Mary panted as she ran across the academy campus, her limbs weighing her down. Sunlight reflected off the ornate structures surrounding the courtyard, creating blinding flecks of light. The sky was a bright blue, sun hanging at a high noon position.
Mary’s steps echoed against the concrete as she pushed herself to run faster. Her hairpin blade felt heavy in her palms as she turned the corner, ducking behind a marble pillar.
Shit. Shit. SHIT.
Standing fifty meters away, in the middle of the courtyard, was the one other human girl on campus. She was frozen, cowering in front of a grotesque octopus monster. Its tentacles curled, its lips twisted into an eerie smile. The other girl just stared at it, tears pooling in her eyes. It opened its mouth, a terrible deep voice filling the air.
“ See, I love you when no one else will. ”
The other girl shrank in on herself, still staring at the beast. It grinned at her; a wolf eyeing its prey, preparing to go in for the kill. The girl could only cower in fear.
God, why does it always have to be me?
Mary grit her teeth and adjusted her hands on her weapon. She had to protect this girl, as pathetic as she was.
It’s now or never. I have to save this girl.
You’re the kind of monster I hate most.
Mary ran out from behind the pillar, still out of breath from her previous run. She ignored the burning in her lungs and the screaming in her legs, flanking the monster as she closed the distance between them. Fifty meters quickly turned to five.
Gripping her golden hairpin blade in her right hand, Mary screamed and hurled the weapon at the head of the octopus monster.
“DIE, YOU UGLY BASTARD!”
Mary’s hairpin blade slammed into the nape of the monster’s neck, blood spurting everywhere. It let out a roar of pain, shrinking away from the other crying girl. Quickly running over to her, Mary grabbed the other girl’s hand to run away as the monster expanded and bubbled into blobs of violet and blood red. They reached the edge of the courtyard. Mary looked back at the monster. It was bulbous and disfigured. Unrecognizable.
It exploded into nothing, raining down a deluge of blood, covering the grass of the courtyard and the surrounding academy buildings. The hairpin blade fell from where it embedded itself in the monster’s nape to the ground. Mary’s hair and face were soaked red.
Mary sighed in disgust and let go of the girl’s hand.
“Hey, it’s gone now. Get up.”
The other girl was silent except for a small sniffle. Tears ran down her cheeks and dripped to the ground.
“Don’t wanna talk? That’s fine, it’ll all be over soon anyway.”
Mary walked over to pick up her golden blade that was now stained with flecks of blood. She looked back over at the cowering girl.
“Not even a thank you? Pft.”
And the other girl exploded into nothing.
Mary trudged across campus. Her limbs felt heavy and her muscles ached from the effort. The sun shone brightly, unaware of the horrors below. Despite this dimension being a dream, Mary hadn't ever felt more tired. At least she hadn't been mortally wounded by the wonder killer.
Her 3 foot long blade reverted back to the size of a normal hairpin. Mary clutched it tightly in her hand. It was gold, with three light pink flowers attached. When the weapon was extended, it was an odd device, something in the form between a sword and a spear. It was a golden color, though much more sturdy than solid gold. Flower patterns were etched into the cross guard and grew up into the curved blade, reminiscent of its smaller form.
Mary threw her head back, scratching at the back of her head and sighing in exhaustion as she trudged along.
Damn, I’m tired. Most of the time they at least try to run away, fuck, but whatever. It turned out fine in the end.
It could have been so much worse. All things considered, this battle had gone pretty well compared to some others.
But that wasn't important. Didn’t deserve to take up all this space in Mary’s mind. She shook the thoughts of the cowering girl from her head. There were other, more important things to think about.
Mary had reached the auditorium building of the school and approached the ladder that went to the roof. She gripped the rungs, pulling herself up quickly despite the fatigue settling through her body. Once on the roof, she made her way to the furthest point from the ladder.
A bronze statue stood, its back to Mary. It was of a standing girl, her eyes downcast and her hands gripped in each other, as if she was nervous. Sunlight glinted off her features, highlighting the sharp outlines of her metallic skirt and blazer, frozen in time.
Why did you have to leave?
Mary approached her like she had so many times before. The statue was standing on a ledge jutting out from the parapet, and Mary walked onto it to look at her face.
