AN: Sorry about the delay. Murphy's Law was in full effect between updates. Thanks to The Red Kunoichi for allowing me to bounce ideas off of her.
Thanks to all who read or favorite, and special thanks to those who review. I enjoy feedback and would love to hear what you think. Constructive criticism would really be appreciated. :]
For the first time in both of his lives, Lexaeus found that he couldn't trust the earth.
In any other world, it would be both solid and moving; unyielding and yet constantly in motion. But not here. Earthquakes materialized with little to no warning from soil as still as the surface of an undisturbed pond. There was no sound, no telltale dull vibrating from the shifting tectonic plates. The quakes came and went like lightning strikes, here and gone again without any semblance of pattern or reason.
People rarely gave much thought to what was occurring beneath their very feet. The earth, the planet as a whole, was constantly moving and shifting and rolling beneath the surface, boiling up from the molten center when conditions were just right and adding a fresh layer to the top; burying the scars and the blemishes the surface had endured over the years. Continents drifted and seas widened, just as the space between worlds had so long ago; just as it continued to do. To most people, the other elements were formidable forces against a backdrop of unmoving brown. Fire could burn, water could drown, wind could crush and erode.
But the earth would always be there, even after everything else was gone. Still and unmoving and alive.
It was for this very reason that Lexaeus grew to almost, almost, fear the earth of Minakami. It was, for lack of a better term, dead. There was no movement here, no rolling or shifting or life. It was as if it had been frozen, trapped forever in a timeless void.
And then, like the ghost of a pulse from a man that has been without one for so long, the earthquakes would appear. It was as if the world was releasing its dying breath, its final gasp for air before it sank back into the ether.
And Lexaeus sank with it.
When he came to after several minutes of drifting in and out of a dark, painful haze, his mind was utter chaos. He felt heat against his face, saw glowing orange embers behind his eyelids, heard Axel shouting desperate obscenities in his ears until they rang. He felt vibrations in the dead earth, a pulse, and for a moment he thought it to be the start of yet another earthquake.
Lexaeus clenched his jaw, and went completely still.
Nothing happened. At least, not as he had expected it to.
The earth was still and dead. He felt, rather than heard, Axel jump to his feet, felt the heat on his face increase in its intensity until it practically singed him.
And he felt another presence.
Lexaeus thought of the tall woman with the knife, and attacked.
There was a shout of surprise, the voice too deep for Axel. Lexaeus slowly pulled himself up, felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach. It was an odd sensation, to be sure, at least for one without a heart. He peeled his eyelids back with effort, blinking sluggishly as his eyes adjusted to the alternating flares of orange flame and absolute darkness. It left white spots in his vision.
There was another man among them, one he did not recognize. The man was buried to his calves in solid rock, and in his confusion Lexaeus wondered if that had been by his hand. He managed to get to his knees, wincing as he balanced himself on the arm that was not broken. He stared at the man, his brain not quite capable of processing what was going on around him in its current state. To see another living person here was shocking enough.
The man was of average height. Ragged and dirty and unshaven. Not particularly muscular. He had a desperate, half-mad look in his eyes, but he didn't appear particularly threatening.
Lexaeus somehow got to his feet, not willing to take a chance. Aeleus had thought the same about Isa, about Lea, and yet they had both gone on to prove that he had underestimated them. The proof was standing right next to him, and was probably the only reason he was still alive.
The man had thrown up his hands in a gesture of surrender, his eyes wide with terror. He began speaking rapidly in a language the Silent Hero couldn't understand. Lexaeus looked to Axel, who appeared to be just as confused as he felt.
There was a rustling of cloth. They turned in unison to see the man slowly shrugging off a backpack. Axel raised a chakram. The man froze, slowly shaking his head. He began speaking in a calm, level voice, the fear in his eyes betraying his true emotions as he unshouldered the pack with one final push. It fell behind him with a muffled crash.
Axel looked to Lexaeus, who nodded as he held up his tomahawk. The man's eyes widened even further as he focussed on it, standing entirely still as Axel scooped up the backpack and retreated to his original spot. The man looked to Axel, and Lexaeus followed.
