And chapter 3. Rewrote this one pretty much from the ground up so might be more prone to later editing, though I do like it as it stands.
Web of Shadows
This time the haunt was tucked into a grubby intersection between busy roads. A flyover created a dark space, and the four lanes of traffic whizzing past on either side made it difficult to reach. Akemi had to time it carefully and then run hard to make it across, and she still got honked at by a sports car that was definitely not sticking to the speed limit. She made a rude gesture at its retreating lights.
She’d been itching all week to get out and fight more Spectres, but now she was looking at that oily, unnatural darkness again, she found herself hesitating. She vividly remembered the pain of long talons slicing into her leg, the heat of her own blood, and the terror that had filled her when she couldn’t find the way out.
But the wounds had healed into barely-visible scars, and Sakaki had said that this haunt was weaker than the one in the park. She could sense them, apparently, and tell Akemi where to go.
Of course, then it had turned out that Sakaki’s directions were… not exactly direct.
“South and then a little east, beyond an expanse of water, at a great crossroad,” Akemi muttered to herself, looking back towards the recreational lake and then up at the raised highway above her head. “I mean, yeah, okay, not wrong, but I could have been here a lot quicker if she knew what an intersection was…”
She was stalling, she realised. She took a deep breath, clenched her fists, and strode into the darkness.
… and it was almost easy, this time. The Spectres fled her wrath and burned in her fire. This haunt was as black and baffling as the first, but Akemi just kept walking until she caught the dim glow of the sigil at its heart. When the fiery symbols burned away beneath her purifying flames, she couldn’t help but feel a rush of something like joy. The shadows fled. The darkness ebbed away. She was standing in the no-man’s land beneath the highway, with no threat greater than the occasional cockroach.
She flipped open the medallion and reached out to Sakaki just like they’d practised.
“I did it,” she said proudly. “Piece of cake.”
“Well done,” Sakaki replied. “There is another weak point some distance away, in the shadow of old trees and near to a place of worship…”
“I’m gonna need to get a map,” she said. “And explain a few things to you. Like postcodes…”
For the third time, Shoichi got to the end of the maths problem, checked his answer, and found it was not only wrong, but so wrong it was in a whole other category of wrongness. He might as well have been pulling random numbers out of a hat. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and considered putting his head down on the library table and giving up.
He’d never been great at maths; applied science was fine, but the mysteries of calculus and probability often eluded him. After so many nights of broken sleep in the last couple of weeks it had become an ordeal. He was beginning to seriously consider the option of locking himself in his room and refusing to come out until someone made the stupid quadratic equations go away.
Not for the first time, he wished Satoru were here to help him figure it out. But that brought its own wave of sadness, still surprisingly potent after almost a year, and as tired as he was, Shoichi couldn’t push it aside as he normally did.
He shook himself. It was stupid to feel like this. Satoru had just been… someone he did homework with in the library. They hadn’t even been friends, not really. They just talked sometimes, and Satoru made him laugh, and helped him with maths problems. Satoru was a year older; he was probably just being polite to a junior student. It must have been annoying, to have Shoichi coming up to say hi to him after class. That was probably why he’d stopped coming to the library. Shoichi should have known better than to get his hopes up. He wasn’t good at making friends.
Anyway, Satoru would be off studying in Europe now, and thinking about him wasn’t getting the homework done. Shoichi picked up his pencil, then found himself staring blankly at the page. A pervading sense of loneliness was seeping through him. He didn’t really have friends at school. No-one actively disliked him; his classmates were always polite. They just… didn’t seem to think of him as one of them.
He knew a lot of it was the way he looked. Blond hair and blue eyes on a Japanese schoolboy were… striking, would be the kind way to put it. Or freakish, as he’d been told more than once in Elementary. People assumed he was mixed-race, or even a visiting American student. They tried to speak to him in English, or asked him when he was going back home.
He’d lived in Osaka all his life. His parents were both Japanese; there was no Western blood in his family. His parents had told him that his fair hair and skin were a form of albinism.
When he was younger, they had tried to dye his hair, according to school guidelines. It turned out Shoichi was allergic to every kind of dye ever invented, so in the end they’d sent him to the private Silver Cross Academy, which had a lot of international students, and was more generous with its uniform rules.
