The final ten floors took longer than Saboten had imagined, thanks to his new cargo. The cold, metal steps tore the heat straight from Saboten’s bare feet as he waddled up in front of the group, being the only one who could see in the pitch-black death trap.
Still, each step was planned carefully as he teetered on the edge of each stair, making sure the young lady didn’t slip. The cold, natural air circulating through the staircase felt like air conditioning to Saboten, that’s how long he’d been put away. The breeze reminded him of his Grandfather’s apartment, it had been a long time since he thought about his Grandfather.
An image came to mind: a futon, a kotatsu, a collection of dirty magazines hidden in his wardrobe. It was his bedroom, a subtle memory as though Belphegor had kept it hidden away on purpose. His Grandfather was long dead but they would have to return, just once. Ayame plodded along beside him, trying her hardest to remain at a steady pace, avoiding the very real danger of bumping into her friend and sending the two of them tumbling down the stairs, stopping only at Hiro whom she imagined to be immovable, despite how easy it was for The Greed to throw him around.
“Saboten,” she asked, “how are you feeling? You’re being a little quiet.”
He mumbled something in response, something of a small grunt as he passed onto the next floor. “I’m fine, really,” or something along those lines. He didn’t seem ‘fine’ though, that little girl must’ve been heavier than she looked.
“I am, I’m just a little tired.”
“Okay…” Ayame left the conversation there, unimpressed. This was just like Saboten - the ‘real’ Saboten - he would never let anybody help him, he would never admit there was a problem. It was an unfortunate weakness for somebody who had to fight to survive in this new world.
She sighed, peering her head past Saboten’s body towards the next bright light. It was a doorway, “oh, isn’t this the last floor?” she cheered with a grin so large it matched the scythe in Hideki’s hands. Team Karasu had pushed through the dark depths of the metallic chasm and now were in the arms of safety; or so they hoped.
The white walls of this top corridor housed but one large door: red with a golden, heart-shaped handle. Saboten, still holding the girl to his back, stretched his body out in relief.
“Allow me,” offered Shinji, stepping out in front of the group. Quick as a bullet, he slammed his foot into the door, tossing it across the harsh hot-pink room. “Honey, I’m home!”
There was no honey, no Shinigami, and no survivors. No signs of life, it was perfect. Even the rubbish bin was empty, not a single person had stepped foot in the suite for a long time. The lack of blood on the walls helped Ayame feel more cemented in reality as the group began piling into the oversized love suite.
The room itself was to be admired, somewhat; a fluffy pink carpet had been laid across the entirety of the room and the walls had been painted to match, even the ceiling was a shade of pink, apart from above the main bed where it was mirrored.
The room housed a simpler, secondary bed where Hiro and Shinji set themselves down. Meanwhile, Saboten laid the mysterious girl down upon the primary, heart-shaped bed in the corner of the room, beside a stocked mini fridge and functional bathroom.
The room was perfect for the group’s situation at the moment, offering a safe haven for the moment at least. Saboten’s body took to the bed beside this mysterious girl and allowed him to rest his eyes for the first time in what felt like years.
Ayame, on the other hand, was much too excited to settle down. “Wow! This room is huge!” she exclaimed as she spun in circles admiring everything all at once, including the small machine attached to the wall above the bed.
“A little disappointing though,” Shinji muttered as he tugged on Hiro’s arm trying his hardest to pull him through the doorway without breaking the frame around it.
“Disappointing? How?” Hideki scoffed, “would you have preferred a room crawling in demons?”
“Jesus Christ, I was just saying.” It was the first time that any of them had referred to the Shinigami as demons. More terrifying than Gods, it sent an almost everlasting chill down Saboten’s spine, he could no longer rest his eyes.
“I’m sorry, I have a lot on my mind.”
“Shit man, don’t we all?” Shinji replied in the same unapologetic tone as always, the opposite of Hideki. He was quick to put the moment behind him, catching Ayame’s hand in the air before it pestered the unlabelled machine’s selection of red buttons. “What are you doing over here?”
“I just want to know what it does.” Oblivious to the contraption’s function which - as described by Shinji - ‘provided protection to the patrons’. Once the definition clicked, she backed away and continued to peruse elsewhere.
Saboten sat upright beside the unconscious girl, clearing away stray hairs from her forehead which could have been itching her nose in her sleep. It appeared that her breathing had returned to a regular pace as though she had simply fallen asleep and, thankfully, did not require specific medical treatment.
Around her, he felt like a father and wasn’t sure whether or not he liked it. Why did he want to protect her? She could clearly take care of herself, otherwise she wouldn’t have made it this far. The only escape was to look away from her and check whether Belphegor was still around.
