The phone rang at around eight. They had already finished dinner, a bit earlier than usual.
Miya, who was washing the dishes, dried her hands on her apron and went to answer it.
“Hello? This is Ougi.”
“Ah, hi, this is Narita.”
The caller was Narita Yuzuru, who had stayed home from school today as Takaya had predicted.
“Good evening. Is Takaya there?”
“My brother just went out.”
“He went out?” Yuzuru’s voice sharpened. “Where? Did he say before he left?”
“Ah, no, he didn’t say anything.”
“Nothing at all? You have no idea where he might’ve gone?”
Yuzuru’s tone, suddenly tinged with urgency, bewildered Miya.
“I…I don’t know.”
“How was he acting? Was he his usual self today?”
Miya thought back. Actually, he had seemed rather absent-minded and preoccupied, and a bit down.
As if he were brooding over something.
“Narita-san, has something happened to my brother? He didn’t go over to your place?”
“…He…couldn’t have…” Yuzuru said as if he’d just had some flash of premonition.
Feeling that Yuzuru’s silence on the other end of the line must mean that some sort of disaster had occurred, Miya asked, “What’s wrong? Is something going to happen to my brother? If he’s gone out, is something going to…”
Yuzuru was silent for a moment with the phone in his hand. Then he said as calmly as he could, “It’s probably nothing. I’m sure he’ll be back soon, so don’t worry.”
“Yeah. Ah, sorry about that. Don’t worry about it. Bye…”
Hurriedly hanging up, Yuzuru stood stock-still for a moment.
He’d had a nightmare.
Just moments ago.
He’d been dozing off on his bed. And then he had a sinister dream.
The ghost of the woman in the white kimono from yesterday stood by his bedside. She tried to say something to him—plead with him to save something? He followed her, and Takaya appeared in the dream. He was sprawled motionless on the ground, covered in blood. Blood spilled from his lips as he lay in the utter stillness of death.
It’d shocked him so much that the memory alone made his heart pound. Takaya’s slack face in his dream had been so vividly real that it sent icy shivers up his spine.
A dread that refused to go away. Yuzuru clenched his fists tightly. It had looked like their school. Takaya had gone out; could it have been…
(A prescient dream?)
He’d been anxious and impatient, and now he was seriously alarmed. Yuzuru stared out the window.
(What should I do?)
It rained harder and harder.
(I need to…yes. I need to tell someone. I have to tell someone!)
Yuzuru grabbed several volumes of student directories, picked up his shirt, and shot out into the hall. His father flagged him down mid-charge.
“Yuzuru. Where are you going?”
“I’m just going out for a bit!”
He flew out of the hall and took off running into the rain.
The pounding rain covered Jouhoku High School like a heavy gray curtain. A lone figure stood in front of the gates and looked up at the school buildings.
It was Ougi Takaya.
He threw away his umbrella and shouldered the wooden sword in his right hand. Wariness and battle-lust gleamed sharply from his ferocious eyes.
He’d still had no indication whatsoever that he could use any «power». Actually, he had no certainty of any sort that he would be able to call on whatever «power» he might have even if he came face-to-face with the spirits of the Kasuke Uprising. This show-down would be completely sink-or-swim.
To that he was resigned.
(To hell with «choubukuryoku».)
His grip tightened on the wooden sword.
(I’ll wipe the whole lot of ’em out just with these two hands.)
His glare fixed sharply on midair. Such intense battle-lust surged from the core of his body that he shivered. Tension and readiness for the fight. Just as his lips tightened—
He spun at the unexpected sense of a presence behind him.
Two people had appeared beneath the dim glow of a streetlight.
Takaya’s eyes widened involuntarily.
“So you really did come.”
Naoe drew closer despite Takaya’s water-logged state. Ayako, holding a red umbrella, looked at him in amazement.
“He predicted your actions to a tee, jeez.”
Takaya glared at them furiously. “Go home.”
Naoe’s eyes snapped wide. Takaya declared coldly, “I don’t need your help. I’ve come to settle my own score. I don’t need any help from you. …So leave!”
