12. The Storm (Part 2)

The pieces of the world were flung together and apart like a kaleidoscope, coming back together in strange patterns. Luna felt Kestrel pulled away from him as if by a current of water. He tried to catch hold of the hand that had been on his shoulder, but Kestrel was already gone, as were Sol and Astra. For a moment he was nowhere at all, caught between light and darkness, and then he was falling to a hard floor. The smell of antiseptic and the rhythmic hum of life-support equipment crept in on his awareness.

He was sitting on the floor of a hospital room. As he jumped to his feet, he saw that the bed was occupied by the elderly woman whose soul he had successfully retrieved from its shard. She was in the same state she’d been in before that, comatose, and in his hand was the shard, warm and pulsing. It was like deja vu given form.

Except he could feel the soul anchor, tying him to something very distant. And the shard in his hand… it wasn’t really there, he realised. The room in front of him took on a dream-like quality. Luna blinked, and in the second his eyes were closed, the hospital room vanished, leaving him standing in a dingy hallway. The numbers on the doors indicated an apartment building, but the corridor was far longer than could fit inside any tower block in Osaka.

“Sol? Astra?” he called. There was no response. “Kestrel?”

Nothing, except a door opened somewhere down the hall and somebody stuck their head out to glare at him before shutting it again.

Now what?

The soul anchor was tugging on him, very gently, indicating a direction. Luna started walking down the corridor, checking the shadows for Spectres, following the pull. There was nothing in the shadows. The corridor seemed entirely mundane, apart from its impossible length.

At least, it did until he glanced behind him, and saw that every door was opening as he passed, and silent faces were peering out, watching him go.


“Wait, what?” said Sol, looking around her in confusion.

She was in the park near her home. Had they been teleported out of the tunnels? But it was the middle of the night. There was no way that much time had passed while they’d been fighting Neikos and Ker…

Then she saw the shard-bearer, sprawled on the dusty ground near the drinking fountain. He looked so tiny. She ran towards him, hoping against hope that she’d been wrong, that Ker hadn’t ripped his shard out as the maze shattered…

… and she found herself running the other way, all turned around and disoriented. The shard-bearer was right there, but she couldn’t reach him.

Just like that first time she’d been attacked…

“It’s another maze,” she said aloud. “This isn’t real.”

She closed her eyes and took a firm step forward. When she opened them again… she was still in the park. But somehow she had reached the shard bearer. She started to kneel by his side, then stopped, frozen at the sight of the blood pooling under his small, broken body…

She wasn’t sure if she screamed, or if the screaming was only in her head, but either way, the force of it turned her around and drove her fleeing for the edge of the park.

And again she found herself coming back to the centre. And now, instead of being unable to reach the child, she couldn’t seem to avoid him.

“This isn’t real,” she whispered again, closing her eyes and keeping them closed.

It didn’t help.


It was taking all Luna’s willpower not to start running. Or keep looking over his shoulder. He’d looked twice now, and both times, the lines of staring people had gone back as far as he could see. He was trying very hard not to look again, but… what if they were creeping up on him…?

Just as he was about to give in, he realised the tug of the soul anchor had shifted. It was no longer pulling him directly down the corridor, but at more of a diagonal. Luna paused by the next door on that side. Walking in a straight line was obviously not getting him anywhere, and he had to get away from those silent people behind him. Tentatively, he knocked on the door.

Nothing happened. No-one answered, and the people back down the corridor didn’t react. Luna tried the handle. The door opened, but the space beyond was dark. He hesitated for just a moment before stepping through.

The door immediately swung shut behind him, leaving him in darkness so complete that he couldn’t even see where the doorway had been. Then his eyes adjusted – or the darkness itself lightened – and he saw that he was back in the railway tunnel where they had been fighting the Archdukes.

Relief swept through him. But where were Sol and the others? Did he need to go back into the maze and get them?

A faint blue glow caught his eyes, and then the outline of a figure on its knees further down the tunnel.

“Kestrel?”

The figure did not respond, but again Luna’s eyes seemed to adjust to the light levels. He could clearly see it was Kestrel, hood back, visor glowing, facing away from him, cradling the shard-bearer. His stillness was frightening. Luna’s heart began to pound.

“Kestrel!” He took a step forward. “Satoru?”

A hand closed on his arm, preventing him from taking another step. Luna yelped and spun around, pulling roughly free of the unexpected grip… and stopped, mouth open.

“That isn’t me,” said Kestrel – the Kestrel standing right next to him, hood still shadowing his face, not the one kneeling further down the corridor. He, too, was holding the shard-bearer, but somewhat more awkwardly, keeping the child in place against his chest with one arm. “It’s part of the maze.”

“We’re still in the maze?” Luna asked. Then he had another thought. “Wait. How do I know you’re the real one?”

Kestrel opened his mouth to answer, then paused, frowning.

“I… that’s a good point,” he said after a moment. “I can see you’re real with the visor, but I don’t know how I’d prove I am to you…”

Despite everything, Luna laughed. The puzzled, contemplative expression behind the glass of his visor was so Satoru.

“Never mind, you’ve convinced me,” he said.

Kestrel gave him a confused look. Luna shot him a smile and turned back towards the illusion.

In the instant of his turning, the darkness around them shifted form. The kneeling figure of Kestrel was gone, as were the tracks and the tunnel. They were standing in a theatre – standing on the stage, in fact – a cavernous, dark space in front of them.

