"Are you sure about this?" Akemi whispered into the medallion as she loitered around the corner from the nightclub. "I'll be in so much trouble if I get caught."
"Then don't get caught."
"Helpful." Akemi peered around the corner again. "How am I supposed to get in? The door's locked and there's no-one around yet. They don't open for another four hours."
"Is there a back way, a servants' entrance?"
"There's probably a fire exit somewhere..." Akemi looked doubtfully at the tall buildings behind the nightclub, wondering how she would even get back there. "This would be easier if I could go over the roof."
"Then do that."
"What? I can't!"
Akemi struggled to answer. I mean, she could get up on the roof, right? She could climb well enough. She was pretty strong. She could see a fire escape on one of the neighbouring buildings. In theory, she could climb that and then jump over to the next roof...
The idea of actually doing it made her feel suddenly unreal, like she was dreaming or acting in a play, and at the same time a big thrill of possibility went through her, like chains falling away. There'd been a lot of that in the last couple of days.
On the one hand, she felt like all the colour had suddenly come back into her world. Homework and cram school and classes seemed inconsequential now. On the other hand, you didn't suddenly stop having to do them just because a talking tree had told you to save the world. Especially when you couldn't tell anybody about that part.
Akemi had never really understood the point of a secret identity in the stories. If you were a superhero, why hide it? It only ever seemed to cause problems in the end. But that was before she'd tried to imagine the reactions of her mother, her teachers, her friends... tried to imagine them and felt sick. Would they call the police or the psychiatrists first? She didn't like to think.
Not Hana, of course. Hana would get it. Hana would love it, except... except how could Akemi tell her she'd been chosen for this, and Hana hadn't? Sakaki could say what she liked about 'potential'... Akemi just couldn't understand how things could have worked out that way. So when Hana asked her if she was feeling better now, she lied, and said she thought she'd had a cold or something, but she was over it, and didn't mention the shadows that walked. Or where she was going after school, on Sakaki's instructions.
"I suppose I could get up there," Akemi said finally. "But what if someone sees me?"
"What could they do if they did?"
"They could call the police."
"And what could the police do?"
"You can outrun them."
"Okay, but what if someone takes a picture or something? And then it goes on the news and my mother sees it and..."
"Have no fear of that," Sakaki said. "When you are wearing the Guardian colours, you are... hard to see."
"Hard to see? Like, invisible?"
"No, I mean..." Sakaki paused, and Akemi almost thought she could hear the distant sound of the wind in her leaves. "You will be seen, but you will not be recognised. Even by those who are close to you. You could walk up to your mother as Guardian Sol and she would not know her daughter. Only by seeing the moment of transformation can the spell be broken for outsiders."
"Oh. That's... convenient, I guess. Less explaining to do."
Akemi stared at the medallion as the implications settled in. "So wait - I can do anything, and no-one will know it's me? Even without a mask?"
"Yes." A note of mild alarm crept into Sakaki's voice. "Er... within reason, of course."
"So... I could rob a bank or something, then?"
"I'm kidding," said Akemi, a bubble of lightness in her chest. She could do anything! And no-one could call her school or her mother or tell her she was too old to be playing around. She looked at the roof again. She really could climb it. She could see just how to do it. It would be so cool. "And there are Spectres in there?"
"Yes. I feel their shadow. They may be waiting for their next victim."
"Okay." Akemi slipped into a narrow gap between buildings that only just qualified as an alley. She could feel the transformation waiting to happen, like it was impatient to be let out. "Here I go."
A few minutes later she was balancing on the fire escape, heart hammering as she prepared to jump the gap. Sakaki had said she was stronger in this form, and healed quicker from any wounds. She wouldn't like to put it to the test by hitting the ground from up here, though. But the gap wasn't so big, and really it was just like jumping over the storm drain by the school...
It was easy. It was so easy she was laughing as she landed on the roof. She flipped open the medallion again to say breathlessly, "This is amazing."
"Try not to get carried away."
"Yes. With enthusiasm."
It was kind of weird, and kind of awesome, how Sakaki talked to her as if they'd known each other forever. Maybe it was part of whatever powers she had.
