enemies we face are getting increasingly more intelligent and formidable. You mustn’t forget that.”

She grew still for some moments, and I had the strangest suspicion she wasn’t buying it. In the end, she put back on her glasses and said no more.

“Let’s go, shall we?” Cunningham finished.

As he knelt down for Mizuko to place Junko on his back, I felt that tingling again.

I turned away briefly to check on the status of my underlings. As planned, using the kerfuffle from earlier to disperse my spores through the sewers and into the water system was a good move. I’d sensed their ranks steadily growing, but this feeling was unlike the others – it was as though their number had abruptly exploded.

I closed my eyes, trying my best to align my senses with the newest recruits. To hear what they heard, to feel what they felt, see what they saw.

But I was far too late.

Though the image was hazy and unfocused, it was abundantly clear what was being presented to me.

In a restaurant I recognized from a group outing around Cadul City last week, Furusawa was standing, his figure abnormally blackish as though he’d been bathing in soot.

I forced my minions to stay put, and together, we watched as my ally fell to the floor, his eyes empty and vacant, the moonlight shining down upon him providing a strange comfort to the otherwise harrowing scene.

Just what on earth had happened here? Where were the other three? Had they all…?

I couldn’t bear to look at the image any longer. What a waste of potential.

“Okay, let’s…Rusuban?”

Arthur’s voice caught my attention.

“Are you okay?” He asked gently. “Your…on your face…”

Both Mizuko and Junko turned to look at me, and their expressions took on a similar state of bewilderment.

My right index finger came up to my cheek, and the wetness that arose as a result surprised me.

I’d long since thought I was incapable of shedding tears.

“Y-Yes.” I confirmed. “Sorry, I’m fine. Let’s get going.”
 
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Chapter 30 - Mizuko Shirogetsu

Hollow Night

I think I finally saw it, Mother.

It was only for a second. If I’d had the presence left to blink, I’m sure I would have missed it completely. But I saw it.

I hadn’t thought there existed anything so terrifying, so engulfing as knowing that in a few short seconds, your life thus far, and everything it could amount to, would be brought to an abrupt and violent end, like a story that ends on a cliffhanger that is never resolved.

Today, Mother, I came face to face with death. Junko did too. Yesterday we did the same.

I imagine tomorrow we’ll see it again, if It allows us to make it that far. Every night we’re brought here, It will be waiting for us. Its hollow eyes will drill into our souls, slender ivory fingers coiling around our hearts.

How much longer until we can see what you saw in your last moments, Mother? How much longer until we can see you again, Mother?

I can’t remember the last time I felt your arms around me.



By the time we’d reached the Scramble Crossing, our journey thankfully free of any serious encounters, the unease amongst us was clear. Simply put, it was far too quiet.

Under normal circumstances, quietness was perhaps something to be cherished. A momentary pause from the hustle and bustle of modern-day life, you could argue.

Under normal circumstances, I may find myself agreeing with you.

However, nothing about this realm was normal. Whatever we knew about the world, about ourselves – about each other – would have to be destroyed and rebuilt from scratch, if we wanted to survive. That much, at least, had been made abundantly clear to us.

In other words, silence was not a symbol of a day’s well-earned rest, but rather, the calm before a storm.

So we remained alert, eyes scanning and darting and surveying our surroundings with upmost diligence, keenly aware that said storm could come crashing down upon us at any moment.

Numerous times, Cunningham ordered us to halt, our hearts suspended in mid-air as he sniffed around the environment. Sometimes he’d instruct us to find cover as a group of shadows would slink past in the distance. Other times, he would simply dismiss it as a false alarm, and we would continue on our expedition with increasingly wary spirits.

We were around the main intersection, close to the statue of Hachiko, when he issued a warning none of us had heard before.

“Something’s wrong.” He declared after coming to an abrupt stop. My heart sank.

“What do you mean?” Rusuban replied, though his eyes were distracted and fixed elsewhere, as if on some point far in the distance that only he could see.

Cunningham took a deep breath, shaking his head. When he turned to face us, Junko’s tired face resting sleepily on his shoulder, his expression was the most serious I’d ever seen.

“Up ahead. I’m sensing two fairly dense pools of EXS. They’re familiar – Katoru and Furusawa, I think.”

“Isn’t that good news?” I inquired. In the corner of my eye, I noticed Rusuban almost jump at the mention of their names. “It means we can-“

“Not quite.” He stated thoughtfully, though the intensity in his visage had not faded. “There’s something wrong with their EXS. The intensity of Furusawa’s is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Katoru’s is paling in comparison. But the strange thing…”

He broke eye contact.

“The strange thing is that Furusawa’s EXS is decreasing steadily, and Katoru’s is…well, increasing. If I’m not mistaken, it’s almost like…Katoru’s absorbing Furusawa’s EXS.” He confirmed. “But if this keeps up, Furusawa will…”

Did Katoru betray us? Is that why Cunningham can’t sense the other two – Hoshino and Kozuki? Did he already…?

“Rusuban.” I called. “You and I will go on ahead and investigate. Cunningham, follow behind but keep your distance. If it looks like danger, promise me you’ll run and take Junko with you.”

“But-“

“There’s no time!” I yelled, catching even myself by surprise. “…Please.”

Cunningham whispered after a few beats of silence, “…Fine.”

With that, I wasted no time. Naginata in hand, Rusuban and I began to sprint in the direction of the Center Street Entrance, where this entire nightmare had begun, eager, if not unprepared, for the sight we would soon witness.



“Up ahead, Shirogetsu-san!” Rusuban wheezed over the rushed pitter-patter of our sprinting. “Do you…see that?”

I didn’t need any clarification to know what exactly he was referring to. As we closed the distance, a distinct golden glint shined over the horizon, almost the same shade as the lampposts we’d spent the entirety of last night lighting.

Soon enough, its obelisk-like shape became clear, standing tall and regal as though belonging in a Pharoah’s palace. Neither Katoru nor Furusawa could be seen from where we were, though I had a distinct feeling that they were still at the centre of all this.

At some point, we had arrived. Between our tired pants, we were able to take in the sight; smack-dab in the middle of the street, lay a gleaming aureate tower with mysterious engravings etched onto the sides, and within, sat a single circular space shielded by a mysterious barrier.

Within the space, his unconscious body curled up in a foetal position, was Katoru.

Rusuban was the first to break our awe-struck silence.

“…What on earth is this?”

I don’t know how many minutes had passed when I begun to hear footsteps to my left.

Had Cunningham grown impatient and decided to investigate for himself?

It was when I realized that the footsteps were coming from the opposite direction, being that of Tipsy Tose Hall, as well as the fact that this was the sound of two people rather than one, that I reached for my naginata.

“Whoa, whoa, easy!” Hoshino exclaimed after I leapt in their direction, a thrust readied. Beside her stood Kozuki, her hand having pulled Eiji back. She had likely already predicted what I was going to do.

Evidently, the relief at seeing the both of them still alive was too much for my body to handle. Kozuki’s hands found my shoulders as my knees gave way.

“Slowly, comrade.” She comforted, guiding me steadily onto the floor. An ethereal, glowing rapier was sheathed dutifully at her side. "It doth appear thou also hast endured manifold trials this shadowed eve."

A nod was all I was able to manage. Eiji’s attention eventually drifted to Kinoko, and then the structure he was currently observing. Upon seeing Katoru tucked safely inside, her previously tired expression splayed into one of pure anxiety.

“W-What is this? Where’s Furusawa? Why didn’t Reaper get them both?!” She began to scream.

Eventually Cunningham had leaped in with Junko in tow, but even his explanations did little to ease Hoshino’s distress.

Our hysteria was interrupted by the obelisk, our object of interest, beginning to pulse.

Three or four times it did that, our attention fixed on it, until finally, the central shielded area burst open, Katoru’s limp body dropping onto the floor. With that, the pillar became increasingly translucent, until it finally faded away into gold dust, carried and scattered away into the night sky.

“His limb…” Kozuki pointed. "It hath - It hath been made whole again!"

At this point I no longer had the presence of mind to notice that this implied one of my allies had been amputated moments prior. That the same could happen to each and every one of us here, if not worse.

Lethally tense moments passed as we stood there, scrutinizing Katoru’s dormant body.

“Do you think he’s – “

Without warning, his upper body burst to life with a desperate gasp, leaping into the air and onto his feet. His arms up to his shoulders were blazing with a black fire, the fiery gaze in his eyes equally as scalding.

When all he found was us, crowded around him, and equally as confused, he shook his head violently.

“FUCK!” He shouted. “WHERE IS HE?!”

“WE DON’T KNOW!” Hoshino matched. “Listen, we’re going to calm down and sort through what-

“THERE’S NO TIME! WE NEED TO –“

Click.

“…Need to…”

Click.

“…to…”

Click.

