Following a mysterious albino cat down a tangled forest path was supposed to lead to adventure in a magical kingdom, not getting stuck halfway up a tree and losing a shoe. It would be less embarrassing if Hana wasn't laughing quite so hard.
"This was your idea," said Akemi, leaning over to see where her shoe had ended up. "So how come I'm the one in the tree?"
"You're always the one in the tree," Hana managed between giggles. "'Cos you're better at it and I'm scared of heights."
"This doesn't count as a height." Akemi was barely two metres off the ground, though it had taken a lot of effort to get there through the tree's dense branches. "Can you find my shoe?"
Hana began scuffling around in the bushes, still laughing. At the edge of the small clearing, the albino cat was watching them with suspicion, punctuated by the occasional warning growl. Close up, it was less 'mysterious' and more 'hostile and mangy'. Its utterly non-mysterious tabby kitten mewed pitifully from the branch where it had become stuck, still some way above Akemi's head.
"Maybe she didn't need our help at all," Hana was saying as she searched. "Maybe she was just going to go rescue him and now we're in the way."
"You couldn't have said that before I got up here?"
"Oh, here's your shoe! No, wait, this is someone else's. It's got moss on it, ew! Why would there be more than one shoe here?"
"It's a shoe-eating tree, obviously. Tricks people into climbing it and then steals their shoes."
"Okay, this one's definitely yours."
Hana passed the shoe up to Akemi, who checked it for moss (just in case) before putting it on. Then she resumed the slow climb upwards, weaving her way through the thinner branches and testing her weight on the bigger ones before moving.
The kitten hissed at her.
"It's going to scratch you," Hana said. She sounded less concerned than Akemi felt was strictly fair. "Just so you know."
She was almost within reach of the kitten, but paused to assess the best way to grab it. Unfortunately it was facing her, which meant that teeth and claws were both ready to take on her hand. There wasn't any good way to get around behind it, though, so Akemi attempted to distract it by rustling the leaves over to one side and then, when its head whipped round, made to grab it around the middle...
The kitten sank its teeth into her hand before falling sideways off the branch.
"Oh no, kitty, don't--!" Hana shouted, but the kitten had already hit the ground - feet first, to no apparent harm. It spun in a frenzied circle, hissed at Hana, spotted its mother, and ran towards her. Both cats vanished into the bushes before Akemi even had time to say, "Ow!"
"Are you okay?" asked Hana. She was still fighting giggles, but at least she sounded like she meant it. "Are you going to need stitches?"
"Hardly." The kitten's small teeth hadn't even broken the skin. "Great, now I have to get down..."
"You could just jump. It's not that far."
"Too many branches in the way." Akemi started edging back down the way she'd come. "At least it should be quicker getting down than it was getting up..."
A glint of something caught her eye and she paused. Now she was facing the trunk of the tree, she could see a little hollow where two branches came out and curved straight upward, and something in the hollow was shiny enough to catch the light of the setting sun even within the dim enclosure of the tree's leaves.
"Hang on," she said. "There's some sort of--" she laughed to herself, remembering the conversation leading up to their diversion into the woods. "--mysterious glittering object up here."
"Ooh!" Hana circled around, trying to see it from the ground. "What is it? What is it? Magic ring? Magic wand?" She paused thoughtfully. "Magic piece of gum wrapper?"
"I can't see from here, wait a sec..."
Akemi stood up on the branch, balancing so she could reach as far as her arm would go. She could just get her fingers over the edge of the hollow. She hoped there wasn't anything nasty in there. Just as she got a grip on something metallic, her foot slipped... and she discovered that it was, indeed, quicker going down than getting up.
"Oh my gosh are you okay?" This time Hana wasn't laughing as she rushed over to where Akemi had landed. "Akemi?"
"Is anything broken?" Hana knelt beside her and started prodding her arms and legs. "Can you sit up?"
"Yes you've broken something or yes you can sit up?"
