The little boy sat on his bed, elbows propped on the windowsill, chin in his hands, reflecting in his childish way on the unfairness of life. Chief on his list of complaints was the fact that his parents hadn't let him go outside and play soccer. Daisuke Motomiya was a youngster with many interests in life, and most of them involved being outside, not cooped up in his room. Looking out at the people strolling up the sidewalks, people who appeared to be perfectly free to go to the park and play ball if they wanted to, Daisuke gave a moan and flopped backwards on his bed.
"I have the meanest parents in the history of the world," he complained to his empty room.
Somewhere in the house, he could hear his sister chattering to someone on the phone. She was laughing about something, talking to one of her stupid friends who called her up to talk about boys and makeup and nail polish. It was entirely unfair the things his parents let her get away with. They had let her go to summer camp this year, but they'd forced Daisuke to stay home. He had begged and pleaded to go, but they had insisted that he was still too young to go out on his own. He thought that was stupid - he'd had his ninth birthday just a few weeks ago. That was plenty old enough to go to camp. Other boys his age had gone to summer camp, so why couldn't he?
*They think I'm gonna get scared,* he thought, scowling. *Ever since that stupid birthday party...*
The thought made him feel even more irritable than before. After all, it wasn't his fault he'd gotten scared. It was that stupid clown who did it. Nobody had told him they were bringing in this bizarre creature with this strange colored face and weird hair and huge feet. Even now he could remember the bizarre overstretched smile on the thing's face, the weird high-pitched voice he'd spoken in, and worst of all, the way everyone had been forcing him to get right up close to it. Who wouldn't get a little nervous in a situation like that? Daisuke had done the only sensible thing to do in a situation like that, which was to run and hide in a closet until someone could prove to him conclusively that the repulsive thing was gone and wouldn't come back. He couldn't understand why everyone had given him strange looks for the rest of the day.
So that, Daisuke had decided, was why Jun had been sent to came and he had been forced to stay at home. Daisuke thought this was very silly. There wouldn't be anything weird at summer camp - just a bunch of kids his age running around swimming and playing soccer and having a good time. Didn't they think he could do that? Jun was the one they should have kept at home. Everyone knew it wouldn't be a very good summer camp without telling a few scary stories around the campfire, and Jun squeaked every time she saw anything scary on TV. Daisuke never squeaked at things like that. True, after the last scary movie he'd watched, he'd spent the rest of the month sleeping with his head under the covers, but he'd done that in private like any sensible person, instead of squealing like an idiot.
The only real comfort Daisuke had right now was that summer camp had wound up being canceled, which meant that at least Jun wasn't out having fun without him. He wasn't exactly sure why the camp had been canceled. His parents had mentioned something about a snowstorm, but Daisuke had discounted this as being entirely too silly to listen to. Everyone knew it didn't snow in summer, any more than the sun came out at night. It was just one of those strange things parents told you that you were expected to believe, like when they'd told him that someday he'd actually start liking girls. You really couldn't put a lot of faith in people who said things like that.
Daisuke got up. He didn't have any doubts that he would be as bored in another room as he was here, but he was getting tired of watching people doing what he couldn't. He wandered up the hallway, kicked Jun's door a few times just because he knew it would annoy her, and then made his way into the living room. His parents were sitting around watching TV. This was a bit annoying to him. Usually they both went to work this time of day and let him have the TV, but here they were, sitting around watching it as if they hadn't a care in the world - yet more proof that they were both losing their minds.
"Oh, boy, monster movie!" Daisuke cheered, settling down to watch with them. He'd forgive them for stealing his TV if they were going to watch something good.
"This isn't a movie, Daisuke," said his mother. "We're watching the news."
Daisuke blinked. "Huh? But I thought the only stuff they ever showed on the news was real stuff."
"It is," said his father in that patient, this-is-something-you-are-supposed-to-know tone. "The news is to let you know what's happening in other parts of the city and in other countries."
"But I thought you said monsters aren't real," Daisuke protested.
"They aren't," said his mother. "They're only in movies and things like that."
"But you said you weren't watching a movie! Make up your mind!"
Both Daisuke's parents were staring at him in exactly the same way he was staring at them: as if they had lost their minds.
"Daisuke, do you mind telling us what you're talking about?" asked his mother.
"The monster! It's right there! See it!" Daisuke jabbed his finger at the television screen, where a long green and white sea serpent was clearly thrashing around in a storm-tossed sea, while a small ship bobbed frantically in the waves. Daisuke had seen scenes similar to it in several movies, but never had it looked so real. This had to be a very good movie they were watching; he wished they'd shut up and let him watch it.
"Daisuke, I think you're letting your imagination run away with you," said his mother gently. "There's a big storm going on right now, but there isn't any monster."
"There is!" he persisted. "Look, there goes another one!"
The screen had just shifted, showing an image of a tall flaming beast with ferocious blue eyes standing on top of a building. The television announcer, sounding perfectly unconcerned, continued to babble about the weather and a local heat wave.
"There is no monster," said his father. "This is a weather report, Daisuke. It has nothing to do with monsters."