There were a couple of skylights in the roof, and one of them wasn't well latched. Akemi managed to get it open, and from there she could climb down into a cluttered storeroom full of chairs and boxes. She slipped out into a corridor and turned on the lights. She'd expected the nightclub to be spooky with no-one there, but it was more dingy than anything, and as she lit up room after room, she found nothing more unsettling than a stack of porn magazines in the staff room and someone's socks dangling out of a half-open locker door.
"I can't find any Spectres," she said after a while. "Are you sure this is the right place?"
"They won't be in the open. Look in crannies and crevices, places where you might search for a rat in the walls."
Akemi looked around the main dance floor, frowning. It certainly looked like the sort of place you might find rats, but there weren't any obvious hiding spots. Except... her eyes were drawn to the vents for the air conditioning system.
"Hang on," she said, "I've got an idea..."
She had to find a ladder in one of the back room areas, and then, after her first attempt, she had to go back and look for a screwdriver to get the vent cover off its mounting.
"Don't I have any magic powers to open things like this?" she groused to Sakaki as she was pulling open drawers in the back office.
"Lockpicking was not forseen as a duty of the Guard at the time of their inception," Sakaki replied with just a little too much primness for Akemi's taste. It wasn't like she'd even be here if Sakaki hadn't told her to come. "You could perhaps melt the metal with your fire?"
"I think I'll leave that as a last resort."
Screwdriver in hand, she returned to the ladder and removed the vent cover as carefully as she could. Then she peered into the darkness behind.
"I don't see anything here--" she began... except suddenly, she did.
It was like looking at one of those trick pictures where the space between two faces becomes a vase. Suddenly she realised the formless darkness in front of her was the Spectre's form, twisted into the confined space and glaring malevolently from eyes she could not really see.
It was such an unexpected shock, she screamed and fell off the ladder.
"Sol? Are you all right?"
"I... I was not expecting that. At all." Akemi cautiously climbed back up and steeled herself for another look. It was less terrifying now she knew what to expect, but still deeply scary somehow, even though the Spectre wasn't... moving. "What's it doing? It's just... sitting there."
"It is waiting for its master to bring it some poor soul for sacrifice."
"Oh." Akemi stared at the shadow, which stared back. She had the impression of needle-like teeth somewhere in the darkness. "So do I just..."
"This is more suited to your talents, I believe," Sakaki said with amusement.
"I feel like I should resent that." Akemi stretched out a hand into the vent and took a deep breath. "Okay... I call upon the sun, my liege, bright lord of the day. Grant me the power to overcome the dark!"
Gouts of fire poured into the hole. She saw flickering red light behind the other vents in the room as the flames sped through the whole ventilation system. She could sort of... feel the fire, almost, like a ghostly limb. She didn't have much fine control over it but she could push it onward until there was nothing left to burn.
"The darkness is gone," Sakaki said just as Akemi was wondering when to stop. "You have succeeded."
"Really?" Akemi let the fire fade away. "Just like that?"
"This was only a small infestation. The next one will not be as easy."
Akemi picked up the vent cover and started trying to screw it back into place.
"There's a next one?"
"There are many, I fear. The shadows have had ample time to pool in this city." Sakaki sounded like she was frowning as she went on, "Though I find their methods strange. They usually choose out-of-the-way places or fortified sanctuaries to take their victims, not somewhere so public and frequented by passers by..."
"Are they about to steal anyone's soul right now?"
"Unlikely. I would feel the presence of the obsidian knife."
"Then I'll have to do the next one tomorrow," Akemi said, climbing down the ladder. She was slightly worried by the charred smell now circulating through the club, but then, she couldn't be sure it hadn't smelled like that already. "I still have homework to get through." She paused thoughtfully. "I don't have any magic powers to do that for me, do I?"
"I refer you to my previous answer on the role of the Guard."
Sakaki had told her to keep the medallion with her at all times, but that was easier said than done. Fortunately they were still wearing the winter uniform at school, so as long as she kept her blazer on, the golden disk was well hidden under her shirt. She'd thought it would be uncomfortable to wear it around her neck all the time, but it seemed less heavy than it should be, somehow. After a few days she started forgetting it was even there. Which was how she ended up unthinkingly unbuttoning her shirt all the way while she was changing for gym class. Before she could pull it closed, Hana said, "Ooh!" and Akemi froze like a rabbit in the headlights.