Axel pulled it open roughly, scattering sheets of paper across the floor. He tossed out a notebook, an old wallet, a large water bottle and food wrappers. The notebook landed by the Silent Hero's feet, several loose pages slipping out of it. There was a splash of color amidst the white. He glanced over it in the dark. It was a creased and faded photograph of a smiling young woman.
"Aha!" Axel exclaimed in the dark. Lexaeus looked up just in time to see him drop the backpack and pry open the white metal box in his hands. Even in the dark the large red cross on its lid was prominent. "He's barely touched it," Axel said. "Looks like he just went for the bandages."
"Keep it," Lexaeus said.
"No duh. I was just going to throw it out until you went and changed my mind." Lexaeus reached out for it, only for Axel to back away. "No way, jack," he said roughly. "I'd rather keep it on me, thanks."
Lexaeus scowled, but stepped back. He was too tired, too hurt for an argument. And honestly, he really should have known better. Expecting Axel to help him for any reason other than self-preservation was absolute foolishness.
"Here you go, buddy," Axel said to the man, sliding the pack back to him with his foot. "Thanks for everything."
The man didn't respond at first, slowly dropping to his knees and, almost meekly, reaching out for it. He pulled it up and pressed it against his chest, never once looking up from the ground. Lexaeus would have pitied him, if he were capable. The man sat there for several long seconds, frozen, unmoving, his face hidden in shadow. It was deafeningly quiet.
"Let's go," Axel said, walking past him. Lexaeus stared a moment longer before trailing after him. He stopped suddenly as he felt something crunch underfoot. He looked down. There was a tiny black box hidden in the shadow of his boot. Velvet, by the looks of it. His weight had put a slight dent in it.
The man suddenly came alive with a desperate shriek. He lurched forward, grabbing the box and scurrying back. He clumsily pried it open, pulling out a tiny silver ring. Once it was in his hands, he let out a shuddering breath, nearly collapsing with relief.
Axel was the one to take the lead, stepping over the man without so much as a glance in his direction. Lexaeus wasn't so quick to follow. He lowered himself to one knee and gathered up the notebook and its scattered pages, taking the photograph of the smiling woman and setting it gently under the cover.
There was no sense in taking this man with them. He was of no use to them. He was still in possession of his heart, but it would not stay that way for long. Not with all of this Darkness. Even if he was to somehow remain intact, hunger or thirst would claim him soon enough. He would be a burden. Lexaeus knew that. Aeleus would have known that.
But Lexaeus hadn't forgotten what it had been like to have a heart. He never had.
Over the past several years, he had watched in silence as his friends and colleagues changed around him. The changes were subtle at first, such as how they rarely made eye contact with one another or hardly ever seemed to speak past small talk. Then Xigbar began to willingly place himself in dangerous situations to the point that it had become something of an obsession, smiling and laughing it off like he hadn't nearly lost his life each time. Vexen talked even less, shutting himself up in his lab and rarely showing anything other than annoyance or disdain for those around him. Zexion became more cold, more calculative, casting away the painful memories that had haunted Ienzo for so long without so much as a hint of struggle. Xaldin smiled more, but they were cold smiles, predatory smiles. Every word he spoke carried an underlying mock. They sparred occasionally, as their Others had many times before, but now he seemed to take pleasure in causing Lexaeus pain.
And Xemnas. Xemnas had hardly changed at all.
They could cling to their habits all they wanted, but in the end, they were nothing more than cold, amoral shells. Cold, amoral shells of cold, amoral men.
Yes, Lexaeus remembered what it had been like to have a heart. And it was clear that Axel didn't. Useless or otherwise, the man cowering at his feet, hungry and frightened and in dire need of a bath, was trapped here just as they were. In this darkness, his heart was a burden to him. Trapped in his memories, in his emotions, his light was a beacon to all that resided in this hellish place. He may as well have had a target painted on his chest. Lexaeus could almost, almost, pity him.
"What are you doing?" Axel snapped.
Lexaeus didn't answer. He crossed to the man, setting down the notebook in front of him. The man didn't move. Lexaeus pulled himself up.
"Let's go," he said to Axel, and didn't bother to look back.
