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Mitsuba Academy: Demon Hunters

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The town was ablaze.

The epicenter, the place where the old temple had once stood, was a scene of pandemonium -- rather apropos, considering what had started the mess in the first place. Though it was a moonless night, the overcast sky glowed a dull red like embers in a dying flame, the clouds reflecting the light of the fires blazing down below. Smoke trails spiraled skywards, filling the air with choking soot and ash, and the ground was treacherous, rent apart by scores of yawning fissures and strewn with piles of rubble and the occasional charred corpse.

Despite this, three figures continued forging their way down the street, unperturbed by the carnage that surrounded them. They would have seemed out of place anywhere else -- they weren't so much humans as they were heroes of myth and legend somehow transplanted into the modern world. Leading them was a knight in gleaming armor, an imposing figure encased from head to toe in burnished pearl-white plates of steel. Following closely behind was a tall, lanky man in a billowing duster, a heavy battleaxe resting upon one shoulder. And finally, bringing up the rear from several paces away was a woman with a rifle, her gear rustling near-inaudibly as she picked her way through the rubble with measured strides.

Finally, the trio came to a halt below the ruined gate of the temple, gazing across the scorched flagstones at the figure awaiting them. She was alone and unarmed, though the mass of swirling darkness behind her could have concealed any number of unseen enemies. After a quick exchange of gestures and words, they readied themselves for battle -- then, the world around them erupted into chaos.

The sniper was the first to fall, her rifle arm blown clean off by a crackling lance of blindingly-white light. As she fell to her knees, her eyes wide with shock, the shadows around her abruptly shifted, and she was dragged off screaming into the darkness by dozens of wickedly sharp talons. The lanky man surged forwards with a shout, cutting down each shadowy creature that surged forwards to face him with a single blow of his battleaxe. However, as he got closer, the hordes of demonspawn pouring forth from the darkness only seemed to grow in number, and finally, just meters from the witch standing before him, one of the creatures' claws tore through his back, and immediately, he vanished within a growing pile of jet-black bodies.

He had bought enough time, however. Even as he fell, his last surviving companion advanced forwards, the witch's energy bolts glancing off the armor plate. Then, a shot slammed into the knight's helmet, tearing it off and revealing the face of a young woman below it. The woman grimaced briefly, then charged forward with renewed vigor, slamming into the witch as she drove the tactical knife in her mail-clad hand through her opponent's rib cage.

"This ends here, witch," she spat, putting her weight behind the knife and slamming her enemy to the ground. Then, her free hand wrapped around the other woman's head as her fingertips began to glow with a pale light. "Checkmate."

The witch merely laughed hoarsely through blood-speckled lips. "Yes... it's checkmate, alright." she rasped as the light in her eyes slowly faded. "Milord... The final sacrifice is here."

With those parting words, the witch was no more.

Slowly, the knight turned her head upwards to look into the mass of roiling darkness before her -- and a dozen eyes the color of molten iron gazed back.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Erin Lafayette's eyes abruptly snapped open as she choked back a gasp. Slowly, her eyes panned across her surroundings, and she let out a sigh of relief -- her surroundings were reassuringly familiar. She was still in bed, surrounded by the organized chaos of her room -- a large, goofy-looking teddy bear on one side of her bed missing one of its beady button eyes, a jumbled pile of magazines with far too many shirtless men on the covers, the morning sunlight filtering through the Venetian blinds on the window, a red plastic alarm clock reading '7.11' on its luminous analogue dial and other assorted detritus. Phew. Looks like it was just a dream, then-

Her gaze slowly swiveled back to the alarm clock. 7.11.

There's no mistaking it. It says 7.11.

No, wait. 7.12 now.

There was a sudden, awful moment of clarity.

Oh shit, I might be late for school.

...

"Coming up after the break: an exclusive interview with Kagutsuchi-san, owner of the 'genius cat' who passed the Turing Test-"

*click*

Erin, now fully dressed and ready for school, sighed as she put the remote control down. Father really was irresponsible -- he'd not only left the TV on when he'd left, he'd left all the breakfast dishes in the sink with a little Post-It note saying "I trust that any child of mine will do their share of the family chores!" on the fridge. He even drew a smiley face on it. He leaves me this note, and completely neglects to... well, actually wake me up before he leaves? Dad... you're kind of a dick.

She shrugged, stepping out of the door and locking it behind her. Never mind that; it was her first day in high school, and it probably wouldn't be a good idea to be late.

...

It didn't take long for her to reach school, and thankfully, she'd managed to make it with a minute or two to spare. Then again, running the whole distance wasn't even that hard; even when her Demon Reaper was dematerialized, its invigorating effects seemed to linger on her. She strode purposefully onward, following the crowd of students towards the hall. Then, she felt a touch on her shoulder. Almost instinctively, she snapped to attention, a faint flicker of bluish light passing between the fingertips of her left hand as she readied her Demon Reaper for summoning. Who'd attack in broad daylight like that?!

"My, my! Your tie's crooked," a tall, serious-looking girl with straight, waist-length black hair remarked to Erin, leaning in a little too close for her liking.

"Thanks. I'll go fix it," she muttered and continued walking at the same brisk pace, fumbling clumsily with her tie and leaving the other girl in the dust.

"S-she didn't even call me senpai..." the heartbroken girl nearly sobbed, staring at the rapidly receding silhouette of the girl who had shattered her romantic illusions.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

After dozing off through the interminable enrollment speeches that marked the start of the school year, Erin headed down to the classroom she'd been assigned to -- Class 1-C, a room on the third floor overlooking the track. She strolled over to the back of the class and slumped onto one of the chairs, idly glancing at the other students as they took their seats and settled. Is it just me, or does that other blonde girl next to me look a little unhinged? She idly thought as she reached into her bag, pulling out and stuffing a few books under her table.

"GOOD MORNING~" A voice boomed out from the door as a distressingly familiar face practically pranced in. Oh, for the love of... why does the homeroom teacher have to be him?

Her adoptive father, known to everyone as Mr. Lavalley, was... eccentric-looking, to say the least. He spent a frankly unwarranted amount of time every morning making sure his mustache was trimmed to micrometer precision, perpetually wore a pressed white suit (paired with a truly ghastly bow tie for whatever reason) with a blithe disregard of climate and fashion, and was seemingly never seen without his checkered top hat. When she'd asked why he kept dressing like that, he unfailingly replied that it was okay, since he was a foreigner. Erin found that frankly unlikely -- like her adoptive father, she had partially foreign blood too; she was pretty damn sure dressing like a period drama reject was not okay.

"Salutations to you, Class 1-C! I am Giles Lavalley, the school's one and only foreign languages teacher, and I'll be your homeroom teacher this year!" he announced, scribbling his name upon the chalkboard in katakana. "Since I don't know most of you, I'd like you all to give a short introduction about yourselves in initiative... I mean, in alphabetical order. First up, Akagi!" There was a brief pause, and then a mousy-looking brown-haired girl at the front stood up, introducing herself with some trepidation.

...

"Ibuki!" A short, bespectacled girl stood up, frantically yelped out her name and something about liking dogs before sitting back down.

"Katsuragi!" A boy with a pompadour stood up, declaring that he wanted to become a banker someday.

"Kurosawa!" No response. Looks like they were absent.

"Lafayette!" With a little trepidation, Erin stood up, cleared her throat and took a deep breath. She began, "Hello, I'm Erin-"

"- Lafayette, my very own adorable adoptive daughter!" Mr. Lavalley abruptly declared; Erin froze, her gaze focusing onto a particularly interesting part of the floor. "She likes Italian food, long walks in the countryside and drawing stuff that she refuses to show anyone! Also, just a heads up to all of you boys here...and girls, I guess... she's totally, perfectly eligible!" Immediately, the class broke out into tittering and guffaws, and Erin groaned, putting a palm to her forehead.

This is going to be a long, long year.

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The figure of darkness stood before her, towering in the midst of the blood-stained field like an immutable force of evil. Her allies had fallen away one by one, each one giving their lives bravely to combat Chaos's servants, but ultimately they had been defeated, leaving her standing as the last member of the Holy Grail Knights. But she wasn't planning on dying today. Not while she still had the responsibility on her shoulders. The mantle of the Great Demon Lord.

 

Berserker raised her legendary weapon before her, staring defiantly at her mortal arch-enemy. "Reality, be rent," she whispered. "Eternity, in my grasp. Fatality, to my enemies. Super... Raigeki... BREAK!!!" The overcast thunderclouds above her began to coalesce and gather, before releasing a single lightning bolt that struck the tip of the Raigeki, increasing its power a thousandfold. It was all she could muster for now; hopefully it would be enough. "Today, your evil schemes end!" She pushed forwards with her foot, sending her flying at the Dark Master, crossing the distance between them within an instant. The lightning blade within her hand crackled with energy as she swung it in a downwards arc...

 

And Keiko Mitsuya struck the training dummy with a loud crack.

 

She stood there for a short moment, sweat rolling down her forehead as her imagination continued to play out the epic battle between her and the straw dummy. Over the horizon, the sun was lazily rising into the sky, heralding the start of the day - the first day of the new term. Keiko slowly lowered her bokken from the dummy's neck, taking a step back and doing a respectful bow before heading back into the house to prepare for school.

 

It was strange how events unfolded in her life. All her life, she had expected to follow in her Senpai's footsteps, with the first step being entering into Fuyukaba Academy. Instead, her parents had moved overseas for business purposes at the start of the previous year, forcing her to move halfway across the country to stay with her grandparents at Mitsuba. It was heartwrenching, at first, to say goodbye to her Senpai. But then, he had given her his parting words, which would form the core tenets of her life for the next couple of years.

 

"Continue my legacy, Berserker."

 

Her grandfather was awake early, as usual. He milled about in the kitchen, a pot of tea already brewing on the stove. Behind him, on the wall, a strange sword was mounted on display. Keiko's eyes had always been inevitably drawn towards it, perhaps due to her unhealthy obsession with swords and powers. "Good morning, Keiko-chan," he greeted with a wheezy voice, turning to smile at her. "It's good to see you hard at training so early in the day."

 

"I cannot let my guard down, grandpa," she answered in a tone that indicated that what she said was the most obvious thing in the world. "The forces of evil must be kept at bay."

 

"Yes, yes," he answered with the ever-present smile, carrying out a tray of breakfast as he laid it all out on the table. Keiko's grandmother slowly walked out of the bedroom soon after, as though attracted by the smell of green tea. Together, the three of them assembled themselves around the dining table and began their meal. Her grandmother asked her whether she was ready for high school, and her grandfather reminded her not to go out with strange guys alone, and the mealtime conversation proceeded normally as such. After she was done, Keiko rushed to her room where she changed out of her gi and put on the Mitsuba school uniform, tied the Raigeki to her belt, gave herself a check in the mirror, and ran out of the front door.

 

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

"... she's totally, perfectly eligible!" concluded Mr Lavalley, her new homeroom teacher, much to the amusement of most of her classmates. Keiko hadn't been paying much attention, however. Her seat was fortunately (or unfortunately) located next to the window, where she could gaze out into the school field and lose herself in her own imagination. However, the next name was called, and she jerked to attention.

 

"Mitsuya!" came Lavalley's voice.

 

"Y-yes!" Keiko shot up from her seat, her hand instinctively reaching for her bokken. It took her a moment to realize that she was not being attacked by shadow creatures, after all, but was merely in homeroom.

 

Mr Lavalley's eyes drifted to her sword. "Is that a bokken, Mitsuya-chan? Are you intending on joining the Kendo Club? I hear their tryouts aren't till the end of the week."

 

Slowly, Keiko drew the Raigeki, brandishing it like a prized blade as she gazed at it proudly. "This is the Raigeki, sensei. I must have it on me at all times, lest I get surprised by the forces of evil. You never know when they may strike. It is for your own safety, as well as everyone else in the class here. It is best that none of you... no, I cannot say. It will only put your eternal souls at risk." With that, she held a hand over her face in an attempt to look dark and mysterious.

 

Most of her classmates were staring at her, dumbfounded. A few burst into light giggles. Lavalley-sensei looked... amused, and slightly confused. "R-right, Mitsuya-chan. You certainly have a very vivid... imagination. Perhaps you would consider joining the Literature Club instead?"

 

"I'm sorry, Lavalley-sensei, but I fear I do not have time for trivial things such as school clubs. Someone must hold back the tides of evil."

 

Lavalley laughed. "You might find yourself changing your mind before the end of the week. In any case, thank you, Mitsuya-chan. You may sit back down."

 

"At your permission." Keiko seated herself again, completely oblivious to the sniggering that was going on around her. She had no concerns about the amusements of mere mortal men. Her gaze drifted back out into the school courtyard, and once more it began to be flooded by dancing demonic creatures in her imagination, and soon Lavalley's voice was but background noise in her ears once more.

 

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Two months ago...

 

A man with jet black hair and a navy blue jacket strolled into the staff office, where he took his seat opposite the desk that belonged to the principal of Mitsuba Academy. The principal, a balding and slightly plump man, gave him a quick lookover before opening the file that contained his details. "Miyamoto-san, correct?"

 

"Please, call me Akira." He gave the principal a charming smile.

 

"Akira-san, then," the principal continued, scanning down the file. "Your previous job was at a company named... Furry... Suit? Is that how it's pronounced? These English words are confusing."

 

"Ah, yes. It's a governmental agency in the States. You'll find all the necessary paperwork at the back of my resume."

 

The principal gave them a quick glance, but didn't go into the details, partially because most of it was written in English. "Yes, yes, looks like everything's in order. You will be the homeroom teacher for class 2-B. I'm sure you have been briefed on Japanese customs? I mean, you are Japanese, but you've been living in America all this time..."

 

"I'm sure I'll learn quickly, Mr Principal."

 

"Good, good. You have also requested to be the teacher of... the Art Club? I don't see any problems with that. I'll show you the classroom you can use for club activities."

 

"Thank you, Mr Principal. I'm sure I'll have a great time teaching at your school." Akira gave him a toothy smile, and for a second, the principal thought he saw rows upon rows of... canine teeth.

 

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Back to present day...

 

The classroom door of class 2-B slammed open with a loud bang, instantly silencing the chatter within as a dark, brooding figure stepped in and slid the door shut. Perhaps it was because of the completely black outfit he was wearing, or perhaps it was just the way he carried himself, but almost all of the students were intimidated into staring at the new teacher silently as he slowly made his way to the desk at the center. He placed his file down, then turned to face the students with what they interpreted as a death glare.

 

"Is this the new teacher?" came a whisper from the back. "He looks like he's about to kill us!"

 

The new teacher said nothing, although his ears perked up slightly at the sound. He cleared his throat, gave his file one more look, then loudly proclaimed (in English): "HOW DO YOU DO!!!"

 

There was silence. One girl in the corner broke down into soft sobbing.

 

He cleared his throat again, seemingly catching his mistake, then repeated in Japanese: "Good morning, students. My name... is Akira Miyamoto." He turned around to write "Akira Miyamoto" on the whiteboard, but it was written in English. "I will be... your homeroom teacher for this year. In addition..." Akira paused for a moment to take in a deep, disturbing breath, as though he was trying to take in the general smell of the students assembled before him. "... I can sense that there are great artists around you. I am also... the teacher of the Art Club. If any... of you are interested in... drawing, you may consider joining."

 

Akira tapped his finger on the desk as he stopped talking, as though waiting for someone to spontaneously offer to join the Art Club. When no one responded, he sighed and continued, "Interested participants may... meet me outside the classroom after homeroom. Alternatively, you can come... to the Art Room after lessons have ended. Now, for roll call..." He picked up the file and squinted at it. "How in the world do you read this Kanji..."

 

After a few minutes of mumbling to himself, Akira threw the file onto the ground abruptly, causing the nearest student to jump back. "Never mind! We will introduce ourselves one by one. State your name and give... a short introduction about yourself. Let's start from... you. The crying girl in the corner. Wipe your tears and stand up, girl."

 

She did stand up, but only to leave the classroom bawling.

 

Unfazed, Akira's finger shifted to the next student. "Never mind... we'll start with you. Stand up, boy. We'll go down the rows like that."

 

And just like that, everyone began to introduce themselves each in turn.

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Beep. Beep Beep. Beep. Beep Beep. Beep…
 

She wakes slowly, then all at once. It’s dark. Too dark. What– what time is it?  One eye cracks open. The alarm clock, still beeping, displays “06:30.â€
 

Six Thirty? But why on earth would it be…
 

“Wake up, Misa, you’ll be late for school!†Mother yells from downstairs.
 

Oh god.
 

“Already?†She mutters, climbing out of bed. She is halfway to the bathroom before it hits her.
 

First day of school. Hundreds of students occupying a building which, until recently, was empty. A building…. She cuts her train of thought short. It does not do well to dwell on the past.
 

It hums in anticipation. She can almost feel it in her hand, the comforting weight, the recoil, the power. It is eager to leap into action, to take its rightful place in the world and do what it was born to do. Unlike her.
 

No, she murmurs, not here. She can feel disappointment, but ignores it. Never in this house. A few more hours, and you’ll have your chance. I promise. Disappointment fades, and she can already see the Literature Club Room in her mind’s eye. Her locker – the one all the way at the end. The passwords for each of the three locks. The rest of her gear, stashed inside from the last time she’d gone on assignment. She rolls her eyes – assignment makes it sound so easy – before another thought crosses her mind. Did I wash out all the blood?
 

No matter. A little blood doesn’t matter, either way.
 

She washes up and gets dressed, wolfing down her breakfast. Trying not to imagine. Trying not to remember.

 

__________________________________________________________________________________________
 

She scrutinizes the path ahead for possible ambushes. Angles of attack. Are the trees swaying more than usual? No, the wind is just a little strong.
 

She analyzes cover, lays down overlapping fields of fire in her mind. Number Two to the right, Number Three flanking while we cover. If we catch them off-guard, it’ll take ten seconds. Fifteen at most.
 

She blinks. Those are students, walking into the school gates, not enemies. Did I just–
 

No matter. It was a bad plan, anyway. Number Two would be mobbed and torn apart.
 

__________________________________________________________________________________________
 

Class 2-B is mostly empty when she arrives. She makes her way to the middle row, choosing the closest seat to the corridor outside. Least likely to get hit in a crossfire. Probably. Although…
 

She rummages through her bag for a small mirror, then props it up against her pencilbox to get a good view of the back door. Then she slumps down on the table to make herself a smaller target, and waits.
 

__________________________________________________________________________________________
 

Their new teacher comes in the door and every cell in her body screams DANGER. No weapons, no reaction from it. But there’s something about him that makes her want to run, run until she can’t run anymore…
 

She presses herself closer to the table, leaving both her hands free. Just in case.
 

He’s calling them out, one by one. She wishes there were more students in class. It’s almost her turn to speak. Maybe, she thinks, maybe he’ll not see me and–

 

“You. Sloucher. Stand up and give your introduction.†The finger points at her, and the thought of disobedience doesn’t even form in her head. She’s standing before she realizes she’s moved, and is stammering: “M–Misa Imahara, Sensei. I…â€
 

I kill things that should not exist in this world. I hunt them, and often as not they hunt me. Sensei, some of them look just like people, you know? But they keep on fighting even when you blow off half their body, dragging themselves by their mangled limbs, blood trailing behind them, until you shoot them in the head.
 

He gives her the tiniest of grins, and for a moment she knows that he knows. Then the moment passes, and she finds her tongue.
 

“I like jogging, paintball, computer games…â€

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Wind whipped an empty bag of potato chips through the dank alleyway, brushing it into a corner in the darkness, alone. Nobody would be taking any chips from its contents and eating them anymore. For there were none left inside it. Who could know what evil was wrought by the hands of the one who emptied the bag, or what fel wind conspired to bring the bag from its dark master to this lifeless alleyway? Its past was lost, and its future... uncertain. Yet, this humble empty bag may yet play a crucial role in the great struggle of our time. The carelessness of the litterer may decide the fates of many. 

 

A stifled scream and the sounds of a struggle entered the alleyway, as the bag looked on. A silent observer. Powerless to intervene. If the bag had eyes, or at least any chips left within it that were hewn from potatoes with ample eyes, it could only have rolled them at the sheer cliche nature of the scene unfolding before them. A large thug was dragging a helpless damsel into the dark alleyway, that he may carry out whatever evil deeds he had in mind with privacy. However, there were a pair of eyes watching. And to no potato did they belong.

 

Erize Umeda, age 17, looked down at the scene from atop one of the buildings that served as one wall of the alleyway. Her skirt swished to the side in the wind, and faint sparkles emanated from beneath it, only to be carried off into the distance presumably to distract drivers and cause traffic accidents. Dozens of crimes were unfolding at this moment, no doubt, but Erize could not be everywhere at once. It was fortunate she was not otherwise occupied with more supernatural enemies presently, even.