“Okay…”

Suddenly, spotlights sprang into existence. Luna flung up a hand to shade his eyes, momentarily blinded by the light. He sensed more than saw Kestrel move so they were back to back. When his vision had adjusted to the glare, he realised that the theatre wasn’t empty after all.

Every seat was occupied, and every occupant was staring at them. Silently. Except that every so often, one of them would turn and whisper something to their neighbour, and then both would look back at the stage, and shake their heads.

“Let’s… go somewhere else,” Kestrel murmured.

Nothing stopped them from walking off-stage into the wings. Beyond the stage were pieces of scenery and props. Luna kept walking, expecting to reach a door, or find himself somewhere else, but instead, they just kept going past wooden trees, cardboard fences, and huge painted cloth skylines.

“This isn’t like the other maze.”

“No.” Kestrel was sticking close at his side, and Luna couldn’t deny that he was happy with that arrangement. “She said a ‘true labyrinth’, didn’t she?”

“Demogorgon?”

“Don’t say her name. Not here.”

Luna repressed a shiver. “Sorry.”

“I’m not sure what that means,” Kestrel went on. “A true labyrinth. But I think our only chance of getting out of here is if you managed to anchor yourself–”

“I did,” Luna said quickly. “I can feel it pulling me…” He paused, then pointed, “… that way. But it’s hard to follow it when the world keeps shifting.”

“That part I can help with,” Kestrel said. “I can find the right paths, if you can point me in the direction we need to go.”

“We need to find the others first.”

Kestrel nodded, seemed to debate with himself, then said abruptly, “If we get out of here, I have to get the shard…”

“So do I,” said Luna. “To return his soul to his body.”

“I don’t want to stop you doing that. But I can’t let you have it, either…”

“And I can’t just give it to you.” Luna sighed. “Look, we can deal with that when we get there. For now, there’s no reason not to work together. Right?”

“Right,” said Kestrel, with only the barest hesitation.

They kept walking.

“Is it me,” Luna said a few minutes later, “or is this scenery starting to look like Osaka?”

“Yes. The area around Umeda.” Kestrel shifted the weight of the shard-bearer in his arms. “Were you thinking about Osaka particularly?”

“No? Why would I be–” Luna stopped. “Actually… I suppose I was, in a way.”

“In what way?”

Luna glanced at Kestrel briefly, then said, as neutrally as possible, “Sakaki told us the shards are mostly in Osaka. I was… wondering if that was why you didn’t go to Tokyo.”

“Oh.” A short silence. “Yes. That’s why.”

“What does any of that have to do with the scenery, though?” Luna went on hurriedly.

Kestrel seized on the question, clearly as eager to change the subject as Luna was.

“Some of what we’re seeing is… based on our memories, I think,” he said. “Before I found you, I was… I saw you anchor that boy’s soul, the one from a week ago. I was standing on the roof. It was like deja vu…”

“I had something similar,” Luna said slowly. “But seeing you in the tunnel wasn’t a memory.”

“Associations,” Kestrel said. “Like dreaming. Images constructed from memories, tied to thoughts and emotions we’re experiencing at the time…”

He stopped, looking down a street to their right. Luna looked in the same direction, and saw that people had started to move up and down the street. They were jerky, like puppets, and as he watched, they each turned to stare at him…

“And this is a theme,” Kestrel said thoughtfully. “People staring. Crowds. Watching. That’s not coming from me. I don’t think it’s you, either.”

“I really hope not, or I have some issues I don’t know about.”

Kestrel half-laughed, a surprised puff of air that took the serious, thoughtful look out of his eyes for a moment. Only for a moment, as his gaze returned to the puppet crowd and his brow furrowed. He put a hand up to his visor, touching lightly with his fingertips, and Luna saw a swift flicker of lines and glyphs across the glass. Kestrel’s frown deepened, and he tensed.

“Some of those people are Spectres,” he said. “Or… not quite? Either way I think we should move faster.”

“I didn’t even think of that,” Luna said as they moved quickly in the opposite direction from the crowd. “That there could be Spectres in here with us. How many were left when De– when the labyrinth was cast?”

“Not many.”

“We’d better hope we find Sol or Astra before they decide to attack us, then.”

“Can you use your shield?”

Luna reached for the power of the moon and winced. It felt like trying to use a muscle that had been strained past its limit.

“If I really have to.”

Kestrel shot him a concerned look. “Be careful. You’re channelling a lot of power when you use it. Sol’s fire and… whatever it is Astra does–”

“Star lasers.”

That surprised another laugh out of Kestrel. “Star lasers?”

“You have a better name?” Luna asked. Despite the strange and dire situation they were in, he felt the same rush of warmth from making Kestrel laugh as when it had been just him and Satoru in the library.

“I guess not. Well, the fire and the… star lasers… are quick bursts of power, but your shield is sustained. Looking at the energy matrix on the visor, you’ll probably be able to do it for longer with practice, but if you push too hard you risk burning it out completely.”

“What happens then?”

“I don’t know. At best, you won’t be able to use the shield at all until you recover. At worst…” Kestrel stopped. “I don’t know. Just be careful.”

“I will,” Luna promised.


The smell of smoke was overwhelming and the air was choked with fumes. Sol struggled to breathe as she fought to hold back the fire by sheer force of will. She could hear the flames crackling all around, and the heat was overwhelming, but she couldn’t see the fire, only the blinding clouds of grey and black smoke, and the dim awareness of someone slumped on the ground at her feet, someone she had to protect.

