A week ago Hikari would never have imagined she’d be sneaking into someone else’s school in the middle of a day when she was supposed to be in her own classes. If she thought about it too hard it made her feel slightly lightheaded, and if she thought about what would happen if anyone found out… well, it was better not to think about that, really.
But she was determined not to let the others down. They needed her help and she was going to do whatever it took to make sure they got it. Even breaking rules she had never dreamed of breaking.
She was so glad she wasn’t doing it by herself, though.
“This is it,” said Shoichi, looking at his watch. “They’ll all be in class now.”
“What if someone sees us?”
“That’s why we transform first. It should make us less obvious.”
Hikari stared at him. “Less obvious? With the… the costume and the gloves and the boots and stuff?”
Shoichi shot her a smile. “I know. It’s weird but it seems to work. It’s the disguise magic Sakaki talked about.”
Hikari swallowed her nerves as best she could. “Okay.”
It still took all her courage to walk right up the main doors after they’d transformed into Luna and Astra. At any second she expected someone to yell at them from a window. Shoichi – Luna – didn’t seem worried at all, but then, Astra could already tell that he was good at giving that impression, especially when he didn’t want anyone else to be worried. Even so, it was reassuring, and as they made their way through the school halls, she slowly started to relax.
That turned out to be mistake, as she almost jumped out of her skin when a teacher stepped out of a room up ahead, looked at them, frowned, and said, “Where are you going?”
Astra froze, feeling herself turning red. She was sure he would follow up by asking who they were, why they were in the school, what were those costumes they were wearing… but he just waited for an answer, mild disapproval on his face.
“My sister isn’t feeling well,” Luna said. “Our mom can’t come to pick her up, so I’m signing her out to take her home.”
“Oh, I see.” The frown lifted. The teacher moved past them down the corridor. “I hope you feel better soon.”
Luna took Astra’s hand and tugged her gently on down the corridor. Astra had some trouble putting her feet in front of each other until they were safely down a staircase and away from the classrooms.
“He thought we were students here?”
“I guess so.” Luna let go of her hand and peered around the next corner. “I’m not sure exactly how it works, but I think people just don’t quite… notice us. We’re not invisible, obviously, but they sort of assume we look like we ought to be here, even if they want to know why we’re here. If that makes sense.”
Luna shrugged. “Not to me either, to be honest. It feels really weird every time.”
He led the way down the basement corridor towards what Astra assumed was the boiler room. The hairs on the back of her neck began to stand on end, as if there was a thunderstorm on the way. She shivered and hurried to stay close to Luna.
Luna glanced at her and smiled reassuringly. “It’s the Spectres,” he said. “They give you that creepy feeling.”
“Do you get used to it?”
“Kind of. I mean, it’s still creepy but at least we can do something about it.”
He cautiously pushed open the door to the boiler room. It was dark inside, much darker than it should be with the light from the corridor spilling into it. Just like the sports hall, Astra thought. She raised her hands hesitantly.
“Wait.” Luna leaned around the door frame and pressed a light switch. It didn’t make much difference. “I get the impression your power is more… focused than Sol’s. I think you need to find a target.”
“How? There’s nothing but black in there.”
“Stick close to me.”
Together they ran a few steps into the darkness. Luna whispered words she couldn’t quite catch, his call to the moon, she guessed, and the brilliant shield sprang up around them. The light from it pushed back some of the shadows, and Astra saw something move out of the corner of her eye…
She didn’t really think, in the end. It just came as naturally as catching her balance after a misstep or tying her hair back without looking. She turned and moved her hand, I call upon the stars, my liege, and a flare of white light hit the centre of the movement. For a second, the Spectre was pinned, a bright hole in its darkness where the bolt had struck, and then it crumbled to dust and faded.
“… that was cool,” Luna said.
“That was pretty cool,” Astra agreed. Her fingers only trembled a little as she lowered them. “Let’s get the others.”
It was weird knowing Luna and Astra were fighting Spectres while Akemi was sitting in her chemistry class. She couldn’t have honestly said she was paying much attention. She surreptitiously checked her phone so many times she was in danger of getting caught by the teacher.
Since they’d realised what Neikos was doing, she’d felt exposed whenever she went to school. She’d learned to trust the disguise magic of the medallion, but now she felt as though she stuck out like a sore thumb. She’d even tied her hair differently the last couple of days, pulling it right back into a braid (from which it would inevitably escape by lunch time) out of some vague idea that not being “the red-haired girl with pigtails” would help, but it hadn’t made her feel any better. If anything, it made her feel more conspicuous, like she was trying too hard and Neikos would immediately realise why she had made the change.