Daisuke pouted. "There is so a monster. I see it."
"That's enough," his father said sternly. "I know you don't like staying inside right now, but you're not going out until all this confusion clears up, and making up wild stories about monsters won't make it any better. Now, why don't you go back to your room and play?"
It was on Daisuke's mind to say he had just come from his room and if he'd wanted to stay there and play he would have done so, but it was obvious that his parents weren't going to listen to him. He turned around and stalked out of the room, scuffing his feet on the carpet to see if he could make enough noise to drown out the TV set. If they weren't going to let him watch with them, he could make it difficult for them to watch, too.
*They won't let me watch their monster movie,* he sulked. *I knew it - I knew they think I'm a scaredy-cat. I'll show them someday. One of these days, I'll be brave. I'll be the bravest person there ever was. They won't think I'm scared then!*
He entertained himself for a little while, trying to imagine what he could do to show everyone how brave he was. He might have to become a policeman or a firefighter or something. Then he could do something brave and heroic. It was just too bad that there weren't really any monsters, because if there were, he would have gone out and found a few and show them he wasn't afraid of them. Maybe he could be like those superheroes on TV - the ones in the bright colored costumes with the big robots. Then nobody would think he was a scaredy-cat!
Daisuke got to his door and dropped to all fours. With all the caution he could muster, he carefully pushed his door open, checked to make sure the coast was clear, and began sneaking inside. Just inside the doorway, he stopped, pressed himself to the wall, and held his breath, making sure no one had spotted him. Assured that there were no evil alien invaders out to get him, he dropped back to all fours and crept over to his toy box. Raising the lid slowly, so as to avoid the slightest squeak, he brought out the super-deluxe Astro Hero Space Gun with sounds and lights he'd gotten for his birthday and hadn't managed to break yet. Holding it in one hand and using the other to shield himself with the Child's Atlas of the World he'd stuffed under his dresser so he wouldn't have to read, he sneaked across the room until he was level with his bed.
"I've got you now!" he bellowed, and threw himself at the teddy bear he'd been stalking. They both tumbled across the bed and finally fell off. Daisuke struggled with it wildly before finally managing to pin it underneath him and sock it in the nose.
"You're my best friend!" chirped the bear in its electronic voice.
"Begging won't save you now!" Daisuke shouted, aiming his laser. "Tell me where the microchips are hidden, or I'll blow you away!"
"Let's play hide and seek!" said the bear.
"All right, then! If you won't talk, you'll just have to face the... the... the contiquinces! Say your prayers, alien slime!"
"I love playing with you!" said the bear.
Daisuke pulled the trigger, and the Astro Hero Space Gun emitted a series of high-pitched bleeps and squeals and a few red lights blinked on and off. The bear continued to smile vacuously at the ceiling. Daisuke kicked it across the room. It hit the wall and slid down to land on its head.
"You're my best friend!" it said.
Daisuke sighed and pitched the toy gun at the bear, who continued to talk to itself.
"What are you doing in there?" asked his mother. He heard footsteps coming down the hall, and a moment later, she opened his door and peered inside. "Daisuke, don't throw your toys all over the place like that. Pick that up and put that away. And don't make so much noise; your father and I are trying to hear the television."
"I thought I was supposed to be playing," said Daisuke. "I can't play without putting toys on the floor."
"Well, play more quietly," his mother said, "and don't throw things. You'll break them."
"You don't let me do anything," Daisuke complained. He picked up the toy gun and stuffed it in his pocket. The bear he stuffed under his bed, where hopefully his mother wouldn't find it for a few weeks.
"I love playing with you!" said the bear.
Daisuke made a face. He had tried cutting the bear open, once, to take out whatever it was that made it say these sickening things, but his mother had stopped him.
It was approaching dinnertime at the Motomiya residence. Daisuke welcomed this as a change of pace, since it meant that at least his parents would probably stop watching the news and maybe pay some attention to him. They had been staring at the television set all day long, and it was eminently frustrating; after all, they scolded when he tried to watch TV all day. Besides, what could possibly be more boring than watching the news all day?
"Daisuke, would you be a good boy and help set the table?"
Well, doing chores was pretty boring, too. Still, he knew from experience that, short of breaking a bone, there wasn't much he could do that would get him out of doing at least a little bit. He had once managed to break his ankle during a particularly rough game of soccer, and his parents hadn't made him do anything he didn't want to for weeks, but it hurt so much it was hardly worth it. Reluctantly, he found a set of chopstick holders and started setting them out on the table. He was just about to go in search of plates when he became aware of a sound.
"Hey, what's that?" he said.
"What?" his father asked. He was staring at the television again, listening to some strange medical report about an outbreak of mass hallucinations, whatever that was. It didn't sound very good, to have the television people so worked up about it. Daisuke hoped he wouldn't catch it; it was a pain being sick when he couldn't even miss school for it.
"That noise," said Daisuke. "Somebody's out in the hall."
"Just ignore it," his mother said.
"But..." Daisuke said. It sounded to him like someone was screaming... and there was something else, too, a sound like nothing else he'd heard before, like strange laughter.