"No-- I mean, yes-- I mean--" Akemi rolled her eyes and sat up, hopefully ending the confusion. "Nothing's broken," she added, just to be safe. She hadn't hit her head or anything, but her arms were scratched up and she was going to have an enormous bruise on her hip. "Ow." Then she brightened, bringing her hand up to show Hana. "But I got it!"
"What is it? A watch?" Hana leaned in to look at the disk of metal, almost completely darkened with age and dirt, lying in Akemi's palm. The only shiny part was a bit of orange glass in the centre. "It looks like an old pocket watch on a chain." She lifted a short length of broken links on one fingertip. "The chain's broken."
Akemi turned the disc over, looking for a catch that would open it, but if there was one, it was jammed shut and hidden under the dirt. She tried rubbing the grime off the surface, but she mostly just left smears on the metal and turned her fingertips black.
"It needs a good clean, whatever it is. Think I'll get three wishes if I polish it hard enough?"
"Or give you the power of time travel." Hana took the disc and held it up in a patch of fading sunlight. The glass glittered in the way that had caught Akemi's attention originally. "It's too thin to be a watch, I think. There's no room for the gears."
"It's probably just a really fancy button. Or a charm off someone's school bag." Akemi grinned. "Maybe if we were in Tokyo... but that stuff never happens in Osaka."
"Yeah, probably." Hana offered her the disk with a smile. "But if it does something cool, we're coming back to find me one too."
Akemi laughed, and put the disc in her bag, and they followed the twisting path back through the dense trees until they reached the less neglected part of the shrine grounds. Out in what was left of the daylight, the state of Akemi's hair and clothes made them decide to skip their usual after-school stop for milkshakes, and go straight back to Hana's house, where they'd do what they could to repair the damage before Akemi had to head home to face the music.
Behind them, in the now-empty clearing, the albino cat reappeared from the bushes and went sniffing around the base of the tree to see if they'd dropped anything edible. The leaves rustled as if in a breeze, although there was no air stirring anywhere else, and a few of the branches settled into more comfortable positions.
The tree said, "She climbed me."
The cat hissed at the voice from nowhere, and bolted back to the bushes with her tail puffed out to twice its normal size.
"She actually climbed me. How undignified." A pause, then laughter like bamboo chimes on the breeze. "Oh well, it's a start."
They were too old to really believe in time travel or wishes, but Akemi still hoped, as she tried to clean up the disc after dinner, that it would do something, even if that was just open up to reveal a watch face. Ordinary soap and water turned a pile of paper towels black and barely transformed the metal to a dull bronze-ish. The face was engraved with patterns around the glass in the centre, but Akemi couldn't get it clean enough to make them out. A search of her mother's cleaning supplies turned up some silver polish, but Akemi didn't know what the metal was, and she didn't want to risk damaging it.
There was that little antiques store by the station. Maybe someone there could help.
Or they'd tell her it was just junk.
With a sigh, she folded the disk up in a wad of tissue and put it back in her bag, then pulled out her homework. It would have been nice if the disk had, say, whisked her away to a land where homework didn't exist. They'd always hoped for something like that, she and Hana, ever since they started junior high together. When they were twelve they actually kind of meant it, and when they were fifteen it was their private joke, and now they were seventeen and staring down the barrel of their last year in high school and... they did silly things like chasing a cat into the depths of an empty shrine in case it led them on an adventure, and it was still their joke, but sometimes... Akemi felt a kind of desperation in it. Everything was about school now, studying and revising and working to pass the entrance exams. The only club they had time for was track, and Akemi had to argue with her mother about that every time her grades slipped even a little.
She felt like she was being stripped away until there was nothing left of her except memorised facts and orderly equations. Everyone kept saying it was only until she got into university, only another year, but sometimes, she wondered if there was going to be any 'Akemi' left by then, or if she would forget how to do anything else except try her hardest and never quite be good enough.
"I think that guy might be following us," Hana said quietly. There was none of the joking, maybe-this-is-an-adventure tone in her voice. "Walk faster."
