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Absolute Cruelty

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Chapter One

"Choose your words carefully."

Tightening his hold on his bookbag, Tezuka Kunimitsu followed his peers along the sidewalk, all headed for the same place. The crowded, busy walkways had been left behind over ten minutes ago with a turn onto the wide path leading towards their destination. Already the murmur of urban traffic was hard to make out, drowned by the silence of the forest and the chatter of the students.

"I'm already nervous," Oishi chuckled, walking alongside his friend. Like the rest, he was dressed in the uniform of Tengoku Gakuen - an elite boarding school that churned out successful men and women every year.

Tengoku Gakuen was Japan's most elite high school, but a unique existence unto itself. While its curriculum could run for the three full years like other senior high schools, Tengoku students only attended for one year - then graduated and went on to a school of their choosing, and then into their desired career field. Most - if not all - Tengoku graduates boasted highly-successful careers and influential positions in the government. It was for this reason many applied for Tengoku, going through rigorous exams - both academically-based and physically-based - in hopes of being accepted. However, Tengoku only accepted a very small number of applicants, the number never greater than 700 students. It was a school of equal opportunity: gender and the financial situation of a student were never considered. Financial aid was offered to those who could not afford the school fees, and no matter how rich, attendance could not be bought.

Tezuka had taken the exam at the urging of his family; like any good parent, his mother and father wanted him to get into the best high school. Although no one in his family had ever attended Tengoku Gakuen, Tezuka scored high enough in national exams that they felt he had a good chance of getting in.

Oishi was a similar case, although he likely wouldn't have taken the exam if Tezuka hadn't. He had been surprised at his acceptance, but then again - they had been part of a highly-seeded tennis team back in junior high school. Both had been attending the attached senior high school, but found their tennis club lacking - in both talent and manners. It only figured their bullies from junior high would continue harassing them even after Tezuka and Oishi had proven themselves talented on a tennis court.

"We're lucky to be in the same class, ne, Tezuka?" Oishi smiled, looking relieved.

Tezuka glanced down at their matching badges. Each student had been given a badge once their acceptance letter had been sent, with a pamphlet explaining exactly how dormitories, grades, and classes were divided.

Tengoku Gakuen had 12 Sections, each with its own dormitory. Sections were divided by grade, so each grade had their own Wing of the school. Tezuka and Oishi had been assigned to Section Three, known as Seigaku; their badges were metallic, shaped almost like a six-pointed star with a blue outline. In bold white, their badges were labelled 'S-3', designating them as Seigaku third years. From what Tezuka remembered from the informational pamphlet, the eleven other Sections were, starting from Section One: Rikkaidai (R-), Hyoutei (HY-), Shitenhouji (SH-), Higa (H-), Yamabuki (Y-), Midoriyama (M-), Jyosei Shounan (JS-), Rokkaku (RK-), Fudoumine (F-), Saint Rudolph (SR-), and Ginka (G-).

"They said our belongings were already brought to our dorms, right?" Oishi mused, double-checking his schedule like he hadn't just done it five minutes ago. Tezuka only nodded, letting his best friend fret; Oishi would only calm down once they reached their classroom, he knew from experience. They'd been told to head to class first for the first day - no assembly, no getting settled in their dormitories. It was clear Tengoku Gakuen took education seriously.

Oishi paused, gazing up with wide eyes at their new school. Tezuka stopped next to him, also letting his gaze rest upon the place he would spend the next year. Tengoku Gakuen had obviously not just been named pompously; the grounds were idyllic, made as close as possible to symbolize paradise.

Rich, green grass stretched for kilometers around the school, as thick forests and high walls maintained the barrier between the school and the city. The school itself was some kind of combination between white marble and pale plaster; the main building was three stories high, circular and colossal in appearance. Pathways wound around it, leading towards three different one-story buildings that jutted from the sides of the main building like wings. All were white in color, a startling contrast to the dark green of the grass and the multicolored hues of the flowers that surrounded each structure. Tall trees offered shade along the pathways, occasionally interspersed with stone benches.

"This way, Oishi," Tezuka said, starting ahead and breaking Oishi out of his reverent trance. They could admire the school's beauty later, as far as Tezuka was concerned; right now, they needed to focus on finding their classroom. Each wing of the school was for a designated grade, and each held twelve classrooms. Tezuka didn't want to get caught in human traffic in the hallways if he could help it.

Tezuka was relieved to note that at least the inside of the school building looked normal. Just plain tile flooring that ran straight from one end to the other. There were six classrooms on each side of the hallway, labelled with overhanging signs that proclaimed the Section name and grade level.

Seigaku was third from the entrance. Tezuka stepped through the door, quietly followed by Oishi; those near the door glanced their way in curiosity, but overall their entrance was ignored. There were about 15 people already in the classroom, some already sitting in desks, the rest sort of milling about and meeting each other. It was a comfortable atmosphere, to Oishi's relief. He cheerfully followed Tezuka down the rows, looking for the desks that held their names. Tezuka's desk was a window seat, while Oishi's was two rows in front of him. Tezuka sat in his seat, checking over his desk while his friend set about unpacking his own school supplies.

The smiling brunette next to Tezuka turned to him in interest. "You're lucky to have such a nice view," the boy greeted good-naturedly.

Tezuka nodded in agreement. "I didn't expect the school to look like this," he admitted.

"I suppose they wanted to live up to the name," the boy chuckled. "I'm Fuji Syuusuke, by the way. This will actually be my first time in a boarding school..."

"Tezuka Kunimitsu. It's my first time as well," Tezuka returned in kind.

Fuji's smile grew. "I'm glad I get to share a First Time with you, then, Tezuka. I hope we can share many Firsts together."

Tezuka stared back at him, face blank. Something about that last statement sounded off, but he couldn't place what. As Fuji only began to laugh softly, Tezuka resolved that it'd likely be better he not find out.

"Hoi hoi! Nice to meet you, Oishi~!"

At the loud exclamation, Tezuka glanced over to the redhead who had practically draped himself around his best friend's shoulders. Oishi was blushing vividly but smiling, so Tezuka felt no need to step in; it only figured Oishi would make a friend right away.

"Saa... Eiji," Fuji perked up, catching the redhead's attention. "You have a new friend already?"

"Of course, nya!" the redhead grinned, throwing up a peace sign. "Oishi, that's my best friend Fujiko-chan! Fujiko-chan, this is Oishi, nya! He's super-nice and he gave me candy!"

Tezuka's eyes narrowed. "Candy?"

Oishi avoided looking anywhere near Tezuka, guilty smile on his lips.

"This is my new friend Tezuka," Fuji introduced cheerfully. "Tezuka, that's Kikumaru Eiji. And you already know Oishi, don't you? I saw you come in together," Fuji explained at Oishi's curious look.

"We've been friends since junior high," Oishi said. "We decided to try and apply here after our school enviornment became unfavorable."

"Same here, nya," Kikumaru groused. "Fujiko-chan moved away, so I just couldn't stand school anymore!"

Fuji nodded, amused. "He forced me to take the exam to Tengoku Gakuen, hoping we'd both get in."

"The probability of being able to get in with a friend," a new voice interrupted drolly, "Is only 15 percent."

Tezuka wondered what was making them so popular. A tall youth with spiky black hair and square-framed glasses towered nearby but wasn't really looking at them; his attention was reserved for the green notebook he was writing in. At his side was a brunette with gentle eyes and a timid disposition, although he gave them a friendly smile.

"Inui, you shouldn't just jump into conversations," the brunette chided amiably. He turned to the others with a weak grin. "Sorry about him - he's kind of a strange guy..."

"I do not think Taka-san has any right to call me strange," Inui muttered audibly.

The brunette rubbed the back of his neck in an embarrassed gesture, "I'm really sorry about bumping into you earlier, you know."

"There's no need for apologies after you already explained the situation," Inui allowed matter-of-factly. The bespectacled youth turned his attention back to the others. "I'm Inui Sadaharu."

"Kawamura Takashi, but everyone usually just calls me Taka," Kawamura added brightly.

After another round of introductions - Inui writing all the names down with a low murmur of "Ii data..." - they chatted a bit more. An unusual bunch, to be sure, but Tezuka knew he was hardly normal by any standard. His usual emotionless face had earned him more than a few odd looks, but the other boys didn't seem very bothered by it.

The class had filled up at this point, numbering 30 students in total. Most were sitting in their desks, engaging their neighbors in conversation or busying themselves with their school materials.

The door slammed open, silence immediately descending as a woman in a pink jumpsuit stalked in. Her graying, chestnut brown hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she stood at the front of the class with a scowl as she surveyed them. Those who had been walking around rushed back to their seats, every eye on the woman in wary anticipation.

"So this is everyone?" she mused, mostly to herself. "I am Ryuuzaki, your homeroom teacher. Everyone needs to take out either a pencil or pen; I'm going to be handing out a strip of paper to each of you," she instructed briskly.

Showcased in her hands was once such paper; it was stark white, only about 10 centimeters long and 5 centimeters wide. "On this paper, you are to write only one word. This word will be your strength, your power, your weapon; it is the only thing that will decide whether you survive this year," Ryuuzaki continued, passing out the papers. "Decide for yourself, and choose your word carefully. Words can be powerful things."

Silence elapsed in the classroom as each student concentrated on the task at hand. Tezuka stared down at his own paper in consideration. One word to represent his strength? What would be the best weapon in a school? He could not be careless about this question - especially with the way Ryuuzaki-sensei was acting. Obviously his answer would be important, on some level or another.

'Concentration', Tezuka decided. He would not let his guard down.

Fuji smiled at him, having already finished. 'Change', his own paper read.

Oishi would be visibly fretting, if he wasn't thinking so hard about his own answer. A strength? Oishi didn't know if he had any strengths. He had wishes and desires, goals and dreams - but strengths? He remembered how weak and powerless he had felt at school, unable to protect himself or Tezuka from the bullies' attention. He remembered how useless he was when an upperclassman had hurt Tezuka's arm. Oishi hadn't wanted revenge for his friend - he was innately gentle, after all. He'd only wanted to help Tezuka. Oishi even made the decision to become a doctor just so he could help the injured and the helpless.

So Oishi would answer with what he wanted to do, for both himself and others: 'Heal'.

Inui's answer had been quick and easy: 'Data'. His only weapon.

Kikumaru, meanwhile, thought this entire exercise was stupid. A one-word answer for his strengths? He had plenty of strengths, thank you very much! He was athletic, flexible, and cute to top it all off! He began to doodle instead, a ridiculous little image of a hissing cat. He wrote down 'Cat', too, just so he could point it out later as an excuse that he did the assignment when he would inevitably be chided about it.

Kawamura frowned. Did making sushi count as a strength? Even if it did, he doubted he could get away with simply saying 'sushi' as an answer. With a mental shrug, he decided to go with the word he always yelled when he was riled: 'Burning'.

Ryuuzaki looked out the wide windows, the scowl on her face deepening. She knew that there wasn't much time left. She could already see the symbol for the Door drawing its lines along the empty Courtyard. She turned back to the class, most looking around at each other boredly, waiting for her next instruction.

"Is everyone done?" she barked out. "Now, say that word out loud!"

They all did, a low murmur of different words being spoken aloud resounding for a brief moment. Tezuka flinched back in surprise when, after saying his own word, the paper exploded in front of him. He controlled his wince as a brief sensation of pain sliced at his wrist, looking at the underside of his arm with narrowed eyes.

Fuji's eyes had opened at the small explosions, the residual smoke disappearing almost immediately. Transfixed, he stared at his wrist; there, staining his skin as if it had been there all along, was the word 'CHANGE'.

"What the-!"

"What is this?"

"Sensei, what was that?"

As the students exclaimed, many standing in terror, Ryuuzaki looked on boredly. "I hope you've chosen your words carefully. They will be the only things that stand between you and death."

Ryuuzaki stared at them all, eyes dark and mouth frowning. "This school stands on the precipice between the holy and the sinful. You were chosen - the best of the ambitious - and now you will have to prove yourself to the gods."

She pointed out the windows without looking. The entire Courtyard had been flooded full with strange symbols, and from those symbols arose monsters: hulking beasts the size of lions, grayish-white in the sunlight with mouths wide enough to bite a person into halves, where rows of vicious, razor-sharp teeth lined in an indefinite amount. They had no discernible eyes or noses - faceless, save for their mouths - and they moved quickly as they began to descend upon the school.

"You will now prove yourself in battle!" Ryuuzaki shouted, amongst the growing terror shown across most of the students' faces. "Fight with all your power, or you will die here and now!"

"This is insane!" one boy cried out.

"I never heard anything about this!"

"What are those things?"

"Go outside and fight," Ryuuzaki intoned coldly. "Even if you stay here, you won't be safe."

The same symbols scarring the Courtyard began to draw themselves along the floors and walls of the classroom. The students - those who had remained, in any case; some had already fled after Ryuuzaki's first command - began to rush towards the door. Oishi followed Tezuka out, pulling along a crying Kikumaru; Fuji, Inui, and Kawamura trailed after them. All ran down the hallway and into the Courtyard.

What met them outside was a bloody battlefield.

It seemed most of the students had been given the same instructions they had. Many tried for the walls, attempting to climb over; others dodged and ran away from the monsters as the beasts hunted; some had even begun to fight the monsters in earnest, with weapons that shouldn't have been available. Bodies torn apart littered the grass; some bitten right in half, others missing limbs or chunks of flesh.

"I don't understand what's going on!" Oishi cried out, stricken. Kikumaru was clutched to the youth's side, blue eyes wide as they took in the carnage.

Suddenly Fuji pivoted, rushing towards another wing.

"Fuji?" Kawamura shouted after the slender youth.

"My brother!" Fuji yelled back without stopping. "Yuuta is a second year!"

The brunette disappeared around a corner before the others could even react. Tezuka glanced over his peers; Oishi and Kikumaru were shocked still, Kawamura was staring down the path Fuji had gone, and Inui was keeping an eye on the monsters.

"We must keep moving," Inui said. "We're easy targets if we stay still."

Aside from Tezuka, the others didn't appear to have heard him. Tezuka nodded once, grabbing a hold of Oishi's arm and pulling his friend along. The others were quick to follow, susceptible to trailing any lead. Tezuka knew he'd have to lead them for now - the others weren't in any fit mental state to do so themselves.

"The entrance?" Inui mused aloud, recognizing the path Tezuka was treading.

"Escape is our only option right now," Tezuka answered. He could spot the path that would lead them through the forest and to the entrance of the school. If they could just make it through the forest, then surely they'd be safe once they'd left school grounds. He'd have tried to climb the walls like the other students, except the symbols began to appear there as well, monsters sprouting and devouring any climbers.

"The forest is going to be tricky," Inui pointed out.

Kawamura grimaced, "I don't think we have a choice, though."

"It won't work."

Kikumaru shrieked as one of the beasts collapsed nearby, a snake that had formerly been coiled around its neck - fangs having been sunk into the flesh - slithering off and towards a boy standing two meters away from them. His face and eyes were narrow, and a green bandana covered his black hair. Snakes were coiled at his feet - about seven in total - while one was coiled on his right arm. The badge on his uniform was that of a Seigaku second year.

"If you go through the entrance, you only end up back in the courtyard," the boy explained with a hiss. He glanced them over critically. "You haven't unlocked your Words?"

"How do you do that?" Kawamura asked worriedly.

"Just think about how you want to use your Word," the boy explained quickly, eyes locking on to another approaching monster. Two snakes started towards it with loud hisses, but the beast was intercepted by a spiky-haired boy with a loud cry of "Don!" The monster abruptly exploded into a crimson smear across the lawn.

"Think about how you want it to manifest," the boy continued. "If you don't have an image in mind, it could backlash."

Inui looked ready to question the boy on what a backlash could entail, but then a symbol appeared on a patch of grass only a meter from their position. Kikumaru practically shrieked - then, in the blink of an eye, a red-haired cat was in Oishi's arms. It trembled pitifully in the teen's embrace, wide blue eyes peering up at Oishi in fear.

"Kikumaru isn't going to be much help in that form," Inui said calmly.

Oishi frowned, holding the shaking cat closer to his chest. The male's fear had made him calmer, it seemed; he now had something to keep safe, after all. "I'll protect you, Kikumaru. Don't worry."

Tezuka was having his own problems. How do I make 'concentration' a weapon?

Inui frowned; he knew how to use data, but how would he manifest it? And exactly how would it help him to fight?

Another monster exploded in a mess of body parts. The snake boy whipped around to glare at the grinning teen who had pretty much been running a perimeter around them. "Dammit, you peach-idiot! The point of a safe perimeter is to keep the area inside safe!"

"Shut the hell up, Viper! It's not my fault the signs are opening inside your precious little perimeter!" the other boy yelled back indignantly. His badge also showed he was a Seigaku second year, and Inui was able to catch sight of the word printed on his wrist: 'BOMB'.

That explains the explosions, Inui recounted. No wonder the younger boy had been making throwing motions. What it didn't explain was why the boy had put down 'bomb' for his chosen Word. Someone who had no idea what was going to occur shouldn't know to choose an actual weapon.

I need to focus, Inui mused to himself. As long as they were in the perimeter, they were as safe as they could get. He needed to use his chosen Word somehow. Right now, what he needed was data on the monsters - so that's what he would focus on. All he needed was a medium...

Go with what you know, Inui decided. He imagined the green notebook he usually kept on his person - he had left the original in the classroom in his haste to escape. He imagined the weight of it in his hands, the jade-green color of the cover, the smell of paper and ink. Soon enough, it appeared in his hands; an exact replica of the original.

Inui opened it. "They're called the 'Hunt'. Carnivorous creatures that can tear off limbs with one bite. They're as fast as a human being, but three times more powerful. Not very bright and most attacks will work against them," he read aloud. "They are especially susceptible to fire."

"How do you know that?" Oishi asked, splattered with the guts of a monster that had gotten too close.

Inui smiled at the notebook in his hands, "DATA."

"How useful!" the bomb-boy exclaimed. "Is that why these things catch fire so easily? Why didn't you know that, Kaidoh?"

Kaidoh glared over at him. "Because I chose 'SNAKES' as my Word, not 'DATA'!" the boy hissed.

Kawamura frowned at the word on his arm. "How do I manifest this...?"

Tezuka could completely sympathize. At least Kawamura could have a tangible action; 'burning' was much easier to see happen than 'concentration'. Oishi was considering his own word. He knew he couldn't use it as an attack, but at least he knew a use for it - he just hoped the others were never in a position where he needed to use it.

"Figure it out quickly, senpai!" the spiky haired youth cheered. "Or you'll die~!"

"That is a horrible thing to say!" Oishi snapped.

"We're going, Momoshirou!" Kaidoh said decisively, giving his upperclassmen a polite nod. "There are others who need help. Try to fight."

With that, the two juniors left - hissing snakes and minor explosions trailing them. "This lowers are offensive capabilities by 95 percent," Inui said, adjusting his glasses. Kikumaru mewled sadly, looking at his weak little claws - those weren't going to hurt anything.

"It's coming!" Oishi cried out, jumping back from the symbol that began to appear beneath their feet. Two more appeared around them in a semicircle, then a fourth prowled forth from the forest path.

Oishi cradled Kikumaru carefully, the cat digging his claws painfully into the teen's chest and arms. Inui closed his notebook, scanning the area carefully in case an escape route popped up. Tezuka traded a look with Kawamura; the teen marked with 'BURNING' ground his teeth together.

It's now or never! Kawamura decided, rushing forward and grabbing a fallen branch. Something in the gentle teen's eyes changed; he waved around the branch haphazardly, a wide, maniacal grin splitting his lips.

"BURNING GREAT-O!" Kawamura shouted, charging forward and slamming a hand against one of the monsters' skin. "LET'S FIGHT!"

The beast caught fire instantly. Tezuka moved forward at that point, kicking the scorching beast towards another and watching that one be set aflame. Kawamura had already moved on to the one from the forest, punching it through the mouth and sending a column of fire down its throat. Inui pulled Tezuka back just as the last monster lurched forward for a bite. Kawamura pivoted, charging towards the creature with a battle cry and smacking a fist in its featureless face, causing fire to race down its spine.

"Kawamura displays a more aggressive personality when holding something," Inui explained. "I suppose this trait helped him to break down his mental barriers and unlock the power of his Word."

"How impressive," Oishi murmured weakly.

Kawamura dropped the stick, his more modest personality resurfacing. "Is everyone okay?"

Then his arm caught fire.

Kawamura collapsed with a scream of pain. The others moved forward, holding the other male down as he thrashed about. The fire was strange - the flame was pure white - and it burned for only a few seconds before disappearing. Kawamura's arm was burnt and bloody, his fingers twitching from the damage. Most of his arm was blistering, the heavy stench of burned flesh filling the air.

"Those are second-degree burns," Oishi recognized, nearly recoiling. "We have to call an ambulance!"

"I doubt such services are provided," Inui told him dryly. "Since we're in the middle of being massacred."

At least now they knew what Kaidoh meant by backlash - using the power with no clear manifestation in mind obviously had terrible results. Tezuka examined the injury carefully. "Oishi - can you use your Word to help him?"

Oishi frowned, but slowly gave a nod. "I just need to think of a medium for it, right?" the boy mused. From what he knew of burns, the only way to help with a burn of such a degree and over such a large area was to wrap it in moist gauze - he needed a bandage.

"Imagine what you need," Inui instructed. "Taste, texture, smell, color - recall every sense and let your desire for the power of your Word take root."

Oishi did as instructed: the soft, moist fabric of the bandage, the sterile smell of it, the pale sheen of its material. He held a hand over Kawamura's wounded appendage; slowly, gauze emerged from the space between, twining around the injured area and settling masterfully over it. Kawamura's previously pained expression settled into relieved curiosity as the pain left, pleasant numbness settling in its stead.

Oishi released his power with a sigh. "Does it feel better, Taka-san?"

"Y-Yeah!" Kawamura said, blinking in astonishment. So this was the power of 'HEAL'!

"We should start running," Tezuka said, standing and peering around. Screams could still be heard echoing from all over the school grounds, but the nearest monster was over seven kilometers away and appeared to be struggling to bite a magenta-haired boy floating above its head. "At least if we're on the move, we'll be harder to catch."

