Kara no Kyoukai - Volume 2 - Chapter 5

Published at 16th of February 2016 09:03:51 PM

Chapter 5

If audio player doesn't work, press Stop then Play button again

Part V: Paradox Spiral

Back when I was a kid, I used to hold on to this little piece of metal all the
time. It was an ugly little thing, with these dull, jagged teeth that started to
dig into your skin if you held it tight enough. A lot of times, it felt like holding
all the loneliness of a cold December day. Still, I loved that little thing.
I loved the way it made a click every time you turned it around, a chime
for each day’s beginning and another for its end. The sound made me
so proud every time I heard it, but it was also twinned with something
strangely melancholic.
But in time, I soon found those spiraling days coming to a close. The
only thing that remained is the silver glint of the metal, and the chill of its
surface. There was no joy when I held it now, only blood that sometimes
oozes when I grip it too tight. There wasn’t any sadness either. Maybe
there never had been. It’s just a simple scrap of metal, nothing more. And
when I grew older still, even the glint of it—which once seemed so magical—disappeared.
It was then that it finally hit me: growing up is throwing away fantasy for
the cunning of survival. And for realizing that, I praised myself for my own
This is the year when autumn went as fast as it came.
Having just entered the departing days of November, and with winter
already well underway, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department found
another strange tale adrift on its shores. To be fair, ghost stories and the
like were never out of season for the Crime Investigation Section, a trait it
lovingly shares with hospitals all over the city. It’s practically a year-round
campfire, huddling together in a dark corner of the human experiment to
share what new stories the city decided to churn out the murder mill.
Which is probably why when Detective Akimi, who is as natural a police
as they come, actually gets interested in a case of his own accord, it is a
case of some deserved curiosity. Akimi built his career on stone whodunits,
a man who loved the mystery. Combine this with him hearing gossip about
a very peculiar report, and you have him phoning the relevant stations for
the very same report in no time at all.
So far however, reading the plainly written report held little for him. It
told a story of a bizarrely failed burglary that took place in some residential
high-rise a small ways away from downtown in early October. The perp was
a joe with a previous record, an all too common caper: burgle the apartments
of people who’d just left it unlocked. Simple, old, but still effective.
The day of the incident, he stole into just such an apartment after staking
the place out and waiting for someone to leave, which was probably the
extent of his planning.
What came after was what made this report interesting. Apparently, the
same guy came running to the nearest police station yelling for help. The
on-duty officers eventually got a story out of his hysteria: that he saw the
dead bodies of the family that lived in the apartment he broke into. An
officer escorted him back to the apartment immediately, only to find that
the family he spoke of was indeed there. On the other hand, they weren’t
dead. Instead, they were in quite good health and in fact enjoying a family
dinner. This understandably disturbed the burglar, though the officer really
cared only about the fact that the man had exposed himself to breaking
and entering, and thus, took him into custody.
Leaning back on his squeaky pipe chair, Detective Akimi offers an incredulous
“What the fuck?” at the air, directed at no one. The suspect tested
negative for alcohol or drugs, and didn’t suffer from any glaring mental
health problems. Certainly a strange and curious report, but otherwise, 
there didn’t seem to be a case here, if it was worthy of even being called
one. Hardly a case to stand beside the current investigation that’s got half
the section in a rustle: four missing one after another, with no clue as to
their whereabouts, and four families that they needed to shut up while
they worked the case from an angle that benefitted from their silence.
Much like the serial killings three years ago, it’s resulted in many a sleepless
night for him, and he certainly didn’t need this case to add more.
Still, he could feel the hairs on his back rise when he read the report, a
feeling that he’d learned to trust as the instinct that something was there,
waiting to be discovered; maybe even a report that could be turned into a
case with legs to spit shine the clearance rate.
“Worth a call, at least,” Akimi says as he picks up the receiver on his
desk phone and puts it to his ear. He dials the number of the station where
the report came from. Before long, an on-duty officer answers and Akimi
starts to inquire for details on the report. Did they check with the other
tenants for anything out of place? Did they find any inconsistency with the
suspect’s description of the family? But it becomes fruitless as the answers
fit his expectations, that they had indeed asked the neighbors, and no there
was nothing out of place, and that the description of the perp was spot-on
except with regards to the family’s state of being. With quick thanks, Akimi
puts the receiver back.
At that instant, a voice calls him from behind. “What are you on the
phone for, Daisuke? You need to get rolling. The second guy’s body’s just
been found, and you’re the primary on the case.”
“Fuck it, another one? Don’t tell me it’s another partially eaten body.”
Akimi’s friend only responds with a curt nod, which is his cue to drop his
curiosity and get out of here. No one’s going to care about the report, but
it was all tumbleweeds when he read it anyway. And nothing takes priority
over this new serial murder case. With that, the report goes back into file
in a cabinet somewhere to be forgotten, even by Detective Akimi, the CIS’s
lover of mysteries.
Paradox Spiral - I
In the first few days of October, the streets already blow over with the
bitter cold.
Winds with fingers of ice grant gentle caresses to the lamp posts and
dumpsters. Usually, the city still looked alive at this hour, at 10 o’ clock in
the evening. But tonight is different. Tonight, scattered pools of light in the
streets, from display stores to the street lamps, only serve to accentuate
the little shadows and silhouettes playing across them. Winter is coming
early this year, and considering the temperature, it wouldn’t be at all out
of place to discover snow falling tonight. The silhouettes of people exiting
the train station, jackets worn and collars fluttering in the wind, lack all
the life they normally have. Like automatons, they walk at brisk paces to
their homes, not stopping for a look at a display window or a warm cup
of coffee. They hurry because they all want the warmth and familiarity of
their homes.
From the wave of people, to the heat that refuses to gather, and even
the shops whose lights seem just a little bit dimmer; the boy witnesses all
of it. He sits beside a vending machine situated in a little nook beside the
avenue, idly watching the people exiting the train station. Almost as if to
hide himself, he sits hugging his legs to his chest, and he cuts a pitifully
thin figure that makes it hard to determine his gender from afar. His hair,
arranged like a bundle of unkempt straw, is dyed red. He looks to be around
the age of sixteen or seventeen. His eyes are narrowed, yet they don’t seem
to be particularly interested in anything. He shivers under strange clothes:
dirty jeans and a blue jacket one or two sizes too big for him, with nothing
else to cover his top. It isn’t surprising to see him with teeth chattering.
He sits there for a long time, and just when the number of people exiting
the station begins to thin noticeably, he finds himself surrounded by a
number of other people.
“Yo, Tomoe,” says one of them, not even attempting to hide the scorn in
it. The red-haired boy doesn’t respond.
“Ah c’mon, Enjō, don’t be a dick and ignore us,” he persists. Lifting the
boy by his jacket, he forces the boy from the ground. The boy saw all of
them now, five people surrounding him, stand at almost the same height
as he does, and it is easy to tell their ages are not so far apart. “What, just
‘cuz you stopped going to school, we strangers now?” The same person
continues. “Oh, now I get it. Our little Tomoe is a fucking grown up now, so 
he don’t talk to kids like us anymore, eh?”
The rest of his companions all snicker in response. But when the noise
dies down, Tomoe continues to ignore them. Frustrated, the boy holding
Tomoe by the jacket lets it go with a grunt, only to bring his hand back up
in a fist, punching Tomoe in the face. He collapses back to the ground, and
he hears a distinct clinking sound of something metallic falling out of his
“Hey, don’t even think about sleepin’, man.” More laughter. Hearing that
clinking sound seems to jolt Tomoe Enjō from whatever state of shock he
had been suffering up to now. He whispers his own name, like some sort
of resuscitative ritual, remembering who he was, why he was here. With
senses regained, he looks at the boys surrounding him, finally remembering
them as his classmates, former “friends.” Normal students who played
at being adult.
Preying on weak people like me, Tomoe thinks.
“Aikawa, right?” says Tomoe. “Hell you doing here at this hour?”
“Right back at you, man. We all been worried you be suckin’ dick behind
the restaurants just to get by. I mean, seeing as you’re such a girl. Am I
right?” He gestures and looks over his shoulder toward his compatriots.
Because of his overly thin build, Tomoe has been called a girl in school
for as long as he can remember. He never paid any heed to it, and that is
largely how he reacts now. However, he does pick up the empty aluminum
can he had been drinking from some minutes ago.
“Hey, Aikawa,” Tomoe calls. Aikawa returns his attention to him.
As soon as Tomoe sees that pimple-ridden face turn towards him, mouth
half open to speak, he thrusts the can violently into it, twisting the can as
deeply as he can inside Aikawa’s mouth. He quickly follows it up by slapping
the can as hard as he can muster. Now it is Aikawa’s turn to collapse.
Tomoe’s slap partially crushed the can, causing the surface to bend sharply
in places, and when Aikawa coughs it up on the ground, both the can and
his mouth are dripping with blood.
Aikawa’s companions are dumbstruck. They thought they would just
mess with their former classmate, maybe even take some of his money. It
never occurred to them that it would turn to violence.
“Still shit for brains, I see,” Tomoe remarks wryly. Then he kicks him
sharply and repeatedly in the head, almost like he wants to kill him, a stark
contrast to his seemingly uninterested demeanor earlier. Aikawa doesn’t
move an inch, though whether it’s because he’s unconscious or his neck
is broken, Tomoe doesn’t know. After a few quick kicks, Tomoe makes a 
break for it, before Aikawa or his cronies can come to their senses. Thinking
the crowd will just slow him down, Tomoe turns instead towards one of
the side alleys where he can make good his escape in the sharp, confusing
turns. It’s only a second or two after he starts running that the group he left
behind start to process what just happened before them. He hears their
angry calls as they start after him.
“Asshole thinks he can just do this to us? Let’s kill that son of a bitch!”
says a voice echoing in the alleyways, whipping his companions into a
frenzy. Through the capillaries of the city, they chase Tomoe like live game,
baying for blood.
“Kill that son of a bitch.”
I let the words bounce around in my head, and I laugh heartily to myself.
I heard the verve in their voice, heard how serious they were, and they
would probably follow through on it when they catch up to me. But they’re
faking it, as much as anyone else who says it jokingly. They don’t know
what happens to you after you do it for the first time. They don’t know
what killing someone does to a person. But see, I do.
I killed someone, just before I went to the train station. I remember
gripping the knife, and feeling the tenderness each time I stabbed. Just
thinking back on it makes me shiver and want to throw up. My teeth start
to chatter again, and my mind recoils on the memory with the force of a
hurricane. Those guys don’t understand how far it removes you, and that’s
why they can say they’ll “kill” as if they’re just going for a little walk.
Guess I’ll be the one to teach them, then. I focus my mind and allow my
laughter to recede into a little smile. I don’t consider myself a particularly
violent guy. I believe in an eye for an eye, but tonight’s the first time I’ve
ever busted someone up who just hit me. Disproportional response. It ain’t
like me, but I did it. Maybe because I actually liked the feeling of not holding
I come to a narrow alley sandwiched between two buildings, far from
the main road and any curious eyes or ears. I stop here, right at the corner,
thinking it a prime spot for the act. Before long, they catch up, and things
happen in snapshots of time. One of them, ahead of the others, rounds
the corner of the alley, and I take a fraction of a second to confirm it’s who
I want it to be before I spring on him. The palm of my left hand shoots up
to connect with his jaw. I think fast. In an amateur fistfight, it often comes
down to endurance in an exchange of blows. I know I don’t have a hair’s
breadth of a chance winning like that, especially outnumbered, so if I’m 
going to do this, I do it to kill them one by one, without hesitation, before
I’m surrounded.
The guy I just hit tries to return the favor, but before that happens, I
thrust a finger into his left eye. It feels kind of like slightly hard jell-o when
I twist my finger around.
His scream is enough to send a chill down anyone’s spine. Before he has
time to regain their composure, though, I grab the guy’s head and, putting
my whole body behind it, finish him off by slamming the head into the wall.
A dull thud as it makes impact with the concrete, and when I let go of him,
his body slides against the wall towards the ground, the back of his head
leaving a lazy blood trail on the wall and his left eye a dripping, bloody
mess. Still, he’s probably not dead from just that. I pull my eyes away from
him to meet the other four still coming, and if I’m lucky, they’ll be just that
little bit hesitant after they heard their friend screaming his guts out.
When the rest of them turn the corner, they are immediately taken
aback at the sight of their friend. Just as I thought, they are unprepared.
They’ve probably seen their share of accidentally spilled blood in street
fights, but they’ve never seen a body that looks like it’s bleeding its life out
on the asphalt. Wasting no time, I attack the nearest guy, slapping him, and
then grabbing him by the hair. I lower his head fast, then bring my knee
up to his kindly waiting face. A low crunching sound tells me that I may
have broken his nose. I give him three more kneeings for good measure,
then bring my elbow down at his skull. The impact is a painful shockwave
traversing my arm for a brief moment.
Two down. My knee is a dark red, soaked in the second man’s blood.
“Enjō, you motherfucker!”
That last one finally pushes the rest of them over the edge. Without any
sense of reason or forethought, they jump into the brawl all at the same
time. That’s when I know I’m done. I can’t take on three guys at the same
time, and they prove me right.
They lash out punches and kicks, pushing me back against the same wall
I slammed their friend against not moments ago until they force me to the
ground. I feel the knuckles digging into my cheeks, and I reel from every
kick that lands on my stomach. Nevertheless, they’re not fighting the same
way I did earlier. No ferocity. They’re not gonna kill me. They don’t want to.
And yet, if they keep this up, they will eventually kill me. They won’t know
that they’ll break bones, cause internal bleeding, and make it more difficult
for me to breathe. The fact that my death will be a slow slide into nothingness
instead of a quick and easy one grants me a measure of anguish.
See? Even if they don’t mean to, people still end up killing other people. 
As the hits continue to land on my body, I wonder: Between people like
me who truly seek to kill, and people like them who will just commit an
unintentional homicide, who carries it heavier in the end?
My body is already covered in bruises, but the pain is becoming routine,
almost welcoming now. I’m sure that bunch are getting really into it in their
own way, too. It won’t be long before they start to enjoy it, and they won’t
be able to stop themselves.
“Now don’t we look cute with that face, Enjō?” says one of them. He
thrusts his foot keenly into my chest, and my violent coughing immediately
afterwards leaves the taste of blood in my mouth. I’m down for the count,
and I realize I have maybe a precious few seconds before they completely
beat the life out of me, the same life that I never valued as anything
above expendable. A fist hits my eye, and half my vision goes dark. At that
moment, I hear a faint sound. Then a beat of silence. Another beat. They
don’t seem to be moving.
The noise resounds again like a bell: the singular, clacking tone of wood.
With pained eyes I see the three guys, heads already turned towards the
sound emanating from the alley’s entrance. I train my vision to the same
direction even as the swelling in my eyes grow more painful as I move them.
My mind stops.
Silhouetted against the mouth of the alley is a person who clearly
doesn’t belong here. The clacking sound we’d all heard earlier comes from
the person’s wooden geta footwear; the dark finish, red strap, and oval
shape clear even from this distance. A woman’s geta. The clothing on the
figure is peculiar to say the least: a red leather jacket atop a dead plain
orange kimono.
The shadow advances, each step like a reverberating wooden bell. The
person’s movement is a hypnotic sway of clothes and carelessly cut inkblack
hair that invite surrender, and I almost forget myself. Wraithlike white
skin, and eyes of clear void. Surely not the usual everyday sight in a backlane
filled with scattered bottle shards and discarded syringes.
A woman…a girl. I almost can’t tell her gender, but somehow, I know
she’s a girl.
“Hey,” she calls out, continuing to venture deeper into the alley and
closer to us. The three who had surrounded me now break off to meet her.
It’s painfully obvious what they’re planning on doing to the girl.
“Ain’t nothing for you here, lady.” The trio flex their fingers for a new
round of violence, the excitement in their gait barely contained. They move
to surround the lone girl. Unable to move more than an inch, and with
my speech coming out as strained gasps of air, I can do nothing except to 
curse them in my mind. I chose this place so as not to involve anyone else,
and yet here she is in defiance of all probability. And now, no doubt only
because she chose to turn the wrong alley for a shortcut home, she’ll be a
victim as well.
“I ain’t playing, girl!” one of the three shouts. “Don’t you got ears to
hear what I just said?”
The girl is silent again now, but in a flash, she extends a hand, using it
to grab the arm of one of the approaching boys. She pulls. Her posture
changes subtly to one that puts her entire weight behind the action, and
her purchase on the boy’s arm then forces him to the ground in one violent
motion. Watching it from where I lie, the entire thing seemed to go frameby-frame,
as if I was turning the handcrank on an old viewing machine.
The remaining two attempt to close in on the girl, and she immediately
strikes the closest one in the chest with her palm, causing him to crumple
like a ragdoll to the ground, unconscious. It amazes me that she knocks
them out of commission with such ease, all in the space of about five or
so seconds, while I exerted so much effort to take out an equal number of
people. The last one must have realized this fact as well, since as soon as
the second man is down he starts to turn on his heels and run screaming.
She soon ends that with a swift roundhouse kick delivered straight to the
guy’s head, with barely the noise of rustling clothes to its credit. Like the
previous two, he is rendered unconscious.
“Ouch. Literally hard head on that last one,” she grumbles as she fixes
the creases on her kimono. I keep my eyes fixed on her, wondering if she’s
even going to talk to me. It’s strange but not altogether uncomforting that
I can still slightly distinguish her form in this isolated place, even in the
absence of light. “Hey, mister punching bag,” she calls out as she turns to
me. I try to speak but it only results in me coughing. She reaches inside
a pocket in her leather jacket and pulls a small object out, throwing it on
the ground within my reach. “Dropped it back there on the street. S’yours,
I turn my eyes sideways to look at it, and see a single, shining key. It must
have fallen out of my pocket when the guys were roughing me up. My key
to a house that I’ve already tried to stop caring about. She must have come
here just to give it back to me.
She turns her back on me without a single word and starts to make her
way back out of the alley with all the airiness of her previous entrance: the
relaxed gait of a casual night stroll, leaving me lying on the ground to fend
for myself.
“Wai—,” the word comes half-formed out of my mouth, and I reach out 
my hand towards her. Though I’m hesitant to call more attention than I
needed to from a girl who just took out three guys in the time it took me to
take out one, I couldn’t stand just being left here like a fake toy, lost among
the refuse of the city.
“Wait.” The word comes out, though in a weak breath. I try to redouble
the strength in my voice and shout. “Just wait, for crying out loud!”
I try to stand, and every bone in my body throbs with pain from the
attempt. I end up having to support my half-standing posture with a hand
on the wall, itself aching from having to exert pressure. At least my noisemaking
manages to stop the girl, who now directs her cold gaze in my
“What now?” she says, her voice still as calm as before. “Look, if you
dropped anything else, good luck finding it.”
“Are you just going to leave these dudes here?” I manage to protest in
between bouts of labored breathing. The girl in the kimono takes in the
scene around her, casting her eyes downwards almost as if it’s her first
time looking at it. Her sight lingers on the two persons who I took care of
in my haphazard, improvised fashion, then finally looks back at me with
upturned eyes and a curious sigh.
“You don’t have to worry about them. That one,” she says, motioning
her head towards the first of the two, “will probably get an eyepatch and
be doomed to do pirate impressions for the rest of his life. The other will
have trouble breathing with his nose for a while. But no one’s dead. I’d be
much more worried about what the first guy who wakes up will do to you.
And yet, here you are, implying that we should get them some help?”
“I…guess?” I respond.
“Well see, that puts us in a pickle. Who do we call, hmm? The police? An
ambulance, maybe?” Her eyes narrow with each sentence that prods me. I
wasn’t thinking about calling the police. Maybe the hospital. But they’d ask
questions. If I mentioned self-defense…maybe the police would be faster,
“Five-oh are out of the question.”
“And why is that?” she asks, but it feels like she already knows the
answer. Her eyes continue to bore into me. There’s no use in hiding it
anymore. She’s got me, and if I tried to hide it, she’ll just ask more questions.
And so I say it.
“Because…I’m a murderer.” As I say it out loud, as much to myself as to
her, time seems to stop and all things grow silent. Far from my expectation
of her being shocked, however, she only walks toward me. Her eyes scan
me up and down.
“Well, you don’t look like one.” She looks me over, an eyebrow cocked
and a hand on chin and lip paused in pensive observation. Overtaken by
the moment, and feeling quite shocked by her doubt, I feel compelled to
“It’s true! It weren’t a few hours ago, I swear. I took a kitchen knife and
stabbed her over and over in the stomach until everything was all wet
and mushy, then I cut off her head. You can’t tell me she ain’t dead after
that!” I start to snicker in spite of myself. “The five-oh are all probably in
my house wondering where the fuck I’ve gone, all scratching their heads
‘cause of another late night job. Just you wait, I’ll be all over the morning
news tomorrow!”
It took me a while to notice that I was making a sort of strange laugh
after I said that, the kind of noise that lies somewhere in that ambiguous
space between laughter and sobbing. The kimono-clad girl gives me time
to calm myself down before talking again.
“Right,” she says, unsurprised. “Well, cool, I guess. You’ve convinced me.
Let’s put off contacting anyone unless you want your mornings to have
significantly more iron bars than usual. Guess that explains why you’re
shirtless. I thought that was what all the cool kids run with these days.”
Her cold fingers brush over my chest with a light, almost curious touch.
“Hey,” I say, but with little force behind it. She was right. I dumped my
shirt since it was covered in so much blood I’d get noticed easily. I just
grabbed my jacket to compensate as I ran out of the house. “Ain’t you even
gonna say something about me? I really did kill someone. You think I’m just
gonna let you go, knowing what you know? Ain’t no difference between
killing one person or two.”
That seems to grab her attention. She brings her face closer to mine,
eyes half-closed in disappointment. “Yes,” she sighs. “There is.”
“There is what?”
“A difference.”
Her presence is almost overpowering, even though I stand a head higher
than her and she’s the one looking up at me. Her empty eyes never stop
staring at me, and I gulp involuntarily. I’ve never seen anything like them
before. The black irises are a tempting well that threatens to drown you
endlessly. In my seventeen years, I’ve thought people can be many things:
cruel, deceptive. But never beautiful. So overwhelmingly beautiful that I
almost forget myself.
“I’m…a murderer,” I declare again. I feel that there is nothing more to
say. The girl casts her bewitching glance away from me and lowers her
“I know. I’m one of those, too.” She doesn’t explain further. There is no
need to. She turns on her heels, and with the wind ruffling her clothes and
the sound of her geta on the asphalt she starts to leave. I didn’t want her
to disappear. Not tonight.
“Wait!” I run to catch up to her, but with my injuries still getting the
better of me, I fall to the ground. I stand up again, and look straight at the
girl, unwavering. “If we really are the same breed of person, then help me,”
I yell with such uncharacteristically reckless abandon, casting away reason
and shame. The girl’s eyes open in surprise.
“Same breed? Well, I certainly know what it feels like to have that empty
space in your chest. But what do you expect me to help you with? The
crime of your murder, or taking care of your wounds? Either way, I can’t do
anything for you.”
“Sooner or later, someone will spot us here. Maybe you could hide me.”
She ponders the suggestion with a scratch of her head and annoyed
grumbling, probably the most human thing she’s done so far.
“Are you saying I should help you go find some place where you can hole
“Yeah, someplace no one would think to try and find me.”
“It isn’t like there aren’t eyes all over this city, man. The only place you’re
really ever likely to find any privacy is your own home,” she says, making a
perplexed expression.
“Aren’t you fucking listening?” I inadvertently shout. “I’m asking you
‘cause I can’t go back to my house! Maybe you could, oh, I dunno, take me
to your house, asshole!” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop
them. The pain is making me lose my temper. At first I think I’m going to
regret saying that, but the girl just nods in understanding, letting the entire
thing slide.
“That it? Well, that’s a simple request. If my house is fine with you, then
you’re welcome to stay.”
Without even helping me to stand up by myself or offering a helping
hand, she starts to walk again, the movement of her back telling me to
keep close and follow. With renewed strength to my step that I didn’t know
from where in my battered body I obtained, I pursue her. The sound of her
clacking steps, and the sensation of the asphalt and broken bottle glass
beneath my feet seemed to make both the pain on my body and mind ebb.
Though I haven’t even asked her if she lived alone, or even what her name
was, I think it too insignificant for the moment. I only see her silhouette,
dimly lighted, guiding me like fate. It is the only thing I can see.
Paradox Spiral - II
I hear the sound. An ominous metallic click, coming from the other
The time must be almost ten ‘o clock. Dead tired from working my job
into the late hours of the evening, I immediately resigned myself to the
safety of my mattress after I got home. But it isn’t even a few minutes
before I am stirred from sleep by the sound. I heard it only once, but that
is enough.
The door to my room opens, letting a slit of white light into my darkened
room, widening slowly with each inch of the door that is parted. A shadow
occludes the light, and I turn to towards it only to see my mom.
It’s always around this part that I realize, and wish that I could never see
this scene again.
The light makes it difficult to make out any detail on her figure save for
the fact that she is standing. However, what little I can see of the scene
beyond the doorway is clear to my eyes: my dad, collapsed over the dining
room table. It isn’t clear at first whether he is merely unconscious or dead,
but it isn’t long before I see what I first perceive to be some sort of spilled
coffee. It slowly dawns on me that it is blood, dying the varnished brown
table into a deep red. It is then that the shadow in front of the door speaks.
“Die, Tomoe.”
I remember what comes afterwards. My mother advances, kneels in
front of me, raises the kitchen knife high above her, and brings it down on
my chest, then up, then down again, too many times for me to count. Then
I see her taking the same knife to her throat, then in a single, determined
motion, plunges it deep into her neck.
All of my nights are bookended by this nightmare, the worst I ever have.
I hear the sound. An ominous click, through which I wake up.
I turn my eyes toward the bed, only to find Ryōgi gone. I lift up my
bruised and battered body to observe where I find myself in: a house in the
nook of the second floor of a four-floor low rise, the house of the kimono
wearing girl. Well, better to call it a room than a house, really. A one-meter
long corridor barely deserving the label separates the front door and the
small living room, which, seeing as the bed which she slept in is also there,
probably also doubles as her bed room. Flanking the corridor to the right
is the door to the bathroom. Another door in the living room leads to 
another, presumably unused, room. She led me to this place last night after
an hour’s walk. The name plaque that rested beside the entryway bore the
name “Ryōgi”, so that must be her last name.
That girl—Ryōgi—never said a thing when we entered her room, only
taking off her leather jacket and heading straight for her bed to fall asleep.
Her apathy almost provoked me to protest, but the last thing I wanted to
do was mouth off and have the neighbors be curious. After some consideration,
I took a cushion lying discarded on the floor and used it as a pillow,
then slept away.
And now I wake up with her nowhere to be found. I wonder what she
could be up to. It looks like our ages are quite close. Considering her age,
maybe she went to school? And yet, that wouldn’t be at all fitting for such
a drab room. The sum total of things in her room: a bed, a refrigerator, a
phone, a coat rack with four leather jackets, and a closet, which I assume is
for clothing. No TV, no radio, no throw-away magazines, and consequently,
no table to read them on.
I suddenly remember what she said last night. When I said I’d murdered
someone, she said she was the same. I only half-believed her last night,
but seeing her room, it might actually be true. Her pad seems to be set for
functionality, like a room designed not to be lived in, but instead for someone
who could suddenly be on the run at any time and could leave the
room behind. Thinking about what she said makes a chill run up my spine.
Did I think luck would allow me to draw the ace of spades, but instead
brought me the joker?
In any case, I don’t plan on staying any longer than I have to. I want to
at least give a word of thanks to Ryōgi for helping me out in a pinch, but
since she’s out, there’s really nothing I can do. With silent and careful steps
more befitting a burglar than a visitor, I make my exit from the mysterious
girl’s room.
Without heading toward any particular place, I loiter around town to kill
the time. Initially I am hesitant, even a bit scared, trying to make myself as
inconspicuous as possible, and think at first that I made the wrong decision.
But it soon becomes apparent that the world is turning like it always
did, with no one giving me a second glance. The days go on with all the
haste and weight of the hour hand on a clock. Somewhat disappointed at
the realization, I make my way to the main avenue.
It is here in the main avenue that I expected to find cops asking around
for a Tomoe Enjō, or at least people that might throw me the “I saw him 
on the 6am news” look, but there are none. Maybe the bodies haven’t
been found yet. Still, maybe I give myself too much credit. There’s no way
someone like me can affect people’s reactions to a noticeable degree with
such a half-baked murder. Either way, it seems, for the time being at least,
I’m not a fugitive. That being said, I still didn’t feel like going back.
Noon comes and passes, and I find myself in Hachikō Square, right next
to Shibuya Crossing. I find a bench to rest on and feel content to spend
an hour or two just looking up at the neon lights set upon the buildings
stretching high into the sky. When the lights turn green, the cars stop to
give way to the mad press of people, flowing like water from a burst dam
across the large avenue. I can’t even imagine what it’s like when it’s a holiday.
The people are mostly teenagers like me, happily smiling and with a
levity to their walking pace, looking like they’re the most blessed individuals
in the universe. It’s the face of people in their world: a world where they
don’t aspire to anything anymore, or need to live for a good future. There’s
no need to. Their life is all laid out for them, and they know that’s all they
need to get by in their world. So how many of those smiles are real? All of
them, or only a handful? I keep looking at their faces, trying to figure out,
but it’s impossible to tell the real from the fake. I should have known better
than to try, since that realization comes from your own self.
Tired of looking at all the people moving to and fro, I instead cast my
eyes toward the sky. Let’s be frank. I’m as much a fake as the rest of them.
Maybe at some point in time, I thought that my life was good and real, but
reality soon stripped that away.
Junior high school was my time. I was a sprinter in the track and field
club, and I kicked ass in it. I participated in all of the inter-school competitions
and I never, ever lost. I never even saw anyone’s back. No one could
say anything about my skill. All I cared about was cutting my time, and
even a few milliseconds difference was enough to make me happy. I was an
engine built for the sport, and I cherished it more than anything.
It follows, of course, that all this came to a screeching halt.
My family was never one blessed with an abundance of money. Dad lost
his job back when I was still in grade school, and never got one back again.
Mom was born into a rich family, but had a falling out with them after she
ran away to marry my dad. Her world didn’t teach her anything about what
happens after that. I think that broken family did only one thing right for
me: force me to grow up faster than other kids. I had to juggle jobs after
school, lying about my age just to get in, all so I could scrape out money
to pay the tuition I needed. I stopped trying to care about the antics of my
parents, and began to focus only on what I could do right by myself: sustain 
myself, go to school, and work my ass off for tuition. I thought of running as
my only release from both the constant problem of living expenses and my
parents who to me no longer seemed anything of the sort, the only reason
I kept paying for school and going to the club activities without giving a
heed to how tired I was.
Our troubles only truly began when my dad took the car out without
a license one day. He was never really good with driving, but it had never
bothered him before if he had to take his time parking or maneuvering the
car. That day, however, whatever luck that had compensated for his skill
ran out, and he got involved in an accident. He ran a pedestrian over. It was
apparently a quick death for the unlucky guy. It forced my mom to go back
to her family, head bowed and pleading for money just to pay the cost for
indemnities. To me it was yet another fuckup that I needed to look away
from, and so I refrained from prying too deep. What eventually concerned
me is the fallout from all that. It didn’t take long for everyone at school to
find out about the incident, and though I thought nothing of it at first, I
found that the attitude of everyone at school had changed. My coach, who
had always been more helpful than anyone I could remember, suddenly
started to ignore me. The upperclassmen who were so proud to have me
as the rookie star of the track and field team pressured me to quit. All
because of something I had no part in; all because I was their son.
My family was the real problem. Losing what little money he’d saved
over to help pay for the accident, my dad was far from fit to keep a family
together. Mom started to work part-time in jobs society hadn’t prepared
her for and she had no real idea how to do, but even that only paid for a
portion of the gas and electricity bills. Rumors about the accident began
to infest my neighborhood, growing and catching its own embellishments,
to the point that dad couldn’t even get out of the house without so much
as an angry neighbor trying to give him a piece of their mind. Mom still
tried to work, but the rumors always caught up to her, and it never made
her stay in one place for too long. I remember one time I was just walking
around when some random nobody threw a rock at me. And always, there
were the threats.
Yet even though the abuses got worse and worse, I never could muster
the motivation to be mad at them. After all, the one driving the car, the
one really at fault then was my dad. It’s all his fault. But then it’s not like I
hated my folks in particular back then either, because it’s when I realized
that whatever you do, even if you try as hard as you can, no matter how
fast and how far you run, it’ll all be the same. You can’t escape your family,
your past, or what you are. I mean, my folks walked their own path, tried 
to live a life as best they could, and look where it got them. That’s when I
stopped trying to fight it. I figured if I just accepted it, then I wouldn’t have
anything to cry about. It’s the moment when you’re a kid and you throw
away your fantasies because they’re useless, and in its place grows a kind
of new, self-crafted wisdom.
After that, feeling that there was little else it could teach me, I quit school.
Besides, I had to work whole days now for the money. If you aren’t picky
there’s plenty of work to be done even for people my age. Being someone
still straddled with at least half a conscience, I couldn’t completely abandon
my family, and so I had to put money in the house. Still, that didn’t
mean I needed to talk to them. I never did after I quit high school. Slowly,
like a poison, the joy and exhilaration in running and sprinting that I’d once
found essential faded into dim memory, along with the faces of the people
who once cheered me on, and the cold wind whipping past my face. It was
something I’d thought I couldn’t ever live without at one point, and to find
that I’d essentially thrown it away gave me no small measure of surprise.
My mind made its customary excuses: I didn’t need it anymore, there were
more important things. But they were only excuses. I lost. I gave up.
That’s the proof that I’m fake. If “running” was some sort of origin, a
cosmic impetus laid out for the boy known as Tomoe Enjō, then I had failed
it. And maybe, my mind thought, things would have turned out better if I
had just indulged that call.
My parents took me to see a stud farm once when I was little. There I
looked at all the nameless horses, whose lives were bred and figures built
solely for the singular act of running, and I cried, thinking that if such a
thing as a previous incarnation was truer than a tale spun for the naïve
idea of destiny, then I must surely have been one of those beautiful beasts.
My passion was born there. And it was killed by the weight of the real. I
ultimately amounted to nothing more than a sham, imbued with dreams
that only lie.
And in the end, I became a murderer. I laugh, though there is nothing
truly funny about it. The sky I look at hardly changes, and I turn my eyes
back to the spectacle of the city, where at least the people move, never
stopping, with their smiling and content faces, all of us dolls as fake as
anyone else with no real purpose. Or maybe they do have a real purpose:
to fool around. They are in Shibuya after all. That’s the brand of reality I
can’t really tolerate, though.
The collective footsteps of the throng bring me back to reality. Positioned
above the entryway to a nearby building is a clock, showing the time nearing
evening. Not wanting to loiter here any more than I’ve already allowed 
myself, I push myself up and out of the bench and leave the mass of people,
heading for no particular direction.
Even here in the housing district the streetlamps shine no brighter than
in any other part of the city. I’ve been walking aimlessly for the past three
hours, and the autumn sun has long since set, reminding me that I still
need a place to stay for the night. Without thinking about it, I find myself
back in the familiar façade of Ryōgi’s apartment building. Though I always
thought that I could let go of lingering affections easily when the situation
demanded it, judging by where my wandering feet took me, it seems that’s
not the case. I look to the second floor, and find that her window is dark.
Looks like she isn’t home.
“Well, since I’m here anyway…” I mutter under my breath as I start to
climb the stairs to the second floor, squaring myself with the fact that the
only reason I’m doing this is to hang on pathetically to the last person that
helped me in my life. The metal treaded staircase rings a harsh sound as
I ascend as if to announce my presence. Confronting the door of Ryōgi’s
room, I find that the newspaper that was slipped under her door as I left
this morning is nowhere to be found. At first I think that she’s inside, but
when I rap on the door, no response follows. So she came home at least
once. Deciding to leave if the door is locked, I reach for the doorknob and
turn it.
But it moves unhindered, and the door slips ever so slightly open. As
I saw back in the street, the lights inside look like they aren’t turned on.
In the silence, even the mechanical clicking of the doorknob is audible,
and for a moment, it freezes my hand and blanks my mind in hesitation.
Thinking myself ridiculous for standing there doing nothing for such a long
time, I slowly widen the opening I’ve made and creep inside. I probably
would never have thought as a kid that I would be committing trespass
after killing someone not a few days earlier, and yet here I am. Well, she did
say I was welcome in her house, but I don’t know if this is what she meant
by that.
While my mind is busy making excuses, my body is creeping forward,
closing the door, going past the entrance, past the short corridor, and
finally into her living room. It’s black as pitch in here. Nothing can be heard
except my muffled footsteps and my suspiciously rough respiration. Man,
this makes me look like any random break and enter. Fuck, I need a light.
The lights, where the fuck are the lights? I start to take a hand to the wall
and feel around for the switch.
At that point, I hear the distinct sound of the front door opening. The
person turns on the lights faster than I could even begin to consider who
it is. As the fluorescent lamp casts a warm glow over the room, she looks
at me with slightly surprised eyes that blink twice before she starts talking.
“Oh, you’re here. I hope you weren’t doing anything inappropriate,
what with lights being off and all,” she says in the manner of someone just
berating a classmate. She closes the door and takes off her jacket, then sits
down on her bed, rifling through the plastic bag she’s holding and producing
a small cup. “Wanna eat it? Cold things just don’t do it for me.”
She tosses the cup toward me, and up close I can see that it’s a cup
of Haagen-Dazs strawberry. Why she doesn’t care about my trespassing
is as much a mystery to me as her buying something she doesn’t even
like. Taking the cold cup in my hands makes me think. She knows I’m a
murderer, though I don’t know how seriously she takes it. And yet she
offered her room to me. I remember what I thought this morning: that her
room looked like she was some sort of fugitive ready to run at a moment’s
“Square one thing with me, Ryōgi,” I say to her. “Are you someone I
should be keeping one eye open for when I sleep?”
Contrary to what I expect, she laughs quite heartily at my question.”You’re
a strange one, aren’t you? A nice way to phrase that question, I have
to say,” she says in between bouts of raucous laughter that throws her
already mismanaged hair into even greater disarray. The sight only tells me
to be more cautious than before. At length, her laughter finally starts to die
down, and she exhales one long breath before she continues to talk. “Hah,
well, it’s true that this place has a shortage of people that can carry themselves
in a fight better than I can. But hey, you’re here aren’t you? Since
we’re both stuck with our respective pieces of wood in each other’s eye,
let’s just leave them in there and keep our peace. Is that all you wanted to
talk about?”
The kimono-clad girl looks up at me with a dangerously calm countenance
of a child expecting to get a new present, her grin laden with meaning.
“No, there’s something else I need to ask. Why did you help me?”
“’Cause you asked me to, that’s why. I wasn’t doing anything at the
time anyway, so hey, what the hell. By the way, you don’t have a place to
sleep right? I meant it when I said you could use my place for now. Not like
Mikiya’s going to come by in a while, anyway.”
Because she wasn’t doing anything? What the hell kind of reason is that?
My brain might be a bit frazzled lately, but not to the extent that I’d believe
what she just said. I glare at her, which seems to garner no reaction. She 
only ignores me, not—I sense—out of indifference, but of a dignified sort
of oblivion that just comes naturally to her. It’s an alluring paradox. Still, I
realize that Ryōgi hasn’t given me any real reason to lie to me. Maybe she
does have no particular reason to take me in. She could have invented any
number of excuses to leech money from me by doing this, but she didn’t.
But even so…
“Are you serious? You take me in no questions asked without even being
suspicious of me? You sure you aren’t high?”
“You are seriously damaging your goodwill here, buddy. And to answer
your question seriously, no I don’t take drugs, and to answer the question
percolating in your mind, no I didn’t report you to the police this morning.
Although I will if you tell me to.”
Well, nothing to worry about on that front. Besides, just the thought of
this person talking to the police in polite tones seems like an impossible
picture to paint in my mind. “Then what are you after? Is it a quick fuck,
“Huh? There’s far better places a man can go to for sex in this town than
my place, that’s for damn sure.”
“Well, see, what I’m saying is—”
“Alright, fine, whatever man! If you don’t like it here and you’re just
gonna stand there and criticize me then you know the way to the door,
buddy. I absolutely do not understand why you feel the need to judge every
word out of my mouth, you know that?”
Her words brook no refusal. A silence hangs between us, but is broken
by her rummaging through the plastic convenience store bag again, pulling
out a triangularly-shaped tomato sandwich. Well, if I had any doubts about
whether or not she thought nothing of me before, I don’t now.
“Well…then I’m sleeping over! You said it was fine, didn’t you?” I say
maybe a bit too loudly. Ryōgi, for her part, doesn’t even seem all that angry,
even though her words seem to indicate otherwise.
“Yeah, go ahead. I’ll be sure to tell you if your asshole glands are working
up again,” she says while nibbling on the sandwich. At that, I suddenly
realize how tired I am and promptly sit myself down on the floor. Time
passes, but I can’t seem to give a mind to how long or how short that lasts.
I turn my thoughts away from my little spat with Ryōgi to more practical
matters. I’d found a place to sleep, if only temporarily. The 30,000 yen in
loose change I hastily took with me should last me the month for food, but
finding some way to work so I can survive while still hiding from the cops
is going to be key.
Wait. Now I remember what I was supposed to ask Ryōgi. How could I 
“Hey,” I call to her. “Why ain’t your door locked?”
“Lost the key, obviously.” Her answer is almost like a blow to the back
of my head. “I only lock the door when I’m sleeping, and I just close the
door when I’m out. Works for me, and as you can see, not much here for a
burglar to burgle.”
So my attempted trespassing wasn’t just some lucky coincidence. Her
not locking the room might even be the reason for why she barely has
anything in the room. Some regular thief could be slipping in and just stealing
what isn’t nailed down. It’s too much of an assault on my regular sensibility
that I have to tell her off.
“Christ, girl. You could at least ask for a spare one from the landlord.”
“Lost the spare too. C’mon, it’s not as if you have to worry about it, and
it’s not as if I need one.”
It’s really starting to grate on me how she just takes everything in stride.
I can’t have any sort of peace of mind without a key. Meanwhile, Ryōgi
here seems to lack the part of your brain that’s supposed to sound warning
alarms when you aren’t secure even in your own home. I forget about
my anger toward her some minutes ago and replace it with worry for this
reckless girl.
“A house without a key ain’t a house. Just you wait; I’ll get you a new key.”
An idea suddenly forms in my mind. I remembered the last job I managed
to hold down, until two days ago at least, was in a moving company. I got
to learn a few things about fixing some household related stuff, so a simple
doorknob replacement wouldn’t be beyond me. They must have some
kind of regular doorknob in that warehouse of theirs. “No, scratch that. I’ll
replace the whole damn thing.”
“Well, whatever floats your boat. Do you have money for it?”
“Of course I do. It’s the least I could do for you. In fact, I’ll even do it
tonight, so you’ll have no problem tomorrow!”
And on saying that, I stand up immediately, filled with a force of will
whose origin even I couldn’t even begin to guess. I run towards the entrance,
twist the doorknob, swing open the door, and break out into a run into the
city canopied by night, barely allowing Ryōgi a word in edgewise. Here I
am, a wanted (or soon-to-be-wanted) man sprinting to a moving company
I planned to rob in the dead of night, putting some serious thought into
how I could slip in without getting caught. Forget Ryōgi. Going on this little
excursion for a girl whose first name I didn’t even know pretty much makes
me the certified crazy one.
Paradox Spiral - III
I’ve been living with Ryōgi for close to a week now. Over time, we’ve
established a simple pattern to our lifestyle. She wakes up, sometimes
going out earlier than me. Sometime later, I go out for the day as well, and
we only really see each other’s faces again when I come back to sleep at
night. It’s strange business to be sure. At some point, we gave each other
our names, thinking that it’d be quite strange to not know each other’s
names when it’s obvious I’d be over for some time.
Shiki Ryōgi. A repeating high school student…well, on paper at least,
considering her current truant history. That’s pretty much the sum total of
what I know about her.
She calls me by my last name, Enjō, which is why I might be given to
referring to her similarly as Ryōgi. She’s said more than once that she didn’t
like being called by her surname, but I can’t bring myself to call her Shiki.
It’s a pretty simple reason. Calling someone by their first name has always
seemed to me to be like some stamp of permanence, but this daily life right
now is as temporary a setup as I can imagine, which means someday, me
and Ryōgi will part ways. At any given time I could be actively hunted by
the police. I could be forced to run. Calling her Shiki, with all the baggage
that the first name tends to give you, will just weigh me down when that
day comes.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend, Enjō?”
On this night, like all the other nights, Ryōgi sits cross-legged atop her
bed, and as always, asks me a question that seems to come straight out of
nowhere. As for me, rolling around on the floor right next to her bed, I’ve
long become accustomed to them.
“If I had one, I wouldn’t need to swing by this dump every night, would
“That’s kind of strange, considering you’re not all that shabby looking.”
“That actually sounds more like an insult than a complement, coming
from you. And besides, I’ve had enough of women.”
“Interesting. Why, I wonder?” She lies down on the bed, which from my
position on the floor next to it, makes her temporarily unseen, though she
soon pops her head out directly above mine. She’s actually kind of cute like
this. “Are you gay?”
I take that back. Seeing her as anything resembling cute must have been 
a trick of the mind.
“No way. It’s just that, well…I’ve got a history with girls, and it didn’t
work out too well.” Before I know it, I’m already reminiscing with her. “Back
in high school, I went out with a girl for two months, and we spent most
of that quality time arguing. I didn’t want anything special from the relationship,
but she certainly did. She wanted all the cool, fancy things that
also happened to be expensive. I could practically hear my wallet screaming
at the time, but I still did it for her. When I could buy her things, she
was happy. When I couldn’t, she complained. That didn’t warm me to the
experience. And the sex wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, honestly. Besides,
I could’ve just jacked off if I wanted to feel good.”
I thought this story would bore Ryōgi, but she actually seems to be hanging
on every word, so I continue with a sigh. “Eventually, I started to dislike
her. All the money and affection I gave her slowly looked more like a waste
of time. Maybe if I was a normal student, I could’ve given her more of my
time, but as it stood then, I didn’t have that kind of freedom. The hours
I spent with her started draining any hours I had left for sleep. Without
the free time, I guess it was doomed from the start. But, stupid as I was, I
never tried breaking up with her. I never liked to hurt or get hurt, and it was
definitely one of those times where I could’ve made her cry.”
“But you did break up with her, didn’t you? How did you do it?” Ryōgi
asks, intrigued.
“Hey, I ain’t the bad guy here. She dumped me. One night, after we had
sex at a motel, she turned towards me on the bed and said—and this is a
direct quote I swear—that I never really looked at her. That I only looked at
her appearance and not her heart. Now that was a real sucker punch right
there.” Before I even finish talking, I already hear the spasms of laughter
from Ryōgi going from chuckle to guffaw. When I shrug my shoulders as I
finish my story, her head disappears back toward the bed, and she finally
lets the suppressed laughter out.
“Wow, you are a piece of work, Enjō! ‘Didn’t look at her heart?’ That was
a girl with a lot of baggage, I can tell you that.” I hear the springs on her bed
creaking as she rolls to and fro in her bed, laughing accusatorily.
