Even after two years without incident, gym class still made Hikari nervous. No-one had ever seemed to notice how careful she was about changing, or at least they hadn’t said anything, but she always rehearsed her responses in her head anyway. It was a relief to get into the sports hall and forget about it until the class was over.
At least, it normally was. Today she slowed to a stop as she reached the entrance, a shiver going down her spine. The girl behind her almost tripped over her.
“Sorry!” Hikari hastily moved forward again, but found herself unable to step over the threshold. She turned to the girl impatiently waiting for her to move, and asked, “Why is it so dark in there?”
The girl stared at her like she had two heads, and Hikari felt the familiar rush of terror that came from being noticed, the fear that it would lead to questions or guesses or accusations.
“It isn’t dark,” said the girl. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I… um…” Hikari stepped to the side. “You go on.”
The girl did without a pause. She didn’t seem to care about the shadows in the hall. It was a big room without windows, and it looked to Hikari as if the lights weren’t working properly, but no-one else seemed to notice. They were doing all the usual things that people did before gym class – at least, as far as Hikari could tell in the darkness – and they didn’t seem to be having any trouble seeing what they were doing.
Is something wrong with my eyes?
But when she looked back out of the gym, the school hall looked perfectly normal. The last few students were moving past her. Their teacher, bringing up the rear, looked at Hikari quizzically.
“Are you all right?”
“Um…” Hikari had never tried to get out of any class, even the ones she really didn’t like, but she was suddenly completely sure that she couldn’t go into that room. “I don’t feel well. I think I might be sick.”
It wasn’t exactly untrue. The darkness turned her stomach somehow. The teacher looked concerned. She put a hand to Hikari’s forehead briefly, then shook her head.
“Well, you don’t have a fever, but let’s not take the chance of you throwing up in the middle of dodge ball, shall we? Go and see the nurse. If she says you can come back to class, you know where to find us. Otherwise get some rest.”
Hikari nodded, feeling herself turning red in a mixture of guilt and relief, and fled back to the changing room. At least she was alone to put her uniform back on this time, which made things go faster. She almost started to feel like she was being silly, except when she stepped back out into the corridor and glanced towards the gym, it was now so dark she couldn’t even see anyone inside.
She hurried to the nurse’s office and spent the rest of the period staring at the ceiling with an unneeded bucket at her side, worrying that something was wrong with her that lying in a quiet office couldn’t fix.
“Ugh, this guy and gyms,” Sol muttered as they peered around the doorway into the dark, cavernous space beyond. “Seriously, so gross.”
“This seems weird, though,” Luna said. “It’s a middle school. It’s just a bunch of kids running around, it’s not like people are working out or wearing skimpy outfits.”
“Says a boy who has never had to wear bloomers in gym class,” Sol said. “Maybe Neikos, you know… likes young girls.”
Luna looked appalled for a moment, before his analytical side seemed to kick in. “Surely in that case he’d have targeted the changing rooms, not the sports hall?”
“I guess so.” Sol knew she was kind of snappy today, but lack of sleep and added stress would do that to a person. “I don’t feel like looking for too many excuses for him, to be honest.”
“Right.” Luna sent an apologetic look her way. “Let’s get rid of it, shall we?”
It wasn’t a well-established haunt. Now that Sol had seen a few of them, she was starting to recognise when the Spectres had been in a place a long time. This looked like Neikos had only sent them within the last week or so. It was odd that they weren’t being more stealthy about it. Normally Sakaki couldn’t sense the Spectres until they had absorbed enough of people’s souls that they couldn’t keep themselves hidden, but she’d picked this one up almost immediately. They had to wait until all the evening clubs cleared out before they could sneak into the school, which wasn’t too far from Luna’s, but they hadn’t met with any opposition on the way.
Maybe Neikos was getting careless. Maybe they’d rattled him. Sol hoped so. It might make him easier to deal with when they eventually had to confront him head on. She got on with burning out the Spectres that had lodged themselves in the vents and corners. The flames were cathartic at least.