The others nodded, helping Kawamura to his feet - though he assured them he didn't need it. Just as the quintet began to head in the direction of the freshmen's wing, the symbols in the ground began to disappear. Every monster - or monster part - dissolved away into the air without a trace. Previously shattered windows or broken objects - desks and doors alike - returned to their former states, unscarred.

All the blood and corpses remained.

 

_

They'd gathered around the fountain in the Courtyard. The water itself was a dark pink; that was no surprise, considering a Ginka second year's limbless torso had been floating in it before the Cleaners had taken it away. As it was, the uniformed employees were methodically retrieving the bodies and other assorted limbs from the grounds. The occasional student would clamor around them, beseeching them for help, but were soon chased off by either the employees themselves - who were armed - or a teacher.

"Shouldn't you go to the Nurse's Office, Taka-san?" Kikumaru asked, huddled at Oishi's side. He was once again in human form, although he had yet to stop trembling or release his vice-grip on Oishi's arm. For his part, Oishi didn't seem to mind; he apparently craved as much comfort as Kikumaru did right now. The two were seated next to Kawamura on the rim of the fountain as Tezuka and Inui remained standing on either side; all five were watching the corpse retrieval solemnly.

"There's not much more they can do for me that Oishi hasn't already done," Kawamura deferred. "Besides, I'm rather scared of what a Nurse's Office would be like in this place..." he added to himself in a mutter.

The Courtyard - mostly cleared of corpses at this point - had students milling about here and there, undeterred by the wet grass. (The lawn had been watered down in order to get rid of the stains of red, but it still smelled like death to all present.) It was a mixed crowd walking about now; all grades and Sections mingled, clumping together in groups either from past relations or forged in battle.

Tezuka felt uneasy. Even now, he could see that freshmen were in the precious few; there were only two or three visible in the Courtyard, talking to their upperclassmen but eyes nervously darting around as if waiting for another attack. Tezuka felt just as paranoid himself, to be honest.

"Fuji!" Kikumaru yelped, shooting to his feet and rushing forward to the slender brunette who had exited the Seniors' Wing. The youth looked to be unharmed, but his smile was gone - yet that was only natural. Tezuka might have smacked him if he'd dared to look undisturbed by what had just happened. The boy's eyes were closed, though, but that was probably normal for the teen.

"Eiji," Fuji greeted in honest relief. He shared a hug with the redhead, who sniffled into his shoulder. "I'm glad you're alright."

"Don't ever leave me again!" Kikumaru sobbed.

"I'm sorry, Eiji," Fuji soothed.

Kikumaru pulled back, hands gripping his friend's arms. "Is Yuuta okay?"

"Yes," Fuji said. "I managed to find him ten minutes before It stopped; he was with a few others, fighting like a team."

"Excellent teamwork makes it 35 percent more likely to survive a battle," Inui added monotonously.

Kawamura held his injured arm gingerly, "Sounds like a good plan to me."

Ryuuzaki entered the Courtyard, eyes sweeping over the area and taking into account the survivors. All of the students stopped to give her their full attention, regardless of grade or Section:

A group of nine Hyoutei students - one the magenta-haired boy who could fly - made of three juniors and six seniors paused in the middle of their chat.

Seven Rikkaidai seniors and one junior stopped in their trek towards their dorm, all wearing indifferent or amused expressions.

Two juniors from Yamabuki, who had been harassing one of the Cleaners, glared over at the teacher in open distrust.

A trio of Midoriyama seniors were experimenting with their new powers, phasing their weapons in and out for practice.

The most startling group to Tezuka, however, were the mixed-Section freshmen huddled under the shade of a tree. Six in total: two boys and two girls from Seigaku, one boy from Yamabuki, and another boy from Rokkaku. What looked to be the leader of the little group - with the way the others crowded around him - was a lithe teen with dark green hair and golden eyes. They were close enough to the fountain that Tezuka was surprised he hadn't noticed their arrival sooner.

"Congratulations on surviving," Ryuuzaki started, and it was hard to tell if she was being mocking or not - she was still frowning. "Today was just the First Trial. From now on, the Trials will happen often and test everyone! Until graduation next year, you will have to participate - I only hope everyone survives until then."

Ryuuzaki gave the silent students an all-encompassing stare, "That is all. Welcome to Tengoku Gakuen."

The woman turned and strode away. A few of the students began to protest and follow her out, but Tezuka had already returned his attention to the freshmen group. Against logic, the youngest of the three grades present seemed completely unsurprised - and unusually high-spirited, if one girl's flirtatious smile was anything to go by.

"Welcome to Paradise."

If it hadn't been for the two groups' close proximity, Tezuka would have missed it. As it was, Tezuka and his friends could make out every word that came from the golden-eyed freshman's mouth. The boy glanced over at them, considering each silently before giving them a small smirk. There was something predatory in the younger boy's eyes, a sort of innate power that made the hairs along the back of Tezuka's neck stand on end.

"Well," the freshman added candidly. "A paradise on hearsay, a hell on sight."

Then, without another word, he turned and left in the direction of the Seigaku dorm - the other freshmen eagerly shadowing his steps.

"The freshmen seem a little odd," Kawamura murmured.

Tezuka tried to convince himself that the monsters were gone, not that they'd merely changed form.

_

Day 1

Enrolled Students: 525

Deceased Students: 117

Students Remaining: 408

-


聞いて極楽見て地獄。

"A paradise on hearsay, a hell on sight."

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

"Every small advantage counts."

The Seigaku dormitories were as beautiful as the rest of campus, and Tezuka couldn't help but feel as if it was merely to lure them into a false sense of security. The building was three stories tall, made of stark white bricks that glittered in the light and modeled after medieval European structures. The roofs were of white paneled wood, the sides of the house swallowed up by flowering shrubs, tall trees, and creeping vines. The lush green of the lawn reached around the dormitory, the path towards the entrances made of cobbled stones and smooth pavement.

It was breathtaking. Tezuka wondered if he'd die there.

The inside was as warm and welcoming as the outside belied. The hallways were made of light-colored planks of wood, the walls a cream-color offset with the occasional painting (usually of fruit or scenery). The Seigaku third years checked out the first floor; one communal bathroom, a study room, and a large commons room. The study had several tables accompanied by armchairs, each desk area with its own lamp. The commons area held several sofas and plush armchairs - colored either blue or black - with interspersing white tables. Board games were stacked along the shelves that lined one wall, while another section of the room was dedicated to a pool table, a foosball table, and table tennis.

"The dorms are upstairs, then," Kawamura said, sounding tired. Tezuka felt exhausted as well, but he didn't think he'd be getting any sleep tonight - he could feel the adrenaline running through his system, paranoia and fear making him alert. Both Oishi and Kikumaru looked ready to collapse, however, while Inui just looked bored. Fuji was still missing his customary smile but otherwise didn't look fatigued.

"What's everyone's room number?" Oishi asked, as the group trudged up towards the second floor.

"Room 214," Kikumaru answered softly.

"214, too," Oishi returned with a smile to the redhead. "Looks like we're roommates."

Kikumaru looked visibly happy about that.

"307," Fuji said. "I guess that means I'm on the third floor."

"I am as well," Tezuka added, "Room 315."

"202," Kawamura put in.

"227," Inui said with a frown.

There was a loud bark of laughter, startling the six teens as they finished climbing the stairs. They recognized the lithe male standing in the alcove of the stairway, grinning at them in open amusement. He was the spiky-haired second year in control of the word 'BOMB' - Momoshirou, if Inui remembered correctly. Momoshirou was looking straight at the 'DATA'-controller, violet eyes practically glittering in mirth.

"You're really in room 227?" the junior cackled. "Then you're Viper's roommate!"

Inui adjusted his glasses, fascinated. "The boy who could control snakes?"

Momoshirou nodded, striding down the hall, his laughter reverberating off the walls. "Oi, Viper! I found your roommate, so don't convert the rest of your room into your own personal nest!" the boy yelled out boisterously. Several people poked their heads out of their dorm rooms in curiousity, although once they caught sight of the grinning Momoshirou, they withdrew back in.

"I don't think you should be so loud..." Kawamura trailed off unsurely.

Momo waved him off cheerfully. "It's no problem, not at all! There's not that many people here, anyway; I guess a lot died during the First Trial." He paused, glancing over at one particular room where a boy with a bowl-cut was peeking out, seemingly undeterred by Momoshirou's evaluating look. Tezuka recognized the boy as one of the Seigaku freshmen he had seen in company of the golden-eyed boy in the Courtyard earlier. The name tags on the door read 'Katou' and 'Horio'.

"A lot of the freshmen survived though. They practically dominate this floor," Momo added.

"That's good," Oishi said with a smile.

Momoshirou shrugged, "If you say so, senpai. I'm Momoshirou Takeshi, by the way - call me Momo!"

Fuji cast the junior a careful look. "You don't sound too enthusiastic about the freshmen," the slender brunette noted.

"Nah, I like kids," Momo chortled. "It's just unusual. I heard freshmen usually drop like flies around here."

"You heard?" Oishi repeated, agog. "From where?"

"My dad," Momo answered blithely. "He graduated from here, back in the day."

"So you knew what this place was?" Kawamura asked in shock.

Momo gave them all a surprised look, before resuming his playful grin from before. "I take it none of you did? I reckon more than half the students here knew what they were in for - though it sucks to be jumped with this, all of a sudden."

"Why would anyone voluntarily go here?" Oishi wondered, horrified.

Momo shrugged, smile carefree. "People would do anything to succeed, wouldn't they?"

The door to room 227 slammed open, admitting the furious-looking visage of Kaidoh into view. The junior glared over the group assembled in front of his door with a hiss. "You're making too much of a racket in the halls, you idiot!"

Momo glared back, "I was telling the senpai some helpful information, you damn snake!"

"Kaidoh, correct?" Inui interrupted, when it looked like the 'SNAKES'-wielder was about to launch forward and strangle Momo with his own hands. "I am Inui Sadaharu; it seems we'll be sharing a room."

Kaidoh hurriedly bowed out of the way, the perfect picture of manners. "Sorry about the mess, senpai - I was still unpacking," Kaidoh explained politely. Inui waved him off, entering the dorm room as he bid the rest of the seniors a light farewell. Kaidoh nodded at them before softly closing his door. Momo had already stormed back to his own room - about three doors down.

"Seems like an exciting floor," Fuji chuckled.

"Excitement is the last thing I need," Kawamura sighed, heading in the opposite direction as his own room was on the other side of the corridor. Kikumaru and Oishi shuffled into their own dorm, sharing a brief conversation (mostly reassurances) with their respective best friends and promising to meet in the dining hall for dinner after they finished unpacking.

Fuji and Tezuka headed another flight up. Tezuka reached his room first; there were two labels on the door for the names of the occupants inside. He was surprised to see only his own name, however; the second label was empty.

"He probably died," Fuji pointed out solemnly.

Tezuka nodded, frowning. Fuji squeezed the bespectacled teen's shoulder in a comforting gesture, issuing him a soft 'see you later' before moving further down the corridor to his own room. As he passed, he took note of the labels on each door; some held one name, a select few held two, but many were completely blank.

Stopping before room 307, Fuji read over the nametags: 'Fuji' and 'Echizen'. The little '3' in the corner of his own nametag labelled him a senior; likewise, the little '1' declared his roommate to be a freshman. Fuji gripped his wrist, fingers closing over 'CHANGE' in a white-knuckled grip.

I don't want to be here, Fuji thought to himself. He'd never wanted to go to Tengoku Gakuen - his passion lay with either tennis or photography, neither of which the school was reknown for producing. But then Yuuta had said he would be taking the application exam, followed by Kikumaru's adamant claim that he wanted to stay close to Fuji. When two of his most precious people went to the same place, how could Fuji not follow? Fuji didn't want to be here - but he thanked every deity that he was, because he'd rather follow his loved ones into Hell than leave them to fend for themselves.

Opening the door and stepping through, Fuji surveyed the inside of the room. Two beds were positioned parallel to each other, covered with a thick white comforter and one fluffy white pillow each. The floor was the same wood that stretched out through the building, with a dark blue rug set up between the two beds. The bed frame was black, and at the foot of each bed was a matching desk, each with its own lamp and rolling chair. Two dressers stood side by side, opposite of the door; on top of one (clearly already occupied) were a few books, as well as a picture frame with a Himalayan cat pictured inside.

Fuji turned his assessing look to the person sitting slouched atop one of the beds, meeting unwavering golden eyes.

"Fuji-senpai?" the boy greeted, face and voice equally deadpan.

Fuji nodded, mustering up a smile for the younger boy. "Fuji Syuusuke. Nice to meet you."

The boy didn't move from his position atop the bed, but a small smirk soon curled his lips. "Echizen Ryoma. You were taking so long, I thought you'd died."

Well, Fuji thought dryly. He's quite the people-person.

 

_

Tezuka stared at his luggage for several long moments as he tried to come to terms with what he'd just gone through. He felt numb, to be honest - his mind just wouldn't process anything right now.

He had gone to Tengoku Gakuen with hopes for a brighter future. He even had made quite a few new friends on the very first day - whereas before his classmates had avoided him, too perturbed by his attitude, personality, or the stigma of being the bullies' favorite target. Tezuka thought he'd have it all at his new school; his best friend had gotten in with him, his career path was practically set after he graduated from the top school, and he had escaped the bullies of his past.

Now, he wasn't even sure he'd live to see the weekend.

Tezuka pulled his cellphone out from his travel bag. Sure enough, there was no reception; he'd seen other students pulling out their's shortly after the Trial, having the same problem. There was no phone available for use in Tengoku Gakuen that any student knew about.

Tezuka pulled out his laptop. He didn't hold much hope out for a connection there, either - and his expectation was proven true. There was no internet connection available. With a sigh, Tezuka turned off that futile hope and stared about the room.

He had avoided looking at the other side of the dorm from the moment he'd walked in. Knowing that the bed set parallel to his own wasn't going to see any use besides by Tezuka made the senior feel ill. His intended roommate - another boy, perhaps hoping to start a new life here at Tengoku Gakuen, who had friends he'd left behind, loved ones he would never see again - had died. He'd been torn apart by the jaws of a monster; he'd probably suffered as he had his limbs bitten off, as he was eaten alive - and all for what?

To prove himself to the Gods?

To prove what?

Tezuka sat down heavily on his bed and released a shuddering breath.

 

_

"Will you be eating dinner, Echizen?" Fuji asked the younger boy as he finished packing his clothes into the empty dresser. The room had lurched into silence after their mutual introductions, although neither boy seemed very uncomfortable about it. Echizen had alternated between idly watching Fuji settle in or gazing out the window.

Echizen glanced over at him, face set in what looked to be his usual deadpan expression. "You don't know where the cafeteria is, Fuji-senpai?"

Fuji chuckled, "Ah - was I that transparent?"

The only thing is, Fuji did know where the cafeteria was. Each student had been given a map of the school campus, and Fuji was neither illiterate or directionally-challenged. But if it took a little act to ease what looked to be the start of a strained relationship between him and his roommate, then Fuji could damn well play his part.

If what Fuji had gleaned from the boy's attitude in the Courtyard earlier in the day, and with the recently-learned information from Momoshirou, Fuji knew Echizen Ryoma to be one of the students who had entered Tengoku Gakuen knowing full-well what kind of school it was. It couldn't hurt to get along with someone who knew a bit more about the world he inadvertently found himself in.

"That reminds me, Echizen," Fuji said as he stood, smile in place. The freshman had yet to move from his bed but he didn't look like he would be averse to accepting Fuji's company. "What is your Word? Mine is 'CHANGE'."

The boy had been wearing a wristband the entire time. Fuji didn't know how hiding his power could at all help against those monsters from before - they didn't even have eyes, so it wasn't like they could read - but maybe Echizen had a reason for his accessory. Echizen cocked his head in thought at the older boy's question, seemingly evaluating him carefully. The predatory look in those golden eyes - the same look Fuji had seen earlier in the Courtyard - returned. Echizen's eyes flickered down to Fuji's wrist, where the Word had been branded.

"Did you know," Echizen began after a lengthy pause. "That Trials are all different? You will never encounter the same one again for as long as you're here."

Fuji blinked in shock. At the very least, he had struck true with the idea that Echizen knew what was going on around Tengoku. Echizen continued on, voice turning listless and indifferent, "When my older brother was here, he had to fight two other students for the key to the Door of that Trial, which only allowed one student to leave."

Fuji's eyes had opened. "Your brother went here?"

Echizen's lips rose in an amused smirk as he gave a small nod - although Fuji couldn't help but wonder what the younger boy found so amusing.

The freshman rose from the bed, heading towards the door with a bored look. "It may not be much, but every small advantage counts, Fuji-senpai." He glanced back at the senior with such a predatory look that Fuji felt as if someone had replaced his blood with ice. "How can you protect yourself from me if you don't even know what to defend yourself from?"

Echizen waited two steps outside of their door, before turning back to face the blue-eyed senior with a droll stare. "Didn't you want to go eat dinner?"

 

_

The dining hall of Tengoku Gakuen catered to the entire school population, so both grades and Sections were free to mingle. The food was set out banquet-style along one wall of the large room. The tables were long and made of wood with matching bench seats, running in ten rows. The floor was pale tile that was immaculately clean, the lights fluorescent and interspersed with chandeliers.

Even after entering the line for the food, Fuji didn't feel that hungry. He'd ended up taking a seat with Tezuka and the others since he couldn't spot Yuuta anywhere, and Echizen had wandered off as soon as they'd entered the place. The younger boy had joined a group of mixed-Section first years sitting at the end of the fifth table row after getting his own food; surprisingly, the first years were one of quite a few boisterous groups currently clustered in the cafeteria.

"How can they even stomach the food?" Kawamura asked plaintively, pushing around the contents of his tray with a frown.

Fuji cast a look over at his roommate sitting two rows down, "I can't even begin to fathom."

"Well aren't you guys just a party?" Momo jeered as he took the seat opposite of Kawamura. Following behind him were Inui and Kaidoh, the former greeting his fellow seniors with a small wave. Kaidoh nodded politely as he took a seat next to his roommate, shooting Momo a glare as he did so.

Kikumaru and Oishi were sitting close together, opposite of Fuji and Tezuka; the two cast Momo a distraught look. The junior didn't seem to have noticed, especially as he began to devour the food on his plate. Kaidoh - although with far more elegant table manners - also began to eat.

Inui sighed, beginning to eat the small salad dish on his tray. "It wouldn't be wise to skip meals; we'll lose energy and focus for tomorrow's Trial if we don't eat anything," the senior advised.

"The Trials don't come every day, y'know?" Momo cut in, mouth full of chicken.

Fuji reluctantly began to fork himself some of the pasta. "How can you tell if a Trial is coming?" he asked the junior.

"You can't really be 100 percent positive," Momo said. "But they don't happen when it rains. I heard it's because the gods can't see you through the clouds?"

"That's ridiculous," Kaidoh scoffed.

"Like you know anything, you stupid snake!" Momo retorted, pounding a fist on the table.

Oishi hooked on to something else, steadying himself when his redheaded roommate clutched at his arm with a white-knuckled grip. "S-So it happens every day it's sunny?"

"Nah," Momo said, pulled back into the conversation and breaking his glaring match with Kaidoh. "No one knows for sure then except the teachers, I hear. They'll make a morning announcement."

The others began to slowly eat their own meals. The food really was delicious, but even that couldn't curb the disgust nestled in the pits of their stomachs. They hadn't eaten all day (unless they had breakfast before they left home) but even their food-starved bodies couldn't get rid of the mental image of a corpse-filled Courtyard.

"My roommate told me that the Trials will all be different and we won't get the same one again," Fuji said, looking up at Momo. "And that we might even have to kill other students?"

Oishi dropped his fork in horror as Kikumaru whipped around to stare at his best friend with wide eyes. Inui and Tezuka had frozen mid-bite, eyes narrowing behind their glasses as they waited for the boisterous boy to answer. Kawamura gripped his cutlery tightly, horrible scenarios playing out in his mind at Fuji's words.

Momo paused, absently cutting his steak into more convenient portions. "I heard that happens, too. It's not common - but it's not unheard of," the junior shrugged off. "Anyway, I also heard that it's not mandatory. The Trials weren't designed to systematically kill off students until there's a last one standing, y'know? But there are Trials where the easier or more efficient option is to kill a peer."

Momo gave the senior a probing look. "Who's your roommate?"

Fuji motioned vaguely in the direction of the freshmen group. "Echizen Ryoma - the one drinking the grape ponta. He's...different."

Momo glanced back, thoughtful look replaced by a devious grin. "Echizen, huh? He's definitely a unique one."

"You know him?" Fuji asked.

"Yeah. He's not very cute, is he? The kid's got a real mouth on him," Momo chortled.

Fuji frowned. "He won't show anyone his Word - so that if he has to use it on another student, they won't be able to defend themselves from him."

"He said that?" Kawamura ogled, horrified.

Momo burst out laughing, "That kid's clever, isn't he? So clever!"

"Momo, this isn't a laughing matter!" Oishi snapped, apparently reaching his breaking point. "Don't you understand? People are dying! And he's prepared to kill more people! What kind of madhouse is this!"

Inui finished off his meal quietly. "If I had to state my opinion," the DATA-user began mildly. "I'd have to say it's Hell."

 

_

Kawamura didn't quite know when he had fallen asleep - but it mattered little now, awoken by the sound of shattering glass. It was followed by a primal scream the likes of which Kawamura had never heard, not even in movies. He sat bolt upright in his bed, body tensing and gripping his wrist where the Word 'BURNING' was scarred.

Sobbing broke out next door as the screaming from before tapered off, and it took a moment for Kawamura to realize they weren't being attacked, that a Trial had not begun; only that the boy in the neighboring dorm was breaking down.

"There's nothing you can do, Kawamura-senpai."

The soft voice of his roommate startled the senior. He glanced over at the freshman lying in his own bed, back to Kawamura with the sheets pulled up to his waist. Mizuno Katsuo was a first year; a calm, collected boy that hardly ever met Kawamura's eyes. He'd looked shuttered and corpse-like when Kawamura had first entered their shared dorm room, but he'd managed a waning smile for the senior.

