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Dark Tower Side Quest

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Part 2: Ka-Tet
Chapter 1: Ronin

Yonezawa Aki opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling. From where she lay she could see all four corners of her two tatami mat room, illuminated by the dim glow of her alarm clock. For several heartbeats she contemplated never getting up again, but rather just staying in bed until the landlord threw her out with the rest of the garbage and found a tenant that was still full of stupid hopes and dreams and money from parents back home. Aki’s own mother had stopped sending checks two months ago, and while she understood that her family had bigger issues than continuing to support their failure of a daughter, it hadn’t done much for the ever growing knot in her stomach.

As if summoned by her thoughts, her belly let out a menacing growl. Aki sat up and turned on a light, showing the unadorned walls of her apartment, the victims of her initial optimism that such a place was only a short term step in her climb up the Tokyo corporate ladder. Now putting anything on them would just feel like defeat.

Aki knew she shouldn't complain. She still had a roof over her head, even if it was a tiny one, and she had four prospective businesses to speak with today. Something would turn up, if she just kept trying. Picking up the papers she had printed last night, she reviewed her itinerary for the day. Interviews, lunch with Maru, practice. Dinner with Daichi if he managed to get off work in time. Another average day in the life of Aki.

She ate some leftover ramen from last night, her poor rice cooker all cold and abandoned in the corner. With luck something good would happen today, and she could stop at the corner store on the way home and buy plenty of food to celebrate. She might have to stop there anyway since the ramen was the last item in the fridge, unless Daichi came through for her again.

After eating she dressed in her best business suit, the skirt cut tight enough that it hurt to walk at more than a casual pace. She opened her door and peered down the hallway, but there was no one else up and about this early. Aki had a sudden vision of Watanabe-san lying in wait outside her door, ready to pounce the minute she turned the handle. This month’s rent was already late, so it wouldn’t have been out of character for him. He must have slept in today though, because it was all quiet as she tiptoed by his door.

Between the skirt and her heels, each step she took became a painful, careful effort. Luckily the train station was just a few streets down. That had been one of the reasons she had chosen to live in this particular apartment, though it also meant the price was a bit higher than she really should have agreed to. Still, from what Maru had told her about some other places for rent in Tokyo, Aki might have ended up a lot worse off. If only a job offer came with a nice furnished apartment...as long as she was dreaming, might as well throw in a chauffeur and a pet panda too.

The train pulled into the station, the air swirling about her and threatening to send her hair into disarray. She got on and stared out the window as the landscape began to slide by. Three stops to her first interview, that had to be a good sign, right?

#

“Well well, if it isn’t Miss Famous. How does it feel to be a one minute celebrity?” Maru smiled like a cat about to devour a mouse.

“I’m too tired for games Maru, want to just tell me what you’re talking about?” Aki ordered tea from the waitress and then collapsed into a chair with a little sigh. Each interview had gone progressively worse than the previous one. The last interviewer had actually looked at her over his glasses and said that, “maybe you would be a better fit in a different industry.” She had bowed politely and thanked him for his time, when all she wanted was to just start screaming, right there in the middle of the busy office floor. She would have gotten a bad reputation, but at least it would have been cathartic.

Maru looked hurt. “Did you not get my text last night?”

“Sorry, I lost track of time looking at job listings. Why, what’s up?”

“Oh, nothing much, just a little someone finally got her first article published.” Maru laid down a magazine on the table. It was a copy of Nihon Today, the publication she worked for. A large picture of Aki filed an entire page, her leaning over a cafe table while looking through a pile of papers. Next to the picture was an article titled “Japan’s Growing Employment Problem”, written by Takahashi Maru.

Aki picked up the magazine and began scanning the article, “... University graduate Yonazawa Aki is part of an expanding pool of NEETS, or Not in Education, Employment, or Training. Since graduating from the Waseda School of business in Tokyo, she has been relentlessly…” she paused and looked up at Maru, “you wrote an article about me?”

“Technically I wrote it like six months ago,” Maru pointed out, “it just only now got published. This could be good news for both of us: I might finally start getting serious assignments, and some company might see this and decide to hire you. Who knows, you could get a call from some big conglomerate tomorrow!”

“At this point I’d settle for anything. I’d even be a bicycle courier if I thought they would hire me,” Aki sighed.

“With legs like yours, you should be a courier. I bet you would make lots of money.”

“Gah!” Aki flopped over onto the table and laid her head on the picture of herself. “I don’t want to have to go back home to Hokkaido, I like it here!”