"Is that a new bra?" Hana said.
"New bra. It's cute!"
Akemi stared at her, struggling to actually process the words. Hana's smile faltered and she began to turn red.
"What? What's wrong?"
"It's... it's not new," Akemi stammered. She quickly shrugged out of her school shirt and grabbed her gym top. By the time she'd pulled it over her head, Hana was busy tying the laces on her shoes. "Uh... I'm just going to get a drink of water."
Drinking from the fountain gave her a few moments to get a hold of herself. The medallion had been right there, but Hana hadn't even seemed to notice. Was that part of what Sakaki had meant about being hard to see? Akemi wasn't sure she liked it. It reminded her of the way the Spectres had looked mostly normal until she started to see through the cracks. It was kind of creepy. And it made her wonder what else there was out there in the world that people didn't know about.
The medallion worked kind of like a two-way radio (although Sakaki was affronted when Akemi described it like that): when the case was open, Akemi could speak to Sakaki through the mirror, and Sakaki could apparently see glimpses of what was happening around Akemi. Closing it cut off the connection, but if Sakaki was trying to reach her, Akemi felt a tingling sensation, like a minor jolt of static electricity had come from the crest.
It was difficult to keep up a normal conversation with Izumi when it kept happening during dinner. Akemi didn't dare leave the table without an explanation; the rule since she was a child had been that you sat up at the table for meals and didn't leave until everyone was done. As soon as she'd finished, and helped with the washing up, she fled to her room and opened the medallion.
"I'm sorry, I couldn't get away," she said. "Isn't there some way to leave a message on these things?"
"No," said Sakaki, "but never mind that. Come to the shrine as soon as you can."
"I can come after school tomorrow--"
"No, Sol. I mean tonight."
"Tonight?" Akemi glanced nervously at her closed door, as if her mother might walk in at any moment. "I can't go out - Mom will want to know where I'm going, and it's too late to be meeting Hana or someone..."
"Then you must wait until she is asleep and slip away."
"Why do I need to come to the shrine? If you need to tell me something, can't you say it now?"
"I would prefer to tell you in person. It may take some time."
Akemi sighed. "Okay. I'll be there when I can."
It felt strange to be out so late alone, but exciting as well. The streets were different at midnight. Akemi used the medallion to transform before she left her room, so no-one would recognise her on the way. She felt self-conscious in her Guardian colours, but the few people she passed didn't seem to think it was strange. Maybe that was the "hard to see" thing again. Either that or they were too tired - or drunk, in several cases - to notice anything out of the ordinary.
This time she'd brought a torch, and when she got to the clearing she set it down so that it illuminated a circle under Sakaki's branches.
"Okay, I'm here."
"Good. Sit down, this may take a little while."
Akemi sat, thinking as she did so that she really ought to bring a cushion or something along if she was going to be spending a lot of time here.
"Do you remember that I told you the Spectres seek bright souls?" Sakaki went on.
"Yes." Akemi frowned, thinking back. "You said they give the Multitude power, right?"
"Yes. Some of the brightest souls are... special. They contain within them the remnants of ancient magic, crystallised into the form of a shard of glass. The Archdukes seek these shards to bolster their strength, but they must not get them."
"Well, yeah, obviously." Akemi wasn't sure why Sakaki was making this sound so solemn. "I'll keep burning up Spectres and protect anyone with one of these shards--"
"It won't be that simple," Sakaki said quietly. "You cannot protect them, Sol."
Akemi stared at the tree in stunned silence for several seconds.
"What? What do you mean? Of course I--"
"There are scores of them, perhaps hundreds. I already sense a dozen or more in this city, growing brighter by the day - and easier for the Spectres to track down. You cannot protect so many people all the time, and the Multitude will not give up. If you guard one shard day and night, they will seek out another, and when you turn your attention to protecting that one, they will come back for the person you have now left unguarded."
"But... but then..." Akemi swallowed hard, feeling tears prick her eyes, "... what's the point of me?"
"The Guard exists to prevent the Multitude from gaining enough power to turn this world to darkness," said Sakaki. "And, ultimately, to defeat them. You cannot keep the shard bearers safe, but you can take the shard from the Multitude once it has been extracted, and bring it here, where I shall stand guard over it."