She thought she was in her school. Sometimes she caught glimpses through the smoke of a classroom she recognised. But sometimes she saw long hallways lined with white marble pillars, nothing like any school she’d ever been in…

There had to be a way out somewhere. She couldn’t breathe. The smoke was thick and bitter and any second now it would fill her mouth and lungs, but she couldn’t run. She couldn’t leave them, here at the end of the world. She had to hold back the fire…

“Sol!”

Luna’s voice was faint, and for a moment incomprehensible. How could he possibly be calling her? Then the smoke seemed to fade into something more like mist, and suddenly Sol knew where she was again. This isn’t real. Just like the park hadn’t been real. She closed her eyes and pressed her hands against her face, and slowly the smell and taste of the smoke ebbed away.

“Luna?”

There was no reply. Had she imagined it? Sol carefully took her hands away from her face and risked a look. She wasn’t in her school after all, but some sort of library. There were people sitting at desks, studying… or at least, they were supposed to be studying. They were actually staring at her, faces emotionless.

“Luna!”

Still nothing. Either she’d imagined it, or this place had shifted somehow to hide him from her. Sol shook herself. She glared at the nearest staring person.

“What are you looking at?”

The effect was startling. All the people in the library shimmered and vanished like a bubble popping in the face of her challenge. Sol looked around warily, but she now seemed to be alone.

“Okay then,” she said.

There didn’t seem to be anything to do except start walking. The library was a maze of shelves that nearly reached the ceiling. She figured at first that there must be an exit around one corner or another, but after a few minutes, it became clear that the library was far bigger than it had any right to be.

“Still not real,” she muttered to herself. “Where the heck am I?”

Just as she was starting to think seriously about climbing one of the book shelves, she came around a corner and saw something different. The lights were out in this aisle of books, and from the end came a pale blueish glow like the light from a television. Sol cautiously moved down the dark row and peered around the next corner.

The light was coming from a computer monitor. It dimly lit its surroundings, and Sol saw a small bedroom, so small that the end of the bed was serving as a chair for the person hunched over at the computer. The light from the computer flickered over his face as he switched between windows, typing furiously in the text boxes that came up. He had an unhealthy look about him, as if he hadn’t moved from that spot for a very long time.

“Hey–” Sol started, but just as she spoke, the guy at the computer slammed his fist into the keyboard so hard she jumped. She edged closer, trying to read his screen. Something about being kicked out of a group or banned from something – but it vanished as he closed the tab angrily and immediately started typing again in another window. Sol didn’t need to read much of it to get the gist: a litany of threats, graphic and revolting, against the people who’d kicked him out.

“Hey!” she said, louder.

The guy spun around, staring at her in horror. He tried to back up, but his scrawny shoulders hit the wall and he could go no further.

“No!” he said. “No, don’t! Don’t!”

“Don’t what–”

Before the words were even out of her mouth, he caught fire. Right in front of her, like someone had ignited gasoline that was soaked into his clothing. He screamed, writhing in the flames as he tried to beat them out, succeeding only in spreading the fire to the bed he was sitting on. Sol started to run towards him, but the fire leapt up to impossible proportions, and she could just see him shrivelling in the centre of it as his skin peeled and his flesh melted.

“Stop!” Sol cried out, horrified. “I didn’t— I didn’t do this!”

From the depths of the fire, where the ruined face should have been, two eyes as black as void opened, and then she recognised him, even though by rights there was nothing left to recognise.

“You tried,” said Neikos.

The fire went out like a light being switched off. Sol stumbled backwards, and in the time it took her eyes to clear the afterimages, the world changed again. Her back hit a chain link fence. In front of her was a school yard, full of kids eating their lunches and playing.

As she struggled to regain her equilibrium, she noted without surprise that they were all staring at her.


“I’m sure it was Sol,” Luna said. “But then we lost her somehow.”

“She’s in deeper than we are,” Kestrel said. They were standing in the grounds of a school, though Luna couldn’t tell if it was one he knew. Kestrel had taken a moment to put the unconscious child down on a bench and was stretching his arms. It was night, but Luna couldn’t see the stars, and that was bothering him for some reason. “Further towards the heart of the labyrinth. Think of it like a spiral. We crossed over her path briefly, but we were on different levels.”

“If she’s in deeper, we aren’t going to find her by following the soul anchor,” Luna said. “We’ll have to go back.”

Kestrel sighed, and nodded. “It’s dangerous – the deeper we go, the harder it is to find the real paths, even with the visor. We’d better hope she’s not too far down or we could be in trouble.”

Luna looked around. Outside the school fence, dark silhouettes were watching them.

“More trouble than we’re already in?”

“Yes.” Kestrel bent to pick up the shard-bearer. “I get the impression this place is designed to draw us further and further into the centre. The Spectres are probably moving that way as well, hoping to trap us there.”

“Great.” Luna watched Kestrel settle the unconscious child back against him. “Um, do you want me to take a turn at carrying him?”

“Thank you, but I’d rather you be ready with your shield if it’s needed.”

Luna nodded. “Which way, then?”

“Into the school.”

They made their way through the front doors. There was something creepy about an empty school at night, Luna thought, even before you added in the silent faces starting at them from every classroom window. From somewhere deeper in, Luna could hear the faint sound of… crying, he thought, but the kind of crying where the person doing it was trying to muffle the sound and get a hold of themselves. And failing, apparently.

“More eyes,” Kestrel said, mostly to himself.

“Should we go towards the crying?”

Kestrel shifted the child in his arms so that he could put a hand up to the visor. He looked down the dark corridor for several long seconds.