The waitress returned and Aki forced herself to sit up and look presentable. She picked up her tea and tried not to stare with hunger at the piece of cake that Maru had ordered. She blew away the steam that billowed from her cup and wondered if maybe she should consider changing fields after all. There are only so many hints a person can receive before they have to start listening.

“So how are things with you and Masou?” She asked.

“Oh, you know,” Maru shrugged, “he keeps saying that we should get married, but there’s always an excuse after. When our jobs are secure, when we can afford a house, when, when, when. If I let him he’ll just keep going on making excuses until we’re both old and gray.”

“At least he’s is dependable in his consistency. Masou and Maru, the perfect couple.”

“What about you?” Maru asked through a mouthful of cake, “how are things between you and Daichi lately?”

“Good, I suppose. I’m glad that one of us has work, but I hate that he’s so busy all the time.”

Maru snorted, “I’d hardly call that restaurant ‘work’. Every time I stop in it seems like half the staff is just standing around.”

Aki started to come to her boyfriend’s defense, but stopped herself. A part of her felt guilty about Daichi’s work, since it was mostly responsible for keeping her fed. She wasn’t secretly encouraging him to stay there just for her benefit, was she? Aki resolved to be more supportive of Daichi’s own job hunt next time she saw him.

“Well, this has been fun, but I need to get going.”

“Already?” Maru made a face, “don’t tell me you’re heading back to that depressing old building again. How often do you go there anyway?”

“Every afternoon that I don’t find work. I can’t decide if that place is my lucky charm or my curse.” Aki paid for her drink, waved goodbye to Maru, and started her uncomfortable walk back to the train station.

#

After the oppressive air outside, the shadowed dojo felt like cool spring water on Aki’s skin. The building was quiet this time of day, which suited her just fine; she wouldn’t have wanted anyone seeing her right now, business suit all askew and drenched with sweat. After a quick bow to the altar, she made her way to the changing room. Sensei let her keep her uniform here along with her shinai, the bamboo sword used in practice, but then that was just one of the many favors he had done for her over the years. It would have made sense for Aki to go to a Kendo center closer to her apartment, as this one was forty-five minutes away by train, but here she didn’t have to pay any dues. Sensei let her use the space whenever classes weren’t in session, a privilege she had been taking advantage of quite a bit lately.

Stepping out onto the dojo floor, she stepped into suri-ashi, her feet knowing where to go by pure instinct. She moved through her katas, the forms and patterns she had been practicing since her father first started her in lessons when she was six. She flowed from strike to strike, all of her concentration poured into the shinai in front of her. In these moments, she could forget about the rest of the world, forget about hunting for a job, or paying her bills. There was just the forms, and she gave herself to them; her hunger, fatigue, and frustration disappearing into the void that now surrounded her.

As her last set reached its end she looked up to see the dojo wreathed in darkness, the little light from outside having scattered with the setting sun. Pulling away a glove she checked her watch. There was still plenty of time to get back across town to her date with Daichi. She exhaled a loud sigh of relief.

Behind her, a light came on, chasing away the darkness. She turned around and squinted into the sudden glare. “Dedicated as always, aren’t you, Aki-san?” The voice was loud and rough, but had a hint of amusement to it as well.

Aki bowed as the figure walked out of the light towards her. “Good evening Kuma-sensei.” Her former teacher was an imposing figure, heavily muscled and as tall as an American. However, over the years Aki had learned that his gruff exterior hid a kind and thoughtful man. Not many of his students knew that he spent much of his free time tending to his rooftop garden, or that he put food out behind the dojo for the stray cats that wandered the neighborhood. It was knowledge that he gifted only a chosen few, among which she happily counted herself as a member.

Kuma nodded, but otherwise did not acknowledge her greeting, “yes, you have such skill, especially for one so young, yet you continue to ignore your one failing, and in that way you remain a novice.”

“What is it that I am lacking sensei?” Aki knew better than to point out that she held 4th dan, a title that Kuma himself had bestowed upon her.

“You favor oji-waza in your practice. If you only learn how to respond to an attack, how will you ever become a master Kendoka?”

“I train to better myself, not to achieve prestige. I don’t want to be the one who initiates a fight. Offensive strikes force you to be the aggressor.”

“Eh! Did you learn nothing from your time with me? Perhaps I should put you back in class with my first year students.” Aki’s face flushed and she bowed her head at the thought. Kuma continued, “you study at the forms and you see two sides of a coin: attack or defend. You need to stop looking with your eyes, and instead observe the truth that is beyond eyes.”

