By the time Hisoka got back to the Summons Division, everyone else had left for the day. Except Watari, who jumped out of his seat as soon as the door opened.
"Are you okay? What happened?"
Hisoka glanced at Konoe's door.
"He's gone, Security called him out an hour ago," Watari said. "And apparently we're not under suspicion any more, but no-one's told us why."
"The Count had me trying to find traces of the thieves in the castle," Hisoka explained, sitting on the edge of a desk for a moment. He was exhausted from the constant battering of all those souls against his mind. "I didn't get much, but I knew it wasn't anyone from the Summons Division. And the candles... reflected what I saw, so he knew I wasn't lying."
Maybe it was because he was so tired, but the lies stuck in his throat this time. He wondered how many he'd told Watari now, how many edited versions of the truth he'd passed on to the rest of the Judgement Bureau. If he wasn't careful, he was going to slip, be caught in a contradiction. But the Count at least had a plan for what to say and do to avoid suspicion, and Hisoka couldn't think of a better alternative. Telling the truth would bring everything crashing down around him.
Watari hesitated, then asked, "So... Tatsumi...?"
Watari let out his breath in a rush.
"Of course he wasn't," he said, and Hisoka felt the guilty echo behind the words, the knowledge that he hadn't been as certain of Tatsumi's innocence as he'd claimed. "Maybe now they'll close this stupid investigation as well."
"Speaking of investigations," Hisoka went on. "The Count is going to help us with Kyoto."
Watari's head snapped up to stare at him. "You told him--?"
"It felt like the right thing to do," Hisoka replied, meeting his eyes without flinching. "He's keeping the candles of the remaining victims safe, so they can't be killed before we retrieve their souls."
"Well, that helps," Watari said after a moment. "But I don't like bringing the Count into it. Owing him a favour can be a dangerous thing."
"We don't owe him anything. This is payback for me helping him with the candles."
"Still..." Watari sighed. "I guess it's a risk we have to take."
"There's more," Hisoka went on. "He's going to use the candles to find the two who are missing. And he says he can provide us with wards to protect the victims once we've exorcised them."
"What about finding their souls?"
"He's going to try to use the candles for that too, but he isn't sure it will help, if their souls aren't in the human world. He thinks following the tethers is our best bet. But he says if we can find them, he'll get us the permits we need to cross between worlds to get them back."
Watari was silent for a moment.
"Okay," he said finally, "I guess you were right about telling him. Just... be careful, Bon. The Count has his own agenda and it's not always in line with Lord Enma's. Don't be fooled by his laid-back attitude - he's powerful, more powerful than almost anyone else in the Bureau apart from the Judges."
"I know," Hisoka replied. He had to fight back a yawn. "But he's more compassionate than he lets on. He doesn't want the Kyoto victims to lose their lives just because the Judges want things to be neat."
"He did always give in easily when anyone asked him to extend a life," Watari admitted. "I mean, it was... it was usually Tsuzuki asking." He looked away, awash with pain again. "And he always had a soft spot for Tsuzuki... but he did it for the rest of us, too, now and then. I just... always assumed it was because he liked to be able to call in favours."
"It's that too," Hisoka said with certainty. "But in this case, I think we can trust him."
"Well, I trust your judgement." Watari peered at him. "You look like you're about to fall asleep on your feet, though. We should get going."
Hisoka nodded and pushed himself away from the desk. They were halfway towards the door when he caught the sense of someone approaching on the other side. He was tired enough that he couldn't immediately place who it was, until the door opened and it was too late for advance warning.
Tatsumi barely glanced at them as he entered, making instead for Konoe's office. Watari froze in mid-step, hands clenching into fists as he stared at Tatsumi like he was trying to bore holes in him with his eyes. Hisoka shuddered under the whirlwind of contradictions battling for supremacy: relief that Tatsumi was all right, struggling with anger that he could just walk in here like nothing had happened, fighting with the deeper rage that Tatsumi had spent the last three years acting like nothing had happened, and behind it all, the fear that was close to panic, the urgent need to lash out and try to draw blood, to try and force Tatsumi to feel something, to break him before he finally vanished into the shadows forever...
What if you do break him, Watari-san? Hisoka thought. What might he do if you provoke him that far?
He didn't like the answer he sensed in the depths of Watari's mind, the darkness and the despair and the echo of the words he'd spoken the first time Hisoka had met him: will it help if you kill me?
And he still remembered Tatsumi's answer: maybe it would.
"Konoe-san isn't in," he said aloud, desperate to avert the crisis.
Tatsumi shot him a brief, cool look without stopping. "Then I will wait for him to come back."
"Did they drop the investigation?" Watari demanded.
Tatsumi didn't respond. He opened Konoe's door and seemed about to vanish inside without a word.
"Don't walk away from me!" Watari snarled. "What did they want with you? It wasn't just Sargatanas - they were talking about the fire, too. Why? What's going on?"
Tatsumi paused with his hand on the door. He didn't turn around.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss the details of any of the Security Division's work."
"Don't give me that bullshit!" Watari's eyes narrowed and Hisoka felt him reach deliberately for something to do damage. "Did they finally put you on warning? Write you up for incompetence?"
"My ability to do my job is not in question," Tatsumi replied icily, still without turning.
"It should be! You couldn't even work with Bon without putting him in danger--"
Leave me out of this, Hisoka wanted to say, but his tongue was stuck in his mouth, the electricity of the gathering storm freezing him in place.
"Kurosaki-kun is more than able to take care of himself."
"And you'll keep saying that right up to the moment you watch him die!"
Finally, Tatsumi turned around, the movement as sharp and sudden as a snake striking.
"As if your record with partners is anything to be proud of," he snapped. "You've a knack for driving people away, Watari-san."
Hisoka felt the blow strike home, but it only seemed to make Watari angrier. He shoved one hand into his pocket as if reaching for his tarot cards.
"Stop," Hisoka said, but his voice came out so soft even he could barely hear the words.
"I've got a knack for driving people away? At least I tried to help! At least I didn't just stand there--"
The shadows deepened, curled, lengthened, reached for Watari as Tatsumi's expression suddenly shattered out of immobility into something sharp and ugly and dangerous. There was no pretending now that they were talking about anything other than the events of three years ago. And all at once, the chains holding Hisoka immobile fell away before an anger of his own, one that was all the greater because it wasn't truly directed at either of the two men poised to tear each other to shreds.
"I said stop! Neither of you killed him!"
The force of his power as he lashed out stunned even Hisoka; it made the other two stagger back. The shadows faltered and fled as Tatsumi took a step backwards; Watari stumbled against a desk, one hand going to his head in futile self-defence. Maybe it was because there were two of them, maybe because of Rikugou's training, but Hisoka found that this time, he was totally in control, in no danger of losing himself in someone else's mind. He pushed, slapping down Watari's rage, boiling away the poison choking Tatsumi, forcing both of them to stillness and silence.
"Watari-san, we're leaving," Hisoka said bluntly.
He could have made Watari do it, put pressure on his mind that he couldn't refuse, but the thought of controlling someone like that made him sick to his stomach. In any case, he didn't need to. Watari followed him out of the office without another word.
Watari didn't speak until they were well away from the office, and when he did, his voice was low.
"What... what did you just do?"
"Stopped you getting yourself killed, or worse," Hisoka snapped. "I know what you're trying to do, Watari-san. It won't fix anything."
Watari flinched, then scowled as if to cover it. "You don't know him like I do, you can't tell me what I should do--"
Hisoka stopped walking and turned to face him directly.
"I am telling you." He hesitated, then added, "As a friend. This isn't the way to reach him. You're only making things worse."
For a moment, he thought Watari would snap back with more anger, or even walk away. Instead, something seemed to suddenly break in him. He turned away to hide his face, not that it did anything to obscure the fountain of grief and loss that threatened to drench Hisoka from across the hallway.
"I don't know any other way," he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper. "Do you?"
"No," Hisoka was forced to admit. "I don't. And you're right, I don't know him like you do, even with my power. But I know this is just... poisoning both of you. One of you has to stop it, and I don't think he can, Watari-san."
Watari said nothing for several seconds.
"I don't know if I can, either," he said at last. He started walking again. "I don't even know how to try."
There was no sign of Tatsumi in the Summons Division the next day. Konoe didn't mention him when he told the rest of the office that they were free to return to their casework.
Watari wasn't there either. He was probably in the lab, Hisoka thought. The notes on the Kyoto case were gone from his desk, but in their place was a faxed sheet of paper on which someone had scribbled Area 2 in ballpoint pen.
Hisoka picked it up and scanned its contents. A case in Nagasaki? His heart sank. The Count was expecting him to go back to Kyoto and try to find any traces of Muraki and Tsuzuki in the grounds of the Rokudo Chinno Temple. He took the paper with him as he went over to knock on Konoe's door.
Konoe glanced up as Hisoka stepped through the door.
"Ah, Kurosaki-kun, good. You've seen the case that came in this morning?"
Hisoka held up the paper in acknowledgement. "What do I do?"
"Get out there and investigate it," Konoe said dryly. At Hisoka's frown, he managed a sympathetic half-smile. "I know, it's the first one you've had by yourself, but it should be an easy one, and you seem to have got the hang of things. The Count was very complimentary about you last night."
"I didn't do much," Hisoka said quickly. "What about Watari-san's case in Kyoto? I was helping with that--"
"He'll have to manage on his own. We can't put off casework in one district for the sake of another."
"What about Tatsumi-san?"
Konoe's expression didn't change.
"He's still on a leave of absence."
Hisoka brushed his mind briefly, hoping for some clue as to why Tatsumi had been in the office the night before, but Konoe's shields were at full strength today.
"According to this, the murders only happened last night," Hisoka said, hoping for a reason to delay the investigation. "Their souls won't even have arrived in Meifu yet. Why do we need to get involved?"
Konoe frowned and gestured at Hisoka to hand the paper over.
"That is unusual... ah, here's why. Odd details - no obvious connection between victims, but they were all killed within hours of each other in different parts of the city. And they all had their hair chopped off. It could be nothing, just a madman taking trophies, but the hair of a dead woman can be used in some nasty curses, that's why they've flagged it."
He handed the paper back to Hisoka.
"It might be none of our concern. If so, you'll probably figure it out quickly, with your power. Then you can just come back and close the case. If there's more to it than that, let me know. I can't spare any other Shinigami right now, but the Gushoushin are sometimes willing to do fieldwork if needed. I can send one of them out to assist you."
Konoe reached for a form in one of his desk trays, wrote on it quickly, then held it out to Hisoka.
"Here's your expenses allowance. I know it's not much, but I don't see this case taking you more than a couple of days."
Hisoka couldn't think of any other excuses, and he didn't want to make Konoe suspicious. He took the expenses form without protest.
"I'll do my best."
It was warmer in Nagasaki than it had been in Kyoto, warm enough to cast doubt on the approach of winter. Hisoka spent his first hour in the city familiarising himself with its layout. The narrow valley it was built in gave its streets a winding, chaotic character very different from the big cities that had been built on the plains. Hisoka was also struck by the number of Christian churches he saw. He remembered learning that Nagasaki had been a hub of Catholicism several hundred years earlier, but he had somehow imagined that the religion had died out since then. The churches felt strange to him when he passed them: they radiated power just like the more familiar Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, but it was an alien power, and not one that entirely welcomed him.
He thought at first that it was the churches that were making him feel ill at ease, but as he walked, he slowly realised that there was something else, an undercurrent of something that had left such a mark on the city that he still sensed its echoes. It was only when he found himself at the Atomic Bomb Memorial that he realised with a shudder what he must be picking up. Just like in Kyoto, the memory of fire had yet to fade, though more than fifty years had passed since it had burned the city to the ground.
He'd made use of the library computers before he left Meifu, and his case file now contained a number of newspaper reports and even some preliminary police interviews that Watari had managed to hack into for him before they went their separate ways. Everywhere he went in the city, he saw the same headlines on television screens and in newspapers: Five dead in psycho murder spree! Is there a serial killer loose in Nagasaki?!
He sat down on a bench near the memorial to review the case file. Five women, all killed between midnight and dawn, all with their throats cut. Each body had been found in the street in a huge pool of its own blood. Just as Konoe had noted, they'd all had their hair cut off, and Hisoka saw from the newspaper photos that each of the women had worn it extremely long to begin with. He was pretty sure at least one of them could have stood on her own braid.
So far the police had no theories. The women were completely unconnected; their long hair and their deaths were the only things they had in common. They had been found in random locations around the city, but all evidence suggested that they had gone voluntarily to the spots where they'd been killed.
Hisoka frowned at the sentence random locations, remembering something Watari had said about the Kyoto case. He pulled out a map of Nagasaki he'd bought when he arrived, and using the details in the police reports, quickly marked each death on the map. He couldn't see anything significant in the immediate vicinity of each spot, but once all five were on the map, it was obvious at once that they were strangely, evenly spaced around the city. Hisoka stared at the map for a few minutes, an idea creeping into his head.
He picked up his pen again and began to draw lines between the marks on the map. By the time he'd drawn four, he could tell that he was right, but something compelled him to finish it anyway.
A perfect pentagram stared back at him from the map. Hisoka felt a chill go down his spine. Still, he thought, studying the symbol he'd drawn, it wasn't definitive proof of supernatural involvement... only that the killer had some knowledge of the arcane and a flare for the dramatic.
He made a note of the nearest location, folded the map, and slipped into spirit form to fly to the first crime scene. It was still under active investigation, with a tent covering the body and police officers swarming over the surrounding area. Hisoka landed outside the cordon. As soon as his feet touched the ground, a wave of revulsion swept through him. The woman's terror drenched the street and made the daylight seem pale, more like the wan light of a waxing moon. Her death was even worse, as black as her blood had looked when it spilled onto the ground at her feet, as she grabbed at her own throat, trying to stem the flow even as she fell to her knees, weakness spreading like cold water through her limbs.
Hisoka shuddered, but kept his mind open, trying to read more of what had happened. She'd come here... almost in a dream... sleepwalking out of her apartment in the middle of the night, called by something she couldn't quite hear. She'd dressed herself before she went, but she hadn't taken her purse or her keys... she'd known she wouldn't need them... angels were calling her and she'd felt a strange, light sensation as she'd walked, as if she were leaving all her worries behind.
That dreamy sensation had lasted right until the knife touched her throat. Then all at once the illusion had shattered, and she had realised what was about to happen, all in one awful second, and her fear had been a scream that never left her throat before the blade plunged into it and silenced her forever.
There was something missing. Hisoka braced himself, ducked under the cordon, and approached the tent door. He felt sick by the time he reached it, even before he stepped inside and saw her body. Her hair had indeed been cut, raggedly - a stray thought from one of the forensic investigators told Hisoka that the same knife had been used on her hair as on her throat.
But who had been wielding that knife? Hisoka couldn't sense the murderer at all. The victim had seen someone, had gone towards them, but Hisoka could find no trace of any presence other than hers. And yet... he circled the body towards a series of markers laid down by the police. There were dried footprints leading away from the pool of blood; a man's, he thought, but when he tried to sense the person who'd left them, he came up blank. It was as if there were a hole in the world, or a hole in his empathy, a blind spot he couldn't penetrate.