"Probably just more of this hysteria," said his father tiredly. "I knew I was right not to go out today. Everyone is acting like a bunch of crazy things all of a sudden..."
The doorbell rang.
"I'll get it!" Jun shouted, rushing for the door.
"Jun, wait!" her mother called.
Too late. She opened the door and looked up at her visitor. She stared. She screamed.
Hovering in the doorway was a thing straight out of nightmares, a specter shrouded in a tattered cloth, peering at them through fathomless black eyes. Its mouth was stretched in a ghoulish smile, showing a misshapen row of pointed teeth. Even as Jun stood staring at it, petrified by shock, the creature shot out a scabrous, clawed hand and snatched her up.
"Jun!" shrieked Mrs. Motomiya.
"Let her go!" Mr. Motomiya shouted, lunging for the monster. It floated backwards, and the man fell facedown on the floor. Two more ghosts grabbed him by the arms and began hauling him away. More rushed into the room, heading straight for Daisuke.
"Mama!" he howled, rushing to hide behind his mother's legs. He buried his face in her skirts, trying to blot out the sight and sound of the monsters.
"You get your filthy hands off my baby!" shouted Mrs. Motomiya. She tried ineffectively to beat the ghosts off with a serving tray, but one of the monsters snatched it out of her hands, while the others grabbed at the woman and her child. She was pulled one way and Daisuke the other, while he screamed and cried. As they dragged him and his mother away, he continued to cry, knowing that he was not really brave, after all.
The building was crowded. Daisuke wasn't really sure which building it was - he'd ridden past it a few times but never been inside it, and had known only vaguely that it was the kind of place people gathered, especially when they had long boring conferences to go to. He had never thought he would need to go inside it, because thankfully, people didn't like little kids to go to long boring conferences. Now he was here, and he didn't like it at all.
Restless, he began to wander, trying to get a better feel for the situation. He could see many other people here, ranging from children younger than himself up to gray-haired grandparents. Oddly, he could find few people his own age, and it bothered him subtly. His parents were busy comforting Jun, who seemed to be in shock, shivering and not speaking. Daisuke was at loose ends, and he would have been comforted if there had been a few playmates his own age.
Not that he was going to be doing much playing here. The ghostly monsters were patrolling the room and hovering at every doorway, making sure no one had a chance of escaping. Daisuke had been frightened of them at first, but he'd been watching them long enough to see that none of them ever left their places, and he was forming a notion that they weren't very bright. He was just beginning to wonder if he could possibly sneak past them after all, when...
"And where do ya think you're going, kid?"
Daisuke stumbled and fell backwards in surprise. There was a creature hovering over his head, leering down at him, showing off glinting fangs. More than anything else, it looked like a bat that had swallowed a soccer ball, and, sizing it up, Daisuke found himself wondering how far he could kick it. There was something about the creature that inspired those kinds of thoughts.
"Who're you?" Daisuke demanded.
"Ain't none of your business, kid," the bat-creature snapped. "I'm in charge around here, so you answer to me, got it?"
Daisuke glowered. He hated being told what to do, especially by people smaller than he was.
The little bat narrowed his eyes, losing his cocky smile and replacing it with a look of suspicion.
"I don't like you, kid," he said. "You're a troublemaker if I ever saw one. Maybe we oughta deal with you now and get it over with. Huh, if you turn out to be the one the boss is looking for..."
He trailed off, muttering to himself. A ghost floated up and interrupted him, fluttering its sheets in something that could possibly have been a salute.
"We've rounded up another group for inspection, PicoDevimon," it said.
"Fine, fine, I'm getting to it," the bat-creature grumbled. "Come on, kid. You've gotta come along anyway."
The ghost swept in behind him to herd him forward, and Daisuke suddenly saw the virtue of doing as he was told. He allowed himself to be led along behind the fluttering bat, who was busy looking over a group of people crowded nearest the door, Daisuke's family among them. From the group, the creature called PicoDevimon selected a group of children, disregarding the adults, babies, and most of the teenagers. All those selected were brought to join Daisuke, while the others watched in horror as brothers, sisters, children and friends were hauled off to join those selected. Daisuke watched uneasily; the group was drawing closer to his own family. PicoDevimon spent a long moment studying Jun.
"Too old," he muttered at last. "Okay, I think that's it. Move 'em out!"
"Where are you going with our son?" Mrs. Motomiya quavered.
"Ha! Wouldn't you like to know?" answered PicoDevimon with a sneer. "What do you think? Should I take you along to meet the boss? It's getting close to lunchtime - you'd make him a nice snack!"
"You leave my mom alone!" shouted Daisuke.
"Keep your lip buttoned, kid," PicoDevimon snapped. "You don't gotta worry about your mommy. Lord Vamdemon isn't looking for grownups right now. It's shrimps like you he's interested in. Come on!"
The ghosts that had gathered behind the small crowd of children raised their gangrenous hands and gave a howl, and the children rushed forward, not thinking about where they were going so long as the path led away from the ghosts. Daisuke heard PicoDevimon cackling at their fright as he fluttered along behind.