I’m giving him too much credit, she told herself, half-heartedly trying to make a few notes on whatever the teacher was currently talking about. He’s not that smart and he can’t see through the disguise. Girls change their hair all the time. Keiko just got hers cut super short! Maybe I should hang around with her for a bit so if he follows me he gets us mixed up…
Except that would be terrible, of course. Imagine if Neikos ambushed Keiko, thinking she was Guardian Sol… Akemi shuddered. She’d do better to avoid the rest of her classmates, and everyone else at the school, so there was no chance of them being associated with her.
Not that she’d have to try very hard to achieve that. She glanced around the classroom for a second, watching as everyone else wrote diligently in their notebooks. She felt like a glass wall had come down around her, like they weren’t even on the same planet any more.
Suddenly she couldn’t stand to be in class another second. Even though it wasn’t long until the end of the period, she raised her hand and asked for permission to go to the bathroom. For a moment, from the teacher’s frown, she thought he was going to say no, but then he seemed to decide that it wasn’t a battle he wanted to fight, and he let her go.
The bathroom wasn’t exactly the most calming of environments, but Akemi still felt better when she got there and found there was no-one else around. She paused to look at herself in the mirror. Did she look different these days? She couldn’t tell. Her face looked just the same as it always did to her, even with all the late nights and worry. Her hair was busy escaping from the braid again. With a flash of defiance, she made up her mind that tomorrow she would wear it in her usual style. The braid didn’t suit her anyway.
She took her phone out of her pocket and checked for messages. Still nothing. She couldn’t call Shoichi, not if he was still in the middle of dealing with the Spectres, but Sakaki might know how they were doing…
She took the medallion out of her shirt and flipped it open. “Hey, Sakaki? Have you heard anything from Luna and Astra?”
“Not yet, but the haunt they were targeting is unravelling even now.”
Akemi sighed. “Good, I guess that means there haven’t been any prob–”
The bathroom door swung open and Hana walked in. Akemi snapped the medallion closed and hastily shoved it back inside her shirt, kicking herself for not going into a stall.
“Who were you talking to?” Hana asked, frowning. Then she saw the cell phone in Akemi’s other hand and her expression turned to shock tinged with an anger that froze Akemi where she stood. “Wait, did you seriously sneak away from class just to call your boyfriend? I was worried–”
Akemi’s mouth dropped open. “Boyfriend? What boyfriend?”
Hana crossed her arms over her chest with a scowl. “Oh, come on.”
“No, seriously!” Akemi had never seen Hana look so annoyed with her, not even that time she’d sort of dropped Hana’s bag into the canal. “I don’t have a boyfriend!”
“Right, and you don’t skip track to go on dates with him, and you don’t sit there texting him in class…”
Realisation dawned. “Wait, you mean Shoichi?” Akemi almost laughed, she was so relieved to have figured out the misunderstanding. “He’s not my boyfriend. We don’t go on dates! Nothing like that!”
Hana looked at her, and Akemi didn’t feel like laughing any more, because she could see in a heartbeat that Hana didn’t believe her.
She… couldn’t remember a time, ever, when Hana hadn’t believed her. Not when they were telling each other stories about other worlds, not when Akemi was explaining how she hadn’t meant to get them lost on the class trip, not even when she’d been so sure she’d seen a ghost…
“He isn’t,” Akemi said desperately. “Really.”
Hana shrugged. “Okay, whatever. Either way, you spend all your time with him. Is that why you’re doing so badly in school?”
“I’m not– I’m not doing that badly–”
“Yes, you are.” Hana’s tone was flat. “What’s going to happen when your mom finds out?”
Akemi flinched as if she’d been slapped, and anger surged up from the place where she had been worrying for weeks about that exact thing.
“Maybe I’m tired of caring about school,” she shot back. “Maybe I’m sick of all the studying and pressure and I just want a break.”
“Everyone wants a break!” Hana retorted. “We’re all tired of it! But no-one else is ditching their friends and their grades to date some American transfer student–”
“Wha–” Akemi was almost speechless with disbelief. “Shoichi isn’t American! He’s the most Japanese guy you’ve ever met! Once I saw him bow to a vending machine! And I am not dating him, Hana, can you get that through your head?!”