“Try not to burn the gym down,” Luna said dryly. Sol was about to snap at him when she realised that there were no more Spectres to destroy. “It’s not even your school.”
“What, would it make it okay if it was?”
Luna laughed, and Sol let the flames die out, checking as she did that nothing had ignited unexpectedly. If Luna was gently teasing her like that, though, everything was probably fine. He was getting very good at spotting any stray fire and extinguishing it before it could get out of control. It sometimes made Sol feel a bit guilty that most of his job, in the absence of shard bearers, was apparently cleaning up after her, and at the same time, she was sort of envious that he didn’t have to worry about accidental arson.
“How does it look?”
“I can’t see any more shadows. Or feel the Spectres.” Luna seemed to be more sensitive to the presence of the Multitude than her, as well. “I think we’re good.”
“Well, that was easy.” Sol found she was feeling more cheerful at the realisation that for once, something had been straightforward. They slipped out of the gym and headed for the school exit. “Hey, want to go get ice cream or something to celebrate?”
“I should really catch up on homework…” Luna started, then seemed to change his mind. “Actually, I’m never going to catch up on homework. Ice-cream sounds good, let’s do it.”
“Awesome.” Sol peered around a corner to check for roaming teachers, then grinned at her fellow Guardian. “I know this great place.”
Akemi’s idea of a “great place” turned out to be crammed into the corner of the food court in one of the biggest tower-block shopping malls in Osaka, but Shoichi couldn’t argue that the ice-cream was very good. He hadn’t quite expected to end up with such a big, cream-and-syrup covered concoction, but the uncharacteristic indulgence was making him feel better than he had for at least a week. It was so… normal. And kind of childish. In a good way.
“We should do this more often,” he said.
Akemi nodded enthusiastically, busy with a large spoonful of ice-cream.
Shoichi happened to glance over the food court, paused, and frowned.
“Those girls are staring at you,” he said quietly. The tension he’d momentarily discarded slipped back. “Do you know them?”
Akemi turned in her seat with no attempt at subtlety, but before Shoichi could worry about that, she laughed.
“Yeah, they’re in my class.” She waved at the girls. They smiled and waved back, going back to their own conversation with only occasional glances in Akemi’s direction. “They’re probably wondering why I wasn’t at track today.”
“You missed track?” Shoichi said, dismayed. “You should have said it was today, we could have waited a bit longer to go to the haunt…”
“Well, I didn’t know how long it would take.” Akemi shrugged. “Anyway, we wouldn’t be having ice-cream if I’d done that, would we?”
“That’s true.” Shoichi took another spoonful of his own sundae, deciding that if Akemi wasn’t worried about missing her favourite club, he wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. “Oh, did you have fun on Saturday? With Hana?”
“Yes!” Akemi replied with a big smile. “We did so much karaoke we couldn’t talk for an hour afterwards! So we were sitting at this table in the restaurant writing notes to each other and it was so funny!”
Shoichi laughed. “That sounds great.”
“It was really nice.” Akemi looked wistful. “I feel like I haven’t seen Hana properly for ages, even though we’re in class together every day.”
“You… haven’t told her about the Celestial Guard then?” Shoichi asked cautiously.
“No.” Some of the light went out of Akemi for a moment. “I can’t… I don’t want to… not yet, anyway.”
“Okay.” Shoichi quickly changed the subject. “Um… so I was thinking about the tent. If we’re going to find more Guardians, we’ll need a bigger one.”
“I guess so.” Akemi frowned. “Sakaki hasn’t said anything about sensing anyone, though. I wish they’d hurry up. Except… then I feel kind of selfish, you know?”
Shoichi nodded. More Guardians would mean maybe they could take it in turns to track down Spectres, and maybe he and Akemi could have a few more evenings off… but it would mean other teenagers having to fit the Celestial Guard into their lives, with all that entailed. Although… would the other Guardians be the same age as him and Akemi? He’d just sort of assumed… but maybe they would be older, and have more free time?