"What about the person it comes from?" Akemi asked, almost in a whisper. "Will they... will they die?"
"No... not at first, anyway." At Akemi's gasp, Sakaki hurried on, "Listen! I know this is hard for you to hear, but listen to me. It is not as grim as it first appears. It is true that a body without a soul will eventually die. And when the shard is removed from its bearer, the soul is drawn with it unless it is in some way anchored to the body. There is a way to create such an anchor... but it is not a power you possess."
"Then what's the use--"
"Your powers come from the sun," Sakaki continued, talking over Akemi's objection, "which represents the body, and the realm of the physical. We must find another Guardian to take on the powers of the moon, which governs the ways of the soul. They will be able to separate the soul from the shard. Once this has been done, as long as no harm comes to the shard, no harm will come to the bearer."
Akemi closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to get her chaotic thoughts in order.
"... so I have to let them do it?" she said at last. She remembered the black knife and the terror of being held by the Spectres as it advanced towards her. "I have to let them cut out someone's soul, and not stop them?"
"But... they'll be okay? As long as we can do the anchor thing?"
"Yes. As long as Luna can reach them in time, they will not be harmed."
Luna. The same shiver of recognition went through Akemi that had come with her own title. "Guardian Luna?"
"But... there is no Guardian Luna yet. There's just me."
"I know." Sakaki sighed. "I have been hoping that we would find a suitable candidate before the Multitude find any more of the shards, but--"
"Wait, any more?"
"... I told you they have been active for a year now in this city. They have already tracked down and taken a number of shards."
"This is... this is..." Akemi leaped to her feet and half-ran a few steps away. She felt like screaming. She felt like crying. "This isn't how it's supposed to go! People aren't supposed to die!"
Sakaki was quiet for a few moments as Akemi gasped for breath and fought back tears.
"They may yet live," she said finally. "In this time and place, things have changed significantly."
"What do you mean?"
"A body without a soul falls into a sleep like death. In centuries past, they could not be kept alive in such a state. They would not eat or drink, and become so weak they could not draw breath, and so they would die. But in this time... in this place, there are wonders of technology I have never witnessed before. I have heard people speak of machines that can intervene--"
"Life-support." Akemi slowly turned back to face Sakaki. The sheer panic that had been threatening to overwhelm her was ebbing just a bit. "They go into a coma, that's what you're saying, right? And when someone goes into a coma, they get taken to hospital, they get put on drips to give them food and water, and if they need it, life-support machines keep them breathing..."
"That is what I thought," said Sakaki. "These machines keep the body alive. Which means that if the shards can be retrieved, there may be some way to return the souls of the bearers to their bodies."
"It has never been tried before. There was never the opportunity."
"I guess it's better than nothing." Akemi sat back down slowly, still shaken and feeling sick to her stomach. "So... I have to find these people, right? I have to get to them before the Multitude does. And then I have to wait for the Spectres to come and take out the shard. And when we find Guardian Luna, she can put the soul back, but until then, all I can do is stop the Multitude getting the shard. And then at some point, I have to get the other shards back, and then maybe we might be able to save all the people who've already been targeted. Is... is that everything?"
"It is," said Sakaki, with only the slightest pause. "I am sorry to lay it all out for you so starkly. I have been calling, as I called to you, but thus far no other Guardian has followed the call, and I sense that the Spectres are gathering already to target another bright soul. I told you before that the Spectres mistook you for their prey, didn't I?"
"They cannot distinguish between a shard bearer and a potential Guardian. It may be that the person they are now pursuing is an ally - whether Guardian Luna or another - and so it is doubly important that you find them before the Multitude does."
"How will I know if it's a shard bearer or a Guardian?"
"I will know, once you get close enough to them. And it may be that you will know, too. You may recognise them - recognise the power in them, I mean."
"Okay. So where do I find this... bright soul?"
"It moves about, of course, but mostly I sense it south of here and a little east, perhaps an hour on foot..."
Akemi groaned. Sakaki's directions were... a problem. She'd spent more time finding some of the Spectre haunts than it had taken to clear them out.
"Hang on," she said, "I'll get the map out..."