Uneasiness prickled down the back of Hisoka's neck. His mind kept pushing at the hole, trying to find something to fill it with, but it was like staring into darkness so complete that it played tricks on the eyes.
He left the tent by the far door, following the trail of footprints. They led up the street a short way, the blood lessening with each step until there was nothing left to track. He stared at the last faint print for a long time, then took flight again, heading for the next victim on the list.
It was late afternoon by the time Hisoka had visited all five murder sites, and he felt as though he'd made little progress. He read the same story at each location: the woman entranced, walking to her death; the gap where traces of the murderer should be. The only additional information he'd acquired was that the murders had been committed in sequence, the first at midnight, then one every hour moving clockwise from the top point of the pentacle.
His head was aching and he could feel the scratchy discomfort of too many minds on his. Hisoka paused at a vending machine to buy a bottle of tea, and then looked around for somewhere to sit and drink it. He could sense a shrine nearby. A bit of exploration led him up a series of winding, steep steps between the houses.
Hisoka paused at the top of one flight of steps, surprised by what he saw ahead. Exactly one half of a carved stone shrine gate loomed at the top of the next flight. It was as if the gate had been sliced vertically in two, and its left-hand side removed. Hisoka approached, curious. There was a signboard just beyond it, explaining that this strange monument was another legacy of the atomic bomb: somehow, the blast had destroyed one leg of the gate and left the other completely intact. The remnants of the rest of the gate lay to one side. The place was called Sannou Shrine.
Hisoka followed the path into the shrine proper. Two enormous camphor trees greeted him; more information boards showed pictures of the charred stumps they had been in the immediate aftermath of the bomb. It was hard to believe the trees could have recovered from such damage, but there they stood, as green and vigorous as any Hisoka had ever seen.
It moved him unexpectedly, to see proof of such regeneration after utter devastation. He laid a hand on the trunk of one of the trees and closed his eyes. He could feel it, the distant echo of the fire... but here its weight was lighter, diffuse like the dappled light that filtered through the leaves overhead.
Hisoka sat down at the foot of the trees to drink his tea. The headache was fading at last. The shrine was high up on the slope, and between the buildings Hisoka could see glimpses of the city below. It wasn't quite dusk, but the shadows were lengthening. The last few visitors left the shrine, oblivious to his presence. A feral cat slunk out of the bushes, stared at Hisoka, then disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. One of the shrine priests began sweeping the path with an old-fashioned twig broom. When he drew level with Hisoka, he stopped, and turned his head.
Hisoka fought back a twinge of alarm. It was hardly surprising that a priest would be spiritually strong enough to sense him. Stranger was the fact that the man was wearing a blindfold, a strip of dark cloth bound across his eyes, and yet he seemed to be looking directly at Hisoka.
"Good evening," Hisoka said after a moment.
The priest seemed to regard him for a few more seconds, then nodded slowly, and continued sweeping. Hisoka watched the careful, rhythmic movements, trying to work out whether the man could see or not. It was hard to say. He seemed to chase and catch the dead leaves and twigs with the precision of one sighted, but then, his broad, diligent strokes would hardly miss anything in his path. And why wear the blindfold if he could see through the fabric? Why wear it at all, for that matter?
Without really thinking about it, Hisoka reached towards the man's mind to find the answers... only to slide off it like silk over glass. He stared at the priest, who showed no sign he had noticed the attempt. He tried again, and again seemed to simply glide over an invisible barrier that offered no measurable resistance, and yet effortlessly refused entry.
Disquieted, Hisoka got to his feet, bowed briefly to the priest, and headed for the shrine exit. He glanced back as he left, only to see that the priest had paused his sweeping and turned, as if to watch him go.
The hotel Konoe had sent him to was near Nagasaki's Chinatown. Hisoka ate at a small noodle shop on the edge of the brightly lit area, but didn't venture in further. He retired to his room to write up his notes on what he'd discovered so far, which he had to admit wasn't much. Then he checked his watch, drew the curtains tightly, and retrieved his jacket from the hook he'd left it on.
The fuda wards rustled between his fingers as he pulled them out of the inner pocket, their characters surprisingly delicate: the Count's flowing calligraphy. Several were simple barrier wards like the one he'd found in Tsuzuki's drawer. Two would summon what the Count had described as guardian oni, beings whose nature was to protect people from harm. They would not take orders, but they could be relied upon to engage anything that came Hisoka's way. A handful more could be used to create messenger birds.
The last three wards were more complex, the characters tightly packed. Hisoka took one and placed it in the centre of the room, then carefully recited the spell the Count had taught him.
Light flared from the ward, expanding in a circle until it touched the walls of the room. The characters on the paper glowed green. Hisoka waited for a moment to see if anything else would happen, then put his jacket on, and slipped the rest of the wards back into his pocket.
According to the Count, if anyone from Meifu was keeping tabs on his movements, this ward would mask the energy of his teleportation and lead them to think he was still in the hotel room. Hisoka hoped he was right. He initiated the teleport, keeping his location fixed in his mind's eye.
The Ichii-no-ki Memorial Hospital was much as he'd left it. Hisoka slipped silently through the bustle of the evening dinner rush, senses alert. He reached the private wing without mishap. He couldn't sense anyone inside. Heart hammering, he curled one of the barrier wards into the palm of his hand before he opened the main door.
Silence. Hisoka took a deep breath, then walked quickly to the room where he'd found Oriya and Kazusa.
It was empty. Cursing softly, Hisoka checked the other rooms, but they were the same: all three looked as though they'd never been used. There were no marks on the floor from the bed that Oriya had been in, no scraps of paper or plastic, no footprints. The whole place was spotlessly clean.
And not just physically, Hisoka realised as he tried to read the room. He could no longer sense Muraki's presence, or Tsuzuki's. He couldn't even find any traces of Byakko. The whole place had been wiped clean of spiritual energy. It was the same spell he'd encountered in the Castle of Candles, but here it had done its job completely. Hisoka could detect no hint of any of the people he'd come here to find.
He gathered energy around himself and teleported again. The grounds of the Rokudo Chinno Temple were quiet and dark. He found the well easily, but when he extended his senses, there was only the same eerie emptiness.
Hisoka pulled one of the messenger fuda out of his pocket and folded it the way the Count had shown him. It transformed under his fingertips into one of the white birds, almost glowing in the darkness. Hisoka told it what he'd found, and sent it off to the Count.
That was all he could do for now. With one last look at the well, Hisoka teleported back to his hotel room in Nagasaki, which was still lit by the unnatural green light. It vanished as soon as he picked up the ward.
Hisoka sighed, crumpled the paper in one hand, and opened one of the curtains to look out at the city. He could feel the rush and chatter of all those other minds, a constant low-level irritant that became exhausting after too long. He didn't think he'd ever feel truly comfortable in a city. He wondered how so many people could stand it, even without powers like his: just the crowds and the noise would be enough to drive you mad.
He watched the lights for a while all the same. He supposed there might be something comforting about it, for some people, knowing there were so many others nearby. At least, until one of them started murdering women in the dead of night...
He closed the curtain. Tomorrow, he'd visit the homes of the victims, see if he could find anything to lead him to the killer. There had to be something that would point him in the right direction. It was only a matter of looking in the right place.
As it turned out, Hisoka only had to leave the hotel the next day to find the lead he was looking for. A rack of newspapers in the nearby convenience store caught his eye as soon as he stepped outside.
EXCLUSIVE: Nagasaki Psycho Killer Sent 'Cryptic Messages' to Victims
Hisoka quickly bought one of the papers and retreated back to his hotel room to examine it. The text of the notes sent to the victims was printed right under the headline:
Sacrifice is necessary. All will be revealed. The answers lie on the unsinkable battleship that never set sail.
Hisoka read it several times, trying to puzzle out the meaning of the last sentence. It was only when he read the rest of the article that he discovered that the newspaper was ahead of him.
The last part of the message is believed to refer to Hashima, which is known locally as 'Battleship Island', the article went on. Once a thriving mining town and now abandoned, the island lies 20 kilometres to the south of Nagasaki and is owned by the Mitsubishi Corporation. Police have confirmed they will be visiting the island, and have cautioned members of the public to stay away, both due to the ongoing investigation and the unsafe nature of the ruins. A spokesman for Mitsubishi has said that they will be cooperating fully with the police investigation, but that they have no reason to believe that anything of significance will be found on Hashima.
The rest was speculation, either that the notes were a hoax, or that the deaths were tied to some sort of cult. One of the journalists had noticed the pentagram pattern to the murder sites, which was fuelling the latter theory, while elsewhere in the paper an expert in criminal psychology was insisting that the notes were a clear sign that the murderer was a narcissistic sociopath who just wanted to toy with the media. Hisoka found no further useful information.
He flipped back to the front page and carefully tore out the paragraph about Hashima, putting it into his case notes folder before stuffing the rest of the newspaper into the bin. Then he looked up Nagasaki's central police precinct on his map and headed out.
He'd expected, based on what he'd seen on TV, to find the precinct in uproar, every officer working on the case. In reality, it turned out that most of the police force were continuing to work on all the day-to-day cases, though there was an undercurrent of tension and it was clear that the murders were the major topic of conversation. They really did have a 'situation room' though, complete with a board covered in pictures of the crime scenes, which gave Hisoka a small thrill. Unfortunately it didn't contain anything useful to him except photographs of the actual notes. They were all identical, all typed on a computer and printed out. A sticky note next to the photos indicated that so far forensic analysis hadn't found fingerprints or anything else that would point to the killer.
Some eavesdropping confirmed that a squad of detectives had already left for Hashima. That made Hisoka uneasy. If the killer really was a practitioner of black magic, the police might be taking on more than they'd bargained for.
On the other hand, it still might all be nothing but a madman with a taste for theatrics... and either way, Hisoka needed to get to the island first. It was marked on a map of Nagasaki and its surroundings that someone had pinned to one wall, along with a couple of dog-eared photographs that obviously dated from when the island was still in use. Though tiny, it had been packed with tower blocks to house the coal miners and their families. One picture, taken from the sea, demonstrated why it had been dubbed 'Battleship Island' by the locals: its blocky outline was very much like a great grey ship of war.
Hisoka studied the pictures carefully, particularly the one taken from the dock, with the buildings behind it clearly visible. When he was sure he had the details of the place fixed in his mind, he initiated the teleport.
Hisoka's first impression of the island was that he had arrived in the middle of a post-apocalyptic landscape. The dock he was standing on was still mostly solid, but the concrete had cracked in places, eaten away by time and the relentless onslaught of the waves. The sea was choppy, the wind strong. Beyond the dock, the buildings that had been whole and occupied in the photos were now derelict. Enough time had passed to remove all pretence that people would ever come back to this place, but not enough for the concrete structures to truly crumble. It was like looking at a skeleton: all the outlines were still intact, but there was a creeping horror to it, an unshakeable feeling that this place had been dead for decades, and that Hisoka was trespassing on its tomb. Smaller buildings had lost their roofs to past storms, while the ground near the pier was strewn with rubble as if the place had been bombed.
The eeriest thing was the silence. Beyond the waves and the occasional cry of seabirds, nothing stirred. When Hisoka reached out with his power, he caught the occasional small skitterings of rodents and insects, but little else.
At least, until he brushed against something that made him flinch back: an inky darkness with a poisonous undercurrent that he now knew all too well. This place was demon-tainted, there was no mistaking it, and the strength of it suggested that the demon was still here somewhere.
Hisoka hesitated. He'd need backup to deal with a demon. He didn't even know how to exorcise one yet. But the police would be here soon, too soon for him to be able to get help from Meifu. He didn't want to think about what would happen if they stumbled into that malevolent darkness. Had the killer deliberately set this trap, to lure those people to their deaths? It seemed all too likely.
He put his hand in his pocket and touched the fuda wards there. Not much against a demon, but enough to protect bystanders, if things went awry. He glanced out to sea. There was no sign yet of any approaching boat.
He looked back at the ruins. They were obviously unsafe for mortals to explore. He could see huge pieces of metal and stone hanging precariously from upper floors. He doubted the detectives would be able to search it thoroughly. If he could pinpoint where the demon was hiding, he could keep an eye on the police and try to head them off if they got too close. As soon as they were gone, he'd head back to Meifu to report in.
His mind made up, Hisoka took flight and soared upwards until he could look down onto the whole island. From above, he could see how the scrap of land at the centre had been expanded outward with seawalls and reclaimed land, giving its flanks a uniform, flat aspect like the deck of a ship. There were a startling number of buildings crammed into the space, most of them multi-storey apartment blocks. It was clear from the weather damage that the island had been hit by many typhoons; Hisoka wondered what it had been like to live on this strange little fortress in the middle of one of those storms.
He reached out carefully, trying to find the demon, but its presence oozed over most of the island like a scent trail. Hisoka was about to go back down and start searching on foot, when something struck him as odd. He hovered lower, closing in on the thing that had caught his attention.
It was a small shrine, presumably Hashima's only one, built on the summit of the natural hill at the centre of the island. Its wooden building was surprisingly intact, though the platform around it had rotted away. What had caught his eye were bright white flecks around the stone gate that had one marked the shrine's entrance. As he moved lower, he saw that his first impression had been correct: they were zigzag shide strips, their freshness at stark odds to the decay that surrounded them.
Hisoka flew lower, and landed carefully a short distance from the gateway. The white streamers fluttered in the wind. The ropes from which they hung had been wound around the pillars of the gateway, but where Hisoka would have expected pale new rope to match the crisp paper, this was very dark, black from age.
He couldn't see anything else in what was left of the shrine, but the paper was proof enough that someone had been here recently. He started towards the gate, then stopped suddenly.
For a moment, he'd thought he heard something: a voice carried away by the wind. The pier he'd arrived on was out of sight from here. Had the police arrived already? He'd better check the shrine out quickly and go look...
Then he heard running feet, approaching from the narrow steps that led down behind the shrine into the alleys between the apartment blocks. Hisoka spun towards the sound, shoving one hand quickly into the pocket that contained the fuda wards. He couldn't think of any good reason why the police would be running.
He was so focused on the approaching footsteps that he barely registered the slithering sound from behind him.
Then Tsuzuki burst out from the stairs, running hard, and Hisoka was so stunned he couldn't do more than stare. But Tsuzuki spared him only one desperate look, then his gaze went over Hisoka's shoulder and he shouted, "Look out!"
Hisoka started to turn instinctively, which was the only reason the writhing mass of darkness caught just his right arm, not his whole torso. He jerked backward in horror. The ropes that had been wrapped around the shrine gate had come alive, rising like snakes, their tightly woven strands now a mass of individual fibres. They cut into his arm so deeply he cried out, even as the other end of the rope curved back around to engulf him.
Then it flinched away as it was struck by a fuda ward. A moment later Tsuzuki was at his side, trying to pull him away.
"Stop!" Hisoka managed through the pain. "It's going to cut my arm off!"
Tsuzuki swore under his breath and pulled out another ward. This one he slashed down on the rope like a knife. To Hisoka's relief, the bulk of it fell away, and the strands wrapped around his arm loosened and slid downward towards his wrist.
Tsuzuki reached out to try and pull them off completely. "Quick, before it--"
The mass of rope that he'd cut loose suddenly rose up again behind him. Hisoka managed only the first syllable of a warning before it struck. Tsuzuki just barely reacted quickly enough, hauling Hisoka back away from the gate and readying yet another fuda between the fingers of his right hand.
