The Spirits of Language

- Kotodama no Monogatari -


Chapter Five: Second Chances, Second Lives

"Look," the auburn haired boy said with a severe glare. "This is probably an easy Blight. All these teams of three ones test is teamwork. We don't have to love each other to pass, so let's just find the boss and get out of here. We can argue all we want once we're out. What were we even arguing about in the first place?"

The other boy backed up, silenced for a moment, before his head swung around to observe the tranquil and secluded scenery around them. Hiroko didn't know how the boy didn't notice it when they first woke up with their faces kissing the earth. His mouth was agape, moving without making any sounds as he stared up at the mountain, until he finally managed to say, "Where are we?"

"I don't know. It doesn't really matter either, does it? Come on; I don't want to stay here all day," the auburn haired boy snapped. He nodded his head in Hiroko's direction and dropped his folded arms to bow. A smile twitched on the corners of his lips, betraying the lightheartedness struggling to remain beneath his anger. "I'm sure the lady over here doesn't want to stay in a forest all day, either. What's your name by the way? I'm Kawasaki Hisoka. That useless guy over there is called Takamura."

"Hey!" the other boy interjected before she could respond. She would have allowed him to speak first, but after his initial outburst he seemed reluctant to continue. The words wouldn't form on his lips, and he seemed utterly frustrated by that fact. Kawasaki Hisoka flashed him a smug smile that might have seemed innocent under any other circumstances. He inclined his head towards Hiroko again, inviting her to speak.

"Well, I'm Igarashi Hiroko. I'm in class one. I look forward to working with you," she said politely, but it was a mere formality. She doubted that she would enjoy working together with either of them and had no desire to travel with two bickering boys surrounding her. Kawasaki nodded, proclaimed that she was a nice person with manners, unlike certain individuals, and led them through the shaded canopy at the base of the mountain.

The other boy - Takamura - looked like he wanted to retort with a scathing comment, but the darkened forest seemed to dampen his enthusiasm. As soon as the well-lit clearing disappeared behind the trees, he instantly closed his mouth and kept far too close to Hiroko's back for comfort. He constantly collided with her, jumped at the slightest sound no one else had even heard, and even grabbed at her sleeve a few times until she swatted him away. She couldn't see his nerve-wracked form, but she had a feeling that she didn't want to see him anyways.

All she saw was Kawasaki's back and the swirling black pattern over his uniform's shoulder. His auburn hair wavered in the breeze, not stiff as she had expected that type of person's hair to be. She did suppose that might have been because no one had enough time to dress properly before the Blight started. Most students weren't morning people, although Blights had the tendency to wake anyone up in a matter of seconds.

Either that, or it sent a person right back to sleep in an equal amount of time, and no one woke up from that type of slumber.

Even so, Hiroko had to narrow her eyes at Kawasaki as he weaved between the trees. His air-headed behavior, both in school and in Blights, or what little she had seen of it, should have led her to think that he was harmless. She had thought that he was another naive fifteen year old who had believed the school's propaganda and false truths. The knowledge he managed to have about this type of Blight was a little beyond her expectations.

It probably didn't mean much since they were all stuck in the same situation. That slight advantage students who had known about the school ahead of time possessed usually became useless after surviving the first few weeks. Even knowing about the Blights wouldn't guarantee survival, either. Kawasaki could even have chosen a character related to knowledge or learning, with or without knowing about the school prior to the first day. Those types of people were only useful for support, just as Hiroko was.

Her relatives had taught her plenty about the school. Not all of her family attended Naraka, of course, since some didn't think a government job was worth their lives, and some couldn't even see the island floating in the sky. Her older sister, for instance, had just graduated from high school and entered Keio University in Tokyo on half a scholarship. Hiroko had always been told that she should follow her sister's path, as their immediate family didn't place any special consideration for those who enrolled in Naraka.

Perhaps that was exactly why she chose to be here now. Perhaps she wanted to prove that she could exceed those expectations and limits, and that despite her laid-back personality, she too could accomplish things. The fighting didn't bother her as much as it should have. If she had chosen an offensive character such as "sword" or "power", she might have had some concerns. If she had written a defensive character like "barrier", she would probably be even less cautious than she was now.

That was why she enjoyed being a support-type. She had no unnecessary factors to contend with and exercised just enough caution to hide and dodge the monsters as they came. No one pressured her for help, because she never showed her ability to others in battle. It was a subtle type of power that any number of the cowardly people who hid during the Blights might have possessed. And that was why she had always dreaded these teams-of-three tests. While some didn't require them to fight, some did require them to showcase their abilities.