Akemi watched the girl on the other side of the park as closely as she could without being obvious, although so far the girl hadn't seemed to notice her, even in her Guardian colours. She'd been following her since the end of school, and then it had turned out the girl was meeting her boyfriend, so this was now really awkward for Akemi. She tried not to look too hard at them as they sat on the bench. The sun was slowly setting. She kept glancing at the shadows, looking for any hint of movement, and at the other people walking through the park, looking for cracks in the mask.
She stole another look at the girl, smiling at her date with an elegance that made her look older than her high school uniform indicated. She had very long, straight black hair cut in a classic style, and she wore just a touch of makeup that gave her features depth. Akemi had felt sure, when she first saw her, that this had to be Guardian Luna. She just looked like a moon... goddess, or something. But Sakaki said no, this was a shard bearer.
She was frowning now, replying with obvious surprise and irritation to something her boyfriend had said. Whatever he said next only deepened the frown. She asked him a couple of short, sharp questions which he seemed to fumble, then she abruptly stood up and began to walk away.
Just as she reached the next bench, the sun dipped below the horizon. The long shadows lying over the park grew impossibly longer... and then they reached out, with sharp-tipped fingers, towards the girl.
"Look out!" Akemi shouted before she could stop herself.
Not that it mattered. The girl turned when she heard the shout, but froze at the sight of the rising darkness. She seemed too shocked even to scream. She took a shaky step backwards, and a Spectre slipped from behind a tree and caught her as if it were a dance they'd rehearsed in advance. She did scream, then, but more Spectres rose around her, and not all of these had bothered to take on human forms. Some of them were... things out of nightmares... with many spindly legs, like an insect, and many sharp teeth, like a shark.
Akemi couldn't see the knife. But she heard the girl scream again, and suddenly she remembered the first time they'd attacked her, and that faint glow that had meant someone was watching, someone who hadn't even tried to help. She didn't know if the girl could see her, but it didn't matter. It didn't matter at all, and neither did Sakaki's warnings. What was the point of her, if she couldn't protect people?
"I call upon the sun, my liege, bright lord of the day. Grant me the power to overcome the dark!"
Flames roared around the girl, seizing the Spectres and burning them like kindling. The one holding onto her tried to stand its ground, but a whip-crack of fire sent it stumbling back. The girl crouched down, arms over her head and sobbing, as afraid of the fire as she was of the Spectres.
Akemi dashed forward and flung more fire at the rising shadows.
"Leave her alone!"
There were a lot of them... a lot more than had attacked Akemi either time. Every time she withered a few of them away, more slipped in from the growing dusk. She needed to get the girl out of here, to somewhere brightly lit and full of people, but she couldn't take her attention off the Spectres for a second...
Suddenly the boy from earlier dashed through the flames and grabbed the girl by the arm, hauling her to her feet. He shot Akemi one wide-eyed look of disbelief, then dragged the girl past her and ran with her back towards the park entrance.
A surge of relief went through Akemi. She threw out both hands and made a huge wall of flame in a straight line between the Spectres and the entrance. She could hear dry grass crackling. Was the park on fire? The flames she created never seemed to cause as much damage as they should for their size, but things did start to smoke if she wasn't careful. She pushed the wall towards the Spectres, and took a little sliver of satisfaction in seeing them fall over themselves trying to get away. She just had to hold them off for long enough--
Behind her, the girl screamed. It wasn't like the way she'd screamed when the Spectres had first appeared. She screamed like her heart was being torn out of her... or her soul.
Akemi turned and ran towards the sound. Out of the park and around the corner, she almost ran straight past the alley but the girl managed one last gasp of terror, and she turned...
The girl was on her knees, hands clasped to her chest as if to protect it, but she couldn't stop what was happening. The boy stood in front of her, and in his outstretched hand was the obsidian knife, pointed at her heart. The knife was glowing with a pale iridescence that turned Akemi's stomach, and so was the girl. Between her heart and the knife was a line of glowing light with a single bright bead at the mid-point between the girl and boy.
"No!" screamed Akemi, charging forward, but even as she took her first step, the girl's eyes rolled back in her head and she fell forward limply. The bead of light flashed brilliantly and hardened, and the boy took a smooth step forward and caught it as it fell out of the air.
Then he dodged Akemi, not all that gracefully, but effectively, jumped over the girl's motionless body, and... stopped, looking at Akemi with narrowed eyes.
