It started to rain on the way back to the shrine, as if the sky had decided they weren’t quite defeated enough and wanted to contribute. Neither of them had a school bag with them (it turned out those didn’t go anywhere when they transformed either, which was awkward) but Shoichi had taken the precaution of pocketing enough cash to buy, say, a meal, or a ride home, or, as it turned out, two plastic umbrellas from the nearest convenience store.
The cushions were stashed under Sakaki’s branches along with their bags, but Sakaki’s leaves weren’t thick enough to completely protect them, and if Shoichi hadn’t been feeling thoroughly miserable by that point anyway, sitting on a damp cushion with a cheap umbrella clutched over as much of him as he could manage would definitely have done the trick.
“This sucks,” said Akemi, from under her own makeshift shelter. “Sakaki–”
“You are about to ask if I can make the rain stop,” Sakaki interrupted with exasperation, “and the answer is no.”
“No I wasn’t!” Akemi protested. “I was going to ask if you could make us a tent.”
“And the answer is still no.”
Shoichi shifted to try and get himself a bit more into the dry. A stick poked him in the back, and he gave up.
“I think I have a tent somewhere,” he said, glad of the momentary diversion. “One of those little pop-up ones people use to go fishing. I’ll look for it when I get home.”
“That doesn’t help us now,” Akemi grumbled, then immediately shot him an apologetic glance through the transparent umbrella canopies. “Sorry. That would be good, if you can find it.”
Shoichi nodded. At that point there wasn’t really anything else to distract them from what they’d come here for. With a lump in his throat, he took the shard out of his pocket and held it up.
“I can feel it in there,” he said. “The woman’s soul, I mean. I can touch it, but I can’t get it out. It’s like…” He struggled to put the sensation into words. “It’s like one of those puzzles where you have to tilt the maze to get the ball to the end.”
“Or as if it is trapped in the broken reflections of many lives,” Sakaki murmured. “Yes, I can sense it now you have brought it here. It is tangled in a myriad of memories and you will need to tease it free in order to return this woman to the life she knows now. Do not fret, Luna. This you can do, with patience, which I know you have in abundance.”
Shoichi swallowed hard, suddenly on the verge of tears, as much from relief as anything. “That’s… that’s good to know.”
“What do you mean, many lives?” Akemi asked. “You said that before. And you said you were going to explain how you know Kestrel as well. And something about an underwater city…”
“Atlantis,” Shoichi put in. “It’s not underwater. Well, I mean, it ended up underwater, sort of. I looked it up on my phone on the train. It’s a myth about an ancient city where the people became too arrogant. The sea god punished them by sending a wave that destroyed everything.”
“It is not a myth,” Sakaki said sharply. “And the story of its fall was told by our enemies, who had little reason to love us. It was not pride or the wrath of gods that destroyed Atlantis… we were betrayed by those jealous of our power, who turned to the Multitude for means to destroy us.”
Shoichi and Akemi looked at each other.
“We?” Shoichi said. “You were there?”
“How long ago was that?”
“It is hard for me to say. I cannot measure the passing of years with any accuracy. It has been at least… thirty-five centuries, I think, since Atlantis fell.”
“… three-and-a-half thousand years?” said Shoichi after a moment’s mental arithmetic. Akemi’s mouth dropped open. “And you’ve been here all that time?”
“Not in this place, or bound to this tree, and I have not witnessed the passage of all those years. My existence moves in cycles. I live for a time and then I slumber. When I wake within a new grove I know that I will soon sense the return of the Guard and of the Multitude.” Sakaki rustled her leaves in something like a shrug. “This sacred sakaki is where I found myself in this lifetime. My spirit is always drawn towards a tree with history, it seems.”
“Wait,” Akemi said, brow crinkled in confusion, “were you a tree in Atlantis too? Were talking trees a thing then?”
“I am not a talking tree.”
“Right, okay, I remember!” Akemi threw up her hands apologetically, which meant she let go of the umbrella handle, which meant it lurched sideways and she yelped as a stream of rainwater went down the back of her neck. “Not a talking tree. So you weren’t a talking tree then, either?”
