Akemi peered around the corner towards the small gym tucked in at the bottom of an office block.
“I think this is the right place.”
Shoichi was looking at the fold-out map of the city they’d been drawing tentative lines on to try and figure out where Sakaki was sending them.
“Looks like it. That or the funeral parlour…”
They exchanged a look that contained an entire popular culture’s worth of thoughts about zombies.
“Let’s try the gym first,” Akemi said hurriedly.
“Good idea,” agreed Shoichi.
They transformed before they approached the main entrance, which Akemi felt a bit strange about. But Shoichi had pointed out that if there were Spectres right there inside the door, they’d need to be ready – and they didn’t want to risk the enemy seeing them transform. Akemi hadn’t thought of that.
She would have been glad of any company in dealing with the Multitude, but she was especially glad that Shoichi was so… practical. And calm. Mostly. And didn’t seem to have a problem with the costume. It had never occurred to her that Guardian Luna could be a boy, but now she’d met Shoichi, she couldn’t imagine it any other way.
There weren’t any Spectres inside the entrance, but they both stopped dead anyway. There were no lights on in the place. The reception area was dimly lit from the glass doors, but the hall that led deeper into the building was pitch black. There was a receptionist at the desk, but she was slumped in her chair as if unconscious… or dead. Sol’s stomach flipped. She ran over to the woman, Luna a step behind.
“Hey! Hey, can you hear me?” Sol tried to take the woman’s wrist to check for a pulse. To her surprise, the woman sleepily pulled away from her grasp, mumbling a protest before settling back into her chair. “Hello?”
There was no response. The receptionist seemed to be semi-conscious. Still, it was reassuringly different from the stillness and silence of the shard-bearer whose soul had been removed. Luna had opened his medallion and was giving Sakaki a quick summary of the situation.
Sol flipped her own crest open in time to hear Sakaki’s reply.
“That is very strange,” Sakaki said slowly. “I wonder… I think you should concentrate on finding and eliminating the Spectres. It must be their influence that is causing this.”
Just as she finished speaking, the almost-invisible door at the end of the dark corridor swung open and crashed against the wall. Sol jumped about a foot, and Luna made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a squeak. A man stumbled down the corridor towards them like a sleepwalker. Sol took a nervous step backwards, raising her hands defensively.
“Who are you?”
The man didn’t acknowledge her. As he moved into the dim light of the reception area, they could see he was wearing a crumpled business suit, and carrying a gym bag. His eyes were blank. He didn’t seem to see them as he shuffled through the reception, pushed open the door, and staggered out into the daylight.
“…. ooookay,” said Sol, “that’s creepy.”
“At least he didn’t attack us.” Luna cast a worried look towards the inner door. “Do you think there are more people in there?”
“Probably.” Sol frowned. “You’d think they’d be asking why the lights aren’t on, though…”
“They may not perceive the full extent of the darkness,” Sakaki said. “I sense that one of the greater Spectres has dug into this place and surrounded itself with shadow. Driving out the Spectre at the heart of it all will dissolve the darkness.”
“So we just have to find the spider in the middle of the web?” asked Luna.
“An apt metaphor. Yes.”
A horrible thought occurred to Sol. “It’s… not actually going to be a giant spider, is it?”
“Well…” Sakaki hesitated. “Spectres can take many forms. Sometimes they react to the things the people around them fear.”
Luna’s eyes had gone rather wide.
“Tell me you’re not scared of spiders,” Sol begged him.
“No,” he said quickly, “are you?”
“Not normal sized ones.” Sol quite liked spiders, in fact, especially the big yellow and black ones that wove such intricate and enormous webs among the trees near Sakaki’s shrine, but she didn’t think she’d feel so good about one that was bigger than her. She shook herself and tried to lighten the mood. “Better hope no-one here’s afraid of asbestos, right?”
Luna half-laughed, while Sakaki said, “What is asbestos?”
“Fire-proof,” Luna explained succinctly. He looked over at Sol. “I guess we’d better get going and find the Spectre we are sincerely hoping is not a spider, then.”