“…”

In the distance, a hooded figure was gradually walking in. Their cadence was slow, graceful, almost otherworldly. They would have captured my attention if not for what they were holding in their arms.

At first, all I could make out was the dangling limbs. The cradled head. As the figure got closer, distinct features began to come into view, such as the body’s soft orange hair, and dark brown robes.

Ah. I thought.

Death had grown impatient.

By the time Reaper had reached us, and laid Furusawa’s blackened body on the floor, time had stopped. There was nary a sound, nary a movement – all that was left to do was for our eyes to drink in the fate that awaited us in this realm.

There was no escaping from it. No running.

This was the end that awaited us all.

Nothing was going to change that.

Not Cunningham’s silent tears.

Not Junko’s gritted teeth and quiet sobs.

Not Rusuban’s clenched fist, repeatedly pounding and beating against the ground.

Not Kozuki’s ear piercing screams.

Not Katoru’s anguished howls toward the sky, commanding it to bring his friend back.

Not Hoshino’s lifeless, listless ruffling of his hair, her empty calling of his name for him to wake up and stop playing around.

And definitely not my calling for you, Mother, to come back and hold me again.
 
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Chapter 31 - Daisuke Kurogane

Hollow Night

The whispering started once I’d reached Shibuki Main Store, north-west from 104.

I knew the others had been there from the scorch marks littered across the tarmac, pieces of rubble piled up and scattered anyhow.

Hell, I even remember standing over this one random-ass hole in the middle of the street, around where a sewer drain usually sat, as if some kind of Kaiju decided now would be a great time to go for a morning stroll.

And then, as I thought about the Kaiju me and her used to imagine lurked at the end of Shibuya River, I had the weirdest suspicion I was being watched. Within a few seconds, I came to the conclusion that I was right, and more; I was being spoken to.

“…Who’s there?” I threatened into the dark backstreets. No response.

I must’ve only been standing there for a few minutes at best, but shit, it felt like forever. Steadily, the ghastly murmurings crescendoed, until I could barely even hear my own feet hitting concrete once I’d started running.

If I was going to fight, I’d do it the way I’d always done it – on my own terms, and nobody else’s.

At first, I was pleased to hear the mutterings die down as I created distance. But the worst thing about it was that it never quite went away. By the time I’d stumbled into freaking A-East of all places (which, at this point, should be renamed ‘Hood of Shady Deals and Not-So-Friendly Neighbours’), I could still hear it gnawing at the furthest recesses of my mind. I wouldn’t give it the chance to move any nearer.

Deciding to hold my ground, I braced as it gradually grew louder and louder. God, it was incessant. Any longer and I thought I would have to –

I felt it before I saw it. If my senses were even a millisecond too lax in taking control, forcing my body to jump back, I would literally be half the man I am now. The fresh gash across my chest informed me of that much.

But you know what they say: ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’. In this case, I guess the more appropriate adage would be ‘Every invisible murder attempt has an ethereal, mouth-shaped ghoulish abomination.”

I kid you not – that’s exactly how this thing looked. Jagged grey teeth that’d trigger Red Riding Hood’s PTSD, lips thick and lifeless, trailed by a cloak of tattered, shredded rags that waved in the same cool breeze that chilled my skin.

Perhaps it felt as uncomfortable showing its appearance as I felt having to witness it, because within moments it had vanished again. Here was when I was starting to understand this freak’s game.

And for the first time in a long time, I hoped I was wrong.

When the whispering had started back up again, I crept slowly toward the metal pipe I’d been eying since our first go-round. No sudden movements. By the time my hands had felt the cold embrace of steel, fingers coiling around my unlikely defender, the airy mumblings were almost at their climax. I lifted the pipe, and I would only have a second, if even that, and I sure as hell couldn’t waste it.

Without warning, the mutterings came to an abrupt halt, and there it was again. After thrusting my pipe into the ground, using it as a makeshift shield, I stared right at the creature, summoning all the damn strength I had available. To my utter fucking disappointment, all I was left with was a decapitated pipe, and an impact that send me flying back a few meters.

And, of course, another round of everybody’s favourite – more ghoulish whispering.

So, I thought as I picked myself up off the ground. It doesn’t have eyes. Go figure.

My body processed the thought before I could even finish internalizing it.

I’d better fucking split.


After some trial and error I’d rather not get into, I compiled all the facts together.
  • This thing’s whispering was its calling card – its way of letting me know it was out for my neck.
  • If I kept moving while it was talking, the whispering would stay at a minimum level. If I stood relatively still, it would only grow louder and louder.
  • Once the volume reaches its peak, it reveals itself for just the slightest moment, before unleashing a cleave forceful enough to make Miyamoto Musashi jealous.
  • However quickly I ran, the whispering would never go away.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how desperate this situation was. Anyone with at least a walnut-sized noggin and just one working eye could see that much. The most straightforward plan of action would’ve been to target the moment just before it attacked, and pray that your blade was quicker than the other.

In other words, to put everything on the line, and seize that singular moment. That’s what I’d have to do.

Strangely, I feel like I’d come to terms with it already – with the fact that death would always be loitering around the next corner, concocting a scheme to add you to its collection of claimed souls.

In truth, ever since that run-in with the snake and bull from earlier, something about the world – about me – felt different. Like everything I was, everything I’d known, had been taken apart and reconstructed from the ground up.

Simply put, that moment was my awakening.

And if I had to dance with Death to savour this irresistible high that was gripping my heart like this, and pulsing through my veins, then so be it.

Eventually, I’d found myself at the large construction project south of Shibuki, the end goal being the completion of a new hotel-office building. On the few occasions I’d pass by, the chorus of metal clanging and drills gyrating irking me to no end, I’d note how intimidating the building mock-ups looked. Whoever had designed this building had more than just a place of working and residence in mind, I’ll tell you that for free.

But that didn’t matter, as the incessant murmurings in my ear reminded me. Sometimes, if I scrutinized the syllables that sauntered in and out of my ears, I’d hear names, or phrases, that felt like scenes of a movie cut-out from the context of the plot as a whole.

“Is…true…Ren…killed…”

“Can’t…Asuna…”

“…Inja…missing….”

Whatever the story behind the inclusion of these names, I had the weirdest suspicion that the truth was buried inside that journal I’d been received by killing that rabbit thing.

That must’ve been why Reaper took such an interest in it.

Shit, they’d probably figured the whole thing out already. I made a mental note to get them to spill after school tomorrow - provided we both live that long anyway.

As the hooked edge of my kusari weaved and coiled around the scaffolding, gradually propelling me upwards, I felt a stark chill in the wind. In the distance, I could see something shiny, and golden, but was too far to make any specific detail. Was that one of these ‘artefacts’? Something about it set my hairs on edge, so I ignored it to focus on matters at hand.

“Almost…there…”

Once I’d reached high enough altitude, the dull lights of Shibuya now resembling a child’s play set, I took a deep breath and waited.

Unfortunately, at this height it became real easy to mix up the whistles of the wind with the whispers of this thing, but I didn’t care. My sight was really all I needed for this to work.

Soon enough, I felt a cold chill down my spine. The air became deathly silent. This would be the moment of truth.

I closed my eyes, and greeted Death once again.

Slash!

Upon opening them, I was pleased to find that I was still in one piece. Literally. The bastard either completely missed, or harboured a deep hatred for steel pipes, as evidenced by the decapitated remains of one rolling about listlessly on the floor.

I couldn’t tell whether it was the relief of having still been alive, the thrill of having figured this fucker out, or both, but I was laughing my head off.

“…You’re mine.” I taunted, before reaching down and grabbing one half of the sliced pole.


To my utter shock, the garbage they’d had us learn in physics actually turned out useful.

With enthusiasm, I swung, leapt, and darted through the metal maze I’d led trapped my opponent into, banging and crashing my steel pipe into just about any other surface or object I could find. Honestly, I felt like some kind of shitty delinquent, and man, did it feel good.

Judging by the sporadic, random sounds of wooden planks crashing, or the occasional cement block plummeting down from a higher level, it had lost me. And it was not happy about it.

In hindsight, it had taken me way too long to realize what this thing had been using the entire time. It had been navigating the environment far too well for a creature who was literally blind.

Not to mention I was making constant sound with the pitter-patter of my footsteps, the heavy huffing of my breath, the clinking of my kusari – the list goes on.

But in a place like this, full of reflective surfaces like mirrors and metal panels that bounce the sound waves of its whispers back in unpredictable directions, it really was blind. Not to mention all the sound distractions coming from yours truly.

All I had to do now was find a way to damage it. Deciding that I’d kinda had enough of its ugly mug, I figured I’d end it in one shot. As the desperate, aggressive sounds of commotion gradually grew closer and closer, I got to work setting up my masterpiece, applying my knowledge of mechanics, of all things, to set up the perfect showstopper.