He’d found the Western kids friendlier, but he’d also noticed that they seemed to expect him to be… less Japanese than his classmates. Sooner or later, he always drifted away from their company.
Sooner or later, he always ended up on his own again.
Without making a conscious decision, he found he was packing away his homework. Maybe he just needed a break from studying. He’d get dinner in one of the places by the station, then head home. He didn’t feel like cooking anyway, and it wasn’t like he was short on his allowance. He was starting to think his parents were trying to compensate for their absence by throwing money at him. He didn’t know how to tell them that it could never be enough.
Wearing the medallion everywhere she went had been strange for the first few days, but Akemi quickly got used to its weight around her neck. Which was how she ended up forgetting about it when she was changing for track.
“Oh wow!” Hana paused in putting on her trainers and stared as Akemi shrugged out of her school shirt. “Is that the same locket we found in the tree?”
Akemi’s hand flew to the medallion, closing over it protectively. She was never normally self-conscious in the locker room, but now she grabbed her t-shirt and yanked it over her head as if Hana had never seen her in her bra before.
“Yeah, um, I cleaned it up.”
“What was inside?”
“Just a mirror.”
“Can I see?”
“Maybe later.” Akemi pulled on her tracksuit top and hastily zipped it up. “I’m just gonna get a drink.”
She hurried to the drinking fountain and hoped that slurping the cool water would take some of the heat out of her face. How could she have been so stupid? Now what was she going to tell Hana?
But when she got back, Hana was concentrating on re-lacing her trainers in an intricate pattern like it was the most important task in the world. Akemi shook her head. Hana had strange priorities sometimes, but if it stopped her asking any more questions, she wasn’t going to complain.
“So anyway,” she said, “do you think we can lap Nanami again today?”
“It’s not her fault she’s slower than normal,” Hana replied without looking up from her laces. “She’s still getting over that bronchitis.”
“Yeah but it’s still funny. She makes faces.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s getting kind of mean.”
Akemi frowned down at the top of Hana’s head.
“What do you want me to do, run slower?”
“No, just…” Hana finally stood up, glanced at Akemi, then headed for the door. “Just don’t laugh at her.”
“I’m not laughing at her,” Akemi protested. “I’m just trying to make her feel better.”
“Sometimes you’re not very good at reading people,” she said. “Just say something nice to her, okay?”
Shoichi felt better after a bowl of his favourite noodles and some comforting oolong tea. The owner of the restaurant knew him by sight and was always kind to him. She’d also never spoken to him in any language but Japanese, or asked him about his hair. It was the little things that counted.
There were no free seats on the train, so he grabbed a strap and tried to get comfortable. At this time of night he often ended up standing for the whole forty-five minutes. He usually read a book, but today he didn’t feel like he could concentrate, so he settled in to people-watch instead.
It was something he loved to do, although he was always careful not to stare or give offence. People on the train sometimes seemed to forget where they were, absorbed in their phones or their books or just their own thoughts. You saw expressions and emotions on their faces that would normally be hidden under polite masks. The people travelling with friends talked about their lives, and listening was like a window onto another world. Sometimes he saw someone crying, or so angry they could barely sit still. A part of him always wanted to go up and ask them what was wrong, if he could help.
He didn’t, of course.
Nothing special was going on today, just tired commuters, laughing high schoolers, a little group of grandmothers who’d colonised the seats by the doors and were swapping embroidery tips. Shoichi listened to that with half an ear for a while. He had no real interest in the subject, but it was fun to figure out the relationships between the women from their conversation. One was clearly the head of the pack, another was anxious to win her approval, and another clearly resented her. Not all that different from high school, if he was honest. The thought made him smile, so he quickly looked away in case they thought he was laughing at them.
The last thing he expected was to find himself looking right at Satoru.
For a moment he thought he must be mistaken. Satoru shouldn’t even be in Japan right now, let alone on this train, and the guy at the other end of the carriage was slumped forward, elbows propped on his knees, in a way that made him look older. He was reading something on his phone; when he lifted a hand to push his hair out of his eyes, Shoichi knew for sure it was him. He’d seen that gesture so many times in the library.