"You aren't here," his father wheezed.
"I'm surprised you can still talk," Masumi said.
"Get out." Makimura Akito coughed weakly, flinging bloodied spit across his hollow, deflated chest. His bones seemed to rattle beneath his ashen, wrinkled skin. "Get out. You won't be here when I wake up." His eyes gradually sank shut.
Masumi grabbed the chair beside the bed, purposely letting it screech against the floor. He pounded his fist on the mattress. What was left of his father bounced with it. "Wake up, old man. I didn't come all this way to watch you sleep."
Akito shifted, slowly pulling back his eyelids. "You aren't here," he repeated stupidly.
Masumi leaned forward, clasping his hands. There was a creaking just outside the door. Aiko had to have been listening in. Let her. It wasn't like he cared about what she thought of him.
"I'm going to make this quick: I'm coming to say goodbye. I'm never seeing you again."
The old man laughed. It was hollow, wet. "The first good thing you've done for me."
"I'm not done." He reached into his shirt pocket, pulling out the black velveteen box. He paused to give Akito a good, long look at it. He opened it and pulled out the ring. It was cool in his palm. Silver, with a diamond shard set on top. Not as nice as he thought she deserved, but it was all he could afford. "I'm marrying Miyako," he said. "We're moving, as far as we can go."
"As far as you can go away from me?" Akito laughed again, the shaking in his body threatening to tear him apart. "You may actually have a brain cell or two. If I weren't so old, I would be up teaching you a lesson in obedience right now."
"But you can't." Masumi rose from the chair, going to the door and pulling it open. Indeed, Aiko was standing just outside the threshold. "And I'm sure it's killing you inside."
"She doesn't love you, son," Akito shot back. "The girl is crazy and you know it."
"And thanks for nothing," Masumi whispered.
"Miyako," he said purposefully, "it's time for me to go." He managed a smile, prodding her shoulder teasingly. "You'll come rescue me if the ghosts get me, right?"
Masumi scooped up his belongings and shot to his feet. He wasn't sure how long he walked. But it couldn't have been that long before he finally caught sight of Rock Man and his friend.
"I'm going with you," he said with a scowl, not caring that they couldn't understand him. He pulled out his notebook, flipping through it -
- Miyako had such a beautiful smile -
until he found his maps. They were crude, but they would work. The caverns twisted and weaved without any semblance of pattern, stretching across pages and pages of wrinkled note and graph paper. He went to Rock Man. The guy seemed more sensible than the other one. He would know that they couldn't read the writing on the pages. He would know that Masumi had been here far longer than they had, just going on appearances alone.
Besides, they were going the wrong way.
"I'm going with you," he repeated sternly.
They seemed to understand that well enough.
Vexen clenched his eyes with a groan as dust settled around him. He was vaguely aware of something pressing painfully against his back, could hear the faint trickling of water. When he finally opened his eyes, Xigbar was kneeling immediately over him.
"Took quite a tumble there," Xigbar said, holding out his hand. Vexen took it, pulling himself to his feet and dusting himself off. The Freeshooter took Vexen's head in his hands and turned it, casually inspecting it. "Learning all about head injuries these past few days, aren't ya?"
"This whole place is falling apart," Vexen grumbled, pulling away and massaging his forehead.
"Yeah, and I'm sure it had nothing to do with you deciding to go after the first shiny thing you saw. How stupid was that?" He patted him roughly on the back, throwing his arm across his shoulders. "But whatever. Live and learn."
Vexen ignored him, looking up despite the aching in his body. There was a sizeable hole in the building's floor approximately five feet above him, jagged around the edges with splintered floorboards. The dull moonlight hurt his eyes. He shrugged Xigbar off and searched around for his bag, finding it half-concealed beneath a board. He pulled out his flashlight and switched it on.
"... And we landed in a dungeon. Goodie." Xigbar summoned his weapons as a precaution and laid them against his sides.
Xigbar was correct, for once. Across from them sat what was unmistakably a prison cell, albeit a rather bare one. There was small hole in the ground and a molded, soiled pile of what had to have once been cloth. The bars themselves were in advanced stages of rusting, riddled with holes. It was unbearably damp and rather unpleasant-smelling. Vexen covered his nose unconsciously.
