A night of very little sleep, plagued by Saboten’s unconscious mumbling and sleep shivering. She was served nothing dream-like in the solid two hours she did sleep. Dreams had been an escape from it all, even when Shax invaded them with her ever-lacking wisdom, the fantasy was enough for the moment. Time stood still, water was fresh and the world was a pleasant, relaxing place where the only worry was school. Saboten was doing his best to bring a shred of normality back with a breakfast hand-built from tinned sardines and stale bread.
His smile looked drawn on as he pushed the food onto her lap. “Eat up.”
She was hungry, she had been hungry for a long time. Food was currently a luxury, the last dinner she remembered was those hamburgers. She could still smell them, a remnant of real life. She felt… well, she didn’t know the word. Immature? Ungrateful? But the spread wasn’t exactly appetising. The usual salted smell of the sardines had faded into something unrecognisable, and inedible. Saboten’s glare had been fixated not on her eyes, but her lips.
“I can’t eat,” it was unworldly, he was almost looking straight through her. Every movement that she made towards the plate went unnoticed, as though he only cared about the food passing her lips. Poison. No, no chance. For one thing, that was much too subtle for Belphegor, and there would be a visible change if he had taken over Saboten 100%. He was starting to show signs though, wasn’t he? Now she had to be careful, it was in Belphegor’s favour to get ride of any distractions.
“What’s wrong with it?”
His brow furrowed, “there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m just not hungry.” Her words snapped at him and, in response, his eyes finally shot upwards to hers. “I’m sorry, there’s just a lot on my mind. Shouldn’t Leyim have called by now?”
“Are you all right? You seem a little distant Saboten.” His eyes sunk back down, waiving back and forth between states of actual consciousness. Ayame needed Leyim’s help here, Belphegor could take over at any point and, if that happened, she was not powerful enough to take him out on her own. Creeping towards the cellphone, she noticed it was skewiff, not how she left it at all.
“Don’t touch that.”
“Don’t pick that phone up.”
“Why?” The trigger had been pulled. Belphegor was sabotaging the survival of their friends, “what have you done?”
“It’s for our safety, Ayame.” As she picked up the cell phone, the back plate fell from the device, revealing an empty battery compartment. “It’s Leyim, she’s not one of us.”
“Not one of us? Saboten, what are you talking about? Of course she’s one of us!”
“She’ll get us killed.”
“You’re going to get them killed, you’re going to get the both of us killed. We need Leyim, just as much as we need Shinji and Hiro, are you just going to let them die?”
“They’re traitors too, you should’ve seen this coming Ayame. I knew it was a mistake waiting for them, Shinji is dangerous.”
“He’s not going to kill us.”
“He tried to kill me already!”
Yes… He had already attacked Saboten, but they knew why that happened. “We’re all suffering like Shinji, it’s not our fault. He can’t control himself… and neither can you.”
Visible fury, “don’t you ever compare me to him.”
“A- all right, I’m sorry.”
“Now, put the phone down…”
Why was she sorry? She had done nothing wrong, and she let him know with great emphasis as her hair hardened for battle. “Belphegor is pushing his way into your life and you can’t even tell what’s going on. He’s warping your fears and insecurities. Hideki has died and you don’t even fucking care any more, do you? Has that occurred to you yet? Or are you too blind to see that you’re completely devoid of real emotions right now?”
“I get it, you’re afraid. You have every right to be afraid but we also have to stay safe.”
“Don’t pretend you’re doing this for my benefit, Belphegor.”
“Don’t call me that either.”
“Are you going to attack me, Belphegor? I know you’ve been waiting for the right moment.” She was ready, now or never. Belphegor would strike and she would do her best in the struggle. “Or were you just going to poison my breakfast like a coward? If you won’t hand over the battery, I’m going to take it from you.”
“This isn’t what I want, Ayame.”
“What about me? I want the old Saboten back, I want to regroup with Leyim and I want to mourn the loss of our friend. And I can’t do that with Belphegor hanging around in the forefront of your subconscious.”
“I’m not going to attack you, that’s not what’s happening here. And I haven’t poisoned your food, I just thought you might be hungry. I’m going to go to a konbini and pick something up for you, okay?”
“Don’t act all innocent.”
“I’m not acting, and we’ll talk about this when I get back.”
It was for the best, Saboten assured himself. He was in charge here, he knew what was safe and of course, he had the best judgement. Ayame couldn’t take care of herself right now, she needed him and Belphegor’s power. Belphegor… He meant his own powers, of course he did. Belphegor had been quiet recently, he wasn’t causing any trouble for him. Hiding after losing control once again, it was a mutual decision last time. Did that mean something? Had he slipped up and just given himself to Belphegor willingly? He had felt somewhat strange.
As he passed down the hallway, taking the elevator to the third floor, the building shook and his travel ceased for a brief moment as though the power dropped. A quick shudder followed before the doors opened. Squirming amongst the shag carpet and trashed paintings laid a Shinigami. Oozing and pustulating, an enlarged stomach sack bore most of the creature’s weight. He summoned his weapon; even this pathetic, weakened monster might pose a threat in its own way. He needed to dispose of it but… as it crawled on stump limps, barely moving a centimetre with each breathe. It had already been attacked by a stronger, more able Shinigami.