 

Erize stepped from the edge of the building, falling down as rapidly as one might expect. As her skirt lifted in the air, a bright light shone from underneath. It was ZONE. The thug noted, aptly, that the dark alley was suddenly illuminated, and turned around only to be blinded by the sight. A blast of energy struck him in the face, giving his captive a chance to escape. The frightened girl ran and didn't look back, leaving the poor empty bag of potato chips behind even. Nobody cared for a bag that was empty. Nobody.

 

As the thug rubbed his face and tried to recover, Erize descended to a safe landing by virtue of the light of ZONE. Then, she got behind him and kicked the back of his knees, forcing him to fall down. She then stood in front of him and gripped him by the throat. His hands made a move to bat her arm away, but before they reached her another two blasts of energy shot out from ZONE and disabled his arms.

 

"W-what... are you?" he gasped. 

 

Erize leaned close, her slightly-clueless-looking-yet-cute face contorting into a scowl. "I'm Batman." she growled coarsely, in a decidedly masculine voice. She then shoved the thug to the ground and turned to walk away. That should do it, she thought. She hadn't been able to think of some name that would put fear into the hearts of criminals, but in cases like this where she managed to blind the criminal for the duration of their encounter, she figured she might as well let them think literally Batman had descended from the shadows and taken them out.

 

She had not thought the thug brave enough to pursue her. But she was wrong this time. Only the empty potato chip bag saw (or didn't see, since we already established it has no eyes) as the thug got back to his feet, and looked at her departing figure, squinting. And he started to follow her, furious and wanting revenge. But his foot met with the slippery surface of the potato chip bag, slick with dew from the chilly night, and he slipped and fell sideways, banging his head into the side of a dumpster and knocking himself out handily. Its job here done, another gust of wind lifted the potato chip bag and carried it off into the night.

 

--

 

"HOW DO YOU DO!!!"

 

Erize woke with a start, blinking once then sitting up straight and holding her eyes wide open as if she was perfectly awake. With her late night activities she often dozed in class, although she hadn't meant to do so today. At least for the first lesson with a new teacher, she figured she had to make a good first impression. Fortunately, the loud greeting was not a case of the teacher sneaking up to her and waking her up, catching her in the act of sleeping, but rather just a loud teacher greeting the class in general.

 

As her turn to introduce herself came along, she took a deep breath, then stood up and banged her knee on the desk. "Ow ow ow!!" she cried, rubbing her knee and looking distressed. "Erize Umeda..." she said quietly. Her voice was, unlike with the thug last night, now soft and gentle. Instead of a scowl she wore a positively meek expression. "I-I like finger painting... even someone unintelligent like me can do it..." she said shyly, smiling weakly.

 

Her veil of helplessness in class was not some ploy to create an alternate identity to disguise herself from her nighttime activities, but rather was designed to ensure she made herself the easiest target in any situation. If anyone was going to be taken advantage of or bullied, it would be her - because in reality she could punish those who showed themselves to be such people. She would show them the power of ZONE.

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Raiha Mori was already up by the time the first rays of sunlight pierced through the night clouds, gradually filling up the overcast with various gradients of orange.

 

To be precise, he had not gone to bed to begin with.

 

His work at the convenience store was supposed to end by midnight yesterday, but one of his coworkers had called in sick afterward, which left him with no choice but to take the graveyard shift as well. Raiha did have the option of closing the shop, but the wage goes for double when one works overtime, and he had always been particularly obsessed when it comes to making money. So between 8000 yen and rest, it was pretty clear in which way the scale tipped.

 

In the beginning, Raiha had planned to treat himself to a full eight hours night of sleep to prepare for the first day of school, but now that he had time to sit and think about it, adequate sleep seemed as mythical to him as a unicorn or a free lunch with no strings attached for the past two years.

 

A steaming cup of coffee in one hand, Raiha stood up to look for his uniform. His room had a distinctly utilitarian feel to it, with a simple table, a bed, a bookshelf and a wardrobe occupying the walls and corners. It was an old place, where time had worn its impression into the wood and the floorboards sometimes creaked their own complains and sighs when he walked over too fast. But in its own unique and quirky way, the place was alive. It was home.

 

A delicious smell radiated through the air as he came downstairs toward the kitchen. Inside, his grandpa was thoughtfully sampling the soup, adding a pinch of salt here and a dash of pepper there until he deemed it perfect. Gramps used to be a chef on one of those fancy cruise ships that take people around the Mediterranean before his age and high blood pressure made the job too taxing for him. Even so, he was remarkably spry and youthful-looking for someone pushing 76, and insisted on preparing all the meals within the household.

 

To the side, grandma was helping his sister, Akiha, to prepare the boxed lunches. It struck him how different his sister looked now, wearing the same dark blue blazer and red tie of Mitsuba High that he was. She had left her hair at shoulder length instead of the familiar ponytail, which combined with her demure expression made Akiha seem much more mature than most first year students he had encountered in the past.

 

“Ah,†his grandma said, noticing his presence at the doorway. She gave him a wry smile and a wink, “Rai-chan, care to share with us where have you been last night?†Her tone betrayed her belief that she was expecting him to have hung out with a girlfriend or something equally gossip-worthy for the household. 

 

“Good morning to you too, grandma. You look great today, Aki. Grandpa, I got some tiger prawns in the fridge, you can add that to the miso soup too,†answered Raiha. The prawns were his boss’ way of an apology for having him watch the store overnight.

 

“Are you feeling alright, Nii-san,†asked Akiha, her voice concerned. “Your face doesn’t look so good. Did you get any sleep at all last night?†She was always the perceptive one after all.

 

“Like a log,†he lied. “My body probably just isn't used to lazing around in bed, ahaha.â€

 

She pouted in disapproval. It most likely didn’t fool her, but at the same time it did stop her from questioning him further. That would have to do for now.

 

---

 

After breakfast, both siblings said goodbye to their grandparents and departed for school. Mitsuba, being a sleepy little town, did not have much sans the supermarket Jaunes that could even remotely be considered achievements of mankind’s architectural ingenuity for the past two decades. Most of the houses formed neat rows and blocks with their traditional, nondescript designs, while in the distance tall wind turbines moved their blades lazily against the morning breeze. The locals had a different rhythm of life too; if the city’s was a pop song where the beats come and leave hurriedly, here it was more like a jazz song, where every note is savored and played out slowly, meticulously.

 

Men in suit walked to their work places in quiet solitude, while boisterous cliques of students made a cacophony as they greeted each other after the spring break. Akiha’s eyes lit up when she saw a group of girls ahead, and Raiha recognized a few of them to be her friends from back in junior high. They also wore a familiar combination of dark blue blazer and black satin skirt. His sister, however, didn’t seem to make an effort to call out to them. She seemed content accompanying her brother.

 

“Well, hello, hello~ Haven’t seen you for ages, Raiha-kun. How have you been?†came a creepy voice from behind the both of them.

 

No. Raiha felt a shiver running down his spine.

 

“Long time no see, Keiji-san,†answered Raiha as he turned back, finding himself addressing a thick pair of semi-transparent glasses wearing a third-year student with a nasty case of bed hair. The guy’s name was Keiji Sakata, and he was voted by the majority of the school to be the guy most likely to make it to the front page of national news one day. “I’ve been doing fine. So, how was spring break for you?â€

 

“It was a craaaaaazy ride, man. I followed up on the little project we discussed-“

 

“You mean the one you offhandedly mentioned to me during lunch time and ran off before I could point out that it was-.â€

 

“Yes, that one.â€

 

“-insane and completely against the laws?â€

 

“Bah, public decency and conformity are but the work of the devil to keep the sheeple in place. Look at history; Pope Urban VIII thought he was clever condemning Galileo Galilei for opposing the perceived norm, but who really got the last laugh in the end?â€

 

“I’m fairly sure he did when Galileo died penniless and dishonored.â€

 

“Yeah, basically what I’m saying is I’m like the Pope, but that’s neither here or there. Get this, I managed to uncover their tracks a few weeks back but came this close to being abducted by aliens in the process,†he held his two fingers inches apart.

 

“Uh huh, illegal aliens,†nodded Raiha blankly.

 

“You bet, and not the Kneel Before Zod kind, that stuff is way lame. Or the sexy green skin hive queen that distracts you with her feminine wiles while her spawn turn the rest of your comrades into veal cutlets either, eye-opening though that would be.†His voice lowered into a conspiratorial whisper. “I’m talking The Thing here. Skin walkers and shape shifters. After fighting for my escape with tooth and nail, I didn’t dare to go outside lest they can see me with their fancy eyes in the sky and whatnot.â€

 

“But you are outside now.â€

 

“Well, I’m wearing a hat. All hat wearers must look the same to them from up there. Same deal as hiding a tree in a lumber mill, you know.â€

 

Raiha decided not to point out the fact that Keiji wasn’t wearing a hat. Also doesn't that mean sooner or later you are getting chopped to bits? Shouldn't it be in the forest?

 

Keiji took his lack of response to be the profound silence of someone who was currently being awestruck by an earthshaking revelation. He continued. “I’m telling you man, the Literature club folks are up to something mighty sinister. All those people coming and leaving and the various mysterious transfers and accidents involving their members. I followed them for 2 days and ran into freaking aliens. The conspiracy is so thick here, I can almost smell i- hey, who the hell is this?†He jabbed a quivering finger at the girl next to Raiha, his brain finally acknowledging her presence after an eternity or two. “Could it be…you are one of them agents with the flash and forget thingy sent here to purge any alien witnesses of their memory?!â€

 

Akiha cocked her head bemusedly. “Good day to you, Sakata-senpai. My name is Akiha Mori, Raiha nii-san’s younger sister. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person. He used to tell our family a lot of stories about you.â€

 

None of them good, Raiha’s astute memory recalled.

 

Keiji narrowed his eyebrows in suspicion, studying Raiha’s face for any sign of a secret SOS sign. There was none of that. He just simply sighed and nodded, to which Keiji’s expression lightened up considerably.

 

“In that case, don’t be shy and ring me up if you ever need any help.“

 

Dude, you are the only one who needs serious help around here, mused Raiha,

 

“After all, Raiha-kun and I have been best of pals ever since we were born,â€

 

Apparently this guy is one year old, on top of being disillusioned.

 

“So any sister of him is a sister of mine as well,†said Keiji as he flashed a broad grin, all teeth.

 

Aki, big brother is sorry. It seems I cannot give you a normal school life after all.

 

The three of them walked together for the rest of the way uphill. Outlandish tales were told, undue encouragements were given, and for the umpteenth time of his life, Raiha was of the opinion that Mitsuba High was too far from his house.

--

 

The principal, in an effort to reassure the school that he was still capable of holding the King of Anesthesia title, went onstage to take the mic. Half the school immediately went into a timed coma following his soft ahem, which presaged a long and drawn out welcoming speech spanning one hour of time that the hundreds of poor souls within the hall would never get back. Raiha had never swum naked through an ocean of broken glass shards before, but he got a distinct feeling that a death of a thousand cuts would be a rather similar experience to this.

 

With the torturous ritual concluded, students started fanning out in search of their friends and headed for class. Raiha woked Akiha up with a gentle pat on the head before handing her her boxed lunch, then made his way to class 2-B. He found a perfect seat right next to the window overlooking the yard, just one row from the back, and immediately claimed it as his own by unceremoniously throwing his bag onto the seat from half the room away. His classmates, even if they noticed his antics, didn't seem to give any response.

 

Time passed. As soon as the minute hand struck 12, his new homeroom teacher darted into the room with all the grace and subtlety the likes of which are typically exhibited by a charging rhino. First order of business, as per usual, was roll call and introductions.

 

"Very good, the next person please!" exclaimed the boisterous art teacher in his accented Japanese.

 

"Raiha Mori, I had to withdraw from school for one year due to personal reasons in the past, so I'm actually one year older than everyone here. Let's see...other than that, I have nothing interesting to add," he raised his hand in a more dismissive than affirmative gesture, the speech from earlier having done his sleep-deprived mental state no favors. There was no introduction afterward, only absolute silence, which was weird. He slowly looked up.

 

The teacher was giving him a fierce and piercing glance. Not his face, but something on both sides of his head.

 

Oh crap, did I do something to offend him?

 

"Raiha-kun?"

 

"Yes....sir?" We are on first name basis already?

 

"Your hair is longer than the combined total of Tsukiko-chan's, Erize-chan's and Misa-chan's. Is that supposed to be a wig or are you just allergic to barbers?"

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As with every other day for as long as Shu could remember, his eyes snapped open a couple of seconds before his alarm sounded. It left him to stare at the ceiling before being distracted by the sharp trilling that sounded from his bedside table. After remaining still long enough that the alarm sounded ready to physically hit him out of bed, Shu reached across to shut it down, plunging the room into silence. He didn't move immediately, however, instead letting a small smile slide onto his face first before swinging his feet to the floor.

His smile was because today was finally the day that school started up again. Normally, one might think that going back to school after a break would not be an occasion to smile about but for Shu it was slightly different. It was not school he was looking forward to, but rather his extracurricular activity he was part of. With that in his head, Shu completed his morning routine in record time and quickly dressed into his school uniform. He made sure his shirt was tucked in all the way and his tie was exactly the right size and central to his neck. Then he brushed his hair down, covering the piercing holes in his ears, and slipped on the fake glasses he wore.

A long tube lay against his bed and as he slung his bag over his shoulder, he picked it up and hefted it slightly in his hand; he would never be more than a step away from it. Shu slung it over his shoulder and let it rest against the top of his school bag. With a last glance at his clock telling him he was back to his usual time, Shu headed down the stairs to meet his mother in the kitchen.

Mikoto Kagaiba was middle aged but looked fairly young, in fact with Shu and his long hair, they looked quite similar. She turned to face him when he approached her and raised a hand so her palm was towards him. “Your heart burns with the passion?†She asked, her tone of voice indicated that it was a well-used phrase.

Shu reached up and placed his hand to hers, and they closed their fingers around each other’s. “Always, until the price is paid.†He replied.

With the morning ritual out of the way, Mikoto asked whether Shu would be having breakfast but he declined as he snatched a tangerine from the worktop and headed towards the door; if he dawdled for breakfast, there would be no doubt that he would arrive for his new school year late. Once he was outside, and turning to close the door behind him, Shu’s smile disappeared and his shoulder slumped slightly, he had to keep up appearances after all.

He reached school with a minute to spare and kept to himself as he headed towards his homeroom class. A few other students looked his way but only one other boy waved in his direction, earning a half-hearted wave from Shu in return. It didn’t take long for him to reach 2-B and as he slid open the door; he caught sight of Erize dozing on her desk. As normal. He thought with small grin. Shu quickly took his desk and lent his tube against the leg nearest to him, within arm’s reach should he need it.

When the door burst open, silencing the room of quite murmurs, Shu wondered for a second who this intense looking person was. It didn’t take the man screaming in English for him to realise it was their new homeroom teacher. After the man had composed himself and started speaking Japanese, Shu watched him carefully. When he spoke of running the Art Club, something showed in his eyes and Shu couldn’t help but drop his hand to his tube before quickly drawing it away when he realised what he had done.

After Akira Miyamoto managed to actually scare one of the girls from the room, Shu did not remember her name, the introductions started. When it reached Shu, he stood up slowly and adjusted his glasses and tie before speaking. “My name is Shu Kagaiba…†he spoke confidently, if not a little quietly, and kept his eyes on Akira as he did. “…I enjoy neatness and precision in all things.†Satisfied with his introduction, Shu sat down again, and shuffled in his chair to centre it to the desk before resting his hands on top of it and looking back up to Akira.

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Aiko's days usually started early. It was part of her job at the shrine to do the necessary chores while not attending school. However, as the first day of school set in, she awoke to the sound of her alarm at the time of 6:30 with only the thought of the new term in mind. She had prepared herself in the uniform for her new high school and twirled around in the vanity mirror to admire the look on her. With a nod of approval, she snatched up her bag and hurried downstairs to breakfast where her family awaited. "Good morning Aiko. Are you ready for the new term?" her mother asked as they all began to eat. 

 

Aiko nodded silently as she ate her food. This was the usual. The only person she really spoke to in her family anymore was her younger sister, who was too young at the time to blame for what happened to Aiko. Her sister, Yukiko, didn't obtain the kind of powers that Aiko did and is the one who does most of Aiko's chores. "You seem rather excited for it. Are you going to be in a class with your friends?" her father asked.

 

Aiko shrugged at the question, genuinely unsure of who might be in her class. She only knew that it was class 1-C in which she would reside. Her family carried on talking both with and without her about various things, most of which she found little interest in. "Nee-san. Are you going to join a club?" Yukiko asked while her parents went on about something.

 

Aiko thought about this a moment before replying. "I might join the literature club. I do enjoy reading," she said without changing faces. 

 

Yukiko giggled slightly then said, "Well let's hurry before we're late."

 

They both finished eating and, after saying bye to their parents, they departed from the shrine grounds headed for school. Yukiko went to the left, while Aiko went to the right. Once on her way, Aiko pulled out a novel she had yet to start and set into the first page while she walked. The scene of school kids and sakura petals that swirled around her were simply background to the world of fiction before her. As she approached the school, Aiko chose to skip the entrance ceremony, a decidedly boring and monotonous thing that certainly disinterested her. Instead, she chose to climb to the top of the school building and read on the roof. This was always her favorite place in middle school and the scenery was new and refreshing. 

 

Before Aiko realized, she'd become late for class and finished half the novel title Desolate Gray. Though it might only fuel rumors that surrounded her, Aiko decided it best to show up late rather than never. She closed her book with a sigh and slipped it into in brown bag that all students carried, then hopped up from her seat and headed toward class. Once she arrived, it was clear that self introductions had passed and that the teacher was going on about something she couldn't quite make out through the doors. She took a deep breath and steeled herself, leaving the emotionless expression in place as she pulled the sliding door open. Everyone's head instinctively swiveled to look at her and she simply stepped into the classroom, closing the door silently behind her

 

She walked across the back in the silence, only her footsteps echoing in the room. Taking the single open seat in the far back left corner as her own without a word. She pulled out her books and slipped them into her desk then looked up, waiting for the teacher to continue as if nothing had taken place.

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On the subject of folly, humanity as a whole is notable for being particularly gifted when it comes to attempting things we really shouldn’t be doing. Or be caught doing, for it’s not cheating if no one saw you committing the act, as stated by Schrodinger according to one anonymous internet forum user. Of course, this postulate was made highly disputable by a counterclaim immediately brought up by someone insisting to be his intellectual superior within the very same thread: “Don’t trust anything you see on the internet just because it’s attached to a big name – Abraham Lincolnâ€.
 

Getting back to the original argument, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the fact that for any given container of limited volume, there’s a definite amount of content which can be poured into it until things start spilling out or, worse, breaking free. Going by this logic, the average human head, which can be measured quantitatively using hat sizes, qualifies for the limited container definition. As such, it can be nothing other than folly for a certain group of people, let’s call them teachers, to stuff another group of people’s heads, let’s call them students, with contents that are, by their nature, infinite.
 

Such as math.
 

What began as a simple way to find the number of cows your neighbor had more than you and, thus, probably wouldn’t mind losing, grew into a gigantic field of study that spanned the globe. For every positive number, there’s a natural correspondence in negative number, take the square root of a negative number and you get an imaginary number, which can be added to a real number, consisting of both positive and negative components, to get a complex number. Einstein himself admitted to no longer comprehending relativity when mathematicians took a swing at his brainchild. Every calculation starts a sequence that cannot end, which goes on forever to form a mass of knowledge so vast it took the brightest minds of the past two millennias their entire lives to simply agree on its foundation.
 

And then people tell you to internalize all of that without any exception.
 

Know what else multiplies endlessly and is inside you?

 

Cancer.
 

That is how it works. That is how the numbers rearrange and alter themselves without an explicit order or even permission, why they follow a pattern but never reach a conclusion. A collection of tumors referred to as numerical sets and subsets, dark and dense and encysted, manipulated by mathematical functions which are nothing more than cellular interactions having gone out of control, set to forever repeat their last instruction. Uncontrollable autonomy is the name of the game, and math cheats.
 

But it’s fine, it’s dandy. Doctors deal with cancers all the time, do they not? Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, etc.. The problem has a solution, even if it’s a partial one. How bad could it be?
 

Except this isn’t really cancer, it’s cancer mark II, biological warfare waged at the pinnacle of artificial evolution. Like if cancer was a human being, math would be the Superman version of it, except evil, and without a cape. Even when one finally gets the hang of the subject, finally sees the pattern within the spiraling madness, Calculus, the ghost inside the machine, rears its malignant, ugly head concealed beneath the benign mass of harmless-looking numbers.
 