It was the same all around them save for one wall. Amidst twenty cells - he'd counted without thinking - there were two stone staircases. One went up, leading to a rotting wooden door. One went very far down, into complete darkness.
A soft ringing filled the room. Vexen hadn't quite grown used to it, doubted he ever would, but it no longer made him jerk in surprise.
"I swear that thing wasn't there two seconds ago," Xigbar said, looking down at a Crimson Butterfly as it went to land on the ground. "I got this." Xigbar followed after it, reaching down to where it landed and sending it flying. He held something up. It was a key.
"I'm sure that finding the lock to that key will be more trouble than it's worth," Vexen said dryly.
"Better to have a key at all." Xigbar walked back to him, turning it over in his hands. It was severely rusted. It looked like it could fall apart any second.
Someone coughed behind them, from the staircase. They each turned and took a step backwards, automatically lifting their weapons as Vexen shone the light forward. There was a man on the descending stairs, an elderly, emaciated man, cast in the same ethereal light that had shone over the young man with the beard. He was hunkered down in a bowed kneel. When he turned to face them, they saw that his eyes were covered in tattered, bloody bandages. He abruptly faded away.
"... Not going that way," Xigbar said after a moment.
A sudden creaking above them stole their collective attention. They looked up.
The child from before stared down at them through the hole without a word, without any expression to speak of. His knife glinted in the moonlight as he tapped it rhythmically against his wrist. It was still stained with Marluxia's blood. Vexen squinted. It seemed unusually bright. He quickly realized with distant fascination that moonlight was passing directly through the boy's body. After several long seconds, the child's mouth stretched in a toothy smile. He acknowledged them with a nod, his eyes wide and bright with youthful mischief. He rose from his crouch and casually turned away with a stretch, his footsteps creaking away long after he left their sight.
"... A-and not going that way." They each turned slowly to the ascending staircase.
"It seems we've exhausted our options," Vexen said.
Xigbar took a step forward, casually batting a gun against his thigh. Any more of that and he would end up shooting himself in the leg. Not that it ever stopped him before. "Then I guess that makes things easier for us, huh?"
Vexen trailed after him, lowering the flashlight to his hip. As the beam moved, he saw something sparkle in the dark, continuing to do so even after the beam passed over it. Xigbar followed his gaze, going over to pick it up without a word.
"... A rock." Xigbar stared at it a moment longer before tossing it high into the air and catching it. "Nah, a pebble. I guess it's a keeper. I've picked up weirder stuff on missions." He went back to the door and opened it. It creaked and shrieked as he pulled it towards his body. "Heavier than it looks," Xigbar said with a grunt. He turned to Vexen. "You coming, or am I going to have to drag you out by your pigtails?"
The air felt... damp.
Miyako paused, the boards groaning softly beneath her feet as she closed the door behind her. Her fingers brushed over the camera as she shone the flashlight forward. The further she went into the Kiryu house it seemed, the more decayed and decrepit it became.
Rotted paper doors surrounded her, most left half-open, offering glances into rooms long since abandoned. A futon here, a table there. Bedrooms, apparently. They smelled overwhelmingly of mildew. Clenching her hands, Miyako stepped forward.
Miyako froze completely, tightening her grip on the flashlight until the plastic creaked. She clenched her lips until she was sure they were bloodless. It was a man's hoarse whisper, drifting through the door immediately to her left.
Warmth emanated from the door, or at least whatever was behind it. Miyako's eyes fluttered closed and she took a deep breath. It was strangely comforting. She dared even say it felt nice. She wanted more of it. No matter what on the other side of that door, she wanted the warmth that came with it. She couldn't seem to control her body. Her mind was strangely at peace as she slid the door open. Her hands didn't even go to the camera.
The room was almost pitch black save the light from a small candle against the far wall, but even then she could tell that it wasn't very big. A man was huddled in the corner, cast in an icy blue light. He was staring directly at her with wide, clear gray eyes, but it didn't seem that he was looking at anything in particular. She felt no fear, only a bizarre, otherwordly calmness. He may as well have been staring a thousand yards behind her. His dark, dark hair was riddled with gray strands, his eyes undercut by black, sagging semicircles. His worn kimono was straight out of another time.