“What truth is that, sensei?”

“To attack or defend, it is not driven by the forms. You do not strike with your sword, you strike with your heart. To do otherwise is to forget everything that I have tried to teach you.”

Kuma lapsed into silence, and Aki stayed where she was, head bowed. She knew the truth of Kuma-sensei’s words, but it was hard to change her way of thinking. Perhaps this was why her job search progressed so poorly; she just reacted, instead of being the first to act.

At last, she risked a peek at Kuma-sensei. He had a broad smile on his face, his hands cocked to his hips in a mockery of disapproval. Aki relaxed and straightened up to look at him proper.

“Well, that’s enough discipline for today, I think. Would you do your former teacher the honor of having some tea with him before you go?” Aki nodded, and they moved into the light of the hallway leading to Sensei’s office.

Kuma’s private space was a direct reflection of the man himself. Warm lighting and soft wooden paneling gave the room an inviting feel, and the traditional bonsai plants on his shelves somehow did not seem at odds with the prints of famous Monet paintings that adorned the walls. An electric kettle in the corner whistled, and while Aki took a seat Sensei busied himself pulling a tea set from the shelves and pouring the water. They chatted about nothing in particular while the leaves steeped, and then for a few minutes the small room filled with quiet exhalations as they worked to cool their steaming cups.

At last Kuma-sensei leaned back in his chair and sighed, “Oh Aki-san, what I would give to have a hundred students like you, or even just ten. The children and adults I teach today don’t have the same respect or discipline they used to. Even the other dojos are losing their way, becoming more about the politics of Kendo than the artistry. Not like the old days at all. Why, when I was a student at Noma…” he lapsed into silence, and Aki could see from the look in his eyes that he had gone somewhere far away.

“What was it like there?” She asked, even though he had told this story to her twenty times already.

“Like nothing like you’ve ever seen before! Sun pouring in from above and the floor itself seemed alive with each step you took. When the gardens outside were in full bloom you nearly drowned in the sweet scent that filled the hall, and every lesson left you with more strength than when you began. That was a place where legends were made, where true Kendoka were born! It was old before I first came to it, and I spent most of my life training under its roof. I wish you could have seen it Aki-san, even for a moment.”

“I’ve seen the pictures,” she pointed to one that sat behind Kuma-sensei at this moment, a black and white shot of a much younger Kuma, shinai in hand and sweat matting his hair.

Kuma waved a hand in front of his face, “It’s not the same. To actually stand there, to walk those floors...when we lost that hall, I fear that all of Kendo lost some of its spirit as well. The world is changing, and not for the better. It may be that you find yourself one day to be the last of your kind, a true disciple to the art of the sword.”

Aki stayed silent, but the force of Kuma’s words fed into her guilt. She had been so focused on Kendo as a way to relieve the stress of her other problems lately. No matter what she did, it always seemed to be the wrong choice. She started to tell Kuma that he too easily misplaced his faith in her, that she was no better than any of the others, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. Instead she stood up and said, “I really need to get going, I’m meeting with Daichi soon.”

Kuma grunted. “Feh. you deserve better than that one. He’s too wrapped up in the material world.”

“Daichi is good to me. I wouldn’t still be here in Tokyo if it wasn’t for him.”

“Of course, I meant no offense. Just remember Aki-san, you are destined for great things. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“I won’t. Thank you for the tea, sensei.”

#

She met Daichi at a traditional little restaurant not far from Chiyoda station. Her business suit was back at her apartment awaiting a good cleaning, and she felt much better now that she had on something a bit more comfortable. Daichi had sat at a table in the back, and waved at her as she entered. She fought her way to him through the throngs of revelers and company men, and slipped into an empty seat with a breathless sigh.

“You are not going to believe this, I had four interviews today, four, and I don’t think any of them went well at all,” she looked at a menu, “have you ordered already?”

Daichi shook his head, and she could tell something was off. He looked...excited, and possibly a little nervous. “I had too much else on my mind. I quit my job today.”

“What?” His abruptness threw her off guard. “That’s...good? I hope that’s a good thing.”

“Oh, it is,” Daichi grinned at her, “I finally got a job offer, from Murata Manufacturing. They want me to start right away!”

“Daichi, that’s wonderful!” Then Aki frowned, “where in Tokyo are they? I’m not familiar with that name.”

“They...they’re not in Tokyo. They have a headquarter in Kyoto.”

“Kyoto? But that’s so far away from here! What about your family?”