“I wonder if–” he started to say, to share the thought with Akemi, when he felt the tugging sensation that meant Sakaki was trying to reach him.
Akemi pulled her crest out and opened it. She was a lot more relaxed than he was about waving it about in public, apparently confident that the magic Sakaki had talked about would hide it from prying eyes. She seemed to be right, too. Shoichi had accidentally left his on the desk at school one time, and no-one had even seemed to notice, but he still took care to hide it under his uniform every day.
“We’re here,” Akemi said, putting the crest between them on the table. “What’s up?”
“Nothing you need attend to tonight,” Sakaki said, and Shoichi breathed a sigh of relief. “But something odd is happening. I am sensing even more haunts, weak and unguarded, like the one you just destroyed, in many places throughout the city. It is strange for Neikos to spread his Spectres so thin for so little reward, and stranger still that they are not hidden from me. Especially since I also sense the first traces of another shard-bearer, whom I would expect to be his priority.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Akemi said.
“Some sort of diversion?” Shoichi suggested. “Hoping to keep us busy with the haunts while he goes after the shard-bearer?”
“Maybe. But if the haunts are so weak and easy to destroy…”
“Maybe he’s trying to split us up,” Shoichi said after another moment’s thought. “To get one of us to go after the shard-bearer while the other one deals with the haunts?”
“That is a very likely possibility,” Sakaki said. “Together you outmatch him, but he may hope to get the upper hand if he confronts one of you alone. He is not wrong that you would be vulnerable… your powers are still undeveloped.Take care to stay together.”
“What about the shard-bearer?” asked Akemi. “Can you tell who it is yet?”
“Any chance it’s another Guardian?”
“I cannot tell.”
“Okay,” said Shoichi. “I guess we’ll just need to be ready for action.”
He hoped he sounded as calm as he was trying to. His heart rate had picked up as soon as Sakaki had mentioned the shard-bearer. They hadn’t seen Kestrel since that night at the hospital… but if there was another shard in play, Shoichi had no doubt he’d be there. And he still didn’t know what he was going to do if… or, more likely, when… he found himself face to face with Satoru again.
“We’re always ready for action,” Akemi said cheerfully. “And ice-cream. I am always ready for ice-cream.”
Shoichi laughed, and let her confidence buoy him up. He didn’t know what he’d do without Akemi’s unshakable optimism. It was, he thought, the one definite, inarguable good thing that had come from being told he was a Guardian… he’d met Akemi. And he’d never realised how much he needed her until she was there, dashing into his life and brightening everything she touched.
Hikari didn’t get to see Sota as much as she’d like since she’d moved schools, but it was always worth it when they managed to meet up. Today when he saw her from their usual park bench, he waved and held up a bag that made her rush the last few metres to where he was sitting.
“You really brought it?”
“Yep!” Sota grinned at her excitement. “Well, who else was I going to practise on? All the other girls I know think I’m weird.”
“You’re definitely weird,” Hikari said cheerfully. “But not the way they mean.”
“Wow, thanks,” Sota said, but he was still grinning, and Hikari knew the flip comment meant as much to him as the phrase ‘other girls’ did to her. “Shall we go?”
They headed for the cheap karaoke place two blocks away from the park. Hikari wasn’t a huge karaoke fan, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that a karaoke parlour was somewhere two fourteen-year-olds could pay a small amount of money for a quiet room and free sodas. It wasn’t private – there were big windows on all the booths, probably to avoid any other reasons two teenagers might try to get a room together – but it wasn’t like being on display out in the park or in a mall, either. Plus, the food was cheap too, and pretty good, and there was wifi. It was their default hang-out spot when they just wanted to spend some time together, even if spending time together meant getting their laptops out and playing online games while in the same room for a few hours.