“Well, at least I never made the mistake of making fun of children’s
love. It ain’t funny.” I stand up, indignant, which makes Ryōgi restrain her
laughter by degrees. She rubs her eyes before she sits up and looks at me
“But it is funny, Enjō. You just don’t see it. I mean, look, what’s the only
thing people can see of other people? Their appearance! She thinks her
appearance is so insignificant, and yet she forces you to buy all that flashy 
bullshit. And then she asks you to somehow look at her ‘heart’ or something,
which no one can really see? Shit ain’t right, man. So you see, it’s
funny! If she wanted to you to see her heart, she could’ve been better
served writing some literature down on paper. Breaking up with her was
the best thing that ever happened to you, Enjō.”
She returns to lying down on the bed, facing away from me. There is a
beat of silence before she looks back at me again, her catlike eyes staring
into me. She starts to open her mouth somewhat pensively, but hesitates
and looks away, then looks back again before she finally speaks.
“Well, just so you know there’s no hard feelings, I’ll tell you something
someone once told me. He said that ‘it’s those unseen, unvoiced things
that form love. And it isn’t right to give voice to them, or else they might
turn into lies.’ That’s what he said anyway.” At that, she turns away from
me again, and I know then that she’s already closed her eyes to sleep. With
that abrupt end to our conversation, I turn off the lights and lie down on the
floor to sleep as well, letting the rare silence engulf the room and allowing
myself to think. I accept that I might have slipped up with one girl, but my
mind entertains the thought. What if—what if it was this girl? Would the
same things still apply? Or would she, as she always seems inclined to do,
just laugh it off and accept it?
I come back to Ryōgi’s room one night on the second week of my
extended stay. I plunge the key inside the lock, turn it, and open the door.
I walk inside to find Ryōgi already sleeping. Though the noise I’m making
just stepping into her room is probably enough to wake her, she doesn’t.
She must be sound asleep, or else ascribing my footfalls to a category of
acceptable noise not worth waking up to. Either way is good.
I hold a palm to my cheek, still smarting from being hit, as I approach my
usual spot on the floor and sit down. The clock on the desk beside Ryōgi’s
bed ticks the time away as the second hand moves to the next mark, and
the next, on and on in a circle. At the moment, both the minute and hour
hand lie at peace pointing at twelve. I’ve never liked the analog ones.
Staring at them, I always feel like I could slowly lose myself in the rotating,
spiraling hands. The pain from the kicks I received in my leg flares up again,
and I utter a low grunt of complaint in spite of myself. Ryōgi however, still
remains unmoving, allowing me to look at her face deep in her deathly,
petrified sleep. In two weeks of staying in this empty room, one thing
always arrests my vision. When Ryōgi sleeps, she looks almost like a doll,
a lifeless thing sleeping atop the bed; so much so that when the sun rises, 
she doesn’t “awaken,” but performs something I liken to an act of resurrection,
as if life has been breathed into her for another day.
At first, I thought that she woke up early for school but I soon realized
that was not the case. It’s always a phone call that gives Ryōgi the impetus
to actually go out. She waits for it everyday. If no call comes, she confines
herself here, consumed again by the doll-like languor. Needless to say,
while I didn’t know the subject of those calls, they were no doubt about
something dangerous, something that excites Ryōgi enough to have the
willingness to go outside.
The interminable ticking of the clock burrows its way deep into my
head as I ponder on the simplicity of Ryōgi, her beautiful life devoid of any
sadness, returning only to a joyous vitality when she does whatever it is
she needs to do. The perfectly empty life without overindulgence, the existence
of the “real” that I never thought I would find. The sort of Platonic
ideal of existence that I wanted to become.
“Shiki.” The word escapes my lips, more silent than a whisper and seeping
out like a silent exhalation, and yet, seemingly at cue, Ryōgi chooses
that exact moment to wake up. A crease forms between her eyes as she
looks me over.
“What the hell happened to you?” she asks. Guess she noticed all the
bruises on me.
“Had no choice,” I sigh. “Two guys I didn’t even know tried to jump me,
and since they were spoiling for a fight, it got messy. Not really good at this
whole fighting business, so there you go.”
“You must have studied something, at least. And yet, you still have
trouble beating on two guys. What, does getting hurt turn you on?” Ryōgi
observes wryly as she pushes herself up from the bed.
“Don’t assume anything. I’ve never taken any sort of class in a martial
art. Still, if it comes to a fight I can give as good as the next guy.”
“Which is to say, not much at all. I thought for sure you learned something,
since I saw you use the palm of your hand to fight when we first met.
So where’d you learn that?”
“I heard somewhere that for someone who wasn’t used to it, using your
fists would just hurt you as much as you hurt them. So it’s better for people
like me to just use the palm. Besides, isn’t the palm harder? I mean, look
at cans. No one punches a can. Everyone crushes it with their palm, right?
There’s something there, man.”
“It’s cause it’s easier that way, dumbass,” she says with the usual calmness
in her voice. This time though, I detect a sense of faint praise from it
as well. Her eyes are as intense as they ever are, and it makes me break eye 
contact with her from embarrassment.
“How about you, Ryōgi? You must have studied aikidō or something.”
“Just a passing interest in aikidō, actually. I’ve only been really serious
with one style that I’ve been into ever since I was a spoiled brat.”
“Since you were a kid? No wonder you could plant a roundhouse in the
back of a running guy’s head. I’m guessing that’s not all there is to your
style, though.” Though I only intended it to be a casual statement, Ryōgi
takes my last sentence to think on seriously.
“Kind of. It’s sort of a style of my own. The key to it is the mindset.
You rethink everything about yourself. Your breathing, your footwork, your
perspective, how you think—even the way you move your muscles changes,
and it’s almost like becoming someone else. All of it is honed towards
taking down your enemy as economically as possible. I mean, I suppose all
martial arts touch on it to some extent, but I guess we…I mean, I took it
too far.”
She spits the last words out as if she hated the entire concept, to which
I have to react with some amusement. “What’s so bad about that? At least
you don’t get hit like me, and you get to take out two dudes in two seconds.
It’s one cool self-made style if you ask me.”
Her eyes wander away from me, and seem to hint at some heavy disquiet
before she replies. “Weird thing about that self-made style: I learned it
by sort of watching someone else do it.”
When she immediately plops back down on the bed, I get the feeling she
doesn’t want to continue the conversation anymore. As she goes back to
sleep, I’m left to contemplate what exactly her last words meant.
In a room in a slice of nothingness, dull gray steam rises, the hissing
sharp enough to pierce the ears. There is a heat here enough to make
anyone break into sweat in moments. The room is unlit, save for the dim
orange glow of something burning on an iron plate. All around me, there
are large canisters lined up one after another, and on the floor, I feel countless
amounts of narrow tubing brush against my legs.
Not a single soul can be found in the room. Only the hissing of the
billowing steam and the useless sound of bubbling water keep each other
I wake up violently to a cold, dead night. A dream. It was a dream. A
nightmare maybe, different from the usual one. Still, there was little to like
about it. The second hand on the clock ticks away as if to mock me, and 
when I turn to look at it, I see the time has not even passed 3:00am. Still
quite a while before I usually wake up.
The next thing I notice is that the familiar shape of Ryōgi lying on the
bed is gone. Must be another one of her strolls. She does them every so
often. Why they need to be done at an ungodly hour when even the fauna
sleep is beyond me. I worry about her sometimes. Even though she can
fight, that doesn’t make it all right for her to take a walk so late alone in
a city full of people ready to take advantage of that. I briefly think about
going out to find her, even though I know full well that not messing with
each other’s private lives has become some sort of unspoken rule for me
to live here.
Ah, fuck it, I’ll go. She’s pretty enough that it’s going to be hard for all
the thugs down in Shinsen to just let her pass by without incident. I rise,
and as I’m about to open the door to go out into the hallway, the door
unexpectedly opens with to admit a girl dressed in a familiar kimono and
leather jacket inside. Ryōgi promptly closes it with as little sound as she
made opening it.
“Hey, you’re home,” I say. She casts her glare upwards to look at me. And
in that moment, I feel something.
She could kill me.
The lights in the hallway behind her are turned off, and only Ryōgi’s eyes
shine a frighteningly deep blue in the darkness. My breathing is cut off, and
for a while, my mind spaces out and I stand stock still unable to do anything
in that moment of pure dread.
“You won’t do either,” Ryōgi says, not even trying to hide the consternation
in her voice. When she speaks, I snap back to normalcy. She brushes
past me, taking off her jacket and flinging it across the room toward her
bed in anger. She takes a seat on top of the bed and lazily leans back on
the wall behind her, offering an upturned head and a blank stare towards
the ceiling.
Trying to ignore the chill that is still running the circuit of my spine, I
make an awkward about-face from the door and return to the living room
to sit down in a random spot on the floor. The invisible third inhabitant of
this room—the unseen and heavy silence that blankets everything— again
passes between us, as it does so commonly, until she breaks it with her
monotone words.
“I went out to kill.”
Unable to form any sort of appropriate response to her, I only nod
my head to acknowledge what she said. She seems to take it as a sign to
“Useless. I couldn’t find anyone I wanted to kill. When I opened the door
and you were there, I thought that you could satisfy me for a time, but you
couldn’t. Killing you would’ve been meaningless.”
“I honest to God thought you were going to kill me right then and there,”
I reply hesitantly but truthfully.
“I want to feel like I’m alive. But I know a simple murder has no meaning.
It’s why I drift aimlessly at the late hours, trying to find a reason to live. It’s
almost like being a ghost. One day…I just know I’m going to kill someone
for no reason.” The words come out like a conversation thrown toward
some unseen presence as much as it does a disclosure confided in me,
almost resembling the torpid speech of a junkie on withdrawal. This is the
first time I’ve seen her like this. The first time we met was during one of
her nightly strolls, but she didn’t seem to be spoiling for a fight back then.
“Get a grip on yourself, Ryōgi. You’ll manage,” I tell her, as I stand up
and place my hands on her shoulders. Shoulders that seem so unnaturally
slender for someone as dangerous as her.
“I am managing. This is how I do it. I got this feeling back in summer too,
and that time when—” her speech trails off, like she just remembered a
memory she’d like to forget. I sit back down on the floor, and Ryōgi takes
that as a sign to abandon her position on the wall and collapse on top of
the bed sideways.
“Hey, Ryōgi,” I probe, not really expecting any further clarification. She’s
the one that said to me that the heart is unvoiced and unknown to all
except you, lest it turn into a lie. It’s easy to understand. She’s all alone. I
was once like that, but at least I had, if not real friends, then just people
who I could distract myself with so that the problem wouldn’t be so obvious.
But she doesn’t have that luxury. She had no need of them.
“Hey, Ryōgi,” I repeat, letting my back rest against the bed so I wouldn’t
see her. “Do you have any friends?” Some seconds pass to delay her
response before she speaks again.
“Yeah. I think I do.”
“Wait, you do?” I say incredulously, expecting a completely opposite
answer. In contrast, Ryōgi just nods calmly. “Then there’s an easy solution!
Just go to them and dump all your problems on their lap so they help you.
It’s the best and easiest thing to do in your condition. Even just small talk is
usually enough to make you forget all about it.”
“Well, he’s not here now. He’s out of town, doing God knows what.” I fall
silent listening to the echo of loneliness in her words, but then, as if to say
that the spirit of her solitude was only something I imagined, she starts to
hit the bed violently with her clenched fists. “I mean, that guy just barges 
in here without so much as a warning, and how does he return the favor?
Oh, nothing except a freaking phone number, is all. He even had to take
a nappynap in bed for a whole month while I took care of business last
summer. Why do I have to be constantly irritated at him? I mean, what an
asshole, right?”
The sound of her fist hitting a pillow repeats itself, and her voice grows
increasingly louder with each new sentence of her spontaneous rant. I
almost can’t believe that Ryōgi is getting this much of a rise from a single
question. Now the dull thuds turn into sounds of sharp stabbing, almost
like Ryōgi is piercing the pillow with a knife. I don’t think I really want to
know exactly what she’s doing so I restrain my curiosity to turn around and
look. In a little while, the tearing sounds stop and she finally calms down.
As for me, I kind of become envious at this friend who can raise her to such
heights of emotion (for her at least), and at the risk of further reaction, I
decide to ask her about this person.
“Say, Ryōgi…” No answer. Guess she must still be mad. I pay it no mind
and continue. “This friend of yours from your school or something? What’s
he like?”
“Yeah, from high school,” Ryōgi responds nonchalantly. “Guy with a
name like a poet.” I decide not to puzzle out the meaning to that just yet.
“So this guy is the reason you go out at night, isn’t he?”
“Nah. My urge to go out at night and kill is just me being me. What’s
the matter? You really wanna find out what could possibly make me scary
enough for you to practically wet yourself when I went in?”
“What, me, scared? I’m not—”
“You’re the one that said you thought I was going to kill you.” Her voice
is a cold sing-song tune that latches itself onto the nape of my neck, tracing
a chokingly smooth line around it, and for a moment, I am forced to
wonder if the person lying behind me is truly human. “See? You’re thinking
it again. But rest easy. It’s the danger that really pumps those pleasure
chemicals for me, and killing you wouldn’t be so dangerous now, would it?
Still, it would probably be best for you to find a new place to hide, Enjō. In
the end, the pleasure I get from murder is going to bite me in the ass, and
you with it.”
Her intonation falls to the volume one expects of an act of contrition.
Goddamn it. The only thing it does for me is make an already distant woman
even more distant and inscrutable. I understand now; that easily as much
as I am terrified of this implacable person—
—I have fallen for her just as much.
“Dumbass. That’s not like you and you know it,” I say. “That’s just you 
being upset. You’ve got two options here: mope, or call that friend of yours
and go through it together. That’s what friends are for, and if you don’t do
it, you’ll just cut yourself off from socie—”
Awkwardly, my words cut off at that point. Like Ryōgi a few minutes ago,
my mouth was starting to take over my mind and spouted the first thing
that came to mind. With both of us noting the strange pause, I decide to
end the conversation. “Well, that’s all I wanted to say. Good night, Ryōgi.”
I then proceed to lie sprawled on the floor, still not permitting myself to
look at her.
She says something to me, but I ignore it as I try to sink into slumber
from the embarrassment. For tonight at least, I’ve lost all confidence to
talk with Ryōgi. It’s a pretty simple reason. When I was saying those words,
when I don’t even have a friend to call my own like Ryōgi does, I felt like the
biggest hypocritical bastard alive.
Paradox Spiral - IV
Here, back in the dilapidated back alley where I first met Ryōgi, even
the buzzing sounds of the city streets turn into nothing more than distant
echoes coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. I can remember
the blood here so vividly that I can even recall their bitter smell. But they’re
gone now, swept up, like everything else, into the alley grime and the
cold of the late October morning. Even the white puff of air that quickly
disappears as I exhale is a testament to this phenomenon. From the same
everywhere and nowhere that the flood of people are located, I single out
the sound of a clock and its ticking, imagining the hands going round and
It’s now been a month since I threw away my home and my livelihood
and ran away. And yet, there is still no visible indication that the police are
after me, or even actively investigating what I did. Every day, I pass by the
window of a nearby electronics store with a display television tuned to the
news. I watch diligently, but up till now it has not reported anything on the
murder I committed. The story is the same for the newspapers I can spy
or steal from the stands. What I did was far more than a simple, random
murder. No, it’s the kind of thing that journalists can’t resist putting up
on the 6:30 news for the public to go crazy about, no matter what police
embargo they were under.
Maybe they haven’t found it? No, that can’t be possible. Still, the
thought of the bodies not being found after a month makes something
churn in my stomach in a feeling almost like nausea, and engulfs me in
a sense of melancholy. I briefly entertain the idea of checking to see if
they’re still there, but pass on it because I don’t have the guts to, and the
possibility of any five-oh staking the place out to see if I’ll come back. I
suppose there’s nothing else to do except sit here on the sidelines and wait
for any sort of sign.
Still, at least once…at least once I want to see it on television so I can
finally have an excuse to disappear from Ryōgi’s life. Once the name Tomoe
Enjō rings out in society as a the name of a murderer, I’ll only cause trouble
for Ryōgi, and that’s when I can finally cut what little ties we have and make
my exit from this wretched city. But maybe that’s already too late for me.
The clock echoes from its indeterminate location, and the wind seems
to grow in strength with each recurring tick. Following the course of the
cold north wind, I walk away from the alley.
As I exit the maze of back lanes, I notice a familiar figure come into 
view in a far pedestrian crossing. Who else could it be in a kimono and a
leather jacket except Ryōgi? And yet, even further away from her I manage
to see another faintly familiar face: one of the guys present on that violent
night when me and Ryōgi first met. With well-practiced steps, he lurks a
ways behind Ryōgi, trying not to draw attention to himself.
This could get bad. I stand there for a moment debating what to do,
but the ticking of the clock forces me to action. I make my way into and
through the press of people and stalk the man stalking Ryōgi. It doesn’t
take very long and far for another of his number to join the man, the same
person that Ryōgi delivered a roundhouse to. It doesn’t seem like they
plan on doing anything to her, or they’d have done it already; there were
plenty of chances for them in the past few minutes to do so away from
prying eyes. Instead, they seem to be content in keeping watch on her for
now. Surprisingly enough, they seem organized and rehearsed, with not
a single step out of place or fumbled. After an hour, the front-and-follow
show comes to an end with the two breaking off their tail. Curious as to
their destination, I continue to shadow them as they quicken their pace to
head into—
—the same alley I was in an hour ago.
This looks like a trap, but if it’s for me or for Ryōgi, and for what
purpose, I can’t know. The disquiet in me grows. I slip beside the entrance
to the alleyway, where the space is graduated into a narrow passageway,
and stop to listen. I turn my head little by little around the corner to sneak
a glance at what the two could be doing. As my vision pans over to what
little I can see inside, I freeze at what I see.
A man in a vivid wine-red long coat, whose silhouette tells of long,
tall, and slender features, stands in the middle of the alleyway. His hair is
a long, blonde fall from head to back. Even from this distance, I can see
the condescending, almost pitying expression on his face as he opens his
mouth to speak.
“■■■■■■――――――――” He speaks in a language that echoes out
in power, and magic, and ambition. And though I don’t understand it, I
somehow understand the fluency with which he wields it.
I feel someone’s presence behind me and quickly turn to meet whoever
it was, but find no one there. I swing my head back to look at the alleyway,
but in that small span of an instant that could not have been more
than a second, the man had vanished.
The north wind blows through the alleyway, passing through me,
seemingly more frigid now than before. I shiver in spite of myself, and hold
my arms close to my body. The shiver starts to intensify uncontrollably, and 
for no particular reason, an urge to cry takes over me, and I barely resist it.
In that urge, I feel in my skin a tremble of entropy, the end of an autumn,
and in my bare face I feel the very end of me.
When night falls and me and Ryōgi are back at her room, I tell her all
about what happened this morning. As usual, however, her reply is concise
to the point of unhelpfulness.
“Really?” She draws the word out with a barely suppressed yawn.
“Don’t fucking ‘and?” me! Those guys weren’t the only one watching
you. Do you remember seeing any foreign dude with a red long coat?”
“Hmm, guy sounds like a ball to hang out with. But no, I don’t.” She
quickly loses her interest in the conversation, just as she always does in
anything she deems of no real or immediate consequence. I have a feeling
that even if you falsely accuse her of murder, she’ll pay it no real heed. To
her, the weight of external events is far less important than her own feelings.
Sometimes, I almost feel like I want to emulate that state of mind, but
this was a moment of exception. That man was as real as anything I’ve ever
seen, containing something like a purity similar to Shiki Ryōgi, and beyond
my reach.
“Can you just listen for one second to what I’m saying? It’s not like
this is someone else’s problem. It’s yours!” My yelling somehow gets Ryōgi
to prop herself up on the bed and sit atop it with crossed legs. She looked
at me as I tried my hardest to show a stern face. After staring each other
down for a brief moment, she speaks.
“Alright, I get it, it’s a problem. What I don’t get is why you’re so worked
up about this, Enjō.”
“I worry because you’re an idiot and wouldn’t know better.” A brief
pause. “I don’t want you to get hurt or anything.” A gulp, a moment’s
glance away from her, and then, “because I love you, goddamit.”
The bickering atmosphere seemed to evaporate in an instant. There, I
said it. The word that should never be. Even though I promised not to say
it on account of me leaving eventually. Ryōgi, for her part, looks at me with
cocked brow, as if observing some quaint curiosity. Several seconds pass in
this way until she finally…
…bursts out laughing. Her first laugh was so sudden that she would
have spitted out milk if she had any in her mouth.
“What—” She tries to stop herself from laughing but can’t. “What the
hell, Enjō? Shit ain’t right, man. You’re not in love with me. You’re just—” 
Another fit of boisterous laughter. “You’ve just been hypnotized or something
by that guy in a red coat. Take a flashback, I’m sure you’ll remember
a pendulum dangling in front of you!”
So even this is a matter to laugh off. Her disbelief only agitates me
“No, it’s the god’s honest truth! When I saw you, it was the first time I
saw anyone so real, and someone so like me. But you—you’re not fake like
everyone else. I’d do anything for you to believe me.”
I draw closer to Ryōgi and put my hands atop her shoulders. That
reduces her laughter to a giggle, and finally stops it altogether. I see her
shift her eyes to look at my arm, and then back at me.
“I see,” she says dryly. Suddenly, she grasps my shirt collar with blinding
speed. With one smooth movement, she throws me like paper over
and atop the bed, leaving me looking upwards with her face looming close
above mine as she lies on top of me. I have no idea when she had the time
to produce the knife that she is now holding in her free hand. “Then will
you die for me?”
I feel the tip of the blade prick my neck ever so lightly, and see Ryōgi’s
eyes narrow into a sinister glint. I know at that moment that her question
isn’t whether I would die doing something for her, but if I would allow her
to kill me for her own pleasure, nonchalant and indifferent as she always
is. The only way she can show any real affection. I’m scared, so scared of
death that my body is paralyzed by it. And yet, I don’t have long for this
world anyway. One day, the police are going to come knocking, and then
there’ll be no going back. And it is with that consideration that I say:
“Yeah. I’d gladly die for you.” There is the tiniest shift, the smallest
movement on Ryōgi’s brow, and it lets me know that I said something she
didn’t expect, and for a moment, she hesitated, and her eyes slightly return
to familiarity. “Do it. Kill me. It’s not going to be long now anyway. I killed
my parents, and that means the death penalty. I’d rather have you kill me
than the law and a noose.”
“You’re a parricide?” I can still feel the knife tip keenly on my neck,
but the strength behind its grip has ebbed noticeably. There, before I die,
I decide to lay bare the horrible memory that haunts me, just to convince
myself I took my one last opportunity at penance.
“Yeah, killed both of them. They were no good—kept racking up debts
that I didn’t know about and wasting all of the money. Had enough dealing
with their bullshit, so I took a kitchen knife to their guts and stabbed them
over and over, to make sure I didn’t make any mistake. That night was cold
as hell, but those organs and intestines…they were all so warm. Like you 
could feel the heat going up from their spilled guts and it wrapped all over
you. It almost made me go numb and crazy. My fingers wouldn’t let go of
the knife, and my arm just kept going up and down, up and down by itself.
You couldn’t tell whether I took a knife to them to kill, or if I just wanted to
go crazy and mix up some human insides; you couldn’t even tell whether a
person killed them, or an animal.”
I think that it would only be appropriate for me to break down in tears
now, but the tears won’t come. Instead, I feel a strange sort of relief, as if
killing my parents truly did make me find freedom.
“Tomoe, why did you kill them?” Her voice hangs on the border
between inquisitiveness and pity as she asks the question I know would
come. What was the answer, then? Was it because I hated them? Because
they were more trouble than they were worth? Only lies I whisper in silent
nights to salve the memory. The truth, the real reason is,
“I was scared…of a dream. A dream where I come home from my
job late at night and lie down on my bed. I can hear the shouting match
between my mom and dad from the other side of the door, but the noise
stops. Soon after, the door opens, my mother standing in the doorway,
and beyond her, my dad covered in blood and lying dead. Then my mother
kneels down on top of me, brings up a knife to stab me over and over
before she slits her own throat. The dream is so real, I thought I’d really
died. But morning came and I woke up just the same. That’s supposed to
be the end of it, right? Just my desire to kill my parents manifesting itself
one night, right? But when I started to see it every single fucking night,
every time waking up breathing hard, almost screaming, I couldn’t stand it.
I was scared of that fictional night where the dream would come alive. And
one night, I decided I couldn’t stand to experience it one more night, and I
broke. So I killed them, before they could kill me.”
I remember that night as clearly as a happy memory. I’d hid the kitchen
knife beside the mattress, and when mom opened the door for some
reason or another, I charged her, knife out and straight towards her chest.
I stabbed her over and over, as if to make up for all the times I had been
stabbed myself in my dreams. And with that, I was free from my useless
folks, free from that ominous dream, with nothing to tie me down. A dirty,
bloodstained freedom.
“You’re one goddamned idiot, you know that?” says Ryōgi frankly,
with a lack of restraint that snaps me out of my reverie. She’s right, more
resoundingly and more profoundly than probably even she knows. I’m one
hell of an idiot to have not thought of any other way out of my situation
except to kill my own parents. But even now, I don’t regret it for a second. 
I’d sooner be caught by the police and be put behind bars than to have
endured another day of my former life. But I did realize one thing when I
was explaining my crime to Ryōgi: how can a boy who has only ever looked
out and cared for himself start to care about a stranger like Ryōgi? It seems
like some sort of fallacy, a lingering paradox, an act to which I do not have
any right to perform. Knowing this, it’s probably no mystery why she just
laughed off my proposal. But that doesn’t sway my love for her, the one
thought that I find in me to be truly real, if still regrettably tainted by my
sin. When I realize this, the fever of passion that had seized me minutes
ago began to subside. But even in this paradox, I still consider the murder
a necessary action, and for me there are no regrets.
Ryōgi’s eyes hanging above me are distant and unclouded as they
stare into me, studying every quiver of the lip shaped by spoken words and
every crease and line formed on my face from unspoken emotion.
“You misunderstood your choices. If your parents were like that, and
you’ve lasted until now, then you could have borne that pain a bit more,
like you always did; chosen the easier way. But in the end, you had to
make it harder for yourself. When I first met you, I thought you were trying
to deny who you were. You were empty. So here’s the question: did you
change since that night? Or do you want to die now just as much as you
wanted to then?” asks the girl who would kill me on a whim, the girl I had
surrendered my life to.
She is right again. Another contradiction. I tried to cast my life away
on that night, thinking it alright to murder someone in a deserted alley,
but also thinking it wouldn’t be so bad for the same thing to happen to
me. Just continuing to exist aimlessly, like a wind-up doll conducting some
bad facsimile of humanity, seemed like a burden with each step. And yet, I
didn’t want to die, didn’t even want to kill myself. That cruel paradox seized
me as if to tear me apart, and the same thing is occurring now: facing Ryōgi
now with my sins bare before her, and still not completely embracing the
death that is staring into my face, even though I know life is just a slow slide
to the eventual end. My end will just be a little earlier, a little stupider, and
a little more worthless than other people. It’s the worthlessness that I can’t
seem to bear. If that’s the way it’s going to go, then…
“…dying by your hand would be more worthwhile, more real.”
“Maybe, maybe not. The only thing I know is that you’re not dying
tonight. Not because of me, anyway. I don’t need to take your life.” Ryōgi
lifts the knife away from my throat, and then puts it away. Like a cat losing
interest in a toy, she gets up from the bed and walks away from me, retrieving
her jacket from the coat rack as she does so. Looks like she’s about to 
go out somewhere. I can’t stand to look at her anymore. “Tell me, Enjō.
Where’s home for you?” Ryōgi’s voice reverts to the coldness I recognize
since the first night we met.
Funny question to ask. Me and my folks kept moving, never staying
for more than half a year in any one place; I assume either because of the
unpaid rents, or the collection agencies would come knocking. Ever since

that started happening, I’ve hated the setup and wanted a real, normal
house. Like the one we had when I was a kid.
“A dump called unit 405 in an apartment somewhere. Why are you
“That isn’t what I asked. I’m asking about the place you really want to
go back to. Well, if you don’t know, can’t say I didn’t expect it.” Ryōgi opens
the door leading outside, and without turning to face me, she says, “Ciao,
Enjō. Come by any time you feel the need.”
She goes out the door, and with a turn, she disappears from view,
seemingly taking all of the color of the room with her, leaving everything
with an air of dreariness. For several minutes, my rust-tainted soul looks
over the room where I’d spent the last month of my life, before I decide to
depart and separate myself from the dull monochrome.
Spiral Paradox - I
Winter’s finally come.
Much like how I could have used a bit more summer time than what
was given to me this year, the town is also owed its debt of autumn. Even
now, as I’m looking out the window of the office, the sky that hangs over
the city is pregnant with snow threatening to fall. It almost feels wrong, like
the order of things and seasons were manipulated, leaving little trace of
the autumn that came somewhere in September and expired in November
faster than one could have possibly noticed.
During that time, in October to be exact, I was dragged by a relative of
mine to a driving school he ran out of town, somewhere in the boondocks
in Nagano. It was like some sort of “drive camp” where you stayed for three
weeks and finished the curriculum faster than most driving schools. I was
kind of annoyed to have to leave this fine city for a month, but seeing as I
couldn’t turn down the request of a relative, and that my boss, Miss Tōko,
gave her blessing for me to go, I didn’t have much choice in the matter.
They ran that place more like a military camp than they do a school, but
after three weeks of that miserable nonsense, here I am, back in my home
turf, for good I hope.
“Full name: Mikiya Kokutō,” I read aloud from the driving license in my
hand. It’s smaller than an ATM card, and yet it has all my pertinent information
written on it: my name, address, date of birth, and to top it all
off, a picture of my ugly mug pasted on the front. The most innocuous
but common form of ID that a person can get. “What do you make of this
license, Miss Tōko?”
On a bed in the corner of the room lies Miss Tōko. As I throw the question
to her, I expect no real answer, but—
“A contract,” —she does answer, in her usual puzzling way. She’s been
laid low by a particularly nasty flu that put her temperature at 38 degrees,
which is the reason for her current bed rest. Still, she seems as indomitable
and alert as ever, proving that not even flu can make her sleep in working
hours. That, or she’s probably hungry, seeing as it’s half past noon.
Despite the window being closed, a chill still runs through the room that
charges the atmosphere. It might be because we’re in the fourth floor, in
Miss Tōko’s room to be exact; a room that I’ve not been to many times. I’ve
moved the chair beside the window and Miss Tōko’s bed so I can better
keep watch over her. I look over my recently acquired license as I contemplate
the bad luck of my situation: after three weeks of driving—that is not, 
by the way, necessarily fun—the only thing that waited for me back here
is a silently sulking Shiki and a sick Miss Tōko. While they claim that they
have improved relations in my absence, one need only hear about Shiki’s
complete refusal to help Miss Tōko, as well as her uttering of “Here’s to
hoping the flu melts your brain” right to her face as she downs a glass of
water, as proof to the contrary.
The full name of that capricious individual is Shiki Ryōgi; a girl, though
her manner of speech combined with her somewhat ambiguous features
can make people understandably confused. The one beside me with a
wet towel on her forehead is Miss Tōko Aozaki, my boss in the company
I work for. However, besides Miss Tōko, I’m the only one employed in this
“company,” so it’s a bit suspect to call it as such. She is, in simple terms,
some kind of genius; and as is often the case with geniuses, is frequently
lacking in good company. It seems that she has confined herself to her bed
the entire day, though the fact that she is awake and not resting tells me
that it’s more of an excuse for her to not work than through any major
fault of the flu itself, though she did curse herself for not getting her shots
this year. While I’m inclined to tell her that she should go get herself to
a doctor instead of lying around here, I’m practically the last person she
listens to. She said to me once that mages are often obstinate people, and
as a mage herself, she is probably one of the most obstinate of them all.
It’s precisely that sort of pride that stops her from just going to a doctor,
loathe as she is to surrender herself to the care of any sort of “expert.” And
so I resigned myself to not being able to meet Shiki and nursing Miss Tōko
back to health, at least for now.
“A contract.” She repeats her half-hearted answer as she retrieves her
glasses near her pillow. Her back-length red hair, regularly tied back in a
ponytail, is untied today for convenience. Under normal circumstances
you’d first notice her stern and even slightly ominous character, but in the
current situation, I can recognize how pretty she is, almost enough for me
to ascribe her as a different person. No doubt to prevent herself from falling
asleep, she continues the conversation. “What that is,” she points to my
license, “is a sort of contract for you having learned how to drive. This whole
country is upside down, nowadays. You don’t study to learn anymore. You
study to get the test results. And as soon as you get your results, the meaning
of everything you learned just fades away. It doesn’t tell you anything,
except for the fact that you learned something to a certain shallow degree.
It’s just a contract. The reason and the result are all mixed up. It’s like a
paradox, isn’t it?” She raises herself up from the bed and rests her back on
the headboard as I respond.
“But isn’t that what results are for? I mean, everyone studies for one
reason or another.”
“Of course the opposite is also true. It’s reached such a state where the
goal and the result, the act and its impetus can be flipped and switched
around. Just as there are people who drive right after they have a license,
so there will also be people who will obtain a license after they’ve already
learned to drive, and so ace the test.”
Miss Tōko is normally much more polite than her usual self with her
glasses on, but today, possibly because of her fever, she is even more so.
I’ve long learned to treasure such rare moments. Normally, she’d use that
last sentence to point to herself—considering that I know she took the
written and practical exam with little trouble or error, so much so that the
instructor just glared and sniffed at her—to lord her authority. Still, I feel
like it’s not the same without her citing stories of her genius past, so I feel
compelled to point it out for her.
“I know you were one of those who didn’t even need to take lessons,
weren’t you, Miss Tōko? Hmm, the image of you going to one of those
schools is kind of—”
—disturbing. And funny. I can’t even imagine it.
Sensing the gist of the unsaid words, Miss Tōko glares at me and gives
the best scowl she can manage in her condition.
“Come now, Mikiya. I was a student back then and it wouldn’t have been
so out of place for me to go to one. The way you swallowed your words just
now, you’d think I had four ears and a tail.”
She furrows her brow and closes her eyes in an apparent show of dissatisfaction.
I never really thought about it before, but I suppose Miss Tōko
had her teenage years too. As I think that, the image of a prim and proper
student version of Miss Tōko pops unbidden into my head, and it makes
me gulp, and my heart skip; I can’t exactly pin down whether it’s because
of fear or humor.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but the image my mind is conjuring up looks like you
from another dimension.”
“Oh, I see how this is. Now that I’m sick, you show you’re true colors,
That forces a little chuckle on me. I’d have to do that, seeing as all the
humor is usually aimed at me. I have to scale the balance of power somehow.
I stand up to replace the towel on her forehead, which elicits a triggered
response from her:
“I’m starving. Go. Cook.”
Regrettably, the congee she had this morning is already being digested 
in her stomach, leaving no food immediately at hand.
“We’ll have to order take-out. The udon with eggs from Kongetsu sound
“Aww, no. I’ve eaten that enough times to know exactly how many sips
it takes before it cools down. C’mon, Mikiya, just cook something already.
You’re a happy bachelor with your own place, so you should be able to
whip something up right?”
I want to have a talk with whoever popularized that suspicious correlation.
Regardless, I shrug my shoulders even as Miss Tōko looks on me with
eyes filled with the expectation of delicious gourmet food, and I reveal to
her the cruel truth.
“Well, unless you want nothing but noodles, I can’t do anything for you
ma’am. At worst, it’ll be some college-staple instant stuff; at best, it’ll be
simple pasta. If that’s fine with you, then hey, let me in the kitchen.” She
frowns almost instantly.
“What about the congee you made this morning? That wasn’t some
supermarket congee, I can tell you that much.”
“You’ll have to thank Shiki for that one. She doesn’t cook much, but
she’s pretty good when it comes to Japanese food.” Miss Tōko lets out a
low hum, I suppose indicating her surprise. Shiki being able to cook isn’t
actually such a great surprise if you think about it. She was a spoiled brat of
the Ryōgi family, who are known for their traditional…well, everything. And
so Shiki’s palate must be similarly adjusted. She eats pretty much anything,
but I guess it’s only because she’s learned to forgive the plebian tastes of
the food that everyone aside from her makes. When she makes food, it’s
on a level that she can personally call good, so it’s really just natural that
she’s so well-practiced in it.
“It’s kind of surprising that Shiki would do anything for me. But I guess,
considering how well she handles that knife of hers, it isn’t really out of
place when she uses it for something other than stabbing.” She produces a
long sigh of disappointment. “Well, since there’s nothing to be done about
it, how about for now you get me those medicine bottles on top of my
desk, Mikiya?”
After begrudgingly accepting that she’s not getting to freeload a meal,
Miss Tōko lies back down on the bed. I approach her desk to retrieve the
three medicine bottles on top of it, but something catches my eye. A photo
is propped up on top of the desk, showing what I’m sure is some country
that is not Japan. A cobblestone path frames the bottom of the picture, and
in the background is a famous clock tower. The sky that is captured in the
frame is the same sort of snow-threatening gray overcast that plagues the 
city today., and below it in the center foreground, three individuals stand
beside each other, two men, one woman. Both men are imposingly tall,
but only one of them seems Japanese. The other exudes an air of someone
at home in the place, without a single mote of unsuitability or discomfort.
The Japanese man in the photo has cruel features that, even in a photograph,
command respect. His face is partially obscured, though not enough
to hide his appearance, but it gives me a sense of disquiet to just look at
him, as if he could leap out of the page through sheer force of presence.
My chest tightens as I think in passing that he seems familiar; makes me
think about that rainy night that I’ll never forget—
As I edge my face closer to the picture to get a better look at him, my
attention is drawn to something else. Between the Japanese man in a black
coat, and the blond, blue-eyed man in a red coat stands a young girl. She
sports an ebony mane that makes the Japanese man’s coat look faded in
comparison, and it stretches all the way below her waist. Her features tell
of a peaceful, resplendent teenager, seemingly born from a cross between
a hidden flower grown in darkness and a benevolent spirit’s visage.
“Miss Tōko,” I utter unwittingly, “what’s this picture about?” I hear her
rustle on the bed to turn to me, though I don’t see it, still engrossed at the
two clashing images in the photo.
“Oh, that? They were…old friends. I’d started to forget their faces, so I
took a picture out of the old album to reminisce. That one’s from when I
was in London, the place that was witness to my first and only mistake.”
I don’t fail to note that Miss Tōko’s voice has changed, and a quick glance
toward her confirms that her glasses aren’t worn but are placed on the
bedside table. Though she says it’s only her personality changing, not her
identity (unlike a certain other old friend I know), it really makes little
difference from my point of view. Miss Tōko without glasses is, in a word,
cold; with the speech, ideas, and actions to back it up. Despite working for
her for months now, I’ve never gotten used to it once.
“Let’s see, how far back was this again?” she wonders. “Must’ve been
‘round the time my sister got into high school, so it must have been at least
eight years. Always seem to have trouble calling back the faces of the guys
in those photos. Guess it must be some sort of sign.”
She turns away from me and lies face up into the ceiling, as if speaking
the words straight into the air will make her remember them better. It’s a
rare sight to see her reminiscing like this, just as it is rare to see her in any
sort of illness like now; that is to say that they have both never happened.
The flu must really be doing a number on her.
“Wait, London? As in, ‘tea and biscuits’ London?” I ask, incredulous, as 
I set the three medicine bottles down on her bedside table, pull the chair
closer to the bed, and sit back down beside her. She pauses to pop some
pills into her mouth, then lies back down face-up and continues.
“Yeah, that London. I’d ran away from my granddad, and though I
managed to liberate a few bucks in the process, it was hardly enough for
a living. For a neophyte mage such as myself, who had no resources or
skill in the Art enough to make a sanctum of her own, there was really
no other choice except to suck it up and get myself into the Collegium.
It’s sort of like a university, with all the oldness, the shabbiness, and the
academic snobbishness that implies. Still, I couldn’t complain. It’s hidden
in the British Museum, a domain beyond prying eyes that nurtured many
of the archmasters of today. For me, it was also a treasure trove of unexpected
The way Miss Tōko tells it, it seems as much to remind herself of those
half-remembered times as it is to tell me a story. As she talks, I notice her
growing only the slightest bit paler. When I interrupt her to say that she
might have taken the wrong medicine or something, she waves me away.
“Come on, Kokutō, this is a rare opportunity for you to hear about this,
so let me talk a little more. Let’s see…it was kind of an awkward situation
for a twenty year old girl like me to study abroad, especially since the
Aozaki’s have a…history with the Confederatio Magi. I elected to study the
runic Art, since I knew practically no mage was interested in it at the time
and they needed researchers badly. Took me two years to decide that I’d
done the best I can for their college, and another two for me to get my
mitts on the original runes from the Thule Society. It was then that I finally
got my own sanctum away from the Confederatio and their prying eyes.
It was then, when I was engrossing myself in my soon-to-be life’s work of
making dolls, that I met him. He had an interesting background as some
Taimitsu sect monk or some such, and a drive to seize knowledge and the
greater mystery that surpassed even my own. He was passionate, almost
zealous, like hellfire given form. For the most part, he turned people away,
and misery seemed to follow him everywhere. His technique in the Art was
second rate, but no one could doubt his skill in the arcana he did know. I
kind of liked that guy.”
Miss Tōko squints her eyes in a look of deep consternation, and she
must surely be envisioning that man now. It is a glare laden with deep
hatred and pity. I barely understood her rambling, though I still offer a
weak “Mmhmm” so as not to make her pop a gasket in annoyance. “So you
learned how to make dolls abroad?” I ask to fill the time, though I realize
that it is such an out of place question it is almost unintentionally hilarious. 
Miss Tōko, for her part, only nods and acknowledges it. I really don’t mind
listening to Miss Tōko ramble on, but it really is much worse for me if I can’t
understand. That’s why I think maybe it’s more appropriate for her to talk
about this stuff with Shiki and Azaka and to leave me straight out of it, but
Miss Tōko, spurred on perhaps by the heat of her fever, shifts the gears
dangerously high on the conversation.
“A writer once said that ‘a designer knows he has achieved perfection
not when he has nothing left to add, but when he has nothing left to take
away.’ That’s what I was trying to do when I was making dolls, Kokutō. I
tried to make that perfect human, to ascend that indescribable ‘ ’. The man
I told you about tried the same thing, except he used the soul instead of
the flesh. He lived to solve that problem with the unobservable cat in the
box, to see beyond the definite truth of the box and see the unseen soul
of the ‘ ’ inside. It almost resembles that ‘collective unconscious’ bullshit
by that psychiatrist a long time ago. He thought he could reach the origin if
he just followed the breadcrumbs, the little clues left for us here. We both
tried to reach that origin, the infinite stream that traces out the source
of all humanity. People now are so divided amongst races, and skills, and
capabilities, and inheritances, that it’s impossible to count the plurality of
it all. So much has been added, and so much to take away, so much that we
can’t reach the origin of all these skills and ancestry that we like to label
causality, and other people like to call fate. It’s become almost like a formula
you can manipulate; add this ability, add that trait, and the wonders of
deterministic outcomes gives you a life from the genesis of the genetic
blueprint that is so predictable to that creature of Laplace that it becomes
droll, and if you want to call it fate, then so be it. We’ve made too much
of ourselves in the never ending human imperative for omnipotence. The
four bases that comprise the helix structure that composes all of humanity
are so simple, yet so complex as to comprise a spiral, cumulatively accumulating
unto immeasurability until we all fall into a paradox of our own
creation, a paradox that can’t be observed. That’s why humans and mages
alike will never ascend to the origin they aspire to—so I resolved to make
one myself. But it was useless. In the efforts I poured blood, sweat, and
tears over, I couldn’t make the Platonic human, only a perfect me.”
She pauses for a handful of seconds, allowing herself to breath. I
perceived her rambling to be one long breath, a speech that sounded like
she said it without knowledge of punctuation marks. The color flushes
back to her face, due to the medicine no doubt, and yet the eyes which
stare into nothingness retain their dim quality. She adds a final note.
“To think that bastard is still trying it, even now. I know he was cast out 
by his mentor for daring to find the origin of a person. He is one stubborn
son of a bitch to still be hopeful. One thing I hope, Kokutō, is that you never
encounter that man in the photo. If that ever happens, run away. Fast.”
With the last ounce of her strength, Miss Tōko lies back down peacefully on
the bed and closes her eyes. In an instant she is fast asleep, her chest rising
and falling with each whispered breath.
That was…wow. That was some medicine, to make her ramble on like
that and then sleep so contentedly. I replace the towel on her forehead
one last time and leave the room as quietly as I can so as not to disturb her.
I emerge from her room to the deserted office. Only the distant, keening
noises of steel from the neighboring factories intrude in the solitude. While
the shrill echoes crawl up my skin, I think to myself: I can’t hold true to Miss
Tōko’s request. There is that little burrowing feeling in my mind, a minor
tick that keeps saying I met that man two years ago. Though I can’t be sure
that man in the photograph is really the one that saved me on that night.
The memory of the night, the uncertain identity of the man, and the words
of Miss Tōko are still six different jigsaw puzzles that I’m trying to solve
while the pieces are mixed together. The peaceful atmosphere that had
permeated the room only moments ago disappears in the disquiet that
breeds and multiplies in my mind and reaches down to my spine.
Spiral Paradox - II
A day later in noontime, November 8, the weather is still disinclined
to change its depressing overcast tint, and it shares this gloom with the
office that has no light to stave it off. The office is actually a wide space,
albeit littered with many assorted occult trinkets and knick-knacks from
Miss Tōko’s collection. Even given this, it’s too big of an office for just Miss
Tōko and me. There’s enough desks for ten people to all work at the same
time, and there’s even a sofa for any unexpected guests. Of course, the
concrete flooring is a dull, gray, undecorated thing (unless you count the
scattered artifacts and books as decoration), and the walls tell much of
the same story, with no wallpaper to call their own, but if we had enough
employees to fill those desks then by God this would actually look like a
halfway decent and productive working environment.
Sadly, today only three people fill this vacant space. Miss Tōko’s desk is
by the window, yet the woman herself is clearly nowhere close at hand.
Through the wonders of modern medicine, Miss Tōko’s flu was as good as
gone when she woke up this morning, which she celebrated by going out
as soon as she could throw on some clothes, leaving me to shoulder the
workload. Today, the job is to order some of the materials we need for her
art exhibition next month. I’m holding the list she drew up of things she
needed while I sorted out my own list of people from whom I could buy
the stuff on the cheap. She usually doesn’t bother with the grueling detail
work like this, preferring to just show up and start selling. But I suppose
this is part of what she hired me for. I spent the better part of the morning
with one hand on her list and another holding the phone receiver, trying to
negotiate prices, and then repeating the process for the next retailer, and
so on in a seemingly never-ending chain.
While I sort out the trouble and trying to decide whether I’m really busy
or just painstakingly thorough, two other people are making the room
their own for the moment. One of them, Shiki Ryōgi, in her unmistakable
kimono, is sitting on the sofa with a look on her face that can only imply a
deep, abiding boredom.
The other, a young girl in a black school uniform, sits on the chair behind
the desk furthest away from me, across the length of the room. The girl
wears a head of dark hair that pours all the way down to her back, and her
name is Azaka Kokutō, my sister who is currently a freshman in high school.
Ever since she was small, she didn’t exactly have the best health, and so it
was decided when she was ten years old to move her away from the city air 
and to entrust her to a relative. Since that time, we’ve only seen each other
a precious few times. In fact, if I’m right, the last time we actually met was
New Year’s Day of my freshman year. I remember she still had quite the
childish disposition then, which is why when I first saw her this summer, I
was quite surprised. I guess environment does have a role in your upbringing.