They advanced cautiously down the hall. Luna tried a couple of light switches as he passed them, but nothing happened. When they reached the far doors, the blackness was so intense that nothing could be seen beyond the glass. It clung to the walls like a mass of web, or the century-old deposits of minerals in a deep cavern. It made Sol’s skin crawl.
Luna very carefully pushed open the door, while Sol got ready to throw fire at anything eight-legged – or any-legged – that came out of the dark. There was only silence. She was tempted to light the place up anyway, just to try and clear the cloying shadow from the room, but stopped herself when she remembered what Luna had said about there being other people in there.
“We really need light,” Luna murmured. “Maybe there’s a torch somewhere back at the reception desk…”
Sol frowned. “Wait. Maybe I can… do something…”
So far she’d only thrown flames indiscriminately at the shadows, but she concentrated on the feeling she’d had each time, like the flames were a part of her. She took a breath, held out a hand, palm up, and whispered, “I call upon the sun, my liege, bright lord of the day. Grant me the power to overcome the dark… but not too much, okay?”
To her relief, a flame no bigger than a candle sprang up in the palm of her hand. By its flickering light, they could make out the shapes of gym equipment in the room beyond. There were a lot more people than Sol had expected. One or two were pedalling slowly on exercise bikes, but most were sitting or lying on the mats and the weights benches, as if everyone had fallen asleep mid-workout.
From somewhere deeper into the room came a dry slithering sound. Luna took a step back.
“I’m not so good with snakes, though,” he said faintly.
“Well don’t think about them, then!” Sol pulled the other door open and strode into the room. Luna hesitated, but came after her, though she couldn’t tell if that was to back her up or because he didn’t want to be left alone without the light. “Keep a look out for anything moving.”
“Oh, I’m looking.” Luna was moving like a nervous cat, flinching away from anything he encountered, human or otherwise. “Do you have any idea how hard it is not to think about snakes when you’ve started thinking about snakes?”
“Yes,” said Sol, trying very hard not to think about snakes. “Hey, there’s a door back here.”
As Sol approached, her flame illuminated a sign that read ‘Staff Office’. From behind the door came another dry scraping sound. Luna twitched. By the side of the door was a keypad. Sol gave the handle a tug, but it was clear that the office was locked. There were no handy windows to show what was beyond, and no handy piece of paper with the code lying around nearby.
“Any ideas?” Sol asked after they’d tried kicking it a couple of times.
“Find a fire axe or something, I guess…” Luna didn’t sound fully comfortable with the idea. “Unless you can melt the lock.”
“I… can probably do that,” Sol said. “I can’t think of any other ways of getting in there, can you?”
Sol held up the flame in her hand and silently encouraged it to leap forward. With sudden intensity, the fire enveloped the lock, which began to discolour, then smoke, then slowly deform.
“I think it’s working,” Luna said, watching closely. “You just need to–”
They both nearly jumped out of their skins when all at once the gym’s fire alarm went off.
“Oh, great.” Sol put her free hand over one ear. “Try kicking it again.”
Luna obliged, then shoved the door with his shoulder until the half-melted lock suddenly gave way and he almost stumbled into the room beyond. Sol grabbed his tunic and pulled him back, already half-aware of the looming threat beyond. When she got a good look at it, she swallowed hard. She barely heard Luna say, “Oh my god,” followed by, “I call upon the moon my liege…”
It wasn’t a spider or a snake, at least. That fact didn’t help much. Four long spindly legs spread to each corner of the room, and at their centre was a body like a praying mantis, with razor-sharp claws raised aggressively in their direction. One of its legs twitched against the wall, making the slithering sound they’d heard earlier. Apart from that, it didn’t move. It stared at them with myriad eyes they couldn’t see, and malice rolled off it like a wave.
A second later, it struck, but Luna’s glimmering shield was already around them, and the sharp claws were deflected from its surface with a horrible screeching like metal on metal. The Spectre reared back, drawing its legs in as if preparing to spring.
“Oh hell no,” Sol muttered. The fire was already in her hand. All she had to do was throw it out beyond the shield… and will it to expand like a star going nova.
Flames exploded into every corner of the room. Luna ducked, but his shield remained steady, and the flames couldn’t reach them. The Spectre jerked back, scrambled uselessly at the walls as if trying to climb out, then caught alight and writhed with great sweeps of agony in the fire. Its claws scored deep marks into the walls before they crumbled to ash, and the last Sol saw of it was its body crashing down onto a desk, and then dissolving into soot and smoke.