“No,” said Sakaki, with a faint tone of long-suffering patience, “I was as human as you when I lived in Atlantis. I have remained as a spirit of guidance to the Celestial Guard ever since.” Before Akemi could say anything else about talking trees, she hurried on, “The Guard were first formed in Atlantis. They were the protectors of the royal family and the kingdom.”
“Royal family?” Now Akemi seemed to have been directed down a different track. “With, like, princesses and stuff?”
“Oh yes,” said Sakaki softly, “there was a princess. She was… very fierce, and brave, and bright. She would have been a great queen.”
“I’m starting to think the magical girl thing isn’t entirely my fault,” Akemi said with a grin. She looked intrigued though. “So there were a King and Queen–”
“A Queen and her consort,” Sakaki corrected.
“Oh.” Akemi blinked. “Hey, that’s cool! Good for her. Okay, so a Queen, and at least one princess, and the Celestial Guard, and…” She frowned. “… no-one knows about it? Shoichi said it was a myth. Three-and-a-half thousand years is a long time, but we still know about, um, Ancient Greece and stuff, don’t we?”
“Ancient Greece wasn’t that long ago,” said Shoichi. “I think.”
“No. Their civilisation did not even arise until long after Atlantis had fallen,” said Sakaki. “And the fall was… terrible. The most terrible disaster… that has ever been.” Her voice had lowered until they had to strain to hear her. “Vast and dreadful powers went to war with one another, and when the balance tipped, the world… broke, in many tiny ways, and not only did Atlantis sink below the sea, it became… a place that had never been.”
Shoichi struggled to process that, while Akemi just said, “I don’t understand.”
“It is hard to explain. Perhaps I cannot. But I believe you will not find any island now where Atlantis once lay, nor any evidence of its influence. For millennia its name was forgotten entirely. The only traces left are the Celestial Guard… and the shards.”
Shoichi looked at the shard he was still holding. “These are from Atlantis?”
“Yes, and they have passed from soul to soul through all the centuries since the fall. They bring with them… memories of the lives they have touched in the past, and of Atlantis itself. That is what makes it so hard for you to remove the soul now held within the shard. It is entangled in all the echoes of other lives.”
Shoichi turned the shard over in his hand. Now that Sakaki had put it into words, he understood better what it was he was sensing. Yes, he thought, Sakaki was right. He could do it. It would be like untangling a fine gold chain, slowly and carefully. For the first time in days, his stomach settled and the dread that had been hanging over him lifted.
“I should get home and get to work on it, then,” he said, preparing to stand up. “I don’t want that woman’s family worried for longer than they have to be–”
“Wait,” Akemi said, “what about that Kestrel guy?”
“Oh, right.” Shoichi had almost forgotten that part. “You said you knew him.”
“Him or someone like him,” Sakaki said after a pause. “Just as in every lifetime the Multitude re-emerges and gathers more Archdukes, so also a man calling himself Kestrel slips out of the shadows. He claims no allegiance to the Multitude, yet he seeks the shards and will do whatever it takes to obtain them. I believe the visor he wears is passed down like your crests, granting its power to a new wielder, but I do not know who he serves. I fear despite his denial that it is the Multitude – or that through his pursuit of power for its own sake, he unwittingly furthers their cause.”
“So he’s definitely a bad guy,” said Akemi. “I knew it. I hope I set him on fire while he was running away.”
Shoichi opened his mouth to say something about the way Kestrel had reacted when Sol had told him they could save the shard-bearer, but then changed his mind. He couldn’t be sure he hadn’t misinterpreted that flinch. And Sakaki was right that even if he wasn’t technically working for the Multitude, he was accidentally helping them by interfering with the Guard.
“We know to watch out for him now,” Shoichi said. “I can use my shield to stop him getting at the shards.”
A gust of wind tugged both of their umbrellas and sent a wave of rain into their faces. Akemi made a disgusted noise and Shoichi decided enough was really enough.
“Let’s go home,” he said. “I’ll work on the shard and tell you when I get somewhere. And I’ll look for that tent.”
“That is the best idea I have ever heard, ever,” Akemi said with enthusiasm, jumping to her feet and grabbing her bag. “See you later, Sakaki!”