"You're it?" he said. "Really? What a let down."
Akemi felt sick and like she might cry but there was no way she was going to let him know either of those things.
"Who are you?" she managed to choke out. "How could you do that to your own girlfriend?"
The boy scowled. "She isn't my girlfriend. She's dating this loser I'm pretending to be. Turns out she's a stuck up bitch, anyway."
"Pretending to--" Then Akemi saw that the edges of him were vague, and the definition on his face was blurring. "You're a Spectre!"
The boy - or whatever he was - looked appalled.
"As if. Who do you think you're talking to, anyway? Everyone said you were dangerous, but you're just some girl in a stupid costume." He looked her up and down. "You could at least have ditched the tights and shown some cleavage."
Up until then Akemi had been off balance. Now she was back to being very, very angry.
"Give me the shard," she snarled. Fire sprang up around her unbidden; she couldn't have kept it in if she tried. "Give it to me, or I'll burn you to ashes, whether you're a Spectre or not."
He took a step backwards, the arrogance faltering for just a moment. Then he recovered himself and held up something that glittered in the fire light.
"This? You want it? Come and get it!"
He leapt upwards with inhuman speed, carried on a fountain of black shadow, and Akemi heard the thud as he landed on the roof of one of the buildings. Akemi threw herself at the fire escape and hauled herself onto the lower platform, then raced up the stairs. The guy was running over the roof, and his disguise seemed to be giving out. It was as if he was covered in clinging shreds of shadow that had once held the likeness of the boy he'd been imitating. Akemi sped after him.
She was catching up when he glanced over his shoulder, spat a curse, and snapped his fingers. Suddenly the shadows around Akemi swelled into the form of more Spectres, grabbing for her with human hands and inhuman claws. She stumbled as she fought them off, sending bright arcs of flame into their midst, but now the other guy was getting away...
Another shadow detached itself from the darkness behind a water tank. It moved swiftly, but without the creepy fluidity of the Spectres. The guy Akemi was chasing was too busy looking back at her to see it coming, but Akemi saw the figure resolve into a man, dressed in dark clothing, with a faint blue glow near his eyes. She would have shouted, but she didn't have time before he rushed the guy she was chasing and tackled him to the ground.
Akemi sent the rest of the Spectres fleeing with another burst of fire and raced towards them both. She saw the second man leap back with something glittering in his hand. The first swore at him and thrust his hands forward, sending spears of blackness shooting out with deadly accuracy, but his opponent leaped aside faster than should have been possible. Akemi seized on the distraction and blasted the first man with a gout of flame that made him shriek and fall back. He looked wildly between the two of them, swore again, and seemed to wrap himself in a wave of shadow that carried him over the edge of the rooftop.
Akemi drew a shaky breath and turned to say, "Thank y--"
But the other man was also gone. Akemi spun wildly, trying to see where he'd disappeared to, but there was no sign of him at all.
"Hey!" she yelled. "Wait, where did you--"
And then it hit her all at once that he had the shard.
"Get back here! Give it back! That's someone's soul, you can't... you can't just..."
The words trailed off into silence, unanswered. Akemi ran to the edge of the roof and looked down for the man who'd taken the shard in the first place, but he, too, was gone without a trace. Even the Spectres had slipped away into the cracks, and she was alone on the roof. She hadn't been able to save the girl. She hadn't even been able to bring back the shard like Sakaki had told her to.
She would have sat down and cried, except she remembered the girl, lying face-down in the alley.
She was back at ground level in a handful of minutes. The girl was still lying there. Akemi knelt beside her, biting her lip. What were you supposed to do? You weren't supposed to pick people up, were you? But that was for if they'd been in an accident and might have broken bones. She tried to roll the girl over, and flinched from the dead weight of her. Was she... was she actually breathing? Her skin felt cold. Akemi kind of grabbed her and hauled her over onto her back, which was definitely not in any first aid manual, but she could at least see the girl's chest rise and fall. The tracks of tears were still on her cheeks. Akemi realised suddenly that the girl was younger than her, though she'd appeared so mature and composed in the park.
She could feel the ripple of energy from the medallion. Sakaki wanted her to check in. But right now she couldn't bear to speak to Sakaki. Shame, grief, horror, and fury were threatening to tear her apart. She needed to get this girl to a hospital, but what could they do? Nothing, and Akemi could do nothing without the shard...
