It took all Akemi's willpower not to fly in through the door of the apartment and slam it behind her. At the last second she forced herself to stop, and breathe deeply, and then put her key in the door with shaking hands and let herself in as quietly as possible.
The television was on in the living room. She shut the door behind her carefully, took off her shoes, and hung up her coat. By the time she spoke, she was almost sure her voice sounded normal.
"Welcome back," her mother said from the kitchen. "There's tea."
The exchange was so normal her racing heart slowed a little even as she glanced at the shadows nervously.
"Okay, in a minute," Akemi called, stepping up out of the entryway and opening her bedroom door in the same movement. Not for the first time, she was glad the apartment's two bedrooms opened off the hallway one after another before it reached the living room. She'd been saved from more than one scolding by hurrying into her room to clean up evidence of scrapes or dirt, or just to get time to compose herself.
She shut the door behind her and leaned against it. She was still shaking. She realised she didn't know what to do now; she'd sort of thought, if she could just get home, everything would be okay. It would all make sense, or it would all go away, or she'd know it wasn't real…
She could still feel the memory of the fire's heat on her skin. Her knees buckled and she slowly slid down the door to land in an awkward sitting position at its foot, her bag slipping from her shoulder to land next to her. Something about the sound it made as it fell… a metallic noise, probably her phone hitting the wooden floor… struck a chord in the back of her mind. She stared at the bag for almost a minute before suddenly grabbing it and upending it, sending her books and possessions scattering over the floor of her bedroom. When she found the bundle of tissue that had been at the bottom of it, she hesitated again before slowly unwrapping it.
She gasped when she saw the disc. The dull black grime and tarnish was gone. It gleamed golden in her hand, and now she could see that the glass in the centre was set into the shape of a radiant sun. It glittered when it caught the light. There were intricate patterns engraved around the glass. The chain that had been broken was now whole, as clean and new-looking as the rest of it, and there was a clasp on the rim of the disc, just as she'd suspected. Hesitantly, with shaking fingers, she opened it.
Inside was… a mirror. That was it. She stared at her own reflection in the silver circle and all at once, whatever half-crazy thought she had been pursuing dissolved.
"It's just a stupid pocket mirror," she said, and jumped at the loudness of her own voice. "What's wrong with you, Akemi?"
Her name was like an echo in another voice that seemed to whisper in the back of her mind without passing through her ears. Akemi shut the lid and almost threw the golden disc back into her bag. This was stupid. This was crazy. It was a pocket mirror someone had lost, that was all. The tissues that had been wrapped around it were stained black: the tarnish had probably just rubbed off as it was jostled around in her bag.
She pushed to the back of her mind the thought that no amount of accidental polishing could have restored the chain, and stumbled to her feet, and fled from her own bedroom as if she were five years old again and scared of the dark.
There was a faint sigh from the room behind her… but it could have been the wind through leaves.
Except there were no trees near the apartment block.
The next day was Saturday, which meant cram school in the morning, except this week Akemi pulled the covers over her head when her alarm went off.
"I don't feel well," she said when Izumi came to see why she wasn't up yet. "I think I have a cold."
She'd learned a long time ago not to fake being sick. It never worked on her mother. Izumi always knew. But she was desperate enough to try it after a night of broken sleep, terrifying dreams, and jumping at every shadow.
And today Izumi took one look at her and said, "Oh no, you don't look well at all. I'll call the school," and left Akemi torn between relief and guilt. The guilt only worsened when Izumi brought her breakfast in to her, but then she found that sitting up made her head throb, and her appetite was almost non-existent, and she wondered if she really was sick. Maybe… that was all it was. Maybe she'd had a fever yesterday without knowing it. Maybe she'd been seeing things. Maybe…
It was easier to fall asleep in the daylight. Izumi woke her later in the morning, and she spent the time until lunch reading manga in bed. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been able to spend hours like that just lying around and reading. When she got up for lunch, she found the headache was gone and she actually wanted to eat the meal Izumi set out for her.
"You look better," Izumi said. "I need to go to work soon. I've already made your dinner. Will you be all right by yourself?"
"Yes, of course," Akemi said.
It was even true, for a while, as she watched television, cleaned up the kitchen, and did some homework at the table, out of some vague desire to atone for missing cram school. It was true… right up until it started to get dark out.