She’s quite fond of carrying the air of some refined, well-to-do girl,
and her demeanor has changed to become fairly active, with no trace of
the frailty of body that characterized her early years. When I first saw her, I
actually thought she was some stranger and not my sister Azaka, which can
probably be ascribed to her changing so much in stature and appearance in
the span between ten and fifteen years of age.
I steal a glance at Azaka in the faraway desk. She’s sitting there, and
close at hand is a book propped open, thick enough that it’s likely to cause
a concussion when used as a blunt weapon. Her eyes dart from the book
to the paper as she copies something, writing it down on a piece of paper;
an exercise that Miss Tōko left behind for her to work on while she’s away.
While the cryptic words of Miss Tōko still hang over my mind, there is just
one thing that bugs me much more at the moment.
“Mikiya, Miss Tōko has taken me in as her apprentice.”
She said that a month or so ago, to which I vehemently expressed my
indignation, but with her newfound stubbornness, she brushed me aside.
Goddamit, I’d thought my family to be extremely normal and boring, but
why does she need to be something as eccentric as a sorcerer?
“Azaka?” I decide to take a break from kissing the phone so much and
call out to her. She finishes what she was copying with one last, firm stroke
before she levels her eyes with mine. Though she doesn’t speak, the clash
of the temper in her eyes and her quiet, polite demeanor seems to prod
me to continue. “I know that you’re on holiday because of your school’s
Foundation Day, but remind me again why exactly you felt the need to
travel all the way down here in Tōkyō?”
“You really should go home more often than you do, Mikiya. Maybe then
we could discuss this like a reasonable family around the dinner table.”
She clears her throat before she continues. “The dormitories were set on
fire, and that forced it to close down for repairs. They were requesting
that anyone that had homes nearby to vacate the premises temporarily
if possible, and so mother called me back for the time being.” She replies
with a calmness that reminds me of my high school student council president—and
not entirely in a good way.
“Did the whole dormitory burn down?”
“Oh, no, only the east wing it seems—where the freshmen and sopho-
mores were lodged. The school hushed it all up so that it wouldn’t get in
the news.”
Interesting. Reien Girl’s Academy is known for raising the stuck-up little
kids of some of the most powerful families in the country, and they certainly
have the resources to keep the media in the dark about it. It would be a
big blow to the school’s reputation and image…especially if it’s arson by a
student as Azaka’s words would imply—
“Dear brother, I do hope you’re not over-thinking the situation?” Her
eyes narrow as she stares daggers at me. Due to some unfortunate circumstances
that happened over the summer, Azaka doesn’t like me poking
my head into any more dangerous situations. A silent, Cold War argument
always ensues at this juncture of conversations between us, but I decide to
dispense with it.
“Heaven forbid, Azaka; I wouldn’t dream of it. But enough about that.
What the heck are you doing over there anyway?”
“Nothing that has anything to do with you, I imagine.”
“Oh, I think you’ll find that it does. How do you think I should explain
you trying to become a…what was it…sorcerer, mage…whatever you call
yourselves! How well would that go over with dad, huh?”
“Oh, so you will show your face in the house after all.” Damn. She’s got
me there. She knows that I can’t go back to the house ever since the big
argument between me and my folks, the little brat. “And anyway, there is a
difference between a sorcerer and a mage, you know. You’ve been working
for Miss Tōko for so long and you don’t even know that?”
Hmm, now that she mentions it, I do remember Miss Tōko saying something
similar. Like how it’s better to advertise yourself as a sorcerer to
neophytes because it sounds mystical and they love that, but that the two
are completely different things, or something along those lines.
“Yes, I’ve heard her spiel once or twice before, but there can’t be that
great of a difference, can there? Both use that suspicious Art that Miss
Tōko always talks about, I think.”
“No, they don’t actually. The Art is certainly a departure from consensus,
but in the end, it’s only doing what was already previously possible, but
doing it in ways that are logically impossible. For example—” She gets up
and walks to Miss Tōko’s desk, retrieving a silver letter opener, a favorite of
Miss Tōko’s and one she uses quite often. Spotting some useless pieces of
paper, she traces something on them using the letter opener. In an instant,
it starts spewing some amount of smoke as it slowly burns.
I watch the entire display without saying a word. Miss Tōko had once
done something similar (though on a larger scale), but I’m at a loss for 
words when I see my own sister doing it. I guess I’ve been imagining this
moment ever since she said she’d become Miss Tōko’s apprentice.
“I’m sorry, but I gotta ask…is there any trick to it?”
“Of course. To someone who doesn’t know, it might look amazing, but
it’s really nothing special if you think about it. You could do the same thing
with a cheap lighter, after all. Whether it’s through a lighter or your fingertips,
the fact that you set fire to something doesn’t change. Not so mysterious
now, is it? That’s what the Art essentially amounts to.”
I suppose then that the Art is like a substitute for technology. But from
what Azaka is saying, it’s probably better to say that technology has overtaken
“Rain-making, for another example,” she continues, “is possible with
both the Art and technology. The only difference is the way they go about
it, but the effort expended is almost the same. It might look like the mage
is doing it instantly, but what they don’t tell you is that there is still a lot of
preparation. Once it might have seemed like a miracle, but now that’s not
the case, just like once it might have been unbelievable to reduce an entire
village to ash, but now we have missiles to do the same thing. In fact, that
might actually be more efficient. The Art is only doing something that you
usually can’t do on your own, but is still very possible, which makes it very
covert. It’s not miracle working. The only miracles are things that are still
impossible for humanity, things that can’t be done no matter how much
time and money you expend. The ones that can make that impossibility
possible are what we call ‘sorcerers,’ and what they have isn’t just a simple
parlor trick like the Art, but ‘sorcery,’ or real magic.”
“Then there would have been more sorcerers than mages in the past,
right? I mean, they didn’t have lighters or missiles back then.”
“Correct, and that terrifying capacity is why people were afraid of them.
But it’s different now, isn’t it? The consensus has changed. There’s little
need for the Art, and sorcery is slowly disappearing day by day. I mean,
think about it, there’s little that isn’t possible for humanity. That’s why
there are only five real sorcerers remaining.” Her voice lowers in a sadness
that is beyond me to understand.
The only thing I can think of that’s still currently impossible to mankind
is manipulating space and time, and maybe given enough time, even that
will be possible, and magic just a fading memory. The way Azaka tells it, it
almost seems like a boy that was once captivated by scientific wonders,
then became a scientist and discovered the sheer banality of it all.
“Then here’s hoping the last spell is the spell to make everyone happy.”
Though I say it to break the mood, the effect is somewhat lower than 
anticipated as she becomes silent then looks at me like she one would look
upon the village idiot, then quickly turns her face away from mine.
She chuckles a bit. “Sadly, even if that were true, Mikiya, very little actually
have the capacity for sorcery now. I never wanted to be a sorcerer. Just
learning the Art for my own reasons is fine for me.”
“Wow, settling for something lesser isn’t like you at all, Azaka.”
Azaka shakes her head while emitting a vocal tut tut. “Let me remind
you that the Art shouldn’t be underestimated. And besides, the Art was
once part of actual sorcery too. It’s only because of human technology
catching up that there is an Art in the first place. I should probably rephrase
what I said earlier. It’s not that I don’t want to learn sorcery. It’s that I can’t.
Mages are creatures of long, storied dynasties, starting out with some kind
of scholarly past, and then passing what they learn of the greater mysteries
to the next generation, which repeats in a never ending quest for ascension.
As it happens, I am not a part of one of these dynasties. Miss Tōko
said once that she was of her family’s sixth magical generation, and that
her third generation produced a magical savant, so even discounting age,
she has a huge head start just because she was born into a family with a
tradition. For someone like me, it’s more difficult.”
“Man. Rough and tumble world ahead of you, isn’t it?” So it’s kind of
like how people with a lot of doting relatives and a truckload of inheritance
money get to have the best opportunities. But—“Wait a minute. Then
how’d you get to be a mage when I know for a fact that our family never
dipped its toes into any sort of occult or mystical stuff?”
“Yes, that’s what Miss Tōko said as well,” she says, sporting a pouting
look on her face. “But she also said that I’m one of the few who get it just
from chance. She said I was good at igniting things, so…” her voice trails
off again.
I have to wonder what the hell her “own reasons” are for learning to
light stuff up. For all I know she could actually be the one who set fire to
the dormitory
“Didn’t you just tell me that you can’t build up so much proficiency with
just one generation of learning? Then why don’t you just stop aiming to
be a mage and try finding a real job?” Especially since today’s job climate
is stricter than ever, I wanted to add, but hold off on saying so as not to
antagonize her further.
Azaka’s mouth starts to form into an attempt at shouting the rebuttal at
me, but is interrupted when the sound of a crash and a series of footsteps
leap into the room.
“Oh, don’t mind him going on about the economy, Azaka. You’ll get 
job offers before you know it. Give it two years and you might even be a
museum curator!”
The crashing sound was the door opening, and the footsteps belonged
to Miss Tōko, who had returned.
Miss Tōko’s footsteps have such certainty of pace that you’d never know
she was sick only yesterday. After taking off her coat, she heads to her desk
and hangs it behind her chair, after which she takes her usual place behind
the desk. Both me and Azaka see her eyebrows come close together in a
frown when she looks at her desk and finds the letter opener’s position on
the desk has changed since she last saw it.
“Azaka, what did I tell you about relying too much on tools to channel
the Art? It’ll dull your skills. Or maybe you just wanted to show off in front
of Kokutō here and not fail, hmm?”
A beat passes without her saying anything, and then “Yes, I’m sorry.”
The fact that she can still answer faithfully even while her cheeks are beating
red with embarrassment is one of my favorite qualities about her.
“As for you, Kokutō, it’s kind of rare for you to be talking about that kind
of thing, isn’t it? I thought you had no interest whatsoever in the Art?”
“What, you have my sister make kindling out of paper and think I
wouldn’t have some casual interest?”
“Point.” Miss Tōko laughs.
“Anyway, ma’am, do you remember anything about yesterday?”
“Everything’s a blank after I drank my medicine. Don’t tell me I said
something embarrassing now.” She takes off her glasses and cocks her
head in curiosity.
“Erm…no, nevermind.”
“Suit yourself,” she says with a shrug before producing a cigarette and
a lighter from her pocket and putting them to use. She allows herself one
deep puff before she continues. “Now Azaka, we need to discuss you talking
about certain topics with Kokutō. Covertness and concealment are the
best tools a mage has, and don’t you forget it. Well, I guess I can let it slip
this one time since it’s Kokutō were talking about.”
“I’m not sure I like how that sounds,” I interject out loud.
“Oh, hush,” Miss Tōko hisses while batting a hand in my direction. “I only
meant that you know what to talk about depending on who you’re talking
to. You wouldn’t talk about the Art with a normal human being, would
you? See? Praise! Who would’ve thought, coming from me, right?”
“Thanks…I guess? Anyway, from what you’re saying, it sounds like regu-
lar people knowing about the Art is bad for business.”
“It’s far more than just that. The Art sort of…loses it’s touch. Or let me
put it another way. Do you know where the word ‘mystery’ comes from?”
She leans her head forward on her desk, cradling it above her entwined
hands. Her eyes imply the air of mischief that is always present when her
glasses are removed.
“I’m not entirely sure, but I think it’s from Greek, right?”
“Yep. It comes from the Greek verb ‘mūein’, meaning ‘to close.’ It further
evolved into ‘mustērion’, which means ‘secret rite.’ Both imply a nature of
secrecy and a sort of eremitic quality. It’s an accurate reflection of a mage’s
best qualities. They do this because the fact that a mystery is a mystery
grants it a value and meaning. Reality deals with beliefs. Enough people
believe that magic is gone, almost dead, and so it is. The fact that mages
know this, and yet pursue their craft is what gives them the power to
reshape reality to their will. In the most crippling paradox for mages, they
cannot allow the Art to die, and yet too many mages will deaden it, make
it mundane. Without the mystery and interaction of belief and disbelief,
both the Art and sorcery, drawing their power from the same origin, would
weaken, and the same thing will happen with all the mages in the world.”
While as usual I can’t grasp the entirety of what Miss Tōko is saying, I
think I actually understand the gist of what she’s trying to say. If secrecy
and concealment are their watchwords, then I can understand why she
was kind of peeved at Azaka a while back for performing the Art in front
of me.
“Then surely you use the Art when you’re in a place where no one can
see you, right Miss Tōko?”
“Nope, not even there,” she says as she snuffs out her cigarette on the
ashtray. “Well, if it’s a duel, then I probably have no choice in the matter.
Still, a good mage knows how to use the Art without breaking his hands.
A smart mage knows not to use the Art when there’s an easier way to do
something, and there frequently is. Besides, mages are all organized about
this. When the Ordo Magi was formed during the medieval age and started
regulating the tutelage of the Art, they knew from the progression of science
that magic itself would decay. So they hid the Art, made it even more of a
secret than it already was so that only a select few could study it in their
Collegium. They police any leak they discover with some stringent punishments:
Collegium assassins are sent to kill you if you involve non-mages
in performances of the Art, a probable source of that prevalent myth of a
wizard losing his powers when revealing its nature to people. Every performance
is a risk of discovery, and soon most mages learned to perform the 
Art only when absolutely needed. Because the Ordo controlled many of
the hallowed grounds with rich mana leylines, and monopolized much of
the materials a mage needs for any serious research, the few rogues who
disliked the decrees were at a significant—and self-made— disadvantage.
Power of the majority for you.”
“Erm…Miss Tōko,” Azaka interjects with obvious trepidation. “Does that
mean that I have to go over there to the Collegium someday?”
“Well, it’s not like you have to, but you’ll definitely learn faster there,
I’m sure. And even then, no one’s going to stop you if you eventually want
to leave mid-way. Though they may act like it many times more than most
mages would like, the Ordo doesn’t control your life.”
“But then, doesn’t that sort of render their efforts at concealing the Art
meaningless? I mean, any random mage could just get out and spread the
word, so…” Though Azaka finishes with a noncommittal tone, Miss Tōko
“That’s true. In fact, a lot of people do indeed enter with the intention
of learning a few tricks and then leaving for God knows where. But
like anyone’s desire to watch corny soap operas ironically, it doesn’t last
long. Usually the sheer volume of stuff that the Collegium offers is enough
to make them stay. To the serious mage, scholarly pursuit of the Art is
supreme. Actually using it is a last-ditch scenario. Studying is what leads a
mage to the greater mysteries, and eventually, gnosis. However, you have a
distinctly different goal than most mages, Azaka, so I suspect the Collegium
would just be poison for you. Still, if you’d like to take all of this a step up,
the Collegium’s not going anywhere.”
Azaka exhales gratefully and lowers her gaze, which thankfully tells me
that she too is not going anywhere anytime soon. Studying to be a mage is
one thing, but to have her study it abroad in some kind of eccentric college
is one thing I seriously wouldn’t abide.
“Question time,” says a lazy voice from the sofa. “Do the mages there
keep secrets from each other too?” Shiki, who up to this point, had been
content to sit quietly and stare at the scenery outside (and is, as a matter
of fact, still doing so now), suddenly speaks. I’d assumed she just wasn’t
interested in the topic, but far be it from me to assume what she is and
isn’t interested in.
“Well…yeah,” Miss Tōko replies hesitantly. “It’s a very balkanized environment,
where you don’t usually reveal what you’re up to or what you’re
after until you pass it on to your successor—if then. Secrecy is in the blood,
and secrets are power.”
“So you study for yourself to gain power you can’t use? You study for the 
goal of…more studying? Guess I just can’t understand what meaning there
is in that sort of life, Tōko. I mean, it almost seems like all of these mages
are working towards a net goal of a big fat zero.”
For a moment, Miss Tōko can only smile bitterly at what Shiki just said.
“Funny you should say that, since in a way, that’s what mages are aiming
for. Some call it the ‘spiral of origin.’ Others like the ring of ‘The Akashic
Records’ better. That grand mass of nothingness. Whatever you want to
call it, that’s what they’re after. It’s where everything came from. And if
you know where everything came from, you know everything that comes
after. It’s not even enough to call it ultimate knowledge. It’s something
higher than that. All the different disciplines and paradigms of learning
the Art flow from this single, indivisible source. Whether it’s astrology,
alchemy, the Kabbalah, Shinsendō, or runes, all their practitioners harbor
the same goal. The first fortunate souls that felt its presence dreamed of its
potential. It isn’t to sponsor the quest for the meaning of man’s existence,
because they already know it. It is to pierce the great lie of this world and
find pure truth, whatever form it takes. Mages of the ideal sort cherish only
themselves to live a life that will never be rewarded.”
As Miss Tōko slowly relates this to us, the gaze in her amber eyes becomes
more pointed, and the color flickers like the flame of old ambition. I ask a
question on the only thing I could understand.
“When you say that they’ll never be rewarded, that means nobody’s
reached this origin yet, right?”
“Some have reached it. It’s the only way we know it really exists. But
those who reached it never came back. They disappeared the moment they
attained it. Mages think they ascended. No one can really be sure until you
reach it. Because performing both the Art and sorcery means you reach
out toward the origin, many mages think we have them to thank for what
little of it we can do on this world, since they think that the mages who
have crossed over become some sort of anchor for our Art to that side. The
bad angle to this is of course, they could never have passed on what they
know to anyone. The only reason ambitious mages take on apprentices or
spawn descendants is, of course, to ensure that someday, their line can
produce the means to get to the origin. There’s no end to their ambition
and to their eventual disappointment. Personally, I think it’s just a fool’s
game now, especially now when there are mages that are happy to just get
in the way of other mages’ work.”
Instead of sounding spiteful in her last sentence, Miss Tōko says it with a
little hint of enthusiasm, and I manage to catch a dry, silent laugh from her
lips, as if delighting in the fact that these nuisances exist.
“Even if one out of the current crop of mages managed to reach the
spiral of origin, they’d never be able to pass it on, never be able to give us
new things to learn about the Art. The entire matter is like a fish floundering
on land,” Miss Tōko says and shrugs in conclusion. Only Shiki seems
compelled to speak out on the paradox Miss Tōko has just presented.
“Never heard of a stranger crowd than that. I have no idea why you
mages still cling to that false hope even though you know it’s beyond you.”
“Maybe because for people who can turn steel into rubber and spew
fire from their hands, they word ‘impossible’ isn’t what gives them impetus
in their lives, or they’re deluded fools who just don’t know when to quit.
Who knows?” Miss Tōko couples it with an amused grin.
“Well, at least you know, so that’s refreshing, at least,” she says with just
a hint of surprise.
An hour later the office returns to the usual peace and quiet, with
everyone busy working, studying, or in Shiki’s case, performing the necessary
task of slacking. With the clock having just struck 3 o’ clock in the
afternoon, I decided to take a little break and make everyone some coffee,
except for Azaka, who drinks Japanese tea. The orders Miss Tōko requested
me to make are done, and so it is with happy thoughts of a secure paycheck
that I sit back down behind my desk and take a sip off the mug. The sound
of four people occasionally sipping and then putting the mug down on a
desk punctuates the afternoon silence.
Of course, leave it to Azaka to refrain from holding the peace by asking
Shiki the most unexpected of questions.
“Shiki, are you a guy?”
My cup almost slips from my fingers at the bluntness of the question.
Shiki on the other hand, finishes her sip of coffee. When the cup leaves her
lips, I see a face of genuine perplexity, and yet she shows no immediate
inclination to respond to my fool sister. Azaka, however, only interprets
that as a signal to continue. “Silence means consent, as they say, and that
means that you admit you are a man, Shiki.”
“Azaka!” I say sternly. Goddamit. I can’t believe I’m diving headlong into
this. While ignoring her is probably the best tonic for the situation, the
tactlessness of the question and its delivery can’t be ignored. I stand up so
fast I push my chair behind me in the spur of the moment, but without any
words of scolding to throw at Azaka’s way, I end up sitting back down in
silence. The whole act of sinking back into my chair feels vaguely like what
I would imagine Napoleon felt like in the retreat from Waterloo.
“You obsess over the most useless details, don’t you?” Shiki replies.
Already she has acquired a sour look on her face. One hand rests on her
temple in her usual manner of attempting to dispel growing anger.
“Oh? But this is important and necessary information, my dear.” Just
as Shiki attempts to maintain her composure, Azaka also gives back with
composed placidity. With elbows resting atop the desk and the laced
fingers hiding most of her face, she conjures the look of a chairman presiding
over a board meeting.
“Important? I don’t think it makes much difference whether I’m a man
or a girl, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t concern you. Or maybe you’re just
trying to pick a fight with me, hmm?”
“I’d have thought that seemed obvious since we first met.”
Though they’re not at all looking or even seeing each other, their eyes
might as well be staring each other down. While I’d certainly like to know
what in the hell was “obvious,” this doesn’t seem like the right time to ask.
“Azaka,” I interrupt them again. “While it’s a mystery why you feel the
need to bring this up yet another time, I will state the answer yet another
time. Clearly this time, so your head full of magic can interpret it right. Shiki
is a girl. That’s it. The end.” However, the interjection seems to antagonize
her more than placate her.
“I know that, Mikiya,” Azaka says briskly. “Shut up for a second.”
Well if you know then what the hell is this conversation even—
“What I really want to know is Shiki’s gender mentally or psychologically,
rather than physically. I mean, her appearance makes her look like a man,
but…” As Azaka allows her voice to trail off, she risks a sidelong glance
toward Shiki, whose consternation continues to build to easily observable
“Whatever. I am what I am, and my gender isn’t going to change that.
On the other hand, what are you going to do if I were a guy?”
“Oh, nothing really. Maybe set you up on a date with some of my friends
from Reien.”
I gulp, realizing I can do very little to stem the continual escalation of
force. Their animosity toward each other started from the day they first
met on the New Year when me and Shiki were still in high school. I invited
Shiki back to my house for a while, and that day also happened to be the
day when Azaka came home for a short winter vacation stint. It was Shiki
she’d met that day, the other personality with his boisterous demeanor
and rough speech (perhaps even more so than the present Shiki). It so
surprised and angered Azaka that she decided to sleep the day through
instead of talking to me. Though I’m not really surprised to see Azaka still 
carrying that animosity some two and a half years forward, this is probably
the point where she crosses some sort of line. I wouldn’t even be surprised
if Shiki just wanted to hit her now.
I stand up and start to say, “Azaka, give it a re—” but am cut off by Shiki
rising from the sofa at the same time, and saying:
“Gee, thanks, but gotta pass on that one. Those bitches probably can’t
take what I’ve got to give, anyway.” Shiki utters a final harrumph before
she turns and walks towards the door and leaves the office, the sway of
her indigo blue kimono and the sound of her boots echoing in the stair
steps the last vestiges of her presence. I briefly entertain the thought of
following, but knowing her, she’d just get angrier if I try to be diplomatic
about Azaka.
Already planning my later burnt offerings for the miracle that nothing
happened, I sit back down on my chair so that I can, at least for the
moment, enjoy my coffee. Damn, it’s cold already. Whatever. I finish it off.
“Aw man, she got away from me again. I really did want an answer,
even if that meant she would’ve hit me. But her leaving without giving me
neither is just dumb.” She adds a click of her tongue to punctuate what she
just said as she visibly does a stand down from battle stations by leaning
back on her chair and stretching, making the entire thing look like just one
fun exercise to her. I’ve long since learned to selectively ignore the bitch
switch that turns on in Azaka’s brain whenever she strikes a conversation
with Shiki, but this time was such a close call I feel like a chat is in order.
“Alright, Azaka. Let’s have an explanation.”
“What? You and Shiki aren’t making this any easier for me to figure out,
you know? Or don’t tell me you haven’t devoted even a second of thought
if Shiki is going out with you as a guy or as a girl.” Though her statement is
spoken clearly, I have a little difficulty interpreting what she wants to say
until I see the copious amount of red blush coloring her cheeks.
“Because I think it’s stupid to think about, maybe? Besides, asking a
person like Shiki what their gender is when they don’t want to is probably
one of the most faux pas things ever. And again, for the nth time, what
difference does it really make if she thinks like a guy but is, in fact, a girl?”
Azaka narrows her eyes and glares at me with clear suspicion. “So, can I
take that to mean that as long as Shiki is a girl then you have no problem,
right, Mikiya? Then help me out with something. Say two people fall in love
with you—”
I can’t help but snort, trying to hold back but gusting laughter.
“—one of whom is a man who underwent sex reassignment surgery
for trans women, and the other is a woman who underwent the oppo-
site process. If they both love you wholly, madly, deeply, truly, who do you
choose? The transsexual woman, or the transsexual man?”
Well, that’s…difficult. The more I think about it, the more I think this is
some kind of trap. Impulsively, as a straight man, I’d obviously go for the
girl, but there is no such clear cut choice. The physical girl in this case has
had a sex change to a man. Maybe this just goes to show how I just haven’t
truly grasped yet that love isn’t bound by gender? My mind starts suggesting
to myself that maybe I only do care about appearances after all, and
slowly, I start to feel really bad about myself. Wait, I’m operating under the
false assumption that having a gay relationship isn’t allowed. If I let go of
that, then maybe I go for the girl, who’s like, actually a guy, but…oh what
the hell, I give up. Wait a minute. Isn’t there a paradox in the premise? Isn’t
this really a trick question? If you’re stuck in the mindset of gay relationships
not being allowed, then it’s a question you can’t win.
When I notice this and look up with a face of consternation at the other
people in the room, Miss Tōko has a hand over her mouth, snickering and
likely trying to dam the floodgates of laughter.
“Oh shit, Azaka, he’s malfunctioning. I can practically hear the gears
whirring and smoke coming out of his ears.”
“Yes, ma’am. A little Epimenides in discourse never hurts.”
“Dear god, the two of you are never boring, I swear. I do hope the entire
family Kokutō are as crazy as you two.” While Miss Tōko begins to laugh her
ass off, Azaka looks at me with an entirely serious look on her face.
Oh, so that’s what this was all about. Well, I guess it’s Azaka’s own trademark
way of worrying about me. Now, seeing as Shiki wasn’t clear at all
when she and Azaka were talking, I suppose the onus falls on me to at least
be clear on my stance on the subject.
“Whatever you’re trying to say Azaka, I appreciate the sentiment. It’s
just that I truly don’t care what sex Shiki may be. Hell, I don’t think I’ll
change my mind even if she was still Shiki.” I feign an itch on my cheek to
hide my embarrassment, but Azaka seems to take what I said quite differently
because she stands up from her seat in astonishment.
“Wait, you’re saying that even if she was still that…creep Shiki personality,
you’d still like her…him?”
“Mmm…yeah, guess so.” Not a second after I say that, I feel the sharp
impact of something quite heavy hitting my face, leaving me dazed and
confused for quite a while, during which I only hear Azaka say:
“Augh, you suck!”
Then the sounds of her running, the door to the stairwell opening, then
her fading footsteps again. Once everything in the world stops spinning 
and returns to their correct upright position do I realize that Azaka threw
that thick book she was reading at me. Azaka is gone, leaving only me and
Miss Tōko, now enjoying previously unseen levels of jocularity, alone in the
office as I adjust my jaw and rub the blunt force trauma inflicted on my
Two more hours pass after that embarrassing interlude and then it’s
finally time to clock out. Shiki and Azaka never returned for the day,
presumably too livid at each other (or in Azaka’s case, at me). As I brew the
last coffee for Miss Tōko and myself before leaving, a practice which had
long become part of the ritual of daily work, I consider whether or not I
should pay Shiki a visit in her apartment.
“Oh, I forgot to ask you something Kokutō. Mind doing some supplemental
work?” Miss Tōko calls out after taking a swig off the mug of coffee
I just made for her, which significantly lowered any apartment visit chances
in one swoop.
“What sort of ‘supplemental work,’ ma’am? Is this another case similar
to the Fujin—”
“No, no, nothing like that. I say supplemental because this one’s not
getting earning you any extra zeroes on the check. Remember this morning
I went out? See, I heard this interesting story from my cop friend. You know
the Ōgawa Apartments down in Kayamihama?”
“Kayamihama’s the reclaimed land that’s been zoned for public and
commercial high rises, right? It’s supposed to be a model district for future
residential plans in the city, or so I hear.”
“Yeah, and a convenient thirty minute train ride from here, too. They’re
planning some real swank apartments there, the likes of which you
wouldn’t see here downtown, but what we’re interested in is this apartment
that I worked on for a short time back when it was under construction.
Apparently at around ten last night, a white-collar stiff in her twenties
was attacked in the street; probably an attempted rape. The guys doing it
somehow botched it, resulting in the woman being stabbed in the abdomen
and left there as the suspects ran. Without a cellphone or a single
soul in sight at such a late hour, she dragged herself inside the nearest
apartment complex—the Ōgawa Apartments—leaving a blood trail as she
went. But the Ōgawa Apartments don’t house any residents on the first
or second floor, so she had to make her way up to the third floor before
anyone could hear her calls for help. She managed to operate an elevator
to go up the third floor, but I guess she couldn’t move anymore. She kept 
calling for help but nobody in the units paid her any attention, and she
expired around eleven o’ clock.”
Damn. Guess that’s what happens when apartments and condos
get bigger and the walls get thicker that you don’t talk to the neighbors
anymore. Maybe you can’t even hear anything outside, even dying
screams. Indifference becomes the nature of politeness. Reminds me of a
story I heard recently from a friend, when every single resident from a floor
up heard screams getting louder and louder from a unit a floor down. No
one knocked to investigate, and in the morning they just found out that the
parents killed their own kid. When the police asked them, the people said
they all heard it but thought it was some kind of a joke.
“Here’s where the problem starts,” continues Miss Tōko. “That woman
was shouting so loud even the people in the next building over were hearing
her. It wasn’t even just screams, she was apparently really shouting
‘help!’ The people in the neighboring apartments ignored it because they
thought the people in the Ōgawa Apartments would help her out considering
her spirited appeal.”
“Wait, you don’t mean—”
“Yep, the people in the Ōgawa building swore they never heard a single
soul. I’d pass on this one of it was the first time, but my cop friend told me
this is strike two. They had apparently had another similar incident, but I
couldn’t check it out. Regardless, something is definitely up there, and my
detective friend consulted me about it, so here I am.”
“So what do you want me to do, ma’am? Investigate the place?”
“No, no, we’ll case the place together at some point. For now, I want
you to see what you can do about pulling up a list of residents from the
Housing Bureau, previous addresses, employment, stuff like that. Again, it
isn’t adding any zeroes on your paycheck, so you can take it slow on this
one, but I’d like it at least by December.”
“No problem, ma’am,” I reply, voice brimming with confidence. Yet I can’t
shake the feeling, despite Miss Tōko’s earlier waving off of the comparison,
that this is going to be another weird case like the Fujino Asagami one. I
take a drink from the bitter coffee, the mug now nearing empty.
“Anyway, to change the subject…Kokutō?”
“You really don’t care if Shiki was a boy or girl?”
Fortunately, my well-rehearsed image of office composure holds in front
of Miss Tōko, because if Gakuto asked me that question, I would’ve been
compelled to spit the coffee in his face.
“I like Shiki, but if I’m allowed to have my way, I guess I prefer her as a 
“Oh, well no problem then,” she says disappointedly and shrugs.
“I think I need clarification on what exactly that means, Miss Tōko.”
“I mean that she’s definitely a girl, physically and mentally. Shiki is long
gone, so technically speaking, there shouldn’t be any male personality in
her anymore.”
I don’t know if I really agree with Miss Tōko since Shiki’s way of speaking
is still quite masculine. two years ago before the coma never spoke
like that.
“See, you can compare Shiki to the Taijitu symbol,” she continues. “We
all recognize it: a big circle, white on one half, black on the other, as if each
side is trying to consume the other one. And inside each color, we find
a small point that is the opposite color, a black point in the white, and a
white point in the black. It’s a symbol that swirls and dances in conflict—a
spiral of black and white.”
“A spiral…of conflict?” My head throbs a beat. I feel like I’ve—
“Yes. Yin and yang, light and darkness, right and wrong, man and woman.
The original reference is to the Chinese cosmology of there once being
one, but from the one comes two. In onmyōdō, the Japanese practice of
divination, this essential divide is known as ryōgi, ‘the pair of extremes.’”
“Ryōgi? But isn’t that—”
“Yep, Shiki’s surname. Her life with a dual personality was long ago
decided for her. Does she have it because she was born in the Ryōgi dynasty,
or because the dynasty long awaited the day she would be born, the
fruit of their decades of efforts? I’m guessing the latter. The Ryōgi, like the
Asakami and the Fujō, are just one of the old dynasties bent on creating an
ascendant being by passing on their lineage, long tampered by magic and
ritual. They see ascension as their birthright, but their method is decidedly
less scholarly. Among them, the Ryōgi dynasty is particularly interesting.
They knew that having psionic abilities or the second sight and other
supernatural abilities would make them stand out too much in the modern
world, so they deliberately developed one that is hidden behind a façade
of normality. Say, Kokutō, do you know the reason we have specialists in
the world?”
Taken aback by the sudden shift of topic into the question, I become
unable to answer. To be completely honest, I think my brain has suffered
enough for today, and the amount if information in my head is about to
overload. Still, I’d heard a little about Shiki’s family before, but today was
the only time Miss Tōko made mention of its similarity with others, some
of which we’ve had a run in with in the past.
“That’s because an expert, any true specialist, dedicates his mind for
the complete and utter mastery of only one discipline. You pick the one
mountain, and climb it until you can’t climb no more. You make it your
bitch. The Ryōgi dynasty understands this, and so they found a way to put
any number of minds in one body. Like computers installed with various
software, they are enabled to excel in many, varied things. That’s why her
name is Shiki. The same ‘shiki’ in ‘shikigami’, the goetic theurgy. The same
‘shiki’ in ‘sūshiki’, meaning ‘ritual.’ It results in people who, on a whim, can
transcend their notions of morality, their knowledge and skills. Empty dolls
waiting to be filled.”
I didn’t like how Miss Tōko summed it up in her last sentence. It seems to
me a disservice to the person that Shiki is. Still, Shiki knew, and still knows
all of this. The constant shadow of her unnatural childhood and rearing in
a suspicious dynasty is probably the reason why she doesn’t allow herself
to grow too close to anyone.
“It was Chinese philosopher Fu Xi from whom the idea that from the
primordial chaos of emptiness, the ryōgi, the pair of extremes, is formed.
And from the ryōgi come the shishō, the four phenomenon, and from that,
the hakke, or the eight trigrams. This might be another way to illustrate
what Shiki was meant to be. She’s trying to let go of her past, despite
seemingly being called back to it time and again.” Miss Tōko lights her nth
cigarette for the day with the flash of a lighter’s flame, then points the cigarette
at me. “It’s you who broke her, really. Crazy people don’t think they’re
crazy by their own. They need another person. It was you, inadvertently or
not, that made Shiki think unnaturally of her own existence two years ago.”
She thrusts an unlit cigarette toward me. I don’t smoke, but I take it
anyway and let it kiss the flames of Miss Tōko’s offered lighter, and put it to
my lips. Recently lit cigarettes always have a curious and mysterious taste
to them.
“Man, I didn’t even want to talk about the ryōgi anyway, but look where
we always end up, huh? All this exposition might mean you die tomorrow,
Kokutō.” Miss Tōko says with a warm smile.
“Don’t worry. I’m looking both ways when I cross the road tomorrow, all
so I can spend another day working my ass off for you, ma’am.”
“Good to hear. Anyway, remember those two little opposite color points
in the Taijitu? White on black, black on white? All that says about gender
really is that we all carry a little of the opposite sex inside us. Just because
Shiki speaks more masculine doesn’t mean she’s more yang than yin. We
all have a little bit of each other. Shiki is female. Her masculine way of talking
is, I think, just a way to compensate for the Shiki who died. You getting 
it? She at least wants you to remember him. Heh, she can still be cute in
her own way.”
Somehow, I understand. She might talk like a guy, but she never acted
as much like a guy as the Shiki two years before. She’s still pretty shaken
up by the loss of him, and she never really fully recovered from it. She
might put up a good front of it, and other people might be fooled, but I
don’t make the same mistake. She’s still wracked with a guilt and loneliness
that’s eating her inside out. The vulnerability I sensed about her has
changed very little since our high school years.
I haven’t changed much either. I still can’t leave her alone. And it’s been
two and a half years since she was last so close to asking it, but when the
time comes, I’ll save her from that life.
Spiral Paradox - III
The next day I wake up in the morning to a clock screaming nine o’ clock
in my face.
Jesus Christ, I am so fucking late.
I rush to the office, carrying a package much too heavy with me in a bag
shaped like the container to a bamboo sword, to find that Miss Tōko and
Shiki are already in and expecting me.
“Sorry I’m late, everybody.” I set the package to stand against the wall
and pause to catch my breath, inhaling deeply like I just ran in a marathon.
While I reckon the length of the bag to not even exceed a meter, something
heavy is definitely inside it, something steel maybe. When I got out of the
house, it only took 100 meters for it to turn my arm numb. As I’m rubbing
my smarting shoulders (both of them, since I had to keep changing) and
stretching my tired arm muscles, Shiki approaches me.
“Hey, ‘morning, Shiki. Nice weather today, isn’t it?”
“Mmhmm. They say it’s going to be like this for a while, so I suggest you
get some exercise in while you can.” Shiki just wouldn’t be Shiki unless she
got her morning rudeness out of the way. She’s dressed in a very fancy
looking white kimono, which contrasts quite vividly with her red jacket,
or it would if it wasn’t on the sofa, looking like it was thrown there with
abandon. Her obi today is patterned, in contrast to her usual taste. Designs
of falling leaves decorate the sash, and even the edges of her sleeves are
adorned with little designs of mitsuba and red autumn leaves. “Mikiya,
who owns that?”
Her white finger points to the bag rested against the wall.
“Oh, that? Something Akitaka was supposed to give you. You were out
last night when I visited you, and who could it be waiting at the door but
Akitaka? We caught up on things for an hour, but when it looked like you
weren’t coming back for a while, we decided to leave. It was then that he
entrusted me to give you that. I think he said it was a Kanesada or something?”
“Kanesada?” Shiki burst out suddenly. “As in the swordsmith-thatinscribes-the-Kuji-on-his-swords
Kanesada?” Her face is positively beaming
as she immediately approaches the bag and retrieves it with one hand with
little difficulty. She begins to pull the string to open it, doing it gingerly as
if she was peeling open a banana. It isn’t long before she strips the upper
part of the cloth, revealing a long, thin piece of seemingly years old steel.
We can only see maybe ten percent of the entire thing, but now there is 
little wonder as to why it made my arm numb just carrying it around. This
piece of metal, about two rulers or longer in length, is further wrapped
by cotton cloth, and from what we can see, two holes are set towards the
end. It also looks like there are some characters carved in the surface of the
steel, but I can’t see them from where I am.
“What in holy hell was Akitaka doing with this?” I’ve never seen her
sound this happy or awestruck. She can barely even contain the look of
delight on her face. It’s kind of weird and not altogether disturbing to see
her unabashedly enjoying herself with this and not the little random things
in everyday life.
“What is that, Shiki?” She turns around when I ask the question to reveal
the biggest grin I’ve ever seen on her face.
“Wanna see? It’s a blade the likes of which you’ll rarely see these days,”
she says as she begins to extract the blade completely from the bag, but
Miss Tōko stops her.
“Shiki, I know that’s an old piece of history. Don’t even think of pulling
that out unless you want to cut down the ward around this place.” Shiki
freezes as soon as she says that. “It’s impressive and all, and I can even read
the Kuji: ‘let the warrior-god light my way.’ It’s cool. But the wards that I’ve
put up won’t be a match for a sword with that kind of history.”
With Miss Tōko’s words that seemed like they were warning of some
great tragedy if we disobey her, Shiki has little choice except to put the
blade away again.
“Eh, fuck it. I don’t think Mikiya’s all that interested in swords anyway. I
mean, it doesn’t even have a hilt yet. Akitaka and the others in that house
must all be getting senile if they even forgot about that.” Much of the blunders
of Akitaka can mostly be attributed to his age, which has only recently
passed thirty. If anything, he has a lot to grow into. Still, he’s been helping
Shiki ever since she was only ten years old, so I don’t think it’s particularly
fair of her to call him senile.
Shiki parts with the blade as if she’s parting with a good friend, feeling
the two holes near its end fondly. Only upon later research do I find out that
the holes are for fitting the hilt in later. It looks remarkably well preserved,
maybe coming from the 16th or even 12th century. If so, it could qualify for
an important cultural property, but something tells me Shiki has no intention
of handing it over to a museum.
“Old swords build up their own mystery and belief around their ancient
history, and so become weapons capable of even cutting spells shaped
from the Art,” explains Miss Tōko. “So don’t take that thing out again. I
won’t be responsible for any eldritch horrors you may unleash spiriting you 
away.” After she says this, she breathes with a sigh of relief. “So, Kokutō,
let’s hear your reason for being late.”
“Oh, sorry about that. I was busy looking up the stuff you requested
last night. Still I have the names of the residents of Ōgawa Apartments,
as well as some other information you might be interested in.” The recent
spread of public spread of the Internet makes investigating things even
easier these days. I got totally into it last night, and before I knew it, it was
the break of dawn. All I needed to do was search, supplement it with some
things I asked from cousin Daisuke, and I got whole load of information
without even needing to head down to the Housing Bureau.
“I told you that you could do it in December, didn’t I? Someone’s eager
to start. Well, let’s hear it.”
“Of course. The Ōgawa Apartment building is unique even among all the
high rises in Kayamihama. You can take a look at the weird design blueprint
yourself later. Construction took place from 1997 to 1998, and three parties
managed the process. You, Miss Tōko, handled the east lobby. I have the
list of the construction workers on the building, as well as the construction
timeline, if you need them.”
From my bag, I produce the thick stack of print-outs I made for her and
lay them out atop Miss Tōko’s desk. For some reason, her eyes are darting
over each stack with a look of stress.
“The building’s weirdness actually comes from it actually being two
buildings combined and connected with each other. If you look at the
blueprints, it’ll make sense. It’s two half-circle, ten-story buildings facing
away from each other, and looking at it from the air, you’ll see they form a
full, seemingly unbroken circle. At first it was supposed to be some kind of
company dormitory, and the first and second floors were supposed to be
recreational and relaxation facilities. Due to the recent recession, however,
they’ve been tightening their belts and stopped operation of those.
Discounting the first and second floor, each floor of each building has five
units, making for ten units each floor. Each unit is designed similarly, with
three rooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen, and the architectural
design is mixed Japanese and Western design. The water piping
and plumbing is sort of built clumsily, so they’ll probably have a leak in the
lower floors in the next ten years, if not already. There’s a parking space
outside that’s good for forty cars, and another underground parking lot
for another forty. More than enough for the number of present residents.
When the original people who owned it fell into hard times, the entire
thing was bought by a new guy. It was his plan to turn it into a residential
high rise instead of a company dormitory only this year. They were adver-
tising up until March, but they only managed to fill up a little over than half
of capacity. The west wing is due for a renovation at some point. Here, the
I place more documents on top of the desk, to which she blinks once,
twice, before the frown on her face worsens.
“The buildings are separated into an east and west building, but the
lobby on the first floor is normal. And there’s only one elevator. It’s a
surprisingly faulty piece of equipment for such a big building. Guess we
know where the budget didn’t go. According to reports, it didn’t even work
until May. As for the rooms, the order goes from the six o’ clock position
going counter-clockwise, room 01-05 in the east building, then 06-10 in
the west building. There’s roof access but it’s off-limits. Third floor residents
from room-to-room are: Sonoda, vacant, Watanabe, vacant, Itsuki,
Takemoto, vacant, Haimon, vacant, Tōenji. Fourth floor: vacant, vacant,
Sasaya, Mochizuki, Shintani, vacant, vacant, Tsujinomiya, Kamiyama, Enjō.
Fifth floor: Narushima, Tennōji, vacant, vacant, Shirazumi, Naitō, Kusumoto,
vacant, vacant, Inugami. Sixth floor: —”
“Alright, enough already,” Miss Tōko declares, raising her hands as if in
surrender and perhaps a little bit of exasperation. “Man, you go all out
when I let you go freestyle. You probably have what hand the residents use
to pick their noses or something in there.” She motions a hand to give her
the list, and I hand it over to her. “I mean, it wouldn’t really surprise me if
it did.”
“Thanks. I was getting tired of reading it anyway.” As soon as she casts
her eyes on the list in her hands, she gives a long whistle, a rare exclamation
of impressed surprise.
“Look at this. It has their immediate family, place of employment, previous
residence. Jesus, Kokutō, if you ever became a detective, everyone
would line up to get your ass into asset forfeiture.”
“Nah, the guys there do far better than me regularly. I mean, I haven’t
even checked half of the families yet.” I was supposed to, but sleep demands
got the better of me. In the end, I could only check thirty out of the total
fifty residents of the Ōgawa Apartments with any detail. The remaining
twenty I only have names and their immediate family tree.
Miss Tōko quietly reads the list I gave her, but since the middle of reading
the list of names, she’s been looking at the list with a grim face buried in
reflection. Finally, when her glare can no longer contain itself, she speaks.
“Tōko, lemme see that list for sec, will you?” She gets up from the sofa
and walks behind Miss Tōko, sneaking a look at the list over her shoulder.
“Thought so. No one else has a name that rare.” She clicks her tongue, in 
approval or annoyance I can’t say. “Sorry folks, but I gotta head in early
today. Got any wheels I can use, Tōko?”
“I guess there’s the 200cc motorcycle in the garage.”
“Riding a bike with a kimono. Right. That’s comfortable.”
“Well, if you aren’t too picky, I have clothes in the locker. They’re a bit
big for your size, but they’re probably better than damaging that valuable
kimono of yours. Don’t take the Harley out. I haven’t taken the sidecar off
it yet.” Shiki nods in assent before grabbing her leather jacket and making
off with the bag with the sword blade inside. The sound her kimono makes
as she leaves is like an ominous snake. I don’t like it.
“Shiki!” In the height of my disquiet, I call out to her. She turns her head
back toward me, looking for all the world like she just remembered a prank
that is about to be played on her.
“What is it, Mikiya? Don’t tell me there’s a bad stain on my kimono?”
She says it with all the weight of someone just going to do a bit of shopping.
Why did I call out to her? What am I supposed to say?
“Er, nothing. I’ll drop by in the evening, and we can talk about stuff then.”
“Um…okaayyy. Wait—evening, right? Sure, I’ll be there. See ya later.”
She waves a hand in a short goodbye before she closes the door to the
office entirely.
It has been one hour since the rare event of Shiki borrowing Miss
Tōko’s motorcycle, and me and Miss Tōko decide to pay a visit to the
Ōgawa Apartment buildings to see for ourselves. It’s thirty minutes toward
Kayamihama, and it doesn’t take us long before her beloved Morris Minor
1000 car is cruising down the coastal bay road, giving us a good clear view
of the west coast and the harbor with its loading bays. Kayamihama itself
can already be seen from here, with its high rises set against the backdrop
of even taller buildings further inland. The scenery of buildings going up
and down is almost graphically 8-bit in its solidity.
The apartment complex we’re looking for lies smack in the middle of
Kayamihama, a circular building to stand apart from the square and rectangles
of the area; visible from far away but it takes quite some time to get
to. Finally we arrive, and it looks even bigger up close than it is from afar.