“What did you say?!” Ayako ground out. “We came all this way to give you a hand, and this is how you treat us? I can’t believe this attitude…!”
“Haruie,” Naoe stopped her coolly, and turned to Takaya. “Is that a command from Uesugi Kagetora?”
“If so, we shall obey. However, if it is a command from Ougi Takaya, then we cannot oblige.”
“We came to perform choubuku on the onryou in this school. We are not here to assist anyone.” Naoe’s eyes laughed. “Please don’t mind us. Do as you wish, and we will do likewise.”
Takaya made no reply.
Despite what he’d just said, Naoe had no intention of leaving Takaya’s side. Not while he refused to recognize himself as Kagetora.
Nothing for it.
Out-maneuvered, Takaya glared at Naoe resentfully before turning angrily on his heel. “Aaaah, fine, do whatever you want.”
Naoe, for some reason, smiled slightly.
The rain and wind both grew stronger. The three of them stood in front of Jouhoku High School. The spirits of Tada Kasuke and the others were waiting inside—and so, too, perhaps, were those who had manipulated them.
(I am not going to let them keep doing it…) Takaya swore to himself, and took a step inside. Naoe and Ayako followed.
Jouhoku High in the rain. Strange pebbles were sown at regular intervals along its circumference. They didn’t notice at all.
It was the “throwing stones” method of barrier-creation, a type of spiritual barrier normally used to seal Buddhist temples.
It was common knowledge to both Naoe and Ayako, but the darkness and rain acted to conceal the pebbles.
All unawares, they stepped into the trap awaiting them.
One of the doors to the staff entrance was open. It was usually locked at night to keep people from entering the school. But it was open now as if for their coming.
Takaya took a dubious step inside. In front of him was the business office. A guard would ordinarily have been on duty, but when he looked in, he saw that someone had laid waste to the empty room. One shoe had rolled to the door, and all was certainly not normal.
“What terrible malice,” Ayako muttered in a choked voice. “If I were an ordinary person, I’d go crazy in here. I wouldn’t be able to bear this place.”
The guard had apparently run away, and not without reason. The «spiritual malice» here had increased to unbearable levels. Someone could be driven to insanity just by being here.
They saw no sign of the Kasuke spirits. But there was a sense like an electric shock that they had been noticed.
“Those bastards,” Takaya groaned, wiping away the cold sweat running down his neck. Tension so thick that it was suffocating. His entire body had become a giant radar painfully attuned to the surrounding aura.
Naoe covered the agitated Takaya vigilantly from behind and to one side. He had mobilized each of his five senses as well as his Sixth Sense in order to protect Takaya with his «powers» from an attack from any angle, in any given moment.
Only the sound of the rain echoed down the corridor.
Light flared for a moment outside the windows. A flash of lightning. Thunder began to roar in the distance.
No movement within the charged atmosphere of the school. A cold aura.
Takaya stopped dead.
Naoe and Ayako went on guard at the same time. The end of the corridor was enshrouded in complete darkness; from there, the sound of damp footsteps approached. A lap-lap sound as if someone were moving through water. They could not see the owner of those footsteps. Only the sound approached.
A sense that it had stopped some meters in front of them.
In the next moment.
The fluorescent light overhead snapped.
Takaya and the others reflexively covered their heads and moved into battle formation. The crumbled pieces of the fluorescent light floated in the darkness. There was the sound of glass breaking violently.
Something began to dance and glitter in the darkness. The glimmering gradually increased, then multiplied exponentially.
It took them a moment to realize that the glittering was shards of broken glass reflecting the courtyard’s electric lights.
Something sliced through the air.
Light skimmed across their razor edges. Those coruscating objects shot towards them like arrows.
Naoe instantly stepped in front of Takaya and encircled them with a «goshinha». The mass of glass shards headed straight for them. Naoe increased the strength of the «goshinha» wall to repel the attack…
There was the thick sound of skin tearing.
Blood flew, and Naoe crumbled to the floor.
(Wh…) For a moment he was unable to comprehend what had just happened. (They cut through the «goshinheki»…!)
