When the radiating light of Belphegor's Utopia faded away as it always had done, reality was no longer present and waiting to fill up the void. Instead, a near-absolute darkness stood in its place. It forced a litter of goosebumps to rear up across Saboten's skin as all the experience he'd gained up to this point, all the battles he'd faced in the past couple of weeks, and all the lessons that he'd learned in the wake of certain death as the boy gazed out into the abyss.
Here, nothingness was at home.
With his arm outstretched, Saboten could only just about see the shape of his hand. In summoning his katana, the boy brought a fleeting light to his surroundings. To his surprise, the Kara Sekai wasn't an Empty Realm at all.
This paranormal land had been ravaged by human iconography. The makings of Earth-dwellers scattered in every direction, as far as Saboten's eyes could strain. The remnants of stone walls, crumbling under their own weight for centuries were lumped beside pristine glass skyscrapers which appeared to carry-on upwards for miles further than the architects initial intentions.
It all harkened back to Belphegor's distraction: an ever-expanding realm brimming with the "manifestation of impossible-to-reach memories".
These items — which now sat untouched by actual human hands - were the key components of former lives. Saboten had been forced into the Kara Sekai once before but now, he could take it all in. The shock of it all was not allowed to overthrow his body, not right now. But mere moments in the Kara Sekai could span days in his realm and, for a flash, he fell distracted for he knew nothing of the time he'd already wasted.
Somewhere in this space, The Envy sulked. And it would only take him so long to recover, even in a wounded state.
A woman producing a full-sized yacht from one of her unnatural tattoos was, by far, the most spectacular and most disgusting thing that Leyim Rossi had ever witnessed. She had watched the entire process against the artist's wishes and still, she had no idea how that boat had slipped out of the strange little door manifested by her ability.
For about an hour, the five of them had bobbed along the half-polluted Oyabe River where no Shinigami would step foot as though they were afraid to tread water of any kind. In an attempt to distract and raise group morale, little Cleo had been excitedly retelling the story of their misfit band. According to her, they had begun their time with SCARECROW as bounty hunters, at least ten years prior to Ayame's awakening.
Their duties tended to be few and far between but, in short, involved the capture of any loose Shinigami — be it Kanzen or otherwise — and "gently recruiting potential candidates" according to Aoi, the revelation of this information left her silenced for the remainder of the journey. Cleo, however, continued with gusto like she'd caught wind of Aoi's disappointment in herself, and their muddied past.
"It's not all bad though!" she said, "without us, Shinji would never have triggered that great escape! Sure... we might have made a little mistake with your snake thingy, but we were watching you at every step in the beginning to make sure that you wouldn't trip."
"What do you mean by that?"
"It's simple, really... We've been watching your journey since you escaped. We saw Saboten defeat The Greed. I mean, it was a bit touch and go, but we were ready to step in. And we even pummelled The Pride and The Wrath a little before they took you on!"
"No, I don't understand," said Ayame. "I mean, why?"
"We're the same designation," said Cleo. "Code:Solar, that's our codename. We were designed by SCARECROW at the same time... Uhm, how did Nori put it? Oh! Curated, our powers work well together."
Of course, Leyim recognised that title without hesitation. In the past, just the mention of Code:Solar struck a chord. Her initial mission following her promotion was to trace them, report back, and amass a crack team of Hunters to take them on.
Unfortunate circumstances aside, she now considered herself part-and-parcel of the troupe. SCARECROW had delivered their accumulative data on the group to the Amber Citadel after they'd been tagged as rogue operatives. Code:Solar was denoted as highly dangerous, and the largest company developed by SCARECROW in their research programme. It consisted of sixteen operatives;
• Hideki Toramaru, internally known as Venus — [Confirmed Deceased]
• Ayame Suzuki, internally known as Mercury — [Currently Human]
• Shinji Yamaguchi, internally known as Jupiter — [Confirmed Deceased]
• Hironobu Nakamura, internally known as Saturn — [Considered Deceased]
• Saboten, internally known as Mars — [Considered Deceased]
• Rho Dwelt, internally known as Neptune — [Confirmed Deceased]
• Nori Adachi, internally known as Juno — [Currently Active]
• Aoi Okuda, internally known as Earth — [Currently Active]
• Cleo Nishina, internally known as Pallas — [Currently Active]
• Sun Toramaru, internally known as Uranus — [Currently Human]
Additional reading included three missing operatives;
• Emil Don, internally known as Moon
• Anja Vergil, internally known as Eris
• Kanri Kajitani, internally known as Haumea
Furthermore, two operatives had been brought-in alive by Leyim's Hunters;
• April XIX, internally known as Vesta
• Akubi Nayami, internally known as Ceres
Along with another unsuitably dangerous Kanzen, those two had been locked away in the Citadel away from the prying eyes of The Envy, or the guts of The World. Still, that incomplete list left one remaining operative out of the picture; Pluto.
In the real-world, he was known as Verentine Rothschild. The former Captain of the NEA Hunters, and Leyim Rossi's mentor. He was confirmed deceased, however. Leyim had put Verentine in the ground herself.