She hadn’t meant to raise her voice, but she was almost shouting when she got to the last part. Hana had flushed red and her lip was trembling, but rather than reply, she bolted into one of the stalls and shut the door. There was a long, awkward pause.
“I don’t really want to talk to you anymore right now,” Hana said in a muffled voice.
“Well… fine!” Akemi wanted to splash some water on her face or something to try and take away some of the redness, but she didn’t want to stay another second, not after that. “I’ll see you back in class.”
She stormed out of the bathroom, angry and hurt. Couldn’t Hana just have her back, instead of interrogating her and making all those stupid assumptions and… She wanted to scream, or possibly set a few things on fire, and instead she had to use the short walk back to the classroom to try and get herself under control and not look like she just got into a fight with her best friend…
Akemi bit her lip, slowing down as she walked. They’d never fought before. She almost couldn’t believe it had happened now. And in the back her mind was the horrible, miserable certainty that it was entirely her fault, even if Hana was being ridiculous about Shoichi…
As if responding to the thought, her phone finally buzzed with a new message. Shoichi said everything was fine, they were done with the haunt, it had all gone perfectly. So Akemi hadn’t even needed to worry, or leave the class to check up on them. She could have just stayed put and then Hana wouldn’t have come after her…
Once she was back in the classroom she tried hard to actually listen to the teacher, but she’d missed enough of the lesson that she found it hard to pick up the threads. Something about molecules? It was usually something about molecules. She scribbled as fast as she could, trying to create coherent notes.
After a while it started to creep in on her that Hana should have been back by now, even if she’d needed to take a few minutes to compose herself. She glanced at the door a couple of times. The clock was ticking steadily towards the end of class.
Akemi was just starting to get worried when the classroom door opened and Hana slipped back in. She didn’t look in Akemi’s direction as she went back to her desk. In fact, she kept her head down, as if she didn’t want to meet anyone’s eyes.
Akemi caught only the barest glimpse of her face, but it was enough to pierce her heart: she knew what Hana looked like when she’d been crying.
The rain was back, probably for the duration, as they were well into the wet summer season now. It was getting hot, too, sticky air making Shoichi feel damp even when he wasn’t outside. At least one advantage of skipping school was that he could come to the shrine in his home clothes. It was definitely getting to the part of the year where he started to hate his school jacket with its high collar. Unfortunately, his school didn’t believe in having different uniforms for summer and winter.
He was the first one to arrive. Hikari was planning to go to an after-school class to make up what she’d missed that afternoon. Akemi would probably be along soon. In the meantime he chatted with Sakaki and did some more homework. Another advantage of the fake sick day was that he’d been able to spend most of it catching up by himself. Shoichi actually felt like he’d got more out of the day than he would have in school, which was… slightly concerning, but he didn’t have time for in-depth critiques of the school system right now, so he just took what he could get and ran with it.
“We need a table,” he said, half to himself, as he tried to balance his notebook on his school bag to write. “Or at least a box.”
“There is something along those lines behind the shrine,” Sakaki said. “A crate, perhaps. It’s been there a long time.”
“It’s probably not something I want to put my homework on, then,” Shoichi replied absently. “I might just buy a table and bring it along…”
“Are such things so trivial in this time?” Sakaki asked curiously. “I was surprised that a boy your age had the wealth to purchase this tent.”
“Uh…” Shoichi felt himself redden, but at least the others weren’t here, so he could just explain without sounding like he was boasting. “Well. Things are cheaper now, I think. Furniture doesn’t have to be hand-made, it can be factory-produced with cheap materials. A tent like this is made of plastic, not canvas, so it’s not as expensive. But, um, I do have a lot of money. Or, well, my parents do. More than most people. And they give me an allowance, and they usually give me money for my birthday and new year, quite a lot.”
“And you have saved it?”
“I guess so. Not… deliberately, though.” Shoichi sighed. “To be honest, I’ve never really known what to do with it. I’m not that into video games or expensive computers or anything. Or fancy phones. I don’t buy high-end clothes. I buy books, but they don’t cost much, and I don’t really go out, you know, to the cinema or anything…” He looked around him at the tent. “This is the first time I’ve really wanted something that costs a lot of money. It’s nice, to be able to just go out and get it, and share it with everyone.”