The fire alarm was still shrieking. Sol supposed she couldn’t blame it at this point. With a sudden flash of panic, she tried to dampen the flames. The inferno eased, but she could see that things in the room were alight. Piles of paper and someone’s magazine collection were crackling merrily, while the fabric covers on the chairs smoldered in a more deadly and focused way…
Luna’s shield vanished as he pushed past her, heading for something on the wall. A moment later, he was dousing most of the room with a fire extinguisher. Sol watched sheepishly as soggy piles of foam took the place of flames. By the time Luna was done, the ceiling lights were beginning to come back on, wan and flickering, but still a thousand times brighter than her little flame had been.
“Maybe I should start carrying one of those around,” she said as Luna used up the last of the extinguisher and put it carefully down on the floor.
“Or maybe that’s my job,” Luna replied as he took in the scorch marks and claw gouges on the walls. “I… don’t seem to be able to do much to help destroy those things.”
“Hey, you stopped it destroying us.” Sol turned to look back out into the gym. The people there were stirring, some sitting up and blinking in confusion. “Look – they’re waking up.”
“Then we should get out of here before the police show up and arrest us for arson.”
At some point in the last week, Shoichi wasn’t sure when, two cushions had appeared in the shrine clearing. He had to assume Akemi had brought them, unless Sakaki’s powers extended to the spontaneous manifestation of soft furnishings. He was glad to have something to sit on that wasn’t the ground, either way.
“I think I am beginning to understand,” Sakaki said slowly as Akemi finished telling her about the people in the gym. “It is concerning… very concerning. They have found a new way to target the souls of those who do not bear shards.”
Akemi sat up straight in alarm.
“All those people? Are they going to end up–”
She couldn’t finish the sentence, but Sakaki was already responding.
“No, they will all recover now you have destroyed the Spectre.”
“What was it doing to them?” Shoichi asked. “Why would the Multitude be interested in people without shards?”
“It is more the other way around,” Sakaki said. When Shoichi and Akemi looked at her questioningly, she went on, “The Multitude has always coveted souls, but to take a person’s soul without their consent is very difficult, and takes a long, long time. The Multitude has always relied on trickery to convince people to sign their souls away willingly, and on the slow and patient ensnaring of the unfortunate or incautious.”
Shoichi thought back to what Sakaki had told them about the shards and began to see the shape of what she meant. “But the shards aren’t exactly souls, are they? You said the soul gets trapped in the shard, but I can prevent that…”
“Exactly,” said Sakaki. “The shards are much easier to extract, requiring only a short time to build resonance between the victim and the knife. Once the Archdukes discovered the existence of the shards, they pursued them eagerly, but they did not cease their other methods. Throughout history they have continued to amass a collection of ill-gotten souls.”
“Why?” Akemi asked. “What do they want souls for? Do they eat them or something?”
Sakaki hesitated for just too long. Akemi’s eyes went wide. “Do– do they really–”
“In a way,” Sakaki said. “The Multitude cannot learn or change. All new knowledge and skill must be taken from those who can. That is also why it makes use of humans foolish enough to seek its power for their own ends. Without the Archdukes, it is formless and legion, lacking the understanding of the human world needed to pursue its goals.”
“What are its goals?” asked Shoichi. “What is the Multitude, anyway?”
“The Multitude wants everything, and nothing that we can understand,” said Sakaki. “It is said to be what once owned the Earth long eons before humans walked its surface, before the faintest spark of life was kindled, even before the oceans and lands were formed. When this world was a place of fire and shadow the great Fiends dwelt on the surface, but as the planet cooled and the fire was sealed beneath a crust, they too were shut away. Eventually the clouds of ash and soot disappeared, and then the Spectres, too, were driven down into the depths by the light of the sun, moon, and stars. Deep in the heart of this world they wait, many and yet of one purpose, an Infernal Multitude seeking ever to find its way back through cracks and tunnels and the shadows of the world. They yearn for the fires to be rekindled and magma to fill the rivers, for the waters to evaporate and leave the oceans naught but dust, for the skies to burn away every trace of the world they despise and pile on such clouds of ash that darkness will rule behind the flames.”