“Go safely,” Sakaki replied. “And be careful with the shard, Luna. Do not let yourself be too drawn into the reflections.”
By the time Shoichi got home it was after one in the morning. He’d been too preoccupied with the shard to worry about it until he found himself quietly opening the door and braced for an outcry.
But the house was dark and silent. His father’s shoes were by the door. His mother’s weren’t. Shoichi slipped up the stairs and into his room as noiselessly as he could manage, but there was no response from behind his parents’ door. His father must have been back late enough to assume that Shoichi was already asleep. He wouldn’t be surprised if his mother didn’t come home at all. She usually slept in her office when she was in the middle of a big case, and Shoichi honestly couldn’t remember a time when the cases hadn’t been big enough to keep her away from home for days at a stretch.
He felt a surge of guilt as he silently changed for bed. His parents had worked hard for their success, and they had done it, as they were not afraid to tell him, for his sake as much as their own. Since he was twelve years old they’d trusted him to look after himself and work hard at school, and he had obediently held up his side of the bargain, whether that meant long hours in the library or learning to cook his own meals and do his own laundry. He’d never been inclined to stay out late or skip homework in favour of hanging out with friends, even though he’d eaten a lot of dinners by himself in the kitchen, and woken on so many mornings to catch only a glimpse of one or other parent hurrying out of the door.
At least until now. Now when it was so important that he concentrate on schoolwork and his entrance exams, when he only had a year to go before university… now he was sneaking out at night and the homework was piling up. He hadn’t even glanced at the notes for the test tomorrow. He’d need to do that now, before he got any sleep, but then another pang of guilt struck from the other direction: what about the shard? What about the woman who was by now lying in a hospital bed with her grief-stricken family asking questions that the doctors couldn’t answer? How could he prioritise a stupid test over that?
He climbed into bed with his notes. He’d put the shard inside his Guardian crest, which he slipped under his pillow for now. He’d study first and let everything Sakaki had said sink in, then try again to free the soul from the shard. Although what happened if he pulled it out when the shard-bearer wasn’t around? He’d need to be careful, figure out the way to do it but not actually follow through…
It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he was asleep five minutes later, but then, Shoichi had never tried to combine late night studying with a double life as a superhero before, and hadn’t realised how tired he was. The last thing he remembered thinking was that he could hear the sound of the sea again.
“Try it again,” said a voice he knew by heart, and he sighed, and moved to the start of the labyrinth, and composed himself.
She was leaning against the wall of the room as casually as if she wasn’t resting her shoulder on a mural their father had paid a fortune for, and he thought this would be easier if she wasn’t watching, except he knew that was a lie. He’d been trying all week without her here and made no progress.
“Perhaps it just isn’t meant to be,” he said as he took a breath and began to walk the looping path inlaid in black stone on the floor. “Whatever the oracle said…”
“Ha! The oracle was for Father’s benefit,” she said with a disdain that would have earned her a severe scolding if their mother had heard it. “I have no doubt the old bat said whatever she thought he wanted to hear, which is exactly why I persuaded him to go. I on the other hand have known you for seventeen years and am quite sure in my own mind that you will be chosen for the Guard.”
“And this has nothing at all to do with your designs on a certain young lord, I presume.”
“Call it a convenient overlap of interests,” she said with a laugh and the pretence of devilry in her face. He knew her too well to believe it for a second. If she thought he could become a Guardian, it was because she believed it with all her heart. “You’re supposed to be meditating.”
“It’s difficult to meditate with the incessant scheming of my family all around,” he complained, mostly to make her laugh again.
“All right, no more talking,” she said, and true to her word, she sat in silence as he walked the labyrinth.
By the time he was done, the setting sun had turned her golden hair to copper and the shadows on the floor were almost as dark as the lines, but he was no closer to finding any sense of awakening within himself.
“Don’t lose heart,” she said when he stepped out of the labyrinth with a downcast face. “Tomorrow is another day. Come on, let’s go and walk by the sea until they call us to eat.”
“You go on,” he said. “I want to stay here a while.”
She frowned at him as if she would argue, but something in his face must have convinced her.
“Don’t dwell on it too long or you’ll lose your appetite,” was all she said as she left.
