Not a moment was wasted.
The distance between Saboten and The Envy collapsed in the blink of an eye, and their weapons collided with enough force to shatter them both. With immediate effect, the fight devolved into a brawl. Fist broke fist and bones fell back on themselves under the immense pressure of each strike. From the get-go, their unique healing factors worked overtime; Saboten’s being more effective, but The Envy’s acted quicker.
That minuscule advantage turned the tables over early as Saboten found himself knocked far enough back for The Envy to pull back his weapon. The hefty broadsword’s form had altered, was it a new piece all together? Saboten thought it might act similar to his own supply which was infinite and malleable but all this time, The Envy had carried his on his back. This weapon eclipsed its master’s wingspan: double-edged, unscathed, and finished with a blunt, crescent tip.
A distance of twenty-five feet had fallen between them but even now, Saboten could see that this weapon was meant for him. With a fringe forged to perfection by some calamitous smith, even the atmosphere suffered irreparable wounds. Saboten’s healing factor scoffed at bastardised limbs but it couldn’t grow them back. Still, he charged because that’s what he needed to do. It wasn’t about winning the battle, it was about playing out the long game. If The Envy didn’t warp them both to the Kara Sekai, it had all been a waste of time.
As expected, Bael’s masterpiece shattered Saboten’s katana, and trading it in for Belphegor’s own broadsword made little-to-no difference. The Envy carried himself in another class as though he’d donned a new disguise; all the power, all the technique, all the confidence of the enemy he’d faced before sans the smug attitude that gave him away.
“Don’t think I haven’t caught on to your little game, Saboten.”
Already exhausted, the warrior replied; “if you’re on to me, you’ve gotta understand why this has to happen, right?”
The Envy shook his damn head.
Maybe, on some level, he did understand why they couldn’t just keep stomping around the countryside while The World made plans for domination, or whatever, but he’d never accept it.
“The World is just going to swallow you eventually. You can’t really think tha—”
“You’ve got it wrong! I’m an asset to The Fool’s utopia. Captain of her armies, slayer of her enemies.”
“What armies? What enemies? Look, I’m not gonna lie and tell you that I understand what’s she’s trying to do but don’t you get what being a fixed point in time means?” he said, casting his gaze across the world around them. The World, The Fool… Fuck it, that bastard wouldn’t need anybody by her side. Reality itself would become unrecognisable. “If anything, she’ll just want to complete her collection.”
Despite the distance between them, Saboten could smell the sweat beading atop his foe’s forehead. As it trickled down, beating against their battleground, a plan surfaced.
“No,” he started, preparing himself for an expected onslaught. His summoned sword raised at an angle in one hand as the other climbed to his face, and caressed the scars that bordered his eye socket. “Why would she even bother? I mean, why would The World need your sham worlds when she could have any world she wants?”
It was no surprise when The Envy charged forwards, “Face it, you’re just a pathetic imitation!” he baited as he blocked. Saboten figured that, if he could infuriate his enemy, he’d slip up. Once the two of them were in the Kara Sekai, it would all be over and The Envy’s blind rage would be the catalyst.
Tongue-biting would only get The Envy so far, “s— shut up! I know exactly what you’re doing, you asshole. Stop it!”
An opening saw the sole of Saboten’s foot break The Envy’s nose. A rinse-and-repeat of damage and recovery; as his nose snapped back into place, Saboten’s forehead collapsed The Envy’s bridge. The hilt of his weapon popped two or three ribs, and a hand made a brief but unfounded attempt at tearing one of these fragments from the enemy’s chest. He couldn’t pass through The Envy’s hide, and that mistake ended the raven’s barrage.
The distance between them picked back up as both parties took a second to recover. A quick analysis of the situation bolstered Saboten’s hopes, The Envy was down to his last few dregs of energy. His eyes gave that away as they darted from Saboten’s own to the mass of bodies he’d previously slaughtered. A mid-battle feast; perhaps his previous speech about feeding hadn’t just been monstrous, but an excuse? A diversion from the act’s true purpose.
The silent-confident guise had fallen from his face; that last hail had left frustration alone to wash over him. Blood, and what appeared to be tears, dribbled down his cheeks and into a furious open mouth, pooling around a dry, breathless tongue. “I’m better,” he said to himself. “Those numbers… no. They’re meaningless. Estimations. They’re just estimations, Saboten.”
“What numbers?” asked Saboten, his free-hand pulling back stray hairs whilst he had a moment to spare. As was their situation, Team Karasu was still clueless as to the actual goings-on of SCARECROW. In fact, they didn’t know much of anything in the grand scheme of things.
What numbers, though?