The glass shards had passed through the «goshinheki» barrier. No, that wasn’t right. He couldn’t…create the «goshinha» to make the «goshinheki»!
(That can’t be…)
In the depths of the darkness a new mass of glass shards glittered. Naoe summoned the «goshinha» once more. But his usual «power» did not spring forth from his hands. No matter how hard he concentrated, he couldn’t call on his «power»!
“Naoe! Get down!”
He ducked just as the glass shards skimmed over his head, missing him by a hair’s breath. In his astonishment, his eyes were caught by a small piece of glass which had fallen to the ground. He tried to lift it with his mind, but it refused to move. It didn’t even twitch.
(I can’t use my «powers»…)
“Naoe, what’s wrong?! Why aren’t you protecting yourself?”
“I can’t call a «goshinha» or «nenpa»,” Naoe raised his voice impatiently. “I can’t use my «powers»!”
“What did you say?!”
The faucet exploded, and water came gushing out. A violent rapping started up around them, followed by the sound of something heavy breaking. All the florescent lights affixed to the ceiling broke simultaneously. The desks in the classrooms began to rock as if they were marking time. The three of them stood frozen.
“What do you mean, you can’t use your «powers»?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve lost them, or…”
They heard the sound of something rolling towards them from behind; in the next moment, a large object sailed past them with earth-shattering force.
The scales from the infirmary missed them by the slightest margin at a speed of nearly eighty kilometers per hour and crashed into the opposite wall.
“Eeeek, what was that just now?!”
She turned to see a flower vase right in front of her.
The vase flew through the air and hit Ayako on the right side of her head with an awful crack.
Ayako collapsed soundlessly with a hand pressed against her head.
“Hey! Nee-san! You okay?”
“The w…«wall» isn’t working…” Ayako moaned. “Our «powers» aren’t working, Naoeee!”
They were those who, in an emergency, erected instant barriers with their mind faster than their bodies could react. The «wall» was a fundamental means of self-protection in combat. And it wasn’t working. Even this wasn’t working.
They couldn’t call on any of their «powers».
Naoe felt blood oozing out of cuts all over his body.
Memory sparked. Another situation like this. When they could not call upon their «powers». A long time ago, when they had suddenly lost the use of their «powers» in the same way, when they could not protect themselves or draw upon their abilities. It had resulted in the deaths of their bodies.
That had been thirty years ago.
That unforgettable battle.
Naoe muttered hoarsely, “It’s a «kyuuryoku-kekkai».”
Ayako took in a quick stunned breath. Her face instantly paled. Takaya turned his gaze from the speechless Ayako back to Naoe.
“Yes. Do you not remember? It’s the same as then.”
“I don’t know anything! Just tell me!”
It was a unique barrier which could absorb all the «power» held by those trapped within its sphere. The master of the barrier (its maker) usually put considerable negative energy (such as anguish, enmity—the «power» released by the dark parts of the soul) into its creation, but there were also those who could use the «powers» of other souls to create the barrier.
In other words, someone had performed anji reidou on the Kasuke spirits in order to create this «kyuuryoku-kekkai».
They could not use their abilities, trapped as they were within the barrier. If they used their «powers» carelessly, it would all by stolen by their opponent, the maker of the barrier. Using the Kasuke spirits, the barrier-maker had inexhaustible «power» on their side.
And then—death by a thousand cuts.
“Isn’t there anything we can do?!”
“There isn’t. We cannot use «choubukuryoku» either. Until we break the barrier, our hands and feet are tied.”
“Then let’s go find the maker of the barrier or something…!”
“We’ll probably be killed before that…”
The other side could do anything.
They didn’t even have the ability to protect themselves.
“Then what should we do?!”
Neither Naoe nor Ayako replied. Without their «powers», they were just ordinary people. Defenseless as they were, someone could attack them with «nenpa» without difficulty. For them, to whom power was a natural part of their being, its loss was terrifying. Gazing at Naoe and Ayako’s taut faces, Takaya clenched his fist.
(You’ve gotta be shitting me.)
He couldn’t die here. There were still things he needed to do. There were so many things he wanted to do. He had only lived for seventeen years. Because of this stranger named Kagetora…
(Am I gonna die here?!)