Its ten floors make it unusually tall compared to everything else
where it shares the reclaimed land, and a brick fence to dissuade intruders
surrounds the grounds. A long, thin path extends from the parking lot
to the entrance, all the way inside to the lobby, making it look like some
bizarre Taj Mahal.
“Huh, can’t seem to find the underground parking. Oh well,” says Miss
Tōko dismissively. Having no intention of paying the parking fee, she instead
parks her quaint old car well outside the apartment grounds. “Let’s go,”
she announces before lighting a cigarette and starting to walk. As soon as
I get out of the car and step onto the ground, a slight dizziness takes over
me, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. Probably the sun today. I walk a little
behind Miss Tōko, and I sneak a look up at the roof of the building, only
increasing my sense of vertigo. I quickly catch up to her, and we enter the
lobby together.
One step inside, and I feel my stomach start to churn. The walls, all a
cream color, are maintained with the same immaculate, clinical cleanliness
as the floor. It’s all very impressive. And yet, I get an overwhelming
unease that threatens to spill into outright disgust at it. A bad premonition
that tries to override my mind. The inside of the building is warm like a
person’s breath, in stark contrast to cold air outside. The heat coils and
warps around my skin in a way that makes me think of the claustrophobia
of a womb.
“Just your imagination playing tricks, Kokutō,” whispers Miss Tōko close
to my ear, and somehow it stops the dizziness. With much better faculty
for thinking now, I give the building another look over. The lobby in the
middle seems to be the only thing connecting the two buildings, which will
become even more noticeable in floors above the second, as it becomes
the only way to transition between the east and west building. We can’t
seem to find a manager’s or caretaker’s office here in the fourth floor.
In the middle of all this stands a tall pillar that runs through the centerline
of the building; it’s spine. Within this hollow pillar is the elevator, and
winding around the elevator chasm is the spiraling staircase. Having the
entire thing encased in a single structure repeats the same feeling of claustrophobia
“Not the most pleasant of buildings, this one,” I comment.
“Reminds me of that Jack Nicholson movie in the hotel. There’s just
something really wrong about it, isn’t there? It isn’t a particularly unique
thing though. All the little things that go into a building’s architecture can
be deliberately designed to toy with your mind. Everything from the color
of the walls, to the location and style of the stairs. Change these around
in little, but noticeable increments, and it’s enough to drive the ones who
pass through it every day to go mad as their pattern recognition goes
crazy.” Miss Tōko approaches and enters the waiting elevator, and I follow
her. “Which floor, good sir?” she says in good humor.
“Hmm, maybe we could start with the fourth floor.”
“All right. Up we go,” says Miss Tōko as she allows her eyes to wander
and look over the structure of the elevator. Even the elevator carriage is
circular, twisting inside the spine of the entire structure. Since she seems
disinclined to push the button herself, I find the “4” among the buttons
labeled “B” to “10” and push it.
Immediately, the elevator springs to life, and I can feel its movement
through the building; I can even hear it produce a relatively loud, artificial
sound, maybe a clue as to how decrepit the entire mechanism is. The
sound combined with the elevator’s circular shape make me feel as if I’m
descending instead of ascending. Before long, the elevator’s door opens
again to admit us to the fourth floor lobby. The first thing we see in front
of us is the corridor that leads to the east building, corresponding with the
apartment’s south-facing entrance, just as the blueprint had indicated.
“Follow that corridor and it’ll lead you to 401-405,” I observe. “Keep
going and you’ll eventually reach a dead-end confronting the west building’s
outer walls.”
“And you get to the west building only by coming back here and going
on the opposite corridor behind the elevator right?” Miss Tōko asks.
“Yeah. It’s a weird layout. They should have just connected the corridors
for convenience.”
“They probably wanted some unique flavor. I don’t know. Uniqueness
always takes a backseat to practicality for me. But I guess how you waste
cash is what distinguishes one rich person from the next.” She sighs then
turns to me, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “So, Kokutō, what reason did
you have for picking the fourth floor? Going to pay a visit to the family
that supposedly died?” Her surprising query echoes all along the cream
colored walls of the lobby, reflecting off the clean walls and floor like the
light above. It’s a room where the time of day becomes unclear, as I sense it
changes little in night or day. It is only now that I notice that we never met
anyone ever since we stepped inside, and were it not for the lights and the
general feel of a maintained space, you’d never know anyone lived here.
“Ma’am, where did you hear—”
“I told you I have a detective friend, didn’t I? Some burglar came in and
everyone was already dead, right? I wasn’t able to catch the name, but I
knew you were going to go see it for yourself.” Well, she’s right. It’s the
reason I woke my cousin Daisuke up in the middle of the night last night,
after all. “So, you going or what?”
“Well, that’s what I was planning, but now that we’re here…” I’m kinda
scared. Before I came here, I thought the entire thing might even be kind
of fun, but now even being here is an uncomfortable experience I’d rather 
not go through, which only adds to the strength of the butterflies fluttering
in my stomach. And yes, I am well aware of the fact that it is broad daylight.
“Now’s the time to go if you’re going, Kokutō. As for me, I want to try
using the elevator by myself. Let’s meet later in the floor above this one.
Use the stairs. And oh, it might be better to close your eyes as you go. See
you later.” I watch her until she gets on the elevator and closes, the lights
above the entryway going all the way up to the tenth floor, blinking as
they go. I watch it in a daze, unsure exactly what I should be doing, and I
realize I’m all alone in the lobby. Now, even my breathing is accentuated by
the oppressive silence in the room where time no longer seems to exist; a
vacuum world adrift in space in a unique flavour of mixed claustrophobia
and agoraphobia. I never knew a building could feel this separated from
the outside world.
“Man, she really isn’t coming down, is she?” I utter as I continue to watch
the lights in hopes that she could return in short order. Talking to myself
usually cures me of any temporary fear, but this time it has the opposite
effect. As my own voice reverberates in the lobby, it returns to my ears with
a tone that is practically not mine, only enhancing my unease.
Alright, enough of this. This won’t resolve itself as long as I’m here. I steel
myself and start walking towards and through the corridor that connects
to the east building. As soon as I go through the corridor, the disquiet that
engulfed me in the lobby slips away so suddenly it’s surprising, only to
be replaced by total disinterest. The corridor that runs outside the units
opens to the outside, but only to a completely uninteresting view of similar
looking apartments. I still stare at them as I walk along the length of the
hallway, all the way to the end until I reach room 405.
It was the night on the ninth. A burglar broke into this place and supposedly
reported seeing a number of bodies. He returned with a police patrolman
on the same night once he reported it, but when they visited again,
they only saw a family in the middle of dinner, which only made the burglar
crazier. Maybe he was hallucinating. Maybe the entire family were doing
some sort of collective play, and it was all just some sort of big misunderstanding.
Won’t find out till I ring this doorbell, so I do.
It produces the traditional, happy, two-tone sound. After a short while,
the room opens with a creaking sound. The first thing I see is how dark it is
inside. The second thing I see is someone’s arm. Then his head.
“Yes? Enjō residence. Who is it?” Standing in the doorway is a middle
aged man, looking and talking as irately as anyone who gets an unexpected
visitor in the middle of the day.
And so it turns out that the false alarm really was just a false alarm after
all. Nothing seemed to be wrong with that Enjō family in room 405.
I return to the lobby to find that the lights atop the elevator still linger
on the tenth floor. I could call it down to go up, but I can already see her
finding it out and calling me too much of a scaredy cat for using the elevator
instead of the stairs like she said, and so without further delay I start
climbing the stairs beside it. The stairs is a spiral entwining itself around the
height of the elevator chasm going upwards and ever upwards, lit by dim
red lights. Though the lobby air is still cold and dead, the normality of the
Enjō family gives me back some much needed backbone. And yet I can’t
stop myself from thinking that the red lighting giving the cream walls much
of their sinister air feels like a quivering torch flame lighting the way in an
otherwise dark castle. Little nooks and corners of the stairwell it’s supposed
to illuminate remain in the dark, and every ascending step proves to be a
little gloomier each time.
I fight my imagination, which seems intent on placing some sort of
feral creature at the head of the stairs, escape the melancholic feel of the
stairwell and finally reach the lobby of the fifth floor…which looks exactly
like the lobby of the fourth floor. I know it’s an apartment complex probably
made with prefab materials and uninspired architectural design like a
department store, but still, the sameness gets me somewhat down.
“There you are. Now let’s take a trip down, shall we?” From inside the
lobby comes the voice of Miss Tōko. Without saying another word, she
hops inside the already waiting elevator. I follow her, seeing her stand in
front of the navigation panel of the elevator, waiting for me to get in. As I
do so, she speaks without turning around. “Pop quiz, hotshot. If you’d look
at the floor for a second…”
“Huh? Oh, okay. I just need to look at the floor, right?” The elevator
door closes with little sound to herald it. In contrast, I hear the sound of
the elevator mechanism operating loud and clear. It doesn’t even take
four seconds to get to the destination floor that Miss Tōko punched in.
The small, claustrophobic box called the elevator stops somewhere in the
larger, claustrophobic space called the Ōgawa Apartments.
“Here’s the million-dollar question: what floor do you suppose we’re
on?” I raise my face to look when she asks. The elevator door is open, and
I see the lobby, or at least a lobby. It looks precisely the same as the other
floor I was just on, except for one thing: a plastic plaque stuck to a side of
the wall with the number “5” on it.
“Wait a minute. Fifth floor?” I’m sure the elevator moved. I heard it and 
everything. That makes me the one in error. I think on it for a moment only
for the obvious answer to come drifting into my mind not a moment later.
“We were just on the sixth floor, weren’t we?”
“Ding ding. You thought you went up one floor but instead went up two.
Those kinds of stairs make it pretty easy to do if the designer really wants
to. Apartments and condo buildings are strange like that. The only way
you can know what floor you’re even on is through the sign on the lobby.
Take off the numbers in an elevator and have someone ride it to the top of

a really tall building. Do they know what floor they’re on? Don’t think so.
Switch around the floor labels on the switches and it’ll be even worse, at
least for someone not used to riding it every day. Hmm, now I’ve got the
urge to try it in another apartment building. Like, we sneak in at night and
change stuff around.”
Crazy, but just like her. With that, she closes the elevator door, presses
the button marked “1”, and before long we’re getting off the elevator back
in the floor where we started.
“Oh wait, why don’t we drop by and check out the east lobby for a
minute?” Miss Tōko suggests. “Both wings have a lobby on this floor, right?”
“Er, yes. It actually takes up the second floor too, with the space. It’s like
a big hotel receiving—wait a minute, weren’t you the one that designed
the east lobby?”
“Did I now?” she says in a voice which I can’t distinguish from sarcasm
and genuine wonderment before she smiles knowingly at me. The central
chamber which contains the elevator is connected to lobbies on either
side with a corridor, and Miss Tōko is already starting to walk towards the
one that connects to the east lobby. I follow her, and it isn’t long before
we arrive. It’s a spacious room, with little of interest in it besides a stairs
straight ahead of us that connects it to the second floor catwalk that lines
the walls of the room. The state of seemingly perpetual tidiness with which
it is kept reminds me of the look of an old Napoleonic ballroom, except
dead and empty. The marble floors and the same cream-colored walls
that decorate all of the walls we have yet seen in this building certainly
complete the image.
“Guess I’ll set up here,” I hear Miss Tōko murmur to herself. “Perfect
place for an emergency spell—” beyond that, her voice lowers to the point
that I can no longer hear it. I watch as she takes a knee on the marble floor
and let her hands wander on its surface like an archaeologist looking for
any lost fossils.
“Um, what are you doing over there, ma’am?”
“Just a little something for later. By the way, did you notice anything 
weird when you were going up the stairs? There were signs that it moved,
weren’t there?”
The stairs…moved? But, it’s inside a solid column, which means, what?
That moves too?
“I didn’t say that the entire column moved. Just the stairs. You would
have found the scratch marks if you looked at the corners where the stairs
met the wall. Or were you really so scared as to not have your wits about
you?” she asks as she continues her strange inspection of the floor.
I hate to say it, but she’s right. But it was so dark that I couldn’t see the
entirety of the stairs, anyway, so I don’t think it would have done much
good even if I was paying attention. “But that’s impossible ma’am. Moving
that column implies that you’d need nothing short of tearing the entire
building down to do it.”
“Listen to me when I’m talking, will you? I did say it was only the stairs
that moved. The entire thing is like a pop-a-point pencil.”
“What the heck is a pop-a-point pencil?” As soon as I state this, her
hands stop their questing movement and she stands up with a surprising
“Wait a minute. You don’t know what a pop-a-point pencil is? What kind
of parents brought you up, Kokutō? It’s that pencil where there are a lot of
sharpened points in cartridges inside. When your lead becomes dull, you
take it out and push it in the back like a bazooka, and out comes a new
sharpened point without the need for cranking the handle on the classroom
sharpener. Maybe they don’t sell it nowadays.”
I have no idea what she’s describing, but I guess I understand the
mechanics of it well enough.
“So you’re saying that the stairs are being pushed up from below, like a
piston mechanism?”
“That’s the idea. They probably left half a floor’s height on the thing,
just to move the spiral. North becomes south and south becomes north.
Something’s definitely up with it. But we’ll leave it for now.” She walks
again, this time going out the door to the outside, and I follow her lead. As
we finally exit the building, she whispers something to herself, something
which I can only barely hear.
“Man, you really don’t know what a pop-a-point pencil is? And they
were pretty popular when I was a kid too.
As if life truly wanted to deliver one last sucker punch to our efforts for
the day, we arrive at Miss Tōko’s parked car only to find a parking violation 
ticket stuck to the windshield, for parking in a public thoroughfare. I guess
we should have expected it, seeing as the road in front of the apartment
was wide, and we were the only ones parked. Guess the traffic cops had
nothing better to do.
Spiral Paradox - IV
That night, after finishing up the last of the research I had to do for Miss
Tōko, I headed on over to Shiki’s house to hang out. It is just past 8pm on
the night of November 9, and I find her absent from her home, which by
itself, isn’t a really out of place event.
Except on the next day, I find she still has not come back.
Spiral Paradox - V
Unwittingly, before either my mind or my body could actually notice, my
feet have already brought me to Ryōgi’s house. As I step in, I notice that it
has not changed its dreariness ever since the last time I set foot in here, the
day when I admitted to Ryōgi that I killed my parents. Just before I close the
door, I see the sky already darkened, though still somewhat lighted by the
faraway setting sun. The hour hand on Ryōgi’s bedside clock points to six,
and as always, in this quiet space, the incessant ticking of the second hand
eventually grows to become an annoyance, and only serves to exacerbate
my growing headache.
It’s already been nine days since I last saw Ryōgi. In that span, I’ve spent
my time roaming the streets among the hobos and corner boys, all greeting
the turn of the months to November with a silent vigil as they go about
their duties. I barely ate, only pausing to look at the occasional newspaper
or TV display for any news on the discoveries of my parents’ bodies.
Perhaps because of the depths to which my life has suddenly sunk, I’ve
had a headache that hasn’t stopped, and in fact continues to reach a new
high every day. On top of that, my body has been steadily weakening, and
all the joints in my body have become heavier every time I wake up from a
supposedly restive night’s sleep.
“What in the hell am I doing to myself?” I whisper to no one as I hug
my knees close to me. I was never supposed to come back here. But now,
Ryōgi’s voice is the one thing I want to hear. I’m scared, and I need someone,
anyone’s help, and so I unconsciously brought myself here. As I wait
in what seems like hours in the darkness of the unlit room, my teeth start
chattering lightly, adding to the droning repetition of the ticking clock.
It makes me not notice there is anyone in the room until suddenly the
entirety of my sight is bathed in light. It’s Ryōgi, who had opened the door
without my noticing.
“Enjō? What were you…never mind. I don’t think I really want to know
what you like to do alone in the middle of the dark,” says the voice of the
girl clad in a red jacket over a white kimono. She doesn’t even sound like
she’s surprised at my being here. Nothing about her has changed: from
the hair with its tip at her shoulders, to her deep, dark eyes, to the tone of
her voice. It’s still the Ryōgi that I know. “Still, you couldn’t have come at a
better time.”
She approaches her bed and places the long bag she’s holding on top of
it. Then she opens the door to the room she never used or opened while I 
was here, and from it produces a wooden box of about the same length as
the bag on her bed.
“Sorry, but whatever you gotta say, it’s gonna have to wait until I finish.
I just can’t wait to put this bad boy together.” She unties the knot on the
satchel, revealing a naked sword blade inside. In a manner that tells me she’s
done this many times before, she opens the wooden box and retrieves a
sword scabbard and grip from it, as well as on oval shaped object that must
be the guard. “Oh man, the scabbard sleeve ain’t fitting. And this is the
only one I have, too,” she says with dissatisfaction as she slowly transforms
the blade from its nakedness to a fine example of a katana by assembling it,
affixing different things to the blade tang. After she’s done and has looked
upon it with some pride, she puts it on top of the bed and turns to face me
again. “Alright. You wanted to talk, right?”
In contrast to how delighted her voice is, her expression is still nothing
more than the plain indifference she has given me all this time. I try to
speak at first, but nothing comes out. I just want someone to help me.
And I realize that nothing has changed. Everything is as it was when Ryōgi
first saved me in that alley, but now I can’t remember what I wanted to be
saved from.
“I don’t fucking know. I’ve done things, things are happening, and I don’t
know,” I say. Ryōgi says nothing, only listening as she continues to look at
me. I don’t think I have any other choice except to continue. “When I was
wandering in the city today, I saw my mom. At first, I thought it was just
someone who looked like her. But then I followed her, until she went inside
the same apartment building I used to live in. It doesn’t make any fucking
sense anymore!” I declare, my shivering becoming worse with every word.
Ryōgi stands up.
“So long story short, you think she’s alive. You’ve seen nothing in the
news, so hey, it might be possible.”
“No! I killed her, and my dad too. I’m sure of it. It’s the ones that are
alive that are fake!” I say with as much vigor as I can muster, as if shouting
it will make it real somehow. I don’t know if I truly believe what I’m saying.
What did I see, then? I remember leaving the house a picturesque image of
a blood-drenched nightmare, and yet who did I see go back into it?
“Must be my mistake. How about an idea so we can solve it? Why don’t
we go there to make sure?”
“We go there, we knock on the door, see if anyone’s inside, ask. That
way we’ll know for sure if they’re alive or not. I’m serious!” As soon as she
says that, Ryōgi wastes no time. She immediately stands up and retrieves 
a sheathed knife from her table, putting it into her jacket’s inside pocket,
and then sheathes a second one in a leather scabbard, tucking it into her
kimono’s sash. The viciousness of the blades belies the atmosphere of
Ryōgi’s casual attitude, which almost feels like she’s just going out to buy
some smokes. It seems she’s determined to go with or without me. I was
planning on objecting, but seeing her determined state of mind makes me
resolve to at least not let her go alone. And so I follow her out of the room.
“Feel like driving a motorcycle, Enjō?”
“Somehow, I feel like I don’t have a choice.”
“Good. I left one in the parking lot, so we’ll use that.” We walk hurriedly
towards the underground parking lot of the building. While I’m surprised
that a building this small has such a facility, I’m more startled by the motorcycle
that Ryōgi shows me: A large, heavy-looking Harley with an attached
sidecar, which Ryōgi proceeds to get on. Driven on by her lack of hesitation,
I position myself on the motorcycle, start the engine, and start us on the
way to the apartment where I used to live over a month ago.
We arrive at the high rise a little later than I expected, in some part due
to the fact that I’m not really used to driving motorcycles as big as the one
Ryōgi provided. The November nighttime air is so cold it’s almost unbearable,
and driving in an open vehicle didn’t serve to alleviate it one bit. But
through all that, we finally arrive at the circular apartment, tall enough that
it seems like it could reach the moon. Its strange construction—circular,
and actually being two buildings connected—helped it stand out from its
much more plain, four-corner neighbors. My former house is located on
the fourth floor of the east building. From what I know, the west building
never had any residents. There aren’t a lot of people living there to begin
with, so I guess they just never got around to using it. I did hear a lot of
people wanted to buy, but the owner was a picky one, and not at all social,
so he only filled more or less half of the units in the thing. Apparently my
dad knew him, so my family got in fairly easily as a favor, I suppose.
“Well, this is it,” I say to Ryōgi riding in the sidecar. She casts her eyes
upward at the building, looking suspiciously like she’s seen some ghostly
apparition on one of the windows.
“What is up with this place,” is the only thing she says. I leave the bike
parked in the street in front of the apartment, and I lead Ryōgi inside the
grounds. A concrete wall surrounds the entirety of the premises like one
of those bad community elemenatries. The circular shape of the building
makes it so that it doesn’t take up a lot of space, but the grounds with its 
surrounding flora takes up much of the lot. Bisecting it is the paved walkway
leading from the street to the building itself. Wordlessly, Ryōgi follows
my lead as we enter. Inside, we can immediately spot the large central
column that dominates the structure like an ancient monument. Within it
is the elevator, and around the elevator shaft is the spiral stairs that hardly
anyone uses. I push the “up” button beside the elevator door to call it.
Somewhere, a clock’s second hand ticks. Something doesn’t feel right.
My heart is beating at a rate much higher than it does normally, and my
breathing is labored. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I’m about to
pay a visit to the family I killed. That’s hardly a recipe for relaxation.
The elevator arrives.
The door opens.
I go inside.
Shiki follows.
I push the button for the fourth floor.
A deep, mechanical sound can be heard as the elevator begins its ascent,
a sound that I’d gotten used to hearing a long time ago.
“It’s twisting,” says Ryōgi to no one in particular. The elevator stops on
the fourth floor. I get out and immediately head for the hallway directly
in front of us, leading to the east building. Ryōgi continues to follow me
in silence as I take a hard left, following the corridor’s direction. Now I
face the hallway outside the rooms of the east building, with the left hand
side all having doors to their respective units, and the right hand side an
open view of the outside world. A chest height wall is situated on the right
side to prevent any nasty accidents. All of them are lit by the glow of the
orange fluorescent lights on one half, and the other half the soft blue of the
moonlight from outside.
“We just go straight ahead to the end of this hallway to get to my house.”
I start walking again. The whole place is quiet, save for the little noises that
you can hear from inside the units, but it’s all background noise that your
brain tends to filter out, and besides that, you never meet anyone in the
hallways anyway. At last we arrive at the last room as the hallway terminates,
and I stop my feet right in front of the door.
Are we really doing this? My hand doesn’t move to reach anything, and
my vision seems to blur for a moment when I look at the doorknob. Oh
wait. That’s right. I have to ring the doorbell first. It’s an absolute rule, even
with the key I have. If I don’t do it, mom’ll be scared shitless again. It’s all
because of that one time when some debt collectors forcibly entered. Now,
we have to ring the doorbell to allay mom’s fears. As I remember this, my
hand hovers over the button.
Ryōgi stops me.
“How about we not ring the doorbell and just go inside, Enjō?”
“What the hell? Do you plan on just barging in?”
“This is your house, isn’t it? Besides, we ring the doorbell, I wouldn’t
be able to see the trick, and that would be too bad. Now give me the key.”
Ryōgi abruptly grabs the key that I produce from my pocket and inserts it
into the doorknob, giving it one turn.
The door opens, and inside I can hear the low hum of the television.
Someone is inside.
 The sounds of a conversation. The buzz of words. My dad blaming the
problems of life on my mom and the world. My mom hearing all of it in one
ear and out the other one, nodding along to everything he says. The daily
life of someone called Tomoe Enjō.
Ryōgi makes her way inside silently, and I shadow her steps. We exit
the hallway, and open the door leading to the living room where the noise
originates. Inside is a cheap looking table, quite unfit for the how good
the room looks. Or how good it would look if it was swept regularly and
the trash was taken out. As it stands now, bags of trash fill its corners like
necessary furniture.
And in the middle of this entire scene are my parents.
“Jesus, is Tomoe not home yet? It’s eight o’ clock, for crying out loud.
He got off the clock an hour ago! Where the fuck is that asshole playing
“Who knows?”
“It’s because you spoil him that he acts like we ain’t his parents. That
goddamn punk better start putting some money into the household or
he’s gonna get his ass pounded. Whose house does he think he’s living in
“Who knows?”
What…what the hell is this?
Both my dad who hides behind the image of the fucking big man of the
house even though he’s a coward at heart, and my mom who serves as his
unflinching yes man are both alive. The two people I killed are continuing
on with life as if nothing had happened. But that isn’t even the most suspicious
thing about this. They’re not even turning to look at me and Ryōgi
standing in the doorway, visible to all.
“What time do you get home?” Ryōgi whispers into my ear.
“Around nine,” I answer back, my voice stunned to incredulity.
“Man, an hour? Guess we got no choice but to wait.”
“Ryōgi, what the fuck?” I whisper, thinking the two would hear us. 
“Explain this bullshit to me.” Her indifference finally makes me angry, but
she casts me an annoyed glance in response.
“We didn’t ring the doorbell or knock, so they’re not treating us like
guests. We didn’t trigger anything that fires up their predetermined
response. So they continue their act thinking no one’s actually come.” Her
observation finished, Ryōgi walks to the room behind us, across the hall
from the living room.
My room.
After some hesitation, I follow her while trying to avoid meeting my
parents’ gaze. There I could do nothing but stand and wait. Ryōgi chooses a
spot on the wall to lean on, and waits like that in the room where the lights
are off. But waiting for what, exactly? Nothing less than myself, Tomoe
Enjō, and his return. And so I wait for me in the place where I committed
murder. Not the most normal of times for me. Time passes simultaneously
fast and slow for me, an eternity committed to a second, an hour where my
sense of reality seems to slip away as the second hand on a clock ticks away
somewhere beyond my reach.
And then at last, I hear the door open. Finally, I’ve come home. A sense
of relief and dread at the same time, two paradoxical emotions combine
as I watch another me enter the house without a word, not venturing to
converse with my parents, and enter my room in silence. All of it is the
same: The wavy red-dyed hair, the body and face that made everyone call
me a girl up until junior high, the sullen look that cursed the world, and the
deep breath taken upon entering the seclusion of the room; a meditative
act, almost a ritual, that seemed to will all the troubles away.
Tomoe-the-other pays as much attention to Ryōgi and me standing by
the wall as he would invisible specters. He lays out the mattress. My mind
is blank as I watch Tomoe Enjō fall asleep, even though I’ve seen all of
this before. I know what happens next. The sounds of an argument fill the
room across the hall. It’s my mom, raising her voice to dad in what must
be the first time ever. Then inhuman screaming. Both of them, baying like
wild dogs. Then the unpleasant sound of a hard and metallic object making
impact with something fleshy. After that, only my mom’s desperate breathing
can be heard through the door. Footsteps, repeating over and over. The
clock ticking and ticking.
“No,” I whisper, though I know it won’t change anything. After all, I’ve
seen this before.
The door slides open, and Tomoe dares to open his eyes for a peek, and
he sees the silhouette of his mother holding a broad kitchen knife in one
“Die, Tomoe.” Her voice detached, feeling nothing, but perhaps this isn’t
true. After all, Tomoe can’t see her face against the light, but now Tomoe
can see. Mom is crying. And yet, she goes on to stab him as if possessed
with reckless strength, each stab strangely in time with the sound of the
second hand’s progress around the face of the clock. In the stomach, the
chest, the neck, both arms and legs, the thighs, each finger, both ears,
through the nose, a stab on each eye, and finally, on the forehead. It is then
that the knife breaks, and mom puts the broken blade on her own neck,
stabs, then twists. Both she and the knife fall to the floor in a dull sound
that nevertheless manages an echo in the room.
Then nothing. Only the eternally reverberating sound of the ticking,
growing louder and louder in my mind like a mocking tone. This is—
“—a bad dream.” That became real at last. Or whatever level of reality
this is. The sight makes me sick to my stomach, but I am delayed from any
further thoughts when I hear the sound of a kimono fluttering as it moves.
Ryōgi moves to leave the room.
“If your curiosity is sated, then we can go. We have no business left
“No business?! A person just—I just died here!”
“Did you really? Look closely and you’ll see there’s not a drop of blood
on them. They’ll just wake up right as rain in the morning. It’s a cycle where
they’re born in the morning and die at night. Get a grip on yourself, Enjō.
You’re the one alive. That—” she points to the corpse “—is the one with a
lot more holes in his body.”
I turn my head to look at the tragedy one more time, and just like Ryōgi
said, no blood on any of them even though there should have been gallons
of the stuff.
“What, how—”
“Hey, I’m as clueless as you as to how and why someone would do
something like this, but at any rate, we’ve got nothing more to do here.
C’mon, let’s go to the next one.” Ryōgi walks to the hallway and towards
the door leading outside. I call out to her, though she doesn’t turn around
to acknowledge me.
“What do you mean ‘next?’ Where the hell are you going, Ryōgi?”
“Durr. To the place where you really lived, Enjō.” She says, and continues
walking, the briskness of her action dispelling the confusion I feel, at least
At first, having followed her all the way back to the central hall, I thought
Ryōgi would get on the elevator. Instead, she goes behind it, to the opposite
side of the hall, where the corridor leading to the west building lies.
Without any attempt at solemnity, she passes through the corridor and
goes into the west building hallway, constructed similarly to its counterpart.
I suppose I shouldn’t have expected any less. I realize—even though
I lived here for over half a year—that I’ve never really seen anyone from
the east building go to the west building. It’s like some kind of common
We walk through the hallway, the open air to our right letting in drafts of
biting, cold air that tells me how late it is. I glance at my watch, displaying
the time as around ten o’ clock. As far as I know, no one lives in the west
building, which is probably why only the minimum amount of lights are
actually turned on in this part, and no light nor any indication of movement
seems to be slipping in the cracks under the doors to each unit. Guided
mostly by the moonlight, Ryōgi presses on through the barely-lit hall.
406. 407. 408. 409. When she reaches the last unit, 410, she suddenly
halts, looks at the door, and starts to talk.
“I went here on a hunch, based on a really small observation, really.
Even though you said you lived in 405, I remembered that Mikiya said your
name last. He’s not the kind of guy to mix the order of names around. So
I thought that the Enjō family must be living in the last room of the fourth
floor, room 410 in other words.”
“You told me some time ago that elevator didn’t work for a while, right?
It only worked when all of the residents were here already, like somebody
gave it a signal. The entire thing is a trick to displace the exit by turning the
elevator, to fool you where north and south is. The fact that it’s circular and
it makes a loud sound when it goes up hides the trick. It’s also the reason
why the second floor isn’t used. It needs the height of a floor so that it can
spin around a half circle for the trick.”
Displacing the exit? That sounds like a load of bullshit, but what if it’s
true? After all, I wouldn’t know. The only thing I know is that when I get
off the elevator, the corridor in front of me is the one that leads to the
east building. I didn’t question it since it seemed so obvious. If what she’s
saying is true, then I’ve been mixing things up, and I just didn’t notice due
to everything being the same. Whichever corridor you go to, you end up
taking a hard left to end up in the building’s hallway, and there aren’t any
numbers on the doors, so you wouldn’t know the difference.
“Then, this is my house?”
“Yep. The house you were in for a month before the elevator started
working, to be exact. After that, you were living in the funhouse we’ve just
been to. Now that I think about it, the stairs must be moving too, or else
this whole thing wouldn’t work. They’re spiral stairs, aren’t they?”
I can’t even bother to give her a nod. “But all of that can’t be true.
Normally, you’d notice that shit.” I retort, but Ryōgi, as always with the
considerable amount of composure she can bring to bear, refutes me.
“Can you still call this place normal after what we just saw in 405? This
place is an enclosed space. All of the buildings you see from outside are
the same four-angle mid rises with no great difference from anywhere you
look. All the walls that partition the place are some kind of strange color
with small patterns on them that you don’t notice but your mind processes
and remembers. There aren’t any small inconsistencies, so your mind lets
the obvious ones slide. It’s not the same as Tōko’s, but there’s one hell of
a ward in here.” She puts a hand on the doorknob. “I’m letting it rip, Enjō.
It’s the homecoming half a year in the making,” she says, a note of glee
intruding in her voice.
She opens the door. There’s no turning back now.
The inside of 410 is consumed by a thick darkness such that both of
us can’t really see more than a foot in front of us. In my head, the ticking
resumes once again, and my body, and all my joints, reclaim their previous
“Where are the goddamn lights? Oh, here they are,” I hear Ryōgi say
somewhere in the dark. In a second, a light burns brightly above.
I gulp. But I am no longer surprised. Somehow, I knew it would be here.
“Looks to be half a year since they died,” says Ryōgi in a voice that
implies no surprise in her as well. Though I know we should be at least
somewhat astonished, for the living room we have entered contains two
wasted corpses. What few dry skin remains is hanging on their clearly
visible bones. Most of the flesh has fallen off, dry decaying on their own in
the floor like a pile of garbage. They look like bodies dumped in a landfill
and left to rot, with eye sockets as black and empty as a cave, and faces
that no one in good confidence can possibly put an identity to. Except me.
They are what remain of Takayuki and Kaede Enjō, the parents I killed a
month ago for the sake of one bad dream. But as Ryōgi says, it looks like
it’s been longer than a month since they died. And then there is the other
Enjō family that still exists on the other side.
It’s all a paradox that I can no longer muster the will to resolve. Like 
Ryōgi, I stand here in the room, thinking and doing nothing except stare at
the bodies, as if by looking at them, I could divine the exact time and date
like a perverse clock. Compared to the dream that I see every night made
real earlier, this is more final, more conclusive, so much so that it doesn’t
even hold any surprises for me. A meaningless, worthless death for my
Even so, I can’t seem to take my eyes off the sight of the decay. I have
the acute feeling of someone wanting to feel emotional without actually
being able to. I want to be disgusted, to be startled at the very least, but
no dice.
The sound of the front door opening intrudes on my thoughts.
“Spoiling for a fight, eh?” says Ryōgi, smiling upon hearing the distinct
noise. She draws the knife from inside her jacket, and in one smooth
motion unsheathes the blade. At that same moment, someone enters the
living room without us hearing his voice or even his footfalls. His face is
a middle-aged man that could have been anyone you passed by on the
street, but containing a hollow expression that reeked of imminent danger.
As soon as I think I sort of recognize him, he rushes forward to attack us.
But that’s Ryōgi’s cue to meet his steps and dispatch him easily with one
stab of the knife. A second later, another one—wait, no, three—no, four
people pile inside the room, clearly with the same intent, but Ryōgi wastes
no time. Moving towards them, she slashes and stabs with a dancer’s
grace, reminding me of the spectacle on the night we first met, now made
deadlier with the knife in her hand. In a few moments, it is over, and the
entrance to the living room is soon covered with four corpses. She grabs
my hand and urges me to go.
“Well, the residents have clearly expressed their opinion,” she says in a
hurried tone. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” I guess I can still count on her
to be cool-headed right until the end. I’m still in a fair daze from seeing my
parent’s corpses, but I obviously can’t ignore what’s going on, and it makes
me let go of her hand.
“What the hell, Ryōgi?! Why are you—”
“They’re not human. They’re human corpses, that much is obvious. But
they’re just puppets with a death wish. It’s fucking sick. In any case, less
talk, more run, run, run.” I see her face colored for the first time with a
look of utter contempt, but at what exactly, I have neither the time nor the
composure to divine. Ryōgi runs ahead, while I struggle to go through the
pile of corpses that Ryōgi made, observing that they seem to be a collection
of adults and children that, to my eyes at least, look like a family.
I burst through the front door that Ryōgi left open and come out into 
the hallway to find five more of these so-called “corpses” on the floor.
No blood, like the four she left inside, though their injuries are severe. I
suppose this proves they’re not really human, like she said.
In the gap of time that we were separated, Ryōgi has already travelled
to what looks to be just in front of unit 408, preoccupied with another of
these corpses. Watching her from here, I can finally come to grips with how
overwhelmingly skilled she is. The movements of her enemies aren’t dulled
or delayed, but violent and human-like when they press their assault.
But it isn’t enough to deal with Ryōgi, who dives and spins through the
press of people, her movements almost too fast to follow. Each slash, each
stab, each swing of the knife that cuts through bone, muscle, and sinew
makes her look less like a girl, and more a force of nature, a white-clad
reaper mowing down a path back to the central lobby. Despite the mass
of rapid movement blocking most of my view, I see the other end of the
hallway, with the light of the lobby spilling in from the right. Shadowed by
this light, a black figure stands in the hallway.
At first, with the stillness of his posture, I take him for some sort of black
sculpture, but I soon realize he is a man, wearing a black coat. He seems
different somehow from the corpses Ryōgi is dispatching. A moment after
seeing him, I freeze up all the way to my fingertips, unable to move like a
puppet that lost its strings, and I am overwhelmed with dread.
I should not have seen him. No, that’s wrong. We shouldn’t have come
here at all, so that we could not have met him and the spectral placidity
that he casts over the entire place; the stillness that wraps around him like
a tailor-made cloak.
/ CHAPTER 11 • 133
Chapter 11
The man stands unmoving in the exit of the hallway, blocking the one
narrow corridor into the central lobby. The black long coat he wears wraps
him in a shadow that casts aside the moonlight, making him look darker
than the night sky. He only watches mutely as the girl in white dances and
swirls to eliminate the opposition. As if feeling the gaze affixed on her, Shiki
Ryōgi stops dead in her tracks the moment she cuts down the last of the
corpses, the distance between the man and Shiki when she finally notices
him less than five wide steps. That she allowed herself to close to that
distance to someone without her even being aware of it makes her lose
concentration, if only for a few moments.
But that’s not the only thing about him Shiki notices. He gives away nothing,
leaves nothing to be read on his face or any small movements, which
are either so minute as to be unnoticeable, or else not present entirely.
And it is this fact that troubles Shiki. A bead of sweat pours trickles down
her brow, a chink in her otherwise calm façade.
“Ironic. By all rights this should have taken place after all of this was
completed.” The weight of his voice is overwhelming, almost enough to
force submission with just a word. He advances a step toward Shiki, a step
that left him vulnerable with an opening that Shiki could have exploited,
but finds that she can’t. She knows this man means hostile intent, and
at worst intends to kill both her and Tomoe Enjō, and yet her feet seem
trapped in place, unable to will them to move. The reason is quite simple:
Though Shiki hides it quite well, she is in fact quite worried when she realizes
that her Arcane Eyes of Death Perception finds a line on everything…
except the man; no trace of the lines of death, the mark of entropic finality
that everything and everyone carried, and she could will into vision any
time she wished.
Shiki focuses on the man, just as Tōko taught her, trying to envision the
lines harder than she’d ever willed before. Though her mind strains and
groans at the force of will, for a moment she finally sees…something else.
Square in the man’s chest is a mark, a line swirling outwards like a child’s
drawing to form what seems like a hollow, empty hole.
“I know you,” she says, the venom in her voice clearer than anything.
Because for an instant when she sees the strange mark on him, she remembers
a fragment of an old memory. A vision that takes her back to that rain
drenched night of two years ago, if only for less than a second. The man
“Yes. Two years is far too long a time.” The heaviness of his voice forces
its way into Shiki’s ears as he gently taps his temple with a finger. There,
stretching from the forehead to above his left ear, is the scar from a cut, the
same wound that Shiki had inflicted on him two years ago.
“Sōren Alaya. It is the name of the one who will kill you,” the man
declares, his face still a picture of stoic calm.
The greatcoat that hangs down from his shoulders has the unusual
effect of making him look like some archaic sorcerer. The sleeves move as
he slowly raises his arm, pointing it towards Shiki in a motion that makes
her think that he would attempt to seize her neck, though he is still well
enough away for that. She adjusts her stance in response, widening the
spacing between her legs just so, and she readies her off-hand below her
knife’s pommel, ready to add any additional thrusting force when needed.
“Your welcome is in poor taste,” Shiki mocks. “What the hell is this
apartment all about?” She shouts this, in part perhaps to contain the first
genuine fear that she has ever felt in her life. In a rumbling tone that is
more indulgent than acquiescent, Alaya answers.
“You will not find any grand designs or vast-reaching conspiracies, if that
is what you are looking for. It is what it is: a product of my own will.”
“Then I take it this business of recurring lives is all just a harmless
hobby of yours, right?” Her gaze at the man is as unmoving as he is as they
exchange words.
“Though at present incomplete, I have created a world that lasts for only
a day. However, life and death alone is not enough to describe a ryōgi, and
composed as it is with people of different lives and deaths, it is certainly
not enough to contain you within it, not yet at any rate. The cycle of death
and rebirth is incomplete. It is, however, descriptive of the spiral of conflict,
for to the Yin, I offered death, and to Yang, life.”
“So that’s why the west building is full of death, while the opposite end
is normal. You mages sure do bother with the weirdest, most meaningless
“As I have said, this is no grand design.” Alaya offers a glance at the
boy still standing dumbfounded behind Shiki. No words well up from inside
Tomoe Enjō, and he can only look at the shadowy figure staring at him.
“For there is naught but one state of being for any man. Dead and living
cannot exist together. This place is a paradox where none can find themselves
saved by the comfort of the consensus.” Mentally casting aside Enjō,
he returns his attention to Shiki. “This is but a simple experiment. I only
wished to see if men meet their end the same way in every iteration. All 
/ CHAPTER 11 • 135
men die, but the origin also tells us that the death is predestined. Whether
the result is a burnt lump of flesh, or complete incineration, a man that
dies by fire does so; whether his struggle is hard or he surrenders, a man
killed by family does so. Perhaps he avoids the first, or the second opportunity
that death attempts. But in time, it will occur, and only our tenacity
determines how long we live. But a man who dies a thousand times…well,
perhaps there a deviation, however slight, can occur in the hidden law of
chance. But it seems it is not so, at least not through two hundred repetitions.”
He recounts it with all the clinical dryness of a doctor. Shiki doesn’t know
how he does it, nor does she particularly care, but all she knows is that this
man is making the Enjō’s family needlessly kill each other every day in an
“experiment” he doesn’t even seem to be too excited about. Something
inside her is telling her to kill him right here, and the thought comforts her
“So they start the morning the same way, and play out a sick drama of
their last day on Earth the rest of the way? An interesting, if sick, hobby.
And I don’t think the greater scientific community is on the edge of their
seat for the result.”
“Do not make the mistake in assuming that the choosing of these families
were in any way random. They were chosen because they were already
fallen, broken. Their pitiful lives would have come to the same conclusion
given time. I merely fabricated a hastier end that they would have acted
out in a long span of pain, suffering, and misunderstanding, whether that
be months or years.” There is no pride, nor any resigned sadness, in what
he says. Only the curiosity of an observer.
“Call me crazy, but something tells me they wouldn’t agree with you,
though. Look at this place. Floors bent slightly enough to not be seen, but
enough to fuck with your perception of balance; illumination that’s just
dark enough coupled with a paint job with patterns that drill their way into
your head. Anyone’s bound to go slowly insane inside of this funhouse,
even without the magic.”
“Fine praise, but lain at the wrong feet. It is to Aozaki that you must
direct your words at, though she crafted it unknowing of its purpose.” He
chances another step forward. Shiki aligns her knife toward the base of
Alaya’s neck, and before the time to talk is dispensed, she asks him the one
final question hanging on her mind.
“Why do you want to kill me, Alaya?” At first he seems to have no intent
to answer. But in a moment, he mouths an entirely unexpected sentence.
“Kirie Fujō and Fujino Asagami performed quite poorly.”
“What did you say?” Taken aback by names she did not expect, Shiki is
at a momentary loss for words. In that moment of hesitation that Shiki let
slip, Alaya closes the distance with another hostile step.
“I hold the cracked mirror up to you, and you see Kirie Fujō, a woman
who thrived on death only to cling to life.” He says the name of the woman
who was once consumed by debilitating disease, not knowing when she
would die. An individual who lived through a longing for death. She held
the trait of having one soul, yet two bodies, inseparably twinned.
And then, there is Shiki Ryōgi, the name of the girl who can feel alive
only through facing death, holding it close to her like a beloved trinket, but
never letting it consume her. She held the trait of having two souls, yet one
body, their link now definitively broken.
“The image in the mirror shifts, and you see Fujino Asagami, the woman
that pleasures herself through the medium of death.” He says the name of
the girl who felt nothing, and because of it, was stunted in her understanding
of the emanations of the world beyond her. Only through the extremes
of murder could she hope to gain the pleasure of dominion and the joy
of life. Her dangerous abilities were sealed by the same dynasty through
which she inherited it.
And then, there is Shiki Ryōgi, the name of the girl could only empathize
with others through the act of mutual murder, risking death, and fighting
it. Her honed skills are granted to her by the same dynasty through which
she inherited it.
“On the precipice of death, Kirie Fujō chose the end, while you chose
life. In the taking of lives, Fujino Asagami took pleasure, while you gave
it weight and meaning. Surely your similarities and your differences as
murderers have not escaped your attention.” Shocked into inaction, Shiki
can only look as the darkness of the man approaches her. “Two years ago,
I failed. I did not realize that what I needed were different individuals with
the same origin. Rejoice, Shiki Ryōgi, for both of Kirie and Fujino were sacrifices
made for you.”
His voice contains the first indication of passion, a voice that can barely
contain the joy he thinks he deserves. In contrast, the willworker’s face is
still as solid as a stone, seemingly suffering from an invisible burden on his
“There is but one last piece to play, though there is little I can do should
Aozaki read the move. Enjō Tomoe is an unexpected blessing, having stumbled
back here from where my spells could not compel you to return.”
“I’ve had enough. It’s clear you’re the one responsible for all this. Only
one thing left on the agenda now,” Shiki murmurs, excitement keen in 
/ CHAPTER 11 • 137
her voice. She tightens her grip on the knife’s handle. The man holds his
advance and points a finger behind Shiki, where the corpses of the dolls
that confronted her lie. For a fraction of a second in this act, the shadows
seem to draw closer to Alaya in an illusion that throws Shiki off just a bit.
“The void itself is your base impulse, your origin.
Cast your gaze into that abyss, and find yourself.”
Within that declaration resides an emanation of truth, a lacing of magic.
Though it buries itself deep inside Shiki, she nevertheless readies herself,
and shouts,
“Out of the way or die!”
Then like an arrow drawn back and loosed, she leaps forth with an
animalistic burst of speed and murder the only thing on her mind.
The distance separating them cannot be more than three meters, and
there is little room to run in any direction other than forwards and backwards
in the narrow hallway, which is why both of them are not even
considering any sort of retreat. With the speed of Shiki’s leap, it won’t
take more than a second for her to close the distance. She holds the knife
beside her hip, aiming to thrust it inside the man’s guts.
But the mage has other plans. He need only speak the words.
“Fugu.” The air around him ripples, and Shiki is stopped dead in her
“Kongō.” He holds a hand out. Shiki sees a distinct line begin to form
on the floor below.
“Dakatsu.” At the uttering of the word, Shiki feels even the very air
around her halt.
Shiki staggers at her sudden halt, as if her body had just been filled
with lead. The line that her Arcane Eyes allowed her to see being formed
moments earlier is now complete, shaping itself as three thin circles
spaced apart from one another, radiating outwardly from him like the orbit
of heavenly bodies around the sun. The outermost circle, being wider than
the hallway, instead begins to cling to the walls as a crude design would.
Shiki realized the trap she had fallen in, her movement having stopped the
moment she stepped into the boundary of the outermost circle. Now she
is as a white butterfly trapped helplessly in a web.
“I shall take your body.” The mage advances, the ghostly dark smoothness
of his movement a juxtaposition against Shiki’s earlier white blur of a
charge. Now facing Shiki squarely at her front, she stands helpless as the
man’s greatcoat rustles in the wind. In the speed of events, it is only now
that her mind catches up and truly begins to grasp the notion of Alaya as
a dangerous enemy. He extends his left hand toward Shiki, palm open as if 
meaning to crush Shiki’s face in a vise grip.