After a while, the place grew unnervingly quiet. Even with my discovery of its secret, this was still a life-or-death situation. One wrong move would be all it took to get me killed, and no way would I be the first loser to get done in. I seriously pitied whoever it’d end up being.

Slowly but surely, my hairs stood on end as the chatterings faded came back into my auditory range. I held my taut kusarigama chain tight. If not for the strength increase I got in this place, this would never have worked.

“What’s up?” I taunted. Did these things even understand Japanese? Maybe they were foreign monsters. Oh well. “Oh, don’t mind me. Just getting my workout in. Then again, you can’t see me can you? All you have to rely on…”

The whispering reached its climax faster than ever before, but I was ready.

“…is echolocation!”

The split second it appeared, I loosened my grip on the chain, and began zooming upwards. As a wooden plank that was previously standing behind me was sliced clean in half, a cackle I didn’t recognize began to bubble up of me.

Still travelling upwards toward the pivot of my man-made pulley, I looked down, and gave a breezy two-finger salute.

“See you around, big mouth.”

Invisible did not mean intangible, as the poor bastard soon discovered once the large metal pipes I’d been using my weapon to carry over a beam crashed down onto it, plummeting through floor after floor of wooden planks. I managed to unhook my kama just in time, taking refuge on the metal beam I’d used as a pivot for the pulley, whole body heaving in deep breaths.

A while later, I descended through the array of fresh holes, finding another one of those white orbs and something I hadn’t seen before. I decided to take care of the snack first, crushing the orb in my hands and drinking in the power.

The rush I felt from this consummation of sorts was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. I could feel it now – that I’d hit my maximum potential…at least for now.

But just beyond my reach, lay a force so insidious, deep, dark and powerful that I could hardly believe it was coming from me.

On the horizon, I could feel that the true essence of my EXS was just waiting to be unleashed. I pledged there and then that I would go the distance, and discover who I really was - no matter how many corpses I’d have to stand on.

Now, to the other matter at hand. I scrutinized it from afar, concluding that it was probably another one of those treasure thingies. Once I began to hold the flawed gemstone in my palm, a splitting pain shot across my head, forcing me to my knees.

When I came to, someone was standing in front of me. They were translucent like a hologram, glowing the same sinister shade of purple as the gemstone. Even so, there were still some distinct features I could make out, like his hooded dark gray trench coat with a reptilian pattern, grey joggers, and black laced platform boots.

Their hood stayed up, obscuring their face completely in shadow, much like another person I know. Even so, I caught a glimpse of an intense amber gaze emanating from beneath the darkness.

“You know the equation, Kenjiro.” He spoke darkly. “We’ve solved for all the variables, calculated entropies, and can conclude that there’s no mutual information to be found by selecting those trivial features.”

It was only then that I noticed he was staring directly at me. Why was he calling me ‘Kenjiro’? My question was answered by the other purple, see-through figure who quite literally walked through me, feet unsure and unsteady.

“A-Are you sure about this, Minami-kun? There’s no turning back from something like that.”

The cloaked boy, presumably ‘Minami-kun’, turned away, as if gazing at the pale moon.

“…It’s our only option. In order to approach infinity…”

Weird mathematical lexicon aside, I didn’t need to watch any more to confirm one thing – we really weren’t the first ones here.

I had the strangest feeling that, for whoever was here last, something terrible happened.

And for perhaps the first time since I’d come here, I wanted to see the others.

For the first time since I’d come here, I was afraid.
 
Chapter 32 - Junko Shirogetsu

Wednesday, October 18th

Try to imagine the feeling. The initial relief of having woken up from a nightmare, the greats gulps of oxygen soothing your wary lungs…

Only to realize you’ve been tossed into another one.

As usual, my body began to move before my brain could catch up, and the next thing I knew, I was at my sister’s bedroom door. There was no sound on the other side – only my shallow, unstable breaths.

Knock knock knock.

No response.

I needed to see her right now. For her to tell me that the past two days had been nothing but a fever dream, for her to scold me for interrupting her morning yoga, for her to look me in the eye and tell me everything would be okay.

Knock knock knock.

“Sis,” I whimpered. “Please, open the –“

Before I could finish my plea, the metallic handle I’d been grappling swung downwards, out of my grasp, and though the tears were making the image blurry, there she was.

For just a millisecond there, perhaps everything began to feel normal again. Like it was just another dreary Wednesday morning.

It was after having rubbed my eyes clean, after having made contact with Mizuko’s own vacant, desperate gaze that the illusion shattered into millions of jagged pieces, bringing down any semblance of security alongside it.

By the time I’d found the presence of mind to open my mouth and try to put all the fear that was ravaging my heart into words, I was being pulled into her bosom.

“…with everything I have.” I heard her whisper.

“I will protect you with everything I have.”

I felt her fingers caress my crown, her touch as soothing as her voice, like a lullaby. At first, I felt as though I were hugging a stranger. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt her embrace.

Perhaps it was that familiar scent of her sea-salt shampoo, the strange new curves along her historically slender body, or the way her warmth reminded me of Mother’s, but soon enough I lost the strength to form any comprehensible words beneath my irrepressible sobs.

Her arms tightened around me. I wanted her to never let go.



The second I’d split off from Mizuko, my priorities were clear. I needed to find out if he’d come to school or not. I knew in my heart that this simple observation would tell me everything I needed to know.

Leaving behind the empty greetings and glances of faces I didn’t recognize, I sliced through the morning crowd and, just as I’d hoped, found the one person who could tell me what I needed to know.

“Aaah!” Emiko screamed, jumping backwards in surprise. “You nearly scared me to death!”

At my unresponsiveness, she added with a hint of concern, “Speaking of death, a-are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Then again, you’d only be the fifth person today…”

I had been flipping and rotating my next words in my mind, calculating the best angle to broach the topic at, so much so that I almost let the golden opportunity pass me by.

“…What do you mean, fifth person?”

Emiko stared at me with an uneasy look in her eye, as if weighing up whether or not she wanted to continue. Eventually, she sighed and shook her head.

“Well…” She began. “Let’s just say you’re not the only one who’s been out of sorts today. That English transfer in third year literally walked right into Mr. Inoue, who was heading to the Faculty Office or something. The resulting coffee stains did not look glam, but you know the teachers love Cumberham, or whatever his name is. I tell you, if any of us pulled a stunt like that, we’d - ”

Whether she sensed that she was getting off-topic on her own accord, or the sharp glare I gave her alerted her to such, she cleared her throat and cut off her speech, before starting up again.

“Russy-senpai usually comes to chat to us by the Courtyard by now, but supposedly some of the girls saw him head to the boys’ bathroom and he hasn’t come out since. Even the Tiger, that she-beast, was staring at her locker like it held the secrets to the universe or something. It was like…like all the bitchiness in her had gone on holiday, and you know she hasn’t got much left aside from that.”

Then there was no mistake. We’d all witnessed the same thing yesterday. Only one thing left to uncover, and I wasn’t sure if I had to strength to.

“H-Have you seen Furusawa?” I found the words, in the end.

Her eyes widened in surprise for the briefest moment, but soon enough narrowed in thought, in concentration. I could practically visualize the neural network of Emiko’s myriad connections, her eyes scanning, warping, and wefting through the several nodes and branches until finally, she settled on her target.

“Ah, Ryota’s friend? The one with the curly orange hair?”

At my tentative nod, she replied, “…No. Which is weird. The four of them usually hang out by the vending machine down by –“

As she turned to point to their usual morning haunt, she froze.

“Wait, huh?” She exclaimed. “The other two are there, but Nakamura and Furusawa…looks like they haven’t arrived yet.”

My heart sank. Class starts in less than ten minutes – if either of them were going to come, they would’ve done so by now. Neither of them (especially Ryota as of recent) had made a habit of lateness or skipping class.

I needed to tell Sis. I needed to tell her that –

“Hey, wait! Junko! Where’re you going?”

“I-I need to go take care of something. I’ll see you in class, okay?”

When I had spun back around in my desired path, I felt an impact that almost sent me to the ground. Thinking of yesterday’s encounter, I found myself suddenly missing Ryota, and dearly. I wanted to see his face.

But when I looked up at who the torso had belonged to, I fought the urge to recoil in disgust.

“Whoa there sunshine,” Daisuke jeered. “Looking for your boyfriend?”



“What did you do?” I snapped. I had no patience for this traitor’s games.

At my accusation, he raised an eyebrow.

“I have no clue what you’re talking about. You’re the one that ran into me.”

I took a deep breath and thought it over. Daisuke would have no reason to do anything to Ryota, or Furus –

“Wait.” The words left my mouth before I could identify them. “…Where were you last night?”

“In a parallel world with – “

The impact of my fist having flown into a nearby locker caused the various discussions around us to simmer and in some cases, cease to continue. On another day, as a casual observer, perhaps I would’ve cringed at seeing such a melodramatic display.

Today was not that day, it seemed.