Her features were frozen in a sad smile. Mary took her hand. Despite being made of bronze, her fingers were warm. Mary could imagine them curling into hers and giving her that soft smile only reserved for her. Those fingers had run through her hair so many times, each time reassuring Mary that everything would be alright.
Mary was so tired . Of the endless fighting, of the endless risks of death, the endless loneliness of her life. But she reminded herself it was for her. She would get stronger, smarter, and win back another chance. Mary wanted her back beyond words.
I never got to tell you I loved you.
A broken sob threatened to escape Mary’s chest as she held the statue’s hand. Standing there, Mary buried her face in Tsuzura’s shoulder, desperately trying to stop the tears from spilling from her eyes. Tsuzura’s features had always been soft and gentle. It felt wrong to see them etched and hardened into bronze.
We said we were going to be winners together.
Though the statue was slightly warm after long and numerous nights in the dream-egg dimension, it was nothing compared to the warmth Tsuzura gave when she was alive. Mary turned her head from where it rested on Tsuzura’s shoulder to speak the words quietly, determinedly, into her metallic ear, a reassurance to Tsuzura and herself.
“I'm bringing you back, no matter what it takes.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“W...Who are you?”
Mary stared at the silver haired girl in front of her. She looked to be around the same age as Mary. She, annoyingly, was taller than Mary, with a willowy frame. She had a wide-eyed look on her face, a contrast to Mary’s narrowed eyes and perpetual scowl.
Her eyes were a piercing, almost unnatural turquoise. Her platinum hair was long, tied into a ponytail, bangs covering her forehead. The girl’s silver eyebrows furrowed as Mary studied her.
She was probably judging Mary’s faded yellow hoodie and maroon athletic shorts that hung loose on her body. The white haired mystery was dressed in a white tennis skirt and a navy crewneck. It hardly seemed fit to fight monsters in.
Mary’s mind raced as she tried to find an explanation for her situation. She was still dreaming, transported to the academy campus where she fought every night. But there was another girl with her this time. What the hell went wrong? Mary had done the same thing tonight as she did every night. Buy a wonder egg after school, do her homework, go to bed at 10, break the egg. Mary had already fought a few monsters in the dream-egg world, and every time it was by herself. Who was this girl? A glitch? An egg girl? It didn't make sense, as the silver haired girl was carrying a...theatrical mask? Odd choice for a weapon. But the egg girls were always defenseless, needing Mary’s protection.
A monster in disguise, then? But the monsters were always brightly colored and grotesque. This girl looked...relatively normal. Her colors were unusual, but not unsightly. Mary decided to ask.
“Got a name?”
The girl paused, as if she was unsure of herself. An odd reaction considering the simple question. She answered though, albeit slightly hesitantly. “It's Ririka.”
Mary nodded. “Ririka, okay,” testing the name out on her tongue. It was fitting. “I’m Mary. Just..don't get in my way, okay?”
The girl hummed in some form of agreement.
As if on cue, the wonder eggs both of them were carrying cracked, revealing two girls. One was short, with short black hair and wire-frame glasses; the other was a little taller, long black hair tied into a braid. Mary sized them up quickly, praying they would cooperate with her instructions.
“Listen, you’re gonna follow me and all my instructions, okay? And run the hell away from any monster that comes!”
The two girls nodded in unison, eyes wide with fear.
Great, a couple of scaredy-cats. Hopefully they’re fast runners.
Mary looked over at Ririka, who seemed to be scanning the area.
Mary realized that she was the expert here in her own domain. These guys knew next to nothing about the layout of the campus. Mary spoke quickly and directly, not wanting to stand still for so long. “The safest spot in the school is probably the courtyard. Lots of places to hide, but also open ground to fight the monsters on. Follow me.”
Ririka and the girls nodded. “Alright.”
Acid rained onto Mary’s arm, burning through her skin faster than she could heal. The wonder killer’s gaping maw stood high above her, poison dripping from its lips.
Mary cried in pain as she gripped her hairpin blade horizontally in front of her face, straining to stop the advance of the monster as it pushed against her, its spines close to impaling her face.
The monster this time was even more grotesque, a manifestation of two girls’ trauma.
It took the shape of a brightly colored spider creature, eight legs covered in spines and a bulbous body rising from where the head should have been, eyes indistinguishable from folds of multicolored flesh.
And it was angry .
