It was a fresh reality, one which offered a multitude of evidence pertaining to the nature of Belphegor’s ‘turns’, despite certain intricacies still escaping his grasp. First: it activated without express permission — perhaps by instinct, or interference — when faced with a near-death experience.
Second: his consciousness had been pulled by forces unknown from one Host-Saboten to another; Core Reality to Reality-001 where indigo was the first colour to return.
Third: he suspected it was a switch-deal where some poor, unsuspecting version of himself had tried his best to escape the unknown forces of his own event horizon. Expecting only death and instead receiving a fate-worse-than; an impending battle sans one limb.
Fourth: all things seemed unchanged. Wasn’t that unusual? ‘Something’s something’, ‘someone’s razor’ maybe? It wasn’t as though Saboten chose which reality to inhabit, was he simply dragged to the most similar, or appropriate? He wanted to interrogate the dumb-founded Nori but it would take too much time and too many questions before they’d strike gold, or the Reality-001 equivalent. Instead, he put his newish limb to good use, searching behind his ear for that gift of a cigarette only to find…
Was that honestly the difference in this reality?
A second cigarette tucked behind his ear?
Waste not, want not.
He placed the filter-tip between his lips with tremors in his bones, and set it alight with a contained burst of his ‘Lunar Shot’. It must’ve been out of character for this world’s Saboten because Ayame seemed to jump into action at the rippling sound it caused.
It was a subtle reaction; a narrowing of the eyes, legs tensed and a shoulder-width apart.
“You did it, didn’t you?” Nori said, “you’re shaking all over, kid. What was it like?”
Was his voice deeper than before? Did he seem somewhat kinder? It wasn’t an easy trait to distinguish considering he’d known Nori for approximately one hour. “Did you see it happen?”
“See what happen?” asked Ayame.
“There wasn’t any physical change, apart from the vomit.”
“You changed reality, Saboten?”
It wasn’t like that, nothing had ‘changed’. It didn’t come as advertised, he explained, boiling the experience down to the simplified: “swapping with this world’s Saboten, hoping nothing is dramatically different.”
“That’s sad, isn’t it?” she said, almost returning to that previous state of awareness. “Do you think our Saboten will be okay?”
“Probably,” he avoided the grim reality, of course. It was unavoidable though, wasn’t it? Saboten’s original reality was, by all means, fucked beyond belief. RS — Replaced Saboten — was wounded, not to mention confused. He’d have absolutely no idea why, or how, either, would he?
He turned to Nori in particular, almost pathetic, and admitted his fault; “it wasn’t on purpose either,” he said. “I don’t know if I can do it again.”
“What triggered it?”
“You cut my arm off, you bastard.” He blinked, and turned back to Ayame. “Belphegor’ll sort it out.”
“I— I guess it’s meaningless, right? It’s just so weird. Kinda scary, actually,” she admitted. “I don’t think anybody should have access to that kind of control.”
“I think I agree,” said Saboten, “Nori?”
A nod; even betwixt realities, Saboten was far too great an asset the The World. Nori pinched his cigarette and inhaled slow and deep like a parent, hiding in the shed for their single, forbidden smoke of the day. When he returned it — half-smoked, and a wee bit wet at the end — he offered the kid a pat on the back.
The rain was pleasant awash his skin; it was hot, damp, and untouched. Nori and Saboten had fought, like his own reality, but it appeared the two came out evenly matched.
“I’d like to have seen a little more of that reality before I came here,” said Saboten.
“I wanted to see Nori try to explain his way out of dismembering his only chance at survival.”
“It was your fault.”
“You weren’t there!”
“I don’t make mistakes.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to beat him?”
“You’re kinda relaxed, does that mean you’re confident?” she asked, still staring out towards the station. Was she different too? She seemed more reserved in her personality, but more open about her fears. It could’ve just been the situation which, after all, was pretty damn dire. “You’re not my Saboten, he didn’t get the choice. I just don’t like not knowing your intentions, it feels like Siegfried all over again.”
Understandable to the 10th degree, he’d not thought about Siegfried’s betrayal since it occurred, refusing to let The Envy imprint such a powerful visage in his mind. “It’s nothing like that,” he told her.
“How am I supposed to trust you?”
“Before Nori and I started to train, you said something to me and… uh, shit.”
“N— no, it’s just confusing. I don’t know which conversations have happened, or what you know, or if what I know is even still true… Anyway, when we found out that we were twenty years older than we thought we were…” he paused for a moment for a spluttered reaction, but it seemed she knew that already. He was good to go ahead. “…sure, it’s a slap in the face but it wasn’t a choice, and there’s nothing to do to turn it back. We should focus on the future, and what we can do.”
A smirk, covered by her hand as soon as it was detected and just before it erupted into a guffaw. “It definitely didn’t sound like that when I said it,” she mocked.