The door to a cleaning closet down the corridor opened, and all of the floor-brooms inside crashed to the floor. One floated up, and its handle turned to face Takaya and the others.
It shot towards them like an arrow.
“Fuck you, you bastard!”
He knocked it down with his wooden sword as it drew near. The other brooms attacked en masse. The thirst for blood rose in Takaya’s eyes as he lost himself in the struggle to strike them aside.
“Come out, you asshole!”
“Watch out, Kagetora!”
From the entrance behind them, a locker squeezed out of the classroom into the corridor. All of the classroom doors clattered open, and one by one their gray lockers blocked the hall like a barricade.
The mass of lockers floated up from the ground.
They’d be flattened instantly. And they wouldn’t be coming back to life. The cluster of gigantic steel lockers flew at them with a howl.
Naoe’s push sent them plunging into one of the classrooms. A terrible thunderous roar resounded from the corridor. The desks and chairs levitated as soon as they dove into the room and attacked the three of them from mid-air.
They tumbled back out into the corridor and slammed the door shut. The desks hit the door and fell to the ground.
They ran down the corridor. The windows along their path blew out one after another. Something pushed Takaya down from behind.
He rolled on the floor and spun.
Naoe crouched on the ground next to him, a hand pressed against his shoulder. A large piece of glass had pierced his shoulder, and fresh blood stained his hand.
“Go!” Naoe cried. “It’s dangerous inside the school! Hurry and get outside!”
The shard had struck him squarely. Blood also flowed from his brow; his injuries were considerable.
“I’m fine—just go! Haruie, take Kagetora-sama!”
“Wait, you idiot! I’m not going anywhere!” Takaya shouted from where he squatted next to Naoe. “Were you trying to protect me? Were you…!”
“What are you doing?! Hurry…!”
The glass shards behind Takaya floated up into the air and shot forward. Naoe wrapped his arms around Takaya without a word.
Using his body as a shield, Naoe blocked all of the glass shards with his own flesh.
“Ah…!” he gasped, and crumbled against Takaya. Takaya held Naoe up, staring at his pain-wracked face. His hands were sticky with blood. Naoe murmured beneath ragged breaths, “Hurry…run…plea…”
Takaya’s eyes widened. It was beyond bearing.
“Don’t shield me, Naoe.”
“Stop shielding me, Naoe! You’re gonna kill yourself!”
“Why did you shield me! Why are you trying to protect me! Why!”
Naoe took in several gasping breaths. A slight smile appeared for a moment on his tortured face.
“If anything happened…to your body…there are people who would grieve…Takaya-san.”
Takaya’s eyes went wide.
Feeling a cold wind, Takaya turned.
Behind him, the ghosts of people who had died in antiquity appeared one by one. The ghosts of the Kasuke stood there, wrapped in their white burial robes. Deep rage and malice were etched into the pale faces of these heroic souls.
Their resentful voices echoed as if from underground.
«Do not break your promise…do not break your promise…»
These noble souls who had gambled their lives to fight those in power for the sake of the common people.
“…Why?” Takaya murmured deep in his throat. “Why are you doing this? This is why you remained in this world?”
The Kasuke spirits made no reply, only repeating the same words: ‘2 to 5 shou’.
Spirits such as these had no logic and obeyed nothing but their most primitive emotions. They had neither rationality nor reason, only sorrow, hatred, resentment, rage. They acted only out of their unrequitable, unpurgeably pure, strong, deep emotions.
Because he understood, he couldn’t bear not saying it.
“That’s not true, is it? You know, don’t you? The enemies that you hated no longer exist. They died a long time ago.”
The Kasuke spirits’ expression did not change.
“Will you let yourselves be used in a place like this? You wanted to protect people, didn’t you?”
“You wanted to protect them against the people that you hated, didn’t you? You wanted to protect them against sorrow, right?!”
A white light rose up from the ghostly bodies of the Kasuke spirits.
“Are you going to just let yourselves be used like this? Do you want to be used?!”
The air froze.