Today, though, Hikari could hardly hold still with excitement as they filled their soda cups and headed for the smallest, cheapest room. Sota laughed at her, but she could tell he was pleased. When he opened the bag, it was all she could do not to stick her face into it like a kid at Christmas.
“So, it’s pretty basic stuff,” Sota said as he began to take the small pots and tubes out and lay them on the table. “I don’t want to buy the expensive ones until I’m good at it. But I got some eyeshadow and lipstick that will look good with your hair, I think, and we can try mascara and eyeliner if you’re up for it…”
Hikari picked up one of the little plastic compacts and grinned at the name on it. “Candyfloss?”
“Hey, it’s not my fault they give everything such cutesy names.” Sota pulled a mirror out from the bottom of the bag and set it up on the table. “Half the time it sounds like something you should eat, not put on your face.”
Hikari laughed, looking at a tube of ‘Cinnamon Sugar’ lipstick. “Does it taste like cinnamon?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t tried that one yet.” Sota picked up a bottle of liquid foundation and a sponge. “Do you want to try by yourself first, or shall I do you?”
Hikari hesitated, because oh, she wanted to try it herself… but she was pretty sure she’d make a mess of it. “Can you do it?”
“Of course! And I promise not to make you look like a zombie.”
Hikari grinned, and scooted around on the seat so Sota could start patting the makeup onto her face. The ‘acceptable’ part of his hobby was doing stage makeup for his school performances and the odd flashmob, and Hikari knew he could do an excellent zombie when he wanted to. People were… less understanding about a teenage boy who loved ‘normal’ makeup.
“It will all come off, won’t it?” she said, suddenly gripped by anxiety. “Before I go home?”
“Yes, don’t worry. I’ve brought lots of cleaning wipes, and a bottle of cleanser too, so if you need to you can wash your face properly.” Sota put the sponge down and picked up a large brush. It tickled when he dusted it over Hikari’s face, but not enough to make her flinch. “Your mom still won’t let you?”
“It’s weird how she’s fine with everything else, but not makeup.”
“I know!” Hikari let some of her frustration out with a big sigh. “I feel so ungrateful for even feeling upset about it, when she and Dad have been so great, but at the same time…”
“Maybe it’s just an age thing,” Sota said. “I mean, my older sister didn’t start wearing it until recently.” He put the brush down and picked up a smaller one. “Close your eyes.”
“Maybe.” Hikari did as she was told, and giggled a little as more ticklish sensations were applied to her eyelids. She hesitated, and then said something she would never have said out loud to anyone except Sota. “But I think it is kind of that… she feels like it would be weird to teach her son to use makeup.”
“Oh, it would totally be weird,” Sota said, deadpan. “I mean, look at me! But she doesn’t have a son anymore, she has a daughter. She knows that really. She probably doesn’t even realise she’s thinking it.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Hikari smiled, eyes still closed. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now, do you want to go bold or natural to start with?”
They had a great time with the makeup. Hikari even tried putting some on herself, with tips from Sota. She liked the way it made her look older and more sophisticated (well, it did when Sota put it on her – her own efforts were a bit more haphazard). It was hard not to feel sad when Sota packed it all up again in the bag.
All except one little pot of lip gloss, which he held out to her.
“You can ask your mom,” he said. “Or just wear it in secret in your room where no-one can see. Like a rebel.”
Hikari giggled, but she was touched and happy as she took the little gift. They were laughing and teasing each other as they left the karaoke place, still having a great time, until suddenly, Hikari wasn’t. All at once she was scared.
She couldn’t exactly explain why. There were people out on the road, just normal-looking salarymen in suits, standing around, but somehow they made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. The sun was just going down. It wasn’t dark yet, but it felt darker than it should be. She shivered.
“Is it going to rain?” she asked hesitantly.
“I don’t think so…” Sota stopped to look up at the sky. “No, it’s clear. Why?”
“It seems too dark.”