Akemi automatically turned to look behind them, but couldn't immediately see anyone. Hana yanked her back to face forward and linked their arms so Akemi had to match her pace. It was after sundown, but the road from school to the station was well-lit, and none of the students had ever had any problems coming home this way.
Akemi tried to surreptitiously glance over her shoulder. She caught a glimpse of someone walking behind them, matching their pace but hanging just far enough back that whenever they entered a pool of light from the street lamps, he would be in the shadows.
"Weird-looking how exactly?"
"I don't know! His clothes don't look right."
"What's that supposed to--"
"Look, just trust me!"
They were coming up on Kawamachi junction, where there would be more people and plenty of well-lit cafes and shops to go into. Even if a weird guy was following them, he'd have to give up then. There couldn't really be any danger. But Hana sounded scared, and that was not okay. That was not okay with Akemi at all.
She pulled away from Hana and turned right around, feet planted squarely apart, and shouted, "Hey! Hey you! What do you think you're doing?"
She'd caught him by surprise, which meant she caught him in the light. Hana was right: his clothes didn't look right, but it was really hard to say exactly why not. They just seemed to be the standard salaryman's suit and tie, but there was something… artificial about them. They had creases and folds and seemed to hang on him like cloth, but when he moved, they didn't move the way they should. It was like he was an action figure with the clothes molded on as part of him, Akemi thought - all the textures and details were right for when he was standing still, but if you lifted an arm the folds in the sleeve didn't change…
Other than that he looked utterly bland, a normal face with normal haircut and eyes that… Akemi couldn't quite see. Somehow they were shadowed, even though the light was shining right on his face.
The guy backed up abruptly into the shadowy space behind the light. He didn't say anything at all. Hana was a step behind Akemi. She'd gasped when Akemi turned and shouted; now she seemed frozen in place. And now Akemi was scared, which only made her angrier.
Akemi strode forward. "Hey! I'm talking to you!"
Her eyes took a second to adjust as she moved into the darker spot, and then… he wasn't there. Akemi stopped dead, quickly scanning the street. There were no alleys he could have gone into, only a high wall to their left and the road to the right. He hadn't run off up the hill again. She'd be able to see him. He was just… gone.
A prickling sensation ran up her spine. She had a strong sense of deja vu, like hadn't she dreamed this, right before she woke up this morning?
"Where did he--"
"Ran off, the creep," said Akemi. She grabbed Hana's hand and began to run. "Let's get out of here!"
Hana was the only person in their class who could keep up with Akemi at full speed. She switched into sprint mode without hesitation, and the two of them flew down the last few metres of the hill and around the corner onto Kawamachi-dori and into the crowds.
After a few seconds of trying to dodge through the mass of people going into and out of the station, they were forced to slow back down to a walk. Akemi looked behind them, but could see no sign of the creepy guy. She felt kind of stupid now. What, his clothes were weird? And she freaked out? He probably ran off as soon as she started shouting, too shocked by her rudeness to even defend himself…
Hana was looking backwards too. They caught each other's eyes, and then Hana was laughing, only a little bit of fear left in her eyes now.
"Akemi! I can't believe you did that! How embarrassing!"
"Well, he shouldn't have been creeping up behind schoolgirls in the dark! Who does that? And what was with his clothes?"
"Oh, maybe he was homeless… or sleeping in the office… they were all creased wrong, weren't they?" Hana pressed a hand against her heart and giggled. "Oh, the poor man."
"Hey, you were the one saying he was weird-looking--!"
It was easy to laugh it off and get the next train home. Easy to forget almost everything, push the odd details into the back of her mind, bury it under a layer of mortification for yelling at some random guy in the street.
Almost everything, except his eyes…
In the shadows between the lights, the Spectre unfolded itself from the darkness and resumed its best attempt at emulating human form. The red-haired girl's sudden attempt to confront it had taken it by surprise, but it wasn't concerned that it had lost them. It was only a scout, after all. Its task was to seek out the bright ones. Its masters would follow the trail of energy to the source, once it had brought them the taste.
