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Black Star

Chapter Text

In the city that was not the city the streets had no signs, only slates of blank metal hanging askew on their poles as if confused how they came to be there. All cupboards bare, all bulbs gone dark, all photographs reduced to mottled film nestled within unbroken frames. As though one day a great wind had blown through these ashen streets and scraped clean every trace of habitation in its wake.

And everywhere he went, there was water, ice-cold and dark as ink. Sometimes so shallow as to be barely noticeable, a thin scum of shine on the asphalt, but in other places it could come up to his knees and so he always watched his step. In the early days he’d once fallen into the deeper places and had spent ages clutching himself and shivering himself dry again. Impossible to keep warm here. The sky was the color of pig iron and the sun was no sun he’d ever known.

He kept above ground when possible but had to watch his step there as well. Whenever he stepped into one of those blinded and gutted buildings he would grip the doorframe and squeeze. Often it held fast but sometimes steel would bend like rubber or masonry would crumble like stale bread in his grip, and then he had to leave, and quickly, because the solidity too was drained away from everything here, it all bent and faded like a dream until it finally collapsed. Often he would be awakened from his huddled sleep by the distant thunder of a fallen building, its rubble breaking down into that black water until nothing remained.

He slouched through the streets and listened and watched. In places the shadows writhed and clotted and sometimes he would wait to see what arose from there, but now he kept moving, head tilted slightly like a dog’s, the water sounding off his uneven footfalls. At one point he froze in place and listened for that familiar sound, that sinister rattle, but heard only the hollow wind and the lapping water. Then he lowered his head and began to walk again.

*             *             *

Sadayo Kawakami gripped her chalk like an instrument of war.

She could hear the constant low susurrus of chatter behind her like the sound of the ocean as she worked, scratching neat white lines across the chalkboard. It was morning in Shujin Academy and the air outside was brisk, the sun tantalizingly bright. She glanced behind her and saw approximately a fifth of the class gazing longingly out the windows. On days like this it was easy to understand why Ushimaru was so fond of using his own chalk to demonstrate the finer points of ballistics.

It couldn’t be helped. It was November fifth, late enough for her students to recover from post-midterm trauma but too early for the threat of finals to really sink into their heads, and times like these were when the classrooms were at their rowdiest – not to mention she was dealing with first-years. Still, she soldiered on.

“All right, settle down,” she said, futility hanging off every word.

She turned back to her podium and leaned forward. The students in the front row, at least, shut up and straightened to attention. They were new to the school but had still heard the rumors. Ms. Kawakami stood about five-five in tall shoes and often looked like she was coming off a straight week with no sleep, but sometime last fall she’d shed her lethargic nature and become a firebrand of a teacher. Woe betide any student whom she decided was in need of guidance, because she would grab on to them like a beartrap until they fell in line.

“So to pick up where we left off,” she said, “while Shakespeare’s obviously been revered in the West, his translations have had a little more trouble in this part of the world. In particular, his blank verse and predilection for wordplay have posed difficult challenges for Japanese speakers. Still, there’s been a rich history of his works over here as well – Shoyo Tsubochi could be considered the forerunner in bringing the Bard’s plays to Japan, having translated the entirety of his canon in the late 1920's, but other academics have further refined what he started. There’ve even been times when the cultural differences between East and West have led to deeper understanding of the works themselves. Tsubochi was fond of dipping into kabuki tradition in his adaptation of the plays, and for those of you who think all of this is too boring to handle, Akira Kurosawa drew from Macbeth as inspiration for his film Throne of Blood. I’d recommend that one, by the way. Excellent cinematography.

“I’m seeing a few intrigued faces here,” she said dryly. “Why so surprised? A teacher can have geeky interests too, you know.”

A ripple of giggles went through the room. She smiled and went on.

“Anyway, I’m sure Ms. Chouno will go into more detail about this, but the point I’m making is that opening yourself up to unfamiliar perspectives can really broaden your understandings of the world. You’re young now, but you still shouldn’t lock yourselves in too much to just one way of thinking. You might find that it can…hm.”

She leaned forward. “Miss Sakura? Miss Sakura.

Several heads turned to a particular figure in the back row of the class – bespectacled, orange-haired, and perched on her seat like a spindly gargoyle. They couldn’t see what she was looking at on her phone, but she seemed much more interested in it than she was in Kawakami’s lecture.