Once he was alone he found he had no desire after all to walk the path again. Instead he sat and watched the shadows lengthen, then blend into one another. He had no flint to light the lanterns, so the room grew darker until the only light came from the sea-facing window, and that was dim. Tomorrow was another day, but who could say whether the Queen would have selected another Guardian by then, reducing his chances from four to only three…
When all the daylight was fully gone, he sighed, and began to get to his feet.
And then the moon rose.
Shoichi didn’t fail the test, more by fluke than anything else, and he tried not to wince at the low score. It was worth it, he told himself. He’d texted Akemi first thing that morning.
I’ve figured it out. Meet me at the hospital after school.
The response had been a series of smiley faces and exclamation marks that made him laugh, and made the rest of the day easier to bear. He wasn’t sure how much credit he could take for solving the puzzle of the shard, given that all he’d done was accidentally fallen asleep with it under his pillow (and he wasn’t sure whether that part was relevant or not, come to think of it), but he was holding the image of the moonlit labyrinth in his head, and he knew that he could walk it again in his mind’s eye and bring the shard-bearer’s soul with him.
As for the rest of the dream… he supposed those were the memories Sakaki had talked about, all mixed up in the shard and overlapping. Had that place been Atlantis? Or had it happened in some other time, after the island was lost beneath the waves? He had no way of knowing, but the girl in the dream had been so familiar he had half-expected to know her name when he woke up, and it had hurt him to realise that he didn’t.
Akemi was almost bouncing on the spot when he arrived at the hospital. “You can do it?”
“I’m pretty sure,” Shoichi said. “We just need to find her and get her alone.”
“Oh, that should be easy enough,” said Akemi breezily, thereby dooming them before they’d even begun.
Two hours later, after some valuable lessons had been learned about how big a hospital is, whether nurses were happy to direct random school children to visit people whose name they got wrong (not so much, it turned out), and the value of a good broom closet while waiting out all the millions of people who seemed to want to visit the shard-bearer, Luna was wishing they’d tried sneaking through a window in the middle of the night instead, and Sol had hatched some sort of plot involving the hospital fire alarms that he really hoped she wasn’t serious about.
“Then you get her alone in an elevator…”
“You don’t use elevators when there’s a fire alarm,” Luna pointed out with what he felt was great restraint. “And anyway she’s hooked up to all those machines. And I don’t want to kidnap her while you start a fire as a diversion, okay?”
“We have to do something or we’re going to be in here all night!”
“Maybe we’ll have to come back tomorrow, or– wait.” He elbowed Sol into silence as she started to protest. “I think her husband’s leaving.”
They watched eagerly as the grey-haired man folded his newspaper slowly, and bent to kiss his wife goodbye.
“Oh come on,” muttered Sol, “get on with it.”
“It’s really touching that he’s been here this whole time, when you think about it…”
“I don’t care right now! I just want to get out of this closet!”
Luna couldn’t argue with that. They waited until the man had made his slow way down the corridor, then hurried into the shard-bearer’s room. Luna quickly went to the bed, while Sol stopped by the door to keep a look out. He heard her open her crest to give Sakaki a quick update, but then he stopped paying attention, because he saw the shard-bearer’s face, and suddenly he knew why she’d seemed familiar.
It was the face of the girl in his dream, if you added forty years or so. It was easier to see when she was asleep like this, when some of the lines of age smoothed away. There were differences… this woman was Japanese, where the girl in his dream had looked European, but somehow there was no doubt in his mind as to the resemblance. And it made no sense, because he hadn’t dreamed about her until after he’d thought she looked familiar…
Luna shook himself and opened his own crest to take out the shard. Maybe it was some sort of side-effect of how hard he’d been trying to learn to cast the soul anchor before the Multitude attacked her. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that now, at last, he could help her. He took a breath, as she’d told him to in the dream, and closed his eyes, and began to walk the labyrinth. The dream came back to him so strongly as he did that he almost felt himself moving, almost smelled the sea on the evening breeze, and almost heard her laughter from the beyond the stone walls of the meditation room…
“It’s working,” he heard Sol whisper, as if from a great distance.