Akemi hadn't had a nightmare in a long time. Oh, she'd had the kind of bad dream where she'd forgotten to study for a test, or her mother was shouting at her for something she hadn't done, or her teeth kept falling out (that was a weird one, but Hana said she had it too sometimes), but… this was a nightmare, a real nightmare, a thing of remorseless black terror.
She was running towards Hana's house from the station, but she kept getting turned around. There was water around her ankles. She could feel the tug of the current. Had she fallen into the rain gutter? But this water stank of mud and brine, and it was choppy and full of debris. She turned another corner and found she was going the wrong way again.
The water was up to her knees. She lost her balance, and heard herself cry out in fear, because falling in would be unthinkable - but her flailing hand caught hold of something. It was a tree branch, and she quickly pulled herself up into the tree, climbing the branches to a safe height. The water was still rising, and now it was below her, it seemed as if it had suddenly become much deeper… as though she was leaning out over a great ocean. Somewhere deep beneath the rushing, tumbling green she saw a light, golden and blazing even through the weight of water above it… until it faltered, and went out.
She heard a bird shriek overheard, the piercing cry of a hawk, but when she looked up she was staring at the kitten she'd tried to rescue. This time if it fell, it would drown. She began to climb, but every time she looked down to find a handhold, she found the kitten seemed just as far away when she looked back up. And there was something wrong about it, about the way its fur stuck out and the way its eyes were in shadow…
"You are awakening," said a voice like the wind through leaves. "They will sense that. You are in danger. Come to me."
Akemi tried to speak, but her voice wouldn't work. She reached for another branch to pull herself up, and the kitten swiped at her, but now its claws were lethally sharp, ready to kill, and she had to throw herself backwards to escape.
There were no more branches behind her. She fell, and the water boiled up to meet her, and she screamed--
-- and woke up with a gasp, too scared to move, the feeling of the scream in her throat. But there was no sound from the rest of the apartment, no indication she had made any real noise. Akemi reached shakily for the light and turned it on. It was only five in the morning. She was too old to go and knock on her mother's door. And it was only a dream.
It was raining a little outside. That was probably where the water theme had come from. The tree and the kitten were memories… just things in her brain, getting mixed up together. She should just turn the light off and go back to sleep. It was only a dream, and she wasn't scared of anything, not heights, not spiders, not weird guys with no eyes…
She left the light on.
Akemi couldn't get the dream out of her head all day. She felt agitated and on edge, and everything seemed to go wrong. She was late in the morning even though she'd been awake for hours, so she and Hana had to run to the station, and they still missed the train. The next one was only ten minutes later, but that was enough that they had to run to school as well. Akemi had completely forgotten about one piece of homework - she later found it crumpled underneath a book at the bottom of her bag - so she was reprimanded for that. At lunch time it rained hard even though it was still only May, so they couldn't sit on their usual bench, and Akemi almost started a fight with one of the boys in their class when he wouldn't stop interrupting their conversation to try and get Hana to go on a date with him. Even beating her own record at track couldn't dispel the feeling.
"Let's go to the shrine," she said abruptly as they reached their home station.
"Huh?" Hana blinked. "Which shrine? Houkoku?"
"No, the one from the other day. With the cat, and the tree, and that… pendant thing."
"Oh, uh, Honmori? I think that was what it was called."
"Yeah, that one."
"Why?" Hana looked at her curiously. "Did it give you three wishes after all?"
"Oh." Akemi hadn't looked at it since she'd failed to clean it up. "No… it didn't do anything. But I just feel…" She hesitated, because this was weird even by their standards. "I feel like something's going to happen. If we go back."
Anyone else would have laughed, but Hana paused and then just said, "Okay."
The entrance to the shrine was on a side street off their route home from the station. They wouldn't normally have passed it, but on the day they'd chased the cat, Hana had wanted to go to a little shop a few blocks in that direction. The shrine gate led to a short stair and then a path through thick bushes. It seemed abandoned, although little touches here and there suggested that someone still kept the building in reasonable repair, and there were a few coins in the offering box.