"People always have breakdowns for the first week or so. They're not used to the school yet," Katsuo continued on. Kawamura had always felt there was something off about the way the boy explained things to him, like he was merely repeating words that he'd learned through rote memorization. He knew far more than Kawamura did about Tengoku Gakuen, but Kawamura just couldn't shake the feeling that the boy hadn't entered the campus knowing about the Trials. The broken way Katsuo carried himself was too similar to Kawamura's own position, in comparison to people like Momoshirou or Echizen.

Also unlike that freshman roommate of Fuji's, Katsuo saw no need to hide his Word from Kawamura or the populace at large. 'CHAINS' is what adorned the freshman boy's wrist, but Kawamura decided not to question why Katsuo had chosen such a weapon to arm himself with. Kawamura also didn't think the freshman boy would answer him; Katsuo was absolutely tight-lipped when it came to personal questions. Outside of their dorm, Katsuo even refused to acknowledge Kawamura - he'd glued himself to Echizen the moment the freshman had entered the cafeteria for dinner that night.

Kawamura's family owned a sushi restaurant whose business was failing in the recession. Kawamura had offered to forego high school, to learn strictly from his father and to help support the restaurant. But his parents were the type who wanted the best for their child, even if that meant losing the family business. They'd struck a deal then: he would take the application exam for Tengoku Gakuen. If he was accepted, he would complete his schooling there and then move on into whatever career field or university he wanted. If he wasn't, he wouldn't go to high school and instead would learn sushi-making from his father.

To Takashi's shock, he was accepted into the elite school. He'd earned a scholarship, so any and all fees for the school were rendered moot. Even then, Takashi hadn't really wanted to go - but he resigned himself to making connections at Tengoku Gakuen now. It was only a year, after all; and if the rumors held true, then many of his classmates would go on into promising professions. He could earn business for his family through the word-of-mouth of his peers.

Kawamura clutched his pillow tighter, squeezing his eyes closed and trying to mentally shut out the sound of their neighbor's sobs. It continued for what felt like hours, a cacophony of breaking furniture, screams, shouts, and crying - before it abruptly stopped. He could roughly make out furniture scraping against the floor before all sound and movement ceased. The silence stretched, taut and unnatural, until Kawamura sat up in bed once again.

"Sh-Should we go check on him?" Kawamura asked aloud. He wasn't sure Katsuo was awake but Kawamura didn't want to handle this situation alone.

It didn't matter - Katsuo was awake. "Leave him alone," the freshman advised quietly. "There's nothing we can do for him."

Kawamura laid back uneasily. He stared unseeingly at the ceiling, trying to will himself back to sleep. Someplace into dreams that were far away from this campus, this reality he found himself in.

 

_

Breakfast was a stifling affair. As per usual, many of the freshmen seemed to convene at one table, although some splintered off to sit alone, hunched in the corner with wild eyes. Those who had grouped together argued teasingly amongst each other; one Rokkaku boy was gesturing wildly as he rehashed some sort of story to a pair of skeptical Jyousei Shounan twins. A girl in short pigtails was loudly chastising a boy with a unibrow, occasionally hitting him with a piece of untoasted bread. A demure girl with long braids glanced every now and then at the doors, expectant. A brash redheaded boy from Shitenhouji was attempting to get her attention, although he was getting distracted by a brunette Rikkaidai boy with rosy cheeks.

Fuji and Tezuka were already seated at a table, quietly picking at their own breakfast - a modest sum of assorted fruits, toast, and a cup of tea each - as they nodded in greeting as their friends wandered in.

Inui was first. The DATA-user had been talking to Kaidoh as he entered, but the junior had bidden him a polite goodbye before taking off on what looked to be his morning routine jog. Kawamura had walked in with Mizuno Katsuo but the younger boy had stiffly cut off his conversation with the senior the moment they'd entered the dining hall, heading straight towards the freshmen's table. The Seigaku boy with the bowl-cut cheerfully greeted him as he sat down.

"Sorry," Kawamura practically whispered, taking the seat next to Tezuka. "The guy in the room next to mine...he died. Suicide."

The other three had nothing to say to that. Kawamura knew he wouldn't be able to stomach breakfast now, not after being the one to discover his neighbor's corpse. Katsuo hadn't looked at either him or the dead body, merely quietly waiting in the hall as Kawamura tried to recover from the sight. The freshman had been the one to notify a teacher and escort Kawamura away from the site as the Cleaners descended - all without saying a single word.

"Oh, so you guys heard we already lost one?" Momo broke in cheerfully. He sat across from the morose sushi chef-in-training, tray stacked high with an abundance of breakfast foods. "One isn't too bad. I heard Fudoumine lost three last night."

"One is too much," Tezuka bit out.

Momo shrugged, apparently not up to his usual jovial sociopathy as he ate. Oishi and Kikumaru turned up sporting equally sleep-deprived states, sharing a couple slices of toast and hot tea between them. Fuji forced the pair to eat some fruit as well, shooting Kawamura and Momo a warning look not to tell them the news of the latest victims. The blue-eyed teen then nodded after sharing a concerned glance with Tezuka; they'd have to keep an eye on the two today. Even if there wasn't a Trial today, the pair didn't look well enough to be alert for anything.

Light chatter drifted throughout the cafeteria. It was hard to tell if the atmosphere was tense or cheerful; some of the groups looked like they were planning out a battle, while others were acting like regular high-schoolers. A strange hush fell across the entire dining area, however, when the loud ringing of the intercom buzzed.

"Hello, everyone~! This is Principal Kurobe speaking - and first off, let me welcome you all to Tengoku Gakuen! I hope we can all share a year of learning and prosperity," the voice over the intercom boomed happily. "I decided I would greet you all myself this morning after that exciting day yesterday! Did everyone enjoy the 'Hunt'?"

The principal laughed to himself. Tezuka's grip on his mug of tea tightened until his knuckles turned white.

"Unfortunately, there won't be any Trials today. Normal class schedule will resume. Professor Saitou would also like me to remind you that it wouldn't hurt to train with your weapons in your free time - if you aren't keen on dying, at any rate. Have a wonderful day~!"

The intercom rang twice to signify the end of the announcement. A red-haired Fudoumine boy with bangs hanging over one eye threw his empty breakfast tray at one of the intercom speakers in a fit of silent rage. As two of his peers - a cute girl with a bob-cut and a tall, well-built boy with a white bandanna on - attempted to calm the boy, Fuji caught sight of Echizen entering the cafeteria. Chatter had already restarted in the wake of the announcement and it appeared that the freshmen were reiterating the message to the lethargic boy as he sat among them with a yawn.

"You still sleeping in the same room as the kid, Fuji-senpai?" Momo asked suddenly, curious. Fuji's attention snapped to the junior, eyes closed even as he evaluated the younger male.

"Yes, why do you ask?" Fuji inquired.

Momo shrugged. "I figured you'd shack up with someone else by now. I know the little brat can be kind of creepy." The junior leaned closer, grinning slyly. "You aren't imagining that frigid air around him, you know?"

"What do you mean by that?" Kawamura asked weakly, wondering if he had enough energy in him to be riled up anymore.

Momo laughed good-naturedly, "Nothing, nothing at all!"

Inui cleared his throat in the resulting pause, "Class begins in thirty minutes. We should get our things if we want to make it in time."

 

_

Katsuo entered the Seigaku First Year classroom in contemplative silence. He must have been a welcome change from Osakada Tomoka's brash reprimands or Horio Satoshi's tall tales, as he found himself walking in step with his golden-eyed classmate.

Echizen didn't seem to notice how quiet the class got once he'd entered but it wasn't lost on his companions. The Freshman wing had undoubtedly taken the hardest losses among the three wings - they were the youngest, marking them the weakest both physically and mentally by far, in comparison to the older grades.

The Trial yesterday had diminished the original 175 freshmen to only 123 survivors. There were only 21 students left in the Seigaku First Year class, including their own group. They were actually the highest-populated freshmen class; the lowest was Ginka, with only four surviving members. Behind Seigaku was Rokkaku, with 15 students; Rikkaidai, with 14; Jyousei Shounan, 14; Yamabuki, 12; Shitenhouji, ten; Higa, ten; Saint Rudolph, eight; Fudoumine, eight; and Hyoutei, seven. The entire class of Midoriyama First Years had been wiped out during the First Trial. The only reason Seigaku had such a high number of survivors was due mostly to the golden-eyed boy.

"Can we even have class without a teacher?" Horio mused loudly.

"Sakurafubuki was only our homeroom teacher," Osakada dismissed imperially. "Besides, Sakuno-chan says that we're mainly taught through TV or computer. Whatever the teachers can use so that they're not here."

Katou gave the quiet girl a speculative look. "If they can do that, why are the homeroom teachers here?"

"Obaasan and the other homeroom teachers have different jobs," Sakuno answered.

"Drop it," Echizen cut in, when it looked like Katou was going to inquire further. The small conversations that managed to crop up among the rest of their classmates silenced instantly. "You don't need to know how this school works - you just need to survive it."

Katou frowned but conceded with a nod. "Principal Kurobe didn't say anything about how Sakurafubuki died... Do they think it was from the First Trial?"

"Trials can't kill teachers," Sakuno pointed out.

Echizen snorted, "It doesn't matter what Kurobe thinks. He obviously has no intention of stepping in," the boy dismissed. He was slouched back in his seat, his face set in its usual deadpan as his gaze trailed over his classmates.

"Ryoma-sama," Tomoka started reverently, a smile curling her lips, the shine to her eyes just this side of maniacal. "We'll live, right? If we follow you - we'll live?"

Echizen Ryoma wasn't like any of them - he had been neither ignorant of what Tengoku Gakuen was, nor had he been told the truth by a family member. Katsuo knew the boy was dangerous, knew it the moment the First Trial had started and the boy had effortlessly disposed of any beast that came into the classroom of frightened students.

Echizen was not there for profit, for glory, or for pride - he was there because what Echizen wanted was to destroy anything and everything that was Tengoku Gakuen. This made him cruel and vicious in a way unprecedented by any other student.

Echizen snorted, tilting his head in a carefree, mocking way as his lips twisted into an arrogant smirk. His golden eyes seemed to sharpen to molten sunlight, feral in their intensity as he met the gaze of the entire class.

Katsuo looked away, unable to maintain that stare-

He knew what it meant to look into the abyss.

 

-

Day 2

Attending Students: 408

Deceased Students: 6 (suicide)



Students Remaining: 402

_


雨降って地固まる。


"Rained-on ground hardens."

Chapter Text

The third day passed without a Trial. Oishi and Kikumaru hadn't even bothered to go to class, then; they'd stayed in their dorm room, coming out for meals with their friends before returning in forlorn silence to the room. Tezuka had not bothered to reproach them, too busy contemplating how his Word could be utilized. Fuji had been preoccupied with Yuuta, although he did check up on the two just to make sure they hadn't gone the same way as Kawamura's neighbor did.

Yuuta had made some strange friends among his Saint Rudolph peers. Fuji had eaten lunch with them that day, just to see what kind of people his little brother had befriended. He found the other second year, Kaneda, to be fine; he was amiable if a bit naive, with a strong sense of loyalty to his senior, Akazawa. The duck-lipped youth that practically hung off Yuuta whenever the other youth was in arm's reach had an annoying verbal tic, but his light-hearted jesting made Yuuta smile so Fuji could tolerate him. The boy with the red headband wasn't so much quiet as he was apathetic, and he spent his time idly making snide comments about his friends.

It was the last friend that made Fuji wary. Mizuki Hajime had a laugh that made Fuji want to punch him, complete with a haughty smirk and the strange, all-knowing gaze he directed at anyone who came near. Yuuta and the others didn't seem very affected by the wavy-haired youth's strange ways, but considering Mizuki had complimented Fuji's looks and mocked his brother-complex in the same breath earned him no brownie points with the Seigaku senior.

"But he's the one who organized us into a coherent team, Aniki," Yuuta explained after Fuji had pulled him aside. "I owe him my life, you know."

And that just made the bile rise in Fuji's throat.

 

_

Tezuka would never go so far as to skip class - it wasn't like he had any roommates to console, anyway - but he did spend a fair amount of time outside of class just contemplating his Word. Of course he had gone with such a useless term; 'concentration' wasn't even tangible. Why couldn't he have put down an actual weapon?

Because I had no idea what I was in for, Tezuka mused.

He was sitting at one of the desks in the Study Room, which was empty save for both himself and a freshman curled up in an armchair with a book. The boy had a bowl-cut hairstyle and would occasionally glance over at Tezuka, as if the senior was just going to jump up and decide to murder him. Tezuka ignored him while at the same time tried look as non-threatening as possible; it wouldn't do to scare off the freshmen. He didn't want to be killed in the middle of the night just because he'd accidentally spooked a kid whose Word happened to be a weapon.

Tezuka had dug out his dictionary and spent the last half-hour staring at the definition of 'concentration' and seeing if he could use it to his advantage. So far, he was coming up blank. Unless any of the Trial monsters had an exam coming up, Tezuka didn't think his power would work.

"Concentration?"

Tezuka started, head whipping up to look straight into their golden counterparts. Tezuka knew the speaker - from his first appearance in the Courtyard to Fuji identifying him as his roommate. Echizen Ryoma.

"Strange word to pick as a weapon, senpai," Echizen pointed out.

Tezuka stared at him for a bit longer, but when the freshman didn't seem very bothered by it - Echizen's own expression was that of the apathetic - the senior spoke, "I see that now." Although it isn't much of a 'weapon', really...

Echizen glanced down at the dictionary propped up on the desk, raising a single eyebrow. His lips quirked up in a smirk and he leaned closer as if he were going to read the definition himself. "Seems you're having some trouble, though?"

Tezuka tensed. He didn't know why, but he didn't feel it safe to admit to anyone he had no idea how to use his power. To tell the boy who had so openly admitted to Fuji that he was prepared to kill even his classmates would be an obvious mistake. Tezuka kept his mouth shut then, just staring back at the freshman evenly. Echizen leaned back, retreating from Tezuka's personal bubble but the smirk never left his lips.

"Don't think about it too literally, senpai," Echizen advised, placing one hand atop the dictionary and obscuring the words beneath it. His eyes were intent on Tezuka's as he spoke. "You won't be able to manifest your Word as a tangible weapon, so you have to get a bit more creative."

Echizen backed away at that point, flashing Tezuka one more smirk before he turned and motioned to the other freshman. The bowl-cut boy stood immediately, closing his book and falling into step behind Echizen without a word. The two left, neither sparing the senior a glance as they trotted up the dormitory stairs.

It just occurred to Tezuka that both boys had their branded wrists covered.

 

-

Day 3
Students Attending: 402
Deceased Students: 2 (suicide)
Students Remaining: 400
-

On the fourth day, Principal Kurobe announced a Trial would occur some time throughout the morning. Oishi hadn't been able to stomach anything during breakfast (although Fuji had managed to coerce Kikumaru into eating a bit of waffle), and shortly after second period - Calculus - Ryuuzaki-sensei had strode into the classroom. She didn't say anything, only looking out the window as if watching for some kind of sign.

Oishi didn't know what she had been looking for. The entire class had been blinded the moment the clock struck noon.

 

-

Tezuka blinked the glare out of his eyes, sitting upright and taking in his surroundings - ignoring the twinge of pain in his left arm at the abrupt jostling of his person. The - room? Yes, four walls and only one large door - he found himself in was dimly lit, the flames from lamplights the only illumination. The walls and floors were dark brown, matching in both size and texture, but the door - held along the northern wall - was almost 7 meters tall and 5 meters across. It was pure white with gold trim, made of what looked to be marble carved by inhuman hands in an intricate design. What held Tezuka's gaze, however, was the behemoth of a monster that stood before it: a mess of tattered cloth and multiple limbs, where in the dead center a woman's face with a long, hooked nose grinned back at him with vivid red lips and protruding fangs.

His breath hitched as he dared not move. He held the monster's stare so intently, he almost didn't notice the movement in the corner of his vision: another person. Another three people, he realized, after daring to look away from the monster's gaze. The last three boys were waking up, eyes first landing on the monster and freezing in sudden alarm.

The monster did not move, did not speak; only grinned and waited.

"What the fuck is this shit?" one of the boys ground out, jumping to his feet with alarming flexibility. He was a tall, lithe youth with a head of silver-white hair and narrow golden eyes. The badge on his uniform confirmed him as a Yamabuki Third Year. The boy closest to him was a Yamabuki First year with wide brown eyes and messy, dark blue hair.

"Akutsu-senpai, that's the only door!" the freshman pointed out far too cheerfully.

The last boy - closest to Tezuka - stood up with a sneer on his features, dusting off his uniform in utmost disgust. "Ore-sama was on the ground? Someone is going to pay for this," the Hyoutei Third Year vowed.

Tezuka kept his eyes on the monster since his fellows seemed to be concerned with...other matters. The demon still had yet to move - nor looked inclined to doing so any time soon - but Tezuka wasn't going to take his chances. He wouldn't be able to do much but warn the others yet it was still better than doing nothing.

"Who are you plebeians?" the Hyoutei boy asked, using the slur as if it were everyday vernacular.

"What the hell did you call me?" the Yamabuki boy growled, taking a menacing step towards the silver-haired diva.

"I'm Dan Taichi (desu)! And this is Akutsu-senpai," the freshman greeted brightly.

"Tezuka," the lone Seigaku senior spoke up, glancing over at the simmering Akutsu.

The Hyoutei player smirked, flipping his hair absently, "Atobe Keigo."

"Fucking pansy," Akutsu sneered. Atobe's eyes narrowed and the room suddenly got a bit chillier.

"Welcome!"

All four boys flinched, diverting their attention back to the now-animated demon. The monster's head swayed back and forth among the tattered cloth and limbs that made up its body, the grin never leaving its pale face.

"Welcome to the Overture! The rules are simple, you see - very simple! No need to fight me or answer silly, silly questions!"

The creature's head suddenly spun 360 degrees around as she let loose a girlish giggle. "All you have to do, my noble children, is kill at least one member in your party! No need to dally, my dear ones - simply pick off the weakest, perhaps?"

She cackled - a high-pitched, malevolent sound. "And you must hurry now, for we only have 30 minutes to share, you see! And oh, how the time ticks by! In the end, it is the time that will destroy you!"

The creature's face froze in a maniacal grin but her body crept out and covered the entirety of the door like moss. A large clock of roman numerals phased into existence next to the woman's head, depicting the twelve roman numerals of standard time.

The four boys eyed each other uneasily.

29 Minutes Remaining.

 

-

"Well," one of the Jyousei Shounan freshmen sighed; the maroon-haired twin with a single streak of light purple.

"That sucks," his twin with dark blue hair done up in a ponytail finished in the same tone.

Kawamura traded looks with the last member present: a Fudoumine third year who had introduced himself as Ishida Tetsu. He didn't look inclined to start killing off their younger counterparts - not that Kawamura was going to let him. No one was going to die on the Seigaku senior's watch, and as far as Kawamura could tell, his Word looked to be the most offensive.

Ishida had materialized his weapon the moment he'd woken up; a nearly 2-meter long monk's staff made of dark, sturdy wood and dull golden trim. The Jyousei Shounan twins had linked their hands together and kept their eyes on the seniors with studious dedication, distrust practically wafting off of them.

"There has to be a way around it," Kawamura spoke up. "A...friend of mine said that no Trial was designed to explicitly kill students."

Ishida nodded, "We should try the walls. You two," he turned to the freshmen. "Your Words are 'SIGHT' and 'HEAR', right? I saw it before you woke up - don't give me those looks. Check everything with your power."

24 Minutes Remaining.

Ishida turned his back on the other three - a courageous move, given the circumstances. He began to hit at the wall with the blunt end of his staff. Every dent he made repaired itself, but he didn't look deterred. He glanced over at Kawamura's speculative look.

"I have no intention of killing my peers," Ishida explained. "Now see if you can burn us an escape route."

 

-

Inui adjusted his glasses in irritation.

The situation itself wasn't too bad. If one ignored the obnoxiously loud ticking of the clock, this Trial could even be considered rather calming - especially in comparison to the Hunt. As it was, though, it was turning out to be rather vexing in and of itself - simply because his peers wouldn't be quiet.

20 Minutes Remaining.

Granted, Kaidoh was only hissing (very threateningly), chorused by the eight snakes that coiled around his body or lay at his feet, all looking in the same direction. The Yamabuki second year, Kita Ichiuma, was alternating between shouting and pleading as he held his axe and eyed the snakes wildly. Apparently, the boy had a phobia - one that Kaidoh was exploiting relentlessly.

The cause for the ruckus was currently huddled behind Kaidoh and shaking like a leaf in a breeze; Ryuuzaki Sakuno, a Seigaku freshman girl. After the Trial had explained its rules, Kita had made the mistake of eyeing the girl for too long and too speculatively. Kaidoh - being the noble kind of guy he'd revealed himself to be - immediately got defensive on the girl's behalf and materialized all of his snakes, sending Kita fleeing to the other side of the room.

Logically, Inui knew he'd be the easier target. He had glimpsed the girl's word before the creature had spoken; 'SHIELD' was branded on her wrist. She had a defense. Compared to Kaidoh's and Kita's weapons, Inui knew he wouldn't be able to put up much of a fight. Of course, he hadn't explained this to anyone else - he wasn't suicidal or noble - but luckily, upon reading the entry in his notebook about the Overture, he knew a way out.

If only he could get his teammates to stop heckling each other and listen to him.

"No one needs to die," Inui cut in, just as Kita started to make reflex-like aimless swings with his axe. His notebook was open in his hands, his face carefully devoid of emotion as he eyed his underclassmen. Fortunately, they'd stopped trying to threaten each other (or hide, in Ryuuzaki's case) to listen.

"The Overture's rules," Inui continued. "Are a trick. If we kill one member, no one gets to leave. The real target was named in the creature's explanation; we simply have to destroy what is diminishing."

"Diminishing?" Kaidoh echoed questioningly.

 

-

Oishi had practically flung Kikumaru behind him as a fight broke out the instant the creature had stopped speaking. Those they had been trapped with - Midoriyama's Sasabe and Higa's Hirakoba - had materialized their weapons and lunged at each other. Hirakoba had blocked Sasabe's assault knife with his tonfa, and the two had been making jabs at each other for a few minutes now.