Kawakami groaned internally. She’d had problem students before, but Futaba Sakura was in a class of her own, in multiple senses of the phrase. She wasn’t rude, or abusive, or even particularly anti-social – all of those things could have been dealt with via more traditional discipline. It was that she treated the world around her like a mildly amusing distraction, and had bewildering relationships with chairs, and despite her erratic attention span she showed academic proficiency that the Shujin faculty found impressive and then suspicious and then slightly unsettling. The girl didn’t just break the curve, she atomized it. Trying to rattle her with surprise questions or pop quizzes was guaranteed to backfire.

Still, Kawakami gave it a try.

“Miss Sakura,” she said. “Since you seem so interested in your phone, maybe you could entertain us by pulling up and reading one of Shakespeare’s more famous soliloquys. I’m thinking of a certain passage from Act 5, Scene 5 of Macbeth?” No response. “If you need another hint, perhaps one your classmates could-”

“She should have died hereafter,” Futaba recited, in monotone. “There would have been time for such a word. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, life creeps along its petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a…” She trailed off, yawned, and continued. “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“Well done,” said Kawakami, after a moment. “If you really want to impress me, though, then next time you can recite it without reading off your phone.”

“Oh, I wasn’t reading it. Was watching a video of a baby goat.” She grinned and held up the phone for her to see. “Look, he’s wearing a tiny sweater!”

More laughter from the class, louder this time. Kawakami admitted defeat.

“All right, all right,” she sighed. “Just…please, no phones during class.” Futaba dutifully put it away. “You won’t be expected to recite the plays chapter and verse during your finals, but keep in mind these prominent figures during their translation, and be sure to…”

She trailed off again. This time her expression was significantly more concerned. The other students followed her gaze.

The students had all cracked up at Futaba’s triumph, save one. Tsukiko Minami, second row from the back, had kept her head down for the last several minutes. At first Kawakami had just thought she’d been daydreaming – the girl wasn’t a bad student, but she was slightly spacy and had a reputation for nasty gossip – but now she saw Tsukiko clutching the edges of her desk hard enough to whiten the knuckles. Her skin, too, was pale, and sheened with sweat.

“What is it, Minami?” No response. “Tsukiko? Are you okay?”

“Fine,” she said, between hoarse breaths. Her voice was faint, almost strangled. “Just…could everyone stop looking at me? There’s someone…looking at me…”

Her whole body had started to shake. The class began to mutter.

“Could someone take Tsukiko to the nurse, please?” Kawakami asked. “She isn’t feeling well.”

“On it,” said Futaba. She hopped off her seat and laid a hand on Tsukiko’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s cool, I’ve been there. It sucks when you’re in a crowd and you start to freak-”

Tsukiko spun round in her seat and gripped Futaba by the front of her blouse like someone drowning, eyes bulging, teeth bared. And everyone in the class saw Futaba’s skin go pale as the hands clutched her, because the world somehow swam in Futaba’s vision, it fogged around her like she’d just awoken from deep sleep, and in that moment she saw Tsukiko encircled by chains, dark and mottled chains that constricted face and limbs and chest, pulling tight enough so that her flesh dimpled and bruised through the links, so that Futaba thought she heard the wet creak of splintering bone.

“Please,” she whispered. “It hurts.”

Then the world snapped back into place, and it was just Tsukiko again, losing her grip, falling forward, and striking the ground headfirst.

The bell rang shortly thereafter, but no one heard it. It was drowned by the pandemonium of the class – chairs scraping and gouging the tiles as students stood with their phones held high like torches, Tsukiko’s own chair clattering to the floor, Kawakami crying for calm, for someone to call an ambulance. And Futaba herself was forgotten, huddled in the corner, knees pulled up to her chin. From where she sat the desks and chairs stood in parallel like prison bars, and through them, Tsukiko’s whitened, staring eye.

*             *             *

“And now, the news.

“Tsukiko Minami, age sixteen, was hospitalized this afternoon after falling unconscious during classes at the prestigious high school, Shujin Academy. Paramedics described her as unresponsive, but in stable condition.

“Minami, described by classmates and faculty as a bright and outspoken girl, had suffered no apparent health issues prior to this incident, and school officials stated that classes will resume as normal while investigations continue. Her parents could not be reached for comment.