“Yes,” he said finally, “There are Spectres there, but I think–”

The words were interrupted when the person who was crying seemed to gather her courage to say aloud, “Go away!

As soon as she spoke, Luna recognised her voice.

“Astra!” He started toward the sound, stopped, and looked at Kestrel. “Wait. Is she really–?”

“It’s her,” Kestrel said. “Through those doors.”

Luna rushed to the doors indicated and pushed them open. Beyond was a standard locker room, much like the ones in his own school. Astra was huddled in a corner, knees pulled up to her chest, trying so hard to hold back her sobs that it broke Luna’s heart. There were more of the silent, staring people in the room, all looking at her.

“Astra?” He wanted to use her real name, but he couldn’t, not with Kestrel there. “It’s okay, it isn’t real…”

Astra’s head jerked up, eyes wide and tearful. “Luna? Are you real?”

Luna crossed the room in three quick strides, dropped to the ground, and pulled her into a hug. After a second, she clung onto him so fiercely he thought she might leave bruises.

“Pretty sure I’m real,” he said. “How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know… to start with, I was somewhere else – then there was a train – and then I was here and it was awful.”

“All the staring?”

“That, and…” Astra bit her lip. “This is the boys’ locker room.”

Luna almost made a joke – almost – but there was something about the way she said it… something that carried the weight of true terror, not just passing embarrassment.

“It isn’t real,” he said, hugging her tightly again. “Kestrel thinks this place… reacts to things that are in our heads. Memories and things.”

“Kestrel?” Astra pulled back from the hug to look over his shoulder. Dismay crossed her face and she hastily rubbed at the tears there. Very quietly, too quietly for her voice to carry, she said, “Can we trust him?”

“Yes,” Luna said, maybe with more certainty than he should. “He warned me to use the soul anchor before we were pulled in here. He can help us follow it out.”

“Oh.” Astra looked over at Kestrel again. “Is that the little boy? Is he okay?”

“He isn’t injured.” Kestrel moved over to join them. “But they took his shard, and his soul with it.”

Astra’s lip wobbled again but she took a deep breath and scrubbed her eyes more fiercely with her gloved hands. She carefully pulled away from Luna, and they both stood up.

“How do we get out of here?”

“First we need to find Sol,” Luna said. “Somehow.”

“I thought I saw her,” Astra said. “Before – that’s why I came in here. But then there were only those…

With a sudden burst of anger, she flung out her hand and threw a bolt of white light directly at one of the staring people. When the shot struck, the nondescript person flickered and for a moment took on the more familiar outlines of a Spectre. Then it crumbled to dust. The other people in the room faded out with a faint hissing sound, and the locker room became less solid around them.

“That’s interesting,” muttered Kestrel.

“What is?” Astra asked, looking around warily.

“It’s like the others were copies of that one.” He paused, his expression suddenly tightening. “Like reflections.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means they’ll keep coming,” Kestrel said, “until you destroy the real ones.”

“How do we tell which ones are real?” Luna asked.

“I should be able to figure it out with the visor, now I know what to look for.”

“We’d better hope nothing happens to that visor,” Luna said fervently.

“It can’t be broken or taken from me,” Kestrel said after a moment that stretched fractionally too long for comfort. “So we should be fine.”

Luna nodded, but as they began to walk through the misty outlines of the school again, he glanced more than once at Kestrel, trying to read his face. He believed Kestrel that the visor couldn’t be broken, but there was something about the way he’d said it…

Luna couldn’t exactly explain why, but a cold feeling of dread was settling in his stomach as they moved deeper into the labyrinth.


Now she knew what to look for, Sol caught glimpses of Neikos wherever she went. After she left the school, she wandered through the streets of Osaka, and then found herself on a subway platform, waiting for a train that, when it arrived, was full of more silent, staring people. Neikos pushed past her, hunched in on himself, the hood of a dingy sweater pulled up as if to try and hide his face – but somehow, now, Sol recognised him instantly whenever she saw him. There were no masks he could wear here.

She dived after him, but the crowds closed around them, and she couldn’t reach the train before the doors closed. As it pulled away from the station, she suddenly realised that the people weren’t staring anymore.

No… that wasn’t right. They were still staring. But they were staring at Neikos, not her. As he’d climbed onto the train, they’d turned their faces to follow him.

She looked around for any indication that another train was coming. The screen at the end of the platform just showed an error message. Just as she’d decided to leave the station, her phone chimed to indicate a new email. She had flipped it open before she remembered that she’d left it in her bag at the shrine…

But it was here in her hand, and there was a new message icon on the screen.

bitch, said the message. Sol stared at it with a mixture of shock and anger. Her eyes went to the sender’s name: Neikos. are you happy now, you stupid slut? everything was fine until you showed up and ruined it, bitch. i hope you die in a fire. no wait you know what you need? a good hard–

Sol snapped the phone shut in disgust. It’s not real, she reminded herself. After a moment she hurled the phone as far away from herself as she could, and took a certain satisfaction in the way it smashed against the far wall of the station.

The screen at the end of the platform flickered to life. Text started to appear letter by letter as if it was being typed as she watched.

stupid bitch. stupid slut. i’m gonna find out who you are, and I’m gonna tell everyone. you ruined everything and I’m gonna fuck you up so bad, you just wait, i’ll tell them where you live, let’s see how brave you are after six guys hold you down and–

“You’re disgusting!” Sol shouted, feeling herself flush red with almost uncontrollable anger. “You want to come out and say that to my face, Neikos? It isn’t me who’s going to die in a fire!”