Saying it out loud made Hikari remember the sports hall with a jolt of unease. She’d pretty much decided she’d just been ill at the time, especially when everything looked completely normal the day after, but this felt… this felt like the same thing. Maybe she was ill again? But some little-used instinct was telling her they should turn right around and go back into the safety of the brightly-lit karaoke parlour…
Sota shot her a questioning look. “Are you okay?”
“I… don’t know.” Hikari glanced nervously at the nearest bystander. He was reading a newspaper. Except there was something… funny about his clothes? “Let’s hurry up and get to the station.”
“Okay.” Sota was still looking at her like he could see something was wrong, but didn’t know what, exactly. Hikari didn’t either, so she couldn’t explain. “Come on then.”
They started walking quickly along the road. For a few seconds, Hikari felt like everything was going to be okay – like she’d just been imagining things – but then she saw, out of the corner of her eye, that the man they’d just walked past had put down his newspaper and started walking along behind them. There was something wrong with the way he walked, too. He kind of… glided. And shouldn’t the streetlights ahead of them be on by now? And why was it so quiet, apart from the silent men in suits, and now she came to think about it, what were they doing standing around at this time on a Saturday…?
“I… I think we should…” Hikari started, but she didn’t get the chance to say that they should run. The shadows struck first.
Two of the salarymen rushed up behind them suddenly and grabbed hold of Sota, dragging him away from Hikari. She tried to scream, but she was so shocked it only came out as a gasp. The salarymen didn’t look like men now. They were too tall and thin, their arms too sinuous as they pinned Sota against a nearby wall. From the gap between two buildings, something insect-like unfolded itself to twice the height of a person and moved towards Hikari with a horrible clattering, skittering sound as its sharp-tipped legs hit the pavement. She managed to scream then, but it seemed tiny and pitiful in the silence around them. Sota was yelling at the men – creatures – that held him, asking them what they wanted, they could have his wallet if they liked, just leave them alone… but Hikari couldn’t tear her gaze from the thing advancing on her with terrible intent. She didn’t think it wanted her wallet. She thought it probably wanted to eat her. She somehow found the courage to take a shaky step backwards, but that only seemed to spur it into action. It leapt towards her and Hikari shut her eyes and this time really really screamed…
There was a scraping thud like something hard hitting a wall, and then scrabbling. Hikari’s eyes flew open in time to see the insect-like monster reeling back from a bright, white shield of light in front of her. Someone grabbed her arm and pulled her quickly backward, past a boy in a pale blue uniform of some sort who had his hand out like he was throwing something.
“But… but my friend…”
“He’ll be okay,” said the girl who was still holding onto her arm. “They’re not trying to hurt him, just… take something from him. We’ll make sure he’s okay.”
She sounded almost like she was trying to convince herself as much as Hikari, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence, but what could she do? None of this made sense and Sota was still over there with the shadow creatures… Hikari looked at the girl beside her. She seemed to be a few years older than Hikari, wearing a red and orange version of the boy’s outfit. She was watching the shadows intently, only glancing at Hikari to make sure she was still moving back.
“Luna?” she said. “Have you–?”
“Got it,” the boy said. “This time I’ve got it.”
Hikari couldn’t see what was happening to Sota, but she heard him scream, and despite herself she tried to run forward. The other girl’s grip on her arm tightened and held her firmly in place.
“I know,” she said quietly. “It’s horrible. I promise he’ll be okay. I promise.”
“Who… who are you?”
“Guardian Sol. We fight those things.”
“Like… some sort of flashmob thing?” Hikari said, grasping at any shred of logic she could find. “Is this a game?”
“Ha, that’s what I said, too,” said Sol. “But it really isn’t.”
There was a flare of light above and beyond the glimmering shield. The boy – Luna – shouted, “That’s it!” and started to run towards where Sota had been.
Sol let go of Hikari’s arm and sprang forward. “No, you protect her, I’ll get it!”
For a second Luna seemed torn, “But–”
“We are not letting her get hurt!”