*I'm not gonna be scared, I'm not gonna be scared,* Daisuke told himself. It didn't do any good. There was a tight knot of panic tied in his stomach, one that tightened more every time he let his mind wander to his destination. Images flashed though his mind of every horror-movie creature he'd ever seen, from giant lizards and insects to mechanical monsters with silver razor-teeth, and wondered distractedly which one he was going to be meeting in the end and whether being eaten would hurt very much. He knew one thing: he was never going to forgive his parents for telling him that stories about horrible monsters who ate children weren't real.
At last, they came to the end of a long hallway, where other children were already waiting nervously in line. Some cried and whimpered; others were looking desperately for an escape. Most of them, though, seemed resigned to their fate... or they were too terrified to move. Every few seconds, a door at the front of the line would open, another child would be let in, and it would shut again. Daisuke took his place behind a girl with stringy blonde hair who kept fidgeting and whispering to herself, pleading for someone to rescue her. It wasn't very conductive to his efforts to calm himself.
The line grew shorter and shorter, bringing Daisuke closer to the door. In front of him, the nervous girl had gone from frantic whispering to petrified silence, staring wide-eyed straight ahead without looking as if she were really seeing anything. When the door finally opened to admit her, Daisuke thought she was going to faint; it took a sharp shove from one of the guardian ghosts to get her to go inside. She fell through the door with a squeak, and the door was slammed shut behind her.
That left Daisuke with nothing to look at but the closed portal in front of him. He stood there, wiping his sweaty hands on his sweatshirt and trying to hear what was going on in there. All he could hear were the whispers, rustles, and stifled cries behind him. What was going on in there, anyway? At least he couldn't hear any screaming...
The door swung open again, and Daisuke was ushered inside. He was surprised. He had been vaguely expecting a dungeon, complete with stone walls and flickering torches, and maybe a few skeletons strewn on piles of rotting hay - or maybe a mad scientist's lair with an assortment of lights and machines. This part of the building was no different than the rest of what he'd seen. It was actually a rather pleasant room, complete with large windows and nice clean walls and floors. In fact, compared to what he'd been imagining, it would have been completely pleasant if it hadn't been for the man.
At least, Daisuke thought at first that he was a man. He looked like a man, for all that he was rather oddly dressed - he would have been right at home in some of those medieval castles Daisuke had been imagining, though not in a dungeon. A man with dress and bearing like this could only be a prince, at least. He was taller than any man Daisuke had ever met, and carried himself with a dignity that only the most powerful people could manage. Everything about him, from his hair like a golden crown to the cloak that fell to his feet spoke of nobility. He wasn't that monstrous at all, and Daisuke took a few cautious steps forward.
Then their eyes met, and Daisuke froze. For a moment, he was trapped by that icy gaze, unable to move or think or breathe. Behind those eyes was a soul that was heartless and cruel beyond anything a little boy could understand or imagine, and the glimpse he got of it was almost more than he could stand. His mind was crumbling under the weight of that gaze, the pressure of the sheer maliciousness that was close enough to reach out and touch him...
"It isn't him."
The voice was flat, emotionless, and completely-matter of fact. It was almost bored, and its normalcy brought Daisuke back to reality. He was able to blink and look away from the dark lord, directing his gaze to another creature who stood in his shadow. It was a white cat... or at least, something about as close to a cat as the other being was to a human. It was larger than a cat, anyway, and stood on two feet. It was true, too, that Daisuke had never seen a cat with purple markings before. If he'd been in the mood to appreciate such things, he could have said it was almost cute. It wasn't quite there yet, though. The expression on its face was too tired and sad. He had the impression it liked being here even less than he did.
He didn't get long to think about that, though, before he was dragged away again, shoved out the back door and led down a hall to a dark room that was already filled with other children. Most of them seemed to be in various states of collapse - no doubt brought on by their encounter with the blue-eyed man. A few were crying openly, while others tried to calm them. Daisuke avoided them and found a clear patch of floor where he could sit down and collect himself.
It took less time than he would have expected. His encounter with the strange man had rattled him badly, but it had been over quickly enough, and he was still mostly sound. Eventually, innate curiosity and sociability drove him to try to talk with the other children.
"Does anybody know why we're down here?" he asked.
"I dunno," said one of the older children, one of those who had been trying to calm the others. "Just to get us out of the way, I guess."
"But why does that vampire guy want us?" Daisuke persisted.
"No idea," said the other boy.
"I know why," said a girl. "I heard that bat thing talking to one of the ghosts. He said that Lord Vamdemon is looking for somebody."
"Who?" Daisuke asked.
"No idea. He just said he's getting really angry because he can't find whoever-it-is. It sounded like they have something really important he needs." The girl shuddered. "I'm just glad it wasn't me."
Daisuke thought about that for a minute. It sounded a little like a video game he had, where the evil wizard had kidnaped a princess because she was the only one who had the power to help him take over the world. He supposed that in the end, the hero had been able to rescue the princess and the other captive maidens, but he wasn't entirely sure how it happened, because whenever Daisuke played the game, he always got eaten by a monster partway through. Well, here was the closest thing to an evil wizard Daisuke was ever likely to see. Was there a princess somewhere nearby, too, that all these monsters were looking for? More importantly, was there a hero on his way over to straighten this mess out? What if he didn't make it in time?