“Shujin Academy has been beleaguered by scandals over the past year, and some students anonymously expressed concerns that the school’s reputation would be further damaged by this most recent-”

*click*

> anon: Holy shit the vid of that Shujin girl hitting the floor is lighting the world on fire
> anon: faaaaaaaake
> anon: lol, guess that’s one way to go home early
> anon: Parents gonna sue
> anon: forget sleeping beauty, i want to know more about that redhead, like does she dye it or
> anon: shit’s fucked yo

*click*

“-widely known as one of the top high schools in Tokyo, had suffered a serious blow last April following the arrest of faculty member Suguru Kamoshida. Kamoshida, a former Olympic gold medalist who served as the school’s volleyball coach, confessed to the abuse and sexual harassment of numerous students under his charge, and further investigations suggested that the school administration had implicitly condoned his crimes. Several months later, the school’s principal, Kyuutarou Kobayakawa, was struck and killed by a truck while en route to the Tokyo police station, and later implicated in the massive scandal around former Prime Minister Masayoshi Shido.

“Shujin’s reputation has held fast in spite of these incidents, but the recent hospitalization of first-year student Tsukiko Minami has once again brought it into the spotlight. Several videos of Minami’s violent fit and collapse have already spread virally online, and school officials are frantically insisting that her condition was not caused by abuse or a hazardous health environment within the academy.

“The incident is not unprecedented. Several similar accounts of the so-called ‘Paranoia Syndrome’ collapses have circulated in recent months, though the prior occurrences were widely dismissed as unrelated or outright hoaxes. However, Shujin’s recent infamy appears to have brought rumors of this mysterious condition to the forefront once more-”

*click*

> anon: Dear Shujin: WTF. Love: Everyone
> anon: that school is fukken cursed, i swear
> anon: Isn’t Shujin where that big-chinned gym teacher kept creeping on all his students?
> anon: that principal looked like a giant pile of pudding in a suit, I’m glad he’s dead
> anon: PRAY FOR TSUKIKO
> anon: so is no one going to mention how this is happening everywhere now?

*click*

“-previously explained as panic attacks or cardiac arrests. Other locations have included Stockholm, London, New York City, Los Angeles, and Shanghai, with several more originating within Japan itself.

“The World Health Organization recently dismissed these videos as a memetic hoax, insisting that no pathogen or psychological condition could reasonably manifest on a global scale in such a short time frame. However, several experts have expressed concerns about the incidents, and rumors regarding the videos have been prevalent on numerous online communities and message boards. These communities have widely referred to the illness as “Paranoia Syndrome,” due to the intense anxiety several victims apparently experienced shortly before losing consciousness, as well as the random and inexplicable nature of the sickness itself.

“While none of these rumors have yet been verified, the Paranoia Syndrome cases bear a strong resemblance to another illness that briefly plagued the nearby community of Tatsumi Port Island not ten years ago. The disease, which had variously been given such colorful monikers as ‘Apathy Syndrome,’ ‘the sleepwalking sickness,’ and ‘Midnight Fever,’ emerged with little warning and struck the residents of the city at random, causing severe lethargy and eventual coma. The victims later made a full recovery, and Apathy Syndrome was eventually ruled to be caused by chemical runoff from a Kirijo Group facility nearby. The corporation was heavily fined, and has since been downsized significantly.

“These latest incidents also call to mind the infamous ‘mental shutdowns’ which rocked Tokyo over a period of nearly three years-”

*click*

*             *             *

[Futaba Sakura has logged in]

FS: yooooooooo
FS: just me checkin in, it’s been a while
FS: entrance exams in like two months right, how’re you holding up

FS: ok guess you’re not there
FS: makes sense, you’re probably out with all your old friends
FS: mackin on the ladies with your sweet delinquent cred
FS: “hey there gurl i punched out the Prime Minister, wanna put your mouth on my mouth”
AK: Not really.
FS: omg why
FS: why would you reply JUST THEN
AK: Wanted to see where you were going with it.
AK: Was not disappointed.
FS: you are the absolute worst and i hate you forever. so how’ve you been
AK: Alright. Getting the stinkeye from some people still but it’s no biggie
AK: First few weeks at Shujin were way worse.
AK: How’s school been for you?

AK: Heard Kawakami was your homeroom teacher. Don’t embarrass her too much, she gave me a lot of slack last year.

AK: You there?
FS: could you call me?
AK: Oh sure, one sec

*              *              *

Before he even opened his eyes, he knew where he was by the sound.