Daichi shrugged, “They know this is what I’ve wanted for a long time. Besides, it’s not so far by train, only three hours or so.”

“Oh, of course! That’s not so far for me to travel either, I suppose. I should be able to make it every other weekend at least.”

“Well…” he looked uncomfortable all of a sudden.

“Or did you want me to come with you? Is that what this is all about, you’re worried that I wouldn’t want to move?” Now that the surprise had worn off, excitement coursed through her from the idea of a fresh start. “I love Tokyo more than my hometown, that’s for sure, but any big city is sure to have opportunities for me. Who knows, I might even have better luck finding work down there as well!”

“I...I think you should stay here Yonezawa-san. You love Tokyo, and shouldn’t be wasting all your time riding the train.”

For the second time that night Daichi’s sudden shifts threw her off guard. “What...what are you saying, wasting my time? And why are you so formal all of a sudden?” Understanding blossomed in her brain, and her gut did a double flip. “Are you breaking up with me? Is that what this is about?”

“No! This is about what’s doing best for both of us. Please don’t shout Yonezawa-san.” Only then did Aki notice that several of the other customers around them had stopped talking and were averting their gaze, looking anywhere in the restaurant but at her and Daichi. Aki was too mad to care though.

“Three years! Three years we’ve been dating. We took trips together, I helped you study for tests...you met my parents you monster, did you not think that was a big deal?”

Aki stood up and leaned over Daichi, hand pressed hard into the table. Much of the restaurant had gone quiet at this point, the only sounds coming from the kitchen where the owners were still unaware of what was happening on the other side of the curtain. Daichi averted his gaze from Aki and swallowed before speaking, “calm down Yonezawa-san, please! Here, let's sit and talk this out over dinner. I know how quick you are to anger when you haven’t eaten all day.”

The pity in his voice left a sour taste in her mouth, and she had to bite down the first retort that came to mind. Instead she straightened and marched away from the table. When she had taken two or three steps she stopped, and without turning around said loud enough for Daichi to hear, “good luck in Kyoto. I hope it’s everything you deserve and more.” With that she stalked out of the restaurant, almost passing the train station by from the tears that clouded her vision.

#

Even after having the entire train ride to calm herself down, Aki was still rather out of it when she returned to her apartment building. Lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t even notice Watanabe-san talking with another tenant as she trudged by them on her way to the stairs. Just as she reached the first step, the old man appeared next her, arms crossed and a stern expression on his face. “Miss Yonezawa, your rent money please.”

She didn’t have the patience to deal with this right now. “Sorry Mr. Watanabe, but can we talk in the morning?”

“We most certainly will not! You are ten days late with your rent, and this is the second time in as many months! I don’t know what sort of organization you think I’m running here, but this building is my livelihood, and those who can’t pay have to go.”

“Fine, do whatever you want,” anger flared through her and she almost spat on the man, “throw me out in the street, let me starve by your front door, I’m sure that will get plenty of prospective renters flocking in. Watanabe-san, the man who couldn’t bend his heart enough to spare one poor girl in her hour of need, that’s what they’ll whisper behind your back as you walk down the street!”

Watanabe had taken a step away from her, and his stern expression disappeared, replaced by nervous shiftiness. “There’s no need to make threats. If you need more time I suppose I can wait another day or two.”

Aki sighed, all of the fight gone out of her as quickly as it had appeared. “No, please allow me to apologize, that was uncalled for. I promise you that if I don’t have rent money to you tomorrow, I’ll move out. You’ve been generous enough to me already.”

She bowed to Watanabe, who seemed more taken aback by her sudden calm than he had her defiance a moment ago. “That will do just fine Miss Yonezawa. If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.” With that he retreated back down the hallway.

Aki climbed the stairs to her apartment, each step appearing to grow in front of her until it felt like crossing an insurmountable void. She stumbled into her apartment with the last of her strength, and lay down on the floor, shoes still on. If she borrowed a little from Maru, she had enough left in her bank account to pay the rent, but then there would be nothing left for her other necessities. Food or shelter, such a terrible choice to have to make. Or she could take the third route, and go crash with Maru and Masou for a few days until she could take a train back to Hokkaido. Her parents wouldn’t be happy, but they would let her work on the farm until she found something else. Sapporo was no Tokyo, but there were bound to be some work opportunities there.