Even as she said it, she knew it was an empty threat. The image of his body burning in the flames still haunted her. She thought she was probably okay with punching him, though. She’d never hit anyone before, even though she’d wanted to a few times, but she figured it couldn’t be that difficult. And if she hurt her hand, it would heal, right? Hopefully quicker than his face.

When she tried to leave the subway, the steps led up into a school gym. Middle school students were practising on the bars. Sol scowled at the scene, familiar enough from her own memories, and then shuddered as she remembered the pattern of Neikos’s haunts.

“You’re disgusting,” she said again. Another thought occurred. “And what is it with schools? Seriously. You know there are, like, other places in the world, right?”

Just for a second, the scene wavered, as if it were reacting to her voice. And just for a second, she felt like she was back in that dimly lit, cramped bedroom, the walls as close as a second skin. She shuddered.

At the other end of the gym, she thought she saw Neikos slinking out of the door. She ran after him. As she passed the other students, she was suddenly conscious of a darkness in the air, and a whispering that didn’t quite sound like voices.

Spectres?

Flame sprang to her hands… and died away again. She didn’t know what would happen if she used it in this place. Maybe she’d burn a few Spectres. Or maybe she’d watch a group of children die screaming…

I wish I could find the others. Sol stopped at the doors to the gym, reluctant to go through them when she didn’t know what was going to be on the other side. I… really wish Luna was here. He’s better at stuff like this…

She hoped for a second that thinking of Luna might mean she heard his voice again… but this time there was only silence.

Okay then. Just me.


“Why does she keep going deeper?” Astra asked.

“I have no idea,” said Kestrel, with some irritation in his voice, “but I wish she’d stop. And maybe think for two seconds…”

“Hey,” Luna protested, “it’s not like she knows where she’s going. And you said this place was designed to pull us into the centre.”

“Yes, but the rest of us didn’t start actively running towards it, did we?”

Luna glared at Kestrel.

“That isn’t fair. You have the visor, I have the soul anchor…”

“And I was too freaked out to go running anywhere,” Astra put in. “Except away, which is, um… I’m not sure where that is.”

“And that’s kind of the point,” Luna went on. “Maybe she thinks she’s heading out.”

“I suppose so,” Kestrel said after a moment, grudgingly. “But she’s not exactly the queen of impulse control…”

Luna stopped walking. Astra paused by his side, glancing nervously between them.

“Let’s get something clear,” Luna said. The coldness of his own voice startled him. “Sol is our leader. She’s my friend. We’re cooperating with you to get out of here, but you do not get to start trash talking her, okay? You don’t even know her!”

Kestrel seemed taken aback by his anger, and for a moment, contrite, although again he pushed the expression off his face. That made Luna angrier, in a different way. Why was he trying to act like he had no feelings? What sort of stupid idea was that? And why couldn’t he just tell them what he wanted the shards for?

“Understood,” was all Kestrel said.

They continued walking in silence.


Sol was sure now that there were Spectres in the shadows. She could feel the stickiness of their crowded presence. Was Neikos leading her into a trap? It seemed likely, but she didn’t know what else she could do except follow him.

The further she went, the more the scenes around her seemed to repeat… schools, streets, trains, and always the staring faces. It was as if the world was narrowing down to a few specific locations, and in all of them, Neikos was rushing to get away, even while he spewed vile threats at her through every screen she passed. It was like a dream where she could never catch up to the person she was pursuing, no matter how fast she ran.

Except then she pushed open a door and found herself back in that tiny bedroom. This time it was lit by thin bars of sunlight that had managed to sneak through the blinds that covered the window. Someone was curled up tightly in the bed, covers pulled right up over his head. Neikos? This time he wasn’t running.

Sol looked around. The small room was obsessively neat and tidy. Apart from the bed and computer area, every scrap of space was put to use with storage shelves and boxes. She peered into one of the clear plastic crates. She honestly expected it to be full of comic books or collectible figurines, but instead it seemed to contain photo albums, each labelled with places, dates, and names, many of them in languages other than Japanese.

After the chaos of the chase, this still, quiet room unnerved her. She looked at the figure in the bed. She had no doubt it was Neikos, but… what now? What was she supposed to do with him if he was just going to lie there?

“Neikos,” she said finally. It came out softer than she’d intended. “What is this place?”

“Home,” came the response from beneath the blankets.

“This is where you live? Just this room?”

“It’s safe here.”

“Safe from what?”

“Everybody else.”

Sol looked at the small electric kettle, the collection of bottled water, and the stack of instant noodles on one shelf. A clean bowl and chopsticks sat next to them. She saw no other plates or cups.

“You’re… hikikomori, aren’t you?” she said slowly. “One of those people who shuts themselves in away from the world. Do you ever leave this room?”

“Only when I have to–” began Neikos, but he was interrupted by a sound of scorn from the doorway Sol had just come through.

She spun to look, and felt shock ripple through her. Neikos was standing in the doorway – Neikos as she knew him, black-cloaked, wearing a borrowed face… though here and now, she could see the cracks in the disguise.

“I can leave whenever I want,” said the Neikos in the door. “They can’t see me now. I can be anyone. I can have anything I want. I can live any life I like, and no-one can stop me.”

Sol felt her anger rekindle. “I can stop you.”

“Too late,” said Neikos.