This was bad. Very bad. Ririka was designed for defense, her weapon being a freaking shield. Mary was the only one who could realistically fight back with her blade, and she was close to collapse under the strength of the monster. If she messed up, they were dead meat. Ririka couldn't just shield herself forever.
It screamed, voice bouncing around the courtyard.
“Girlies! Come to Uncle now! I need you!”
It roared in rage, its limbs clicking furiously.
Mary gasped in pain as more acid dripped from its maw onto her singed sweatshirt. She forced the blade forward, dropping it to the ground and tumbling away from the claws of the spider.
Mary’s mind and heart raced, genuine fear radiating its way through her body as she pushed herself up from the ground.
Shit. This is bad. I need to get my blade. But I also need to get to the girls --
“I'll show you what I'm worth.”
At that moment, Ririka leapt from behind, mask in hand, which had expanded to four times its original size. It was a formidable shield, the eye and mouth holes glowing with white energy. Gritting her teeth, Ririka launched the shield into an orifice of the killer.
Ririka screamed. “RUN AWAY!”
Mary, in no hurry to die, scrambled to her feet and sprinted from the monster, grabbing the hands of the two egg-girls and pulling them along.
Mary could only look back at Ririka sprinting after them. The mask-shield was embedded in the flesh of the monster, somehow glowing even brighter white than before.
The monster’s flesh bubbled around the mask as white energy threatened to pulse outward. A shockwave rumbled from the mask, rippling through multicolored muscle and sinew. Then a crackle. Energy exploded from the mask, forcing its way through the body of the killer. The wonder killer screamed as its flesh bubbled into massive blobs of red and violet, white light beaming through its body.
With a final scream of pain, the spider-monster erupted, bits of flesh and meat raining over the four girls. A flash of white light momentarily washed over the campus. The mask, reverted back to its normal size, fell from the sky. Blood poured down, soaking the landscape of the campus.
Mary stopped running and collapsed onto the ground from exhaustion, a good distance away from where the monster previously stood.
I would’ve been so dead if she wasn’t there.
How fucking embarrassing.
She slumped, sitting with her knees up and bringing a hand to brush her bangs out of her face. Mary looked up at Ririka, who was standing, out of breath, a grimace on her face.
“What… the fuck…. is your weapon?” Mary panted out, still out of breath.
Ririka answered between heavy breaths. “It’s a shield that absorbs the force from other hits, and once there’s enough...it detonates like that and...and releases all the energy outward.”
“Damn,” Mary almost laughed, “and I just get a tiny blade? So unfair.”
“I guess that’s just how it is.” Ririka answered, voice quieter.
Mary hummed a noise of agreement, too tired to come up with a comeback. Mary turned her head from where she was sitting to look at the two egg-girls.
“Hey, you guys alright?”
“...Yeah. Thank you.” They seemed frazzled, but relieved. At least they weren’t the chatty type. Mary hated the ones who talked too much.
Ririka stayed silent, eyes downcast.
The atmosphere was awkward. They had just been saved from death and Mary didn’t even know the egg-girls’ names.
The taller girl pulled the shorter one, presumably her sister, into a hug. They held the embrace for a few seconds, then, poof .
They were gone. Exploded into air, leaving Mary and Ririka alone in the academy grounds.
There was an awkward beat, and Mary was struck with the absurdity of her situation. She would've died if it wasn't for this girl saving her ass. She would have been dead as hell. She would've been that squished piece of unrecognizable meat on the pavement.
What the fuck.
“I’m going to get my blade,” Mary said, sharply, as she got up.
Ririka nodded at her. “I need to retrieve my shield.” She followed close behind Mary, a loud silence filling the gap between them.
“Your domain is a school?” Ririka asked as she walked. The silence was uncomfortable to Mary but she would've preferred it to a conversation. But she couldn't just not say anything, especially with that dumb cute look on Ririka’s face.
“Yes. Obviously.” Mary huffed. “It’s this stupid fucking academy. Yours isn’t?”
Mary raised an eyebrow. “Care to elaborate?”
Mary shrugged. “Fair enough.”
Not like we’ll ever see each other again.
You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.
Because right there, in her first period advanced calculus class, was Ririka. In her high school.
Oh god, why did it have to be me?
Mary averted her gaze from the front of the room as the teacher introduced Ririka to the rest of the class.