He’d spent enough time in this room over the last year to notice several of its quirks, beyond the strangeness of its residents and the abundance of blue velvet décor. The air had an acrid tang to it, in his nose and on his tongue, like the dust from long-unused furniture. His skin would briefly crawl upon entry, as if trying to shiver and giving up, because while everything here was built from iron and stone the room appeared to have no chill, or any temperature at all. And then there was the sound – that one high note, relentless and somewhere far above. As if the Velvet Room were a waterglass, and some unseen finger was endlessly running over its rim.

Akira sat up from his stone cot with a grunt and a sigh. He ran a hand through his hair; this didn’t make it noticeably messier. Then, he blinked at his clothes – they weren’t the striped prison fatigues he’d worn on every trip through here in the past, but his old Shujin Academy uniform, immaculately clean and pressed. It was impossible to mistake those pants.

“Welcome, welcome. Please, come forward. The door is open.”

He turned his head. Through the prison cell’s bars was that sole oaken desk, and the blade-nosed, bug-eyed warden patiently tapping his fingers on its surface. His assistant at his side – that white-blond hair, that unlined face, those eyes that never blinked.

Akira pushed open the door. It swung with oiled soundlessness.

“Greetings,” said Lavenza.

“Here we are again,” said Igor. “Welcome to the Velvet Room.” He extended a hand. “And may I compliment you on your choice of attire? A bit nostalgic, but certainly fitting for one who has completed his rehabilitation.”

He walked up to the desk, hands in pockets. He vaguely remembered going back to his studies after hanging up the call with Futaba, and completely failing to concentrate. She’d been shaken. On the verge of tears. Then he had laid down his head.

“Indeed,” said Lavenza, and Akira started. “Dreams are but another doorway into this place.”

“And an invitation once given is never rescinded,” said Igor. “So, may I ask what brings you here?”

Chains. All over, pulling tight. Futaba’s voice cracking as she whispered, I could hear her bones.

“Something’s happening, isn’t it?” said Akira.

Igor chuckled, his grin wide and unmoving, and laced his fingers together. “I like to believe that my knowledge of the world is quite formidable, but you will have to be more specific.”

“There’ve been stories,” said Akira. “People are calling it Paranoia Syndrome. No one’s leaking black goo from their eyes and mouth, but it definitely reminds me of what we went through last year.” He tilted his head. “Mementos is gone. But this has something to do with the cognitive world, doesn’t it?”

“Recent events have been somewhat troubling,” Igor said, “but rest assured, you have no stake in them this time. Before, you were conscripted into a hopeless game, forced to take on responsibilities far beyond what should have been expected of you. But you rose to the occasion splendidly. You need not concern yourself with every inexplicable crisis that rears its head.”

“Futaba was crying.”

It was exceedingly difficult to stare down two people who never blinked. But after almost a full minute, Igor sighed, and relented.

“Lavenza, my dear,” he said. “If you will.”

She bowed. “Yes, master.”

She padded past Akira, to the prison’s exit. Akira kept his stare trained on Igor. He heard an iron door groan open and slam shut.

When the echo died away, Igor spoke again.

“Your suspicions are correct,” he said. “This bizarre malady does indeed have its roots in the sea of the unconscious – the ‘cognitive world,’ as you put it. The fortress of mankind’s indolence, Mementos, has crumbled, but something yet remains. Something always does.”

“Is this Yaldabaoth again?” Akira asked. “Because I’m pretty sure that I put a hole in his head.”

“The one who usurped the Velvet Room has perished. Of that, there is no doubt.”

“Then who-”

“These creatures which call themselves ‘gods’ are merely productions of mankind’s consciousness, erupting from the roiling Sea of Souls,” said Igor. “From time to time, they grow so fat and corrupt on these distorted desires that they wish to supplant the very beings who first brought them into existence. The Usurper was a product of man’s blind trust in society, his desire to be thoughtlessly, tranquilly led to a secure tomorrow. A common wish. A powerful wish. When an entity of such great influence perishes, its sudden absence is felt. You could say that it leaves behind a ‘hole’ in mankind’s cognition. And the cognitive world, much like the real one, abhors a vacuum.

