Cold air awaited Saboten’s release and, when he stepped out from those revolving doors, it hit him like a blanket of snow, striking the most pleasant of nerves. It was like the world welcomed him back, knowing the group’s nobel cause and thanking them for it. Night-time greeted them, without a watch it was impossible to tell the time. Hell, not one of them knew the day, or the month. Ayame thought it reminded her of December but the night wouldn’t help that.
There wasn’t a single lamppost in sight but the burning light beaming from the hellish building behind revealed the forefront of a large car-park where every spot was filled by an expensive car. They hadn’t been used to escape the scene, not a single vehicle had been touched. Perhaps, Saboten thought, nobody else had made it out. If they had, they wouldn’t have lasted too long. They deserved it though, didn’t they? For what they did, punishment was definitely in order.
In the boy’s mind, thoughts he could never share with Ayame or Hideki were brewing. Dark thoughts. Was there a punishment suitable for these people? Could a simple hanging or lifelong prison sentence really absolve these men and women from how they’ve affected the world. No, Saboten believed, maybe not.
“And the first obstacle to come between Team Karasu and their goal is…” Ayame announced loudly in that sports commentator style, “a bee-striped security banister!” Shinji reacted as one would expect, cutting the barrier in half. Hiro had come to quite like the man, he made a good friend if you could look past the thick, snarky shell he wore proudly. He liked his honesty and his bravery, he’d follow Shinji anywhere. After Hiro saved his life, Shinji had promised to lead Hiro to what he desired most: returning to his original size. Neither of them knew whether this was possible but it was worth a shot.
“So, Cap’n Toramaru,” he heard Saboten jar in a swashbuckling voice that would’ve thrown Blackbeard into a fit of rage. He had even pulled down a tuft of his shaggy green fringe to serve as a makeshift eyepatch. “Where be we headin’?”
The man, who appeared to be taking charge of the group already, let out this jolly laugh - half forced - and wiped a tear from his eye. “Back in the day, a little after I retired from the army, I ran a little general store here.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, a month or so before I was captured, I gave the place to my layabout nephew. I think you’d call him a NEET. If he’s barricaded himself in there, we should be safe.”
“If not, we’ll at least be able to gather supplies.”
“I should hope so.”
“Do you know where it is?” Ayame asked.
“No,” Saboten interjected, “better question. Do you know where we are?”
“The city of Numazu.”
“How do you know that?”
Hideki turned, timidly, pointing towards the front of the looming facility behind them. The sign, scorched with a fiery outline, read: SCARECROW: NUMAZU FACILITY.
“So,” said Ayame, returning to the previous topic with genuine interest. “You really ran a shop, Hideki?”
“When I got back from my last day, my wife drove us to Numazu. We had been living in a small apartment in Izu but she had bought the building as a retirement present. She thought I might need the work, I never did just like to sit around. I got to look after my son and work alongside my wife.”
“That’s adorable,” she told him, “is your little boy safe now?”
“I hope he’s with my wife.”
Saboten asked the heavier question, “were they captured with you?” A nod, “don’t worry, we’ll get them back.”
“Do you know where they would be?”
“I was told they were transferred to the Tonami facility.”
“Then let’s hope the trains aren’t as fucked as the towns.” Shinji told him, shutting him up about the subject entry. It was obvious to Hiro that the two of them would never get along well, opposing personalities and all that. Hideki charged off ahead, axe in hand for protection but Shinji, following him, simply wanted blood. That was not to be admired, it was an unhealthy interest. Hiro followed anyway, leaving Ayame and Saboten to chat in the dusty trail they left behind.
The two of them fell far behind quickly but Saboten wasn’t bothered. He felt unsafe but normal, alive. Rather than rushing, they continued at their own pace like friends heading for a city lunch, speaking quietly to avoid unnecessary feedback. At first, they kept things ordinary and it was nice. They joked and rambled and even discussed how - despite his size - Hiro could be that much faster than them. She put it down to the food they had been given in the cells and that’s when the big questions came out: “do you remember anything?”
“All I can remember is waking up on that bed,” he told her, leaving out the bloodbath he woke up in.
“Not even my name?” She giggled at first, it was a clever joke but when he stalled for time, she became grumpy and annoyed. Yes, he had already forgotten but was that his fault? Really? He could’ve been suffering from any number of neurological conditions or traumas at that moment.