“Answer my fucking question.”

Sensing the tone of conversation shifting, I felt his gaze harden and his eyes peer into mine.

“I went out killing Noise.” He replied matter-of-factly. “How else am I supposed to get stronger?”

“Likely story. I bet you got bored of killing them, didn’t you? That’s why you went after Furusawa.”

Daisuke titled his head in confusion, “…Went after who?”

I was growing sick and tired of his games, but knew that if I said any more, I wouldn’t be able to control my volume.

“Look, I really don’t have any clue what you’re on about, Princess.” He sighed. “Are you trying to say that something happened to Furusawa?”

I remained silent, but couldn’t hold his eye contact any further.

“…Something did happen didn’t it? Is that why the poor bastard’s not around? Did he kick the bucket already?”

Daisuke then started laughing. He laughed and laughed and laughed, like he’d been told the funniest joke in the world.

The anger swept up in my chest, and forced my body into action. Lifting my fist from the locker, I locked my eye on his jaw and swung.

I was disappointed to find that not only had my fist been shot at thin air, but also that Daisuke himself had vanished out of my sight.

Or rather, was grabbed by the collar and shoved into a nearby wall.

“You think this is fucking funny?!” Katoru spat as Daisuke struggled beneath his grip. I hadn’t the slightest clue where he had come from, but his eyes blazed with hatred. “If I ever catch your face in there again, I’ll make you regret you were ever fucking born, you piece of shit!“

The whispers and murmurs that were previously floating through the hall had grown into screams, shouts, and encouragements. Before long, two staff members, alongside some of the third years came along to break it up. Seeing it take more than four of them to pull Liu away, his face flared in rage, sent a shiver down my spine.

After they’d managed to pull Liu far enough away, they blocked his path back to Daisuke and told him to go home – to which he happily agreed, if the numerous expletives and accompanying gestures were anything to go by.

My breathing was still hoarse and panicked by the time Mizuko had rushed downstairs to the commotion, and found me there, crouched and crying into my knees. With a firm, but steady hand, she grabbed my shoulder and took me away from the entire scene, away from the pain.

But upon seeing Daisuke’s sadistic, evil smile from the corner of my eye, I remembered that running away was no longer an option for me.

It never had been.

And it never would be.
 
Chapter 33 - Kinoko Rusuban

Wednesday, October 18th

The aspirin went down fairly easy. After a few deep breaths, I screwed back on the light-blue bottle cap and waited for salvation to come. In the meantime, I did my utmost to suppress the dense, weighty pain that heaved upon my chest, instead looking to the text message conversation I had opened on my phone.

[Tuesday, 19: 48]

Kato: Been a while, Prince o7
Kato: How’s life treating you?

[Tuesday, 21: 23]

Me: Exactly the way I want it to. Yourself?

Kato: Why ruin the surprise? Anyway, you should do better to take me out and pamper me. I’m your senior, after all UwU

Me: Not sure Yamamoto-san would approve of my kind gestures.

Kato: Oh forget him…how about this Thursday, at that chic café on Takeshita Street?

Me: Cutie Pies?

Kato: Oh my! How many innocent, purehearted young girls have you sweet-talked into going there already? ;)

Me: I learned from the best, after all.

Kato: You’re not wrong >v<
Kato: Meet me there for 16:30. If you’re tardy, I’ll smack your eyes out of their sockets, k?

To tell you the truth, I was more than a bit surprised to see her message. We hadn’t talked since she left the orphanage, and that would’ve been about a decade ago now.

Why the sudden change of heart, Captain Kato?

My ruminations were cut off, and quite rudely at that, by a series of raps against the flimsy cubicle door. When did anyone else walk in?

“Rusuban,” A vaguely familiar voice called. “You okay in there? Minoru asked me to come check on you.”

Makes sense, seeing as I’m one of the few people on the Council who actually get anything done.

“I’m alright.” I replied calmly. “Must just be something I ate. I’ll come back out in a bit, thank you.”

At my response, the voice huffed, “Alright,” before I heard the clicking of their shoes travel toward the entrance. Then I heard the door swing open, but to my amusement, it looked like somebody else was entering.

“Wh-Whoa!” My benefactor (whose name I’d now remembered as Hidetaka, a third-year on the Council), exclaimed. “Kurogane! Wh-What happened?!”

I nearly choked on my own breath. Of all places to be, why did this scoundrel have to show his ugly face here and now?

“Just a disagreement.” He replied, and left it that. Hidetaka then presumably left. I began to hear the subtle shifts of movement on the other side of the cubicle door, in front of the mirrors. The unwrapping of some kind of packet, running water, the opening of a bottle. Was he treating a wound?

“So, Rusuban,” He called from the other side. “Looks like whatever you guys were up to yesterday went to shit.”


For what felt like an eternity, I froze.

“Come on, no need to act coy. I saw you walk in here a while ago, and considering how all the females within a 2-mile radius still have their skirts on, you’re probably still in here, right?”

Still, I refused to utter a word.

“…There’s also the fact that I overheard you talking to Hidetaka. Not to mention the other cubicles are empty. Need I go on?”

By then, my teeth were gritted hard. Whatever semblance of illness I was feeling had been overturned by an intoxicating rage. Even so, I collected myself and graciously decided to entertain the imp.

“Congratulations,” I jeered. “I’m sure Conan-Doyle himself is in envy of your deductive capability. What do you want?”

There was a pause. I could practically hear him smirking.

“What do I want?” He echoed. “Simple, really. I want to survive. What else do you think that leaderboard is for?”

He’s not wrong. We were sent out of the Hollow Night extremely suddenly last night, so there was no time to even review the new positions on the leaderboard, or even to verify that we…indeed lost someone.

Regardless, I pushed those observations aside to reflect upon the words that were being spoken in the present moment.

Survive…

“Though I guess there’s more to it than just survival. To think of it metaphorically, I guess I want to make the rest of you understand.”

“Understand what?” I scoffed.

“What it means to be powerless. To be overlooked, ostracized, unloved, shit, the list could go on. There’s a word for it…ah, that’s right.”

The sounds of his shuffling stopped abruptly then and there, and somehow, I felt as though he was looking right at me through the cubicle door.

“Despair. I want to make every single one of you taste the despair I’ve had to live with since the day I was born.”

I paused for a moment, simply because I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the pure banality of what had just left his mouth.

“…Seriously? You’re doing all of this over being ignored?” It was proving too difficult to hide the amusement from my voice. “I wonder how many times you rehearsed that little speech of yours. Would you do it before or after stimulating yourself to pictures of that friend of yours from Tipsy Tose Hall the other day?”

He didn’t reply, but I sensed something beginning to bubble up on the other side of the door. The momentum wanted to carry me, and I allowed it to.

“I imagine she never even paid you a glance – even after you went up to their little table and everything. Judging by her actions, I’d say you hadn’t talked for a while, hm? Still, it was admirable of you to stand your ground for as long as you did – even if you got tossed around like a cheap punching bag afterwards.”

Still, nothing. In hindsight, perhaps now would’ve been the most opportune time to halt my tirade – but in truth, I think the damage had already been done. I wouldn’t know the extent of it until it was already far too late.

“Still, she is quite pleasing to the eye, if you understand my meaning. Nice face, long legs – and sizable chest to boot. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have a turn with her next. You’re welcome to watch.“

I was so pleased with myself that I almost didn’t jump out of my seat when Kurogane kicked the door hard enough for the lock to break, causing a loud bang to silence my assault, the now defunct barrier swaying in the wake of his fury.


As ashamed as I am to admit it, my hands were shaking. Make no mistake, Daisuke has never been a threat – neither in the real world, nor in the Hollow Night.

It was the look he gave me.

It was the first time I’d experienced true murderous intent from another human being, and it felt revolting. The unkemptness of his hair and uniform didn’t help either, signifying he’d likely been in some kind of altercation prior to coming here.

If not for the sound of the bathroom door being pushed open gently, accompanied by the easy jangling of keys, only god knows what might have occurred in the boys’ bathroom that day.

“Uh, everything okay here, sonny?” The Janitor inquired curiously. “If you’re not doing the business, could you kindly leave? Have to sort this place out.”

It seemed Daisuke hadn’t even registered the new party’s presence, for his eyes, wide and unblinking with hostility, stayed fixed on my own.

After a while, he pointed a finger straight at me and spat, “You’re last. I’ll save you for last.”

Whilst an empty threat by all means, it was the unexpected dissonance between the wrath displayed on his face, and the pure emotionlessness of his voice, that would soon begin to haunt me.

With that, he trudged off, practically shoving the poor janitor aside before disappearing to the left. It was then made clear to me that I had been holding my breath for far too long, and eventually my lungs seized control, drawing gulps of oxygen into my system.

“It seems he is not very pleased with you,” The Janitor commented in a tone notably more sarcastic than prior, a tone I had come to recognize him by, as he locked the bathroom door shut.