It was when she realised the room was dim, and got up to turn on the light. All at once, the fear came back, even as the living room sprang into brightness. The television was still on, but Akemi grabbed the remote and muted it, listening for… something. She wasn't sure what. A voice, like the voice she kept hearing in her dreams? Or some hint that the shadow men were coming… no longer in the form of men, but twisted into spiny forms that crept along walls and into cracks…
She strode across the room and turned the television off with a vicious jab of the button.
"This is ridiculous."
She made herself walk briskly into her bedroom. Her bag was still lying where she'd left it after retrieving her homework. She reached into it and picked up the medallion, forcing her fingers to close on it without flinching.
"You are just a silly mirror," she said loudly, "and I am going to throw you away."
There were dumpsters on the other side of the car park. Akemi put on her shoes, let herself out, and walked quickly down the stairs and across the asphalt. The sun was already low on the horizon, but the streetlights were on and dozens of windows in the apartment block were bright as families cooked their dinners. It was safe here. It had to be. Otherwise nothing made sense.
She reached the nearest dumpster and paused before lifting the lid. An irrational conviction seized her that one of the shadow-men would be inside it, ready to pounce. She gritted her teeth and forced herself to fling open the lid, ready to jump back if necessary.
There was nothing inside except malodorous bags of rubbish. Akemi took a shaky breath… just as the sun finally dipped behind the city skyline. Twilight and a sudden hush filled the world. She spun around, and saw them slipping from under the parked cars, and out of the spaces beneath the stairs.
Akemi couldn't help it, she screamed - but the sound fell flat, just as her voice had been without echo in the park. There was no-one in sight, on the road or on any of the balconies. The shadows were all around her, in a loose ring that was slowly tightening. They were still trying to look like men, but now she saw them clearly. They were like paper cut-outs given a flimsy kind of three-dimensionality, and everything from their hair to their features to their clothing was clumsily collaged over the top to disguise them. She had thought their eyes were in shadow, but she saw now that they were simply empty black spaces that betrayed the true nature of the form beneath the disguise.
This time she could almost hear the voice in her ears as well as her mind. She desperately looked for the speaker, but saw no-one.
"Akemi. Listen to me. You are awakening."
A shiver of recognition went through her. "What--?"
"They are drawn to your aura. They mistake you for one of their prey, little realising that you are so much more."
"More? More what?"
"More powerful. More dangerous. More defiant. You are one of the chosen." The voice grew louder and now Akemi could tell it was a woman's. "Your purpose is to fight them, to thwart their designs and defend others from their attacks."
The shadows were drawing closer, but all at once Akemi was angrier than she had ever been in her life. Angry at her own fear, and at the shadows for causing it, and at the world for abruptly ceasing to make any sense, but mostly, angry at the disembodied voice for letting her down with such a cliche…
"What is this? Some sort of joke?" she demanded. "A game? Pretending we're in a manga or something? Are you making fun of me?" She stared at the advancing shadows, trying in vain to see any sign that they were only some sort of costume, some sort of trick. "It's not funny! Stop it!"
"This is not a joke or a game, Sol! You must defend yourself!"
Sol. The name struck her like a blow. It was foreign and strange next to the Japanese she'd spoken all her life, and yet so familiar, so welcome she could have cried. Sol…
"… defend myself?"
"The medallion. Hold it against your chest."
She was still clutching it tightly in one hand. She raised it disbelievingly. The shadows were almost close enough to touch, but maybe they were wary, after what had happened to them last time. They hung back from trying to grab her. The twilight deepened, and she saw the one with the knife slip out from a patch of darkness behind a wall and raise the blade to point directly at her.
"Hold the medallion above your heart and step through," the voice said urgently.
"I cannot describe it in more detail, but you-- the others before you have told me that is the best way to describe it."
"Others… others who have served in the Celestial Guard.You are not the first to bear the title Guardian Sol."
And something flashed through her mind, deja vu or the feeling of falling, and doubt slipped away like the end of a dream, and she… stepped through.