What if there wasn't one at all?
*Then I'll get out of here myself,* Daisuke thought stubbornly.
Trying not to attract attention, Daisuke got up and began inching his way toward the door. Halfway across the room, one of the older children spotted him.
"Where do you think you're going?" he asked.
Daisuke contrived to look innocent. "I've gotta go to the bathroom."
"Oh, for crying out - look, kid. I don't know if you know what's going on, but there are monsters out there. If they catch you, they'll eat you alive or something... or drag you back to him. You're going to have to stay put."
"But I gotta go," said Daisuke, putting a whine in his voice.
"Well, hold it. You can't go out."
"Aw, let him go," said a bossy-looking girl. "It's his own fault if he gets eaten."
"You can't be serious," the boy replied. "Didn't you see that guy? We can't let him get anybody, not even a stupid little kid."
The boy and the girl began to argue. Daisuke took his chance and began dashing across the crowded room. He nearly bowled over a girl in glasses, stumbled over a sleeping little boy, and managed to regain his balance just short of running into the wall. He wrenched open the door and hurried outside.
Once he was free, he leaned against a wall to catch his breath and decide what to do next. He had a vague notion that he needed to get back to the room where the vampire was. How did he get there? He had hardly been paying attention while he was being led away; his mind had been too full of the terror he'd just come through to think of anything else...
He sat down on the floor and closed his eyes. Who was he trying to fool? How was he supposed to help anyone stand up to that monster when he himself had been too scared of it to move? He might as well just turn around and...
"What're you doin' out here?"
Daisuke turned around. A ghost was hovering over him, staring stupidly at him... but also showing a great many more teeth than were necessary.
"Um... nothing," said Daisuke.
"Aren'choo supposed to be in the room with th'others?" the ghost asked.
"Nope," said Daisuke. "Not supposed to be there."
"Oh," said the ghost. "Well, then... Master said if I found anyone wanderin' around, I could eat 'em. If you don' belong with the other kids, then I guess I can eat you. C'mere!"
"Uhh..." Obviously the time to talk was over. Daisuke cast about for an exit... and suddenly became aware of something hard and angular in his pocket. He whipped out his toy pistol, and the ghost scooted backwards a few feet in surprise.
"Whazzat?" it asked.
"This," said Daisuke, brandishing his laser, "is my super-deluxe Astro Hero Space Gun! You'd better back off right now, or you're gonna hafta face the contiquinces!"
From the look on the ghost's face, it didn't know what a "contiquince" was any more than Daisuke did, though it seemed to understand that they'd be painful if it met one. It backed off a bit more, staring uncertainly at the gun. Daisuke pulled the trigger, and the spook shot into the air with a yelp as the lights began to flash and explosions sounded. With the speed and agility that had won him a place on the junior champion's soccer league, Daisuke made a dive and a roll, tumbling underneath the ghost and sprinting away to safety.
*I just fought a monster!* he thought exultantly. *Maybe I can do this hero stuff!*
At least, maybe he could if he knew where to go next. He seemed to remember being led down a staircase to get here, but where was the staircase? This building was riddled with doors and stairs and elevators, all of them looking the same. Still, he'd come too far to turn back now, not when he knew there was still a ghost behind him that would likely eat him if it could catch him. He thought about what it would be like to be chased up the stairs by a spook and decided it was safer to take the elevator.
The only problem with that was that he didn't really know which floor he was on right now. Daisuke studied the array of buttons before him and tried to make up his mind. At last, he closed his eyes, jumped up, and smacked down on a button. The elevator doors closed, and he felt his stomach lurch as he was carried upwards.
As luck or fate would have it, he emerged from the elevator to find he'd picked the wrong floor. Daisuke stepped out into a hallway lined with doors on one side and a row of windows and benches on the other. When he climbed up on one of the benches, he found he was looking down into the large room where the vampire and the strange cat had been standing. He ducked his head, afraid for a moment that somehow those soulless blue eyes would find him again, that he would be seen and captured and subjected to something unimaginable but certainly horrible. Then he peeked again and realized he did not have to worry, because the vampire lord was busy looking at someone else.
It was a little boy... no, not a boy, a girl with her hair cut boyishly short, and she was staring up at the vampire with no sign of fear. How was that? She barely came up to that awful thing's knees, but she was glaring at him with an expression that could only be called defiant. Even when the little bat creature started tugging at her hair, the shriek she let out was more of pain and anger than fear. Daisuke watched the exchange between girl and monster, and he marveled. He and his young playmates had always scorned girls as being weaker and stupider than boys. Now he was suddenly realizing that girls were, in fact, vastly underrated.
*She must be the bravest person in the world,* he thought. *I wish I could be as brave as her...*
Then he thought, *Maybe I can be!* Brave she might very well be, but there was no way one little girl could stand up to that monster all alone. Maybe he still had a chance to help her. He raced back to the elevator and banged the button.