“Don’t come any closer!” Shiki shouts, the words coming out in staggered
breaths borne out of some unseen labor. But the same force that had
paralyzed her now only galvanizes her force of will. When Alaya’s fingertips
begin to touch her face, she recoils to avoid them, and through an amount
of effort that even she does not realize she can display, she momentarily
breaks free from the invisible chains that bind her and manages to move
her knife hand in a violent swing downwards. Alaya’s left hand is cut from
the wrist—
“Taiten,” he says, and the hand that was falling for a fraction of a
second does not complete its descent. Shiki saw the entire thing, saw the
blade cut clean through the wrist like a hot knife through butter, but now
she also sees no trace of a wound on that very same wrist.
“Chōgyō.” Now it is his right hand that moves, and it moves unexpectedly
fast, almost as if he was anticipating what Shiki just did. And this
time, it succeeds in grabbing her face, and with that purchase he lifts her
up in the air. Shiki tries to speak, but her voice is strained again by the same
force that made it difficult for her to speak earlier, and it comes out only
in muffled and choked noises. From that hand, Shiki feels an indescribably
cold sensation that goes under her skin toward the depths of her mind
before slipping through her spine and spreading to each pore in her body.
And for the first time in her life, she feels the last, desperate stirrings of one
who knows in a moment that she is about to die.
“There is much yet for you to learn. Within my left hand are sarira, and
not even the Arcane Eyes of Death Perception can see its weak links. A
simple cut will not wound me,” he explains as his hand continues to press
upon Shiki’s face like a machine, not slacking for a moment, nails digging
deeper and deeper. He studies her with a look almost akin to scholarly curiosity.
She knows that any rash action and his hand will force what strength
he is holding back to crush her head.
“I will not die,” he continues, “for I have awakened to my origin of
quiescence. It rules me. How would you kill what is already at rest?” Shiki’s
eyes dart around frantically, making use of the minute field of vision still
afforded her by trying to find anything…just one of the lines of death on
his body, however faint. Desperately trying to will away both the cold fear
moving within her, as well as the pain of the continuous pressure applied
to her face, she searches for an opening. But before that happens, the
mage comes to a conclusion.
“I would take your body. But perhaps I do not need the head.” Suddenly,
Alaya channels a decisive, crushing force through his hand. Shiki can hear 
/ CHAPTER 11 • 139
the groan of her skull and jaw starting to break. Her eyes widen as she
looks and looks. There! Faint, but it is there in his right arm. Acting fast,
Shiki pours all of her remaining strength to cutting that line, and it works.
The arm is cut.
Alaya only grunts, but does retreat a few steps. The cut arm, from elbow
to hand, still stuck to Shiki’s face, but she throws it to the side and leaps
back to withdraw. She takes a knee when she determines the distance
between her and Alaya’s orbiting rings to be generous enough. She looks
down on the ground and gasps for air violently, both the pain and the effort
of maintaining her faint vision of the lines becoming a strain too much to
bear. After a pause, Alaya speaks.
“It is possible I underestimated those Eyes. The scene you made in
the hospital should have given me all the information I needed. Entropy.
Whether something is alive or dead makes no difference if those Eyes and
the lines act on entropy. Even for someone of my origin, something still
binds me to back to the spiral. And I wonder…how long until you even see
the lines on my left hand, and it becomes vulnerable?” Seemingly paying
no mind to his severed arm, he continues. “Those Eyes are wasted and a
liability on you. You will be restrained before I can destroy them.”
He renews his advance with one step forward, but Shiki has long been
staring at the three circles surrounding him, trying to divine a key to victory
“You would have been better served backing off when you had the
chance,” Shiki warns, shifting her knife into a reverse edge-out grip. “Don’t
think I haven’t learned a thing or six about wards. See, the thing about
wards is they’re arbitrary boundaries, like the one those Shugendō weirdos
supposedly slap on Mount Ōmine to keep out the womenfolk and their
temptations. Can’t do shit about something inside it, ‘cause it’s the wards
that keep something out. In other words, if the line is gone, it loses its
At that, Shiki takes her knife and plunges the knife downwards to the
ground, striking fugu, the outermost circle of Alaya’s quickly approaching
protective wards, whereupon it fades and disappears, “killed” by Shiki.
“A foolish observation,” the mage says in rebuke, but even so, he quickens
his steps. But this time, having reduced Alaya’s barriers to two, Shiki is
ready. And the mage hadn’t considered that totality to which Shiki’s Arcane
Eyes can apply. To think that it could even kill something formless and lifeless
like a ward formed by the Art is something beyond even his most pessimistic
predictions. And so now, even his movement is hurried. “However,
there are two wards left.”
“Slow on the uptake, aren’t we? Weren’t you listening? Your gimmick
is done.” Still in a kneeling position, Shiki places her free hand behind her
back to withdraw something tucked within her kimono’s sash. It is the
second knife she had taken with her. As soon as she draws it, she flicks
it with surprising speed towards Alaya. Like a stone skipping above the
waterline, it flies just above the floor, singing through the air and piercing
the second circular ward, then the third and final one, bouncing just once
over the floor just once to gain altitude as it goes after the mage’s head.
Alaya’s surprising alacrity manages to save him from a direct hit, but
Shiki’s violence and speed of action surprises even him. The blade travels
further down the hallway before settling on the floor. Despite his timely
evasion, the knife still seems to have passed through an ear, cutting it clean,
whereupon blood and meat and other non-descript fluids are visible.
The mage grunts in pain, not from the injury in his ear, but from the
shock of impact of something hitting his body full on, a white mass that
his attention can’t quite yet parse after the suddenness of the knife. By the
time he realizes it is Shiki who hit him, the duel is already decided.
Shiki had delivered a shoulder tackle with all the speed and brutality she
could muster—enough to break at least a few bones—before she deftly
maneuvers her knife in a thrust towards Alaya’s center of mass.
The mage coughs blood in little droplets, grains of sand pouring out of
his mouth to stain the floor and Shiki’s white kimono. Shiki draws the knife
out, red blood tarnishing its otherwise silver shimmer in the moonlight.
Sparing no time, she immediately puts her free hand behind the pommel
of the weapon to augment the strength of her next blow, and then brings
the blade up to stab Alaya’s neck as hard as she can in a final coup de grace,
though the victor is clear. The reason is simple—
“You’re persistence will not serve you well in hell, Shiki.”
—Her enemy isn’t dead yet.
“Fuck! Why—” she shouts, though only finishes in her thoughts. Why?
Why aren’t you dead? The mage maintains his characteristic dour face,
with the notable exception of his eyes, gleaming with satisfaction. If eyes
could smile, his are certainly doing so.
“I have lived for two hundred years on this Earth, and not even the
Arcane Eyes of Death Perception will lay that span low so instantly. Entropy
already acts on me, faster than you might know, but if that is the price that
must be paid to capture you, then it will be so.”
The duel is already decided. His left hand, fist clenched, flies toward
Shiki, impacting her midsection with a force that she is sure can crack
concrete. She is knocked clean off the ground a few inches, coughing up as 
/ CHAPTER 11 • 141
much blood as she had caused Alaya to earlier. Shiki hears herself retching,
violent and miserable, and realizes that a number of her ribs are broken,
and at least some of the organs it protected are damaged, before losing
consciousness. In the end, though possessing the power of the Arcane Eyes
and an affinity for combat bred into her, her body remains as fragile as any
average girl. She would have fainted with even half the strength of Alaya’s
The mage seizes Shiki by the midsection with the one hand he has left
and throws her against the wall of the hallway in an act that is probably
sufficient to break all of her major bones. But that doesn’t happen. Instead,
the wall seems to swallow Shiki, letting her sink and drown into it as if it
were water.
It is only then, after Shiki vanishes wholly, that the mage deems it fit to
lower his outstretched arm. Shiki’s knife is still stuck to his neck, and his
eyes seem to lose their fearful intimidation. Seconds pass, but the black
greatcoat does not move.
The mage’s body is dead.
Spiral Paradox - V
The morning of November 10 comes, and still no sign of Shiki coming
back to her room.
She has a habit of not locking her door when she goes out, but lately
she’s actually been locking it like she’s supposed to, which is why I can’t
even get myself inside and I have to be content to sit out here in the hallway
like this for hours waiting for her.
As a matter of fact, it was only a short time ago that me and Akitaka
waited out here together for her before Akitaka concluded that it was in
vain and he entrusted that object in the bag to me. I’ve known her to let her
evening strolls last until the break of dawn, so this isn’t exactly a new thing
for her. But ever since she left the office yesterday, something seemed a bit
strange about her.
It’s because of that worry that I’m willing to wait for her until morning,
but even when the sun begins to shift the sky into the dawning blue, she is
yet to come home.
Spiral Paradox - VI
In the time I wait for Shiki to come home, the city had taken on the
appearance of its morning palette. The weather, however, seems content
to return to the cloudy gray I thought it had thrown off yesterday. Not
letting my worry eat away at me too much, I put it out of my mind as I head
to the office.
By the time I get there, it’s just past eight o’ clock. I hold the little hope
that Shiki might have just gone straight to work, but having been greeted
by the sight of Miss Tōko sitting behind her desk alone with no one else in
sight, even that hope is dashed.
I quickly greet Miss Tōko when I come in, sit down behind my desk, and
continue working on whatever I was working on yesterday. My mind wasn’t
really into the work, and yet I still move like a machine, probably because
I do almost the same thing every day. Such, I suppose, is the power of
routine that it conquers even the possible work deficiency resulting from a
worried mind such as mine.
“Kokutō, about the data you gave me yesterday…” I hear Miss Tōko say
from her desk in front of the window.
“Right,” I reply languidly.
“It’s about that high rise and its residents. You remember you were kind
of miffed after only digging up stuff on thirty of the total fifty resident families,
but that actually wraps it up. The remaining records don’t exist in the
first place. That’s the reason you were only able to get their names and
family trees, because those twenty families are pure fiction. I looked into it
on my own time, but after thoroughly looking at what data I could recover
four times over, I gave it up. They just reused the records of people and
families that’ve been six feet under for years.”
“Right,” I repeat.
“And all of them are in the east building too. I don’t know what’s going...”
she cuts herself off mid-sentence, suddenly frowning in annoyance as if
ants are blazing a trail all over her skin. She only whispers one thing that
brings me back to reality.
“Someone’s coming.”
She hastily pulls out something from a desk drawer that looks about
the size of a ring that looks like it’s made out of grass, and then throws it
towards my direction.
“Keep holding that and stick to the wall,” she explains, wearing the
furrowed brow that always denoted her worry. “Don’t wear it. Don’t draw 
attention to yourself. Don’t bump on anything. And not so much as a peep
out of you. If you do it right, our uninvited guest will leave without even
noticing you.”
The tension that her words create makes me refrain from asking any
questions, and caught up with the abruptness of the entire thing, I just
end up following what she said. The ring doesn’t look like it’s been made
particularly skillfully, but nevertheless I grasp it in my palm as hard as I
can, as if this would artificially enhance whatever effect it’s supposed to
bestow. I position myself on the wall behind the couch that Shiki often lies
down on, and wait.
It doesn’t take long for both of us to hear the distinct sound of footsteps.
Climbing up the staircase of this unfinished building is an individual with an
exaggerated cadence to his step—perhaps intentionally so. The steps don’t
stop, but instead heads straight toward this office, and soon the individual
in question steps through the entrance: a man clad in red.
The man’s strikingly blonde hair and blue eyes immediately mark him as
not native, and his sharp and well-defined features even less so. His movements
are a showman’s: refined, practiced, and well-moderated amounts
of the theatrical. I place his age at about the early twenties, and his nationality
is obviously European, probably German. The red coat that adorns
him only completes the image of him having stepped out of some Victorian
era illustration. As soon as he enters, he raises a hand toward Miss Tōko in
“A fine morning to you, Aozaki! It’s been too long. How have you been,
my dear?” His ostentatious manner carries over even to his voice, which
goes up and down in points he deems dramatic. The smile that he directs
to Miss Tōko is one filled with familiarity, but I can’t see him as anything
but serpentine in his actions. The man stops his pace directly before Miss
Tōko’s desk. Seated behind her desk, she offers a cold glance at the man.
“Cornelius Alba. What is the successor of the Sponheim Abbey doing so
far from home, I wonder?”
“Why, I would have imagined that to be obvious! To see you, of course!
You were so helpful in our time together in London that I thought it was
only fair to give you a warning. Or could it be that you find my kindness
actually bothersome?” He spreads his arms wide in a welcoming gesture
and smiles. The flamboyance of his princely conduct contrasts quite sharply
with Miss Tōko, who continues to generate an atmosphere of barely
concealed hostility. And yet, the man laughs right in front of her before he
goes on with his explanation.
“And besides, why not stay? After all, Japan is such a wonderful coun-
try. It’s modern yet has that isolated ‘Macondo’ feeling, precisely why the
Ordo Magi tends to overlook it. They even have their own dynasties, and
their own quaint traditions of the Art, like that Onmyōdō stuff, which I can’t
really tell apart from Shintō, but whatever. The splendid thing about this
Japanese lot is how they don’t intrude on your personal space, quite unlike
the nosiness of the Ordo. When something disagreeable is happening,
they don’t move to nip it in the bud, but instead clean up afterwards, like
janitors. All the Japanese are the same way. Oh, but don’t misunderstand,
I like that about them. It’s a situation so opposite from where I come from,
and perfect for the apostates who have severed relations with the Ordo,
of which I am a part of anyway, so perhaps this business is none of mine.”
He laughs to bookend his elucidation, which is quickly becoming annoying.
Still, I guess what Miss Tōko said is true. He doesn’t seem to be looking
anywhere near my direction, nor noticing me in particular. Giving an
angled glance at the young man who shot words out rapid-fire, Miss Tōko
finally speaks.
“If idle chatter is your objective here, then you can go out the same way
you came in. You trespass on my sanctum, and I could kill you where you
stand and no one would object.”
“Ah, but you do not remember that you transgressed first by entering
my sanctum, so my case against you has greater merit. You were in the
company of someone else at the time, and I did not know whether he
was of our traditions or not, so I held off on greeting you as a proper host
“So I was right about that high rise apartment building. If it was you who
weaved the Art into that amateurish ward, then you might want to adjust
your self-esteem…downwards.” Miss Tōko allows herself the subtlest smile,
but the blonde-haired man does not take it humorously at all.
“Can you not see its genius? We craft our sanctums and our chantries
as a space separate from the consensus, and our wards serve the purpose
of keeping the stupid masses of humanity out, further estranging us and
our practices. You reinforce the ward further and further, build your walls
higher, and eventually the Ordo is wise to you. Either way, someone will
catch on, mage or no. But that apartment building is none of these things.
Its nature is covert, our own little world where we can conduct our studies
in peace, far from the worries of the consensus or the Ordo. And to
my knowledge, only one man can do it, with a method far from the crude
weavings of neophytes and pretenders.”
“Oh, so you’re here for praise? For accolades? To prove that you’ve
caught up to me and him?” Miss Tōko asks. “Well, if you want someone 
to vindicate your scholarly efforts, then I’ll indulge you. Congratulations,
Cornelius Alba.” Her voice drips with sarcasm.
“Don’t you dare dismiss me so easily, Aozaki. Alaya doesn’t even factor
into my scale anymore. He has me to thank for the puppets in that building
and the brains that I keep alive and well-functioning. Without me, he is
nothing.” By now the man’s expression had converted into a parody of its
former mirth, and the youthfulness he radiated when he walked through
the door is all but gone, replaced by a menacing scowl.
“Goodness, how our little boy has grown. Don’t kid yourself, Alba. Both
of us are apostates to the Ordo, and our neophyte days are over. What are
you really here for? If you’re just going to brag about your research then
you can just throw it to the rabid fanclub you must surely have in excess.”
“You never change, do you? Then let us dispense with conversation
for now. Your sanctum is far too dull and droll for me. In time, you’ll find
yourself back in that building, and perhaps there we can carry on a proper
chat, in a more refined environment.” He pauses, both of them eyeing each
other, before he says, “Aozaki, the Taijitu is ours.”
Miss Tōko’s eyes twitch for a moment upon hearing the peculiar word.
“Containing a Taijitu within itself? Do you really want to reach the spiral of
origin so badly? You are complete fools if you think of yourselves as higher
than other mages and can beat even the reach of the Deterrent.”
“As I have said, there will be no interference from the Deterrent, or from
the consensus from which its authority stems. This is not a new method we
created, but just an old trick we never realized before. Still, we will be sure
to watch our step. Don’t worry. Your Ryōgi will receive the utmost care and
“What the hell have you done with Shiki?!” I suddenly find myself shouting,
unable to contain myself as soon as I hear the name. Both of them turn
to look at me at the same time, Miss Tōko’s face a picture of disappointment
at my idiocy. The man in the red coat looks at me almost in disbelief.
Ah, well, there’ll be plenty of time for berating myself later. After recovering
from the apparent surprise, he smiles his widest smile yet.
“You must be the boy from yesterday, tagging along with Aozaki here.”
He turns back to Miss Tōko. “I had known you to be the kind not to take
apprentices, but ah, here we have the proof to the contrary, don’t we?
Splendid! Simply splendid! Certainly one more thing to be happy about!”
With his arms gestured outwards like an opera singer, and the random
shifts of his sing-song voice, I can’t rightly think of him as anything but the
most peculiar man.
“I suppose it would be pointless for me to say at this point that he’s not 
my apprentice?” Miss Tōko sighs, frustrated and with fingers brushing her
forehead. “Now, if that’s all, then I thank you for sharing the information. I
know the face rubbing simply must be done for your sake. But haven’t you
thought I could report this to the Ordo?”
“The bureaucracy of that organization works against itself. All the practical
preparations they would have to do to get the permission of so and so
will take six days at least, and another two to coordinate with the local
chapters to even get so much as a pair of feet over here. Much, much
slower than the Biblical God and his act of genesis, and so much one can
do in such a span!” As an exclamation mark to his proclamation, he laughs
so hard he bends over, unable to contain himself, making me feel uneasy.
As he tires of it, he turns his back on us, the only trace of that laugh being
the smile that bends the corners of his mouth. “Well then, I shall see you
again soon, I hope. I know you have your own preparations to arm, but I
will look forward to our next meeting.”
The man then leaves, red coat flapping about from his boisterous movements,
leaving us with the cheerful disposition on his face before he is out
the door and disappears from view.
“Ma’am, explain to me what the hell just happened?”
Miss Tōko’s tension was gone the minute that man was out the door,
and she returns to her customary laid back look. She even returns to her
customary laid back answers. “Nothing. Just telling us a friendly neighborhood
warning that they’ve captured Shiki, is all.” I’m at a loss at what to say
to her, except ask her the question whose answer I think I can surmise from
Miss Tōko and the red coated man’s conversation.
“Ōgawa Apartments, somewhere on the top floor most likely. If I follow
the logic of their crazy rituals, then Shiki, as the yin, has to be in the west
building.” From her breast pocket she produces a cigarette, which she then
lights and takes a puff of as she stares lazily at the ceiling in seeming relief.
Unfortunately, I’m not as keenly optimistic as she is. I can’t bring myself to
believe the man in the coat when he said that Shiki is unharmed, but I can’t
just sit here and not make sure if it’s true or not either. I head for the door
with a quickened pace until Miss Tōko shouts,
I turn back to her. “Look, ma’am, I know it’s your policy not to get
involved without money on the table, but—”
“Oh, simmer down for a moment, would you?” she scolds, not really 
with displeasure so much as exasperation. “As a matter of fact, I do know
who Shiki is, alright? I’ve had a feeling this day would come when I first
met her in the hospital. This is just fate collecting on the debt I owe it that
day. Kokutō, you don’t go into a mage’s chantry without a plan on how to
fight him. Even Alba had to get past some nasty setups to even get up here,
and you’ll have to do the same, except without the benefit of seeing them.
Walk in there thinking you can wing it, and I can guarantee that you will
come out in a form unrecognizable to most people before you’re even ten
meters past the entrance.”
When she explains that, the gravity of the implication that the weirdo
in the red coat is just like Miss Tōko, with just as much hidden potential for
manipulating reality in creative ways, finally begins to set in.
“But what about yesterday? We were fine then, weren’t we?”
“Because they thought you were just some regular guy. Didn’t I tell you
before? Mages don’t use the Art on normal people unless they’re backed
into a corner. You goof off, weave your spell like an amateur, and it’s more
trouble for them than they probably know how to deal with. Make no
mistake; Alba wants you dead as much as he does me.”
“That’s true,” I say, thinking it over better now that I’m calmed down. “I
suppose they could even just mess with my brain, or some other horrible
“Yes,” she nods, “and no. Messing with a brain is easy enough to do for a
lot of mages who specialize in it. But it’s far from being in common use. The
old “he’s crazy because fairies messed his shit up” excuse tends to not work
anymore, since people tend to have social groups—family, friends, the
social niche he belongs to—that investigates, traces it back somewhere.
The more you conceal it with the Art, the more you draw attention to some
weird shit going down in your general area, and you risk discovery each
time. And besides, a spell isn’t permanent. It’s a constant fight between
the spell you weave, and the will of the affected mind. Sometimes, their
mind wins, and the person gets their memories back, and that’s bad luck
for you.”
She crushes the cigarette on the ashtray and leaves it there. She’s right,
I realize it now. Things without explanation demand it, and the people will
look for it, because those things are distinct only in that an explanation
for them doesn’t exist. And if that blonde guy just started killing people it
would just bring more eyes than anything. Add that to this new Internet
thing going around, and it’s becoming easier and easier to track a person
down, trace where he went. Which will lead them to the apartment building.
Hence, its unassuming build, designed to make people feel as normal 
inside as they possibly can. Judging by his and Miss Tōko’s conversation,
that Alba character can’t be up to any good in there, and yet he wouldn’t
have touched the incident with the burglar or the dying woman who
wandered into the building with a ten-foot pole, since to him, the police
coming, checking things out, and finding nothing weird is better than them
launching a full-on investigation.
“And so that’s where we stand,” Miss Tōko mentions with a sigh. “Notice,
Kokutō, how Alba said that his ward was flawless. And yet fate gives us not
one, but two incidents that put the high rise on our suspicion radar, and
now Shiki’s gone and disappeared there as well. If there’s a lesson here,
it’s that reality will always abhor a paradox, no matter how well disguised.”
“Is that what both of you called that ‘Deterrent’ a while earlier?” Upon
the mention of the strange word, Miss Tōko adopts an almost disgusted
look as she nods in agreement.
“Perhaps. It’s only a theory, a metaphysical rule of the universe. It’s the
‘consensus’ I always talk about, humanity’s greatest ally, and a mage’s most
constant enemy. We have no ill will towards people, and only want to live
in peace. Unfortunately, reality feels the same way. The combined will of
all the people form into a consensual paradigm which tends to restore
reality to a stable state, to combat things that logically shouldn’t exist…
like the Art and mages. Sometimes, when the consensus is so focused, it
coalesces, and becomes a literal manifestation. It can cast its hands into
fate to move otherwise normal people in positions that would topple great
men. Humanity’s swirling consensus itself is its unseen protector, and the
people it channels its will into were the ones we called heroes, though it’s
not so easy to have the same result now in the plurality of our world and
the ease with which we can fuck ourselves over without knowing it. The
Deterrent influences people all the time, saving us without us knowing it.
But don’t mistake it as having any empathy for humans. It’s only loyalty is
to the consensus, and it doesn’t take into account something like human
happiness, where there seems to be no consensus at all. We can only be
sure about two things: it is humanity’s representative will, and it will eliminate
the paradoxes of the world, the mages and their experiments with the
illogical Art.”
Respect and loathing permeates Miss Tōko’s speech at the same time, as
though she can’t quite decide how to deal with this “Deterrent” business.
Her story reminds me of many things, of many philosophers all speaking
about something similar; and another story of a certain peasant woman
of Orleans, driven to action by a force she said was God. Perhaps this
Deterrent was what truly moved her?
“Well, that certainly clarifies that, ma’am. So I suppose Shiki is a part
of a similar experiment, right?” I know where she’s going with this, as I’ve
learned long before that she says nothing that is without meaning, even
if might only be revealed sometimes much later. So I gathered from her
conversation with Alba that this experiment—or whatever it is—is the
reason behind Shiki’s disappearance.
She smothers her cigarette after one last drag then turns to look at me,
smiling contentedly at something beyond what I can grasp. “I don’t know
what Alba is planning with Shiki exactly. I just know that he plans to reach
the spiral of origin. At some point, they’ll have to use her body, but Alba’s
wasn’t one for that sort of disgusting work back then, and like everything
about him, it probably hasn’t changed. He’ll think it through until the last
minute. Assuming they captured Shiki safely, she’s probably still alive.”
“She is,” I say firmly. “I mean, that’s the only thing he could’ve meant
when he said he’d take care of her, right?” I realize I have my eyes set solidly
on Miss Tōko, which she might have mistaken for an accusatory look. The
truth is that I can’t get the little fear of Shiki being killed out of my head.
“Which is why we need to move now.”
But how, I ask myself. I could call the police on the guy, but from experience
with Miss Tōko, I’m sure a mage must always have some sort of
escape plan when they need it in short notice. And so it boils down to two
things: eliminate Alba, or get in and sneak Shiki out of there. I suppose,
if I’m honest with myself, I’d have to say it boils down to one. I move to
search for the blueprints of the building among Miss Tōko’s scattered documents.
Maybe I can find a way in that even he doesn’t know about.
“Stop. Stop, stop, stop,” Miss Tōko says with audible frustration as she
waves her arms to get my attention. “Is your head really so thick that everything
I’ve said just passed through your skull? There is absolutely no way
you’re getting in there. Just like when Shiki just woke up from the coma,
this isn’t your cue to dance. After all, a mage should face a mage. It’s only
proper.” Upon saying that, she stands up abruptly, and puts on her brown
trench coat, leather make and thick enough to probably receive glancing
blows from a knife. “You got one thing right, though. No use in drawing this
out too long. I’ll set out tonight. Kokutō, if you’ll be so kind as to get the
orange briefcase in my closet.”
There is a hint of resignation in her voice, and driven by that, I head
to her room and open the closet. Inside, the clothes you would expect to
be present are instead replaced by bags and the desired orange briefcase,
all of them looking like they’re quite full for a long trip. When I carry the
briefcase by the hand, I discover just how heavy it is. Despite the copious 
amount of stickers stuck to it, it retains its well-made appearance. When
I return and hand it over to her, she retrieves the cigarette box from her
breast pocket and hands it to me.
“Keep it for me. They’re cigarettes from Taiwan and they fucking suck,
but there’s only one box of them, made by some weirdo. It’s probably my
second favorite thing in the world.” She turns her back on me to leave.
“Is your most favorite thing yourself?” I ask.
“Good guess,” she says, laughing, “but even I wouldn’t place a person in
the level of objects.” Before she’s out of the door, she speaks her piece one
more time. “Kokutō, mages are kind to their friends. They’re the only thing
they have in a world against them. So do me a favor: stay out of trouble,
and just stay here, alright? I’ll bring Shiki back tonight.”
And with that, the brown-coated mage opens the door and departs,
with me not even saying a goodbye even as I hear the rare sound of her
shoes echoing upon the staircase.


Chapter 13
To the west, an orange sunset blazed, bathing the spiral high rise in its
rays and creating a long shadow pointing to the east. Aozaki Tōko stands
just outside of the apartment building’s garden as all the city contents itself
with the approach of twilight. Her immense brown trench coat doesn’t suit
her small frame at all, worn more like armor than an article of clothing. She
gives the high rise’s top floor one short glance before taking her orange
briefcase in one hand and striding through the greenery of the garden and
entering the building itself.
The glass walls of the entrance let in a trace of the sunset, dyeing the
walls and floor just beside it in a color as red as the sun it emanates from.
After sparing a moment for a final sigh, she walks forward, then upon
reaching the central elevator, turns abruptly toward the right, heading to
the east lobby.
She remembers it from the last time she was here, its semi-circular shape
and stairs to a second floor reminding her how large the room is. Here, the
violent redness of outside can no longer be found, replaced instead with
yellow lights shining on the marble floor and the cheaply painted walls.
“What a surprise! You are quite easy to incite after all, Aozaki.” The statement
echoes in the lobby, said by a man in a high toned voice. Saying nothing,
Tōko instead directs her attention to the gently sloping stairs at the
center of it all, where the man in a red coat stands in one of the steps. “But
it is, of course, a surprise of the welcome variety. I welcome you, master
puppeteer, to my gehenna.”
Cornelius Alba’s smile displays his teeth, and with a similarly grandiose
gesture, bows from his waist.
“Gehenna?” Tōko asks with eyebrow cocked.
“Appropriate, isn’t it? This is a place much like that ancient valley where
Baalites once threw their children into the roasting fires, though unfortunately
the god Moloch is not here with us now. It’s a reality so splendidly
demarcated from the consensus of the masses, and here we carve our path
to ascension.”
He has his eyes cast downward at Tōko as he speaks in triumph. But she
doesn’t give the man any room to read her when she replies.
“Hardly a surprise that the descendant of Cornelius Agrippa is a probable
Judaizer. Unlike you though, I imagine Agrippa would have divined the
true purpose to this place. And if you want to see the slaughter and wailing
and gnashing of teeth that you love so much, I suggest you make a quick 
stop in Kosovo or the Congo. Your pitiful operation is nothing compared to
that.” Tōko sets her briefcase down on the floor, producing a dry clicking
sound. “This place is nothing but a purgatory where none of the souls pass
on, where endless suffering is the end goal and not the punishment. This
isn’t divine, nor is it magic, at least not coming from someone like you.”
The red coated mage’s face betrays only a small twitch of muscle at her
words. Tōko looks at Alba, but also beyond him, as if her opponent was not
the man but the very building itself.
“Now,” Tōko continues, “let’s drop the pretense that it’s you who came
up with this Taijitu idea and just make Alaya show his face already. You
have little business with what will soon occur. I don’t know your real reason
for being here, but it’s likely it has little to do with any higher arcane goals.
Just giving you a fair warning in return for the one you gave me.”
Tōko casts her eyes around the walls, searching for an unseen enemy,
while never returning her glance to Alba. The red coated mage looks upon
her with murder and what may be the prelude to tears in his eyes.
“You were always like this,” he murmurs. “Yes, you’re always like this!”
Louder now. “You always looked down on me. I studied runes before you
did, studied the Art of dolls and puppeteering well in advance of you. But
oh, how you fooled those imbeciles in the Collegium into thinking you were
better, that you were more creative. But we both know the truth. I’m the
inheritor of Sponheim Abbey, after all! After my forty years of scholarship
in the Art, a mage no older than a teenager has no business even being
recognized by me!”
Somewhere in his tirade, the murmur turned into an agitated bellowing
that echoes in the lobby. Tōko stares uninterestedly at this man who has
abandoned his niceties so neatly only to insult her thoroughly.
“Age isn’t a factor in academics, you know,” Tōko replies. “And Cornelius,
don’t get me wrong, I think taking time to look younger is alright, but
you’re so focused on it that your Art loses its touch, I think.” She delivers
it calmly, and yet this is perhaps the worst precision guided insult she can
ever throw at him. The face that once looked like it belonged to a young
man now twists with hatred, returning him to his appropriate age.
“I haven’t said why I came here in the first place, have I?” With a
deep breath, Alba regains composure. “I have no interest in Alaya’s little
experiment, nor do I share his goal in reaching the Akasha, that numinous
concept that may or may not exist. I see no reason why one needs to swim
upstream to attain gnosis and ascension.” He withdraws one step upward.
“Telling you about Shiki Ryōgi was my idea. The old man Alaya put himself
in harm’s way to capture the little girl. Offed themselves about the same 
/ CHAPTER 13 • 157
time, I suppose. And so, this domain is mine until the structure twists time
and returns him to his previous state, but I have no intention of continuing
Alaya’s work. I don’t suppose you’ve figured it out, but I came here to your
little edge of the world, just so I could kill you, Aozaki!”
Alba hisses her name, like a curse that could destroy his very ability to
speak. He runs to the top of the stairs to the second floor balcony, and
Tōko only looks on curiously. From the walls flow a curious substance that
appears to be liquid, sharing its cream color with the walls it clings to.
“Playing your tulpas, huh?” Tōko utters in a mix of bemusement and
scorn. With astonishing quickness, the substance oozes down from the
walls and into the first floor where Tōko is standing dead center. As it nears
the floor, it starts to coalesce in different places, in different forms: some
humanoid, some beast like, all quite real. Their surface resembles keloid,
and their mass constantly shifts, a face here and there, or some barely
recognizable animal, appearing as though they are in a constant state of
perfect, if unsightly, decay.
“Not the best tulpas I’ve seen Alba, but not entirely surprising. Hey,
maybe you can be a special effects guy! I mean, of course you’d be limited
to creature features and Hammer horrors, but it’s better than sitting
around in an old abbey, right?” She shouts at Alba even as the things inch
ever closer to her.
Well, maybe this is a horror movie of some sort, Tōko thinks. Not the
kind where the problem is solved with a cross or a shotgun, though. With
barely two meters left separating her from the slowly advancing “tulpas”,
she stands stoic, reaching instinctively for the absent pack of cigarettes in
her breast pocket. Fuck, that’s right, Mikiya’s got them. Should’ve bought
some Japanese brands on my way here. Well, we all have to make sacrifices
once in a while, even for something as boring as this display of Art.
“On second thought, Alba, maybe Hollywood isn’t your calling after all,”
Tōko yells out loud. “There’s a much more discerning audience now. Creature
design workshop time! Let’s see if we can’t teach you a thing or two!”
With an unexpected motion, she kicks the briefcase she had set down
on the floor next to her earlier.
“OUT!” With one word, her voice booms, containing an authority that
brooks no refusal. At the mere mention of the word, the bag opens, revealing
itself to be empty. And yet, something black forms a tight perimeter
around Tōko Aozaki. Like a dark whirlwind given form, and Tōko right in the
calm eye of the storm, the black object spins round and round, wider and
wider, its speed blinding both her and Alba to its true form. In the space
of a few seconds, the tulpas are completely gone, with nary a trace of the 
Still standing at the center of it all, having barely moved from her original
position, is Tōko Aozaki. Beside her lie the open, empty briefcase…and
a cat, peacefully relaxing. Alba can only stare at it in a daze. The cat stands
taller than Tōko, even as it sits, and its body is pitch black, without a trace
of warmth on its surface. A cat made from shadow, whose only distinguishing
feature is the pair of eyes it possesses, resembling a hieroglyph.
“What in the hell is that thing?” Alba says, incredulously glaring at the
cat. Their eyes meet. And though both he and Tōko know there is no other
distinguishable feature on its “face,” he feels the creature smile at him.
Alba looks for all the world like he’s just seen a nightmare, but Tōko keeps
her silence. Somewhere, a steady metronomic scratching fills a tempo to
the dead air. “So the rumors I heard were wrong? Your sister mage didn’t
destroy your familiar?” he asks in disbelief, unable to withstand the growing
“Let’s not start throwing around libelous accusations at your sources
now, whoever they may be.” Then she directs her attention to the silhouette
of the cat beside her, raising a hand to pat it gently, and saying in cloying
words, “Good girl. Human meat is the next item for dinner, which should
be much better than the pile of tulpas fashioned from prima materia that
you just swallowed. This one is more nutritious. Don’t restrain yourself.
After all, he’s one of my friends from the old days. Remember all those
times I told you how tasty they are?”
In an instant, the black silhouette is off, seemingly gliding above the
marble floor to the foot of the stairs, manifesting the same haste that it
had done only a moment before, taking no more than ten seconds to reach
the first step. Its feet do not appear to be moving, or at least mortal vision
presents it as such. But Alba, like Tōko, sees like no mortal, and a mage
cannot be brought low so simply. Before the shadow cat had even begun
to move, Alba had already begun to weave a spell.
“False shadow, who can neither touch nor see, let the light of
my Art cast you into oblivion!”
With a calmness belying his current predicament, Alba recites the words,
the incantations called lorica which many mages use to decorate the weaving
of their Art. The lorica and the expression is a mage’s own, colored by
his choice and personality, a way to channel the Art through a mnemonic
familiar to the paradigm of their mind. The goal is a sort of autohypnosis;
coercing themselves into a state of mind that enhances a spell’s potency
so they can better manipulate the rules of the material world. Impressive,
Tōko thinks. He actually cut down on the excessive five-line loricas from 
/ CHAPTER 13 • 159
way back. Didn’t even take two seconds. Guess he can improve. Yet Tōko
only expresses her praise through a snort in his direction.
“Let my will be my fist and strike you down.”
He gestures, arm outstretched, in the direction of the shadow closing
with him, just arriving at the foot of the stairs. When it reaches the first
step, the very air rumbles, and the lobby instantly becomes noticeably
hotter. Willed into existence right before his eyes, Alba conjures a pillar of
blue flame, undulating like a mirage of a geyser and consuming the stairway.
Stretching from the floor and to the ceiling it soon bursts through,
it starts to rob the room of its oxygen, and the shadow that would have
climbed the stairs to assault Alba can no longer be seen. No animal can
survive that heat; the temperature is high enough to reduce any common
solid object to nothingness.
In moments, the pillar of flame dies, but what Alba sees in its wake
makes his blue eyes widen.
“Impossible,” he mentions, for in the middle of the charred stairway is
the black familiar, licking itself as though the spell had produced a good
sensation. It locks eyes with him for a moment, and then resumes it charge
toward Alba. He spares no hesitation.

Alba repeats the spell, noticeably weaker this time without the benefit
of the lorica. The blue pillar appears again, but the familiar is no longer
held at bay. Alba can almost see the flames pass over it and through it as
the creature races toward him in a straight, unwavering course.
Flames appear and disappear yet another time. The cat familiar nears
its prey.
The fourth time is as ineffective as the first. With the cat safely on the
second floor, it approaches Alba and it opens itself, its entire larger-thanman
sum breaking open from head to toe like a tulip, losing any semblance
of a cat. With what could be termed its insides, Alba can see the tulpas he
had vested so much hope in earlier clinging to the walls of the cavity, and
he finally realizes that this familiar is nothing more than a mouth, an object
that consumes that has simply taken the shape of a cat.
Facing death, Alba risks one last attempt to weave a spell, but before he
finishes, the thing takes him in its mouth, the cavity grasping him by the
red coat hanging on his shoulders. The blackness of the shadow is the last
thing he can remember before he sinks into oblivion.
A third voice is heard, and a lorica echoes throughout the lobby.
At the word’s utterance, the shadow familiar that has Alba by the scruff
of the neck immediately halts. Even Tōko knows enough about the owner
of the voice to face it the moment she heard it. Behind Alba stands a man,
burdened with eyes of perpetual melancholy and rigidity and wearing a
black greatcoat. He stands stock still as though he was observing the entire
time, and yet one cannot find any traces of his sudden appearance. The
man retrieves Alba with one arm, and then unceremoniously casts him
away, setting him down on the ground. The cat familiar, having stepped
onto the curious tri-circular geometry describing a perimeter around the
man, is still as a stone. When the man finally notices Tōko, she feels the
air become noticeably colder, losing the slack it held seconds ago, though
she’d like to think that it’s just her imagination. The structure itself seems
to tense to welcome its true master.
“Aozaki. You have changed much. Has it been so long?”
“It has. I wish it could’ve been longer.”
The man known as Sōren Alaya descends the blackened steps, ash still
falling from the ceiling drifting down to rest on his shoulders, and Tōko’s
familiar seemingly being strung along by the spell that surrounds him. He
remains on the first step of the stairs, forcing Tōko to angle her head slightly
upward to face him.
“Alba has overstepped his bounds. I had intended for this experiment
to pass without your notice. This encounter is a curious coincidence, but
perhaps inevitable.”
“Ah, coincidence,” Tōko sighs, “the convenient word we use to blind
ourselves from the sacred mystery play of fate.” She slowly retreats back
to the wall as she speaks to buy time. Sōren is different from Alba. Though
their facility with the Art may rate similarly, Sōren Alaya has home court
advantage here in his sanctum. She keeps her attention directed forward
even as she falls back, watching for any openings she can exploit even as
she knows Alaya is doing the same.
“So tell me, what’s up with your Schrödinger’s mansion?” she muses.
“You do already know that killing a whole bunch of people to build up a
resonance of death to reach the origin has been proven impossible quite
spectacularly before, right?”
 “I know the history. But I also know a truth you are not privy to. I too
was blinded by the success that sheer numbers seemed to promise. Given 
/ CHAPTER 13 • 161
enough men, I would come upon a soul I could latch onto in its passing of
the threshold, and follow its return to the spiral of origin. But I was denied,
for I looked to the number, not the manner of death. And so I studied the
deaths, and as the hexagrams of the I Ching prescribe, I was able to discern
the sixty-four manners of death, of which each resident of this domain
corresponds to. What I have here is a microcosm of the universe. I witness
their anguish, and record its significance, and in time, perhaps reality and
my will may transmute the sixty-four hexagrams into the eight, and that
into the four shishō, and that into the pair of extremes that is the ryōgi, and
finally into the Akasha, the great origin.”
“Man, Alaya, this whole business of fashioning things into the whole is
consuming you bad. You indulge your occult Arts, missing the true point
of the ryōgi polarity: that opposites aren’t that way because of conflict,
but because of dynamism. Opposites define each other, which is why they
aren’t a whole. You place such a premium on the totality of death, give
such importance to its chronicling that you’re forgetting the life that gave
them their worth. Look at yourself! This St. Peter with the book of life thing
you got going will only destroy you.”
“It does not matter whether I die or not. Only reaching the origin for my
purposes drives me now.” His words are confident, unwavering. He truly
believes in his self-appointed duty.
This building, with its self-contained spiral of death and rebirth, has
existed for so long outside of consensus, it has become its own separate
reality. This place is his temple, an extension of him, and his tie to it is so
strong it bows to his will, Tōko thinks. The entire place reeks with the resonance
of the hatred the people here can no longer give voice to. It’s sickening,
and Alaya is making it stronger every day, with deaths that never get
the opportunity to pass the threshold every time.
Deaths of silence borne from lovers and family, of father, mother, and
the quiet march of time.
Deaths of malice borne from lovers and family, of friends, colleagues,
and the conflicting hatred of strangers.
Alba was right about one thing: all of this—the confluence of all this
corrupted energy, all the mana the structure is heaving forth from the land,
all the death—is one big sacrificial altar, framed in fearful symmetry, all
for Alaya’s crazy dream. And Tōko finally realizes that this is something far
beyond the realm of simple tricks that the Art can offer, but well into the
domain of rumored sorcery, the pure magic, the product of true gnosis
beyond the reach of mortal hands, and for the first time, she doubts herself.
“How can this thing stand without the consensus of humanity tearing it 
apart? Something should have happened by now. At this point the Deterrent
should already have made its play, moving an individual as its agent,
triggering events that will cause your downfall one way or another. Why is
there no one?” Tōko asks with doubt and curiosity.
“Have you not asked yourself why you yourself are in this city? Why
a man would find himself burgling that particular house? Why a woman
would, in her dying moments, stumble clumsily inside this building? I have
kept this experiment as covert as possible, and yet here we have signs of
the Deterrent working against me. I once tried to find a way to fool it, but
it is all, as I realized, temporary. I simply did not have the ability.” For the
first time, there is something akin to disappointment in his tone. He keeps
his intensity focused on Tōko, and sees nothing but her. “Any man thinks
himself less once he realizes he is no less potent than any animal. Men
strive for perfection, but are denied so by the consensus, a paradox that
forms the theme of our lives: existing to climb ever higher heights, but
rejecting the task only to exist.
“The mages who have ascended—the ones who have reached the
origin—had no will to power, but instead were given that power by the
deterministic properties that entropy imposes on our reality. When one
speaks of ability, one truly speaks only of fate, of the prefabricated decisions,
capabilities, and choices that shape our lives. We humans who have
inherited the potential to ascend have fallen so far into this material world,
our nature scattered and pluralized, separated from the power that is our
birthright. And so I realized that while I may not have the ability to thwart
the Deterrent and realize the path to the spiral of origin, I only need find
someone in the multitudes that can. I needed only one empty soul, whose
nature tied it back to the indescribable ‘ ’. It has taken me many years—”
“But you found her. And her name is Shiki Ryōgi.” Tōko wonders briefly if
the Ryōgi dynasty even knew what the dangerous progeny of their lineage
implied and was truly capable of becoming. “Then you used Kirie Fujō and
Asagami Fujino as bait to lure Shiki in without attracting the Deterrent to
your scent. You hold two broken mirrors up to her to make her realize what
she is. Got a hand it to you, there’s no better teacher than experience. Your
gameplan for Shiki still isn’t clear, though. What’s it going to be? Bringing
Shiki back from the dead? Or did you just kidnap her for a social call?”
“What I did two years ago only set the destiny that had been forged for
 Ryōgi into motion. A solution has presented itself. She has no need of
that body, and I will take it for my own purposes.”
“Wait a minute. Don’t tell me you want to transfer your soul…” Tōko’s
voice trails off, her index finger connecting invisible dots in the air until it 
/ CHAPTER 13 • 163
finally makes sense to her. Alaya sees no need to answer, believing it to be
obvious. Finally, Tōko says, “You’re sick, you know that? But since you’re
still here, I suppose Shiki’s still alright. I don’t think it’s in bad form to ask if
you’ll just give her back to me?”
“If that is your desire, then come and claim her.”
“So a duel, I expect. And I don’t fancy myself the violent type either.
These are the punches I need to roll with when I decided to take her in, I
“I do not think it is in bad form to ask if you will not work with me in
this endeavor?” Alaya pleads, though his hostile demeanor does not budge
an inch. Tōko answers her with a sly smile, lowering her head politely and
closing her amber eyes as if she had just made a regrettable but necessary
decision. “I see,” Alaya continues. “I thought that would be your answer.
It is a shame that it has to be so. There was a time when we were both
driven to seek the origin. I truly miss that part of you.” Alaya moves a step
forward, accompanied by its echoing tap on the marble floor as he finally
descends to the first floor. “You were different from the other mages in the
Collegium. Ambitious. Perhaps even as obsessed as any able philosopher
would be. Yours was the path of the material, while mine was the path of
the soul. I had even thought, that in our lives spent chasing after our goal,
you would be first. But you abandoned your calling. You do not even carry
yourself as a mage would anymore. It mystifies me. For what else do we
mages study and seize power if not for ascension? Why concern yourself
with this pointless self-exile in this country?” Only his eyes communicate
his anger and frustration, but with everything else about him, he remains
Tōko shrugs and smiles. “There’s nothing really special about it. I just got
tired of the whole cosmic game, filled to the brim with paradoxes as it was.
The more you learn, it just seems you realize that you’ve just grown dumber.
Like you know how they say the clearest path to ascension is an empty
mind, but if that was the case, you wouldn’t even be aware of the spiral of
origin in the first place? Yeah, shit like that. I accepted it and moved on. You
haven’t. Seems to be the biggest difference, though.” She sighs through
the last sentence, and the confession seems all the more melancholic for
it. Now they stand and look upon each other on equal footing.
“Then you have fallen into a lie,” Alaya says, his voice falling into a tone
of all the regret he can muster. “It does not, however, answer why you are
“You’ve gone too far to even realize it now. And I’m telling you, it’s not
entirely about Shiki either. Girl’s practically a mystery that even I can’t 
unravel. Dollars to donuts she finds her own way out of here.” Tōko briefly
entertains the idea of being someone unknowingly influenced by the Deterrent,
but she quickly dispels it. I’m no hero, she thinks, not that it matters.