The tengu that appeared in front of the shrine incensed her worries. They were creatures known in myth for their hostility towards trespassers and they guarded their mountain strongholds to the death. She lingered behind Kawasaki, the boy stepping forward unflinchingly like a fool. As he came to a stop uncomfortably close to the hovering creature, she fingered her right wrist and prepared herself to activate the character hidden by her sleeve.

"What are you doing?" Takamura hissed from behind her. Hiroko winced; he sounded like he was standing over her shoulder, but she was rather curious as well. Maybe he had a powerful character or maybe he was just cocky and overconfident. He seemed like that type of person.

"Who dares trespass on sacred land? Those who are deemed unworthy shall not pass and defile the land of the gods."

Hiroko shivered at the voice. She wasn't sure she could get all three of them out of here in time if it did decide to attack. If so, she would be able to save at least one of the boys. These decisions were always tougher once she had a name to match their faces. Unidentified strangers were easier to save and sacrifice. Even though these two were annoying, she wasn't a bad enough person to be able to arbitrarily decide who lived and died.

"Oh, do you want to try, Takamura-san?" Kawasaki asked, completely turning around to face the other boy with something halfway between a smirk and a smile. Hiroko stiffened, eyes immediately darting to the tengu and the sharpened nails that resembled talons twitching at its side. It wasn't wise for them to turn their backs on the enemy, especially this solitary creature straight from mythology. Its wings fluttered, but she wasn't sure if that was from the wind or not.

"No, I do not want to try! Aren't you the smart one anyways? You always seem to know everything! Just solve this one yourself," Takamura said nervously, angrily. His anxiety seemed to make him angrier.

"Hey, I never claimed to know everything. Everything I told you was just basic information. Everyone should know it, even people like you. I don't have a character like 'knowledge' or something like that, so I can't know everything." Kawasaki shrugged and Hiroko shrieked when she saw the tengu start to move its arm, deadly talons poised to strike the boy's head as it drew its powerful wings back. She backpedaled, colliding with Takamura, pressing her fingers painfully into her wrist.

"Get out of here, Takamura," she hissed with a nod to the forest behind them. There was no way they could make it through the mountain alive once the tengu was after them. A horrible weight shifted in her stomach. She shouldn't even try to escape. The situation was hopeless anyways. No matter how far they traveled, they would never be able to return and the time limit would end their lives, if they managed to evade the tengu.

Kawasaki swung around to face the demon, stumbling to avoid the swiping talons. He must not have had an offensive character, because he didn't activate anything as he backed away from the tengu, its wings stirring the wind and flower petals around them into a storm. If they could see its eyes, it would have been glaring.

"You humans are insolent," it hissed. Its ethereal tone was no longer even and controlled, reflecting sophistication, but it had become grating and malevolent. Behind that human sounding voice was the faint screech of a bird's shrill cry. "You cannot agree amongst yourselves, let alone hold benevolent intentions towards this mountain. You need not even be pure of heart. Let the gods curse you a thousand times over no matter where your travels lead you."

"I apologize, guardian protector of this mountain! Please accept my apology! We-we're human, and so we fight and argue. We mean no disrespect," Kawasaki gasped with a hasty bow. He hesitated in bowing too deeply and watched the creature's every move with a critical, apprehensive eye.

Hiroko narrowed her eyes and stepped up to stand beside Kawasaki despite her quivering knees and palpitating heart. She started to kneel on the ground, pushing the palm of her hand against the boy's back so that they both ended up with their noses mere centimeters from the stone. They could see nothing but sandals and edge of the creature's robes. It was a vulnerable position, the ultimate apology. It could kill them within seconds if it so desired. Her instincts screamed for her to stand up and run. Her hand itched to activate her ability.

"We're terribly sorry. Please accept our apologies," she said clearly with her head still bowed, the edges of her straight cut hair brushing the stones. Her forehead was sticky with sweat, even though the sun was just a warm brush against her skin. The light pink petals relaxed in their dance, coming to a gentle waltz. Still, she didn't allow herself to lift her head until she heard the tengu's voice again, now calmer, but holding a certain tone she could not identify behind its normal lilt.

"Manners and formality will not carry you everywhere in life. Heed this warning and learn to rely on those you must trust with your very lives. Conflict is not the meaning of life. Fighting will only carry your ambitions and dreams so far. There is always a time for alternative decisions. That being said, I cannot allow you to pass unscathed, nor can I kill you where you stand. My previous assertion shall remain true. The gods shall follow in your shadows and judge you as they see fit. That is my condition, and you may now pass through this mountain safely."