“Well, you did just tell me…”
“Just making sure you remember, that’s all.”
“Ahiru?” She just rolled her eyes. “Ayame?”
“Finally!” she cried out to the heavens in such an unconvincing manner that Saboten was almost annoyed despite the reel of names he just threw up. “Anything else? Or is there something you wanted to ask me?” She didn’t wait to find out however, by the time the final syllable hit Saboten’s ear, the girl had happily skipped ahead like a fairytale rabbit. She wasn’t all that sure Saboten liked her very much. Ayame hoped with all of her heart that, when Saboten’s memories did return, he’d become his old self again. The good old Saboten who kept her company and taught her how to skip class unnoticed and rambled on and on about the latest chapter of ‘Bottle… something or other’. She missed him.
He wasn’t too pleased at all and Ayame could see it in his facial expression, the once hard to read Saboten now telegraphed every emotion and it was… annoying. She figured if she continued to act how old Ayame would’ve, it might trigger his memory to return. She leant towards him and gave him a cute, extended “sooooooooooorry!” but he was still unamused. “What’s on your mind Saboten?”
“Ayame, how did you make it out of the lobby unhurt?” He asked her straight, she was wondering when he might.
“Since you tackled me.”
“You don’t think I could take care of myself?” She winked, “I could have superpowers! I might even be stronger than you.” He didn’t even smile. “I see you’ve lost your sense of humour too. I’m not sure how it happened, I just sort of wandered around. One moment, I was walking out of my cell, the next I was there.”
“Is that really it?”
“Well, I remember being surrounded by this white, snake, thing. A Shinigami, I guess.”
“Yeah,” she thought that was a very appropriate response given the situation. It wouldn’t have come out of her Saboten’s mouth though, would it? Would it? Could she really remember? If the name wouldn’t come to mind, maybe it was time to start doubting her memories too. Her subconscious could’ve been making up for lost space, “nevertheless,” she continued, “before it could kill me, somebody killed it.”
“Somebody?” he repeated.
“Some snazzy looking guy with white trousers and a huge sword!” Ayame claimed, extending her arms lengthways to exaggerate the length.
The boy was almost speechless, “why didn’t you mention this before?”
“It slipped your mind, I suppose.”
“He was one of us though.”
“How could you tell?”
“You mean, despite the ability to whack around a big bloody sword?” she mocked, “he had a tail and an eyepatch. The two of you might know each other.”
“I hope not. We’d better keep a look out for him, he might be sane enough to answer some questions.” The journey seemed to continue on endlessly making Saboten decide he wasn’t all that fit. The reason being that he once again stopped Ayame to take a quick breather. He was so unfit that he would, if he could, take bets on whether he was seriously ill. He smiled, watching as the rest of his group reached what appeared to be a small street of shops. However, Hideki turned around specifically to crush any hopes of stopping soon: “don’t get comfy, we’re not even close!”
The shops were a little further away than he had anticipated but when they finally did reach them, Team Karasu had front row seats to destruction. Piles of cars laid strewn about in the street and almost every shop display window had been smashed inwards. No bodies, not yet. By the time Saboten and Ayame had reached the rest of the troop, they had solidified an impression: they were the slowest.
Before they could join in the conversation, a decision to stay at a nearby hotel had already been made. Saboten wasn’t particularly excited to spend the night somewhere Shinji had once lived, however, he did want a warm bed.
“I’ll lead the charge,” Shinji told them, leaving Hideki and Hiro in tow. Once again, this meant Saboten would be alone with Ayame. Caught off guard, he stared off into space, thinking about the fates of the townspeople. Had they been evacuated?
“Saboten, is something wrong?”
“I’m fine,” he said, “just a little tir-.”
His statement was cut short. A small slice appeared across his cheek where a river of blood, no thicker than a strand of hair, trickled down his cheek. He did not notice this. Instead, his focus was drawn to the large katana beside him.
A drop of blood landed on the chain which wrapped around the golden hilt of the katana. It had been thrown from quite the distance and was no lodged in the ground with little chance of movement. A couple of inches left and that would’ve been the end of Saboten. Incredible but imperfect.
Thank you for taking the time to read this chapter.
If you enjoy our work, why not consider sponsoring The Chestnut Cottage on Patreon?