“And… that’s what they’ll do… if they win?” Akemi said. “Burn up the world?”
“But the Celestial Guard has always stopped them,” Shoichi said hurriedly.
“Yes. Often at great cost, but they have always been pushed back. Once the thrust of their invasion has been broken, they must retreat to the depths and rebuild their strength. It takes them decades, if not centuries. Their strength under the sky is limited: they must rely on the Archdukes to work for them, and on the shards and the souls they steal to bolster their power.”
“So… there are lot more people who need protecting, apart from the shard-bearers?” said Akemi, her expression troubled.
“Yes and no. When I say it takes a long time to ensnare an unwilling soul, I mean it takes months, sometimes years of intense focus on one person.”
“So there won’t be as many victims.”
“That is how it has been in the past. What you found in the gym is something I have rarely seen before. I believe the Spectre was constantly draining a little energy from every person who frequented the place. Although their condition must have seemed dire to you, it will have been only a tiny fraction of their soul that was affected. It would take centuries to remove one person’s soul by such a method, but if it were employed in some place where many people frequently gathered…”
“All the little bits add up,” Akemi finished for her. “How come they haven’t done it before, then?”
“To be worthwhile, the Spectre must have been affecting many more people than you saw in the building. They were at the centre, and so were the worst afflicted, but it would need to be draining hundreds, thousands of people to achieve any sort of meaningful power. I cannot remember another time or place I have seen where so many people dwelt so close together and so many souls constantly followed the same paths day after day. This city is bewildering to behold.”
“I guess that’s why the Spectres are in such odd places,” Akemi said, then added, in Shoichi’s direction, “The first one was in a nightclub. There were two in different shopping malls and one at a train station. I thought it was weird, but it makes more sense now.”
“It is crucial that we find and destroy as many of these haunts as possible,” Sakaki went on. “For the Multitude to have access to such power so easily… I dread to think of the consequences if we do not put a stop to it.”
“We’re gonna be busy,” Akemi said with a sigh. “And we have to look out for the shard-bearers too.”
“Indeed,” said Sakaki. “Luna, have you had any success with the soul anchor?”
Shoichi reluctantly shook his head. He’d been trying all week, but he was no closer to understanding what he was supposed to do. Looking within himself hadn’t revealed anything other than a growing fear he would not be able to save the next shard-bearer.
“It will come to you,” Sakaki said reassuringly. “I have faith in you, Luna.”
Somehow, that only made him feel worse.
The next haunt was easier, now they knew what to expect and what was going on, although the semi-conscious people stumbling around in the dark still gave Luna the creeps. Sol didn’t even set the place on fire this time.
They were so successful that after Sol dragged him into an alley to transform back, she called Sakaki and told her they were going to celebrate before coming to the shrine.
“Celebrate how, exactly?” Shoichi asked warily, but not without interest. Akemi was a bit like a hurricane at times, and at times he quite enjoyed being blown away. “Neither of us is old enough to drink.”
“Who needs alcohol when we have karaoke?”
“Of course!” Akemi grabbed him by the arm again. Shoichi let himself be towed. As they made their way through the streets, Akemi went on, “We always celebrate things with karaoke. It’s traditional.”
“Oh…” For a moment her enthusiasm dampened. “My friend Hana and me. She… doesn’t know about this stuff.”
Shoichi thought back to when he’d met Akemi outside her school earlier. “The girl with the long braids?”
“That’s her!” Akemi lit up again. “She’s so awesome, we’ve been friends since forever. She was even with me when I first met Sakaki… but we didn’t know it at the time…”
She launched into a story involving kittens and something about a monster that ate shoes. Shoichi half-listened, distracted by the new email alert from his phone. It was a reply from Satoru. He hesitated, torn between the desire to read it immediately or to wait and give it his full attention, but impatience won out. They’d been emailing back and forth since that day on the train. It was entirely mundance, casual conversation, but Shoichi found himself looking forward to each new email almost painfully. Maybe it was the thread of normality it asserted in the middle of this strange sideways turn his life had taken, or maybe it was the way Satoru was in possession of a dry humour Shoichi would never have suspected, and found delightful.