He opened his eyes. The woman on the bed did the same, almost in unison. Luna realised that at some point he had taken her hand. She didn’t seem perturbed to see him there. In fact, she smiled.
Luna stepped back hurriedly. “Sorry?”
The woman blinked a few times and a frown crept onto her face, closely followed by alarm. “Wait… where am I? Who are you?”
“It’s fine,” Sol jumped in quickly, “you’re fine now! You, um, you fainted in the street so they brought you to hospital. We called the ambulance so we came to check on you. Glad you’re feeling better! We’re leaving now!”
She grabbed Luna by the arm and dragged him out of the room before he could even start to respond.
“You went all glowy!” she was saying excitedly as she towed him into a stairwell and away from any awkward questions the ward nurses might ask. “It was so cool! You kind of lit up, and then she lit up, and then she started to wake up… what did she say to you?”
“I– I’m not sure,” Luna said. “It didn’t sound Japanese.”
“She must have been confused. But you saved her!” Sol suddenly stopped and threw her arms around him. Luna almost fell down the stairs. “You did it! We can save the other ones now too!”
Relief broke over him like a wave and he hugged her back with unfeigned enthusiasm.
“Yes,” he said, letting the strangeness of the woman and the dream slip away. “We can save them now.”
He should have put the shard away as soon as they left the hospital room, Luna realised later, but in that moment, he had almost forgotten that it had a purpose other than being a means to return a lost soul. It felt cool in his hand, lighter, although there was still an energy to it, as if the iridescence of its surface had taken a tangible form. He was still holding it in one hand as they slipped out of the hospital, distracted by Sol talking to Sakaki through her crest, completely unprepared for any sort of attack.
He didn’t even have time to raise his shield. The shadows rushed at them both with the force of a storm surge. Luna was knocked off his feet and thrown against a wall, aware of Sol tumbling past him as pain exploded through his back and shoulders. The shard flew out of his hand and hit the ground some distance away. He heard it land, but couldn’t see it in the dark as he struggled to stand up. Putting any pressure on his right wrist caused more pain to lance up his arm, but he was able to scramble to his feet in time to see Neikos step out of the shadows. The face he wore this time was handsome and commanding, but the sneer he twisted it into undermined the authority he seemed to want to project.
“Enough playing around,” he said. “Give me the shard, or I’ll kill you.” He smirked as if he’d thought of something funny. “Oh wait, I’m gonna kill you anyway. Never mind, then. I’ll just take it off your dead bodies.”
He brandished the obsidian knife. A trio of Spectres seemed to slip out of the air it cut through, vaguely human shaped, but with long, sharp blades where their hands and feet should have been. Luna tried to summon the shield, but when he raised his hands the pain in his wrist shattered his concentration, and then the Spectres were diving at him with murderous intent. Luna dodged backward, ducked, and tried to run, but there was a building at his back and a wall to the left…
Fire surged in front of his face, so close he felt the sting of its heat. One of the Spectres was caught in the full blast and burned to ash in a heartbeat. The others swerved, one losing an arm to the fire, and Neikos leapt back with a snarl.
Sol was leaning against a parked car in a way that immediately set off alarms in Luna’s mind, a way that made him think she’d hurt herself badly. She was throwing her fire with one hand, the other gripping tightly onto the car to keep her upright, her mouth set in a tight line of pain. Luna started to run towards her, then remembered the shard, and stopped, looking around frantically. He couldn’t see even a glimmer of light on the ground. One of the Spectres was coming right at him. He threw himself towards Sol, fetching up against the same car she was using for support, and choked out, “I call upon the moon, my liege…”
The shield sprang up around them both. The Spectre chasing Luna couldn’t stop in time. When it collided with the glowing barrier, it dissolved into black soot with the suddenness of glass shattering. But the shield wavered at the impact, its pure white light faltering. For the first time, Luna wasn’t sure how long he could keep it up, or how impervious it really was to attack. As if in answer to the unspoken thought, the final Spectre raked its inhuman claws across the surface of the shield, and for a second, dark lines broke through the barrier and the light flickered again.