It was like being turned inside-out, except it wasn't in any way unpleasant. In fact, it was as if something that had been coiled up and tense inside her was suddenly, gratefully released. A flash of heat like a momentary fever spread from her chest to the tips of her fingers, and her whole body seemed to glow, the way it had in the park, only brighter. Then for a second it was too bright to see, and then it was gone. And she had changed. Her clothes had changed, but more than that, a door had opened in her mind, and the panic and disbelief had flown out of it.
"There are words--"
She was still holding the medallion against her chest. She slowly traced the engraved pattern with her thumb and when she spoke, she found her words were in old Japanese, the style of speaking she'd heard in samurai movies:
"I call upon the sun, my liege, bright lord of the day." Akemi felt that rising pressure again, a heat that would not be contained. "Grant me the power to overcome the dark!"
That was all that came to her, as clear as if she had remembered it, but as she felt the power crystallise around her, and looked into the distorted faces of the shadows, saw the wan glow of the knife, Akemi realised she had one more thing to say to them.
This time the fire was more than a wall. It was a sphere of flame that expanded out like a star going nova. Akemi could feel the shape of it as if it were a breath she was letting out of her lungs. Flames wrapped around the shadows like chains. Akemi let the rest of the fire vanish before it could burn anything else around her, but she tightened the grip it had on the shadows.
She almost hoped they would scream, but they were silent as they struggled, their forms blurred by smoke and eaten away by the flames.The one with the knife didn't fight at all. It just stared at her with its black void eyes as it crumbled into ash. For just a second Akemi saw the knife hanging in midair before it plunged point-down into the flames that were still eagerly consuming the last traces of the shadow.
And... they were gone. Akemi felt the fire within her ebb, and then all that was left were piles of ash and cinder on the asphalt. A moment later the wind caught them and blew them away, and then there was nothing at all to show what had just taken place.
Akemi walked hesitantly to where she'd seen the knife fall, but there was no trace of it. She wondered if the fire had destroyed it too, but... she thought not. She couldn't have said why. She lifted the medallion and clicked open the catch, staring at her own face in the mirror as if she'd never seen it before.
"Sol?" The voice was clearer now, as clear as if she were speaking on a cell phone. "Akemi? Can you hear me?"
"Yeah, I can hear you, but…" Akemi looked down at herself for the first time, and irrepressible, hysterical laughter boiled up within her. Her clothes were… she was… "How is this even… Am I… am I some sort of magical girl?"
"I suppose you could call it magic," said the voice, "though it is a trivial word for the power you wield."
"Who are you?"
"Call me Sakaki. I am your guide. Come to me and we shall talk properly."
"To the shrine. To the place where you found the medallion."
"But there was nothing there."
"I was there. And I am waiting there still. Come."
By the time Akemi reached the shrine, it was fully dark. Akemi raced up the steps and plunged into the trees without a pause. She almost laughed at the darkness: it didn't scare her any more. Not now she knew how to fight it. She caught a glint of light in the undergrowth, the glimmer of a cat's eyes. She wondered if it was the white cat. Seems like it had led her to adventure after all.
This time she had no trouble finding the clearing, but as she came to a stop and looked around she couldn't see anyone there.
"I am here."
Sakaki's voice was right behind her. Akemi spun around, startled, but all she saw was the tree she'd climbed to try and rescue the kitten. There was no-one hiding behind it, or up in its branches… at least, no-one human-sized.
"Are you a talking cat?" she blurted out.
"What?" Sakaki sounded affronted. "A cat? Me? Don't be ridiculous!"
"You call that ridiculous?" Akemi put her hands on her hips and peered around at the shadows. "Come out, then. I can't see you."
"You are not looking, Sol. I am right in front of you."
There was a faint glow in the clearing, like the glow that had surrounded her in the park, but this time its source was the tree in front of her. The light was so faint it could almost be mistaken for reflected starlight, but it clustered like blossoms among the leaves. The branches were moving as if stirred by a heavy breeze, though the air around her was still. All the other trees were motionless, not a leaf twitching. As Akemi stared, the whole trunk of the tree bent towards her, slowly and gracefully, in something like a bow.
"How," she said after a long moment, "is a talking tree any less ridiculous than a talking cat?"
"I am not a talking tree," said the talking tree indignantly. "I am a wandering spirit whose anchor to this realm happens to be this sacred sakaki in the grove of the Honmori Shrine."
