Dark sounds surrounded me in the blackness. Gnashing and beating. Wet and thick. My imagination shuddered. There was roughness all around.
Finally, I was thrown into a wall and something shut behind me. My teeth vibrated and my nose felt crushed. I coughed into the bag and fumbled for it.
My hands hadn’t been tied, but I had to figure that was next. The soldiers…or whatever they were…roared amongst themselves and thundered away.
When a moist, dripping silence returned, I fumbled for the bag around my head. After a good bit of tugging, I was able to split the seam. That only got me so far before I worked at the knot. It was complex but I didn’t have anything else to do.
Even with the split seam, there was only enough light to know there were stone walls all around with only the dimmest of torchlight filtering in from somewhere far away. A rancid smell pressed through the torn seam.
My Yuji side was plotting my escape. My Kyoko side wanted to cry and be back in bed. My Neil side fretted over what Mayu had become. Together, we feared the worst. Neil remembered that Mayu sometimes kidded about killing. It was always silly. Feeling menace behind those words was like a cold stab in my legs.
With the arms of the bodysuit, it was easier to get a grip on the knots without cutting into my fingers. It still took a long time before I was finally able to remove the bag from my head. Even with the low light, I was able to see a little.
I was in a small dungeon room. The door was iron with narrow bars. A flicker of torchlight caught an artful shadow. The walls were all heavy stone. With the bag off, I pulled the sleeves of the outfit. The projections on the sides bumped against me but I was glad to have my hands free.
I felt around. There seemed to be no clasp in the back nor anywhere else I could look. Good thing I didn’t need to pee. It sure looked stylish, but it was a pain to wear. My entire lower body was already full of sweat.
I rested my head against the rough, hard stone wall. I sat there and waited. I rested a little. Mostly, I let my mind race. In the darkness, I could see half-visions of black terrors creeping towards me. I thought I saw a rat, and I was sure I heard a squeak. Time trickled till I heard slow footsteps nearby.
I wondered, like with my cat-ears, if they were further off than I figured. They were coming closer. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, but at least it broke the drone of silence.
I braced myself in the darkness. A burst of torchlight appeared through the bars. Two red-eyed soldiers passed. The lock creaked slowly in the door and A.L. appeared through the opened door holding a torch.
Her face looked fierce but not nearly so fierce as the soldiers just outside. Their teeth glimmering through their helmets looked ready and hungry. A.L. set the torch in a mount on the wall, spreading what felt like bright light all around the room. It didn’t look any pleasanter.
A.L. waved a hand to the soldiers and said, “Leave us till I call. Stay at the steps.”
The soldiers grunted and stomped off. When the last whisper of them faded, A.L. turned. Then she burst over and hugged me. My arms froze at my sides. A.L. whispered quietly to me, “I have your papers.”
She produced the sleeved papers from her dress and said, “Get out of here. Get some place safer.”
I held the papers. They were sure to be recharged soon, if not yet. I asked her, “Why?”
She bowed her head. “I’m not sure how much you know. But I made a mistake…in another life. I don’t want you or…Mayu…to make the same mistake.”
I held the papers in front of me and asked A.L., “What about Mayu?”
A.L.’s eyes flicked up. She paused a moment and shook her head. “The Mayu you know doesn’t exist here. He only wants to destroy you. And the name ‘Mayu’ will only inflame him if you say it.”
I clutched the papers tightly. “And what about Mayu’s papers?”
A.L. answered simply, “He still has them.”
I looked down at the papers. I knew I only had to look at the schoolgirl one and all this would be gone. But I would be right back where I was before.
I asked A.L., “Does Mayu remember anything of before?” She sighed and asked, “Does it matter? You can change all of this easily. Just look at your papers.”
I pursed my lips and asked, “Did it work for you?”
Her shoulders drooped, and she shook her head. “I never got the chance. My way out just became a loop…my thread is wound in a figure-eight.”
I felt ill at that prospect and whether I was doomed to create it. I looked down at my papers. I could’ve followed what she said. I could’ve just looked at the pleasant image of a happy schoolgirl and escaped from all of this, but I tucked the papers away safe.
I was going to take the hard way out and Yuji had a plan. I whispered to A.L. Her eyes widened but she nodded and said, “I don’t know if it will work. But okay.”