Hiroko finally lifted her head to see the tengu, one arm and one wing outstretched towards the mountain ahead. Her heart had burned in her chest when she heard its verdict. A great dread filled her mind and body, so overwhelming that she couldn't bring herself to stand. Kawasaki recovered first and helped her up, keeping his head bowed as he wandered backwards to retrieve Takamura, who evidently hadn't fled far.

What an ominous blessing, she thought. She would rather not be blessed by the gods at all, but she supposed they had to pay for their lives in some way.

The three students continued on to the shrine, pulled a few coins of yen from Kawasaki's pocket, and advanced into the forest beyond. Hiroko half expected creatures to attack or for some accidental misfortune to befall them, but nothing happened even after they hiked quite a ways up into the mountain. No one spoke or even tried to glance at each other for more than a few seconds. The two boys had stopped fighting temporarily and Hiroko remained between the two so that one couldn't see the other.

The Blight ended and they survived - with a dreadful sentence over their heads. Hiroko had trouble sleeping that night, and her roommate must have asked what was wrong at least ten times before she fell asleep. None of her relatives had ever told her what to do under these circumstances. She hadn't anticipated that the advantage she had held over the other students would fade away so easily, with a worse condition to make matters even more dire.

Hiroko couldn't have known how that curse would affect any of them. She didn't even try to understand it, although the thought tormented her for an entire week afterwards.

When Makoto returned from the Blight, he had to listen to Kasuga's incessant chatter all the way across campus as they made their way to the front office. They had to see someone about his sacrificed shoes, but it was Makoto's luck that none of the staff had even arrived yet, aside from the cooks and janitors. He had no idea who among the small group of people he had met survived this Blight, and Kasuga seemed insensitive enough to not care when he mentioned it.

There were people like Morioka and Kawasaki who already knew what to expect from this school and people like Makoto and Takamura who were completely new to the whole thing. He had expected people like him to have a low survival rate, pessimistic as it might have seemed. Not that he wished to die a horrible and painful death at the jaws of a monster, but it made enough sense to him. His barrier didn't even last that long against the first creature they had fought.

There was nothing weird about considering your own death when life was such a precarious thing in this school. Some people even wished for a quicker end, opting for suicide opposed to this endless chain of suspense and fighting. He had no idea what Kasuga thought of the whole ordeal. For all Makoto knew, Kasuga was as informed as Kawasaki and Morioka were, but somehow he doubted it. He just couldn't find any trace of the same knowledge that Kawasaki possessed, despite his cheery personality.

The boy next to him had finally shut up and was now sitting next to Makoto with his arms crossed and feet kicking the air like a petulant child. Whatever he had been talking about had no effect on Makoto, who had failed to hear a single word. He seemed like he wanted to talk some more, but for some reason was deterred. Makoto didn't think he had figured out the obvious hints he had been trying to send across the small space between their chairs. He had to wonder what distracted Kasuga, but wasn't willing to ask.

"Do you think they'll give me some dead guy's shoes?" he suddenly asked, his head shooting up to stare at the wall plastered with posters organized in neat rows. Makoto narrowed his eyes and shrugged. He had a feeling that was not what Kasuga had really wished to say. It seemed to be one of his spontaneous outbursts to fill in the quiet, a moment of whimsy.

"Well, they probably have a lot of those laying around…" Makoto pondered. Kasuga nodded, but surprisingly did not wince at the thought. He simply went back to kicking his feet back and forth. He was certainly a strange guy. Makoto thought that he would never see a serious Kasuga, just as he had wrongly assumed on the first day that Kawasaki was one of those purely happy people. Well, he supposed that no truly happy person existed, so that train of thought was invalid.

"Hey, is Nozawa-san ever normally like he was at the festival? You were a lot more fun then," Kasuga said bluntly, oblivious to Makoto's dubious look. He didn't even know that he was being rude, it seemed. Nothing about his appearance or voice said otherwise. That was always the worst. Makoto, for all his talk about the government and how people were so ignorant and oblivious, hated getting angry at people who didn't even realize that they were so annoying. It just made him look like a jerk.

"Yeah...I'm not; sorry to disappoint you. That was a one time thing." It had only been because Makoto wasn't quite sure whether or not he would survive the next Blight. Even he had wanted to have a little bit of unrestrained fun before he left the world. It hadn't mattered that day because everyone had let loose in the celebrations.

When the staff finally arrived, Kasuga went to talk to the secretary and Makoto took the opportunity to flee from his influence. He stepped outside and managed to find his classmates without much trouble. What did trouble him was Kawasaki's silence and the completely wrong aura surrounding him. He didn't talk and continued to stare forward at nothing, only occasionally nodding or shaking his head to the outside world. He seemed concerned over some invisible thing, but he was not anxious.