Some kind of level system?
A ranking to determine which ‘solider’ was fit for which mission?
“You… you don’t deserve it. It was supposed to be mine, and you took it away from me! You… You’re an accident!”
A rivalry made clear-cut, but The Envy continued to talk; in broken sentences, sure. But talk he did, and all the muck had been blown from the truth. “Sculptures. That’s us. Nobody told you? Nori probably said, asshole. Taking my moment. False idols, that’s it. Made from clay, I guess. Bit of skin. And a handful of Miyazaki’s son.”
It didn’t make any sense to Saboten like The Envy was intentionally distracting him. Luring him into a false conversation, and then…
The Envy put down his weapon: the one built especially for Saboten’s neck. “We were never people Saboten, don’t you get it? I was never Siegfried, you were never… well, fuck it, do you even still care at this point? Created. We’re nothing but jars moulded to hold those eyes until The World can figure out how to take them.”
“Impossible,” he dusted off the distraction, “my memories have been coming back since I woke up. I can picture my school, I can see my Grandfather’s face, and I can remember that man’s exact words to me.”
“We all remember, Saboten.”
“I went to my home.” Saboten dropped his weapon too.
As it fell, The Envy made quick work of evaporating the space between them, but he didn’t strike. Instead, The Envy squared up to his nemesis, his eyes sullen with apathy. An outright fact, said aloud, had killed any motivation smouldering in his heart. In some way, Saboten’s plan had been carried out successfully but at the cost of a revelation.
“It’s a bit run-down… The apartment, I mean. It used to be used as housing for foreign soldiers before the Free Company Government went to shit, that’s why the old man got it cheap. Not very Japanese, at least. Exposed brick, open plan, and just enough room for a futon and some cupboards… Stop me whenever you start believing, Saboten.”
As she stumbled alongside the miserable former Captain, Ayame Suzuki left a growing trail behind her. At a progressive pace, strands of hair fled the safety of her follicles. The team wasn’t thirty-five minutes into their two-hour journey before Ayame had little left to call her hair.
Once her nails started shedding, deduction led to a simple culprit. Ayame’s former abilities — her Turns — weren’t as simple as manipulating her hair. In actuality, Shax’s influence had replaced traces of keratin in her structure with the Shinigami substance known to Team Karasu as Iwa. Without her parasite, Ayame could no longer produce the supernatural protein and any trace left within her began to vanish.
By the time Aoi and Cleo caught up to their position, the top layer of Ayame’s very skin had slough off to a sore and sensitive state. Any amount of pressure — be it the wind, or the chafing of her arms against her sides — forced the appearance of a contusion. She could no longer carry Sun Toramaru, hell, she was now literally no more use to anybody.
As Shax had warned, Ayame regret her decision.
What good was regret? She would be safe soon; their fractured troupe was being steered towards the Oyabe area. Once upon a time, Oyabe was a city home to a famous annual Yotaka festival but it had been devastated before Ayame’s birth by a river of the same name. It was along this Oyabe River that Team Karasu would continue their journey towards the machine-made island of Kaiganzaseki, which sat off the coast of Ibiza.
Could Ayame honestly still claim that title? After all, she would soon be the last remaining member of Hideki Toramaru’s ‘Team Karasu’.
Soon, their attempt at a revolution would be handed to Nori and his teammates. Leyim would return and rebuild the Hunters at the Amber Citadel. And Ayame and Sun would find somewhere safe, and live out the rest of their lives in fear. She didn’t have a shred of hope, not after learning The World’s true nature. It was an inevitability, even with Nori’s wealth of abilities.
Aoi made the first conversational move, marching just ahead of the group seemingly unaffected by the briskness of December. “Have you ever heard of Kaiganzaseki?” she asked to a silent audience, “originally, it was a kind of factory island built to develop mechanical assistants known as the Hierophants.”
Her informative heap ceased for a few moments as she counted backwards on her fingers.
“You might both be too young to remember the dissolution of the Free Company Government but, when Japan joined the Relief Wars, the group behind these Hierophants ordered their destruction.”
“I remember,” said Leyim.
“Really? You look so young…”
“My Father was drafted into the Relief Wars as an outfitter alongside a Hierophant unit. I remember him telling me that you’d never be able to tell the difference between one of them and a flesh-and-blood human being.”
“Forgive my asking, Ms Rossi, but rumour has it that the Amber Citadel still has a few Hierophant units in working order,” said Aoi with a slither of coyness in her voice for the first time.
“I suppose,” she said. “Our units are specialised, and they’re not self-aware like the Generation-J release that you’re hoping for, unfortunately.”
“Colloquially, we call them Bloodhounds.”