"Kaede..." His trembling lips broke apart and he slowly lowered his gaze to the bundle of cloth in his arms. He pulled up one of his hands and brushed a finger against the cloth, shifting it gently in the crook of his elbow. A tiny hand shot up from the bundle to wrap around his finger, and only then did Miyako realize that he was holding a baby. The man chuckled breathlessly, his eyes lighting up momentarily.
"I can't let you face what I have," he said, lifting his head to stare blankly at the wall. "This ritual... can only destroy." He looked back down to the child, smiling tenderly. Tears began to collect in his eyes. His voice cracked as he began to laugh bitterly. "I suppose your name suits you, eh, little one? How cruel we were to choose it. You should have been named after your father."
The camera suddenly began to thrum against her chest. Miyako pulled it up with a frown, noticing that the characters painted around the lens were beginning to glow a cold blue. She slowly brought the viewfinder up to her eye. Through it she could see that the man was still sitting in the corner, carefully stroking the unseen child in what seemed to be a continuous loop of movement. She pressed down on the button. White light filled the room, burning spots onto her vision. Directly below the frozen image of the man, she could just barely make out words:
The image faded, the camera whirred, and Miyako immediately collapsed. It was as if all of the energy and warmth had been sucked from her body the moment the man disappeared. She shuffled backwards, suddenly wanting to get as far away from the room as possible. Even after hitting a wall a few meters away, she still didn't feel entirely safe. She sat there for several excruciating seconds, gulping down air as she tried to catch her breath. She glared down at the camera, turning it rapidly in her hands.
Just what the hell was this thing?
"Daddy! You're back!"
Miyako jerked, her heart leaping in her chest. This was a child's voice, a high-pitched screech of delight. She could hear rapid footsteps on the floorboards.
There, another voice, this time from the opposite direction. It sounded almost identical. Miyako pushed herself to her feet, lifting the camera halfway. She slowly stumbled forward, searching the room through the viewfinder.
A person immediately came into focus just before her, sending her flying backwards in surprise. They were turned with their side facing her, bent halfway to the floor, holding their arms out expectantly. It took Miyako a moment to realize that it was the same man, looking at at least ten years younger. He was grinning ear-to-ear as a little girl, perhaps around five years old, passed directly through a paper door and crashed into his arms, throwing her arms around his neck and giggling ecstatically. Another little girl, a twin of the first, came darting from the same direction, doing the same. He lifted them both up with a laugh, revealing that he wasn't very tall at all. Rather short, in fact.
"Alright, alright," he said, out of breath. "Your old father has to put you down, now. You'll throw out his back." He set them each down, sighing as they gave protesting whines. "Be good, you two," he said, his face stretching with a mischievous smile as he tapped the nose of the first girl with his forefinger, "or you won't get to see your gifts."
The girls began to chatter excitedly, rushing forward to tug at his sleeves. He took a step back, turning away from Miyako to grab a suitcase she hadn't noticed before. He snapped it open and pulled out a wooden box, pulling off the lid and tearing away some old newspaper. From that he pulled a bright yellow box with a crank on its side, setting it in the hands of the second girl. He dropped to one knee, eye-to-eye with her as he set her hand on the crank.
"This here," he said, his smile widening, "is a magic box. You just rotate this crank-" He placed his hand over hers and began to turn it. The box began to play a familiar tune. Pop Goes the Weasel, Miyako thought it was called. The little girl's eyes lit up as she began to turn it on her own. "-and..." He waited, his smile growing larger and larger as the song neared the end. Within seconds, a brightly-colored clown doll burst from the box. The girl dropped it with a shriek, running to hide behind her sister. Expecting this, the man caught it before it hit the ground. He began cackling uproariously, reaching out to hug her tightly. "I'm sorry. I just couldn't resist!"
The other sister took it from his hands with a curious look, turning it over and lifting the lid to inspect it. She hadn't even flinched. She fiddled with it for a moment, a small smile coming to her face as she searched every inch of it.