The room shattered around them. Sol tried to run towards Neikos, but she found herself racing down a corridor without end, with only the faintest glimpse of him up ahead…

“Sol!” This time Luna’s voice was clearer. “Stop! You’re going deeper into the labyrinth! Stop running!”

It took all her willpower to do as he said. The need to pursue Neikos, to catch him and punish him, was almost overwhelming, but she made herself stand still. She looked around, but saw nothing except the long corridor and the line of doors.

“Luna? Where are you?”

“Almost there,” came the reply. “We’re just trying to find the right path…”

One of the doors up ahead opened. Sol tensed, half-expecting a Spectre… then relief washed through her as Luna stepped through, followed by Astra. She scowled when they were followed by Kestrel, carrying the child who was unconscious because of him.

“What’s he doing here?”

“Helping us get through the maze, like before,” Luna replied with a brief, unreadable glance at Kestrel. “None of this is real.”

“I figured that part out,” Sol said. “But Neikos is in here, and I’m not letting him get away this time–”

“He isn’t here,” Kestrel said. There was a quiet certainty in his voice. “Whatever you’ve seen, it’s only an illusion.”

“How the hell would you know?” Sol demanded. “He’s definitely here – he’s been spewing all this gross stuff at me…”

“He isn’t here,” Kestrel repeated, “because he’s dead.”

There was silence.

“What?” Sol managed.

“It’s taken me a while to figure it out,” Kestrel said. He glanced at Luna, as if the words were directed more at him than Sol. “Ker used the shard-bearer’s soul to build the first maze. I think Demo– the leader of the Archdukes used Neikos’s soul to create this labyrinth, and she didn’t care what happened to him. She tore his soul apart with the obsidian dagger and built this world with it.”

“Then the parts that aren’t coming from our memories…” Luna said slowly, a look of horror dawning on his face.

“Are from Neikos. This is one dying instant stretched to infinity, a mirror reflecting his soul back on itself until we can find a way out.”

“Oh my god,” Sol whispered. “That’s… that’s awful.”

“Yes,” Kestrel said. “Even for someone like Neikos.”

Sol shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. Astra looked like she might cry. Luna had gone pale again.

“So I’ve been seeing his… memories?” she said. “Parts of his life?” Sol felt a mixed rush of anger and revulsion. “Oh my god, he’s so pathetic. He lives in this tiny room and never goes out…”

“And he joined the Multitude of his own free will,” Kestrel said. “Pity him if you like, but don’t forget what else he is.”

Sol nodded, thinking of the words on the screens and the spite in Neikos’s voice. “Even before he was an Archduke, he was horrible. Nothing’s ever his fault, you know? He always blames someone else, and he tries to wreck their life if he doesn’t get what he wants…”

And she still felt sorry for him, despite herself. What an empty, sad existence…

“How do we get out of here?” she asked.

Luna explained quickly about the soul anchor and Kestrel’s visor.

“You can do that? Anchor your own soul?”

“Apparently.”

Sol stared hard at Kestrel. “How did you know he could do it?”

“Lucky guess,” Kestrel replied. Whatever expression that answer brought to Sol’s face apparently made some dent in his calm, as he went on hurriedly, “We should get moving.”

Sol cast one last look in the direction Neikos had vanished. He’s already dead. It shook her that she still wanted to chase him down and make him suffer somehow. Isn’t death enough of a punishment?

“Let’s go,” she said.


Kestrel led them through a door – a different door from the one they’d just come through, Luna noticed – and back out onto the streets of Osaka. It was dark, a heavy storm darkness that hid any glimpse of the moon or stars, and thunder rumbled in the distance. The shadows pooled deep and dark around them, and Luna didn’t need Kestrel’s quick warning to know they were full of Spectres.

Summoning the shield this time was almost painful. Luna had to close his eyes to keep it steady, trusting in Sol and Astra to fight off the Spectres massing on all sides.

“There are so many!” he heard Sol shout. “And they just keep coming!”

“They aren’t all real,” Kestrel replied. His voice was very close; he must be standing right next to Luna. “Most of them are copies of the others… you need to take out the real ones.”

“How do we tell which ones are real?”

“You can’t. I can.” A pause. “There! That one!”

A rush of crackling flame followed his words, and Luna heard Sol’s surprised exclamation.

“It worked – look at those others falling apart!”

“They want to keep us here in the centre of the labyrinth,” Kestrel said. “There can’t be many real Spectres, but they’ll keep reflecting themselves into an army to prevent us from leaving.”

“They’ll try,” Sol said.

Luna felt the shield slipping from his grasp. His eyes flew open and he managed to choke out a warning, but as his vision cleared, he saw that the number of Spectres had reduced enough that Sol and Astra could keep them at bay. His head swam. A hand on his arm steadied him, and he flashed Kestrel a grateful look.

“Which way?” Kestrel asked. Luna pointed in the direction the soul anchor was tugging him. “Then we need to go… down here.”

Sol shot him a look that said she wasn’t anywhere near ready to trust him yet, but the fact that he’d been right about the Spectres seemed to go some way towards mollifying her, and she said, “Okay, come on then.”

It felt like they had to fight for every step they took. Sol and Astra destroyed dozens of copies of Spectres, but unless they could single out the occasional real one, the horde just replenished itself. For the first time, Luna really understood the concept of a Multitude. And for the first time, he wasn’t sure they could win.