“I understand.” Sakaki’s leaves rustled. “Ah, Sol is here.” A pause. “She seems agitated.”
Shoichi got up to open the tent door, and a minute later Akemi ducked inside, quickly closing her umbrella behind her and dumping it in the entrance space. ‘Agitated’ was an understatement. Akemi looked like she was about to explode.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine!” Akemi snapped, dropping down onto a cushion. She grimaced. “No, I’m not fine. Everything sucks! A lot!”
Shoichi resisted the urge to lean back away from her. He didn’t think she’d find it funny right now. “What happened?”
“School! Teachers! Homework!” Akemi had tied her hair differently today for some reason, but as she spoke, she pulled the ribbon out and let it fall around her face. “Hana thinks you’re my boyfriend.”
Shoichi blinked, and then blinked again.
“Er,” he said. Then, “I’m not, am I?”
“Of course not!” Akemi stared at him with sudden horror. “Wait, did you want to be?”
“No! Definitely not!” Okay, that came out wrong. Way wrong. “I mean, no offence! I like you very much! I just–”
But apparently his flailing had somehow been the right answer, because Akemi started to laugh, and once she started, she didn’t seem to be able to stop.
“I like you very much too,” she managed between giggles. “Just not in a dating sort of way.”
“Right.” Shoichi knew he was bright red at this point, but at the same time, a wave of relief went through him. There had been some part of his mind conscious that spending so much time with a girl he liked as much as Akemi was usually supposed to lead to a quite specific outcome, but it hadn’t been one he’d wanted. “I’m glad we sorted that out.”
Akemi started to get herself under control, then looked at him and went off into another round of laughter.
“I’m not, am I?” she managed to quote back at him in a poor attempt at his accent. “Like you could be my boyfriend and not notice?”
“It’s entirely possible! I’m not good at this whole dating thing!”
That appeared to just finish Akemi off, and she flopped over sideways to laugh herself out. Shoichi was torn between embarrassment and relief that she was finding the conversation so hilarious.
“I am going to pretend I heard none of that,” Sakaki said, and Shoichi went even redder, if that was possible, because he’d totally forgotten Sakaki was there. “Do you feel better now, Sol?”
“Yeah, a bit.” Akemi sat up again, hair now a wild mess in all directions, and made an attempt to sober up. “Sorry. It hasn’t been a good day. But you guys got the haunt?”
“Yes!” Shoichi was happy to seize on something other than dating to talk about. “Hikari – Astra – did really well! She has to take the Spectres out one by one, so I think we’d struggle without you for a larger number, but for that small haunt, she just picked them off from behind my shield until the place was clear.”
“With her star lasers,” Akemi said with a grin. “That’s great. How many more are there?”
Shoichi pulled out the list they’d been making, and Akemi shuffled around to look at it with him.
“Are there any new ones, Sakaki?” he asked.
Akemi frowned, peering through the rain-spattered window in Sakaki’s direction.
“Really? None at all?”
“Perhaps he thinks he’s got what he wanted,” Shoichi suggested uneasily.
“Or his power is stretched to the limit and he is too proud to call in reinforcements,” Sakaki said. “I have been wondering why we have not seen any sign of the other Archdukes, even though he acknowledged they were active when he first met Sol. I am beginning to think that Neikos has made a very foolish mistake in our favour.”
“What do you mean?”
“I believe he underestimated you. That he has not told the other Archdukes that you have awakened. That he thought he could destroy you easily, and now he finds himself in desperate straits, and dares not admit his failure to Demogorgon.”
Shoichi and Akemi stared at each other.
“That would be… so stupid,” Akemi said finally. “Even for him. Wouldn’t it?”
“Oh, yes,” Sakaki said with a humourless laugh. “It would, and it is. But those who are drawn to the Multitude are often arrogant, or blinded by their own prejudice. He called you a little girl, didn’t he? He couldn’t believe you could possibly be a threat. At least, not to start with. And now I suspect he is scrambling to find a way to defeat you before Demogorgon finds out that you are even awake.”
“Sucks to be Neikos,” Akemi said. She didn’t sound particularly sympathetic. “There’s three of us now. We can tear down haunts faster than he can set them up.”
“Indeed. In addition, Neikos does not yet know that we have found Astra. We may be able to turn this to our advantage when he targets the next shard-bearer.”
“He didn’t turn up for the last one,” Shoichi pointed out. “It was just Spectres.”