Signs of a warm smile on both sides as though perhaps eyes could be shifted away from the problem as suggested. There was a time limit, of course, and Saboten didn’t want to pass on knowing that his friend no longer considered him a friend. Still, a sense of familiarity flickered between them, deterred only by the parting of clouds.
Again, Ayame’s defensive switch rolled itself onto ‘Active Mode’. She took up her stance as a congregation of claps echoed, and a collection of coloured fireworks — greens and blues — burned out above The Envy’s camp. A predetermined signal which the Core Reality Team Karasu hadn’t considered.
“Aoi… The Envy’s clocked her position, that’s our break over.”
“You’ve got a plan, right? Like, you’re definitely on the same page?”
“We’re pretty sure…”
“This is confusing,” she sighed.
“It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision.”
“W— was that a pun?”
“Let’s regroup,” said Nori as he slipped back through the skylight. Saboten and Ayame followed, a silent pact to avoid mentioning Saboten’s journey at any cost. Only Leyim and Sun remained in the net cafe, both Aoi and Cleo had been sent to undertake separate assignments.
Where did they get flares?
“Ayame and Sun,” began Nori, stepping toward the front door as though he needed to safeguard the exits before asking a desperate favour or something like that. “I have been asked to offer you a choice.”
“My Jigoku Urn allows me to excommunicate a Shinigami Lord’s presence from one consciousness, storing it within my own. It’s your choice, but I can return your humanity if that’s what you want.”
“Why would you even ask that question?” said Leyim, furious at the insinuation. “This is a desperate situation, we need all the help we can get.”
“Actually,” he said. “I’m more worried they’ll be in the way. Ayame’s power isn’t suited for combat, and Sun is too big a target. If he’s nearby, you know The Envy will take advantage of that.”
“I suppose… but what about Sun’s condition?”
“According to our sources, Sun’s illness is caused by the stress of being Kanzen. It’s parasympathetic, I guess. No, wrong word… Psychogenic?” He scratched his head, “anyway, he’ll be fine once you get him to the city’s hospital. Cleo is currently taking care of that situation. Liberation, so to speak.“
The little boy tugged at the chest of his sweatshirt, “Gamigin is the reason my heart hurts?”
“Data shows that children, animals, and the elderly don’t cope well under possession.”
“Are there consequences?” asked Ayame.
“Are you serious?”
“You’re not actually considering giving your Shinigami up, are you?” Leyim’s face grew scarlet and her eyes narrowed, “The Envy isn’t the end of this, Ayame. There’s so much work left to do, we need you.”
Not true, and she knew it.
Unless her true abilities were shrouded like her face, Shax wasn’t suited for combat. That’s what the Team needed from her, surely it would be better for Ayame to step back? She’d take care of Sun; keep him safe until he could have some semblance of a normal life, like Hideki would’ve wanted. Leave Team Karasu in Saboten and Leyim’s charge, leading Nori and his group.
A new flock, bolstered by whatever was left of the Hunter’s Guild.
A Free Company, nothing to hold it back.
Fine mist enveloped Ayame, transporting her from the dusty desks of the lifeless cafe to the gaudy, haunted pink of her old bedroom which, she imagined, laid in rubble at the moment. Twenty years… Saboten was lucky his apartment hadn’t been ransacked, or resold.
Her family would never have been informed, would they? In their eyes, Ayame just went missing. Kidnapped or murdered, she wasn’t the type to run-away, she never even made the threat. She couldn’t figure out their next move; would they have stuck around, long after all hope had been buried? Or would they have just moved far away, distancing themselves from the painful, familiar locations?
Time had no effect on her possessions here. Not a single item had been touched since she had last been summoned into this room; the tea table, the photograph of herself and the scarless Saboten, and the Shinigami Lord of Bone laying atop her bed. Still wearing her crown, and the see-through robe, Shax didn’t even sit-up to greet her host.
I’m hearing bad things, baby.
“Do you know if it’ll work?”
You’ve made up your mind, I understand. Haagenti was always powerful so I wouldn’t doubt her, shrugged the demon. You will miss me though, and I you.
“Are there any consequences?”
“I don’t need your strength,” she smiled. “I think I’ll be fine.”
Shax raised herself; an empty, slender cigarette holder stuck out from between painted black lips. Her skin shimmered in the lamplight, despite her delicate skeletal frame. She shook her head, forcing auburn curls to shake free from her face, revealing tired brown eyes and thick, caterpillar-eyebrows. It’s not that, she said. I know you, but don’t forget how Malphas made you feel. You’re used to ‘this’, it won’t be easy.
Plus, she continued with a smile which spread with each additional, teasing word, allowing the holder to drop to the carpet below. It’ll be losing a part of yourself.
Ayame wafted away the illusion like smoke, “I’ve made up my mind, Shax. Goodbye, and thank you.”