He swung his weapon upwards, coming down on the creature with enough force to end its life in a fluid motion. The mumbling refused to cease even after death as a grumble came from its stomach. Amongst the numerous cysts and tumours, several additional lumps appeared beneath the skin, scrambling for space. The stomach ruptured forth, flushing the body of an amber cream and a flurry of black beetles. These creatures spewed out in numbers well into the hundreds. Eight legged Shinigami, no larger than a ¥50 coin, complete with circular mouths and triangular pupils, on each of their backs protruded a stiff, hooked tail sharpened to a point.
At once, the creatures spotted Saboten and charged towards him, hopping higher than imaginable from their miniature size. Saboten was faster than them and his reaction speeds were impeccable but the sheer number of creatures made it impossible to fight them all off by hand. Only an outburst of flames could truly put them down and, when each laid burnt to a crisp, he continued down the building.
It was still safe in his mind, they were still okay. No real danger, even if that creature managed to climb three floors, it couldn’t possibly make it into the room, nor could it work an elevator. No Hakujou were lucky or smart enough to reach them and, in either case, the city was relatively untouched. If they needed to move, Ayame’s apartment was also above ground level. But wait… as the cool air washed over his face, he saw the city wasn’t all right. Something was different, the buildings had all been brutalised, especially the konbini whose walls had collapsed around ransacked refrigerators. He scrambled over the rubble, shaking his head. Had this all happened over night? It didn’t make mathematical sense, there were bodies beneath bricks that had stiffened up and rotted away, attacked by both tooth and sword.
The Hakujou had been here, as had soldiers of some description. Mishima, like most places, had been damaged beyond repair and the people had been attacked. Had any of them made it out alive? There wasn’t anywhere for them to go, even home wasn’t safe now. The illusion had been broken, he could see the danger and his own foolish mistakes. He shouldn’t have left Ayame alone but all sorts of horrors could’ve reached Leyim by now. If Shinji had turned as his dream had predicted, she would’ve be able to defend herself. The Envy was another threat, they were not out of the hot water yet. Hideki would be their last loss, he promised, and a burial was also required. As soon as he could collect himself, Saboten returned to his home.
The door clicked twice and opened; Ayame was standing beside it, ready to launch forwards and contain Saboten in her hair again. Belphegor posed too much of a threat to knock Saboten out, she didn’t fully understand his powers. She pulled his bedroom apart whilst he was gone and now the cellphone was in the process of switching on, powered solely by a charging cable. It woke up without haste, waiting to alert her of Leyim’s imminent death or something similarly tragic. Meanwhile, Saboten had fallen to his knees in front of her.
“What?” She was awash with confusion but stood strong in the face of a trickster. “I don’t believe you.”
“No, I mean this… I think messed up,” he took the time to explain his revelation in sentences taken straight out of some Belphegor debugging manual, troubleshooting their paired existence. It was him after all, Saboten had been put under some kind of spell after allowing the demon to step forward. His apology was cut short by the nostalgic triple tone alert which rang from the cellphone in the other room. The battery was returned to its rightful owner as the two of them fumbled to its location, revealing seven unread emails from an unknown service: Leyim’s phone.
The latest message was impossible to decipher, written in some kind of code that substituted full strings of sentences with simple letters. Upon reaching the first message, the truth was revealed. The three of them had been captured and were in deep trouble, needing Saboten and Ayame’s help hours ago. The messages had been pouring in every few hours, the most recent only arriving 10 minutes ago.
Knowing their time had been running out, the two fled the building and arrived on the street with know plan of action. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” said Saboten. “I’m sorry.”
“Not now.” This was no time to place blame, that would come after Leyim, Hiro and Shinji were safe. “We… we can’t just walk, we don’t have time for that.” There was only one viable option; a driverless vehicle. The sparse number of cars and bikes in the area had been abandoned prematurely, which meant at least one person had forgotten their keys, right? They split up to search, anything driverless would do. With empty roads, it would’ve been a piece of cake to arrive at the forest but… the only vehicle they could find with the keys still in the ignition was a motorcycle, and it needed to be driven.
“Do you think you can handle it?” she asked Saboten as he hopped on, knowing she couldn’t handle the speed herself.
“We don’t really have a choice.”
She supposed not, “don’t get us killed.”
Ayame clambered onto the back which had not been designed to fit another person. The bike’s body was modelled after an early model, holding the bulky and awkward design of something not meant for transporting human beings. It looked like it might even fall apart at the sides and the handlebars had been duct-taped in several places to provide additional grip. It seemed to be a simple enough design, two brakes and that twist-thing you alway see. The keys were already half-turned as though the driver had made an attempt to leave before his escape.
Now, they would stand a chance of reaching the Citadel in time, perhaps in one piece. Saboten twisted the key and pulled down on the handles; he looked straight ahead into the distance and a calm returned to his face. “Let’s go!”
Thank you for taking the time to read this chapter.
If you enjoy our work, why not consider sponsoring The Chestnut Cottage on Patreon?