Instead of finding the answer to the age-old question of what is 1+1, the student is now made to find an arbitrary X encapsulated within alien expressions, which nature shifts endlessly from problem to problem, the very phantom of uncertainty that eludes Werner Heisenberg even in his wildest dreams. Gone are the numbers, the symptoms, the problems the doctors were taught about and expected to cure, yet still the world insists that this is math, like a cruel joke told at the expense of its audience. In a sense, doing a calculus problem is like being assigned a patient diagnosed with a brain tumor, yet finding nothing but kidney stones inside when his head's opened up.

 

And that’s not even the worst thing, sensei, see-
 

“Let me stop you right there, Mori. I am certain that with half the effort you put into forming the rant, you could have easily memorized the formula for the Fourier transformation. Stay back and see me after class,†said Kazuki-sensei with a blank expression. Through his pair of spectacles, his austere dark eyes gave Raiha a look that could have Fourier transformed stone to water before turning back to face the board, his fingers deftly writing a string of integrals.

Someone behind him stifled a silent laugh.
 

Raiha took his seat hesitantly, realizing he should had just admitted to not having studied the concept over the holidays as instructed rather than putting up a moronic front. Hanging around Keiji for too long seemed to leave a certain effect on people’s psyche that could get them sent to an asylum; or a morgue. After all, there are things which just aren’t meant to go together. Things like toothpaste and orange juice. Oil and water.
 

Kazuki Souichiro, aka He Who Drowns Your Exam Scripts in Red Ink, and a twisted sense of humor. 
 

Letting out a despondent sigh, Raiha got back to the business of spinning his pen and furiously decoding the amount of mathematical mumbo jumbo plastered on the blackboard. Upon closer inspection, he could tell that none of these were particularly challenging, only that there was so much of them, seeing how the students were given a month to acquaint themselves with the concepts. In his mind, he never could quite understand as to why the school would give winter vacation only to ruin it with a massive stack of homework. It was like giving a man dying of thirst a bottle of seawater.

 

Advanced math was the last class of the day, and the gusts of spring breeze flowing through the window had been steadily conspiring with the mild afternoon sunlight to set up the ideal conditions for a nap. In the courtyard below, Raiha could catch a glimpse of the third year students in shirts and shorts stretching for a game of lacrosse, all while listening intently to a girl with the captain armband. Tall, lithe, and raven haired, Megan (most people in school called her Glasses-senpai even though she wasn't wearing any) was a goddess of beauty for a considerable number of guys at Mitsuba High, and a symbol of idolatry (or jealousy) for many of the opposite gender. From that distance, Raiha couldn’t quite make out what she was saying to the rest of her team, only that it was something which brightened up their expressions considerably, though her soft, mellifluous voice made itself apparent within his mind anyway. This also brightened up his expression considerably.
 

It occurred to him that for once, his thoughts were not occupied with making money.

 

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Lavalley-sensei frowned as he watched Aiko’s spectacularly tardy entrance, waiting an entire slow, agonizing minute before he cleared his throat and finally spoke. “While you might find my lessons uninspiring and devoid of practical value, perhaps you should not make that fact so obvious to the rest of us. You’re setting a bad example to my adorable daughter, you know.†The rest of the class resumed tittering nervously again, and Erin sighed, burying her face in her hands.

“Class, say hello to Aiko Kurosawa-san.†Lavalley continued, pulling out a binder and glancing through its contents. “She’s from the family that maintains Akamori-ji Temple on the outskirts of the town, she likes cooking, reading and skipping class to read…â€

Then, Lavalley-sensei paused for a moment, his eyes now shrouded in shadow by his hat. Then, he finally looked up, his eyes gleaming brightly, and gravely pronounced, “…and yes, she’s also single.†The class erupted in another outburst of laughter, and then class resumed as usual.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The bell signaling the start of lunch break sounded, and Erin slid her textbooks, their margins now with many more doodled drawings than before, under her desk. She pulled her boxed lunches from her bag, leaving the classroom and heading towards the cafeteria – but to her great dismay, the cafeteria was a sea of unfamiliar faces, with nary a free seat in sight. With a sigh, she turned around and left – even if there had been a seat, she didn’t quite feel comfortable in such a crowd. Too many potential attack vectors, too many escape routes for a retreating enemy. Impossible to attack without collateral damage. Bah, I’ll just find somewhere quiet to have lunch.

Immediately, her mind gravitated to the most clichéd option available, and she made a beeline for the school rooftop. Quiet, nice scenery, and open enough to fight if shit really hits the fan. Perfect. Proud of her brilliant decision-making skills, she traipsed her way up the stairs, humming a merry little tune…

… And to her chagrin, the rooftop was already playing host to a few loving couples – and one pair was being just a little too loving for comfort.

I’m such a fool.

Without a word, she closed the door behind her and trudged down the steps, leaving the lovers behind.

As she walked down the corridor past some currently-vacant club rooms, despairing at the thought of eating in the classroom like some unfortunate loner, the strains of soft classical music from one of the vacant rooms caught her attention. Her attention piqued, she stopped and slid the door open.

“Oh hello there,†a soft, gentle female voice said. “Care to join me?â€

“Uh… okay.†Erin mumbled as she stepped in.

At the far end of the cluster of tables occupying the empty club room was a girl perhaps a year or so older than her eating from a dainty bento box. She had long white hair hanging loose behind her back, grey eyes peeking out from behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses, and seemed to hold herself with a poise befitting a well brought-up young lady – rather unlike Erin, who’d carelessly plopped herself down on a seat and pulled out her bento box, popping open the lid and chowing down without even pausing for the traditional pleasantries. “You must be one of the freshmen. I’m Haruna Mochizuki from Class 2-B. I’m also vice-captain of the Archery Club. Nice to meet you.â€

“Erin Lafayette,†Erin replied through a mouthful of food. “I’m from class 1-C, and I’ll join any club but the Literature Club.â€

“My, my,†Haruna replied with a faint smile. “Why not the Literature Club?â€

“Two things. Firstly, reading sounds like work.†Erin said, scarfing down a hefty piece of chicken at the same time. “Secondly… Mr. Lavalley’s basically my father. He’s already my homeroom teacher; what lunatic would want to see their dad every waking hour, let alone that old bastard?â€

The other girl chuckled, saying, “Well, I can empathize. You can’t choose your family, after all.†Erin nodded enthusiastically in agreement, and she continued, “Have you considered joining the archery club?â€

“Not really, no.†Erin said, polishing off her first boxed lunch and opening the second.

“Maybe you could try it. You don’t need any experience to join; and personally, I find it a great stress reliever.†Haruna said, turning wistful for a moment. “When I take a shot, it’s like all of life’s turmoil and distractions are swept away – in that moment, your world consists of just two things – your target, and you. It’s really overwhelming for me, something I feel like I could lose myself in… it’s really something you need to experience yourself.â€

“I know that feeling,†Erin blurted out, before realizing her mistake. I’ve definitely felt that before… but I can’t exactly tell her the last time I felt that way was when I buried a magical transforming battle axe into the skull of an acid-spitting hellhound, can I? “Uh… yeah. I, uh, practiced kendo when I was little… and it sort of felt like that, I think…†she mumbled.

Haruna didn’t seem to take notice, merely chuckling merrily. “I guess we might have more in common than I thought. I see you’re… completely done with the three boxed lunches you brought here, but why not stay to chat for a while? It’s not every day I make a new friend.â€

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“…You’ll have to satisfy me first,†Erin finished, and both girls broke into a torrent of laughter. Then, as her sides returned to their normal state, Haruna glanced at the clock, her face taking on a worried expression. “Goodness, just look at the time. I guess you’ll have to get going now, or you’ll be late.â€

“Uh-huh. It’s been nice talking to you, senpai,†Erin said with a smile as she picked up her bag and made for the door.

“The pleasure’s mine. Feel free to drop by during lunch break; you could say this is my lair, of sorts,†Haruna said as she strode over, opening the door to show her out.

“Thanks,†Erin said as she stepped out of the door and glanced at her own watch, before letting out a little yelp and rushing off. From a some distance down the hallway, there was suddenly a surprised shout, a crash and the sound of books clattering onto the floor.

Then, as she turned to close the door again, Haruna made a little motion as though she were sniffing the air. Then, a faint smile came across her face as she muttered, “Erin Lafayette, huh...I guess we really do have more in common than I thought.â€

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The day passes by uneventfully, and the end-of-school bell rings at exactly 3 in the afternoon. She is out of her seat before the second chime, out of the classroom door by the third. Striding down the corridor toward the club room.
 

Glowy blue writing on the wall catches her eye, and her heart freezes.
 

That’s not– but how?
 

She stares at the Art Club’s flyer on the wall, proclaiming “Demon Hunters Wanted†in a luminescent blue scrawl. After a moment, she breaks into a run. She has to get there, and fast.
 

So he does know. The question is, is he on our side?
 

She slides to a halt at her destination, fiddling with her ring of keys. Literature Club, says the sign above the door. No additional decoration, no posters or signs hinting at its interior. Nothing that would attract any prospective students.
 

Just the way they planned it.            
                  

“Lavalley-sensei!†She yells as the door swings open. “Are you there?â€
 

Silence.
 

She kicks the wall, biting back a curse. Lavalley-sensei comes and goes as he pleases – there’s nothing to do but wait.
 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

The last padlock clicks open and her gear tumbles out of the locker. A reinforced biker’s suit, hard plastic and visco-elastic gel under leather. Helmet to match. Combat boots with soft rubber treads, for sneaking. Clean, against all her expectations.
 

I did wash the stuff, after all. That’s great…  The faint smell of blood reaches her, and she wrinkles her nose as she folds the suit and drapes it over a chair. It perks up, humming in anticipation, and she rolls her eyes.
 

Note to self: use more detergent next time.

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

The adjoining room is entirely dark when she opens the door, windows covered by heavy curtains and sealed with black tape. The laptop computer is in the corner, just where she left it, and she gropes around for the power button.
 

It boots up swiftly, displaying a single icon on the screen.
 

Run?
 

Yes.
 

As the LED lights on the walls start blinking, one at a time, she steps into the middle of the room and calls on Geminus.
 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

A red light blinks on in the corner of her – no, Number Two’s – eye. Number Two turns, firing, and the light goes out. Hostile down. How long has it been–
 

Another two lights go on, one green in front of her and one red in front of Number Three. Both their guns snap to their targets and Number Three fires, but she keeps her finger off the trigger. Friendly.
 

Hostile. She fires off another shot.
 

Two friendlies, one hostile. She holds her fire, but Number Two and Number Three both fire. Shit, she thinks, but then more lights go on and she forgets.
 

Six hostiles– “Imahara-san?†The door cracks open, and all three of her whirl around, pointing their weapons toward the entrance. Geminus reacts to her alarm, switching all ammunition to lethal rounds, and– Friendly.
 

She relaxes, pointing the barrels away from Lavalley-sensei. “I remember putting up a ‘Do Not Enter Without Knocking’ sign, Sensei,†she says, dismissing her clones.
 

“Pah! A man’s gotta live by his own rules!†The Literature Club’s teacher-in-charge puffs out his chest, grinning. “Get out here. It’s dark out, and we’ve got work to do.â€

 

Dark out? It was three when I started. 

 

She walks over to the computer and ends the program with a click. “Did you see Miyamoto-sensei’s flyers?†She asks, following him out of the training room.

 

“Did I?†He laughs. “How could I not? They were everywhere.â€
 

Relief floods though her. If Lavalley-sensei is in the loop, things get a lot less frightening.  â€œWhat do you plan to do about it?â€
 

“Oh, I’ll settle this personally,†he says. Which means he doesn’t want me around for it.
 

“Understood. What’s the assignment for tonight?†She asks.
 

“You know how we’ve been monitoring warlock movement in the area?†He asks her, suddenly looking very serious. A map of the surrounding area is spread over a table, with differently-labeled pins stuck into its surface.
 

“Yes. Tangled with a few,†she says, bending close to inspect one of the larger labels.

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Warlock 6. Allegiance unknown, it says. An exclamation mark is on the back – she’s fought this one herself, but he got away. Barbed tentacles, teleportation (15 feet, every 10s?), incredible regeneration. Weapon of choice: Zweihander. Weird, I know.
 

She remembers the jagged blade tearing through her flesh and bone, and winces.
 

Warlock 8. Allied with the Wild Hunt. Another exclamation mark. Bestial form. VERY FAST, DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE.
 

Huge jaws close on her, effortlessly tearing her legs off. Blood everywhere. Her blood. She keeps firing as she falls, but he’s already gone…
 

Warlock 3. Allegiance unknown. An exclamation mark crossed out in blue – eliminated on a subsequent attempt. Heavy use of exploding thralls. Tough magical barrier.

 

Acid eating away at her flesh, burning–

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

“-san? Imahara san?†Lavalley-sensei asks, a look of mild concern on his face.
 

“Sorry, Sensei,†she says. “Ready when you are.â€
 

He nods and continues. “Normally, warlocks are solitary creatures. Territorial disputes, different allegiances, plain old personality differences and such.â€
 

“But.â€
 

“But they’re gathering. I haven’t seen this many warlocks in one place since… well, since forever.†He says, shaking his head. An expression flits across his face, too fast for her to process.
 

“Why?†What’re they here for? What could be–
 

“Mitsuba No.2, perhaps.†he says, and she closes her eyes slowly. Of course.
 

“That’s where the–â€
 

“Yes.†He nods, gravely.
 

“Shit. I’ll check it out. When do you need me–â€
 

“Tonight. I’m sorry, Imahara-san, but they’ve begun to move. We can’t wait any longer.â€
 

“Shit,†she says again, wriggling out of her school uniform. “Any backup?â€
 

Lavalley-sensei is quiet as she pulls the armored suit on, zips it up and dons her helmet. His silence is answer enough.
 

“I’ll see who I can find. Be careful, Imahara-san,†he says eventually, and she nods.

 

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The bell chimed eight melodious notes, signaling the end of the first day at school. Misa Imahara, the black haired girl sitting near the front of the class, stormed out of the classroom before the teacher could finish saying the word ‘dismissed’.
 

Raiha Mori walked out of the classroom much later on, exhausted and disheartened. In the end, Kazuki-sensei had deemed fit to punish him with five times the amount of homework assigned today - to be handed in tomorrow - something which he was sure could only be done through another all-nighter. He was lucky to have formulated a decent grasp on all the content presented during class and bluffed his way through, otherwise Raiha dreaded to think what would have happened if he hadn’t done so.

 

He checked the clock mounted atop a nearby wall. It was now 3:34 in the afternoon, too soon to leave for his part time job, but too little time left for a nap. Which means there is only one thing left for me to do. Raiha held back a deep yawn and made his way toward the entrance, where rows upon rows of storage compartments could be seen from afar, gunmetal gray frames gleaming against the afternoon sunlight.
 

A locker, in Raiha’s mind, was one of the most useful things a high school student could have. It had various practical usages, intended or otherwise. You could use it to store the majority of your study material so that commuting to school every day wouldn’t have to be a weight-lifting exercise; you could dump your set of P.E uniform within to get rid of the smelly attire and forget about bringing it home to wash until seven days later; use the thing as a correctional facility for your hapless victim if you are the designated jerk jock of the school and this happens to be America; turn it into a temporary mailbox for love letters and surprise Valentine chocolate, or if the situation called for drama, punch it for the basso, echoing noise that signifies tension with little risk of sustaining a wrist injury.
 

In Raiha’s case, his locker had another purpose.
 

He fished out a key, looked around to ensure no teacher was observing him, and unlocked the door. Inside was his pair of outdoor shoes carefully wrapped in a plastic bag, and three folded pieces of paper came into view. 
 

Three requests? That’s quite a lot for the first day of school.
 

At school, Raiha had earned himself the nickname Jack of all Trades. This was because as a true exemplar of the Renaissance man mindset, he could account for himself rather reliably in a wide range of activities, many of which he had learned over the various side jobs he had done for a living in the past. And at Mitsuba high school, where every nine people had ten problems, he had deemed it appropriate to put these skills to good use by opening an odd job office consisting of he, him and himself. When homework isn't done, when the sport club is missing a person and requires a stand-in, when no one else can help, drop Raiha a note and he might be able to.
 

At a pro-bono rate of 1500 yen, of course. He found this to be a just nice compromise – not too low for people to burden him with mind-numbingly menial tasks, but not too high to chase the rest of them away.

 

(You might make a point as to how this is rather illogical given the fact that he is only 18 and shouldn’t have that much working experience and I would heartily agree, but at the same time it would be rather depressing and slightly creepy writing about an adult going through high school. So let us just accept this bit of fictional fact and move on. You will be hearing this line a lot from me.)
 

The first piece of paper had its sender’s name to be Touko, a ‘frequent client’ of him. It was a simple thank you note enclosed with 1500 yen. Touko came from a rather wealthy family, yet preferred to spend her time practicing to be a singer instead of getting good grades as ordained by her strict father. As a result, she often asked him for help with her assignments and school work back during the first year. It looked like she would be counting on him again this year as well.
 

The second piece of paper was a hastily scribbled note. Its content: Beware the pod people!
 

I should install a junk mail filter. It will be an amalgamation of things Keiji hates the most.
 

The third piece of paper was also without a name, only a curt message in intense lettering.
 

COME TO THE CLUB WHEN YOU ARE FREE
 

Raiha had a pretty good guess as to the identity of the sender. He folded the note, pocketed it, then crossed the courtyard toward the in-door gymnasium.

 

--

 

It was nice and breezy outside. As Raiha walked and stretched out his arms, it was as if a great weight had slowly fallen away from him. He found his languor alleviated by the taste of the air, the quiet hush of wind brushing the branches of the cherry blossom trees. The lacrosse club was in the middle of a match still, and he tried to steal a discreet glance at Megan as he walked. She was leading the offense, one hand on the crosse, one hand fending off her persistent opponent, her footwork moving impeccably, steadily. He found himself studying the side of her face, admiring the line of her jaw, the curve of her neck into her shoulder. He wondered if she ever noticed him among the hundreds vying for her attention, and if so what opinion had she formed of him. In the middle of his musing, she delivered a tiebreaking goal and looked up. Their gazes met for a single, breathtaking instant.
 

Blue eyes gleaming against blue sky. She smiled gently at him, brushing at an errant strand of hair before turning her attention back to the game.
 

It took ten beats for his heart to remind him that all the blood in his body should go to the right ventricle, not his face.

 

--

 

An oppressing silence reigned over the sport hall, isolating it from the lively atmosphere outside.

 

Sanageyasha Izu sat in a meditative stance on the wooden floor, eyes closed, his dark hair combed back to reveal the scar on his forehead. He was in kendo garb, and two shinai lay next to him, one on each side, both within arm’s length.

 

“Yo, I’m here,†Raiha greeted him as he removed his shoes and walked to the side, choosing a pair of armor and helmet of his size. Sanageyasha took in a deep breath, then scowled and stood up, eyes narrowing.

 

“You are late,†he said.

 

“So sue me. Kazuki-sensei happened.â€

 

“I heard about it. Was mostly your fault, though. Working instead of studying or honing your skills during the entire vacation. You made your choice and it was a dumb one.â€

 

“Yeah I know, I know,†Raiha waved a dismissive gesture, trying on his gloves. “But the pay was anything but dumb and it wasn’t as tiring as the part time jobs I am limited to when school reopens. Besides, I will get plenty of opportunities for practice the moment people start asking me to do their homework anyway.â€

 

Sanageyasha looked at Raiha again, then stooped to pick up his pair of swords, leaving one on a stand nearby. “If the math honors program is such a chore for you, why sign up for it in the first place?â€

 

Raiha shrugged. “Mostly for the scholarship; not having to pay school fee is nice. But enough about me, why is the captain of the kendo club sitting here all by himself? Where’s the rest of the club?â€

 

Sanageyasha shook his head, then sighed almost imperceptibly. “A bunch of imbeciles without a backbone. The first year recruitment period won’t start until next week, the second years all asked for a CCA transfer, and the rest of the third years are having some kind of celebration event going on. Maggots feasting upon the corpse of the kendo club, they all are.â€

 

Raiha started laughing, weakly, only because he knew acting all sympathetic would just make Sanageyasha’s ire flare up. “Well, not like I’m any better. After all, you are paying me just to spar with you.â€

 

A ghost of a smile touched the captain’s face, and he took up a stance, facing Raiha. “Materialistic gain has little meaning to me, and a rival good enough to cross sword and soul with is priceless enough to make our arrangement more than a bargain. However, that doesn’t mean I agree with your principles.â€

 

“Perhaps we can just agree to disagree on that point, Yasha-kun,†answered Raiha, all geared up for the fight.

 

The two bowed to each other solemnly.

 

Raiha was the first to act. His breathing changed, and he took on a reserved stance as he eyed the opponent, and he moved, a sudden fluid blurring of his arms and hips. The shinai lunged through the air, propelled by the thrust of his right arm toward Sanageyasha’s throat.