For a small shrine it had a lot of trees around it, and somehow there seemed to be more of them this time. Her memory was that they'd gone straight to the clearing with the kitten, but now she couldn't find her way to it.
"That's weird, I'm sure it was right over here," said Hana.
"Me too." Akemi fought down an unexpected feeling of real panic. "I'm sure…"
She turned slowly on the spot, feeling like she was reaching out for something and… she found it. A little tug of-- she didn't know what to call it, but she grabbed Hana's arm and leaped after it, chasing it like they'd chased the cat, and… there it was, the small clearing and the sprawling tree, just like before.
"Oh, you found it!" Hana walked into the middle of the clearing and peered at the bushes. "No sign of the kitten."
The something had vanished, and Akemi didn't know what she was supposed to do now. Come to me. She'd dreamed that, right? But it had been dragging on her thoughts all day, and somehow she'd become so sure that this was the place she was supposed to come. You are in danger. It was getting dark again. Suddenly being in a place away from other people didn't seem like such a good idea.
"There's nothing here," she said.
Hana turned to look at her.
"What were you expecting?"
"I don't… know." And all at once Akemi felt like crying, even though she never cried. "I just thought there would be something."
Anyone else would have laughed, but Hana came over and put her arms around Akemi and held her tight without saying anything.
"Let's go home," Hana said finally.
"Yeah," said Akemi, turning her back on the tree and taking Hana's hand in hers as they began to push back through the bushes. "Let's go home."
They parted ways at the Sanjo Junction, like they always did. Hana headed east on the main road while Akemi crossed it and took her usual shortcut diagonally through the park. She'd walked through it so many times she barely saw it any more. It wasn't big, and there were no corners or overgrown patches to pose a threat after dark, just some grass, a few solitary trees, a lot of bare dirt, and a small play area by the drinking fountain in the centre. So Akemi was confused when she realised she hadn't reached the other side yet.
She stopped. It was almost fully dark, but she could clearly see the paths and the edges of the park. She'd come from Sanjo - she turned to check - and ahead of her was the gap in the buildings that was her exit point. She was right by the play area, but she was sure she'd passed it a minute ago. Akemi shook herself. She paused to drink from the fountain and splash some water on her face. Then she headed on home, this time keeping her eyes on the far gate.
Maybe she'd been dawdling more than she realised. She kept thinking about stupid things, dreams and shadows and... stupid things. She felt like her heart had broken a bit when nothing had happened in the clearing, and that was just ridiculous. Maybe she needed more sleep. Or a break from studying. Not that her mother would let that happen any time soon...
She was by the fountain again. She'd... blinked, or... gotten lost in her thoughts for a moment and... she was coming up on the fountain from one of the side paths.
Akemi stopped dead, feeling like she'd just stepped off a kerb unexpectedly. Her heart had jolted and now was hammering uncontrollably. What the heck had happened there? Had she blacked out or something? It seemed darker now than it had a few minutes ago. Was something wrong with her eyes? Or her head? That was a scary thought. Especially with the weird way she'd been feeling all day. She wasn't... going crazy or something, was she?
There was a footstep from behind her, a soft sliding one that sounded like it wasn't meant to be heard. Akemi jerked around and saw someone coming from the Sanjo direction, just a guy in a suit, by the look of it, but... she didn't want him to reach her. She couldn't say why, but then, when had that ever stopped her acting on instinct?
She leaped forward and sprinted for her exit from the park. At her top speed it should only take her seconds to get there, and this time there was nothing distracting her. She ran for the gate and somehow...
... between one blink and the next...
... she was running back towards the fountain, and the man was right in front of her. His clothes were all wrong, like the guy from the day before. And his eyes... his eyes were in shadow.
"Who the hell are you?" Akemi yelled, backing up. "Why are you following me?"
The man didn't speak. A movement caught her eye and she looked to the side: there were more of them, stealthily coming up the paths. All in those salaryman suits that looked wrong. All eerily similar, like copies of a doll. There was only one that stood out, and that was because of what he was carrying: a briefcase, just an ordinary square one. But just as the clothes were wrong, the briefcase was too black, and too perfectly square. And the man was carrying it wrong, cradling it to his chest with both arms rather than holding it by the handle.