“… and it’s just not fair,” Akemi was saying as Shoichi guiltily snapped his attention back to her. “Hana would love all of this so much, and I can’t tell her…”
Akemi blinked at him. “Huh?”
“Why can’t you tell her? She can keep a secret, can’t she?”
“Well, yeah, of course…” Akemi looked at the ground as if fascinated by the occasional piece of old chewing gum they passed. “But I…” She struggled, then went on almost too quiet to hear, “… it’s hard to explain. I don’t know how to tell her that I get to be a magical girl and she doesn’t. And at the same time, I don’t… want her to know. About the shard-bearers, I guess. About that girl in the hospital.”
Shoichi’s stomach flipped in a much less pleasant way than it had when he’d been reading Satoru’s email.
“It’ll be okay,” he said. “We’ll get her shard back and I can… I can fix her, she’ll be fine.”
“Right,” said Akemi. Shoichi must have sounded more confident than he felt, because the smile was back. “And then I’ll tell Hana all about it. Maybe she can help us understand Sakaki’s directions, she’s way better with maps than me…”
Shoichi forced a laugh, and kept up a pretty good facade of having fun throughout the next hour of karaoke, but the sick dread seemed to have settled into the pit of his stomach for good now.
Later that night, he stood in his bedroom with the curtains open so he could see the half moon glimmering between the houses, and tried again and again to cast an invisible line. When he finally went to bed, it was so late that the moon had vanished above the highest point he could see from his window, and when he finally slept, he dreamed of dark halls and the smell of the sea.
“I feel like I know her,” Shoichi said as they clung to the straps in the crowded train and tried to keep an eye on the shard-bearer at the other end of the carriage. “Are you sure she isn’t another Guardian?”
“Sakaki’s sure.” Akemi stifled a yawn. “Besides, she doesn’t look like a Guardian.”
“I don’t know if that matters,” Shoichi said, but he had to agree. The woman was a neatly turned out housewife in her fifties or sixties, one of the ones who still wore a traditional kimono when she went out to play pachinko in the evening. Shoichi couldn’t imagine her fighting Spectres. “There’s just… something really familiar about her.”
“Maybe she’s been on TV.”
“I don’t think that’s it.” Shoichi shot another glance at the woman. “I feel like I should know her name, but I can’t remember it, and that… hurts.”
Akemi frowned. “Maybe she looks like someone else you know.”
“I guess so,” Shoichi said with a sigh. “I… really don’t want the Spectres to attack her.”
“Me neither. I sort of thought all the shard-bearers would be our age, you know?”
Shoichi nodded. It had been a stupid assumption, in hindsight, but he too had subconsciously thought they would be saving their fellow teenagers. This woman wasn’t yet frail, but there was a delicacy in the bones of her face that made him shrink inside at the thought of the shadows taking hold of her. And then there was that nagging familiarity…
The train slowed down and stopped at the shard-bearer’s station. Just as she had every night this week, she waited until it had come to a complete halt before she carefully stood up from her seat and slipped through the crowd. Akemi elbowed her way after her, and Shoichi followed, casting a last glance over the train carriage for any sign of the Spectres that could take the form of people.
He didn’t see anything more suspicious than tired office workers, but just for a second he caught a glimpse of someone leaving by another door, and his heart jumped. Was that Satoru? A moment later Shoichi was on the platform, and there was no sign of whoever it was he’d seen. He shook himself. Probably not, he realised. They were out on a branch line almost forty minutes from Osaka. Satoru wouldn’t have any reason to be coming here at nearly 11PM on a week night.
As soon as they were out of the station, they ducked behind a building and transformed. Luna was coming to realise that there was a fine line between when it was useful to be in Guardian form and when they needed to look as normal as possible. Out in the streets, in the dark, late at night, people seemed not to notice them hurrying in their costumes after the shard-bearer. In crowded and brightly lit places, they got some odd looks.
“I know this is awful,” Sol said as they paused on a corner to let the shard-bearer get far enough ahead that they wouldn’t be obvious, “but I really wish they’d just get on with it.”
“I know what you–” Luna paused and stared ahead. “Wait. Look at the road.”