 

As fast as that move was, the captain was faster. Lightning reflexes whipped his blade into a half-arc parry, wood meeting wood in a snapping instant, the tip of Raiha’s blade inches from Sanageyasha’s face. Their gazes met each other.

 

“Men should have hopes! Dreams! Passion! You are wasting your life living this way!†shouted Sanageyasha, stomping the floor, his weapon raining down blows. Each strike was accompanied with a roar of MEN, DOU, KOTE, that shook the very air with their ferocity.

 

Raiha dodged some and blocked the others, his fleeting footwork keeping him from being pushed back. “Men also have to eat, do taxes, pay school fees, buy medicine for the sick, and save up for tuition in university. One can’t just simply quote Shonen Jump if he can’t even afford to buy the stinking magazine!â€

 

“You are depressing!†attacked Sanageyasha.

 

“Check your privilege!†countered Raiha, keeping his blade pressed to his opponent’s. His eyes strained themselves, barely able to keep up with the speed of the blows and the parries. Had he gotten rusty over the break, or had Sanageyasha improved this much in such a short span of time? Last they fought, it was a draw. In the space of a single breath, their forms melded into ever-changing shapes, their weapon clashing no less than half a dozen times, wood cracking, splinters flying out. Both fighters parted briefly, then clashed together again.
 

Crap, I overextended myself.

 

“You’ve gone soft! An opening!†declared Sanageyasha as he saw the opening in Raiha’s defense and went in. The captain brought both hands to the hilt of his blade and struck. Raiha could see, with perfect clarity somehow, the whipping shaft of the blade flying at the side of his head, but his body moved slowly, languidly in response to his command. The blow struck him so hard in the head that he saw stars. Raiha clenched his fingers and let out a painful yelp. He could taste bitter plum at the tip of his tongue.

 

Sanageyasha extended a hand to get him back on his feet. He took it. “T-thanks,†he said, dazed.

 

“You can do better than that, Raiha-kun. Get ready for the next round.â€

 

Raiha grunted and got up.

 

And the next round commenced right the hell then.

 

The sword came down in a death stroke, meeting its equal with a loud, cacophonous noise. Something like sawdust flew away occasionally from the exchange. Sanageyasha bore down on his weapon, attempting to overpower his opponent’s defense through sheer might this time, but Raiha sidestepped those that seemed impossible to block and blocked those he couldn’t dodge. His body was slowly getting used to the rhythm of the fight.

 

In real life, swordfighting is a lot less glamorous than what movies and manga tend to depict. An overhead blow, while indeed flashy, would leave its user’s sides and entire torso exposed, and don’t even think about a pirouetting strike if you value your life. Sanageyasha was perfectly aware of this fact, so his blows often left no room for a flash riposte, but by forcing him to move faster and faster so as to catch up with Raiha’s slipperiness, he could force the captain to overextend himself, or simply wear him down to force the fight into a state of equilibrium. After all, when an opponent came out clearly ahead in both speed and power, tactics were all that is left.

 

The chance came after a scant pair of heartbeats. From a two-handed thrust, Raiha twisted his body to slide Sanageyasha’s sword to one side. The latter skipped back from the counterattack, but not fast enough. A thumping crack echoed from the right side of the captain’s chest.

 

Sanageyasha dropped back into a poised stance, watching Raiha, his eyes glinting, a broad smile making its way to his expression beneath the helmet. “I knew you still have it in you!â€

 

Raiha shook his hand free of its numbing, panting lightly. “Tell me this is best of three.â€

 

Sanageyasha grinned. “What idiocy are you spouting, obviously this is best eleven out of twenty.â€

 

Raiha groaned. “This is so not worth 1500 yen,†he muttered, as both shinai glided toward each other in a cascading dance of skill and strength once again.

 

--

 

In the end, turned out that was the only victory Raiha could score against Sanageyasha. If there was anything that could be mentioned in the former’s favor, it was perhaps the fact that none of the fights concluded in less than ten moves.
 

“My sincerest apologies, Raiha-kun. I should have been more aware of my own strength,†said the kendo captain in a quiet voice, his gaze downcast.

 

Raiha waved another dismissive gesture with his hand, the other pinching his nose to stop the blood from liberally flowing out. “S’all good. You did pay me triple after all, we’ll call that even. Will take me a while to work up the courage to spar with you next time though.†They were currently sitting at the school’s canteen. All stores had closed for the day, except for the drink store, whose owner chose to stay behind most days to cater to students with co-curricular activities.

 

Raiha took a sip from the glass of honeyed lemonade, a treat from Sanageyasha for accepting his challenge. He noticed that his hands were shaking from both the strenuous exercise and the accumulating fatigue from last night. Work would be a problem later.

 

“You know, you can just join the kendo club.â€

 

Raiha licked his lips. “We’ve been through this, man. Even if I want to join you, I still need to make time for the soccer and the baseball club should they come to me for a tournament stand-in. I already have my own club anyway, it’s called the Odd Jobs.â€

 

“It’s not exactly sanctioned by the school either. If you throw in with us, I’m sure I could use my authority as the club leader to get a part of the budget for-â€

 

Raiha held up a hand, having anticipated the direction of this discussion. “Let’s not go there ever again. For starter, it would be terribly unfair to the rest of the people in the kendo club. If words get out, you might not even be allowed to participate in the regional kendo contest this year. You don’t want to stay second place forever, do you?â€

 

Sanageyasha’s expression grew somewhat distant, but Raiha knew he found the reasoning to be valid. His eyes wandered past the club captain to a clock on the wall.

 

It was 5:47

 

“Crap! I’m gonna be late for my job.â€

 

“The 7/11 store near the Shinto shrine?â€

 

“Nah, the Fukuyama coffee shop uptown, apparently people there like my grandpa’s recipe for milk coffee,†Raiha amended. “Bus takes half an hour to come around this period, I guess I can just make a beeline for the place, it’s pretty near.â€

 

Sanageyasha’s eyes shifted right and left, recollecting some details. “You don’t mean going past the construction for Mitsuba no. 2?â€

 

“It’s abandoned, isn’t it? I will just make a quick shortcut through there and save myself the effort of going up the hill for the longer route.â€

 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,†he answered, rather hesitantly.

 

“What, why?â€

 

Sanageyasha opened his mouth, then closed it shut again. He seemed to be deliberating whether or not to confide in Raiha a matter most personal. “Look, I know this must be hard to convince you…â€

 

“I sense a big but coming,†said Raiha, his arm folded.

 

Unbeknownst to our Raiha at that point, his beloved Megan was walking past his back. She might or might not have heard that statement and formed her own interpretation.

 

“But…that place is haunted, or at least it’s bad news,†Sanageyasha sighed. “Once in middle school, I was told to go in there as a dare from my classmates. Unlike now, I was young and foolish you see, so-â€

 

“Yeah, now you are just foolish.â€

 

The captain rolled his eyes. “Whatever. What I’m trying to say is the place gives me the creep. From the moment I set my foot in the building, I could felt something eating away my memory and sanity. Back then, I thought it was just my imagination playing tricks with me, so I persevered and headed deeper in. That was when I heard these…whispers, so I slowly looked back behind me. You know in Kendo, how we often shout to demonstrate our killing intent, like the samurai of old?â€

 

“Kendoka. It’s supposed to help intimidate the opponent.â€

 

“Exactly. I felt it then, Raiha, something capable of radiating a massive amount of threat and intimidation. It wasn’t visible to my eyes, but I felt it churning in my gut and crawling beneath my skin, the air shifting a little when it slowly moved toward me. I ran back home and covered myself with the blanket, shivering all night. Not until next morning did I come back to my senses. I'm not a man of superstitions, but maybe the place is cursed, built atop some kind of mass grave left behind by the war or something. Would explain why they stopped constructing it.†Sanageyasha didn’t say anything afterward, just quietly sipping on his can of coffee.

 

This time, even Raiha couldn’t find his tongue for a witty retort. Had this been Keiji recounting this story to him, he would have chalked its veracity up to the fella’s vivid imagination. But Sanageyasha was different; the captain had the nerves of steel and a dead baby joke's sense of humor (It's not that funny). If one day he were to come up to Raiha and tell him the sun is now square, the first thing he would do is to look to the sky while screaming “Holy shit, what happened to it?â€

 

“Alright man, thanks for the head up,†he broke the silence at last. “I will be careful not to step into the building itself, just gonna cross through the yard and go out on the other side. Will take me like 30 seconds top. What could possibly go wrong in so short a time?â€

 

Turned out plenty of them could.

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"Do you know where the Codex is?"

 

Keiko Mitsuya stood in the middle of the corridor, clutching her books to her chest as she faced a bespectacled senior who looked utterly confused at her question. He stared at her nervously for a few moments, clearing his throat and loosening his collar as he racked his brain for a proper answer. Keiko was a pretty cute-looking girl by most standards, and if only she didn't carry around a bokken everywhere she went, one could easily be fooled into thinking that she was merely an innocent, defenseless first-year student. "Uhhh, I'm sorry, I don't really understand you..." the senior mumbled, straightening his glasses as he spoke.

 

"The Codex," Keiko repeated persistently, pressing in even closer. "Do you not know of it? The arcane, heavily fortified location where grimoires of only the darkest evil are contained, lest their powers be made manifest and destroy our world."

 

"Uhhhh... Do you mean the library?"

 

"The Codex."

 

"Riiight. Go up this staircase and turn right once you see the staff rooms."

 

"Thank you! May the Four Elements watch over you," Keiko said as she drew a magic circle in the air with her finger towards the senior before turning to run up the stairs. Her heart pounded with excitement as she rushed past surprised students standing in the hallway, and a cry of "No running in the hallway!" could be heard behind her, but Keiko paid it little heed as she quickly approached the location of the Codex on the third floor of Mitsuba.

 

She skidded to a halt in front of the sliding door that led to the Codex, pausing to catch her breath. One couldn't enter the Codex freely just like that. There could be any number of magical traps and wards over the entrance of the door, designed to disintegrate or petrify any unwanted intruders at the blink of an eye. Keiko drew another magic circle, this time on the surface of the door, a flashy magical battle occurring in the depths of her imagination as the traps were nullified one by one. Confident that it was safe to enter now, Keiko pushed open the door and stepped in.

 

The libra- I mean, the Codex was a quiet, meditative place, with students sitting quietly at various desks as they pored over their selected text in silence. The librarian - who Keiko referred to as the Prophet - was seated near the entrance. She had long brown hair and was currently in the process of eating a box of Pocky, despite the obvious "No Food and Drinks in the Library" sign that was directly above her head. Where have I seen this scene before? Keiko wondered, as a sense of deja vu flooded her. She walked up to the Prophet, waving at her to get her attention.

 

The Prophet looked up, and for a moment, her eyes widened. Perhaps she could see into the Ethereal Realm as well, and saw Berserker's lines of power emanating from her. "Do you know where to find the Malleus Maleficarum, Prophet?"

 

"The what what? And what did you call me?"
 

"The Malleus Maleficarum. The compilation of the various kinds of demons mankind has come into contact before. I require it in order to fight off the forces of evil more effectively."

 

A look of understanding crossed the Prophet's face, and she pointed lazily at a shelf at the back of the Codex. "Check the fiction section. It should be under section B."

 

Keiko nodded, headed to the shelf which had been pointed out. She knew exactly what she was looking for - a thick, black tome with its pages yellowed with age. She had seen it many times on the internet before. It was an extremely rare book that only had several hundred copies printed before its production was stopped - possibly because the world was not ready for its truth. Now, the responsibility fell on Keiko's shoulders to obtain the Malleus Maleficarum, and ensure that the knowledge within was put to good use. Her eyes lit up as she noticed it almost immediately; it stood out like a sore thumb from the rest of the books around it.

 

As she reached out for the book, another arm was faster, grabbing it away before she could react.

 

"What? Who goes there?" Keiko said, looking up before finding a boy with brown hair and a black jacket clutching the Malleus Maleficarum before her eyes. "Quickly, pass that book to me. Opening it without activating the proper rituals will cause the traps to kill you instantly!"

 

The boy looked at her for a moment. Then, a smile slowly crossed his face as he raised his one spare arm to his eye. "Hah hah hah! Do you really think that I, the Eternal Wielder of Darkness, will fall prey to such a simple trap?"

 

Keiko took a surprised step backwards. "I-Impossible... The Eternal Wielder of Darkness? No mere mortal can dream of containing such power..."

 

"Is that so? Well, feast your eyes on I, Rokurou Ryouta, sixth Wielder of Darkness and the Purveyor of Shadows!" Ryouta dramatically gestured to his chest. Woah, that looked cool for a moment, Keiko thought. Ryouta seemed to calm down for a bit after his declaration, continuing, "How do you know about the Malleus Maleficarum anyway?"

 

"I have been tracking it for many years now," she replied solemnly. "It is my job as the Berserker, the heir of the mantle granted upon me by the Great Demon Lord himself, to come into such knowledge."

 

"The Berserker, huh? What do mortals refer to you by?"

 

"I am known as Keiko Mitsuya to many."

 

"Keiko Mitsuya, the Berserker. It is an honor to meet you." Ryouta made a flourish with his hands before falling to one knee, bowing his head politely towards Keiko. She could feel her face rapidly turning red. Wh-what is this? Is this some sort of mental assault by the Eternal Wielder of Darkness? I-I will not fall prey to it!

 

"Th-the honor is mine," Keiko stammered despite her best efforts to control herself. "A-anyway, you may have obtained it today, but don't think that I will give up on obtaining it for myself one day! When the Codex comes to claim it back after two weeks, know that I, the Berserker-"

 

She never got to finish that sentence. The Prophet tapped her on the shoulder, an angry look on her face. "You two are making far too much noise, dammit!"

 

... 

 

And that is how both the Berserker and the Eternal Wielder of Darkness got kicked out from the library.

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The weather stayed fair, which meant Raiha made it to Mitsuba No. 2 just as the sun was setting. His body was still aching all over in protest of the rough treatment he had given it from earlier, and all the half jogging – half running hadn’t helped one bit. Still, it beat waiting for the bus. Raiha suffered from terrible headaches and nausea every time he got on a vehicle with more than two wheels, or sometimes none in the case of a boat.

 

The deserted school compound was surrounded by a low fence, its half-finished walls dirty, grimy and plastered with graffiti. The surrounding area was also abandoned somehow, with dilapidated shops and houses all boarded up and decaying; it looked to have been deserted for a long time.

 

Raiha picked up more speed, then hopped and leapt over a collapsed section in one trenchant motion. “Parkour!†he shouted as he landed inside Mitsuba No. 2 High School.

 

The construction in question was a long, tall building, an old box frame a few stories high and similar in dimensions to its sister school. There were materials such as piles, brick blocks and mortar as well as various types of machinery lying around, abandoned as if left behind in a hurry. The air here felt wet and sticky, an oppressive feeling that made most sane people give the place a wide berth.

 

The traffic and pedestrians in Mitsuba seemed to ooze around it in a mindless, Brownian fashion, taking the longer route across the hill rather than entering the block. Every town has places like that, where people tend not to go if given a choice. It's not like there are people running and screaming or anything - they just never seem to find a reason to turn down certain streets, to stop on certain stretches of road. And usually for a good reason.

 

Bad things tend to happen in places like this.

 

Guy was right. Place definitely looks way too spooky for comfort.
 

It didn’t matter. All Raiha needed to do was to circle the block, keeping himself outside of the building all the time. According to Sanageyasha and all the bad rumors about this place, strange things occurred to people who ventured into the building proper.

 

So as long as he put himself away from it, he should be f-

 

Someone screamed. A child’s voice.

 

Raiha paused, looking up. It was too dark, but he definitely heard it coming from up there. The scream came somewhere from within the building. There were more of it after the first one. Shrieks of such base, feral intensity that shouldn’t even be possible for a human throat to make.

 

It froze his feet to the ground. What should he do in this situation? No, what could he do? He couldn’t just straight up ignore that kind of distress call and run away like he had heard nothing, that much was certain. He thought of calling the police too, but despite this being well within the range of a signal tower, his call couldn’t get through to the emergency numbers.

 

The situation was like the introductory scene for one of those low-budget slasher movies. The creepy location, the vague warnings, the screaming. If life imitates art, Raiha was sure that if he were to go up there right now, all he would find is a gruesome murder scene; then, he’d come face to face with the killer and get turned into a victim as well, thus motivating Sanageyasha, the main character, to overcome his fear and avenge his dead friend or something. He spat out a low curse.

 

To put it scientifically, Raiha was scared shitless.

 

But in the end that didn’t stop him from stopping, turning and plunging into the darkness of Mitsuba No.2 anyway.

 

As he made his way into the building, it was getting clearer that feeling of wrongness he had from earlier wasn’t a product of his imagination. The gloom pressed on to his throat in a vice grip, choking him and making his breathing laborious. A few steps up the stairs, the air started growing colder, and what little light his phone could offer seemed to dim considerably. “What the hell is wrong with this place,†Raiha muttered to himself, his voice tight.

 

The screaming was no longer audible to his ears. He blinked his eyes rapidly, forcing them to acclimate to the surrounding darkness. This looked to be a long corridor of some sort – a hall way with entrances on both side, classrooms most probably. He couldn’t see the end for anything but a thick screen of oily darkness. Something made a skittering noise in the dark.

 

He looked around for a weapon and found a metal pipe. His surroundings sank into view more gradually now. The classroom doors had all been boarded up with wooden planks, and freaking talismans, he noted. The floor was littered with trash: old newspapers, half-finished boxes of food, plastic bags. He could have sworn there was something in the shadows at the end of the hallway, glistening, observing him from within the darkness. It was the same sensation as described by Sanageyasha, only a hundred times worse.

 

Raiha took a step forward, then immediately looked down upon hearing a wet noise.

 

There was a trail of blood on the ground. Wet and scarlet. It came from – or led into – a certain classroom. And this one wasn’t sealed.

 

He stalked forward, pushing the door slightly opened. It creaked.

 

He saw a shelf inside, full of glass jugs of yellowish liquid. He saw-

 

He saw transparent jars filled with organs. Brains, eyeballs, intestines, lungs.

 

He noticed a fridge in the far back and a bathtub next to him.

 

Holy shit.

 

There were feet sticking out of the latter. Arms. Half a head floating in blood. Some looked bloated, some wormy with rootlets, some smashed. Children’s body parts littered the tub, the rotting smell of offal hung thick in the air. Raiha held his breath, covering his nose and mouth with one hand. One of the heads still had its mouth opening and closing spasmodically even though its brain was completely removed.

 

Terror gripped Raiha’s heart. He was running short of head space to process all the nightmares in front of his eyes. He stood there for a good five seconds, his muscles straight up ignoring the fight or flight signals sent to them by his brain. But the moment his thoughts got back in control, only a single thing came to his mind.

 

The kid! She is in danger!

 

So he dashed outside of the room and headed straight for the next floor. What else was he going to do?  He sure as hell wouldn’t back away now that he knew there was a sick children-murdering psychopath within this compound. The steel pipe within his hand was now all he could count on for protection. The cold, calculated part of his brain had analyzed the bodies within the instant, coming to the conclusion that the wounds inflicted on them was made a sharp object. A knife or a sword most likely. If it ever comes to that, Raiha was sure he had a decent chance of coming out of this alive.

 

Of course, had he known what he was getting himself into, he would have realized nothing short of a tactical nuke would have allowed him, a vanilla human, a slim chance of winning. Live and learn, Raiha.

 

This was going to be a short lesson.

 

He was now alone on the third floor. It looked much more spacious than the stories below, probably because the construction workers had yet to partition the area into rooms and offices and facilities. There were steel bars being laid all around the place, large blocks of wood forming obstacles that, under a better circumstance, would have made this place a perfect playground for hide and seek. Technically, he and the kid were playing the game all the same, but having Death as the seeker kinda robbed away the fun.

 

He closed his eyes and focused. Tuning out the sound of the wind, the beating of his heart, the low thrumming noise that had been assaulting his ears ever since he got into this place. Nothing. There was more blood on the ground now, but no definite trail. Just a few drops here and there. Damn it. If only-

 

Noises in the dark. Growling, mechanical, steady. Something like a really loud and grumpy washing machine.

 

A cement mixer.

 

Swiftly, he moved from cover to cover, taking into account his surrounding while tracing the source of the noise. It was getting closer now. He stole a glance from the corner of yet another wooden block.

 

Straight ahead of him were bodies and blood.

 

He couldn’t see much of them in the darkness still. But he saw three kids lying motionless on the ground, drowning in a pool of blood. A fourth one pressed her back so tightly against the wall, it was like she could fuse with it at any moment.

 

A tall man stood over her. Tall, gaunt, covered in a trench coat. Raiha’s first thought upon seeing him was Doctor Octopus because slimy, organic tendrils seemed to spawn from his back, digging their way out through his thick layer of clothing. As he watched, the killer stepped forward, seized the whimpering girl by her hair, then slammed her body down on the ground again. She lay motionless. He raised the blade on his right hand up, muttering words in a language the likes of which Raiha had never heard before.