It was weird. Something had happened in that other world. Honda tried to ask around, but she couldn't figure out who his partners had been and Kawasaki wasn't in a talkative mood, for once. Morioka seemed confident that they had survived. Otherwise, she explained with a pointed glare at the prone boy, none of them would have been allowed to leave with their lives. Kawasaki was certainly alive. Just to be sure, the girls made Makoto take his pulse.

It was a strange thing - having something bad like this happen so early. It almost felt as if a classmate of theirs had been tragically struck by a car in a traffic accident or if one of their parents had died. Makoto thought that this situation had that type of surreal air to it. No one could quite believe this was happening and no one knew how to react. He could recall a faint memory from grade school of a classmate and some tragedy, but he couldn't remember exactly what had happened.

This wasn't much of a game anymore. The first day had been surreal in a different manner, a completely different world than any they thought to exist, something straight out of a manga series. Today, though, was a different type of surrealism. Today they had been thrust into a cold, bitter reality while their minds remained trapped in the past, still clinging to the fantasy that the situation had created. In this world, people were hurt and died. Some people were irreparably inflicted with the deepest sorts of wounds that no one could see.

"Did his roommate survive?" Makoto asked as he knelt down next to the edge of the water fountain where Kawasaki had reappeared from the Blight. He hesitated in placing a hand on his shoulder, a gesture meant to be comforting, but Makoto had trouble with comforting others. He decided against it and rested his fingers lightly on the cool stone ledge. "How many died, anyways?"

It took a moment of collaboration with the students running past to figure out how many had not returned from the Blight alive. Their bodies would never return to this world, so the usual staff who counted the bodies and took them away in trucks were gone. No one knew for sure how many had survived the first day, either. Morioka returned with his answers. She didn't look too disturbed, but then again, it was hard to tell what that girl was feeling at any given moment.

"There're about fifteen dead. Kawasaki-san's roommate is still alive, it seems, but no one knows where he is right now. They said that his name is Natsume. Someone over there knows where his room is, though." Morioka pointed to a small cluster of students nearby. Some were crying, still stunned by the ordeal despite the fact that no one would have seen anyone die. According to Morioka, either all three teammates survived or none returned alive.

That was what perplexed the group of teens. Kawasaki's teammates had to have come back, so no one could understand what the problem was. Morioka had mentioned the fact that no one could bargain with the tengu. Apparently Honda had learnt how to handle the situation from Kawasaki himself. Had he not taken his own advice? Maybe it had been his teammates' faults. That was quite likely the more Makoto thought about it. Kawasaki could get on anyone's nerves if they weren't of the same state of mind like Kasuga.

It was still a mystery until the boy decided to speak.

Makoto sighed and maneuvered his arm around Kawasaki's back, gently pushing him to his feet and urging him on with logical words. He complied easily, although walking was a bit of a problem. Honda could find nothing physically wrong with him and he didn't feel like trudging all the way to the infirmary, so they figured it must be a purely mental issue. Perhaps even if they had been hurt in that world they wouldn't have had any physical wounds. There was no way of telling.

"Come on. You get along with your roommate, don't you? When he gets back he can take care of you. I heard that he survived. You can rest when you get to your room, so please cooperate and move," Makoto said to the despondent boy. He nodded in reply, but Makoto wasn't sure if he was paying attention.

It took approximately ten minutes for him to coax Kawasaki into giving him the room key. He wasn't about to go rummaging through the boy's pockets to find it, given his current state of mind. Makoto would never have done something like that regardless of Kawasaki's state of mind. It was frustrating, though, and by the time he opened the door he was ready to just toss Kawasaki in and leave. To his consternation, there was no one in the room.

"Where's your roommate?" Makoto muttered angrily as he glanced at the nameplates outside the door. "His name is...Natsume Ryo. Does he normally get back late or something?"

To his surprise, Kawasaki nodded and moved to the closet in the first room. His roommate probably stayed in the other. The boy had a little more life now, his eyes less foggy and distant as he shifted through the clothes for his nightshirt and pants. He opened his mouth a bit every now and again, but seemed unable to form words. Makoto watched from the door, leaning against the wall and feeling very much out of place. He wanted to leave, but felt obligated to stay.

After Kawasaki had pulled his nightclothes on and brushed out his auburn hair, he slumped against the desk chair and stared at his hands.

"Will you be alright now?" Makoto asked. Kawasaki lifted his head a little and hesitated, opening and closing his mouth.

"I'll...I'll be okay. Thank you," he said in a soft voice, a tired voice that just seemed to want sleep. "Sorry that I worried all of you."

Makoto shook his head on the way out. "It was a long day."

- Continuation of the last chapter. The next Blight will take down more of their shrinking numbers. We meet some new students and get to know others a little better.