“And they failed,” Sakaki replied. “He will have to resume pursuit of the shards in person or he stands no chance of winning them.”
“Can you sense any shard-bearers now?”
“Several, but none are currently drawing the attention of the Spectres.”
“Hmm.” Akemi had the look on her face that meant she was about to say something she knew was outrageous, but still sort of thought was a good idea. “Maybe we could rent a billboard and put up a big sign. ‘Hey Neikos, you suck, bet you don’t have the guts to come to the park on Friday and face us!'”
“What if the other Archdukes see it?” Shoichi asked.
“Oh. Yeah. Never mind.”
Akemi leaned over with sudden energy to grab her school bag. After digging in it for a minute, she pulled out two hair ribbons and a brush. Shoichi watched as she briskly returned her hair to its usual pigtails, and felt a little twinge of indefinable relief. Something had changed.
“Let’s finish smashing those haunts,” she said. “And Sakaki, tell us who the shard-bearers are. We can’t follow them all at once, but we can get a headstart on knowing where they are for whenever Neikos decides to crawl out of his hole and go after them.”
When Akemi walked into the classroom and saw a huddle of girls talking in low voices, her first, paranoid thought was that they were talking about her. She braced herself and walked up to the group.
There was no guilty reaction; they just moved to let her into the circle. Just paranoia, then, Akemi thought with relief. The relief turned to concern when she saw that some of the girls had been crying.
“There’s been another murder in Kyoto,” Keiko said quietly. “Do you remember Emi?”
“Of course, she was in our class in junior high, right? Before she moved to– oh my god, no.”
“Yeah.” Keiko sniffled. “They found her this morning. Just like the others.”
Akemi shook her head, more out of shock than denial. “That’s… I can’t believe it.”
One of the other girls, Sayaka, put an arm out to hug her, and Akemi accepted it without hesitation. It wasn’t like she’d known Emi well. She hadn’t even thought about the girl in a long time. But she remembered her clearly enough, and the idea that she was dead… not just dead, but murdered, like those other girls in Kyoto… it rocked her to her core.
“Rika isn’t coming in today,” Keiko said. “She was really close to Emi. They stayed friends even after she moved.”
“It’s just awful,” Sayaka added. “And they still don’t have any idea who the killer is! How can they not have any clues at all?”
“They probably do know something,” said Minako, whose father was a detective. “But they can’t say that to the papers. They have to let him think he’s safe so he’s more likely to slip up.”
“My mom wants me to skip clubs and come straight home tonight,” Keiko said.
“Mine too,” said Minako.
Akemi bit her lip, wondering when her own mother would see the news. She wouldn’t be surprised if she were given a similar order, which would make things really difficult for dealing with the next haunt. Kyoto was only half an hour away by train, and the murders – had there been four now, or five? – were bizarre and brutal enough that every schoolgirl in the Kansai area had been subject to parental paranoia in the wake of each new story.
“Do they still think there might be a cult involved?” Sayaka was asking. “I mean, all that weird sacrificial altar stuff they were talking about last time?”
“I don’t think anyone’s found any evidence of that sort of organised–”
But Akemi had stopped listening as ice flooded her veins and froze her where she stood. Unbidden, her hand crept up to grasp her crest, and it was all she could do to stop herself from running out of the classroom to call Sakaki right there and then. The Kyoto murders had been happening for several years now. It hadn’t even occurred to her to re-evaluate them after she learned of the existence of the Multitude. But… sacrificial altar… the bodies were always found somewhere dark… a long enough gap between killings to build the kind of resonance Sakaki had talked about, the necessary bond to extract someone’s soul… and the police had never been able to identify the murder weapon, except that it was some kind of knife…
Sakaki would have told me, wouldn’t she? If something like that was happening in Kyoto… but can she even sense it that far away? She might not know…
And on the heels of that thought came another, terrible in its potential: What else could the Multitude be doing outside Osaka that we don’t know about?
Hikari hurried up the steps to the shrine, trying to keep as much of herself under the umbrella as possible. Akemi’s text had said it was urgent that they all meet. That had presented a problem for Hikari, since she’d already had another text from her mother telling her she’d pick her up from school today to make sure she got home safely.
So she’d done another thing she never would have imagined doing a week ago: she called her mother and said no, she was meeting some friends after school, she would be perfectly safe and not to worry. That caused an argument, of course, with her mother reminding her yet again of how careful she had to be, but Hikari thought about how much Akemi and Shoichi needed her to be on the team, and held her ground.