Oishi had kept himself and Kikumaru in the distant corner, eyeing the two across the room with wary eyes. While they seemed busy with their fight, he knew it wouldn't take long before they realized they had much easier targets in the Seigaku pair. Kikumaru had fisted the back of Oishi's shirt and was trembling, the sound of the redhead's quiet sobs solidifying Oishi's resolve to protect the other boy.

As long as I can save at least one person, Oishi thought; the fighting slowed and the two across the room glanced at them more appraisingly with each break. I don't mind dying.

That was a lie. Oishi didn't want to die - he wanted to live, he wanted to graduate and enter the top medical university. He wanted to become a doctor, he wanted to help the injured and the sick. He didn't want to die in some dark room, watched by a grinning monstrosity -

But he wouldn't let Kikumaru die.

Not his roommate, who had clung to him from Day One and had curled up in bed with him, too afraid to sleep alone in a place full of monsters. Not the boy who used to have such a breathtaking grin, who'd cheerfully pronounced them friends after Oishi had shared some candies he'd habitually slipped into his backpack. Oishi didn't want to die in this sad little room - but he'd rather die than let someone like Kikumaru die here instead.

18 Minutes Remaining.

"We'll be fine," Oishi quietly reassured his friend. Empty comforts, gentle lies - they both knew it.

"Your power is 'HEAL'," Hirakoba mused aloud in the midst of a ceasefire. "That's a useful skill at times."

The dangerous smirk on Sasabe's face was full of dark intention: "But not here!"

The Midoriyama senior launched forward. Oishi froze - although whether it was from fear or because he instinctually needed to physically block Kikumaru from the onslaught was unclear. Regardless, as Sasabe closed the distance between them, he wasn't able to get closer than a meter away before something red and hissing launched from behind the 'HEAL'-user and straight towards Sasabe's face.

As Sasabe fell back with a shocked yelp, it took a moment for Oishi to recognize the furious, spitting furball clawing viciously at the Midoriyama boy's face as Kikumaru's cat-form. That moment was all that was needed as Sasabe grabbed the back of Kikumaru's collar and flung the cat away. As Kikumaru hit the wall with a yowling smack, Oishi tackled the just-about-to-rise boy back to the floor in a rage borne from being helpless and forced to watch his friends get hurt in front of him.

Oishi wasn't going to let Kikumaru become another Tezuka. Oishi still remembered the sickening crack that had echoed over the courts, back in junior high; how the rest of their peers only watched in fearful silence, how their upperclassmen didn't help them, didn't reprimand the cruel senior who had picked Tezuka as his victim. Oishi couldn't do anything but help Tezuka to the Nurse's Office, could do nothing but suffer with Tezuka as they endured bullying from all sides.

It was just like back then. Someone was perceiving him and his friend as the weak targets, was attacking them mercilessly - only this time one of them would die. Why did Kikumaru have to get hurt by scumbags like them? Why must Oishi die for them - die in a bloody mess right in front of Kikumaru, who would surely blame himself? Oishi knew what it felt like to be forced to watch a friend suffer and be incapable of helping them. He didn't want Kikumaru to feel that same pain - helplessness was a most atrocious feeling.

Oishi punched Sasabe relentlessly. (We didn't deserve this!) He felt the boy's blood gush from his nose, felt the liquid slide against his skin as it smeared over Sasabe's face. (How dare you hurt Kikumaru!) Sasabe hit him in the cheek with the handle of the blade, but Oishi only knocked his hand away and continued his assault. (We're not going to die here!)

Hirakoba had yet to move - he was apparently keeping a careful eye on the situation, waiting to see who would be the weakest from the fight and finish them off. It looked like it was going to be Oishi, as Sasabe fumbled away from the boy and haphazardly slashed at the healer. Oishi cried out in pain as the knife dragged across his chest, blooding seeping from the wound.

Deep - but not deep enough to slice any organs, Oishi categorized, one arm clenched over his bleeding chest as pain roared from the wound. He needed to materialize some bandages for himself, but was unable as Sasabe regained his footing and began to stalk closer to the Seigaku senior.

Kikumaru - dazed slightly from his collision with the wall - stood up on his unsteady legs while still in cat-form. His thoughts cleared as he watched Sasabe strike out at Oishi, watched as blood flowed from a wound that Oishi couldn't treat as Sasabe began to advance on him once again. When Hirakoba also began to move towards the healer, brandishing his tonfa, something in Kikumaru snapped and fell away.

Tengoku Gakuen was hell. He'd seen people die - watched despair fill their eyes, heard them cry out for help - and it was a hell he had walked into willingly; ignorantly, yes, but willingly. He'd coerced his best friend into taking the application exam with him. If it hadn't been for Kikumaru, Fuji would have never been trapped in Tengoku - a fact Kikumaru had never been able to forgive himself for, an apology he didn't have enough willpower to say aloud.

Then he'd gone and chosen a completely useless weapon, turning into a pitiful kitty that could only seek shelter behind his more powerful friends. Oishi had promised to protect him, had kept him company when Kikumaru had been too afraid to go anywhere alone after the first day. Kikumaru knew Oishi had his own problems, had his own fears, but Kikumaru had been selfish about the boy's attention anyway.

And now Oishi was going to die, and Kikumaru couldn't do anything to stop it. He had chosen a useless Word, had done nothing to improve on it - he'd only relied on Oishi and Fuji to protect him from his harsh new reality.

But if he continued to do that, he'd die. He would die, Fuji would die, Oishi would die - Kikumaru couldn't escape reality anymore. Kikumaru wanted to live - and he wanted his friends to live, too. He wanted Oishi to live.

(We're not going to die here!)

'CAT'. It brought to mind the housecat that lived two houses down from his home. A restless little pest that had always mewled at him as he went to school, that used to kill birds and left their torn corpses littered across the neighborhood. Kikumaru had watched the cat do it once: watched as the feline crept up upon a hapless bird, watched it pounce and hiss and bite into the little feathered body with sharp teeth and equally sharp claws. Watched the bird try to fly in a futile attempt of escape, as the cat ripped open the bowels of its stomach and mercilessly tore in.

Sasabe and Hirakoba were birds that he needed to tear apart.

They were large, so he had to be larger. They were fast and violent - he'd have to be quicker and more brutal.

It took less than a second. His body elongated until he was heavier, built with muscle and grace. The dark red of his fur did not lose its hue, but black stripes stretched across his elongated torso. His teeth sharpened and grew steadier, bigger, more vicious; his paws were thicker, heavily padded and with menacing claws that scraped against the floor.

Kikumaru roared.

15 Minutes Remaining.

 

-

"I'm going to go ahead and call bullshit," Momo said conversationally.

The three Fudoumine students blinked at him. The girl, Tachibana An, had already materialized her archery weapons and had been shooting them futilely at the creature blocking the door. So far, all of the arrows had passed through the unhindered and the monster remained unhurt - even unaffected.

"Look, I'm just saying this Trial doesn't make sense," Momo continued with a wave of his hand for emphasis. It was telltale of the three's survival instincts that they all flinched and backed up appropriately. They'd all seen the 'BOMB' brand etched on Momo's skin, after all.

The girl cocked her head questioningly. "Are you referring to the rules laid down?"

"Well, yeah, that was pretty weird too," Momo allowed. "But I mean it doesn't make sense to have a Trial that necessitates the killing of students, y'know? We're always given a chance, no matter how slim. Forcing murder just defeats the entire point of this place."

The red-haired boy, Kamio Akira, glared at him in open distrust. "Are you saying this place actually has a point in killing people?"

Momo grinned at him, "Exactly!"

"Exactly what?" the last boy, Ibu Shinji, began to mumble. "You still haven't explained anything. Is this because he's one of those people who knew someone who graduated from here? I really hate those kinds of people. They're obviously very violent and contemptible human beings-"

Momo rolled his eyes. "You don't need to be insulting, you really don't! Your word is 'POINT', right, Ibu? Can't you find the 'point' of weakness in this Trial so we can destroy it?"

Ibu continued to mumble uncomplimentary things audibly, but already his hand was up as a sort of screen appeared before his hovering fingertips. It was translucent and forest green, stretched over the lines of a grid. He'd turned it to face the northern wall where the door and creature awaited, the grid incorporating everything set before it and placing points along where objects were found. After registering each, one point in particular beeped and identified itself.

13 Minutes Remaining.

"There you go, An-chan!" Momo cheered.

An carefully took aim and fired.

 

-

As the minutes ticked by, the tension became more palpable. The unerring grin on the creature's face served to terrify the majority trapped in the room, and they kept their grips on their weapons with sweaty palms and nervous eyes. The only noticeable exception was the freshman leaned against the western wall, eyes closed as if he intended to fall asleep right then and there.

10 Minutes Remaining.

Nomura kept a harsh grip on his bullwhip, his gaze drifting towards the freshman more often as the time wind down. He knew it was wrong - he didn't want to kill anyone - but he definitely didn't want to die in this place! He knew the other two - both Yamabuki, Hagashikata and Nishikiori - were eyeing the freshman calculatively. The younger boy hadn't materialized a weapon, which meant he had either not figured out how to properly materialize his Word or his power wasn't the offensive kind. The three didn't know what the Seigaku freshman's power was, since he'd covered up the branded wrist with a wristband - but if he wasn't showing it, he was the assumed weakest link. Between Nomura's whip, Hagashikata's dagger, and Nishikiori's broadsword; the only thing that could help the freshman was a long-range weapon.

The Yamabuki boys came to a decision. They looked over to Nomura and motioned in the freshman's direction. Reluctantly, Nomura agreed with a short, decisive nod. It was a vile thing to do - but Nomura had no intention of dying there.

Just as the three stepped forward for the advance, Echizen Ryoma opened his eyes and smirked.

Mada mada dane.

8 Minutes Remaining.

 

-

"This is getting us nowhere!" Osakada Tomoka huffed, breaking the curiously tranquil mood that had settled over them. The freshman stomped her foot in agitation, glaring over the three older males as if to blame them.

The Yamabuki senior, Sengoku Kiyosumi, rubbed the back of his neck with a carefree chuckle. "I suppose so. I guess I'm not that lucky after all~!"

Which had been their battle plan, actually. The senior had chosen 'LUCK' as his Word, but nothing particularly fortuitous had happened in the past 22 minutes. Fuji had given up on the idea once they'd reached the 20 minute-mark and had instead been looking about the room surreptitiously for another way out while running through the creature's instructions over and over again. Rokkaku's Kisarazu Ryou had taken a seat on the floor and was staring blankly at the ticking clock, growing steadily paler as the countdown drew closer and closer to its end.

"There has to be another way," Fuji said, smiling at the girl.

Tomoka ignored him, materializing her weapon into her hands: a handgun. It was silver in color, the ink-black tracings of flowers and vines creeping down the handle and over the barrel of the firearm. The freshman had chosen 'GUN' as her Word, and she was also fully aware of how broad a term it was - she'd materialized a shotgun when she first arrived, firing it straight at the monster without any hesitation. Whoever Osakada Tomoka was, Fuji knew she was someone more than ready to enter battle.

Tomoka spared the suddenly very-alert and very-wary boys around her a maniac's grin. "Here, we'll just settle it this way: whoever I kill first gets to take one for the team!"

"What team!" Ryou snapped back in horror, slamming his hand down against the ground. Instantly, a wall made of the floor's material sprouted up and erected a barrier around the teen; Tomoka's shots could not break the impromptu shield.

Tomoka blinked in surprise, "Huh. I guess 'WALL' is a useful power after all..."

Fuji wasted no time. Ripping the badge off his uniform, he concentrated on his power. Just like during the First Trial, he'd known the general idea of what he'd have to do to utilize 'CHANGE'. The mere transformation of one thing into another came naturally to him - he'd been crafting masks to hide how he really felt long before he'd graduated elementary school. Transforming a badge into a plate of bulletproof glass was easier than forcing his lips into a guileless smile as he watched his older sister's life fade away before his eyes.

"Now, now, Tomo-chan!" Sengoku started, waving his hands in front of him in a pacifying gesture. Tomoka had refocused her predatory look on him, as Sengoku was the only one without a defense. "Let's not jump headlong into murder! Come on, we can find another way out of this!"

Tomoka was not deterred, "I'll listen to you after I've riddled you full of bullet holes, okay?"

"Not okay! Not okay!" Sengoku protested. Tomoka aimed straight at his head and pulled the trigger- just as Sengoku slipped and fell back, the bullet flying past him and hitting the clock with such a force that the glass shattered, the face cracked, and the hands fell off and to the floor.

The entire room trembled, the ground shaking at a high magnitude as the creature laughed and shrieked in something resembling joy. Just as the lights dimmed to practically nothing, the monster unwound itself from the door and faded away with one last mocking laugh. The door opened outwards without a sound, light bursting forth and blinding them for the second time that day.

When his vision next cleared, Fuji found himself standing in Tengoku's Courtyard amidst a forest of Doors.

 

-

7 Minutes Remaining.

"Maybe I should kill you, you fucking peacock!" Akutsu snapped, glaring straight at Atobe. Honestly, Tezuka didn't know what was stopping the Yamabuki senior - it almost seemed as if he was physically unable to get near Atobe. No matter the reason, Tezuka was eyeing the male's feet nervously; shadows had begun to swirl underneath, curling like smoke but never rising from the the floor.

Atobe was unimpressed, the aristocratic sneer on his face riling Akutsu further. It didn't help that the more displeased the Hyoutei boy became, the further the temperature dropped. Tezuka wasn't imagining the fog his own breath was starting to make.

Dan and Tezuka had not interfered in the two's verbal sparring contest, though Dan was looking decidedly more worried about Akutsu's promise of violence rather than their ever-approaching doom. Did these people have no sense of priority?

Tezuka looked over at the monster, then back at the clock. The minute hand clicked down to 12:24 before his very eyes.

They were trying to prove themselves to the gods?

Tezuka looked down at his Word. 'Concentration' was the intense mental application to a certain task, the giving of complete attention to a particular thing. It was something that could be measured, like the solvent in a chemical solution. It was exclusive and uninterrupted and incredibly pointed.

Tezuka looked at the creature. Atobe had sent a spike of pure, sharpened ice at the monster 15 minutes ago, but it had only disappeared after going through the demon. Any physical attacks Akutsu made against the female monstrosity had resulted in one of the woman's arms slapping the Yamabuki boy clear across the room.

If physical attacks couldn't work against it...

Be a bit more creative.

Tezuka imagined it in his mind. One point at the monster's feet that would slowly pull in one arm, one tatter of cloth, then another, and another - until soon the creature was being sucked into a single space; a single point of gravity that grew so much that it pulled in its victim relentlessly.

The creature screamed and clawed at the air as it began to twist into a concentrated stream towards one point on the floor. It's body was slowly being torn from the door, pulled of like inky gum and taking chips of the door's material in the process. One flailing limb stretched further out to claw at Tezuka - who was standing closest to the monster - but before it could reach him, Atobe sent flying another spear of ice. As usual, it passed through the approaching arm uselessly.

It impaled the clock instead.

One blinding flash of light later, Tezuka was staring out into the Courtyard as the Door he had just exited from closed with a slam and turned gray.

"You did it!" Dan cried, launching forward to glomp onto the still-stunned Seigaku boy. "You're awesome, Tezuka-senpai! I didn't know you could use 'CONCENTRATION' like that!"

Atobe smirked at him haughtily, clapping a friendly hand onto the teen's shoulder. "Not bad - but we all know Oresama was the real hero!"

"Do you want me to punch your face in or something?" Akutsu bit out, pulling out a cigarette and lighting up. Dan peeled himself off of the Seigaku senior, trailing over to the Door they had come from and looking over the designs carved into it.

They passed. They passed the Second Trial, and Tezuka had found a way to use 'CONCENTRATION'! Now Tezuka could do something for his friends, could handle himself in this insane mess of a school.

"Tezuka!"

Said boy turned just as Oishi practically tackled him in relief. Tezuka managed to catch sight of bandages wrapped around his friend's torso, the stark white of the medicated cloth showing from underneath the collar of his uniform shirt. Tezuka pried Oishi off of him, holding him out at arm's length as he gave the treated wound a pointed look.

"From the Trial," Oishi explained, much quieter.

"From those bastards we were trapped with, is what he means!"

Tezuka glanced past Oishi's shoulder to spot Kikumaru. The redhead was looking elsewhere, however; his blue eyes were trained on a couple of boys hovering around the edge of the Courtyard. One was from Higa, the other from Midoriyama; Tezuka had never seen Kikumaru look so angry. Then again, he had only met the boy a couple of days ago, and it seemed the redhead was only capable of clutching fearfully to his best friend's side. Now that Tezuka took a closer look at the two, there was a noticeable change in their demeanor - as if they'd learned how to stand on their own feet instead of offering each other weak support.

Now that Tezuka was really looking, he could see quite a lot of people milling around. The Doors that filled the Courtyard remained, but were one of three colors: black, white, or gray. Occasionally, one would open and four students would phase into existence before it, the Door turning gray after it shut; at other times, black would leak down from a Door, turning its previously white complexion completely obsidian.

"The black doors mean that whoever was inside failed the Overture," Oishi explained to his friend.

Atobe had already taken off in the direction of a group of Hyoutei students who greeted him enthusiastically. Akutsu had long since slouched out of sight, though Dan was lurking around another Door and examining it with a cheerful smile.

"Where are Fuji, Kawamura, and Inui?" Tezuka asked.

"Inui's group was one of the first out," Oishi said. "He's closer to the Fountain, trying to count how many doors there are. We...We haven't seen Kawamura or Fuji yet."

"Fujiko will survive this!" Kikumaru interjected. "Like he's going to lose to some stupid she-demon-monster thing!"

Just as he'd said that, one Door five meters away from them opened and phased out four people - three boys and one girl. The girl was holding a handgun, blinking at their sudden scenery change in surprise.

"Lucky~!" one of the boys crowed, throwing up a peace sign. "Told you we'd be fine, Tomo-chan!"

The girl fired a warning shot at the Yamabuki senior's feet, causing the orange-haired male to squeal and fall back onto his butt. "Shut the hell up! We're only out because I did all the work!"

"Work? You were going to kill us!" a Rokkaku senior shouted accusingly.

The girl only sneered, "And the world would likely be a better place."

"You psychotic little bitch-!"

"Aww, come on, you two! We're free now! Let's just let bygones be bygones~!" the Yamabuki boy interrupted benignly.

The Rokkaku male levelled an accusing finger in his direction as well, "You're both insane!"

"Fujiko!" Kikumaru cried, sprinting forward to tackle-hug the smiling boy who remained quiet all throughout his teammates' argument. Fuji returned to hug, now completely ignoring the bickering trio behind him. "I knew you would survive, nya!"

"Thank you for your faith in me," Fuji said with a chuckle. "Although it was a close one... We just got lucky that Osakada's bullet missed Sengoku and hit the clock instead."

Oishi and Tezuka drew near, the former checking Fuji for injuries. Fuji waved him off in gratitude just as Kikumaru latched back on to the healer with a wide grin.

"You two seem different," Fuji noticed with a gentle - but contemplative - smile.

Oishi shrugged, grinning, but Kikumaru pumped a fist into the air, proclaiming, "It's Kikumaru Reborn! I'm not going to let this scary place hurt my friends or me anymore, nya~!"

"Eiji learned more about his Word," Oishi explained with an indulgent look directed at the redhead. "He turned into a tiger - really, it was magnificent! - and, uh, broke the clock on accident when he was chasing off the other two guys we were with."

Fuji laughed, delighted. "A tiger, Eiji? I want to see that!"

"Hoi hoi, wish granted!" Kikumaru winked, before shifting forms. Tiger-Kikumaru sat on his haunches, giving Fuji a low growl in satisfaction as the CHANGE-wielder clapped in admiration.

"Ah, Tezu- is that a tiger?"

Kawamura stopped a full three meters way, gaping in open astonishment at Kikumaru's new form. The CAT-user let out the extremely-untigerish sound of the feline-equivalent of laughter. Kikumaru shifted back, grinning at the sushi chef-in-training at his properly amazed look.

"So we all survived," Inui cut in, walking towards them. Trailing behind him was Kaidoh, one snake draped over his shoulders as the junior looked over their group and then back at the myriad of doors. "Ii data," Inui mumbled, writing a few more notes in his notebook before flipping to a different page.

"How did you all find out that the clock was the way out?" Inui inquired. "We didn't know the Trial's creatures could lie to us, unlike some of the other students..."

Fuji, Tezuka, Kikumaru, and Oishi traded looks. "Dumb luck," they sighed.

Kawamura grinned nervously, "Actually, one of my teammates just kept...breaking things... The clock was just the last thing."

Inui's eyebrow ticked, but no emotion crossed his features. "The Overture apparently tests the moral integrity of the students. As long as you don't kill anyone trapped in the room with you, you'll pass. Even if you don't destroy the clock, once it's been 30 minutes without any casualties-"

As if on cue, all of the Doors that remained white flew open and a multitude of people phased back into existence in the Courtyard. The Doors closed swiftly after, dulling to a gray - denoting them as completed missions.

"You'll pass," Inui finished dryly.

One hundred doors stood in the Courtyard - out of those one hundred, seventeen doors were pitch black while the rest were the same murky gray.

"So all of the black doors...they killed people..." Kawamura murmured. Inui gave an aloof nod, making a few more calculations in his notebook. "There were one hundred doors - 17 have gone black. That means 68 people have died in the Ov-"

The DATA-master halted abruptly, staring straight at a door - that was slowly turning back to white. Those nearby - Tezuka and his friends, Atobe's group, a couple juniors from Rikkaidai, and Dan Taichi - stopped and just stared as it opened.

After the light faded, Echizen Ryoma boredly re-adjusted his wristband - standing alone in front of a graying door.

 

-

Day 4
Attending Students: 400
Deceased Students: 67
Students Remaining: 333
-
能ある鷹は爪を隠す。
"The talented hawk hides its claws."

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

"No one's side but his own."

In the next moment, all of the Doors in the Courtyard began to dissolve into nonexistence - gone, just like the monsters from the Hunt. Most of the students began to disperse, re-entering the school building or dormitories depending on their mood. It didn't look like much time had passed, as the sun still shone high in the sky.