 

He didn’t even bother to think at this point. Letting out a loud cry, Raiha charged in and slammed his shoulder into the man’s behind as hard as he could. Doc Ock lost his footing, the sword hitting the ground next to the young girl in a shower of scarlet sparks.

 

“Why don’t you pick on someone your size, you bastard,†snarled Raiha.

 

This time the maniac turned toward Raiha and, he realized with cold fear, that his face was upside down. But even with his expression locked into an alien façade, he could tell from the tilt of his head and the sudden tension of his posture that the killer was furious at Raiha for denying him his prize.

 

Creepy Doc Ock brought the blade down on Raiha’s head. He managed to sidestep the slash, then slammed his steel pipe into the man’s torso. Imagine his surprise when it registered in his mind like hitting a sponge. Wet and elastic.

 

The killer’s inverted mouth spoke; his voice had a strange, buzzing quality to it, as though his larynx had rotted and became home to a mass of flies. “Blood… For the Blood… God…†His tentacles lashed out at Raiha, whipping and spearing fast enough to become blurs. Raiha could only dodge the few that were going for his head, and two of them sank into his belly and his thigh, and he winced as tiny barbs jutted out of them, anchoring them firmly within his flesh.

 

Then, with a hoarse, rasping snarl, the creature retracted the tentacles – and they tore large chunks out of Raiha with them.

 

Raiha could see it in slow motion, the adrenaline in his blood dulling the pain. He had just enough time to leap backward before his entire body was wracked with excruciating agony, turning the whole world in front of him red.

 

Hurts! Hurts! Hurts!

 

The killer came close to him. His mouth spasmed for a moment before opening up, letting out a bizarre, buzzing, croaking noise, like a mockery of laughter. Raiha stared at him in disbelief. He could see the meat from the exposed part of the man’s body: grayish, translucent, like squid or cuttlefish. He was wearing nothing but the coat, not even pants, and somehow Raiha could even make out the dim, brownish blobs deep within his body that had got to be organs. His six thick, fleshy tentacles moved around in the air as if buoyed by an invisible body of water, writhing and slithering.

 

One part of Raiha’s mind, the one not too busy recoiling from pain or telling his hands to stuff the thing coming out of his belly back inside because Those are your friggin’ guts, man schemed quietly. Maybe if he could try a stabbing motion; this kind of gelatinous skin couldn’t be too tough against a piercing attack after all. Then he realized all he had was a metal pipe in hand, and not even one with a sharpened end. Not that it mattered - the muscles in his body didn’t seem to move even as he commanded them to; almost as if he were a character in a video game paralyzed by thousands of milliseconds’ worth of latency.

 

Paralysis poison, son of a bitch is literally a jellyfish.

 

So much for trying to play hero. He was already down before he could even land a proper attack. The killer caught him and swatted him aside like an annoying bug. This wasn’t even cat and mouse, this was panther and mouse, T-rex and mouse. Doc Ock raised his blade again. Raiha clenched his teeth, thinking that would be the end of the line for him right then, but instead-

 

The blade stopped in midair.

 

The only person more surprised than Raiha seemed to be Doc Ock himself. He looked at the blade, eyes widened, head bobbing. He sensed that the killer was trying to tell his arm to move, but an unseen force was holding it dead in its tracks.

 

How strange to watch a mortal kindle,

Only to dwindle, day by day

 

A voice rang out within Raiha’s mind. Feminine, warm, majestic.

 

At the same time, another blast of unseen force drove itself into the killer’s arm, snapping it cleanly all the way to the shoulder. He let out a sepulchral, grotesque, otherworldly cry of pain.

 

Know that thy bright soul is tinder,

And the ill wind shalt have its way

 

The killer regained his composure, and the first thing he looked for was the sword – still with his hand wrapped around it on the ground. He vanished, shattered into a million fragments, before reappearing next to his dismembered appendage. He looked…different, more whole.

 

Did he just regrow his freaking arm?

 

A shower of scarlet sparks exploded from next to him. When the smoke cleared, the killer was nowhere to be seen again. Raiha tried to swallow, but the pain was slowly overpowering his consciousness. He had lost too much blood. This was it. He had perhaps a minute or so left in this world. So cold. So tired. His eyelids fell like lead shutters-

 

The voice from before stopped him from closing them.

 

A blade once broken now brandished,

In darkness, my fire I shalt lend

 

It called to him. A song, so alluring and glorious. Something filled his thoughts as borrowed life force filled his veins. A singular, driving emotion burned within his mind now - desire. So fierce and intense it pushed away all the pain into a much more distant recess. Somehow he knew the origin of this sound; he knew why it gave him this gift, and what it asked of him in return.

 

So he crawled, inch by inch, ignoring everything around him. From the corner of his eye, he could see the killer appearing and disappearing like a mirage, a trick of light. Sparks and dust flew up whenever he showed himself, and Raiha could see that whatever was causing that, it seemed to be working. Translucent liquid splattered the floor; a disgusting, viscous, acidic substance that seemed to eat through the concrete.

 

At some point, the killer must had noticed Raiha dragging himself toward a certain thing, for he let out another buzzing scream and pounced towards where his severed arm was lying.

 

Raiha gripped the blade just as the toxic tentacles grasped him again.

 

A knight with his life soon tarnished,

What doeth thy flickering portend?

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There were a few places in Mitsuba City that Keiko made a habit to explore. They were the kinds of places which parents would tell their young daughters not to wander alone at, the places which sent shivers down your spine and made you feel like you were being watched. The town was too small to have any horror stories, but the local police force did a poor job at regulating these parts of town. Once in a while, a person would disappear for a few days, and then a dismembered body would show up in one of these areas. None of these events ever got onto the news. "There is no need to cause undue alarm," said the authorities. "We have the situation under control."

 

The abandoned water park outside town. The graveyard. The construction site of Mitsuba No. 2 High School.

 

When she was here, outside of school, Keiko always had the Raigeki out. It wouldn't make sense for her to get caught off-guard by an evildoer attempting to jump her from behind. Still, there hadn't been many evildoers to fight. Actually, there had been none at all since she had decided to start exploring these areas two weeks ago. Perhaps the tales of murderers and criminals hiding in the shadows of the construction site were greatly exaggerated, meant to scare kids gathered around campfires at night. There was really nothing to fear once you got to know the place a bit better-

 

A scream pierced the air.

 

Keiko froze, spinning around. Was that really... what she thought it was? She cautiously glanced all around her, slowly moving towards the source of the sound. Some birds were known to make high-pitched screeches, perhaps she had misheard-

 

There was a second scream, definitely coming from deeper within the construction site. A sane human being would probably have turned tail and ran at this point. But Keiko Mitsuya was no ordinary human. She was the Berserker, the chosen one to defend the forces of evil. And so, with her heart pounding furiously in her chest, she dashed straight into the site, following the source of the scream. Hold on, she thought. I'm coming to help you.

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

The interior corridors were dim and messy, with dust filling her nose as she ran down the half-constructed hallways, trying to locate the screaming person. The scream had long stopped by now, which made it a bit harder for Keiko to navigate, but not long after she had entered did she hear a second voice: "Why don't you pick on someone your own size, you bastard." It came from directly above her, on the third floor, only audible due to the small holes in the ceiling above her.

 

Keiko did an about turn and dashed for the stairs, climbing them in an instant as she turned to look down the corridor. There, a creature taken straight out of her imagination stood, towering over a fallen boy as its tentacles writhed and extended towards him. The smell of blood was overwhelming now, and Keiko didn't dare to look past the creature to see if there were corpses. Every inch of her was screaming at her to run, to keep the demons inside her imagination where they belonged, but Keiko gritted her teeth and took a step forward.

 

"Courage is not the absence of fear," she mumbled under her breath, bringing the Raigeki up to chest level, "but the triumph over it." Keiko broke into a quick dash, running straight at the tentacle man as she yelled at the top of her voice, raising her sword-

 

Something slashed her across the arm, and she collapsed backwards in surprise and shock, the adrenaline rushing through her mostly preventing her from feeling the pain of the wound. What happened? She was still a good three metres away from the creature... And that was when she saw the shadow. There was clearly nothing in front of her, and yet, the shadow projected on the ground betrayed the assailant's location.

 

An invisible attacker, and a tentacle monster. What a combination.

 

Climbing to her feet, Keiko jumped back as she brought the Raigeki up again, her imagination filling in the blanks where her eyes could not process. The invisible creature had already stepped away from the window, causing its shadow to disappear, but Keiko had watched enough anime and choreographed enough of her own fight scenes to see where this was going. She took a step forwards, lowering her bokken to her side. The creature will swing at my neck first- she ducked, feeling the swish of wind above her head. In the same motion, she brought the wooden sword up in a swing, feeling it connect hard with the assailant's body.

 

It's knocked to the side now, she thought as the imaginary figure of the creature slammed into the wall. It's going to roar in anger and come at me- Keiko jumped to the side, swinging her bokken down as she successfully struck it once more. This isn't good, I can't tell how much damage I'm doing. Is it recoiling in pain, or shrugging off my attack? Taking the safer option, she hopped back, only to barely avoid another of its scythe-like attacks, but this time it grazed her cheek, drawing a thin line of blood.

 

A gunshot rang through the air. Keiko turned to the staircase - there was another girl standing there, holding a rifle. More specifically, it seemed to be a M4 with an M203. Clearly she could see or sense where the creature was, or else she wouldn't know where to shoot at. Keiko's mind worked quickly, estimating the trajectory of the bullet as she dashed in and delivered another slash.

 

I'm doing it, Senpai. I'm fighting off the forces of evil, like you asked me to.

 

Are you proud of me, Senpai?

 

Where have you gone?

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Night gathers, and my watch begins. It will not end until my death.

 

Safe within the confines of her helmet, she chuckles darkly over the motorcycle’s engine. Of all the books I’d hate to be in, that one’s pretty high up on the list.

 

She revs the throttle a little, Geminus a comforting weight on her back. It makes her more – a little stronger, a little faster, a little sharper… and a hell of a lot meaner.

 

Still. It’s not much compared to whatever's waiting out there. She scrutinizes her surroundings, looking for unnatural movement but finding nothing.

 

“Without your dark-vision, I’d be dead three times over. Dead for real,†she murmurs. “Without me, well… you’d probably have found another by now. But thanks all the same.†Geminus hums in acknowledgement and gets a little lighter, a little easier to turn toward the enemy. It is ready for whatever comes next.

 

Is she?

 

She hopes so. The warlocks have been busy, no doubt. Licking their wounds, hatching new schemes, consolidating power…. She grips the throttle hard. So have I.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

I am the sword in the darkness; I am the watcher on the walls.

 

Mitsuba is quiet at night, the streets entirely deserted. The streetlamps, few and far between, struggle to push back encroaching shadows. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, I’m sure.

 

She feels the force of the wind against her second skin and shivers. The suit keeps the heat in, but… there. It’s faint but undeniably present, a feeling of wrongness about the world. And it’s coming from the old construction site.

 

Something happened there seventeen years ago, according to Lavalley-sensei. Something off the records. Something which the higher-ups, whoever they are, have expressly forbidden the Literature Club from investigating.

 

Whatever it is, it’s bad news, she thinks. But the demonic presence in the construction site is spreading – I’m a hundred meters away from the edge, thereabouts, and I can already feel it. Geminus can feel it too, shivering in a warning gesture.

 

Then someone screams loud and long, again and again.

 

I am the shield that guards the realms of man, she thinks, and goes full throttle.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

She reaches the gate and leaps off her mount – the gate is old, secured by a padlock and chain. Three silenced shots scorch paint and rend metal, and she’s in.

 

She sprints soundlessly into the building – the screams came from above. So does the demonic presence, now that she has time to focus. Second floor? Could be third. Now how do I–

 

There. Stairs, covered in a thin layer of dust. Nobody’s used them in years–

 

Footprints. Running shoes, from the look of it. Someone’s been here recently. I’m on the right track.

 

She takes a deep breath. It’s killing time, Geminus, she thinks, putting the barrel against her wrist. Hit me.

 

She feels the bullet in the chamber warping, changing its composition into a potent cocktail of adrenaline, stimulants and painkilling drugs. Geminus fires, and

 

the

 

world

 

slows

 

down.

 

Great, she thinks, looking around. Everything is crystal clear, and it feels like she’s moving through water instead of air. It worked.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

I’ve got about an hour before the effects wear off, she thinks. Number Two and Three in tow, she dashes up the stairs, trying to fight off the overwhelming feeling of confidence. She is so much faster now. She’s always been caught off guard in the past, forced to react to events that’re already irrelevant. But this time it’s different. This time, she can fight on par with them.

 

The presence grows stronger as she ascends. It seems stronger on the third floor than the second, but she gets off the stairs early all the same. The corridors are narrow, and there isn’t much light; she’ll be fighting up close. Geminus switches to fragmentation rounds.

 

Then she spots bloody footprints. Same tread as the ones on the stairs. They lead into an unlocked classroom, and she follows.

 

She takes in the scene instantly. Preserved body parts, dismembered children. No threat. A tiny part of her mind is hysterical, screaming, but the rest of her ignores it. She has work to do.

 

It’s on the third floor, she thinks, angry at the waste of time. Two whole seconds spent checking out this dead end. As she leaves, she de-limbs the lobotomized body with a few shots, just in case.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

As she reaches the third floor, she sees him. Warlock Six. The regenerating, teleporting, tentacled motherfucker. Barely fifty meters away, four kids lie unmoving at his feet as his tentacles extend, tearing chunks out of an unfortunate woman. The civilian collapses, shuddering, and he raises his sword – it’s different from that jagged monstrosity that killed Number Three; smaller, more ornate – for the killing blow.

 

Headshots didn’t work the last time – time to see what will. All three of her open fire. She goes for the blade; Number Two and Number Three go for the elbow and shoulder respectively.

 

Geminus whispers its song of death, and her projectiles cross the distance in a split-second. Each shot is a tight cluster of superheated silver fragments that tear through demonic barriers and flesh with equal ease, and the entire right half of the warlock’s torso melts under the hail of her combined fire. New flesh bursts forth from deep within his body a moment later, restoring him to full capacity, but she’s already accomplished her task.

 

The blade falls to the ground a short distance away, a shattered hand and upper arm still attached. The warlock teleports to it in an attempt to pick up his prize, but she nails him with another burst. You want it? Go fuck yourself.

 

The warlock flickers and disappears again, taking evasive action, but she knows his power. It’s limited in range, and the only place out of her sight he can reach is–

 

She fires through a pile of crates, and she can hear a wet ripping noise over the sound of splintering wood. His cover blown, the warlock teleports rapidly, ducking and juking, but she keeps her sights on him, tearing chunks of flesh from bone with each shot.

 

He roars in anger, a rumbling noise that she feels as much as hears. As the sound reverberates across the rooftop, the air around his body begins to warp and shimmer, and for a moment she sees

 

The veil is tearing, something is coming–

 

As she keeps firing, reality parts at the seams, and tentacles begin to spill from the wound in the world…

 

A thrall. That’s new. Examine physical form, then engage accordingly.

 

Something steps onto the rooftop, heedless of the hurt she’s laying on it. A giant man, hunched over yet eight feet tall, grey-skinned and faceless. As she shreds it with gunfire, its skin shudders and flows, countless tentacles writhing and pushing past each other to maintain its overall shape. It extends a rapidly-growing arm toward Number Three, and she ducks just in time to avoid a sideways sweep that would’ve taken her head off. Two more thralls follow, and she bites back an obscenity.

 

Three thralls? With regeneration and reach? I’m starting to hate this guy more and more.

 

The first thrall hunkers down in the face of her fire and takes a step toward her. Then, against all logic and reason, it turns aside and lumbers away with surprising speed, followed closely by the other two.

 

Too good to be true. A distraction? Flanking maneuver? Whatever it is, I can’t let it go unchecked. Number Three gets up and follows the grey figure, still hosing it with bullets, and she turns her attention back to–

 

Shit. SHIT. The warlock is nowhere to be seen. Where did he… a flicker in the corner of Number Two’s eye. Ohgodno–

 

She experiences a brief moment of confused agony before Number Two falls, twitching, to the ground. The warlock grins, licking her blood off his tentacles; then he looks her in the eye and starts advancing.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Fuck, she thinks, resignation setting in. So this is how it ends. Number Three is already disengaging from the thralls, running back up from the second floor, but she’s out of time. Through her eyes, she sees civilians tangling with the tentacled monstrosities, but can’t afford to help.

 

The warlock flickers and disappears from her view, and she knows how this will end.

 

She tries, anyway. Spins on her heel, slamming the stock into his face as he reappears behind her. His skull caves in, eyeballs rupturing with a wet ‘pop’, and she dives out of the way of half a dozen blindly flailing tentacles.

 

More bullets tear into his face, keeping him blind, and maybe, just maybe, I have a chance…

 

He turns away and bends down, shielding his head from her barrage. You bastard. Number Three rounds a corner and begins shooting as well, but they’re both firing from the same angle and she can’t get at his front...

 

As she moves around to flank him, the warlock straightens up slowly, regeneration already done. He turns, holding his arm in front of his face, and freezes. Looking at something.

 

She follows his gaze, and sees the injured civilian crawling toward the fallen blade. She sees the civilian's face now. He, not she – is long-haired boy about her age. Eyes screwed shut in pain, he inches closer toward the sword…

 

A screech of rage pierces the air, and the warlock is gone. Teleporting faster and further than before, he covers the fifty meters in an eyeblink, reaching out for the youth as his fingers close around the grip –

 

The blade draws a silver arc in the moonlight, and limbs hit the ground with a wet plop. Without opening his eyes, the youth grabs the warlock and executes a perfect judo throw, swinging him overhead and slamming him into the ground. The sword stabs down, pinning the struggling warlock to the concrete, and the youth leans in close. Avoiding the mangled tentacles reaching out for him, he says something she cannot hear. Then he steps away, hands wide in a gesture: this one’s all yours to finish off.

 

He is right.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

A short amount of time later, several of her hypotheses are proven true. Warlock Six’s regeneration does come from a core buried deep within his chest. He really does bleed acid strong enough to eat through concrete. And the core does make a very satisfying noise when she pops it with a bullet.

 

The four children lie in puddles of their own blood, and she crouches down to inspect them. No pulse. She closes her eyes slowly, filing the memory away in some dark corner of her mind.

 

“Thanks for the help,†she says when it’s all over, standing up and extending a hand to her benefactor. “You are?â€

 

“R-Raiha. Raiha Mori,†the long-haired youth says, swaying on his feet as he shakes her hand. In spite of the gaping wound in his belly, he seems to be doing just fine…

 

Then his legs give way, and he collapses in slow motion. An expression of mild surprise on his face, as if he has no idea why this is happening. Number Three notices the ornate sword fade away as Raiha loses consciousness.

 

“Shit!†She dashes forward, catching him before he can dash his brains out against the floor. Something tears within him, and suddenly there’s blood everywhere–

 

This is bad.

 

She fumbles at her belt pouch for a first aid kit, clumsily bandaging his wounds with Number Three’s help. As she and Number Three head for the stairs, carrying his unconscious body between them, she sends a telepathic message to Lavalley-sensei:

 

<Sensei, Warlock Six is dead. A civilian just attuned to a Reaper, but he’s hurt bad. Real bad. What do I do now?>

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I was fading again. I couldn’t hold my focus; bits and pieces of me kept passing out. I remembered my eyes were the last thing to go - everything was red and swirling when last I saw the world through them. It drove me dizzy, like one of those times I got really nauseous from motion sickness, but I didn’t throw up this time - everything I could have possibly vomited had been shown their way out through the cut on my stomach. I remembered myself crawling toward something, drawn toward its warmth like a moth to the flame. In the center of my mind, I could see vision of the world falling apart around me, reality tearing at the seams until all that was left was a feminine figure veiled behind a thick, radiant blanket of golden light, floating against a pitch black background.

“What doeth thy flickering portend,†her voice shattered the silence of the grave.

 

And something engulfed me.

 

It was like being bathed within hot spring water, a baptism of life. Sensations and warmth returned to my limbs and body, and at first I felt like a frog being hit by lightning because holy crap it hurt like hell, but something else, something infinitely nicer, stepped up to take away the agony. The pain lost its edge faster than I could mentally utter a “wowâ€.

 

I thought this was some kind of painkillers or sleeping drugs at first. I took those a lot when I was younger, when the pain from being hit by the old man got too overwhelming to bear or sleep through. But this one didn’t dull the mind. My head was once again placed in charge. New thoughts flooded my neural network. Old memories resurfaced as if I had literally experienced them just seconds ago. I could remember my mother’s face, the few strands of white hair on her head, the color of her irises, the sound of her laughter before the vile sickness took her, something which I had never been able to do following her death. It felt like not just my body, but my brain was firing on all cylinders again.