He couldn’t move. He was completely paralyzed. His breathing stopped. He couldn’t breathe. The Kasuke spirits gazed at them dully. Directionless malice struck at them. The air was frozen.
«Do not break your promise…do not forget…»
Emptiness enveloped him. He couldn’t breathe. He was suffocating!
(I don’t believe this…)
The voices of the Kasuke echoed within his ears. He couldn’t draw breath. His heart raced violently, and the blood pounded in his veins. Agony!
«Do not break your promise…do not break your promise…»
Ayako stiffened against the wall. Naoe, crouched on the floor, was likewise motionless. He could hear nothing. His heart was going to explode. All resistance drained out of him as he slid into asphyxiation.
(Am I gonna die like this…!)
His eyeballs were boiling. His hands and feet had gone numb. He was losing consciousness.
(If we can just destroy the barrier!)
Only a «power» from outside the «kyuuryoku-kekkai» could break it. But they couldn’t even call for help. Naoe tried to reach towards Takaya, but he couldn’t move. He could hear only a buzzing in his ears and his own ragged pulse. Complete suffocation. An agony like death. It hurt. Oh, how it hurt!
Reality became hazy. His consciousness receded.
Suddenly, a sensation of falling.
A single moment.
He felt somehow as if he could hear Yuzuru’s voice.
At the same time, a terrible sound as if something were slicing through the air from behind them. The curtain around them collapsed; immediately afterwards, the ghosts of the Kasuke were blown away.
The ghosts tumbled and fell soundlessly. Their paralysis was lifted, and they dropped to the ground. Takaya lifted himself to his knees. His eyes widened.
For a moment Naoe and Ayako were also quite unable to comprehend this turn of events. Someone had saved them. Someone had broken the «kyuuryoku-kekkai» in the nick of time. A «power» from without. A «power» strong enough to break this barrier!
“Takaya!” a shrill voice called, and a young man sprinted down the corridor towards them. Takaya cried out involuntarily when he made out the running figure:
Yuzuru hurried to Takaya’s side and hastily steadied him.
“Takaya! Are you okay? Are you injured?”
“Yuzuru, why are you…”
He turned sharply at Naoe’s voice.
Another person had appeared behind Yuzuru.
Takaya cried out a second time: “Chiaki…!”
“You’ve been done over pretty well huh, Kagetora?”
Chiaki Shuuhei approached them, thoroughly, coolly calm. Naoe and Ayako gazed at him motionlessly. He looked down at Naoe.
“Guess I somehow made it in time, Naoe.”
“So it is you, Nagahide.”
Chiaki Shuuhei—or Yasuda Nagahide. One of the five kanshousha of the Meikai Uesugi Army. A kanshousha second in power only to Kagetora himself. First in the «power» of suggestion.
“Nagahide?” Takaya suddenly remembered. “So…he’s one of you. Then, Chiaki, you…”
“… Did you really not notice?”
Takaya was dumbfounded. Chiaki gazed around them.
“They laid a pretty nasty trap. But I’m not gonna let them use the same damn trick.”
“Nagahide. Do you know who created the barrier?”
“Yeah.” Chiaki narrowed dagger-edged eyes in anger. “That goody-two-shoes honors student who’s been standing over there staring at us all this time.” He called roughly down the corridor, “Come out, little frosh.”
As if in response to Chiaki’s voice, the slender figure of a young man appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
A flash of lightning illuminated the far reaches of the corridor. His face was revealed for a moment.
Takaya and Yuzuru cried out at the same time.
A faint smile playing at the corners of his mouth, Hatayama Satoshi spoke for the first time.
“Hmm. Considering how much effort I put into that thing, you broke it much too quickly.”
“Don’t think you can write us off that easily, pretty boy,” Chiaki retorted fearlessly. “You’ve made a big mistake if you think you can use the same trap again.” And he ground out the young man’s name: “Long time no see, Mori Ranmaru.”
Takaya and Yuzuru started. Naoe and Ayako glared at the young man called Hatayama with naked hostility.
Hatayama Satoshi—or Mori Ranmaru quietly smiled within the flashes of lightning.