"Ryoma-kun!" Dan greeted brightly, rushing towards the solitary figure.

Echizen Ryoma acknowledged the Yamabuki boy with a casual nod. Nothing about the golden-eyed youth looked different; he was perfectly unruffled, uniform and face wiped clean of anything. He'd given his attention to the chattering Yamabuki boy, seemingly not noticing the myriad of stares he'd gained.

"-so Tezuka-senpai broke the clock and we were transported back here! I'm surprised you weren't among the first to arrive, though, Ryoma-kun. And then when the time ran out, I really thought we had lost you!" Dan continued.

Echizen snorted, not even bothering to detach himself from the boy, "It wasn't that hard."

Dan laughed. Something in his demeanor changed then, but it was hard to tell what - his smile remained cheerful, his eyes bright, his posture practically radiating elation. Yet something very sinister seemed to settle into Dan Taichi. Tezuka finally noticed the shadow the freshman boy was casting; instead of his silhouette, the shadows attached to Dan curled around his feet like smoke, an incongruous form that continually shifted.

Dan leaned close to the other boy so that his next words were audible only to Ryoma: "As expected of you, isn't that right - beloved Prince?"

With that, Dan turned and wandered over to Sengoku. Unperturbed by his section mate's prior conversation, Sengoku greeted the boy cheerfully and the two Yamabuki students idled away without a backwards glance.

"Echizen," Fuji began - voice low and dangerous, blue eyes open to pin the younger boy with a look. "Where are your teammates?"

Echizen merely cast him an unimpressed look as he swept by, re-entering the Freshmen's Wing. "That's the wrong question, Fuji-senpai," he said as he passed, not even a shadow of an expression flickering over his features.

 

-

 

School was getting so much more exciting now - Momo could barely stifle his grin. His peers were finally adjusting, if the lack of suicides were anything to go by. It was also becoming easier to befriend others; many students new to the real Tengoku were starting to lose that paranoid, hysterical edge and were more willing to strike up friendships, if only for potential allies.

Granted, some of the Fudoumine kids could be better. Kamio was just too bitter to talk to and Momo really couldn't understand anything Ibu said - but An was nice enough. She was spunky and sharp, and knew the advantage of having friends in Tengoku. Momo had never been that good at socializing with girls, especially pretty ones like An, but he wanted a connection in Fudoumine. The girl had promise in comparison to some of her Fudoumine peers.

Momo could admit he was getting readily comfortable with his position now. He'd had his doubts at first; he wasn't anything close to shy, unlike Kaidoh, but that didn't mean he was used to going out of his way to establish connections. As accustomed as he was to the concept of Tengoku and all it stood for - practically raised with it - he just wasn't used to dealing with people who weren't. He even felt slightly resentful about it; why did they get to grow up without even the faintest idea of what sort of nightmare lay before them?

Ibu's probably right, Momo mused. We are pretty rotten people.

"Takeshi-kun!"

Momo nearly stumbled at the feminine croon, turning startled eyes to the pretty brunette making her way towards him with a bright smile. Tachibana An was practically running towards him - and didn't even bother to slow down as she passed, merely grabbing his wrist and forcing him along to follow.

"Eh?" Momo gaped.

"I'm kidnapping you!" An announced pleasantly, giving him a playful wink.

"Eh?" Dammit, his weakness was pretty girls!

She bounded past the dining hall, the Courtyard, and further into the territory Momo recognized as Fudoumine's. He hadn't been this far before - there had been no point, as there was little report on Fudoumine and the members who had gotten in. Even Ryuuzaki-sensei had given the general feeling of 'don't bother' concerning a few of the sections, Fudoumine among them. Echizen hadn't been interested in the freshmen, outside of keeping them alive for backup later.

"An-chan," Momo started weakly, looking up at the dormitory as they approached it. "It's very...pink."

An laughed, "Our colors are black and cerise pink. I suppose the black would make it look too gloomy."

That's emasculating, Momo thought.

The dormitory set-up was identical to Seigaku's, with the exception of the color scheme and a preference for inner-city paintings as decoration. An pulled him past the commons room and into the study area, where already four boys were gathered - Ibu and Kamio among them. The other two boys were taller, although only one was a senior: the boy with close-cropped black hair and bindi on his forehead. The boy with the white bandanna already had his staff out and was leaning against the furthest wall, eyeing Momo calmly as An dragged him inside.

"This feels mildly threatening," Momo noted aloud.

The senior smiled at him disarmingly, "It's not meant to, I assure you. I am Tachibana Kippei - An's older brother."

Tachibana nodded to the two familiar juniors, "And I know you've met Kamio and Ibu already."

"I'm Ishida Tetsu," the other junior spoke up. "Nice to meet you."

"Momoshirou Takeshi," Momo nodded in greeting.

The study room looked relatively unused - odd, in comparison to the Seigaku dorm's, which usually had two or three groups occupying it at any given time. Momo couldn't recall the exact statistics of the Fudoumine dorm, aside from the higher rate of suicide. It was possible they suffered heavier losses across the board concerning the Trials.

"I still say we shouldn't trust this guy!" Kamio interjected in a huff.

Tachibana frowned, "Akira-kun, we talked about this. From what An says," he directed to Momo. "You're familiar with how Tengoku works?"

Momo took a seat in one of the available desk chairs, trying to lessen the tension in the room as Kamio's temper simmered. If he didn't look ready to attack them, it may put some of the more flighty members at ease - in this case, everyone but An and her brother. The Seigaku junior nodded in the affirmative, connecting the dots and starting to understand why this little meeting had been executed in the first place.

"You guys don't know anyone else that's in the know, huh?" Momo mused.

Tachibana's pleasant expression faltered, looking almost pained. "Well, Uchimura-kun was kind enough to fill us in on the first night... But he didn't make it past the Second Trial."

"Ah," Momo grunted in understanding. "Sorry about your friend."

He wasn't really, but he could fake it well enough.

Tachibana paused briefly to compose himself but forged on soon enough. "To be honest, Momoshirou-kun, it's because of the Second Trial that I... Well, I suppose I became a bit more curious on how things worked around here."

Momo perked up, eyeing Tachibana carefully. The Fudoumine senior appeared to be trying to keep up the appearance of being genial, but there was something very focused about the way he was evaluating the Seigaku boy across from him. There was a certain aura of authority that the boy gave off, as evidenced by the way his peers had yet to interrupt his conversation.

"What do you mean?" Momo prodded.

"From what Uchimura explained, the Trials were infallible - you either passed and survived, or failed and died," Tachibana said. "In short - Trials cannot make mistakes."

This was starting to enter dangerous territory. Momo recognized it well enough, as did the other Fudoumine members: Ishida was gripping his staff tightly, Ibu's expression was defiantly blank as he stared straight at Momo, and Kamio had begun tapping out a rhythm against the wall he leaned on. An remained next to her brother but her posture spoke of one ready to launch into an attack if provoked.

Momo wondered if she'd be able to draw her bow quick enough to stop him from throwing a grenade.

Tachibana continued on, "Which is odd, because from eyewitness accounts - the Second Trial did make a mistake. And a Seigaku freshman escaped unscathed."

Momo snorted. He couldn't help it - the idea of Echizen running from something was laughable. The monster was probably just trying to escape him, he thought in amusement.

Tachibana cocked his head. "Is this...funny?"

"Kind of," Momo admitted. "But I've been told my sense of humor is terrible." Oishi was so snippy these days, really. "Don't you think you're asking the wrong person about all of this? I wasn't in that room with Echizen either, you know."

"And yet you don't deny knowing how he did it," Tachibana returned evenly. "Which means you know far more than anyone else in this school, Momoshirou-kun."

"Everyone knows how chummy you are with the freshmen," An pointed out.

Momo grinned, "They're not that hard to talk to, they really aren't! Everyone just doesn't want to give them a chance, is all!"

"The devotion to Echizen is suspicious," Ishida put in. "We only have eight freshmen - and each one refuses to talk to us about anything involving Echizen or the school."

"Did you ever think that's because you're approaching it like you have a problem with it?" Momo suggested blithely. He fixed each Fudoumine student with a knowing look, lips pulled up into a small smirk that had Kamio's hackles raised. "What's so terrible about being loyal to your friends?"

Silence descended after that statement. Ishida didn't look very convinced, and both Kamio and Ibu just looked like they'd rather bash Momo's head in than converse any longer. An was giving this statement some thought, though - her lips had settled into a small frown as she tried to recount her past attempts at talking to the freshman students. Tachibana's gaze was even, carefully thinking about what he would say next - some counter-claim, Momo was sure.

"If you're so interested in Echizen, I'm sure I can arrange a meeting of sorts," Momo suggested brightly.

Tachibana stilled completely.

An's eyes were wide, "You can do that?"

"Connections are important in a place like this," Momo stated efficiently. This was why he was brought here in the first place, made one of the forerunners in a plan that was just coming to fruition. Where Echizen hid, where Kaidoh remained a stable rock to work from - Momo must be able to expand, to draw others in so that, at the very least, their broken bodies could be used to surmount what stood between them and their goal.

"An alliance?" Tachibana proposed.

"What could it hurt?" Momo agreed with a small laugh.

Tachibana breathed out, looking tired. Momo could only guess at the stress the other boy must be feeling - being made de facto leader while remaining as ignorant as the rest had to be terrible for one's health. He seemed the efficient sort, though, and a reliable person was always a better ally than foe.

"We would not be adverse to such an arrangement," Tachibana said.

"As long as you bastards keep up your end of it!" Kamio sharply interjected. Tachibana only gave him a look to settle the younger boy back down.

Momo shrugged in acceptance, "Fair enough. I can arrange the meeting."

"If you would," Tachibana nodded.

Momo stood, satisfied with what he believed work well done. Not bad, if he said so himself: an alliance between another dorm, the fine-tuning of a solid base within Seigaku itself, and all of the beginning pieces falling into place nicely. He was getting a good lead starting out, to his pleasant surprise.

"Momoshirou-kun?"

Momo paused in his stroll to the door, glancing back at Tachibana who remained seated at the desk. He was looking over at Momo curiously, as if trying to puzzle something out but finding the pieces unsuitable.

"Are you so sure of yourself because Echizen is on your side?" he asked quietly.

A pause - then Momo threw back his head and laughed. It was long and hard, deep guffaws that seemed to bounce off the walls and rebound down the desolate corridors of the Fudoumine dorm. The laughter subsided into choked chuckles, but the wide grin on the junior's face never dissipated.

"That brat, on my side?" Momo echoed, unable to stifle his snickers. He gifted Tachibana with a look bordering on manic, not bothering to leash himself; the Fudoumine leader stifled his reaction to cringe, uncomfortable with the expression.

"Tachibana-san," Momo began. "If nothing else, remember this when you meet him: Echizen is on no one's side but his own."

 

-

 

Rumors circulated surprisingly fast in a school of mortally-afraid students. Echizen Ryoma, the Seigaku freshman that had turned a Black Door to White - and had walked out alone. There were whispers that the boy was strange and terrifying, that he had some kind of hold over his entire class; not a single Seigaku freshman ever spoke ill of him and always looked to Echizen for guidance.

No one knew his Word. No one was foolish enough to ask him.

Fuji had been approached privately more times than he dared count, questioned by his peers on his roommate's power. Fuji had only shook his head and admitted he was no more knowledgeable than they were, to some students' irritation. One Shitenhouji third year had frowned, fingering the bandages wrapped around his left arm as if weighing the merits of pushing further. Fuji had tensed, not quite willing to believe the worst in this total stranger but knowing better than to let his guard down. The Seigaku senior needn't have worried - Kaidoh had skulked up the stairs, lips twisted into a scowl as he glared over at the intruder on Seigaku grounds. The Shitenhouji student left without further probing, casting the snake-like boy a scrutinizing look as he passed.

More than anything else, Fuji felt he was missing something. Some basic understanding of his new surroundings that he couldn't quite grasp but yet he always felt so painfully aware of; it was not the last traces of ignorance on how Tengoku Academy worked, not the basic understanding of needing to pass the Trials that his peers so often discussed - it was something deeper, a meaning he was missing even as it stared him right in the face.

No first years had questioned him. It was one of the first things Fuji realized after two straight days of people asking about Echizen. Second years and third years from all sections, of both genders, regardless of their prior knowledge of Tengoku. Not a single freshman, however; they dare not even glance at him. The ones in Seigaku barely registered their upperclassmen as existing; they ghosted around the dormitory, quiet as they conversed amongst each other and openly eyeing any upperclassmen who drew near them.

Not that Fuji quite trusted anyone yet as well. Tezuka and the others were fine; Momo and Kaidoh, however, were something else. Fuji trusted the two juniors enough to believe what they said about the school but not enough to trust his back to either. Momo's connection to Echizen remained unclear and the boy laughed away any requests for clarifications. Kaidoh was properly respectful and even sweet, if some of Inui's candid observations of his roommate were anything to go by - but the methodic way in which Kaidoh trained every day with his Word was too unusual to be considered a product of justified paranoia. Fuji did not make a habit of keeping tabs on either junior, but he saw them around just enough to realize that they had established relations with the freshmen. Given the fact that no one else had, seeing as each freshman student was so aware of Echizen's attention, this put both Seigaku juniors under suspicion from Fuji's side.

It was a strained situation, Fuji readily admitted to himself. Echizen was hardly ever in their room enough to actually talk to, returning late into the night if he ever returned at all. In the freshman's absence, Fuji had once rifled through the boy's belongings; his drawers were filled with only the school uniform, the required bathing supplies, and a bevy of wristbands. The only personal items were the books atop the dresser and the cat picture.

The books themselves were a mystery. One looked to be the common dictionary - but once Fuji flipped through the pages, he saw nothing but a disorganized jumble of letters and numbers, as if they had been printed out by a malfunctioning computer. The second book was recognizable: Le Petit Prince, even though it was in its original French. The third and final book had unsettled Fuji the most, however: it was smaller than the previous two, the black cover worn with age and over-use, the pages yellowed by exposure. On each page, from the very first to the very last, printed over and over in the exact same font and size was one phrase:

I will tear your wings asunder.

Page after page was filled with this one sentence, lining the book cover to cover. Fuji felt as if someone had run a cold hand down his back as his eyes flickered over the repeating mantra. It was printed neatly and concisely - clearly not done by human hand - but the book was otherwise devoid of any other words or possible sites of origin. He had placed it back in the spot Echizen left it, the icy feeling in the cavity of his chest leaving him as soon as he'd stopped looking upon it.

Fuji gave in to his urge to sigh, running a hand through his hair. Tezuka glanced back at him questioningly, although the Seigaku senior still had half his attention on his study materials. Homework was optional in Tengoku - probably so they'd have more time to train or get through Trials - but self-study was encouraged, especially given that they had an exam to keep them up-to-task every other week. There were already study groups forming among the sections - freshmen once again being the only ones to ever do cross-section anything - for all of the subjects taught.

Their own group had enough varied talents and were astute enough that they had no need to find others. Kawamura and Fuji were both exceptional in mathematics and English, Tezuka had a talent for literature, Inui for the general sciences, and Kikumaru held a keen intellect for history. They were all average or above in most classes, and given that if they survived until graduation, getting into a career or university wasn't much of a concern anymore.

While they did study - at least three hours a day, excluding the days when Trials occurred - they tended to put their education on the backburner to devote more time and attention to training with their Words. Kikumaru spent half his time in cat-form now - usually of the housecat variety - although he shifted into the more ferocious felines just to experiment.

Kawamura remained wary of his own power, not desiring a repeat of a backlash. He worked on controlling his word from the smallest size: a fire from a lighter. Oddly enough, this had lured in some cross-section contact courtesy of Akutsu Jin, who would ask Kawamura for a light for his cigarette. How the Yamabuki senior had even managed to get the cigarette in the first place was unknown, but Kawamura seemed pleased with the expansion of his contacts so the others saw no need to jeopardize it.

Tezuka had been hard at work on concentrating mass into a singularity, creating tiny black holes that pulled in only the select few objects Tezuka willed them to. The bespectacled senior wasn't yet confident enough to risk creating a "Tezuka Zone," as Kikumaru had taken to calling them, close to another person. Although all preliminary tests had proven he could pull in any small number of objects, or one large object if he tried hard enough - he was neither able or willing to see if his Word had the ability to amass another human being.

Inui seemed to be having the most fun out of the seniors, pulling up information in his notebook with only a precursory observation. His 'DATA' wasn't limited to Trials, he'd figured out - he was able to pull up some of Kawamura's personal information by simply wanting it. There were holes, as Kawamura had pointed out - but all of the basic information (height, weight, blood type, etc. - it was more like a hospital record) were correct. Inui had tried it on the others, as well as Kaidoh and Momo; there it was discovered the two juniors had been in the same class starting from kindergarten. That had practically screamed conspiracy at Fuji, but Momo had merely waved it off with a resentful "I can never escape his ugly mug!" (Kaidoh much reciprocated that statement.)

Trying to gather 'DATA' on others was more complex. Inui had tried his first external-group experiment on Echizen, as the freshman was present in the Courtyard when Inui went scouting for possible guinea pigs, but the only information that showed up was his name. (Momo's laughing, "We should have expected that, we really should have!" did nothing to stifle suspicion.) And only a minute after Inui had attempted to get the freshman's information, Echizen had looked over at them with this galling smirk. Subsequent tests done on the freshmen with Echizen (Osakada, Ryuuzaki, Katou, and Rikkai's Urayama) yielded the same lack of results.

"Perhaps his Word can block or limit mine," Inui noted to himself, adding this information to the page on Echizen himself. "If another Word can affect my own, then it's possible a Trial can as well... I will have to be more careful. I cannot just blindly believe the information given anymore." Data can change, Inui mused internally. He should have known that.

Fuji was a bit more candid with his own training. Now, sprawled over Tezuka's bed as he was - he'd had nothing better to do, given that Kikumaru had accompanied Oishi to the Nurse's Office to be present for the boy's own training - he let his eyes wander over the other male.

Tezuka was tall and lean. His legs were long and fit with muscle, built from tennis practice and honed from exercise he had yet to cease. Pale skin stretched from head to toe, blemishless despite their age. His features were sharp, eyes narrowed just enough to be considered the picture of beautiful masculinity. His hair was a lighter shade of brown, sometimes streaked with gold in the sunlight, naturally wind-swept and silky. The narrow bridge of his nose held up his glasses, his lips somewhat thin but a light pink hue and unchapped. Sharp, rounded chin, and his thin brows held the fine lines of too much frowning between them. Long, slender fingers with trim nails, lightly-muscled arms attached to broad shoulders.

"Tezuka," Fuji started. "You are unfairly handsome."

Tezuka turned - likely to ask what his friend was going on about - but his words died in his throat at the sight of the other boy. His reflection stared back at him, donned in the same uniform but lacking his spectacles. The mischevious smile on his own lips was enough to clue him in to the abrupt image.

"Oh," said the not-Tezuka. "You have a mole on the left side of your neck."

A mole showed up in the exact place only a blink later on the copy. Tezuka could feel a headache coming on. Fuji-as-Tezuka stood from the bed, looking down at his new body with a growing smile. "Well, this could entertain me on some lonely nights."

"Fuji," Tezuka began warningly.

Fuji-as-Tezuka gifted the original with a smirk bordering on sinful. The sight of it on his own face made Tezuka want to cringe. "But I could find all your sweet spots, Tezuka!"

"Turn back. Now." Tezuka's limit: reached.

Fuji did so with a small laugh, his features effortlessly melting back into his own.

"You ruin all my fun."

-

Truth be told, Momo was doing quite good for his first week. He'd pretty much firmly entrenched himself with what he knew to be some of the most promising of the Seigaku seniors, even though the group was still wary of him. After the Second Trial, however, they came to trust him a bit more. It probably helped that he had Kaidoh on his side, as his fellow junior was more courteous and had gotten on Inui's good side.

When they'd first arrived, Momo hadn't had much hope for the Seigaku senior class as a whole. No one he'd known had gotten in so he'd pretty much assumed they'd die out as the time went by. Running into them during the First Trial had sparked his interest, but it was Kaidoh's own observations of his roommate and the group at large that cemented Momo's investment. Momo liked all of his upperclassmen. They were interesting and their reactions to Tengoku were pretty entertaining.

Still, he liked his underclassmen more.

"Hey, kiddos!" Momo greeted enthusiastically, throwing open the door to the dorm room. "What are you guys up to?"

And of course he'd have a gun pointed at his face. The barrel of the firearm was less than a meter away, held by a scowling Tomoka with one finger on the trigger.

"Oh, it's only you, Momo-senpai," Katou said in mild surprise. (Momo was amused that Tomoka still did not lower her gun, though.) The freshman boy was sitting on one of the beds, next to Sakuno who had an open notebook laid on her lap and had apparently been taking notes. Across from them on the opposite bed were a bemused-looking Horio and Rokkaku's energetic Aoi Kentarou. Standing in front of the one window was Katsuo, who had only glanced back at Momo's entrance but returned his placid stare to the outside.

"It's rude to barge into someone's room without permission," came the dry reproach from the boy seated at one of the desks. Echizen's bored look never wavered as he met the junior's eyes.

Momo waved it off with a wide grin, "I'm sure Horio and Katou don't mind! Right, guys?"

"I mind if Ryoma-kun doesn't like it," Katou answered dutifully.

Horio snorted, "Since when does Momo-senpai care about our opinion?"

Momo just laughed good-naturedly. Echizen sighed, a flash of irritation crossing his features before it settled back into a deadpan look. "What do you want, Momo-senpai?"

"Why do I have to want something to spend time with you, Echizen?" Momo quipped, but continued at Echizen's pointed stare. "You've caused a ruckus."

"And?" Echizen prompted.

Momo shrugged, "Well, I don't really mind - it's pretty funny, after all. But don't you think it's a bit too early for all of this? They'll be watching you even more closely now, especially after what happened with Sakurafubuki. If you get too out of hand, they'll do more than just spectate, they really will," Momo continued calmly. "And you aren't ready for that yet."

Echizen scowled, "Who are you to tell me what I'm ready for?"

Momo closed the distance between them, slamming his hands down on the desk and leaning close to stare into golden eyes. "I'm your friend and the only one with enough guts in this entire school to tell you to your face what the reality is."