 

I tried to open my eyes, but some primal instinct within me advised against that course of action. Something about ‘physical sensory inputs would just simply generate extra burden". Instead, it told me to close my eyes so I could see.

 

There, a ripple in space. Doc Ock’s slimy tentacles flung themselves at me and prepared to tear my body apart. Not this time, asshole. I kicked at the ground to get myself into a crouching stance, then swept the blade I was holding in a horizontal arc, removing both of his legs.

 

I heard the almost musical sound as his thighs opened up two welters of gore. He pulled away – I just somehow knew he did without looking – and made this wintry, whistling sound. Screw that noise. I reached out and slammed his body, using my right shoulder as a fulcrum, into the ground. My blade dug itself into his flesh like an anchor, stopping him from using the parlor trick he was going to use to disappear again. The ambiance thrummed with power dissipated into it. I gripped the handle and readied myself for one final cut, splitting his body into half.

 

“It would be most prudent of thee, my knight, not to slay him thyself,†the lady in my head spoke to me.

 

“This creature murdered and mutilated all those children back there in cold blood. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill him and throw his remains into the mixer over there,†I answered in a snarling growl. My voice came out strange, echoing, cold.

 

“Thou would simply play into His hands,†she replied, calmly.

 

“I truly doubt this thing is orchestrating its own demise.â€

 

She let out a chuckle as clear as a chime. “Heed my words. Step back and let the wielder of Geminus claim this prize. 'Tis a reward given to her for delivering thee unto me.â€

 

Somehow I had the inexplicable mental image of this bastard being left to burn forever in hellfire, screaming and begging for an end to his suffering that would never come. It pleased me greatly.

 

So we stooped down, bringing our face as close as we could to his, still with our eyes shut, dodging a few desperate tentacles flying toward us with nary an effort.

 

“Blood for the Blood God, you said?†we whispered to him. “Well then, he could have yours.â€

 

Then we...I stood up and contemplated the sound of the continuous salvo until something got shattered, and Doc Ock’s presence was nothing more than a lingering vapor trail in the air.

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The reply is surprisingly prompt. <Take him to my place, Imahara-san>, Lavalley-sensei replies.  <He might hurt someone if we bring him to the hospital. I’m out of the house, and Erin might be home late. Still, you know where the medical supplies are.>

 

<Got it. Misa, out.>

 

She crouches down, hooking her arms under Raiha’s shoulders, and starts dragging him toward the stairs. Sorry, she thinks. But the Reaper might be hostile when you wake.

 

Number Three helps her carry him down the countless flights of stairs. They try to keep him steady, but Number Three loses her balance for a moment, almost dropping him in the process. Raiha stirs and lets out a groan of pain, and the sound cuts her like a knife.

 

“Shit. Are you okay?†She asks, and immediately realizes the futility of her question. Of course he’s not okay, he’s just been gutted by a warlock. Another agonized groan; fresh blood stains the bandages and begins dripping down to the concrete. His time is running out – fast. The bike is our only hope, but he’ll have to hold on…

 

They stagger off the stairs and onto the ground floor, and she lets out a sound of utter disbelief as Geminus whips up another shot of stimulants. Why–

 

Then it becomes clear. It’s not for me, is it?

 

“Oh, god. I can’t believe I’m about to do this,†she says, as she points the barrel at Raiha’s heart. “If you can hear me, I am so sorry.â€

 

She pulls the trigger.

 

He remains motionless for three horrible seconds, then takes in a sharp breath. His eyes snap open, unfocused and slightly vacant, and he opens his mouth.

 

She is faster. “You’re a dead man walking, Raiha,†she says. “But we can change that. Here’s what I need you to do…â€

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

She rides in silence, Raiha close against her back. Number Two (just resummoned) and Number Three bound the both of them together with his jacket, but they only make it a hundred meters before the knot comes loose. He lurches dangerously to one side, and grabs desperately at her to maintain his balance.

 

We’re not going to make it, at this rate.

 

“Hey, I need you to hold on tight. Got it?†She says. He nods, and wraps his arms around her waist.

 

She ramps up the speed, heading for the Lafayette residence. Five or six minutes more, she thinks. Why did they build Mitsuba No. 2 so far from anywhere important?

 

“Oh, hell,†Raiha groans from over her shoulder. “It hurts… so much.â€

 

Already? I’m still drugged to the gills; it’s been two minutes since I dosed him. “Listen to me. You’re going to be just fine.â€

 

“You said… dead man walking. Please, I don’t want to die–†He coughs wetly, and starts to shake. Pain? Tears? Both, probably.

 

“Hey,†she says as gently as she can. “That was just to get you moving. We’ll get you out of this, I promise. Just… just hold on tight, all right?â€

 

He does.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

She slows into the next turn instead of leaning, accelerating down the straight. They’re not far now; she recognizes this part of town.

 

But he’s fading. The warmth on her back is ebbing away, moment by moment, and she can feel his grip weakening. We’re so close. He has to hold on.

 

“Tired…†he slurs. “I… think I’ll sleep now. Akiha, big brother is no good… after all. I’m sorry…â€

 

No, no, nonono–

 

“Don’t you fucking die on me now,†she snaps, channeling her desperation into furious determination. “I’ve dragged your sorry ass all the way here, you can hold out just a few more minutes. What– what would Akiha think if she knew her big brother was the kind of guy to collapse after just this?†She fights to keep her voice from shaking.

 

It’s not fair! She screams internally. He’s the only thing I could save from – the butchered children appear in her mind’s eye, and she finds herself fighting back tears – from that place, and you’re taking him away from me too?

 

No. No.

 

NEVER AGAIN. Anger rises up within her. Cold, dark, bitter.

 

Then the grip on her waist tightens fractionally, and anger is replaced by hope.

 

She keeps talking, trying to stave off the inevitable. “We’re almost there now, Raiha. Lavalley’s house is just up ahead, and he and his daughter have patched me up more times than I can count. You’re going to make it. Please.â€

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

He makes it.

 

Relief floods through her as the Lafayette residence comes into view. She shoots the lock off the gate from thirty meters out, then pulls up outside. 

 

“You can let go now, Raiha,†she murmurs. “You’re going to be all right.â€

 

He complies, and Number Two materializes on the other side of the bike as she dismounts. Together, they lift the barely-conscious Raiha off the passenger seat.

 

As Number Three parks the bike in Lavalley’s garage, she and Number Two help Raiha inside. A first-aid box in the spare room contains salve and fresh bandages, and she lays him down on the futon before tending to his wounds.

 

Raiha lets out another pained groan, but this time she almost welcomes the sound. He’s alive. The salve will keep him stable until Erin or Lavalley get back, and they’ll be able to heal him for sure.

 

As Number Two and Number Three take watch on the rooftop, she feels the strength leaving her limbs. I’m tired. So tired. That corner looks comfortable, she thinks blearily, staggering over and curling up against the wall. Maybe I’ll just take a short–

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Blood on her arm. Her cheek. Her side. The wounds from Keiko's battle with the invisible creature only continued to stack up, while she had no way of determining if she was winning the fight. All she could rely on was the angle at which her unrecognised helper was firing at, and the feeling of the Raigeki striking the creature on every swing. Keiko was already beginning to regret not bringing a real weapon, although part of her questioned herself where she would get a weapon like that in the first place. On top of all her injuries, however, was the incessant pounding in her head that only seemed to get worse the longer she fought.

 

She could only hope that it wasn't some kind of sinister psychic attack by her assailant.

 

One particular wave of pain wracked her mind, and she faltered for a moment. This was more than enough for the creature, however, and it pounced upon Keiko with a feral rage, knocking her to the ground. It was a strange experience, being pushed over by something you could feel but not see, smell or hear. Visions of her life flashed before her eyes as her head hit the concrete floor. Is this how I die? Keiko asked herself. It's not too bad a way to go, fighting the forces of evil. Still, I wish I could have seen his face one last time...

 

There was a flash of light above her, barely stopping before they struck her body. Something heavy was lifted off from her body, rolling off to the left. A hazy figure stepped over her, calling out her name. Is that you, Senpai?

 

The figure slowly came into focus as the buzzing in Keiko's head died down just a little, revealing the face of her grandfather. He was crouching down next to her now, a strange contraption laid to rest at his feet as he lifted her head up in his arms. "Can you hear me, Keiko? Are you alright?" came his reassuring voice, and it took all of her remaining strength to nod. "Alright, we're getting out of here. Can you stand?"

 

It turned out that Keiko could stand, with some support. Her grandfather picked up the contraption, and with a strange flurry of movement, it unfolded itself into a long rod, which he used to support the both of them as they hobbled together, out of the construction site.

 

They passed by the mangled corpses of two other Thralls on their way out.

 

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Keiko had been lapsing in and out of consciousness the whole way home. Visions of strange, non-Euclidean creatures danced around in her vision every time she closed her eyes, and she felt strangely weightless, as though something was beckoning her to simply just float off and stop thinking about everything. But each time she was on the brink, her grandfather's voice would bring her back into reality, to see his concerned face looking at her.

 

"... sorry... couldn't get there in time..." Words seemed to be coming out from his mouth, but she could only hear a part of them.

 

After a while, there was another familiar voice. Was that her grandmother? Keiko strained to hear what she was saying, but everything was so blurry, like they were speaking underwater. She felt herself being lowered into a lying position, and then-

 

Chanting. A circle of Warlocks, standing around Shichiro's corpse. Lower-class demons flooding the streets. Ascended demons interpose among them, leading them onwards. Ryuunosuke gets ripped in half, his bow falling to the ground next to him. Frost forms over the demons; Takumi swings the spear wide. "Run!" He screams. Everything is ice. The world is frozen. But an Ascended demon gets through, and snaps Takumi like a twig. More running, more crying. The city is on fire-

 

Keiko sat up with a gasp, her entire body covered in cold sweat. Cold metal rested in her palm, and she looked down to see herself grasping the hilt of an azure blade, a very familiar-looking sword... Her memories flashed back to the ornamental weapon that had always been hanging on top of the kitchen. Next to her, both of her grandparents hurriedly reached out for her, feeling for her head as though she had been suffering from some sort of high fever. "Are you feeling alright?" Yasu Mitsuya, her grandfather, asked with utmost concern.

 

"I... I think so..." She replied, her mind still reeling from the strangely vivid dream she had. Had the whole fight with the invisible creature been a dream too? "Why... why am I holding this?" Having a thousand and one questions, Keiko settled on this one, holding up the blue blade as she showed it to her grandparents. The two of them looked at one another, nodded, and turned to her.

 

"That," Yasu explained, "is the Demon Reaper Blumenkranz."

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Erin had taken the bus home. She'd usually be loath to waste precious ramen money so wastefully -- with her Demon Reaper's help, she could usually run the five kilometer route back home in half an hour without breaking a sweat -- but her arms and legs were still throbbing painfully, and though the gashes on her leg had closed up, there were still several bright red welts where the Thrall's teeth has rent her thigh. That damned thing cut me nearly to the bone. Sped-up healing or not, this is gonna ache for days.

 

When she reached the Lafayette residence, a large traditional-style home once owned by a late Yakuza kingpin, she noticed that the gate was ajar. Now that's kinda unusual. Father won't be this sloppy. Then, she noticed the shards of metal lying on the ground -- the lock had been shot out. The wards Father put up still seem to be holding, so whoever it is must be a trusted figure... Ah, damn it, Imahara. What is it this time?

 

Then, she noticed the speckles of blood on the floor, and a pang of worry shot through her. She rushed in, not even bothering to take her shoes off, and slammed the spare room's door open. 

 

Immediately, she found a rifle barrel pressed into her face.

 

"Wow, wow. Take a chill pill, Imahara, it's just me," she managed, giving the cold-eyed, if rather sleepy-looking girl her best disarming smile.

 

Misa flicked off the safety catch of her rifle.

 

Erin sighed, and Eternal Blaze dropped into her hands with a soft hiss. "There, you happy now?" She drawled.

 

Finally, the older girl lowered her rifle with a nod, and yawning slightly, gestured for her to come in. "Need your help. Again." 

 

"Then maybe you shouldn't honor my arrival with a friendly one-gun salute, then," Erin muttered, letting her Reaper fade away into mist.

 

"Since I need your help, a doppelgänger would most likely take your form to get me to lower my guard," Misa stated simply as she dropped her rifle to low-port. Never change, Imahara.

 

"Can't argue with that," Erin muttered as she finally remembered to remove her shoes. "What is it, you broke a nail?" She joked.

 

Misa shook her head, pointing to the form lying motionless on the futon in the room. "Civilian. He just bonded with an unknown Reaper but he's hurt real bad. Internal bleeding mostly. Hurry, Erin-san," she said, a note of pleading in her voice. 

 

Erin glanced at her patient, an older-looking boy with long black hair. His face was deathly pale and his breathing was shallow -- unbidden, she thought how easy it would be to break his neck, and she bit her lip, putting it to the back of her mind. God damn it, brain. Damn, just when I thought I could get some shut-eye. I'm gonna regret doing this the morning after. "Fine," she sighed in resignation. "I'll patch up pretty-boy here. Just don't get the wrong idea, okay? I'm not doing this because I like you."

 

"A Tsundere act? Honestly," Misa almost smiled for a moment, though her eyes remained locked upon the door -- and just then, the hairs on the back of Erin's neck prickled as she sensed the presence of the older girl's two slightly creepy familiars as they stood guard outside, positioned strategically on the rooftop to cover every line of fire. She must have seen me coming as soon as I stepped off the bus.

 

"What tsundere act? I'm doing this because you fucking scare me," Erin muttered as her hands started glowing faintly with soft golden light. "Lay on Hands." she murmured as she touched the injured boy, feeling her strength ebb further as her power coursed outwards, seeking out and mending the boy's myriad wounds.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

"Finally awake, huh," Erin said, stifling a yawn and rubbing her eyes. With the eye bags, the sallow complexion and the slight trembling of her hands, one would have thought she'd been awake for a couple of days already. Misa, who didn’t share the same augmented vitality Erin had, had fallen asleep again, curled up in the corner like a cat, though Erin was still distantly aware of the two doppelgangers perched upon the roof, watching over the house's exterior like unnecessarily creepy guardian angels. "So, how're you feeling, Raiha Mori?"

 

"Where am I?" the long-haired boy murmured in a daze, struggling to sit up -- only to find Erin's hand pushing him back down as she shushed him.

 

"You shouldn't move. Your wounds might reopen." She said simply.

 

He did so at first. "The child, is she alright?"

 

“I’m sorry. None of them made it.â€

 

The boy’s eyes swivelled frantically to her, and with one hand, he tried to push himself upright -- only to collapse back onto the futon, clutching the side of his chest and wincing in pain. 

 

"Told you," Erin muttered, putting a hand to his chest again and pushing a trickle of power into him. "You'll be lucky if you can stand up tomorrow, much less do any of those things. If you hadn't bonded with that Reaper, you'd be dead -- and it was a pretty close call regardless. That Warlock messed you up good."

 

"I’m…afraid I don’t follow. Reaper? Warlock?" he managed weakly. 

 

"Great, a Muggle." Erin sighed with a little exasperation as she sat down cross-legged beside him. "Let's take this from the beginning, then. It's 3 in the morning and you're in the guest room of Lavalley-sensei's home. You're the only one my, uh, associate,†she pointed at Misa, who was mumbling something about a sale on KA-BAR knives in her sleep, “-managed to bring back from the school alive." 

 

Raiha reached a hand to his head, and a look of horror spread across his face. "All... they're all dead.  The thing that did this... that's the Warlock you're talking about, right?"

 

"Yes... and thanks to whatever the two of you did back there, he's dead, much to the relief of parents everywhere. That man, or thing, as you say, was a Warlock, one who sells their soul to a Demon to gain their powers. I don't know what he was up to, chopping up all those kids, but whatever it is, it's safe to say you put a stop to it tonight."

 

"A Demon," Raiha said, mulling over the word. "Do they happen to be, by any chance, "skin walkers and shapeshifters", with fancy "eyes" in the sky and whatnot?" Feebly, he raised his hands into the air to make air quotes.

 

"No, not really," Erin said dismissively. "Sure, Warlocks as far gone as that one was will cast glamour on themselves to blend into society, but they're human. Or were once human. I can't imagine how you'd come to that assumption."

 

"Oh, thank goodness," Raiha muttered, sighing. "For a moment, I was worried he was actually right."

 

"... Okay, moving on," Erin nodded hesitantly and continued,†Yeah, so you asked about Demons. They're all bad news; as far as we know, they are without number, and each one of them is an ancient, immortal creature with power beyond compare. Despite us humans knowing of them -- and hunting them -- for thousands of years, if I had a one-yen coin for every Demon that's been permanently killed until now, I'd be halfway to being able to buy myself a can of soda, give or take."

 

He mulled over the piece of information. "If they're truly that powerful, I cannot help but feel surprised that they aren't on national news." Raiha replied. "So what's the deal? Government covered everything up for fear of widespread panic?"

 

"Well, Demons don't exist... not in the conventional sense, at least. They aren't creatures of this world -- it might be more accurate to say they could exist." Erin said, crossing her arms. "They can't cross over to our world, but we feel the tendrils of their influence in the form of Warlocks and the demon-spawned creatures they control; the aim of said Warlocks is to spread their Demon masters' influence, to create an environment where these Demons can successfully cross over. Unluckily for you and everyone else caught in this mess, Tokyo and the neighboring towns just happen to be the perfect place to make that happen, because the area's what we call a Hellmouth."

 

"Let me guess. It leads to where the Demons come from, and they pop out of it." Raiha said.

 

"That's pretty much it. Thank goodness for self-explanatory names -- imagine if they called it, like, an Ethereal Horizon or Dimensional Schism or some other complicated name eighth-graders would doodle on the margins of their textbooks. Magically speaking, the Tokyo metropolitan area is like an acne-ridden buttcheek. Just as said buttcheek is easily inflamed, reality itself is fragile and easily damaged here. Because of that, the area's covered in a whole bunch of hot-spots of Demonic influence, like pimples on said buttcheek. If you don't do anything about them, weird, nasty shit starts leaking out. So, if the pimple gets too bad, it leaves a scar, no? Same thing with a Demon -- if one crosses over, they distort reality with their very presence -- even after you kill them, the scars they leave on the world never quite fade away. Mitsuba No.2 High School, I believe, is the site of such a scar.

 

"And as to why you haven't heard any of this? Well, you can't just go showing your acne-ridden butt to the world, can you? It's not something to be proud of." Erin finished with a grin, seemingly very satisfied with her analogy.

 

Suddenly, Raiha started guffawing, and went on for a good few seconds, long enough for Erin to seriously worry that he might tear something again. "That... that must have been the worst analogy I heard since... yesterday morning, actually. Still, I get your drift." He gasped, with tears in his eyes. "I take it that this Reaper you mentioned is the sword I found there, then."

 

"Indeed it is," Erin said with a nod. "A normal weapon wouldn't be able to do as much harm to the Warlock as what my associate described, after all. Demon Reapers are our weapons against these Warlocks and Demons. They grant us the strength and the abilities we need to go toe-to-toe with them -- but at a price. They seem to choose their owners in a way -- while this synchronization can last a lifetime, these weapons almost always choose the young." She sighed, looking pensive for a moment. "It's a great burden to bear... but in a way, it makes me happy to know we're not wasting our lives doing this. That we're making a difference."

 

"Perhaps that's why they choose you, then?" Raiha said. "After all, only the young think they can change the world for the better."

 

"Now that's pretty deep. Looks like I was wrong about you; you're not an idiot after all. At the very least you're a philosophical idiot." Erin said with a grin, eliciting a silent, pained stare from Raiha in return. "Anyway, it's late, and I really shouldn't be bothering you any longer." She stood up, heading for the door and flicking off the light switch. "Good night, Raiha Mori-"

 

"Wait." 

 

Erin turned around, one eyebrow raised in curiosity, and Raiha continued, "Actually, I was wondering how you know my name. In fact, you looked pretty familiar, too... you're one of Akiha's friends from middle school, right?"

 

"Oh, Akiha?" Erin replied with a slight nod of acknowledgement. "Yeah, we've known each other since eighth grade. She speaks pretty highly of you."

 

"Yeah, I figured as much. But that's not really who you are, right?" Raiha pressed on, and this time she noticed his right eye was looking oddly blood-red, and not in the bloodshot way, either. It reminded her disturbingly of the Thrall she’d killed just hours before. "What are you?"

 

"About time you asked", her eyes seemingly glowing faintly in the gloom as she turned to regard Raiha. Then, a cloud of bluish-white mist emerged from her left hand, flowing in rivulets and lengthening before it coalesced into the shape of a naginata, its silvery blade glimmering in the moonlight that filtered through the windows.