And in that instant, Hisoka felt the fibres around his wrist tighten suddenly, agonisingly. Tsuzuki staggered sideways, and Hisoka saw that the mess of strands had wrapped around his left wrist, binding it to Hisoka's right. The glowing characters on the fuda ward flickered one, twice.
Then they went dark, fading to ink. At the same moment, the rest of the rope dropped to the ground, utterly lifeless. And from the clear sky came a bolt of purple lightning that struck the shrine in front of them and flung them both to the ground.
For a few moments, Hisoka thought that he'd been struck blind, until he was able to raise his head, and saw the faint band of light on the horizon that was receding with every second. Clouds were boiling out of the shrine, he realised, black thunderclouds that hung low over the island and turned the day into an eerie twilight. Thunder cracked again, and a flash of light from behind him marked another strike.
"What--" Hisoka managed, before Tsuzuki tried to stand up, and yanked on his wrist so hard he couldn't prevent a yelp of pain from escaping. "Hey, be careful!"
Tsuzuki turned to look at their joined wrists. The black strands from the rope had knotted them together so tightly that blood was dripping from the cuts.
"Oh no," Tsuzuki said.
He pulled out another fuda, but it was just paper in his hand; no power flowed through it. At that, he seemed to suddenly lose all his energy, slumping down to sit next to Hisoka. His face was very pale.
Hisoka was somewhere between terrified and furious, and in no mood to pretend otherwise.
"What the hell is going on?"
"It's a trap," Tsuzuki said. "He set a trap for you. I didn't know, until it was too late."
"Muraki did this?" Hisoka started looking around them at the rubble. "Don't just sit there, help me find something to cut this stuff..."
"It won't work." Tsuzuki stared at their mingled blood with morbid fascination. "Don't you know what it is?"
"Hair from a dead woman," Tsuzuki said. "It's one of the few things that can suppress a Shinigami's powers. We can't cut it or break it without destroying the whole spell."
"I don't know." Tsuzuki hung his head. "I just know he made a pact with a demon, and set this trap for you when you came to investigate. He knew it would be you. He said that once you triggered the trap, you'd never be able to leave the island."
Hisoka fought off a wave of cold dread.
"There are police investigators coming here by boat," he said. "We can tell them some story, get them to take us back to the mainland..."
"No. Can't you feel it?" Tsuzuki looked up, gazing at the horizon with weary eyes. "They won't be allowed to land. This is some demon's playground now."
He was right. The thick, oily blackness of the demon's presence was suffocating, and in the darkness, Hisoka could sense the purposeful movement of a hunter, drawing swiftly closer to the shrine.
"Come on," he said. Then, when Tsuzuki didn't stir, "Stand up! We need to move before it finds us."
"There's no point. We're defenceless."
"Then why did you bother coming?" Hisoka demanded.
"I... thought I could warn you. Before you triggered the spell." Tsuzuki looked away. "I didn't know... he would target you like this. I would have warned you in Kyoto, if I'd known."
The guilt and deep self-loathing were almost as bad as the demon's aura. Hisoka pushed back with all the force of his mind, and had the satisfaction of seeing Tsuzuki flinch slightly.
"Stand up," Hisoka said, starting to get to his own feet. To his secret surprise, Tsuzuki did as he was told. "Now run!"
They nearly fell half a dozen times as Hisoka led the way down the steps and took the first turning that led in the opposite direction from the demon's foul presence. The binding on their wrists cut in agonisingly every time their steps fell out of sync. Hisoka gritted his teeth against the pain and tried to concentrate on finding a way through the ruined buildings. Tsuzuki didn't make a sound, even when Hisoka accidentally yanked his arm forward in a moment of inattention.
Hisoka's first instinct had been to head for the edge of the island, away from the maze-like alleys of the interior, but halfway there he realised how vulnerable that would leave them to being spotted from above. He had no idea what this demon was capable of. If it was the size Sargatanas had been, it could leap down from the shrine as easily as a cat from a low roof.
He ducked sharply right, through the fallen wall of an apartment block, sending Tsuzuki stumbling at the unexpected turn. Hisoka grimaced at the pain in his wrist.
"Sorry," he said. "This way."
"If it traps us in here--" Tsuzuki started.
"Hiding's still our best chance," Hisoka replied. He was forced to slow down to navigate the wreckage inside the corridor they found themselves in. "At least until we know what we're dealing with--"
The silence of the island was shattered by an awful, inhuman roar, a howl of anger from above them. They both flinched from the sound.
"... and that doesn't sound like a small demon," Hisoka said, as the echoes chased each other between the tower blocks.
"It wouldn't be. Not for something like this."
A half-open door ahead of them showed stairs leading down into darkness. Hisoka hesitated, glancing over his shoulder. Was it his imagination, or could he hear the distant footfalls of something charging back down the shrine steps? The last thing he wanted to do was go into a dark place with a demon close behind, but he saw little alternative.
The stairs were slippery with damp, and so narrow Hisoka had to turn awkwardly so that they could go down single file. Three times, one of them lost their footing and for a moment it seemed like they'd tumble to the bottom, but each time, they barely managed to keep their balance. At the foot of the stairs, Hisoka paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
"There could be holes or anything in here," Tsuzuki said, hanging back nervously.
"So tread carefully," Hisoka retorted.
Privately, he acknowledged that Tsuzuki had a point. There was barely enough light for even his eyesight. He could see some shapes along one wall that were probably boilers or similar, but the floor was just one dark expanse that could have been concrete or could have been void for all he could tell. All he could do was slide his foot along the ground with each step, bracing himself to encounter a gap.
He was so busy checking the floor that he almost walked into the opposite wall. The basement wasn't as big as he'd hoped. He laid his free hand on the wall and began to walk at a right-angle to their previous course.
"There might be a door to another room--" he started, but then Tsuzuki hissed, "Shh!" and he froze in place, listening.
It wasn't exactly a sound, he realised. It was the very slight shaking of the ceiling above them, tiny pieces of plaster and wood falling with each heavy footstep. The blackness of the demon itself pressed in on Hisoka's mind. He closed his eyes in the darkness, trying to keep his mind as quiet as possible, afraid that it would sense his thoughts just as it might hear his breathing.
They stood in silence for what felt like hours, unable to tell whether the demon was right above them, or stalking along the alleyway outside the building. At last, the vibrations faded. Hisoka began moving forward again. A few steps along, his hand touched a wooden door. The handle came away when he tried to turn it, crashing to the ground with such sudden loudness in the silence that they both jumped, and for an awful moment Hisoka was sure they would hear the demon come rushing back into the building.
But there was no response from above. It must have passed them by, for now at least. Hisoka pushed at the door, and was relieved when it swung open without crumbling further. Once they were through, he shut it behind them.
"If only we had a light," he muttered, more to himself than Tsuzuki.
"Wait, I've got something."
He felt Tsuzuki shift, groping for something in a pocket. Then there were a series of clicks, and small flame that nearly dazzled Hisoka as Tsuzuki held the cigarette lighter aloft.
The room they were in was much longer than it was wide. Most of the width was taken up by pipes of various sizes - water, gas, and sewage, Hisoka guessed. It was more of a corridor than a room, as demonstrated by the fact that there was another door at the far end.
It was probably as good as they were going to get. Hisoka walked a few more paces, then stopped and turned to look at Tsuzuki, careful not to wrench their bleeding wrists more than he had to.
"Okay," he said. "We've got some time. And you need to tell me everything you know about this demon of Muraki's."
"I told you, I don't know what it is," Tsuzuki said miserably. "He didn't say, and I couldn't start asking questions."
Being tied to Tsuzuki meant that Hisoka couldn't escape the emotions and memories that came with the words. He winced, trying to block them out as much as possible. Tsuzuki's feelings about Muraki were a dark mess that had created some twisted version of loyalty. More than anything, though, Hisoka felt the bottomless well of his helplessness and despair, the conviction that there was nothing he could do, no choices left he could make.
And yet, this was twice he'd chosen to try and protect Hisoka from Muraki. Three times if Hisoka included their first encounter in the Ichii-no-ki. Did he really not see that?
Hisoka sighed, already feeling the strain of being forced into such close proximity. He said nothing for a few moments, gathering his thoughts. Tsuzuki shifted awkwardly beside him, trying to find a comfortable position to lean against the wall.
Before he could decide what to say next, Tsuzuki abruptly asked, "Is Kazusa okay?"
Hisoka stared at him, too dumbfounded to say more than, "What?"
Tsuzuki just waited, like he was still expecting an answer. A flash of anger flared through Hisoka.
"You're the ones who kidnapped her," he snapped. "Why are you asking me?"
Tsuzuki frowned, studying his face like he was trying to read secrets there. Hisoka didn't look away, and didn't try to hide his impatience.
"You... didn't take her?" Tsuzuki said at last, like he didn't believe it.
"What do you mean, 'take her'? What's happened to her?"
"But if it wasn't you..."
"Wasn't me that what?"
Tsuzuki hesitated. Hisoka felt him wrestling with the conviction that he shouldn't say any more, versus the awareness that he couldn't get away, and that Hisoka didn't always have to hear him speak aloud to get answers.
"She's gone," Tsuzuki said finally. "She... disappeared, while we were moving her and Oriya out of the hospital. I tried to track her down, and her trail led towards Kyoto. We knew you were in Kyoto, so we thought... are you really saying that you didn't take her to Meifu?"
"I didn't," Hisoka said, mind racing. "When did she disappear?"
Tsuzuki hesitated again. Hisoka shot him an irritated look. Tsuzuki sighed.
"Nearly a week ago," he said. "As soon as you went to Koukakurou, Muraki knew that the Judgement Bureau was on our trail, so we had to disappear. We moved Oriya and Kazusa that night... but when we got to the safehouse, Kazusa was gone."
Tsuzuki shook his head, something like admiration hiding behind his eyes.
"She got away before we even left the hospital. It was hours before we realised she was missing. I went back and picked up her trail. I followed her as far as the station, and I could tell she was heading west, but then suddenly all traces of her just... vanished. Even the trail I'd followed to get there. I don't know who else could hide her like that, if it wasn't the Judgement Bureau."
That was the night he'd dreamed about her, Hisoka realised with a jolt. She'd been travelling, and she'd found someone at the end of her journey...
"Is that why you took her candle?" he asked aloud.
"We didn't take it. It wasn't--" Suddenly he seemed to fully realise what Hisoka had asked. "Wait, you went to the Castle--?"
Hisoka could feel his panic threatening to engulf them both. He made a split-second decision not to explain the Count's role in things.
"I wanted to try and use Kazusa's candle to find her," he lied. "But it was gone. I assumed you'd taken it. After the break-in, it wasn't hard to guess what you were doing with that well in Kyoto. But why risk taking the candles at all?"
Tsuzuki looked away, closing in on himself. For just a moment, Hisoka thought about forcing the issue, plunging deep into Tsuzuki's mind to find the answers. He was flooded with repulsion at the mere idea of it. It was far too much like what Muraki had done to him in Kumamoto. He sighed, and let the question go for now.
"You really didn't take Kazusa's candle?"
"No," Tsuzuki replied. Hisoka believed him. "I couldn't find it. I figured it was because the Judgement Bureau had her, but if you really don't..." He closed his eyes guiltily. "Maybe something happened to her while she was running away. Maybe she died."
"No," Hisoka said with certainty, remembering the end of that dream, the relief and the sense of safety that had preceded the quiet closing of a door behind her. "She's not dead. Someone else must be hiding her."
"Whoever it is, they're powerful," Tsuzuki said uneasily. "Even Byakko couldn't find the trail again once it vanished."
Suddenly he cursed, and the light went out, plunging them back into darkness.
"It got too hot. Sorry. I can light it again once it's cooled a bit..."
"We'd better save it for when we need it," Hisoka said. He pushed his questions about Kazusa aside; their immediate situation was too dire. "You said there's a spell we have to break. What are we looking for?"
"Some sort of circle," Tsuzuki replied. "There's always a circle, when you're working with demons. It's the only way to contain them and stop them attacking the summoner. And it didn't attack you as soon as you got to the island. It must have been kept in the circle until the binding curse triggered. So the binding is linked to the circle, and the circle must be somewhere here. If we can find it and break it, we might stand a chance... the only problem is, breaking the circle removes any restraints that have been placed on the demon."
"Do you really think your friend bothered to put any restraints on it?" Hisoka asked, not bothering to keep the bite out of his voice.
Tsuzuki was silent for long enough that Hisoka thought he wasn't going to answer.
"He probably commanded it not to leave the island," he said finally. "Probably."
"We can't let it get to the mainland," Hisoka said, a chill running down his spine at the thought of a demon loose in Nagasaki. "We'll have to be ready to take it out as soon as we break the circle."
"I can call on my Shikigami as soon as the binding is broken--"
Hisoka fumbled in his pocket, cursing himself for forgetting. His fingers found Rikugou's mirror. He couldn't see the glass in the darkness, but he could focus his mind on it even without sight. However, his brief hope died at once; behind the glass were only thick, black clouds like the ones covering the sky above the island.
"What is it?" Tsuzuki demanded.
"Nothing." Hisoka thrust the mirror back into his pocket. "I thought there was a way I could call for help, but it isn't working." Quickly, before Tsuzuki could ask any more questions, he went on, "So how do we banish the demon?"
"If it's high ranking, I need its true name to force it to depart."
Vividly, the memory of Tsuzuki trying to abjure Sargatanas flashed into Hisoka's mind, along with the sight of his throat torn out by one of those massive claws. He shuddered.
"How do you find out a demon's true name without access to Meifu's records?"
"There are books out in the world, demonology texts and so on. Muraki... has a lot of those. But here... I don't know. The summoning circle will include its sigil, but it won't do us any good if it isn't one I recognise. Sometimes you can trick them into telling you their name, but only if you can persuade them to talk to you rather than tearing you apart..."
"Maybe I can read its mind," Hisoka said, recoiling from the idea even as he voiced it. "If I can get close enough..."
"I wouldn't count on it. If it's a powerful one, it'll know how to shield."
Hisoka said nothing, thinking through options. The silence pressed in like the darkness, and all around them he sensed the taint left by the demon. Not only that, but he was suddenly conscious of how cold it was down here. He shivered.
Then, out of nowhere, someone touched his left shoulder.
Hisoka gasped and swung his arm out instinctively to ward the person off. It passed through empty air.
"What? What is it?" Tsuzuki demanded.
"The lighter, quick!"
The series of clicks seemed to take an agonisingly long time. When the flame sprang into existence, it cast a strange light; Hisoka saw that it was burning blue. He couldn't see anyone in the corridor, nor any sign that either door had opened.
"Uh oh," Tsuzuki said, staring at the lighter wide-eyed.
The flame flickered and suddenly shifted back to a warm yellow. The chill in the air seemed to pass at the same time.
"Someone touched me," Hisoka said, shaken. "I'm sure of it."
"Yeah," Tsuzuki said. "This place is, um... kind of haunted."
Hisoka stared at him.
"A lot of bad stuff happened here," Tsuzuki said. "Especially during the war."
He glanced uneasily at the door behind them.