Sol peered after the shard bearer. “It’s… kind of narrow, isn’t it? For a sidewalk?”
“The shadows are closing in on both sides.” Luna took off at a run. “Looks like you got your wish.”
“And now I feel terrible,” Sol muttered as she easily overtook him. “Get ready!”
The sidewalk had become a fragile bridge over empty nothingness, and the shard-bearer was faltering, looking around her in alarm. From the void below, hands suddenly sprang up, grabbing her and pinning her to the rapidly shrinking ground so quickly she couldn’t even flinch. Luna expected her to scream, but all she managed was a gasp of shock that was somehow worse. He redoubled his speed, ready to cast the shield over her as soon as he was in range… but then Sol grabbed his arm.
“We can’t, remember?” she said.
More shadowy hands shot up around them, reaching eagerly to grasp their prey. Sol rattled through her call to the sun so quickly it was almost nonsense, and fire burned the spindly limbs before they could take hold. Reluctantly, Luna whispered his own prayer to the moon, and brought the shield up around them both, leaving the shard-bearer to her fate.
The Archduke stepped out of the shadows on the narrow line of paving ahead. This time he had the form of a man in his forties. Luna thought it was one of the other pachinko players. The Archduke paused and looked at them both with narrowed eyes.
“You’ve figured out there’s no point in stopping me, huh?” He looked from Sol to Luna. “And there’s two of you now. Great. Why didn’t you just stay home?”
“We won’t let you get away with the shard,” Sol snarled. “Even if we can’t stop you taking it in the first place.”
“Oh, right. They said this might happen.” The Archduke sneered at the pair of them. “Gotta catch ’em all, right? You want the shard, I want the shard, that bastard with the glow-in-the-dark sunglasses is probably around here somewhere looking for the shard too…”
“The other Archduke?” said Luna, remembering what Sol and Sakaki had told him.
“Him? Ha! He isn’t one of ours. If I see him again… let’s just say this thing–” He flourished the obsidian knife. “–stabs people just as well as it takes souls.”
The knife began to glow. A similar light sprang up around the woman lying pinned to the ground. She had been looking from the Archduke to the two Guardians with wide eyes but a surprising lack of fear. Now she glared at the man with the knife.
“What is your name, young man?”
The Archduke looked taken aback. “Excuse me?”
“What is your name?” the woman repeated. “Does your mother know you’re out here attacking old ladies in the middle of the night?”
The man scowled with a petulance that made Luna realise suddenly that whatever he looked like on the outside, the woman was right: he was young.
“I am the Archduke Neikos,” he announced, “and you are my sacrifice. So shut up!”
“You talk too much,” said the shard-bearer. “If you’re going to murder me, you might as well get it over with.”
The self-proclaimed Archduke Neikos started to argue back, then seemed to get the better of himself and instead simply thrust the knife forward into the air. A line of bright white light sprang up between the shard-bearer and the tip of the knife. She sucked in her breath as if it were being squeezed out of her, and a brilliant glow began to form at the mid-point of the line.
“This is it,” whispered Sol. “I’ll go for the shard as soon as it appears. You make sure she keeps her soul!”
Luna nodded, but he felt sick as he tried one more time to find whatever it was Sakaki claimed lay deep inside himself. He raised his hand, ready to cast the invisible line, and finally, as the light began to coalesce, he thought he could feel something stirring. He reached for it…
From out of the unnatural shadows a figure suddenly leapt towards the bright spot of light. Neikos yelled and yanked the knife back as if trying to hook the shard towards him, but the new arrival was too quick, snatching the glowing thing out of the air as he dashed past in one swift movement that was almost too fast to register. Whatever power had been welling up in Luna immediately dissipated, and the “NO!” that tore from his throat was echoed by Sol as the shard-bearer slumped limply to the ground.
Neikos swore and launched himself after the figure with the shard, Sol in hot pursuit. Luna hesitated for just a second, held by the sight of the frail old woman and that sense of familiarity, now made awful, before he plunged after Sol.