But something started happening, subtle at first, so subtle he probably wouldn’t have noticed if he’d been more involved in the fighting. The other three – Sol, Astra, and Kestrel – seemed to fall into sync with each other. Sol didn’t hesitate any more when Kestrel told her where to send her fire, and Kestrel responded so swiftly and accurately to each new situation that the other two Guardians could tear the Spectres apart almost before they attacked. It was like watching something rehearsed, like a long-forgotten rapport built on years of practice kicked in, and it seemed so familiar to Luna that it hurt, a deep ache in his heart.

Then all at once, Kestrel was saying, “There, that’s the exit!”

The Spectres were thick between the Guard and the nondescript doorway Kestrel was pointing to, but Sol was already conjuring flame to race ahead of them… and some instinct made Luna turn. A small group of Spectres had slipped around behind them. Just as Luna turned to look, they seemed to merge into one another, sucking all the light from around them. A hand tipped with long claws shot out of the shadows, aimed straight at Kestrel.

There were any number of perfectly logical reasons for Luna’s reaction, he would think later. Kestrel and his visor were vital to their escape, so it was imperative that he be protected. Luna was easily the most expendable person in the party right then. Kestrel was holding a defenceless child, and Luna didn’t know if Kestrel had the same kind of healing abilities as the Guard.

All perfectly logical, but in the moment, in truth, he didn’t think of any of them. He moved on pure instinct, throwing himself into the path of dozens of deadly black shards before he even tried to summon the shield.

And the shield… failed him. He felt it slip out of his grasp with only a flicker of white light… and then the shards hit. Several sliced his face, barely missing his eyes, while others struck him square in the chest and arms as he futilely held out his hands to summon his shield. The pain was intense and so shocking he couldn’t even scream. He just heard himself sort of gasp, and then his legs gave out under him. He put his hands out automatically to catch himself, and only realised how badly cut they were when another bolt of pain lanced through him. This time he knew he made a small noise of some kind, but the world had gone so oddly flat and dark that he couldn’t really stop himself.

“Luna!” Two voices, both torn with fear; Sol and Kestrel in perfect synchrony.

Then Sol grabbed him, pulling him to his feet and half-carrying him away. Luna could only stagger with her, fighting against unconsciousness. He was dimly aware that they forced open a door, and that beyond was darkness, and the dust and stone smell of the disused subway tunnel. His legs buckled again. Sol crouched next to him, eyes wide at the blood that soaked his tunic.

“Luna. Luna! Can you hear me?”

“Yeah.” Speaking was incredibly painful. Distantly, Luna wondered if one of the shards had punctured a lung. “I’m okay.”

“You are not okay!” Sol’s voice had a note of hysteria. “Oh my god you’re bleeding everywhere… your hands…”

“It’s getting better,” Luna managed, although he wasn’t completely sure that it was. “The healing… thing. It’s happening. Are we safe?”

As if to answer the question, he saw the flash and strike of one of Astra’s bolts of light.

“There are more Spectres here,” Sol said. “But not as many, and they can’t copy themselves now we’re out of the labyrinth…”

Luna weakly pushed at her shoulder. “So go and set them on fire.”

“I can’t just leave you–”

“I’ll just sit here until I feel better,” Luna promised. “Go on.”

Sol hesitated for one more second, then said, “Just… just stay there, okay? I’ll be right back–”

Then she was gone, and fire sprang up further down the tunnel. Luna leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. It really was getting better, he realised; the immediate, violent pain had already eased into the duller sensation of wounds that were no longer fresh. The fear that had been coiling in his chest relaxed. He was healing. He’d be okay.

He opened his eyes again when he felt someone lean in close to him. Kestrel was kneeling in front of him, face tight with fear as he looked at Luna’s blood. Luna glanced sideways and saw that he’d put the shard-bearer down behind a makeshift shelter of stacked wooden sleepers. It didn’t look like the little boy was hurt at all.

“It’s okay,” Luna said. It didn’t hurt to speak this time. “I’m healing. It’s part of the Guard powers.”

“It is?” Kestrel’s voice shook. “I didn’t know…” He reached out as if to touch Luna’s shoulder, but stopped himself. “It must hurt.”

Luna nodded. Kestrel reached for his belt, which Luna saw for the first time was some sort of military-style utility belt with pouches and holsters attached. He was half-expecting some sort of high-tech gadget, so when Kestrel fumbled a pack of ordinary painkillers out of one of the pouches, Luna actually laughed. Then he winced. Laughing was not a good idea, apparently. Kestrel handed him a small bottle of water, and he managed to swallow a couple of the pills, though he honestly wasn’t sure how effective they’d be in this situation.

“I have bandages as well,” Kestrel was saying, the words falling over themselves, and Luna was struck forcefully by how his calm assurance had fallen away. “But I don’t know if I have enough–”

“Satoru,” Luna said, softly enough to keep his voice from carrying. He caught hold of Kestrel’s arm. The cuts on his hand stung. “I’m okay.”

Kestrel’s eyes flew to his with such worry that Luna’s heart skipped unexpectedly. “You are not ‘okay’!”

“I will be,” Luna insisted. “Anyway, it was worth it. If those shards had hit you…”

“I’d rather they’d hit me!” Kestrel snapped, sudden anger colouring his concern. “What were you thinking?”

All the perfectly logical reasons presented themselves. Luna started to explain, but when he got to the part about him being the most expendable member of the group, something seemed to snap behind Kestrel’s eyes.

“Don’t ever,” he said, grabbing Luna by the shoulders, “ever say that again, Shoichi. Don’t you dare.”

“Wh–”

Kestrel kissed him.