Luna pulled back, taking Sol’s place at Hikari’s side. And Sol… did something… and suddenly there were flames driving back the shadows, glorious light in the unnatural darkness. The monster that had attacked Hikari was scrambling backwards away from the heat, and in the firelight she could see Sota slumped against the wall, head lolling.
“Keep close to me,” Luna said, taking her by the arm and moving sideways around Sol’s flames. “We’ll get over there so he’s under the shield too. Sol can handle the Spectres.”
“Those shadow things.” He glanced at her with a worried frown. “Er… this must all seem pretty weird to you.”
Hikari almost started laughing hysterically, but she was so worried about Sota, she couldn’t. “Weird? This isn’t just weird, I like things that are weird, this is… this is horrible! And… and impossible!”
“I can’t really argue with that…”
Luna gently steered her a few more feet, and then all at once they were next to Sota. Hikari immediately dropped to her knees to check if he was okay. He must have been unconscious or something, because he was groggily lifting his head even as she got to him, and seeing him sit up and look around was enough to make her cry, even though apparently giant impossible shadow monsters didn’t.
“What… what happened…?”
“I don’t know. Something attacked us…”
“Did you call the police?”
“It’s… it’s not really that kind of thing…”
She glanced at Luna for help, but Luna, though he seemed to be keeping the glowing shield in place, was staring very intently at a rooftop across the road.
“What kind of thing is this…?” she asked.
“He’s going to go over the rooftops towards the intersection,” Luna said softly. It took a moment for Hikari to realise he was talking to himself, not her. “He’ll get behind Sol…” Now he did look at her, worry and guilt on his face. “I have to go.”
“But the shadows…”
“They’re running away from Sol – that way. You’re safe now. Go the other way and get out of the area.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t stay!” The shield vanished, and Luna began to run after Sol. “I have to make sure the shard is safe!”
He was already out of earshot. Hikari shrank back against the wall, but after a moment, she realised that Luna was right: there was nothing nearby that wasn’t a normal part of the street. In fact, the streetlights were coming on, oddly out of sequence, as if they had been surprised by the fall of dusk. There were some scorch marks on the road that could easily be mistaken for tire marks… and Luna was already almost around the next corner.
Sota was holding his head. “Did they hit me?”
“What?” Hikari looked at him, and when she looked back, Luna had vanished too. “No, they…”
They did what, exactly?
The shadows were gone. There were normal people coming up the road. One of them had already noticed Hikari and Sota by the wall and was hurrying in their direction. Hikari hung for a second in agonising indecision, before doing something she’d promised herself she’d never do: lie to her best friend.
“Yes,” she said. “I think they were muggers? They’re gone. Are you okay?”
“Did they get my stuff?”
“Um… no.” ‘The bag of makeup was lying on the ground next to him. His schoolbag was still on his shoulder. “I don’t think they… took anything.”
Except the ‘shard’… whatever that was…?
“Not very good muggers then,” said Sota with a weak grin that vanished when he got a good look at her face. “Are you okay? They didn’t hurt you or anything?”
“No,” said Hikari, looking one last time in the direction where Sol and Luna had vanished. “No, some people… saved us.”
“You make it sound like Batman or something.”
“Yeah,” said Hikari. “That’s kind of what it was like.”
Even as he ran after Sol, Luna had a sinking feeling it was hopeless. If that had been Kestrel he’d seen on the roof, he had a headstart as well as being faster. But he had to try… they couldn’t lose another shard. And he was terrified of what would happen if Sol and Kestrel fought…
It turned out he had a better chance than he’d thought. Whatever powers Satoru had as Kestrel, he couldn’t fly, or jump from the top of a tower block, apparently. When Luna came around the corner, he saw the faint blue glow of the visor just dropping down from the lowest level of a fire escape.
He almost used Satoru’s real name, but he forced himself instead to shout, “Kestrel!”