"That's my girl," the man said, patting her shoulder. "Tough as nails and eager to learn, just like her old man."
The other little girl cautiously made her way towards it, frowning. "It's ugly. Who would play with something like that?"
"Crazy people!" the man said brightly. "Children from the Garden aren't like the children here. They're fearless, eager for excitement. Why, just yesterday your old father saw a group of boys trying to jump across one of the canyons in a wheelbarrow."
The girl's eyes widened in surprise. "Did... did they get hurt?" she asked meekly.
"You betcha," he said cheerily. "Splattered all over the place, like jam! They had to scrape them up with shovels and-!"
The door behind him slid open. A woman stepped through, givng the man a meaningful glare as he turned to face her.
"Kana!" the man said loudly, almost theatrically, jumping up and throwing his arms around a woman as she entered the room, forcing her face into his shoulder. It was almost amusing, considering she was clearly taller than he was. "I was just telling them that-"
"I heard," she said forcefully, pushing away with a half-frown. "You weren't the one that had to deal with their nightmares while you were gone."
"Yeah, yeah. I'm sorry."
"As you should be," she said, pushing further away from him. "Chitose said supper is ready."
"... Give me a moment," he said, his voice suddenly growing quiet. "I want to speak with Akane."
The woman nodded immediately in understanding, holding her hand out to one of the girls. "Come along, Azami. Let's give them some privacy." The girl went to her, taking her hand and looking with concern to her sister. They left the room, the door clicking behind them. The man stood in contemplative silence, head cocked as he listened for their fading footsteps.
"Akane," he said slowly, going to the girl and dropping to one knee before her. She hugged the Jack-in-the-Box to her chest, staring blankly down at her feet. "What did Mr. Kurosawa tell you, Akane?"
She said nothing, refused to as she stared down at the floor. He slowly moved forward, drawing her into a tight hug and lifting her up. She dropped the toy and wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her face into his shoulder.
And as he turned to reach down for the suitcase with her still in his arms, Akane's eyes shot open. The image stilled as her cold gaze fell on Miyako.
There was so much sadness, so much hatred in that stare. Her eyes were no longer dark, now a cold, lifeless yellow. Miyako couldn't move. All that hatred, all that anger, paralyzed her. Her entire body broke out in gooseflesh as she she regained the feeling in her hands. Never once breaking the gaze, Miyako slowly reached for her camera.
Miyako gasped quietly, her hand stilling seemingly of its own accord. It was the little girl's voice, Akane's voice, echoing in her ears. It was harsh, slightly deeper than before, cold and lifeless and-
"Are," Miyako choked out, her shaking voice sounding foreign to her. It was a fairly common name, but the resemblance was almost uncanny. "Are you-?"
Miyako immediately closed her mouth, her breath forcing its way out of her in trembling, visible puffs of air. Her legs began to shake as cold overtook her.
Akane looked down to the floor, her eyes darkening to their natural color. She clenched them shut and pressed further into her father's shoulder as her tiny body began to shake with sobs. "Why did it have to be like this?"
It was too much. The cold, the hurt, the anger. It was just too much to handle. She felt dizzy, incredibly nauseous. Miyako ducked into a room with a tremulous gasp and collapsed to her knees, choking back vomit as she struggled to regain her breath.
She heard a strained sigh just before her, and she knew that she wasn't alone. Miyako slowly lifted her head, willing herself not to breathe.
There was a boy - a little boy, eight years old at the most - huddled in the corner, behind a table. He was shivering, staring intently across the room as he hugged his knees to his chest, his eyes stretched wide with fear. He whispered rapidly under his breath, and Miyako's blood ran cold.
Something else was in the room. She could sense it.
Miyako jumped to her feet, torn between fleeing the room to fall directly back into Akane's wrathful gaze, and remaining in the room with whatever the boy was afraid of.
She heard the door snap shut behind her, and knew that her choice had been made for her.
A little girl ran through her, filling her body with an unbearable cold. She reached out for the wall to stabilize herself, too numb to feel any real fear or surprise. The girl spun on her heels, searching the room with a smile on her face, and Miyako gave a small gasp.