“Somebody needed to put him in his place.” I replied, my heartrate still having trouble settling down. “As usual, the duty fell to me.”

Once I felt presence of mind come back to me, I lifted myself off of the lidded toilet seat, and walked toward the mirror, fixing my various imperfections.

“Did you do that on purpose?" I mused without looking at him.

“Do what?” He replied absently.

“Enter at that specific time. You don’t seem like the type who does coincidences.”

He shrugged, and I surmised that was as much as I was going to get. Once I was done with my grooming, I turned to face him. He was looking at me.

“You’re starting to feel it now, aren’t you?” He remarked, looking me over. “The effects I warned you about.”

I shook my head, looping my schoolbag around my shoulder.

“I have no intent of kicking the bucket over something as miniscule as this,” I stated. “Besides, you need me.”

“Indeed, you make the trials more interesting, if nothing else, Kinoko Rusuban.” He admitted with a particularly iniquitous smirk. “I wonder, how will these events affect the ‘bonds’ of your so-called ‘allies’?”

“I have no allies,” I corrected. “Only pieces to move across the board as I please. If I were you, I wouldn’t pull off another stunt like this. Not unless you’d like the others to figure out who you are too, if they gather all their collective braincells together anyhow.”

At Juno’s sadistic laughter, he unlocked the bathroom door, and I made my exit. But the sound of his cackles, alongside Daisuke’s promise, bedevilled me for the rest of the day.
 
Chapter 34 - Eiji Hoshino

Wednesday, October 18th

The morning light that was filtering through the classroom curtains felt so hollow, I thought I was still in that nightmare.

Numerous equations and theorems were laid out in front of me, blurring into an unintelligible, useless conglomeration of already unintelligible, useless things. How could my mind not keep wandering, drifting to thoughts of Akio and the events of the previous night?

I didn’t see him, nor Ryota, by the vending machine their entourage usually held hostage on the first year’s floor. I glanced at my phone for what felt like the hundredth time, hoping for a message, a sign, anything to ease the turmoil within me. But the screen remained stubbornly blank, offering no solace, no answers.

Why? Why did he have to…

No. He couldn’t be gone. Not Akio. Not now.

The words echoed in my mind, each syllable a painful reminder of the gaping hole in my heart. None of this made sense. None of it felt real. It couldn’t be real. Akio couldn’t be gone.

I clenched my fists, trying to push away the crushing weight of reality. Denial clawed at the edges of my mind, refusing to accept the unthinkable.

He'll show up any moment now, I told myself, even my inner voice trembling with desperation.

He'll walk past us in the corridor, that coy grin on his face, and everything will be fine. It has to be.

But deep down, I think I already knew the truth.

I knew that no matter how much I wished for it, Akio wouldn’t magically appear.

The harsh reality of his absence threatened to consume me, leaving me stranded in a world where everything had changed in an instant.

And I wasn’t ready to face it.

“Hoshino!”

I looked up to find the world’s – or rather, the classroom’s – eyes fixed onto me, scrutinizing me with awkward, uncomfortable eyes. How much of what I was thinking did I speak out loud? What did I say?

Mr. Inoue opened his mouth, brows furrowed, a classic sign that he was about to launch into a massive tirade. Even honours students weren’t spared from those. In the end, however, all he said was, “If you’re going to think out loud, at least keep it at a whisper, is that clear?”

All I could think to do was vigorously nod, and nod I did. He sighed, continuing his gruff tutelage of the chain rule. The rest of the onlookers, however, were not as accommodating.


“What is up with her…?”

“So embarrassing. giggle

“She was probably up pulling an all-nighter, huh?
Freak.

I swear to you, on any other day, offhanded comments like these, from absolute nobodies, would have gone in one ear and out the other. Shit, they wouldn’t even have registered to begin with.

But judging from the automatic clenching of my fists, the sudden quickening of my breaths, the fire flaring in my chest, today wasn’t gonna be one of those days.

Eventually I couldn’t hold it any more, and my body demanded release. With a particularly sharp scrape, my desk chair slid back as I launched to my feet. My eyes tore into an empty white spot on the textbook’s page, with so much sharpness that I genuinely thought the innocent tome would self-destruct at any moment.

The room had fallen silent. I didn’t need to look up to know that their eyes were on me again. I didn’t care.

“Young lady!” Inoue lambasted. “What on earth is going on with you –“

His speech was interrupted by our eyes meeting, and for the first time in my life, Mr. Inoue, a teacher so austere and no-nonsense he’d been nicknamed Sergeant, looked unsettled.

“G-Go and splash some cold water on that face of yours, young lady.” He muttered after some tense moments passed.

I accepted the offer with speed – I couldn’t stand this fucking class any longer.



For what felt like years, I stood there in the girls’ bathrooms staring at the doppelganger in the mirror. Her eyes, once filled with vitality, now mirrored exhaustion and despair. Dark circles etched beneath them, bearing witness to sleepless nights haunted by nightmares too vivid to shake.

Her skin, once radiant, now bore the scars of countless battles, both physical and emotional. Strands of tangled hair were framing her face, a stark contrast to the once-pristine locks that danced in the breeze.

She looked like she was caught in the grip of a merciless whirlpool, struggling against its relentless pull. Each breath she took felt like a desperate plea for salvation, her silent cries echoing off the cold, tiled walls.

I wondered, in that moment, if anyone would believe her if she attempted to share the truth of her journey.

If she dared to reveal the horrors she had witnessed, the darkness that had threatened to consume her.

Would they dismiss her words as the ramblings of a troubled mind? Or would they themselves open up their perception of reality to accommodate the horribly dark secrets she’d discovered?

My ruminations would have to wait for another day, however, as the bathroom door gently creaked open, and soft footsteps followed. I didn’t turn to look at the newcomer, but something about their cadence struck me as familiar.

“I’ll make this quick,” she began after sidling up towards me. The fog of her glasses shielded her eyes from me. I remained silent, bracing myself for whatever news she had to deliver.

“Furusawa is in a coma.”

The words slammed into me like an enraged bull, sending shockwaves of disbelief coursing through my veins. My heart seemed to shatter into a million fragile pieces, the weight of her words crushing me into silence.

All that escaped my lips were hoarse whispers and mutters, but Mizuko adjusted her spectacles, as though she had anticipated such a reaction.

“I overheard some teachers in the faculty office,” she continued, her voice trembling with emotion. “Akio’s father apparently called in earlier, saying that he wasn’t waking up and was…unresponsive.”

She paused, removing her glasses and wiping at her eyes. When she spoke again, her gaze remained fixed on the mirror before us.

“…About an hour later, when I was there to drop off some paperwork, he called back saying Akio had been admitted to the General Hospital near Shibuki.”

I waited, desperate for more information, for some semblance of a plan to rescue him, to revive him, to gather the others, anything. But none came. Mizuko stood there, her eyes locked on the glass in front of us, as though she had been frozen in time.

“I…” My voice faltered, the words feeling feeble and inadequate in the face of such devastating news. “We… need to go…We need to go and see him.”

Silence lingered in the air, heavy and suffocating, as I pleaded with Mizuko to take action.

“Mizuko, we need to go.”

For the first time since entering, she turned to meet my gaze. In that moment, I realized I was looking into my own reflection, only distorted and warped by grief and uncertainty.

“Things have changed, Hoshino,” She whispered, her voice barely audible above the pounding of my heart. “I can’t…I can’t join you.”



…changed? What’s that supposed to mean?

“Why not?”

“Because they’re here, Hoshino. Juno is here in this school. I know it. And so long as they’re here, we’re not safe. Worrying about Akio provides us with no benefit. He’s already gone. We need to… focus on ourselves now.”

The world seemed to tilt on its axis. I couldn’t comprehend what I was hearing.

“…Focus on ‘ourselves’? What in the world? That’s exactly what they want, Mizuko! They want us to become paranoid and turn on each other! You’re falling right into their –”

“DON’T YOU THINK I KNOW THAT?!”

The air grew thick with tension as Mizuko’s outburst echoed in the confined space. Tears streamed down her face, mixing with the frustration and fear etched in her features.

“But what choice do we – do I - have? What choice do we have but to survive?”

Survive. That word again. It was like a dagger twisting in my gut, a reminder of the harsh reality we were facing.

“Mizuko, please, listen –”

“No.” Her tone brooked no argument. “I’ve made up my mind. I have someone I vowed to protect, no matter the cost. I will fulfill my duty, even if it kills me.”

Her gaze bore into mine, chilling me to the bone.

“And even if it kills you.

I was left speechless as Mizuko exited the bathroom, leaving behind a heavy silence broken only by the hum of the ventilation and the steady flow of water from the tap.

My breaths came in shallow gasps, my heart racing with a mix of fear and determination.