“That was a quick answer,” Saboten thought, unable to fathom what kind of conversation would be appropriate for a chat with an all-powerful Shinigami Lord. Instead, he opted to turn to Shinji, asking what their next plan of action should be.
“I ain’t really thought about it,” he sighed and scratched his head. Saboten could see a little embarrassed expression peeking out from the corner of his face as though Shinji had picked up on the similarities between himself and the girl. “Anybody got any ideas?”
“If we’re going to stick around for the night,” said Hiro, “perhaps it would be wise to split into shifts and take up jobs.”
“Well, we should decide on those first.”
“How about…” Ayame began, feeling as though it was her turn to speak as Hiro sat himself down beside the mini fridge, “we split into three groups: one group goes to sleep, one group keeps watch on the stairway, and one group watches the Sleeping Beauty?”
“I think that’s a good idea, let’s split ourselves up.”
“Well, you’re our leader, aren’t ya?” Shinji added, “I thought that’s what you wanted considering this genocide was your idea.”
“I guess so, all right!” Hideki hopped into action, the earlier annoyance had disappeared. “Saboten, you stick with Ayame. Hiro, you join up with Shinji.”
“What should we do, Cap’n?” asked Saboten, plodding over to his announced partner.
“Watch the girl first, it might be good for her to see a friendly face. Shinji and Hiro will take up the first watch, I am going to go to sleep.”
“I see how it is.”
“Exactly,” he followed up with a subtle smile. “Wake me up in an hour or two and we’ll swap it around,” he told them as his body lunged towards the soft, clean bed which eventually began to swallow him in a swamp of over-fluffed blankets. He sighed with glee as his weakened body began to drift off into a blissful sleep.
He was already snoring by the time Shinji and Hiro made it outside.
“That was fast.”
“Should we wake her up?” Ayame asked as she studied the stranger from afar, “she doesn’t look very ill.”
“She’s probably just one of those gothic vampire girls.”
“…I don’t think she’s actually a vampire.”
“It doesn’t sound so far fetched though, does it?” she said. “Are we really going to be able to stop these…” she paused, too fearful to repeat their actual titles, “creatures? They’re so powerful and we’re so new to this.”
Saboten wasn’t really sure how to react, but he sat her down and tried to explain. “They might be powerful, but so are we. I mean, did you even see me?”
“Getting a little bit full of yourself?” she said with a wry smile sitting on the edge of her mouth. “I’m so hungry, aren’t you?”
“Is there anything in the mini fridge?” she asked as she rubbed her stomach.
“Not anything that I would trust to eat,” he replied.
“I guess not, but I feel like I haven’t eaten in months.” Ayame leaned backwards onto the bed where the mysterious girl slept, attempting to catch a quick nap of her own as Saboten kept watch but she became distracted by the girl’s stirring. She looked uncomfortable in her new surroundings, not that they could blame her. “Who do you think she is, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Saboten told her, “but she’s so young and powerful, we couldn’t just leave her.”
“Did she try to kill you?”
“Just a little bit, I think I spooked her.”
“She’s quite cute, isn’t she?”
“I hope she’s going to be okay.”
Hideki woke earlier than he might’ve expected and called upon Team Karasu to switch shifts; Saboten and Ayame would guard the front door, Hiro and Shinji could sleep, Hideki himself would watch the mysterious girl.
Saboten had described the experience as one of impending awakening but less than five minutes into his session, the mysterious girl was moving and twitching more than Hideki was expecting. Alongside this stress, his own pains were keeping him company.
Since their arrival, Hideki could feel the muscles in his arm contracting to an incredible degree as though the blood itself had become stone, still pumping throughout. It was a slow and unbearable process but he grit his teeth and clenched his fist, hoping the ache would die down.
It refused. If anything, the strenuous clenching made the pain much worse.
Hideki’s head shot around as a quiet voice spoke out from behind him. It was the mysterious girl whom he should’ve been keeping an eye on, she had awoken but she wasn’t in any great condition. Her silver eyes shuddered as they attempted to pull focus to Hideki, perhaps wondering why he had shaven his green hair, or taken out his single red contact lens.
She was unable to ask him any questions, returning to the pillow and straight back to sleep without a shred of notice. At the same time, Hideki found himself in pain far too intense to withstand, collapsed to the carpet in a slump, gripping the rebel limb with all his might.
“What should we do now?” asked Saboten, “are we supposed to be patrolling downstairs?”