I slipped one arm back in the sleeve and brought it around her with the pointy parts threatening. She yelled, “GUARDS!”
The hissing, red-eyed guards watched as I backed A.L. out of the cell and made my demands, “Take me to, Fujiwara. NOW!” I quivered inside with each strong word.
I moved slowly amongst the soldiers. I picked out one with a green-and-red eye. I worked A.L. upstairs as she flailed convincingly.
Back in the grand hall, it didn’t take long before I had Fujiwara’s attention. His eyes narrowed at me and stepped close. He asked, with what sounded like excitement, “Do you wish to die already?”
I shook my head and told him, “I want only you…Mayu.”
I could feel A.L. grimace in my clutches. Fujiwara’s face flushed with emotion and fervor. And, for a moment, I thought I saw something softer in all that horrific anger.
I edged A.L. to the side. Yuji had a plan and, hopefully, enough training to pull it off. I proposed to Fujiwara, “You want me dead? I’ll give you the chance. A sword match. If you win, you can kill me. If I win, I want your papers and a truce.”
Fujiwara picked up his scabbard and drew his sword from it. He aimed it at me and pronounced, “I should slice your head from your shoulders for invoking that name before me.”
I clutched A.L. a little closer and asked, “Do we have a deal?”
He snorted and said, “I can kill you so many ways with just a flick of my finger. But running you through with my sword would be the most satisfying of all…Deal.” He picked up another sword by him and threw it at my feet. I pushed A.L. away and quickly picked up the sword.
It looked frail and small compared to Fujiwara’s sword, but it was better than nothing. Yuji remembered sparring with a wooden one a long time ago for fun. His brother beat him soundly.
In that moment, I was utterly terrified. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew I should’ve just pulled out the papers, looked at them, and escaped this terrible place. But I didn’t. I approached the center of the hall as a roar of delight went up from the soldiers in the darkness all around us. The red eyes undulated.
As soon as I entered the center, Fujiwara rushed at me. I turned away and just barely dodged his first swing. I swung my sword up and pushed aside his blade. He brought it back up and across. I held my sword up and pressed his blade back. The sound of metal on metal shuddered through me.
I parried and turned his blade aside as quickly as I could. He kept roaring at me with his slices. I dodged around a chair and, in his haste, he caught his blade in the wood. I raised my sword at him.
He glared right at me; his teeth clenched tight. I looked at him and said, “I’m sorry.” He looked back at me with even greater anger and said, “Your words only further my dishonor.” Roaring, he yanked his sword from the wood and slashed aside mine.
I blocked his fast, uneasy moves. He seemed to wrench his wrists out with each turn of his blade. He was intent to hack to pieces everything that stood between us. He sliced off the end of a table as I dodged behind it.
I held in all my quivers and asked him, “Why do this?”
He flashed a sinister smile. “Because I want to see you bleed…” He sliced at me again and again. He seemed to get even angrier when I didn’t attack him. I held down his sword against a stone column and said, “You don’t hate me. These aren’t your emotions, Mayu. You’re my friend…” He grunted between the words as though I was applying a shock to him. He turned his sword so roughly that it flew and clattered on the ground.
He grunted through his nose and held his arms out. “I’d rather die than hear one more of your loathsome words.” I lowered my sword and shook my head.
“We’re connected by a thread. No matter what….”
Fujiwara bared his teeth and ran back for his sword. He raised it high and I tossed mine aside. He looked at me and asked, “Finished already?”
I took a breath and said, “I won’t fight you, Mayu. I’d rather die than hurt you. You’re…you are the person I care for most in any world, no matter what.” They were words that reached across me. They came from a young boy for his brother. They came from a girl for her sister. They came from a man named Neil who always wished for a girl named Mayu to have a smile on her face.
Fujiwara shook his head and took a step towards me. His sword looked quite ready. His muscles tensed. He swallowed. But still he held his sword up and at the ready. He looked at my sword, back at me, and yelled, “Pick it up!”
I shook my head and resolved, “No.”
He took a step closer and said, “You and your lies mean nothing to me. I will run you through without a second thought.”