It was beyond strange. He’d just been thinking about Satoru earlier, and here he was, as if in answer to the thought. Maybe he was back for a family visit? But his parents lived in Hong Kong, didn’t they?
He looked… tired. Even more tired than Shoichi felt. Shoichi had always liked his smile. Right now it was hard to imagine that expression touching his weary, sombre face.
Shoichi was moving before he had time to think it through. Satoru looked sad and alone and exhausted, and Shoichi couldn’t have said if it was altruistic concern or a bone-deep recognition that pulled him down the carriage.
“Hi,” he said, trying for casual, sounding unbearably awkward to his own ears.
Satoru straightened sharply, looking up at Shoichi in surprise. He wasn’t wearing his glasses, which made his eyes more noticeable, a grey that was slightly too pale for his black hair and tan skin. His mother was from New Zealand, Shoichi seemed to recall, but you could barely tell he was mixed race. Some people had all the luck.
Satoru was staring at him like he didn’t remember who Shoichi was. Something cold started in the pit of Shoichi’s stomach, but it barely had time to reach his chest before Satoru’s expression gave way to a surprised smile. The chilly lump dissolved instantly into a nervous flutter.
“Shoichi?” Satoru locked his phone and slid it into a pocket. He straightened, shaking his hair out of his eyes again, and there was no mistaking the genuine warmth in his voice. “It’s been a long time! How are you?”
“I’m— I’m fine.” Shoichi had the unexpected urge to be a lot more honest, to say that he wasn’t fine, and he didn’t know why. He shoved it down hard. “What are you doing here? Are you on vacation?”
Satoru frowned. “No, why?”
“I… thought you were going to study abroad?”
“Oh.” Satoru looked away abruptly, and Shoichi immediately regretted asking. “No, I… ended up staying here. I’m attending Osaka University.”
There was no joy in the statement, just a dull acceptance.
“But you were going to Europe—”
“It didn’t work out.”
“I’m sorry,” Shoichi managed, unsure if he was apologising for bring it up, or trying to offer sympathy. Both felt like he was overstepping, but Satoru shot him a grateful glance that only confused him more.
“What about you?” Satoru asked. “Where are you going to apply?”
“I’m… not sure.” He’d had a half-formed idea that he might try to apply to the same school as Satoru. But that had seemed like madness when it had involved going abroad. Now that he knew Satoru was right here in Osaka… “Um, I guess I’ll see how my grades are looking?”
“You’ll be fine,” Satoru said with a certainty Shoichi didn’t share. “You’re smart enough, you just need more confidence.”
Shoichi could feel himself blushing. “I still suck at maths.”
“Everyone sucks at maths before they learn how to do it. People who say they don’t are lying. You’ll figure it out.”
“I don’t know, I think Joshua in my class was born understanding parabolas.”
Satoru snorted with laughter.
“The Australian kid? He has three private tutors.”
“He does? How do you know?”
“Because one of them was tutoring me too.” Satoru grinned at him. “That’s my terrible secret. I suck at maths, I just got really good at hiding it.”
Just like that, the ice was broken, and it was as easy to fall into conversation as it always had been in the library. When the seat next to Satoru freed up, Shoichi looked around to see if anyone else wanted it, but no-one seemed in need. It was easier to talk when they were sitting next to each other. The rest of the journey passed so quickly Shoichi almost missed his stop.
As he jumped up to leave, he was seized with a sudden certainty that he didn’t want to let Satoru vanish again. While other people crowded off the train, he grabbed a notebook from his bag, tore a corner of paper off, and scribbled his phone number on it.
“Maybe we could talk sometime?” he said, offering it to Satoru.
“I’d like that,” Satoru replied, an odd, almost surprised expression on his face as he took the piece of paper.
Then Shoichi had to go, squeezing past the newly-boarded passengers to dash through the doors just before they closed.
On the platform, he turned to wave, but the people who’d just boarded were blocking his view of Satoru. The train pulled out of the station before they got out of the way. Shoichi stood and stared after it for far too long, wondering what had gotten into him to make him so bold.
Finally, he shook his head and headed home. He still had quadratic equations to wrestle with, after all. At least they didn’t seem quite so terrible now.