Juno had achieved their goal, tearing apart the fragile bonds we’d forged. How many more of us would fall victim to their machinations?

With every passing moment, my resolve wavered, and threatened to crumble under the weight of uncertainty. I couldn’t stay here any longer. I needed to leave, to find some semblance of safety.

And I knew exactly where I needed to go next.
 
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Chapter 35 - Daisuke Kurogane

Wednesday, October 18th

The last time I’d willingly stepped foot inside a library was back in elementary, when Chinami dragged me along to check out some of the new Laser Cats comics they’d just had delivered.

I was secretly as ecstatic as she was. I didn’t tell her about the nights I’d spent watching and rewatching episodes, practically learning the entire damn script by heart, or that I’d been practicing Whiskerboom’s signature move, ‘Boomclaw Blitz’ in my room where I was sure nobody could see me, thinking it might earn some cool points with the guys in my class.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how well that went. I was starting to feel apprehensive about seeing her again tomorrow, and that Furusawa guy’s disappearance made it all the more real to me that any of us could bite the dust at any moment.

If I wanted to see the sun rise tomorrow, I’d have to fight for it - and that was fine by me.

After all, I’d seen all this coming from a mile away; as soon as that ‘leaderboard’ shit was introduced, hence why I needed to enhance my strength as much as possible.

Furusawa made only one fatal mistake, and that was thinking that he could trust anybody besides himself.

Pretending I didn’t notice any of the surreptitious stares and whispers my way, I made my way towards the back of the room, turning right and walking along the row of study carrels. I settled on the last one closest to the wall, and decided to get to work.

By ‘work’, I don’t mean school-related junk, of course. Not with yesterday’s vision of ‘Minami-kun’ and ‘Kenjiro’ still fresh in my mind. I didn’t get the chance to speak to the others about what I saw, and I doubt they’d be willing to hear me out anytime soon, but who knows – maybe they’ve gone and figured it out too.

Didn’t matter.

There was clearly a mystery to be solved here, and I was hoping that by looking into what happened in the previous Hollow Night, I could get some information about the one I’d stumbled into myself.

I was hoping that, someway, somehow, I could change the fate that I was starting to believe awaited me once this week was over.


Thankfully, a few completely healthy teenagers dropping dead out of nowhere over the course of a week tends to grab a headline or two.

26th March 2018
Shinsei News

Mysterious Deaths Following Sudden Hospitalizations Among High School Students!


After a week of unexplained, sinister hospitalizations claiming ten students, we are deeply perplexed and saddened to announce that all ten, have been declared deceased this morning by doctors…


It had taken a great deal of time, precision, and several SafeSearch filter violations, but I eventually found a lead.

In Osaka, about five years ago, ten perfectly healthy teenagers, who all attended the same high school, just happened to fall into comas one after the other. Over the space of a single week.

The articles that followed documented the extensive investigation that had taken place at Kasumi High, including student and staff testimonials, allegations of food and water poisoning, and even whisperings of a lawsuit against the school by the victim’s families.

However, that was as far as the discussions went. For the last three or so years, the phenomenon later referred to as ‘The Kasumi Incidents’ was seldom brought up anymore. In fact, I don’t think I had even heard of it up until now.

The only remnants of the sensationalist coverage of the entire debacle would be the emptiness in the homes and the hearts of the families, I’m sure. But who gives a shit about those guys, am I right?

With that uncovered, I kept the article open in one tab and began to cross-reference the date and location with any others I could find, and it wasn’t very long before I came across what I’d already been expecting to find.

First, I looked into the names of the Kasumi kids who’d died in the ‘incidents’. There were ten of them, as stated in the Shinsei article, and though the names themselves were littered across different reports, I managed to gather them all together:

  • Yoshida Asahi
  • Kawasaki Inja
  • Takeda Kin
  • Kemono Osamu
  • Fujiki Kazuya
  • Reihai Shika
  • Kaneko Akane
  • Ryugetsu Asuna
  • Kanade Rindo
  • Akibara Tetsuya
Knowing what I know now, these guys had to have been in the Hollow Night. Nothing else aside from targeted poisoning, or group suicide, would make sense – and even in those cases, there was no trace of any harmful substances found in their blood upon admittance to the hospital, nor physical wounds.

Based on the student testimonials, none of these people were even in the same friendship groups, though according to one, he started seeing them “talk to one another a lot more often, sometimes really enthusiastically, which I thought was surprising!”.

I had no doubt in my mind that these were my predecessors, and if they started dropping into comas one by one, I could only assume they bit the dust while they were still in the Hollow Night.

Interestingly enough, none of them had actually died until the following Monday, where all ten of them became unresponsive at around the same time.

In other words, if you die in the Night, your comatose body stays active until the end of the week? What was that about? Still, I couldn’t guarantee that the rules of their Night would be the same as ours. Whatever happened to that Furusawa guy was beyond me at this point. I needed to ensure my own survival.

Speaking of survival, there was no mention of Minami or Kenjiro anywhere in these articles. Seeing as how they were my two biggest leads, having (kind of) met them already, I began to tailor my search for those two. Kenjiro in particular, since I didn’t have Minami’s full name.

By the time I’d come across a year-old, cryptic-looking YouTube video from a channel with Kenjiro’s name, titled ‘I was wrong’, the sun was already beginning to set. Not to mention the incessant murmerings of those further toward the front of the library had thankfully ceased altogether.

I don’t know what compelled me to click on the blank thumbnail. But as soon as I did, the image of him staring back at me through the monitor now enlarged and brought to life, I sensed that I was plummeting into something I’d never climb back out of.


The first thing that jumped out to me was the background. Clothes were strewn across the floor, textbooks and papers littering every surface, and empty food containers overflowing from the trash bin in the corner.

The once-white walls were marred with what could’ve been scribbles or diagrams. The window was covered with drawn curtains, blocking out any natural light and casting the room into a dim, eerie atmosphere.

For the first thirty seconds of the two minute long video, he was just staring blankly at the camera. Or rather, at something far beyond the camera that perhaps only he could see. Either way, by the time he’d opened his mouth to say something, his voice was hoarse and broken, as though it was his first time speaking in weeks.

“…I’m sorry.” Were his first whispers. “You were right.”

Another minute or so of silence. I got the impression that he’d begun to regret even turning on the camera and going through with this entire thing, but perhaps he felt it was too late to stop.

He didn’t say anything again until the video was fifteen seconds or so from ending.

"...I never wanted any of this. But I had to win. I had to survive. And now... now they're coming for me. I can feel it. I can hear them whispering in the shadows, waiting to drag me down into the darkness. I'm sorry, Kenjiro. I'm sorry, everyone. I didn't mean for it to end like this. But I can't escape. None of us can.”

Then, Minami took a deep breath, and looked the camera – no, looked at me – dead in the eye.

“They're watching me, Daisuke. They're watching you too. Be careful...they’re coming."

Then the recording snapped to black.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I grappled with the implications of his words. Who were "they"? How did Minami know my name? And why was Kenjiro's name absent from the list of previous participants if he’d perished?

I tried to rewind the video to that part in particular only to find it missing entirely! All that remained was the other minute and fifty-five of Minami’s apologies. What the fuck was going on here? Did Katoru shove me harder than I thought?

I could practically hear the panic surging through me as I hastily packed my belongings, my heart pounding in my chest. Exiting the building did fuck all to ease my distress; if anything, the sensation of being watched only intensified.

Something was terribly wrong, and I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being hunted.
 
Chapter 36 - Arthur Cunningham

Wednesday, October 18th

‘The Death of the Author’, if you’ve heard of it, was what was on my mind at that moment – not the dulcet melodies of Tchaikovsky, not Yami-san’s piercing gaze drilling into the back of my skull, not even the broad strokes of black, red, and gray that were sailing across the canvas in front of me.

‘The Death of the Author’ is a literary theory that was first brought to life by French philosopher Roland Barthes in his essay of the same name in 1967. Simply put, the theory argues that the meaning of a piece of art is not determined by the author's intention, but completely by the reader's own interpretation.

Some would extend this definition to include that the creator practically loses authority over the creation once they’ve finished it; rather, they are to be made completely separate from their machination entirely.

Between you and I - I’ve never subscribed to this school of thought.

Indeed, just like the existence of gravity is a universal truth, it has always been second nature for me to believe that an artist of whatever craft simply must be reflected in whatever they create, to as small or as large an extent as they desire.

Am I to believe that Van Gogh did not leave a piece of his burdened, mournful soul reaching out for hope, for respite in ‘The Starry Night’ ? Is it a stretch of the imagination to assume that Ben Enwonwu’s ‘Africa Dances’ collection is practically bursting with the painter’s electric vision of a rejoicing Nigeria, healed from the wounds of a tense civil war? Hardly!

All that said, I found it fascinating, if not wholly unsettling, how I would be viewed if ever my works were used as a gateway into my psyche. If an onlooker were to pick up on the tiredness and the torment and the death that my brush was pouring against the easel, what would that tell them about me?