Kestrel looked briefly over his shoulder, then began to run in the opposite direction. Some of Luna’s hesitation and worry transformed into plain annoyance at that point. If he’d just stand still maybe they could have a reasonable conversation about this…
He ran after him. They both burst out of the alley and Sol was right there, just leaning down to pick something up from the ground…
“Sol!” Luna yelled.
She spun towards them. The next few seconds seemed to happen in slow motion. Sol reacted instinctively, throwing her hands out and casting fire in a wave towards Kestrel. Kestrel tried to dive out of the way, but he was already close enough that he wouldn’t make it. And Luna… didn’t have time to think. The shield was around both him and Kestrel before he even heard himself say the words to summon it. Sol’s fire splashed off harmlessly, even as she desperately tried to rein it back in of her own accord. Kestrel hit the ground hard, but unburned, and Luna realised if he kept the shield up, Kestrel wouldn’t be able to run away…
But whatever Kestrel had done to Luna’s shield before, he did again the second Sol’s fire died away. The dome vanished, Kestrel rolled to his feet… and this time he fled without even trying to reach the shard. Luna took a step after him, but the sound of a choking gasp from Sol made him spin back towards her.
She had a handover her face and her shoulders were heaving with sobs. Luna stared in disbelief for a moment before he rushed to her side.
“Sol? Are you okay? Are you–”
“I didn’t realise you were right there!” Sol wailed. “I could have hit you! I could have hit him! I could have killed him!”
Luna found he was shaking. He didn’t know what to say. She was right. It seemed easiest just to hug her, so he did.
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” Sol said, muffled against his shoulder. “Even Kestrel or Neikos, I… I can’t…”
“We’ll… we’ll figure something out,” Luna said. He didn’t have any idea what they could do, but it was categorically not okay for Sol to be this upset. “And it’s okay! I got the shield up! No-one was hurt. We got the shard… wait, did we get the shard?”
Sol gulped, and pulled back enough to open up her hand. The shard glittered in her palm. She managed a smile through her tears.
“We got the shard. And that boy–”
“He’s fine,” Luna said. “His soul didn’t go anywhere! He woke up, and his girlfriend’s fine too, they should be long gone by now…”
“Oh wow, what are they going to think?” Sol said, laughing shakily. “Did you tell them it was all a dream or something?”
“I… no, I didn’t think of that…” Luna frowned. “But what can they do? No-one will believe them if they talk about it.”
“That’s kind of awful though, don’t you think?” Sol carefully opened her crest and tucked the shard inside. “I mean, they’re not going to get to meet Sakaki and have it all explained… I thought I was going crazy when the Spectres first attacked me…”
“I… didn’t think of that, either,” Luna said. “Maybe we can find them and tell them a bit about it? I know I’ll recognise the shard-bearer again, but I don’t think the girl was from the same school.”
“I don’t know, maybe finding out more would be worse, though,” Sol said. “If you can’t do anything about it…”
“That’s true too.” Luna sighed. “We should probably just leave them alone and let them come up with their own explanation. In movies and things, normal people always just blame a gas leak or something, right?”
“Right.” Sol rubbed the back of her glove over her eyes. “I’m sorry. I think I’m okay now.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. This is… hard.” Luna took a deep breath. “And, I know I said we might have to kill the Archdukes, but… I don’t want to either. There has to be another way.”
“Yeah.” Sol managed to grin with something close to her usual cheer. “We’re the Celestial Guard. We’ll make another way.”
And that made her laugh, and made the fragile look that had been in her eyes go away, which was why Luna had said it in the first place, and why he fully intended to do something about Kestrel before the next time they went after a shard.
“I don’t think Neikos was there,” Akemi said, leaning back against Sakaki’s trunk. It was nice have a day where it wasn’t raining. The tent was a wonderful idea, but it was still quite small and cramped. “Just Spectres. It was like the first time they attacked me… one of the ones that look like men had the knife in a briefcase.”
“That really worries me,” Shoichi said. “What was he doing instead?”