Momo leaned back - having ignored the click of Tomoka's gun as she cocked it - and held Echizen's gaze. "Get yourself back under control, Echizen - even you have your limits. If you become so enthralled with your own power, you'll end up just like Ryoga."

For a split-second, Echizen stilled completely. Then the freshman glanced about the room with hardened eyes, catching the freshmen's attentions. "All of you - leave."

There were no protests, although whether that stemmed from Echizen's clear displeasure or that the boy had trained them well enough was unclear. Each freshman filed out of the room without a sound, never giving either of the boys left inside a fleeting look. Once the door shut softly behind Katsuo's departing steps, Echizen turned his attention back to Momo.

"I know that was a low blow," Momo began softly, sitting down at the other desk and looking over at the freshman with tired eyes. "And I'm sorry for saying it, but you have to know you're treading a fine line now. Even Viper is worried."

Echizen didn't look very concerned, staring at Momo evenly. "You two need to focus on your own mission and stop concerning yourselves with what I'm doing. I don't need you guys getting in my way."

Momo's eyebrow ticked in irritation, "Did it ever occur to you that we could help?"

"Stay out of it," Echizen warned, voice low and dangerous. Momo had to stifle the urge to shirk back at the boy's tone. "I have what I need. Anything more and it will be a burden."

Momo sighed, leaning back in his chair and looking up towards the ceiling. A taut silence stretched between them for several minutes, Momo thinking over what to say and Echizen not inclined to start a conversation.

"I heard that Dan was being obnoxious. Should we warn him?" Momo asked.

Echizen snorted, "Don't bother. He knows better than to get himself entangled in things beyond him." The freshman's expression relaxed back into a state of idle curiosity, "Did you hear that from the seniors? I've noticed you hanging around with them."

Momo grinned, looking pleased. "Some of them are really interesting, you know? Very interesting! Especially Tezuka-senpai and that roommate of your's - I totally had them pegged to die during the First Trial."

Echizen leaned his head against his fist, propping his elbow atop the desk. "Tezuka-senpai's Word is interesting. To be able to use 'CONCENTRATION' offensively like he had... Dan was impressed."

Momo frowned, "You don't think Dan will cross borders, do you? We need him to maintain his hold in Yamabuki."

"He won't. He's invested too much in that white-haired maniac to switch over," Echizen dismissed. It was amazing to Momo, how bored the boy could sound when discussing their carefully-laid plans - as if Echizen hadn't sacrificed everything he was to get to this position.

Momo couldn't even begin to imagine it. As it was, he could barely handle his own role; he was scared he would mess up along the way and send the whole deal crashing and burning. That was why he had been partnered with Kaidoh; where Momo was sociable and eager, Kaidoh was patient and reliable.

"The seniors can be useful," Momo said casually. The smile on his face was almost feral with the way his eyes seemed to glint like steel. His entire body language seemed to dictate he was on the prowl - a hunter, through and through. Echizen would not have accepted any less.

"Then use them," Echizen ordered softly.

-

Day 7


Attending Students: 333


Deceased Students: 0


Students Remaining: 333

-

毒を以って毒を制する。

"Use a poison to overcome a poison."

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

"It is the one who pulls the strings that has the real power."

Monday morning dawned and with it came the school routine. Inui couldn't quite believe he'd managed to survive a whole week at this abomination of a school intact. He tightened his tie subconsciously, the closest to fidgeting he'd ever come to showing. No one was present in his dorm room to note the movement - which was the reason for his unease.

He'd always been an early-riser. This hadn't changed much, even after that first night spent in the dormitory half-suspecting monsters to come springing out at any moment, regardless of his roommate's reassurances. He'd been pleasantly surprised to find Kaidoh as active as he was in the mornings; they got up at about the same time, with Inui making any final adjustments to his data or assignments while Kaidoh quickly changed into his workout clothes in order to start his morning training. They did little more than the cordial greeting before carrying on alone until breakfast, but it was in these quiet morning rituals that Inui found solace. It was comfortable and stable, both things he'd found lacking recently.

Kaidoh wasn't in the room when Inui woke up this morning.

Inui had been awake when Kaidoh returned to the dorm the night before. They'd said their well-wishes for sleep and Inui even made sure to wait out and just listen to his roommate's breath steady out into the comforting lull of sleep. It made the room feel more secure, if someone as ready and able as Kaidoh could fall asleep without issue.

Inui wasn't as obvious as the rest of his new friends when it came to displaying his unease with Tengoku. He was just actively trying to adapt to his new environment so that he could survive it. He didn't have a weapon like the others, nor any inside knowledge like his roommate or that creepy freshman that Fuji shared a dorm with. If anyone wanted to, they could kill him and he wouldn't be able to put up much of a fight. Inui knew all this, was still trying to accept it, and had anchored most of his unease in Kaidoh because the younger boy was the only stable thing in his life right now.

"Inui-senpai?"

Inui started, nearly choking himself as he tugged too hard on his tie. Pulling it loose and back into appropriate position, he managed a wan smile at the curious look he was getting from his underclassman. Kaidoh didn't say anything about his lack of attention, merely letting out a low hiss as his eyes darted down to what he had clasped between his hands - a clipboard.

"Good morning, Kaidoh," Inui greeted. Routine.

Kaidoh nodded, "Good morning, senpai." He paused, lifting up the clipboard to better read it. Scanning the contents of it briefly, he turned his attention back to Inui. The bespectacled teen wondered if the SNAKE-user had any idea how innocent he looked when trying so hard to look polite and genial. "Ryuuzaki-sensei asked that I meet her earlier," he explained.

"Ah," Of course Kaidoh would notice Inui's discomfort. Inui filed away that note on Kaidoh's keen observation skills for later. "So early? It must have been important."

Kaidoh shuffled self-consciously, "Not really." He looked so cute when he was embarrassed, Inui mused idly. "She just gave me the school cleanup schedule. I've been assigned to tell everyone their duties for the next week..."

Inui stared at the younger boy, taken aback. After all of that devastation and murder, Tengoku Gakuen was trying to pass itself off as any other school by assigning cleaning duties? Inui didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Kaidoh looked back down at clipboard, "You're on library duty with Echizen."

Cry, then.

 

_

 

"This is ridiculous!"

The screech drew Kawamura's eyes as walked down the corridor, pulling his attention to the irate second year clustered among the numbers gathered in the commons area. Kaidoh had gone around to every dorm room earlier to let students know of their individual assignments, then posted up the list in the commons area so he could go on his morning jog around campus. This had caused most of the Seigaku students to congregate in the commons area just to double-check their assigned chore.

"Why do I have to help mop up the halls in this fucking school?!" the second year demanded to no one in particular. "They expect me help clean when I could die any day?"

Well, Kawamura could agree with that. He glanced to his side, where Katsuo had also paused in order to watch the ongoing commotion. The younger boy's face remained impassive but his eyes had turned to his fellow freshman - the petite boy with the bowl-cut hair.

"It's just a minor chore, senpai," the boy pointed out amicably. "And other schools do it too."

"Other schools don't kill their students!" the second year snapped back. There was a murmur of agreement among those gathered.

"Oh, if he's just going to bitch about it, let him ditch it!" Osakada grit out, irritation clear on her face. The degrading look she gave all of the dissatisfied upperclassmen caused hackles to rise but, wisely, no one reproached her. This may have had something to do with the pistol she had been playing with the entire time.

"The teachers won't be happy about them shirking their duties, though," Katou frowned. He turned plaintive eyes to his schoolmates. "And if this is the type of school that kills you, what do you think the teachers will do to you if you don't do your chores...?"

Clearly no one had thought of that. Uneasy silence settled like a thick cloak over those present, looks being traded and imaginations drawing up the most likely and unlikely of scenarios. The second year that had been complaining earlier ground his teeth together in anger. Katou seemed to freeze but kept his compassionate expression, although Kawamura didn't think the freshman was really concentrating on anything.

"He has a point..."

"Let's just do it, Arai. It's not that bad..."

"No point in angering them..."

Encouraged by their fellows' acquiescence, those gathered came to an agreement to follow. Arai gave an angry huff but nodded at his friends - and just like that, the tension dissipated and the matter was settled. Katou gave a small sigh and a warm smile, turning back to Osakada and resuming whatever their prior conversation had been. Osakada looked like she was trying to bite down a smile but Kawamura didn't know what she had found so funny.

"Your friends are coming, Kawamura-senpai," Katsuo pointed out quietly.

Kawamura started, eyes flicking to the stair's landing where Oishi and Kikumaru were stepping down. "Ah, yeah," Kawamura stammered out, momentarily perplexed. Is that why Katsuo hadn't left his side-? "You didn't have to wait with me, Katsuo-kun."

"I was told to watch you," Katsuo shrugged.

"Wh-What?" Kawamura choked out, shocked more at the casual admission than the actual statement.

"Because you and your friends are interesting," Katsuo explained. He paused for a moment, watching with wary eyes as the other pair began to draw closer. "You should be careful, senpai."

Katsuo left. Kawamura forcibly turned his attention to his friends as they greeted him, trying to ignore the weight of Osakada's and Katou's stares.

 

_

 

Something was...changing. The segregationist way of the Sections had impeded inter-Section interaction for the first week outside of Trials, especially as close bonds were formed in these Sections and rarely outside of them (the freshman classes exempted, for obvious reasons). After the Overture, however, and the forced interactions of those who had survived the Second Trial together - something had changed.

"Ore-sama will deign to study history with you," Atobe sniffed imperially.

Tezuka wasn't sure he liked change anymore.

"...A friend of your's, Tezuka?" Fuji asked sweetly. The devilish taint to his smile made it abundantly clear (to Tezuka, at least) that the fair-haired boy already knew the answer and was just taunting him.

Oishi smiled at Atobe apologetically, "We actually study in a group - but if you want, you're welcome to join us!"

"Says who?" Kikumaru grumbled, mostly into his scrambled eggs. As the group's History expert, he was a bit disgruntled by adding more people to the study group they had formed. The blatantly patronizing expression the magenta-haired boy that stood behind Atobe wore had certainly added to his displeasure.

One of the other six boys standing clustered behind Atobe had a bewildered look on his face, "Why are we forcing ourselves into another person's study group?"

"Shut up, Shishido," the tan, bespectacled boy sighed. He utterly ignored Shishido's infuriated reply.

Inui adjusted his glasses, the only outward sign of his irritation - or amusement. Sometimes it was hard to tell. "The chance of this being a way to gauge our potential as allies - 85 percent."

"What's the other 15 percent?" Kawamura asked.

"Atobe trying to gauge Tezuka's potential as his future boyfriend," Inui stated boredly.

Tezuka's fork scratched against the plate in a movement of misplaced aggression. The magenta-haired teen burst out laughing, clutching on to the bespectacled teen's neck as he floated a good head off the ground. Atobe's expression was comical: a mix of irritation, shock, and...consideration.

"Well, that's one way to make alliances," Fuji mused casually, openly chuckling at Oishi's answering look of scandalization.

The Hyoutei group made themselves right at home, Atobe managing to inject himself into the seat directly across from Tezuka as he sent the burly junior boy - introduced as Kabaji - to get them food. The gentle-looking Ohtori followed his yearmate to the food line to help, Shishido tagging along citing that Ohtori was better company than any of them.

The tan, bespectacled boy took over introductions as Atobe considered himself too superior to do such things. "I'm Oshitari," he greeted. His smile reminded Tezuka unpleasantly of a shark waiting to bite. "And this is my partner, Mukahi Gakuto, and our pet Taki."

Taki scowled, "Like hell I'll be the pet of you two freaks."

"But you'd be the pet of someone else?" Fuji asked lightly, seemingly serious. Tezuka gave him a warning look that went completely ignored.

"Well damn," Taki gave the brunet a slow once-over. "Are you offering? I can do tricks."

Oshitari gave the ceiling a long-suffering look, an expression that increased ten-fold as Atobe attempted to steal Tezuka's attention with idle talk on Tengoku. "Of course, Ore-sama was well aware of the true nature of this school before entering," Atobe sniffed imperially. "So if you ever find yourself needing answers, Ore-sama will hear your questions."

Mukahi was cackling merrily to himself as he sent a random assortment of food flying from the table, most of the projectiles aimed at a hissing Kikumaru. Oishi noted in mild distress that his redheaded friend's nails were beginning to lengthen into claws.

"Interesting," Inui noted aloud. "Kikumaru is capable of doing partial transformations."

Tezuka wasn't really replying to anything Atobe was saying, but apparently the other boy just liked listening to himself talk. "And while your other allies leave something to be desired, Ore-sama does not mind expanding our network to include them."

He takes quite a few liberties when discussing alliances, Tezuka mused. He didn't have enough care to spend time thinking about how strange it was to develop alliances rather than friendships in a school. In a way, he was becoming sadly accustomed to his new environment.

Mukahi turned his mercilessly teasing smirk onto Oishi. "You have a catboy fetish, huh? Kinky."

Oishi choked out something resembling a squeak, face turning a vivid shade of red in a vibrant blush. Kikumaru - who had managed cat-like claws and slitted pupils at this point - had his blue eyes wide and was sporting an equally bright blush, although his embarrassed squeal came out like a kitten's mewl.

"Gakuto," Oshitari sighed. "Please stop sending our new allies into a catharsis, we've just barely gotten through the introductions."

Mukahi leaned into the taller boy's side, one hand sliding down his arm in a clearly sensual move. (Oishi and Kikumaru chorused another round of embarrassed choking sounds.) The smirk settled on the magenta-haired boy's lips was downright sinful. "They're such virgins, Yuushi. It's pathetic."

Apparently that had been all Kikumaru could stand in the way of banter, as he sent a piece of toast straight into the Hyoutei senior's face. It halted a scant few millimeters before him, then suddenly propelled itself back at Kikumaru.

It abruptly splattered into crumbs before the redhead, only the slight shudder of something incandescent fluttering before the cat-like boy.

"Please don't start a food-fight."

The group's eyes turned towards Ryuuzaki Sakuno, her one hand still outstretched as the word SHIELD branded on her wrist seemingly shined like a beacon. She wasn't making direct eye contact and there was a slight tremor to her voice as she seemed to take on a more scolding approach, "Daily chores begin today and you'll give our classmates more unnecessary work if you make a mess here."

Inui eyed her, openly contemplative. It was rare to see a freshman wandering around alone, even moreso this girl; she was a known friend - if they could be called that - of Echizen and was noticeably close to the boy. Inui didn't think he'd ever seen her without at least two other freshmen present.

Fuji was about to agree brightly with the girl - she may be a friend of his dormmate, but there was a sweet air to her that didn't seem feigned. He did have something of a big brother instinct, and although it would never be as strong when compared to his protectiveness of Yuuta, he still felt obligated to showing his underclassmen some measure of kindness.

"Oh, are we pretending that you care about others now?" Oshitari queried, cutting off Fuji before he could even begin and sounding bored.

Ryuuzaki flinched.

"An instrument has no right to speak to Oresama that way," Atobe stated coldly.

The very posture of his body spoke of something imperial, the air about him disdainful as he gazed at the Seigaku freshman with unfeeling eyes. Tezuka could see his breath before him with every exhale, the slight crinkle of the windows signalling the room was undergoing a rapid freeze.

"Atobe," Tezuka said, standing as the dining hall chilled considerably. There had to be limits to power, he was certain - so how was Atobe capable of freezing an entire building? Kikumaru had moved to cover Oishi, shielding the HEAL-user from any attacks and casting clearly distrustful looks over to their Hyoutei counterparts. Fuji had grabbed the nearest utensil, previously a fork, morphing it into a short sword as he made to stand by Tezuka's side. Kawamura and Inui idled between Taki and their bespectacled sort-of-leader, Kawamura gripping his wrist but ready to defend if necessary.

Others in the dining hall began to quiet as they took notice, immediately dismissing the idea of a surprise Trial when they caught sight of the tension taking place between the Seigaku and Hyoutei students. Some had escaped out into the Courtyard for warmth, although quite a few remained to watch how events played out.

They're observing the limits, Oishi realized. There was palpable hostility between the Hyoutei students and the Seigaku freshman, and if that hostility ignited into an actual fight - who was to say using their Words was off-limits? No teachers had even bothered to show up, even as greater numbers began to exit the clearly winter-like environment.

What could they get away with here? Theft? Violence?

….Murder?

"Tezuka," Atobe started. His eyes remained on the girl, frigid in their intensity. "Although they may have their uses, when it comes to marionettes - remember it is the one who pulls the strings that has the real power."

Tezuka did not have the time to respond. Taki had intercepted the direct line of contact between the Ryuuzaki girl and Atobe, holding out his arms as if in self-sacrifice. 'FLEXIBILITY' was scarred onto his wrist in open sight. "Atobe, this is too careless," he pleaded. "Remember our surroundings!"

Atobe rose an eyebrow, amused by this out-of-character show of awareness. Taki was usually so involved in himself and his interests that he cared little for what others thought. In honor of this budding maturity, Atobe receded his power; the room defrosted near-instantly, warming to its usual temperature. The Hyoutei senior noted in curiousity that his new Seigaku allies relaxed minutely but still kept their defensive stance.

"Class will start soon," Oshitari added. He seemed unperturbed by what was going on, checking over the contents of his bag before hoisting it onto his shoulder. Gakuto had clutched onto his arm with a devious smile, feet off the ground as he hovered.

Atobe turned his eyes back to Tezuka, cold expression dropping as a haughty smirk took residence on his lips instead. "We will be joining you on Wednesdays to study history. Oresama expects a lively discussion on the Kamakura period this week."

Tezuka stared back at him, completely unimpressed. Taki shuddered lightly - with the abrupt change in temperature, Oishi could sympathize - but dutifully followed his friends as the Hyoutei students began to exit the hall. Fuji was eyeing his new short sword in worrying contemplation but Tezuka ignored him in favor of approaching a withdrawn Ryuuzaki.

Atobe couldn't help the smile that curled his lips. A tense but fortuitous turn of events had just taken place. The Seigaku group was a curious bunch. He'd kept an eye on them from before the Second Trial, given their developing camaraderie with the likes of Kaidoh and Momoshirou. Tezuka had proved a more interesting investment given their grouping during the Overture, which Atobe had thought would make him a valuable asset to have in Tengoku.

He didn't think Echizen had claimed them first. The boy's dogs may have been sniffing around as they pleased, but as far as Atobe had been able to tell, the senior group was nothing more than a source of amusement for that bomb-happy junior and a casual acquaintance to the snake-lover.

So why had Ryuuzaki Sakuno intervened?

It was not the new alliance; if Echizen had had a problem with it, the intervention would have happened earlier and likely been a lot more deadly. He doubted it was for the reason the girl had said, as Atobe gave little credence to any evidence of a mere doll's humanity. Ryuuzaki was nothing more than an extension of Echizen, a puppet that happily and blindly danced to the tune of her master.

No, something else. If Atobe could only find out what, it would be the chink in Echizen's immaculate armor. A knot that Atobe intended to exploit as soon as possible. Extensive contact with Tezuka's group would be the best course for finding it. Seigaku was proving more promising by the minute.

"You shouldn't have been so open with showing off your Word," Oshitari criticized his friend. Taki was blinking blearily as he walked forward, but he gave the bespectacled teen a confused look.

"I...did what?"

Atobe stopped mid-step, turning to address the boy. His eyes were narrowed dangerously.

On the outside of the Dining Hall, Katou Kachirou collapsed against the wall with a shuddering sigh. The Tanaka twins - who had been watching the events unfold through the window - caught the boy before he slipped to the ground, dragging him behind the closest tree so that passers-by wouldn't notice them.

"Good job," Kouhei whispered.

Youhei nodded, "Your range is now about 250 meters. That's 50 meters further than last week."

Kachirou groaned, rubbing his temples. "I've been training a lot. Since it's so early, I have more time to..."

The twins nodded again in understanding.

"It's the senpai's stage for now," Kachirou murmured. "They must gather the players. We can only bide our time."

And Hyoutei has a dark horse on their side....

 

_

 

Tachibana wasn't sure what to expect when he'd agreed to a meeting with Echizen. The purpose was clear: an alliance between his own group of friends and whatever Momoshirou was a part of. What such an alliance would entail and how it would be received by the other side was unknown, and if the circumstances hadn't been quite so dire, Tachibana would have waited to have a better understanding of all the factors.

Except the circumstances were dire and Tachibana needed to make a decision now if he wanted to survive this school with his friends and sister. They had come together during the First Trial, confused by their teachers' instructions but not willing to just lie down and die.

Some of his yearmates had been terrible; they were unwilling to help him get to the other wings to help the younger students. Tachibana had been forced to traverse the battlefield alone to get to the wing for the second years, but his fears had been dimmed at the sight of his sister and her classmates working together to fight. It was a welcome sight; the Fudoumine second years understood teamwork far better than their third year counterparts.

The Trial ended before they could get to the Freshmen's wing, although Tachibana had taken it upon himself to check on them as soon as possible. Only eight had survived; they were shell-shocked and quiet, eyeing him distrustfully as they fled to their dormitories. They had moved themselves, regardless of assignment, so that they took over four rooms without any connection to an upperclassman. He'd heard the whispers, of course. Here and there, he'd catch a snippet of their conversations: 'Echizen knows.' 'They aren't interested in Fudoumine.' 'We have to be useful to Ryoma-kun or else-.'

Uchimura hadn't known anything about the undertones. He'd answered their questions about Tengoku and its Trials but remained ignorant about the going-on's happening within this year. Tachibana had figured -hoped - that for the moment, it could be ignored. That there would be no need for complications.

But then Uchimura died and Echizen Ryoma had bent the rules of a Trial.

"Ready?" An asked gently.

Tachibana smiled at her wanly, "Ready."

They'd agreed to meet in the library. It was during the afternoon break; a 30-minute affair taken before their last two classes. It was a new area for the Fudoumine-sorted kids, as they hadn't taken to exploring their new school yet.

The library itself was part of the main building, dominating the entirety of the third floor. Shelves lined the entire perimeter of the walls, each about ten meters high and filled to the brim with books of varying age, color, and wear. Banners that hung off of the columns in between shelves proclaimed their section for easy access. The librarian's desk was stationed just before the only entrance/exit, although no one was present. Shorter shelves and study tables formed the inner circle, and right in the middle grew - inexplicably - a tree with leaves the color of white pearls and bark as dark as ivory.