The only thing she accepts is her own life, built from the coincidences and
crossed paths that may never happen again, even if she lived somewhere
as iterative as this structural embodiment of paradox. Her resolve is borne
only out of an inclination to protect it.
“Alaya, you must think me weak. And maybe you would be right. I’ve
come to hold the concept of the solitary sage as an ideal, an individual with
power tempered by wisdom, isolated and alone. But I know I’ll never really
achieve it, with all the sins and baggage in my closet. Mages build their
chantries to close themselves off, thinking themselves above the rabble,
and yet retain their grip on their previous humanity in tiny, but noticeable
ways. They toil with their ars magna, a Great Work, the final key to their
labors, but for what? An abstract dream of ascension? For a fake sense
of a greater good? Then where are these ‘enlightened’ despots, guiding
our journey in the material world? Is it you? You think you’re pure while
the mortals are unclean. Bullshit. You shut your eyes to the blood on your
hands that brands you a criminal and a disgrace, all the while calling yourself
‘special’ and the true savior of this slowly ebbing reality. I once thought
like you, but then I wised up down the line. Face it, Alaya. Mages entertain
their obsessions of ascension and pneumatological delusions because
we’re the ones that are weak.”
The black clad mage sees fit not to speak, the best thing that passes as
contemplation for him. He only continues to move forward one step at a
time toward Tōko, until he says, “Even if you are right, there is no turning
back on the path that leads me closer every moment to the origin. Your
actions and opposition force me to acknowledge you as the Deterrent’s
will manifest. In the end, Aozaki, the lie has tempered your ambition. It is
disappointing that you were still human, in the end.”
Tōko notes that reality inside the building shifts perceptibly along the
concepts of Alaya’s mind. From afar, mage and mage end the long discourse
that fill the hole of the long years of each other’s absence with a two final
statements, recited almost like a prayer, a chant with the weight of tradition
to it.
“What do you seek, Alaya?”
“True wisdom.”
“Where do you seek it, Alaya?”
“Nowhere else but within me.”
His footsteps halt near the center of the lobby. Together, they begin 
/ CHAPTER 13 • 165
their opening gambits in a match that seeks to expunge the other from the
world altogether.
Tōko places a foot atop her fallen briefcase, carefully studying how Alaya
will conduct his attack. Behind him, her black cat familiar is in complete
stasis, unable to defeat the magic of Alaya’s ward. Tōko remembers it,
and the component thaumaturgical processes by which it is formed, all
of which Alaya named after phrases and traditional mantras: fugu, kongō,
dakatsu, taiten, chōgyō, and ōken. Together they form a potent ward that
envelops the space around him, halting the movements of any who step
within that cannot overcome its magic. Normally, such a ward cannot be
moved, establishing a simple boundary, but somehow he has found a way
to violate this rule, and thus became a formidable enemy, stymieing any
efforts to fight him in close combat, not to mention the other Arts with
which he handles projectiles.
Unlike Alba, both Tōko and Alaya never incorporated their Art of manipulating
and shaping matter to compel it to an offensive purpose. And yet,
even within Tōko’s favored rune Art, there are ways. Tōko need only write
“sōwilō”, the rune for fire, and she can shape it into reality. Normally, she
can write it from afar, in the air if she wanted, but any mage can spot the
casting and stop it. For it to work, she needs to get up close and write it
directly on his body, but Alaya’s wards are denying her that option.
Tōko curses her inflexibility in the Art in this pivotal moment, but as far
she knows Alaya is in a similar position, unless he has learned a thing or
two in the years they’ve been apart. She had chosen crafting dolls as her
metaphor for ascension, while he had chosen the study of death. Besides
this, Tōko is aware of the skill Alaya can bring to bear even without the Art,
as even he has seen his fair share of wars. Knowing this, Tōko has no other
option except to play it defensively and attempt to lure him to the trap she
had set here some time before.
Alaya makes his move. He extends his left arm toward Tōko, palm out,
like a man calling out to someone on a distant horizon, and his hand makes
only the slightest twitch.
“SHUKU,” he recites. He clenches his palm into a fist in time with the
lorica with a crushing weight. Simultaneously, Tōko is struck back with a
sudden force, the enchanted coat she had relied on to protect her from
attack being torn in a visibly radial pattern around her center of mass.
The attack makes her fall to one knee on the ground. It only takes Tōko a
moment to know what Alaya did: he manipulated the space she occupied, 
distorting distances and creating a tear that crushed the very air she stood
upon. She is surprised; even space is within his mastery now. The building
and the influence his will has upon the area must certainly be helping him
cast such an Art with ease.
“Damn it,” Tōko coughs out, a few precious droplets of blood escaping
her lips. She forces down the rest of the bloody lump rising in her throat.
“How many bones did I pay for that one?” Right now, she envies the physical
endurance that Shiki has demonstrated time and again. She has no time
to know how extensive the damage to her body is, but she does know that
her coat took the brunt of it, but that’s all. One more of that, and it’s all
“GO!” She orders, her own lorica tinged with magic. The shadow
familiar stirs, reacting to it. It seems it could move through Alaya’s wards
after all, revealing its state of rest as an elaborate act. Tōko can almost feel
what can be described as an emotion of relief emanate from it when she
unleashes the order to attack.
“What—” Alaya let’s slip a moment of surprise as he turns his head over
his shoulder to react. With barely a hair’s breadth of distance between him
and the familiar, Alaya manages to perform the same trick twice, crushing
the space directly in front of the hand he raises to meet the approaching
attacker. Before the shadow familiar falls into the affected space however,
it evades and changes its direction midflight, directing itself to the ceiling
where it lands its cat paws and hangs upside down in defiance of common
“Enough of this,” declares Alaya with rising confidence. He raises his
other hand and directs it at the ceiling even before the familiar finds
purchase upon it, predicting its course. By the time the shadow lands, Alaya
has already woven his Art. The spell crushes that portion of the ceiling, and
the cat along with it. He watches as the shadow seemingly folds into itself
in mere moments until it can no longer be seen, presumably crushed. The
spell leaves only a small gap in the ceiling where the cat once was.
“Your rook is disposed of and the king checked. Was it not you who said
that a mage that relies overmuch on his pieces loses the battle when the
pieces are destroyed?” Alaya mocks. He returns his attention to Tōko, arm
still extended and palm open. Tōko returns to him a look of dissatisfaction.
“I’m touched that you remember that. I’ve walked right into your little
magic trap of a building just to reminisce about old times right to the end.
How could you have ever lost to that little twerp Shiki with something as
potent as this place?”
“Had I been less careful, I would not have captured her alive, which was 
/ CHAPTER 13 • 167
my objective. But for you, no such safeguards need hinder me.”
“I didn’t know you had it in you to go to such lengths for the body of a
girl, Alaya.” She leans an arm heavily on the wall beside her. “I swear, you
and Alba have no cinematic sense for suspense. Let me tell you how to
do it. Firstly, the monster shouldn’t talk. Second, don’t explain what it is.
Third, it can’t die.”
The last sentence brings a moment of realization to Alaya’s face before
he looks back over his shoulder. Sure enough, hanging over the hole in the
ceiling is the cat familiar, with no visible injuries to its credit.
“Shuku!” Alaya lashes his arm out to aim his spell at the familiar
as fast as he can, but it is no use. The familiar neatly skirts the spell
as it jumps out of the way and toward the black-clad mage. Flying like
a loosed arrow, the familiar opens its body up in the same shape of the
mouth it had donned when consuming Alba, and a moment later, Alaya is
caught in the cavity. Only a faint intake of breath, an indication of surprise
perhaps, escapes Alaya’s lips before he is devoured and snapped cleanly in
two by the creature’s jaw. Only Alaya’s shoulder and head remain, tossed
aside violently by the thrice grown shadow and hitting the staircase, rolling
downwards with low, dull thuds. Tōko observes the expression of dim
horror that color his face in his final moments before speaking to herself.
“Mages really should read some Clausewitz along with their hermetic
texts. That’s how you do a surprise attack, Alaya.” She pushes herself off
the wall and starts to walk closer to her dispatched foe.
Until she hears a cruel, crunching noise. She ascribes it at first to some
far off location, at least until deep crimson blood is expelled from her lips,
coughed and vomited out. With vision growing steadily hazier, she casts
her eyes downward, only to find an arm, conspicuously sticking out of her
own body. Tōko Aozaki doesn’t know what to make heads or tails of it at
first, but she soon comes to the realization that the arm wrapped thick with
blood is a man’s arm, and that the object its accompanying hand grasped
is a heart.
Her heart.
And it is then that she finally realizes. From behind her, a voice whispers
into her ear.
“You are correct. Insight can be found in the most unlikely places.” The
voice is burdened with great grief, regret, and hatred; Sōren Alaya’s voice,
without a doubt.
With blood escaping her mouth in narrow rivulets, Tōko asks, “That…
was a puppet, wasn’t it? A decoy—”
“Yes.” Alaya holds her close, his eyes taking in the sight of her heart. 
“But you are quite real. The fury in this heart is unmistakable. It is almost
too beautiful to destroy.” And yet, with an ease that makes the organ seem
to have the consistency of nothing harder than a water bag full to bursting,
he crushes the heart with his hand, and watches the blood seep through
his fingers. “I divined the trick to your familiar. It did not come from the
briefcase, did it? It was a mere projection.”
The briefcase then collapses, the Art used to cloak its nature now gone.
In its place lies a projector, still making noises as it settles clankily on the
“Ingenious,” he remarks. “An artifact of the prima materia, projecting a
tangible creature. It is no wonder now why my Art was ineffective. It was
foolish of me not to have seen it earlier.”
Tōko doesn’t waste her last breaths answering him. Only questions
come to her lips; questions for her former friend and murderer.
“I didn’t…get to finish earlier. The last question: What is it you desire,
“I do not desire.”
They utter the same questions and confront the same answers that had
haunted them for years, and the familiarity somehow gives Tōko the last
force of will to chuckle, each expelling of breath accompanied by blood
blossoming in the air.
I do not desire. Tōko remembers the words. It didn’t seem too long ago
now when she was a Collegium whelp, and Alaya not much more than that.
When a master asked the assembled neophytes the same question, they
mentioned outlandish and fantastical dreams of glory and discovery. But
Alaya expressed himself differently. I do not desire. Though the neophytes
took it as a sign of a lack of avarice in him and laughed, Tōko found nothing
to take lightly in that reply. Only a vague feeling of dread. He was right in the
sense that he did not desire. He took ascension as a mission, beyond the
petty godly ambitions of other mages, and into something more personal
that he hid well within him: a deep and abiding hatred for the paradox of
“Alaya…there’s one last piece of advice you need to know.”
“I will listen. Hurry, you have precious few seconds left.”
“You don’t know what you’re trying to kill with this experiment.” The
only strength Tōko has left she directs to her speech, and her mouth moves
in quivering movements that slur her speech somewhat. “Gunning for the
Akashic Record means you’re going to have to take down the Deterrent,
the combined consensus of humanity’s will, and the world’s tendency for
/ CHAPTER 13 • 169
“And what of it?”
Tōko’s choking and coughing fills the air, but she says her next statement
as clearly as she can. “Think real hard about which of the two forces you’re
really fighting.”
“A joke, surely. I have long since accepted my conflict with humanity’s
unified unconscious will.
“That’s the tune of about six billion people. Do you think you control all
of them, right up to their death? Do you think your conviction will make
you win?”
“I do,” he replies abruptly, without hesitation or exaggeration. The worst
part, Tōko thinks, is that Alaya may actually be able do it. The confidence
of his declaration, despite the knowledge of his difficult undertaking, says
as much. The last hope she can have is a faint one, but she places her faith
in it nonetheless: the sheer force of paradox that may shatter his path to
hubris in a manner even he could not have accounted for.
“I pity you, Alaya.”
“Why?” He asks, but before he is able to receive an answer, Tōko’s life
finally expires before him, leaving the body a worthless husk. Alaya thinks
it a shame to allow her brain to rot away as the rest of her body. Better to
preserve it, perhaps. And then study it. He withdraws the arm that pierced
through Tōko’s flesh and places it atop the head, the other hand firmly
grasping the dead face. With a simple twist, and the sound of crunching
bone, he severs the head, leaving the body to fall lazily down against the
Holding the head on one hand, he retreats to the wall Tōko previously
leaned on, the same wall from whence he came. Despite Tōko’s best efforts,
she never fully understood this building and its genius design. It is beyond
an extension of Alaya’s will, it is him; his paradigm made flesh from floor
to ceiling and every speck of space. Entering the wall like water meeting
water, he disappears.
Chapter 15
I recall the day I came across the scene of carnage.
I walked upon the earth of that scarred and solitary place, and my feet
tread not on pebbles but on the fragments of bones. The wind carried on it
the inescapable stench of death, seemingly threatening to cover the world
It was a time of great upheaval and conflict, when men yet took to arms
in the press of swords and pike, and when they knew the face of death by
looking into an opponent’s eyes. War followed everywhere one went, and
everywhere it left a trail of men, cruelly discarded. And ever the proof of
the freedom of the strong harrying the weak was visible to all who still had
eyes to see.
It was no longer a question of who killed whom, or if the battle was just;
only a problem of who died, and whether someone bore witness to final
breath. Where I heard battle was joined, I followed. Where insurrection
brewed, my feet carried me. Sometimes, I arrived when the battle was yet
fresh, sometimes when the struggle was long concluded. But always, the
same result: the reaper’s work in droves.
It comes for us all no matter how much a father lends a shout of surrender
to heaven, or how much a mother cries for her son, or how much that
son dies smiling even as it expires from hunger. It steals into our private
rooms, when candles are snuffed and the shadows grow larger, rendering
the struggle of virtuous men meaningless.
And though I knew all of this, my travels continued. Yet all I saw bid my
memory to ever return to that scene of carnage. They couldn’t be saved.
Men cannot be saved, though their prayers to supernal beings would say
otherwise. For man is a creature not meant to be saved but to end, hiding
the dread of the past with the despair of the now. And in realizing this, I
awakened to my own uselessness.
I cannot save any man, for I too am a man. But if that is what is fated,
then perhaps I may be admitted, at least, to record death, to craft a morbid
history of observance that suggests the cycle of souls. I would make a proof
of lives ended and suffered.
And so my chronicle of death began.
/ CHAPTER 15 • 171
The man wakes to a drop of water, then the sound of hissing steam.
Sōren Alaya stands up silently, feeling dazed as if waking from a dream.
“I did not know I still saw dreams. A remnant from the past, dear though
it is,” the mage confides to himself. But he is not alone. Around him, in a
fashion, are the “residents” of the apartment building, and closer beside
him is a jar shaped glass container, sealed and held near like a prize. It is
filled with a liquid, and floating peacefully within is a single head, eyes shut
in the manner of sleep. Tōko Aozaki’s head.
The sound of rising vapor pierces the silence yet again. The only light in
the room emanates from the flat iron surface placed in the center of the
room, its red hot glow warding the shadows away in its vicinity.
The mage has nothing to do now but wait. Both Shiki Ryōgi and Tōko
Aozaki have been taken care of, their bodies destroyed or—in the case of
Shiki—rendered immovable until such time that it serves its purpose. No
one is left in any capable position to threaten him. So he waits.
“Alaya!” Announcing his presence, the red coated mage calls out to
him as he enters the room unbidden. “Why do you delay here? You can’t
slacken when there are things yet left to attend to.”
“It is finished, Cornelius. There is no need to ransack Aozaki’s sanctum.
And though I have released Tomoe Enjō, he will not pose trouble to us.
Learn to recognize these things and accept them.”
“Granted on both counts. But the question of Shiki Ryōgi still remains.
You’ve only rendered her unconscious, correct? If she wakes up, she will
obviously try to escape. We don’t have time to deal for such an eventuality
when it happens, so maybe it would be wise to watch over her?”
“Baseless fear and nothing more. She is not simply confined to a room,
free to wander. I have contained her in the space between spaces, a pocket
realm within the structure. That is what the Art I wove her is designed to
perform, after all. That besides, her body is weak, and even if she regained
her consciousness, she can expend only little effort to escape. She will not
Cornelius looks on Alaya’s consistently troubled face with a look of
dissatisfaction. “Fine. I will take your word for it. I don’t even care about
the Ryōgi girl anyway. I took your offer for different reasons, if you will
remember.” His glance wanders to the glass canister placed on the table
beside Alaya. “This isn’t what you promised, Alaya. You said I would be the
one to kill Aozaki, or was that a lie?”
“You missed your chance and you have paid for it. I had no choice but to
strike her down.”
“Strike her down? Don’t make me laugh. I know better than you the 
nature of those canisters. That thing yet lives. Perhaps a soft spot still exists
beneath that hardened exterior of yours, eh?”
Cornelius’ question only elicits a low hum from Alaya which he cannot
determine as a sign of assent or disagreement. Both of them know, however,
that Tōko Aozaki is, in a sense, still alive. Her brain, at any rate. It is only
unable to speak or to think. If that can be called a state of living, then it is
them who recognize it as such.
“Looks like I’m not the only one that missed his chance,” he insinuates.
“Remember the Collegium, Alaya. She was the Wild Red, or so people
called her in fear in the past. Always the fox, ever cunning. If anyone would
have plans designed to be set in motion even beyond the grave, it would
be her. We should kill her.”
“What a fool you are to even utter that title of disrespect against her,
“Wh…what?” The red coated mage’s words falter. Alaya ignores the
momentary lapse and takes the glass canister beside him in hand, extending
it towards Cornelius. “Take it and go, if it will satisfy our promise. I
care not what perversions you desire to visit upon it.” He hands it to the
mage without reservation. Cornelius takes the overlarge canister with both
hands, his eyes seemingly lost in the great gift being offered to him and his
face barely able to hold back a wide grin.
“And I will gladly take it. So you do not care what I do with it, correct?”
“Do as you will. For indeed, you have already written your own fate.”
Alaya’s silent but heavy words fall on deaf ears. Cornelius is positively overtaken
with glee as he starts to walk out of the room, satisfaction coloring
the sound of his every step.
Paradox Spiral - VI
Metal bolts feel like they’re being hammered into my head in a steady
metronomic pattern. The headache becomes worse every minute. Yet right
now, I can’t seem to focus on it. With wildly chattering teeth, I hug my
knees and lean against the wall in a fetal position, slipping in and out of
recollection as I stare blankly at the opposite wall.
Goddamit. Has it been hours since the madness in the Ōgawa Apartments,
or only a few minutes? I can’t keep track anymore.
Ryōgi fought Alaya, and I stood there still as stone unable to do anything
except watch. Alaya died, that much I could see at first. Ryōgi plunged the
knife in his chest and neck, as deep as it would go. It would be a monstrous
thing for him to survive that kind of assault. But he did. I saw the knife
stuck to the base of his neck slide ever so slightly outward. I watched in a
state of simultaneous disgust and morbid fascination as his muscle, moving
by its own volition, slowly forced the intruding blade out of his own flesh,
until finally the knife fell to the floor and bounced lightly toward me with a
neat metallic sound.
Then with a subtle drawing of air, as though he had never stopped
doing it, Alaya breathed again. The sound of the knife brought me back to
consciousness. As Alaya didn’t seem to be moving, nor indeed to be taking
notice of me, I assumed it would be fine to carefully crawl towards the
knife and take it. I held it with both hands and looked back up at Alaya’s
stock still figure, only to find his fearful eyes meeting mine.
Without thought, I screamed, dispelling any thoughts of me using that
knife to make good on Ryōgi’s sacrifice. In a daze, I ran. Ran as fast as I
could, thinking that Alaya would chase after me, and that if he did that, I
was certainly a dead man. But it didn’t happen, and I escaped the building
gasping for breath but not stopping until I reached the motorcycle parked
outside. With it, I fled and tried to get as far away from that tower’s looming
shadow as possible. And so I came here, back to Ryōgi’s room, the
owner of which has just been captured…or killed.
I’d always found the room to be a bit drab, but it brings me a sense of
security now, however false it may be.
Goddamit. Word of the night. It keeps repeating itself inside my head,
an admonition of how much scum I am. Because in the end, like a coward,
I left Ryōgi there to die. I saw my parents, or whatever they were die again
right in front of me, but it’s not registering all that well on my mind. I saw
my nightmare realized before my eyes and I don’t rightly know what to feel 
about it yet. At least I found out what they really were, but the events of
the past hours have wiped my mind clean of any thought except one.
“Goddamit.” I whisper it now. My trembling won’t stop, even though
right now I can be sure I’m alone. Hah. Alone. What has my isolation served
me up to now? What can I really do alone? Not help Ryōgi out, that’s for
damn sure.
“Goddamit!” I yell, each syllable a mocking sound that worsens the pain
in my head. Thinking about saving Ryōgi is suicide if it means I have to fight
Alaya. And how can I even do that when even the memory of that man
makes me draw in closer, makes the shadows just that more threatening?
No, I’m in no state to even entertain the thought of rescuing her.
There is the sound of highly tuned and repeating clockwork emanating
from a place I can’t trace. Pain shoots through my arm. Must’ve hit it on
something when I was running. I’m tired. So tired. The headache won’t
stop, the pain in my joints has been going on forever, and even breathing
doesn’t seem to come any easier to me, and it becomes so hard to bear
that a tear streaks down my cheek. With my knees held close, I start to cry
alone and with pitiful mumbles. In the end, just like other people, I never
escaped being fake. I wanted so much to be real like Ryōgi, but it turns out
you can’t run from what you are.
I had the one final chance to be real. My eyes find themselves dwelling
on the bed, the usual sight of a sleeping Ryōgi somehow disquieting. In her
place is the sword that she had assembled and casually thrown to the bed
just a few hours ago. She saved me. She believed me when I said I was a
murderer, even made it sound like it wasn’t so bad, and it made me want
to be with her, like kindred. It’s the last thing about me that isn’t false, and
I cling to it. She’s done so much, and I can’t leave her just like I did.
“What—”, I whisper, finding many ways to finish the question in my
head. What am I busting my ass for? What am I trying to protect? What the
hell am I thinking? I’m not really sure just yet at this point, but it’s the first
time I’ve thought of not looking out for myself. Ryōgi represents something
more and something bigger than I am. I ran from my house the first time
with blood on my hands and needing someone. She gave that to me, and
now she needs me.
Then will you die for me? Her question returns to me, and I remember
the confidence in me when I said my answer. I guess I already know what I
have to do. Then what the fuck am I sitting around on my ass here for? Even
if it’s borne from false conviction, I need to stand up and get out that door.
“I know what I said, Ryōgi. And if it helps you any, I’m gonna die for you,”
I whisper to myself as I retrieve the knife that she once used, hoping I hold 
it with the same firmness with which she did.
I begin to take a step towards the door when the doorbell rings loud
and clear, piercing the pervasive silence that had blanketed the room since
I went inside. I freeze instantly, and raise the knife in the futile emulation
of a defensive stance. Did Alaya follow me after all, or is it just a visitor?
No, I know Ryōgi doesn’t get any visitors. Alaya then. Do I stay silent and
pretend no one’s home? No, Alaya won’t be driven away that easily. Fuck it,
I decided to do this, and I’ll do it. I’ll attack him the instant I open the door.
Maybe I’ll kill him, or at least drive him away for now. Fat chance, but the
only chance I’ve got.
I hold the knife raised and at the ready, approach the door, and then
turn the doorknob. I swing the door open wildly and as fast as I can, catching
the man on the other side of it with a grapple with my free hand. I
immediately drag and throw him inside the room. He hits the linoleum
floor hard, and I close the door shut with a swift nudge of my heel. Pressing
my advantage while he’s still confused, I sit myself on top of him, raise the
knife above me—
—and stop.
The man lying dazed and blinking below me, with his black framed glasses
and similarly black hair, doesn’t look even remotely threatening. And
though he certainly looks a bit older than me and wears a weirdly all-black
ensemble, he looks far from hostile; in fact, he looks more annoyed than
anything. I look at him suspiciously as I whisper, “Who the fuck are you?
You and Ryōgi know each other?”
“Yeah. And you’re Shiki’s, what, friend?” he asks with a tone that would
make you think he hadn’t been pulled and forced down hard to the floor
only moments earlier, but instead had just met me on the street.
“Me? I, er—” What could I answer? “Fuck that. The important thing
is, Ryōgi’s not here. Get your ass back home.” I stand up, allowing him to
leave, but he doesn’t, instead staring intensely at my hand. “What, fall got
you bad? Look, I’m sorry for the violent greeting, alright? But I don’t have
time to be messing with you just now.”
“That’s Shiki’s knife. What’s it doing with you?” he asks, his voice gaining
a sudden sharpness. There is only a small pause before I can lie.
“She lent it to me for safe-keeping. No business of yours.” I try to look at
something else while I say this, determined not to let him read me, but it’s
useless. He stands up and looks at me straight.
“It is my business. She barely lets anyone lay so much as a finger on
any of her blades, let alone that particular knife. Either Shiki changed that
particular policy overnight—” He grabs my shirt collar with a force I didn’t 
expect. “—or you took it from her somehow. Excuse me for thinking it’s
the latter.”
I fling off his hand from my collar as I look away from him again, not
because I didn’t want him to read my face, but because I couldn’t stand to
look at the honesty in his eyes.
“It’s not either. The truth is, she dropped the knife, which is why I need
to hurry up and give it back.” I turn my back on him and head back inside
the room to prepare what I need to bring when I leave.
“Wait, so you’re not one of them?” I hear him ask from behind me. I was
all set to ignore him, but there’s something in his question that bugs me.
“Which ‘them’ are we talking about here?”
“The weirdos from the Ōgawa Apartments.” The mention of the ominous
name caresses my mind like a soft whisper, and it stops me in my tracks.
Briefly, I entertain the thought that he could be bluffing, but why would
he? In the end, he interprets my lack of an answer in his own way.
“It’s true, then,” he sighs heavily. “Shiki really has been kidnapped.” He
heads for the door.
“Hey!” I call out to stop him. If I’m right, I know what he’s planning to
do. But I can’t let him go alone. For one, I’m pretty happy that I could have
found what may be a potential ally and here he is about to run off alone
when we have the same objective. I cross the room back toward the door.
“Hey, hold up!” I say as I put a hand on his shoulder to stop him before
he goes out the door. Again we find ourselves in front of the doorway, but
this time, I hope, in a much more different footing.
It was easy enough to make him listen once I told him we wanted the
same thing, and so we explained our situations, both of us strangely forgetting
to share each other’s name. Without going into too much detail, he
explained that he’s a friend of Shiki’s from their high school days. Apparently,
a red-coated man named Alba declared to him earlier this afternoon that
they had Ryōgi.
At first I found it strange that it happened in the afternoon when me and
Ryōgi definitely went to the building at night, but when I look at the clock
beside her bed, it shows the time as around seven o’ clock in the evening,
which means that I’ve been in this room for almost an entire day and I
never even noticed it until I snapped out of it.
He explained that he knew a woman named Tōko that went to the Ōgawa
Apartments for him, and he said he trusted her to get Ryōgi back. But with
so much time having passed, he suspected that she might have been taken 
by surprise and could be captured or killed as well. Left alone, he couldn’t
sit on his ass and wait and instead decided to take action by himself.
I explained everything about what happened last night. About the apartment’s
east and west building. The two units that I supposedly used to live
in. How Ryōgi was captured by Alaya. And reluctantly, I told him about the
parents I killed, and the time when Ryōgi found me wandering around the
city. Throughout the entire thing, he listens without flinching or casting
any doubt on me, even when I, at the center of all this craziness, think that
the words coming out of my mouth seem almost like a late punch line to a
long-stale joke.
After I explain my situation, he wears a dead serious look, and asks me,
“So what do you think about all of it?”
“Doesn’t really matter right now. The important thing right now is to go
get Ryōgi out of that place.”
“I’m not talking about her right now, am I? I’m asking about your parents.
Which of them do you think was real?”
I haven’t even given that matter too much thought, and yet here he is
worrying about it as if it was his own problem. Unbelievable.
“It doesn’t make any difference. Just leave it be for now.”
“Actually, it might make a difference. If what Tōko said is true, then that
apartment complex is liable to make you crazy just by being in it. It might
not even be your fault that you killed your parents. Maybe it’s just the
building messing you up.” His eyes don’t wander away from mine, sharp
eyes with a different, even opposite intensity than Ryōgi’s. What he said
doesn’t help me, though. I know what these hands did.
“No. I killed them, that much is true. It’s time I accepted that. I can’t ever
wash my mom’s blood off my hands. Running from that only makes me a
“Well, how about your dad? So far you’ve only been saying stuff about
your mom. Look back closely. Maybe you only killed your mother.”
“Fucking give it up already! He’s dead, alright! I saw his fucking corpse
so—” I hesitate. I saw his corpse for sure, but was it really me that killed
him? If I go back to that night in my head, I remember real clear how it went
with mom, but now that I think about it, I don’t remember how I killed dad
at all. Maybe because, just like the story those half-year old bodies me and
Ryōgi found in the east building told…
…mom had already killed him. The same way the fake mom of the fake
Enjō family in the other end of the building is surely killing him again this
very moment, surely killing the fake me in the next minute or so, every
night without fail.
So I was never running from a terrible dream. Only running from an
even worse reality, and I with these hands, I tried to end it. It takes me a
while to notice that my teeth are beginning to chatter.
“Leave it be, for chrissakes,” I try to say emphatically, but it comes out
as more nervous than I’d intended. “Maybe you’re forgetting what we’re
actually here for.” I shelve the thought of my parents in my head for a while.
I certainly have more time to deal with that later. “So you got a plan, right?
If you were planning to go alone in the first place, then you should have
something up your sleeve.”
“Well, maybe,” he says hesitantly. “I dunno, maybe we take this to the
blue uniforms or something.”
What the hell is he on?
“Oh, sure let’s just call them up and say we’ve got ourselves some magic
problems. And even if they do believe us, there’s hardly any time left. Are
you serious?”
He shrugs with an indication that that was the answer he was expecting.
“Not really, but I had to hear it from you straight. Look, you’re obviously
in a bit of a hurry to bust in without a plan there, but be realistic here. I
know Shiki’s important, but you’re life is just as valuable, and you only got
the one.”
“Hah! You were ready to do the same thing minutes ago. As if you would
understand. There’s nothing for me. No one to help me, and no one else I
can help—except Ryōgi. I swore I’d help her, you know. And you better bet
I’m gonna do exactly that. It’s the last—”
I feel a lump in my throat rising, and somehow I can’t finish the
sentence, and I get the same feeling I got when I swore to Ryōgi at knife
point. I only want to help her, maybe even to die helping her. There’s no
point in living a life full of worrying, constantly looking over my shoulder
without a reason to keep me going. No, I’m done. But dying doesn’t need
to be worthless. The last thing that can give me meaning is saving Ryōgi.
After all, what better way to go out than to die for the girl you like? This
guy…he knows what I’m about. He knew what I wanted to do even before
I said it, with those pointed eyes of his.
“Well, I don’t know if you catch my drift,” I mutter weakly. It’s the only
thing left I can say. He stands up from the floor slowly and without a sound.
“Mmm…maybe I do, maybe I don’t. But we’ll soon find out, won’t we?
Before we get Shiki back, we’ve got to go to this place I know first. Just
follow my lead, Tomoe Enjō.”
He rushes toward the door, opens it, and gets out faster than I can ask
him how he knows my name, and soon the question fades from my mind 
as I follow him back out into the city’s cradle of night.
Me and the guy walk away from Ryōgi’s apartment, going to the nearest
train station in the busy commercial district. I follow him as we ride
in a direction that unexpectedly goes away from the Ōgawa Apartments,
and eventually we get off at a lazy station. This is a residential project part
of town very much far from the madding crowd of downtown. Even the
station, with its unmaintained flooring and lack of turnstiles, would seem
deserted if not for the occasionally flickering fluorescents providing it with
lighting. In front of it stand two small, quaint convenience stores standing
in solemn company, though it looks like they’re without customers right
now and are dead for the night.
“This way,” the guy in the glasses says after studying the local street
layout in the station. He starts walking at a brisk pace, and I try to follow
along as best as I can. We maintain our pace for a few minutes, him leading
the way. No matter how far we go, I observe only houses to our left
and right in various states of repair, all quiet with a light or two on, all of
them probably having just finished dinner and the people already starting
to wind down. Our steps on the concrete sidewalk are the only things we
can hear, and it makes it seem as though the entire area is blanketed with
some kind of vow of silence that we’re violating. The streets are narrow,
making the sidewalks even more so, and the darkness is held back only
barely by the pools of light made by dim streetlights. The occasional dumpster
provides homes for stray dogs on the prowl, but elsewhere the streets
are colored with human detritus.
I gather that this was the guy’s first time in this neighborhood. At first
I thought this side trip was to get some sort of preparation for rescuing
Ryōgi, but now that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve been generous with
my silence ever since we left Ryōgi’s apartment, but now I’m starting to get
irritated. We really don’t have the time to be taking a leisurely stroll.
“Alright, cut the crap,” I say, breaking the silence. “You can tell me where
we’re going now.”
“Just a little further,” he answers without looking over his shoulder.
“Look, over there,” he points a few houses farther in front of him. “It’s a
park. And then there’s the empty lot right beside it.”
As I follow him we eventually pass the park he referred to, which seems
as deserted as the rest of the area, though somehow I imagine this one is
similarly deserted in daytime. In it, there is a playground with the ground
flattened, lacking the slide and jungle gym that’s present in any half-decent 
playground. The poor excuse for bars that hold up the two swings are red
with rust; nothing’s been reflected off of them for years, probably.
“Wait a minute—” something flits by my mind.
I know this park…from the childhood memories that I compartmentalized
in a part of my brain. There were memories there, memories of playing
in the mud and sand. I stand stock still in front of the park, leaving the
man to go on ahead, not noticing I’d stopped. He himself halts in front of a
single house beyond the empty lot beside the park. After taking a moment
to collect myself, I hurry and chase after him.
When I approach him, he looks back at me with sad, almost regretful
eyes. Spurred on by that, I cast my gaze at the house that he had been
staring at only a moment ago, now in front of both of us where I can get a
better look.
My heart skips a beat.
It’s a small, quaint bungalow. Half of the gate is gone, seemingly torn
from the spot, and the other half a rusting iron mess. The small garden
between the gate and the house is a chaotic mess of weeds grown tall and
wild, encroaching upon the walls of the house, themselves suffering from
chipped, peeling, or cracked paint. A ruin. When was the last time a person
lived within?
I try to speak but no words come. My eyes remain affixed on the longforgotten
ruin, and unaware, I cry. Not a cry of sorrow, regret, or pain, but
only a flow of tears that I am unable to stop. It’s not the same. Everything’s
different. But the soul remembers. It’s something I can hide but will never
be able to forget, even ten, twenty, or thirty years on. This place will probably
always catch up with me.
My first home.
The home I’d lived in until I was eight years old, but a life that seems an
eternity and a day ago for me to almost forget.
Tell me, Enjō. Where’s home for you? When I once answered that seemingly
simple question, she looked unsatisfied, even disappointed as she
shook her head. That isn’t what I asked. I’m asking about the place you
really want to go back to. Well, if you don’t know, can’t say I didn’t expect
Is this what you meant, Ryōgi?
But what’s in here except a decaying, collapsing ruin of a house? Only
memories. For a while, I remember my parents as they were before I killed
them: the abusive father that ruled like a king, and the acquiescent mother
that would only say yes on command. The parents who gave me no food to
warm my belly, or clothes to warm my body. The parents that did nothing 
except be a burden to me, and whose deaths I cared less for than Ryōgi.
If that’s all true, why am I still crying?
When I saw their dried husks in the Ōgawa Apartments, there was also a
numbness similar to the numbness in me now, and I couldn’t bring myself
to move, like I’d forgotten something important and it haunted me. But
now, with a difficulty that made my feet feel like they were in water, I walk
past the gate, and into the small, cramped garden. It seemed bigger when
I was a child.
The wideness of the garden; the father that patted me on the head with
a laugh; the mother that saw me off to school wearing a smile; these are
what I remember now. The reality of the now almost makes me doubt
the truth of it, like you would when dreaming a dream good and true, but
waking up to a something more a lie than the dream. But I know what my
mind can call back, and all of it was no lie, only a clear happiness hidden
inside the depths of neurons and firing synapses.
Tomoe, I hear a voice say, somewhere in the past. When I turned around
to face it, I saw the front door of the house, and the determined face of a
man. Come here. I’m going to give you something special. A kid, still a boy,
red-haired, and with a body thin like a girl’s walked up to the tall man.
What’s this, dad?
The key to the house. Don’t lose it, okay? Even though you’re still just a
boy, you can keep mom safe with that.
But it’s just a key.
Exactly. The key to the house protects our family, so that even when
mom and dad are out of the house, it’ll be alright. It’s proof of the fact that
we’re family, and we protect each other.
How much could the boy have understood within the words of his
father? And yet he took the key from his father’s hand, grasping it firmly as
he answered.
I get it. I won’t lose it. Don’t worry, dad. I’ll keep the house safe, even
when I’m all alone.
All strength leaves my legs, and I stumbled onto my back. I try to get up,
but my legs refuse it. The memories are all so clear now. The key was important
all because it protected my family, a proof that a family to protect even
existed. And like a curse descending on us, the family started to fracture
when I no longer remembered it.
The past—when my mom could still be kind, and my dad could still be
good, when they both treasured their son—that was a more definitive
truth. The time when the years passed, and that truth was lost, was when
I decided that everything was a lie. I was a complete idiot. I only lived on 
the day to day, judging my parents as worthless because I thought they
couldn’t get themselves right. I isolated myself from their little gestures,
from mom looking like she was trying to say something but couldn’t every
time I came home from work. But I never thought about what happened
to them, how dad must have never gotten a job because he kept getting
refused because of the record of that accident, and how the pressure of
the people around him must have gotten to him. Or how mom soldiered
on despite the rumors and gossip that saw her gaining and losing minimum
wage jobs over and over again. They did it for me, but I forgot this and
became a criminal instead of a victim. I turned my back on them, and we
forgot each other. Mom had it harder than me, being abused by dad at
night and working silently by day, never having anyone to reach out to. We
were all broken by the time I’d dirtied my hands with her blood, but she
had the worst of it.
If I’d looked over my shoulder to talk to her just once, maybe…maybe we
could have gotten through it all.
“Here I am. The ultimate selfish idiot.” I cover my face, trying to stop
the tears, or at least to hide them. Now’s the time to own up for my sins in
their memory. It wasn’t the dream, or that crazy apartment that made me
kill them. I did. I alone. I couldn’t help them at all. But to atone for it, I had
to go to Ryōgi, get her out—
I lower a tear-soaked hand to the soil I am sitting on, and grab a handful
of dirt. The tears have stopped now, but the weight of their deaths still
hang. I grip the soil tightly in my fist, almost ceremonially. My own last
rites to conclude this little stopover. The wind stops; a signal for me to go.
To start sprinting like I’d always wanted to, no longer to run from what I’ve
done, but to see it to the end.
When I look at the ground, I see the shadow of the guy in glasses standing
a few feet away from me, saying nothing but looking intensely at me as
I collect myself. He was right. I had to come here. Because he knew that,
I knew I could count on him as an ally. Besides, it’s better than making
enemies with the boyfriend of the girl you liked.
Without turning my head back I say, with a laugh, “Good entertainment
watching me or what?”
Beside me, I see the shadow of him shaking his head bitterly. “Sorry. I
knew your history, but I thought it wasn’t right to say anything. I was lucky
to be born in a good house with good parents, so it didn’t feel right.”
A good guy, this. At least he knows the times when words said in comfort
sound more like lies. But I also know not to turn down sympathy when I
need it.
“Then keep the talking down, will ya? Gotta respect the moment, man.
‘Sides, I think I like you better not talking,” I say, still hard-pressed to stop
my laughing.
“I do have to say this, though,” the guy starts to say, “and Lord knows
I’ve been saying this to a certain someone more times than I care to count:
if you think you’ve got nothing else left, then all you got is you. It’d be a big
mistake to throw yourself away without good reason.”
The moonlight, so faint behind the cloudy night, nevertheless brightens
the soil of the garden. I remember the night when I said to Ryōgi that I’d
die for her, and she brushed it off like she didn’t want it. It’s only now that
I realize that she was saying the same thing, and the fact that I’m being
reprimanded by someone so different from her with the same essential
argument is probably some kind of sign. The thought of it only makes me
laugh even more.
“Think you can get up by yourself?” the guy asks as he extends a hand
toward me. “Or do you need help?”
 My laughing finally subsides. I look at the hand he offers for only a
moment before I gently push it away. Even though all the joints in my body
have been crying out in pain since the night before, my obstinacy has to be
given some merit. And so Tomoe Enjō stands up.
“Thanks, but I don’t need it. After all, I’ve done everything alone up till
now.” The man nods, pushing his glasses up a bit.
“Yeah, I guess I knew you’d say that.” For no apparent reason, he smiles.
I return it.
We headed back to the guy’s house, an apartment in the downtown
area, to get his car, which he’s currently driving at a steady if slow clip
toward the Ōgawa Apartments. Stored inside his car is a duffel bag that has
the tools we need for the task of rescuing Ryōgi.
He explains his simple plan as he drives. Going in by the front entrance
is liable to get us noticed real easy. So this guy plans to be the bait by doing
just that while I get to comb the place for Ryōgi, starting from the tenth
floor, where she is most likely being kept since it’s the most inaccessible
place. I get to be the one that finds Ryōgi simply by dint of the fact that
Alaya would pay more attention to someone he doesn’t know going inside
the building rather than me, who does know me and what little I can do to
stop him directly.
“Still,” I begin to ask, “wouldn’t I just be spotted as easily as you would?”
“Not if you go underground you won’t. Here’s a layout of the build-
ing.” With one hand on the steering wheel, he reaches with the other
hand inside his bag resting on my lap, taking out a large piece of paper and
setting it above the bag for me to see. It shows the floor plan and cross
section of the Ōgawa Apartments. He points to it. “Look here. The place
has an underground parking lot. There’s manhole access inside it, and you
can get in from another manhole outside of the building. I don’t believe
the parking lot is actually used right now, so it should be clear.”
It’s true. Though the elevator in the building has a “B” button on it, it
doesn’t work, so I assumed it just wasn’t built yet. He continues. “That’s
probably where they do all of the dirty work they need to keep that apartment
running. Makes sense, since the noise won’t escape and nobody
would’ve suspected a thing.”
“I’m guessing the jack, screwdrivers, crowbars, and manhole hook in
here are for when I’m opening the manhole covers in and out?” I ask as I
rummage through the duffel bag to see what else is inside it. The guy nods
A few more minutes pass, and we finally arrive at Kayamihama, the
district of reclaimed land where the Ōgawa Apartments stand. He stops at
an intersection about a kilometer away from the apartments, and we get
off. With the time standing at ten o’ clock, not a soul can be found wandering
the streets, even though this is one of the more well-lighted parts of
town. The guy points towards the road a fair distance from where we’re
“The manhole you need is a ways over there. When you’re in, just follow
the westward flow of the water and count the number of manholes above
you as you go. The seventh one should be the exit leading to the underground
parking lot.”
“Yeah, yeah, I read the street infrastructure map inside the bag too, you
know,” I grumble as I double check the equipment inside the duffel bag. I
reach for my pocket just to see if Ryōgi’s knife is still there. From the car,
I retrieve the sword we got from Ryōgi’s room before we went here. If in
case I face Alaya, it wouldn’t hurt to have an abundance of weaponry at my
“Watches synchronized, right? At around 10:30, I go inside the building,
while you should be in place to go through the parking lot,” he says without
a hint of hesitation.
“You sound like you’re used to this sort of stuff.”
“Trust me, I’m not.”
“Then you gotta tell me what’s going on between you and Ryōgi for you
to go this far for her.” And so I finally ask the question that’s long been 
sitting at the back of my mind. For a fleeting moment, I see the guy furrow
his brow, but he refrains from answering. “Hey, we might die here! Aren’t
you scared at all? Why do this? What are you to her?”
“Of course I’m scared. I’m not in the regular business of rescuing people.”
He closes his eyes, and speaks in a low, almost cautious voice. “I’m obviously
not built for this sort of thing. I’m risking my life. But then I remember
the girl me and Shiki once met. Some fortuneteller kid who could see the
“What?” That’s certainly a sudden change in topic.
“I remember that kid saying that if I continued to have anything to do
with Shiki, I was putting my life at risk. Something would happen that would
see me betting my life on some gamble for Shiki.” He says this without a
laugh or even a self-mocking smile, and so I follow him with the same serious
weight he gives it.
“So you think it’s what we’re doing now, then? So what did that kid have
to say about your prospects of living?”
The guy only shakes his head and shrugs. “Well, she didn’t say anything
about whether I’d die or not. So I guess that’s still in the cards, isn’t it? I just
take it as a reason that I should just rush headlong into things for her. It’s a
fortune waiting to be told.” Now he laughs. From what I can tell about the
guy, that reason does seem strangely like him. Satisfied, I pick up the duffel
bag and sling it over my shoulder. I’m going to need to run soon.
“Thanks,” I say with some awkwardness. “Oh, almost forgot. We haven’t
introduced ourselves, right? The name’s Tomoe Enjō. You are?” I know that
he already knows my name, but I say it anyway just so he’s forced to say
“Mikiya Kokutō.” The same name Ryōgi once mentioned in passing.
“Hah. She’s right. Your surname does sound like the name of some poet
I heard somewhere.” We shake hands, and through it, I hand a certain key
to him; the key to Ryōgi’s room that I didn’t need any more. From where I
stand, it almost looks like the similarly tiny piece of metal I once treasured.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“Just take it. It’s you who needs to keep it safe from now on.” I try my
best to make a genuine smile. I don’t know if I did. “When this is all over,
we shouldn’t meet again. Don’t even try to find each other. Liking the same
girl is reason enough to separate.”
The guy raises an eyebrow and tries to say something, but cuts himself
off. Maybe he does understand.
“So that’s it,” I continue. “I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.
Which is why afterwards, we shouldn’t worry about who died, and who 
was responsible, and all that.” I turn around and start to walk toward the
manhole to start the whole thing. The guy sees me off. I turn around for the
last time and wave my hand goodbye.
“See ya, buddy! I’m gonna start over once this is all done. I really love
Ryōgi, but she doesn’t need me. She’s got you. I don’t think you’re particularly
well-suited for each other, but hey, that’s life, right? I was glad that I
could meet someone like her, someone like me. It’s why I know that guy’s
like you are what us nutjobs need.”
I turn my back on him and sprint as hard and fast as my legs and lungs
could carry me. I didn’t look behind me ever again.
/ CHAPTER 15 • 187
Chapter 15
Waiting until the time he and Enjō agreed upon, Mikiya Kokutō finally
sets foot for the second time on the building’s grounds. The path that
runs through the garden seems to be deserted. The grass in the garden
surrounding the path is as rightly emerald green as grass should be, but
strangely lacking its distinctive smell. He passes through it and into the
lobby, bright with its electric lighting.
Not a sound can be heard. The fluorescent lights make no reflection off
of the immaculate surfaces of the singularly cream colored walls and floor,
yet the entire place leaves no corner or nook left unlighted. When Mikiya
last came here, it was still morning, and he had felt a sort of tepid disquiet.