Another day, another haunt. At least the map was helping a little. Akemi was getting pretty good at interpreting Sakaki’s directions. It was sort of like a scavenger hunt.
A scavenger hunt that led to evil shadow monsters, admittedly, but at least she could do something about those when she found them.
At least – at last – she had a purpose. And if her homework was suffering for the time she was spending running around the city looking for haunts, and if the lies she was telling her mother were starting to weigh on her conscience, it was easy to tell herself that this was important. Much more important than school, or trying in vain to please Izumi.
She was feeling cheerful as she left the latest dark corner a little less dark and a lot less full of Spectres, although she was disappointed that Neikos hadn’t showed up. Sakaki said he was unlikely to be able to reach any of these minor haunts in time to defend them, and that this was for the best, as Akemi needed more time before she was ready to confront him. Akemi just wanted to see his nasty, smirking face when she set him on fire.
She felt the tug of the medallion and flicked it open to report back. Sakaki spoke before she could say a word.
“They have found another shard-bearer.”
Akemi stopped dead, her good mood draining away. She’d been to the hospital twice to check on the girl she’d saved, but Sakaki was right: she wasn’t waking up. The second time, Akemi loitered around long enough to hear the doctors talking about vegetative states and traumatic brain injuries, but she’d seen the way they frowned, heard the uncertainty in their own words as they tried to make sense of something beyond the realm of science.
The girl’s parents had been there too. After seeing their faces, Akemi knew she wouldn’t be coming back for a third visit. Not until she could retrieve the shard and make everything right again.
“Where?” she demanded. “I need to get there as soon as possible—”
“You have a little time. Neikos must lure the shard-bearer to one of his haunts before he can strike.”
“Why? Can’t he just… do it?”
“His strength is limited. I do not believe he has many shards in his possession. For now he needs the power of the haunt and the protection of the Spectres.”
Akemi’s mind raced.
“Couldn’t I just stop him, then?” she said. “If I warn the person—”
“No, Sol.” Sakaki’s voice was gentle but firm. “As I said, we also need the shards. You must allow Neikos to attack, and be ready to deny him the prize. There is no other choice.”
“Why?” Akemi demanded for a second time. “Why isn’t there another choice? There should be another choice!”
Sakaki was silent. Akemi closed her eyes and made herself take a deep breath.
“Fine. Where do I go?”
Shoichi’s classmates might not have been interested in him, but he was interested in them. He liked hearing the little details of their lives. He often spent his lunch break with a book open on his desk, but he was as likely to be listening to the conversations around him as reading. So he realised quickly that something strange was going on with Natsuko.
She’d transferred to Silver Cross a year ago, and the rumour mill whispered that she’d been kicked out of her previous school, though opinions differed as to why. She’d had a fierce and defiant attitude from the start, but she’d always been friendly to Shoichi, and he secretly envied her confidence.
She’d been missing from class three times this week, always in the afternoon, always back the next morning with a half-hearted excuse and a smile that was almost a smirk, daring the teacher to challenge her. So far, none of them had.
Shoichi hadn’t known what to make of it until he’d overheard two girls discussing “Natsuko’s boyfriend”. An older guy, one of them whispered. Gave her the creeps. What did Natsuko see in him? The other girl thought he was pressuring her to cut class. Should they tell someone? No, they couldn’t do that. Natsuko would be so angry, and it was none of their business, not really…
It was none of Shoichi’s business either, and he had his own problems this week. He didn’t know what was wrong with him, why he was having so many nightmares or why he felt such a sense of impending disaster, but by Thursday afternoon he had a splitting headache and he found himself, almost to his own surprise, telling his teacher that he didn’t feel well. He fully expected to be disbelieved, but the teacher took one look at him and told him to go home and rest, which was almost worse, because it meant that maybe there really was something wrong with him.
Shoichi packed his books up without meeting anyone’s eye and slunk out of the school like he was playing truant. The headache seemed to ease a little once he was in the fresh air, which only made him worry more about getting into trouble. He almost turned around, but the thought of having to walk back into class was too much, so he began to trudge towards the station.
Maybe that overheard conversation was still lingering in his mind, or maybe it was just coincidence that he spotted Natsuko as soon as he entered the small shopping mall that surrounded the station. She was sitting at a cafe table, laughing at something her companion had just said. Shoichi glanced sideways at the man as he approached, and almost stumbled.