She wrapped her arms around the girl, and held her like a sister, and sobbed.
"I couldn't save her."
"I told you there was no way--"
"I know!" Akemi didn't even try to keep her voice down. She'd been huddled next to Sakaki for so long she felt like she'd gone numb all over, but finally some sort of life was coming back into her body and mind. "I know, I know, I know! But you don't understand! I... she was just... it isn't fair!"
Sakaki's leaves rustled overhead.
"No," she said. "It isn't. I'm sorry."
There was a long silence. Finally, Sakaki said, carefully, "You said you encountered opposition this time? Tell me about them."
"There were... um, two of them." Akemi dashed a hand across her eyes, even though the tears had long since dried up. "The first one... had the knife, the black one. He had some sort of control over the Spectres."
"An Archduke, no doubt. Did you get a good look at him?"
"Yes, but..." Akemi shivered. "He didn't look like himself, I think. He said he was pretending to be that girl's boyfriend. After he took the shard, the disguise started to... break down."
"Hmm. He has the power to steal another's shadow, then, and take on their form for a time. I have known others with such an ability."
"What-- what happens to the person whose shadow he steals?"
"Nothing," Sakaki said with reassuring certainty. "They feel strange, cold shivers and a prickling on the back of their neck as if someone were watching them. It goes away as soon as he releases the shadow."
It wasn't much comfort, though. Soon that poor boy was going to find out, if he hadn't already, that his girlfriend was in hospital and wouldn't wake up. And if she did wake up - no, Akemi thought firmly, when she woke up, when they got her shard back - she would remember him attacking her... how could they get past that? He would have no explanation, no idea what she was talking about, and would she even believe her own memories of the shadows and the knife? Would he be arrested if she woke up afraid of him?
"And the other?" Sakaki prompted, breaking the depressing train of thought. "You said there was another?"
"Yeah..." Akemi scowled. "I've seen him before. He was there in the park when I was first attacked by Spectres."
"What? There was an Archduke there when you were attacked? You didn't say--"
"I didn't know! I'd almost forgotten about it until I saw that blue light again. The first time, he seemed to be hiding from the Spectres." She clenched her fists. "He didn't help me then. This time, he showed up just when I was chasing the... the Archduke over the roof. He took the shard and vanished."
"Describe him." There was a sharpness in Sakaki's voice. "Everything you can remember."
"I don't know, it was dark... he didn't have the, um, the shadow thing going on like the first guy. He just looked... he looked like a normal sort of person, wearing dark clothing, except he had this thing over his eyes... like sunglasses, only it glowed - blue, like a computer screen."
"A glass visor," Sakaki said darkly. "And he got away with the shard?"
"Yes." Akemi was still smarting from that. "I didn't even see where he went, it was like he vanished into thin air."
"Is he another Archduke? Why would he steal the shard if they're on the same side?"
"Infighting in the Multitude is not unheard of," Sakaki said. "He may also be an Archduke, or... well, there may be some other human allies of the Multitude who have... other abilities. Perhaps they do not all want to follow the Archdukes."
"Archdukes... as in, more than one, right?" Akemi frowned. "The first guy said something... like people had been talking about me."
Sakaki made a noise like she was hissing through teeth that didn't exist. Small dead leaves in her branches rattled.
"That suggests that there are indeed multiple Archdukes working together," Sakaki said. "I had hoped there might be only one, or two, by now, or that they might not be so cohesive... Sol, you must be very careful."
"I think they're scared of me," Akemi replied with a grim smile. "He said they think I'm dangerous."
"They are wary of you," Sakaki corrected sharply. "They are not afraid. Not yet. You have much to learn about your power and you are without allies. You must be very careful. Even abandon the shards if you must, to protect yourself until we find more Guardians."
Akemi sighed and leaned her head back against Sakaki's trunk. It must be late, she realised. After she'd called an ambulance for the girl she should have gone home, or called her mother, but... she'd come here, instead. She was in for so much trouble when she did go home. She couldn't bring herself to care.
"Will we find them soon?" she asked softly.
"I am calling to them," Sakaki replied. "But... not everyone is as eager as you to answer the call."