Luna was too stunned to react in the first instant, and then by all rights he ought to have pushed Kestrel away and demanded an explanation…

… but he found himself kissing back, an urgent heat blossoming in his chest as he caught hold of Kestrel’s shirt to pull him closer.

Somewhere behind them, Sol shouted something. Kestrel jerked back, the spell broken. They stared at each other for a heartbeat that seemed to last forever. Luna was still scrambling for his shattered thoughts when Kestrel pulled free of the loose grip on his shirt and stumbled to his feet.

“Wait–” Luna managed, but Kestrel moved too quickly. With one last glance in the direction of Sol’s voice, he fled into the darkness. “Satoru!”

There was no reply. Luna tried to stand up, but sank back against the wall as pain lanced through his chest again. The last traces of fire were just dying away further down the tunnel. He didn’t think Sol could have heard him use Kestrel’s real name. Or seen… anything else…

The tug of Sakaki trying to contact him through his crest was a welcome distraction. Luna flipped the medallion open just as he saw Sol and Astra running back towards him in the light of Sol’s handheld flame.

“Luna?” Sakaki’s voice was anxious. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” Luna replied, just as the other two reached him. “We’re okay, Sakaki.”

“Thank the heavens,” Sakaki sighed. “I have been trying to contact you for hours…”

“Hours?” Sol dropped down next to Luna. “It can’t have been that long– Sakaki, what time is it?”

“Somewhere past seven in the evening.”

Astra gasped. “My parents will be frantic–”

“Did you get the shard?” Sakaki asked.

Luna looked at Sol. She shook her head, looking past him to the unconscious body of the shard-bearer.

“If he took it–” she began fiercely.

“He didn’t,” Luna said quickly. “He left straight away – he didn’t even look for it.”

Sol bit her lip. “Then the Archdukes must have it.”

“Archdukes?” Sakaki interjected urgently. “You encountered more than one?”

“It’s… there’s a lot to tell you,” Luna said. “But we need to go home first. If any of our parents call the police… the Archdukes could use that to find us.”

“Oh hell, I didn’t even think of that,” muttered Sol. She looked over at Luna with fresh worry. “But you can’t just go home covered in blood!”

“Luna is hurt?” Sakaki asked. “How badly?”

“It’s not too bad,” Luna said, at the same time as Sol said, “It’s bad!”

They glared at each other.

“You look like something out of a horror movie!” Sol snapped. “Your face is cut, your gloves are the same colour as mine, and your chest looks like you’ve been shot or something!”

Luna looked down at his own body. In the light of Sol’s flame, he could see that she wasn’t exaggerating. He felt a little queasy, and at the same time, glad he hadn’t realised just how much blood there was before the wounds started healing.

“If I transform back, that should take care of the blood on my clothes,” he said. “I’m not bleeding any more. I’ll just need to wash my face and hands…”

“How are you so calm about this?” Sol demanded.

“I don’t know!” A tiny bit of Luna’s control snapped. “But I’d rather be calm about it than freaking out, okay?”

Sol looked chastened. Astra had moved over to where the shard bearer lay; with some effort, she managed to pick the child up in her arms.

“We need to take him to a hospital,” she said quietly.

“Right.” Sol got to her feet and held out her hands to Luna. He took them gratefully. Despite his own reassurance, he wasn’t sure he could have stood without help. “But I’ll do it. Astra, you need to get home as soon as possible. Help Luna, I’ll take the shard-bearer to hospital.”

“What are you going to tell them?” Astra asked, looking down at the child whose face was far too still even for sleep.

“Nothing,” Sol said after a moment. “I’ll just give him to the first person I see and run. I can’t do anything else.”


Shoichi opened the front door quietly. It was almost nine o’clock. On their way back to the shrine to pick up their school bags, Hikari had insisted on running into a chemist to “get something for your face”. Shoichi had been trying to tell her that the cuts were already healed past the point of needing antiseptic cream, but when she came back, she was holding a small makeup compact. The light foundation had done a passable job of hiding the marks, as long as you didn’t look too closely. Shoichi was grateful, but simultaneously almost as worried about explaining why he was wearing makeup as trying to find an excuse for the cuts themselves.

He was also bone tired, still in pain, and dreading the lies he’d have to tell. Especially if the school had called…

But when he took off his shoes and called out a hello, there was only silence in response. A quick look into the kitchen showed it was in exactly the state he’d left it that morning. There were three messages on the answerphone his parents still insisted on using: one from the school, one from his mother, one from his father. The first was only a brief report that he’d come home early and would need to bring a note the next day. The other two were nearly identical: a quick, perfunctory statement from each parent that they’d be working late.

Shoichi hesitated for only a moment before deleting all three messages. He knew where his parents kept their signature stamps; he could easily write a note for the school that would pass inspection. He was in the clear, he realised. ‘Working late’ usually meant he wouldn’t be seeing that parent the next morning, even if they didn’t stay at the office overnight. They’d never even know he’d been hurt.

It was a huge stroke of luck, really. And yet he found himself suddenly crying, trying to muffle sobs that no-one else was even there to hear. He walked blindly up the stairs and into his bedroom. Homework was out of the question; he was too tired even to eat. He crawled into bed, trying to ignore the tears that slowly made his pillow wet, feeling so alone in the middle of storm of emotion that he didn’t even know where to start.

2 Comments

  1. Wow! I can see where the original “Circle” plot starts, but you’ve made it so much richer. This is a really gripping, suspenseful chapter; horror done right.

Comment on this Episode