“Those desires,” Igor mused. “Bereft of their vessel, floating free. They may themselves be usurped by a different entity altogether, empowering it far beyond its natural strength. It has happened before – the end of a so-called deity giving rise to a number of lesser ones, to perpetuate mayhem in the waking world. This latest development is not entirely unexpected, but I had not thought it would occur so quickly, or with such severity. Whatever has filled the hole the Usurper left behind may not be as powerful, but I believe it is no less malicious.”

“So something’s taken what’s left of Yaldabaoth’s power and started putting people into comas,” said Akira. “Any idea who?”

“I cannot say. Mementos is no more, and what remains of the cognitive world has become quite, quite obscure.” He laced his fingers again. “And yet, you seek to venture into that uncharted darkness, on this whimsical errand?”

“There’s nothing whimsical about it,” Akira said flatly. “If I can do something about it, then I will. I didn’t go through all of that craziness last year to just put my feet up and say that this is someone else’s problem.”

“If I recall, you had said that you would entrust the well-being of your world to the adults invested in its future.”

“Right, I had that talk with Sae Niijima. Does Sae have a Persona now?”

“She does not, but-”

“Then it has to be me,” said Akira. “I didn’t come here to get shown the door.”

Igor sighed and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, his rictus grin seemed a bit softer.

“This room exists between dream and reality, mind and matter,” he said. “It can act as a vector to many possible realms. It is indeed possible to venture to the dregs of the cognitive world from here. However, your living flesh poses a hindrance.”

“My what?”

“Your body cannot make the trip,” said Igor. “What stands before me now is not ‘you,’ but a cognitive representation of you – the essence of your being, standing in your image. That is what must make the journey to the cognitive world. In short, you will have to cast your very soul into that dark and treacherous sea.”

That endless, high tone. The sound make Akira’s eyes water.

“The hazards of this act will be immense,” Igor went on. “You will sustain injury no differently than you would had you entered Mementos normally, and you may be vulnerable to other sorts of attack, besides. Should you perish there, your soul will be forever lost. And even if you do not, your body in the waking world will remain incapacitated for the duration of your journey. No different than the victims of this ‘Paranoia Syndrome’ that have so concerned you.” He nodded as Akira’s eyes narrowed. “This would no doubt bring considerable distress to those you hold dear. So I say again – do not make this choice lightly.”

“I could always come back later. Before I fall asleep next time I’ll stick a note on my face saying not to worry, I’m just having an out-of-body experience.”

“That would be a prudent course of action, yes,” Igor chuckled. “But I’m afraid it is not possible in this case. The choice must be made now. This room will not remain open to you much longer.”

“Why? It’s mine, isn’t…” Akira trailed off, and his eyes widened. “Wait. Didn’t this place-”

“Correct. Your Velvet Room is no more. But this is not your Velvet Room.”

He remembered now. After he had retrieved his friends, caged and sunken in the mires of their depression, they’d left the room one more time to confront Yaldabaoth. And as they’d left the chamber had dissolved into countless motes of light like a horde of fireflies, even that high sweet sound fading away, leaving only Igor and Lavenza alone in a great dark void.

But things were different, now that he looked around. The cells lining the Velvet Room’s blue-stone panopticon were warped somehow, as if they’d been exposed to great heat, and they were filled with tarry, writhing shadow – Akira could see the darkness in the cells heave and surge like wax, and through the bars he thought he felt the stare of countless eyes.

“I do not blame you for failing to realize it,” said Igor. “The resemblance is uncanny. After all,” he pointed one long, thin finger upwards, “the fate of this room’s guest was bound quite tightly to your own.”

Akira looked up, and took a cautious step back at what he saw there.

The panopticon, those flat stone walls and those distorted shadowy cages, telescoped out into infinity; he saw the cells going on and on into the fathomless dark overhead. And suspended in the center of the room was an iron box, maybe six feet tall and two feet on a side, lashed into place by innumerable chains hammered into the walls. Barnacled with padlocks, bristling with barbed wire. It would barely fit someone Akira’s size, if that.

“He has been dormant for some time,” Igor said. “But I believe he will awaken soon. It was a fascinating act of serendipity that allowed you to cross into this territory. So great was your desire for answers that it must have brought you to me, wherever I may have been.” He lowered his hand. “But once he awakens, I am afraid my attention will be devoted to him exclusively. So, here and now, of your own free will, make your choice.”

The chained box rattled gently.

“There is no shame in walking away. That, too, is always a choice you can make.”

“No,” said Akira. “It isn’t.”