"Come on, open, open!" he muttered. The elevator doors remained stubbornly shut. Frustrated, Daisuke kicked the doors as hard as he could. There was a ping, and the doors slid open. Daisuke glared at them.
"You did that on purpose," he said.
Now, which button was it he needed? He still didn't know which floor he was on. He tried to remember which button he'd pressed earlier, but it was impossible - he'd had his eyes closed when he'd done it. He jumped out of the elevator just before the doors closed and went scampering off in search of a flight of stairs. He found them at the end of the hallway and went barging down them, breathing hard. He might have been an athlete, but he still wasn't that old, and all this stress and running around was starting to wear at him. At last, he reached the bottom of the stairs and went in search of the room.
At least it was easy enough to find. After all the time he'd spent in that hallway, waiting for those doors to open, he was sure he'd know them for the rest of his life. As soon as they were in sight, he put on an extra burst of energy and barreled into them, flinging them open. Daisuke rushed inside and stared around anxiously. The girl, the cat, the bat, and the vampire had all vanished.
Or had they? Hearing the sounds of a commotion outside, Daisuke ran to the window. From there, he could just barely make out what appeared to be a large gathering of things he'd never seen outside of a movie, and some he didn't think he'd even seen there. All of them were gathered on the rooftops, apparently locked in combat. The little boy watched for a while, then turned away, disgusted. She hadn't needed his help, after all. Some real heroes had shown up to deal with the problem. Daisuke would just get in the way. He sat down on the floor in a dejected heap.
"I was ready to fight," he said to himself. "I was. I would have done it."
Well, now there was no real point in him trying. He sat there for a while, stewing in his own annoyance, listening to the fight-sounds outside as they boomed, echoed, and finally began fading away. Finally, he got up. It was pointless to sit there moping - though not, he thought, any more pointless than coming there in the first place had been. He might as well go take his place with the other kids...
The other kids! There was an idea he hadn't thought of before. They would still be trapped in that room, with no idea that the vampire had gone elsewhere. He had freed himself; surely he could free them, too. Fired with newfound determination, he trotted off in search of the others.
It took less time getting back than it had getting away, even counting the moments when he'd had to duck out of sight as a ghost passed by. He reached the room and flung the door open, prompting a communal gasp as everyone turned to stare at him. Seeing he was neither a ghost or a monster, there was a sigh of relief so great, he thought he could feel the breeze from it.
"You're back!" said the older girl who had tried to stop him from leaving. "I was worried about you! Where have you been?"
"Why didn't the ghosts get you?" someone asked.
"Where's the vampire? Did you see him?" another person squealed.
"It's okay. He's gone now," said Daisuke. "He found the one he was looking for, and I think somebody's trying to rescue her. We can all get away while he's busy."
There was an immediate uproar as people began talking at once. Daisuke listened to the frightened babble for a moment before taking out his space gun and firing it a few times. The noise surprised everyone into quieting.
*Now I know how Mom feels when I won't shut up,* he thought, and made a mental note to try to be a little quieter from now on.
"If you make all that noise, something will hear," he said. "If we wanna get out of here, we've gotta be quiet and we've gotta leave now while that Vamdemon guy is busy. If we don't, we might never get out of here and we might never see our parents again. Is that what you want?"
"What if we get caught?" someone wanted to know.
"You're already caught," Daisuke replied. "How much worse can it get?"
There was another murmur, this time more uncertain.
"Now's the best time to get out," said Daisuke. "I'm leaving. Anybody who wants to come can come with me. I'm going right now, so if you're coming, let's go."
He turned and walked out the door without looking back. Behind him, he heard the sound of people moving, and then of footsteps - lots of them - following behind him. When he chanced a look behind him, he could see that the room was steadily emptying. It seemed the others had chosen to follow him.
*I'm a leader,* he thought proudly. *This is kinda cool. I could get used to this...*
"Everybody be quiet," he ordered. "Just stay a little behind me. I'll go ahead and make sure it's safe."
The other children agreed, though it was hard to tell whether they really believed in this plan and in Daisuke's ability to keep them safe, or whether it was just that none of them wanted to be the one to go first. Daisuke wasn't keen on the idea himself. None of the lights were on in this part of the building, and windows were few and far between. Parts of the corridors were pitch black, and every noise seemed to echo until it sounded to Daisuke as if every child in the world were following behind him. He tried not to think what would happen if someone or something heard them, and concentrated on keeping himself quiet and out of sight.
The going was slow. First, Daisuke would creep ahead, ducking into doorways or hiding behind water fountains, finally reaching the end of a hall to peer around the corner, or else tiptoing down a flight of stairs to see what was at the bottom. If the coast was clear, he would then beckon for the others to follow him and wait for them all to catch up. Then he would start sneaking forwards again, and the process would repeat. Sometimes he chose the wrong hall or door, and they would have to backtrack, wasting even more time. More than once, he ran into a floating ghost, and once a strange creature that looked like a large, yellow, hairy frog, sending him scampering for safety until the menace had passed. He had to keep his teeth gritted the entire time, fighting back the urge to yelp every time some new monster showed up in front of him. A few of the youngest children were whimpering, no matter how often the older ones shushed them. He couldn't blame them. It was starting to become tempting to have a good cry himself. He felt like he'd been wandering corridors for days, and frustration was welling up inside him.