But this night visit is different. It’s almost as if the building is pregnant with a
suffocating stillness. Every step he takes produces an echo: minute, almost
unheard, only for the sound to vanish into oblivion less than a second later.
Now, the silence is chilling, oppressive, and close to being physically thick,
making Mikiya’s every step heavy. Like the building recognizes his foreign
nature and works to expel him.
Still, he is decided, and can’t back down now, not when there are people
counting on him. Forcing his way through the thickness of the air, he
proceeds through the lobby.
“Guess I should start with the third floor,” he mutters. He decides not to
use the stairs, as using the elevator would probably attract more attention,
leaving Enjō to do the work he needed. So he pushes the up button beside
the elevator door, and hears the low howling of the machine’s activation.
The lights above the door indicate that it’s descending from the fifth floor.
Before long, the door starts to open silently, quite a contrast to its noise
just moments before.
But even as the elevator door is starting to open, Mikiya already sees
someone inside it. Without really knowing yet who it is, he gulps and takes
a step back.
“Ah, so you’ve come. What perfect timing, too. I was just thinking of
paying a visit to your master’s sanctum,” says the man in the blood red coat
as a smile slowly spreads across his face. He steps out of the elevator with
teetering steps, and holds something in one hand. His attention is solely
affixed on it, facing it with an expression halfway between dread and joy.
Mikiya looks at it, only to find a disgusting lump rising up in his throat. But
he can’t look away from it.
“It is so perfect, is it not?” the man asks mockingly. “I think it has utterly 
captured my heart.” Now he laughs in apparent enjoyment as he flaunts
the object he is holding. And still Mikiya can’t look away from it.
For the object the red coated man is holding in one hand is the head of
Tōko Aozaki.
Tōko’s head is remarkably well preserved for the state it’s in. The flesh
still holds some sort of living warmth, and it looks unchanged from when
it was still alive. They eyes closed in seeming slumber, and the untainted
face look straight out of a painting, like she’s returned to some purer state
of being. Except of course for the fact that she’s lost everything from the
neck down.
With a hand pressed over his mouth, Mikiya tries to fight a losing battle
against his urge to vomit, but it’s not going all too well.
“How admirable of you to have come to take revenge for your mentor.
Aozaki must have inspired great loyalty in such a lowly apprentice for you
to trouble yourself so. To be honest, it makes me jealous.” The smile in
Alba’s face seems warped and distorted, as though it was a smile carried
too far in the service of showmanship. “Obviously, your mentor has passed
from us. But not completely. Oh no. She yet has ears to hear, nerves to feel,
and a mind with which to understand. It is a mercy, to be sure. I did many
things in the service of destroying this woman, and I intend to express my
gratitude to her. No, I will have her cling to life for a while more, at least.”
He draws closer to Mikiya, each step a shuffle and a stomp, drunk in his
own triumph. “Why, you might ask?” he hisses. “Because after years of
defeat from this woman, it feels refreshing to finally become her better.
Just killing her outright would be an insult to all the time leading up to
this moment, an act better than she deserves. She will have to feel pain.
Oh, don’t worry yourself, friend. She’s lost her entire body. She’s got much
more serious problems to deal with than a little pain, I’m sure.”
Alba then lays the fingers of his other hand in Tōko’s face in a gentle
caress. Then he takes two fingers and, with a sudden thrust, inserts them
forcefully into both eye sockets, forcing fresh blood out as he draws out the
familiar eyeballs from their now open cavities. The cheeks of Tōko’s face
are bathed in streams of red tears. Separated from their owner and soaked
in her own blood, the eyeballs look different and alien to Mikiya now. Only
two globular pieces of meat. Alba holds out the hand holding the eyeballs
toward Mikiya, gesturing for him take it.
“You see?!” the red-coated man says in a half-crazed shout. “That must
have hurt, but she didn’t even make a sound! But worry not, for she still 
/ CHAPTER 15 • 189
feels pain as surely as we do. Her mind tells her so. Aozaki was always a
stubborn one, but I wonder how she feels about her eyes being gouged
out? Does it hurt, Aozaki? Enough to make you cry blood, evidently.” He
turns his attention away from the head and back to Mikiya. “You! What do
you think? You’re her apprentice so you must understand how she feels.
Well? Can you?!”
Mikiya doesn’t answer him. The scene is enough to numb him to inaction,
let alone think anything except how to process the spectacle before
him and how to survive this encounter. Alba looks on, affirming his satisfied
look with a chuckle.
“In truth, however, I would have wanted to make her suffer not just
pain, but the humiliation of being reduced to her current state. No matter.
I can do something better anyway, but I need you.” He looks back at Mikiya
again. “I wonder, how would you feel if something you’d built, cherished,
and cared for is destroyed right before your very eyes, as you sit there,
helpless and unable to even scream. If it were me, I certainly wouldn’t be
able to take it. Not even killing the person who did it would be enough, oh
no. Do you see it now, Aozaki?” He turns back to Tōko’s head. “I want you,
who has only given me indifference, to feel enough hatred to want to kill
me. The best revenge I could hope for. Though Alaya has robbed me of the
role of plunging my arms deep into your breast and pulling out your heart,
this opportunity is still more than I deserve!”
As he continues to talk to the severed head, he suddenly grabs it with
both of his hands, and returns his attention to Mikiya. “The moment I
discovered Aozaki had an apprentice, I was so happy I couldn’t contain
myself. I’ve had my eye on you since we met. Curse not me but your mentor
for making you known to me. Ah, but worry not. You will not join her just
yet in hell. Though I said this head yet lives, we have reached the point
where we must first make a small adjustment—”
He grins as wide as he can muster. Then, with a great force, he takes the
severed head in between his two hands and squeezes it as a vise would.
In only a few moments, the thing that was Tōko Aozaki compresses, blood
pouring out of fissures in the skin from Alba’s strong grip, until finally it is
shattered into an unrecognizable pile of meat and blood that falls to the
“—Tada! And now she’s dead! It’s magic!” And then the red-coated man
laughs with a vigor that fills the once silent lobby.
Without a word, Mikiya books it, the sickening display repeating itself
in his mind and burning away any sense or reason he still clung to. Not
thinking where to go, he directed himself to the east building’s lobby. His 
mind can’t bring up the memory of the last time he went there, or the
details of the room. It is, in fact, a supreme effort for him to just keep from
“It’s time to end this show, I think!” Alba calls after him. “Don’t worry!
You will follow soon enough!” His laughter fades, and he starts to follow
after Mikiya at a leisurely pace, the hands swinging at his sides dripping
with fresh blood and scraps of meat.
The sewer twists and turns, mazelike in its complexity. With no light in
place to guide him, and only the steady flow of the sewage to return his
mind to the passage of time, Tomoe wanders the dank passages. Luckily,
Mikiya gave Tomoe everything he needed, including a map of the sewer
infrastructure and a flashlight. Eventually, through these, he manages to
reach the place where he’s supposed to be in. Above him now lies the
manhole he needs. He turns off the flashlight and sets the duffel bag down
leaning on the wall, careful not to let it be carried away by the stream of
sewage. He fishes around for a crowbar from the bag, and then climbs the
ladder steps embedded into the sewer wall, going up a height he can’t
Tomoe’s head hits something metallic, which is all the sign he needs.
He feels around with one hand for the gap he needs to slide the crowbar
into, then inserts the hook end into it carefully. Finding purchase, he
pushes to open the gap wider. Then, with what strength he can muster, he
pushes with his shoulder until the cover finally gives way, flipping across
the floor with a hard metallic gong. He sticks his head out of the whole to
find the entire parking lot similarly dark Satisfied, Tomoe goes back down
to retrieve the bag, then climbs back up and tosses it up first. Next comes
Shiki’s sword, then finally himself.
Without a light to guide his bearing, he pauses for a moment to listen
to his surroundings. A strange feeling steals its way into him: that of being
there no threat to actually discover him even as he sneaks around. The feeling
of complacency. Though with the vastness of the parking lot, coupled
with the darkness, Tomoe should have every reason to be comfortable in
that feeling. From somewhere nearby, he hears the sharp hissing of steam
echoing through the vast emptiness.
“The sound…of steam?” he whispers to himself as recalls something
vague in his mind he thought he’d cast away. This particular darkness and
the smell in the air are both known to Tomoe. Worse, they are familiar,
tinged with the feeling of stepping over the threshold of one’s house.
/ CHAPTER 15 • 191
His bones ache as if in response to that familiarity, and the sound of
their trembling is worsened by his mind, replaying them over and over
again. He studies his perimeter yet again, and this time finds a beacon glow
in the distance, a warm orange light that calls to him. When Tomoe sees it,
he suddenly feels hot, as if his mind just caught up to the real temperature
of the room. His feet draw him closer to the orange light in the center of
everything, and he starts to hear the faint sound of the hissing noise he’d
heard before.
As Tomoe edges deeper into the room, his eyes start to adjust to the
darkness. Along the walls to his side are large canisters, arranged in an
order he can’t yet discern. The floor is littered with long, narrow tubes that
lead to somewhere undetermined. And still, not a soul makes its presence
known. The company Tomoe keeps now is only the sound of rising steam,
and the noise of water boiling, both of which are getting increasingly louder
with each step toward the center of the room. Both noises echoing in the
confines of Tomoe’s past.
Saying nothing, he walks with a heavy pace that matches his body’s
sudden weight. He is nearing the limits of his stamina. He is closer to the
glow now, now able to see where it emanates from: a glowing hot metallic
plate. Every so often in regular intervals, an amount of water is set to pour
on top of it, boiling it and turning it instantaneously into a mist of steam
floating up to the ceiling. The ceiling itself, as far as Tomoe can see, is filled
with a complex series of pipes absorbing the steam and funneling it into
the canisters in the sides of the room through which they are connected.
A respiratory system.
Tomoe unconsciously does a nervous laugh as he sees this, and his curiosity
takes him to the prominently displayed canisters. There are countless
numbers of them, each about a head big. Though he can’t see them
just yet, Tomoe notices that something is floating within the formaldehyde
solution contained within the canisters. And finally he sees them.
Brains. Human brains.
The tubes he had seen before on the floor are the same ones in the ceiling,
spreading their length around the room but all ultimately connected
to one canister, and all ultimately leading upwards and through the ceiling
of the underground parking lot. Probably connected to all the other rooms
in the apartment buildings, thinks Tomoe.
“Like a cheap dime novel horror,” he remarks quietly with a smile, and
then walks along the perimeter of the wall. He should have thought of it
before. There was no way the people here lived the same yesterday, down
to the detail, every day of the month. It’d only be cause for suspicion to 
anyone outside looking in too closely, which Alaya obviously didn’t want.
Instead, they will have small changes, little details that change every day.
But the day, for the most part, progressed in a similar spiral. A time to
wake up, a time to eat, a time to play, a time to work, and a time to die
and live again. And for this, they needed them to be, on some level, alive.
Though Tomoe finds it hard to conceive of the situation—bodies animated
by remotely stored human minds—that is what he beholds before him.
Every day these minds are forced to live a closed loop of impermanent
death and uncertain rebirth, living only to die in the night, experiencing it
with the disconnect that comes from the mind and body being separate. A
particular brand of hell if Tomoe ever saw one: A prison for the soul made
to resemble some crude facsimile of life that didn’t get the point, repeating
the same dream until the sleepers can no longer distinguish dream from
reality. Like the nightmare that kept plaguing Tomoe Enjō every night.
Tomoe brushes his fingers lightly on the cold surface of one of the canisters.
“Hah…I see how it is now,” he mutters, as the canister sends a chill
running from his arm to his body. At that moment he hears a voice—no,
not a voice; more akin to a communicating consciousness, emanating from
the object. Did he imagine it? Regardless, it communicates only one thing.
Save me.
Tomoe chuckles despite the intrusion in his mind. After all, what could
he save? Does it want to return to its original form, or perhaps escape from
the cycle it’s trapped in? Either way, both are impossible tasks.
“All I’ve proven I can do is kill,” says Tomoe, amused at his own irritatingly
cheerless observation. “Besides, even I wanted to be saved. Problem
was, I didn’t know what I wanted to be saved from. Probably better that
way, since there was no way to save me in the end, even if we stretch the
meaning of the word. I’ve had the impulse to kill boiling up inside me from
the start, and now I’m past the point where saving mattered,” he utters
almost apologetically.
Now, Tomoe sets about rummaging among the canisters scattered along
the wall, trying to find the one that curiosity and logic tells him he should
be able to find. The lack of it would be even more strange than its presence.
The mage Alaya didn’t kill anyone to procure these brains for his
sick experiment, only harvested them after their owners all did the deed
to each other. That’s why the one thing that is the source for Tomoe Enjō’s
repeating dream—or the reality that occurred half a year ago—should lie
somewhere in this pile. And sure enough, within a few short minutes, he
finds the canister he was looking for. He didn’t want it to exist, but everything
pointed to it, and now, he doesn’t know what to feel.
/ CHAPTER 15 • 193
He smiles a twisted smile as he touches it gently, fascinated as one would
be when looking at a mirror that reflects him twisted and wrong. Finally,
the proof is laid out before him. He looks upon himself. Two tubes extend
out of it. One reaches upward to the ceiling, but the other is cut. A faulty
machine, a discarded piece of equipment thrown out from the comforting
safety of the regularity it once knew.
At that point, almost on cue, a sharp sound breaks through the repetitive
sound of the steam, and Tomoe looks to its source: the left elbow that had
pained him most among the other parts of his body since yesterday. From
there, he casts his eyes downward, and he sees what made the sound.
His left arm, elbow to fingertips, fallen to the floor.
He never felt it slough off. Blood red liquid oozes and drips from the
newly torn limb. He looks inside the cavity of what remains of his arm, and
sees that among the things that look like skin and bone contained within,
it also sports objects seemingly shaped like cogs and gears. They tick, louder
and more incessantly now, like an annoying clock, the sound of them
strangely familiar, and almost comforting. A sound he has heard on many
an occasion beforehand. Tomoe hears the ticking as some old memory, like
another name for him, asserting what he really is: the person who killed his
mother to ward off a nightmare, and, dancing to the invisible strings, ran
from his act in shame is
Tomoe’s mind blanks, and he cannot prevent himself from falling to the
floor on his knees. He giggles quietly, privately, but then it builds to the
boisterous yet disturbing laugh of a madman, reverberating across the
expanse of the empty parking lot.
“This is ridiculous,” Tomoe says with difficulty. “Right from the start,
right from the fucking start, I was already a phony.”
He cannot think of anything else. Only the revelation that, on some level
he had always known, fills him with a laugh of self-ridicule he can no longer
It’s was all bullshit, Tomoe thinks to himself. I…me and my family had
zero chance of avoiding that tragedy, even if we repeated the damn act a
million times. We had no way of changing how it all would end. We’re all
just fakes, manipulated by Alaya. He knew I couldn’t do anything, and let
me run.
The ceaseless ticking in his arm and the multitude of ethereal voices
from each mind crying out to him for help are all infuriatingly annoying.
Irritating. Making him lose concentration. A maddening cacophony forcing
him to slip away from the solid truth that he had just learned, the truth he 
sought for so long: that everything is a lie. In desperation, he edges closer
to the glowing metal plate in the center of the room, the voices getting
louder every second. He raises his torn off left arm and presses it onto the
searing hot surface of the metal plate.
Tomoe screams an animal scream, a guttural noise of anguish beyond
comprehension. The stump of his left arm sizzles and smokes. The blood
stops flowing, the wound cauterized. The ticking fades. The voices are
slowly silenced. The pain shoots well through his entire arm and fires up
seemingly every nerve in his body. But it is only for a few precious moments.
Afterward, he raises his arm from the metal plate, traces of burnt flesh
coloring its edges. He may have already gone mad. But—at least for now—
he finds resolve, and remembers the real reason he has come back to this
place of madness.
Gasping for breath and sweating harder than he ever had before, Tomoe
searches desperately for the elevator and finally finds it in a corner of the
room. The light indicates it has stopped in the first floor. He pushes the
up button and calls the machine down. Double checking the knife in his
pocket, and slinging the sword over the shoulder of his good arm, he goes
inside. He looks back over his shoulder at the room that challenged him,
the room now filled only with the disturbing regularity of the sound of the
water and the hiss of steam, and blanketed otherwise by silence so total
that no one except the sleeping, dreaming souls wrapped in their lie of a
life may hear the final moments of one who would die here.
Which is the real spiral: the never-changing life, or the never-ending life?
This building is a machine that is wrapped in both sides of infinity, where
even dying isn’t a permanent setup. You just get free do-overs the next
day. It’s a perfectly maintained cycle. I wonder if the cycle had some kind
of flaw, would my mother still have killed me? Would I still kill my mother?
It’s an impossible question to answer. It wouldn’t be the same life. This
entire place is built on the death of others. Without that, this place has no
Still, how I wish this spiral had a paradox.
He makes an impossible wish with no answer. Tomoe feels his entire
body screaming towards its final hour, but he still manages to push the
button to take him to the tenth floor.
Mikiya Kokutō keeps running as hard as he can, past the point where his
breathing can keep up. He spares no moment to look back and see if Alba is
following him. Finally, he finds that his feet have taken him inside the east 
/ CHAPTER 15 • 195
wing lobby, and he stops.
A dead end? He thinks, incredulous. Sure enough, aside from the stairs
that leads to the second floor balcony, the place has nowhere else to go
except where he came from. Stopping here, and realizing that Alba isn’t
following him with the same urgency with which he is fleeing, gives him
the moment he needs to collect himself and focus.
Crap, why did I have to up and panic like that? Though he thought he
was prepared for anything they might throw at him, he was evidently not
prepared for the sight of the head of the very friend he was joking with
just yesterday to be destroyed right in front of him. Relatively speaking, I
handled that much the same way anyone would. Still, both his knees are
trembling not just from nervousness but the strain of having to run at a
pace he wasn’t used to, and he has to press down on them with both hands
to calm down.
For now, I need to find some way to get away from him. He quickly scans
the lobby, turning in all directions. As he does this, he hears the heavy echo

of footsteps coming from the corridor he just went through.
This is bad. Mikiya starts running again, more composed this time. He
makes a break for the stairs, having nowhere else to go, but no sooner has
he climbed three steps when he hears a sharp, keening sound that lasts
barely a second. At almost the same time, his feet lose their purchase on
the floor, somehow deprived of what strength he had forced into them
and forcing him to fall on the stairs on his knees. He reaches out with his
hand toward the railing, seeking to use it to raise himself up, but fails. He
slips downwards, back to the first floor, and collapses side first on to the
staircase. Quickly, he looks at his legs and finds a dark red stain spreading
downward in his slacks, originating from his knees. They’ve been pierced
by something from behind, he observes now with a kind of detachment, as
though it is another person’s knees he is examining. He feels no pain. Not
just yet. The adrenaline is working its magic, so the wounds feel more hot
than painful.
“Easy now, young man. Can’t have you breaking your neck falling on the
stairs, now can we? I have plans for you. Fortunately, that spell was only
enough to stop you, and not burst your knees open at the seams.” Alba
comes walking, arms spread wide in a sick sort of welcome.
Mikiya says nothing, only trying to crawl his way up the stairs even as
the wound has his undivided attention. Despite what Alba said, the blood
is pouring out of the wounds as fast as spilled drink. Slowly, though he
doesn’t realize it yet, Mikiya’s consciousness is fighting a losing battle.
“You are a conjurer, or summoner, or a worker of familiars much like 
your mentor, are you not? Then call your pets forth, or suffer the shame
of being unworthy of the moniker of a mage.” When Mikiya does nothing,
Alba frowns.
“Hmph. It seems our dear Aozaki was not as good a mentor to you as I
thought. But I expected nothing less from her, as she is full of such flaws. The
story of how she the Ordo granted her title is one such example. The Ordo
grants the titles of color to the mages they deem with the most potential.
I know that ‘Ao’ in Japanese means ‘blue,’ and true to her surname, Aozaki
desired this rank, this highest of honors. But the Ordo judged her unworthy
of it, instead granting it to her younger sister, who was deemed her family’s
rightful successor, and snatched everything away from her. Aozaki entered
the Collegium to best her sister in the Art, but even here, she is defeated.
Ironically, she was given the title of ‘Red.’ But because the ‘Tō’ in her name
means orange, I think it is even more appropriate for her! A color that
seems completely unable to own up to her title of Red. It was perfect!”
Alba reaches the foot of the stairs looming above the immobile Mikiya
while wearing a smile of supreme satisfaction.
“Count yourself lucky that you meet your end in the same place as your
mentor. Being Aozaki’s apprentice, I thought that you would make a sport
of yourself. Alas, you were nothing but a disappointment.” He takes a knee
beside Mikiya, and extends a hand slowly towards his face. In contrast to
Alba’s leisurely movement, Mikiya’s arm suddenly springs into action.
“Wha— ” Alba’s surprise lasts for only a moment. But it is the only
moment Mikiya needs to exploit. His upper body moves, bringing a hand
from under him, brandishing a silver knife that he had hidden beneath his
jacket. It is the silver paper opener of Tōko Aozaki, brought by Mikiya just
in case, but thinking he would never need to use it. Now he closes his eyes
shut and thrusts it toward Alba.
It’s the first time in his life he’s ever had any murderous intent and
actually carried it out. It is a feeling foreign to him, and for that reason he
closed his eyes so as not to see the entire thing directly. The solid feeling
in his hands tells him that the knife has struck home against…something,
certainly. For sure, he knew the red-coated man was unprepared, then
cursed but was cut short. He couldn’t have dodged a strike at such close
Hoping that he hadn’t inflicted a wound too serious, Mikiya opens his
eyes. His fading consciousness blurs his vision for a moment until it resolves
into a coherent image…of Alba looming before him with his outstretched
hand, the knife stuck quite deeply and straight in the center of that same
hand’s palm. His grin is wider than ever.
/ CHAPTER 15 • 197
It is only a small moment of incredulity for Mikiya. But it passes like an
“What a bad boy you are to do such a thing to me,” Alba spits out mockingly.
“It’s only fun until someone loses an eye.” As he says this, he extends
his other hand to Mikiya, this time with haste. He grabs Mikiya by the face,
holds it tight, raises it slightly, then slams it down onto the steps of the
stairs. The back of Mikiya’s head makes a dull sound in the impact. Losing
no time, he raises Mikiya’s head again, and slams it back down again. And
again. And again. Each time, repeating the same phrase.
“Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!” Each accompanied by
the same dull thud, both sounds resounding in the vastness of the lobby.
Mikiya’s grip on the knife loosens as he loses consciousness. Eventually,
even his breath falls lighter and more desperate. At this, Alba finally stops
and stands up.
“Ah, what a pain. A pain such that would have made me cry. I would
have wanted to let you live, but I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to bear the
shame of it.” He extracts the bloodied knife from his hand as if brushing
off a leaf, and nods to himself and his own words in approval. “Well, I do
believe I’ve done what I’ve set out here to do. Though I do have a passing
interest in Alaya’s little experiment, I do believe I should be getting back to
Germany. The air here in Japan is not good for me, you see,” he says to the
unmoving Mikiya. Alba turns away from the body, and starts walking away,
heading for the corridor that leads back to the central lobby.
But before he is able to do so, he hears something he doesn’t expect.
Another set of footsteps echoing from that same corridor; high-pitched
falls, the sound of which is recognizable to him. He, in fact, heard them
only yesterday.
But he has no time to think, and soon enough, the origin of those footsteps
stands in the lobby, large suitcase in tow. Now, as before, Tōko Aozaki
blocks his way.
Chapter 16
“Spare us the hackneyed lines of ‘but you should be dead,’ Cornelius.
You’re a mage. You know all about bodies. About containers. About the
creation of life and the granting of sentience. Don’t disappoint me,” Tōko
Aozaki says with a bitter tenderness. Alba is silent and has his eyes affixed
only on her. On his hands can be seen a faint trembling.
Tōko drops her bag on the marble floor with an accompanying “That
should do it.” The bag is the only thing that proves to be different. Her
face, her eyes, her hair, the smug smile she wears; all the same. Only the
bag has changed. Yesterday it was just a smallish briefcase, but this one is
far bigger. One you’d take on a trip, and where you could conceivably hide
a small child in.
“I came as fast I could,” Tōko says, “but from the looks of things, I guess I
didn’t make it in time. I believe I made it clear that Kokutō isn’t my apprentice,
but you just wouldn’t listen. Never taught him a thing about the Art.
And in case you’re wondering, nope, I haven’t changed one iota.”
“But—but you should be dead! I snuffed the life out of you with my bare
hands!” Alba shouts, seemingly oblivious to what Tōko is saying. He curls
his hands into fists to stop himself from trembling. In his mind he is equal
parts unbelieving, mad, and fearful, though he tries his best to hide it. Tōko
is placid and continues to refuse meeting Alba’s bloodshot stare, choosing
instead to retrieve a pack of cigarettes from her pocket.
Alba watches her every move from where he is. The more the figure
before him continues to act like the Tōko he knows, the chill in his spine
grows ever worse. Unable to contain himself, he cries out to Tōko. “You
can’t be here. It’s a mistake. Yes! Some sort of mistake! You’re lost on the
way to your next life. The dead should not linger in this world. Begone,
He raises a blood-soaked hand, the same hand that Mikiya stabbed. His
blood and the blood of Tōko’s pulverized head are coming together in a
mix of red for red. He swings this hand in a wide arc in front of him, splattering
wet blood all around. As the scattered liquid flies through the air,
they combust and burst into sizeable flames in flight like gasoline. All of his
remaining malice, he hurls toward Tōko in that desperate weaving of the
The flames whip in arcs and try to wrap around Tōko, but in an instant,
she moves her own hand, as if to pull the flames in. Sure enough, the fire is
drawn to her hand, where it comes to a halt right before it. Palm open and 
/ CHAPTER 16 • 199
the concentrted flame hovering above it, Tōko uses it to light the cigarette
in her mouth, and by waving it away with a casual disdain, the flames are
“Hey, Cornelius, if you don’t want dead men and women in this building
then I suggest you file a complaint with this apartment’s owner. Knock
the act off already, can’t you tell I’m the real deal? Pretty big difference
between the dead and the living. Like cigarettes.” She takes in a satisfied
puff, and frowns. “For example, I can tell that this one’s some bad stuff,”
Tōko chuckles.
The casualness with which he throws away her comments finally makes
Alba realize that the person before him is indeed a living thing, unchanged
from the original. But that only makes him repeat the same question, not
in disbelief, but due to being unable to understand. So he repeats.
“But you should be dead,” he says, a note of dejection in his voice. The
words force a frown on Tōko’s face, leaving unsaid her displeasure in the
trite line, allowing her amber eyes to make her point.
“Technically, Cornelius, I did die. Body virtually destroyed, soul severed
from the flesh, the whole shebang.”
“Then explain your being here!”
She sighs. “I thought that would have been obvious. I’m the replacement,
fresh out of the package,” she says, no absurdity finding its way into
her voice. The statement leaves the red-coated mage blank, mouth half
“What do you mean a ‘replacement?’ Are you a puppet when you can
be revived so easily? Or maybe—” Alba starts to think of other possibilities,
other well-kept lore and arcana of the Art.
The puppets that mages create can never match with the human façade.
It can move as a man would, but it will expose itself soon enough, through
speech, or action, or appearance; something that seems off or wrong in its
creation, something that exposes its true nature. That, and the parts that
make it tick are not truly alive, only clever mechanisms animated by the
Art. A loss of limb—exposing blood and muscle sinew—will reveal it.
The Art cannot create an automaton that contains the spark of humanity.
An old mage saying from the Middle Ages, passed down to become
common knowledge. Eventually it became almost a rule. Yet despite this,
the woman standing in front of Alba is certainly human. Certainly some
kind of replica, but completely lacking the distinctive tell that gives away
the fakery of all puppets. Which, to Alba, can only mean that this woman
is the real Tōko Aozaki.
“Now I see it! Then the one I killed is surely the fake!”
“Just keep lying to yourself, Cornelius. That also means that the mage
that bested you yesterday was nothing more than a pale imitation of me,
“Hmph. Fine, then that was the real thing. But here we have a paradox.
You’re saying both are real. How do you explain this inconsistency away?!”
Alba cries out to Tōko. But from the look on his face after he says it, it
seems he solved the answer by himself. He shakes his head rapidly, still
doubting, still thinking it impossible. But how else can he explain it? Can it
be possible? “Aozaki, don’t tell me you’re—”
“Ding ding. Both the one you fought yesterday, and the me standing
before you today, are fakes. I don’t even know the point that the real
became the fake. I don’t even know if it matters anymore.” The mage in
the orange trench coat dons a cruel grin.
“Then what are you? Not an original? Was there even an original? But
you call yourself Tōko Aozaki, don’t you? With a soul to work the Art, and
granted sentience! But all the puppets granted fleeting sentience up to this
point have been unable to grasp the existential dilemma of their artificial
nature, and end up terminating themselves. How do you break the rules?
How do you continue to function?!”
“Everything before me was but second rate sentience, I’d say. I really
don’t see the need for how scared you are right now, Cornelius. You call
me fake, yet there’s only one Tōko Aozaki. As a parting gift, I’ll even tell you
how that came to be. Maybe it’ll be a good learning experience.” Losing a
bit of her calm façade, she finally meets Alba’s eye to eye.
“Listen, Cornelius. The me you’re seeing right now is something I kept
in my sanctum. It activated itself once you killed Tōko Aozaki. Only been
an hour since. I am a mage that traffics in pawns and puppets, so I experiment
on them as well. In one of these experiments, I crafted my foremost
creation: a perfect puppet imitation of me. No more, and no less than
myself. I looked on it, and allowed my thoughts to wander. I thought that
having created such a thing, maybe there is no longer any need for me.”
As the puppeteer relates the story to her like a layperson to a priest, Alba
gulps. He can’t believe his ears. Heresy to the laws of the Ordo Magi, pure
and simple. Why would she not be happy that she achieved this, instead of
throwing away her existence?
“Ridiculous,” Alba spits out. “In the end, what you created couldn’t be
anything more than an automaton. Assuming you could even make such a
thing as you described in the first place. And if you have indeed performed
it, then why does it not…why do you not seek ascension? Why do you not
aim higher? Mages are never satisfied by the status quo. We seek, manipu-
/ CHAPTER 16 • 201
late, create, and destroy only for the final step in that ladder.”
“Hey, you’re looking at the state of the art of the Art here, and even
when I was gone, it still went on doing the same thing I did. How does that
give any puppeteer hope for ascension?”
“But it’s all just supposed to be theory! I wouldn’t allow myself to be cast
aside for something new, yet similar to me. Even if it was an achievement
that would make my name ring throughout the history of the Art, it is not
enough. I must be there to observe it, or else there is no meaning!” Alba
screams incoherently as he wraps his arms around himself as if it would
protect him from something he didn’t quite yet know. Anyone can discern
the difference now between the two mages; between the one who preoccupied
himself on the matters of revenge, and the mage that threw herself
away for the path of gnosis. But Alba refuses to acknowledge it.
“Call it a difference of opinion and philosophy, Alba. Still, no need to
blame yourself. To tell you the truth, I’m sort of jealous of you, actually. I
don’t know when I became the way I am. I don’t even know which of me was
real anymore. I just woke up when the previous me died. The soul remembers
everything, and it’s all there in my head, everything I know. Determinism
and entropy kinda says that I take the same action as my predecessor
would. After all this, maybe I’ll make another puppet to convince myself
that I’m the real thing. The real thing might be the one you killed. It might
already be dead. But it’s all the same thing, isn’t it? No way to distinguish
us. It’s a quantum superposition like that cat in the box problem. No one’s
ever gonna know. But I think what’s important right now for you and me
is the fact that I’m here, and that for now, for all intents and purposes, I’m
Tōko Aozaki, and if it brings you any measure of comfort, you can think of
the one you killed as the fake. We clear? Good! Now we can get down to
real business.”
She reaches down for the bag she’d placed on the floor. Alba stares at
her opponent, more terrified of her revelation than if she had woven a
dozen curses at him. “That’s right,” he says in a low voice. “That’s why
Alaya kept you alive. As long as you remained alive, the next iteration of
you wouldn’t trigger and come alive.”
Tōko keeps her silence now, only maintaining her harsh glance at the
red-coated mage. Alba had long since stopped trying to hold back his
trembling. For him, the cold grows stronger as he looks into Tōko’s sterile
eyes. He sees no warmth in that amber color, only an efficient intent to kill
buried inside them. He never knew Tōko to look like the way she did now.
Not even in their time in the Collegium did she show anything as bloodthirsty
as she is at this moment.
And Alba comes to the idea that, for him, the Tōko he had known until
now was the only real one. Not this cold, standing figure that hides so many
secrets even from herself. No, not this side of her that is the ruthless mage
that is peer to none. And as he entertains such thoughts, he finds what
reason for revenge he holds start to become less significant, less pressing.
For he didn’t know what monster he had aligned himself against, or if he
really hated it. Because, at the very least, the Tōko Aozaki he knew was very
much different.
“Are you real?” he whispers one last time like a confession. Tōko snickers.
“Now what meaning does that question have on something like me?”
she hisses, her face a portrait of sweetly ringing malice.
Tōko brings the cigarette held between her fingers back to her mouth.
“Now, let’s return to our more pressing problems,” she says as she puffs
out gray smoke from her mouth. “You hurt my friend pretty badly with your
teasing. Probably didn’t even notice the hour go by.”
Alba, for his part, does indeed remember Tōko saying that it took her an
hour to get here. He looks at the boy collapsed at the foot of the stairs. The
wounds in his knees remain unchanged. But mysteriously, the wounds in
his head and the blood that those wounds are supposed to have spawned
are gone.
“What—what manner of sorcery have you done, Aozaki?” Alba asks
feebly. All the bluster of his earlier displays have left him, and whatever
will he had left to attack Tōko is gone in the face of her greater proficiency.
“Tsk tsk. We mages shouldn’t use that word so lightly. Remember: this is
the third time I’ve been in this lobby. The first time I was here, I placed my
own spell. On a delayed trigger, if you will. A little trick I placed in advance
that I could play in tonight’s party. Think back to the time of your surprise
when our boy Kokutō here lunged at you with the knife.”
“That was the trick?” Alba moans in regret, remembering that exact
time. There is a void in his memory, something missing that connects what
happened before and after the boy’s attack on him. A momentary lapse?
Some illusion the puppet master had set up beforehand that manipulated
his perception? He laughs in futility.
“So I was playing right into your hands from the very start, you witch.
You must have enjoyed yourself immensely, Aozaki. Though I am loathe to
admit it, I must have seemed quite the fool.”
“Oh, don’t blame yourself overmuch. After all, I never thought I’d end up 
/ CHAPTER 16 • 203
dying. Rest easy, though. I didn’t come here again to pay back that particular
act, but for something else. That you and Kokutō happened to be here
is a mere convenience.” Tōko gives a slight nudge to the bag placed beside
her feet and makes it fall to the ground. Or roll over, more like. Its shape is
approximately that of a cube, and its size intimidatingly large.
“If you are not here for revenge, then what is your purpose?” Alba asks.
“To stop Alaya’s mad attempts at experimenting with the Art, no doubt.”
“Not by a long shot. Why should I when that thing takes care of itself?
No, Alba. My business is with you alone.”
As though he’d arrived at the same conclusion, Alba nods. But, he
wonders, why him if Tōko says she bears him no ill will, or any intent to interfere
in Alaya’s experiments? Why does she look so tensed and prepared on
spilling blood? “Why? I’ve done nothing else to you,” he says in protest.
“Nothing much more than a trifle. I mean, I’ve pretty much gotten over
your irrational hatred of me. To tell you the truth, I rather preferred it that
way ever since our time in the Collegium together. It was proof that I was
always better.”
“Then why?!”
“Still don’t remember? It’s a very simple reason: you called me by a
moniker far too old to be funny.” The sound of Tōko’s suitcase opening
rings out in the lobby, and within it Alba can only see a dark mass which
somehow remains untouched by all the light. And within that there are
two things—
“Come now, recall those words in the Collegium,” Tōko declares. “Recall
the name “Wild Red.” Recall how I swore to destroy anyone who said it.
And how I did.”
—two lights— or two eyes.
And upon seeing it, Alba finally understands. He chastises himself belatedly
for not realizing it sooner. This is a box for sealing magical familiars
inside, similar to what Tōko used before, only larger. And the creature in it
now, whatever it is, emerges from the seemingly infinite depths of the box
with baffling speed to capture Cornelius Alba with thorn-lined tendrils. He
feels a thousand tiny mouths chewing and consuming him in small portions
as he is dragged into the box, being eaten alive. When only his head and
neck remain visible, Alba and the puppetmaster’s eyes meet for the last
time before he is completely consumed. Her eyes are eyes of laughter. And
he finally realizes his foolishness in ever thinking that he could rival such a
monster. He remembers Alaya’s last words to him. Perhaps he should have
seen this coming after all. The last thoughts in the mind of a mage slowly
being eaten.
Chapter 17
Tomoe Enjō leans on the cold walls of the confined, claustrophobic elevator
as it slowly moves upward. He stares blankly into space even though his
breath becomes more ragged every moment. Ever since he cauterized the
stump of his arm to stop the bleeding, his arm nerves haven’t stopped
sending signals of pain. Knowing that his mind and body are both in the
worst possible conditions, he is unable to think straight, his mind hazy and
blank. It takes him serious concentration to even keep his breathing at a
manageable level.
He’s only ridden this elevator one other time, but even now Tomoe can
feel it moving slowly, taking its time climbing the chamber, and making
him grow impatient. Carelessly, Tomoe drops the sword. The thud it makes
hitting the floor wakes him back to concentration. It’s heavier than he
expected, and only an hour or so of having it slung across his shoulder has
already made his arm numb. Lacking a second arm, he can’t even draw it
from its scabbard, let alone wield it effectively. So he takes out the knife
in his pocket and grips it tight, thinking it a better weapon for his situation
Finally, the elevator stops. It’s reached the tenth floor. When the door
slides open, Tomoe steps outside and into the central lobby. Immediately
in front of him is the corridor to the east building, and on the other side
of the elevator chamber is the corridor to the west building, unseen from
here. Tomoe starts walking towards the west building, where the lights
are off and the real corpses are left in their places. He walks around the
elevator chamber, sees and walks through the corridor, and comes out in
the hallway that describes the circumference of the Ōgawa Apartments. In
a few more minutes, Tomoe knows, it will soon be eleven o’ clock in the
Here in the hallway, the view of the outside world is quiet and lonely. All
the apartments and condos surrounding this particular one all look about
the same. Below, sporadic spots of garden greenery mixes with the dull
dark grey of the asphalt. It makes the entire scene look less like an assemblage
of high-rises and more like a cemetery and its gravestones writ large.
Though his attention is facing the night scenery outside, he is certain he
feels the presence of a person somewhere nearby. So with deep breath, a
bout of concentration, and a grip on the knife, he slowly turns toward the
direction of the elliptical hallway, unlighted save for the faint blue glow of
moonlight. There, separated from him by a distance of two rooms, stands 
/ CHAPTER 17 • 205
a figure wearing a black greatcoat. Though the light makes it difficult to
make out, the person’s height and silhouette leave little room for doubt. A
lifetime of anguish has chipped away at the face. Standing here now is the
mage, Sōren Alaya.
The moment Tomoe confronts Alaya, he freezes. For a moment, his
breathing normalizes, his pain disappears, his consciousness is stilled, and
all becomes silent. He stands there, unable to do anything. But he is glad for
this because it is a moment of respite where he can redouble his purpose.
“Alaya!” Though he cannot do anything, and his freedom of movement
is stripped away and limited, Tomoe speaks with confidence, invoking his
opponent’s name as a sort of proof of equality. Trepidation will not be his
quality this time. Alaya’s features seem to darken at this brazen act.
“Why have you returned?” the mage asks in his heavy set voice. Tomoe
denies him an answer and only looks straight at him and his eyes that don’t
seem to take in any light. It is all he can do not to look away. “You have no
place here. Your replacement has been readied, and your return was not
a necessity.”
Why did I return? Tomoe thinks. Well, the first time was because Ryōgi
brought me along for the ride. But now it’s—
“To save Shiki Ryōgi, is it?” Alaya asks mockingly. “Fool. Do not think
your heart is a thing that belongs to you. If you have not realized it yet, you
are a mere puppet. Do you find yourself unable to live, separated from this
“It is true that you escaped this spiral of an existence. The Tomoe who
died, died due to the actions of his family. But that was not for you. You
thought you escaped. You despaired. You even contemplated the thought
of suicide, and you would have done so, left alone as you were. But you had
a role to play in this stage as well. A role you were designed for. Tell me, do
you know it?”
Tomoe wants to scream and cast off Alaya’s lies, but cannot seem to
summon the strength to do so. Instead, he stands there, unmoving. The
mage’s face is unchanged, the eyes still sneering and ridiculing his inaction
as he continues.
“It was the final throw of the coin for me. And I succeeded, as you
fulfilled your role better than my wildest expectations. Without knowing
me, you brought Shiki Ryōgi here to her final act. Though I had the lowest
expectations for you, you defied them. And though I reward you by removing
the leash, it seems you must still come back. Make no mistake; you
have no agency that I do not ultimately shape. You did not crave Shiki Ryōgi 
out of your own will. I only appended one thing to your existence after your
first escape: to draw in Shiki Ryōgi and bring her in clandestinely.”
Unable to form a coherent argument against Alaya’s words, Tomoe finds
it difficult to remain standing. Because after all, he knows inside that it is
true. How can someone like Tomoe, who had never truly loved a stranger
before, suddenly find himself in love with Ryōgi? Ever since he first met her,
he had already felt some inexplicable impulse driving him, telling him to
observe her, and take interest in her.
“So you understand now, do you?” Alaya says. “You gave a reason for
Shiki Ryōgi to come here, but the decisions were never yours. You are but
a mere congregation of the memories of a single day in this pocket reality.
Nothing before, and nothing after; your so-called will an illusion maintained
by delusions. There is no other place for your simple life. For you are
powerless, and as such, unlike the fantasies you entertain in your heart of
hearts, you cannot hope to stop me.” Now, as before, the mage’s words are
charged with the taint of magic.
The facts of his artificial origins, the one day of life lived over hundreds
of days, and the delusion of the past he relied on and a future that he could
hope for all come crashing into Tomoe’s mind. His feelings toward Shiki,
and toward his dead family, his humanity: all an artifice. Only the exits and
entrances of the one day drama he had lived repetitively remains in a weak
emanation. And even that, Tomoe wonders—even that cannot be trusted.
“In the end, you are not even worth my attention in watching you expire
pathetically. Disappear, and never be seen again,” Alaya says in a deep,
commanding voice. He seems to lose interest in Tomoe after he said what
he felt must be said, averting his eyes from the boy. But against the revelations
that Alaya attacks him with, Tomoe offers only an unprecedented
“The fuck you blabbing about? That shit isn’t as important as you think
it is to me,” Tomoe says, but if it dealt any crack on the mage’s demeanor,
he does not make it visible. “Being here in front of you now, I get it. I didn’t
want to admit I was weak like you, but now I know I gotta face it. ‘Sides,
real or fake, doesn’t matter in the end. What matters is what comes after it.
‘Least I know that I’m Tomoe Enjō. Even if I got no past, what matters is that
I think I do. And for me, it gives me all that I need.” He chews with an empty
mouth, but finds it helpful to his concentration. “I really liked Ryōgi. Fuck
the reason. The ride was fun while it lasted, even though I couldn’t give her
anything. And if you say you’re the reason for the whole thing, then I gotta
be a gentleman and thank you, don’t I?”
Tomoe clicks his tongue, remembering what he can of Shiki Ryōgi. It 
/ CHAPTER 17 • 207
seems like a different life now. At least every time he remembers her, the
clicking of the gears and cogs that placed him in the circumstance of his
life seem to fade away. That Mikiya guy was right, Tomoe thinks. It’s more
important to think of myself sometimes. He needed to come here. Shiki is
only part of the reason. He had to know all that had been revealed to him
tonight. Own up to the cost. Maybe find his own redemption in what little
he can do. But I still gotta do it.
Sorry about this, Ryōgi. Looks like I’m not dying for you after all. I’m
putting my life on the line for my own self. In his mind, the apology is a
whisper, and with just that, the thought of Shiki Ryōgi departs from his
“Call me a fake all you want, Alaya,” Tomoe declares. Alaya’s expression
finally changes, though subtly, with the slight quiver of his brow.
“You would go against your nature? That way lies foolishness and hubris.
It will never change the truth of you,” he replies with disdain.
“Maybe. But at least my soul is true,” Tomoe says with a quiet murmur,
carried on the wind and echoing out through the night.
“The time for talk is long past.”
Tomoe nods slowly and determinedly, secretly agreeing. The mage raises
his hand in his familiar gesture, like a signal for his enemy’s imminent
demise. As soon as Tomoe sees this, he holds back the chattering in his
teeth. He knows he will be killed. But at the very least, he can pay him
back a few for the trouble. This isn’t suicide to him. This is for the sake of
his parents, and for the sake of the dead and dying in this spiral of a false
world, and for his own sake as well. Tomoe doesn’t want to die. But there
are some things worth dying for. Time to run. To run and face the truth.
Run with the same joy in my memory. Run like the hands on a clock, or the
changing seasons. Run so that I don’t end up in the same place every time.
Whether it’s a dream that doesn’t truly exist, it drives a determination that
I know is real.
“Alaya, I will kill you.” Gripping the knife tight, Tomoe Enjō breaks into a
Tomoe Enjō aims to hit only one target: Sōren Alaya’s heart. He’d seen
Shiki strike the same place with a determined strike, and he thinks that
repeating it might proffer the mage’s death. And so, aiming at this, Tomoe
runs, attempting to close the same six meter distance that Shiki once closed
in a mere two or three seconds. He kicks off the floor with an explosion of
strength, remembering the sprints he repeated over and over in the track 
in school. He will make this his best time yet.
In the space around Alaya, a circular perimeter appears much like the
one he deployed in his fight with Shiki. However, unlike the threefold circular
ward that he used with Shiki, he only uses one, perhaps to mock Tomoe.
This particular one only spreads out a meter away from the mage. Tomoe
knows no way to avoid it, and so he steps right into it. With an arrested
jerk, his body halts in place. The power that only moments ago flowed
through Tomoe’s legs is gone in one disorienting instant. He is immobile,
unable to do anything.
Frowning, Alaya takes one sluggish pace forward, impressing upon
Tomoe the gravity of the situation. His outstretched hand slowly takes hold
of Tomoe’s head. No good huh, thinks Tomoe as he closes his eyes. But he
refuses to back down.
“My family didn’t deserve to die like they did,” Tomoe struggles to say.
“They weren’t so bad that they deserved to be killed!” he shouts. He fights
the invisible chains that bind him as hard as he can, not caring even if his
legs might be snapped in two, as long as it doesn’t end like this. I’m not
“I existed! I’ve lived!” Tomoe cries as he pours his last burst of effort
into escaping. He hears a snapping sound, then a sharp tear, and then the
flash of pain of a leg splitting open. He starts to fall forward, but turns that
momentum into his last attack. Passing under Alaya’s arm, he lets his hand
that holds the knife fly to the mage’s defenseless chest, the steel glinting
and seemingly leaving a cold, silver trail in the air. And it hits its mark. But
that is the only thing that happens.
“You fool,” Alaya says with a voice tinged with regret. He draws back his
hand to seize Tomoe’s head once again, unfazed by the strike at his chest.
This time, his hold is solid, almost crushing.
