The forest soon came to a close after Saboten and Ayame had left the unconscious Hunters alone in the woods. It wasn’t as large as they had expected, plaques indicated the existence of towns in the area once upon a time, before the early 2600’s. As Japan’s population inevitably declined - Saboten recalled - cities and towns of little historical merit were demolished, replaced by the finest examples of the island’s natural beauty.
The remaining folk were relocated into larger, developing cities: mostly Himeji and Nagoya and, eventually, Mishima which had evolved into thriving metropolitan areas, fit with sky scraping apartment buildings and multi-level convenience stores. It was Nagoya that his family originated from, moving to Mishima beginning with his grandfather before Saboten’s birth. Now, he had reached his home after a long journey and that was enough to sooth his mind.
Mishima was home, it always had been and even in a less than perfect state, it stayed that way. The entire city had been evacuated, it seemed. It was all too quiet, konbini’s had been trashed and claw marks desecrated public furnishings but not a single human being remained. There were no bodies, there were no signs of immediate threat. Peaceful, serene: that is how he remembered it.
“It feels like it’s been so long.”
“How long were we in Numazu?” he asked, a question that had lingered beforehand but not once had it been answered. Nobody within their small circle would know the answer to that question, it wouldn’t exactly be easy information to come across either. Numazu’s computers would have been destroyed in the blaze.
“Hey, Saboten.” Ayame stopped her train of thought for a second, her posture sagged. She was taking everything in bit by bit, not as impressed as Saboten was. She was having a tough time processing the images ahead, “I don’t think I’ve thought about my parents since we left Numazu.”
“It looks like the city was prepared, right? Maybe they’re locked down in one of the apartment towers.” She looked away from him, taking a couple of sharp, shallow breaths inwards. She was sniffing and for good reason as there was a sickly smell around. Bitter, harsh, acidic. A stink that burnt the interior of your nostrils as you tried to decipher where it was coming from. I
“I doubt it,” she told him. The negativity returned to his mind in droves, not that she was wrong to be upset. On the other hand, he wanted to forget about everything. Just for the moment, the two of they were momentarily safe. It was too late for Hideki but… Never mind, he suppressed those emotions as hard as he could, burying it beneath other unspeakable thoughts.
“Let’s keep going,” he told her. His own apartment, left to him in his grandfather’s will, was in the building to their left: grey bricks all the way to the top, rather, to the vanishing point which sat somewhere at the 45% mark. It had been boarded-up, the windows reinforced but took little force for the two of them to break in to the foyer. All those memories came flooding back from the holes Belphegor had built in his Utopia. The light returned to the building, at least for a second, as the ghostly image of a well-rounded, greying doorman appeared in the corner of his eyes. It was him, Tsutomu… His last name alluded him still, a name they shared.
The two of them left the lobby, taking the stairs which to Ayame resembled something more of a fire escape, leading them to the chilling embrace of a winter’s afternoon. Between them and the apartment sat 52 levels; the elevator awaited on the third floor. They skipped steps, spoke briefly and it all felt strange. Like Saboten didn’t know what was happening, like he had already forgotten that Hideki had just died in front of them, those memories had just disappeared entirely.
It was him, wasn’t it? Belphegor was tampering with his emotions, it was unnatural and it scared her. If he wanted to, the demon could remove all traces of Saboten’s past and turn him into an empty husk before long. It was a gradual process, no doubt, but Saboten wasn’t in total control again. All she could do was watch; and she was watching. As they climbed the outer staircase of the apartment building, she peeked between curtains. The building had been safe after all, too safe. Beneath a kotatsu, two elderly women held each other’s fragile hands. Eyes closed, stiff postures, skin and bones.
Ayame tugged the phone from her pocket and dialled her home number, now desperate to hear from her parents. The call rang out each time; even as she raised her arm to the sky, hoping the shorter distance would make some kind of difference. Hopeless, even as they climbed through to the third floor up, the signal seemed infinitely lacking. As soon as they had settled and Leyim knew they were safe, the two of them would head towards her own home and rescue her parents from peril. It was fine for Saboten, he didn’t have family to lose any more.