At least Sol’s flames showed no sign of stopping. Neikos was stalking towards them: Sol sent a jet of flame straight at his face. Neikos spun, pulling a cloak of shadow around him, but his movements weren’t as graceful as he seemed to think. He stumbled when he came out of the spin, and a second gout of fire caught him unprepared. He barely staggered out of the way. Luna thought his hair was on fire. The third Spectre was caught in the backwash. Luna took a deep breath and tried to make the shield as strong as possible. For all his unnatural powers, Neikos had consistently been impulsive and uncoordinated. They would win this. He tried to ignore the pain in his back…
Then he saw movement beyond Neikos, back near where he’d first been attacked, a shadowy figure with a faint blue glow near his face, stooping to pick something up from the ground.
“No!” Luna yelled.
Sol threw an alarmed look at him. “What?”
“Kestrel!” Luna shouted, half at her, half at the distant figure already starting to run. “He’s got the shard!”
“What?!” yelped Sol.
“What?!” Neikos echoed, turning to look. “Get away from that you little–”
Sol lobbed another fireball at Neikos’s back, and shouted to Luna, “Go after him!”
“What about you?”
“I’m fine, I just can’t run! I can deal with Neikos! Get the shard!”
Sakaki had told him when he awakened that Sol was his leader. Luna hadn’t really thought about it much since then. At least until now, when he found himself obeying her before he’d even had time to consider otherwise.
“Be careful!” he yelled over his shoulder as he ran.
The shield vanished as soon as he stopped concentrating on it. As he dodged past Neikos, the Archduke slashed at him with the obsidian knife, but had to duck out of the way of another of Sol’s fiery deliveries. Then Luna was racing as fast as he could in the direction he’d seen Kestrel go. He thought for sure he’d lost him, but when he rounded the corner, Kestrel was still in sight, running down a straight street that didn’t seem to offer any opportunity to turn off.
Luna pushed himself as hard as he could go, ignoring the pain of his recent fall and the labouring of his lungs, but Kestrel was so fast. He’d outrun Sol before. There was no way Luna could catch him if Sol couldn’t.
Unless… he had no idea if it would work, and it was hard to get the breath when he was running full tilt, but he managed, “I call upon the moon, my liege…”
He threw the shield towards Kestrel, willing it to take shape over there instead of around himself. He could feel how weak it was at this point, but almost to his surprise, it worked. A faint dome sprang up around Kestrel and didn’t move with him, forcing him to stumble to a stop so abrupt he almost fell down. Luna saw the blue flash of his visor as he looked back in dismay.
The shield flickered. Kestrel was doing something, Luna didn’t know what, but then the dome… vanished, like a bubble bursting. Luna almost tripped over his own feet. It felt like he’d been leaning on a door and suddenly whatever had been stopping it from opening had vanished, so he fell through the doorway like an idiot.
But he managed to keep his balance. He was close enough to reach out and grab Kestrel, clumsy but determined. “Give it back–”
Kestrel ducked into some sort of martial art move, spinning towards him, and… then… stopped, staring at him. In the same moment, Luna froze in disbelief as he got a good look at Kestrel’s face behind the visor. For a second time the world fell out from under him.
“Satoru?” he whispered.
Kestrel – Satoru – stared back at him, mouth open, colour draining from his face. Luna thought he started to say Shoichi, in return, but then all at once he wrenched himself free from Luna’s loosened grip. Without another word, he turned and ran, and this time, Luna couldn’t make his legs work to follow. He wasn’t even sure they were capable of holding him up for much longer.
The fleeing figure finally found a side street to duck into, and vanished. Luna started after him, started to run, and then found suddenly that he’d stopped again. He felt winded, as if Satoru had struck him instead of just staring at him and then running away. He thought he might throw up. There were definitely tears in his eyes, and he couldn’t even have said why that was, whether it was anger or grief or maybe just shock, big and cold and inescapable.
He wasn’t going to catch Kestrel now, Luna realised. And Sol was still fighting Neikos back there, and she was hurt. He turned and rushed back the way he’d come, looking desperately for some distant sign of fire lighting the night, but everything had gone ominously still.
He almost cried with relief when he came around a corner and crashed right into Sol, half-running, half-limping at the best speed she could manage.
“Luna!” They grabbed each other by the arms in an attempt to avoid collision, which mostly worked, although it rattled Luna’s teeth. “Did you get it?”