“Class, this is Ririka Momobami. She just transferred here, and I trust you all to give her a warm welcome. Please take the empty seat over there next to Mary.”
Mary wanted to groan out loud. Why her?
Mary slumped into her desk, willing for this all to be a bad dream. Ririka made her way over to Mary’s corner of the room, setting her bag down and looking like she wanted to disappear.
Great. Just fucking great.
The lunch bell had just rang, the hallways flooding with students. Turns out she and Ririka also shared a physics class.
Mary planned to ditch Ririka in the mess of the hallways, shoving her way past her classmates and making a few loops and detours on her way to her usual lunch spot.
A small, secluded garden. Located in the smallest of the academy’s courtyards, a quiet space away from the rush of the school. Three beds of dirt, filled with almost-bloomed flowers, unripe tomatoes, and burgeoning pepper plants. Tended to only by the president of the short-lived Gardening Club. The responsibility was now pushed onto Mary.
Mary sat down on the pavement, grumbling to herself. God, this uniform was so uncomfortable and she had skipped buying lunch to ditch Ririka and --
Mary’s eyebrow twitched. She willed herself not to explode, to deal with this maturely. How the hell did Ririka follow her through all of that? Just tell her to go away.
“Leave me alone.”
“I promise this wasn’t intentional, I just moved here after...after....I just moved into my apartment, and I need to finish high school…”
Mary couldn’t believe her ears. What were the chances? Out of every goddamn school in this place it had to be hers.
“That doesn't mean you get to talk to me.”
“I think we could help each other.”
Ririka sat down cross-legged next to Mary then, settling with her lunch box in her lap.
“We can fight the egg monsters together again.” Ririka said. The shakiness was less obvious in her voice now.
“Hell no. I don’t even know how that happened in the first place.”
“Well, it probably has something to do with our relative proximity to each other…”
“I don’t care. I can fight them by myself.”
“You would’ve died that time if I wasn’t there.” Ririka retorted.
Mary knew Ririka was right, but no way was she giving in to this girl. “Hah! Yeah right, I could’ve handled myself. You don’t know me.”
“...I’d like to.”
Mary looked up, taken aback by the earnesty of Ririka’s statement. Seriously, what was with this girl?! Saying stupid stuff like that, unprovoked?
Mary averted her gaze as heat rose to her cheeks. “No you don’t. I’m kind of an asshole.”
“I’ve dealt with worse.” Ririka almost smiled then, eyes crinkling a little bit as if she was remembering something. It was…annoyingly endearing.
Mary looked back. Not unkindly, she responded. “You’re hard to figure out, you know?”
“She looks like you,” Mary commented.
The girls were in Ririka’s egg-dream world now. It was some inescapable estate, stretching impossibly far. Ornate, traditional houses and blooming gardens filled the landscape, but as beautiful as it was, a sense of unease permeated the air. The sky around them was a dark navy, dotted with stars. A crescent moon hung high in the sky. The world was silent save for the noise of wind rustling through the foliage around them.
They stood side by side in front of a bronze statue. A girl, with hair looped into braids, locked in a metallic embrace with another, her hair tied into a long side ponytail. A field of white lilies surrounded them.
“She was my twin sister. Identical.” Ririka responded. Her voice was quiet, even more so than usual.
“Who’s she hugging?”
“Her girlfriend. Lover. Whatever.”
Mary blinked. Shit, a double suicide?
“I hate her.”
Mary’s eyes widened slightly. She didn’t expect such harsh words from Ririka.
“I get it.” Mary said gently, trying to reassure the girl.
Something in Ririka snapped. “No, you don’t. There’s no way you could understand. It--it’s all her fault that Kirari is dead. And to bring Kirari back, I need to save her too.”
Ririka spit the words out like there was acid on her tongue. Her words were icy, dangerous.
But she gathered herself quickly, the iciness dissipating from her voice. “Sometimes I think it’s not worth it. But I have to. It should’ve been me.” Ririka sighed, and quieter this time, murmured. “It’s the one thing I owe her.”
Mary looked away. She definitely misjudged that. This conversation felt way too personal.
But Ririka’s words stuck to Mary’s mind. It's the one thing I owe her.