“That you believe such a thing,” Igor said, tilting his head, “says a great deal about you.”

He raised a hand. Behind him, Akira heard the exit creak open.

“Lavenza has arranged transportation,” he said. “She will attend to you while you are away.”

“I’ll just have to make it quick,” said Akira. “And think up a nice apology present for anyone I’ve worried.”

“No doubt your strength is considerable. But I advise you, do not act rashly. It is unventured territory into which you cast yourself.”

“I know. I’ll be careful.”

“Then farewell, and good luck.” Igor nodded. “It is my utmost hope that we will see each other again, when the seas have calmed.”

Akira turned and left for the exit. On the other side of that doorway was a wall of impenetrable black. He hesitated at the threshold. He glanced behind him, at Igor, and that bound and suffocating cage hanging over him like the blade of a guillotine.

Then he breathed deep, and stepped through.

The door slammed shut behind him and when he looked back again nothing was there. Darkness so deep it was almost solid in every direction. Except directly in front of him. There, he saw a bus.

It was unmarked and ornate, that familiar deep blue with gold gilt crawling serpentine across its sides, the windows full of fog. Its engine was idling, and its headlights knifed through the dark. The door hissed open, inviting him in.

The driver’s seat was empty, and cordoned off from the rest of the bus by a thick sheet of that same fogged glass. Akira stepped through a second doorway to the side and the barrier slid shut behind him.

The bus’s interior was unusual. Nearly empty, upholstered in thick blue plush, with curtains of that same fabric running like pennants across its ceiling. That same, dusty smell. And in the center, two chairs and a small table, riveted to the floor. Lavenza was in the nearest chair, her grimoire on the table in front of her. She didn’t turn around at his arrival.

Akira took the other chair and sat down. Lavenza smiled, unblinking.

“It is good to see you again,” she said.

“Likewise.”

“Our driver will be with us momentarily.” A shadowy figure stepped onto the bus from behind the glass barrier. “Ah, there he is now.”

A moment later, the engine coughed into life. Akira felt its rumble beneath his feet.

“Well then.” She laid her fingers delicately on the book’s cover. “Shall we be off?”

“Yes. Let’s go.”

There was no scenery outside the windows, and their destination was unknown. But Akira felt movement, all the same.

*              *              *

The door to Akira’s bedroom opened a crack. On the other side, at approximately ankle-height, a deep blue eye glowed like a gemstone.

Morgana pushed open the door and walked in. It had actually been shut and locked; Akira kept doing this as if it could stop the cat from coming in whenever he wanted. It was a hilarious joke they shared.

“Hey,” he said. “Didn’t you hear your mom? Dinner’s ready.”

Akira’s bedroom was smaller than the dusty loft he’d occupied at Café Leblanc, and considerably messier – not because he was a slob, but because he’d insisted on displaying every single piece of bric-a-brac he’d accumulated during his stay at Tokyo. As a result, the room now resembled the aftermath of an explosion at a carnival rewards counter. The shelves were mobbed with figurines, mugs and plastic ramen bowls; pennants and posters hung from the walls and ceiling. There was nothing that could be done about the chocolate fountain.

Akira was sprawled out at his desk, head down, hands splayed, his glasses neatly resting on one of the parapets of notebooks by his side. He’d always been studious, but without the imminent threat of existential catastrophe hanging over his head he’d kicked it into overdrive. Morgana suspected, but never asked, that he was saving up leverage to move back to Tokyo once his studies were complete. He got on well with his parents, but that year he’d spent away was always hanging uncomfortably in the air within this house.

“She knows you’re studying so she’s not going to bother you,” Morgana said, “but it’s sushi night, Akira. I gotta get my scraps!” No response. “Geez, are you seriously out?”

He hopped onto the desk and poked Akira’s head with a paw. “Yep, out like a light. I know this sounds weird coming from me, but you don’t have time to be asleep right now.”

Still no answer.

Morgana narrowed his eyes, hunkered down, and pressed hard against Akira’s head with his own. When that still didn’t stir him, he growled and started headbutting.

“Come on, Kurusu!” he shouted. “Wake – your – bedheaded – butt – up – already!”

And that was when Akira, who’d been pushed a little further across the desk with each headbutt, went off-balance and collapsed to the floor. His eyes hidden beneath that wild hair, arms limply tangled around him as if he was holding himself tight. His chair toppled to the ground with a flat clap like a gallows trapdoor springing open.