There was something wrong with his face.
Shoichi couldn’t put it into words. His first impression was of a guy in his twenties, good looking enough to turn heads, but there was something about his face that didn’t fit. It wasn’t right for the rest of him, the scrawny body, the baggy jeans and sweatshirt, the slightly greasy-looking hair. His smile was delayed by a split second, as if responding to a conscious command.
And his eyes were… shadowed. Too dark, as if some narrow band of shade was falling exactly across them, though the overhead lights were bright and there was nothing to create such an effect.
Shoichi was seized by an urgent conviction that Natsuko should not be talking to the man. That he was a bad influence… no, that he was in some way dangerous. A reckless urge took him to stride up to the table and intervene.
Instead, he ducked his head and hurried past, hoping Natsuko didn’t look in his direction.
“… so you’ll meet me there? Eight o’clock?” the man was saying. He sounded eager. Too eager. It made Shoichi’s skin crawl. “I’ll be at the station.”
“Okay, okay, I guess. What’s so great about Hirabayashi anyway?”
“You’ll see. It’s worth it, I promise…”
Then Shoichi was out of earshot. The headache was getting worse again, a painful hammering behind his eyes. Maybe that was the cause of his reaction to the guy, just a weird sleep-deprivation thing. Maybe once he’d had a nap and some painkillers, the whole exchange wouldn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.
He fumbled for his travel pass, and glanced over his shoulder one last time. The man’s shadowed eyes were fixed on Natsuko. His smile should have been attractive, but instead, all Shoichi saw was greed.
What am I even doing?
This train was nearly empty, partly because it was later in the evening, but mostly because it was heading out into the warehouse district along Osaka’s waterfront. Shoichi had needed to look Hirabayashi up on a map. There was nothing there but industrial outlets and shipping companies; he could think of no good reason for anyone to want a seventeen-year-old girl to meet them there.
But he could think of far too many bad ones.
And so here he was, heading out to intercept Natsuko at her rendezvous. He’d tried to think of other options. He couldn’t justify calling the police. He didn’t want to get her into trouble at school. He had no way of contacting her parents, or even her friends.
He would have liked to ask his mother or father for advice, but both had texted him to say they wouldn’t be home until “very late”, which he knew from experience meant they had court deadlines and would be sleeping in their offices, if at all.
Sometimes he wondered if they ever communicated with each other or realised how often both of them were completely absent from his life.
At any rate, he had no-one to consult, only his own intuition. And his intuition had been screaming at him for hours that he couldn’t just ignore what he’d overheard. He didn’t know what he was going to say to Natsuko when he got there. He was shaking with anxiety just thinking about it. He had to hope that something would come to him, some inspiration would strike in the moment, make it obvious what he needed to do.
He was twenty minutes early, not least because he’d wanted to avoid being on the same train as Natsuko. The station was tiny and deserted. He’d stand out like a sore thumb if he waited here, so he ducked into the convenience store by the entrance and pretended to be browsing the magazine section while keeping an eye on the gates.
It almost worked, but after he’d been standing there for a while, the convenience store clerk decided he must be a lost tourist and tried to offer help in halting English. Shoichi’s polite and icy response in perfect Japanese confused him enough that he retreated, but the exchange took long enough that when Shoichi looked back, it was just in time to see Natsuko disappearing around a corner.
He rushed after her, not caring if the clerk thought he was rude or crazy. He got to the top of the stairs as she reached the bottom, and her boyfriend was there waiting, and Shoichi froze. He looked even more sinister in the dark. Even Natsuko seemed to hesitate, but the guy took hold of her arm and led her down the street, and she didn’t try to pull away.
He’d hoped to catch Natsuko alone. Everything in him quailed at the thought of confronting the man with the shadowed eyes. But he’d come all this way, and he was even more worried about Natsuko now, and where could they possibly be going…?
Someone came rushing up behind him, almost knocking him down the stairs.
“Sorry!” It was another girl, her hair in pigtails and her school uniform askew as if she’d been running. “Hey did you see a girl and a creepy dude go past here just now?”