She turned and stared at her closet, allowing the choices to tumble about in her mind, none of them what she really wanted to do. Then she saw something that made her sit up. She reached into her closet, and pulled out a katana in a lacquered sheath, one of her most prized possessions. It had been in her family for generations, and according to her father it had first been presented to one of her ancestors after the battle of Sekigahara. It was old, but also quite beautiful, with ornate scrollwork running the length of the blade. Aki had never used it herself, but once her father had demonstrated the sword’s potency to her by slicing a small tree in half. She still pulled it out on a regular basis to go over the katana and make sure it didn’t lose its edge.

She could easily sell it for several months in rent, plus food to feed her, but selling it would be like cutting off her own arm. Besides that, what would her parents say if they found out she had lost their family heirloom? Getting disowned would be the least of her worries.

Yet there had to be a way that Aki could stay here in Tokyo just a little bit longer. If she just had a few more days, a month even, she knew she could find a job. She felt so close already, all she needed was the right opportunity. Destiny called out her name, echoing across the winds and into her dreams, and that destiny lay in Tokyo, she just knew it. But sometimes it took a little push to be where opportunity needed you to be.

She changed and got ready for bed. By the time she had laid down and turned off the light, she knew what she needed to do next.

#

Bright and early the next day Aki took the train over to the Akihabara district. She wandered through the throngs of shoppers, passing shops with clean white displays showing all manner of goods, from appliances to the latest otaku obsessions. She felt a little on edge carrying a real sword around such a crowded shopping area, even if it was secured inside one of her old shinai cases, but after several of the curios she saw a few other shoppers had with them, she let go of her concern. Clearly she was not the strangest thing on the streets today.

At last she found the place she had been looking for. A sign labeled in large english letters hung over the entrance, under which were clean displays of watches and Gucci handbags. She took a deep breath and stepped inside.

A smiling clerk stood at one counter, and bowed as she approached. “Good morning, and welcome to Daikokuya, the largest and most respected reseller in Japan. What are you looking to buy today?”

“Loan, actually,” she hefted the case for emphasis.

“Ah, of course. Please step into the back room, we have a special area reserved for those looking to make such transactions.”

She followed the clerk into a side room that looked much like the previous one but lacked the many display cases. An older gentlemen entered the room and the clerk bowed and departed. She handed the case over to the older man and stood there as he inspected the sword. It was all she could do not to shuffle from foot to foot.

“It’s been in my family since the seventeenth century,” she offered up as the man held the blade forward and inspected its edge, “it is quite precious to me.”

The man grunted but didn’t look up at her. Aki continued, “I saw online that I have thirty days until you’ll sell it, is that correct? So long as I repay the loan in full before then?”

“Yes yes, of course,” the older man returned the sword to its case and set them down on a table. “We can offer you longer than that too if you need, under certain circumstances. Alright, I’ve seen everything I need to. I think we could offer you perhaps...fifty thousand yen? I’m afraid I can’t go any higher than that, not a big market for antique swords.”

“Fifty?” That wouldn’t even cover her rent. “I was hoping for a bit more than that. You saw the ornate scrollwork on the blade, didn’t you?”

The old man shook his head. “It is a fine antique, but I’m afraid the blade itself is just in too bad a shape, what with all those nicks and markings. I have to be able to make a profit on anything I sell, you understand.”

“Markings?” Aki had just gone over the blade before leaving, making sure that it was flawless. She pulled the sword out and inspected it. Sure enough, there were several large cracks along the sword that she was positive had not been there when she left her apartment. “This is...this isn’t...I need time to think about your offer.”

“Of course. If you change your mind you know where to find us.” The old man waved a hand at her as she fled out of the store. She couldn’t understand what had gone wrong in there. The sword had been fine earlier, yet something had clearly happened on her way to Akihabara. Every hope and plan she had felt like it was being crushed during the last twenty-four hours, and now this. It was all just too much.

She wandered the streets in a daze, not really paying attention to where her feet went. Lights and shop signs turned into a blur as she moved from one street to the next, trying to decide what she should do. Pawning the sword for just long enough to find a job had been her last hope. Unless she found work in the next few days, she’d still end up borrowing from Maru. Was it worth risking her family sword for so little? No, better to just accept fate and return home.

Then Aki looked up, and found herself on a quiet street, the only other pedestrians a young couple out visiting the shops. She stopped by a window display and looked about her in wonder. The street was an unfamiliar one, and she had clearly come quite a ways from the busy center of Akihabara.