“Akira?”

Morgana crept to the edge of the desk and looked down. In the hallway outside, footsteps approached the room rapidly.

“…Akira?”

*              *              *

One day, he had decided to play a game.

He didn’t know when he’d started. He might have been eleven, maybe twelve. Tired of sleeping in so many beds, waking to so many dim and half-remembered rooms. Sometimes he would groggily reach out to open a door only to find a wall, or a shelf, or cold and empty space. He’d once tripped over a chair leg he hadn’t remembered and hit the ground with a soft thump, and lay there quietly until he’d fallen asleep again.

So he’d said to himself, “I know. When I wake up or fall asleep, I’ll just keep my eyes closed. And remember all the rooms I’ve been in.”

With his eyes squeezed tight the world was empty and filled with possibilities. Sometimes he would feel his bed turning in place, so that he was no longer sure which wall he was facing, where he would be with the sun rose. It was exhilarating, for a while.

When everything was empty there was room to move.

So now he kept his eyes shut as always, and imagined where he might be. But something was wrong. His clothes felt different, and icy metal bit into his bare skin. He ran his fingers across what should have been his mattress and felt only crosshatched bars. The walls felt the same, and were far too close. It felt like a cage.

Then he opened his eyes and found that’s where he was.

The cage was bright as chrome, and suspended from the ceiling by a long chain. It jangled gently as he sat up. All around him were walls of blue stone festooned with fabric of deeper blue, and set in those walls were prison cells. The shadows in those cells were much too dark; their movement was amoebic in the murk. He thought he could glimpse eyes in those masses of shadow. Their stare made his skin crawl.

He knew it was a dream even if the sensations were much too real, and when he looked down the dream turned stranger still. Far below him was a desk and at the desk sat a man, spindly-limbed and balding, his face a grotesque avian thing with bloodshot eyes and a nose that extended like a scythe. He was flanked by two young girls in what looked like childish parodies of prison warden uniforms, hats and shorts and blouses, in the same deep blue as the blue that engulfed this room. One girl held a clipboard. The other held a baton.

The man tapped the desk. The girl tapped her clipboard. The girl tapped her baton against the floor. The three of them moved as one, the sounds in perfect unison. The taps regular as clockwork and the dusty air and the staring eyes and that sweet whine from somewhere high overhead, all of it merging and squirming somewhere within him.

He swallowed hard and laced his fingers around the bars of the cage.

“Hello?” he said.

At once, the taps stopped. As one, the three looked up to face him.

“Welcome,” said the man. His rictus grin was unmoving and his voice was an unearthly, tectonic rumble, as though something far larger were speaking through him.

“You are a slave,” said the girl with the clipboard, matter-of-factly, as though remarking on the weather.

The other girl grinned and swung up her baton.

“Want emancipation?”

*              *              *

He awoke.

He no longer slept deeply enough for dreams to startle him – one minute his eyes were shut and then they were open, pupils wide and glaring at nothing. Part of him was always listening for that sound. The rattle and drag of chains.

He was in an ashen apartment, the photographs blanked as usual, the wallpaper dry as papyrus and peeling away in strips. He’d slept leaning against the wall. He no longer trusted the furniture in this place; it decayed even more rapidly than the buildings themselves. He groaned and rubbed his head, running his finger across the long crack in his helmet. This damage, at least, had not grown worse with time – the blood had dried and flaked away ages ago, and that was all.

He gathered and holstered his weapons and stepped out the apartment and down the stairs. His feet splashed in shallow water when he reached the lobby and at once he stopped and tilted his head again, listening for the sound. Nothing. The stranger was somewhere else, for now.

Hard to determine his location, here. This monochrome waste, this un-Tokyo, was losing its shape more by the day, though of course there was no way of marking time; the landmarks were all breaking down to join the rest of the refuse in this endless dark water. Too cramped for Shibuya, at least the busy part of the district. Maybe Bunkyō. He thought that if he could get his bearings and get to the Scramble he could find Yongen-Jaya again. That seemed a good way to pass the time.

He picked up his feet and started to walk. The city murmured with falling masonry. The water shifted like an eavesdropper in the passing alleys. And before him, flanked by the silhouettes of the rotting buildings, was the sun – round and lusterless and black as a bloodless wound, hanging over all in the iron-grey sky.