Echizen was already seated at one of the tables near the Art section. Next to him sat a bandanna-wearing junior who had a snake coiled around his wrist, hissing at him as if in conversation. Momoshirou was standing, looking over a shelf dedicated to Ancient Chinese art, humming contentedly to himself.

Tachibana almost missed the last boy. He was a Seigaku freshman, eyes closed and head resting against the top of the chair. For all intents and purposes, he looked to be asleep.

"Mizuno Katsuo," Momo said, motioning to the sleeping boy without turning around. "Sometimes he forgets he needs to sleep and just crashes."

Kamio visibly bristled, "Are you not taking this seriously?!"

The other Seigaku junior hissed in warning at the tone. The snake echoed the sentiment - as did the four others that were curled around each leg of the table. Tachibana stopped a meter away, now unwilling to breach the distance and take a seat across from the freshman boy. Echizen didn't seem mightily concerned, leaned forward with his chin rested on his hand, elbow propped up on the table with a disinterested expression on his face.

"Take it easy, alright, let's just take it easy~" Momo suggested cheerfully, finally turning around to join them near the table. "An alliance is like a friendship, right~!"

No it's not, everyone thought simultaneously.

Momo waved over to the table, "This is Viper-"

A snake launched itself from the table to clamp down on Momo's arm. Momo cringed in pain, pouting at the offending creature even as he carefully tried to pry it off his arm. Ishida edged forward to help, pulling on the snake's jaw to loosen its grip on the BOMB-user's flesh.

Echizen snorted, "Can we just get down to business? I don't want this to take forever."

Tachibana nodded, eyes on the freshman. "You know what we want is an alliance..."

"Granted," Echizen answered curtly.

The Fudoumine members froze. Tachibana blinked, completely taken aback by the easy way in which Echizen accepted them. His hands clenched at his sides. It couldn't be that easy; the way in which the freshman was guarded spoke of someone who had far too much power and responsibility.

"What did you want in return?" Tachibana asked.

Echizen drummed his fingertips atop the table, silent for a long moment. Momo - who had successfully pried the snake off of his arm - and Kaidoh remained quiet, not wanting to interfere in the conversation between the two. It spoke volumes about Tachibana's own power over his fellow members when neither Kamio or Ibu said anything, merely remained at either side of the older boy. An had moved over to Momo, inspecting the bite mark, Ishida next to her.

Kaidoh could admit he was impressed. Fudoumine was small and even though it lacked some of the...power that the other Sections had (sometimes in spades), what little they had to work with they used immaculately. They were cautious and frugal, approaching in positions that they could defend and attack from.

He's an idiot, but at least he's good at what he's here for, Kaidoh mused with a lingering glare at Momo.

"You either help if you're needed," Echizen finally replied. "Or stay out of our way."

"And how will we know when to do either?" Tachibana questioned, tone surprisingly even.

Echizen scoffed, "When I tell you."

Kamio leaned forward, beyond irritated, but Tachibana blocked him with an outstretched arm while keeping his eyes on the freshman. "What would we be in the way of?" he asked.

"You don't need to know that," Echizen returned severely.

Tachibana frowned, "We are not dogs, always willing to follow orders just because you have issued them, Echizen."

Echizen stood, then. The chair scraped back, unnaturally loud in the echoing corridors of the otherwise empty library. He moved slowly around the table, dragging his fingers along its wooden edges as he moved forward towards Tachibana. Kamio and Ibu moved closer to Tachibana in response but the Seigaku freshman did not take heed of their reactions.

No, not a dog, Echizen thought in dry amusement. A doll.

"Give me your alliance and I can offer you my skills and my protection," Echizen swore softly.

Tachibana did not budge, spine straight and sure, "Everyone here has a skill now."

"Yes," Echizen agreed. The smile on his lips was small and dark, as if he was laughing at some joke that only he got the punch line to. He breached the distance between them, reaching forward so that his fingers scraped past Tachibana's cheeks. An had already pulled her weapon, as had Ishida; both Ibu and Kamio were reaching forward, either to pull Tachibana back and away from the youth or to push the freshman away from their friend.

Tachibana did not notice them. His eyes were locked, mesmerized, on Echizen - who stared back at him with eyes that shined metallic gold, power itself wrapped within their depths. The color of his irises seemed to shift, brighter than the lighting of the library as his arms locked around Tachibana's neck.

"But you see, Tachibana-san, I'm not like everyone else."

 

_

 

The Hyoutei dormitory was like every other dormitory at Tengoku Gakuen, the only difference being the solidarity upon which its students operated. Even the first years, with their quiet allegiance to another outside of Hyoutei, obeyed the commands of the one who had proclaimed himself their leader.

So when Atobe snapped his fingers, those who had been gathered in the commons area departed immediately and without complaint, escaping to either their rooms or outside to give Atobe and his inner circle their time alone.

For just a moment, Shishido didn't know why Atobe had chased everyone out. He was still mildly miffed he missed whatever had transpired in the dining area earlier in the day, as it had Atobe shooting from smug satisfaction to irritation at any moment. It also had gotten Taki forcibly restrained in one of the dorm rooms on the third floor until he'd gotten the clear from both Oshitari and Hiyoshi, much to Taki's chagrin.

If this is another monologue on his greatness, I can't be held responsible for my actions, Shishido swore inwardly, closing the textbook he had been studying from to give Atobe his full attention. Next to him, Ohtori had already straightened from his previously-lethargic slump - much to Shishido's fond amusement, the younger boy got sleepy from studying - and had turned attentive eyes to the narcissistic third year.

Atobe wasn't paying them any attention, nor did he look inclined to speak any time soon. Instead, he watched as a head of fluffy blond hair suddenly shot up - bringing the room's attentions to the sleepy junior still halfway slouched on the sofa.

"Finally awake, Jiroh?" Atobe greeted, tone light with fondness.

Shishido sighed, pulling out a pack of chocolate mousse-flavored Pocky from his bag. Either he or Mukahi had candy present for their sweets-loving friend, in the hopes it would keep him awake long enough to actually have a conversation with them that didn't include snores. He handed it over, which Jiroh took with a small yawn of appreciation. Then he stuck in four sticks at once. Shishido and Mukahi both rolled their eyes at the boy's familiar antics.

"The next Trial," Jiroh began between bites. (Why did Kabaji-kun have that cheesecake on hand? Ohtori wondered to himself.) The others immediately perked up in response as the blond continued, "Will be tomorrow in the afternoon."

Jiroh swallowed his next bite, an unusual frown on his features. He looked up, staring straight at Shishido with softened eyes.

"And you will die tomorrow, Ryou."

 

_


Day 9

Attending Students: 333

Deceased Students: 0

Students Remaining: 333

_


弱肉強食。

"The weak are meat; the strong eat."

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

 

"If he did not make them a help, they would only become a hindrance."


"That's actually a favorite of mine."

Echizen paused, one finger sliding along the edge of a worn page as his eyes moved from the familiar words over to the older boy seated at his desk. For all intents and purposes, Fuji looked to be studying; his notes on advanced calculus were out and he was filling in his worksheets in a timely manner. His eyes remained closed in that ever-present smiling expression of his, pencil grinding darkened lead against paper as he continued his work despite voicing the interjection that had broken the prior quiet atmosphere.

Despite being roommates for over a week, they rarely talked to each other. Echizen was usually busy with one thing or another, vanishing and reappearing at odd hours without a word on the matter. Fuji knew better than to pry and held himself aloof, instead content spending time in Tezuka's dorm or out with any of his other new friends. The times they were in the dorm at the same time were rare, but what had started out as wary observance from Fuji had gradually lessened to silent acquiescence.

Thus it was odd for the older boy to comment on anything of Echizen's, prompting the freshman to regard his roommate with idle eyes. He didn't close the book, letting it lay open and bared to the room; the spine was so creased that the pages remained limp and unmoving, aside from the way Echizen's fingers slid over the illustrations. A finger traced the curved, cartoon face of the Little Prince, the flat eyes of the character temporarily obscured from view. Black and white, yellow and blue - sometimes Echizen thought that if he dragged his fingers across the pictures hard enough, the colors would come off and stain his skin with their essence.

"How fitting," Echizen finally allowed. "You seem the type that would like to watch sunsets." (1)

Fuji's smiling expression stilled and dissolved into something almost sincere, a flicker of what could only be labeled as 'agony' cutting through the mask before it resumed its rightful place upon the third year's features.

"You don't seem the type at all, Echizen," Fuji replied softly, but it was clear and audible in the air that hung between them.

Echizen's lips drew up into a familiar smirk, "Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies." (2)

Fuji's eyes opened in recognition of the line, his entire figure still as he regarded his underclassman. Is that how you see us, Echizen? An investment - but for what? What reason would you need for us to enter our chrysalis?

Echizen leafed through the pages of his novella. He had read it front-to-back more times than can be counted, knew every word by heart, every illustration easily recalled in his mind's eye - if a bit distorted. Where two-dimensional eyes and stick arms and legs colored across the pages of the book, at times he would see something else. Black and white, yellow and blue - these were the colors of his prologue, of a time where he began.

"You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed," (3) Echizen recited aloud into the quiet. "Isn't that sad, Fuji-senpai?"

A moment of hesitancy passed, before once again Fuji began to scrawl his answers into the empty spaces of his worksheets. Numbers and letters, formulas forged by experience and observation and necessity; it was easy to lose himself to something that did not require him to split himself open and bare his soul. Now Fuji remembered why he never started conversations with Echizen - the boy had a way of getting to him that made his heart beat rapidly with both hate and exhilaration.

"Not at all," Fuji deferred. "To be unique to one another, to need one another - that's something that should be relished, not abhorred." He paused long enough to turn the page of his workbook, starting along the next section. "In a place like this especially, wouldn't it be better to have friends to trust your back to rather than strangers who couldn't care less?"

Echizen eyed him quietly. Fuji didn't meet the gaze, his posture straight as he waited; it was his own opinion and, in some respects, an invitation - he didn't know what Echizen's ambitions were but he knew enough to guess that it was more important to amass allies instead of enemies in Tengoku. Fuji was becoming ever more aware of his own standing in the institution, as roommate of the enigmatic freshman and part of a group that had somehow entangled itself into a web that stretched across Sections.

Fuji was smart, and clever, and talented; he manipulated his Word with the ease of a natural, trained and practiced as if he'd been expecting a fight for his life since birth. His position in a group that had earned a reputation for its ties had risen their esteem as a whole, and he saw the way Ryuuzaki-sensei would eye them as they left her class. They bared watching for their talents and someday, hopefully soon, they would be let in on the underlying intrigue that seemed to enshroud every move they made.

"Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence," Fuji recited, although in his own mind the words were in the voice of his sister. "To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter." (4)

Fuji set his pencil down, sapphire eyes finally open as they met their golden counterparts. "I never got my hands on an original French version. Is the translation from its original form just as beautiful?"

Echizen was quiet for a moment, considering the question as he slowly shut the book. He placed it atop his dresser once again but did not move from his bed, golden eyes focused on the older boy so that Fuji felt a thrill crawl along his spine at the undivided attention, even if he could not quite place why.

"I wouldn't know," Echizen finally replied, tone soft as if voicing a curse instead of mere words. "I hate this book too much to see its beauty."

The blinding light of a Trial robbed Fuji of the chance to make his reply.


Kawamura awoke to darkness. This was strange, in and of itself, because every other sense of his was reporting something else: the caress of a summer breeze against his cheeks, the itching touch of grass against the bared skin of his arms, the warmth of the sun that his eyes could feel but could not see. He tasted clean air when he opened his mouth for breath, smelled a field that reminded him of playing sports with his classmates back in elementary school, heard the sound of someone waking near him and the crunch of feet against dirt.

I can't see, Kawamura realized with a start. "I can't see!"

He sat up quickly, the darkness of his vision disorienting him as he tried to struggle to his feet. He stumbled and fell back onto his butt with a low moan, trembling hands feeling the ground around him. Why can't I see! Why!

A hand settled onto his shoulder gently, "Calm down. It's fine - we're safe for now."

Kawamura hit the appendage away with the reflexes borne from training in karate, but immediately regretted it at the pained grunt of the other male that had attempted to console him. "I-I'm sorry. It's just I can't see and I could before and- What's going on!" he finished on a more desperate note.

"We're in another Trial," the boy responded. "So you can't see at all? Not even vague shapes?"

Kawamura shook his head but regretted it as another wave of disorientation hit him. He stood back up, accepting the helping hand of the other male. To the stranger's credit, he kept a warm hand on Kawamua's forearm - likely to reassure the senior of his presence.

"It must be the Trial, for whatever reason," the boy stated. "Not that these stupid things ever make sense anyway."

Kawamura nodded in agreement, "Did anything happen to you?"

"No," came the response. "But there's another guy here. He's a few steps away and seems to be waking up though. He's a Seigaku first year: scrawny, short brown hair, with a unibrow. You know him?"

Kawamura struggled to recall the boy's name. "Horio, I think. We've never spoken though."

A small sigh. "I don't think freshmen talk to anybody, really..."

The warm hand left him and Kawamura heard the other boy step away. Not wanting to accidentally stumble and hurt himself or others, Kawamura stood still and waited. There was a shuffle of movement and the stranger's voice calling out to Horio. There was no response for a moment, then a startled squawk in a higher-pitched voice - Horio's.

"Is something wrong?" Kawamura called out, taking a step forward and readying himself for attack. Perhaps he could make a ring of fire to protect himself? It would help to see what the surroundings were like, as in this state he felt a recoil more likely... Just the thought made nausea well up in his gut.

"Hold on, we're fine-" came the reply, and a flurry of movement.

"WHAT?" Kawamura heard Horio yell.

A pause, then a longer sigh. "Hey - do you know if this guy is actually deaf or not? He can't hear!"

Kawamura shook his head, "He seems to hear just fine whenever I see him around. It must be the Trial again." So he was blind and Horio was deaf? Kawamura hadn't realized it was possible for the Trial to actually disable them in any capacity.

Footsteps came closer, and the stranger gently patted his shoulder to signal they were back together. "Other than the obvious disabilities, you both look fine. Your Words are still present on your wrists as well," came the explanation. It sounded as if he were gesturing along with his words, likely for Horio's benefit; Kawamura didn't know if he was succeeding or not.

"Wish I had a pen and some paper," came the grumbled complaint. Horio's loud "I DONT UNDERSTAND YOU." cemented the fact of miscommunication.

A small smack. "Not so loud," he hissed. His expression must have said it all because Horio didn't reply. "Who knows what might hear you!"

Kawamura fidgeted listlessly. "Do you see anything out of place? Where are we?"

"We're standing in a field of grass, not much bigger than the Dining Hall," the boy described. "We're completely surrounded by forest, but I can't see any further in - the trees are too tightly packed together and block out the light. The sky is blue, a few clouds but otherwise a normal sunny day. There's...There's nothing else."

Kawamura frowned. What are we supposed to do, then?

"Oh," the stranger seemed to remember something. "I forgot to say. I'm Fuji Yuuta - Saint Rudolph second year. You?"

"Fuji?" Kawamura echoed in surprise. "Do you have an older brother?"

"You're a friend of Aniki's?" Yuuta asked in relief.

"I'm Kawamura Takashi," the Seigaku senior greeted.

He could hear the smile in Yuuta's voice, "Kawamura-san-"

Horio let out a screech, which was the only warning Kawamura got before a giant gust of wind propelled him off his feet and sent him flying back by a few meters. He rolled to a stop in the grass, crouched and dizzy, one hand holding a fistful of grass that began to hiss as it started to scorch under his hands.

Horio was making a series of unintelligible noises that sounded somewhat like familiar words, but the tone of voice indicated he was only surprised - not in pain. Kawamura strained to hear something from Yuuta but the other boy remained silent, making the third year fear the worst; what if whatever had caused that wind had somehow incapacitated or taken Yuuta?

"Kawamura-san!"

Kawamura released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The next statement, however, promptly crushed his momentary relief.

"I-It's a monster!"


"Inui-san," Ohtori Choutarou began, leading the tall Seigaku senior gently forward. "Kajimoto-san thinks we should stay in the clearing. What do you think?"

Inui allowed the hold, perspiration breaking out across his forehead as he made sure not to stumble. Waking up blind had been frightening; without any offensive or defensive capabilities, the disability itself had nearly made his heart stop. When Ohtori had come up, Inui had tried to assess the situation coolly: out of the three people present, two of them had been...altered.

He knew he was fortunate to have gotten someone as even-tempered as Ohtori. The younger boy heeded his observations and remained calm, which was essential during a Trial. The Jyosei Shounan third year, Kajimoto, seemed to be a kindred spirit; he remained by Inui's side, clearly coming to the realization it was better for them to stick close together to better fend off any foes.

"The Trial put us here, and as there's no alternate paths discernable, we can assume that whatever we need to do will happen here," Inui nodded in agreement. With a small frown, Inui extended his arms - the familiar weight of a notebook settling into his hands came a moment later. He opened it reflexively.

"Ohtori-kun, is there anything written here?" Inui asked.

A pause, then - "Just the word 'SHEPHERD'. Does that mean anything to you?"

Inui was on the verge of scowling, "Nothing that makes sense as of yet."

Kajimoto - on Inui's left - lightly touched Inui's branded wrist, the sound of his other hand moving in the air the only thing audible for a moment. Ohtori made an agreeing sound and, Inui assumed, a similar motion a moment later.

"Kajimoto-san says that we'll try to keep you out of the way, since your power can't be used here," Ohtori explained. "His power is offensive, I think - the Word is 'SNIPER'. I can create a suitable defense so I'll be near you, Inui-san."

Inui nodded in understanding, "Thank you."

Kajimoto suddenly grabbed Inui's shoulder, making a distressed noise as he pushed Inui further towards Ohtori. The second year's gasp was the only warning before another hand clamped down on his shoulder just as what felt like hurricane winds swept by him. Strangely enough, they did not budge; it felt as if his entire body had been frozen and nailed in place, unmoved by the external forces.

"What is it?" Inui murmured as the winds died down.

Ohtori's breath was even but his grip was almost bruising, "I... I don't know."


Fuji knew he shouldn't feel amused, especially in this sort of situation, but hearing the small litany of curses come from the boy next to him pulled a smile onto his lips. Tachibana seemed calm and the type used to taking on the leadership role, so Fuji acquiesced to the Fudoumine senior's suggestions in light of his new disability. He kept one hand on the taller boy's right shoulder, making sure not to bump too closely with the boy on his other side.

Hyoutei's Oshitari, according to Tachibana. Oshitari had managed to garble out something similar to an introduction, but the loss in his hearing meant it was difficult for him to sound out the syllables in the correct fashion and at a decent volume.

"That gust of wind," Fuji started. "What was it?"

Tachibana's shoulder muscles were taut under his hands, "A giant beast just landed in the clearing. It's about 30, maybe 35 meters away."

A shuffle of movement to Fuji's left, then a hand pulling his free one up to place something inside. Feeling along the edges, Fuji recognized it as a badge. "Oshitari-kun?"

"Chaange it. Shieeld."

Fuji nodded, gripping it at an edge. He envisioned it in his mind despite not seeing it: a meter in width and half their height, steel, light enough for them to carry but heavy enough to do its job. He felt it grow in his hand, elongate for its purpose, and soon enough Oshitari had grabbed it and positioned it in front of them.

"YoU muSt ChOoSE."


Tezuka felt rather than saw the boy on his left inch closer to him, although whether that was out of fear or in need of a defense was unclear. For his part, Shishido was only scowling, keeping one steadying hand gripped around the forearm of the last member of their little party: a serene Shitenhouji third year named Chitose Senri.

"Frightening," Chitose murmured.

Tezuka didn't turn his eyes away from the beast before him even as he responded, "I thought you could not see?"

"I can't," Chitose agreed. "In the conventional sense, at least."

Tezuka didn't have enough time to figure that out. With the head and wings of an eagle but the body of a lion, the beast stood crouched before them in a way that suggested it was on the hunt and had already located its prey; it stood the height of a two-story house and the width of a firetruck's side. The claws on every paw were the size of a toddler and as thick, black as night that matched the menacing stare the creature had fixed upon them.

"YoU muSt ChOoSE."

All three of them startled. Shishido made a motion near his ears - I can hear it! - while Chitose latched a hand on to Tezuka's shoulder.

"I MuST eaT oNe oF YoU. YOu wiLl chOoSe wHiCh oNe I WiLL eAT," the creature said. The voice came in and out as if screamed from the far end of a hallway. It was a masculine voice but if Tezuka listened close enough, there was the undercurrent of a woman singing the words.

"ChOoSE NoW, TeZukA KuNImItSU."


"ChOoSE NoW, MaRUi BuNTa."

Silence elapsed. Kaidoh kept his eyes on the redhead standing just a few steps before him, idly blowing another bubble with the gum in his mouth. The Rikkaidai third year did not looked very concerned with their situation, although considering the senior was the lucky one to be left unaltered, it only made Kaidoh more wary.

Momo flailed, catching his compatriot's attention. The spiky-haired youth was apparently blind, according to the gestures Marui had been doing just minutes previous. Kaidoh had felt more confident then; despite their disabilities, they had more offensive and defensive power in comparison to the third year.

But if the chance for battle had been taken out of their hands...

Marui popped his bubble. Said something that made Momo still. Kaidoh couldn't read lips well enough and feared the worst, especially as the creature reared up with (to Kaidoh) a silent screech. The inky black eyes it had afixed upon them shuttered into a tumultuous crimson as it readied itself to lunge.

"What did you say?" Kaidoh demanded, hoping that's what it sounded like coming out of his mouth.

He looked over at Momo - who was grinning.

Marui glanced back at him, half-shrugging. Then looked back at the monster and flipped it the bird.

Oh.

Chaos erupted.


"ChOoSE NoW, EchIZeN RyOmA."

Kikumaru had transformed the moment he'd seen the freshman as he awoke in the field. He knew very little of Echizen Ryoma, and what he had heard of him, Kikumaru did not trust - a manipulator, a killer, a mystery. All three were dangerous, especially if they were locked into the same Trial and in light of what had happened to the freshman's last Trial companions.