"The demon must have stirred them up. If we're lucky, they won't do more than make things creepy, like just now."
"And if we're unlucky?" Hisoka demanded.
Tsuzuki glanced at him and then looked down at their bloody wrists.
"Have you noticed you aren't healing?" he asked. "This place is a deathtrap. They could bring hundreds of tons of rubble down on us, or pelt us with sharp metal until we're cut to ribbons. Even if they didn't kill you, they could incapacitate us and leave us for the demon."
"Great," Hisoka muttered. "Do you have any idea where the circle could be?"
"No. I would have guessed the shrine, but it obviously wasn't there."
"Then we're going to have to search the whole island." Hisoka grimaced. "While avoiding the demon and the angry ghosts. Anything else I should be worried about?"
"Well, I guess a building could just randomly fall on us..."
"It was a rhetorical question." Hisoka started walking towards the other end of the corridor, obliging Tsuzuki to move with him. Then a thought occurred to him with a sickening jolt. "Wait. Won't your friend Muraki come looking for you?"
"Not for a while. I'm supposed to be... doing something else right now."
Hisoka shot him a suspicious look.
Tsuzuki refused to meet his eyes, and said nothing.
"Fine," Hisoka sighed. "Just hold the light higher so I don't trip over anything."
Hisoka wasn't sure how long they spent stumbling from basement room to basement room. Sometimes they were shuffling in the dark, waiting for the lighter to cool down. He had Tsuzuki get into the habit of lighting it when they first entered a room, so they could see what was ahead and check for any signs of the summoning circle, then extinguish it while they crossed to the next doorway. Those journeys in the dark were nerve-wracking as he braced for a ghostly touch or the sound of whispering on the edge of hearing. It happened more than once, and triggered a primal surge of terror every time.
Several of the rooms had stairs up, but they were all so badly damaged that Hisoka didn't like to trust them. If he or Tsuzuki broke a leg, they'd be helpless without their healing powers. Each room seemed to connect to another, until he began to wonder if they would travel the whole length of the island underground.
Finally, after what could have been hours for all he knew, they stepped into a room which was faintly lit from above. There were several small windows set high in the wall, and the dim light revealed another staircase, this one mostly intact. Hisoka couldn't see another door leading onward, even when Tsuzuki flicked the lighter into life for the usual thirty seconds or so.
"End of the line." Hisoka began to pick his way over to the steps. "I can't sense the demon anywhere nearby. We'll have to risk going up."
Tsuzuki remained silent as they slowly, carefully climbed the steps. The door at the top led out into a narrow alley between the apartment buildings. Hisoka glanced around, trying to get his bearings, but down here at sea level the island was a maze of high grey walls and eyeless, staring windows.
"I can't believe so many people lived here," he said, careful to keep his voice low.
"Yeah, it was... really something, when there was still plenty of coal."
"You were there?"
"I used to come here a lot, for a while." Tsuzuki looked up at the narrow strip of dark sky visible between the buildings. "It's kinda sad to see it like this."
Hisoka could see the sea at the end of the alley. A bolt of lightning tore the sky apart, lighting up the water for a moment in dazzling white. The thunder took several seconds to reach them, a rumbling like an earthquake overhead, reverberating off the sides of the buildings. Hisoka led Tsuzuki towards the sea, pausing at the end of the alley to look cautiously right and left.
He couldn't see the mainland at all, so they must be on the western side of the island. The seawall was close beside the apartment buildings here, and the choppy sea was sending salt spray over the top of it. Hisoka stepped back quickly to avoid getting wet.
"We'd better go the other way."
"Why?" Tsuzuki looked one way and then the other along the seawall. "No sign of the demon, and it'll be quicker if we just follow the wall."
"And we'll leave wet footprints from walking through those puddles," Hisoka pointed out.
"I think I know where we are now. If we go back down here and turn left, we'll be heading for the northern end of the island. If we start there and work south, we stand a better chance of finding the circle."
"And the demon," Tsuzuki pointed out.
Hisoka glared at him. "Do you have any better ideas?"
Tsuzuki shook his head.
"We'll just have to stay alert and hide whenever it comes near. It's probably patrolling backwards and forwards trying to track us down. If we're careful, we can hide when it goes past, and then we'll be safe for as long as it takes it to get to the end of the island and turn around."
"I don't know if I agree with your idea of 'safe'," Tsuzuki muttered.
Hisoka didn't bother to reply, just turned and started back down into the canyon between buildings. He noticed absently that walking wasn't so difficult as it had been; apparently, they were both adapting to being tied together. His wrist was beginning to ache, though, a hot throbbing from the constant irritation of the hair bindings. Without his Shinigami healing ability, would he have to worry about infection? He hoped they'd be out of this place before that became an issue.
They had passed two or three buildings when Hisoka felt wetness on his face. He looked up at the sky, hoping against hope that he was mistaken. Another raindrop hit him right between the eyes, followed by a quick patter of several more.
Rain would be even worse than the seawater puddles when it came to leaving footprints. On their right was a U-shaped apartment building much bigger than the others, an access door standing open nearby. Hisoka started to run. Tsuzuki kept up without prompting. They barely managed to duck inside before the heavens opened in earnest.
They stood in silence for a minute or two, watching the rain cascade like a waterfall into the narrow passage between buildings, quickly creating enough puddles and rivulets to make it impossible to walk through without getting wet feet. Hisoka felt like hitting something from sheer frustration.
"We might be able to move from building to building without going outside," Tsuzuki said, clearly having the same thoughts. "There were some covered walkways and staircases between the blocks."
"It's going to make it harder to keep track of where we've been." Hisoka turned to look out of one of the glassless windows at the rest of the block. There were hundreds of apartments. "We'd better start here... just searching this building will take hours."
"I don't think we have to search every apartment. The circle has to be big enough to contain the demon. Most of these apartments were tiny. We only need to check the big communal spaces in each building."
"Do you remember where those are?"
"Not really." Tsuzuki ducked his head. "Sorry, it's been a long time..."
"We'll go floor by floor then. We'll start at the top--"
He stopped, suddenly aware of pressure on his mind, the approach of a poisonous darkness. He grabbed Tsuzuki by the arm and hauled him under the nearby staircase, out of sight from the door they'd entered by. He could feel the faint shuddering thud of approaching footsteps now.
They crouched, breathless, as the demon drew closer and closer. Hisoka recoiled from the sensation of its presence. Then, remembering that they needed to discover its name, he steeled himself and reached out towards the darkness.
At once, the footsteps stopped, the inhuman mind snapped to alert. Hisoka withdrew as fast as he could, and listened, frozen in fear, to a growling, snuffling sound that carried even over the rain. Beside him, Tsuzuki shifted carefully, balancing on his heels as if preparing to act... for all the good it would do them.
"Come out!" The snarling voice made Hisoka shudder. "Come out, come out, little gods! I'll find you in the end... I promise to make it quick, if you come to me now."
The lie rang clear enough even without touching its mind. Neither of them moved. After a few minutes, the demon let out a long, guttural growl. There was a great crash and splintering of wood from somewhere outside, as if it had thrust its head through one of the decrepit doorways. But then the thudding steps resumed, and the demon's presence began to recede. Hisoka let out his breath carefully. Only when he could no longer feel the vibrations did he dare to move from his cramped position.
"I'm not getting into its mind unless it's distracted."
Tsuzuki laughed humourlessly.
"It'll be plenty distracted when it finds us."
"Then we'd better make sure we've found the circle before that happens." Hisoka made for the stairs. "Come on."
Pssst Ruby... this is sort of like working a case together right? :P
Hours passed as they scoured the buildings for any sign of the summoning circle, dodging leaking roofs and crossing rickety walkways between buildings. Several more times they had to hide as the demon passed by. It seemed to be growing impatient with the hunt, pausing to roar challenges periodically.
Once, when they were at the top of a tower block, they saw it prowling below. It was hard to make out the details through the rain and murk, but Hisoka thought it looked like a lion, albeit one the size of an elephant. Its head was wrong, though, clearly canine in silhouette, and its tail was long, sinuous, and scaled like a snake's.
"Ring any bells?" he asked Tsuzuki.
"Not really. Tail of a snake's pretty common. It's only got one head, so that narrows it down a bit."
They'd covered perhaps half the apartment blocks when Hisoka realised that the sky was growing even darker behind the storm clouds. He paused at the top of a staircase, looking west. There was no doubt about it; the sun was setting.
"How much fuel is left in that lighter?" he asked.
Tsuzuki held it up to the light; they could both see that the reservoir was less than half full.
"Now what?" Tsuzuki asked.
"We'll have to spend the night somewhere," Hisoka said reluctantly. "We can't keep searching in the dark."
"Maybe we could make a torch," Tsuzuki suggested, looking at the debris around them.
"Too easy for the demon to see the light," Hisoka countered.
"A fire, then, down in one of the basements where it won't be visible?"
"Still too risky. It might smell the smoke."
Tsuzuki sagged. "So we're just going to sit in the dark all night?"
"And try to get some sleep, I guess," Hisoka said. "We'll have to take turns keeping watch."
He looked back down the corridor. It was already significantly harder to see the details, including the gaps in the floorboards that they needed to avoid.
"There was an apartment back there that seemed less badly damaged than some of the others," he went on. "We'd better check it out while we still have some light."
Back when Hashima had been a thriving mining town, the apartment Hisoka had noticed would have been the least desirable on this floor; it was tucked into a corner of the building, with most of its windows facing only the cliff behind. However, that very positioning had shielded it from the worst of the storms. There was still glass in the window of the bedroom, and the floor was solid, though the tatami had long since rotted. Hisoka even found a couple of cushions in a cupboard, discoloured by mildew, but still intact enough to offer some relief from the hard floorboards. The rain was beating down outside, but the room itself was dry.
It was only when he sat down that Hisoka realised how tired he was. Not only that, but he hadn't eaten anything all day; hunger had turned to nausea and cramping pains in his stomach. It won't kill you, he reminded himself, then thought of the binding on his wrist. Not yet, anyway.
Beside him, Tsuzuki stretched out his legs with a sigh. Hisoka could feel his mind turning in on itself, sinking into blackness now there was nothing to occupy his attention. His thoughts had gone so often in this circle that it was worn into him like water carving through rock, a path far easier to fall into than to avoid, and each fed the next, spiralling down: worthless, pointless, so much pain, so tired, I want it to end, I can't make it end, because I'm so worthless...
A soft whisper in the corridor made Hisoka tense involuntarily. Tsuzuki's awareness snapped to the sound, momentarily juddering out of the rut. There was a slithering noise like a door sliding open, then ghostly footsteps, then nothing. Silence returned. Tsuzuki started to slip back into his loop of self-hatred. As much for his own sake as Tsuzuki's, Hisoka reached for something to distract him.
"You said you used to come here a lot."
"Yeah," Tsuzuki said. He looked around the darkening room and Hisoka felt a twinge of nostalgic sadness. "Not at first, not when I was first with the Judgement Bureau. They started mining coal here, oh… way back in the Meiji Era, I think. Before I was born." He glanced self-consciously at Hisoka. "That was, uh, I was… born in 1900."
"You did?" Surprise and a bit of chagrin. "Do I look that old?"
"I read your case files," Hisoka replied. "The Kyushu archives. Once I saw how long you'd been with the Summons Division, I knew you had to be born around the turn of the century."
"Oh." Tsuzuki hesitated. Then, as if he couldn't help himself, "You… read through all of them? Seriously?"
It wasn't like the sun coming out. It was far too small a spark for that. But it was there, a sudden warm glow of personality: incredulity, embarrassment, and a faint horror that anyone would voluntarily read paperwork. Something human stirring in the depths of the darkness. Something like an echo of the man he used to be.
"Not all of them," Hisoka protested, half-defensive, half-fascinated to see what further reaction he could provoke. "I just skimmed back through the decades." He paused. "Your handwriting is terrible."
"Yeah, I know." Tsuzuki didn't smile, but in the acknowledgement, there was the briefest flash of long-buried humour. "They tried to make me learn to use a typewriter, but after I broke the third one, they gave up. Tatsumi said--"
He stopped as suddenly as if he'd bitten his tongue. The dark clouds rushed back in. Hisoka waited a moment to see if he would go on, but the silence stretched out until the drumming of the rain outside seemed to fill the space where the words should have been.
To push, or to leave it be? A part of him wanted to see if he could coax that warmth out again by changing the subject. Another, harder, colder part knew that this was a chance he might never have again.
"They think you're dead," he said.
"Why haven't you told them?" Hisoka asked, turning his head slightly so he could study the dim outline of Tsuzuki's profile as well as sensing the currents of his emotions. "They care about you. They would help you."
"No-one can help me," Tsuzuki replied dully. There was a glassiness to his thoughts, as he withdrew into himself in the face of truths too terrible to bear. "There's… no going back now. And they're better off without me."
"That's not true," Hisoka said, thinking of Watari's blazing grief, the broken glass behind Tatsumi's eyes, Wakaba's weary sadness. The love and loss and loyalty of the Shikigami. Those lives he'd touched in those badly-scrawled case files. "They--"
I don't want them to see me. Tsuzuki didn't speak aloud, but the torrent of black despair hit Hisoka like a tidal wave. I can't bear them to see me. To know what I've done. What I really am.
Hisoka flinched. Too much. He couldn't probe further, not now. Not yet.
"The island," he said, struggling to keep his footing in the flood. "You were going to tell me…"
It worked, just enough. Forced to think about something else, Tsuzuki's overwhelming emotions receded, though Hisoka could still feel them churning and swirling.
"Oh. Right." Tsuzuki brushed a hand over his eyes, reaching for the previous thread of thought. "Yeah, they… started mining coal here way back. The tunnels stretch for miles under the seabed."
"Under the sea? Wasn't that dangerous?"
"Dangerous is an understatement," Tsuzuki said darkly. "It was a deathtrap. Workers died all the time. But at least they'd come by choice, at least they had rights, in theory. At least they were buried and mourned with honour."
"It changed for the worse during the war. The Pacific War, I mean. All the miners were conscripted into the army. So they started bringing in prisoners. Chinese and Korean, mostly. They were worked like slaves, and when they died, their bodies were cremated on another island, over there--" He gestured vaguely at the dim outline of the window. "No memorials. No prayers. No-one laid their ashes to rest, no-one told their families so they could be remembered."
For a moment, Hisoka thought he heard the soft sound of sobbing in the distance, but it faded on the wind.
"So you can imagine how many angry spirits were left behind, unable to pass on," Tsuzuki continued. "After the war, they brought back the Japanese citizens, and that's when the complaints started, hauntings and poltergeist activity, everything you'd expect. I dealt with some of them, but there was always so much red tape with the overseas branches... after the island was abandoned, I was told it wasn't my problem anymore."
"It doesn't seem to be anyone's problem now," Hisoka said quietly. He looked down at the dusty floorboards, imagining he could see through them to the maze of cramped tunnels below. Dying down there, in the dark, under the weight of all that water, and then to have your body burned like waste wood… He shuddered. "I'll look into it, when I get back to Meifu."
Tsuzuki's voice was soft with some unnameable emotion that even Hisoka's power couldn't tease out.
"They shouldn't just be left here to suffer," Hisoka replied forcefully. "They shouldn't be forgotten."