“Whoa! You’ve got the Dog Bots!?”
“I assume they had been reverse engineered by Scarecrow to assist in the tracking of Kanzen Hakujou but they have zero combat potential.”
“I assume from your tone that you never successfully recovered any units from Kaiganzaseki?”
“All the robots on the island got blown up when the creators ran away,” answered Cleo, “so we’ve been using it as our secret hideout ever since we were released.”
“We’ll be regrouping with Nori at the primary facility after he’s confirmed Saboten’s mission is complete.”
White encompassed Saboten’s vision and, for the first time in a while, his consciousness had been pulled back into Utopia. Beside the black light switch that first brought light to this realm sat a solemn boy. No older than seven or eight, he was cloaked in a thinning fog.
“Betcha never thought you’d see me like this, eh?” said the boy.
Saboten approached; despite the creature’s form, he still wanted to put a foot through his teeth for feeding him lies since the beginning. It wouldn’t have made a difference though, would it? It was — no matter what — Saboten’s fault for accepting the help of a demon but he wouldn’t have made it this far without the snake’s cooperation. “Tell me the truth now,” said Saboten as he approach slowed. “What the hell is going on?”
“What does it matter?” said the child, “we’re both going to die.”
“You don’t seem afraid. Shinigami don’t actually die, do they?”
Belphegor smirked, “you picked a pretty bad time to get smart, didn’t you?”
“I know what you know.”
“Is that what I said?”
“You called it ‘instant knowledge’.”
“Bit vague, isn’t it? I’ve always had ulterior motives, Saboten, you’ve known that since the beginning. I’m not short on tricks.” He made an attempt to stand but couldn’t manage the latter-half of the motion. In a move of half-pity, half-domination, Saboten squatted to Belphegor’s new height. In that moment, he felt more powerful than the all-powerful ‘Shinigami Lord of the Kara Sekai’ that had once caused him so much strife.
“Can you tell me something?”
The child tilted its head to the left, “I think you know the answer already.”
“His name was Tsuneo, and you look a lot like him. His father was Ichirou, the impetus. And his grandfather left him that apartment.”
“The Envy isn’t lying, Saboten. You never existed like Tsuneo existed; you’ve always been a nameless Sculpture of a man you’d never meet.”
“No,” said the warrior. “My name has always been Saboten. My family has been by my side since I woke up, that’s no coincidence. I don’t think I could’ve returned to any other name, even if you had an answer.”
“Interesting. I’ve always learned a bunch from watching human beings. You’re all so honourable in your own little ways, so desirous.”
“You sound like you’re about to compare us.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” sulked the pint-sized lord, “we’re the progeny of human beings. Shinigami sprung to life from nothing, to rule over nothing. Beelzebub was the original, of course, but did I ever tell you how she came about? A birth from human souls, filtered through our domain.”
“Is this the time for this?”
“I’m trying to tell you how the Universe works, Saboten. Try to keep up, yeah?”
“I’m in the middle of a fight!”
“Once upon a time,” he said, “there were three very important realms. The realm of the Angels, the realm of the Humans, and the realm of Nothingness. Angels — and their Reaper buddies — would kill humans when it suited them, filter their souls through the realm of Nothingness, and use their exported souls to power the Universe.”
“At some point, Beelzebub was born. And, at some other point after that, she created the Shinigami, and the Shinigami Lords. And, at some further point down the line, Beelzebub got bored.”
“I feel like you’re missing some key details.”
“It’s a boring immortality when there’s nothing in your ever-expanding realm except for the manifestation of impossible-to-reach memories.”
“That’s her motivation, boredom?”
“It’s not boredom. It was like Beelzebub had been birthed to covet the realm of the Humans, and you’d feel the same way if… ah, I’m getting off track.”
“You think?” said Saboten, watching as the fog around the child seemed to stir somewhat to the beat of his story. The creature made another attempt to stand.
It seemed Belphegor would reach for Saboten’s shoulder but, instead, allowed the shifting fog to encompass his entire body. As it pulled him deeper into its embrace, he spoke: “I brought you here for a reason, Saboten.”
“It was the reality pull, wasn’t it? It weakened you.”
“I’ve only got a few left in me, you’d better make this one count.”
“I need to bait The Envy into sending us both to the Kara Sekai first, I don’t know how to do it…”
With a flick of his obscured wrist, Belphegor sent the fog away. In its guise, he’d returned to his original form, topped off with a smirk of undoubtable accomplishment. The creature’s red-dipped eyes rolled with glee, as it slipped a single clawed finger into Saboten’s left eye; “don’t worry, I’ve already taken care of that!"