“…You’re a psycho,” I heard a voice jeer to my right, as if responding to my thoughts. “Either you’re a complete wackjob or you’re finally catching on to what I keep telling you. Hopefully both.”

I couldn’t suppress my sigh as Yami-san sauntered around, surveying my artwork with calculating eyes. A glance around the quiet clubroom informed me that the others, at some point, had vacated. I drank in the moment of peace, feeling the cool whistles of evening wind sashay through the windows and brush against my skin.

“Neither,” I eventually replied as Yami-san drew up a stool and sat down next to me. “Though I suppose a psychopath wouldn’t go around announcing it to everybody they met.”

I felt a soft sensation tap against the tip of my nose.

“Wrong.” Yami-san sang childishly, withdrawing her index finger and instead using it to curl her white highlights. “If they’re a real psycho, you wouldn’t need to hear it from their mouths. You’d just know.”

She extended a breezy hand once more at my work.

“Exhibit A.”

“Oh, quiet.” I exhaled. “If anything, I thought you’d be happy someone else is crafting pieces in the same style as yours.”

She held my eye contact for a few moments, before shifting her focus to the windows, at some point or object that I felt only she could see.

“Portraying death is no fun if you don’t believe in its beauty,” She finally whispered after a while. “If all it’s done is taken from you, what nuance could there be in your interpretation of it?”

As usual, I wasn’t quite sure of how to respond. Yami-san had a strange, bordering obsessive interest in death. Where for others, simply referring to the phenomenon was seen as a bad omen, Yami-san actively welcomed it, and all the pieces she worked on reflected this fanaticism.

It meant that, despite her remarkable beauty, she was rather ostracized and abandoned to the fringes of the social sphere, which I suppose explains the bizarre kinship I feel bubble up in my chest when I’m with her.

“…Anyway, I’m about to finish up here. Why don’t you go and get some fresh air?” She suggested, still not looking away from the evening orange sky setting in. “Then, of course, you can come back to clean up all the supplies for me.”

I shook my head but couldn’t fight the urge to smirk.

“Naturally.”

As I stepped out into the hallway, however, I looked back to find myself entranced by the scene of Yami-san sitting by the window, her hair dancing gracefully with the breeze, slim fingers toying with the black and white ribbon that stood defiantly against the marmalade light shining against her skin.

The strangest feeling that I’d seen that posture, that grace, somewhere before lingered with me as I ventured through the empty hallways.



I think a part of me still wanted to believe that nothing had changed between us. That we were all still searching for the same thing, groping and clawing and reaching with all our might for a way to escape the fate that laid before us. I can’t see why else I would have ended up climbing the steps to the rooftop, my hands trembling against the doorknob.

If I turned it now, and pushed open the door, what would I see? Would I, once again, witness a sight of disciplined camaraderie and shared purpose? I didn’t have the strength to take the risk. Unfortunately, it seemed the choice was not mine to make after all.

Without warning, I felt a pull from the other side of the door, and once it had been swung open, I found her there staring at me. I’d been looking for her – for anyone – all day, and here she was!

“S-Shirogetsu-san,” I stammered, caught-off-guard. “I-“

She held up one single palm and closed her eyes, the space around which was puffy and red. In that moment, I could swear I sensed something change in the very magnetic pull that bound us to the earth.

“P-Please, wait…!”

No use. Wordlessly, Mizuko had brushed past me and disappeared down the steps. Why couldn’t I chase after her? What was it I lacked that relegated me to this position of helpless onlooker?

As my ineptitude coiled around my throat like a serpent, threatening to choke what little life remained in me, I caught a glance of another body, sitting with their legs to their chest and gazing at the somber skyline beyond the chain link fence.

Misery loves company, as the proverb goes. Before long, I had found myself plopping down onto the space next to her. For the longest time, we spoke no words. We simply sat and existed, like horses at grass, savouring the few precious moments we had left.

H-Hey,” She eventually spoke in her usual cheep, albeit something about her tone was already setting my hairs on end. “…Where’s Solace?

“…S-Solace?” I echoed. It was then that Kozuki turned her full head to face me, and I never forgot the distant look in her eyes, as though I was only speaking to the body that her soul had vacated long ago. “Y-You don’t mean Furusawa? Kozuki, Furusawa is - ”

Solace!” She shrieked suddenly. “I’m asking you where Solace is! He was with Resolution and The Twisted and I last night!”

At my stunned silence, she continued.

“He – he would heal us when we got hurt. He would always ask after us and worry about us and make jokes at his own expense and break up our arguments and talk about his friends and look so long at Resolution and wipe at his eyes when he was sure nobody was looking but I always was and he defended me on that first night when…when…”

Eventually, her voice had broken down into strangled, despaired sobs that shook her body violently, as though she was never made to endure such sorrow. Simply being near her in that moment, I noticed drops of tears also raining onto my own lap.

“What do I do?” She whispered between suffering breaths. “Who should I be? Tell me, Fenrir. I’ll be whoever I need to be. Just please…make it stop. It hurts so much I could die.”

“I don’t know!” It would have felt so liberating, so enthralling to say. “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know who to be! I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know – “

But someone else was there first. I don’t know when he had arrived, but he was kneeling in front of Miharu. He reached out a gentle hand and grabbed Kozuki’s own, before wiping her cheek with a brush of his finger.

I will tell you who to be, Kozu-chan.” Rusuban declared softly.



Groups of leaves were now beginning to sway with the late afternoon gust, red, yellow and golden patterns cascading in perfect unison. There was something beautiful about their formation, a perfect three-link wholly joint in purpose. It was a quality I very much envied at that moment in time.

“C-Cordyceps…?”

Rusuban continued to look at Miharu, then glanced at me, before standing up.

“Solace is dead.” He stated with fists clenched. Out of the corner of my eye, I detected Kozuki beginning to tremble even further.

“No!” She cried. “No, he…he can’t be…”

Kinoko shook his head in anguish and rebutted, “Denying the truth won’t get us anywhere. The fact of the matter is that he was taken from us, and we couldn’t do anything to stop it.”

The absolute boorishness of his words in the midst of Kozuki’s tormented soul sparked a fire underneath me, and before I knew it I had leapt to my feet, his collar scrunched up in my fists as I pulled him in.

“DON’T YOU THINK WE KNOW THAT?!” I heard a monster within me growl. Despite the adrenaline of the entire act, I noticed a distinct paleness in Rusuban’s complexion that was not present before.

“Y-yes!” He struggled. “I know you know that – and I’m counting on you being strong enough to push on ahead regardless!”

I released my grip on him and he stumbled backwards into the tall chain fence, clutching his fingers within the grooves and grabbing at his neck as he took in deep breaths.

“I... I have an idea.” He muttered. “If this is how we’re being rewarded for going through with this ‘game’ then to hell with it completely! We’re not here to play anymore; we’re going to break the game.”

“Break the game?” The incredulousness in my tone was difficult to hold back, and quite understandably so. “Through what means? If Juno is as powerful as we think they are, what hope do we have of rebelling?”

A few moments of tense silence passed before Kinoko, now having regained his composure, stood to full height and smirked.

“Isn’t that it, Cunningham?” He began. “It’s because they’re so powerful that we have a chance. Juno plays by rules. It’s the only way to make things entertaining at their level. I know of a way we can exploit these rules to destroy this sick game once and for all. But I’ll need your help.”

Once again, he walked back toward the pair of us, and stretched out a hand – not toward me, but to Kozuki.

"Red," he proclaimed, his voice echoing with solemnity. "...I shall be thy guide, thy Director. Follow in my shadow, and I shall navigate thee to the beacon of thy longing, even if it demands my very soul."

…Just what on earth was going on? Was he trying to take advantage of her imbalanced state of mind? This couldn’t go on. I had to –

"Very well.”

Kozuki relinquished her hand into Rusuban’s, and spoke in a tone that was a complete switch from the vulnerability that ran rampant just moments prior. In fact, it was as though she'd never truly woken up from that first night of our captivity.

"Speak thy desires, and they shall be fulfilled." She continued, her eyes still and resolute. "But, should thou fail thy vow, or entertain thoughts of treachery..."

She pulled him in until their faces were inches apart, using her eyes to pry open Rusuban's soul.

"...I shall be thy executioner."

If Rusuban was surprised at all by the exchange, he did his upmost not to show it. He cleared his throat.

“I won’t fail you.” He encouraged. “Come, you and I have much to discuss. Cunningham, we’ll let you know what the plan is tonight with others…if you still wish to cooperate with us, that is.”

As they vanished into the darkness of the stairwell, I was stood out there for what felt like hours, trying to make sense of the scene I’d just witnessed.

Gradually, it dawned on me that our fixation on the perils of the Hollow Night had blinded us to the true menace lurking in our midst.