"Can you be in something else?"
"No, I cannot move around at will--"
"… so you're basically a tree. Who is talking to me. Right now. A talking tree."
Akemi started to giggle. She couldn't help herself.
"I am not--" Sakaki paused. When she spoke again she sounded, for the first time, less formal, and even faintly amused. "Oh, as you please. Will you listen to what the talking tree has to say?"
The giggling turned into outright laughter. "I can't believe this is happening!" She paused as a new thought occurred. "Wait, you were here the whole time? When I came back with Hana?"
"As we have established, I cannot exactly uproot myself and walk away."
"Why didn't you say something?" Akemi demanded. "I knew I was supposed to come back here! I came all the way and you just sat there! I thought I was going crazy!"
"I am sorry. I could not speak in front of your friend."
"Why not? She's going to love this!"
"You cannot possibly think of revealing your secret to her!" Sakaki's voice was sharp with real alarm. "For heaven's sake, Sol, try and take this seriously!"
"I'm a magical girl! You're a talking tree! There is nothing serious about anything that is going on here!"
Sakaki started to retort, paused, and seemed to reconsider.
"What is a manga?" she asked.
Akemi blinked. "What?"
"You mentioned it before, when you thought this was a game."
"It's, uh… it's a kind of book. Only, it's mostly pictures rather than words." Akemi tried to think how to explain the concept of a comic to someone who hadn't seen one. "It's a story, anyway. And I usually… read the ones where someone ordinary turns out to have special powers. Like… this."
All at once it was crashing in on her how impossible this all was. Her legs felt wobbly. She sat down abruptly on the ground.
"I can't believe this is happening," she said again, quietly.
Sakaki's leaves began to rustle as if blown in a steady breeze. The sound was very soothing, and a little like the noise of the sea.
"You are a child of a world that has long turned its back on the old ways," Sakaki said gently. "This must be very strange for you. Stranger than it has been in the past."
"In the past? What do you mean?"
Sakaki seemed to hesitate, but only for a moment.
"There have been other Guardians before you… many others. With every handful of hundred years, the world turns in a certain way and the Infernal Multitude begins to stir and wake once more. And when those times come, I too awaken from the dreaming sleep of the forests, and begin my search for… for new Guardians, to hold back the darkness."
"And I'm one of them?"
"Yes. I have… chosen you to be the new Guardian Sol, the leader of the Celestial Guard."
"Leader? Me?" Akemi shook her head. "That's… I mean… that's a lot of responsibility! I don't know what to do!"
"That is why I am here, to guide you."
"What did you call those shadow things? The eternal what-itude?"
"The Infernal Multitude. The shadow-men are known as Spectres. They are not mindless, but not particularly intelligent, either. They follow orders."
"They are led by the Archdukes."
"And the Archdukes are--- wait, I can't keep track of all this."
Akemi reached for her pocket automatically, then realised that she didn't have a pocket, and she definitely didn't have her phone to make notes on. All she had were her keys. She hadn't even gone back into the apartment for a coat. For the first time she looked at herself properly.
She'd thought she was wearing a skirt, but she realised now it was a sort of tunic, sleeveless, deep red and flared from the waist, with a belt and trim in contrasting orange. Most of her body was swathed in a thick, white, stretchy material like a whole-body pair of leggings. She tugged at it, curious. It didn't feel like the artificial fibres she was used to, and it was pleasant against her skin. She wasn't cold, despite the lack of a coat. She also wore boots and gloves in the same deep red, with the same orange trim. There was a little weight on her shoulders; turning her head, she could see what looked like glass beads set in the same shiny golden metal as the medallion.
She put her hands behind her back, feeling around her waist with a frown. Sakaki, who had apparently been waiting for her to continue speaking, said curiously, "What are you doing?"
"Trying to see if I have some sort of enormous ribbon back here." Akemi jumped to her feet and spun around. "Do I?"
"No," said Sakaki, sounding faintly bemused. "It's certainly an interesting take on the livery."
"Livery. The clothes you wear. The Celestial Guard have always borne their traditional colours, but the medallions contain a power to alter your guise according to the world you live in."
"Really?" Akemi cast a skeptical glance at herself. "I mean, wouldn't a military uniform have made more sense?"