“And anyway,” she said over the top of her mother’s next protest, “even if the Kyoto serial killer suddenly decides to come to Osaka and find me out of all the millions of people here, he’s not going to do it for another six months or so, right?”
There was a pause, and then to Hikari’s surprise, her mother actually laughed wryly.
“You are so like your father,” she said. “Finding the logical argument. Well… all right. I guess you’re growing up, aren’t you? I can’t keep treating you like a child. I just worry. I’ll always worry about you, I’m your mother, it’s what I do.”
“I know,” Hikari said, smiling into the phone. “I promise I’ll be careful and I won’t be home late.”
And that had been that, and Hikari was still smiling, happy that her mother had understood, even if only partially, when she reached the clearing.
The smile faltered when she saw how grim Shoichi and Akemi looked.
“What… what’s happened?”
“There’s been another murder in Kyoto,” Akemi said.
“I know, my mom wanted me to go home, but I said–”
“Akemi thinks it’s the Multitude,” Shoichi explained.
“I believe she is correct,” Sakaki put in, her voice as oddly clear inside the tent as it always was, even though she was technically some metres away outside. “I have sensed darkness gathering outside the borders of my watch, and what they have told me of this Kyoto would put it in approximately the right area…”
“Which she didn’t mention to us, apparently,” Akemi said with a glare in the direction of the tree. Hikari shifted uncomfortably. “Again.”
Shoichi glanced at Akemi, then added, “Is there anything else we should know, Sakaki? I understand why you wouldn’t tell us everything at once when we were starting out, but aren’t we at a point where we should have all the information we need?”
“Yes,” Sakaki said after a hesitation that struck Hikari as oddly similar to her mother’s reaction to the thought of Hikari going out after school. “Of course. You are coming into your strength now, and I should not try to shelter you. Forgive me for withholding the information, Sol. I did not wish to cause you pain, and I was afraid you might try to confront the other Archdukes before you were ready.”
“They’re killing people!”
“And they would have killed you if you went after them alone and unprepared.”
Hikari gulped, a shock going through her at the stark statement. Shoichi looked rather pale, while Akemi hesitated, hands balling into fists before she let out an explosive sigh.
“All right, I guess I get it. I guess I might have done something stupid like that if I knew what was going on. But now it’s not just me, you need to tell us everything!”
“Very well. What do you wish to know?”
“I…” Akemi seemed to deflate slightly. “I don’t know! I don’t know what it is we don’t know!”
“Are there shards in in Kyoto?” Shoichi asked. Akemi shot him a look of such gratitude that he blushed. “What about other cities?”
“In general, no,” Sakaki replied. “The shards… it is difficult to explain, but they cluster together. Whenever I reawaken, I know that they will be found in the same area, and I know I must look for new Guardians in this same place. There will always be a few isolated shard-bearers further afield… humans travel, and the eddies of fate are unpredictable… but most of them will be here in this city and its environs.”
Shoichi started to say something else, and then stopped, an expression flashing across his face so fast it was hard to interpret. Hikari thought it was some sort of realisation. He shook it off, and continued.
“So whatever the other Archdukes are doing, they aren’t collecting shards?”
“Not from the shard-bearers, no.”
Shoichi frowned. “What does that mean?”
“There are… other shards,” Sakaki said. “A small number, no more than a dozen… which are not contained within a soul. They are simply artefacts that exist in the world, and they have been passed down from Atlantis in various ways, by design or by chance. They are far more powerful than the shards taken from the bearers, but often much harder to find, as they do not react with the bright soul that bears them. I have no way of sensing their presence, but neither do the Archdukes. If I were to guess… I believe that this time Demogorgon has concentrated most of the Archdukes’ efforts towards finding these potent shards as soon as possible, even if it means collecting fewer of the others at first.”
Akemi groaned and brushed a hand over her eyes in a gesture that seemed far too old for her.
“So we need to be looking for those too? Where do we even start?”
“Um.” Hikari realised as she spoke that she’d been quiet this whole time, and the sound of her own voice made her jump a little. “The internet?”
Shoichi and Akemi stared at her. She felt herself redden.