But there was something familiar on his face. It was like Mayu poking through. I knew it. It had to be. And, in that moment of tension, a particular memory returned to me and I spoke it as it came, “I remember. Your cosplay was Kairi from Kingdom Hearts.”
Fujiwara’s eyes widened with confusion. But bubbling out of the confusion was a moment, a sliver, of recognition. I could see and feel it. Then he tightened his eyes and growled, “Nothing but nonsense…”
I shut my eyes and said, “I trust you, Mayu.” I heard him panting. I heard the horrible sounds all around. I heard laughing. I hoped I hadn’t made a mistake.
I didn’t hear Fujiwara’s sword swing. I didn’t feel the air disturbed by a strike. I heard the sword clatter against the stone of the floor and tumble end over end. I opened my eyes. He had his fists clenched and his head bent. He hissed through his teeth, “I’ll kill you!”
He ran at me and slammed me into a pillar. His blows shuddered into my side. Everything blurred when he punched me across the face. I could feel blood quivering through me. Yuji and I deflected every blow we could, but he was as good as Yuji’s brother. We knew this would end badly.
I swept Fujiwara across the legs and laid on his chest. He kicked and punched back with full fury. I tried to pin his arms, to speak through the blood beginning to trickle in my mouth. He shoved me away and back into the pillar.
I rolled away as his legs came up to step on me. I tugged him down. I wasn’t intending to slam him into the pillar, but it bought me a moment as the blow stunned him. I apologized silently and whispered to him the name of the plushie I’d bought Mayu.
In that stunned moment, I heard one word from Fujiwara, softly said, “Neil…” Then the intensity returned as he head-butted me and yelled, “You will kneel before me…then I will take your head from your shoulders!”
Splayed out on my back, I looked up at Fujiwara and said only, “I trust you, Mayu…”
With a snarl, he pulled me up by the neck of my bodysuit. I coughed and his grip loosened. His eyes fluctuated. They darted across me. He shook his head a little as he said, “What sort of spell is this…”
I lowered my eyes. “It’s not a spell. It’s your memories of the truth.” I felt I was close. I was right there to break through to Mayu. But I had no idea what we would do if I made it through. There was no way these soldiers would just let us go. I could already sense they were aching for blood and were unsatisfied with the fight so far. Some had their daggers out and turning in their hands.
Fujiwara reached down, as if to strangle me, but his hands trembled at my shoulders. His breaths shot through his clenched mouth. He turned away and pulled his images out from his leather tunic. He held them up in their sleeves and said, “Mystic A.L, give me his spell papers.”
Flanked by the red-eyed soldiers, A.L. bowed her head and looked towards me. Fujiwara smiled after a moment. “So…looks like my ally isn’t quite the ally I expected. No matter…”
His hands went right to my breast and, before I could tighten around his arms, he had both my papers. He pulled a torch from one of the mounts on the pillar. He held it aside from the papers and said, “No more magic. Just you and me.”
Yuji told me just the move I could do to prevent him from lighting the papers, but I didn’t know if I could get there fast enough. Fujiwara circled around me and picked up his sword. He didn’t give me an opening.
He smiled, and I relaxed my hands. I knew this would end…one way or another. He held his sword straight at me, but he had to set the torch down on the ground. It flared on the stone. In front of it, he set down all four sleeved papers.
He kept his foot on the torch, bent slightly forward, and asked me, “What’s your move…Count Drake?”
I took a breath. My entire body calmed. Clarity rung through my thoughts like a deep bell. I answered, “Sacrifice.”
I knew what I had to do.
I turned and launched myself at the papers. Fujiwara’s sword swung around. I knew I only had a moment. I knew which papers were mine. I ripped the sleeve off the top one. It was the girl in the bodysuit. It was the opposite side of this world. The only reality of mine I’d never seen.
I almost stretched an arm down to touch it. But I knew that Fujiwara’s sword would take my hand if I did that. I kept my hands back. I didn’t touch the paper. No one did.
I took a deep breath.
I looked down at the artwork. I looked down at her. In my ear, I heard a sound gasping between vile curses from Fujiwara. It was the word, “Neil”.
His sword swept down.
I held my eyes open. I stared at the paper. I fell into it and it swallowed up everything.