She glanced at the shop window, and then looked again, closer this time. The shop was as different from Daikokuya as night from day. The windows were full of old curios, mahogany desks crammed up against marble statues to one side, a miniature torii gate displayed at the other. The interior of the shop was dark, and the scent of incense wafted about her even from this far away. Still, it had an inviting look, and a sign out front promised top prices offered in collateral loans. It was a bit rustic, but still a pawn shop. Before she realized what she was doing, Aki had crossed the threshold and slipped inside.

As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she saw the shop was even more crammed inside. Every available space held antiques, the sheer quantity and variety threatening to overwhelm her. She made her way to the front counter, which was currently unoccupied. After waiting a few moments, she rang the small bell next to the register. An older woman, around her own mother’s age perhaps, appeared from the back.

“Good morning, and welcome to Mika Family Antiques. Is there anything in particular I can help you find? We have wonders from around the world that you won’t find anywhere else in Tokyo.”

Aki shook her head. “I was actually wondering if you might be interested in making a loan for this?” She set the sword case on the counter. “It’s a family heirloom.”

“Ah, you’ll want to speak with my father about that. He handles all purchasing decisions. Please wait just a moment.” The woman disappeared into the back once again.

Aki waited, doing her best not to pace back and forth. She looked around the shop, marveling at the beauty of several wall hangings that were on display. After that she found a small bookshelf, which much to her surprise contained a book she hadn’t read before by American author Richard Bachman, translated into Japanese. She set it on the counter next to the blade.

When neither the woman nor her father returned after a few minutes, she took a seat in an ornate wooden chair near the counter. It was shaped like a throne, with trellises of red roses painted along the backing. She hesitated to sit in it at first, but there were no signs and her feet were sore from so much walking.

She settled down, but stood up again almost immediately and collected the katana from the counter. Sitting down again she opened the case and removed the ancestral weapon. She held it at arm’s length and inspected the blade. Even in the dim light it was still plain to see that the edge had neither chipped nor been worn dull. She tested her finger along it, and pulled it back with a jerk. A line of blood appeared on her fingertip, and she stuck it inside her mouth feeling rather foolish all of a sudden. The blade had been worn and dull at the last shop. Was she going crazy?

She leaned back against the chair with a sigh, resting the blade against her shoulder. It would be just her luck if the stress of the last twenty-four hours had made her crazy, but she didn’t feel any different. Perhaps it had just been some trick that the last shop played, so they could offer her a lower price.

The back of the chair quivered, and Aki sat forward, fearing she had done some damage to it. The next moment the seat shifted as well, and then seemed to just melt away. She flailed her arms as she fell backwards, but there was nothing to find purchase on. Her back struck hard stone with a thud, her family’s sword clattering down next to her. The little light illuminating the shop had been lost from this angle, and for the moment she found herself surrounded by darkness.

She started to sit up, and the next instant laid back down again, clutching her head. As the pain receded she stretched her hands outward, and felt rough stone just ten or so centimeters from her face. Still not sure what was going on, Aki stretched her hands to either side, and felt stone surrounding her there as well. She started to panic, and the sounds of her labored breathing left her feeling smothered and boxed in. Forcing herself to calm down, she considered her situation. Somehow she had fallen inside a crate or something. That was the only logical explanation.

Aki pressed her hands to ceiling again, and gave it a firm push. She felt the stone move slightly, and tried again. It slid to one side, and a crack of light from the shop appeared through the opening. Encouraged by this, she heaved with all her might, and the stone lid fell to one side with a mighty crash. She sat up, gulping the fresh air. The light all around her stuck her face, and it took a moment before she realized it was too intense to have been from the antique shop.

She sat on a hillside, and from where she perched upon the strange gray box that had held her she could see lush grass spreading away into the distance. A breeze picked up, waving the stalks about and sending a cloud of dust swirling around her. As it cleared she saw that past her hill was forest of trees, some of them taller than any skyscraper. Nearby lay the crumbling ruins of what looked like a European-style castle.

She climbed out of the box and turned in a slow circle. The sky was a brilliant blue, a few patchy clouds at the distant edges, and just peaking over the horizon were a pair of moons, glowing white like the eyes of an animal on a dark night. She gaped at the sight, then felt the back of her head for any sign of injury, sure that this was some mad hallucination.

Finding her head unharmed, she dropped to her knees and ran her hands through the rocks and dirt. The stones felt rough against her skin, as real as anything else she had ever touched. This couldn’t be just in her mind, unless she was even more insane than she feared. She looked up at the sky again, the reality of the twin moons settling deep inside her.

“Something tells me I’m not in Tokyo anymore,” she said, holding her sword close and shivering as a cold breeze played across her skin.