And Tsuzuki did laugh, then, a sound so thin and breathless it was almost a sigh. There was a wistful ache in the words when he spoke.
"Be careful. You get involved, it ends badly."
"So people keep telling me," Hisoka retorted. "But I'm starting to think maybe the problem is we don't get involved enough."
All hint of laughter vanished from Tsuzuki's voice and thoughts.
"Be careful," he said again. "That sort of talk can get you noticed by Lord Enma. He doesn't take rebellion lightly."
Hisoka thought of the Security Division and the investigation into Tatsumi.
"I've noticed. But you escaped."
"I didn't escape," he said quietly. "I just found myself a different prison."
The fire burned black, hotter than anything he could imagine, but he didn't burn. Instead, he ran, stumbled, trying to find a door that would lead him out of the inferno, trying to find a way to make it stop. Through the flames he saw Touda's immense serpent form gliding, weaving, dancing.
"Stop," he shouted desperately, "stop! It's not going to work! Even this isn't enough to kill me! And so many people are going to get hurt..."
They were everywhere, as he fled through a maze of fire. Every time he thought he saw a door, a window, a gap in the flames, they'd be there waiting to confront him. People screaming as their flesh burned. People choking on the deadly smoke. Children. Tiny babies. A schoolgirl curled in on herself, brown hair turning black. And the people in the beds in that secret room below the lab, and perhaps they alone were grateful, they alone were freed and purified by the flames...
"I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry..."
He turned a corner, reached for a door handle that glowed red-hot, but when he opened the door, Oriya stood there. His silence was an accusation, even as he remained untouched by the flames, and faded like a ghost into the smoke.
He fled once more, as above him Touda danced, seeming unstoppable here in his element, seeming untouchable…
"No. No. Please..."
No matter how he tried to escape, he just kept coming back to the centre of the flames, to what he didn't want to see, couldn't bear to see. But here he was again, and there was the figure who stood at the heart of it all: tall and silent, his hair as black as coal, the visor over his eyes as expressionless as the rest of his face. Yet for all his seeming indifference, he lifted his hands, gloved with clawed gauntlets, reached out as if in entreaty.
"I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I never meant to hurt you... you weren't the one who was supposed to die!"
Hisoka woke gasping, choking on smoke that wasn't there and grief that wasn't his own. He jerked upright against the wall, remembering at the last second that he was still tied to Tsuzuki.
Tsuzuki was supposed to be keeping watch, but Hisoka didn't even need to look to know that he was asleep. He raised his free hand to his forehead and tried to shake the gut-churning disorientation that came from dreaming someone else's nightmare. He shuddered as the images replayed themselves, accompanied by the grief, fear, and horror that he'd absorbed from Tsuzuki. In the way of dreams, later knowledge had been overlaid on the memories, the awareness of what had happened in Kyoto when the fire got out of control.
And Oriya... the guilt was unmistakeable. Tsuzuki held himself responsible for the man's current state, just as he blamed himself for the deaths.
Hisoka frowned, still trying to ease his headache by massaging his temples. That last person, the man in the visor... there was a familiarity about him that wasn't just a byproduct of Tsuzuki's memories. Hisoka lowered his hand to reach for the mirror in his pocket, before he remembered that it didn't work here.
A flicker of movement caught his eye. He jerked his head up. The room wasn't completely dark anymore. There was a pale, sickly light emanating from a ghostly figure crouched on the other side of the room from them.
It was probably a man, but even that was a guess. It had no face, only a pulp of smashed flesh and a head so misshapen it was like looking at a sack full of broken dishes. Its arms hung limply, each bone fractured in a thousand places. The rest of its body was strangely untouched. It swayed back and forth, useless fingertips brushing the floor, sightless face turning right and left as though searching for something.
Hisoka watched, transfixed. After a few seconds, the ghost lowered its grotesque head to the ground as though sniffing. Then it began to shuffle towards them, contorted impossibly with its ruined face nearly on the floorboards, knees up past where its ears should have been, and its arms trailing behind it.
Hisoka jabbed an elbow sharply into Tsuzuki's side.
But the ghost didn't react to their voices. It kept coming slowly towards them. Tsuzuki stared at it for a second and shuddered.
"Can it do anything to us?"
"Ordinarily? No. Without our Shinigami powers? I'd rather not find out."
Hisoka nodded. Carefully, using each other as support, they got to their feet. The ghost paused, raising its head from the floor, seeming to stare eyelessly right at them.
"Yeah, okay, let's go," Tsuzuki said. He began to edge around the wall of the room towards the door. "I doubt it can see or hear. It's reacting to our spiritual energy."
The ghost remained where it was as they circled around it. Then it began to sway again, casting around as if for their scent.
"So it'll follow us?"
"Probably." Pity sprang suddenly into his thoughts. "But I don't think we'll have a problem outrunning it."
They were at the door. Tsuzuki backed out into the corridor. Hisoka started to follow.
The ghost suddenly stilled, threw its smashed head back, and screamed.
The noise was indescribable. There was no mouth, no throat for the sound to escape from. It reverberated within the ghost's body as though inside a drum. It was a mouthless, voiceless, wordless shriek of agony and rage and hatred, and it was so loud it could probably be heard from one end of the island to the other.
"Oh shit," said Tsuzuki. "Run!"
Hisoka didn't need to be told twice. Somewhere in the distance there had been an answering roar. They stumbled together down the corridor to the stairs. There was still no sign of dawn. Hisoka could make out the walls and floor, but none of the important details, like holes, or sharp pieces of metal rebar that had fallen from crumbling concrete.
The ghost was still screaming. The demon had not roared again, or at least Hisoka hadn't heard it. They half-ran, half-fell down the staircase until Tsuzuki suddenly dragged Hisoka out onto a lower floor.
"There's a bridge," he explained as they ran. "To the next building. Better than going down to ground level when we don't know where the demon is."
They fled across the bridge. At one point a gap opened up in front of them so suddenly Tsuzuki had no time to stop and no choice but to jump. Hisoka's power gave him a split second of warning, barely enough to jump at the same moment. Any later and he'd have been yanked over the edge, and probably taken Tsuzuki down with him.
"We need to slow down," he managed as Tsuzuki plunged forward again.
Behind them, finally, the awful howl of the faceless ghost subsided. Hisoka could hear distant crashing noises, but it seemed like the demon hadn't yet reached the building they'd just left.
"Can't, we have to get far away, fast," Tsuzuki replied, barely even pausing as he dodged around a huge pile of debris. "It's not just the demon. The other spirits will respond. They'll follow us around and give our location away again. We have to get far enough away that they can't sense us."
There was another stairwell, this time external. The way down was blocked with rubble. Tsuzuki headed up the stairs, sending a jolt of pain through Hisoka's wrist at the change of direction.
Hisoka only realised they'd emerged onto the roof when he felt wetness on his face. The rain had eased from its earlier downpour, but the ground was wet and slick under his feet. They'd have to hope that their footprints would dry before dawn.
Tsuzuki stopped then, turning slowly in a half circle. Hisoka could sense him straining to get his bearings in the darkness. He looked around as well. It was so dark, he could barely make out the parapet of the roof, let alone the rest of the island. But there was a faint, ghostly light, spilling from a window back the way they'd come. And as he looked around, Hisoka saw other pale glows, here and there. Some of them were moving. His heart sank.
"Looks like the whole neighbourhood's awake now," Tsuzuki muttered.
"Can we talk to them?" Hisoka asked. The rain was as warm as tears on his face and neck. "Maybe if we promise to help..."
"Anything that could be reasoned with has long since found a way to move on," Tsuzuki replied grimly. "What's left are the remnants so twisted by the pain that they've become vengeful, or spiteful, or just lost in their own fragmented memories." He kicked at the ground, an unexpected, intriguing anger rising up in him, a righteous fury that burned for a moment like a column of flame. "That's what happens. When the Bureau doesn't do its job."
He started moving again before Hisoka could reply, leading the way to the edge of the roof. There was another building right next to them, its roof slightly lower. At ground level the alley between them must be dark and incredibly narrow.
"We'll have to jump," Tsuzuki said.
"How did I know you were going to say that?" Hisoka followed him up onto the parapet, trying not to think about the drop.
"Okay, count of three..."
They stumbled when they landed, one of them tripping on an uneven surface or simply loosing their footing, and went down in a heap that twisted Hisoka's bound arm behind him and sent screaming agony through his wrist and hand. He bit back a yelp, tasted blood, and had no choice but to accept Tsuzuki's help getting up.
"I'm fine," Hisoka snapped, trying to ease the pain in his arm. He couldn't quite feel his fingers on that side, he realised. Only bolts of pain, and the heat in his wrist that felt like a furnace. "Now where?"
"This way, I think." Tsuzuki didn't take off running this time, at least. He just moved briskly across the roof. "I have an idea where the circle might be. I should have thought of it before--"
There was no warning. The floor vanished beneath them. Hisoka didn't even know whether it had given way, or if they'd simply stepped out over an empty edge. They were falling, and they didn't hit the floor below, or the one below that... in the seconds before impact, Hisoka just had time to understand that they were falling far enough that they weren't going to walk away from it easily. Or possibly at all.
And in the seconds before impact, Tsuzuki grabbed him as if in an embrace, twisting them so that when they smashed into the unforgiving concrete below, he cushioned Hisoka's body with his own.
Pain exploded through Hisoka so intensely he might have cried out, he wasn't sure. It took him a few moments to understand that it wasn't his own. His lungs were pierced by broken ribs: he couldn't draw breath. His head had smacked into the ground, breaking his neck and stoving in the skull: he couldn't see, he was barely conscious. But his arms were still clutching tightly at Hisoka...
Hisoka seized every scrap of strength he had and forced Tsuzuki's pain down. He shakily disentangled himself. There was blood running from Tsuzuki's mouth. Hisoka himself was winded and bruised, but no worse. But he was still shackled to Tsuzuki, and going by the pool of blood beneath his head, Tsuzuki would die in minutes...
Tsuzuki drew a choking breath with an awful bubbling sound. Hisoka knelt beside him, at a loss for what to do. It was only another roar from the demon, considerably closer than the first, that shook him out of his shock.
He managed to lift Tsuzuki over his shoulder. He could feel the grind and crunch of shattered bone. It made him want to vomit. He couldn't run, not burdened as he was, but he staggered on as fast as he could, out of the great canyon of decay they had fallen into, through rooms and corridors he barely registered. The rain began to fall more heavily again, soaking them both, plastering Hisoka's hair into his eyes, but this time, dimly, he was glad of it. It would wash away the trail of Tsuzuki's blood that they were leaving behind them.
He kept moving in a haze of exhaustion and Tsuzuki's suffering until he could move no longer, and the faintest hint of dawn in the sky warned him to get out of sight. A small utility building provided a door that opened without force and could be shut behind them, and an enclosed space where they wouldn't be immediately spotted.
Hisoka laid Tsuzuki gingerly down on the floor, wincing from the reflected pain that washed through him. The fact that Tsuzuki was even still alive stunned him. He found himself shaking as exertion and shock took their toll. Now what? He had to find a way to break the binding to save Tsuzuki, but without Tsuzuki's knowledge, where would even start? And now he was trying to outrun the demon while carrying another person who was considerably taller and heavier than he was...
Tsuzuki's free hand closed on his wrist and Hisoka almost jumped out of his skin. He looked down. Tsuzuki's eyes were open, dull with pain, but focused on him.
The thought was faint and fragmented, but clear.
I'll... heal. Just... wait.
"You can't heal," Hisoka snapped, despite himself. "The binding's still there, your Shinigami powers won't work--"
I'll heal. Barely a whisper of coherent consciousness, drowning in pain. I promise. Give me... some time.
His eyes slipped closed. Hisoka held his breath, fully expecting Tsuzuki's own breathing to falter. But his chest still rose and fell, each breath punctuated by a stabbing pain that Hisoka couldn't block out.
He could sense the demon searching for them. It was getting closer, but slowly, as if it were going from building to building rather than following their trail.
Grey light crept through the cracks in the walls and roof, as did the rain. Hisoka had to move them twice to avoid the spreading puddles. The second time, Tsuzuki stunned him by raising himself on one elbow and shuffling sideways under his own power, before lapsing back down to lie quietly on his side.
Hisoka stared at him. He couldn't see the head wound in the darkness, but Tsuzuki's breathing seemed easier. The pangs of agony were less acute. He'd been able to move his head, despite the broken neck. When Hisoka gingerly reached out to sense his thoughts, they were clearer, though dim with weariness and pain, and he could feel that the damage was less severe than it had been at first.
That's impossible. He can't be healing. He said...
Hisoka squinted at their bound wrists, but he couldn't make out any details. Carefully, he felt for Tsuzuki's coat pocket and pulled out the lighter. Tsuzuki said nothing; Hisoka wasn't sure if he'd even noticed.
A couple of flicks brought the flame to life. His own hand looked worse than he'd imagined. The hair bindings had cut into his skin deeply, the initial razor-thin cuts widening to painful furrows from the pulling and shifting of the snare. Given enough time, they'd flay his wrist raw. The whole area was swollen, making the pressure even worse. His hand was shot through with red lines of infection, but his fingertips were white and bloodless.
Then he looked at Tsuzuki's wrist. There was plenty of old blood there, flaking off in places, scabbing in others, and plenty of new blood running in rivulets, but the skin itself was… less damaged. The cuts were still thin and fresh, deep in places, but without the extended damage Hisoka had taken. There was no swelling, no sign of infection. If he didn't know better, he'd have thought the binding had only been on Tsuzuki for an hour or so.
He looked up to find Tsuzuki watching him, eyes reflecting the lighter flame with an eerie glow. Hisoka held his gaze for a second, then flicked the lighter off.
"You said we wouldn't heal."
"I said you wouldn't heal," Tsuzuki whispered in the dark. "I'm... different."
There was silence for several breaths. Hisoka felt pain of a different kind, guilt and self-disgust and despair.
"For me, it's not part of my Shinigami powers," Tsuzuki said at last. "I'm healing because I'm... not human. I was never human. Even before I died..."
He trailed off, but Hisoka could sense the need to keep talking, pressure rising like a tide, so he held his tongue and waited.
"I was never human. I was never... anything but a monster. A demon. No wonder I've killed so many people. No wonder I can't even die right. There's something in me that's so selfish it still fights to survive, even if it means other people get hurt, even if it means..."
For a second, they were both back in the fire, Touda dancing above them, Tsuzuki begging him to stop before it was too late.
"I didn't know," Tsuzuki went on, wretchedly. "That's... my only excuse. I didn't know what I was. I joined the Summons Division to... to try and atone... but all I ever did was make things worse. And even then I was still too much of a coward to quit the job and face judgement. I didn't know until..."
The words trailed off but memories exploded like fireworks in his mind. Nagasaki in the moonlight, shadows and whispers in the narrow streets, the red lips and sharp fangs of the vampire...
"Maria Wong," Hisoka said.
"I thought I could trap her," Tsuzuki whispered. "I used myself as bait. I thought I could bind her. But somehow... I was trapped instead. I couldn't move, I couldn't use my powers. She... drank my blood. She drank... nearly all of it. The next thing I knew... by the time I woke up, she'd already murdered so many people... and it was because of my blood. My blood drove her into a frenzy, turned her into a worse monster than she already was, and I was too late to stop it."