*We're never going to get out of here,* he thought, rounding a corner to peer down yet another long, dark stairway.
Then he shook his head. He'd gotten himself into this mess; he'd get himself out of it. He squinted into the gloom. He could just make out the bottom of the stairs, illuminated by a faint light seeping under a door. Light! That had to mean they were getting close to an exit.
"Hang in there, everyone," he said. "We're nearly there! Just gotta get down these stairs. Come on and stay quiet!"
He led the way down the staircase, followed by his troop of followers. As if sensing the urgency of the situation, they were stepping more softly than ever, so that even he could only hear the faintest rustle of movement behind him.
Suddenly, a tired toddler missed his footing and went bumping down to a landing. Tired, frightened, and now in pain as well, the child let out a wail of misery. Daisuke groaned.
"Now you've done it! Run!"
Silence was forgotten. The children ran in a mad scramble, bumping into each other, pushing and shoving, even trying to slide down the banister in their rush to reach the ground. Daisuke jumped down the stairs three at a time to reach the bottom first, and dashed to shove the door open.
There was a ring of ghosts hovering just outside of it.
"There, see?" said one. Daisuke thought it sounded like the one he'd met earlier. "I toldja there was a boy running around loose!"
"Well, we've got him now," growled another. It was the biggest of the lot, with wicked glowing eyes and what seemed to be twice the number of teeth the others had, showing bright white against the red and black of a gaping mouth. "They aren't going to get away from you this time."
"These are the ones the boss is done with, right?" asked another ghost, peering curiously at a little girl on the fringe of the group. She gave a yelp and tried to crawl deeper into the crowd.
"Yeah, that's right," said a fourth specter. "He won't care if we chew on 'em a little. How 'bout we pick out a few for lunch?"
"Stay back," said Daisuke, spreading his arms in a futile attempt to shield his charges. "I'm warning you, if you want them, you'll hafta go through me!"
"Fine," said the largest ghost. "Come here, you little runt..."
The ghost reached out a scabrous hand, showing off a row of sharp claws with jagged, broken edges. Daisuke stared, petrified, as the ghost floated closer, his mouth opening wider to show drool-covered teeth and a deep black gullet. The darkness seemed ready to engulf Daisuke even without the help of claws and teeth. He found himself wondering vaguely, if a ghost swallowed him, would he just drop out the bottom of the sheet? Or would he just fall down into that expanse of blackness and be lost forever? The last possibility seemed far more likely. Still, he was not going to back down and let this monster attack these kids - they were trusting him to keep them safe. He fought back the urge to run and waited. Maybe while the ghosts were busy with him, the other kids could escape...
Suddenly, something strange happened. A dark cloud seemed to invade the room - a dark, whirring, shrieking cloud. It took a moment for Daisuke to realize it was made up of what seemed to be hundreds of bats. They flitted once around the room before lighting on the ghosts, who gave out a series of blood-chilling howls as they were engulfed by bats. A moment later, there wasn't even a shred of them left. The bats flew away, leaving everyone standing and staring.
"They're gone!" someone shouted. "They're gone, they're gone!"
The cry was taken up by others, as realization and relief washed over them all.
"The monsters are gone!"
In a wave, they burst through the doors, flinging them open and filling the dark stairwell with dazzling light. For a moment, the room seemed to be overflowing with shouts and cheering and brightness and the clamor of rushing footsteps. Then the crowd thinned out, the doors swung shut, and the room was dark and empty.
Daisuke dropped onto the bottom step, feeling suddenly drained. It was all over. The vampire was gone, the monsters were gone, the children were free, and Daisuke had accomplished... nothing. He had not been able to stand up to that Vamdemon. He hadn't been able to help the little girl, or the people who came to rescue her. He hadn't even gotten to rescue the other children properly - the bats had come to do that for him. No, when all was said and done, he was still exactly the same as he'd been before: a little boy who still got frightened and needed someone else to save him. He pressed his face into his hands and let himself have that cry he'd been wanting.
He wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting there feeling sorry for himself, when he was distracted by a hand resting on his shoulder. He hadn't hear anyone approach, and the surprise was enough to make him stop crying. He didn't look up, though. It was bad enough to have proven he was a coward without letting someone see he'd been crying, too.
"Now, what's gotten you so upset, hm?" asked a voice. It was a human voice, that of a young man, pleasant to listen to. It didn't sound pitying, only curious, which made Daisuke feel the tiniest bit better about being found.
"The monsters are gone," the man continued. "You're free to go back to your family now. Shouldn't you be happy?"
Daisuke shook his head. "I messed up."
"Really? How so?"
"I was trying to be brave," said Daisuke. It seemed very hard to explain to a stranger, and he fumbled for words. "I wanted to help the girl with the monster... and I wanted to rescue the kids... I tried really hard, and I still couldn't do it. I'm never gonna learn how to be brave."