“Wouldn’t it be better for us to be here? I don’t think searching for trouble is a good idea.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“You could always bring up your sword-thing, just in case.”
He agreed wholeheartedly, summoning his ‘Accuser’ to his left hand. It was obvious that Ayame was quite concerned by the weapon’s nature, and its name. His ears, his fang, his eye must’ve been a little bit weird for her to see close-up.
As the thought of his pointed ears came to mind, they pricked up to an unusual sound, as did Ayame’s. It was the sound of metal ringing, and heavy footsteps moving up stairs.
Something was coming, and fast.
“Ayame, get back.”
The footsteps grew louder as Ayame hurried down the hallway, unable to defend herself. The doorway to the stairwell would be little more than an annoyance to a Shinigami and, as such, backed away a little and took a deep, calming breath. “Ready?” he asked Belphegor.
Are you going to expect my help every time? asked the Lord of the Kara Sekai. I already gave you what little power you can control, don’t get in over your head.
“I know, I know,” he said aloud as the footsteps came to a halt. For a moment, the creature scratched and clawed at the door so hard that the indents could be seen on Saboten’s side of the door.
He swallowed as the large door was so easily pushed aside and watched in terror as the monster came into sight; it appeared to be half man, half beast with gnarled green skin which had been rotting off its body.
A Hakujou; its head held the shape and complexion of an old greyhound’s skull, but with the features of a torn and twisted human female. Aside from two small pockets of wiry black hair poking up from flesh like greasy blades of grass, the creature was hairless.
It grunted as it approached, hobbling on three twiggy limbs towards Saboten’s strong stance. He did not flinch, or rather, he tried not to flinch as he decided his best option was to try slashing at the creature’s weight-bearing limbs before it could claw his eyes out of his head.
He dashed forwards, blade poised, but the creature was more intelligent than Saboten had assumed. At lightning speed, it deflected his attack using a selection of three obsidian claws, knocking the ephemeral blade from betwixt Saboten’s fingers.
“Saboten!?” shouted Ayame as the Hakujou forced the boy into the Honeymoon Suite. Now, the Greyhound had turned its attention to her, triangular pupils were locked onto her own wide eyes. Saboten had landed beside Hideki who was occupied, writhing in pain against the heart-shaped bed.
The creature began to crawl towards her, the previous attack had managed to do some kind of damage as its limp seemed less imposing, more pathetic. Saboten managed to pull himself up from the ground, half-noticing the mysterious girl had stood herself up and was tending to Hideki.
“Don’t you worry, okay?” she placed her palm against his steaming forearm. “The pain might last a couple more minutes but that should be it.”
“Wh— who are you?”
“This is the beginning of your transformation,” she ignored the question. “I think your Turns might be activating, your left arm will be entirely covered in Iwa. It’s gonna hurt, but you’ve got to be brave.”
“H— How are they doing?”
“I think the lady’s Turns are about to start working too, let’s watch.” This mysterious girl had an air of wisdom to her like she had pre-scripted the event herself. Saboten couldn’t quite grasp what she was talking about but those words rang familiar in the back of his mind.
“Please help me!” shouted Ayame as Saboten managed to limp his way towards the Greyhound, once again summoning his katana to the fray. The creature’s thin, razor-lined jaw dripped a foul, stringing saliva and screamed as Saboten’s ‘Accuser’ carved into its leg.
The Greyhound’s limbs were thin but the damage dealt was minimal at best, Saboten looked on in horror as his final act of desperation had been for nought. The creature lifted its ghastly talons into the air, ready to decimate Ayame and tear her to shreds.
She yelled from the bottom of her lungs, slamming her eyelids closed so as to not witness her own final moments of terror. She felt the warm rush of damnation scream across her entire body, stealing control away from her, followed only by the surge of intense power.
It was not her last moment, but her first.
When Ayame opened her darkened blue eyes, she could feel the transformation in her pupils. They had become triangular, her vision had stretched wider then ever before and, in her gaze, she saw blood dripping like rain onto her own face.
The Greyhound had stopped dead in its tracks but its cause of death was what perplexed Ayame; every single strand of her hair had become rock solid and sharpened at the tip. It had become a weapon, estranged from her body.
It was the blood which caused her to collapse. When her stomach gave in, her hair returned to its normal limp nature and length. As Saboten’s healing factor kicked in, he brought himself to her side and comforted her through violent shots of bile.
“What have I done?”
“You’re safe now, don’t worry.” Saboten wiped the blood from her hair and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
“Thank you,” she said as she coughed up the last of her regret, pushing her head into his chest, “thank you so much.”