Shoichi stared at her, too taken aback to be anything but honest.
“Um… yes, they went that way—”
“Thanks!” She started down the stairs, then paused, an odd expression crossing her face as she looked back at him. “… do I know you?”
“I don’t think so?”
Although there was something vaguely familiar about her, something he couldn’t place…
“Oh, okay, never mind, uh… thanks again!”
She flew down the stairs and sprinted in the direction he’d indicated. Shoichi stared after her. Was she a friend of Natsuko’s? Was that why they half-recognised each other? She clearly wasn’t from Silver Cross, but why else would she be here?
A part of him whispered that maybe he should just go home. Someone else was looking out for Natsuko. He didn’t need to get involved.
He started down the stairs, hurrying after the running girl. She was fast, way too fast for him to catch, but she slowed down as she got nearer to the couple up ahead, so he was able to keep her in sight.
He was so busy making sure he didn’t lose her or get spotted – not that she so much as glanced back in his direction – that he wasn’t really paying attention to where they were going. It took him by surprise when he realised that the sounds of the road had died away, and that the looming warehouses on either side were very dark. He could see where he was going by the reflected glow of streetlights from somewhere in the distance, but it seemed like this whole block was out of power.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. This was… bad. As bad as his worst fears. He should call the police…
… and tell them what?
The girl had rounded a corner up ahead. By the time Shoichi reached it, there was no sign of her. He stopped, looking from side to side, and saw that one of the warehouse doors on this narrow alley was partly opened. It was the only place she could have gone.
The darkness inside was so intense, it was like looking at black cloth. Shoichi stood rooted in place, half-remembered dreams rushing back with an intensity that made him shudder. Black, roiling shadows consuming everything in their path, rushing to swallow him. And the sea, the sound of the sea…
From inside, someone screamed. A girl’s voice, torn with terror.
Shoichi plunged into the darkness.
He was lost as soon as he crossed the threshold. The light that should have followed him through the open door vanished like a curtain had fallen into place behind him. He collided with a shipping crate, fumbled his way along its side, found himself in a narrow gap between two more. He turned to try and make his way back, but where he thought the door should be, his outstretched hands found the outlines of a forklift truck.
He turned again, feeling his way along the crates, and finally he saw a faint glow spilling around a corner. He stumbled towards it. The light was pale and strange, sickly, like ghostly bio-luminescence. When he reached the end of the row of crates, he peered around the last one, and froze at what he saw.
Natsuko was sprawled on the floor, the man standing over her. At least, Shoichi had to assume it was the same man. He was now wearing a long, black hooded cloak like something out of a movie, and his face had changed. Gone were the handsome features, but the sneer and the self-satisfaction that had replaced them were a perfect fit for the rest of him as he chanted words in an unknown language.
He was holding a knife, outstretched in one hand, and the pale glow was cascading from its tip to surround Natsuko’s motionless body. As Shoichi watched in disbelief, the light coalesced into a bright point, suspended in mid-air. The man in the cloak kept glancing around, as if checking for witnesses, and now Shoichi could hear movement in the darkness, a horrible slithering like snakes writhing over each other. Something brushed against him in the dark; he would have screamed, if his voice hadn’t been snatched by terror.
The chanting stopped. The light around Natsuko faded out. And then suddenly, there was fire.
The man reeled back, yelping as flames seared his outstretched hand, ducking away from the inferno. Shoichi flinched instinctively, but the crate was between him and the fire, and the flames seemed drawn to the man in the cloak. The shadows leapt crazily, beginning to take on solid forms, things with claws and sinuous arms and too many mouths…
“Back off, Neikos!”
The girl Shoichi had been following had appeared from somewhere, standing between Natsuko and the man in the cloak. She looked different; it took him a moment to realise that she was no longer wearing school uniform, but an outfit that would have been more at home at a cosplay convention. He couldn’t begin to fathom how or why she’d changed clothes, and besides, he had more pressing questions.
Such as how was she controlling the fire?
Because that was clearly what was happening. The flames danced at her fingertips, raced out into an arc that forced the man in the cloak to retreat further.
“What the hell—” The man – Neikos – was staring at her in disbelief. “You again?”