Hisoka saw it in his memories, the blood-soaked concert hall, the thing that had been Maria Wong still gorging, so bloated now it could scarcely move. And something else, the memory of quiet words in a cool dark room, explaining what had happened, what he'd done. Quiet words in a voice like silk, honey laced with poison...
It would seem that your blood had quite an interesting effect on her, Tsuzuki-san.
"He was there." Hisoka felt the first faint beginnings of comprehension. "Muraki."
Tsuzuki flinched, mentally and physically, but it seemed he was too tired and hurt to refuse to reply.
"He saved my life," Tsuzuki said. "If she'd drained me completely... that's one of the ways you can kill a Shinigami, you know--"
The killing of gods is something of a special study of mine.
"I know," Hisoka said.
"He drove her off before she could finish," Tsuzuki went on, and Hisoka felt it, that first poisonous flood of gratitude, guilt, and shame. The first link in a chain to bind them together. "Took me to safety, did what he could to speed up my recovery... if it hadn't been for him, I would have died, and she wouldn't have stopped at the concert hall."
"And afterwards, the Bureau blamed you for what happened."
"Of course they did! It was my fault, all of it. It was my fault. If I hadn't been so reckless..."
Tsuzuki lapsed into silence, but Hisoka heard the faint echo of the rest of the sentence.
If I hadn't been a monster...
There were pieces of a puzzle here, fragments lying just beyond Hisoka's grasp, flashes of Tsuzuki's memories: a blood-red moon and the man dressed all in white, the man Tsuzuki had met in the rainbow-lit church, whom he'd thought in that moment might be an angel, the man who'd comforted him as he wept and told him the truth about who he was...
"How did he know?" Hisoka asked, biting back bile. "How did he know about you?"
But at that, finally, Tsuzuki balked. Hisoka felt him withdraw, caution and guilt and twisted loyalty reasserting themselves.
"He had access to information that had been hidden from me," Tsuzuki said. Then, with a sudden movement that sent a wash of pain through Hisoka's damaged wrist, he sat up. "I think I can walk now. We should get going."
"Going where?" The pain in his arm made Hisoka snappish. "Even if you can walk, you can't run, or climb, and another fall like that..."
"I think I know where the circle might be," Tsuzuki said. Hisoka remembered then that he'd been saying something similar right before they fell. "It's at the northern end of the island. The old school."
"What makes a classroom a better choice than any of the other places we've looked?"
Tsuzuki shook his head.
"Not a classroom. It had a gymnasium. A big empty space. Plenty of room to summon and bind the demon, and keep it hidden until it was needed."
"We don't know where the demon is right now. It could be between us and the school."
"You'll know if it gets close, won't you?"
"Yes," Hisoka said reluctantly. "Are you sure you can walk?"
"Only one way to find out."
Hisoka sighed. The rain was still hammering on the roof. In the grey light, Tsuzuki looked barely fit to hold a conversation, let alone walk through rubble and ruins while avoiding an enormous, murderous demon.
"Fine. Let's go."
It took over two hours to cover a distance that should have been barely fifteen minutes' walk. Tsuzuki could only shuffle along with Hisoka's support. Hisoka was so numb to the constant physical and mental contact by that point that he didn't even flinch. He managed to awkwardly arrange their bound wrists so that Tsuzuki's right arm was over his shoulders and Hisoka's left was bent across his chest in a way that would have been uncomfortable if it hadn't already been in agony.
Mercifully, the demon didn't come close enough to force them into hiding, and the ghosts of the island seemed disinclined to roam the rainy streets. And by the time they reached the school, Tsuzuki could walk on his own, albeit wincing with every step. The rain had even begun to wash away the blood matting his hair.
The school was just another set of decaying buildings, but it seemed even sadder than the rest of the island, maybe because it was all too easy to imagine the voices of children in the deserted playground. Or maybe Hisoka was hearing the echoes of them through his empathy; at this point he wasn't even sure.
"Which one's the gym?" Hisoka asked. The words sounded dull in his own ears.
"It's not a separate building. It's at the top there." Tsuzuki gestured to the largest building. "On the seventh floor."
Hisoka eyed the crumbling structure and sighed.
"We'd better be careful."
"Look there." Tsuzuki pointed at a gaping hole where several windows and part of the wall had been destroyed, their remnants scattered on the roof of the building next door. "Must be where the demon broke out."
"Probably where it'll try to come back in, too." Hisoka started walking towards the school building. "At least we know what direction to watch."
Edging their way up damaged staircases and over treacherous floorboards took far longer than Hisoka was comfortable with. He held his breath at every unstable patch they crossed, braced for another fall. When they finally reached the top floor, it felt almost like a reprieve. The gym hall was wide and high-ceilinged, with big, glassless windows that let in the sea air and the dim light that filtered through the heavy stormclouds. On a sunny day it must have been pleasant up here.
The circle was drawn there in blood, large enough that its circumference nearly touched the walls, complex runes carefully etched around the edge. Tsuzuki let out a ragged breath. Relief was tinged with dread as he moved closer to inspect it.
"Well?" Hisoka asked after a few minutes of silence.
"The demon's been bound to the island. Commanded to kill anyone here, mortal or otherwise." Tsuzuki pointed to the centre of the circle, where a particularly complex rune drawn with additional flourishes. "That's its name."
Tsuzuki looked at it for a long time, then sighed wearily.
"It's not one that I know."
"What about the binding spell?"
"Those smaller runes around the inner circle."
"How do we break it?"
Tsuzuki laughed bleakly.
"Oh, that's as simple as breaking the circle. I can do it in two seconds." He picked up a rusted piece of metal rebar and drew it experimentally across the old floor. It scored deeply into the wood. "But that'll destroy the whole spell. The demon will be free of its bonds and no longer compelled to hunt us down. It'll go looking for easier prey, I guarantee it."
Hisoka imagined the demon loose in Nagasaki and shuddered.
"Then what do we do?"
Tsuzuki was silent, eyes moving over the circle as if memorising its lines.
"We have to lure it here," he said at last. "Before we break the circle."
"We'll be defenceless."
"So we move fast." Tsuzuki looked around at the gym, and Hisoka could sense him sizing up its possibilities as a battleground. "As soon as it's in here, we break the circle. Then I can summon Byakko, Suzaku... we can keep it trapped in here."
"And destroy it?"
"No, it's too powerful. We have to banish it back to Jigoku." Tsuzuki looked back at the rune in the centre of the circle. "We have to get its name out of it somehow."
A sick feeling started in the pit of Hisoka's stomach.
"You mean I have to try and read its mind."
"Yeah. While it's distracted by my Shiki." Tsuzuki glanced at him worriedly. "Will you be okay?"
"No," Hisoka said. "But I don't see another option."
He closed his eyes, allowing himself to feel, just for a moment, his exhaustion, his pain, and his churning fear of touching the demon's mind. Then he pushed it aside and took a deep breath.
"Okay. I can... try and get it to notice me. If that doesn't work..."
"I'll jump up and down and shout really loud."
It was barely a joke, but it surprised a small huff of laughter out of Hisoka even in the face of his dread.
"Here." Tsuzuki had pulled a fuda paper from his pocket. He handed it over. "This is a shield, you'll be able to use it once the binding is broken."
Hisoka looked at the calligraphy, for a moment taken back to that moment in Kyoto, the demon boy and the ghost mother and the mystery of the strange-eyed man he'd met in the Heian Shrine. It felt like a lifetime ago.
He curled the paper into his free hand.
"I'm not," Tsuzuki muttered. He crouched down by the circle, metal rod poised over its bloody lines. Hisoka knelt beside him. "But let's do this anyway."
Reaching out was hard, harder than Hisoka had anticipated. He wasn't sure if it was exhaustion or fear holding him back. He caught a trace of the demon's mind in the distance and flinched back instinctively. Then he braced himself and tried to probe its thoughts.
He felt it respond like a bull stung by a whip, spinning on the spot to search for him. He felt its hunger and its rising fury that its prey had eluded it for so long. He felt it begin to move towards them, crashing through the ruins with more and more speed as it became certain of where they were.
Somewhere in the centre of the nauseating darkness of its evil mind was a glowing red core of identity, its own knowledge of itself and its name, but when Hisoka tried to reach for it, he was battered aside as if by a giant paw. And suddenly its presence was overwhelming, stinking, nearly unbearable.
"It's coming," he managed to gasp.
There was a crash from just outside the school building, the sound of something enormous leaping to the roof of the lower building.
"It's here," Tsuzuki said grimly, right before a hulking shadow filled the gap in the far wall and a deafening roar shook the building to its foundations.
"Tired of running at last?" The demon's voice was grating, broken glass and broken bones behind every gloating word as it shouldered its way inside the gym. Its wolf-like muzzle dripped with saliva from huge, crooked fangs, its snake tail lashed, and its lion's mane touched the ceiling. "Another might thank you for the sport, but I have little patience for--"
Tsuzuki lunged forward over the circle, dragging the iron bar in a deep scoring motion across the floorboards. Hisoka lost his balance, sprawling down onto his elbow, but he had no time to react before the circle flared with blood-red light. Heat shot through his body, following the lines of his own curse, and the demon howled with delight.
"You fools!" It crowed. "Wretched little upstart gods! Did you think that would stop me? Did you think--"
The bonds on Hisoka's wrist crumbled like ash and fell away. Tsuzuki was on his feet in a second, leaping between him and the demon.
"No," Tsuzuki snarled, "but I think this will."
The two fuda in his hand glowed searingly bright, one white, one golden. Power coursed through him and around him and he rode it without hesitation, eyes ablaze with anger.
"The eleven gods that protect me, hear my prayer! Come forth, Byakko! Come forth, Suzaku!"
A blast of icy wind fanned the flames that sprang up around them, fierce enough to make Hisoka's skin smart. Byakko bounded forward with a roar of challenge, while Suzaku screamed a great cry of fury, opening her wings to their full extent and bringing half the ceiling down on the demon. Hisoka felt the floor shake beneath them. He scrambled to his feet and backed away from the flames. Rain was pouring through the shattered roof, but the fire showed no sign of slackening.
The demon howled again. Now it wasn't triumph, but rage and hatred that filled its voice. Byakko was on it in a heartbeat, jaws snapping at its neck, but the demon twisted and slashed with its claws, opening a wound on the white tiger's flank. Suzaku swooped up through the gap in the roof and then turned on a wing and dived back down, her blazing talons ready to score deep into the demon's broad back. But the demon was faster than it had seemed, and its snake tail moved like a whip, lashing at Suzaku's eyes and throwing off her aim.
The sky above boiled as the storm suddenly intensified. Lightning jabbed down from the black clouds, leaving unpleasant violet afterimages. Byakko leapt out of the way of the bolt that had been aimed directly at him, and the rain became a hammer beating on the island, hampering Suzaku in her flight.
Just for a moment, Hisoka had believed the two Shikigami would destroy the demon despite Tsuzuki's pessimism. Now he saw that it was indeed too powerful. Even working together, Byakko and Suzaku were only keeping it at bay. Tsuzuki held another fuda in his hands, poised to act as he watched the battle, and Hisoka wondered what it cost him to summon them. Before him were two of the Four Great Gods of Gensoukai, legendary in their strength and wilful natures, held in the mortal world by Tsuzuki's power and determination. Could he summon any of his other Shikigami at the same time? What would it do to him to try?
Hisoka's back hit the far wall. This was as far from the battle as he could get. There was no way to delay the inevitable any longer.
He locked his eyes on the demon and dove into its mind.
That it was black came as no surprise, but the blackness was of a kind impossible to describe, something that assaulted the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, that send shudders of revulsion through the skin, that seemed to fill Hisoka's lungs and stomach, to tangle grotesquely around his limbs. It was vile, it was unrelenting, and its malice was inescapable. And somewhere deep within it was that red glow, pulsing in an uncanny, uneven rhythm that could never be mistaken for a heartbeat.
The demon sensed his attack, and waves of hatred battered at Hisoka, trying either to throw him out or draw him into deeper darkness to consume him. Though it was utterly unlike a human mind, there were memories in here, images and sensations and grotesque remembered pleasures: the way flesh tore in its mouth, the way its claws could spill out entrails with a single slash, the way its victims screamed and cried and begged and died. And best of all, the rarest and most savoured of triumphs, when some mortal was fool enough to bargain with their soul, and the demon swallowed down that fragile, glowing thing and dived deep back into hell with it, to torment it for as long as the contract permitted, for an eternity or more, if it had its way.
And there was no remorse, no understanding of its own evil. No regret, no compassion, no pity. Nothing but the love of destruction, the cherishing of pain, the spiteful joy in suffering. And towering arrogance, a sickening, twisted pride and delight in its own nature...
I am of the storm. I am of the battle. I am tooth and claw and viper sting. I am the hunter. I am the victor. I am, I am, I am...
The red glow was closer, darker somehow rather than brighter, pulsing and burning and filling Hisoka with nausea. He tried to speak; his lungs were clogged with the demon's darkness. The red light threatened to vanish again into the depths. Hisoka was struck by a wave of such anger and disgust that if he could have crushed the demon's very essence between his hands he would have done it without a second thought.
It gave him something like air, something like a voice, the strength to scream the question with his mind.
Who are you?
And the demon replied, boasting and vengeful and off its guard for just long enough:
I am Rachiar!
Hisoka reeled back, twisting in the darkness as he fled the depths with the information Tsuzuki needed. But Rachiar saw at once that it had been tricked. All its attention was suddenly on Hisoka's mind. Crushing pressure kept him away from the surface. Flames that burned like poison snaked out of the hellish red core of the demon's self and struck Hisoka like lashes. He wasn't even aware of his own body anymore, had no idea how Tsuzuki and his Shikigami were faring in the battle. He was a speck of consciousness in a vast ocean of filth, and that ocean was swiftly becoming a maelstrom bent on destroying him before he could utter the demon's name aloud.
Hisoka fought for the freedom, for air and light, but the weight of Rachiar's malice hammered against his shields. He felt himself slipping, falling deeper instead of rising, felt the edges of his mind start to fray, a terrible sense of dissociation coming over him, a doubt as to who he was, who he had ever been...
Help me! Hisoka cried desperately into the void.
A hand closed on his. Tsuzuki, he knew, and he knew it wasn't only an illusion, that Tsuzuki had hold of him in the real world. But it wasn't enough.
... hear my prayer! Come forth--
Light flashed suddenly in the darkness. It was only for a second, white light blinking in and out, but then it came again from another direction. The demon recoiled, twisting and turning towards this new attack. Its hold on Hisoka slackened, but Hisoka was so weak he could barely remember how to find his way back.
More flashes of brilliant white light, like reflections on glass, and something brushed Hisoka's hand: a single silver thread, glistening with starlight. He wrapped his fingers around it, and though it was only a hair's breadth wide, it was as strong as steel as it began to tow him rapidly through the void. The world began to come back to Hisoka, moments of awareness. Tsuzuki was crouched beside him, supporting him, a glimmering shield around both of them. The demon was slamming into the shield with its whole body, calling lightning from the sky to strike the intangible barrier. Somewhere beyond, Byakko and Suzaku tried frantically to distract it.