“Perhaps setting up more haunts,” Sakaki replied. “I sense even more just in the course of today…”
“We’ve cleared out five this week already!” Akemi complained. “Are these ones all schools too?”
“I do not know, but it seems to be the pattern.”
“Two middle schools, two high schools, and a university lecture hall,” Shoichi said, ticking them off on his fingers. “I guess… if they’re supposed to be a distraction, putting kids in danger is a good way to make sure we take it seriously? Except that doesn’t explain the university.”
“Maybe that wasn’t part of the pattern.” Akemi closed her eyes. She felt like she could sleep, all of a sudden. Possibly for a week. She wished she hadn’t burst into tears in front of Shoichi, but she felt better now, all the same. “He might have just thrown that one in.”
“Or he’s a student there,” Shoichi said slowly. “I mean… he has to have a real life of some kind.”
“What makes you think he’s a student and not a professor?”
“You’ve met him, haven’t you?” said Shoichi, echoing Akemi’s earlier comment, and in a good imitation of her accent.
She laughed, and then paused, struck by a thought.
“Why do you talk like you’re from Tokyo, anyway? I thought you’d lived here all your life.”
Shoichi coloured, looking uncomfortable. “Oh… it’s my school. We have to speak Tokyo dialect all the time. We’re not allowed to use any Osaka slang… we used to be punished for it in elementary.”
“Wow.” Akemi had to bite back a less diplomatic response about stuck-up private schools. “Why didn’t they just build the school in Tokyo, then?”
Shoichi shrugged. Akemi didn’t need him to tell her he hated the elitism of it. It was written all over his face. She decided not to pursue the topic further.
“So we’ve got a shard,” she said. “Finally. Can we use it at all, Sakaki? To fight the Multitude?”
“No,” Sakaki said, with more force than Akemi was expecting. She tilted her head back to look questioningly at the branches overhanging her. “We must simply keep the shards safe and away from the Archdukes. There is no way for us to use their power.”
“But you said the Archdukes can use them?”
“Only if they collect enough of them, and even then, only with the twisted power of the Multitude. It is not–”
Sakaki stopped suddenly.
“What is it?”
“There is someone approaching,” Sakaki said. She sounded puzzled. “There has been someone in the shrine since just after you arrived, but the maze I have woven around this place was keeping them out… but now they have begun to find a path to us.”
Shoichi scrambled to his feet, suddenly pale. “One of the Archdukes? Or… or Kestrel?”
“No, I would sense their power. This seems like just a normal person, except…” Sakaki fell silent again, then said slowly, “I think perhaps I should let them in.”
“What?” Akemi got to her feet as well. She shared a glance with Shoichi. “Should we transform?”
“No,” said Sakaki with more certainty. “I think… fate has collaborated in our favour for once.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
But Sakaki said nothing more. Akemi heard movement in the bushes, the sound of someone cautiously making their way through the forest. She tensed despite Sakaki’s warning. Shoichi looked like he was about to pass out from nerves.
Finally, they could see who it was, and Akemi’s mouth fell open.
“What are you doing here?”
The girl they’d saved earlier stopped, clutching her school bag nervously. She couldn’t be more than fourteen or so, and it looked like it had taken a lot of her courage to come up to them. Akemi looked behind her for the shard-bearer, but she seemed to be alone.
“Um,” she said. “I followed you.”
“Wait, what? How? You were nowhere around when we left!”
“I saw you at the station. When I was about to go home.” The girl bit her lip. “I just… wanted to know what’s going on, that’s all.”
“But we weren’t transformed when we were at the station–” Akemi began, then stared at the girl as the realisation hit. “Wait, you recognise us? Like this?”
The girl blinked. “Like what? You changed your clothes…”
And Sakaki laughed. The girl jumped and looked around for the source. Shoichi’s eyes had gone wide, but whatever it was he’d figured out, it was just out of Akemi’s grasp.
Then Sakaki said, “Come here, Astra. It seems you have found us before we could find you.”