Mary thought back to Tsuzura, to pink petals, to cherry blossoms, to light laughter, to blue hair with a gentle curl. They had stuck it out through the toughest of times. Mary ached for Tsuzura’s gentle touch, her soft smile. They way she used to brush her hair, how she would scold Mary good-naturedly for being too mean, the study sessions, the coffee dates, the lunches they spent together taking care of the garden.
Mary thought she didn't owe anyone anything. Being in debt to someone else was the absolute worst thing to be. But in this game of life and death, she knew she owed herself and Tsuzura this. Another chance.
Mary wasn't a hero. She was a far cry from it. But the hairpin weighed heavy in her hoodie’s pocket.
I’d do anything to bring her back.
To learn why she left me. To see her smile again. To beat the shit out of whoever made her do it, even if, no, especially if it was me.
Because Mary had failed. She wasn't strong enough, kind enough, good enough to save her.
Ririka was quiet as well. Something tugged at Mary’s heart. She took a breath. Her emotions churned, something in her telling her to stop, you barely know this girl, but something else was there too. Another feeling tugged at Mary. That there was something so achingly familiar about this girl.
And pulled by reasons she didn’t completely understand, Mary took Ririka’s hand.
Ririka eyes widened in earnest surprise, tilting her head to look at Mary. Mary’s eyebrows were furrowed, though not from frustration. It was… embarrassment?
Mary looked like she wanted to pull away, blood rushing to her cheeks.
“Look, I get it.” Mary started, then paused, her cheeks tinged pink. “I get it. You’re angry she left. I…I am too.”
Ririka closed her grip on Mary’s fingers, gently brushing up against them, hesitant to be too forward. They were slightly rougher than Ririka’s. Mary raised their interlocked hands and looked into Ririka’s eyes.
“But you don’t owe her anything. Do this for yourself.”
Ririka felt her ears burn and her heart turn fuzzy. Mary’s words were simple, logical. To any outsider, it was insanity to risk your life every night for someone else’s sake without your own convictions. But living for someone else - that was what she had always done, what she had always known, until after that stupid, stupid tower.
She should’ve known, should’ve stopped Kirari’s planning before, should’ve burned her blueprints, should’ve talked any sort of sense into Sayaka, should’ve taken Kirari’s place.
But she didn’t. And she couldn’t. They had made that decision, and now Ririka was living with it.
What did she owe Kirari, after her whole life being molded in her image? She was meant to be Kirari, but when it was finally time, she ran. Away from the elders, away into a world that almost promised freedom. Into a world full of eggs and monsters and angry blonde girls. But she was still bound by Kirari, her mistake, everything she had ever known. It was all Ririka’s fault.
“You don’t owe her anything.”
I can’t believe that yet.
Ririka trembled, but gave a squeeze to Mary’s hands, and shook her head. An unfamiliar, but not uncomfortable feeling of warmth spread through her body.
Ririka didn’t need to say anything, the gesture enough for Mary to understand.
Mary hesitated, then nodded, a silent agreement coming between the two. But she also seemed to snap out of it then, quickly dropping Ririka’s hand and turning away, cheeks flaming red.
Mary muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “idiot, what are you doing,” to herself under her breath. She had turned her back to Ririka in an attempt to hide her blush.
Ririka stood still, her body slightly tingly from the interaction. Her hand idled in the air, and Ririka briefly wondered if she should reach out to Mary. But she decided against it, letting her hand drop to beside her waist and turned to the side to look at Kirari.
Even in death you have this much control over me, huh.
But Ririka knew, in that moment, something had shifted. She had an ally, a partner beside her now. That had never happened before - Ririka was always the follower. Never an equal.
Mary stood beside her. She had seemed to collect herself a little bit, picking at the nonexistent lint on her sweatshirt, face contorted into an admittedly cute pout.
That unexpected feeling of warmth bloomed inside Ririka again. It didn’t make any sense, the way she was feeling - she was in her personal hell, with a girl she barely knew, risking her life every night for a stupid younger sister. But Ririka felt warm .
This entire thing was a contradiction. Ririka wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to understand.
But the girls stood side-by-side under an endless sky. They had something each of them had never really had before - each other. Together, Ririka hoped, she knew, they would be able to live. For themselves, for their goals, whatever. Together, they could be strong.
The thought made Ririka feel fuzzy again. And as she looked up to the sky and at her newfound friend, for the first time, a smile graced her lips. For once, maybe she could be enough. They would be enough.