“I mean, I guess we aren’t going to find them on auction sites listed as ‘super powerful magical shard’, or anything,” she went on quickly. “But if they’re from Atlantis, people are going to be really interested in them, right? You guys said Atlantis sort of didn’t exist any more in history, so anyone who gets a good look at these shards will be wondering where on earth they came from. I guess some of them might be in a drawer or a box somewhere, but I bet most of them are in museums or private collections, and those have catalogues. And if there’s more than one of them, someone somewhere will have figured out they’re a set. There’ll be people on forums and mailing lists having conversations about them and arguing about where they come from, so if we just find them…”
She trailed off, because Shoichi and Akemi were still staring at her.
“Can I hug you?” Akemi said after a moment. “I would like to hug you.”
Hikari blushed, and nodded, and sure enough Akemi sort of pounced on her and hugged her like they were family.
“Start looking,” Akemi said from somewhere around Hikari’s ear. “That is officially your job from now on. I’m tired of being a step behind the Archdukes. We’re going to find those shards first.”
She let Hikari go and sat back with a look of determination on her face.
“And we’re going to find the next shard-bearers and be ready for Neikos, too. Sakaki already gave us some directions, if we can just figure out where they point…”
“Um,” Hikari said hesitantly, “I think I can do something with that, too. The directions. I was thinking about it after Shoichi explained the problem. I know how to code a bit. If I use one of the online map services and write a little program that uses a feed from it, I think I could do a sort of ‘x marks the spot’ thing where we put Sakaki’s information in and it tells us where to go. I might even be able to make it into an app so we can put it on our phones…”
“I might need to hug you again,” Akemi said. “How are you so awesome?”
“I didn’t understand any of that,” Sakaki put in, “but do I take it Astra can make it simpler for you to find the shard-bearers and haunts that I sense?”
“Yes,” Hikari said with more confidence. “I can.”
Satoru woke up with a searing migraine that had him stumbling to the bathroom to throw up before desperately fumbling for painkillers in the dark. He swallowed the pills and grabbed a wet cloth to put over his face, all without turning on the lights. He’d learned from that mistake the first time he’d made it.
There was a lot of advice for migraine sufferers on the internet, and he’d put some of it to use, but fundamentally he was in a different category from people whose triggers were red wine or fluorescent lights or stress; he hadn’t found anyone else whose chief cause of headaches was ‘prophetic visions’.
Back in his bedroom, he found his notebook by feel and managed to arrange himself so he was lying back with the cloth over his eyes and the pen in one hand. He’d be the first to admit that the notes he wrote like this, without looking, were barely legible, but ‘barely’ was still better than the risk of missing something important.
Definitely a shard-bearer this time. That made Satoru feel slightly better as he noted down what he could remember. About half the visions were of the people whom the Archdukes would be targeting; the other half were… he wasn’t quite sure. A strange mixture of dream and memory, he thought. Flashes of the past trying desperately to tell him something that he was left scrambling to understand in the dark with the crippling pain behind his eyes. He always felt resentful of those ones, as if they served no purpose other than to make him feel terrible, and at the same time they worried him. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t be getting them if they weren’t important, but so far he hadn’t been able to work out what any of them meant.
The shard-bearer had been a child… a small child, barely old enough for school. Satoru tried not to think too hard about what that could end up meaning. Whatever the letter said about the Celestial Guard, he believed Shoichi when he said they could save the shard-bearers.
For a moment he was distracted, thinking about Shoichi… about how monstrously unfair it was, that Shoichi of all people should have ended up a part of this whole crazy situation. How running into Shoichi again had been the best thing that happened to him in three years, and how talking to him had made Satoru feel almost normal, reminded him that there was life outside middle of the night visions and running across rooftops. How it had felt like a tiny gift from an otherwise unrelenting universe, right up until he’d recognised Guardian Luna…
He pushed the thoughts away as he always did now, concentrating on the details of the vision. It was… odd, the more he wrote. There were few details of location or context… only darkness and a sense of unease. Normally he would spend the next day after a vision piecing together as much information as he could to figure out where he needed to go, but this… there was darkness, only darkness. A glimpse of fire from Guardian Sol – so he could expect to face them again, no surprise there – and the blank masked figure that always represented Neikos in the visions. And something right at the end, something…
Satoru frowned in the darkness and immediately regretted it as the pain spiked through his temples again. With a groan, he dropped the pen and lay back on his pillow. That last detail… he wasn’t sure, but he thought it was… a maze? And something about that sent a jolt of fear through him, as if a deep-sleeping memory had been stirred and was sending an urgent warning.