 

"I am Erin Lafayette, adoptive daughter and protege of the Demon hunter Giles Lavalley. I am the wielder of the Demon Reaper Eternal Blaze and heir to its legacy. I find the things that man is not meant to know...and I kill them."

TO BE CONTINUED

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Raiha did not wake up for a while.

 

He had the distinct awareness that he was hallucinating the entire surrounding, his mind quickly putting together the landscape like a stagehand building a set. Clearly, his austere lifestyle for the last two years had left a rather lasting impact on his psyche, for the room brought into being by his imagination was rather minimalist. It was black all over, with two chairs facing each other, one of them occupied, both illuminated by a single rather theatrical pillar of light.
 

He walked into the light and thought about how he must be missing out on some kind of symbolic meaning behind the act.

 

The lady of light sat in one chair, her angelic feature and flowing blonde hair no longer obscured by the blindingly brilliant aura. She was wearing a blue dress, the same kind of regalia most queens and princesses in medieval fantasy shows are often dressed in. A charming smile spread across her gorgeous face when he came into view, her coltish legs crossed, all graceful curves and poised reserve. She didn’t seem a day past 20.

 

Raiha looked down. A pearl-white set of armor now adorned his body: plate for the torso, vambraces for the arms, greaves for the legs, gorget for the neck, a blue emblazoned cape draping around his left arm and shoulder, reaching down to the scabbard below where the sword he had used from earlier was sheathed within.

 

“My knight, it's good to see you have come to at long last,†her blue eyes flickered over his new form, glinting a hint of approval.

 

The first thing Raiha noticed was that her usage of archaic speech seemed to have mysteriously vanished overnight, replaced by a modern Kamigata dialect strikingly similar to his Kyoto accent.

 

“Am I dreaming?†he asked before taking a chair for himself. It was made of lacquered wood and gave away a faint scent of varnish.

 

“Not entirely,†she answered. “But you are welcome to think of this as such. A meeting of the minds, in a way.â€

 

He sighed. “All that talk about demons, warlocks, reapers, and now I’m conversing with a person in my head. You know, any sane person would have gone straight to the therapist at this point.â€

 

She let out a laugh. “Unlikely to happen or work. A sane man would never require the aid of this therapist you spoke of, while an insane man would simply think of himself as sane. And even then, wouldn’t that be the very pinnacle of folly? To expect an outsider to puzzle out the intrigues of one’s own mind when even its owner couldn’t?â€

 

Raiha thought about it for a moment, then shrugged resignedly. “I reckon there’s some sense in what you are saying. Thanks, by the way, for saving me back then.â€

 

“Think nothing of it, my knight. I offered little assistance in making our current conversation a reality. It was Geminus wielder who brought you here on the brink of death, and the Erin girl who stayed up all night to deny the grim reaper his rightful prize.â€

 

The memories of last night came back to him. The slaughtered children, the monster that came straight out of H.P Lovecraft’s wetdream, his brush with death, a girl’s furious rebukes and gentle encouragements as she dragged what was left of him back to this residence, Erin’s sunken eyes as she mended back his flesh and bones.

 

The Reaper.

 

Raiha brought the weapon at his side up and examined it. It was a western greatsword, lighter than anything of its size had any right to be. Its grip was made from master-crafted obsidian stone, while the polished silver blade, inscribed with cuneiform writing from tip to handle, gave off a lambent light that shook the air with its magnificence. Sharp and solid, protecting and proud. He felt anxious, yet stronger, holding the blade in his hands.

 

“This is a wonderful blade,†he said.

 

“It is most kind of you to say that.â€

 

He looked at the sword and then at her, his eyebrows knitting together. “Pardon my bluntness, but may I know what is the connection between you and the blade? A custodian tasked with delivering the reaper to the right individual? The will of the forger instilled within the blade? The trapped soul of the previous owner, waiting to be replaced by the person next in line?â€

 

Her mouth twitched, first into a thin line and then a smile. “Good guesses, but they are all a little off the mark.†She stood up and closed the distance between them, and he noticed that she smelled of sunflowers during lazy summer afternoons. His heart lurched a little in his chest when she brought her face close enough to focus on his face and eyes, her hands resting on his, her own expression gentle and mischievous. “You see, my knight, I am the blade itself.â€

 

He looked away and said in an embarrassed tone. “Geez, at least now I know how did you stun that warlock into not killing me.†His expression eased up for a moment, but hardened again. “Which means that you now have some explaining to do. After all, I claimed you, a Reaper made to deal with demons, from the hands of the very creature you were forged to destroy.â€

 

“A weapon, no matter how powerful, is still a tool in the end,†she answered, her face saddened. “We do not get to choose who wield us and for what purpose, only bowing to those we deem worthy our power. Know this, my knight. Had I given in to the warlock’s demand and lent it my strength, neither you nor Geminus wielder would have lived to see dawn.â€

 

His rising ire abruptly quieted. “Then…why was he using you?â€

 

She pressed her lips together. “Warlocks are lone wolves by nature. Each has its own agenda and allegiance, much like human. The defiled one wished to employ a Reaper against its kins, thinking that doing so would make it a god amongst its kind. I denied the creature its desire until you came along. But not for the lack of trying on its part.â€

 

Raiha mulled over this piece of information. “The children…†he muttered, comprehension dawning.

 

The lady bowed her head solemnly. “It thought bathing me in the blood of the innocents would taint my power and purpose. Such was all for naught, a twisted fantasy conjured by a creature long gone to shadow. A being of light could only be corrupted should it wishes for such fate to come true. Still…my effort alone was insufficient to hold off their deaths.â€

 

He stared at her expression for a long minute. “Your previous owner, was he killed by the same Warlock?â€

 

She shook her head.

 

“You are the first person to truly wield me. Ever since the day of my manifestation seventeen years ago, I have been buried within the ground of the construction site, the place now known as Mitsuba Number Two High School. In absolute silence and darkness, I lay in wait for my owner until recently, when the Warlock found traces of me with the help of a dark scrying ritual. The rest of this story, I believe you could fill in yourself.â€

 

He glanced at the sword, and at the long, metallic cross-shaped guard. Perhaps it was his imagination, but Raiha thought he could see specks of red splattered on the blade. Probably rust, he reasoned. Yeah, a blade made of otherworldly metal could definitely corrode given the right kind of condition.

 

Like a bathtub full of blood.

 

Think happy thoughts, Raiha.

 

“And now you want me to wield you in the war against these warlocks and demons?†asked Raiha.

 

“That would be correct, my knight. If not for an altruistic reason, then a selfish cause. After all, you are doing it for yourself first and foremost,†she answered.

 

This elicited a raised eyebrow from him.

 

“The conflict between Reapers and Demons is one that has been waged since time immemorial according to Erin. And despite my existence being so much shorter than that, I could tell you for certain that despite massive casualties, our side has never once lost in a war. Have you an idea why?â€

 

“I don’t suppose it’s an optimistic sentiment?†he suggested lamely.

 

She shook her head again. “Because the instant a single Demon emerges victorious, it will be the end of the world. And as of this moment, you could see the apocalypse from where we are standing.â€

 

--

 

Raiha woke up in comfort.

 

It was dawn o’clock outside the window. He was laying on a soft futon, nothing like the hard, back-breaking mattress that he had at home. Expensive too, judging by the silky smooth texture of its surface material. The bed linen and covering were all perfect white saved for the dark patches where he had bled out into overnight. It felt unbelievably warm and cozy sandwiched between the layers, as if he had died and gone to heaven. Though after looking around, Raiha was pretty sure Heaven didn’t have Japanese-style ceiling lights and tatami mats flooring.

 

The fire in his abdomen had died out somewhat, and his thoughts had been mostly scooped out of the murky tar pit they were submerged in. His limbs felt like they were someone else’s, distant and detached, while his eyes felt like a colony of ants had made their nest inside. He had seen pin cusions with less pins and needles sticking out of them than his eyeballs right now.

 

Being an inch from death is really tough on a guy.

 

Something caught his attention then. From the edge of his peripheral vision, he could see a silhouette huddling in the corner of the room. Now this being Japan and him being recently exposed to enough horror fuel to solve the global energy crisis, Raiha’s first thought was that of an onryo like the one from The Grudge coming for his life. Instant focus. He was perhaps half a second away from shrieking like a terrified school girl before enough of his wits gathered to tell him that it was, in fact, a woman sound asleep.

 

She was probably too young to drink, and her face was without a hint of make up. Pale skin, same color as the inner bark of an oak, the living part of the tree, with hair as dark as storm cloud forming side-swept bangs that covered one of her eyes. The girl was hugging her knees with her eyes closed, a girlish pink-white Hello Kitty blanket draped over her body for keeping warmth. Raiha thought something about her seemed rather familiar.

 

Wait a second…Imahara-san? She’s the wielder of Geminus?

 

He crept closer. It was her, the girl who stormed off at the end of the class. She resembled his sister Akiha in build, lithe and of average height, though the dark leather suit stained with dark patches of encrusted blood gave her a completely different vibe. A predator, not a prey.

 

Still, looking at her huddled form propped up against the corner, he couldn’t help but think of Misa as being so small and vulnerable. He wondered what would her parents think if they knew their precious child was out everynight, risking life and limbs to fight off eldritch abominations that could shatter reality with just a thought. He wondered what he would think if it was him in their shoes, and Akiha in hers. Erin, too. Perhaps he was old-fashioned or just a simple chauvinistic pig, but Raiha didn’t think it was right for these girls to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders, burning themselves like a torch just so the fire of humanity could shine on for a while longer.

 

She stirred a little in her sleep, mumbling something about KA-BAR knives and JDAM mininukes.

 

Raiha smiled and gingerly put his hand on her head for a brotherly pat. “Thank you, for saving my life,†he murmured. “I hope I will get to repay this debt someday.â€

 

Then he stood up and walked away.

 

--

 

The weather was cool and breezy in the early morning. Raiha passed a few joggers and Tai Chi practitioners along the way home, but all of them seemed to steer clear of him for some reason. It was probably the bandages all over his body and the blood-soaked uniform. Failing that, then the fact that he was talking to himself.

 

 â€œYou know, lady, there’s actually one last question I forgot to ask you.â€

 

“Hmm, and what might that be?†she answered in a mewling tone.

 

“Imahara-san has a Reaper called Geminus, while Erin uses Eternal Blaze. I assume you have a name as well?â€

 

There was a moment of silence.

 

“I…am uncertain of my name, sir knight. Most Reapers come with their own names, but it has been far too long since I get to use mine. Perhaps you could give me a different one?â€

 

Raiha looked pensive. “Well, since you are a blade and a lady, how about Blady?â€

 

She let out a laugh that went on for far too long for comfort. “My knight, perhaps while wits and skills are your forte, evidently creativity isn’t one. Names are supposed to strike fear into the hearts of your foes and light fire in the minds of your friends. Imagine the Warlocks scampering away in fright because someone told them ‘watch out, here comes Blady dude.’ I would suggest something more apropos to our stature.â€

 

“It’s gotta be something suitable, you say. Then how about Stabby McSlashy?†Raiha’s eyes darted back and forth, chasing the non-existent spark of creativity behind them.

 

“That is…much worse,†she said.

 

“Aaw, shucks,†answered Raiha, downtrodden.

The walk continued rather lively. Every time Raiha came up with something he thought was cool, the lady would turn it down, often in an exasperated, why-am-I-stuck-with-this-idiot voice. It did get him a bit down at first, but after a while, Raiha started to realize what got on her nerves was not the chuuni level of his naming sense, but rather how obvious it was. So he thought long and hard about it, about his first time wielding the blade, how it had hummed with power and banished away the shadows of fear in him, of the lady’s golden aura and the sword’s first opponent being a Cthulhu cultist slash children murderer. It reminded him of a certain anime character he had idolized from long ago.

 

“Alright, I have made up my mind."

"If you are going to suggest Neo Armstrong Cyclone Jet Armstrong Sword - Again - I swear to..."

 

"No, trust me. You will like this!" he claimed.

 

The lady sighed the longest sigh Raiha had ever heard. "Alright, what is it this time?"

 

He smiled a shit-eating grin.

 

"It's Saber. From now on, your name will be Saber!"

 

--

 

“So, Mori, what sort of excuse are you going to use this time to justify not doing your homework?†asked Kazuki-sensei, rather menacingly.

 

Raiha bit back a witty retort. He had completely forgotten about his punishment yesterday, what’s with being near dead and all. Worst of all was the fact that he couldn’t straight up tell the teacher he was hit by a truck or something equally tragic but believable, for his wounds had somehow magically knitted themselves together by the time he reached home, leaving not even a scar behind. While that was a good thing as far as not giving his grandparents a heart attack went, he couldn’t help but wished he still had some injuries left to prove that he didn’t slack off by choice.

 

“Irresponsible, ill-mannered, lack of focus in classwork, hippie hair…†the teacher went on in the background like a broken record.

 

It was 3:14 PM. School had been over by now. Most of his classmates had quickly vacated the room, sensing the brewing storm that was Kazuki-sensei’s ire when he asked Raiha to come talk to him once the lesson was over. Even Misa had simply turned around and walked away from his pleading eyes. Raiha’s shoulders sagged as he maintained his apologetic nodding.

 

“I will see to it that your scholarship and privilege to sit in this class are revoked.â€

 

The classroom’s door sprang open as if reeling back from an explosion then. Outside the room, Misa was standing next to Lavalley - a tall, gaunt and gaudy man who taught foreign languages in Mitsuba No. 2. He promptly closed the distance between himself and Kazuki.

 

“Lavalley-sensei, now is not a good time. What are you doing here?†asked Kazuki, still fuming.

 

“Oh hello there, Kazu-kun, I didn’t notice you were sitting here,†answered Lavalley as he twirled his mustache and patted Raiha on the shoulder. “Well today is the first day of the Literature club, and as the teacher in charge of the club, I’ve got to ensure that our newest members will be there on time.â€

 

Kazuki grimaced. “Mori here will not be going anywhere. I’m taking him to the principal’s office afterward.â€

 

“Hmm? Oh no Rai-kun, what sort of horrendous crime did you commit to evoke such seething, impotent rage from your math teacher?†Lavalley continued.

 

A fist slammed down on the table. “THIS is a matter between me and Mori here. Lavalley-sensei, I would appreciate it if you could leave us and this room right now.â€

 

“So scary, scary~ Perhaps I could change your opinion with this, Kazu-kun?†Lavalley took out a little slip of paper from his breast pocket and handed it to Kazuki. The latter narrowed his eyebrows and picked it up hesitantly, eyes swiveling from right to left while reading the content.

 

Blood drained from his face almost immediately, as if he had seen a ghost. The slip fell away from his grasp, but Kazuki immediately dropped from his chair to look for it before crumbling the piece of paper within his palm.

 

“Now then Rai-kun. I believe Kazu-kun will have no problem with you leaving the class. Come, let us leave for the literature club post haste, you wouldn’t want to form a bad first impression on the rest of your club mates by being late, would you?

 

Raiha slowly nodded, his brain still frantically trying to work out what was going on. Misa? Lavalley? The infamous Literature Club? Him being their newest member?

 

Just what was going on here?

 

“Be careful, my knight,†spoke Saber within his mind. “Something is not right with this Lavalley character.â€

 

Her voice shook Raiha out of his momentary reverie. He made a show of not having heard anything and whispered softly through his teeth. “What do you mean, wrong?â€

 

“I could not detect him at all through my arcane sight, and if not for seeing him through your eyes, I wouldn’t even know there’s a man standing in front of you right now. This man…he doesn’t exist.â€

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"Exort Grande!"

 

Although she could not see the form of the creature attacking her, it became clearly outlined by the flames that spontaneously engulfed it. It was a six-limbed horror straight out of your nightmares, flailing about in the air as it tried to extinguish the magical fire in vain. Footsteps echoed across the destroyed house as a figure leapt into the air, cutting the demon into half with a gleaming sword.

 

The young man stood up, a cape made purely out of blue-colored flames extending from his back as he turned and extended a hand towards her. "Are you alright, Berserker?"

 

...

 

The sounds of eating punctuated the silence that filled the Shinramenya, one of the local ramen stores that was conveniently located in between Keiko's home and Mitsuba No. 1 High School. At this time of the night, most locals had already finished their dinner, leaving the story largely empty apart from Keiko herself, the store owner, and the brown-haired school librarian who looked like she had just left work and was busy consuming a humongous bowl of ramen at an alarming pace.

 

The store owner, named Shinohaki Yoshihiro, was a man of few words, standing silently like a stoic statue behind his counter. He was wearing a thick brown cloak, a large straw hat and a pair of sunglasses despite the darkness of the night. Keiko was used to his strange outfit by now, having seen him in it for six months already. Asking him about it would always elicit a cryptic answer that never brought you closer to enlightenment, no matter how much you tried.

 

Keiko stared at her bowl of half-eaten ramen. The Blumenkranz had dematerialised, but remained near her at all times - her grandfather had insisted that she bring it along. "Have you seen strange things happening around town lately?" She asked the store owner, unsure of why she asked in the first place. It was just this strange sense of familiarity that he exuded, despite his obviously shady outfit.

 

"People go missing in this town, lady," he spoke, his voice gruff. "Best not to stay out on the streets too late."

 

It was strange how a day ago, Keiko would still be just as unknowledgable about what was truly happening in Mitsuba. "Heard of anyone suspicious lately?"

 

"... I heard the half-French girl at Mitsuba No. 1 is often seen hanging around town late at night."

 

Her mind flashed back to her first homeroom, when her homeroom teacher had so flagrantly introduced his daughter. Erin Lafayette?

 


 

It was a stakeout.

 

Keiko Mitsuya had taken on the persona of Berserker now, hiding inside a large piece of shrubbery located along the road to school. She had done this many a time back in Fuyukaba, when she had waited for her Senpai to arrive through the school gates before jumping him with the Raigeki. This was the first time she was going to perform this sneak attack on another person.

 

Although the Blumenkranz was with her, Keiko's weapon of choice was still the Raigeki. She didn't want to use a potentially lethal weapon in case Erin was innocent. She spotted her target while she was a hundred metres away, waited for her to arrive at the exact spot, and...

 

"SUPER RAIGEKI BREAK!!!"

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Shu decided to walk home, as opposed to getting the bus or something similar, in order to allow his wounds to heal as much as they could without drawing notice from anyone. His healing ability was not massively aggressive, not like Erin Lafayette’s, and was directly related to how far his ability meter had been gained or used during a fight. It wasn’t powerful, even after using the full ability meter his healing had only managed to stem his bleeding enough to prevent death by blood loss, but it usually allowed him to live to fight another day. Of course, it had helped that Erin had shared her healing with him, it meant his own powers had little work to do as they slowly caused the red welts to fade away; Shu knew it would still take a day or two for them to disappear completely and was glad all of them were in places he could hide with clothes. He could still feel the tingly feeling Erin’s ability had given him when she was running her hands over his wounds; at least, he thought it was the ability.

 

A small smile crept onto his lips and he reached up to push his glasses back into position to hide it. Since the fight had finished, Shu had reset himself to his school look; his hair was hung around his face, the black framed glasses sat on his nose, and he had replaced his white shirt. The black shirt, which had been damaged during the fight, had been stuffed into the bottom of his tube, and his Demon Reaper had been replaced within it as well. The tube itself was slung across his shoulder in such a way that he was tapping the top of it as if humming a silent tune to himself.

 

It took him just under half an hour for Shu to reach the small gate that led to his home, and he moved quietly as he entered the house. He immediately saw his mother sat at the kitchen table with a laptop at her fingertips but decided she looked too busy to interrupt right now. However as he took a step towards the stairs, she cleared her throat loudly to gain his attention. Shu swivelled his direction of travel and entered the kitchen before leaning on the fridge.

 

“Did your club activities go well?†Mikoto asked, turning to look at him.

 

Shu’s smile widened a fraction. “It was good. I found two more Demon Hunters within the school; Erize Umeda, who was in my class last year, and Erin Lafayette, the adopted daughter of Lavalley-Sensei.†As he spoke, Mikoto reached into her laptop bag and withdrew a small leather bound book from within. She quickly jotted down the two names at the bottom of a list of names, some of which had been crossed out. Shu continued and Mikoto put the book away. “I fought a Warlock tonight, as well.†Mikoto looked at him with an unasked question and he shrugged. “I’m here, right?â€

 

“Did you manage to get any information off of him?†She said politely.

 

Shu’s smile slipped a fraction and a look of mild embarrassment joined what remained. “I didn’t occur to me. But then again, it wasn’t exactly the talkative type; it was a werewolf or something. I’d killed it before it managed to change into human form.â€

 

Mikoto nodded and then stood up suddenly, quickly stepping over to him and pulling his shirt up to look at the small red welts that covered his sides and arms. “Has your healing ability improved?â€

 

Shu batted her away gently and let his shirt fall. “No, Erin has a potent healing ability she decided to shower on me. Saves on cleaning blood stained clothes, I suppose.â€

 

“Speaking of which, can you throw any such clothes into the box at the top of the stairs, please.†Mikoto said before sitting back down and returning to the work on her laptop.