"It has often been one in the past. But it responds to you and your conception of what such garb should look like."
"… so I look like a magical girl because I think I should look like a magical girl?"
"That's… kind of embarrassing."
"I think you look fine," said Sakaki encouragingly. "There can certainly be no doubt of your allegiance. The Multitude will learn to fear you."
"Right, the Multitude. Those… Spectres, what do they want? What are they trying to do?"
"They seek souls that stand out from the rest."
"To, uh… do what, exactly?"
"Oh." Akemi shuddered. "So that knife…"
"A ritual implement designed to extract the soul without damaging it. The Archdukes collect the brightest souls to gain their power."
"Yes." Sakaki shifted her leaves again. There was something very human about the movement, even though Akemi couldn't have mapped it to any expression she could name. "Unfortunately, the Celestial Guard has never managed to completely destroy them. They always come back, but the more we hurt them, the longer they must slumber. They have slowly been growing in power for the last year…"
"A year?" exclaimed Akemi. "Why didn't you find some Guardians sooner?"
"I don't have any control over when and how the power surfaces," Sakaki said. "You are the first I have found, but I believe others will begin to awaken soon. I already sense the stirrings of other bright souls nearby."
"Yeah, I bet you do." Akemi grinned. "Hana's one of them, right?"
The smile dropped off Akemi's face. "What?"
"She does not have the potential."
"But… why not?"
"I told you, I have no control over where and how new Guardians awaken."
"That… that isn't fair."
"No," said Sakaki, and there was something in her voice that made Akemi go still. "It is not fair. It has never been fair, that you must fight the darkness so that she and her kind may continue to live in ignorance and safety. I am sorry."
"Wait, what? Are you kidding? This is awesome!" Akemi shook away the chill that Sakaki's words had brought over her. "This is, this is it, you know? This is the point. I was starting to think… there wasn't one. There wasn't a point. In anything. But now there is. And, and if I can keep Hana safe, then of course I'll do anything I need to! Hana, and everyone else!"
"I would expect nothing less," Sakaki said after a pause. There was a sadness in her voice that Akemi didn't understand. "But you must find allies as soon as possible. It is dangerous for you to fight alone."
"But… where do I look?"
"I do not yet know. I sense the bright souls as they begin to stir, but I cannot tell which are potential Guardians until they fully awaken. When I gain a stronger sense of another soul, I will tell you where to go - the mirror inside your crest serves as a means of communication between us. But for now… you must be careful, and stay hidden. Do not let them find you again. Do not return to your home in Guard colours, and do not ever change your form where others can see you."
"Okay, I… wait, what time is it?"
"Now, how do you expect me to answer that?" Sakaki asked in some exasperation. "I live by the stars and the rising of the sun. It is night, it is not late…"
"It's late enough… Mom will be home soon! And I'm supposed to be sick… if she gets back and I'm not there…"
"You had better be there," Sakaki said. "You must not cause people to ask too many questions…"
"Right, right! I'm going!" Akemi bolted for the edge of the clearing, then paused. "Wait, how do I make the-- the livery go away?"
"Do the opposite of what you did to transform."
Akemi struggled to recall the feeling of stepping through and what that would be like backwards, but… all she could think of was getting home in time to avoid the unthinkable scenario of explaining to Izumi why she'd run off in the dark without her phone or her bag, and worse, trying to lie…
"I'll figure it out! And I'll come back when I can!" She ran into the trees, calling back over her shoulder, "and I'll bring you a clock!"
The clearing was silent after she left. Sakaki rearranged her branches, and the faint glow fell from them like rain, but whatever she was thinking, this time she did not voice it even to the empty sky.
Shoichi woke suddenly, as if he'd heard a noise, but everything was quiet inside and outside the house. Not even the neighbour's pomeranian was barking. He sat up slowly and put a hand to his forehead. The skin was cool. Why had he thought it might be hot? He'd been dreaming, and the dream… he couldn't remember it, but it had the quality of delirium, packed with intense and desperate emotions he couldn't place in his waking life.
There'd been a voice, he thought. But he couldn't quite remember…
You are awakening.
… what it had been saying.
He shook himself, and lay back down. Dreams were just dreams, and he had a test in the morning.