The man with the shard must have gone up a fire escape, because Neikos was riding a wave of furious shadow towards the roof of a nearby building while Sol sprinted up five flights of stairs as if it were nothing. Luna desperately tried to keep up, but he’d already learned that Sol could outrun him easily. All he could do was keep the three of them in sight and hope that if they started fighting in earnest he’d be able to catch up.
Sol was throwing fireballs around like they were going out of fashion. The Archduke’s cloak of darkness boiled in response, swallowing some of the fire and deflecting the rest of it. The man with the shard just never seemed to get hit. Somehow he was always somewhere else when the fire came his way, and he was even faster than Sol. They weren’t going to catch him, Luna thought with horror, and the woman’s soul was still bound to the shard. If he got away, they wouldn’t be able to save her…
Neikos snarled a command Luna didn’t catch. Spectres sprang up ahead of the other man, cutting him off. He veered to avoid them, and it seemed that Sol’s fire must catch him as he turned directly into it… but he slipped past without any sign it had touched him. Now he was running out of space, though, the edge of the building coming up fast.
He didn’t even slow down, launching himself off the parapet as if he had no fear of falling. Perhaps he didn’t. He landed easily on the next building and kept running. Neikos rode his shadows cross the gap, and Luna looked at Sol, thinking, she won’t, will she?
Sol didn’t seem to hesitate either. Luna almost tripped over his own feet as he watched her jump, but she landed safely, if less gracefully than her target. So… that meant he was going to have to do it too. He tried not to think about the drop as the edge drew closer. It wasn’t far, he could see that now. It would be like jumping over a puddle. A large puddle. Which would kill him if he landed in it…
He stumbled to a stop right before the parapet, furious with himself but completely unable to help it. On the roof of the next building, the Archduke’s Spectres made another grab for the man with the shard, this time forcing him to dodge backwards towards his pursuers. Sol took advantage of Neikos’s distraction to stop running for a second and send a huge wave of fire in his direction. He wasn’t prepared for it and staggered back, shrieking and smouldering, as Sol kept hammering him with flames. The thought suddenly broke into Luna’s mind, Sakaki said the Archdukes are human. Are we going to kill him?
Neikos’s clothing caught alight. He howled in rage and spat curses at Sol as he fled towards Luna, shadows wrapping around him and smothering the fire. The older man’s face he wore was fraying at the edges as he sank into the darkness, but the hatred on it was still unmistakeable. Luna summoned the shield instinctively, and the mass of shadow that had been the Archduke flinched from its light, and dived off the roof into the darkness below.
From the other roof, he heard a yell from Sol, then a thud and a distant, metallic ting of something hitting the ground. Either the Spectres or the fire had forced the man with the shard to lose ground, and Sol had apparently tackled him hard enough to send them both crashing down on the surface of the roof. Sol rolled to her feet and lunged towards something Luna couldn’t see, grabbing it and backing up with more fire swirling around her hand.
“I have had it with you creeps!” Sol yelled. “Go back to the Multitude and stay there!”
She flung the ball of flame at the man, who was just getting to his feet. He sprang back out of reach of the fire. Luna was still too far away to see him clearly in the dark. He seemed to be wearing a long coat of some kind, with a hood pulled up over his head and his eyes obscured by a glass visor that glowed faintly blue, just enough to make it seem opaque at a distance.
For the first time, the man spoke. Luna could only just make out what he was saying. “I am not part of the Multitude. I’ve had many names, but the one I’m called most often is Kestrel. I have to take the shard–”
“Like hell you will! That woman’s soul is in there!”
“It’s too late for her,” said Kestrel. “I can’t let you have the shard, or her sacrifice will be in vain.”
“It’s not too late!” Sol raised her hand again, fire in her fist, even as she took another step back with the shard held safely in her other hand. “If you hadn’t interrupted we could have saved her!”
Sol threw the fireball before he could respond, but Luna saw the way Kestrel reacted to her words, saw the whole-body jerk of a shock he hadn’t been prepared for. Then he leapt away from the fire and ran. Sol started after him, but Luna shouted, “Don’t! We need to get back to the shard-bearer!”
Sol pulled up, turned, and hurried back towards him. She cast occasional glances over her shoulder, but Luna was watching the darkness behind her keenly for any sign of either Neikos or Kestrel, and saw nothing. When she got to the edge of her building, Sol slowed down and peered over the edge with a startled expression.