And above them, Rikugou crouched in his spider form, protecting them with his body even as he fought to save Hisoka with his mind.
The demon reached and grabbed and slashed at Hisoka, and he could no longer tell which attacks were mental and which were physical assaults on the barrier. His body was an empty puppet that wouldn't obey his commands. His mind was in shreds. He had no control over what he sensed or blocked out, could feel all of it then, all of the demon, all three Shikigami, and Tsuzuki himself, the strain of the battle, and his fear, a deep, terrible, clawing fear that struck deeper with every new crack in the barrier.
But not for himself. Not for the prospect of his own death.
I won't let him kill you again.
From somewhere in the depths of his last reserves of strength, Hisoka dredged up the memory of how to speak.
"Rachiar," he whispered, and then fell into emptiness, knowing that if it was death, he had no ability left to fight it.
Sunlight on his face finally drew Hisoka back to consciousness. He opened his eyes, squinting against the brightness. He was lying on hard stone, but something soft had been placed under his head. The light was streaming through a glassless window as the sun dipped towards the horizon.
He'd expected the headache, but not the way his whole body felt bruised and battered, or the flickers of pain that crawled across his skin. He had an unpleasant suspicion they were following the lines of the curse. In contrast, his mind felt numb. He couldn't sense anything but his own weariness. It should have been a reprieve, but it felt like being deaf and blind.
His right wrist still hurt, but he could feel his fingers again. When he lifted his arm to look at it, he found it had been clumsily bandaged.
The movement brought an immediate response.
Tsuzuki was still here? Hisoka hadn't expected that.
"Is the demon gone?" he asked. His throat felt like sandpaper, like he'd been screaming. "Did you--"
"Yeah, it's done. Banished." Tsuzuki appeared in Hisoka's range of vision. He wasn't wearing his coat, which explained where Hisoka's pillow had come from. "You've been out for hours. Are you okay?"
"I'd like to sleep for another week," Hisoka said. Carefully, he raised himself up on one elbow, wishing he had a glass of water. "My head is killing me."
There was a rustling of plastic as Tsuzuki rummaged in a convenience store bag. He handed Hisoka a bottle of water and a packet of painkillers. Hisoka raised an eyebrow questioningly as he twisted open the cap.
"You obviously weren't waking up any time soon so I teleported over to Nagasaki and grabbed a few things," Tsuzuki said. "There's food too. I would've done more but I didn't like to move you far or leave you for too long."
Hisoka took a long drink and shuddered with relief as it eased his sore throat. He wasn't sure how effective the aspirin would be against the aftereffects of engaging a demon in psychic combat, but he swallowed it anyway. They weren't in the gym anymore, that much was obvious, but Hisoka thought they were still on the top floor of the school somewhere. The west-facing window showed nothing but sky from where he lay, the occasional seagull wheeling across the blue.
"You summoned Rikugou," he said, as pieces of memory fell back into place. He didn't quite make it a question.
"You said he helped you before," Tsuzuki replied. He was sitting with his back against the wall, oddly vulnerable without his coat. The black shirt he wore was rumpled, but if it was stained with blood or sweat, it didn't show. "When you collapsed and the demon went straight for you, I figured you needed backup."
Hisoka flinched from the memory of that awful devouring blackness.
Tsuzuki ducked his head away.
"It's my fault you were even here," he said. "I owed you."
"I don't remember you summoning the demon," Hisoka countered, taking another drink of water. "Or murdering those women in Nagasaki."
"Yeah, but he would never..." Tsuzuki drew his knees up, unconsciously curling in on himself. "He's targeting you because of me. Because I protected you in Kumamoto. He didn't set this trap up for just any Shinigami. He wanted you dead. You, specifically."
Hisoka put down the empty bottle and pushed himself into a sitting position with too much force. The world spun for a moment, but it had the desired effect of getting Tsuzuki's attention.
"You must be the world champion of blaming yourself for other people's crimes," Hisoka said. "Did you forget that he had me locked up in the hospital, before I died? That he cursed me?" He shook his head. "You met him three years ago. I first fell sick three years before that. I don't know why Muraki singled me out and I don't know why he killed me, but it started long before you were involved."
Tsuzuki blinked, caught between surprised and affronted.
"I know, but the way he's going after you now, it's to get at me--"
"Not everything is about you," Hisoka retorted. There was another bottle of water in the bag. He grabbed it, took a slower series of sips this time. "And not everything is your fault."
Tsuzuki looked away. He didn't say anything. Hisoka studied him. The evening sunlight was in his hair, bringing out the richness of its chestnut colour. His pale skin took on the slightest golden, rosy hue, enough to make him less ghost-like. Hisoka could see only a glimpse of his eyes, but even the unearthly amethyst couldn't take away from how human he looked, how tired and lost and fragile.
"You're not a demon," Hisoka said.
Tsuzuki jerked his head around to look at him, started to argue. Hisoka raised his voice to drown out the objections.
"Maybe you're not human. Maybe there is something else in your blood. But whatever you are, you are not a demon. Do you think I wouldn't be able to tell? After Sargatanas, Rachiar, the others we encountered in Kyoto..." He shuddered but refused to let go of the thread. "They can't hide their true nature. Not from me. But you..."
He couldn't touch Tsuzuki's mind, but he didn't have to. He knew what he'd find there.
"You're in pain," he said. "You hate yourself. You think there's no way to be redeemed. Those aren't things that demons feel! A demon's mind is like a caricature of every evil impulse a human could have, a machine designed to hurt and destroy and enjoy the suffering of others as long as it lasts. They don't cry. They don't care. And they don't feel guilt."
Tsuzuki was silent, frozen by Hisoka's words. Hisoka met his eyes and refused to look away.
"I don't know what's in your blood," he said. "But if I had to guess what you really are? You're human. You've never been anything else."
Tsuzuki stood abruptly, turned away, reeling from the sunlight into the shadows.
"And that's almost worse, isn't it?" Hisoka went on softly. "Because if you're not a demon, then you have to take responsibility for what you've done. For what you've helped him do. You can't hide inside your mind anymore and pretend you have no choice."
"A choice?" Tsuzuki's voice was rough. "Every choice I've made has made things worse! Every single thing I've ever done..." He drew a ragged breath. "You think I don't know? What Muraki is? I tried to stop him! I tried to stop us both! I summoned Touda, I burned it all down, I thought it would be over..."
He strode over to the far side of the room and braced himself against the wall, staring at nothing.
"And then I woke up. In the hospital. Eventually... after you died... I came back to myself. And he told me what I'd done. About Kyoto. Touda. Oriya. How I nearly killed Watari and Tatsumi. All of it."
"Watari doesn't blame you. He ran into the fire. He chose. He knows you would never hurt him."
"But I did," Tsuzuki said. "That's what I do. I hurt people. It doesn't matter if I want to or not."
"So now you help Muraki hurt them instead? How is that any better?"
"I..." Tsuzuki sagged, pressed a hand over his eyes. "I try to... keep him in check. If I do what he asks, help him, he does only what's necessary..."
"Necessary for what?"
"To make things right."
"What does that mean?"
Tsuzuki stiffened. Hisoka saw him realise he was talking too much. He pushed off from the wall and crossed the room to where Hisoka sat. Crouching, he retrieved his coat and unfolded it.
"I just remembered," Tsuzuki said quickly, reaching into the coat pocket. "Before Rikugou left, he gave me this. He told me you'd know what to do with it."
He held up a small mirror that Hisoka recognised at once. His hand went to his own pocket, thinking it would be empty, but his fingers closed on the familiar round metal casing. He hesitated only for a moment before pulling it out and showing it to Tsuzuki. The two mirrors were nearly identical, though the patterning on Tsuzuki's seemed to have calligraphy woven through it.
"Rikugou gave it to me the first time I met him," Hisoka explained. "I can use it to contact him, and focus my mind."
Tsuzuki frowned at the mirror he held, turning it over in his hand.
"I can already contact him. Why would he give me this?"
Hisoka tilted his mirror, looking thoughtfully into his own eyes reflected in the glass. He hadn't the strength right now to reach out through it with his mind, but he had an idea of what Rikugou intended.
"I think maybe we can also use them to contact each other," he said.
Tsuzuki stared at him, then back at the mirror. Emotions chased each other across his face too fast to read. Hisoka watched cautiously, waiting for anger, but it didn't come. Tsuzuki sighed, sadness and guilt regaining their hold on him.
"He shouldn't have done that. He shouldn't have brought you into this--"
Hisoka rolled his eyes.
"Weren't you listening? The only person who 'brought me into this' is Muraki. I have to know why. Why I died, why I was in that hospital, why he cursed me!"
"It's too dangerous! You've seen what he can do!" Tsuzuki gestured at the ruins around them, now turning blood red as the sun dipped below the horizon. "You have to leave us alone--"
"I came here because I had a case. I had no idea Muraki was involved. So what do you want me to do? Hide in Meifu and tell Lord Enma I don't feel like visiting the mortal world? Quit as a Shinigami and move on?"
"Maybe it would be better if you did," Tsuzuki murmured, so softly Hisoka could barely hear the words.
Hisoka glared at him.
"No. I'm not finished yet. And besides..." He looked down at his arms, tracing those glowing lines in his mind's eye. "Rikugou said the curse would follow me into the next life if it isn't broken."
"Oh." Tsuzuki sagged. "Of course it would," he added bitterly. "Of course."
He closed his eyes for a few seconds. When he opened them again, Hisoka was taken aback. There was something fierce in them, a determination and a clarity that had been missing for... far too long.
"Then I'll do what I can," Tsuzuki said. "To help. I can't... what we're doing is too important. I can't let you interfere. But I'll help you figure out how to break the curse. And I'll warn you if he comes after you again."
"You didn't know about it this time," Hisoka pointed out, but something was wrong with his voice: instead of sharp, the words came out soft.
"I'll watch him more closely. I promise."
Hisoka found that words had abandoned him entirely, so he just nodded curtly. Tsuzuki held up the mirror he'd been turning over in his hand.
"So how do I use this?"
"I reach out through it with my power," Hisoka said, glad of the change of topic. "I don't know if you can do the same thing."
"Rikugou wouldn't have given it to me if I couldn't use it." Tsuzuki frowned at the glass, bringing it up to one eye and peering into it. "Hello? Can you connect me to Hisoka please?"
"It's not a telephone."
"Right, right, but..." Tsuzuki paused, tilting the mirror at another angle. "Wait. I know those symbols... aha, I get it!"
He made several quick gestures with his fingertips, as if he were folding paper. As if he were folding one of the fuda messenger birds, Hisoka realised. Then he felt a tug, not like any physical sensation he could name, just the knowledge that he should look into his own mirror. His mind was still full of fog, but he was able to focus on the glass just long enough to see his own eyes replaced by Tsuzuki's purple ones.
Hisoka winced and put the mirror down. "It works, or it will once I've recovered."
Tsuzuki nodded. He shot a concerned look at Hisoka.
"Are you gonna be okay? We should leave before it gets dark and the ghosts decide to come out again..."
"I can teleport back to my hotel room and rest there. I'd better not go back to Meifu until tomorrow." Hisoka paused, struck by a new problem. "I'll need to come up with a cover story. They won't believe I could banish a demon by myself."
"I thought of that," Tsuzuki replied. "You can say it was summoned by a guy who didn't know what he was doing. He messed up the binding spells and the demon broke free and took him with it to hell. It happens, I've seen it before."
Hisoka carefully got to his feet. Tsuzuki shook out his coat and put it on, then conscientiously picked up the plastic bag and empty bottles. Then there was a pause, long and awkward. Just leaving felt wrong, but Hisoka didn't know what else to say.
In the end, he settled on, "Be careful."
"Yeah. You too."
He cast one last look around at the ruins, now dim with dusk, before summoning his remaining strength to visualise the hotel room in Nagasaki. He saw Tsuzuki fade into the evening light at the same time, leaving the island to its ghosts and silence once again.
Hisoka slept late the next morning, but when he woke, it was with one image startlingly clear in his mind. A face that had seemed familiar, and now he knew why.
He gathered his things, checked out of the hotel, and hurried through the city. He could have flown, or teleported, but for once in his life he almost welcomed the press of other minds around his. They helped wash away the demon's taint, all their human chaos of high hopes and dark fears mixed with a thousand tiny pieces of mundane everyday life.
Sannou Shrine was busier in the daytime, tourists climbing the steps to take pictures of the broken torii and the tall, defiant camphor trees. Hisoka drifted through the crowds, not troubling to make himself invisible, but unnoticed all the same. There were several priests and shrine maidens selling talismans and souvenirs, but none were the man with the blindfold. Hisoka was starting to wonder if he'd fled, or been some strange vision, when he caught sight of a tall figure walking away between buildings near the shrine's edge.
Hisoka followed, and found himself in a small sandy space behind two buildings. The blindfolded priest was kneeling, carefully opening a can. Hisoka was confused until he saw the cats lurking under the surrounding bushes, watching hungrily. The priest doled out what looked like tuna between several bowls, then sat back and waited. One by one, the cats began to venture out into the open. They were wary, feral creatures, but they seemed to accept the presence of the priest. One even paused to bump its head against his knee before homing in on the tuna.
It was strange how much harder it was to recognise someone when you couldn't see their eyes, but there could be no mistake. In the dream Hisoka had shared with Tsuzuki, the man in the fire had been wearing a smoked-glass visor and steel gauntlets tipped with claws; here, he wore a priest's robes and a black silk blindfold. But it was the same man, the same set of the mouth, the same jet-black hair, the same fluid way of moving, the same silent strength.
And there was something else, tugging dimly at his recollection, some sense that he'd seen this man even before he'd come to Nagasaki...
"Who are you?" Hisoka asked.
One of the cats startled at the sound of his voice, but the priest just turned his head towards Hisoka with no sign of surprise. He seemed to regard Hisoka from behind the blindfold, but he didn't answer.
Someone else did.
Hisoka spun to his left.
She was peeping out of the bushes like one of the feral cats, her eyes very wide. Then her face broke into a smile as she rushed forward. Hisoka barely caught her as she flung herself into his arms and hugged him so tight he winced. But he couldn't sense her - hadn't been able to sense her at all in the bushes - he knew she was there, could feel her warmth and the way tears were now pouring from her eyes and soaking into his shirt - but his empathy sensed nothing from her, only that smooth, glassy barrier that he'd come up against when he tried to reach into the priest's mind.
"You're the one who's been hiding her," he said, looking over Kazusa's head at the man who was still sitting quietly next to the cat dishes.
The man nodded.
"He doesn't talk," Kazusa explained through sniffles. "But he's very kind and he keeps me safe and no-one can find me here, no-one can make me go out and..."
The sniffles turned to sobs.
"I know what they were doing," Hisoka told her. "Making you go through the realms to look for Oriya. How did you get away? How did you end up here?"
Kazusa tried to speak, but she was sobbing too much. Hisoka searched for anything in his experience that would help with comforting a crying child, but came up blank. He settled for just hugging her tightly back. After a moment he tried awkwardly patting her hair. It seemed to help. Gradually, the tears lessened, and she started talking all in a rush like water tumbling over itself.