"Back off!" Akemi shouted. The words seemed to fall into emptiness with no effect, and all at once she was absolutely sure that no-one outside the park could hear her. "Get lost!"
The one holding the briefcase paused, but the others kept coming. Suddenly they were moving faster, swooping in before Akemi had time to react, and they... grabbed her. Clumsily, like they weren't quite used to the shape of her, or the shape of themselves, but with a terrifying strength. Akemi struggled hard, but their grip didn't waver. It was like pushing against iron bars. Her arms were pinned so completely that she couldn't get an elbow or a fist free. Her school bag was crushed against her body; she could feel the sharp corners of books digging into her ribs. She couldn't run. For almost the first time in her life, she was terrified.
The one carrying the briefcase seemed to have been waiting until she was secured. Now he knelt and placed the briefcase on the ground. It opened with a click, and he reached inside. When he stood up, he was holding a knife... or rather, a dagger. It was long and the blade was slightly curved. It looked like something Akemi had once seen in a museum, displayed alongside a stone altar and a cup to catch the blood...
Her first horrified thought when they'd seized her had been, They're going to rape me. Now, with terrifying certainty, it became, They're going to kill me.
The man with the dagger raised it in front of him and took a step towards her. Desperately, Akemi looked around for someone, anyone else, but apart from her and the salarymen, the park was deserted. She wasn't even totally sure she was still in the park. She could see the play area and the trees, but the city lights beyond had somehow vanished, as if a thick fog had abruptly descended. Or as if the park had been cut off from the rest of the city, the rest of the world, as if there was no way in or out now, no-one to come to her rescue.
Except... behind the man with the dagger, beside one of the trees, she caught a glimpse of a figure. The only reason she saw him at all was because of a faint bluish light from that direction, like the light from a phone screen. He was wearing what looked like body armour, and the light came from a headset or something, dimly illuminating his face. Akemi felt a piercing jab of hope. Maybe he was a policeman who'd seen these creepy guys come into the park. Maybe he was radioing for backup right now.
The man with the dagger was right in front of her, and now the dagger itself was glowing with a faint and eerie radiance. And there was another source of light: Akemi realised that her own body was haloed in the same pale glow. There wasn't time to wait for backup. Why wasn't the policeman doing anything?
"Help me!" Akemi screamed as loud as she could. "Please!"
The faint blue light jerked, as though startled, and then vanished completely. Akemi had just the faintest impression of someone stepping behind the tree to hide. From her, or from her attackers? It didn't matter. What mattered was, that person - whether he was a policeman or not - wasn't going to help her.
That made her so angry she almost stopped being afraid.
"Coward!" she yelled. She surged forward, trying to kick out at the salaryman holding the dagger even though she knew it was useless, and...
... the light around her surged too, blazing up bright like a forest fire, suddenly gold and orange and fierce instead of pale foxfire. The hands holding her flinched from its touch, lost their strength, and she broke free, just for a second. The man holding the dagger lunged towards her, and the others were right behind her, ready to grab her again, and Akemi felt something building behind her eyes and in her chest, a pressure she couldn't contain.
"Get away from me!"
Fire exploded out from where she stood, a ring of flame that roared higher than the trees as it raced away from her. It threw her attackers back, tumbling them in a flurry of flames across the park - and she could see the park again now, she could see the lights and the play area, and someone running from the wall of fire: the man in the body armour racing to get away. Then the flames winked out as fast as they'd appeared. The air was sharp with smoke and the men who'd attacked her were smouldering where they lay, but nothing else seemed to have caught fire.
Akemi stood frozen, caught in a perfect balance between disbelief and terror. Then one of the men twitched and started to rise from the ground. Except it… didn't look like a man anymore. The drab salaryman colours had melted into a mess of darkness. Its outline was human… humanoid… except for the suggestion of spines jutting from the backs of its elbows and neck…
This time the park let her go.