The flames lunged for him as she stepped forward; he stumbled back, anger swiftly replacing incredulity.
“You can’t— there’s no way you could get out of that haunt—”
“What haunt?” There was no mistaking the triumph and glee in the girl’s voice. “I guess you haven’t checked in on it recently. I took it down, just like I’m going to take you and your Spectres down.”
“Who are you?” Neikos demanded.
“Me?” The girl almost seemed to have to think about it, but when she replied, there was certainty in her voice. “I’m Guardian Sol.”
A shock went through Shoichi, something like recognition, something like deja vu. Sol, it means ‘sun’, Guardian Sol, shadows fear the blazing sun…
The name seemed to hit Neikos like a slap to the face. For just a second, his eyes widened. Then the expression was swept aside by ugly contempt.
“You? You’re it?”
All at once the shadows were boiling around him. Those shapes Shoichi had seen in the firelight, they weren’t just a trick of the eye. Spectres. They were creeping up around Neikos, shielding him from the flames, and Shoichi could see them sneaking around the sides, trying to get behind Sol.
As he followed them with his eyes, he realised two things at once. The first was that the bright object was still hovering in the air near where Natsuko lay, defying all laws of gravity and common sense. The second was that someone else had joined the scene, another cloaked figure moving stealthily towards that point of light. Even as Shoichi watched, the new arrival reached for the prize.
“This is what she warned me about?” Neikos’s voice grew louder with disdain and something close to outrage. “You’re just a girl in a stupid costume! And you were dumb enough to follow me here— into a full nexus—”
The other cloaked figure seized the bright object, and in the same movement, turned and fled into the darkness, stealth abandoned. Either the sudden disappearance of its light, or some small noise, caused Sol to spin around in horror.
“No!” she yelled, throwing herself after the figure. “Get back here!”
As if he’d been waiting for his moment, Neikos snarled something in that other language. The Spectres gathered around him lunged forward. Darkness welled up like water and flowed out over the flames. Under the sudden onslaught, the fire flickered and faded, but its dying light was enough for Shoichi to see the massive, inhuman creature rearing up to Sol’s left, its seven needle-tipped fingers slashing directly for her unprotected back…
“Look out!” Shoichi yelled.
She barely dodged in time, crashing to the ground and then rolling awkwardly to get to her feet. The rest of Neikos’s Spectres were on her in a second, and Shoichi thought she’d disappear under their darkness, but a burst of fire sent them reeling back. Neikos himself raced past her with barely a glance, except to sneer mockingly.
“Stupid bitch,” he snarled, and then he was gone into the darkness like the other figure.
Sol tried to follow, but the shadows crowded in, and she was forced to give ground. At the same moment, dozens of multi-jointed talons closed on Shoichi from all directions. He cried out and struggled, but the grip was supernaturally strong. He remembered those hungry mouths…
Then flames engulfed him, so close they singed the ends of his hair, and he was free. A second later, Sol had him by the wrist, hauling him over to where Natsuko still lay. More flames sprang up around them in a circle, but they seemed weaker, like they didn’t have as much fuel.
“Who are— wait, you’re that boy, from the station— what are you doing here?” The words tripped over themselves and she didn’t wait for an answer. “Okay, stay close to me, don’t panic, we can get out of this. Can you carry her?”
“I— I can try.”
“Good, do that. Maybe I can… make us a path…”
Shoichi struggled to lift Natsuko, who didn’t so much as stir. Her limp body gave him chills. Was she dead? Her skin still felt warm, but he had no time to check for a pulse.
“Ready?” Sol glanced over as Shoichi staggered to his feet with Natsuko awkwardly on his back like he was trying to give her a piggyback ride and she wasn’t cooperating. “No, not like that, turn her sideways—”
“This is the best I can do,” Shoichi managed through gritted teeth.
“Okay, fine, just follow me then, got it?”
A corridor of flame sprang up. Sol darted towards it; Shoichi followed as best he could. Somewhere in the darkness he heard a cry of pain. He couldn’t tell if it was Neikos or the other person. Sol’s head turned towards the sound, her fists clenching, but then she looked back at Shoichi and Natsuko like she was swallowing something bitter, and continued to lead the way in the opposite direction. They reached a wall of crates; Shoichi couldn’t tell if it was the one he’d been standing behind originally. They all looked the same.