"What makes you so sure you aren't brave? You looked like you were doing very well, to me."
"But I was so scared," he insisted. "I thought if I had something big to do, I could show everyone I was brave... but I'm not." He sighed and hung his head. "I don't even know what courage means."
"Perhaps," said the man. "And then again, maybe if you don't know what it means, you might have it and just not know it."
"Huh?" said Daisuke.
"All right, maybe that was more than you're ready to understand. Well, then, how about this. Just because you don't think you're brave now, that doesn't mean you can't learn. Right?"
"Maybe," Daisuke replied. "I wish I could meet that girl. I'll bet she could teach me how to be brave."
"I'm sure she could," the man replied. "And I'm sure you will meet her someday. But as for me, I have some urgent business to take care of. You'll have to excuse me. It's been nice talking to you, Daisuke. I'll see you again sometime."
Daisuke heard the man get up and start walking away. Something occurred to him.
"Wait a minute!" he said. "How did you know my...?"
Daisuke managed to look up just in time for a glimpse of someone stepping behind the staircase. The man wasn't dressed like ordinary people, but in a long white robe, like some kind of monk... or maybe a wizard... Daisuke got to his feet and dashed behind the stairs, hoping to catch up to the man, or at least get a look at his face. Then he stopped short. The man was gone, and there was nothing beneath the stairs but a blank wall. Daisuke stared.
"That was very weird," he said. He decided to give up thinking about it and went to look for his parents.
Summer at the Motomiya residence was abnormally quiet that year. The whole family agreed that there seemed to be something different about Daisuke. He still ran around outside and played soccer with his friends and got into the usual mischief, but there were moments when someone would catch him staring moodily off into space. Efforts to find out exactly what he was doing all that thinking about elicited nothing but variations on, "I'm fine." They could only assume that something had happened to him on that day everyone was trying so hard to forget, but nobody really wanted to have to deal with any of that again. They finally decided that if he didn't want to talk about it, they would have to just let him be.
Then school started up again. This was a relief in some ways, if only because people actually expected him to look like he was thinking, and he had been getting tired of his parents and sister pestering and asking if he was sure there was nothing he wanted to talk about. It was also nice to be back among all his friends again. He spent most of his first day getting to know his new teacher and getting a feel for what he was supposed to be doing that year, so he could figure out just how much he could get away with, and catching up with what the rest of his chums had been doing. As soon as the bell rang for recess, he had rushed out the door with a crowd of other boys, with nothing else on his mind but starting up a quick ballgame.
Then he saw her. He was jostling through a crowd of other children, and suddenly, there she was, not five feet away: the girl who had faced down the vampire, the one who had been haunting his mind all summer.
"Hey, I just remembered something I forgot!" he told his friends. "I'll catch up to you later, okay?"
Before any of them could respond, Daisuke had threaded his way through the crowd, keeping his eye on the girl.
She stopped walking when she came to a shade tree, and sat down beneath it. She leaned against its trunk and stared dreamily up at its waving branches. Daisuke came to stand next to her.
"Hi there," he said.
"Oh, hello," she answered.
"Um," he said. His mouth seemed suddenly dry. Was this, he wondered, how his sister was feeling when she started babbling like an idiot in front of boys. "Can I, um, that is... can I share your tree?"
"Sure, I don't see why not," she answered.
"Oh. Okay." Daisuke sat down. The girl watched him a moment, then returned to looking up at the leaves.
"So, well," he said. "My name's Daisuke. Daisuke Motomiya. What's yours?"
"I'm Hikari Yagami. Nice to meet you."
"Hikari," he repeated. "I've been wondering what your name was ever since I saw you."
She turned around to look at him, puzzlement in her eyes. "When did you see me?"
"This summer," Daisuke replied. "Back when... you know, when the monsters came."
"Vamdemon," said Hikari.
"Yeah, him. I saw you face him down. You were amazing. I've never seen anyone so brave in my whole life."
"I had to be brave," she answered. "I couldn't let him see how scared I was. If he knew I was terrified of him... well, it would have been bad."
Daisuke blinked. "Huh? How can you be brave and be scared at the same time?"
"You have to be," she answered. "Brave is when you're scared and you do what you have to do anyway." Her mouth curved into the tiniest of smiles. "Just ask my brother. He'll tell you."
"Oh," said Daisuke. "I thought when you were brave, you were never scared of anything ever."
Hikari shook her head. "No. If you're never scared of anything ever, it just means your stupid."
"Oh," he said again. "Hey, I was scared of the monsters, too. Does that mean I'm not stupid?"
"Maybe." Hikari giggled. "You're kind of funny.... I haven't laughed much lately. I lost some friends when the monsters came. It's been a sad summer."
"Aw, gee, I'm sorry," said Daisuke. "Hey, maybe... maybe I can be your friend now? And maybe I'll make you laugh some more."
She smiled. "I'd like that."
"Me too," he answered.
The two of them relaxed, and Daisuke grinned as he settled back to begin his lessons in friendship and courage in the shade of a schoolyard tree.