It was Akane - a few years older, around the same age as the boy, but definitely her.
"Found you." Akane exclaimed, going to the boy and grabbing his shoulder with a triumphant grin. "C'mon. Let's go find Azami!"
The boy jerked at her touch, looking up at her as if woken from a dream. He blinked, looking back to the wall before clenching his eyes shut.
"... Amaru?" Akane asked. "Amaru, are you okay?"
'Amaru...?' Miyako repeated in her mind. She squinted, taking a closer look at the boy. Yes... he did look like the pink-haired man. But... his hair was black, short, and even from this distance she could tell that his eyes were lighter, maybe pale blue or gray. He stared down at his feet, slowly pulling in a breath.
"Akane?" he whispered, taking her hand. For the first time Miyako noticed that his skin was significantly darker than Akane's. He looked up at her with fear in his eyes. "Akane, can you keep a secret?"
The pair faded, and the camera began to thrum once more. Miyako slowly pulled it up, panning it across the room until the blue characters around the lens grew brightest. Drawing in a breath, Miyako snapped a picture.
Nothing showed up, at first. It took a moment for a human form to develop. It was an older woman, lying still on her side with no expression. Her kimono had fallen open, one breast exposed. Her eyes were rolled up slightly into her skull. Below this, Miyako could just barely make out:
Miyako closed her eyes, her heart pounding in her chest. She didn't care if this thing was her only weapon. These visions... they seemed to be triggered by the presence of the camera. If it meant being free of them, she would gladly throw it away. She had survived long enough without it. She lowered it to her stomach, turning it over in her hands.
"Having fun with that, are we?"
Miyako nearly fell to the floor, catching herself on the wall and spinning around. Amano was standing directly behind her, smiling brightly and cradling something in his arms. It looked like a club.
"I must say, I didn't think Akane would be so willing to part with it."
Miyako jumped back, instinctively holding out her arms to protect herself.
Amano only laughed. "I'm hurt, Miyako. After all I've done for you, you still don't trust me."
"Please," Miyako gasped. "Please, just leave me alone."
Amano only smiled wider, taking a step forward and holding the club out. "I'm not going to hurt you, Miyako. Why would I when I need your help?" He pointed to the club with his chin, never breaking eye contact with her. "Go on, take it."
Miyako inched forward, her hands trembling. She took the club from his arms and pulled back, casting a brief glance over it. She almost dropped it when she saw that there was a foot attached to one end. It took a moment for her to realize that it was a wooden leg.
"... What do you want me to do with this?" she asked, truly taken aback.
"You'll see," he said in a sing-song tone. "Until then, I'd like for you to do me a favor." He reached out for her, touching her wrist with the icy tips of his fingers. It was gentle, a gesture that in any other situation would have been comforting "See, a long time ago, I had something very important taken away from me." His expression darkened. "Something I would very much like to have back. An old witch took it and hid it somewhere. She locked it up in a long blue box and I never saw it again."
Amano looked back up at her, his sunny smile returning. "I would normally search for the box myself, but Amaru has proven that he doesn't even have to be in the village to act as a thorn in my side." He scowled. "… Besides, the witch hid it rather well."
"... How do you expect me to find it?" Miyako asked, taking a step back.
Amano gave a dismissive wave. "You can see a lot with that camera. Keep your eyes open and you should find it soon enough." He smiled. "I'll be sure you won't leave until you do."
Miyako quickly held out the camera, her blood running cold at his last sentence. "If you want it, just take it. I can't stand to be around this... thing."
Amano chuckled. "I wish I could, Miyako. But that camera wasn't made for someone in my... condition." He cocked his head, his eyes widening with mock-fear. "Besides, I can't bear the thought of losing you to one of those ghouls when you already have a perfectly good weapon right there in your hands. If my selfishness resulted in your death, I just might die."
Miyako jumped as a shadow bloomed up behind him, swallowing him up. He gave a small wave before it devoured him completely. "Remember," he said brightly just before he disappeared, "I'll be watching."
Miyako was left alone in the cold dampness. She cast a final look to where the image of Amaru had been cowering before slowly leaving the room.