“Is this the way out?” Shoichi asked.
“Uh…” He didn’t like the uncertainty in her voice. “We’ll have to go around.”
“Are you sure—”
Something that felt like a freight train struck him from the side, sending him crashing to the concrete with Natsuko still on his back. His outflung hand bent at a painful angle as he tried to break his fall, leaving his wrist a halo of agony. Sol leapt towards him, fire racing to lash at the Spectre that had attacked him, but behind her Shoichi saw another one darting forward, its razor claws already moving towards her neck. There was no time to shout a warning, no time for her to dodge.
Shadows flee the rising moon.
He thrust out his uninjured hand, palm outward. A shimmering wall of light sprang up around him, spreading outwards, a white dome of iridescence like the gleam of mother-of-pearl. The Spectre at Shoichi’s back reeled away with a howl; the one that had been diving for Sol was unable to stop in time. When it struck the glimmering shield, it came apart like clouds parting.
Sol stumbled to a halt, whipping around to take in the barrier, then whirling back to stare dumbfounded at Shoichi.
“I don’t— I don’t know—”
“You’re a Guardian,” Sol breathed, understanding dawning on her face. “You’re like me. But you’re a boy, how does that even work—”
Shoichi stared at her helplessly. Sol shook herself, quickly knelt at his side, and lifted Natsuko over her shoulders.
“Can you keep it going?” Sol asked.
Shoichi’s hand was shaking but he didn’t dare let it drop. He could feel the effort of maintaining the shield, like something pouring out of his veins.
“I think so, but not for long.”
“Then we need to move!”
They ran, as best they could with Sol burdened by Natsuko and Shoichi concentrating on that brilliant light. The Spectres scrambled to get out of their way and seethed into their wake. He barely registered where they were going, hoping against hope that Sol really did know the way out.
His vision began to swim. The shield flickered twice, then suddenly winked out, and Shoichi didn’t know how to bring it back, or if he even could. But the pause seemed to have given Sol’s fire new vigour. Flames spiralled around them, holding back the darkness for just a few more precious moments.
Just enough to reach a threshold that Shoichi couldn’t see, to stagger out into a dark alley that seemed bright in comparison to the place they had just left. He glanced behind, only to see that the Spectres hadn’t given up, were boiling out of the warehouse door like a nightmare. Sol suddenly shoved Natsuko at Shoichi and turned to face their pursuers.
The gout of fire that engulfed the Spectres was so bright it hurt Shoichi’s eyes. It lasted bare moments, but it was enough, finally, to deter the monstrous darkness. The shadows reeled and withdrew. Sol grabbed Shoichi by the arm and hauled him along the alleys between the buildings until they were both out of breath and Shoichi began to be afraid he was going to pass out. When they finally stopped, it was all he could do to sink down onto his knees rather than falling flat on his face. He let Natsuko slip from his back, and wondered dimly if he’d hurt her during their frantic escape.
Sol seemed to have the same thought. She crouched beside him, carefully moving Natsuko into a more comfortable position, checking her pulse.
“She’s alive,” Sol said, but her tone was at odds with the words, as sombre as if she were announcing the opposite. “We’d better call an ambulance.”
“What happened to her?”
Sol looked away.
“Neikos took something from her.”
“That… bright thing?”
“Yeah. It’s called a shard. They’re what the Multitude wants to get hold of, why it’s here. I was supposed to get it first.”
Her shoulders sagged.
“But will she be okay?” Shoichi demanded.
“She won’t die,” Sol replied miserably. “Not if we get her to hospital. But she’ll stay like this forever unless we can get her soul back.”
It hit Shoichi then, the madness of it all, souls and shards and living shadows.
“What,” he said after a moment, “the hell is going on?”
Sol blinked at him. The ghost of a smile touched her face.
“That was pretty much my reaction,” she said.
She put her hand up to a golden locket that hung from her neck, and then suddenly she was glowing with light. The sparkling sheath faded after a split second, leaving her in the school uniform she’d been wearing at the station.
“Hi,” she went on. “I’m Akemi. You’re a magical girl now. And I need to introduce you to this tree…”