“I… really jumped over this, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you really did,” said Luna, amused by her dismay. Then embarrassment rose up in his chest. “I, uh, I couldn’t quite…”
“Yeeeeeeeeeah,” said Sol, still staring down at the gap. “I don’t blame you. I’m gonna see if there’s a fire escape I can use to get down from here…”
They found the shard-bearer lying where she’d fallen. The unnatural shadows were fading away. Fortunately no-one else had stumbled over her; Luna didn’t know what they would have done if she’d been loaded into an ambulance while they were chasing Kestrel.
Sol handed him the shard. Luna examined it curiously. From the name, he’d expected it to be glass, or crystal, but it was actually some sort of metal. It looked like silver, except that a rainbow sheen seemed to dance across its surface whenever it caught the light of the street lamps. It felt warm, except… it didn’t, not really. He wasn’t feeling any heat through his glove. The warmth was something he sensed with the part of him that called upon the moon. Absently, he pinched his finger and thumb together against the surface as if grasping a fine thread, and began to pull.
At first he sensed movement, as if he were drawing a fishing line smoothly out of water, but then all at once he met resistance. Luna tugged gently at first, then harder, but it wouldn’t budge.
“What do you mean, it’s stuck?” Sol demanded when he tried to explain. “How can a soul get stuck?”
“I don’t know!” The sick feeling was back. “I just… I can tell what I’m supposed to be doing, but it isn’t working.”
“What do we do?”
For answer, Luna opened his crest and said, “Sakaki?”
“Did you get the shard?”
“We did, but there’s a problem. I didn’t manage to anchor her soul before it was taken. Now she’s in a coma, and I don’t know what to do.”
“For now there may be nothing you can do,” Sakaki said after a moment. “If you missed the opportunity to anchor the soul before it was removed, we are in unknown territory.”
“Hey, he didn’t miss the opportunity,” Sol put in. “That Kestrel guy jumped in and grabbed it–”
“Kestrel?” Sakaki’s voice was suddenly sharp. “The man with the visor? He spoke to you?”
“Only to try and get us to give him the shard,” Sol replied with a scowl. “I fireballed him. He won’t get the jump on us like that again.”
“Good,” said Sakaki. “I know that name. Be wary of him. He is an enemy of the Celestial Guard.”
“He said he wasn’t working with the Multitude,” Luna countered, remembering the way Kestrel had reacted to Sol’s angry assertion that they could save the shard-bearer. “So did the Archduke, remember?”
“He does not have to be part of the Multitude to be your enemy,” Sakaki insisted. “Do not be so easily swayed, Luna! If he is the same Kestrel I have met before, he is a traitor and a liar. You must be vigilant, for he is quick to paint himself as the lesser evil compared to the Archdukes.”
“Ha, that sounds about right,” said Sol, but Luna was frowning, running Sakaki’s words through his mind again.
“What do you mean, you’ve met him before?” he asked. “I thought you said there were hundreds of years between the Multitude’s attacks.”
Sakaki hesitated just long enough that Luna was about to ask another question, but she forestalled him.
“There is more of the history of the Guard that I have yet to tell you… and there are others like me who have lived more lifetimes than we can count. Come back to the shrine. I will tell you about Atlantis, and perhaps together we can find a way to free this soul from its captivity.”
She broke the connection before they could say anything else, leaving them to look at each other in confusion.
“Atlantis?” queried Sol.
“It’s an… underwater city, or… no, that’s just in cartoons.” Luna frowned. “I’ve read about it somewhere but I can’t remember the details.” He looked down at the shard-bearer and felt a wave of almost unbearable guilt. “We’d better call some help for her.”
Sol’s transformation flared brightly, leaving Akemi kneeling on the pavement. She pulled her phone out of her school uniform pocket and dialled the emergency services. Luna reached for the shard-bearer’s small handbag and opened it.
“What are you doing?” Akemi hissed.
“Finding out who she is so we can track her down once we know how to return her soul.” Luna said.
He reversed his own transformation, pulled out his phone, and jotted down the details he found in her wallet.
“Oh. That’s… a really good idea. Um. Carry on. Hi, yes, we need an ambulance…”