"Simply put," said Cleo. "We've always been the same group, Ayame. We're kinda like the Crows to your Ravens! And we've been looking forward to working with you."
Amongst the rubble of long-gone ages, betwixt a forest so thin that it had no business existing, Saboten uncovered The Envy hunched over his own sword like a father protecting its own flesh-and-blood. It was a fitting battleground, dating the existence of the Kara Sekai back to before the Common Era.
Simple metal weaponry embedded in the cold earth.
They marked the grave-sites of a barbaric force who — surrounding evidence suggested — took to combat like war was their birthright.
No longer alone in the darkness, The Envy raised himself to his feet but not without propping up his haggard shell against the worn body of his weapon. He could hardly lift it and, in fact, he didn't even try. The less he moved, the quicker he'd be able to leave Saboten alone in the dust. He could pull himself into another reality but, no matter what, the boy's experience taught him that his position wouldn't shift an inch.
"Everything in this world is.... a by-product of human cognition," said The Envy with a gesture towards his dimmed surroundings. "Down to the dirt... Stupid, infectious thoughts like how important you'd look if your kingdom had these massive stone walls, or how the legends of certain creatures made it difficult for your little girl to sleep at night. It all wound up here in some form or another."
"Are we here for a reason?" said Saboten as his approach continued through their meaningless dialogue. There was nothing that The Envy could say to slow his demise; no last words, no final revelations. This time, Saboten would prove his resolve. "This spot, I mean."
"Nah," said The Envy. "It was an accident."
"Is that the truth?" he mocked, destroying the distance between them by a few steps at a time. "I don't believe you, you've always got something up your sleeve."
"The Kara Sekai... It expands out from the the middle and, in that middle, there's this tower."
"Energy stopped flowing from the Human World about... oh, let's say 1020 years ago. Some kinda Universal Entity plugged the gap and stopped the flow and, since then, Beelzebub has been stockpiling energy leftovers in that big-ass tower. It's that way..." he pointed to the left, "about fifty miles."
"Keep talking, you've always had a way with words..."
"Every few days, I'd come back and watch the tower shiver and shake and then... poof! It'd crumble, and the lowest rung would be crushed to let the stockpile flow outwards."
Saboten stopped hardly a handshake away from The Envy. His eyes remained locked onto his foes, but the latter's just floated aimlessly in the darkness behind him. "So?"
The Envy's lazy gaze just fell back to the boy; puzzled. "You clearly don't get it, do ya? That's the second-stage of The World's plan, Saboten. So what, she becomes a fixed point in time... Great, but that's just a fancier word for immortal and Beelzebub is already immortal."
"So, what's next on the ol' docket? Fuck all forever? Nah, she wants to merge the two worlds together. How? She needs us, Saboten. You: master of the prevalent reality, and me..." he said, slipping his hand further down the shaft of his weapon. "...master of this empty, empty world."
In no less than a second, The Envy made his first-and-only attempt at a strike. It was intricate, and well thought-out but it simply wasn't enough on three factors; he was exhausted, he had underestimated the distance, and he did not have the power that he so desired.
The Envy wasn't Saboten, but an inferior Sculpture of the man he wanted to be. His body twisted and, with a single arm, he raised his weapon. Before the movement even reached its apex, Saboten cleaved the limb from its socket.
No hesitation, just one clean strike.
It fell with the weight of his world, and The Envy dropped too. He struggled to the end - even making it to his feet despite the unholy wave of blood bursting from blown veins. With a grimace, the man once known as Siegfried charged teeth-first.
They fell too; Saboten removed them without effort. Just an simple elbow, which he followed by slipping his blade through The Envy's lower back.
Paralysed, The Envy buckled for the last time.
As clear as he could, The Envy spoke.
It was difficult to transcribe but, as far as he could tell, Saboten heard: "aren't you upset?"
And "as soon as you end this, that's it..."
And, finally, "you'll never be whole. You'll never share those memories..."
Saboten pulled The Envy up by his shirt, both hands shaking under the pressure of a limp weight. "Those memories," he said, "were never mine to share."
Time slowed, and the world surrounding them seemed to pull back. A familiar, if not haunting feeling as all colour faded from the Kara Sekai. This time, Saboten himself was pulled towards that immense vanishing point that he'd previously only witnessed.
Unaffected by his own doing, he could only watch-on as unaware being he'd known as The Envy began to peel away like aged paint. Once his existence had been truly erased, and time returned to its natural pace, Saboten fell to his back.
The cold, wet dirt melted over his fresh wounds.
He was finally alone; a suitable moment for that last cigarette. It had stayed behind his ear, even through-out all the fighting.
A sign for sure.
In an hour or two, Saboten would be right as rain. Perhaps, somewhere in this Empty Realm, he would find Hiro. Likely? No, not at all, but wasn't it worth a look?
As he allowed the smoke to fill and leave his lungs at a gentle pace, Saboten turned his heavy head in the direction of that mythical tower, and let his weary eyes shut.