That was awful, what a terrible thing to say.
It was true though; his parents left, his grandfather died. He was a natural born loner, always preferring his own company. Even in school he kept to himself in the library, only occasionally popping out to visit Ayame and her friends. Gosh, her friends. How were they doing? It wasn’t unlikely for them to be locked up in their own apartments but as everybody starves to death, the suffering is all the same. Team Karasu had already left their attack too late, the damage had been done but it wasn’t hopeless. There was still the rest of Japan, there was still people to save. Saboten himself was on the list.
The home was quite familiar; open-plan and spacey. The bed had been moved since the last time she came over, placed in the front room alongside the exposed brick wall. It felt cold and unusual, it had been empty for a long time. From the books to the kitchen full of canned food, everything was coated in a thick layer of dust and the occasional cockroach passed by around their feet in search of running water, of which there was none. There was nothing about the place that felt right, as Ayame had expected of course. She had a bad feeling about everything now and a well deserved one at that.
“Saboten?” he hadn’t commented on the state of his home yet. He was just staring out the main window, through the slanted blinds. “Are you all right?”
He nodded, it was probably hard to stomach. A safe place for the first time in a while, he was taking a breather. “We should stay here for a little while, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know, I need to visit my parents. I need to know they’re all right.”
“Yeah… Yeah, of course. We’ll do that, soon.”
The phone rang, chirping in the darkness of night. Ayame was gone, leaving behind only her smell and a few stray strands of that golden hair, a couple spots of blood. The phone needed attention urgently, it begged for his full co-operation and, as he lifted the device to his ear, it released an explosive sound and pierced his skull. Everything stopped in that second as Leyim spoke through the blast. In muffled words she spoke chaotic streams of pretzeled sentences, poisonous and bitter lies. He was being betrayed, Leyim had only brought doom.
First Hideki, she told him, that was stage one. Hiro fell next, The Envy took care of him. Finally, she emerged from the darkness with Ayame in tow and mop of white hair held her tightly. Shinji, Saboten should’ve known that it would be him. He felt it during their fight, he was not to be trusted. His arm had returned, bloody and red, and in its grip he held a new weapon. The steel swirled with the combination of both paints; marbled white and black. Another colour soon joined the fray.
When you fall asleep and time seems to cease; when you apparate in the morning like only seconds have passed; when you don’t get any rest you simply… stop. That’s how Saboten felt when he finally woke. In sweat and tears, Saboten could’ve lost half his body weight but it was edging on morning, and they were both still alive. He stood, stretched, stuck his nose between the blinds and watched as the sun peeked out from the horizon. He was waiting for the phone to ring, Leyim was on the cusp of betrayal.
The phone was the source of this drama. With it, at any moment their position could be given away, Ayame is not yet aware of her position in this war. It would be impossible to stay safe with that GPS online constantly. As it was laying beside her, he removed the battery from the back and disposed of it in the toilet.
“We’re safe now.”
“Did you say something?”
“Nothing… Go back to sleep.”
The Envy refused to let up on the anguish as Leyim and Hiro stood strong in the face of torture. There was nothing he could do to break them but it wasn’t information that the psychopath was after, it was suspicion. The Envy didn’t care what they had to say, he’d gagged and bound them. The longer he could stop the two of them from making contact, the more likely it was for Saboten to return for them. He was protective, that was his downfall. He would never let his friends die, nor leave them in the glare of danger. He was a good man.
The cuts and bruises that were scorn across their bodies would’ve spelled out “trap” if The Envy had the cognitive function for spelling. Instead, they more resembled roots, the beginnings of rebellion. With every chance she had, Leyim pulled the phone closer to her cuffed hands. The Envy dug into his meal so often that touch typing a shortened message seemed too simple a defiance.
“NV capture. Come prepd. He wants S not U,” whether the message made it in time was the only question left to be answered
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