“You are not Shiki Ryōgi, nor do you have her Eyes. You do not realize
that the knowing of death is not enough, for there is value too in the
seeing. You cannot hope to actualize my entropy without seeing it.” Now
the mage’s muscular arm begins to crush the head which it holds. Tomoe’s
hand that wielded the knife is now forced to withdraw it from the mage’s
chest, slipping out easily and dropping to the floor in a clatter, the hand
that only seconds ago gripped it tightly now losing its strength.
“You never knew the reason you were chosen,” Alaya whispers sternly.
Tomoe does not honor him with an acknowledgement. The hand seems
to rob him of his last will to live. “In your last moments, you have earned
this knowledge, so listen well. All things have an impetus that drives and
shapes their very existence. A primal impulse contained and cycled in the 
/ CHAPTER 17 • 209
Akashic Record we mages call an ‘origin.’ I knew you would murder your
mother, and fall into despair because your origin is known to me.”
Again, Tomoe does not answer. Alaya holds Tomoe’s body up high by the
head, and with a voice far too chilling, speaks.
“Know this: you were never capable of anything. For your origin was
In the flash of a moment, some arcane power, like a command, passes
through Alaya’s hands. The power enters the body of Tomoe Enjō, and he
begins to fade from existence completely, disintegrating into the air into
After the destruction Tomoe Enjō, the mage Sōren Alaya stands stock
still in the tenth floor hallway. He knows the time is close at hand. He has
prepared the body he will use, and his soul is ready to be relocated, and he
will finally leave this inferior flesh. Unlike the puppet master he once knew,
his soul will not move to something similar to his previous form. He has no
need of one, for he has never known death. He has known rot and decay,
but his soul presses him forward to some grand goal, and so he survives.
And in the end, he stands alone. This body will either be his medium for
ascension, or death; for there is no other. Due to this, his extreme attention
to caution can perhaps be forgiven.
Not much longer now until he leaves this false material world, his soul
sublimated to the vessel of the girl connected to the spiral of origin, from
where he can command reality itself. As above, so below. The process has
already started. But before this happens, there is one matter left to settle.
“So you have fallen, Alba,” Alaya mutters in a lifeless voice. He closes his
eyes. At first he is in the unlit hallway, but with a single thought, he feels
himself fall through the floor as if diving through a deep sea, and seems to
descend into slumber.
While Alaya’s body remains in the tenth floor, his consciousness travels
downward. Without shape or form, he observes the state of affairs in
the lobby on the first floor’s east wing. Present there is the mage Tōko
Aozaki, as well as the boy called Mikiya Kokutō. Tōko is nursing the fallen
boy’s wounds, but it seems Cornelius Alba cannot be found. It is just as he
expected. He prepares to return his consciousness to his body, but something
holds him back.
“Where are you going, Alaya? Scrying is in poor taste,” Tōko says with 
a click of her tongue. Though formless, Tōko looks over her shoulder as
though he sees Alaya. She is at the foot of the staircase, while he is observing
from the top. As before, they find themselves confronting each other.
Hmph. So you did indeed have a second puppet as I thought. And through
it you have disposed of Alba. The heart I plundered from you was real, I
know it to be. Does this mean you are a mere fake?
Alaya’s voice echoes throughout the lobby. But there is no sound. It is
a reverberating voice only Tōko can hear. Upon hearing Alaya’s question,
Tōko sighs.
“First Alba, then you. Both of you sure like fussing over the little details.
Always asking ‘what’s the difference between then and now,’ and never
anything productive. I wonder how long you plan to take the questions this
The propensity of your mouth to utter irritations seems unchanged, at
the very least. Then will you duel with me once more?
“No, thanks. I’ve got no chance of winning in this apartment building,”
speaking frankly, Tōko turns her attention away from the mage’s presence,
deciding that nursing the unconscious boy is more important than maintaining
her conversation with Alaya. She produces a bandage from beneath
her brown trench coat and begins to dress the wound in the boy’s knees.
Is your decision true? The familiar you contain within that box is capable
of defeating me.
“I humbly decline. If I just cut this familiar loose, it might well consume
the entire building. The Ordo Magi would definitely notice, and they
wouldn’t let that slide. After all the trouble I went through occulting myself
here, I wouldn’t want all of that to go to waste.” Tōko doesn’t look over her
shoulder when she answers him. “I lost when I died. I accept that. Whether
you acquire Shiki’s body and cast of your own or not, I don’t care. If there
were someone able to stop you, it wouldn’t be me.”
Do you still rely hopelessly on the Deterrent this late in the game? I have
told you before that it will not function.
Tōko shakes her head, in pity more so than repudiation. “Maybe so.
Maybe you’ve actually won this time. I don’t know what you’ll do when
you reach the spiral of origin. They told us that the mages who reached
the realms above remained, never to return to the material world below,
sloughing off their memory of it like dry skin. But you fancy yourself different,
don’t you? You’d reshape reality, cast your shadow here on this side.
As above, so below. You think you hate humanity so much that you want
to save them. If that were true, you’d will yourself from existence after
your ascension. But you don’t really hate humanity, Alaya. You only love 
/ CHAPTER 17 • 211
the notion of the Platonic human you think you harbor within you. It’s why
you can’t forgive the world of suffering you see. It’s hilarious, too, how you
think you want to save them. But you only want to save your delusional
Alaya does not immediately respond. At this point, any common cause
they thought they shared, and what Alaya thought he could appeal to, is
now well and truly broken. When he speaks, he speaks in a tone of grief.
Then there is little else to speak about. For I see only one way to salvation.
Farewell, Aozaki. I cannot leave any proof of my arrival at the spiral
of origin. Only content yourself with the knowledge that you were the one
that endeavored to stop me, and find meaning in that.
The mage’s consciousness starts to fade from the lobby and the senses
of Tōko Aozaki. Back still turned, she suddenly remembers a certain doubt.
“Wait, Alaya. I have one last matter to ask. You made this facsimile of the
Taijitu to contain the Taijitu, didn’t you?”
Of course. I made this pocket reality primarily to keep Shiki Ryōgi from
escaping. Everything else is an addendum to that objective.
Though Alaya replies with an air of composure, Tōko starts to snicker,
initially trying her hardest to hold it back. Unable to calm herself, the female
mage begins to laugh loudly, and with mockery and humor, unrestrained
and even somewhat disconcerting.
“Yeah, this building is just one big pile of sorcery, isn’t it? A closed
realm to hide Shiki and your experiment from the Ordo, from me, from
the consensus. A prison! A prison to keep the Deterrent from acting. Up
until that point, your theory is watertight, Alaya. But what a pity! You have
committed your gravest mistake yet.”
Alaya is at a loss at grasping the meaning of Tōko’s words. I made no
mistake. His voice is without hesitation, a self-affirmation. Tōko tries to
answer as she holds back bouts of laughter.
“Yes. True. Perfect weaving, for any mage’s spell. But think back, Alaya.
What if your assumption itself was wrong? You isolated Shiki not in a room
in this building, but within the building itself, didn’t you? A spell bordering
on sorcery that cuts her off from regular space, trapping her in a lemniscate
space, rendering anyone incapable of escaping. A prison that won’t
break no matter which weapon one uses. It’s a finely woven pattern for
one versed in the arcanum of the wards such as you. You think you have
trapped her, and your guard slackens. But you see, Alaya, it is no proof
against her. We mages might be an abhorrence of reality, a paradox on the
pattern of the world, but Shiki is a reaper for beings as uncommon as us.
Even now, she works against you!”
Her words unsettle the observing mage, and he feels his mind seem to
stop. Certainly, Shiki’s talent lies not only in the killing of physical things.
The many weapons that humanity has created are tools enough for such
purpose. It is her ability to bring entropy upon things that don’t even know
the concept of “life” as we know it, concepts and thoughts without form,
bringing the ultimate void to bear.
The one that brings entropy to all things. That is her ability. She is
contained in an infinite span of nothingness. Without form, Alaya thought
the space would keep her safe from anything that would extract her physically.
But the Arcane Eyes that Shiki Ryōgi holds grants her power over that
formlessness as well. And so, Alaya realizes too late.
“Now is your blunder obvious, Alaya? It might actually have been better
for you to trap Shiki in a concrete cell. Matter with form takes its toll harder
on her when she weaves entropy, and is the reason she uses a weapon.
Though I doubt even a material prison would have kept her for long. But
your flimsy cage is not so solid. You treated her as you would a mage, but
now your oversight is costing you, as she now tears it apart tooth and nail
slowly but with the ease of shredding meat. And soon, you will be witness
to her escape!” With her final sentence, Tōko finally looks back over her
shoulder at Alaya. Before he can comprehend what her eyes told him, his
consciousness fades and is fished back into the body that contains it.
As Alaya is pulled back into his body, he senses in it the rumblings of an
irregularity. There is coldness in it that he has never before felt, and his
fingertips grow numb from it. The sweat on his forehead mocks the chill
running through his body, even as his insides seem to completely stop,
shouting to him of some impending peril.
It has been severed, he thinks in protestation, unbelieving. But he is now
face to face with the truth of the matter. For he senses the place, somewhere
in this building, where something has just torn its way free. It is
the closed space he’d constructed, now destroyed in a single unwavering
Though Alaya’s will controls his body, it also has sympathetic correspondence
with the almost living properties of the building. The framework his
flesh; the wiring his nerves; the pipes his veins and arteries. And the pain
of it being cut reflects and finds its way back to roost in its owner, a pain
so great that even Alaya cannot ignore it, the proof of it lying in the loss
of concentration that forced him to close his scrying spell on the first floor
lobby and return to his body, as if compelled by some forceful arm.
/ CHAPTER 17 • 213
“What is happening?” he murmurs as he wipes the sweat off his brow
with an arm. Chills trickle down his spine, little spiders crawling up and
down with their tiny legs. It is the herald of a nauseating emotion that
he has not felt in many, many years. “Be still, Sōren Alaya,” he scolds to
himself for his moment of weakness.
But the phenomenon he feels doesn’t stop. The arcane power that only
moments ago he channeled through every fabric of his body seems to grow
dim, and he cannot bring his fingertips to change the threads of reality’s
weaving, as mages do.
He feels death given form draw closer and closer.
Unexpectedly, a deep rumbling sound can be heard. It comes from
beyond the hallway Alaya stands in now, echoing from the lobby. It is the
distinct and familiar sound of the elevator in operation, bringing something
up towards the tenth floor. It is not long before the rumbling noise stops,
and silence returns, only to be broken again by the sound of the elevator
door opening. Now a soft, dry noise, repeating. Footfalls from shoes
resounding from the marble floor, their metronomic click growing louder,
coming closer.
Wasting no time, Alaya directs himself back to the lobby. And then,
though finding it hard to believe, he sees who it is that comes. She appears
before him, the light of the lobby behind her forcing the figure into a silhouette,
but it is easy enough to see the white kimono, and the accompanying
leather jacket that clearly does not match it. It is easy enough to see the
raven hair, looking wet and unkempt as if its owner had just emerged from
a long slumber in a lake. And the normally black eyes of the void, now
burning with an Arcane blue. In one hand she holds the hilt of the sword
being drawn slowly, lovingly from its scabbard in her other hand. Even in
the oppressive dark of night, the blade glints. Sword drawn, she swings it
lazily across her to rest at her side as she walks forward, gliding ethereally
like a soldier in a bloody battlefield.
Bringing the tranquility that heralds death in her presence, Shiki Ryōgi
has returned.
Chapter 18
Shiki stops walking just outside the entrance to the corridor. Sword
pointed downward at the floor, she sees the black-coated mage Sōren Alaya
from afar, separated from each other by a distance of about ten meters.
“I do not understand. How did you destroy my ward, Shiki Ryōgi?” Alaya
says, his face grimacing in pain. It is the question that he has already repeated
many times in his mind. And though he suspects knows the answer, he
still asks it so that the gravity of it becomes more real.
The girl before him now is the same girl that only last night suffered
broken ribs and lost her consciousness at his own hands. In the closed
space that lay between the walls of the building, she awoke, breaking the
barriers with the arms she used to weave her own variety of sorcery.
What is “ ” is antonymic to infinity. The concept of infinity is twinned
with the concept of a finite existence. It is this finite existence, this end of
all things that Shiki Ryōgi observes with her Arcane Eyes, and the same end
that she cuts to make entropy act quickly, almost immediately. The prison
she was contained in was made to be infinite, an inconceivable non-Euclidean
space. But there is no true infinity. Only ends, driven by processes both
mechanical and mystical. The only denial of the end that exists is the true
nothingness of “ ”. To this girl, the space was nothing more than a room
with its door unbarred and unguarded. It shames Alaya to admit it as such.
“Someone must have made you aware of it,” he protests. “The injury
I inflicted was far too severe for it to have healed already. Why does that
body move? Why did you awake despite your wounds? Why did you not
stay in slumber for only a precious few minutes more?” Alaya’s voice is
rough, the only sign he has yet given of any anger he can present. The
barrier never mattered, he thinks, but had she only kept her peace for a
few more minutes, all would have been settled.
Did she come back to life by herself, or did someone assist her? The question
rings again and again in Alaya’s mind. Did someone wake her, make her
aware she was imprisoned, and told her the secret to setting herself free?
The damnable Art of Tōko Aozaki? No, she’d have had no time, having to
duel me in the first time, and Alba in the second. His face shows him in deep
thought, running over the possibilities. He looks at the palm of his hand,
the same hand that wiped Tomoe Enjō off completely only minutes ago.
Perhaps the most decisive minutes he ever gave.
“It was Tomoe Enjō, was it not?” Alaya guesses, spitting out the name
like a powerful curse.
/ CHAPTER 18 • 215
Shiki only shakes her head in disagreement. “Nah, Enjō didn’t have a
thing to do with waking me up. No one did. Woke up by my own self. Enjō
didn’t even need to come here,” she says quietly. The wind blowing from
the open hallway behind Alaya makes his greatcoat ruffle, and Shiki’s hair
sway. “But to give him some credit, he’s the reason you failed.”
When Shiki says this, Alaya’s dark eyes narrow in curiosity as he ponders
on what she said. Assuming something would be able to stop him, it would
have been Shiki or Tōko Aozaki. Not the actor being pulled along on its
“Impossible,” Alaya declares. “He could not do anything. He played his
part well as a puppet, to bring you here.”
“True, he may have never had any real chance. But can you let go on the
whole ‘he was always a puppet’ thing? You’re like the biggest guy in denial
if you just keep saying it.”
Alaya cannot reply, for he knows it is true. When Tomoe Enjō escaped
from the cycle he had set, Alaya thought that he could be used. He integrated
him into his plan, adjusting it to allow for what he would do. But his
escape itself was never part of the original plan. Wouldn’t that agency go
against what Alaya had been saying all along? And it had slipped past him,
even allowed him to affect the plan that he had long drawn up.
“You saw that little chink in your plan and decided to use it,” Shiki says.
“But that one little mistake put a lotta holes in it. I mean, he’s the one that
brought me here, wasn’t he? And guess who’s wrecking your party now?
Just him escaping was already plenty significant.” She advances one step
forward, sluggishly, almost drunkenly, and it throws the black-coated mage
off enough for him to hesitate readying his arm as he usually would.
Alaya senses something wrong, something different about her. He does
not know where she learned the knowledge of Tomoe Enjō’s destruction,
and can only guess. The emotion emanating from her is…hate? A trifling
difference, Alaya considers. Mere change in her thoughts does not bridge
the gap between our ability. And yet, Alaya cannot help but see her as an
entirely different being.
Shiki continues her ponderous advance. She doesn’t even look like she
is ready to fight. She speaks again.
“Honestly, I don’t give a damn about you. But you gave me a hard time
a few days ago, and I’m thinking maybe it’s time to pay you back. And so
you’ll die here, tonight.” Her gaze is sleepy, her eyes less sharp. “But you
know what? This is the first time that I’m not really excited about killing
someone. Even though I know this round’s gonna go down to the wire, I
can’t even laugh.”
The sword in Shiki’s hand clicks as her previously lax grip on it suddenly
changes into a more firm, more secure purchase on the grip. Advancing
slowly, she maintains her forward gaze as the sword rests beside her, hilt
at waist level and pointing downwards. This finally makes the mage raise
his hand, deploying the three circular lines that traditionally surround him
in a perimeter.
“Very well. If this is what you desire,” Alaya says as he readies himself.
“Killing you will only delay me shortly in the grand scheme of things. I
should never have hoped to capture you alive from the very beginning. I
will find a way to revive you, and transfer my soul. Though this body may
expire, it is a small price to pay to reach the spiral of origin.”
Shiki doesn’t answer, but instead stops her advance when she sees the
circular perimeter. The distance between them has closed somewhat. The
outermost circle in Alaya’s threefold perimeter extends a four meter radius
from him. Shiki stops two meters beyond the perimeter. Briefly, the mage
can sense Shiki’s thirst for blood shift from winter cold to summer heat,
feels it wrap around the corridor and make his hair stand on end. But even
sensing this intimidating change in her, even knowing the age, quality,
and pedigree of the sword she holds in her hand, he is confident in Shiki’s
defeat. Her swordplay will not avail her today.
But Shiki senses something different. If the mage no longer thought that
letting her live would be an option, he would not have allowed Shiki to
close the distance the way she did. No, he would have killed her from afar
outright. Alaya still holds out hope that he can still take her alive, and it is
that little detail, Shiki thinks, that gives her the advantage.
Halted just outside the wards that Alaya deployed, Shiki readies herself.
Her second hand grips the hilt of the sword. Her back lowers slightly, and
her center of mass along with it, arching herself in a stance ready to spring.
All traces of the languor that possessed her previously is now well and truly
gone. She brings the sword front and center, pointing it angled with the
tip leveled at her enemy’s throat. The most basic stance of any discipline
of swordplay.
Facing the mage, she closes her eyes and nods in understanding. “Now
I know,” she says softly. “I don’t really want to kill you. It’s just that I can’t
stand the thought of you existing.” Her last thoughts for Tomoe’s killer.
The scent of murder is high in the air, and both Alaya and Shiki smell
it, letting it pass over their entirety in one sweet instant. In the next, the
invisible signal for battle is given, and the duel begins.
/ CHAPTER 18 • 217
A flash, then Shiki’s eyes open.
Alaya channels his mana into his outstretched hand, his motivating force
in this fight not the confidence which infused him in previous conflicts, but
instead the rare, almost foreign emotion that gripped him since he saw
Shiki walking the lobby: the emotion of dread. Which is why he feels he
must kill her here, now.
“SHUKU!” he roars angrily, clenching his hand into a fist, defining a
space around Shiki that he would crush. The lag between the lorica and
the weaving of the spell is so small as to be nonexistent, and one casting of
it should be enough to dispose of the girl.
But Shiki is fast, anticipating his spell. In a flash the sword is raised high
above her head, the speed blindingly fast. With the swiftness with which
she raised her sword, she lets it fly downward in a vicious slash. The spell
manifests only for a moment, but Shiki kills it, just as surely as the ringing
sound of her blade cutting air seems to cancel out Alaya’s booming voice.
The mage attempts to repeat the spell. He need only open his palm
again, and then close it. But it is too slow for him to react properly. He
hasn’t even spoken, hasn’t even entered the spell’s weaving in his mind,
when Shiki displaces from her position. She shifts the sword to her side at
waist level—a side stance that allows for wide swings—and sprints to her
target. Before the fight, Alaya considered the loss of one ward to be acceptable,
thinking to take Shiki with the second. But now her blinding advance
eliminates two of the wards in quick succession; two steps forward and
two slashes swung gracefully from both flanks. And still she advances. She
has just closed the previously six meter gap into zero. One more step, one
more breath, timed with one more strike to end the game.
The sword comes from Alaya’s right flank, and he sees the blade flow in a
diagonal cut. Her speed almost seems to make time flow in discrete events
rather than arbitrary measurements of seconds. The attack is similar to her
previous two blows, and its telegraphed nature allows Alaya to dodge it by
jumping back deeper into the hallway, widening the distance between the
two. A brief pause as the mage studies his opponent with a glance.
From Shiki’s lips, a single, straight line of fresh blood runs from mouth
to chin. But Alaya knows she has taken no blow yet. Then it must be yesterday’s
wound. The broken ribs, the internal organ damage. Still in their fragile
healing state, they must have been reopened, and even walking forces
blood from her throat. She is clearly injured, and yet she dances with such
single-mindedness. Alaya lets the right arm rest at his side.
That is, until he realizes there is no more arm. From the top of his shoulder
all the way to his right chest, the clear traces of a clean strike can be 
seen, and on the floor lies his missing arm. His manipulation of space made
the backstep he performed faster than any normal human, yet Shiki was
still able to cut him with a strike so perfect that even the owner of the arm
never noticed it until after the fact.
“What manner of creature—” Alaya leaves the question unfinished.
Unmindful of the injury, he focuses on his enemy. The strike could have
been fatal. If his third ward had not been present, the slash would have
dealt him a blow that would no doubt cut him in two. But it had instead
slowed down Shiki’s strike enough to save him. But Alaya is instead simultaneously
fascinated by Shiki’s complete difference from the night of their
first duel. Is it anger from what he did to Enjō? No, surely not. He narrows
his gaze at the girl in the white kimono.
Suddenly, she straightens herself and recovers a hand from the grip of
the sword, releasing her tensed stance, suddenly turning back into the girl
of last night. The recovered hand cups her mouth, and she coughs twice.
The hand drips regurgitated blood. If she did not have to fight such severe
wounds, Alaya ponders, she would give me no respite.
“You change with the weapon you hold,” the black-coated mage
observes in astonishment. It is the reason she seems so different. Her
extensive training in the dance of the sword changes her, forcing her into an
almost trance-like state. Her mind compartmentalizes much like, as Alaya
suspects, the past warriors did by training their mind to shape their bodies
as a weapon. The fight was killing and survival, outside it was normalcy.
“Hmph. A form of autohypnosis, as mages do when working the Art,” he
mutters, his voice struggling to hold back the pain from his right arm.
Shiki shrugs. “Whatever you wanna call it, I guess.”
Alaya curses his own dismissal of her sudden shift in demeanor. When
she opened her eyes; that’s when it must have occurred. To think the Ryōgi
dynasty would still teach such vulgar disciplines. He knew too that Shiki
bridging the space between them in what almost seemed like one step
was no coincidence. Her movement, the sway of her sword, her attention,
all focused and refined to make her a deadly living weapon, and she was
the only one who knew about it. He had thought her tools to be only the
Arcane Eyes of Death Perception and her knife, but in truth, her skill with
the sword is far greater.
“You have fooled me, Shiki Ryōgi. I had thought you had revealed all you
could about your skill in combat when you danced with Fujino Asagami.
But I see you have this one last trick.” Shiki shakes her head slowly in reply.
Whether it is an affirmative or a disparaging negative, Alaya can’t say. “And
so we meet properly at last,” he shouts as he pressed down on the gaping 
/ CHAPTER 18 • 219
wound of his former right arm.
The girl in the white kimono reveals a smile, the first truly gentle smile
she has performed; a smile that signals the end. Returning to her original
hard posture, she runs toward Alaya like a loosed arrow. He knows that
Shiki can read him now, knows what to expect, and so he won’t be able to
dodge this next strike. But he won’t allow her to press the advantage so
easily, not here in his sanctum. He gambles his chances on meeting Shiki’s
advance. He steps forward, and shouts.
“DakatsU!” In time with this, Alaya raises his left arm in an attempt
to block Shiki’s attack. He hopes that the sarira—the sacred remains of
devout masters—embedded within, will ward away most of the damage
the slash will inflict. Even she will not easily be able to see the lines of
entropy. Shiki’s sword impacts his arm, and in an instant, Alaya can see that
the blow has been checked.
As soon as he realizes this, he wastes no time in his next move. He
animates his severed arm with an improvised working of the Art, making
the arm move toward Shiki with unnatural speed. It slithers along the floor
until, when it nears Shiki, it springs up and grabs her by the throat, pressing
hard and choking her.
Shiki drops her guard at the move she couldn’t anticipate, and Alaya
presses the advantage he has momentarily gained. He retreats one step to
pull back the left arm that warded off Shiki’s previous attack, and extends
it again with open palm right in front of Shiki.
“Shuku!” He clenches his fist, and tightens space yet again. Shiki feels
her body crumpling with a compelling force seeming to come from all
places at once, and an audible grunt of pain finally escapes her lips. The
leather jacket is torn away, and she is forced away from where she stood,
Alaya having manipulated the space to compress to a size far smaller than
it appeared to be.
At first, Shiki actually looks like she will fall hard to the floor from the
attack, but she catches her footing just in time. Quickly, she redoubles her
attack, the corridor funneling her into a singular path directly toward Alaya
again and again. For a moment, she seems to disappear from Alaya’s sight,
but she has only bent low and run fast toward him, getting under his guard
more quickly than he can react. The sword moves in a blur, and it instantly
strikes Alaya right in his center of mass.
The mage can feel his accumulated life ebbing away for only a fleeting
instant. “Fool!” shouts Alaya as he attempts to deliver a kick towards Shiki’s
midsection to ward her away. It’s an move easy to see, and so Shiki handily
dodges it by jumping widely to the side, but the blade slides out of its shal-
low cut as she moves.
Alaya now understands. If I want to stop her, the structure will have to
go with it! The mage opens his left hand to crush space for the third time.
Having gained some distance from the jump, Shiki easily sees the spell
coming. A quick but violent slash prevents it from manifesting any further
around her. But after the slash, she stands stock still.
Alaya has completely vanished, black greatcoat and all.
Nothing I can do about whatever magic he uses to move around, thinks
Shiki. If he wants to run, I’ll let him run. She runs to the edge of the hallway,
with the view of the outside, and puts a hand on the railing as she casts her
eyes below to find her target.
But he’s not gonna get away this time. Without hesitation, Shiki leaps
over the edge.
Away from Shiki, Alaya begins to crush the building itself. It might
damage Shiki’s body, the same body he planned on using, but as long as
he can still restore it to some semblance of a human function, then let its
shape be damned. Even if the skull is shattered and the gray matter scattered,
it can be replaced. What matters to him is that the body not expire
completely until he works upon it, so that he can tap the soul connected to
the spiral of origin.
The loss of his arm and the stab on his chest are nothing compared to the
ultimate goal, the ars magna to which he has struggled toward these many
years. As long as he reaches the spiral of origin, where everything begins
and ends, all is well. What he must do remains the same, only delayed now.
This seems to be the only option now to prevent a stalemate between us,
Alaya thinks. Had I only killed her outright, it would not have come to this.
Still, it has come, and I must close this chapter of her life.
Weaving the Art and relocating him through space, Alaya has placed
himself in the garden outside the building, which as far as he is concerned,
feels like stepping out of his own body. He sees the greenery that surrounds
the building often, but it has been so long since he has set foot in it. Though
a part of the grounds, the dominating will of his subjective reality that
strengthened him so much inside has little effect here. After he emerges
from his relocation, he wastes no time. He looks up and extends his
remaining arm skyward to point to the very top of the cylindrical structure,
opening his palm.
The next thing he knows, a vicious cut goes straight down and through
his left shoulder.
/ CHAPTER 18 • 221
The next thing he knew, a vicious cut went straight down and through
his left shoulder.
“Shiki…Ryōgi,” he manages to gurgle out with difficulty as he looks up
at the night sky. “You damned…fool of a woman.” He coughs, and blood
emerges red and blooming from his mouth. Not given a chance to land on
either himself or Shiki, the droplets of blood are carried away on the wind
only a few feet away, but now a distance he can no longer traverse. “All
Alaya had emerged in the grounds outside the building, looked up at
the structure to work his spell, only to meet the fleeting sight of Shiki Ryōgi
falling rapidly from the tenth floor. Which means there was little interval
between the mage’s weaving of his relocation spell, and the girl’s thoughtless
descent from the highest floor of the building. What confidence
possessed her at that moment, he will never know. He suspects he would
never be able to know. How could Shiki have known that he would appear
in the grounds outside? And even given this, who would even think to jump
off and think they would land safely? To aim and hit a lone man from that
height at that nearly uncontrolled fall is an act that has gone well past
recklessness and into the realm of some miraculous foresight. As if she’d
And yet she did it. Without Alaya not having even completed the spell,
having not even manifested in the garden yet, she jumped and did it. And
at almost the exact same time as he appeared, he was struck by Shiki’s
blow. The arm that he had extended upward very quickly became an
improvised shield, but it was not enough to stop the slash from landing
in his left shoulder, reaching all the way to his abdomen. Even the arcane
shield that the sarira in his arm had afforded him was not enough to stop
the sheer force of it.
As for Shiki, she is unconscious and still, standing but leaning on the
blade inside Alaya’s body. Ironically, for all the defenses Alaya put up—his
arm, the protection of the sarira, and the last ward that he had managed to
erect at the last moment—Shiki broke through all of them and they served
only to cushion her fall. Without them, the fall would have been fatal at
worst, or aggravated her internal damage and killed her eventually at best.
Another miracle.
Her grip on the sword is tight as rigor mortis. Alaya’s brow clouds his
already anguished face as he looks upon the unconscious Shiki. “You were
prepared to risk it all on one gamble to kill me. No, if not through this, than 
through another way, surely. You could kill me. Perhaps it was no risk at all.
It is a poor sight to see Sōren Alaya defeated by a neophyte such as you.”
His words this time finally ring without his previous posturing.
Alaya’s left arm is virtually severed, and the right is long gone. The
mage, still standing, kicks the unconscious Shiki away, striking her chest.
Her body flies away from him and a few feet deeper into the grounds. But
Shiki continues to cling tightly to the sword hilt, even as it is still embedded
in the mage’s body. So the blade, having also been weakened by the
impact of the fall, is now forced into two: one half remaining embedded in
Alaya’s body, and the other half in Shiki’s possession. And with that, the
four hundred years of its history come to an end.
Shiki, now collapsed on the garden soil, remains unmoving. Looking at
her with displeasure, he mutters. “You lie there finally wearing the look of
a girl your age.” The mage, too, is unmoving as his face grows dark. The last
bit of his energy has been expended in kicking Shiki away, and now he can’t
do anything. For he feels that the slash has struck more than just the body:
one of his lines of death must have been cut. “Through that appearance, I
know we will never do battle again.”
The mage dispels the ward that is already fading fast, and whispers to
himself in a sort of prayer. “My origin is known to me. It is quiescence.
Those whose origin is awakened returns soon to the spiral.”
/ CHAPTER 19 • 223
Chapter 19
Only the moonlight shining above seems alive in this green fakery of a
lawn. Here, Shiki lies, fallen and unconscious, while a fair distance away is
the mage in the black greatcoat who has lost both arms. Stepping out of
the shadow of the shadow of trees and foliage is another mage, walking
collectedly with the air of one heading home after a simple stroll.
“So this, too, ends in failure, Alaya,” says Tōko. Alaya provides her no
reply. “A cruel state you find yourself in. You began your chronicle of
death, created your own twisted world, carried the weight of anguish that
all the people in it experienced. And for what? Why did you have to be
so obsessed? Why do you seek the spiral of origin so selflessly? Did you
dream, as you once did, of saving this race of men?” Her voice is pitying,
almost sad in her own way.
A pause. A beat. Then, “The reason is long lost to memory.” He retreats
within himself, to remember.
In a long forgotten time, he realized that he could not save anyone. As
long as there is life, there will be no real justice. Joy will not be realized for
all men. What of the individuals who cannot find their salvation? Is there
no answer to them? The dice game played by God did not seem to bring
justice to the right individuals, and when he realized this, he realized that
salvation does not come naturally to this world.
And so he decided to chronicle deaths. Make a record of all until their
end, and until this material world expires. Through it, he can sift through
the patterns and discern what real happiness is. If he could see the streams
tracing out into the infinite, observe all those whose lives lacked for justice
and deliverance, then perhaps he could arrive at something that could
be called true joy. Perhaps he could give meaning to all the meaningless
deaths. If the world and everyone in it reached their end, then he could
observe the true worth of mankind. And even in the simplicity of that
observation, there was value. That was the only common salvation he
could find for him and man.
At the scratching sound of Tōko lighting up a cigarette with a lighter,
Alaya’s reverie is broken.
“Lost to memory, huh? I wonder, then, what to make of you,” Tōko says.
“I was never capable of anything grand. I only ever desired a definitive
conclusion. If the sole matter that these mortals could ever leave to history
is the ugliness of their existence, then at the very least I can declare that
that is their worth. If I could observe that a lifetime of injustice is their 
legacy, then I have at least observed it, and it would have been enough,”
Alaya says, without looking at Tōko directly. Tōko does the same, staring up
with disdain and a frown at the night sky.
“Which is why you had to reach the spiral of origin. Yes, I see it now.
Because there lies the record of everything, from beginning to end, and
there you could observe it. You wanted everyone to die to observe the
worth of humanity from your little perch high above everyone.”
“Only a few steps remained to be taken, but again reality had to have
its way. It taunts me by presenting me with the vessel to open the path,
only to have it hinder my progress. Truly an unstoppable force. Though
I took pains so that no one would know it, so that no one would trigger
the paradox that would scour this pocket realm from the pattern of reality;
Even when I was prepared, I was stopped. This force that ensures the
continued existence of the world was my true enemy.” Alaya’s words come
out in rasps and rough bursts of stuttered words. He is already starting to
ebb away.
Tōko sighs deeply. “Reality? No, Alaya. This time it wasn’t the Deterrent
that stopped you. You did what you could do perfectly, and the Deterrent
did not act. Believe it or not, you were—indirectly at least—done in by
Tomoe Enjō and the simple affection he still held for his family.”
But Alaya refuses to believe that he was defeated by such a simple thing;
he, who had deceived reality and made it his enemy. “Even if that were
true, it must have been the Deterrent that empowered him so; made him
make the decisions and courses of action that would lead him to my defeat.
He did not act out of love for his family. Humans act only out of survival,
and hide it with such pithy decorations as affection.” The hatred in his voice
is thick, but Tōko only shrugs it off.
For she understands that Alaya views himself not as a man now, but as
the carrier of an ideal. A man driven so much and for so long as to become
a symbol is no longer human as she knows it. Tōko remembers the time
when she was a neophyte, when Alaya had made what once thought was a
simple observation, but ultimately became his most profound: the enemy
of all mages is my enemy. My enemy is consensus. Though she knows it is
futile in these final moments to tell him, she continues her parting words
to the friend and man she once knew.
“There’s one last thing I should tell you, Alaya. It’s pretty good. I don’t
know if you know him, but a famous psychiatrist once had this idea of
a collective unconscious. It’s the idea of a big mental pool where all the
archetypes of humanity’s collective history and ideas reside. It should
sound familiar to a Buddhist concept you already know. This is not the Gaia 
/ CHAPTER 19 • 225
theory, but similar to the consensus of collective humankind. Buddhists call
it the alaya-shiki.”
“Wh—what?” Alaya says, the word coming out haltingly. Tōko ignores
“Don’t you find it strange, Sōren Alaya? You were born with a name
that tied you always toward your objective, and you never knew it. As if
reality itself snared you from the beginning. You wrought many paradoxes
today, but it was you who were the grandest paradox of them all.” Tōko’s
words bury themselves deep in Alaya’s mind, encroaching on his thoughts
to shake the foundations of what he stood for. Though he doesn’t answer
her, the intensity of his eyes start to fade. But his burdened expression still
stands. Until the end, probably, Tōko thinks.
Without acknowledging Tōko’s words, Alaya speaks. “This body has
reached its end.”
“And you’ll start again from scratch, I presume. For what must be the
nth time. You really are obstinate, you know that?” That life, Tōko knew,
was also a spiral. Finally turning her frown to Alaya, she throws the cigarette
on the ground and puts it out, never actually putting it in her mouth.
She never really hated the man. Because she realizes quite seriously that if
she had made just one mistake…or perhaps had not made a mistake, she
would have become quite like him: someone not truly human, but just the
avatar of an idea, devoted wholly to a single theory.
Alaya coughs violently, and blood comes out of his mouth yet again.
Though delayed by the sheer weight of his years of life, Shiki’s Eyes finally
work their craft slowly but surely on Alaya’s body, reducing it to a gray ash
of decay starting from his left shoulder.
“I have no other vessel with which to ferry my soul. But the wheel turns,
and when the cycle presses me back into the material world, it will be
hundreds of years hence.”
“At which point there will be no more mages, or the Art, or sorcery. The
consensus is winning. And you are, as you always will be, alone. But I know
you still wouldn’t stop.”
“Of course. I am not defeated.”
Tōko closes her eyes, the years of their separation and their scant hours
of catching up now both concluded. Eyes closed, Tōko Aozaki asks her last
questions of Sōren Alaya.
“What do you seek, Alaya?”
“True wisdom.” His arm fades into nothingness.
“Where do you seek it, Alaya?”
“Nowhere else but within me.” As his left half turns to ash and dances 
in the wind, the black greatcoat falls away. In Alaya’s last moments, Tōko
opens her eyes to see him through to the end.
“Where do your struggles lead you, Alaya?”
But before he can answer, the last of Sōren Alaya wastes away. Tōko
feels, though, that she knows what he would have answered.
Beyond this spiraling material world of paradox.
Tōko casts her eyes away from the gray ash riding on the wind and takes
another cigarette from her pocket and lights it. The smoke dances to and
fro like an impossible, unreal illusion.
/ 20 • 227
/ 20
Though I can’t seem to recall the how and why, I find myself walking
through the city. The weather is pleasant, and the sky above is blue as
far as the eye can see. Though there isn’t a cloud in the sky to cover the
sun, the white, dream-like sunlight is warm but not truly bothersome. But
it does cast the city and the main avenue in the faint haze of a mirage,
bathing it in the atmosphere of some vast desert. Since November came
around, it’s always been cloudy day after cloudy day, but today, in my dark
red kimono, it feels like a day right out of summer.
Eventually, I enter a café that I’ve been visiting a lot lately. The café,
Ahnenerbe, seems much moodier than it usually is. Maybe it’s because
the quality of today’s sunlight—the lack of electric light making sunlight
from the windows its only method of lighting—only serves to make the
shadowed parts much more pronounced. It’s probably what the customers
want anyway.
I see an unoccupied table, its surface plain and simple, beside an open
window, being bathed by a stream of white sunlight. Right behind it is
another table, where the light doesn’t reach and is cast in dry darkness.
This contrast that drapes an air of churchly solemnity about the entire
thing is what makes the place popular among a certain crowd. Today, I’m
part of that crowd.
The two tables I saw are the only ones that aren’t taken, and I take a seat
on the table by the window. By chance, I sit at the same time as another
guy, a teenager who takes the other empty table. And so I wait, and the
teenager waits as well, sitting with our backs to each other.
The silence is almost a miracle unto itself. I keep my peace like the rest
of the people around me, and my normally short fuse doesn’t manifest
as I wait without complaint. While contemplating the reason for my rare
silence, I find satisfaction in the fact that the person sitting behind me
seems to be waiting in vain like I am. The fact that I have a kindred spirit
somehow makes me feel at ease.
After a long time, the idiot I’m waiting for finally shows up, visible outside
the window waving a hand at me. It looks like he ran to get here, seeing
as he’s out of breath. I wonder if he’s okay. After all, he’s the one that
chooses to wear a black getup in such a fine, sunny day like this. He’s going
to have to change that sooner or later. I look again, and there is someone
else outside the window: a woman in a white dress.
I stand up, and at the same time, the guy behind me stands up as well. 
I feel some relief, as it seems the woman in the white dress is the person
this guy was waiting for. With a sigh, I head for the café’s exit. Strangely
enough, the establishment has two exits on opposite ends, one on its east
and another on its west side. As I walk toward the west exit, the guy walks
similarly toward the east exit. Before I exit the café, I look over my shoulder
once, only to see the guy looking over his shoulder as well. The fellow is
red-haired, with a thin frame. When our eyes meet, he turns away and raises
a hand. I too, turn away, and raise a hand. A greeting. And yet, though I
hear no voice, I could almost imagine him saying goodbye. Voiceless, I too
say goodbye, and make my way out of the café.
Outside, the atmosphere is still bathed in an oppressive white haze. The
heat must have gotten stronger, as I feel like I could sweat in a matter of
minutes. Under this intense sunlight, I walk toward the man waving his
hand at me. For reasons I can’t discern, I feel relieved and pained at the
same time. Though I try to block out the sunlight with my hand, it is still
strong enough to hide the man’s face.
I pray to some God that the red-haired guy was also walking like this, to
a place where he could meet that someone he was waiting for. The solemn
air of a church inside Ahnenerbe must have really gotten to me if even I
can catch myself praying. When I turn around to look back at it, the café is
gone, replaced instead by a level plain stretching far away to the horizon.
Nothing is left. Somehow, though, I knew it.
I once thought that to live was to leave nothing behind. But I remember
what someone once said to me: that life is when you try to leave nothing
behind, but instead leave everything.
Somewhere, a doorbell chime rings out. When I hear it, I realize that I
am in a whimsical dream. Leaving behind the beautiful city of the desert, I
slowly wake up.
The doorbell rings for a second time, and I push my body up from the
bed. The clock beside the bed says that it’s only around nine o’ clock or so.
Seeing as I went out last night for my usual stroll and slept at five in the
morning, nine o’ clock is hardly a perfect time to wake up.
The doorbell rings for a third time. Naturally, the only one who would be
persistent enough to keep ringing like that would be someone who knows
I’m here, and that someone is probably Mikiya. My mind is still swimming
as I sit on top of the bed, recovering from a strange dream. All the more
reason to ignore Mikiya right now. Let him think I’m asleep. I snatch the
pillow from the head of the bed, hold it close, and lie back down again.
/ 20 • 229
The ringing stops. “Hah. I knew he’d give up,” I whisper as I pull my blanket
back up and try to fall back to sleep.
Suddenly I hear the sound of the lock opening by key, and the door
opens. I open my eyes in surprise and start to get up, but he’s already in.
“Ah, so you were awake, Shiki,” Mikiya says. He has in one hand a plastic
bag from a convenience store. The thought of where on Earth he got a key
to my apartment occupies me, and I don’t manage to catch myself glaring
at him fairly sternly.
“Don’t think you get to have any of this,” he suddenly sputters out as he
hides the plastic bag behind him. “I need to eat my breakfast too.” There is
a second or two before I get what he’s talking about, since I’m thinking of
something completely different.
“Trespassing. That’s what this is,” I declare. “And me? Eat that cheap
trash? Don’t make me laugh.”
“Oh, thank god, I get to have a breakfast at your place without you
pinching food from my plate for once. Maybe you’ve beaten the habit.”
Mikiya starts to take out the food from the plastic bag and line them up on
the floor. I pass a good minute just looking at him like this.
It’s been two weeks since the business in the Ōgawa Apartments. Mikiya
had to go to the hospital for his leg injury. My own injuries, which were far
more serious, took only a week and a few days to heal, which the doctor
attributed to my health. Mikiya still has to go to the hospital for checkups.
He can walk, and even run, but the doctor said to avoid the latter until
he was completely fine. I remember Mikiya laughing, then saying to the
doctor that he tries to avoid running even without an injury.
We haven’t talked about the Ōgawa Apartment once since. We didn’t
feel the need to. In the past two weeks, though, I can sometimes see
Mikiya’s face becoming more serious for what seems to be no reason, and
you’d actually have to touch him for him to snap back to reality and hear
you. It’s those times that I know that he’s thinking back on it. For my part,
my mind keeps going back to the erstwhile roommate of one month that
brought an unexpected change in my life, and it frustrates me.
“Um, you know,” Mikiya suddenly says with hesitation. He’s splitting his
chopsticks with his back turned to me.
“What?” I ask dryly, already sensing what he would talk about.
“I heard from Miss Tōko that it’s slated for demolition. The apartment,
I mean.”
“Is that so? But what about the residents? And the stuff there? All those
things…” My voice trails off.
“Miss Tōko said not to worry about that. She said that ‘mages take care 
of mage business,’ and that some guys from the Ordo came and handled all
that. They made the fictional families disappear, putting them as ‘moved’
in the records. They even destroyed everything under the building. They’re
a pretty powerful bunch, if they can do all of that.” He gulps. “They’re going
to demolish the building this noon, I hear.”
So he came here to tell me that. I know I’m not going to see it; nor, I felt,
would Mikiya. Still, he told me because he thought I should know.
“It’s too soon,” I murmur vaguely.
“It is, isn’t it?” Mikiya says. And with those statements, it feels as though
we ourselves consigned the Ōgawa Apartments to the past. “But at least all
the reasons for these incidents centered on you must be over now. I know
I’ve been an outsider to most of them, but this should be the end of them.”
He pauses, then, “You should go back to school regularly. If you don’t get
that high school diploma and graduate, you’re gonna make Akitaka sad.”
“What? Me going to school has nothing to do with the weird shit. First
off, didn’t these incidents only start to pop up after you got associated with
Tōko? And second, remove the log from your own eye first before you start
messing with splinters. How do you think you can get off lecturing me on
going back to school when you’ve stopped going to college yourself?”
 “Ouch, sucker punch to the gut right there,” he mutters before smiling
and sighing. Hah, that line never fails to shut him up.
And so we spend the morning together. Though it’s both our days off,
Mikiya decides to stay in my room instead of going out, while I lie in bed,
badly needing sleep but staying awake just to keep the guy company. Mikiya
is seated on the floor, his back resting on my bed behind him. A month ago,
the scene was somewhat different.
My mind wanders back to the other man, seated where Mikiya is now.
He’s gone now, and this room has returned to the way it was before he was
here. That he had to die makes me feel a pang of regret, a hollow in the
soul. Though I tell myself it’s only a small hole, it envelops me in a sensation
as disquieting as what I had five months ago, when I recovered from
the coma.
And then, a thought comes to mind unbidden. If him dying unsettles me
this much, how much more so if the guy sitting beside my bed right now
disappears? He’s a part of both the Ryōgi of the past, and the new
memories that started in June to the five months from then until now. It’s
a period of time filled with a lot of honestly trifling things, but even so, the
memories deserve better than to just be thrown away. And so I keep them
tucked away like little treasures in my soul.
I still have parts of my memory that I can’t rightly remember. Hollows in 
/ 20 • 231
the soul, Tōko called it. I still remember her telling me in her best important-sounding
voice: a hollow has to be filled with something. It’s still as
true now.
So, I wonder, when in these five months of personal episodes great and
small did I find the time to decide that Mikiya would be that something?
“Say, Kokutō.” I really hate the sound of that name, but I say it anyway.
I’ve grown to see my past as an entirely different person, and started to
dislike mimicking my past self. Still, the name, its sound and tone, is my
last connection to the past I still can’t let go completely. Mikiya obviously
doesn’t see the same significance in it as I do, since he doesn’t turn to look
at me. In one of the rare times I have something important to say, he’s lost
in one of his paperback literature classics. Typical.
I just say what I need to say anyway: “The key.”
That gets his attention. “Hmm?”
I turn my face away from him and hold a hand out to him, a hand still
marked with gashes by the sword hilt I held two weeks ago. This is just
some impromptu thing I thought about, but I say it.
“I don’t have a key to your room. That’s not so fair.”
I know I’m blushing like a kid as I ask for such a little thing, but I can’t
seem to stop it. I’ll chalk it up to the weird dream I had before I woke up.
And so I let this normal, spiraling day pass like any other, keeping company
with a person so peaceful he could never have damaged the serenity of
the day.
The season is winter, and a rare snow falls upon the city, the first of its
kind it has seen in four years.
Like the night  Ryōgi and Mikiya Kokutō first met, the snow on the
ground will in time be drenched with a vivid red.