 

Shu nodded and headed back to the stairs, ascending it quickly and coming to a stop in front of a box at the top. He pulled his tube in front of him and opened it from the bottom to pull out the wrecked black shirt which he dumped in the box, before closing the tube and heading for his room. He remembered at that point he had left his jacket and tie at school, so he pulled his spare set out and hung it from the door for the morning.

 

===================================================================

 

The next day, the morning went much as the day before; He did his ritual with his mother and was out of the door with a minute to spare. Shu made sure his posture and facial expression match that of the image he had created for himself at school and arrived as exactly on time as he could make it. The welts that had been left over from the night before were mostly gone now, but all of them were hidden beneath his jacket. Before going to his classroom, he made a quick stop to pick up the jacket and tie he had left and stuffed them to the bottom of his bag. He nearly smiled, managing to suppress it at the last second, with the hop the Art Club would be as eventful this evening as it had been last time.

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The attack had come unprovoked and without warning.

The first inkling Erin had that her life was imperiled was the rustling of a bush as she passed by. This should have set her danger sense on alert, but evidently she had grown complacent, and taken it for nothing more than some stray animal rooting around -- a mistake she could have paid for with her life, had her attacker been so inclined.

Then, heralded by a shrill battle cry like the screech of a diving Stuka, the attack came -- her personal Pearl Harbor, her very own Syrian incursion on Yom Kippur, a moment that would live on in infamy forever. The day one of the many enemies of mankind finally mustered the gall to strike at Erin Lafayette in broad daylight when she least expected it.

There was a whip-crack as three feet of bamboo met flesh, the harsh report shattering the tranquillity of the early morning.

It, however, seemed somewhat dramatically inappropriate that Erin had managed to catch the shinai aimed at her head with a single hand.

In slow motion, a little rivulet of blood ran down her palm -- she must have skinned it in her ill-advised but cool-looking defensive maneuver.

"I-Impossible!" Her attacker gasped.

"Tch. Looks like the wind's blown in something unpleasant today," Erin said flatly. Then, she felt hot blood surge through her arm as she tore the weapon from its owner, tossing it to the side behind them.

"Just what are you?!!" Keiko Mitsuya spat as she stumbled backwards, clutching at her sword arm dramatically. "There isn't a thing that this Raigeki, a gift from the Great Demon Lord, cannot cut!" Demon Lord? Is that a Warlock?

Immediately, her mind went into overdrive. Is this some kind of devious trap? That weapon wasn't even enchanted, as far as I can tell. Could it be she's hiding her powers with an illusion even I can't pierce, and put a curse on me with that strike? Perhaps this is just a feint, and the real attacker's lining up a shot on me at this very moment! Immediately, she glanced at the rooftops around her -- in both normal vision and infrared, she picked up nothing. Can't be too sure anyway. I need to get to cover... And out of prying eyes. There's already a couple of middle-schoolers staring.

Her gaze fell upon a nearby alleyway. She remembered helping Imahara take down a Warlock there during the spring break; just like Mitsuba No.2, the place should adequately deter prying eyes. "You think gimmicky shit like that would cut in a real fight? Stop fucking around with me." Erin scoffed with a shark-like grin, striking a silly pose. "Let's take this somewhere quiet. No sense letting the mortals interfere in our affairs." Immediately, the girl's eyes lit up, and Erin knew she'd taken the bait. She then slunk off, rapidly disappearing into the alleyway, and Keiko followed suit.

One of the befuddled middle-schoolers, a green-haired, aristocratic-looking girl, clutched her hands to her face, and wailed, "Someplace quiet? Affair?! B-but.... GIRLS CAN'T LOVE GIRLS!"

...

As Keiko entered the alleyway, Erin snapped her fingers, and there was a faint thrumming sound from the entrance. Got you.

Immediately, a look of surprise ran across Keiko's face. Erin grinned, raising the squirt bottle in her hands. "Heh, I see you sensed that too, Warlock. It's Holy Water. Just a few drops of it's enough to set up a magic circle to isolate us. It'll only last until it dries up, but I won't need that long to take out small fry. So, which master do you serve, Warlock?"

"The Great Demon Lord would never abide this trickery!"Keiko replied. "I, Berserker, am his one and only true disciple, and with the 108 Sealed Demon Arts, I shall-"

"ORA!"

She was interrupted by Erin's shout as she charged, her Demon Reaper poised to strike in a swift jab. The other girl closed her eyes, and a flurry of illusory cherry blossom petals filled the air as an azure sword, its shape seemingly blurry as though seen through heat haze, flickered into existence in her hand. You've revealed your hand, Warlock! She batted the Naginata blade aside, and there was a crackle as the holy energy flickering across Erin's own weapon dispersed some of the strange fog on Keiko's blade, revealing its true appearance. Is that a... magazine? That's hardly even a sword!

They traded a few more blows, the air ringing with every crossing of blades, but to her credit, the Warlock was good. "Ha! I've practiced a thousand times a day since I was ten! You'll never take me down! SUPER HOLY DEMON GALE!!!" Hold on, that attack name makes no sens-

Then, a wall of wind slammed into Erin, sending her tumbling head over heel down the alleyway. She reacted immediately, her naginata's blade splitting as one half pivoted along the hinge in its midsection and forming an axe, and slammed it into the ground, the blade throwing up incandescent sparks as she braked herself. "Kid gloves are off, then. Prana Burst!" She shouted, a series of hexagonal patterns along her blade lighting up orange as she charged.

There was another thunderclap as their blades met again. To her credit, Berserker had managed to block it -- but whether in the heavens or on the earth, Isaac Newton was still a deadly son of a bitch. The momentum of the strike was more than enough to send the other girl flying -- straight through the barrier of holy energy blocking off the alleyway.

Wait a moment, a Demon or a Warlock would have struck that barrier as if it was solid... "Hold on, hold on!" She shouted, lowering her blade. "You're a Demon Hunter?!"

...

Lunch break, later that day

"... And then, it exploded. At that moment, my life took on new meaning." Erin finished, smiling brightly.

"Wow!" Keiko gasped, her eyes gleaming. However, her gaze abruptly hardened. "Still, you're dodging the issue here! Shouldn't you get your power a cooler name?!"

"Isn't 'Overdrive' cool enough?!" Erin protested.

"Psssssh. Cool?! You call that cool? It doesn't even have any alternate kanji readings; just using some English word won't cut it! It should be something like Crimson Sun Eclipse (Strength of Ten Thousand Asuras), something with two layers of meaning to it!"

"That's stupid," Erin grumbled. "And no, I'm not going to call myself 'Lancer', okay?!"

Akiha Mori watched her middle-school classmate bickering with her new friend, and a smile crossed her lips. "They're getting along pretty well. Shouldn't be surprising though; Erin-chan was pretty weird in middle school too..."

...

Lavalley-sensei entered the classroom with Raiha in tow. Misa was already there, early as usual, and there was another new arrival already in the club room -- Keiko, who'd come at Erin's advice. "Ah, there's our second new recruit. My adorable daughter told me all about you."

Berserker nodded happily at him, and said, "That's right! By the way, can you tell her to get a cool hero name? Like, "Lancer" or something?"

Lavalley nodded, his eyes shrouded in shadow for a moment. "Good idea. I like the ring of "Lancer" too, I'm sure it'll annoy her endlessly."

"And you said Fireteam was silly..." Misa muttered from one corner of the room. Immediately, Lavalley's gaze shifted over to her. "Oh, it's nothing," she backpedaled quickly.

Then, Lavalley addressed all of them. "I'm sure all of you are already well aware of the circumstances that have brought us together. You've all seen the face of our enemy, and understand what happens should we fail. Still, it's only polite for me to introduce myself. I am Giles Lavalley, Demon Hunter. I can't quite fight Demons directly any more thanks to an old curse; well, that's why you're here."

"So let's start with a round of introductions. Then, it'll be time for a short field trip to give those powers of yours a shake-down. We'll be heading for the old shrine on the hill. I'm sure you're familiar with it, Imahara-san. So, shall we get started?"

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When Raiha finally received Kazuki’s permission to leave the classroom, Misa had already disappeared from the doorway following a phone call.
 

Lavalley escorted him to a classroom at the end of the second floor hallway, whistling and clicking his heels as he walked. It had a worn, rustic wooden board mounted on top of the door, the surface printed with flowing calligraphy which read Literature Club in black ink. The place didn’t look like anything out of the blue to a casual observer such as himself. Though upon closer inspection, Raiha noticed that very few people, teachers and students alike, frequented this area despite there being a functional water dispenser nearby, instead opting for the one on the third floor should they wish to fill their bottles.
 

Raiha followed the foreign languages teacher from a distance, readied to bolt or counterattack at a moment’s notice. He wasn’t convinced that this man wished to do him harm solely on the fact that Lavalley had come to Raiha’s aid at Misa’s behest, but Saber’s words had kept him on edge for the entire trip to the club. The teacher knocked one time on the door, then without even waiting for a reply, opened it and gestured for Raiha to come in.

 

Within the room was a small table and a bookshelf filled to the brim with books of all genres and subjects, Japanese and foreign alike. A petite girl with cream-colored hair occupied one chair near the door, her expression rapidly swapping between amusement and admiration as her fingers flipped through the latest issue of Shonen Jump. She perked up at the sight of Lavalley, and the two of them immediately started chatting noisily like old acquaintances despite clearly having never met each other before. Something about giving Erin, Lavalley’s daughter, the nickname of Lancer.
 

Misa stood quietly in the corner with her arms folded, a can of Sprite in one hand, her eyes alternating between the new faces within the room. When they turned to look in Raiha’s direction, the hard edge in her gaze seemed to soften a little, and a faint smile touched her lips followed by a nod.
 

“Glad to see you made it here in one piece, Raiha-san,†she said cooly.
 

“Pleasure is all mine actually,†he answered. “Thanks again for yesterday.â€
 

“Think nothing of it.†She nodded her head slightly and took a long sip.
 

Raiha tilted his head, wondering where on Earth did she get that from. After all, Mitsuba No.1 had a strict dietary code, where soft drinks and other fattening products were straight up banned.
 

After taking a cursory glance at the book titles on display, Raiha looked around for a chair near where Misa was standing, but thought better and placed his back against the wall just like her. In the event something happened, this would allow him to react in a more timely manner as well as making sure that the incident would take place immediately within his field of view. Unless the threat came through the wall, in which case he could counter with ducking and summoning Saber in such a way tha-
 

Eh? Since when was I ever this paranoid?
 

His thought process was then interrupted by a loud clap, following an announcement from Lavalley regarding his identity, the purpose of the club, as well as their objectives for today. The boisterous first year practically leapt to her feet at the opportunity to share her power. She spun in place, hand covering her right eye as if to contain a terrible power within, then declared with a lordly, yet hamster-like voice.

 

“My name is Keiko Mitsuya, conjure it by your own risk, for the very sound of it will undoubtedly draw the attention from the Legion of the Death Gods to you. I am the yellow flash. I am the elements’ voice. I am the just sword. With my prized blade Raigeki in hand, I swear the blood oath to reap away the evil of this world and cleanse it free in the name of my master, the Great Demon Lord!â€

…

…

Someone next to Raiha cleared his throat pointedly in the absolute silence instilled by that speech.

 

“Oh, right, and my Reaper is called Blumenkranz. That is all!†she added as if the priceless demon-slaying relic was an inconsequential afterthought.

 

“Her Reaper is a bokken?†muttered Raiha.

 

“No it isn’t. You are just looking at final stage chuunibyou,†amended Misa. Immediately, Raiha squinted at the first year’s face, trying to work out if there was any familial resemblance between her and a certain nutjon he kind of regrettably befriended last year.

 

“Keiko-chan, perhaps you could tell us more about this Blumenkranz of yours?†inquired Lavalley. It took him perhaps five seconds to get used to the little girl’s antics.

 

“But of course, sensei.†She nodded and held out her hand. Pinkish gale gathered within the room, forcing everyone to shield their eyes from the swirling flower petals, eventually coaslescing into a shimmering azure blade. “Behold! Blumenkranz! Or, well, one of its four forms anyway, I haven’t reached a high enough score to handle the rest yet. This weapon has four stages: Azure Dragon, White Tiger, Vermillion Bird and Black Tortoise, each corresponding with mastery over wind, metal, fire and ice. I’m mostly sticking with Azure Dragon for now though, because I like swords.â€

 

“Oh and before I forget! Please don’t refer to me by my mortal name, but the Title of Darkness bestowed upon me by my master - Berserker - lest the Sacred Seven Syndicate chance upon our true identity and corrupt us all into their puppets.†She narrowed her eyes and swung her blade energetically at the rest. “In fact, I believe everyone here should pick a title for our time on the field of battle. Names are for friends, our enemies do not need to hear them.â€

 

Lavalley started clapping, either genuinely impressed or amused. Misa’s face scrunched up into a wrinkle, as if telling her brain to stop herniating itself while a nervous smile cracked up on Raiha’s face. His face seemed to do that a lot when it was genuinely confused as to what emotion should be displayed. He had mistakenly walked into the girls’ changing room once back during his first year. It was way less awkward than the atmosphere within the clubroom right now.

 

“I…erm…guess it’s my turn next?†he suggested helpfully when it was clear that Berserker had no further addendum, a polite smile on his face.

 

Lavalley gave him a you-are-good-to-go thumb up.

 

“Alright, hi folks, the name is Raiha Mori, second year student in the same class with Misa-san over there." Raiha waved before taking a deep breath, then closed his eyes and pictured the blade manifesting from within his mind. Four feet long from tip to hilt, cross-shaped guard, black sheath with silver engraving. His right hand tingled with anticipation as the blade formed within his grip. It felt perfect, as if the sword was an extension of his body from birth, unseen energy running along the blade as if eager to follow him into battle.

 

“This is my recently obtained Reaper called Saber,†Raiha explained, noticing that Berserker visibly perked up at his mentioning of the name. “It’s rather bland unlike Blumenkranz, so sorry if I’m disappointing you guys. â€

 

Saber mentally pinched his cheek. Somehow, actual pain made it to his face. “ Although she is sharp enough to cut through steel and let me move around faster than usual.â€

 

Misa nodded. “That much we already know.â€

 

“Eh, did I mention that just now?†he asked, dumbfounded.

 

“All Reapers are inherently superior than normal weapons and push the physical limit of their users to its peak. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how powerful your weapon is, a Warlock can just kill you with a flick of his finger. There should be some power that is unique to Saber alone, right? What is it?†she folded her arms, gesturing with her head for him to answer.

 

Raiha thought long and hard about it. “She’s a great conversationalist?â€

 

Berserker burst into laughter, joined by the rich, rumbling guffawing sound coming from Lavalley. Even Misa herself gave Raiha a look of pity.

 

“Let them laugh, Raiha,†Saber reminded him. “Remember, we are here to gather information, not divulging our strength and weakness. Until we can absolutely be sure of who, or what, we are sharing the bed with, it is imperative that everyone underestimates you.â€

 

Raiha sighed and mumbled. “I think you are a little too paranoid, Saber. There’s really no harm in telling them we can teleport too.â€

 

She shook her head. “Too naïve, my knight. These people gathered here for a reason, that being all of you have a common enemy in the Warlocks and the Demons. They are not your allies, merely individuals who happen to stand on the same side as you do. I recall telling you there’s something massively wrong with the Lavalley character over there; worst case scenario, you can still surprise him and put some distance between yourself and him with my power."

 

"That much I understand, but what reason could he possibly have to fight us?"

 

"Do you know the saying ‘the enemy of my enemy dies next’?â€

 

That sent a chill down his spine. He gulped and nodded quietly. Saber didn’t say anything afterward, contended that she had already delivered her points.

 

Berserker piped up at this point. “Too easy! He’s Saber!†This elicited a wholehearted nod from Lavalley.

 

Raiha didn’t really know what was going on, but he corrected her anyway. “Actually Saber is a girl.â€

 

The petite first year gave him a toothy grin. “Who are you trying to fool, Raiha-chan? I mean, sure, your hair is rather long and silky and straight for a guy, but there’s just no mistaking that face of yours!â€

 

“I’m sorry, I think I’m confused. Are you saying my nickname should be Saber? Same as my Reaper?â€

 

“Yep!†she nodded vigorously.

 

Raiha was on the verge of delivering a tsukkomi punchline, but his thought simply reached his brain before the quip reached his tongue.

 

Wait a second, Saber, Lancer, Berserker?

 

Isn’t that…

 

Somwhere within his mind, Saber let out a string of dulcet laughter. “Oh the biting irony. I do believe someone here just got a taste of his own medicine.â€

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Lavalley-sensei raises his eyebrows at her. “Imahara-san?â€

 

No coalescence of energy, no fanfare. In the blink of an eye, Geminus is in her hands, and Number Two and Number Three flicker into existence on either side of her.

 

“My reaper’s called Geminus; the three of us will provide support from range while you engage the enemy at close quarters,†she says. “Depending on the situation, I can offer fragmentation, barrier-piercing, incendiary or explosive rounds, among others. Any questions?â€

 

“Are they real?†Raiha asks. “Like, uh, a version of you pulled from another dimension?â€

 

“Yes, and I don’t know,†she replies. “But they’re solid–†Number Two taps its foot on the ground to demonstrate, “–and they fire real bullets.†She does not demonstrate the last point.

 

Keiko – Berserker, apparently – pipes up. “I know! Imahara-san, you can be Archer!â€

 

What? No. Geminus isn’t a bow, it’s a gun.

 

“I don’t think–†she begins, but Lavalley-sensei interjects. “I think that’s a great idea!†he says, grinning from ear to ear.

 

She shoots him a glare, but his grin doesn’t falter in the slightest. You said Fireteam was silly, but you’re okay with Archer? ARCHER? I’m a riflewoman, not a bloody archer.

 

“…I’ll take your suggestion into consideration, Mitsuya-san,†she says. “Any other questions?â€

 

Lavalley-sensei motions for her to go on, and she does. “Okay. So what we’ll be tackling today is a… obstacle course, of sorts. There’s a shrine on a hill in the woods, and you’ll have to climb said hill to retrieve a certain item which Lavalley-sensei will be holding on to.â€

 

She gives the two of them a long glance. Keiko looks pumped up and ready to go; Raiha looks a little apprehensive. “What’s the catch?†his gaze seems to ask.

 

“You may think this sounds easy – think again. Lavalley-sensei is a very difficult man to get hold of… even during school hours,†she says, giving the teacher in question a pointed look.

 

Lavalley-sensei grins and raises his hands. “Guilty as charged, Imahara-san, but sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.â€

 

She rolls her eyes. “Of course.â€

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

“I gotta ask, Imahara-san, how did you manage to make it to school on time?†Lavalley-sensei asks her as they troop down the stairs to the ground floor. “From what Erin told me, I thought you’d just skip school and sneak in to retrieve your uniform in the evening.†He thinks for a moment, eyes screwed shut in concentration. “Oh! You went home, didn’t you? Silly me.â€

 

“Well, I, uh… I borrowed a set of clothes from Erin-san.†They fit pretty well. Maybe a little… differently proportioned, but nobody has to know. “I hope you don’t mind.â€

 

“Haha, of course not!†Lavalley-sensei replies, laughing. Another thought visibly strikes him. “So that’s why the–?†His eyes flicker downward, then away.

 

“Yes,†she says hurriedly, casting a sidelong glance at Raiha and Berserker. They don’t appear to be paying much attention, which is good.

 

“Ah. I thought it was fashion or something. You know, the whole ‘Young people are getting more brazen these days, goodness gracious me’ schtick?†he asks, doing a very good elderly impersonation.

 

She laughs nervously. “Of course not. You know me.†She’s never been one for fashion, but maybe…?

 

No, no, no. What am I thinking?

 

They head out of the school gates, but she cuts left to retrieve her bike. “I’ll head there first and set up,†she tells the rest as the engine starts to growl. “Sensei will fill you in on the details on the bus.â€

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

She makes good time despite a short detour to refill the gas tank, dismounting outside a small hut at the base of the hill. One of the many keys in her wallet opens the lock, and the door creaks open to reveal its contents. Shovel… tent… sleeping bags… dried food… water… medical supplies…

 

She remembers patching herself up after a long day on the course. Stinging iodine on her wounds, clumsily applied bandages, Lavalley-sensei’s infuriating grin. That wasn’t so bad, she thinks. The worst part was knowing I’d have to do all that shit again the next day.

 

Something catches her eye; a patch of green and brown, resting innocuously in the corner. The ghillie suit. Aha. This is going to be interesting.

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