Luna shook his head. He couldn’t even begin to find the words. Sol groaned in disappointment, then peered at him, worried.
“Are you okay?”
I know who Kestrel is. I know his real name. I have his email address for pity’s sake!
How could it be Satoru? Luna’s thoughts were still in such a whirl he could barely form a sentence. How could Satoru be the villain Sakaki had warned them about? It couldn’t be right. It couldn’t… but Luna had seen his face too clearly. And seen the recognition on it. How had Satoru known it was him? The Guardian crests were supposed to make that impossible! But he’d dismissed the shield, too – did he have some sort of power that let him see through the disguise?
How could Satoru possibly be willing to do anything to get the shards, even leave an old woman to die…?
Luna couldn’t reconcile it. He couldn’t deal with it. And he couldn’t explain to Sol, not now. Not until he’d had a chance to try and make sense of it by himself.
“He got away,” Luna said, and then, shaking himself, “Are you okay? You’re hurt!”
“Sprained my ankle,” Sol said with a grimace. “Or maybe broke it, actually. I’m not sure.”
“We need to get you back to the hospital,” Luna said, alarmed by her casual attitude. “What about Neikos–”
“I set him on fire, and then I set him on fire again, and then he cried for his mommy and ran away,” said Sol. “And I don’t need to go to the hospital. It’s already better. Didn’t Sakaki tell you about that?”
“We heal quicker than normal. My ankle just feels like I twisted it now.” She peered over his shoulder and made a face. “How’s your back? You’re covered in blood.”
“I am?” Luna tried to crane his head back over his shoulder, but all he could make out was a glimpse of a dark stain. “It’s… it doesn’t hurt so much. I mean, it’s still sore, but it feels like it happened a week ago or something…”
“Yeah, that’s how it goes.” Sol seemed to realise she was still holding onto Luna’s arms, and gingerly let go, as if she wasn’t sure she could stand on her own. “Didn’t you notice that cut you got the first time you were attacked by Spectres? It was gone by the time we left the shrine. I was watching, it just sort of faded out.”
“Oh.” Luna had forgotten he’d even been hurt that time. All the talk of the Celestial Guard had driven it out of his head, and then when he’d come home, there hadn’t been any sign of injury… “That’s… that’s good, right?”
“Better than having to explain to my mom why I’ve got a broken ankle,” Sol said. She sighed. “So… we lost the shard again.”
Luna flinched. “I’m sorry, I–”
“It’s not your fault. We should’ve been more careful coming out of the hospital.” Sol tested her weight on her injured foot and winced. “I guess they figured out we’d come back to try and help the shard-bearer.” She brightened. “At least she’s okay now. It would have been so much worse if they’d attacked before we went in…”
Except, Luna thought, he might have had the shard safely in his crest at that point, and Kestrel would not have been able to sneak up on them before darkness fell…
Satoru. Kestrel was Satoru. And that didn’t make any sense. And Luna had let him get away…
“I should’ve stopped him,” he mumbled.
“Wait, are you crying?” Sol peered at his face. Luna flinched back, rubbing self-consciously at his eyes, but Sol simply reached out and hugged him. “Don’t cry! It’s okay! It’s not your fault he’s a really fast runner! We saved that woman, right? That’s the important thing. And if Kestrel’s got the shard, at least Neikos doesn’t have it. That’s gotta be worth something. And next time we find a shard-bearer, we’ll know what to do with the soul straight away, and we can take the shard away and hide it…”
Luna nodded, making no effort to step away. He told himself it was because he really needed a hug right now. He was guiltily aware that it was also the easiest way to avoid looking Sol in the face as he said, “Do you think Sakaki would mind if I went straight home instead of going to the shrine?”
“I don’t care what she minds,” Sol replied with spirit. “We can talk about it all tomorrow. I want a bath. And an ice pack.” She paused. “Probably not at the same time.”
Luna managed to laugh. Sol was right, he told himself as they began to walk slowly towards the train station. Saving the shard-bearer was the most important thing. And Kestrel was hard to catch…
But I caught him. I caught him and I let him get away.
And then, hard on the heels of that thought:
What on earth happens now?