While we scanned the shadows for external threats, the greatest danger had been silently gathering strength, concealed in plain sight, right under our very noses.
 
Chapter 37 - Ryota Nakamura

Wednesday, October 18th

"Screw you," I shot back without hesitation. "In a showdown, Godzilla would wipe the floor with Ultraman any day. He could fight the whole damn Space Garrison and still come out on top!"

His glare was intense, promising a battle of wills. I knew from that moment that this conversation was going to escalate quickly. We were both passionate about our favorite tokusatsu heroes, but I wasn't prepared for a jab at the king of the kaiju by an Ultraman fanboy.

My rival, fists clenched and teeth gritted, could only sputter nonsense, like I’d insulted his grandmother's cooking or something. I couldn't help but smirk, watching his face go crimson before he quickly looked away, fixating on the chalkboard as if it held all the answers.

Ignoring the curious glances and hushed murmurs around us, I decided to turn my attention back to the history lesson. It was dull, to say the least. By the time I was nudged awake by a constant tapping on my shoulder, the classroom had mostly emptied—except for him.

"Apologize," he muttered, thrusting something toward me. It was a blurry square of red and gray—his Ultraman eraser, the mastermind behind our whole debate.

"Huh?" I feigned ignorance.

"I-I said, apologize! Ultraman and his friends protect people from monsters like Godzilla, so you better apologize!"

His earnestness bordered on childishness, and I couldn't take him seriously. When would he grow up and join the rest of us?

But I had a reputation to uphold.

"Hey," I snapped, rising to my feet and grabbing his collar. "I entertained you because I wanted to be nice. But don't mistake that for weakness. Now, get out of my face."

The fight in his eyes waned, and for a moment, I felt a pang of guilt. This kid, despite his quirks, seemed genuine. But respect trumped likability, always.

Before I could dismiss him, something caught my eye—his sudden charge toward me!

"AAAAAAAAAGH! ULTRA RAM!!"

With a crash, he tackled me to the ground, my desk tumbling over in the chaos. The next moments were a blur—laughter, arms flailing, like a playful scuffle with a sibling.

As the teachers materialized and intervened, dragging him away, his eyes remained locked on mine. "You're not off the hook yet, evildoer! There's no escape from justice! I'll be...back!"

Stunned and amused, I couldn't help but grin. "Hah, just try it. I'll beat you down every time!" I called after him. "What's your name?"

For the first time since our brief encounter, he smiled. "Furusawa. The next Ultra host—and the one who'll defeat you!"



Time stagnates in hospitals. Minutes stretch into hours. Hours become weeks. It's easy to lose track of the world beyond the sterile confines of the silver-tiled floor and the lingering scent of antiseptic that clings to the air like a suffocating shroud.

But none of that mattered. All that mattered was Akio waking up, ending this interminable waiting game, and returning to the world of the living where he belonged.

"Still here?" a voice broke through the crack in the door, allowing a sliver of harsh hallway light to intrude upon the dimness of Akio's room.

"Yeah," I replied tersely. "Someone's gotta be here to give him a piece of my mind when he finally wakes up."

The nurse offered a patronizing smile, her knowing gaze piercing through my resolve. She had seen it all before, the hopeful vigil of a friend or family member refusing to leave the side of their loved one. But Akio was going to wake up—there was no question about it.

"Well, don't overstay your welcome," she cautioned gently. "He needs his rest."

I nodded absently as she retreated, her departure punctuated by a startled jump at something unseen beyond my line of sight. Probably just another nurse or visitor. I turned my attention back to the window, gazing out at the fading evening sky.

I recalled the frantic phone call that had shattered my morning routine, propelling me into a mad dash to the hospital. Akio's dad was a broken man, a mere shell of his former self, when I arrived.

And there, in the sterile silence of the hospital room, Akio lay, peaceful and serene in sleep. His father had handed me a slip of paper, a note found on Akio's desk that morning.

As I pondered its cryptic contents, a sense of foreboding crept over me. Why did Akio even leave a note? What did he know that we didn't? The answers were eluding me, leaving a deep sense of unease in my gut.

Before I could delve any deeper, the door swung shut with a finality that sent a shiver down my spine. I turned, expecting to see another nurse or perhaps a doctor—anything but the figure that stood before me.

My phone slipped from my fingers, clattering to the floor, forgotten in the wake of the unexpected arrival. "What the hell are you doing here?" I stammered, incredulous.

Ignoring my question, she crossed the room with purpose, her gaze fixed on Akio's sleeping form. Dropping to her knees beside the bed, she let out a choked sob, the sound echoing in the sterile silence of the hospital room.

For a moment, time stood still, the only sound the steady rhythm of Akio's heart monitor and Hoshino’s ragged breaths.



As the day dragged on, it felt more and more surreal, like a twisted dream I couldn't wake up from. Why did she have to be here, of all people?

Suppressing my thoughts, I watched her closely. She seemed different—vulnerable, even. It was unnerving, like looking at a stranger wearing Hoshino's skin.

With a sigh, I retrieved a box of tissues from the bedside table, accompanied by the cloying scent of summer berries that filled the room. The rumbling of my empty stomach finally drew her attention, her eyes red and swollen from tears.

"Here," I muttered, offering her the tissues. "And no, I'm not planning on eating them. But if that fragrance gets any stronger, Akio might be getting a new roommate."

A laugh was too much to hope for. Her gratitude was expressed in a barely audible whisper, but it was enough.

Returning to my perch by the window, I observed her discreetly. There was something off about Hoshino lately, something weighing heavily on her. Her distant gaze was hiding a mind lost in thoughts far beyond the usual of school and gossip.

It was clear there was more going on than met the eye, and I planned to get to the bottom of it before anyone else got hurt.

"Listen," I began, folding my magazine. Hoshino rose to her feet, her eyes fixed on Akio with an intensity that made my skin crawl. Were they...? No, it couldn't be.

Clearing my throat, I tried again. "Listen. He called me last night. Told me everything."

At my fabricated confession, her eyes widened in shock. Bingo. There was definitely something going on, and I was determined to uncover the truth.

But then her gaze sharpened, cutting through my facade like a knife. "Told you what?" she demanded, her voice laced with suspicion.

Damn it! I hadn't counted on her seeing through my bluff. I needed to change tactics, fast.

"Fine!" I snapped, my frustration boiling over. "I don't know what's going on, alright? But what I do know is that my best friend was fine a few hours ago, and now he's not. And suddenly, you show up here, like some kind of guardian angel. What's your deal, Eiji?"

Her response was swift and unexpected. With a sharp tug at my collar, she pulled me close, her eyes blazing with fury. "You don't get to call me that," she spat, her voice low and dangerous.

I recoiled, caught off guard by her sudden aggression. "You're right," I admitted through gritted teeth, my anger simmering beneath the surface. "So why don't you enlighten me? What's your connection to Akio?"

For a moment, she seemed poised to respond, but then she shoved me away with surprising force, her back turned.

"Maybe if you cared more about your friend than your ego, you'd have some answers," she shot back, before storming out of the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts.



The door creaked open once more, breaking the uneasy silence that had settled over the room. I couldn't help but wonder why there seemed to be a constant stream of interruptions.

"Can't we have a moment of peace?" I grumbled, feeling increasingly disoriented. Hoshino's words lingered in my mind like a heavy weight on my chest. Had I failed Akio as a friend? If he was struggling, why hadn't he reached out to me or the others? The questions gnawed at me, feeding my growing sense of guilt and doubt.

Then, a sudden burst of brightness flooded the room, forcing me to shield my eyes and blink away the harsh light.

As my vision adjusted to the fluorescent glare, I noticed a new nurse standing in the doorway, her expression a mix of sympathy and judgment. Or maybe it was just my imagination.

"I'm sorry, dear. Visiting hours are over," she said gently, her voice breaking through the fog of my thoughts. "You can come back tomorrow to see your friend, alright?"

By then, the fight had drained out of me completely. I felt hollow, consumed by a sense of failure and inadequacy. Had I failed to protect Akio, just like I had failed so many times before? The memories of those dark days at home came flooding back, reminding me of my own vulnerability and weakness.

But I refused to let myself be defined by my past. I was no longer the helpless boy I once was. I had left that version of myself behind, determined to carve out a different path.

Even if it meant facing my fears head-on, even if it meant risking everything, I would uncover the truth behind Akio's condition. I would confront whatever secrets Hoshino was hiding. I would prove that I was capable of making a difference.

Hear that, Kazuya?

"I understand," I replied, finding strength in the newfound sense of purpose that surged through me. As I turned to leave, the nurse approached me, holding out a shiny object.

"You dropped this," she said, offering me the item.

"Oh, uh, thanks," I mumbled, taking it from her before making my way out of the hospital.

It wasn't until I was halfway home that I realized something unsettling.

I didn't wear pins.
 
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