He will kill you if he thinks it easier, Kikumaru remembered. He'd shifted into a tiger before he realized he could not hear anything, but in this form, his other senses had sharpened; it was easier to rely on his sense of smell and sight. He would need to be ready for anything, as the grip on the collar of his fur attested.

Oishi. His dear friend was blind, Kikumaru had gleaned from observing. The HEAL-user had kept a hold on Kikumaru as they moved about the field earlier, both keeping at least two meters distance between themselves and the freshman. It did not seem to do them much good as the Trial progressed.

He will kill us, Kikumaru knew as he glared over at the boy standing before them.

Oishi felt his legs weaken and the only thing keeping him standing was his hold on Kikumaru. The tiger - Oishi knew his friend to have chosen the tiger form even before Echizen told him - had begun to growl, a low, thunderous sound worming out of the animal's throat. Oishi knew his friend meant to fight.

To be honest, Oishi knew the fight was inevitable. Assuming - however hopefully - that they could fight the beast for survival should he aim to eat either of them, then that meant Kikumaru stood a chance. Kikumaru could fight, and dodge, and run - he would survive this if chosen.

Oishi knew he wouldn't.

"Echizen," Oishi began haltingly. He knew the boy stood some distance away, too far to touch but enough to hear. "Please - pick me."

Kikumaru began to crouch, growl growing louder.

"So Oishi-senpai wants to die?"

That startled Oishi so much he almost lost his hold on Kikumaru. The red-haired tiger snarled threateningly, even if he didn't know what for. The question - delivered in a bored tone, as if the asker had made an idle comment on the weather - made Oishi wish even harder he could see Echizen's face. No child in the midst of a dangerous situation had the right to sound like that.

"O-Of course not!" Oishi stammered.

Echizen let out a long breath, his tone now amused. "Kikumaru-senpai doesn't want to die either. So now what, Oishi-senpai?"

What is wrong with this guy! Oishi screamed internally.

Kikumaru had stopped growling now, recognizing them as having a conversation, but in the elapsed quiet the feline began to ready itself for a fight again. That those blue eyes were still positioned on Echizen rather than the monster itself amused Echizen to some degree. Was it his animal senses or was Kikumaru really that wary of him? To recognize the larger threat... How interesting.

"ChOoSE NoW, EchIZeN RyOmA."

Echizen made a tsk'ing sound. "He's getting impatient, senpai."

"W-We can fight him!" Oishi managed out. Between the giant predator within distance of his fingertips and the homicidal threat that just seemed to ooze from Echizen's every pore, Oishi was fairly confident they could handle most anything. Then again, he couldn't exactly see the monster to accurately judge its power.

A pause.

"Can you?" Echizen mused aloud. "Then show me."

Before Oishi could ask what the boy meant, Kikumaru had startled backwards and nearly knocked him off his feet. He could guess why a moment later when Echizen's sharp voice cut through the otherwise silent clearing.

"I choose myself."

The sound of impact caught his ears and something warm splattered across his face. A drop found its way between his lips and the taste filtered through to his tongue: metallic and warm, as familiar as his childhood.

Blood.

"ECHIZEN!"


"ChOoSE NoW, FuJI YuUTa."

Even though Kawamura couldn't see it, he could feel the power of the creature's gaze. With one hand on Horio's shoulder, he pushed the freshman boy back behind him. He couldn't hazard a guess at the younger boy's power but whatever it was, Horio was to be no closer to the danger. His father had taught him right; he was the oldest here, the biggest kid on these grounds - and that meant he had a responsibility.

"Yuuta-kun, get behind me and make sure I'm facing it," Kawamura ordered quickly. "This is probably just like the last Trial in a way. Don't listen to it."

One hand on his shoulder that adjusted his aim was all that was needed. Kawamura tried to imagine the creature in his mind, using Yuuta's description of it: giant, part bird and part lion. He imagined the setting, a clearing in an otherwise densely wooded forest.

A lighter wouldn't cut it, nor a flamethrower. The blaze could not be so tame and so controlled. It had to raze his enemy to ash and dust, had to choke it so that escape was not an option, had to frighten it so that it kept its attentions off of hunting.

A creature in a forest was prey to many things.

Wildfire. Kawamura felt the release of his Word as it scorched the nearby trees, began to chew across the grass like marching ants. The power of the blaze drew perspiration, the smoke and heat near-suffocating at this close distance. This was the cost. He knew he could kill the creature in his flames - he only hoped he could do so before the wildfire killed them first.

A gentle breeze at his back grew in power, the hand on his shoulder drawing him back as what sounded like a maelstrom began to pick up in front of him. What-?

"The wind is mine," Yuuta explained quietly.

Worry and relief bloomed simultaneously, "But the flames can kill it!"

"Then I can keep the smoke away from us and the fire on its path," Yuuta added. "Don't worry about our safety, Kawamura-san. You can go all-out."

Kawamura shuddered into life. "BURNING GREAT-O, BABY!"


"ChOoSE NoW, OhTorI CHoUtarOu."

Inui frowned, "It will react soon. I doubt it will wait forever."

Ohtori made a strangled sound of assent. It relaxed Inui to hear the younger male so torn; it made him human and it was comforting to finally see someone react so normally to a situation. Spending time with the likes of Kaidoh and Momoshirou during stressful times tended to cruelly twist his expectations.

"Same as last Trial," Kajimoto enunciated carefully. "Ignore it. Kill it?"

Inui was inclined to agree. From the sounds of it, there was nothing else out of place in the clearing - meaning nothing else to attack. The creature meant to do them imminent harm, making it an immediate threat that the monster twisted about on the Door of the Overture hadn't been.

SHEPHERD was the only clue. Drawing from the circumstances, Inui placed Ohtori as the 'shepherd' - the one meant to guide both himself and Kajimoto, who were struggling under their own alterations. This also seemed to be the reason why the creature had singled out Ohtori as the one to choose; save the strays of his flock or leave them to their deaths?

"If a wolf attacks your flock, you do not leave it alone," Inui mused aloud. "A good shepherd protects his charges."

Ohtori inhaled, then exhaled slowly. "We must kill it," the Hyoutei student decided.

Inui felt Kajimoto move forward, "I am your weapon."


"ChOoSE NoW, TaCHiBaNa KiPpEI."

Fuji mused they really had gotten lucky this time around. He wasn't certain, but from their interaction in the Dining Hall before, he had gotten the impression that if Oshitari had been the one addressed, he would have called out one of their names just to see what would happen. As it was, Tachibana was far too upstanding to risk their health.

"Insistent, isn't it?" Fuji mused pleasantly.

He had the distinct feeling Oshitari nodded, even if the other male had no idea what he was saying. It kind of felt like they were teasing Tachibana, if the low exhale was anything to go by, but there was a definite sense of control. Tachibana...didn't seem worried?

"I won't choose," Tachibana said. Fuji suspected he had meant it for them (or him, at least) but the deafening screech that ripped out of the creature meant it had taken that as an answer. Oshitari made a grunt of surprise and accidentally slammed their shoulders together in an attempt to keep them protected underneath the shield, the sound of claws scratching against metal echoing unpleasantly in the aftershocks.

All three of them held up the shield, Fuji trusting the two to move as necessary to block any upcoming attacks. "It will kill all three of us now!" Fuji deduced, using one hand to rip off his own badge. He made it a spear in short order, Oshitari taking it from his hands as Fuji and Tachibana took up the extra weight of the shield.

Fuji didn't know what Oshitari had done with the spear, but whatever it was caused the monster to cry out in another deafening pitch. Suddenly Fuji knew he was the only one holding up the shield, Tachibana leaving his side and leaving the Seigaku senior locked in a moment of terror. Had the monster snatched him?

Tachibana yelled out just before something crashed to the ground, the monster's croon dwindling into agitated clicks and momentous rustling. Another hand - Oshitari's - grabbed Fuji's arm and took the shield out of his hands, setting it to the side.

"What happened?" Fuji managed out breathlessly.

Tachibana came back to his side, the heat of his body pleasant and reassuring. "My Word," the Fudoumine boy explained, "Is RESTRAINT."

Oshitari started chuckling next to him. Fuji felt a brilliant, sincere smile stretch across his lips; they were out of immediate danger then, which meant they now had the time and energy to figure out how to get rid of the monster safely.

"Take me to a part of the creature that I can touch," Fuji asked, reaching out for the Fudoumine boy. His hand was taken into a gentle grasp, reassuring in its solidarity. Tachibana was safe. "I know a way to kill it."

"How?" Tachibana asked, even as he begun to do as requested and lead Fuji forward. The Seigaku senior could hear Oshitari behind him, still chuckling.

Fuji's smile, if possible, brightened. "I haven't decided - a chicken or a snail? A chicken is suitable symbolically, but if it's a snail, we could just sprinkle salt on it and enjoy the show."

CHANGE was a word of possibilities.


Tezuka wouldn't choose. The monster chose for him.

Shaken, he only watched as the miniature black holes erupting all along the creature's body began to tear it to bits. He did not heed its wails and screams - he couldn't quite hear it, not in his state of mind. He didn't even seem to notice when the creature was gone, the warp holes he'd ripped into existence vanishing under Chitose's blind sight.

Tezuka was drenched in blood. It soaked into his clothes, stained the skin of his hands, arms, legs, torso - it was everywhere, the only thing he could see and smell and taste.

He should have been faster. He should have used his Word first instead of trying to plan or think of alternatives to answer a riddle that wasn't even there. He should have chosen himself.

As it was, Shishido's dull eyes stared up at him. He'd been ripped nearly in two; from his right shoulder down to his hip, so that it seemed as if the right side of his body was slowly peeling off. Blood was drenched into the grass and Tezuka, who sat with most of Shishido propped up in his lap. He knew it had been futile, knew the wound was fatal the moment the creature's claws had come down and torn into the boy. Tezuka had just been to distraught to care.

"Tezuka-kun," Chitose began quietly, as if not to scare a frightened animal. "Do you see a way out?"

Tezuka finally tore his eyes away from Shishido's unseeing stare. A Door awaited them in the middle of the field. It was open and waiting, and Tezuka just somehow knew that he would have to walk through it if he wanted out.

Tezuka managed to croak out a "Yes," in reply.

"I will help carry Shishido-kun," Chitose said, reaching forward carefully and feeling around until one hand finally alighted on the distended appendage of the Hyoutei boy's right arm. "We must not leave him here. Come, Tezuka-kun - you will find that there is still something good waiting beyond that Door."


"Why is it always the Courtyard?" Momo complained aloud and to no one in particular. The Door that had deposited them back onto Tengoku grounds had slammed shut and disappeared, a sound that echoed every so often as more and more people began to show up. Momo was grateful for the sight; he'd never appreciated colors and light more in that moment, actually. Being blind had sucked.

Marui snickered, blowing another bubble. "You guys aren't bad," the redhead allowed. He looked a little windswept and dirty, courtesy of Momo's wild and unrestrained bomb-throwing from before. NET was branded into the senior's wrist, which had been very useful once he'd managed to calm Momo enough to tell him the creature had been restrained, so could he kindly content his bomb-happy self with throwing said bombs in that direction, thank you.

"I killed it, right?" Momo asked eagerly.

Kaidoh hissed next to him, "You blew it to bits, so what do you think, you idiot?"

Marui shrugged, "I don't know, with the number of snakes you had crawling all over it, it might have died from poisoning first."

Kaidoh didn't respond, even though Momo totally denied such a possibility. Before the SNAKE-user gave in to the urge to punch his compatriot in the face, Momo had run off after catching sight of the Fudoumine girl, An.

"That was interesting," Marui mused cheerfully. He had his eyes on Kaidoh but before the Seigaku second year could politely excuse himself, the redhead continued. "Playing as allies was fun. We're still totally going to kill you guys, though."

Kaidoh froze for only a second, his manners falling away to be replaced with the cold efficiency he'd been trained with. He had listened with half-an-ear to the other members as they reported but he could admit he hadn't quite believed. Now, though - this was nothing if not a direct confirmation. Of course Marui would not bother to hide it.

So the rumors about Rikkaidai are true, Kaidoh filed away. He'd have to report this to the others as well. Sizing Marui up now, Kaidoh was well aware that they both knew their own limits and the limits of their surroundings - so Marui would not try anything yet. They would not push forward quite yet. But just their existence was a threat.

Kaidoh turned away with a scowl, "You can try."

Why had Yukimura Seiichi chosen this year to appear?


Kikumaru wasn't exactly sure what happened. Whatever Echizen had said had blurred the monster into motion and before he could even hope to react, three claws had punctured through the freshman's body and sprayed blood over both himself and Oishi, before the creature swiped its claw and Echizen's body dislodged and tumbled away, the younger boy landing in an unkempt pile.

Oishi had lurched forward, mouth open in a scream - "ECHIZEN!" - and Kikumaru had forced his body into motion. The monster was already preparing to lunge for the still body - ohgod, did Echizen die? - but Kikumaru bounded forward and up, jaw crunching into the feathered neck of the creature. He could hold on for only a moment before the monster began to swing back and forth, dislodging Kikumaru's hold as blood poured from the wound.

Kikumaru hit the ground with all four feet, already crouching to spring into a run. (ItwasgoingtokillEchizenitwasgoingtokillEchizenitwasgoingtokillEchizen-) The red-haired tiger had the breath knocked out of him when one front paw swung down and knocked him aside. There was a slight tremble as the creature advanced but it was without a doubt - that monster was aiming to kill and Echizen was his prey.

Kikumaru saw Oishi rush forward, throwing a rock at the creature in order to get its attention. He earned nothing more than a shuttered eyed and, with a sudden kick, Oishi was sent back and knocked onto his side.

Kikumaru could not hear, but he knew.

("I choose myself.")

Echizen was going to die for him.

Mid-step, the creature collapsed. It jittered uncontrollably, legs moving as if to gain ground and mouth open. Its chest did not move, however, and its eyes - frantically peering around, seeking an answer - finally landed on the bloodied figure of its prey. Kikumaru found his own eyes drawn, his gaze sharp enough to see it even from this distance-

The creature sunk in on itself, dead. A door appeared a moment later, close enough that Kikumaru was practically already halfway through its open archway. As he was pulled in, he could see Echizen rise to his feet, the red of his blood blooming bigger along his uniform. Even then, as Oishi staggered to his feet, Kikumaru's eyes remained locked onto the younger boy's expression.

Echizen was smirking.


The Courtyard was rather populated when Inui found his footing in it. He was disheartened to see the Door disappear - only to realize he could see again. He opened his notebook, relishing in his sight as information tumbled into view for him.

"Shishido-san?" Ohtori choked out next to him.

Inui looked up. Standing a scant few meters away was Tezuka, eyes locked onto the corpse at his feet. Inui recognized the torn form as Shishido Ryou, the hot-tempered third year he'd met at breakfast yesterday. The tan youth at Tezuka's side was a stranger, although he looked comfortable enough to reassuringly pat the bespectacled Seigaku boy on his shoulder before wandering away.

"Oh god, he's oozing."

Inui looked up; Mukahi was floating above them all, eyes on Shishido with a disgusted turn to his lips. Oshitari appeared a moment later, Fuji and a Fudoumine boy in tow. Fuji's relieved smile directed at Inui faded at the sight of Tezuka, and the slender youth drew close enough to pull Tezuka further away from the body.

"Shishido-san," Ohtori's voice cracked. Then, quietly, he began to cry. Oshitari drew even with him and tentatively patted him on the head with the expression of someone unused to comforting others. Inui wondered if it would be bad form to punch Ohtori's friend while he was grieving.

"Oh no."

Inui turned, gratefully stepping away and closer to the owner of the horrified gasp. Kawamura had ambled up from elsewhere, eyes now on Shishido's corpse with sad eyes.

"Geez, Jiroh told him he'd die," Mukahi complained. "Why'd he have to be so gross about it?"

"Gakuto-senpai, please!" came Ohtori's sobbed reprimand.

Fuji was glaring over at the redhead, "Shut up."

Oshitari was already moving forward to intercept, hands up in a placating gesture. "Alright, everyone needs to calm down. I know it looks bad but-"

Shishido abruptly exploded into flames. This knocked both Tezuka and Fuji back a few steps, although Mukahi reamined hovering close by as Oshitari looked on with bored eyes. Ohtori was already striding forward, whipping off his uniform jacket in the process just as the flames extinguished themselves. Other than heaps of ash, Inui could make out little else behind Ohtori's broad form, but whatever it was had earned both Fuji's and Tezuka's wide-eyed looks.

Ohtori leaned down and scooped something up from the ashes, wrapping it securely in his jacket and cooing over it gently. He turned around and Inui just stared at the bundled form.

Is that...a baby? Inui was having a hard time processing this.

"Shishido's Word is REBORN," Oshitari explained in a droll voice, as if dead friends of his turned into live babies all the time. (Maybe they did? What was wrong with Hyoutei!) He gestured lazily over to the sickeningly-sweet picture of a motherly Ohtori smiling gently at the baby-form of his upperclassman. "He ages a year every hour afterwards until he hits his real age, though, so he'll be fine by tomorrow morning."

Mukahi spun upside-down, "He's bascially un-killable. It's really useful."

"That would have been good to know earlier," Inui finally managed out.

"Yeah, sorry~!"

"Our apologies."

Fuji thought the two sure as hell didn't sound sorry.

Another door flared to life nearby in the ensuing awkward silence, which Fuji had almost felt grateful for until Kikumaru tumbled out, ashen white and blue eyes wide. His gaze wasn't fixed on any of them, however; that was reserved for the two figures who came out behind him - Oishi looking stricken as Echizen took only a step forward before falling onto his back with a wet, dull smack.

Oishi was kneeling over him in less than a second. "Echizen, stay awake! You'll be fine, just stay awake!" the HEAL-user ordered, hands pulling apart the fabirc of Echizen's torn and tattered clothes. He had access to the wounds in short order, stretching one hand over the three giant holes punctured through Echizen's body. Already they started to heal over as bandages wrapped around the boy's slight frame, golden eyes watching the concentrated expression on Oishi's face without concern.

"...Fuji..." Fuji heard Kikumaru murmur. He didn't stop to comfort the redhead though, instead moving over to Echizen to get a better look. What if he had internal organ damage? What if Oishi's power wasn't enough? The possibilites made his insides freeze.

Kikumaru moved forward to cling to his friend's arm, trembling lightly, haunted blue eyes looking at something long gone. Quietly, reverently, the redhead leaned close to his best friend's ear so he was sure the words would be audible only to him.

"I'm not sure which was the monster."

Echizen stood on his own as soon as the bandages had settled into place, ignoring Oishi's concerned order not to move around. With long bangs shadowing his eyes, Echizen moved forward without pause. Fuji stood frozen as the freshman drew closer to him, coming to a stop a couple steps away. Echizen, bandaged chest exposed and caked in blood and dirt, eyed him with a look that made Fuji want to turn away and hide.

"So you are Echizen Ryoma?"

Oshitari had breached the distance, Fuji beltatedly realized. Echizen had not even deigned to glance over, eyes still reserved for Fuji even as Mukahi landed a meter away from the freshman, daring smirk on his features as his eyes sized the smaller figure up.

"You're puny!" the redhead observed candidly, his tone just shy of outright cackling. This was abruptly stopped with a choked sound, the magenta-haired boy's eyes flying wide open as he tumbled backwards, mouth open with a gasp.

Fuji wasn't sure who had moved first: Oshitari, one arm outstretched towards Echizen and eyes narrowed, the word ADAPT flared across his wrist; or Fuji himself, badge transformed into a gun and aimed straight at the bespectacled Hyoutei boy he'd just allied with only half an hour ago. Echizen stood slightly behind Fuji, expression unmoved.

"Fuji-kun," Oshitari sounded out cautiously. "You should stay out of this. It's a personal matter."

Echizen made an amused sound behind the Seigaku senior, "I bet that Monkey King wishes it was."

Mukahi pushed himself up, coughing as he greedily tried to take in air. He was glaring over at the freshman but made no comment, instead floating back onto his feet with a wince. Oshitari - seeing himself at a disadvantage - put his arm back down with a mildly-affronted frown on his face.

"Enough," Tezuka cut in, voice severe. His expression matched with the blood soaked into his clothes cut quite the intimidating figure, and Fuji found himself changing his gun back into his badge in no time at all.

"Isn't that enough excitement for now?" Oishi tried to appease.

Ohtori, still cradling a whimpering baby Shishido, glanced between his upperclassmen and the freshman boy partly obscured behind a defensive Fuji. "Senpai, we should really get going. We still need to update Atobe-san and Akutagawa-san."

Smirk resuming its occupation on his lips, Oshitari gave in. "I suppose we'll see you next week for our study group date, then? Perhaps some good will come out of it once you're out of Echizen's influence."

"Lackeys," Mukahi scoffed under his breath.

Kikumaru snarled at him, "Just leave already!"

The magenta-haired boy floated off in a huff, his two (three, counting baby Shishido) friends trailing after him without a backwards glance. The Seigaku seniors did not relax until the Hyoutei boys were well out of sight, and even then Kawamura couldn't keep wary eyes off of the freshman Fuji hovered around.

"Echizen!"

Inui would have looked visibly relieved, had anyone deigned to look in his direction in that moment. Everyone had their eyes on the approaching figure of Kaidoh, however; the Seigaku second year was jogging towards them, coming to a stop before Fuji and Echizen with a small hiss.

"Urayama was right," was all Kaidoh explained.

Echizen's expression tightened in distaste. With a nod, he pulled his featured back into aloof unconcern as he turned to regard the seniors with a sweeping gaze. Consideration filtered through his eyes: Momo and Kaidoh both had opinions of the group, combined with his own observations - not to mention their entanglement with other important elements at large. Echizen knew if he did not make them a help, they would only become a hindrance.

He turned and began to head in the direction of the Seigaku dormitories, looking back and making sure to catch the Seigaku seniors' eyes. "Come with us," he said.

Kaidoh paused, then nodded to himself and started forward. At Inui's probing look, the second year let out a low hiss, expression pinched. "It's time we explain what's really going on around here," the SNAKE-user explained.


Day 10

 


Attending Students: 333

 


Deceased Students: 31

 


Students Remaining: 302



.

 

The seed of discord.