"They came to take us away, me and Oriya-san, they were going to take us somewhere else... but Tsuzuki-san was distracted, and he was busy with Oriya-san, so when Tsuzuki-san gave me the medicine to drink, I waited until he wasn't looking and I poured it out behind the bed. Then I pretended to be asleep and Tsuzuki-san carried me down to the ambulance and put me under some blankets, but he had to go back up to help him with moving Oriya-san's bed, so I put some things under the blankets so they wouldn't see I was gone, and then I ran away as fast as I could."
Hisoka didn't need his powers to share the memory of fear, the way her heart must have been beating so hard it shook her whole slender frame.
"That was brave." He was amazed that she'd managed it at all. "Then what did you do?"
"I didn't know where to go. I couldn't go home, I couldn't get to Meifu, I couldn't let them find me again, and I knew Byakko-chan would have to come find me if Tsuzuki-san told him to... but then I remembered him."
She loosened her grip on Hisoka enough to look over at the blindfolded man.
"I found him one night when I was trying to get away from something awful that was chasing me. I can go anywhere when I'm not in my body, you see, but it's like a dream, sometimes I just take a step and I'm somewhere else and I don't know where. But one time I found this place, and it was a little like when Rikugou let me sleep in the forest, and nothing seemed to come near me while I was here. I kept trying to find it again, but I didn't know how to get back, but I knew if I could go there while I was awake, I'd be safe."
Kazusa took a gulping breath.
"So when I ran away, I went to the big train station, but I didn't know where to go... and then I saw a picture of this shrine in the tourist office window. So I found all the money people dropped behind things and under things until I had enough for a ticket to Nagasaki, and then I got on the bullet train and I came here. He was under the trees, like he was waiting for me. I asked him to help me, but I don't think I needed to say it out loud. Ever since then it's been like I'm inside a big bubble and I can see out but no-one can see in. And they can't find me."
"No, they can't. I couldn't find you either. It's just luck I came here at all. He's done a good job of hiding you." Hisoka looked over at the blindfolded man again. He was still just sitting there, watching and listening, but saying nothing. "But who is he?"
"I don't know." Kazusa finally loosened her grip on Hisoka, rubbing at her tear-stained face with one hand. "And he doesn't know either. He doesn't know anything about himself, except that he was lost for a long time, and then something called him here. The priests took him in. They think he's just a person who's lost his memory. Sometimes they joke that maybe he's an oni that's been bound into human form or a kitsune that's lost his hoshi-no-tama, but I don't think he's either of those things."
She looked over at the man they were discussing.
"I just know he won't let anyone take me away if I don't want to go."
The man nodded again, then got to his feet with that easy fluidity. He picked up the now-empty tuna can, and turned slightly to Kazusa with an unspoken question. Kazusa nodded and looked up at Hisoka hopefully.
"Will you come back home with us? It's not very big but we can sit there and talk and no-one can walk in..."
She glanced nervously at the gap between the buildings.
"I'd know if anyone was coming," Hisoka pointed out. Kazusa's face fell. "But of course I'll come back with you," he added quickly.
Kazusa beamed and took Hisoka's hand, leading him in the priest's wake. They took a route around the edge of the shrine buildings, avoiding most of the crowds. Hisoka noted how Kazusa's demeanor changed as they emerged from the shrine. She shrank close to him, now clutching his hand more for reassurance than to guide him, and looked around her constantly like a deer on alert for a wolf. The blindfolded man walked confidently through the streets, but he, too, seemed to glance around, though whether he was seeing or listening Hisoka couldn't tell.
They soon reached a small apartment building tucked between larger towers. Kazusa practically ran up the stairs, towing Hisoka with her, and opened one of the doors with a key she took from her pocket. As soon as the door shut behind them the tension vanished from her small frame and she brightened like the sun.
"Tadaima!" she called cheerfully to the empty hall. "Here's where to put your shoes... now come and see, there's a big room and a kitchen and two little rooms and a bathroom, and the littlest room is mine, I can roll my own futon now and when I look out of the window there are big black and yellow dragonflies that hover right outside..."
The tour was detailed for such a small apartment, but Hisoka made no complaint. In all the short time he'd known Kazusa he'd never seen her so happy. Some of her strangeness was dissipated by her joy, and his heart ached as he listened to her chatter. She was ten years old: this was how she should be. Should have been, were it not for Sargatanas and Muraki and her own curse of clairvoyance.
The apartment was old and a little shabby, but the tatami was in good condition and the rooms were bright with morning sunlight. Kazusa's room was barely more than a closet with a window, but it was clear that she loved it in a way she had never loved her room at the school. Freshly picked wildflowers drooped in a small vase that had probably come from a bargain store, but that she showed to Hisoka as proudly as if it had been Venetian glass.
The priest had gone to the kitchen and begun to make tea. Kazusa tugged Hisoka down to her level so she could whisper conspiratorially.
"He's really good at tea but I don't think he knows how to cook. We eat a lot of bento from the store. I want to learn but he won't let me use the stove in case I hurt myself. I can use the rice-cooker though!"
"Then you're already better than me," Hisoka told her. "I never learned to cook."
It was surreal to have such an ordinary conversation, to be led to the low table and to sit on the tatami with Kazusa and the strange man, drinking tea in the sunlight. Surreal, but peaceful; Hisoka felt as though the rest of the city and its people were muffled, and he had the strong sense that this place was protected in some way. Kazusa was right: it was like being inside a bubble.
He found that he didn't want to disturb it, wanted to walk away and leave them here to their peace, hope that the priest's power would keep them both safe. But the image of the man standing in the fire, reaching out with those strange metal claws, was too powerful to ignore.
"I got my memory back," Hisoka told Kazusa. "I found you at the hospital, and found out what they were making you do. But I couldn't rescue you, because your soul wasn't in your body. I'm so sorry."
"I know." Kazusa smiled at him so sweetly it was almost painful. "Byakko-chan told me when I came back that day. I was so glad to know you were looking for me. It was awful feeling like there was no-one in all the world who knew where I was. And every time he made me go, I was so scared I wouldn't get back. There are so many monsters..."
"And so many places to look, and I didn't know which ones were real and which ones weren't, and I searched and searched for Oriya-san but it took so long to find him..."
"You found him?"
"I think so." Kazusa drew her finger across the table as if doodling. "He's in a really bad place. Everyone there is suffering, but it's worse for him. There are rules for everyone else, because they've been judged. But Oriya-san shouldn't be there, and no-one knows about it, so the demons can do whatever they like to him forever."
"Jigoku," Hisoka said quietly. "One of the hells?"
"It was hot, so hot," she said. "I wanted to help him. I tried. I tried really hard. It isn't fair for him to be there and never able to leave. Everyone else gets to leave!" Her voice rose shrilly. "Sometimes it takes a really long time but everyone gets to leave when they've made their karma better! But not Oriya-san! He'll be there really and truly forever unless someone brings him back!"
She started to cry again.
"But I couldn't stay there, I had to get away, I told the doctor where he was but I had to run away, he would have sent me back again and the demons could see me and there was nothing I could do..."
"You did the right thing," Hisoka told her, wishing he were better at comforting people. "Muraki should never have been sending you out like that in the first place. This is the Judgement Bureau's problem to solve. We're already looking for the other souls who were lost from Kyoto. We'll find Oriya too."
"The doctor doesn't want Meifu to know about Oriya-san," Kazusa said, wiping away her tears defiantly. "He's afraid of what Lord Enma will do if he finds out. He's afraid of what will happen to Oriya-san." She paused. "He feels guilty about what's happened to Oriya-san already."
"Guilty? Muraki?" Hisoka stared at her in disbelief. "He's a monster. He's killed so many people--"
"He thinks it will all go away," Kazusa whispered. "One day when he makes things right. All the bad things he's done will be washed away, so it doesn't matter what he does until then. But he loves Oriya-san. He never meant for him to get hurt. He needs to fix it before he fixes the other thing."
"I don't know what it is. Only that he needs Tsuzuki-san for it to work."
"Tsuzuki," Hisoka said slowly. "I met him again. I saw some of his thoughts. He knows your friend here, somehow. That's why I came to the shrine today."
"Ohhhh." Kazusa bit her lip. She looked at the blindfolded man. "You remember, I told you about him? He's bright and dark at the same time. He was always so sorry for what the doctor was doing, but he let him do it, because he thought he had to save Oriya-san. The doctor told him everything was his fault, but he was lying--"
"What?" Hisoka leaned forward. "Lying about what?"
"I don't know. I just know he was lying. He was always lying, making Tsuzuki-san think the wrong things, making him think that all sorts of things were his fault when really it was the doctor who made them happen. He doesn't have to drug him or tie him up. He knows Tsuzuki-san won't run away." She sighed with a sadness far beyond her years. "I tried to tell him. But the doctor never left us alone. And I couldn't make him understand."
Hisoka looked over at the priest. "Does Tsuzuki's name mean anything to you?"
The man hesitated, then glanced at Kazusa.
"It seems familiar to him, but he doesn't know why," she explained.
"And the fire in Kyoto?" Hisoka studied the man's face. "That's where I saw you, in Tsuzuki's memories. In the middle of the fire, wearing strange clothes - metal gauntlets and a glass visor--"
The man flinched. His hands went to his head, fingers pressing into the temples. Then he reached behind his head and untied the silk blindfold. As it fell away from his eyes, Hisoka couldn't help but gasp.
He couldn't see whether the eyes themselves had been destroyed; the lids were scarred shut with ugly red weals that seemed like they were still inflamed. It looked like the man had had razor blades driven into his face. Razor blades, or shards of glass...
"He doesn't need his eyes to see," Kazusa said quietly. "But it hurts, all the time. The doctors can't do anything. It won't heal properly. He doesn't know how it happened. The first thing he remembers, he was sitting in the Peace Park here in Nagasaki."
"Wait, I have an idea." Hisoka reached into his pocket and pulled out Rikugou's mirror. "If he was in the fire, if he's like Oriya and the others, then there should be..."
It took a moment to focus in the way he needed to. The man was hard to bring into the mirror. Hisoka had the sense he was trying to cooperate, but there was something innate that was hiding him from its sight. Even so, after a few seconds, Hisoka saw what he'd suspected: a faint golden line stretching away from the man's body.
"You're the twelfth," he said, absently. "The missing one we couldn't account for--"
Maybe it was because he was still concentrating on the mirror. Or maybe it was just his intuition that made the pieces suddenly align, made his own words echo back at him like thunder.
You are the twelfth...
... the eleven gods who protect me...
... you weren't the one who was supposed to die...
... many of us take on human guise...
... he could not have died so easily....
And that was where he'd seen this man the very first time, not in Tsuzuki's thoughts, but in Byakko's, in Kumamoto, as the wind-god had pleaded help him, and hadn't only meant Tsuzuki...
Hisoka sucked in his breath and raised his eyes to stare at the man across the table from him. Remembered Tsuzuki begging in the heart of the flames, his horror and guilt and grief.
"Touda," Hisoka said.
The man shuddered like a tree in a hurricane. Slowly he raised one hand to his head again, fingertips brushing his ruined eyes. Then he nodded. He fumbled for his blindfold and began to tie it across his face again, as if for comfort.
"That's his name," Kazusa murmured, watching the man with wide eyes. "He knows it. His memory is still dark but he knows his name. And he knows it... it's a heavy name. There are chains on it, of things he's done and things he's been forbidden to do, and--"
Touda shook his head at her, but there was more pleading to it than disapproval.
"Oh! I'm sorry," Kazusa said, reaching out for Touda's hand. "This hurts too. Almost as bad as the scars. The memories are behind bars. Trying to reach past them is like walking on hot coals."
She looked at Hisoka.
"But you know who he is?"
"Yes." Hisoka sighed. "Touda... you're one of the Shikigami of Gensoukai. This isn't your true form. I don't know how you ended up like this, or how to help you. But I might know someone who does."
"Rikugou?" Kazusa asked.
"Will he... take Touda-san away?" her voice wobbled. "And will you take me away too?"
"No," Hisoka said slowly. "No, I think... you're both safest right where you are. I can't take you back to Meifu, Kazusa. And you wouldn't be hidden from Muraki anywhere else. Rikugou won't be able to bring Touda back to Gensoukai, not with the Gates closed. And if Meifu finds out he's alive, it'll cause almost as much trouble as it would if they knew Tsuzuki is too..."
"So I can stay?"
Her voice was breathless with hope. Hisoka nodded, and prayed he wasn't making a terrible mistake.
"I don't know how long for," he cautioned. "I don't know..."
He stopped, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
"I don't know how this is going to end," he said finally. "But at some point, we're not going to be able to keep it all secret any more. And I... don't know what's going to happen then."
"Maybe light will chase away the shadows," Kazusa suggested softly. "Wouldn't that be a good thing?"
"It depends what's in the shadows," Hisoka replied.
The Summons Division was quiet when Hisoka walked in. It looked like most of the other Shinigami were out on casework. He realised that he'd been bracing himself for a big reaction, people demanding to know where he'd been and what had happened. The complete absence of any outcry was both a relief and gave him a moment of gut-churning fear as he thought about what would have happened if Tsuzuki hadn't come to warn him on Hashima. No-one would even have known, until it was too late...
He seized the fear and twisted it into anger, a white-hot hatred for the man who'd tried to kill him a second time. The man who was responsible for everything, he was beginning to understand, from his own death, to the pain and grief inflicted on his fellow Shinigami, to the darkness that engulfed Tsuzuki. For the murders in Nagasaki and for kidnapping Kazusa and forcing her into danger. And for who knew what other crimes...
Hisoka knocked on Konoe's door and gave him the brief summary suggested by Tsuzuki. A demon had been summoned, but its would-be master had been careless, and the situation was now resolved. He expected more questions, but Konoe seemed distracted, and simply told him to write it up and make a note that the summoner's soul had been claimed for Jigoku.
Hisoka went back to his desk and began the process of blending truth with lies. As he worked, an uneasy feeling began to creep over him. Konoe hadn't just been distracted, he thought. He'd been uncomfortable with Hisoka's presence. He'd avoided his eyes, and wanted him gone as soon as possible...
Hisoka stared at Konoe's office door. The man had been supportive and kind in his brusque way for as long as Hisoka had been part of the Summons Division. Why the change in demeanour? Had Hisoka done something - or rather, had something Hisoka had done come to light? If so, why not confront him with it? The avoidance spoke more of guilt than anger or disapproval.
There was a faint whoosh of air above his head. Hisoka jumped, but it was only one of the snow-white messenger birds. It circled once, then landed on his desk. As soon as he touched it, it turned back into paper, intricately folded. Hisoka opened it and saw the Count's intricate calligraphy. It took a few seconds for the words to register.
Remember that there are rules, even for him. You have already been judged. He has no right to examine your soul. You cannot lie to him, but you can choose which truths you give up. Take great care with your words.
Hisoka stared at the message. Even as he struggled to make sense of it, dread was sinking deep into his bones. Some part of him knew what it meant, and when there came a heavy knock on the door of the Summons Division, he instinctively crumpled the paper into a ball and shoved it into his desk drawer.
The door opened. A man in ornate courtly robes stood in the doorway, holding a scroll. The few other Shinigami in the room froze, staring at him like rabbits sensing a predator.
"Kurosaki Hisoka," said the man. All heads turned. "You are summoned to the presence of Lord Enma."
oh look a cliffhanger how did that happen *whistles innocently*